Oh hi there...

Another long wait, I'm so sorry. I mean, on the one hand, I feel like I'm still doing pretty well, even if my weekly schedule has gone to hell, because hey, it hasn't been four years! But on the other hand, I'm sorry to be so erratic. Partly it's just life, getting in the way, and partly it's me crawling on my knees after inspiration, begging her to come back to me and promising it'll be different this time. But I'm more-or-less happy with how this chapter has turned out, so I'm not going to keep trying to fine-tune it, or my sentences will get longer and longer and more and more involved, and by the time I finish 'tweaking it just a little', it'll read like a nineteenth century novel - eighteen clauses per sentence, and not a single one makes sense.

If it helps at all, I am goddamn determined to finish this fic by the end of the year. Provided nothing appalling happens - like me deciding there's a scene I absolutely have to put in that eats up an entire chapter - I think we're looking at, hmm. Say three more chapters and an epilogue? It depends how things go, but I think what I've plotted out plus what I've got written is about three more full chapters max and then an epilogue to round things off. (There are, um, timestamps set in this universe, one of which I have to write because so1said will actually hunt me down if I don't. But the others may stay as headcanons, we just. Don't. Know.)

Anyway! A warning for this chapter: there is a section where Alex makes a reference to sexual assault. If that's going to upset you in any way, please skip it - I've put '&' either side of it, and '/' either side of a reference to it later on. Both bits are very short, and in both sections the scene should still make sense without them. If you need to, just do some variant of ctrl + F, and you should find it and be able to skip immediately. Please read responsibly. I do not want anyone to be triggered or upset by reading something that should be - well, if not fun, then at least not traumatising.

On that note, I'd be very grateful for your opinions: should the rating go up to M for what Alex says? I would like to know. I'd prefer not to bump up the rating - though like I said last time, arguably it should already be a higher rating than it is. But if the general consensus is that the fic is no longer a T (dammit I will never understand this rating system properly), then I'll make the change.

Anyway, enough from me! Let's have a

Disclaimer: still not king

and get on with things...

Richard's day was not getting better. Alex seemed to be drifting further and further away from him, no matter what he did, and he was sure that there was a clue he was missing, some obvious way to improve the situation that he couldn't see, and it was starting to drive him a little mad. It wasn't a surprise that Alex was being deliberately difficult and rude – that kind of boundary testing was perfectly normal for adoptees, they'd made a point of mentioning that during the ridiculous training weekend they'd done, as though Richard wasn't perfectly well aware of it. But he was concerned that nothing he or Gilda did seemed to make Alex any more comfortable around them. If this went on too long, they might eventually have to admit defeat and let Alex be placed somewhere else, and Richard thought that might break his heart. He also didn't think it was the best thing for Alex – they'd only decided to take him in the first place because they'd felt that they really could be the best place for him. If it had just been a case of wanting him in their family, they might have been willing to let him go elsewhere; it was only because they were convinced that they could be good for him that they'd worked so hard for it.

But if Alex continued to fight so hard against it, they might end up having to concede to his wishes, and Richard didn't know what would happen next. Alex couldn't go back to Jack – the security issues that prevented that wouldn't go away just because he wouldn't live with them. Richard couldn't bear to think of Alex being placed somewhere with people who might not understand him or have his best interests at heart, and he could only hope that he worked out exactly what it was Alex wanted of him and Gilda before they got to that point.

On top of all of that, the two soldiers who'd been injured during the retrieval were being transferred back to the infirmary from the Ministry of Defence hospital unit in Birmingham this evening. They'd been treated, and would no longer need to be kept in for observation, but they would need check-ups on arrival and continued care and physio to make sure they healed properly. He'd spent much of the morning and early afternoon drawing up a plan of care with Dr Thomson, and handing over the medical issues to him. Liaising about the transfer had taken time, and he was just beginning to wonder whether Alex and the other children were back in the infirmary when his mobile rang.

He checked the screen before he answered – Gilda. This wasn't going to be good.

"Hey," he said, one eye still on the medical info that had been sent over for the soldier code-named Adder. "What's up?"

"I've got to go into Cardiff," Gilda said, sounding harassed. In the background, he could hear the sound of the car engine – she must already be on her way. "You know that patient of mine who was transferring?"

"Yes?" Richard said, though he only had vague recollections of the patient in question. They didn't talk a great deal about their cases – confidentiality laws made it a bad idea, and they both tried not to bring their work home. Alex was probably the worst time Richard had ever broken that unspoken rule of theirs.

"He's not taking the idea of moving well," Gilda said euphemistically. The patient could have done anything from having a public meltdown to attempting suicide; whatever had happened, it was an emergency she'd been called in for. Her work with juvenile detention centres was about the only time she did get called in like this.

"Bugger," Richard said, trying not to sound stressed himself. "Do you need me to pick up the girls?"

"Fraid so," Gilda said, and swore under her breath. "Shit, sorry," she said, a little distractedly. "I hate driving and talking, even with Bluetooth. Some bastard just tried to carve me up. Yeah, you'll need to pick the girls up, I can't get hold of Dad."

"I'll clear it with Roslyn, put Thomson in charge of the infirmary while I'm gone," Richard promised. "Don't worry about it, love. I'll deal with it."

Gilda took an audibly deep breath. "OK. Thanks. How's Alex today?"

"Even worse than yesterday," Richard told her miserably. "We'll talk about it when you're back. Drive safe."

"Will do," she promised. "Tell Alex I probably won't be back in time to see him today – give him and the girls my love. I'll text you if it's going to be a late night."

"Keep me posted," Richard agreed. "Look after yourself."

"You too. Love you."

She hung up almost before he'd managed to tell her that he loved her too, and he put his mobile down with a sigh, glancing at the clock. Two thirty. He'd need to leave in the next twenty minutes or so if he was going to be at the school in time to pick the kids up for three-thirty.

Neither of them had any after-school activities today either, worst luck. If only they had, he'd have had a little more leeway on timing.

He picked up his office phone and dialled through to Roslyn. "Arthur, hi," he said, when the Colonel picked up. "Sorry to do this, but I've got to go and pick my daughters up from school – is that going to be OK?"

"Nothing wrong, is there?" Roslyn asked, concerned.

"Gilda's been called out on a case," he said, sighing. "We can't get hold of her dad, so I'll need to pick them up. I'll keep them in my office and see if I can get their grandfather to come and pick them up."

"And while you're away?"

"Thomson will be in charge of the infirmary," Richard said crisply. This wasn't the first time this had happened, and it wouldn't be the last – they had procedures in place for when one of the on-site doctors had to leave unexpectedly. "There's no serious problems here, and you don't even have any training events planned. The two soldiers who were being treated off-base are coming in this afternoon, but I'll be back before they arrive."

"Crow and Adder, isn't it?" Roslyn asked. "I've just had the paperwork through myself."

"Those are they," Richard agreed. "Thomson and I will do their check-up and then they're more-or-less free to go. Is that alright?"

"Fine," Roslyn said easily. "I'll leave you to it. Keep us updated if you run into any problems."

"Of course," Richard said. "Thanks, Arthur."

"No problem," Roslyn told him, and hung up.

Richard sighed again, glanced at the clock once more, and stood, grabbing his coat. He debated briefly whether or not to look in on Alex before he went, and decided against it. He wouldn't be gone more than an hour, and his interactions with Alex only got more antagonistic as the day went on. It was probably a good idea to give him a little space.

Alex had ducked out of spending the afternoon with the others when they got back from lunch, claiming that he was tired. He wanted to have a little time to think about what Smithers had said, and he wasn't sorry to find a pile of schoolbooks left in his room – some boring reading for history or biology might help calm him down a little. He needed to think about what had been said, but his mind seemed to be haring off in every direction, and maybe schoolwork would help him focus.

It was all very well for Smithers to say Alex should just let people help him. Alex couldn't very well do that, not until he was sure of the people offering to help. Manning said he wanted to help, but how could Alex know that for certain? The man was always so calm. Apart from a brief flash of relief when he'd first seen Alex again – relief that could be explained by finding him when he thought Alex had gone missing – he never showed any emotion at all. Alex didn't know if he was happy or sad or anything. At least Jack had been happy to see him. Even if she was giving him away.

Pushing the problem away, Alex climbed back onto the bed and briefly contemplated just going to sleep. It would be nice to sleep. He didn't have to worry about things when he was asleep. And he really was tired. The painkillers he'd taken that morning had started to wear off a little while ago, and he was damned if he was going to go and find Dr Garland to ask for more of them. She'd looked vaguely disapproving enough when he'd seen her at lunch, and made a disappointed comment about him wandering out of the infirmary a day after waking up from his surgery – he wasn't keen to offer her a chance to tell him off one-on-one. He was sore and tired and felt ridiculously drained. It wouldn't be such a bad thing if he just went to sleep, would it?

But it wouldn't really help, and at least if he was doing schoolwork, he'd feel like he was accomplishing something, however unimportant. For an hour or so he lost himself in the details of the Cuban missile crisis, letting his subconscious get to work on the other problems he was facing. He was just starting to think he could maybe give his full attention to the Manning problem when he hit an unexpected snag.

"Mum and Dad said you're going to be our brother," a voice said from the doorway.

It was a very young voice, and Alex hadn't expected that. Curious, he glanced up the door, and saw two girls standing there. They were dressed in school uniforms, sloppily worn now the school day was over, and if their uniform included ties, they'd long since taken them off. Both girls had inherited their father's dark hair, which they had tied back neatly in plaits, and they both wore identical expressions of hopeful interest.

"Your parents said I'm going to come and live with you for a bit," he said cautiously, putting his book to one side. "You must be Sally and Lizzie."

"I'm Sally," the older girl said, with authority. She was tall for her age, Alex thought, but since he had no idea what average height was for a ten-year-old, he might be wrong. She had her mother's blue eyes, and apparently both of her parents' intelligence, judging by the look she was giving him. "My name's Sarah, really. And this is Lizzie. She's actually Elizabeth, but no one ever calls her that."

