*repeatedly bashes head into keyboard* These damn songs keep sparking one-shots that have absolutely nothing to do with the five other stories I should be working on. But I got so few reviews on Requiem for a Rising Star and Not All That Is Over Is Past that this could also be considered my personal revenge. Muahahaha. Sure, an unplanned revenge, but revenge nonetheless.
Disclaimer: Do I really need to put this here? I never bother with it except when I have songfics. Lyrics aren't mine (because if I were Groban, I sure as hell wouldn't bother with writing if I had a voice like an angel), Alex Rider isn't mine (or I wouldn't be doing fanfiction for it, clearly).
Keep in mind that this comes after Scorpia Rising, but it does not have anything to do with my other works. It's a standalone one-shot.
"War At Home" – lyrics owned by Josh Groban
He woke at 3am, much earlier than he had ever gotten up since basic and Brecon Beacons. It should have been obvious that something was wrong from the first. His back didn't hurt from sleeping on rough ground, the air wasn't filled with the usual buzz of activity, and the soft, tiny hands encompassing his large, calloused one—the one with his unembellished and well-worn wedding band—were not ones he expected to feel for another three months when his tour was supposed to end.
It took him longer to open his eyes than it should have, but when he had full view of his surroundings, it did nothing to ease his tension. His first words were inaudible through the oxygen mask tied with thin, green elastic around his mouth and nose.
As he stirred, the warm hands tightened. "James?"
Wolf turned his head somewhat awkwardly to get a better look at the small blonde. Her bright sapphire eyes were wide in equal parts surprise and delight. He wanted so much to ask where he was, how many days he had been unconscious, and where the rest of his unit was; but what he rasped out was, "Mel."
The simple rendering of his fiancée's name was enough to perk tears in Melissa Carol's eyes. "I have to get your brother from the hallway. He's been so worried. We've been worried," she corrected. "The doctor thought you weren't going to make it, but you showed him."
Before she could free her fingers from his grasp, he asked breathlessly, "What…happened?"
Her face twisted in pain. "You don't remember?" Wolf shook his head. "One of the other soldiers—I didn't catch a name—he said it was an IED (improvised explosive device) that got attached to either your vehicle or a nearby one. You got really lucky, James. Really, really lucky."
He wanted to ask what had happened to his teammates and the other unit that had been with them. Too fast for his digits to keep up, Melissa stood to plant a kiss on his forehead. "I'll get Gabriel. Just one second." The gesture was repeated, her child-like hands lightly combing through his hair, before she straightened up. With a reassuring smile, she was out the door in a rustle of silky white fabric.
It was only once his fiancée had left his hospital room that he noticed two interesting facts that had eluded him until now.
The room was not meant for only a single person to recuperate in. To his left, the curtains were drawn around the other bed. From the steady beeps emanating from the corner, someone was occupying the spot. However, he could see no personal effects or signs of visitors other than his fiancée and younger brother, Gabriel.
But what drew his immediate interest was the business woman with a laptop bag draped delicately over her shoulder. The woman who hadn't been here just a minute ago. Upon seeing that she had his attention, the bag was abandoned in the chair Melissa had previously occupied. "James Mendoza*, my name is Tulip Jones. I have a letter for you, but as you are currently incapacitated, I will summarize the contents. We regret to inform you that you and your teammate, Jake O'Reilly codenamed Snake, have been honorably discharged for the wounds and trauma sustained in your last assignment. For your actions and a string of highly successful commands during active operations, you have also been awarded the Distinguished Service Order."
Wolf used his lightly bandaged left hand to pull the breathing mask down from his mouth. "What about Eagle and…" He coughed heavily. "I mean, Ryan Marks and Marcus Tamney. Will they receive honorable discharge?"
Jones didn't blink. "They were killed in the explosion, Mr. Mendoza. Their families will receive benefits, and both will likely be awarded posthumously for their stellar records."
It didn't take long for her words to sink in.
A fallen brother,
He's a…a fallen husband
He's about to be woken in his hospital bed
Doesn't want to rest
Just wants to run,
And he's tired of being told that he's the lucky one
There are many jobs that no child grows up wanting, jobs that you don't sign up for, jobs so unrewarding that no raise in pay can compensate for the emotional onslaught you accept on a daily basis.
She drives a run-of-the-mill grey car, dresses in simple, unrevealing business suits, and wears a blank face. Her job involves doing the paperwork that no one else wants to do, making the decisions that no one else has the tenacity or heart to suggest, and making the calls that no one else can make without baring their own souls.
