Dear, patient readers! Another chapter, at long last, for your delectation and delight. I have to admit, I'm focussing most strongly on HIOP rather than this fic, but it is still planned out and written in places, so don't despair!
This chapter is dedicated, with gratitude, to Erroneously111, who won a fic/chapter from me at help_japan. I hope it was worth the long, long wait, lovey!
I'm currently in New York, working for the summer (and feeling terribly swish as I do it!), and the minute I get back home, I'm off again somewhere else, so I don't know what I'll be able to get written this summer, but I'm hoping to get at least another chapter of HIOP done. *sigh* well, we shall see.
I can but hope.
Hope everyone is enjoying their summer and, without further ado:
DISCLAIMER!: Yeah, no.
Alex all but fell through the front door of his house, abandoning his carefully-adopted limp, and allowed the previously internalised sigh full reign, relief and exhaustion given an outlet for a few brief seconds before he pushed himself up and into the kitchen. There was actual coffee and tea in the cupboard, a half-full bottle of milk in the fridge, along with cheese, bread, ham, pasta in the next cupboard along. He was a damn sight better off now than he had been before, and the knowledge of an entirely free day tomorrow to do – whatever he liked with, to sleep, watch TV, just let things catch up with him a little... it was a heady prospect.
He made himself a tea and collapsed onto the sofa, absently flicking the TV on and determinedly moving past the news channels. He didn't want to know what terrible things were happening – MI6 would probably guilt him into helping clear some of them up before too much time had passed, and he was going to maintain his own blissful ignorance until then – and settling on a showing of 'Chicken Run' on Channel Five. Mindless entertainment, something Alex hadn't been able indulge in for way too long.
He settled back on the sofa and prepared to enjoy every single moment of it.
While Alex was settling down to enjoy his rare day off, K-Unit were still at Wolf's flat trying to work through what Eagle had dubbed their Epic Plan. They'd all agreed that given how badly their previous interaction with Cub had gone, it was more than wise to go in there with a base plan and to stick to it as much as possible; somehow they had to convince the kid that they had his best interests at heart – and after reading his file yesterday, they could all easily get behind wanting him out of MI6's clutches.
"Right," Snake started up, shoving a pot of tea onto the table, and standing back, clearly gearing up for a lecture – or maybe a motivational speech. "First things first, we have to work out how we're going to approach the kid, and then we have to work out how to stop him from running-"
"Easily done," Wolf said firmly. "We ambush him – nicely!" he added hastily, seeing Snake's eyes narrow with disapproval, "at his house. We've got his address now."
"Tell me what a 'nice' ambush is, would you?" Eagle enquired sweetly and Wolf heaved a put-upon sigh.
"We turn up unexpectedly, then, at his house. Hang around for him to come back if we have to. Then we sit him down and have a chat."
"How are we going to know he's there?" Snake asked, a small frown in place that indicated thoughtfulness rather than annoyance. "I'm not hanging around for hours waiting for the kid to get back."
"Cub-watching," Fox offered unexpectedly.
"What, sorry?" Snake asked.
"Stake the place out," Fox explained. "Watch him, see when he comes and goes – maybe find some sort of 'in' that'll make him listen to us-"
"I don't think that's a good idea," Snake said carefully.
"Why not?" Fox asked, a little put out.
"This," Snake tapped the photo of Cub's house from the file, "is a nice, residential area. What do you think the inhabitants of this nice, residential area are going to think of four big – sorry, Wolf – guys hanging around outside one of their houses? We'll have the police called on us if we're lucky. And if we're not, MI6 are going to have someone watching the place and we'll have blown everything. Even one of us would be pretty conspicuous – this isn't exactly somewhere we can easily find cover."
"Not to mention," Eagle added, "this kid will probably notice us, and from the way he's reacted to us before, I'm pretty sure he thinks we're working for SIS. I don't think we want to make that kind of impression. I mean, we know the kid's good at what he does," said with a grimace, "and he'd see us, and I don't think we want him making the assumptions he's clearly going to."
"Then what do you suggest?" Wolf asked.
