It had been just under a week since Mrs. Jones learned Alex Rider had driven an ex-agent's car off the side of a bridge, and she'd never felt so exhausted in all her fifty-four years of life.
That night had unrelentingly dragged her nerves through the gravel and mud: first upon receiving the call about Alex, and again after learning of Wolf's involvement in the accident. That had really felt like rock-bottom for her, so it came as a surprise to Mrs. Jones when her guilt once again found a way to reinvent itself. The following night Alex woke up and nearly tore his hospital room apart. Three a.m. had seen Mrs. Jones sitting at her granite-top kitchen table with a cup of cold tea clenched tightly in her slender hands; head bowed, breathing slow and deliberate.
The next morning, Mrs. Jones had set about getting the spare bedroom of her flat outfitted with all the hospital equipment Alex would need to recover there. Alan Blunt had firmly opposed the decision, but Mrs. Jones made it very clear that there would be no debate. After a repeat of the hospital incident brought her face-to-face with the full extent of Alex's derailment, she ordered an increase of sedatives to be added to Alex's medication. Days later and he had yet to emerge from the deep sleep she'd placed him under. A routine had developed where Mrs. Jones often ate breakfast in Alex's room, taking small bites of blueberry scones and listening to the rhythmic sounds of his breathing and the machines' beeping.
"You don't have a limit, Alex."
On one such morning, her own words drifted through from a memory she had spent a fair amount of energy trying to repress as of late. Everyone has a limit, thought Mrs. Jones, gazing out at the cityscape that lay beyond the window. I tried so hard to fool myself. I wanted so badly to believe it was true, and now…
She thought of the last time she saw him awake, doubled over and rubbing blood from his eyes, and had to shut her own in response. She was back at the Royal and General with Alan and Alex after Carlisle, taking in the sight of a boy barely recognizable as the one she'd met three years earlier.
"I'm okay, Mrs. Jones…"
Mrs. Jones placed a hand over her eyes and tried her best to look on the bright side. At least Oliver and Luke were released. At least Alex will have to agree to go to therapy. At least everyone's alive.
Against her better judgement, she stood up from the chair she was occupying in the corner and approached Alex's bed. His skin was looking warmer – still-healing lacerations marred the surface, but at least he wasn't looking so ashen anymore. She traced the pale-blue veins of his eyelids with her gaze and resisted the temptation to rouse him awake. His sedatives had been reduced the night before, so she was expecting him to wake up sometime soon.
Despite the sunken cheekbones and dark circles, he looked so young. Older than the first time they met, but still hardly more than a child. Wake up, she mentally ordered, narrowing her eyes. You've slept for too long now. Wake up.
She waited. Nothing. She may as well have been trying to stir a corpse. Wake up!
It occurred to her then just how unfair she was being, after sedating him against his will. Mrs. Jones would have to get used to not asking the impossible from him. In this state, he reminded her of glass; fragile and translucent, like a trick of the senses. Are you really alive?
Blink. In an instant he was staring at her. A breath of air escaped her, and she took an involuntary step back. She didn't say anything right away, instead holding her breath to see how the situation would unfold. He had yet to drop her gaze, but it was hazy. She wondered if he was seeing her at all.
"Alex?" she murmured, bringing her hand up to her lips. He blinked again, unfazed. As another moment passed uneventfully, Mrs. Jones's anxiety spiked. She stepped forward, gripping his hospital bed. "Are you awake?"
Blink. Alex's expression changed as the minute muscles in his face shifted. Grief. He was still looking at her, but like one might look at a ghost, with a kind of futile affection. Mrs. Jones tightened in on herself a little. Again the impulse to touch him hit her; to run her fingers through his hair or squeeze his hand. She held back. He sighed.
"Are you feeling better?" she tried. Blink. When Alex finally broke eye contact to direct his eyes at the ceiling, it felt like a weight was swiftly lifted off her chest, but his silence continued to trouble her. Again? she thought, remembering the last time she'd hosted Alex after a particularly gruelling period of captivity had left him mute for a week. It seemed things were doomed to repeat themselves: new flat, same story. Perhaps if she had just learned her lesson the first time and worked harder to protect Alex's loved ones, they wouldn't be reprising their old roles.
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, turning toward the window. "This is my fault, I know. You have every right to want to pretend I don't exist. But we have a shared interest in your recovery, so if you could cooperate with me just a little longer, I promise I'll make it worth your while."
The only response her words elicited was a grimace and a narrowing of the eyes. There was a call button built into one of the machines next to Alex's bed. Mrs. Jones pressed it, and a moment later, a small, mousey nurse appeared at the door.
"Is he awake?" she asked. Her voice was high-pitched but soft, with a gentle Welsh accent.
