OK so who's up for another round of LIES as I talk about how I'm going to get this fic finished by the end of last year? Honestly at this point I'm tempted to just go 'uh, yeah, sorry about the radio silence, I actually DIED' because I'd feel so much less guilty (ACK I'M SORRY). Let's go for the end of THIS year, and then I might actually have a shot.

But in all seriousness, I'm pretty sure we're looking at two more proper chapters, an epilogue and at least one timestamp? I am completely out of 'buffer' for the rest of the fic though, so I'm not going to make any promises whatsoever about update schedules, because I just end up breaking them and that makes me sad and guilty (I am SO SORRY). BUT we're shooting for the end of this year now! which gives me an option of updating once every four months and honestly even I should more or less manage that.

Please stop looking at me like that.

In more cheerful news, though, the new, re-written version of chapter 1 of HIOP will be going up on AO3 sometime in the next week or so! I only have that one chapter written, so it's going up more as a placeholder/to test the waters, but do go and have a read if you're interested! Believe it or not, that's not why I had such a long break, I just... I died. I died and now I'm dead and I'm typing from the afterlife. Every creative impulse I have ever had straight up died. For like three months.

Yeah, I got nothing. I just. Writer's block? Yay? Hopefully the mushy h/c of this chapter will make up for it? because srsly it's so mushy i'm so proud

ALSO ALSO can I just say how thrilled I am that so many of you seem to like Chloe as a character? Because she WILL be coming back, albeit briefly, and it is SUCH a relief to know that I'm not the only one who thinks she's a cutie. She's like a lil Pomeranian puppy, all fluffy and squidgy and adorable. I love her.

So, let's get this show on the road with a

DISCLAIMER!: one day I'll own the copyright to something I write but today is not that day

"Your back needs new dressings. I don't– you don't want it to get infected."

"What does it matter?" Alex asked. The question had none of the taunting edge he'd had when he'd demanded the same thing of Richard yesterday – the fight had gone out of him, leaving him looking abruptly weary and diminished. "They'll probably be fine."

"You matter to me, Alex," Richard said, wondering whether it was the right thing. "Very much. I don't want your recovery set back, and you look like you could use something for the pain, too. Did you sleep?"

Normal, he told himself, keep things normal. He mustn't lose his mind in front of Alex, or he'd scare him off for good. He'd have to save that until he was safely alone in his office, and he couldn't retreat there too quickly without letting Alex think he'd succeeded in pushing him away.

Alex shrugged, and hissed a little through his teeth when the movement pulled at something. "On and off," he said, still in that detached, dull voice. "I should have asked for another painkiller."

"I'll ask Dr Garland about it," Richard said, nodding and trying to push the unsettling echoes of Alex's earlier monologue to the back of his mind. "If I go and find her, will you be alright on your own for a little while?"

Alex shrugged again, this time without any indication of pain. Maybe he'd braced himself against it. "Whatever you like," he said, without interest.

"I'll be back shortly," Richard said, making sure his voice sounded strong and steady.

So that was that, Alex thought blankly. The gambit hadn't worked, and he was out of ideas. He'd been as deliberately shocking and confrontational as he'd dared, and Manning hadn't risen to the bait.

What did that mean? He tried to reason it out, but he couldn't seem to draw any appropriate conclusions. Manning had been concerned for him, certainly, and had wanted to make sure that the marks on Alex's back didn't get infected, but that could just be his professional instincts as a doctor kicking in. He'd been upset at what Alex was showing him, but no more than any other decent person would be – or so Alex assumed. He was aware his benchmark for decent people was skewed, including as it did one contract killer and even one or two spies. But the point was, while Manning had been concerned and upset, he hadn't at any point seemed more concerned or upset than anyone else might be, and that wasn't what Alex wanted from him.

It wasn't a surprise, exactly, though it was… well, Alex wasn't going to think about just how much it hurt to have confirmation of what he'd suspected. The point was… the point was, it wasn't surprising that Manning cared. He'd had never thought Manning was uncaring, after all – he was a good man, and he clearly wanted to help. It was just that Alex couldn't see why, since apparently the man didn't care any more about him than he might have about any other kid in a tough situation. It was difficult to trust that a mere charitable impulse wouldn't wear off pretty quickly. It was easy to feel compassionate and offer to let him live with them, but the reality of him actually livingwith them would dull that impulse fast.

Manning and Gilda did seem to have thought through what it would be like to have Alex to live with them, that was true. When Manning had been talking about it, it was clear they'd put some thought into what kind of rules and punishments he'd have, and he'd suggested that Alex should have some input on what those rules would be. But all of that could just be because they were clearly good parents and had a handle on how to bring up kids, not because they actually wanted Alex. And it was more than possible, since they really didn't seem to actually want him, that their apparently-kindly intention to let Alex have a say in the rules they had for him wasn't a sign of thought or care. It was possible that it was that just because they didn't care enough to come up with all that stuff on their own.

If that was the case, it would be just like living with Ian. But it would be very different, too, because Sally and Lizzie would be there, and he'd be watching Richard- Manning and Gilda parenting their actual children, and not bothering too much with him. That would hurt. At least with Ian he'd always known it was because his uncle hadn't had much idea what to do with kids; he'd tried his best, and that had made it easy to forgive any problems Alex had actually noticed at the time. And he'd always known Ian loved him, even if his uncle couldn't have been less comfortable showing it.

At least, he'd always been pretty certain Ian had loved him. That certainty had taken a heavy knock after the events of the last eight months, when it seemed as though Ian had trained him to be ready-made for MI6's manipulations. Alex just had to believe that that was never what Ian had wanted.

But the Mannings were a totally different proposition. Alex didn't know how they felt about him, and it would hurt, badly, to watch how differently they treated their kids and him. They were good people, they wouldn't mean to hurt him. But Jack was a good person who loved him, and shewas hurting him – Eagle had said it, with surprising succinctness. Just because someone meant something for the best didn't mean it couldn't hurt. Alex wasn't sure how much he could take, knowing that the Mannings meant well, and were maybe even fond of him, but seeing every day how they interacted with children they loved.

They couldn't love him, and Alex wasn't stupid enough to expect them to. They barely knew him, it was only reasonable that they wouldn't love him the way they loved their own kids. But it seemed as though they had no real interest in him beyond a general kindness and the kind of care they seemed to believe any decent adult would extend to a child. Gilda had been kind and caring and professional; Manning wavered between awkward care and careful comfort and a kind of professional distance Alex found difficult to deal with. It was hard to imagine anything more than friendly care growing out of that.

He couldn't cope with it, he decided, pushing the problem away, and standing abruptly. He'd been sat on the bed since Dr Garland left after her brief visit, nearly twenty minutes earlier, and he wasn't any nearer to coming to a solution. But he couldn't live with the Mannings. He couldn't. He was sure of that, at least. He wasn't exactly sure what he was feeling, and every time he tried to examine the problem logically, he kept slipping up on the way their actions seemed to contradict each other, and he couldn't cope with that kind of uncertainty anymore. At least with Jack he'd always known where he stood – he'd known she loved him, even if he had also known… well. It felt like a betrayal to admit it, but he'd always known that there was something missing, some kind of gap that neither of them could fill in.

But he'd known where he stood and what to expect. The Mannings weren't so straightforward. But one point was clear – they didn't care about him, in particular. They were good people who wanted to help, but their desire to help had more to do with who they were than who Alex was. He wanted more than just their kindness, and it seemed like they weren't interested in giving him anything more than that. Perhaps they weren't able to. Perhaps they wanted to help because they were good people, but Alex wasn't the kind of kid people could love. It didn't matter. The fact was, it would be too painful to live with them, wanting things from them they couldn't give, and Alex didn't care how much it upset everyone else's plans for him, he wasn't going to put himself out there for morepain.

If Smithers was still here, he'd go up to HQ and ask him to come up with some other plan. He didn't care if it was making more work for him. He wasn't going to live with the Mannings. If Smithers wasn't here… maybe Roslyn would let him make a phone call, Alex didn't know, he'd deal with that when he came to it.

He reached for his shoes, wincing as the marks on his back pulled, bruising and welts protesting together. When Dr Garland had come by, she had tutted at him and told him that he'd been silly to take the dressings off – apparently they'd been helping to support the damaged skin. She'd said severely, and with a pointed look, that she wouldn't be surprised if it was a great deal more painful without the dressings in place, before softening and telling him it was an easy fix and she'd sort it out as soon as she got back. Thankfully she hadn't asked why he'd done it – Alex wasn't at all willing to go into that with her. She'd promised him she'd only be a few minutes, but she was going to find a replacement sling for Tom first, if he thought he could wait.

