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Special Forces Chapter XX: Touche

1989 - Moscow, 19th February

The bag over his face started to dry. Vadim could almost breathe normally again. Thought he could smell the lingering terror of whatever poor bastard had worn this before. Sweat, tears, a rank smell like dried vomit.

Hands tied behind his back. They made him walk. 'They' were a group of men that had been with him since he had regained consciousness. His mind kept working, kept to survival routines. Determine number of aggressors, angle of attack; learn what he could about them and their tactics in dealing with him. He smelled cigarette smoke when they lit up, and could feel their fingers on the restraint, checking whether he had conjured up some Spetsnaz magic that would enable him to flee.

He didn't even know where he was. Or when. No way of keeping time, it was dark, he could hear them talk, but they were guarded. The plane could have landed anywhere. The car could have gone anywhere. They could have marched him anywhere.

Wherever this place was, it was cold. And they poured water over the bag, every now and then, just to keep him on his toes. No real torture. They were just being unpleasant. Vadim didn't allow any other thought while they were close. Focused his mind and senses on the present, on every movement, every word. They were obviously military - Interior Ministry, so, strictly, comrades.

And smart and disciplined enough to not give him any clues. Disorientation was a factor. They wanted to keep him guessing, and that meant he had to discipline his mind; rationale against chaos. He remained cold, focused on keeping his body running and not allowing panic to set in. He'd be tougher than they'd anticipated. He wasn't Spetsnaz for nothing, and an officer on top.

He could still feel Dan, though. Could still taste him, feel the echo on his body. Inside. The burn from the cut was the clearest sensory input he had, and that was where his mind focused.

Walking, breathing, listening to the boots of his captors, and his own steps. Down stairs, a door was opened, he was pushed inside. The door was closed. Kept him in that room, standing.

Time passed, an hour, maybe more, reminding him of the random cruelty in the barracks.



Something crawled up from inside, something dark and bitter. Wasted opportunity. They hadn't made it, after all. The stolen time, the secret emotions, the vows and pledges … had changed nothing. He just couldn't escape. He'd tried, and it all had hinged on some fat-ass bureaucrat who had dug out that visit to London and the suspicious killing. Not that it mattered, not that he'd do that again, but maybe he had raised his own profile by meeting the man from the Foreign Office. Maybe that was the missing link, maybe that had come up in their search. Maybe he had acted suspicious.

He should have run away - vanished. He'd been trained to survive hundreds of miles behind enemy lines. He could have found a way into Europe, could have found a way into Britain - the coast was long and ragged, people had even swum the distance. But to live like a criminal on the run, always hunted, always with the fear he was wanted for murder, or as a Soviet spy?

There was KGB in Great Britain. He couldn't meet another Russian without fearing to be sold. And he wasn't easily mistaken. Not because of the remaining token fame, but the fact he didn't really fit in, drew too much attention. They'd recognise him, and then hunt him down. He just didn't want to live like an insect scurrying under a rock every time something moved. Had dared to hope for a clean cut, a new start, honesty and honour - well, as much honour as he could preserve in all this.

If he could only work out where the mistake had been. Had they been too careless in trying to have a little normality? The Colonel? And if they'd known - why strike now? Only to make it as painful as possible? Had something the Baroness had done stirred up interest and drawn the KGB's baleful attention? It could even be an inter-agency thing. The KGB didn't like the GRU. A political manoeuvre, one bureaucrat saying "fuck you" to another.

The usual doublethink did not apply, did not yield results. He had no idea why, or how, or when, or what next. He had worked too long towards this one slim chance, had dared to imagine that other life, and seeing it now vanish into nothing, there was no replacement. He'd thrown away the life he'd had, trusting on Dan to reel him in, pull him in, secure and anchor him. The rope was severed, and he was hurtling into the void. Disoriented, aching in too many places, memories.

The door opened again, and men entered.

The atmosphere changed at once. No word was spoken, nothing, but Vadim tensed and felt a punch just below the solar plexus, a vicious, insanely painful hit. He doubled over, thankful it hadn't been to the groin, and amused at that thought while his stomach seemed to want to spill everything he'd not eaten in the last hours, or day. As if that had been some kind of signal, there were more punches and kicks, while Vadim collapsed, desperate to breathe and not vomit, the pain sharp enough to forbid every memory.

It was called 'warming up'. Soften the prisoner up for interrogation.

"Don't be too gentle, the cunt's spetsnaz. They can take a lot."

Pain, and more pain, but not repetitive, every kind of pain different, sharp, pounding, tearing, blunt, crushing. Dark red and lightning coloured, unable to say from where the next impact would come. Vadim was tensing only to pit the remaining strength of his muscles against theirs, knowing which side would win, but focussed on keeping as much of himself intact as possible.

He screamed with what breath he had left, sobbed, allowed them to hear the pain - it didn't cause them to stop, but maybe misled them about his real state. He needed to keep his wits together, despite the raging pain. Fighting a silent fight to preserve the core.

Eventually, it stopped, like they'd lost interest. Random, completely random. Disorientation. Surprise, and excessive, determined force. And, above all, cunning. The three principles on which the might of the Soviet Union was based.

The door opened again, and hands grabbed him and forced him to stand. Vadim swayed, feet seemed to have to find a position where he wouldn't stumble, which took a while as his body's least concern was balance now. He was coughing, every breath made his ribs hurt worse, and there seemed nothing he could do to ease the pain or to not cause pain to flare up. His ears rang, breath heaving, fighting nausea, swallowing bile.

"Now that that is settled, I think it's time for the paperwork", said a man.

Vadim turned towards the voice. At least nobody he knew. Not the Colonel. A stranger. KGB? He had no idea who'd deal with his case.

Somebody loosened the rope or whatever kept the bag close to his throat, and pulled it off.

No uniform, a suit. Dark hair, some grey in it, he estimated the man to be in his fifties. Bad news. That meant he had plenty of experience. Eyes the colour of dark amber. A trick of the light.

And the man was standing too close. Vadim looked away first, to appear meek and intimidated, and to not provoke the bastard into believing he wasn't 'warmed up' enough.

"As you are most likely aware, there are several ways we can proceed from here, Vadim Petrovich." The man pointed towards the desk behind him, where an open file rested.

How long had the man been in the room? Had he really just arrived, or merely opened and closed the door to mislead him?

Vadim looked up again, and gave a nod to acknowledge he listened. He wanted to ask questions, but he knew he wouldn't get any answers, and by showing them what he wanted to know, he'd open himself for an attack. Be stone, be wood, be no longer human. No curiosity, no fear, no worries. No guessing.

"It is my task to make you sign a full confession. The question is, how we will arrive at that point." The man gave a self-ironic smile, as he let the other sentence hang in the air. Not when, not if. How. "This is meant to tell you that you are directly responsible for that road. It is your choice - and you will have time to make a good, solid, tactical as well as human decision. We'll give you enough time to think about it."

The silence invited a question. Oddly, Vadim felt himself slip into the same kind of irony. Odd, to share that with the man who was set to break him. And even odder to appear civilized while he could hardly stand up straight. His lower back hurt. The quads shook from the effort and the bruising, not to mention the ribs. Nothing broken, but bruised in too many places. "Why the beating then?"

"Call it a rite of initiation", said the interrogator with a smile. "There is a lot of anger about your treason. Certain elements would rather not bother with the questioning and confession and shoot you while you make an escape attempt."

Vadim's eyes narrowed. He didn't like that irony, nor the way the man spoke. Too smart, too academic. What had he expected? A beginner? Dan had tortured him on instinct, used a few effective tricks of the trade, which eventually worked, on a younger man, one that had had something to lose. Of course he'd broken, and he assumed he'd break again. But oddly, he wasn't scared. Now that the pieces were on the table, and decisions were made, all that he really had to do was somehow get through it. It was not the terror of not knowing, not the humiliation of begging. This was their set of rules, and they'd play the game according to them. There was nothing he had to do, and nothing he could do. No alternatives. It was inevitable.

"You've cost the state dearly. You are a traitor, and you will confess to it. When we present you to the judge, you will be very different from what you are now. We will have turned you from the inside out. These ruffians behind you can't wait to beat you up again, but that is a very crude method, and you are physically in prime shape. Wearing you down will take time. Of course, there are other methods, and it is, admittedly, a challenge to break a masochist."

Vadim's jaw muscles tensed. He wasn't quite sure what the man was playing at. He assumed he was just prodding and checking for something that betrayed a weakness, a soft spot, to put a dagger in. Tried to open him up, gauge reactions. Nothing but probing.

"I've had time to prepare, and I've seen the evidence. Don't deny it, we both know you enjoy pain."

What evidence? Anything in his file? No. The hotel room had been bugged. That was the only logical explanation. Masochist. There were too many kinds of pain to answer that question conclusively. And it was just an insult, casual, and meant to humiliate.

"Now, I could use more force than you can withstand, and break through the physical threshold. But we both know that your mind is more fragile than your body, and that is where I will get you. I will break you in ways that you cannot defend against and will be unable to repair. I will kill the man that lives inside the flesh. You'll be walking and breathing dead. And you will never forget what I did to you."

His mind. Drugs? Fear? What was that method? Dan had focused on his body, breaking his ability to resist, and compromising his ability to survive and make it back to his unit. "Why?"

The interrogator smiled. "This is also about revenge for the damage you did, but the main reason is to get you to confess. Once you are ready, there will be the trial, and then we will execute you. You can choose to end your own suffering at any time. Just tell me you'll sign, and it will all end."

Treason. That was punishable by death. "I meant … why are you telling me this?"

"You are an intelligent man - well above average, as expected of course. I am only making sure you are aware of all your options." Pause. "This is not something the British spy had."

Vadim tensed, a betraying motion that came from somewhere inside his body, and reignited the pain, taking his breath for several long moments. Dan.

The man looked at him with all the emotion of a piranha. "To satisfy your curiosity, Daniel McFadyen died on the way to the British embassy. He was shot by a sniper. Headshot. Instantly dead. He didn't suffer. Unlike you."

Sniper. If they'd been able to pick him up from the hotel, they were perfectly capable to place another ambush. It was likely. Dan. Dead. Vadim's body filled with cold, heavy metal, sapping his strength. And he had felt fucking pity for himself while Dan was dead. His opportunities, his life, when Dan had been slaughtered. His heart raced and the nausea came back full force, rolling through him in waves.

I need to see his body.

He shook his head, remembered the agonizing wait after the car bomb, the despair and pain.

I need to see the body.

The interrogator was lying. He'd attempt to inflict pain. Attack his mind. Begin destroying him. And Dan was an obvious angle. If it hadn't been for the doubt that was creeping under his skin. It was likely. Possible.

The interrogator nodded to the men standing at the door. "Bring him to his cell." He took a few steps back, all the time meeting his gaze. "Remember, you can end it any time."

1989 - Kabul, 19th February

"Dan," the Baroness stood in front of Dan's chair . "What happened, the KGB took Major Krasnorada? Are you sure?"

