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Special Forces Chapter XXXXI: Blank Slate

April/May 1992, New Zealand

Dan was drumming his fingers onto the armrest while whistling a crooked tune under his breath, glancing left and right, back and front, anxious for takeoff.

Vadim tightened his seatbelt and leaned back. "What's up? Impatient for the ... what? Twenty-eight hours flight, two stop-overs, to start?"

"Aye, I want to get it done and over with." Dan turned to the side, grinning, "at least we have leg room. Wonder how the poor bastards in the back are faring. Probably worse than a good old Herc."

Vadim turned his head to face Dan. "Means they'll be sleeping much worse, because I'm planning to sleep once they turn down the light. Twenty-eight hours and the time lag ... doesn't get farther on this planet than that."

"No, but it'll be worth it." Finally, the fasten seatbelt sign came up, and Dan clicked the metal buckle shut. "Wonder if Beauvais is enjoying his stay." He grinned from ear to ear, settling back into the seat for take-off.

"And now I wonder what the guys do with him ... nice thought." Grinning lazily, Vadim half-closed his eyes. "Shouldn't take Hooch long to discover his talents."

"Are we something like pimps now?" Dan mock-gasped as the plane accelerated. "And what was this business about meeting up in Berlin?"

"Well. I want to catch up with Hooch. If that's okay? Do you want to join us?"

"What else should I do? Visit museums?" Dan snorted.

"No, unlikely. Even though Matt did ask whether you'd fly over to visit him. Remember?"

"Aye." Dan looked at Vadim, pressed into his seat at take-off. "But that would mean flying across while you're here." 'Here' being some vague area that covered Europe.

"I'm not sure I could join you there." There covering the vague area west of what Dan had called 'here'.

"What do you mean? You got a bloody medal from them."

"Hmmm. I guess." Vadim felt the powerful engines vibrate and push them right into the sky. Waiting for the ascent to slow and the plane to get back to horizontal. The physics involved were quite astonishing, if he thought about it. "Join us in Berlin, then. He said he had been to Angola. I just want to try and stay in touch. It's hard, the staying in touch part. I don't want to repeat a few mistakes I've made."

"You need some time with Hooch alone?" Dan pulled a packet of nicotine gums out of his shirt pocket, all the while looking at Vadim.

"No. That's not it." Or was it? He really didn't know what he wanted, only, to maybe not let people slip away that he cared about. It was so difficulty to get them back. A simple 'Sorry I haven't called for, oh, five years' or something like that simply didn't cut it. It was awkward and embarrassing. And Katya was a strong presence right in his mind. He needed to call her.

"It's okay." Dan smiled, "no really, it is. If you think he will become a friend, a real good friend like Jean, then that's alright. As long as you love me, then where's the problem? We all need friends." Tearing the wrapper open, he stuffed the chewing gum between his lips with a grimace of disgust.

"I ..." want nobody else, Vadim thought, and then he thought of the men they'd 'shared'. Matt. Jean. Beauvais. The guys in Glasgow. Dan encouraging it, setting it up, arranging it, and certainly never stopping it. "Don't know, Dan. You can come along. Or I can cancel it."

"Why?" Dark eyes intense. "You worried you'd fall in love with the Delta?"

"I don't know." Vadim frowned. "He ... cuts deeper than the others. I'd lie if I said anything else. But it's not, nowhere near to ... us." This conversation was getting into dangerous areas. Somehow.

"Well …" Chewing the gum slowly, Dan's only outlet for a nicotine fix, "I figure that if you did fall in love with him, then the whole thing between us would be shit anyway. So, there's no problem, because I figure you won't, but if you did ... then I figure you didn't love me properly." He flashed a brief grin.

Vadim shuddered. He couldn't even think it. There was simply no alternative to Dan, and the thought of that breaking or fading made him sick to his stomach. "You're all I have, Dan. Every bit."

"In that case …" Dan grinned more substantially, reaching for Vadim's hand to squeeze it almost painfully tight, "it's all sorted. You go see Hooch without funny old me around, and I go see what else is on."

Vadim took the hand and raised it to his lips. He couldn't think it, didn't want to get anywhere near that thought. Losing Dan, or even losing what he felt, just opened up the darkness and the fear. Dan was his antidote to the poison they'd drip-fed him for two years. "First, New Zealand", he murmured.

"Aye," Dan smiled, leaning his head against Vadim's shoulder, even though a stewardess was walking past. But they'd been there, done that, and he just couldn't be bothered. "Have to show you the dilapidated pile of crap that I bought for a pittance and on a whim."

"We'll get it back up to specs. Well, I guess we can pay for somebody to put it into order. I have to admit I'm useless at menial labour. Not like Jean, eh? He seemed really proud of that ... 'house' of his."

Dan grinned and nodded. 'House' indeed. "We won't even be there to fix it. Got to earn some more dosh to get it all set up. Even though … I've been wondering, is Kiwiland really a good place to move to? We'll be out of the way from everyone and everything."

"Won't happen just yet. First, we go there on R&R, then for longer holidays, and then we can still travel. Doesn't mean we have to sit in front of the fireplace all day anyway, and - people can come visit us."

"You think they would?" Dan lifted his head to look at Vadim. "Flying across the world to visit two old fogies?"

"Why not?"

"Well, perhaps if we make it worthwhile for them." Flashing a toothy grin, Dan closed his eyes for a moment.

"Always a possibility." Vadim settled in when the plane moved to horizontal and people got up to stretch their legs, head to the toilets. The beautiful stewardesses appeared to serve a first round of drinks, and while they did everything they could, the travel took forever. There was only so much one could do to pass the time, and Vadim found that simply waiting had become something that his mind didn't agree to. Reading was difficult. And sleeping - well, he should try to keep some structure to the day. Go to sleep when the lights were dimmed, and wake up when they were up. Which was nowhere like his biological clock, as they slowly, painfully slowly, flew across the vastness that was Asia. Hours and hours to cross India, and it was strange to think he was much closer to the place where it had all begun than he'd been for a long time. Somewhere, a few hours to the north, lay that vast and unforgiving country that Dan still missed.

Dan was yawning, stretching on the seat that had turned into something resembling a half-way comfortable bed, yet never comfortable enough for men of their size. "Where are we?" Sleepy, muzzled, and his hair a wild mess, as he blinked to try and get his bearing.

"Just south of Kashmir", murmured Vadim. "Give or take a few thousand miles."

"Ah … Kashmir." Dan set up, rolling his shoulders. Clothes crumpled beneath the blanket. Reaching for his shirt pocket to find his packet of fags - before realising that wasn't going to happen. Took a fresh chewing gum instead. "Part of what you crossed?"

Vadim grinned. "I was just that other side of insane when I did that. If it hadn't been for the fear, it would have been a great adventure."

Dan looked at him for a long time, far longer than felt comfortable, while he slowly unwrapped the next gum, but never put it into his mouth. "I would have died if you hadn't come." No inflexion. "I couldn't find a … reason. Fighting was just too hard."

Vadim took his hand again. "It's one regret I have. That I didn't stay." Throat too tight to speak. Just how much stupid pain they would have been saved, he could only imagine. Maggie could have helped. Katya - would have got the message that he had died. Lesha would have had to answer some unpleasant questions, but he was a smooth liar. Lesha. Whatever had happened to him.

"But you couldn't." Dan's voice was quiet, holding onto the hand. "Your kids …" Not the wife, no … he squeezed the hand again, murmuring, "there is no point in ifs and whats. What happened, happened, and we are here, now, alive. In a plane on our way to a godforsaken place with a view of mountains and an old and useless but bloody damned picturesque apple orchard."

Vadim inhaled and nodded, trying to relax again and doze, but the memory stood stark in his mind. The blue sky. The dust. The vastness, the mountains, and with them, the longing. He wished he could have reached out and told a younger self that it would all be good in the end, most likely.

Dan smiled, settled in again, blanket pulled over his head and eventually, while still holding onto Vadim's hand, he fell asleep once more. Sleeping until it was time to land for their first stop-over.

Singapore airport hit them with the full tropical force when they left the plane, and before they entered the air-conditioned airport. Vadim found a bottle of water and very nearly emptied it, feeling dehydrated and, most of all, tired. Changing to the other terminal, sometime in the morning, when Vadim's body told him it was still the middle of the night, and Dan was continuously yawning.

With a deep sigh, Vadim changed the time of his watch to local time. Better not cling to the time zone they'd left and adapt to the new one ... even though that would change again once they were back in the plane. "Two hours waiting for the connection", he murmured. "Then the flight to Auckland."

"Aye, but it's a damn sight better than last time I did this trip." Dan smiled at him, standing shoulder to shoulder in the queue. "The last time … let's just say, Maggie sent me on R&R and it wasn't a question if I wanted to go or not. I had just smashed the entire content of my room in the embassy."

"When was that?" Vadim braced for the guilt, but tried to appear calm. He was tired and already exhausted, and he really just wanted to get there ... even though he didn't want to get onto another plane. Next time, they'd book a night in Singapore, only so they could rest in between, and catch up with the vast distance they'd travelled.

"Ah, well." Dan shrugged, glanced at Vadim, and he smiled, "had just been under a lot of strain. You were gone, imprisoned, and things didn't work out the way I had hoped. I flipped one day. No one's fault except mine, aye?" Time to show flight passes and passports once more, and they shuffled towards the plane.

Vadim nodded. "Better the room than yourself. Or somebody else." Two years. It had been a nightmare. How exactly Dan had spent the time he didn't actually know. Whether there were secrets there, lovers, maybe, or whether Dan had just, somehow, bottled it up and functioned.

They got into the plane, Dan not saying anything else, staying close, and falling asleep yet again the moment the plane was in the air. The second leg of the journey was even worse. Day, night, it all seemed messed up, legs hurt, and a bone-deep weariness settled. Vadim drank every time the stewardesses offered water, knowing he was losing fluids, his skin already felt like paper. The ocean crept past, Australia, too, hours and hours of Australia. The place couldn't possibly be so big, but it was. Earth was fucking huge, come to think of it. Then, eventually, out over the ocean again, and yet hours before New Zealand got anywhere close. The plane slowed a little at last, and other passengers began to stir. By now, Vadim wasn't even sure he had one coherent thought left in his mind, and when Dan surfaced for the third or fourth time - firmly according to the age-old squaddie maxim of grabbing some shut-eye whenever the opportunity - he found himself smiled at and small water bottles being pushed into his hand.

Setting down on Auckland airport, picking up the baggage in the middle of the night, or noon, or whenever, customs was queuing up on tired legs, shuffling the cabin bag closer to a tall, stocky man in a uniform. Something deeply primal about his haughty features and the almond shaped, dark eyes. Vadim found himself smile wearily. Whatever type of ethnic group that was, the uniform and the savage pride in this man went well together.

