"We've got an assignment for you, Alex," Mrs. Jones said from across her expansive desk. It was far cleaner than it had been the last time Alex had seen her.
Alex, sitting slouched in the visitor's chair under her gaze, could have made a bid for the most unenthusiastic looking fourteen year old boy in the world right then.
She cleared her throat softly. "Unlike your previous missions, we only need you to perform surveillance. You won't be interacting with our subject. Far from it; you'll be in an environment surrounded by authorities, including some of our own operatives, completely secure."
Her expectant gaze was met with silence. Alex's composure hadn't changed at all once she'd finished her offer, no, statement. "You've said that before." It was the only thing he could manage to get out of his mouth right then.
She looked somewhat guilty at that. Her eyes lowered slightly from his, dropping to the edge of the desk between them. He wondered if he was the only agent who was able to do this to her, but really, the ability to make his employers feel was kind of a moot point when they still put his life in danger again and again. Her lips tightened. "I know I have," she replied. "But I need you to do this."
"Why?" he asked abruptly. Her eyes flicked back to him. "Why do you need me? Over and over again, you need me to do what the people you've actually hired can't?" His voice was becoming angrier as he went. "That's – that's unbelievable!"
"Alex…" Her tone was soothing now. "We will have other agents on this assignment, other agents who are considerably more involved than you will be. It's only a precaution to have you there. We simply can't….cover all of our bases without you. Please."
He couldn't believe it. Here she was asking him "please" with a quality of voice that really said "be reasonable" as though any other fourteen year old would be anything remotely close to reasonable if MI6 had asked this of them. Mrs. Jones would probably get a temper tantrum thrown right in her face.
He wasn't very far off from that himself. He took a breath. "What do you need me to do?" he asked flatly.
Mrs. Jones folded her hands on the desktop in front of her, and Alex again noticed the conspicuous lack of files out for him to see. "We'd like for you to attend a trial, and the proceedings afterwards," she began. "Officially you will be a friend of the family represented by the prosecution, a boy named Eli Morgan and his parents. Unofficially, we want you to keep an eye on the defendant and anyone associated with him. If anyone out of the ordinary approaches the family, we want to know about it. And most importantly, we do not wish for the public and those involved to know of MI6's surveillance. We believe this defendant has…has hired a team to extract him from the authorities once he is convicted."
When no more of an explanation came, Alex's eyes narrowed. "You're certain he will be convicted then?"
"Yes," she said.
"Forgive me Mrs. Jones, but that's all rather…vague." Alex replied acidly.
She sighed. "Yes, I know it is, but it's…for the best. We only need you to watch for strangers, or unusual conversations and requests. You'll fit in. If anyone tries to ask you anything, you'll tell them you're there to support your friend."
"And who is the defendant?"
Mrs. Jones paused for a moment. "His name is Jon Dylan, and he is going away for a very long time."
Alex could feel the look of annoyance falling over his face. "Unless somebody breaks him out first."
"If someone were to take him from state custody, they would not do so in the midst of the trial. You will be perfectly safe," she stated.
"You realise that I could just look up his name the minute I leave this office and find out about this case for myself, don't you?" It was true, and he didn't understand why she wouldn't just tell him what the whole thing was about. He was pretty sure his "delicate young mind" could handle it, if that was the trouble.
Mrs. Jones looked him squarely in the eye. "I realise that, Alex, but what you do on your own time is out of our control and therefore not our responsibility."
He was certain he could feel his left eye twitching at this point. She was sounding more like Alan Blunt as this conversation went on.
"And anyway, you won't have time to do any research, we'll be needing you on the plane in thirty minutes," she added.
At this, Alex was shocked. And furious. Although, past experience should have warned him to feel otherwise. "Wait a minute. I haven't agreed to anything."
"But we both know that you will."
She looked up at him when he stood in anger, and he was amazed that he could clearly read sympathy in her expression. "Get your things ready. You'll be seeing Smithers next. And yes, you will have a short briefing on the plane. You're going to Florence, Italy," she added when he opened his mouth, ready to object.
He closed it when she was finished. His shoulders slumped, and inside he felt rather hollow. He didn't dislike Mrs. Jones, and he would be happy to see Smithers again, but he hated the way they did this. Once again, he didn't have much choice other than to follow along.
On the plane to Florence he learnt little more. He'd been introduced to the other agents covering the scene and shown pictures of the family he was supposed to surreptitiously befriend. To them he would be the son of one of the prosecution's consultants, and to everybody else he would be a friend of Eli, the boy. They were close to the same age. He had to wonder how exactly he was going to pull off these two identities with both parties he had to fool being in the same place at the same time and assuredly asking him questions. MI6 didn't seem to see the issue. Well, he figured, at least if he was found out and then thrown out, his part in the whole affair would be over. All in all, his part in the mission was supposed to take less than an hour. He would only be seeing the end of the trial, and only be waiting outside with the rest of the boy's family, watching the crowd with MI6's undercover agents. That was it. They'd allowed him to call Jack, to let her know that he'd be gone for a little while, a day or two at most, but their conversation had been cut short and she had had very little time to protest. Alex felt immensely guilty afterward.
Alex had been given a small set of surveillance equipment when he'd seen Smithers, mostly eavesdropping devices meant for listening in on conversations a fair distance away from where he would be standing. Nothing remotely dangerous. Even Smithers hadn't thought this little escapade warranted much caution on their part. From the sound of it, Alex would have been inclined to agree with them, that was, if every other experience he had been through with MI6 had not taught him otherwise. All he could manage was a half-hearted smile when Smithers said goodbye, and he was pretty sure the big man had looked a bit ashamed to have not had anything particularly special to give the young spy when they parted ways.
Butterflies welled up in his stomach as he and the other agents climbed into a tiny van and drove through the bustling and winding streets of Florence. He wished they at least had a window to look out of; he'd barely gotten a glimpse of the impressive city while they hauled in.
The agents prepared their own equipment, and Alex inserted his earpieces, too. This was probably what it was like to wear a hearing aid, he thought; a very, very sensitive hearing aid. One that honed in on whatever sound was in the direction he cocked his head toward.
When they arrived at the courthouse, they met up with two men from the AISE and AISI, respectively Italy's external and internal intelligence and security agencies. Along with MI6, there were now a total of three intelligence agencies covering the scene, and Alex wondered if that was really such a good idea. Luckily, everyone already seemed to know what their parts in the operation were without much further instruction. Even Alex, with what little information he had, reluctantly felt that he could manage what had been asked of him. Though it frustrated him to do so, he even refrained from asking why the Italians had called in MI6, a British intelligence agency, to help them on their own turf. On the whole this operation seemed very trivial, and made little sense, and Alex was certain that was only because he wasn't being told what it was all about.
One man from MI6, Terrance was his name if Alex remembered right, was his acting guardian for the time. Following him, Alex was able to walk straight through a small crowd of media and into the front doors of the impressive sized, if a bit dull, courthouse. Terrance presented ID for both of them at the security desk, and they were allowed through once again. Crowds of people waited inside, and Alex could tell by the heavy tension in the hall that whatever proceedings were going on in the actual courtroom were fast coming to a close. Many men and women in suits were speaking quickly and quietly into their mobiles, and security guards were posted at the ends of each hall and in front of many doors. Alex could spot one or two of the agents he'd met briefly only because he recognized their faces; otherwise they would have blended in with the crowd perfectly.
Then he spotted them, at the end of the expansive hall was a family clustered together. A middle aged woman who didn't really make much of an impression, but with her were two young daughters and a dark haired boy about Alex's age, surrounded by suits. It was the looks on their faces more than anything that made them stand out in the crowd. They were very drawn, tense, not exactly frightened, but definitely unhappy to be there, and none of them were speaking to anyone. Alex had to guess that the father was inside the courtroom. Not for the first time since he'd been informed of this operation did he wonder what had been done to this family.
Terrance had spotted them too, and after giving Alex a nod of confidence, he slipped away. That left Alex on his own to head over to investigate. MI6 expected some sort of contact to be initiated between the defendant's party and an outside source, so that their operation could be put into action at a later date. This was probably going to be their only chance to make contact, as it was the only time Dylan would be out in public. So far, Alex hadn't heard or seen anything relating to the defendant, so he decided it was best to focus on the family for now. He knew if he approached them and tried to make introductions right away his story wouldn't make sense, so he settled in a chair not far from where they stood, pretending to be waiting in anticipation along with everyone else.
There was a woman across from him who was getting into a row with the secretary on the other end of her call. Just a bit to the right there were a group of assistants checking their watches and muttering to one another about how long the session was becoming. An older man approached the mother and asked if she would like a glass of water. She declined. Surprisingly, the most interesting thing in the hall turned out to be a television set placed in the upper corner of the wall, near the waiting seats. Its volume was low, but with Alex's earpiece he was able to hear the news broadcast without having to move closer.
There was some sort of commotion happening on the other side of the city. An unidentified explosion, possibly gas related, had occurred within a populated area. No reports of injury had come in yet, but rescue workers were rushing to the scene. Alex watched as the reporter and her crew stood across the street, gesturing to an area with an upturned car near the sidewalk. He squinted up at the screen, an uneasy feeling settling into his gut. In the middle of the reporter's dialogue, a second explosion sounded. Alex jumped up. The camera jostled showing the reporter ducking her head, nearly losing her footing in surprise. That couldn't have happened more than a block away from the news crew. Police were rushing for them, going to the edges of the scene and a small panic broke out while the media team looked on. It looked like they were going to set up an evacuation of the area if they could just get the situation under control.
Alex stepped back, looking around. He wasn't the only one watching now. Most of the conversation around him had died and people had turned their eyes up to the screen. There was no way that had been an accident and Alex knew it.
He had to find Terrance, unable to shake the terrible feeling of dread that was creeping through him. And then it happened. The floor beneath them lurched. A great sound ripped through the air, and though Alex could see no harm done to the structure near him, he knew there was no sound on earth quite like that of an explosion. It was deafening. All the people around him, agents included, bent over suddenly, holding their hands to their ears. He'd instinctively done the same, and for one fleeting second he'd been terrified by the realisation that the sensors were still in his ears, amplifying the great shock of noise. But when he'd removed his hands, looking around, startled, for the source of the explosion, he realised that his hearing was still intact.
Smithers. Good old Smithers. There must have been some sort of safety decibel limit in the earpieces, turning them off to protect his ears in this exact situation. His heart fluttered with relief.
It didn't last long.
Hazy white smoke was curling and then billowing up through vents in the floor and from the ceiling and Alex knew that it had not come from a fire. It was too clean, and there was far too much of it. It had become a screen, and just before it engulfed the crowd, he looked over and saw Eli's eyes on him. His mother had her arms around the two girls, and was reaching for her son. The men in suits stepped between the two boys' gaze, and the family was lost in a sea of white.
Alex pulled a sleeve over his nose, trying to inhale as little of the smoke as possible. As far as he could tell it was disorienting only, and not poisonous. He reached out in front of him and made for the direction where he ahad last seen Eli, but when he got there, and he was relatively sure this had been the place, the other boy had already gone. Shapes moved around him, but he wasn't able to get a clear view of anyone. Then gunfire sounded.
A few people screamed, but it was quickly silenced by more shots. Alex ducked low, moving across the floor now, not knowing where the bullets were coming from and knowing that staying low was his best chance of not getting hit. He crawled forwards on his hands and knees until he found the wall again and then followed it to a wide door that had been broken open. He recognized it immediately. It had been the entrance to the courtroom.
His thoughts filled with a flurry of curses, but he managed to remain silent. He needed to get to his feet. He needed to get out of this room.
He was willing to lay a bet that the men hired by Dylan to get him out of prison had struck right in the middle of his trial, and that once again MI6 had been wrong. Maybe it was the adrenaline in his system already affecting his stability, but Alex just couldn't find it in himself to be too surprised. More than anything, he was angry, and a little scared. He had to admit that. He had no idea what was going on even ten feet in front of him; he'd lost sight of the other agents, from both countries, and…it just hit him…. The whole of Florence's police force was investigating bombs on the opposite side of the city.
No one would be coming here for a very long time. Their forces were simply spread too thin.
More gunfire echoed across the hall. Contrary to his instincts, Alex crawled closer. He rounded a corner in the hall. There was a scuffle at the opposite end of it, with men's voices, and the sound of fists. Someone hit the floor. Then another someone. Alex crawled faster until he nearly crawled over a body. He'd barely seen it until he was almost on top of it, and to his horror, he found that he recognized the dead stare of one of the British agents. He couldn't even remember the man's name.
