Summary: Alex is supposed to be an assassin. A bit difficult when he has emotions and a conscience.

Disclaimer: Alex is not mine. More's the pity.

Rating: T/PG-13

Warning(s):
 Violence, mild language, and angst.

Word Count: 4637

Status: Complete

A/N: This was beta'd by Nyxelestia, and written while listening to the song "10th Man Down" by Nightwish.

---

 The fact that the man was the father of two small children shouldn’t have bothered an assassin. Assassins are paid to kill their targets, not to care about said target’s offspring.

The fact that the man was the father of two small children wouldn’t have bothered any assassin other than Alex Rider.

Of course, Alex didn’t even want to be an assassin. Yet here he was, crouching on the top of the roof of an apartment building, ducking behind the low wall more to hide from the biting winter wind than from the target. Nobody in that house expected there to be an assassin sitting across the street from their house, gun in hand. Because, honestly, who could possibly want to kill anyone in that house, that house that was practically glowing with warmth and love?

Alex didn’t, but he didn’t have a choice. He’d already proved himself to Scorpia once before, but they still didn’t trust him as much as he would like, didn’t trust him to do what he had said he would.

He couldn’t blame them; even he didn’t trust himself to actually murder in cold blood. But he’d done it once before, and he could do it again.

Alex took a deep breath of the icy air to calm himself, shivering in the dark cover of night. He could see the target through the bright window. He could see the man sitting in an easy chair, reading a newspaper.

The problem was that he could also see the man’s two little daughters. They were very young, Alex guessed about seven and five respectively. Both had dark hair, big brown eyes, and a great deal of energy. The man was smiling at them over the newspaper as they danced around with dolls in their hands.

Alex was shaking, but not from the cold anymore. How could he kill this man? The man had done nothing wrong, from Alex’s point of view. Scorpia, however, thought differently. The target was a police detective who was digging a little too deep into a murder caused by a Scorpia operative.

The man was just doing his job. Alex was just doing his job. The same thing, the same concept, right?

That was what Alex was trying to convince himself, but it just wasn’t working too well.

Regardless of how he felt, though, he would have to kill this man tonight. He had already delayed the kill two nights, and Scorpia was beginning to get impatient, because while Alex delayed and steeled himself, the target was uncovering and reporting more and more incriminating evidence.

Alex raised the gun, his arms threatened to fall back down again, but he refused to let them. He could do this. He had to do this.

Alex aimed the gun carefully, his finger putting the lightest of pressure on the trigger.

But then one of the little girls hugged her father’s leg, and Alex let the gun fall down onto his lap again.

He took a deep, shuddering breath. This changed nothing. He would still kill this man tonight, but he couldn’t kill him in front of those two innocent little girls. If he did, they would become like him, Alex, old before their time. Watching people die tends to do that to a person.

I’ll wait until they’re out of the room
, Alex promised himself quarter-heartedly. As soon as they’re gone, I’ll do it.

Alex forced himself to watch the family. If he was going to kill this man, then he deserved to know what he was taking away from this family. If he was going to take this man’s life, then he deserved every bit of the extra pain and guilt that he would get from that knowledge.

Alex winced and squeezed his eyes shut tight. The man was now sitting on the floor, playing with the two girls and their dolls. Despite his earlier resolution to watch it all, he didn’t want to open his eyes again. He wanted to turn around and run. Run until Scorpia could never find him, until they could never ask him (force him) to kill for them ever again.

But he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t run because if he did, he’d be running forever, and they would always find him. There was no escaping Scorpia. The only thing that he could do was survive, and the only way to survive was to do what they told him to.

Alex opened his eyes.

There was a woman in the room now, with the same dark hair and eyes as her small daughters. Alex watched as the target kissed her on the cheek. They talked for a few minutes, smiling down at the playing children. Then  the woman smiled and collected the two girls’ hands in her own, walking them over to their father, who smiled and hugged them both, kissing the top of each small head.

The woman walked out of the room with the two girls still holding her hands and skipping along on either side of her.

Alex wanted to yell at them to go back into their living room, but it wouldn’t do any good. They couldn’t hear him through the walls and over the noise of the city traffic on the streets far below them.

Alex lifted the suddenly heavy gun up again, carefully sighting and aiming at the man who was walking back to his easy chair.

