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Special Forces Chapter LXIV: Don't Ask Don't Tell
 
 

November 1997, Rebel Stronghold

The pain was like nothing ever before, as if his legs had been ripped off on impact, but worse, much worse, and Hooch knew that he was fucked. He tried to get out of the tangle of parachute and lines, but the pain from his hip and pelvis was so bad, he blackened out for a second.

Scrabbling against the ground, trying to pull away the moment he came to, he pushed himself up to look at his legs, expecting a mass of bones and gore, but nothing. Yet he couldn't use them to get up and when he tried again, he screamed in agony, nothing had prepared him for the onslaught of pain. He knew, then, that he'd got it this time.

Knew it for certain, when he heard voices and the sound of engines, getting rapidly closer. He frantically cut the entangled parachute ropes, managing to wriggle out of the harness. He could already make out individual voices, but he still tried to pull himself up to get out of there. Still pulled himself forward on his belly, using his hands, determined to never give up, when they broke through the thicket and a boot stamped onto his hand, amidst angry shouting. Others started to kick, again and again, his head, shoulders, legs, arms and finally his hips.

Then it went black, and the pain didn't matter anymore.

* * *

"Bozic, Hubert, Sergeant First Class, 546798362." Hooch forced out, for the tenth or twelfth time. He'd lost count. Lost count, too, of the number of times he'd blackened out when they dropped him, the excruciating pain in his pelvis too much to bear. Or the number of times he'd fought for his life, struggling for air, when his head had been pulled back out of the water butt. Or the number of blows and kicks that had pounded onto his defenceless body, rendering his face a bloodied and swollen mess. Worse than any session, anything he'd ever had done to him - in the name of lust. This was real, and more destructive than anything else in his life had ever been before.

Don't antagonise your captor. He remembered, the mantra was stuck in his mind, but then the voice shouted once more in broken English: "why did you come here, what are your plans, who else is here, who has given the orders, what are your orders, who are you" and why and what and wherefore. All he could find in himself was the groaned, whimpered, cried out, screamed and whispered answer:

"Bozic, Hubert, Sergeant First Class, 546798362."

* * *

They couldn't get any of the information out of him that they were looking for. No matter how much they beat him, how many cigarettes they extinguished on his body, and how often he passed out from the unspeakable pain of being dropped onto a broken pelvis.

He didn't know most of those answers, couldn't tell, and wasn't sure if he would have, had he known. Nothing to say, nothing to admit to, except for:

"Bozic, Hubert, Sergeant First Class, 546798362."

Barely audible at times, and hardly human.

He had no idea how close he was to getting killed, didn't realise that the faction that had captured him was warring with another that wanted to see a better use of the resource: him. The resource that would humiliate the US further. Once they'd understood that he wouldn't talk - couldn't talk, he could still be useful. As long as he was alive.

They pulled him out of his stupor once more, and he didn't resist, knew it was useless anyway. He couldn't move his legs, didn't dare to twitch lest he fell unconscious again from the pain, and being unconscious meant another barrage of mindless beating. He hardly recognised the camera that was pointed at his face, but when he did, he defiantly raised his head, angry, snarling, but all that came out was a pathetic whimper before a boot impacted in his middle, once the camera was switched off, and he let out a hoarse scream, passing out again, cold, on the ground.

* * *

Hundreds of bodies, a small room. One single source of air and light in a tiny, iron-clad window high above. Hundreds and hundreds of bodies, so crowded none of them could do anything but stand.

Hooch couldn't sit, couldn't lie, couldn't stand, the pain was unbearable. So was the stench, the filth, the heat and the smell of death and decay. Excrements, piss from the guards, shit and blood and fear from the prisoners. Hooch couldn't move, unable to get to the little water that was given out, brackish and teeming with parasites. But the only other option was death.

Death to stand and die of pain, death to lose the fight and be trampled underfoot, death to get to some of the contaminated food and water, death not to gain any, and death to go insane.

Pain was the best option. Pain didn't kill. If Hooch knew anything, he knew that. Had learned it scripted into his flesh and blood, and knew, too, that pain always brought relief in the end. Even if it was only the relief of its absence. Eventually.

He refused to be one of the corpses that were shuffled towards the front every morning. Those who had died in the night and whose bodies were handed from one to another, to be thrown outside. Somewhere. Anywhere, didn't matter, just corpses.

He mattered, though. Mattered to the memories of a young man who laughed and joked, who shared his bed and his thoughts, who touched him and kissed him, who sometimes fucked him but always offered his body. That perfect, sculpted, smooth body without a single scar. That man who'd told him he'd always be there, always be ready, always be waiting and would always want him. The man to whose image Hooch clung, every time he blackened out from the pain, pissed and shat into his torn uniform, and threw up from the stench and the little he managed to get into his stomach.


November 1997, United States of America

6 AM and Matt sat bleary eyed at the breakfast counter in his kitchenette, shovelling corn flakes down his neck while watching CNN. Half-heartedly listening to whatever was going on on the screen, while reaching for the carton of milk to pour more into his cereal before it got soggy. The milk never hit the bowl.

US soldier. Special Forces. Captured. Video. Demands.

Matt put the carton back down onto the table, reached for the remote to up the volume, but stalled in mid-motion, when the badly done video flickered onto the screen, showing a soldier, soiled US uniform, no name tag, no rank nor affiliation insignia. Face bruised, bloodied, hardly resembling a man anymore, leg at a strange angle. The broken body was held up into the camera while the man's head threatened to roll back, but then he lifted it, opened his eyes and ...

"No!" Matt jumped up, the remote clattered across the table and onto the floor, followed by the bowl of cornflakes.

Hooch. Bloodied. Beaten. Injured. Tortured.

Hooch.


November 1997, Rebel Stronghold

When Hooch was thrown back into the cell, he didn't have the strength to scream anymore. The pain had worn him down, out and gone, a shell that hardly managed to cling to those images that had kept him sane. Saw nothing in his memories but flashes of a smile, and a joke he could not remember anymore. Yet this time, before he hit the bulk of bodies, he was caught by arms that held him up, and dark eyes that searched his own ones, which could hardly see anymore, and lips that were cracked and had forgotten how to speak.

"American?" The voice asked, rough and worn, like his own. If only he hadn't screamed that much and still had the strength to speak.

He nodded.

Another hand pushed something against his lips. He wanted to turn his head away, but more hands held him steady and the first ones poured liquid down his throat. Liquid. Water. Or at least something akin to it, and he swallowed greedily. Taste didn't matter anymore, he'd lost every care, every squeamishness. Survival. Life. Death, he had almost lost the zest for either. Existing, barely.

"We help."

He didn't question why they helped the foreigner; the prisoner with the fair skin, unlike any of them. He only knew that a pair of arms was holding him up, then three, four, and more, keeping his body off the ground, away from the feet that might trample him to death underneath, should he fall and give up from the pain of standing wedged in between hundreds of bodies; standing with a broken pelvis.

It was the first time he fell asleep for several minutes at a time, the first time in days and nights he kept the little strength he still had.


November 1997, United States of America

"Please ..." Matt whispered to himself, dialling Dan's number. "Come on!" He had to do something, or he was going insane, and Dan was the first and only man who'd come to his mind. Dan with his connections; Dan with his Spa. It was well after 7 AM, but he didn't care that he'd get the bollocking of his career, for not turning up to work in time. Couldn't go in, couldn't explain, Hooch was not just a 'best buddy', but he could never admit to it. Matt's hands were shaking and he felt sick, barely keeping himself from throwing up.

It had hit him with a sledgehammer. All the way to the core, and the image of Hooch's broken body and disfigured face, barely alive, had imprinted itself on his mind, until he was unable to see nor smell nor feel anything else.

Finally, the ringing stopped and a faint snick told him the phone had been picked up. When a sleepy voice answered the phone, Matt blurted out, "Dan?"

"Aye?" Back in New Zealand, Dan was trying to wake up and make sense of the voice at the other end of the phone. Pushing himself up in bed, after a glance over at Vadim, he sat and rubbed his face. "Who is it?"

"Matt. Dan, I need your help. Hooch, captured. Video, CNN, and Hooch ..."

"Hold on!" Dan looked across at Vadim who'd rolled onto his side and blinked up at him. He mouthed 'Matt' to Vadim and shrugged. "One thing after the other, calm down. What's up with Hooch?"

Breathing hard, trying to get his thoughts back together, Matt forced himself to calm down. He was a soldier, he should be able to do that, but this time it was different. It was personal, and he didn't know how to deal with it. "I saw Hooch just now on CNN, there is no way I was mistaken. They didn't give out his name, like, but it absolutely was Hooch, even though he looked hardly human. He was captured, beaten, something wrong with his legs, looked close to death, and it's about some random shit from some godforsaken goddamned country!" Breathing again, against the anger, the nausea, and the unspeakable fear of losing Hooch.

"Fuck!" Dan was awake from one moment to the next, "do you know anything else?"

"No, that's why I call. I don't know what to do, Dan. No one to ask, no one to talk to, don't even know his fucking family! You're the only one I can think of who might be able to help. The Spa, stuff, you ..." Matt was desperate and when he trailed off, the pain was robbing his voice.

"Shit, aye, let me think." Dan looked at Vadim, then, "Matt, send me all you know in an email, every detail from that video, and we get going. There might be someone ..." frantically thinking of all the men in the Spa, but none jumped at him with. "We do what we can, okay? I'll get right onto it, you just send me everything you know. I'll keep you up to date all the way."