He sat crouched and in pain, a mess, despite having been cleaned and bandaged up. Some of the injuries had to be stitched, others were held together with butterfly clips. The worst was the headache, his forehead bruised and the skin split, it made it hard to think, while all he could think of anyway was the sight of Vadim being bundled into the car.

"Aye, Ma'm, there is no other explanation. Vadim is spetsnaz, and he admitted to being part of the Interior Ministry. Who else would have kidnapped him? They were Soviets, their uniforms just like the troops that had been sent to kill me."

She pulled a chair closer before taking a pad of writing paper from the desk, together with her fountain pen. Sitting opposite to him, she leant forward. Clear eyes narrowed, fully concentrated on every word he said. "Tell me all that happened, Dan, from start, to finish. Tell me about last night and this morning, and tell me all you believe has been of importance since you met Major Krasnorada. The more I know the better will I be able to ascertain the situation." She nodded at him, but Dan glanced warily at her paper and pen, while holding his aching head. The painkillers hardly touched his sore body.

"Do not worry," she added, "all that you tell me now will remain between us. I give you my word that I will help you, as I promised before. I will help you as much as I can."

Dan thought he had never seen her face so determined and fierce. "No one is trying to kill one of mine, Dan, without me retaliating. Not even the KGB."

And despite the pain he was in, he sat and talked for hours, telling her everything, except for the one truth: how it all started. No one would ever know about a night in Kabul, nine years ago.


1989 - Moscow, 13th December, ten months later

Again, the door opened, and the fear came back. Startled like a wild animal, Vadim didn't resist as the guards took his arms, forced him against the wall, tied his hands back, and put the sackcloth over his head. It was so he wouldn't recognize any other prisoners, he assumed. Always the same. A year or two, or thereabouts, he didn't know. Keeping track of time was too difficult, it had felt like an eternity. Often, he was too exhausted to keep his calendar. Lately, he didn't remember to. Couldn't remember whether he had marked the day down already or not. Felt they screwed with the times when the light was on at the end of the corridor, with the rhythm of what were supposed to be his meals. No steady rhythm to his sleep, his awakening, no rhythm his body could remember or hold on to. Didn't know whether he woke up from something outside disturbing him, or from the usual five o' clock routine. Had no way of telling. It felt like there had never been anything else but this in his life.

They pushed him down the corridor, back into the room. Not a word was spoken. Nobody ever spoke a word. There were no signals from any neighbouring cells. He was alone in that hole, alone. Cold. The darkness and numbing silence only torn when they interrupted his sleep, when they emptied a bucket of water over him, to wake him and to increase the misery. He spent days tied down, chained up like a dog, for no other reason but to make life miserable and not allow a dulling of the discomfort. Sleep deprivation. Hunger. Cold. He knew the methods, but they still cut to the bone.

When they dragged him out for a beating - the cell was too small for more than two or three men, and hardly offered enough room to kick a prone figure - he was usually blinded as well. He found he hungered for a human face, a human voice.

But that was denied.

Vadim didn't resist, didn't fight, couldn't, it seemed he was standing beside himself, with only rudimentary control over that body. Things happened to him. He didn't care much - it was all cold, hunger, pain, fear, but even the fear was dulling into a nameless, leaden dread that felt completely impersonal. Those were not his emotions. And they were of no consequences.

They reached the room. Any room. Pushed him inside, somebody kicked him in the legs, and Vadim collapsed onto his knees, fell onto his side, and it took focus to try and get upright again. His sense of balance was fucked. They removed the sackcloth. The light was too bright. He wasn't used to light any more. It hurt his eyes. Nothing that didn't hurt.

He felt a hand touch his neck, and felt grateful for the touch, a moment of warmth, a moment of non-pain. Felt the warmth of another body close, and leaned forward, head resting against what had to be a leg.

"I think we're almost there", murmured the interrogator. The only human voice that he heard that was not a memory or his own voice. Vadim didn't quite believe it, but his memories and dreams were washed out these days, had lost all colour, all strength, didn't have anything left. Reality wasn't much better. The hole had taken all strength, all memories, and left nothing but the dread. He knew he'd been stripped of all that, but didn't actually know what 'it' was or signified, knew it had been important.

The hand was still there, a surreal touch. Vadim had no idea what it meant, only that he wanted it to stay. He knew this man had him brought here, and that he'd been hoping it would be this man and not the beating, and that he wanted the man to talk to him, whatever he said, whatever insult, whatever cruelty, this world had become so small that this man more than filled it out.

"I understand it was a long, hard way for you, my friend", murmured the man, the voice came closer as the man crouched in front of him, hand still there. Vadim carefully opened his eyes. The brightness of the lamp was partially blocked by the body. A small mercy.

Brown eyes looked into his, concerned, it seemed, and Vadim felt vague regret at that concern, but didn't know why. Studied the man's features, the clean shaven cheeks and chin, without taking anything in. He couldn't concentrate on any thought, couldn't make sense of anything, felt afloat and removed. Couldn't hold that gaze.

"I think you're easily ready to sign the confession now."

Vadim didn't understand. "What."

"Do you want to rest? You look tired, my friend. Tired and worn. All this can end, and you will never be cold, or hungry, or afraid."

That would be good, thought Vadim.

"You only have to sign this. Come, I'll help you." The man helped him up and steadied him, and helped him walk towards the desk. There was a thick file on it, and Vadim felt a distant echo of something good inside. His hands were freed, and he steadied himself against the desk, as the man gave him a pen.

"Just sign your full name."

Vadim took it, saw his hand with the pen shake so hard that the tip made small noises against the paper. He knew this was important, but he didn't understand what it had been important for. If this meant it all would stop, good. No more hole, no more pain. Sounded like bliss.

He tried to concentrate, his name was long, and he hadn't used it for a long time. Not important. He wasn't sure about the spelling.

"Vadim Petrovich … that's it. Krasnorada", said the man, and seemed pleased and friendly. "So much hard work. You'll soon be able to rest." The man took the pen from his hand and turned him around at the shoulder, again looking into his eyes. "You're almost there. Aren't you glad?"

Vadim nodded. "No more …" Faltering. Found words almost as difficult as thoughts. Wasn't sure what he'd said aloud and what he had thought, or whether there was, in fact, any difference.

"No. No more of any of this." The man smiled at him, kind, it seemed.

"Good. I'm very tired." It was easy to feel relief. He remembered to have missed something, books, people, voices, sleep, food, but it was all good now. He'd be able to rest, and that was the one remaining thing he still wanted. He looked into the man's eyes and felt a strange gratitude for enabling that, for taking care of him, for the touch.

The man shuffled the paper into the file and closed it neatly. "Take him to the new cell. He has to be presentable."

1990 - Dubai, 12th January

"Dan, I need to talk to you." Baroness de Vilde's voice and face were grave, and Dan felt a sucker punch to his guts at the seriousness of her tone.

He nodded, undoing the zipper of his light jacket. He'd finished the recce according to his maxim that no protection was as valuable as the recce beforehand. "Of course, Ma'm. Will you give me a few minutes?"

"Certainly," she nodded, "I shall see you in my private study."

Dan watched her leave, frozen to the spot. He knew; didn't want to know. The dread was settling into his bones as if flash-frozen. Forcing himself to finish undressing, before washing face and hands in the small bathroom adjacent to his room. He felt like throwing up as he stood over the sink, hands gripping the cool porcelain, unable to look into the mirror. That was it, then. It had to be.

One year, almost one year later. Eleven months, and they'd fought for Vadim's release, with the Baroness doing most of the work. Proposed exchange of political prisoners, covert offers of bribery - money, advantages, anything they could possibly offer, but it had either not been enough, or the hatred had run too deep. The KGB hadn't let go of Vadim, no matter what the Ambassador and her contacts had tried, and regardless of the crumbling might of the Soviet Union. The vast empire was pulling itself apart, torn into pieces by a force from within its own bowels.

Eleven months, and the Baroness had given him information about the Lubyanka, the treatment of prisoners by the Interior Ministry, to make him understand what was probably being done to Vadim and what psychological changes that would cause, but he'd found much of it too painful to read, unable to deal with the unknown and the helplessness, wishing nothing more than a chance to fight the grey men that kept their hold on Vadim. She never ceased to keep Dan updated of anything that was going on. Progress or not - and mostly the latter.

The Ambassador had been called away from Afghanistan during those months, to move to the United Arab Emirates, residing in the embassy in Dubai, taking Dan and all of her core staff with her.

He had been doing his job in the air conditioned rooms of embassies and offices, or outside in the heat. Clinging to his duties, pushing his fitness, while his mind was unable to cope with anything but the memory of Vadim. Even jerking off had become impossible, the oppressiveness of not-knowing too great, and the pain of hope unbearable - amongst the growing hopelessness.

Almost a year, and she had done all she could, using contacts, attempting negotiations, but in the end all efforts were reduced to the sick feeling in Dan's guts and the fear that this was it: the worst. The final. The end.

A few minutes later Dan was knocking at the door of the Baroness' study. A small affair, this room. Warm wood and polished brass, the complete opposite to the vast, cold magnificence of her public office.

She was looking at him for a moment, with that calm and unwavering gaze, once he had sat down in front of her desk. When she spoke, her voice was quiet. "I have received a fax from my contact in Moscow, it is the copy of an official document."

Dan stared at her face, not at the paper in her hands. He couldn't bear it. The cold fist in his stomach was twisting his guts because he knew deep down what the document said, had always known it. All she did now was verifying what he had refused to accept. Too late. He'd run out of time, reality was right there, in her hands.

She gently pushed the fax towards him, across her desk. "I believe you can read it. It is in Cyrillic."

Dan shook his head, refused to take the paper. "Please, no." Defeated, he had no choice. Putting up a façade of bravado? Not any more. "Do you know what it says?"

She nodded, folding her hands on top of the edge of the paper, which hung limply over the desk. "Yes, my contact supplied a summary in English."

"What does it say." The words tasted of death and ashes in Dan's mouth.

She inhaled, no more than a minor pause, before she inclined her head in a measured nod that told him she understood, and would take on the task. Placing the reading spectacles that hung on a gold chain around her neck onto the bridge of her nose, she pulled another piece of paper close and began to read.

"Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada has been sentenced to death for the crime of High Treason to the Soviet Union. He has signed the confession of having delivered sensitive information to a British subject and member of the British Special Forces, whilst in the employ and confidence of the Soviet Army. Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada will be executed at 0500 hrs on February 7th 1990."

She put one hand over the paper, palm down, and took the specs off her nose, looking at Dan. Her voice never wavered, but it was low and soft. "I am sorry, Dan."

"This is not true." Dan's own voice had lost all inflexion.

She leant forward, gently, as if talking to a disturbed child, without sounding patronising. "Dan, it is true. It is official. He will be executed."