"Yes, Linda. Could you please prepare some food? I'd like him to try to eat."
Linda disappeared, and in the span of time it took her to return with food, Alex didn't so much as glance at the door. The hospital bed was adjusted so that Alex was sitting upright, and only when the tray of hot soup was set down in front of him did he once again meet Mrs. Jones's gaze. There was something mocking about it.
Oh. His wrists were still restrained. As Linda moved to unbuckle them, Alex's fingers flexed. He watched her actions intently. Just when the buckle was about to come loose, Mrs. Jones spoke up. "Wait."
She was thinking about the last two times Alex had been awake. Just because he'd seemed clear-headed the last time they spoke didn't mean the danger had passed. He wasn't saying a word. Something didn't feel right. Linda stared at Mrs. Jones, awaiting further instruction.
"Don't remove the restraints."
Alex's arm seized as he attempted to bust his hand out from under the belt. She hadn't loosened it enough for him to be successful, but Alex's soup sloshed violently in his bowl with enough force to send some over the edge, where it landed on Linda's forearm. The nurse recoiled with a jump, instantly slapping a hand over the skin. Alex glared at Mrs. Jones in open animosity.
"Well," said Mrs. Jones, "it looks like you're still angry with me. You won't get anywhere with that attitude."
"Untie me," Alex demanded, voice hard and grating. The sudden turn-around was startling to say the least, but Mrs. Jones tried not to let her apprehension show. She brushed him off.
"When you're ready."
"I am ready," he said, pausing to breathe deeply through his nose. He was practically quivering with fury. "I just want to eat my soup, alright?"
"Linda will feed you." Linda's head snapped to the side at the mention of her name. Her head gave a near-imperceptible shake. Mrs. Jones cleared her throat, amending seamlessly, "I will feed you."
"Nobody is feeding me," said Alex. "Both my hands work fine."
"That may be true, but I don't trust you yet."
"You don't trust me? I'm not the one that threw you under the fucking bus!"
Mrs. Jones's heart almost stopped. Does he know? she thought, blood running cold. Being just as intuitive as she was, Alex read her discomposure and ran with it.
"You don't know how to help me. Nobody does. And that's fine – I can help myself. If you'd let me."
It was her turn to blink. Mrs. Jones was having trouble reconciling this shift in temperament with Alex's earlier behaviour. He'd practically demanded that she restrain him, stammering out nonsensical explanations and directing all frustration inward. What were his exact words when he'd asked her not to sedate him? "I need to be present"?
She swallowed. Alex certainly seemed present now. Overly so. But… not quite in the same way. His intentions were entirely different from before. He was different.
This isn't going to be the same as last time, Mrs. Jones realized, as Alex began babbling again.
"I'm not going to break anything this time, alright? I promise! I just want to eat my soup. Mrs. Jones!"
She was ignoring him, staring through him and off into the distance beyond. This is going to be ten times more complicated. He's not… the same at all.
"Mrs. Jones, I just want to eat my soup! I JUST WANT TO EAT MY SOUP! LET ME GO!"
Wolf was released from the hospital the day after being admitted. Miraculously, he'd sustained no serious injuries from the accident on the bridge, and thanks to Snake and Fox's swift rescue, he'd managed to avoid drowning as well. When he got out, the first person he called was Snake.
"Wolf!" Snake exclaimed. "Did they–"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm out. Listen, come over. I want to ask you some questions about…" He let out a breath. "How soon can you be at mine?"
What Wolf hadn't been prepared to find was the state of destruction his house had been left in. The first thing he spotted upon entering was blood on the floor at the bottom of the stairs. Wolf blanched. Whose blood is that?
Snortus's frantic barking was the next event to fray his nerves. The pug danced and leaped at his feet, slobbering all over his trousers. Wolf batted him away, moving into the kitchen. He stopped in front of the island. One of his cupboards was completely blown to bits. Broken dishes littered the counter and floor beneath it. And his frying pan was on the floor. Wolf leaned down to pick it up and place it on the stove, where he immediately lit the flame beneath it. First order of business: food.
The fridge revealed a half a pack of bacon, which was the first thing he saw all day that didn't make him want to turn around and check into a hotel. With that on the stove, Wolf worked on tidying up the space with a broom. He taped some newspaper over the wrecked cupboard and took a mop to the floor, all the while thinking of Alex. This was his damn job.
"Why I'm stuck cleaning up after his violent rampage, I don't know," Wolf grumbled, aiming the gripe at Snortus. Said pug was unfailingly following Wolf around, leaving drops of drool on Wolf's freshly-cleaned hardwood.
"Damn dog!" Wolf eventually snapped, making a swipe at Snortus with the broom. Snortus jumped over it like a skip-rope. "Fuck off!"