Today… Today is just another day. She extracts a peppermint from the spearmints hiding it in the silver tray, a morning ritual she has kept in practice since her days at the university. Another conversation to shatter another heart. Nothing to it; she makes it look flawless and simple.
Slipping into the back of the black van, she doesn't have to do more than compose her figure and give a sharp nod for the door to slide closed and her personal chauffeur to disengage the brakes, shooting headlong into early morning traffic.
She doesn't fiddle with the hem of her thickly woven skirt or shuffle the papers in her bag to pass the time. Her eyes are examining the quickly paced traffic with a cool gaze and her mouth has settled into a solid line of disinterest. It is as if she does not realize she has left her office, but in reality, she knows that the whole of Britain is the floor she walks into each morning. The office, with its countless burdensome responsibilities, has never left her. Not since she found herself getting an impromptu promotion.
From the time she steps on to the curb—her driver not even bothering to park—and smoothed the wrinkles from the soft material in her skirt, to her arrival in James Mendoza and Jake O'Reilly's shared long-term hospital room, she doesn't run over rehearsed condolences or assume to disposition of a kindly, caring woman.
This is Tulip Jones, the former deputy director under Alan Blunt and current director of MI6. She does not fritter over sweet words of mercy or bother concerning herself with what the man's reactions would undoubtedly be. This single woman holds the combined intelligence of every British operation under her metaphysical hat alongside those not stated or otherwise referenced in publically accessible records.
When she speaks, it is with the blunt disregard but keen knowing of one in her position. MI6's director, as she learned in tutelage under Blunt, cannot afford emotion. The media crows and lesser foes alike would prey upon it like sharks sensing the spill of fresh blood.
But, stepping back into the corridor of St. Dominics as Mendoza stumbled selflessly to his feet to pull aside the curtains hiding the still-comatose O'Reilly from light, she feels more than hears the phone in her coat buzz. The only cell phone number she maintains is a strictly private line, denoted for only the save few. Her surprised reaction to the number that glared in stark black up at her. Her voice is unusually gentle when she answers, but it has not lost the edge earned from years of exposure to the darker aspects of human civilization. This edge is not the hard, bitter one that her tone has a tendency to revert to when the office stress built up; this is the motherly edge that only mothers can attain through two decades of carefully molding a child through adolescence and into the independence of adulthood.
In this new mindset, Jones sat heavily on the bench, listening more than speaking through the open line. It was beyond her capabilities to sympathize with James Mendoza, but it didn't mean that she couldn't understand. Her own flesh and blood, and her only daughter, was in the Royal Air Force hitting the front lines as heavily as her ability allowed. It made her cringe when her daughter was infuriated by the lack of intelligence that her squadron was getting before having them fly in. At the top of the chain of command that she was griping about was Tulip Jones, making those decisions and calls that no one else can muster the will to.
The bottom line? Everyone had to wager something, and if things didn't go strictly according to script, her spies didn't get all the information she balanced their lives for, or someone in the field didn't do their job, she could lose the only thing she found precious.
As Mendoza's fiancée returned to the hospital room with another man in tow—Mendoza's brother or cousin, most likely—she closed her cell with a snap. The moisture threatening to spill was dabbed quickly away with the sleeve of her blouse. She reconsidered the now-retired soldier's room momentarily, and not specifically intending to right wrongs. Exchanging her phone for a ballpoint pen, she took a sheaf of blank computer paper from her computer bag, Jones dredged up all the bitter emotions of a military mother and widower as she scripted out the letter.
A caped crusader,
She's a…newborn leader, but
You should see her when her daughter's on the phone
And she wipes the tears away
And she laces up because there's still Hell to pay
And it sure feels like Hell today
Her chauffeur pulls up to the entrance the moment that her heels click against the sidewalk. Nearly giving the man a heart attack, she quietly says, "I need to send a letter. Don't log it."
He nods, as is expected of him.
And she says,
'You see these hands?
They're bruised and brown
They're yours alone
Hold on, love,
We're still going down
Hold on, love,
We're still fighting at home
The war at home'
Yet another long day was ending as he slumped back in one of the kitchen chairs, homework tumbling helter-skelter across the table in front of him. He had been out with a doctor's appointment yesterday, and that extra work had only attached itself to the already massive stack he had accumulated. That isn't the reason that he feels so tired after one of the typical school days that he had missed so much over his absence.