He took a deep breath and crawled around, trying to both physically and mentally put the sight behind him. There were shouts up ahead now, and Alex was getting to a point where the smog was thinning just a little. Realising this, he got to his feet and began moving hurriedly along the wall. If anyone saw him, he would be a perfect target.
The sound of a door slamming shut echoed down the hall and he began to move faster, passing more and more bodies as he went. A few were still alive, moaning where they lay on the floor or hunched against the wall. Alex tried to avoid these people; there wasn't anything he could do for them.
He found a stairwell at the end of the hall and pulled open the heavy door. Inside, the smoke was more transparent. Footfalls clanged on the steps above him, and when he looked up he could just about make out several figures quickly ascending. Below him, he heard voices and footfalls making their way down. They probably belonged to people looking for the way out, trying to get to the ground floor. It didn't make any sense to go up, and Alex felt confident that it could only be his quarry heading that way. He took hold of the handrail and shot up after them, taking the stairs two at a time. He could think of only one place they could be going: the roof.
Sure enough, when he reached the top of the stairs, the door that usually blocked roof access had been blown open. Already there was a gunfight ensuing between a few men dressed head to toe in black and two of the AISE agents. Alex ducked out of the door quickly and dived behind a large air vent on the rooftop. He had no weapons of his own and didn't stand a chance out in the open.
When he peered around the vent he could see that things weren't turning out in favor of the AISE. He'd thought only two had made it up here, but now he could see that a third man had already fallen. His body lay leaking blood on the ground between the two groups who were dodging from air vent to electrical generator in order to avoid getting shot.
Then Alex saw it. On the far side of the building, there was a news helicopter. He recognized the logo because it was the same one he'd seen on the television broadcast only minutes ago downstairs. A pilot was already starting its engine and the rotor was picking up speed. Then the pilot leaned forward, as far out the side as he dared, and made a waving motion. Two figures that Alex hadn't seen before emerged from hiding and ran towards the helicopter. They were a good distance away from the fight, and it was clear that the AISE agents were trying to get past the black-clad men in order to reach them. Alex recognized the first immediately. It was Jon Dylan,who was about to have been convicted. He was followed by another, dressed in black like the rest, but with hair that caught in the sunlight and….
Alex felt like the ground had just dropped out beneath him. The air left his lungs in a sharp gasp as his memory was jarred. He recognized the second man, too. There was no mistaking his build, his hair, his fluid, efficient movements as he directed Dylan to climb into the helicopter. When Alex caught a glance of his face as he turned to assess the gunfight, it only confirmed what he already knew. Yassen Gregorovich was very much alive.
Alex was running towards the escaping men before he could think of anything else. No one on the roof had noticed him until then, and as usual surprise was his best ally. He snatched up the dead agent's gun as he tore around the gunfight; each side momentarily stunned as a boy came out of nowhere and began sprinting toward the helicopter. The black-clad forces recovered quickly though, and a few bullets whizzed through the air past Alex. The AISE returned fire again. One of their shots flew by Alex , but clearly had not been aiming for him. It broke through the windshield of the helicopter and the pilot crumpled in on himself instantly.
The rotor was spinning at full speed now, creating a great noise and lifting up dirt and rocks all around him. Alex could feel the wind push at his clothes and skin, but still he ran toward the helicopter. Yassen had climbed into the cockpit as soon as the pilot had been hit. He took hold of the body and shoved it out of the door where it fell to the ground below. Then he saw Alex.
Alex raised his gun. He couldn't immediately guess which areas would disable it permanently, so he aimed for whatever looked good. He needed to buy the Italian agents time. He shot once. He grit his teeth then shot again, and again. The bullets impacted the hull. Nothing happened. It wasn't to be.
Yassen jumped out of the helicopter and made for Alex. The young agent hadn't realised that he was shaking until he raised the gun and pointed it, this time at the assassin.
Yassen didn't seem concerned and Alex found that he couldn't shoot. He began stepping back, at first unintentionally, when he realised that Yassen wasn't going to stop, and then more quickly when the distance between them diminished. Without even pausing in his advance, Yassen reached out and took hold of the gun, pointing it away from him in one swift motion With his other hand, he caught Alex by the throat.
Alex made a strangled sound as Yassen's hand tightened. His heart beat loudly in his chest, like the thrumming of the helicopter blades above them. His free hand flew up to grasp at Yassen's wrist, trying to wrench it free of his neck, but still he refused to let go of his grip on the gun. In the struggle, his finger must have pulled the triggers, for he was suddenly jolted by the power of the shot. The bullet buried itself itself into the roof, but the distraction was all Yassen needed to finally wrench the gun away from Alex's hands.
Suddenly there was shouting, and Alex was turned around. Yassen drew a heavy arm across his chest and pressed against his back, holding him tight while dragging him backwards towards the helicopter. Alex could see the one remaining Italian agent advancing on them. Speaking in Italian, Alex understood "stop" and "let go of the boy" repeated several times. The Agent's gun was trained on Yassen, and therefore on Alex as well, and it was clear that he didn't have a good enough shot to avoid hitting Alex.
Yassen, however, did. He swung Alex's gun around and fired into the agent's chest. The man went down immediately. He wasn't dead. Alex could see his arms moving, trying to aim his gun again.
Alex was forced up to the side of the helicopter. Once there, Yassen turned him around so that he could look down at Alex. He tossed the gun inside while Alex still struggled to break free. He was just about to say something particularly nasty to the assassin, but he never got the chance to speak. With a quick blow to the side of the head, Alex was knocked out cold.
"…but do not. He is a spy, not only a child."
Alex heard the tail end of Yassen's sentence as his eyes blinked open. He became aware of his surroundings one by one. The engine of the helicopter rattled his head. He laid stiffly against the floor, back propped up by the side wall. His arms were handcuffed together around a metal rail welded low into the hull. His head pounded. Sitting up was difficult when he tried. He was sore, and most of his movements were restricted.
"Well hello, young man."
Alex's attention flickered to the opposite side of the cabin where Jon Dylan sat looking at him expectantly. He was a rather…ordinary looking man, was all Alex could think. Dark salt and pepper hair, high forehead, middle aged, medium build, casual but presentable clothes. He didn't give off an immediate sense of danger or unease like many of the people Alex had met on his missions for MI6. In fact, he seemed almost elated.
That ought not to have surprised Alex, he thought. After all, things so far were going extremely well for Dylan.
"Hey! He's awake," Dylan called out to Yassen.
Alex ignored him and instead wrenched his head around as far as he could in order to get a glimpse of the assassin, who was piloting. Yassen didn't turn; he stared straight ahead, hands on the controls, seemingly unconcerned at Alex's return to consciousness. He could tell he hadn't been knocked out for very long; maybe one or two minutes at most. Voices were coming in over the radio, police telling the media helicopters to back off. Yassen flicked a switch and then responded an affirmative into his headset. They were heading away from the scene, and that must have been the plan all along. The aircraft was registered to one of the news stations. They were only a nuisance to the Italian police, and Alex realised the station wouldn't be the wiser until they noticed that they had one too many helicopters in the air.
"So Yassen here was just telling me that you're a spy," Dylan began again. Alex turned back to him. "You certainly don't seem very afraid to be here," he continued.
On that point, he was certainly wrong, Alex thought, but he wasn't about to correct Dylan and give away what little leverage he had.
"What was your plan, exactly? Were you going to take me out, is that it? They send in a boy, and it'll be that much easier, hmm?" Dylan was theorising now, but his eyes remained glued to Alex as though he were a puzzle that the man was trying to put together.
Alex felt his eyebrows furrow, and was aware that a look of mild confusion had fallen over his face. That hadn't been his intent at all. No one had even known that Dylan was meant to escape today. MI6 had thought his plans were in the developmental contact stage with, well, likely Scorpia judging from Yassen's presence. But MI6 hadn't known that. Or they hadn't told Alex that. And now Alex, besides being considerably frightened at having been captured, was quite frustrated to top it all off.
"I didn't come here to kill you," he finally answered.
"He speaks!" Dylan threw his hands in the air like he'd just scored a goal, and Alex got the feeling that had probably been his intention all along, just to provoke Alex.
That only annoyed him more. "Yes, I speak! Amazing, isn't it?" he retorted. "It'd be even more amazing if you'd uncuff me and let me go."
"Why yes, that would be," Dylan said. "But believe me, it wasn't my idea to take you along. MI6 were the ones who sent you after me, remember? And if it wasn't to kill me or lure me into some sort of trap after my escape, then I've no idea what for. You seem like a smart kid, wouldn't you agree?" The man still looked as pleased as ever. He'd leant over, resting his elbows on his knees in order to study Alex with barely concealed fascination. There was no hint of anger in his tone.
"They only sent me to get close to Eli and figure out who you were contacting, that was it," Alex said, becoming more frustrated by the moment. "My assignment had nothing to do with you. I wasn't supposed to come into contact with you at all, and I don't even know who you are or why you were on trial."
Dylan stared at him incredulously at first. Then he burst into laughter. It was a slightly hysterical sort of laughter.
"It's the truth!" Alex all but shouted at him.
Finally Dylan managed to calm himself enough that only a truly sardonic smile remained plastered across his face. "They did that, did they? Sent you, probably the youngest agent they've ever had, to investigate me? With no warning whatsoever? Hmm…. And they say I'm a monster." Sarcasm laced his tone.
"That's enough," Yassen spoke to them for the first time, and it effectively ended Dylan's part in the conversation. The man sat back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest quietly, but didn't take his eyes off Alex. It was then that Alex realised that although Dylan was paying for all of this, Yassen was the one in control.
The beating of the blades overhead was punctuated every now and again by the air traffic radio. Yassen did not have to respond again, and they steadily made their way farther and farther away from the wreckage of the courthouse. It had almost been evening when Alex first arrived, and now the sun was beginning to make its descent over Florence.
Looking out the window now was the first time Alex really got a good view of the city. If he hadn't been in such a miserable position, he would have been awestruck. The sun, lowering in the sky, reflected off the rooftops, making them shine a bright red-orange colour. They were like blocks of red topped dominoes in disarray. He caught glimpses of the streets bellow, twisting and winding. Looking at it all, he had a feeling that it would be some time before he would be able to wander down there freely again.
Alex stared at the back of Yassen's head. The first time they had met, Yassen had seemed at best uninterested in killing him, and the last time they had met, Yassen…well, Yassen revealed a lot. But Alex wasn't sure what any of that meant, exactly. He'd thought Yassen was dying at the time. Yassen had probably thought he was dying at the time, and he'd said more than Alex had ever heard him speak at any one time. Now Alex didn't know where he stood with the assassin who had befriended his father. He didn't know if he stood anywhere at all as far as the assassin was concerned. He'd spared Alex's life time and again, but that hadn't stopped him from putting Alex's life in danger, either. Alex was a child in the wrong world; half a part of that world, down to his very blood, and half completely out of sorts. He didn't fit here with criminals and secret agents, but he didn't fit anywhere else, either. And now…. Yassen could have easily left Alex there on the rooftop, but he hadn't. Alex didn't know what that meant and it left him uneasy. "Why did you take me?" he asked.
His young voice was barely audible over the helicopter's engine, but Yassen heard his question. Dylan remained silent, still sitting there, watching him like he was the most interesting thing in the world. For all Alex knew, he was.
"You've seen that I am alive," Yassen responded finally. "I could not let you go."
Alex's heart sank. He didn't know what he'd been expecting, but it was true. Until now, he'd thought the Russian was dead; everyone had thought he was dead. And now Alex had turned up. Right in the middle of everything. Just like he always did.
Alex felt sick, but he pulled together his courage. "And…what are you going to do with me?"
His question was met with silence and the thrum of the engine. He waited, and his heart sank further. Across the cabin, Dylan raised his eyebrows at Alex in an expression that clearly said: "you're out of luck". Alex tore his eyes away from the two men, and doing his best to ignore Dylan's constant gaze, focused his attention on the floor.
As it was, they weren't in the air for very much longer. They'd reached the edge of the city and thus to the point where a news station's aircraft would look out of place.
Yassen brought the helicopter to the ground in a clearing that looked to be on the edge some sort of school or university. There was an athletics track and field as well as a grove of trees that provided a fair amount of immediate cover for the aircraft. Dylan took his eyes off Alex for a moment to see outside and it was all he needed to take the hearing devices out of his ears and awkwardly shove them into his pocket. Yassen killed the engine and was moving before Alex had time to ask where they were.
