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Special Forces Chapter XXVI: Local Hero
 
 

August 1991, the Persian Gulf

Two days later, at the break of dawn and after a night of pool, beer and good-byes to his mates, Dan was standing in front of the tin-clad shithole that had been his home for the last few months. Heavy bergan strapped to his back, sports bag standing at his side. Shades over his eyes, he was dressed in mostly civilian kit. Khaki t-shirt, desert coloured cross-draw vest on top, its pockets filled with the necessities of his life. Combat trousers, webbed belt keeping them secured, and his customary boots - British Forces desert issue, not any longer the Lowa ones. No armour, no weapon, no nothing. Except for the trusty assault knife he always carried on his body.

Dan felt naked, missed the protective combat attire, but fuck, he was nothing but a civvie right now, being taken to his next place of deployment by a US Air Force medical supply patrol. He should be thankful to the Yanks that they'd agreed to take the Merc.

Letting his eyes run slowly across the tin huts, he stalled at one, then at another, finally glancing at the Mess tent. Too early for breakfast, good thing he'd been friendly with the scran assassin and had a stack of sandwiches in his bag. A bottle of water on his webbing, and a two litre plastic one in the bergan. Nothing worse than getting dehydrated in the heat.

That was it, then, the Gulf was done and over with. He shrugged to himself before picking up his bag and slinging the PLCE webbing across one shoulder. At least webbing and soft kit were his own. Trusty old stuff, from his army days. Outdated and worn-out but still functional, just like himself. Forty-one, not quite on the scrap heap yet.

Turning round, he forced himself to think nothing at all. Empty mind and memories, the only way to exist. His boots threw up small clouds of red dust as he made his way towards the exit of the camp. Dan padded down his trouser pocket, felt for the official papers that allowed him into the US base and onto the patrol ride. They'd drop off a couple of cases of antibiotics first, before delivering him to his temporary destination.

New start in old boots, and the memories forever a part of his luggage.

* * *

None of the guys in the Huey, that was chugging along the edge of the Iraqi desert, saw the flash of the RPG launcher that had been camouflaged amongst a low outcrop of rocks. Neither aware of the grenade's smoke trail, racing towards the helicopter.

The US crew and their passenger were instantly shaken when a mighty impact hit the chopper, cracking the tail boom of the Huey in the explosion. "Shit!" Dan exclaimed, half-thrown off his makeshift seat of metal drugs boxes. He stared at loadmaster and winchman opposite to him. The jolt had been hard enough to make him bounce on his unforgiving seat. "What the fuck?"

He got no answer, the two crew members busily gesticulating at each other, but Dan didn't need anyone to explain to him what the hell had happened when the rotor stopped spinning with a horrible grinding sound. He knew, with chilling clarity, they'd been hit by an RPG. Craning his neck, Dan could make out the pilot shouting over the noise to his co-pilot, helped by the intercom, but impossible to hear for Dan who was out of the loop. No uniform, no safety, no helmet. The pilots' voices drowned out by ear-splitting noise from the tail boom.

Controlled action broke out as the chopper kept moving forward, then shuddered and started to spin. First slowly, then picking up speed. Dan was holding on to the open door and looked at the winchman, knowing they were in deep shit, and from the Yank's facial expression, he wasn't the only one who realised the extent of trouble. "Fuck!" Dan muttered, gritting his teeth and cursing civvie clothing that left him with no protection. A soft target of the highest calibre. Both of the crew members were strapped into seats that could absorb at least some of the impact, but he as the third man and passenger was utterly fucked. Sitting upright on the boxes with no protection, the crash would most likely break his spine. Well done, Dan, old dog, what a way to die, smashed into pieces and crushed like eggshells - but he wasn't ready yet.

Both pilot and co-pilot were shouting towards the back of the Huey to get down and hold on. Dan immediately scrambled off the boxes and threw himself spread-eagled into the narrow space on the ground, just about fitting his legs between the two crew members' seats, with his head too fucking close to the metal drugs boxes. The chopper was starting to spin so violently, he hardly managed to get hold of his bergan and stuff it into the space between boxes and himself, trying to keep his head from being ripped off. That would be another damn messy way to go and he wasn't ready for that one either. He'd survived the goddamned Afghan mountains, he wanted at least a fighting chance now. Trying to spread the impact across his body, pressed flat onto the steel floor.

He was sweating, heart racing. Life and death, too bloody close to death right now, the risk embodied in the metal of an aging chopper that wasn't even fit for combat anymore. What a fucking pathetic way to die after all the shit he'd been through. The spin accelerated and Dan couldn't quite make out what the loadmaster was shouting at him, impossible to understand over the noise of rushing air and blood pounding in his ears. Managed to grab hold with his left to a metal bar behind the pilot's seat, just as the accelerator spin slammed his legs and hip against the frame of the open door and wrenched his wrist, sending a jolt of pain through his entire body. Dan cursed before locking his jaws, somehow managing to get hold of the bar with his right hand as well, hanging on for dear life with his legs half-dangling out of the side door. That was it. If he had used up a few lives in Afghanistan already, this was the last one of them all. He'd pray if he could remember how and if he believed in anything at all, but had no thoughts left except regret, loss, love and hate and all-over love again and most of all the burning greed to live! Not die in a mangled mess alongside a bunch of Yanks, who were nothing but fucking children.

Dan barely made out the distress signal above the deafening racket. Frantic radio messages, relayed back to the US Military camp, while the pilot did all he could to bring the bird down with the least possible damage. Repeating again and again "UH-1 going down. Going down. UH-1 hit and going down. UH-1 going down."

The Huey was doing an awkward counter rotation as it fell, making two final turns clockwise, nose up, until its front end was suddenly cast down violently in such an unfortunate angle, the nose hit the ground violently. Dan was screaming in pain when his body was torn towards the left, his entire side crashing once more against metal bars, wall, interior and door frame, and his left wrist wrenched ten times harder than before. He could hear the sickening sound of bones breaking amidst the thunderous noise when the chopper hit heat-baked sand almost straight-on. The ground was as hard as concrete and the Huey had enough velocity to start flipping over onto its back in what seemed like agonising slow motion. Accompanied by terrifying screeching sounds of distorting metal. At the moment of impact the main rotors snapped off and went flying, part of the debris crashing through the warped roof, some of it entering through the open door. The body of the helicopter bore itself deeper into the ground, nose first, pilot and co-pilot taking the impact. There were screams and deafening noise, but Dan couldn't make out anymore what was human voices and what was the steel shrieking in agony, when the bird veered towards the left side, destroying part of the cockpit - front and side.

Then there was silence. Sudden. Deadly.

Dan lay still. Breathing in dust and fumes, waiting for an explosion, but nothing happened. For one long second the world seemed to stand still, frozen after the crash, steeped in pain. Agony from his left wrist, pain along his entire leg and hip, his ribs, but he could breathe. Could feel. Felt the goddamned pain and knew he was alive. Tried to move his fingers, toes, hands, knew, then, the left wrist was fractured. Fucking left, again, but he should be thankful.

No more than two seconds passed since the bird had crashed, with Dan still checking out his ribs, arms, legs, when a far worse noise started. Moans, a muffled cry from across the seats, nonsensical stifled screams and more groans, mixed with sounds that didn't seem to make sense.

"Hey!" Dan called out, "everyone OK?" Managed to move, thank fuck, only his wrist useless, left hand hanging at a freaky angle. Grunting against the pain with clenched teeth, he lifted his head and started to scramble to his feet. He wasn't the only one who realised seconds after the crash that they had to get out of the chopper. His shout came almost at the same time as the voice from the cockpit. Seemed to be the pilot, in a lot of pain. "Need a little help here, guys. Scott got it I think."

Dan managed to get to his knees, nursing his hand and looking around. Fuck. Carnage. Saw the loadmaster hanging lifeless on his seat which was half-torn off the chopper wall, and the winchman … shit. Dan's eyes widened. "Holy fuck." Muttered when he stared straight into panicked wide eyes of the young guy, who had been nailed to the Huey by a broken piece of rotor stuck through the chest, near to his shoulder. Dan raised his good hand and nodded to him. "Hang on, don't move." As if. Fuck again.

Turned his head before managing to shuffle around, still on his knees and wanting to scream at the agony all along his side, but forced his old and battered body to comply. Nothing except for the wrist was broken. Stop whinging, Mad Dog, and shut the fuck up.

"Give me a sec." Dan called out to the pilot. "One man unconscious back here, the other injured. I'm alright." Peered over the front seats. "You alright, Jackson?" Remembered the pilot's name tag. He could see the co-pilot's helmet before he managed to get up. The sight of the unnatural angle of the guy's head told Dan all he needed to know. Jackson had been right, his co-pilot was dead.

"Not quite alright." Jackson answered, voice strained. "Got to get the comm link up, the thing's fucked."

"Got it." Dan answered, stood at last, swayed, got himself under control and used his right hand to check as quick as he could over the co-pilot. "Afraid you're right." Glanced at the name tag, "Campbell's dead." Turned his head to check on the two guys in the back. "The kid's not looking good. What about you?" He could see the blood in the pilot's lap, creeping from the thigh up the fabric of the flight overalls.

"My leg." Jackson spoke through gritted teeth, nevertheless working on the comm. "Broken." Messy. Dirty. "Hurts like fuck, but I'm alive." A miracle he wasn't unconscious. "Deal with the others, I'll be alright." The pilot craned his head and caught Dan's eyes, who nodded.

"Whatever arsehole fired the RPG, they'll have seen us going down and they'll be coming for us." Dan felt an adrenaline rush at his own words. They had to get out and away or they'd be more fucked than they already were. "Hurry up with that comm, mate."

Jackson nodded, reached to his side and Dan could see sweat patches forming on the uniform. That guy was tough. Full marks for the Yank.

Dan turned back, no more than a couple of minutes had passed, when he saw movement from the loadmaster. At least that one wasn't dead, even though bleeding from the neck. He'd deal with him later, since it was the young bumfuck who gave the greatest reason to worry. "Hang on in there, kid." Dan moved closer, inspected the entry point of the razor sharp edge of the rotor blade shrapnel. "I have to strap up my wrist first, alright?" Dan kept the kid's attention and the big glassy eyes focussed on him. He could see the pain written all across the pale and sweating face, even though he was probably in too much shock still to be aware of the full extent of pain. Pain, and fear. Shit, this Yank really was nothing but a kid, even Matt was a grown up compared to the guy. Eighteen, he had overheard Johnson chatting with the loadmaster earlier, and his first deployment.

Dan ripped the first aid box from the wall. Aware of the irony that he had been sitting on boxes with medical supplies, which were bloody useless for them. Managed to open the box with right hand and teeth, fished out the sturdiest bandage he could find and cursed under his breath while trying to open the cellophane. He could feel the kid's eyes on him all the time and looked up, nodding to him. "Just a sec, OK? What's your name? Can't see your nametag from here. I'm Dan, but they call me Mad Dog." Kept the kid's focus, who was starting to fade out of consciousness. Shit, that wouldn't do, remembered that much from his Battlefield First Aid training, a lifetime ago.

"Johnson."

Dan had been focussing on the bandage that was finally open, surprised at the voice. Strained but audible Good, perhaps that little bumfuck would turn out to be a fighter. He was digging his teeth into one end of the bandage, when he heard the voice again.

"Chris Johnson. I …" the kid trailed off, and Dan could see how his fist clenched surreptitiously while the face beneath the helmet was drenched in sweat, pale with diluted eyes.

"Hurts like fuck, aye?"

The kid tried to nod, obviously suppressing a whimper, which caused Dan to forget about his wrist for a moment.

"You got morphine?"

Again Johnson silently nodded and Dan kept the bandage between his teeth while reaching for the syrette around the soldier's neck. Yanking it off, he slammed it into Chris' thigh, who barely twitched.

Taking the bandage from his teeth, Dan murmured, "You'll feel better in a sec. Trust me, kid." As he watched Johnson's baby-blue eyes loose focus almost with immediate effect. Good. He wouldn't scream too much.

He suddenly heard another voice, sounding disoriented.

"Need help?"

Dan looked up, saw the loadmaster wiping blood off his neck then testing limb after limb. Dan grinned, relieved. "Aye, need to strap up before I'm useful. Need to hurry up. You alright? Any fractures?"

The loadmaster's eyes were dark in the shadow of his helmet, and so were his features, smeared with blood. Dan could just about make out the name tag. Martinez. That would explain the eyes.

Martinez shook his head, groaned, then stilled the movement and held his head in his hands for a moment. "No, seems I was lucky." He got off the seat, stepped over to Dan and took the bandage and a flexi-tube, strapping both as tightly as possible around the fractured wrist without cutting the blood off. Dan was gritting his teeth at the pain, hitting his thigh with the good fist once or twice, but the Yank was fast and the wrist secured as best as possible in the shortest time.

"Think I got concussion." Martinez finished his task.

Dan nodded, "What the fuck happened here and how did we get into this shit?"

"RPG." Jackson shouted from the front, while working frantically despite his injury. "Martinez, it got Campbell."

The loadmaster frowned. "Fuck." Muttered, started to take full notice of his surroundings and the magnitude of what had happened. Intercepted by Dan who had fished a sterile bandage out of the box, handing it over.

"Get your neck taped up. I deal with Johnson. Will need your help in a minute." Martinez nodded, slowly, began to do as told, and Dan wondered if he'd just found the secret to getting out of the mess they were in. Get them to listen to what he told them to do. Brit or not. Non military or not. The situation was only going to get worse and rapidly so, and he was the most seasoned soldier of the lot. Ex SAS. Twenty years behind enemy lines. It was up to him. How much time before whoever shot them down was going to find them? The faster they got out of there the better their chances.

"Can you move, kid?" Dan asked Chris, but the Yank was barely conscious, just as expected. Knocked out by the morphine. "OK, seems that dammed rotor went right through you and into the chopper. We have to get out of here ASAP, you understand? We have to move you. Afraid you'll have to grit your teeth."

Johnson's tongue darted out, moistening his lips, but he clearly wasn't with it. Leaving Dan to hope that the guy felt nothing at all.

Dan glanced at Martinez, "You into First Aid?" The loadmaster tried to shake his head and Dan cursed when he was told that Campbell had been the best trained medic on that flight. Scott Campbell, still strapped into his seat, dead with a broken neck and legs that had been smashed by the impact.

"OK, Chris." Dan chose the first name, never got that business of addressing a comrade with their surname. Fuck their custom, he didn't care, he was running this show in his own way. British, crazy, unorthodox, and with the ultimate chance of survival. "Listen, kid, we have to leave her little present in your chest for now, until they can get a medevac here and fly you back into camp."

"Any luck with the comm?" Dan didn't receive an affirmative, and waved the loadmaster closer.

"Need your help here." Glancing at Martinez, "what's your first name?" The guy looked surprised but complied. "Gary."

Dan nodded. "Alright, Gary, my wrist's fucked, I need you to take over most of the work. I steady this end of the rotor blade and you pull Chris off." Martinez was getting into position. Clearly, getting told what to do was doing the trick. Jackson was letting out a muffled cry of pain from the front, but Dan couldn't be bothered with another casualty right now. Shit, he wasn't even a medic, he was bumbling along on half remembered facts, years of experience in the field and whatever else he had picked up along the way. "God help us." Murmured, too quiet to be overhead, and he wasn't even a believer.

