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Special Forces Chapter XVIII: Flesh and Blood
 
 

July 1988, Afghanistan

Dan lowered the dark shades and squinted against the blinding sun, trying to make sense of the dust cloud on the horizon. It was moving, but difficult to make out speed and direction while it was that far away. He swivelled slowly, making best use of his elevated position while checking the proceedings near the Médecins sans Frontières camp.

He'd advised the ambassador against visiting the camp, located in the low-sloping bed of a former lake, but she had been adamant. She'd refused to bow down to threats from insurgents, unwilling to listen, not even to Dan's professional advice.

He raised the binoculars to his eyes, scanned the desert once more, drawn to the dust cloud on the horizon. Damn. Definitely advancing. His sixth sense was coming back with full force, shouting danger! Heat pooled in the pit of his stomach while trying to get a better picture of the object, but the goddamned sweat was blurring his vision. Dan wiped the binoculars, dried his sweating hands and re-gripped the SA-80, before trying to focus again. Concentrating on the shape behind the dust, the moving and re-forming pattern of the yellow-reddish cloud and the dark line of the tracks that were left behind.

"Fuck." Muttered, the unknown object had just turned into a tangible threat. Vehicle, at high speed, racing towards the valley and the camp. He could make out from the trajectory of tracks and their angle that it had to be speeding in an almost direct line straight towards the Baroness' limousine.

Shit! He'd been right, the warnings and rumours of insurgents gone over to suicide killings were correct, and he had probably trained the goat herding fuckers himself, years ago. Dan activated his personal comm, staccato words while keeping the object in his focus. "Dangerous object approaching 15 degrees South East. Collision course towards the convoy. Get the target out of there. Immediately. Do you copy?"

Nothing. He tried again. "Do you hear me? Get her out! Get the target out, suspicious vehicle approaching at high speed. Get her out now!"

Checked the comm, still no answer, silence on the line. "Fuck!" Dan shouted, the bloody comm was fucked and the situation was rapidly turning to shit. The car racing closer, straight line across the horizon, heading towards the Baroness' car. Her two guards unaware, impossible to see the threat, down in the valley - the whole damned reason why he was on the elevated point as the coordinator! Dan could see the Baroness, her grey hair, standing in front of the camp, then walking back to her vehicle. It would never survive the impact of a car, presumably filled with explosives.

Cars. Ambassador. Buggered comm. Terrorist suspects. Half a mile distance. Fucked-up knees.

Baroness.

Shit!

"Get the fuck out of there!" Dan yelled into the useless comm, had to take the last chance in case it worked. Split-second decision. Threw the binoculars down, chucked the comm. Pushed the shades over his eyes, shielding against the glaring sun. Automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, safety catch off, he needed the weapon to be ready.

Dan guessed the time and distance. Five hundred yards. Speed of car approaching? 70 miles? Two minutes. Tops. How long since he'd been able to run a mile in under five minutes? Not since his knees got fucked.

Car versus human. No contest.

Dan started to run.

Sprinting against death, running for her life. Forced fucked-up knees and worn-out body to comply. Boots beating dust, desert air pulled into burning lungs; sweat running into his eyes. Breath panting, heat slicing red-hot fiery cuts into his lungs.

Run!

Muscles hurting, his body protested, but desperation and adrenaline pushing him further. Faster, harder, run you fucking piece of human scrapheap scum!

Snapshot images: Guard opened limousine. Baroness stepped inside. Rear door shut.

Dan reached the dip of the valley, felt rather than saw the deadly dust of the potential suicide car approaching.

He tried to shout while forcing his way through the crowds that were lingering in front of the camp gates. Voice breathless, croaked: "Out! Out!" Raising the rifle, set on automatic, he crossed the open space, the sight of the weapon scattered humans like panicking birds.

The dust cloud came suddenly out of nowhere, hell-bound on destruction, racing towards the limousine. Dan aimed while sprinting, the SA-80 firing a hail of bullets into the oncoming car. No hope to stop the vehicle's momentum, too close, too fast, saw it veer diagonally off its target under the onslaught of automatic fire.

The guards, one of them the driver, seemed to have finally caught on. Too late. There was still movement behind the blood splattered windshield in the four-wheeled bomb, which kept sliding towards them. Dan stopped the fire, reached the limousine, impact imminent. Tearing the rear door open, he grabbed her arm, anything, just pulled, yelling, "Out! Get out!" Dragged her out of the car, threw the slight body as far away from him as he could.

Saw the Baroness stumble to the ground in a corner of his vision, the near head-on collision happened while he raised his weapon. He stood wide open, no cover, except his own body in front of hers. Soft fucking target. The second guard tried to escape, screaming, yelling, but the cars exploded into a firestorm of deafening sounds.

The impact of the explosion's blast wave threw Dan backwards into the air, lost in the flaming inferno, stumbling over something on the ground. He fell on top of the object, and then an unbearable pain tore into his guts.

Dan didn't know if he screamed, nor when he dropped the rifle, his hands pressing down on the pain by instinct. Fire, detonations, shrieking and horror, distanced wailing amidst black smoke, and pain. Just pain.

Something moved beneath him. He couldn't make out direction, meaning, sound nor senses. Only unbearable pain. Couldn't raise his arms, nor feel his hand amidst the unspeakable agony. Lay speared, crossed, nailed and damned.

Suddenly her face in his vision. Everything else gone. Blood running down her temple; the perfect coiffure dishevelled and dirt encrusted.

Dan stared at her face, uncomprehending, except that it was all wrong. Her lips moving. Shouting? Couldn't hear a sound, nothing made sense. Nothing but pain. Flaring from his guts through his body, brain, limbs, every fibre. His vision narrowed, blackness creeping in from the sides, the tunnel closing and his muscles locked.

Dan tried to speak, moved his lips. No sounds. No thoughts left. Nothing but pain.

He lost focus of her face. Just the mouth, still moving. No more strength.

Pain. Darkness.

Nothing.

* * *

"Dan!" She yelled, had managed to scramble from under him. He had been sprawled on top of her, shielding her body with his own. "Oh my God, no, Dan!"

Unconscious. His head had fallen to the side. Arms slipped off, revealing the true extend of horror. Blood. Gore. Torn guts and entrails spilling out of the terrible tear across drenched camo fabric.

"No!" As if her refusal could wrench him away from his fate. Pushing her own hands onto the wound, forcing intestines back into the body.

The doctors who came running from the MsF camp found her covered in his blood, shielding his body with her own.

Tit for tat.

* * *

How ironic that the attack had happened in front of this particular camp, if the Baroness had not been adamant to go through with the visit despite Dan's warnings, there wouldn't have been several doctors and nurses running out to the carnage, trying to save what they could. Two guards dead, and one dying. Dan. Unconscious, drenched in blood and with the Baroness' hands trying to stop the spillage of intestines and torn guts. Shrapnel embedded in the lower part of the stomach, and his left hand stapled to the wound - a sharp piece of metal from the blown-up car, gone through the hand and into the abdomen, right above the large wound.

Emergency treatment, racing against time while there was still life left in the body. Equipment brought from the camp, materials and expertise piling around him. The medevac plane was already on its way. The casualty needed intensive care and extensive surgery, within the shortest time possible, but even so, his chances were close to nil.

* * *

Dan couldn't think, stir, let alone wake. Dragged under by darkness, terrified. Existing in a plane less than alive and more than dead, his very own purgatory of treatment, movement, being lifted, transported. Torn apart by nightmarish monsters, flailing uselessly, limbs restrained by pain so great, he couldn't breathe nor scream. Powerless, weak, dying - alone in the darkness of his unconscious mind.

* * *

Margaret de Vilde was sitting at the edge of the scene, deafened by the explosion, forlorn. Lost for the first time in her life and staring at the frantic action in front of her, bloodied hands on her lap. She could not grasp what had happened, despite the warnings, the signs of danger, she had believed she was invincible. An old battle horse, never one to be afraid, but this time … her iron will had cost the lives of several others. Occupational hazard of overpaid worn-out soldiers, but two guards, dead. A third, the one who had saved her life against all odds and whose advice she should have trusted, that one was dying. Torn apart and limp like a rag doll, the pool of blood in the dust growing by the second. She should have listened to his professional concerns, but had gone with her own decision instead; arrogant belief in superiority of a lifetime of being in command - refusing to listen to another's counsel.

Fool!

She stood up, unsteady at first on her legs, felt the stickiness of drying blood on her hands, and looked down at herself. She was a mess, but like the wrong decision she had made that day, it couldn't be helped. She saw a shadow approaching, could hardly hear over the ringing in her ears the engines of the Falcon plane, about to land.

The Baroness shielded her eyes against the glaring sun, then ran past the medical team that came rushing out of the fairly small airplane, straight to the cockpit. Shouting at the pilot, even though she could hardly hear her own voice, "Take that man to the closest hospital. India, Kashmir, the Royal British Hospital. He is a private patient, no expenses spared. He is one of mine. See to that."

When the cars appeared on the top of the low valley, to take the ambassador back into the safety of the embassy, they were taking the stretcher with the unconscious man into the medevac plane. The Falcon was already taking off again before the Baroness' attaché had reached her, and she watched the dust cloud for a moment, that trailed behind the plane. Ignoring the concern around her, before turning away from the carnage.

She shook her head, gesturing to her ears when they tried to talk to her. She couldn't hear them, but she could talk, with the same vehemence as ever. "Dan McFadyen saved my life. See that everything possible is done to save his life in return. I will personally fund his treatment." She turned and walked to the waiting car, smelling the drying blood on her hands.

One wrong decision, and now a man was dying. A man who had come as close to being a friend as she could afford to allow him.

The limousine doors closed quietly behind her.

* * *

Machines all around the still figure on the bed. Hooked up to keep track of heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation through intravenous catheters. Others, that transported and monitored waste back out of the body. Lifelines curling from torso and limbs to bags with nutritional solutions. The chorus of bleeping sounds echoed along the hallway. Every vital stat transmitted from the machines into a central computer, displaying the patient's live graphs.

A large window span the width of the room, allowing full vision of the patient, a puppet on strings which kept his vital functions alive. Alarms would go off at the slightest disturbance, causing frantic movement and the change from hushed tones to hectic shouts, before they calmed again and the quiet voices returned to the hallway. The constant bleeping and whistling interrupted by the regular suctioning of the breathing tube that removed secretion from the patient's throat and mouth.

Arterial lines and probes measured temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration every fifteen minutes, part automated invasion of the body, part nurses touching, checking. The abdominal wounds were dressed frequently, packed with sterile gauze and disinfected religiously to keep the wounds clean.

The patient could not see nor hear the surgeon at his bedside, changing bandages, cleaning and caring, assisted by a handful of nurses, rotating shifts through days and nights. His shattered left hand thickly dressed and held into position, the bones realigned to heal. A secondary infection weakened the body, battling against death with high doses of antibiotics and the patient's lucky star: his toughness and physical fitness.

Dan was fighting a fight most others would not have survived.

* * *

Vadim came in from an exercise, his body burning with pain, mouth, mind, soul parched, he couldn't remember what water tasted like, but he grinned. The Colonel called this state "gun-fucked", blasting the countryside and the mocked-up Mujahideen convoy with everything they had, excellent work by the pilots, fucking Hinds worked like a charm, and he was happy in a clearly malicious, gun-fucked way.

"Get cleaned up, Vadim Petrovich", said the Colonel and headed to the debriefing, while Vadim went to the quarters. A bunch of lieutenants hung out, and there was cheering at something that had just been said on the radio.

"Fuck them, they finally got a taste of their own medicine!" said a young guy who'd come with the latest shipment of kids from Moscow. Had seen no combat, but bragged about how tough he was. Vadim expected the other officers would show him just what exactly they thought of that type. Taste of medicine, indeed. If that didn't help, Vadim would make sure the guy got his head tucked in a shitter. For a minute, or two.

"Who would that be, comrade?"

The LT turned around, eyes glowing, face so young, so polished. "The foreign mercenaries. A bunch of the turkeys had it a couple hours ago."

Amazing, only two weeks here and the LT already spoke the lingo like he was a grandfather. Vadim stepped closer, reached for the half-empty bottle of vodka on the table, poured himself a glass. Civilisation. Not drink from the bottle. Not when he came in like this. This took force of will to not go wild and keep doing what he'd been doing. Kill. Even if only in his mind, only dummies.

The lieutenant grinned. "Fucking bandits blew up some ambassador-bitch, and her guards had it. Three men down. Saves us bullets." He laughed.

Dan.

The thought was like vodka so cold it had become cloudy. Cold. Then hot. The next thing Vadim knew was that the vodka in his glass travelled through the air, blinding the lieutenant, and the glass hit the braggart in the teeth. Then Vadim was on top of him, he took the man by his collar, lifted him up the chair, didn't feel his weight at all, heard a growl fill the room, a sound like a tiger hunting, then followed, rammed the man against the wall, dazing him, driving the air from his lungs, then let him go so he could punch him with both hands.

When the other collapsed, Vadim kneed him in the face, and then kicked him in the chest. Could hear again, heard the panic, curses, but nobody dared to stop him. The lieutenants knew better than to interfere. He was an officer, and a granddaddy by all rights, and he could fuck this bastard and nobody would be able to touch him for it.

He stopped because he was tired. Because one thought burned its way through the red haze that was about killing and maiming and inflicting pain. Dan. Dead. He was breathing hard, looked around, quick glances, but the other lieutenants were just staring at him like girls. You don't fuck with spetsnaz. Vadim heard the other whimper through the smashed-up face.

Still needed a reason to have done this.

"Mind your fucking language", he growled. "Bitch." A final kick, was itching to kill the man, but held back. Dan. He wasn't worth it. Wasn't worth killing.

Everything else paled. Dan.

He left the room, headed towards his bunk, was amazed he could find it. He could see nothing. Blind fighting. Night fighting. His mind wasn't clear, seemed his body could work by itself. The same flesh and blood that had held Dan.

He stripped out of his kit, his knuckles hurt. A quick wash. Felt himself pause in mid-motion, forced himself on, forced to wash with what little water there was, rationed, never enough.

Dan. The way he had touched him. All the ways he had touched him. The pain was so bad it ate him alive, chewed on him, there was nothing, nothing that could make it stop, he changed, got the kit all in the right order, like it should be.

Think, Vadim. Leaned his forehead against the wall, forced himself to think, fight the wave of pain and despair that was coming, threatening to crash. He didn't know it was Dan. Explosion. They might not even be able to find enough to identify.

That could take some time. He should stay put and wait for the next contact.

Like fuck he would.

He needed to verify the dead men's identities. Better, see the bodies. He'd only be able to believe it if he saw Dan torn open, torn apart, or this would haunt him forever. He didn't trust the Brits to give him the truth. Needed to see the body. Touch it.

He shuddered at the thought. Touch what was left of Dan. Fuck. He'd handled bits of humans before. Had found shot down pilots in the mountains and brought them back. And those were already festering and swollen. Dan's body would be worse, much worse, but he needed, needed to know it was him.

"Vadim Petrovich." The Colonel.

Fuck. Vadim straightened, turned around, saluted, but the Colonel shook his head. "Good work out there." He remained rooted to the ground, hands folded on his back, a wiry incarnation of death. Eyes were narrow, and Vadim felt his pulse beat up against the top of his head, from the inside. He didn't meet the man's eyes, couldn't allow himself to think of Dan and what touching his torn body would do to him. But he knew. He would know what it would feel like, what it would smell like. His face twitched.

"There will be wars after this", said the Colonel, like that was thanks to him. Well, if the Colonel was sent to kill some head of state, who could say it wouldn't be? "I'll want you for the next one."

Vadim stared, felt nothing but Dan in his mind. The Colonel made no sense. Nothing at all. Dan. "I beg your pardon?"

The Colonel smirked, an absolutely frightful expression. "You understood me." Like that was some kind of joke. Sickening. He was out of his depth, didn't get it, knew he was ruining what he'd been building with this man, who decided on his career, judged solely by his performance, nothing else. "You were not much of an athlete, Vadim Petrovich, but you're one hell of a killer."

A compliment. Vadim blinked, killing and killer, Dan, explosion, and this man wanting him in the next war to kill more people. It didn't end. It would go on like this until the sniper's bullet hit true. Until he pulled the trigger on himself. Until he rose so far up or grew so old that all he could do was come up with plans and strategies to kill and to train killers. He nodded, numb, hoped it would be mistaken for humility. Krasnorada and humble. Couldn't speak. Felt like the Colonel had taken his hand and forced it down into a steaming pile of guts.

* * *

Dan had been in the ICU for over fourteen days, when it was decided to try wake the patient from the artificial coma.

Darkness. Fear. Dull throbbing discomfort. Constant sound of whirring, beeping; rustle of fabrics and voices holding unknown conversations in nothing but whispers. Dan was floating blindly in intangible blackness, unable to move, to think.

Half-waking, growing more aware of his surroundings and the increasing onslaught of pain. Worst of all that thing, the obstruction in his throat. He tried to swallow, couldn't, it hurt, he tried to make a sound, impossible. Discomfort grew and his drugged mind didn't know what he was doing, only the overwhelming need to fight whatever was causing the intrusion into his throat.

Enemy. Pain. Fight. Didn't know where he was, nor what nor why, nor even who, managed to raise one hand, the other too heavy, unwieldy, wouldn't budge. Dan gripped the 'thing' that was causing the pain in his throat, tried to rip the breathing tube out, fighting, starting to panic.

The machines exploded into a cacophony of noise, bleeping, screeching for attention, his hand got torn away, voices shouting at him, but he couldn't understand what they were saying, just the need to fight, frantically trying to breathe and move, pain shooting through his body, the bleeping got faster and louder and then his hand was forced down and fixed into position.

Something warm flowed into his veins, taking him back down and away, dragging him beneath the blanket of sleep once more.

Night and day had no meaning, he was lost in confusion and paranoia. Whose hushed tones was he hearing? Who was touching his skin? Who was working on his body - or tried to steal his mind.

The doctors decided they needed to lower the morphine dose and they kept him strapped down. Adding to the growing paranoia and the pain of withdrawal. Who was there, what were they doing, who came in? He could never find the answer.

Sedatives kept the mind dragged under and the body still, allowing the wounds to heal and the infection to subside. He suffered from amnesia induced by sedation, remembered scraps of reality like nightmares; those touches, sounds, the inability to move, and the underlying dulled-down pain.

He hardly reacted to the punctual regularity of nurses coming every two hours, changing his position to prevent infection from bedsores. Taking pressure off one side, cleaning the skin, massaging to stimulate circulation, and keeping him moisturised. Lying with lamb's wool skin protectors under the hip, lower spine, heels and elbows. Like a doll in its cot, limp in the care of his handlers.