Dan, though, was awake, having slept through most of the journey, and his interest was all too clear. Still, he behaved impeccably, didn't even crack a joke, just stared at the officer all too appreciatively.

"That's a native?"

"Aye," Dan grinned, once they had passed and were out of earshot. "Fucking dishy, if you ask me. Shame many of them are fat and ugly, but hell, the good ones I saw … holy fucking cow, they were sexy." They filed into the baggage hall, claiming their suitcases soon enough.

"I'll keep an eye on them." Vadim nodded, tossing the bags in the taxi, they headed to a soulless hotel 20 minutes from the airport, where everything was typically chain motel style. The service was good, though, food 24/7, but Vadim just wanted to get out of the wet autumnal weather. Not only were they now twelve hours behind - or earlier, or whatever - but it was autumn, not spring. And it was humid enough to make him breathe in big gulps, like drinking. He managed to undress and set the alarm clock, falling into bed, while Dan stayed downstairs, wide awake since he'd slept most of the journey. He had a large dinner with all the trimming, plus the inevitable booze. The climate didn't trouble him. Afghan mountains or Auckland, it all boiled down to one thing: knowing he would walk to a room where Vadim was sleeping, crawling under the covers, spooning close, and sleeping. The alarm went off in the late morning, and they got ready for the last leg of the journey.

Taxi, Auckland airport. By day, Auckland was stretched out and ugly, somehow industrial-looking and grimy, but Vadim assumed it had to have nice areas, too. Only they weren't passing any of them. Heading for the domestic terminal - which was a tiny hall - of Auckland airport, and then getting their Air New Zealand tickets for the domestic flight to Palmerston North.

Once again a queue, until they finally sat in the last plane. "You sure you want to settle here?" asked Dan, buckling up.

"Ask me again after I've seen the place." The small plane held maybe fifty passengers, and the flight was less than an hour. Mercifully short. After take off, all the greenness that was this island became visible. Vast, vast green space, only dotted with what seemed to be cattle or sheep, the occasional house. The area they covered were mostly plains, and some coast. Then, soon, touchdown in Palmerston North, which made Vadim wonder if there was a Palmerston South, East, and West, too. They got out of the small plane, walked across the tarmac, entered a building that looked more like a garage than an airport building, waited about five minutes, and somebody tossed their luggage on the small band in the room. Unceremoniously, uncomplicated, and somewhat primitive.

The parking lot seemed like that of a supermarket, but mostly empty. They just stepped out of the building right onto it. The air was cold and humid, and the fact that they didn't have to fly anymore made Vadim obscenely happy.

"Guess we have to get a car somewhere, aye?" Dan grinned at Vadim, luggage at his feet, deeply, oh so deeply, inhaling the nicotine.

"We do?" Vadim glanced around, trying to locate a car rental place. There had been one in the airport, or had there? The airport was nestled right into the 'city', which was all flat bungalow style houses from what he could see.

Dan grinned, "aye, we do. I learned the hard way last time, that if you don't get a car, you're fucked. Distances are too vast." Pointing towards an innocuous area, "let's head there, they should have our 4x4."

Vadim nodded, relieved, because there was an absence of taxis. Dan picked up the car and off they were again, crossing the small town - which was exactly what Vadim had seen from the airport - stretched out, large houses with large gardens, and one thing that became noticeable, too. New Zealanders had no idea how to build smooth roads. The 4x4 was overkill for the street, but even through the car's suspension, they could feel and hear that the street building had been sloppy at best. But streets were straight and had 90 degree turns. Everything seemed young and recent somehow, fresh, young, unspoilt. And green. There were lemon trees, palm trees, and an abundance of plant life that Vadim had never seen anywhere else.

Dan consulted the map he'd requested, even though it wasn't easy to get lost. Once outside the city, there were hardly any roads crossing this one, and at some point, they headed into a smaller road that headed into the hills that became steeper and more wild, and then the road hugged the mountains that were surprisingly green and surprisingly steep. To Vadim's mind, it was very obvious that the land had retained its primal shapes, even if it was farmland. There seemed to have been little impact on the land itself, apart from the street or the small bridges that they crossed when they headed into the valley. This area didn't even appear to have a name. There were farms and sheep, occasional cattle and horses. When Dan turned onto another road - or path - right there, in a small side-valley that they seemed to share with nobody, stood a two-storey building. In that, alone, it seemed peculiar- all other houses seemed to only have one storey.

A gravelled area served as the parking space, and the farm was surrounded by ancient apple trees. When Dan opened the door, Vadim saw how empty the house was, and that it hadn't been lived in for ages. The floor boards would have to be replaced, and it was fairly cold and damp. But when he touched the wall and knocked against it, the lower floor seemed made from stone, covered with a layer of wood. When he headed upstairs - the staircase needed to be replaced, too - the upper part was wood. Space. Plenty of space, and an old-fashioned oven to heat the building. There were boxes that had been delivered, standing against the wall in what Vadim assumed had been the living room.

Dan was still standing in the centre of the very large living room, with its windows towards the mountains and the old, disused apple orchard, holding his arms out wide, and slowly turning around himself once. "Well, this is it. I bought it at a whim, because I happened to pass the auction. Dirt cheap, no one seemed to want it, but I fell in love with that goddamned view and the bloody apple trees." He grinned from ear to ear. "What do you think?"

Vadim looked around. "Can you hear it?" he asked.

Dan nodded, grinning. "Oh yes, I can. It's almost deafening, isn't it?"

Vadim went to the window, opened it, and breathed deeply. The air was pure. He could see that the stones and wood surfaces had been thoroughly conquered by lichen, orange, green, white, tiny, fragile and yet hardy creatures, not quite plant, not quite anything else. Lichen meant the air was pure, he remembered. Pure like where he'd been trained in survival, deep in the tundra and taiga, far away from any human settlement that could provide assistance. He'd been stricken by the fact that, for a major road (according to the map) the street had been empty. They had encountered maybe five cars on the way - and all those had been very near Palmerston North. Absolutely nothing once they'd entered this valley.

Dan stepped up behind him, a hand on Vadim's shoulder. "You think it might be too silent for a couple of old battle horses?"

"It's just so pure", Vadim murmured.

Dan turned his head, smiling at Vadim's profile, not quite sure if he really understood what Vadim was saying or feeling, except for …" far away from any war?" Quietly.

Vadim nodded. "No guilt, either. Did you know they are nuke-free? Famously?" He leaned back, touching Dan. "Everybody here is a stranger."

"Guilt?" Dan tilted his head, fingertips touching the hand on his face, before fishing for his cigarettes.

"No past. No human memory, no history, no old battles. Well, maybe a different matter for the natives, but, you know, for everybody else."

"So, that means we are both new and without past. And being strangers doesn't matter because everybody else is?" Dan would mull it over, needing to take his time.

Vadim nodded. "This is a place that doesn't force you to do anything."

"I don't understand, what do you mean, 'force you'?"

"All places come with rules." Vadim smiled. "Expectations. History. Culture. This place doesn't."

"But surely the people who live here have some rules, too?" Dan continued the aborted motion, finding his pack of cigarettes and the lighter.

"Aye, but it's probably just laws. Don't steal, don't ram cars ..." Vadim shrugged while Dan nodded. "That's not difficult. And - this place is empty. Reminds me a bit of that Swedish place."

"You never told me about Sweden, by the way." Dan smiled, lighting his fag.

"It was like coming up for air. It's all blurred, but it was a good place. Some good people there. Very generous."

"Perhaps we should go there? I've never been to Sweden." Dan leaned against the other side of the windowsill, blowing the smoke carefully out of Vadim's way.

"Maybe for holidays." Remembering Manke. "You'd like the village cop. I'm not sure I thanked him properly. And, he was a good-looking boy. The Swedes are probably the best-looking men I've ever seen."

Dan put on his most lecherous face, "and wouldn't it be damn convenient if they were all gay on top of that?" he laughed.

"There's likely the usual amount of them. Manke, I'd assume, was straight. Not that I was in any state to even think in that direction. He's a good guy, sometimes I wonder how he's doing."

"Why don't you find out?" Dan inhaled, thoughtfully. "I think I learned something during the last two years. Letting go of people is the biggest bloody mistake we can make. We haven't got anything more important." Dan nodded, mostly to himself.

Vadim inhaled deeply. "Yes, I know." Family. Family was important, more so than a benevolent stranger he'd met. He'd love to let go of others, but he was only too aware that Konstantinov still lurked somewhere in his mind, biding his time like cancer.

"Been to Norway and Finland, on a few exercises, but never Sweden. Neither Denmark, and I heard that Iceland's supposed to be crazy. We should do a Scandinavia tour one day." Dan glanced out of the window.

"Timing is crucial ... let's go there when it's not buried in snow or full of mosquitoes."

"That would be when? Spring?" Dan glanced out at the sky, figuring it would be getting dark in a few short hours. Maximum two.

"Yes." Vadim moved away from the window and headed over to the boxes. "What's in there?"

Dan walked over as well. "Survival kit. The usual. Cooking stove, gas, air beds, extra large zip-together sleeping bags, food stocks, lots of tins, water, coffee, tea, kettle, and so on and so forth. There should be a stack of firewood and a sack of coal round the back. I got them to deliver everything, since there's nothing here, and we're not even sure if the stove still functions. They promised to send a guy round to check it out tomorrow, same with the water pipes." Dan grinned, "and I wouldn't use the loo just now. I got a camping one delivered to be safe." Pointing to a plastic box that was just visible round the corner to another room. "Luxury, aye? No more shitting into hand-dug holes for us."

Vadim grinned. "Let's set it up and watch the sunset? We could even scout into town and see if they have any restaurants?"

"Aye, when I was here there were a couple of places. A diner and a BBQ. I kept alternating between the two. Those ribs with sticky sauce were to die for." Dan grinned, starting to rip into the first box. "Not a pretty place, the town, but it's functional and all the folks were damn nice. A few pubs along the road, even though they call them bars. Weirdoes." Dan started to unpack the box, piling the equipment into neat stacks.

"Maybe we can find a Fish n Chips shop."

"Aye, I also remember the usual assortment of Chinese and Indian, but," Dan put on a 'posh' accent, "I'd like to acquaint you with the delights of the sticky BBQ ribs."

"Try not to sound like the Baroness, please." Vadim grinned and joined him with the boxes, tearing the carton, putting things together, and starting to build a camp. The living room had a great view, and with nobody else around, they could easily sleep downstairs. After everything was set up, they went back to the car and headed into town. Thirty minutes was all it took.