"No." Dan shook his head, jumped out of the chair, which wobbled precariously. "It is not true that he was a traitor. The confession is a lie!" Pacing away from the desk, then back again, hands behind his back in fists, felt as if they were bound, wrists crossed. "He never told me anything, and neither did I. Never!" Spinning around to face her once more, agitated. "Do you understand, Ma'm? It is a lie, he never betrayed his country." Closer, until his thighs hit the edge of her desk and the fax went tumbling to the floor.

She didn't flinch, silently looking up and into his face, steadfast.

"Do you believe me, Ma'm? Do you believe that the confession is a lie?"

"Yes." She nodded once, calmly. "Yes, I do believe you, I have no doubt." Her voice was firm, the softness gone, yet the warmth still lingered. "A confession under torture is not permissible in court." She, too, stood up, hardly reaching the height of Dan's shoulders. "But, Dan, the Soviet Union is not Britain, and the KGB is not Scotland Yard. The Soviet state is a crumbling empire, torn and ravaged, unsure of itself and frightened to the core. A false confession extracted by the KGB is the least of its bothers."

"But they can't do this! What about your connections, the bribes, politics, diplomacy, promises from the West?" He was desperate, and he knew it. Knew, too, that it was hopeless and knew the answer before he heard it from her mouth.

"They can do it, Dan, and they will."

Pain clenched his heart in a vice grip, squeezing until blood rushed in his ears, drowning everything but the need to rage and scream, wreak havoc on what came into his hands, smell blood and taste destruction.

"No! It cannot be, they can't do this!" Shaking his head violently. "I cannot let go. If I did, Vadim would die twice. I can't let go, Ma'm. Not yet. Not as long as he is still alive." His eyes wild, fists slamming onto her desks, towering over her, but she never flinched. "I was taught to never leave a comrade behind!" Dan opened his mouth wide as if to scream obscenities, the only way to let out the anger and anguish, and … suddenly deflated. Nothing. No sound. Shoulders sagging, he lowered his gaze.

"I know." Dan's voice was once more ashen. The burning rage had died, flames suffocated by that pain for which he had no name. A vacuum inside of him, sucking him dry of all his strength and energy, expended throughout the last year, fighting for Vadim's survival.

"I know, Ma'm." Repeated, Dan stood, rejected.

She didn't say anything for a long time, until she stepped away from the desk and came to stand in front of Dan.

"If there is anything I can do for you," her cool, elegant hand found its way to his shoulder. Resting there for a moment, "anything at all, Dan, please tell me."

No, there was nothing, and he shook his head. Nothing at all anymore, it was over. Nothing he could do nor say, nor … his head came suddenly up, looking at her, unblinking.

"Yes, there is. Ma'm, there is one last thing I need to do." His face expressionless. "Can you get me the address of Vadim's ex-wife? I tried to verify the address he gave me, but she appears to have moved."

Her brows raised merely a fraction, but she did not query his request. "I will."

"Thank you, Ma'm." He turned, hands once more in fists behind his back, leaving the room.

1990 - Moscow, 9th January

"Do you understand what I am saying, Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada?"

He stood there, looked at the judge's face, knew the guards were there to punish him for any seeming disrespect. The interrogator was there, too, sat close, like an attorney, maybe to make sure he didn't make a mistake. Vadim looked at the man, who gave him one of those reassuring smiles. Vadim looked at the judge again. "Forgive me. I am …"

I'm not here. I'm beside myself. I have no idea what you are saying, but I'm trying so hard. His face twitched, and he looked straight ahead at the man. The judge. Show respect.

"You are …?"

"I am sorry, Sir."

The judge stabbed the paper with a long bony finger. "You signed this confession?"

"Yes, I did."

"So you did disgrace yourself with a British subject?"

British subject. A man. A silhouette in the darkness of a cave. Breath misting, joining.

"I repeat the question: "Did you or did you not disgrace yourself with a British subject?"

Vadim looked up again, felt his hands twitch, tension coming up from his chest as he stared wide-eyed at the man in front of him, suddenly saw the interrogator stand and lean towards him. "Vadim. Don't worry, you'll be safe. I know it's hard, but we have to get through this."

"Is there anything wrong with him, comrade Konstantinov?"

The interrogator shook his head. "Despite comrade Krasnorada's many failings, he's still Afghantsy. They often bring … certain conditions with them when they return."

"But he is fit to stand trial?"

"Certainly. It is a temporary, if recurring condition."

"Well then. Did you understand my question?"

"He's asking whether you disgraced yourself with Daniel Ewan McFadyen while serving in Afghanistan", said the interrogator to help him.

Daniel Ewan McFadyen. I didn't know he had a second name, Vadim thought, and felt his shoulders tense, his body shaken from something inside, something powerful, like an earthquake. Dark eyes. Huffed laughter. That man's body close to his, moving, holding him, reaching inside, opening him up and making him whole.

"I … I did not."

"What did you just say?" The judge leaned forward, there was an alarmed flutter of unrest in the court room. The interrogator looked at Vadim with all the intensity of some of their talks, suddenly awake and sharp.

"I did not disgrace myself with that man." Every word felt like it had to be pushed out.

"You're saying you didn't have … a physical relationship with that man?"

"I did."

"You are contradicting yourself", said the interrogator near his ear. "That is not appreciated."

Vadim looked at the judge. It didn't matter. The sentence was set, and there was no use fighting, but that lie, that couldn't remain in the room. "I did … have sex with that man. But it was not … a disgrace."

"Linguistics", huffed the judge, and went on with proceedings.

Dan McFadyen. He'd hated to be called Daniel. He'd tell all these men here to fuck off and leave them in peace. Vadim felt a small smile tug at the corner of his lips. I never had that brand of courage. I wish I had. I just have to get through this, and then it's over.

He answered "yes I did", whenever the judge looked at him. The confession was long, exhaustive. Rape, murder, collaboration, sabotage, weapons trafficking to rebels, conspiracy, whatever. High treason, yes, that, on top. Nothing touched him anymore. He couldn't focus, and it was of no importance. That one thing had been, but it just slipped away.

The sentence was as expected, and they brought him away, to the cell, not the hole. They didn't wake him from his sleep, and the beatings had stopped, too. There were voices on the corridor, but Vadim found it too hard to focus on any of the words. It wasn't about him.

1990 - Hungary, 27th January

Dan got out of the taxi, thankful for the small mercy that almost everyone seemed to speak at least some words of English. He could get along well in a few major European languages, fluently in Russian, even in Pushtu and Arabic, but he'd never learned Hungarian and sure as hell had no incentive to do so.

It was strange to see the country in sunshine, Dan felt the weather should have been dreary grey with blankets of dirty snow, but this January had turned out to be a freak month in Budapest. How apt. Still cold, though, growing rapidly colder now that the sun was setting. Both hands in his jeans pockets, he pulled his shoulders up to his ears, not used to winter anymore. After active service in Afghanistan he'd been working for the Baroness in a country that burnt with heat. Focussed on nothing but Vadim's survival, and now … this. It would be over. No more future, no more fight nor focus.

He looked at a piece of paper, checked the address before putting it back into his pocket, feeling the familiar smoothness of the lapis lazuli beads against his fingers, warmed by his body. Dan lifted his head with a deep breath into the crispy air and stepped into the magnificent building with its fading beauty, that served as the training complex. The entrance was deserted, whoever was meant to be manning the desk nowhere to be seen, thus he walked unhindered around the corner and found himself in front of a double door. One of them stood open, allowing the view into a large rectangular room with golden brown wooden floor, shining with polish, and several tall windows all along the wall, mirroring the inside against the falling darkness. Dan stepped inside, saw two slender white-clad figures with fencing masks work miracles of elegance and deadly skill into the air. One of them could only be her.

Another beep sound from the electric system, the green light lit up on the box at the floor they were both connected to, as Katya's epee impacted, and both fencers straightened and took a step back. Taking off the masks one-handed, they faced each other on the piste and both lowered their blades, masks tugged under the arm. Then shook hands with the bare hand. "Good one." Rubbing the inside of her elbow, where he had scored a point.

She disconnected the electric system and put the epee down. She was dying to get out of that heavy white jacket, damp with sweat. Pulled the glove off first and stuffed it into the mask, set both down on the bench and pulled the zipper down to her chest to take the cable off. She spied a movement near the entrance, Szandor noticed her glance and turned as well, wiping his face with a towel.

Dan stood near the entrance, tension residing in his stomach. He feared his request was asking too much, but he had to try it. Less than two weeks now. Ten days, and seven hours, to be precise. He could probably make out the minutes, if he checked his watch. When the mask came off the female, recognition hit him immediately. He'd seen the photo, the wife, the children. He'd been right, it was her. Hands still in his pockets, he crossed the room with measured steps.

To Katya, he looked like a tourist. "This is not open to the public", she said in English. "But I am sure you can see the 18th century stucco if you find the caretaker and pay for his tea."

Szandor looked at the tourist as he stepped closer, and she could just see that Szandor would give him the full guided tour just because of his looks. Dark handsome strangers with an interest in his hometown, and Szandor was in love. Like Szandor was in love at the drop of a hat. They had shared a fencing career, and they had shared Vadim. The basis for a life-long friendship.

Dan swallowed hard, then shook his head. "No, I'm sorry. I'm not here for the stucco." He glanced over at the man, wary. They were both carrying weapons, but he could take them down. No threat, not against a killer.

He took the right hand out of the pocket, but the left one remained. He'd found it best with civilians to hide the scarred hand for a while. Often the one in his face was too much, causing at least some morbid curiosity, but he didn't expect this one to bother. Acknowledging the man with a glance, he came closer, stopped in safe distance, looked at the woman again. Yes. No doubt. It was her.

His only chance.

"I believe I am looking for you. Katya …" didn't know what name she might have taken on now. Had she kept the old one or assumed another? "Krasnorada?" Even speaking the name out loud hurt. Hurt so deep inside, it made him shudder.

She kept looking at him, then a glance at her training partner. "Thanks for the play, Szandor." In English, cool enough to work as a bucket of ice water even after an excellent bout.

She waited till the Hungarian had left, and kept looking at the man. "Somehow I do not believe you are a reporter writing about the Olympics at Montreal, and you do not look like you want to take private lessons. Or do you?"

Not the way he favoured that leg, an imbalance or an old injury.

Dan shook his head at her question. "You are correct and I am neither." No, woman, I am the man who came here to beg. "I came here …" faltered, took another breath, wondered if that horror inside would quieten eventually, "I came here to ask you a favour."

He felt the lapis lazuli beads against the fingers of his left hand, while the other brushed a strand of hair out of his face. "I am Dan McFadyen." He missed his knife, cursed airport security and lack of diplomatic baggage. Its comforting presence no longer near his wrist. Bare. Naked to a truth and its consequences. "I am your ex-husband's lover."

She took a step back, as fluid as was to be expected. Only sign of shock was the way the blood left her flushed face in an instant.

"You are the one they caught him with?" They had said it was an enemy. That name sounded American, or English. "The trap they set for him?"

