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Special Forces Chapter XXXXVII: Still Standing
 
 

November/December 1992, The Balkans

As long as Vadim was around, Dan spent the morning exactly as he would have normally, then went to phone Maurice in Belgrade centre. He was lucky, his mate was off duty early that day, and they met in a café near the French embassy, where Maurice downed his obligatory wine, or two, or three, and Dan, for once, stuck to strong coffee, black and brutal. He liked it the Serbian way.

He told Maurice all he needed to know, asking the man to collect the Russian, and after a few questions, as remarkably dry as the whole man, Maurice shrugged, lit another cigarette with the glowing butt of the one before, and nodded. He'd pick up 'the parcel' and make sure Dima would be taken good care of, while they were trying to figure out the paperwork.

It was getting towards the end of Vadim's dayshift time, when Dan headed back, hurrying to get to the camp before the other returned. Checking the vehicle park, he booked one of the Landrovers for later, and wished he had a legitimate reason to sign out a weapon, but the bastards had no duties for him that warranted the extra security, and he counted as a civilian - officially. Not that that stopped any of the goddamned natives on either side to pick up an AK and go slaughtering, just as Dima had mentioned. He'd simply have to be careful.

Dan packed his bergan with a few necessities, including - as always - his basic survival kit and his favourite knife, adding a stash of sandwiches and a couple of water bottles. A life on the line had taught him to be always prepared and never assume anything. He left the bergan in the vehicle and avoided Vadim in the room, pretending to head out with his team, only to sneak back in under the cover of darkness. Exchanging a few quiet words with the guards and making sure he didn't cross Vadim's path, he hid in the Lannie, with clear view of most of the camp.

He waited. Watching the dorms for signs of Vadim, while staying hidden in the shadows. Wrapped up in his heaviest winter gear, he had to be patient once more.

Vadim's face was closed like a steel door, frowning darkly, hiding agitation as he headed out, carrying only a light pack. Away, towards where he'd hid Dima. He rushed, travelling as fast as possibly, worry and anger and most of all the feeling of time ticking away.

Dan followed, the lights of his vehicle off, picking his way in the darkness with nothing but the moonlight. Counting on Vadim's state of mind to lessen the man's alertness. He parked a distance away while Vadim went through the shelled building again, searching every little place where somebody could hide, eventually picked up two AKs and a bag of ammo, checked both rifles, but they were in working order. Checking for footprints, for anything that would allow him to track Dima, but there was nothing, the ground was too frozen for boot prints, and not enough snow to help him.

Vadim still couldn't let it go, checked again, but eventually, he sat down, looking defeated, tired, and immensely worried. Dan had left his vehicle, moved closer to the building, and was watching while staying hidden. Breath misting in the freezing cold, he had to be careful, but seeing Vadim's face, the way he looked worried, not angry, he was glad he had taken the risk. Perhaps Vadim wasn't a completely unhinged madman. Not yet.

Vadim picked up the rifle again and headed up the hills, into the valley behind. Towards the 'farm', and Dan followed once more, had legged it back to the Lannie when Vadim started the engine, and was picking a neckbreaking path through the darkness.

Eventually, Vadim's Landrover pulled up in front of a secluded farm building. Frost had silvered the grass, and the dead guard dog with its entrails spilled out. Vadim pulled his gloves up and took the AK off his shoulder to enter the main building.

Dan, following in a distance, left his vehicle far enough away that his engine could not be heard. Making his way quietly towards the building. He'd seen Vadim enter, and he'd also noticed the weapons, while he couldn't make out the make in the darkness, he had no doubt it wasn't British issue, and no way in hell had Vadim signed a chit for any of them.

He carefully pushed the door open, but no sound from inside, Vadim was either waiting for him, or he had already moved through, but he counted on his instinct. That instinct told him the other man had no idea he was being followed.

Inside, carnage. The kitchen held two dead men, only winter and the fact that the building hadn't been heated had slowed down decomposition, but the stench of blood was everywhere. These men had died a messy death, one after the other, the method of killing was knife, deep, horrible wounds in vital organs, precise, cold-blooded stab wounds that betrayed the savage strength of somebody bent to wreak the most destruction. The jobs had been finished by cutting their throats to let them bleed out like pigs, to make sure nobody could save them.

It was the same image everywhere, carnage all over the building, when Dan crept through the rooms, never catching sight of Vadim. Up in the bedrooms, some had been murdered in their sleep. All of them dressed like chetniks, AKs and ammo all over the place, the bodies looked like from the set of a horror film, only it was far too real.

If Dan hadn't seen and done what he did, he'd be sick, but as it was, his stomach churned, but more from the shock that this was the work of his … lover. A madman had done this. Someone unhinged and completely out of control, and that was Vadim? So much for his earlier hope.

He pressed himself against the wall, right on top of the stairs at the landing, when he heard a sound downstairs.

"Dima?" Vadim called, in Russian. "Are you here?" He was standing in the kitchen, hoping that Dima had made his way back, even if - and he admitted that - it didn't make much sense. But if he'd been Dima, and needed assistance, food, water, maybe a phone, he'd come back here, probably lay low for a day or two, and then head out again. But no answer.

Dan was debating with himself, was it safe enough - without a weapon - to make it downstairs? Deciding against it. He strained to hear any movement from below, but all he could make out was one faint sound beneath a boot. Vadim was still as good as he had been in Afghanistan, but so was he, and he braced himself with a deep breath in the icy cold.

"Did that make you feel any better, Vadim?" He called out, into the darkness.

Dima? No. Dan. Of course Dan. Vadim moved towards the door, didn't want to confront Dan, bad enough that Dan had managed to follow him here, and doubtlessly seen what he'd done. Dan didn't have the stomach for this kind of thing, didn't, for once, do what had to be done to make even a small difference in this fucked-up country. Better? Worse. Didn't matter. Dima wasn't here, but he needed to find him. Maybe the other place. Maybe they'd brought Dima there. If the chetniks were still around, that would mean killing. He left the house, made sure he couldn't be seen from any of the windows, then sprinted towards the Landrover. He'd have to shake Dan off. He didn't have time for this.

"Shit!" Dan ran down the stairs, almost tripping over, and only managed to catch himself in the last moment. Legging it back to his vehicle, he could see Vadim racing off in the distance, and forced himself to do what the fuck he needed them to do. He reached the Lannie in record time, revving the engine, light on this time, he sped after Vadim. Driving as much like a madman as the other. He was not going to let him get away, no way. Not this time. He should have done something earlier. Damned pride, and thrice damned hurt, but perhaps he could have prevented this pointless carnage in a place full of murder, rape and pain. It made Vadim no better than any of the others - because he had no orders to kill.

Vadim drove fast, shaken on his seat when the car bucked across the frozen ground. What the fuck did Dan want from him? Why here? Why now? He steadily climbed the next mountain, next valley, he knew there was another place where a bunch of chetniks ran their operations from, this one near a pass and just too conveniently placed close to a road. He couldn't just drive in if he wanted to get them all. Remembering for a moment how he'd almost shot Dima when he'd found that other farm. Dan. Fuck. He didn't want to talk, not now, not about that shit, he wanted to focus on what he could change and could deal with. Bastard!

But Dan wouldn't let up, he was following Vadim into territory he only knew from the maps. Racing through the night, he frowned when Vadim took the path towards the valley, but he had to catch Vadim, get some sense into him and stop this goddamned madness.

Vadim drove the car into a protected bit, not too far off the road, but deep enough to not be spotted, and jumped out, grabbing his weapons, ammo, and pack, while Dan arrived not too much later. Keeping his vehicle further away, on the other side and beneath a crop of trees. Vadim headed up, on foot, trying to reach the mountain top above the cluster of buildings. He'd need to scout the place, but the plan was to kill them before first light. All of them. Unless they had Dima.

But Dan had other plans, and he jumped out of the car, leaving the bergan behind, as he ran after Vadim. Groaning with each step up the mountain, each jarring of his knees, but he wasn't far behind.

Vadim turned while running, saw Dan fight up the mountain, and lengthened his stride, speeding up, lungs painfully filled with every breath due to the cold. It felt like needles in his chest, but he went on, making it to the top and the much steeper descent on the other side.

Dan was breathless, and his knees hurt like absolute fuck, but he got to the top with all the determination he'd ever possessed. "You stupid fuck!" He forced out, nearly nauseous with the exertion. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

Vadim suddenly turned, breath misting around him, near the highest point of the mountain. A shocking mistake in Afghanistan, but here, the trees around him hid his silhouette, and he snarled. "What does it look like?"

Dan grimaced, hands clenched into fists in the thick gloves, "like a fucking madman on a killing rampage. Without orders!" Crossing the last few steps, he was shaking with anger, "like a murderer! Because you're no fucking better than them!"

"Fuck orders!" shouted Vadim. "Fuck your bloody fucking orders! Ordering me to fucking take this lying down what's happening here? No fucking way!"

"You're a fucking disgrace to any soldier!" Dan was shaking his fist, livid with rage by now. It all came out, everything that had built up in the last weeks. "You take this personal then, arsehole? Didn't stop you committing the same shit in Afghanistan, did it? Didn't seem to take it personal then."

Vadim felt that impact, right to the core. Disgrace. He'd heard that so often, and he'd disbelieved it, until one day he'd accepted it because he couldn't fight it off any longer. It was easier to give in, he'd been worn out, and every effort to deny this - that he had given in - only pushed the bullet deeper. Dan snarling into his face, the accusations - that they had done the same thing, but no, this war was uglier, out of proportion, a seething, festering, self-destructive hatred that had nothing to do with the boneheadedness of the Pashtuns. He closed the distance to push Dan away, hands impacting against Dan's broad chest. "Fuck you."

Face distorted with anger, Dan fought the hands off, merely half-stumbling before he found his balance again. "No, fuck you, Russkie. Who the fuck suddenly turned you into the Avenger?" Pushing his own hands against Vadim's chest, bodyweight behind it. "Or is it because you wanted to kill me but didn't quite have the guts for it?"

"It's the only fucking thing I can do to change anything", hissed Vadim, voice sounding strangled with anger and other emotions, and he moved half a step further up. "Anything at-fucking-all. Do you think I want to sit on my hands and just wait it out? Like everybody else?"

"Do you think I want to, arsehole?" Dan pushed again, a violent shove, all his anger, frustration and hurt behind the movement. "You think you're something special, and you think that none of the other guys isn't going fucking insane with this? Who the fuck do you think you are? Wielder of life and fucking death?" He suddenly meant something very different, and Dan's hand clenched into a fist. "Do you?" Yelling at Vadim, "do you decide on life and death?" The fist flew towards Vadim's jaw.

Vadim evaded the blow with a sideways motion, hadn't expected that it would come in so hard, had been a while since Dan had seriously tried to fuck him up. He grabbed Dan's parka while he fell, pulling him with him, hitting the ground, and an elbow-punch found its way into Dan's chest. Holding onto him was like fighting a bucking horse, powerful kicks and punches while they rolled and slid down the stony, frosty slope, punching and kicking and cursing.

