Disclaimer: I obviously don't own Alex Rider, else I wouldn't be publishing this on here; I'd be raking in the money from selling it. I also don't own the idea of Alex going to live with Wolf, but hopefully this will be an original twist on it. Thanks to amitai for agreeing to let me use the idea.
A/N: Well, this is my first AR fanfic, and my return to fanfiction in quite a while! I've written a fair amount of the story already, and it will definitely not be abandoned – I have big plans for it! Hope you enjoy the chapter everyone, and don't forget to review :)
Alex Rider had realised, by now, that any chance he had of feeling like a normal teenager had probably disappeared with the death of Ian Rider last March.
It was questionable, of course, whether he had actually ever been allowed to be normal. Ian Rider had seen to it that he could defend himself, lie flawlessly and take care of himself for as long as he would have to. He had shown Alex how to read people and, moreover, how to extract information from them without their realising. Alex's uncle had trained him into the perfect spy. He probably hadn't anticipated that Alex's high level of competency in these skills had the potential to save an SAS unit from falling apart.
On this particular winter evening, Alex himself didn't expect that he would even see the SAS again soon. He had no desire to. Instead, he was sitting on a sofa in Starbucks, dressed casually in light jeans and a navy hoody, trying to feel like a normal teenager again. Sabina Pleasure sat opposite him, looking, as always, like she had somehow achieved perfection without any effort at all. There had been a lot of these coffee shop outings in the week since she had turned up on his doorstep. They had talked about everything under the sun – Alex had told her about what he'd been up to since she'd left (though he had left out the more colourful details, such as Scorpia sending him to kill Mrs. Jones, the bullet wound and anything about his godfather) and she had told him all about America. Alex was grateful for the time he spent with Sabina. He was beginning to relax somewhat. MI6 was leaving him alone. Yet still he didn't feel quite like a normal teenager.
"Al, you're in a dark place again," Sabina informed him, leaning forward and revealing an eyeful of cleavage that even Alex noticed. "Stop."
Sabina told him he was in a 'dark place' at least twice each time he saw her. Jack told him more. Alex blinked and gave her a small smile to show Sabina he was fine, but his thoughts were now on Jack. Jack had been angry with him lately, he could tell. He could understand it was difficult for her when he was sent away. But he couldn't help it. She had to realise that.
He could see she was having trouble believing him anymore, though. He supposed she was right; he had sought out Damian Cray and tracked down Scorpia. No one had asked him to switch places with Paul ten days after his surgery. He had wanted to work with his godfather.
Yet it wasn't quite like that, he mused as he walked back having dropped Sabina home. He had never told Jack that MI6 had threatened to deport her if he didn't comply after Ian's death. Or that he was blackmailed again to go to Point Blanc. Or, indeed, how much emotional blackmail had gone on during his time with Scorpia and since then. He was deeply appreciative of everything Jack had done for him, but she had always been on his side up until now. She no longer understood.
The hallway was dark as he let himself into his uncle's house in Chelsea, but light seeped out under the closed kitchen door. Alex let his eyes adjust to the dark as he removed his shoes and jacket. The hallway looked different, somehow – was it the darkness? Several large shapes stood by the stairs. His gaze moved to the hallway table. A bowl Jack had bought several years ago was missing.
Slowly, he moved forward and silently opened the kitchen door. Jack was standing with her back to him, her posture tense and her arms leaning heavily on the kitchen counter.
"Everything OK?" he asked. His voice had been quiet, but Jack jumped as though he'd shot her.
"Alex, will you – I've told you not to sneak up on me like that –" Jack's voice was on edge, and as she spun around to face him he saw her face was red and blotchy.
"I'll take that as a no," he said.
Jack didn't answer him straight away. Alex waited. He knew what was coming, but he wanted to hear her side; wanted her to explain.
It was several moments before Jack told him what he already knew. "I'm leaving, Alex. I'm sorry. I love you, but I can't – I can't keep seeing you coming back always hurt in one way or another. I thought how close you came to death outside the Bank would put you off. But it hasn't. I can see you're not going to stop. And I can't live with that. I can't be responsible for you."