When the cleaning was done, Wolf reluctantly donated some bacon to the pitiful dog's cause, tossing bits up into the air for Snortus to dive after. Snake arrived shortly after, letting himself in.
"Knock, knock," Snake called, peering around. Wolf's house smelled like breakfast and Lemon Pledge. The forgotten hole in the fall leftover from Wolf's period of grieving had also been patched up.
"In here," Wolf responded, appearing at the end of the hallway. Snortus scampered out from behind him. Snake kneeled down to greet the dog with a few firm pats.
"It looks better in here," he commented.
"Thanks," said Wolf. "C'mon."
Wolf led Snake into the backyard, where the two sat down on the back steps. For a couple minutes neither man spoke. Wolf's eyes roamed over the pebbled patio, climbing up the steps and examining a dying shrub in a ceramic flowerpot until noticing the two cigarette butts at its base. He scowled.
"I guess I should start off by apologizing for taking off in the car," he began. Snake smiled.
"You, start by apologizing? Wolfie…"
"Don't. I said I should. But I'm not going to. If I'd waited for you two to get in after me… we might all be dead. I'm guessing you and Fox fished Alex and I out of the river."
"We had a little help from the black ops… but, I mean… yeah. It was close. The water was freezing. You stopped breathing."
"Yeah. And Alex was pretty messed up, too. He came close to drowning, Wolf, both of you did. If it had been just Fox and I, we probably wouldn't have been able to pull you both out in time. We're lucky the current wasn't too strong, either. A little farther into the season, and…"
"I get it. Thanks for, uh… you know."
"Saving your drowned ass?"
They paused. The air had warmed up a little. Spring hadn't quite sprung yet, but it was certainly beginning to creep in. The overcast sky seemed to promise further rain. A murder of crows burst into view above them, leaving the power line next to Wolf's house in tremors.
"Fox and I tried to visit you guys, by the way. Hospital wouldn't let us. Said you weren't allowed visitors."
"So you know about Eagle, then."
"Hardly," Snake confessed. "All I know is that he was hospitalized the same night as you. And we don't know what happened to Cub. He was alive the last time we saw him. We were dropped off at the hospital with you, but they kept Cub."
Cub. The nickname set his teeth on edge. "Stop calling him that."
Snake blinked. "Pardon?"
"Alex. Stop calling him Cub."
Snake turned his eyes back onto his feet, and was quiet for a minute before answering. "Wolf, we still don't really understand what–"
"He drove me off the road," Wolf cut him off bluntly. "Drove us both off the road."
Startled by Wolf's venom, but not entirely surprised by the news, Snake wrung his hands. "That's… how it looked, but we didn't want to believe it."
"It's what happened." Wolf narrowed his eyes. "I… I hate saying this, but… it turns out… we were too late."
The alarm was written all over Snake's face. "What do you mean?"
"Back in Carlisle. They really… they really fucked him up there, Snake. We, um…" Wolf rubbed his jaw, looking away. "We fucked up, too. We didn't… get him better in time. He's snapped."
Wolf's voice was hard. "Cub, as we knew him... that kid, he's…" He released a breath, whispering the final word: "Gone."
Snake was starting to look angry. "Now just hold on a second–"
Wolf looked at him, revealing his own growing fury. "No. Snake – Alex put Eagle in the hospital. Not his attackers. He tried to kill him. He tried to kill me, too."
"Alex – and Eagle? No bloody way–"
Wolf abruptly stood up, glaring down at his medic. Snake leaned back on one hand and gazed up at him, wide-eyed with disbelief. Wolf shook his head, focusing his eyes on the power line and the lone crow remaining.
"You think I would make this up? You weren't there. You didn't see the condition Eagle was in. There is no way that was a fair fight. Eagle told me himself: it was Alex! He beat the living shit out of him!"
Snake clambered up onto his feet and moved into the house, pacing through the kitchen. Snortus dutifully followed suit. "There's got to be some kind of explanation."
"I gave you the explanation, Snake! Alex was pretending to get better! The whole time he was here… he was only getting worse!"
"W-we can't," Snake stammered, grabbing the edge of the countertop to steady himself. "We can't just write it off like that – like it's over… Nobody's dead–"
"Listen," said Wolf, standing before the man and gazing at him steadily. "I almost lost Eagle. We almost lost Eagle. Sadie almost lost Eagle. Is that clear enough for you? Because Eagle tried to help him – like he's always tried to do. Get it through your thick skull: Cub is gone. And he's not coming back."
When Mrs. Jones opened the door to her flat, a head of tight, purple curls was the first thing to greet her. Her gaze gradually trickled down to the woman's eyes, which were bright and attentive. She wore tortoiseshell glasses and a clean white blouse over black yoga pants. There was something almost unreal about her, like a cartoon character. Soft lines and crow's feet marred her heavily-freckled face.