* * *

Two days passed for Vadim and no news. No names. Nothing. The Brits didn't give up the men's identities. They remained a number in a news item. That was it. It made sense, that way, nobody cared. Vadim tried to pull strings, asked questions, never directly. But he was too subtle. Without going straight for the truth, there would be no truth.

He went to one of the safe houses, after duty, gathered himself up enough to change. He would never pass for Afghan, but at least nobody had to see a Soviet soldier go into the British embassy. The promise gnawed on him, the promise to bring back Dan's body from the mountains, given in a dingy hotel on the edge of desperation.

Civilian clothes. Hadn't worn them in Kabul forever. Wrapped his head in a rag, red-faced Caucasian in nondescript clothing. His accent would give him away. The pride was the worst, but he felt so nauseous he couldn't sleep. Dan's death was like a rotting tooth, it hurt, it hurt so bad nothing could stop this apart from pulling it out, and that would take a bullet.

Vadim headed towards the embassy. He got in with a mix of sheer bravado, begging, and the hint he might have something that would be of interest to the Brits. A bald-faced lie, or maybe not, he'd say and do anything to get in. Was searched, spread-eagled against the guard house, at gun point. A member of staff took his name. He gave Platon's name, his rank as lieutenant. Officer, but only junior. Not one true word.

Asked to see the lady ambassador, only her, said he couldn't trust anybody else. Expected to be kicked out, but the Brits seemed more civilised than that. He was so tired he felt like death on his feet. Sat down, was handed a water bottle, rested his face in his hands, elbows on his knees. Tried to catch a moment of sleep, strangely intimidated by the place and the shit he had jumped into. He was in trouble.

He waited less than half an hour, left undisturbed but never alone, when a quiet but authoritative voice was heard behind the doors, which opened. Then the tack-tack of sensible heels before the sound stopped.

"Lieutenant Ivanov, you wished to see me?"

Vadim stood, felt ill at ease, then put his hands on his back to stop them from giving away how nervous he was. "Yes." Platon's name would fit badly, the kid posthumously promoted, Vadim had the feeling he wouldn't be happy. If he was in a place where he could even care. Two dead men he'd held. Don't think about it.

"I am aware it's unconventional procedure, Ma'am", he wasn't sure about her title, or how to address her, hoped that was alright, and it wasn't Miss or Mrs or Lady or whatever, he was too tired for decorum. "Dan. Daniel McFadyen. He was part of your security detail?"

The ambassador's brows rose, her expression even more guarded than before. "Please do sit, Lieutenant. We do not often get such illustrious visitors." Ignoring the question for now, while she sat down opposite, studying him.

Vadim sat, reached for the water bottle to keep his hands calm. Illustrious. Like: important. Grand. What a word to use. He felt nothing like it, not grand, not important, not even self-possessed. He was completely out of his depth, helpless, reduced to begging. If she played it right, she'd ask him for things he couldn't tell her. Maybe she wouldn't.

She finally spoke again. "Why, Lieutenant, why do you wish to know about Mr McFadyen?"

"I need to confirm whether he's dead." I need to touch his body. I need to smell his blood. I need to do all that before you send him back in a metal tin, back home. He drew a long breath. "Not … in official capacity."

"I assumed that." She immediately answered. As prim, precise and proper as her whole appearance. "It does not seem appropriate for a soldier of the Soviet occupying forces to enter the British embassy in any kind of official business that I am not aware of."

Soviet occupying forces. Vadim inhaled. He didn't have the strength to argue his point. He didn't even know what kind of war it was, only knew it was a war and too many people had died. One too many. Bit back the party line, couldn't have spoken it without starting to laugh or break into tears, or both. Didn't trust himself not to.

She arranged her finely manicured hands on her lap, the grey hair coiffed as impenetrably as her non-committal expression. The stitches at her temple hidden by lacquered hair. "I repeat my question. Why do you wish to know?"

Vadim stared at the bottle, thought, needed a good answer, but couldn't come up with anything better than what had been his first idea, yesterday. "McFadyen and I have history." He looked up, hoped he still appeared somewhat dignified, herded the stoicism into his face, gathered his resolve. "We had tea together. You might call it unlikely, but we have grown to respect each other."

"And that is all?" She queried, sitting with legs perfectly slanted to one side. The epitome of British upper class. "Why should this give you such an unparalleled interest in the life and death of Daniel McFadyen?"

Vadim forced his face to not show anything, stared at a place too far to see, far beyond the walls, saw her in the corner of his eye. Her way of speaking much different from Dan's. Odd vowels. Unparalleled. What the fuck was that supposed to mean?

"I know he worked for ambassador. And I know there was attack on female ambassador. If I understood that wrong, I'm sorry to have wasted your time." He looked at her, remained sitting, though, knew he couldn't bait her that easily. He needed more than that. "I do not want to compromise him. It's bad enough I compromise myself." Put on a show of reluctance, needed to satisfy curiosity, needed to make it appear real. "I know I have nothing to bargain. I ask for kindness, Ma'am. I know that is not something I can expect from West." Kept his eyes on the floor, now. "I should not be here, but I am. I owe that man lot. I need to know whether he's dead."

"What do you owe him." Unaffected by his performance. "I repeat, Lieutenant. Why do you wish to know." Like a bulldog, once bitten into flesh, she did not let go. Teeth lodged and jaws locked. She held the key to the knowledge, and that key was dear to her heart.

He nodded and gave a smile. She had given herself away by forcing his hand. "He did guard you. He does that to people. Gets best out of them." And the worst. "He spared my life. He did not kill me, when he should have. I asked for mercy, and he gave me my life. My wife and children did not lose me on that day, because he did not pull trigger on me." Looked up, used Katya again, but that should do it. Had shown his open side, lured her to commit into an attack, now would bind her blade.

She said nothing for a moment, seemed to ponder. Her eyes steadfast on him. "If he were dead, then there would be nothing for you to do. No wreath to send, no flowers to wilt." Nothing in her bearing nor her voice showed even the slightest hint of emotion.

Vadim frowned. "I do not understand, I'm sorry. I believe my English doesn't reach that far. What do you mean?" Didn't get it. Of course he had to do something. She sounded metaphorical, but he didn't get it. Had never spoken with somebody like her, only knew he couldn't bind the blade, slipped out in a compound attack, circular motion that made the next angle of attack very hard to predict. Insecurity.

She got up, took one step closer, no more. Stood and looked down at him. "Lieutenant - if that is what and who you are - if Dan McFadyen were dead, what difference would it be to you? Dead, a corpse, and gone. I asked a simple question that demands a simple answer." She stepped to the side. "I ask you an even simpler question. If he were alive, what would you do?"

He nodded, signalling understanding. "If he is dead …" I'd go insane. I'd scream and kick and shout and finally cry, maybe, if I get tired enough. "I need to see him. I've seen … so many bodies that were not identified, or wrongly identified. This war taught me to not trust anything but my own eyes. I need to see body and confirm he's dead." Giving away an unhealthy fixation on the dead body, hoped it would pass. "If he is alive, I need to know where, and find him."

She, too, nodded. "And if he were alive, and if you were to know where, then why would you find him?"

Vadim pressed his teeth together. Why. Why indeed. Owing a life - was that enough to brave hell and military prison to see a wounded man? He couldn't say. Everything was blown out of proportion, everything skewed, the world had lost coherence. "To tell him how I feel." Now, that was the naked truth. The words hurt him, he was getting too close, embarrassed himself, embarrassed her, opened up again to get her to do the same. Risky manoeuvre, and not even a feint. "Does that satisfy, Ma'am?" Couldn't help but ruin it, lashed out.

She stood and watched for a long time. Studied and considered. Patience. "Daniel McFadyen is alive. At least he was when I last checked. This morning. Royal British Hospital, Kashmir, India."

Alive. Vadim felt tears well up, fucking eyes, closed them quickly to not give it away, breathed, until he could trust himself. He was too tired, should not have come here this tired, shouldn't have exposed himself like this. Dan alive. Kashmir. He only had to cross half of Afghanistan and all of Pakistan to get there. Enemy territory, all of it.

Last I checked. Dan was wounded badly. On the brink of death. He wanted to break into a run and start on his way there, right away. Go AWOL, try and find him, try and see him before he died.

"Is he stable?" Any limbs torn off? He'd seen bad shit, massive burns, lost pieces, bodies that were nothing but minced meat and still breathed. Could feel his chest tighten. He needed to see him, visit him. Whatever the cost. No other thought in his mind, just that. Dan alive. And he was on his way, had to be.

She paused, silence in the room, longer than comfortable.

"Mr McFadyen sustained considerable injuries in the blast and in the course of his duty. Extensive shrapnel wounds to the abdominal cavity." And a hand, but who needed a left hand. "He has been receiving all humanely possible care in the private hospital." Her hands folded behind her back, standing straight.

Vadim nodded. Abdomen. Hospital. They could deal with the infections there. Still. India. A fucking long way. And it meant Dan might still die. He needed to be on his way. Needed to see him. Before he died. Vadim stared at the ground near his feet, the carpet had a pattern, and he studied it, eyes not really seeing. "I will go and see him", he said, softly, gathered himself up, squared his shoulders.

He stood, took the rag from his shoulders, formed a ball, a tight ball of it with his hands that wanted to strangle and punch, the country, fate, destiny, wanted to force to not feel so fucking helpless.

"Thank you for your time. I am grateful." And it means nothing, because I am an enemy, and you don't even know what or who I am. They might work it out, Dan had identified him, after all, many years ago. He had changed, but he didn't exactly have an everyday face. She could work it out. They might be working on it already. She had implied she didn't believe him.

She nodded. "My secretary will see you out." Raising her hand, she all but pointed to the door. "Godspeed, Lieutenant."

Godspeed. Another strange word, sounded like some kind of blessing. He nodded, deeply, bowed almost to keep his eyes from meeting hers, and left. Nobody called on his hints he might have something to trade. Had come here as a potential traitor, left with a gift.

But it made it worse. He had imagined Dan's body, dead, and him seeing it, finding it, touching it. Here, in Kabul. Kashmir, too far away. Too fucking far away. Still, started to work on his plan, desperate measures. Get a mission in the south, be sent away. Maybe kill somebody in Pakistan. Strike out against the fucking secret service. No. He was in no state to fight. His mind was elsewhere. Applying for some volunteer stuff would get him killed, definitely if it was an operation. The Pakistanis weren't beginners, they were good, and they'd get him if he made a mistake. He couldn't trust himself, now.

* * *

Dan's condition was finally getting more stable. The healing process had been slowed down by the secondary infection, but he was improving at last. Sedation was slowly decreased until he was weaned off completely. They kept the patient's good hand restrained, even when the breathing tube was removed at last, replaced with less invasive oxygen. The nose drip had to be kept, to feed nutrients directly into the stomach, and with Dan's signs of aggression they could not risk the danger of him trying to tear any probes and sounds out of his body, while still disoriented.

Dan was aware of dull throbbing pain throughout his body despite the morphine, but at least he was feeling something at last. Something other than being dragged into nightmares that had no name and made no sense. He tried to move his hands a few times, but one was in too great pain, the other wouldn't budge, and he gave up.

Couldn't open his eyes, drifting in and out of consciousness, dozed off only to be yelled at within thirty seconds. "Breathe! If you don't breathe we can't give you anymore pain medication!" The foreign accent strong, somewhat familiar from a long time ago. It was just so difficult to remember the reflex of pulling in air and expelling on his own. Still lost in darkness and dulled-down terror.

A day later and he finally managed to open his eyes for a minute at a time. Began to take interest in his surroundings, eventually tried to understand the regime and the rigmarole of the machinery. Nurses, doctors, a constant flow of endless people that touched him, tested him, checked him, turned him. The oxygen mask began to itch and he became aware of the discomfort of the catheters. He didn't manage to count the IV's, gave up at the tangle of tubes and wires, but felt the oxygenation clamp on one finger and the electrodes that monitored his heart. Incredibly irritated by the blood pressure meter, that automatically, every fifteen minutes, filled up the plastic sleeve around his arm.

He couldn't speak, his throat sore from the breathing tube and the mask closing off his face. Even when they changed the mask to the twin-lines that streamed oxygen straight into his nostrils, he wasn't able to utter a sound. Too much effort, and he didn't have the strength. They did not him ask to communicate either, except for regular checks on his alertness, and then he blinked when spoken to.

Dan felt numb, empty inside, the morphine turning his mind into a flat plane of nothing, until he had forgotten his name. Was of no great matter, he was just a puppet, strung up on machinery and kept alive.

He couldn't remember why he was kept alive, and no one ever came to remind him.

* * *

Vadim began to work, began to pull strings, to get into a southern province. He could call in a favour there. Old debts and old friendship. Hopefully. He needed a good story, a reason why he'd been gone, but he could find one.

One week later, he was on a truck south. Managed to keep up a semblance of sanity, got into smoking weed, so he could laugh and joke with the others.

The spetsnaz mystique unblemished.

Several days - and one aborted attempt at an ambush - later, Vadim's boots made contact with the ground again, and he rolled his shoulders while the kids behind him bustled to get the trucks unloaded.

The commander of this garrison cum mountain fortress crossed the space in front of the main building, looking prim and proper as if Vadim were a visitor from Moscow. Full Christmas tree, and, Vadim noted somewhat taken aback, medals, a whole bar of them. Major Alexei Petkov had been wounded. Courage under fire.

"Vadim! Fuck, seeing you is great!" Vadim was suddenly embraced and kissed, one comrade to the other, too stunned to even tense at the sudden touch. Lesha. Shaved meticulously, smelling of soap, like he'd shaved just five minutes ago. "Come. You must be hungry. And …" Lesha gave him a wink. "Thirsty, I assume."

It was an evening for memories, tall tales, catching up and boasting. But they didn't speak about one thing.

Vadim was putting the AK back together. Off duty. Dark outside, sitting on the bunk, hands working blindly. He just wasn't fast enough. Of course, no bullets, no magazine, but he was still slotting dark greased steel together, not nearly natural, still took concentration, feeling for the mechanical grooves and places, and he had his teeth gritted. One of the skills the officers kept repeating would save his worthless life one day. Like belly crawling under life fire, the roar deafening, making his body respond, too threatened to just lock up while moving forward. The sound of bullets froze his blood, shortened every tendon, and what his body really wanted to do was curl up and wait till it was over. Like some cowardly cocksucker, as the officers called it.

We'll make you a soldier, suka. Wait and see. Even if we have to drag you kicking and screaming. You will become a soldier, or the nearest excuse for one, you useless piece of shit.

Not fast enough to be a swimmer, they sent him off to do his military service before they decided whether to let him join the Pentathlon team. He wasn't good enough to compete with the top swimmers, but he might still win points in modern pentathlon. Basic training would give him some shooting practice, too.

The last two pieces. Vadim forced the metal in, cursing the design under his breath, even if it was, by all standards, a fine weapon, superior for its time, arguably the weapon that had won a good part of the Great Patriotic War. Still a bitch to put together when every muscle burnt from the last few days' 'exercise'. And he wasn't fast enough assembling it. The irony of his life. His hands were shaking with the cold and exhaustion and he could hardly think straight. All he wanted to do was collapse and sleep, but he just knew that there would be another drill, in a few hours, when most other recruits would just have dropped and were comatose with exhaustion, and he figured he could spend the time waiting for it to happen.

He jammed the last piece in, checked the AK, and it worked, well oiled, then began, mechanically, to take it apart again. He'd have to do this blindly, under fire, on his belly, on his back, in any fucking position including a handstand or both legs torn off. The AK was the reason why he existed. Why he was around at all.

The door burst open, a comrade came in, another of the young ones, same platoon. Misha. He was drenched in the rain, face glowing, which looked unhealthy with the haggard features. "He's killing Lesha!"

The pieces of the AK scattered across the floor as Vadim was on his feet, following, before the comrade had even mentioned it, running at full speed where the other was leading. They were beginning to function, Vadim realized. They didn't need that many words anymore - and Misha didn't have the breath left in him to explain. He didn't have to. 'He' was the officer that hated Lesha's guts, a meatgrinder of a man as vicious as frontal fire from an MG, and Lesha was a comrade.

Out into the freezing rain, gusts of wind whipped Vadim's face, almost skidding on the cracked concrete, but Vadim ran on, could see commotion up front, out in the light of one of the guard towers.

Saw naked flesh on the ground. He sank up to his ankles into the freezing mud while running, thought it can't be this, it must not be Lesha getting the shit kicked out of him.

Vadim's steps lengthened, pulling his body together once more, racing ahead of Misha like it was a race and all he had to do was overtake him. Seeing the officer's boot hit Lesha's legs, ass, groin, ribs, ass again, mostly ass and back of the thighs. Hamstrings. That hurt like a motherfucker. Never mind the hail, ice rain and Lesha being completely naked.

The officer didn't stop, cursing at the man on the ground, and Vadim didn't know what he was doing, or what he would do next. Too tired to think to be scared. He couldn't remember an hour or a minute in this place that he hadn't been scared in some part of his mind. He couldn't touch an officer. A superior. They had every right to punish him - deserved or not. Was part of the hazing, was part of getting discipline into the worthless maggots.

Vadim, however, saw another kick coming, the man off balance for a moment, and he knew about balance. Shoulder charging into the bastard, throwing him off and making him stumble over his victim's body. Vadim's weight came crashing down on him, hat went off flying into the mud, the whole bastard sank deep into the freezing shit, and Vadim pinned him down, taking the bastard's face and pushed it into the mud, covering his face. Feeling nothing but horror and a bizarre moment of elation even though he was in deep shit, worse than he'd ever been. This was not real, not happening, he had the tail of a tiger who'd kill him if he let him go. Worse. He was in a tiger cage full of tigers while doing this.

A quick glance betrayed Misha finally arriving, looking down at Lesha. "Bring him inside!" shouted Vadim, while the officer struggled against him, and Vadim let him come up for air, heard curses that seemed just as threatening as if the officer was overseeing their training, ignored him, only kept him down, had no idea what to do with him apart from keeping him from hurting Lesha.

"Get the fuck moving!", he shouted when Misha paused, staring at him on top of the officer, an image and a story that would make it through the barracks, but that didn't matter. What mattered was Lesha.

Other recruits appeared from the darkness, ghosts that wouldn't have moved a finger while seeing one of their own killed for the pleasure of cruelty. All witnesses. All cattle.

"I'll rip your heart out, Vadim Petrov…" Down the head went again, Vadim using all of his weight and strength to control the bastard, who was trying to throw him off. The man was powerful, but in a bad position, and Vadim saw Misha gather Lesha up, who gave a weak sound of pain. Alive.

