A/N: Thank you to everyone who reviewed the last chapter! I read and appreciated each review!
Thanks to Nyxelestia and Dream for awesome beta action ^_^
Answer to a common question: the ice cream boys is a nickname for the troopers of Air Troop in the SAS, according to Andy McNab.
And now I must go study for my physics examn, so without further ado, here it is:
Chapter the Ninth - The End of the Beginning:
Chapter the Ninth:
He was in the burning woods again, the smoke thick and choking. He was running, desperately, though to where he didn't know. All he knew was they were here, behind him, and if he stopped for even a moment, they would have him. A red glow backlit the trees eerily, the heat oppressive. He was sweating, panting, but he couldn't slow. He had to get there, had to get…
He reached the same clearing the fox had led him to before and halted, though in his mind he was urging himself to run. Why was he stopping, why wasn't his body listening?
Yassen Gregorovich stepped out from behind the trees, gun leveled at Alex's head. He said nothing, his pale eyes looking – just looking – at Alex, as Alex stared back.
"I said you should have left this alone," he said in his cold voice. His shape blurred and then it was Ash standing there, his shadowed face cruel. "Like father, like son," he said madly as his finger tightened on the trigger, only then it was Ian standing there as the gun went off and Alex watched the bullet speed toward him and enter his head.
Alex woke gasping into the stale dark air of the boys' barracks. He reached up to feel the wood of the bunk above him, taking a moment to orient himself. Right. Wearily, he raised a hand to wipe some of the sweat off his face, sitting up and grimacing as he realized his shirt was soaked through and his blankets damp with perspiration. Bloody nightmares.
He sighed and flopped back. Just what he needed. As if training wasn't exhausting enough. Groaning, he figured there was nothing for it, and rolled out of bed to quietly dress. Experience had taught him that going back to bed was pretty useless with all the adrenaline still coursing through him.
He stepped outside into the chilly air to see that it was only an hour or so before sunrise, the dim glow of false dawn already lighting up the camp. It really was rather beautiful, he thought distractedly: something that few who passed through here were likely to ever really realize.
The camp was fairly deserted and lifeless, save for the stream of smoke curling up from the dining hall's kitchens. Oh, there was constant perimeter security he knew from experience, but within the actual camp itself, there was no assigned guards or patrols. In the SAS way of thinking, troopers didn't need to be babysat, and recruits stupid enough to get into trouble would more than face the consequences. Having a class of schoolchildren on site didn't seem to have affected this particular policy in the slightest. They probably thought the kids were too incompetent to worry about, Alex guessed with wry humor, not that he could blame them.
Not knowing what else to do with himself, he wandered over to the shower house. At least this early he would have some privacy and free access to the little bit of hot water the building's tank held.
Turning on the spray he turned up the hot water as hot as he could bear, before just standing there soaking in the warmth for a long moment. Why couldn't Scorpia had had their little issue in July or August or something? Some time when Wales was actually warm? At least they'd been pretty lucky so far – it had been almost abnormally warm for winter with very little snow.
After finishing his shower (and feeling much better now that he was no longer sticky), Alex redressed and left the building, shivering as his wet hair met cold air. Quickly he made his way over to the mess hall where at least he'd be out of the wind.
To his surprise, it was not deserted as he expected, but rather filled with grim-faced men talking quietly amongst themselves as they wolfed down what looked like breakfast. He frowned, pausing at the door. These must be the new recruits they'd seen that first day they were here. Really, it was rather surprising he hadn't run into them before. He was about to turn and leave, not wanting to call attention to himself, when the sergeant, seated at the head table that was near the door with the other staff, looked up and saw him standing there.
"Cub," the man greeted sharply, jerking his head to indicate Alex was to approach. The other instructors looked over at that. As Alex walked up, a few of them nodded to him in greeting, and he nodded back. He'd learned from these men the last time he was here.
"Why are you up?" the sergeant asked.
