we've all had an absolute TIME of it this last year and just when you thought you might be SAFE I am BACK to RUIN EVERYONE'S DAY.

but in all seriousness, I hope everyone has stayed safe and healthy during an absolute nightmare of a year, and that all your loved ones have been safe and healthy too. It's been a strange, frightening and sometimes just plain odd year (there was a whole time where there was just... no soap? Anywhere? i spent a solid month making masks for everyone I have ever met? i tried to grow tomatoes on my windowsill and cried when they died? My experiences are not universal but we've all got our stories), and I just hope everyone's been able to look after themselves and stay safe and relatively sane.

However, no matter what's going on in the real world, in this odd little fictional one things are looking good for finishing! I have said 'this year' too many times now so I'm going to downgrade myself to 'this decade, probably' and hope I can surprise even myself. In the meantime, though, the one, the only

DISCLAIMER!: still tragically unencumbered by copyright

And now, enjoy?

Alex ate dinner with the other kids for the first time that evening, and was surprised by how easy it was, now that he was a little more settled in his own mind about what was going on and what his future was actually going to hold. The sense of a terrible wave waiting to break over him was gone, and he could relax, at least a little, and enjoy their company for a change.

There was no longer anything he had to protect them from. There was no longer any danger that he would have to go back to Brooklands with them and have to pretend that everything was normal while they all pretended they'd never spent that tense, awful time together, while their classmates bugged them incessantly about what had really happened. There was no longer even anything he really had to hide from them. For the first time in months, it was actually alright to relax around his peers.

Unsurprisingly, given that they'd had weeks to get used to him while he was in mission-focus, they noticed the change in him almost immediately.

"So what's changed?" Joe asked, with his typical lack of tact.

"Hm?" Alex said, not really paying attention. He and Charlotte had been involved in a surprisingly in-depth conversation about their history homework, and he'd been considering Hanley in the back of his mind, and for once he hadn't been paying close attention to everything else that was going on around him.

"You're not acting all squirrelly," Will said bluntly. "What's changed?"

"I talked to my guardian," Alex said, not untruthfully. "We had to work out what was going to happen next."

"That doctor said they weren't going to let MI6 ruin your life anymore," Tom said quietly. "Is that true?"

Alex shrugged, giving him a quick look. "It's true," he said, a little shortly.

"How did it even start?" Will asked. "I never really thought about it before, but like. How did you even get mixed up in it in the first place? How'd they even find you?"

Alex sighed a little, meeting Tom's eyes and holding his gaze. "I don't want to go into it right now," he said carefully, putting down his knife and fork. He'd only eaten about half of their evening meal – the mess hall food here was no more appealing than it had been during their stay a few weeks back. Idly, he wondered whether or not the Mannings were good cooks. What would meals be like when he was living with them?

For once, the thought that he didn't know and would just have to wait and find out was exciting rather than unnerving.

"But look," he began, "there's – there's a thing that's going to happen soon. In the next couple of days, anyway, I don't know exactly when. I, er. I have to give testimony."

"Give testimony?" Charlotte said, frowning. "Like in court?"

"Kind of," Alex said vaguely. He was pretty sure there wasn't actually going to be any kind of court case for Alan Blunt's trial. Had someone told him that, or had he worked it out for himself? He couldn't remember anymore. "You don't have to if you don't want to, but if you're up for it, I, um. Well, I kind of want you to be there. All of you."

There was a long silence.

"Why?" Charlotte asked finally.

Alex wasn't entirely sure why himself, but he knew he wanted them there all the same. "I don't know," he said honestly. How had he never realised before how freeing it was to be able to be straightforwardly honest? He hadn't even realised how much and how consistently he'd been lying to everyone around him until he didn't have to anymore. "I guess – I guess I want you to know what was happening to me. And you had to go through that whole thing with Andrei too. You should at least kind of know why, I think."

"You really want us there?" Tom asked quietly.

Alex nodded. "I do," he said. "But it's not going to be – it's going to be pretty gruesome. I've done some fucked up stuff. You don't have to be there if you don't want to be." He considered it for a second. "I've been shot," he said finally. "In the heart. Someone tried to kill me. And that's one of the easier bits."

"If you really don't mind, I want to be there," Tom said, with fierce conviction. "To support you, or whatever."

"I just want to know what the hell was going on," Will said honestly. Charlotte gave him a look, and he held up his hands. "What? I'm not saying he has to spill his life story to us or anything! That's private, I get that! But he offered and I want to know. I wouldn't have brought it up if he hadn't!"

Charlotte sighed herself, but nodded. "Tom's right," she said simply. "If you don't mind, I want to be there."

"Is that what that scar on your chest is?" Joe asked quietly.

"What?" Alex said, taken aback.

"Where you got shot?" Joe said.

"Oh. Yes. It was," Alex counted back, then gave up, "a couple of months ago now. I guess I didn't – I didn't realise you'd all seen it." Which was stupid – he'd spent months now trying to make sure no one saw that scar, but of course the others had seen it when – well, several times now, actually, thinking about it.

He'd had other things on his mind at the time, and no one had brought it up, so he hadn't thought to mention it either.

"So is this part of getting you away from MI6?" Tom asked.

Alex met his eyes and nodded. "Yeah," he said softly. "Yeah, it is." He pushed his plate away. "Come for a walk with me?" he said, carefully ignoring the others. They'd probably understand that he wanted some time alone to talk to Tom, and if they didn't, he didn't care. He owed Tom in a way he didn't owe them.

"Sure," Tom said readily enough, though his expression was rather wary as he followed Alex out.

They'd only just made it to the main corridor leading out of the infirmary when they ran into Richard on his way home.

"Alex," he said warmly. "Tom. Everything alright?"

Alex couldn't quite meet his eyes, suddenly ridiculously shy in front of Tom. "Yeah," he said, as easily as he could. "We were just going to go for a walk."

Richard shook his head. "Don't go far," he warned them seriously. "It's not a good idea for you to be wandering about this place too much."

"But Andrei's gone, right?" Tom said, suddenly nervous. "He's not going to try and grab us or anything, is he?"

"No," Richard said, instantly reassuring, giving Tom a gentle smile. "You're perfectly safe here, but Alex was badly hurt, and we want to keep an eye on all of you. Stay near the infirmary, please, and don't stay out too long."

"We won't," Alex promised. "Are- you're going home?"

"I am," Richard nodded, and flicked a glance at Tom. "I was just coming to let you know, so you've saved me a trip. I'll see you tomorrow." It was a promise that conveyed more to Alex than it did to Tom, and he was grateful that Richard was sharp enough not to say anything that might make the conversation he needed to have with Tom more awkward and difficult than it was already going to be.

It had been hard, talking to Jack – the whole situation with Jack had been hard. For years, they'd been a unit, and now they were being broken apart in a way that neither of them could ever have foreseen. But Jack had known beforehand; she was the one who'd had to break it to Alex, not the other way around. And his relationship with Tom was very different. In their own ways, they'd both sacrificed things for Alex. His head was a jumble of all the ways he owed them and all the ways he could never pay them back.

And now he was leaving them, and he wouldn't have the chance to pay them back properly. Not in the immediate future, anyway.

"Yeah," Alex agreed. "Tomorrow."