Eyes narrowed. She reached for the epee again, which, even blunt, was still a piece of steel. People had died when it slipped past the mask and went through the throat.

Dan watched her reaction, the expression of shock, the narrowing of eyes, the signs of anger. And more. She had no chance, but he could see she would try. Formidably so.

She-wolf. Lioness.

"Aye." His arm hung loose at his side, the other had never left the pocket. "I am that man." What else to say? To beg, already? He would.

She stared at him, face pale with anger, eyes dark blue, blond hair tied back still for the fencing. "You can be proud then, to have destroyed a man I thought was indestructible." Teeth bared, another step back. "You found the one weakness that he had, and cut his throat with it. Good work. And tell the CIA or whoever you are working for, that I am disgusted by the way you did this."

Dan flinched visibly. Her words more deadly than the epee could have been. Felt like a dog, crouching in the dirt, head down, tail between the legs, enduring the kicking and beating. "I understand," he did, hated her for it, "but you don't. No CIA, no MI5, no ulterior motive."

Cut his throat. Destroyed. Disgusted. Would Vadim hate him?

"I have known Vadim since 1980." Dan realised it would make no difference, except for making it worse, but the truth was not a whore and could not be bought.

"My ex-husband was deployed in Afghanistan in that year." As if that alone made it impossible. "I cannot see in what other capacity you could have met. He did possess sensitive operational information. You imply it was a personal matter, which is highly unlikely. Do you follow me?"

Nothing but the truth, and how he wished that truth would prostitute itself: elusive, brutal, beloved and hated. "I was his enemy and he was mine, aye." His gaze dropped once to her hand on the hilt, then back to her eyes, unwavering. "There was hatred, but it changed. I'd tell you I was sorry if I were, but I'm not. Not for anything throughout the last ten years."

She shook her head, pressed her lips together, and refused to say anymore. A hint of pain showing. Then, voice cold: "He had a brilliant career in front of him. Granted, now that it all changed and was squandered away … He could be a powerful man now, and you exposed him to the world. I don't believe for a moment he committed treason, but they do, and they will kill him for it, just as a signal." A deep, calm breath. "I know he had his 'bitches' in the army. I am not stupid, and women talk."

Every word a slap, each sentence a knife cutting deeper than his own blade had ever cut Vadim. Then the last word. That … misunderstanding. Not of who was who and who did what but of what they had. "Bitch? You think I am his bitch?" Not 'was', no, not yet. Refusing to accept the inevitable before it was time in ten days and … six hours.

She took another half-step away and was within fencing distance. "I don't believe for a moment you were anything else. Anybody else would not have destroyed him like you did."

Dan looked at her, square on, did not flinch. He could kill her, right now. Epee or not, but he only shook his head. "It doesn't matter what you think. Whatever." He didn't believe she could hurt him any more than this. "Will you do me a favour? He does not know if I am alive. They had KGB killers … spetsnaz set on me." Why would she care. Why indeed.

Her gaze did not change. "What kind of favour?" Jaw muscles tightened.

"To get a secret message to him. Via his father." Asking, too much, but he had to ask. His jaws worked while he stalled, touching the beads in his pocket. Fierce pride of survival. "To let him know before he dies that I nailed the fuckers. To tell him that I love him." Would she understand the importance? And what good would the message do?

Love. Death. He should have owned Vadim's death; should have slit with a blade or pulled the trigger back in Kabul.

She blinked, opened her lips to say something, then, frowning, moved to the side, leaving the piste, the epee still in her hand. As if to mull over what he had said.

"You believe I am still in touch with Pyotr? After his son has broken my arm?" She looked up, pulling the zipper of the jacket fully down, fiddled around with the d-strap that held the jacket, and pulled it off, revealing a white plastic chest protector on top of a white t-shirt. Took off the plastron that only protected her left shoulder and side, then the protector and wrapped everything into a thick roll.

"Aye. I do believe that you are." Dan stood still but his eyes followed her every movement. "After all, you got out of Russia just in time." His gaze had gained an edge, but his voice remained the same.

"'Just in time'. That is one way of putting it." She slipped into a light sweater. "Pyotr is heartbroken. His only son. The mother is dead. And Vadim … convicted of these things. I imagine the KGB talked to him as well. Can you imagine what that means to an old man? Do you have a family, Mr McFadyen? Can you even for a moment imagine what you did to us?"

Dan's brows rose. Attack, fire, near-defeat, not even a counter attack. "What I did? Do you believe that Vadim fell victim to me?" But then she thinks you are his 'bitch'.

Too resigned to fight the notion, but the mere thought that what he felt - this motherfucking love that would not stop - was nothing but a 'butch' and his 'bitch', that thought was cutting deeper with every minute.

"In a manner of speaking." She pulled the sweater down, reached for loose dark training trousers and pulled them over the white shoes, sock and britches she still wore. "Intentions are one thing, the outcome something else entirely." She glanced up. "But maybe you want to tell me about your intentions?" She stuffed the kit and weapon into a long bag and zipped it up.

His intentions. Dan looked at his hand, the right one. If only he knew. To tell Vadim, to try and let him know, to … hurt him in the process? To make waiting for death even more painful? He shook his head, said nothing.

"Or maybe tell me about Vadim in Afghanistan. He didn't speak about it. He said he didn't want to scare me." A smile, measured. "I am not easily scared."

"You want to know what Vadim was like in Afghanistan? What he did?" Dan looked up, studying her. What an insane notion. What was he going to tell her? 'I met your ex-husband that night he raped me. I wasn't impressed.' Or, 'I saw him splatter children's brains over the dead bodies of their mothers, he is a good sniper.' Or perhaps, 'he begged for a soldier's death after I tortured him and he broke down, sobbing. He begged, because of you, his wife, you and your children. His family.'

Or, perhaps, about the man he then became? The man who had cried at his hospital bed and with whom he had almost shared a life like lovers?

"No," Dan shook his head once more, eyes narrowed for a moment. What a fucked-up situation. Perhaps he had been wrong all along, perhaps he should just fuck off and never return and forget about the whole thing. Perhaps it was an insane wish to tell Vadim he was alive and he loved him; had fought for him, would forever fight, if only he could. "If he did not tell you about the war himself, then I would betray him if I told you." He stood his ground, yet he would beg. Beg like Vadim had, ten years ago.

"Your intentions, then?"

"My intentions? For him to know before he dies that I love him, always will, and that I am alive and will continue to fight for him as long as there is anything to fight for. I would do anything," Dan's dark eyes became more intense, "anything at all for him."

For he is all I have. My home, my life, my sanity. Without him, I merely function, kept in check by a dangerous job and a woman's authority. Duties. Nothing beyond duties. No life, just existing, but you wouldn't understand how empty I am inside.

Her eyes grew speculative, thoughtful, and she remained silent for long moments. "I would much prefer to continue this conversation somewhere else. Besides, I need a shower."

Dan nodded. What else? He'd follow her like a dog on a leash, hoping for a scrap of mercy.

They left the training room and she led him outside, crossed the old-fashioned courtyard, and headed up narrow stairs. This part of the building was currently under repair, everything covered with thick plastic foil to prevent snow or rain from creeping in. She stepped into a corridor that smelt of paint, and opened a door.

Dan followed, walking behind her in silence, both hands in his pockets. Beggars couldn't be choosers, he'd follow her anywhere as long as he had a reason to hope she might accept his plea.

The entrance was painted white, narrow, too many shoes, fencing shoes for teenagers in a pile. She picked up a small bunch of letters, then lowered her bag as if this was much more important, looked at him and proceeded into a small living room that had a view on the other side of the court, where she fenced.

"Do you have tea or coffee?" She went into the kitchen to stuff the fencing gear into the washing machine, added detergent, and started a programme.

"Coffee." He was looking around, took in the shoes. Vadim's children. Strange, so difficult to imagine that woman and his lover. Still standing, she hadn't asked him to sit and he felt unwanted, unwelcome and uncomfortable in her home.

She went through the motions to take the coffee machine from a cupboard, wiped it down quickly, added coffee powder from a glass jug, water from the tap, switched the button, then looked at him again, quizzically. "Please, have a seat." Either remembering her manners, or hospitality. "I need that shower." She headed off down the corridor, in an afterthought took the letters with her. Locked the door and a few moments later, the sound of water.

Dan sat down at the table, awkward, tense. Wondered what in the flat spoke of Vadim, if anything at all. Needed a cigarette badly, craving the nicotine just to function, but he couldn't bear asking her for permission to smoke. He looked around the kitchen without touching anything, listening to the gurgle of the coffee machine and the ticking of the clock. Every tick, every movement of the hand, every second was bringing Vadim closer to the end. He hadn't known that pain could be so intense, and it was growing by the day.

When she returned he sat in exactly the same way as before. Stiff, upright, back straight.

She came out when the coffee machine was gurgling steam, face reddened, hair pulled up and fastened with a metal comb. She didn't meet his gaze when she stepped into the kitchen, instead headed straight for the coffee machine again. "Milk? Sugar?" Her voice seemed much more husky now, and she was distracted, the sharp focus had been drained.

"Sugar," Dan looked up, watched her, studied every motion, "three spoonfuls, if possible."

She looked like she might have cried in the privacy of the shower. She put the hands on the work surface, straightened her arms, head lowered. "I could make you pay for this." Her voice still vibrating with something. Her lips pressed together for a long moment. "I guess I will."

Make you pay for this. Her words hit his core. What had he expected? To smile and ask and be met with understanding or, at the worst, to beg on his knees? Pay. He would. However much she wanted. Money? "I don't understand."

"I failed to get pregnant. My clock is ticking, but I want another child. The last one." She took two mugs with one hand, the ceramic clicking together as her hand shook. She pressed her teeth shut and set the mugs down hard. Needed a minute as if trying to remember where the sugar was. Stared into the open cupboard for a long moment. "The letter from my gynaecologist. The insemination failed. I am not pregnant." She found the sugar in another glass jar, unscrewed the lid, measured three spoons, forcing herself back to precision as she poured the coffee into one mug, stirred for him and set the mug down in front of him, now looking into his face. "That is the only thing I want. A child."

Dan automatically reached for the mug, didn't see it, just stared at her, tried to make sense, failed. Nothing made sense, nothing except the time moving - unstoppable - towards the end.

"What does that have to do with me?" He looked at her straight on, face mere inches away.

Her own face was nearly without expression, maybe a hint of anger. "You are a man. I believe children happen when a sperm fuses with an egg." She stayed exactly there, did not move closer, did not pull away. "You seem healthy enough, and being a homosexual does not make you infertile." Her eyes held a challenge, and now she moved away, like a fencer having scored a point. "Szandor is a friend, but he is out of the question."

The penny dropped slowly for Dan, far too slowly. "You can't be serious." Impossible to believe, he must have misheard her. His scarred hand curled around the mug. "You can't … you can't want that."