"I don't like it," Lizzie agreed.

"And you're Alex," Sally said, still with authority.

"I am," he agreed. For a moment, with a curl of amusement, he debated about adding that he was really Alexander, but decided against it.

"Daddy says we shouldn't bother you and that you've been through a lot," Lizzie said, in the tones of a child repeating an adult's dictum they hadn't really understood. "But we thought it wouldn't matter if we just came to see you. That's not bothering you, is it?"

The hopeful expressions were back, and Alex really couldn't bring himself to push the girls away. They were only little kids, and he didn't want them to feel like he didn't care about them just because he didn't know them. They were just kids, and they deserved to feel like the world was a kind place, even if he knew it wasn't.

"Of course it isn't," he told them. "But there's only one chair here. Where will you both sit?"

"I can sit on the bed," Lizzie said simply.

"I want to sit on the bed!" Sally said instantly, and there was a brief scuffle as both of them tried to make it to the bed first, and tangled with the chair in their haste.

For a moment, all three of them froze, listening to see whether there would be any adult retribution for the noise. When everything seemed quiet, the two girls resumed their fight.

Alex intervened. "You can both sit on the bed, if you want," he said firmly. "There's loads of room."

Beaming, Lizzie pushed Sally. "Go on, you get up first," she said firmly.

Sally gave her little sister a long-suffering look, but kicked off her shoes and hoicked herself up onto the bed without ceremony, making herself comfortable with the supreme confidence of a much-loved child. She clearly had no doubts whatsoever that Alex was happy to see them – she'd never seriously had to wonder whether what she was being told might not be the truth. "I've never had a big brother," she said, stating the obvious as though it was a fascinating fact. "My best friend Bethan says they're all awful, and she's got three, so she should know, shouldn't she?"

"I suppose she would," Alex said, nonplussed. He'd thought about living with these two girls in the abstract, not as an actual fact, and he'd just assumed he'd be a terrible influence on them and put their lives in danger. He hadn't put much thought into what they might be like, and the reality of them was rather difficult to get his head around. "Do you not want a- a brother, then?"

"No, we do!" Lizzie said, breaking in. "Mummy says brothers are the best, and she'd know more than Bethan because she's got an older brother, and she's had Uncle Aidan for years and years."

The idea that Gilda, who couldn't be much more than forty, was considered an expert because of her advanced years, struck Alex as surprisingly funny, but he thought he should probably nip the misconception they'd fallen into in the bud. "I wouldn't really be your brother, though," he pointed out. "Your parents would be looking after me, but I'd be like a foster child, not a sibling."

Two pairs of blue eyes stared at him in blank incomprehension. "Mum and Dad said you'd be our brother," Sally repeated firmly.

"But your mum and dad don't really know me," Alex tried, and Sally nodded.

"Oh, yes, they explained all that," she said airily. "They said it would probably be a bit difficult to start with, and we'd all have to be very patient and kind to each other while we got used to it. And Lizzie and I talked about it and we're going to be really nice, because I think having a brother would be so cool, no matter what Bethan says. I wanted a brother," she added, eyeing her little sister with disfavour. "But then Lizzie was a girl."

"I like being a girl," Lizzie said, unmoved by her sister's blatant disappointment.

"Girls are very cool," Alex agreed, amused but still rather nonplussed.

"Would you have liked to be a girl?" Lizzie asked curiously.

"Well, no, I don't think so," Alex said thoughtfully. It was an innocent question. "I've never really thought about it, but I'm fine with being a boy."

"What's a foster child?" Sally asked, having apparently been turning the concept over in her mind.

"Someone who lives with adults who aren't their parents and hasn't been adopted by them," Alex told her. "You know what adoption is, don't you?"

"Oh yes," Sally nodded. "My friend Nick is adopted. Aren't Mum and Dad going to adopt you?"

"I don't think so," Alex said cautiously. "They're just going to look after me."

"Oh." Sally considered that. "Well, you'd still be my brother, wouldn't you? Mum and Dad look after me and Liz because they're our parents, so if they're looking after you, they'd be like your parents too." She beamed – apparently that settled the point for good. "So you'd be our brother."

That was pretty unimpeachable logic from her perspective, Alex thought, and the only way to explain that she was wrong would be to tell her things he didn't want her to have to understand just yet – things like adults being wrong, even nice adults who did their best, and the terrible things that could happen to someone which made them unfit to be around normal, nice people. Looking at the two children in front of him, there was no way he could explain any of that to them. He didn't want to have to ruin their happy understanding of the world.

"Well, I'd be your brother while I lived with you," he hedged. "I might not be living with you forever."

"Why not?" Lizzie asked innocently.

"Sometimes things don't work out," Alex explained gently. "Haven't you ever started something and realised it's all gone wrong even though you didn't mean it to?"

Lizzie nodded, slowly. "A few times," she said shiftily. "But Daddy said when we make mistakes we have to put them right."

"Sometimes putting something right means going back to the way things were before," Alex said, with a sinking feeling. "Which would mean me going to live with someone else."

"But you don't get to stop being someone's brother or sister," Sally said staunchly. "If you start on it, you're always their brother or sister. Auntie Amy is awful, but every time Mum gets cross with her Dad's just like, she's still my sister."

"Your Aunt Amy has always been your dad's sister though, since they were born," Alex pointed out. "It's different if it hasn't always been that way."

"But if we want you to be our brother, and you want to be our brother, then why would we stop?" Sally returned.

"It's all very complicated," Alex said, knowing it was a cop-out. But Sally was her parents' problem, and if they hadn't explained that everything could go wrong and they'd have to chuck him out of their little family, he didn't feel it was his place to explain it to her.

"Mummy and Daddy said you'd been through something really awful," Lizzie said, changing the subject abruptly. "Is that why you've got bruises all over your face?"

It was a miracle the two of them hadn't been horrified by the sight of him, Alex thought, considering he looked like he'd lost twelve rounds with a prize-fighter. "Yes," he said bluntly, but thankfully before he could continue, Sally had elbowed her sister.

"We promised we wouldn't ask about that!" she hissed at her.

Amused again, Alex watched as Lizzie drew herself up, indignant. "And I didn't!" she said heatedly. "I just asked if that was why he's got all those bruises!"

"That's the same as asking about it!"

"No it isn't," Lizzie insisted. "You're just saying it is because I asked and not you!" She didn't quite stick her tongue out at her sister, but Alex got the impression that it was a close-run thing. Turning back to Alex, she smiled sunnily at him. "I hope they aren't really sore," she said kindly. "When I broke my nose, I had a black eye and it was really sore. Daddy called it a shiner."

"How did you break your nose?" Alex asked, grateful for an opportunity to turn the subject.

"Oh, it was all Sally's fault," Lizzie said airily. "We were playing catch and she threw the ball right at my face."

"It was an accident," Sally said, wounded. "I didn't mean to. And if you'd caught it, you wouldn't have broken your nose so it's your fault too."

"Isn't," Lizzie said firmly.



"They don't hurt much," Alex said, jumping in before the two of them could really get going.

Sally shot her sister a darkling look, then smiled at him. "That's good," she said simply. "What do you do here, all day? You must be really bored." She looked around the room, taking in the books on the bedside table with a grimace, and turned back to him. "Mum said if we were good, we could have an Xbox for Christmas, but we'd have to share it, and Christmas is ages away. Have you ever played video games?"

"A few times," Alex said slowly.

"Nick's got an Xbox," she said wistfully. "I love MarioKart. You've played it, right?"

"I have," he confirmed, a little amused. "Are you good at it?"

"No," she said easily. "But I'm getting better – I can beat Nick sometimes now, and he plays all the time with his brother."

Lizzie elbowed her sister. "You didn't let him answer," she said crossly. "You asked about what he did and then you started talking about the Xbox. I don't care if we get one or not, I bet you'll never let me play on it anyway."

"I would!" Sally insisted, then ruined her virtuous façade by adding disingenuously, "Mum would make me."

"Hmph," Lizzie said, which showed what she thought of that. "I guess. But you still didn't let him answer."

"Alright," Sally said, put upon, and turned back to Alex with an expectant look. "So? What do you do all day?"

"Well, I just had surgery," Alex explained. "So I'm getting better and I'm not allowed to do too much. I've got a lot of schoolwork to do." Both girls pulled a face, and he couldn't help but smile at them. "I know," he agreed, "but it's got to be done. And I have physical therapy, to make sure I get better properly."

"How did you get hurt?" Lizzie asked innocently.

"OK, that's asking about what happened to him, and we said we wouldn't," Sally objected, and Alex smiled before they could work themselves up into yet another fight. Were all sibling relationships this antagonistic? The girls clearly loved each other and got on decently well, but they didn't seem able to go more than a minute without picking each other up on something.

"Someone bad hurt me," he said, as gently as he could.

"Mum and Dad'll help you," Sally said confidently. "Hey, you've got cards. Can you play Cheat?"

Richard heard the girls' voices before he even reached the corridor of Alex's room, and heaved a sigh of relief, mingled with exasperation. He'd told them they weren't to bother Alex, and the moment his back had been turned, the little devils had sneaked out of his office and gone to find the kid. Alex needed to know them, but Richard and Gilda had been hoping to introduce them to him slowly, and god only knew how much they would have tired Alex out – despite his undoubted resilience, Alex was having a tough time right now, and the sudden introduction of two energetic under-eleven-year-olds would be a disaster.

Or, he thought, surveying the scene in front of him as he reached the door, maybe not.

Alex had moved into the comfortable chair by his bed and was playing cards with the two girls, apparently with great enjoyment.

"Two fours," he said confidently, laying them down on the growing pile between Sally and Lizzie on the bed.

"Cheat!" shrieked Lizzie, delighted. "Cheat, cheat, cheat!"

"Shhh," Sally hissed, then crowed with delight herself when Alex flipped the cards over and revealed one four and a Jack. Then she caught sight of Richard in the doorway, and her face took on the look of artful innocence he recognised so well. "Oh, hi Dad," she said casually.

