Joe Byrne was not an idiot, contrary to the belief of some. He was thrown in a cell for a week and, surprisingly, left alone for most of it. Alex Rider being thrown in with him was a bit more of a surprise. The dark purple bruises lined his arms. His lip was split. "Well, this is a nice change of scenery."

Joe arched a brow. Perhaps a head injury? "We're in a cell being held captive."

Rider sighed. "I was being sarcastic."

Joe grabbed him to pull him to his feet. "Alex-"

Rider cut him off. "I've had RTI, plus, your goons waterboarded me, and I've been captured before. I'll be fine."

Joe paused. "Well, then." Joe looked at the kid. "I am sorry-"

Alex waved him off. "It's fine."

Joe huffed. "When did you have RTI?"

Alex blinked. "It wasn't in my file? Must be classified, my bad."

Joe growled. "Alex."

Alex pulled an innocent face. It was not very effective. "Yes, Joe?"

Joe folded his arms. "Don't pull that crap with me."

Alex arched a brow. "What crap?"

Joe glared at Alex. "You could just say you don't want to talk about it."

Alex smirked. "I could, but I want to at least get some fun out of this agent thing before I die a horrible gruesome death."

Joe sighed. "You're not going to die a horrible gruesome death."

Alex shrugged. "All of my partners did, you know."

Joe sighed. "Look kid, we're going to get through this-"

Alex shrugged. "Maybe. But the one after that? And the one after that? And the one after that? The job doesn't end until I die, Joe."

Joe huffed. "People retire."

Alex arched a brow. "And how long do they last after that?"

Joe crossed his arms. "So, you're just going to give up?"

Alex shrugged. "Naw, I'm just not going to be surprised if I die young and die horribly."

Joe looked at the kid. "The paycheck is good?"

Alex scoffed. "What paycheck?! MI6 doesn't pay me!"

Joe sighed. "That's not good."

Alex glared. "No, it's not!"

Joe tried again. "We have a decent education system?"

Alex looked at Joe. "Bitch, I've been pulled out of school so much, I'm going to fail my GCSE's and be trapped in enslavement to MI6 forever."

Joe frowned. "You have options."

Alex glared. "What fucking options?! With my back burned up, I can't even be a homeless stripper, not that I would."

Joe looked at the kid. "You could come to work for me, for instance."

Alex rolled his eyes. "I should have stuck with Scorpia."

Joe felt a jolt. "Don't say that."

Alex retorted. "Well, it's true. At least I'd get sick leave. And vacations. And good mission partners."

Joe sighed. "You'd be a murdering terrorist."

Alex shrugged. "I already murder people and blow stuff up. I'm not seeing the difference."

Joe looked at the kid. "We care about our agents."

Alex snorted loudly. "I once waited forty-eight hours for extraction from MI6. You know what the average wait time on a Scorpia extraction is?"

Joe didn't. "Uh, no."

Alex looked at him, eye twitching. "Twenty minutes. And Gordon Ross managed to be on time for all of our rendezvous, unlike your agents. The only people I like are you personally and Smithers and the only people I like working with are the SVR."

Joe felt his mouth drop open. "WHAT?!"

Joe would have gone on a rant about the Russians, but their captors chose that moment to burst in.

Alex stilled. Good, Joe thought. He hasn't lost the rest of his ever-loving mind. Even if he did want to work for the fucking SVR. Joe was just going to ignore his little Scorpia comment. It was probably the shock talking. Yeah, shock. Joe wondered who he was trying to fool at this point. Joe was dragged out, but so was Alex. The kid just shrugged at his look. Great, neither of them knew what the hell was going on. Just wonderful. They grabbed the kid and left him. Why the hell did they want Alex?! I mean, sure the kid did great work, but Joe was the more valuable target here. Hello? Deputy head of the CIA? Anyone? Joe didn't envy Alex, but still, it made no sense to interrogate him versus Joe. They dumped Alex back after a while. Joe had lost track of the time. "Alex?"

The kid didn't look that much worse. The sulky look he got back reminded him of his children in their teen years. "What?"

Joe almost started laughing at the grumpy expression on Alex's face. "I was checking on you, Jesus, don't murder me in my sleep."