Yassen opened the door and handed Dylan a duffel bag that had been resting in compartment behind his seat. "Take this and go to the car," he said. "I'll join you in a moment."
Dylan took it and did as he was told, leaving with only a brief and unreadable backward glance at Alex. He would have paid more attention to where Dylan was heading if it hadn't been for the immediate and unsettling presence of Yassen looming over him.
When the assassin crouched down so that they were face to face, Alex could feel his eyes widen and his heart begin to pound against his will. He didn't want Yassen to see how nervous he was, but there was little he could do to hide the expression on his face. From the way the Russian was looking at him, Alex guessed he read him like an open book. Yassen reached out and began to unlock the cuffs around Alex's wrists.
"Let me go," Alex whispered.
Yassen's eyes swivelled round and he paused for a moment, just looking at Alex. Like every time he met Yassen, Alex was taken aback by his features. Cool blue eyes framed with long lashes, smooth skin, and a mouth that looked like it held a permanent question. Yassen didn't move. He could have been considering the young spy's request, or simply looking at him for the sake of looking; it was impossible to tell. Alex swallowed. The emotionless gaze unsettled him. When he'd met Yassen in the past, he'd always got a feeling of coldness, indifference, control; but as he'd learned more about the man, he began to think that maybe there were a number of secrets under that controlled expression, some of which he'd been told. But now, only the cold existed, and Yassen's expression was like a wall to Alex.
The handcuffs snapped open. Slowly, without breaking eye contact, Alex lowered his forearms from the rail, but Yassen caught his wrist before he had time to think about freedom. "You will not try to escape," he said, as though he hadn't heard Alex's plea a moment ago. "If you do this, then I will not harm you."
Once again, Alex's hopes of getting out of there were dashed. He felt rooted to the metal floor, and just couldn't bring himself to form a response.
Yassen rose to his feet, tugging Alex up with him by the arm. He was still over a foot taller than Alex, and the difference seemed amplified by the position they were in. "Let's go."
He was guided out of the helicopter and a short distance down the grove of trees where they found a sleek, black car waiting for them with Dylan leaning nervously against the passenger's door.
"Backseat," Yassen told Dylan, unlocking the car. "He needs to be where I can see him."
Alex scowled as Dylan once again did as he was told. As far as people went, Dylan didn't stand out all that much, but there was something…different with him, and Alex wasn't sure what it was. The thing was, out of the two men, Alex wasn't sure which one he trusted the least. And he didn't know even know anything about Dylan, which frustrated him considerably. MI6 had let him down terribly.
Yassen locked the doors again and forced Alex in through the driver's side where he had to crawl over the gearbox to get to the passenger's seat. Yassen climbed in after him and started the ignition. Without further conversation, they pulled out of the clearing and down the track until they came to a small access road.
Dusk was approaching, and Alex had to imagine that it would be some time before anyone found the abandoned helicopter. Probably morning at the earliest. The design of Dylan's escape had been well planned, and wherever they were going, Alex knew that Yassen would have outside help every step of the way. If it was Scorpia he was still working for, nothing would be left to chance.
Alex sank down in his seat and pulled his legs underneath him. He gave up watching Yassen driving in his eternal state of calm as well as glancing in the side mirror to look at Dylan behind him, and instead turned his attention to the landscape rushing past. A voice in the back of his mind told him that he was lucky they hadn't decided to blindfold him and tie him up. He guessed that Yassen wasn't expecting him to break free any time soon, but if he wasn't worried about Alex being able to tell where they were or were heading, well…. Alex didn't want to think about what that meant about the chances of them letting him go at the end of all this.
They drove for a long time, heading north. Soon they were in the mountains, winding up and down little roads that never seemed to end. The landscape rolled on for miles until Alex lost sight of it in the darkness. Passing into Switzerland turned out to be far easier than expected, unfortunately. Before the border they abandoned the car after many miles of Italian back road, and, led by Yassen, began hiking through the mountainous region.
Night fell quickly. The Russian took up the front, one hand tightly gripping Alex's upper arm, all but dragging him along, and Jon Dylan followed close behind, carrying the duffel bag. The group was silent now. After having been quieted in the helicopter, Dylan seemed to have given up his attempts at goading Alex into conversation. Now he just seemed intent on allowing Yassen to pick their way over the terrain, climbing up and up forever and descending on the other side just to climb again. It seemed impossible to Alex that he could navigate a path in one straight direction like this. It wasn't just the mountains. They spent an hour or so bypassing a small lake. They were forced to stumble through woodland. Alex was constantly tripping while trying to keep up with Yassen's longer legs. As a result, he was all but carried through the brush half of the time.
The hike was exhausting. Dylan was having the worst time, falling behind quite often, but this was his escape and he was visibly doing his best to overcome the physical exertion. Even Alex, who was already fit and fourteen besides, was terribly worn out, and cold. It wasn't freezing, but at night, and relatively high in the mountains, the temperature had dropped significantly from where they'd been that afternoon. Only Yassen appeared unaffected by their circumstances.
As time wore on and the terrain got even worse, Alex had to wonder how long they planned to continue like this. If it wasn't for the full moon, they could have easily fallen into a ravine. Even if it had just been the two adults, they weren't equipped to spend the night out here, much less continue for days.
Again and again Alex thought of voicing that concern. Every annoyance at his lack of information or desire to be there, every complaint about how tired he was, every stab of a branch into his side or twist of his foot over a root or harsh tug on his arm from Yassen's grip sent a string of the most fowl curses he knew into his mind, just begging to be hurled at the assassin.
But every time Alex lifted his head to look at the man, ready to spout every profanity he had, it died at the tip of his tongue. Yassen did not look like someone who would tolerate anything other than silence right then. His pace rarely faltered, and he stared straight ahead with a look of such single-minded determination that Alex was frightened to disrupt it. That was the only indication he had that Yassen was as exhausted as he and Dylan. The constant trudge and pain and cold became such a monotony that it almost startled Alex when the tedium finally broke.
After a long and steep upward climb, they suddenly stepped into a clearing. More than just a clearing, an actual landscaped environment. They had reached the edge of a large villa. It was beautiful. Alex was so stunned he stopped in his tracks when they stepped out of the woods and onto the lawn. Yassen gave him a strong pull to continue moving.
They followed a walkway up to the villa, which overlooked a pond on the other side. Marble statues and tall trees decorated the path on both sides. The house itself had three floors, tall windows, and some kind of ivy growing up its walls. Alex could see a terrace in the back, probably leading down to the pond below. If it had been made of stone and set in another country, Alex could have easily thought of it as a small castle.
He spotted no vehicles, and in fact, no roads either, but he didn't get to look for very long. Yassen was pulling him up the steps and through the giant front door, which curiously hadn't been locked, before he could find his bearings. Once inside, Dylan dropped the duffel bag to the floor and nearly collapsed there with it. Alex felt like doing the same. His feet were sore, he had bruises and cuts up and down his arms and all along his sides, his legs felt like they were on fire, and he was freezing cold. It wasn't until Yassen dragged him further inside, through the foyer, into a sort of living room, and deposited him on a sofa, that Alex realised he'd been unconsciously leaning into the man as a source of heat. He'd probably been doing it for hours without realising it until Yassen released him and moved away to check on Dylan. As tired as he was, Alex still felt embarrassed, and his cheeks burned red.
He ran his hands up and down his arms, wincing when he touched the one Yassen had been gripping, and shivered.
Yassen returned after a moment, with Dylan trailing behind. Alex looked up at them from the sofa, arms still wrapped around himself. Judging from the expression on Dylan's face, Alex must have looked even worse than he felt; the man had stopped on the threshold of the living room and was now standing with mouth half open, simply staring at Alex. It made Alex feel uncomfortably self aware.
Yassen's eyes flashed between them, as expressionless as ever. He turned to Dylan and gestured the hall on the opposite side of the living room.
"There is a bedroom to the left, and washroom at the end of the hall," he said. "We'll be leaving before sunrise." Short, and to the point.
Dylan shut his mouth, looking like he'd caught himself in an awkward moment. "And…where –?"
"I'll sleep here," Yassen responded shortly, before Dylan could finish "We have a long day tomorrow. You need to sleep."
"But Alex could come--"
Yassen jerked his head to the side as if he were about to shake it. The motion was a warning. He made no mention of Alex, like he wasn't there, and his tone was careful, cold, and just…off. It was then that Alex realised Yassen's words and body language were all very deliberate. Something was going on, and as usual, Alex was purposefully being excluded. When MI6 did this, it made him terribly frustrated. When contract killers and their employers did it, it filled him with a terrible sense of apprehension.
He sank into the cushions, pulling his limbs even further into himself, and looked between the two men who were frozen in some kind of nonviolent standoff.
It was Dylan who finally broke. "Right," he said, with an almost imperceptible bow of the head and suddenly a cheerier, placating expression came across his features. "Wake me when it's time. And…goodnight." He directed the last at Alex, too, and with that headed into the hall.
Alex felt a hundred ways at once. Questions he'd had since the beginning of the mission circled in his head. Anger and fear warred in his chest. Confusion and exhaustion pulled at him from the inside out. In spite of all that, he was terrified to so much as breathe until he could get a fix on Yassen's state of mind after what had just happened between him and Dylan. If there was something wrong between them, either could very easily lash out at Alex. Yassen hadn't even mentioned Alex so far, and he felt like his very presence was looming over everything they did. He waited, perfectly still apart from the occasional shiver, until Yassen moved again.
The Russian pulled a few large blankets from a cabinet, took a pillow from the sofa, and laid them on the floor. He motioned at Alex, who climbed stiffly down to the floor. "I'll be asleep for four hours," Yassen said. "After that, you can have the sofa."
"Give me your arm." He complied, hesitantly holding his out hand . Yassen took the handcuffs out of his back pocket and closed one snuggly around Alex's wrist. The other went around a loop in the arm of the couch, which was shaped like a tiger paw. "If you try to remove this during the night, I will wake up," Yassen told him calmly. "You do not want me to wake up."
As far as Alex could tell, Yassen was finished talking with him. The assassin lay down on the sofa and said no more. Alex followed suit, lying down on carpeting that was so plush it felt almost like a mattress on its own, and awkwardly pulling the blanket over himself. The wrist that was cuffed to the tiger paw hung in the air above him uncomfortably. It wasn't painful, but it would probably be sore in the morning. Then again, Alex was sure that everything would be sore in the morning.
He stayed like that for a while, wishing for the exhaustion in his limbs to win the battle for sleep, but his mind wouldn't allow it. He was hyperaware of the room around him and of Yassen lying on the sofa above him, even though all he could see of the man was his profile. Moonlight was cast through the almost floor to ceiling length windows in the room, throwing back the darkness. They hadn't even needed to turn on a light once, but now Alex wished for dark. He could see the side of Yassen's arm. He was lying on his back, hands resting over his stomach. An ear and a bit of hair were all Alex could make out of the man's head while turned away from him. Everything he could see was cast in a surrealist's blue and silver hues.
An hour must have passed, and Alex was no closer to sleep. He'd detected no change in Yassen whatsoever. His breathing didn't deepen, or become measured in any way, and in fact Alex could barely hear him breathe. He was too tired to become restless, but too nervous to let his mind shut down. He tried turning, but with his arm pulled up against the sofa, he couldn't get very far. Some of the old frustration also bit at the edges of his thoughts.
He became anxious. If he slept, he didn't know what kind of world he would wake up to in the morning. He didn't know if he would ever get out of this situation alive. The hired killer above him was absolutely serene, asleep, and waiting peacefully for those four hours to pass, and that really bothered Alex.
Carefully, Alex moved his blanket aside and, using his free hand for support, got to his knees. He made sure not to clink the handcuffs together as much as possible, and he moved very, very slowly. Once he was on his knees, he was all but eye-level with the sleeping assassin.
Looking down at him, Alex realised that this wasn't the first time he'd been in this position. Sneaking up on Yassen on the yacht all those months ago felt like a world away, but…. Here he was and now, just like then, Alex found the man striking. His intention had been to stand up, but once he took a good look at Yassen, clear in the moonlight, Alex couldn't bring himself to move. For a moment he forgot about his aches and pains and just allowed himself to look. He could remember watching the man sleep before, when Alex had tried to ambush him. He could remember the man dying on Air Force One. He could remember…Yassen talking about his father then, while blood leaked from his chest and trickled through his lips as he spoke. Alex imagined what the two of them must have looked like working side by side, Yassen and his father, both much younger. Well. Yassen must have been younger. It was hard for Alex to imagine him looking any younger than he did now.