Alex's head whipped round and he shot to his feet, shifting slightly so he was in front of Sally and Lizzie. "It's my fault," he said instantly.

Richard looked round him at the two girls, raising an eyebrow at them. Lizzie did a very bad job of hiding a giggle. "Somehow, I doubt that," he said dryly.

"They didn't do anything wrong," Alex tried.

"They knew they weren't supposed to bother you."

"And they haven't," Alex said stubbornly. "It was nice to meet them."

Sally slid off the bed, and came to stand next to Alex. "It's too late," she said, with hilarious world-weariness. "He's going to be cross no matter what we say, even though we really weren't bothering you."

"You knew exactly what I meant when I said not to bother him, Sarah Louise," Richard said sternly, and looked at Lizzie. "And you did too, little Miss Innocent. I bet neither of you even tried to finish your homework, did you?" There was a telling little silence. "I thought not. Come on, the pair of you, back to my office. Alex, I'll be back shortly, once I've dealt with this pair."

Alex didn't move, and to Richard's well-hidden surprise, he put a hand on Sally's shoulder when she went to obey him. "What does dealing with them mean?" he asked tensely.

Richard gave him a long, compassionate look. "In this case, I think it means making the pair of them finish their homework," he said, transferring his gaze to his daughters and allowing them to see just how cross he was with them.

Sally sighed. "I did all my maths homework first," she tried, and Richard gave her a look.

"What a surprise, you did the homework you like. Come on, you two, I'm very cross with both of you. Alex, you can relax, I'm not going to do anything to them."

"Daddy normally threatens to make us live on bread and water, when we're bad," Lizzie confided, and Richard bit back the urge to groan. That particular family joke was not something Alex needed to hear just yet. "But he never does."

Alex looked at her, then glanced between the girls and Richard, clearly seeing how uncowed they looked, despite being caught in the middle of trouble-making. The girls might have a stern telling-off in their future, but they both knew they'd never be hurt or seriously upset by either of their parents. Slowly, he nodded.

"I'll be back shortly," Richard said again. This was the most engaged he'd seen Alex since he woke up.

He waited until he had the girls back in his office before he read them the riot act. Watching them settle themselves back on the sofa, he gave them both the long, disappointed look he'd perfected over the years of parenthood, and waited until they cracked.

Predictably, Sally broke first. She was always the most impetuous out of the two of them. "We weren't bothering him, Dad," she tried, and Richard shook his head at her.

"You know what I meant, Sarah," he said, packing disappointment into his voice. "When I said you weren't to bother him, you knew that I meant you weren't to go and find him by yourselves."

"He's nice, though," Lizzie piped up. "Why couldn't we go and see him? He's going to be our brother."

"I didn't ask you not to go and find him because I thought you wouldn't like him," Richard said sternly. "I asked you not to because he's had a very difficult time, and your mother and I wanted to make sure he wouldn't be tired out by you."

"We didn't tire him out, though!" Sally protested.

"Your mum and I were trying to do the best thing for Alex," Richard stressed, quelling her with a look. "It was very thoughtless of you to burst in on him like that. Didn't you think about how that might make him feel?" Sally shifted rather uncomfortably at that, and Lizzie's lower lip started to tremble. "I'm really very cross with both of you," he said sternly. "You could have really upset him. No, don't tell me you didn't, I know that," he added, before Sally could mount a defence. "That was luck, though. You could have upset him very much, which was why you were asked not to do what you did. Do you understand why I'm upset with you?"

The two of them exchanged resigned looks. "Because we did something you told us not to do," Sally said, accepting defeat.

"Exactly. And it could have gone very badly," Richard pointed out firmly. "You should have thought a little more about Alex, and less about your own curiosity. I know it's all very exciting for you, but this is much easier for you than it is for him."

"He said he might not be living with us forever," Lizzie said. Her little face was woebegone, and this was why Richard had always hated being the disciplinarian. Whenever either of his daughters looked like that, unless he was really cross with them, he always wanted to sweep aside whatever it was they'd done wrong and tell them everything was OK.

He couldn't help but wonder how he'd cope if he ever upset Alex, and brushed the thought away. The way things were going at the moment, there was a not inconsiderable chance that he wouldn't be given the opportunity to find out.

The worst part was, he wasn't all that cross with the girls. Their actions had been annoying, from an adult perspective, and perhaps a little selfish, but they were only young, after all. Their curiosity about Alex was perfectly natural, and he should have expected them to go looking for him the moment he'd left to assist Thomson with the check-ups on Crow and Adder. He had expected it, and if his mind hadn't momentarily been more on his job than his family, he would have taken proper steps to prevent it, rather than just forbid it – as though that wouldn't just put the thought into their minds. In many ways, he was just as much at fault as they were. But he hadforbidden it, and they had done it. There was a principle at stake.

Of course, Alex had apparently got on well with them – the two girls had clearly liked him, and Alex had seemed more relaxed and open than Richard had seen him since he woke up. That was a point in their favour, though he couldn't exactly tell them that. And however unorthodox the introduction had been, it was a serious relief to know that they apparently very much liked him.

But there was a principle at stake, he knew that, and he'd always said he wouldn't make Gilda be the disciplinarian in their family – they'd both take on the role together. The girls had done exactly what he'd asked them not to do, and they had to expect him to be cross with them.

Then Lizzie's words caught up with him, and he gave her a sharp look. "I beg your pardon?" he said, raising one eyebrow.

Sally jumped in to defend her sister. "He really did say that, Dad," she said earnestly. "He said that he might not be living with us forever, and that sometimes putting things right means going back to the way they were before. And that he wouldn't be our brother, not really. He'd be a…" she frowned, trying to think back.

"Foster child," Lizzie said, clearly not really understanding the phrase. "But I don't understand why that means he wouldn't be our brother, because he said he'd be living with us."

Richard bit the inside of his mouth. Brilliant. So not only had the girls gone and introduced themselves to Alex and ruined their parents' careful plans for introducing the kids to each other, Alex had gone and undone some of their careful work in preparing the girls for their new sibling.

It was just as well no one had ever promised Richard parenthood would be easy, or he'd be tempted to go and find the bastard and choke them.

Deciding that this conversation really wasn't one he could have while towering over the girls, he sat down in one of the chairs in front of his desk and eyed them for a moment in silence. "You remember your mum works with children who aren't as lucky as you two?" he said finally.

They both nodded. "Because some kids have parents who aren't nice to them," Lizzie expanded, having heard the story of her mother's job before.

"Or because sometimes kids experience things that make them unhappy," Richard agreed. "Alex has experienced things that are making him very unhappy. He's a little confused right now. He doesn't know that we want him to stay with us forever. I think he would quite like to stay with us," he certainly hoped so, anyway, though the way Alex was acting at the moment was putting that hope under some strain, "but he's worried about what will happen if things go wrong, so he's pretending he can't stay with us forever. That way he won't be upset if things don't work out."

Sally nodded, but Lizzie looked a little lost, and Richard paused, trying to think of another way to explain it. Thankfully, Sally jumped in, nudging her little sister. "You know how when you really want something for your birthday, and you tell yourselves that you won't get it, because then you won't be disappointed if you don't? It's like that. I think."

She glanced at Richard to see if she'd got it right, and he nodded, giving her a little smile. "Exactly like that, well done," he said.

"Ooh," Lizzie said, nodding furiously. "OK. I get it."

So that was that sorted, at least. "So I'm sure you understand why I'm very cross with both of you for barging in on him like that," Richard said, getting them back on track. "It could have made Alex even more upset and worried about coming to live with us. And no, Sarah Louise, the fact that it didn't isn't the point." Sally's mouth shut with an audible click. "Now you understand why I asked you not to do it, you should understand why I'm cross that you did. Do you?" He gave them another long look. Lizzie's lip trembled again, but they both nodded. "Alright then. Your mum and I will discuss what to do about your actions when she gets home later. For now, I want you both to get on with your homework while I go and see Alex. Will you be good?"

The two of them mumbled that they'd be very good, and he relented a little. "You're both little monsters," he said, with reluctant fondness. "I don't know what I did to end up with a pair of goblins as my daughters."

Sally smiled at him, rather tremulously. "I'm sorry, Dad," she said sincerely. "We didn't think. And it was my fault really. It was my idea."

"I'm sorry too," Lizzie said, a wobble in her voice. "I didn't mean to upset him."

"I know you didn't," he said, softening completely. "I don't think you'll have to live on bread and water for more than a week or so to make up for it."

That was always the signal that the lecture was over, and both girls brightened still further. "It really was my idea though," Sally said, a little anxiously. "Lizzie wouldn't even have thought of it."

That was always the way; Sally would snipe and tease her sister beyond endurance, but the moment there was any trouble, she'd always been willing to barge in and take the blame, no matter what. Sometimes Richard wondered what on earth he'd done to make his children behave so appallingly, and sometimes he wondered what on earth he'd done that they'd turned out so well. Parenthood could be a rollercoaster like that.

"You both did it," he said gently. "But we're not going to go on about it. Do either of you need anything? A drink, something to eat? Any help with your homework?" They assured him that they didn't, and he stood, holding out his arms. "Alright then, hug time," he said, the traditional ending to any kind of family upset. "You've still got bread and water in your futures," he told them, when they'd both jumped up and barrelled into him. "Gremlins, the pair of you."

Lizzie giggled, and Sally squeezed him tightly once, before letting go.

"Tell Alex we're sorry," she said, looking up at him. "We won't do it again."

"I'll tell him," he agreed. "Maybe now you've introduced yourselves, you can spend some more time with him. You two sit and do your homework. I'll be back shortly."

When he got back to Alex's room, the cards had been tidied away and Alex was reading what looked like a history book. His pose of casual unconcern was rather spoilt by the tense way he was holding himself, and the wary look he gave Richard when he tapped on the door.

"May I come in?" he asked. "I'm sorry the girls barged in on you like that."

"They're great kids," Alex said, instantly on the defensive.