To Dan's eternal happiness, the BBQ place was still going strong, and they spent their evening meal with a large tub of coleslaw, a huge platter of sticky ribs between them, with the sauce dripping off their fingers, and two large mugs of cider. All crowned by big slices of pecan pie, doused in hot custard, and the warmest and friendliest welcome they could have hoped for. By the end even Dan was too full to say 'peep', and they ventured towards the nearest bar, aware that one of them had to drive back. They were greeted with the same open friendliness, and the locals immediately took them in, particularly when they heard that they were the ones who'd bought the big old place ('old' meaning that it had been built in the fifties). They were ex-soldiers, currently mercs, looking to retire there when they left active service, currently seeking local expertise and skills to redo the place and bring it up to scratch. They made numerous contacts, all in the first night, with cousins and brothers and fathers available and skilled, and many out of work. The economy wasn't going well and taxes were high, so everybody seemed keen to make a little money on the side.

Dan kept his hands to himself for once, and with a rare wisdom, made no indication that Vadim and he were more than very good mates who got along well enough to share a large house in the back of beyond, seeking some peace and quiet after a life on the line. Something which seemed sensible given the crowd and the maleness of them all. Vadim got the feeling they were relaxed, but backwater, and he, too, didn't risk anything - and was surprised at Dan's restraint.

They both nearly fell over with tiredness, when they finally made their way back, keeping the radio on to stay awake, as Dan drove them back through the night. While the stars were nothing like in the desert, the night was as clear and wide open as they could hope. "I like this place", murmured Vadim.

"I am glad." Dan's voice was quiet, and he smiled as he glanced across. "Not sure if I won't miss the adrenaline too much, but guess we can't keep going forever, aye?"

"I don't want to keep going forever. I'm tired of it. No more bloodthirst. I've had my fill."

"Okay." Dan nodded, silent for a while. Too silent. "But we have to keep going a little while longer or we won't be able to afford renovating this place." His excuse, his bait. Anything to keep going - and at least this was the truth.

Vadim nodded. "Never too tired to survive", he murmured, quoting some officer who'd drilled him, a military lifetime ago. "It's well worth doing that."

Dan smiled easier. "Couple more years? That should get us enough money without having to dig into what we've saved so far. Unless there's more wrong with the house than we thought." He flashed a grin, slowly turning onto the path towards the house. "According to Duncan there is always more wrong with the house than you think and it will always cost twice as much as you envisage."

"I heard Jean say something similar." Vadim stretched and yawned. "There's just no way around it, for the time being. But maybe we can keep an eye on other ways to make money. Win the lottery ... or something."

Dan laughed, "yeah, as if that ever happened. We don't even play the lottery." Switching off the engine, he leaned across to look at Vadim, hardly visible in the darkness of the night. "Sometimes, when I wake up too early, I've been wondering what we are going to do job-wise when we can't be on active service anymore."

"I have no idea. Handling weapons is right out. We could open another fishing and hunting shop over in Palmy" - he'd been amused that locals called Palmerston North 'Palmy', and was determined to use the nickname. "Seems everybody hunts and fishes around here ... and there are only, what, ten shops like that in town?"

Dan rolled his eyes. "Don't think that would give us enough money to fly round and visit mates. Or do you intend to stay on the farm and never budge again?"

"True." Vadim shrugged. "I'll think about it. We've been lucky so far, aye?"

"Aye." Dan smiled. "We've been damn lucky." For such unlucky bastards. "Ready to hit the hay?"

Vadim nodded, yawning again. "Oh yes. Sharing warmth might be necessary ..."

Dan held his hands up, laughing, "but only sharing warmth. If you expect me to get it up, no chance." Still grinning, he got out of the car, not bothering to lock it. "It's strange, you know." Standing and inhaling deeply, while very slowly turning around himself.

"Strange?" Vadim closed the car door. He figured locking that wouldn't strictly be necessary either, but he still did.

"Aye, strange. I never had a home. Not since I left my family's farm." Dan's face faintly illuminated by the new moon. "And here I am, at the other side of the world, with my partner, and standing in front of our home." He turned to face Vadim, "it's one of the best fucking feelings ever."

Vadim closed the distance and embraced him. "It will be good, Dan. I promise."

Dan smiled, holding onto Vadim for a moment. "It will. Hearth and home and all that shit, and a big bed with lots of space and comfy duvets. Sounds like bloody paradise to me."

"Yes." Vadim kissed him, then nodded towards the front door. "What about sharing warmth and maybe some 'cuddling'? I could use with holding you a bit longer, but not in this chill."

"Damn good plan. Come on, then." Dan led the way inside, and after a quick wash with cold water and a trip to the chemical loo, they got themselves inside the sleeping bags that they'd zipped together. Sharing warmth and holding close.

The next days were busy. They caught up with the men they'd met, had a few people look at the house and decide what to do with it. When they were finished with that, it seemed like it would be very slightly cheaper to repair it than to demolish it. Much of the wood needed replacing, and they could easily change the rooms and sizes, as there would be few internal walls left when they were done. Which suited them fine - that would make it easier to move furniture around, later. Piping, electricity, all that required checking, replacing, some digging up to the road, and they hired one of the cousins who was a qualified architect to take charge of it.

They opened a joint bank account, and in the next days explored some of the island. Venturing down to Wellington to sit at the harbour, have coffees and teas and enjoy the view out over the ocean.

It was on one of those days that Dan sat on the pier, drink in one hand, fag in the other, legs dangling into the ocean. "You know, I think I should go and see Maggie."

Vadim glanced up. "Where is she 'stationed' at the moment?" And, in an afterthought: "What about early May?"

"Still in Dubai. She usually stays around three years and then off to another place. Which means she's due to be posted again soon." Dan took a drag from the cigarette, "and as for May, do you mean if I'm going to meet Matt?"

"Yes. While we're on the way away from here, we can just as well do it all in one go. I could even join you for a day or two and we take her out for dinner or something. Catch up."

"You mean, go from here to Dubai together, then you head off to Germany and I jump on a plane to the US?" Dan emptied his glass, thinking. "Not bad. I'd like to spend a few days with her, if she'll have me."

"How could she not, and I'd like to see her again, too." Vadim checked the watch. "Let's head towards the ferry. There's the whole south island waiting for us ..."

"Alright, then." Stubbing the cigarette out, Dan got up, feet wet, socks and shoes in his hand. "Best see the rest of our future home country, aye?"

"I get the feeling there's far more to see than we can cover in a few days." Vadim grinned. "Doesn't mean we can't try it."

"True, and we'll have a few more years after that." With that Dan got his travel bag onto the other shoulder, marching off towards the ferry.

They explored the south island for almost a week, to return to the house, after a lot of phone calls, where they checked in with the workers. Finding everything in good hands, better than they could have done themselves, they knew there was nothing they could do there right now. Leaving the camping supplies in a shed, safe from the elements and wildlife, they headed back towards Palmy, where they boarded the plane that would take them to Auckland. Then the long flight back, with two days holdover in Singapore to take the brunt of the jetlag, which they mostly spent in the hotel and venturing out every now and then to eat in the hotel restaurant and various cafes in the centre, and to spend money in one of the many full air-conditioned malls that dotted the city. Spending a good amount in the nicest ways possible, and then back to the hotel, and via taxi to the airport for the last leg of the journey.

On the plane to Dubai, Dan was leaning over to Vadim, smiling as he placed his hand on the other's thigh for a moment. "Less anxious than last time, eh?"

"I would have been less anxious if I had been staring down a muzzle." Vadim grinned. "I was badly scared."

"I tell you a secret, when I first met her, I was rather frazzled. She's got a way of looking … into you and not at you, made me want to be on my best behaviour. Hell, and did I fuck that up."

"Maybe that's why you care about her. You like people who can put you in your place, Mr cocky SAS."

"What?" Dan laughed, "you bastard, but that means that I shouldn't like you one bit. Nor Jean. Nor Matt. Nor Hooch. Nor anyone else." He stuck his tongue out at Vadim.

"My guess is, when you were young, you'd have hated all of us. Am I wrong?"

"Shit. I hate it when you pull that intellectual crap on me, Russkie." Dan made a show of a veritable pout.

"Just guessing." Leaning back, Vadim regarded Dan with half-closed eyes. "Can't help but be curious about you."

"Why?" Digging into a packet of peanuts, Dan's brows shot to his hairline. "You should know me inside and out."

"Curious about how you've changed. I want to know everything about you, every little detail, and there are many things I don't know."

"Like?" The stewardess was coming along and Dan asked for a whisky, before turning his full attention back to Vadim.

"Who was your best friend in school? Your favourite subject? First girlfriend? When was your first kiss? Your favourite piece of clothing when you were a kid? What were the things in your mind when you started ..." He grinned, then used the Russian word "wanking."

Dan laughed. "Holy shit, you really are curious aren't you? Most of these things I don't even know. Let's try …" Dan leaned back, closing his eyes to think hard. "My best friend was Hamish Buchanan, a freckled, ginger haired git who was a bloody great guy. We roamed the Highlands, went fishing together and were generally a completely nuisance of epic proportions." Dan grinned, and Vadim laughed. "First girlfriend? That's a trickier one. They are all the same in retrospect." Shrugging, Dan tried hard to remember the name but failed. "I can only remember how exciting it was to finally get under her skirt and then …" shaking his head, "never mind, I fucked cunts but I never did like to touch or lick them all that much."

The stewardess arrived, but Vadim found himself listening with the same focus he'd had when sniping. Nothing should escape him there.

"My first kiss was with someone I can't remember either. Behind the neighbour's cow barn and not very …." 'memorable' he wanted to say when another memory, an older one, suddenly hit him. "Shit. I'd completely forgotten about it, but that wasn't my first kiss. My first one was a dare, some shit I'd engineered, I think and, well, damn. The first proper kiss was when I was twelve and I kissed Calum. Fuck, yes, I remember now. He was the son of one of the itinerary sheep shearers and …. Damn." Dan downed his drink, and if his skin wasn't so tanned, the red flush would have been all too visible.

Vadim smiled, pressing Dan's hand. "Calum. I see. And I thought I was the first guy." Grinning.

"Not funny, you bastard." Dan grimaced. "I'd completely forgotten about it. I was certain I'd been straight till I was ... well, till I … well. You know. And afterwards … you know, too." He heaved a sigh. "Anyway my favourite piece of clothing were the walking boots I got from my dad, and for what I was thinking of when ...." Dan made a dismissive gesture, "I can't remember."

"Okay. But see, that kind of stuff. I want to know everything."

"But I don't." Dan looked up and at Vadim, very intense.

"You don't want to know about yourself, or you don't want to know about me?"

"What do you mean?"

"You said 'But I don't'. I don't what?"

"I don't want to know. Hell, it was hard enough to …"Dan trailed off and sighed. "Damn. Give me a moment. Okay?" He waved to the stewardess, who soon brought him another drink and Dan sat, eyes closed, thinking.