Alex had assured her that he could, and she hadn't been back yet. If he moved quickly, by the time she did get back, he'd be gone.

Reaching for his other shoe, he winced again, then startled badly when someone knocked on the door, letting themselves in without so much as waiting for him to answer.

"I didn't mean to scare you," Manning said, hurrying forward and handing Alex the shoe he'd been reaching for. "I'm sorry."

"It's fine," Alex said untruthfully. There was no point being antagonistic anymore; the sort of politeness he'd give any kind adult was best.

"Is it alright if I sit?" Manning said, gesturing at the chair.

"Be my guest."

"Thank you." Manning sat, leaning his elbows on his knees, hands clasped, his head slightly bowed. For a moment, Alex watched him in silence, then he went back to putting his shoes on. Whatever Manning wanted, he'd either get to it or he wouldn't.

Maybe he'd come to solve Alex's problem for him. Maybe he would say, very kindly, that Alex really was too much work and it would be for the best if he went somewhere else. Maybe this morning's little show had achieved something, even if it wasn't precisely the outcome Alex had been hoping for.

He'd hoped for it, but he had been prepared for Manning to go this way. It had been a kill-or-cure moment, and he'd known that going in. He couldn't complain now that it seemed to have killed rather than cured.

"I'm sorry," Manning said finally.

Alex nodded to himself. It looked like he wouldn't need to talk to Smithers after all. "It's OK."

Manning looked up at him, apparently taken aback. "What?"

"It's OK," Alex repeated.

Manning frowned a little, eyeing him in silence for a couple of seconds. "Alex, what do you think I'm apologising for?" he asked slowly.

Alex was not going to be drawn on that point. He wasn't going to do anyone's dirty work for them anymore. If the Mannings didn't want him, theywould have to tell him, not get him to say the words for them. "I don't know," he lied. "But it's OK."

"It really isn't," Manning said, looking perturbed. "Earlier, when you were talking to me, I was… taken aback." He laughed suddenly without humour. "'Taken aback' – I was horrified. And scared."

Alex nodded. He'd been expecting that. And he'd seen exactly how disturbed Manning had been by the whole thing, but that hadn't been what he was after. He'd known it would upset the man, but he'd been hoping for something more than he'd actually got.

"And, Alex? I was furious," Manning added.

Alex eyed him, suddenly wary. If Manning was that angry with him, would he be OK while Alex was still in the camp?

"I'm sorry," he said, after a long silence. "I shouldn't have done it. It was stupid. I'm sorry."

Manning made a little sound like a groan and shook his head. "No. I'm not angry with you. But that bastard Morozov… I'd like to kill him."

The words were very simple in themselves, but it took Alex a moment to process them. Manning still looked calm, as contained and collected as he always was, but then Alex looked closer and saw the strain in the way he was holding himself, the white-knuckled clasp of his hands.

"Really?" he said. He'd meant to sound sceptical, but he could hear the hope in his own voice.

"Oh yes," Manning said, with another humourless little smile. "He thought he'd be allowed to get away with hurting you – you! As though no one would care, as though he honestly thought no one would make him pay for it. Like you were a free target. I'd like to choke him, the bastard. If I ever met him… He hurtyou, and I'd like to kill him for it."

His voice was low and surprisingly factual, but every word was clear. For a moment, Alex couldn't tell whether to believe him, but Manning had never been a good actor, and the vibrating tension of his posture and the quiet intensity of his voice were arguments in themselves.

"Oh," he said finally, at a loss. "Because of me?"

"Alex," Manning said, pain in his voice. "Yes, because of you. I'll never understand anyone hurting any child, but hurting you? I could carve his tripes out with a kitchen knife."

Unwillingly, Alex smiled. Manning smiled tentatively back. "But it doesn't make sense," Alex said finally, pushing a little. "You hardly know me. Why would you be so upset?"

Manning shrugged. "Because I love you."

"But you don't knowme!" Alex objected. "And I'm-" he broke off, shaking his head.

"I don't know everything about you," Manning agreed, and although he was still calm, it didn't bother Alex quite as much as before. Not now he had an idea that there really was something underneath all that calm. "But when you were here before… you're such a great kid." He spread his hands in an oddly eloquent gesture of submission to a quirk of fate. "I didn't mean to get so attached to you. And if your situation had been normal, that would have been the end of it, I guess. I'd still have worried about you and wanted to know you were OK, but it would have been overstepping the mark to get too involved. It would just have been one of those things.

"But your situation isn'tnormal, so I was allowed to get involved. I've never been so terrified as when I got an email from that man, Hanley, saying you'd disappeared. All I could think about was what could be happening to you, and there was nothing I could do to help. When they said they'd found you, I couldn't think straight, I was so relieved. And then you'd been so badly hurt, and I was terrified all over again, and so angry… when Indira said you'd been whipped, I- and you had all that pressure on you, and you were so brave, but all I wanted to do was make sure you knew it was never going to happen again."

Alex stared at him, stunned. It sounded too good to be true, and in Alex's world, that usually meant that it was. But Manning sounded sincere, even strangely apologetic, and nothing about his manner or his expression suggested he was saying any of this for Alex's benefit.

"But you were so calm," he said, trying not to sound too dumbfounded. "I thought-"

Manning huffed a laugh. "Hoist by my own petard, I know," he said, still apologetic. "Being a doctor when I should have been… well. Literally anything else. I thought it was best not to upset you with my emotions. I thought the last thing you needed was to have to deal with that on top of everything else you've had to deal with."

"I thought you didn't care," Alex said, and the confession felt like a weight lifted off his chest. "You were always so calm, you didn't seem to care what had happened, and I thought it didn't matter to you."

"God, no. Never that," Richard said fervently. "Gilda and I, we care so much, Alex. But thinking about what you went through… I don't want you to have to deal with how angry it makes me."

Alex looked at him for a second, unsure what to say, then decided that in this, as in everything else, he'd just have to brave. It felt a hell of a lot scarier than being brave in the face of some kind of threat, but maybe it was just as important. "I'd quite like someone to be angry for me," he said cautiously. "Jack never liked to talk about it. I think she didn't like thinking about it. And there was nothing she could do, so I guess getting angry about it just felt pointless. But it would have been nice. Knowing someone was angry that I got hurt."

Richard nodded. "That makes sense," he said gently. "Believe me, I'm absolutely lividyou got hurt. Not just Morozov, though I hope there's a special place in hell for him. But Blunt, too. Mr Smithers says he'll be under house arrest, and I keep wondering whether or not I could get away with paying him a house call."

Alex smiled, and Richard gave him a warm smile in return. "I don't want to have to think about Blunt again," he admitted. "I know I've got to give evidence, and I want to, but after that I don't want to have to think about him." He paused, looking away and biting at the inside of his lip, wondering whether he really dared to say it. "After Andrei beat me," he began, rather uncertainly, "when I was down in the basement."

He stopped, and Richard edged his chair forward, his expression open and inviting. "Take your time," he said, when Alex couldn't find the words to go on. "It's OK."

Alex nodded, relieved when Richard just sat and waited for him to decide what to say next. "When I was down there, I kept thinking. I kept thinking that what Andrei made me do…"

He trailed off again, frustrated. It sounded so self-pitying and trivial when he tried to say it out loud, but for some reason he was desperate to say it all the same. He just didn't want it to sound bad, or to make Richard think badly of him, or think that he was angling for pity.

Richard waited for a couple of seconds, then took a deep breath. "What's making it hard for you?" he asked gently. "Can you tell me that? Why can't you say what you want to say?"

It should have sounded confrontational, but it didn't. Richard sounded sincerely interested in the problem, and that helped more than Alex could have explained. "It sounds so stupid," he said, frustrated. "And you'll think I'm trying to make you feel bad for me."

Richard smiled, but didn't laugh as Alex had half-expected. "No one in their right mind would accuse you of playing the pity card," he said simply. "But I promise you I won't think that. What did you keep thinking?"

"I kept thinking that what Andrei made me do meant I didn't deserve – I mean, no one could care about me anymore. Because of what I'd done. You and Gilda and Jack," Alex said in a rush, half-ashamed of it already.

