was uttering the occasional sound that hovered between
a grunt and some other, unidentifiable noise, shaking
his head in intervals. He'd been glued to the colourful
catalogue in his hands for the last hour, since he'd
chosen to be passenger for the first leg of the journey,
until they hit the foot of the Highlands. Giving himself
time to peruse the mail order mag the guys had handed
don't bloody believe it!" He exclaimed, while Vadim
negotiated yet another tight roundabout on a narrow
road through a busy village.
cast quick glances at Dan, but it was near impossible
to make eye contact with him, and the images in the
catalogue made no sense. Only that there was an awful
lot of leather and metal involved. Vadim breathed a
sigh of relief when they left the village - they were
tiny affairs, but clearly dens of madness the way the
Scots drove and walked and cycled with considerable
speed, because they obviously knew their roads and assumed
everybody else did, too. "What do you not believe?"
stuff you can get. It's
hell, don't know. Here
I was, thinking that I'd seen everything and knew everything,
but shit, I don't have a clue about nothing."
up, Dan grinned at Vadim. "The kind of gags one
can get, restraints, shackles, collars, and best of
all, harnesses. But the complete killer are the cock
and ball 'toys', and the sheer range of dildos and what
they call butt plugs. Some of them are even inflatable.
Holy shit, the stuff one could do with all those gadgets
swallowed, remembering what they'd done with Martin
and Gordon. And would do again, while Dan looked like
he had a whole bag of inspiration right there on his
lap. "Makes you wonder who comes up with all that
stuff? I mean, are there people that design ... these
things for a living?"
and makes me wonder how I can get some of the stuff
sent to me, for a private 'toys and games' without getting
nicked in the process." Dan bared his teeth in
a broad grin, before burying his nose once more in the
the next merc camp?" Vadim couldn't help but sound
else?" Dan hardly glanced up.
if anybody sees that stuff ..."
on earth should see it?" Dan shrugged, but conceded
after a moment, "well, time will tell. We aren't
even sure where we'll go next." Which was a little
more reassuring. At least, with Jean gone, it wouldn't
be him that could discover anything by accident. Even
though he strangely had started to like the man. It
wasn't as clear cut anymore, especially when he thought
of the way Jean had kissed him. Part of him regretted
that Jean wouldn't join them on the next mission.
looked up suddenly, spotting where they were. "Right,
this is Tyndrum. We'll stop over here for a cuppa and
a bite, because I'm bloody starving again. After that
I take over and you can do the touristy thing."
look at the landscape, you mean?" Vadim spied what
passed for a café of some description, and parking
space in front of it. Switching off the engine, he stretched
in his seat. "I could use a coffee or something."
made a grand gesture, despite the small place. "Doesn't
look much, but if it hasn't changed, and judging from
the crowd inside I don't think it has, it makes a mean
cup of coffee and particularly good burgers, fish and
chips." Closing the car door behind him as he got
out, "come on, or do you want to see me starve
you're already wasting away ..." Vadim got up,
then stretched across to hide the catalogue, which Dan
had left open, right where he'd sat. Shaking his head
gently, but amused, and there was always that gratitude
that they could actually quarrel like an old couple.
coffee was scorching hot and like tar, but the food
was great, if greasy. Vadim went for the fish, and the
batter was perfect. He was really getting into the fish
and chips thing, ever since he'd tried it the first
time. Once they were sated, they drove on, this time
with Dan in the driver's seat.
were passing through deep forest at first, a lot of
it pine, all the time on narrow twisting roads, until
they got out further into the open and the Highlands
began to lay out their grandeur before them. Crossing
a plain that seemed uninviting with its formation of
low rocks, bogs and uninhabitable area, until they hit
the hills and mountains again, driving past lochs and
seascapes, with the mountains behind.
was becoming more and more silent the further they got,
but he was also smiling, every time he took a look at
stopped at a convenient spot in Glencoe, right in front
of the 'three sisters'. "This is it." Dan
said as he got out of the car, "one of the most
famous areas. Glencoe. Scottish history and all that,
but don't ask me, I was always crap at history. Just
look at it. Look at the freedom, the height, the green
and the clouds, and the mist." Smiling as he looked
up and up, into the grey Scottish sky, "isn't it
said Vadim, as if that explained everything, and he
was standing close, shoulder touching Dan's. "I'll
need to read about your history ..." He suddenly
frowned, remembering that reading was really no longer
a thing he could easily do. "At some point."
He looked around, taking in the rugged and strangely
soft and gentle looking landscape, which was deceptive,
likely, when one didn't have a car to get through it
easily. Some of those slopes were steep and probably
not easy to negotiate. Not quite a match for the Hindukush,
though. "It's ... yeah. It fits you."
drew in a deep breath, "this is my home, and yet
it isn't anymore."
arm went up to Dan's shoulder, squeezed it and held
him close. "But you did miss it?"
looked to the side, surprised at the close contact,
smiling. "Aye, somehow, but if I had to choose
between the Afghan mountains and the Highlands, I know
what I'd choose." Fishing the packet of fags out
of his jacket, he lit one.
slightly insane, Dan." Knowing that it would be
Afghanistan. Maybe for the scope. Or the incredibly
it's something beyond the 'home' that's getting to me
and that I'll never forget." Dan shrugged but smiled,
pressed his lips together for a moment, struggling with
a wave of emotion. "Yes", he forced out, and
looked at the three mountains. "How far is it from
than an hour." Not taking his eyes off the majestic
scenery in front of them, Dan continued to smoke quietly,
until he finally tore himself away. "Guess we better
get going, aye?"
Would be good to get there well before dark." Vadim
walked towards the car.
we'll be there by late lunchtime." Once inside,
Dan turned to Vadim, with an expression more serious
than usual. "It's the last chance for a while.
Will you kiss me?"
ran his fingers up Dan's cheek, grabbed his neck and
kissed him, gently, heartfelt, grateful for the gift
Dan gave by being 'subtle' and act as if they were just
'mates'. He wished he could face Dan's family as his
lover, but the thought made him nauseous with stress
- that dark, anguished feeling of shame and wanting
to run away, and there was no way he could face that.
He didn't want to see them being disappointed in Dan,
didn't want to be blamed, just couldn't deal with anything
that was more problematic than, for example, Maggie's
tacit understanding and Dr William's professionalism.
But which family was professional about emotions and
expectations? "Thank you", Vadim said, softly.
"Thanks so much."
back, Dan smiled crookedly. "For what?"
for bringing me here. You know, normal life. It feels
it's not quite that normal. I haven't been here
for five years." Dan shrugged, the half-smile still
in place. "But guess family never changes, aye?"
He sat up, rolled his shoulders, before reaching for
the key in the ignition.
not really." Vadim didn't allow the thought much
room that he'd likely never see his relatives again.
Maybe that was the reason why it was so important that
Dan got back in touch with his family. Projection, psychology
called it. Projecting his own wishes onto Dan.
get going, then." Suddenly eager, mainly to get
it done and over with. Five years, and Dan's brother
had asked every single time they'd spoken on the phone
or exchanged letters about his finances, when he would
come for a visit again. And he never had. Not once.
Now he was nervous, and a hundred other things.
I should know or keep in mind?"
don't think so." Dan shrugged. "Told you all
I know. There's my brother, Duncan, he's four years
younger than I am. His wife, Mhairi, same age, I think,
and their three sons. Can't remember their names, just
that the third one was a latecomer and a baby when I
visited last. That's it." Glancing over his shoulder,
Dan navigated the car back onto the road.
That's easy enough to remember." Asking all the
other questions didn't make much sense, and might even
deepen Dan's discomfort. He'd likely get a good idea
of the man and his family when he was actually there.
mostly in silence, the radio had stopped receiving a
while ago, Dan navigated the breathtaking scenery with
ease. Very few dwellings and mostly hills, mountains,
rocks, bogs, and ever more green-covered mountains.
The occasional forest and impressive loch, and constantly
up and down along twisty roads. Dan smiled occasionally,
looking around himself, remembering how much he'd loved
the Highlands, and always would. The mountains were
in his bones and in his blood, even though it was a
different, more majestic type of mountain that occupied
his soul these days.
watched the landscape move past, roll and coil and twist,
and then rise and fall again, the view constantly changing.
Mountains moving closer and then retreating away from
the road. A beautiful country.
be there in a few minutes." Dan pointed ahead,
where a village began to become visible, along one of
the more fertile plains. "That's where I was born."
Smiling, "literally. My mother always told me I
just popped out, before she could get through to the
midwife. Ever eager, aye?" He chuckled lightly,
overplaying a growing nervousness, as he drove into
the village. Turning right, towards a large farmhouse
complex, up in the sloping hills.
took longer, more than eighteen hours. Thick skull,
and apparently I was quite large when I was born."
shook his head, grinning, driving up a gravel path.
"Doesn't surprise me." He shut up as they
got closer to the gate, and stopped to get out and open
it, while Vadim studied the farmhouses closely, trying
to pinpoint every detail. Imagining what it might have
been like, back in the days when Dan had been a kid.
He imagined a somewhat wild kid with untamed, curly
hair, the type that ran off into the wilderness if he
couldn't get his will.
to the car, Dan drove slowly through the open gate,
the sound of gravel beneath the tyres alerting the family,
and the door opened. "Damn." Dan murmured,
and if Vadim hadn't known better, he'd thought Dan's
hand shook, as he parked the car and turned the key
in the ignition. "Best remember the story from
now on." Dan said nothing more, took a very deep
breath, then turned his head towards the window and
opened the car door.
undid the seatbelt, stuffed the bottles of water they'd
emptied into a plastic bag, along with the wrappers
of Dan's snack and chocolate bars, and stuffed it under
the seat. Then opened the car door and got outside,
pressing the door shut.
man who stepped out of the house was smiling broadly.
Short, dark hair, a shade lighter than Dan's, and curlier.
Not as tall, but not by much, difficult to tell from
the distance, and stockier in built. Laughter lines
in his face; a face that was weathered and a body that
gave proof to a life working outside, no matter the
season. The similarity was striking, though, good looks
clearly ran in the family. Vadim watched both, Dan and
Duncan, hand on the car roof, breathing in the cool,
clear, pure air.
The man called out, his face morphing into the warmest
grin Vadim had seen in a long time. A face that was
more conventionally 'handsome' than Dan's, without a
scar, but also without the strikingness of imperfection.
Holding his arms out wide, he took several steps towards
Dan, whose back was tense, and his own steps betrayed
reluctance, or simply nervousness, but nervous? Dan?
He didn't have a choice, though, when his brother wrapped
his arms around him, and drew the older and taller man
into a tight embrace, while laughing. Dan had hardly
a chance to notice the woman who stepped through the
open door, drying her hands on her apron, smiling, her
long copper hair in a braid, and a kid beside her.
very good-looking person, Vadim thought. The kids had
to be stunners. And again, he was reminded of his own
family. Katya. The children. More than two years now.
He wanted to be back in touch, he missed them, especially
looking at Dan's people now.
so good to see you." Duncan pulled Dan into another
hug, and Dan could do nothing but return it, finally
finding his own smile. Unsure footing, but he was not
given a choice. "It's been too long, big brother!"
walked around the car to check that the doors were locked,
then stopped. Up here? On a farm in the Scottish wilderness?
Crime rate was probably zero.
Dan pulled back, smiling, "it's been long."
Turning his head, he saw his sister in law. "Mhairi!"
He called out to her, waving, then turned round to look
at Vadim, gesturing him closer. "Duncan and Mhairi,
this is Vadim."
friend?" Duncan smiled and stretched his hand out
to Vadim, who took it. A strong, calloused grip, straightforward
and honest. Mhairi came close as well, her kid, dark
red hair and big eyes, running to and fro, staring at
Dan and then at Vadim, as if they were aliens.
Dan nodded, "my friend. Fellow mercenary, but we've
known each other for longer." And how he hated
every word, but he was going to pull this off. For Vadim's
nodded. "Nice meeting you." He glanced at
Dan, gave him a smile, but could feel the tension in
him. Just how Duncan would react if he knew they were
gay he couldn't guess, but chances were, that kind of
thing had no place on such a farm. It was always the
city people who didn't care about this. The smaller
the settlement, the more it was important to be normal,
Vadim reckoned. And he liked these people, his gut reaction
was that these were good folks. He didn't want to cause
laughed at her son's antics, "Donald, this is your
uncle Dan, last time you saw him, you were but a wee
baby." Her Scottish accent melodious but thick,
different to Duncan's and even Dan's, who'd lost a lot
of it over the years, anyway. Vadim had to concentrate
to understand both Duncan and Mhairi, but he assumed
he'd just have to listen for a while.
kid finally stretched his hand out, and Dan shook it.