"They are," Richard agreed, sitting down in the chair Alex had been sitting in mere minutes before. "But they know that they should expect to be told off when they do something we've told them not to do."

Alex's mouth tightened for a moment, and he shut his history book with a snap. "This is why I'd be such a bad fit for your family," he said coldly. "I wouldn't know to expect that."

"Oh, I don't think that's true," Richard said. "You're a bright kid. I think you'd work out that doing something we've specifically asked you not to do would result in a telling off, at least."

"What else would it result in?" Alex asked. Somewhat to Richard's surprise, he didn't look particularly bothered by the idea of punishment, but then, Alex's trauma didn't come from his home life. It was occasionally difficult to remember that Alex had never had to deal with an abusive parent or guardian – just an absent one. He might have no particularly positive memories of a normal family structure, but he probably didn't have any particularly negative ones either. The abuse he'd suffered had been from something else entirely.

"Well, that would depend on what it was you'd done," Richard said slowly. He didn't want to focus Alex's mind too much on the negative aspects of living with them, but it was a reasonable question. It was maybe even a positive one, considering it showed a certain amount of interest in what family life would be like with them. "At the moment, we have a sliding scale. The time-out step's the first one, and it goes up in increments of five – five minutes for something minor, up to twenty minutes. Anything more than twenty minutes, the girls have to go to their rooms. Sometimes we ban them from TV for a certain amount of time, or we put off something they've been wanting to do, or take away their favourite toy. You're older than the girls, so we'd have to work it out for you. We'd need to make sure that whatever we do is a punishment, but not cruel. We wouldn't stop you from talking to your friends, for example, or refuse to let you out of your room – that would be cruel anyway, and it would be particularly traumatic for you. And we won't ever starve or hurt you, obviously. But there are other ways to deal with it if you decide to misbehave – deliberately, I mean, not by accident or for a good reason. Take away computer privileges except for schoolwork, maybe, or ground you. We've never had to ground either of the kids before – they're a bit too young to be going out by themselves. We've put off playdates of theirs, though, if they're in serious trouble."

Alex looked back down at his book. "Yeah, that… sounds reasonable, I guess."

"What sort of thing were you expecting? Didn't you get told off when you were younger?" Richard asked, intrigued.

Alex shrugged. "I don't know. Not really. Ian wasn't big on rules."

"What about Jack?"

Alex was silent, and Richard figured he could probably fill in the gaps there. While Alex's uncle had been alive, he'd been the ultimate authority – if he didn't step in, it would have been difficult for Jack to do so.

"Were you a big rule breaker, then?" he asked.

"Difficult to break rules that aren't there," Alex shot back immediately. "I get into trouble all the time, though. That's not an example you should want me to set to Sally and Lizzie."

"Do you think you'd get them into trouble?" Richard said, watching him thoughtfully.

"How should I know?" Alex retorted. "I've never had much to do with younger kids. Anyway, I don't know what rules you have. I couldn't help breaking them."

"Well, there's the basic house rules – I don't think you'd have much difficulty with them," Richard said. He and Gilda had been meaning to do this as a joint effort, but she wouldn't blame him for going into it now it had come up. It wasn't like the last time he'd made a unilateral decision about what to tell Alex; this was a much more minor affair. "Remember your manners, apologise if you've upset someone, that sort of thing. And like I said, if the kids are naughty, there's the time out step and so on, though we've started scaling back on that for Sally – she's getting a bit too old for it. You're certainly too old for the time out step, so we'd all come up with something together that feels appropriate – just like we'd have to come up with appropriate rules for you together. We'd all be learning together, with you. We've never parented a teenager before."

"I don't need parenting," Alex snapped. "Jack and I got on fine."

Richard wondered if Alex realised what a telling statement that was. "Jack loves you," he said carefully. "That doesn't mean you don't need someone who'll act as your parent."

Interestingly, Alex didn't immediately flare up and insist that Jack had acted as his parent. Instead, he picked up his book again. "I'm not good with rules," he muttered.

"Lots of teenagers aren't," Richard agreed calmly. "And you're a bright kid. We'll have to go through it together and come up with some guidelines – I imagine it'll be easier for you to follow our rules when you understand why they're in place."

Alex gave him a quick, uncertain look. "Is that normal?" he asked, half-suspicious, half-hopeful.

"I don't know," Richard admitted. "We'll be doing much the same thing with Sally when she's a bit older, I imagine. You're a teenager, not a small child. It would be unfair to expect you to follow the rules we came up with for our children when they were small. It'd definitely be unfair to make you follow rules without bothering to explain them to you."

"Sounds like you've put a lot of thought into this," Alex said, and for the first time since he'd had everything sprung on him, he didn't sound overtly confrontational.

Richard repressed the urge to cheer. "We know it's going to be tough for all of us to begin with," he said, wanting to make sure Alex knew that they didn't imagine he would suddenly be absolutely OK, and that they were ready to help him if he found adjusting to his new circumstances difficult. "But we want to make sure we're the best place for you."

"Sally and Lizzie are great," Alex said quietly. "But what if they get fed up having me around? What if I say stuff that messes them up?" He looked away, his jaw tightening. "I don't mean deliberately," he added, almost reluctantly. "I wouldn't do that to them. But. I'm fucked up."

"You've been through something awful," Richard corrected. "You're dealing with trauma, and frankly, I'm amazed at how well you're coping." Alex's behaviour was difficult and painful, but not inexplicable, after all. Just because Richard was worried about how everything was going to play out didn't mean that Alex's current actions weren't understandable. "You're not a write-off, Alex."

"But I am fucked up," Alex said, surprisingly dispassionate. "I could hurt your kids, just by not- not thinking about what I'm saying, or something like that."

Richard would have preferred Alex's focus to be a little more on himself and a little less on how his trauma might affect the girls, but he could understand where he was coming from. "If you prefer to think of yourself as fucked up, OK," he said, after a brief pause for thought. "But I think the last thing you could be accused of is not thinking things through. And if you're worried about something you've said or done, you could always ask us about it. Helping children with trauma is Gilda's job, after all, and we both know our girls. We can help if there's a problem."

"Do they even know why I'd be coming to live with you?" Alex demanded. "Do they have any idea what they might have to deal with?"

"They know you've been through something difficult," Richard said carefully. "We haven't gone into the details of it, though I guess we'll have to when they're a bit older, if they really start asking questions. That'll be up to you, though. But they understand that you're dealing with some difficult things. And we're their parents, Alex, not you. Of course you'll have an influence on them, the same way they will with you – that's part of being a family. But if you upset them, they can come to us."

"I don't want to upset them," Alex said harshly, shutting down with astonishing suddenness and leaving Richard wondering exactly where he'd misstepped. "Wouldn't it be easier if I just went somewhere else? Then you wouldn't have to worry about me upsetting them."

"We don't want you to go somewhere else," Richard said, but Alex shook his head.

"You should," he said flatly. "Am I allowed to nap? I'm tired."

"I'd like to talk about this," Richard began.

"And I wouldn't," Alex snapped.

Richard looked at him, noting for the first time the lines of pain around his mouth. "When did you last take a painkiller?" he asked abruptly. "Has Dr Garland seen you since this morning?"

"She was at lunch," Alex said, frowning slightly, probably confused by the change of topic.

"And did she give you anything for the pain you're in?"

"No." It came out flat. "I'm fine."

"Nonsense," Richard said, equally flatly. "I'll go and find her. She'll kick herself when she realises you missed your dose. Then you can have a nap, if that's what you really want."

Alex gave him an appraising look. "It's just pain," he said, almost tauntingly. "What does it matter?"

"It always matters when you're in pain," Richard said, a little more sharply than he'd intended.

Alex didn't respond, but there was an odd look of something like satisfaction in his eyes. "Alright," he said, giving in with a better grace than Richard had expected.

Positive reinforcement was probably called for. "Thank you," he said, wondering if he dared pat Alex on the shoulder. There was only one way to find out, so he stood and reached out, letting Alex see what he was doing and move away if he would prefer.

Alex sat very still, keeping his eyes averted, and let Richard rest his hand on his shoulder. For a moment, Richard felt like cheering, and he squeezed very gently before letting go. Alex shifted, resettling his shoulders, and the expression on his face was odd – half-thoughtful, half-unnerved. He wouldn't quite meet Richard's eyes.

"You can tell me not to touch you, if you'd prefer," Richard said gently.

"It doesn't bother me," Alex said a little stiffly, reopening his book.

Richard wasn't going to question that, even though it was quite obviously a lie. "OK," he said, rather than ask Alex to be honest. "But if at any point you'd rather I didn't touch you, you can say. I'll listen to you."

"That'd be a first," Alex snapped, and Richard bit back a sigh. Damn. He shouldn't even have continued with the subject – he'd made it into a bigger deal than he'd meant to, and Alex had not unnaturally got defensive about it.

Why could he never get anything right with the kid? He wanted him in his family, he loved him, but since they'd got Alex back, it seemed everything Richard did, everything he tried, was wrong.

But that way madness lay, second-guessing his every action. If he lost confidence that their family was the best place for Alex, then they were lost before they even set out.

"I'm sorry you feel that way," he said, and abandoned the discussion before it could become an argument. "By the way, Gilda's been called into Cardiff – she won't be back in time to see you tonight. She asked me to give you her love."

"Nothing's wrong, is it?" Alex said with quick alarm, looking up from the book he had been so ostentatiously reading.

"No – just one of her patients needed her urgently. She'll be back tomorrow." Richard glanced at the clock – it had just gone four thirty. "You said the painkillers knock you out. Do you want something milder now? Then you can have something more effective before you go to sleep."

"So you do listen," Alex said, and Richard would have thought he was talking to himself if it wasn't for the challenging eye-contact he made as he said it. "Yeah. I guess something milder would be good. I'd like to get some reading done."

"I thought you'd want to spend some time with your friends."

"You thought wrong," Alex said without rancour, and sighed. "They're fine," he admitted, letting his book fall back into his lap. "But it's tiring. Being with them. I'll be better tomorrow. Maybe- maybe I could have dinner with them. I told them I needed a rest."