He watched with detached interest as the window shattered, and the bullet slammed into the target, making the man jerk and fall over. Alex saw the blood pooling around him as the woman skidded back into the room, probably having heard the glass break.

Even with the glass broken, Alex couldn’t hear the woman scream over the noise of the city. But he saw her mouth open and in his mind, he could hear the scream, full of raw emotion, of shock and pain.

Alex stood up, still detached, and carefully packed away his gun into a backpack, which he slung over his shoulder as he followed his carefully planned escape route.

It wasn’t until he was back in his hotel room that it really sank in. When he fully realized what he had done. That happy family of four was now a grief-stricken family of three, and it was all because of him. All because of Alex.

Alex collapsed onto the floor of his hotel room, crying despite himself.

Why did they say that the first time was the worst? From where Alex was standing, it sure looked like the second time was worse.

--

It had been two months since Alex had been sent to kill the man with the two little girls and the pretty wife. Alex was almost starting to feel safe by now.

But it was just Scorpia lulling him into a false sense of security, Alex realized that now because he had been called in to see Mrs. Rothman.

A man who worked for Scorpia had betrayed them, and Scorpia wanted him dead.

Alex’s mission was fairly straightforward. For an assassination, that is. Alex would have to kill the man, and to him, that was anything but straightforward.

The time from when he had stepped off of the airplane to when he had acquired a small job at the little restaurant that the traitor frequented had passed in a blur. If it hadn’t been crucial to survival, Alex would not have remembered any of it. But it was (everything was on these missions of his), and he did.

Now he was in position, and he was just waiting for his new target to arrive. The man ate at this diner every night. Alex wasn’t sure exactly why someone trained by Scorpia would be stupid enough to follow a pattern like that while an organization like Scorpia was out for his blood.

But it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that the man had just walked in through the door, and sat down on a stool at the counter.

Alex fidgeted nervously, and fingered the knife that was concealed under his jacket. It was cold outside, but it was warm inside, and the gloves were really annoying Alex. They were necessary, however. He didn’t want his fingerprints all over the murder weapon.

The man was chatting amiably with the waitress, smiling as he ordered his meal.

Alex couldn’t hear what was being said, but it didn’t matter. The man wouldn’t get to eat his food anyway, if Alex actually got the nerve to kill again. For the third time since he had joined Scorpia. He couldn’t even remember how many times he had killed before that. Enough for him to be grateful that he didn’t really remember through the safe numbness.

Alex pulled the hood of his hoodie around his face and pulled it tight with the draw string. He grabbed hold of the handle of his knife, and weaved swiftly through the crowded diner.

He wanted to get this over with as quickly as possible, like he was swimming in cold water. Get it over with quickly, and maybe, just maybe, the hypothermia wouldn’t be quite as bad. The same logic stood here. Get it over with quickly and efficiently, and maybe it won’t hurt as much.

Alex was just a few steps shy of the man now. He noticed gratefully that the man was holding his overcoat on his lap. He was only wearing a thin suit coat now, much less resistance for the knife to fight through.

Alex walked behind the man, quickly slamming the knife through the back of his neck and running as fast as he could as the waitress screamed behind him, the noise echoing Alex’s own scream in his head.

But right now, he had to get out of there fast, before the police showed up. If he got arrested, he couldn’t depend on Scorpia to get him out of a murder charge.

Alex didn’t feel quite as guilty this time. The man had betrayed Scorpia, so he died. If Alex hadn’t killed him, then he would have betrayed Scorpia, and he would be killed. So Alex didn’t feel guilty, but that didn’t stop him from hating himself even more now for taking yet another life.

He told himself that he would never do it again, but he was lying to himself. He knew that if Scorpia told him to kill someone else, he would do it, no matter how much he didn’t want to, no matter how much it would kill him inside.

A month later, he was proved right.

--

This time, he was being sent to some obscure place in a desert. He wasn’t sure where, and he didn’t care. All he knew was that he was supposed to be killing the leader of a rival organization. According to Mrs. Rothman, if this leader was taken out, then it would take a long time for the organization to claw its way back onto its feet.

Alex had been working on self-inflicted memory loss. The little that he remembered about his fourth assassination was blurry. He remembered the heat of the desert, the weight of the gun in his hand, and the ever-present sand that managed to find hidden pathways into everything.