Vadim nodded, watching. If Dan needed his time to muddle through things, he'd be the last to pressure him. But the response was interesting.

"I don't think I ever did imagine girls." Dan finally offered. "A weird mix of stuff instead. Some sort of violence." He frowned, opening his eyes to look at Vadim. "Shit, that makes me sound like a creep."

Vadim's gaze was intense. "Some form of combat? Pain? Fear? Pressure?"

"No." Dan shook his head, looking and feeling decidedly uncomfortable. "Control." Tossing the drink back in one go. "Someone tied up, helpless. Faceless, genderless." Dan shook his head again. "Shit, now what does that say about me and how fucked up I have always been?"

"I'm not a psychoanalyst. But what if ... what if it was me?" Leaning in to whisper. "What if you could do that to me?"

Dan looked at Vadim, straight on. Gaze intense and unwavering. Never a man who'd shy away. "It would break and create something in me. But not like the Glasgow guys. More. I want more." 'I', suddenly, and he didn't realise it.

Vadim nodded. "Okay. In a place where we're safe. Space. Nobody around. Somewhere ... where we're just us."

"What? You serious?"

"Yes. If the place is right ... why not?"

"Because I don't know what the fuck I'm doing? And because we have some rather hefty history?"

"I told you I'm yours. I gave you the bullet. You cut me. You ..." Vadim moved closer again and Dan shuddered, "you fucked me like a savage, more than once. You had me fucked, you tied me up, you had a knife to my balls when you sucked me. What more can you do? Anything I'd be scared of? I don't think so."

"And your nightmares? What if you could not see, could not move, could not hear, and could not breathe unless I allowed you to …"

"You are not Konstantinov. You don't want to shatter me into the smallest pieces you can manage. And besides, you already broke me once. That was scary, yes. But it was more than that. Even then."

"But I meant to destroy you back then. Don't you realise that? Because you'd done the worst that anyone could have possibly done to me. You'd not only violated my body, it was more. I could have dealt with the body, would have simply killed you for that. Clean, a bullet, and that was that. No, I had to destroy you, because you'd broken through everything else. I wanted to strip your skin off, layer after layer, when you offered yourself. Because you …" No, it wasn't that simple, he hadn't wanted Vadim, and he bloody well couldn't find the right words. Didn't even understand himself, and the darkness of his eyes was more intense as ever.

Vadim nodded. "I know. You would have killed me. I know that. At some point, I accepted that, I accepted death. I accepted that there was nothing I could do to stop you. That you held my life, my dignity, my sanity, everything in your hand, you knew that, I knew it, and I hated that ... that sick ... craving inside. I always wanted you. All the time. From the moment I first saw you, and to my grave. Maybe I hated the lie so much ... maybe because, somewhere, deep down, I knew how .... depraved I was, the fact that I had committed crimes, that I'd moved away from the man I'd wanted to be. Maybe I wanted you to annihilate me. Maybe part of the attraction was that I knew you'd destroy me. I have no idea. All I know was that up in the mountains, I did want you. Yes, I played you, I tried to pacify you with offering sex, but if you'd accepted the offer ... I would have wanted it. How's that for 'sick'?"

Dan moistened his lips, unaware. "I would have thought that a condemned man tried anything to survive."

"I ... offered because ... I needed to take your aggression away. Risky gamble. So you could ... avenge. Yourself. Like that. I'd have taken it. I'd have survived it, I know that. I knew it wasn't lust from your side. I knew it was about ... hatred. And maybe power. Yes. Some kind of triumph, like ... like I felt, that night." Vadim swallowed.

"Triumph, or power? Or both?"

"Both. Besting somebody like you. Somebody so strong and dangerous. The more you fought, the more I needed you."

Dan's hand clenched around the empty plastic cup, and it took him a long time before he could talk again. "Did you use me to atone? For punishment?"

"I ... later ... saw the time in the mountain as payback. Proper payback. It certainly ... changed things. I didn't have that ... appetite anymore, not like I'd had. I guess I learn best through pain." Vadim lowered his head and Dan moved his own, forehead against temple, when Vadim continued. "My whole life feels like atoning for things I did. I'm trying to ... be a better man. Be worthy. Follow what I think is right, but I don't. Too often, I simply don't. There's the anger, and the pride, and that fucking darkness. Then I wonder, why do I even try? And slip back. But Dr Williams told me it's important to keep an eye on what I'm thinking and feeling, because a lot of that might end up not being very sane or healthy."

"But the you back then and the you now are very different." Dan's voice remained quiet. "When it comes to the now … I'd give my fucking right arm if I could reach into that darkness and touch you down there."

Vadim nodded, swallowing. "Something Dr Williams said - that I can only learn to live with it. It will never go. They put something inside me and I can't take it out. I can only try to ... live with it and try to control it, because I can't just give up, Dan. It wouldn't be fair."

"No, you can't give up." Dan shook his head, taking hold of Vadim's hand. "And that's why I don't think it would be a good idea if you let me have … control. Fully. Because I might take from you what you've been using to keep it all down."

"Or maybe it would cut that festering wound open and drain the poison." Vadim shuddered. "What if I feel ... the need to be controlled like that? With you at least I know that that's not a response to ... what they did to me. That that is older ... older than Konstantinov. That it's about lust and need and not about ... destroying me." He was surprised when he felt tears in his eyes. Shame? Or just the fucking pressure that found a way through the words, somehow.

Dan fingers tightened around Vadim's hand, until they painfully squeezed bones and cartilage together. "Give me time." He whispered, face close, heads touching. "Give me a little time until I've understood myself, and I'll be what you need me to be."

"You are everything I need. I'm just saying, I trust you. Whatever you want to do. I need you. And that includes ways and things that everybody else would shy away from. Because we're not everybody, Dan. We're us."

"What we are is pretty fucked up." Tension flowed out of Dan as if a valve had been opened and he smiled. Relaxing, holding Vadim's hand in his own.

"Not from my perspective." Vadim laughed.

"I love you, Russkie. But you know that."

Vadim smiled. "And I you."

May 1992, Dubai

When they arrived in Dubai, Dan looked his most dishevelled self with wild hair and crumpled clothes, not quite awake yet after snoozing on the plane. Once again they went through the rigmarole of customs and luggage, but at least the Baroness' driver with the air conditioned limo was waiting for them.

To Vadim, it was just a different kind of heat. After the oppressiveness of Singapore, Dubai was scorching, but bearable. "After the flight I feel like I need another week or two off", Vadim murmured, leaning back in the seat.

"No chance", Dan grinned, letting his hands run over the cool, smooth leather. "You got to go to Berlin, while I get to enjoy the luxury of the embassy a little longer." Turning to Vadim, "you remember what I told you many years ago?"

"Which of the many things?"

Dan leaned closer, grinning from ear to ear as he lowered his voice, "that you are ruled by your cock."

"It's not that, Dan. It's not about ..." sex, he thought. But of course he knew what would happen. It wasn't about playing chess, and in a way it was because Hooch looked much like Dan. Which, strangely, might have been part of Jean's attraction for Dan. Were they just both looking for a similar type, minus ten years? "Not just that."

"I know." Dan settled back. "I can see how you two can become good mates. He's not exactly a chatterbox, and well, it just fits. Friends are important, aye?"

Vadim grinned. "I get the weirdest feeling ... I feel almost protective? At the same time, I know he's a hard bastard and doesn't need anything like that, never mind I can't actually protect him, but ... I don't know."

"You think that no one can be that controlled all the time, aye?"

"Bingo. That's exactly it. I ... know about bottling up, I guess. All too well, really." Vadim rolled his eyes.

"You think Hooch needs some way of letting it all out, and you want to offer him an outlet?" Dan smiled.

"Maybe he's just a thrillseeker like you. I don't know. I only know that I worry about him, and I don't do that often. There's a select few, really."

"Hope I'm not one of them." Dan winked, "because I wouldn't want anyone to worry about me. Not even you. I'll be fine."

Vadim grinned. "Of course. But I may be concerned ... interested, at least?"

"Only as long as you are interested in the contents of my trousers." Dan grinned, glancing up as they rolled through the gates of the compound.

"Pointless, if you're naked."

"One-track mind, and fuck, am I glad about it." Dan grinned, but then the limo stopped.

Vadim grinned and stepped out, and had to remember not to carry his own luggage. They did that. 'They' being the staff. Strange, after the self-reliance of the farm, or, indeed, all their lives.

Dan stepped out, and that very moment the door opened, as if on cue. The Baroness appeared, standing on the top of the stairs and smiling brightly. She didn't seem to have changed at all; same elegance, same pearls, same bomb-proof hairdo.

And there she was, Dan's lady friend. Vadim watched Dan and her, smiling slightly, as Dan's face broke into a bright grin, climbing the steps. He twitched, but then shook her hand with both of his, and he leaned close. "I almost hugged you, Ma'm." Grinning like a fool.

"Oh dear, Dan, wouldn't that have been against the protocol. My oh my." She laughed lightly, holding his hand for a long time, smiling at him, for once on the same height, standing a step above him.

"It's good to see you. Very good." Dan finally let go of her hand, "it's been a while since I last lost a chess game."

Vadim stepped closer. "That's because you never play against me, Dan."

"It's bad enough if I lose against her ladyship, I really couldn't stomach losing against my lover."

The Baroness chuckled and Vadim cast an amused glance at Dan, then proceeded to shake her hand. "It's good to see you again", he said, heartfelt. "And of you to see us."

"I always have time for my friends." She smiled, holding onto Vadim's hand as well, before letting go and making an inviting gesture. "Come on in and refresh yourselves. Dinner is in an hour, and there is no need to dress up."

Vadim grinned at that, then straightened his face. "Thank you kindly. A shower is certainly welcome." Glancing at Dan with a raised eyebrow. There was no need for a blowjob to get rid of the tension - but it would certainly be welcome.

Dan ignored the eyebrow, at least pretended to. They were led back into the same room they had occupied before, welcoming them with elegance and luxury, something Dan hardly noticed. "So, you heard her ladyship, we have an hour. Want a quick snooze, or what about a bath? The tub is certainly large enough."

"Snooze later. I'd go for a bath ... just relax after the flight." Vadim shed his shirt already and frowned. "I'm sweaty and I feel disgusting."

"Yeah, you really are." Dan stood suddenly in front of him, hands on Vadim's chest. "Really … disgusting …"

"I can tell how ... appalled you are ..." Vadim let his head roll back as Dan took hold of him, fingers suddenly everywhere and he was in no mood to protest. Much good it would have done him anyway, and when his turn came, all the better, because his knees felt weak post-orgasm anyway. The bath afterwards was just perfect for the comedown, and they took the time to 'cuddle' in the bathtub, washing each other lazily and enjoying the water and the heat.

