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One Step (In Front Of Another)

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Sometimes Alex looks in the mirror and sees Julius Grief looking back at him, face twisted in disdain; sometimes the shower is heavy Cairo rain and the gun in his hand as slippery as soap; sometimes he thinks, with a twist of bitter pleasure, I killed you.

Then he cleans his teeth.

*

Edward Pleasure is buried in the morning paper when Alex comes down to breakfast. He grunts out a greeting around a mouthful of toast.

“Stay classy, Dad.” Sabina kisses his cheek as she passes, setting a bowl down for Alex.

He fills it, pours himself milk, pours them both fruit juice. Bacon smells fill the kitchen as Liz clatters sizzling pans on the stove. It’s domestic, cosy, comfortable. Alex smiles and Sabina grins back.

“We should go to the marina later,” Sabina says.

“I’m not buying you a yacht,” Edward says from behind his paper. Sabina rolls her eyes, and Alex hides a laugh in his cereal.

*

Alex plays basketball now in the high-school that’s everything and nothing like Brookland. There’s no rowing, he’s stuck understudying understudies and painting sets for the drama club, and they don’t play football here. They don’t even call it football. He’s massively ahead in some subjects, way behind in others and most of his friends are really Sabina’s. Sometimes he misses Tom; they email once in a while, have each other friended on Facebook, and Alex feels the odd stab of something when Tom’s twitter mentions old places, old people, but it doesn’t stick. He brought everything he wanted to keep with him. If he brought more than that too, well, he’s working on it.

*

Sabina crows as they win another point. They’re playing mixed doubles. She looks stunning in her little white tennis skirt. Her friends look stunning too, bubbly Natalie, slick William, looking like they’ve sauntered off a movie set. Hell, this is California, Alex thinks. They might have. Sabina’s racking up the points, carrying his weight. Natalie is laughing, but William glares. He’s not the best of losers. He’s not the worst. Nothing like Sayle or Drevin. Nothing like--

He twists without thinking, catching the ball on the very edge of his racquet, whipping it back across court, clean through the gap between William and Natalie.

There’s silence. He realises they’re all staring at him.

“That,” Natalie breathes out. “Was. Awesome!”

“Luck of the freaking devil,” William says, sounding aggrieved, impressed and annoyed at being impressed all at once. “What are you, part cat?”

“He’s purr-fect,” Sabina agrees, batting her eyelashes at Alex, and he laughs, easy, relaxed.

William’s parents are rich. Edward Pleasure is not exactly hard up, but the money he makes from writing is pocket change to the Austins. They have bought William his own yacht. Natalie invites them all to a party on it. Alex can see William trying to think of way out of it, is ready to let the guy off the hook, but Sabina’s already agreed. William and Alex shake hands and both pretend like they weren’t squeezing too hard.

“It’ll be fun,” Sabina says on the way back. “We’ll dress up nice, have a few laughs -- you can be all sophisticated and British at them.”

“You’re British too, Sab,” Alex points out.

“Oh, I’ve been here too long for that to still work,” she says airily, although, really, how long can it have been? He was fourteen when they first met. He’s fifteen now and, for all the lifetimes and universes in between, it’s still only a year.

They walk up, arm in arm, Sabina chatting about what they’re going to wear, to find Liz on her knees in the flower beds. She wipes her forehead on her sleeve, smiling up at them.

“Hey, kids. Good game?”

“Natalie invited us out later,” Sabina says. “It’s just some friends, I think. Her parents will be there.” This is the first Alex has heard of it. He doesn’t let it show. “We can go right?”

“Curfew is midnight,” Liz says sternly, though she’s smiling. “Not a second later, young lady.”

“Alex will keep me in line, won’t you, Alex?” Sabina elbows him.

“Sure,” he says, and nods at the flowers. “Looking good.” He never knows what to call Sabina’s mum. There’s no way he’s calling her ‘mum’, not when he and Sabina are still working out what they are to each other now Alex is living with them for keeps, but Mrs Pleasure is too formal now and Liz is … weird somehow. William was always William to him, right from the start.

“Hopefully they’ll stay that way,” Liz sighs. “We’ve been invaded by slugs of all things.” She shakes a white bottle at them, table salt from the pantry, and goes back to pouring it on the ground, muttering, “I’ll get you yet.”

Sabina is saying something. Salt spills from the bottle, falls through the air. Slugs, caught, twist and writhe, shrivel, desiccate.

