"Call your team medic," Alex ordered. "And don't follow me."

He spun around, taking off in a run. Hawk, torn between tending to his leader and finally having in his grasp the elusive Alex Rider, remained lock-footed in place. "Rider! Please don't do this!"

A gunshot rang through the air, and Hawk turned to fire a shot in the direction of the bullet. There was a telling thump, but when Hawk turned back to his pursuit, he found Alex to already be gone.

"Dammit," he whispered achingly, staring after the shadows that had swallowed him up. "No!"

0o0o0o


Chapter 27

Fuel on the Fire

"Nobody saw him after that? Nobody?"

Wolf's bafflement was obvious as he stood surrounded by the remaining five men of K/J-unit. Fox and Snake both shuffled their feet while Shark crossed his arms over his chest and Tiger guiltily looked to the ground. Hawk was stubbornly silent. Only three people had managed to escape the raid: Kurst, Scorpia's head of operations – who had come in person for God-knows-what reason but had at least carried in him the sense of selfpreservation to wear a bullet-proof vest beneath his blazer; Gallagher, the leader of the mismatched terrorist group who had been holding Alex, and Finnegan, who'd arguably been the brains behind development of the drug.

"Then he must have been recaptured," Wolf whispered, his hands balling up into fists. "Brilliant – just bloody brilliant. Shit."

"Wolf…" Fox began, his voice dim as he looked anywhere but at his team leader. "What do we do now?"

Wolf was thinking more along the lines of what do we tell Eagle? There was such a heavy pressure in his chest that he could scarcely breathe. He'd failed twice. He was a failure. Alex was back in enemy hands.

Completely out of nowhere, Hawk stepped forward and announced, "Actually, I saw him."

There was a short silence. Wolf gaped at him, momentarily at a loss. Finally, he sputtered, "You – you did? Well why the hell didn't you say anything a minute ago?"

Hawk glanced away. Wolf took in the way his body suddenly tensed. The normally composed man all but began counting and taking deep breaths for how nervous he suddenly seemed. His chiseled jaw clenched.

"I… didn't want to. But I can't watch this."

Wolf's stomach dropped. Images of guns and blood and Alex falling to the ground rampaged his mind, almost dizzying him. At some point he'd stopped breathing and begun holding his breath against what the soldier would tell him. Please, no.

"Rider is… gone again."

Gone again. Dead again. Alex Rider is dead. Again.

Wolf's back hit the tree behind him, and he thought that if that hadn't been there, he might have collapsed. After everything they went through – after all the promises he made – and Alex was–

"He ran away."

There was a collective intake of breath.

Then Snake hissed, "… What? What does that mean?"

Hawk kept his gaze as level as possible. He appeared much calmer now than he did before, however reluctant his words came out as. "It means he turned around and ran. From me. It must have been right after… Lynx was shot."

Shark's face tightened as he narrowed his eyes. Tiger pursed his lips at the reminder, giving off the impression of a very sad kitten.

"But… why would he run?"

"I'm sorry," Hawk began earnestly, and K-unit braced themselves, "but have you ever prepared yourself for the thought that maybe… you wouldn't get to him in time?"

Wolf frowned. "But we just made it – you told us he ran away only a second ago!"

Hawk shook his head. "That's not what I meant. I… I'm not sure the Alex Rider you're looking for is the Alex Rider you'll find."

Fox stepped forward, jamming a finger rather rudely in Hawk's face. "Take that back!" he ordered coldly. Hawk held his hands up, trying to appear harmless.

"I wish I could," he replied quietly. "But I can't."

Shark stomped forward and wrenched Fox's hand out of Hawk's proximity, throwing it off to the side angrily. "Don't lash out at our teammate just because you guys failed!"

As it were, Lynx and Eagle, the two team's usual mediators – three, if you counted Alex – were currently absent from the equation. That was why the fight escalated so quickly.

"We haven't failed yet!" Snake snapped. "We will get him back!"

"You don't know what you're going to get back! Hawk just told you the kid's gone nuts!"

"He's injured! He's sleep deprived! He's been repeatedly drugged with a hallucinogenic!" Fox defended furiously. "He'll be fine – we'll fix him! Just shut up, Shark!"

"You guys, stop fighting, please!" Tiger cried, latching himself onto one of Shark's arms to try and keep him from waving it about. Shark easily shook the smaller man off.

"No! Screw these guys! It's like the other one said – this isn't even an official mission; we had no obligation to help them and look what happened! We got hurt, and they failed anyway!"

Wolf visibly flinched. "I'm sorry," he whispered, his tight fingers uncurling in defeat. All five men quieted in their bickering, because Wolf apologizing for anything was extremely rare (even if it had been happening more often as of late).

"I'm sorry your teammate got hurt. I'll fix this. And I'll fix Cub. And both our units will be whole again. They will."

The entire apology was made in hushed tones as each man one by one drained themselves of their defensiveness and succumbed to the feeling of loss. Wolf rattled off each vow like it was all he could do to keep from falling apart right then and there. He looked even more miserable than he did exhausted.

"Cub is somewhere in the city. He can't have gotten far. I'm sure he'll call; he has to eventually. He's not okay right now but he will be; we'll make sure of it. Lynx will heal and then you four can go home and forget you ever met us, okay? And I'm sorry for tonight. Believe me, I am."

His speech was missing all of its usual lustrous strength and inspiring boldness. The group could barely hear him.

"Sure, Wolf," Snake murmured, working his way over to Wolf's side and placing his hands on the man's shoulders. "Let's just go back and call it a night. We'll work on fixing things tomorrow."

"I'll fix them," Wolf repeated emptily. Tiger looked crestfallen, watching the exchange with watery eyes.

"I know, Wolf. I know."


0o0o0o

Alex had another lapse of consciousness at some point while he was running, resurfacing in reality only after his feet were forced to slow and he became aware of the pounding in his bones and the lactic acid eating away at his muscles. Both his legs were burning with strain, while his lungs felt so overworked that he was forced to place a hand on his chest to mediate the air rapidly flooding them. He dropped to his knees, panting, and then onto his hands, so that his slick fringe hung down in front of him and all he could see beneath were pebbles and dirt and his own two hands cracked with blood, new and old.

Eventually his thoughts were able to catch up with his surroundings and he rolled over so that he was lying on his back, staring up at the dark, twinkling night sky. In the distance sirens were wailing, and he couldn't help but wonder about them – were they being called to the parking lot, perhaps by some concerned citizen? Would they search the forest and discover the warzone? Would they happen upon Flint, and–

Alex squeezed his eyes shut, but that only made the replaying vision that much more vivid. Hot and cold surged through his body at regular intervals, leaving him unsure of the actual temperature of the air. Every piece of him was hurting, the physical and beyond, and he found himself thinking about, of all people, Sabina. Sabina and her long dark hair, washed and brushed habitually to retain its shine. Sabina and her smooth, un-calloused hands, short, clean nails, glossy lips. Sabina and her future in journalism, her future in documenting the events around her without ever being forced to participate as he had. He found himself happy for her – really, really, genuinely happy for her.

But then he held his hands up in front of his eyes again. It wasn't all Flint's blood – lots of it was his, stemming from the X-shaped wounds on his palms. He was sure they would scar once they healed, unmistakably marking them as the hands of a killer. He'd lost a fingernail, but if that finger was throbbing, the pain was being dwarfed by other sources. He tried to picture Sabina's hands looking like this, and once again shut his eyes against the image. A different kind of pain was tightening his chest now, and he knew what it meant.

He and Sabina couldn't be together. After this, he wasn't sure anybody could convince him to ever face her again.