"Yes. Thanks, Dan." Matt was too choked to speak and he hung up.

"Fuck." Dan stared at the phone for a moment.

Vadim was fully awake now, sitting up and looked at him, the question across his face.

"They got Hooch. Matt saw him in a video. He's in a bad state, captive."

Vadim was not surprised. Or, yes, he was, but he wasn't incredulous. He knew what Hooch looked like as a captive. He knew Hooch beyond the man's silent superiority, his remote, aware state. "Markus", he said. "He can make things happen. The Red Cross guys."

"Aye, damn, you're right. Have to find the number. He's got too bloody many."

Then the other reaction set in for Vadim. Worry. Captivity. What if there was a man like Konstantinov. "Oh fuck", he murmured and leaned back against the wall. He didn't doubt that Hooch was well prepared to survive the situation, unless, of course, he allowed that American superiority to shine through the mask. But he also knew that in the race between torturer and victim, the torturer always won.

"Yeah, fuck." Dan frowned, pushing the duvet away to get up. "When I say 'bad state' I mean bad state. Apparently tortured, Matt hardly recognised him, and he said Hooch looked as if he'd had his legs broken or something."

When Dan emerged in the kitchen half an hour later, he was partially dressed. No way he'd be able to go back to sleep. "Markus is on the trail. He promised to let us know anything he can but pointed out several times that he's got to be careful. This is really unofficial, but he understands that Matt is going mad. I'll call the kid now."

"Do that. I'll have a shower." Vadim stood. Broken legs. Thinking of that body, broken, made him feel nauseous. A response to his own torture? Or pity. Compassion. He knew how strong Hooch was, how resilient. Mentally strong. If he managed not to piss off the torturer ... and Matt was the one who was in the position of helplessness and of being much closer to Hooch than he was. He needed whatever support they could give him. "You could invite him. Or we meet him. Help him ..." Being there.

"I'll tell him that." Dan emptied the mug of strong, black, over-sweetened coffee in on go, before heading for the phone, but he stopped mid-way and turned back. "Thank you." He smiled slightly, "for thinking of the kid. Matt isn't made of the same stuff as ..." a slight hesitation, "us." He touched Vadim's shoulder. "Hooch is your friend, you know him better than I do, perhaps even better than Matt does. We both know he'll make it, if at all possible, but I'm not sure if Matt has the same trust."

Vadim smiled. "I don't think he'll be very rational about it. How could he." He touched Dan's hand on his shoulder. "Go, make that call."

When Dan returned from the phone call, he was deep in thoughts. Matt had sounded out of his mind, yet had to keep himself together and head into work. It was the not-knowing, the keeping up appearance and pretending to wear the mask, that was the worst. But Matt kept going, stuck in the US.

All they could do now, was wait.


November 1997, Rebel Stronghold

Hooch's screams reverberated through the compound. The last man had found his worst weakness, and was manipulating his hips with both hands.

He couldn't breathe, think, couldn't faint, either, because every time the darkness swallowed him, he was beaten awake, and it was impossible to say which pain was the worst. Until it started all over again, those hands, his hips, and the movements that brought him out in cold, stinking sweat, made him foam and splutter and his eyes roll back as he forgot everything about himself and anything that had ever mattered. Forget everything except for screaming, as if the sounds from his hoarse throat could alleviate the pain. Cut it open, tear it out and scatter it to the winds.

Never worked. Each scream returned to his body, this finite entity that was fragile, weak, and could hardly breathe, let alone force out those words, again and again: "Bozic, Hubert, Sergeant First Class, 546798362."

They broke his arm when he tried to protect himself, and he finally passed out. Nothing could wake him, he didn't hear the angry voices, nor witnessed the arguments, didn't feel the kick into his kidneys, and didn't know when he was thrown back into the other hell. The crowded cell that contained those inexplicable acts of human kindness.


November 1997, New Zealand

That night, Dan was torn out of his sleep again, half-drunk with tiredness, he reached for the phone. "Aye?"

"Markus here."

He was awake from one second to the next.

"Markus! Thank fuck." Dan pushed himself up in the bed, switching the phone onto loudspeaker for Vadim to listen in. "You got anything?"

"Yes ..." hesitating, "listen, Dan, what I tell you is a very careful balance act between the confidential and the really not official, you understand?"

"I do. Fuck, I do. Just, tell us. Anything you can tell us will help."

"Okay." The sound of a cigarette being lit and a voice in the background. Dima, no doubt. "Hubert Bozic was alive the last time the delegation had contact with the rebels, and that was a few hours ago."

"Thank fuck!" Dan closed his eyes for a second. "And?"

"And now it gets tricky. The US sent off a rescue mission, as expected, but it failed. Unexpectedly, at least according to the US. Your friend Hooch wouldn't know any of that and would probably have lost all hope by now."

"Aye." Dan nodded, listening intently. "It's been how long?"

"Five days."

"Shit." Dan frowned. "What's happening next?"

"Well, now here is the better looking part. The ICRC was contacted to negotiate on the behalf of the rebels. We can't get into action before the US has agreed for negotiations on their behalf. We are now in limbo, but at least something is happening, and bearing in mind that their rescue operation fell flat, it can only be a matter of hours."

Dan let out a sigh of relief, even a tiny bit of good news right now would make the world of difference to those to whom it really mattered. "Hang on, I give you Vadim." Handing the phone across, Dan nodded to Vadim, already dialling Matt's number on the mobile. He got Matt onto the line after a few rings and told him everything Markus had let him know.

"Vadim?" Markus' voice. "I wanted to ask you something. When did you last see your friend, and do you have any idea in what physical shape Hooch was before he headed off?"

"Off to a mission? Hooch is tough, perfectly trained." Vadim smiled. "Delta are supermen, well worth chasing. In all seriousness, they are the apex of what the American military can do with the male body." Too tough for females, in any case, or at least none had made it yet. "Mentally, he's strong. He'll keep together, no doubt, unless he mocks them. Then he's fucked."

"Good. I was aware of the physical side of things, but it's good to know the man's mentally in peak shape. Is there anything the delegation might need to know about Hooch? We are hoping to be able to send someone in if not today, then tomorrow. I know they are frantically working, but as always, our hands are bound until both sides agree to negotiate and the US seems reluctant to lose more face than it already has. It's a matter of hours, though, but the command chain isn't always the fastest."

"He's living with a young US Marine, called Matt. Maybe, if your delegation can tell him that Matt's been thinking of him or something ..." Were there words to make Hooch understand what those felt who were waiting and agonizing? "That his buddies have been thinking of him? That we'll do whatever it takes to help him." Maybe not the right thing to say. Depended on whether Hooch had accepted he'd need help. "Or something about our prayers answered." Americans did that, the praying thing. Talk about faith and prayers in such situations. No atheists in fox holes, wasn't that an American saying?

"Yes, I'll try, I'll let them know. Every little helps, each connection to the outside world." There was a sound in the background and Markus trailed off for a moment, "Dima wants me to send his best wishes and he's saying something unintelligible in Russian that I don't understand." A smile in Markus' voice, "but I think it's meant to be a good thing." The voice in the background again, then the sound of subdued laughter. "Yes, it is, a good thing. Anyway, I got to be off, expect a call as soon as I have more information."

Vadim smiled. "It's time to learn a civilised language, Markus. You're missing out on half his obscene jokes if you don't speak his peasant Russian. Will talk to you later." He switched off the phone when Markus hung up after a short huff of laughter.


November 1997, Rebel Stronghold

Hooch was cradling his broken arm, no strength, no voice left when he got kicked back into the cell once more. Didn't fall - couldn't fall. Too many bodies, those of the dead, the dying and those who were still living against all odds. He almost didn't care anymore, except for those thoughts that kept him alive. The number. The name. The face, the body, the smile, even though he couldn't remember the voice anymore.

He could no longer protect his head or face with his arm, and perhaps he should have simply let them kill him by smashing his face and grinding his brain into the ground, but he couldn't. Just couldn't allow it, not without trying … for what? Living? In that hellhole that didn't allow breathing, that had the guards above use the prisoners' bodies as latrines, the unbelievable stench for which he had no words, no thoughts, except for 'everything'. Since it was all and everything and everywhere around him, like a thick molasses that made it impossible to draw in air.

This time, he let himself fall back, back, into the bodies, not trying to find leverage nor hold himself, not fighting the pain nor the ultimate relief that would come once he'd slipped low enough, with enough bodies and weight on top of him, to stop breathing forever … when those arms were back and pulled him up. He protested, didn't want them, how dared they, how … and something pushed against his lips. He opened them, no strength left to find out what it was, and simply swallowed. Whatever. Food. Water. Poison. Excrement, it didn't matter. Liquid followed, and again he swallowed, head rolling from side to side, until he managed to focus, his eyes no more than swollen slits, met by another pair, so dark, before he lost his sight and slipped out of pain, fear, stench and filth, and whatever was crawling across his body, and living inside himself. Slack in the many arms that held him up once more, until the morning, when - against all odds - he was once again not amongst those who got shuffled towards the front, out of the door and onto the pile.


November 1997, New Zealand

Dan was surfing the net for any scrap of information, but it seemed the CNN had had its knuckles rapped for showing the video, and the case of the missing US soldier had vanished from the screen and the web. Even his insider news sources were quiet about it.