"Hello, Rango," said Mrs. Jones. Rango, as she was known, patted Mrs. Jones on the shoulder as she passed her.
"Tulip. So this is your new place," she said, looking around. Mrs. Jones moved flats every few months or so, mostly for safety's sake. Always the penthouse suite. It had a modern air to it: clean, tastefully drab, and completely unadorned by personal effects. "Utterly boring."
Mrs. Jones ignored the words, having grown used to such comments from the woman. "Thank you for coming. I think you should probably know… it's worse than I originally thought. He's not… himself."
Rango moved into the kitchen and collected a glass from the cupboard, filling it up with tap water. She placed a hand on the counter and pounded back the whole thing, then refilled it. Mrs. Jones looked pained. When she was done, she dragged her forearm across her mouth to clear it of any moisture and licked her lips. "Sorry. I biked here."
"Did you get a chance to read the documents I sent you?"
"Good. He's in there." She gestured at the door ahead of them. "By the way, you might run into Linda, the nurse. She comes in and out. Brown hair."
"Okay." Rango started toward the door to Alex's room, hands-free of any notepads, folders or clipboards she might've wanted to bring along. Mrs. Jones ran a hand through her dark hair in a rare show of distress.
"You're…" she started, prompting her unusual guest to pause and turn around. "You're my last line of defense, Andromeda."
Rango wordlessly nodded before reaching out to wrench door open and pull it shut behind her. Inside, the room was dim, but not entirely dark. The curtains were pulled so only a limited amount of light could get in, and a small lamp was lit up in the corner. Rango's eyes landed on him immediately.
Alex had his eyes closed, but Rango sensed he wasn't asleep. No way… she thought as she drew closer. Could it be…?
"Who are you?" his voice sliced through the silence. To Rango's credit, she didn't jump, but she did stare.
It was the same boy she'd met in the alleyway, weeks back.
"You don't recognize me? I would image the hair to be a dead give-away…" she responded, inspecting his restraints. To think she'd run into him again, under these sorts of circumstances…
He looked the same – mostly. Somehow more intimidating, despite being tied to a hospital bed with gauze taped to his face. Perhaps it was the lack of good humour this time around. She thought back to that afternoon, about how he'd practically played with her attackers before knocking them to the ground. He'd asked her for a light, and smiled at her when she provided one. If it weren't for the identical physical features, she never would've recognized him as the same person.
Impulsively, she asked, "Do you have a twin?"
That got his attention. He blinked at her, lips slightly parted. "What?"
Rango made her way to the side of the bed, settling into the chair next to him. "It was a simple enough question."
"Hm. I guess it must be you, then. Do you really not remember me?"
He looked her up and down, eyes conveying little more than vague, uncommitted interest. "Maybe," he said.
He doesn't remember. Well that was interesting. Could he have suffered memory loss as a result of his injuries? The memory was by few standards traumatic, and she did have purple hair, after all. She decided prod at it a little more.
"I was being held up by these two men, and a young boy stepped in to try and help, but they knocked him out. That's when you came in. Do you remember yet? 'Maybe I just like hurting people', isn't that what you said?"
"Shut up," he snapped. "Stop talking."
He set his eyes onto the ceiling, breathing hard through his nose. Rango watched the reaction curiously. He seemed to be trying to calm himself down, though nothing was all that rousing about the words.
"And once you had disarmed them, you took Frankie's cigarettes out of his pocket. Oh, and you had that strange golden cigarette case–"
Alex's arms seized beneath the restraints and the whole bed gave a shudder in response, cutting Rango off. His head snapped to the side so that he was looking directly at her, the full force of his fury pressing out from behind his eyes. He grit his teeth and glared. The reaction was borderline animalistic. Rango frowned. She had no idea what to make of it.
"Stop. Talking," he ground out, chest heaving.
"Why does it matter?"
"You're pissing me off!"
"I'm not saying anything offensive."
"SHUT UP AND GET OUT!"
In the vast plane of nothingness, Alex sat alone in a straitjacket, staring listlessly ahead. He wasn't sure how long he'd been there for. He wasn't thinking much at all. It felt like his heart was beating at the pace of a snail. Nothing ahead. Nothing behind. Nothing above. Nothing below. Nothing everywhere. Nothing anywhere.
Nothing at all.
Over the course of a minute, Alex's eyelids gradually drifted down to meet in a slow-motion blink, then slid back up again. It wasn't hot or cold. It wasn't dark or light. And he couldn't move.
Hours later. Days later. Weeks later. A voice carried in, slowed down and dragged out as though reaching him from underwater. "Alex… what has he done to you?"