His thoughts wandered to Jack. Pushing down the desire to choke up, Alex dropped his hands and lost himself. When he came to, he was on his feet, fist buried in the trunk of a tree. After a moment's pause in which he tried to process what he'd just done, Alex jerked it back, cradling it against his chest. He was alone, without any idea of where he was, and trapped in the middle of his worst nightmare. Alex's finger's tightened around the hand he held above his pounding heart.

Calm down, Alex, the spy in him chimed in. Regroup! Make a plan! Calm down!

Alex took a deep breath, and found himself unconsciously holding it.

He eventually concluded that he must have ended up in some kind of park, because from where he was standing he could spot a small canal with a bridge connecting him to the other side. Where should he go? Where could he go? He looked worse than if he'd just stepped out of a boxing ring. Surely anybody to see him would alert the police – hell, he would alert the police if he saw himself parading down the street.

A hospital briefly crossed his mind, but if he went there in his current state there wasn't a doubt in his mind that he'd have a bad reaction. The lights and needles would surely evoke his new, monstrous defense mechanism – the one he had absolutely no control over.

He decided to cross the bridge until he reached the edge of the park, if only to get his heavy legs moving again before he passed out. By this time, the horizon had just begun to brighten, signifying the transition into dawn. As soon as Alex stumbled out through the archway scribing the words "Carlisle National Park", a car pulled up in front of him. He instinctively backed away, until the window rolled down and a familiar voice was greeting,

"Hello, Alex."

I am so sick of hearing that.


0o0o0o

J-unit had joined Lynx at the hospital for the night, so when Snake, Fox and Wolf arrived back at the hotel, they were accompanied only by their own exhaustion. Exhaustion buried so deep that they'd forgotten to call Eagle and inform him of how everything had gone down. That was why by the time they arrived on the second floor and the door to room 211 was thrown open by their forth member, they froze at the sight of his smile.

Eagle's smile did not last as he took in their state. His eyes widened. Nobody offered any words. Finally, Eagle murmured carelessly, "Where's Cub?"

Wolf flinched. Fox and Snake shifted uneasily. Eagle's eyes turned murderous. "Where is he?"

"We don't know, Eagle!" Fox snapped. "We don't know where he is. He bolted!"

Eagle faltered, his mouth opening and closing a few times until he was able to find a gear to shift to. "What happened to Scorpia and the rest of them?"

"Dead, for the most part," Wolf grunted, pushing forward to shoulder past Eagle. The thinner man allowed himself to be pushed back a little, his green eyes confused and upset. "For the most part?"

"Three got away," Snake offered quietly, following. "The two leaders and one of the scientists."

"And Cub," Eagle repeated bluntly, more as an affirmation than a question. Fox crawled in after them, and Eagle turned around after shutting the door. The three collapsed onto the beds, looking gritty and undeniably worse-for-wear. Snake spotted Eagle's look and sighed.

"Lynx and Hawk were the only people to encounter Cub," he explained, gratefully taking a warm wet cloth from Fox's outstretched hand before passing it off to Wolf. "Lynx was shot in the neck – he's alive, but he's in the hospital, so we haven't spoken with him yet."

"And Hawk?" Eagle demanded. Snake's gaze drifted.

"Hawk was the one he bolted from. Hawk… said some things."

"To Cub?"

"About Cub."

There was another momentary silence in which Eagle was left glancing between the three men. Wolf broke in at last, his voice sounding like broken glass.

"He told us Alex had gone insane."

Eagle laughed, loudly and humourlessly. "That's impossible."

"He ran, Eagle." Wolf tugged a twig out of his back pocket, glaring at it before tossing it to the floor. "Why would he run?"

"Because he was scared," Eagle explained in bewilderment, as though the answer was plain as day. Wolf frowned. "Not to mention the condition he was in! You guys don't really believe Alex lost his mind permanently, do you?"

At their silence, Eagle's look of surprise morphed into one of anger. "Are… are you serious?"

"Do we look like we're joking?" Wolf snapped mulishly. Eagle stepped forward, smacking the man upside the head. While Fox and Snake both gaped at the action, something even more shocking surfaced: Wolf didn't react. Eagle looked pained by the lack of reaction, taking a couple steps back away from his unmoved leader.

"You guys…" he whispered, eyebrows pressed together. "Do you all think… I've lost my mind?"

All three men instantly looked up, alarmed by the question. Fox was the first to speak. "Of course not, Eagle! Is that why you think Wolf told you not to come?"

Eagle shook his head. "I understand why I couldn't come, but I… I was exposed to that drug too. I saw a lot of horrible things, and I was terrified beyond control, but you – you three were there to hold me down, to ground me. You three were there to stop me from doing anything dangerous…"

Snake and Fox seemed to understand at the same time. Eagle continued, his voice uncharacteristically distressed. "And I feel… a lot better now."

Wolf and Eagle gazed across at each other. Wolf's mouth felt dry.

"I'm sorry," he blurted out. Fox and Snake looked uncomfortable. He cleared his throat.

"On behalf of the unit, I'm sorry for making you feel obsolete. You and Cub's situations are very different, though."

"Wolf," Eagle cut him off defensively. "I didn't see Cub. I don't know what kind of disrepair his mind is in right now. But I do know one thing – Alex's whole life has been like this. This isn't even the first time he's been kidnapped and… hurt like this. And how did he introduce himself to us when we met him again back at your house? Seventeen and single."

Wolf's eyebrows rose. Even Fox couldn't help but choke out a breathy laugh, even if it did sound slightly hysterical.

"It's the first sign of trouble and you don't even bother to give him the benefit of the doubt? That's shameful! Alex is one of the strongest people I know. That's why we're going to find him, and we're going to help him through what is currently tormenting him. He's… family. And we're a unit that doesn't leave anyone behind."

"I never said I was going to leave anyone behind," Wolf returned guardedly, turning his stubborn gaze away. But the rest of the unit was able to see a glimmer of light return to Wolf's previously empty eyes. This was what he needed, they knew. Eagle softened.

"Of course you didn't. Because I think this whole time, deep down, you knew you weren't going to give up on Alex – and you knew you hadn't really failed."

Wolf's head snapped up. His heart staggered in his chest. A flush encompassed his pale, weary face. It was like those words had lit him on fire.

Eagle offered a feeble smile. "You thought I'd be mad, didn't you?"

Wolf didn't reply. The scene was oddly reminiscent of a little boy who'd spilled the milk and a mother who understood it was an accident.

"You didn't fail, Wolf. Alex may not be with us, but he's – at the very least – out of enemy hands. And believe it or not, that does count for something. At least it does to me."

Fox was mock-blubbering behind them, earning him a glare from Wolf and a smack from Snake.

"Besides, something had to go wrong. After all, I wasn't there."

"Ah, yes," Snake piped up dryly, "the blazing spirit of our unit."

Eagle grinned, and Wolf wondered if there was a man in the room that the joke hadn't silently rung true with.


0o0o0o

"I'm here to pick you up."

Even in his threadbare state, a hundred jokes flickered through his mind in response to those words, especially considering who they were coming from. Sadly, Alex was in no state of mind to voice any of them. Lana Knight – or Dr. Feelgood as Alex knew her – was gazing across at Alex, her midnight gaze taking in his every trembling weakness. He backed away, shaking his head.

"No you're not," he replied, preparing himself to run again. She held up a hand, telling him patiently,

"Don't run. I'm from the CIA."

He hesitated. It was a rookie mistake as she'd been one of the doctors to personally strap him to a hospital bed… but then again, she was also one of the doctors he'd gotten away from. She also wasn't throwing brutish thugs at him, so that was a plus.

He scowled. "As if that puts you on my side."

"Actually, it does. I have orders to safely retrieve you from the hands of the enemy–"

"Well," he cut her off with a bitter laugh. "Check me out, then! No enemy hands in sight!"

He threw open his arms, as though inviting her eyes to take in his state of freedom. Instead, she focused on his hands.