"It's not like that," Alex said quietly. "I don't like it…it just seems to keep happening."
"Al, I thought you were going to die when you got shot. You're fourteen. All the nurses in the hospital kept looking at me like I was responsible – this poor kid was fighting for his life because I hadn't taken better care of him. They were right."
"Jack, there's nothing you could have done — "
"No, there's not," Jack snapped, her voice suddenly hard. "Because I no longer have any control over you, Alex. You're a law unto yourself. You don't listen to me. Every time you come back, your eyes get more and more serious. I don't even know if you can be a teenager anymore."
Alex flinched. Despite that he had been wondering the same thing himself, it was somehow worse when spoken aloud.
Jack saw and her expression softened. She took a few steps forward towards him, put a hand on his arm. "I'm sorry, Alex. I'm going home to D.C. to be with my parents. I might be back in a few months – I just need to think. When I'm back – of course you can stay with me. But I have to go."
Alex only nodded.
"I leave tonight," she said. "I'm sorry it's so soon. I rang Mrs. Jones and they've found you a new guardian – she'll be round after I leave I expect. I hope this doesn't mean things get worse for you."
Alex unstuck his throat. "Don't worry about me," he muttered. "I'll be fine." Of course he wouldn't be. Jack was the only person who had looked out for him. Without her, he was left entirely in the hands of Alan Blunt. He had to stop himself from visibly shuddering.
Jack's taxi arrived forty minutes later. Alex helped carrying her bags to the taxi, and then she was standing in front of him, ready to say goodbye. He wasn't sure he was ready.
"I'll miss you, Al," she said, and drew him into a hug. "Just…take care, all right?" Alex heard her voice crack.
"I'll be fine," he said firmly. "I told you: don't worry. Mrs. Jones will sort something out." Sniffing and nodding slightly, Jack pulled away.
"Oi, lady, are you getting in the taxi or am I just taking your bags?" The driver – a short, frowning man whose eyebrows melted into one furry line across his forehead – was leaning against the taxi, arms folded.
"You'd better be going," Alex said.
"You don't seem that surprised at my sudden departure," she said, studying him closely.
Alex gave her a sad smile. "It's not sudden," he answered. "I saw the packed bags in your room a week ago."
**Several Hours Earlier**
It was Mrs. Jones who had taken the telephone call from Jack Starbright that morning. Like Alex, it had not come as a surprise to her. Miss Starbright had purchased the flight ticket to America the previous Friday. Only one seat had been booked. It was a one-way trip. She mused on this as she pulled the edges of another peppermint wrapper and placed the sweet in her mouth.
Strange, she mused, how she left so suddenly. She lived in the UK for over a decade. Still, Mrs. Jones didn't believe there was a more sinister motive behind the departure. The woman would never have left if she thought Alex was in any danger from an outside threat. She wasn't being blackmailed. She had just had enough.
Alan Blunt, too, thought the move was innocent, though unlike his deputy, accepted no responsibility for the way Jack Starbright felt. Mrs. Jones knew now that they had not only destroyed Alex's life. They were taking others down with him.
The problem of a guardian had been more difficult. There were very few options. Active agents were out of the question. Those at permanent desk jobs were…well. Mrs. Jones thought privately that most of them found their work so serious and monotonous that eventually they became their work. Few of them could handle Alex. Mrs. Jones considered herself an exception to this, but it would not have been wise if Alex came to live with her. Alan Blunt already thought she was soft about the boy. She couldn't help but worry about their final choice, however. As she waited for the unsuspecting guardian to come to her office, she thought back to how they had arrived at the decision.
"It would be unreasonable, Alan, to send Alex to someone he doesn't know at all. He'd refuse. They would underestimate him. He needs someone who he's at least met," Mrs. Jones insisted, looking at the various personnel files spread out on the desk. "George Finley? He'd never cope with Alex."
Alan Blunt nodded slowly, though his expression didn't change. He moved the files around, until they were left with only those Alex knew.
"John Crawley – well, I think that's out of the question," he muttered. "Alex would never trust him."