"Well, we can't exactly ambush him at work," Eagle said, rubbing absently at the faint bruising under his eye. "If he didn't go apeshit again, then those guys he works with will. They're fond of the kid."
"I think you'd better go back to Markham," Snake said, "and see if we can get a key for this place."
"Cos it'll really help his trust issues to have us in his house when he gets back," Fox pointed out. "No, we should pick a night, find out when he leaves his last job that night and wait at his house for him then."
"One suggestion," Eagle said, stretching his legs out in front of him and leaning back, hands clasped over his stomach. "Go round tomorrow and knock. Fuck, tonight, maybe."
Wolf frowned. "That's pretty much what I suggested."
"Yeah, but hanging around and waiting for him is not going to look good, from his point of view," Eagle pointed out. "It will actually look like an ambush, and that's the last thing we want him to think we're doing."
"If we don't wait for him, how the hell are we ever going to be able to pick a time when he's in? You're the one who told us he was always working!"
"The kid's got two jobs, right?" Eagle said slowly, and Wolf nodded. "Right, so, he's got two jobs, and unless he's some sort of superhuman and is working yet another job, when he's not working he's at home."
"But we don't know when he's working!" Wolf said, frustrated. "Not well, anyway."
"Fine, we'll just turn up early, then," Eagle sighed. "Look, we're getting our knickers in a twist over how to make him feel like we trust and respect him, I'm pretty sure starting this off on as normal a footing as possible is the way to do that. No staking out his house to make him feel like he's being watched, no ambushing him – just knocking and asking if we can talk. And making it clear that we're happy to come back at a better time for him if that's what he wants. We know where he lives, he'll know we know where he lives, we get to demonstrate some, some care and some flexibility. Win/win."
"And if he's not there?" Wolf asked, still frowning.
"We go back another time," Eagle said. "We're already working at a disadvantage with this kid, we need to stack the deck in our favour, at least as far as he's concerned. We need to make sure that he knows we're doing this to make things better, not to trap him even more. To be honest ,Wolf, I don't see how the other options are going to demonstrate anything to him other than that we're a little bit creepy, and I'm pretty sure the poor kid's had enough of that."
"I don't like the uncertainty of it," Wolf said heavily. "It could end up taking even longer than the other two options."
"His last mission was months back, and ever since he tried to kill himself," Snake didn't mince words, "MI6 have left him well enough alone. A little more time's not going to make a blind bit of difference – and who knows, first contact might be over by this time tomorrow, it's worth the gamble. And," he added, with some deliberation, "Eagle's right, we want to start this off on as normal a footing as possible."
Wolf capitulated, almost with good grace. "Yeah, well. If that's what you guys think is best, then we'll do that. Markham's sending over our files sometime tonight-"
"What's that got to do with anything?" Eagle asked, frowning.
Wolf frowned right back at him. "You said it yourself, we need to level the playing field for the kid. We know about him, he gets to know about us."
Eagle nodded. "Fine, tomorrow then. What time?"
"Six?" Wolf offered, and Fox groaned, but nodded along with the other two. "Fine. We'll meet here at five thirty, and head over together. United front, and all that."
"You're just worried about getting lost again, aren't you?" Eagle grinned, dispelling a little of the tension. "Don't worry, we'll make sure you don't have to read any maps this time round."
"I don't know why I keep letting you into my flat," Wolf told him with dignity, and smacked him upside the back of the head with the file when Eagle went to respond.
Alex had taken a long, luxurious bath, refusing to worry about anything like the cost of all the hot water, and used up the last of the bubble-bath that Jack had left behind without letting himself feel so much as a twinge of guilt. He was starting to realise, albeit slowly, that he needed the downtime almost as much as he needed the money he was earning as bolster against MI6; when he started working for them again, which was inevitable, he would end up dead pretty quickly if he didn't take this opportunity to build himself up again. And being dead was starting to look less appealing.
He had no idea how he would feel after another assignment, but in the meantime, he was going to make the most of the way life felt good again.
He went to bed blissfully early, and fell asleep surprisingly easily, without letting his conscience bother him once.
