I choked on smoke, pain rending my body into shards of agony with each cough and convulsion. I was losing blood steadily – I could feel it seeping through the bandages in my back, and I knew there was internal damage.

I stumbled along, though, watching for heat signatures on my glasses through blurred vision.

You could have saved them.

Fischer's voice was loud in my ears, a litany of guilt etched into my skin.

I could save Misha. I'd never forgive myself if I left him here, at the mercy of his father, these corrupt adults. This horrible, nightmarish place, for both of us – his childhood. I would never move past it.

But I didn't want to do it because of the guilt Fischer dropped onto me.

I stumbled down the hall, barely able to see, to think, to walk, because I cared about Misha.

And I could never live knowing that he thought I'd abandoned him.

I remembered the last order I heard before I'd slipped outside, ready to complete the last step of my plan, ordering the children to stay in their rooms. I could've been gone, a ghost mingling with the smoke billowing from the annex. I heard sirens in the distance, and knew I'd made things that much harder. Exfil must be there be now, a mile away – I wondered how long they'd wait for me.

It didn't matter.

I wouldn't leave Misha.

I made it to our door before I really knew I had, blinking to stay awake. I couldn't hear anything after a beat of listening, so I pushed open the door with a trembling hand.

Misha's eyes met mine at the same time as I found him, tears on his cheeks. He was crying, curled up on his bed. He was on top of the blankets – like he hadn't even had time to seek that comfort in this cold, concrete room, before he fell on his bed to mourn what I'd done to him.

He looked like he'd seen a ghost when he saw me. Like he didn't know whether to be terrified, angry, or sad. Like he was being haunted by a specter of the dead.

Like I was a punishment.

That feeling, from the first day, returned. The feeling of being looked at like an abuser, like Fischer or Plizetsky. When he saw me walking in and didn't know me, and thought I'd hurt him like everyone else, and to know that all the trust, the late nights, the stars, the dreams we let ourselves share…the knowledge that we'd been reduced to this…

This would kill me.

It knocked the wind out of me, and tears clogged my throat. I couldn't swallow them down, and one bit through the blood and dirt on my cheek. I couldn't breathe.

I had to swallow twice before I could speak. "Misha—"

"You lied," he said, but even as he said it, even as his voice broke on the word, the sweet, kind boy looked at my injuries. Looked at the blood on my shirt and seeping from my wounds, the cut on my head and the crusted blood on my neck and upper lip from my nose, and his eyes narrowed in concern.

I could see how hard it was to force himself to look away.

This poor, sweet kid. How could I ever even think of leaving him to this hell?

Swaying, I nodded. I didn't know how much consciousness I had left, but he was right – and I didn't have time to explain. Only convince. "I did. About some things." I fixed him with as steady a look as I could. "Not about others."

Misha paused, for half a second, seeming almost startled by the confirmation. Then he looked suspicious. And then, with blank eyes, he just looked sad.

Misha shook his head, hiding his face in his arms and curling away from me. "Go. Just…just go, Alexei." He sniffed. His voice was a cold, buried remnant, someone put six feet under and left. It was dead and destitute. "They'll come after y-you. G-go."

And even with that betrayal, that hurt, he was still thinking of what they'd do to me. A knife twisted in my chest. It was sharp, brutal and white hot, and I felt like my soul was being cleaved in two.

Misha had looked at me like I was his punishment, but maybe he was mine. Maybe it was a lesson.

You could have saved them.

I didn't know if I believed that anymore. I couldn't save anything at all.

I didn't know why I ever thought I could.

Lion. Snake. Bear's hollow eyes, Fox's worry, Wolf's silence. Eagle's stillness. Tiger's grief.

Misha's sobs.

I'd done those things. I took good, wonderful things, and I held them in my hands, like gifts, and then inevitably, I broke them. Shattered them like glass on concrete. I thought of Lion's towering frame pliant and still in a white bed. Thought of Snake's already pale fac a ghastly white as he tried to reassure me. The utter horror of the phone calls, the desperation of the wait, and the absolute nosedive of the aftermath.