When they were drying off, Dan grinned sharply. "You think we are getting too soft?"

"On what count?" Vadim was about to shave, hot water in the washing basin, safety razor ready, and shaving foam carefully distributed in his face. Lifting his face a bit, he watched Dan in the mirror that was fogged up at the edges. "Sex-wise or personality-wise, or what-else-wise?"

"Sex-wise? Fuck, no. Personality-wise, maybe." Rubbing his hair vigorously, Dan managed to stop the drips from the silver-streaked dark mane. "You know, getting older and losing the thirst for blood, as you always say. Meeting my family, and actually talking to my brother, stuff like that." He slung the towel around his hips, "and not to forget all that 'cuddling'." The grin grew even sharper, if possible.

Vadim flashed a grin, then concentrated on the razor cleaning away the stubble on the left side. Swiping the blade through the water, he looked up again. "Tempered, yes. Strange, really. How you have to reduce a personality to build a soldier, removing the doubts and the fears and the 'selfish drives' - and how good soldiers rarely make good or deep people." Vadim began to shave the other side. "I prefer to call this 'reclaiming my humanity'." A quick glance to Dan. "Because that's what I prefer to be. Human."

Dan leaned against the glass door of the shower, watching Vadim through the mirror, until Vadim was almost finished shaving. "I think I said that once, didn't I?"

Vadim checked for remaining stubble with his fingertips, then splashed the soap off with water, and dried his face with a towel. "Did you? Damn. And I thought that was my nugget of wisdom."

"No." Dan smiled, "the wisdom is all yours. I've never been one for the wisdom stuff, but wanting to be human … I remember that, that feeling of being …" he shrugged, "of not feeling, I guess. Of forgetting that being human means a lot more than eating, shitting, sleeping and scraping through to stay alive." Pausing, he leaned his head against the glass behind him, "it was in the cave, remember? On the plateau. We hadn't seen each other for some crazy shit like nine or ten months."

"You'd bled out all the war inside you. I remember." Vadim turned, studying Dan like that, and feeling as if he should burst with tenderness. "R&R is all about being human. Meeting friends and family. Remembering who we were ... or could have been." In my case, could have been, he thought. "That will get us to the end. I'm sure of that."

"Never used to have R&R like that. Used to get pissed, visit mates, that was that. Never used to have friends. How things have changed." Dan smiled, stepped close, touched Vadim's smooth face with his stubbly one, before taking his place at the sink. "Just not sure what 'the end' is."

"Death." Vadim grinned. "We all die. But hopefully of old age, on a sun-drenched afternoon, sitting on the porch, looking at those useless apple trees or the mountains." Vadim kissed Dan's neck, who chuckled and shook his head.

"We can't afford sitting on the porch all day after active service. Not just financially, we'd die of boredom!"

"There's that. You raked up a pension, I haven't." Vadim shrugged. He had, but it was unlikely he could ever claim it. Not that it was much, the way things were going in Russia at present.

"My pension is small." Dan shrugged, "I never made it to the full twenty-two years, remember?"

"Yeah. But what we make as mercs should fill that gap. In any case, I think that's the best thing. Dying, I mean. I'd get sick of it if we were immortal."

"I give you that, but of boredom?" Dan picked up his own can of shaving foam and lathered his face.

"I said old age, Dan." Vadim placed a hand between Dan's shoulder blades on his naked back, the skin warm and smooth from the bath. "No idea. What can old battle horses like us do? I don't see us doing security shifts in a warehouse or something. Ideally, it would be something relatively easy that doesn't involve any physical work."

Dan began to shave, now and then his dark eyes flickering towards Vadim, looking at him through the mirror. "No physical work? Why? That's all I know and have ever been good at."

"Because getting older means getting weaker. Losing stamina. Coordination. Eye-sight."

Dan's eyes closed up, like shields going up, and he moved his gaze away from Vadim to concentrate on his own face. "Not yet."

"No." Vadim turned to get his clothes. "Not for several years." He likely had faced the effect of age on his body for far longer. Knowing he wouldn't be able to compete at sports much beyond thirty, not in his chosen disciplines. And that without constant work, and the four year interval, he'd had only one chance, could possibly have had two, if they'd let him, but they'd put their money, their expectations on younger men, more gifted than he'd ever been. The feeling of being 'too old' at thirty had prepared him for what he'd be facing very soon. Could already feel it encroach, the fact he didn't regenerate as fast as he used to, seemed to feel pain more astutely, ran out of strength, and didn't react as fast. It was a long way down from the peak he'd reached, but he had been aware for years that he was on the way down.

Dan swilled the razor, then washed his face, skin smooth now. Closing his eyes for a moment as he held onto the sink. Ignoring the constant low-level ache in his knees and the increasing intervals of 'twinges' in the right one. No. He didn't belong to the scrapheap. Not yet.

"We have time to think about it later, aye?" Dan turned around, facing Vadim. Stubble and foam swirling down the plughole.

"I believe in preparation." Vadim grinned. "Like the fact that I've found you some clothes that you can wear - they are out on the bed."

Dan sighed and walked over to get dressed. Putting on whatever Vadim wanted him to wear was the easy thing - far easier than thinking about it himself - but the rest … he didn't want to be reminded of retirement, couldn't bear the subject. It was all he'd ever done and all he'd ever known. Most importantly, all he'd ever wanted. Apart from Vadim. "How the hell am I going to dress myself when you're off to Berlin?" Dan joked half-heartedly.

"Doesn't matter, really, because I'm not there to see it." Vadim smiled. "You manage fine without me ..." Running a hand over his short hair, which was already mostly dry, as he watched Dan sit down to get dressed. "At worst, I can leave you a phone number."

"Yeah, good idea, I'll phone you in my mornings, so you can tell me what to wear that day." Dan laughed out loud, tying his shoe laces before standing up to close the belt buckle. "I have a funny feeling you'd soon want to whop my arse, especially if I happen to …" waggling his brows, "disturb you during anything important."

Vadim grinned. "I might not answer the phone right away." Moving closer again to run a hand through Dan's damp hair. "And I guess you'll find some good ways to spend the time yourself."

"Aye, I'll stay a few days here, catching up with Maggie. Might check out a flight to the US after all, I'll leave it to my whim and to Matt's roster." Dan smiled, close his shirt but left the top button open, refusing to wear a tie. Slipped into the jacket, though. The air conditioned rooms tended to be cool, and in any way, he knew the baroness liked him to make an effort. "I just don't like sleeping on my own. Now, how fucking sad is that?"

"Not sad at all." Vadim smiled. "My feeling is, a few days apart might result in some interesting ideas when we're back in the same room. Bedroom, especially." He pointedly glanced at the bed.

"You think they do mail order to hotel rooms?"

"Pretty sure. Why wouldn't they? And what are you going to order?"

Dan's grin began to take on epic proportions as he straightened his jacket. "Remember the catalogue the guys gave me in Glasgow?"

Vadim swallowed. "I do. Now I do wonder what you are planning." He shrugged into his own jacket, then headed towards the door to open it for Dan.

"We'll see." Dan followed Vadim, the grin never waning as he walked behind him, watching the broad back and the way the muscular buttocks moved beneath the fine cloth. He drew up close when they reached the door to the dining room, squeezing Vadim's arse, "and it's all mine, too." Murmured, before he opened the door.

Vadim grinned at that, again wondering whether he should call off the meeting with Hooch, but he did think that occasional separation might be actually good - provided it wasn't for too long. No more months and months, maybe just a week here or there. That wouldn't do any harm and gave them time to pursue their interests. Even if those interests were other men. Hooch was nobody one could have a relationship with, he assumed, and the feelings in this case were more friendship than that frantic need that he'd felt with Dan.

The baroness was standing at a mahogany side board, pouring drinks from a crystal carafe. "So good to see you." She smiled, "especially with you having put so much effort into the appearance." Dan could have sworn she was winking at him, as she walked towards them with a small silver tray in her hand, carrying three glasses. "I gave most of the staff an evening off and we only have skeleton staff here, so don't expect the usual standard. I took the liberty to believe that being amongst the three of us would make for a nicer evening."

Vadim smiled and took his glass off the tray. "It should only take a skeleton staff to feed Dan strawberry tarts, I assume."

She laughed lightly, while Dan rolled his eyes, and Vadim studied her for a little, politely curious. She was holding up well, and as his mind had been pondering age, he wondered how old she was and how she'd accepted ageing. But he wouldn't ask her - that would be a major faux pas and, besides, she was a woman, and they took it worse, according to everything he knew. He remembered Katya discovering a minor line under the eye one morning. "It should be a perfect evening. Something to fly half around the world for."

Dan smiled. "Frankly, I would have flown even further."

She raised her brows in astonishment, as she took a sip.

"Aye." Dan took a sip himself, not quite sure where to go from there. "It's just that … it's good to talk to you."

She smiled with genuine warmth, nodding to both of them. "It is, and I am pleased that you'll be able to stay a few days. I am looking forward to catching up." She paused, "there are not many I wish to catch up with."

Dan felt ridiculously pleased, his smile turning into a wide grin, and he remembered what he'd said to Vadim not long ago. That he'd never had friends, true friends, and how much life had changed.

"Would you like to come to the table?" She made an inviting gesture, "the cook prepared a selection of courses, and the pied de resistance is a fondue."


"Yes, Dan, meat, prepared in advance, with a variety of sauces and fresh bread, to be cooked on the table." She pointed to the set-up in the centre of the round table that had been brought in instead of the normal rectangular one.

"Never had it, but I've heard about it." Vadim headed over to pull the chair for the Baroness, acting without thinking much, then hesitated whether it had been the right thing to do.

She smiled at him and sat down, thanking him, while Dan sat down as well.

"Red wine or white wine?"

"I'd go with red", murmured Vadim. "Dark meat, strong flavours." He took over the care of the wine, opening and then pouring the wine, taking the table service out of the Baroness' hands. He didn't expect Dan to know what to do, and it seemed wrong to let her do that. Left him. He had at least a vague idea about how to do all this. Far from flawless, he assumed, but it seemed worthwhile to learn about the rest.

"Thank you, that is very kind of you." The Baroness nodded towards Vadim, before pulling a trolley closer, laden with a variety of first courses. "Would you mind helping yourselves?" She took some melon and Parma ham herself, leaving Dan to simply take some of each, as always starving already. Then it was Vadim's time to choose, who tried just about everything, but in small portions, then discovering some favourites, like a mellow sheep's cheese wrapped in ham, and green olives.

She took her glass and raised it, "to your health, gentlemen."