"You're bleeding," she accused, narrowing her eyes. "Get in the car."

"You're going to take me to K-unit, aren't you?"

She remained stonily silent, her slender hands loosely draped over the steering wheel without showing a hint of unease. "I'd think that would be something you'd like to happen?"

He looked away, guilt stabbing at his insides. Of course it was something he'd like. Alex would like nothing more than to show up in front of K-unit's door and grovel at their feet for rescuing him from what had already been classified as a fate worse than death. That being said, he'd also like to be warm and cozy in his bed with Sabina, doing all the unholy deeds in the book. Unfortunately, the world did not operate on what Alex would like. In fact, it seemed more inclined to operate on what Alex expressly did not like.

"Yeah, well, I have other priorities right now," he bit out, unwilling to elaborate on just how far gone he was. Lana smiled, and Alex would have described it as kind had he been looking at anyone other than a CIA agent at the time.

"Responsibilities like protecting them?" she asked quietly. He glared at her, finding his first reaction to her entire presence to be anger.

"What do you know?" Alex snapped explosively. He hadn't meant for her to actually answer the question, though that was exactly what she did.

"I know that you're completely at your wits end, Alex. And I know that you can't accept help from the good guys or the bad guys right now. So why not accept help from me? I'm a little bit of both, aren't I?"

He didn't want to be manipulated by her, but her words were gradually beginning to win him over. She didn't intend to harm him, but at the same time if he was ever to lash out at her, she'd feel no remorse in slamming him down back into place. She'd also used the word help twice, solidifying how completely useless to himself he presently was.

She leaned back to unlock the passenger door, and with a heavy sigh, he stepped around the front of the car and dragged himself inside. The leather seats were plush and – oh sweet lord – heated, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise to Lana what happened next.

"So, Alex, care to explain why you felt the need to…"

She trailed off upon discovering Alex was already fast asleep, his arms crossed cautiously over his chest and long legs stretched out haphazardly before him. His eyes were finally closed, face relaxed in a way few ever got the chance to see.

There wasn't a trace of an agenda in the smile that overtook Lana's red lips then.


0o0o0o

Alex awoke briefly when Lana's car pulled into the driveway of 802 Baker Street, but he seemed set on the idea of sitting tight where he was. Lana jostled his shoulder, calling quietly,

"We're going inside now, Alex."

"You go," he mumbled without opening his eyes. "I stay."

"No," she pressed, frowning. "There's a bed inside waiting for you."

"Just… just tell it you're me. It's never seen me before; it'll… believe you…"

"We need to tend to your wounds. If they go untreated, we could be risking infection. I'd rather not force you, but frankly, I'm not above it."

His eyes snapped open, as though he was just then remembering where he'd fallen asleep and what his situation was. Upon spying the blank-faced bleariness in Alex's eyes, Lana took a step away from the vehicle. A second later she was dodging the end of the car door as it was catapulted open and Alex darted out, making a break for the back exit. She surged forward, closing her hand around his wrist and immediately blocking the right hook he threw not a split-second later. Holding both his hands firmly in place, she ended the fight by not making any kind of move to further it, prompting him to stop reacting. Slowly, Alex's presence trickled back into his gaze, and Lana deemed it safe to release him.

He rubbed his left wrist in discomfort, mumbling softly, "Sorry."

"I forgive you," she responded curtly. "Now let's get a move on into the house, shall we?"

When they got inside, the first thing Alex registered was how dark it was. Lana seemed to sense his discomfort and moved to flick on the center light, but Alex stopped her.

"Just turn the lamp on," he requested. "Nothing too… bright. Please."

She slowly nodded, leading him into the living room and placing him on the couch. It was far enough from a medical setting that Alex was able to slightly relax. Lana disappeared for a minute in which Alex began nodding off again, but when she returned it was with a large medical kit and a glass of steaming milk, retracting his attention. Alex eyed the drink, swallowing when he felt his throat tighten up.

"W-what's that?" he could once remember asking. Wolf's voice filtered into his thoughts. "It's a Ferrari, Cub. Just take it."

She waved it in front of it a bit, startling him back into reality. Warily, he reached forward to take the warm glass, instantly dirtying the pristine white surface with his filthy hands. He grimaced.

Lana sat down in front of him, deciding to supply a little more back story for him before attempting to do anything that might trigger a backlash. She wasn't one to appreciate strangers prodding at her body, either.

"My real name is Lana Knight," she told him, placing her hands in her lap. She was seated on a plush green ottoman, her short golden hair tied back in a tiny ponytail at the back of her head. Behind her, an electric fireplace had been flicked on, illuminating the room just enough to allow her precision with her ministrations. "I was sent on behalf of the American government to eradicate the men behind your kidnapping operation, and collect samples and notes on the drug they were developing. I was also sent to ensure you were rescued."

"Thanks," he said, trying not to sound dry. "I think it went pretty well."

She raised an eyebrow. "Well, you're alive. And there are only two men left standing from the organization that engineered your capture. I also succeeded in taking documents and samples of the drug."

"Congratulations."

"Thanks," she said, repeating his earlier phrase in as close an imitation as she could muster. "I couldn't have done it without K-unit and J-unit, though."

Alex looked down. "How long have they been here?" he asked quietly.

"Something like the better half of a week. They did a ton of investigating, visiting the two hospitals you escaped from, as well as the homes of both I and the man whose car you stole."

"Not my brightest moment, that."

"You painted a decent trail for them to follow. At one point, Fox was masquerading as a Japanese MI6 agent."

"Fox isn't Japanese."

"They care about you a great deal."

Alex was silent. His fingers tightened around the glass of milk as he released a long, world-weary sigh. Unable to resist, he placed the milk on the table next to him and raked a hand through his blond hair. With the added red streaks, he looked like a punk rocker who'd taken a serious beating.

"I know. I – it's not like I don't care about them."

His tone was defensive, and she gave an affirmative nod to show him she understood.

"Of course that's not what this is about – the running, and the… hiding. But I can't face them yet. It's too dangerous. I'm too…"

"Screwed up?" she supplied. He shot her a dirty look.

"To put it crudely."

"Well, who better to fix you than them?"

Alex remained stonily pensive. His fingers were flexing now. Lana took in his every move, drawing a complex picture of Alex Rider that few could detect. "First I need to figure out if I'm… fixable."

"And how do you plan to do that?"

"I don't know!" he eventually conceded, unable to hide his frustration. "Do I look like I have all the answers yet? I just – I don't want them to see me like this! Isn't that enough?"

He couldn't help but notice how calm Lana was. Well, he thought, to be put on a mission like this, she can't exactly be new to the profession. Through her darkly-lidded eyes, Lana offered him a very small smile.

"Perhaps you should forgo what you want for what they need."

He flinched. "They need to see me… yes. I mean, the last time they saw me, they thought it was my final hour. And I… I know they've been searching for me. But it's not just a pride thing. I can't be treated as Cub of K-unit right now – I can't be treated as a friend, or a – a teammate, or – whatever! I'm a ticking goddamned time-bomb right now, Lana!"

"They're four trained SAS soldiers. You think they couldn't take one seventeen year-old boy?"

"It's not just one seventeen year-old boy though. It's me. They wouldn't do anything to hurt me, and at the moment, I… I can't say the same for myself. I mean Wolf blames himself so much he's probably waiting for me to throw a punch at him. I can't be there right now – what if I…"

He broke off, and the end of the sentence hung in the air between them with the weight of an anvil attached to it.

Lose control.

He wouldn't say anymore, and Lana realized that he was right. At least for the moment.

"I don't even understand why you're pushing this so hard," he muttered, picking up the glass and taking a large swig with the kind of weary disillusionment that usually accompanied a bottle. "Re-uniting me with my unit is not in your job description."