Glancing at Martinez, Dan got into position, steadying the sharp metal with his right hand, planting himself on the ground, legs braced. Ignoring the pain along his battered left side. "On three." Heard Johnson whimper when Martinez grabbed hold of him, and saw him bite down hard to stop another cry escaping, despite the morphine. "One, two," Dan took a deep breath, "three!"

Martinez pulled hard, Johnson screamed in agony, out of his head, and then he fell silent the moment the rotor was pulled free. The kid's unconscious torso fell forward, just about caught by Dan who stumbled backwards, but kept his balance. "Shit!" Martinez exclaimed, caught hold of Johnson, leaned him back against the wall.

"Holy fuck." Dan wiped his bloodied hand on his trousers, saw the extend of the wound at the back. "We have to get a medevac." Didn't think the kid had a chance if he wasn't treated within a few hours. "Get him bandaged up, we need to carry him. See what you can find to pad the damned bits that are sticking out." Martinez nodded, started without another delay before Johnson regained consciousness. Morphine or not, he'd be in a shitload of pain far too soon.

Jackson was calling from the front. "Got it! Probably only a few minutes. The power is fucked." The comm seemed to come to life with a faint sound. "I'll give them our position."

Dan suddenly woke up, hit by a realisation much worse than the fucking grenade itself. They had crashed about ten minutes ago. Maybe fifteen. Difficult to keep track in a fucked-up situation like that.

"No." He turned, ducked his head and crouched towards the cockpit, avoiding a twisted metal beam. "You can't do that."

Jackson was looking at him as if he had lost his mind, but Dan paid no heed. He knew what they had to do.

"Whoever the fuck blew us out of the sky isn't regular Iraqi Army. Those guys are done and dusted, they are history. Whoever did that is a renegade bastard who hasn't cottoned on that they are supposed to have surrendered. And those bastards are itching to find the chopper and butcher whoever is still alive. Make an example and all that shit."

Jackson didn't seem convinced yet, shook his head. "We need a medevac, like, now. My leg's fucked, Johnson sounded as if we were doing the butchering all on our own, and we have to get out of here."

"Aye," Dan nodded, "we do. But I know a way how, without giving out the exact position over the comm link. It's unsecured, isn't it?" Jackson nodded, his face a sweaty mask of pain. "Thought so." Dan's eyes narrow. "They'll be listening in, I bet my eight inches of Prime Scots Beef on that. We need to get away from the wreck within the next ten minutes and we need to keep moving. We can make it harder for those bastards to find us."

Jackson slowly handed the microphone over when Dan held out his good hand. "Trust me. I'll get us out." He leaned against the shoulder of the co-pilot's corpse to move it out of the way and reached for the mic, fingers of his good hand firmly around it. "I'm not Mad Dog for nothing."

Someone had to take charge, and he was going to do just that.

Afghanistan, a crazy Russian and years of fucked-up love had to be good for something.

* * *

That morning, back in camp, Vadim had got up and to work like every other day.

But that day, Dan was gone. People looked at him, as if they expected him to go berserk. Jean seemed on the verge of leaving him behind that day on duty, then seemed to decide that work was a good distraction. Vadim didn't give a fuck. Life without Dan continued, like it had every time Dan vanished into the mountains. It wasn't different. Some part of him still waited for the other's return. And some part couldn't bear the thought.

He should be grateful he was still intact, that he was free, that he could repay his debts. He wasn't pondering death that day. He did the job, knowing he could go on like that.

They returned to camp, and Vadim could feel the change in the air. He stood near the jeep, drinking water, when one of the guys came running for Jean, clamouring about a shot down helicopter.

Jean, covered in red dust, gave a curse, then glanced quickly at Vadim, alarm in his eyes, and Vadim knew it was Dan's helicopter. Some knowledge was visceral and needed no confirmation. From the excited noises the man was making, the Americans had lost a transport Huey, and it had crashed somewhere, with its Yank crew and a passenger. They assumed insurgents. Rogue units. The rumour mill was spinning. Presidential Guard, Muslim fanatics. Uncanny, uncanny resemblance. They knew nothing yet.

Vadim watched and listened, the men were talking like he wasn't there, the news sensational enough to keep everybody preoccupied. They were talking about chances for casualties, how big the crew was, and what was the best way to bring a Huey down. How to crash it without killing everybody inside. Dan dead? Impossible. He'd survived a car bombing.

And yet. After all the effort to die by his hand, wouldn't it be ironic if Dan died now? Some kind of "fuck you", but then, Dan didn't want to die. He survived, because he could. Vadim just didn't believe it, even though he had seen men die, too many to disbelieve in death. But if he had, what had his last thought been? His last word? Anything, anything at all. Vadim felt his stomach churn and reached for a bottle of water that one of the guys offered him. Alive. Dying?

He knew one thing: They'd go and try recover the bodies and possibly blow up the wreck. And they had to act swiftly. Fucking Americans. They'd do the job, whatever he did. He wanted to set out by himself, but he didn't even know in which direction to march, and nobody in this camp seemed to know that, either. Jean headed towards the command tent. That was the place where the news would be coming in, if anybody bothered to tell them.

It was unlikely, damned unlikely the Yanks would ask them to do anything in the matter, or even share the information. Vadim couldn't decide to hand his rifle in, didn't feel hungry. Just got the water down for the moment, standing there, staring at the tent. Fuck it. If the call came, he'd be ready.

He was starting to make preparations. Calmed his mind. Dan. Dead. He'd have to see the charred remains to believe it, truly believe it. And unless the Yanks actively kept him from it, he'd get proof. Invited or not. He had nothing to lose, and he didn't give a fuck about the contract.

* * *

The radio link was up, and Dan knew he only had a few minutes. Crucial moments that would decide about life and death. With one eye watching Martinez work on delivering first aid to the still unconscious kid, the other noticing how Jackson had ripped open a first aid box and was trying to stem the blood of his injury.

"UH-1 calling HQ." Dan listened intently to the faint signal, focussing on his words, repeating them again and again until he finally got a reply. Seemed they'd been waiting for news, probably frantically, no surprise there. His momentary smirk was grim.

It took only seconds before Dan realised that explaining to the stupid Yank operator who he was - without using his name - seemed to be impossible. he was forced to hand the mic back to Jackson, hoping that voice recognition would do the trick.

"Shit!" Dan muttered, when the damned pilot was careless enough to identify himself, mentioning Campbell as KIA. He could only hope whoever had shot them down and was no doubt listening in on the transmission, hadn't been quick enough to catch up on the information. "Get on with it." Dan frowned, gesticulating to Martinez to get the pilot out of his seat and see to his injuries, before taking hold of the comm once more.

"The Brit here." Avoiding names, numbers, dates, times, places, truths, any fucking thing. "You understand? Shot down, as Jackson said. Enemy territory." No secrets, there. "No more information. Unsecured line."

"Give me the Russian cunt."

The reaction on the other end was nothing but sheer confusion. "Did you copy?" Dan's voice grew more tense. "I will not speak to anyone but the Russian madman. British camp. Do you copy?" Voice getting louder. "The Russian. He will understand." Dan was met with ignorance or unwillingness, he didn't know nor cared. "For fuck's sake, we have a few minutes on battery power and a bunch of arseholes out to finish us off," not a secret anywhere, "do what I ask you to."

Silence, they still wouldn't comply, until he shouted at last: "You stupid fucking piece of a fucking thick Yank plank! Do you want to get us all killed? Your whole precious crew? Get the fucking Russian merc on the comm! Now!"

That seemed to do the trick. At last. They were running out of precious time with every second.

* * *

Back in the British camp somebody hammered both hands against the tin shack. Vadim closed the bergan, stood, crossed the distance, opened the door abruptly.

"Russian? You? Merc?" asked the soldier, and Vadim noticed what was odd about him. He was young and wore British camo, like they actually did. Not a merc, this one. The guy stared up into his face, like confronted with some fairy tale monster then gulped air. "You. They want you over at the other camp. Urgent. Uhm, Sir."

Vadim waved the rank off and ran after the kid, bergan already packed and by his side. Jean was in the damned jeep, too. Seemed they had rounded up everything that fitted the 'Russian' and 'merc' bill. Vadim didn't meet the legionnaire's eyes, but saw that the other was worried. If he hadn't been so worried himself, he'd be fucking jealous.

The kid drove them over into the Brit camp proper - just a few hundred yards, then ran them towards the HQ tent. A bunch of officers and NCOs stood around a comm unit. Vadim was greeted with nods, and they indicated the radio as if he knew what to do with it. Dan? His pulse went from around normal fifty beats to twohundred. He leaned down, took the piece. "Copy. I'm listening."

"Thank fuck, at last." Dan's voice was audible despite the interference in the unstable signal.

Dan. Heart went from twohundred to nil. Then started beating again, steady and strong and fast, like at the beginning of sex. Alive.

Dan switched to Russian within the next heartbeat. "No names. No details." Knew there were possibly two men in the British camp who'd understand, but probably none amongst the Yanks. But he counted only on one. When the shit hit the fan there was only one left. Despite everything. Despite pain, hatred and loss. How bloody ironic. "The fucking arsewipes shot us down. RPG. One KIA." Jackson had already let that slip, but he'd not be making anymore mistakes.

Vadim strained to hear more, breaths, as if he could deduct more from any sensory input. Moans, pain. Dan didn't sound wounded much, but that might just be the adrenaline.

"I need you to transcribe our position."

"Copy." Vadim nodded towards a pad at the end of the table, and Jean pushed it over. Bastard spoke Russian, too. "I'm listening."

Dan stuck to Russian, eyes half-closed, concentrating on every word while delving into memories. All those memories that he had refused to remember, now their only chance to stay alive. "Need medevac, urgently. Status of crew, one, young, probably like India."

India. Dan in the white bed, the white room, yellow and thin. He put the pen to paper, wrote: 'Crew #1: young, fucked. Shrapnel/explosion(?)'

"One, older, functional but bound to deteriorate, suffered what you had in 1983, Autumn, when we couldn't fuck in Kabul, due to your state." Dan didn't give a shit right now who could understand what he was saying.

Kabul. He had been wounded in '83? Couldn't fuck. Ah. His head, the nausea, no way he could bear any strain, any shifting of his axis, anything with his neck. Whiplash and concussion. Vadim wrote: 'Crew #2, older, functional at present, due to concussion and/or whiplash, getting worse.'

He glanced up, saw Jean look at him with a funny expression. Yes, we used to fuck, and yes, I used to get injured, you bastard, thought Vadim, and forced the jealousy down. Tapped the pen against the pad, waiting for more.

"Pilot like 1985, when I almost ...," Dan was frantically trying to think of how to explain something that had been avoided, "before the R&R before …," stalled, barged on with the next breath, "before you fucked me in Kabul and I left the bergan, but pilot's is open." Dan didn't feel Martinez' eyes on him, nor heard Jackson's moans, as the loadmaster helped the pilot out of the cockpit.

Before you fucked me in Kabul. Damned, six years already. He remembered the taste of the dust, the golden light, the way Dan had surrendered long enough. He cleared his throat, unsure what the other meant. "Can you clarify?"

Dan frowned, rubbing his eyes with his arm, "I'd just avoided …," suddenly remembered, "like 1984 and a pile of Mujas. Not the head. Combine those two."

Vadim tried to make sense, '84 and almost in '85. Bullet. Wound, not the head, leg. Leg! That was it. "Copy." Then wrote: 'Pilot: Fucked bones, open wound, probably leg or near the knee.'

Spoke just one word into the mic. "You?"

"I'm OK. Like you before the Olympics, your dislike of horses, but only left." Dan didn't mention the badly bruised left side, ignored the agony. He'd live. If they just got out of there.

Vadim grinned at that one, if Dan said he was okay, he believed him. Made operational sense. Relief. Fucking relief. 'Dan: okay, left wrist broken. Functional.' He tore the sheet off and let one of the officers have it.

"Do you copy?" Dan was praying that Vadim would understand his codes. Years of history, lost in the Afghan mountains. Would memories be enough to save them?

"I copy. Copy, tiger." Vadim couldn't, wouldn't speak the name, reached for the fairy tale, hoped it would communicate what he couldn't. About being wild and free, and fuck it, about being equal, and about courage and commitment. All those things in that story. All the things that paled in the light of the Iraqi desert.

Dan's right hand clutched the mic tightly. Tiger. Fuck, tiger. A trip to Hungary, sadness and pain and emotional blackmail. A woman. A fuck. And a piece of paper. But in the end it had been worth it. For love. Where the fuck had it vanished to?

Jerking visibly, Dan had veered off no more than a heartbeat. Couldn't afford those thoughts. "Copy, Lion." For that was what you were.

Vadim smiled. He'd used worse call signs. Nobody knew, nobody guessed. Part of the culture, vehicles and weapons called evocative names, units, operators.

"Sec," Dan covered the mic, turned his head towards Martinez and Jackson. "Map. I need a map of this shithole." Fuck, how could he have forgotten before making the radio call. Martinez understood, the pilot pointed with his chin towards the cockpit while holding his thigh which looked like a bloodied mess despite the bandages, and the loadmaster went to get the map. Dan noticed the way he was avoiding moving his head. Shit, the guy would have to carry one of the injured men, Dan could only hope he'd stay focussed enough until they could get airlifted.

Vadim heard the orders in the background, Jean already placed a map near the pad, bastard was useful and helpful, and why? Don't think about it. Let's get Dan out of there. He nodded his thanks.

Dan moved back to talk into the mic while waiting for the map, having a fair idea of the area even without it. "Lion, you remember the cave, 1980, where I cut your back. We are in the same position from the camp as we were from Kabul."

"Copy." Vadim traced a line from the camp position to the North East. Saw dried out wadis there, oil fields, whatever. The wadis would give cover and protection, at least that much. If the chopper had gone down anywhere near there.

"Any idea how far, Tiger? They should be able to locate the wreck, what direction are you heading off in?"

"Aye." Dan took the offered map, did a quick estimation. He queried Jackson, who had read the controls on their way down. The line was silent for a moment while Dan made his calculations.

Meanwhile, Vadim heard officers say "medevac", and "RPGs", and "insurgents". One even said "Delta operators." Heard people talk about the homing beacon on the wreck, and the pilots apparently had some as well. They were already putting together a rescue.

Dan's voice was heard again. "Lion, the estimated distance from the camp and Kabul is the first compass direction towards the cave in 1984 where you …" this time he stalled for longer. Two heartbeats, then a clearing of his throat, "where you fist-fucked me." Shit, he had no fucking idea who had understood that one apart from Vadim and Jean.

Jean burst into laughter and turned away, and Vadim felt his ears go red. Yes, that was his biggest problem, his ears and embarrassment with Dan out there in the desert with a fucked wrist. He shot a glance at Jean's back that just barely failed to kill him. Wanker. He noted down 'North'.

"The second direction is from the first direction the same distance as from the cave in winter 1982 close to the Soviet garrison, where we jerked off in the snow." So much fucking history, Dan figured they could navigate whole armies across the world, using their intertwined past. "Aye, from the '82 cave to the one in 1986 where we first kissed and …" another heartbeat of stalling, this was all so bloody personal, "where I fucked you slow-tender for the first time." Dan surprised himself at the strange sensation of discomfort - that even in this life and death situation he didn't want others to know.