None of the members of the Spa had any further information, except for background story, about the warring faction in that country, and who they were dealing with, and just what Hooch had meant to be doing in that country.

All they could do was wait. Dan kept in contact with Matt best he could, keeping him up to date with any scrap of information that Markus passed on.


November 1997, Rebel Stronghold

Hooch almost passed out again when he was pushed through the bodies, towards the front. Clinging to consciousness with the thought that he would not be another corpse to be discarded. No. He wouldn't. He would survive another bout of torture. But instead of being pulled out and taken to be interrogated again, nothing happened. Partly being held up, partly leaning against the solid mass of bodies, he looked up eventually, blinking against the sudden light. It hurt. Hurt his eyes, astonished that anything could actually hurt in a new different way.

"Sergeant First Class Hubert Bozic, US Delta Force?" A female voice asked.

She was pretty, he thought, once his eyes had adjusted to the light, and he wondered why the hell the last shreds of his memories had been replaced with a woman. Blond. Face illuminated by something. Torch. Not sunlight. Hurting his eyes. Still.

"Do you understand me?"

He nodded, the question didn't require him to speak. The name and number were the only answers left in his mind anyway, everything else had been burnt away. Beaten and kicked, punched, drowned and smashed away. Or just died away, amongst the stench of decay and the agony that only those arms could alleviate.

"You have to tell me your name." The voice insisted, the English … foreign, and Hooch, unable to find one single clear thought, couldn't understand why he noticed the accent.

"Bozic, Hubert, Sergeant First Class, 546798362." Name. Rank. Number. Hardly audible. That was it. Another round of interrogation, all a trick, but at least it didn't hurt right now. Not yet. No worse than every second, each breath and heartbeat.

Surprised that no pain followed, instead he felt himself moved, carefully, oh so carefully, and yet he cried out hoarsely. Hardly a sound came out, even though his screams reverberated in his head, and he was placed onto something. Lying down. Flat. On his back. The moment he was horizontal on the stretcher and the pressure was taken off the broken pelvis, he passed out. Again.

When he came to, he was in a different place. A room. On the ground. Space. No stench. Lying still, and after a moment he made out the woman's face again, crouched beside him. Someone else, a man, touching him, and the touch felt strange. It took him a moment to realise the man was wearing rubber gloves.

"Can you understand me, Sgt Bozic?"

"Hooch," he whispered.

She smiled and nodded, "Hooch. Of course. Did you understand what I said earlier? I am a delegate from the International Committee of the Red Cross, and I brought a medical doctor with me, Dr Mirabeau. We are here to ensure that you are being taken care of, Sgt …" she stopped herself, "Hooch."

"I … don't …" so hard to form words beyond name and number, "have to … go back?"

"No, not if we can help it, and trust me, we can help it. The rebel force has contacted us to negotiate on their behalf and your country has agreed."

Hooch nodded.

"Tell me what happened, while Dr Mirabeau is working on making you more comfortable."

Hooch looked at her, hardly noticing how the soiled uniform was cut off him, and how he was cleaned down. Telling her, best he could, what had happened and what he knew; what had been done to him and how he'd survived. He was put on a drip, cleaned up and sponged down, fed water - clean, clear water - and given bites of food. Shot full with antibiotics, his arm was set and fixed with plaster, his wounds treated and bandaged, and powder and potions administered, to kill the parasites that had taken residence in his weakened body. His pelvis stabilised with a brace, after some clean and simple clothes were put onto him, Hooch was allowed to write an open letter. He hardly managed, his hand shook too badly, too weak to hold the pen, but she helped and they gave him time, precious time. A letter to his family, but how much he wanted to write to his lover instead. His family had to do, hoping that somehow, against all odds, it would reach the one to whom it really mattered if he lived or died.

She folded the sheet of paper, to show it to Hooch's captors for censor, before it was sent off to the American Red Cross. She briefly smiled down at him. "Hooch," it was comforting to hear his name, he thought, no longer a faceless number, "your friends are thinking of you." Non-committal, but then, "especially the Marines." This was all he needed to hear, and he knew and understood. Matt. Vadim. Matt.

A ghost of a smile crossed his face as painkillers were shot into his body. By that time he was drifting, barely taking in how she explained they would make sure he was treated right while they were going to work as neutral intermediaries. When they finally left he lay on his back, unmoving, floating, a blanket over his body, and a bottle of water and edible food beside him. Clean. Lying down. Lying. No arms to hold him up, no fingers to feed him rotting scraps. No one. Just silence. Sleep. Exhaustion. The memory of someone so dear … the only memory that had survived. He slept, undisturbed, without those who had saved his life by holding him up and who continued to fight on every day and night to stay on their feet and stay alive.

He didn't know that she was throwing up outside. Didn't hear her retch and didn't see the doctor wordlessly handing her a packet of tissues.

He was asleep, for the first time in an eternity in hell, and he knew that from now on he would not just vanish anymore. He had a name. A face, and a number that was known to the world, not just to his captors. No corpse to be shuffled out in the morning. No nameless body, burnt or ditched, and no faceless being, contorted in pain, dying without a name nor number, to be 'missing in action'.

He had a name. He had become part of the machinery. The old lady in Geneva, as she had called it, would take care of him. He trusted that old lady.

Because she was all he had.

* * *

Hooch was not aware of the negotiations that happened outside. With the ICRC as neutral intermediary, the rebels had already gained what they wanted: the humiliation of the US, via its military, and that humiliation was broadcasted across the world on the news channels hat had been greedy enough to ignore the rules of ethical behaviour.

It was push and pull for a while, until finally, the rebels agreed his release, under conditions and demands that never saw the light of day outside of some US headquarters.


November 1997, United States of America

"Matt?"

With hardly any sleep in the last 72 hours, Matt had slowed down, reactions and it took him a moment to catch on.

"Dan! Any news?"

"Aye."

Matt desperately tried to figure out if he heard anything bad, or worried, or ... anything in Dan's voice.

"And?"

"Sorry," the sound of a cigarette being lit, "I was distracted by Vadim."

Matt was sure he could hear something ... a smile?

"I have good news from Markus."

"What is it?" Matt stood up, pacing the living room.

"Hooch is free." The smile was now very audible. "He's as we speak in a Red Cross medevac plane, being flown to the US base down there."

"Fuck! Yes!" Matt suddenly shook, all the adrenaline of the past days and nights flooding out and he was trembling, feeling hot and cold at the same time. He had to sit down when his knees threatened to buckle. Hand shaking like a leaf, he had to concentrate to keep the phone close to his ear. "How is he? What else do you know? Tell me more!"

"Hang on, I don't know much else, just that he's alive and he'll be alright. Whatever the fuck that means." Dan was clearly grinning now, "they'll sort out the surgery over at your place. Markus said he won't be able to keep tabs on him the moment he's handed over to the US military, but he gave me a couple of numbers for you to find out more. Hang on …"

Matt was desperately scrabbling for a pen, but the damned thing kept falling out of his hand. He finally managed and with hardly legible script, he wrote the numbers down. US numbers.

"Markus said you should contact the family, since they're the most likely ones to be up to date."

"I know." Matt shook his head, not sure if he wanted to cry or laugh. He'd hardly kept it together at work, how could he now? "I don't have their fucking address. I'm just a buddy, remember?"

"Aye, shit, but you use those other numbers, they'll help a mate." The smile was back in Dan's voice. "We'll do the same, Vadim is already on the line. We'll let you know anything we find out, okay?"

"Okay, buddy." Matt felt something crawl up inside his chest and choke his throat. "Thanks. Thanks for ... for everything."

"Don't mention it. You're a friend and Hooch's a friend. I understand."

The last did it for Matt, the 'understand', something Hoch had said so often in his Southern drawl. He couldn't say anything else except for a choked "thanks" and switched the phone off. Leaning forward, elbows on his knees, he just let go. Burying his face in his hands the fear, worry, pain and horror of the last days were pushing their way to the surface and he sobbed with relief, until exhaustion took over.


December 1997, United States of America, Military Hospital

Matt sat on the plastic chair beside the bed. Legs braced, knees open, his cap on the small side table. Hands trembling so hard, he'd been gripping his own thighs since he sat down, to keep himself from touching.

Hooch. Pale and haggard, with buzz-cut head and badly shaved face. Lying on a water bed to keep the pressure off the pelvic area, supine and still, the lower left arm in plaster, and all Matt could think of was how much Hooch hated to sleep on his back.

The pelvic brace was just about visible under the sheet that had been draped over Hooch, and a drainage tube vanished beneath the cloth. Matt could see glimpses of small burn wounds on the chest, looking healed but angry, and he wanted to hurt whoever had done that.

Hooch. Alive, against all odds, and all he could do was sit there, push a small portable DVD player into the other man's good hand and pretend he was just a buddy, paying a visit. He tried to come up with some stupid bullshit a buddy would utter - and failed. Miserably. Couldn't get a single word past that fucking lump in his throat that he couldn't swallow down, no matter how hard he tried, and it hurt like a motherfucker. Couldn't even look at Hooch, who was checking out the pack of DVDs by lifting each one to eye level. Looking at him caused the sting in Matt's eyes to get worse and he stared at his white-knuckled hands instead.

"Thanks." Hooch's husky drawl tore Matt out of his catatonic state. The voice disused and coarse.

