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Special Forces Chapter LXVI: Above and Beyond
 
 

August 2002, Hungary

Dan was stirring his double espresso, unaware he had been chasing the spoon around in circles for at least two minutes. He tried not to check the door, neither his watch. Staring into his coffee, as usual over-sweetened, he started another forlorn round of stirring long dissolved sugar.

He shouldn't feel so nervous, the way he was sitting there was plain ridiculous. A man of nearly fifty-three, behaving like a teenager on a first date. Good thing he hadn't told Vadim how long he'd been standing in front of his suitcase that morning, deciding in the end on customary black jeans and one of the linen and silk mix shirts that Vadim had bought him. It had even taken him a whole shocking five minutes to decide on the charcoal coloured one.

Deciding on the jacket had been easy: black leather and from a chap called Armain. Or Armani. Or Armand? Didn't matter, all that counted was that Vadim had told him those clothes made him look as hot as any middle aged man possibly could. If it was good enough for Vadim, it was good enough for him.

But would it be good enough for Kisa?

Dan was about to add yet another lump of sugar, when the door of the ice cream parlour opened. He looked up, and almost dropped the spoon. A girl came in, dressed in black, weird 'straps' attached to her combat-style trousers. Her dark hair had purple streaks and was done up in some sort of explosion. Long, at least, so he had an inkling that it was actually a girl, even though that probably didn't count for much, either. What had happened to his idea of a twelve year old kid? Black eyeliner around her eyes, smudged, everything but expertly applied, and those fingernails … when she came closer he noticed the bitten and chewed, chipped-off black polish. Holy shit. That couldn't be his daughter? Not the pretty little dark haired girl with the huge brown eyes and the impish grin?

"Hi." She stopped in front of his table. "You Dan?"

He looked up and nodded, remembered to stand up, a bit laboriously, and had the intelligence to stretch out his hand for a shake. He hadn't expected this … this strange looking kid. The last photos he had received were about a year old.

"Yeah, I'm Dan. Hi Kisa." He had the urge to flee, but she grabbed his hand and the firm but brief shake made him look into her eyes. Stopped. Surprised. Despite the black around them they were still the same eyes from the photos.

His eyes.

"What would you like?" He remembered to ask, but felt awkward. Trying to show her the menu, he knocked it over instead. Stupid. She would know all about the menu anyway, she lived close by, unlike him. He'd just flown across the globe for over twenty-four hours.

"It's OK." She sat down, all cool, despite her age, and unlike him very much at home in that place. "I order." While Dan sat down, she fired off a rapid conversation to the waitress in Hungarian, with the occasional quick laugh.

He kept his left hand under the table, conscious of the scars. He had noticed her initial stare at his face. He couldn't remember if the recent photo he'd sent her mother had shown his scar, hoped it had. Didn't want to be regarded as a freak, not by this kid.

Kid. Daughter. His daughter. Holy fuck.

He couldn't help studying her, the way her hands moved while talking to the waitress, the ragged black nails flashing in quick succession and then that laughter again. She sounded like a kid who could be suspiciously good fun, if only she didn't look like a bundle of rags.

"So," she turned back to him, switching into English, which turned out to be fluent and with a pleasant accent. "You're Dan." She tilted her head, unabashedly staring at him, she let her gaze wander across his face, back down to the shirt and up again, left and right until it ended in the centre. She obviously studied the grey temples and silver streaks in an otherwise dark and forever unruly head of too-long hair. "You look nothing like a father." She stated her conclusion, then rubbed her nose. "Nothing like my friends' dads."

Dan couldn't help but laugh. "What the fuck did you expect me to look like?" Wincing. Damn! He hadn't meant to swear.

She laughed, sniggered even, seemed it was funny to her that an old geezer talked that way. "I thought men your age wore suits and tie and had short hair. I expected you to be boring, not with a cool scar in your face and a leather jacket." She spotted the cane that leant against the free chair. "That's more like it."

Dan grinned, suddenly not feeling so awkward anymore. "You think the scar's cool? It's old, I keep forgetting about it." Yeah, right, as if. You'd been worried about that all morning. Like the clothes and what he should say or expect and whatever the fuck he was supposed to feel and think and why on earth he'd ever agreed to this in the first place. He nodded towards the cane. "That? I have an artificial knee and it's easier to walk with a cane, but bloody uncool."

She shrugged, "my friends' fathers are totally uncool to start with, but then they are at least fathers." Another shrug, she twisted a strand of the purple-dark hair around her fingers, stuffed it into her mouth and chewed on it.

Before he could reply, the waitress arrived with a tray and a glass of coke and a huge bowl of ice cream. Vanilla and chocolate, dripping in sauce and crowned with whipped cream, several chocolate fingers sticking out of the top. Dan stared at the concoction. Perfect. At least that kid had an eclectic taste: his own.

"I'd like one of those as well and another coffee. Extra sugar." Dan pointed at the ice cream and the waitress smiled, heading off to the counter. He didn't notice at first how the kid was staring at him.

Kid. No, Kisa. Kisa, his daughter. Shit.

"What's up? Are those ice creams reserved for kids?" He rose his brows then finished off the coffee, now lukewarm. "I happen to like sweets."

She tilted her head even further, until her face almost touched the table, dark hair and twisted purple strands nearly falling into the whipped cream. He felt strange being scrutinised by eyes that were so much like his own.

"I like sweets, too. My favourite stuff. Mum tells me off for ladling sugar into my cereal." She shrugged, then tucked into her dessert, "I don't care what she says. I'm old enough to know what I want."

"Aye, I guess you are." Dan offered a smile. Watching her eat, he wondered if he'd ever looked like that when wolfing down his food.

"You think so?" She frowned. "You don't know that I know?"

"Of course I don't know, I can only imagine. I don't know you."

"Exactly." Suddenly sullen.

Dan waited a moment, but that was it. She was silently shovelling the dessert into herself, hovering the whipped cream down as if there were no tomorrow.

Great. Now it was awkward again and Dan wished the waitress were faster in preparing that goddamned chocolate vanilla bowl. At least she'd provide a distraction. Was he now meant to say something or was he supposed to wait? He'd never had to deal with a kid; his nephews had never required any work. Or perhaps he hadn't been there when they'd been kids.

"I'm sorry." He finally offered an apology even though he wasn't sure for what.

"Really?" She looked up, the angry glare somewhat lessened by a cream moustache. "Why would you be? If you were sorry, then why didn't you ever want to see me?"

Target locked. Missile fired. Where was the eject seat when one needed them the most?