"It's because I've fallen in love with Wolf."

He choked, barely managing to keep from spewing his milk into her face. Swallowing and succumbing to the coughing fit, he fixed her with wide eyes and exclaimed in a rasp, "What?"

"Is it so hard to believe?" she said dreamily, placing both hands on her cheeks. "Wracked with guilt and self-recrimination, but still prepared to do anything to make his unit whole again! Always so strong in front of his men even while inside he's falling apart, piece by piece!"

Alex laughed a little at that, childishly ducking his face and trying to smother the smile even while fighting the painful ache in his chest at the thought of his distance from K-unit and that world. Lana's hands fell from her face. "Ah, you're one of those girls…" Alex accused.

"Girl?" she repeated, perturbed. They both knew it was all merely in jest. However, despite Lana's obvious exaggeration, Alex could tell she wasn't entirely kidding about her feelings for his unit leader.

"Little girl," he added cheekily. She reached out to lightly smack him, but upon noticing his guarded expression, instantly retreated. Alex seemed to grow troubled by that – his new inability to take even the least-threatening of physical advances.

"Anyway," Lana carried on flippantly, crossing her legs, "I think it's time for us to begin treating your wounds. Off with the shirt."

"Easier said than done," he responded, so Lana pulled a pair of scissors from her medical kit and placed them by her side on the ottoman. Alex reached forward to take them into his own hands, grateful for her tact. When he was finished removing the fabric, Lana leaned forward to inspect the soiled bandages wrapping his side as well as his mummified right arm – Alex's two worst injuries. His hands would also have to be dealt with.

Alex lifted his arms, revealing precision cuts in his inner elbows as well. She winced, reaching for the antiseptic.

"Cut off the bandages around your stomach."

He sent her a pained look. "Do I have to?"

"Unless you want to contract an infection and die in severe pain, yes."

Reluctantly, Alex severed the gauze above the center of his stomach, trying to peel it back as slowly as possible. He pressed his lips together when it got to the bullet wound, where blood had dried, gluing it to the tender flesh. It had begun to bleed again, and it was certainly a horror show to look at, but Lana could spy the healing process trying to take over. She pulled a warm wet cloth from where she'd stuffed it in the kit while the milk was heating up, moving to sit beside him so she could get a closer look.

"To be perfectly honest, it would be looking a lot better if you hadn't been doing acrobatics for the past twenty-four hours."

"Actually, I don't think it would. I think it would be looking a lot worse because I would be dead."

"Touché."

She brought the cloth down onto the wound, using her free hand to pin Alex's wrist back against the couch from where it was trying to prod her hand away. Fortunately, the cleaning of the wound didn't actually hurt too much – in fact, it was really quite soothing. When Lana finished cleaning out the injury, she brought forward the antiseptic.

"This is the part that's going to hurt," she warned him. Alex sucked in his breath.

"Okay."

There was a small sting. Then a large sting. Then nothingness.

When he came to, there was a red welt on Lana's upper cheekbone that looked like it fully intended to bruise. Alex was crouched behind the couch, his fingers curled around the back of the cushions, staining the dainty floral pattern.

"Drink more of the milk," she ordered, irritated. Alex's side was throbbing as he swayed and collapsed, finding himself too dizzy to keep standing. She stepped around to the other side, observing his now-prone form. He glared up at her.

"You… drugged me!"

"I knew something like this would happen. Please forgive me."

"No! I trusted you!"

"Yes. And that was a good choice, because if I hadn't done this, I never would have been able to properly treat your injuries."

"I… you… bitch…"

His eyes slipped closed, and she exhaled, placing a hand on her cheek. At least it wasn't bleeding. Now if only he'd passed out on the couch.


0o0o0o

"He's going to be okay, but they're putting one of those really awkward neck braces on him," Tiger informed Wolf over the phone. "I don't think there's going to be too much permanent damage other than a harsh scar – they were able to treat him in time. Apparently he'd just lost a lot of blood, and that was why we couldn't wake him up. Shark did a transfusion. I volunteered but they said I was too frail…"

Wolf sighed. "You are frail... Okay, that's good news. Thanks, Tiger."

"Sure, Wolf. When Lynx wakes up I'll ask him if he might have any idea of Alex Rider's whereabouts."

"Tell him thanks for me as well. Goodnight."

All four men had showered and cleaned themselves up before heading off to their respective rooms. Now Wolf was perched at the end of his bed, hands massaging his scalp. Snake collapsed on his own adjacent bed face-down, mumbling into the mattress,

"I am dead on my feet."

Wolf didn't respond, so Snake pulled himself into a sitting position for a clear look at the man. "You look like you're thinking pretty hard."

"I'm trying to figure out some things…" he murmured vaguely.

Snake leaned in, curious. "What are the things?"

Wolf's eyes were narrowed as he focused his glare onto the wall in front of him. Sometimes, Snake recalled, Wolf looked like this before important missions, where he was running game plans through his head over and over and over searching for any kind of hole in their strategy, and developing plans B through Z.

"Where and why Alex would leave…" he explained slowly, "and what happened to Lana."

"Lana?" Snake's eyebrows rose.

"Lana Knight," Wolf clarified.

"Yeah, I know who you're talking about. Wolf, what is going on between you two?"

Wolf didn't say anything, too locked in his state of concentration to reply. Sometimes Snake wondered if he wasn't technically meditating for how well he was able to shut out the world. "Wolf?"

"Hm?" Wolf glanced up, his eyes betraying his disinterest. "Oh, she kissed me."

"Wait–" Snake frowned, confusion clouding his eyes. "… Seriously?"

"Uh-huh."

"When?!"

"At McKinnon's."

"You guys didn't…"

"Of course not. When would we have?"

"I don't know. When would you two have kissed?"

"I just told you that."

Snake sighed. "Could we please talk about this?"

Wolf fixed him with an annoyed look, now thoroughly disturbed from his Wolf-Meditation. "Why?" he snorted. "It's not going anywhere."

"It'd better not," Snake told him seriously. "She's a spy, Wolf. First off, she can't be trusted. Second off, she's impermanent. And third–"

"Snake," Wolf cut in, "I get it already. Lay off – I just said there was nothing to pursue."

"It's just that you're not exactly Mr. Assertive when it comes to women, if I recall."

Wolf sniffed at the obvious reference to Tammy. Snake seemed to read his mind when he continued, "And I'm not just talking about her. There was also Linda, that nurse who you knew was stealing from you but didn't put a stop to until Eagle forcibly called the cops."

"In my defense, she used to be a yoga instructor."

"Wasn't that Emily?"

"… Oh, yeah. Well, Linda had the whole nurse-thing going on."

"I think you meant to say 'kleptomania-thing' going on."

"Snake, please, can we not go down this road…"

"Wolf! I really am serious about this!"

Wolf stood up, directly facing Snake with his anger now. "The reason I want to know what happened to her isn't so I can drag her back to this fucking hotel suit and shag her! She isn't picking up her phone – it's not normal!"

"Who cares if she hasn't picked up her damned phone? We're done with her now! She's probably gone back to America – she got her drug sample!"

"No," Wolf insisted, "her mission isn't over. She won't leave without sending Gallagher and Finnegan straight to hell. And," he mumbled, his eyes widening, "and – without rescuing Alex…!"

"… What?" Snake inquired suspiciously at the look of revelation that overtook Wolf's harsh features.

"Alex is at Lana's house!"

Snake leaned back to glance at the clock, noting the flashing green numbers announcing 8:17 A.M. "Wolf, you can't possibly be thinking of going over there now," he deadpanned as Wolf spun around and headed for the door. He quickly straightened as he realized his leader was serious.

"Wolf – Wolf, you haven't slept! Get back here!"