She gently shook her head, then sighed. "You think." She moved back to the coffee machine, her precision back, face thoughtful. "Vadim is Anoushka's father. I don't think he ever wanted to, not truly. I think he was trying to fool himself, but Vadim isn't easily fooled. And I am even less likely to be fooled. I saw him with Szandor, one night, and I knew then what he was. But at the same time, I was trying to end my career with a flash, not a whimper."

She took the mug with both hands and raised it. "He needed all the protection he could get in his position. If I had been around, they wouldn't have caught him. He must have grown careless."

"Not careless," Dan muttered, they hadn't been, but how could he be so sure. "Just …" Just what. What, Dan? India, the hospital, the safe house and then the hotel. The KGB could have had an easy game. That last night. He couldn't bear remembering. Too painful.

Dan's hands twitched, the coffee disturbed in the mug. "Vadim has two children. He showed me a picture." Of you, a girl and a boy. I remember, the baths, the lapis lazuli, the water, the touches and the smiles. The sex, always that, lust, but more than that. Much more.

"Yes. But Nikolai looks a lot like the man we shared for a while. A pilot that was shot down in Afghanistan before I could leave Vadim for him. I was naïve." She shook her head. "We were partners in crime, Vadim and I."

Dan's mouth opened, shut again. Vadim not the boy's father? Partners in crime? They shared a pilot? "Fuck, you're fucking sick." Murmured, too quiet for her to have heard all of his words. Was there anything she wouldn't do? Not that … that thing she had talked about before. Impossible.

He raised his hand to wipe across his face, coffee forgotten. She resented him, he'd expected that. She accused him, and he hadn't counted on how much that hurt.

"Will you do it? Will you talk to his father?" He looked up once more, straight into her eyes. He was selfish, and he knew it.

"Yes. I will break Pyotr's heart." She looked at him.

"What do you want from me in return." Dan understood at last, no matter how impossible it was. "How do you want me to pay." Cold. Business. Like the coffee cooling in his mug, untouched. One thing he thought he needed to know, 'did you ever love Vadim?' but what did it matter. The question remained buried in silence.

She shrugged. "I understand you will not find a female body particularly worthy of attention." A thin smile. "I share nothing with Vadim, after all. I don't flatter myself on being able to make somebody like you react. I think that would embarrass us both, on top of the awkwardness."

Dan's hand around the mug tensed, scars and tendons creating freakish patterns. "Spell it out." Refused to put the two things together. "Spell out what the fuck you want!"

No. Just no, it was impossible, even though he understood perfectly well. What difference would this be, to a night, ten years ago in Kabul. "What price do you want me to pay. Say it."

Her brow darkened. "You understood me. I know what you want, and you know what I want and I need it now, it is the perfect time for conception, I cannot wait. Can you function with a woman or not?"

"You want me to be your whore." No question, a statement. "Your fucking bargain, deal, blackmail or what the fuck ever, is to fuck yourself on your ex-husband's lover to add to your collection of soldiers' kids." He had to put the impossible into words. Fucking Krasnoradas and their aptitude for 'Nothing'.

His hand tensed so hard, the mug spun out of his grip, spilling across the table. "You fucking bitch!"

She crossed the distance as swiftly as she'd ever been and backhanded him, seething with rage. "Don't you dare! It was you who ruined him. Don't you forget that." Her eyes ablaze. "My children are none of your business. At least I gave Vadim more than death."

His face stung, first reaction to defend, attack and kill. He shook, brimming with rage, fists clenched, fighting his own instincts. A killer, not allowed to kill. Those words, more painful than the rape, but perhaps it was the price he had to pay for the torture.

An eye for an eye. A life for guilt and pain for loss.

"Seems you are trying to make your children my business." He jumped off the chair, stood, shoved his hand into the pocket, fingers gripping the beads in anguish. Couldn't do it, couldn't bear it. Was that what ten years had been reduced to? Destruction, death and fucked-up, painful, sickening love.

She looked at him, unafraid. He was strong enough to break her, angry enough to do it, but maybe being the wife of a spetsnaz officer had prepared her for it.

"One more thing: Are you healthy?"

"What?" Dark eyes glaring, he couldn't find the words. Nothing but mockery, anger, impotent rage. "If you mean if I've got the fucking 'faggot disease' no I haven't got it!"

"Good. That means we have a deal."

Couldn't do it. Had to do it.


"I fucking hate you." His hand came back out of his pocket, clumsy with anger, and the string of prayer beads cluttered to the floor, scattering across the kitchen.

The faint clatter distracted her, and she looked at the beads. Lips opened in clear surprise and there was realisation in her eyes. He had spoken the truth. The same beads, probably the same stall on a market in Kabul. Her gaze flickered to the drawer that held hers, in the living room. Back to the man, a question in her eyes, some of the harshness drained. He had destroyed Vadim, but there had been a day when Vadim had given him those. Vadim who didn't think much of such tokens.

Dan balked at her reaction, fuck, the beads. Watched her eyes, followed her gaze. Fuck the bitch. Too late, the words she'd said would never leave him. He turned his head when she moved past him to the bedroom, didn't follow at first. Walked over to the beads instead, carefully picked them up, stashed them in his inner jacket pocket this time. Couldn't bear to have anything of Vadim's anywhere near this … thing. Crime scene. That's what it felt like.

The heavy curtains were drawn, the bed a large, low futon, black sheets and covers, the room held very little else, two matching nightstands, an alarm clock, a bookshelf. She had dropped the bathrobe, her body lean and muscular, toned, not exactly boyish, soft and rounded in the right places, but hiding her strength underneath. She stood at the foot of the bed, facing him, naked, only her hair done up.

Dan left the jacket draped over a chair in the kitchen, followed her, forced to accept the deal. He hated her more that moment than he had ever hated Vadim. Ten years ago his body had been raped. Today it was his mind.

"I want you to give me your word. I don't know if I am even fertile, impossible to guarantee success. Give me your word that this is my part of the bargain and that it completes the deal. In return you will talk to Vadim's father and you will find a way to deliver a message from me." He took his jumper off, dumped it on the floor, unbuttoned his shirt. Eyes narrowed.

"I will ask you for a sample tomorrow", she said. "That increases the chances. But yes, that's it. All the fine print." She watched him undress, assessing the chest, remaining just as calm as she'd been most of the time. "I will deliver the message, tomorrow."

Dan pushed the shirt off his shoulders, let it drop on top of the jumper. Revealing a scar that was round, neat, precise, perfectly on top of the left shoulder, and the 'V', cut into clear lines of scars on his left biceps. Scarred face and hand had already been visible, but not the line of dead ragged flesh that peeked on top of the waistband of his jeans. "A sample. Where. Your surgery?"

No sign of any emotion on his face, yet inside raged hatred, pure, cold, and focussed. He had to function. Refusing to assess right now how much this was hurting him, how much terror this truly was. This. This thing. He had come to beg for mercy, was being used in return. What had he expected? Dan, you fool.

"What if you are successful."

She made room for him, stepped to the side, keeping her eyes unfocused for a moment. "If this works, you will have no obligations, just like any donor. You will forget about this, and I will not demand anything more. On your side, you will have no rights. You will not make contact and if you do, I have ways to make you pay and claim you forced me."

"Forget it?" You fucking bitch. Callous, cold, and just like Vadim had been, all those years ago. The man you had been married to. Brains splattered on mothers - using a desperate man as a tool. Fuck you. Fuck you to hell and back, and may you rot in all eternity. "Keep your threats. If you are successful I will not have anything to do with anything that is yours. Ever. You understand me? I will never see you again. For your own safety."

Not a muscle moved in his face while he undid the belt and buttons. Dan bent down to loosen the laces of his boots, stepped out of them and left them beside the growing pile. The trousers pushed down, then kicked on top. Stood naked, commando as usual, the ugly mess of scars across his abdomen in stark contrast to his dark skin. All over his body the signs of injuries. On arms, wrist, thighs, back, chest. Some faint, all worn. A body used up by a life on the line.

"I understand." She nodded curtly, accepting the rules, like the decision of a referee.

"I won't touch you." He walked over to the bed.

Ironic. The last woman he'd fucked was a pink-clad big-breasted giggling bimbo in London.

"You don't have to." All she needed was a physiological reaction. She did look at that body, though, maybe remembering the scars Vadim had carried when he came back to Moscow to heal up. Maybe wondered about Dan and Vadim together. How the dark skin matched Vadim's near permanent sunburn. She shook her head, and went to the bathroom, to prepare with Vaseline. Gave him time to prepare as well. As businesslike as in a brothel.

Dan didn't look at her when she left, wouldn't look at anything at all. Lay down on the futon, on his back. No way he could close his eyes, his life had taught him that blindness equated to vulnerability, and he stared at the ceiling, open-eyed. He didn't want to sully his memories of Vadim, but couldn't get a reaction. Shit. This was business, a deal he should be easily able to fulfil. Had had women before, dozens of them, had fucked himself through the first thirty-one years of his life.

Took his cock in a violent, painful grip, self-punishing and so full of fucking hatred for that bitch, he wanted nothing but kill. Kill. That was it. Death, destruction, memories of skin, cut; face, beaten; body, kicked. Caves and mountains, skies and fires. Dirty hovels in Kabul, a fuck close to a patrol. Violence and aggression, sweat and blood, blades and boots, fists and teeth. None of the other images. No love, no laughter, no tenderness and no kissing.

Dan was stroking himself, images racing before the inner canvas of his blindly staring eyes. Getting hard, as was required.

She returned, slid onto the bed, a lithe form, moving on top of him, supporting her weight with legs that were all sleek rounded muscle, knees open, not even touching his sides. She seemed almost thoughtful as she took his cock into her hand, pumped it just to slick it up as well, deciding to go right for the target, no more discussion, no tenderness, hardly acknowledging the other in her bed. It was not required. Lowering herself, legs strong enough for complete control, eyes cast down as her body accepted him, jaw muscles tensing again, focus, concentration, pure brazenness to follow through with this. Tight, obviously trained, powerful in this position, then moving, curving her back and pushing against him, slow, intense, moving into a practised rhythm with every motion firmly in control.

He hated her. Fucking hated every fibre of her. Wanted to kill her again when she took his cock out of his own hand, as if it belonged to her. Her tool. Dan never acknowledged that body on top of his, stared at the ceiling, grabbed handfuls of cotton sheeting, clenching the fabric in his fists. Jaw square, body tense. Used. Again. Had to stay hard, had to come.

Mountains. Heat. Blade cutting smooth flesh, forming words across a back. Cunt. My cunt. My fucking cunt.

Like himself. Her cunt.

She moved, hands on her thighs, not touching him either, a business transaction. Breath firmly controlled even as her body began to gleam with sweat, just like a workout, nothing to it, no moans, no sighs, no gasped words. Accepting the burden of having to do all the work, not making it easier, not making it more difficult, merely going through the mechanics of sex. Cynical enough to do it, use a body like any other tool, holding him tight, giving him what friction she could. Her own control never shaken, she wouldn't come, it was not required, merely a somewhat pleasant feeling and mostly hard work.