Apparently it was Richard's turn to stare at him. "Alex," he said, in a strangely shaken voice. "I didn't even imagine you'd be thinking about us."

Alex shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, well," he muttered, suddenly awkward. "You were nice."

"I wish I could have been there for you," Richard said, a painful catch in his voice. "I'd do anything to change it. I willdo anything I have to to make sure it doesn't happen again."

"It's fine," Alex said, shrugging, almost wishing he hadn't said anything but guiltily pleased with the reassurance all the same.

"Nothing about it is fine," Richard said sharply. "It was appalling. I'm sorry that thinking about us didn't bring you any comfort, but nothing you've done makes you deserve us any less."

"It's not just Andrei," Alex explained, wanting to move on and to justify exactly why he'd felt like that. "Everyone who came before, too. I've done awful things. I've killed a lot of people, one way or another."

"And saved a lot more," Richard pointed out. "But I understand. Being involved in someone else's death weighs very heavily."

"In a way, Andrei was the easiest," Alex went on, grateful for Richard's understanding but keen to explain fully now he'd started on an explanation. "I hated hurting Chloe, but I knew I had to – Andrei would have killed the others. I knew that, so they were my actions but it wasn't myfault, you know? Four people could have died if I didn't do what he wanted. But with the other things I've done, it was just… it was just me wanting to stay with Jack, or not wanting to go into care. I always said Blunt was making me do it, but he just told me I had to solve the problem. Ichose how to deal with it. It's not fair to say he made me when I made the choice."

"You didn't make the choice to get involved in the first place," Richard said immediately. "He put you in the position where you had to do whatever you could to survive. And I'm proud of you for doing what you had to. But whatever you think you did that's so unforgivable isn't your fault, it's all on him."

"I don't feel like I get to pass on the responsibility just because I didn't want to be there," Alex said painfully. "People died."

"They did," Richard agreed. "But that wasn't your fault. You didn't want to be involved, and you had to make terrible decisions because you were put in an impossible position. God!" he broke out suddenly, and Alex startled, not expecting it. "Do you know why we don't give kids the ultimate decision in custody disputes? Because they shouldn't have to have that responsibility – because it's a difficult emotional decision and they shouldn't be forced to make it. And that's what Blunt did to you, right after your uncle died. I didn't know you then, I know, but you were vulnerable even if you didn't feel like it. Did you know exactly what would happen to you when your uncle died?"

"No?" Alex said, taken aback by Richard's sudden vehemence.

"Of course you didn't," Richard said hotly. "Because you're fourteen. I'm not saying your uncle shouldn't have discussed it with you when you were old enough, since he had a dangerous job, but even if he had you couldn't possibly have known exactly what would happen. And this Blunt chose a moment when you were vulnerable and didn't know what would happen to you, and played on the one thing that still gave you a sense of security. Am I supposed to be angry with you because you wanted to keep hold of the one person who made you feel safe? Because I'm not and I never will be. But I am furiouswith Blunt. What you had to do was his fault and any blame lies with him. Just because no one's life was at stake doesn't mean that what he did was less disgusting." He took a deep breath. "Maybe if you'd been an adult, I'd feel differently about it," he said, more quietly. "I don't think so, but it would be a different case. But you're not an adult, you're a teenager. Ever since Blunt got involved in your life you've been making the best choices you could, and he's been giving you worse and worse options to choose from. You aren't at fault."

Alex stared at him, still trying to understand the fact of Richard's obvious anger. He'd deal with the idea that it wasn't his fault later – he could only process one thing at a time. "You're really angry about it, aren't you?" he said, then could have kicked himself. Richard had already said that, and he was repeating it like some kind of idiot. But until now, it had just been words, calm, evenly-spoken. The clipped, sharp tone of Richard's voice now was a vivid contrast – Alex had never heard him speak like that.

"Alex, I am so angry about it, I don't know how to deal with it," Richard told him with firm assurance. "If anyone tried to do that to Sally or Lizzie, I'd come back from the dead to kick their arse. And it's no different with you."

"I like Sally and Lizzie," Alex said, reminded of a different problem. "But."

Richard took a moment to visibly shift mental gears, then nodded. "But?"

"I worry," Alex said uncomfortably. "I'm worried that I'll upset them. Or that – I've never had siblings. I never had to share Jack's attention, or even Ian's, when he was around. I mean, not with anything except his job."

"You're worried you'll resent them?" Richard said, without judgement. "That you'll want us all to yourself?"

Alex shifted again, more uncomfortable than he could possibly have said. It sounded so selfish said out loud like that. "Not resentthem, exactly," he said unhappily. "But kind of, I guess. And I'm worried that I'll take up too much of your time. I don't know how it works when there's more than one kid in a family, so… I don't know. I'm worried that they'll resent me, I suppose. Maybe not right away, but in the long run. It's not even like I'm really their brother, or your son."

"You're part of our family, regardless of biology," Richard said firmly. "We've explained it to the girls, you know. We've been preparing them since we first knew this was likely to happen."

Alex pulled a face. "OK, sure," he said slowly. "But that's not the same as it actually happening. I don't want to… I don't know." He paused, frustrated with himself. He wasn't sure exactly what he was worried about – all of his concerns seemed to lump themselves together as he tried to tease them apart. "I don't want to take up time when they need you." That wasn't everything, but it was part of it, at least, and it was honest. That would have to do for a start.

"Well, I'm definitely more concerned with you not asking for the attention you need than you asking for too much," Richard said with open sincerity. "But worrying about how you'll fit in and how we'll balance your needs and the girls'… that's not unreasonable."

"I mean," Alex began, awkward, wondering how exactly to explain that he felt like maybe that was giving him too much credit, "I'm worried about that, yeah. But I'm not… it's not that… It's not that unselfish. I don't want to upset them, but. But it's not just about them."

He took a deep breath, almost horrified by his own words. But when he finally glanced up at Richard, he was surprised to see him smiling.

"You have no idea how relieved I am to hear that," he said, and Alex blinked, taken aback. "I can't remember ever seeing you concerned about yourself. I think it's a real positive that you're able to saythat you have concerns for yourself, not just for someone else."

"It doesn't feel positive," Alex muttered.

"No, I don't suppose it does," Richard said sympathetically. "You've spent a long time being told you're valuable for what you could do for other people, not on your own account. Talking about having needs of your own must feel pretty scary."

Alex hadn't considered it in that light, and he wasn't about to start now. Richard might be right, but Alex didn't know and he wasn't about to start wondering about it right now. "Maybe," he said, aware that Richard would see through his totally unsubtle attempt to bring the conversation back on track. "But that's what's worrying me, you know? That…" he tried to bring himself to repeat it and gave it up as a bad job. He'd said it once and that would have to be enough.

"That we won't be able to give you the kind of care and attention you'd like?" Richard asked, without judgement.

Alex could feel himself flushing, and couldn't quite bring himself to meet Richard's eyes. "That makes it sound like I want you to wait on me hand and foot," he objected quietly.

Richard laughed. "Sorry," he said fondly. "Just can't quite square the idea of you demanding things. You're the most self-effacing teenager I've ever met. But you haven't been given the kind of care you needed when you needed it for a long time, so it's not surprising that you'd want as much of it as you can get for a while."

"That still sounds pretty bad," Alex said cautiously, almost reassured but not quite. "I don't want pity."

"I'm not talking about pity," Richard corrected him gently. "I'm talking about care." He sat back, a thoughtful look on his face. "There's going to be an adjustment period for all of us. We're all going to be dealing with something new, and there's going to be friction – Gilda and I already know that. And that's on top of everything else you're already dealing with. We're not expecting it to be easy, but we aresure it will be worth it. You're worth it. It'll be worth it to have you in our family."

Alex nodded slowly. Maybe he just had to be brave one last time and believe that this was something he didn't have to worry about – that someone else would worry about it for him. But if it was being brave, it felt a lot like a surrender; as though he could finally stop fighting after months of struggling by himself. Finally, other people were willing to fight for him. Maybe he didn't need to be brave; maybe he needed to let go.

That thought was accompanied by a rush of emotion, and he found he had to blink hard against sudden, unexpected tears. It was like hearing everything he'd ever wanted to hear, and now that he was being offered it, he didn't know how to react. There was relief, certainly – a great swelling wave of it, because what Richard was saying was that he didn't have to cope by himself anymore, and he really could trust him and Gilda enough to let them take some of the burden, and they actually wanted him, they were making an active, conscious choice to have him in their lives. But there was fear and disbelief too, because Alex had given up expecting help months ago, maybe even years ago. One conversation wasn't enough to overcome all that.