"I'll be back in less than an hour," Wolf called over his shoulder. "Don't wait up."

The door slammed shut and Snake was left standing alone in the hotel room.


0o0o0o

Alex had been asleep post-treatment for just over an hour now, leaving Lana alone in her office. It was around 8:30 when she heard a knock sound at her door, long fingers pausing in their frantic typing in lieu of hovering over the keyboard. With a weary sigh, Lana stood up.

The front door was pulled inward. "Wolf."

Wolf placed a hand on her shoulder and shoved her aside, letting himself in. She stepped away from him, raising an eyebrow. "Isn't it a little… early to be coming to me like this?"

He glared at her, hands flexing into fists at his sides. "That's not why I'm here. I'm looking for Cub."

She placed a slender hand on her hip. "Why on Earth do you think you're going to find him here?"

"Because you were charged with making sure he returns safely. I really doubt you'd be all cozy at home if the reason you're here was running around half-out of his mind. Bring me to him."

"He's not here, Wolf."

"You're lying!" he marched up to her and closed the distance between them so her face, tilted upwards to meet his gaze, was mere centimeters from his own. She retained her relaxed composure even as his eyes flashed with betrayal.

"You know how much I need to see him alive and – and okay. You know. Why didn't you call me?"

"There was nothing to call you about," she snapped, sliding a finger up his chest before jamming it forward, shoving him away from her. "He isn't here."

"Prove it," he growled, and she offered a vague shrug.

"Go ahead and look for him if you're so sure. Even spies need to sleep."

Wolf wasn't sure if she was referring to Alex or herself, but he didn't really care, either. Stomping away from her, he began storming the house, his presence like a hurricane. He opened cabinets in the kitchen like he expected to find Alex's severed head stashed away in one, scouring the living room until he eventually decided to move onto the second floor.

There he discovered the doors to two bathrooms, two bedrooms, and an office. He tore them open, mindless of the creaking hinges and splintering wood. Lana followed after him calmly, inspecting where the screws in the knobs seemed to have been yanked loose.

There was only one door left – the guest bedroom, presumably. Wolf made a beeline for it, ignoring Lana as she tried to call his name.

The white door might as well have been kicked open, but in the end, the room was undeniably empty. Wolf spun around, murderous.

"Dammit, Lana! Where is he?" he demanded.

"You are acting like a child," she replied coldly, pressing her back against the doorframe.

Wolf's righteousness seemed to be fading, but he persevered, pointing insistently at the ruffled sheets.

"Someone's been sleeping here."

"Yes," she conceded irritably. "Me."

"In the guest bedroom?" he asked dubiously.

"After the assassination attempt, yes. Where do you think killers usually head first when searching for someone living alone?"

Wolf's shoulders were heaving from the force of his stampede. Now that he thought about it, the master bedroom had seemed a little too un-lived-in. The bed was perfectly made, throw pillows arranged as they might be seen in a model home or a photograph.

"He…" Wolf's hands uncurled at his sides, his body seeming to finally accept defeat. "He's gotta be here…"

"I'll help you look tomorrow, Wolf. He can't have gotten far."

"He can if he's been picked up by Scorpia."

"You need to sleep."

Wolf shook his head miserably. Cautiously, Lana moved toward his side, pulling one of his hands into hers. "He'll come back to you eventually."

"I don't even understand why he ran away in the first place," Wolf whispered. "Do you think he's…"

"Angry? Of course not. I'm sure he had his reasons – spies always do. Besides – after what you went through to get him back, why in the world would he be mad at you?"

"Because maybe it wasn't enough," he breathed, running a hand through his hair. Lana knew who he picked that up from. "I'd – I'd be mad."

"No you wouldn't," she responded. "Of course you wouldn't. You might be scared, or lost, or half-crazy with lack of sleep, but you wouldn't be mad at anyone other than yourself."

He slid his hand out of her grasp, finally glancing up to meet her eyes. "You know, you don't even really know me."

"I kinda do," she told him with a small smile. "Besides, you remind me of someone."

"Who?"

But Lana just shook her head. "It's time for you to go home, Wolf."

She led him downstairs and said goodbye in the doorway, slipping a hand onto the back of his neck and pulling him forward to press his mouth against hers. After only a moment's hesitation Wolf returned the embrace, weaving his hands around her waist and inching her body closer. It wasn't urgent like last time, but there was a level of comfort to be found in the kiss. When they broke apart, neither said a word before the door was shut, as though that covered any further formalities to be uttered.

Lana ascended the staircase slowly, reentering the guest bedroom and flicking on the light. "You can come out now, Alex."

There was no movement to be caught with sight in the room, but Lana did hear something muffled emerge from the closet. She was next to it in an instant, carefully pulling open the door. There, curled up with his back against the wall and his good arm wrapped around his legs sat one miserable Alex Rider. His face was buried in his knees, mummified left arm lying uselessly next to him.

"He's gone," Lana told him. Alex seemed to tighten in further on himself. He looked smaller and younger than Lana could picture; even injured he had towered over her, physically and emotionally. His presence was always blindingly vivid with something, be it anger or challenge, unabashed criticism or uncontrolled emotion. She just wasn't prepared to see that same person focus all that energy inward in a valiant attempt at disappearing into the floor.

The position called upon Lana's motherly instincts. "Are you alright?" she asked reproachfully, unsure on what she should be doing. It was not often that Lana was rendered uncomfortable enough to feel clumsy with her hands, let alone her words.

"This is so fucked up," the tiny Alex-ball croaked.

Lana kneeled down next to him. "I know. I think you should…"

"Stop," Alex ordered, lifting his head high enough so Lana could just see how vulnerable his eyes were, red veins evident from repressed tears. "Don't."

"Neither of you can deal with this."

"I can," Alex hissed.

"What about Wolf?"

"Shut up."

"You don't need time, Alex – you need therapy. You need your friends and family. And they obviously need you."

"I said shut up!" he shouted, and Lana instinctively jumped back, expecting to be attacked for her provocations. Instead, Alex just stared at her from where he hadn't moved, immersed in the shadows of the empty closet. Lana realized her mistake when Alex dropped his face back into his knees.

"I'm… sorry," she offered.

"You don't have to apologize," Alex mumbled despondently. "I get it."

And so Lana got it too. Alex didn't want to go back because he didn't want his friends to be scared of him – but at the same time, if they weren't on guard, he could hurt one of them. It was a very difficult situation indeed. One that had Lana momentarily stumped on what exactly she would do were she in his position. She realized she no longer had any authority on the matter.

"You should go back to sleep," she told him, reaching out her hand. He reluctantly took it, pulling himself into a standing position before being gently pushed in the direction of the bed. He stumbled toward it, sliding under the blankets. Lana gazed down at his depleted form.

"Sweet dreams, Alex."

The lights flickered out.


0o0o0o

"I'm okay, I'm okay – you guys heard the doctor, it was only a nick!"

As Shark fussed about J-unit's leader with uncharacteristic tenderness, the group of four men remained scattered about the cramped hospital room. Lynx peeled back his blanket in order to get away from Shark's prying hands, revealing his pale blue hospital clothes. Tiger snickered at the normally uniformed man, making a comment about how powder blue was really his color.

Lynx stood up, flicking Tiger in the forehead as he passed him. "Do you want water? Can I get it for you?" "Sit down, Shark, Christ. Unless you want to go to into the bathroom and pee for me, I'm afraid this is a one-man mission."

A minute later and the three men were left milling about the room, Tiger exploring the machines with his eyes and Shark snatching up the paper on Lynx's vitals to ensure all the numbers were in order.

Hawk remained in his chair next to Lynx's bed, brooding. Eventually Tiger couldn't help but crane his neck to scrutinize the man, frowning at his distant expression. "Hawk?"