Richard's parting look was warm and fond, and he laid a hand very lightly on Alex's shoulder as he passed.

But when he'd gone, Tom was watching him, an odd look on his face. "He really likes you," he said, but his voice was oddly wary.

Alex tried not to look too pleased, but something in him warmed helplessly at the thought that other people could see that Richard loved him, that he wasn't just the orphan with someone paid to take care of him anymore. Jack had always been more than that, of course, but that wasn't how other people saw it. "Yeah," he said quietly. "Yeah, he does."

"Are you OK?" Tom asked, suddenly speaking very fast. "Is he – has he hurt you? Do you need me to talk to someone?"

"What?" Alex said, honestly stunned. "Tom, I- what?"

"If he's – you know, if he's doing anything-"

"Oh my god, no!" Alex said, horrified. "Tom, seriously!"

"What?!" Tom said defensively. "He's weird with you, it's like- I don't know, it's not like he's just your doctor, it's more than that, and if he's hurt you-"

"I'm going to live with him!" Alex blurted out, and Tom went silent, the colour draining from him.

"What?" he said quietly, and Alex grabbed his elbow, propelling him towards the exit.

When they were finally outside, Alex dragged them over to the side, at the top of the steps up to the big double door and sat them both down. The night air was cold and rather damp, and he was grateful for it – the infirmary was kept pleasantly warm, but suddenly he felt hot and awkward.

"I'm not coming back to London," he said. He hadn't meant to let it slip like that – he'd wanted to try to be more tactful and not hurt Tom. "I'm staying here. The Mannings – Richard and his wife, Gilda, they're going to look after me."

"What about Jack?" Tom asked, frowning.

Alex looked down at his hands. "It's not safe," he said softly. "For me to live with her. It's – I didn't really get all of it, honestly." He'd been too busy feeling hurt and betrayed and left behind to really understand what Smithers had been saying at the time. "Apparently Ian actually made her my guardian but it would be easy to overturn it, for me to disappear-"

"Sounds to me like they're making it even easier for you to disappear now," Tom snapped. "Sounds to me like this is all part of disappearing you. Taking you away from all your friends and the people who love you?"

"Tom, no," Alex said, appalled. "No, they're not – it's not like that. They like me."

"We like you!" Tom cried. "After everything we've been through, after all of this, you can't just- you can't just leave us, I can't – if you're not there, how am I going to know you're OK?"

Alex still wasn't all that keen on being touched, but there were definitely people he'd make exceptions for, and Tom was always one of them. Awkwardly, he put an arm round Tom's shoulders and squeezed tight for a moment before letting him go. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "I'm not going to disappear, OK? We'll talk all the time, I promise, and there's FaceTime and stuff too – and it's not like we'll never see each other. They're – the guy at MI6, Alan Blunt, the one who – well, the one who first got me into all this, he's been… sacked? I guess?" That was a kind way to explain what had actually happened and what was going to happen to Alan Blunt, but it was the most Tom needed to worry about. "I'm not going back to them, ever."

"Yeah, they say that now," Tom said unhappily. "But you've been here before and they prepared you for all that shit, and now you're going to be living with someone who works for them."

"The SAS came and got us," Alex tried, but he already knew what Tom was going to say.

"Yeah, cos someone ordered them to!" Tom snapped.

"Not exactly true," someone said out of the darkness, and Alex shot to his feet, ready to fight before Eagle stepped into the light of the infirmary porch.

"Eagle," he said, sinking back down onto the steps. "Fuck, you almost gave me a heart attack."

"Sorry," Eagle said, manifestly not sorry. "Couldn't help overhearing."

Couldn't help overhearing and then deliberately stopped to listen, more like, Alex thought, but let the lie stand. Eagle was looking at Tom, head very slightly cocked to one side.

"We did have orders to retrieve you," he said, apparently weighing his words with some care. "And I didn't really understand the whole thing, Fox is the one you want to talk to about that, but it was part of some big plan to take down the intelligence heads who fucked things up for Cub. I'm pretty sure too much work's gone into getting him clear of it to drag him back now."

"Yeah, of course they'd say that," Tom pointed out bitterly. At least he wasn't accusing Eagle of being part of it – yet. "But what if they just want to make sure his whole thing's a real secret again? They could do anything to him and now no one would even know!"

Eagle sat himself down a few feet from them, one leg hiked up on the top step, the other stretched out in front of him, and met Tom's eyes seriously. "You trust me, kid?" he asked.

"Uh, no," Tom said flatly. "Of course I don't." He paused for a moment, then added grudgingly, "but I guess you're not as shitty as the rest of them." He glanced briefly at Alex. "You haven't been as awful to him as everyone else, I suppose."

Eagle grinned. "Yeah, Cub's a good kid," he agreed easily, and Alex went hot again, instantly horribly embarrassed but ridiculously pleased by the compliment. "How about this? I'll make you a deal. If anyone tries to disappear him again or make him do anything he doesn't want to, I'll shoot first and ask questions later. How's that?"

"Are you offering to commit murder?" Alex asked, eyebrows raised. "Don't you know anything about plausible deniability?"

"Never heard of it," Eagle said cheerfully, without missing a beat.

Tom's face was still set and tense. "I still don't know if I can trust you," he said unhappily.

"That's fair," Eagle said. "Look, Cub's happy about it – he trusts the doctor and his guardian and all the rest of 'em. He's a pretty good judge of character-"

"He's been fucked up," Tom said fiercely, and Alex laid a hand on his arm for a second.

"Tom, you don't have to protect me," he tried, but Tom turned on him.

"Yes I do," he snapped. "You've protected me, why can't I protect you? You want someone to love you so badly, fine, I get it, but you've already got us!"

"The person you need to talk to is Dr Manning," Eagle said lazily. "And Cub's guardian, whatever her name is. They'll set you straight. Cub can't do it for you."

Tom deflated. "And he shouldn't have to, I know," he said miserably. "Sorry, Alex."

"It's fine," Alex said, though it wasn't exactly. It wasn't as though Tom wasn't saying things he hadn't already thought himself, one way or another. He wanted to live with the Mannings – as strange as it was to be able to admit that to himself without having to remind himself that it was a stupid, self-indulgent pipedream – but he'd had his own worries and concerns.

It was odd to hear Tom bringing up worries Alex hadn't even considered, but then Tom hadn't been present for most of the development of Alex's relationship with Richard, and Alex couldn't remember if Tom even knew he'd met Gilda. Normally Alex would have been the first to mistrust someone, but he didn't mistrust the Mannings, and he didn't know how to explain that to Tom in a way that wouldn't sound insane or desperate.

And it was odd, too, to realise how badly Alex's work for MI6 had affected Tom. He'd known it would, and he'd tried to minimise it as much as possible, but it was strange to see the effects of it now, as it was ending. Tom wasn't good at trusting people either – Alex was pretty sure Tom only really trusted his brother and Alex himself, and it hurt to think that knowing about Alex's experiences had made things even worse for Tom. He hated the thought that he'd be leaving Tom behind, with his useless parents and no immediate support.

In many ways, Jack and Tom were the only things he'd really miss about his life in London.

"I'm not going to disappear, T," he said again. "I promise. We won't be able to hang out like normal, but I'm always gonna be there for you, OK?"