Richard nodded. "How would you feel about a hug?" he asked quietly.

Alex eyed him in thoughtful silence for a second or so. "Not so good right now," he said finally.

"OK," Richard nodded. This was better. Asking was better. It was positive that Alex had felt comfortable enough to refuse – and it had been a less vitriolic refusal than Richard would have expected even at the beginning of their conversation. He might actually be making progress, instead of the agonising one-step-forward, two-steps-back pattern he seemed to have been stuck in for the last few days. "Thank you for telling me. I'll go and find Dr Garland for you."

Alex woke, sweating and breathing hard, still half-caught in the grip of his nightmare. Even as he tried to think about it, it slipped away from him, leaving only the hazy recollection of fear and a sour taste in his mouth.

He sat up. It was still relatively early – barely ten thirty. He'd had dinner with the others, but afterwards they'd been settling in for a game of Scrabble on an ancient and dilapidated board that had been dug up from somewhere, and he'd had a strong painkiller with his food. He hadn't felt up to word games, or any games at all, for that matter. He'd told them he was going to go to bed, and accepted Tom and Charlotte's hugs and Joe and Will's awkward goodnights with as good a grace as he could muster before making his escape and slipping off back to his room.

He'd tried to read, but the words of the history book kept swimming in front of his eyes, and eventually he supposed he must have fallen asleep. The light on the bedside table was still on, and the history book was lying open and upside down on the floor, some of its pages creased under its own weight.

He reached down, ignoring the way his hand shook, and picked the book up, setting it neatly on the bedside table. Then he clicked the lamp off, and tried to go back to sleep.

The door to his room was ajar as always, and with the room in darkness, he could see the bulky shape of a soldier stood outside, through the opaque glass panel on the door. That should have been comforting, but it wasn't. It wasn't unpleasant, either, but Alex hoped he hadn't said anything while he slept, or made any sounds. He didn't want anyone thinking he was cracked. Had the man moved, or looked round, or even noticed anything going on in the room behind him? Alex certainly hoped not, but he had no way of knowing for sure and he certainly wasn't going to ask.

What had he been dreaming about? The hazy, floaty feeling brought on by the painkiller wouldn't let him remember – it had only just let him wake up. He had a feeling Andrei had been there, and maybe Alan Blunt, but he couldn't remember anything clearly. He'd felt trapped, and he'd been… running? Was that right? Yes, that was it, it was coming back now – he'd been running, towards doors that wouldn't open or down corridors that led nowhere, and he'd been scared and no one had been coming to help.

He shut his eyes tightly, pulling the bedcovers up a little further and curling up on his side, facing the door. It hadn't even been a particularly bad dream – he'd had far worse. There had been weeks when he couldn't sleep without remembering the thump of Conrad's body as he hit the magnet and the look on Sarov's face before he shot himself. But not being able to remember the dream in any detail somehow made it worse.

He dozed, letting the painkillers lull him, but there was a thread of tension running through his thoughts even as they drifted aimlessly, and he couldn't drop off. The stress of his nightmare, which he should have been able to shake off, wouldn't leave him alone, and eventually he gave it up as a bad job. Sitting up again, he clicked the light back on and reached for another book. Not history, not right now – reading about the Cold War might normally have put him to sleep, but the last thing he needed to think about right now was international conflict. He had too shrewd an idea of what both sides' intelligence agencies might have been doing at the time. It was an interesting insight, he supposed, even if he wished he didn't have it. But it didn't exactly help him relax.

Instead, he picked up a physics textbook. It had never been his strong subject, and either he'd learn something or it would put him to sleep.

Idly, he hefted the book in his hands, wondering who'd brought them. The others had a similar pile of textbooks, too, and Charlotte had been going through some of their biology homework with Tom over dinner. Apparently all the work they'd missed had been sent through, and Charlotte and Will were particularly keen to get back on track. Unsurprisingly, Joe and Tom were less keen, but that wasn't putting the other two off. While Alex had been in his room for his rest, and had met the Manning girls, the others had been working their way steadily through some of their homework.

Charlotte had said, with something like pleasure, that they were going to have tutoring over the Easter holidays, just the four of them, to make sure they weren't behind when the new term started. And then she'd dug her elbow into Tom's side when she caught him rolling his eyes at Alex. It was a pleasant, easy memory, and Alex dwelt on it for a few moments, trying to let it soothe away the stress he couldn't seem to shake off.

It didn't quite work, but it was a start. Feeling a little more hopeful that he might actually be able to sleep, he opened the physics book, found the right chapter, and started to read.

Eagle nodded at Bear as he relieved him, noting the open door to Cub's room and the light on inside, and opting not to say anything to the other man. Cub was too clever by half, and he probably wouldn't relish the idea of being talked about by the soldiers.

Bear had different ideas, however. "Thanks," he said easily. "All quiet here."

"We didn't really expect anything else, did we?" Eagle pointed out, swapping places with him and taking up his station in front of the door.

"Right," Bear agreed, clocking the light on in the room behind him for what seemed to be the first time. Eagle couldn't blame him for that – they were supposed to be guarding the room against any unauthorised personnel, not to keep Cub in. And while he'd volunteered for the duty, Bear was probably the last person who should be trying to have anything to do with Cub right now. Both of them had wounds that were a little too fresh, and a great deal too similar. "Who's on after you?"

"Snake, I think," Eagle said, shrugging. "Maybe Adder. Wasn't really paying attention, honestly."

"Fair," Bear said, and clapped him lightly on the shoulder. "Enjoy. Quietest hour I've spent in weeks."

Eagle quirked a smile at him, and stood in perfect at-ease in front of Cub's door until he heard the distant sound of Bear saying something to the night-nurse and the sound of the infirmary doors swinging shut behind him.

Then he turned around, tapped on the door and stuck his head round it. "Hey, Cub," he said, seeing the kid sitting up in bed and reading what looked like a very dry textbook. "Shouldn't you be asleep?"

"Why do you think I'm reading this?" Cub retorted, holding up the book and displaying the title. 'AQA Physics' certainly didn't sound like an exciting read.

"Ah," Eagle said. "Can't sleep? Want me to leave you to it?"

"No and no," Cub said with a sigh, tossing his book onto the bed in front of him. "C'mon in. I heard you take over from Bear."

"We weren't exactly being subtle," Eagle agreed, coming in and shutting the door behind him. "You sure I shouldn't leave you to get some sleep? You look awful."

"Wow, thanks," Cub said dryly. "You really know how to make a guy feel good about himself."

"It's never been my strong suit," Eagle admitted, taking a seat on the chair next to the bed and eyeing Cub critically for a moment. "You really look terrible. Aren't they giving you anything for the pain?"

"They are," Cub said, rather grimly. "I'm not in pain. I just can't sleep."

"I thought you said the painkillers knocked you out?"

"I thought they did," Cub said, with heavy finality. Clearly he didn't want to pursue the subject, and even Eagle had enough tact to let it drop. "So is this your job now?" Cub asked, after a moment or two of silence. "Tagging round after kids?"

There was a slightly nasty edge to his voice, which Eagle ignored. He couldn't exactly blame Cub for it, considering the way he and the rest of his unit had reacted to Cub's inclusion in their training. It had to seem extraordinary and unlikely that any of them would willingly agree – volunteer, even – to babysit a load of teenagers now. And after the way they'd bungled the whole situation with Cub's class… yeah, the kid's scepticism was more than warranted. "Not permanently, but at the moment, yeah," he said, refusing to be drawn. "We went to a lot of effort to get you lot back. We're not going to have any of you do something stupid while our back's turned."

"So you're protecting us against ourselves?" Cub shot back. "I thought you were supposed to be protecting us from other people."

Eagle shrugged. "You know me, I just do what I'm told," he said. "And you know what I meant. I don't think anyone really thinks something's gonna happen, but better safe than sorry might as well be our motto."

Cub deflated, the fight leaving him abruptly. "I guess I can get behind that," he said listlessly. "What do you guys do all day, anyway? When you're not running around after us, I mean."

"We get put in storage," Eagle said seriously. "They take our batteries out and pack us up in dust sheets."

Cub smiled fractionally at that, and Eagle relaxed a little. If he could still make the kid smile, then maybe things weren't too bad. "I always knew Jackal had something stuck up his-"

"Don't even go there," Eagle warned.

"Friend of yours?" Cub asked, one eyebrow raised.

"Not exactly," Eagle hedged, unsure where Cub fell on the sliding scale from 'fellow-soldier' to 'outsider'. "We've never got on brilliantly. But if I start bitching about him now I might never stop, and he doesn't deserve that."

"Was he there?" Cub asked, picking up his book and very carefully marking his place.

Eagle didn't even pretend to misunderstand him. "He was. So were Cobra and Bear. But Jackal and Bear were sent back here with the two boys we rescued in London."

"I think someone told me that," Cub said, a little uncertainly. "Why? I mean, why those two and not Cobra?"

Eagle shrugged. He had a decent idea why, but he generally did his best not to speculate about that sort of thing. It was probably why he'd never progress much further than his current rank, because good officers were supposed to think about stuff like that, but he was perfectly happy where he was. "I don't make command decisions," he said, aware it was a cop-out. "I could guess, but that's not fair."

"If it comes down to guesswork, I can probably make a pretty good guess myself," Cub said, shrugging and wincing very slightly. The painkillers clearly weren't doing a particularly good job.

They sat in silence for a minute or so, and then Eagle steeled himself. "Want me to leave you to it?" he offered again. "You should try and sleep. Or I could ask someone to take a look at you – you might be due another dose of something."

"I don't like the way the painkillers make me feel," Cub said, a little guiltily. "It's just… I'd prefer the pain to having a head full of cotton wool."

"Me too," Eagle said sympathetically. "But if you're in pain…?"

"It's not so bad," Cub said, which was an admission of sorts.

"You're the best judge," Eagle said, not sure he believed it. But probably it was better for the kid to have some sense of control over his circumstances, or something like that. "Just don't be a martyr, OK?"