"I couldn't sleep, sir," Alex answered carefully, not mentioning the nightmare. Somehow he thought the tough men in front of him wouldn't appreciate that detail.
The sergeant slowly nodded. "K-unit tell you they're gone today?" he asked.
Alex frowned. "Yeah, Fox mentioned it, sir."
"Your class is getting mixed in with the candidates today," the sergeant told him. "You will keep your cover at all times, especially around candidates.
"Yes, sir," Alex said, though he frowned, confused.
"They're not in the service yet - can't be trusted not to run and tell tales when they get themselves binned," a big man on the other side of the table said bluntly, as his fellows nodded agreement.
The sergeant drained his cup, and looked at his watch. "Time to wake the preschoolers," he said, rolling his eyes. He turned to the man next to him. "Hobbes, get the snare, Reynolds, the bugle."
Hobbes and Reynolds rose with identical smirks. "Yes, sir," they chorused.
"You'd better get back to your barracks," the sergeant told Alex. "Wouldn't want to miss the fun."
Morning came to the boys of Alex's class with an ear piercing bugle call, followed by an obnoxious snare drum winding its way through the barracks. Groans from disoriented teenagers came in its wake.
Alex wandered lazily into the commotion in the barracks. Tom was sitting up grumpily on his bunk. "It's not even dawn yet," he complained, rubbing sleep from his eyes.
"Yeah, you can be the one to complain to our glorious leaders," Alex snarked back as he came over.
"How are you already up and dressed?"Nick whined, attempting to hop on one foot to get his leg into his pants with eyes half closed.
Alex shrugged. "Couldn't sleep so I took a shower instead," he said casually. "I think those are on backwards," he commented, watching with interest.
Nick looked down. "Fucking hell!" he swore, yanking them back off. "Some people are so fucking cocky in the morning," he grumbled.
"Don't be jealous just because Alex can actually function in the morning without 4 lattes," Josh reprimanded him, his mostly-ready self appearing from the top bunk.
Alex leaned back against the bed. "Just face it – you will never have my epic skill," he told Nick.
Grumbling about annoying blonds who thought they were just better than everyone else, Nick managed to get his jacket done up.
"So what do you suppose the drum was about this morning?" Tom asked with a yawn.
Alex was studying the bottom of the bunk above him. "I don't think we have our normal leaders today," he said absently.
Josh frowned at him. "Where'd you hear that?" he asked.
Alex shrugged. "Some of the men were talking about it yesterday."
"They actually talk about things like that in front of you?" Josh asked curiously.
"Well, yeah," Alex replied. "Don't they ever talk in front of you?"
Josh shook his head. "No, they stick to what we're supposed to be doing. It's like they don't want us to overhear anything almost."
Alex shrugged again, this time a bit more uncomfortably. "Well, maybe they just tend to forget I'm there or something since I'm just one person."
Luckily, Tom cut in to save him. "Well you know our Alex," he joked. "Blends into walls and trees so well and all."
Nick stood up from where he'd been tying his boots with great difficulty. "Alright, let's go," he said grumpily, plodding out, trusting the others to follow.
The other three boys shared a look of understanding, before following in his wake.
The sergeant was waiting for them outside the mess hall, flanked by the staff, the candidates assembled to one side. He frowned as the class came straggling in over the course of several minutes.
"Detail 'ten hut!" he called as at last everyone was there. The trainees all snapped to attention, holding themselves perfectly still in military precision.
Alex's class quieted and looked at each other awkwardly, unsure of what to do. A few nervous giggles broke out, quickly cut short by icy glares from the sergeant. He looked them over disdainfully. "Obviously, your units haven't been able to instill any sense of discipline in the lot of you," he remarked scathingly.
"At ease," he commanded the men.
"As you may have noticed, your usual leaders are not here," he said in a commanding voice, addressing the schoolchildren. "Today, you will answer to me and my staff. Whatever misbehavior your leaders may have tolerated, I will not. I have real work to do today, testing the future members of this fighting force. I don't have time to deal with any games. You're to do as you're told, without question, and you will shut up unless you're asked something. Am I clear?" He surveyed their faces, and, apparently satisfied with their intimidated expressions, nodded. "You're dismissed for breakfast."
