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Special Forces Chapter XXXXIX: Peace on Earth

November/December 1992, the Balkans

It was still freezing cold and Dan could feel the chill to the very core of his body. Too exhausted, though, to worry about hypothermia. Just walking, one limping step after the other, his arm around Vadim, who was leaning against him, arm pressing onto the wound in his side.

The night was turning towards dawn, but both men were too weary to glance up, just kept moving. On and on, and if they had to crawl, they'd do that as well. Thirsty and hungry, exhausted and in too much pain to notice the sound of a vehicle in the distance.

But then something registered, and Vadim stopped, listening to the sound of a car - jeep, he assumed. Shit. He only hoped that this wasn't chetnik cavalry. "Off the road", he said, bone-weary, but not quite ready to give up.

"Fuck." Dan pressed out, too tired to move his lips much. But he didn't argue, knew too well that what separated a mere man from a special forces soldier: was to never give up. "How the fuck …" but he was already moving, hobbling, while yet still looking out for Vadim, trying to help him towards and down the side of the road, even though he could hardly keep balance.

Vadim grimaced, but truth was, the wound had worn him down badly, mentally as well as physically. Wouldn't have been an issue ten years ago. Fuck. He managed to get down and lie flat in the ditch, peering at the road. AK ready to fire, just in case, while Dan was still trying to get down and didn't manage with that stiffened knee. Pressing himself against the steep embankment instead. Glancing down at Vadim, Dan grimaced. The vehicle was getting close, he could feel the vibrations, and when he looked up, he saw it coming towards them.

A Landrover. Camouflaged. Military vehicle. Goddamned motherfucking UNPROFOR.

"Vadim!" Dan shouted, trying to get back up the ditch in time, but there was no way he could make it, lifting his rifle into the air instead, firing a round to garner attention. Hoping it wouldn't be answered with fire instead. "Hey!" The vehicle was coming to a halt. "Over here!"

Vadim pushed himself up and helped Dan up the ditch, while every strain pulled with teeth at Vadim's wound. Their side. Kind of. He grimaced again, holding his side, and tried to stand on his own two feet. Securing the AK, he slung it over his shoulder, studying the people in the car with impassiveness.

A couple of soldiers were jumping out of the vehicle, and Dan was flooded with relief when he saw the flags on their uniforms. British. Goddamnedmotherfucking Brits. "You been looking for us?" he grinned at the men, who were looking at them with undisguised curiosity.

"Dan McFadyen and Vadim Krasnorada?" One of the men asked and Dan nodded.

"Aye, the same. Get us the fuck out of here, will you? Vadim's injured, and my knee's fucked." Vadim just nodded to that. Too tired to feel much relief. Too tired to feel much of anything.

The man was pointing at the weapons, raising a brow. "I believe we take those with us, won't we?"

"Yes. They won't be missed." Vadim unslung the AK and then the Dragunov, holding them in both hands, while Dan did the same with his AK, while moving towards the car. "How did you know where to look?"

"We got alerted that you were missing when neither of you appeared for your shift. Yesterday morning, we were contacted by someone from the outside, who was able to give us additional information on where you might have been seen last. We found a burnt-out vehicle, and I have just been told that another wreck was located." The man raised his brow again while the other soldier took the weapons and secured them, then both of them helping first Vadim and then Dan into the back of the long wheel base Lannie. The benches were hard, but a hell of a lot better than stumbling along the road. "You will have to answer a bunch of questions, you are aware of that? The loss of vehicles, acquisition of weapons and a few other things."

Dan grinned tiredly, "Aye, but you haven't answered Vadim's question yet." Leaning against the back, he looked with relief at the water bottle that was handed to him, another to Vadim. "How did you know where to look?"

That brow went up again, as the soldier laconically answered, "Any organisation that isn't able to tap into underground sources is worth shit."

Dan grinned, tipped his head back and emptied a good portion of the bottle. "In that case, got any first aid on board?" The vehicle was setting into motion, slowly turning on the narrow road.

Vadim opened the bottle and drank, shifting on the bench to find a position that was the most comfortable. They'd get debriefed to hell, but right now, he was too tired to care. They'd be safe, and they might even get away with it. The guy who wasn't driving joined them on the bench, holding up the first aid kit. "I'll have a look. You're worse off?" Nodding to Vadim.

Vadim shrugged. "Dan's knee, my side, but my wound's open. Glass cuts."

"I'm alright. Nothing first aid can do anyway." Dan shrugged.

The guy made a gesture to encourage Vadim to show him, and Vadim lifted the jumper and shirt, wincing at the dried blood that had encrusted the cloth, ripping off, when it was moved. Very carefully, the soldier uncovered the wound, and Vadim just watched him, as he recovered and bandaged everything again, sterile this time.

Dan had his eyes closed, the now empty bottle between his hands, seemingly asleep, when he suddenly opened his eyes when the soldier was done. "Got anything to eat with you?"

"Couple of Mars bars."

"Can I have one? Bloody starving."

The man flashed a grin and pulled two large chocolate bars out of a bergan, offering one each. "I know you're going to get grilled to hell, but I'm curious, what the fuck have you been up to since you vanished?"

Dan grinned and shook his head, hardly managing to tear the wrapper off the bar with his frozen fingers. "Just some car crash, RGPs, close encounter with fatal results, and finally getting about a hundred civilians out of a besieged town, while decimating a large group of chetniks and their armoured vehicles in the process, and sadly having to burn the town partially down to the ground and blow a bridge to smithereens."

"Don't mention the snipers", said Vadim, tearing the wrapper between teeth and hand. "Or Jimi Hendrix."

"Oh aye, Jimi, don't forget him.

"What?" The soldier asked, incredulously.

Dan shrugged, biting half the chocolate bar off in one go, "nothing special."

Vadim gave a grin and let the sugar in the bar hit his bloodstream. It was really too sweet and too much of it, and it would only make him hungrier in the end, but for the moment, this hit the right spot.

The soldier turned his attention to Dan. "Any wounds I should have a look at?"

"No, I'm alright. Just fucked my knee." He shrugged and gave a tired grin. "Just wake me when it's time to get ripped a second one, aye?" Dan closed his eyes and leaned his head against Vadim's shoulder, no weight behind it, just careful.

"Alright. Should be half an hour, forty-five minutes, back to camp. If you're lucky you get treatment and maybe food and even hot water and soap, before they start the ripping."

"No sleep?" Dan yawned.

"You should be so lucky."

"Damn." But Dan grinned and kept his eyes closed. Didn't matter, they were alive, and that was all that counted. Vadim breathed laughter, leaned his head against Dan's and lifted a hand to touch Dan's cheek, holding it while for the first time in what felt like ages, properly resting. "I love you", he murmured in Russian, under his breath, and Dan smiled, said nothing, but turned his head and placed a kiss onto Vadim's cheek. He never bothered to check the soldier's reaction, but there was no gasp of shock, so maybe he hadn't seen or didn't care, or was too mortified react audibly.

Whatever the case, they were moving on at a comfortable speed for a while, when Dan felt the vehicle slow down. "What's up?" Blinking bleary-eyed. "Trouble?"

"Doesn't seem so." The soldier was immediately alert, peering out of the car, his weapon at the ready. Defence, yes. Attack, no. "There's a whole trek of people. Seems to be refugees."

"People?" Dan was suddenly awake, even though his body didn't want to move. "Let me see. Could be the townsfolk."

Vadim rubbed his eyes, then frowned, staring out of the car. "If it's them, they made pretty good progress", he murmured.

When the people came into view, they didn't seem familiar, maybe it was the different scenery, the different light, different situation. But then Vadim spotted Stjepan, and murmured. "Yes, it's them. Up there. The kid."

"Shit, yes." Dan grinned like a lunatic, "and the girl there, what's her name ... Sanya, it's her. They made it!" His grin couldn't get any bigger. "Stop the car, will you?" And despite the soldier's frown, he got the driver to stop when they had pulled up alongside the two kids.

"Hey!" Dan called out and a few faces turned. "You made it. Where are you heading to?"

Stjepan smiled, holding his hand out and into the vehicle, towards Dan first, then Vadim, while being watched with hawk-eyes by the soldiers. "Refugee camp." He squeezed the girl's shoulder, and Sanya showed the first tentative ghost of a smile ever.

"I'm glad you made it." Dan murmured, "I really am."

She glanced at Vadim and her smile grew a little before it died again. "You hurt?"

Vadim smiled at her. "Just a scratch."

"That is good." She nodded a little before her face closed up again.

Vadim was amazed that she could care about somebody else in her situation, and he desperately wanted to help, to do something. Leaving them to their own devices didn't feel right. But then, Stjepan had done a good job keeping her together, and that gave him a little hope. Human resourcefulness. He had nothing that he could give away, no money, nothing that would help them.