One particularly violent kick from Dan, after Vadim's fist had caught his jaw and his teeth rattled in his skull, and they tilted forward, sliding, bodies entwined, as they lost balance completely, toppling, rolling, one over the other, down a steep slope, slippery with loose stones that accelerated around them, noisily crashing downwards. They scrabbled with arms and legs, trying to stop the fall, until they hit a plateau, coming down hard, when their bodies crashed onto the rock, Dan on top of Vadim.

Rattled, disoriented for a moment, hurting in every place, Dan managed to look around before Vadim got his bearings, neither of them moving. They hung over a steep drop, below a deep valley, and … "Oh fuck!" Dan got out, spitting blood, as he stared down.

Vadim coughed, several stones had impacted on his ribs on the way down, and he was just glad it had stopped, even though Dan still had the front of his parka clutched in his fists. Appetite for the fight dulled by the pain, and Dan's sudden incredulous expression. "What?" Twisting his head to be able to peer down to what Dan was staring at.

"Don't move." They were so close to the drop, a wrong movement could throw them over the edge, and the loose stones were still rolling down the rock face and towards the valley. "Look!" Dan pointed to what had to be a camp. And a prisoner camp at that. A goddamned fucking camp where there shouldn't be one. Rows of metal shacks, hardly more than cages, search lights, guards, and what seemed like corrals. "Where the fuck are we?" Dan's voice was breathless, as he held onto Vadim and the ground.

Vadim twisted his neck and then reached into his pocket, freeing the folded-up map, checking the area, squinting to make out the words. "Just north of here", he murmured, indicating a spot. "The pass is here, that's the road, that's the car."

Dan carefully rolled off Vadim, trying to keep his balance. "This is not supposed to be here." Holding his jaw, the bastard had got him at least a couple of times, and the pain blossomed. "They are emptying out Manjaca, and in Omarska …" Dan never finished the sentence, when a search light suddenly moved up the side of the hill, blinding him, as it hit them full force.

"Run", said Vadim, and Dan was already getting to his feet. Somebody was probably already on the way, and possibly a bunch of snipers to boot. They weren't all incompetents, and Vadim moved away from the brink, feeling his body protest after the punches, his own fingers hurting, face, chest, fuck, he wasn't twenty anymore when he'd have hardly felt this.

First priority was to evade the light. Second was to get the fuck back into the 'safe zone', which meant back to camp. Nothing was truly safe in this fucking country. Vadim moved, ducked, climbed up to the peak, the rifle unwieldy across his back, then broke into a run, but he glanced to his shoulder before he did, checking on Dan, who was not far behind him. Comrade, above all, right now. "To the car."

Dan grunted an affirmative, knew it was all about being as fast as they could be. Detected. Detected while having detected what shouldn't be there. He had a fair idea how much their lives were worth right now, and he forced his body to comply. Once more, always another time, beaten-up body or not. Racing down the hill, stumbling a couple of times, when roots were in the way and the moon didn't get through the trees, but every time, despite the jarring pain, he went on, tried to run even faster, Vadim in front of him.

They were almost at the foot of the hill when a telltale sound cut through the air and an almighty explosion threw them both onto their backs. Vadim closer, the impact even harder, when the RPG hammered into Vadim's vehicle, leaving them scrabbling in the frozen forest dirt. The trees and leaves the only thing that had sheltered them from the worst of the blast. "Shit!" Dan yelled, deaf from the explosion, crawling on all fours towards Vadim, who just raised his head, looking angry more than shocked. Dan was yelling at him, but Vadim couldn't hear a thing.

"Key!" Dan shouted, fishing his own car key out of his pocket, pushing it into Vadim's gloved hand as he gestured down the road, towards his Landrover. "You're faster!" And he was already up again, his body complying to a mind that would never give up. Never.

Vadim glanced at the key in his hand, then jumped to his feet, hearing only the blood rush in his ears and the odd ring that told him his eardrums had filed a complaint. No way to hear shots now, or pursuers. He ran towards Dan's vehicle, briefly wondered how he'd explain that he'd 'lost' a car 'out there', jumped into the Landrover and started the machine, while Dan was close behind, running as fast as he could.

Vadim pushed the AK over towards Dan when he tore the passenger door open and threw himself inside. "Go! Go!" Dan yelled, and he took the automatic, turned on his seat to allow for maximum coverage of any pursuers.

Gas pedal met bottom. Vadim tore the car around, the wheels finding purchase on the frozen ground, loose stones flying everywhere when the Lannie jumped forward and broke through some undergrowth onto the frozen road. A wild turn, tyres gripping asphalt, Vadim saw, just in time, a convoy of two jeeps move towards them. Pursuers? He couldn't risk it. The car screeched into a bootlegger turn, away from the quickest way back to the camp, and into the opposite direction.

The next moment bullets hit the Landrover, and Dan ducked, cursing under his breath, at the same time yanking the window down. He hung far out of it, aiming at their pursuers, firing at the windshields, then at the lights. He hit one of them, and the vehicle veered to the side but kept going, while the second one gained ground.

Vadim leaned over to risk a glance down the mountain, where the road snaked up, but he didn't believe in that kind of stunt. They'd tumble down the mountain and then nothing. Too steep. He'd just have to drive really well. Accelerating like a madman with a death wish - the irony didn't escape him - he threw the car into the next turn, throwing Dan almost out of the seat and making aiming impossible. He raced up the mountain, deeper into enemy country, chasing around the narrow turns, hoping Dan would get a clear shot before they'd be too far gone, then, suddenly, the road forked, and Vadim took the one that didn't go straight into the enemy's stronghold - towards the next valley. He kept his head down while driving, glanced at Dan to see how he was faring.

Dan had managed to crawl between the seats and into the back, bracing himself against the side wall. His hearing was coming back and he yelled over the noise of the vehicle, "you know where the fuck you're going?" But then, the sharp next turn, and it almost doubled them up with their pursuers. Aiming in the car that jumped like crazy over the road was near impossible, but he fired a round of shots and shouted in triumph when the second car veered off and vanished with screeching tyres and howling brakes down the steep side of the mountain, while the other one gained ground again.

Vadim heard Dan shout, but couldn't make out the words, assumed it was some form of encouragement because he really didn't want to hear any bad news, especially as the other driver was determined and not half bad at driving himself. They could only stay on the road for the moment, covering ground as fast as possible, and Vadim could imagine that the others felt they were winning - they had them in their territory and knew where the road was going. He'd only had a brief look at the map, but his best bet was that if they followed it, they would eventually meet another road that would take them towards the camp. "We have to go straight through", Vadim shouted, still mostly deaf.

Dan had smashed the side window in the rear of the hard-top with his rifle butt, pieces of security glass flying everywhere. He didn't hear Vadim's answer, hanging half out of the window. His only chance to get those bastards, who kept criss-crossing behind them. The bullets were flying, but every time Vadim went around a bend in the hell-raising speed, he had a few seconds of clear firing from the side. Smashing a bullet round into the vehicle, he pulled back in, shouting while digging more ammo out of Vadim's pack, "Whatever you're doing, I need a damn sharp bend to the right!"

Vadim nodded, narrowing his eyes to try and see the road before he went past it, and, indeed, a sharp right turn came up that made the tail of the car almost spin off the road. Vadim released the handbrake in the exact right moment and again kicked the pedal down. "At least we're back in the right direction", he shouted.

Dan didn't hear, was hanging out of the window with half of his body, legs hooked in the metal bars of the opposite seat. Firing a long broadside at the vehicle, he yelled in triumph when the damned bastards suddenly spun with screeching tyres, then raced forward, directionless, and into the rock face. Even Vadim saw the fireball when it exploded. "Fuck them!" Dan crawled back into the car, then pulled himself forward, until he was between the front seats. "How far to the camp?"

"Thirty miles is a guess." A huge distance in this territory. Vadim didn't slow down, instead used the time of grace that they had to increase their head start. He drove on in silence for a few minutes, while Dan busied himself with the weapons and kit. The car went up another mountain, and he stopped it, then stepped out to look around, while Dan finished sorting his bergan and Vadim's pack, having taken stock of their combined kit.

Vadim narrowing his eyes. "Shit."

"What?" Dan climbed out of the vehicle into the freezing cold. There was movement down there, quite clearly on the road below, cars driving with no headlights, Vadim could hear it now. "Roadblock."

"Fuck. Where's the map?" But Dan was already climbing back into the car, reaching for the torch in the glove compartment, studying the roads on the map. "Congratulations. There are no other roads back down."

"Nope. We either continue on foot, or ..." Vadim's eyes narrowed in thought. "We take them head on."

"And play decoy?" Dan's eyes narrowed as well, as he shielded the light of the torch away from the road.

"The road winds downhill, but towards them, it's pretty much straight. We could use it to distract them. Try and capture one of their cars, and just continue."

Dan nodded, "we got the AK, a pistol, and a couple knives. Seemed you carried enough ammo for an ambush. I got water, some food, and survival kit. I'm loading everything into the bergan and your shoulder pack, ready if we have to go on foot. You rig the car?" Unspoken, which one of them had more experience in what.

"No problem." Vadim sat down again, cutting some rope to fix the car's steering wheel and gas pedal and prepared everything, then nodded to Dan. "Okay. Let's drive this to where they can see us, crash it into the roadblock, and then flank them in the confusion. Maybe we can get one of their cars, otherwise we just leg it."

"Aye." Dan was already strapped up. Every bit that was useful stripped out of the car, including the blanket that was kept in each of the camp's Landrovers, and the shovel that he'd fixed across the bergan. Rifle left for Vadim, he had pocketed the pistol and some of the ammo, and they had a knife each. He'd never part with his favourite one anyway. "Ready." Handing Vadim's pack, ammo and the AK over. Unspoken understanding once more, and no time nor space for the anger that had brought them there. He got into the car and braced himself, glancing at Vadim. "Jumping out of the car ten yards before impact?"

Vadim gave him a long glance. "Yes. Don't break anything."

"Fuck you, too." Dan huffed with no malice.

"I mean it." Vadim started the engine and checked that he'd stowed away his kit properly on his body, then started to roll, headlights on, now, to attract their attention - and hopefully blinding the bastards when he was heading straight at them. "Leg it towards that hill, unless we can get one of their cars. It's fifty clicks, that's not much."

"Aye." Dan looked straight on. "If I'm too slow, you got a second map in your kit."

Vadim shuddered, jaw muscles tightening. "Say that again and I break something in your body."

"You're contradicting yourself. You just told me not to break anything."

"I know."

Dan stared ahead, one hand on the dashboard, the other on the door handle, bracing himself. "Whatever the fuck happens, if I don't make it, I want you to get out and tell them about the shit here. You got it?" Dan finally glanced at the side, they had no more than a few mere seconds, the movement in front of them was getting frantic. "We'll make it. If not, the other one carries on. Deal?"

Vadim nodded, didn't trust his voice to speak, instead started the car, first down the winding roads, then straight onto the road towards the next mountain, and towards the roadblock. He fixed the rope to the steering wheel, placed the heavy stone on the pedal, then began the countdown. The headlights tore the silhouettes of chetniks out of the dark, and he could see them aim and fire, as he switched the headlights to highest intensity, hopefully blinding them, and opened the door to hit the ground. It fucking hurt, the frozen ground was unforgiving, and his kit bruised him in several places, but he had no other chance but to get to his feet as soon as he could, moving on while the Landrover crashed into the cars that served as roadblock, and the men behind fired while forced to jump out of the way. Vadim ran, two hundred yards to cover, running as fast as he could, then dove in between the trees where the forest began to thicken, AK out and ready to shoot if anybody followed them. Waiting for Dan.