But maybe it was enough that it was a start. "OK," he said finally, his voice rather thick. "OK then."

"Oh, love," Richard said, standing and coming to sit beside him on the bed, very carefully wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "Come here. It's OK."

Alex stiffened briefly, then relaxed all at once, for once wanting some physical comfort. Leaning into Richard, he turned his head into the man's shoulder, and, without meaning to, began to cry.

Alex was as uncomfortable with emotion as any other teenager, and his tears were awkward and unpractised, but Richard couldn't have been more relieved to see them. He'd never wanted any of his kids to cry, but it was a relief to see Alex begin to process what had happened to him in a way which might, with help, lead somewhere healthy.

He kept his arm wrapped around Alex's shoulders, and let himself murmur soothing nonsense until Alex began to feel better.

"Hey, it's OK," he said, over and over again. "Everything's OK. I'm here. You're going to be OK."

Alex cried very quietly, stifling sobs and any noise other than gasping breaths and the occasional miserable sniff. But he shook with the force of it, months of pent-up misery all coming out at once, and Richard held him and hoped that he was doing the right thing – that being here for Alex now would be enough.

After a few minutes, though, Alex took a deep, hitching breath and sat up. "I'm sorry," he said thickly. "I – I didn't know that was going to happen."

"Of course you didn't," Richard said gently, producing a pack of tissues from his pocket and handing them over. "Do you want to wash your face? I always find it helps."

"Cry much, do you?" Alex asked, with an awkward little laugh.

Richard considered it. "Not all that often, but sometimes. Washing your face helps. Blow your nose, have a glass of water. You'll probably have a headache, too, but the painkillers you've had should deal with that." Alex looked a little awkward, and Richard bit back a curse. He was beginning to recognise that look on Alex's face. "Dr Garland did come round and give you your medication, didn't she?"

"She said she was going to get a replacement sling for Tom, and she'd be back shortly?" Alex said, glancing at the clock on the bedside table.

"So you haven't had anything for the pain. Right. Let's get you to a bathroom, and you can wash your face, then I'll go and find Maeve. Er, Dr Garland. Gilda will be here any minute."

She'd said she'd be here in forty-five minutes, and when Richard looked at the clock too, he found only half an hour had gone by. It felt like they'd been talking for days, but it had only been half an hour.

"Doesn't she have to be at work?" Alex said, rather nasally. He pulled a face and blew his nose. "Ugh. Crying is the worst."

Richard smiled, surprisingly touched to hear such a normal sentiment from Alex. "It is, isn't it? Here, drink this." He handed over the glass of water on the nightstand. "Crying headaches are terrible. Do you want to wash your face?"

"Mm, and brush my teeth," Alex said ruefully. "Why do people always say crying will make you feel better? I feel awful."

Richard couldn't help but laugh. "Have you eaten this morning? If not, having something to eat might help."

"No, I'm OK, we had breakfast. Why isn't Gilda at work?"

Richard paused, then remembered Alex's earlier question. "Oh, she's taken the day off."

"Oh. Because of…?" Alex waved a hand in a gesture presumably meant to encompass his foray into emotional manipulation, their subsequent talk and his mini-breakdown. "All this?"

Richard nodded. "I rang her, after I spoke to you this morning," he said. "She said she'd tell the school she had a family emergency and she'd be here as soon as she could."

"She isn't… Isn't she angry that she has to take time off?"

"She doesn't have to, she wanted to," Richard corrected him. "She wants to be here, with you. The school will understand." He paused, wondering whether or not to explain that Gilda was the one who had worked out what was going on in Alex's head, then decided against it. It would have to be Gilda's decision. "She was very worried about you," he said instead. "We both were."

Alex looked guilty. "I'm sorry," he said awkwardly. "Um. I can't say that I didn't mean to worry her, because I guess I did, but I didn't think I wouldworry her. If you know what I mean?"

"I know what you mean," Richard said, wondering how on earth they'd managed to get it so wrong. If Alex could seriously think that they wouldn't be worried and upset, both by the pain he'd had to suffer and his method of telling them about it, they had clearly screwed up badly.

But there was no use crying over spilt milk, and hopefully they could really start to make things better from here on out. "We were worried," he said, trying to put that thought into words. "But if you seriously thought we wouldn't be, then that's on us."

"I'm not sure it is," Alex said quietly. "I don't- I guess I just don't really believe people will actually want to help me. Me specifically, I mean. Maybe there's stuff you could have done better? But I started by assuming you didn't really care. I don't think that's your fault." He sighed. "I spoke to Smithers yesterday," he said, which was a surprise. "And Eagle – he's in my unit. Er, K-Unit, I mean. And I was talking to both of them – at separate times, I mean, not together – and… I. Fuck."

He turned his face away, his lips pressed tightly together, jaw clenched. "I hatethis," he said, with sudden passion. "I just want to sayit, I didn't get this worked up before, why can't I…?"

"Is it OK if I give you a hug?" Richard asked quietly. Alex said nothing, but nodded his head jerkily. Richard put his arm back round his shoulder, feeling Alex's tension as he tried to hold back tears. "It's OK. Take your time. And if you need to cry, don't worry about it."

"I don't want to cry," Alex said, irritated by his own perceived weakness. "I never cry, I'm not a little kid, but it's like…" he shook his head almost violently. "I was telling them I'm fucked up," he said, very fast and defiant. "I- I lost bits of myself when I was working and I don't know how to get them b-back."

He ended on a hitched breath a half-second away from being a sob, and clenched his jaw again, chest heaving as he tried to regulate his breathing. His eyes were wet, but his face was set in angry, defiant lines which only softened when Richard spoke.

"Thank you for telling me," he said gently. "That was brave of you."

"I don't feel brave," Alex said with a short, unhappy laugh. "I feel like I've never been this scared."

"Then you talking to me like this might be the bravest thing I've ever seen," Richard said honestly. "I guess things feel pretty awful right now, huh?"

"Yeah, just a bit," Alex admitted, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand. Richard handed him the pack of tissues again, and he took them gratefully.

"Well, here's the thing," Richard said slowly. "I'm not saying you haven't been hurt or damaged by what you've been through. You're not some kind of robot, of course you have been. But that doesn't mean it's the end of the road for you. You can recover, and we'll help, however you want us to."

"I don't even know where to start," Alex said quietly. "I'm so tired. All the time. And half the time I'm angry, or I'm just really – really sad, like, why-bother sad. And everyone's telling me that things can get better, and I appreciate that, but it sounds exhausting, and then when I think about that I get angry, because I shouldn't have to deal with this. And then I'm sad because being angry doesn't do anything, and it all goes round and round inside my head until I just want it all to shut up and go away."

Richard tightened his arm around Alex's shoulders, careful not to jar any of his injuries. That was a textbook definition of depression if he'd ever heard one. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, I can imagine. You have every right to be angry, and sad. You should never have had to go through what you've been through, and I'm sorry you've had to deal with it. And now," he added, with a sudden flash of inspiration, "I guess it feels like you'rethe one who has to do all the work to get back to normal, and the person who did this to you can just wash his hands of it. Is that right?"

"Yeah, exactly," Alex said, darting a quick, surprised look at him. "Blunt just gets house arrest, but I'm all fucked up."

"That's understandable. Don't try and think about recovery as one big thing, OK?" Richard said. It was advice he'd heard from Gilda a hundred times, though normally in a different context. He considered briefly whether or not he should tell Alex not to talk about himself as 'fucked up', then decided against it. There'd be time for that later. "Take it one day at a time. Tomorrow will be better than today, and the day after that will be better than tomorrow. Slow and steady. There's no deadline. It's not like we'll get to, I don't know, October and go, well, you should be all better now, that's it, time's up."

Alex smiled a little. "Yeah," he said quietly. He was silent for a minute. "I guess therapy, then, huh?" he said finally. "But not Gilda, right?"

"No, not Gilda," Richard agreed. "But definitely therapy. Mr Smithers has given us a list of names we could contact."

"How does it work?" Alex asked quietly, picking absently at a hole in the knee of his tracksuit trousers.