"Do you know anything about the boys who rigged the stereo?" Dan asked.

Stjepan gestured with his thumb towards the front. "Yes, they are over there. We didn't have all that many losses. Not as bad as usual …"

The soldier was motioning to Dan that it was time to move on.

"Okay." Dan nodded. "Wish you good luck, okay? You'll make it."

Vadim smiled at them, hoped it looked natural and less strained than it felt. And just hoping they were safe now and would remain so. And maybe one day even put their lives back together.

"Yes. Yes, we'll be alright." Stjepan placed his hand on Sanya's shoulder again, and he nodded. "We'll make it. Better catch up now, though."

"Yes, you better." Dan smiled, feeling woefully inadequate, as if they were deserting those kids when they should have picked them up, put them into a home and a school and let them be what they should be: kids. Not soldiers. Not survivors, but there was fuck-all he could do.

"Thank you." Stjepan called out, when the Landrover had already started to move, rolling away from them. "We wouldn't be alive without you!" Shouting after the Dan and Vadim, who kept looking out, hands waving.

Eventually, Vadim turned back - straightening because his side still fucking hurt too much to stay twisted like that for long. "I need …" Pausing, realizing he'd spoken what he'd been thinking. Need to get in touch with my kids. Sanya and Stjepan reminded him too much of the children he'd left behind.

"Need what?" Dan leaned once more against the side of the vehicle, fishing in his pockets for a last cigarette, but it was hard to do anything with those cold fingers.

"A shower, sleep, food. Not sure in that order." Vadim didn't want to mention his family, not with the Katya issue in the room. He didn't want to remind Dan, didn't want to start a quarrel, he wasn't even quite ready to face the fact that burning bridges had probably been a mistake. Not staying in touch. It had started with trying to get away from them so he didn't miss them, just moved away until that old life had faded and lost power, but then he had been ashamed and didn't want them to see what he had become. Maybe, just maybe, they could find a way that wasn't too painful?

"Aye, couldn't agree more, but you heard what we've just been told." Dan grinned tiredly at the soldier opposite to them, "we won't get a chance to sleep." Finally finding his squashed cigarette pack, he just about managed to fish out a last, crumpled fag, and lighted the sad excuse for a nicotine fix. "Never mind, I'll probably fall asleep during the grilling anyway."

"Catch a nap right now, hm?" Vadim placed his arm around Dan's shoulder to pull him close again and make him lean against his shoulder, closing his eyes now, too. They'd done good. However this little odyssey had started, in the end, it was mostly a victory.

"Okay." Dan smiled, smoking with closed eyes, until the fag almost fell out from between his lips, and ended beneath the boot of the soldier who said nothing, and just extinguished it.

* * *

"We're almost back."

The soldier's voice pulled Dan back out of his slumber, and hell, it was hard to open his eyes. Feeling each and every of his years, and a body that had been on the line for almost all of them. Ten years ago he would have bounced back, but there wasn't any margin left, this time.

Nodding, Dan turned his head to Vadim, murmuring into his ear, "and what the fuck's our story?"

Vadim gently touched his head to Dan's, speaking Russian, if reluctant. "Simple. I headed out because a civvie contact told me about that camp. And I wanted to verify it. I'll still get a bollocking, but it's not 'criminal insanity' anymore."

"Okay." Dan smiled, so tired his brain took twice as long to digest everything, but at least his Russian didn't fail him. "And I followed you because of partnership problems. Wanted to have a chat with you, get it out into the open, make or break time. That'll get me a bollocking, too, for unprofessionalism, but at least it's a reason." Adding, even quieter, "it's not even far off the truth." If at all.

Vadim reached over and took Dan's hand. "Sounds believable to me." Make or break. That fucking close again.

"Aye," Dan switched to English, "it is, except for the black and white." Too cryptic. "Don't forget, whatever we did, it was in self-defence. Otherwise we'd get into deep shit." Dan squeezed Vadim's hand, smiling, as he pulled back a little to look at him, once more talking Russian. "You can't get rid of me that easily, but we do have to have a chat about your tendency of violence. Hit first, talk later." He pulled a toothy grin, as much as he managed in his exhausted state. Ignoring the soldier who was loudly clearing his throat.

Vadim huffed laughter, then looked at the soldier. "Excuse me", he murmured, voice slightly slurred with the exhaustion. "Haven't had much chance to talk, lately."

"It's okay." The man nodded, studiously avoiding to look at the combined hands, though, and the heads touching. "I'm just not … used to this." Making a sweeping gesture as he grimaced a smile.

"Yeah. I can imagine. But indulge us. We've been through a lot, and pretending to be straight isn't that easy right now", Vadim said.

"Okay." Repeated, then offering, "been in shit once, myself. I understand."

Vadim didn't pursue this further, even though he saw a million openings - but he didn't have the perseverance right now, nor the belligerence. And he was only mildly astonished that he didn't feel any shame or darkness, but maybe those were numbed by the tiredness as well. Instead he gave the man something of a tired smile and a nod, acknowledging.

Dan just grinned and closed his eyes again, just glad he didn't have to let go of Vadim's hand. Too tired to comment, too bone weary and, yes, unspeakably glad to be alive. Simple pleasure, and the most profound of all.

They stopped for a moment when making their way through the guard post, and finally they were back in camp. Dan took a deep breath and braced himself to get up, his swollen knee stiff and unbendable. "Best get out, aye? Need some help?"

"I'm okay." Vadim pulled, then pushed himself up. "Come on." He climbed off the vehicle, then offered Dan a hand. "Lean on my shoulder." He saw others gathering, small groups. People were curious, of course, and the camp grapevine was ever faithful. They didn't make a huge show out of it, but they were watching.

He didn't have to help Dan, because a medic came already running, a couple of nurses on his heels. Unfortunately, the CO was right behind them. "You need a stretcher?" The doc was calling out, but Dan shook his head.

"No, just a fucked knee. Someone lend me a hand?" Not yet letting go of Vadim, though. "I'm not the one who needs stitching up."

The CO stepped close - jaw tight and eyes narrow, giving both a once over that showed resentment rather than concern, thought Vadim. Coolly, like he'd had a lot of time to put together the sentences, he said: "Krasnorada and McFadyen grace us again with their presence. How considerate."

"Aye, Sir, and if you'd seen the blaze and heard the explosions, you could have had the pleasure of getting a glimpse of us last night." Dan just about managed to get to the ground, letting out a groan when he landed. Too tired and too deadly exhausted to give a fuck. Except for Vadim, looking out for him, but the medic was already taking over, ignoring the CO, while asking Vadim where he was injured.

Vadim pointed at his side and was made to sit down, the doc examining the wound right there and then.

The CO looked at Vadim, not a muscle in his face moving as he saw the wound being uncovered and the medic's glance towards him. Then back to Dan, who was leaning heavily against the vehicle.

"Preliminary report. There were a lot of inquiries, and I need answers right now. What happened?"

"I followed Vadim, two nights ago, because of …" deliberately hesitating, "problems in our partnership. I wanted to clarify things once and for all."

To the CO's credit, he didn't blink. It was the most open secret in the camp, but the CO must have long decided that it was none of his business, not unless those two men had another bust-up in the open. Very much the 'I don't want to know' approach to gay mercenaries.

Dan paused, just as deliberate, "oh, and sorry for the vehicle, if we hadn't shot mine off to hell we wouldn't be here, alive." Dan shifted, while a nurse was checking him out, moving arms, prodding ribs, but he was fine until she got to the knee and he yelped, getting himself under control, though. "We made it to an abandoned village, seemed to have been forcefully emptied. Killed a couple of guys in self defence, kitted ourselves out, you'll find the weapons were handed over to the guys who picked us up." He didn't move when his trouser leg was cut off, displaying a grotesquely swollen knee. Since the CO was obviously expecting him to go on, so he did.

"We found transport on the way, turned out they were Bosniaks, but the crazy bastards took us right into a besieged town. We just about made it into one of the buildings during the attack. Realised that we'd never survive another night, not with the strategic importance of the bridge, and the way the town was crumbling. Not many able fighters left. So we came up with a completely fucked-up plan for an attack, and won. It was all defence, though. Of course." He shrugged, "simple as that. Molotovs and shabby tanks don't go well together, and Vadim here, he's a sniper par excellence. We got a Dragunov off one of the wounded guys, burnt down some buildings for light and distraction, got them to pull all their resources to the front where we attacked, and killed the chetniks like goddamned rats. Meanwhile, the old, young, and infirm of the town made it across the bridge. The remaining fighters followed in the end, and we blew the bridge up, which we had rigged up earlier. Vadim, here, had to get the manual detonator in." Deliberately avoiding the mention of Jimi Hendrix. Too weird was too weird. "You know the rest. We are alive, got picked up, and really are sorry for those vehicles of yours, but …"glancing at where they were working on Vadim, getting him ready to be taken inside and properly stitched up, "but not for the rest, aye?" Adding, because he was still the irreverent bastard, "and you'll be pleased to know we sorted out partnership problems."