Hours later: "Can you hear me?"
Weeks later: "Are you there?"
Years later: "Alex?"
Deep down, in the darkest recesses of his functioning mind, a thought: I can't think.
Days later. Weeks later. Months later. A tremor shook the ground, breaking the pattern of nothing, followed swiftly by a second one. It was like an earthquake. Alex's eyes widened. Not nothing. Something. Something.
And then, that voice again. "Alex, remember!"
His mind was sluggish, shrouded in fog. Remember? It was like trying to fight his way out of quicksand. He clung to the idea. Remember? Remember what? Something? Nothing?
Alex's eyes widened. Remember what? He couldn't remember how to remember!
So start there. Somebody was helping him with all this, but he didn't know who. Start by remembering how to remember. So how to remember how to remember remembering?
He shut his eyes. My head hurts.
"Alex…" the voice broke in again, heavy and sad. "Hurry…"
Alex. My name. That was something. He was remembering his own name. It was Alex. "I'm Alex…" he mumbled to himself, gazing down at the tight restraints that bound his arms to his body. Already he was feeling more alert. I remember… having arms, I think. Do I have arms?
He tested the memory by pressing outwards with his arms from inside the jacket. There was an enormous amount of pressure holding them there, but they were there, nonetheless. The fabric strained with his effort. Okay. I have arms. Do I remember being restrained?
As he mentally travelled down that road, the quicksand started to overtake him again. It suddenly felt late, really late, like he'd stayed up all night twice in a row and was only just now reaching his bed…
"No!" the voice shattered his reverie. "Keep going!"
… golden cigarette case…
His eyes flickered open again. He could remember that. Where did I get it? When did I start smoking? The questions filtered into his mind naturally now, one after another. Who's Heidi Ranger?
Piercing blue eyes flashed across his mind's eyes, silvery-white, followed by red lips. No… he thought, frowning. The straitjacket was feeling looser now. That's not her… that's… Lana–
And just like that, there she was, towering over him. Alex had to crane his neck to look at her. It felt like someone had rudely and without warning flicked on the light in his dark room, blinding him in the process. She kneeled down and smoothed a hand over his head, pressing a kiss to his forehead.
"We need to go. Take off that jacket."
Alex's eyes slid down to take in the many buckles holding him constrained. "Um. Can you help."
"You can do it. Alex…" Her fingers ghosted across the soft skin beneath his chin, prompting him to look up at her again. He could see her a little more clearly now. The same short blonde hair he remembered from… somewhere. But those brown eyes were his.
"You must remember by now where you are. Think."
"It doesn't make any sense," he whispered. "I can't think."
"If it doesn't make any sense, then factor that in. Why shouldn't things not make any sense?"
It felt like a much more complex question than it actually was. Alex took a long moment to consider the question. "Is this a dream?" he finally asked. Lana broke out into a wide grin. It was like nothing he could ever remember her doing. She didn't grin like that. He did.
"Are you… me?"
"Now he gets it." She grasped his shoulder and hauled him onto his feet, where the straitjacket felt almost loose enough for him to squeeze out of. "Get rid of that," she said. Alex thought of the jacket, then thought of it vanishing. And it did. He wiggled his fingers, marveling at the feeling.
"How long have you been here?" she asked him.
"I don't know," he replied. "I think I've always been here."
"No," she corrected. "Definitely not always."
"Oh. Well, where was I before?"
"Christ. You don't remember a thing?"
"I tried to find you sooner, but you were completely islanded off here. You weren't responding to anything I said."
Alex thought about the distant voice; the only thing that was ever not nothing in the many hours, days, weeks or years he'd spent staring off into space. "That was you?"
"Of course it was me! Who else would it have been?
"I thought I was imagining it…"
"Well, you're not wrong, but that's beside the point. We're here. Now we need to go, before he figures out what we're doing?"
"Who's he?" asked Alex.
Lana slid her hands into his, intertwining their fingers.
Andromeda Rango spent the next two weeks visiting Alex Rider in Mrs. Jones's penthouse flat. In that span of time, she filled almost three-quarters of her notebook, much of which she later ended up crossing out. Alex's mind was like a labyrinthine puzzle. Some days he sat in bed and stared out into space, as though his senses were completely dulled to the outside world. When he was coherent, he was usually trying to mislead her, charm her, or bark orders at her. The most compelling diagnosis she'd made was borderline personality disorder. From one day to the next, he acted like a completely different person.
There was also obvious lasting damage to his memory. He often forgot the things she told him, only to remember days later before forgetting again. Alex was unreliable, chaotic, unpredictable, and indisputably dangerous. On a Saturday afternoon, Rango sat down with Mrs. Jones at her dining room table and made a suggestion.
