It All Started with a Note

Disclaimer: I don't own Alex Rider or any of the characters.

Alex Rider walked up the stairs to his house, feeling happy now that he could go home from the hospital. He'd been on a walk, stretching his legs for the first time since he was admitted after being shot. The front door was cracked slightly, and he frowned, his instincts screaming that something was wrong. He walked into the house, looking around for his guardian. "Jack?" He called. She didn't answer. He went to the living room and gasped, wincing as the sudden expansion of his chest stretched the now nearly-healed gunshot wound.

The room was trashed. There were obvious signs of struggle; the couch was torn up and the TV was broken, a chair leg sticking out of the screen. Alex turned around, surveying the damage. Then he ran into the kitchen. That room was also in bad shape. He noticed a white envelope sitting on the table, his name shakily scrawled on it in Jack's familiar handwriting. He picked the note up and scanned it quickly.

Alex, sorry about the state of the house. I'm being kidnapped, but they told me to write this note before we leave. Some big guy and his side-kick. I'm fine; they said they aren't going to hurt me unless I try to escape. They want you, Alex. Biceps said their name was Scorpion or something. Don't worry about me, and whatever you do, don't come after me!

Then, in much different handwriting at the bottom, another note said,

Alex Rider-

Unless you give yourself up in three days' time, we will kill the American woman. We're giving you time to think about it. If you decide to give yourself up, the woman will come to no harm. If not...well, let's just say it won't go well for her. Meet us at the HQ for Scorpia. You know where it is.

Alex moaned, crumpling the note in his fist. Not Jack! He sat dejectedly in one of the lesser ruined chairs by the counter to think frantically. What should he do? Who should he call? Not the police, that'd just get Jack killed more quickly, not save her. Who else was there? Not MI6, they wouldn't understand. He remembered all the crazy missions they'd sent him on, and how many times he'd nearly been killed. No, definitely not MI6.

He put his forehead on his hand, which was propped up on the counter. He closed his eyes, thinking frantically. Then, an idea came to him. Quickly, he got out his phone and dialed a number, praying that the owner would pick up.

Jack sat up groggily with a huge headache. She'd been knocked out after she'd written the note for Alex. Remembering the note made her hope that Alex wouldn't come for her. She was sure that if he did, he'd just get killed. While she didn't exactly want to die, she certainly would rather he stayed away and safe. He'd have gotten home by now. He didn't have any family, but he was a resourceful boy. He'd figure something out. She leaned against the wall of the stone cell she was in and pulled her knees up to her chest. Whatever happened to her, Jack hoped that Alex would stay where he was. Better her than him.

Suddenly, the door to the cell creaked open. Jack looked up, shielding her eyes against the light from the next room as her head pounded even more. A huge black shape blocked most of it. Jack grinned at him, determined to put on a brave show for her captors. "Oh, hello, Biceps."

The black shape grunted, then set something on the floor and left. Jack rolled her eyes. Obviously he didn't appreciate the nickname. After her eyes readjusted to the darkness, Jack crawled forward and found a plate with edible food on it. It was actually a reasonably good-looking meal. So much for those books where the captor feeds their prisoner only moldy bread and stale water. Jack ate the apple, which was slightly mushy, and saved the rest of the food for later. After finishing the fruit, she looked at it disdainfully. There was nothing worse than a mushy apple, at least in her opinion.

Settling back against the wall, Jack prepared herself for a long three days. She closed her eyes, which made the headache less, and fell asleep. When she woke it was lighter in her cell, and Jack noticed a small window, barred, of course, high in the wall. Her headache was gone, too. Bonus. By standing on the "bed" she'd been given, which was more like a cot that was dry-rotted and damp, Jack managed to see out the barred window. She was by a small river, and as she watched, a small gondola slowly poled by. So she was in Venice, probably, and the river was a canal. That was good to know.

The lock on the door turned, and Jack quickly hopped off the cot and sat on the edge of it, all before the door opened. Biceps entered. He was a huge man with huge muscles, hence the name Biceps. Jack smiled at him cheerfully, feeling better now that her headache was gone and she knew where she was. Plus they'd said they wouldn't hurt her until the three days were up. "Good morning, Biceps. Sleep well knowing you have an innocent woman trapped in your basement?"

Biceps glared at her. "My name isn't Biceps, and you know it." His accent was Italian, proving her assumption correct.

Jack put on her most innocent face, making her eyes go all big and imploring. "Well, then you'll have to tell me your name."

Biceps looked heavenward, as if wondering why he'd been given the task of handling this annoying prisoner. "No, I'm not telling you my name. I'm not stupid." Jack folded her arms and waited for Biceps to tell her what he wanted. Finally, Biceps spoke again. "The Rider boy hasn't come to Venice yet." Hallelujah! Jack thought. "Two more days and then we kill you," Biceps continued, leering cruelly at her. "Sleep well, Ms. Starbright." He left, locking the door behind him.

Jack glared at his back as he walked out, but felt her shoulders sag. Her days were numbered. There was something strange about knowing exactly how long she had to live, and how she was going to die. Wait—scratch that. Jack didn't how how she was going to die. She only knew it wasn't going to be pleasant. Jack sighed, and then put her head in her hands. "How are you going to get out of this one, Jack?" She asked herself.

Suddenly, she heard a soft clanking sound. She looked around for it, but didn't see anything. Then it hit her. Literally. Jack rubbed at the back of her head and looked at the small silver vial that had fallen from the window, and saw a note tied to it. She read it hastily. The words were written in a clear print and were easy to read. "Poison. Use on 'Biceps'," she read to herself. Now how on earth had whoever sent this to her figured out her nickname for the hulking guard? She shrugged. At least now she had a way out. All she had to do was figure out how to get Biceps to drink it.

A shadowy figure watched Jack Starbright read the note, then smile. The figure's face got a satisfied look as Jack looked around, then shrugged and put the vial in her pocket. Now all the figure had to was wait. Wait until the man Jack called Biceps drank the poison and collapsed.

Unaware of the figure outside, Jack pocketed the vial and sat down to wait for Biceps. Half-wondering what the poison would do to her guard, she decided to try it anyway. Then she noticed a mouse in the corner. Coaxing it over took some time, but it seemed to be tame. Jack picked up the mouse, which wiggled its whiskers at her, but couldn't quite bring herself to test out the poison on it. It was too cute.

"Hello, little guy," she crooned. "It'll be nice to have someone to talk to. Even if you can't talk back." The mouse looked at her with intelligent black eyes and squeaked. A sharp pain hit her leg, and she looked down to see a rat with its teeth buried in her calf. Jack smiled happily, and got out the little bottle of poison, putting the mouse carefully on the floor. She'd never liked rats anyway, and this one was giving her a reason to kill it. She grabbed the hideous thing and pried its mouth open, making it let go of her leg, and dripped a single drop of poison into its mouth.

The rat squeaked once, almost pitifully, and walked around in a slightly shaky, ever-widening circle, then collapsed. Jack held her breath and touched it. There was no heartbeat. Feeling sorry for it, she grabbed it by the tail and flung it out the window. She heard a faint splash as the rat hit the water and winced. Then she inspected the bite the rat had given her, hoping fervently that it didn't have rabies. The bite wasn't bad, and Jack used a couple drops of the water she'd been given to rinse out the rat spit.