Mrs. Jones knew better than to think her superior had Alex's best interests at heart. No, Alan Blunt was interested in someone he thought he would be able to use in order to manipulate Alex. Privately, she agreed that it would be better if Alex had someone he could grow to be comfortable with, but for completely different reasons.
"Well, it's not going to be you or me," she said. "Obviously." Mrs. Jones didn't often laugh these days, but she was close at the thought of Alan Blunt been forced to take care of Alex Rider. She knew Alan had been married once and they had a child, but the child had died suddenly and he and his wife had divorced. Mrs. Jones had great respect for the Head of Special Operations – he had a brilliant mind – but she knew Alan no longer had the patience for a family.
There was also the small matter of Alex hating Alan Blunt. She was sure he had little warmth in his heart for her, either.
"Obviously," Alan agreed dryly.
"What about Smithers?" Mrs. Jones picked up another file, reasonably bulky but not so much as those left on the table. "He's fond of Alex – I think Alex even has a sort of fondness for him."
Alan Blunt stared at her. Then, without a hint of humour in his voice, he said, "If we let Alex live with that man, Alex would be in no fit state to work for us. In a year he'd be at least four times the size he is now. Smithers also has a nasty habit of destroying his house regularly. I don't want the boy killed between missions."
Sometimes Mrs. Jones thought Blunt was a very suitable name for her superior.
"Well, that leaves Agent Daniels and the rest of the unit he trained with at Brecon Beacons," she said. She knew Alex and K Unit had not exactly warmed to one another in training, but she thought Agent Daniels might be a possibility. He had taken a bullet for Alex.
But Alan was adamant. Of course, Mrs. Jones had known before they'd even sat down that he would have made up his mind. And when that had happened, there was little she could do to change it.
Mrs. Jones was just finishing the peppermint as the man entered the room. Dark, muscular and solid, the man looked like SAS and had a face that looked incapable of smiling. She felt prickles of doubt again and wished it were Ben Daniels in front of her instead.
"Good afternoon," she said pleasantly.
"Is it?" The man didn't sit down. His whole posture was stiff and looked uncomfortable in the shirt he was wearing.
"Please, have a seat," Mrs. Jones said, ignoring his previous statement. She looked down at his file briefly as the soldier sat down, but didn't really need to read it; she knew what it said. He was silent, waiting for her to begin. It was what he had been trained to do.
Mrs. Jones cleared her throat and reached for another peppermint.
"We have…an unusual situation," she began. "I know you're very disappointed to have your leave extended again."
The man met her gaze but said nothing.
"We're still very concerned about K unit." She chose her words carefully. "What happened in Iraq was a disaster. It wasn't your fault. The problem is, we still don't know whose fault it was."
"Someone's selling secrets," he snapped. It was a telltale sign that she was right to be worried. The man in front of her – known as Luke - had a quick temper, but he was trained to respect his superiors. Mrs. Jones rarely saw Luke angry. "And it's not – "
"It's not we think it's anyone in K unit," she jumped in quickly. "We're worried the unit isn't working as well as it did. Your last training session…well, frankly it was a mess. You're afraid for one another – you trust each other but you're not functioning as a team. You're not ready for active duty."
"You told me this two days ago. I got it then."
"This isn't about active duty. But we do need your help." Mrs. Jones leaned back in her chair as Luke raised an eyebrow. "We have…a teenager. He's quite high profile."
"You need us to protect him?"
Mrs. Jones inhaled deeply. "His guardian has left the country – we're not sure for how long. Alan Blunt has requested that he will stay with you for this period."
Luke shot up out of his seat. "You want me to babysit? What is he – a diplomat's son or something? I can't spend my time looking after some spoilt teenager!"
"Why not?" Mrs. Jones demanded. "You are required, whilst off active duty, to complete inactive work for us. You have a desk job that you've made it very clear you dislike and that you find too easy. Here's your challenge."
The man just gaped at her, but she could see, behind the anger, the resignation in his eyes. He knew he had no choice.
"How long is it for?" he asked. He was still standing.
"An unspecified length of time. He's very self sufficient, I assure you. We've…ah…had a lot of contact with him. You just have to appear to be his guardian. For legal purposes. We can't have a fourteen year-old living by himself. Besides, as I said, he's high profile. Some nasty people would love to get their hands on him."