For Dan, it was required. Had to climax or their bargain would be void. He tried. Stared blind-eyed, focussed on his inner vision, but it was wrong, all of it, even the physical sensations. Not enough friction, no violence, wrong kind of aggression, no feelings, just hatred. "Shit." Pressed out between his teeth, he couldn't, couldn't come. "I need …" What, Vadim? "More."

Her eyes opened, gazing into his face, her own flushed from the work. She seemed a touch surprised, possibly had been just too confident in herself and how she thought things worked. Vadim hadn't given her this kind of trouble, and the fact Dan's body didn't play by the rules threw her off balance. "How?" she whispered, as if speaking could do even more harm now.

"I got to do the fucking." And the make-believe. The aggression that would topple him over the edge. His face distorted by anger, eyes harbouring hatred. "Mustn't see you. Just fuck a hole. I'll come."

Her face reddened and she was perfectly still, blood draining from her features, red spots remaining on her cheeks. Incredulous, clearly shocked at the thought, eyes showing insecurity now, a flicker of resistance, even fear.

His fists twisted into the sheets, knuckles white, strained to the breaking point but he could not break. "Kneel."

A hair's breadth away from calling it all off, her lips close to speaking, let's forget about it, sorry, no way, haha, how embarrassing. Kneel like an animal. She left his body, jaw tense again, eyes the colour of blue glass. Pride, resistance, even revulsion. It had taken much to get that far.

But she knelt, body tense with inner struggle. Wouldn't speak, wouldn't call this sick joke off. Had gone too far, and would not admit defeat.

Dan turned, knelt behind her, paid no attention to her resistance nor facial expression. Didn't care about her thoughts. They had a deal, he'd fulfil it. No matter how.

He fucked her, just like that. It was brutal, but not personal. He was goddamned strong, just like Vadim, but unlike the other, nothing held him back. Not with this woman. Fucked a hole and a body, with the aggression of hatred and the violence of abuse. His own. Not hers. Even though it was her body that was being penetrated.

Didn't touch her except for his hands digging into her hips, holding her steady for his thrusts. Didn't look at her, except for a blurred gaze of her back. Stared right through her, remembered lines of scars across and down a broad back, a word that had changed its meaning. Didn't try not to hurt her, didn't give a shit. Fucked her body with mechanical precision. Silent, except for sharp breaths. He was quick, wouldn't draw it out, no pleasure for either of them. Pain and terror, horror and death.

The climax was sudden, without warning. It crashed upon him, as unfeeling as everything that had come before. Pressing out between panted breath and gritted teeth, while he sacrificed his sperm into her body. "Fucking … bitch!"

He'd done what she wanted. Hands shaking, barely able to control the temper. Her whore. She'd used him and his despair. He fucking hated her and would for the rest of his life. Hoped she'd never get pregnant, no spawn of the devil's child.

She moved away as soon as it was over, visibly shaken, her hips bruised, reddening, her strength had resisted him, but she was no match, and she had felt that, given up more than she had wanted, still able and willing to accept the consequences. Knew more about him and Vadim now than she had wanted.

From the bed, she reached for the bathrobe and slipped into it while getting up, legs shaking from just staying upright while Dan rolled over the moment he was done, staring at the ceiling.

She turned around to put her hair back together and to not look at him, doubtlessly still feeling it. "You …" Voice shaky. "Can sleep in that bed. The covers are … fresh." A gesture to the bed. She'd sleep in Anoushka's room, on the guest bed she used when the children were ill.

Sprawled across the futon, Dan looked at her, straight on. No expression in his face, no emotion. "I need a shower. Towel." Must wash off your scent, bitch.

"I'll put some on the basket near the shower." She moved further away, finding it hard to find her strength back. Play the host so things could be anything less but violence and fear. "Do you want to eat? I can fix something quick." Spooked, yes, and she clearly felt how odd conversation was.

Vadim at least hadn't made conversation that night in Kabul.

"No. I don't want anything from you." Dan rolled off the bed, stood with surprising ease for a man with a surgery scar across one knee. "I need a hotel. Will be back in the morning for your sample." He walked over to the pile of his clothes. "I leave the text of the message. He'll understand." He will, unlike you. Fucking bitch.

"I will call you a taxi." Relieved to see him go, even if she couldn't admit it. "And call the hotel." She went to the living room, picked up the phone and spoke Hungarian for a little. Booking him a room in a four star hotel in inner Budapest, with a view onto the river, breakfast included, and dinner, of course. Glad to see him go, understood she didn't understand; understood something had happened that she had no words for. Good to see him go. She and her children. Nobody else counted at the moment.

He watched her leave the room before looking for bathroom and promised towel. Couldn't bear to get back into his clothes unwashed, sticky with her, smelling of her, any memory of her unbearable. It took him precisely three minutes to wash her scent off his hair and body, still damp when he emerged and she announced the taxi would be there any minute. He nodded, no words spoken, just went back into the bedroom that still smelled of sweat and sex, to get into his clothes, and he hated her even more. Sex, he'd never have sex with Vadim again, nor feel the lust that was so much more than mere fucking.

He hurt, but at least it couldn't get any worse anymore, she'd hammered the dagger home, she'd finished him off. A dog on the ground, kicked and beaten. Dan huffed while dressing. He'd never thought he could get that low.

Fully clothed, boots laced, he came back into the kitchen to take his jacket, looking for the sheet of paper. "Here." Put it down onto the table. "It's typed. It's a 'fable'. Make sure it is told exactly in this way."

She nodded, taking the sheet of paper, pulling it closer, not reading it now, later. She doubted she could read anything right now. "I promise. I will call Pyotr as soon as he is home." Keeping her gaze at the table in front of her, not looking anywhere else. Thought, maybe, of the lapis in the drawer. Maybe of her daughter.

Dan nodded. He'd fulfilled the worst of his part of the bargain. It was done. Tomorrow morning was a universe away. "I wait downstairs." Said nothing else, turned and left the flat, the jacket over his shoulders.

He was empty. Used up. Had almost forgotten his purpose.

Lapushka. Fucking Kittenpaw.

* * *

0700 hrs the next morning, a taxi pulled up at the same house. The man who stepped out of it was dressed almost the same as the day before. Dan glanced up at the building, then pushed the main door open, remembered it hadn't been locked. Taking the stairs, one after the other, a steady pace despite the burning wish to turn back and leave and never see the bitch again. He had to do it, had to fulfil the last part of the bargain.

Done and over with, just like Vadim's life.

Left hand in the jeans pocket again, he rang the door bell, waited. Listened for sounds inside.

When the door opened, Dan was faced with a girl. Blonde, hair long, pulled into an overly complicated braid, hair reaching well past her shoulders. She had Vadim's eyes, his lips, more delicate, with lipgloss, and nose, never broken, would never be broken, never reconstructed. The girl was pretty, and probably knowing it, still experimenting with the eye shadow, grey and blue mixed that was somewhere between debutante and a bruise. Shirt open to where her breasts started, the shirt tight enough to show the beginning curve. She was already tall. She measured him with a somewhat disinterested glance she must have had a lot of practice with, as it looked nearly natural.

Dan almost jumped backwards, managed to have himself under control with one sharp intake of breath. Fuck. Not that. A mirror, just younger, so much younger, and female. Vadim. Fuck. Fuck! How was he supposed to pull through with the last task of his fucking part of a motherfucking deal? He'd been raw inside for longer than he could remember, and the last day had torn him up. Like the shrapnel, his guts spilled across a landscape of red dust. And now … that girl was a grenade exploding in his face.

"Mom, he's here", she called over her shoulder. "She's in the bath. Come on in."

Dan stepped inside, he was expected? What the hell had the fucking bitch told this kid.

She turned and headed back into the kitchen, where she sat down in front of a bowl of muesli. Fresh fruit, yogurt, oat flakes. Breakfast of champions. She was reading something, a sheet of paper that had been folded up. The fable.

Her brow darkened, and she looked up. "And? How does the story end? This is yours, isn't it?"

Dan frowned, eyes narrowing. First instinct to tear the paper out of her hand, but what did it matter. Vadim. His daughter. The whole fucked-up family and he himself the greatest mess of them all. "The mountain lion dies. End of story."

She put the paper down and folded it, displeased. "Then why is that ending not there? That's not a proper story. Stories have beginning, and middles, and ends." Looking at him, nearly accusingly.

"The ending hasn't happened yet." He glanced at the door, wanting to get this done and over with. Out. Out! Had to get out of this fucking place.

She glanced towards the corridor, a conspirator's movement, only so very obvious. "Are you a friend of …" Hesitation, and a whisper. "Dad?" as if the word was not welcome, not allowed. "He taught me English, you know. He said I can never know who I will meet and who doesn't speak my language."

How could she be so cool and unconcerned. Her father was dying.

"Aye. I know your dad." I know. I know. "Why?" Where the fuck was the bitch with the sample vial.

She kept one eye on the corridor, listening to the sound of the bathroom door, eyes then flicked to him. "Because you're not like the usual friends of my mom." Another quick glance. "Dad should be here, but she said it's easier if I remember the good times." She pulled a face towards the corridor. "And be good at school." Another, darker, more poisonous look, the exact same resentment her father could show when unguarded, when the mask slipped and he showed his feelings.

Dan shrugged. Too close, too similar, too unbearable the resemblance. "I don't fucking care." Spilled out, unguarded. Truth. He had no strength left to give a damn. "Guess that's what kids do. Go to school and shit like that." He, too, glanced at the bathroom door. Where the fuck was that bitch. "Treasure the good times. You never know when you or the other one fucks up and dies."

She frowned. Maybe those language lessons hadn't involved profanity.

There was a sound from the end of the corridor, and Anoushka quickly pushed the folded sheet back into its original position, exactly where Dan had left it the evening before. Busied herself with the yogurt, cutting up banana pieces.

When Katya emerged, she remained in the doorway. Seemed to consider whether to explain who the stranger was, or the daughter, or leave it, and decided against it. "Go downstairs, darling, Szandor will take you to school." In Russian.

Again that dark resentment, sullen hostility like only a teenager could feel it. "I'm eating, Mom."

"I can see that. You go downstairs."

Anoushka stared at her. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day."

"You are not an Olympian, and you will do as I say." Katya's voice cool, entirely unimpressed at her daughter's bad five minutes. "Off you go, now."

Dan watched the exchange in silence. Fucking dysfunctional 'family'. Fitted the father and his lover. Everyone else as fucked up as them. What about the son? Not Vadim's. A collection of kids of killers, soldiers. Whatever.

Anoushka's knuckles became pointy around the spoon, and she tensed, but then she gave a sickeningly sweet smile at her mother. "Yes sir." In Russian, and she got up, a smiling and pretty girl. "Of course. How stupid of me." She smiled at Dan. "Nice meeting you." And with something that was her idea of a curtsey, she left. No smashing doors.

"Bye." Dan nodded at the girl, tense, then turned to look at the woman when the kid had left. "Have you spoken to Vadim's father?"

