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Special Forces Chapter LXVII: Inside and Out
 
 

September 2003, New Zealand

For over a year, Dan had been in contact with his daughter. At first the occasional mail, but soon technology won out, and Dan surprised Kisa, when he proved himself to be internet savvy and didn't even blink when she suggested to chat online - whenever the time zones and their schedules allowed. They were getting to know each other rapidly, and developed a relaxed familiarity and ease.

Dan and Vadim's lives were paddling along comfortably, until Kisa told Dan that she wanted to come for a visit some time during the Christmas school holidays, to see New Zealand in summer. Something Dan was simultaneously looking forward to and dreading, because he knew that things wouldn't be that easy. They'd have to have her mother's permission, and when he confronted Vadim, asking him to ask Katya, Vadim stoically, albeit with a smile, told him that Kisa was his daughter and thus Dan should talk to Katya, not he.

Dan cursed, even pleaded, but to no avail, and eventually he had to bite the bullet, because Kisa kept asking. Three weeks before Vadim and he were due to fly out to the last conference of the year, combining work, as usual, with a tour through Europe to visit friends and families, and possibly a stint to the US as well, he finally contacted the dragoness.

By email, because while he was ex-SAS, ex-Mad Dog and ex-daredevil, he was also a man and in this particular case a coward.

Her email back was as cool and polished as her letters, seemingly it didn't make a difference to her whether her words were on paper or formed of bytes.

"Mr McFadyen,

On the matter of Kisa visiting you, I believe we should meet face to face to discuss this more in depth than email allows. Let me know when you are in Europe again, and I will ensure I have time to meet you.

Regards,
Katarina"

Oh shit. Dan frowned at the screen and reached for his cigarettes. Some things required a strong coffee, with at least three lumps of sugar, and a fag. He didn't light it, though, as he walked downstairs, cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. As expected, Vadim was in the kitchen, preparing what looked like dinner.

"I got not so bad news and bad news." Dan grimaced, talking around the fag in his mouth. "Not so good news is I need a coffee. Bad news is Katya wants to talk to me. Face to face."

Vadim motioned towards the fully automated Italian Bialetti coffee machine - Solange had recommended the brand. "And I guess I'm not the referee this time." He added some lemon juice and herbs to the couscous, while Dan set to work the machine.

"Doesn't sound like it, no." Making coffee or tea had become one of the few things - apart from a Sunday fry-up - that Dan had learned to master in the kitchen, and soon the machine was underway. "Actually, perhaps it is better that you are not."

"Just remember to think before you attack her. She's a fencer, that's a strategic mind. If you go about it with too much anger, she'll gut you. Stay calm, breathe." Vadim checked on the marinated chicken. "Food in about five minutes."

"I don't want to fight with her. I'd rather not see her at all."

"I know, and that makes you defensive, which in turn makes you aggressive in inopportune moments."

Dan sighed and shrugged. "Bugger. The things I do for Kisa … who would have thought a woman would ever have so much power over me again? A miniature one, granted, but still … have we already got an itinerary when we're in Europe?"

"Only a tentative one."

"We're off in three weeks to the conference, aye?"

"Aye. Gives the other coach time to take over my lessons."

"Sure, how's it going with the kids anyway? Have you turned them into a lethal bunch of mini Spetsnaz fencer kids yet?" Dan grinned, then went about pouring the coffees.

Vadim raised an eyebrow. "I'm just giving something back to the community." He tossed the chicken breast into the hot pan and arranged them neatly with a fork. "It's good to see them develop some control and grace ... so, yeah, the coaching helps pass the time. The school head teacher was asking whether I'd want to teach some self-defence, too. Kids these days are all energy and no discipline."

"I was right. Mini Spetsnaz."

"Well, minus the throat cutting and forced marches." Vadim turned the chicken.

"Shame, that." Ladling sugar into his coffee, Dan grinned and sat down at the table, but only for a moment, because one sharp glance from Vadim reminded him of his duty: setting he bloody table. Up again with a groan, and getting the plates and the cutlery out of the cupboards. "We could see my family for pre-Christmas."

"Yes, sounds good. I'll tell the other coach to take over and start the self-defence when we come back."

"Sorted, then." Sipping his coffee, Dan sat back, watching Vadim's back, as he dished out the food. Sometimes, like now, there was a flash of surrealism in such a domestic setting, remembering the men they once were, hell-bent on destruction.

He smiled when Vadim handed him his plate, and murmured something in Russian, which sounded suspiciously like 'mine'.

* * *

When Dan stepped into the apartment, he was immediately struck by how perfect everything was. The furniture looked modern, classy, highly polished and impeccably clean. She led him into the living room, which had a centrepiece of a large white glass table, no doubt ridiculously expensive, with elements of chrome, just as polished as the rest. The hardwood parquet made his steps sound louder than expected, accompanied by the regular 'tap' of the cane, and when he half turned to get to his offered seat on one of the chairs, he became aware of the abundance of book shelves all along the walls, dotted with photos of the kids. Her kids, as he knew all too well.

He sat down, placed the cane onto the woollen rug beneath his feet, doubtlessly just as expensive as everything else. The place looked as ordered as her. Cool, controlled, and polished to the extremes.

She gave a host's smile. "Do you want tea, Mr McFadyen? Black tea, Earl Grey, green tea, fruit tea ... or fruit infusion, that is the term in English ..."

Dan took in a deep breath and looked up, as she stood amidst all her perfection. "Can we get something clear right from the start? Call me Dan. I am your daughter's biological father, after all, I'd rather not be 'Mr McFadyen'." He offered a small, very small smile. "And an ordinary black tea with three spoonfuls of sugar will do."

"Very well, then. Dan." She nodded, smiling a little. "I will bring the tea." She left the room for a few minutes, and Dan noticed that she didn't offer her name in return. Whatever. As his gaze went around the room, he noticed, on one of the higher bookshelves, more photos. There was Szandor, mask under his arm, sword by his side, hair damp and curly with sweat, smiling. It looked like a shot right after a fencing tournament. There was another one - Vadim, emotionless, in the regalia of a paratrooper captain, very much an official photo, the face straight, stoic. Another photo of Vadim with another man, easy comradeship, a freckled brown-haired man in a flight suit, Vadim in fatigues.