Training that day was – interesting.
After breakfast, the class was brought over to where the candidates had already started their day. It seemed they really were going to be mixed in with the older men – as their charges. As the Sergeant made abundantly clear, if he was going to get stuck babysitting schoolkids, they might as well be useful.
"Soldiers of the SAS deal with civilians all the time," he barked at a few of the men who were unwise enough to grumble. "In the field, a fourteen-year-old like him," he pointed randomly at Alex who was standing near the front, "could betray you and your entire operation to the enemy. You must be able to manage them."
Apparently the way they'd learn to manage them was to be paired up and given a group of kids to teach identification of basic local plants for woodland survival.
An hour or so in, it started to pour, a freezing mix of rain and sleet. A few seconds of sprinkles and then the sky opened up and it just absolutely poured.
A few of the girls shrieked and most of the class took off for the dubious cover of the trees. This of course set the sergeant off yelling at them to get back and keep working.
"Was I sent a load of pansies?" he roared. "What are you, wicked witches going to melt in the rain? More like a sniveling fairies," he snorted.
The candidates reluctantly resumed their instruction, though anyone could tell they weren't happy about it.
Alex scowled as his uniform soaked through. The stupid idiots – now that they'd broken ranks , the sergeant was sure to keep them out longer, just to make a point.
The ground quickly turned to icy mud under the constant assault. Alex swore as he slipped while walking up to look at the plant the men pointed out. Hand shooting out to grab onto Tom, he barely kept himself from going down into the muck and dragging the other boy down with him.
The water just kept coming harder and harder, now accompanied by flashes of lightning and ever-closer booms of thunder.
Finally, when it was sleeting so hard you couldn't see a foot in front of you, even the sergeant cowed and the order to retreat back to the barracks came.
Permission granted at last, the kids took off for shelter. Freezing cold and soaked to the bone, Alex was right with them.
Inside the barracks it became a mess of wet clothes being stripped off and flung everywhere while boys changed into the one set of spare under clothes they'd been given. Alex grabbed a blanket and wrapped up in it, as Tom climbed onto the bed next to him, rather than go up to the top bunk.
"This was not how I pictured my SAS experience," he grumbled good-naturedly.
Alex laughed. "Yeah, it's not much of a glorious life, is it?" he joked.
Tom reached up to wipe some stray mud off his face. "You can say that again," he agreed. He huddled closer to Alex. "So did K-unit tell you anything about them being gone? It doesn't have anything to do with – you-know?" He mimed shooting a gun.
Alex shrugged. "I don't know. All I heard was they got called into HQ. It could be about Scorpia, I guess…" He trailed off, thinking. Maybe they'd found out something of their plans. Maybe Scorpia was right now planning to attack. And here they were, being babysat by trainees-
"Alex, you ok?" Josh asked, coming over to also sit in the bed.
Alex started. "Yeah, fine. Just wondering what torture they have planned for us next."
Nick made a face as he followed Josh. "Probably something even more lame," he predicted. "Til then though, cards, anyone?" he produced a deck and they began to play.
The precipitation finally let up just before dinner, fading down to a light drizzle.
After hours of being packed together with dozens of other damp bodies, the boys were more than happy to escape out to the dining hall. Emma met up with them there looking very disgruntled.
"Why wasn't I born a boy?" she complained as she sat down next to Alex. "If I hear another girl whine about how her hair is all frizzy now I'm going to – do something!"
Alex gave her an amused look. "Do something? Surprisingly, I find myself not terrified."
She glared at him. "Don't even think of giving me a hard time. I have spent the entire day restraining my inner bitch. I am not responsible if I snap and kick someone in the balls."
"Are you having your visit from Mr. Flow?" Nick asked, mock-understandingly.
"Or castrate them," Emma added pointedly.