The knock on his door early the next morning did not come, therefore, as a welcome surprise. It was loud, and insistent, and for a few moments, Alex had actually thought it was part of his dream, which had never happened to him before. He'd been trained, painstakingly and over many years, to wake up instantly to external stimuli, not assume they were benign and leave the waking world to its own devices.
He stumbled downstairs with a few muttered, vicious curses, but paused momentarily in front of the door. He hardly thought whoever it was would be dangerous – assassins, in Alex's all-too-exhaustive experience, rarely knocked – but it might be MI6 agents about to drag him off on another high-octane wild goose chase, and he wanted as much of an advantage as he could scrape together. He didn't need to look round the hallway to see the best exits and hiding places – he'd clocked them all years ago. He did, however, grab his keys in one hand, to act as sharp, impromptu knuckledusters if things went to hell, and palmed the heavy paperweight off the hall table, just in case.
He wished, briefly, as he pulled the Yale lock back, that he'd been dressed, but he'd been hoping for a lie-in. Just another thing MI6 had taken from him, he thought, and opened the door.
He hadn't been expecting K-Unit, and he'd been expecting their apologies even less.
"Is this a bad time?" Snake asked, his eyes flicking to Alex's pyjama trousers and rumpled T-shirt. "We can come back."
Alex internalised his groan. "How did you find me?" he asked immediately. The only way, he knew, was for MI6 to have told them, which could only mean bad things for him.
Snake shrugged. "Let us in and we'll tell you," he offered.
"Or," Alex countered, "you tell me now, and I consider letting you in." They were silent for a long moment, and Alex shrugged. "Whatever," he said, a pitch-perfect impression of a normal teenager, and went to shut the door.
"Wait!" Snake said quickly. "We got the information from Command, and they got it from a contact at – at-" Alex could see him glance around and sighed, pulling the door open again.
"Yeah, I know where your contact is from," he said sarcastically. "Please don't tell everyone else."
"So can we come in now?" Eagle asked, shifting awkwardly and glancing round. His posture screamed 'awkward', and Alex found himself thinking critically that someone should really have trained that out of him.
He allowed himself a moment of bitterness before speaking again. "Who's your contact? What are you here for, anyway?"
"I don't know who the contact is," Snake said honestly, remembering Wolf's relayed warning about not lying to the kid. "But we heard it from Colonel Markham, in Command. And I swear, we just want to talk. If you don't like what we're saying, we'll leave, no problem."
When Alex took too long considering this, Wolf weighed in with his two cents. "It'd be a good idea for you to listen to us, Cub."
Alex bristled a little, but couldn't work up the energy to blow Wolf's words into a fully fledged fight. "Oh, yeah?" he said.
"Look, Cub, let us in, and we'll tell you everything, OK? Nothing left out. Just – we can't have this conversation out in the street."
Alex considered his options; if he was honest with himself, he was more than a little surprised that they hadn't already shoved their way in, as any visitors he got from MI6 tended to do. "If you don't leave the moment I tell you to, I will make things very unpleasant for you," he promised, and held the door open for them. "Shut it behind you," he added with deliberate ill grace.
He headed into the kitchen without glancing back, hearing rather than seeing the door shut and the automatic lock click into place. In the kitchen, he turned the kettle on and grabbed himself a mug before turning back to his unexpected guests. Pointedly, he didn't offer them a drink.
"What can I do for you?" he asked, already dreading the answer, though considering the way they'd acted so far, he doubted they were from MI6. MI6 rarely sent the SAS to do this kind of dirty work – at least not regularly – and if they wanted to play some kind of deep game with Alex, they wouldn't have chosen the SAS, not even this team. There was no guarantee, after all, that even the best soldier would be able to pull off the kind of acting that job would require.
Eagle was staring at him. "You seem – calmer," he said, and Alex would have flushed, but he had far too strong a hold on himself for that.
"Do I?" he said insouciantly, and Eagle wisely let the question drop.
Wolf glanced at Snake to pick up the slack; he seemed to have been delegated the mouthpiece for their visit. "We're here from the SAS, not MI6," Snake said unhurriedly, his words deliberate. "And if you want us to leave, we will, but we think you should hear us out, if you've got the time."