Why had Yassen said what he had, if only to capture Alex again later? He could have let Alex go, but he hadn't. Alex was perfectly aware that he had put Yassen's mission in danger, but once Alex had been knocked out, the man had had a choice. Alex wouldn't have been a threat if he'd been left on that rooftop. He wouldn't have been able to follow or track Dylan. The worst he could have done would have been to tell MI6 what he'd seen.
It was strange. Of all the people he'd met during his brief career as a spy, he couldn't remember a single time that this man had lied to him.
Finally, Alex rose to his feet, once again carefully making sure his wrist didn't jangle the handcuff. From there he continued to stare down at Yassen. He tried to imagine what it would be like if he were naturally this tall, if he could really look down at the assassin like this, if he really had the power to fight him and win.
Suddenly, Yassen's eyes were open. Before Alex knew it, a leg caught him in the gut at the same time hands clamped around his arms, and he was whirled through the air and slammed face down against the cushion of the sofa that Yassen had been occupying a split second ago. He let out a sharp cry as his arm, still cuffed to the arm of the sofa, twisted awkwardly, but a large hand at the back of his neck drove his face down into the cushion, muffling his breath. He struggled, but suddenly found a knee with a good deal of weight on it driven into the small of his back. His free arm was locked behind him in an iron grip. Alex couldn't move an inch. He could barely breathe.
"Just what do you think you are doing, little Alex?" The words were murmured against his ear very, very softly, and when the warm breath didn't move away, an unmistakable shiver ran down Alex's spine. Yassen's weight on his back shifted just slightly, perhaps noticing. The hand on the back of Alex's neck moved lower, and he was able to wrench his head to the side to get a deep gulp of air. "Shhh...." Yassen whispered, and again the terrible shiver ran through Alex. His heart felt like it was going to beat right out of his chest, and his whole world had narrowed down to the Russian's warm breath, tingling over his skin, just above his ear. His gasps for air waned into a natural, if heightened, rhythm of breathing.
"Nothing," he whispered back, only because it seemed like he'd be crossing a line with his captor if the silence in the dark room was broken. "I just…. I wasn't going to do anything. I was just…."
"Just looking?" Yassen breathed.
Alex was sure he was going to have a heart attack soon. He didn't know what to say. The hand on his neck eased its pressure and slowly slid up into his hair. Almost caressing. He let out a shaky sigh, and then the fingers in his hair curled together and wrenched his head back in a tight grip.
"Aaaah!" The exclamation left Alex's lips before he could stop himself, and the hand gave his head a rough warning jerk before he closed his mouth again. "I wasn't going to do anything, I swear," he whispered.
"Is that so?" Yassen hissed above him. With that, he roughly flipped Alex onto his back, again twisting his cuffed arm around uncomfortably.
As soon as he looked up at Yassen, the man paused. It was as if someone had flipped an off-switch somewhere inside of him; he simply froze. Alex was staring up with wide, frightened eyes, just as frozen as the Russian was but for the shortness of breath. The pale moonlight gave an ethereal quality to their skin, making Alex's lighter than normal and adding a silvery tint to it. Yassen looked like he was made of moonlight. He brushed the hair back from Alex's eyes and forehead and simply stared into him. Alex was transfixed. The Russian's eyes were hypnotizing.
Not seeing an attack readily coming, Alex slowly unfurled from his defensive cringe. Almost imperceptibly, Yassen loosened his hold on Alex's hair.
"What's going on?" Alex asked finally, quietly.
Yassen released his free arm, and slid his fingers free of his hair. Recognising the allowance, Alex pulled himself up a bit.
"Jon Dylan hired my employers to extract him from authorities and transport him to safety," Yassen began softly.
"Scorpia, then?" Alex asked.
Yassen nodded once.
"And you – you found out about MI6 and the Italian intelligence catching onto your plan, so you broke him out before he even went to jail?" Alex guessed, and again Yassen nodded.
"You were not meant to be a part of that plan, Alex." Yassen said simply, and Alex couldn't tell if that was regret in his voice or a certification of Alex's death sentence.
He drove on, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach. "And who…is Dylan, anyway?"
Yassen considered for a moment. "He is one of the United Kingdom's most wanted fugitives. He fled capture half a decade ago, alone, on charges of sexual abuse against the boy you met, Eli." Yassen's cold blue gaze didn't change as he said this. "Offenders such as he do not usually contact criminal organizations like Scorpia for help. They tend to work alone, run by themselves. They don't see themselves as activists and will not hire protection unless they are wealthy or already in a position of political power. Dylan, however, seems to be going about things a little differently, even going to so far as to begin building a community." Now Alex was frozen, not quite comprehending the information he'd just been given. "I do not believe that it was happenstance that MI6 sent you to prevent his escape, Alex."
Yassen's eyes ran over Alex's form like an x-ray, starting at his hips and working up until their gazes met. Alex flushed. The older man leaned over him, one hand resting on the outside of his thigh and moving upward. Alex's breathing instantly accelerated, eyes still fixed on Yassen's as the man ran his hand up, over, feeling…the earpieces in Alex's pocket.
For the first time that day, Alex was sure that it was a faint smile that pulled at the corners of Yassen's mouth. His hand slipped inside Alex's pocket and fished out the little devices. "Well, well. These were not here when we left the courthouse," he said just as quietly and indifferently as he had while informing Alex that he was currently a hostage for a sexual predator with a plan.
"No, they weren't. They were in my – " Alex stopped, something dawning on him suddenly. "How did you know those weren't in my pocket the whole time?" Even he could hear a note of distinct incredulity seep into his voice.
"Because I searched you while you were unconscious," Yassen replied smoothly, and now Alex was certain he was smiling. Perhaps leering was a better word for it. "Your hair is longer than when I saw you last. I will be more thorough next time."
Alex was glad the night had taken away most colour in the room because he could feel the redness begin to creep back into his cheeks. Consciously, he knew Yassen's words were designed to provoke him; he just wasn't sure why the assassin was toying with him. "I'll remember that…." he mumbled back, knowing he'd probably never get Smithers' earpieces back.
"Good." All traces of amusement in Yassen's face and tone were gone. "Now go back to sleep."
Alex averted his eyes and crawled awkwardly off the sofa and back onto the floor. He heard Yassen settle above him, and once again he could only make out the outline of the man's form. He wasn't sure if what had just passed between them, and this new information, made him feel better or worse, but at the very least, weariness was finally creeping into his body and taking over. The last thing he remembered was yawning, a hollow feeling inside his chest, and being more tired than he'd felt in a very, very long time.
When Alex awoke, he found himself lying much more comfortably than he had when he'd fallen asleep. Much higher off the ground, too. His body felt like dead weight, and when he opened his eyes, he at first didn't register where he was .
There was more light in the room than there had been when he'd fallen asleep, but the sun hadn't yet risen. The first thing Alex noticed was that the living room they'd been staying in was much larger than he'd originally thought. With a high ceiling and great wooden beams supporting it on all sides, it reminded him more of a lodge of some sort than a villa. They were perhaps just high enough into the mountains for the weather to get very cold in the winter months. The house was expensively furnished. That was clear enough, even though Alex wouldn't be able to name the make or era of the furniture. The cushion of the sofa was under him. Yassen must have placed him there sometime during the night.
What had woken him, however, was Dylan making noise on the other side of the room. He was pulling on a new pair of heavy boots and lacing them up. Alex remembered what he'd learned about the man last night and prefered to stay still. Dylan had changed clothes since last night, out of the collared shirt and slacks he'd been wearing yesterday and into warmer clothes. When Yassen entered the room, Alex sat up stiffly. The Russian looked the same as he had last night, not bothering to change out of the dark combat trousers and shirt he wore.
"Look who's up," said Dylan conversationally.
Alex didn't respond. It seemed that Dylan was the only one of them who was going out of his way to pretend that Alex wasn't anything but their prisoner, and now he had to wonder at his motives for that.
Yassen came over to his side and removed the handcuffs, placing them in his back pocket once more. He gave Alex a shirt. It was black with long sleeves, and probably meant for a grown man by the size of it. "Change. We'll be hiking again," Yassen said simply, and then returned to gathering the few things taken out last night back into the bag.
Hiking again. Alex momentarily forgot Dylan and instead thought about just how much he did not want to be hiking again. His legs were sore and he was certain his feet would be too once he put them back on the ground. Complaining to Yassen was probably a moot point though, so he swung his legs over the couch and, aware of Dylan's gaze, changed into the new shirt. It was warmer, and indeed, too big for him.
Pictures inside a glass cabinet caught his eye. There were family photographs spread out among various antiques. Alex wondered if this villa was in fact somebody's home. He hadn't thought about it last night. He'd been wary, sure, of entering a house, especially one so large, he didn't know. Scorpia could have had its base of operations for this mission in there for all he knew, but now he wondered if this house had any affiliation to Scorpia whatsoever. There were a man, a woman, and two girls in the photographs. All seemed happy and fairly normal looking. Alex wondered if they were a cover, or if Yassen had really taken over an unsuspecting family's home for the night. Or worse. A dead body for each face in the photograph flitted through his mind.
"Time to go, Alex." Yassen caught him off guard, grabbing his upper arm. Alex winced as he was hauled to his feet. It was the same place Yassen had gripped yesterday when dragging him through the woods, and today it was badly bruised. Though Yassen noticed, he didn't seem to care. "Do not make me carry you."
Alex struggled to keep up as they exited the villa. Overall, they hadn't left much of a mark on the place by spending the night. If someone did live there, they might never suspect that it had provided a brief shelter for a fugitive, an assassin, and a young boy on the run.
They continued north, and luckily the sun rose very quickly while they were in the mountains. Eventually they reached a small dirt road, overgrown with brush and trees, but definitely a road. There was a little car parked just off its side, hidden under the trees. It had Swiss plates, and that was when Alex realised that they had to have passed into Switzerland. He stared dumbfounded for a moment.
He almost forgot that Yassen was leading him until he received yet another harsh pull on his arm. It had been continuous the entire way. Yassen wanted to keep a fast pace and Alex and Dylan could barely keep up.
Once again, Dylan sat in the backseat while Alex was placed in the front with Yassen. He assumed that the Russian or one of his coworkers had planted the car there for them to find before the operation began. Just like the last car. He wondered how many times they were going to do this. Every time they changed their method of locomotion was a step further away from the likelihood of Alex being found and rescued.
They drove in silence, Alex resting his head against the window and wearily watching the terrain go by. He'd never been to Switzerland before, but after all the places he had been to, it made little difference to him. He was only mildly interested in the majestic scenery they passed. He was tired, and sore. While he was grateful to finally be off his feet, there was little room in the car to stretch properly, and the few hours of sleep he'd had were a far cry from restful. Yassen seemed unaffected, but Alex would have been startled if he'd been otherwise, and Dylan seemed to have either slept soundly or maybe he was simply too optimistic about his escape to be overly tired.
Occasionally, Alex would glance at Yassen out of the corner of his eye. He couldn't tell if the assassin noticed he was doing it or not, but he couldn't help himself. Yassen was a mystery to Alex. Sure, their roles in the situation were obvious, if unplanned, but he could never tell what the man was thinking. That bothered Alex most of all. Yassen was cold, and distant, untouchable, and Alex's life more or less rested in his hands. He found himself weighing the possibilities of Yassen and Dylan killing him, or worse, if there was such a thing, but just like last night he couldn't work out what his life was worth to them. He knew that Scorpia wanted him dead. Did he have any leverage at all? He didn't think so. All he had was his father's once upon a time friendship, if apparently a very strong friendship, with the killer.
Then there was Dylan. Alex couldn't make sense of Dylan. He couldn't get a read on the man's character at all. He seemed happy, personable, if overly friendly, and all Alex had to go on was what Yassen had told him, which by all reasonable assumptions should make Dylan as far from honestly personable and friendly as a human can get. Dylan should be a creep. Alex thought back to the trial. He could remember Eli; could see the boy clearly in his mind. Their eyes had met briefly just before the commotion had started. The dark haired boy had stood there without expression, like he'd tuned everything out, just as the bomb had gone off. Alex couldn't tell if he'd been frightened or not.
They drove for hours trying to avoid the heavily trafficked roads, but it was difficult with the traffic regulations. Alex found out that whoever had left them the car had stashed a cooler of food in the backseat, and so they wouldn't be stopping for provisions any time soon. Instead, Dylan made them sandwiches. In spite of everything, Alex was starving. Maybe the food even improved his mood, but only a little.