Cub smiled again. "But it's what I do best," he said, a light, mocking tone to his voice.

"You should branch out," Eagle said severely. "Get some other skills."

"Sir, yes sir," Cub said, giving him a sardonic salute. "Any other brilliant advice?"

"I am the last person who should be giving you advice," Eagle told him ruefully. "I wouldn't even try. I'm rubbish at all that stuff."

"Oh, I don't know," Cub said thoughtfully. "You listen, don't you?" He paused, apparently deliberating over whether or not to say something, and Eagle waited him out.

After a long silence, his patience was rewarded.

"No one shuts the door anymore," Cub said, apparently at random. "When it's just me in here, I mean. They leave the door open, and I hate that." He glanced back at Eagle. "You shut the door."

Eagle shrugged, a little uncomfortably. He hadn't been thinking that deeply about it. "Didn't really think about it," he admitted awkwardly.

Cub smiled a little. "Yeah, I figured," he agreed, a faint hint of sarcasm in his voice. "But. I don't like having the door open. I know anyone can come in anyway, but if the door's closed, I get a bit of warning, you know? If someone's going to come in. They can't just… barge in."

"I'd have thought after spending weeks locked up, you'd want the door open all the time," Eagle said, frowning a little. "That's how your friends are taking it. I mean, so I've heard, anyway."

"Well, they were in there the whole time," Cub said excusingly. "I wasn't. Every time the door opened, I had to be ready."

"For what?" Eagle asked, and Cub shook his head, looking a little frustrated.

"I never knew," he said. "I just had to be ready."

Eagle knew that state of hyper-alertness well, but he'd never spent weeks feeling like that with no downtime. "Sure," he said easily. "That makes sense. I could tell 'em, if you liked. That you'd like the door shut."

"Pretty sure they won't let me," Cub muttered. "Probably think I'll off myself if the door's shut."

"Would you?" Eagle asked, without judgement.

"How?" Cub retorted. "Even if I wanted to, and I don't think I do, how would I do it? Brain myself on the heart monitor?"

Eagle smiled a little. "Yeah, fair point."

For a moment, they sat in silence. Cub started picking at a loose thread in the blanket, and he didn't look up when he started speaking.

"Do you believe in karma?" he asked, again apparently idly.

Eagle frowned. "I don't think so. Why, do you?"

"I don't know," Cub said quietly. "Not really. But I got injured on every assignment I was ever given, and then by the end the people who hurt me were dead."

"Instant karma certainly got them, huh?" Eagle said slowly. "I don't know what assignments you've had, but I doubt you were ever trained to bring in suspects alive, Cub. It's a damn miracle you managed to end your assignments at all. And I'm willing to bet that those bastards got what they deserved."

"Sometimes I wonder if I get what I deserve, too," Cub said. He still hadn't looked up.

Eagle leant forwards again. "What, because you've killed people?" he asked. He definitely felt out of his depth here, but he'd promised the kid he'd listen, and he didn't intend to back out now. "I've killed people, you know that, right? Most of them were dicks – that's what I tell myself, anyway. But still. Do you think I deserve… whatever it is you think you deserve?"

"You're a soldier, it's different," Cub said quietly.

"Bullshit," Eagle said firmly. "Have you ever set out to kill someone?"


"Huh," Eagle said, taken aback but determined not to show it. "Did you succeed?"

"No," Cub admitted. "But not because I didn't try."

"I've set out to kill people," Eagle told him. "And I succeeded. I'm not proud of it, I don't boast about it, none of us do, that just makes you sick. And maybe karma'll catch up with me one day. But you didn't deserve this just because people have died when you tried to stop them hurting someone else."

"It's not that I feel bad about it," Cub said, after a minute or so of silence. "Not exactly, anyway. Sometimes that's the worst bit. I don't regret their deaths. I wish they'd never needed to die, but I don't regret that they did, you know?"

"I know," Eagle agreed quietly.

"But kids my age… they don't worry about this stuff. This stuff doesn't happen to them. How do I go back to feeling normal again?" He turned his face away, but not before Eagle had seen the miserable look in his eyes. It was a shock – Cub had always been so calm and rational – but not a surprise. If Eagle remembered correctly, Bear had been a mess after his captivity too. These things fucked with your mind, and if anyone was due a meltdown, it was this terrifyingly controlled kid. "I'm never not going to have done all that stuff."

"No," Eagle agreed, rather helplessly. "You aren't. I guess it must make it difficult to get on with… other kids your age, right?"

"Yeah, just a bit," Cub said with wry understatement, turning back to him. "Sorry, this isn't your area, is it?"

"Nope," Eagle agreed honestly. "But I don't mind, if it's what you want to talk about."

"I thought I didn't want to talk to anyone," Cub said, surprising him. "You kind of surprised me."

That was an admission, considering Eagle didn't think he'd ever seen Cub so much as taken aback before. "Sorry?" he offered, and Cub shook his head.

"Nah, it's OK. Thanks, I guess."

"You're welcome." Eagle paused for a couple of seconds. "Look, you might never be normal-normal," he said, speaking rather slowly as he tried to puzzle out what he wanted to say. "But you can be OK again, you know? Normal doesn't mean anything, and I know it's annoying as fuck when people say that, but it really doesn't. Finding a normal you're OK with, that's the main thing."

Cub sighed. "I know that," he said wearily. "It just feels like… if I were, you know, actually normal, none of this would ever have happened to me."

"How d'you mean?" Eagle asked, frowning and trying to follow the logic.

"Normal kids don't have the skills I do," Cub explained tiredly. "Normal kids have parents who'd stop this happening to them. Normal kids… if I were normal, someone would have tried to protect me."

He said it very softly, almost in a whisper, but Eagle heard it. He paused, brought up short. Cub had made that little confession quietly, almost unwillingly, as though it was being dragged out of him, but Eagle didn't doubt it was important.

"Didn't anyone try, when all this started?" he asked, horrified and trying to make sure the kid couldn't hear it in his voice.

Cub shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe. Didn't work, did it?" He sighed. "My guardian's handing over custody of me to someone else," he said quietly. "And everyone's talking about doing things for my own good, and they mean well, but I'm not sure there's much left of me worth saving." He jerked his head up, staring at Eagle as though he hadn't meant to say that last bit. "I should go to sleep," he said quickly. "It's late, I'm tired."

Eagle ignored the sick sinking feeling in his stomach as it dawned on him just how fucked up Cub really was. Why had he decided to confide in Eagle, of all people? Not that he was complaining, but why had he said any of that to him? He wasn't known for his tact and insight, and Cub knew it.

Still, there were other and more immediate problems. "You're worth saving," he said, trying to pack all his conviction into his voice. "And I'd know, right? We saved you. We came for you, not just because we had orders, but because we all thought you're worth saving."

Cub lay back down without looking at him. "I shouldn't have said that," he muttered.

"Don't feel bad about it," Eagle advised him. "I'm sorry your guardian's done this to you."

"She means it for the best," Cub said.

"Sure," Eagle agreed. He hadn't met Cub's guardian, for all she'd been staying on base for the last week or so, but that just meant he couldn't really agree or disagree. "Doesn't mean it can't hurt you anyway."

Cub glanced up at him, apparently struck by that thought. "That's true," he said, and smiled suddenly. It was a tiny, wavering smile, but it was real. "Thanks, Eagle."

Eagle reached out and ruffled the kid's hair gently before standing up. "Get some sleep, kid," he advised. "I'll be here again tomorrow if you want to talk, or you could hunt me down if you want. Guard'll be changing soon, don't let it bother you."

"I'll do my best," Cub said wryly. "Night, Eagle."

"Night, Cub. Don't let anything bite."

Alex came to with a jerk and a gasp, the sensation of free-falling still heavy in his bones. Turning his face into the pillow, he stifled a groan, trying to fight the feeling of nausea and regulate his pounding heartbeat.

Another nightmare. It had felt so real – he'd been back in the basement in Andrei's house, freezing and in pain and on the edge of shaking apart. He should have let Eagle find someone to give him another dose of painkillers; it was probably the pain in his back that had prompted the nightmare. He'd known he was going to be down there forever, and that no one would come or even care that he was there.

At least that part of the dream had more or less reflected reality. It was the earlier part that was making him sick to his stomach, watching his classmates killed one by one and knowing that they'd died because he'd failed.

And, he realised, with a sudden swell of entirely unexpected rage, because he'd been failed. Wasn't that what everyone had been telling him? That he shouldn't have had to deal with it in the first place? No one had been coming for him. No one had helped. That hadn't been true this time, but it had been true every single time before. He had been alone and afraid and in pain more often than he could count, and because no one was coming to help him he'd had to ignore all of it and get the job done. And now he was here in this bland, blank little room, sweating and terrified because he'd been failed.

And what was their solution to the problem? To push him away and make him someone else's problem. The Mannings didn't deserve that. Alex didn't deserve that. He wasn't sure what he wanted anymore, but he knew he wanted more than to just become a burden on good people.

The emotions that had plagued him when he really was back in Andrei's basement had been sharp and strong in his dream, and he still didn't have any answers for them. He wasn't worthy of Jack anymore, and that had become achingly clear, and he had no idea how the Mannings really felt about him. Did they care that he'd been hurt so badly? Did they care that he'd been in pain for so long that he'd been ready to make almost any sacrifice just to make it stop? There'd been moments when he'd thought Gilda might, and Richard was surprisingly careful with him, but he didn't know. He couldn't bear not knowing anymore.

It hadn't been his fault. Smithers had said so, and Alex had never known the man lie – if he said Alex would have been forced into this position regardless of his own actions, then that was probably true. But he was still damaged and ugly and messed up because of what had been done to him, and he had no idea how the main players in his life actually felt about that. The uncertainty of it was nagging at him like a sore tooth and he had to do something about it or he might explode.