East. Very short distance. In the freezing cold, hunger, solitude, and burning need. And then the other place, Dan fucking him. Mind-blowing. Dan not pounding into his body, but taking him apart, slowly, with all the time in the world. So desperate on a different level, emotionally instead of physically. Vadim wrote distance and direction down on the map, circled a likely area. He wasn't able to speak.

Dan paused a moment, saw Martinez wipe his brow beneath the helmet before bending down slowly to work on a makeshift splinter bandage for Jackson's leg. Dan saw Chris across his vision still passed out with morphine and pain. "Got an idea, lion, you remember the mosaic in the tea house in Kabul?"

"I do." I remember so much fucking more. Vadim glanced at the officers, and Jean turned around again, with a huge grin on his face that made him look like a madman. I want you back, Dan. I want you back for the memories. I want you back because every yard of distance right now hurts like fuck. "I remember everything."

"Good." Dan looked down, trying to ignore the other survivors, to picture the teahouse. "The place where you usually sat, with the mosaics behind you. Blue and green and red and yellow. We are heading towards the blue and the green, one panel ten miles. If anything goes wrong, the red ones after that." On the map, that should take them towards the West and towards the wadi. Only a couple of miles before they were able to hide. Only. Two miles. Only. With one man dying and another shot to shit.

Vadim concentrated on the image in his mind. Two sets of mosaic panels, one blue and green, towards the right, red and yellow, the second set after the first, ending in a wall that was to the right of the green leafed entrance. Back in that tea house, when life had been simple. Just about seduction, fucking and getting fucked, danger, unknown territory, in the middle of enemy terrain. Vadim drew an arrow across the map and wrote down: '2 miles (British)'.

"Lion, I expect action ASAP, like you did, from a pile of Muja corpses, but expect goatfuckers and crows."

Vadim remained silent. Medevac, very urgent, helplessness, more towelheads, more grenades. Dan smelling of sour blood in the heat. Dan staring wild-eyed at him. The fear that that leg wound was infected, and Dan would rot away under his hands. The fear. The madness. The fucked-up love. The only way to drag Dan back to the surface.

"The Muezzin will be disabled after this transmission. Do you copy?" Dan wiped sweat off his face with the back of his right hand.

Muezzin. The guy who called Muslims to prayer. Vadim frowned. Calling Muslims. Homing device. Too dangerous; of course. They might have a way to hone in on them. He wrote: 'Will disable beacon'. "Copy, Tiger."

Vadim heard something with one ear, plans, the Yanks were starting to put together a medevac. He wanted to be in there, wanted nothing more than be there and help, but he understood the copter might not have enough space for a fucked crew and doctors and guys to secure the parameter. "Get your ass to the rendezvous point, Tiger." Don't die on me. Good luck. I want you. I love you.

"Will do, Lion." Dan felt the overwhelming urge to continue talking. Just not stopping this transmission To stay and talk, keep the line open, hold onto the voice. The memories, the lost life, this something-anything that was still burning brightly inside him. Despite the hatred, the pain, and the fucking shit the Russian cunt had pulled on his friends.

The love.

"Got to take the cubs across the mosaic." Dan paused, looking from the pale bumfuck with his closed eyes, a the chest bandaged up like a mummy, and a piece of steel protruding out, over to Martinez who wasn't quite steady on his feet, and finally towards the pilot, with his face distorted in pain, holding his leg while valiantly struggling to stand. "Further communication impossible. No personal radios."

Vadim felt his hand clench around the pen, chest tight. Meant the radio was in the copter. The piece of scrap metal.

"If anything goes wrong ..." Dan's Russian was slipping, the accent getting thicker. "Time's running out." He could survive on his own, probably, but none of the others would make it. Possibly Martinez, but the kid and the pilot were doomed without him.

"1989, the hotel, our last night, and the KGB set onto me." Dan saw Jackson talk to the loadmaster and pointing at the co-pilot's corpse. "Lion, I might not be that lucky this time." He had no idea if Vadim even understood. Realisation hit him square in the chest that they'd never talked about what had happened. There had only been one fairy tale and a price for its delivery. Dan swore under his breath.

If I die. What if I die. Vadim closed his eyes, wanted to keep that voice, wanted to keep Dan breathing by willpower alone. "Luck's got nothing to do with it", he said, smiling. Hoped to transfer what he could. Optimism. Soothing. Reassurance.

Back in the chopper, Dan nodded. "The tiger might need the lion to get him out." Will you? Would you? Risk your life for mine? For you. For me. For what we've once been and not the shit thereafter. "Do you copy?"

Vadim looked at the officers, thought, whatever they are planning, whatever they are doing, I'll get him out. "Lion has his claws already sharpened and is ready to go." Truth. He was burning, itching to go. "He doesn't take a no for an answer. No disqualification for cheating this time." Nothing, nobody, will stop me from getting the price, the medal.

"Then let's make the Olympics." Dan looked at the mic in his hand, smiled briefly, nodded to the ghost voice. "Over and out."

He put the radio down, took a deep breath and concentrated on ignoring the pain from his wrist and the bruises. "Right." Dan stood up from his crouch and glanced around. "Time to get going." Awkwardly folding the map one-handed. "Gary, will you be able to carry Ken?" He'd be buggered if he used their last names to their faces. Martinez nodded. Good man, Dan could see he was struggling with the concussion and sweating profusely, but he'd be fighting to the last breath.

Dan bared his teeth in a feral grin. "Disable the beacon so that the arsewipes have a harder time finding the chopper." Jackson would know how to, and Martinez could do the swift task. Brute force usually worked wonders. "Gary, take Campbell's dog tag." One for the dead, another one for the living. Proof of the life that was lost on duty. "I'll check the supplies and will carry Chris. They are sending a Medevac, but we have to get away from the chopper ASAP or we'll be sitting ducks."

Dan knelt down with a groan, rifling through his bergan and bag. Difficult with one hand, but he managed to throw out what wasn't necessary, just left wallet, ID and his trusty knife. He filled the bergan back up with the two litre water bottle, the extra bag of sandwiches from his cook mate, a double pack of biscuits and chocolate in a tin, and every bit of useful medical supplies he could find. That, and enough fags to last him a week. Not that they'd survive that long in the desert while on the run. As an afterthought, he cushioned the contents with his parka, believing in being always prepared.

"Got your supplies?" Dan heard Martinez shouting from the top of the crashed wreck, where he had disabled the beacon. "Yeah, got water." Jackson's voice came from outside, where he sat, gathering his strength and checking his pistol.

"I'll take Campbell's pistol." Dan called to the others, then slung the bergan onto his back. He groaned at the movement, but ignored the pain and secured the straps instead. It was light now, contained water, food, drugs, bandages and a blanket from the supply boxes, that he'd stuffed on top as an afterthought. The backpack would make good cushioning for the kid's injured body. Searching the co-pilot's corpse, Dan took a moment to look at the dead man's face. "Rest well." Murmured, he'd seen many dead and dying, enough of them by his own hand. Life and death, it had rarely been personal. This, now, was somehow different, and perhaps he could make good what he'd once failed in. Years ago, in another country and another life. Another young man, another kid soldier. This time it was a Yank, not a German.

"Martinez, got the tag?" Dan shouted, received no answer. Pocketed the pistol and saw the two pieces of metal around Campbell's neck. Hadn't been taken, then, best he'd do it. Dan took one of the tags, let the other nestle back beneath the uniform before patting the dead man's shoulder. "See you in hell, mate. They say it's a fun place."

Dan turned, looked towards the kid who was stirring, still drugged. "I'll take Chris' rifle. Gary, you geared up?" Martinez called out to him that he was alright and ready to get going. Dan knew it would be hard for the concussed soldier, just as it would be fucking hard for him to carry the weight of another man, but tough shit, they'd have to do it.

"Alright, let's get going." Dan bent down inside the wreck, moved his arms under and around the kid while trying not to aggravate the wrist, and lifted the body with a grunt. Fuck, that hurt, and every year of his forty-two was protesting in agony, but he'd be buggered if that fucked-up body of his wasn't going to comply. He managed to get the kid across his back in a fireman's lift and on top the cushioned bergan, making sure he didn't drive the rotor blade any deeper. Shifting carefully, he rested the other's weight on the injured and useless lung. Dan staggered under the weight but found his balance, slinging the rifle across his shoulder. Stumbling when he made his way out of the wreck, he saw that Martinez had done the same with the injured pilot and his own rifle. Dan bared his teeth, grinning fiercely at the twenty-something guy. "Let's see who's faster, aye? You or I, son." Keeping the spirits up as they started trudging towards the wadi.

* * *

Vadim put the mic down.

"The Americans are already putting together the medevac", said one of the officers. "They'll be home in a few hours."

Vadim looked at Jean, who met his gaze. Stupid laughter, yes, no, whatever, they both wanted to get Dan out of there. "I request to join the medevac team." Because, if you say no, I'll steal a jeep and go off on my own. "They need supplies, and most of the team are fucked one way or the other. I've found downed pilots before. I can operate in the territory."

The officers talked to the Americans about it, but, yes, they sent their own medevac, and didn't plan to take a merc onboard, thankyouverymuch. Vadim was sent out of the tent, where they kept talking, the regular British army guys and the CO in charge of the mercs.

Vadim growled with frustration, worked on stupid plans, most of them had to do with doing things at gunpoint. Listening to the muttering and planning inside, they just didn't really get stuff done, too many if's and when's. He looked at Jean as the legionnaire lit a cigarette. He hadn't been aware Jean smoked.

"Quite a bit of history, you two, eh?"

Vadim grunted a yes.

"You still love that man", said Jean. "Rescuing him could be a way to get him back."

"You're one smart mother", said Vadim, anger rising in his throat. He wanted to go out and fight off anybody even thinking of firing a shot at Dan.

"I'll have a talk with the CO. He's a little sweet on me. I'll present him the facts. A two-man-team, loaded with supplies, two guys that have experience, and of course it's nothing personal for you. You just happen to have done this kind of thing before."

"You mocking?"

"Not at. All." Jean took another deep pull. "I'd be teamleader. Nothing personal for me, either."

Vadim's jaw tightened.

"I'll go have a chat. You head into my room and pack my kit." Jean seemed to wait for Vadim moving, but Vadim only stared at him. "Move it. We talk later."

Vadim muttered a curse, then headed off to pack Jean's kit, drink more water, have a quick bite, rearing, eager, absolutely stircrazy to move.

* * *

Out in the desert, two men were struggling with every step. Heavy loads across their backs, one of them wearing US camo and armoured vest, the helmet giving some shelter against the sun, as he staggered along with slight imbalances. The other man had a rag wrapped around his head, walking out of balance, favouring the right side. The heat was merciless, easily a killer to the inexperienced, but they had almost reached the relative shelter of the dried out river bed. It had taken them far too long for those two miles, but each of them was carrying a wounded comrade and they were injured themselves. Even to Dan, the Yank kid was a comrade in arms. They'd got into this shit together, and he'd get them out of there. Brits. Yanks. Forces. Mercs. Whatever.

Dan stopped, planted his feet apart, bracing himself to blink into the sky through his shades. The sound of a chopper, no mistaking, and he started to grin as Jackson let out a "Hooray!" from Martinez' back.

"Should all be a bad dream in a few minutes." The pilot grinned despite the pain, patting his loadmaster's flank.

"Damn right." Martinez answered, glancing at the kid. "Johnson's pretty bad, hasn't properly woken yet, and I feel like shit myself. Gonna upchuck in a mo, no offence, Jackson."

Dan chuckled silently, then turned and walked on. Good, as long as those guys were bantering, their spirits were up. He'd never understood the Yanks, couldn't get into the American military spirit of throwing shitloads of ammo and weapons at the enemy - and coalition alike all too often - with a 'bigger is better' attitude. Yet while he looked at them patronisingly, like most of the British Forces, he figured that in return they regarded the Brits as a Force held together with shoestring and spit. Neither was all too wrong, Dan mused while getting his body back into gear, and the thought made him grin despite the situation, and those chaps, here, seemed alright. "Hey, keep going," he called to Martinez, we've almost reached the wadi. We can rest there until they find us."

He could see from the corner of his eyes that the loadmaster started to trudge on, and only a few minutes later they had reached the relative shelter of the wadi, climbing down into the river bed. The sound of the chopper was getting closer and Dan was surprised at the sense of relief, seemed he'd turned into a wuss in his old age. "Let's wait for them" He bent down, gritting his teeth, to carefully let the kid onto the ground, who was stirring and moaning, eyes half-open, lying on one side.

Martinez did the same with Jackson, watching the chopper, a dark speck on the horizon that kept coming closer. Gary was waving, eager to let the rescue crew know their position, and Dan let him. Seemed whoever the fuck had shot them down was now well out of the game. Probably. Or Possibly. Or perhaps he was simply too much of a cynic after all those years behind the lines, to ever trust peace and quiet.

"Fuck, I can't wait." Martinez took his bottle of water, held some out to Jackson who shook his head, and gulped down a couple of swallows. Dan didn't answer, searched one-handed for the binoculars on his PLCE while his wrist was throbbing, and watched the chopper. Good, they were coming straight towards them. Vadim had understood his cryptic clues, not that he'd ever thought anything else. Dan was turning his head towards the kid, meaning to feed him water when he suddenly saw a smoke trail. "Fuck!" He shouted, caught the others' attention, all of them staring at the disaster before their eyes.

Another RPG, grenade flying right towards the medevac, and then the worst of it all, the impact. "Shit, fuck them. Bastards! Fucking shit!" Martinez was going wild, saw the tail boom of the chopper hit, but not as badly as their own one. The Blackhawk was veering from left to right, almost losing balance, a stream of thick black smoke coming from its rear. Then it caught itself, straightening up, to go on in a straight line for a second, before turning round.

Just like that. Medevac hit. Chopper turning back to camp. Gone.

"Fuck." Dan muttered, putting the binoculars down. "We're on our own now." He turned his head to look at the others. "And now they know where we are." The medevac had shown the bastards the way.

* * *

Back in the British camp, Jean returned eventually, with a Landrover, and beckoned Vadim closer. "They've located the wreck and are pretty sure they located the crew, but the area is swarming with insurgents, and they don't want to lose another copter. That one got damaged in the process, made it back on half a leg. Apparently, the Yanks are now sitting on their hands waiting for Delta."

"Delta? They have Delta in that camp?"

"No. They are actually in a different camp and will get flown in. They expect them here and ready in several hours."

"Fuck that! I'm moving out."

"Alternatively, I got clearance for you and me and this Landrover and try and locate them on the ground. Let's pick up the rest of the kit from the QM."

Delta. Tomorrow. Fuck that. Vadim was worried, restless, itching, nervous, worse than in the days in Afghanistan. Seemed he couldn't take not knowing anymore, but the worst was he wasn't sure how Dan would react when he saw him. He got into the car, next to Jean.

"It's none of my business, really", said Jean, lighting another cigarette. "But I guess it's better to talk about this now than later or never." He ran his tongue over his molars, opened his lips there, which looked thoughtful.

"Yes, I want him back."

Jean shot him an ironic glance. "You know, seeing you've tried everything else and now try to do the heroic method, not sure you realized one thing."