The CO looked at Vadim, then stepped closer to Dan, speaking so quietly that only Dan heard it. "There are reasons why most professional armies do not run the risk of admitting women into combat roles", he stated, as if making an observation about some long bygone battle, and Dan blinked, once. Slowly, dangerously, and he was about to ask what the fuck he'd meant with that and if he was seeing any women around there, when the CO turned, wisely, and glanced at Vadim. The medic was just pulling up a syringe with some clear liquid, doubtlessly painkillers. "Krasnorada?"

"He's right. That's what happened."

The medic cleaned a spot of skin with some alcohol and gauze.

"No. Why did you leave camp?"

"I heard a rumour from ... a contact. About ..." Vadim hissed when the needle went into his biceps, and then gave a suppressed groan when the analgesic took that grinding, twisting pain away. Something to shoot a wounded horse up with. "A camp. A concentration camp. Like they use." Vadim let his head falls back, finding it hard to focus. "Down the road, up that mountain. I can show it on the map."

"Another camp?" The CO purses his lips, then decided that he wouldn't get anything else out of Vadim, instead returned his attention to Dan. "Can you show me the location on the map?"

"Aye." Dan's eyes were still narrowed, if the exhaustion hadn't taken over, his anger would explode any second. "If you get one, because I can't fucking walk ... Sir." Hissed, but the tiredness took the worst sting away, and he resented that.

The CO extended a hand and one of the men handed him a map. The officer, then, undaunted, stepped closer, folding the map out to display the general area where Dan and Vadim had been.

Dan needed a moment to concentrate, the squiggly lines were blurring one into the other, but he found his bearings after a moment, following the map with a finger until he stopped at the spot where the RPG had hit Vadim's vehicle. "There. We were on top of the hill and if you look down here …" pointing westward, "there it was. And that's why the fuckers were so adamant to kill us. We'd seen something they sure as fuck didn't want anyone to see."

"I'll have that investigated."

The medic cleared his throat. "I'm taking Krasnorada now, Sir." He received a curt nod, while the nurses helped Vadim get on the stretcher. The medic stepped to Dan and had a closer look at the knee. "I want an x-ray of that", he murmured. "And you're not walking. Nowhere."

"Trust me," Dan grimaced, "I'd rather not." He stood and waited, leaning against the vehicle and watching Vadim being taken away. "But, just in case, you think you got some of those happy shots for me?"

The medic looked at him. "Hm. Maybe you deserve a small mercy." Not even glancing at the CO, but the words clear enough. "This is bad, McFadyen."

"I will see you after you've cleaned up and had some rest. And I will hear the full story. Dismissed." The CO turned around, heading back to where he'd come from.

The medic prepared another syringe, tapped the bubble out and, very carefully, administered the shot into the swollen knee, while Dan breathed very, very quickly and shallow through his nose. "Don't move. I want you in the hospital as fast as possible."

"I didn't mean to shot it into my fucking knee!" Grimacing, but soon he could feel … nothing, and he stopped complaining. "Hospital? That's bloody miles away." Dan frowned, imploring the medic, "can't you just patch me up for now and let me have some scrubbing, food, water, and rest and not even necessarily in that order, before you ship me off to the hospital? I'm fucking falling over in a second. Been out there forty-eight hours or thereabouts." And he missed Vadim, needed some time with him, just to sleep and hold, without anyone shooting at them.

The medic frowned. "Okay. I'll bandage this to give it some stability, you'll keep it cool, foot up, and if I see that foot touch the ground - or anything else - for a moment, I'll have you medevacced. This knee looks like it's coming apart, and if you want to ever use your leg again, I'd rather not take the slightest risk. Do you get me?"

"Aye." Dan frowned. "I get you, okay? Just slap something on that lets me have a shower. I stink like a skunk and I'd really like to wash the shit off my hands that probably came from a few bodies."

The medic sent a nurse to fetch crutches, then set to work right away, stabilising the leg, then stood up, gathering his stuff. "Right. Off you go. I'll check on you. Your partner should be stitched up by now, I'll have him delivered to your room."

"Cheers." Dan smiled, didn't take more than a couple of minutes before the nurse came back with crutches. "Guess we can manage the rest ourselves."

"I'll call the hospital and I'll see you once you've rested - and reported." The medic watched Dan make a couple of measly attempts at moving with the crutches, but turned away when Dan got the hang out of it within a few steps.

Hobbling over to their accommodation building, Dan had rarely been so glad to be back in that place. He got inside, and onto a chair, starting to peel himself out of the soiled and torn, as well as cut-off clothing, which could only be burnt. The absence of pain was utterly luxurious, if only someone could carry him to the showers now.

But he managed on his own, and with a towel around his hips, shower gel dangling from his hand and on both crutches, he made his way half asleep across the hallway to the washing area, where he stood for an eternity under the hot spray. Leaning against the tiled wall and simply enjoying the heat and being clean.

Just a little later, Vadim was led back to the hut, sporting a stark white bandage around his waist. Still incoherent from the painkiller, but cleaned up a bit as if one of the nurses had had mercy on the man - or considered all the dirt to be a problem. He had a blanket over his shoulders and they got him to sit down on the bed, took off the boots and helped him get into bed. They should be in the sick station, both of them, but maybe the medic had acknowledged that they'd get more peace and quiet and sleep in their own quarters.

Still dripping wet, Dan made his way back, finding a stack of sandwiches in front of the room, and fresh water bottles. Laboriously getting inside, food and all, he smiled when he saw Vadim on the bed. "Hey, Russkie, glad to see you. Hungry?"

Vadim moved his head and looked at him, blue eyes glazed. "Not sure. Don't feel ... a thing." Thinking, very carefully, through the fog in his head. "Maybe. I should be."

"Aye, and don't tell me you're still wearing something, hm? Are you?" Hopping over on one leg, Dan somehow managed to get the sandwiches and the water step by step across. Finally flopping onto the bed himself. Still damp, but he really couldn't be bothered. The blankets would do the trick.

Vadim looked down at himself. "Yeah. Trousers. What's left of them. But no socks." Smiling wearily, welcoming Dan when he lay down next to him. "Tomorrow. Yes?"

"No. First, we'll get rid of your trousers, because you'll be uncomfortable otherwise, and then you'll eat at least a couple of sandwiches, okay?" Adding, while already working on the fly, "for me?" Pulling every string, but hell, they'd both not eaten for too long, and those painkillers seemed to have a remarkable effect on Vadim. "And then we sleep. Sounds like bliss, right?" Pulling on the trousers to get them off.

Vadim managed to muster enough focus to lift his hips and help with getting undressed, but was clumsy, and only with supreme willpower managed to get the trousers and pants off. Underneath, at least, he was fairly clean. "Just ... water." He murmured, reaching for the bottle, and managed to drink something, but spilled almost as much. "Fuck", he said without passion or conviction. "Whatever they put in me, I ..." Trailing off.

"… am in a very happy place." Dan chuckled tiredly, and gave up trying to feed Vadim with anything.

"Aye." Belated.

Taking hold of the blankets, both on the one bed, it would have to do for now, as long as he didn't touch Vadim's bad side. Tucking both of them in, he stuffed his face with a handful of sandwiches, while watching Vadim, eyes closed, expression growing evermore slack, before he found a comfortable position. As much touching and as close to Vadim as possible without hurting, and within seconds, Dan fell asleep.

* * *

Dan had no idea how long he had slept, when a low-level sensation of dulled ache began to invade his senses. On top of that an irritating itch from a three-day stubble, and the mild feeling that he needed to piss. Most of all, though, he became slowly aware of the absence of danger. Muted voices from outside, the warmth of blankets and a comfortable room, even though there was little space where he lay, until he was awake enough for the realisation that he was not alone. The bulk of heat beside him felt good under his hand, and before he could try to move closer, he remembered. Everything. With growing clarity, including Vadim's injury. He breathed in deeply and stayed where he was. Not moving was the best idea right now, anyway.

Opening his eyes, though, but it was fairly dark in the room, the only light coming through the window from the outside lighting of the camp. Watching Vadim's profile for a while, he smiled. Simply content to be alive, safe, and most of all, to be with Vadim - without anger, hurt and accusations between them.

Eventually, Vadim awoke. No start, no slow drifting, just awake from one moment to the next. He must have slept well, he felt rested, unlike in those nights when the dreams haunted him and made him wake leaden and tired, and without hope. Feeling Dan close, he turned his head to regard him. "How long have you been watching me?"