Hawk's emerald eyes flickered instantly over to Tiger, but he otherwise did not move. Tiger scratched the back of his head. "You're awfully quiet…" he began anxiously. Shark snorted, flipping to the second page of his clipboard.

"Like that's anything new," he grunted. Tiger paid him no mind, instead focusing his worried attentions to the man in front of him.

"After all, you're the one who found him…"

He was talking, of course, about Lynx in the forest. Hawk shook off the notion.

"No – I am not thinking about that."

"Then what are you thinking about?" J-unit's youngest member asked. Outside the room, a nurse passed the door before doing a double take and peering in again. She promptly swooned and collapsed, much to the annoyance of J-unit.

"Wear a paper bag, would you?" Shark barked.

"I will not," Hawk replied waspishly. Tiger tapped his knee tenaciously. Hawk looked away.

"Let's wait until Lynx comes back."

Right then, the door to the bathroom opened and Lynx stepped out, mindlessly wiping his hands on his blue pants. Shark stood up, pointing out angrily,

"You'll catch a cold, doing that!"

Lynx rolled his eyes, sitting down on the edge of the bed and glancing between Tiger and Hawk. "I'm back; what's going on?"

The group paused, waiting for Hawk to come forward with something. Hawk robotically began running his hands up and down his thighs, focusing on the linoleum with the intent to light it on fire.

"Well?" Shark prompted impatiently.

"I saw… something, that night," Hawk started uncomfortably. He was speaking in low and quiet tones, forcing the three to lean in towards him. "Something I wish I hadn't walked in on."

Tiger's eyes were the size of dinner plates. Lynx peered at him in open curiosity. "Does it have something to do with why Alex Rider ran away?"

Hawk's chin snapped up. His hands stopped on his knees, and instead his fingers began curling into the casual jean fabric. "Yes."

Lynx exhaled. "Oh, good. See, that makes sense. I was completely baffled to hear he ran away."

"Right, you spoke with him, didn't you?" Shark asked, reclining in the other chair.

"I did – and when K-unit was brought up, he told me he was relieved to hear they were there. So when I heard that he'd bolted I thought, how is that possible? This happened after I was shot, yes, Hawk?"

Shark and Tiger both winced at the direct reference to Lynx's injury, while Hawk just nodded. "Thought so. Care to enlighten us, then?"

Lynx's flippant attitude seemed to give Hawk a little more confidence (as it usually did). So Hawk launched into the tale of heading towards the sound of gunshots and discovering Alex Rider sitting atop a man he had pinned, torturing and eventually killing the man with all the brutality a gun could muster.

"Christ," Tiger cut in, "why didn't you tell us this sooner?!"

"I haven't told anyone," Hawk explained. "I told K-unit that he made a break for it, but I didn't tell them about the dead man. They don't know any of that part."

"I still don't get why the kid ran away, though," Shark said quizzically. Hawk had an explanation for that ready as well.

"When I caught his attention, something in him seemed to… change. First the man beneath him whispered something in his ear. Then he up and stumbled right into a tree, stammering out something along the lines of 'that was real'."

"So he's bat-shit crazy then," Shark concluded logically. The three soldiers turned their eyes to Lynx, who rather than emphatically agreeing with his medic, remained thoughtfully silent.

"I'm not sure we should be writing him off as crazy so soon," he said. "When I talked to him he seemed perfectly coherent, if not on his last legs and in at least a formidable amount of pain."

"So what happened?"

"Wait – Eagle!" Tiger exclaimed. Three pairs of eyes landed on the small man.

"What's he got to do with this?" Lynx asked.

"Eagle couldn't on the mission because he'd drugged himself, remember?"

"Not really," Shark mumbled gruffly, scratching his lower back. Tiger rolled his eyes.

"Why would Eagle just randomly drug himself?"

"Because he's an idiot?"

Tiger scowled. "No, of course not! Eagle drugged himself with the drug! The same one that they used on Alex!"

Lynx started to nod. "Ahh, I see what you're saying now! So you think Alex must have been hallucinating when he attacked that man. Unfortunately that doesn't solve the problem of the threat Alex still poses to the people around him."

"Maybe he'll… stop hallucinating."

Lynx's eyes softened at Tiger's deflated form, placing a comforting hand on his head before turning back to Hawk. "If what you say is true, Hawk, then we know why Alex escaped from the scene."

"He was trying to protect K-unit," Hawk replied. "But the question is… do we tell them?"


0o0o0o

"I thought I told you not to wait up," Wolf said upon spotting Snake's sagging body pushed up against the bed frame. The exhausted man sent him a flat look. "You did. Clearly I did not listen."

Wolf pulled off his coat, hooking it onto the back of the door before half-climbing, half-crawling onto the opposing bed. In Snake's hand was some kind of paperback novel, cracked open to chapter one, page one. He probably hadn't gotten past the third word.

"Right. Well, I couldn't find Cub."

"Yes, I can see that."

Wolf shot him a look. "… But I'm not entirely unconvinced that Lana hasn't made some kind of contact with him. Just – my phone is charging, right? Or is that yours?"

"It's yours," Snake insured him of the small phone plugged into the wall between their beds. "Mine is in the corner over there."

"Good. And it's on? It's not on silent is it?"

"No, you'll hear it if it rings."

"Okay. Set the alarm for…"

The clock was flashing a bright green 9:30 at him. "… Noon."

"One-thirty, please."

Wolf blinked. "Right."

He'd been so set on pushing sleep aside in order to keep looking for Alex that he'd sort of forgotten about Snake's preference to actually function. The extra hours weren't a luxury anymore – they were a necessity. Especially since Wolf had just cost him an hour of sleep with his wild goose chase.

"I did tell you not to wait up."

"We always wait up for one another."

He had a point there. "Fine. One-thirty then."

And after about ten seconds in dreamland, the alarm was bleating at them until they were stirring in their sheets, glaring at the neon-green 1:31 PM. Wolf brought his fist down onto the sleep button like the fist of God, rolling over so that his pillow covered his face. Snake gratefully drifted off again.

Apparently they both developed immunity to the alarm some time after that, because it wasn't until three that the door opened and in walked Fox and Eagle, looking somewhat refreshed and generally better-for-wear.

"They're still sleeping," Fox pointed out, dumbfounded. Eagle nodded.

"This is weird. Ah, Fox, please turn on the light – please."

Fox moved to brighten the room up, recognizing the undertone of something in Eagle's voice. No matter what the man said, Fox knew he wasn't entirely recovered. He'd been awoken by his loud, jerky rustling twice. Snake reacted to the light with a groan, while Wolf remained unmoved by the change in luminance.

"Hold on, I'm gonna go get a glass of water," Fox snickered, and then Wolf was sitting up, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes.

"I'm 'wake, dammit," Wolf said groggily. Fox knew what to do to really wake him up.

"It's three in the afternoon, Wolf."

Wolf bolted out of bed, grabbing his jeans and awkwardly dancing his way into them leg-by-leg. Then he pulled on his coat and was out the door before Snake had even retrieved a shirt from his backpack. Wolf reappeared a second later, grumbling quietly, "Forgot some stuff."

He was collecting the copies of Sanders and Kobayashi's files when Eagle inquired,

"We're splitting up, then?"

"And taking the usual directions, yes."

The usual directions referred to Wolf almost always taking the north end of an expanse of territory they might be required to cover, while Snake covered the south and Fox and Eagle took east and west, respectively. Wolf moved back into the doorway, pausing and turning to make his final request of, "Pass me my mobile."

Fox pitched the device at him, and Wolf's hand shot out to snatch it from the air before he was gone again.

Alone, the three men exchanged looks. Eagle's hand twitched and he took a step back in response to seemingly nothing.

"Eagle?" Fox inquired carefully. "Want to just sweep our ends together?"