“Right,” says Alex, backing towards the house. “Right. I have to--”

The world goes sideways. The brick is sharp under his palm, his throat burns, and there’s throw-up on his Nikes.

“Jesus, Alex,” Sabina says. He just shakes his head, tells her he’s okay. She doesn’t ask, just rubs his back until the shakes stop and he’s closer to not being a liar. She never asks for details and he loves that about her even if sometimes he hates it, if sometimes he wishes he could have that first time with Cray over again, telling her everything and having her believe none of it.

“All that tennis in this heat,” Sabina says loudly, and Alex looks up to see Liz hurrying over, concern written large on her friendly face. “I told you to drink more water. You should listen to me more.”

Alex manages a smile. “Yeah, I should.”

“There are some sports drinks in the fridge,” Liz says. “Isotonic, or whatever they call them. And you should lie down for a bit -- maybe the party isn’t a good idea after all.”

“Mum,” Sabina complains, whines really, more five than fifteen.

“I’ll be fine,” Alex insists. “I’ll rest up. I’ll be fine.”

*

Sometimes he dreams he’s in a taxi under water. A gondola drifts by lazily overhead as the front compartment fills up. Sabina pounds on the window, Sabina or Tom or Edward. Sometimes it’s even Jack. Alex dreams he sits there on the back seat and watches.

Sometimes he dreams he is holding a gun in a flat, modern and sparsely furnished. He pulls the trigger and this time there’s no glass. Mrs Jones goes over backwards, limp as a rag. Hands fall on his shoulders, warm, paternal. A man tells him he proud he is. Alex doesn’t look around to see who is talking.

Sometimes he dreams he’s in class, San Francisco falling away around him, and he looks down and there’s a small hole in the front of his shirt and he thinks, Oh, with a bemused sort of resignation. Oh. Of course.

*

Sabina finds him a gray jacket to go over his t-shirt and smart trousers; he keeps his trainers on, an odd blend of smart and casual he's pretty sure makes him look like a dork but which Sabina insists is the fashion of the day. She's wearing a scandalously red cocktail dress and laughs at him when he points out the incongruity.

Edward drops them at the marina, and they saunter arm-in-arm out along the docks, too-blue water breaking against sea walls in warm, salty spray. The yacht’s the largest ship there, multi-decked, pristine white and gracefully bedecked in lines of lights and bunting, its name a dashing slash of colour across the hull.

“The ‘Wet Dream’,” Sabina reads out in disbelief. “Seriously?”

“I guess the ‘Look At Me, I Have Way More Money Than You Plebs, Nyah-Nyah,’ was already taken,” Alex says, and dodges Sabina’s elbow, though he accepts her grin.

“Oh, my, god -- you guys!” Natalie squeals when she sees them walk up the ramp, throwing herself at Sabina so hard Alex has to stop himself grabbing for them, sure for a second that they’re going to topple back into the water. He’s still lowering his hands when Natalie pounces on him in turn, a big pink puppy blur, slapping kisses on his cheek. He can smell alcohol on her breath, cherries, something faint and odd too, like motor oil. She whirls away before he can place it, draping herself across Sabina again, and tugs them in to the party, promptly vanishing herself into the crowd and music.

William sneers at Alex from across the deck, lifts a glass in sardonic toast.

“We can leave whenever you want,” Sabina says quietly to Alex.

“I’m fine,” he says, and doesn’t flinch when she lifts a hand to rub his cheek.

“Lipstick,” she says, flashing him a smile, before turning with a cheerful, “Jackie! I love your hair -- you know Alex, right?”

*

Sometimes, Alex dreams he goes out into the desert and finds the car, but there’s no body in it, just a makeshift dummy, a trick from Smithers. He dreams a wadi, an intermittent stream in a dry valley, and footsteps following it on to some little market town. He dreams he visits her parents, and sometimes they cry like they really did, and sometimes they laugh and point at a door, an occupied room. Sometimes they look confused and Alex realises Jack is just another misdirection, just another fat suit. Sometimes he feels happy. Sometimes he feels angry. Mostly he feels guilty.

*

William ducks off the deck again. It’s not that Alex is keeping count, exactly, it’s just that every time William comes back he’s a bit louder, a bit more abrasive, biting at people. He’s not sure why no-one else seems to notice. Perhaps they’re just used to their parties being hosted by douche-bags wearing expensive looking watches. William makes another big sweeping gesture, dropping his arms over the shoulders of two under-clad young ladies who simper at him, pulling his sleeves up a little. The watch gleams ostentatiously. Alex is almost entirely sure it’s fake. He wonders if that’s supposed to be ironic. It seems like the sort of stupid hipster humour William would find amusing.