They didn't stop for anything. Yassen ate while driving with one hand, and Alex found himself transfixed by the sight of it. The simple human act of the assassin eating was like a mimicry of something a normal person would do. Yassen knew he was watching but said nothing to him.
When they had finished eating, Alex curled back in his seat and started looking out of the window again. There was no conversation, no radio, and sometimes, in Alex's case, no idea what direction they were heading in. Overall, he surmised that they were continuing north. They'd made their way through extreme mountains, which Alex knew to be the Alps, then over rolling hills, and now were getting into a mountainous area once more. Clouds rolled in and eventually the day turned murkier and murkier. Alex's mood followed.
They were approaching the German border. He could tell by the occasional sign. He had to wonder if they were going to be forced to cross it by foot, like they had hiked into Switzerland, or whether that alternate route via the villa had been an extra precaution due to the Italian police searching for them. Would the Swiss and German police be looking out for them? He glanced at Yassen, and wasn't able to decide.
"Look out of your window, Alex," Yassen said quietly, never taking his gaze away from the road ahead.
His eyes dropped. He felt like he'd just been scolded for something very harshly, though in context he really hadn't been. He said nothing and turned back to the window. He'd be able to see the Russian's reflection in it if he looked up just a bit, but decided not to. Yassen would probably know.
In the backseat, Dylan hummed lightly to an off-key tune.
When they reached the German border, Alex assumed that the plan was to drive right on through the checkpoint just like any other traveller. If the police were looking for Dylan however, border control might be in effect and though his spirits weren't rising per se, he could feel the beginnings of an adrenaline rush in his veins. Allowing him to come in contact with anyone else would be a huge risk, but Yassen hadn't planned for him being with them. This might be his chance.
Unfortunately, Alex did not anticipate Yassen's backup plan.
When they were two miles of the crossing, they took a detour onto a small dirt road and once out of sight of the motorway Yassen pulled over. Dylan and Alex watched him as he got out of the car and went to the boot, opening it and rummaging around.
Alex heard clearly, and a new sense of unease filtered into his veins along with the adrenaline. He glanced at Dylan, who looked like he really didn't want anything to do with what was about to happen next. Whatever it was, Alex didn't think the man knew, because when their eyes met, Alex couldn't have sworn Dylan looked just as nervous as Alex felt.
Alex got out of the car, not bothering to close the door behind him, and went to where Yassen was waiting for him by the boot. A long length of rope rested in his hands. Alex's heart sank at the sight of it. He stepped backward.
"Don't," Yassen said quickly, before Alex could continue. It effectively stopped him. "If you run, I will catch you. And then I will hurt you, and you will be in the same position regardless."
Alex began shaking his head. "No. No…."
"Shhh…" The sound was soothing, and Yassen closed the distance between them. "Do as I say and you will not be harmed." He took hold of Alex's wrist and began to wind the rope around it, then the other. It was knotted and then wound around Alex's back, over his neck…. His breath hitched at that part, and Yassen paused, his hands resting at Alex's collarbone. "I'm going to put you in the boot until we've crossed the border." He had to look down while standing this close to Alex. "If you make any sound or otherwise attract attention to yourself, I will be forced to harm you, and many people will die. Do you understand?"
Alex swallowed and nodded.
Yassen must have taken that to be good enough, because he continued tying the rope, then led Alex to the boot of the car. He climbed in awkwardly, and Yassen tied the rest of the rope around his knees and ankles. When he was finished, Alex could barely move an inch. He stared up at the man, trying to will down the fear surfacing at what was about to happen. Yassen did not seem concerned for him, tied up and squeezed into a small space. Worse, there was a thick role of tape in the boot, and Yassen wrapped a strip of it around Alex's mouth, over the back of his neck, and around again several times. Alex was beginning to get angry. Claustrophobia seeped into his stomach. Yassen must have noticed Alex glaring by the time he'd finished.
"Remember what I said." With that, he shut the boot and Alex's world went dark. Muffled voices came from the front of the car, and soon the world was moving underneath him. Rolling roughly over the dirt road until they were back on track toward Germany. Fear began to take over again.
The world inside the cramped boot of the little Swiss car was pitch black until Alex's eyes adjusted. Then he could only slightly make out shapes and the dimensions of the space. They bumped along for about ten minutes and then slowed down. Alex knew they had to have reached the border crossing. They must have been in a line of cars waiting to go through, judging from the way the car moved would drive a little bit then stopped for a few moments before moving on again. Eventually Alex heard muffled voices from the outside. Yassen and Dylan, he couldn't tell which, were talking to someone.
He tried to twist around, but could barely move. He tried rocking his body back and forth, seeing if that would help. It didn't. He rolled onto his back, hands trapped uncomfortably underneath him, when something sharp jabbed into his arm. He hissed and pulled away at first, thinking that he might have injured himself more than he had. Then he moved back, feeling for what had cut him. A piece of the cloth in the back of the boot had been ripped at some point in this car's life, and a metal piece of the undercarriage was sticking up. Alex's heart leapt.
Quickly, he repositioned himself and squirmed further back into the dark, searching awkwardly for the piece with his hands trapped behind him. When he found it, he almost cut his fingers. He set the rope that held his hands together around it and began sawing. It was tricky and he was cutting himself whenever the metal went too far, but in a short time his wrists were free. He didn't wait. He reached for the knots around his neck and back, but he couldn't undo them. He pried his arms mostly free of the restraint and left the rest of his torso in favour of his feet. There he used the jagged edge again. It took forever, but apparently forever wasn't long enough for them to have crossed the border. In reality, Alex estimated that only about five minutes had passed, but he was caught in that horrible moment of a glimmer of hope sprung from utter hopelessness.
He crouched in the small space, unsure how to proceed further. He couldn't open the boot from the inside. He couldn't make noise to alert anyone outside, Dylan would likely be the first to hear it if he was still in the backseat, and would quickly inform Yassen or attempt to cover it up. Alex felt around for inspiration. Besides the tape, which he struggled to pull off his face, there was nothing else in the boot with him. He felt the mounds indented at either side, each with a tire resting underneath. He felt along the roof. He found panelling that covered the tail lights. He froze. Then he began to move again, hurriedly this time, ripping at that panelling until he found plastic pegs that he could pry free in order to remove it. Once it was off, or mostly off, all that remained were the light bulbs and coloured plastic that he easily kicked through. Daylight poured into the boot, and though the hole he had made was far too small for him to fit through, he felt like he was already up and running. He looked out and could see a line of cars behind theirs and the side of a stand at the edge of the road. Their car began pulling away before he was ready, but Alex reached an arm through the tail light and began frantically waving .
It took a few seconds, a minute maybe, but it felt much longer in Alex's heightened state of mind before he heard voices. They were loud and there were several of them coming from behind the car He knew then that his signal had worked. Someone had seen him. Someone was coming for him. They were in a public place, and that was the best Alex could hope for.
Their car took off. Yassen gunned the gas so suddenly that Alex was thrown forward into the wall of the boot, almost twisting his arm badly. He cried out. Pieces of the taillight were cutting into his skin and he couldn't stop it. He could feel blood trickling down his arm, but he kept it out, still waving, heart racing.
Their car was picking up speed and then suddenly turning. Alex was thrown the other way, and once again broken plastic ripped into his skin. He made a pained screech and tears formed in the corners of his eyes. It felt like having an animal tearing at his flesh and he had to fight back the pain.
They drove erratically for a moment and then raced on at a steady pace. Finally, Alex brought his hand in and cradled it to his chest. They'd seen him; that was what counted. He curled himself around the bloody arm -it hurt like hell - but once again was tossed back down when the car took a spinning turn. He had only been able to get to his knees in the small space, but after that he remained curled up on his side, hoping that he wouldn't be thrown the next time.
Tyres squealed. The car careened again and hit something hard, might've been a curb, but drove on and over it. After one long spin that made Alex's gut clench terribly, they came to a stop. Doors slammed outside. Voices sounded. Shouts. Then suddenly, gunfire.
After the first spray of bullets, shots sounded endlessly around them. Alex ducked his head in fear. He couldn't move, he couldn't hide, and if Dylan and Yassen were using the car as a barricade, bullets were going to be slamming into it for sure. He heard himself cry out whenever they sounded too loud or too close. He looked out of the hole he'd made, but couldn't see much but the lower half of a second car behind them. He swallowed hard. The car had the logo of the border police on its door . He could just make out a pair of legs behind its bumper. There were men crouched behind it, taking shots at the front portion of Alex's car. Yassen and Dylan must have been doing the same, and they must have been better armed too, because when a spray of bullets landed in the border car, its metal body all but peeled away.
There was a scream and the sound of a body dropping. More shouting in German. Then silence. It stretched out over everything. The scene outside had become absolutely still. Somewhere in the other car, a radio buzzed. Someone groaned. It was so soft.
Heavy footfalls, clad in boots that Alex recognized as Yassen's, entered his sight. Yassen's legs made their way to the German car and its former passengers. Alex breathed quietly as he watched, not knowing what to expect. Yassen stepped over one body, avoided a long spatter of blood along the ground, and stopped behind the car where a second body lay. Even when he pressed his face closer to the hole in the boot Alex couldn't see anything but the part of that body on the ground. The other car was blocking Yassen's body, but Alex could see his boots on the ground beside the man lying there. Another small groan sounded softly, and then a single gunshot broke the silence, making Alex's whole body jump just like the figure lying at Yassen's feet upon the impact of that bullet. Everything went quiet after that.
Yassen stalked back toward their car. Realising his attention was on the boot, Alex shrank back into the deepest part, suddenly frightened. The door flew up and light flooded in around him. He had no chance to get his bearings as Yassen, furious, took hold of him by the cloth of his shirt and hauled him out of the boot. He gave a short cry and was thrown to the ground, hard.
He could see now that they were in an alley, surrounded on all four sides by brick buildings. Alex couoldn't see the road they'd been on before nor which direction they had come from. He crawled on his knees through the gravel, away from Yassen until one of those heavy boots landed on the small of his back, driving him down into the dirt. Some kind of startled cry escaped his throat and his fingers clawed at the ground ahead of him. He could have been free. Rescue had been on its way. And now they were dead and he was caught out.
The weight lifted off his back and he was dragged up to standing height. Suddenly Yassen's hand was in his hair, pulling so hard his eyes watered, and his mouth was pressed to Alex's temple.
"You remember what I told you?" Yassen asked, coarsely. "Do you?"
Alex had to catch his breath. "Yes."
His arms were twisted behind him and he was thrown back into the car. Yassen hurried in after him and cuffed Alex's wrists around the passenger arm rest. Dylan was already in the backseat. He didn't look very good. They tore out of the alley as fast as possible.
Yassen didn't take them out onto any of the main roads again, which in their current area, was fairly difficult and slow going. Dylan hadn't been hurt in the crossfire, but he now held a haunted look in the set of his eyes and his skin had gone pallid all over. Yassen just looked angry, and was as silent as ever. Alex couldn't see any of the guns he now knew they had, but the duffel bag had moved to the seat beside Dylan in the back. There was a delayed threat hanging in the air as they drove. To Yassen and Dylan, the threat was in the authorities on their trail. To Alex, it was all in the man next to him, whose hands gripped white on the wheel and whose focus was fixed out the windshield.
They continued like that for most of the day, hugging the French border and only stopping for gas. By nightfall, they were a good way north in Germany.
They would have been much further had they not had to spend so much time avoiding well-trafficked areas. Alex had stopped wishing he could see more of the country as he had with Italy and Switzerland. By now all he wanted was the trip to end.
They pulled into a guest house outside a small village about an hour after Dylan fell asleep. He was awoken again only when Yassen shut off the engine.
Alex had seen the Inn from the road, but Dylan seemed confused at first, as Yassen parked the car far down a dark side-road. Besides the police most likely being on the lookout for them, there were also now bullet holes complimenting the paint. Dylan followed them, still without conversation, when Yassen uncuffed Alex from the door and led them back to the house.
Alex walked with his head down. He'd settled back into a quiet state of dread. His arm had stopped bleeding long ago, but the sleeve of his shirt was torn and much of the blood had seeped through. At least it was black.
They sent Dylan in to enquire about getting a room for the night. Yassen wouldn't allow Alex into the presence of a house manager, and he also refused to leave him alone outside. Dylan wasn't gone long. After he'd come back out and confirmed that they could stay overnight, Yassen sent him back in alone.
"Get some sleep," he said, "I will return later."
The look on Dylan's face as they left him was unreadable, almost like he was worried, almost like he didn't want to know, and most curious of all…almost like he was angry.