Alex winced. "Woah, easy there. We're taking your girl problems seriously, I promise."
Emma sighed. "It wouldn't be so bad except Anna there won't shut up about how hot you are. Sorry, Alex, but I'm tired of hearing how defined your abs are."
Alex looked at her, alarmed. "They're talking about me?"
"Oh, yes," Emma confirmed. "Alex is so hottt, omg. I just love how he's let his hair grow out it's so sexy!" she mimicked.
Alex groaned and dropped his head onto his arms. "Why me?" he asked, mortified.
Before anyone responded, there was a commotion over by the door, and they all turned to look. Their missing SAS leaders trooped in in a noisy parade of army boots as they went over to join the sergeant and staff.
"Well, looks like leadership is back," Josh commented. "I never thought I'd say this, but I'm actually glad. Today was awful."
Tom shrugged. "On the bright side, we didn't have to run any laps. On the not so bright side, we got soaking wet outside in the middle of January. And we were woken up by a freaking snare drum."
"Yeah, what was that about?" Emma asked.
"Sadism," Nick grumbled. "Pure and simple sadism."
Alex laughed. "True that."
After dinner came study hall time, which Alex had been dreading ever since Anna had waved to him across the room. Damnit, why had he agreed to this? Maybe if he slipped out to go to the bathroom, then went…
He was so busy thinking of escape plans, he didn't notice that Wolf had stood up to address them until the entire room went silent.
"Well, I hope you had a nice break. HQ's given us more school work for you. Your school doesn't want you falling behind." A groan went up from the students. Wolf silenced them with a glare. "When you finish the other shit, bring it up here and get these." He held up a stack of papers and placed them on the table. "Now, move."
Everyone started into reluctant motion, opening books and pulling out calculators. Alex deliberately focused on his paper in front of him, hoping that maybe if he ignored her, Anna would get the hint and leave him alone.
Salvation came from an unexpected source.
"Rider!" Wolf's typical dulcet tones summoned him sharply. Grateful for any interruption, he jumped up and walked quickly over to Wolf.
Wolf raised an eyebrow at the enthusiasm, clearly questioning Alex's sanity. Then he seemed to come sort of conclusion, and shook his head.
"Your school was concerned about you. Apparently you've missed so much school already you can't afford to get anymore behind," Wolf informed Alex in a lower, but still clearly hearable from the near tables, voice. "They've got you a tutor. I'll show you where to meet with him during these study times."
Alex nodded, inwardly frowning as he followed. What was this all about, then? MI6 hadn't really gotten him a tutor…had they? They did say they would help with his schooling. But then, when did they ever follow through.
After they'd moved a safe distance away, Alex voiced his question. "I'm not really getting tutored, am I."
Wolf didn't even pause in his brisk stride. "What do you think, Cub?" he shot over his shoulder sarcastically.
Well, that was that question answered. And it seemed the visit with HQ hadn't done his mood any favors. Brilliant.
They were on their way to the Killing House, Alex figured after they turned down a side path. Well, it was either that, or Wolf was planning to murder him in the middle of the woods with nobody around, and he really thought they'd gotten past grievous bodily harm in their relationship.
It seemed today was not his day to die because at last they came upon the ominous building to find the rest of K-unit, plus two other men (staff?) waiting for them. As they approached, the men gave them brief nods, before passing over two hand guns. Alex reached out to take his.
It was a SIG-Sauer P226. Nice.
"You're here to learn CQB as a team. Why, I have no goddamn idea. We start with the basics: the hand gun. And before you learn how to fire it, you learn how to draw it," their instructor began. "And then you do it over and over and over again."
Alex groaned. It was going to be a long night.
The next few days saw Alex, and all of the class, settling into the daily grind of life with the SAS. Alex's individual training continued. In addition to the survival training with his mates, during the day, the men of K-unit pushed him hard to run faster, hit harder, and shoot closer, all while gradually getting more and more comfortable around him – or well, everyone except Wolf was anyways. Wolf didn't relax around anybody.