"No idea." Dan smiled, "but I'm gagging for a fag, so I guess it must have been a while." Letting his hand stroke along the good side of Vadim's chest, then down the arm. Relishing in the simple pleasure of touch. "How do you feel?"

"Pretty good. My side hurts a bit, but as long as I take it easy, it should be okay. What about you?"

"A thousand times better than in the morning. Except for that damned beard." Dan chuckled quietly. "But I can't be arsed to get up and shave. It's too comfortable here, and I'd be surprised if they left us in peace till the morning."

"What time is it?" Vadim reached over to touch the stubble and felt the tightness in his side. The painkiller was wearing off. "Feel like I've slept twelve hours straight." He leaned over to kiss Dan, one of those small, gentle kisses that were more about being alright than ravenous desire.

"No idea, hang on …" Slowly rolling over with a grunt, Dan fished for his watch, eyeing the wardrobe where he kept his fags, but getting up was too much effort, even for a nicotine addict like him. "After seven. We did sleep something like ten hours." Reaching to rasp his fingertips over Vadim's stubble, less pronounced than his own, he grinned. "I could help you shave, if you help me in return? It's not that we haven't done that before …"

"There are days when I wish we shaved electric and that electric shaves were actually any good", Vadim murmured, but grinned. "Okay. Give me a second. Just mustering my resolve." Reaching for the edge of the bed, he pulled himself up to put less strain on his side, but it still hurt, and rather badly. "Where's that medic with his horse tranquilizer …"

"Wait …" Dan put a hand onto Vadim's shoulder, "I could ask for some pills. Besides, we need food. If I hobbled out, you could get mentally ready for a sponge bath and shave near the sink." He grinned, "or we just stay here a little while longer and I hold you for a bit, because it's so fucking good to be able to do that."

Vadim turned and smiled warmly. "You're not walking with that leg, Dan. I'll do that. And maybe they'll leave us in peace for a while longer, but I get the feeling the CO will want to talk to us soon and I'd rather be shaved and dressed sharply when he does." Reaching over again to cup Dan's cheek. "If I'm wrong, we can still 'cuddle' until they come and get us."

Dan sighed and frowned, everything but happy about that. "Don't you think they'd have already got us if they wanted to talk to us tonight?" Sitting up in the bed, he muttered. "You're running away."

Vadim was about to get dressed, but paused at that. Had he misread Dan? It happened, still did, sometimes. Always focused on duty, especially during the last weeks. He didn't feel like he was running. He'd focused on the basic needs first. Food, medicine. "I'm not."

"You sure? Because I've lost the ability to know lately." Dan pulled in a deep breath and shrugged. "Never mind. Blame the painkillers, lack of sweets, not enough nicotine, and too much Hendrix. I just wanted …" he trailed off and shrugged again, grimacing this time. "Needy bitch, eh?"

Vadim shook his head. "Not at all." Kneeling down beside the bed, because that way he didn't have to bend his torso. "Just … thought fix the pain and hunger first." The 'first' sounded ominous in his own ears, and he grinned. "But if you want to talk first, I'll just get my ass into bed again and we talk."

Dan narrowed his eyes, then kneaded his brows in a concentrated, unwittingly comical fashion. "Damn. That would make me a bimbo." Frowning with an almighty crease between his eyes. "No, it's alright. My beard itches, I'm famished and the sandwiches are dried out, and I need a fag. Just as long as you get your arse back here as soon as possible, aye?"

"I won't be long." Vadim reached for his trousers, then noticed their state and got up to find fresh clothes in the locker. Underwear, new clean camo, clean, dry socks. He moved carefully and deliberately, but the wound was well padded and the bandage tight enough to help a bit. He slipped into trainers and a grey t-shirt. "Anything you want before I get food, water and painkillers? If they don't shoot me up like that again, I'll likely even find my way back."

"Ha, ha, very funny." Dan sat on the bed, blankets off, looking for the crutches. "Just get me a flask of coffee, and make sure it's not the usual stewed shit." Finding the crutches that leaned against the bed, Dan got up, on one leg, standing in all his bearded, naked glory. "Bugger, I should call Maurice."

Vadim watched him, and didn't want to go, instead wanted to help Dan get sorted. The knee looked horrible, swollen and discoloured. It had never looked anything like that before. "I'll go get the stuff. Shaving kit, too. Phone calls are down the list, though, let's fix ourselves first."

"And leave Dima without any idea what the hell happened to … us?" Hopping over to the wardrobe, Dan found the fags first, before taking out a pair of shorts. Hopping back again, he sat down, got a cigarette and lit it, then put the shorts on. First things first.

"Point taken. I'll be back in fifteen." Vadim headed out, hurried over to the medical facilities, where he managed, barely, to fend off the medic on late duty, who insisted that he'd come back later so he could have a look at how the wound looked, and managed to get painkillers off him - again having to promise he'd bring Dan over as soon as possible, as everything was set up the next morning to get Dan to a hospital for x-rays. He then managed to get a tray of food from the mess, as well as coffee and water, and brought all that back in just over fifteen minutes. "Hey Dan, breakfast."

Dan was still sitting on the bed, blanket over his shoulders, smoking his third cigarette in a row. "Hey," grinning, "interesting time for 'breakfast'."

"First meal after waking up is breakfast in my book." Vadim pulled a box with kit closer, to double as a table, and put the food and drinks down. Fishing the painkillers from his pocket, he added them to the ensemble. "Doctor says two of those with food for you." He sat down next to Dan and ran his hand through Dan's hair, who looked up, smiling.

"Feel already better, but would be much more so if we could get the beds back to how we had them before I got that damned letter. No idea how either of us is going to move it. Perhaps if we shuffle together?"

"Yeah, that should work. Get rid of the kit in between, and all that. I can try when you make that phone call. And … let Dima know I'm pleased he's okay."

"Will do." Dan reached for a sandwich, the cold meat sliced thickly, and the cheese generous as well. He poured a couple of mugs of coffee with his free hand, then remembered the fag still between his lips and he grinned, getting rid of it. "Not just a needy bitch, a greedy bastard as well."

"It's been two days from hell." Vadim reached for the coffee, which had the right temperature and seemed suitable to take the rust off any kind of kit.

"You could say so, but seems it was also the best two days in a long time. After all, we got back, are more or less in one piece minus the odd injury, spotted an illegal camp, helped save a bunch of people, burnt down a town, and got back together. That's not too bad in my books." Speaking with his mouth full, Dan devoured the sandwiches, washing the bites down every so often with some coffee. "And I liked your story of why you got out there in the first place. Will stick to it. Hopefully we'll get out of this with a major bollocking but without too much trouble."

Vadim grinned. "Good story, eh? I bet he doesn't imagine in his wildest dreams that I could still lie in that state. Ageing faggot and all that."

Dan burst into laughter, almost spraying breadcrumbs across the makeshift table. "Damn right."

Vadim finished one of his sandwiches and felt nearly human after emptying the first mug of coffee, too. "I won't tell him who my contact is, and I guess he won't ask. And if he does, fuck him. It makes the most sense."

"After all, you could always tell him you only know your contact's fake name, would have been too dangerous for your contact otherwise."

"Well, if he asks me what kind of contact, I'll tell him it's a native I have sex with. And obviously I wouldn't ask his name."

Dan huffed a laugh then pulled the blanket closer around him, settling back after finishing off a large pile of food. Coffee in his hand, Dan grinned. "You want to ask me anything about Dima?"

"Actually, everything. You followed me, and that is how you found him … and then?"

"Then I took him to a safer place. One that couldn't collapse." Dan raised his brows over the cup of coffee. "I figured that no one ever looks at anything close by, and so I used the bunker near the camp." He shrugged, "at first I kept him there, for a night, but with blankets, food, torch, all the necessities. And no shackles …," raising his brows once more, "didn't know you were quite such a kinky bastard." Dan chuckled lightly to take the sting out of his words. "Anyway, when I went back the next day I had come up with an idea to get him into the French embassy to safety, and Maurice, surgeon mate of mine, was going to pick him up. I left the door open, told Dima whatever happened someone would come in the morning. That was the night when I followed you, and obviously, it wasn't I who picked him up, but Maurice must have done it."

"I tied him up to protect him, weird as that sounds. I didn't want to kill him accidentally when I … went out to fight the bastards. I was trying to find a better solution, but I had no idea what I could do so I kept him like that. So … what do you think of him?"

"He's a good guy who ended up with some real arseholes for some fucked up reasons."

Vadim laughed. "That about nails it. Damn. Tell him I'm sorry when you talk to him?"

"Why don't you talk to him yourself? He's your former comrade, I've only known him for a couple of days." Unwilling to mention anything else.