And they trotted away, leaving Vadim who gritted his teeth, hating the bastard's guts, but couldn't just kill him. As much as he'd love to, as much as he wanted to, because he'd never killed a man, and didn't want to, because killing was something they'd talked about as if it was a kind of sport, something that men did, and especially soldiers, but this, this was a superior. He had no idea what would happen to him if he did, so, once seeing the others and Lesha vanish into the darkness, he let the bastard go, stepped back and felt, no, knew he was making a mistake.

Breathing heavily, the officer pushed himself up, grunting. Vadim noticed Lesha's uniform, even his boots, on the ground, a pile. This bastard did that. Forced recruits to undress - in this kind of weather, at this time of year senseless and nothing short of cruel. Amid the wanton violence, the casual, sickening cruelty, this bastard stood out because his humiliating games so very often had a different edge to them. A different flavour. A taste of male flesh.

"You just enjoy this", murmured Vadim suddenly. He knew he was dead meat, but that actually set him free. The 'thing' nobody talked about. He himself had liked looking at Lesha, he was good looking, dark hair, which, on a photo from before he'd become a recruit, had looked thick and rich like fur, expressive dark, curved eyebrows that made Vadim feel strange when he looked at them for too long. A short, strong nose, greyish green eyes, long lashes of the same dark type as his eyebrows, and the lips that opened too easily, shapes that made Vadim want to kiss him. Impossible. He'd never kissed a man. Never slipped a tongue inside a mouth, never tasted, never felt the hardness of teeth, but couldn't help imagining.

"You are the fucking faggot", hissed Vadim. "And if you touch any recruit ever again, I'll report you."

The officer stared at him, mud running down his front, whipped off by the icy rain, lashing at them in gusts. No witnesses, not in this weather. A mortal insult, the beginning and the end of something. Vadim had no idea if that threat registered, but the very fact that the bastard didn't attack him gave him an inkling of hope. He was condemned, but he didn't go down without biting at least. He took Lesha's uniform and boots, and headed back, running through the abysmal weather, not challenged, not shouted back.

But he didn't believe for a moment that that was the end of it.

Lesha had been covered in blankets, was shuddering violently, and the other recruits looked like they were about to bolt and run. When they noticed Vadim they looked up at him, and, as Vadim and Lesha were known to be close friends, they figured Vadim would take care of him. Misha lingered for a moment longer, offering to bring more hot tea, and Vadim was glad for that.

Vadim ran his hand over Lesha's skull, felt the shorn hair against his skin, and felt yet another of those strange, odd, stabs of something. They were friends, Lesha thought him some kind of brother, and Vadim was happy with that. Most of the time. But sometimes, he just thought of that body and it was nothing a brother should or could think, Vadim figured, confused, because he had no brother or sister and didn't know what it felt like.

Misha helped him clean Lesha up and wrap him up warm, getting hot tea into him, while the bruises began to form and darken on his skin. Misha didn't mention the officer and Vadim pushed the thought away. He was dead anyway and the fear hardened and crystallized in his stomach.

Just a few hours later, the officers came back, made them scurry like rats, out into the rain again, which hadn't let up, like there was just no other weather but rain and hail and snow. Half-dressed, only trousers and boots, their breath misting in front of their faces, torn away by the fierce wind. Officers shouting, cursing, kicking, hitting.

Lesha was swaying on his feet, his skin several shades of black and purple, he seemed barely alive, eyes swollen to slits, still following orders, just like Vadim. Vadim was cold, impossibly cold and wet and miserable, assuming the officers were being especially unpleasant just for the fun of it, and steadied Lesha by the arm. In the rain and in the ranks, the helping touch would be hardly noticeable.

"Vadya …thanks", whispered Lesha.

Vadim nodded and squeezed his arm tighter.

There was an order given that he didn't understand, and the recruits began to move, trudge along. Probably a small 'tour of the barracks', have them march in the freezing weather, half naked, just because … because.

"Not you." The officer, yes, that one, dragged Vadim and Lesha out of the line. "I've got something special for this pair of faggots."

It was digging. Vadim had expected to be locked up, or be subjected to any number of sick games the officers played. Or even other soldiers. Velociped, the bicycle. Stick balls of cotton between somebody's toes and set them alight. The victim kicks his legs like being on a bicycle. Hilarious. Makaronina, little macaroni, make somebody rock his head to the left and right, and somebody strikes each side of the neck. Locya, the deer - stand with palm crossed, facing out, against the forehead. Then get hit by a fist, making the knuckles hit the forehead. That one was painful. Or fashka. Fill cheeks with air and get hit on the cheek - making the teeth cut the insides of the cheek.

This was different. This was digging a hole, and Vadim felt the dread bite his neck that it was some kind of grave. The officer stood in the window of his quarters, in the light, and watched them there, outside in the rain. Fucking bastard. He'd warned them to not stop or pause, or he'd call it insubordination and make them really suffer. Vadim wondered how much worse it could get.

"You … shouldn't have got involved", said Lesha, air wheezing in his lungs, his body struggling on despite the earlier beating, and Vadim was almost positive he didn't see much with that swollen face.

"Save your … fucking breath …" Vadim rammed the spade into the heavy, muddy earth, felt the ice ran run down his skin, knew he'd catch death this way, which was exactly what the fucker had in mind. Let the weather kill them. Die from exposure. Pneumonia. Him and Lesha. He suddenly laughed.

"What's wrong?"

"Nothing. Just so strange. We're fucking officer material, Lesha. More than that cunt."

Lesha laughed, lifting the spade, Vadim saw the bruised muscle work under the pale skin, saw him struggle, knew that Lesha would keep on digging, because that was the order, and Lesha was the type that would kill himself following orders. How and why Lesha could still trust any order after this was beyond Vadim. "Major Krasnorada, eh?"

Vadim shot him an amused glance. "General Petkov?"

"Pleased to meet you, Sir." Lesha laughed so hard he started coughing.

Vadim grinned, and both of them snickered every now and then for the next ten minutes, the humour keeping them going for a little while longer. But Vadim couldn't shed the thought that Lesha was much worse for wear, would have needed rest and maybe medical attention. Seeing him suffer like this hardened the fear and worry into something else, and Vadim felt anger rise, a hot, murderous anger that grew every time he saw the dirty bastard stand there, drinking tea and watching them.

"I'll pay him back", Vadim muttered. They were both wet to the bones, half frozen, Lesha's lips seemed bluish, and that was bad. Vadim had no idea how miserable he looked himself, but his muscles were cramping. Lack of food, lack of rest, the freezing cold, the repetitive strain of digging, and the anger clawing its way up like a parasite forcing its way out.

The window opened. "Faster, you bitches." The officer leant forward. Vadim could feel the warmth that escaped the bastard's room on his face. He stared at him, wanted to hurl the spade to jump him and smash his face and skull, and felt Lesha's hand on his shoulder.

"Come on, dig."

"You pathetic faggots, going all touchy-feely out there. Dig, bitches!"

Vadim's jaw muscles hardened, and he knew he'd kill the man. He'd been reluctant, but no longer. What had the officers said? War is about killing or being killed. This, then, was war. The officer was out to kill them, no doubt. And he could even - in case anybody wondered - say it was to "toughen them up", and of course, if they didn't survive, they had been too weak to begin with.

Lesha deteriorated over the next hour or two. Badly. He didn't react to jokes or humour, didn't seem to know what he was doing, just murmuring "cold, so cold", every now and then, and Vadim's helpless rage grew. Grew and threatened to swallow him. Lesha, who'd told him he reminded him of his older brother, Lesha who'd touched and hugged him much like a brother would, and if Vadim could get nothing else, this was a most precious gift. Friendship. Vadim thought of the moment when Lesha's been sitting against him, easy and comfortable closeness, both resting, Lesha nearly asleep, and Vadim's head had moved just a fraction and brushed his lips against the other's temple. Wanting and desiring him, but not demanding, nothing, just fitting in with the others.

The same man that seemed delirious, red spots in his face spoke of fever, and Lesha shook, uncontrollably, wrestling with the spade's weight. Didn't actually manage to dig. Vadim looked up to the dark silhouette against the window, and knew the bastard was having a great time watching them like this, knowing what Lesha did to Vadim, and especially his suffering.

Vadim worked on, kept somewhat warm by his seething anger, when he suddenly noticed something was wrong. He lowered the spade and saw Lesha lean against the rim, the spade had slipped from his hands, and slowly, Lesha's legs gave, which made Vadim drop his spade and steady him, then bend down and pull him across his back to carry him inside. He glanced at the bright window, but the officer didn't move, didn't tell them to stop, just seemed to watch what was going on. Maybe even smiling. Lesha needed to get out of the sleet, first and foremost, and Vadim didn't care what that meant. The officer would keep doing this, anyway. He climbed out of the hole, shaking and in pain himself, but he had to get Lesha inside, so he carried him over to the barracks, stripped the wet trousers and soaking boots off him, quickly. He was just about to wrap him into his blankets, when the door opened, and the officer came in, a belt in his hand.

Vadim only managed to raise an arm to protect his face, when the heavy brass buckle hit him on the chest, his frozen skin registered the pain, any touch was painful, but this was really bad. The buckle hit him again, and again, amid curses of "you fucking faggot, you bitch …"

Vadim managed to catch the belt, though, before it hit Lesha, and tensed his arm, pulling on the belt so hard it slipped from the officer's grip.

"Your bitch will die anyway, whatever you do", the man hissed, and that was when Vadim felt the anger turn to needles of volcanic glass inside him. Without thinking, he went at the officer, choked him with the belt and dragged him out of the room. He didn't want any witnesses, didn't want anybody to hear or see or interfere when he killed the fucker. Dragged him into the only room that promised a little safety - the man's own quarters.

The officer was only semi-conscious, Vadim kicked a chair against the door from inside, then rammed the officer's head against the nearest wall, his nostrils flared when he could smell blood. The man's legs went slack, and Vadim released him for a moment to properly lock the door. He found a towel and tore it into two strips, then tied the bastard's hands behind the back, manhandling the heavy body that was bleeding from a bad bruise at the forehead until he was nicely tied up and, for good measure, just in case the bastard screamed, stuffed a pair of socks in his mouth and tied them with another strip of the towel. Could feel the man come round again, beginning to struggle and Vadim had to pin him down again, while the rage inside continued to grow. He wanted to cut the bastard into shreds, wanted to break him, punish him, drive home the point he should leave Lesha the fuck alone.

The struggling, powerful body underneath, the muffled groans, and Vadim suddenly felt an odd stab of something else entirely. Anger, but of a different colour, a different taste. A heat that flared up inside of him, stoked by rage. The man's strong body … he was in top physical condition, only weak for the moment.

Suddenly he knew what would break him.

He hoisted him up by the shoulders, laid him across the bed, kept him pinned down while he tore down the man's trousers, thinking, bastard, if it's naked recruits and naked flesh you want, that's what you'll get. He just loved the feeling of struggling muscle underneath, getting addicted to the sound of heaving, panicking breath through a partially blocked mouth, and the scent of dawning panic. Vadim pressed against the man's ass, could feel the struggle become stronger, like the bastard was coming back completely, and opened his fly, pulled his cock free. Lay down on the man, who tried to shout and doubled his frantic fighting, but kept him down with his chest. Opened the man's legs with his knees, could feel the warm flesh, warm and dry and hateful. There was a tub of Vaseline near the bed. Made wanking better and Vadim's lips curved into a nasty grin as he opened the tub and covered his cock with the stuff, hurried, then kicked the officer's legs further apart and felt him shudder with fear and revulsion as he rubbed some more into his crack, roughly pulling the flesh apart, forcing grease into the ass. Not for any kindness, no way, just so he could get in at all.

The man said something - hectic, mumbled words that made no sense. Vadim grinned and leaned in. "I think this faggot here found a new bitch, you cunt." He could smell the man's fear, an acidic, sharp smell, and Vadim paused, wanted to savour his revenge, realised anticipation was half the fun, and he wanted to give him time to anticipate. "I'll fuck you … like you've wanted it all the time, or you wouldn't have provoked it, you fucking cunt. You'll feel me and you'll love it, because faggots like you can't get enough of cock."

Then, shuddering with the effort at control, he moved in, pressed into the hot flesh that resisted, then gave against his strength, while the man screamed into the gag and did everything to fight him, clench, buck, but Vadim handled the terrified struggle just like close combat, keeping the body pinned and under control. The heat was intoxicating, power and revenge, rage concentrated in a rising, furious lust, and he bared his teeth in a grin so fierce it hurt. The struggle was so fucking good, better than the elation of a fight he was winning, and Vadim felt his blood pump, incredibly alive and hot after the freezing sleet outside. All it took was a fighting body underneath to warm up, mind and heart and body. Possessing.

The flesh yielding was an impossible feeling, coloured red-hot with the man's seething hatred, and Vadim couldn't help but see Lesha flash across his brain. His body, his skin, his dark hair. He began to thrust, thought of his comrade, and at the same time was completely aware this was the bastard that had tried to kill them both, but his worn-out brain didn't care anymore.

"Enjoying yourself, you cunt?" he murmured into the officer's ear, forcing in deeper, the body taut underneath, tight muscles, his own body melting heat and lust and hatred and revenge into one heady mix that hit him deeper than any drug. Remembered how the masseur used to fuck him, and began with slow, deep thrusts, pausing every now and then to murmur into the officer's ear. "Why don't you struggle? Feels too good, eh?" Which made the man buck, and Vadim thrust right into him, so hard the other collapsed with a sound of pain, hands clenching helplessly as Vadim found a rhythm, his own exhausted body took forever to build up enough pressure, feeling the other widen and accommodate him, softening up, strangely, the powerful body accepting him on the most visceral level.

"Who's the faggot now", he murmured, was almost positive the bastard reacted, reacted in a certain way when he thrust in, shuddering and clenching, but it wasn't all a fight, not all of it. A nice, deep, dark, absolutely devastating secret. Vadim laughed into his ear. "You enjoy it. I know what that feels like. You pressing down so you come, too, bitch?"

Vadim would have loved to pull out the gag and listen to the man's desperate breaths, but at least he could still feel them in his body, as he thrust harder, bringing his strength to bear, getting sounds out of the other man, pain, yeah, right, and something forbidden and dirty.

The pressure built up, impossible to draw this out any longer, triumph and release when Vadim came inside, thrust so hard he rocked the bed against the wall when he did, then remained on top of the officer. Resting for a moment, listening to the way the man's breath was irregular and forced and nearly seemed to choke him. "That's for Lesha", he muttered, feeling an odd, destructive gentleness.

Then, he pulled out, took some of the bedsheet to clean himself up, closed his trousers up and leaned against the wall, studying the still figure on the bed. Fit. Strong. A complete and utter bastard. And an ass that looked raw and glistened with petroleum jelly and Vadim's cum.

He contemplated fucking him again, waiting for a little and doing it again, because deep down, where the climax had not sated the anger, and where his own darkest desire had come alive, he loved the feeling. Loved the struggle and the anger, loved knowing how much the other hated this, and bared his teeth in another grin. Faggot, yes, but that didn't mean he'd take things lying down. But there was another thing, and that was making sure Lesha was alright.

He rummaged through the bastard's kit and belongings, found penicillin and knew Lesha would need this, then stepped back to the bed, took the bastard by the shoulders and turned him around to look him in the eyes.

The officer didn't meet his gaze. And he'd been right, there was an erection. Vadim grinned. "You should have told me before … I could have fucked you sooner, would have saved us some trouble, correct, suka?"

The officer's eyes stared at him now, but Vadim didn't feel like relenting, didn't give a damn about consequences. Not anymore. "If you do so much as look strange at my friends or myself, I'll grab you again - and I'll bring a bunch of friends. We're all badly in need of a nice spirited devuchka. I'm sure we could keep you entertained all night, sweetheart."

Only to drive his point home, Vadim took hold of the officer's cock, stroking him once, twice, slow, strong motions. He was positive the man was dying with fear now, and probably something else, too, which was not revulsion. "I could leave you like this, or maybe fuck you again …" The man's eyes widened, and he grunted something around the gag, which Vadim took as disagreement or a plea.

"But I have to check up on a friend." He smiled again, as he turned the officer onto his back and loosened the restraints enough that the bastard would be able to free himself with a little time. "You better behave, because this is just a faint idea of what I can do to you if you cross me again, bitch." And he meant it. Nothing tasted or felt like power. Nothing he'd ever tried before. Nothing as intoxicating as control.

He gave the officer a series of slaps that were almost gentle, then left him alone. Sated, heavy, very very tired, but still concerned for Lesha.

Vadim fell into the rhythm of that garrison, helped with training and inspection, led a few patrols before he began to slip. He deliberately made mistakes, and badly concealed a completely random temper and subtle failings in his discipline, showing clearly that he was in trouble. It was quite simple, really. Tell-tale signs that he appeared too sluggish to cover up.

Eventually, Alexei Ivanovich Petkov came into his room. A major himself, that meant no stupid rank-pulling, as if his old friend had been the type. Granted, he was only regular army, but still, as Vadim had expected, a damn decent guy.

"I guess we need to talk."

"Talk?" Vadim feigned ignorance.

Alexei closed the distance and took his arm with both hands, pulled up the shirt. Revealed the marks. "What's this?"

Vadim looked at him, did not speak, did not comment. Remembered the crush he'd had on the young man, his protectiveness, the closeness, but he'd never acted on it. Not even later, when he had started to take what he wanted. Lesha had trusted him and respected him and, in his own way, loved him. He just couldn't destroy that, as much as he'd wanted him. Funny. One good decision there.

"You getting into drugs? Heroin?" Alexei sounded genuinely concerned. "I couldn't care less if you weren't who you are."

"What? Spetsnaz?"

"A friend."

"I see." And he did. The old bond still held. They were still friends.

Alexei looked on the verge of slapping him. "Fuck, don't give me that. What happened? I heard you flipped badly in Kabul. When did you start this?"

"A couple weeks."

"I need to report you. And lock you up." His thumbs dug into Vadim's arm.

"Or I take some morphine and piss off into the mountains until it's over." Vadim looked at the other. "Like they do when it gets bad."

"That's suicide."

"I can't go into prison. Don't do this to me. Give me a chance." The words came easy, too easy, almost. He reached for the other's shoulder. "I'll take morphine against the pain, find myself a nice cave and you tell people I'm doing patrols of the passes. We both keep quiet, and I'll owe you this time."

"Who tells me you will come back?"

"Do I look like I want to go native? I have a family in Moscow. I want to get out of here alive as much as you do."

"And if you don't beat this?"

"Medical exam when I come back. If the medics find anything, do your duty. But give me a chance."

Alexei looked him in the eye. "Fucking shame if we lost you. You think you'll manage?" Both hands on his shoulders now, one hand went to his neck, forced him closer. Ill-advised brotherly touch. Vadim's mind reeled.

"I have enough morphine to last me."

"Can you kick the morphine?"