Yassen re-cuffed Alex and walked him back to the car. Other than the inn, Alex didn't think there was another house for miles. His anxiety had reached a peak long before they'd reached the vehicle.
He was made to walk in front of Yassen, but he doubted that he'd have been able to gauge the man's thoughts, even if he could have seen his face. But Alex was still caught by surprise when he was pushed to the ground. He landed badly, scraping his arms and the palms of his hands on the dirt where he fell, but he turned over and tried to back up. Yassen didn't seem concerned with him for now. He had unlocked the car and was digging around inside it. He came out with a lighter, a pack of cigarettes, and a gun.
Alex thought about pleading for his life then, but he didn't know what to say. He felt trapped, frozen on the ground in the knowledge that if he ran, Yassen would shoot him in the leg. Or maybe right in his back and be done with him.
Yassen came back to Alex and crouched down in front of him, knees bent, resting on his feet. Calmly, he laid the gun between them, and then lit a cigarette. Alex could have gone for the gun if he were so inclined. He felt the temptation, but he didn't move.
Yassen's cigarette glowed bright red in the darkness. The air was chilly and his breath and the smoke combined to rise up into the air in a white mist. Alex could have likened him to a dragon then, waiting, with fire-breath controlled, for his moment to attack. His gaze was about as malevolent as one.
"So Alex," he said. "What did I say I would do if you tried to escape?"
"No," Alex whispered. His heart was pounding so loud that it was probably giving him away.
"I made you a promise Alex. I'm going to keep it." He took the cigarette from his mouth after a long pull. He looked so relaxed, like he was somehow consuming serenity from every drag.
Alex shifted away when Yassen reached for him, but he was caught by the hair and pulled into Yassen's grip. One of the man's hands wrapped around his throat.
"No…" Alex whispered again, quickly before his breath had a chance to be cut off. His body went stiff and he struggled for a brief moment before he managed to regain control of himself. He thought about screaming. There was no way anyone would hear him out here.
"Shhh." Yassen's voice was almost tender. Alex had never thought of him as an assassin more acutely than he did in that moment. "Every man or woman employed under Scorpia is trained to torture," he continued. "You know this, Alex."
Alex took a breath and then ground his teeth together, wanting to respond but not wanting to give Yassen the satisfaction. He was up on his knees, back impossibly straight, arms dangling uselessly in the cuffs. If Yassen wanted to feel the satisfaction of control over Alex then he certainly wasn't in a position to prevent that. The hand around his neck tightened.
"We are also trained to withstand certain amounts of torture," Yassen went on while Alex felt the air slowly stop flowing into his lungs. Fists clenched, he waited, trying not to fight, not to cry out, not to struggle. "I am aware that MI6 has never seen fit to train you in this manner." Yassen's words were barely a whisper. "That is unfortunate."
Now he really couldn't breathe. Yassen's hand was far too tight. It hurt, felt like he was crushing Alex's windpipe. He screwed his eyes shut, fighting the need to gasp for air. His body tried to jerk out of Yassen's grip; Alex couldn't help it. What composure he had fell away as he began fighting for real. Yassen gripped him tighter, pulling an arm around Alex's middle. The restraint only made Alex's instinct to resist stronger. As he thrashed, Yassen tipped him backward onto the cold ground.
The assassin loomed over Alex. The hand at his throat was feeling more like a knife now, cutting air out of him. Yassen must have known how frightening being in a hold like that had to be, for anyone much less a boy, barely a teenager. Alex's back was on the ground and he couldn't stop himself from jerking around wildly, Yassen above him, crouching between his knees. Alex did everything he could to kick the man away, but he couldn't get any leverage, couldn't pry even a knee between himself and the killer. He was full out panicking by the time Yassen let him go. Alex fell back against the dirt instantly, bound hands going straight to his throat and he found that he couldn't speak. He could barely remember how to breathe on his own. The sounds that came out of his mouth were pitiful, broken rasps.
Smoke curled into his nose and he coughed. If he had thought that his throat hurt before, coughing made it a hundred times worse. Yassen had found his cigarette again. He sat looking down at Alex, legs still splayed out on either side of the assassin. He hadn't moved away when he'd let go, and Alex knew that was a bad sign.
"Please…stop." Alex tried to speak; it came out more like a croak.
"Alex…." Yassen carded a hand through his hair. "You will try to escape again without good enough incentive. I know you."
He flicked ash to the ground, and Alex caught a glimpse of the gun lying just behind Yassen's boots before his attention shot back to the cigarette in Yassen's hand, because Yassen was suddenly leaning down over Alex, and hovering the glowing end over his stomach, trailing slowly up his midsection.
"Please…." Alex's voice came out in a terrible whine. "I won't…." He'd stopped thinking of Yassen as the man he'd met atop Sayle's tower, the man who'd known his father, the man who'd saved his life, several times. Right now all he could think was how to get out of this situation, how to convince Yassen to let him go. Alex grasped for words that would sway him, but there was nothing he could think of. Talking about John Rider would be transparent, and Alex was still too stubborn to plead with his father's memory.
He trembled when Yassen bent closer. "I am sorry, Alex." His name rolled off of Yassen's tongue as though it were a word he could savour. "But this is something you need to learn."
Yassen took hold of one of Alex's wrists, just below the cuff. Alex tried to pull back to himself immediately, but Yassen was too strong. He held tight and brought the inside of the arm to his lips. Alex gasped in surprise when Yassen opened his mouth and sucked at the top of his forearm. Something foreign coiled in his stomach and he was too high on anxiety and adrenaline to make sense of the feeling. With one final lick, Yassen pulled back and drove the cigarette into Alex's arm. Alex screamed before he even knew what was happening. It was searing hot where Yassen's mouth had been a moment before, burning into him.
Alex's scream trailed off into a whimper and he pulled his arms back to himself, his whole body rocking. A fiery red circle stood out on his skin, and it burned.
Their gazes met. Alex stared up at the assassin in confusion; he was shaking, his stomach was doing flip-flops, and his eyes were watery from the pain.
Yassen ran his tongue over his bottom lip. When he reached for the gun, Alex devolved back into panic mode.
"I didn't think you would last very long," Yassen observed, affirming his assumption. "I would say that over half the people I've killed in my life did not deserve to die," he continued, holding Alex still underneath him with his weight and a grip in Alex's hair. "You do not think you deserve to die, do you?"
The heavy pistol was situated under Alex's jaw, digging in sharply, forcing his face up to look at Yassen. His pulse was racing, his mind had gone blank; he stared into Yassen's eyes, and it was then that the lizard part of Alex's brain took over.
"Yaa… Yassen," Alex heard himself speaking. "Help me." His voice had come down a notch, with a throaty quality to it. "Please help me." His eyelids lowered until he could only see the man through heavy lashes. He licked his lips, long and slow. He didn't know what he was saying. It was imperative that he appeal to Yassen somehow, any way that he could. "I need you."
His hands reached out and twisted themselves into Yassen's shirt. Alex leaned into him as far as he could with Yassen still holding him by the hair, and when that wasn't far enough he tried pulling Yassen down to him. "Need you to help me…pleaseplease, help me…needyou…."
A small part of Alex was surprised at himself, but most of him was in far too much danger to care. Only one thing mattered: that Yassen decide not to kill him. Alex's body was determining for him exactly how to accomplish that. He was rising up, lifting himself off the ground, rubbing against Yassen, searching for that bit of strange intimacy he'd seen in the man earlier.
And it was working. Yassen had stopped what he was doing. His head cocked almost imperceptibly to one side while Alex pleaded. His grip loosened.
One message broadcast clearly in Alex's mind: 'My life is in your hands. Please don't destroy it.'
Yassen allowed it when Alex pulled him down, so close their torsos were pressed together. Alex wanted him to feel his heartbeat, wanted Yassen to sympathize, literally. He couldn't think straight.
He heard the gun fall, deposited onto the dirt somewhere above Alex's head, and then Yassen's hands were back in his hair, both of them this time, and the man was looking down at him with an actual, real expression.
"You're so much like your father," Yassen said softly, "and so very not." His mouth was on Alex's neck then, and Alex's pulse raced under it. One hand petted softly at his hair, and the other ran down his abdomen, both surprisingly gentle after what they'd been doing only moments ago. Alex's mind reeled.
To his further surprise, he was calming down. His heartrate was slowing, and he didn't want to move away. Yassen's hands, and his mouth on Alex's skin, were soothing. Strange. But soothing.
Suddenly hesitant, Alex reached up to touch the man over him. He wondered whether Yassen would allow it, Alex's fingers gliding over his neck, if it would be okay to touch him. Alex wasn't reprimanded when he did it, but Yassen did pause, and then let go of him. Alex watched him sit back while he remained splayed out on the ground, too dazed, surprised, and sore to move yet. He got the impression that Yassen might have been a little surprised himself when he climbed to his feet, and then helped Alex up. Unexpectedly catching a glimpse, he could see that the man's trousers had become too tight, which made his cheeks colour. Whatever he had done, his situation had completely reversed itself since they had arrived out there.
Without a word to Alex, Yassen picked up his gun and slipped it under the belt in the back of his trousers. He led the way back to the guest house in silence. The long walk was surreal, at best.
That night, Alex learned Dylan played the piano beautifully. They entered the guest house looking quite beaten and a bit dazed to encounter a melodic tune drifting through the air, winning over the few guests who had stayed up late to mingle. He could see Dylan at the house piano in a corner across from the lounge. Most of the guests seemed to be enjoying it, but Yassen disregarded him altogether and took Alex to their room.
They didn't speak of what had happened, nor had almost happened, for the rest of the night.
The next morning they woke early, before the sun had risen. Dylan's mood had visibly improved, and Alex wondered if the criminal had been relieved to see him returning alive. Alex had to admit that he too was happy that he had returned alive.
Before leaving, Yassen took the time to bandage the cigarette burn on Alex's arm. Alex had to fight down his nerves when Yassen gestured him over; he'd been avoiding Yassen's personal space since they returned from the car. The assassin made him sit on the bed while he cleaned and taped up the burned flesh. Yassen seemed to be all about focus once again and once Alex was seated next to him, he found that he was much calmer himself. Yassen's hands, soft on his arm when they'd been so unforgiving yesterday, were now soothing. Dylan even stopped to watch them for a moment, though after a quick look from Yassen, he went back to tidying up their little room. Still, Dylan's good mood didn't falter.
If Yassen had intended for his threat of torture keep Alex quiet and obedient, then it hadfailed. In fact, it had almost the opposite effect on Alex's psyche. He couldn't take his eyes off of his captor the rest of the morning; everything Yassen did was fascinating, and when they were back on the road, every question Alex had had since the beginning of their journey tumbled out of his mouth.
"What are we going to do at the next border?"
"Aren't we being followed?"
"Where are we going?"
And, most importantly: "Are we there yet?"
Alex didn't know why he felt like goading the Russian so much. Yassen was flat out ignoring him! At least Dylan was trying to answer his questions. Except, Dylan didn't know what they would be doing at the next border crossing; didn't know whether they were being followed, although they agreed that the Swiss and German police must have been alerted to their presence. Dylan avoided the rest of the questions. All the while, Yassen was silently fuming at the wheel.
Eventually, Alex's tactic of sheer annoyance waned. There wasn't that much to talk about, and although it was clear that Dylan would have been happy with any subject that didn't directly relate to Alex's kidnapping and their current situation, he was perceptive enough to pick up on Yassen's irritation with the idle conversation.
Instead, Alex took to staring at Yassen. Every time he looked at him, he remembered how he'd acted last night. Not how it had started, because the torture had been planned, expected even, but how it had turned out. Because that had not been planned or expected at all.
Alex was aware that he had been the one who'd initiated it, but that had only been out of instinct and before he's known what was happening, Yassen had suddenly been there, responding, all plans on teaching Alex a 'lesson' gone. He'd had his mouth on Alex's neck. Alex had been clinging to Yassen, and it wasn't just because he'd been scared and hadn't wanted to die. They'd been grinding together, and they'd both been hard. He could feel the colour rise to his cheeks as he watched Yassen drive.
Whenever Yassen glanced at him, he would turn his eyes back to the road immediately afterwards, like he knew what Alex was thinking. It made the colour in his cheeks darken, but it didn't make him stop.
They would be crossing the next border on foot again, abandoning the car several kilometres away. Like the Swiss-German border, the motorway into the Netherlands would be heavily guarded. This was the first thing Yassen said since they'd left, and the statement was pointedly directed at Alex.