Mrs. Jones shut her eyes. "No."
"I'll keep seeing him, but it might help to have him in close quarters with other people – particularly people going through the same things as him."
"No one is going through the same things as him."
"We all experience the same spectrum of emotions, Tulip. Through that, our experiences are universalized. You might be surprised. All I can say is that we're getting nowhere like this. His psyche is fragmented. He still doesn't remember our first meeting in the street. The person I met that day is not the same one as I've been talking to these past couple weeks. In a new setting with new people, we might begin to see some progress…"
Mrs. Jones swept both hands over her face. Talking about Alex in her apartment was the only place Rango had ever seen Mrs. Jones look anything but perfectly composed. It was downright unnerving.
"While psychotherapy is the only proven treatment for BPD, some medications are approved to treat specific symptoms," Rango reluctantly continued.
Mrs. Jones was silent.
"And we're going to need to get a neurologist involved for further insight on what's happened to his memory."
Mrs. Jones rested both elbows on the table before her, staring down at the surface below. She wore the look of someone who hadn't slept in days.
"Do what you need to do," she muttered. "Just get him better."
Leaving the vast plane of nothingness was a mistake. Contrary to what he might have hoped, Alex did not wake up in his body with a sound mind and complete control the same way one might wake up after a night's rest. Instead, his experiences were broken up into a series of blinks: ten seconds here, two minutes there; five seconds here, six hours there. Sometimes all he could do was hear. Sometimes all he could do was see. Rarely was he ever able to talk.
That woman again. The purple hair. Even blurry, there was something familiar about her. She was talking to him, but he only knew because of the way her lips were moving. Static sounded in his ears, like the grey noise of a TV left on at a channel that didn't exist. Blink. The next thing he knew he was sitting in the back of a car, both hands fastened in his lap with a seatbelt holding him firmly against his seat. He couldn't remember when he'd begun doing it, but he was biting his lip, biting it hard, and it tasted like blood.
Her face loomed over him, wide-eyed and unreadable. He finally noticed that he wasn't alone: she was sitting right next to him, body wrapped in a thick wool jumper. She reached up to prod at his lip, discouraging him. He instinctively jerked his head away. A single drop of blood slid down his chin and landed on the clean silver metal of the handcuffs.
"Alex," she said lowly. "Relax."
Relax. That would be a lot easier to do if he had the slightest idea where he was or who she was or what the hell was going on. When he tried to talk, he found his voice was hoarse.
The woman adjusted her glasses and leaned in towards him.
"You're safe. We're taking you to a place called Galen House. They're going to be able to help you there."
"Did you hear that?" a familiar voice sounded in his ear. "Sounds like the looney bin to me, kiddo…"
Alex made the supreme effort to release his bottom lip and breathe. His gaze flickered between her eyes searchingly. A thin sheen of sweat coated his skin as he imagined his destination. A new kind of cage. Was it a good thing or a bad thing? Alex couldn't tell. His mind was conjuring scenes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Was he going to die in electroshock therapy? Did they still do that? Or would he merely rot away there for the rest of his young life?
He had to remind himself to breathe again as his eyes trickled down to where her hands were clasped together over her knees.
"Who are you?" he asked her softly. "Do I know you?"
"You do. I've been seeing you for a few weeks now. My name is Dr. Rango."
This was news to him. "Why don't I remember you…?"
"I'm not sure. There might've been lasting damage from the accident you were in. Do you remember that?"
He's gonna die! The sharp swerve that brought them swiftly to the edge, splintering of the wood as they crashed through the railing and – the glass shattering as he plunged into the dark river, enveloping him in freezing water. One terrified moment was as much as he'd been allotted before passing out (or, as he'd thought it to be, dying).
For the first time in weeks, he was able to speak clearly. "I remember."
"What else do you remember?"
"I remember… Mrs. Jones and the nurse. And then…" He twisted his fingers around and knitted them together, imitating the way she held her own. That's when he noticed the lack of bandages. He rolled his hands over so that he was looking down at them, palm-up. Jagged reminders of his time in Carlisle ran their lengths diagonally, impossible to deny. Was there even any point in trying to hide them anymore? He didn't care if she saw. She was probably better off knowing. He wondered vaguely if he might end up killing her at some point.
"I've been absent," he told her.
"Absent? What does that mean?"
"Elsewhere," he reiterated. "Gone."
"Are you back now?"
It was a good question – one he didn't have the answer for. "I don't know."