"Shit." Dan murmured, avoided her gaze, glad the waitress came at last with the ice cream and coffee. It gave him an excuse to remain silent while frantically trying to think. Think, Dan! You had all the perfect explanations and smoothly polished lies, ready for use. Why, then, why did it feel all wrong? The bluntness, the open eyed questions, the stare that was so frank he could almost forget she was only a kid. Kid. Kisa. Why did I never see you? Your mother stipulated she'd cry 'rape' if I ever did. You were hers and hers alone, and I'd been happy with that, never really questioned it. You've never been part of my life, you couldn't have been. Except for money, but money didn't count. I never wanted you. I hated your mother for creating you. And now you're here and you look at me with those goddamned eyes, and I'm helpless.

"You still haven't answered my question." She frowned. "Don't you want to answer it or can't you? You think you can't tell me the truth? You just didn't want to have anything to do with me, is that it?"

Was it? Was it that simple? Oh, Kisa, you'll never know.

"No. It's not that simple. Nothing ever is." Dan took a mouthful of cream, then twisted one of the chocolate sticks in his hand.

"Then tell me why? Mum said you had a one-night stand, but I found out that you'd known all along that I existed. I found a couple of letters that had come back from some place, what was it, the one before Serbo-Croatia."

"Yugoslavia", Dan muttered. Land of horror and hatred, of mass graves and wailing, and of kids like you, killing soldiers.

"Yes, that one." She wiped her lips with her sleeve. "I know I shouldn't have, but I opened them. They'd been undeliverable. I opened them because mum never told me anything about my father. She kept telling me that she hadn't known you, a one-night stand. The best that had ever come out of it was I." She frowned. "There were pictures of me as a toddler. Short letters that said a bit about what I was doing, nothing else, but you knew that I existed and I know that you knew all along. Then why did you never want to see me?"

The same question again, and all Dan could wonder about was why the hell Katya had kept those letters. He worked his way through some mouthfuls of vanilla ice, while sifting through all the optional lies he'd been fabricating in his mind. One-night stand. Busy. Business. Didn't know - that one was out - couldn't, the truth, but not enough.

Truth. Shit, yes. Frankness pitched against frankness. If Kisa was anything like him she'd want the truth and nothing else. The truth, except for her conception. Some truths were too brutal to ever be known.

"Is that all your mother told you? I was a one-night stand?"

Kisa nodded, while drinking her coke.

"That's the truth, but only part of it." Dan sat back. Katya would kill him, but then, what did he have to lose? "The truth is that you are 'a child of love', as they say, but not of the love between your mother and me, but between my partner and me." He paused to take in a breath. "I'm gay. Vadim, your siblings' father, has been my lover for twenty-two years." Sometimes the truth needed a little help.

"What?" With the spoon paused in mid-motion, she stared incredulously at him. "You mad?"

"No," Dan sat just as still, "only gay."

"That's the biggest load of lies I have ever heard!" Eyes ablaze, she furiously glared at him. "That's not possible. You think I'm stupid?" Her spoon came down onto the table with a nasty crack, ice-cream sludge splattering across. "I'm not a child anymore, I'm nearly twelve. I know something about gays and they don't do it with women!"

Dan couldn't help but burst into laughter, admiring the black-and-white view of her world.

"We can." How the fuck to explain things without going into detail. He wasn't ready to talk about sex with a kid whose image in his mind was of pigtails and impish grin. "It happens. It did happen."

The steep crease between her brows deepened. "Oh, really? So my sister's and my brother's dad has been having sex with you all the time and not with mum, right? And you in return had sex with my mum, once, and why? What's that got to do with lovers and love and everything else?" She started to fume again, "what's that got to do with me? Why did you never want to see me? You knew you had a daughter!"

Shit. Too many questions and only one answer. The old whore again. Truth. The one who'd brought him in and out of trouble, and whose painted face had to hide the odd deceit.

He sighed, then took a deep breath while his spoon came down, hands resting on the tabletop. Both of them, side by side. Looking at her, as calmly as he managed ."Kisa," not 'kid', and it felt right, "you are my daughter, I don't doubt that for a second, even though I've never been a father to you." He fixed her angry stare with his steady own. "And since you are my daughter, I figure that you'd appreciate the truth. All of it. The whole story." Another deep breath. "Do you want to hear how it all happened and why I never tried to make contact?"

She nodded, grabbed the spoon and shovelled the last of the ice-cream down, then pulled Dan's bowl closer when he gave it a push towards her. "Yes. The truth, and don't you dare make it sound better."

He shook his head. He wouldn't, but he'd sanitise the truth. Corpses, death, hatred and desperation, these things had nothing to do in her life.

"First of, I've actually seen you before, three times. I never made contact and you didn't know who I was, don't think you ever saw me." He shrugged, "Your mother and I," the lies, they did come smoothly sometimes, "we decided that it would be best for you not to meet me. We were wrong, it seems, and I'm sorry for it."

She'd gone back to the customary tilt of her head, quiet for now.

"Let me tell you the whole story." Dan told her about how he had met Vadim, sanitising every event as he went along, two enemy soldiers, who did not kill each other, instead began to fall in love. Condensing eight years into a story fit for a Hollywood movie. No lies, just the absence of some of the truths. He went on to talk about Vadim's execution, how he had visited his ex-wife, Kisa's mother, to get a message across to him through his father, one that was about love. Their love. Vadim's and his.

"That night, Kisa, your mother and I consoled each other and it just happened. One thing led to the other, we were both devastated about Vadim's impending execution, and we ended up having sex." He could hardly believe how smoothly this lie was slipping across his tongue. "That's how you were conceived. Because of love, just not between your mother and me."

He'd have to talk to Katya to reinforce the story. A lie that was destined to remain the truth and nothing but the truth, for this one person. His daughter. He wasn't a good man, but he'd be buggered if he let the kid get hurt.

"Oh man." Her eyes widened, the anger had turned into fascination. "That's ... that's crazy. My friends are never going to believe that. How cool."

Cool? Dan lit a cigarette like a dying man reached for the sacraments. He'd expected anything but that reaction. "You think that's cool?"

She grinned, rage forgotten, and nodded vigorously, purple strands flying all over the place. "My father's gay and he slept with my mother because my sibling's father is his lover, who was going to be executed by the KGB. Wow!" She positively beamed, "that's fucking cool!"

He didn't even notice the swearing. Cool.

Right, the whole thing was cool.

Dan started to laugh, muttering about kids, the new world, things he didn't understand anymore and the fact he'd produced a female monster. One he already liked. A lot.

She grinned, "you promised to tell me why you've never seen me and why mum and you thought that would be best."

He nodded, exhaled smoke away from her and reached for the coffee. "OK, the reason has to do with my job." He continued to explain what he'd done as a merc after her conception, that he hadn't known of her existence before she was two. He'd been in the Gulf at that time. He wasn't sure if she understood why risking his life every day would be a reason she shouldn't meet him, but she seemed to accept the explanation and his apology. For now. No doubt she'd come back to the whole thing later, he had a feeling she wasn't someone who'd ever let go.