Alex blinked. "It'd be a lot harder since they didn't give us a bed or a pillow."

Joe snorted. "I've seen you choke people with your bare hands."

Alex's brown eyes looked far too playful. "On surveillance tapes, old man?"

Joe choked. "You're a brat, you know that, right?"

Alex fluttered his eyelashes at the man and smirked. "Oh, but you like me anyway."

Joe sighed. "Yes, I do, God help me. You're a walking disaster."

Alex seemed pleased at that description. "But, Joe-"

Joe looked at him. "You caused an explosion on every single assignment. Don't give me that look."

Joe was not sure his attempt at being stern was working. "It wasn't all of them. Just most of them!"

Joe was not entirely sure the little gremlin was sane. "Uh, huh. Can you name three?"

Alex raised one finger and a second. The kid then squinted into thin air. "Uh, technically, Point Blank wasn't me. Razim's compound was still standing. And, uh, Air Force One is unexploded."

Joe looked at Alex. "Reaching hard for those three, are you?"

Alex colored. "Oh, shut up. You would have burned down the rest of them, too."

Joe sighed. He wasn't about to admit that Alex had a point. Though, Joe had made it a point to be stealthier in his less-than-illustrious career in espionage. "You're about as subtle as a brick to the head."

Alex grinned. There was a feral glint in his eye. "Does anyone want subtle when they send me, though?"

Joe blinked. "I didn't hear about your little affair with the Russians, so you can do subtle things when you want."

Alex shrugged. "I only do something subtle when I get paid for it. And when both parties sign an NDA."

Joe huffed. "Have you dealt with Scorpia behind our backs?"

Alex shrugged. "Even if I did, no way in hell would I tell you."

Joe squinted at the kid. Alex wasn't as stupid as most people assumed. Alex looked far too casual for Joe's liking. "Your ex-classmates have an interesting habit of squeezing off whenever you show up."

Alex looked at Joe. "I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about."

The kid went silent for a bit. Joe mentally sighed. It wouldn't be the first time they snapped up a Scorpia trained agent. Look, as long as they kept the shady shit in the shade and didn't buy a McMansion, Joe was inclined to let it go. In all honesty, Scorpia trained wonderful, if mildly insane, operatives who were widely considered jewels in the black ops world. He did wonder how Alex managed to so thoroughly terrify his fellow assassins but was almost afraid to ask. Almost.

Alex was plotting. Sort of. Kind of. He didn't want to work for MI6 while getting money on the side for the rest of his life. It was tiring to juggle five different agencies. At least. At any rate, the less subtle Joe thought he was, the better. And if Alex just happened to conveniently drop information about his pay rates and main issues with his employers, then he was sure Joe would take a hint. Hopefully. Joe was the only person he liked as a boss. Scorpia was...stabby, as were the SVR. With Joe, Alex knew he had one guy who was going to be mostly in his corner, aside from his massive number of explosions. Alex liked explosions. "So, why do your classmates peel off when you show up?"

Alex sighed. "Would you believe me if I said it was a complete accident?"

Joe just gave him a withering look. "No."

Alex pouted. "I'm hurt, Joe, absolutely hurt that you don't believe me! You're cutting me right into my soul-"

Joe held up a hand. "Cut the shit, Alex."

Alex gave Joe his most innocent look. "I saved their lives, Joe. I just don't understand it."

Joe huffed. "Uh, huh. Sure."

Alex huffed. "I did!"

Joe scowled. "Saving their life doesn't count when the threat is you."

Alex glared. "It was a rhinoceros!"

Joe snorted. "At least make it believable, Alex."

Alex crossed his arms. "Why don't you ask the next one you capture and stick into a torture chamber? Oh, wait, they all escaped your custody before you got any answers last time."

Joe almost snapped. Then he realized Alex was deliberately pushing his buttons. "It's not like MI6 fared any better."

Alex was giving him a calculating look that he almost missed. What was the teen trying to accompli- Oh, oh. Testing him out for personality hints. Clever, very clever. Alex seemed cowed by his calm retort for now. "I think you'll find that I wasn't so much as informed of my former classmates' capture, let alone their escape."

Joe huffed. It was time to do some poking on his own. "Tulip screwed the pooch on that one, didn't she?"