"I'm going to really miss you," Tom said in a small voice. "But – but you think this is a good thing? You're happy about it?"

"I'm not happy to be leaving you and Jack," Alex said seriously, because there was no world in which he'd ever be happy about that. "But yeah. I am. Richard- Dr Manning, he's a good guy, and his wife's awesome. I think- they really like me."

"Course they do," Tom said firmly. "Who wouldn't? I'm really happy for you, Alex. I'm just also – sad for me, I guess? I don't know. If it gets you away from all the shit those bastards put you through, then I'm all for it, really."

Alex knocked his shoulder against Tom's companionably, and gave Eagle a meaningful look. Eagle grinned back at him and levered himself to his feet.

"Don't stay out here too long, kids, you'll catch your death," he said cheerfully. "I'm heading in. You gonna be OK?"

"We're fine," Alex told him firmly, and couldn't quite help smiling when Eagle gave them a lazy salute and ambled off into the infirmary.

"You're really doing better, huh?" Tom said, watching him closely.

Alex looked back at him, and let the smile stay just a little longer. "Yeah, I think I am. They really want me."

Of everyone, Tom was the one who'd understand that the best, but it still didn't feel all that great to see the sadness in his friend's expression. "That's good," he said, rather lamely.

"What about you?" Alex asked carefully. In all the drama he'd been caught up in, he hadn't had the time or the emotional energy to consider what was going on with the others, but he was pretty sure he remembered something about therapy sessions being arranged for them and their parents coming up to Wales to collect them. "Are your parents coming to get you?"

Tom shrugged, visibly uncomfortable. "Yeah, I mean. I think so? They said all the right things, but then they started fighting about it and I, um, hung up on them."

"Has anyone told Jerry?" Alex asked.

Tom huffed. "You think I called Mum and Dad first?" he retorted. "Jerry's the first person I rang. I'm pretty sure he noticed I was missing before Mum and Dad did."

"I'll always be there if you need me," Alex said firmly, responding more to the tense unhappiness in Tom's voice than the words. In their very different ways, they'd both been a lifeline for each other over the last few years, and it didn't feel that good to know that he'd been rescued while Tom was still being left to flounder.

Maybe, he thought with a sudden feeling of relief, he should talk to Richard or Gilda about it. They might know a better way to help, or at least they'd be able to tell him if he was doing things right.

The thought was so revolutionary, that he could actually take a problem to an adult and expect their help, he almost missed what Tom was saying.

"-think therapy's going to be a good thing, though," Tom said thoughtfully. "I'm not trying to make you feel bad or anything, but this whole thing's really messed with my head."

"You and me both," Alex said wryly.

"I know," Tom agreed. "But watching you go through all that – it was awful. Really awful. And sometimes it was like you weren't even you, like you'd become a totally different person, and it was kind of worse that I still recognised you."

Alex frowned. "What do you mean?"

Tom frowned back, thinking it through. "I dunno, really. You were still you, and I wasn't – it didn't freak me out or anything, but you were – it was like just after Ian died, you just kind of shut down on us. I know that's how you get when you've got stuff to deal with, and I hated seeing it because of that dick Andrei."

"Sorry," Alex said, a little uncomfortable. He'd never really had to consider how his mission-focus appeared from the outside. Gilda called it rebooting in safe mode; he'd always thought of it as shutting down anything non-essential. Anything that could be put on hold had to be. That was one of the difficulties of their time with Andrei – Alex hadn't been alone, and there'd been too many essentials he couldn't block out. If he'd seemed shut down and distant to Tom, it was because he'd had no space for emotions, particularly when he knew they were all going to be so awful.

"Nah, it's how you deal with stuff. And I'm grateful, you know that, right? All the stuff you went through, I hated all that, but you got us out of there. You kept us safe. You shouldn't have had to, but you did." Tom leant against him, a line of warmth in the cold night air. "Thanks, Alex. You saved my life."

"I had to," Alex tried to explain, his voice coming out rather thick. "I mean, all of you, obviously, but you in particular. You know that."

"Yeah," Tom agreed quietly. "Yeah. I'm sorry I freaked out on you. I'm gonna miss you, but I'm happy for you. I'm really happy for you."

As seemed to be the way with MI6, when things actually started happening, they happened fast. Alex wasn't entirely sure of the train of events – Richard had said he'd deal with it, and for once Alex was content to trust someone else with these things – but from what he'd gathered, Richard had told Roslyn, who'd phoned Smithers, and Smithers had, unsurprisingly, got everything sorted in short order. The world didn't quite dance to Smithers' tune, but he could certainly make it jump when he wanted to.

Alex had known this was going to be a formal deposition, though not precisely a legal one. But he was still grateful when Roslyn came to see him, Richard in tow, to discuss exactly what was going to happen. He felt more relaxed, freer, than he had in months, and he was willing to trust Richard and Gilda with a great deal, but he didn't like surprises. It was normal, surely, to prefer knowing what was going to happen, and while Alex was good at waiting and seeing what a situation might have in store for him, he found it particularly stressful after months working for MI6. With them, what a situation held was almost always awful.

"Alex," Roslyn said, surprising him. He'd had very little to do with the Colonel, barring a couple of short meetings, and he hadn't imagined he'd have made much of an impression on the man – not enough that he'd choose to use Alex's first name. Roslyn seemed like someone who preferred formality over friendliness, even with teenagers.

"Sir," Alex said carefully. "Thank you for seeing me?"

"It's no problem," Roslyn told him. "You'll be doing all of us a favour if you can help give Alan Blunt the push."

Alex eyed him, uncertain. "Did you know him, then?" he asked finally.

"We met," Roslyn said, brief and to the point. "I can't say I warmed to him."

"I don't think anyone did," Alex pointed out. "He wasn't the sort of man who inspired – warmth."

"No, I don't imagine he was. And he treated you particularly badly." Roslyn hesitated for a moment. "I understand you've talked to Richard about coming to live with him?"

"Yes," Alex said, darting a quick look at Richard and away again. "Is there a problem with that?"

"Of course not," Roslyn said, calm but a little awkward. "Though there is one detail we'd like to go over with you."


"The thing is," Richard said, much less awkward than Roslyn, "half the reason for doing this is so you'll be protected from anyone who might try and fold you back into espionage."

"I know?" Alex said, confused. "I thought that was the whole point, actually."

"Smithers thinks – and we agree – that it would be sensible to employ a split guardianship model, for the first couple of years at least." Richard held up a hand before Alex could protest or give voice to any of the suddenly-rising fear he could feel in his gut. "Not in terms of custody, that's all sorted," he said soothingly. "You'll be staying with us permanently, but the idea is for Arthur – that's Colonel Roslyn here – to hold your ilegal/i guardianship, just until we're sure things have settled down."

Alex hesitated for a moment. So long as he wasn't going to have to ilive/I with the Colonel, a man he barely knew and who seemed awkward around him at best, he wasn't entirely sure why he should worry if the man had a nominal say in his life. Then again, he wasn't entirely sure he really understood why it was necessary. "Oh," he said finally. "Um. Why?"