"Is that why you have the scars?" She pointed unashamedly at his face, then reached for his left hand. She took it, pulled it over and studied the ugly mess. Functional, but by no means pretty.

Dan stared at his hand in hers. She had long fingers, a narrow hand. The female version of his own, and she'd probably be tall when she was fully grown. Her mother was tall herself, lithe and slender, and he was strong, but tended towards the wiry, if he didn't work out extensively. If he wasn't mistaken, the kid would turn out to be a stunner. He could already imagine the trail of broken hearts.

"Aye," he nodded, "got the scar on my hand from a close security job. I was protecting a lady ambassador in Kabul, in 1988. Was a car explosion, tore my guts open as well, but before you ask," he held her back with a grin, "I'm not going to show you those scars. Not dropping my trousers in a café."

She grinned up into his face, and he smiled back her. Completely smitten. These eyes, despite the dreadful makeup. Those hands. 'Lapushka', how fitting, a kitten's paw. Kisa, kitten. Apt for the tiger's daughter. Dan wondered for the if the story he had left for Vadim's father to tell, had anything to do with the choice of his daughter's name.

"I'm glad I finally met you."

She nodded, still grinning, "I'm, too. You're cool. Wish I had met you earlier."

"Sorry, we fucked it up." He didn't realise he was tilting his head just like she had done, earlier.

"It's a lot to swallow right now. That's the craziest story I've ever heard and I'm right in the middle of it." She let go of Dan's hand, looked at her watch then out of the window. "Mum's picking me up, she's probably already waiting. You have an email address?"

Dan grinned. "Of course, I'm not that old. Here," he reached into a jacket pocket, "take my card. It's my private email address and my private mobile number. Don't give it to anyone else, OK? Not even your mother. It's just for close friends."

"Thanks, that's great. I'll send you a mail. I want to ask you a lot of questions, but have to go now." She stood up, too fast for him to do the same. "Bye, Dan!" She was out of the door before he could stub out his fag.

Dan leaned back in the chair, closed his eyes for a moment, to sit and think. He finally took a very deep breath, before searching for his phone to send a text.

Kisa. Force of nature. What the hell else had he expected.

Dan grinned.

* * *

The moment the mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, Vadim got up and began heading for the ice cream parlour. A press of a button retracted the lens, and the small, sleek, silver thing transformed into a silvery cube, which fitted neatly into his inside pocket. The wonders of Sony.

He'd tell Dan of the quick series of photos later. Only Kisa had really been on them. Dan still had his instincts, and had been invisible from the park opposite the ice cream place, and in cover behind a concrete pillar.

He checked the text before crossing the road. "Were done", it said. Dan never bothered switching menus for the apostrophes. Dan's irreverent nature of course extended to his own language. Vadim stuffed the phone back into his pocket, knowing full well that Dan could see him by now, log before he entered the cafe. He walked towards the table, where Dan was still sitting, grinning like a fool that had just been laid. Only that he didn't tend to grin that much after sex.

"Ah, I can see you're in love", murmured Vadim. He looked up to the waitress who had given up preening behind the counter and was now preening with a pad in her hand. Dan's charms. "Ah." Eyes narrowed to make out the words on the blackboard behind the counter, but nothing he could understand. "Tea. Earl Grey." He turned back to Dan. "So. As bad as expected, I gather?"

Dan simply continued to grin. "Bad? You have no idea. She's a terror." He ordered another coffee by pointing to the one he'd already had. "I need you to talk to her mother, though. It's urgent. She needs to know the new party line." He reached out and touched Vadim's hand, never noticing the disappointed look on the waitresses' face. "I told Kisa the truth. All of it, and she thinks it's rather cool. To quote her: 'to have a gay father who slept with her mother because of her siblings' gay father's execution, who is the lover of her father'. Or something like that."

Vadim gave a dry laugh, thumb moving to hold Dan's fingers that lay across his hand. No thought went into it.

"It's FUBAR." He pondered the request for a while, then nodded. "Katya will respect that. She is a very reasonable person." He could sense the thunderstorm gathering around Dan, and waved it away with a hand. "In her way. She did a good job with the kids, you know. Much better than, uh, we could have. I mean. I did try to be a father back then, but it didn't work out very well." He listened to himself, astonished just how insecure he sounded.

Dan shook his head, then reached for another fag with his free hand, the other resting comfortably in Vadim's. "We never got a chance to be fathers, for different reasons." Lighting the fag, "OK, so I would have been crap at it, but there's no one to prove otherwise." He shrugged and pulled in the first deep drag of nicotine.

"I can give her a call. Or would that be a meeting? Maybe in a restaurant?" Keeping all options open.

"I guess I really have to meet Katya, aye?" Dan glanced at Vadim. "She needs to know urgently what I concocted regarding Kisa's conception, or the 'Truth As The Kid Knows It' will get blown." Dan nodded his thanks when the waitress brought their orders, and took a sip after adding a double portion of sugar. "I told her we 'comforted' each other because of your impending execution and that's how it happened, even though I'm gay. Child of love and all that stuff." Another sip, "at least the last bit's not a lie."

"Well, I think after all that time ..." Vadim glanced at Dan and decided it was not nearly enough time, there was still anger in Dan's eyes. Let's talk about this again when the sun has burnt out. "Okay. I'll give her a call. She might want to meet." He squeezed the lemon slice with the metal thing that was designed for it, watching the juice vanish in the tea.

"Thanks." Dan smiled and let go of Vadim's hand.

"Let's see if I have her number." Of course he did. Vadim's phone was brimming with contact information and he never deleted a contact. He fished it out of his pocket, and thinking of it, put the Sony camera on the table as well. "Photos of your girl." Nodding towards it, while fiddling single-handedly with the phone. The buttons were getting smaller every year. "There." There was only one 'Katya', just the first name, the last name felt always awkward on her or even the children. Strange. He looked at Dan. "Right now?"

Dan reached for the camera, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, while he peered at the display. "Yep, right now. It's important she gets the 'facts' right before Kisa goes bonkers on her." He was flicking through the pictures, grinning at the mess the kid was. The dreadful clothes, ratty nails and awful hair, and that unspeakable eyeliner. He studied one photo in particular, which showed her laughing, holding his fucked-up hand in hers.

Vadim nodded and pressed the button. Once to select her name, second time to dial. Waited.

Then "Yes?"

"It's me."

"I know."

Of course, she had his number, too.

"How are you?"

"Just fine. How are you?"

"Yeah, I need ... a bit of sleep, jetlag. Hardly know what date it is."

"Thirteenth."

Vadim gave a short, toneless laugh. "Touché." This was her way of telling him she knew he didn't call for kindness or concern, but that he had a request to make. "How are Nikolai and Anoushka?"

"I can send you their phone numbers."