When this was done, Jack saw that the mouse hadn't moved from where she'd put it down. She smiled at it. "Are you staying to keep me company, little guy?" The mouse squeaked, and then ran under the cot. Jack looked after it, wishing it would have stayed. Finally, Jack sat down against the wall again, pondering her fate. She closed her eyes.

When she opened them again, it was a few hours later and Biceps was entering the cell. Jack put her hand in her pocket and palmed the vial of poison, wondering if she'd have the courage to go through with her plan. Biceps looked at her suspiciously. "What do you have in your hand?"

Jack looked down at her left hand. "Nothing," she said, opening it to prove her point. Biceps glared and pointed to her right hand. Jack reluctantly opened her hand, revealing the tiny silver vial. She had taken the note off, thank goodness, and now Biceps looked at it strangely.

"What is it?" He asked. Jack opened her mouth to say something, but before she could, Biceps had taken the top of and was sniffing it. "How did you get alcohol in here?" Then he took a small swallow. His eyes grew large, and he dropped the vial onto the floor, spilling the rest into the dirt. Biceps staggered outside, closing and locking the door behind him, then collapsed. Jack looked out into the hallway through the little window on her cell door, and saw him on the floor of the hallway. He was still breathing, and Jack figured that he hadn't taken enough to kill him, at least not yet.

The figure in the shadows quietly rejoiced with the good luck. Then it slipped into the darkness.

Jack grabbed the bars in her hands and rested her forehead against them, cursing her colossally bad luck. The keys on Biceps' belt were in plain view, but there was no way to get them. Sighing, Jack turned back to her cell and curled up in the corner, feeling like she was going to cry. She put her head in her hands and resigned herself to whatever her end was going to be. She didn't let herself break down, though, and kept the tears inside.

A sound made her lift her head, and a little hope crept into her heart. The jangling of keys. The hope vanished. Another guard. Probably coming to execute her. The keys went into the lock, which turned. Jack held her breath and hid her face, gathering herself to put on a courageous front as she was marched to her doom. The door opened. Jack didn't dare look. "Are you coming?" asked a smooth voice. Jack raised her face in shock, and saw a black figure against the light of the hall. "Well?" the voice was impatient. Jack didn't recognize it, nor did she recognize the slight accent with which is spoke.

Making up her mind, Jack stood and took a hesitant step towards the figure. It reached out and grabbed her wrist, pulling her from the cell. The figure turned before Jack could get a good look at it and locked the door again, after putting Biceps inside. "You didn't use enough poison to kill him," the voice said accusingly. The figure turned to her. It was a man, probably in his late twenties or early thirties. He had blond hair and ice blue eyes. Jack didn't recognize him.

"I didn't give him the poison, he took it himself," Jack retorted. "And who are you, anyway?"

The blond-haired man sighed. "Alex Rider sent me to rescue you. I'm a...acquaintance of his." Jack didn't much care for the evasive way he was answering her question, but she didn't push it. He was rescuing her, after all. "We're going to have to lie low while Alex gets the helicopter and chooses an extraction point."

Jack followed the man in confusion. She didn't know why she was trusting him, she only knew she didn't have a choice. There were no other people in the prison where she had been held, which was slightly confusing until she realized that they wouldn't take her to someplace that Alex knew and could find to rescue her. The blond man led her out of the building she was in and they got onto a waiting gondola. Jack realized how terrible she must look after wearing the same clothes for three days and not being able to shower. Self-consciously she touched her hair, and then gave up. It would just have to wait. A phone beeped, and the man pulled an old candy-bar style cell phone out of his pocket and looked at a short line of numbers, then showed it to the man piloting the gondola. He nodded, and gestured for them both to get in.

She sat in one of the gondola seats, across from the blond-haired man, who had also seated himself, but didn't relax. Jack got the distinct impression that he never relaxed, and that made her wonder who, exactly, he was. She didn't ask until they were out of Venice and in an underground bunker. There she found a shower, but before she used it, she rinsed out her clothes and hung them to dry a little while she cleaned herself.

When she walked out of the bathroom half an hour later, her clothes were damp but not overly so; not enough to cling too badly, at least. She was using her jacket as a towel for her hair, and thankfully she always carried a folding brush in one of the pockets.

The man hadn't said a word the entire way to the safehouse, and now he was sitting cross-legged on one of the couches, eyes closed and breathing deeply, as if meditating. Feeling uncomfortable and not willing to distract him from whatever it was that he was doing, Jack sat in a chair and waited for him to speak.

Finally, without opening his eyes, he did so. "You want to know who I am and why I helped you, yes?" he said, and Jack finally placed his accent as Russian. Jack nodded, and somehow, without opening his eyes, the man knew it. "I thought so. My name," he said, his eyes opening at last to look unerringly and directly into hers, "is Yassen Gregorovich. I am an assassin."

Jack's jaw dropped. She knew that name. "Yassen Gregorovich? You're the one who killed Ian! You tried to kill Alex, didn't you, until you...died," Jack finished, a little hesitantly. He was supposed to be dead. Alex had said that he was dead. However, here he was. And he was most certainly not dead. That was the part she was having trouble figuring out.

Yassen looked at her with unchanging, cold blue eyes. "Yes, I killed Ian Rider. I am not proud of it, I was being paid. No, I didn't try to kill Alex. I would never have hurt him. You can ask him about it if you want. Yes, I was shot. But I didn't die. Did Alex not tell you that I was shot while saving him and his little girlfriend?"

Jack nodded. "He did."

Yassen appeared to settle himself more comfortably on the couch, rearranging his shoulders carefully against the backrest. "What happened between getting shot in the plane and finding myself in a hospital is a blank. I only know that somehow surgeons managed to curb the blood-loss and extract the bullet. They were at a loss as to how I escaped serious burns, given that the plane exploded."

Jack was still shocked and confused, and stood before he could go on. "Okay, this is really interesting, but I'm going to have to digest this before I hear anymore. I'm going to bed, all right?" She didn't want to seem rude, but she was tired and not really functioning correctly, and all this news was just too much. The assassin wordlessly pointed to a room directly across from her. Jack went inside and collapsed on the bed, falling asleep before her head hit the pillow.

Yassen Gregorovich watched Jack disappear into the bedroom, shutting the door firmly behind her, and closed his eyes again. That could have gone better, but at least she knew who he was. She would have to accept it. Hopefully they wouldn't go crazy, stuck together for a few days, before Alex Rider arrived with the stolen MI6 helicopter.

When Jack woke up, her watch said it was 9:03 in the morning on a Thursday, but considering she was in a different time zone, it could have been earlier or later. She'd been out a full thirteen hours, and that surprised her. She sat up and stretched, then realized that her hair was a mess and that her clothes were all wrinkled again. Jack sighed. She really wished that she had a second change of clothes. Oh well, she'd just make do.

After standing, she realized that the jeans weren't too badly wrinkled. Her shirt, on the other hand...Jack grabbed the ponytail holder from her hair and pulled the shirt tight around her hips, which lessened the wrinkles slightly. Then, painfully aware that she was stuck in a bunker for who knew how long with a man, she pulled her jacket on over the shirt and zipped it up halfway, for modesty.