And even those memories were slipping into the very back of his mind, where he hoped they would stay hidden forever.

But Alex couldn’t forget the pain. It wasn’t quite a physical pain, but it ached and burned more than anything that had ever happened to him on all of his missions for MI6.

The pain was the result of committing the ultimate crime: taking a human’s life. Alex wished that he could just get used to that pain already. No, he wished that he could just get used to killing already. Might as well cut the pain off at its source.

But he knew that he never would. The only thing that he could possibly do would be to shove it away from himself. Or, more accurately, shove himself away from himself.  If he could become enough detached, then maybe (yet another maybe) he wouldn’t feel it.

Alex’s main objective was no longer just survival. Survival and numbness sounded a whole hell of a lot more appealing.

Apparently he looked too numb and detached for Nile’s taste though. The older man had arranged a celebration of sorts for Alex’s fourth assassination. Because apparently even assassins liked parties.

“Cheer up, mate!” Nile said, slapping Alex on the shoulder. “You just made your fourth kill. You aren’t allowed to be depressed!”

“Some rush, huh?” another man said to Alex eagerly.

Alex forced a grin and tried to at least <i>sound</i> excited. “Yeah, some rush.”

Nile raised his glass in the air. “To Alex’s fourth kill!”

“Fourth man down!” the other assassins cheered loudly, draining their glasses.

--

Alex had only two weeks of safety this time. Just two weeks to try to forget what he had done.
 
He trained, practiced, and studied every waking minute, and he suspected he did the same every sleeping minute too with how tired he was constantly.

Training and studying fighting and assassination probably wasn’t the best way to forget killing people, but it was all that he could do at the Scorpia base that would tire him out enough to sleep at all.

But it was still two weeks of not having to do anything he didn’t want to, of not having to kill anyone.

Then the two weeks were over, and he was sent on another mission. Some American politician who was too lazy to actually win over the people (or maybe just plain incapable of doing so) wanted his competition taken out.
He’d enrolled in a school just in time to go on a fieldtrip to the Senate, and here he was now, waiting to shoot the target.

If Scorpia hadn’t set it up perfectly for Alex, he might have found it very difficult to get to the target. But Scorpia did set it up perfectly, and Alex was in position all too soon, readying his gun.

And then there was that one moment where the gun and Alex seemed to just meld together, where the gun seemed to be a part of Alex. And then Alex was pulling the trigger, and it felt natural. And that, more than anything, scared Alex. It wasn’t supposed to feel natural. It was supposed to feel like the worst thing in the world. It was supposed to hurt physically, emotionally…

But no. It felt natural.

Alex was just sitting there, warring with himself, when he should have been running. But then he remembered the plan and he managed to start running.

Even running and almost being caught by security didn’t scare him as much as pulling the trigger had.

Even almost getting caught by the police didn’t scare him as much as that.

Alex didn’t know how he made it back to Scorpia’s waiting pincers in the state that he was in, but he did.
 
And that was most definitely a bad thing. The thing that he was scared of was caused by Scorpia, yet he still ran back to them. He didn’t want it to feel natural, but maybe that was the key to survival. He couldn’t enjoy killing, he could never do that, but maybe it would be okay if it didn’t hurt as much.

He hated how natural it felt, but it was much better than the pain.

What was that that the other assassins had said? When they’d cheered? “Fourth man down.”

It was five now. Fifth man down.

--

By the time his next assignment rolled around three weeks later, Alex had somehow lost the numbness. He didn’t know how or why, only that this time it would be even harder than it had been in the past.

What made it even worse was that Alex wouldn’t be working alone on this one. The Triads had contacted Scorpia with a job. Or, more accurately, most of the Triads had. The branch that they wanted taken out probably weren’t waiting in line to order their own deaths.

Alex didn’t know what the rogue branch was doing to warrant the rest of the Triads to band together and pay up to get rid of them, and nobody told him. He was just called in by Mrs. Rothman, was told to pack his bags and select some weapons to take with him, and then he was pushed unceremoniously onto a plane.

He didn’t remember much about the plane ride, just that it was very quiet for ten people being on it. The only other thing that he remembered at all clearly was the expressions on the other passengers’ faces: all of them looked very serious, but they also seemed to be almost quivering with anticipation.

