The Bitter Pill

Disclaimer: Unfortunately, I don't own the Alex Rider series, it all belongs to the genius that is Anthony Horowitz...

Disclaimer Take Two: I also don't own any recognisable products or companies, etc. that may get a passing mention in this story...

Warning: This fic contains some mild, blink-and-you'll-miss-it SPOILERS for all the Alex Rider books, but particularly 'Crocodile Tears'. If you haven't read it yet (do so!), and you don't want to be SPOILERED, look away now...(Please feel free to take a cookie or a gadget before you leave...)

A/N: I've recently rediscovered my love for the Alex Rider series, in particular the intricacies of the different characters, so I thought I'd try my hand at writing them to keep my brain functioning during Fresher's Week (that's right, folks, I'm now officially a uni student!). Currently, I have two finished chapters but I also have a written plan to follow for the storyline, which hopefully means it will write anyone who's read anything else I've done and knows that I'm never usually brilliant at updating my multi-chapter fics needn't worry with this one =] This is set during Alex's second year at university, which means he's now nineteen and therefore the rating is subject to change due to some slightly more mature material that I might add in later.

A/N Take Two: Please remember that all reviews are greatly appreciated so once you've finished reading, have a go at pressing the purdy li'l button at the bottom of the page...pretty please with an even prettier teenage superspy on top?


Chapter One

It was an unimaginative place. Truth be told, that's what had drawn him to it; no one expected the unexpected, so no one looked for it. It was just what he needed. Today, however, there was a frantic hum of excitement, a buzz of gossip and intrigue. Alex Rider just put his head down quietly and prayed to any deity who might be listening that the buzz was not about him.

There was something to be said for being a teenage superspy. Whilst MI6 felt his services were 'invaluable' – as Mrs Jones had put it once, whilst sucking on a newly unwrapped peppermint – he was also something of an embarrassment to them. The fact that they needed a teenager to do their dirty work, the fact that they were responsible for the abuse of a minor – because no one in their right mind could look at Alex after a mission and not call his treatment 'abuse' – and because, technically, according to all sources high up the greasy ladder of British government, they weren't doing it anyway. Most of the time, this just succeeded in making Alex angry, but on very rare occasions, he relished the sense of anonymity that the Official Secrets Act gave him, especially after the debacle with Harold Bulman, the journalist intent on selling Alex's story to the world for a small fee; life as Alex knew it. Whenever he wondered why he was still working for them five years down the line, he remembered Bulman and realised that they pretty much owned him. Sometimes he was ok with that.

But it was only times like today. He was nineteen years old now; able to look after himself, and no longer a child, although he wondered sometimes how much longer he had been a child after his uncle's death, or even whether life with Ian Rider had constituted a childhood at all. He had somehow, miraculously (and, he assumed, with a little nudge in the right direction from Alan Blunt), come out of Brookland School with a handful of passable GCSE results; enough required to get him into college in any case. He'd chosen somewhere local, somewhere where he could be with the only people he called his friends; Tom Harris, James Hale, and his housekeeper – who was really more like a big sister – Jack Starbright. A levels were the easy part; history, geography, maths, and chemistry blended into one another in a blur of essays and exams. As far as Special Operations were concerned, they were just there to fill the gap in between assignments; their own little 'field trips' to Russia, Haiti, America, and South Africa, all of which ended with another brush with death and some miracle of Alex's ingenuity that had managed to save his life at the last second.

After college, he'd told Alan Blunt, in no uncertain terms, that he was taking a break from being a spy. He told Blunt that he wanted to go to university, to be a normal student, and that they should only call for him if it was an absolute emergency and no one else was available to do the job instead. It felt ridiculous to have to ask the Secret Service if he could go to university, but at the same time, he felt liberated when Blunt had nodded and said, 'Well, if you must'. His contacts within MI6 could have endeared him to Oxbridge, but Alex had chosen Paisley because it was remote and almost as far away from the 'Royal & General Bank' that he could get. He had chosen politics as his core degree subject, figuring that it was best to know your enemy, and had elected to take computing as a sideline, since the best spy work was being done with the aid of technology. If he'd thought it was ironic that he'd chosen subjects that would help him to get ahead at MI6, it only served to make him realise that whatever happened while he was living the life of 'Alex Rider: Normal Student', he was always destined to work for the world of Alan Blunt. He supposed, then, that even bothering to go to university in the first place was a little redundant, but it made him happy to think that he was metaphorically shoving two fingers up to the world of Special Operations.