She moved into the room, cleared away bowl and spoon and banana peel. "I will speak to him today, for longer, and explain what I want him to do. The families can visit if they queue up for long enough, and they can bring food with them. Half of that is taken by the guards, but I'm sure Pyotr can make it there. I am only concerned because he's in the Lubyanka. That's the old KGB prison in Moscow. It's not … known for humane treatment."

"I know." Dan hid his shaking hands his jeans pockets. "I read about it." Maggie and her attempts to help him understand. Maggie and her relentless work. Maggie and the final defeat. No bribery, no power, nothing had succeeded.

He turned his head, found the kitchen window, stared out of it. It would be another sunny day. The sky began to lighten as dawn was approaching. He didn't want to talk, just get it over with. "Solitary confinement. Beatings. Sleep deprivation." Eyes never away from the window.

She leaned against the sink, arms crossed. Shaking her head as she thought what to say. "Yes, that's what they do. They know what he did, but they have no idea what he … has been." Audibly choosing the tense of the sentence. "He fought like a lion. He'll die just human. The last time I saw him, when … something had happened. He came back from that country, and I've never seen him in pain like that. His eyes? How they turn dark? He looked at me, and I knew he'd rather break his own bones. He said he wanted to keep me out of trouble. He was planning his escape from his job, because it started to hurt him. Frankly, I never thought it would happen. I didn't recognize it at first, but that night, I finally understood." She shook her head, remembering Vadim not sharing the name or nationality of the man that he was leaving her for. Her, the army, his life. So, this was him. Who else?

"He knew about the consequences, and still did it. And I believe that is how he will die. He'll see it, and he'll still take it, somehow, I don't know how, but I believe, I know, that Vadim will never flinch from what he did. He always had good reasons for everything, and not a guilty moment in his life. That's why I loved him."

Dan had nothing to say. The anguish, the darkening of eyes. Knew every little thing, each detail, could see it and feel it. Her love? He didn't care. Didn't matter what she believed. Yes, Vadim would die, but he'd die broken.

"He signed a confession." He finally replied. "Admitted to something he's never done. No secrets, no collaboration." Just lust, then love. Addiction all the way through. "They broke him." He paused, his hand shook while he brushed a strand of hair out of his face before he buried the hand once more. Never taking his eyes off the approaching dawn outside.

She nodded. "Confession, yes. Regret? I don't think so. I just can't see him regret anything, or be guilty of anything. They kill him just because they can't bend him to their rules. They can break him, but they can't make him something he isn't. It's not much, but it is something." She gave a strange smile. "I can't see you regret anything, either. That's why you're here."

Dan shook his head. "I tried. I fought. So did people in high places. Bribery. Power. Promises." He paused again, "Nothing." He had no more words. Empty. Except for something he'd hidden deep inside. "You don't know what it is like to be a killer." Dan's voice was toneless, almost gentle. Like ashes to ashes and dust to dust. "I have no right to grief."

"I wouldn't know who could take that right from you, frankly. Apart from yourself."

Dan held his hand out. Waiting for the sample. He didn't want to see her as human, easier to just hate the bitch as an enemy without a face.

"Let me do my duty now." Quietly. "Or I won't be able to." If you talk anymore I will break apart. I need to hate you, you have to hurt me like last night, or your words will cut me open and leave me to bleed dry.

She nodded. "Bathroom. It's … in the bathroom." She turned and started to prepare tea. Not asking whether he wanted coffee. Decided he'd not accept it, and there was nothing else to do. "You can just leave it. I don't want to keep you here longer than necessary." Voice a hint softer than what the last word implied. Not looking at him, instead pouring water, and measuring tea.

Dan left without another word, the sound of the bathroom door opening, closing, then the scrape of the lock. He stayed in there for far longer than expected, just a rustle from within, then silence again. He remained locked inside for over half an hour, several flushes of the loo before the door opened again and his steps were heard leading straight to the entrance door.

He was gone without acknowledgement nor trace, except for the sample container that stood sealed and correctly packaged, inserted in the transportation kit. She had twenty-four hours before his sperm would have lost its mobility, and forty-eight before it was useless.

He'd be back in Dubai before then.

1990 - Moscow, between 9th January and 7th February

Sometime after the trial, Vadim had a visitor. His father. He looked aged and worn, and his hands shook with agitation. Vadim sat there, looking at him, seeing that familiar face. After a long silence, his father told him about the family. No words such as 'how are you', no niceties, his father was an intelligent man, he didn't make things look better than they were. And they did not speak about the execution. Vadim was too tired to tell his father to go home, instead endured his presence like anything else, knowing it would end, like any other pain.

Once upon a time, a mountain lion and a tiger escaped a circus. They had been trained to jump through flaming hoops, and to stand tall on their hind legs, reaching with their paws into the air to please the audience.

But one day, something happened that set them free. Now they had nobody to keep them from fighting each other, and nobody to feed them, and nobody made them stand on their hind legs and raise their paws high.

They went hunting together. There were an unlikely pair, but so be it. Stranger things have happened. When one of them was tired, the other would guard his sleep, and when one was injured, the other would lick his wounds and hunt for him until he was feeling well again.

You need to know that lions and tigers are never friends, lions hate the tigers' stripes, and tigers hate everybody, even other tigers, but lions worse, because lions are so strong and hunt in prides, and tigers think that that is the wrong way to do things.

But there were hunters, and they said that lions and tigers are not supposed to be friends, that they were not themselves anymore, that the lion had forgotten how to be a lion, and the tiger had betrayed his stripes. On one of their hunts together, the lion fell into a trap. The tiger tried to free his friend, but he had no hands to reach down inside the pit and help him out. The hunters couldn't trap the tiger, try as they might, and the tiger still roams their old hunting grounds, remembering the gift of love and friendship.

Lions may die, but friendship doesn't.

"Who is the tiger, Vadim?"

Vadim sat there, blinked, saw his father's eyes fill with tears, and felt a deep and sudden shame, a pain more intense than breaking ribs.

"Who is the tiger? Please, tell me, who is the tiger? I am not stupid. Is it true what they say? Did you … do that?"

"Yes, I did." He saw his father cry harder, felt that old resentment well up, the fights they'd had, the disagreements about even the most basic things in life, above all, his father's ideas and truths, but most of all the expectations. Be the best. Work harder. What for?

Tiger. The tiger can't lose his stripes. Two predators in the mountains. Friendship. Try as they might. Dan. This was Dan's story. His past lover. And that, that was proof that Dan was alive. No sniper. And he had come to believe what the interrogator had said. It was just too much time. Dan. Emotions, pleasure, something that had kept him together.

He remembered, and there was relief, at least the other had made it out alive. Dan was still there, and that was good. He'd try and keep that thought in his mind when they'd shoot him. Not a disgrace, at least not that.

But like all other thoughts, this one didn't have any strength to last.

1990 - Dubai, 7th February

Silence. Nothing but the weary tick-tick-tick of the wall clock. Blinds drawn, shutting out the sun except for a strip of light cutting across the floor like a knife blade slicing into flesh. How dared the sun shine, it was barely dawn in Moscow.

Dan sat on the edge of his bed, opposite the wall and its clock, the black hands moving ever forward. Hour, minutes. Second after second. Moving. Forward and to the end. Finality, measured by the unyielding tick-tick-tick.

No other sounds, the building as silent as a tomb, with staff tiptoeing across the hall and whispering in the corridors. This room, nothing but grave walls, closing in on him, and only one constant: the clock. Its hands. Their movement. Relentless and uncaring. Silence, except for the counting of time. Tick-tick-tick until the end.

Three more minutes, and seven … six … five … seconds.

They would have taken him out of his cell, shuffling towards one of the execution rooms, down in the bowels of the Lubyanka. Could he still walk? March proud and tall, unbent.

Dan's hands were damp, he didn't feel the cold of the A/C blasting icy air into the dusky room. Sitting motionless, eyes transfixed.

Two minutes and forty … thirty-nine … thirty-eight … seconds.

They would have bound his hands, reached the room. Tiled for convenience. Scrubbed clean from previous blood, ready for another slaughter.

Dan's eyes were dry. No tears, he'd lost the ability to cry.

Two minutes and three … two … one … seconds.

They would have forced him onto his knees, in the centre of the room. Blindfold waiting.

Dan was sweating. Cold sheen on clammy skin. His stomach a tight, painful fist, lodged in his guts. Agony, sharp and endless. An empty vessel filled with nothing but loss. No life, no time.

One minute and thirteen … twelve … eleven … seconds.

They would be standing behind him now. Pistol drawn, muzzle against the back of his neck. Eyes bound, blind.

Dan's unblinking eyes fixed on the clock and its merciless hands that kept moving. His own hand gripping his thighs. Knuckles white, muscles locked, body as still and dead as a statue.

Vadim. Would he feel fear? Or would he be numb? Would the bullet tear into his brain in terror?

Vadim. Would he remember him?

Five seconds … four … three … two …

Dan's lips moved, but no sound. "Farewell."

It was over.

Vadim was dead.

The pain was a never-ending emptiness. Scraped out and left raw inside. All feelings torn out at their roots, battered into a bleeding mess. Love broken on the wheel, quartered, feeding Dan's numbness with pain and ever more pain.

Each memory, every touch. Every punch and cut. Each kiss. Vadim's scent and heat, his body clenching around Dan's, taking and being taken. Never again.

Dan sat immobile, eyes blind. Not a muscle twitched in his face. The clock didn't matter anymore, and nor did time. His life empty, a senseless struggle.

He'd live. He'd work. He'd drink. He'd function. He'd die.

* * *

He must have stood up at some stage, for when the sound of soft knocks on the door got through to his senses, he found himself standing in front of the drawn blinds, an hour later.

"Dan?" The voice behind the door belonged to none other than the Baroness. Another knock, as softly as before. "Dan? I need to talk to you. Please."

Perhaps it was her voice that made him move and the fact she was his boss, or maybe he simply walked to the door and opened it, because there was nothing else to do. A puppet that needed to be moved by a force outside himself. He looked at her: his unwavering constant. Same pearls, same twin set, same petite figure and grey coiffed hair.

"Yes, Ma'm?"

"I'm sorry Dan, I didn't wish to have anyone or anything disturb you, but …," hesitation was not her manner, but he didn't notice. Unaware of anything at all. "… but I have received information from Moscow that I cannot keep from you. You would not wish me to."

He stepped aside when she entered the room, closing the door behind her. "Moscow." Flat voice, no inflexion. Uncomprehending, but then nothing made sense anymore. Not now, now that it was all over.

"Yes, Moscow. A phone call from one of my contacts." She stood, hands clasped in front of her, but even though he looked at her, he saw nothing. Her words didn't make any sense.

"Dan, please do sit. What I have to tell you might come as a shock."

He waited for any reaction inside, for a sense of insane hilarity that anything could possibly be a 'shock' anymore, but nothing happened. Cold. Numb. He felt nothing. Yet he sat down, back on the bed. The puppet compelled to move by following simple orders. He was thankful for that. "Yes, Ma'm?"