"Some opportunist might look at Richard – Dr Manning – and think it would be easy to deal with him," Roslyn explained, now looking supremely uncomfortable. "But, without wishing to appear arrogant, I'm a very different matter. If anything happened to either Dr Manning, your guardianship would revert entirely to me, and the SAS would take notice if anyone tried anything with ime/i." He coughed, uncomfortably. "We'd take notice if anything happened to Dr Manning, of course," he said, awkwardly reassuring. "This is just belt-and-braces. It won't be forever. Once things are calm again, we can transfer legal guardianship back over to the Drs Manning."

"I see," Alex said, though he wasn't sure he did and the idea of anyone trying to hurt Richard or Gilda – particularly because of him – made him feel sick.

"We're really not expecting anything," Richard said, correctly interpreting the look on his face. "It would just be an added layer of security for the first couple of years."

"Until I'm too old to be of much interest anyway," Alex agreed. "You're…" he trailed off, then began again with renewed determination. "You're sure you're not going to be in any danger?"

"No more than I already was, working here," Richard said easily. "And we'll have a great deal more protection now."

"I suppose that's true," Alex said absently.

He was willing to trust the Mannings. He was finally willing to believe that they knew what they were doing and were doing it with their eyes open, and they were adult who understood the potential consequences of their actions.

But while a great deal had changed for Alex over the last day or so, he wasn't suddenly completely free from all the shit MI6 had put him through. No magic switch had been flipped in his head – he was still viscerally unwilling to trust strangers, still intensely concerned about others' motives and desires. He couldn't turn off the part of himself that was always running the numbers, always thinking through what might happen and how to counteract or survive it. But he was willing to trust the Mannings. He was willing to let them prove themselves, willing to believe that they wanted to prove themselves, that they wanted him. That they wanted to do the right things for him. And if he was willing to trust them, he had to show that.

So if Richard thought this was a good idea – and presumably Gilda too, since this wasn't the kind of decision Richard would make unilaterally – then Alex would trust him.

"OK," he said finally. "If that's what you think's best."

Richard blinked, apparently not expecting that, but he smiled a beat later. "Thank you," he said gently, and Alex looked away, hoping he didn't look as embarrassed as he felt.

"So what will it actually mean?" he asked, keen to move the conversation on. "You being my legal guardian?"

"Mainly just that I have to approve things with Richard and Gilda, as your custodial guardians. If there are any major medical decisions, I'll have to approve them as well, and we'll make sure the things your uncle left you are being looked after properly."

"That sounds like a lot of work," Alex said cautiously. "Are you sure you want to bother with it? You must be busy." Running an SAS training camp was hardly a sinecure, after all.

"It's not more than I'm willing to take on," Roslyn said calmly. "And it won't be forever. We'll be consulting you about these things anyway – you're not an adult, certainly, but you're not a little child either. You more than have a right to have a say in your own life. So I won't be making major decisions by myself, and even if I wanted to, I'd have to get Richard and Gilda's approval for them, so you don't have to worry that I'll be able to take advantage."

Alex nodded slowly. "Just an extra layer of protection?" he repeated, wanting to be sure.

Richard nodded. "Just to make sure you're as safe as we can make you," he agreed. "Interfering with Arthur means interfering with the SAS as a whole, and no one but an idiot would to try that."

"But they might think they could with you, yeah," Alex agreed. "You said. So… you're worried I'll say no?"

"No," Richard said, "we just don't want you to feel completely blindsided later. Or lie to you by omission. You deserve better than that."

"And if I idid/i say no?"

"Then we'd find another option," Roslyn said instantly, even before Richard could speak. "You don't know me and I hardly know you. It wouldn't be unnatural for you to be reluctant."

"Yeah, I mean, I guess that's a bit weird," Alex agreed. "I don't know you and you're going to be my guardian. But I guess it's no weirder than going to foster parents, right? They wouldn't know me either."

"A good comparison," Roslyn nodded. "Though legal guardianship is a slightly more permanent relationship."

"But you said you'd be transferring it back in a bit," Alex shrugged. "So even that's not permanent. I guess… I guess I don't mind, not really. It's fine. But I wish I knew you better, if you're going to have a say in my life."

Richard and Roslyn exchanged glances, Richard's accompanied by something that was almost a smirk. "I thought you might say that," he nodded. "Arthur will come to dinner a couple of times a week, so he can get to know you. When he's free, of course."

"I don't work normal hours," Roslyn agreed. "It'll have to be as and when I'm available."

"That's a lot of work," Alex pointed out, noncommittal but a little concerned.

"Hardly," Roslyn said, looking uncomfortable. "Dinner a couple of times a week isn't a trial, and I agreed to take on the responsibility. I won't shirk it."

"I wasn't-"

"I know," Roslyn said hurriedly. "I didn't think you were. Let's just say, I appreciate your concern, but you don't need to worry. I knew what I was agreeing to when I agreed to it."

Alex nodded, a little mollified. "Alright. Well. Then I guess I should just say thank you?"

"You're welcome," Roslyn said stiffly, so uncomfortable he was almost rigid with it. "Now that that's sorted, shall we move on? Your testimony against Blunt."

Alex straightened, glancing at Richard, and nodded. "Yes. When will it be? And when are the other kids' parents coming to get them?"

"At the end of this week," Roslyn said. "We've had a job to hold them off this long, as you can probably imagine."

Roslyn really had taken on a hell of a headache with all of this – Alex just hoped MI6 were pulling their weight. If Smithers had anything to say about it, they would be, so Alex hoped Smithers had a lot to say.

"And my testimony?" he pressed.

"Two days' time," Roslyn said. "Charles Dacres will be coming to take it, with his assistant and whoever else he needs to set it up. Are you aware that it will be recorded?"

Alex hadn't been, but it didn't surprise him. "I didn't know for sure, but I assumed," he said, shrugging. "It's fine. At least that way I only have to give it once."

"Richard tells me you've got quite a crowd of people you want to hear it," Roslyn said, shooting a glance of his own at Richard.

Alex looked towards his new guardian, cocking his head to one side. "Yeah. Is that still OK?"

"it's his life, after all," Richard pointed out. "I'm sure this Mr Dacres will have something to say about it, but everyone who'll hear it already knows something – enough to be a problem, if they wanted to be. Why not let them hear the whole thing, since Alex wants it?"

Roslyn sighed. "I said as much to Dacres myself," he agreed. "But we'll have to wait and see what he says. Personally," he added, turning to Alex, "I'm not fussed either way. It's your story and it won't be my headache. Your guardians will be there, of course – do you want that to include Miss Starbright?"

Alex hesitated for a moment. Did he want it to include Jack? She'd always so hated hearing about it, or seeing what had happened to him – he'd heard her crying sometimes, when they were living together in London, and he'd known in a horrible, guilty way that it was his fault, that she was crying because of him, because of the stress of looking after him. Did he want her to have to hear all the details of it? Could he actually bear to go into the kind of detail they'd want to hear if he had to watch her reaction to all of it?

"If she wants to be there, I don't mind," he said finally, with some caution. "But if she doesn't, that's fine too." In a sudden burst of confidence, he added, "but if she does sit in on it, I don't want to be able to see her. She'll – it'll upset her, and I can't- if she's upset, I'll-" he broke off, frustrated with himself. "It'll be harder," he finished lamely.

Richard and Roslyn exchanged yet another glance, but in the end Roslyn just nodded. "That can be arranged. Richard, would you speak to Miss Starbright? It would look a bit formal coming from me."