He wanted to touch, kiss, hold, reassure himself that Hooch really was there, alive, but all he did was press out a desperate "shit!" He couldn't keep it up anymore. Fuck the charade, he wanted to curse or cry, or maybe even laugh. Insanely.

Matt's trembling hand raised to his face, his head dropped, elbows on his thighs, and he covered his face with his hand when he couldn't stop the silent sobs that were heaving his chest and shaking his shoulders. He made no sound, except for one strangled choke. He couldn't stop, though. Couldn't get his goddamned act together again, despite being all too aware of having nothing but a thin cloth partition between Hooch's bed and the next. In a ward full of nurses, soldiers, and their visitors.

Hooch remained silent, left hand in his lap, the right lay on his chest. Silent, as long as it took Matt until he finally drew in a shaky breath, fighting out of the breakdown with all the strength he could muster. Too much truth, too raw, too open. He rubbed his face vigorously, realising that he couldn't go back to pretending he was nothing but a goddamned buddy. He looked up, eyes red rimmed, and studied Hooch's impassive face, the dark eyes, and the whole, silent, man. It had never been an issue before, until now. Now that he'd gone insane with the not-knowing and the fear of loss. Not just a buddy, not even a fuck-buddy. But the man he loved. He couldn't deal with the lie any more, but he was tied to its confines.

Matt shook his head, unable to say what he thought, let alone what he felt.

Hooch didn't say anything either, looking up at Matt in silence, without a twitch. Not that Matt had expected anything else and he shrugged, once again shaking his head. Suddenly feeling misplaced, as if this whole shit had happened to someone else and he had stumbled into a crazy soap opera.

He was about to get up and get away, when Hooch opened his mouth, and Matt stayed put, leaning down, to hear the quiet murmur.

"When it got really bad, when nothing else got me through, I was thinking of you. How you tilt your head when you laugh; the way you eat your cereal really fast so that it doesn't go soggy; how you squint your eyes and scrunch up your face into a grimace, every time anyone mentions eggs." Hooch dropped his voice even more, until Matt had to lean closer to hear the whisper. "Your shit-eating grin when you wave your ass into my face, telling me to fuck you. The sound you make when you cum, going straight to my cock and blowing my mind. The smell of your sweat right after sex ..." Hooch paused, pulling in a breath. "And when I wasn't sure if I could make it through another hour, then I thought of your face that looks so damned young when you're asleep, and I remembered how you sometimes say my name, and how the sound of your voice makes me ache inside."

Hooch fell silent and Matt stared at him. Wide-eyed, frozen in shock. Insides churning, a pain he hadn't known before, travelling from his heart throughout his body, and it felt so fucking good. Understanding with every fibre of his being what Hooch had just said in too many words. More than he'd ever used before, and without those three simple ones that would have sufficed.

Matt felt his eyes sting again but a smile grew on his face. Too much, again, but of an entirely different kind. "I don't …" his voice trembled, "scrunch up my face." Couldn't trust his voice, as shaky as his hands.

Hooch grinned, he looked as if he had shrugged if that didn't hurt too badly.

"Alright, I do." Matt whispered, "but it's better than throwing your underwear onto the wet bathroom floor."

Hooch let out a dry huff of laughter, grimacing at even the slight jostling of his body.

Matt fell quiet again. Companionable now in the silence, looking at Hooch while vigorously wiping his eyes, then settling into a shaky grin. They sat like that for a long while. Hooch checking out the small DVD player, Matt helping him, a damn fine excuse to touch now and then, while every movement could be overlooked by the nurses.

"Five more minutes." One of them announced as she walked past and Matt sat down for the last time. Just a few more minutes before he had to leave and fly back to his own camp.

He smiled at Hooch, who unexpectedly murmured, "I want to hear that sound again."

Words and voice twisting Matt's guts in the most delicious way. "You will." He whispered.

Hooch nodded, lips quirking up in the customary miniature grin, before he reached out with his good hand and took Matt's hand for a moment. Grip almost as strong as ever, holding longer than a buddy should.

"Till then."


February 1998, United States of America

Several weeks later, Hooch was let out of hospital and subsequent aftercare. Refusing to go back to Fort Bragg, where he wouldn't have anyone take care of him and would have to get 'hospitalised' again, and equally refusing to be taken to his family down south, he demanded to be sent to a friend instead. In his special circumstances, the request had been granted. A friend who had a small apartment and time to take care, which he lied about, and who was willing to take over the task, which was nothing but the truth. And so he had been flown to the nearest town, then taken in an ambulance across to the local hospital.

After having been checked over, signed in as an outpatient for physiotherapy and set up with crutches, walker, and been put into a wheelchair, he was given transport, which took him to Matt's apartment. Matt was still on base, working, and would arrive an hour later. Hooch somehow managed to get into the elevator, and with the help of walker and crutches to somehow - and lord knew how - back out again, and then into the wheelchair. Being able to get about, no matter how laborious and painful, gave him a sense of freedom that was unparalleled to anything he'd experienced since the mission.

When Matt returned home, Hooch was lying flat on the bed, fully dressed, but with the remote in his hand and channel surfing. He was glad that Matt had no idea how he'd cried out when he'd got himself out of the wheelchair and onto the bed, for the first time on his own and without any supportive aids. He'd made it, though, and the independence had made up for all the pain. Even though he'd left the drugs in the living room and really couldn't face getting up, not even for a piss.

"Hooch?" Matt called out from the minuscule hallway.

"In the bedroom." Even shouting caused pain and Hooch rolled his eyes at the sheer annoyance of it all.

A couple of seconds later Matt stood in the doorway. Still in uniform, running a hand over his scalp. The smile in his face grew bigger and bigger until it lit up his whole face, grinning from ear to ear. "Shit, man. Never thought I'd be so glad to see you dressed on my bed."

"Yeah, you try taking the fucking socks off with that." Pointing at the pelvic brace over his jeans. When his shirt sleeve moved up, Matt saw that the plaster was gone.

"Can I?" If possible, Matt's grin grew.

"Take my socks off?" Hooch groused, his eyes betraying what he felt, and that was everything but grumpiness.

"No, the brace. I promise to put it back on."

"You could start with the socks." Hooch grinned, peering up from his supine position, head raised with the two pillows on Matt's bed. "Or with yourself."

"Guess I could, like, do that, or I could kiss you."

"Not much I can do about that." Hooch's grin almost matched Matt's by the time Matt was beside the bed, kneeling on the floor, and proceeded to kiss Hooch until either of them gave up or gave in, but neither did, and so they kissed until they were both breathless.

"Shit." Hooch groaned.

"What, did I hurt you?" Matt's alarm was almost comical, if it hadn't been so goddamned endearing.

"No, just too horny."

Matt's grin was part relief and part wickedness. "I can do something about that …" His hands were on the brace and then Hooch's trousers, before the other could say anything, but when Matt pulled on the jeans, Hooch got jostled and had to clench his teeth not to groan. Matt slowed down, and together they managed to get them off, same with the pants, until Matt could take off the socks while Hooch was getting out of the shirt himself. When Matt came back up to look down at Hooch's naked body, for the first time in months, he was shocked at what he saw. Trying valiantly to hide it, but too late.

"I know." Hooch drawled.

"Yeah." Nothing Matt could say, and so he ran his hand over the far too thin body that had lost muscle mass and definition, but none of its allure. Not all of the tan was gone, and the surgery scar, still fairly fresh, stood in stark relief. Not much better the burn wounds, those small round dots that were scattered across Hooch's upper body with no sense nor system.

"You'll get back into shape. I'll make you a recovery PT programme when you can use the gym." Matt looked up, smiling, and Hooch nodded.

"Eventually." Dryly.

"Well, at least we have proof you're alive." Matt cocked his head, flashed a grin and pointed at Hooch's erection. "Been a while, right, buddy?"

"Yeah. Lifetime."

"Best I remind you, then." Matt moved down, his lips touched Hooch's cock, tongue drawing out and lapping, eliciting the deep groan that Hooch had suppressed earlier. His lips closed around the cut head, intent on sucking down, when Hooch awkwardly batted at him.

"No."

"What?" Matt came up, surprised and confused, "why not?"

"I'm not tested."

"Huh?"

"HIV. Can't get tested yet."

"I don't understand …" Shock, fear, worry and confusion warred in Matt's face. "But they didn't … I mean …"

"No. They didn't, but in that shithole … I had open wounds. Anything could have gone in. Blood, saliva, shit, piss. Anything." Hooch's eyes were intense, haunted, and Matt twitched visibly. The glimpse of the horror was almost worse than knowing the full extent.

"The risk must be almost none."

"I had every other shit, though."

"But not that, come on, it's not possible."

"I don't care." Hooch reached for Matt's shoulder, managed to pull him closer and up. "I'm not going to risk you. You understand?"

Looking at Hooch for a moment, Matt nodded slowly, acknowledging the ache that was gripping his insides. Heart or guts, he wasn't sure, just this ache that intensified the longer he looked at Hooch. "Okay." He smiled.

"Handjob?"

"I'd suck you with a condom."

"No, no more goddamned rubber." Too many gloves that had touched him in the hospital.