In his haste, Wolf had forgotten that Eagle wasn't yet fit to drive a car again. "Yeah, that's probably a good idea."

"I'll do as wide a berth of the southern limits as I can," Snake promised, dragging a gun off the bedside table and sliding it into the back of his jeans. The three men nodded before following their leader's smoke trail out the door.


0o0o0o

Lawrence H. Finnegan lived in the north end of Carlisle, and was the only local to be on the drug developing team. The project's basing in Carlisle could well be attributed to him, for he was the lead developer and had begun experimenting before the final group had even been assembled for the first time. After the previous night and upon coming to the realization that he was the last man standing, Finnegan had fled to a hotel and checked in with cash, signing under a fake name. At noon, he'd awoken to a call on his hotel room phone. Finnegan had suppressed the urge to pee his pants in fear until eventually it stopped ringing. Ten seconds later, it began again.

"H-hello?" Finnegan answered, voice trembling outrageously. The line crackled, forfeiting clarity in order to be untraceable.

"Finnegan," a distorted, but nevertheless distinct voice answered him. Finnegan swallowed. It was Kurst.

"Yes," he confirmed in a whisper.

"I am still willing to complete part of our order if you are. The drug – with all documents outlining contents, effects and details attached – for half the original sum discussed."

Finnegan's eyes bulged. Half the sum to himself was more than the original split five ways. And without Alex Rider!

"Can you arrange to meet us with the samples for five 'o clock at 724 Oakland Place? We will let you in."

"… I'm not sure if…"

"Finnegan, direct your eyes into the mirror."

Finnegan's instantly flickered to the mirror hanging on the wall across from him, and he gave a loud gasp at what he saw. There, right between his eyebrows, was a small red dot. He froze, an instant sweat breaking on the back of his neck.

"If you move before this call is over, he pulls the trigger. Should you fail to appear with the requested items by 5 'o clock, we will have someone sent to find you and deliver the consequences. I look forward to seeing you soon."

Click.

The phone fell uselessly from Finnegan's hand. For a moment he was sure the call had ended just as an earthquake began to shake Carlisle, only to realize it was merely his own body's violent trembling. He did not bother to check out of the hotel when he left, and when addressed by the secretary he ignored her. His movements were robotic; the roar of his car's engine automatic, and then he was driving calmly toward his home.


0o0o0o

Also approaching Finnegan's home was Wolf in a small red rent-a-car, which he'd charged to the very same credit card that K-unit's rooms were checked out under. He'd exited the city limits about five minutes back and had since begun heading through sparse expanses of land as winter demonstrated the final result of its ravishment on the country side: complete desolation. Wolf frowned at the flat fields of twigs and frostbitten dirt. April wasn't coming soon enough, he decided.

Eventually Wolf passed through a more forest-like region, and he probably would have assumed he'd missed a turn somewhere had he not been looking at the GPS also programmed into this car. Huge evergreens cast the road Wolf was travelling on in shadow, and the tall, lifeless grass framing the pot-holed road indicated what little activity went on here.

"Why the hell would a doctor want to live this far into the middle of fucking nowhere?" Wolf muttered, glancing down to consult his map. His turn was coming up, and he could now see as the trees cleared and more hills emerged a very large old farmhouse on the horizon.

The path leading up to it was full of pot holes, and the air filtering through the top of Wolf's window was crisp and nippy. A few mostly-barren trees appeared just ahead, and then as Wolf slowly moved past them, something he hadn't seen before came into view: a car.

Wolf pulled over and flicked off the ignition, exiting the vehicle and inspecting the driveway incredulously. The last thing he'd expected was to actually find Finnegan in his own home. His file had listed him as uninvolved with any women, so Wolf assumed he'd be waltzing into the home looking for clues, not Finnegan himself.

He walked the rest of the way, cursing the front steps for their loud creaking. The door wasn't locked. Wolf slipped into the home as soundlessly as possible, instantly melting into the corner to listen for going-ons before proceeding.

The house was totally silent except for the thumping of a moth against the window, so the first thing that he really noticed was the smell – it was thick with that same aged scent one might catch a whiff of in a used bookstore – but also something else he couldn't quite identify. Dust microcosms floated through the rustic space, illuminated by the flat light coming through the skylight. He was standing to the right of the living room, which looked like it hadn't been entered since Finnegan had moved in, and at the base of a tall, narrow wooden staircase. Creeping forward down the hall, Wolf turned into an old-fashioned kitchen, complete with a belly-aching refrigerator and paint-chipped ornate cupboards left over from last century.

Wolf glanced into the sink, finding a little bit of water clinging to the sides and corners. Upon turning the knob, he found it to be useless – no water came out of the tap no matter which way he turned it. He frowned, perplexed, and then caught his first sound – a very faint clang.

Wolf reentered the hallway, only this time when he passed the staircase, he noticed a short door built into the side of it. Carefully prying it open, Wolf ducked inside, finding himself at the top of another staircase – one that curved halfway down, suggesting a large basement.

Now that he'd opened the door he could hear other things, too – the rustle of papers, scattered footsteps, even the high-pitched whistle of what was unmistakably something boiling. Extracting his gun, Wolf quietly ghosted his way over the steps, peaking around the corner when he hit the landing.

Every last trace of the antique rural country house disappeared at this level. Finnegan had turned the entire basement into a badly-ventilated laboratory. It looked like a larger-scale version of the one in the basement of the pharmacy – most of the machines were shut off and inactive, but in the corner a few Bunsen burners were flaring up to heat substances pink and yellow and green – and finally in the largest basin, clear. Finnegan stood with his back to Wolf, hunched over what appeared to be a small laptop sitting on top of a makeshift table made of files and papers. Hushed talking could be heard coming from the laptop, but it was too far away for Wolf to make out any of the words.

"Turn around and release anything in your hands," Wolf ordered coldly, stepping out into clear view. Finnegan's movements froze, and his body went rigid.

Wolf's eyes narrowed. "Turn around!"

Finnegan spun to face Wolf, his hand holding a beaker full of an unidentifiable liquid. He stared wide-eyed at Wolf.

"You said five 'o clock!" he exclaimed shrilly, stuffing a hand into his overgrown gray hair in distress. "Five 'o clock, five 'o clock!"

The statement reeked of Scorpia, and from there, Wolf began connecting the dots. Finnegan had likely been contacted by Scorpia and told to collect everything in his possession pertaining to the drug. Five 'o clock had to be when they'd ordered him to have it prepared by if he wanted to live – which, knowing Scorpia, didn't mean much at all. They'd kill him without a second thought upon receiving what they wanted, simply to ensure they didn't leave behind any "loose ends".

"Kurst changed his mind," Wolf carefully played along, unsure how much information he might be able to extract from the man before it became obvious that he wasn't from Scorpia.

"I need more time than this! Please!"

"How much time?" Wolf demanded. Finnegan's trembling hands caused a little bit of liquid to splash and dribble down the side of the beaker, falling to the floor and instantly fizzling out of existence.

"Th-th-three hours!" Finnegan wailed. "I said I would be there!"

Wolf lowered his gun carefully. "You remember the meeting place?"

Finnegan audibly swallowed. "O-Oakland Place. Oakland Place."

Wolf nodded. "Good. Thanks."

Then he raised his gun again. Finnegan screeched, stumbling back into his table and swiping a steaming red flask right off the burner before suspending it in the air. "Don't shoot! DON'T SHOOT OR WE BOTH DIE!"

Wolf took a step away from the madman, unprepared for his outburst. "What the hell are you–"

"HNO3," Finnegan began mumbling wildly, speaking faster than Wolf had ever heard, "also known as aqua fortis or nitric acid highly corrosive strong mineral acid with a density of one point fifty-one grams per milliliter and a molar mass of sixty-three point zero-one boiling point of eighty-three degrees celcius and melting point of negative forty-two degrees Celsius acidity of negative one point four and refractive index of one point three-nine-seven sixteen point five degrees celcius reacts violently or explosively with quantities of N2H4 also known as hydrazine."