He had been in a haze for over a week now. The doctor assured him that the feeling would pass with time, but it didn't reassure him then or at the moment. The house—not yet his until he turned eighteen—was more empty than he remembered it being only a month ago; but it didn't take much digging to understand that it wasn't only in his mind. It was indeed lacking one of its occupants, one fated never to step across its threshold again.
The microwave beeped thrice, announcing the completion of his early dinner. Leftovers were hardly his preference, but he was simply too tired to put anything more together. Tossing his maths book into his book bag, the rest of the textbooks and their corresponding assignments were neatly stacked on the far side of the table. Halfway through setting the table, he wearily realized that he had accidentally set an extra seat out of habit. He got back up to put the extra settings back and pull his small dinner from the microwave.
As he ate, he thought back on how his life was changing. He had declined the Pleasures' offer to adopt him into their household in California, despite Edward Pleasure's gracious invitation to spend at least a weekend with them to test the atmosphere. This was his uncle's home and, up until two weeks ago, Jack Starbright's home; he couldn't leave it behind with all of their possessions to go to strangers. He knew it was a silly thing. Not only that, but he had told Jones—Blunt's replacement, if he heard correctly—he had told her…
A knock resounded from the porch, and immediately his hand curled around the unused knife by his plate. Watching the floorboards as he crept up on the front door, he crouched down to peek out the small vertically inclined window panes that bordered the door. Seeing the familiar face of the mailman, he breathed a little easier and set the knife out of view by a vase of flowers.
"Sorry, I was putting some books away," he apologized as he opened the door. "What do you have for me?"
"An interesting letter for one Alexander Rider, with an even more interesting request attached to it," the man replied, taking off his hat to scratch at his receding hairline. "It was brought in with the intent of being hand delivered immediately rather than going into a pile of things to be delivered today. I informed the lovely lady that if she wanted it hand delivered, she should probably go about doing that herself, but she was quite insistent. Not that I minded, what with the personal tip and all." From a blue utility bag slung across his chest, he withdrew a rather plain white envelope. "She also said to give her condolences. Death in the family?"
He nodded halfheartedly. "Something of the sort. Thank you for the quick delivery. It is much appreciated."
The mailman only shook his head. "People these days. If you want something fast, send an email. You had another letter too, this one from the military it looks like. Thinking on joining?" He shrugged, and the man got his cue. With a small wave, he strode back the way he had come.
Alex watched his departure for a moment with cold eyes, eyes not befitting his age. Once he felt there were no hidden dark forces at work with his mail delivery, he shut and locked the door before moving back into the kitchen to tear open the envelopes, snatching up his knife as he passed it.
It was not what he had expected in the slightest, but he scarfed up the remains of his meal in haste. It was lightly raining, yet again, so he took a small umbrella and warm jacket. At quick glance, he knew from Google maps that the place wasn't far from his house, and even quicker he could tell that he didn't have the change for the short bus ride. Walking it was.
On the porch where the mailman had been standing, his breath materialized as a fog of transparent condensed air in front of his nose. He pulled the black scarf over his mouth and nose, opened the umbrella, and stepped out into the drizzle. At five on a Tuesday afternoon while England was under stinging winds and near-freezing rain, he ran into only the odd person looking to escape to warm roofs, or at least dry shelter.
By the time he reached the hospital half an hour later, Alex was bitterly regretting his lack of gloves and a heavier winter coat. Even his nose was a flushed pink to match his cheeks. The receptionist looked up from her Sudoku puzzle as his shoes squeaked on the tiled floor. "Can I help you?"
Innocence behind his broken expression
He's a child of mercy
He's an unlearned lesson
And he's trying to wake up
From this wilderness his world has now become
He's reaching out to those he's running from
He fell back into 'spy mode' with practiced ease. "I'm looking for my older brother. Jamie? Jamie Mendoza? Mom said he was in an…well, some kind of accident in Afghanistan."
Her face wrinkled in worry, but she said, "I'm sorry. Visiting hours are over for patients in critical care. You can come back tomorrow, if you'd like."
Mustering all his dignity and throwing it out the nearest window, he padded over to the desk and met her eyes with the best Bambi expression he could manage. "But Mom said he was really hurt; and she was worried about him and wanted to come but…but she has the flu, you see, and I have to see him!" He put his clasped hands up on the counter. "Please? I haven't seen him in months, ma'am."
She was clearly torn between doing her job without any exceptions and helping a kid who just wanted to see his brother again. It was a full five seconds before she came to a decision. "I have to go off-duty in an hour, but I think I can sneak you into his ward." The receptionist glanced inconspicuously around the empty lobby. Ushering him back behind her desk, she grabbed one of the wheelchairs sitting conveniently to the side. "Pretend to be in pain, close your eyes and clutch your stomach. Your brother is in one of the furthest rooms to the back."