"True. But I'm thinking I'll let him cool off for a while." Vadim had another sandwich, and poured himself more coffee. "That whole thing, between us …" Trailing off to invite Dan to talk first.

"Between us, as in you and I?" Dan put the empty mug down.

"Yeah. You and I." Vadim watched him, intently. "And, I guess, Katya."

"Don't!" Dan's reaction was sharp. "Don't mention that bitch's name." He shook his head vehemently. "I don't mind you mentioning Kisa, though. Can't hate the kid, not her fault, and fuck, does she look like me. Not a blond and blue-eyed Krasnorada, aye?"

Vadim gave a sigh and ran his hands over his face. "She's still my ex-wife and Anya's and Nikolai's mother. And that of … of Kisa. I don't want you to …" disgrace that, was the thought he had, but it was that painful, uncomfortable feeling of two people hating each other that he still cared about.

"She's a fucking selfish bitch who blackmailed me to do something when I was fucking vulnerable and that was so fucking painful at the time, that it still haunts me. And then the fucking gall to tell me I'm a fucking sperm donor with no fucking right to ever see the 'product'. I had hoped it would never happen, that I wasn't fertile or what-the-fuck, but she's here now. I have a daughter, because I was used." Dan shrugged, agitated, but trying to keep himself in control. "Fine, so I was used, get over it, McFadyen, but then you come along and beat the shit out of me, not even giving me a chance to explain what the fuck had really happened. Just expecting that I had betrayed you. So, no, Vadim, stuff it. I Do. Not. Want. To. Talk. About. This. Bitch. Ever. Again. Did I make myself clear?" Reaching for his cigarettes, Dan's hands were everything but steady.

"Okay. I won't mention her." It seemed callous even by Katya's standards, if this was true, and Vadim's head spun from the information, and Dan's clear anguish. Letting the uncomfortable silence drag on, with no idea what to do now. "What's the plan? How do we … deal with this?"

Dan shrugged, his hand visibly shaking as he lit the fag, calming, though, when he inhaled and blew out the smoke. "I guess we don't. You just try and never again not give me a chance, and I …" he shrugged again, his most frequent gesture in this conversation. "I set up a trust for Kisa. The bitch is not to touch it, it's for Kisa's education or for whatever else she might need the money for when she's eighteen. I hope she'll turn out cleverer than her …" pausing, inhaling deeply, deeply, before finally settling on a word, "biological ...." but then he stopped.

"Two things. Don't call her 'bitch' in my presence. Call her what you will when I'm not around, but don't make me listen to you ranting about her. I owe her that much. Second, if you think you'd have been too stupid for higher education, think again. You have a good mind, Dan. You weren't so fucking sexy if you hadn't."

"Ranting? Fuck you." Dan shook his head and kept the burning fag between his lips, snatching the crutches to get up.

"Yes, she deserves being called that, but … try and understand me? I was married to that woman. We have two children. She always made sure I'd be secure. Like a good comrade, or a sister, or a good friend."

"Aye, I understand you." Hopping on the crutches to the wardrobe, pulling out training bottoms and sweatshirt. "I always try to fucking understand you, but I guess I don't. Guess you're just too goddamned complicated and I'm just too bloody simple. So do me a favour, and … whatever." Dan hopped back with the clothes under his arm.

"Okay. That's 'fuck off' then." Vadim remained sitting, rubbed his face again.

"No, it's not." Dan turned round, too fast, losing balance and falling back onto the bed. "It's about asking the same fucking question in return. Try to understand me? Or have you never considered that I might need to be understood, because I am too fucking happy all the fucking time? Because I'm old Dan, and old Dan didn't go through all the shit you went through, and what old Dan did go through, old Dan's happily dealing with, because he's just a happy-go-lucky Scottish peasant git anyway?"

"I'm sorry. I …" Vadim gave a pained smile. "Guess I just thought you were so much stronger than I am."

"I don't know, Vadim. I don't know what 'strength' even is. Who is stronger? No fucking idea. We're different, but stronger? I don't know. All I do know is that this … this thing fucking hurt! And shit, why the fuck do I have to even say it? Fucking damned hate having to admit to this shit."

Vadim reached over and took hold of Dan's neck, pulling him close, moving close enough to kiss him. "And all I know is that I can't lose you. I need you. You keep me together. You keep me going."

"That's a big fucking lot of responsibility, isn't it?" Dan's dark eyes were vulnerable, "you need me, or you love me. Which one is it? And is there room for understanding me as well?"

"It's both, Dan. Not either or." Vadim touched his face to Dan's. "And I'll try harder, understanding you."

"It's usually not that difficult." Dan murmured, cigarette forgotten in his hand, burnt down to the filter, but reluctant to move, even though he didn't know what else to say.

Vadim moved to touch his lips to Dan's, tilting his head with his hand, urging him to open up and pressed in harder, needed that feeling now, that want and need. The fact there was the desire that had been the basis of everything, much before any feelings or thoughts had become important, complicating it all. "I missed you, Dan. Everything."

"Then why the fuck do you throw it away that easily?" Murmured, lips open and against Vadim's. Always willing, forever responding. Not much that could stop the need of many years.

"I was just … hurt …"

"Yeah, welcome to my world."

Vadim pushed Dan back to lie on the bed, moved carefully on top, making sure he didn't touch Dan's leg, even fleetingly, and kept kissing, hands running over Dan's body. "But … doesn't matter."

"No?" Dan's brows both shot up. "What does matter, then?"

"Guess." Vadim grinned, hand going to Dan's groin. "I guess we're forbidden any strenuous activity … but what about a non-strenuous blowjob?"

"And how are you going to manage with your stitched-up side?" Dan frowned, "don't want you to hurt yourself, even though I'd be the last man on earth to say 'no' to a blowjob from you."

Vadim grinned. "I'll be alright. And since anything else appears to be out …" He moved back, kissing his way down to Dan's groin, until he knelt on the floor, shoulders keeping Dan's knees open. Needed to show how much he wanted, and wanted to make Dan feel good. He took Dan's cock, which appeared barely interested right now, but he was determined to change that. And change it did, perhaps not as quickly as it might have, ten years ago, or in a different situation, but the interest was there, without fail.

Dan reached for Vadim's head briefly, touching the short hair, before lying back down again and closing his eyes. A luxury, right now, and it was about much more than 'just' a blowjob.

Vadim took him deep once he was fully hard, forcing his throat to accept the intrusion, bringing it all the way. His eyes closed, he concentrated on nothing but the heat and holding his breath, both hands resting on the bed and steadying himself as he brought his head down, and up, and down again, slow, controlled, but as deep as he could.

Rewarded by sounds that grew ever more urgent, and Dan's body, shuddering beneath him. Thighs muscles trembling, as if Dan was under a great strain, and his breath coming in ever more desperate gasps. It was not quick, nor fast, but when he finally came, he arched up from the bed, and Vadim's name was on Dan's lips. A strangled sound, and an orgasm that took him with abandon.

Vadim bore down against the arching body, allowed the cum to shoot down his throat, swallowing purely by reflex, and then, when Dan had relaxed and fallen back, slowly pulled back, cleaning the cock and sucking on it some more. Licking it while it was still hard, then rested his head on Dan's hip, pulling the discarded blanket closer so Dan wouldn't be cold. "You okay?"

"Shit, yeah." Dan breathed out, grinning with closed eyes, fingers reaching to stroke Vadim's short hair. "But isn't it your turn now?"

"Don't worry about me. I'd rather not have an orgasm with that wound if I can help it."

"Okay, I let you off this time."

Vadim grinned and climbed back on the bed to lie next to Dan, moving close enough to hold him and again touching head to head, the blanket over them. They were silent for a very long time, their breathing in sync, just lying and relaxing, until Dan asked in a quiet voice, "if you ever go to … Hungary, would you … would you look at Kisa for me and would you take some photos?" He opened his eyes, heads still touching, and he smiled tentatively.

"You've thought about this a lot, hm? The trust, the photos …"

"It's … well, it's …" hesitating, if he weren't so weathered, the heat that Dan suddenly felt in his face would show on his cheeks. "I never expected this, but … I guess she is …" stammering almost, because damn, this was hard, it was completely unknown territory. "Guess she is … a part of me? One that's not fucked up. That lives on when I'm long dead, that will hopefully one day fall in love in a nice little place with a nice little partner and lead a nice little life. One that has never killed, and shit, if I believed in anything, I'd pray for this: one that never will kill, and then wonder one day, what it said about her that she couldn't feel remorse for any of the lives she'd taken. Perhaps I just hope that … and I know how fucking stupid I sound now, but, well, that maybe she can be all that is good in my legacy, and none of the crap."

Vadim smiled fondly and pressed Dan closer for a long, heartfelt moment. "Sounds like you do feel remorse, though. Or at least assume you're guilty in some way."