"That would be good, thanks." She was slipping away, mobile, evading effortlessly, and he felt like a lumbering idiot. "Listen, Katya, we would like to get together for dinner, after I've slept off the worst." He gave Dan a quick glance again. "Dan ... has come up with a story for ... Kisa." Your daughter who is not my blood, and not even mine in any way. Could that old jealousy still be around?

"Good. Because she will ask."

"Seems like a temperamental little thing." Vadim thought he could hear her voice warm slightly. Maybe. They needed to meet. See what was still there, make it friendship, if they were lucky, build on their mutual goodwill. "You were consoling each other. That's the story, not much to it." Only it was about my death and you fucking got Dan to do this, and it still feels like treason. "She knows about me, too. About ... how I live." Gay lovers, sharing a woman under the strangest circumstances. "Maybe, just stick to the story. We don't have to screw up that little lady, do we?"

She paused, waited for a long time. "You can pick me up in two hours. There is a good restaurant just down the road."

Yessir. "Sounds like a good idea. See you later."

"And you."

He ended the call and exhaled. "So far, so good."

Dan was still studying the same picture, engrossed in the photo, while listening to every word. He turned his head to glance at Vadim. "So far so good?"

"She won't fuck it up. Whatever you think of her, she's not a devil. She is just protecting." Her kid, after all, for twelve years. He could just hear her voice. Her children. She had raised, clothed, and fed them, and he was pretty sure it had not occurred to her that Dan could possibly be genuinely interested in his offspring.

Vadim sipped his tea. Thought, how the fuck had he ended up in a position where he tried to defend his ex-wife from his partner. She deserved all the trouble she got into with Dan, just for the thing she had done, and at the same time, he was the only person who understood them both. And knew they were not compatible. Strange then, that they'd been the two people in the world he'd genuinely loved. "She said restaurant in two hours. We'll pick her up." And that will be tough enough. "Are you sure, Dan?" He looked to the side to meet Dan's gaze.

"Aye, I am," Dan's eyes narrowed, "It's been thirteen years. I'll be civil." He ran a hand through his hair, brushing some wild strands of dark and grey out of his eyes. "Whatever happened thirteen years ago, it doesn't matter anymore. It's about the kid now."

"Okay, it's decided, then." Nice restaurant, and two volcanoes left and right, one able to poison everything with as much as a rumble, and the other able to do the full set earthquake, lava, and spitting stones. Wonderful prospects.

"Good pics, by the way." Dan suddenly commented, as a peace offering. "We could make it back to the hotel for an hour's kip. That is, if you want to sleep. Personally, I have different ideas."

Vadim looked up, smirking. "I think I would like a bath or shower, but the exact circumstances are open for debate." Hot water, and Dan's groans echoing off the marble tiled walls.

Dan grinned, "I'm opting for bath, can't risk losing my balance in the shower, bash my head, die of a cracked skull and bleed to death in a fancy hotel bathroom instead of gloriously going down on a battlefield."

Vadim laughed. "But you'd go down 'loved'."

Dan waved the waitress closer and paid for the lot, amused by the moustachioed blokes on the forint notes. He gave her a hefty tip, more out of can't-be-arsed than deliberation and she smiled at them, without the preening but no less interest. Dan reached for the cane and the jacket.

"Come on, then, let's hurry. An hour isn't anymore what it used to be." He laughed over his shoulder, "and certainly no longer capable of twice in sixty minutes. You drive."

"Copy, Sir." The thought made Vadim smile. He wondered whether his younger self would have been able to imagine, even begin to grasp all the things that had happened in the meantime, that he'd end up living with the enemy, who was now by far less an enemy than the state he had killed and suffered for. He'd always thought he'd die before he could feel the abuse of his body as clearly as he did. The lower back, the dislocated shoulder, but both less visible than Dan's problems.

He walked Dan towards the big BMW, he liked the heavy, solid European cars; that one clung to the road like a tank, dark blue, fit for a diplomat, and cost more per day to rent than he'd made as a Soviet soldier in a month. Another reason to embrace capitalism. The thing unlocked when he pressed a little button on the keychain, and he allowed Dan to get in first, knowing he'd be offended if he helped him. Lowering himself into the car, he felt the gentle vibration of the machine. Enough horsepower to get a rush, several times over.

The hotel was close enough, ten minutes, they had stuck to the main roads, and Vadim even switched off the classical CD on the way. Dan couldn't stand the 'noise' of the Firebird suite. And that was one of the more accessible things Stravinsky had done. Like all the best things, it was an acquired taste.

The lift of the hotel reached right into the parking lot underneath, nice, modern, plenty of investments going on in this city. When the lift doors closed, Vadim grinned at Dan. "Any plans apart from taking a perverse pleasure in my tottering flesh?"

"To actually have a bath?" Dan didn't want to think about the impending meeting. "No other plans." He grinned, licked his lips before leaning in and kissing Vadim. A few seconds before the elevator doors opened, enough time for a miniature snog.

They managed to pull apart before they arrived on their level, with Dan grinning his particularly wicked grin, and made their way to the penthouse suite they had booked. The bath was run soon, the tub a brand new installation amongst marbled and polished perfection. Round, vast, enough space for two tall men. Hot water that soothed aches, eased jetlag, and most of all, took the weight off their two bodies.

The bath turned predictably into what Dan had planned, a feast of water, heat, steam, and two bodies rubbing against each other; of hands and hardness and of skin sliding against skin; of tongues and teeth, kisses and bites, and of the unparalleled moment of toppling over the edge and into orgasm.

Ten minutes before they had to leave, they finally got out of the bath, and swiftly rubbed lotion into each other's scars. Dan laughed, as usual, making stupid jokes about getting old disgracefully.

Dan decided to wait for Vadim to put out clothes onto the bed for him, which would guarantee that appreciative look that he'd learned to like and seek. Once dressed, he grabbed his customary shades, still wearing them at the slightest chance of sun. Wallet packed, room keys in his hand, he stood at the door with a wry smile. "You do realise that this is a more dangerous mission for me than the HALO jump in the Gulf?"

Vadim grinned. "At least you are much better dressed now than you were then." A slap between the shoulder blades. Let's go, comrade. "Pilots get lost all the time, anyway. The moment they're grounded, they're fucking sitting ducks", he murmured, remembering his own rescue missions, and the bloated, booby trapped mess that was usually at the end of the rainbow.

Vadim had reception get a taxi, and when they were standing in front of the house. She'd rented out Szandor's house and moved into a smaller place, but it was still stately: a light grey, spacious villa that looked like it needed a paintjob in case one got the vines off first. He quickdialed Katya's number. "We're downstairs."

"Coming."

He flicked the phone shut and looked at Dan, knew he might not want to be touched now, but felt like stroking his side. Felt like lying down and having him rest at his shoulder, no thought, no word, just existing without heat, without dust, without a clock ticking in the background.