"Well first off, we find out who you like best," Richard said. "That's why we've got a list of names. We'll do a trial session with each of them and you can pick which one you think will be the most helpful."

"But I won't be able to tell them everything, will I?" Alex said slowly. "I mean. It's not like with Gilda, she already knew."

"I don't know if you'll be able to tell them everything in the trial session," Richard said, scrupulously honest. "But you'll definitely be able to once you've decided who you want to see. Mr Smithers already has it all worked out – whoever it is will sign the official secrets act, and a non-disclosure agreement. Whatever you say to them should be covered by patient confidentiality, and you're a minor, too, but better safe than sorry."

"Sounds like a lot of work for whoever I end up talking to," Alex said noncommittally.

Richard smiled, squeezing his shoulders gently before letting go. "You're not supposed to be worrying about your therapist, Alex, they're supposed to worry about you. Gilda's the person to talk to about this, though, if you're worried – this is really her area of expertise. Though if you want to talk it through with me instead, or as well, that's fine too, of course."

"No, it's OK," Alex said, nodding. "I'll talk to Gilda. But thanks."

"Thank youfor letting me help," Richard said sincerely. "How are you feeling? Up to washing your face?"

Alex nodded again. "Yeah." Suddenly, he yawned. "'M tired," he said, around the tail end of his yawn.

"Are you sleeping badly?" Richard asked, concerned. Alex didn't quite meet his eyes, which was answer enough. "Nightmares?" he guessed. It would be a miracle if Alex had come through all of this without nightmares.

"Yeah, a bit," Alex admitted, after a pause. "I didn't sleep well last night."

And had decided to go on the offensive, spurred on by lack of sleep, uncertainty and whatever fuel his nightmares had given him. In a way, Richard had to be relieved that Alex had pushed things to a crisis point – if he hadn't, they might not have worked out the problem – but he couldn't help wishing they'd worked it out before now, and Alex hadn't felt he had to push things that far. "Well, it's not a good idea to get out of a routine of sleep," he said, rather than address that just yet. "But you're still recovering, and you need as much rest as you can get. Wash your face, and I'll go and find Dr Garland for some painkillers. Gilda will want to have a quick word when she arrives, but after that I don't see why you can't go back to bed. Oh, and you'll need to have new dressings put on your back." He reached out and tapped Alex on the shoulder reprovingly. "What were you thinking, taking the dressings off by yourself? You could have hurt yourself."

Astonishingly, Alex flushed. "I wanted to know what you were thinking," he mumbled.

"Well, I'm not saying I don't understand, but just ask next time," Richard said sternly.

"But you're a good guy," Alex said, surprising him yet again. "And I already knew you wanted to help. If you knew what I wanted you to say, you'd have said it because I wanted you to. Um. If you know what I mean."

Well, that tallied frighteningly well with the hypothesis Gilda had come up with. And it confirmed what Richard had already known, which was that Alex was far too clever for his own good. "Yes, I see," he said, rather sadly.

Alex shot him a quick interrogative look. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have done it. I just didn't- I didn't know what you were thinking. It was…" he trailed off, apparently looking for the right word.


"Yeah, exactly." Alex looked away, his jaw rather set. "I, er. I feel pretty stupid now. I'm sorry. You should forget what I said?"

He sounded uncertain, and Richard couldn't help his wry smile. It was the first glimpse of naivety he'd ever seen from Alex – the idea that he could just forget Alex's recitation of the horrors that had been inflicted on him was laughable. "I can't do that," he said gently. "I don't even want to. I'm sorry it came out like that, but I want to know what you've been through. But I guess youwould prefer not to have told me that way. Don't worry about it. You did what you thought was best."

"Yeah, but it wasn't for the best," Alex said, suddenly looking frustrated. "It was stupid. I didn't wait to- to work out what was going on."

"Wasn't it?" Richard asked, shrugging. "I wish you hadn't had to do it, but it was what finally made us see the problem you were having with us. I don't think it was healthy for you, so I'm sorry it happened, but hasn't it worked out?"

"I guess," Alex muttered. "I just hate getting things wrong like that."

Getting things wrong had probably been a life-or-death mistake to avoid up until now, Richard realised. "How were you supposed to work out what was going on, if you didn't want to ask us? You didn't have all the facts, and you didn't feel you could ask, so you took steps to try and get them. Like I said, I'm sorry it happened, but you did your best with the information you had available."

Alex's mouth twisted. "It doesn't feel good," he said quietly. "I feel like- I mean, I knew I was setting out to manipulate you, I guess. But I didn't think it would work. Or… I don't know. If it didwork, it wasn't really manipulation, because I hadn't made you say anything you didn't mean. I don't know. It's all a mess in my head, it made sense at the time, but now…"

For a moment, Richard's mind flicked back to Gilda. I was thinking about how good he must be at manipulating people into seeing exactly what he wanted them to see, she'd said. Was it good or bad that Alex was so hyperaware of his own ability to manipulate people? He certainly didn't seem to have got a kick out of it, and he was obligingly showing his working so Richard would understand exactly what he'd thought he was doing – that was all positive. But a morbid awareness of how easy it was for him to outthink other people could lead to him shutting himself off entirely, and that needed to be headed off at the pass.

"This is going to be quite a long conversation," he said, after a pause. "Not a bad one, I'm not angry with you, and I understand why you did it. But you're looking more and more uncomfortable, and I'd really like to make sure you're given something for the pain. Did the mild painkiller work yesterday, or would you like something stronger?"

Alex looked a little taken aback, but he shook his head. "The mild one was fine," he said. "But I might still fall asleep if I take it. I'm pretty tired."

"I'd rather you fell asleep than you were in pain," Richard said firmly. "This conversation can wait, if necessary. Come on, we've been talking about you washing your face for ages. You go and do that, and I'll go and find Dr Garland, and I'll see you back here in a couple of minutes, OK? Would you like a hot drink?"

"I just love the powdered hot chocolate from the vending machine," Alex said wryly, sliding off the bed. "I'm alright, thanks."

Carefully, Richard reached out and pulled him in for a very gentle hug. "I'm so proud of you," he said quietly, desperately relieved that he'd somehow been given the chance to get to this point. Very tentatively, Alex hugged him back. "You're doing so well."

Alex said nothing, but after a second or so, he rested his head against Richard's shoulder, and for a long, perfect moment, it felt like everything really would be alright.

Gilda hadn't thought of herself as a particularly maternal person until the first time she'd seen and held Sally. She'd always wanted kids, and she'd known that she'd do everything she could to be the best parent she could be, but while she had worked hard to have a warm and comforting professional presence, she'd never thought that she would understand the nonsense people talked about 'maternal instincts' and 'motherly love'.

Then Sally had arrived, and Gilda had seen her, and… well. She didn't like talking about coup de foudremoments, but she'd certainly understood what everyone had been talking about better. There was this little scrap of a person, depending on her and needing her love and care, and she would do anything she had to to make sure her daughters got it. No matter who she had to fight, or what she had to do, she would make sure her children got everything they needed.

Since parenting was generally a twenty-four-seven rollercoaster, she'd never exactly sat down to think it through, but she realised now that she'd dimly assumed that instinct had had something to do with the fact that her kids had been babies. They'd depended on their parents for everything, and Gilda had just assumed that the urge – the need– to protect and love and comfort them had had something to do with how helpless they'd been back when they were so tiny.

She knew now that that wasn't the case. She'd arrived in the camp, hurried and as flustered as she ever let herself get, buoyed up by the realisation that they finally had an idea of what was going on in Alex's head and terrified that they still might get it wrong, and had all but run through the corridors to Alex's room. She'd paused outside, intending to give herself a couple of moments to calm down, but the door had been open, and Alex had heard her coming. He was sitting beside Richard on the bed, his head on her husband's shoulder, looking as relaxed as she'd ever seen him, but then he'd heard her, and his head had snapped up. For a moment, he'd looked terrified and half-ashamed, and then he'd realised who was standing in the doorway, and all the fear and shame had melted away into a look of heart-breaking vulnerability. She didn't think he even realised.

And every maternal instinct Gilda had ever had had swept through her and she'd been moving before she was aware she was going to.

"Sweetheart," she said, coming forwards, hands outstretched. "Are you alright?"

Alex almost flinched away from her, and she could see him forcing himself not to. She waited until he nodded very slightly before she rested one hand on his shoulder and the other, very gently, against his cheek.