Alex scowled. "She could have at least told me. Do you know what I put my housemates through for security stuff?"

Joe grinned. "I can imagine."

It took nerves of steel to live with Alex if rumors were anything to go by. Three of Blunt's agents had been placed on psychiatric leave. Three. "Why don't you try to get some rest, kid?"

Alex smirked. "What are you going to do next, offer to make me dinner and tuck me in?"

Joe fluffed his hair. "Why not?"

Alex yelped. "JOE!"

Joe considered the young spy at his feet. Alex looked fucking cute while asleep. He was like a cat. A really angry destructive cat. He wondered if Alex would be dropping any more useful hints. Joe would appreciate an escape plan, too. Joe absent-mindedly ran his hand through Alex's hair. The kid twitched but didn't wake. Was touching a trained killer who was asleep a bad idea? Yes, yes, it was. Did Alex have ownership of the bad idea land? No, no, he did not. Besides, how bad could it possibly be? BOOM! Alex woke with a start, nearly colliding with Joe's face. Joe had tried to gently grab Alex's face. The kid flinched under his touch. Joe felt a stab of something. "Sorry."

He released Alex's face. "No worries."

Joe glanced. "Probably a rescue attempt."

Alex snorted. "Nobody saves me."

Joe smacked him. "I do."

Alex blinked. "You try. Your agents just fail miserably." Joe huffed. "Or they waterboard me!"

Joe glared. "I thought you said it was fine. You know, it's not too late for me to ship them off to concierge-land."

Alex shrugged. "It wouldn't change the underlying issue, so there's no point."

Joe sighed loudly. "You could at least try to be optimistic."

Alex rolled his eyes. "I think I had that beat out of me a few years ago."

Joe scowled at him. "Look, kid-"

Alex held up a hand. There was a second salvo. The charges exploded hard enough to shower them in plaster dust. Alex smiled. "Oh, goody, the ceiling might cave in and kill us."

Joe just looked at him. "I'm going to kidnap you for therapy."

Alex snorted. "Several foreign intelligence agencies already tried that interrogation tactic."

Joe wheezed. "Oh, for fuck's sake-"

Alex grinned. "I know, right? You'd think they would have stopped after it didn't work the first three times, but, nooo, they just kept on fucking trying."

Joe coughed into his fist. "Their first mistake was thinking you would talk to a therapist."

Alex's eyes sparkled. "Yeah, especially after what happened in my last state-mandated therapy."

Joe was morbidly curious at this point. "What happened?"

Alex's innocent face didn't fool him for a second. "I burned down exactly half of a house."

Joe just looked at him. Alex lived for the judgmental looks he got. "You're a fucking lunatic."

Alex grinned and held up a finger. "But I'm good at my job!"

Joe grumbled. "No wonder Gordon Ross likes you so much."

Alex rolled his eyes. "Gordon doesn't like anyone. You're the delusional one."

Joe gurgled. This was what his life came to. Getting accused of being nuts by an insane teenage spy. "Am not."

Alex's eyes danced. "Are too."

Another boom rang through the prison area, silencing them both.

Joe sighed. "Let's hope they don't cave the ceiling in."

Alex shrugged. Joe grabbed his arm. "What? Don't tell me you're claustrophobic."

Joe glared at him. "There were cracks on your side of the ceiling."

Alex glanced at the ceiling. "Thanks, Joe."

Joe might have been tempted to hug Alex. Might. He looked at his age at that moment. The fourth boom showered them in larger chunks of the ceiling. Alex glanced around. "I think we can kick the bars out and leave before the ceiling caves."

Joe checked. "Alright, let's give it a shot."

It took a few kicks, but their entire wall of bars went clattering to the floor. No guards came. Joe offered his hand to Alex. "Come with me."

Alex looked at him. "How's your field record?"

Joe glared. "Better than Walker!"

The entire place was beginning to collapse. "Good enough, then!"

Joe looked at Alex. "Were you by any chance conscious when they brought you here?"

Alex snorted. "Nope, but let's go left."

Joe squinted. "Why left?"

Alex shrugged. "I have a good feeling about the left."