"And to Auld Lang Syne." Dan continued, smiling first at her, then Vadim, before the glasses clinked and they had a mouthful of the exquisite vintage, which enhanced the lingering flavour of the food.

"Now, do forgive me, but I must admit I am curious. How have you been faring?" She was looking at Vadim. "My old friend told me you were there for a visit?"

"Just a quick visit, really, but I'm faring well. I think it's all settling in my head, eventually." Less nightmares, even though the feeling of dread was always close under the surface. He felt more sane than he'd had for years, but he could feel the scars if he reached for them. Never mind the doctor had pointed out just how dependant he was on Dan, and that he didn't face that problem. It wasn't just the love - it was the fact that he had no other shot at a regular, civilian life, no other shot at a meaningful relationship. He didn't believe that he could go through all that trouble again to hook up with anybody else. Make himself that vulnerable again. "I'll be heading out to Berlin in a little while. An ... American friend of mine is visiting, and I'm curious how this ... re-unified Germany is like."

"Oh, I am sure you will enjoy your time. I went there not so long ago, on business, but I had the pleasure of staying in Potsdam with a day for cultural exploits."

"I can just imagine." Dan murmured, grinning. "All the same to me."

"You are incorrigible." The Baroness chided Dan gently, but her fondness for him was always obvious. "You haven't told me yet, are you planning to stay here before going to Berlin?"

"No, Ma'm." Dan was still grinning from having been told off, "or rather, I'm not sure yet. I might be visiting a friend in the US for a weekend."

She smiled, a faintly curious expression on her face. "You both seem to have developed a fondness for America."

To his credit, Dan hardly coughed, when he replied quietly, "I wouldn't quite call it that." Busying himself with finishing the first course, then reaching for the first bowl of meat. Beef, the others were pork, chicken, turkey, and lamb.

"Ah, but they made Dan a hero, with medals and all the trimmings."

"I heard, of course." She smiled, dabbing her lips with the damask napkin. "After all, I had suit and medals sent out per express shipping."

Vadim poured her some more wine, and then himself. "I guess some Americans aren't all that bad. Even though I'm not quite sure how deeply they looked into my security files before I got a lesser medal back in the Gulf."

She nodded, "I was wondering abut that. Do you believe you might have complications entering the United States?"

"Possibly. I do wonder how long the memory of the only remaining superpower is."

"I could investigate for you."

Vadim hesitated, his training telling him that prodding around could make them suspicious. But he didn't play any more games like that. "If it isn't too much trouble", he murmured. "It would take care of something I've been wondering for a while, and now that we have some American friends ..."

"Of course." She nodded, while Dan was glancing at her, from beneath his lashes.

"And now, please do tuck into the meat, my cook did his utmost best to invent some accompanying sauces, so he reassured me." She picked up a piece of meat and lowered it into the sizzling oil with the thin and long-handled fork.

Dan was fairly quiet throughout, mostly concentrating on the food, which was too slow for his liking, until the baroness pointed a second set of forks out to him.

They were on the second bottle of wine and well into enjoying the fondue, when she went from the pleasant chit-chat and amused banter, to a more serious question. "I assume you have not been contacted yet with your marching orders?"

Dan shook his head, while mopping up a concoction of several sauces on his plate. "No. But we've been busy travelling - maybe they didn't know where to send them. Where's the job this time?"

"Surely you have heard of the troubles in the Balkans?" She delicately speared a piece of lamb onto her skewer before submerging it into the sizzling oil.

"Aye," Dan nodded, "was wondering about that."

"Well, I have been tasked with the somewhat delicate duty of overseeing British interests and diplomatic endeavours in the area. However, since it is rather high profile, I shall do so from Budapest. Belgrade has been deemed too dangerous, and Bucharest not suitable." She never noticed the moment's hesitation in Dan.

"Another place that blows up since the Iron Curtain has come down." Vadim ran his finger along the glass. The job would very likely not involve fighting shoulder to shoulder with the Serbs, he figured. Serbian brother nation. Long, strong, historic ties. He shouldn't even consider those, given that he was a mercenary now.

"Indeed. We will need good men on the ground to aid in day-to-day tasks that cannot be carried out by British soldiers, neither under the flag of the UN." She checked on her meat, then left it to cook a little longer. "I would like you to report to the camp near Belgrade next month." Choosing a sauce, she concentrated on pouring a measure, before looking up, first at one, then the other man. "I know your professional pasts, but I nevertheless have to warn you. Gentlemen, what you will encounter might be beyond your experiences."

"Pardon?" Dan looked up, piece of bread in one hand, sauce-dripping meat in the other. "There can't be anything we haven't seen yet." Glancing at Vadim.

She tilted her head, face carefully guarded, her eyes devoid of any emotion. "Let me just say, that this is not a war of any kind you might have encountered. Unofficially, I see the threat of genocide. Brother against brother. But officially, I have not mentioned such a thing."

"Civil war." And I'll be on the wrong side, Vadim thought. The Russian part of me will fight against brothers. Considering what it had led to so far, wouldn't it have been better to keep the Iron Curtain up? What exactly had Gorbachev done when he'd delivered everything into enemy hands? He shook his head. He didn't want to think about it. Not after what they'd done to him.

"I am afraid, yes."

Dan shook his head, "can't be worse than camping with the Mujas." He hadn't expected her look, which silenced him, and he frowned. "Any wine left?" He wasn't going to worry about an assignment prematurely. If his life had taught him anything, then it was to live life as it happened.

Vadim nodded and poured him the rest of that bottle. "Russia won't be taking it lying down. The new politicians are one thing, but the Soviet Army can't have changed much. I'd rather say the same about the Interior Ministry and the secret services." He frowned. "Damn, I should have followed the news more." But again, watching the news was more often than not, painful. No day without something that reminded him, something about countries that had changed beyond recognition.

"This is not about Russia," she shook her head, "this is about an age-old grudge, a defeat five hundred years ago, and two religions, two ethnicities. A country, suddenly divided by a division that had been subtle. Bosniaks and Serbs, Croatia and Serbia, Muslims and Christians, and once again the question of who and why and wherefore." She looked straight at Vadim, "however, I deal with the present."

"As we should", Vadim murmured, acceding.

Dan had chucked down his wine, holding the glass out for more. "Any left?"

Vadim reached for the third bottle and opened it. "I think this will be one of our last ones", he murmured. "Wars, I mean. Even though Dan hates to think about it, I believe we should talk about what to do in retirement from active service."

Dan groaned, this wasn't getting any better. So much for a pleasant evening.

"I must apologise," the Baroness looked suddenly stricken. "I should not have brought up the subject of your next assignment over dinner. Please do accept my apologies?" Looking from Vadim to Dan, lingering at the latter.

"It's okay," he pulled his lips into a smile, "as long as I get some more booze and the fondue keeps bubbling away."

"But is the subject of retirement such an unwelcome one as well, Dan?" She smiled slightly, taking the opened bottle out of Vadim's hand with a gentle nod, and pouring a glass for both of the men.

"Is and is not." He shrugged. "I know it will happen, I just don't know what I'll do when it's time. Active service is all I've ever known all my life. All I ever wanted to do."

"But surely you two must have amassed an unparalleled wealth of experience throughout your active careers?"

"Hm?" Dan uttered around his mouthful of wine.

"I'm certainly not writing a 'Tell all' book", Vadim murmured. "And it's bad enough what passes as 'military biography' these days." Not that he could read much, but it was enough to get the gist of it - and the fact that most were deeply amateurish in military terms or badly written if the guy was actually writing it himself.

She smiled, "I never had anything like this in mind, but have you ever thought of making use of your combined military intelligence? I know that in certain circles your expertise would be most appreciated, and that such consultation does not come cheap."

"Mercenaries of the mind instead of the body?" Dan asked, before filling up on meat.

"You ask if you should sell your soul?" She chuckled quietly. "No, Dan."

"Not that we haven't done that already." Dan murmured.

"Pardon?" She looked at him, but he said nothing, masking the lack of answer by busily chewing.

"Consultation." Vadim mulled this through. He certainly had the background - and even better, the experience for it. Counting the fact that many of the Eastern bloc nations were blowing up, predictably, One by one, and he was an ' insider', he assumed that, indeed, even his educated guesses about these places could be valuable. "Beats tabbing and tin huts by a mile", he murmured. "Can you establish those contacts?"

She nodded, "I'd be more than happy to help my friends." Smiling, "apart from conferences and private consultations, there is military intelligence that does not officially listen to the advise of consultants, but … let me just reassure you, gentlemen, that unofficially, there is a lot of work to be had, if one has the right contacts." With a gleam in her eyes that looked positively youthful, if not mischievous, she added, "and I have them." Raising her glass in a toast, she drank a mouthful. "To a fruitful retirement."

Dan looked at her, said nothing, but raised his glass as well, emptying it just so he could ask for another refill.

Vadim, however, grinned. He was only too aware of the fact it took the right door opener to lead a good life. Once upon a time, he'd had some contacts, but he'd never really used them - not much. Just moving people and gear around to keep the military machine going. He was sure he could play that game better now. Less to lose, for once, and more to gain. "That should fill up a few years", he murmured, and refilled glasses. "And pay for whatever needs to be done with the farm and some extra."

"Aye," Dan looked up, "at least that's a damn good reason." The only one he could think of right now, but he'd cross the bridge when he got to it, and right now he was still in active service, as long as those damned knees were playing along.

The baroness smiled, and while they were finishing off the fondue, the conversation went towards calmer waters. Helped by the booze that had pulled Dan back into a lighter mood, forgetting about what had been going on before. When they finally had dessert, he had his fill with the strawberry tarts, while a fine drop of whisky was flowing. Exchanging stories of their past that made them sometimes laugh, other times chuckle, and all the time smile.

May 1992, Berlin, Germany

Germany was cold and overcast. That seemed to be the standard for this country when he arrived, and Vadim smiled, flashing the British passport as he was scrutinised by the border police. The big black booklet made things much easier, he thought, then gathered his belongings and soon hailed a taxi. Hearing the language again threatened to transport him back into the late seventies, when the city had been very different. The German colleagues had always considered him an outsider, somebody to be wary of, and they took their paperwork incredibly seriously, that much he remembered. He'd always been seen as an 'uncle from Moscow'. Somewhat amused by the way they were so precise and without humour, and always somehow nervous and scared, as if he would report them at the slightest incidence.

He'd never undertaken anything else with them, had kept his distance instead, but he'd forced himself to speak German, even though their dialects had been colourful indeed. He remembered Kraemer, from Leipzig, a tall guy with a somewhat misshapen face who had been incomprehensible. And a few colleagues from Dresden, who hadn't been much better. His ear for dialect wasn't the best, but he'd struggled through their language, because it betrayed the German character, and he felt it was more polite than force them to speak Russian.