Katya stepped out, just closing her coat, charcoal grey, blonde hair done up with two long, vicious looking ivory and mother-of-pearl inlaid pins. She looked at them, gave a smile. "Good to see you both could make it." She looked at them, face friendly, neutral maybe, and Vadim gave a small sigh of relief that was barely noticeable. Five seconds and counting, and none of them had ripped out the other's throat.

Dan nodded at her, studying her appearance. She hadn't changed. "Been a while."

She gave a smile and a nod, and there was a strange motion, as if Vadim and her wanted to exchange something, like a hug, a touch of the arm, but they didn't. Vadim looked down, feeling awkward. "I'm … starving", he murmured. "Is the restaurant anywhere near?"

"Does he not feed you well?" she asked, still smiling. "I'd have thought he does. You look good, Vadim."

Vadim gave a quick grin, flattered, then placed a hand on Dan's arm. "You do, as well." He nodded, indicating she should lead the way.

Dan twitched. "I don't fucking cook." Murmured. Feed him well. What the fuck did she think he was, Vadim's maid? Oh, wait, he remembered. Of course he did. 'You are his bitch', she had said, thirteen years ago.

Vadim gave a laugh. "Before you ask, Katya, he doesn't grill, barbeque, fry or bake, either."

She laughed, too, shaking her head. "That means you poor men must be nearer to starvation than you look. Or have you learnt to cook, Vadim? The man who couldn't cook water?"

"What made him so attractive back then was that he had an endless supply of energy bars. Can't look at snack bars these days without remembering why I got him." Vadim leaned against Dan for a moment, while walking.

Dan rolled his eyes, "Next time you want to chat about my merits over my head, do that while I'm actually not there." Grumpy. "You did have a taste for those fucking disgusting peanut butter bars, Russkie."

"It was peanut butter?" Vadim leaned in closer to Dan's ear. "It was peanut butter on top of the salt from your body that did it," he whispered, hardly more than a breath.

Dan held his breath, trust Vadim to get him to think about the wrong things at the right time or vice bloody versa. Concentrating on walking, the safest bet.

"Well, the Italian place is really just around this corner." Her heels tack-tacked on the sidewalk as she moved a little forward, allowing them to fall behind.

At the restaurant, a slightly greasy looking young man welcomed her with kisses left and right, and tossed random Italian words like "bella" into the quick conversation. "Amici", the deal. They got a nice place slightly remote between potted ferns. The Italian helped her out of her coat. A lighter shade of grey underneath, a cashmere jumper and a long, classic wool skirt. She didn't wear the lapis - Vadim had feared she might, might make a statement that would hurt Dan, or set them on edge. Instead, it was amber in silver, an elegant pendant with an amber drop between her collar bones, and a matching ring.

Dan looked around, the place seemed nice enough, and Italians usually served mouth watering deserts. He took his jacket off and hung it over his chair, then leaned his cane against a potted fern and sat down. He probably should give being civil a try. "You haven't changed much, Katya."

Vadim studied his hands while Katya gave Dan a smile, and lowered her gaze for a moment, much like a fencer lowered the blade after the fight. "I am lucky that cosmetic surgery works so well." Light-hearted. "But thank you. You seem … comfortable." The flicker of a pause indicated she wanted the word to have several layers. "It is good seeing you like this." The "you" held both him and Vadim.

"Aye, comfortable." Dan found a small smile somewhere. "It's been a bumpy ride." It was his turn to stare at his hands, the right covering the scarred left one. "I got to talk to you about Kisa."

They had to order drinks first, Katya ordered the wine, going with the waiter's suggestions, but her attention was mostly on Dan. When the waiter left with the order, Katya nodded, taking up the conversation again. "Kisa - yes? Isn't she wonderful? Admittedly, a little unconventional, but I've been told being a nonconformist these days is a sign of intelligence and willpower." Her bemused tone left no question as to who thought that of herself.

"Aye," slight irritation in Dan's voice, "she is. She is quite remarkable, from what I could see in an hour." He turned his head, away from her, staring at the plants for a moment. "Look," returning his attention to her, "I need to talk to you. I told her the truth." His right hand dropped off the table, reaching for Vadim's thigh. Resting there, touching, connecting. "I told her about our lives." He tilted his head, "she thought I hadn't wanted to see her."

She nodded. "It's the basic human question. Who am I, where am I from, and, of course, where am I going."

Vadim cleared his throat, tensing his thigh to respond to the touch. It was a way of saying everything was alright, the situation under control, and that he was there. "I'm not sure this is a philosophical question, Katya. It's pretty real." Without looking at her, but the brow dark.

She acknowledged that, then focused her attention on Dan. "Firstly, teenagers tend to over dramatise. But of course, she's not the kind that would accept anything but 'the truth'." A quick blink. "I guess I didn't think it through, or what are you aiming at?"

Dan frowned. "I'm not aiming at bloody anything." His hand on Vadim's thigh clenched into a fist. "I know jack shit about teenagers, kids, toddlers, babies, and if I had had any say in it I wouldn't have ever had any." A miniature twitch in his body betrayed his tension. He wanted to hurt her, accuse her, ask her what the fuck she had been thinking and that he had been hating her guts since then, but he fought with himself. What the hell would that achieve. "It's not the point." Shaking his head. The fist relaxed a fraction. "The point is that we have to stick to the new party line."

Her eyes grew steel, one thing to accuse her, another to regret Kisa's existence. She was ready to defend, deflect the blade, and go for a deadly riposte. More than ready. She shot Vadim a glance, who didn't look up, but saw the movement of her head in his peripheral vision. As far as Vadim was concerned, he was just listening, impassive on the outside, alert on the inside. More a referee than an ex-husband or lover.

"Vadim said we had been consoling each other. And that she knows about your lifestyle."

"My … lifestyle." Dan's voice was growing dangerously intense, "that lifestyle that made me tell her that she was a child of love, just not between her mother and me but between Vadim and me." The tension was back, the fist knuckle-white.

"You make me sound like a surrogate mother." She shook her head, speaking on, allowing him no pause, speaking firmly and cool, like she had gone through this in her head often enough to know the lines by heart. "What I was referring to with 'lifestyle' is that you form part of a gay couple with Vadim." Acknowledging something just as ancient as that other grudge. She spread her fingers on the table cloth. "I wanted her, and the exact circumstances don't matter much now. It's been thirteen years. She will be around when we are gone, and we don't have to leave her with that burden. It wouldn't be fair."

"The exact circumstances do matter. They matter because Kisa must never know them." Dan hadn't relaxed the tension, every movement and facial expression were showing Vadim how close Dan was to attack. "Seems we agree on that one."

Vadim dropped his hand on Dan's hand. Thumb on one side, fingers on the other, a firm presence that was not restricting. He didn't move any other muscle, focused and aware like a sniper.