Alex sips his drink -- plain soda, the only thing at the bar that isn’t breaking the law, especially here where the drinking age is so much higher, and, seriously, who doesn’t stock Coke at least as a mixer? -- and chats amiably enough with some people Sabina’s found. They’re too self-involved to interrogate him, too self-aware to dwell on the usual one-upmanship, the 'my parents are wealthier than your parents' rich kid crap. Dave talks about his car and his Dungeon and Dragons group with equal, genuine enthusiasm and Alex thinks, with unexpected interest, no catch, no breathlessness, hands steady, that he might like to try scuba-diving again, in Egypt, like Brandi’s talking about. Marine biologist. Hadn’t he thought about doing that once?

William keeps looking at Alex. Now he’s leaning in, looming over Sabina and saying something that makes her lips thin. Before Alex has even really thought about doing something stupidly gallant like intervening, Sabina makes a remark that starts a ripple of laughter in the cloud around her. William’s neck flushes red. He turns away, sees Alex looking, and glares at him. Sabina looks his way as well, barely hiding a smirk behind the rim of her glass, and Alex feels heat curl in his belly.

It’s weird, this thing between them now, more than just friends, not siblings, not yet boy-, girlfriend again. He wanders away from the party, trying to find space, trying to think. It’s weird but it’s good but it’s complicated. People shooting at him weren't complicated. So that was okay, too, he decides; if that was simple, he could do with complicated. Working out what their relationship is now, that’s what kids his age did, right? All that make-up, break-up drama he’d missed out on. Living the dream.

Which just makes Alex think of the yacht and he snorts his drink trying not to laugh. Soda stings his nose and burns his throat and he clings to the railing, getting through the coughing giggles. When he can breathe again, he stays there, hanging off the railing, cool metal against his chest, the dark water below him. It’s gotten late, somehow. The sun’s set -- only just, he can still see light at the horizon if he lifts his head -- and the boat lights are on. There are port-holes below him, open to the bare breeze, and he can see the light of them rippling in the water, presaging the stars yet to come out clear over head. It was pretty. Peaceful. Maybe he should join Sabina in trying to wheedle a boat out of her dad.

Someone says his name and he looks up before realising it’s coming from the porthole below. William’s talking, clearly pacing, coming close enough to the window for clarity and moving away again, muffled by the lapping of the water. Alex can’t hear any replies, muffled or otherwise. William’s on the phone. On the phone and saying, “just some new kid, you don’t need to worry about”, and then, ten, twelve seconds later, “not going to tell anyone, we’ll see to” and then, “just stick to the arrangement and we’ll be,” and gone again.

Alex’s hands clench convulsively at the railing. He closes his eyes. He opens them.

He goes back into the party.

*

Once, Alex dreams he finds Jack on a street corner and she holds him so tight, and she says, Do you miss it? and he says, Like an eighty-a-day man misses cigarettes. Like an alcoholic misses Scotch.

*

“You seem jumpy, darling,” a pretty girl in a tuxedo drawls at him. A freckled redhead giggles on her arm and she mock growls back. “Don’t worry. There’ll be enough party favours for everyone.” She pinches the redhead’s behind who just laughs and slaps at her playfully.

Alex does his best not to pull a face, bites back the inset welling up against his teeth, and attempts to sidle away. He bumps into a mass of pink that resolves itself into a glitter smeared Natalie, who coos “Pretty boy!” at him, and tries to make him dance. Alex manages to keep his feet -- that’s a surprising overlap between dancing and martial arts -- but he can’t help feeling a sudden longing for the Year 3 Christmas do, all the boys on one side, mucking around, all the girls on the other, only the bravest souls daring to venture into the no man’s land between. Here it feels like everyone is playing at sophistication, acting out their parents' lives, complete with excesses and infidelities. Natalie pouts at him and swans off to find someone else to dance with.

Sabina is nowhere to be seen. Alex moves around the edges of the party, from wall to wall. Perhaps it’s just paranoia, but there’s an odd feel to the place, a tension, a sense of anticipation. Stick to the plan, he thinks. A wave of laughter comes from a far corner, kids playing on an array of games consoles. All the best toys for William. Someone yells, “love this song,” turns the music up. People are dancing, wild and free, chatting and yelling, moving and shaking. He escapes the cacophony, finding the stairs to the upper deck where, at least, the crowd is more subdued, if no more sparse. The steps pulse beneath him, the railing thrumming under his hand. He leans out, trying to get away from the noise a little, clear his head.