With an innocent smile, he thanked her profusely before following her instructions.
There was a brief moment where Alex could have sworn that she had changed her mind, but then she was behind the chair pushing him briskly through the automatic doors. There was only one orderly that stopped them. To their mutual relief, she asked what she could do to help. The receptionist waved him off, saying his appendix had ruptured and they already had a room laid out for him. Whether it was her believable fabrication or Alex's loud moans as he writhed in the wheelchair, he was convinced and continued down the hall with the covered tray that filled his hands. Two automatic doors and one turn later, she patted his shoulder.
"Your brother's room is the one right there," she said, pointing out the door. "His name's on one of the files in that basket attached to the door, in case you leave and come back at some point. Try not to get caught." Before he could twist backwards in the chair to thank her again, the receptionist was gone.
He extracted his legs from the foot rests and tip-toed to the door, staying on the lookout for any nurses on the prowl for unwelcome visitors. Pressing his ear for the door, Alex listened for a doctor or other medical person that might be at work in the hospital room. Unable to pick up any voices, and hearing the click of approaching heels, he cracked the door open, slipped in fast, and shut the door as quietly as he could.
"Do I know you?"
Alex thought about leaving, saying it was a misinterpretation of the room number he'd been given, and escaping this long-dreaded reunion after the events at Point Blanc. Taking a deep breath to prepare for the plunge, he turned around with a solemn expression. "I couldn't afford a card, so I decided to stop by."
Getting an actual look at Wolf, he really did look like he'd been caught in an IED. Two parallel runs of stitching on his right forearm were lightly wrapped in gauze. Small scabbing cuts dotted the right side of his face here and there. Worst of all was his leg. He had a thick cotton blanket covering the lower half of his body, but the cast was obvious even without seeing it first-hand.
The connection came surprisingly quick, once he put together the card, his age, and the obvious recognition. "Cub? The hell are you doing here? Shouldn't you be at…at school or something? And how did you get this room number?"
"I have my ways," he said gravely, but grinned. "And it's almost six. School let out hours ago."
Wolf did his best 'Don't give me this shit' expression, which was impressive if one considered the IV taped to his left elbow and the butterfly bandages holding together what hadn't required stitches.
Alex held out his hands in a warding gesture. "Hey, I just got this notice from SAS saying that K-Unit had run into serious problems in the Middle East. You guys sent me a nice card after I got shot, so the most could do was stop by. Have I mentioned that you look like shit, Wolf?"
Either he didn't take offense to the last comment, or he was too distracted by its predecessor. "We sent you a card when you got appendicitis. What's this about getting shot?"
"Oh they gave a cover story. Sneaky bastards." He got a glare for his tactless evasion. "It was nothing. I made these people mad, they sent a sniper after me, and in the end everyone was happy. Don't take it personally. Even SAS just told me that you guys were in a car accident. Jones told me the rest of it, though it's frankly quite obvious from my vantage point here."
"I'm not even going to ask. But really, aren't your parents worrying about you? You must have snuck in, because the rest of my family had to leave at five."
"My family? No. They wouldn't mind."
"That seems insensitive."
He deadpanned. "They're dead."
The former-soldier was speechless for a second. "All of them?"
Alex took tallies in his head. "Unless I have some mysterious second cousin who's gone into hiding… Yep, I can safely say that they're all gone."
"Then who's taking care of you?"
His immediate answer was "Jack", but midway through her name he remembered the harsh reality of his situation. "No one," he corrected. "How is the rest of K-Unit, by the way? The letter from SAS never gave specifics, and Jones only mentioned you."
It was Wolf's turn to have a shadow fall over his face. "Snake's over there." He jerked a hand in the direction of the curtained bed. "Concussion from the IED. Part of his skull has hairline fractures. Went into a coma two weeks ago and hasn't woken up since."
The teenager frowned. He had been under the assumption that Wolf had been the only one grievously injured and forced into early retirement, but this changed things. "And Eagle? Where's he?"
"Him and Falcon are dead. Killed instantly by shrapnel." His voice went up a little in pitch, the only hint that their deaths had devastated him.
Alex sat in one of the chairs by Wolf's bed and bent over forward, his elbows on his knees and his hands propping up his head. "Damn. That's… Damn." The casualties were piling up exponentially from his point of view, and it didn't look to be stopping anytime in the near future.
And he says
'You see these hands?