I thought of Tom's sobs as I called him when I left again. I should have never brought him back into my life. He would have been so much better off without me.

And that was the bottom line, wasn't it? It didn't matter if their lives were good, bad, or somewhere in between – I always made them so much worse.

Like Misha, who crumbled in front of me because I'd been so stupid as to give him hope, only to rip it out from beneath him.

In that moment, something in me broke.

I felt it. I didn't quite step off that misty ledge. I didn't quite lose myself to the night-like waves. Not completely.

But I felt something resting just beneath my sternum crack. A portion of my sense of self. A piece of my fragile foundation.

And I fell to my knees on the concrete floor beside his bed and considered giving up, and nothing could really stop me.

I had been here before. I remembered thinking something very close to this so many times. At this point, it felt like a letdown every time I did, because I always got back up anyway.

But this was different.

This was like the ground beneath my feet shifted beneath me. Like everything I was standing on was dropping out from under me. A single moment of utter clarity in which I saw what I did to those around me in a way I never had before.

I broke things. And it was worse, because I mended them, or tried to, before I broke them even worse than before.

With Jack. Who thought she'd been doing something with her life, raising me, supporting me when I'd lost everyone else. And how did I thank her?

I got her blown fucking up.

And with Sabina. Sweet, intelligent, selfless Sabina.

And L-Unit. Lion had said it—that I'd saved them by coming to them. That I'd mended what Elliot's loss had done—that I now knew I had caused in the first place. And then I'd—Lion, oh, God, Lion. Broken and brittle in a foreign hospital bed. I'd completely shattered them.

And K-Unit. Ben. Snake.

They'd been so awful when I met them. And over the months, they'd coalesced, bonded, anchored to each other. To the point of family, with Snake and Wolf. With Ben leaving and returning and finding his place. With Eagle having a supportive family for his upcoming wedding.

And I'd almost killed Snake, and now everything was so messed up.

And with Tom. Sweet, wonderful Tom, who'd saved me so many times, and how had I repaid him?

And now—

Misha. Kind, brilliant, pitiful Misha. Sobbing because I'd teased him with real companionship after so long of being hurt and ostracized only to yank it away.

It would be easy—to just slip away here. I could feel myself dying—God knows I'd been close enough times to know the feeling. I was losing blood fast. I could order Misha out of the room so he wouldn't see, lay down on this cold concrete floor, and slip away. He'd listen, because he was afraid, but it wouldn't matter for long.

Peace was such a tempting thing. Cookham Bridge returned to me in a distant haze, the coolness of the metal beneath me, the lapping of the waves, so like that ebony sea of surrender. I closed my eyes and swayed, wanting to fall.

But then Misha. Misha.

I'd fail him, too, more than I already had.

And I couldn't fail him. Not today. I could fail myself. I'd already failed everyone else.

But I still had a sliver of a chance to save him. It was the least I could do. The very, very least.

"I'll take you to the stars," I whispered.

Misha sniffed. He didn't lift his head, but he stilled.

"My name is Alex Rider. I'm sixteen years old," I began, my breath a fragile wheeze, my words small and weak. "I'm from London. England. Some—some people like—like your Dad. They hurt me, too. They force me to…to do these things. To try to save people."

I breathed, and my chest burned. Blood dropped through my fingertips. I was staining these floors – part of me would never leave here, and that thought terrified me.

"I was good at it, so they kept forcing me. I came here because there was a bomb here, Misha. There…thousands of people would have died if someone hadn't come to stop it."

He was listening. I could tell. He'd stopped shaking as much. His head was still buried, like an ostrich in the sand – like a child beneath blankets. I pressed on, wavering.

"So yes. I lied. And I hate myself for it. But…I didn't lie about the important things," I said, and I can almost convince myself it's the truth. "I didn't lie about not knowing where I want to go, or wanting a family. I didn't lie about missing the people I've lost, like you. And I didn't…I didn't lie about the stars."