Driving through the city, there were construction sites everywhere. As if Berlin had erupted into cranes and piles of building material. The part of the city that he remembered looked poorer and greyer than the western part, due to the bombardment and massive destruction wrought in the war. It had been more important to house all these people - and the refugees - than to make any allowances for quaintness or beauty. German beauty was always efficiency, he'd had reflected. Berlin had been a word of inspiration, of achievement. He'd read about the race for Berlin, with Stalin threatening his generals, promising death and dishonour to those who'd get outpaced in the race for the German capital - and how much blood that haste had cost.

The Russian embassy was still in the old place, flying different colours, though, which felt strange. He paid the taxi driver to take him to the places he knew, or had heard about: the significant areas. The Wall. The Reichstag. The place where he'd once almost been tempted to blow his own cover, a seedy bar, where he'd gone to drink, not eye up any of the natives. Nothing had happened, however. Not in his position, not as a foreigner in this country. They must have smelled who and what he was - and despite the lip service, Vadim could feel that the resentment against the Russians ran fairly deep.

Others - simple people, those that had been exposed to the war, felt differently, he thought, especially when he showed that he respected their culture and language. "Hier ist es", he said to the taxi driver, pointing at a grey house with a cafe inside. The taxi driver pulled over, he paid him in Marks, took his suitcase, and had to remind himself that he didn't have to remember to pick up any peaked cap. This city had a way to turn him back into a Soviet officer.

It had been an impulse. He headed into the cafe, noticed the shabbiness inside, the stale smoke, the same selection of bottles in front of the mirror. Cafe by day, bar by night. Nothing fancy, rather 'poofig' as the Berliners called it. Shabby. The coffee had tasted like battery acid, he remembered, but he could drink a good tea here.

Frau Klein appeared in the door, rotund and short, she looked faded and pale. Wearing a flowery dress that made her look like the local 'Putze', a cleaning lady. She looked at him as if she did not truly welcome any custom now. That, too, was so typical of this city. The grudging not quite acceptance.

"Was darf's sein?" she grunted, and Vadim couldn't help but smile. She looked at him, irritated, then clapped her hands in front of her ample bosom that looked just like another, somewhat higher layer of tummy. "Ja, der Herr Krasnorada! Ist das denn die Moeglichkeit!"

It sounded more like 'Meeglichkeijt", and it made Vadim laugh. "Ja. Derselbe." Not quite 'the very same', but that was of no consequence. Not to this woman.

"Tee? Pfannkuchen? Ich kann rasch welche machen! Nein, ist das scheeen. Setzen Sie sich!"

Vadim sat down at the bar, and, as promised, she came back soon with a steaming hot tea for him, served just right - the Russian way, he reflected. Just a little later she appeared with a pancake with apple pieces in it, served with white sugar and mashed apple. She still made that herself, her grandmother had an apple tree that she plucked for her. Some things apparently never changed.

Vadim glanced through the window, across the street. The main reason why he knew this place was that he'd lived just across the street, second floor, where he could see the curtains and what looked like a row of potted plants and either a fat red cat or a pillow with a tabby pattern. He hadn't seen a point to always prepare his own meals during his time here, and he had been somewhat lacking in adventuring spirit on normal work days. While he'd eaten in the best places on weekends, when people tried to impress him or ingratiate themselves, and had been invited home by the German colleagues, this place had been something of a default.

He asked how she was doing and listened to her tales, of how Eastern Germany had quite unexpectedly won its freedom, how the Soviet/Russian army had pulled out - including 'the good boys', as she put it, briefly touching his hand and smiling at him, making sure he understood she counted him among the 'good boys'. Telling him about the woes that were high unemployment numbers, rising rent, and the fact the East was treated as a second-rate place that should be patient and wait out the West's mercies and largesse. Her daughter had moved to live in the west, and had married there. It wasn't easy, but they'd pull through. Berlin. A tale of down-to-earthiness that Vadim felt deeply attracted to, somehow.

Vadim pushed the plate back when she offered to make him another pancake, shaking his head and lifting a hand. "Nein, danke", he declined the offer, but took another tea.

"Was bringt Sie her? Urlaub?" Asking whether he was here on vacation.

"Ich treffe Freund", said Vadim, then shook his head. "Einen Freund." Dropping articles again. Accusative. He was meeting a friend, which would have been 'ein Freund', but the German language had a case system, like Russian, and this had been Accusative: einen Freund.

"Oh, ein alter Kamerad?"

"Ja - aber nicht mein Kamerad. Ein Amerikaner." Vadim smiled at her astonishment that his old comrade was an American. Long, complicated story. "Das ist eine lange Geschichte", Vadim said. She, too, picked up that it must have been a strange story. Soviet officers didn't have that many American friends, and she might assume now he'd been a double agent during his time in Berlin. Which likely led to some thoughts that were not altogether wrong. He told her he was doing fine, that he'd left Russia, and that he was just refreshing memories, and it had been nice seeing her again. That he'd try to do that again, if time permitted.

Strangely refreshed after the long, friendly chat with Frau Klein, he left the place almost two hours later, got into another taxi, back to the train station, and headed out to Potsdam, which was a short way by train.

This now was an interesting city, thoroughly Prussian and militaristic in its time, built to house the Prussian army, which seemed only fitting. A taxi took him to a leafy part of the town, where he picked up the keys for the bungalow he'd rented. It stood on a patch of land, with trees shielding it from the street and everywhere else. The place had been done up and restored recently, he could smell the paint and wood chips still in the house. Catering to holiday-makers that didn't want to miss anything. Sauna. Whirlpool. Two bedrooms, space, glass, green all around. Large TV. He brought the suitcase into one of the bedrooms and unpacked, then sat in the kitchen for a while, before he made himself another tea. The fridge was stocked as ordered, and he scouted the general area when he went jogging just a little later, locating places to eat and shop on the way. Ending the day with a long soak in the bathtub.

The phone rang shortly after he'd left the tub.

Vadim padded over to the phone. "Yes?"

"What, no declarations of missing me and being unable to sleep because you haven't got your favourite 'cuddle toy'?" Dan was laughing into the phone.

Vadim yawned. "I haven't gone to bed yet." He grinned, opened the fridge and poured himself some milk. "Plus, this is a rented place. Any number of people could call. How are you?"

"It's the middle of the bloody night, Maggie has beaten me three times in a row at chess and twice at poker, I mean, at poker! That lady is a menace, I tell you, and I am having a large double dram of whisky to chill, but the bed is damned big."

"Her poker face is easily better than yours", Vadim grinned. "I might be able to help you with the chess when I come back, but I was never the greatest player, mind you."

"Take it your flight was alright? Did you do some exploring? Never been to Berlin, what's it like?" The sound of Dan taking a sip of the whisky was heard.

"Feels exactly like fifteen years ago." Vadim grinned, leaning against the work surface. "I like it. Didn't trigger any bad memories. I don't think I have any of this place ... well, apart from working here for five or six months. We were flushing out some spies, back then. Took a while, and I was sent to have an eye on the Germans, which might or might not have sped up matters, depending on your interpretation."

"Funny, you never told me." The smile in Dan's voice was replaced with an audible yawn.

"I have no secrets, I can tell you the whole story at some point, if you want."

"I'll hold you to that one day." Dan yawned again, "Damn, it's late." A pause, "I'm glad the place doesn't bring up bad memories." Another pause, the sound of the whisky again. "Hooch's arriving soon, aye?"

"I assume sometime tonight, or maybe early tomorrow. Depends whether he gets a train."

"I won't call, I'll wait for you to call me. Don't want to seem like a jealous lover who's checking up on you." Dan chuckled.

"Are you?"

There was a pause before Dan answered, with the faintest of sounds that could be a chuckle. "No, Vadim, I am not. You're my Russkie, and no one will change that. Sleep well, tovarish."

"But I miss you", said Vadim, softly. "I'll call you tomorrow, okay? I'm pretty much headed to bed, too. Will be weird without you."

"Aye, I miss sleeping with you. Guess I'll have to cradle the pillow." A soft laugh was heard from Dan, and then a tender, "good night, Russkie." In Russian, before the line went dead.

Vadim smiled and slowly put the receiver down, standing there, pensive for several long moments. Dan cradling the pillow. He could just see it. He shook his head, switched off the light in the kitchen and headed into the bedroom which he'd set up - fresh bedcloth, pillows, the whole deal. He assumed Hooch would sleep in this room, too. If not, there was another possibility. He took the second key out of the drawer, opened the door of the house, checked around, but there was no sound, no motion, nothing on the property. He crouched and pushed the key under the mat, then stood and closed the door again. Not a careful thing to do, but that meant Hooch could enter whenever he wanted.

Vadim was asleep fairly soon, and the neighbourhood was quiet, hardly a car driving past. It was around three in the morning when a taxi pulled up and a man got out, shouldering a heavy duty backpack, closing the car door behind him with care. The dark haired man looked around himself, then headed towards the bungalow, the house number clearly visible in the streetlight. Knowing where to look, he was feeling under the door mat with one hand, finding the key and letting himself into the property, locking behind him. All done with smooth movements, efficiency, and hardly any sound.

Once inside, he put the backpack onto the floor in the hallway, then moved with the same silence towards the living room, which was empty and dark. Exploring further, he pushed the bedroom door open and paused for a moment, watching the figure on the bed, sprawled out and on his stomach, illuminated by the streetlight that came through the open windows. He took the few steps towards the bed and knelt down, watching the profile in the gloom.

It might have been breathing or a shift in gravity, but Vadim woke up, drifting, slowly, knowing it wasn't a nightmare, wasn't anything, and he opened his eye, half-turning as he looked at the room. There. A figure. For a moment he looked like Dan, but then he remembered it was Hooch. "Hi." Vadim turned fully, sitting up, still half sleep-dazed. "Looks like you found it. How are you?"

But Hooch put a finger onto his lips, hushing Vadim. The flash of his teeth gleamed briefly as he grinned. He shrugged out of his jacket, letting it drop to the floor. Pulling himself up, he knelt on the bed with shoes and all. Knees on each side of Vadim's thighs, his hands running from Vadim's biceps along his neck, chest, back down again, exploring without a word.

Vadim grinned - he hadn't actually expected an answer, had he? He moved, shifting his weight to lie down, stretching out and pulling Hooch closer by his clothes. Trying for a kiss, and astutely aware that he was completely naked and Hooch fully dressed, minus jacket, just with the duvet between them. A minor hindrance that Hooch was getting rid off before following the pull.

Answering the kiss, there wasn't a moment of hesitation, and Hooch's lips opened, his tongue seeking for entrance in return, which was granted. Hands between their bodies, one moving straight for Vadim's cock, the other working on opening his own fly, and Vadim groaned. Wanting the hand there, the touch, moving to help Hooch free himself, shifting his legs to accommodate him better, and pulling him further down. That taste was Hooch and just like he remembered, the desire turning to lust when Hooch ground against him.