They're bruised and brown
They're yours alone
Hold on, now
We're still going down
Hold on, now
We're still fighting'
"You didn't ask about Fox."
'So he knows how to change subjects, too,' he thought ruefully. "Didn't have to. I saw Ben a couple days ago. Just fine, if you didn't know, except the eye patch. He said it was temporary."
Wolf shook his head in disbelief. "What are the chances that you two would run into each other?"
"Higher than you might think," Alex chuckled. He lifted his head up, folding his arms across his lap. "We work together. You might have heard of our company. Military Intelligence, Section 6?"
"Fox, maybe," he snorted, probably trying and failing to imagine his teammate as a spy. "You? No. Point Blanc was one thing, but…no. That's just illegal, plain and simple. Besides, what would your pare—" Wolf stopped as the pieces clicked together. "Oh. But that's just…"
"Wrong? Yeah, but it makes life a lot less boring."
They both fell silent, unable to think of anything else to bring up that wouldn't be completely insensitive to the other.
"Which brings me back to the question: What are you doing here?" Wolf repeated, leaning forward as much as he could—which wasn't much.
"Jones," the teenager groaned, sinking back down on to his palms. "My boss, she threatened me with the resident psychologist if I didn't stop by." That was a complete and utter lie, but one close enough to the target that it was believable. Her eloquent words, and the startling emotion she had poured into them, had essentially shocked him into coming. That, and the psychologist she had threatened him with in a post-script at the end. "I think she feels this will be remedial. Or something."
"Jones? As in Tulip Jones?"
"She's the only one I know of."
He let out a resigned sigh, but didn't expand on the subject. "We're quite the pair."
One step forward, two steps back
This is young and old
One step forward, two steps back
Through the void of the silence
You are not alone
"Jack was killed."
Wolf's head whipped sideways, leaving him with a pounding migraine. "What?"
"You told me about K-Unit, so I should probably give something in return. Jack was my housekeeper. She's been my legal guardian since my uncle, and last blood relative, died last year. I made enemies of the wrong people. Those people killed her in front of me." And yet he was able to say that sentence as if it were just a jumble of meaningless words. His eyes were vacant, but they looked at a far wall, not concentrating on anything in particular. He said the words without emotion, but the emotion was still there, boiling just under the surface. "That's…the other reason I'm here. Your unit has been incapacitated and killed, the last of my family was just murdered. I guess we're in the same boat now."
Wolf considered that. "I guess we are. This has to be the single most depressing conversation I've ever had."
"That's what I'm here for," he agreed. Getting a glance at the clock, he gathered up his umbrella and wet jacket. "I still have homework to catch up on and get to bed early tonight, but I can maybe stop by tomorrow afternoon. After hours, if you don't mind. I'm not as comfortable around strangers as I used to be."
A strange idea came to the former-soldier's mind. He shot it down at first, but reconsidering it a second time thought to voice it. "What are you doing for Christmas**?"
"Christmas?" The teenager leaned into the back of the chair, stretching like a cat. "I guess… I don't know. Haven't really thought past tomorrow, much less to next weekend. Last year it was just Jack and Tom, a friend from school. I haven't even said more than two or three sentences to Tom since I got back."
"Without K-Unit, it'll just be my fiancée and brother. I'm sure they wouldn't mind if you stopped over."
"I'd be imposing. Christmas is supposed to be with family and friends."
"And I'll be missing three of them. Four if I can't get in contact with Fox between now and then. You won't even have family. What do you say?"
You see these hands?
They're millions strong
They are yours now
Hold on now
We're all going down
He found himself smiling, actually smiling no matter how small it was. "How could I turn down a request like that?"
Hold on now
A/N: Did that seem reeeeeally long to anybody else? *facekeyboards* It was supposed to be a tiny one-shot, I swear. Obviously *glances at word count* this is a perfect example of roads paved with good intentions.
Made corrections thanks to some great reviewers. I can't possibly name all of them here, but there were a lot. Thanks to all of you!
*Yes, I am incredibly lazy to the point of not changing his name. Deal with it. I like the name.
**Dammit, I know that the events of Scorpia Rising go from January/February-ish to who-knows-when (March, I think? April?), but I wanted the Christmas thing so there. Ignore the technicalities and go back to reading.
Oh yes, a final note to readers: you bash the kind of music I listen to, and I bash you. Literally. Flames should be saved for marshmallows. You don't like, you don't read. Not that any of you wonderful people would do that. ^^ No, you would go leave a review telling me how much you liked it.