He raised his head, then. His eyes were wet, shining, but there was just the smallest spark of hope.

I reached out a trembling, bloody hand, and cupped the back of his neck, desperately. I looked him in the eyes. "I got out, Misha. Your dad…he hurt me pretty badly, but I escaped, and got away." I paused, the next breath rattling in my lungs. "And then I came back. For you."

His face crumbled. These tears were of a different kind.

We were beyond words, now. I knew it. But I had to keep going. "I don't know if I can be your pilot, Misha, not like…l-like the little prince had. I don't know if you'll ever be able to come back here, and I don't know for sure it'll be better. But…but let's leave, okay? Let's go together…anywhere but here." I shuddered, exhaustion creeping in, but I pushed it away. "Let's go see the stars."

He sobbed, soft and broken, and shuddered. "You p-promise?"

I smiled, and it wavered. I was losing strength so, so fast. "I promise. I don't know if it will be better at first. It'll be…t-tough, and scary. But it's anywhere but here."

Because that was what he said that night he opened up to me.

I think I'd like to go…anywhere but here.

If nothing else, I could get him out.

Misha's face flickered. He was a slideshow of emotion—grief. Anger, distrust, hope. Fear.


He pressed his lips together and nodded. He slipped out from his bed, around me, and hurried to his desk. He crawled underneath the furniture, in the opening for his legs, and I heard something become unstuck.

I blinked heavily, my vision blurring. I coughed, and tasted fresh blood.

That…wasn't good.

I couldn't find it in myself to care very much.

I saw Misha stand and return to where I knelt, slumped over his bed, with a small stuffed bear and a picture. "Can…can I bring this?"

I knew, from the reverence, the desperation, with which he held these things, that he wouldn't take no for an answer. "Of course."

He nodded. His eyes cleared, and he tried to look brave.

"Let's go, Alexei."

I smiled, and hummed in affirmation. "Let's go, Misha."

He helped me stand, and we slipped away.

Lion blinked.

Even that sapped every shred of his energy.

He stared at a paper-white ceiling, Angelica holding his hand, sobbing at his side. She looked into his eyes, and he knew he'd scared his sister beyond forgiveness. He couldn't imagine how the others felt.

"Ang…" he rasped, carefully squeezing her fingers. His throat was sandpaper and desert, dry and aching. Angelica had already pressed the button for the doctor, frantically and a little manically, when she saw his eyes open. She'd taken one look at him, her face pale and drawn, dark circles under her eyes.

"Danny?" She'd said, her voice so small.

Lion's gut rolled. He hadn't heard her voice that small, that unsure and afraid, since the night he wrapped her in his coat and dragged them both out into the rainy English night to escape their father, with no idea where they'd end up.

It was a herculean effort, but he squeezed her fingers, just slightly, and smiled.

She broke.

And she was still breaking beside him, and his heart with her.

"D…don't cr…cry…" he tried to say, but the words were stilted and uncertain, like a newborn fawn trying to walk for the first time. Unsteady and unsure.

Angelica laughed through her tears, desperate and a little incredulous. "Don't—don't tell me not to cry, Danny, you…God," she said, bending over and resting her forehead on their joined hands.

Lion was still out of it, still exhausted, liable to slip back into the silence at any moment, but he heard her whispered, "I thought I lost you."

He tried to think. Something…something bad must have happened. Surely. To hurt him like this…

His gut rolled. He wanted to ask about the others. If he'd been hurt this badly…

He was suddenly terrified.

The last thing he remembered was a fuzzy memory of comforting Alex. His…age. He was sixteen, not nineteen. A child, not a man. A kid. He remembered that. Lingering dread simmered in his gut at the thought. It hurt his head to think any further.

"Wha…hap'ned?" He slurred, distantly frustrated at his inability to control his own body. "O…others…?"

Angelica sniffed, then straightened, wiping her eyes just as the doctor came in.