"I don't know, don't quite understand what it is, but the kids in the town … and then my brother and his family, even the guys in Glasgow … I look at those civilians and I think shit, if only they knew what I've really done, and how I did it, and that I did what I did without any emotions. It was and is a job, and I still take a life if I need to. I mean, we just did, out there, and yet, fuck, what does that make me? Not really something I want to think about, certainly not from the point of view of a civilian." Dan smiled wryly. "I guess it's best that Kisa will never know me. At least she'll never find out, and neither can I fuck it up with her."

"I've thought similar things about my kids. That they were somehow something … I've done right." Vadim kissed him again. "I'll have a look at her. I should … check on Anya and Nikolai, too."

"Aye, and you do know that it's almost December, and what that means?"

"What's the exact date?"

"Today? Not sure, the twenty-seventh or something. But surely, you must know what December means? You were home for Christmas at least sometimes while your children were young, weren't you?"

"Yes, of course. Christmas. I thought you meant your birthday in two days."

"That?" Dan frowned, "forget that, not important. I never remember it anyway and I've never celebrated it, or can you imagine a birthday cake up in the mountains, with a bunch of Mujas singing 'happy birthday'? No, I'm more interested in Christmas. Don't know, it's just strangely special, after all."

"I think our Christmas parties in the Soviet Army were a hell of a lot nicer than the deal you got. And we could try to get time off, especially since you are out of action with that knee anyway. Book a place that has snow … some log cabin. A fireplace."

"Snow?" Dan grinned. "I thought you hated snow." He chuckled for a moment. "You really think so? Somewhere that doesn't have anyone shooting at us? Damn, sounds like a fine idea to me, I'd just have to find a Christmas present somewhere and fuck, that'll be the cruncher."

"I'd be happy with a Christmas blowjob and a pair of socks." Vadim laughed. "I don't understand why people think socks are a crap present. Those people were never on the last pair when doing some hardcore tabbing."

Dan laughed out loud. "You can have a blowjob anytime, Christmas or not, and I still know which are your favourite socks, boots, and even your damned underwear size. I think you're onto something here … we could go to Austria, it's just round the corner. A week, just you and I, lots of food, and if my knee weren't so fucked, some skiing. Sledding might have to do."

"Deal." Vadim grinned. "Salzburg, then, I heard it's good. I'll head out and book, okay?" He pushed himself up again. "Seriously, Dan, I want to go on holiday after this. We fucking deserve it."

"But you won't get snowy alpine huts in Salzburg. You'd have to look for something in Tyrol." Dan grinned, poking into Vadim's good hip. "Not that I care, though, as long as it means we are away from everything. I don't even mind self catering. Right now I just can't stand the thought of being in a hotel and lots of people around me. Silence, snow, Alps, sound like bloody bliss to me."

"In short: mountains. Okay."

"Aye ... I seem to kind of like them." Grinning, Dan sat up as well. "I'd even tag around with you for a couple of days so you can see the 'cultural sights', if I get the rest in a solitary hut after that."

"What about getting shaved and grab another bite in the mess? Should I help you get dressed?"

Stretching, Dan scratched the thick stubble in his face that began resembled a beard far too closely. "Help me shave. I like that."

Vadim grinned. "I'll do that. Let me get a bowl with hot water and a bunch of clean towels." Giving Dan a shave and then Dan shaving him, life seemed alright for a while again.

The CO was, according to rumour, too busy to get the detailed briefing now, and Vadim hoped he did something about that camp, but the info probably had to filter back up the ranks again. So, after the shaving, they sat in the mess and had food, at their own leisure, with some of Dan's mates checking whether he was okay and Dan explaining, that no, he hadn't been shot in the leg, and the rumour that had spread around camp was false. Holding his mug of coffee, Vadim reflected that Dan didn't seem to have any lovers in this camp - at least not so far. They were all mates.

They went back to bed after Dan had called Maurice, getting Dima onto the line as well, and staying far longer than intended, to explain what had happened. Twenty minutes later, he hobbled back into the room, to grab another shower, determined to help Vadim shower as well, no matter what anyone might think about two men showering together. They managed somehow to push the two beds close again, and not all that much later, they were both asleep. Resting uneventfully until the early morning.

* * *

They got ready with plenty of time, hoping to spend it mostly in the mess over breakfast, but the CO had different plans and they barely managed to get a fry-up down their necks - at least Dan did - before they had to go off to get grilled properly for a couple of hours. Finally, the medic came to the office, insisting that he would have to check Vadim's wound and that Dan had to get ready for the hospital. For the first time ever, Dan was actually glad to have to go to a hospital.

He was taken in a military ambulance, just as white as all the other vehicles, and examined thoroughly. Too thoroughly for his taste, including shots of some nasty looking liquid into his knee before scans and x-rays, but finally he was done. Sitting in the waiting room while gagging for a fag, he was called inside at last.

X-rays of his knee - a ghostly outline of bones against dark - were on display against the backlit white boxes adorning the doctor's office. The man was relatively young, dark hair combed back, and the white lab coat hung from his shoulders in a way that suggested profound weariness. "Mr McFadyen? Please, have a seat." He cast another long glance at the x-rays, as if making absolutely sure.

"Aye, thanks." Hobbling to the chair, fairly clumsy on those crutches, Dan glanced up at the x-rays, unable to read much into it, other than that it was a mess of black and white. "Everything okay?"

"May I ask for how long have you experienced discomfort in that leg?"

"Well, I had a bit of surgery some years back, but it was fine after that. It's only recently been painful. For about half a year or so."

"Did the colleagues tell you to take it easy with the leg, or did they tell you, you were as good as new? In the latter case, you have the grounds for a lawsuit."

"No, they … I was in a military hospital and was meant to get a desk job after that. But I refused and left. Did … I, well, I still functioned and did a HALO jump as well as a thousand other things. I'm something like a PMC, but not quite as private."

"That explains what I've seen. High strain after that first operation? Sustained for years? I hope you at least cut back on the marathons." The doctor sat down and leaned forward. "To be honest, you will have to undergo surgery again. Back then, techniques weren't as advanced, and we wouldn't make some mistakes anymore that were state of the art back then."

"What do you mean? Just some surgery and I can continue my job? And what would the surgery entail?"

"You should have taken that desk job, Mr McFadyen. The only thing that we can do now from a medical perspective is a full knee replacement. In other words, an artificial knee, which will at least allow you movement with little discomfort, and retain the mobility of your leg."

"What?" Dan sat up, ramrod straight. "No way! I can't let you do that. Or are you telling me that they are so good these days that I'll be as good as new and can continue my job for a while longer?"

The doctor shook his head. "The artificial knee is not as good as a natural one, not nearly. Placing it into your leg is not a small operation. It's … a rather serious and long operation."

"You have to understand, doctor, that my job is all I am and all I know. If I have to retire, that's it. I'd retire, and I'm only in my early forties."

"I do understand." The doctor's air of weariness only deepened. "And I wish I could tell you anything else, Mr McFadyen. But you already got more out of your body than you should have. Your knee is coming apart at this stage. The problems you are having now will get worse, and there is only so much painkillers can do … and I'm assuming you already used painkillers to keep going?"

"Yes." Dan conceded, and yet was not ready to give up. "Can you not help me keep going a little longer? Just a few months … until I have sorted my affairs. I bought a farm in New Zealand, it's dilapidated, but work is going on, while I keep doing my job here."

"I'm afraid not. I'm sorry."

Dan leaned forward, meeting the doctor close up. "Isn't there anything? Just for a while. I promise, I'll do what you tell me I have to do, when it's time, when I have everything sorted."

The doctor gave a sigh. "You are gambling away your long-term health. Your knee may hold up a little longer - but I'm expecting months rather than years - the swelling might come down, it might all settle back to before it was that made it flare up like that. I assume, using the right drugs and a lot of rest, you might be able to hold out for a few months, but that's ethically a very grey area, and I absolutely and totally don't recommend it."

"But you are not saying that it is impossible?" Dan brushed some errand strands of grey-streaked hair from his eyes as he looked up. "Doctor … please? Anything? I need to get my life in order first."

The doctor closed his eyes, seemingly defeated. "I'm saying that by accepting long-term consequences, you might go on without the proper treatment for a few months."

"I do accept this. I have to." Dan smiled with relief. "I've always accepted consequences in my life. If anything, then that. And what can be worse than having an artificial knee? If I keep going for a few months, I can at least sort my life." He nodded, sitting straight. "So, then, what do I need to do right now, and is there anything I can take for the pain?"