Matt nodded, getting up and onto the bed to very carefully stretch out beside Hooch, still in his full uniform, boots and all. Managing not to jostle the mattress too much, he propped himself up on his elbow, grinning down at Hooch while his free hand began to lightly stroke the cock that had lost its erection. "Let's see how still you can lie …"

He moved down to kiss Hooch again, whose hand found its way to Matt's neck. Holding close, smelling, tasting, touching, and needing so goddamned much to feel alive, he ignored the pain. Matt stroked faster, adding twists and using everything he'd ever known about his lover's preferences, until Hooch felt his balls draw up and the pain of his orgasm almost blackened him out. He cried out, nearly a scream, which Matt swallowed in a deep kiss, not realising that part of Hooch's desperate attempts to remain still - and his complete abandon - was the blinding pain in his pelvis, fuelling the orgasm itself.

Matt drew back, hand still on Hooch's cock, as he grinned down on him, watching him pant for breath, face sweaty, but something in his expression that he'd never seen before. Something above and beyond mere lust. Alive, maybe that was it.

"You alright?" Matt murmured.

"Yeah, shit. Couldn't be better." Hooch grinned, started to laugh and stopped himself immediately. Laughing was torture in itself. "You?"

"I'm alright." Matt smiled, wiping his hand on the bed linen.

"Bullshit." Hooch looked at him, grinning.

"Okay … got me." Matt laughed, "but how?"

"I want to watch. Stroke yourself."

Mat nodded, eyes alight. "Guess I can do that." He was soon kneeling on the bed, in full view, opening his BDUs and pushing down his briefs. Cock in hand, he began to stroke, all the time looking at Hooch, who didn't take his eyes off him.

"Want to see you." Hooch murmured, and Matt obliged immediately. Ripping the tunic off, the t-shirt flew to the ground straight after, he returned to stroking himself. Muscles rolling and bunching beneath smooth skin. Perfectly chiselled and still as unblemished as the first time they'd had sex, in a safe house in the Gulf. Matt craned his head back, being watched intensified every stroke, each sensation, and he slowed down for Hooch's benefit, while tensing his abs and working with his body until each and every muscle stood out, as hard as his cock. When he sped up once more, his movements turned harsh, almost punishing, and his breath came fast and noisy.

He went over the edge with a strangled sound, cum splattering onto Hooch, panting, tensing, and catching himself in the last moment before he was about to let himself fall down onto the bed. On his knees instead, struggling for breath and grinning down at Hooch, who was still watching him with burning intensity in his dark eyes.

"I was right." Hooch murmured.

"What?"

"The sound you make when you cum."

Matt stared at Hooch, remembering every word in the hospital.

"I …"

But Hooch waved him down, pulling him into a kiss instead, only letting go of his neck when he broke the kiss and murmured, "You. You are quite something."

Matt was confused, but Hooch said nothing else, too exhausted, and he let Matt take care of both of them, by getting out of the rest of his kit and wiping them down.

"Want to go onto the couch?" Matt smiled, his hand splayed out on Hooch's chest, fingers covering two of the burns.

"Give me an hour? Pretty damn wiped."

"Sure." Matt looked for the blanket, "mind if I stay?"

Hooch just snorted softly and Matt lay down once more beside him, pulling the blanket over both of them. Lying close, he breathed in the scent that was Hooch and yet was different. He'd be back to the old Hooch, though, he'd make sure. He'd lose the clinical scent, the … otherness.

When he lifted his head after listening to Hooch's ever more regular breaths, he watched the face, relaxed in sleep. Forging this image over all of the ones of the past.

Hooch. Alive. Nothing else mattered.

* * *

Over two hours later, Matt had managed to settle Hooch on the couch in the living room, in a pair of shorts underneath the brace, to watch a game on TV. The remains of a chicken dinner stood on the table beside him, and a couple of empty Buds right next to it.

Hooch looked up and grunted a nonsensical question as Matt came back from the kitchen, dropping a letter into his lap.

Matt shrugged, gestured towards the letter before wandering back into the kitchen to grab a couple of fresh Buds. He stalled midway, fridge door still open, inhaling deeply. Had he done the right thing? Fuck knew, but he'd gone with his gut instinct and his gut had twisted into a knot at the thought of staying any longer in the 'don't ask - don't tell' pit of lies. He shook himself out of his musings, pushed the fridge door shut with his elbow and opened the bottles. Leaving enough time for Hooch to read.

When he stepped back into the main room of his small apartment, Hooch was holding the letter in his hand, and looked up at him. "Why?"

Matt set the beer down onto the table and slouched on the chair which he'd pushed right next to the sofa. Feeling strangely reluctant to touch Hooch right now. 'Why', a good question. It had been perfectly clear in his mind at the time of making the decision. Putting it into words was suddenly a challenge and he took a good swig from his bottle, stalling for time, before leaning his head back to look at Hooch.

"I had enough." It was simple, when it came down to it, but Hooch raised his brows.

"You loved it."

"Yeah …" Matt shrugged and pulled in a lungful of air. He had, being a Marine was what he'd always wanted. As a kid, playing soldier, as a teenager, and finally as a man. Young man. Before he realised how very much his sexuality was himself. Lying about that part of himself? He'd managed, until Hooch's capture. Love was a strange and powerful thing, and entirely unplanned. "Had enough of the fucking lies," he finally offered.

"Suddenly?"

"Yeah." Wrong, and Matt drew in another breath, expelling it noisily. "No. Been a while, but, like, thought I'd gotten used to it." He shrugged once more.

"Had something to do with me." Hooch made it a statement not a question, and Matt grimaced, while the other's expression remained completely neutral. At least Hooch didn't ask him if he knew what he was doing, accepting Matt's decision as what it was: final.

Matt shook his head, looked down at the Bud in his hand, then suddenly raised his head in anger. Aggression born out of frustration, but damn, Hooch had changed the rules of this game entirely. "Fucking yes! It has to do with you. Not knowing, not being able to ask, just lies. Lies and more lies. No grieving allowed, not a fucking thing. Couldn't contact your family, haven't got a fucking clue where they are, and the south is damned big. Couldn't even pretend I was your buddy, in case anyone wondered why the fuck a Marine was buddies with a Delta. No messages, not a fucking thing and I was going insane!" Matt was getting more agitated, and stood up. "The only fucking way to find out anything at all, like, if you were even alive, was to phone Dan, hoping with his Spa he might have contacts. I was so fucking desperate, I would have tried anything. If he hadn't known know a Red Cross bigwig who fed him some information, how the fuck would I have ever found out anything? And even when Dan told me you got a visit from the Red Cross, you couldn't fucking write to me, could you? Fucking hell, no! Only family, and who the fuck was I? Just some stupid fucking Marine who was going off the edge, not knowing if he's lost the fucking man he fucking loves or not!"

Matt was fuming, but Hooch didn't show a reaction, except for a quiet, "do you?"

"What?" Matt snapped.

"Do you?" Hooch calmly repeated, and Matt felt as if all air had been driven out of his lungs. Deflated, he sat back down on the sofa.

"Yeah."

Hooch nodded, folded the letter and placed it back on the table. "OK."

Matt looked at him in confusion, then shook his head with a frustrated grunt. Hooch was still as exasperating at times as he'd always been, and Matt really didn't appreciate feeling like an idiot right now. Sometimes the man talked, but more often than not it was back to the one-syllable answers. "What the fuck does 'OK' mean?"

"Got a job offer."

"Huh?" Matt leaned closer, "what?"

"Promotion. They want me to train Delta. Stationed in Fort Bragg." Hooch shrugged, "no more battlefields."

Frowning, Matt tried to make sense and get an indication what Hooch thought about this, but no chance. "You're not that old yet, you got some years left on active duty. Look at Dan and Vadim, they did crazy shit in their forties." Pointing at Hooch's pelvis, "and the injury's not cause for retirement from active duty?"

"Probably not. They'll know in a few months. Recovery can be up to a year, need to get my strength back as well."

"Then what are you going to do? They can't, like, force you, can they?"

Hoch shrugged, "no, not yet."

"Well," Matt drew in a breath, "that's alright then. Back to normal when you're back to health and strength."

"No."

"No?" Exasperation was creeping into Matt's voice.

"I take it."

"You … what?" Matt leaned forward that abruptly, he almost slid off the chair.

"It's time."

"Why?" Painfully aware of how he echoed Hooch, whose lips quirked into the customary half-grin. Taking hold of the waistband of Matt's shorts, Hooch twisted his fist into the fabric and pulled him up and close, while Matt could do nothing but follow the motion, letting himself drop onto his knees on the rug in front of the sofa.

"And now?" Matt raised both brows.

Hooch's fist twisted tighter, pulling Matt even closer, until there was no further to go without jostling him. "You tell me. You'll be out of a job."

Matt rolled his eyes, "I'm going to open a fitness club with the money I've saved. It'll be based on military fitness training and gay oriented."

Hooch burst into laughter, immediately followed by a sound of pain, which almost made Matt jump. "You'll be fucking rich."

"Yeah," Matt grinned. "Question is, where do I settle down? I have no fucking clue."

"Fayetteville."

"You're not fucking serious!" Matt's eyes widened, "that's right next to Fort Bragg."

"Precisely." Hooch's half-grin was back in place. "Camp beds are shit."

"How the fuck are you going to explain, like, living with a gay guy? Because I'm fucking sick of lying."

Hoch shrugged. "Spare room."

"Bullshit! Nobody's going to swallow that."

"I'm too high profile now." Hooch shrugged. "Don't ask don't tell? This shit works both ways. You think they're going to prove I'm not staying in my own room?"