Alex, on the other hand, was sure that he looked terrified, and probably nauseous. That’s certainly how he felt, anyway.  

He remembered what happened after they arrived. He remembered it all too well, actually.

The Triads weren’t the average, petty little organization. No, they were more like Scorpia than Alex had ever seen in another organization except for maybe MI6. Their security was tight, especially so when Alex and the other Scorpia agents went in. Scorpia had chosen a time when they could take most of the leadership of the rogue branch out with one blow.

Alex had quickly realized that Scorpia was well within their egotistical rights to believe that their agents were the best. If they didn’t they would have never sent them in with this plan, because if they failed, it might be a long time before they had another opportunity like this one.

Alex’s job wasn’t to engage in any battles. His job was to just get through the air ducts and shoot the biggest honcho behind the rogue branch. The other agents would take care of the other, lesser leaders.

Alex was the only agent small enough to fit through the air ducts. Theoretically, his part in the plan was the easiest imaginable, because he was going in before any fighting had even started.

When Alex was in position, waiting for the signal to shoot, he had the dubious pleasure of listening to the man he was supposed to shoot talking to his son on his mobile about a football game that, from what Alex gathered, the boy had kicked the winning goal for.

Theoretically, his job was easy. But when Mrs. Rothman had told him that, she hadn’t known that Alex wasn’t as cold of a killer as he pretended to be.

His mobile vibrated against his leg. The signal. Alex didn’t want to, but he sighted carefully, and pulled the trigger, cutting the target off mid-congratulations.

The last thing that the man’s son heard of his father was a gasp and then a thud as he collapsed, blood pumping out of the neat hole on his forehead.

The blood symbolized one thing to Alex: sixth man down.

--

Alex was given six blessed weeks of peace, where the only thing he had to do was forget all the awful things that he had done. Six weeks where he didn’t have to add more memories to the burning pile.

Alex’s mission was, as per usual, fairly straight forward. Some Hollywood celebrity (he didn’t know who she was exactly. Even before everything with MI6 and Scorpia, he hadn’t watched much TV) was mad at some starlet who had, apparently, stolen away the man that she had been having an affair with.

Supposedly, the woman’s husband had left her when he found out. So now, the celebrity lady wanted the starlet dead.

A long time ago, Jack had jokingly told Alex to never snub a woman. He’d laughed it off then, but he agreed with her whole-heartedly now.

Alex had gotten to spend a day lying around on a beach in LA. He hadn’t been able to get to the starlet until now.
 
It was ridiculously easy. Alex had situated himself at the back of the house, with a clear view of the window of her bedroom. He felt a bit like a peeping tom with a sniper rifle.

When the target came into her room, she wasn’t alone. She had who Alex assumed was the man she had stolen from the other woman with her. Alex waited for the man to turn to the mini bar that the starlet kept in her room, his back to both the target and the window.

Then Alex calmly, almost casually, lifted his rifle up to his shoulder and took aim. The man turned around right after the glass of the window shattered, soon enough to catch the target as Alex left the scene of yet another bleeding head.

This time there was a feeling of accomplishment, accomplishment in his seventh kill, seventh man down, than there was of guilt.

--

Alex had another four weeks off then. He was happy that he had time off, but he found that he wasn’t dreading the coming mission as much as usual when he walked into Mrs. Rothman’s office. Every time he had come here, she had asked him if he was enjoying himself. For the first time, Alex was able to answer that yes, he was happy.

An MI6 agent had gotten caught trying to infiltrate a Scorpia building. Mrs. Rothman said that they suspected that MI6 was looking for Alex.

“He got into some of our records,” she explained. “He might have seen yours.”

“Why don’t you ask him if he did or not?” Alex asked, not yet sure why he had been called here. He’d only ever been here if he was being sent on a mission, and he didn’t see what the mission would be now.

“He escaped,” Mrs. Rothman explained, simply. Alex could tell by the way her lips were pressed together that she was much less than pleased that her people had let the agent get away.

“And you want me to get him back here?” Alex guessed.

Mrs. Rothman shook her head. “I don’t want him back in my facility when he’s proved that he’s resourceful enough to get away. It’s too risky. No, I want you to kill him.”