"I'll omit that in my autobiography, then", she said lightly, but with a layer of strength underneath. "It's not like I tell my children the whole story."

Vadim glanced up. "What did you actually tell Anoushka and Nikolai?"

"A war hero who turned to drink and violence. They heard the same story as everybody else. And apparently you were bisexual. Like your daughter, come to mention it." She smiled, with the irony of it.

Vadim leaned back, shaking his head.

A brood of killers' kids. Dan dropped his head back into his neck, the corners of his mouth twitching, this was too fucking insane.

"That is Vadim's official story. Why we are divorced. What he did. We know why he did it, but it's nothing you can cover up." She sighed, as if not quite understanding what the fuss was about. "I never mentioned your sexual orientation, though. You were a one-night-stand. Two children and a marriage are more difficult to explain." She looked at Vadim. "I didn't mean to upset you."

"No, of course not." Vadim felt never threatened, between them it was something of a ritual, like fencing. Not about scoring points, but sparring. "Apple and trees, eh?"

She smiled. "You could say that."

"Do you think she's happy with it?"

"She's too busy for much of a private life. A workaholic. ER. Emergency room. She says she likes the excitement, but her working hours are atrocious."

Dan looked from one to the other, and felt like the proverbial fifth wheel. He closed his eyes, thought of the mountains, the sky, their house in New Zealand, the Jacuzzi and the way Vadim sighed before he dozed off in the warm water. Always water.

Vadim nodded. "I'll see if I can meet her." It sounded vague, however. He wasn't much of a father, and she wasn't much of a daughter. Trying now … would taste of desperation.

The drinks arrived, the waiter took the orders. Vadim went for a salad first and marinated chicken, always concerned about nutritional value, melon and ham to finish, his hand still on Dan's. "As long as they are happy", he mused.

Dan asked for whatever they had with the most calories and went for the maximum fattening choice of their pasta with every cheese and cream under the sun and a pile of seafood on top. "What if Kisa wants to see me again?"

Katya gave a delicate shrug after ordering swordfish. "If you can make the time, why not? I don't think you'd harm her, and there is no point fighting over her like an estranged couple."

"I don't want to fight." Dan shook his head, exasperated. "What the fuck makes you think that." He hadn't been so frustrated with anyone or anything since keeping a gaggle of Yank kids alive in the desert. "I was just asking for permission."

She seemed a touch surprised, but then remembered, and glanced quickly at Vadim, then back. "Oh. I was missing something there, I'm sorry. If you want to stay in touch, and visit her, you're welcome. When she's old enough, she can visit you. Frankly, I didn't think you'd be interested, but if you are … no, I mean as you are interested, you're welcome."

Vadim seemed thoughtful, questioning without speaking a word.

"Interested." Dan dropped the word like a gauntlet. "You didn't think I was interested." His hand came off Vadim's thigh, back onto the table. Both of them, in plain sight. Flexing and tensing. "You are fucking surprised that I am interested in the kid who happens to be my daughter? Fathered because you forced me to, because you're a fucking selfish bitch who got what she wanted. And before you go all self-righteous on me, I do not regret that the kid exists, don't you ever dare accuse me of such shit." He growled, dark eyes blazing, not letting her get a word in edgeways. "You might want to think about the fact that I came here to talk to her after I had been told you'd cry 'rape' if I dared to contact her, and isn't that fucking ironic."

Katya's eyes narrowed, aggression meant counter-attack, swift, without thinking. Turned tables, the mask of civility shattered. She was unbalanced, thrown back by the sheer force of his attack. Overrun. "There is no way either of us can prove either story after all that time", she said coolly, jaw muscle tense. "I tried to be civil, Mr McFadyen, after I had been lacking in civility when we met the first time. And I understand there is resentment, but that is over, it doesn't matter anymore, not to me. You feel used? Fine. You were used. You were a soldier, that shouldn't be anything new for you, either. All your lives, you have been nothing but tools. But for once, it was not about destruction. Face it: You cannot keep a foetus in an ammunition pouch. And as much as you and Vadim might try, there are a few things only women can do. Szandor would have obliged me, but he was HIV positive then. You seemed healthy and fit, and I hated you for having brought Vadim into prison. For breaking a man I spent years defending. For wasting his life, his career, and breaking his heart." She stood, standing very straight. "Fight me all you like, Mr McFadyen. Go right ahead. I'm ready."

"I can defend myself", said Vadim, face oddly calm. He placed a hand on Dan's arm, fingers curling, as if to physically hold him back. "If I don't hate him for it, you have no right to." He shook his head. "Nobody wants to harm Kisa. Dan least of all."

"Did you hear what he said?"

"What he says is he fucking cares." Vadim sighed, shaking his head. Too much going on in his head right now, what she had said and what Dan had said, and he tried to translate. He should have stuck to guns.

Dan looked up and in the eye. "How can you be so self-righteous. You asked me to be here." Sharp emphasis on each pronoun. "I came to talk to her, to be what she wanted. And you …"

He didn't finish the sentence, one of his mobile phones started vibrating, a buzzing sound from one of his jacket pockets. He padded the jacket down, found the right one, looked at the display and seemed confused for a moment.

Katya was about to launch into another series of attacks but stopped before she had done more than open her mouth and narrow her eyes. She looked at Vadim, accusingly, who sat there, shaking his head.

"Aye?" Dan didn't look at either of them, pushed the chair back and stood up. "One moment. I'm in a restaurant. Hang on."

He didn't pay any attention to either Krasnorada, only to the mobile in his hand, as he made his way towards the corridor that led to the toilets. He smiled, lowered his head, then chuckled. All low-key, unlike himself. He nodded, then grinned, then shook his head, his face turning serious, but ended with another chuckle. His lips moved, talking, before he pressed a button on the mobile and looked for a moment at the sleek, black thing in his hand.

Neither Vadim nor Katya spoke, but they looked at each other, Katya almost daring Vadim to accuse her, Vadim as impassive as he'd been for most of his active service. Face unreadable, light blue eyes cold.

Dan straightened, put his mobile into a trouser pocket, and walked back to the table. He stood behind his chair, looked from one to the other. "Kisa asked if she could see me tomorrow afternoon. She wants to 'show me off' to her friends and asked me to meet her at school. I said yes, provided her mother allowed it." He looked at her. "Do you?"

Katya inhaled deeply, but remained standing, seemed to debate what harm it could do, another long glance exchanged with Vadim.

"Do it", said Vadim in Russian. "Don't screw it up."

Katya finally nodded. "If she wants to." Her voice hinting why on earth anybody would want to meet Dan anyway, but that she was powerless. She looked at Vadim, with that 'here you are' glance that Vadim acknowledged.

Dan nodded, glanced at Vadim, then took his jacket, turned and walked away from the table. Leaving food and Russians behind.

"Where are you going?" asked Vadim.