Jack grabbed her brush and went into the bathroom, leaving the door open for light, since there was only one light fixture in the whole building, and started brushing her hair. Tilting her head sideways, she brushed gingerly at her hair, since it was curly and over-brushing it would just make it frizzy.

It wasn't until she straightened and pulled her hair back behind her again that she noticed Yassen leaning against the door frame of the bathroom, arms folded and clothing and hair impeccable. He was obviously much more relaxed than he had been the previous night. Jack wondered sourly if the assassin was always that neat, but brushed the thought aside. She opted for cheerfulness instead. "Good morning!" she said, then turned to do the other side of her head. Yassen watched with interest as Jack carefully worked the tangles out of her dark red hair. Finally, after glancing at him for the third time, Jack asked, "What?"

The assassin shrugged. "I've never seen a girl brush her hair before. I did not realize it was such a tedious task."

Jack scowled. "It's not for people with straight hair. But when you have curly hair, like me," here she grimaced, "then you have to exercise caution. Otherwise you have a frizzy afro instead of hair." Yassen chuckled at this statement, making Jack jump and look at him in shock. She hadn't known that the serious Russian even knew how to laugh, let alone actually do it.

Jack folded her brush, after pulling out and discarding the excess hair in it, and stuck the brush back in her pocket. Then, turning sideways, she brushed past the Russian on her way out. He turned slightly to glance over his shoulder at her, and then gave a half-smile.

Entering the living room, Jack collapsed onto the couch, curling up on the very edge and pulling her feet up to rest on the edge of the cushion. She rested her head on her knees and bemoaned her fate. When would Alex arrive? It was sort of dull to be stuck in an underground bunker all day with nothing to do and next to no electricity. Jack reached into her pocket and dug around, then tried her other pocket. Usually she kept something to do in the deep, never-ending pockets of the jacket she usually wore in the spring.

Finally, on the inside pocket, since the jacket was reversible, Jack found a deck of cards. She could have sworn that the hallelujah chorus played when she pulled them out, and she thanked each and every one of her lucky stars individually and by name.

Pulling the rubber band off the deck, she snapped it onto her wrist and shuffled the cards. Then, for lack of any other game to play by herself, she dealt out a game of solitaire. She lost count halfway through and had to go back and count how many piles she had, but finally she had seven piles of cards.

After beginning the game, Jack looked at the cards she had turned over. Oh, this was so much easier on the computer! After a few minutes, she'd run out of moves. So she cheated, looking under cards here and there until she found the one she needed. Pulling it out, she glanced up to see Yassen watching her intently again. "What?" Jack asked again, a little self-conscious.

The Russian assassin looked at her. "The game you are playing - it's solitaire, is it not?" Jack nodded, about ready to speak but the assassin kept talking. "Why pull the card?"

"Because I ran out of moves, of course. That should be obvious." Jack was more than a little bored, and the dim light was giving her a headache, and what she wouldn't give for her iPod!

Yassen very carefully sat on the couch, a good two feet away, and looked at the cards. "But you didn't. There's one right there," he said, pointing to a move that was now obvious, since he'd pointed it out. Jack made a face. "I guess observation is imperative in this game, yes?"

Jack nodded, smiling a little although she was annoyed that he'd found a move she missed. "Yes. Yes, it is." She made the move he'd found, and easily beat the game after replacing the card she'd taken. "Thanks," Jack said after a semi-uncomfortable silence. She had a feeling that it was only really uncomfortable for her, since nothing seemed to faze the Russian.

"You're most welcome," he replied, and stood, then disappeared into a room Jack hadn't noticed before. She stared after him a second, then shrugged and gathered the cards into a pile. After shuffling and dealing out another game, she stared at it dully. She really wasn't in the mood for this. She needed noise, music, something! Anything but the deafening silence. Jack flopped back on the couch, rested the back of her hand against her forehead, and let her mind slip into the blessed regions of sleep.

When she woke, it was a few hours later in the day. At least she assumed it was day. There was no sunlight in the bunker, so she had to guess. She glanced at her watch. Four thirty. No wonder she was hungry. Standing, Jack pocketed the cards and moved into the kitchen. Her calf was throbbing where the rat had bit her the day before, but it wasn't so bad that she couldn't ignore it.

Opening the cupboards, she saw very little besides pasta and boxed, shelf-stable foods like that. There was a refrigerator, thank goodness, but only a microwave for an oven. Not even a toaster oven. Jack sighed. This was going to be difficult.

One hour, forty-nine minutes and twenty-one seconds later, Jack looked at the meal she'd prepared. There was pasta, boxed macaroni and cheese, to be exact, and canned green beans. Jack had been raised on fresh, but it didn't really matter. When one was hungry, one would eat anything, within reason. She'd also found frozen pizza bites in the freezer section of the refrigerator, and she'd managed to cook those in the microwave, but it was a meager dinner compared to what she used to cook. Jack fixed herself a plate of food and took it into her bedroom, sitting cross-legged on the bed and eating it quickly. The pizza bites were freezer burned something awful, but she ate them anyway. She was really too hungry to care whether it tasted like a gourmet chef or a ten year old had made it.

When she came out, Yassen Gregorovich was sitting on the couch, cross-legged, with his eyes closed. He looked like he was meditating again, so Jack snuck past him into the kitchen. After putting the containers of food into the fridge to keep them fresh, she turned the water on low and rinsed off her plate. When Jack had washed them and put them away, she came back out of the kitchen and into the living room. It wasn't really a living room, of course, but in the tiny bunker, it served as one. It was more like a dining room, living room, family room and every other room except a bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. After sitting on a large armchair, Jack waited to be addressed.

Finally, the Russian opened his eyes and did so. "Good evening."

Jack smiled. "Good evening. Did you get some dinner?"

Yassen nodded. "I did. It was good, for boxed food and only a microwave to heat it with. I was impressed."

Jack blushed a little. "Thanks. you mind know, the thing about MI6 and Alex, and Scorpia?"

The assassin smiled. It was the first warm, genuine smile Jack had seen out of him. "No, I don't mind explaining. Make yourself comfortable, it'll take a while." Jack did so. Yassen was right, it took a long time. Four hours later, Jack was in the know about most of the details of Alex's various missions, what had happened versus what MI6 had told her and the assassin's part in them. She was also shaking with anger at all the danger MI6 had put her young charge through.

"He nearly got killed more than three times?" Jack's voice went high on the last note, and her palms hurt where she had dug in her nails.


"Those...those...lunatics!" Jack shouted. The assassin winced and motioned for her to be a little quieter. Confined spaces and loud noises don't mix. "Sorry, but he's only fourteen; he's too young to be sent on missions where he could be killed! Who do those people think they are, the government!? If I ever get my hands on that Blunt guy, I'll...I'll...I'll..." Jack couldn't think of what she'd do. She scowled. "I dunno. But it'll be terrible, whatever it is!"

Again, Yassen Gregorovich, Russian assassin and traitor gone fledgling hero, gave a small but genuine smile. This American woman had a fiery personality; that much was obvious. He didn't envy Alan Blunt if Jack ever got her hands on him.