"No problem," Richard said easily.

"Have you spoken to your – friends?" Roslyn asked, a tiny hitch over the word. "Do they know that you want them to be there, and what it entails?"

"I've spoken to them," Alex said slowly. "And given them an idea of what to expect, and I do want them there. But some parts of it are… pretty nasty. I'm not sure – I want them there. But I don't know if it's a good idea. For them, I mean."

"Normally I'd say that would be up to their guardians," Roslyn said, looking a little frazzled for the first time. "But we're only giving their guardians a very potted history of what's happened – enough to know how much help their children are going to need and not much more. So… Richard? This is more your line of work than mine."

"And more Gilda's than mine," Richard agreed. "I'll talk to her about it. She might be willing to come in and talk to the other children about what they're likely to hear. All the same…" he hesitated for a second, then sighed. "Part of me says if Alex is old enough to do it, they're old enough to hear about it, but the whole point is Alex isn't old enough to do it. But they are old enough to be trusted to know some of their own limits. They can always tap out if they want to, but they're probably old enough to listen to it and more or less make their own decisions. And if they want to listen… well, I think they probably deserve to know why they went through what they went through."

"I agree it might give them some kind of closure," Roslyn said, just a little dryly, "but I don't think I trust teenagers to know their own limits quite as much as you do."

"That's true," Richard agreed. "Maybe I'm too used to Alex." He gave Alex a quick smile, and Alex ducked his head. "Then the most sensible thing would probably be to ask Dacres to bring someone with him who can monitor the kids during Alex's testimony. They've been talking to therapists, haven't they? I'm sure Maeve said they'd started video sessions."

"Tom has," Alex offered. He'd been content to let Roslyn and Richard work this one out themselves – he'd been responsible for the others' well-being for a while now, and he'd kept them alive but he knew he hadn't done a great job looking after their mental health. He hadn't known how and certainly hadn't had the resources to try. This wasn't a decision he could make or even felt able to be part of. Other people would have to decide this, and the others would have to make their own choices; Alex might be in a better place than he had been even yesterday morning, but he was far too tired and wrung out to take on that kind of responsibility.

"Then the others probably have as well. I'll talk to Maeve, see if one of the therapists we've had cleared can be present. Or if MI6 would send one of their own, though I'm not sure I trust their psych teams."

Alex definitely didn't – they'd never done anything for him except take a cursory statement and declare him fit for duty again. But maybe those members of staff would go in Smithers and Dacres' cull.

"Couldn't Gilda do it?" Roslyn asked. "She's more than qualified, and she knows everything already."

"She's certainly qualified, but her attention'll be on Alex," Richard said firmly. "I don't think she'll be in much of a position to monitor the other kids."

"Of course," Roslyn said, while Alex tried not to flush with a very teenage mix of embarrassment and pleasure. That seemed to be happening a lot these days – people were suddenly so willing to say they cared about him. It was odd and a little unnerving, but as strange is it made him feel, in a guilty sort of way Alex didn't want it to stop. "Stupid of me. Well, I'll contact Smithers and see what he says." He turned back to Alex. "So are you prepared?" he asked. "Is there anything you need that we can help you with?"

Alex thought for a moment. "A pen and paper would be good," he said finally. "I remember what I've done," in vivid detail, a lot of it, "but it's not all just… there. In my head. Ready to come out in a neat statement. There's some stuff I can't remember clearly or I don't remember in order. I'd like to make some notes."

"Sensible," Roslyn commented. "And I think we can probably spare you some paper." Was that humour? If it was, the man was remarkably blank-faced. "Is that all?"

"I think so," Alex said. "I don't think anything's really going to help all that much." Richard put a hand on his shoulder, warmly reassuring, and Alex dredged up a smile for him. "It'll be fine," he said, with as much conviction as he could muster. "But it'll be really good to have it over and done with, and get on with my life."

The intervening day was taken up by the ludicrously overblown process of getting Tom and Alex to the field hospital at Cwyrt-y-gollen, surrounded by soldiers and in a convoy of armoured vehicles, so the two of them could be given MRI scans to check that there were no fractures to the bones in their hands where Andrei had caned them. On Richard's insistence, Alex was supposed to be given a full-body scan, to get an idea of what kind of physical damage he might have taken over the last eight months or so, so they could work out a recovery plan for him. Alex thought it was overkill, but Cwyrt-y-gollen was only a forty minutes away by car, and it wasn't the trek into Cardiff Richard had initially feared it might be. And Alex didn't mind having to spend four or five hours with Tom, even if they were surrounded at all times by grim-faced and very professional soldiers. Even Wasp didn't crack a smile until they were safely back in the Brecon infirmary.

Alex took the chance when he saw it and spent the rest of the day with Tom, holed up in his room and going over everything he remembered of his time under MI6. Tom had trouble remembering information for school, but he had a great memory for a story – though not generally for literature. He remembered a great deal of the account Alex had originally given him of his assignments, able to ask questions that reminded Alex either of things he'd forgotten or moments when he'd either misled or lied to Tom in his original account.

He'd done that a couple of times. He'd needed Tom's help and he'd trusted Tom's discretion, but he hadn't wanted to burden Tom with the worst parts. He still didn't.

And it would be a burden, he thought rather unhappily, because this wouldn't be the bare-bones tale he'd given Tom that first time. This was about taking Alan Blunt down. He'd need to mention all the ways his assignments had been awful, all the ways he'd been hurt, and Tom would hate it. Alex didn't know how he'd feel if he had to sit there and listen Tom recount horrors he'd been through, but he could imagine it.

Alex wasn't even sure he remembered all the ways he'd been hurt. He'd ended each assignment battered and bruised and sore, but he didn't always remember where every injury had come from – only the unusual or important ones. Still, he wasn't giving an itemised list of every bump and bruise; probably only the big ones mattered.

But the big ones were pretty bad, and he'd be devastated if they'd happened to Tom and he had to sit there and listen to them. He owed Tom a warning.

"It's not going to be fun," he said finally, capping his pen, and shoving the pad away from him. His messy handwriting covered nearly three double-sided pages, but he thought he was done now. If there was anything he'd forgotten, Blunt would just have to get away with it.

Tom looked up from the book he was reluctantly reading. "Yeah, I know," he said, confused. "Didn't think it would be."

"I mean, it's going to suck," Alex pressed, a little desperately. "I did awful stuff and I had awful stuff done to me."

Tom put the book down. "You didn't see yourself when you got back after Andrei whipped you," he said, making Alex blink at the non sequitur. "Your back was covered in blood, did you know that? I don't even know if you bled that much, but it was smeared all over your back, and it'd dried into, like, a crust, it was awful. And you were this sort of – pale grey, all over, except where you were covered in blood, and you were so cold it kind of hurt to touch you. You could hardly speak, and you sort of – drifted, for a while there. If we spoke to you, you responded and if you needed something you'd ask, but you weren't tracking anything else. It was like you weren't really there anymore. And when you went to sleep, I didn't know if you'd wake up the same, or- or wake up at all." Tom took a deep, shaky breath. "There's nothing I could hear that would be worse than seeing that," he said quietly. "There's nothing you can say that'd be worse than what we already went through."

"I've done stuff way worse than that," Alex pointed out. "I've had worse stuff than that done to me."