Matt grinned. "It might just work if I take the obvious 'gay' out of the gym, but you're fucking crazy."

"No, just alive."

That sobered Matt, but before the dark shadow could touch him, Hooch reached up to draw him closer, and Matt forgot all about it during the kiss.


March 1998, United States of America

A few weeks later, when Matt came home from work on a Friday, the strong scent of freshly brewed coffee greeted him. He could get used to that, to someone being there, someone who didn't answer when he called out. "Hey, Hooch!"

Nothing, and Matt strained to listen. Improbable that Hooch was out and about, but not impossible. He'd been moving further and further lately, and had been coming on in leaps and bounds, thanks to the physiotherapy he meticulously followed, doing his exercises religiously.

Matt eventually noticed the sound of the shower and, as expected, the bathroom door was ajar. "Fair enough." He muttered to himself, whistling under his breath as he took his tunic off, hung it onto a hook in the hallway, and marched into the kitchenette. The coffee was steaming in the pot and he poured himself a mug before he sat down at the breakfast bar.

He noticed a letter on the table, unfolded, the A-4 sheet pointing the other direction. Curious, he turned it round and skimmed over the letter while taking a sip of the strong, black coffee. Stopped. Almost burnt his lips when he stared at the writing. Putting the mug down, he pulled the letter closer and re-checked the heading. Medical Lab. Test results. Then read it once more, and then again, for good measure, where it said in bold letters: 'Bozic, Hubert. Negative.'

Negative.

The grin that spread across Matt's face threatened to split it side-to-side and he jumped off the chair. "Hooch!" Hollering the name across the apartment, but Hooch, hair still wet, towel around his hips, and leaning on his walker, was already standing in the doorframe.

"Why the ear-splitting noise?"

"You damn well know, buddy."

Hooch raised his brows in the most infuriating manner he managed. "And?"

"And? What does and mean, you dickhead?"

"You tell me."

But Matt didn't. Wordlessly pulling the t-shirt over his head, he flung it into a corner. Flexing the impressive muscles of his smooth chest. He wasn't a PT instructor for nothing. "Does that remind you of anything?"

"Waxing?" Hooch deadpanned.

Matt rolled his eyes while unbuttoning the BDU's. He pushed them down, together with his briefs underneath. Baring himself down to his knees, and then the trousers slipped and got caught around his ankles at the top of the boots. His groin was just as smooth - except for a neat patch. "And what does that remind you of?"

"Shaving?"

Matt laughed with exasperation. "You're insufferable."

"And horny."

"Now we are getting somewhere." Matt stepped closer, pulled the towel off Hooch and steadied Hooch's hips with his hands, holding him carefully, just enough to push his groin against Hooch's. He grinned at the immediate reaction. "If I fucked myself on you, very carefully, would your pelvis manage?"

"If it doesn't I don't give a shit." The sudden, husky quality to Hooch's voice caused Matt to take in a sharp breath.

"In that case ..." Matt murmured, giving his hips a slight twist, "fuck me, Hooch."

He hadn't realised how much he'd missed Hooch's rare, shit-eating grin.


March 1998, New Zealand

That same week, the phone rang, but this time at a perfectly acceptable time of day. It was Dan who answered, he'd been in his study, organising the next Spa event. It was Hooch and Dan was surprised at his genuine sense of joy when he heard the unmistakable drawl. Somehow Hooch had become a friend as well and he hadn't even noticed it happening. After a short conversation, Dan hollered downstairs, "Vadim! It's Hooch!"

Vadim dropped the pen on the pad. He'd been making notes for a conference, based on some new reports he'd received, but that was forgotten when he hurried up the stairs. "Coming!" He rushed into Dan's room and took the phone, while Dan smiled at him, nodded, and then left the room to grab a coffee. "Hey. Are you okay?"

"Yeah, not bad. I should have called earlier." A pause, "how are you?"

"I'm good. I'm good. Shit, it's good hearing you."

"Yeah." The smile was all too audible in Hooch's voice. "Was wondering, any chance to see you? Here?"

"Sure ... guess you can't or shouldn't fly yet? Sure I can come over." He looked at Dan, who had come back with two mugs of coffee, and touched his shoulder.

"Can't." A pause, "are you going to bring Dan?"

"Should I?"

"Yeah, I'd like to see him. When can you make it Stateside?"

"Let me check." Vadim checked the wall calendar. "Next thing we have lined up is in three weeks. We could head out right away or in four weeks, after the conference."

Dan hadn't followed the conversation and was looking at Vadim, questioningly, then sat down to sip his coffee.

"Can you make it now?" Hooch asked.

Vadim looked at Dan. "Can we fly out to the US right away?"

Dan nodded. "To Matt and Hooch?" It hadn't been difficult to cotton onto the conversation. "Sure. I was planning a Spa event in Europe, after the conference, but I could organise an ad hoc one in the US before that." He smiled, "it'll be good to see them again."

Vadim nodded, then returned to the phone in his hand.

"Done. I'll book the flights and call you then. We could actually have a holiday over in the States. Always wanted to see the Grand Canyon, even though it's just more bloody rocks." Smiling affectionately at Dan, who winked at him.

"Thanks, buddy. I'll let Matt know." With that, the line went dead. Hooch had never been one for drawn-out good byes.

Vadim put the phone down. "He sounds alright, by his standards. A bit emotional."

"Emotional? Hooch? This must have rattled him more than I'd initially thought." Dan shrugged and smiled.

"You know, as emotional as he can sound." Vadim shook his head. "States, then. I'll call our travel agent and make the arrangements."

Dan nodded and finished his mug. He'd have to get organising before they were off.


April 1998, United States of America

They arrived on the Saturday morning, trying to be patient while going through the increasingly annoying customs and immigration. They were both tired, Vadim more than Dan, but they soon found a taxi and made their way to Matt's apartment.

It was good to see Matt again, Dan thought. Matt who had grown up since he'd last seen him, a fact that Dan couldn't quite put his finger onto the how and why, but something was different about him.

Seeing Hooch, who had got up and was standing in the small living room, supported on two crutches, was another matter. The man had become wiry, had lost that much muscle definition that it was clearly visible in the shirt and jeans he was wearing. With the brace over the trousers, he almost looked skinny. It was the glimpse of a healed wound, small and round, visible in the open collar of the dark green shirt, which made Dan twitch before he caught himself. A cigarette burn. Almost where he'd placed Vadim's, a lifetime ago.

The unbidden notion of 'twins' was disconcerting and caught him out for a second, before he smiled and pulled Hooch into a very careful half-embrace, which was more than touching a shoulder and less than a hug.

Realising that really, what Hooch wanted, was to talk to Vadim, Dan got Matt out of the apartment and into town, under the pretence that he needed clothes and since the kid had been that successful a personal shopper a few years back, he needed his expertise. They were soon gone, taking Dan's and Vadim's luggage with them, to book into the hotel close by, with the promise that Dan would get a quadruple espresso in the shopping mall.

They had just left, when Hooch quirked a half-grin at Vadim. "Now comes the fun of sitting back down. Should have used the walker but I'm too fucking vain." Turning, he made his way to the couch, which had been set up with an abundance of cushions.

"Some way I can help you? Won't tell. Would have never happened." Vadim stayed close, as if to lend Hooch strength by physical proximity. He didn't expect Hooch to actually accept help, but hoped he would.

"No, I'm alright. Not that I wouldn't accept help ..." Hooch shuffled himself into position, "I'm beyond that," lowering himself down with a suppressed grunt, "but every little thing I can do on my own feels like a victory." He finally settled back in the cushions that kept him propped up, and flashed a grin at Vadim. "Thanks for coming." He placed the crutches to the side and looked up, when Vadim picked up the unspoken cue.

"I'm all ears. All yours." Vadim sat down and moved the stuffed chair closer. He was leaning forward, elbows on his knees.

Hooch huffed a toneless laugh. "You got one on me." Reaching for another cushion to stuff it a bit further under his hip. "Yeah, I need to talk to you. I need your help." Admitting that was doubtlessly hard for him.

"Whatever you need."

"What do you know about bad dreams?"

"More than enough." Bad dreams. Vadim pressed his lips together, but he felt a chill in his face. Hooch. Fucked up. Just like him. Thoughts whirling in his head at that, impressions, the old Hooch and their games, Konstantinov.

"You've seen a shrink, do you still have them?"

"Sometimes. They are ... rarer, now. Not as bad. I'm managing it." It wouldn't be a surprise if Hooch had PTSD, none at all. "I can give you the number of my 'shrink'. He's good, but it's not easy. He said everybody reacts differently, bad dreams are fairly normal. The question is how long the symptoms stay with you. If they stay around, it's proper PTSD. Bad dreams, emotional alienation, fits of rage. Flashbacks."

"It's not that bad." Hooch tried to reach for the half empty mug with by now cold coffee, frowned, and gave up half way. Vadim took the cue and handed it to him. He wanted to touch him, too, but wasn't quite sure whether it was welcome. How much he could touch before it would be painful.

"I don't wake up screaming, I'm not angry, not alienated, not disassociated." Hooch shrugged, took a mouthful of his cold coffee, "just stuck in the images, the smell. It's the stench that's haunting me, I sometimes think I can still smell it."

"I can only imagine." Vadim sat back done, moving even closer, until his knees almost touched Hooch's. "They had a good go at you, too, the way you look." He indicated his own throat. "Bastards."