"You really have grown since I last saw you."
He grinned, and his family laughed, but then Donald
spotted something, pointing his finger at Dan's left
Mhairi chided her son, but then she, too, saw the scars.
She smiled a little, but her smile was strange, as if
she had seen something she did not want to be part of.
"That is very rude, Donald, you never point at
alright." Dan shrugged, "I know I'm not a
'pretty face' anymore." Conscious, all of a sudden,
of the scar in his face, and all the other manifestations
on his body. His smile faltered, and he couldn't even
touch Vadim to draw support. Vadim's jaw muscles tightened
at that look in Dan's face and he drew a bit closer,
a familiar distance, but not intimate. Pretty enough
for me, he'd said, but that was out of the question,
unless he spoke Russian.
Dan." Duncan reached out and took Dan's left hand,
giving the scarred but functional mess a squeeze. "is
that from the bomb that had you in hospital for so long?"
nodded, "aye." Shrugged again.
then it's extra good that you are here now. Alive and
healthy, as far as I can tell, and hardly looking a
day older." Duncan winked, then grinned at Vadim
with a conspiratory nod, to which Vadim flashed one
of his rare bright smiles. Gratitude more than humour.
It was easy to find his laughter again, and Dan thumped
his brother's shoulder.
have been called worse."
stopped the banter by ushering them inside. "Come
on in, I have cake and coffee waiting, or would you
rather like tea?" Smiling at Vadim, "and if
you are not into sweets, I can make some sandwiches."
... thanks. Coffee and cake would be perfect."
Sweet tooth running in the family, clearly, but Vadim
didn't want to draw her attention away from her brother-in-law
and her kid and husband.
chuckled, "You have to excuse my wife, she believes
that food is the answer to everything. Don't you, Mhairi?"
laughed, a warm and friendly sound, "but I am right!"
glanced at Vadim, then smiled, "and you can't tell,
none of you lot look overfed to me."
Mhairi waited until everyone had entered the large kitchen
with the substantial table in the middle. All wooden
furniture, some of it old, but a top of the range kitchen
arrangement along the sides. "Listen to your brother,
he knows that I am right."
sure as hell are, if you feed me with that." Dan
pointed at the plates of cake and biscuits, grinning
happily at the sweets. "I am anyone's for a piece
of cake and a good strong coffee."
laughed and shook his head. "Not something we got
in camp. Thank you kindly." He sat down with the
rest of the family, while Mhairi poured them coffee.
Vadim had managed to sit near Dan, as if by accident,
when his family likely had the older and better rights
to him, but Vadim thought it might not be too obvious.
Duncan waited until everyone was seated and slices of
cake had been distributed onto plates. "Here's
to my brother's health, to a rare family reunion, and
to the pleasure of having a friend in the house as well."
Raising his coffee cup, he winked at his wife, "or
should we drink to that with a dram?"
the early afternoon?"
grinned and nodded, trying to sway the opinion, and
Mhairi conceded, getting up once more to fetch a bottle
all, we don't call it water of life for nothing, don't
we, Dan?" Duncan grinned and poured the drams.
call it 'little water' ... similar thought", said
Vadim, curious about what Dan and Duncan doubtlessly
considered 'the real thing'.
the way," Mhairi commented, "Graham is in
school, he'll be here later, and Euan is in College,
he stays in Fort William."
have too many nephews, I can't keep up!"
three, now don't make such a fuss." Mhairi smiled,
nodding to Vadim, who smiled back. "but no girl,
how I wished for a girl, but I guess those days are
over. Donald, here, was rather unexpected as well."
She smiled and ruffled the boy's hair.
have a daughter", said Vadim, remembering Anoushka.
Shit. He needed to get back in touch. Before he lost
are boring!" Donald piped up, causing Dan to almost
double over with laughter, but he got himself under
control again, and Duncan handed the drams out to the
again, to family and friends." Raising his glass.
and friends!" They repeated in unison, and Duncan
added, "Slainte," before the whisky ran down
appreciative tongues, with Vadim mimicking the others,
finding himself enjoying the company and finding it
far easier than he'd expected.
your meal." Mhairi smiled when they began to tuck
a beautiful place you live in", said Vadim, to
be the good guest. "Dan kept talking about it,
but seeing it is something else entirely."
we are lucky to live here, it's a good place with good
people." Duncan smiled and Mhairi nodded, while
Donald was wolfing down his cake, not interested in
the adult conversation.
conversation that went along easy lines, some banter,
and a lot of pleasantries.
Duncan sat back, "indulge my curiosity, Vadim.
Where do you come from?" He smiled as Mhairi cleared
up the table. The family seemed to be stuck in fairly
traditional gender roles.
I used to be Russian, but I have a British passport
now." Vadim smiled, as if there was no darkness
hidden in that. He wasn't sure how politically aware
Duncan was. "I met Dan in Afghanistan, while I
was still an officer in the Soviet Army. Military advisor,
I oversaw part of the Afghan army at that point."
Mixed lies with truth, like sand and concrete. "Dan
and I both went to the same tea house, not far from
one of the market places in Kabul. Being both foreigners,
we struck it off well after we got through all the mistrust
and stereotypes." He looked at Dan. "And stayed
in touch ever since."
sat stiffly, his posture betraying the tension, doing
anything to avoid looking at Vadim. "Aye, you could
say that's how it was."
never really told us what you did in Afghanistan, Dan."
Duncan smiled, pouring more whisky into their glasses.
Dan shrugged, "still can't. It's classified. Sorry,
for once, he learnt Pashtun", Vadim attempted to
diffuse the tension. "He's a language talent. His
Russian was much better than my English."
always was." Duncan smiled, "the only subject
in school, our mother used to say, that he was good
Dan groused but produced a smile. "I was also good
alright, then." Duncan raised his glass, "your
history is a good story of friendship despite the political
situation. Good thing you didn't shoot at each other
by mistake." He chuckled, didn't realise that his
joke made Dan's skin crawl. "Is that right?"
Dan nodded, "that's right." Couldn't look,
wouldn't, stuck to his whisky, staring at the golden
liquid as if he could find the secrets of the world
Afghanistan was a much more complex place than the TV
reported", Vadim said smoothly. "It wasn't
all out slaughter all the time. Nobody wages a full-out
war for ten years. A lot was just spending the time,
and doing our duty."
to have you here, now." Duncan smiled at Vadim,
"it's good to see you here now, in my kitchen,
no matter what you folks used to do. Not that I would
know, because Dan never told me anything about his life."
That stung, and Dan buried his nose in the whisky glass.
you, I do feel welcome." Vadim felt a little guilty
for lying to good people. It was the truth as they could
understand it. A satisfying story, with just enough
truth in there to not completely mislead them, but the
truth was classified.
lie, though, killed Dan, but he emptied his glass and
murmured, "to friendship. Of lions and tigers."
swallowed. "Yes." Dan looked miserable, but
they'd started this now, and they'd have to get through
with it. As much as it made Dan or Vadim cringe inside.
Shit. A pleasant meeting overshadowed with whitewash.
But he hadn't been Interior Ministry for nothing. Not
much of a politician, but a good operative. He'd hidden
his emotions for so long - it was still second nature.
Duncan looked up, "what was that?"
in that case, shall we have a look at your rooms? Euan's
is empty now anyway, and there's the guest room, so
there's plenty of space upstairs." Duncan got up
from his seat.
waited for Dan to get up, left him the place right behind
his brother who lead them towards the rooms. Murmuring
under his breath, in Russian: "I read you, tiger."
The least he could do, but Dan shook his head, didn't
acknowledge anything else, just walked behind his brother,
up the stairs and across a spacious landing. The house
was fairly old, rebuilt in the nineteenth century. If
they had one thing, then it was space.
always have been good with the numbers." Dan nudged
his brother, "I'm impressed with the work you've
done to the house. You must have invested a lot."
it's worth it." Opening the door to a comfortable
looking room, decorated in teenager style and obviously
Euan's. "I'm a family man, Dan, always have been."
I'm not," Dan stood in the doorframe, open coffins
be damned, "and never have been."
put a dampener onto Duncan's smile, but he squeezed
Dan's shoulder. "We're all different, aye? You've
always been my hero, and when I was a boy, I wanted
to be like you."
smile was wistful. "I'm glad that you are not."
tightened Vadim's guts, and he'd have killed to be able
to hold Dan, or at least squeeze his shoulder. But that
was family territory. He wasn't Jean, who could be all
touchy-feely and still look straight.
stepped inside the room and looked around, leaving his
brother somewhat bewildered and in thoughts. "Looks
great, very comfy, say thanks to Euan for lending me
nodded, silent for a moment, before picking himself
up, "along the landing is the guest room. Vadim,
I hope you'll sleep well in here."
cast a long glance at Dan, masked it by looking around
in the kid's room, but Dan averted the glance. "Yes,
thank you." He followed Duncan, keeping up a smile
he didn't quite feel. Had to focus on Duncan's kindness,
to push the fact away that, yes, they'd sleep alone,
despite promises and declared intentions.
stayed in his room for a while longer, his window looking
out over the village and the mountains close by, just
about catching a glimpse of the loch in the distance.
The sight made him smile and he drew in a breath, once
more fortified. Looking around him, he saw evidence
of a life he knew nothing about. A seventeen year old
boy, named after himself, and what had he ever known
about his nephew? Fuck all. Avoiding family, avoiding
any close ties, but now
perhaps he was getting
old. Perhaps that's where the strange ache came from,
or perhaps having friends now, close friends, had changed
his whole perspective. He shook his head and cast another
look towards the loch.
be outside, smoking a fag." Dan called across the
landing and made it down the stairs. There was a bench
at the entrance, and he sat down, lighting his cigarette,
when Donald came skipping past.
the kid stemmed his hands into his hips, "you are
my uncle Dan. Why have I never met you?"
did," inhaling deeply, "but you can't remember,
you were just a baby."
why did you never come for a visit? I didn't even get
a single Christmas present from you, and that's unfair!"
The lad pouted.
" Dan smiled, "I guess it is."
Exhaling the smoke, he was scrutinised by the kid.
why are you here for a visit now?"
I don't get shot at on a regular basis anymore?"
Dan offered, and the kid's face turned into a comical
expression: eyes open wide and mouth an 'o'.
the not getting shot at or the getting shot at, at all?"
" eyes narrowing, Donald seemed deep in thoughts.
that, yes," Dan grinned, "that's true. Didn't
your dad tell you what I did for a living?"
vehemently, Donald came closer. "You were a soldier.
Special Forces, mum and dad told me about it. Was it
but it's OK now."
" drawing out the anticipation, Dan found
himself easily captured by the kid, "guess I could."
Patting the seat beside him, Donald jumped onto the
bench, and Dan leaned back, smoking.
want to hear about the jungle, the mountains, or the
then," Dan grinned, started to talk, and that was
what he was still doing, half an hour later, when Vadim
came out to search for him. But Vadim stopped in his
tracks, listening to Dan telling stories that must sound
like great adventures to the kid. And because it was
just a kid, Vadim touched Dan's shoulder and leaned
in. "Duncan was looking for you."
up, Dan followed the motion by instinct, about to reach
and touch and kiss and
caught himself at the
very last second. "OK, I'll be right in."
Nodding to his nephew, "you know what, you should
ask Vadim to tell you some stories. He was a soldier,
speaking, we're still soldiers. It's not that big a
difference between a mercenary and a soldier - only
that mercs are far better paid." Vadim sat down
on the bank, leaning forward to look at the kid.
The lad's eyes were growing bigger again, "tell
me!" Settling in for more stories, his uncle already
forgotten. Dan got up, shook his head with a grin and
headed inside. "Duncan?"
brother came out of the lounge, holding a couple of
drams in his hand. "Care to join me in front of
the fire? Mhairi's busy cooking and I thought we could
have a quick look at your finances."