They could hear sounds of a railway in the distance, but Yassen did not lead them to it. Not for the first time, Alex wondered how great the news of their escape had become, and how heavily they were being searched for. At least the terrain was flat here, and they could walk easily without becoming exhausted. It was mostly farmland, but Yassen had taken them to the edge of a forest, one he said would take them all the way, unhindered, to the border's edge. Alex certainly wasn't thrilled to be traipsing through brush and trees again, but Yassen hadn't once lost the way on their previous excursion through the mountains. At least Alex didn't have to be tied up and stowed into any dark spaces either.
If anyone had seen them, Alex doubted they'd have been able to explain what they were doing. Dylan and Yassen looked more or less alright, but he was certainly worse for the wear. He was bruised and bandaged, and his shirt was torn in several noticeable places. It was probably lucky then, that they did not encounter anyone.
They carried on for what seemed like hours, following Yassen. This time Yassen did not keep hold of Alex's arm, but Alex could tell he was being watched closely as they walked. If he ducked and made a run for it, Yassen would be on him before he knew it.
Just as Yassen had said, the forest path took them to the border, where it immediately opened up into fields on the other side. Alex could see houses in the distance, spread out in the fields, and there was a single road between them and the open land. They walked along the tree line for a while before Yassen stopped, took a phone out of the bag, inserted its battery, and made a call. He spoke entirely in Russian. His voice became something wholly different, harsher than his English voice. Alex had gotten used to the latter. Yassen barely had a trace of accent. The switch was a slight shock for Alex, reminding him that Yassen hid very much of himself, even the dangerous parts. Once it was over, he took the battery out and dropped the phone back into the bag. He nodded to Dylan, and then sat down.
They waited for half an hour, just inside the shadow of the trees. Alex's apprehension was returning with every passing minuted and by the time a single silver car came down the road, he was as nervous as ever. It pulled to a stop not far from their hiding place. Dylan and Yassen got to their feet and moved out into the open. This time Yassen took hold of Alex's arm.
The driver worked for Scorpia. Alex knew this immediately. Even if he hadn't looked like such a thug, then the silver scorpion pin on his lapel broadcasted it clearly.
"You are late," was the first thing he said. He had a heavy Russian accent.
"We took many detours," replied Yassen, "but we are here now."
This seemed good enough for the driver. He opened the door and Yassen forced Alex in the backseat with him. For once, Dylan enjoyed the front.
It took them an hour to reach the outskirts of Amsterdam. By the time they could see the city on the waterfront, Dylan was all but humming with excitement. Even Yassen seemed to relax. That alone made Alex nervous.
They didn't drive all the way into the heart of the city, but they were close. The driver took them to a residential area on the south eastern side. They parked in front of a row of canal houses, which weren't dissimilar from London townhouses in Alex's opinion. The canal on the other side of the road was practically a street itself. He eyed it as they got out of the car.
"Thank you," Dylan was saying as Alex was dragged out of the car and held tightly. Alex realised he was talking to Yassen. "Thank you for all that you've done."
"Do not thank me yet. We will remain until you are secure." Yassen passed the bag to the driver in favour of holding Alex.
"Good, good." Dylan nodded in appreciation, and then they were making their way to one of the canal houses. It was one of the larger ones, and for a brief moment Alex could imagine Dylan living out the rest of his days here, quietly, alone and in hiding.
Dylan gave a rap at the front door and waited. There was a soft commotion inside, and then a voice from a slot in the door. "T'was brillig, and the slithy toves!"
"Did gyre and gimble in the wabe," said Dylan.
"Hast thou slain the Jabberwock?"
Dylan smirked. "Come to my arms, my beamish boy."
The door opened then revealing not a boy but a man who looked both relieved and overjoyed to see them. "Oh frabjous day! Calloh, callay!" He was grinning, and swung the door wide to usher them inside. "Come in, come in. You made it. I can't believe you made it."
Alex placed his accent as American. He looked roughly the same age as Dylan but with sharper features and a military haircut.
"I can't believe it either. Jim, what are they saying on the news?"
"Nothing good. An awful lot of panic and not a whole lot of detail."
They walked as they spoke. The driver departed down the hall without a word, but the man named Jim paused them quickly after. "May I ask, and I certainly don't mean to imply anything, but who is this?" He gestured to Alex, looking him up and down as he did so.
"This is Alex Rider. He's a spy." They were both staring at Alex now. "This is what the British government sent to catch me."
Alex could see the precise moment Jim's face lost all its humour. "Jesus Christ," he whispered.
"They are not playing games any longer. They are desperate," Yassen said quietly, breaking the moment. Alex looked up at him.
Jim looked like he was absorbing some of the shock. "Puts things in perspective then, huh?" He trailed off. "What—What are we going to do with him?"
Dylan looked at Yassen. "Scorpia will take care of him," Yassen replied. Alex didn't know if that statement was a threat or a relief for the two men, but they seemed to accept it.
As soon as they passed the front foyer, Alex could hear voices coming from within. A short way down the hall, they entered a large room full of people. His eyes widened to take all of it in. There was something going on in every corner. There were computers and laptops strewn about, with men working at one station or another, sometimes milling between. Two men who must have either worked for Scorpia or been otherwise trained guards stood near the curtained windows, watching the street outside.
"Hey, Jon's back! Need a hard drive torched? Compliments of the house!" Someone shouted from the other side of the room, and when Alex looked he saw a bright burst of flame, extinguished after a few seconds, and then the charred remains of something metal tossed in a large bin. There was a stack of them waiting on the table by the bin.
The shout caught the room's attention and all eyes turned to them. People went up to Dylan right away, asking if he was alright and if he'd been followed. Many started cheering and there was a great buzz of excitement in the air.
Yassen and Alex stood back, but at one point or another, the men's gazes fell on him. He noticed that Yassen hadn't let go of his arm since they'd stepped inside.
It was decided by Yassen that they would spend the night within the house. Alex thought it was more of a base than a house, but it was furnished comfortably enough to assert otherwise. It was one of the larger houses on the street, so when Yassen, as Scorpia's operations leader, asked for a room of his own, his request was not denied. Alex, as a potential threat to the organisation, was to remain under his guard. Or so he said.
Alex did not feel like much of a potential threat. Until now, Dylan hadn't really bothered him. One man on his own hadn't seemed like much of a threat to his person; not after all the other, worse things he had dealt with. But many….
Surrounded by men who were like Dylan, Alex found himself re-evaluating that first impression.
With the sun setting, Yassen retired them to his room. Only then did he release Alex, who rubbed his upper arm gingerly. Yassen locked the door. Down the hall, Alex could hear someone laughing. He could faintly hear conversation on the floor below them, where Dylan's organisation was working, making plans, doing whatever it was that they did.
When Alex turned around, he found Yassen rummaging through the bag and then pulling out a rifle. Alex tensed for a moment until Yassen sat down at the table and began taking it apart. He was cleaning it. Alex caught a glimpse of several more shiny things in the bag.
It was then that he realised that he and Yassen were alone. Not just alone and away from Scorpia and the 'group', but alone as in away from everyone.
Alex moistened his lips and fixed the man in his gaze. "So," he began. And waited. Yassen wasn't looking at him. There was almost the full length of the room between them, but Alex had spoken clearly. "So," he tried again. "Dylan and Jim. Are you…like them?"
Yassen paused, the rifle in two pieces in his hands. After a moment in which the room seemed frozen, he spoke. "No Alex. I am not." He began putting the gun back together, apparently satisfied with its capabilities.
Alex continued to stare at him. He wasn't going to back down from this one. Not after the last night.
"They have their own code, if you will," Yassen continued after the silence had stretched long enough. "I have mine. They are attempting to build a community. I am not. I am an assassin." The gun clicked into place, loaded and ready. He replaced it with another, a handgun this time, and began pulling the new one apart. "I live and work alone, and have no interest in their work."
Alex's shoulders slumped. "That's not exactly what I meant…."
"Your father liked me very much, Alex," Yassen cut in, "as many men in Moscow did before him, when I was younger than you are now." He stopped, and though he was still inclined over the gun, his eyes stared dangerously up at Alex and Alex knew then that it was better not to accuse him of anything. "I like you very much, Alex," Yassen added.
Colour rose to Alex's cheeks at that, and his mind was reeling at the thought of his father and Yassen…but he tried to remain collected. "So you're telling me it's coincidence that they hired you, and then you…and I….back in Germany?" Alex realised how flustered he was only after the disjointed words left his mouth.
"No, it is not coincidence." Yassen put the gun down and finally focused all his attention on Alex. "I take whatever clients Scorpia assigns me, and have no illusions as to whether they take my background into account while doing so. Because of who and what Dylan is, MI6 cunningly sent you, Alex Rider."
"Alex Rider, who is both beautiful and the son of John Rider, my former partner." He came to Alex, who stood rooted to the floor, unable to move even if he had wanted to. "I imagine your government thought they would be taking out two birds with one stone on the chance that you should 'accidentally' run into Dylan and I. Nothing is coincidence, Alex." Yassen brushed a piece of hair back from his temple, invading well within his personal space. "Everything is connected."
Alex allowed himself to breathe. "So MI6 knew you were alive. Or suspected? They set me up."
"Perhaps not in the way they were meaning to." Yassen smiled then, softly. "After all, they did not foresee you having desires of your own."
Yassen's thumb caressed Alex's lower lip and he allowed it, even parted his lips slightly for the wandering finger. His blood felt like it was on fire. He was too hot in this room, with Yassen so close and speaking to him so openly, and he was too angry with MI6 and Dylan and himself for how confused he was about it all. Yassen filled his vision, thumb sliding back to rest under his jaw, fingers splayed against the back of his neck, and then Yassen's mouth was on his and he was leaning up into it before he knew what he was doing. It felt so good to taste the man, felt like he was doing something wrong and the buzz that came with it was exhilarating. Yassen's lips felt better than Yassen's fingers against his mouth and his tongue was a new level of excitement altogether.
Suddenly kissing Yassen felt like fighting Yassen, and Alex wanted the challenge. His hands fisted the man's collar and his nails dug into his shoulder blades while their teeth gnashed together, biting as much as licking. Yassen made a noise deep in his throat that was somewhere between a moan and a growl. The moment Alex heard it, he wanted to see if he could make him do it again. He was barely half the Russian's size and still he was holding his own, pushing back into the kiss every time Yassen bent him backward.
Yassen's hands ran down his back, over his hips, caught the back of Alex's knee and lifted him with his arms still around Yassen's neck to wrap his legs around the man's waist as well. Alex must have weighed nothing. He could feel how hard Yassen was already, and his own body responded in kind. Yassen made the noise again, sending a thrill through Alex, and then they were moving backward until he hit the bed. Yassen stood over him for a second; a second where he was looking up at Yassen from the soft cushion and blankets underneath him, lying on his back, and a hit by a sudden jolt of reality. He had no idea what he was doing. He had never done this before, much less with someone that wasn't a girl and someone that had this much control over him. He was slightly frightened by the thought, yet Yassen was leaning down over him, kneeling on the bed and kissing him again. Alex's skin had goosebumps and Yassen's hand was running underneath his shirt and up his side.
He breathed in deeply, trying to calm himself.
Yassen paused for a moment and watched him, as though he knew what Alex was thinking. He wasn't sure he wanted Yassen to see his nerves, not after he'd already been so pathetically begging for his freedom when Yassen had scared him before. He set his jaw and glared back at the assassin.
The corner of Yassen's lip twisted upward into a half smile. Maybe he did know what Alex was thinking after all. It didn't matter. He was determined not to show any fear.
"Alex." Yassen breathed the word.
Alex's eyelids drooped in reaction. He caught his tongue between his teeth and reached for Yassen. Their mouths met, and Yassen was tugging his shirt up, running his hands over Alex's chest. The shirt fell away with another tug, over his head, and then Yassen's mouth was on his neck just like last night. It made Alex whine and press himself into the man above him.
Teeth bit into the muscle under his skin and Alex jumped at the sudden pain, eyes flying open. Yassen's hands were hard on his abdomen and thigh, holding him down. When the weight of Yassen's knees pinned his legs in place, some of his earlier anxiety started to return. Alex tried to take hold of his shoulders, but Yassen caught his wrists and forced his arms down. Alex winced at the rough pull on his bandaged arms, but shivered at a second bite to his clavicle. The tingle of pleasure the man's tongue created afterward sent contradictory signals to Alex's mind. He tried to wriggle free, but Yassen held him firmly in place.
"Please." It left his mouth before he knew what he was saying.