"Like?"

"He likes being flirted with."

Dan, who rammed him against a wall in Kabul, who hit him in the face, who sometimes mocked him when he was too tired to pretend strength. Flirting. Their flirting had been to get undressed, at least most of the time. Apart from very few, very private, relaxed moments. "He does?" And why, how would the deserter know that? Had they … flirted? Flirted for a blowjob? For a handjob. Hello, handsome stranger. Vadim shook his head.

Jean grinned. "He does. He is great to flirt with."

Vadim's hand tightened. He didn't want to know. Didn't want to see that grin. That grin that said Jean knew more about Dan than he did. Something fucked-up and romantic. He was competition. "Is he."

Jean gave a short laugh. "Try wooing, Vadya. You know. Being nice. Smiling. Compliments. An old friend once said: "You want to fuck, you need to be friendly." Try friendly. It's a change, don't you think?"

"You're right. It's none of your business."

"I am trying to help, you know", huffed Jean.

"And why?"

"Because you were still there, sometimes. When we talked, you were there, in his head. You could see that in his eyes."

"So he fucked around with you because he misses me", said Vadim, and it sounded poisonous even in his own ears. "That what you're trying to say?"

Jean hit the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. "Enough about me to make him remember you, for sure."

"Yeah, and he was calling my name when he came." Ouch. Fucking ouch. Vadim closed his eyes, bared his teeth. "Fuck you. You needed to take revenge like that, huh?"

Jean cursed. "Fuck you, Krasnorada. No, he didn't call for you. All I did was make him feel good, for a fucking change. You were there in that room, like a fucking ghost. If I had wanted to take revenge, I'd have jumped you at night, in your bunk, with a few of the guys and beaten the shit out of you. Or shot you out there, on patrol, and claimed I wasn't aware there was a bullet in the chamber. That shit has happened before. Very friendly fire. Don't think many of us would have cried at your grave. But I fucking didn't."

It drives me insane, you and him. Drives me insane. "Yeah, whatever."

"You dickhead." Jean cursed again. "Fuck, it's none of your business, stuff just happened, I don't pull this shit to get even with you."

"You just discovered you like cock."

Jean groaned. "Now, leave me out of this."

"Seems you got yourself into it." Vadim shifted his body to face Jean. "We'll get him out, that has priority. I'll fight with you over him when we're back at camp."

Jean laughed dryly. "Being nice means allowing people their own choices."

"You're not pulling out, then?"

"Dan and I are friends. Old-fashioned friends. Whatever else, but that, definitely. Won't leave him to rot just because you're snarling at me. No fucking way, sir. Deal with it. And that's the last word on the matter. You better do some serious thinking about how you fucking treat him, Vadim, because I can sure as hell see your current method isn't up to the task."

* * *

In the desert, Dan was sitting down to feed the moaning kid some water, sensing the desperation around him. "They're getting us out on the ground." His voice was firm, convincing the others. Wouldn't do to let doubts creep to the surface. "Your lot, the Delta guys, they'll be here soon, I bet, but in the meantime, what do you think I was talking about on the comm? Someone will get us out, the Brits have mercs with more experience then all of the SAS, Delta and Rangers, Marines and Navy Seals put together." He flashed a grin while fumbling for his water bottle. Best ration it, they didn't know how long it would take. They were too many miles on foot away from the Saudi Arabian or Kuwaiti borders and their only chance was to head further to the West. 'The red mosaics', to the left, the West, towards the border. Another country, another hope for safety. Just away from those fuckwits who hadn't realised the Gulf War was over.

"We can't make it." Jackson was lying with his back against the slope of the river bed, holding his leg. "Johnson needs medical care."

Dan shrugged. "Sure he does, so do you. So does Gary and so do I, but I'd be fucked if I let myself worry about that. We have to get going, and we will." Looking pointedly at Martinez. The guy was no older than mid twenties, and no matter how much he was affected by concussion and the painful neck wound, he was tall, strong, and young. One of the buff ones, very much like Matt. He'd be able to get going for a while longer.

"Gary, you OK for a little jog?"

Martinez nodded carefully. Wiping the sweat off his face, encrusted with blood, dirt and sand. "Hoo-rah!" He answered and flashed a brave grin. Weary, worried, but Dan knew the guy would do anything he could.

"Alright, then, we're going West, along the wadi. As shitty as it is to be a sitting duck in this river bed, at least it gives some shelter, if need be. Best keep on the move and hole in if we have to, waiting for sundown." Dan glanced at Johnson, proceeding to get some water down the kid's neck, who was moaning, half-conscious. "We should get going straight away, improves our chances we'll hit the border before they hit us." He grinned without humour, "if they are not completely stupid they'll realise we are heading West."

A combined "Hoo-rah" was his answer and he grinned, drinking a couple of mouthfuls of water. "Right, since that's sorted, let's see who's tougher. Mad Dog Brit or Gary Yank." Martinez laughed, despite the situation, and they both got ready to pick up their loads once more. Two men, carrying two others. Brothers in spirit if not in arms.

They started at a steady pace, slow, laden down with the heavy weights and the relentless heat of the desert, seeking shelter in meagre shadows wherever they could. They made progress, albeit agonisingly slow. Walking on, step after step and boot in front of boot, for what seemed to go on forever, but when Dan glanced up at the sun, following its trek through the sky, he realised it had been no more than an hour or slightly more.

"You OK?" Dan glanced at Martinez whose step had just faltered, stumbling out of his trance-like slog. Gary's face was swimming with sweat. The guy was loosing too much liquid and salt and Dan frowned beneath the rag around his head and face.

"I'm OK, Sir."

Dan grinned, the dust-filled lines around his eyes crinkling as he did. "Forget about the 'Sir' bit, mate. I'm just an old Warhound, stubborn enough to get us out of this shithole." He managed to elicit a miniature smile from the young guy. "How's your neck?"

"Hurts like fuck." Martinez grimaced wryly and Dan nodded, both of them still plodding on.

"It would, seems you got whiplash and concussion, but then you know that. I bet you're nauseous. And kinda dizzy."

"Yeah ..." Martinez tried not to move his head and struggled to walk in a straight line. "You could say that, but I'm OK."

"Sure you are." Dan spotted a pile of stones close to a bend in the river bed and stopped. "You're a damn fine soldier, Gary Martinez, and I wouldn't know how the fuck to get out of here without you."

That got a grin out of the loadmaster when he came slowly to a halt, swaying a moment but holding firmly onto Jackson who had been very quiet the last hour. "Just hope they get us out soon. You think they'll send Delta?"

"Fuck, yes, sure they will, but I know for a fact that there are other specialists already on their way." No, he didn't know, but he'd bet all those years of danger, sex, and fucked-up love and lust, that the Russian was already on his way. "Someone will get us out and we're doing all we can to meet them closer to the border."

Dan turned his head to glance at Martinez. "Give me a hand, will you? Steady Chris on my back. Got to bend down. I'll leave a sign for the ground team that only they will understand." Only one, in fact. One man. No matter how much shit Vadim had pulled, and how utterly fucked up the Russian was, he'd heard the man he'd known in the voice. The old determination and the stubbornness to do something - anything - instead of sitting on his arse. Like India, achieving the impossible.

Bending down slowly, silently cursing the swollen wrist and his buggered knees that were trying to buckle, Dan took hold of three flat, large stones and a couple of smaller ones while Martinez was steadying Johnson. One-handed placing the three in a haphazard pile, with the two on top of it, forming a random pointer to the direction they were taking.

"Done. They'll understand. Let's have some water and get going." Each of them had a mouthful, carefully rationing the precious liquid. Dan gave some to Jackson and Martinez pouring water into Johnson. Then it was time again to keep moving. Side by side, the weight of the two bodies pulling them down in the murderous heat. One more hour, before they stopped once more and Dan formed another covert pointer, trudging further on. Every so often stopping for Dan to build a pile of stones.

* * *

"We're kicking up lots of dirt", muttered Jean, glancing behind. "Let's hope it's prayer-time, or something."

Vadim checked the watch. "No such luck. Start heading towards two o'clock from here, we're trying to get to that big wadi over there." He stared out over the barren landscape. Empty country, the kind where every piece of kit was necessary for survival, the kind where a broken bone could spell doom. He touched his wrist, rubbed it. Dan's was broken and probably hurting like fuck.

"You want to do the driving on the way back?"

"Can do. I got trained for that. Could also man the gun. Should be quite cosy back there."

Jean grinned. "I know what you got trained to do. Spetsnaz can do just about anything that makes an enemy miserable."

The country was still completely empty, but there were a few scraggly dusty barren trees standing around. Near what had to be the wadi. The terrain turned rougher, too, the ride got bumpy, nevermind the sweat that was running from their bodies. Vadim was wet under the armoured vest.

"Make no mistake", said Vadim in a monotonous voice. "We're not brothers or comrades after this. All we do is get him out."

Jean's face was dark. "Copy."

Vadim nodded. "Good. You will not interfere."

Jean rolled his eyes. "Yeah, whatever. Soft-spoken Casanova." He gave a short laugh. "Hard to imagine, but you must have been fun once. Your thing can't have been all kicking and screaming. I disbelieve."

* * *

It was getting towards late afternoon and the sun was starting to lose its fierceness, when Jackson suddenly hit his hand against Martinez' leg, trying to alert him. "Over there. Dust!"

Dan stopped, turned slowly to keep his balance, peered at the horizon. He could see the dust cloud, even with bare eyes. "Fuck." He looked around, swiftly assessing the situation. "We got to hole in. They're coming." It could be friend, but he expected foe.

Martinez spotted something. "Over there?" Pointing at a sharper bend and what seemed like darker shadows.

"Well spotted. Come on Gary, let's leg it." Dan fell into a trot, faster than ever before. He didn't manage to run, the body on his back too heavy, and he was just too bloody knackered, overtaken by Martinez who picked up speed. Fuck those twenty-something buff kids, Dan thought, grit his teeth and forced his body into the fastest speed he could manage while Johnson was crying out in pain, jostled with every step. "Sorry mate," Dan shouted backwards, breathless, "Either this, or getting caught." His lungs were already burning and his knees? He'd gladly chop them off right now, together with the whole left side and that goddamned wrist. Perhaps he should have retired years ago. Dan just about made it to the recess in the raised river bed, when the dust cloud was getting closer. Fuck, they had a minute or to.

"Get in! Get the fuck covered!" He went down on his knees, nearly screaming as he did, but he couldn't just slam the kid onto the ground, bad enough to hear the cries of pain. Managed to put Johnson down without hitting the rotor in his chest, and pushed the body into the recess that formed a miniature cave. Johnson was scrambling with his hands, tried to help, same with Jackson, who had enough strength left to pull himself deeper inside, despite the badly broken leg.

Dan threw the rifle down and the bergan off his back, shouted orders at Martinez. "Backpack, get the blanket." Shovelling sand towards the entrance with his bare hand, boots kicking, pushed the rifle lying across the opening. "Get in!" At Martinez, who had pulled out the dust-coloured blanket. Their best chance for survival was to camouflage themselves. Dan got hold of the top of the blanket, cursing the pain in his left hand, too fucked to do anything with it. Pulled the blanket over the mouth of the recess, held it down with his left elbow while picking up stones with his right hand, piling them onto the edge to keep the blanket up. Shit, he could already hear the engine of the vehicle, and he wasn't naïve enough to believe it was the rescue team.

"Fuck." Muttered, no more time left. Their disguise had to do or they'd fucking die, and he slipped into the hole himself, this time crying out with pain, unable to suppress it. He'd landed on the mass of bruises on his left side, but was lucid enough to pull close the corner of the blanket. Lying on his belly, right beside Martinez, with the two injured men behind them.

"Good luck to us." He whispered to the other man, before taking the rifle and flicking off the safety. He knew the make, Yank or Brit or Russian, didn't make a difference. A killing tool like any other. He'd be a crap aim with just one good hand, but he'd do what he could if he had to. He saw Martinez from the corner of his eyes, doing the same with his rifle, while Jackson was taking hold of his pistol in the back of the tiny cave. Dan and the loadmaster were peering out from underneath the blanket-shield, muzzles aimed into the wadi.

They were there. Voices, engine, dust and shouts. Slowed-down driving past.

Dan saw Martinez' lips moving and knew the guy was praying.

Two vehicles, open topped roofs, men clinging to the sides. One a battered old Landrover, the other a pickup truck. Of course, what else. Paint peeling from the first, which appeared to have been a military vehicle, the truck a rusted ramshackle red. Dan was sweating, watching, fully concentrated. They were so close, he could hear every word, could understand most of it, and what he heard wasn't pleasant. No way in fucking hell he'd let the other guys know what he'd overheard. They didn't need to know what those bastards were planning to do with them, should they catch them alive. Or dead, for that matter. Dan was grinding his teeth when he heard what they had done to Campbell's corpse. No, no way in heaven or hell he'd let the Yanks know what happened to their comrade. The dog tag was in Dan's pocket, that would have to do. Who needed a grave when nature took care of one of their own, with the flesh rotting in the desert and the bones bleaching in the sun.

Minutes seemed like endless hours, while those men were searching the ground, weapons at the ready. Dan was sweating for once, could only hope their disguise was good enough. One of the insurgents came closer and closer, almost in touching distance, but kept looking just a short distance to the left or the right. Thank fuck to the army, their scratchy blankets and the colour of sand and dust in this godforsaken place.

Dan's heartbeat stopped and Martinez' breath had became barely audible. They were absolutely silent, guessing that Jackson had to be covering Johnson's mouth to keep the kid's moans from escaping. The enemy was standing near, looking, close enough to smell him, touch him, sense him. Kill him. One heartbeat, another. One breath, and perhaps never another one if that bastard looked just a little more to the left and then … he turned. Dan almost sighed with relief, glancing at Martinez. Silence, still no sound from any of them.

The miracle happened, the heavily armed man was walking back to the pick-up truck, shouting at the others that he hadn't seen anything, and they should search further up stream.

Dan didn't think he'd ever heard a sweeter sound than the engines of the battered vehicles revving up and moving away.

"Thank fuck, that was close." He put the rifle down and dropped his head onto his forearm, just breathing for a few moments until he felt a hand prodding his ribs. It was Gary. "Guess it's safer to stay here?"

Dan turned his head, still resting on his arm and nodding. The rag around his head was sweat soaked and he hurt like fuck. Had a fair idea what the others had to feel like, and he could sense from the lack of movement in the kid that he was getting rapidly worse. "You're right. Our best bet right now is to hole up. The insurgents might be back and it'll get fucking cold in a couple of hours." Dan pulled the blanket slightly to the side, let air and light into their jam-packed miniature cave.

"Time to get some scran down our necks. Good thing daddy Mad Dog brought din-dins, eh?" He grinned, teeth bared, a valiant attempt to keep the guys' spirits up. Nothing was ever lost until it was truly over. "Water, dry sarnies and bikkies, anyone?"

"Bikkies? Sarnies?" Jackson commented weakly from the back of the cave. Covered in sand and dust but keeping up remarkably well, despite the bandages around his leg being soaked with dried blood. "You fucking Brits and your weird language."