Dan got up, left the cane on the rug, and walked over to the photos. He took hold of the one of Vadim in his uniform, and studied it for a moment. He knew immediately who the other man was. Sasha, the pilot. The third father, the one who was lost.

She returned with tea and biscuits, set everything down and lit a candle under the tea pot.

Dan turned his head, the photo of Vadim still in his hand. "This is how I met him." He offered an opening, but not an attack, on the contrary. The offer of a past, a connection. He was too goddamned tired to hate her anymore; or perhaps there was this other 'woman', this girl, daughter, Kisa, who had moved the pieces on the board and he no longer felt he could threaten the Queen, because the Knight would suffer.

She glanced at the photo and smiled. "Yes, this was from before he was called to Afghanistan. He said just in case something would go wrong. This was taken a few days before he shot the Afghan president."

"He did what?" Dark eyes wide, Dan didn't hide his surprise. "I wonder about some of the skeletons in the closets." He shook his head slightly and put the picture back to where it belonged.

"I don't think he likes remembering the assassinations," Katya said calmly. "He was never that cold inside, but he obeyed his orders, even when they were at odds with his sense of honour." A faint smile, a touch of irony there. "Whatever horrendous things he did, I believe deep down, Vadim is an honourable man."

"He ..." the rape. Rapes. Plural. A lifetime ago. "He is."

She sat down, studying him as she poured the tea and rearranged cups and the plate with cookies, while Dan slowly sat back down.

"Dan, then. What will you call me? Katarina? Katya?" She blew on her tea and took a sip.

"Vadim calls you Katya. Kisa ..." another swift smile crossed his face. "Will Katya be okay?" He reached for his tea, stirring the sugar into it.

The more familiar, more affectionate version of her name. She held the cup in both hands, elbows on her knees. "Yes, it will be okay." A long, scrutinising glance. "I think we met at the worst possible moment in our lives."

Dan took another deep breath, taking his time to have some tea and reach for a biscuit before he answered. "I am not sure. I guess when it comes to 'worst possible moments' there are a few in my life that vie for prime place." He chewed thoughtfully to win time and think things over. "But perhaps you are right. You kicked me when I was down, and at that moment, I had no defences. Unlike ever before or after." He very deliberately reached for the tea to take a sip, once again slowly. "I hated you for that." He looked at her, studying the face, and then he saw it. Similarities, reminders. Features hat he saw on a webcam, or in photos sent via the net. Features which reminded him of Kisa, which was Katya, and not him, and he quietly added, "I don't anymore."

She furrowed her brow in thought. "And I was jealous. Vadim has repeatedly apologized for not being the man I wanted. He never realised I might berate myself for not being the person he could love forever, or even desire. Seeing you have something I wanted and that I lost, no, let go, because I could see he could not go on as my husband, that he had to leave or break, that struck me deeply, Dan. I am not used to being struck like that, just like you."

Dan nodded slowly. "Do you still hate me?"

"No, I can't say I do. Enough time changes everything, but also the fact that Vadim doesn't seem unhappy these days. And that Kisa doesn't seem unhappy about you, either."

Dan let out a small huff. "Vadim's happiness or unhappiness are not necessarily down to me, but to a certain therapist." He concentrated for a moment on the tea, finishing it. "Kisa ..." he trailed off, looked at his scarred hand, then pulled in another breath. "Would you believe me if I told you that I love her?" That truth was new to him as well. As new as here and now and there and then.

"I do. She cares about you a great deal, too." Katya sipped her tea. "I didn't foresee this - it's unexpected, and I went to foregone conclusions. It wasn't meant to happen like this, but as it does, I see no reason to make things more complicated than they are."

Dan nodded again. "Unexpected, unplanned, trust me, I can imagine." A small spark of humour was visible in his dark eyes. "But tell me one thing, are you glad things turned out this way?"

"I think we were lucky. The times worked in our favour. People are more free than they ever were, there is more space for dissenters, more places to hide, and many things we no longer need to hide. I know that my daughters can be women in very different ways than I had to be a woman. Nikolai ... didn't have to join the Russian Army. Due to corruption, but nevertheless. He won't die. He won't get tortured. They will not break him."

"Aye, but are you glad that this turned out as it did?" He made a gesture towards himself, then the whole table. "I remember that you threatened me not to interfere. Not so long ago you were ready to uphold that."

"I don't really know you, Dan. All I can see is the effect you have on people close and dear to me. I am not sure how familiar or at ease we will ever be, but I don't feel threatened by you anymore, and I appreciate very much you want to take care of your daughter, too."

"My daughter?" Dan smiled, a full-blown smile. It warmed the darkness of his eyes and soothed the lines in his weathered face. In return, her blue eyes and cool face warmed as well. "Thank you." He moved his hand towards another biscuit, to cover up an emotion that was still too visible. He'd lost his poker face, some parts of Mad Dog were dead, after all. "Trust me, I would do anything to keep her safe. As safe as she allows anyone to keep her. You brought her up as someone quite wonderful."

"Oh, she brought herself up, mostly - she wasn't easy, and I don't think she will ever be easy, but I did my best. Children are very much their own people, you can tell the difference when you have several. All parents can do is give them a moral compass and encourage them to live their potential and give them love and discipline."

"And you should know about the difference of children." There was no sting in his voice, no accusation. "I am sorry you lost Nikolai's father. Vadim told me about him." Looking at her straight on, while biting into the biscuit.

"That was one of those points in life, where things could have gone very differently indeed. Vadim would have been free several years before he left ... and who knows what else could have happened. He was a good man. Cheerful. Innocent. There was no darkness about Sasha."

"Very much unlike Vadim." Dan nodded, took another bite and chewed on it thoughtfully. "I have been wondering for a long time, did you just use me as donor material because I was convenient at the time, or was there another motive?"

"I hated you and I wanted to make you suffer. See how far you would go. And solve a problem." She didn't smile - as if that female way of smiling, the constant wish to endear oneself, the constant softening of everything one said, wasn't hers, not naturally. She was earnest and serious, and meant what she said, uncompromising like the lunge with a blade. A lunge wasn't softened, nor was a parry and riposte. And it was exactly what Dan wanted: honesty.