Yassen pulled his arms over his head so that he could lean up to hiss into Alex's ear. "'Please' what?" He caught the lobe between his teeth, but more gently this time. "Please let you go? Is that really what you want, Alex?"
The words sent a shudder down Alex's spine so thoroughly that it ended in his groin. He gasped. His body sang when Yassen spoke to him like that.
"I do not think it is." Yassen lowered his weight against Alex, so that they were pressed together everywhere. When Yassen rolled his hips, Alex made a sound that probably confirmed that statement.
Yassen took both of Alex's wrists in one hand for a moment while seeking out his mouth. Alex sank into the feeling, slick tongue against his, pressure slackened on his forearms. He let his eyes close until he heard a metallic click above his head. He recognised it and his blood turned from hot to cold in an instant. He tried to bring his arms down, pulling hard and only hurting himself, but they didn't move. Incredulity and panic crossed his features, but Yassen didn't look very concerned for him handcuffed to the headboard of the bed.
"What-?" Alex caught Yassen's eyes and the words died on his tongue. The assassin was sitting back, surveying him. Alex gave another quick tug, but the cuffs held. Yassen looked pleased with this; Alex could see it in the set of his eyes. He reached for a nightstand at the side of the bed, and Alex half expected to see a knife in his hand, but it was only a small bottle. Alex wasn't sure if he was relieved by the sight of it. Yassen set it aside, then bent down and began undoing the zipper of Alex's trousers.
He gasped when Yassen's hands intentionally rubbed over his crotch. Yassen took his time, putting pressure there as he peeled the denim down Alex's legs and let his trousers fall to the floor. Hands were replaced with Yassen's mouth over the fabric of his boxers, and Alex couldn't help the noise he made. It was somewhere between a whimper and a whine, and very high-pitched. He clamped his mouth shut to stop himself from doing it again.
His reactions only encouraged Yassen. He hooked his thumbs in the band of Alex's underwear and mouthed at the sensitive spot beneath his hip as he pulled the elastic down. Alex had to turn his head away at that. His face was turning pink and he couldn't find the words to tell Yassen to stop.
He felt a hand caress his face. "Look at me, Alex." He kept his eyes shut. Yassen's fingers gripped his jaw roughly until he opened his eyes and looked down. His own body was an expanse of golden skin, softened by the low light in the room. Yassen, still fully clothed, crouched between his spread knees and waited for him to make eye contact. When Alex did, he bent his head and licked the tip of his cock in one slow stroke. Alex felt dizzy. Blood seemed to be pooling there, rather than running through the rest of his body. Yassen closed his mouth over his shaft, the pressure in Alex's groin coiled in on itself. Yassen's head started moving, up and down, hands gripping Alex's hips, working his tongue to create a glorious sense of friction, Alex closed his eyes and keened loudly.
Yassen released him far too quickly. He opened his eyes again and found Yassen sitting back on his heels, pulling his own shirt over his head. When he started unbuttoning his pants, Alex's apprehension started to creep back.
Yassen was big; much bigger than Alex was, naturally. He swallowed, trying not to imagine the logistics of what Yassen had planned for him. He watched as Yassen poured liquid from the bottle all over his fingertips, and then the man crawled up by Alex's side. His fingers glided over the swell of Alex's arse and settled over his most private place. Yassen began kissing him, but his attention seemed to remain focused on that hand, caressing, massaging, creating a light pressure, and suddenly there was a finger inside him. It didn't hurt, but Alex tensed anyway. Yassen kept going. After a few strokes, a second finger was added. It still didn't actually hurt, but Alex could certainly feel it, and that fed the anxiety within him.
"Wait," he pleaded, trying to pull back without success.
Yassen raised an eyebrow, but disregarded the request. He cupped his hand and moved his fingers to a position that Alex didn't understand, but suddenly he touched something fantastic inside Alex.
His mouth fell open in surprise, but when Yassen did it again his protests were forgotten. Alex's head tipped forward and he had to pant to catch his breath. He found himself moving into the touch, trying to find some kind of control over it. Yassen kissed the corner of his mouth. He could feel the man smile.
Yassen pulled away. His hand and fingers retracted, leaving Alex both relieved and frustrated. There was a squelch from the bottle and Alex tried to sit up as far as the handcuffs would allow as Yassen coated his own cock with the liquid while Alex watched wide-eyed. He moved Alex's legs apart further and leaned over him.
"This is going to hurt," he whispered. It sounded like a promise.
Alex's pulse was racing as Yassen lined them up, lifting Alex's hips to meet him. He pushed in slowly, and Alex gritted his teeth. It burned. Yassen was right, it did hurt and even more so at the end of each thrust when their hips came together. Alex's legs were shaking and he was yanking at the restraints holding his hands, trying not to groan aloud.
"Don't fight me," Yassen whispered into his ear. He licked along Alex's jaw until he found his mouth again. Alex ignored the order, gnashing his teeth into Yassen's lip. He needed some kind of control, badly, and that was all he could find. But Yassen only growled and bit back. He snapped his hips harder in warning, at a slightly different angle, yet it had the opposite effect from the punishment he'd obviously intended. He'd found the electric spot his fingers had touched earlier and Alex arched his back off the bed in response. Yassen did it again and Alex moaned. His resistance melted away even though he kept fighting, only now it was to try to pull Yassen to him in order to provoke the man. Yassen complied, thrusting up into Alex with quicker strokes. Their skin was slick with sweat. Alex wanted his hands free to pull Yassen down against him closer, to rub harder at every place their bodies met. He felt like they could melt together.
He was coming before he knew what was happening. His hips were moving of their own accord and the pool of heat that had wound within him was finally overwhelming. He cried out and it felt like he was frozen in the same moment even as the world around him continued moving. Wetness mingled with the sweat between them.
Yassen's hands wound into his hair, pulling his head back to expose his neck. He kissed Alex there, then on the other side, then on his mouth and said something in Russian that Alex didn't understand. He wished he did. He'd never heard Yassen's voice tinged with that much emotion before. Yassen moved frantically, bent over Alex, and with a long groan he came.
It took Alex a long while to come down, letting aftershocks wash through him, frozen in place until Yassen pulled out of him. Yassen didn't move otherwise, arms still wrapped around Alex, just breathing together. Eventually Yassen reached up and unlocked the cuffs around Alex's wrists. He dropped them to the floor and Alex held his forearms. He'd ignored the pain, but blood was seeping through the bandages by now. To his surprise, Yassen took one of his wrists and held it softly. Alex's eyes flitted up to his face and he could swear he saw guilt there.
Yassen looked over the bandage until he was satisfied. He turned on his side and pulled Alex against him, spooning behind him. Alex allowed Yassen's arms around him, even pulled them in tighter, fulfilled to have the man's warmth. They fell asleep like that, without conversation or further exchange, but Alex was satisfied. He hadn't been that content in a long time, and that was something of a surprise.
He was woken again not very long after. Someone was shouting. He moaned and tried to turn over to get away from the intrusion, but the shouting continued, louder and outside their room, maybe on the floor below. His brain was just beginning to register that something was wrong when gunfire split the silence. He was alert in an instant, just in time to be hit in the face with a pile of clothes.
"What's going on?" he sat up and grabbed his torn shirt.
Yassen was on the other side of the room, pulling his boots on quickly and lacing them up faster than anyone Alex had ever seen.
"Put your clothes on. Now."
Alex did so, throwing his shirt over his head and hopping into his trousers. He forgot his underwear in the haste. He pulled his shoes on while Yassen dumped the contents of his bag out onto the bed where Alex had been lying only a moment ago. There was an entire arsenal in there. Yassen strapped guns to his waist, around his shoulders, slipped knives into his boots and took the rifle. He found out Alex's earpieces, the ones Smithers had made specially for him, and stared at them in distaste. He threw them to the floor and smashed them underneath his boot. He held out a hand to Alex. "Come."
Alex didn't hesitate any longer than a second. And he wasn't sure if he hadn't gone completely mad as he took Yassen's hand and allowed the man to lead him out of the room. Yassen ducked against the wall of the hallway as soon as they had gone through the door, holding an arm against Alex's chest to make sure that he was safe. They stalked down the corridor, hearing voices below. Bright, white lights flashed through the windows and Yassen grabbed Alex and dived out of their way. The sound of a helicopter roared by.
"What's going on?" Alex tried again, this time having to shout over the noise.
Yassen just held him tightly. "We were tracked. I need to find Dylan."
"What?" Alex couldn't believe what he'd just heard, but Yassen pulled him along anyway.
They descended the steps only halfway before two men in black police armour and helmets met them. Yassen fired two shots, catching them both in the neck while Alex cried out in shock. He was moving again before they'd hit the floor, having to drag Alex after him. They were shot not ten meters away. The man who'd just fucked him now killed two people right in front of him.
"They're sweeping the house," Yassen said as they ducked into a side room on the main floor. They were going to be surrounded down here. Then Alex heard gunfire from outside and thought that maybe the Scorpia operatives wouldn't be so outnumbered after all. "Stay close to me."
Yassen still refused to let go of Alex's hand even though it would have given him another firearm to shoot with. They barrelled out of the room when someone came through the front door. Alex recognised their MI6 attire.
"Alex!" Someone shouted. It wasn't Yassen. It wasn't Dylan; Alex could now see Dylan on the other side of the house's corridor with someone from Scorpia. Gunfire rained over their heads until Yassen could get them around a doorframe on the opposite side of the hall. "Don't shoot!" the man shouted again, and Alex for the life of him couldn't figure out who he was, but he was yelling at the MI6 agents. Whoever he was, he'd seen Alex and recognised him.
They were at a standoff. MI6 was holding the front door, Dylan and the Scorpia guard were stuck in the middle, and Alex and Yassen were at the end of the hall. Police and what was left of Scorpia were all over the place. Shouts could be heard from upstairs. Sirens blared from outside. The ever present hum of the helicopter dominated everything.
Alex peered from around the corridor to see the agents. The one who'd been shouting took off his helmet. It was Terrance. Alex suddenly knew why he'd been recognised so easily; they'd sent the agent he'd been assigned to in Florence. Alex pulled away from Yassen, the deaths of the two policemen fresh in his mind, but he didn't make it far. The assassin had an iron grip around him and before he knew it he was locked against the man's chest. A bullet flew by them out of nowhere and Yassen held him tightly. His arm and body was like a shield around Alex. He felt a rush of gratitude, of uninhibited emotion for the assassin.
"Go to him," Yassen suddenly ordered.
Alex spun around. "What?" He was all fury, high on adrenaline, and looked like a wild little thing glaring at Yassen in disbelief.
"Alex." The assassin's blue eyes were as cold as ever. "You are the perfect diversion. We will be trapped here if you don't go."
"But-" He couldn't - didn't - want to go back, not now. He couldn't think. He couldn't make this decision right now.
Yassen grabbed him roughly by the shoulders. "We're coming out!" he shouted and thrust himself and Alex into the hallway. Alex was the only thing between MI6 and Yassen. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Dylan, crouched behind one of the open doors. His heartrate picked up. He was completely vulnerable. With one of Yassen's hands on him, forcing him ahead, and the other holding the gun to his side, he looked for all the world like Yassen's hostage. And that's exactly what he was, he supposed.
"Don't do this," Alex pleaded, just loud enough to be heard. He didn't care if MI6 had also heard him, they wouldn't have understood what he meant.
He felt Yassen's breath, hot on his neck. "I'll come for you, Alex," he whispered. "I promise I'll come back for you." He shoved Alex hard, almost throwing him off his feet, firing at the agents as he did so. Alex fell into them, knocking them back as Yassen turned and ran. When Alex looked up, he glimpsed Dylan and the Russian running up the stairs. The sound of glass breaking came a moment later. Alex climbed to his feet, ignoring Terrance and the other agents as they ran after Yassen. He sprinted out the door.
The helicopter did not belong to MI6. It belonged to Scorpia, and only once Alex was outside did he realise it. Two figures from the side of the building held a rope ladder that was tied to its carriage. They were pulled away just before the MI6 agents reached the broken window of the second floor, unable to follow them out. The agents fired, and Alex held his breath, but the helicopter was climbing too fast for their aim to be accurate.
Yassen and Dylan rose up into the night sky. Alex watched from below as their figures blurred into the dark, until only the outline of the helicopter's bulk and its signal lights and thrumming blades told him where they were.
He watched until the chaos in the house, on the street, and all around him demanded his attention. He would find Terrance. He would go back to MI6. He would go through their debriefing, and he would know all the while what they'd tried to set him up for and how badly it had backfired.
One way or another, he would see Yassen again.