"Sure," Tom agreed, sympathetic but calm. "And that sucks, I'm really sorry you had to go through that. But I wasn't there. I didn't see it. Just hearing about it will be bad, but not as bad as it was to see – that."

"I just don't want it to surprise you," Alex explained. "I want you to have an idea of what's coming."

Tom kicked his leg at him, gently. "I've already got an idea of what you're going to say, don't I?" he said, shrugging. "You already told me once. You think I don't know when you're editing out the bad bits? I heard you do it to Jack enough times when were kids. I'm not an idiot, Al, I can read between the lines."

"Yeah," Alex said, a little choked up. "Yeah, of course you can. OK then."

"Want me to warn the others?" Tom asked quietly.

"No – I mean, you can tell them it's going to be grim, but like. You don't need to worry about it. There's going to be people there to make sure you're all OK."

"What about making sure you're OK?" Tom demanded, a little indignantly.

"I'm going to have my guardians there," Alex said. "And Gilda – Richard's wife, I mean – she's a psychologist, so she knows what she's looking out for."

"OK then," Tom said, mostly but not entirely mollified. "If you're sure."

"I am," Alex assured him. For a few minutes, they sat in silence, Tom going back to his book while Alex checked through his notes one last time. Finally, Alex broke it.

"Hey, T?"

"Yeah?" Tom asked, glancing up.

"Thanks," Alex said, with a tiny, rueful, but very genuine smile. "For everything."

Tom smiled back at him. "Any time," he said.

Charles Dacres arrived the next day at eight o'clock sharp, as he'd said he would, accompanied by what seemed like an absolute army of staff. They were setting up shop in the infirmary, since that was where Alex and the other kids were, and it turned the usually quiet infirmary into a suddenly busy, noisy, over-filled place, even though logically Alex didn't think there were more than seven or eight more people actually there. They were all extremely busy about something, liaising with soldiers, liaising with command, liaising with the doctors, setting up rooms, getting things signed and generally making a lot of unnecessary noise and work.

Mr Dacres was nominally in charge of it all, of course, but there was very little sign of him. He had apparently brought work with him and would be going through it right up until he was needed, and had sequestered himself in a room that had been set aside for that exact purpose. So the person actually in charge was the bright, brisk young woman who acted as his assistant; she introduced herself as Sarah Patel, and Alex watched with interest when she took a break from masterminding everyone else's actions to give the five of them an appropriately bright, brisk briefing on what was due to come next.

"You don't actually have to sign the Official Secrets Act to be bound by it," she told them simply. "Because it's an act of law. And what you're about to hear is definitely covered by the Act. But we're taking all the precautions we can, so here goes. Now, technically none of you can sign any kind of legal document without your parents or guardians present, but we've contacted your legal representatives and given them all access to a lawyer to go over the confidentiality agreement we want you to sign, and they've all given their consent. They should have told you so by now, but if they haven't, you're more than welcome to ring them and check with them. That's why we're getting all this done today!"

"We're going to sign an NDA?" Will asked, frowning a little. "But you just said we didn't have to sign the Official Secrets Act."

"It's belt and braces with the service, Mr…?"

"Will Hartford," Will said, suddenly ludicrously shy.

Miss Patel smiled at him. "Mr Hartford. Legally speaking, it's a pretty grey area. Getting minors to sign contracts isn't always easy to enforce, but you are still covered by the Act, and that is enforceable against minors, I'm afraid. The confidentiality agreement is to – well. Remind you of what's at stake, really."

Alex thought about what he'd been threatened with when he'd first got involved with the intelligence community, and wondered whether the other kids really knew exactly how gently they were being treated. Adults who'd even heard of him had been threatened with everything from prison to having their entire lives wiped out, and his classmates were being politely reminded of what was at stake. Somehow, it seemed ludicrous.

"Obviously what you're about to hear isn't to go beyond those present," Miss Patel said cheerfully. "And I'd recommend you don't even discuss it with each other. I won't tell you to forget about it, but it'd be best not to bring it up too much. If it gets out, it could do enormous damage to our national security and it will do enormous damage to your friend here." She gave Alex a quick smile. "So keeping quiet is the way forward. Loose lips sink ships, and all that."

Charlotte raised a hand. "Um, can we talk about it with our therapists?" she asked timidly.

Miss Patel shuffled through her papers for a moment. "Ah, yes, of course," she said, and nodded at Charlotte. "Yes, they've been given the necessary clearance, and Ms Kerr is here today to make sure all of you will be alright during Mr Rider's testimony. And it's all covered by patient confidentiality, of course, but from what I can see they've signed everything we could get in front of them anyway, so yes, Miss Henderson, you can go over this with your therapist if you need to."

"Thank you," Charlotte said, still very quiet.

"Any other questions?" Miss Patel asked. "No? Alright then. You guys just wait here, and the others will be joining you any minute. Mr Rider, could I have a quick word?"

Alex stood, but Tom shot to his feet too. "What about?" he demanded suspiciously. "If you want to talk to Alex, he should have his guardian with him."

"It's OK, Tom," Alex said softly. "You don't have your parents here, do you? Not even Jerry."

"It's not OK," Tom insisted. "Your guardian's going to be with you for the rest of this, they're not supposed to just spirit you away from a cosy little chat, are they?"

"It's OK," Alex repeated, a little more firmly, and Tom met his eyes for a couple of seconds then looked away.

"Make sure someone can see you, that's all," he grumbled, subsiding.

"OK," Alex said, quirking a smile at him. "I'll make sure I can see a responsible adult at all times."

Miss Patel had watched the entire exchange with a look of amused resignation. "All sorted?" she asked cheerfully. "This way then, please, Mr Rider. We'll be in sight the whole time, Mr Harris, I promise."

In the end, she stopped right outside the room, letting the door swing close behind her and making sure both of them were visible through the little glass pane. She offered him a slightly wry smile. "Sorry about this – your situation's a bit more complicated, I'm afraid. I've got a few more things to go through with you."

"Sure," Alex agreed. "What do you need?"

"Well, your testimony's going to be recorded," Miss Patel explained. "That was explained, wasn't it? Are you OK with that?"

"Yeah, of course," Alex nodded. "The whole point's to get evidence against Blunt, right? There wouldn't be much point if you weren't recording it."

"OK, good," Miss Patel nodded, glancing back down at her notes. "There's going to be quite a crowd. Are you sure you're alright with that? I was told it was your choice, but if you've been pressured in any way, we can make sure it's just you and your guardians."

"Which ones," Alex murmured, then shook his head. "No, it's OK. I want them there." He paused, suddenly considering something for the first time in the light of her discussion with the other kids. "It's probably made a lot of work for you," he said uncomfortably. "I didn't really think about that. I'm sorry."

"Oh, that's fine," Miss Patel said easily. "I like a challenge. Honestly, most of them are covered by their own jobs, and a lot of them already have higher clearance than me anyway. It's your life, Mr Rider. We've already done enough to you. If you want all of these people there, I don't see why you shouldn't have them." She quirked another quick smile at him. "I'd really recommend against writing a blog post about it or going about telling everyone you meet, but everyone you've requested already has some idea what they're going to hear. You having them in the room while you give testimony doesn't cause more of a headache than sorting out what they already know anyway."