"I'll try." Vadim gave a lopsided grin. "Might take me some weed or vodka." He pulled the shirt down, turned away, twisted out of that grip, didn't want to smell the other. Too close. He went to his bergan, tossed a bag of heroin on the bed, and the syringe. Italian make, nobody used the Soviet make, they broke too easily and were never sterile, not even with their first use. Left the fabric already flawed. "Take this. Burn it."

Lesha, now the keeper of this most damaging secret, took the stuff. They both were perfectly capable of keeping secrets, that was one of the things Vadim had always liked about his old friend.

Alexei had no idea what had happened that night, he'd slipped right into a fever. He had caught pneumonia, which had come under control, thanks to the penicillin, but, likely, even more thanks to the fact that that bullying officer had blown his own brains out with his Makarov. The suicide was a complete mystery - it had happened the following night, after the officer had fallen mysteriously ill and not left his room. Forty-eight hours after his personal encounter with Vadim, the man was dead.

"When are you leaving?"

"Right away. Before the shakes."

The commander nodded. "How long?"

"I'd think about two weeks." Vadim shrugged. "You cover me?"

"Shit. Of course. You're a friend, Vadim."

Above all, I'm one cunning motherfucker. Vadim nodded, as if ashamed, didn't meet the other's eyes, shouldered the bergan. And was on his way to Kashmir.

He left the uniform buried under a pile of stones in a remote valley that had neither inhabitants nor name, navigated with map and stars, wore native clothes, and vanished into the wilderness. Crossed the passes, attacked and killed a Pakistani patrol, took their kit, their car, drove all night, hid and rested during the days, driven by one thought: Dan's infection, Dan fighting for his life. He might already be dead, but at least he'd hear that from the doctor. He'd follow him, and wondered what that meant, following, but didn't answer it, knew it in his bones.

He'd follow that body anywhere, to Kabul, to Scotland, he'd find a way to confirm he was dead, even if he had to dig up that body in a country he didn't know. He needed absolute certainty.

He had to give up the jeep, got too far into the country, went by bus, on foot, felt like the world was moving and he wasn't, had no eyes for anything but for the ground and potential danger, ate what was sold or given, what he could steal or pluck from the trees; mango never tasted anything like this, he thought, sitting near the road under a tree, begged rides with natives, who thought him either a deserter or a tourist. He spoke English and was fairly confident they couldn't place his accent, not the way their English was rather rudimentary. Told them nothing, really, kept his head covered, hair was starting to grow out anyway, and he kept his guns and knives hidden on his body.

Rode on ramshackle trucks, slept between sheep and goats and cages of chicken, trucks only stopped for prayer, he waited, rested as much as he could, needed the rest, he was on his feet most of the time, desperate for yet another mile, too far, too fucking far, asked questions, found the British hospital.

He arrived in the middle of the night, had planned to sleep somewhere close, but his thoughts were fixated on one thing. Dan dying, and every breath of rest, every hour of sleep could be the one, crucial, wasted opportunity. Felt like death on two feet as he got into the hospital, barely coherent with tiredness, asked to see Dan McFadyen, urgently. Needed to see him, please. Oh gods, and in Allah's name and those of whatever other gods they prayed to, please.

They kept telling him that now was not visiting time, that he should go home and wait until the morning, and that no, he should not get so aggravated, because the gods were wise and knew who should live and who should enjoy the beauties of heaven.

They were talking to him like to a child until he got angrier and angrier. The night porter at reception began to get upset at the aggression and the repeated question for one Dan McFadyen. They were about to call for security when a doctor on night shift walked past. One glance at the tall blond-haired man who looked as if he'd keel over with exhaustion any moment, and then a swift conversation in Hindu. Words that increased in pace and intensity, until the discussion stopped, reception nodded, and a security guard was called. The doctor turned to Vadim, explaining.

"It is not custom that patients have visitors at night, but since Mr McFadyen has not received any visitors, we deem it appropriate for you to have five minutes."

No mention of the guard who stood at the ready. Nothing, just a tired smile of politeness, and the typical Indian nod.

Vadim shot the guard a glance, thought 'touch me and I'll break your neck' then turned to the doctor. "Five minutes?" All he needed. Five minutes to see and touch Dan. Needed to see him. Would only believe he was there when he actually stood in front of him. His bed. He swallowed. He was hardly coherent, and knew it, couldn't wait, couldn't pause, his legs and feet were murder, his mind frayed, tired, so fucking tired he wanted to die, forced himself to appear as normal and stoic as he could, was more staggering than walking. "What's his condition. How bad? Will he die?"

"The patient is stable." He doctor gestured towards the corridor, the guard following without any reaction to Vadim's glare. "Still battling with the after effects of infection, but that was to be expected with the extent of injuries."

Stable. Infection. Two words that registered, everything else just slipped past Vadim. He nodded, walked near the doctor, listened, wanted to rush in, didn't even know where, needed more patience.

"You need to wash your hands and change into protective clothing." They walked through a door into the intensive care ward, and then towards the visitor room. "You have five minutes every hour, unless we deem it beneficial to the patient to receive prolonged visits. If the patient should be aggravated, there shall be no forthcoming visits." The doctor glanced to the side, never quite fully at Vadim.

Aggravated. Beneficiary. Whatever. Long, complicated words. Every heartbeat brought him closer to Dan. Dan who was not dead. Not dying. Stable. Was there a nicer word in any language than that?

"Here." The doctor pointed to a wash basin and soap, then the shrubs that consisted of long coat and hair cap for visitors.

Vadim washed, didn't think, just did, took off some of his clothes, wide trousers, a shirt, took off the rag, scrubbed his hands, fingernails, short and bitten off, saw his face red and burnt, didn't care, saw the glint in his eyes, thought he looked like a lunatic. Washed his face, the neck, and got into the stiff coat that felt like it had been laundered a hundred times, cooked, boiled, starched, ironed. Filled it out, tight at the shoulder, reached for the cap. Wanted to see Dan, so badly, and felt the bile rise with fear. Didn't want to see him hurt. Not like that. Nobody had mentioned burn wounds, abdomen they'd said, hadn't they?, but he feared Dan would look so bad he wouldn't recognise him. Formed fists with his hands, scared, as scared as he had the strength left to be.

The guard followed even when the surgeon opened another door that lead to the ICU. Window fronted rooms like glass trays mounted on microscopes. "The guard will take you." The hallway quiet except for bleeping, and the hushed tones of nurses and doctors.

Vadim nodded, waited, followed like a man that had no other choice, didn't quite believe he'd made it, felt unreal, a nightmare, one of those endless dreams. Smells, feelings, he wanted to sleep, desperate, didn't know what he wanted, knew he was disoriented and exhausted.

Dan's unit was in its own area, through yet another door, with only one window spanning across the corridor. A special ward in an already private hospital. The smell of plastic and disinfectant pervading the air, and the constant noise of bleeping and whirring reached through the open door. The window allowed a full view of the patient, whose eyes were closed. Clipped dark hair in stark contrast to the white pillows, and the sickly pale skin beneath the former tan.

The machines stood all around the motionless figure on the bed. Still hooked up to keep track of heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen saturation through arterial lines and intravenous catheters. Lifelines curling from nose, torso and limbs to bags with different solutions and probes that measured temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and respiration. Even though there was no respiratory tube anymore, only a small unit taped below the nostrils, the probe that kept the patient alive was still in his stomach, running through his nostril. Nil by mouth - except for a few sips of water that they had started to allow.

Dan was asleep. A still and fragile figure in the centre of medical machinery. Thin, frail, having lost a substantial amount of weight, his facial features had sharpened and his eyes had sunk in his head, giving the impression of a skull, closer to death than life. They had shaved his head, easier to keep clean. His left hand thickly bandaged, his right still restrained to the bed. But he was breathing on his own, and his heart was beating in a steady line, flashing across a monitor.

Doctor, guard, all forgotten. Dan. Vadim walked closer, first time in days without the weight of the bergan, had left it where his clothing was, moved closer, all those machines that were shielding. Not as bad, was his first thought. In one piece. He could see both legs, both arms, both hands, all the fingers. Both eyes. Dan looked young with that short hair, he could see the shape of the head properly, something his fingers had known, only once his eyes, had missed the feeling of that hair on his skin. Dan, not Dan, not reckless, fearless, sweating Dan, not alive, vibrant, insulting Dan. And still him. Shadow of a man. That was what a bomb did to a body, yes, unless it tore it apart, he checked the legs and arms again. All whole. Did not comprehend, it was all wrong, the bleeping, the lines, the cables, Dan not responding, not resting, just switched off. Vadim squeezed in between a machine and the bed, reached for a hand, the one that wasn't bandaged. Clean. Aseptic. No pressure, no strength, the hand that had hit him, cut him, the hand that had been everywhere on his body, the hand he had fucked, that had fucked him, the hand that had covered his nose and mouth so he kept damned quiet, that same hand wasn't itself anymore. In one piece. Stable.

Nothing he could do, no need to rush, no need to not waste any time. He'd made it. Dan was here, what a mercy, unexpected, hoped for, alive, breathing, secure. Lapushka. The pressure started from somewhere in his chest, it felt like a laugh, but wasn't, was as much a laugh as that man was a soldier. Casualty. They'd take him home, career ending wound. It didn't matter now. He'd rather see Dan leave for Scotland than see him dead or wounded. Lost him, found him, and the pressure rose and he felt it crawl out of his throat, too fucking tired to care, knew it was the stress and exhaustion, nothing to be ashamed of. Dan wouldn't even notice, and he didn't care who else saw it, and he let it go, went to his knees and cried, held Dan's hand and cried against his arm, tried to be silent so they wouldn't kick him out, nearly choked on the shit, felt like he was trying to breathe fire, salt, cried so hard every muscle in his body hurt. Wanted nothing but to curl up at the bed and guard it like a dog, had slept in worse places in the last weeks.

The hand in Vadim's twitched. Attempts at pressure, fingers pushing against the palm. Awake. As awake as Dan could be, while still on morphine and sedatives. The hand tried to move, gave up, as if resigned to being restrained.

Vadim looked up, didn't care the fucking tears were still running, couldn't make that shit stop, just couldn't, control never worked with Dan, he should have accepted that by now. "Dan?" he asked, hardly trusted his voice - or anything. "You awake?"

The machine that monitored pulse sped up, the bleeping noise increased, and the fingers made a greater effort to push against the other's. Dan's eyes were open the moment Vadim raised his head. Dark eyes, large, so fucking huge in a far-too pale and thin face. Even the scar stood out as starkly as it had done three years ago, when it had been fresh and angry. He was merely looking, those bloody big eyes simply staring. Disbelief, pain and fear and tiredness, but most of all a sense of recognition.

"You … real?" Dan's whisper rusty and brittle. Disused and raspy from the soreness caused by tubes, his throat parched despite the water bottle on his bedside table. He couldn't reach for it, but even without restraints, the effort a Herculean task. "Real?" Repeated.

Vadim reached out to touch the face, then leaned in, still fucking crying and wrestling for every steady breath. Dan's eyes. They were the worst thing. Yellow mixed with the brown, more amber than dark, something far less right with this body than it looked, and that was bad. Stood, got to his feet, show of strength, didn't want to show Dan how tired he was, how broken. Leaned in, thought fuck it, let them kick me out for this, touched his lips to Dan's, dry, parched, not a real kiss, and more real than it had ever been.

Dan's eyes closed at the touch of lips on lips. Another kiss of life, how fucking ironic.

Vadim pulled back, wiped his face on the starchy sleeve, and tried to give a smile. "You got more cables in you than fucking Darth Vader."

The feeble grin a mere ghost of Dan's usual smirk. "More … like Sleeping … Beauty." The machines started to change, different noise, altered pattern.

Vadim reached for the water bottle, a squeezy thing made from plastic, with a nozzle, placed that between Dan's lips and gave him a little to drink, his hand shaking badly.

Swallowing was painful, and Dan's eyes closed as he took small measures of water. Reduced to goddamned thankfulness for a sip of liquid.

There was a rustle behind Vadim as a nurse entered the room, speaking before Dan could muster the strength to try and talk once more. "Sir, you have to leave now. The five minutes are over. You may wait outside." A bench, in front of the glass window. No one had ever sat there, no one had visited.

No one would have witnessed Daniel McFadyen die.

Vadim looked at the nurse, hated her more than any American in his whole life, more than any Brit and that included the British captain of the Pentathlon team. Knew if he made a wave he wouldn't see Dan again. Reached out to touch that face again. "I'm here", he murmured, again almost choking on the words. He'd imagined to see him and leave, but he couldn't leave Dan like this, too much to tell him, too much to regret and apologise for, too much to explain before Dan left for home. "Rest up, soldier. I'm here." Squeezed the hand again, turned, left, sat down on the bank, and cried, cried with the fear and the sadness and the pain, too tired to do anything but cry, didn't even have the strength to tell the nurse to wake him up in an hour, couldn't waste the time, needed to speak to Dan. Leaned against the wall and cried like a boy losing his family.

Less than thirty minutes later a nurse re-appeared. A different one this time, it seemed the hospital was staffed extremely well. "Sir?" She stood, waiting, until Vadim acknowledged her. "Sir, if you wish to refresh yourself, a room has been made available for you. It is one of the overnight staff rooms that the surgeons are using. If you wish, you may also use the staff canteen and some fresh clothes are ready for you. You will find them in the room, if you'd like to follow me?"

Something must have happened in the meantime. Something … had shifted the already surprising treatment, allowing this rag-tag run-down Russian stranger to see a British patient, and now … now he was treated like a guest. 'On the house', so to speak. No questions asked. No answers given. Just observed.

She waited, her small figure prim and proper in the perfectly starched nurse's uniform, the jet-black hair in a bun and crowned by a neat cap. Seemingly concerned about the stranger's acquiescence, she pointed towards the window which showed Dan asleep again. "Sir, the patient is resting at the moment, but you may visit once you have refreshed yourself." Adding with a smile of generic friendly politeness, "It is safer for the patient if you change into the provided clothing."

Vadim nodded, stood, felt so grateful and tired it was pathetic. Safer for Dan if he didn't bring all the dirt of Pakistan with him. It made sense. He gathered his clothes, the bergan, followed her, as tired as after a night exercise, no, worse.

The room was small, clean, white, a narrow bed, made for these small dark skinned people, he wanted to crash so bad it hurt, but then, he could sleep in prison, he thought, and found that hilarious. He just didn't think he'd get away with it. He was waiting for the hammer to fall, but in the meantime, he'd get the stinking rags off, tossed them in a corner, would wash them later, checked his body for parasites, lice, ticks, fleas. Had slaughtered the veins of his arms with the Italian syringe, if he'd ever get into heroin, he'd inject the shit in the insides of his legs, or between the toes, but he'd needed something more obvious. Had needed to bait his old friend. As long as the doctors didn't think he was a junkie soldier out to finish a job.

He couldn't be here legally, not if they had worked out he was Soviet. No passport to leave Afghanistan, enter Pakistan, leave Pakistan, enter India. He either was on a mission, or a deserter. Vadim began to wash, half-closed his eyes, needed to focus to get the job done. Refreshing. He'd be clean again.

But they allowed him near Dan. For whatever reason. He didn't believe in kindness, not after all these years in the fucking military. The ambassador? Why would she? She didn't strike him as the compassionate type. Might groom him to be a traitor, then. Double-agent. Maybe they had already confirmed his identity. Might suspect he was Interior Ministry. The hammer would fall. By all rights, he should be scurrying away. Self-preservation.

The clothes were a loose-fitting shalwar kameez, loose trousers that didn't reach his ankles, and a shirt that didn't reach his knees, sleeves that didn't reach his wrists. Cotton, a dark blue. Easily the nicest thing he'd worn for years, light, caught the breeze that entered through the shaded window. Stashed the bergan under the bed, wanted to shave, cut his hair, but had decided to return scruffy and hairy to base, if he did. After all, he was going through cold turkey. Might still shave, but just now couldn't be bothered.

Returned to the room they kept Dan in, expected MI5, expected eyes and ears, and couldn't be bothered to evade or hide anything. They were both screwed anyway, he had nothing to lose, whatever. As long as they allowed him here, he was fine.

But there was no one in Dan's ICU. No one but a junior nurse who sat in the corner, waiting patiently. She nodded at Vadim as he entered, without the starched coat and in the clothes they had provided. Clean, and not infectious. If he was dangerous, that seemed to be a different matter. She stood up and left the room, but not before she had moved the chair towards the bed, pointing at it with a smile and a soft "Please".

Vadim gave her a nod, then turned to Dan, who appeared to be asleep, or simply resting, but soon began to stir, the restrained hand jerking, then stilling again. Resignation that went bone-deep, settled into every fibre. He'd survived the blast, injuries and subsequent infections. It had taken everything out of him, to the last cell in his body and most of his mind. Loneliness, while fighting to survive, and he'd lost his strength and reason on the way.

Vadim placed a hand on the twitching fingers, pressed them for a moment, let his hand linger there. He didn't need to cry now, still fucking tired, and hurting, but better now. They allowed him here.

Dan's eyes opened, his face had an almost childlike expression. He smiled, a mere ghost, and his tired voice croaked. "How?"

Vadim smiled, sat down, stroked that hand. "Just booked some time off. Colonel sends greetings, everybody hopes you'll get better soon." Inhaled deeply. "And the shit you pull just to get a new haircut, huh?" Reached out to touch the short hair.

Dan grimaced, laughing would hurt too fucking much and was too much effort. Energy he didn't have. "You … bullshit." Moistened his lips, thirsty again. They'd refilled the bottle and he glanced pointedly at it.

Vadim took the bottle, and trickled some more liquid into Dan's mouth. He could do that for the rest of his life, and not feel he'd wasted any of his talents.

Dan swallowed with a wince, but thankful for the water. "Those who … remember me … celebrate … if dead." Talking took a goddamned lot out of him and he closed his eyes, concentrating on breathing while the sounds of the machines remained steady. Heartbeat, respiration, blood pressure.

Vadim smiled. "I remember you, bitch." He ran his hand over Dan's cheek again, who visibly relaxed, faintly smiling. Just fingertips, didn't want to upset, just be there, just tell Dan any way he could he'd be there. He glanced at the machines, each one unfeeling, witnesses, helpers.

When Dan opened his eyes again he tried to look at his hand and the hated restraints. "Fought … too much … I think." Rolled his eyes. "Don't remember. Just … dark ... fear … pain."

Vadim found the strap that bound that hand, loosened it, knew Dan shouldn't be tied up, freed at least that much. "Don't be disappointed I take no advantage of you. I'm too fucking tired. Pakistan isn't exactly tourist destination, definitely not for folks like me."