Dan nodded, took one of the glasses. Had feared worse,
a 'talk', perhaps, about where he'd been and why he
had never visited, and why he hadn't been able to make
it to their father's funeral. And, and, and. So much
guilt. "How does it look?"
bad." Sitting down on the sofa close to the fire,
the papers were strewn across the low table. "Would
have been much better if you hadn't sold your properties,
but you just wouldn't listen to me."
and it was the best thing I've ever done." Making
a negligent gesture across the papers. "It was
a matter of life and death and the money saved a life.
That's what matters."
looked up from the papers, "whose?"
it had to happen one day, but they were friends, weren't
they? Vadim and him. Mates. Yeah, right.
Who do you mean?"
just smiled, and took a sip of his whisky. "Would
you not want to save the life of a friend?"
face broke out into a warm grin. "Dan, thank goodness,
you finally put my mind to rest. I've been worried since
I had to sell everything, that you'd been conned."
laughed, even though this truly was no laughing matter,
and of course they had all been conned, one way or the
other. "No, it really was to buy Vadim's freedom,
or, rather, to 'influence' them to make the right decision."
can't be, you really mean the Soviet Union?"
exactly them. The KGB."
needed a scapegoat." Dan shrugged, one way of putting
it, "so they claimed he had committed treason,
through his friendship with me."
and?" Dan's brows rose.
believe he never did? Because you wouldn't be friends
with a traitor?"
I wouldn't." Dan smiled wistfully, "and
you are a very clever man, little brother."
right." Now it was Duncan's turn to laugh. "But
how did you even get to negotiate with those people?
Didn't think you just pick up the phone and phone the
quite." Dan smiled once more. "I have a friend,
my former employer, I told you about her. Baroness de
Vilde, HM ambassador of Britain. She did all of the
diplomatic stuff for me."
Dan, you do move in circles I only ever hear of."
that's good so."
you have a good life. Don't change it, don't wish for
anything else. If I
" Dan shook his head
before taking another sip. "No, I was never cut
out for your kind of life, all I ever wanted was adventure,
and that I got plenty. But what you have, that's the
real thing, you know? That's the good stuff."
looked at his brother, a strange expression on his face.
Green-grey eyes resting in dark ones. "You think
Dan nodded, "it's not for me, but I do think so."
me about your life." Duncan leaned forward. Paper
and finances forgotten. "Tell me about yourself."
His face illuminated by the fire, casting a warm glow
and spreading heat across both men. "Please, Dan,
do you want to know?" Dan swallowed, the whisky
suddenly burning in his stomach.
really. Tell me about your job, whatever you are allowed
to tell. Tell me about your friends, about anything
Dan mused, but discarded the thought. No, he couldn't.
Couldn't tell his brother who he really was, because
he had given his word. All he could do was tell him
about everything outside, but not what really mattered,
the one single thing. Who he loved. His friends would
have to do. "Alright, I'll tell you."
he did, as best he could, giving his brother some idea
of his life, without lying, without distorting the truth,
by simply omitting. Trying to make him understand without
ever saying so, why he couldn't have been a better brother,
son, or uncle, and that he was sorry.
he'd satisfied the kid's immediate curiosity, Donald
stormed off again, and Vadim stood, slightly wistful
at the thought that he'd spent far too little time with
Nikolai. Nikol' had always been a reserved child, calm
and silent, and he probably had never quite got his
share of attention with his older sister far better
at endearing herself.
headed back inside and heard sounds of cutlery and crockery.
Following those into the kitchen, where Mhairi was doing
the dishes, while something bubbled in a pot and there
was heat from the oven, too. The kitchen smelled delicious,
herbs and molten or melting sugar. She turned around
when he moved towards her, careful not to startle her.
would ... like to help", Vadim explained. "I
don't want to be too much trouble, and besides, Dan's
talking to his brother."
smiled at him and moved out of the way, pointing to
the dishes that were neatly stacked on the rack. "But
it's really not necessary ..."
gave her a smile. "I won't break anything. I've
done this before."
laughed and handed him two kitchen towels from a drawer,
both neatly folded. "Just put them in the cupboard."
Vadim was reaching for the first plate when she asked:
"You said you have children? I know I am nosy,
but how old are they?"
looked up, and he hated the fact that he had to do the
numbers. "Anya is thirteen, and Nikolai's eleven."
that can be a difficult age", she said, smiling.
"Teenagers are a wee handful for a few years."
I mean, I guess, they ... live with my ex-wife."
He saw her face express a strange kind of sympathy,
like, yeah, a divorced man had to be unlucky, or broken,
but truth was, he did miss Katya and the kids, maybe
them even more.
you still in contact?"
difficult with my job", said Vadim, placing the
plate into the cupboard, on top of the small pile of
neatly arranged plates. So much care and work went into
your wife marry again?" Mhairi looked almost apologetic
for her curiosity.
don't know, thought Vadim, and felt guilty again. He
should keep track. He shouldn't just pretend he was
alone in this world, with no connections or obligations.
But part of him had always assumed that his attention
wasn't necessary and probably unwelcome, too. Or maybe
he was just a coward, had evaded and ignored. "If
she has, she didn't tell me." He could read in
her face no judgement, no criticism, but still that
vague sense of compassion for somebody who didn't have
a wife, no contact with his children, and probably no
proper home. And she was right on all counts.
was a sound from outside, the door opening, and she
heard it too, because she tilted her head and smiled.
"That will be Graham."
was time for dinner soon once the middle son had come
home, vanishing into his room after greeting Vadim,
the stranger, and his uncle, just another stranger.
In the typical surly teenager manner, he dragged himself
upstairs and was not to be seen until it was time for
the family and guests to congregate around the large
table in the kitchen.
meal was tasty and the drinks were complementary, while
the conversation flowed easily. The way Duncan sometimes
looked at Dan, with an oddly tender expression, seemed
proof that their talk had been good for him.
Duncan smiled warmly when the boys cleared the table
and Mhairi brought the dessert in, "now that I
know a bit more about that brother of mine," he
winked and Dan grimaced, "when are you finally
going to find yourself a nice wife? No man should live
without a partner!"
jaw muscles tensed again, noticeably, and he glanced
into Dan's face, seeing that pained expression that
some people might mistake for exasperation. Duncan obviously
was only concerned, but they did keep prodding at the
whole thing, and Vadim hoped that Dan had enough self-control
to crack a stupid joke or some other way deflect that
Dan drew in a deep breath. "I told you and father
years ago, that I was not the marrying type. Have never
been, will never be, and there won't ever be the pitter-patter
of tiny feet, either. I'm not the husband type and I
am even less the father type. I haven't got a shred
of a family man in me. That's you, Duncan, and that's
good so, but I'm forty-two now, I'm not suddenly going
to change." Adding, with an attempt of a smile,
Duncan smiled in return, but he was prodding at this
like a kid on a loose tooth. "But what about a
wanted to step in, but he knew that he really couldn't
say anything. He was a friend. Friends didn't evade
personal questions for each other. It just didn't work
like that. But it wasn't necessary, because Mhairi called
"Duncan!" from the cooker range, thankfully
saving Dan, who was starting to look rather uncomfortable.
Vadim gave him a small smile and decided to thank Dan
for his restraint later. 'Mad Dog' would have just stood
up to it, fuck the consequences. But Dan endured this
- and Vadim knew it was really only for his sake.
turned around, "That's no way to treat your brother.
He's our guest and it's entirely up to him what he does
with his life."
ducked his head with a broad grin, whispering across
the table, "I've been told off, the Missus has
heard that!" She called again, laughing, getting
back to the table with a large tray of dessert glasses,
filled with Cranachan. Which, Vadim found out, was some
kind of sweetened cream with raspberries, with oatmeal
on top, and a generous shot of something alcoholic.
delicious", Vadim volunteered to draw the conversation
back to the food.
Dan mumbled, mouth full with the cream and fruit. Safest
option was to keep eating so he wouldn't have to talk.
conversation from then on went along safer lines, about
the kids, their schools, about the farm and the harvest,
the village and who was still alive that Dan knew from
his childhood and youth.
few hours later, the kids had already gone to bed, the
evening was winding up in the lounge, in front of the
fire. Vadim sat with his legs stretched out, head leaning
against the side of a huge chair that easily accommodated
him, drowsy from the food, the warmth, and possibly
the alcohol. Listening, taking in these people, and
every now and then, his guts tightened at the thought
of his family. He envied Dan these people, the
re-growing closeness, the ease to be in touch and exchange.
are you heading to tomorrow?" Mhairi asked, turning
the whisky glass in her hand. "Are you going to
visit the Isle of Skye?" She was smiling.
sure, we haven't actually planned anything. Do you recommend
Skye?" Dan grinned, at least he remembered that
much, his sister in law came from Skye, he'd even managed
to be at the wedding, a long time ago.
course I do!" She laughed and waved at her husband.
"Go and pick up the route book, we should help
those two see the most beautiful places in the next
few days." And Duncan did, coming back with a large
many days do you have?"
or we could rearrange the meeting
with friends in Glasgow. They invited us for the weekend,"
Dan nodded, dead-pan, not even a twitch gave away the
sort of 'friends'. "Five days sounds good. Too
much scenery and I might go berserk."
laughed, opening the book.
let's have a look and find a good route for you."
Mhairi put her empty glass down, leaning forward over
the low table. "We probably have a few recommendations
for B&Bs as well and we could phone some up tomorrow,
if you like."
glanced at Vadim, who nodded, and Dan agreed. "Good
idea, haven't been here for so long, I could do with
a tourist guide."
so it went, the rest of the evening was spent in companionable
ease, looking over maps and guides, pictures and descriptions,
and getting an itinerary together that would take them
across and up the Highlands, and finally back along
the East coast, to spend one night in Edinburgh, before
heading down to England, and visiting Dr Williams.
was fairly late, much later than Dan's family usually
went to bed, when they broke up and headed upstairs.
Good-nights were said, and Dan stood in front of his
door, trying not to glance over at Vadim's door.
too, stood inside his room. He'd pulled the door shut
behind him when they'd bid him good night. A friendly
room, the bed easily large enough for him, and he found
himself staring at it, imagining the cool linen, and
no body next to him. No Dan around him. Fuck. This was
difficult. Far worse than he'd expected. He pushed the
bag towards the foot end of the bed and opened his door,
a relatively loud sound. Hoped Dan hadn't closed his
door yet. Vadim peered outside.
was still in front of his door, his hand on the handle.
He turned his head at the sound and smiled at Vadim,
a strange smile, more tired than sad. "Good night,
lion." He said in Russian. "Sleep well."
opened the door a little further, listened whether he
could hear anybody else. Eyes on Dan, his lips pressed
together, especially at the sound of Russian. "I'm
such a fucking coward", he murmured in Russian.
"Shit. And they're good people."
alright, maybe later." Dan looked across the landing,
smiled once more. He was hurting, but he figured he
actually deserved to feel like that. Guilty, on too
many counts. "I'm having a quick shower,"
in English, "you need the bathroom now or later?"
followed the gaze. Yes. He had to assume somebody was
still awake. Unable to speak clearly, not even in Russian
because it might not be what was proper and inconspicuous.
right ahead. I'm just leaving the door
open, don't like closed doors." In English, connecting
one careful word with the next one. "Are we on
our way tomorrow or do you want to spend another day
should head off or we won't have enough time to get
to see the Highlands and Edinburgh." Dan took a
step inside, "good night, Vadim." In English
night." Vadim swallowed, lowered his head, went
inside. Feeling the loss of proximity, the motherfucking
distance like a boot in his guts. He sometimes felt
Dan was too close, especially when they slept in the
heat and Dan's skin on his skin made him sweat worse,
or when Dan was always, always, touching him
that feeling was rare, but he'd lie if he didn't admit
that it happened at times, but right now, Dan not being
there was far, far worse. He sat on the bed, rummaged
through his bag, found a fresh set of clothes that he
set out on a chair for tomorrow. Waiting for Dan to
get finished in the bathroom so he could brush his teeth.
into the room, Dan stared at the floor while undressing,
he took the big towel that lay ready for him, and headed
back to the bathroom, with the soap bag in his hand.
took him longer than the usual ten minutes, too deep
in thoughts, and too much not wanting to return to the
room on his own, despite the pledges they had given
each other. When he finally returned his hair was still
damp, clinging to his neck, and he had the towel wrapped
around his hips. He was about to shut the bathroom door
when the landing light when on, and he was faced with
his brother who let out a sound of shock, as he stared
at Dan's body, eyes and mouth wide.
sound that made Vadim get up from the bed, move towards
the door, silently, listening to work out what it meant.