Joe groaned but followed the kid. To his surprise, Alex's entirely improvised way out worked. They didn't even run into any guards. "How did you know the way out?"

Alex shrugged. "I guessed."

Joe inhaled and then pinched the bridge of his nose. "Alex."

Alex shrugged. "I don't know, either, bro."

They walked a relatively safe distance from the site. Joe felt another shell explode behind him. They walked until they came across a very sad looking tree. Joe wasn't sure it qualified as a tree. "Do you people have, like, secret bases or something?"

Joe looked at Alex. "It's called a safe house."

Alex waved him off impatiently. "Sure, sure. But are they extant?"

Joe rolled his eyes. "Only one way to find out."

Alex followed him. "So, what do we do if they don't exist?"

Joe snorted. "You're just a wonderful ray of sunshine, aren't you?"

Alex retorted. "I'll start having faith in intelligence agencies when they start proving themselves worthy of it."

Joe huffed. "Uh, huh. So, what does Scorpia have that we don't?"

Alex batted his eyes at Joe. "Would you like the list in alphabetical or chronological order?"

Joe replied. "Perhaps a list of your top priorities would be more apropos."

Alex smirked. "Going to make an offer, Joe?"

Joe chuckled. "That depends on a lot of things. Call me curious."

Alex looked at him. "That's my line."

Joe snorted. "Dream on, kid."

Alex sighed. "Where to start, Joe. Where to start."

Joe looked at Alex. "Maybe with the jobs you took for them?"

Alex rolled his eyes. "Nice try, Joe."

Joe pouted. "C'mon, anything featuring Gordon Ross has to be good."

Alex just looked at Joe. "Are all adults in Special Ops unapologetic gossip whores or did I just meet all the special ones first?"

Joe laughed. "Yes."

Alex groaned and then perked up. "Did you know that Rothman claimed Nile was stealthy?"

Joe gaped. "What?! He ran around with two very recognizable swords."

Alex was silently laughing. "So, that was a lie."

Joe threw up his hands. "Stealthy compared to Rothman's orgy parties, maybe."

Alex choked. "What?"

Joe flushed. "Er, you didn't hear that from me."

Alex gently patted the man's shoulder. "It's okay, Joe. Almost everyone with a pulse was attracted to Rothman."

Joe swatted at Alex, who deftly dodged his hand. "I am married!"

Alex smirked. "Not for much longer if even half of what Tamara says is true."

Joe scowled. "Alex!"

The boy's eyes danced. "What? You've been on the rocks for ages, your kids are grown, and your wife has been filtering money out of your joint accounts since before I was born. You're about to get dumped."

Joe glared at Alex. "While that may be true-"

Alex held up a hand. "Just serve her with papers, bro. And have accounting take a good in-depth look at your accounts first."

Joe sighed. "I swear to god, you're going to give me a stroke."

Alex shrugged. "I'm a teen. It's my job."

Joe swatted him. "Ow. Child abuse, really Joe?"

Joe glared. "That did not hurt. And I have a headache, so be quiet."

Alex smiled brightly. It was slightly disconcerting when you saw he was covered in dust and some of his blood. "Okay."

After about three hours of quiet, Joe was starting to feel a little uneasy. Alex rarely actually followed instructions. After five hours, Joe started making a mental note to have the agency doctors check him over. Maybe he had a concussion? "Alex?"

The mildly demonic little blond perked up. "Yes, Joe?"

Joe frowned. "Are you feeling alright?"

Alex raised an eyebrow. "You're the first person to ever ask! Uh, I'm fine, just tired and, y'know, got beaten for a few days."

Joe sighed. "I'm having a doctor check you over. I think we'll start with head scans."

Alex screeched. "What?! There is nothing wrong with my head!"

Joe looked at him. "How many times have you been knocked unconscious or drugged?"

Alex looked at him. "I never sat down and counted."

Joe frowned. "Well, start counting, but you're doing a scan either way."

Alex huffed. "Do I have to?"

Joe's eyes narrowed. "Yes."

Alex pouted. Joe resisted a chuckle. "You're also getting a full medical exam."

Alex made a noise that reminded him of his dog on the way to a vet visit. "Can't you just, I dunno, kill me in my sleep instead?"