"You should … sleep." Dan's own voice got quieter by the second. "Insane …. Russian … fucking … bastard … cunt …" He ended in a whisper, with a smile that took the last reserves out of him and he closed his eyes. He didn't want to sleep, tried to fight it, but his breath evened out almost immediately, and so did his heartbeat. It slowed, but grew steadier. Unfeeling machines that told a story of emotions through facts, sounds and numbers.

He had to look horrible, Vadim thought, if even Dan could see he needed rest. Touched Dan's face again, so glad he could do that, everything else would find a way, somehow, they'd got this far. "Sleep. And get better", he murmured in Russian near the other's ear, then sat again on his chair, determined to stay right there until they made him leave. Not one minute less.

The sound of steps in Vadim's back, entering the room. "Sir, we need to change the dressing and it will be best for the patient if he has the opportunity for prolonged rest." The voice was male, one of the doctors, accompanied by a nurse. They left the strange Russian alone, and yet there was a distanced alertness about them. Friendly, but reserved. They had clearly received instructions, but from whom, and what they were, impossible to tell in their politely friendly faces.

Vadim looked up. "Yeah, I guess." He wanted to offer to be quiet, not wake Dan up, if he could only stay, just like one of the machines, his duty merely to ensure Dan was there and safe.

"We suggest you take some much needed rest yourself. You may see the patient in a few hours. It will be necessary to conduct some observation and medical tests and this might prove upsetting. Less on the patient, who will be sedated, than yourself." The doctor's words were kind but left no room for discussion.

Vadim thought about resisting. How unsettling could it be? After what his imagination had done to him? This was nothing, they'd just keep that body running, nothing unsettling about living and maintenance. He stood, knees weak, stiff, tired, his back hurt, his eyes hurt, most of all the place in his chest that felt.

"You may stay in the room that was provided for you. You will find supper waiting."

"Yes." Vadim moved to the side. "If anything changes … anything. Whatever it is, I need to be there." Tried to make it sound like an order, knew he lacked authority. More like pleading.

Left, back in 'his' room. Somebody had taken the dirty stinking rags, maybe tossed them into a washing machine. A bowl with rice and spicy sauce and bits of meat, looked like lamb, and naan bread. Vadim tore some of it up, dunked it in the sauce, shovelled it in, not used to the spiciness, some minty yogurt stuff cooled his tongue, halfway through the food his body told him he was no longer starving, and he dropped the rest of the bread into the bowl, carried it over to the bed, put it on the nightstand - like a raw conscript, expecting food to be stolen -, pulled the shirt off over his head, lay down, pulled the pillow up, decided he could finish the food later. Slept.

The well-oiled machinery that was the hospital worked smoothly and competently throughout the night. Silence, where the staff rooms were, busy efficiency around the patients. That night, though, saw extraordinary communications, explanations and procedures. Phone calls, faxes, and deliberations between hospital staff and the embassy in Kabul. The question 'why' was asked, time and time again, until answered with 'because you will find me a reason.'

So they did. They examined, checked results, gave eye witness accounts, read the output of machinery and readdressed the situation. A life that had been hanging in the balance for weeks, sustained by machinery and medical care, but one dimension missing. Another 'why'. The 'why to live' and 'what for' and the human need for a reason.

The early morning saw the patient shaved, freshly cleaned, carried on a waterproof sling to the shower rooms and back, and the nasal feeding tube removed under sedation. It was time to test their theory in practice and to find a reason besides 'I wish it so'.

Dan was still sleeping after the removal of tube and some stitches, as well as re-dressing and bandaging of abdomen and left hand. The right resting on the pristine white bed linen beside him. Unrestrained. Several arterial lines and the automated blood pressure missing, but heart rate measure and waste catheters remained. The high-tech room was oddly quiet.

They did not wake Vadim, let the man sleep, whose name they knew and yet they did not. Not in his face.

Vadim woke, disoriented, but not in a bad way. Didn't panic, didn't freak, just rested and relaxed, thought the bastards had let him sleep, and that probably meant nothing had changed, nothing required his presence, as if, he was only a visitor. Came to his senses, lay there, trying to work out how much time he'd have before he had to go back. Maybe a day. Maybe two. The risk was obscene, he could just as well make the most of it. Washed again, dressed, ate the cold spicy food - nobody had entered the room in the meantime - the bread, drank cold tea with that.

He left the room, headed back to the ICU ward, hoped they'd let him in and maybe stay for longer.

"Sir?" A nurse stopped him before he could enter Dan's room. "Since you appear to be a friend of the patient, and the only visitor, we took the liberty to assume you wished to help deliver the first solid food the patient has had since the injury?" 'The patient'. Only ever 'the patient'. No name, a number, and yet they had cared for Dan as if he were their own brother.

Vadim glanced towards the door. Only visitor. No family, no comrades, nothing. "Aye." Solid food. Dan was getting better. Couldn't wait to get back inside.

Dan was awake at last, groggy and sniffling quietly. With the nasal tube removed he was sore again, irritated at the itching in his nostrils and down his throat. Bad-tempered, he didn't know they had reduced the morphine dose to speed up the healing, but he could feel the pain somewhat more acute.

"They said no steak yet, but you can eat." Vadim walked towards the bed, grinning. "Might be that holy cow thing, you know."

Dan smiled tiredly at Vadim in greeting. Not alone. No longer alone. Not dead. Not dying on his own amidst fear and terror. The darkness, the lure, fighting the urge to give up and simply let himself be dragged under. No longer.

Vadim sat down and took Dan's hand. "You look better. Hard to imagine, but you do." He kept that hand in his. "They treat me like fucking hotel. My own room, food, seems like nice place for holidays."

Dan blinked, confused, but at least one thing provided a constant. The hand that held his own. Fucking pathetic, really, that all he could think of was how he craved the strength of that hand. Felt weak, unlike ever before in his life. "Why?" Croaked. Why Vadim had come. Why they treated him like a guest. Why he was even still alive and why the fuck he could not make any sense of anything except for that hand.

The nurse quietly slipped in, leaving a tray with a bowl of puree that looked almost edible. 'Solid food'. The term was used most loosely.

"Guess they hired me as pretty unlikely nurse. Maybe they worked out these darkies aren't really your type." Vadim reached for the puree, smelled it, seemed to be vegetables of some description. Gathered his thought as he took the spoon and scooped some food up in it. "Well, I thought it was smart idea to walk into British embassy." Raised the spoon and put it to Dan's lips. "Now, be good boy."

Dan's eyes widened, fixed on Vadim, not the spoon. "You did ... what?" Made the mistake of opening his mouth and before he could try and find enough energy to say anything else, the spoon was pushed between his lips. He grimaced, but took the food and made a mighty effort to swallow. Wasn't all that bad. Tasted ... of food, not plastic nor sterile solutions nor the horrible taste of death.

He didn't have to chew, thankfully, and the way the puree made its way down to his stomach was almost close to bliss. Felt like life. One step closer to living. Swallowed, grimacing again. "You … crazy fucker."

Vadim laughed. "Yeah. Above and beyond, and who dares wins …" He shook his head. Enough military talk. Pulled the spoon back and gathered more food. "Told them you'd let me live and that I wanted to thank you. Needed to know." Another spoon between Dan's lips, another little bit of food.

Dan frowned, but swallowed. Resigned to the food that kept coming. The fighting spirit was still there, it had just been buried.

"The woman ambassador gave me some trouble, but told me name." And yet another spoon.

"Maggie?" Dan managed to bring out before the food made its way into his mouth again and he had no other option but to swallow.

"Hairstyle like that Thatcher woman? Then it's Maggie. Your boss."

The deal clear. As long as Dan swallowed, Vadim would keep talking. "Didn't quite exactly tell them who I am, thought that was smarter. They might guess, but I don't care." He glanced at Dan. Another spoon, and another heroic effort to get that goddamned puree down. "Faked heroin addiction, freaked out my commander, pissed off into mountains, killed less Pakistanis on the way than I had thought, and well, barged right into this place. Quite funny, really."

Dan was listening, eyes wide, while obediently swallowing, the first food by mouth for several weeks. But soon he raised his fingers, just a little, feebly prodding Vadim. He couldn't anymore, just couldn't. His stomach full to bursting after a few spoonfuls.

Vadim put the puree down, spoon and bowl went back on the tray. Took the napkin and wiped Dan's mouth.

"Why?" Dan whispered. Why. Again. Why. "You risked … Your life …" Tell me why. Tell me. Tell me why you're here and why the fuck I've been fighting so hard to live.

"No, didn't risk anything. Well, yes, okay, nothing more than what I usually do." Vadim shrugged. "Thought I'd at least get to say goodbye before you piss off back home." He nodded to Dan's abdomen. "That's ticket home, Dan. Good for you. You're making it out alright …" More cheerful than he felt, by far. Needed to get Dan's spirits up, only way for him to bear it.

"Fuck you ... Russkie." Even the raspy, quiet voice could transport some of Dan's intensity. "Fuck … you. Not going. Nothing keeps ... here. Not soldier. You know." The machines were getting louder, the bleeping faster, aggravated, blood pressure shooting up. "No one … back. Not ... away. Here with you. Fuck … you." Machinery exploding into a cacophony of noise and the sound of feet rushing towards the room was heard.

Vadim groaned, tried a smile, but was too alarmed. "Hey, take it easy. Dan. Fuck. I was joking." Because it hurts. Reached out to touch that hand again, had blown it, knew they'd kick him out now. "I needed to see you before … Just needed to see you." Stepped away from the bed, as if to indicate he was just as startled as anybody else and raised his hands.

"Out!" The nurse ordered, came rushing in, pushing Vadim out of the way as she ran to the patient.

"Fuck you!" The hellish noise of the machines drowned out Dan's desperate attempt to shout, abusing his throat and ending with the worst: coughing. Fists clenched and faced crunched up in pain, eyes shut. The nurse was talking to him, but even through the glass pane it was obvious he wasn't listening. Face wet. Crying.

She kept talking, but Dan refused to listen and even when she turned to glare through the glass panel at the man who seemed to have caused the upset, Dan's lips would still mouth "no". Over and over again until she finally nodded, and the machines began to quieten.

Vadim rested his forehead against the wall outside, watched, wincing, felt guilty as hell, shouldn't have brought up the issue, of course not, Dan wasn't a 'comrade' who would go home to a medal and a pension that wasn't enough. Dan had stayed around because he was still tied to the meatgrinder. "Good work, Vadim", he murmured. "Excellent work."

The nurse stepped out, shook her head to a surgeon who appeared in the door frame, spoke in Indian to him. The man glanced at Vadim before he left and the nurse addressed the Russian. "The patient asks to see you again." She was apparently not happy about this request. "Please, Sir, whatever you do, try not to aggravate the patient. He is far more fragile than you might think and we are lowering the morphine dose, he will be suffering from withdrawal. He is probably not quite himself." She stepped aside.

"Yes, I'm sorry. I said the wrong thing." Vadim inhaled, almost didn't expect to be left in again, but she gestured and he returned to Dan's side. "I have talent to make you suffer." He sat down again, looked at him. "All to crack stupid joke."

Dan's face was wet and it bloody itched. Tried to wipe it by turning his head into the pillow, made a pathetically feeble failure out of it. Looked up, just looked. Breathed. Heart beating. Alive.

"Start ... again? I need to … tell you. Much. Didn't think … get … chance." Mighty effort, and his eyes closed for a moment when he was finished.

Vadim leaned in, supported his weight against the wall, not on the bed, didn't want to send the tiniest shock through Dan, rattling the bed could only be bad. "I'm here. Lots of time." He glanced around, couldn't see a towel, but there were some kind of sterile wipes, and he cleaned Dan's face, was close enough to kiss him again. "Doesn't have to be now. I'm here. Take your time." He sat down again, tossed the wipes into a bin. "Relax. Won't do to hurt you." More.

Dan nodded, lay with his eyes closed. Was easy to just do what he was told. To simply be. Not alone. His hand searching for Vadim's, landing somewhere, he wasn't sure where. Didn't matter, as long as he was touching. Just not being alone. Dan lay still for a very long time, he looked as if he had fallen asleep amidst the quietened down bleeping and the faint hiss of the oxygen.

He took a sudden, deeper breath before he finally opened his eyes again, after almost half an hour. Again he looked intently, as if he had to convince himself that Vadim really was there. Smiled tiredly, blinked his eyes. "I was frightened." Quiet voice, hardly more than a whisper. Helped to preserve what little strength he had. "Not death … but dying. Alone. Not knowing."

Didn't know how much sense he was making, but everything was a jumble with only a few clear thoughts in his mind, anyway. "Don't leave me." I need you. I love you. And all that other fucking shit that I used to laugh about, a lifetime ago. "Don't ... leave me. Can't bear …"

Vadim kept that hand in both of his, held it, would have killed to have Dan rest at his side, relaxing, at ease again. "I'm not leaving, Dan. I'm here." Wanted to deny the thought, wanted to deny thinking why go back at all? Why not simply stay here, forever. Let Afghanistan spin into chaos alone. It was a retreat anyway. Unless the party had been joking. Difficult to tell the difference. But the war effort was being disassembled, things would end soon, a defeat, the end of a duty. He didn't have to help with that. He could just stay here. "I have some time." And then I have to go back, help with the retreat, and I have no idea where my career will take me after that. Make Colonel in a different hellhole.

"No," Dan was desperate, "not just … some time. All these … years always … some time." He took in a deeper breath but winced, it hurt to breathe because of the slashes across his abdomen, as if an alien monster had sharpened its claws on his body. "Please …"

Need to be with you.

Dark eyes pleading, too large, too big and too fucking desperate. But Dan knew. Knew deep down that it was impossible, yet couldn't bear accept reality. Not now. Too weak and too familiar with death. "I need you."

He could not fall any further down. Rock bottom. And at the very bottom was just this one thing. The core of it all. "Fucking … love you … too much."

Vadim felt the tears again, this time no exhaustion to justify it. Pressed that hand, then, appalled at the potential to hurt Dan further, loosened the grip. "Yes … I know. Fuck, I know." Leaned in to kiss the hand, blinked the tears off, wiped his face on his arm. "I'll be with you. I promise."

Almost broke into tears again, like a fucking stupid bitch. "I'll find way to get out." Who knows, it might even work. We've been through everything bad. There might just be something good in the end. If the universe was fair. If pigs could fly. "I'd walk through minefield." Looked up. "I promise. I'll get out, somehow."

"OK." Dan smiled. So simple. Straightforward. Naïve in his acceptance of a promise against all odds. Childlike, because he had no strength left to be the hard-arsed man and the tough killer. Right now he was nothing but a very physically hurt man who had been through hell and back, clinging to this promise.

"We be … together. More than just … few … hours. Wanna die … with you. Not … alone."

Tiredness threatening to drag him under again. Fought to stay awake, needed to spend every second with the other while he could.

Vadim kissed that hand again, looked up. "We won't die. We'll never die. I promise." He'd promise anything, meant it, would die defending this man, would live and die and suffer for him. "Never alone again. Rest. I'll be here." He tried a smile, took Dan's hand and ran it over his face.

"We fucking deserve more than what we got so far. We'll take it. Just get ourselves something … more." Vadim had no idea what that more was, apart from being together, had no idea what life could be like outside the Soviet Union. Because he would have to leave. Traitor, turncoat, homeless scum.

"Aye…," Dan's eyes were closing, even though he didn't want to fall asleep, but the exhaustion was dragging him under, "we get more." He was asleep the very next moment.

The nurses let Vadim sit where he was, left him in peace except for refreshing Dan's bottle, taking the puree away and telling the visitor they were going to replace it once the patient awoke. They brought food for Vadim, allowed him to eat it outside, on the bench, right in front of the glass window. Asked him to leave only when it was time to clean the patient and remove the waste, re-attaching Dan to nutrient solutions then redressing the wounds. Left the two men alone otherwise, checking the readouts on the machines, seemingly satisfied.

Dan woke again after a few hours, ate a few spoonfuls as before, could only stomach so little, but drank some water. Did his best to swallow down a thick nutritional liquid, claimed it tasted of pureed chocolate bars. He could only ever talk a little before his strength ran out and he had to fight to stay awake. Then he slept again. Deeper each time. More restful. Gaining strength with every hour.

The medical staff asked Vadim to rest in the provided room, where food was waiting and fresh clothing, his own rags washed and neatly folded. Two days and nights passed as before, and Dan was able to eat a little more every time, stay awake longer, and increase in strength.

On the third day Dan's left hand was left unbandaged except for thin gauze, allowing the marvel of modern medicine and finely skilled metal work to heal with air getting to the wound. The hand rested across his lap, and Dan tried to wiggle the fingers a tiny bit. Was about to make a feeble joke when a nurse came in, carrying the phone from the station's office, trailing the cable behind her. She smiled, announced a phone call for the patient.

"Yes?" Dan's voice had become less croaky during the last days.

"Hello Dan." The female voice with its perfectly precise diction familiar to him. "I am glad you are improving." Dan thought he heard a smile.

"Ma'm?" He turned his head towards the receiver.

"Yes, Dan, it's me. Please don't talk too much, it is imperative you preserve your strength." She paused, "this is also why I have not called before, but I was kept updated every day, if not every hour. I am sorry that …," she faltered, unlike herself, "… I could not come and visit. My duties kept me here, as you must know."

"I know … Ma'm. Thank you …"

"Ssshhhh …" She almost sounded like a mother, hushing her child. "Don't talk, and don't thank me. What would you thank me for?" She did not mean for him to answer, but he quietly interrupted anyway.

"Hospital ... must be … fortune."

"No." Her answer firm, she had found back to her usual self. "Do not ever thank me for this. You saved my life, Dan, I shall be forever in your debt, and don't you argue."

Vadim saw Dan smile, his eyes closed once more, and heard him answer. "Just did … my duty." Before trailing off and listening, not given another chance to talk.

"Yes," she replied, "your duty and more. Since you have done your duty above and beyond the call of it, I want to make sure you recuperate well. You will be flown back to the embassy in Kabul once you can be transported. I want to personally oversee your care. Is that understood, Dan?"

"Yes, Ma'm." Was all he had left to say. Tired, but with a sudden surge of energy. Hoping. Kabul. Afghanistan, and this meant Vadim. He'd be close, not in another country that could never be his home again.

"Good, and now rest, get better, and hand that phone over to the man who, I believe, is sitting right next to you right now."

Dan's shock was evident. "Ma'm?" Eyes suddenly open, he did what he had been told, moving his hand a little, indicating to Vadim to take the receiver.

Vadim frowned, questioning. Ma'm. Meant the woman ambassador. The boss. He had lied to her, yes, well, whatever, and she had made it possible. He didn't doubt it. At least he now knew what the correct address was. "Ma'm?" Mimicking the way Dan had said it, still holding Dan's hand.