"My contact, the most reliable one that I have," she seemed eager to emphasise this point, "he called me about ten minutes ago. Dan …," again the uncharacteristic hesitation, but Dan didn't notice. "Vadim Krasnorada is not dead. He was not executed. There will be a re-trial instead."

He stared at her in complete disbelief. "What?"

"It was a mock execution, Dan, it was a lie. The re-trial had been ordered some weeks ago, under pressure of the political and diplomatic channels that we had used, but most of all because of interior forces. We had been right all the time, the Soviet Union is crumbling rapidly, especially with recent developments in Azerbaijan that shifted the power balance in Moscow significantly. The KGB is losing power to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the Ministry is aggressively regaining ground. My contacts indicate that the Ministry will not let the KGB execute Vadim. It's an old-fashioned inter-Soviet power struggle. The pressure is great enough that not even the KGB could go through with the execution, although they orchestrated a mock execution to keep face. He is not dead, Dan, Vadim Krasnorada is still alive."

"You lie." Dan refused to belief, the sense of hope that tried to steal inside his mind too cruel to ponder. "That's bullshit."

"No, Dan," she shook her head, "you have to believe me, it is the truth. My contact's informants are infallible."

Dan's hands were clenching into fists, shaking his head. "You are lying. Don't fuck with me, Ma'm, don't do that to me. You are lying, it's all lies! Vadim is dead, do you hear me? Vadim is dead! Don't you fucking lie to me!" Agitated, he'd forgotten his manners, speech and anything, just the numbness inside that was turning into unbearable pain. Not hope, not this, not the cruellest of all feelings.

She did not flinch at the sudden barrage of profanities. Still steadfast and strong. "Listen to me, Dan, you have to believe me. It is the truth. Vadim is not dead, my contact told me only a few minutes ago."

"No!" Dan yelled, hands clenched into fists. "What a fucking goddamned lie! He is dead, don't you get it? Done, dead, fucking over. Everything, just over and done with. Dead, dead, dead! Fucking dead!" He was shaking his head wildly, his dark eyes burning with rage. Rage that was fuelled by pain. "Don't do this to me, don't you fucking tell me he is alive. Don't you fucking lie to me unless you give me proof, you hear me? Give me proof!"

The Baroness' voice tuned even calmer. "I will, Dan, I will get you proof." She did not realise what a mistake she was making when she took a step closer, placing her hand on Dan's shoulder. "But you have to believe me, Vadim is alive."

"No fucking way!" He pushed her hand away and she almost lost her balance as he lunged forward, as if he were about to attack. He did not notice when she shrunk back, for the first time ever in her life. His rage had no boundaries, and neither his pain, forgetting all but the knowledge that everything was over and Vadim was dead and the unbearable agony finally had time and space to settle, consume him, and eat him alive.

"You're fucking lying, everyone's lying. You said you would help him, and nothing, fucking nothing! Bastard Britain, no hope, no help, no chance, just death and pain and torture. You did nothing, no one did, no one in this goddamnedmotherfucking country did anything. No one cared, because what did he have to offer? Just one measly life and a stupid arse lover who'd devoted his life to this fucking country and its fucking army. Orders, duty, just doing what we were told and what thanks did we get? Nothing! Fucking nothing, just lies and pain and shit and more lies and …" he took a breath, yelling at the top of his lungs, "fuck you! Fuck all of you! Fuck Britain, fuck this country and fucking fuck the whole damned fucking lot of you!"

Dan was shaking, uncontrolled, completely out of his mind, while she retreated towards the exit. He paid no attention when she left and the door closed behind her, had no notion of anything but the fury and pain inside, which had spun out of any control. Turning, he slammed his fist into the nearest thing, the stereo, smashing the front panel, crashing the whole thing onto the floor. He swept his arm across the table, every object on it scattering through the room. Kicking the television, again and again until the screen broke and a flame shot out of its back. Took the chair, hit it against the wall, broken legs slashing into the blinds, its remains hammering against the window. Destroy! Hurt and kill and not feel this pain. The hopelessness, the fear, the things he'd done and said and dreamt of, the memories, and now - the damned lies.

Dead! Dead! Dead!

And Dan smashed, kicked, beat and destroyed. The frantic sound of furniture breaking, objects crashing, fabric ripping and glass shattering. He took the whole room apart, until nothing was in its place, and he ended curled up on the floor, amidst the debris, cradling his bloodied hands and torn knuckles. He finally cried, at long last.

Outside, the Baroness had been standing, somewhat shaken and breathing deeply to calm herself, before she held her hand up to stop several of her staff who came running at the noise from Dan's room.

"No, leave him alone."

They protested but she remained adamant. "It does not matter what you hear and neither what you think. I wish this room not to be entered unless it is by myself. Do you understand?"

Despite the discontent, no one dared disobey her orders.

* * *

An hour later, Baroness de Vilde made her way back to Dan's room, which was steeped in silence. Listening for a moment at the door, she knocked, but no answer. Taking a deeper breath, she knocked once more, did not hear anything this time either.

Slowly pushing down the handle, she hesitated, listening once more, but not the faintest sound came from inside. She had to use force to open the door, it got stuck, hindered by some of the debris on the floor. Looking around the trashed room once she was able to step inside, she merely took one single fortifying breath at the destruction that lay before her eyes. Nothing was where it had been before, everything broken and shattered.

She closed the door quietly behind her, when her gaze fell onto the curled up figure on the floor. Huddled into himself like an embryo, seeking shelter from the outside world.

She waited a moment, but no sound nor motion came from Dan, and she crossed the chaos, carefully stepping between the broken rubble, until she could crouch beside Dan's head, whose face was hidden beneath his hands.

"Dan?" Softly, accompanied by the rustling of paper. "I brought your evidence." She waited, and still there was nothing, so she placed her hand once more onto his shoulder. Applying gentle pressure.

"I have a fax for you. I leave it right beside you, is that alright?" For a moment it seemed she would stroke the dark hair, but then she took her hand back off the still shoulder, placing the paper next to his face.

She stood up, smoothing her skirt, all the while looking at him. "I will be in my private study. Whenever you feel like it. Just take your time."

She retreated as quietly from the destroyed room as she had entered.

* * *

Some time later there was a knock on her study door, which opened slowly after she had called out for her visitor to enter.

It was Dan, just as she had expected, because she was already gesturing to the leather chair opposite hers.

"Do come in and sit down." She smiled slightly, while he closed the door, looking like a beaten dog, when he sat down.

"Do you feel any better, Dan?"

"I am sorry, Ma'm. So sorry. For everything."

She smiled once more, nodding. "I know."

Unspoken, that if she didn't, he would not be there anymore.

"Please accept my apologies," Dan's quiet voice sounded dead, unlike his usual self. "I don't know what came over me."

"Oh, but I do. Pain, Dan, pain is universal and pain makes us do the most regrettable things."

He nodded, looking down at his battered hands, holding the folded fax sheet.

"I can pay by instalments for the damage?" Still looking down, he had never felt so bad for something so uncharacteristic of himself. "If … if you want me to leave the embassy, I understand."

"I am sure we will come to a mutually satisfactory agreement regarding the financial settlement of the damage, and I certainly do not wish for you to leave my employment." She was still smiling, and Dan did not know what he should feel more thankful for. Her understanding or her forgiveness for his unforgivable behaviour towards her. "Thank you, Ma'm."

"You are welcome."

He finally looked up, "I do believe you now. Vadim is still alive."

* * *

The following day, Dan was called into Her Excellency's office, sitting down in the chair in front of her desk, where she had been waiting for him.

"Ma'm? What is this?" Dan looked down at the envelope in her hand, which she was pushing towards him.

"Plane tickets." She leaned back in her seat with a smile, folding her hands on her desk.

He raised his brows questioningly, before picking up the envelope, peering inside when she nodded towards him. "Why?"

"Because you need a break, Dan."

"Do you want me out of here?" Pulling out the colourful portfolio. "Because of … what I did?"

She shook her head, still smiling. "No, of course not. I don't want you out of here and I certainly don't want to lose your expertise in my employment, but Dan, you have been ceaselessly working for a year. What happened yesterday is only proof that you need to get away from everything for a little while. Call it R&R," she inclined her head with a smile, "on my expenses."

Opening the portfolio, he stared at the plane tickets in his hands with disbelief. "Your expenses?" Looking at her, wide-eyed, "but why? I just smashed my room, and I … behaved despicably. I have to apologise and not receive gifts."

"Don't be silly, your behaviour yesterday is entirely excusable if not understandable. I already told you that I accept your apology and the settlement of the damage, or do you wish to query my decision? Do you believe I ever say anything without meaning what I say?"

Chastised, he broke her gaze and shook his head. Still so tired, mentally exhausted, all he could do was murmur, "no, Ma'm, never." Catching himself the next moment, a glimpse of the old, irreverent Dan, when he looked up and added, "unless you're doing smalltalk."

"Yes, of course, there is that." She chuckled, pointing with one elegantly manicured finger at the tickets. "I hope you will enjoy my choice of location."

"It's the other end of the world." Dan frowned.

"Indeed," she nodded, "I do believe that New Zealand is just the place for you to be right now. Try to relax a little, no matter how impossible this seems, and enjoy being on the other side of this big blue planet."

"But Ma'm, what if anything happens, and what if you need me to do something, and Vadim. What if …."

He was unable to continue when she leaned forward, shaking her head.

"Dan, Dan, take a breath. I will keep you updated all the time. If any developments take place, anything at all, I will let you know immediately. If you wish, you may call me daily, but trust me when I tell you, that right now there is nothing you can do. The KGB has left itself open for negotiations, and the fact the execution was not carried out is proof that they are willing to make a deal. This is my game now, at last, and my contacts and I will play it well."

She smiled, and Dan knew deep down she was right. He was out of his league, just as he'd been throughout the entire year. But this time it was less agonising, because he felt he could leave the job to the experts. Professionals, just like him, but in a very different field. "You will keep me updated?"

"Of course, I gave you my word."

"I guess, that's it, then." Dan tried a smile, confronted with a small laugh from her.

"Oh, Dan, don't look so miserable, I am just sending you for three weeks to New Zealand on R&R. Is that so cruel of me?"

"No, of course not, Ma'm. No. Thank you." He felt like a right idiot, trying hard to be grateful, but he was still so empty and raw inside, unable to muster up any enthusiasm.

She just smiled at him, leaning back in her chair and looking up as he gathered the envelope with hotel reservation, hire car and plane tickets. "Thank you, Ma'm."

"You are very welcome, my friend."

It was then that Dan finally smiled. Friend. Yes.

"Thank you for everything."

He had reached the door when she called him back, "We will get him out, Dan."

His hand on the door knob, Dan turned his head.

"Aye, we will."

Special Forces Chapter XXI: Judgement Day
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 2 May 2007