Dan laughed, a short-stabbed sound. "It'll be sandwiches and cookies for you, then, or nothing." Pulling the bergan close he rummaged one-handed, pulling out the parka, then water and food, together with a few packs of bandages. Martinez took his helmet off, doing the same for the kid. Jackson took his own off, could just about move his arms in the confined space, and wiped with a dirty sleeve over his sweat and blood streaked face. Dan rubbed his sweaty face with the rag, waiting for Martinez to divide the food. Some for now, an emergency ration for later. They didn't have a clue how long they might have to be on the run. Neither of them was sure what to do about the kid, could he stomach food or even swallow, or would water be enough? They decided on the latter.

They ate in silence, too exhausted and in too much pain and discomfort to talk anymore, while Johnson was slipping in and out of consciousness, until his sounds of pain became louder and Dan checked him over, figuring out how many hours it had been since he had the morphine. Martinez offered his own syrette when Chris started to whimper loudly, hardly able to get down some water, and Dan delivered the shot before another bandage was fastened across the kid's chest.

They all rested for a moment, nursing their injuries, with Dan frowning at his thickly swollen wrist and Gary prodding gingerly at his neck, before holding his head in his hands. Ken lay still, fighting against the pain, and Chris was knocked out by the morphine.

The sun was sinking rapidly and Dan tore himself out of equally cursing and ignoring the pain his aging body was in. "OK, you guys, I'll keep watch. Gary, your head's fucked, you need some sleep before we start walking again in a few hours. I'll stay awake and do guard duty. I'm used to that shit." He grinned even though he didn't feel like it. "Old men don't need much sleep, trust me." Raising his brows when Martinez dared to question his decision, trying to argue with Dan who was struggling one-handed into his parka.

Dan decided to get out the heavier calibre ammo. "Sure you've heard about Mad Dog's speciality? Faggots like me don't need sleep, alright, guys? You cuddle up to keep warm and this poof here guards your beauty sleep." He bared his teeth in an exaggerated grin, and it did the trick. The look on their faces was priceless. The reminder had been enough to shake Martinez and Jackson out of their stupor, nodding, complying, and simply doing what that aging Merc said. He'd got them this far, he was probably crazy enough to get them even further.

"I'll wake you in a few hours." Dan watched the guys rearrange themselves as the sun was going down, speedier than in the Afghan mountains. Johnson lay closest to Dan, he could feel the kid's still body pressed against his own as he sat crouched. Back leaning against the side wall of their miniature cave, Dan kept mostly hidden behind the blanket that was providing warmth and a barrier to the cold night air. Shelter, like he remembered from too many barren caves.

Afghanistan. The endless mountains and the overwhelming sky. Once they impressed themselves into a man's mind, eating into the very marrow of his bones, he could never escape them again.

"Mad Dog?" Dan turned his head at Martinez' quiet voice. "We'll make it, won't we?"

Dan's face was already steeped in shadows, and all he could see from the young Yank was the white of his eyes and teeth.

"We might just live." He murmured and smiled.

Night was falling rapidly and Dan settled in for the long haul. It didn't matter if he was in pain or tired or every single bone in his worn-out body was aching. Didn't matter a shit, in fact, it came in rather useful. Meant he would stay awake, despite the weariness and utter exhaustion. Cradling the rifle in his lap, the useless left hand wrapped inside the parka, trying to ignore the throbbing in the broken bones. Peering at the silent desert night through a small window at the blanket's corner.

He didn't mind keeping watch in the silence and the overpowering darkness. It was something Dan knew better than the country he came from. Britain wasn't his home anymore, and, the place that would always own his heart was the land of vast emptiness: majestic, deadly, and overwhelming under the immense night sky.

Peering into the night, Dan let his gaze get lost in the layer upon layer of stars. He'd made his personal peace with Afghanistan a long time ago. He'd become part of the mountains, so that the mountains could become part of him. And thus they did not swallow him alive, instead had welcomed the insignificant human. Cradling him in heat, wrapping him in snow and ice and giving him silence and more knowledge of himself than he'd ever wanted. That, and the gift of a Russian. A man he'd once loved and despite everything, he was still loving and always would. No matter how much what.

He'd tried to run away, hadn't he? Dan huffed, breath steaming in front of his face and he clumsily wrapped the rag once more around his head, to protect against the cold. That's what he got for trying to escape his destiny: a fucking helicopter crash and a broken wrist. His life intertwined with another's. Why did he not just accept that they were fucked to hell and back and could never leave the other. Only through death, and even that had failed, hadn't it?

Dan leaned his head back, stared up into the sky while listening to the breaths of the men behind him. Three lives, his charge, and how funny that a man like him, who'd been operating on his own most of his life, was now trying to save those three men. The Cold War was over, and suddenly they had all become friends. Him, those kids, and the one he'd asked to come for the rescue.

He didn't even claim he understood the world anymore - nor ever had. He'd just done a job in the name of Queen and Country and what a cop-out excuse that had been for what he had done. Duties. No questions. Killing, surviving, training insurgents, and a whole lot of other shit. But he regretted nothing. Nothing at all, except, perhaps, for the inability to feel sorry.

Dan shrugged, fished for a cigarette, now that he rested he was craving the addiction. He managed to light it one-handed in the dark, keeping the glowing end out of the open. He wouldn't be the first man killed at night because of a fag, and he wouldn't be the last, if he wasn't careful.

He had to stay awake, the hours were dragging by slowly, while weighing heavy on his weary mind and shattered body. It was the memories that kept him awake, and after two and a half years he finally allowed himself to just remember. All of it. Every single moment with and without Vadim. All of the last eleven years.

The good, the bad, and the entirely ugly.

* * *

Dawn was breaking at last and Dan was still awake, freezing. Curled up into a ball to keep the body heat in, his head resting against the earthen wall. Glancing now and again towards the interior of the miniature cave, he had listened to the moans of pain throughout the night. Martinez had been snoring, he'd no doubt have a concussion-induced headache from hell when he woke. He dreaded to think what Jackson felt like, with Chris was thankfully mostly out of it.

The sky was turning a dark turquoise from the East, when Dan stretched his legs with a groan. Dog tired, but he couldn't allow himself to drop his vigilance, not until they were found, and it couldn't be anytime too soon. He was still functional, but soon he'd unable to think straight with tiredness and would be as useless as the rest of his ragtag bunch of survivors. No, crew. Aye, that'd be it. His crew, because he felt strangely responsible for those guys, perhaps because he was simply so much older than those kids. Even the pilot was no older than his late twenties. Seemed he'd become a Sugar Daddy, after all.

Wiggling his toes, Dan accidentally moved his left hand, wincing as he did, the wrist stiff by now, but the pain had turned into a constant, dull throb which was bearable, and at least it had kept him awake. The pain and his thoughts. Rummaging in his bergan, Dan produced some more food, started to cut it up into portions, before checking the water. Enough for all of them to get by for a few hours more. Even taking the kid's unstable condition into consideration.

It was time to wake the crew. They had to trek on, no point in waiting like rabbits in a hole, with the chance for rescue being as insecure as it was. Better to move than to sit and hope. Prayers had never kept anyone alive. The Yanks weren't particularly 'liked' by those insurgents, too similar to the Mujas and their hatred for the Soviets, for Dan's liking. He snorted softly, being a Brit wasn't much better either. He had a funny feeling they'd be considered as nothing better than Big Daddy America's spit-licking lapdog. No more bullterrier, let alone Empire, but Dan noticed with sleep deprived amusement that he just couldn't give a shit.

Survival, nothing else counted, and he was about to wake Martinez, when he noticed the faint sound of a vehicle engine in the distance. "Shit," Dan murmured, were the bastards coming back? Or was there a chance for rescue?

* * *

Jean was still driving, manoeuvring the jeep with an uncanny instinct for the treacherous bitch that the Iraqi desert was. Vadim scanned the horizon - the engine sound carried far and if they were unlucky, the insurgents would be upon them like ants on a beetle. He could only hope that those fanatics weren't feeling adventurous enough to go out hunting mostly blind in the darkness.

Vadim was somewhat impressed with Jean's skill in the desert, navigating with no light, trusting his all too human senses, eyes and ears, mostly. Finding his way like an ocelot in the dark, a small, nocturnal predator that should somehow pierce the darkness. He murmured something about that, which made Jean laugh: "Picked that up in Djibouti. Apart from a few unpleasant health things."

Vadim had no idea where that place was, and kept scanning the darkness. He was cold, and sweating from the tension. Sitting duck in the vast expanse of what would always be enemy territory. Dan out there, maybe dead or dying, wounded, and he forced that thought down. It was a rescue operation, and he was actually in a far better shape than Dan right now.

"Wadi up front." Jean slowed down, trying to find the best angle to get into the riverbed.

Vadim saw next to nothing, felt almost useless, wondered how on earth he was supposed to find Dan, who, by all rights, wouldn't light a fire under these circumstances, or they'd found them long ago.

"This is the direction they must be heading", murmured Jean. "They must be here somewhere, if you ask me."

But I'm not asking you, thought Vadim, while Jean accelerated and forced the car down the slope, bucking on the stones in the riverbed, the machine roaring.

* * *

Inside the small cave, Dan was crouching, rifle at the ready. He had alerted Martinez, Jackson was awake as well, despite the pain and blood loss, and only the kid continued to hover in semi unconsciousness. "I have no idea who the fuck they are." Dan murmured to Gary, whose face was covered in sweat and had paled considerably, visible even in the faint purple light of the approaching morning.

"I'm hoping it's the rescue team," Dan whispered, "but I'd be buggered if I could tell." Martinez nodded, making the sign of the cross, which Dan noticed with a tickle of amusement. If that made the man feel better, why shouldn't he revert to superstition. He'd been tempted himself, often enough.

Peering outside, hidden behind the blanket, Dan kept his narrowed eyes peeled on the wadi and the approaching vehicle.

* * *

"Fucking hopeless", muttered Vadim and slapped against Jean's arm. "Let me get off."

"Scouting on foot?"

"They must be somewhere around this wadi. I see nothing."

Jean slowed down, and Vadim was glad when he felt the stony riverbed under his boots, advancing while the jeep followed slowly behind him. First, Jean's closeness was hard to bear, second, he assumed he'd see and hear more if he was outside the damned car.

Every fifty meters or so calling out, quietly. "Dan?" Hoped they'd be awake if they were in hiding and would react. The morning was almost there, an odd glow that still didn't allow a third dimension - everything seemed flat and lifeless.

Dan was concentrating on every sound and sight, adrenaline winning over the tiredness. Making up for his age with sheer cunning and experience. There, suddenly, he was sure he'd heard a voice, certain he wasn't imagining it. Mouthing to Martinez and the man nodded, affirming Dan's suspicion.

Carefully sticking his head out from the cave mouth and through the shielding blanket, Dan listened intently again, and … yes! A voice. No doubt, and he'd be fucked if he hadn't heard his name. Taking a risk and trusting his senses, Dan took a small stone and threw it out into the wadi. Waiting, then throwing another. A third one in his hand, waiting.

Clack. Just a sound. Vadim paused, frowning, wondered if he'd kicked a stone lose. Turned to face the side of the wadi, staring into the odd grey twilight. "Dan?" He gestured towards the jeep and Jean stopped, jumping out with his rifle.

"Saw something?"

"No. I didn't." Kept staring at the place, a strange feeling in his guts. Like he was being watched, and every caveman instinct told him there was something intent and focused close by.

Jean gave him a frown. "Why are you stopping, then?"

Because I feel something. Bad way to be professional, but Jean was a soldier too, and likely knew about these odd haunches, the feeling at the back of one's neck. "We should check that out, over there."

There, movement. Dan couldn't make out faces yet, the dawn flattened everything until it became angles and planes of shadows. Yet the way the shadow moved, no, two shadows. Familiar, and he nodded to Martinez before throwing another stone, this time even closer. Deep inside, he knew who was out there, moving, but he couldn't bet the life of three Yanks on that gut instinct.

The rifle still trained onto the approaching men, he suddenly heard that voice again. "Dan", no doubt, his name, and he'd recognise the voice amongst a thousand.

Placing his hand on Martinez to reassure him, before calling out quietly, "Here. Over here, Vadim." Dan didn't quite know what he felt, such an intense mix of jumbled emotion. The biggest one simply relief.

Jean gave an odd laugh, disbelief and something more. "I'll head back to the car and get the kit." He grinned. "Well done." With that, he walked off, and Vadim shouldered his weapon and moved towards Dan's voice. Knew it was him and couldn't help feeling elated and almost happy, despite the fact they were still so deep in the shit it didn't bear comparison.

Dan crawled stiffly out of the cave and stood, grinning. Pale with tiredness beneath his dark tan, exhausted, and there was a pile of men in hiding behind him. Vadim didn't know what to say as he approached, so instead took the canteen off his PLCE and offered it first, arm stretched out. "We brought you kit", he stated, looking at Dan all the time, eyes checking him over. Alive. Banged up, but alive.

Dan took one large gulp before handing the canteen back. No way was he going to take more of the precious water even though he suspected they had more in the jeep. It was the other guys who needed it the most.

Vadim held the canteen, not sure what to do with it, expected Dan to take it back. Saw a drop of water on Dan's lips. Shit. He noticed.

"You have no fucking clue how glad I am to see you." Dan wiped his lips with the back of his good hand, before slinging the rifle across his back. "We had a close shave last night. Damn close." Gesturing to the men inside, Martinez came crawling out, swaying as he stood, despite his efforts to find his balance.

Vadim forced himself to look over at the men, while standing in front of Dan, reluctant to move. Unable to fall into the easy camaraderie that soldiers shared. He wasn't a soldier anymore. Just a merc. Different rules. He still followed the motion of Dan's hand.

"Gary Martinez," Dan nodded to him, making the 'introductions', "concussion." Martinez just grimaced. "Chris Johnson," Dan pointed, "worst one of all, we need to get him carried into the Lannie. Ken Jackson, the pilot, open leg fracture, but holding up well." There was a sound from the cave, like a dry huff or pained laugh.

Vadim gave the others a look, not actually interested in the men at all. For all he cared, they were walking - or crawling - meat. It was Dan, always Dan. And he stood here, not feeling worthless - first time in what felt like ages.

"And I," Dan shrugged, "I'm just little old me as always. Only more worse for wear than usual." And awake and on adrenaline for more hours than he cared to remember.

"Krasnorada. Part of cavalry", murmured Vadim, then stepped towards Martinez and offered him the canteen, who took it with a 'thanks', and had a good drink before crawling back inside the cave to share the water out amongst the others. Vadim was turning on his heel the next instant. "Okay. We'll get you ready to go. Should use time while bitches are still praying and are turned towards Mecca."

Dan saw the second man returning, and knew the moment he saw him moving, that it was Jean. How damned fitting in a way, and he shook his head with wry amusement without saying a word. Before Jean arrived he switched into Russian, quietly, only for Vadim to hear, "I knew you'd find me."

Vadim smiled. "Had good directions. Good you're in one piece." Would have killed to be able to touch Dan, but it was Jean who did it, clapping Dan on the shoulder.

"Fancy a lift, Mad Dog? Got you guys some water and breakfast. Camping without gear out here is not my idea of a holiday."

Dan laughed, but winced at the shoulder slap. His whole body was sore, and the left side made every movement an interesting experience. "We should get moving first, need to get Chris and Ken checked over, possibly re-bandaged. Water now, breakfast will have to wait a moment. We had shared some of my usual extra pile of sandwiches."