"I'm OK," he said, sounding slightly nasal and thick-voiced. "I'm sorry to pull you away from work-"

"Don't be silly," she said gently. "There's nowhere more important for me to be right now. Is it alright if I sit down?"

"Alex hasn't had a painkiller yet today," Richard said, meeting her eyes over Alex's head. It was interesting, watching Alex watch all their interactions – there were clearly aspects to parenting a teenage spy they were going to have to consider carefully in the future, but neither of them had anything they wanted to hide from him. The only thing they'd been hiding was how much they cared, and that hadn't exactly been their finest plan.

"Ah," Gilda said, nodding. "Are you going to go and find Maeve?"

"That's the idea," Richard agreed. "And we've been talking about getting Alex to a bathroom to wash his face for about half an hour now."

"I'll sort that out," Gilda said briskly. "Go and get Maeve. Is that alright, Alex?"

Alex twitched a little, clearly surprised to be asked. "Yeah – uh, yeah, that's fine. Um. Thank you?"

"You're welcome," Richard said, and stood, letting his hand rest very gently on Alex's shoulder for a second before he was heading out the door. "I'll be back in a sec."

"Is he leaving us together deliberately?" Alex asked, after a brief pause.

Gilda smiled. "Richard doesn't really think like that," she said simply. "Would you prefer not to be alone with me?"

Alex gave her a quick, startled look. "No? I mean, it's different to with Richard – uh, Dr Manning, I mean. Other Dr Manning, that is. God."

She laughed a little. "It's OK, I do know who you mean when you say 'Richard', we've been married for thirteen years. And you should call us Richard and Gilda, if you're comfortable with it. 'Dr Manning' is going to get very confusing in our house."

"Right," Alex said slowly. "Sorry. I just never said it out loud before. In front of anyone else, anyway."

"Is there something you'd rather call us? Aunt and Uncle, maybe?"

"I didn't even call my actual uncle 'uncle', so no," Alex said frankly. "I guess it just makes it seem real, if I'm saying it out loud."

Gilda nodded. "That makes sense. How are you feeling? It sounds like you've had a tough day already."

Alex took a deep breath and let it go very slowly. "It's been… a lot," he said finally. There had been many parenting moments when Gilda had thanked god she'd trained in child psychology, but she'd never been quite so grateful as now – she knew just how big a step it was for Alex to be able to admit that out loud. "But it was my fault, so it's not like I can complain about it."

"Your fault?" Gilda asked delicately.

Alex gave her a look that let her know he knew exactly what she was doing, but shrugged anyway, then hissed through his teeth as something stung. "Yeah," he said, apparently ignoring whatever pain he'd been feeling. "I mean, I engineered the whole… thing, you know? I didn't know it was going to end like this, but I'm the one who made it happen, so…"

Gilda paused for a second, marshalling her thoughts. "You set up an emotional confrontation to try and get some facts from us you didn't think you could get any other way – or which you wouldn't trust if you got them any other way – so you should just have to deal with it if it's upset or tired you?"

"Well… yeah," Alex said slowly. "I mean, there was stuff I wanted to know, but I chose how I got the information, you know? It was – I was just talking about this with Richard, it was. Manipulation."

"It's also a pretty classic way for teenagers to test boundaries and deal with conflict," Gilda pointed out. "Don't misunderstand me, I think you're a clever kid with a bagful of trauma about your own abilities, but what you did isn't bizarre or unprecedented. Circumstancemade it a pretty extreme situation, but you didn't do anything unforgivable. Or even that odd, honestly."

Alex considered that in silence for a minute or two, and Gilda let him turn it over in his mind, content to sit next to him and feel his shoulder pressed lightly against hers. He was physically there, on his way to healing, and as safe as she could make him. Everything else they could work on.

"I guess I'm always worried that this'll be the last straw," he said finally. "Richard said he was angry. At what Andrei – about what happened to me. And there's all of that shi- stuff to deal with, and then I'm messed up, and then I go and screw up everyone's day, and… I don't know. There's a lot going on in my head I don't know how to say out loud. But I want to know what'll be the last straw. When are you going to say enough's enough and I'm too much of a problem for you?" He shifted a little, warming to his theme. "And it's like… if I say I know what I did wrong and that I know it was screwed up straight away, maybe I'll get another chance. Because, I mean, Ian never had a choice – he was my uncle and my parents left me to him, he had to look after me. And he wasn't there a lot of the time, anyway. And Jack and I… she loves me, and I love her so much, and we were fine so long as we didn't talk about some things. But I knew where the line was, you know? So long as we didn't talk about the stuff we couldn't talk about, we'd always be OK. But I don't know where the line is with you guys. And that's without all the stuff I was just talking about with Richard, and… and I'm really scared."

By the time he'd finished talking, he'd hunched over, hands clasped tightly together in front of him, and he stared down at them without so much as flicking a glance her way.

"Thank you," she said, with all the warmth and sincerity she could put into her voice. "It was so brave of you to tell me. Is it OK if I give you a hug?"

"Um. Not right now?" Alex said, his voice a little shaky. "I'm really sick of crying."

Gilda smiled a little. "OK then. Well, you're not going to believe me right away and that's OK, but there isn't a line. We're not interested in putting you in a little box and telling you you can stay with us so long as you stay inside it. We want to make sure you grow the way you're supposed to and as best you can. I'm not saying we'll never give you a ticking off or ground you if you do something stupid, or that we'll never fight and get upset with each other, but we're never going to decide you're too much of a problem. We made a very informed decision when we asked for your guardianship, and it was only mostlyabout not being able to bear the idea of you going to live with someone who wasn't us."

Alex shook his head. "You're right," he said, and it tugged at her heart to hear the sadness in his voice. "I don't believe you."

"I know," she said gently. "Don't worry. We've got years and a lot of therapists to try out. We'll convince you in time. Why not take it a day at a time? Wake up every morning and say 'today isn't the day they kick me out'. We'll get you up to a week before you know it, and by the time we're through you'll believe me that we're nevergoing to say we've had enough."

Alex turned to look at her, a tiny frown creasing his forehead. His eyes were searching and very direct, and Gilda met them head on. "Richard, I get," he said quietly. "I mean, it was only like a week, but that whole time was pretty intense, so I guess I can understand that he kind of… imprinted on me. But I only met you once. Don't you- how can youlike me? Let alone…" he trailed off, hands spreading briefly in a frustrated, silent question before going limp in his lap.

"Let alone love you?" she asked, and he nodded, flushing uncomfortably but not looking away. "I wish I had an answer for you. It would be easier, wouldn't it? If I could just say, well, it was this and this and this." Alex nodded again. "But you know that nothing's ever that simple. Richard talked about you, you know, before I met you, and you sounded like a great kid. And then I didmeet you, and you area great kid, and you needed someone to help. It's a very powerful thing, knowing you're needed by someone you can actually help. And that might have been it, but…" she sighed. "Meeting Jack was a big part of it," she said finally. "She arrived here a few days before you were rescued, and we talked a lot. She's bright and friendly and she's got so much to give, and she never regretted the choice to look after you instead of doing something else. She adores you. And Richard's a good judge of character, and he loves you too. That's a lot of supporting evidence, and that's leaving aside my own judgement of you when we met. But as for loving you because of who youare, rather than because of other people? Well, I don't have a good answer, but I think I first realised it would be easy when I saw you again for the first time after you were rescued. Your first attempt to get me to back off was by telling me you might hurt the girls. That was very telling, you know."

"Was it?" Alex said quietly. "I just thought it was the best way to get you to stop all – all this."

"I know," Gilda said simply. "But it told me a lot about who you were. You were fighting this battle you thought you had to fight all by yourself, and you were still thinking about everyone around you. And after that, everything else was just a case of letting it happen. Alex, if you believe nothing else I say to you today, believe me when I tell you I will be delightedto help you learn to value yourself the way you should. That's why I like you. Because it's so easy to see how special and valuable you are – not for any of the awful things you've been made to do, but because of who you are, as a person. I know you can't see that right now, but Richard and I want to help you with that."

Alex had flushed up again, ridiculously self-conscious in the face of praise, and Gilda smiled at him. "And Richard isn't the only one who's angry, by the way," she added, to give him some time to recover himself. "Whats-his-face should hope he never meets me, or I'll do my level best to rearrange his face."

Alex's eyes widened for half a second, and then he laughed, evidently surprised. "Thank you," he said, with teasing sincerity.