Dan didn't smile either, but neither was there a frown. He nodded calmly. "I assumed that, and rest assured, you did make me suffer. At the time you scored a point." Admitting to this was giving her more than he'd ever believed he would, but it was the right thing to do. All cards out in the open, no more jokers up the sleeve.

"Telling you to leave my life forever was a way to protect me - or anybody else - from the consequences."

"There wouldn't have been any, but you couldn't know that." Another small nod. "You were Vadim's ex-wife, and no matter what you had done, that still counted for a lot. He once showed me a photo of you and your kids, that was on the day he gave me the lapis lazuli beads. Whatever happened after that, you were always connected to him, and to him wanting to protect you and his children." Children. Son. There was a hint of a smile in his face. "I believe you have the same beads."

"Yes." She stood and opened a drawer, pulled out the beads and placed them on the table. "From the same stall, most likely." She sat back, regarding him for a long while. Dan finished another biscuit, then shook out his left arm and pulled the sleeve back. There they were, the string of lapis lazuli beads, wound around his wrist. He said nothing, just cocked a brow with a slightly self-mocking smile when she glanced at it.

She looked up. "He didn't talk about you, but that was an understanding between us. We would never speak about anything in clear words, in case we were spied upon. Vadim had a career in front of him, we might have been paranoid, but we were cautious to not risk what we had."

"And in the end, even that didn't work out." Dan ran a hand through his unruly hair. "I am sorry for that for more reasons than just the ones that concern myself."

"Nobody can know what would have happened," she said, looking once more at the beads around his wrist. "We can never be certain of anything. Best-laid plans, good intentions ... everything only makes sense in hindsight. While we are in a situation, we never have all the information to make the best decision. Some things are just reflexes ... like in combat." She poured herself more tea, then offered to Dan, who nodded, watching her fill his cup. "I've read an interesting book on the last years of the Soviet Union, by a Western scholar. He said, all Soviet citizens were deformed in their personalities. We were taught to keep our head down, and that the damage to our people by the purges and generations of suppression and indoctrination, would only be healed after many, many more generations. I think life deforms everybody."

"But sometimes, life does the exact opposite. Sometimes the pain, the joy, the whole insanity that is life turns us into much wiser people." He let out a soft chuckle while ladling the sugar into his cup. "If you had despised my younger self and not let him near his daughter, my older self would have agreed. I was an arsehole."

"Vadim fell in love with you. He must have seen the potential." She smiled. "Beyond the obvious physical qualities."

Dan laughed, "believe me, it took a long time before the 'obvious physical qualities' were outwon by the love." And he was never going to tell her how those physical qualities had drawn one predator to another. To conquer, to be conquered in the end. "I guess when it comes to Kisa, I hope she'll never become the arsehole that I was." He took a sip of his tea, looking at her over the rim of the cup. "I sincerely doubt it. After all, she's not going to kill."

"Well, there's the moral compass again." Katya nodded. "And you seem determined to be a force for good in her life."

"What else would I want to be?" Dan put the cup down, and leaned back in his chair. "I have family, a brother, sister in law, three nephews. On a farm in a village in the Scottish Highlands, the place where I was born. I would like Kisa to meet them, my family can't wait to get to know her. They are her family, too, and they are good people." Dan gave a slight but warm smile. "If you asked Vadim he'd tell you my brother is like me, how I would have been, had I not done the job I did. Guess he's trying to say diplomatically that Duncan got all the good parts."

"I see." As if it had never occurred to her that Dan might have family, too. "Good she speaks English, then."

"Does this mean that you trust us enough to let her visit her family in Scotland, and perhaps spend her Christmas holidays in New Zealand?"

"You, and her. Just make sure she's back before school begins again, and don't be too indulgent. She's a teenager, they need limits."

"I guess if I imagined her as a recruit, that should work." Dan smiled. "We could take her to Scotland for pre-Christmas and then fly together to New Zealand. That way she won't have to take the flight on her own. Back shouldn't be a problem. Could we wrangle out four weeks holiday? What with the distance it's otherwise not worth it."

"I'll call the headmaster. Four weeks." Katya smiled.

Dan reached for his cane, then stood up. "Would you like to know more about Kisa's aunt and uncle? I could send you photos of my family, the farm, the Highlands."

"That would be very nice of you." She stood, too, and came round the table. "Personally, I always considered writing letters an art form, but I understand that these days, photos have taken that place."

"I'm afraid I'm not a man of words, that's Vadim's job. He's the cultured one." Dan flashed a smile, humour lighting up his eyes. "Any intellectual achievements Kisa will have solely inherited from you."

She smiled, extending her hand, and Dan shook it. "Just arrange the flights, I'll bring her to the airport, suitcase packed."

It was still odd, being that civil, but it felt right. It had been fourteen years, after all. "Truce or armistice?" Dan held her hand for a moment longer. His grip firm, just like hers. "We'll never be friends, but in hindsight, I understand some of your decisions."

"Peace." She moved a bit closer, holding his grip, and kissed him on both cheeks. "You were a good choice, Dan."

He was flustered for a moment, she'd caught him by surprise with that move, and he murmured with a grin, "you got another score in, after all."

Before she could reply anything, there was the sound of a key scraping in the lock and the next moment the door flung open, a girl's voice calling out in Hungarian. Dan turned his head towards the living room door, and let go of Katya's hand, when the girl's voice exclaimed in English: "Dan! I didn't know you were here!"

He grinned like a fool, when his daughter flung herself into his arms, nearly toppling him over.

* * *

Dan stayed longer in Hungary than expected, while Vadim took off to America for a couple of weeks, to visit Hooch. When he returned to Europe, they met in France, after Dan had spent a week alone with Jean.

Reunited, they visited friends, organised Spa events, and spent most of their time in Britain, with the Baroness and friends. December came soon, and Dan flew back to Hungary to pick up Kisa, and to take her to his family.

As expected, it was a successful visit, with Duncan and Mhairi welcoming their niece with open arms, and Kisa in return enjoying her stay. She got on like a house on fire with her cousins, especially the oldest one who came for a visit over the weekend. When all three left for New Zealand, there were a lot of tears, something that Dan noted with a grin to Vadim.