She seemed to be focusing intently on him, but the fear he expected to see wasn't there. From the snippets of memories he had access to, she'd been on the receiving end of a few violent outbursts since their meeting. And yet, here she remained, strapped into the backseat of a car with him as though they were simply sharing a cab ride home. He took another moment to examine her unusual aesthetic. There was zero resemblance between her and any other therapist he'd ever had. Didn't she realize she was too old to have purple hair? Why was she wearing yoga pants? She was looking at him softly; fondly, even. The effect was unsettling. Who had she been talking to all these weeks? Other Alex? Lana? Someone else entirely?
"So," he started up again. His voice sounded grating to his own ears. "You're institutionalizing me, right?"
"Only for a little while."
At least she wasn't beating around the bush. "I guess that means I haven't been getting better."
"Well, you haven't been getting worse," she amended. Ever the optimist, it seemed. There was a quality of wonder to her voice – she sounded oddly pleased, but for what reason, Alex didn't know.
"Alex," she addressed him, "would you like me to update you on your condition?"
"After I first met you, I developed the hypothesis that you may have what's called Borderline Personality Disorder – an inability to regulate moods, emotions or thoughts. It often manifests as reckless or impulsive behaviour. Recently, however, I've begun to doubt that diagnosis – or at least consider it incomplete. I now believe you might suffer from Dissociative Identity Disorder… previously known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Does this sound at all feasible to you?"
Dissociative Identity Disorder. He swallowed hard, staring across at her without blinking. There was a name for it. Did that mean there was a method of treating it?
"I-I…" he stammered. He wanted to say it, but after spending so long trying to keep it a secret, approaching the topic now set off every alarm bell in his head. There was no point in lying – she already knew the truth. Beyond that, he'd hit rock-bottom. Did he really want to stay there?
Again, that haze of confusion. He could hardly tell up from down. Maybe he did want to stay at rock-bottom. How could he ever possibly deserve to leave after how much he'd fucked up? After everything he'd done?
"It's…" Alex reached up to press his hands over his eyes, breathing deeply. Eagle's face flashed across his mind's eye, followed swiftly by Wolf's, and then his own – that careless grin, so enticing… "It's really quite… complicated…"
"Dissociative Identity Disorder is characterized by at least two distinct and relatively enduring identities that alternately control a person's behaviour," Rango added. "It's accompanied by memory impairment for important information not explained by ordinary forgetfulness."
He nodded mutely. "What does that… mean?"
"Well… the good news is, you're not the first to suffer from such a condition. The bad news is, there's no standard, one-size-fits-all method of treatment. I want to try a few things, starting with Galen House. You're not going to be alone there. Other patients–"
"W-what!?" he burst out, startling her into silence. He started compulsively shaking his head. "No. Listen, you can't put me in with other people."
"Security will be standing by in case anyone tries anything…"
Alex's voice was pleading. "No. I'm – I can't control myself – you know, you know – I can't stop!"
In all her time spent trying to understand Alex Rider's unique condition, this was the first time he'd displayed such obvious remorse for what had happened prior to their second meeting. Her lips parted as she watched him dissolve into panicked rambling.
"Please. You have to listen to me about this. It happens too fast to stop – your security wouldn't act fast enough to save anyone. Didn't they tell you anything about me? Don't you know a damn thing? Who do you think I am?!"
"Alex," she broke in, slightly awestruck, "who do you think you are?"
Having labelled her as completely ignorant, his panic had morphed into horror. "I'm – I'm – I was – don't tell me they didn't tell you?"
"That you're an MI6 operative?"
He closed his eyes in a single, long blink; one of the first attempts she'd ever seen him make at calming himself down. Progress? Rango wondered. He's taking responsibility for what happened, but… maybe too much responsibility…
"I was trained to kill," he whispered. "I'm not in my right mind. Please don't put me with strangers. Please. I don't want to do it again."
Rango reached out to grasp his hand in her own. He threw his weight against the door, glaring at her. "Don't."
"You're not as bad as you think you are."
He was back to shaking his head. "Please. You lot never listen to me. Just please listen to me on this."
"Keeping you isolated won't get you better."
His eyes flickered over to hers, and that's when she realized: he knew that. It didn't matter to him.
Whoever this Alex is… he's not the same one I met on my first day. Up until then, Alex's every interaction with her had been imbued with the hidden intention of getting her to release him. He was constantly trying to manipulate her. Suddenly all that was gone, replaced only with this… living, breathing embodiment of guilt.
"But you already know that…" she breathed. This is… another identity.
"I tried to get better," he whispered achingly, eyes urging her to understand. "I couldn't."
"You haven't tried this."
"It doesn't matter."
"Don't you think your loved ones would want to see you recover?" she tried, appealing to his guilt-complex. "Don't you think it would devastate them to learn that you didn't keep trying until all options were exhausted?"
"It doesn't matter," he repeated, reaching up to rub his bloodshot eyes with his bound hands.
"I'm never going to see them again."