"The knee will have to rest a lot. The swelling has to come down by itself, and I'll prescribe you something to give it some support. You may grow dependent on the drugs, and they are likely to interfere with your concentration and suitability to do certain types of work. The best thing will be a lot of rest, and absolutely no strain. And we'll have to carefully monitor the status of your knee. I'm not happy with that Mr McFadyen, and I ask you do to whatever you need to have done before retiring as soon as possible. I might be mistaken about the military profession, but you're gambling with your life and that of your colleagues."

"I would never do that. I give you my word, doctor, if I feel my ability to function is jeopardised, I will immediately stop and 'retire', as you put it." Dan took hold of the crutches and got up. "Thank you. And … you are bound to silence, aren't you?"

The doctor looked gloomily at the images of Dan's knee shot from various angles. "Yes, of course. Full confidentiality."

"Thank you." Dan smiled, ignoring the disapproval, and hobbled out of the room, where he was taken in by a nurse who strapped up his knee and prepared painkillers, as well as sorting what would be necessary to help the knee recuperate - as much as it could, before he was driven back to camp.

* * *

When Dan returned to camp he was as cheerful as ever. The doctor's words carefully stashed away to be ignored. A large pack of painkillers in his pockets, he hobbled straight to the phones to try and organise a cabin on short notice. After an hour of what seemed like endless phone calls, he had achieved the impossible. A family had had to cancel their booking for a cabin up in the Tyrolean Alps, and they could have it for a couple of weeks if they wanted. He was looking for Vadim to tell him the good news, a triumphant grin on his face as he hobbled across camp, starting to get the hang of the crutches.

Vadim was just cleaning all the pairs of boots, shining them, and going through their combined kit for holes and pieces that needed to be replaced. Ever conscientious. Looking up and then getting up when Dan struggled with the door, helping him through. "What's the news?"

"I got us a cabin! Hail me, the victorious hero of more phone calls than I ever want to do in my life again." Dan let himself fall down onto the bed. The way they'd strapped up his knee made it all the more awkward.

"Hail, thee, great white cabin hunter." Vadim put the other boot down, checking if he had done the whole lot. Indeed. Stowing the kit away. "Out on the next plane, then?"

"Not quite. We got it over Christmas and New Year, because a family had to cancel. We should get a plane for the week before Christmas. Makes it something like three weeks. Gives us enough time to heal and go see everyone we might need to see, aye? I'm sure we'll get the time off. We are completely useless right now anyway."

"Three weeks. That's … let's see … Jean? Your family. Maybe …" Shit. My family. Our family. Vadim's brow darkened. He should talk to Katya. He really should. Or maybe let it settle. But it wouldn't hurt to hear both sides of that particular story.

"I meant …" Dan sighed, shook his head once and rubbed over his face with the heel of his hand. Vigorously, as if to get rid of cobwebs. "I meant people around here, Dima, Maurice." Tilting his head, "Duncan and Mhairi invited us, but it hasn't been long since we were visited them." And how was he going to deal with the other family? Vadim's. Not his. Just a sperm donor.

Vadim frowned. "Hungary is a risk. But … an old friend left me something. He's dead. Szandor. A … fencer."

Dan swallowed and nodded, looking down at his fucked hand. "I met him."

"You did? Of course. He was alive then. Shit."

"Aye, he was in the training hall. They … they were fencing." Lifting his head to look at Vadim. "What did he die of?"

Vadim wanted to say 'the gay disease', but it seemed wrong, callous, and fuck, Szandor had meant much to him. "AIDS."

"Shit." Dan frowned, "reminds me how fucking lucky we've been."

"Yes. He was …" Vadim inhaled deeply. "You know that, don't you? That he was my lover, during the Olympics."

"That was him?" Dan sat up straighter, fishing for a cigarette but then remembered how much Vadim disliked the smoke in the room he slept in. "Good choice, even though I didn't take all that much notice on the day."

Vadim smiled fondly, remembering what had been enclosed in the will. "He left me his weapons. Just what am I going to do with an old-fashioned Toledo blade? I can't even wield it properly. And customs will look at me funny. I have no place to hang it and storage … these things shouldn't get boxed away and forgotten."

"Of course you've got space. We have space. Just store the weapons until we're ready to move to Kiwiland." Dan smiled a little. Just thinking of the few days in Hungary was painful, but what was it again about festering wounds? "I also saw your … daughter."

"Anoushka." Vadim rubbed his face. "She looks a lot like me, yes?"

"Aye, she did." Dan remembered how shocked he'd been to see her, every bit reminding him of Vadim. Dan looked away, and towards his kit where he'd safely stored the photos.

Vadim followed the gaze. "Show her to me again."

"You sure?"

"I only caught a glimpse the first time." Vadim looked Dan in the face. "Come on."

Yes, before you hit me like a rabid dog, but Dan discarded the thought. Done and over. Past. "Okay." He leaned across, rummaged one-handed in the pile of kit. Knowing all too well where it was, he found the pictures in their shredded envelope within a second. "Here." Handing them over. He'd looked at them many times, but would never admit he'd memorised them.

Vadim studied the shots for a long time. Katya's way to have children. Undoubtedly, she was cute. A very cute toddler, and very much like Dan, somehow, eyes and hair and maybe features, even if they were yet too soft and unfinished to say. "Congratulations", he murmured, trying to keep the tone light. "I mean it."

"You think so?" Really wanting a cigarette now, Dan was studying Vadim very closely. "But it doesn't mean anything. You know I'll never meet her." He took hold of one of the photos, looking at it. "You got to do it in my stead." Not taking his eyes off the photo for a long while. "Would you?" Finally looking up and at Vadim.

"I'll do that when I pick up the swords." Vadim reached over and touched Dan's shoulder. "You go to Jean, I'll handle Katya."

"Won't work. Jean's not in France." Dan shrugged, "how long did you want to …" see your family, "go to Hungary?"

"Just a weekend. Flying in, meeting, one night in a hotel, out the next morning."

"I'll come with you. Didn't see anything of Budapest. I could … well, do some sightseeing." And he'd always been ever so interested in cultural heritage. "As long as you'll sleep in the hotel with me."

"Okay. Sample the local men, eh?"

"Ha ha. Let's just stick to food and drink." The cigarette pack had somehow found its way into Dan's hand. "Can't say Hungary is my favourite place to go to, so don't try your luck." He carefully put the pictures back into the envelope.

Vadim closed the distance, then kissed Dan's neck. "Okay. Budapest. Where else?"

"Don't know. What about we see how we're healing up and decide when we're off?" The envelope went back between his kit and Dan turned his head to look at Vadim, a comically pained expression in his face. "And if I don't get a cigarette soon I might just die before we get a chance for R&R."

"Addict." Vadim stood to stow away the boots and the rest of their kit. "Go on, then." Only too glad that they could banter about it, the lightness was back, they were comfortable with each other again.

"Cheers!" The relief was genuine, and soon enough the smell of cigarette smoke filled the room as Dan lay back on the bed. Smoking with his eyes closed, the crutches beside him, and very intently not thinking of some things and thinking of others instead. Smiling, because his world was back in order.

December 1992, Hungary

At the time of the plane touching down at Budapest airport, Dan was dying for a fag and increasingly silent. The banter had stopped a while ago, and he was holding onto the beer in the miniature glass, while looking out of the window, across Vadim. The knee continued to be bandaged and he still had to use a crutch, thus sitting at the aisle to stretch out his leg. He'd been popping peanuts and studiously avoided to think.

The weather was glorious, just like it had been when he'd visited Hungary for the first time. 'Visited', not quite the right word. He'd been a desperate man, almost three years ago. A man who'd been ready to beg and had in return made a deal with the devil. Just that the result wasn't his burning soul, but a child he'd never meet. Hell would have been easier, at least he didn't believe in that shit.

"You ever been here?" Dan finally broke his silence as the plane rolled towards its parking space.

"No. Not planning to stay for long, either." Vadim wasn't quite sure about his emotions in this case. Anger and determination, that was what it seemed like, a touch of nervousness, and curiosity. All together a mix that was pretty hard to keep apart or analyse. Regret, definitely, that he hadn't been in touch earlier, hadn't said his goodbyes to Szandor.

Dan nodded, crumpling the empty packet of peanuts in his hand. "I assume you've planned when to see … your family?" He'd never asked, had simply assumed Vadim had somehow contacted his ex-wife to arrange the meeting.

"Yes. In the evening."

"And I assume you'll meet them where they live?"

"They are living in Szandor's house. He left it to them. Apparently, it was renovated and Katya is running it, renting parts of it out and so on. Suits her." Vadim inhaled deeply. "Not looking forward to this …"

"I can imagine." Reaching across to squeeze Vadim's hand. "I know where the house is. We could walk there this afternoon, just have a look around. Then you know where to go in the evening."

"Okay." Vadim was holding Dan's hand in both his. "Damn. I wish … I don't know." Wish Szandor was still alive? Yes. Or wish this wasn't so complicated. "Guess you would have liked him. I suppose he was on the 'camp' side, but that wasn't how I saw him."