"I mean it," she told him firmly. "No one gets to hurt you."

Alex's answering smile was rather rueful. "I don't know what to do with that," he admitted. "I don't know how to deal with anyof this. There's so much happening."

"Wishing everything could just stop for a second and give you a chance to catch up?" Gilda asked sympathetically.

"Yeah, exactly," he said. He looked back down at his hands, steeling himself for something. "It isharder with you, I guess," he said, so quietly she leant forwards a little to make sure she caught every word. "Because of Jack. Ian- I don't know how I feel about Ian, or how he felt about me. But I love Jack, and she's been amazing, for years. It feels… it doesn't feel right. It feels like I'm abandoning her."

"A lot of the time, one of the first things I tell my patients is you feel how you feel," Gilda said. "Bear with me, I'm going somewhere with this – you don't have to do anything but feel how you feel, OK? I'm not expecting us to suddenly have some magical connection because we're your guardians, these things take time. I love you, but I don't knowyou the way I know the girls, and you don't know me the way you know Jack. It'll take time. And you don't have to stop loving Jack just because there's another adult woman in your life now."

"Yeah," Alex said, nodding. "I don't know. I guess there's a lot of I've got to deal with before things feel OK. I just wanted to tell you so you'd know, if that makes sense."

"Perfect sense," Gilda told him. "And it's very wise of you. But don't think I don't know it's more of what you were talking about earlier. Admitting to something you think is a mistake so I don't get angry with you," she explained, when he shot her a quick look.

"Oh." He looked down at his hands again. "I guess it was more of that, wasn't it? I didn't even realise."

"I didn't think you did." Very gently, she rested her hand on his knee. "I know it would be silly to tell you not to worry, but just work on believing that we love you. Everything else we can deal with as we go along."

"Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, OK. I'll try."

For another second or so, they sat in companionable silence, then Alex took a deep breath, and Gilda braced herself emotionally for whatever he might want to talk about. Without looking at her, his voice rather constricted and even a little nervous, he said, "how about that hug?"

By the time Dr Garland had been and gone again, Alex was absolutely exhausted. She had re-dressed his back and given him another dose of the milder painkiller, with a warning that it would almost certainly knock him out this time and he should really be more careful about over-tiring himself. She'd said it with a minatory look at Richard, who had looked surprisingly chastened.

Gilda had sat through the whole thing looking white and strained, and Alex might have felt bad about that except that she had taken hold of his hand. Somehow that made it easier to believe that she was upset forhim rather than athim. She hadn't liked seeing how badly he'd been hurt, and he should probably feel bad that she'd had to, but it was so reassuring to know that it didn't just upset her in the abstract – it upset her because it was Alex.

Also, she'd made him laugh when he'd taken his T-shirt off by muttering that she would definitelytry to rearrange Andrei's face, and just a couple of hours ago Alex had felt like he might never laugh again.

They'd stayed with him too, talking softly as he drifted, exhausted by the emotional outpouring but feeling strangely cleansed in the aftermath. There was still a lot going on in his head that he didn't understand and couldn't work through by himself, but at least now he knew for sure that he wasn't going to have to try and deal with it alone.

He knew himself well enough to know that one morning, no matter how emotional, wasn't going to be enough to get him to believe implicitly that Gilda and Richard were here for him and really wanted him in their lives. But he didn't feel alone anymore, and that was a comforting thought to fall asleep on.

When he woke up, Gilda was still in the room but Richard had gone, and for a second or so Alex lay still, watching her work. She was wearing reading glasses and going through something that looked like patient case files, but she looked up the moment he shifted, putting her work aside immediately.

"How are you feeling?" she asked quietly.

"Alright," Alex said, beginning the slow process of sitting up and trying not to flinch away from the pain as his back and ribs began to complain. "What time is it?"

"Just after two," Gilda told him. "Richard's just gone to see if he can find us some lunch."

"You know you don't have to stay."

"I want to," Gilda said simply. "But one of us will have to leave in an hour or so to pick the girls up from school, and it'll probably be me, so I'm glad you've woken up – I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye."

"When will you be back?" Alex asked. He'd aimed for casual, but he had a feeling he'd missed by a considerable margin.

"Probably tomorrow afternoon," Gilda said. "Unless you'd like me to be here?"

Alex steeled himself. He didn't like asking for anything – he never had, but particularly not from someone who was already giving him so much. But he didwant Gilda here for what he had in mind.

"Is there a good time when you can be here?" he asked, well aware that he was delaying the inevitable.

"I can be here whenever you need me," she said firmly. "Don't worry about it, love – if you need me, I'll be here. My job's used to me having to leave at odd times."

"I want to give my testimony against Blunt," Alex said, and let out the breath he'd unconsciously been holding. "I want to get it over. And if you can be here…?"

"I'll be here come hell or high water," Gilda promised. "Thank you for asking me."

"It's going to be hard," Alex warned, wanting her to know exactly what she was getting into. "I've done some awful things."

"You've been through something dreadful, Alex," Gilda said gently. "I wasn't expecting listening to what happened to you to be easy."

"Will Richard be OK with it?" Alex asked. He'd noticed that Richard often found the details of his work for MI6 more upsetting than Gilda seemed to, and while he wanted both of them there if he could have them, he wouldn't ask it of the man if it was going to be a problem.

"He'll probably find it harder than I do," Gilda admitted easily. "I've had more practice with this sort of thing. But nothing would stop him being there if you want him."

"I do," Alex said, fighting against the feeling that he was admitting something shameful. "I want everyoneto be there. Then they'll all know, and I can stop feeling like it's some sort of awful secret I have to hide from everyone. You and Richard, and- and Jack. And the other kids. And Eagle, maybe, or Wolf."

"Eagle and Wolf?" Gilda repeated, looking a little taken aback for the first time that Alex could remember.

"They're soldiers here," Alex explained. "In my unit. Er, K-Unit, I mean."

"Mm," Gilda said, primming her mouth up a little. "Notyour unit, please, Alex. I'll listen to whatever you want to say, but it's tough to deal with the idea of any of my kids as child soldiers."

"It's not really about being a soldier, exactly," Alex said, struggling to put into words something he'd never really considered before. "It was about belonging. If they're myunit then I was part of something, you know? And Eagle… Eagle's been really great. He's been on duty outside my door a few times. He listens."

Gilda eyed him for a second in silence. "And understands?" she suggested.

"Exactly," Alex agreed. "He's a soldier. He's killed people too."

Gilda leant forwards, telegraphing every move, and laid a hand on Alex's cheek for half a moment. He fought the urge to lean into the touch, and contented himself with just enjoying being touched with kindness. "It must be very hard for you," she said quietly. "I'll make sure everyone you want to be there is there, provided you're sure. I won't have you using this as a way to hurt yourself."

"What do you mean?" Alex asked, honestly surprised.

"Well, making yourself tell several people all at once after keeping it as- what did you say? Your 'awful secret', for so long. That could be very traumatic and difficult for you, and I don't want you using your testimony as a way to punish yourself for the things you were made to do," Gilda explained.

"Oh." Alex digested that in silence for a minute or so, then tried to explain his actual reasoning. He hadn't even considered that it might be a way of trying to punish himself. "That's not what I was thinking. I was thinking – well, I guess I was thinking, the more people know, the fewer I have to tell later. If I want to, I mean. And I could never talk about it before, and I never wantedto, because I didn't want anyone to know the things I'd done. But now…" he trailed off, wondering how he could explain it.

Gilda looked as though she'd had an epiphany. "Ah, I see," she said, when it became clear to her that Alex couldn't find the right words. "A kind of fuck you, is that it?"

He smiled, surprised by her choice of words even if it was apt. "Yeah, I think so? I don't know that I really believe you guys when you tell me it's not my fault, but you say it isn't and I. Well. I trust you, I guess. Enough to find out if you're right. And I want to tell everyone because Blunt always made it so clear that I couldn't."

"OK then," Gilda said, nodding decisively. "If that's what you want, then that's what you'll get. But as your guardian, we'll be stopping things if we think it's getting too much for you, and I want you to trust us that we'll be making the right decision. Can you do that?"

"I'll try," Alex said slowly. "I'm not sure I'll agree, though."

"Mm, respecting your own boundaries isn't something you've had much experience with, I know," Gilda said. "Which is why I'm asking you to trust that we'll be calling a halt to it because we think you need a break, not just for kicks."