"Into the mountains."

That meant: leave me alone, I need to think. This would have made Vadim nervous, only a few years ago, and there was still a hollow feeling when Dan decided he needed time off. These days, he could be sure Dan would return. He still wanted to follow. Every time. Mostly to not be left behind. But he knew that was a response from the trauma, and natural for him. "See you at the hotel, then." Vadim looked at Katya. "And you are not leaving me with three dishes and the wine." Less of an invitation, more a gun drawn and pointed. "Because we need to talk, too."

She sat down again, her attention now on her ex-husband. "Okay. Best we get it all out on the table."

"I'm missing pieces of the picture. About Anoushka and Nikolai." And later, about Kisa, but wine first. Fencing was the art of deception. Make the opponent believe he's doing what he wanted to do and made you do what he wanted, when it was actually the other way round. With Katya, this would be interesting.

* * *

Dan soon cursed himself for having left the cane in the restaurant, but the taxi driver understood his limp, his gesturing and a few words of English, to take him to a sports shop in the centre of Budapest where he could get a walking stick.

He sat in the park for hours, watching the swans, geese and ducks in and around the pond, while eating ice cream, cakes and drinking coffee, then walking the streets as much as he could. Ending at night in one of the small bars they had found the first time he had stayed in Hungary with Vadim.

The pub was populated with men his age and older, and they communicated in a mixture of silence, beer, cigarettes and English and Russian and playing pool and darts.

That night he simply was an aging man, like them. No past, just present.

* * *

According to Katya, Anoushka was working in ER now, her desire to be a neurologist or cardiologist blown apart by a stint in the ER unit, where she enjoyed fighting death every night, deal with torn bodies like a combat medic, and saw the most gruesome things that could happen to a body. She said it made her feel alive, and when Katya relayed that information, Vadim felt a strange moment of guilt. Did blood and genes actually transfer character, too? He wondered whether his daughter resented him for having taken lives. Like she tried to get as far away from him as possible by doing the exact opposite

Nikolai was travelling a lot, he sometimes called or sent a postcard. He had 'straightened out' - Katya never mentioned what his troubles had been - and now did technical installations and maintenance. Katya said it had to do with oil rigs, and the photo she produced showed a dog-tired, but smiling, rugged good-looking man who seemed at least ten years older than he was. Stubble, and his father's freckles. The background was metal, crammed, desolate, and whoever had shot the photo had no idea about focus. Nevertheless. He was damned handsome, better than his father, and he could just have been one of the young security contractors - aka mercs - they had encountered during active service.

Both children had been brought up, grown up, finished their education, moved, studied without him. Fallen in love, wrestled with life, like everybody had to, found a job, doubted, but still lived. Getting in touch now, at this late stage, would be pointless. I'm your father, I never bothered, too busy killing people, and by the way, did you ever wonder about me? He'd grow old, and eventually leave them what he had owned, the stuff that didn't go to Dan, and they would sell it and go on with their lives, because he didn't matter to them, either.

Vadim shook his head, gave her more wine, listened like he had very rarely listened to her. They had poured out their hearts in letters, she more than he did, and even her letters had been a study in deception. The KGB had always been too close, everything important needed to be said without words. He didn't believe for a moment that they hadn't been spied upon, everything filed away in the many darknesses of the KGB headquarters.

They talked more about Szandor. He'd read the story in her letters, but she repeated it. That nobody knew exactly when he had got infected. It could have been one of the international tournaments, sometime in the early eighties. Szandor had no idea how many he had infected in return.

Szandor had withdrawn during his last few years, met a partner, much younger than himself, who couldn't bear him dying, and who had left him when Szandor's health took a dip for the worse. It left Katya at his side, who made sure he saw the doctor when he was due, and who got him in and out of hospital and was there when he died.

"You know, I hated him, too", said Katya, very calmly. "I thought it was just pure luck he didn't infect you." She reached out to touch and press his hand, and he nodded, thought what a rotten way to go, for one so elegant, so deadly, and so swift. Nothing money, willpower or training could have averted.

"You hate Dan."

She looked up, wanted to pull her hand back, but he held her tight. Looked at her free hand, the wine glass was close, she could throw that at him. He very softly shook his head. "Don't, Katya."

"Yes, I do." She showed teeth, white, straight, she had had something done to them, but he couldn't pinpoint the change. She had had her teeth fixed, her wrinkles, her whole life. He did believe that there was an official biography. Katya had reinvented herself. A dragon from the ashes.

"Why." He kept her hand, and to everybody else it had to look like flirting or an old couple. They both had their masks on in public.

"Because of what he did to you."

He shook his head. "That is a matter between us. I gave him worse." He laughed. "Oh, much worse. Do you think he could do anything to me without having to pay the price? It was I who started it. I took his life apart. His soul. His mind. That man is my creation. This is the man I have created in twenty-two years, from the first night to the last one."

She inhaled sharply. "And when you came home to Moscow?"

"Yes. The scars. Those are his."

"The torture?"

"Him."

"The day when you told me you needed to leave? That was because of him?"

"Yes."

"He broke you, Vadim."

Vadim smiled. "No. That was the war. That bitch took everything. Without him, I'd not be sane. I wouldn't even be alive. I might be a danger to everything. I'm not like Szandor. I don't need your help, Katya. I don't need protection from you anymore, I am fine. I know who I am, and what I did, and I'd do it all again. From the first night to right now. If you hate him, you hate the thing that kept me alive, not the thing that broke me. I'd hate to just leave now, because I respect you, and we have a lot of history. Dan's my life, and I will defend him, just like you think you need to defend me. It's really quite simple." He stood, releasing her hand only then.

"Why are you here?"

"Because I love that man. I did what I could for you, the kids, but this … the rest of life that I have left, is for Dan. I'd do all the things I've done for you or Russia, for him now. Kisa means a lot to him, and he is vulnerable there. That's why I am here. To tell you I will not allow you to harm him just because you can, and ask you to let sleeping dogs lie. It's hard enough for him as it is."

"And I?"

"You are a lot tougher, Katya. I'm not worried about you." He reached to touch her shoulder with his fingertips. "Please. Let's be friends. I know how generous you can be. Come on."

"Tell him … your friends are my friends. Will you have an eye on Kisa?"

"Two."

She nodded, then stood up to go pay the bill. He walked her home, declined the tea - it just wouldn't be proper, they both needed time to think - but kissed her forehead when she stepped closer. "I wish I could have loved you the way you deserved", he murmured in Russian, and felt the old pain flare up. Being not enough, defunct. She had been his match, all those years ago. "This old man needs some sleep now. Jetlag."

She pressed his hand with hers, then the tack-tack of her heels as she walked towards her door. He waited for the light inside, then turned around, standing on an empty, deserted street. Nothing to the left, nothing to the right. He checked his mobile. No message. Sent a quick text to Dan: Where are you?