Alex glanced between them. "Why the change of tune?" he asked, careful not to show them even half of the suspicion he was feeling. "What could the SAS want with me?"
"To be honest with you, Cub-" Wolf began
"That'll be a change," Alex muttered, and Wolf ignored him.
"The SAS don't want anything from you. What Command want is for MI6 to be taken down a few pegs, and they think you're the best way to get them over a barrel."
"So that's what Command want," Alex repeated slowly. "What do you want, other than to play the obedient lapdog?"
Wolf gritted his teeth and didn't rise to the antagonism in Alex's voice. Snake sensed the danger, however, and stepped in again. "We want you out of their clutches," he said simply, and held up a hand when Alex opened his mouth. "We're not turning into philanthropists, Cub, and yeah, we hardly know you, but you know what MI6 have done to you is wrong, and I know it. And I made a career out of wanting to right wrongs."
"How did the military help you with that goal?" Alex asked, sarcasm running thick through every word.
"Getting on just fine, thanks for asking," Snake said, with unimpeachable calm. Alex looked away first.
"Well, forgive me," he said, "but I don't buy it."
"Fine," Eagle returned, before Snake could open his mouth. "You don't have to buy it, you just have to let us help. We read your records, Cub, and-"
"You're lying," Alex said instantly. He didn't react outwardly to the claim – it had been a long time since anyone had been able to shock him into a reaction – but his heart was beating a little faster. The only, only upside of the things he'd done for MI6 was that no one would know about them, and no one would know what a monster he could be when pushed to it. "They didn't keep any records. Why would they? Why would they risk getting caught?" He turned away to make the tea, buying himself a little time to calm down. "Why would they keep internal records of my assignments when they didn't even let me exist properly in real life?"
"What do you mean?" Wolf asked gruffly.
"I know they wiped my records," Alex said wearily. "I knew when I was fifteen, and we had a project at school, researching family history. I don't exist in the public records – not as my parents' son, anyway."
Suddenly exhausted, he sank into one of the kitchen chairs, and didn't even bother to look up when K-Unit seated themselves around him. "Someone was keeping records, anyway," Eagle said, awkwardly picking the thread of the conversation back up. "Here."
He shoved a manila folder across the table to Alex, who flicked it open without much interest. "Smithers," he said, after reading half a page.
"How did you know?" Wolf asked, wondering if this was what made the boy the asset MI6 had been so ruinously desperate to hold on to.
"No one else calls me 'dear boy'," Alex said dispassionately, closing the folder. Eagle noticed, with some interest, that he had gone a little pale. "So, you know all about it, then."
"Yes," Snake said, not without sympathy. "Pretty impressive, Cub."
"MI6 thought so," Alex agreed, with a complete lack of pride. "But most of my skills wouldn't be any use to the SAS."
"They aren't interested in them," Snake shrugged. "You're not so much a pawn to them as you are to MI6 – if you say back off, I guarantee they will," Alex raised an eyebrow, but kept quiet, "but you're a means to an end for them." Seeing Alex's unimpressed look, he pressed on. "Look, at the end of the day, they aren't interested in you, not the way MI6 are. They're interested in taking MI6 down a few pegs, and when you get right down to it they're only interested in you because you'll help them with that."
"Yeah, they're real philanthropists," Alex muttered, and Snake sighed.
"What do you want from us, then?" he asked. "I thought you wanted to get away from MI6 – or I thought you wouldwant to."
"I do," Alex said, almost fiercely. "But just once, it would be nice, once in a way, to have someone want to help me for me, not just because they – their superiors told them too."
"Well," Fox broke in, with a small smile, "to be honest, I thought that was what we were here for." Alex shot him a withering look, and Fox held his hands up in the universal gesture of defence. "Hey, all I'm saying is, we got involved because we had a personal connection with you."
"Yeah, really personal," Alex said, a hint of a sneer in his voice. "You're only here because I wrote to Wolf, and that went just brilliantly, didn't it?" Wolf flushed dully. "Whatever's motivating you lot – guilt, or the intrigue of it all, or, or... whatever! – don't try to sell it to me as you taking a 'personal' interest."