Dan wasn't the only one, though, who struggled at first with the wise advice of setting limits, but true to his word, he found a way to imagine the kid during times of potential trouble as a young recruit. From then on they went along just fine, even though there was no doubt that the two men allowed Kisa a lot more leeway than her mother would have.

When finally, after Christmas and a few days into the New Year, it was time to take Kisa back to the airport, Dan flew with her from Palmy, just to see her off on her flight across the world. That time, during goodbyes, even Dan's eyes glistened dangerously, but he wasn't going to admit that to Vadim.


November 2004, Australia

Vadim was amazed at the hidden power in Nikolai's hands. Of course. Manual labour. Worker. The grip was warm, though, he took Vadim's hand with both of his, the kind of grip that seemed reassuring and strangely gentle.

Vadim frowned, looked into the light eyes, as if to ask why, and got nothing. Not a smile, no evasion, nothing. Nikolai just stood there, holding his hand, sincere. Light brown hair, wavy instead of Sasha's curls, colour lighter from Katya's genetic input, but with Sasha's reddish tint when the light struck it right. Warmer than Katya or Anoushka.

"Thank you for coming," said Vadim in English; it was the most natural language, he rarely spoke Russian anymore. When they'd done the latest catch-up, Doctor Williams had told him there was still much unfinished business in his life, and that it would help looking some things in the eye. Consolidation. He'd tried and failed with Anoushka - Anya, she was a grown woman now, and they weren't on affectionate terms.

"I was in the area anyway", said Nikolai. His English had an American tint. Or Canadian. Vadim still couldn't place the North American accents.

"Australia?"

"Diving, and visiting friends. A couple friends opened their own opal mine." Nikolai released his hand, but stood close. "I think the digging and building gets to you."

Vadim nodded. He'd wanted to see Sydney and Melbourne, and Nikolai had written back he would be off work soon, and they could meet up, what about the banks of the Yarra river that crossed the city. Out in the open. Dan was somewhere close, doing his usual over-watch, as if Vadim could just vanish from sight and from this world if he didn't. Vadim looked at the water, and began to walk, Nikolai joining him, hands in the pockets of his dark, almost indigo blue jeans. Broad shoulders, nearly as tall as he was. Sasha hadn't been this tall - he wouldn't have become a pilot otherwise.

"Do you enjoy your work?"

"The money is excellent. I don't want to work till I'm old. This job means I won't have to."

Vadim had heard that same tune from security consultants, PMCs, all the military freelancers that made a killing while they could. But Nikolai didn't seem unhappy. He was far more relaxed than his sister, less on edge - like wood to her steel. And working on an oil rig had nothing to do with the army, or with killing. "Did you hear anything about Anoushka?"

Nikolai shook his head. "Last I heard, they had a fight about children."

"Who?"

"The girlfriend and her."

"Ah." Vadim didn't want to show the surprise. Katya had mentioned it, in passing, but he had had no idea that Anoushka had found a partner. Let alone children were even an issue. "How do you know?"

"Last Christmas."

Nikolai's face darkened, and Vadim wasn't sure he wanted to hear that particular story. Which promptly reduced the number of viable topics for discussion down to the bone. The hard parts. Vadim was only too aware his talent for small talk approached zero. From the negative side. It was one thing to do small talk during a conference, and another to try and small talk to family. "Of course, Christmas." Vadim looked at Nikolai again, high cheekbones, a clear, intelligent brow. A good jaw. On all accounts, a good looking young man, much younger than he'd been when he had met Dan the first time. "Do you have a family?"

"Apart from the screw up in Hungary? No." No bitterness, but a straightforwardness that spoke of little love left. "I stick to people who don't get me down and are my friends. I mean, what else do I need? Two good hands to work with, and a passport."

Exactly like one of the mercs. Maybe these kinds of professions attracted the same type of man.

Nikolai looked at him, as if expecting something, but Vadim couldn't guess, couldn't read what it was. People were never easy at the best of times, but it was far more difficult when they were blood related. Vadim answered that gaze, felt the insecurity under the gaze of this young man he hardly knew. He had a lot to answer for.

"Why the sudden interest?" asked Nikolai. "Or are you making conversation?"

"I've ... always been interested." Stellar record of showing it, though, Vadim.

Nikolai's face was calm, collected, no irony, no sneer. Observant. Less cheerful than Sasha. Sasha had been young when he died. Or maybe, in hindsight, they had all been so very young. "I guess you were just busy, then."

Vadim sighed and shook his head. That one was well-deserved, and he knew it. He could still hear Anoushka: What do you think I am doing? I cut people open, just like you did. Only I put them back together. And now excuse me, that's the pager. That ill-fated phone call, when he'd mustered his courage and called her on shift in the hospital.

"In a way, yes." Busy killing people. Busy holding my life together. Busy trying to be human. But, for fuck's sake, why hadn't he managed to do anything else for his son? Why had it been so convenient to know he was clothed and fed, and the bills paid, so he could go on doing whatever had been so important back then?

"It was difficult to get in touch. I was ashamed." Still no reaction from Nikolai.
"I understand I am not much of a ... a father. Wasn't." He had read a lot about fathers and families, and what made people the way they were. An attempt to understand why these things were so complicated and how he'd failed so completely to play that particular role. Whatever Nikolai's troubles were, chances were, it was partly his fault. "I understand that you're angry. I'd be the same. I'm just not good with people. Especially after ..." The trauma. "... what happened."

"So why now?"

"Getting old does that to people. They start to wonder about their mistakes." Vadim shook his head. "I'm sorry. So very sorry."

Nikolai's face suddenly twitched, the lips moved in that involuntary way that betrayed his son was fighting an emotion, something like hatred or sadness, or both. "I just ... wondered if it was my fault. Why you didn't love me." He took a deep, sudden breath, and turned away, tension in his shoulders, hands formed fists, struggling.