"I'll do my best," Alex promised. "But I just want to get it over with. If I say I'm OK, will you trust me?" He took a deep breath. "I don't think I'm going to sound OK when I'm talking about it," he admitted painfully. "I think I'm going to need to be…" he paused, trying to find the words to describe what he was trying to say. He had a lot of experience of shutting off non-essentials when he was working, and he had a feeling he was going to need that if he was going to be able to give testimony about what he'd had to do. "I'm going to need to not be there," he explained, instantly frustrated at how stupid that sounded.

"You'll need to reboot in safe mode?" Gilda suggested.

"That's it," Alex said, relieved to find that she was on his wavelength.

"I can deal with safe mode," Gilda nodded. "It's if I see you becoming distressed that I'll be calling a halt. Will that be OK?" Alex nodded. He thought he could deal with that. "And do you have any idea what you might need when you come out of safe mode?" Gilda asked, pressing gently.

"No," Alex said, rather startled. He'd never really thought that kind of mindset had an end, or if it did, he'd certainly never considered what he might need to make the transition easier. Safe mode ended with his assignment, and that was that.

"OK, we'll keep a sharp eye out and wing it," Gilda said, smiling at him. "Richard can sort out what you need to give your testimony, but that'll mean leaving you alone while I'm picking up the girls. Would you like your friends here?"

Tom. God, Alex had so much to explain to Tom. But he couldn't deal with that right now, and the only other person he felt really safe with was… "Jack," he said finally. "Do you think Jack could come? Maybe Hanley could come with her, if she wanted."

Gilda eyed him dubiously for a moment. "Are you sure you're up to it?" she asked finally.

Alex shrugged. "I'm… not sure," he said, looking away from Gilda's penetrating gaze. "I think I am. And we do need to talk."

"No arguments from me there," Gilda agreed. "But that's not the point. You've had a long and difficult morning – are you sure you want to have another tough conversation today?"

Alex smiled a little. It was nice that Richard and Gilda were worried that he might upset or tire himself, but it was odd, too. He was perfectly well aware that his previous experiences weren't exactly normal and that it would be stupid to base his understanding of what he could and couldn't cope with on what he'd been forced to cope with for nearly a year. But there was still a world of difference between talking about something difficult with someone who loved him and everything he'd been through while working for MI6.

Probably he shouldn't even be comparing the two things, but it was difficult not to conflate the two in his mind. He'd never exactly wanted the Mannings to protect him from MI6 – in fact, if he'd been told that he had a choice between working for Alan Blunt again and letting the Mannings bear the brunt of his refusal to do so, he'd have been back working for Blunt in a heartbeat. But he had wanted them to make him feel protected, and they were, just not in any way he'd ever imagined.

He paused for a moment, trying to consider how to put that thought into words. Saying 'I've done worse' would probably get him a lecture he didn't need, and 'I'll be fine' probably wouldn't be any better. "Between the two of us, Jack and I always did a pretty good job of looking after each other," he said, rather than try and explain what he'd been thinking properly. There'd be time for that later. "We can manage a conversation. I- I need to talk to her."

"Alright," Gilda said slowly. "I wouldn't dream of trying to stop you. But I'll be asking Jack to make sure you don't get too upset. Is that OK?"

"She won't," Alex promised.

"That's not what I asked," Gilda said, the gentleness in her voice taking the sting out of her words.

Not that Alex had been about to take offence. It was a relief, in some strange way, that the Mannings were both so careful about asking him if he was OK with what they were doing. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, that's fine."

Jack looked strangely nervous when she arrived in his room, an hour or so later. Lunch had been a quiet meal, and Gilda had had to leave shortly afterwards to pick up Sally and Lizzie. She'd given him a long, gentle hug and a kiss on the forehead, and promised that she'd be back in tomorrow morning after dropping the girls off at school.

It was still strange to think of Sally and Lizzie as actual real children he'd be living with in the future, but having met them made it easier. Alex had worried a little that he'd feel jealous, faced with the evidence of their right to Richard and Gilda's time and attention – he had been a little concerned that maybe he'd dislike the idea that his would-be foster-parents weren't just his, and he hadn't known how he'd deal with knowing that about himself. But in a strange way, the knowledge that the Mannings were clearly good, loving parents was a reassurance all itself. His situation and the girls' couldn't really be compared, but at least he had a rough idea of what kind of parents they'd be to him.

Richard was still with him when Jack arrived, but he stood when she came in, giving her a warm smile and kissing her on the cheek. "I'll leave you to it," he said, resting his hand on Alex's shoulder and squeezing gently. "I'll be in my office if you need me for anything."

For a long, painful moment after he left, the two of them were completely silent. Then:

"Alex, I'm so sorry-"

"I'm sorry, I overreacted-"

They relapsed into silence briefly, before Jack laughed unhappily. "This is so dumb," she said. "When have we ever not been able to talk about stuff?"

Alex considered that for a second. "We couldn't ever talk about MI6," he said quietly, making sure he wouldn't sound judgmental. He'd never judged Jack for not wanting to talk about what he'd had to do. In a lot of ways, he'd been grateful for it. It was only recently that he'd begun to realise how unhealthy it was, and he was still coming to terms with the idea that it was something he might want to be able to talk about.

"No, I know," Jack said simply. She was very pale, and there were lines of strain around her eyes and mouth. "I didn't know how to bring it up, to begin with. And- and after a while, I thought maybe it was for the best if I didn't talk about it. You didn't seem to want to. But I should have asked, I should have made sure that was what you were thinking, I shouldn't have just assumed- but then I realised it was all my fault." She dropped her gaze to her hands in her lap. "After that, I couldn't," she said, almost in a whisper.

"It wasn't your fault," Alex said firmly. "Smithers told me that they'd have made me work for them no matter what. They just got lucky on their first try. I wanted to stay with you so much, they didn't need to try and find another angle. But theywouldhave found another angle."

"I don't want you to go and live with the Mannings," Jack said softly. "I mean, I do, they're good people and they'll love you and look after you and- and be everything I want for you. But I don't want to lose you."

The irony of their reversed positions wasn't lost on Alex. "You won't," he told her. "Isn't that what you said? You said you'd never just leave."

"And I won't," Jack said quickly. "I won't, Alex, never. I'll always be here for you. I just won't be- you won't- we won't be living together."

"And it won't be the same," Alex agreed. Was it alright to be happy about what he was about to gain, and still mourn what he was losing? Somehow it seemed like the two things should cancel themselves out.

"But I love you," Jack said, straightening her shoulders and meeting his eyes dead on. "I love you, and I'll be there for you, no matter what." She tried a smile. It came out rather wan, but it was a smile nonetheless. "Hey, if MI6 couldn't chase me away, there's no way anything else could stop me, right?"

Alex smiled back – she deserved that much, at least – but changed the subject anyway. "I'm sorry I got so upset about it, to begin with," he said haltingly. "It was a lot to deal with. And I didn't really understand what was happening."

"Alex, hon, no," Jack said, looking really upset for the first time. "You've had so much to deal with, it's OK. I understood. I'd have understood if you'd been upset for way longer than this. You don't have to apologise. I should be apologising."

"Maybe neither of us should be apologising," Alex suggested, with a faint smile. "You're not leaving me. There's nothing to apologise for."

"And you don't have to be sorry for being upset," Jack said firmly. "I never want you to have to feel bad about how you're feeling." She looked away for a second, blinking hard, then looked back at him. "I love you so much," she said simply, and Alex swallowed against the rising tide of emotion. "And I was so scared when you disappeared. I kept wondering if they'd find you, if you were even alive. Having you back at all feels like a miracle. I just want you to be happy and safe. That's all I've ever wanted."

"That's what I want for you too," Alex said, hearing how strangled and muted his own voice sounded with something like surprise. "I love you too. And- I'm really messed up, Jack. I didn't even realise how messed up I am until recently. But- But I think…" he took a deep breath and met her eyes. "I think I'm going to be OK."

MUSH, MUSH, SO MUCH MUSH and i'm not even sorry

Thanks as always to so1said, for putting up with all of my dithering and nonsense, and thank you to everyone who reads and especially everyone who reviews. I am so grateful to you all for your kindness, and most particularly your patience.

Check out HIOP when it goes up on AO3 if you're feeling brave, and hopefully I'll see you all soon!

ami xxx