"According to who?"
A humourless bubble of laughter escaped him. "You're kidding."
"I'm a murderer."
"An act of self-defence isn't the same as…"
"Is that what they told you?" he demanded, dropping his hands. "That I was defending myself?"
They were nearing the institution. Rango recognized the rolling hills from the many drives she'd taken there herself.
"You were kidnapped," she pointed out. "It was life or death."
Alex was staring at her again … afraid. Reading his expression, she could tell there was something he wanted to say. He swallowed against the dryness in his throat. "But…"
The entrance to Galen House loomed up before them, all towering stone and creeping vines. The building was old. Alex's mind wandered back to the mental institutions he'd seen in movies… specifically horror movies. What if the place was haunted – or worse – what if the personnel were just as crazy as the patients…?
He swore under his breath, appealing to her one last time. "Listen, if you put me in with other people, something really bad is going to happen, okay? Kind of like how something really bad happened the last time you guys didn't listen to me. Please!"
"Alex, Mrs. Jones wanted to put you in therapy a long time ago. Perhaps it was you who should've listened to her."
"Mrs. Jones," he repeated. "Of course. You're working for her. That's why you're pushing so hard for this 'recovery'… she feels bad, does she?"
"She cares about you."
"She's got a hell of a way of showing it."
The car slowed to a halt in front of the imposing structure. Beautifully-trimmed hedges lined the long path up to the entrance. At least he was going to the high-end loony bin.
"I'm sorry nobody is listening to you, Alex. Honest. I remember what you were like before all this, and I wish that person was around to advise me on the situation now. Unfortunately, you've said it yourself: you're not in your right mind. I know it's a stretch, but you're just going to have to trust that we have your best interests at heart. At the very least, they're better than the ones you have for yourself. And after all… what more do you have to lose?"
The driver came around to open Alex's door and offer him a hand. Alex stared at her. He looked almost ready to give up the argument.
"Me?" he echoed. "What more do I have to lose? Why is that of any consequence? The people in there–" Alex jutted a finger out at Galen House, "they have something to lose. They're the ones that are going to get hurt!"
Rango stepped out of the car and moved to the other side in order to beckon him forward. Alex reluctantly stepped out into the light, shielding his eyes.
"So don't hurt them," she told him simply. Alex trailed after her with his hands buried in his hair.
"You're talking to a crazy person! I don't call the shots!"
The receptionist heard his comment and met him with a smile. "Hello. You must be Alex Rider."
Alex breezed past Rango and pressed his hands down onto the surface of the desk. He was separated from the woman by a pane of glass. "This," he said, touching the glass. "Tell me there's more of this."
Her eyes flickered between him and Rango, who beamed back at her. "Hello, Dahlia."
"Hi, Andy. Your new patient – how is he?"
"I'm right here," Alex muttered.
"Of course. How are you, Alex?"
"Peachy, thanks." He took a moment to glance around at his new surroundings. High, vaulted ceilings greeted him from above. The wood-paneled walls and Victorian-period décor made him feel like he was standing in a lawyer's office.
"Would you like us to show you to your room?"
It was then that the reality of his situation really decided to set in. His room. He had a room here.
But for how long?
Sorry for the long wait on this and thank you so much for your response last chapter! So a lot of you were really surprised to find out Lana was dead and weren't quite sure when it happened. The last time Alex sees Lana alive is when he climbs out her bedroom window and goes after Wolf. Did anyone ever wonder why she never arrived on the scene? There's a moment during the confrontation with Scorpia where Wolf thinks he sees her, but it's fleeting because it turns out to be his imagination playing tricks on him. Past that point, K-unit never sees her again.
To clarify, Lana goes after Alex in another car, but ends up in a fatal collision and dies. The conversation Alex has with her in the back of the hotel is a hallucination. The reason she calls herself Heidi Ranger is because Alex sees that name when the old woman passes him in the hallway, snapping her cigarette case shut. Lana calls herself that in the hallucination because it's fresh in his memory and doesn't yet mean anything to him. WAHT A TWIST, amirite? Didn't you guys know I'm actually M. Night Shyamalan?
Galen is a word I took from another language. Does anyone know what it means? :P heh. UNLIMITED NEEDLESS EASTER EGGS
Okay so… the point of view in this chapter is all over the place, and I know it. To be honest… I'm trying not to be a perfectionist with the writing for this story because my first priority is to get it written and finished, and if I dwell too much on how it's written, I may never get to the end. For slightly better writing, I will refer you to the more recently developed story of All in the Faculty!
Shout-out to the people still kicking my butt to update this thing 7 months later! You know who you are! Thanks for the continued support!
Next chapter: Galen House, meet Alex Rider. Alex Rider, meet your demons.