He was actually sitting in one of his politics lectures when it happened. He was running a bit late, due to the fact that one of his flatmates, Joe Shearer, had decided that today was the day to try out all the products in their shared bathroom, meaning that Alex had to shower and dress in double-quick time. He reached the lecture theatre, panting, and looked around him for a spare seat. All the uncomfortable wooden benches were pretty much full, except for one space right in the middle. He hated being stuck in the middle of the class; it generally led to being asked the unanswerable questions and feeling like you'd shrunk to the height of a Smurf.

"Thanks, mate," he muttered under his breath, ignoring the fact that Joe wasn't actually around to hear Alex cursing him.

He shimmied across the row of people and dropped down into the space just as the lecturer set his briefcase down on the desk and opened up a PowerPoint file on the ancient overhead projector. Alex liked Steve Humphries; he knew absolutely everything about British politics and pretty much everything about political goings-on in the rest of the world too, and as far as Alex was concerned, Steve's love of vintage films and 80s rock music more than made up for his unhealthy obsession with Margaret Thatcher.

"Alright," came Steve's booming Glaswegian accent from behind his tinny little laptop. "Settle down, you lot, it's time to learn about the great and the good. Are we all sitting comfortably?"

A picture of Thatcher zoomed onto the screen accompanied by a sound bite from 'Spitting Image'. Everyone laughed and Alex relaxed into his seat, switching on his Dictaphone and letting his brain switch off. He looked around to see who he'd ended up sitting with and was surprised to see someone new sitting next to him. The girl was thoroughly engrossed in what Steve was saying and was chewing absent-mindedly on her pen lid. Her face was covered by a cloud of hair that fell to her shoulders in waves and was such a vivid shade of red that he knew it had to have been dyed that colour. He was curious to see what she looked like, so he nudged her, and she turned to him. For a second, he just opened his mouth like a goldfish; she had the most intensely green eyes he had ever seen.

"What?" she hissed, when she realised that he was seemingly incapable of speech.

"I, uh, need a pen," he said, stumbling over the first excuse that came into his head. She handed him one that hadn't been chewed and returned to her notes.

There was something about this girl that troubled Alex. She had a face that you forgot easily if you were in a hurry, but if you stopped to look, you would always remember. She was beautiful in an unconventional way, a long straight nose - which was slightly crooked at the bridge, just like Alex's own after it had been broken – and a small mouth. When she had first looked at him, she had smiled and Alex had caught a glimpse of slightly overlapped teeth, as if a couple had been knocked out and the others had jostled around to fill the gap. He shook his head; Alan Blunt had finally gotten to him and he was quite clearly being ridiculous. He was making it seem like this girl got into fights on a regular basis, and she certainly didn't look the type, dressed in comfortable looking jeans and a baggy University hoodie. But there was something about her that unnerved him, and it wasn't until he remembered her intense, emerald-coloured eyes that he realised what it was; she had the same cold, expressionless eyes that he sometimes saw looking back from his own reflection. They were the eyes of someone who has seen too much; who knows more than is healthy. The eyes of someone who has killed on more than one occasion. Alex shivered – although it was still fairly warm for September – and he vowed to stay away from the mysterious girl.

She flipped her hair away from the paper she was writing on, tucking a section behind the ear that was closest to Alex. There was another hurried movement as her hand quickly brought the section of hair back down again but it was too late. Alex had already seen her earlobe, which was disfigured by a large, ugly scar than ran the length of it and looked like someone had sliced through it with a serrated knife. He looked away hurriedly and realised that Steve had been asking him a question.

"Rider!" barked Steve, staring at him impatiently. Alex jerked upright and forced himself to focus.

"Uh, yeah, sorry…" he said feebly.

"Since you were obviously listening, Alex," Steve said with a hint of a grin. "Perhaps you could explain to us all the significance of the '79 election results?"

As Alex rifled through his notes, desperately looking for the figures and inwardly cringing at being singled out, he caught the girl looking at him from behind her hair.