"Major Krasnorada," she paused a mere half-heartbeat, "if I am correct?"

Vadim inhaled. No use denying, had known it from the moment they had a good look at his face. "I'm afraid I used dead man's name, yes, Ma'm."

"Understandably so, Major." She used his full rank and title, deliberately. "I am not one for small-talk, let us come straight to the point. You are a member of the Soviet Forces, and you happened to cross Pakistan into India. Two countries which are known for their anti Soviet stance." She paused, but not long enough for him to get a word in.

"You have lied, most probably to every faction involved, and risked your life in the process. Which is, I would assume, still very much on the line. While I am suitably impressed by the whole course of action, I do wonder, obviously, what are the reasons why." Another minute pause, "are the reasons of a personal nature, Major Krasnorada?"

Vadim replied, "I don't care for politics. I don't wear uniform, that means I'm not soldier." I wish. He inhaled deeply. That thin blade of steel that had separated his private life from soldiering, Dan from soldiering, Dan from his family, it looked like it could be pushed away. He didn't want to think it. But knew he was deluding himself. Delusion as the antidote to madness.

"Excuse me. That was … premature." He glanced at Dan. "The reasons are of personal nature. As personal as they come. I didn't lie to you. I didn't tell you all of it, but I didn't lie."

Dan, dog-tired, was watching and listening, but he could not make out anything above the sound of the machines except for Vadim's replies.

She was speaking again. "Personal, I understand, but while you are not wearing a uniform at this moment, Major, you were and you will be. Unless you are a deserter or a traitor. Are you, Major Krasnorada?"

Am I? All I did was steal two weeks from an army that is already pulling back. A few patrols, paperwork. I didn't take Dan prisoner, I didn't force him to give me the letters, I didn't stop a foreign merc interfering in Soviet internal business. Is that treason? Deserter? Away without leave. Well, technically, he had leave. Not officially, but his commanding officer knew. A lie, but … did it really make so much of a difference? "I believe that is matter of interpretation." Oh, that's the easy way out, Vadim. Fall back on philosophy.

"No, Major, it is not. Not during our little telephone conversation. In a court room perhaps, but not between us. Trust me, there is not much I do not have access to, even to some information of a more sensitive nature, far locked away behind an Iron Curtain." Cool, without inflection in that perfect voice of hers. "Rest assured, nothing was flagged up in my search. A search that, I presume, you can sympathise with. I could not allow you to possibly harm Dan McFadyen, you will understand. Dan, a man to whom both of us seem to owe a lot."

Chastised, Vadim thought. But loyalty was such a complicated thing. Much more complicated than he could think through at the moment. "Yes, Ma'm, I stand corrected." She had to know he was Interior Ministry, a double agent might even have given her access.

"I assume you wish to leave it like this, Major - a track record without tracks." The line went dead for a moment. "I am willing to help you with this and ensure you cross safely back into Afghanistan. For Dan's sake."

And I wish I could just drop it, leave everything behind. Wish I could screw them all, comrades, army, motherland, Katya, my children. My father. My country. My people. Wish I could run away and disgrace everything I've believed in for almost forty years. "If you could … make transport available, that would be great help." He looked at Dan, held his hand firmly. Barely believed his luck, could not wish for more than making the way back easier. Small mercies? Hardly small.

"Yes." Her answer. "There will be transportation, in two days, at 0500 hrs. The journey will be in stages, papers will be provided. You will receive instructions on the day." When she spoke again there was something in her voice which made her sound a little more human. "I was told Dan is making rapid progress. Something that had been lacking for the past weeks, during which I had been very worried. I can only assume this is down to your presence." She paused, "Thank you, Major." The line went dead.

Vadim lowered the phone. Two days. Two days he'd spend with Dan, holding his hand, feeding him - and finding a way how to explain he had to leave again without plunging him back into darkness. "A … remarkable person." He looked at Dan, returned the phone to the nurse.

"Dan. About … what I promised."

"You are leaving." Dan's quiet words cut in between.

This would be hard now. So fucking hard, but she had forced his hand while Dan watched. "I'll … leave my country. Leave army. But it's complicated. I can't stay right now. I am … not just soldier. We don't just hand in our resignation. I can't just run away, without … putting people into danger. I still have … family in Moscow. If I leave, they will bring down boot. I know it, I've seen it happen before. If they can't touch me, they will destroy everyone that is less lucky than I am."

Dan nodded. Said nothing. His eyes, still too large and too dark just rested on Vadim.

It hurt. Katya? Tough as she was. She was the wife, she would be made to suffer. Anoushka and Nikol'? Nothing worse than being the spawn of a traitor. Not only dishonoured. Forever stigmatised. There were ways to make their lives hell. "I need to get them out of their reach first. I'll make sure they are out. I owe them that much. Just … even scores, make … my marriage fail, find way that they won't touch my family. A little more patience. I'll return. I'll stay. I want to … to try and live with you, stay with you. Start over again, without all that … that bullshit. You and me and nothing else. Dan?"

"I know. I … am sorry." Dan was backtracking. Backpaddling. Back ... taking everything back. The begging, the fear, the unrealistic hopes and wishes and the stupidity of weakness. A vague memory of who he had been and who he would be again, if only he were further away from death and decay. Soldiers. Men. Merc and Major. "Too tired." He tried to smile.

"No. Oh fuck." Vadim took that hand again, kissed it, rubbed his face against it, wanted to stay, cursed the moment he'd seen Katya, cursed the night he'd spent with her, the first one, cursed how he had tried to hide, used her to hide, how he had made a career. Be careful what you wish for. He had wanted a career.

"Maggie will ... help." Dan murmured, "True to her word. Always." Dan refused to acknowledge everything of what Vadim had said. Couldn't deal with it, the full magnitude of it all.

Vadim nodded. "She holds you dear. She would have protected you like lioness. Well, she did." He looked around in the room, but didn't see any obvious cameras. "We have more time. You … heal up, and I'll do my thing, and we meet in Kabul. There, we'll work out how I can leave. What we do after that. Give it few months."

"Sure." Dan's hand attempted another pathetic squeeze. His fingers unlike they had ever been. Clean, soft, most of the calluses gone. No cuts nor bruises.

"A few … months." Dan didn't believe it, but he tried, wanted so much. "I have to get … back into shape. Takes … a while. Got to … learn eating … food … first." He was flagging, but he wouldn't let go of Vadim's hand. Despite his words he was still holding onto the other's promise with the same desperation as before.

Vadim looked at him, sceptically then glanced at the door, and leaned in to kiss, the chaste kind of kiss that was reassuring, did not mean to create any heat or desire, of course not. "Yes. You can do rest of healing alone. You don't need me for that." He tried a smile, then glanced at the door, which opened. Nurse with puree. "Now. Let's get some food into you."

Dan's eyes were closed, couldn't get himself to open them. Too much effort, but he smiled at the kiss. Sulked, though, like a kid, when the puree arrived. "Do I … have to?"

Yet he did. Ate as much as he could, but after a while, the spoon still between his lips, he had fallen asleep. Just like that. Lapushka, indeed. Asleep in the middle of eating, like a kitten dropping into a bowl of food.

* * *

Dan was flown back into Kabul by private plane three weeks later, to receive physiotherapy back at the embassy. His room had been kitted out to support the process, and he'd been allocated a nurse. His very own goddamned nurse. Dan would have laughed at the notion, if the laughter hadn't caused agony.

He was subdued when he returned, spoke little, slept most of the time, thankful to his employer for the care and most of all, for giving him space and quiet. It had been one time too many that he'd dodged the grim reaper. This time it had gone too far and he was still grappling with the bony fingers, disentangling himself from the hooded cape.

At least he didn't have to worry about Vadim, knowing he'd returned to his unit with the Baroness' secret help. He had gone back with minor interrogation and very little suspicion.

Sitting and lying in the embassy, using a wheelchair when the nurse - his nurse - caught him trying to do too much too soon. When she allowed it, or he could sneak away, he made very slow rounds in the garden while supporting himself on walls and greenery, refusing to use a crutch unless he absolutely had to. Dan healed slowly, laboriously. It was the most difficult task he'd ever undertaken. The torn and cut stomach muscles leaving the core of his centre weak and racked with pain every time he tried so much as move, speak, let alone cough. Still, he was working hard on his physio, as hard as he was allowed. Hand flexing, muscles building back up, joints re-aligning.

Two weeks later and he could bear it no longer. He had to see Vadim, or he was going mad like a tiger in a golden cage. Determined to talk to the Baroness, he was working all day on what he was going to say, which excuse to use.

When she finally had time for him in the early evening, he was taken to the garden, where she sat in the shade, glasses with freshly pressed juice waiting. Looking at her, he forgot all his clever ideas and all his pondering, and went barging straight ahead.

"Ma'm?" Dan's voice still hadn't returned to its former self. "I must ask you a favour."

She sat opposite to him in the white metal garden chair. "Go right ahead, Dan." She smiled and nodded.

"I have to get out of here, or I am going insane."

Her brows rose. "I beg your pardon?"

"Please, Ma'm." Dan didn't know how to start nor end it and least of all the bit in the middle. Still far too exhausted to try and rose-tint any of his words. "I need a safe house. Something - anything - where I can meet … someone. Please." He couldn't even ask for the house he'd been renting. It wouldn't do for her to know where it was.

"I do not understand, Dan." Her face neutral, he didn't know if the words were a decoy, or the plain truth. "Who would you want to wish to meet who cannot come here?"

Dan shook his head, wincing at the movement. "Ma'm …," he paused, desperately searching for words that were neither lies nor truth. "Ma'm, someone … you have met. I need … need to see …," he finally took a breath, as deep as he could without reeling in pain, "need to see the Soviet officer. You know him, you spoke to him and you helped him."

She was looking at him in silence. Both hands folded in her lap, the scrutiny of her intelligent eyes on Dan until he felt uncomfortable under her gaze. She knew, surely, she had to? But why didn't she ask? He'd tell her, anything, he had no secrets, not right now. Too tired.

"Agreed." Just that, one word, and she nodded without further questions. Dan didn't know if he should be thankful, he felt strangely anxious about her lack of reaction. It had been too quick, too good to be true, and why didn't she ask any questions.

"I will have this arranged for you, but how do you propose to communicate the location of the place to the person in question?"

All those big words, they sometimes hurt his brain, especially right now, when he was still tiring easily. Feeling like a very old man, parked somewhere on the sidelines, because Death had forgotten to pick him up.

"There's a tea house, in the centre of the city." It all felt too easy, yet he refused to believe she had a hidden agenda. "Someone could leave a coded message with the address?

She nodded, "Yes, this can be arranged. I will see to it."

"Thank you, Ma'm."

She smiled at last. "It's the least I can do."

"You don't owe me anything." He looked up when she stood.

"I know." Smoothing her skirt down, pastel twin set and understated pearls, as perfect as ever. "But I do, anyway." She took a step closer, resting a hand on his shoulder. It felt small, he thought, and warm, and so much unlike Vadim's.

"I consider you a friend, Dan. And that is more than I consider anyone else."

With that she left, leaving him stunned, staring after her.

* * *

She walked straight back to her office, deep in thought. The information that she had received only a few days earlier had not let her rest, and now that Dan had asked her that question … her lips were in a tense line when she sat down at her desk, opening the locked drawer with her personal files.

'Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada', the folder read on the cover, and a string of numbers beneath the name. She opened the papers, skimming over the first couple of pages of vital data, stats, and basic information. Swimmer, recruit, athlete, spetsnaz training. Soldier, husband, father of two children. Moscow, medals, and a rather interesting medical file that had several gaps during the time serving in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office had been forced to do some guesswork, but she wondered, speculated and checked, cross-checked dates and years against the claim that an SAS soldier had saved a spetsnaz soldier's life.

She turned another page, reading through the one passage that had caught her attention more than anything. 'Attempted Defection', it said, stating that Vadim Krasnorada had been contacted by the Foreign Office in 1983, five years ago, during a stay in London, where he had given a sports related talk. At least that had been the cover story. A B-class athlete in Britain, A-class Soviet Special Forces, and there for a talk. She frowned.

Taking a sheet of paper from a stack of embossed stationary, she unscrewed her fountain pen, making a few notes in her boldly elegant handwriting, line after neatly straight line. Dates, times, names, and locations. Cross-referencing once more.

Why Dan. Why the story. Owing a life? Crossing enemy territory and risking one's own life to tell another what one felt? She shook her head slightly, putting down the pen.

"Major Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada," she murmured, "what is your real motive." Going once more over the lines she had written, trying to make sense of it all. Attempted Defection. London. Interest. A man who seemed ready to be turned … and didn't. As far as anyone knew. Moving with her eyes from one line of facts to another, curt, precise and undeniable in Royal blue on white. Career. Sports. Military. Family. Afghanistan. Operations. Special Forces. And the one, looming question of various shades of grey: why. Why and most of all, what affiliation. KGB? Interior Ministry?

Why Dan. Why risking his life crossing Pakistan into India, both hostile territory. Why for a man, an ex-SAS soldier, lying in a hospital, injured. It made no sense, not unless … she shook her head.

Two options, and one was more obvious than the other.

What if Major Krasnorada had only appeared to want to defect, and what if he had spied on the Brits in return? But how? Using Dan? She shook her head again. Nothing had come up in any search, certainly not when vetting Dan. It still did not make any sense. If Krasnorada had been instructed to spy on British activities in this part of the world, why would he have gone to the extreme of risking his life to see his injured target? No need for that. The moment Dan was out of the picture he was of no interest to the Russians anymore.

What else, then. Personal reasons? The other option? She rose her brows before picking up the spectacles, perching them on the bridge of her nose to flick through a couple more pages in the file. Married. Two children. A Spetsnaz officer as honeytrap? What a ludicrous idea. Besides, what about Dan himself?

What, indeed. She knew nothing about Dan McFadyen's personal life, and had never seen the reason to pry. It was of no consequence what he did off duty, as long as it did not pose any security risk. Afghan sweetheart, most likely, she had reckoned, whenever he vanished to that rented place of his. The one he did not believe she knew about and in return she had no intention to admit to her knowledge.

Still, she remembered facts from another file, including eye witness accounts, with which the hospital had kept her up-to-date. Daily, if not hourly. Those reports had stated Dan's recuperation in clear and untainted facts. A progress that had accelerated dramatically since the day the tall, blond visitor arrived. The run-down Soviet, who had been barely able to do more than crawl, covered in dirt. Remembering, too, her own conversations with that man.

She looked back down at the paper with her notes, underlining a couple of facts. Juxtaposed two options. The one or the other, and there was no way she could get around the final conclusion: she had to know the truth. What and who was Major Krasnorada, and what connection did he have with Dan.

Still, she frowned, as she screwed the cap back onto the pen. The truth was no easily gained commodity, and this time, she could not simply ask.

Two options. One sinister, one unforeseen.

She had to pay any price to know.

* * *

Two days later Baroness de Vilde was sitting at her desk, talking to the trusted employee she had tasked to take Dan to and from the safe house.

"Do you understand my orders, Mr Craik?"

The man nodded, "Yes, Ma'm. I am to take Mr McFadyen to the address you have just given me, then covertly gather information as to the nature of the meeting. Who he is to meet, and why. Furthermore I am to take photos, undetected, and bring them back to you."

She nodded. Her face was hard, lined with tension, as if she harboured a headache. "Yes, thank you, that will be all."

He nodded and turned, but stopped when she called after him, "Mr Craik, do not forget that no one is to know my orders, least of all Mr McFadyen. You must be as discreet as possible."

"Of course, Ma'm, I understand."

"Do you?"

He looked at her with confusion.

"Never you mind," she waved him off, "it is simply a matter of my own concern and no one else's."

He left the room with another nod, preparing to take the ambassador's invalid head of security to the address she had stated. The small camera hidden in his jacket pocket.

* * *

Dan had been taken in one of the large cars to an address in Kabul that was sufficiently far away from the place he was renting, and adequately secure for Vadim, who, he could only hope, had received the note that had been left in the tea house.

Left alone by the driver, Dan felt fairly safe in the ground floor rooms. Definitely more up-market than what they'd been used to until he'd rented the place near the Soviet HQ. He was sitting in a comfortable chair that had been brought as well, letting his eyes wander over a table and a place to recline on. Not quite a bed, but restful enough. A bag on the table, containing some snacks, which made Dan smile. Touched at being taken care of, and ever so slightly embarrassed as well. It reminded him of the packed lunches his mum had prepared for school, a lifetime ago.

Dressed in comfortable clothes, he had refused a blanket the driver had tried to place over him, complaining he wasn't a pensioner yet and it was too warm anyway. Sitting and snoozing, once more succumbed to the lingering tiredness, Dan waited.

* * *

With matters in the south taken care of, and his friend, the local commander, pleased as pie that he'd clearly saved Vadim's reputation, freedom, if not his life, Vadim had pulled strings to return to Kabul, right after his miraculous recovery from heroin addiction.

The nagging worry was there that Dan hadn't made it. That there had been an about turn in his healing process and he had quietly, painfully died. The one thing he convinced himself of, though, was that he hoped the embassy would release information about it if Dan actually had died, and some of his time was spent trawling through information. The Brits were shrewd, but he hoped the metal-haired woman might be compassionate enough to let him know.

The message in the tea house was irresistible. They might have decided to take him prisoner, they might, might, might, but it could also be genuine, and he followed the directions, leading him to a crowded street, busy, lots of parked cars. He didn't like it, it seemed too easy to hide a sniper or a team to capture him, but he still followed the bait, unaware of a camera in the distance, snapping away. A local servant opened, and seemed to know what he wanted. Lead him to a door, bowed, and left him.

Vadim opened the door and saw Dan, slumped on a chair, asleep, but so much better than he had been. He quickly closed the door and stepped towards him. "Dan?" Moving closer, touching him on the shoulder.

"Huh?" Dan snapped awake, old instincts hadn't died, but the sudden movement pulled on tender muscles, and he winced, quickly recovering when he saw the face in front of him. "Vadim!" He smiled, cleared his throat and rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up. "Sorry I … must have fallen asleep again. Still happens a lot." His right hand touched the other's shoulder, while the left lay in his lap. No bandage anymore, just healed flesh and bones, covered with tender, scarred skin.

Vadim reached to pull up a chair, sat opposite, knees touching. Leaning forward, he took Dan's wounded hand and touched it, carefully, the fingers and thumb, and the line down to the wrist. "Of course. You're still … ah … fucked." He gave a smile.

Dan grinned tiredly, moved the hand, the fingers, still awkward but showing off how well he was doing already. "I got dropped off and I guess I must have fallen asleep." He kept his eyes on Vadim, every single second, could not bear to miss even a blink.

"Hope you didn't wait for too long. How have you been?"