Jack stood, then whitened abruptly and collapsed back on the chair, biting back a curse. Her ankle was more than throbbing now. It was more like a constant burning feeling that got much worse when she put weight on it. Jack pulled her leg up on the edge of the chair and peeked at the bite wound. It was a bright red color, and swollen. Jack bit back another curse at the sight, remembering her manners and besides, she'd never really liked swear words anyway.

Yassen looked at Jack with interest. The American woman was sitting on the chair with a mad look on her face and the hem of her pants rolled up, wincing whenever she touched her calf. "Are you all right?" He asked.

Jack looked at him and sighed. "I don't think so. A rat bit me and I think it got infected, although I washed it out, twice! Maybe it's rabies."

The assassin came over and looked at the wound, despite Jack trying to pull her pants leg down over it. "Definitely infected," Yassen said, holding Jack's leg in place, since she was now trying to free it from his hand. She fought him, not liking him touching her leg. She hadn't shaved in nearly a week, and she was strangely self-conscious about the stubble on her calf. "The cuffs on your pants are probably dirty, and that transferred itself into the wound." Here Jack nearly freed her leg, but the assassin caught it before she could get out of his reach. "Hydrogen peroxide should clean it out quickly. Come on," he said, and made her stand.

Jack stood shakily on one leg, not wanting to put much weight on her injured leg, and Yassen helped her to the bathroom where he made her sit on the toilet and put her leg in the bathtub. He rummaged around in the cabinet for the hydrogen peroxide, and then held it out to her. Jack gulped and shrank away.

"Don't worry, it won't hurt," the assassin assured her, but he uncapped the bottle himself and prepared to pour the liquid over her calf. "It'll feel good." Jack screwed her eyes shut and waited for the liquid to touch her leg, but relaxed when it was cool and soothing on her infected skin. She looked hesitantly at her leg, and nearly gagged when the white foam started coming from the bite wound as the hydrogen peroxide cleaned the infection out.

A few minutes later, Jack was walking cheerfully out of the bathroom with a band-aid on her leg and the wound neatly cleaned. Yassen followed at a distance, quietly amused again. That woman was something else.

Jack collapsed in bed that night and fell asleep promptly. She hoped that Alex would come the next day, since she was dying of boredom. There weren't many places to go in the bunker, or all that much to do.

The next day dawned bright and early. Well, early at least. Jack couldn't really tell if it was bright or not. She stayed in bed a few more minutes, wondering whether or not she could fall back asleep, but old habits die hard and Jack had been getting up early for the past few months. She sighed and swung her legs onto the floor, pulled on her jacket and left the room. She found cereal and boxed, shelf-stable milk and had a breakfast that wasn't the greatest, since the Honey O's were stale. She couldn't wait to get home, where she had a wonderful pantry full of fresh and nutritious food.

Meandering into the living room/family room/dining room, Jack fell into the big armchair and slouched over, one leg dangling over the armrest, the other foot on the floor. She put an arm across her eyes and bemoaned her sad and sorry fate: death by lack of music. "I am so bored," Jack muttered. She stared at the clock across the room, watching the minute hand slowly make its way around the numbers.

Ten minutes later, Yassen entered the room to see Jack staring morosely at the clock. "Are you okay?" He asked quietly. Jack jumped and glanced at him, nodded slightly, and then went back to looking at the now fascinating time-piece. "Why are you staring at the clock?"

"For lack of anything better to do."

Yassen, to his surprise, smiled. He'd been doing that a lot lately, he noticed. "That's a valid reason."

"There's nothing to do in this place. There isn't even any music." Jack sounded vaguely put out at this. "I need music, some kind of noise, soon, or I'll go insane!"

The assassin sank onto the couch. "Sorry, I can't help you there. There is no music in the bunker. No TV, either. But Alex should be here today."

Jack could have sworn that the hallelujah chorus started playing at these words. She threw up her hands in a celebratory gesture. "Wonderful! Finally! I mean, no offense or anything, but this place is dull."

Yassen raised an eyebrow, but nodded his agreement. "It is. I've found ways to amuse myself in the past, but I've never had to wait here for three days before." He stopped talking and narrowed his eyes as he heard a faint sound on the door to the bunker. "That's strange; someone seems to be at the front door."

Jack jumped up before Yassen could stop her, wincing slightly as she put all her weight on her injured leg, and ran to the front door. He shouted a warning that she only half-heard. She opened it with the Russian right behind her, too late to prevent the inevitable. Yassen sighed in annoyance at the sight of four big men standing outside. Jack stepped back and bumped into the Russian, who pushed her behind him and back into the bunker as the four Scorpia agents forced their way in.

Jack was standing in the middle of the room when the first of the men rushed her. Her eyes widened as she recognized Biceps, and she waved coyly at him. Biceps came at her, and she ducked down and side-snap kicked him right in the stomach, winding him momentarily and thanking all her lucky stars that she had taken a basic self-defense class. Looking around for the Russian assassin, Jack saw him fighting the other three men. Then it was down to two, then finally the final man against Yassen Gregorovich. It wasn't really a fair fight. The final man went down, and Jack turned her attention back to Biceps, who was getting ready to come at her again. She palm-heeled his chin, knocking him out.

"Come on, we have to get out of here," Yassen said, grabbing for Jack's arm.

"But I thought we had to wait for Alex!" Jack was still in a sort of shock at being found.

"If we stay here, we'll be killed. Now come on, we're leaving." Jack followed him obediently, not really knowing what else to do. As Yassen led her into the sunlight, she put a hand in front of her eyes at the sudden brightness. "Sorry," the assassin muttered.

"It's okay," Jack replied automatically. The Russian assassin flagged down a gondola and they climbed in. Yassen told the man where to take them, and then sat down to wait. Jack sat in the rear-facing seat, hugging her knees as what had happened slowly sank in. "They found us?"

"Yes, I don't know how. Are you hurt?" Surprisingly, Yassen seemed to be worried about her. This was as much a shock to him as it was to Jack.

"I'm fine, really. My hand just stings where I hit Biceps."

Again, Yassen Gregorovich smiled. "It's a good nickname for him, although his real name is Alessandro."

Jack made a face. "I think I like Biceps better." The assassin nodded his agreement. "Where are we going to go now? You'll have to tell Alex where to find us. If he's even coming," Jack said accusingly. "He is coming, right? You're not kidnapping me, are you? And if you are, could you maybe skip the part where you knock me out? It's really not necessary and it just gives me a heckuva a headache."

Yassen held up his hands to stop her. "I'm not kidnapping you, I promise. Alex is coming. At least, he said he was. I'll have to alert him to the fact that we've moved, but he'll come for you. Don't worry."

"Only for me? You're not coming?" For some reason, that made Jack kind of sad.

"I'm wanted by Scorpia. I wouldn't want them to hurt you or Alex in order to get me. Although you may have to move, since Scorpia obviously knows where you two live." The Russian smiled reassuringly, or tried to. He really hadn't smiled a lot in the past few years, so he was a little out of practice.

"Oh. That makes sense, I guess." For a few minutes, no sound was heard except for the pole of the gondola in the water and the gondolier humming quietly to himself. "So...where are we going to stay now?"