But Dan didn't arrive, not for a long time. Instead there were shouts, bullets being fired, a round or two of automatic fire, and voices yelling something Vadim could not understand. Then a scream, and cursing, while the firing started up again, and voices yelling with no logic nor order.

Silence, the firing stopped, then the sound of engines revving up and racing off.

Vadim waited, he couldn't make out anything, so he forced himself to stay down and wait. Dan's words stayed with him. One carries on. He blinked, realising his vision was blurred, not that he could see much, but his body felt locked, every joint frozen with worry and fear, stomach churning. He'd give everything to get up and check the area, but he listened and waited, but there were no sounds, no more shots. Slowly, he got to his feet, and walked back. He couldn't just leave Dan.

He had reached the area half-way, when a voice called out to him. Hushed, breathless, but audible in the silence of the freezing night. "You bastard. I knew you wouldn't do what I told you."

Vadim turned towards the voice, just staring in the direction. "You'd have done the same."

"You think so, eh?" It was obvious from the disembodied voice that Dan was jogging towards Vadim, whose silhouette was dimly visible in the moonlight, reflected by patches of frozen snow. Dan was getting closer in the typical slow-jog of anyone who was used to tabbing for endless miles with prohibiting weights on their back, just that by now, when he was getting close enough to be seen, his gait distinctly favoured one leg. "I didn't get out too well." Closer, still, until his face was near, one side smeared with something dark, could be dirt, could be blood, but he didn't seem to be in pain. "Had to take one of their vehicles to get them off my track, didn't fancy turning into a sieve." He suddenly flashed a grin, looking as feral as Vadim ever had, after the killing. "Fucking cunts made me run half of the way back, but they should be busy for a little while."

Vadim fell in stride with Dan, heading for the hill. At least nothing was broken. "We're in the right direction. Just up that mountain, and there's some kind of settlement behind there, where we should be able to find cover, and I'll look at your head. Don't like head wounds."

"It's just a damned scratch. Looks worse than it is." Dan was huffing with each step, in through the nose, out through the mouth. He was fit, could run forever, if only his goddamned knees weren't playing up. Still, he kept up, because he simply had to. Mind over matter. "Didn't land on my head, after all."

"Doesn't matter, I'll still have a look."

"You get on my nerves, Russkie." Dan grumped, then shut up, preserving his breath.

Vadim fell into an easy trot that he'd be able to maintain even up the mountain, staying on a dirt track, because he had no idea whether the area had been mined, but he chose to not tell Dan of his worries, because, truth be told, they'd be fucked if it was and it didn't matter if it wasn't. Up the mountain, always right at Dan's shoulder, making sure Dan could keep up. No question. He'd never leave him behind, just like any comrade.

They got to the highest point and Vadim frowned. "Bad news. There's not a single light on down there."

"Guess that means I should take over orientation." Dan shrugged, no accusation. "Unless you're right and there used to be a village." Getting the map out, Dan shielded the light of the torch from view, as he studied the area. "Shit."

"Shit - there was or Shit - we're lost?"

"Shit, there was." Dan looked up, "you'll never be lost with me around." Completely serious. "I made it across the mountains in the middle of the Afghan winter to get a hand job from you. I'll find my fucking way across Yugoslavia."

Vadim grinned. "True. Finding all those caves was damn good training ..."

Dan looked up for a moment, deadly intense, before he studied the map once more, shaking his head. "Can only mean one thing: it's been 'cleansed'. Suggest we get down there, hoping there'll be some ruins left to hide in, and no mass graves without burying." The frown between his brows proof to the gravity of his words. "They might not expect us down there, and they might not bother searching a place that's been destroyed." He shrugged, "worked in Afghanistan, and there's no way we can make it through the forest and across the next set of mountains in the darkness. At least not without having checked them first."

"Yes. We'd get out of the freezing wind for a few hours, too." Vadim looked around. "Check directions?"

Fishing with his gloved hand in his belt kit, Dan produced a compass, studying map and tool for a moment, before he nodded. "Straight down, preferably without ankle breaking."

"Or stepping onto a mine." Vadim shrugged, then straightened. "Fuck. Let's get moving."

"There's that, best you walk in front of me, aye?" Dan produced a fierce grin, before turning and starting to walk. The terrain was uneven, rocky, whenever they had to get through patches of forest it became softer, but equally treacherous. Now and then checking the compass, its face lighting up in the darkness, and he slightly adjusted the route. It was steep, though, and Dan's face set into a stoic mask after an hour of walking down, yet he never let up in speed.

Vadim did walk in front, letting Dan walk in his steps, fair was fair, even though Dan protested that he had just been taking the piss. Vadim forced himself not to think about it. Nor of the copious amounts of 'mine jokes' that Dima had been able to tell. Dima. Just where the fuck was the man? He moved on, adjusting his pace to Dan's, and covering a fair bit of distance in good time.

Eventually, Dan stopped again, listening into the silence, slowly turning his head as the sound of an owl hooting in the distance was heard. He finally shook his head, adjusted the woollen hat after another check of compass and map and pointed forward, slightly to the right. Just in case anyone was still in the village and just in case they were wrong about it being destroyed, they couldn't afford any noise, least of all voices.

They walked on, more carefully now, hardly a sound, and the minutes stretched out in the darkness. Vadim moved forward, setting his feet carefully as they moved in a circle, protected. What the little light showed, however, made the situation awfully clear: several buildings had collapsed, some dark shadows were actually charred remains of roofs or beams, or smoke that had darkened the area above the windows. Vadim knelt down, watching. No light, no movement. Just dead silence.

Dan remained standing, leaning against a tree, his shadow merging with the trunk in the darkness. Nothing, and yet they couldn't be careful enough. He got Vadim's attention by making a small sound when he moved his foot, then nodded to him and made a gesture, indicating he was going to walk around the edge of the opening to get to the other side. Sliding the pistol into his hand, the sound of the safety taken off the only thing audible in the night, as he made his way along.

Vadim nodded and watched for any kind of movement that wasn't Dan, for any pair of eyes, the glint of a sight, anything. He assumed the place was literally dead, but he wouldn't bet his life on it.

About ten minutes later, Dan's voice was heard. Quiet, no names, indicating the coast was clear. He appeared from between a house and a burnt-down ruin, standing in the faint moonlight. A shadow amongst shadows.

"Nothing." Quietly, when Vadim came closer. "We can both take a guess what happened to the inhabitants." The frown was back, and with it the stoic expression in his face, which had turned into a mask that didn't show any feelings, not even anger. "Best find a place to hole up for the night, aye?"

Vadim nodded, didn't want to think that he might have been able to stop the men who'd done this and who would very likely go unpunished. "Ideally somewhere under a roof", he murmured. "Maybe there's food left. No idea how long we'll be on our feet, but I didn't bring any MREs."

"I got sandwiches and water. Some chocolate bars." Moving to the side, Dan went to check out the building to his right that seemed stable enough. It overlooked most of the open space and had windows to all sides. No dead corners, no blind traps. The windows were all broken, more or less, but at least he building gave some shelter from the icy wind. "Wouldn't touch any food, though, we have no idea how long it's been lying around."

"And they might have added some rat poison, just in case." Vadim shook his head and looked resigned. Because the other option was to get murderously angry. They moved carefully, watching, listening, pausing.

No need for the precautions, though, once they shone the torch around, it became clear the building had been ransacked. The furniture was smashed into pieces, duvets scattered and torn, scraps of fabric, torn books, papers, everywhere. "Damn unlucky." Dan murmured, "could do with a fire for warmth, but no fucking chance."

"No fire."

Dan made a huffing sound. "You think I'm a fucking novice, or what?"

"I just agreed."

"Ok."

Vadim looked around. It wasn't quite as bad as outside, but the houses that weren't burned were likely all in this state. "You get cosy upstairs, I check out the other buildings."

"No way, safer downstairs. I'll see if I can set up a shelter." Dan was taking the bergan off his back, began pulling out material that could be used for some kind of makeshift shelter, which would help them conserve as much body heat as possible. "I'll take the first guard, by the way." He stated, as Vadim was about to leave.

Vadim turned. "I won't argue", he answered, then vanished into the carcass of a settlement, checking houses and moving carefully. However, nobody seemed to have set up booby-traps, likely because they didn't assume anybody would come back, and that, in turn, was testament to the fate of the inhabitants. It was still eerie that there was no blood, no sign of violence apart from the smashed up houses, like there'd been a short, nasty rampage, and then they had moved on. Maybe the inhabitants were in that camp, or lying in a ditch somewhere.

He didn't find much - the whole settlement was thoroughly looted, and he didn't enter the burnt-out houses, which made this a short tour of maybe half an hour. When he came back, he was sure that they were the only living souls in that place and also that they couldn't stay here for very long. Just enough until light, gather strength, maybe sleep a little, and then move on.

Dan looked up at the noise, pistol at the ready, but he lowered it immediately when he realised it was Vadim. He had built a shelter in one corner from pieces of broken furniture, using torn-up bed linen to insulate from the cold. The blanket was out as well, lying at the ready, with the shredded pieces of duvets on the floor, having found strips of curtains to lay over them. All in all a 'cosy' place, which would help conserve as much warmth as possible. The food had been parcelled out into portions, and the water bottle was waiting as well. At least water wasn't a rare commodity.

Dan waited until Vadim had stepped inside before holding his hand out for the AK. If he was going to be on duty for the first couple of hours, he needed to be ready. "Have some food, water, rest."

Vadim handed the AK it over. "There's nothing left. No bodies, either." He sat down, hunched to preserve body heat. "Strange. I keep thinking, this country must have been beautiful", he murmured. "Before it decided to tear out its own guts." He took a deep draught of the water, had part of his ration, then lay down, watching Dan, who said nothing.

Dan popped something into his mouth which he'd had in his bare hand, then washed the pills down with water. They'd take a while to kick in, there wouldn't be any point in trying to sleep now. "Fucking dying for a fag." He muttered, had checked his stash, less than a packet.

Vadim inhaled deeply, tried half a smile, still somewhat amused at the pun of words. A running gag. He checked his watch. "Wake me in three."

"Greedy bastard. Meant to give you two, but I'm feeling generous tonight." Dan lifted the blanket from his bergan, which he'd settled into the corner, and sat down himself, leaning against his pack. Lifting the blanket, he indicated the space right next to him. "Don't be an idiot and lose body heat. It's fucking cold, I could do with some, too."

Vadim moved over to lie down right next to Dan, no questions asked. Remembered the icy, crisp air up in the mountains, the utter clarity. His body creating warmth on Dan's side, Dan warming his side. The closest they'd been for what felt like months. He began to relax, much easier to cling to that warmth and know he'd be secure. Whatever Dan had done. Whatever bitterness and anger still lurked. It was about surviving, soldiering, and he hoped not just that.