"Been OK, cabin fever, but they won't let me do much yet." Following the line of Vadim's smoothly shaved jaw with his good hand, Dan's fingertips lingered on the other's lips. "I got my own nurse. Cool, eh?"

"Is she pretty?" Vadim felt a tightness in his throat, just thinking about how close it had been. Just seeing the scars, seeing what the injury had made Dan into, even if he'd get better.

"I don't know," Dan shrugged, grinned a little, "she's not male, but I guess she isn't too bad. The other guys keep whistling at her." He leaned closer, wanted to kiss Vadim, but bending forward was still impossible.

Unaware of a camera clicking away, hidden behind a side window.

Vadim had lost his appetite for war, and just couldn't imagine it could come back. "I've had time to think", he murmured. "Are you alright to talk … about a few things?"

Dan's eyes took on an alarmed look. "What things?" Don't leave me, you promised you'd stay with me and you'd find a way. "About how you got out of India? The Baroness told me she helped you."

Vadim nodded, wincing almost when he saw Dan had trouble moving. Maybe talk some other time, but he'd started, and Dan seemed to fear the worst. "Yes, that too. She organized transport. Please convey my gratitude to her. I think your … access to her is likely more informal than mine." Chartered plane, jeeps, bribed patrols, over the mountains, back into the hell hole, but all had gone like clockwork. Food and water provided.

"No, something else. If you still want me to stay with you … more than what we had, I mean. You know, stay together all the time." Odd, to gamble his very existence on an emotion. "I'm willing to run away. Leave the army, and my country. This here is almost over, I don't want another one of these, and I … you mean too much to me. I'd like to try and spend, you know. More time with you. Just you."

Dan said nothing. Overwhelmed and silenced, staring at Vadim, wide-eyed and speechless.

"That's yes, then." Vadim ran his hand over his hair, oddly self-conscious. "I hope." Quirking a smile.

"Aye," Dan found his ability to speak at last, "I mean, yes. Holy fuck, yes!" His hand trembled, cursing his physical weakness, the way he got floored by nothing but words, yet words he'd never hoped to hear - not even when he had begged Vadim to stay.

"There's one thing I need to do, and that is get Katya out of it, and my children. Next time I fly home, I'll make sure she'll be alright, and when I come back, I'll desert. I could use some help with leaving the country, and finding a place to live. I don't know much, but …" He paused. "Maybe your government needs to verify some information. It's not much, but maybe it's enough."

"Of course," Dan nodded, his good hand clutching at Vadim's arm, "I'll talk to Maggie, I'm sure she'll help, it must be good to get Spetsnaz on your side, and what I hear from your home country, they are fucking themselves sideways, royally."

"I'm not important … and I don't know much, make no mistake." Vadim smiled, felt warm from Dan's eagerness and faith. Inhaling deeply, then he leaned down to kiss Dan's scarred hand. "Good. Because I love you, Dan, more than I can tell you, and I want to make things good, for once." He stood, keeping Dan's hand in his, and leaned in to brush Dan's lips with his. "And you spend all nights with me, anyway. I can feel you, inside and outside, in my mind, all the time. I want to spend days with you, too. No escape. We must be together."

Dan smiled, felt those damned tears prick at the back of his eyes, wondered since when he'd become a cry-baby. "You're with me," Dan murmured against Vadim's lips. "In my thoughts, my heart, my mind, no matter what I am doing. I goddamned need you, and I want you - always." Together, his mind could hardly grasp the concept. After eight years, through hell and purgatory, to find themselves in this; this love. His lips parted, eager to kiss deeply, while his hand pulled Vadim closer. "I want you," he whispered between kisses, "it's been so damn long."

And still, the hidden camera was clicking.

Vadim kissed right back, running his hand through Dan's hair, less long and tousled than it had been, but still longer than his own. "Yes, me too." He kissed Dan's face, the side of his throat, relishing his warmth. "But you're not up to it. Heal up first."

"But I could!" Dan insisted, while tipping his head back and allowing access to his throat. "I don't need to do much, can just suck you." His hand ran down Vadim's side, resting on the hip, fingers digging into the fabric.

Vadim shook his head. His body had different ideas, of course, but just the thought of being rough to Dan in this state was bad. One thing to want, another to want a man who was clearly not up for it. "Keep that thought for another time, yes?"

Dan frowned, he knew Vadim was right but refused to accept it. "How long have you got?" The one question, always on the forefront of his mind. Vadim, leaving, being with him, hope. The unbelievable reality of hope. He still could not grasp it.

"A couple hours. There's some kind of demonstration going on, no idea, but I should be back in three hours."

"That's not much. It's not enough." Demanding, like Dan had done, in the hospital. He immediately caught himself. "Fuck, I'm sorry." His hand moved away from Vadim's hip, trailing back up to caress the temple, jaw, and face. "Don't mind me, I'll eventually get back to being normal, and not a whining bimbo."

Vadim grinned. "I didn't have much time to prepare. The message came unexpected. Next time, I'll have more time. Promise." He glanced towards the recliner. "You could stretch out." And I hold you. He offered both hands to Dan. "Let's get over there."

"OK, that's better." Dan couldn't quite suppress the wince when he was pulled up, those goddamned muscles took a hell of a long time to heal. Leaning against Vadim's chest, not because he had to, but because he could, he tilted his head, kissing once more, with all the pent up tenderness, love and need, that he'd been harbouring since he returned to consciousness. Vadim closed his eyes, falling into the kissing, hands coming up to Dan's upper arms, closed around them. Wanting, with a gentle, heartfelt warmth that was sweetly painful.

"Just help me down, aye? The stomach's still a bitch." Dan murmured.

"Yes." Vadim moved towards the bed, supporting Dan shuffling over, and slipped his hands under Dan's shoulders, taking over some of his weight, gently lowering him down. Vadim then knelt down and lifted Dan's legs up on the bed, watching him for signs of discomfort.

Dan grinned, but yelped when the grin spilled over into a laugh. "Oh shit," pressing a hand onto his stomach when he lay stretched out on his back. "I'm a far cry from the roughie toughie SAS soldier that you used to know, aye?" Grinning up into pale eyes, while working on the buttons of his shirt.

Vadim shook his head. "Also far call from man I saw in Kashmir." He glanced at Dan's fingers. "What are you doing? Planning to show off your scars to me?"

"Nope, planning to get some skin on skin." Dan poked a finger into Vadim's chest to get him to take his tunic off. "Besides, I've still got a bandage on, they strap me up every day, with some heavy elastic crap. Has to do with the muscles, stomach walls, intestines and goodness what." He shrugged one-sided, managing to fiddle the buttons open and pulled the shirt apart. "See?"

"Yes. Like mummy." Vadim leaned in to kiss Dan's chest, finger tips carefully tracing the bandages, but nowhere near the stomach, just the side, then stood to take off belt and vest and shirt, forming a ball with it and tugging it under Dan's head, who grinned once more, embarrassed at the care. Vadim thought of giving a blowjob, maybe, but having seen Dan wince from even light and gentle motions, that would be too painful. "Stay there. I'll just climb over you." He crawled on the mattress, lay finally on this side, back to the wall, elbow supporting his head.

"It's not that I can go anywhere, is it?" Dan's head turned, his healing hand tracing careful lines up Vadim's arm, across the shoulder, back down along the smooth chest.

Vadim smiled. "No. You can't run."

"But I'm working on it, the nurse has a physio plan and I'm bloody determined to get fit as soon as I can. The gym in the embassy is first class." He slowly straightened his fingers, stroking, before curling them along the roundness of Vadim's pec, pleased with the way the hand functioned by now.

"Try isometrics. That's what I do when I don't have weights." Vadim smiled and inched just a little closer. "And once you're back to normal …" He shook his head, not wanting to get Dan horny and helplessly wanting. "We'll make the most of it." He shifted again, offering his shoulder for Dan to rest on, and holding him silently, until the time was up again.

Both unaware of a man packing up a camera, and silently leaving. He had enough photos to prove who and what their head of security's visitor was.

* * *

Back in the embassy, Baroness de Vilde was waiting for the images to be developed. She had emphasised it was pertinent the photos should be available to her, including the negatives, before Mr McFadyen returned.

Sitting in her office, she called "enter" to let Mr Craik inside.

"Ma'm, here are all of the photos and the negatives." The man's face remained completely neutral under her scrutiny.

She nodded, took the manila envelope he was holding out. "That is all for now, thank you Mr Craik. I will call you if I need you." She offered a polite smile and he turned, dismissed.

She did not hesitate once the door had closed behind him, opening the flap to let the pictures slide onto her desk, a whole stack of them. "I thought so," murmuring when the first photo clearly depicted a blond man in Soviet uniform. Tall, officer, heading towards the house. Major Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada. The man she had expected to see.

The second and third pictures, all of the same man, in profile and up front. Then Dan, sitting in the chair, head rolled to the side and eyes closed. She could not help but smile at the picture, knowing how fierce that man could be in his job. Flicking over to the next image, her eyes widened. "Oh Goodness." Staring at picture after picture of Dan and this man, the Soviet major. Holding hands, touching, smiling, kissing, embracing, and quite clearly … loving.

"I am sorry, Dan." Whispering, she shuffled through the photos, her usual composure lost, despite the enormous relief. Two options, and the result was unforeseen, but not at all sinister. "Forgive me." Yet he would never know what she had seen and done. Had stalked him, not asked him directly. Had not trusted because she couldn't, had paid the price with the knowledge of guilt. No Afghan woman, then, whom he was protecting because of religious complications. Not vanishing to see her, but keeping a secret and shielding a man, one of the most unlikely ones.

"I should have realised." Murmured to herself, and then she smiled. Relief won over the uncomfortable sensation of dishonesty, but at least he would never know of her deception. "But perhaps it was all too obvious." The unforeseen option suddenly everything but unthinkable. In fact, it made more sense than anything else.

She pressed the button of her comm, demanding to see Mr Craik again. When he reappeared a few minutes later, she had already bundled the photos. "Mr Craik, I want you to forget everything you have seen today, do you understand?"

"Yes, Ma'm." The man's face remained as neutral as ever.

"Are these all the negatives and photos?"

"Yes, all of them."

"Good," she waved him away with a more impatient gesture than was her usual manner, "Thank you, and please remember, that you remember nothing at all."

He nodded and left.

The smell of burning paper and plastic filled her office soon after.

* * *

She asked Dan later the same day, to come and talk to her, if he felt able. Dan had nodded, told her aide to let her Excellency know he'd come to her private office after physiotherapy. He knew what she would ask him, had known since the moment she'd accepted his request without so much as a question. He wasn't sure if he should feel sick with anxiety or relieved that he could finally tell someone the truth.

She didn't merely call him in when he knocked, she herself opened the door, offering her arm to lead him inside, which Dan refused with a smile and a shake of his head. "Not quite an invalid anymore, Ma'm."

She waited patiently until he had settled down in one of the comfortable leather chairs that stood around a small table, which held two glasses and a cut-crystal carafe with brandy.

"Dan, I need to ask you a question." Pouring two measures of exquisite liquor, she handed one of the glasses to him. "If hope you understand." Almost apologetic, Dan thought, and nodded, taking a sip.

"Before you ask, Ma'm, I'd like to thank you for making this afternoon possible. It meant a lot to me."

Her brows raised a mere fraction as she settled back with the glass in her hand. "You are most welcome. In fact, this takes me straight to my question." The tumbler moved slowly in her hand, warming the brandy. "I have to ask you from a professional point, but I'd like to apologise for the personal nature of the questions."

Dan nodded, idly wondering if this was more difficult for her than for him. He'd expected this since his request. He knew who and what he was, and his conscience was clear. Nothing but a professional - for eight bloody years.

"Who was the person you met today, Dan?"

"Ma'm, I think you know."

"Do I?"

Dan smiled, as difficult as he thought it would be to tell the very first person about Vadim and himself, it was surprisingly easy now that it happened. It was a relief, in fact. If he'd trust anyone at all, it was the Baroness.

"Aye, Ma'm." He took another sip of the brandy. "I met the same person you have helped before. You know who he is. Major Vadim Krasnorada. The man who went to India, who visited me in the hospital, and the man you smuggled back into Afghanistan."

She nodded, and Dan wondered if he saw relief on her face.

"I hate to do this, Dan, but I have to ask …" She could not finish her sentence, because was holding up his hand.

"Please, Ma'm, don't apologise. I understand, I really do, and I'm surprised you haven't asked earlier. I must admit I expected you to want to know what was going on when Vadim came to the hospital."

She set the glass down onto the table, folding her hands in her lap. "You were too weak. The potential to upset you was too great."

"But surely you have made enquiries?"

"Of course." She nodded, "I am perfectly aware of who Major Krasnorada is."

"Just not what he is, am I right, Ma'm?"

She looked at him, with an expression so neutral, if he didn't know better he'd think she was incapable of emotions. "Not quite, no."

Dan couldn't help it, he had to chuckle at her choice of words and the stricken expression despite the earlier poker face. He winced and pressed a hand onto his stomach, suddenly finding her own hand on his knee, as if she tried to hush and stabilise him. It was ridiculous how taken care of he sometimes felt, and how good it was. "I'm alright." Murmured, before emptying the glass with its last mouthful of brandy.

"I shouldn't laugh, Ma'm, but, you see, I have been dreading the moment of truth, when for the first time ever I was going to tell someone who and most importantly what I am. And now that it happens, it's a piece of cake. It seems it is you who feels a lot more uncomfortable than I do." He knew he'd hit the nail on the head when an unguarded emotion ghosted across her face.

"I am gay, Ma'm." He paused, looked at her, but no reaction came forth. She'd either suspected, or she didn't care, or she'd been simply made of steel. Dan suspected the latter. "I understand about honeytraps, spies, traitors, attempts at using homosexuals for blackmailing purposes. And, of course, I know all about the great big hush-hush of this dirty little secret. It's not dirty, though, and it's definitely not little, but aye, it had to be secret." He paused once more, the fingers of his right hand caressing the thin crystal of the empty glass. "I met Vadim in 1980 under circumstances that I cannot repeat." The sanitised version the only truth he'd allow to be known. "We were hell-bent on destruction at first. Enemies: two soldiers, Soviet spetsnaz and British SAS. But it changed, Ma'm, it all changed completely over the years." He trailed off.

She reached for the decanter, refilling Dan's glass while studying him. "What is he to you?" Quietly, as if requiring confirmation for something she already knew.

"It's really rather simple." Dan took the refilled glass, "I love Vadim."

She glanced down at the hand in her lap and when she looked up, she was smiling. "I believe I do not need to ask what you are to him. Crossing enemy territory to turn up at a hospital seems to me to be proof in itself."

Dan nodded, said nothing.

"I must ask you this, however," she continued, once again glancing at her hand. "In all those years of secrets, have you …" decidedly uncomfortable, and Dan knew what she was going to ask. "Have you ever jeopardised your professional integrity?"

"No, Ma'm." Dan answered firmly, "not a single time. Unless you'd classify bringing back the occasional items such as bandages, medicine, food or whisky as treason."

"No, of course not." The fingers of her finely manicured right hand were resting on top of her left, touching the prominent ring. A gesture Dan had seen her do many times before, never giving a second thought. "I must admit, though, I am amazed that you have been able to keep this secret."

"I was SAS." Dan flashed a quick grin, "those who dare, win." Taking a mouthful of his brandy.

She chuckled quietly and leant back in the leather chair. Rearranging her legs, then smoothing down skirt, twin set jacket and finally the spectacles that hung on a golden chain around her neck. Dan got the impression she was stalling for something.

"How do you envisage your future, though." She finally asked. "I assume you are thinking of a future for Major Krasnorada and yourself?"

Dan looked to the side, this time it was he who needed a moment to think. She was handing everything on a platter to him, and he hoped he was chosing his words right. "He is trying to get out. Desertion, or defection, I guess you could call it. He has to make sure his family is safe, though." Dan took in a breath, shallow and slow. "Ma'm … would you be willing to help him?" He saw her brows raise a fraction, knowing this expression too well. "You would help me, if you helped him."

She was once more looking at her hands, taking her time for consideration. "I do not know Major Krasnorada, but I trust your judgment. Besides, I consider you a friend, Dan, and I am willing to help in any way I can, but do remember that these decisions are not up to me.."

"Thank you." Dan smiled, relieved, remembering to exhale. He hadn't realised how tense he had been. Relaxing, he leant back in the chair, relishing the cool smoothness of the leather. He emptied his brandy, before tilting his head.

"May I ask you something in return?"

She seemed surprised but nodded.

Dan hesitated, figured this was awfully private, but the worst she could do was refuse to answer. "I have often wondered, Ma'm, and please tell me if this question is far too personal, but I have often wondered why you are not married." He added before she had a chance to answer, "You are a fascinating lady, educated, elegant, and awfully well read. The suitors must have been running down your doors."

She let out a small laugh at his last words. "Not quite. The doors are still intact."

Dan grinned, and waited.

"Perhaps I ought to tell you." She continued with a smile. "Yes, perhaps I ought." Nodding, more to herself than him. "I was engaged, a long time ago, at twenty-two. He was a wonderful young man, two years older, and awfully exciting. You see, I met him while walking in the Alps, and to me he was unbelievably dashing." She continued after sipping on her brandy, "my family had always been very keen on the mountains and we spent most of our holidays there. Walking, hiking, skiing, you name it, they have done it."

Dan grinned, he had a hard time imagining the sophisticated lady racing down the slopes, but then again he had a hard time imagining her any younger than possibly fifty.

"Patrick was an accomplished mountaineer, he had conquered many peaks despite his young age, and considered himself to be something of an expert." She twisted the glass in her hand, looking down at it for a moment before coming back up with a wistful smile. "I guess his interest was something us 'damned aristocrats' do, while idling away our time. Something fanciful and useless, like climbing mountains."

Dan was taken aback at her use of a swear word, but she had drawn out the vowels and twisted the consonants, he knew she was mocking. He grinned.

"Do you have an idea yet where the story is heading towards, Dan?" She asked, then emptied her brandy. The glass remained in her hand.

"I fear it won't be a happy end."

"Too true, I'm afraid." She smiled, melancholy - gentled by the years - playing across her face. "The week before our marriage Patrick wanted to climb one of the more challenging peaks in the Swiss Alps. It was a sort of 'stag do', a last task to fulfil before entering the responsibility of marriage." She let out a small laugh, "not that either of us were particularly responsible at that stage."

Dan's eyes widened a fraction, it was near impossible to imagine she had ever been anything but devoted to duty. As devoted as the Queen herself.

"He was lost in the mountain." The Baroness suddenly continued. "A treacherous pass, black ice, and he slipped. His friends would have been able to save him, the rope was intact, but Patrick slipped into a crevice and hit his head on a sharp outcrop of ice and rocks. He cracked his skull, they believed he was instantly dead." She trailed off, looking at her hand, and it was only now that Dan finally realised the meaning of the ring on her finger. It had to be an engagement ring, the pearl encrusted gold and emerald glistening in the dull light.