Standing in the shadow of the open door, invisible from
" Duncan brought out at last, while Dan
wrong?" Trying to keep his voice down, but the
way Duncan stared at him, Dan wanted to shake him and
shout at him, to stop that horrible look in his eyes.
" raising his hand, Duncan pointed at Dan.
"Your ... your body. You
when he looked up, he shook his head.
Dan hissed, hard to keep quiet, "what the fuck's
the problem?" Raising his arms, wide, turning once
on his own axis. "Have I sprouted horns?"
felt his hackles rise. He knew the answer before Dan
had cottoned on. Your body. Dan had, like in camp, not
dressed after the shower. And he'd been right - there
were people still awake and watching in this house.
Familiarity, not surveillance. A family where people
didn't have dirty secrets.
scars." Duncan whispered, unable to take his eyes
off the horrible mess that Dan's body was in - to a
about them?" Tension slammed into Dan. He'd never
bothered about them, never cared, nor had any of his
lovers, least of all Vadim. "I told you I wasn't
a pretty face anymore." Defensive.
never knew ... never understood
" His brother
stammered, took a couple of steps closer. "I am
sorry, Dan, but I never realised how close you must
have been to death with that bomb, and
making a weak gesture along Dan's body, "all the
other injuries. Your job
I never got it. I just
felt left alone with everything here, while you didn't
live up to being my hero, because you didn't seem to
I didn't, and I did." Dan answered quietly, hardly
above a whisper himself, "but I never said I could,
nor that I would. I'm not a hero, I'm just a bloke,
I just couldn't let my family get
too close. Couldn't allow it, couldn't bear the thought
if the next time the bullet
" never finished
the sentence, instead shook his head, looking straight
into his brother's eyes. "I was a coward, Duncan,
and I am so very sorry."
shook his head. "But I do realise at last, that
none of us would have ever understood what you were
doing, and I don't think we ever will understand."
don't have to, I don't expect you to."
" Duncan interrupted, not getting far when
Dan raised his hand.
you don't." Dan smiled, a rare, very serious, and
melancholy smile. "I was a coward for never coming
here, for never being a part of the family. It was easier
to do my job that way, and that was bloody selfish.
No family, no home, no
" hesitated, couldn't
say the word 'wife'.
are no coward." Duncan took the last two step towards
Dan, and pulled him once more into a bear hug, completely
catching Dan by surprise. "You are my brother."
stood, with Dan dropping the soap bag and slowly raising
his arms to hold his brother in a tight embrace, while
Vadim moved to the side, silent as death, stepped into
view, but still inside his room. Seeing Dan from the
side, and half of his brother. Silent, watching, unable
to support, and witness to an oddly intimate moment.
Envious for a moment, then he shook his head and stepped
out of sight again, silently moving. Feeling deeply,
that whatever this visit did to Dan and him, it was
important, and right, and a good thing.
next morning, they had a late breakfast in the kitchen,
after Duncan had already done a full morning's work
and the two sons were off to school. A complete Scottish
fry-up, with Dan's fabled square sausage, black pudding,
potato waffles, fried bread, eggs, buttered bread, and
lots of bacon, which Dan wolfed down in his usual starvation
manner, complimenting Mhairi all over again on her excellent
food. Vadim ate less, it was even more food than they
usually got in camp, but he tried a bit from everything
and found the fare agreeable, especially late in the
morning. No way he'd be able to eat this earlier, and
he enquired what things were called and got a quick
primer of Scottish food.
had joined them for a second breakfast, and there was
the sense of greater ease around the table, with Duncan
now and then looking up and smiling at his brother.
was almost twelve when they said their good-byes, and
Duncan making Dan promise that he wouldn't wait another
five years before the next visit. When they finally
got into the car, Dan sat in the driver's seat, looking
at the key before turning round to Vadim all of a sudden.
"Give me a few moments. I have ... forgotten something
nodded. "Sure." Not questioning for an instant.
smiled, looking at Vadim for a moment longer than usual,
then headed out of the car, closing the door behind
him. He stepped towards Mhairi and Duncan, who were
laughing at him, expecting he'd forgot something. Vadim
could see from the car how Dan went inside, and all
three vanished from view.
Dan asked his sister in law if he could 'borrow' his
brother for a moment. Confused, but smiling, she nodded,
and Dan manoeuvred the surprised man back into the lounge,
where he closed the door behind him.
up?" Duncan asked with a smile.
got about five minutes, no more, and five minutes for
telling you what I have to tell you is a bloody short
time, but it doesn't work any other way."
Duncan laughed, shaking his head in confusion. "You
speak in riddles."
Dan nodded, "I always have, have all my life and
have since I came here this time. All I told you, Duncan,
everything was true, but it wasn't all of it. The reason
why I am not married and never will? Why I haven't got
a girlfriend? I'm gay, Duncan. I'm sorry, I
stared at him, not uttering a sound.
ploughed on, time was running out. "I want you
to know, because you told me you needed to know who
your brother was, and if I didn't tell you who I love,
then how could you ever know who I am?" Taking
a quick, deep breath. "Vadim is not just my friend,
he is my lover and has been for twelve years. But Vadim,
he ... I think he hates being gay. I think if he could,
he'd take a pill and become 'normal'. He was so afraid,
Duncan, about what you'd say, about coming here as a
gay couple, and shit, I don't know how you lot react,
it's difficult with families, isn't it? And ..."
would have barged on, one word chasing the other, if
his brother hadn't grabbed his arms.
gay, Duncan." Dan got out, "and I'm so sorry
for not being who you want me to be."
Duncan repeated, with increased sharpness. "You're
sorry? For what?"
said I was your childhood hero," Dan felt and sounded
deflated, "and childhood heroes aren't
all bullshit." Duncan shook his head, holding onto
his brother. "You can't come here and drop this
bomb onto me in the last few minutes before you have
but I had to. Vadim ... I can't do this
to him, I promised him I wouldn't tell anyone. He wants
nothing more than to be normal, to blend in, and being
gay ... it's
you don't know what happened to
him and why he was imprisoned."
KGB? Was that it? Because of
" his brother
caught on all too quickly, "twelve years! You were
in Afghanistan at the time."
Dan nodded, didn't know what else to say. "We were."
Dan?" Duncan tried again while Dan slowly
extricated himself out of his grip.
have to go. I am sorry." Couldn't repeat it often
enough. "So sorry. I really am. I would have told
you straight away, wanted to, but ... I love him, you
" Duncan stared at Dan, unable, it seemed,
to form a coherent thought. "I've always been worried
about you, that you'd be on your own, that you'd end
up lonely, that
not, aye?" Dan took a step to the door, trying
to smile. "I'm not, and I'm ... I'm sorry."
He stepped through the door, turned, and walked far
too fast towards the entrance door.
you can't just leave!" Duncan called after him.
have to! I am sorry
" And with that Dan was
out of the door, almost running towards the car and
pulling the door open, he into the seat, slammed the
door shut, and started the ignition, like a chased man.
The gravel was crunching beneath the tyres as he turned
the car far too fast and drove off.
was about to say something, something like "so,
you found it?", but Dan drove as if he really wanted
to get away as soon as possible. Vadim frowned, regarded
Dan from the side, but the pinched expression on his
features and the tell-tale silence in the car after
a few hundred yards told even him that something wasn't
quite right. He waited for Dan to tell, but was focussing
on the road with a concentration that, above all, told
Vadim that not only wasn't something quite right, but
Dan tried to ignore something very hard.
not a great actor", murmured Vadim, gently, and
touched Dan's thigh.
Dan shook his head, as if trying to make it all go away
by simply ignoring it. Rock and a hard place, and he'd
done what he had to do. He had broken his word to the
most important person in his life in the process.
regarded him, suddenly unsure if he read Dan right,
again hearing Dr Williams' advice on mistrusting anything
that didn't make sense, when his emotions and his mind
were at cross-purposes. But he'd have thought he could
read Dan by now. Only, Dan didn't react as expected.
He watched the landscape whiz past, but kept his hand
on Dan's knee, feeling Dan's leg tense when he moved
What to answer? Nothing? Bullshit, and he hated lying,
the whole reason why he'd done what he'd done. What
then? Barge right ahead, no other option. "I fucked
it up." Dan kept his eyes glued onto the road,
driving far too fast for the tiny twisty lanes.
frowned, attention divided between the mad driving and
Dan who was putting on his best Mad Dog act. "Calm
down, first of all. It can't be that bad."
it is." Dan spotted a lay-by sign a few hundreds
yards ahead and he slowed down all of a sudden, manoeuvring
the car into the parking space. He switched the ignition
off and turned to face Vadim. "I broke my word."
shifted in his seat to look at Dan. "Okay."
His blood ran cold. He knew what Dan meant, all of a
sudden. A falling out? The way Dan looked, very likely.
Of course, Duncan, nice as he was, probably had reacted
in the foreseen way to getting exposed to Dan's need
to proclaim his orientation to everybody who wanted
- or didn't want - to know. "Did he
... not at all." Dan shook his head violently.
"I just ... I had to tell him, you understand?
All that shit, all my life, me being a coward, not having
contact with my family, making it easier for myself,
and then he wants to know who I am, and I tell him,
as much as I can, and he calls me his childhood hero
and all that crap, and I
I kept lying to him,
you know? By not telling him who I really am."
Shaking his head again, "I am so sorry, Vadim.
So, so sorry. I did not lightly break my word, but I
had to. He had to know or I'd just been giving him even
remembered the two men in a tight embrace, the way Duncan's
voice had sounded at the impact of Dan's scars. Oh fuck,
but he did have a right, didn't he? Didn't he deserve
the truth? Even if it hurt? Courageous Dan. Again. Fucking
again. Dan just had to barge right through everything.
"It's okay. He's
he's a nice enough fellow."
Even if he is disgusted at what we are. It was fair
enough. Live and let die. It was Dan's family, and Vadim
would very likely never see them again. "If that's
what you had to do, it's alright."
did. And I'm sorry. I really am." Looking down
at his hands at the steering wheel, Dan sounded defeated.
"And the worst is, I ran away from him, didn't
give him any time. He told me he'd always been worried
that I would end up alone, and that I couldn't just
leave him. He wanted to talk to me." Adding, even
quieter, "what a shit brother I have been all of
reached over to touch Dan's face, tried to turn it to
look at him, saw that deep, sad expression in Dan's
dark eyes, and felt his own throat go tight. "We
can just turn around. The Highlands can wait,
you know. What
whatever he says. You only have
one family. One brother. I'd
be proud to have
a brother like that. Or like you. You're good people,
tilted his head, forehead resting against forehead.
It had been a long time since last he'd hurt like that,
and this time he was the culprit. "I don't know
" What to expect, what to say, what
to do. "I've steamrollered him. How fucking selfish
smiled tenderly, ran his hand through Dan's hair, fully
focussed on the other, while the shame continued to
tighten his guts. "Okay. What about this
you calm down, he calms down, we go on towards that
first bed and breakfast, and just call him. Keep it
nice, ask how he feels, whatever, and if there's stuff
to talk about", like being gay, "you meet
him tomorrow or so."
nodded, felt ridiculously taken care of, and the sensation
struck him as the most alien one he'd ever experienced
so far. It was a good feeling, and he smiled crookedly.
maybe not even go that far? Can
we just call him from the next village?"
Come, move over, I drive. I think that's fifteen miles
or something. According to the last time I checked the
Dan looked at Vadim. "And I'm sorry, aye? I hate
breaking my word. It's just not me, and I wouldn't have
told him, believe me, if
you know, Duncan
Dan shrugged helplessly, before getting out of the car
to change places.
walked around the car, too, meeting Dan behind the boot,
and pulled him into a tight embrace. "Nothing to
be sorry about. It's happened and we now just see what
we do with it." The nausea was still there, a different
kind of fear, but he probably would never have to face
Duncan again. This was between the two brothers, and
even if Dan had screwed it up, at least the cards were
on the table now.
washed over Dan, and thankfulness. For the understanding,
and for much more, for which he didn't even have words.