"Mr. Walker," the woman said with a smile, her gray-streaked blond hair tied back in a high ponytail, her hands in the pockets of her lab coat. She had kind eyes and an awkward smile, like she didn't often interact with patients. "I'm Dr. Frazi. I performed your surgery when you were brought in, for your head. How are you feeling?"

Lion blinked heavily, searching his scrambled head for the right words. "…distant," he said finally, and it came out as a breathy whisper.

Angelica's trembling hand squeezed his even tighter.

The doctor nodded. "That's normal. You've been out of it for a long time."

He swallowed. He wanted to ask how long, but he didn't have the energy.

He squeezed Angelica's fingers and turned his eyes to her, unable to hold the terrified question back any longer. "…un…unit…?"

Angelica sniffed, immediately sitting up. "They're fine, Danny. You were the worst off. Lewis—uh, Snake—he's recovering. He's going to be okay."

Lion furrowed his eyebrows. He didn't…remember being with Snake. Not in a situation that could cause them harm. "What…happ—"

"Lion," a distraught whisper came from the door, so quiet he barely heard it.

It was impossible for him to turn his head right now, but he tried, bending his eyes towards the voice.

Bear and Tiger stood in the doorway. The looks on his brothers' faces would haunt him forever.

But Christ, thank his Holy God in heaven, if he could speak, he'd be screaming thanks to Him, because his brothers were okay.

Two of them, anyway…he wondered if Alex was hiding behind them, lurking in the back, in the shadows, like he always did. He wondered if he'd ever manage to get that habit to stop.

Bear's face was ashen, even his dark skin so, so gray. His hands were shaking and he looked an inch from collapsing.

Tiger looked like he was on the verge of tears.

So he smiled, or tried to, and said, "Hey."

Bear's face screwed up like a child's, and Lion saw him wipe at his face roughly. "Hey," he said, a hitch in his voice. "You've been sleeping through all the good stuff."

Tiger just blinked, standing rigid. Like if he moved an inch, he'd crumble.

Oh, Lion would be feeling the guilt from this for ages.

Lion vaguely registered the doctor excusing herself, promising to come back in a moment, after everyone had gotten a chance to say hello.

"Come…in," he said weakly, not liking the distance between them. They did, hesitant at first, and then almost hustling to his side. His eyes tightened, and a distant headache was blooming beneath the medication he could feel, but he had to ask. It wasn't sitting right. Alex wasn't where he thought he'd be. "…Alex?"

They both stiffened. They looked at each other.

Lion knew those looks. He was hurt, not stupid. His heartbeat, slowed by his exhaustion and the medication, quickened.

Suddenly, his relief from earlier was replaced by harsh, cold fear.

Alex would've been here, if he could've. He would've slept by Lion's side, in an uncomfortable chair, his head hung low in exhaustion and fear, and nothing would've been able to pull him away. None of Tiger's posturing, none of Bear's gentle insistence. Lion knew it like he knew his own name. It had made sense that maybe he wouldn't be here if Angelica was, and it would've made sense that he'd left and returned immediately with the others. But he should've been here.

So why wasn't he here?

"…he's…not around right now," Tiger started diplomatically. Lion hadn't ever heard him try to be diplomatic in his life. "…but don't worry about that right now, yeah? You just woke up, just—"

"Tell me," he said. His voice was weak, but he knew his eyes were sharp. His heart hammered in his chest. Angelica clutched at his fingers, and she sniffed.

Bear clenched his fists, his jaw locked. Tiger's eyes were empty.


"He went back to MI6," Tiger said slowly. "Because they set up the…the car crash." A car crash. A fuzzy memory, of glass, of Snake's yell…but it fades almost as quickly as it surfaced. "It almost killed you and Snake. And they threatened to finish the job if he didn't go back, so…" Tiger's eyes pinched in something between pain and anger, and he let out a harsh breath. "He did," he finished quietly.

There was absolute stillness in the hospital room.

Lion's head was fuzzy. Angelica's fingers were so tightly wound around his own that he couldn't feel his fingertips.