Jean nodded. "Sure thing. You relax and have a bite, Vadim and I check on your team there." He handed Dan a bottle and a couple energy bars, giving Vadim a nod when Dan sat down, trusting the Russkies to deal with the mess.

"Vadya, Help me with the guys …"

Jean headed towards the Yanks, handed out more water and food, then checked on the wounds, getting the worst casualty ready to be transported to the jeep. All taken care off, Vadim helped, every now and then looking over to Dan.

Jean murmured under his breath in Russian: "See? It's a good start."

"Fuck you", said Vadim, almost silently. He headed back to the Lannie to get a blanket so they could carry the kid that looked more dead than alive but was still clinging on and fighting, while Jean had a look at the big guy's neck. Vadim was glad he could concentrate on the team, doing the things that were necessary, only had to function, not think.

When they had finished, they found Dan still sitting, knees to his chest, fucked hand on the ground, the other arm wrapped around his legs and his head on his knees. Fast asleep.

Jean touched Dan's shoulder and crouched. "Hey. Home express leaves now. We're ready to go." He seemed about to hug Dan, and Vadim checked on the men in the landrover again, swallowing that bitter taste that crept up. The familiarity. That fucking trust. He fished for another bottle and drank, concentrating on what he had to do. He'd rip out Jean's throat later, back in camp.

"Uh …," Dan mumbled, before suddenly jerking awake. "Shit." Wiping his eyes, he shook his head like a dog, in an attempt to wake up. "Sorry. Guess I'm too old for this shit." He held his good hand out to Jean who took it and pulled a groaning Dan up to stand, before he rubbed all over his face with the heel of his hand. "Got water in the vehicle?"

"Not enough for a swimming pool, but enough so you won't piss sand anytime soon." Jean laughed. "Can't have that, now, can we?" Walking beside Dan, protectively, like he was ready to help the other, should he falter again, and Vadim's eyes spelled murder.

Dan nodded and they made their way to the long wheel base Landrover, with the kid lying stretched out on the floor in the back, the pilot lying on one bench and Gary sitting on the opposite one. Dan looked inside, then back at Jean and Vadim. "Front or back for me? You two got your bearings?"

"Spetsnaz here has the combat driver training. I'll ride with the kids and keep the rear clear." Jean winked at Dan, again one of his stupid jokes, but as expected, it made Dan laugh while Jean climbed in.

"Copy." Dan was still grinning when he clambered into the passenger seat, arranging himself and the weapons, rifle right there, ready should it be needed. He found the two litre water bottle wedged between seat and door, and had at least half of it. Feeling better after re-hydrating properly.

Vadim shook his head. "Been some time." He climbed into the driver's seat, got his bearings, started the machine and turned back into the wadi, which was the best bet at the moment. Providing good solid ground and a little cover. Of course, it was also a likely point for a trap.

"Any idea how many miles we are into open territory?" Dan was in the process of unfolding the map one-handed, while being rattled about by the bumpy ride, causing him to clench his teeth now and again, his bruised body protesting. Had to be a hell of a lot worse for the casualties in the back.

"Sixty miles is my best guess", murmured Vadim, going for speed above stealth - he wanted to cover as many miles as possible while the towelheads were still busy with prayer and breakfast - and get the casualties out of the desert.

"I have a funny feeling those bastards haven't quite given up yet." Glancing backwards, Dan saw Jean scanning the rear and Martinez doing likewise, as much as the concussed man managed to concentrate.

"Call it a gut feeling, but I've got an itch and it isn't a good one." Dan frowned, talking in Russian, he didn't want the Yanks to hear. Jean was a different matter.

Vadim cast him a sideways glance and nodded. "Yes. Depending on how well they are organized, they can still fuck us up. We'll grow an escort when we are on safer ground for the others to operate. Fucking Yank cowards won't risk another chopper."

"It's not just that. Don't forget the political ramifications or whatever else they call that shit." Dan switched between Russian and English in one sentence, fluently.

"I prefer being alive to being politically correct." The last two words were English as well, as if Vadim couldn't be bothered to translate the concept into Russian. Vadim jerked the wheel to the right to evade a dried out tree trunk, almost knocking Jean off the back and rattling everybody else.

"Fuck!" Dan cried out before biting his lip to shut himself up. Bad enough to hear the cries of pain from the wounded men, he didn't need to add to that. "Wherever they taught you driving, Russkie, it wasn't aimed at carrying old ladies around."

"I see no old ladies."

"Aye, and fuck you, too." Dan grinned wryly, then scanned the horizon, before using his finger to trace their route on the map, trying to find the safest way. He had to give up in the end, shaking his head. "Fucking territory. Nothing but open terrain and the wadi's still our best bet. Seems to be the straightest line back 'home'."

He stared at the map again, frowning. "There'll be a sharp bend in about twenty miles, that's when we should get out to cross the desert."

Vadim nodded. "Also a great place for an ambush … but if we don't take that, we get deeper into their territory."

Dan nodded, didn't need to say anything, and even Jean shut up for once.

They covered ground fast, Vadim very nearly risking the jeep's axes at several points when he just barged through rough patches that Jean on the way in had evaded - but back then they still had time, and cover of darkness. The cries of pain abated from the back, perhaps because the casualties were getting weaker. Dan didn't want to know. As long as the kid lived. It seemed of utmost importance that Chris had to survive. Unlike another young soldier, back in the Afghan mountains.

Vadim drank with one hand, whole body constantly shifting as he drove like a madman. Teeth gritted against the dust they were kicking up, and the constant knocks and jumps and jerks - they'd all be sore tomorrow, but hopefully alive.

They were getting closer towards the bend that Dan had pointed out. The river bed was getting narrower, but also flatter on one side, allowing them to take the Landrover back out of the wadi. The bend turned sharply, though, making it impossible to see ahead, and that's when all of the men fell silent. Concentrating on every little sign, scanning the area, brightly lit by merciless morning sun.

Nothing seemed to be amiss, no movements, no suspicious object anywhere. They were getting closer to the shallow part that would lead out of the riverbed back onto open terrain, when a sudden flash and almighty noise shook the vehicle.

Dan was thrown out of his passenger seat, slamming with his head against the roof, when a grenade exploded right under the left front wheel. "Fuck!" He yelled, by instinct taking hold of anything near the window, but his left hand was useless and he lost orientation as the Landrover began to topple. "Get hold of the wounded!" was all he could shout, helpless himself, falling out of the seat and sliding towards the driver, when the Lannie tipped over onto the right side.

Vadim was momentarily disoriented, got his bearings before the car tipped over onto the side. Managed to kick the door open and throw himself out, before crawling through a tunnel of limbs and blood the way it looked. Grabbed hold of an assault rifle on the way out of the vehicle, while Jean managed to free himself as well, immediately evacuating the wounded - behind that landrover, out of the way.

The only man still stuck in the vehicle was Dan. Knocked out momentarily when Vadim made it outside. Instead of crashing on top of the other body, his head hit the steering wheel and then the rocks and dust underneath the open door. Luckily getting trapped in the Landrover that presented the underside of its carriage. The metal stopped the bullets that were being fired from across the wadi. He regained consciousness the next second, dizzy, yet already trying to get out of the car. If they hit the tank he'd be a goner, fried to a crisp.

Vadim wiped his face, noticed there was blood, but he didn't feel the sting of sweat in a fresh wound, so he supposed it wasn't his. "Jean, get the fucking rifle!" Snarling as Jean was dragging out Chris, the worst casualty. Martinez only needed to be turned into the right direction and yelled at to get his ass going.

"We're fucked!" shouted Vadim to Jean. Jean nodded, baring his teeth in an exasperated grin. Vadim risked a glance, Dan was still in the fucking Landrover. He should get him out. But that was not the right decision. Stay operational, fuck the wounded if necessary. Stay operational at all costs. Vadim cursed, took the assault rifle faster, reached for the pocket with mags. He had plenty of ammo, plus hand grenades. That should be enough. Jean was just dragging the pilot out, pulling and tearing despite the moans of pain. At least the fucking deserter worked well under pressure. "Okay. Shit. You stay right here, Jean, and get Dan out."

"And you?"

"Flank them."

"You and which fucking Marine Corps?"

"I don't need the MC to mop up some towelheads."

"Bullshit."

"Fuck you. You get Dan out. You want him, you fucking get him out, or I'll come back to haunt you." Vadim pushed himself off to run, jump, hoped the dirt and dust covered him enough so he could flank them. Suicide on all counts.

Dan had managed to turn himself around, enough to be able to peer through a hole in the mangled car, where the grenade had torn open the bodywork. He was struggling as hard as he could to get out of the goddamned wreck, but his leg was stuck between passenger seat, gear stick, driver's seat and steering wheel. "Fuck!" Hissed between his teeth, he was immersed in a cacophony of automatic fire, shouting and cries of pain, while his own blood rushed in his ears. No way he'd give up, had to get out of this goddamned trap, but the leg wouldn't budge and his bloody hand was useless. He was almost screaming with rage and frustration, when he noticed a man run into the riverbed and past the mangled vehicle, sprinting towards the other side.

"No!" Dan yelled when he realised who was the lunatic. "Fuck, no! Vadim!" Felt redoubled strength come back to him, frantically pushing, pulling and rattling at anything that was likely to give to get him out of the fucking wreck.

Jean cursed. "Keep your head in, Dan!" He pulled a knife and hammered it into the soft top, just glad the Landrover had come to lie on its side, one lucky thing in a string of "fuck yous" from the gods. Slicing the heavy cloth open, working frantically because he should be returning fire to give Vadim cover, and didn't, mostly because he had no idea whatsoever how many insurgents there were. Reaching inside, he saw how Dan was wedged in, and dove deeper to help free the leg. "We need another shooter. You can rest later", he murmured, cracking a joke to deflect Dan's attention from the fact Vadim was just doing something as brazenballed as if he'd still be spetsnaz and had regimental pride for lunacy to defend.

"Get me out, get me the fuck out!" Dan didn't care about jokes nor deflection, all he could see was Vadim running, firing, and throwing himself into the lion's den. With combined effort they finally got his leg free, skinning it in the process but he couldn't give less of a shit. Jean pulled him behind the vehicle for cover.

"My hand's fucked. Aim's not as it should be. I cover those bastards broad-range, you pick them out." Dan flashed his bloodied teeth, "the crazy Russkie's taking out the nest."

"Yeah, that's the plan. Doesn't take a great sniper …" Jean checked on the casualties, told them to stay the fuck put, while Dan snatched the rifle that was still in the cab. He looped his arm through some magazine rounds, before crawling towards the top of the wadi, keeping as much in the shelter of the overturned vehicle as he could. Firing at will, protecting the lunatic as much as he could, by making it impossible for the insurgents to lift their heads above their position.

Jean lined up careful shot after careful shot, shooting at anything he could see, any motion, worked completely from his guts, the stress of the fight burning every thought from his brain.

Suddenly, screams, and somebody jumped out of cover to run, keeping his head covered. Jean drew a bead and shot him in the chest, twice, making the man crumple. And another explosion. Hand grenade.

"Holy fuck, yes!" Dan yelled, while he continued spraying the insurgent's area with bullets. The explosion tore across the desert and when the dust settled Dan saw bodies, limbs, torn flesh. He stopped firing for a moment, listened. Nothing. Shouted at Jean to shut the fuck up and stop the shooting, but there was still nothing. The fuckers were dead, he'd bet on it, but all Dan wanted to know was if another bastard was alive.

"Vadim!"

From behind cover, somebody raised a rifle - SA-80, British make, not a goddamned AK - high, then stood up, Vadim, covered all over in red dirt. Looking tired, but grinning, a shit eating grin that indicated adrenaline was in overdrive and every cell in his body celebrated the fact it was alive. He made the 'all clear' sign towards them, then walked down to where the explosion had happened. There were a couple shots. Twice. Again, two shots. Vadim finished off the wounded.

Dan shot a round into the air to indicate they'd understood, then let himself slide back down towards the wreck of the Lannie. Heart pounding, pulse racing and grinning like a fool. "Fucking bastard did it." He smirked at Jean. "He's still a lethal cunt." Pure pride shone out those words, his eyes and the grin that threatened to split his face, before turning his attention to the three Yanks.

"Yeah." Jean shook his head. "That's something he can do", he murmured, almost toneless.

Johnson was unconscious, didn't even make a sound anymore, and fresh blood was gathering around the edge of the bandages where the piece of the rotor had been jostled, but he had a pulse, albeit weakly. Jackson was staring at Dan, pain written all across his dirt encrusted face, sill trying to grin and giving a thumbs-up. Holding his leg that was drenched in fresh blood, which got him a pad on the shoulder from Dan and a "sorry, mate," which the pilot answered with a shrug. Martinez sat, helmeted head in his hand, obviously nauseous, with the concussion in full force, but he had still fired his weapon. A fine soldier, and Dan grinned. "Bet you think we're all lunatics, eh?" Gary grimaced, "No, buddy, but that Russian. He's fucking crazy."

Dan laughed with the relief of being alive and knowing that Vadim had made it. Turning towards the scene of carnage, he shouted, "Get your arse over here! We got to get going." Adding towards the others, "Anyone got any idea how exactly?"

Vadim broke into a trot, crossed the wadi again and climbed back up on their side. "The bitches have a pickup truck. Plus MG on tripod." He wiped his face again, red dirt caked with red blood, but he looked fine, no visible wounds anywhere. "We just grab the Yanks and get them across the river. But we need to get going. They had a radio, means they're in touch with others."

Dan nodded. "You two get Chris on a blanket, Gary and I help Ken, alright?" He was looking round the crew, greeted with exhausted stares and tired nods. That wasn't good enough, and Dan used the same trick he'd use before. "I said, alright, guys?" In a sharp voice that left no room for questioning, and he earned himself some "hoo-rah", which made him grin and nod.

"Right, then, let's get going." Dan was so knackered, he could hardly get himself to move, but there was no alternative and he'd never let anyone else realise that he was worn down to the bare bones. Helping Martinez, they managed to get Jackson up between them. Carrying him across the wadi while Jean got all their essentials out of the wrecked Landrover to take them across, before getting Chris onto the blanket and into the pick-up truck. Once all of them were in the vehicle, with Dan in the passenger seat, Vadim driving and the others backing the open, he allowed himself to close his eyes for a moment, murmuring, "just get us the fuck out of here." Adding in Russian, without looking at Vadim. "Please."

Vadim had started the machine already, hands still slightly unsteady from the stress, then looked at Dan, his stretched throat, the way he swallowed, the stubble and exhaustion, and would have died to be able to kiss that throat, or touch his thigh. Feeling pain well up, and with it, tenderness.

He headed straight towards the base, kicking up a massive flag of dust behind them, driving again like a man possessed and uncaring, but at least the desert was smoother ground, following Dan's directions, with Jean holding onto the MG on the back and Martinez making sure the casualties didn't get too badly jostled.

Eventually, helicopters appeared above them. Americans. Jean waved at them and nodded towards the Yanks. "Your friends are here!" Shouting against the noise.

Vadim kept his jaws tense, concentrating on driving, but relaxed a fraction once they were covered.