"Thank you." Murmured, he lifted his head
away from the embrace and smiled, "you're not half
bad, Russkie, you know that?"
gave a short laugh. "I think it sometimes takes
me a while, but I end up making good decisions at some
point. Pretty much when I have exhausted all other options."
They were completely alone on the road, and Vadim moved
to kiss Dan, whose chuckle was silenced by the kiss,
which lasted until the sound of a car coming around
the closest narrow bend was pulling them apart.
go, then?" Dan asked, nervous as hell.
Vadim got in the driver's seat, waited for Dan, and
followed the car that had passed them, staying right
on the heels of what was clearly a native driver.
road followed along the beautiful shores of another
loch, twisting and winding through forest on one side,
water on the other, and majestic slopes of the Highlands
behind it all, but Dan didn't have eyes for any of it.
It didn't take them long, lucky not to get stuck behind
a lorry, before they entered the village. Soon enough
they spotted a public phone right next to a café.
we have a cuppa first?" Dan's fingers were suspiciously
tightly curled around the handle of the car door.
stretched his back and rolled his shoulders, just tension
haunting him in the usual places. "You mean, maybe
even a strawberry tart?" He locked the door and
pocketed the key. "You think they have this 'short
bread'? I liked that."
they must have. We are in Scotland, after all."
café had a gift- and a book shop section which
Vadim browsed briefly, but it was really no point buying
books when he couldn't properly read, least of all a
history of the general region. The café also
had a gallery, and it sported not only shortbread, but
several other variants, but no strawberry tarts. Dan
went with chocolate and caramel shortbread instead,
and an extra large mug of black coffee, which he over-filled
with several spoonfuls of sugar. Vadim took the coffee
as it came, black, strong, and no sugar, taking the
occasional bite from a piece of shortbread with the
coffee, finding the combination of sweet and bitter
sat down for a few minutes Dan thoughtfully working
on his sweets, before he spoke again, a frown between
his eyes. "What if he doesn't want to talk to me?"
Stupid question, really. If he didn't, he just didn't,
but for some reason it wasn't that easy this time.
you call him again in a few days. He's family. And his
you know, they should have an uncle."
hell." Dan sighed, "I really am not getting
out of this family business anymore, am I?" Offering
a crooked smile, "and that after all these years
of doing my best at being a complete fuck-up."
smiled at him over the coffee. "You have a family,
Dan. That's good. And your brother seems a lot less
complicated than, for example, my father. It's just
you know, nobody's fault, really. And staying
away out of habit is stupid."
I know that now." Dan sighed and shrugged, finishing
off his shortbread. "But what is your father like?"
Stalling, perhaps, but genuinely interested.
shook his head. "My father. Well, he's a lot like
me, only smarter. Terrific chess player, he's read every
single book he owns, and knows many, many more books.
I have the looks from my mother. My father
big into arts, ballet, modern painting. If he feels
like it, he can tell you story upon story about the
past, which composer knew which artist, which officer's
wife followed her husband to Siberia, which young noble
bled to death in the snow after a duel. He's full of
stories, and when I was a kid, I found it hard to tell
the difference between things that had happened two
hundred years ago and what happened yesterday. He always
said Russia was so much richer before Socialism happened,
how the dreams got perverted
he used to be political,
but when he was young, that was very, very dangerous.
disagreed with my choices. He didn't want
me to 'become involved' as he called it. He didn't mind
the military - he did mind the ministry. He said I shouldn't
turn into one of the faceless people who keep the machine
running. He very much disagreed with the Soviet machine.
He said I was being instrumentalised and that I was
stupid for embracing that. I guess he was right on that
count. It should have given him satisfaction to see
in prison. But it didn't. And I thought, well,
'you hated so much what I was, can you accept me now?'
Of course, he couldn't. As smart as he is, he never
he didn't get what I felt. Well. It's
a generational thing."
had leaned closer throughout Vadim's talking, until
his hand came to rest on one wrist. No more. "I
would have thought your father was a monster if he had
felt any satisfaction, seeing his son in prison. After
all, you are still his son, aye?"
And he did tell me the story. But I don't think I can
rebuild anything there. At least there's still family
to keep an eye on him. He's not alone. But I think there's
nothing we can repair. There's just no basis. That's
different with you and Duncan. Your brother clearly
cares about you. A great deal."
smiled a little, didn't, couldn't comment on the 'story'.
His secret, how it got to Vadim, and a secret it should
remain. Giving that wrist one squeeze. " I guess,
listening to you, that I should get up now and drag
my sorry arse to that phone box. Right?"
I'll get another coffee. Take your time."
Dan stood up and left the café, straight to the
phone box. With the usual handful of change in his back
pocket, he dialled the number that had never changed
since his childhood. Feeling a fist deep in his guts,
twisting and knotting his insides.
None other but Duncan himself had picked up the phone.
me." Dan winced at the idiotic opener.
there hope in that single word, or was he deluding himself,
trapped in wishful thinking? Or was it anger and possibly
disgust and he just couldn't read his brother's voice?
it's me." Closing his eyes, desperately trying
to think. "Listen, Duncan, I
I'm not that
far away yet, and ... oh shit." The day he was
going to be a man of clever or even just smooth words,
that day the earth was probably going to open and swallow
him whole. If only. He wouldn't mind right now. "I'm
you've said that before. About ten times or so."
Dan murmured, and louder, "but I am. Shouldn't
have dumped all this crap on you."
from the little I know you, you've never been the most
diplomatic man, but I'd always figured it was one of
your more charming features."
listened up, hoping, almost praying, that he detected
a smile in the voice.
continued when Dan remained silent, not trying to apologise
again. "What are you actually sorry for? For being
best known for your absence in our lives, or for getting
yourself almost killed far too regularly and too spectacularly,
without us even realising how close we were to losing
you, or for turning up here, making me want to hold
you and keep you so that you goddamned motherfucker
won't be able to leave before we got to know each other
properly? Or are you trying to tell me, you sad son
of a bitch, that you are sorry for being gay?"
stood tense as a rod, closed eyes had opened wide, and
he was staring outside, not seeing the mountains nor
the beauty around him. His brother had sworn. Like a
trooper, even, and he'd never heard him do that before.
Which one of them is it?" Duncan demanded.
of them?" The last time Dan had felt so small was
when he'd just joined the Forces and been made to scrub
the toilet floors on his hands and knees.
you really mean that, Dan, then you are insulting me
and all of your family."
do you mean?"
mean, that if you really are sorry for being gay, then
you don't bloody know me."
shook his head, but said nothing. No, he didn't know
his brother, did he?
continued. "I told you, didn't I, that I was always
worried you might end up alone. It seems you won't,
and that is a good thing. It's not what I would have
expected and I'm the last not to admit that it's
strange to accept you're together with a man
Duncan paused, "and it's probably odd and awkward
and embarrassing and goodness what, until we get
used to it," he took a deep breath, "but
Dan, I told you I hardly know you, so it's not really
a shock, aye? Because how can it shock me if I never
got a chance to really know you in the first place?"
not that much?" Managing
to feel even smaller, by now reaching the stage of scrubbing
the loos in the barracks with a toothbrush.
you got it. Not." Duncan took a deep breath, and
this time, Dan was certain he heard a smile in the voice.
"And now, Dan, now I need you to know that I am
damn glad you called, because I was about to get into
the car and try and catch you on your way, and just
think how awkward that would have been."
smiled into the receiver, a wave of relief washing over
him. "Don't thank me, you have to thank Vadim.
He was the one getting me to do the right thing, and
that even though he is still mortified."
think he wouldn't want to come back?"
do you mean?"
mean, Dan," Duncan emphasised Dan's name
as if speaking to a small child, "that you're going
to turn round and come back home and have a good chat
with us, or just me, or whatever you feel comfortable
with. You said you've known each other for twelve years.
You must have been enemies, but have you been lovers
for that long? And when did you realise you were gay?
I remember you having girlfriends all the time. And
what about the KGB thing you were talking about? And,
and, and. I want to know more." There was no doubt,
now, that Duncan's voice harboured a smile. "Being
part of a family means sharing. Aye, Dan?"
Dan smiled. "I'll talk to Vadim, but I think we
might just be coming back."
that." Duncan paused and added with a softer voice,
that the line went dead and Dan looked at the receiver,
before replacing it gently. Hands in his pockets, he
made his way back into the café.
had been staring out the window, forcing himself not
to watch Dan, didn't want him to feel even more uncomfortable,
and instead regarded the greenness, the strange landscape
that always changed and still remained very typical,
in a way. He'd got himself a sandwich and had eaten
half of it, not really tasting anything, apart from
the fact that the cheese was fairly strong and salty.
"Well?" Looking up, when Dan sat down, but
Dan didn't look bad, seemed it had gone well. Dan wasn't
a great actor, by any stretch of the imagination. "What's
you mind going back?"
meant he was supposed to come back, too. Wasn't it?
Vadim nodded, didn't want to make this worse for Dan,
but the nausea was back. He didn't want to face Duncan
on a bad day - his feeling was that Duncan wasn't quite
as bad as Dan in temperament. The man seemed sweeter,
calmer, but Vadim dreaded the expression in his eyes.
"You sure I should come along?"
he emphasised that me having a partner is a good thing,
but that it would take some time to get used to the
fact that that partner isn't a wee lass, but it didn't
seem to be too big an issue." Dan smiled. "If
I am going to be part of the family, then you are part
of the family, too."
shit." Vadim rolled his eyes. "That's what
I get for encouraging you. More family." He stood
up, though, dug for the keys, and led Dan out of the
café, hand on his shoulder. "Let's go, then."
Fighting his own nervousness. He could keep a low profile.
Hopefully Duncan wouldn't ask just why they had lied
when he was in the same room. Oh damn.
that mean you volunteer to do the driving?" Dan
cocked his head in his typical way. "Or are you
trusting me not to bugger it up too badly, despite having
I'm driving. I was actually trained to drive properly."
and you think I wasn't?" Dan pulled a face, "arrogant
bastard." Grousing good naturedly, while Vadim
opened the door for him.
got in himself, and just a little later they were on
their way - back exactly where they'd come from. Vadim
focused on the street, the car, frowning as if against
the sun, but in truth because he was concentrating hard
to keep the fear at bay. He liked Duncan, and that would
make it worse to look into his eyes.
didn't take long before once again Dan got out of his
seat and opened the gate for Vadim to drive through.
Gravel quietly churning beneath the tyres, while Dan
walked up to the door, which opened before he reached
stood in the doorframe, smiling, one hand in his pocket.
"Heard you coming up."
hard to sneak up on you." Dan felt a combination
of awkward and a thousand other things, but Duncan laughed.
were SAS, I'd expect better from you."
old now. Belong to the scrap heap."
don't look it." Duncan was opening the door wider
when Vadim got out of the car and walked towards them.
Duncan's eyes seemed to smile more when Vadim came close.
glanced up, meeting the eyes. To his immense, if cautious,
and so sceptical relief, he didn't see anything in them
that would feed the fear. He tried a cautious smile.
"Thanks for having us back", he said, muted.
stretched his hand out again, exactly the same way as
he had done the day before. "I am honoured to welcome
my brother's partner, and do excuse us, if we just,
well, have to get used to some things."
took the hand and held it, meeting the gaze, noticing
again the similarities between Dan and Duncan. "That's
well, it took some years for
The 'us' loaded with all that past, all that history,
their reluctance, and the rocky road that had brought
smile was even warmer than the day before, "Aye,
but I'm afraid you have to live with the 'family treatment'
now, not just the 'visitor' one."
swallowed hard, thought, shit, family, and he
hadn't realized how much he'd missed to be anybody's
family. Or have family. He did have family, and he should
get his own affairs sorted, too. Put his life back in
order. "Seeing Dan, that can't be too bad",
he murmured. "Apologies for the confusion. I guess
made Dan put up a smoke screen."
alright." Duncan's grip was strong as he shook
Vadim's hand. "As long as you two are going to
tell us a bit more about your lives." Letting go
of Vadim's hand, he took Dan by his shoulders. "Twelve
years. War. Enemies. Bomb. KGB. Gulf. And that's only
naming a very few facts that I know of." Ushering
both of them back inside, they heard Mhairi calling
from the kitchen.