Tucking the blanket in around them, Dan watched Vadim fall asleep. Hadn't seen him that close for several weeks, and it fucking hurt, because he wanted to touch that face, feel the stubble beneath his fingers, how the jaw line went slack, and how the face turned from concentrated frown to something almost relaxed, but never quite. Not now, not here. Not since … best not go there. He tore his eyes away, allowed himself a cigarette instead, and held onto the rifle in his gloved hands. Memories of the Gulf, of sharing a tiny cave with wounded soldiers, of heat and dust, and of seeing Vadim, knowing that very moment that whatever happened, there was no way he could ever get the other out of his body and mind.

And so he sat, waited in the silent night, occasionally checking his watch to stay awake, and letting his mind wander once more. Across the decades, across the countries and across the wars. His family, his friends, the sex he'd shared and the love he'd known. Lust and laughter, anger and jealousy, and a thousand other things, and he smiled in the end. If they got him this time, at least he had lived and he regretted nothing.

After a little more than three hours, dawn still far away, he woke Vadim with a gentle touch to his shoulder. "Hey, Russkie, time for me to turn into Sleeping Beauty."

Vadim stretched, tensed and stretched to wake up fully, and with regret shifted position, losing some of the warmth. He took the rifle and watched Dan settle in, suppressing a yawn. "Feel much better now", he murmured.

"Aye, hope the same goes for me." No sooner, though, had Dan burrowed into the vacated space, still warm from Vadim's body, that he began to drift off. He hadn't realised how tired he'd been, and kept underestimating the effect of those pain killers. He was asleep a couple of minutes later, but not before shifting closer, not realising what he was doing, and wrapping one arm around Vadim. Just like he would have done if ….

Vadim shifted the AK a little, freed his hand from the weapon, took the glove off for a moment and placed his hand on Dan's wild hair, careful to keep the touch light and not disturb him unnecessarily. What did it matter what had happened? They were out in this war, alone, and whatever had happened had stayed behind. They'd still be caught by it, once they were back in camp, but not here, not right now. And how fucking insane that it mattered at all.

Dan slept, undisturbed, until dawn was breaking, almost four hours later. Never stirring, not making a sound. Vadim moved his hand under the blanket to touch Dan's shoulder, and leaned in. "Good morning. We should break camp."

"Hm?" Dan sounded and looked bleary, disoriented, but no longer than perhaps a second, and he forced himself awake, realising the situation.
"Shit." Mumbled. "What time is it?"

"Almost half past seven. Figured we could use the sleep with what's ahead."

"Yeah, fuck. Exactly what I wanted to do in my old age." Dan rolled his eyes and stretched quickly, sitting up the next moment. He reached for his bergan to get to the water. His stomach made a loud noise and he grimaced, eating half a chocolate bar before washing it all down and holding the bottle out to Vadim.

Vadim took a couple of sips, then waved it off. "I'll pack. You wake up properly."

"Aye, need a dump." Dan got up, left Vadim who was already packing up the blanket, and stepped out of the building, taking a few pieces of scrap fabric with him. The ice cold air that hit him almost took his breath, but he moved on and across, towards one of the burnt-down ruins. He took barely a step inside, just enough to get out of the wind and the worst of the icy dampness, and swiftly went about his business. No2 first, then onto No1 once he'd cleaned up, and while he was pissing into a corner, he suddenly heard the sound of a vehicle in the distance. He froze, cursed his bladder, prostrate and whatever else that kept him from just stopping the flow, and couldn't help it, had to run out of the building, still pissing, but at least it stopped before he reached the other building. Tucking himself in, in record time. "Vadim!" Called out quietly. "Fuck, visitors!"

Vadim appeared in the doorway, bergan shouldered, AK ready, indicating with a gesture he'd understood. Trying to locate from where the sound came, and how to get away best. It was fairly likely that the chetniks had decided to check out possible places for them to hide once the first light had broken, and here they were. Question was, hide or fight?

Dan slipped into the building, saw Vadim had taken over the bergan this time, and he nodded, getting the shoulder pack instead. Indicating to the windows, the broken glass enabled them to hear the vehicle. Crouching down beside one of them, Dan had the pistol ready, whispering to Vadim. "Chances to hide? Fuck all. And we need weapons."

Vadim nodded and moved towards another window, then caught a glimpse of the car. He raised his hand, hid the thumb. Four men. All armed, all likely carrying some food and water, for a snack during the hunt. The car was even more interesting. He returned to Dan, crouched. "We should set a trap", he murmured close to Dan's ear. "Any ideas? I'm tempted to just shoot them once they get close enough."

"You sure who and what they are, though?" Eyes peeled on the vehicle outside, which had stopped, its doors opening. "Check for badges with a cross and the four 'C's' or a Serbian eagle." No more than a toneless murmur into Vadim's ear.

Vadim nodded. Not that Bosniaks didn't kill by accident. This fucking country had no uniforms, no rights and no wrongs. He moved again, closer, to get a good look at the men. Seemed like they were taking an interest in the mostly unscathed buildings, too. Just their luck.

The men were outside, talking, and while Dan strained to listen, he couldn't make out any of the words. Not that he spoke the language, but he'd picked up enough expressions to get by, the language similar enough to Russian. It didn't take more than a couple of minutes of talking and gesturing, before the fourth man went back into the 4x4 and the other three split up. When one of them walked past the window, the badge was visible, and Dan nodded to Vadim. Using sign language to indicate he was going to follow the one to the left. He only had a pistol and a knife, but if he used the firearms, he'd give the game away. The other two moved into roughly the same direction. Pointing to his pistol Dan shook his head, then let the knife slip into his hand and nodded. Another swift glance, then crawling along the wall and towards the door.

Vadim nodded, too, indicated he'd head out to the back, making sure nobody outside could see any motion. It would be a matter of time - and only short - until somebody checked out 'their' hiding hole, so he had to be quick. He dove out through a window, kept in cover, then, peering around a corner, saw one of the men enter a building. He ran after him, saw the man check out the building, and Vadim waited outside for him to return. When he did, a punch to the throat shut him up, and Vadim grabbed his head and broke his neck while dragging him inside. He stood there, breathing heavily. He remembered it had been easier, once. Or maybe his technique was fucked.

Dan had followed the second man's movements, until he came close to the door. He watched the guy, his rag-tag mix of kit, mostly military, and the badge, told him what he needed to know. Simple. This time. Good and bad and black and white and what did it all matter. He had to take a life, like he'd done far too many times before. Had to do it to survive. Again. Afghan, Russian, Serb. Nothing was more important than his own life. That simple. Dan moved silently forward, grabbed the man from behind, and cut his throat. The body in his arms twitched and gurgled, while drowning in his own blood, but no other sounds. Like another man, a long time ago. Just that this time the blood was staining his clothes, before he could put the body down, pulling the man just inside the door.

Vadim moved to the next building, carefully stalking the third guy, who was checking out one of the ruins, and threw a stone through one of the broken windows. And, sure enough, the amateur soldier peered through the window. Vadim reached for the man's rifle and pushed it violently back and up, making him stumble back and release the rifle. Turning it in his hands, Vadim fired three successive shots, allowing the weapon to buck in his hands and the bullets to travel upwards, the final one tearing a good chunk out of the man's forehead.

Dan was outside, cleaning his hands on a patch of frozen grass not far away, when the rounds tore through the silence. Looking up, then hurried across to where the sounds came from, trusting Vadim had dealt with the men.

Vadim checked the body and stuffed what he could use into his own pockets, feeling the occasional shudder pass through the body that was still dying, then left the building, moving back towards Dan and the jeep, meeting Dan half-way.

"Sorted?" Dan asked, eyes quickly skimming over Vadim, checking for injuries.

Vadim gave a wordless 'all clear' hand signal, glancing around while thinking about the next steps. "We need to get moving", he murmured under his breath. "You okay?"

"Aye." Answering with a nod. "Got to hide them and strip what's useful." Dan glanced to where Vadim had come from. "Start with yours?" His hands were sticky, but he'd have to make do until they got to some water. "Damned bastard was more inconvenient …." while moving towards the corpses. Never finishing the sentence.

"Stripped the last one, they travelled light", Vadim murmured, thinking, for a moment, what was damn inconvenient, but then swallowed it and pushed the banter away. They were still running for their lives and should keep focused. Jokes helped deal with the pressure, but he'd hate being taken out by a sniper because he'd preferred to crack a joke than look for the sun glinting off the scope.

Dan reached a corpse and bent down to take hold underneath the shoulders. "Seems as good a place to hide them as any." Gesturing with his chin to a building that still stood but was full of debris inside. "What's the rifle like? Any extra ammo?"

"AKs seem in good working order, enough ammo, unless you blast away like the Americans." Vadim gave a grin, helping to carry the corpse into the building.

"Good." Dan flashed a fierce grin of his own. "Mine had a shitty piece, as far as I could see, but haven't stripped him yet. Bastard is soaked and got me as well." He dumped the corpse and stretched. "Where's number two?"

"The other one's in the building over there. Should be not exactly obvious. Where's your guy?"

"Back at the building. I pulled him inside."

"Okay. That should be enough 'doing the honours'." Vadim straightened, prodded the dead man's shoulder with the tip of his boot. "Bastards should be missed within the day. And I assume there'll be plenty guys looking for them. Let's cover some ground. Pick up the AK on the way, too."

"Aye, and the guy who dropped them here could be back any minute." Dan made his way to the other building, where the corpse was partly hidden in the rubble. The rifle was on the ground, close to the door, and so was the ammo. Slinging the weapon across his back, Dan stashed the ammo in his stained jacket, and some in his belt kit. "The pack's back in the first building, let's grab it and see what mine carried."

"Yes." Vadim went through his pockets, but everything was in order, just that near-compulsive last check when he was about to leave a location and move towards the next. "You take the lead, I cover."

Moving swiftly out of the building without another word, Dan hurried across the open space, but no sound disturbed the silence, nothing shattered the false peace. Only death and destruction seemed to bring such stillness, where no humans dwelled. He was soon back in the original building, while Vadim covered the door, and fleeced the corpse, whose coat was soaked with blood, but had kept the clothing beneath from getting stained. Dan grinned when he found some old fashioned webbing beneath the coat, and gestured to Vadim to help him strip the garment off so he could get to it. Pockets yielded nothing except for a map, but the webbing was a treasure trove. Whistling tonelessly when he found a stick of C4 and a handful of detonators, Dan slung the webbing across his back, then the AK once more, stashing the ammo in the more convenient pouches. "I take the shoulder bag and you the bergan?"

Vadim nodded and glanced at the body. "The things people carry." Frowning, he took the bergan and adjusted the straps to distribute the weight properly.

"Yeah, like me right now. I look like a fucking donkey." Dan flashed a grin, which made him dangerous and tinged with a hint of insanity. Dark skin, stubbled face, wild hair, together with the blood stains on his jacket.

"The most feral donkey in history." Vadim grinned back. "Let's leg it."

Putting the gloves back on, Dan pulled the chetnik's map out, as well as his own, comparing both of them, until he was confident that they did not differ. Using the compass, he pointed to the east. "There's a main road, but with a dirt track beside it. It leads roughly into the right direction. I suggest we take it, stay as much out of view as we can, while making time."

Vadim took the map and checked it, too. "I'd kill for a car", he murmured. "Should be able to cover the exposed area before noon, there's still some trees so we can do this. Once we're back in the hills, we should be safe enough."