"…Danny, please, just…it's going to be okay," Angelica tried, and he loved his sister, but nothing was okay right now.

He felt a change in his body, then, his emotional turmoil becoming physical.

It started with his heartbeat, the panic he felt at Alex having sacrificed himself, the bloody idiot…and then he remembered something. Foggy words, that had come to him in a dream. They were hazy, smoky things, distant and fading, but he remembered bits and pieces.

Please wake up.

Lion blinked.

It came back to him, then, the bits of Alex's words from the coma. He knew he was hearing him. He just couldn't remember. It was like a nightmare, but he remembered, if only in fragments.

And Lion's heart twisted as he realized that Alex, while Lion had been lying comatose and still…the first thing he'd done in his lowest moment was beg Lion to wake up.

Irrational and impossible as it was, in a medically induced coma of all things, Lion would never forgive himself for not being there for Alex.

But he remembered more. His heart thudded, his breath quickened, and the pain in his head spiked, but he forced himself to remember.

I don't want to go back. Choked and bitter.

I had this—this thing, I guess. I didn't talk much.

…it was enough. It was always enough.

Still, when I was younger. I wanted.

I wanted an older brother. So badly I used to wish on stars.

I wanted…someone who would protect me…

You said—you said we'd figure it out together—you promised you'd be here, and I need you, please, so please wake up. Please.

Lion's heart twisted. His gut rolled. He heard his name, but couldn't focus, couldn't deviate from the fragment's of Alex's speech he had. He had to remember. He owed him that much.

I can't count the number of times you've put yourself in front of me.

I'm sorry I let this happen to you.

…it's my turn to protect you, okay? So…I have to leave.

Tears pricked at Lion's eyes, and he closed them, taking a shuddering breath.

"He's gone," he whispered, even as he remembered those next words.

You gave me a reason to live again, Lion. You and everyone else.

…rebuild things, get better, but don't forget about me, year? I think you'll always ben home, you and the others, so…don't die. So that one day, maybe…I can come home.

Lion was going to throttle him.

Of course he could come home. He'd drag him back himself.

But his body was weak, and something was wrong. Something acrid filled his nose, and his vision wavered.

"Is something…burning?" He asked weakly, his vision shuddering, before it felt like he slipped into a vortex, and the world was tumbling—like maybe an earthquake, a massive earthquake—and then he didn't hear anything at all.

Alex's phantom voice slipped away with everything else.

It didn't take them long to come after us.

We stumbled east through the woods, towards exfil. I coughed, shuddering in the cold, and Misha eventually put one of my arms around his shoulders, glancing at me with terrified eyes.

"Alexei…" He said, his voice small and frightened. "You don't…"

"I'm okay," I managed, wheezing. I blinked, trying to clear the fuzziness from the edges of my vision. I left a blood trail in the brush that I could only hope would be invisible in the consuming darkness. "Keep…k-keep going."

And we did. He didn't say anything else, but I felt his hands quiver.

I coughed, and blood slid down my chin. I closed my eyes and focused on putting one foot in front of the other.

It wasn't long before I heard the footsteps behind us.

I heard the harsh voices of angry Russian, the muted sounds of twigs breaking underfoot. I heard…three, maybe four distinct people. Not far behind us.

Misha started to speak, his eyes wide in fear, but I shushed him, tugging him over towards a large tree for cover. I didn't trust myself to stand again once I'd sat, so I leaned against the tree, tugging Misha to my chest and putting what I hoped was a gentle hand over his mouth. He held my wrist, not tugging the hand away, but holding on with trembling fingers.

"Sh," I breathed, listening as intently as I could with my vision swimming. I shivered in the cold, but it was bordering on numbness, now. "Stay quiet and still, Misha."

He nodded against my hand. We both ignored the salty tears that hit my fingers, the way his breath hitched every few seconds.

This poor kid was so scared.

"I promised," I reminded him quietly, leaning further into the tree. I'd get him out of this forsaken place or die trying.