"OK, well, thanks," Alex said, a little thrown. Miss Patel was not the kind of person he'd met working for MI6 before – she was so cheerful, so normal, and she was Dacres' personal assistant. He knew she had to be intelligent and good at her job, but she was so normal, with none of the dour, sharp professionalism he'd come to expect from MI6.

"Mr Dacres would like to meet you before you give your testimony, but you really should have your guardian with you for that," Miss Patel went on, apparently not noticing his mood. "To make sure you're not being intimidated into keeping quiet or mistreated in any way. That'd be – Miss Starbright, or Dr and Dr Manning, is that right?"

"If you want to make sure Tom doesn't kick off, I'd better have Jack with me," Alex said, managing a smile of his own. "And- and I'd like Gilda there."

"Alright then," Miss Patel nodded. "If you want to join your friends, Mr Rider, I'll round the others up and tell Mr Dacres you're willing to meet him."

"I could say no?" Alex said, surprised. He'd assumed it had been an order, not a request.

Miss Patel smiled again. "You're not one of his employees, and you're not under any kind of suspicion," she pointed out. "We don't have any right to order you to do anything, Mr Rider."

"Right," Alex agreed, rather blankly. "Sure. OK."

After everything Alex had heard about him, Charles Dacres was a surprisingly small man – average height, rather spare, with brown hair scattered with grey. His eyes were a curiously dark blue, and very keen, but if Alex hadn't known who he was, he wouldn't have given him a second glance.

He stood when Alex came in, followed by Gilda – Jack had begged off, clearly uncomfortable with the idea, and Alex hadn't blamed her. He wasn't sure how he felt about this meeting, even though Dacres was clearly prepared to be civil at the very least; he gave them both a polite smile and held out his hand to Alex. "So you must be Alex," he said. His voice was low and quiet, with the faintest suggestion of a northern accent.

"Yes," Alex agreed. "You're Mr Dacres?"

"Charles, yes," Dacres nodded, giving Gilda a quick smile. "Dr Manning, nice to see you again."

Gilda's answering smile was ever so slightly wry. "Likewise," she agreed.

Dacres sat back down and gestured Alex and Gilda to the seats opposite him. "I'm really just shamelessly indulging my curiosity here," he said easily. "I like to know what I'm about to get into, and I freely admit I'm curious about you, Alex. I have to say I'm relieved it all worked out in the end, but Derek's plans normally do."

"Smithers said he'd have been-" what had Smithers' exact words been? "-eliminated as a problem, if it hadn't worked," Alex said, watching Dacres as carefully as he could without seeming to watch him. "What would have happened to you?"

"Mm," Dacres said thoughtfully. "Honestly? I don't know. They might not have realised I was part of it – there's only a very tenuous link between Derek and me on the surface of things and we covered our tracks as well as we could. I might have been alright, and Derek would have trusted me to try again. But if Alan had realised, then I'd have been taken out too. Is that what you wanted to know?"

"More or less," Alex said, digesting that in silence. "You called Blunt Alan. Were you friends?"

"You call Derek, Smithers," Dacres pointed out with a gentle smile. "Are you enemies?"

Alex considered that for a moment. "No," he said finally. "But we're not friends. I think of him as Smithers because that's how he introduced himself to me – or maybe how Blunt introduced him to me, I don't remember. But he's thirty years older than me and outfitted me to go and get killed. We're not friends."

"Mm," Dacres said again. "Well, Alan and I were colleagues for many years."

"Did you like him?" Alex asked casually.

"Not particularly, no," Dacres said slowly. "I respected him as an operative. I didn't dislike him. We were never close."

"Do you think being in charge of MI6 changed him?" Alex asked.

Dacres blinked, once. "I think it probably changes everyone," he said, after a very brief pause.

"How do you think it's going to change you?" Alex said.

Dacres laughed. "Well, I'm never going to try and drag you back to our employ, if that's what you're asking," he said lightly.

"And what about other kids?" Alex asked, trying to make sure he didn't sound too aggressive or demanding, making sure he kept his body language relaxed and calm.

"No," Dacres said firmly, the amusement draining away. "Even if I thought there was another teenager out there as competent as you, it's not my style."

"Style? That's not enough," Alex said, just as firm. "You've got me over a barrel, I know that. That might not be what you intended, but it's how things have always been, and it's how they've stayed. You're providing protection for me, and if you withdraw it, it could get me and anyone I live with killed, so it's in my best interests to play nicely, right? And who'd believe me, if I tried to tell anyone about the last year or so? Miss Patel said I shouldn't go writing a blog post or telling everyone I meet, but I couldn't, could I? Because no one in the world would believe me, they'd think I was making it up for attention. You're MI6. You've still got all the power here.

"But," he went on, keeping his voice light and calm, ignoring Gilda's tension next to him, "I'm not totally powerless, am I? I don't have to be completely believable, I just have to be believable enough, find the right news source, tell the world everything. Not everyone will believe me, of course they won't, but enough people might, they might think there's a grain of truth in it, and the more boring I make it sound, the more believable it'll be. I know enough about all this to make a very convincing story, Mr Dacres."

"I'm sure you do," Dacres said. He'd cocked his head to one side, and was watching Alex with a very slight frown. "Is that what you want to do?"

"It's the last thing I want to do," Alex said flatly. "I want to be normal, I don't want to be that kid who says he was a spy. But if I think you're doing to other kids what Blunt did to me, I'll do my best to fuck you over, any way I can."

"I believe you," Dacres said seriously.

"Smithers said he thought you had more principles than most people did after years with MI6," Alex said. "I want that to be true."

"I don't know if it is," Dacres said, with something like gentleness. "But I do know what Alan did to you was repulsive. Also, I'm sorry to say it, Alex, but it was just fundamentally bad practice. A little more understandable after your first assignment, maybe, but to do it in the first place was absolute madness. You had next to no training, Alan had no idea how you might respond to real stress or pressure… the whole thing was insane. I won't be following his lead, not just because I think it's morally wrong – I've done lots of things I thought were morally wrong. I've done lots of things I still think are morally wrong. But I try not to be sloppy. I try not to be foolish. Alan got incredibly lucky with you, and I don't like relying on luck."

Alex relaxed, very slightly. That sounded like the truth, and in any case, he'd given his warning. He'd known what he was risking, giving it – if Dacres did decide to emulate Blunt, he'd be prepared for Alex's retaliation. But in truth, there was next to no likelihood Alex would ever even hear about it if Dacres did decide to go that route. The point wasn't really that Alex could actually do anything about it – the point was to make sure Dacres knew there would be consequences, one way or another, even if they took a long time to come.

In fact, the thing both of them were carefully not mentioning was the fact that Smithers had engineered the downfall of the last Head of MI6 for exploiting a child, and unlike Alex, Smithers wasn't leaving the service. They'd either have to keep it a secret from Smithers – an unlikely achievement, and even firing him wouldn't be enough to evade his scrutiny – or they'd actually have to toe the line.

So he nodded. "OK," he said politely. "Thank you. So did you have any questions for me, Mr Dacres?"

Dacres paused for a barely noticeable half-second, then huffed a laugh. "Not really," he said. "None that you won't be answering in a few minutes anyway. Though really I should ask whether you'd be happy for Derek to keep in touch with you? I know he'd like to, but he'd never ask for himself."