"Aye. At least we got some sleep and are kitted out better than before." Dan walked fast, but he didn't fall into a sustainable trot before they hit the more stable terrain of the dirt track. They should be able to hear any incoming vehicle early enough to throw themselves into the ditch.

* * *

That same day, in the late evening, a vehicle was making its way along the fortifications of the camp. Driving slowly, like someone who had nothing to hide and all the time in the world. It didn't stop at the gates, though, instead moved on, until it came to a halt not too far away. Right next to the overgrown bunker.

The man who jumped out of the large 4x4 was short, wiry, wrapped in heavy winter gear with a woollen hat hiding his ears and nearly half of his face. A glowing cigarette hung from between thin lips in a face that sported more of a stubble than a man should who was dressed in such expensive kit.

Dima heard the car approach and looked up, fixing his gaze firmly on the door. He pushed the blanket apart that he'd wrapped around himself, and stood, unwilling to be 'found' sitting on the ground in a corner. The door was open, but he'd only left the bunker to shit and piss, and nothing else, spending the time reading, thinking, sleeping, and simply waiting.

"Merde!" The man muttered, loud enough to be heard inside, when he stumbled over a few loose bricks amongst the dead brambles. Puffing smoke, he was looking around, spotted the entrance, and instead of walking straight through, he moved to the side. "Dan sent me." He called out, his English heavily accented with French. "You in there?" Making his way towards the door and pushing it cautiously open, he never allowed himself to be a target.

Dima moved towards the door and pulled it fully open, staying mostly shielded by the door. "Come on in. My home is your home." He paused and grinned. "Metaphorically speaking."

Moving through after a careful glance, the man stepped inside. Casting a swift look around, then nodding at Dima. "Maurice." Inhaling deeply, he threw the butt to the floor while smoke curled out of his nostrils. "Dima?" Pulling the hat from his shaved head. Dark hair, dark eyes, a complexion as dark as Dan's, but entirely different. Aquiline nose and sharp cheekbones in a haggard face. So 'French' he made any proverb ring true.

"Nice meeting you. You're my date, then." Dima gave a nod as Maurice raised one brow, then lit another cigarette as Dima walked back to the kit Dan had brought him. "You're here to get me out, yes?" He began collecting what he could use, trained to leave no traces, stowing everything away. "Because I'm dying for something hot to drink."

"Oui. Dan asked me to." Maurice watched him and put his hat back on, the cigarette hanging between his lips. "Strange request." He shrugged, then stepped half-way through the door. "You're a medic, he said. And that you're good."

Dima packed the kit together, checked again that he hadn't left anything behind, nothing, not the foil pack of the condom, nor a food wrapper, and glanced up. "Special Forces medic", he said. "And you?"

"Spetsnaz. Oui. That's what he said." Maurice stepped aside and let Dima through, walking behind him. "I'm the doctor for the French security detail at the embassy in Belgrade." Leading Dima outside and to the vehicle.

"Nice job", commented Dima. "I assume that means proper pay and heating?"

Maurice huffed with dry amusement. The smoke, as always, curling in front of his face, "how well do you know Belgrade? The embassy is a massive art deco building. You would think we have heating."

"Sounds like heaven." Dima walked beside the Frenchman, studying him closely as if he was preparing to recognize the man for the rest of his life - one of those strange little habits that, in total, made it hard to move in polite society. "And access to proper resources?"

"What do you mean?" Holding the door open, Maurice waited for Dima to get inside the vehicle.

Dima got in, leaning over and opened the door on the other side. "What I mean is - embassy duty means you have all the medical equipment you need. Colour me envious. Most of my career, I had to improvise."

"So did I." Maurice shrugged, climbed in and threw the cigarette butt to the ground, starting the car at the same time. "It's cosy to have all the kit these days, but being out of the field can get boring." Glancing to the side, "you look as if you were still in it."

"I am. That means, I was." Dima turned to face Maurice. "What's going to happen now? Any idea?"

"Not sure." Maurice shrugged, driving towards the dirt track that would take them onto the road to Belgrade. "I take you to the embassy, sign you in as a long-lost ami of mine, feed you proper French coffee, croissants, and wine, and then you'll show me how good you actually are. After that we see if there's anything that can be done for a Russian in Serbia with medical skills."

Dima laughed. "First the wine, then the work? Okay." But he grew more serious, suddenly. "Where's Dan? Is he back in that camp of his? Any way to get in touch with him?" Get in touch was a euphemism if he'd ever heard one. Damn him, he'd liked too much what Dan had done to his body, and apart from that very obvious thing, he liked the man and wouldn't mind having that wine and coffee together with him.

"Hm?" Maurice had paid less attention than before, navigating a particularly tricky and icy part of the road. "Haven't seen Dan since yesterday, I guess you can contact him tomorrow, he should be in camp." The weather was turning worse and the clouds hung low and heavy, promising more snow. "You've known him for long?"

"We were both in Afghanistan", Dima said, leaning back in his seat. "He was fucking my superior officer. That's the only connection. The world is a small, strange place. And he found me and freed me from the place I was held a few days ago."

"He was … what?" Maurice turned his head so sharply, the vehicle slipped for a second, before he had it back under control.

"That means you're not one of his friends in that sense."Dima winked.

"What sense?" Concentrating on the road this time, Maurice was taking them through the night. Mostly silent, except for the sound of shelling in the distance.

"Somehow, Dan scored himself a Spetsnaz captain, later major, good-looking bastard, if you go for tall, blond, and aloof. And I'd thought I was perceptive."

"Dan's gay?"

Dima felt a moment of hesitation, outing Dan to his friend was not a nice thing to do, but he'd thought Maurice knew, and it was too late to back-pedal. "Thank god I'm not bound by any confidentiality", he murmured. "Because I just fucked that one up."

"So, he is." Maurice flashed a nicotine stained grin, before reaching for his packet of Gauloises. In an afterthought, holding it out to Dima, who took a cigarette and the lighter, too, lighting his own and then Maurice's before returning the zippo. "Didn't tell me, but I never asked. Not the usual conversation when getting drunk in a bar." Maurice sped up when the road was getting better. "Anyway, why in the devil's name are you in the situation you're in?"

"I can only give you the official story ... I was sent here to help the Serbs and got kidnapped by somebody, then tied up and hidden away, where Dan found and freed me. It's embarrassing to end up as somebody's prisoner in my line of work. I wasn't even an active combatant ..."

"You better not be, or I won't be able to help you." The lights of Belgrade were coming into view in the distance. "If you've been involved in any of the shit, you're out. So you were better not involved in it, and just happen to be a victim caught up in it." Emphasising each word.

"I was." Dima lied without hesitation, holding onto the story as promised.

"And since you are obviously a victim, there might be some interest of the Serbian brotherhood in their Russian brothers to form a nice cosy brotherhood of brothers."

"Yeah, I found Yugoslavia incredibly cosy so far." Dima laughed and inhaled the smoke deeply. "Fucked up war, fucked-up country. What's your story? How did the French get involved in this? You are not a mercenary."

"No. Used to be in the legion." Moving down the road towards the town, Maurice elegantly avoided the first part of the question. "Just doing my job for France." He shrugged and fell silent.

"Right. The men without past. I understand." Dima fell silent as well, gazing out of the window. Still oddly thankful for the company and the fact he'd be able to drink something hot, the cold had crawled under his skin. If he was lucky, there was even a hot bath on the radar. Pure luxury.

And luxury it was, when they reached the embassy. Its splendour above and beyond anything else in that city, surpassing most others. Maurice told Dima to stay in the vehicle, while he filled in some forms and then asked Dima to come out, who's photo was taken for a guest file. They were finally done and the vehicle rolled through the gates and towards a car park, next to the building.

"I'm afraid you'll have to sleep in my apartment." Maurice parked the posh 4x4 and got out, waiting for Dima to catch up. "The sofa's not too bad, though, have fallen asleep on it quite a few times."

"No, I'll be fine. Don't worry. I've slept in some really bad places, and this ... this doesn't look like one of them." Gazing up, taking in the complete shift - an altogether different world. "Nice one. The French do it with style."

"You can call us a lot of things, but you can't accuse us of not having style." Maurice grinned, lighting yet another cigarette. Hardly five minutes between each. He led Dima through a side door that went up a staircase and towards a separate apartment. Spacious by all means, with a fire place in the main room, and a small kitchenette, with two doors leading off to bedroom and bathroom.

"You want to freshen up?" Maurice threw his hat over a stand in the miniature hallway, then peeled his gloves off. "You look like you need it. I brew us a coffee in the meantime." Glancing at Dima while shrugging out of his thick jacket. "Or hot coffee first and bath afterwards?" Out of the winter boots as well, the man was as wiry out of the kit as he had looked at first glance. Dressed in black outdoor trousers and dark flannel shirt, the open collar revealed a glimpse of a smooth chest, while the stubble in his face was either artful or perpetual; Dima felt a stab of desire looking at him, might have been the isolation that had him focussed on sex, but the Frenchman was certainly interesting. Only how? Or even, whether?

"Now that's a difficult question", Dima said, setting down the bergan and taking off the jacket. "Can't smell too good. That way's the bathroom?" Pointing at one of the doors. "I could use a shave, too." He ran a hand over his cheeks and chin.

"Not for my benefit, you don't need to." Maurice nodded towards the bathroom. "Kit's in there. Disposable razors, the lot. Towel is fresh." He was in the kitchenette, fiddling with a coffee grinder while the obligatory cigarette hang from between his lips.

"Thanks. I'll have a soak first." Dima headed into the bathroom, stripping the boots, vest, belt, trousers, underwear, every thread and every single piece of equipment off, even though it wasn't much compared to active duty. He found a bathrobe that he assumed was Maurice's and put that on, while the water ran hot and clear into the tub, steaming up the mirrors. A quick check unearthed razors and a well-stocked medicine cabinet that revealed that Maurice knew his painkillers and was a perfectionist in terms of kit to have around. Not a single 'use by' date run past, they were all good and ready to work their magic. The bathtub was filling up nicely, but he probably had some time for the coffee first. Padding outside, Dima headed for the kitchen.

The scent of freshly brewed coffee was overwhelming, even above the cigarette smell. Maurice was perched on a bar stool in the kitchenette, reading a paper at the breakfast bar, then looking up. "You're not my size." He commented laconically, before pointing to the pot of strong coffee. "Sugar? Milk?"

"Yes, both." Dima sat down, prepared the coffee with a good shot of milk and two spoons of sugar when Maurice pushed over the condiments. "Yeah, the robe is a bit tight in the shoulders." He grinned. "What's in the news?" Taking a deep sip and closing his eyes with pleasure. The Frenchman made a perfect coffee, very strong, the kind of coffee that had been invented for nightshifts.

"Same old." Maurice pushed the front-page towards Dima, before picking up his filter-less Gauloise and lighting another one. "Nothing a bottle of good Bordeaux won't make more interesting." With his mug empty, he stood up to reach for a bottle of wine out of a stash under the cupboards. "You didn't tell me how Dan came across you?" he prompted while working on the cork.

"The guys who kidnapped me held me in a shelled school, and he happened to pick through the ruins and found me. I guess he might have seen them leave the building or found traces." Another deep sip, and a disgusted look at the news. "Yeah, same old. It's pointless to even try and understand this mess." Dima listened, and the running bathtub sounded pretty full. "I better get into the tub ... you may bring the wine."