"Yeah ..." Hooch drawled, then smiled unexpectedly. "Funny, though. Remember what you told me once? About not alienating your captor? And that nothing else mattered but to survive?" Hooch stretched out his arm as if he tried to put the mug back, but rested his hand on Vadim's knee instead, fingers touching cloth that was warmed from skin.

"Yeah. I really hoped you'd remember that much. You can be infuriating. I'm glad you didn't piss them off too much." Vadim covered Hooch's hand on his knee with his. The touch felt good. He was alive.

"It's fucking ironic that being a masochist is what got me through. I knew that pain was a good thing. I could rely on it. Pain meant I was still alive, and most importantly, pain wouldn't kill me. Its absence would." Hooch's dark eyes were intense, focused on Vadim. "And I remembered a lot of things that I'd never believed were of importance. People. Friends. My ..." he trailed off and leaned his head back on the couch.

"Your proper lover." Vadim glanced to the door where Matt and Dan had left, then back to Hooch. "See? Maybe you don't need a guy who's fucked you up beforehand to fall a little for somebody. It's definitely saner."

Hooch looked at Vadim from under his dark lashes, with his head craned back. "It's different. I love Matt, I understand that now. As much as I can love, but I'm not explaining those shades of grey to him. No need to." Hooch's fingers twitched in Vadim's. "But I actually need you. This time more than ever."

"I'm here, Hooch. I can give you whatever you need from me." No whys, no hows, no whens. It didn't matter, really, all that mattered was that on some level, they needed each other, they fit together in a certain way, complemented each other. It defied classification, analysis. Vadim still wasn't quite sure what he felt for Hooch, only that he felt. "I'm clear about my emotions. That's why I had to walk away in the first place. To think, to make sure that I knew what was going on. It was more irrational than that. More painful, but that is what happened in the meantime."

"I thought I was clear about my emotions, but I realised that I wasn't. I am now, though... Regarding myself, I haven't got a fucking clue, and that's why I need you." Hooch pushed himself up to sit, grimacing, he had to keep changing his position. "I need to know if they fucked me up. If the stench that is still in my nostrils will remain, if the bad dreams come to haunt me big time, if the memories of torture and death are going to bite my ass and rob my strength."

"I think I start to see where this is going. You want me to ... test that."

"Yeah. I need you to take me further than ever before."

"Fuck."

"Yeah, fuck." Hooch searched and found Vadim's eyes. "I might not even get there, but if I break ... I trust you to put the pieces back together."

"Yeah." Vadim nodded towards Hooch's brace. "Will you heal up first?"

"I have to, even taking a shit hurts." A self-deprecating huff of laughter followed. "It'll take a while, can be up to a year before I'm 'fighting fit'."

"Okay." Vadim nodded. "I can do that. I'll do it." Of course he would. He had to, he wanted to. Help, have, destroy. It was all one blur and he'd have to think about it for longer to work out what the underlying motivation was.

"Thanks, buddy." Hooch leaned back again and the smile that ghosted across his face betrayed a sense of relief. "But first I have to sort a few things. With Dan and Matt. Damn that goddamned newfound wisdom." Hooch flashed a grin, as sharp as it had ever been.

"Yeah, I found that wisdom thing a killer." Vadim grinned, glad that the topic was off torture for the moment. "Anything you need right now?"

"I could do with a beer, and if you want me to suck you, I wouldn't say no."

Vadim swallowed dryly. "Can't say no ... I'd trade you one?"

"If you get me out of this damned brace, anytime." Hooch's grin had come back full force. "But first ..." he did lean forward, despite the pain, and put the mug down at last, then crooked his finger to beckon Vadim close, "the beer can wait."

The biggest challenge was to find a position that wasn't too painful, but Vadim couldn't resist, and he ended up standing between Hooch's legs, holding him close, offering a little support, and perversely, the fact that Hooch was fragile and in pain increased the pleasure - Hooch wrestling his own pain, shudders and breaths, small sounds betraying the discomfort, but Vadim could only think that despite the pain, Hooch really wanted to blow him. Hooch took the pain, embraced it, and there was this terrible tenderness in himself, the relief that Hooch was there, alive, all one intense mess of emotions that added edge to the physical pleasure.

Later, after Vadim had returned the favour, and despite his best efforts to steady Hooch's hips, Hooch had come with suppressed sounds closer to pain than lust, but it had been lust and fulfilment that was written across his face when he relaxed back in the cushions.

Unlike the old Hooch, he fell asleep soon after, and it was Vadim who closed the shirt and pulled the black denims back up over the random scattering of cigarette burns. He fixed the brace once more, patiently waiting for Hooch to wake, while watching him sleep in peace and silence.

* * *

It was shortly after Dan and Matt had returned in the afternoon, carrying a barrage of bags, when Hooch called out from the living room.

"Hey, Dan." Hooch turned his head, lifting himself up to half-sit, he'd been in the same position for too long. "Can I have a word?"

"Sure." Dan shrugged, glanced at Vadim, who just looked at him before following Matt into the bedroom to rifle through the stuff Matt had made Dan buy.

"Thought you'd want to talk with Vadim, not with me." Dan smiled and sat down on the comfy chair beside the couch.

"Yeah, I did." Hooch looked at him, and Dan thought once again, how much he could understand that Vadim had fallen for that man.

"Cigarette?" Dan held the package out to Hooch, who shook his head.

"I stopped."

"Another of those health crap scares from the US of A?"

"Not really. Hadn't smoked for so long after that shithole, it wasn't hard not to, when they told me I shouldn't because of thrombosis."

"Shit, forgot about that." Dan smiled ruefully. "Bug on its back, aye?"

Hooch let out a huff of laughter. "Legs in the air, yeah ... wish I could, but still no fucking of this bug here."

"Bet Matt finds other ways though, eh?" Dan smiled, concentrating on the unlit cigarette.

"Yeah, he does." Hooch trailed off, watched Dan for a moment, then pointed at the cigarette. "Go right ahead. Matt's a health freak, but I know he'd let you get away with murder."

"You think so?"

"You're a friend and you helped him, he'd do anything."

"Bullshit." Dan frowned, "didn't do much and besides, I wouldn't want anyone to feel indebted." Shaking his head, he lit the cigarette nevertheless. "Apart from that, it's Markus who should receive all the thanks. He's the guy who got the info to Matt and it was quite a struggle to get info without breaking any of the secrecy required."

"He also got the woman to mention Matt, without any mentioning." Hooch nodded, then pushed his empty soda can towards Dan as a makeshift ashtray. "Thanks."

"For what?" Dan looked up, surprised, "getting the info to Matt?"

"Yeah. And for understanding."

"Understanding what?"

"Vadim. Me."

"It's friendship." Dan inhaled the smoke deeply, watching it curl back out of his nostrils. "And more, but I let him do what he feels he needs to do. It goes both ways and it works for us."

Hooch raised a brow and said nothing, forcing Dan to elaborate.

"He's been in love with you for a few years. Since Berlin." Dan shrugged and smiled. "That's on top of being your friend, but that's okay. You're everything I was, might have been, am not, and could never be. Don't tell me you don't know that." He let out a small huff. "You even look like me - just younger, less ..." scarred, he wanted to say, and then he shut up, realising just what had happened to Hooch.

"Not anymore." Hooch flashed a humourless grin.

"I'm an idiot." Dan replied quietly. "Sorry."

"I'm not."

Dan raised his brows, smoking slowly.

"Yeah, wish it had never happened, but taught me a few things." Hooch pushed himself up further until he sat, propped up by cushions.

"Like?"

"What's important. Who I love. That I love."

Dan tensed up, after all this time, but just for a second. "Who?"

"Not Vadim." Hooch smiled. "That's your department."

"What makes you so sure?" Dan smiled.

"As I said, I learned a few things."

"There's something else, aye?"

"I need to see Vadim. I need to know if I ... if they broke more than my bones." Hooch's voice had taken on a different quality. A compelling mix of strength and frailty. "I need to understand if I still exist."

Dan leaned forward, forgetting the cigarette between his fingers. "Exist?"

"The man I was. The Delta. My core. My strength." Trailing off, "... me."

"And you need Vadim for that?"

Hooch nodded. "I need him to destroy me, disassemble me, so that I know if the core is still intact." He tilted his head to look fully at Dan. "Vadim is the only safe bet, and he knows me. Knows I have no ... used to have no limits. I don't play safe. He won't kill me and I know he can do it."

"Shit." Dan exhaled quietly, leaning back in the chair and remembering the cigarette. Pulling in a lungful, he took his time to exhale. "You want my blessing for that? You don't need to, you know that I am fine with what you two have."

"I know, but I need you to understand."

"Why?"

"Because of the things I've learned, of what's important. The small things that go under the skin." Hooch slowly let out a breath. "When it got really bad," echoing his own words, "when I was close to let death take over, it was two things that kept me going. One, what Vadim had taught me: don't aggravate your captor. You have to survive. At all costs. Play along, your pride is of no consequence, only your life is. I remembered that early on, and it got me through some ... encounters." He shrugged one-sided, but there was only tension about him, no pretended ease. "Two, the memories and images of Matt. The little things, a smile, a habit, a grin, a touch in the morning, a sound during sex, a laughter at night. All that goddamned normality. Everything that I'd thought was of no consequence in the greater scheme of my life and my job, but then it was all that I wanted to see and feel and know again." Hooch fell silent, breathing, as if the long speech had drained him of energy. "I guess, when I realised that I love Matt, something clicked. Up here," pointing to his temple. "And now I am not sure if I could go back into combat, even if I hadn't taken the instructor post."