Love. Vadim's guts formed a knot of lead, and that was probably the worst accusation of them all. Love. He remembered the tenderness for the baby, the toddler, the child, but he was missing the teenager and the young man. The things his own father had done - that infamous first shave, the first time in a suit, the father-son-talks about the profound truths of life ... back when they'd still got along, before it had become an intellectual competition and constant trench warfare, long before Vadim had become the man he was. Nikolai was missing all those good bits of having a father. His real father on a military cemetery, and the one who had taken the role had done nothing but gone through the motions until he had found something else. Somebody else. "I should have been there", he murmured.

Nikolai shook his head, and turned around again. Eyes a brighter colour, more intense with the proximity of tears. "I wanted ... that you fucking cared." He inhaled deeply, raised his face, blinking to keep the tears down. Vadim knew exactly what he felt like. "You were the man in the uniform. The one on the picture. Everybody spoke about what a hero you were. I wanted nothing more but ..." He paused, struggling again. "... be like you. How could I? I had no fucking idea what you were like."

Be like me. How could anybody, even a child in Moscow, would have wanted to be like Captain Krasnorada. "I wasn't myself then. That took ... a long, long while. I wasn't a good man, and I would have been ashamed if you'd known."

Nikolai said nothing.

The original plan for the meeting had been to tell Nikolai about his real father. Sasha. He didn't want Sasha's son to not know, it felt like he was taking something away from the dead comrade, a theft, a dishonesty, like fleecing the corpse of a memory. But at the same time, Nikolai was his son, too, and just driving the knife deeper wasn't right. That dirty little secret would remain just that. No reason to screw this one up more than he most likely was.

"Maybe you want to meet Dan?"

"Your partner."

People these days had no trouble accepting that. His father gay, his sister a man-hating lesbian. Of course not. It was a miracle Nikolai seemed to have his head screwed on right. "Aye, he should be at the café we walked past."

"Any plans to marry him? And - would that make him my stepfather?" joked Nikolai, and Vadim gave a short, surprised laugh. That would bring the count up to three fathers. What a fucking mess.

"Relations in this family are too complicated for this old warhorse," murmured Vadim, while they walked towards the café. Veranda with white painted wood, a good view on the river and the path that they walked. Tea time. Vadim would be very surprised if Dan wouldn't be having tea now.

"Anything I should keep in mind?"

"No. He's fairly easy going." They entered, Vadim's right hand between Nikolai's shoulder blades, before he remembered to keep his distance, guiding him towards Dan's table. Vadim pulled the hand back, surprised at that involuntary touch, an intimacy that he had no right to. He hoped Nikolai didn't mind.

Dan was sitting with his customary shades on, his silver streaked hair grown well past the collar of his dark blue linen shirt. Placing the sleek PDA back onto the table beside a pot of tea and an almost empty plate of cream cakes, he took the shades off, folding them into his shirt pocket. He stood up, smiling while assessing the good looking young man that came towards him. Damn good looking in fact, positively devastating, and he felt ancient that very moment.

"Hi Nikolai, I'm Dan." He held his hand out to him, "pleasure to meet you." He didn't know exactly what Vadim had told him, was playing it safe, but whatever it had been it looked good between those two, much better than expected.

Nikolai shook the hand. "Pleasure meeting you", while Vadim pulled the third chair back and sat down, glancing at the menu, to give both of them a moment to seize each other up.

"Well, it's good I finally manage to get off an oil rig to meet my father. And his partner." The sentences came without hesitation. "And Kisa's father. You look like her a lot."

Dan laughed, shaking his head. "Hell, yes, when you put it like that, it sounds positively fucked-up." 'Father', Dan noticed, glanced briefly at Vadim and smiled to himself. Father it would be, then, he was convinced it was for the best. Dan sat back down. "When it comes to Kisa, I'm afraid if she'd turned out to look like Vadim's children, I would have been very surprised." His age-lined dark eyes gleamed with warmth.

"Not very likely, genetics being what they are." Nikolai sat as well, craned his neck to make eye contact with the waitress. "Let me just order a bite to eat, you guys want anything?"

Like ordering food in the pub with his mates. Vadim breathed a sigh of relief, and stretched out a leg so his calf made contact with Dan's shin, who pressed back in acknowledgment.

"No, thanks," Dan grinned, "I just had a couple of portions of sweets. According to Vadim I'm a lucky bastard, I eat like a horse and never gain weight."

Vadim shook his head. His guts hadn't quite unknotted yet.

The waitress looked over at their table and gave a nod and an indication she'd noticed, while taking somebody else's offer.

"How long have you been working on oil rigs? Don't think Vadim told me, and I've got quite a few mates who went onto them after the Forces." Dan glanced to the side, located Vadim's hand and took it. Holding it lightly in his own while fishing for his pack of fags with the other. At least he could still smoke outside.

Vadim lightly closed his hand around Dan's, and Nikolai didn't seem to think it important, or ignored it, or just took it in stride.

"That's two years now. I started working on a ship - bananas, life cattle. Saw some interesting places, Macau, bits and bobs of Africa, the Caribbean. Then I met some drillers on shore leave, and since I wasn't dodging hard work, I ended up working there." Nicolai gave a grin. "I expect you saw some interesting places as well."

"I bet that what you saw was a hell of a lot more interesting. Whenever I got anywhere, I was less welcome." Dan grinned and shrugged, "makes sightseeing difficult."

"The conferences are good, though, Dan," mentioned Vadim.

"Yes, I guess so." Dan smiled at Vadim, his thumb absentmindedly caressing the fingers. "It's just that I never fancied the actual job very much." Dan flashed a quick grin at Nikolai. "All those suits, the constant need to dress up like a penguin and to pretend I'm well behaved, while all I am is still the irreverent squaddie."

Nikolai grinned, leaning back. "I've worked with some Scotsmen in the North Sea. Good people. I liked them."

Dan's face suddenly shone with an odd sense of national pride. "I'm glad, I guess we are hard working people. Probably also just as hard headed." He shrugged. "Still, I've seen most of the world and we continue to tour it. At least these days we don't tend to get shot at." He tilted his head, just like his daughter, with that half-quirked lopsided grin. "Tell me, Nikolai, do you have a favourite country or place?"

"I like sunny places, whatever part of the earth where it's summer. Like now. Was getting cold in Europe, so I came over for scuba diving, snorkling and opal digging in the Outback. And you?"