Dan craned his neck, caught a glimpse of the choppers and relaxed back into the seat, staring straight ahead while a slow smile began to creep across his features. "We made it." Murmured, then again, when the compound came into view, "we fucking made it." Louder, until they were racing towards the gates and the first soldiers and medical teams came running towards them. He shouted, glancing backwards at the crew in the truck, "we goddamned motherfucking made it!" He was laughing, despite the pain, the exhaustion, the dust and noise and the fact that it was all more than just half insane.

Vadim allowed himself a smile, Dan's pure joy at being alive - and safe - was contagious, even though he didn't quite feel the same elation, not yet. It took him a while to let go.

Jean reached for another water bottle and drank, closing his eyes, grinning as he celebrated his triumph - live and fight another day, snatched from the teeth of death.

Dan was still laughing when they stopped and the doors were being opened. He almost fell into the arms of some of the soldiers when he tried to get out of the truck and tripped over his own feet. He grinned, looking for Vadim, couldn't see him, not in the crowd that came running with stretchers and equipment. Finding himself in the middle of an organised chaos.

He was lost in the crowd, calling Vadim's name, shouting for Jean, but he had to concede defeat when he saw British uniforms and a whole team of medics that was adamant to put him onto a stretcher. That's when he gave up and, without further protest, let himself be taken across to the British compound and the medical station there.

Dan lay on the examination table before he could say "poof" and his soiled kit was stripped off him. He meant to make some stupid-arsed joke at the nurse that dealt with the skinned leg and the bruised side, and at the surgeon who checked the wrist, injecting local anaesthetics to prepare him for the x-rays. But all that was forgotten all of a sudden. Too much effort, and he hardly realised how he was slipping rapidly and without resistance into an utterly exhausted sleep while they were still working on him, and before x-rays and general anaesthetic to reset the broken bones.

He didn't even hear the nurse protest and laugh, when she was told she'd have to clean up the casualty with a sponge instead, since he was snoring within a couple of minutes.

Dan was out like a light, didn't feel any of the treatments and slipped from sleep into unconsciousness, and finally back to sleep while he was transported into the air conditioned medical tent.

* * *

Dan slept like a log for ten hours, without even waking once, until early evening. When he woke he was alone in the tent, none of the other beds were occupied and no noise except for the hum of the air con. It took him a moment to orient himself, before he noticed the deep throb in his wrist and remembered what had happened, and that, in fact, he was alive and so were all the others, as far as he could tell. Pulling the thin sheet away and glancing down at himself, he realised he was no longer dirty, except for a bright red iodine covered leg, but neither dressed, except for a pair of shorts that were clearly not his own. Making some noise while sitting up, there was a rustle close to the entrance and a nurse appeared.

She gave him water, checked on all the vital signs, but Dan was growing restless and hungry. Food was brought soon, which he wolfed down while his hand was checked over yet again. Got the most important information first of all: all three of the American crew were alive, as far as the Brits knew, then listened half-heartedly to a lecture about the painkillers he was to take, his bruises and how he was to deal with them, and the need for this and that and the other, before the inevitable happened: he got summoned to a briefing, or rather, the whole hog appeared in the tent, including the CO.

Dan sighed, gave into the inevitable, and told them all that had happened, while being perfectly aware that he'd have to do it again for the Yanks - again and again and again. When they were satisfied for the time being, it had gone pitch dark outside. Dan wanted to get away from medical supervision, needed some time on his own until the next morning, he argued, and he had some personal things to do. Glad when the doc signed him off as fit to take care of himself, after yet another lecture about plaster casts, bruises, possible mild concussion, and goodness what. And, of course, the strict order not to drink any alcohol for at least a couple of weeks.

Dan was muttering to himself when he stood outside at last, dressed in a pair of his own shorts they'd brought him, with t-shirt and flip-flops, and the ubiquitous shades. He pushed them back over his eyes, standing around, aimlessly. The 'personal business' had been a lie, except for the very important business of organising a bottle or two of moonshine. Doctor's orders, he claimed when he cajoled some of his mates into producing the booze for him, diligently omitting the 'against'.

Bottles in a bag, slung over his good shoulder, Dan got himself into his parka against the cold of the night, and kept standing. Dithering. Wondering. Where had the hatred gone to, just dissipated? And where was the pain?

* * *

The doctor had checked Vadim over only briefly, low priority, and he wasn't wounded, had only caught a bit too much sun, and that was it. A shower, dressed to be debriefed, told his story a few times, had the feeling he was only confirming Dan's and Jean's story, then was allowed to go. Stripped again, and lay down, to sleep, lay restless though for a long time. Dan. Dan close. Dan laughing. Dan. He couldn't be angry at Jean, not right now, all he felt was a mild astonishment and regret that things had come this far. Mulling over his decision to flank instead of letting Jean do that. He'd been far too willing to leave Dan, hadn't made a stand to get him out and instead went off alone. It had been the right thing, tactically, but he wondered what Dan would think about it.

But then, Dan spent time with Jean, and not with him, so the priorities were set. Vadim groaned, shook his head at the thought. Dan and Jean - that image was enough to be painful. He should be glad Dan was alive, and instead replayed the whole mission in his head, over and over again, questioning every word, every decision, until he wasn't sure what had been right and what had been wrong and he doubted everything. He couldn't sleep.

He stood up, groaning, dressed again, didn't want to be caught out in anything but with gear and knife, then stepped outside to breathe air, and feel the space around him. No cell.

Dan looked up when he heard the noise of a door opening, and a smile ghosted across his face. Of course, who else. How fitting. He couldn't tell how long he had been standing in the dark, unwilling to knock on anyone's hut, unable to bear company in the Mess, and not wanting to be on his own. "Hey, Russkie." He called out quietly.

Vadim turned at the words and saw Dan, who stood there, stiffness betraying the pain. He came closer, gave Dan a nod and a smile. "Couldn't sleep. What about you? Smoking?"

"Aye, that and drinking. Doctor's orders." Dan shrugged lopsidedly, glancing around. "Just don't feel like being scooped up. Do you …" stalled, didn't know what to say nor even what he wanted, "do you know a place to booze in peace?"

Vadim grinned and nodded upwards. "Up on the roof there. Good view up there, and no patrol comes looking. Too lazy." He paused, hesitant for a moment. Thought, against his will, that Jean was probably right. Being nice. Talking. Flirting. Well, maybe start with the second part of that. He'd been relatively nice, he felt. Saving somebody's life was damn nice. "Care for company?"

"That'd be, too, what the doctor ordered." Dan grinned, held out the bag with the bottles. "Vodka and whisky. Cheap crap, but beggars can't be choosers."

"Sounds like we have a party on our hands", murmured Vadim and took the bag to help Dan carry.

Dan was favouring the right side while walking, every bone in his body ached and every muscle sore. Glancing up at the ladder he sighed and muttered a few obscenities, getting up there was going to be fun. "You'd think they have elevators for scruffy old veterans."

"Not up there. We're strictly not supposed to be there." Vadim climbed the ladder after Dan, who took his time, clearly hurting, but Vadim couldn't help looking at the ass and legs in front of him and felt a stab of desire, expected, but nonetheless painful.

Vadim settled on the roof and put the bottles down. They'd been right - it was a good view, and a peaceful place. He should have come here earlier. "Dan … one thing. I made a tactical decision today. It was … about tactics, and nothing else."

"What do you mean?" Dan was groaning as he shuffled to sit in a position that was at least half-way comfortable.

"Leaving you behind. I knew Jean would get you out, so I … just decided to flank them before they had properly locked onto their targets." Vadim shook his head. "I had not much time."

"And that worries you?" Beneath the shades, Dan's eyes were wide with surprise. Dark pools in even greater darkness.

"Yes."

"I hadn't noticed. It was a team effort, it wasn't your specific job to take care of me. Don't need a nanny. What we needed instead was for someone to eliminate the vipers, and that's what you did."

"Good. I didn't want you to think …" I don't care about you. I would have risked your life. "Anything else."

Dan tilted his head, studying the other while clamping the whisky bottle between his knees, to open it one-handed. "In fact, I've never seen you operate in the field except once, the Mujas. It was a first today."

Vadim shook his head. "Strange, isn't it? You know me so well, but you only watched me kill twice. First time, I wasn't very professional about it." That seemed the wrong thing to say and Vadim ploughed on. "It's better that way. I did a lot of bad things. Not much I'm proud of."

"Aye, but first of, anyone in our jobs has done a lot of shit and secondly, that's the past. You'd long changed before they took you." Dan handed the vodka bottle to Vadim before taking a long draught from his cheap whisky. He coughed at the harsh burn, before he could continue. "There were quite a few things to be proud of, back then." Wiping his face with his hand, before gazing into the darkness.

Vadim nodded. He'd exorcised the soldier, only to have to change back into him in order to survive. Proud. Proud of hotel rooms and waiting for Dan. Proud of living almost like husband and wife, making plans for the future. Settling in and calming down. He opened the vodka and took several deep, deep swallows, followed the burn down his throat to his stomach.

"I remember everything, you know." Dan said quietly.

Vadim cleared his throat. "Yes. Not easy … impossible to forget." At a loss for words and thought, just the strong wave of guilt that washed over him. His fault. A waste of time, effort, a waste of breath, and two years. Over two years that had made them strangers. "It went all wrong. Not what I wanted."

"What do you mean?" Dan was staring at the blue-wrapped plaster cast on his left wrist, before taking the shades off his eyes and putting them on the floor beside him. Looking at Vadim without any barrier. "The last two and a half years, or the shit you pulled the last week?"

"Both." Vadim looked at the bottle and took another deep swallow. He wasn't used to the alcohol anymore. A whole bottle of this would make him very drunk, and hopefully very tired. "I don't understand how it happened. It doesn't make any sense."

"What happened in prison to you, or what happened when you went into madman mode?" Dan felt like dragging each word out of Vadim, as if he had to extract a splinter from a puss filled wound. Putting the bottle to his lips, the liquor was working just fine as pain killer. Inside and out. "It's a good question, actually." Taking a breath, "I haven't got a fucking clue what's going on inside you, what happened to you, and who the hell you are now." Wiping his lips, he leaned back against the low wall behind him, "And I guess you haven't got a clue what happened to me either." Strangers. After eleven years.

"I don't know myself. Things going on in me … make no sense to me. Or anybody else, I guess." Vadim pressed his lips together, fought the despair, that darkness that threatened to well up and blind and deafen him to the world. "You, I recognize. Different, but still you. You seem … happier? More relaxed? You had that during the last … months. When you were working for the embassy. Same … light in your eyes." Same cocksure easy confidence, same easy laughter, same … Dan-ness.

Dan shook his head. "Not the same, not at all." Taking another mouthful, the whisky was doing its job of dulling his senses. "It's like having been taken apart and put back together again." He petered off, once again looking out into the distance, before he started anew after long moments of silence.

"When you left in Finland, there was nothing." Dan talked slowly, carefully moving from word to word, like a rock climber, trying to find the right path. "Absolutely nothing, after two years of fighting, and I had no idea anymore how to go on. That's why I came here."

Vadim closed his eyes and remembered his own … stupor. The inability to feel, the sense of strangeness, like nothing was real, there was nothing left to feel, nothing left to remember, all used up for simply staying alive and remotely sane.

Dan took a deep breath, swollen fingers of his left hand fluttering on the fabric of his camo trousers. "Over the years, you had become my home, my sanity, perhaps even my life." He lowered his head, almost immediately jerked it back up. "While you were in prison I could at least fight for your life, all the time keeping up hope. Until it was too late." Dan shook his head once, violently, as if trying to get rid of a memory. "It was Maggie who had the bottle to tell me about your sentence, the execution. And yet, even then, there was still something to do. I had to tell you that I was alive, going on living, like I had promised. I needed you to know I hadn't given up on you." Dan huffed dryly, "Useless, hopeless, but fuck, I had to try and tell you that I love you, even if all that remained in the end was nothing but death." He scrunched his eyes shut. No matter how much more whisky he'd drink, he'd never forget the smell and sight and sound of the room where he had waited for Vadim's execution. The tick-tock of the clock, every second moving closer to finality. And then, silence. Inside. Hurt and pain and grief so large and overpowering, he'd thought he would drown.

"Not … useless." Vadim struggled for breath. "My fault. I … I fucked it up. Fucked you up. I didn't mean to, but I had … nothing left. I'm sorry." Choked very nearly on the last word.

"No, Vadim, I guess when you left … it wasn't your fault, even though I can't understand it. But I knew …," Dan's voice lowered, before taking another mouthful of the harsh liquor, "I knew when I saw you in Finland that you weren't the man who I'd last seen in Kabul." His fingers moved up and down the bottle, stalled at its neck. "Maggie had tried to warn me, had given me articles, reports, all sorts of stuff from Amnesty International and other places, trying to get me to understand what the KGB had probably done to you. But I couldn't understand, couldn't believe. I still don't." He turned his head to look away.

"I tried. I failed." Dan looked back at Vadim, adding quietly, sincerely. "I don't understand what happened to you, why you did that shit with my mates, and why you tried to get me to kill you …" he shook his head. "I'm sorry."

Guilty, Vadim thought. He was as guilty as sin. Of cowardice, of weakness, of all the things the KGB officer had said. Predatory instincts, exploitation, cruelty, a nature so base, twisted and defiled he was beyond redemption. If there was any redemption, and that was the one small victory, Katya guarded it. Two things in his life he'd done right.

Again he wished he could just have died for Dan somewhere on the way here. It would have saved him so much pain, both of them, and Dan would have never seen just how weak and pathetic he was. Blood and guts. Just flesh. Just a creature scrambling around on earth with no higher purpose, no destiny, stomped on by blind chance. He lowered his head, vodka blunting the thoughts, and luring out the darkness.

"If you … want to know, just ask." He didn't want to speak about it, nothing of it, it would be cutting bandages that kept the wounds closed.

"No … not yet." Dan shook his head, drawing in a deep breath. He needed to try and make Vadim understand. Just as much as he still needed to understand himself. "I need you to understand, Vadim. To truly understand what you mean to me. You had been everything, Vadim. You'd been the reason I told the Army to fuck off, just to get back to Kabul. You'd been everything I fought for when you were imprisoned. You'd been the force behind everything I did during those two years. I loved you, but when you returned only to leave …" he stalled, desperately trying to find the right words. "Everything shattered. Everything I was, felt, wanted was gone. I was empty. There was nothing left inside of me. There was nothing left."

That meant … Vadim was struggling with it, but the thought was clear and sharp. It meant Dan had been just as broken as he'd been after the prison. Two years, a different kind of torture. A life taken, a world reduced to rubble and pain. Past Tense. Past Perfect. It was over. But at the same time, Dan was sitting there, right there with him, and talking. "Why … why don't you …" love me anymore, he wanted to say, but felt the word and the thought caught in his mind.

"Why don't I what?" Dan glanced up, the haphazard fringe of his unruly hair was shielding his eyes. "Why don't I go back to where we were before all this shit happened?" He shook his head softly, while clinging to the whisky bottle. "I can't do it again. If I touched you, I will be back to square one - and if you left me once more … I couldn't stand it. I just couldn't."

Dan laughed dryly, softly. A sound of dead leaves and harboured hopes. "I'm fucking frightened to touch you, Vadim. That's why I've been avoiding you, not because I don't want you. Shit, you have no idea how much I do want you. Always have, always will." Shaking his head once more. Forlorn, with wry amusement and too many brittle truths.