"I am sorry." He murmured, glancing at her, but she only nodded, before placing the empty glass onto the table with a gentle thud.

"He was buried at the foot of the mountain. The villagers are taking good care of the mountaineers' graves. I went there a couple of times and each time it looked meticulous." She trailed off, but added after a moment, "when you talk about the mountains, I always wonder if it was the same for Patrick, if he felt a similar love."

Dan tilted his head, studying her. "Is this why you never married?" Quietly.

"I never had the time from then on." She looked up. "After Patrick's death I threw myself into this career. Suddenly the idea of going into diplomatic service took on an entirely new dimension and its momentum kept me from thinking and grieving. I had to live, and I did. I learned, I worked, I used my connections, and I went swiftly through the ranks." She shrugged, a measured and elegant movement of her shoulders, before leaning back into the chair.

"Here I am now, Her Majesty's Ambassador, in a forsaken place, talking to an ex-soldier who saved my life. Worse, indeed, an ex-soldier who I consider to be a friend." Her lips quirked into a grin, rarely seen and the more appreciated for it. "Is there help for me, do you think?"

Dan grinned and winked, suddenly able to imagine her, at twenty-two, with a twinkle in her eyes and the laughter of a carefree youngster.

"Maybe, Ma'm, but I fear that includes brandy," pointing at the carafe, "and a game or two of cards."

* * *

"Oh my, you're so handsome", said Katya. She'd done her hair up, stood in the door like he was about to pick her up for the opera, and the smell of a meat stew filled the corridor.

Vadim gave her a smile, let her take his coat, took the hat and hung it up, as Katya's mother, her aunt, and some assorted children of her family came from the kitchen into the living room. Hugs and kisses, and then a quick update from the family, while Katya served up her famous stew, and Vadim ate and nodded, listening to all the things that mattered to civilians. Who had married whom in the meantime, who had had a promotion. It was customary that they didn't ask him about Afghanistan or his career, skirting around the issue, instead asking him whether he'd got enough to eat, and whether he was healthy, and whether he had heard a certain piece of news.

His flat was a friendly place, with lots of people who cared. He looked over his shoulder when the door opened again. Anoushka. Nikolai. Both went to the same school, and suddenly he had two handfuls of blonde girl clinging to him, calling him daddy daddy, and he closed his eyes briefly, held the small body that seemed warmer than that of an adult, and stroked her head, while Nikol' looked at him with wide eyes, reluctant to come closer, clutching his schoolbag instead. The shy one, less straightforward than his biological father.

I'm taking good care of him, Sasha, as best as I can. As much as I can possibly, with what I am, and what I'm doing.

Katya headed over and touched her son's shoulder. "Say hello to your father", she said, and Nikol still seemed reluctant. "He has been missing you much, Nikol." The voice carried just a hint of sharpness.

Nikol walked stiffly towards Vadim. "Hi dad. How are you?"

"I'm very well indeed, thank you." Vadim let Anoushka go, who gave him her almighty pout in exchange, and reached for Nikolai, who suddenly pressed himself closer, and then, just as suddenly, released him and dashed off.

"Don't mind him, dad. He's stupid", said Anya in the tone of a wizened old woman.

"You're not supposed to say that about your brother", said Katya.

"But it's true."

"Shush."

And Anya obeyed. Vadim sat down, and she climbed his lap, insisting on feeding him with some of the bread near his soup bowl, until he laughed and pushed it away. "It's enough, thank you, my sunlight." At which she gave him her sweetest smile and cuddled against his chest, his hand resting between her small pointy shoulder blades.

After he had caught up with the family, Katya's mother and aunt left, herding their children with them, and taking Anoushka and Nikol' as well. Vadim followed them to the door, saw Anoushka wave at him with both hands, and Nikol looking at him from the side - disappointment and sadness in his eyes, as if he knew what was going to happen. That was nonsense, though. Maybe the kid was just cranky, had had a bad day at school, or a fight with his friends.

Some banter between the women - they took the children so Katya and Vadim had some time to themselves. Knowing winks, and Katya managed to blush a little. Not too much.

Then the door closed.

Katya inhaled and leaned against the wall of the corridor. "It's good to see you."

"Yes." Vadim stood close, saw her look up to him, her blue eyes dark in the gloom.

"Come, let's go into the kitchen." She took his hand, and Vadim held her fingers, carefully, like she could slip away or melt from his touch.

She didn't ask about Afghanistan. Instead, she began to put dishes away, placed some cakes on the table and poured him tea, told him about the children, about the small tragedies and triumphs of two small humans that somehow were in his life, and he couldn't imagine them leaving it. He felt sorry they were gone, he could have listened to them telling their own stories in their own words, including all the hyperbole of children.

They talked until he was yawning so hard he knew he needed rest; the military life didn't last for long past curfew. He was used to his rhythms and times, waking at five, awake at half past, hungry at six thirty. She smiled and left the kitchen to prepare the bed. Vadim stood and watched her remove the top blanket, set her pillows and cushions aside, and then found one of Anoushka's dolls in there, which made her smile.

The bed. He remembered the first months, even years, but most of all while she was pregnant with Anoushka. Her head resting on his shoulder, arm crossing his chest, fingers hooked into his other shoulder, the length of her body pressed against his, seeking warmth, and sometimes, he thought, strength, too. And him lying there, staring into nothing, wishing, for once, he'd just be normal, could be what she wanted and needed, instead of some kind of brother she had ended up married to. He relished the closeness, but all the while thinking of struggling flesh in the barracks, the taste of steel and oil and dirt, of fresh faces and ripping uniform cloth.

"Do you … want me to sleep on the couch?"

She looked at him. "Why?"

"It must be strange for you when I come back." Didn't add the word he'd meant to say, out of habit. 'Home'.

"Do you want to sleep on the couch?"

"I've been sleeping uneasy. I might wake you up." He didn't want to smell her close, didn't want to feel her warmth and be deluded and sleep dulled enough to even imagine for a moment it was Dan. Being close to her would feel wrong, even if they didn't touch. He felt like a guest in his own house. In his own family.

Without arguing - she never did - she set up his bed on the couch in the living room, bid him a good night, and closed the door.

He stood in front of the book shelf, eyes moving across book spines, titles, authors. Nothing spoke to him, none of his favourites, and none of the book he'd inherited from his mother, and her brother, and which he'd planned to read when he'd find the time. Too busy waging a war down in the south. Too busy running, too busy stealing every moment he could get from the man he was officially, like the prisoner wearing away the cell that kept him trapped, wearing away the life of Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada, model soldier, second class athlete, Interior Ministry killer.

Amusing, really. He'd never thought about it like that, but he'd always assumed Dan had been forced to realise what he wanted and what he was. But Dan actually changed him as well, had pulled away the thin wall that separated his army career and his family. His private life and the man he portrayed. He couldn't keep it apart any more, couldn't keep it under control - he was drowning in his own lies and habits and deceit, and the emotions that he couldn't just keep in check. He had to accept what he wanted, and what that meant. Over. He'd failed. And won. And he wasn't sure whether it made sense to think of it in this way.

A second chance. A new life, if he dared, if he was strong enough to claim it.

He lay with his eyes open, looking at the familiar shadows in this room, thinking of blue skies, and caves, and the heat of one body. Live together. How? Like Marc and Darren? Just like that? Where? Edinburgh? London? Him, a dissident, of all people, turncoat, traitor. He'd offered what information he had, assuming nothing he said would kill any of his comrades, wouldn't make Lesha's job any more difficult, but could he really know? Feeling the change in the air, or the threat, what if the whole world went to hell as he assumed?

He fell asleep, and woke, and the next morning, they visited his father, and there was careful chatting and unguarded emotions, as Pyotr made graceful, harmless conversation. Vadim knew he sympathised with the 'progressive' elements, Gorbachev, the whole talk of transparency, glasnost, and he didn't want to argue, because seeing his father animated and idealistic was a good thing, and he didn't want to talk doom and gloom. Maybe it would all turn out good, and Socialism could be reformed without everything falling to pieces.

Katya left to pick up the children, and Vadim didn't want to linger with his father, so he walked the streets where he'd grown up, greeting old neighbours, answering polite questions. Moscow. Home. His country. He took a walk, even though taking the metro would have been easier and faster. He'd found the address through a few careful questions, had been in touch with another ex-swimmer, now a coach himself, after a long career.

One thing he needed to take care of, before it was all too late. He rang, and the door opened. He climbed the stairs.

In the open door stood an old man, shoulders bent forward, starting to gnarl up, clothes wide around him, arms and legs thin, belly pointing forward, curved. Clouded eyes looked up at him, seemed to slowly climb up the buttons of his uniform, up to his rank, his throat, his face. The old man's eyes widened. "Vadim."

"May I enter?"

The old man shuffled to the side, opening the door so Vadim could enter a flat where everything was in its designated place. One wall covered with photos, the smell of dust and old man heavy in the air. "I wasn't sure you remembered me."

"Remember you …" echoed the old man, and a brittle smile appeared on his lips. "Of course I do. Such a talented young man. And now you're so handsome … but you always were ha…" He paused, as if noticing suddenly he'd spoken aloud, and he looked up to Vadim, a sudden darkness in his eyes. Fear.

Well done, Vadim. Making an old bundle of bones scared of you.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Don't mind me. Vadim. Please, don't." Like a plea for mercy.

Vadim frowned, could sense the man's guilt, and suddenly his fear fell into place as well. As if he'd come to break this old man, break him and make him pay for something that had happened twenty, no, almost twenty-five years ago.

"A… are you … how are you?"

"I'm fine. Just returned from Afghanistan."

That shut the old man up, who stood there, weak and fragile, with eyes that stayed on his face, still recognizing the boy in the man. The athletic talent in the killer, proud symbol of one of the mightiest armies in the world. Vadim reached out to take the old hands. Hands, he remembered, that had been on his body, everywhere, taught him things about sex and about himself, entered and soothed him, relaxed him and made him shudder. "Don't worry. It's all good."

"All good", murmured the old man and exhaled, didn't seem to dare move away, and Vadim thought how strange, what a gentle creature this one was, fragile now like a bird. "I'm glad. I didn't … I didn't want anything bad happen to you, Vadim. Never. Please believe me. I would have never harmed you."

"You haven't harmed me." Vadim caressed those old hands with his thumbs.

The old man looked at him, and suddenly smiled. "So … you married? You have children?"

"Yes."

Now the relief was even stronger. Like what the masseur had done hadn't destroyed Vadim's ability to have a family and have sex with a woman. A temporary aberration, a phase of interest in men, to finally take the usual road, fit in with the rest of the world. "I'm glad. I was … worried about you."

Vadim looked around, didn't see anything that indicated this old man had ever had a family, no wife, no children, the pictures on the wall were of athletes, of competitions so long ago that Vadim couldn't place them, young athletes and older functionaries, trainers, doctors.

This man had never broken free - had remained trapped in his role, and Vadim couldn't even imagine what he might have meant to this old man once upon a time. He could see shame, a bad conscience, like his actions had still haunted him, and he had feared Vadim would come to one day take revenge. As if.

Worried about me. Worried he had broken something, spoiled, left Vadim unable to function. "Do you remember what you told me? About winning?"

The old man smiled. "It means you won in the end. I'm glad you're happy. You deserve it, Vadim, you were always looking for something more, always stretching to excel. It's good to see you won."

Vadim inhaled deeply, could feel just how much this man envied him that it all had been nothing but a phase, that he was perfectly normal. He gently squeezed the old man's hands. "I've come to thank you for your care. You've made a lot of things easier for me, back then."

He couldn't bring himself to say more than that, couldn't wreck that hope and replace it with guilt. Forgiveness, if anything, for a crime he was guilty of himself. Something they'd shared, and which was now a secret, acknowledged, but forgiven.

He was deeply thoughtful when he left. He'd only stayed around to look at himself, old photos, young Vadim Krasnorada looking open and vulnerable on the pictures, the tall blond one that seemed oddly serious and grown up when he shouldn't have been. And Vadim felt a strange tenderness for that youth who had had no idea what was waiting for him, or even what decisions he'd make just a few years later.

He returned to his flat, and his children did claim his time, Anoushka more than Nikolai, while Katya cooked.

It was the weekend, and Katya's mother came later and took the children away with her - unexpectedly. Vadim looked up, questioningly, when Katya moved to stand right in front of him. "You're not even here", she said, matter-of-factly. "I know you have something on your mind, Vadim. You're somewhere else entirely. What is it?"

His plan, while perfectly rational in Kabul, seemed insane in Moscow, and the last days had made Vadim question his own resolve. "Things are going to hell", he murmured. "This country, the army, Afghanistan. Everything. I'm planning ... to leave. I've provided for you and the children. There is money, and you'll be safe." He dug his hand into his pocket, pulled out the wad of money, and placed it into both her hands, closing them around it.

She gave the money a glance, then looked at him again. "What happened? Why?"

"I need to get out. I need to get out of this country, out of this uniform. I ..." He struggled. "I need a life. I can't hide any longer. I don't want to be pulled into another war. I've served my time." He felt frantic, clutching for understanding, but her face remained immobile. "There's more coming, Katya. All this is just the beginning. You need to get out of this country before everything goes to hell."

"And you?"

"I'm running away. I'll desert."

She stared at him. "What happened?"

"I'll apply for ... political asylum. I have a friend who ... promised to help me."

She looked at him, and the look of incredulity became suddenly warm and changed to tenderness. "Oh Vadim." She placed a cool hand against his cheek and looked deep into his eyes. "You're in love."

"What?"

"Why else does a man run away. A man like you." She kissed him on the cheek. "Who is it?"

"I can't tell you, I'm sorry. That would be a risk to you and ... that person."

"The man", corrected Katya. "Correct."

He felt oddly queasy. "Yes."

"An Afghan? No, I don't think so. Another Russian?"

He took her wrists and moved her hands out of his face. "Katya, please. It's not a game. It's not even a bout." He kissed her palms. "I need you to leave me. To make sure you're safe, and to cover for me. Just once more. Just one last thing."

"Of course, Vadim." She shook her head, chiding him for that nervous pleading. "Are you sure you want this?"

"I wish ... I wish I had been ... something else." He closed his eyes. "It's not easy. I love you, and the kids. But ... you have to understand."

"But I do." She smiled. "You've fallen in love, and you want to go away with that man. It's really quite simple. I hope you'll find what you are looking for."

Her complete compliance was what he had hoped for and what shocked him at the same time. She just shrugged it all off, accepted the facts like there was nobody else involved. Willing to drop twelve years of pretence, lies, and masquerade at the drop of a hat.

"I need you to leave me. My superiors will come looking for me. They will assume I told you where I'm going, or at least have hinted at it. You need to leave me before I run away. They must believe our ... marriage was already dead, and we don't care about each other. No trust, no love. Nothing."

She nodded. "Any idea how?"

"Just leave me. Make a scene. Take the kids and storm off. Move in with your parents."

"That's not a fight. That's a domestic squabble." She reached up for her hair, pulled the comb out that held most of it in place, and dropped it on the floor. Stepped out of her shoes.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm getting ready to fight." She gave him a strange little smile.

"Now?"

"The kids are out for the night."

He stood, speechless, and thought he could see compassion in her face, again that tenderness.

"Whatever I'll do or say, Vadim, I've always loved you. Don't forget that. Don't you ever forget how much you mean to me." She stepped closer and kissed him, gently, tenderly, her whole heart in that kiss, like in Montreal, when they had both been in love and innocent. He returned it, her lips softer, sweeter in a way than Dan's, too soft, somehow, but he felt that strange familiar tenderness himself. Like a part of him. Somebody he loved, but just couldn't desire. Things would have been so much easier if only he could.

"You will have to hurt me. Are you strong enough?"

"Hurt you?"

"Break my arm. Hit me in the face. Hit me hard enough that they believe." Her lips trembled. "So I believe."

He groaned, suddenly it was all madness, he couldn't do it, KGB be damned, there must be a way to not do this, when her kiss suddenly broke, and the next thing he felt was a searing pain in his face - her fingernails digging into his skin, and then she hit him full force in the face. "You fucking bastard", she shouted at him, while he was reeling from the unexpected pain, and another hit square in the face stunned him even more.

"You sorry excuse of a man! You impotent freak! You think you can teach me?"

More hits to the face, clawing, biting his hands as he tried to calm her down, shocked and appalled and utterly unable to act, her curses and abuses biting even deeper than claws or teeth, as she started to scream as if he was ripping her apart. He understood what she was doing, she tried to get him angry enough to do it, and with more desperation than anger, he backhanded her, her head flew back and against the cupboard, ratting every dish inside, her blonde hair turning red and wet, she crumpled to the ground, kneeling, and she screamed with anguish as he took her arm and broke it over his knee. Just a bone, just a Sambo move, but he'd have preferred to have it done to him.

Her screams and sobs were almost too much - and even worse to hear the neighbours gather in the corridor outside, talking amongst themselves whether they should act or not.

He stood there, his skin frozen, he was sweating, all he could feel was the echo of her breaking bones in his fingers, and he had tears in his eyes. "Forgive me. Just, please, please forgive me", he whispered.

The doorbell rang. Vadim couldn't bear facing anybody now, smelled blood, her blood.

The doorbell rang again, and somebody knocked, insistent.

"Go on, you bastard. Are you too much of a coward?" shouted Katya from the kitchen, voice strained with pain.

Vadim opened the door, looked into the faces of the people living in this house. Pensioners, a young man clutching an old fashioned revolver, he lived downstairs and studied music at the conservatory or something. He'd always believed in letting people have their lives and their secrets.

Another man, police from what Vadim had heard, stepped out of the crowd, cast a glance inside. "It's none of my business, Krasnorada, what you do with your wife, but fucking do it without waking up my daughter. Understood?"

Vadim felt like breaking the bastard's neck, as there was a sudden motion, and Katya, somehow, he had no idea from where the woman took that strength and willpower, managed to run past him, managed to get through the ring of grey, powerless faces, and he could hear her sob and cry out on the stairs, when she moved that broken arm.

The policeman gave him an angry stare, then turned to the side. "He's not the first veteran who goes insane. You calm down, Krasnorada. No more shouting in this house." Satisfied that Vadim seemed to comply, the policeman shushed the pensioners away from the landing, and gave Vadim a baleful last glance, as if to warn him to stay invisible and unhearable while he was there.

Vadim closed the door. Saw the smear of blood on the wall. Picked up her earring, her shoes.

He found vodka, and that helped.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter XIX: No Man's Land
 
 
Warning for Readers

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

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

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

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

 

 
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Published 13 March 2007