Finnegan's hand holding the beaker jerked, holding up the clear liquid and exposing its distinct ammonia-like scent. Hydrazine, Wolf logically concluded once he'd figured out that the man wasn't speaking in tongues – just scientific terms. Jesus Christ, what the hell have I gotten myself into?

"Calm down," Wolf said. Finnegan was twitching with lunacy, his gloved hands gripping the two glass bottles so tightly that Wolf wasn't sure he wouldn't diffuse the whole situation himself just by accidentally crushing one.

"You drove me to this!" he howled. "You all drove me to this! I just want out, I want out, I want out!"

Wolf's heart pounded behind his rib cage. "Finnegan–"

"I didn't know what I was getting into I didn't know I didn't know but they're all dead now and I didn't know–"

Anger seized Wolf then. Insane with fear and guilt or not insane with fear and guilt, Finnegan had known exactly what he was doing when he agreed to help create the drug – as well as repeatedly test its effects on his teammate.

"That's bullshit!" Wolf shouted. Finnegan stumbled back a few steps and shrieked louder than ever,

"I DIDN'T KNOW I DIDN'T KNOW I DIDN'T–"

The gunshot rang clear through the air. Finnegan cut off and swayed for a moment, glancing down in disbelief at the entrance wound on his chest. Wolf tore down the stairs, leaping over a table in his scramble to reach Finnegan. The chemist's eyes slid closed just as his grip fell slack and both glasses went plummeting to the floor.

Wolf's body fell hard against the concrete, his head coming down with a loud smack. For a moment all he could hear was a loud ringing in his ears, and he thought he must have been too late. Was he dead?

He opened his eyes.

There, not a foot away from his head, lay the broken remains of the hydrazine beaker. Two centimeters from the edge of the colorless pool was a small red puddle – nitric acid that had escaped from its beaker mid-fall.

With his eyes, Wolf followed his own outstretched arm to where his hand was clasped around the rest of the beaker. It was, for the most part, still full – although it burned like a bitch where it had come into contact with his hand. Hissing, Wolf dragged himself up into a standing position and deposited it onto the first countertop he could.

In the silence that followed, the words drifting from the laptop were louder and more pronounced than ever.

"… are you saying?"

Wolf sucked in a breath.

That was Alex's voice.

He turned toward the computer, leaning down to peer at the small screen. On the left side, a large electronic folder full of files could be seen, and on the right, mostly covered beneath the folder window, a video was playing. Wolf's hand slipped over the mouse, clicking the video into view.

The footage was in black and white, but the quality was well-defined: it was undeniably Alex. He was bound to a chair with rope – the same chair Wolf had passed when he was in the pharmacy.

This is the footage from the drug's effects, Wolf realized with startling clarity. Finnegan was preparing this to send off to Scorpia... His stomach churned, and the adrenaline already pumping through Wolf's veins lit up like a fuse. In the sharp image Alex had his head down, and for the most part he wasn't speaking – except for now and again when he'd respond to seemingly nothing.

Alex's head jerked to the side, and then he began shaking it. It was like watching somebody have a nightmare – reacting to invisible prompts and stimuli with an expression changing from angry to distressed to despondent for no visible reason.

"N-no," Alex stammered out to the empty room. He was shaking his head again. Then, drawing a hard flinch from Wolf, Alex suddenly cried out. He started to struggle against his ropes, craning his neck away from whatever – or whoever – was standing in front of him. The look of pure panic on Alex's face right then almost did Wolf in for good – but then the blonde slumped down into blissful unawareness in his terrible version of waking up.

Wolf's jaw clenched as the video cut to black. His eyes involuntarily moved back to the other window – the folder. Each file was named something following the last – , , . Wolf scrolled, unable to deny his horror any longer as the numbers hit the double digits. The videos went all the way up to fourteen.

Wolf's pulse picked up, and he began breathing faster and faster. Wolf had always looked like the type to struggle with anger management, but in reality, he was fairly even-tempered – he just often came off as an inconsiderate ass.

However, right at that moment, Wolf redefined the term seeing red.

It was extremely dangerous to have a nervous breakdown in the middle of a homemade laboratory – especially when it was the homemade laboratory of a dead mad scientist. Unfortunately, irrationality comes as somewhat of a prerequisite for rage attacks.

Wolf grabbed the first substance he could get his hands on and hurtled it with a roar at the wall, reveling in the sound of the glass shattering. Then he spun around and grabbed the next one, smashing it over Finnegan's head and watching emptily as the chemicals began to erode at the hair and flesh. Next, he seized the man's stool and sent it crashing into the counter across from him, destroying the contents with a satisfying crash and boom.

All of his helplessness was turning itself over to Wolf's fury, which he was allowing to bubble over with little intervention. Nobody could see him. His only witness was a corpse. Besides, the only thing he had left to do was scream. Finnegan was dead and Alex was just as crazy as the dead man and Scorpia was just about ready to waltz off into the sunset like they usually did.

So he erupted into curses and shouts and continued to destroy the laboratory with his bare hands until eventually two compounds reacted and a Bunsen burner found its way into the mix. The north end of the room was completely covered in flames by the time Wolf finally paused in his rampage, shoulders heaving with the force of his frustration. He stared at the fiery display, his hands balled up tightly into fists just itching to sink themselves into the closest thing within reach (which was, at this point, anything that could move).

It was always them.

He ground his teeth together.

It was always Scorpia.

Wolf snatched up the laptop and began scooping papers into his arms, suddenly aware of how close this place was to exploding. He didn't glance at Finnegan's body as he passed it, instead scrambling to get up the stairs as fast as he could without looking back. Then he was running through the house and stumbling down the front stairs. Wolf booked it the rest of the way to the car, tossing everything onto the backseat before sliding the key into the ignition. He'd made it halfway down the gravel road when the house exploded behind him, a toxic and deadly demonstration of retribution straight from hell.

The very same hell he intended to bring to straight Scorpia in Oakland Place.


0o0o0o

Has anybody caught onto my obvious obsession with Lana's hands? I just noticed it – they're mentioned a lot. Huh.

Exactly three weeks later! Harah! So the last three chapters have each been a little longer than the last… this one is around thirteen thousand words. Jesus. It's a wonder any of you finish them! They're going to get shorter, really.

I am not one hundred percent sure what direction I'm going to take the story from here, but of course I have my ideas. I'd love to hear what you guys think.

For anyone who doesn't like her, sorry for all the Lana. She is somewhat necessary at this moment in time. If you do like her, great!

I'd like to thank everyone for the feedback I received (as usual you're all much to generous with your words, love you all c:), although I only got about half as many reviews for last chapter as I did for the one before it and I'm fully prepared to beg and bribe for more. All I want in this vast, cruel word is to talk to you. We'll have a nice little chat, just you and me, laptop-to-laptop. You'll tell me what you thought of the chapter. I'll ask you what your sign is, ask you about your relationship with your parents. We'll connect. Maybe we'll have a picnic if the weather permits. And by then we'll be so madly in love that I won't be able to deny you a single thing. That's when you'll lean in and whisper in my ear, "Update. Update now." And I will.

LOVE MEEE

(To be honest, I kinda need it right now. I'm taking Writing 100 and I love the course but it's kind of making me hate everything and anything that I write. Hopefully this will pass…)

It would turn me to jelly to hit eight hundred reviews this chapter. Strawberry jelly. No clownin' around. I will update on the mark.

Next chapter: Alex is faced with everything he's been avoiding, and Wolf continues the trend of madness via losing his mind.