Alex nodded, then he turned and walked out of the office.

The agent hadn’t made it too far. He had been shot in the arm when he had escaped, and he had lost strength. Alex hunted him down quickly. It would have been much more difficult if the Scorpia facility hadn’t been situated in the wilderness, where the agent couldn’t disappear into a crowd, and where it was much easier to follow a trail.

And the agent had left quite a trail. Not at first, but after about a mile, the trail was more and more obvious, and soon speckled with blood.

Alex nearly fell over the agent. The man stared up at him with fevered eyes, and he moaned “Help me,” weakly, obviously not realizing that Alex was with Scorpia.
 
“Sorry,” Alex said, and shot him in the head. Point blank. He didn’t even shrink back when the blood spattered all over him. He smiled slightly. The numbness was still there.

There was some regret, but there wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of guilt, as there would have been before after shooting anyone from that close. Or from anywhere, really.

Alex pulled his radio out of his pocket and contacted Scorpia to come pick the agent up.

He added another number, another face, to his list. Eighth man down.

--

Three weeks. It had been three weeks since Alex had shot the agent. He was feeling restless. He’d gotten bored of the Scorpia facility. He needed to get out and do something.

He was almost grinning as he came out of Mrs. Rothman’s office. He had a mission.

Two days later, Alex found himself at a nearly-empty park in London. He was wearing joggers, a hoodie and trainers. And a pistol, of course. In a shoulder holster that was concealed under the baggy hoodie.

His eyes were constantly roving around while he jogged, waiting for the target to arrive. He should be arriving soon.

There. Alex spotted him. He was carrying a picnic basket while his wife walked beside him, carrying a baby, with a little boy following behind, holding a football. Alex stopped running when he passed behind a bush, and he pulled his gun out of its holster.

He didn’t pause, didn’t hesitate at all. He just took aim and pulled the trigger, leaving yet another little round hole. His ninth. Ninth man to fall because of Alex.

Unlike his second assignment, he could hear the man’s family scream.

That was when Alex made his mistake. He didn’t run like he was supposed to.

He stood there and watched the remainders of the family.

Watched as the little boy ran up to his daddy and begged him, yelled at him to wake up.

Watched as the man’s wife set the baby down and pulled a mobile out of her pocket with shaking hands.

Watched as the numbness slipped away from him.

He watched until he heard the sirens. Then he finally came to his senses and ran.

He didn’t even realize that he was back to the hotel that he was staying at until he found himself collapsed on the floor in his bathroom, gasping for breath.

He was sobbing, and it felt as if each sob was trying to kill him.

Nine people. He’d killed nine people. How could he have done that? How could he have hurt all those people, their families, their friends?

Alex watched, helpless as images flashed before his eyes. Images of everyone that he’d killed. Images of the light fading out of their eyes, and of bright red blood seeping, no, flooding, out of them.

Alex was gasping for breath, his fingers scrabbling desperately on the slick floor of the bathroom, trying crawl out of the guilt that threatened to swallow him whole. Swallow him like a black hole… He could feel the pull of it, calling him in, while the only thing that he wanted to do was escape. Escape and just run as far away from Scorpia, from MI6, from everybody, as he possibly could.

But he couldn’t run. The images were still flashing through his head, surrounding him, drowning him in bright red blood, pulling him down.

Alex’s hands hit the counter, and he tried to pull himself to his feet. But instead of him standing up, his bag fell down on top of him, and one of his many, many knives fell out of it, gleaming and sharp.

His breath caught on a sob, and he grabbed at the handle of it. He missed the handle, but the pain as his hand caught the sharp edge of the knife cleared his head a little. Just a little. Not near enough.

He gripped at it harder, but it was still not enough.

He shifted his hand to the handle, and shoved the knife into his stomach. The pain was immediate, and strong enough to pull him out of the black hole he was falling into.

His head was clear enough to realize that there was too much blood pumping out of his stomach. He was dying, and there was nothing he could do about it.
 
But he didn’t care. He was dying, and he didn’t care. He didn’t deserve to live. He had killed all those people, ruined all those families.

He wanted to die.

He lay there on the floor as the darkness crept up around, pulling him down again, but not into the pain again. Into nothing. Just darkness everywhere…

Alex Rider was the tenth man down.

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