He glanced at the clock on the bedside table. It was six-thirty – Manning was normally in by eight. It was still dark outside, but Alex didn't turn the bedside light on. He could see the outline of a soldier outside his door, and for a moment he considered whether it was better to leave that little system alone, and take advantage of it for his surprisingly helpful chats with Eagle, or tell them that having someone there, always watching, made him feel uneasy and trapped. But the door was still shut firmly, not ajar, and that helped a little. On balance, for the moment, he felt he had other things he'd rather focus on.

He lay back down, considering exactly what he was going to do. He'd have a little while to think things through, and if he was going to get some kind of reaction from Manning – even just an admission that the man didn't really care either way – he'd need to have plotted things out carefully.

When Richard got into work, he looked for Maeve and didn't find her – one of the orderlies told him that she was in with the other four kids, checking on Charlotte's concussion and Tom's hand, and beginning the process of breaking down their vicious co-dependence. Apparently, she'd looked in on Alex and left him to sleep. She'd sent the soldier guarding his door away with a promise that Richard would come by as soon as he got in.

Since there were no other jobs that needed his attention, and they'd have had a hard time getting it even if there were, Richard decided to follow his colleague's advice. Things would be better. Alex was having a tough time of it, but they'd work on it and get through it, and they would help him however he'd let them.

The door to Alex's room was shut, and he tapped gently on it before going in. The curtains were still drawn, but the lights were on, and Alex was sat on his bed, facing the door, his face set in grim determined lines.

At some point, he'd taken his shirt off, and though he hadn't touched the surgical dressing, he'd managed to remove the bandages they'd wrapped round his chest to hold the dressings on his back in place.

"Dr Garland said you'd be coming by," he said expressionlessly. "I heard her tell Snake."

Richard had halted in the doorway, and now he came forward. "Aren't you cold?" he asked gently. He was trying hard not to stare at the horrific bruising over Alex's chest and stomach, but it was a tough fight. If he looked too closely, though, he might explode with rage, and that really would scare Alex off.

"I thought you'd want to see what Andrei did," Alex said, still expressionless. "You always wanted to see what the soldiers here did to me."

"I was your doctor then," Richard said, keeping his voice very level.

"And what are you now?" Alex demanded. "My father?" He almost spat the word.

"We'll go with guardian, for the time being," Richard said. He took a deep breath – Alex was black-blue from shoulder to hip on his right-hand side. Some of that would be from the surgery, and some of it was hidden under gauze and surgical tape, but it was all too clear that someone had hit him again and again until he bruised so deeply it had to hurt to move.

Alex ignored that, and met his eyes challengingly. "That's where Andrei kicked me," he said, pointing at a bruise on the left-hand side of his chest. "I was kneeling in front of him – well, he'd pushed me down, anyway. I guess I fell. He kicked me, and then he pulled me back up – I think that's when he did that." He gestured at a ring of bruising around his arm, not as dark as the bruising on his chest, purple rather than dark blue. "Then he kicked me in the leg, and when I was on my knees in front of him again, he slapped me and told me the next time I fucked up, he'd kill one of the others."

"Alex-" Richard began, unsure which was worse – the litany of everything Alex had endured, or the dead voice he was using to tell him.

"And then," Alex went on, as if he hadn't heard him, "he put me in a cell in the basement of his house, and left me there until he was ready, and then he did this."

He slid off the bed and turned round, and Richard saw his back for the first time. There were fifteen scars in total laid across his back, some criss-crossed over others. Mostly they fell over his shoulders, but two or three fell lower, and one mark curved around his waist. All but one of them were shallow, but they sat along bruised welts of skin, and they were still red and inflamed.

No one had told Richard that Alex had clearly been beaten twice, once with whatever it was had laid his skin open, and once with something else that had left his back bruised. For a moment, his hand lifted, against his own better judgement, wanting to trace the lines of damage done to his boy, to somehow soothe the pain, to make it better any way he could. Gritting his teeth, he let his hand drop, shutting his eyes for a moment and swallowing down rage and fear and a terrible surge of helpless affection, made worse because there was nothing he could do to let Alex know that he was loved – nothing that Alex would let him do, anyway.

"I still don't know how many times he whipped me," Alex said conversationally. "Could you tell me, please?"

Richard cleared his throat. "Fifteen," he said hoarsely.

"I'm sorry?" Alex said politely.

"Fifteen," Richard repeated, the word dragged out of him.

"Huh," Alex said, turning back round, and reseating himself on the bed. "Felt like more. But also less, I guess. I passed out at some point. I think maybe he kept going until he realised I really wasn't going to get back up again. And when I woke, I was back in the cell, in the dark. I put my back against the walls – they were concrete – to try and stop it hurting. I knew it was stupid. I was already freezing. But my back hurt, so. And then I lay down there in the dark for hours."

"Alex-" Richard started again, wondering desperately what Alex was trying to do and whether he should stop him or let him talk.

Alex shook himself. "He caned me first, of course," he said thoughtfully, holding out his hand flat and giving it a disinterested glance, displaying a bruised palm like Tom's. "I forget, sometimes, but that was the first thing he did to me. Later on, when he was trying to get me to agree to kill someone for him, he stabbed his walking stick – did I tell you about his walking stick? – into my chest handle-first and leant on me until I couldn't breathe, and then he kept me there until I could feel my ribs cracking under the pressure and made me agree to do murder for him."

He had his head very slightly tilted to one side, and his eyes were on Richard's face. "Oh, but I forgot something else," he said slowly, eyes drifting away from Richard's face and snapping back again almost instantly. "He whipped me with the hose first. That was for reporting back wrong – he thought I was lying to him, I suppose. I didn't even know what was happening – I was repeating what I'd done while I was out lying and manipulating an innocent kid on his orders, and suddenly they're hauling me up and into another room, and I didn't even dare ask them what I'd done. And then he showed me the hosing, and told me I had to remember things perfectly. And then they held me, two of them, with a hand on my shoulders and my arms out either side, and someone whipped me with the hosing. It's supposed not to leave marks, did you know that?"

Richard swallowed. He had no idea what was going on here, and as much as he wanted Alex to talk, he also wanted it to stop. He was glad, he supposed, to know what the hell had happened to Alex, but he'd wanted it to come out differently – any other way than this, really. Whatever Alex was doing, it wasn't talking about the horrors he'd been through or seeking comfort or reassurance. It was a challenge of some sort, but Richard had no idea what he was hoping to gain.

"Does, though," Alex said, still watching him. "Hurts like hell, too. I was screaming, I think. That was before I worked out that Andrei preferred me to keep quiet, so I did."

"You kept quiet because he preferred it?" Richard said, unable to stop himself or to keep the shock and revulsion out of his voice.

"Of course," Alex said easily. "None of the others could keep quiet. I could, so he preferred hurting me to any of the others, and he needed me whole. He threatened to take an eye or a hand from one of the others." He paused. "And I couldn't complain, or ask what I'd done, or argue. I couldn't do anything. Because if I did anything, he'd hurt one of the others. He might have killed them. I don't think they realised it, but I always knew – he didn't need four other kids to make me do what he wanted. He only needed one. If I made a fuss about anything, there were three kids he could have killed, and I'd still have to do whatever he wanted. So I let him do whatever he wanted to me."


He was still gazing at Richard, his eyes oddly intent, his face watchful. "You asked me if he ever touched me, sexually." His voice was suddenly low and intense, losing the conversational, careless tone he'd been using up until now. "If he'd wanted to fuck me, I'd have let him."

Richard couldn't help the noise he made, an animal sound of horror low in the back of his throat. "Alex," he said again, choked.

"What?" Alex challenged, raising one eyebrow. "Was that too far?"

Richard turned his face away for a moment, taking a deep breath. "Christ," he said quietly. "Christ."

"What?" Alex asked again. "Are you surprised? I let him do everything else to me. I let him whip me and kick me and use me like a punching bag. I let him send me out to torture good people, and I went back to him every time."


"What do you want me to say?" Richard asked, knowing that he was missing some kind of cue Alex was trying to make him pick up – but most of his mind was taken up with trying to process the damage Alex had taken, the injuries he'd received while he'd been forced into a desperate balancing act between the demands of a vicious sadist and his own conscience. And he'd been made to feel responsible for keeping four other kids alive at the same time. If the physical trauma he'd suffered was bad, the mental trauma was equally damaging, Richard was perfectly well aware of that. And Alex wanted something from him, was trying to get something from him, but Richard didn't know what and he was still trying to process what he was being shown. It was frustrating, knowing that he was missing something that could be so important, but he didn't know what to do.

It could just be more of Alex trying to push them all away – it certainly looked like that on the surface. But there was something about the way Alex had described everything in such vivid, painful detail that didn't seem to tally, and he couldn't put his finger on what it was.

Alex stared at him in silence for a long, suspended moment, then shook his head. There was something bitter and defeated in his eyes, and Richard ached with the urge to remove it, to make things better somehow, but he didn't know what Alex wanted from him.

It was hard enough to bite back his instinctive reaction, to force fury down so he wouldn't be yet another angry adult Alex had to deal with. The idea that someone had dared to hurt him so badly – had actually believed that they could inflict that kind of damage on him and seriously think they would be allowed to get away with it – that someone would think that no one would care enough to do anything…

Well, if Richard gave into his anger now, he might never stop. And he didn't want to be angry; what he wanted was to be able to give Alex some straightforward comfort, to promise that it was over and that it would never happen again. Richard couldn't promise to protect Alex from anyone who might try and hurt him – the people who might try that would be able to overpower him in a minute – but he could promise to throw every resource he had, every favour he'd ever been owed, into making sure no one was given so much as the chance to get near enough.

Maybe – just maybe – that might be what Alex needed to hear. "It's over," he said, keeping his voice level and calm with an effort. "None of us will let you be hurt like that again. I promise you."

Alex laughed, a short, staccato sound that died fast. "You can't promise that, doctor," he said, turning away again to pick up a T-shirt. The marks on his back looked raised and sore under the harsh electric light.

"Maybe not," Richard agreed. Calm, calm, it was important to be calm. "But it's not just me. There's a lot of us committed to seeing you safe."