"Afghanistan." The word came out without a moment's hesitation, while his hand gripped Vadim's tighter, and Vadim's hand tensed, as did his jaw muscles. Things came back to Dan, no doubt, just at the mentioning of the word. "No competition, it will always be the Afghan mountains. Nothing is as majestic." And nothing else had swallowed him whole, changed his life, taken him in and settled in his mind, like that land of sky, mountains and dust. "But you wouldn't want to be there right now. The shit's flared up again, the West hasn't learned from the old East and Brits and Yanks are pulling the same useless, idiotic stunts as the Soviets did."

"Yeah, I heard things about pipelines there. Friend of mine is in the pipeline business." Nikolai glanced at the waitress again, with a somewhat hopeful expression that made him look boyish.

"Anyway, I don't mind heat nor cold, at least I didn't use to." Dan shrugged, was about to say something else when the waitress arrived to take their orders. His tea was cold, so he ordered another one, lighting his fag while Nikolai organised food and drink.

"That's scary, you know? You look like Kisa, and you even light up like her. It's like somebody snatched my baby sister and did the Dr Who thing with her and there she is, older and male. Any moment I expect you to throw a tantrum." Nikolai gave a deep, open laugh.

"She smokes? At her age?" Dan's eyebrows shot up and the zippo hovered in front of his face, forgetting to shut down the flame. "Holy fuck, I didn't know, she didn't tell me. Does her mother know?"

"Katya would rip her head off if she knew. Well, she'd try." Nikolai grinned. "Quite a bit of bitchfighting going on there - Kisa doesn't want to go fencing anymore, I stopped long ago, and Anya decided to remain an amateur as well, even though she was probably the best of us three. Kisa might have stopped only to piss Katya off. But smoking would take that to a new level. She calls me, you know. Kisa does. It's the big brother little sister thing, she's irresistible for me."

Vadim smiled and looked pointedly at Dan. "You didn't believe me," he murmured in Russian, close to Dan's ear. "She's got that from you."

"Oh." Dan's reply was as nonsensical as the way he managed to blush. He hid his flustered expression with a deep drag from his cigarette to go undercover beneath a plume of smoke.

"Well," when he had himself under control, thumb once again rubbing Vadim's hand, "I'll have a word with her. Smoking is shit, been doing it for almost forty-five years and I'm just a lucky git who got nothing." Not that the rest of his lifestyle had ever been remotely healthy.

"My bet is, she'll stop once she's moved out. You know. It's an act of defiance. Well, I moved out as soon as I legally could. Katya told me I'd be coming crawling back, and much of what happened later was just me proving that I wouldn't." Nikolai glanced up. "I'll take the Chicken Milanese with salad and potato wedges." Back to Dan. "And if that doesn't stop her, I'm sure Anya will oblige and give her a tour of the cancer ward."

The waitress scurried off to get their drinks and Nicolai's food, when Dan inhaled again, keeping the smoke in his lungs, contradicting his own words. Exhaling and speaking at the same time. "I knew she stopped fencing, took up running instead, and martial arts, she told me." He frowned before continuing, "did she tell her the latest, though? Do you know she wants to join the army?"

Nicolai nodded. "Yes. And I told her to do it, when she's legally on the safe side and nobody can stop her. She's been talking so much about it, I think she'd be pretty unhappy if she didn't do it. And there's a career for women in NATO and UN, she sent me the links on the net. Almost recruited me." He gave a laugh, while Vadim's features barely contained the impact of those words.

"No!" Dan would have jumped off the chair if his knees had let him. His hand gripped Vadim's so tight, he felt the bones between his fingers. "How could you! You have no fucking idea about the forces." Inhaling and exhaling in swift succession, smoke curled out of his nostril when he continued, as agitated as before. "Don't you understand? No army in the world is all about building villages and saving natives' lives. It's about killing - and surviving. And what if she gets stuck in a NATO camp, under order to not interfere at all, while next door and in plain sight she'll watch women being raped and men tortured? We were there, in the Balkans. We've seen it, we've heard it, and even though we thought we'd seen so much death and destruction it wouldn't affect us, fuck, it did, and we had thirty years of killing behind us. What if she had to deal with that in, what, five, six years time? A kid!"

Nikolai listened with concentration, as if he listened to the shift leader about a very difficult and complicated drill, and the humour was gone. Very serious and very silent. "But some people have to deal with it," he said calmly, and that was very likely taken straight from Kisa's mouth. "I'd rather see good people do it than bad people."

Dan shook his head, grey hair flying wildly. "I don't want her to become like me." The fag landed in the ashtray and his fist came down onto the table, albeit controlled. "I don't want her to kill." Adding, in almost the same breath but with the aggression entirely lost, " she won't listen to me, as little as she listens to her mother." Pleading, "perhaps she'd listen to you?"

"We've been through that already. I told her she should think about it, get more information. She did. She now knows a lot about the Hungarian Forces. I don't want her to end up in some place getting blown up by a road bomb, and I'd rather she'd do something else, but she's set on it. Sorry, I don't think I can do anything there."

"She only told me a couple weeks ago." Dan looked at his scarred hand, still in a fist on the table. His voice lowered as he shook his head again, slower this time. "I know what it's like to be blown apart by a bomb." Looking straight at Nikolai, who paled, making the connection between the scar and the words, and murmured a silent "shit".

"I don't want her to see nor experience any of what I have seen and done. But," Dan gave a slight nod to Vadim's son, "as you said, it is her decision, and nothing and no one can take it from her." He should know, she was his daughter, and the stubbornness had come through, together with the charm and the looks. "Her mother will think it is all my fault and she shouldn't have allowed me to have contact with Kisa. I just want you to know that I would do anything to keep her from this idea and that to my knowledge I never tried to make my army career look glorious. It's a miracle I'm alive, and that's that. For what it's worth, I want you to know that, but I also want you to know that I'll always respect my daughter's decisions." My daughter. Yes, he felt it deep inside, in his guts and heart. His daughter.