Alex thought about it for a minute or two. "Not just now," he said finally. "I- I like Smithers. I'm grateful to him. But I can't just now." He glanced at Gilda, who gave him an encouraging nod and a tiny smile. "Maybe in a few months. If I told Colonel Roslyn, would he be able to get in touch with Smithers?"

"I'm sure he would," Dacres nodded.

"Would you thank him for me?" Alex asked quietly. "I never got round to it, when he was here. I meant to, but it never really came up. I'm grateful. He got us away from Andrei and- and he got me away from MI6. That's a debt."

"I know Smithers thinks we owes you far more than you could ever owe him, but of course I'll tell him," Dacres nodded.

"And what about Andrei?" Alex asked, reminded of the man for the first time in almost two whole days. "What's going to happen to him?"

"A very quiet trial and high security prison," Dacres said promptly. "After questioning, of course."

"By you?" Alex asked carefully.

Dacres nodded. "Andrei Morozov has worked for several people we're very interested in," he said blandly. "We're delighted to have the chance to ask him a few questions."

"I don't think I want to know anything more," Alex said, looking away, grateful when Gilda quietly and unobtrusively laid a hand on his back. It was grounding. He had hated Andrei, and still did, but he'd been the one in captivity too recently to want to examine the thought of anyone else being held that way too closely.

"Of course not," Dacres said sympathetically. "I suppose I should reassure you, too, that Alan Blunt will be under house arrest for the foreseeable future. Probably for the rest of his life, frankly."

Alex nodded. "Does his house have a garden?" he asked, almost absently. He couldn't speak for the others, but he'd been surprised how much he'd missed being able to go outside during their time with Andrei.

Dacres looked taken aback for a bare second, then he nodded. "I think so," he said, and smiled. "I could ask for you, if you'd like."

"Thank you," Alex said simply. "But I'm fine."

Roslyn found Dacres sitting in the little room they'd given over to him nearly a quarter of an hour later, going over some documentation that had been sent to his tablet.

"We're nearly ready," he said, a little awkwardly. He liked the man, but he still wasn't entirely sure how he felt about him, and while Dacres was emphatically not a military man, he was pretty sure the head of MI6 outranked him several times over. "They're just doing some last minute checks on the equipment."

"I'll be right there," Dacres said absently, then looked up. "You called Alex Rider remarkable, Colonel."

When had he done that? Roslyn honestly couldn't remember ever giving an opinion about Alex to anyone else except Richard and maybe Derek Smithers, but Dacres had no reason to lie to him. And it was true that he thought Alex was probably almost unique. "Yes?" he said carefully.

"I think you were right on the money," Dacres said quietly. "I have almost no sympathy for Alan Blunt, you know, but I have ever so slightly more after meeting the kid. A boy like that would be a terrible temptation to a man like Alan. To a man in my position, even." He smiled, very slightly. "I'm not a man to give in to temptation, but I think I'm very grateful it isn't going to be in my way."

After that, things moved even faster, and almost before Alex knew it, he was in a large room at the back of the infirmary, which had clearly been one of the wards until very recently – the furniture it had held had been hastily tidied away into one corner and shielded from view by a screen, and a number of chairs and sofas had been brought in. To make sure the recording was undistorted by echoes or too much extra noise, large sheets of heavy cloth had been pinned to the walls to dampen sound – the chairs were stood on odd bits and pieces of carpet and old rugs, which looked desperately out of place on the infirmary's scrupulously clean linoleum.

In a way, Alex found the untidiness reassuring. Everything about MI6 had been regimented and tidy; the only place he'd ever seen any clutter or mess was Smithers' office, and Smithers had been one of the few decent people he'd met there. It was an oddly comforting echo.

Dacres took a chair opposite the metal-framed sofa, and gestured Alex to sit. Richard sat next to him, Gilda next to Richard, while everyone else settled themselves in the rest of the chairs. Eagle was there, and the rest of the K-Unit, looking wildly uncomfortable and politely refusing chairs, standing at uneasy parade rest and apparently trying very hard to pretend they weren't there. Eagle was more at ease than the rest of them, and even he looked unnerved.

The four other kids were on the other sofa, in the direct eyeline of a pretty middle-aged woman who was presumably Ms Kerr, the therapist who'd been brought in to make sure they were OK and didn't get overwhelmed by what Alex had to say. Apart from that, there was Roslyn, Dacres, Miss Patel, two other secretaries or undersecretaries or general hangers-on – Alex didn't remember being introduced to them, but he presumed they'd been part of setting the whole thing up. And there were two technicians, although the recording equipment was surprisingly basic, just a small device, and a couple of microphones placed near Alex and Dacres. Presumably the technicians were there to make absolutely sure nothing went wrong with it – no one wanted to have to do this more than once.

"Alright, Alex," Dacres said, taking out a pad and barely even glancing at Alex when he did the same, taking his haphazard notes out of his pocket and unfolding them. Dacres clicked his pen once, tested it, and looked up. "Are you sure you're comfortable with everyone here?"

It seemed a bit late to protest now, when he'd been asked so many times before, and if Alex wasn't entirely sure he actually wanted iall/i of K-Unit here, he didn't inot/i want them here badly enough to comment on it. "Yes, this is fine," he said firmly.

"Alright then," Dacres said, nodding at one of the technicians, who turned on the recording equipment. "Here's how it's going to go. I'll start us off with a question, and you give your answer. It doesn't matter how long it takes, or how much time you need – just answer as fully as you can. All that matters is the truth."

Alex nodded. "Alright," he agreed.

"I'll ask questions where I want something confirmed or clarified," Dacres went on. "And you may need to repeat yourself, if anything isn't coming through clearly on the recording. Apart from that, it's your show. Do you have any questions?"

"No," Alex said. He wasn't nervous, because he wasn't letting himself be nervous, but he was aware of everyone's eyes on him. That wasn't what bothered him – he'd wanted these people here for a reason, and that reason hadn't gone away. But he'd never told this story through, beginning to end, to anyone, not even Tom, not fully. If he let them, he knew his nerves would overcome him. "No, that's all pretty straightforward."

"Good," Dacres said, managing a small smile. "Alright." He directed his gaze at the microphone in front of him. "Recording the testimony of Alexander Sean Rider, _th March 20xx. With regards to his employment under Alan Martin Blunt, for the trial of the same Alan Blunt." He raised his eyes and looked at Alex. "So, Alex," he said, his voice lighter but not by much. "Tell me. How did you start working for MI6?"

And there we have it! Next chapter is Alex's testimony, which was supposed to be in this chapter but got too long to include, so I made an executive decision to cut it in half. After that we've got a round-up chapter that is almost a kind of epilogue, and will tie up a few loose ends, and then pray god we're actually finished.

Can you even believe it good lord who even am i when I don't have the spectre of this fic hanging over me whispering 'i'm still not finished' while i try and sleep

oh wait it's ok i still have the one on ao3 to write we're good

Thanks as always to so1said for very patiently putting up with literal hours of my nonsense talking about this fic and panicking at her. She does not get paid at all for this so she is not in any way paid enough.

Thank you as always for all your patience and kind words - they mean so much and I'm always so grateful to hear if someone's enjoyed my horrible monster baby. You're all awesome *hearts*

stay safe

ami xxx