What had changed since yesterday? There'd been a couple of times he'd miss-stepped and said or done the wrong thing, but he'd been making progress, he was sure of that. And this morning, Alex had retreated into this – half-aggressive, half-detached and entirely unreachable. He wanted something, and Richard didn't know what. He had a feeling that if he could only work out what it was, he'd have found the key to whatever problems Alex was having with them, but there were so many ways he could take this sudden attack, and he didn't know which response was the right one.

"It takes a village, huh?" Alex said, with deceptive lightness.

"Don't put that on," Richard said, rather sharper than he'd meant to, when Alex went to pull the T-shirt on over his head. "Your back needs new dressings. I don't– you don't want it to get infected."

"What does it matter?" Alex asked. The question had none of the taunting edge he'd had when he'd demanded the same thing of Richard yesterday – the fight had gone out of him, leaving him looking abruptly weary and diminished. "They'll probably be fine."

"You matter to me, Alex," Richard said, wondering whether it was the right thing. "Very much. I don't want your recovery set back, and you look like you could use something for the pain, too. Did you sleep?"

Normal, he told himself, keep things normal. He mustn't lose his mind in front of Alex, or he'd scare him off for good. He'd have to save that until he was safely alone in his office, and he couldn't retreat there too quickly without letting Alex think he'd succeeded in pushing him away.

Alex shrugged, and hissed a little through his teeth when the movement pulled at something. "On and off," he said, still in that detached, dull voice. "I should have asked for another painkiller."

"I'll ask Dr Garland about it," Richard said, nodding and trying to push the unsettling echoes of Alex's earlier monologue to the back of his mind. "If I go and find her, will you be alright on your own for a little while?"

Alex shrugged again, this time without any indication of pain. Maybe he'd braced himself against it. "Whatever you like," he said, without interest.

"I'll be back shortly," Richard said, making sure his voice sounded strong and steady.

He made it all the way to his office before his hands began to shake.

For a minute or two, he sat behind his desk, staring absently at the opposite wall and trying to pick through exactly what had just happened. What had Alex been trying to show him? Had it just been about showing Richard what had been done to him, a kind of threat about what happened when Alex caught some bastard's interest? Or had it been a request for comfort? That seemed unlikely, since Alex had been quick to push away the reassurance that it was over and would not be happening again. But maybe that wasn't the kind of comfort Alex had wanted. What else might he have been after?

Idly, he picked up his mobile, staring down at it. Then he steeled himself, and put the call through.

"Hello?" Gilda said, puzzled. "Richard? Is everything OK?"

"Gilda," he said, relieved just by the sound of her voice.

"What's wrong?" she said instantly. "Is it Alex? Is he OK? Are you OK?"

"I'm fine," he said, and tried to find the right word to describe how Alex was doing this morning. 'Fine' certainly would not cover it. "Alex is – in no danger."

"What happened?" Gilda asked immediately. "You sound awful. What's wrong?" Before he could answer that, she had already moved on. "I'm going to tell them I've got to leave work," she said, and he could hear the sound of her packing up her things to leave her office. "I haven't got anything today that can't be moved. Family emergency. They know what's going on, more or less. Richard. What happened?"

"Alex was waiting for me this morning," Richard said, his voice sounding hollow even to his own ears. "When I got in. He'd taken his shirt off, and some of the dressings on his back. And he was telling me about what happened to him – how he was injured."

He could hear the frown in Gilda's voice when she replied. "That could be a good thing," she said doubtfully. "But clearly it wasn't?"

"It wasn't meant to be, no," Richard agreed. "He wanted something from me, he was trying to get a rise out of me, but I just don't know why."


"Can you tell me what he said?" Gilda asked carefully.

Richard didn't think he'd ever be able to forget it. "Yeah," he said, and had to clear his throat. "Yeah, he said- he asked me how many times he'd been whipped. He said- God, Gilda, they beat him with a rubber hose." Gilda made a tiny, distressed noise in the back of her throat, and Richard shut his eyes. "He said he thought he was screaming, but that was before he worked out Morozov preferred him to keep quiet, so after that he tried not to make a sound when Morozov hurt him. And then- then he said that I'd asked him if Morozov had ever assaulted him, and that he hadn't, but if he'd wanted to Alex would have let him, just so the bastard didn't go after one of the others."


The silence on the other end of the line went on for so long Richard was beginning to wonder whether the connection had died, and then Gilda sighed. "He is just impressively fucked up, isn't he?" she said finally. "Not surprising, but still. Poor love. And you think he was trying to get a rise out of you?"

"I can't see what else he could have been after, but I can't see why he would have been after that," Richard said miserably. "I feel like if I could only work out what he wanted, we might be OK, but I don't know what it is."

"Mmm," Gilda agreed, and Richard could almost see the thoughtful frown on her face. "Let's think about this. If he wants something badly enough to do all that, to lay it all out for you like that, it must be something important."

"He wasn't being vulnerable," Richard said. "Far from it."

"Richard, I love you, but you're an idiot," Gilda said crisply. "Of course he was being vulnerable. I'm not saying he didn't go on the attack, but he was still telling you this stuff, wasn't he? That's important. What is it he wants from us?" she considered that for a second or two, then corrected herself. "No, what is it he wants from you? I might be part of this too, but we don't know that for sure, so at the moment it's about you."

Richard thought about it and came up as blank as before. "I tried to reassure him," he offered. "But that didn't work."

"No," she agreed thoughtfully. "Let's start at the beginning. What might Alex feel he's been missing, that he wants from us?"

"You're assuming it's a positive," Richard objected. "It might not be. It might be, what are we doing that Alex wants us to stop doing?"

"That's possible," Gilda conceded, "but I don't think so. If he had a serious problem he wanted to raise, it doesn't seem like that's the way he'd bring it up – with the way he's been acting towards you in particular, he'd be using it as a weapon to push us away. This feels more like asking for something he doesn't want to have to ask for."

For a second or so, they both considered that in silence. "What is it that he wants from us that he can't ask for?" Richard said slowly. "It's not reassurance – or at least, it's not the reassurance that I gave him, that he was safe."

"Hmm. So not safety, then. It's something he thinks he can't ask for," Gilda said, puzzling it through. "So it has to be spontaneous? Or it's something he doesn't feel comfortable asking for? Love, maybe? He wants to know that we want him?" She paused. "What's he been doing?" she said, more to herself than to him. "We know he's been mistreated and exploited, and he's coped amazingly well with it. He's a clever kid." Richard knew better than to interrupt her seemingly random observations. It was one of the ways she worked – running through the information available until she could begin to get a handle on the problem she was facing. And normally it worked, so the best thing he could do was keep quiet. "I was thinking about it the other day, actually," she said meditatively. "When I came in to see him. I didn't know whether or not he was asleep, and I was thinking how good he must be at manipulating other people into seeing exactly what he wanted them to see. He's had to out-think people to stay alive…"

She trailed off. Then, from the other end of the phone line, Richard heard the thump of her bringing her hand down on her desk. "Oh my god, we are both idiots," she said, with sudden energy.

"What?" he said immediately.

"Alex! What has he been trained to do, while working for those bastards?"

"Not pay any attention to his own needs?" Richard said, totally lost.

"Yes, yes, I don't mean that kind of training. I mean literally trained to do. Read people! Getting a read on someone, knowing how their minds work, how they tick, so he knows what they might do next."

"OK?" he agreed, not sure where Gilda was going with this.

"And what have we been doing? We've been careful and professional and kept our feelings out of the equation in case we scared him off. He can't get a read on us, it must be scaring him out of his mind. It's not even necessarily love or affection – he just wants to know we're feeling something. Something positive is a bonus, I guess, but I think he just wants to be able to get a handle on us."

The revelation slotted perfectly into place into his mind, and Richard sat back in his chair, feeling himself relax as he began to understand the problem. "Oh. Oh."

"And it all ties in!" Gilda said, clearly excited and as relieved as he was to have a reasonable working theory as to what the hell was going on in Alex's head. "Back to his uncle, if we're right about him, emotionally distant and unavailable, Alex having to provide his own emotional reassurance if he was going to get any at all. He wants to know what sort of emotional model we're working on, and he can't do that while we're being careful not to smother him with how we're feeling."

"Yeah, but Gil," Richard said, relief receding a little. "Being emotionally open with him… I mean, that's fine as far as it goes, but when he was- when I saw what they'd done to him, I was… furious. I mean, livid. I'd like to- if I were in the same room as Morozov…" he trailed off, trusting that she would understand.

"Maybe that's what he wanted," Gilda said, with an audible shrug. "You said he was trying to rile you up. Maybe he wanted you to be angry."

Richard considered that for a lightning second, then sighed, feeling like he might actually understand for the first time. "Of course," he agreed. "Someone to be angry for him. And," he added, inspiration striking, "a negative emotion might be easier for him to trust than a positive one."

"Mm. We could be faking the positive, but why would we bother faking a negative?" Gilda agreed.

"Oh god, I really am an idiot," Richard groaned. "I made myself stay so calm."

"You didn't know what was going on," Gilda said, absolving him. "Staying calm was the best thing you could have done."

"Right," Richard agreed. "Even if it was actually the worst possible choice. So what do we do now?"

Gilda's voice was crisply straightforward. "Well, I'm going to go and tell Jen I need to leave," she said. "You should go and talk to our boy. I'll be with you in- say forty-five minutes or so. But don't leave him wondering. The last thing he needs is more stress right now."

And there it is! Let me know what you think about the rating issue if you have a moment.

I know it probably doesn't feel like it, but we are almost entirely out of the hurt and into the full-on comfort, and guys it's so mushy I am physically ashamed of myself but I'm having a great time so I hardly care. I can absolutely guarantee the mushiest of comfort next chapter - I've already written it and I'm torn between wild self-indulgent glee and deep, deep shame. So, uh, all that to look forward to?

A huge thank you once again to all of you who have read and particularly those of you who have reviewed - it means so much to me. Thank you so much for your kind encouragement, and particularly for your patience.

ami xxx