William edges up to the gangplank, pulls his jacket around him, looking this way and that before quickly running down it.

First class honours from the school of blatantly suspicious behaviour go to, Alex thinks. He’s moving before he even realises he’s come to a decision, vaulting the rail, catching one of the lines of bunting as he goes, sliding, swinging, timing it to the rock of the ship so that he’s clear for the leap to the dock, rolling with his landing to reduce the noise. He thinks he maybe sees Sabina at the railing on the way past, but William is getting away, and Alex runs without looking back.

*

William hurries between the buildings of the marina, clearly trying to project an air of calm fortitude and just as clearly failing, every passing light catching the sheen of sweat, the too pale skin save for the high flush of colour in his cheeks. When he finally stops, it's in the small pool of light above a warehouse’s exit door, hemmed in by packing crates. It’s the perfect place for an ambush, and Alex hangs well back. It stinks of fish. There are animal guts on the hooks and lines, blood worked into the ground. He can feel sweat drip down his spine.

There are footsteps.

“Finally,” William snaps. Fear in his voice gives it a shrill edge. “I’ve been waiting for hours.”

Alex shifts a little, back against the wall. There’s enough of a gap between it and the crates to let him see. William is stiff, fake bravado. There are two older men, bruisers, thick on muscle, vacant expressions. The smaller man -- boy, really, he can’t be more than nineteen, twenty -- is slicker, wiry but defined under his too-tight white vest, beneath the leather jacket whose high collar doesn’t quite hide the twisting tattoos crawling up the man’s neck. Alex thinks of triads, of yakuza, of Kaspar. He ducks back away from the gap.

“Come on, Brody,” William whines belligerently. Alex can hear him shift, little splashes in the puddles left behind by crates of ice and fish. “I’ve got your damn money. Where’s the package? We had a deal!”

“A deal,” Brody scoffs. (Brody, Alex thinks. What the hell kind of a name for a Mafioso is Brody?) “How stupid do you think I am, Billy-boy?”

“Talking to me like that? Pretty damn, I’d sa--” William’s pained yell echoes. The second smack is louder than the first. “You can’t hit me! Don’t you know who I am?”

“Yeah. You’re the punk ass bitch too stupid to notice he’s being followed.” Alex hears a gun being loudly cocked. A stupid, showy move. Hollywood gangster. “Hey, pretty boy! Get your ass out here before I shoot your friend.”

William wails. Alex doesn’t move.

The thunder of the gun echoes back at him from a half-dozen directions, waves of noise rolling and crashing through each other. Alex thinks of wild surf, of sharks, of blood in the water. William screams, panic, not pain. A crate splinters, falls, crashes open.

Here we go, Alex thinks.

“All right,” he says, sauntering out into view, hands in his pockets, huffing a stray lock out of his eyes. He really needs to get a haircut. Sabina would do it for him. Or Liz. He’d be okay with that. He pulls on a smile, fakes a drawl. “How you doin’?”

William looks terrified, crouched there on the ground, snot and tears on his face. Brody looks pleased, expectant, like he knew Alex would be there. He says, “Think you’re so smart, don’t you? I can see right through you. That journalist -- that snoop -- Pleasure’s been nosing around. Suddenly his newfound ‘son’ shows up, nuzzling all up to Billy here? Oh, yeah, we've heard all about it; your boyfriend has a bit of a mouth on him. Still,” Brody grins, “I bet you put that to better uses, huh? Maybe it’s the other way around. Anything for a story, right?”

William tries to speak. One of the bruisers kicks him, kicks him again when he wails, pulls a leg back to do it again but William just curls up into a ball, sobbing.

“Sorry,” Alex says, radiating boredom. “I’m flattered by your interest, but I’m just not into guys.”

One of the bruisers coughs around something that could be a laugh. Brody’s good humour snaps off. “You won’t think you’re so fucking smart when we’re done with you.”

“Don’t tell me stupidity’s contagious,” Alex mocks gasps.

Brody growls and lunges towards him, bringing up the gun to swing like a club, putting himself between Alex and the bruisers. Alex lunges too, forward into Brody, inside the swing, yanking his hands out of his pockets and, with them, fishhooks and sharp shards of crate, flicking them out to either side. The bruisers fall back, blinded. Brody stumbles, off balance, and Alex turns with him, putting Brody between himself and one of the bruisers, throwing a roundhouse kick cleanly at the other. Bone cracks under his shoe. He rebounds, pushing Brody, who falls over William. Their combined yells bring bruiser number two swinging forward, wild and blind, and Alex dances under the left and slams an uppercut home under the man’s chin. William’s screaming now. Brody scrambles. Alex’s foot comes down on the gun, pulls it towards him and then kicks it away, spinning into the dark. Brody gets to his feet, raises his hands and then breaks, runs.