I am just making some food, but you guys start chatting,
I'll bring something along."
would be great", said Vadim, following behind Dan,
feeling slightly nervous and insecure still, mostly
because this was now completely new territory, with
that knowledge hanging between them. The whole, gruesome
story. He settled down at the table, watching Dan and
Duncan. Duncan, who didn't seem to have the nasty or
brutal side that Dan had had as a soldier, just a perfectly
nice guy, somebody who, in a way, was still innocent,
but that didn't diminish him. The word 'civilian' could
mean something good, and pure, and something that should
be protected, Vadim reflected.
Duncan leaned forward in his seat, hands folded. "How
did it all begin? And don't you tell me that it is none
of my business, because you're both family, and
thus it is my business." He looked positively
like a spitting image of Dan when he smirked for a brief
moment, showing all his teeth, before tilting his head,
ready to listen.
looked at Vadim, then back at his brother. "Well."
started when we invaded Afghanistan, we being the Soviet
army", said Vadim. "Helping brothers, or taking
control of a sovereign nation, depending on whom you
believe. We were enemies; me and a comrade roughed Dan
up a bit," the rape certainly not something he'd
admit, and he looked at Dan, asking wordlessly whether
that kind of whitewash was alright, and Dan smiled slightly.
For anyone else the gesture would look like agreement
with a memory faded and past. "Dan killed that
comrade, and he managed to work out who I was. He captured
me one day in the mountains, but he didn't kill me,
paid me back. Eye for an eye, tooth for
a tooth, blood for blood. I
was fascinated, and
attracted", Vadim felt his throat grow tight,
"and I think surviving up in the mountains together
did blur the lines between fellow soldier and enemy."
had moved even closer, bent over his own knees, looking
from one to the other. His gaze was intense, "what
are you actually saying here?"
inhaled, but couldn't form words, struggled with translating
soldier concepts into something civilians could understand.
moved into the breach. "Violence, Duncan. I'm afraid
we didn't meet under a full moon with roses and a bottle
of wine. We were set on killing each other. Just
that it didn't work out like that."
what did you mean with payback? And ... why did you
kill that man?"
does anyone kill in a war?" Dan said quietly, looking
away at first, then back at his brother. "I am
not a nice man, Duncan. Not even a good one. I did what
I did because I am who I am: able to do the job."
He shrugged, and when he smiled it was guarded. "Don't
make me try to explain, Duncan. Please don't. We were
enemies in a war
nodded, his eyes on Dan, and it seemed what he saw convinced
him to back away, offering a smile in return. "Aye,"
quietly, "I guess I wouldn't understand anyway."
He looked at Vadim, his first question hadn't been forgotten.
nodded. "We were drunk that night and itching for
a fight. Dan was out alone, in civilian clothes - he
was posing as a reporter, and the Soviet army doesn't
like reporters. Vanya and I ambushed him and
roughed him up. Dan killed Vanya in self-defence. In
turn, when he captured me, he gave me the beating of
my life." Vadim gave a dry laugh. "If he'd
not needed me to find water for him, I'd have died there
looked at Dan, a strange expression in his eyes, but
Dan's face had gone from guarded to closed, not allowing
anything to show.
I ... was asking for it." Duncan said, made a movement
with his hand, as if trying to brush all of it away.
"Fast forward, aye? So, how did you figure out
that you were attracted to each other?"
Dan laughed suddenly, a single dry sound, "that
was easy. Vadim just shot me in the shoulder."
expression turned almost comical.
think we give the saying 'love hurts' a completely new
dimension", said Vadim, laughing. "Shit. It
I don't know. Dan ended up between me and a target
or rather, between one of our targets and us
but I recognized him and dragged him away while
the fight was going on. I was about to shoot him, because
wanted him and I thought he didn't want me
so in my messed up head I thought I should kill
the bastard, but on the other hand, he did keep me alive
in the mountains and didn't hand me over to the rebels
and he needed an alibi for surviving while the
rest of the guys were dead, so I had to shoot him. Shoulder
seemed like a good option - serious enough, but not
crippling and likely not deadly. And I
I said something half-insane, I guess, I don't actually
remember, but I kissed him and I told him he could meet
me in the tea house near the market. When Dan had healed,
he did turn up. We
took it from there."
Dan grinned, still guarded, but mellowing, "that
shot probably saved my life, to be honest, but then
we did the life-saving a few times after that."
smiled, "We didn't talk much at first, I guess,
but we slowly understood each other."
..." Duncan was rubbing his forehead, as if trying
to force understanding through his skull. "I'm
not quite sure if I can quite follow you, but I can
tell you one thing, my life is nothing compared to yours.
Met a girl, fell in love, married, had kids. That's
me." Shaking his head before looking up at Dan.
moved along on the sofa until he sat thigh to thigh
with Vadim, taking his hand, and feeling Vadim's fingers
half-close around his. "You're the lucky one, Duncan,
in many respects." Glancing at Vadim, before nodding
at his brother. "No, we didn't talk much. We didn't
for several years, but we kept meeting. In the tea house,
or under completely ludicrous circumstances. Like that
time in the middle of a ferocious winter, in a cave."
He glanced at Vadim, then shrugged. "We had safe
houses, and we were careful
and one day, without
realising it, there was a lot more than the physical
stuff." Dan looked down at their combined hands
for a moment. "And, I guess, I realised at some
stage I was gay."
did you realise?"
shrugged, "a long time ago, during a night in London.
I'd been with a girl I'd picked up, and things hadn't
gone quite so well." Dan had the decency to wince,
"I was a bastard back then, and I'm afraid to say,
if I had a daughter, I'd cut any guy's balls off and
stuff them down their throats, if they dared treat her
the way I treated my shags." He grinned a little
and shrugged when Vadim looked strangely at him while
his brother's expression varied between shocked and
amused. "Don't worry, I did learn a few
things about myself in the last twelve years, aye? Anyway,
I remember a cheap bar, yellow street light, and how
I pissed myself laughing when I realised what a fuck-up
raised an eyebrow, wondering about the exact time and
moment; things he hadn't known, hadn't been told. "I
was always that. I married, but
She was like a sister." Is, Vadim, is. Damn, Katya.
"I was attracted from the start. Dan less so."
" Duncan nodded, looking at both
of them, eyes flickering to the combined hands, then
back into their faces. If it was difficult for him,
he didn't allow it to show. "I remember that something
was different when you came to visit us before father's
death. You were on long-term R&R, I think, because
you had been wounded."
Mujas?" Dan mouthed to Vadim, questioning.
nodded. "Go ahead."
Dan looked at his brother. "That was in '84, wasn't
it? I had been wounded, that's right, but I never told
anyone what had happened. Been caught in an ambush,
the Soviets flattened the village I was holed up in.
I got a flesh wound in the thigh, and a bullet ricocheted
off a rock and grazed my temple." Dan lifted his
hair and pointed to a faded scar that vanished into
the hairline, invisible without pointing out. "Thing
was, they thought I was dead, which was lucky for me,
because if the Soviets had realised that I was a turkey
" catching onto Duncan's confused look, Dan
explained, "a turkey is a Western mercenary, but
then, of course, I was much worse. I was in a country,
as a member of the British Forces, without being supposed
to be there. All hush-hush, all top secret. Well, it
still is, and it's all I can tell you."
nodded, listening intently.
for me, though, was the fact that I'd come to lie under
a few Muja corpses and got chucked into a mass grave."
sat up, alarmed, when Dan continued, nodding at him.
"Aye, it was as bad as it sounds." Glancing
at Vadim, because the next part he didn't know, no clear
memories, and definitely none he wanted to remember.
wasn't my unit that did the flattening, only to be clear.
I came in to make sure some of the bandit leaders were,
indeed, dead. Of course, I assumed Dan would be in the
area, but I was surprised to actually find his kit,
and later, the body." Vadim remembered the nausea,
the pain only too well. "I made sure he made it.
He was pretty shaken, mentally, and I didn't like the
look of the wound."
guess that's a perfect example of understatement."
Dan grinned wryly, "I was completely out of it,
but that's all I want to remember, trust me."
nodded, "That was a generally pretty bad year ...
all told. Apart from the fact that I realized how much
things were blurred and how much I cared for this particular
'turkey'. Dan is rarely helpless, but those days, he
was. I made sure the wounds were clean and he'd come
round ... but I had to leave, because as free as I was
- as an officer and as special forces - even I couldn't
loiter around without a mission for too long."
and Vadim had clued on much earlier onto what I kind
of felt but didn't know." Tilting his head when
Duncan looked at him with confusion. "I'm not clear,
really." Duncan shook his head. "You were
distant when you came back, I remember you sitting here
with dad, joking, but you weren't really there."
you're right. My mind was in Afghanistan. I guess I
with Vadim, just that I hadn't quite
realised what I felt. That came over a year later, after
a particularly and incredibly shitty year."
the one when you didn't call nor wrote?"
sorry." Dan looked at his hand in Vadim's and shrugged
once more. "Told you, I was a crap brother, but
that year I really couldn't contact anyone. I was in
the mountains, and you could hardly call that civilisation."
nodded at that. "Yeah. We weren't in contact for
months and months, close to a year, from what I remember.
I was quite busy during that time, too, but there was
no way to reach Dan ... the country is too vast, and
I guess he couldn't make it to the tea house where we
used to leave messages. It was a particularly bad time,
we were getting close, and at the same time, further
apart. It wouldn't have been so bad if I hadn't cared
about him so much at that stage."
smiled slightly, nodded to himself.
looked up. "I guess that's when I finally 'got
it'. Wasn't even a heart stopping revelation, it was
just there, and wouldn't go away anymore. It
wasn't convenient sex, not after six years. It was love,
and it is still is."
tightened his grip and smiled softly.
like it." Duncan smiled, leaning back in his chair.
don't know when I realized," Vadim said. "I
knew I cared, from fairly early on, but it's hard to
tell understanding, friendship, comradeship, and love
apart. It just blends. Apart from the ... physical side.
We ended up talking after ... well, the sex, and, strangely,
we'd keep each other going, even though we were still
enemies at that point. When the war drew to a close,
we ... well, that was tough because we knew it wouldn't
go on like this forever. That retreating would mean
the end. The Brits stepped down their involvement, too."
that why you left the army after your surgery?"
Duncan looked from Vadim to his brother.
Dan nodded, "they didn't want to send me back to
Kabul, and there was no way I could not see Vadim."
I had known that back then. I couldn't understand why
you threw away a golden handshake and a full pension.
Not after what you'd done for the country."
shrugged, his fingers tightening around Vadim's. "Not
sure if I did anything for Queen and Country. I did
it because I'm an adrenaline junkie."
Dan never struck me as particularly political",
murmured Vadim. "Very unsatisfactory to discuss
politics with him."
then? After that? You worked for the embassy, I do remember
how your wages hiked up."
grinned, "they still aren't too bad."
certainly not compared to mine." Duncan laughed,
"but I rather not put my life on the line, and
least of all when a bomb is involved."
there was that." Dan said quietly.
it's any consolation, my wages at that point were still
not great, not when exchanged into pound or dollar",
for Vadim to turn the sudden gloom away, Dan leaned
into the sofa. Looking up when Mhairi came inside with
a tray of coffee and mugs. "You go on, I am terribly
busy in the kitchen, and I'm sure Duncan will tell me
everything important later." She smiled and left
the room as quickly as she had entered it, while Duncan
leaned forward to pour the coffee.
didn't just go on from there, though? What happened
with the KGB?"
looked at Vadim, and Vadim started to speak.
... by that point, we had something of a routine. I
was stationed in Kabul and helped organize the withdrawal,
Dan was in Kabul guarding the lady ... so we met a lot,
regularly, Dan had even rented a place. Maybe we were
too sure of ourselves, but somehow, they caught wind
of it. I worked for the Interior Ministry, the KGB were
our rivals, and it might have been some kind of rivalry
thing, like making an example of me, but we were set
up ... just before I left for Moscow again. They bugged
our hotel room, and, well, just the fact that Dan was
British, and I was meeting a Brit, and, of course, that
I was gay, was enough to get me accused of treason.
They grabbed me off the street, flew me to Moscow, and
I faced the judge. They threw a lot of different accusations
at me, treason, selling arms to Afghans, and other crimes.