"Russkie, if I said I didn't love you, I'd lie, as much as if I said I didn't want you. I'm not a liar, so I won't tell you that I don't want you and that I don't love you, but …" Dan drew in another breath, "but it's not that easy anymore. You've done so much shit. Up close and personal. I can't ignore it."

Blood and guts, Vadim thought. In the end, it all came down to that. Unbearable to look at Dan cutting himself open like this, unbearable to think that he had made him suffer like this. Enough that Dan could feel that hurting himself more could bring relief.

His jaw muscles twitched, and he looked out into the night of a country that he had no idea about, would never understand, just like he had never understood Afghanistan.

The beauty of destruction, the basics of life. You suffer, you bleed, you die.

Didn't want to imagine what it meant for Dan, all that time, but then, yes, he knew about waiting. Knew about hoping, and knew about the moment when hope had run out. He wanted to speak about it, and then didn't. Dan was the one that was bleeding. Driving the knife home with the things he held inside, gutting him even more was wrong. He wanted to block, hold that hand, wanted to pull the knife away, wanted Dan to stop pushing it deeper, not because of what it did to him, but because of what it did to Dan.

But what Dan said. I love you. I love you. I love you. I want you. I want to touch you. He'd been reduced to wanting, accepting that the feelings were gone. Accepting that the little boy soldier, fucking stupid Yank that sounded like he had been harvesting corn in Iowa just last summer, was easier, younger, and not a coward. He'd read something, somewhere. That the difference between courage and cowardice was experience.

Vadim lowered his head, felt his neck tense in this position, stared at the mouth of the bottle. Never a way out. Too much of him. He couldn't fit into a bottle. Seducing him in Kabul had been easy, well, easier than this. Just show him how good it could feel, let him come to his own conclusions. This time, Dan had known what it felt like, and decided against it. But was it a decision?

Mr Krasnorada, he heard the doctor, you must be aware that since your treatment, you are prone to misunderstand - misinterpret. Human interaction will always be tinged with mistrust, fear, caution, and the feeling of emotional numbing. But that doesn't mean you can't function.

He backtracked, went through Dan's words again. Love, want. Those two were easy enough. But. That one was difficult. "No, it's not easy anymore."

"No, not easy." Dan murmured, yet deep inside it was as goddamned easy as reaching out and taking hold, to never let go again. But he'd been too broken, scattered, he couldn't go through it once more. The bottle went to Dan's lips, eyes shut, and he gulped down a quarter of it. Wiped his lips, catching a drop that had spilled down his chin. Shifting position to look at Vadim. Really looked. His quiet voice carried all of the intensity it ever could.

"If I touched you now, would you never leave me again?"

There was so much hope in his voice and his words, it hurt like hell.

Vadim swallowed, felt his throat too tight to move, then, still staring at the bottle, smelling the desert and Dan, and himself, his hand reached to his side, opened the holster of the pistol. British issue, the exact same kind that Dan carried. Merc now even by choice of tools.

Took out the mag, took the bullet from the chamber, clicked the mag in place again, rolled the bullet between his fingers. Nothing special about it, apart from where it had been, and where it could go. Brass and charge. Physics of killing. He looked at Dan, sideways, saw the man stare at him, all eyes, dark eyes, and the way the pale desert moon made his face a place of shadows.

He reached for Dan's hand, opened the fingers and placed the bullet into the palm. "I mean this." Then thought Dan wouldn't get it. Wrestled with the words in English, but he was never sure he said what he wanted to say, anyway. "This is the bullet you'll use to kill me if I walk away again." Because if I walk away again, I'll be in so much pain I'm better off dead anyway.

Dan looked at his palm, the bullet, but did not close his hand.

"Do you ever hate me, Vadim?" His voice carefully devoid of emotions. "If you do, tell me. Because if you ever hated me, because of the things that happened to you, I'd rather you use that bullet on myself." Added, "Right now." He wanted to close his hand so badly, warm the bullet on his palm and never let go. "I just need to know."

Hate you? Vadim's eyes narrowed. Oh, Dan. He wanted to hit that hand, make the bullet spin away into the darkness, never find its target, one bullet in this war - any war - that wouldn't kill. Dan had been the water and the food and the boots to get him through there. It was only that he had used him up, the memories, had needed to feed off them, use them to stay himself. Hating water was absurd.

"I never hated you. I don't think I hated you up there in the mountains, when I had plenty more reason. I was scared of you, yes, but all those years? I didn't hate you. Not like you hated me."

He smiled, thought about sipping from the vodka, but didn't. "The things that happened to me?"

The beatings, the insanity of being alone, the scorn, the humiliation, the accusations, the way they had torn his mind apart, trampled on everything.

"My decision. I got Katya to leave. I stayed in Afghanistan. I decided to live like I did. Am. There is no space for men like me. I'm an error. I'm not supposed to happen. And I'm not supposed to get away with it for so long. I'm not supposed to not cringe and hide for what I am. The Soviet Union had no place for me. The Soviet Army …" Vadim shook his head. "Things happen, but they are invisible, especially if you are an officer, especially in my … former position. Nobody raised a voice. Officers got away with murder"

Vadim shook his head once more, stared at his hands. "Some men want to win a gold medal, some want a family, some want to be rich, some want to be free, some want to kill other men, and some men want to do the right thing. Me, I only want you."

Dan closed his hand. Felt the metal warming to his touch. He cocked his head a fraction, studied the face he'd known for many years. Aging, just like his, and aging well. Vadim wore the years like a trophy, despite what they had done to him.

He smiled, looked down, left the bottle standing beside him, then just looked at Vadim for a long while, before slowly sliding his hand onto Vadim's thigh. Touching. Firm warmth beneath the cloth, as familiar as the bullet in his hand.

"Two fucked up men." Dan murmured, "I haven't given up on them, yet."

Shoot me, Vadim thought, amazed at how sane that thought felt. It wasn't. Death scared him. Just couldn't get why he wanted Dan to kill him, if he had to die. Maybe that would make it less random, give it some meaning, but the thought was so utterly wrong it gave him goosebumps. Why the fuck, why?

All he ever wanted. Dan was death, and life, and water, and emotion. Battling that emotion, mourning, sadness. Love could hurt like a motherfucker, he thought, because that was it, just human, unlikely, impossible, a kind of love that defeated him at every corner, every turn. Relief. Not given up.

"No, you haven't given up. Not all the time. You kept me alive inside you. I… failed in that. You … died in my mind, in my heart, when they kept me locked in with just myself", Vadim murmured, staring at the ground. Impossible to say this in Russian, it meant too fucking much, and he hated the melody of Russian. Russian was 'their' language, not his. For operational reasons, yes, but never again to speak feelings. "I took what I had of you with me in there. I did. They told me you were dead, so it was mourning."

Dan fingers moved slowly along the stretched cloth of Vadim's trousers. His whole attention fixed on the other. Nothing else, no bottle, no aching body, no world existed except Vadim. A Vadim he could not understand, who had gone through things he was unable to comprehend. A transformation so deep, it had rearranged every molecule. "Did you believe it?" Murmured, his dark eyes almost black in the dim light.

The touch on his thigh nearly made Vadim jump. There was always a promise in that touch, it was always close enough to grab his attention. The muscle tensed, mostly to acknowledge the touch had registered. "At first I didn't … but then I was … losing my mind. I was losing … myself. Somewhere then I … lost you."

"Did you receive the message?"

"Yes. My father relayed it. That made … things easier."

Dan nodded, but did not smile. A price he'd paid, high stakes, but now he knew it had been worth it. "I didn't know if it would make things worse, but I had to try it. You had to know." His fingers curled into a loose fist on Vadim's thigh. Murmured softly, tinged with regret. "Seems I know Jack Shit."

Vadim wanted nothing more than to cover that hand with his and keep it there. Inched closer just a little, and felt tired, heavy, and weak, like the conversation was draining the blood from him. No, the strength, and the poison, and the darkness, even though touching the darkness was always dangerous. He lowered his head, bent the neck, swallowing hard. Throat too tight to swallow, fuck it. Leaning his head against Dan's shoulder, asking for strength and support and touch. Dan wouldn't touch him, not like in the old days, he knew that and it hurt, but maybe Dan allowed this.

Dan's hand came up, instantly, into the back of Vadim's neck. Left it there. A steady, warm, calloused presence. Tilting his head a fraction, until his cheek touched the short-shorn hair. Waiting. Patience.

Vadim wrestled with his thoughts, everything racing, things he wanted to say and would never find the words for. I took you with me, but you ran out. I fed on it, and it kept me alive.

"Some point, only I was left."

Just happened. At some point, I was truly alone. Cold turkey. Worse. Alone with his own darkness, the things he'd done, the things he was. The crimes, and the baseness of his own nature, baser than the vomit and excrement. You were gone, used up.

"Like a dog eating its own legs. Twisted dark mirror."

I was alone with myself, and I looked at myself, and I hated what I saw, thought Vadim, with utter clarity.

Dan's voice a rumbling, low ghost. "You said once that were are not a good man, but that you got by. I understood it then, and I still do now." Tiny movements of Dan's head, minute friction, while his hand remained a stable presence in Vadim's neck. "It does not matter what you did, nor when you broke, and neither why. The things you wanted, the greed - that's been and gone. Done and buried. You're here. You've paid the highest price. Yourself." He wasn't fully certain what the words meant, just that they somehow made sense. Craning his neck, his lips touching shaved hair.

A strange sound came from Vadim's throat at that touch. He pressed his eyes shut to not fucking start crying with relief and truth and gratitude. The gratitude was the worst, for Dan kissing him, like a brother maybe, like family, like he cared and meant it. He wasn't forgiven, he didn't think Dan could or would, but Dan accepted it. Him.

Vadim fought the crying, couldn't just break down now, no fucking hysterical mess. He should want and need and screw their brains out, make amends, show what he felt. The thoughts of making Dan pay that he had harboured the last weeks, just gone, wiped away, petty ego bullshit. Forced himself to breathe steady, force the screaming and crying down, he'd do nothing like this. Nothing.

I wanted to be strong for you and for myself, and I wasn't.

He swallowed hard, throat still too tight to swallow, fuck it. He fought the tears again, it felt like his head and chest were filled with acid.

It didn't matter. Didn't matter he had been broken, or why, or when, or how.

Dan didn't despise him for being such a coward. So weak that he collapsed at the true extend of what he was. How he suddenly realized what he had done - relished - was wrong. 'Following orders' didn't even cover it. And all the other faults, the creature inside that was just greedy to live, would bargain anything away, everything. The creature that 'they' had fed, only to kick it, later, when they were finished with him. He wanted that fucker's head, the man who had interrogated him. He wanted to chew the flesh from Konstantinov's severed and shattered skull, wanted to destroy him in ways that nobody had ever destroyed anybody. Now, that would definitely kill him. He couldn't get anywhere near Russia without trouble.

Vadim finally managed to get his breath under control, somehow managed to breathe that choking tightness away, then felt how his body relaxed, because it couldn't hold the tension anymore. Not twenty anymore. Not even thirty.

"That bullet's a promise and I take it as such." Dan murmured.

Vadim raised his head, sure that he had his features back under control - enough control to fake strength, that impassive, stoic face that was natural. Turned away a little, checking their surroundings, another part of the second nature. A sniper could finish them both with one bullet. Impossible to shed that idea. Inhaled. "A promise", he echoed. "You could have my name engraved, you know?" Tried a smile.

"I don't need your name on it." Dan lifted his head to the same level. "I know what it says." Crooked smile in a scarred face, but he offered no further explanation. The bullet a promise. Real and final. Dan's hand was slowly sliding from Vadim's neck down his shoulder.

It felt like a caress. For all intents and purposes, it was a caress. Brotherly? Prone to misunderstanding. Vadim couldn't risk it, felt too raw inside, and just couldn't beg for it, couldn't ask Dan to touch him, please. Comrades. Comrades that had exchanged a bullet.

I know what it says.

What was that? Vadim had no answer, and thinking about it hurt with longing and tenderness and that darkness that was like acid on his brain.

Dan smiled. "You have a choice to make now. Either get pissed to oblivion and fall asleep on the roof, or get pissed to no more than half-way oblivion and climb down and allow my aging, fucked-up, battered body to sleep on my mattress."

"Nights get cold in the desert", Vadim murmured. "Let's …" Yeah, let's. What. "Rest, You … are injured, you need rest."

Dan's hand left Vadim's thigh, taking the bottle instead. "It'll be for the best." What, for your body, your mind, your heart, or what, Dan? He raised the bottle and drowned out any warring thoughts by downing several gulps of the cheap liquid. Feeling it burn down his throat and pooling in his stomach, soon to poison his blood and turn his brain into a fuzzy plain.

"Help me down, aye?" He dropped the bottle, almost empty. The pain in his body no more than a dull ache, thanks to the booze. Whatever he felt in his heart … he'd be dealing with that later.

"A… yes." Too easy to say "aye" when Dan said it. Infectious, a stupid little linguistic habit that would be embarrassing and wrong now, like he was trying too hard to conform, to endear himself. He couldn't go further than he had. He stood, offering Dan a hand, far less drunk than Dan was, but Vadim thought to remedy that once he was back in his hut.

Dan's grip as strong as it had ever been, despite the ordeal. "You could do with some sleep, too."

"Yes." To sleep, to sleep, perchance to scream. "I think I'm about ready for some shut-eye."

"In that case, take me down, dog-soldier." Dan grinned, unsteady on his feet, especially when favouring the right side.

Vadim grinned, steadied Dan on the way to the ladder, then went first, pulling the other after him, again holding Dan steady like he was a casualty that was still walking under his own steam, but only barely.

He walked Dan to the tin hut and opened the lock and door for him, then gave a smile. "It was a good evening, Dan. The afternoon was shit, but the evening was one of the better ones I've had." He smiled, didn't feel the irony, but thought he should say something. Something 'nice'. Fuck the deserter. "Just … let me know if you want to talk … or not talk. I mean … not … I mean sit there, not talking." He shrugged, felt stupid, and hoped Dan, who was starting to grin at him like a boozed-up loony, was too drunk to notice. "Good night."

And went back to his hut when Dan had crashed in his own, where Vadim finished the vodka, which made him sleep.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter XXVII: Deliverance
 
 
Warning for Readers

The following work of fiction contains graphic homosexual interaction, violence and non-consensual sex. With this work of fiction the authors do not condone in any way any form of intolerance and injustice, e.g. racism, sexual harassment, incitement of hatred, religious hatred nor persecution, xenophobia and misogyny. Neither do the authors through this work of fiction promote violence nor make light of such grave matters as genocide, any taking of human life, murder, execution, rape, torture, persecution of sexual orientation.

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby accept and agree that this is a work of fiction and does not reflect in any way the opinions of the authors. The authors do not necessarily endorse the views expressed by the fictional characters.

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby indemnify the authors against all claims and actions whatsoever arising from reading the work of fiction.

All characters are fictional. Any similarities with living or deceased people are coincidental. In case of real life events, creative license has been applied. Special Forces is intellectual property of Marquesate and Vashtan. Copyright © 2006-2009. All rights reserved.

 

 
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Published 27 August 2007