It didn't go unnoticed that while he had unarmed combat practice practically every day, never again was he put into a live fight situation like the first time. As humiliating as it was to know that K-unit was obviously compensating for him, Alex couldn't help but be relieved. The last thing he needed was to have another…whatever that was.
In the evenings, Alex worked with K-unit as a part of their group, an arrangement that was more than a little awkward for all of them. The men were clearly used to working together, and SAS counter-terrorism strategy was generally designed for a four-man team. As a result, Alex was more than a little feeling like the fifth wheel. It was like last time, all over again, something he thought everyone was all too aware of. Well, at least this time, Wolf wasn't trying to kill him, and the other men were actually quite civil and even friendly. It was just, sometimes they forgot Alex was there.
It wasn't deliberate at all, but when Wolf was briskly assigning each man tasks as they encountered enemy fire in the third floor hallway, he completely skipped over the impromptu unit's youngest member. Alex was left stranded, not sure whether to try to ask Wolf what he should be doing (a task made nearly impossible by the fact that there were people shooting at them and the men were understandably distracted), attempt to be useful to the unit without botching things up, or to just hunker down and wait it out. He ended up planting himself down in a protected niche and did his best to try to cover K-unit as they advanced.
They got called out on it, after the exercise ended. Wolf, as the designated leader, received a mild dressing down for failing to stay focused in the heat of battle. Alex winced as he watched the man's shoulders stiffen more and more. He wasn't surprised at all when Wolf pushed past him as they left without even a look, and sighed. Really, he didn't try to cause Wolf problems all the time!
The next day though, when Alex was having trouble reassembling his rifle's firing mechanism, Wolf came over and guided him through it with surprising patience and calmness, going as far as to clap Alex on the shoulder after he finished. Alex realized it was as close to an apology as he was going to get.
The close quarters battle lessons at least were interesting. After (finally) pronouncing them as having mastered the quick draw (after days of practice), their instructor had them move on to bigger and better things – how to properly shoot from just about any position imaginable. It was hard work and repetitious, but at least it took his mind off things and gave him a chance to unload his frustrations on inanimate objects. Targets really were lovely things.
Alex's friends were understandably curious about his tutoring. Not wanting to lie more than he had to, he attempted to steer the conversation away from the subject as much as possible, and gave as uninteresting responses as possible when pressed. This all worked very well until the fourth day in.
Alex's practice ran late. They were learning a particularly complicated maneuver that the staff insisted they perfect before quitting for the night. Alex returned to the barracks tired, sore, and frustrated – a full two hours after everyone else.
Emma was sitting facing the door. "Alex!" she exclaimed, causing the other three to look over.
Alex walked over to them, forcing a wan grin.
"Where've you been?" Emma asked. "We ended, like, two hours ago."
Alex shrugged. "My tutor wanted me to finish the problems for the chapter I was on," he lied.
Josh frowned. "You alright, mate? You look kinda…off."
"I'm fine," Alex replied shortly.
"Are you sure you're ok, Alex? Your tutor's not overworking you, right?" Emma asked, concerned.
"I said I'm fine," Alex answered, more sharply this time, rubbing his aching head. Honestly, couldn't they just mind their own business and leave off for one?
"It's just, you really do look terrible," Emma continued fretfully.
"Just lay off already!" Alex snapped, more harshly than he intended.
His friends froze and looked at him worriedly.
Alex sighed. "Look, I'm just really tired right now. I just want to sleep."
Emma nodded, rather carefully. "Alright, you get some sleep. We'll see you in the morning." She paused. "We just…care about you, Alex," she added quietly.
Alex looked at his friends' concerns and inwardly groaned. He loved them, he really did, but did he have to deal with this right now? He settled on merely acknowledging her with a nod, before climbing into bed. Within seconds he was deep asleep.
A/N: Sorry that this took so long. I had my SpyFest duties to take up my free time, and, well, college is busy, lol. More coming soon (just as soon as I write a Merlin fic or two that's been haunting me :p)!