2003, New Zealand
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
don't want to fight with her. I'd rather not see her
know, and that makes you defensive, which in turn makes
you aggressive in inopportune moments."
sighed and shrugged. "Bugger. The things I do for
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?"
a tentative one."
off in three weeks to the conference, aye?"
Gives the other coach time to take over my lessons."
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
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."
was right. Mini Spetsnaz."
minus the throat cutting and forced marches." Vadim
turned the chicken.
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."
sounds good. I'll tell the other coach to take over
and start the self-defence when we come back."
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.
smiled when Vadim handed him his plate, and murmured
something in Russian, which sounded suspiciously like
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.
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.
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 ..."
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.
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.
returned with tea and biscuits, set everything down
and lit a candle under the tea pot.
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.
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."
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.
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."
..." the rape. Rapes. Plural. A lifetime ago. "He
sat down, studying him as she poured the tea and rearranged
cups and the plate with cookies, while Dan slowly sat
then. What will you call me? Katarina? Katya?"
She blew on her tea and took a sip.
calls you Katya. Kisa ..." another swift smile
crossed his face. "Will Katya be okay?" He
reached for his tea, stirring the sugar into it.
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."
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."
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."
nodded slowly. "Do you still hate me?"
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,
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.
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."
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?"
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."
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."
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."
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."
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."
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
you to leave my life forever was a way to protect me
- or anybody else - from the consequences."
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."
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.
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
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
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."
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."
fell in love with you. He must have seen the potential."
She smiled. "Beyond the obvious physical qualities."
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."
there's the moral compass again." Katya nodded.
"And you seem determined to be a force for good
in her life."
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."
see." As if it had never occurred to her that Dan
might have family, too. "Good she speaks English,
this mean that you trust us enough to let her visit
her family in Scotland, and perhaps spend her Christmas
holidays in New Zealand?"
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."
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."
call the headmaster. Four weeks." Katya smiled.
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."
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."
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."
smiled, extending her hand, and Dan shook it. "Just
arrange the flights, I'll bring her to the airport,
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
She moved a bit closer, holding his grip, and kissed
him on both cheeks. "You were a good choice, Dan."
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."
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!"
grinned like a fool, when his daughter flung herself
into his arms, nearly toppling him over.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
was in the area anyway", said Nikolai. His English
had an American tint. Or Canadian. Vadim still couldn't
place the North American accents.
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."
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.
you enjoy your work?"
money is excellent. I don't want to work till I'm old.
This job means I won't have to."
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?"
shook his head. "Last I heard, they had a fight
girlfriend and her."
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?"
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?"
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."
like one of the mercs. Maybe these kinds of professions
attracted the same type of man.
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.
the sudden interest?" asked Nikolai. "Or are
you making conversation?"
... always been interested." Stellar record of
showing it, though, Vadim.
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."
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
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?
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
old does that to people. They start to wonder about
their mistakes." Vadim shook his head. "I'm
sorry. So very sorry."
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
you want to meet Dan?"
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."
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.
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
I should keep in mind?"
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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?"
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.
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."
shook his head. His guts hadn't quite unknotted yet.
waitress looked over at their table and gave a nod and
an indication she'd noticed, while taking somebody else's
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.
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.
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."
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."
conferences are good, though, Dan," mentioned Vadim.
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
grinned, leaning back. "I've worked with some Scotsmen
in the North Sea. Good people. I liked them."
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?"
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?"
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."
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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."
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."
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
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
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
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?"
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.
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!"
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."
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?"
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."
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".
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.
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.
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."
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
Nikolai glanced at Vadim, and Vadim could decipher that
one. Where would I be if I had had a father.
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.
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.
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."
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,
- 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
what?" Dan craned his head to follow Nikolai's
just went to the loo."
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?"
" Dan rubbed his chin before searching
for another cigarette. "How much do you know, Nikolai?"
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."
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."
Sorry, but that was what I thought. Good to hear that's
not what it is."
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."
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."
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?"
Just that, and a frown.
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
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?"
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
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?"
inhaled deeply, taking his time. "What do you know
about the short- and long-term effects of imprisonment,
torture and isolation?"
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."
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."
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."
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
Shit." Nikolai again craned his neck, but Vadim
seemed to take his time downstairs. "Was it ...
was it that bad?"
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?"
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?"
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
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."
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?"
on my count. Might be good to get to know you, too.
You're family as well."
smiled, more pleased than he'd been for a while. "Thank
you, you have no idea what that means to me."
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."
laughed, "that's simple, do what I did and find
a woman with the same job, and she'll understand."
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.
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?"
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."
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."
think I'll check on him. You try and attract the dizzy
problem," Dan nodded, and put the gadget back onto
stood, flashed a broad grin at Dan, friendly, matey,
then headed inside to check on his father.
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.
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.
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
prayed for deliverance.
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.
The door opened, and Vadim saw - not Sasha - his own
son stand there and look worried. "Are you okay?"
straightened, wiped the water from his face with a hand
and turned, reaching for some paper towels. "I'm
regarded him critically, and clearly did not believe
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
worry." Nikolai murmured softly and gave him a
quirky, insecure smile. "Good to go back?"
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
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