I'd promised, and that was perhaps the only thing keeping me upright right now.

He tightened his hand around my wrist, and the abrasions from the ropes burned, but I didn't move my hand away.

I listened as the footsteps faded, as the voices slowly petered out, the crunching of leaves and brittle wood becoming further and further.

I took a shaky breath, and released Misha, tugging him out from behind the solace of the tree.

"Stay behind—"

I was cut off at Misha's warning cry and someone barreling into me, knocking us both to the frigid, icy ground.

I gasped, and it was all I could do not the scream in agony, my body flaring. I groaned, but I didn't have time to fight back before someone was wresting me onto my back, pinning me to the ground with a hand around my throat and the other on one of my biceps, holding me flush against the ground as I fought for breath.

I stared up into the face of Ivan Plizetsky, burned on one side, ugly and raw, and knew he was going to kill me here.

"Found you, little rat," he seethed.

The things hatred could do to push a body beyond its limits.

I was so, so tired.

His fist struck me, once, twice. I coughed, blinking into the snowy earth, fresh blood in my nose and mouth. My ribs creaked. The stab wound flared with angry heat, and I almost whimpered.

I wheezed, his hand still constructing my throat, and thought about what it would be like to lie here and let him kill me.

I was so. Unbearably. Tired.

And then I flicked my eyes to the side, just in time to see Misha, with an absolute battle cry, charge his father with nothing but his fists and terrified eyes.

Plizetsky growled and shoved his son to the ground with one hand.

"I'll deal with you later," he promised.

That was enough to ignite the fire in my blood. Just for a second.

It tore into my wounds, but I bucked my legs while he was distracted, sending him sprawling into the icy earth behind me. My only, only advantage was that the burns must have been excruciating, and he was weak, too.

I'd use it however I could.

"Run, Misha," I ground out, heaving myself to my knees, spitting bloody saliva to the side. "Keep going east—the north star, keep running right of that. I'll come find you. Run."

I wanted him away as much as I didn't want him to see whatever happened next.

Hesitantly, wide eyes shining with tears in the moonlight, he did. I heard his footsteps thump and fade as he disappeared beyond the trees.

Plizetsky, who'd howled at his initial contact with the ground, snarled. He raised himself to his knees a few feet from me, and we stared at each other for a long, frozen moment. Our panting breaths mingled in the frostbitten air, both on the verge of death but unwilling to relent.

"I'm going to enjoy killing you," he growled, making to stand.

I was so tired.

But I followed suit, somehow getting my legs beneath me. I wobbled, but remained standing.

"And to think you went back for my pathetic son, the little mouse," he snarled, hatred in his eyes. "You should've left him to rot, Alexei. I'll make sure he knows your death is on him. Don't worry."

My numb blood suddenly burned.

"You'll never touch him again," I said in a low voice. That, at least, was a promise.

Plisetsky smiled, a jagged line across his ruined face, and lunged.

We went down in a heat of limbs, elbows flying, teeth gnashing. If my karate instructors could see me now, they'd be mortified. I'd lose all my belts, they'd be so disappointed.

But this wasn't an honorable match. This wasn't a standing battle.

This was a scrappy, dirty, hungry fight for revenge. Not survival. Nothing mattered here but winning.

I cried out as he elbowed my side hard enough that I felt a rib snap, and he roared as I slammed the palm of my heel into his nose. We traded hits, hateful eyes, and low jabs until he managed to pin me as he had before, both his hands around my neck, and he squeezed.

For a long second, I just tugged at his wrists, desperate for air, unaware of the situation. I was beneath Conrad again, his hulking frame that I could never dream of overcoming. Then I was beneath the kind assassin whose life I'd taken. Then I was beneath Plizetsky again, his burns glistening in the moonlight, blood on his teeth as he sneered at me.

I was beneath Hollis, gasping and shaking. And then Plizetsky again.