A few minutes later, Jack got her answer as Yassen stepped out of the gondola and helped her out, flipping a few coins to the pole man. Jack looked around. They seemed to be in the city of Venice, not the outskirts. People walked on sidewalks and in the streets, going in and out of small shops and houses and hotels. The latter is where Yassen was heading, and Jack had to hurry to catch up.

"We're going to stay in the city?" Jack was surprised at this turn of events.

"It's easier to hide where there are a lot of people. Plus this hotel is a lot nicer than the bunker."

"All right." Jack really didn't need convincing. Anywhere was better than the bunker. After getting a room with two double beds, Yassen gave his permission for Jack to go and get some new clothes, trading her Italian currency for the bills she had in her wallet. He said that he'd come find her if she hadn't returned in an hour to make sure she hadn't gotten kidnapped again, which made Jack feel better, and she set off.

Walking down the streets of Venice was relaxing, and Jack saw lots of nice little shops where she could get clothes and food. After finding a nice one, Jack entered and started looking for a shirt. The t-shirt she was wearing just wasn't cutting it. Browsing around, Jack picked up two or three that she liked and went into the fitting rooms to try them on. She ended up buying only one, a blue satiny one with loose 3/4 sleeves. It was a pretty shirt that was pretty much useless for anything but fashion.

Another shop was full of pants, where Jack found a pair of jeans that weren't too tight or low-cut. If there was anything Jack abhorred, it was jeans so tight they looked painted on. The next stop was for shoes, a pair of flats, and finally Jack bought a cropped black vest and a hair clip at an accessory store. She dumped her old clothes into a public trashcan and went back to the room. Yassen was already there, sitting cross-legged on the bed and watching a very gory movie on TV. It was in Italian, so Jack couldn't understand most of it, but it seemed to be the male version of a chick-flick. Not that it was romantic, like a chick-flick, but that instead of romance there was tons of violence and gross images. Stuff guys would enjoy like girls would enjoy a good relationship.

The Russian looked up as she came in and sprawled on the bed, holding her jacket, which was her favorite but needed a good washing. "You look nice," he remarked.

Jack glanced at him, surprised that he'd noticed. "Thanks."

"You're welcome," he replied and went back to watching his movie. Jack took one look at it and decided that it was too violent for her taste, then went over to the mini-fridge and looked inside. After a short debate between bottled water and the fake version of Pepsi, Jack decided on the water. She'd never liked bottled water, since it tasted plasticy, but it would do since the fake version of Pepsi was even worse.

She twisted the cap off the water and sat on the bed, then switched positions so that she was propped up on her elbows while lying on her stomach. She took a drink of the water and then glanced at Yassen, who wasn't really paying attention to the movie. He glanced at her, raised his eyebrow as if to say, "what?" and changed the channel.

Jack looked at it skeptically; it seemed to be a news cast in Italian. She lifted one leg at the knee and let it fall back on the bed, then did the same thing for the other leg. Then, suddenly, something caught her ear.

"Oggi ci era una destra di dispersione fuori della città. Le autorità hanno trovato quattro uomini rebuttal gin in un piccolo carbonile con prova di una lotta su scala ridotta. Ci era inoltre ragione che due genti stavano vivendo nel carbonile, che presunto era stato abbandonato per dieci o più anni. Ora, indietro a-"

"Today there was a disturbance right outside of town. Authorities found four men knocked out in a small bunker with evidence of a small-scale fight. There was also reason to believe that two people had been living in the bunker, which had supposedly been abandoned for ten or more years. Now, back to-"

Yassen turned the TV off and spat what sounded like a very rude word in Russian. "Now Scorpia knows that their men failed and that we've escaped again. They'll be looking twice as hard now that they've lost you twice."

Jack sat up and hugged her knees to her chest. "But they won't find us, right?"

The assassin looked away. "I'm not really sure, Jack. But I promise that as long as I live and breathe, I won't let them take you without a fight. I promised Alex you'd get home safely and I mean to keep that promise."

Jack was touched. Obviously Yassen had a sense of honor, which was something since most assassins couldn't care less about anyone else. "Thanks."

Yassen looked back at her in surprise. "Don't thank me yet." He stood and grabbed his jacket, motioning for Jack to get hers. "Scorpia will know that we're in Venice. We have to leave again."

Jack dropped her forehead to her knees, but then got up and did as Yassen asked. "Where will we go? Won't Scorpia know we've left and guess where we're going?"

The assassin opened the door and looked at Jack. "I'm not sure, but I do know that we have to leave. Now. Come on, please," he added in a testily polite fashion that suggested he would get far less polite should she refuse. Jack rolled her eyes but followed obediently. As she walked down the hall, she shrugged into her jacket and clipped her hair up. They got to the front desk and Yassen went over to sign them out.

"Leaving already?" the clerk seemed surprised. "Are our accommodations not good enough?"

Yassen hurriedly assured them that their accommodations were excellent, but that "urgent business requires our leaving Venice immediately."

The clerk relaxed a little. "Well, I'm sorry for that. I hope you enjoyed your stay, and please come again!" The phone rang and the clerk reached to answer.

Jack was waiting by the door, but she ducked down and sat in a seat when she saw a familiar face: Biceps. The assassin looked at her in surprise, but came over and sat down as well when Jack motioned urgently. "It's Biceps," Jack mouthed.

Yassen looked outside. Sure enough, the hulking man was standing outside the hotel, looking inside as if having seen a celebrity and trying to catch another glimpse. He turned his gaze back to Jack. "The side door," he mouthed back. Jack stood, and keeping her back to the window, ambled off as if going in no particular direction. A few seconds later, Yassen did the same only went in a slightly different direction before following Jack.

They met up at the side door, and after checking outside to make sure that no one was waiting to stuff them in a sack or whatever kidnappers did, they made their escape. As they were walking down the street, something occurred to Jack. "Umm, Yassen?" she asked hesitantly, not having called the assassin by his first name before. He looked up. "How did Alex know to call you? He thought you were dead, right? I mean, most people did..."

Yassen smiled. He was doing that more and more, she realized. "He didn't call me, he left a message with some strategic members of the black market who passed it along to me. I don't know how he knew I was alive. He must have heard somehow, I didn't tell him." They had reached a bus stop, and now Yassen stopped. Jack looked around skeptically. "We're going to the airport. Hopefully we can get last minute tickets. We're going to France."

"France?" Jack was overjoyed. "I love France!" For the first time ever, Yassen Gregorovich smiled and rolled his eyes. Jack just about fell over. The bus came before she could, though, and the two escapees got on. After a short ten minute or so trip, they arrived at the airport and went inside. They'd gone over the procedure in the bus. Jack was not to talk to anyone for any reason, since her lack of Italian skills would immediately pin her as a foreigner, therefore making them a target for Scorpia. She was supposed to wear her hood up and walk around in a slouch, as if a moody teenager.

The Russian would do all the talking. He could speak Italian fluently, as he had proved before, without a trace of a Russian accent. He went up to the desk and started a fast conversation with much gesturing. Jack watched in awe at the speed that the Russian got them two tickets to France on a plane that was leaving in ten minutes.