Cock against cock, Hoch's hand helping the friction, his body using increasing strength as he moved faster, harder, hips bearing down, crushing, trapping, harshly grinding his cock against and into Vadim's. His breath came faster, and their kiss turned into a fierce battle, all the time keeping his eyes open. Vadim, however, closed his, allowing himself to be washed away by the desire, the strength. All body, no thought, pressure and movement just right, and he came, pulling the other man down and bucking against him, groaning deeply.

Hooch seemed to drink in each sound, every touch, but when Vadim moved his head to pull in air, Hooch sat up, straddling Vadim, his cock still hard, weeping, and heavy in his hand. He was watching Vadim, dark eyes intense. Just watching, with an incredible amount of control stroking his cock slowly, despite the urgency his body betrayed.

Vadim grinned, licking his lips. "Want me to suck you?" Knowing that Hooch liked his games, that he enjoyed the control, and that he had intended for Vadim to come first. Hooch never did anything by accident.

Hooch nodded, scooting up and closer, his cock at Vadim's lips. He couldn't watch this time, but he could feel. Hands gripping the headboard, face towards the wall.

Vadim placed a hand in the small of Hooch's back, part to steady himself, part to be able to communicate, in a fashion, as he opened his lips and took him in. Nearly up to the throat, then back a bit, tongue lapping up the taste, a tang of sweat plus the need, the precum. A taste unlike Dan's, and yet so typically male. Vadim toyed with the head, cut, ran his tongue into the slit to gather more of that taste, playful himself because he had no urgency left in his body. It was just about Hooch, which was likely the reason why the Delta had brought him off first. He wanted to be taken time with. Vadim then moved the cock deeper, slowly getting past the point that was troublesome, but allowed Hooch to feel the way his throat constricted for a few altogether unpleasant moments - less unpleasant for Hooch, no doubt, and got him down the throat.

"Shit!" Hooch's involuntary exclamation was the reward for Vadim's troubles. The shudder that wrecked his body when Vadim repeated the routine, was everything but controlled. Hands tightening on the headboard, veins standing out, Hooch kept his hips still, nearly shaking with the effort, but managing to leave it all to Vadim.

Vadim took every inch, every fraction of it, not breathing, in control, and loving it, loving how Hooch responded to it. Fingers then sliding between Hooch's buttocks, finding the hole, running around it, across it, as Vadim tightened his throat, and moved back just a little, again to fight the choking reflex for Hooch's benefit, lingering there, right there, for as long as he could bear it, then moved back and took the cock again in one sweeping, fast motion, while pressing a finger through the ring of muscles at the same time.

Hooch came almost instantaneously, and despite his usual silence, a string of muttered "shit!" escaped his lips. Panting, eyes wide open, he still had his body enough under control not to slam forward.

Vadim moved back a little to be able to properly suck on him, taking as much from him as he could. Cleaning the cock and swallowing the cum, all of it, then released Hooch, who was getting himself back under control.

Vadim lay back, loosening his neck. "Get undressed", he murmured.

"Yeah, need a shower." Hooch flashed a half-grin, fingers working on his soiled shirt, which he soon pulled off and let it join the jacket on the floor.

Vadim grinned. "But this was more urgent? I'm flattered." He sat up again, yawning. "Want something to eat or drink? Towels are in the bathroom."

"Starving. Air plane food was shit." Hooch got off the bed, working on shoes, socks, then trousers. Finally naked, he bent down and picked up the bundle from the floor, to drape each piece neatly across a chair in the corner.

"Okay. I'll sort a salad or something." Vadim wiped his chest, then found some tight shorts in the wardrobe and slipped into them. Heading into the kitchen, he checked the fridge. "Caesar's salad okay? Some chicken and green leaf salad, that's pretty quick." Source of protein and green stuff. Very healthy, too.

"Yeah, anything." Hooch called from the hallway, before he found the right door and vanished into the bathroom. Leaving the door slightly ajar while he used the loo and had a shower.

Vadim first washed his hands, then found a pan and cut up the chicken breast, washed the salad and prepared it, while the chicken fried happily, and let it cool as he fixed the dressing, when Hooch appeared in the doorway. Short hair damp, unlit cigarette between his lips, lighter in one hand, and a towel around his hips. Watching as Vadim set two large bowls onto the table with cutlery. "What do you want to drink?"

"What do you have?"

"Water, tea, orange juice, beer, vodka." Looking at Hooch, suddenly wanting to smell and touch him again the way he stood there. "And milk."

Hooch grinned, "coffee?"

"Let me check." Vadim got up and headed over to check the cupboards, while Hooch sat down at the table, unlit cigarette and lighter beside his plate. The coffee machine stood there, and Vadim found filters and ground coffee, and in little time set up the coffee, then returned to his bowl with more of the milk and two mugs when it had run through, pouring himself the milk. "How was the travel?"

"Okay." Hooch shrugged, taking the coffee, black as it was. "Forgot how boring civilian air travel is." He flashed a grin before taking a sip of the hot brew, with obvious pleasure.

"It's supposed to be boring." Vadim laughed, tucking into his food. Chicken, green salad and parmesan were a match made in heaven, he thought, then ate in silence. Watching Hooch and not really expecting him to take over the conversation. There was no duty to talk with Hooch, which was relaxing in a way, even though Vadim was always curious what Hooch thought or would have said. He wanted to know about Matt, about Hooch's last mission, anything.

But Hooch remained silent, until he had finished his plate. Leaning back in his chair, he looked at Vadim with amusement. "Haven't eaten that healthy for months."

"Hope you don't mind", said Vadim, grinning. "What, did Matt not feed you properly? Or did you pick up burgers on the way to bed?"

"He can't cook." Hooch shrugged.

"Don't make me feel all domesticated ..." Vadim drank some of his milk while Hooch showed more than his usual half-grin, and held back from clearing away the bowls because that would only prove he was domesticated. "But he's okay? You guys having fun?"

"He's young." Didn't seem that Hooch had really thought about what he'd been doing. He shrugged, fished for the cigarette, asking without words if Vadim minded, and Vadim shook his head.

"Was good to see him after the shit in Angola. Know what I mean?"

"I think I do. It's good to have somebody so ... damn, wholesome?" Vadim shrugged. "He always seemed that way to me, really. Pure, in a way. Maybe a bit too shallow for me ... but he's a nice guy. Even better if he's good for you." Vadim cursed himself for not having kept an eye on Angola - but if they had sent Delta - official or unofficial - it must have been bad.

"Never thought about it." Hooch lit his cigarette.

Vadim cleared away the bowls and left them standing in the sink, then sat back down opposite Hooch. "Makes me wonder what my attraction is."

Hooch's eyebrows rose in a questioning expression. "To whom?"


"Don't know." Hooch pulled in smoke, exhaling slowly. "You and Dan, you understand." Drawled, eyes intent on Vadim, the same intensity he used for anything he did. "But you, you're different. You let me take my fill."

Vadim nodded, almost regretting having got Hooch this far, to actually speak about it, only that Hooch seemed fairly relaxed at the moment and far more talkative, and it was a rare moment anyway. "I have the feeling", he murmured, pausing briefly, "I can give you whatever you need ... I want to. Whatever's going on in your head. You can have it."

Hooch toyed with his lighter, all of his focus on his fingers, until he looked up, smoke curling out of his nostrils. "How far would you go?" Not elaborating any further, just looking at Vadim.

"How far do you need me to go? What do you want?"

Hooch's dark eyes never wavered, assessing Vadim, until he finally came to a decision. "When it's been really shit, I need to blow steam." Hooch stubbed the cigarette butt out on his plate. "Need to let go."

Vadim nodded, feeling the hairs on his arms stand up. It made sense, perfect sense. And Angola had been shit. "How do you do it? Normally?"

Hooch's fingers were still playing with the lighter. Round and round, without ever dropping it and without taking his eyes off Vadim. "Get myself to a big city. Go to a club. S/M. Find myself someone. The risk's shit, but I take it, or I blow." Hooch's lips quirked into a wry half-grin. "When I need it, I need it hard, but civilians don't get it."

Vadim closed his eyes for a moment, half shocked, half relieved, feeling the pressure dissipate, somehow. A lowered barrier, could feel he knew a secret and the explanation how Hooch had managed to stay together. "Makes sense", he murmured. "I always wondered how you do it." The thought of Hooch suffering at the hands of a stranger. Exposed, abused, torn apart, only to remain sane. It made so much sense. "Dan and me, we're ... somewhat adventurous. I guess you know that already, but yeah. If you want me to ... blow steam, I can do it."

Hooch smiled, some of the tension that was forever in his body flowing out of him, and he nodded. "Been a good week with Matt, but could do with more. Lost a buddy in the shithole."

Vadim stood and closed the distance to Hooch, placing a hand on his shoulder, not quite sure what to say. 'My condolences' was wrong, and anything else he could think of. "Come to bed." In truth, he wanted to hold him, stroke him, smell and touch, and that was awkward at the table. "The buddy was Delta?"

"Team member." Hooch stood up. "You got plans for tomorrow?"

"None, really. I have the whole week, more if I want to. Depends on you." Vadim stretched. "I'll have a jog and get some more food tomorrow. There's a bakery, a butcher ... all pretty close, and a supermarket."

Hooch turned to look at Vadim. "I'll be jetlagged. Wake me."

"I'll let the coffee do that." Vadim grinned and headed to bed, pulled the covers back and switched off all lights but the one on the nightstand. He lay down, watching Hooch join him, and adjusted the pillow in his neck.

Hooch turned his head to look at Vadim. "You got restraints here?"

"Would be just improvised stuff. But ... we could head into Berlin tomorrow. I'm pretty sure they should have places that offer these things." Or he could call Dan and asked for that catalogue. The thought made him grin.

"Yeah, bound to." A brief grin crossed Hooch's face at the involuntary pun.

"Indeed." And they probably even had gay bars. It would be a different side of Berlin, clearly, something that had nothing to do with his past. Vadim stretched out an arm and found the light switch, which left only the light outside to trace some lines. Vadim moved closer, his leg brushing Hooch's, and Hooch stretched. Resting his arm across Vadim's chest, legs touching, but he stayed where he was.

Vadim studied him for a while, strange to lie in bed with somebody not Dan, somebody he felt close to, no less. To make Hooch suffer. The thought intrigued him, slowly moved through his mind and gained conviction. "Sleep well", Vadim murmured, shifted and closed his eyes. No embrace, just touch, contact, but it was good.

Special Forces Chapter XXXXII: Wind of Change
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.

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


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Published 20 June 2008