Nikolai looked at Vadim, as if trying to get clues from him, but Vadim's face was expressionless, hiding the coiling fear that whatever he'd done, and however much he'd tried to keep Nikolai out of the army, he might have come close. Katya had paid off corrupt officials, several thousand dollars got Nikolai off the Russian Army list - the state corrupt enough to leave a Russian in Hungary in peace. But the thought was there that Nicolai might just as well have ended up in the Legion, like other men without roots, men who wanted to get away.

"I think that's the best," Nikolai nodded, "and I don't think for a minute it's your fault. Seriously. We're our own people, and what we want is really very personal, you know."

Dan nodded, felt for a curious moment the bizarre urge to stand up, pull the shirt out of his trousers, just to let Nikolai have a look at the ragtag bag of scars his body was. "I wonder if she had chosen the same career path if she had never met me. We are our own people, but our decisions are influenced by those around us."

"True." Nikolai glanced at Vadim, and Vadim could decipher that one. Where would I be if I had had a father.

Vadim's grip on Dan's hand grew stronger for a moment, then relaxed. Vadim leaned in. "Be back in a minute." He got up, touched Dan's shoulder, and headed inside, for the loos.

Dan nodded, then looked back at Nikolai and pulled one shoulder up, before letting it drop. "Hell, I must have been influenced, way back when. 'Join the army, be the best' and all that shit." He smiled wryly. "Who knows, maybe she gets bored with it after a year or two. There's always hope, and at least she's not going to join up as an ordinary grunt. More chances she actually has a proper career as an officer, right?" Prep-talking himself, but perhaps what he dreaded most was the inevitable phone call from Katya. No doubt the peace was fragile.

"Right, and she's smart, she'll work out the best way to go. That's why Katya was so pissed off about the fencing thing. Kisa has the mind for it, she said."

"If she is anything like me," and hell, Dan knew Kisa was more like him than he wanted, "then she'd be good with any blade." He quirked the corner of his lip, "any weapon, in fact." He sighed, "oh damn."

"Yes - her favourite was the sabre, but she was good with all three." Nikolai glanced over his shoulder, where Vadim just vanished. "I wonder why he does that."

"Does what?" Dan craned his head to follow Nikolai's gaze.

"Leave us alone."

"He just went to the loo."

"Hm. Yes." Nikolai shrugged. "He's alright, isn't he? Heard some bit down the family grapevine, it's not, like, health related he wanted to see me?"

"Family grapevine …" Dan rubbed his chin before searching for another cigarette. "How much do you know, Nikolai?"

"People think, and people talk. I got the impression he might ... have health problems. Then him wanting to see me. Sounded to me like cleaning house before you check out."

"No, it's the other way round." Dan tapped his fag on the table, a habit he never got rid of, then lit it, looking from under his lashes at Nikolai. Vadim's son. Perhaps not in blood, but everything else. "He certainly is physically very well. Lower back problems, but that's expected at fifty-four and a life like ours."

"Good. Sorry, but that was what I thought. Good to hear that's not what it is."

"What do you know about the past, I mean, around the time you left Moscow. You must have been, what, nine? Ten? Around nineteen-eighty-eight or eighty-nine."

"Yes." Nicolai glanced at him quizzically, perhaps surprised that Dan kept dates and tabs. "Just old enough to understand something was seriously wrong, but not old enough to understand why. I mean, the divorce and everything makes sense now, obviously. Katya told us they were trying to blame our father for ... well, basically losing the war. Scapegoat."

Dan nodded, smoking slowly, deliberately. As deliberate as each of his carefully chosen words. "Have you ever been told anything about Vadim's imprisonment, and what was done to him by the KGB in the Lubyanka?"

"Shit." Just that, and a frown.

"Aye, shit." Dan followed the smoke with his eyes before concentrating once more on Nikolai. "Vadim was set up by the KGB in Kabul, taken in 1989, to be charged with High Treason. I was a witness that day, but was successful in eliminating the KGB killers set onto me. From 1989 to 1990 Vadim was in the Lubyanka, tortured. Physically, beaten and worse, and mentally, isolation. Confession was extracted under torture, an entirely false confession, I hasten to add, because your father never committed any of the crimes they convicted him of. In February 1990 Vadim suffered a mock execution. As you know, your sister was conceived in January/February of the same year, I guess the story is common knowledge in your family." Dan's voice was quiet, his words purely factual. Recounting two years of terror in a few sentences.

Nikolai reached for the water jug and poured himself a glass, also filling up Dan's. "I had no idea," he murmured. "Yes, about Kisa, but not about him. How did he get out?"

"A re-trial had been ordered later that year, because the KGB was badgered by the Interior Ministry. There was diplomatic pressure, too, which would not have been possible without the help of a dear friend and employer of mine, a former UK ambassador. Vadim continued to be kept in isolation. He was sentenced for misconduct and homosexual activities, but extensive bribery ensured that he was let out at the Finnish border on December 24 1990."

"For misconduct and being gay." Nikolai shook his head, then looked away, didn't seem to find something to look at, struggling with the concept and the emotions. Pity, most likely, and even anger at the unfairness. "And that's why ... he is that way?"

Dan inhaled deeply, taking his time. "What do you know about the short- and long-term effects of imprisonment, torture and isolation?"

"Not too much. I heard some stuff, but ... well, I guess if it happens in the family, it's still something else. Hard to imagine him ... you know. In pain." Nikolai struggled again. "It's hard to understand parents are human, when you're a kid. I always thought he just doesn't care, and suddenly he does, but it's like ... he's in pain. I can't deal with that. I have no idea how to treat him."

Dan smiled, tilting his head to look at that young man before him. "The worst thing for survivors is pity, and even more so for Vadim. Don't get me wrong, he is a strong man, very strong. If he weren't, he wouldn't have gone on as he did."

"No, I think he's strong, never struck me as anything else. Just ... distant, even when he was there. I remember him telling us how important languages are, and to always work hard for what you want. And I thought how do I work hard so he sees me? Him and Anya, they worked, but I never thought he was very interested in me." Nikolai shook his head. "But I guess all that makes sense now. He could hardly look out for himself."

"Sometimes, it takes torture and trauma survivors and sufferers of PTSD many years before they either give up and commit suicide, or the pain and its effects get so bad, they finally dare to take the hardest step of all, to go into therapy."