I reached one hand out blindly as dark spots filled my vision, my lungs roaring, an ocean in my ears battering against shore hard enough for it to break. I was going to die beneath him. My lungs burned, my eyes watered, I felt my face flush—

"You fucking little rat," he seethed. "I should've done this the day you got here. The first time I caught you snooping around." He grinned, bloody and sadistic, and I felt a sharp stab of fear sink into my chest. "I'll leave you body here in the woods for the animals. There won't be anything left of you."

My numbing fingers brushed am ice-slick rock.

I needed to breathe.

His fingers tightened, and I choked, and he grinned at my desperation.

A monster loomed above me, squeezing the life from me, and I—

I couldn't

Somehow, by some miracle, something only God could have done, I managed to get my numb, uncooperative fingers against the rock, ice be damned, and I smashed it into his temple with all the remaining strength I had left. As hard as I possibly could.

I heard a sickening crunch.

He tumbled off of me, and I inhaled.

It was like knives in my throat, like I'd swallowed a handful of rusty nails. I lay there, vision swimming in and out of focus, as I coughed, gagging, heaving breaths, just relishing the delicious taste of bitter air.

When my vision finally stopped graying out at the edges, I looked to my left, where Plisetsky had fallen. I wondered why he hadn't come back to finish it as I lay there, helpless and vulnerable.

In the glimmering moonlight, my eyes found his.

They were wide, bloodshot, and utterly vacant.

I'd killed him.

I breathed shakily, sinking bonelessly into Russia's frozen earth.

I couldn't regret it. But the guilt would eat me later. Like a flesh-eating parasite, it was inescapable—that much I knew.

But right now, I had to find Misha. And we had to go.

If asked, I would never be able to tell someone how I pulled myself off the ground. My shivering had subsided, and the blood in my mouth was perpetual, now. My chest hurt, the scar tissue of my bullet wound aching fiercely, and the fresh stab wound was a constant, raw agony.

If Misha hadn't been waiting on me, I know for certain I would have allowed myself to die there next to our tormentor. I would have let the cold swallow me, and I would have given in. I knew it more than I'd ever known anything.

But I also knew that after too long, Misha would come back. Because he was stupid and stubborn and loyal, and scared. And the last thing I wanted, abuser or not, was to see the body of his dead father, his skull smashed in.

So somehow, with strength from a hidden reservoir, buried so deep I thought it was a figment of my imagination, I levered myself up and stumbled into the woods, heading east.

I found him quickly. He was just a few dozen yards away, huddling against a tree trunk with his hands over his ears, his eyes shut. Just like in the cafeteria, when I'd told him to close his eyes before I'd beaten Ira.

I was glad at least, he'd been spared the violence.

I tapped his shoulder, and he screamed, short and stiff, but I couldn't be worried. I didn't have the energy. He scrambled back, away from me, before I said, "It's me."

And then he stilled, and stiffened.

"…my dad?"

There wasn't hope in his voice. There was fear, but it was the complex kind.

Fear of either answer.

So I let the stillness hang, and instead offered him my hand. "We have…t-t-to go."

Tears welled in his eyes, and he clutched the bear, now muddy and soiled. He took my hand, and I was weak enough that he almost pulled me to the ground, but we managed to carry on.

We made it to the clearing. We walked east for a long time—longer than it should have taken, but I was at my limit. I couldn't imagine how I was still moving. Couldn't ever recall being able to continue in such horrible conditions. But I did.

I saw the helicopter, heard the whoosh of the rotors, before we broke the tree line.

An antsy soldier was pacing back and forth by the copter, and he raised his gun as he saw us, a trained battle instinct that was fluid and smooth.

I held up the one hand that wasn't around Misha's shoulders, resisting the need to cough. "Alex…R-Rider. Agent," I said in English. Misha moved from foot to foot beside me, clearly nervous.

The soldier blinked. If he was surprised by my age, or my companion, he didn't show it. "Agent Rider. Thought you were a goner," he said, hustling towards us. Through the mask, I saw his eyes narrow in concern at my condition. "Though you might still be. Let's get you in the helicopter. Anders," he shouted, and another man hopped down from the helicopter, his fair hair wild under the wind of the rotors. "Escort the kid back to base undercover."