Fox shrugged. "Fine, then," he said. "We won't. But, we are interested and it's not like you really have many other options right now, is it?"
Alex almost snarled at him, but, as always, carefully held himself back. "MI6 pay my bills," he snapped, "they pay me, and I have no other option than to stay working for them."
"Like hell you haven't," Wolf snapped, with his customary lack of tact.
"My grades are in that file, aren't they?" Alex snapped back. "I have shit GCSEs, Wolf, and I missed the retake period; I have no grades worth spitting on, no crammer will take me, no university will take me, and I don't have the free time to start at the bottom of a company and work my way up, because I'm off killing people." His voice was quiet, but there was no doubting his intensity. "If I want to live at all comfortably – even selling this place wouldn't work, it's in trust – I need MI6 there smoothing the way."
"You need to get away from them," Snake said, very quietly, "if you want to live much longer at all."
"The only reason you even remembered I existed," Alex returned, "is because clearly, I don't."
For a long moment, there was silence: impasse. Then Eagle, once more going where angels feared to tread, stepped in.
"I thought," he said carefully, watching Alex with unusually sharp eyes, "that you seemed calmer. Like things weren't so much of a drag for you. Are you really expecting me to believe that you still want to die?"
Alex shrugged. He'd been riding the high of feeling liked by his colleagues, of having things a little more under control, and having K-unit in his kitchen was slowly but surely sapping that high away from him. "What's actually changed, Eagle?" he asked. "MI6 own me. This is just an interval before another world-saving main event. Sure, I'm happier now, but this isn't going to last."
"And that's exactly the reason you should let us – the SAS – try and help," Eagle said, his voice unusually gentle. "We've got the big guns on our side this time, Cub. Ministry of Defence, the Prime Minister, we're in talks with MI5 right now. We can really hit 'em where it hurts, if you help us, and if you help us bring them down, we can get you out." He saw Alex's expression change fractionally and hastened to correct his mistake. "Not like that! It's not an 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine' deal, OK, I promise. It's – getting you out is how we get them down. We want to help you, Cub, and we want to topple Alan Blunt at the same time. What d'you think?"
"We can sort out the problems with your exams," Snake promised, stepping in as he saw Alex waver. "Extenuating circumstances, we can find a way for you to resit them. Markham – Colonel Markham, the officer heading this operation-"
"You said," Alex remarked sarcastically, every hint of his earlier fervour and depression gone. Eagle found himself reluctantly impressed.
Snake ignored him. "He's taking a pretty personal interest in things, I'm sure he's got a plan."
Alex took a sip of tea, and thought for a long moment. "I want out," he said finally, and caught Fox nudge Eagle as Eagle gave a somewhat premature sigh of relief. "But I'm not convinced I won't be jumping from the frying pan into the fire." As Snake went to speak, Alex continued without pause. "After all, when have you lot ever actually wanted to help me before?" He paused to let the impact of what he was saying sink in, watching with some satisfaction as Wolf flushed dully. "And even if your intentions are as pure as you say they are, I'm really not sure I'm not going to just be left high and dry when all this is over, your command have got what they want, and I'm left as – as collateral."
Snake waited for a moment to make sure that Alex was really finished, then nodded. "What can we do to convince you?" he asked.
Alex shrugged. "Take me to your leader," he said simply, with what might have been a smile. "I want to meet Colonel Markham. Either I meet him, or I do my considerable best," he'd never believed in false modesty, "to make sure that this whole thing never gets off the ground. My life right now is shit, but at least it's going somewhere, even if it's straight into a wall at a hundred miles an hour. I don't want to end up stuck for the rest of my life. I'm not going to get left high and dry." He let that sink in for a minute. "So, what do you say?"
"We'll need to talk to him-"
"Go and do it, then," Alex said, and stood. "And don't come back until a reasonable hour."
"You got plans, Cub?" Eagle asked with a grin, relieved to be getting somewhere at long last.
"Don't call me that," Alex returned instantly. "And yes, I do. I'm going back to bed."
And done. :D Hope you enjoyed!