Some stuff stuck, and I was convicted."
face had darkened, and he didn't touch the coffee, sitting
tense, while realising that they'd never talked about
it. Never dared to touch the wound, that didn't feel
as if it had ever closed.
put the coffee pot back onto the tray, captivated by
each word. "But
"It seemed he couldn't
bring himself to ask a question. "They
Dan said quietly, but with intensity. "That was
all lies. Everything. Except the one truth, that he
did have sex with me, and is that treason? Is it?"
He leaned forward, both hands tensing, one in Vadim's,
the other on the table, clenching into a fist.
not treason, but illegal", murmured Vadim. "They
needed a scapegoat, and that was me ..."
looked at Vadim, then back at Duncan. "And that
morning Vadim was kidnapped? They set killers onto me,
a whole goddamned 'army' of spetsnaz." Suddenly
the good natured, easy-going guy with warm brown eyes
was gone, replaced by a fierce man, whose eyes had hardened
to near black, and a ferocious grin gave his brother
a glimpse of the killer Dan had been, still was, and
would never cease to be. "I nailed the fuckers.
Knives, pistols, machine guns, and hand grenades, and
the bastards were dead or dying. I made it out of the
room, but I cut my leg in the damned window, left a
trail of blood, and the greatest bastard of them all,
the man who'd been Vadim's Colonel, caught me out when
I tried to escape via the deserted kitchen."
looked at Dan. The Colonel. That felt like ice in his
guts. The Colonel. The man he'd been afraid of, the
man who'd intimidated him with just being there, with
just a glance, with just silence, or even a word of
praise. Nothing the Colonel had done that didn't seem
like barbed wire, nothing that didn't cause fear or
terror of some kind.
was listening in something akin to shock, not a muscle
twitched in his face, as Dan carried on.
had set it all up, no staff in the hotel, and they'd
filmed everything that had happened in our room. For
evidence, you see? What damned evidence did they get,
you wonder? No lies, no treason, just two guys being
desperate, and wasn't that all forbidden. Hell, yes,
and that's what they made stick, and that's what that
Colonel took personally. How dared I 'use' one of his
own men, and how I would suffer for it, how he'd take
me out and got me to Moscow, where they'd torture every
tiny scrap of secret out of me, until I confessed to
anything they wanted me to, no matter if truth or lies,
because it wasn't about truth at all, it was all about
revenge." Dan paused, lips pulling away from his
teeth, his whole body taut, as his eyes gleamed with
a fearsome triumph, while the feeling in Vadim's guts
was bad, a tension that had morphed into nausea, which
made him visibly cringe. The thought of it. What could
have happened to Dan. The Colonel had had a fearsome
reputation. Vadim didn't doubt for a moment that the
Colonel would have honoured those promises.
you know what? That Colonel was nothing but a homophobe,
and he forgot to check the one place where he sure as
hell didn't want to touch me
I stuck a knife
into his guts when he thought I was as good as dead."
Lowering his voice, Dan hissed, "and before he
died he asked me 'why?' and I told him because I love
was absolute silence in the room, it seemed as if Duncan
wasn't breathing, until he swallowed hard, his face
pale and his voice unsteady. "Dan
" But he never finished what he wanted
to plead for, instead tried to reach for his mug but
his hand was shaking too hard.
muscle in Vadim's body fought the churning nausea, but
he still managed to breathe. "You ... killed him?
Ignoring Duncan, Dan turned to Vadim. "The pig
is dead. Bled to death on the kitchen tiles of a hotel
in Kabul. Killed by a faggot." He snarled, "not
the type of heroic death the bastard anticipated for
felt close to throwing up, surprised himself at the
violent reaction. Breathing was hard, his face was cold,
lips numb, his stomach pressed up bile that sat like
a fist in the back of his throat. "I need ... air",
he got out, stood, and left the room. Managed to get
out of the door, the bile brought the flavour of coffee
up, a wretched combination.
sat, completely at a loss, hardly hearing his brother's
quiet words. "Dan
what did you do? Was that
Turning his head to look at Duncan.
you have to tell us that?"
With sudden sharpness, Dan uttered the one word, getting
up. "I had to. And there are many more things that
I have to do or say, which wouldn't meet with any decent
Duncan breathed out, clearly rattled, "perhaps
you should go and look for Vadim?"
Dan was out of the door as fast as he'd jumped up, looking
for Vadim outside.
leaned against the wall, face raised, breathing, fighting
hard to breathe regularly, calmly, but the nausea was
still there. That horrible pressure and a sense of dread,
of fear, and he wasn't surprised to find that he was
sweating. Seeing Dan come outside, he gave a pained
smile. "It's ... alright. Just the trauma. I hope.
Shit." The Colonel dead. His sick fascination for
the man, the fear, the hatred all mixed up with the
knowledge he'd never be able to take revenge, or face
him, never would have to face him again. "Didn't
... didn't know that. Dan. He'd have done that. He'd
have done ... what he said and worse, you know that?
I was ... scared of that man ... pretty much all the
time. And you killed him. Fuck, you killed him ..."
Dan's eyes widened, "but
" and then
it hit him, yes, from the few moments he'd had with
that man, the anger, the hatred, the aggression and
the sinister bravado, he could see how dangerous the
Colonel would have been. Dangerous and insane. "I
think I understand." Taking a step closer, an arm's
length between them, and Vadim reached out, because
even if he vomited across Dan's shoes, at least Dan
would be right there, close enough to touch. "I
have no doubt he would have done what he 'promised'
me he'd do, and he very nearly smashed my brain into
a pulp, he had a good go at my face." Dan grinned
lopsidedly, but his eyes never caught the fake humour.
how ... how?"
only reason why I managed to kill the bastard was because
I outwitted him. I could understand too well how he
was thinking, because I had been a homophobe, just like
him. A long time ago. I kept the knife right beside
my cock, and that was it. Not bad for a peasant, aye?"
Trying the weak humour again.
nodded, still pale, sweating, wondered why the fuck
he didn't just let it go, why he still fought to keep
food and drink and everything inside. "That ...
certainly makes the world a better ... place."
nodded. "You want to sit down?"
Vadim sat, heavily, on the steps. Head lowered, staring
at the ground in front of his feet, little stones and
little bits of green, and part of Dan's leg.
stayed close, sensing eyes on them from the house, and
the expectations as well as the disapproval. Feeling
the growing urge to get away, just walk, up into the
hills, on his own. Just to go into the mountains - but
the mountains here were not Afghanistan and never would
be. "You look like shit."
laughed, a short, wretched sound. "Feel
like it, too. Sorry. Don't know
with me. I just feel
anything? Or just want to throw up? Usually helps me
when I feel queasy." Looking around, Dan pointed
to the corner around the house. Away from prying eyes
and into the bushes.
shook his head. He'd eventually probably have to do
it if it didn't get any better, but he didn't want to
admit defeat yet. "I'll be fine. Getting better."
to take a few steps?" The mountains were starting
to look like an increasingly attractive alternative,
as Dan's sense of inadequacy grew. Vadim nodded, stood,
and walked beside Dan. Slowly, feeling numb and unsteady
and completely focused on keeping his food inside.
murmured, "I really fucked this one up, didn't
shook his head. "No. It's our fucked-up life, Dan.
The fucked-up job. My fucked-up mind." He let his
head fall back, looked at the sky, up the mountains,
stood there, gazing, one arm coming up to Dan's shoulders,
and Dan held him, figuring that the mountains from the
bottom weren't all that bad, after all. As long as Vadim
stood beside him.
guess I blew it with my brother, though. What a fucking
stupid idea to tell a civvie about what I've done in
grinned. "He'll get over it. With a few illusions
less, I guess. But he'll get over it. He'll get over
the fact you're gay, too. He's making a big effort,
he is, isn't he?" Dan tilted his head until it
touched Vadim's, which made Vadim's eyes close, and,
strangely, some tension left him, like he was only anchored
in three places - where he touched Dan, and the soles
of his feet.
fished for a fag, lighting and smoking it in silence.
Quiet for a long while. "You think he wants to
know the rest? You know ... the really shit part of
the whole story."
give him time to digest the whole lot." Vadim brought
his face closer, touching his lips to Dan's, feeling
better now, much better, almost ready to go back in.
"Only if he asks. If he feels he can take it."
nodded, relishing the kiss. Tender, light, and he smiled.
"You're better than the mountains, you know."
Murmured against Vadim's lips.
grinned. "That's coming from the expert on mountains.
let's get back in. I'll ask for
a whisky, that should help. Your brother has some good
stuff in the cupboard. And good looks run in the family."
do?" Dan's brows raised, but a sparkle of mirth
was hidden somewhere. "If that means you fancy
fucking my brother, I'll fill you in."
laughed. "No, I just noticed. I prefer them willing
these days, you know." Another kiss, and he moved
back towards the house.
me." Dan murmured to himself, following Vadim.
was standing in the door frame, drying her hands on
her apron. She smiled at them, and maybe, Dan thought,
everything was just going to be fine.
on in." She called out to them, "you must
be freezing." Looking Vadim up and down, she shook
her head. "You look terribly pale. Would you like
a camomile tea?" There was warmth in her voice,
and even more warmth, when she took Vadim's arm, gently
pulling him towards the kitchen.
something warming would be good."
need some Scottish TLC."
gave a laugh. "If that is the translation for whisky,
I'm all for it."
watched her, nodded towards Vadim, and couldn't help
smile at her motherly behaviour.
Duncan's voice was suddenly close, as he leaned in the
Dan turned, facing his brother. Facing him in more ways
than the obvious.
to continue your story?" Duncan's smile was small,
but there, and Dan wondered if his brother even knew
how to smile falsely.
think that's a good idea without Vadim." Glancing
backwards, towards the kitchen," Vadim's being
fed tea by Mhairi."
nodded, beckoning Dan closer. "Granted, but come
and sit with me anyway, will you?"
Dan followed, once more back into the lounge, where
fresh coffee and freshly baked shortbread was waiting.
sorry." Dan ventured before he even sat down.
for this time?"
" Dan made a slow, sweeping gesture across
the room, "for everything. For being ... who I
am?" Realising it could only be a question, since
he had no idea what Duncan was thinking.
don't think I can make any judgments on that."
Duncan poured another mug of coffee, even remembering
the spoonfuls of sugar. "I know nothing about your
job, your life, and certainly nothing about who you
love." Adding, while stirring Dan's coffee, "but
what I've seen of him so far, he seems like a damn fine
Burying his nose in the hot mug, Dan had no idea what
to say. "It wasn't
Dan glanced to the door, hoping he wasn't going to be
than ten heartbeats later, Vadim appeared in the door
frame, followed by Duncan's wife, who had laughed off
all attempts at helping her carry the tea and the whisky,
and Vadim sat down next to Dan, while she served. Seeing
Dan thoughtful and somewhat subdued, Vadim gave him
a bright smile, before looking at Duncan. "My stomach
was acting up a bit, but seems the clear air can fix
Duncan smiled, "you're in God's own country, after
mumbled something intelligible, but Duncan and Mhairi
ignored him and whatever he might have said.
hinted that things became very bad after Kabul?"
sighed, sat close to Vadim and clung to his coffee,
while eyeing the dram that Duncan was pouring out. Helping
himself to piece after piece of shortbread.
As I said, my own side kidnapped me from the street,
bundled me into a car and brought me back to Moscow.
I was charged with treason. It's complicated. I was
working for the Interior Ministry, which has a bit of
a rivalry with the KGB, as I mentioned. Foreigners are
less aware of the Interior Ministry, but it's like ...
all security agencies. They are rivals for money, resources,
attention, and power. The KGB held me, and the Ministry
was ... unwilling or unable to get me out. I was charged
with treason, sabotage, a dozen things. But to prepare
me for the trial, the KGB broke my mind, my will to
resist. I spent a lot of time in solitary confinement,
which was worse than the beatings." Vadim took
a sip from his tea to arrange his thoughts, while Duncan
and Mhairi sat still, on the edge of their seats, just
looking at him.
Dan was, of course, worried for my life and safety ...
they made him believe I'd been executed. They did ...
I went through a mock execution. Dan's friends in high
places, however, they bartered for my life. To cut a
long story short, two years later, they released me
in Finland. The Iron Curtain had come down. The Soviet
Union was falling apart, and I was no longer their problem.