“Wh-wh-wh--” William wails.

Alex doesn’t spare him a glance. He stomps on the bruiser as he passes, adding a broken ankle to the cracked ribs. The other man is out cold. No threat. William will run. Brody is running. Alex runs. They crash through crates, empty space, an alley. Wharf rats scurry away from the pursuit. Brody pours it on, throwing everything that will move back behind him. Alex dodges without slowing, snatches the lid from a dustbin as he goes. It’s black, rubber or something like, hefty. Strong enough to break a man’s neck with, you hit him right.

He throws.

*

“Killing is for grown-ups,” Yassen says, “and you’re still a child.”

*

The lid catches Brody in the back of his knees. He goes down and Alex is on him in a second, making certain he doesn’t get up, smacking him back down into the tarmac, yelling, “Who do you work for?”

“Fuh--” Brody manages, and Alex slams him down again.

“Who. Do you. Work. For?” Slam. Slam. “Triads? Scorpia? Blunt?”

“Argh! I duh-- I don’t-- I don’t know what--” Brody’s sobbing now, big rasping sobs. “S-stop--”

Alex has a knee in the guy’s back, digs in harder. “What’s the package? What’s the deal? Tell me!”

“Weed!” He wails. “It’s just weed man! It’s just pot!”

“What?” Alex feels suddenly cold, leaden. Too heavy to move.

“It’s just -- I grow it in my shed, man, it’s nothing! You can take it! It’s in my pocket -- no trick! You can take it all -- oh, god, please don’t kill me, please don’t--”

“Shut up,” Alex says. It’s barely a whisper.

He pushes himself off Brody, slow as a glacier. His hands won’t work. He makes them, pushes Brody over, searches in the jacket. Pockets full of baggies. He falls away from Brody, throwing them aside, pushing himself back until he finds a wall to slide down. Something bubbles up inside him, forcing its way out past his teeth. It takes Alex a while to realise that he’s laughing. He can’t stop. It’s hilarious. A stupid drug bust. The kid grows it in his shed. Tremble, world! Brody starts crying and Alex can’t stop laughing.

There are more footsteps: the click clack of heels. He looks up to find Natalie’s there, William clinging to her, and Sabina, ahead of them, pale and determined. Alex tries to say something, but he can’t get the words out through the giggles, and then the sobs. She wraps her arms around him, whispering soothing nonsense, and he clings tight, holding on for dear life, hiding his tears against her neck.

*

Sometimes Alex looks in the mirror and he sees history written in flesh. Thin white remnants of blades. Rough hairless patches from being ground against gravel, floors, walls. A scar in his hairline from coming off that train. A small divot from breaking handcuffs. Shiny patches of skin where propane burnt him over London. The small entry wound of a Scorpia bullet in his chest, another under his left arm as it exited. The larger scars where doctors carved him open and tied his life back into his body with polydioxanone threads. The constant, inescapable reminders of his past.

*

William says nothing while Natalie orders him around, sharp steel under that pink mist. They make a deal. There won’t be any pot and there won’t be any police, any recriminations or reprise. What’s done is done. They come home early and sleep late and the morning is bright and balmy.

Edward is rushing around the kitchen when Alex comes down, throwing piles of notes into a suitcase. He throws an absent one-armed hug around Sabina’s shoulders, saying, “I’ve had an unexpected break in my investigation into the local gangs and drug smugglers -- I’ll be back later. Have a good day!”

He pauses in the doorway, though, looking back. “Are you feeling better, Alex?”

Alex nods, smiles. “Yes. Better than yesterday.”

Edward considers him for a moment, smiles back, and then a car horn blares impatiently outside and he lifts a hand, already gone before they can wave in return.

There are scrambled eggs and piles of toast. Alex hops up onto a stool at the breakfast bar, covers them in sauce, and digs in.

“What do you kids have planned for today?” Liz asks.

Sabina looks at Alex and smiles. “No plans,” she says. “We’ll just take it as it comes.”

*

Mostly, when Alex looks in the mirror, Alex Rider looks back: a kid with a history, sure, but one with a future, too; nothing is decided yet, and nothing has to be. And, mostly, Alex is okay with that.