Joe laughed. "It won't be that bad, Alex. I'll take you to my family's doctor."

Alex looked at the man. "That sounds expensive."

Joe rolled his eyes. "I'm sure my third most secret slush fund will recover eventually."

Alex perked up. "Already laundering money away to me, Joe?"

Joe swatted him lightly. "Naturally. It's not like we can pay you on the up and up."

Alex snarked back. "I hope it's coming out of your Scorpia budget."

Joe just shook his head. "You're bad."

Alex arched a brow. "Says the guy employing MI6's poor blackmailed into slavery teen spy."

Joe sighed. "They should at least pay you."

Alex practically bounced. "You're telling me. It's the two main things I always asked for. A fair salary and a gun. I never got either of those until I started going behind '6's back."

Joe sighed. "How much do they pay you?"

Alex shrugged. "Depends on the job, Joe. If it's steal back some black market national artifacts from some rich dude levels, it'll be a little cheaper than, say, 'oops, we lost our weapons-grade uranium, please get it back I'm begging you'."

Joe blinked. "Those are specific."

Alex shrugged. Joe was almost certain those were real jobs the little shit had signed up for. "Please tell me that the uranium wasn't a NATO country."

Alex looked at Joe. "What's a NATO country?"

Joe almost swore. "How much school have you attended in the past two years?"

Alex looked at Joe. "Do sketchy terrorist schools or shit I'm investigating count?"

Joe snapped. "NO! I mean regular fucking school!"

Alex blinked. "Less than four months."

Joe stared. "What about your grades?! What about your academics?!"

Alex shrugged cheerfully. "Oh, I'm failing."

Joe felt his head beginning to pound again. Maybe after he poached Alex, Scorpia would be getting a new assassination job or four. "Is MI6 doing anything about it?"

Alex shrugged. "The tutor they gave me was kind of middling. I've been trying to hire one myself."

Joe frowned. "What about your handler or SO?"

Alex blinked. "What's that?"

Joe grit his teeth. "The person who looks after you both in and out of the field."

Alex looked at him and shrugged. "I have Jack."

Joe sighed. "A trained professional. Not an American college dropout."

Alex threw up his hands. "I don't have one?"

Joe inhaled and pinched the bridge of his nose. "You don't have one. Well, that explains a lot."

Alex looked apologetic. "Uh, I'm sorry?"

Joe clasped his shoulder. "Don't be. In this case, blaming Alan Blunt is an entirely valid solution."

Alex looked relieved. "Oh, good. That's my hobby at this point."

Joe wasn't sure what to do with that statement. "Let's stop here for the night."

Alex shrugged. "Joe?"

Joe sighed. "Yes, Alex?"

Alex's eyes glowed with the light of the moon. "Is there, by any chance, water on the way to your secret base?"

Joe was too tired to correct him. "Half a day's walk tomorrow should find us a river."

Alex sighed and then turned over, right into his side. Joe moved to get him off and then realized Alex was dead asleep. He didn't have the heart to wake him up.

Joe woke up to Alex still being passed out on top of his leg. Joe lightly nudged Alex. The kid jumped ever so slightly after he woke up. "Time to go."

Alex huffed. "You could have woken me up, old man. Wouldn't want your leg to get gangrene from lack of blood flow."

Joe sighed. "That's not even how that works."

Alex shrugged. "That was a joke, Joe. I know how gangrene works."

Joe fluffed Alex's hair. Alex swatted his hand. "C'mon." Alex walked a few steps behind him. "I heard about Starbright, you know."

Alex looked at the man. "Nobody believed me except the Egyptians."

Joe arched a brow. "Done any jobs for them?"

Alex shrugged. "A gentleman never kisses and tells."

Joe inhaled. Was there anyone Alex wasn't whoring out his services to? The politics were going to be a nightmare as it was. "Oh, shut your trap. This is going to be a political nightmare, you understand."

Alex waved his hand in front of Joe's face. "The missions did not exist."

Joe just gave the kid a dry look. "You say that, but one day it will blow up in your face."

Alex grinned. "Lots of things blow up in my face."

Joe rolled his eyes. "Brat."

Alex looked at him, eyes dancing. "Oh, but you like me anyway."