"Oh, really? Guess I should be flattered." Maurice rolled his eyes, but poured a couple of glasses anyway.

Taking the coffee with him, Dima went back into the bathroom, hung the robe over the heater, turned off the water, checked it with a foot and deemed it fucking damn hot, but just right to exorcise that chill from his bones. He slowly eased himself in, only pausing when the hot water had reached his balls, but then eased himself in fully and leaned back with a grateful sigh. He'd just submerged when there was a knock on the door that he'd left ajar.

"Come." Dima didn't move, just floated in the hot water, feeling his heart pulse with the dilution of the capillaries under the skin. He'd be red as a lobster when he got out, but the chill was leaving him, which was the whole point. Didn't cover himself, that was pointless too, if this guy had been a legionnaire he'd seen cocks and balls and everything more than often enough. Especially as a medic.

"Your wine, Sir." Maurice made an exaggerated bow and handed the glass of wine to Dima. "Is there anything else your lordship requires?" Flashing a grin as he sipped his own wine.

"Thank you", murmured Dima. "Start to feel human again." He took another sip, enjoying a different kind of warmth from a different angle, the relaxation and heat made him feel positively cosy. Even his fingers didn't act up. "I don't want to keep you away from work, if you have to do something else."

"It's half past eleven on a Wednesday night. Unless I get a phone call or the pager goes off, I'm a man without a life. You're the best entertainment available, right now. Even the satellite telly is a pile of cow dung." Sitting down on the loo seat, Maurice took a mouthful of wine. "What are you hoping to happen?"

"Happen?" Dima grinned. "For me, personally? I want to find a way out of this hellhole, get a life, a job, make it to old age, when, for a change, medical professionals have to look after me, no longer me doing that. Not quite sure how to get there, but I take every day as they come." He finished the glass, put it down on the rim of the tub and reached for shower gel to wash himself, while Maurice grunted something, which sounded like agreement, took the empty glass and got up to refill both their glasses.

Dima suddenly realised that other people didn't figure in his plans. No partner. No settling down with a family as other people did after the service. There were still opportunities for sex, which was the main thing, but to spend the rest of his life alone? He washed his hair first, ducked under the water, and then used handfuls of shower gel to get the grime off his skin, watching the water in the tub take on a greyish colour.

"You hungry?" Maurice called out from the kitchenette.

"I could use a bite." Dima pulled the plug, then pushed himself out of the water, wiped it from his body with his hands, angled for the bathrobe, and stepped out in the same motion. "What's on offer?"

Maurice stood in the doorframe, with the refilled glasses in his hand, holding one out to Dima. He looked down to where a puddle was forming around Dima's feet, then back up again, raising one brow, but never said a word about the mess. "It's late, but the kitchen will still make sandwiches. Unless you want to brave my cooking skills. I got steaks, cheese, baguette."

"I wouldn't mind something warm", Dima reached for a towel and dried his neck, head, and legs, while the warmth had finally arrived in his body, and he felt relaxed and safe. There would be no late alarms, no sudden need to patch somebody up, no midnight raids. It was a small miracle, really, but he knew he'd miss all that if the peace lasted for too long. Conditioned like Pavlov's dog. And why did that dog never get a name? "It's hard to ruin steaks ..."

"Tell you what, you make them." Maurice flashed a rare grin, pushed the wine into Dima's hand once he had dried himself, and sauntered back to the kitchenette. "If you want anything on your feet, there are socks or flip-flops right behind the bedroom door." Calling out while gesticulating to the other door, before lighting another fag and raiding his fridge.

"Good point." Dima went the indicated way, opened the door and glanced around the room. Typically male bedroom, kept neat, but with no frills, large proper bed, and he assumed that Maurice didn't find it hard to make use of the second pillow - Maurice's charms even worked on him. A steel rack on the wall held a cross-country bike. Made sense, the corridor was a bit narrow for that. He slipped the flip flops on and headed back to the kitchen. "Nice bike."

"Merci." Maurice turned his head while cutting the baguette, cigarette as usual in the corner of his mouth. "I'm into triathlon."

"Figures." Explained Maurice's good legs and his wiry appearance. He looked like he had a lot of stamina, and kept fit after leaving the Legion. Dima checked the pan, and the nice dark red lumps of meat sat on a plate, bleeding gently. He remembered how he'd trained some cuts and especially some suturing on food like chicken breast and banana peels, and grinned. "Right. How do you like it?"

Maurice's brows shot up and his teeth went on show in a long, slow grin, before Dima added, deadpan, and enjoying it, "the meat?"

"Blue. Everything else is murder of a perfectly fine piece of meat."

"Yeah. I'll give it time to close the pores, at least." Dima grabbed a bottle of oil from the shelf, then let the pan get hot, checking every now and then with his hand hovering above, and massaged some of the oil into the steaks, before dropping them in the hot pan, turning after half a minute, and turning again, until both sides had had about three minutes of heat. He took the pan off the hob to allow the meat to relax, while he cut up the baguette, taking the occasional sip of the wine. When the steaks had started bleeding again, he served them on two plates that Maurice had set next to the cooker, salt and black pepper grinders getting into action.

"Looks like you live alone", Dima stated, as they sat down to eat, the plate of cut-up baguette between them. Butter dish beside, and a wooden plate with a veritable selection of cheeses that Maurice had summoned from somewhere in the kitchen. "That because of the place, or are you like me? Never had the time to bother much with civilians?"

Maurice shrugged, while buttering a couple of slices of baguette with a thick layer. "I'm an anti-social bastard." Cutting into his steak, satisfied at the way the blood ran out of the meat, nodding at Dima with a very economic thumbs-up. "Always have been, always will be. Relationships are too much hassle."

"It's the job", Dima agreed, cutting his own meat, amused at the fact that both of them liked their meat pretty much still moving. Psychos. He devoured half the steak, then slowed down, because he didn't have to rush anywhere, and tried all the cheeses, ending up with a fairly salty one with blue veins that was just perfect with the meat. The bread tasted a bit flat on its own, but was good to clean the plate with.

Maurice, meanwhile, meticulously cleared his plate in an almost compulsive way. Piece of meat, neatly cut, piece of bread, starting at one end of the oval baguette slices, then piece of cheese, starting at the top of the cheese board and working his way clockwise along. Always in the same order, each bite washed down with red wine, which kept flowing freely between the two. His wine rack was stocked up well.

"What is the plan for tomorrow?" Dima asked.

"You wanted to call Dan. Otherwise, you can't leave the embassy, not yet. We're lucky they let you in without questions. I knew the guards would be dozy tonight, and since I happen to bring overnight guests somewhat regularly …"

Dima grinned. "I keep getting into nicer prisons."

"If that's what you want to see this as? Feel free, but don't forget you're in France right now, and with what kind of papers? Don't think you could have walked through the front door."

"I was chained to a boiler for a few days, that screws up perceptions." Dima shook his head, amused, and smiling at Maurice to take the sting out in comparing his hospitality with Vadim's. Each of his successive jailers had been nicer, and wouldn't it be ironic if he could get sex from this guy as well? He emptied his wine glass, watching Maurice eat and drink, and remembered Dan, that damn nice sex, and was vaguely worried to not be in touch with Dan. He'd looked so unhappy and worried and plain disturbed. He should keep an eye on him. That kind of pressure could only blow up badly.

Maurice wasn't one for small talk, and they finished their meal in companionable silence, until they were both done and the wine had mellowed each man.

"Want to watch a film or head to bed?" Maurice broke the silence, the last bottle had only been started, plenty left.

"Watch a film, finish the wine, and then bed." Dima could feel the alcohol build up, and stood. "Ah, damn. I don't really have any clean clothes ... forgot to bring my suitcase."

"We'll find you something. You're broader than I am, but I got sports kit that should fit." Maurice stood up as well, clearing the table, the third or fourth cigarette between his lips, since he'd stopped eating. "Do you need anything tonight? Best look for it when I'm sober."

"No, I'm alright. I can sleep naked." Dima grinned. "Better than sleeping in one's boots and all that."

Maurice pointed with his chin towards the living room area, "the videos are over there. Pick one that you fancy. I've seen them all."

The film shelf in the living room was sorted by genre, and in each one by title, in descending alphabetical order. Dima saw a lot of French films, but he wasn't sure he was in the mood for artsy shots and deeply philosophical themes. A good selection of action flicks, plenty of British comedy, and there was a rich collection of porn. Amused that the Frenchman didn't hide those, he checked out the covers. They featured women and men, threesomes seemed to be the common denominator, several guys on one woman the most common configuration in that one. Dima figured that Maurice likely had bonded the old-fashioned way, sharing a whore with half his platoon. He'd done that himself, half-drunk, being cheered on by comrades. A fairly gay thing to do, if he'd apply those terms. He shook his head - porn was probably not what Maurice was willing to watch, even though that remained an interesting option. If he'd make the first move, though, he'd have to do it in a way that Maurice wouldn't kick him out next morning. He chose Casablanca, then looked at the running time and thought it would be too damn long, no way he'd be awake for that long. Back on the shelf with Casablanca, and he found something in the British comedy department. Monty Python. That should be safe.

"Found something?" Maurice called over, the cigarette smoke preceding the man, as he came into the living area. Bottle under his arm, freshly cleaned glasses in his hands.

"Good selection." Dima was grinning, and stood, handing him the cassette.

"Which category?" Maurice's brows went up again, looking at the video, while moving his full hands into Dima's view. "You either take your glass or pop in the tape."

"All of them." Dima took the glasses off Maurice and placed them on the table, watching him switch on the TV and the video recorder. "Good taste."

Working on getting the tape into the recorder, Maurice looked up from his kneeling position. "And that's why I really can't be bothered getting it messed up by a 'relationship'. I take the sex when I get it, but there's no 'call you tomorrow' in the morning." He shrugged, blew smoke out of the corner of his mouth, and watched the video come to life. Taking the remote, he settled onto the large couch, which easily accommodated a fully grown man for sleeping.

"Same here. Just doesn't fit into my life." Never mind the fact that it was still illegal and there were a thousand ways to make his life harder if people guessed what he was doing with his hormones. "I don't get attached." And part of that was because Dima never wanted to get into the situation again where the guy who was bleeding out under his hands had, just the night before, come against him, so alive and panting, but for completely different reasons. Losing it while keeping somebody - anybody - alive, was no option. As long as he saw them as walking meat, he was safe and professional.

"The bedding is underneath, by the way. Won't take a minute to set up."

"Excellent." Dima settled on the couch and poured them both more wine.

The film chosen was 'the holy grail' and even Maurice grinned and finally laughed, when the French threw a cow over the battlements to fend off King Arthur. Once again, he hardly talked, except for the occasional grunt, asking non-verbally if Dima wanted a refill, and towards the end of the film he was half asleep on the sofa. Empty glass in his hand, and the obligatory cigarette burning slowly in the corner of his mouth, before he remembered to stub it out. Dima every now and then glanced over, but apart from 'accidental' when he took the wine, nothing really happened. Still enough to make him wonder. It was like they'd both signalled their intentions, how they handled sex - very casual -, that nothing would mean anything the next morning - which was more than welcome -, and Dima felt he'd made his interest clear. Short of straightforward touching him, there was no way he could escalate further.