"You fear you've become too human?" Dan smiled and snipped the cigarette butt into the empty can. "I know the feeling." Reaching across to place a hand on Hooch's shoulder, he gave it a squeeze. "It's a good one."

"I'm not sure."

"Worried you've become too 'weak' for the job?"

Hooch nodded.

"I understand ... and a really intense session with Vadim would tell you one way or another?"

Hooch nodded again, "but not just that."

"No?" letting go of Hooch's shoulder, Dan sat back once more.

"I have ... bad dreams. But Matt doesn't know."

"Fuck." Quietly.

"Yeah, but I don't scream. Just wake up, sweating. I don't want him to know."

It was Dan's turn now to nod. He understood all too well, knew exactly what it was like to be helpless, watching another suffer. "You should see a shrink. Vadim did, and it changed his life."

"I'm not there yet. I need to know first ... shit, Dan, part of me is a masochist, an extreme one. That is either not going to change or going to completely blow up in my face. I need to know. Need to understand what the fuck happened to me and how I'm going to deal with it in the future."

"And that's why you need Vadim, to figure out the whole shit, warts and all."

"Yeah."

Dan smiled, "still a bit odd that you want my blessing, because it is really not necessary."

"Call it a new-found social nicety." Hooch answered with a smile of his own.

Laughing, Dan shook his head. "I won't be jealous, if that's what you ask. You should know that by now." Leaning closer, "and I do understand."

"Thanks, buddy." Letting out a breath, Hooch sank back into the pillows.

"And Matt?" Dan asked after a moment.

"He doesn't know anything about that part of me."

"You think that's wise?"

"No. I think that's shit, and that's why I'm going to tell him about the man he doesn't know."

"He'll be okay with it eventually." Dan nodded, "he's a good kid."

"Not so much of a kid anymore."

"Twenty-eight? I call that a fucking kid." Dan grinned.

"Yeah, everything's relative." Hooch pulled a face. "Just wish I'd told him earlier. Never thought it was an issue, and that it wasn't his business. Figured what I did when I let off steam, had nothing to do with him. Seems it has."

"Relationship and all that?"

"Yeah."

"Don't fool yourself," Dan grinned, "you have been in a relationship with him for years. I reckon about five at least."

Hooch's brows rose with incredulity.

"Just trust me, mate." Dan patted Hooch's shoulder again. "I'm old and wise, you said so yourself."

"Did I?"

"Kind of." Dan winked. "But really, he'll understand. Eventually, because he'll want to understand. He loves you, and you might even get a thorough fuck out of it."

"One track mind ..."

"I have a reputation to uphold." Dan got up, found his cane and stood, then pointed to the cane with a grin. "You're lucky, at least you'll get rid of yours."

"Good thing, I'd never be as dexterous as you are with it."

"Flattery gets you everywhere, aye?"

"Something like that."

Dan picked up the empty cans. "It certainly gets you into our house with me out of it."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that the safest and best place for doing whatever you need to do with Vadim is our home. I'll be away for a couple of weeks when you need me to."

"You serious?"

"Hooch ..." Dan leaned down, close enough, he could have kissed Hooch had he wanted to. "I understand a lot more than you might think." Quietly, with a smile. He turned and walked into the kitchen to get a couple more drinks, leaving Hooch to stare after him.

* * *

A few days later, after Dan and Vadim had headed off to explore the State before flying back, Hooch was making his round on the crutches, the walker discarded. He was getting better, but the pain had only eased minimally. Still, he could piss and shit without major disasters and if that wasn't a victory to be proud of, then he didn't know what was. Getting back into the living room, he watched Matt from the hallway. He could see his profile, the chiselled face, and that perfect body, right now more or less hidden beneath t-shirt and shorts. Young, unspoiled, and if he could help it, Matt would remain like that.

Watching him for a while, undisturbed, until Matt lifted his head, cottoned on that he was being watched, and cast a smile at Hooch. Another of those motherfucking dazzling smiles. The sort that made Hooch's knees go weak and his mind step onto a merry-go-round that didn't quite understand why this particular man, this 'kid' had managed to crawl beneath his skin and settle down inside his heart. Matt was really quite something.

"See anything you like, buddy?" Matt grinned.

"If I didn't I wouldn't be here." Hooch made his way towards the couch. Matt moved over, making space for him to sit down.

"Smartass." A lazy fist connected gently with Hooch's shoulder once he had manoeuvred himself to sit. Stretching his legs out, Hooch grimaced when he realised he had to lean forward to get to the Bud. Shit planning.

"You alright?"

"Couldn't be better." Hooch glanced to the side. "I just managed to take a shit without screaming in pain, I call that a glorious day."

Matt laughed, "thanks for the gory details."

"Thought you would appreciate it."

Sitting comfortably in silence, each with a beer in their hand. Hooch had his legs up on the stool, and Matt slouched with his feet on the couch table, watching a football game. Hooch realised only a while later that he had no idea who was playing. He didn't care, he only had one thing prominent on his mind. And wasn't attack always better than defence.

"Matt?"

"Huh?" Drawn to the game, Matt took a moment before he turned his head, looking at Hooch. "What's up, buddy?"

"I got to tell you something."

"You've turned into a right chatterbox lately." Matt grinned, taking a mouthful of his beer.

Ignoring the quip, Hooch went straight on. "I never told you that I'm a masochist."

"What are you talking about?" Matt laughed. "Was there something, like, in your lunch today?"

"Nope." Hooch shrugged, twisting to look at Matt. "But I think it's time to tell you about the rest of me. When I meet Vadim? We don't just fuck. We 'play' prisoner. Just, that we don't play. I need to be beaten and fucked up until I crack."

"You're fucking kidding me."

"No."

"Then why the hell do you tell me? Now? What's the point?"

"I need you to know."

"After what, five years? I don't fucking believe it, you bastard!"

"Bastard? Because I didn't tell you, thinking that this part of me had nothing to do with you?"

"Bastard, because you fucking lied."

"How?"

"By not telling me!" Matt's eyes were ablaze, and Hooch realised he'd never seen him that angry and hurt. It was the latter that Hooch cursed himself for.

"If I had told you, what good would it have done?"

"I would have tried to be for you what you needed."

"No, Matt," Hooch's voice turned softer. "You don't have it in you."

"What? What the fuck are you telling me? You say, like, I am a girl? I don't fucking have it in me?"

"It's not you, Matt."

"That's not what you said."

Hooch shook his head. "It's what I meant."

Getting up from the sofa, Matt was fuming. "What you said is that I am not what you want."

"That's bullshit and you know it."

"How would you see it then, if you were me? You tell me, after five fucking years, that you need to ... what the fuck should I call it, get punished. That you need it because it is part of you and because otherwise you go fucking insane with the pressure or whatever the fuck."

Hooch had never seen Matt like that, and he couldn't help but admire the sheer energy of the explosion.

"And that is not telling me that I'm not alright? That I'm not missing something?"

"Exactly." Hooch quietly interjected, looking up. "You don't."

"Don't fucking kid me." Matt's hands were in fists and he started to pace the small living room. "I thought we had a relationship?"

"We do now. The question is if we had."

"You always came back."

"Yeah, because you were convenient. And pretty."

"Fucking what?" Matt put the beer back onto the table with a mighty thud. "Convenient? You asshole."

"You were. Not saying that's what you still are."

"You have the guts to tell me that?" Matt shook his head, obviously hurt. "Convenient? Like a fucking door mat?"

"No." Hooch said quietly, looking at Matt with a neutral expression. "But I am telling you the truth right now. Back when it all started you were convenient. Great fun, fantastic source for sex. And ... pretty."

"Pretty? Fuck you, Hooch."

"Yeah, but you are."

"Girls are pretty, I'm a man. I'm not pretty."

"What would you rather be?. Handsome? Adorable? Perfect? Stunning? Gorgeous? Breathtaking? Beautiful?"

"Am I?"

"All of it and more."

"Shit." Matt groused. He deflated, ad some of the anger taken out of him, but the sting was still there. "You're fighting dirty."

"Delta." Hooch smirked and beckoned Matt closer.

"Yeah, and I'm outgunned. As usual." Rolling his eyes, Matt reached for the beer again, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

"You've never been outgunned."

"You're fucking kidding me."

"I told you before, Matthew Donahue, you are quite something. Outwitted, perhaps, but never outgunned."

"Charmer."

"I do my best for a blowjob."

"Convenient, eh?"

Hooch said nothing, just looked at Matt, fingers twisting into the fabric of his t-shirt. Looking at him for a long time, before he pulled him across and close. "If I told you that I wanted to spend my days and nights with you, live with you, as my partner, because out there, in Hell, I realised that you mean the world to me? That you are my sanity, my laughter, my lust, my love, my heat and cold and everything? If I told you that, would you think that translates to 'convenient'?"

Matt swallowed, staring at Hooch wide-eyed. "N...no."

"Damn right. Now shut up, Donahue, and tell me that you'll spend the rest of your life with me."

Matt pronounced his next words very carefully:

"I do."

 
 
Special Forces Chapter LXV: To the Bone
 
 
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 24 February 2009