A few minutes later the answer arrived. 'pool & beer go 2 sleep old man'.

Vadim grinned, didn't confirm, knew he didn't have to, walked down the street until he found taxis, and was brought back to the hotel. Sat at the bar for a little, listened to piano music while thinking, allowing the vodka to calm him and make him tired. He then walked up the stairs, began to lose the suit when the door had shut behind him, started to run a bath, switched on the TV, found a talk show for the comfort of human voices, and had the peanuts from the mini bar. He had a good, long soak then wrapped himself up in a big bathrobe, lay on the bed and rested. And fell asleep, listening to voices on the TV.

* * *

A few hours later, at five hundred hours, Vadim's mobile phone rang.

His body was too confused to keep to the old routine of waking at five. But he smirked when he saw the time on his watch. "Yes?" Sitting up. "Dan?"

Dan's voice harboured a grin and tiredness. The good kind of sleepy. "Fancy breakfast with fresh bagels, coffee and tea, while looking over the city and watching the dawn spectacle? If yes, grab a taxi and come to the Castle District and get yourself to Fisherman's Bastion, it's off Trinity Square."

"Copy. I'll be there." Vadim dialled reception, ordered a taxi, found his comfortable clothes, a big jacket, boots, wallet, key card, returned to the room to pick up Dan's cane then went downstairs, greeted the visibly tired driver and gave him the directions. Dan sounded fine, peaceful. He got out of the taxi, eyes scanning the surroundings, waiting for Dan to notice him, or maybe give a sign.

Suddenly a small pressure point in Vadim's back. Too much like a muzzle. "You're getting old and careless." Dan chuckled, holding the cane in one hand, two large bags with breakfast, fresh from a baker in the Old Town, in the other. "There's a good place over there." He gestured with his chin to a low wall that ran along the ramparts, spotting his own cane in Vadim's hand and he smiled. That special one, warm and deep. "Thanks, Russkie."

Vadim smiled, that smile was like an embrace under the covers, both half asleep and so aware at the same time. He stepped in and ran his fingers down Dan's cheek.

Dan's my life. It's really quite simple.

"Well, now you have two."

"The one you gave me for my birthday is a thousand times better." Dan was still smiling, the right thing at the right time. They had come far.

Vadim took the bags, walking close, no rush in the world, he was too tired for that, too much at peace. "Enjoyed your night?"

"Am a bit sore, but that's probably from the pool." Dan chuckled, exchanged the walking stick for his cane and leaned against Vadim for a moment. No one around at this time of day, the world still belonged to them alone. "Been a good night, aye. What I needed. And yours? Did you talk?"

Vadim placed an arm around Dan's shoulder, moving close enough to smell the smoke and beer on him. My creation. My life. Nothing to regret. Fags and beer, perhaps a whisky, mixing with Dan's own scent.

"Yes, we talked. You can see your daughter whenever you like. As often as you like. It's the kid's decision. She won't interfere. No more shit to put up with, I promise." He touched Dan's arm and led him to the indicated place, sky beginning to glow brightly over the city. "Katya … needs to understand that hating you on my account is insane."

Dan pulled himself up on the wall, waited for Vadim to sit down beside him, before taking one of the bags and retrieving the Styrofoam cups of coffee and tea, rummaging for the sugar sachets. He was surprised at how good it made him feel to know that he could see Kisa without interference. His daughter. Holy fuck, his own daughter. He grinned to nothing and no one in particular, before returning his attention to Vadim.

"This hating ... it actually leads me to a question I should have asked you long ago." Pouring sugar into a cup of coffee, he had forgotten the stirrers, his finger would have to do. Paused. "Do you believe I destroyed you?"

"She said that", murmured Vadim, took the cup from Dan's hand and folded his hands around it. "It's not true. And it is. Difficult." He frowned. "You destroyed the lie. The mask. Vadim Krasnorada, Soviet citizen, Spetsnaz for the fucking Interior Ministry. "Yes, you did." The assassin who sneaked into London to kill a sleeping, unarmed dissident and destroy a family, just out of spite. "That's not me. Should have never been me. Not the way I felt. Few people get a second shot at trying to be what they are. I'm lucky. I'd be trapped if you hadn't done the things you did. You tried only once to destroy me. And that …" He paused for a moment. Hated that memory, hated the way it had weakened him with the KGB. "was well-deserved." He shook his head. "I mean, it was paypack, that one. And you still … turned around and did the opposite."

Dan smiled, tired and a little melancholic, watching the flawless early morning sky play a game of light and shadows in Vadim's face. "No, it wasn't payback." He paused, searched for the right words. "It was more than that, worse. It cut me open, laid me bare, because it showed me a misconception of myself. Taught me what I was capable of, and how thin the line is between human and monster." He slowly reached for the second bag, fishing for a warm bagel. "Torturing you … I am not sorry for what I did, but I do regret it. The only thing in my life that I've ever regretted." Dan looked to the sky and across the city. Beauty laid out before them, a waking place of history and life.

Vadim nodded. He had one major regret. And couldn't, because that was how it all started. He couldn't have picked Dan up in a bar. Hey stranger, we're meant for each other.

"I sometimes think I don't deserve all this," Dan mused, "you, the farm, friends, a purpose. To be alive, to have that second chance you talked about, instead of having died a drunken ex-soldier who everyone had forgotten. And now ... Kisa. No matter how she happened, it's a fucking miracle that she exists and I very much want to get to know her." He smiled at Vadim. "Guess the whole thing settles the question if there is a God and divine retribution. There isn't. Or I wouldn't be so goddamned content right now."

Vadim smirked. "I never believed in God. That gives us the right to do what we bloody well please." He angled for a bagel as well, finishing it in a few hasty bites that told him how hungry he actually was. "We paid for it, anyway. Each other, definitely."

Dan took a large bite from his own bagel, sipping coffee while chewing. "I guess when it comes down to it, I'd do it all over again."

Vadim shook his head. "The whole shit again? You silly bastard", he murmured, leaning his head sideways against Dan's, content and at peace. "What about enjoying being retired and fucked-up too much to do anything even if we wanted?" A mock punch that wasn't more than half a slap. "Next wars aren't ours. Even though the Yanks are making noises about this 'War on Terror' all the time. Doesn't look good. One moment, it's the end of history, now every Muslim is a suspect. Middle East. Former Soviet sphere of interest. Looks like it's all going to hell in a handbasket."

"Ach well," Dan let his Scottish accent come to the forefront, leant his head against Vadim's. "Wake me up when the wars are over, aye? This worn-out 'tool' is comfortable just sitting here." He fell silent, smiling.

Their wars were over, and he was glad about it

 
 
Special Forces Chapter LXVII: Inside and Out
 
 
Warning for Readers

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

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

 

 
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Published 3 March 2009