"No," I managed, jerking back, hissing at the way it pulled my wounds. I kept a firm hand on Misha's arm. They wouldn't pry him from me for anything in the world. "He comes with me."

The soldier's eyes were blank. "That's not an option, Agent Rider. Let's get you in the chopper."

I hadn't planned for this. I should have, but I hadn't. I hadn't had the time or mental energy.

But Misha closed his eyes and breathed, and even with disappointment, he said, "It's…o-okay, Alexei. My dad…" he swallowed, bright eyes downcast, locked on his feet. "My dad's…g-gone. Maybe…the others will—"

"No," I growled. I hooked my eyes up to the soldier's baring my bloody teeth. He wasn't afraid, but he was certainly alert, now. I wouldn't allow this. Not after everything. "Let's get this straight. He comes with me, or I don't come at all. I don't know if you know me, but I'm MI6's most important pet." I spat the words through a grin that didn't reach my eyes, and with the blood loss, the weakness, the everything, I felt manic. "If you don't bring me back, you'll lose more than your jobs."

He shook his head. "We're not authorized to take a child out of a foreign nation, Agent—"

"Then I'll die here, and it's on you," I said, tightening my arm around Misha.

Misha whined. Low in his throat, and quiet, but I heard it, and tugged him closer.

The soldier's eyes were sympathetic, but I knew it wasn't enough. "…Agent—"

"Jenkins, we have incoming," the man named Anders said, his eyes covered with goggles and trained into the forest behind us. "Six hostiles, all armed."

As he said it, I heard them in the distance, and I heard the echoing bark of a dog. They'd followed our scent—and with my blood trail, it was a straight shot right at us.

As it was, this was perfect.

"There's no time to debate," I said immediately. "Either we both go, or you abandon us here and get to explain to the head of MI6 why you lost their biggest project when you had him right in your hands."

Anders raised an eyebrow at me, and Jenkins' eyes blazed. "Get in the bloody chopper," he said, grabbing my other arm and pulling it over his shoulders, dragging me—and subsequently Misha—towards the aircraft. The rotors were speeding up in preparation for departure. "Anders, with me!"

That was when the bullets started flying.

Jenkins cursed and more or less threw us into the chopper, turning to fire his own gun into the tree line. I heard a cry of alarm and pain from within the dense forest, ice swallowing some of the echo. I dragged Misha to me, securing my arm around him, and looked around as Anders climbed in, Jenkins hot on his heels. Jenkins anchored himself to the side door with a heavy carabiner and leaned out, firing into the trees as I saw two men burst into the clearing, guns blazing. I distantly recognized them as supervisors from the floor.

I was crashing fast, but I saw a bag of supplies, open to one side—I saw the glimmer of handcuffs in one of the side pockets.

With my waning strength, I seized them, slapped one onto my wrist and one onto Misha's, and threw the key out of the open cockpit door as we ascended.

"Maniac," I heard Anders mutter as he knelt by me, eyes concerned as he took in my wounds.

Finally satisfied that I wouldn't lose Misha, that they wouldn't toss him out into the snow once I was incapacitated, I let my head slump, my eyes fluttering in exhaustion. My stomach dropped as we ascended, the distant explosions or gunfire lost beneath the roar of the chopper.

The last thing I saw before I faded was Misha, holding my hand with trembling fingers, enraptured by the world outside the open cockpit.

We ascended into a clear, dark sky, and as I faded, he stared into the stars.


Hi my lovelies

I'm sorry I love this chapter

Thank you so much for everyone returning to this story after months—a lot has happened, not all of it great. So thank you for your patience and kindness!

As always, your reviews are so, so meaningful to me: Lira, OnlyABookworm, KenyanHammer, PuffandPround, Jess, storyspinner16, Guest, Asilrettor, VINAI, Guest, Blondie-24-7, Guest, Guest, and Guest!


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