Joe sighed. Alex wasn't wrong. "And here we're at the river."

Alex squinted. "So, are we just going to drink out of it or are we exercising caution?"

Joe smacked him. "Caution."

Alex's angelic look didn't fool him. "Having trouble in the bowels already, Joe?"

Joe took a deep breath and promptly shoved Alex into the river. It was probably not the most mature of responses, but Alex's laughter as he emerged told Joe that it had probably been the right decision. Alex's grin as Joe offered a hand told him that he was being pulled in only a second before his face hit the water. Joe rolled his eyes as he emerged from the water. "You're a brat."

Alex blinked. "You said that already. Is the dementia setting in?"

Joe splashed Alex. Alex splashed him right back. "I dunno, kid, how's your first bath of the year?"

Alex's mouth dropped open. Joe was entertained. Alex finally retorted. "Watching through cameras in my bathroom? You pervert!"

Joe choked. "No, I delegate that to other agents. I like people my own age."

Alex's eyes danced. "And then have a group wank afterwar-"

Joe decided another wave was the answer. Alex emerged. Joe looked at him. "Done yet?"

Alex looked positively sprightly. "Only if you are."

Joe sighed. Teenagers. Then again, he preferred this Alex to whatever that chickenshit docile act was from yesterday. Alex followed him out of the river, looking mildly disappointed. Joe knew he was never going to hear the end of getting into a water fight with a teen when he told the analysts about this. Alex tilted back. "Sooo, what now, oh, glorious leader?"

Joe growled. "Shove the theatrics, this ain't North Korea."

Alex was back to giving him angelic looks. "Why don't you make yourself useful and find something that looks like it can survive having boiling water in it?"

Alex skipped off. Joe huffed.

They got to the safe house after the third day. Joe immediately forced Alex to eat and then take antibiotics for food poisoning. You couldn't be too careful and cholera was a nasty way to go. "Was that necessary, Joe?"

Joe felt his eye twitch. "Yes. Now go shower."

Alex pouted but went to shower. Joe sighed and leaned back. Now he just had to make sure Alex wouldn't run off before his doctor's appointments. Joe had taken the liberty of scheduling every doctor he could think of that might be necessary while Alex showered, but had neglected to inform Alex of that. Alex bounced out a few minutes after he was done. Joe didn't have the heart to tell him that those were women's clothes. "You can go now."

Joe squinted suspiciously. "I'm taking this phone with me. You might call in a missile strike or something."

Alex pouted. "I wouldn't."

Joe rolled his eyes and stalked towards the bathroom. "Oh, yes, you would." Alex sent him a wounded look that Joe promptly ignored. Joe walked out to the smell of cooking. "You're cooking?"

Alex scoffed. "I'm hungry. I didn't get fed for about five days."

Joe blinked. Well, that was fair. Joe texted his assistant to add several more blood tests to the list. "What is that?"

Joe lied smoothly. "I'm trying to get them to hurry our rescue the fuck up."

Alex squinted. "Are you sure the person you're texting is reliable? Like, I've already had three partners try to sell me out."

Joe inhaled. "Alex, things do occasionally go right."

Alex blinked. "Yeah, but it's usually in direct proportion to how much you, Crawley, or Jones arrange things in person."

Joe threw up his hands. "Alex, if this person is a Scorpia mole, I will personally tear their guts out. Are you happy now?"

Alex dumped three eggs on his plate. "Exceptionally."

Joe was surprised when he saw that Alex had made him some of the food. "Thank you, Alex."

Alex gave him toast. "You're welcome."

Joe was shocked to see that it looked edible. "It looks edible."

The look Alex gave him could have dried up the Louisiana swamps. "I've been prepping food for myself off and on since I was four."

Joe felt his stomach turn slightly at the implications of that. He went for the toast. Eggs were a bit heavy to risk. "Do you like cooking?"

Alex shrugged. "Not when I'm injured. I'm more of a baking guy, anyway."

Joe winced. The food had been made by a literal child soldier. He had a feeling Alex would be more upset if he didn't eat it, though. It tasted like ash. "It's pretty good."

Alex shrugged. "You can get up early and make me breakfast, then."

Joe felt his lips twitch. "I will don't you worry."