Maurice yawned when the end credits rolled down the screen. "Got to be up in …" checking his watch, "five hours. Good thing I don't sleep much." His speech was hardly slurred.

"I can set up the bed by myself, you go get some shut-eye. Any chance I can work some tomorrow, too, or do I need some kind of security clearance?"

"I got to check all that, and find out how we get you a working permission. Dan told me what you do and what might be possible, and I promised I'd look into it. Shouldn't be a problem - Russian in Serbia - while not quite brothers, it's still friendly nation."

"True."

Maurice stood and stretched, the shirt riding above his navel as he did. As smooth as his chest, no glory trail to be see, and Dima felt the urge to kiss there and bite, pull him closer, but did nothing, just stared at the bared flesh. "I'll take the bathroom, then." Maurice nodded, got bottle and glasses to clear the table, and switched TV and recorder off on the way. "Before I forget, any idea if Dan's got day or night shift?"

"I guess day shift, he was on day shifts when he visited me, but that might have changed."

"I see, you just got to try in the morning, then."

"Yeah. And - have a good night, see you tomorrow." Dima got off the sofa and, sure enough, found the bedding in a plastic bag stored underneath. He began to set up the bed, while the sound of water running was heard from the bathroom. Dima used one of the cushions as pillow, then shed the bathrobe and slipped under the clean, fresh blanket, surrounded by a dark room, the LED lights of TV, video recorder and other technical equipment casting a minimum light into the room. He listened for Maurice moving about in the flat, until he went into the bedroom. He remembered that navel, the smooth flesh, stark contrast to Dan's enormous scars, and, thinking of Dan, he remembered how he'd been fucked, how he'd lost control and just enjoyed it. His hand went down under the blanket to stroke himself; not quite Dan's lips, but he thought of that image, how he'd taken him in one deep, hungry swallow, and he closed his eyes to fix that image there. Remembered how he'd brought him off and how he'd been in the morning, just that sensation, stretched and touched, skill and passion. Shit, he'd never thought he'd envy anybody, and he forced his mind to focus on the task at hand, using images, part from far away and long gone, others fresher and new. Stroking harder.

"You need a hand?" Maurice's dry voice was suddenly heard from the doorway, and when Dima opened his eyes, he saw him stand in the darkness. Nothing but a shadow, the red glow of the cigarette between his lips.

Dima cursed in Russian, his heart had jumped into his throat, he hadn't heard Maurice open the door. "Got ... two, but ..." He grimaced. "Wouldn't mind ... yours." Or was he mocking him? No. He was fairly sure Maurice was interested. Too fucking casual about it. Seemed his frequent guests included men.

The red glow moved away from the lips and into the hand, as Maurice stepped closer, stubbing the fag out in the ashtray on the table. "If you think we're all 'opportunity-gay' in the legion, you're probably damn right." His voice had dropped, making the heavy French accent roll smoothly. He was naked, his lean and wiry body illuminated by the LEDs.

"I'm pretty much ... properly gay." Another exchange that was setting down the rules, the lines that could or couldn't be crossed. "Maybe opportunity-heterosexual." Dima gave a short laugh.

Maurice grinned, teeth visible in the darkness, pulled the duvet off Dima and let it drop to the floor, before he sat down on the edge of the sofa, leaning over him. That close, Dima could see that Maurice was smooth almost everywhere. He wasn't a swimmer for nothing. He wanted to touch him, a sudden hunger that was made worse by the situation, that meeting of almost-strangers in a dark room, with both wanting the same thing.

"Just a hand, or …?"

Dima reached up to touch Maurice's chest, slid down towards his abs, enjoying the smooth skin and the warmth of another human being. Alive, undamaged, easy and not complicated at all. "What do you like?" Wondering where the hell it would lead, he'd like to fuck this smooth body, but he'd suck him, too, or just rub against him, a hand was good, just that closeness, some manner of communication that meant something for the moment, and nothing next morning.

Maurice shrugged, still just leaning over Dima, not touching at all. "I'm pissed enough to say 'anything', because I've done everything, and I have no preferences. I'm an opportunist, and you seem to be an opportunity."

"I'm certainly that." Dima pushed himself up to pull Maurice closer, and whispered in his ear - even though they were alone and there was no need to whisper. "Can I fuck you?" He cleared his throat and ran his hands down Maurice's body, touching his cock, his balls, the smooth flesh turning him on more.

"If you're good? Oui." Came the pragmatic answer without hesitation. "Are you good?"

Dima laughed. "Would I tell you if I was bad ...?"

"No." Maurice flashed a grin while reaching over and across Dima, bodies almost touching. "But if you are I'll kick your ass." He opened the drawer in the narrow table that stood beside the sofa. Finding a tube and a packet in the dark.

"Fair enough." Dima continued to touch the other, that lean, strong body, and murmured, "You could sit on me. Leaves you the work, but that's hard to screw up."

"Good thing I'm fit." Maurice scooted up. The sofa was broad enough for him to straddle Dima. He didn't say anything, unscrewed the lube and squeezed it into his hand. Leaning over Dima, his hand moving backwards, lubing himself up, and Dima watched, just keeping his erection with slow, leisurely strokes. Maurice opened the condom and rolled it down over Dima's cock, which made him inhale - weird, Maurice remained as casual as if he was dealing with a patient, even when Dima stroked him, playing with the other's cock, almost as casual, while Maurice slicked up Dima's cock with generous amounts of lube.

Moving upwards, Maurice stopped when he was poised over Dima's cock. "Guess it's up to me to make it good now."

"Yeah. You can kick your own ass if it's not good for you ..."

Letting out a throaty chuckle, Maurice took a deep breath, and, while guiding the cock with one hand and steadying himself with the other, he lowered himself down. Slowly, so slowly that his muscular thighs were rock hard.

Dima tensed, heat and pressure, his lips opened as he could only feel what happened, entering a dark silhouette of a man, a man he hardly knew, but that was what he usually got in terms of sex. Apart from the fucking, which was relatively rare. He remained totally still while Maurice took him in, using his strength and weight to impale himself, and the slow, focused movement made Dima groan slightly, touching those tensed thighs, that vibrated with control. "Fuck, yes", he murmured in Russian.

"Seems you don't complain." Maurice breathed out, sounding somewhat forced, as he rocked slightly. Small movements, until he was all the way down, sitting on Dima, with not a millimetre to spare. Clenching his muscles, tightening the already impossibly tight heat, as he rocked again. "Been … awhile."

"Getting ... fucked, or sex?" Dima breathed, focusing on remaining still, stroking the other's body instead, thighs, flanks, chest, nipples, trying to work out what Maurice liked, whether firm or gentle, teasing or rough.

"Having anything bigger than a finger up my ass." Maurice let out a rusty, breathless laugh when he suddenly moved up, slowing down before the cock almost left him, and then slammed himself back down, with far too much speed and a groan of pain and unmistakably lust, taking Dima completely by surprise. Suddenly breathless, lust climbing when Maurice forced out "Merde!", straightened up to change the angle, before he moved up again and did the same once more, then leaned forward, once more changing angle and speed. "Twist my nipples." He murmured, nearly face to face, hunched over Dima's body, and Dima reached up, taking hold of his nipples, twisting and pulling on them, feeling the man respond. "I like it rough when I do this."

"No ... problem", Dima murmured, bucking up, never mind his response sounded stupid in his own ears, of course it was no problem, only that Maurice was fully in control of the speed. Using his legs for leverage, he thrust up, in time with stimulating the other's nipples.

Maurice took full advantage of having complete control. Fucking himself with increasing speed, bordering on viciousness, at the same time intent on getting Dima off. Never touching his own cock, and slapping Dima's hand away when he tried to stroke him, Maurice was using his control that expertly, and with so much greed, Dima had no chance, but to follow the ride that would take him over the edge all too soon.

Dima tried to meet Maurice's motions with equal force, but Maurice had all mechanical advantages, angle, position, there was little Dima could really do, and he tensed up after an especially fast motion, cumming with loud groans, holding onto Maurice's hips and thrusting inside him. The orgasm searing through him and out of him, reducing him to a panting, boneless mess, feeling the sweat on his body, at his temples, roll down and soak into the blanket underneath.

Maurice moved off, the moment Dima had stopped thrusting. Scooted up Dima's body, until his legs were spread wide, with knees on each side of a shoulder, his cock at Dima's lips, expecting him to take it and to let Maurice fuck his mouth in retaliation for having had his ass.

Dima had hardly any time to think, Maurice set the speed and he didn't argue any of it, instead opened his lips, the briefest of thoughts about hygiene and health, and all that, but truth was, he liked giving head, dangerous or not, and right now he didn't care. Instead placed both hands in the small of Maurice's back and pulled him closer, opened his lips for the cock to pass through, the heat and taste, precum a definite indicator of how much Maurice had enjoyed himself so far, and he took him deep, tightened his lips, sucking on the other's cock as best he could while still breathless, struggling a bit, but he didn't have to suck the Frenchman for long. Maurice was so far gone already, he tensed and cursed in French under his breath, all at the same time, as he came with his hands in fists and his body rigid with sculpted muscle, as his cum shot down Dima's throat.

Dima swallowed in reflex, and he held on to the other man, stroking him while sucking the last drops out of him, part of him recoiling at the thought of all these STDs, Maurice's promiscuous sex life, but dirty sex was just plain better, and he hoped the surgeon was clean. Not that it made a difference now. He lay back, allowing the cock to slip out, breathless, satisfied, but his skin crawling with unease. Fuck. "Unexpected", he murmured and cleared his throat.

Maurice leaned over, still breathless, reaching for one of the many packets of fags that were lying around in the flat. He stayed on Dima as he lit not one, but two fags, just lowered to sit on Dima's groin, the condom still hanging off the spent cock. "You worried?" Offering one of the cigarettes. "I can show you my last test results. I'm a surgeon not a suicidal idiot."

Dima laughed, somewhat embarrassed, and hesitated to take a deep draught from the cigarette. "Hadn't ... thought you were. Just that knowing about all this shit can really screw up my enjoyment of cocksucking. Don't like to suck on plastic, though."

Maurice shrugged, "I don't like cocksucking. Full stop. Don't like licking pussies either. Told you, I'm an antisocial bastard."

"That's alright ..." Dima reached down to pluck the condom off and tied a knot in there, trying to remember whether there was anything close to the sofa where he could dump it. "Shit. You have any idea where I can put this?"

"Just dump it, I'll get rid of it in a minute." Maurice inhaled deeply, the smoke hardly visible in the dark.

Dima dropped it, running his hands lazily over the other man's body, enjoying the peace and quiet, the heat, the closeness, and noticed that Maurice just rested, without touching him much. That, too, was alright. Some men were affectionate, others withdrawn, others turned around and went straight to sleep. He, personally, liked to explore bodies some more, stroking and feeling, but he also knew the old rule that whatever happened, it didn't mean a thing the next morning. He wouldn't get invited into the bed and comradeship was the only thing he could expect here. Which was fine. The lines were drawn, the rules set down, they had both agreed to them.

Maurice finished his cigarette, and when both were done, he slowly got up and stretched, glancing at the clock on the video recorder. "Hardly worth going to sleep." He leaned forward and placed a kiss onto Dima's mouth. More than the pecks on the cheek of both their cultures, and less than passion, but it nevertheless felt affectionate and honest.