"Suicide. Shit." Nikolai again craned his neck, but Vadim seemed to take his time downstairs. "Was it ... was it that bad?"

Dan flicked the ash off his fag, "I don't think any of us will ever know how bad it was. All I can tell you from my vantage point as closest observer …" Dan played over it lightly, "Vadim is in a lot less pain than he used to be. Trust me, he's quite well these days. It was a hard time, but some of the worst effects of the trauma are either gone or have considerably lessened. That's more than anyone can ask for, aye?"

"Sounds good. Shit. I really had no idea. Too caught up with my own crap. Seems that's in the family, too." Nikolai shook his head. "But how do we go from here? How do I treat him?"

"I tell you something, Vadim doesn't know how to treat you, either. He was more worried about meeting you today than I was when I saw Kisa for the first time. He feels guilty, and he was frightened you would accuse him, reject him. I guess you'd have every right in the world to do so." Dan smiled as he took another drag from the cigarette, "but you're a damn decent guy. I saw how you arrived and realised you hadn't done what you could have. As someone who loves your father and has known him for twenty-four years, I'd like to thank you for that, for giving Vadim a chance. Just try to treat him like a friendly stranger? You two have to get to know each other from scratch. A lot like me and Kisa. These days I try to be a good friend to her, since it's too damn late to be a father, but perhaps, if you get to know each other, you might find you get along as well."

"I have ... a couple weeks. There's a wildcat drill not far away, off the coast, the company man approached me about it, I might just take the job and stay in the hemisphere for a while."

"That sounds like a damn good idea." Dan smiled, stubbed out the fag and reached for the PDA, fingertips playing on the shiny surface. "Tell you what, if you want to, I can have something to do somewhere else. My presence might be a bit too interfering. What do you think?"

"Not on my count. Might be good to get to know you, too. You're family as well."

Dan smiled, more pleased than he'd been for a while. "Thank you, you have no idea what that means to me."

"It's alright." Nikolai gave a grin to play over the uneasiness of having been thanked, then paused. "You did say 'twenty-four years', didn't you? Shit. That's almost all my life. You'll have to tell me your secret - I can't make my women stay longer than six months. They like the money, they don't like the job."

Dan laughed, "that's simple, do what I did and find a woman with the same job, and she'll understand."

"Oh, women on oil rigs. Plenty ... tons of them." Nicolai gave a laugh. "I mean, if you don't mind the girl being stubbly, smelling of drilling mud, roughly your size and answering to the name of Peter or Kevin ... well, okay, you wouldn't mind." A wink, and another sip from the water.

Dan smirked. "Or, do it like a good friend of mine, who used to be in the French Foreign Legion and then a merc and has been married happily for donkey's years, find one who looks at you as the big strong man and provider, and on top of that, is a damn nice lady to boot." He winked, "guess neither of those are easy, eh?"

"No. It's getting easier, though. You're getting used to it, and sometimes I just don't want to deal with the complications. Guess I turned out a bit of a loner."

"Still, I hope you find someone. Never thought I would, never even looked. Certainly not in a place like Afghanistan and with the job I had." Dan smiled, craned his head again to look for Vadim who still hadn't shown up. "Let me summon that Russkie, lest he's drowned in the loos, together with your food and our drinks."

"I think I'll check on him. You try and attract the dizzy waitress."

"No problem," Dan nodded, and put the gadget back onto the table.

Nikolai stood, flashed a broad grin at Dan, friendly, matey, then headed inside to check on his father.

Watching the young man retreat, Dan sat musing for a moment, smiling to himself. Who knew, maybe it would all work out. Spying the waitress a second later, he snatched a crutch, stood up to is full height and waved at her. Figured he could try the pissed-off growl later, if friendliness didn't have an effect. She noticed him immediately this time, and came hurrying over with a bright red face, apologising for the delay.

Dan had hardly managed to sit back down and settle comfortably, starting to check his email on the Blackberry, when she arrived with food and drinks.

"Thank you, and don't worry, we all forget things sometimes. Especially at my age." He winked at her, she blushed once more and burst into … giggles.

Dan prayed for deliverance.

* * *

Vadim stared at the mirror and was breathing, holding his breath, going through the tension. It had come like a shock wave, a sudden impact that he found hard to absorb; guilt, memory, whatever had triggered it, it was the same old thing. He'd felt it creep up and it had hit him the moment he'd left the table. And that despite Nikolai being complete reasonable about it. Maybe about Sasha? He couldn't tell, could only breathe.

"Hey." The door opened, and Vadim saw - not Sasha - his own son stand there and look worried. "Are you okay?"

Vadim straightened, wiped the water from his face with a hand and turned, reaching for some paper towels. "I'm okay."

Nikolai regarded him critically, and clearly did not believe a word.

"Just had an off moment. Not as bad as they used to be. I'm okay. Okay is relative, but I'm okay." Vadim felt he was babbling. Drying his face, Vadim was glad that Nikolai just stood there, was simply present, and was mortified at the same time that his son saw him like this. "Sorry."

"Don't worry." Nikolai murmured softly and gave him a quirky, insecure smile. "Good to go back?"

"Aye."

They headed back, where, to Nikolai's delight, the food had finally arrived, and there was more small talk, with Nikolai opening up a bit more, telling some stories about various drilling adventures as if making an effort to entertain them, or lighten the mood, something which didn't come natural to him. Nonetheless, that was a completely different world and an interesting one to boot, and they spent a good few hours together, until Nikolai had to leave to meet up with a friend who'd pick him up for a drive into the Outback, but not before they'd repeated that Nikolai was perfectly welcome down in Palmy.

He showed up three weeks later, and Vadim showed him the favourite places in a three-day tour around the North Island. They talked a lot, caught up on all those years, and when Nikolai one evening, in a motel near sulphur-smelling Rotorua, stepped close and embraced him in a bear hug, they were both crying, knew it both and both wiped their eyes as if to hide it. Nikolai held him so tight it bordered on despair, and Vadim ran his hand through that hair, relishing the unexpected and altogether undeserved closeness.

 
 
Special Forces Chapter LXVIII: Till Death
 
 
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 10 March 2009