As they walked to the flight terminal, Jack stared at Yassen. He looked back at her and raised his eyebrows as if to say, what? Jack grinned. "That was impressive."

Yassen looked surprised at the compliment. "Thank you."

They reached the terminal a minute before the plane left, giving Jack just enough time to scarf down a granola bar before they had to board. Jack claimed the window seat and sat down, waiting for the plane to start moving before buckling her seat belt. Jack sighed. She'd never really liked flying since Alex had been shot. Too many of Alex's missions had involved flying and planes being blown up for her to be comfortable in one since he'd told her what went on.

"Have you told Alex where we'll be?" Jack asked in a low voice so that the people behind, in front of, and beside them couldn't hear.

The Russian shook his head. "There was no time before we left, and no cell phones are allowed while the plane is in flight. I'll text him the new coordinates as soon as we get off in France."

Now Jack gave voice to a question that had been bothering her since she got back from shopping. "Why are we going to France instead of going straight home? If we can get on a plane to a foreign country, we can go back to England, can't we? So why did we have to hide out in that bunker for two and a half days and then go to that hotel and now to France when we can just go home?"

Yassen shrugged. "I don't know. All this was Alex's idea; I just went along with it. He's calling the shots here."

Jack sighed. "Airplanes make me nervous," she remarked offhandedly. Again, Yassen chuckled. Jack looked at him sharply, still surprised to hear the serious Russian laughing, but didn't say anything besides, "Well, they do." She closed her eyes and went to sleep.

For a while, Yassen watched the young American woman resting, but then closed his own eyes and sat there, not sleeping but relaxing slightly. Scorpia wouldn't go so far as to blow up an airplane full of innocent people, would they?

The head of Scorpia fumed at having lost Gregorovich and Starbright. He had reason to believe that the two of them were on a plane to France. One of his agents was on the plane, but he hesitated at blowing it up. Two hundred innocents were on the plane. He didn't want their blood on his hands as well as all of their respective countries out for Scorpia. He'd just wait until they arrived in France.

The plane touched down, and as soon as Jack and Yassen were off the plane, the Russian texted Alex. The young Rider boy was in Venice, trying to figure out where they were, but he was relieved to hear that they were safe, and unhurt, in France. He promised that he'd pick them up within a day or so, just as soon as he could refuel the helicopter and get to France.

Jack sighed and fell back on the bed of the hotel they were staying in. "I can't wait to go home," she said to herself. Sitting back up again, Jack looked at Yassen. "I'm going to take a bath, all right?" He nodded, smiling slightly, and Jack walked into the bathroom, locking the door behind her. After undressing and filling the bathtub, she relaxed in the warm water. Then she started scrubbing her hair. It took a while, she had two days of built up grease in her hair. Finally, after two washings, she got it all out.

After letting the water drain out, Jack re-dressed and brushed her hair, thankful that it was wet and that she didn't have to worry about it getting frizzy. When she walked out of the bathroom an hour later, she felt a whole lot better and was in a better mood.

Yassen was sitting on the couch, his eyes closed, but not relaxed. It was almost as if he were listening to something, although what it could be was beyond Jack. She perched on the edge of the bed, not talking, barely daring to breathe for fear of distracting him from whatever he was doing. He was like a living statue.

She took the opportunity to take a good look at her traveling companion. She couldn't see his eyes, of course, but she knew that they were an icy blue color, mostly expressionless except for the few times she got under his skin.

His hair was light blonde, not long but not short, either. He was a little taller than she was, with a slim dancer's build that was well-suited for quick and almost acrobatic hand-fighting. Jack half-wondered why she hadn't taken a closer look at him earlier, but shrugged off the question. He hadn't had his eyes closed earlier. All in all, she thought, he wasn't bad-looking. In fact-

With a jolt, she came to her senses as she realized what she was doing. She carefully lay back on the bed, trying not to make a sound, and relaxed. She pulled one leg up so that her knee was bent, but let the other leg stay flat on the bed. Throwing an arm across her eyes, Jack tried to ignore the deafening silence in the hotel room.

Then, with a shout, all that changed. Jack sat up, staring in shock at the four men standing in the open doorway to the room. Scorpia traveled in fours, apparently. The door had been broken down, and for a few milliseconds, Jack and the men stared at each other without making a sound. Again, the silence was broken by one of the men rushing into the room. Instantly, Yassen was on his feet, and he took down the lone man without trouble.

The other three men entered slowly, warily. Two of them went for the Russian, while the third came for Jack. Jack hurriedly recalled all the karate lessons she'd taken back in America, and managed to dodge the blows the man threw at her. "How do they keep finding us?" She screamed across the room to where Yassen had his hands full with the two other men. Obviously they were better than the four who had attacked in the bunker.

"I don't know," the Russian shouted back. He turned sideways and drove his heel into one man's face with a graceful movement, knocking him out cold, and then turned to the other man. Jack palm-heeled the chin of the man who was attacking her, making him stagger back, and while he was recovering, Yassen took out the second man.

All three were regathering themselves, and Yassen turned to Jack. "Run, Jack. Run!" She looked at him in confusion. "Run!" Jack turned and ran.

She ran out the door and down the stairs. Thankfully they were only on the third floor. When she reached the ground level, she tore out of the hotel as if rabid dogs were on her heels. But then she stopped as her instincts kicked in, telling her not to leave her protector alone. Jack looked back up at the hotel in time to see a man come flying out the window of their room. She gasped as the man fell through an awning and landed on an outdoor restaurant. Luckily, no one was sitting at that particular table.

"Jack!" Jack turned to see Alex standing a few feet away. "Jack, what's wrong?"

Jack hastily explained everything, and then followed Alex as he ran into the hotel. He ran up the stairs and to the room. Jack hung back a few feet, afraid of what she'd see inside. She peeked in and saw the Russian standing next to the broken window, the other three Scorpia agents unconscious around him. He wasn't even breathing hard. He looked at her reproachfully. "You were supposed to run," he said.

Jack folded her arms. "I did. Then the man went through the window and Alex found me and we came back." Alex nodded emphatically at her words.

"The helicopter is outside Paris." He looked at Jack sorrowfully. "Sorry, I had to raid the savings to get some taxi money." Jack laughed and hugged the fourteen year old. "Now let's go, before someone finds the copter."

The trio went back downstairs, where they signed out and went outside. Alex hailed another cab, and the three of them got in. Jack called shotgun and got in front, the two men getting in back. At the edge of the city, they got out. The copter was sitting in a field, and Alex got in. Jack, who was paying the taxi man, didn't see Yassen stiffen, looking around suspiciously.

When the taxi man drove off and she turned, the helicopter was on, the blades spinning, but it was surrounded by Scorpia's men. Jack looked around in panic. A man came up behind her and put a knife to her neck. She opened her mouth to scream, but the man put his hand over it. Not one to give up without a fight, Jack stamped her heel onto the man's foot, making him wince, and bit his fingers, hard, making him yelp and pull his hand away quickly, shaking it. And then Jack screamed, loud and clear. It made the other men wince.