"Thanks, Dima." Maurice murmured, "let me know when you need a hand again."

"Or you." Dima grinned, tiredly. "Because I'm game."

"Perhaps we swap places next time."

"Sure, if you're any good ..."

Maurice laughed hoarsely and got off the sofa. Picking up the condom from the floor, he padded towards the bedroom via the kitchenette, and the sound of the rubbish bin being opened was the last thing that was heard before the bedroom door closed behind him.

Dima lay in the dark a bit longer, then reached down to find the duvet, turned onto his side and closed his eyes. Life was, actually, pretty good, and Maurice wouldn't screw him over - it was good to have allies like him, and Dan, of course. Relaxing more deeply with every breath, he soon drifted off.

* * *

The next morning came too soon, but Maurice tried to be as quiet a possible, as he brewed a coffee that could wake the dead. Sitting down at the breakfast nook with his favourite French newspaper, chain-smoking and drinking his coffee black, which counted as breakfast. He was dressed in shorts, showered.

Dima woke, had a quick shower, and wore the bathrobe again. A superficial glance at the paper told him it was French, and that meant he could only get the gist of it. "Good morning."

"Morning," Maurice glanced up, nodded, then buried his nose in the papers again. Even less chatty in the mornings than usual.

Dima added milk and sugar to a mug, and filled it up with some coffee. "When are you off to work? Anything interesting in there?

"In ten minutes, and only if you are interested in French politics." Maurice hardly looked up, then finished his third cup of coffee.

"Fair enough." Dima sat down and stared into his coffee, not a 'rise and shine' person himself, but he'd woken up and he wasn't the type to lounge about in bed much longer after waking. That was a bad habit.

Maurice got up and pushed the paper towards Dima, before heading wordlessly into the bedroom. He came back out in under five minutes, dressed and with the obligatory cigarette in his mouth. "Here's my pager number." He put a piece of paper in front of Dima's nose. "If anything's up, page me and I'll phone." He pointed to the cordless telephone in the living area. "Highly unlikely anyone other than I phones through the day." He pointed to the second number, "that's Dan's camp, it's the main number of the guard room. It functions as a switch board." Pointing to the third number, "and that's the embassy's main number, just in case."

"Right. Thanks. And what are you up to?"

Maurice shrugged. "I'm out some of the day, organising medical support. The Red Cross is short on surgeon teams and I got drafted in to help." He didn't look unhappy about it, on the contrary.

Dima gave a sigh. "If I'm lucky, they could use me to mop up the blood at least?" It made him itchy to just wait and just spend time, when there was work to do. Words like 'short on surgeons' were magic and stronger than coffee.

"You need a working permit first, no matter what. If you leave the embassy now, chances are I can't get you back in. They're used to me bringing guests, but they never stay more than a night. And they never return." Maurice tipped the ash from his fag into one of the many ashtrays. "There are clothes in the bedroom, help yourself. The sports kit is in the left-hand side of the wardrobe, but something else might fit as well. I don't have secrets." He flashed a grin and inhaled, before clapping Dima's shoulder and making his way to the door.

"Good luck." Dima waited for the door to shut behind Maurice, then began to dig around for clothes, eventually finding a warm woollen jumper than fit him, slightly frayed around the edges, and he found the sports kit, most of all the bottoms. After he'd located the washing machine, he tossed his camo kit in there, had some baguette and cheese for breakfast, topped with another coffee.

He then called the number of the camp. He got through to the guard room, and when asking to speak Dan McFadyen, he was put on hold. For a rather long time.

"Who is speaking?" A different voice came finally on.

"Dmitri Starov." This didn't bode well. "I am a friend."

"I am afraid Mr McFadyen is not available. Where can we reach you when he becomes available?"

Dima gave him the phone number of the embassy, and added he was staying with "Mr Maurice", because, again, he had no idea what the Frenchman's last name was. "Maybe Mr Krasnorada is available instead?" Vadim would know where Dan was. Most likely.

The line went quiet again, but at least it didn't take as long as before. "I am afraid Mr Krasnorada is not available either. Can you tell us the nature of your enquiry?"

It felt as if they were holding him on the line while not giving out any information. That could mean a lot of things, including that he couldn't just call them, that nobody put anybody through who wasn't family, but did that make sense? "No. They are friends, and I want to know whether they are okay." Dima began to pace.

"I understand." Another pause, voices in the background. "When did you last seen either Mr McFadyen or Mr Krasnorada."

Oh shit. "A few weeks ago." The last thing he wanted was to have these guys on his ass because he was the last one to have seen both. "So you have no idea where they are?"

The about-turn was evident. "I see. I am afraid I cannot tell you about the whereabouts of either employee, except that they are not available right now." The case was closed, or there was another reason why the person refused to elaborate. "Good bye."

"And fuck you, too", said Dima, laconically, and put the receiver down. Fuck. Dan and Vadim were out there, somewhere. What if Vadim was hunting again and off to kill another band of chetniks, and Dan was tracking him? That was the solution, no other reason why both were gone. But what could he do, short of heading there too and searching the area for both of them?

He called Maurice's pager, felt the surgeon probably might have an angle to get more information.

The phone rang about three minutes later. "What's wrong? I'm in the middle of a meeting."

"I got the feeling Dan and Vadim are both gone."

"Merde." Just one word and the sound of inhaling deeply. "How do you know?"

Dima quickly summarized the non-conversation with the camp. "Well, they asked me when I'd seen them last. They wouldn't ask that if they knew. Do you have access to the place? Or can you get it?"

"Depends. You got anything to go from?"

"Hardly anything. I know where Vadim was active ... and Dan was tracking him. And I know what Vadim's doing, and it's ... not legal, by any stretch of the imagination. It's probably the right thing to do, but it's entirely wrong at the same time. Shit. He's fucked up, and I don't want to get him in trouble."

"If they are both out and no one knows where they are, then I guess your Vadim is in a hell of a lot more trouble than anything you could get him into." Maurice paused, the sound of smoking heard on the other end. "I'll drive to the camp when I am out of the meeting. Should be another hour or so. D'accord?"

"Okay. Keep me updated." And yes, I think Vadim is in trouble, Dima thought to himself. "Thanks. Bye." Nervous now, mostly because he had nothing to do but wait for his clothes to wash and dry, which didn't really occupy his mind. Instead, he cleared away his bed stuff and sat down in front of the TV. Finding CNN, he watched that for a while, staying right next to the phone.

Two hours passed and still no phone call. Two and a half hours later there was the sound of the key scraping in the lock and the door opening. "Dima?" It was Maurice.

"Yes?" Dima stood, the tumble dryer still had his camo - or rather, Dan's camo - and would probably take a while longer. "Do you have anything?"

Maurice nodded, closing the door. "They don't have a clue where they are." Throwing his keys onto the breakfast bar, he frowned. "Wouldn't say that I lied, but let's just say I got them to tell me what was up. Neither has returned to duty this morning, and they haven't been seen by anyone since last night, when Vadim returned from shift. As for Dan, he hasn't been seen since he came back from visiting me in the afternoon. That means no one has any idea where they've been for a whole night and all of today." Lighting a cigarette, his frown deepened. "I also got out of them that there has been an influx of movement beyond the 'safe zone', but they don't know why."

"Sounds like they both went straight into 'enemy country' and stirred the hornet's nest while standing right in the middle of it. Shit. And we have no way to locate them. I'm not worried for Vadim, he's good at operating behind enemy lines. He's good. Dan must be good, too. But why the fuck do they risk that? What for?"

"Look, I haven't got a clue. You tell me. I've been seeing Dan quite a few times in the bar. Drinking, chatting, occasionally playing chess. I wasn't even aware he was gay. I really don't know him that well." Maurice shrugged. "Had never heard of Vadim. You tell me why the hell they would go into enemy territory. Dan didn't strike me as a reckless idiot."

"Okay, the story is pretty short. Dan and Vadim are ... a couple. Of sorts. Have been together for ages and all that. Vadim was my superior officer in Afghanistan. He's Spetsnaz. Unfortunately, he's also moving around and ... taking justice into his own hands. I can only imagine Dan followed him to hold him back."

"Of sorts?" Maurice shook his head. "What that's supposed to mean? Dan certainly never mentioned Vadim."

"With me, he mentioned him all the time, but things haven't been going well between them, lately. From what I could piece together."

Maurice was shrugging out of his jacket, "so you think Vadim went off on a rampage, trying to do single-handedly what the entire UN isn't allowed to do, and Dan followed, because … he tried to sort their relationship?"

"Exactly. Vadim's doing what he thinks is right. And he has a fairly convincing case, unless you're sane and a civilian and believe in justice by trial."

Maurice shook his head, "what is he, a self appointed judge and jury? Anyway, if they got caught there wouldn't be any additional movement, so that means they must still be on the run … I just don't understand why they aren't returning to the camp. Unless … they can't."

"Maybe they're cut off - and just try to outrun the chetniks and find a way to break through the lines. Shit."

"In that case, where would one start to look? And last but not least, what on earth are we going to do? Except wait, because let's face it, there is nothing we - nor anyone else - can do. Certainly not legally, and anything else is suicide."

"If I knew where I could start looking ..." Dima shook his head. Re-join the chetniks that were hunting Vadim and Dan was out of the question, too dangerous that they didn't believe him if he told them some lies, and too dangerous that Vadim or Dan would kill him. "Vadim's a comrade." And Dan was a friend. Of sorts.

"I was in the legion for too many years not to understand, and I believe we have both seen too many men die, but if you went out there, the chances are, you'd die, too, and that would help no one." Maurice reached for another cigarette when the first one had burnt down. "Are you willing, though, to tell them when you last saw Dan and Vadim, and what your suspicions are?"

"Vadim ... took me prisoner and kept me in a boiler room in some building for a few days. He tried to keep me from getting into trouble. Must have been five or six days ago. Last time I saw him was three days ago, just before Dan found me and took me to the bunker. If I tell them where and how I met them, that would put me in a bad position. They'd assume I'm a chetnik."

Maurice nodded. "Merde." Muttered, inhaling deeply. "You're out, then. Guess I have to lie. Don't know about Vadim, but saw Dan yesterday afternoon, he could have told me about his troubles."

"My bet is that Dan is where Vadim is. Or at least close."

"And that is somewhere we haven't got a clue about, but is probably right in the middle of enemy territory." Maurice picked the jacket up again and shrugged back into it. "From what I can tell about Dan, he survived in Afghanistan. If anyone's going to get out of there, it's him." Picking the keys up as well, along with woollen hat and gloves. "And what about Vadim?"

"Spetsnaz major. He's good. Fucked up, but good. But you can bait bears if you use plenty of dogs ..."

"Not if the bears are experienced enough." Jacket zipped up, Maurice nodded to Dima. "I'm off to the camp again. Will see what I can do by telling them all 'I' know. The best bet for you is to stay here, I'll be back as soon as possible."

"Okay." Dima forced himself to relax and calm, but he'd have given a lot to be able to do something. Anything. "I'll wait."

Maurice nodded and was out of the door.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter XXXXVIII: Sticks and Stones
 
 
Warning for Readers

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

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

 

 
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Published 1 September 2008