Luke met her gaze again. "You do realise Ben would be a far better choice for this?"
Mrs. Jones took that as an acceptance and ploughed on. "He'll be arriving late this evening. He can stay in your guest room, so space shouldn't be a problem."
"You really think K unit is going to work better as a team when I'll be too busy babysitting to spend time with them?" he asked her incredulously.
"Treat it as a team exercise," Mrs. Jones said with a pleasant smile, and showed him out of the door.
Alex had started packing before MI6 even arrived. He had managed to pack nearly half of all his stuff before the doorbell rang through the house. Sighing, and abandoning on the floor his schoolbooks that he had been in the process of stuffing into a rucksack, he went downstairs to open the door.
To his surprise, he was greeted with the smiling face of Ben Daniels.
He hadn't changed much in the three weeks since Alex had last seen him, other than he looked slightly thinner and his face was pale, as though he'd been ill. An understatement, perhaps, Alex thought. He knew what it was to be shot.
"Alex!" Ben said, and, surprising Alex further, gave him a warm hug. "How are you?"
"Fine, thanks. How're you?" Alex asked pointedly. "Mrs. Jones said you wouldn't be out until Christmas."
"I made a faster recovery than expected. They sent me home with warnings that I was off active duty for as long as it took to heal properly."
Alex was glad. He'd felt bad about what had happened to Ben, felt responsible. "So you're here because…?"
"To help you pack. And then I'll take you over to your new guardian. Come on, let's make a start and I'll tell you about it."
Frowning, Alex shut the door behind Ben and led him upstairs to his room, which currently looked like it was in a warzone. Ben only grinned.
"Ah, you've started. I'll pack your books if you want." He sat down on the floor and began packing the abandoned textbooks into the bag, looking for all the world like he did this every day. Alex wondered if MI6 agents were often required to ferry teenagers from point A to point B.
"So who am I going to live with?" Alex asked, opening his wardrobe and taking out his school uniform. "And what's happening to the house?"
"I don't think they know about the house just yet. Legally it and everything inside belongs to you. You don't know how long you'll be gone for, so if I were you I'd pack everything necessary that you'll want in the next couple of weeks, and then as you get more comfortable you can pop back and collect other things. As for whom you're living with…" Ben grinned suddenly. "You'll see."
"Someone I know, then?" Alex guessed.
"Perhaps. You know, I would have been happy to have you, but they didn't ask. Mrs. Jones did mention two spies unrelated in the same house might be dangerous. Probably thought we'd kill each other." He gave a lopsided grin and started to fold clothes into a suitcase.
Alex just stared at him. "You would have let me live with you? Seriously?"
Ben shrugged. "Why not? I live alone. Lots of room. I would trust you not to have too many wild parties."
Alex nodded numbly, surprised and touched Ben would do such a big thing for him without a moment's hesitation. He kept his head down and concentrated on stuffing in the last of his uniform.
"I…er…your new guardian, Alex. I've – well, you could say I've met him a few times, and he might be a little unwelcoming at first but –"
"Great," Alex muttered. "Another person who doesn't want me around."
"But," Ben emphasised, "give him a chance. He's been through some stuff lately. Maybe you can relate to that." Alex caught his gaze softening slightly.
Still, Alex was doubtful as they pulled up in front of a large house in the Kensington area. It looked like all those around it – large, beautiful and well-maintained.
"Don't get excited," Ben said, getting out of the BMW. "He doesn't own the whole house. Just the basement flat."
Between them they hauled Alex's belongings out of the car and down the steps leading to the basement flat. Alex had taken Ben's word for it that he could go back to his house in Chelsea and had packed only a large duffel bag and a rucksack. Ben rang the doorbell and they waited, staring at – to Alex – the ominous-looking black front door. He shifted his weight nervously from foot to foot behind Ben.
The front door opened.
"Hi Fox," said a vaguely familiar voice, sounding tired.
Ben moved aside. Alex found himself looking at a hard, serious face, only made comical by the fact the man's mouth was hanging open.
"Hello, Wolf," Alex said rather wearily, feeling nothing would surprise him now. "Small world, right?"