It was only as she stopped screaming that she noticed the three guns trained on her. She stood, defeated, while Alex just looked uncertain inside the helicopter. Yassen was staring at Jack, who had lost all of her spunk, folded her arms over her chest, and was trying not to cry. Thankfully, as if by some miracle, none of the men had noticed that it was Alex in the helicopter, and she subtly motioned him to take off. Then came the unexpected voice of Yassen Gregorovich.

"Take me. I'm the one you want, not her." Jack looked up, startled. What was he doing? His ice blue eyes met hers from across the field. "She's innocent." Almost reluctantly, the man in charge signaled for the guns to be lowered. Jack was pushed across the field, past the Russian, who was surrounded and had at least five guns trained on him, and forced to get into the helicopter. She put on a headset, and Alex took off.

Jack looked down at the group standing in the field, but mainly at the lone Russian in the middle. He was staring up at the helicopter, his face carefully blank. What was going through his head could only be guessed at. Alex turned the copter towards home, and neither him nor Jack spoke.

Two months later, both Alex and Jack were safe in England. For some reason Scorpia had not tried again to get Alex, and the house was back in good shape. Jack had even managed to reign in her sadness at having had to leave Yassen to his fate, and another reason that even she wouldn't admit to. They had finally gotten everything that Scorpia had broken during her abduction repaired. Alex walked in the door after school to find Jack standing in the middle of the room, looking around with a feather duster in her hand.

"Jack, I invited someone over for dinner. I hope you don't mind."

Jack looked up sharply. "No..." she said slowly, "But who is it, and when are they coming?"

Alex looked at his watch. "It's a surprise an hour."

Jack put her hands on her head. "An hour!? You give me an hour's notice and I have nothing cooked, the house isn't dusted, the dishes aren't washed!" Alex, who was trying not to laugh, reassured her that he could dust and wash dishes while she cooked.

Forty-five minutes later, Jack had prepared pasta – Rigatoni Florentine, to be exact – as well as baked lemon chicken with fresh mushroom sauce, and had fresh baby carrots and a huge salad put out. Dessert was a large chocolate cake with chocolate icing, and she'd managed to find a half-gallon of untouched ice-cream in the freezer in the basement. Jack was in her room, putting in a pair of earrings. They were sort of complicated, which was why she'd never worn them before today. Alex was in the bathroom washing up, so when the doorbell rang, Jack called that she'd get it.

She went down the stairs, putting in her second earring, and opened the door. Her jaw dropped, and if she'd still been holding the earring, she'd have dropped that, too. She stepped backwards, nearly fell over, and tried to say something. Finally, she managed, "You're Alex's dinner guest?"

His guest nodded, smiling slightly. Jack swallowed hard. Alex came downstairs, grinning at the look on Jack's face when she glared at him. "Sorry, Yassen, she wasn't expecting you."

Yassen Gregorovich shrugged. "It doesn't really matter. You didn't tell her I was coming?"

Jack put her hands on her hips. "He told me that he had someone coming. He wouldn't say who." She looked accusingly at Alex, who was trying not to laugh. "Well, I guess it doesn't matter. I've got my own dinner guest coming, so we can't eat until they arrive."

Alex looked at Jack in surprise. "Who?"

Jack smirked. "It's a secret." The look on Alex's face was priceless. Jack let her smirk grow into a smile, and then turned back to Yassen. "Would you like something to drink?" He shook his head. "All right. Why don't you sit down, I have to go check on the breadsticks."

Jack disappeared into the kitchen, so she didn't hear the conversation that went on between Alex and Yassen. "You sure took her by surprise," Alex said, still trying not to laugh.

"You should have told her that it was me. It wasn't very nice of you, to be sure, Alex."

Alex shrugged. "Maybe not, but she got me back. She doesn't have many friends here; who could her guest be?" Yassen just grinned, making Alex look at him in amazement, and took a seat on the couch. Alex sat in the armchair, and they sat in companionable silence for about thirty seconds until Jack reappeared.

"They're done," she announced. "My guest should be arriving in less than ten minutes, so we can eat then. M'kay?"

Both Alex and Yassen nodded, and then Alex stood with a crafty smile. "I have something I need to do for homework; it should only take a few minutes. I'll be done before dinner," Alex added when Jack looked at him sharply. She nodded, and Alex went upstairs.

"I'm sorry I startled you, Jack," Yassen said. "I thought you knew I was coming. But why, exactly, were you so startled?"

Jack shrugged. "I'm not sure. I guess I just assumed that Scorpia did something to you. Like killed you, maybe. It was just a shock when you were standing there. I hope I didn't offend you by my reaction, though."

Yassen shook his head. "You could never offend me, Jack. You're too nice. Scorpia, on the other hand..." He paused. "I'm not sure why they didn't kill me. I turned traitor, you know. That's the main reason they wanted Alex. Somehow they knew he knew where I was. I will have to find out exactly how he knew, since everyone else thought I was dead, but I guess it really doesn't matter right now." He smiled.

Jack noticed that when the one-time assassin smiled, he didn't look quite so...assassin-like. He looked more like a regular young man. Jack stopped herself right then and there, before the thought progressed any further. Shaking her head, she smiled brightly. "I'm glad they didn't. Kill you, I mean."

Yassen raised an eyebrow. "Really? Why?"

Jack shifted uncomfortably. "Never mind."

"No, really, I want to know." Jack glowered at him. "Jack, you have a very scathing glare. But you forget that I've been through things you don't want to know about. Now, tell me why you're glad they didn't kill me."

Jack raised her chin. "Because I don't like it when people I know get killed. I nearly died when they told me Alex had been shot, and a little part of me died with Ian, too." Here the Russian looked uncomfortable, but Jack went on. "And because-well, I don't know why, exactly."

One of Yassen's grins flashed out at that. "Good enough, I suppose."

"So when did you and Alex get all chummy?" Jack asked. She'd been wondering for quite some time now.

"I'm not sure. After the plane incident, I'd have thought that he'd hate me. Turns out his father wasn't really involved with Scorpia, but I'd thought he was. I told Alex so, and he went so pale I thought he might faint, but he didn't. I lost consciousness shortly after, so I don't know how he reacted, but I was very surprised to get his message. Again, I thought that most people thought I was dead."

Jack frowned. "Oh. What exactly did they do to you after we left? After we were forced to leave," she added softly.

Yassen shrugged. "They held me at gunpoint and took me back to Scorpia's base. Then they interrogated me and threw me in a cell. After that they sort of ignored me, after the initial few days of getting beaten. I actually escaped the same way Alex did, although it was much harder for me, being bigger and all that." He winced and rubbed at his chest, as if feeling squeezed again. "That wasn't very comfortable." He was certainly filled out in ways that Alex had not yet grown old enough to mimic.

Jack forced herself to stop noticing all of those ways. "I bet not," she smiled.

"I was tempted a few times to poison myself and just die. I was in that cell for a month and a half, and after being trapped for that long, death seemed like a good way to be free." Jack gasped, horrified at the thought. "But I didn't. Something held me back."

Jack felt her eyebrows knit upwards sympathetically. "What held you back?"

Yassen lowered his voice until it was nearly inaudible. "You did." Jack gasped, but the Russian refused to elaborate on his sentence. There was an uncomfortable silence, and then Alex came back down the stairs.