But my mind ..." Vadim tapped his temple. "Something
in there wasn't quite right. When Dan got me back, I
wasn't myself. I was unable to cope with anything. My
mind was frantic, but unfocussed. It was like I'd gone
" Dan murmured, looking down at his hands,
smoothing the scars on his left, over and over again,
until he suddenly looked up, straight at his brother.
"Vadim left. Just walked away, on the night he
got out. We fucked it up." Too late realising he'd
used bad language, not giving a damn right now anyway.
"'Worried for Vadim's life and safety' is an understatement.
I went insane in my own way during those two years."
He shrugged. "Maybe that was the problem, maybe
we should have understood better, but when Vadim left
looked from one to the other, but the non verbal encouragement
did not yield any results. "What do you mean?"
He had to ask at last.
mean that I had the ambassador send me to the Gulf,
just at the time before all hell broke loose. I was
more than happy when I got the chance to go on a suicide
brother sat up even straighter. "You did?"
looked at him, fair and square. "No, not if you
had asked me. I am good, I knew I'd make it."
looked at Dan, reaching for his thigh, pressing it,
close to the knee. "I, on the other hand, just
walked. I guess part of me remembered that I should
keep walking. I guess it was my feet taking over. I
ended up in Sweden, and I got charged for breaking and
entering. One of the cops liked to be clean in his paperwork,
so he worked out who I am ... or rather, was, and got
in touch with the consulate, but the Russians didn't
know me. They just denied my existence. I had no papers.
So this cop - Manke - he cut a deal with the people
into whose property I'd broken in, and they gave me
the chance to work for the compensation. That was a
fairly good time, all told. My mind settled somewhat,
and it occurred to me, a bit later, I should get in
touch with Dan, to explain why I did what I did. But
I had no phone number or address ..."
looked at Vadim with undisguised intensity. He hadn't
known, had never asked and just like Vadim, he was discovering
truths that he'd never been privy of before.
took another sip. "Obviously, everything would
have been different, if, for example, Dan had given
me this address and this phone number and had been in
touch with you." He glanced at Dan, from the side,
who cringed, and buried his face in his mug and another
piece of shortbread, while his brother frowned.
got in touch with his boss and we made a deal. I was
going to prove I can still function, and she would take
me on as a merc, too, with a British passport. So, they
sent me first to the Royal Marines, and later to the
SAS to get tested. They got me back up to specs. Half
a year had passed between Finland and when they did
put me on a Herc and flew me into the Gulf, too."
and then I told him to fuck off and that I would kill
him if he came close to me." Dan continued, his
eyes straight on his brother. Taking the expected disagreement
on the chin.
Duncan looked from one to the other.
said nothing at first, just looked at Vadim, finally
answering quietly, "because I hurt like fuck."
Turning his head towards Duncan, glancing at Mhairi
as well, "and I told you, I'm not a good man."
and a half years", said Vadim. "That's enough
time to break any man." Vadim reached for Dan's
shoulder and squeezed it. "It took a while to remember
all the good things. I provoked him, to get a reaction.
Dan was hitting it off well with some other guy, somebody
less screwed up than I was. Am. And I thought, that's
it, he found something better, somebody who won't f...
screw him up so bad. I pulled some stupid stunts, up
to the point that Dan requested to be transferred. But
fate is a cruel master, and Dan's helicopter was shot
down over the desert. Me and that ... other guy fell
over ourselves to get Dan - and the Americans who'd
travelled with him - out of there."
almost jumped off his seat. "What? Helicopter?
Dan glanced at Vadim once more, but this time there
was no help forthcoming. "Sorry, didn't tell you
about it. Got shot down by insurgents, with part of
the Yank crew half-dead, and had to get them out of
the desert." Slipping his hand across Vadim's back,
giving a squeeze. "Russkie here got us out, together
with the help of a friend. A friend that
let's say Vadim and that mate weren't best buddies.
got a Yank medal out of it, and so
did Vadim and the friend, and all the kids of the crew
survived. So all's good, aye?"
His brother asked incredulously, coffee and tea forgotten.
"I wonder if hearing all this is worse than not
knowing what you are up to and how you'll almost get
yourself killed the next time."
Dan murmured, felt chastised and looked the part, too.
"These things are not
" he shrugged.
be," Mhairi cut in, unexpectedly. "Whatever
happened in the past is the past, aye? Right now you're
here and it's lovely to have you in the family."
She made a point of nodding both at Dan and Vadim.
smiled brightly and nodded back. "He's watching
my back and I'm watching his - that's better than being
out there alone. It's a dangerous job, Duncan, yes,
but we're trained to deal with it. We're good at this.
We've done this kind of thing for close to twenty years
now, and, personally, I think Afghanistan was worse
than the Gulf. We won't be doing this for very much
longer - a few years now, then we should retire."
Vadim glanced at Dan, smiling. "Even if Mr Indestructible
here denies it, he gets older, too."
Dan picked up again, jumping at the chance to protest
loudly. "I got a few more years in me. Only the
knees are dodgy, but they're going to hold up. Willpower,
brother didn't look too convinced, and Mhairi smiled.
Suspiciously, Dan thought, in the way she'd smile at
one of her children.
much longer do you want to do the job?" Duncan
asked, "Your finances are getting healthy again,
I wouldn't have thought you needed to put your life
on the line for that much longer?"
like the job," Dan frowned, "it's what I've
done all my life and what I've always wanted to do.
It's who and what I am. I'm a soldier, or a merc, not
gave a short laugh. "Five years, I reckon."
He glanced at Dan, first time he'd set the deadline,
really, first time he'd spoken it. Five years. The world
could blow up badly in that time, with tensions breaking
up that the Cold War had kept together. "If you
consider my income, too, we should be able to get cushy
in those five years. That's the positive side - what
we earn, we can spend, no kids to feed or make sure
they get a good education."
frowned but said nothing. Five years? He didn't want
to think about it, so he only shrugged, reaching for
the last piece of shortbread. "Well, guess we won't
manage to produce kids, no matter how hard we tried."
Mumbled, not paying attention to anything but his coffee
and his biscuit. Missing how Mhairi turned beetroot
red and his brother didn't seem to know what to do with
shook his head. "well, my kids are taken care of",
he murmured, also to divert attention away from the
uncomfortable topic of sex. "And your brother is
continuing the family ..."
Dan looked up and nodded, completely oblivious to the
discomfort he had caused. "That he does."
Smiling at Mhairi and Duncan, who caught themselves
now you're together and working in the Gulf." Duncan
picked up the thread. "Any idea where you are heading
next? It can't remain a hot spot down there forever."
it's already sizzling out." Vadim shrugged. "I
guess we should get in touch with the Baroness about
that? Where she thinks she needs us, I suppose."
I don't really care where." Dan put the empty mug
down. "I don't mind the heat nor the cold, unlike
Vadim, here." Grinning, he leaned back. Exhausted,
the day had been more of an emotional rollercoaster
than he'd bargained for. "I'm Mr Indestructible,
smiled, "Well, Mr Indestructible, are you going
to stay here for another night? You're most welcome."
glanced at Dan, who smiled, slightly tired. While Duncan
had taken everything in stride, he wasn't quite sure
he wanted to get to the moment where it would be clear
Dan and he would sleep in the same bed. Under this roof.
He felt uncomfortable at the thought, and he didn't
want to make this an issue. At all. "I think we
have a bit of distance to cover, really. There's the
itinerary we worked out last night. Dan wants to show
me Edinburgh, and we're meeting some more friends ..."
Vadim met Duncan's gaze. "We'd love to, but I think
we should better be on our way ... and rather return
is a deal, then." Duncan nodded and smiled, and
so did his wife. "You are always welcome here,
both of you. Our home is your home, don't you ever forget
that. Whatever happens." He nodded once more, emphasising
leaning forward, one hand on Vadim's thigh, Dan smiled,
"I'll remember that now, and I promise, it won't
be five years again, but we will have to go to New Zealand
let you off." Duncan chuckled, as Dan stood up,
followed by Vadim. "But you promise you'll be here
after that, maybe you could even make it for your birthday."
Dan was taken aback, couldn't even remember when the
heck his own birthday was. "Aye
all that time, Vadim realized, he had no idea when Dan's
birthday was. And neither had Dan, probably. No, they'd
never talked about that. Had never spent so much time
together that it mattered. "That's a good idea",
Vadim said, somewhat belatedly. "Maybe stay for
a long weekend?"
most welcome to stay for as long as you like."
Duncan held his hand out to Vadim, while Mhairi pulled
Dan into a hug. "We are looking forward to seeing
you again, any time you can. After all, we need to get
to know the two of you."
shook the hand, and drew closer to murmur into Duncan's
ear. "Can you believe he never told me when his
laughed, murmuring back with a glance at Dan, "I'm
" Stepping back, he turned
to Dan to pull him into a hug, while Mhairi treated
Vadim with the same physical warmth.
more good-byes and promises to return as soon as possible,
they were once more escorted to the car, with Duncan
and Mhairi waving at the gate, while Dan slowly drove
the vehicle off the grounds and towards the road.
pulling in a deep breath, "that was that."
grinned. "It wasn't as bad as expected, all told."
He placed a hand on Dan's knee. "So, when is your
sideways while navigating the narrow road, Dan shrugged.
"Sometime in November. And yours?"
15th. That makes me Leo." Vadim grinned. "Do
you really have to check your passport?"
Dan grumped, "I don't do birthdays, they're
pointless, but if you really want to know, it's twenty-ninth
November. You know the year, you're as old as I am."
Glancing to the side again, going steadily North, "actually,
that makes you older than me." Dan flashed a grin.
It would get quite crowded on the birthday cake."
Vadim laughed. "Damn, we are getting old, aren't
we? But birthdays are good excuses for a party. Look
at Jean, he knows how to throw a party. Any excuse -
but I never had a birthday party, so I wouldn't know."
Flashing another grin. "And that also means that
apart from a few piss-ups when I was young, I never
celebrated my birthday since. Never had the time nor
knew anyone who would have given a damn about my birthday,
so I'm actually not going to be forty-three at all.
I'm probably around twenty-two."
and dating a guy almost twice your age ..."
burst into laughter, "Aye, but you've kept quite
well, all considering."
Vadim grinned and reached for the map, glancing out
of the window for a moment, comparing street signs at
the side of the road with those on the marked route.
"And if we're lucky, we'll get to the B&B before
be earlier, actually. Scotland isn't all that big. Best
small country in the world, you know."
I was calculating in the fact we might want to stop
at some places and admire the view. Or something like
grinned. "What did we actually book. Single rooms
The place doesn't appear to have singles."
At least something is working out smoothly, aye?"
grinned. "Our improvisation so far isn't too bad,
hope our luck holds up."
wish was being granted, the journey through the Highlands
ended each night in a B&B or small hotel that didn't
happen to have two single rooms. The owners invariably
apologised profusely for having to let two grown men
sleep in a twin room, but Dan only smiled and shrugged,
reassuring them that it would be no bother, while Vadim
kept his face carefully straight.
day they drove across majestic countryside. Crossing
over to Skye, exploring hills and sweeping valleys,
rugged mountains and breathtaking lochs. Until they
finally reached Edinburgh, the country's capital with
its stunning architecture, its posh hotels and bars.
was in the Scotsman hotel, overlooking North bridge
and parts of Princes Street gardens, that the concierge
apologised for having made the mistake of booking a
double-bed suite, and Dan smiled sweetly, explaining
that no, it was exactly what they had booked. Making
Vadim cringe inwardly, but the staff there took it in
stride, like it was the most natural thing in the world.
No moment of hesitation, not even a blink.
spent a day and two nights in the city, making it up
to the castle, but this time, Dan remained a tourist,
showing Vadim the breathtaking view from the battlements,
instead of trying to figure out if anyone was still
in the garrison, whom he knew.
didn't tire of exploring the city on its many levels,
up and down narrow staircases that were squeezed in
between ancient houses that didn't allow any light in,
pausing in small cafes for cakes and tea or coffee,
thoroughly exploring the city in the short time they
for the first time in his life, even Dan enjoyed the
old elegant lady, no longer feeling like an outcast,
a peasant, who didn't belong.