If it was because he suddenly wanted to puke at the thought of having Alex make his food, he would keep it to himself. It was probably harder because food was so personal for him. The job was one thing, but the food was something else. Slave labor. Because MI6 didn't pay Alex. Joe was still feeling nauseous after breakfast. He knew it was purely psychological. Alex looked vaguely concerned. "Are you doing alright?"

Joe felt his heart thud. "Fine."

Alex turned a look on him. "If you're lying, I'm going to sign you up for a month straight of colonoscopies when you're in the retirement home."

Joe laughed. "I'd like to see you try."

Alex rolled his eyes. "Are you going to make it to the bed or do you need me to grab you a blanket, old man?"

Joe nearly leaped out of the couch. "I'll be fine, Alex. Get some more sleep."

Alex looked mildly puzzled but wandered off in the vague direction of the bedrooms. Joe waited until he was sure Alex was in the bedroom before typing another missive to his assistant. It was time someone offered Alex some more legitimate long-term employment. Joe hoped he had read Alex's conversational hints correctly. Weapons, salary, Starbright, education. Potentially protection for Harris, too. He wondered if Alex would even show up to the negotiations.

Alex was feeling rather smug. He figured Joe had gotten most of his hints. Now that they were out of there, it was probably going to work out. He might even put up with the plethora of doctor's appointments Joe thought he was being sneaky about. It had been a while since anyone had shown that much concern for his wellbeing. Here's hoping he didn't just give Joe food poisoning with the eggs. That would be unfortunate, though Byrne would probably forgive him. There was a knock at his door. "Come in."

Alex made sure Byrne caught a good, long look at his chest and back scars while putting on a shirt. Hey, free appointments with non-MI6 doctors were free appointments. "So, uh, I thought we should talk about some things before my people show up."

Alex waved his hand. "Go on."

Byrne coughed awkwardly. "Well, you see, we're both going to get a lot of routine medical testing."

Routine, his ass, but he'd put up with Joe's charade for now. It served his purpose to appear to be gullible. Joe wouldn't be as hard on him in negotiations if he was. "Okay."

Byrne gave him a warning look. "You'll cooperate and not injure the doctors, right?"

Alex huffed. "Of course, Joe, I'm not a bloody savage."

Alex had never believed in injuring people who were trying to help him. Also, Alex was curious about what the results would be. '6 had never been thorough or forthcoming. "Any chance you'll do a psych assessment?"

Alex made sure to give Joe a withering look. "No."

Joe held up a hand. "It was worth a try."

Alex glared at him. "You'll have to do one eventually."

Alex shrugged. "If I can put it off, I will."

Joe sighed. Alex considered that a victory. "Anything else I should know?"

Joe looked at him. "You're invited to stay at my house."

Alex blinked. "Feeling the loneliness from the divorce already?"

Joe retorted. "Yeah, having you around will be just like getting my golden retriever back. You're both blond, stupid, and hate medical check-ups."

Alex choked. "Well, in that case, I'll be sure to steal you some beer from the corner store and chew on some furniture."

Joe just looked at him. "Sometimes I can't tell if you're joking or not."

Alex felt smug. "So, was I right?"

Joe sighed. "Unfortunately, yes. I got served while being captured by terrorists."

Alex gaped. "What a heartless bitch!"

Joe shrugged. "C'est la vie, kid."

Alex huffed. "You don't seem all that devastated."

Joe didn't. "If you want to egg her new apartment, I won't stop you."

Alex felt an evil idea spread into his mind. "I can pretend to be your illegitimate love child if you want."

Joe snorted. "We looked absolutely nothing alike."

Alex grinned. "Oh, c'mon, Joe, you know you want to."

Joe swatted him. "Naw, I'm going to try to handle this like a mature adult."

Alex looked at Joe. "Well, tell me if you change your mind."

Joe rolled his eyes. "I'll let you know if I want half the city gone due to arson."

Alex squawked. "I'm not that bad."

The rest of that conversation was cut off by the sound of a helicopter. "There's our rescue."

Alex squinted. "Are you sure it's the right one?"

Joe glared. "I recognize the sound of the helicopter. Let's go."

Alex followed him out.