"Have a nice heart-to-heart, you two?" Both Yassen and Jack glared at him, and then the doorbell rang. "I'll get it," Alex sang out as he walked to the door. Jack grinned evilly at Yassen, who raised his eyebrow, and Alex opened the door. "Sabina!?"

"Payback," Jack muttered to herself as Alex stepped backwards, nearly fell over, and looked like he might possibly be speechless from shock.

"Hey, Alex, Jack invited me over for dinner since we were visiting our old hometown for the weekend. Who's that?" Sabina Pleasure squinted at Yassen, who looked up as she spoke. "It's him!" Sabina squealed, grabbing Alex's arm in fright. "What's he doing here? He died!"

Yassen looked at Jack in a 'See? I told you' kind of way, but neither spoke. Alex explained to Sabina, and they all went into the dining room to eat. Once everyone got over the initial awkwardness of the various shared pasts, it was a pleasant meal.

After supper, Alex and Sabina disappeared upstairs, presumably to 'catch up', and the adults were left downstairs to chat. Jack stood at the sink, washing dishes since they didn't have a dishwasher. Yassen sat at the counter, drying the dishes even though she tried to prevent him from helping – "It's not appropriate for a dinner guest to help with clean-up!" – and they talked while wading through the small mountain of dishes. Jack nearly dropped a plate while putting it in the cupboard, and Yassen muttered something about her being klutzy.

Jack glared at him while carrying a dish towel to the laundry chute. "I'm not klutzy!" She said indignantly, and promptly walked into a door frame, knocking herself over. Yassen helped her up, looking at the red mark on her forehead.

"That's going to be a very large bruise in the morning," he said matter-of-factly. "And yes, you are klutzy. Otherwise you wouldn't have walked into the door frame, yes?"

Jack glared. Yassen flashed a grin, which made her smile although she tried to hide it. Somehow the Russian had this effect on her. She touched the lump on her forehead, winced, and went to get an icepack to put on it.

Holding the washcloth filled with ice to her forehead, she sat at the counter with Yassen, eating another piece of cake. He had refused politely, saying that he didn't eat dessert that often and that two pieces in one night was too much, and told her about Scorpia instead. At the end of his description, Jack was thoroughly disgusted with the operation.

"They sound so...inhumane. I'm very glad you quit."

Yassen nodded seriously. "I am, too. I was getting too old for assassin work anyway, but I just got tired of it. Killing isn't easy."

Jack frowned. "Getting too old? How old are you, thirty-five or something?"

The Russian smiled slightly. "Good guess."

Jack's frown deepened. "Thirty-five isn't old."

They sat in silence for a moment while Jack rinsed off her plate, artfully balancing the washcloth on her head at the same time. After putting the plate back in the cupboard, Jack motioned for Yassen to precede her into the living room. She took the armchair, sprawling across it with one leg hanging over an armrest, while Yassen sat on the couch. It was nice to see him relaxed for once. Jack had the feeling that he didn't get to do it much.

Jack looked up as peals of laughter were heard from the direction of Alex's room, and laughed herself. "It's good to hear him having a good time. He's had it so rough lately, trying to get caught up with schoolwork and all that. He turned fifteen while you were gone, you know."

Yassen nodded. "I know. I would've sent a card or something, but I was locked up." Jack blushed at that, and he hurriedly added, "Not that you could have known."

Jack sighed and put a hand to her forehead, which was aching rather badly at the moment. That incident with the door frame was doing murder to her head. "Ow," she said quietly.

"Are you okay?" Yassen sounded worried.

"I'm fine; my head just hurts, that's all. Yours would, too, if you'd walked into a door frame." Jack made a face. "You're right, I'm a complete klutz. It's embarrassing."

Yassen chuckled. "Don't be embarrassed." Then he sobered. "Jack, earlier I told you that you were the one that stopped me from poisoning myself."

Jack looked up. "Yes, and if you'd explain that'd be nice. I'm sort of confused about it."

Yassen smiled. "It all started with me rescuing you, as I'm sure you could guess. You were frightened of Scorpia, but you refused to let yourself back down from them; in fact you yelled at me, even though you had no way of knowing I was not part of the organization." He laughed at the memory. "Then, in the bunker, you didn't make a big deal over the fact that I used to work for Scorpia. But it was when you told me about the rat bite that it happened. You were sitting on that chair, holding your leg and glaring at whatever could be glared at, and you wouldn't accept help with it until I forced you to let me. That was the very minute that my life changed."

Jack was listening intently, so when he paused, she frowned. "Go on," she urged. "This is interesting. What happened? How did your life change?"

"You entered it fully, of course. That was when you stopped being just a young woman that I'd rescued from my old employers. You became a friend. Then, in Venice, at that bus stop where I told you we were going to France, I realized that you made me smile. More than once. I haven't smiled more than once in the past three years, and you made me do it more than ten times in three days. And with that realization came the one that told me that you weren't just a friend anymore."

Jack was confused by his uncharacteristic roundabout explanation at this point. "What are you trying to say?"

Yassen closed his eyes, took a deep breath as if to steady his nerves, then looked Jack straight in the eye. "Jack, I think that I love you."

The statement made Jack gasp slightly, and she felt a happy glow inside her. "Really?" She asked breathlessly. The Russian just nodded. That explained the roundabout explanation. Jack stood and sat on the couch next to him, still holding the makeshift icepack to her forehead. "I think that I love you, too," Jack said in a quiet, almost shy, voice. That was new for her; usually she wasn't shy.

Yassen slowly smiled, moving closer to Jack and putting an arm around her. Jack blushed and dropped her hand, the one holding the icepack, to her lap. "Oh, just kiss her already," they both heard someone mutter. They looked up to see Alex and Sabina peeking down the stairs. Alex put a hand over his mouth and looked abashed and sly at the same time as Sabina shot him a guilty glare. Yassen looked at Jack, carefully reached into her icepack and grabbed an ice-cube. Then, with appraising eyes on the distance between him and the stairs, he stood and threw the small projectile at Alex. It connected with Alex's forehead, making him wince, and both he and Sabina retreated quickly.

"Sorry about that," Jack said apologetically. "He's only fifteen."

Yassen shrugged. "It doesn't matter."

Jack smiled suddenly, needing to tell the Russian something. "I think I fell in love with you in that gondola, in Venice, when you told me that Alex was only picking me up. I just didn't let myself think about it too much, I think because I was afraid of what would happen if I acknowledged my feelings."

Yassen put a hand on Jack's shoulder, and she felt it slowly moving to her neck as he spoke in a low voice. "You don't have to be afraid anymore." His fingers curled around the back of her neck, and he gently pulled her closer to him. He touched his forehead to hers very carefully, flashing a grin. "I promise." And with that, he lowered his mouth onto Jack's.

[Edited version 2.0, 9-29-09]

[Edited version 3.0, 3-6-17, fixing the egregious grammatical errors that 18-year-old me somehow overlooked in the last edit. Also, I stopped reading the Alex Rider series after Snakehead, and apparently Jack dies in one of the books after that? For the sake of my favorite headcanon pairing in this universe, this is now an AU where Eagle Strike is the last book of the series.]