Dan smiled. "Aye, but it's too late now. We just have to concentrate on the living." The plane had come to a halt and the passengers were starting to look for their bags in the overhead holds. "Let's just get this done and over with. Think of the cabin in the snowy mountains." He flashed a grin to keep this as light-hearted as possible.

Vadim groaned. "As long as the heating is working …" He grabbed his bag, helped Dan to get the smaller backpack on and waited for him to get hold of the crutch, and they headed for customs and immigration. A while later, they dropped off their belongings in the hotel, where Vadim had a quick shower and got dressed again, casual but expensive, checking himself in the mirror. "It's fairly close. Fifteen minutes on foot."

"Make it twenty with that bloody crutch of mine." Dan was coming out of the bathroom, towelling his hair dry. The swelling had subsided somewhat, but the knee still didn't look right. "Want me to wear anything specific?" He hadn't packed his bag, as usual.

"Anything in the suitcase will do. I like the cashmere jumper …" Vadim sat down in the stuffed chair and watched Dan get dressed, who dutifully got into what Vadim suggested. Life was so much easier that way.

"Then again, I guess I'll get a taxi. Twenty minutes in that weather …"

"Cheers, and in the meantime I'll quickly check with reception if something I'm waiting for has arrived." Hair still damp, but dressed and shaved, Dan got hold of the crutch to make his way downstairs.

"Oh?" Vadim let him go, though, and while Dan was downstairs, he ordered a taxi for 'in fifteen minutes', and also called Katya, telling her he'd just arrived and they'd meet in two hours, as planned.

Dan was back in five minutes, carrying a large envelope in his hand. "I knew I could count on him."

"What is it?"

Dan smiled when he closed the door behind him. "Here." Handing the envelope over to Vadim. "Can you give this to …" the bitch "Kisa's mother. Duncan set up the trust for me. I'll be paying in monthly until she is eighteen, or until she will need it, or … until I'm dead. Whatever comes first. It's for her education, stuff like that. Duncan didn't ask too many questions, but I guess I'll eventually have to tell him." Sitting down to take the weight off his knee, "face to face, preferably."

"True. Shit. She's Duncan's niece." Vadim looked at the papers without actually seeing anything. "I'm sure she'll have everything she needs. Katya wouldn't …" treat her own daughter badly. But it was Dan's daughter, too.

"I know." Agreeing with this, if anything at all. "But the kid might need something one day, and money is all I can give her. Let's face it, even if I were not forbidden from having contact, what would I be? An uncle? A father?" Dan snorted without humour, "I'm not father material. I'd fuck her up. She's got the chance, maybe, to be what's good. I'm not going to bring what's bad into the equation."

Shit. This seemed like the beginning of some very complex wrangling. Vadim wished Katya had just grabbed some guy off the street that night. Any guy but his guy. "I'll tell her. You sure you don't want to come along, officially?"

"That would really not be a good idea." Dan was still smiling, but the smile did not touch his eyes. "I'll just have a good meal and will look for a pub, bar, whatever they call it here. I'll be back before midnight, aye?"

"Okay. If you do find a native, leave me some." Vadim grinned and leaned over to kiss Dan.

Dan laughed shortly. "I will."

"Let's have a look at the area. The taxi should be waiting."

Dan got up, and they were soon in the taxi, heading once more towards the building Dan had been to before. He felt suddenly as if a great weight crushed down on him, until he turned his head and saw Vadim, reaching for his hand to press it almost painfully. "It's different this time." Murmured, "you're here now," and he smiled.

Vadim pressed his hand, too, then looked at the building where the driver stopped. He told him they'd look for a while, in fact Vadim wanted to give Dan a chance to decide whether and when he'd seen enough. The building was in excellent shape, bright, restored, spotless. Vadim had known that Szandor hadn't been exactly poor, he'd never struck him as one who was economically disadvantaged, but being faced with the reality of it was something different.

"We could walk into the city centre. It's not far from here." Dan offered, "I was in a hotel, that … anyway, it was very close. No need to have the taxi waiting." Getting out of the car, Vadim paid, and Dan stood and looked around. Breathing in the ice cold air, and taking in the building. "It certainly has improved." Half-turning towards Vadim, who placed a hand on his shoulder.

"Lead the way. It's my first time here."

"Don't really want to get too close to the building. Someone might think we are loitering." Vadim's closeness made it easier, reminded him that this was not about death and it was not three years ago. It was about life, rather. "I never explored the ground, shall we have a walk around?"

Vadim nodded and remained close, following Dan and taking the area in. It reminded him much of Szandor - just imagining him living here. Somehow old-fashioned but open, friendly, and very attractive.

There was a small piece of woods, more like wild parkland, and voices came from the area, not far away. A narrow, pleasingly winded path lead towards the crop of trees. "It's rather nice here." Dan admitted. "Guess it's a good place to grow up in, aye?"

"Yes. Decent part of town, seems friendly enough …" There were kids playing in the woods, with one boy holding the hand of a walking toddler, and Vadim recognized both immediately, while Dan hadn't quite caught on. The other kids weren't his, no Anoushka - well, she was probably getting too old for those games - but there was Nikolai, and the toddler, that was Kisa. The kitten. Vadim stood, watching, silent, studying the boy who seemed self-absorbed and not withdrawn at all now.

Dan finally got it when the kid turned. Dark hair whipping wildly around her face, she was laughing, and almost toppling over when she tried to run, over-excited. The boy held her, security, care, and an obvious tenderness for a kid ten years younger than him and looking everything but him.

"Oh shit." Dan whispered, hands almost shaking when he patted his stylish outdoor jacket for cigarettes. "It's … it's …" and he couldn't say it. Too unreal when confronted with the living proof.

Vadim reached over and touched Dan's arm. Of course Nikolai wouldn't recognize him, to his eyes, they were just boring adults, probably. And he felt strangely reluctant to talk to him. Why tear him out of his games and caring for his sister? Less pain this way. "She is very much you."

"That must be … a bugger." Dan tried to grin, but faltered. "She'll be making her mother's life hell."

"Guess she brought it upon herself."

"Yeah, fuck. You could say that." Tearing his eyes away from those kids, Dan glanced at Vadim, tried a smile. That one went better. "Well, are we kind of related now?"

"Not legally. I don't even think there's a word for that 'relation'." Vadim studied Nikolai for a long moment, but didn't want to attract attention. Eyeing young boys was not exactly something he wanted to be seen doing, even if it was completely innocent.

"Aye, it's too fucked up to have a name." Dan lit a cigarette, before putting his hand back into the pocket. The kids were wrapped up warmly, but he wasn't wearing gloves. "Best we leave." A long, last glance at the toddler, who was running full force into the older boy, laughing and squealing as she did, and screaming with delight when he picked her up and swung her around, playing 'plane'. "I hope she'll have a good life. She looks like she might take it by the horns." With that Dan turned away.

Vadim reached over, touching Dan's arm again. It hurt. It hurt that neither of them could just walk into the kids' lives, and that was probably for the best.

"Come on." Dan smiled, a brave effort. "We're both fucked up. At least we're not fucking up others, aye?"

Walking back on the path they had come, they took a walk along the back of the house, before they headed into town. Even though Dan was slower, he was okay, the painkillers doing their job, and the knee was still holding together. They had enough time for an ice-cream and cake and coffee in a café, before Vadim eventually had to head back, and Dan went further into the centre of town, looking for a restaurant that served local food and beer.

* * *

Vadim had decided against flowers, he didn't want to send the wrong message. He'd discarded the thought of keeping it civil, like a potted plant. He had decided against a book - he hadn't read anything recently, therefore he was in no position to recommend a book, and he wouldn't have trusted anybody else's recommendation. Not with Katya. Like in fencing, everything came down to the moment when the blades lowered after the salute and the distance was no longer neutral.

He rang the door bell, then calmly climbed the stairs, aware of everything, the paint, the high ceilings, the fine plasterwork, the ordered, clean touch. The door opened once he arrived on her landing.

Katya looked lethal. Still. Very straight, shoulders squared, facing him full on. If she'd slid down one foot to begin claiming his space on the piste, he wouldn't have been surprised. Her hair short, accentuating her jaw line, features not sagging. She'd kept well, like no time had passed at all, but she was wearing her hair in a new cut, and had applied a little makeup. The dark blue jumper made her look pale and icy, and she wasn't wearing any jewellery, not even a watch. Trousers, no skirt, she liked the freedom to move her legs, to run if she had to, to charge, if she had to, no doubt.

"Vadim. How nice." She sounded like he was a neighbour who'd come round semi-unexpectedly. Katya opened the door further, allowed him to pass through, bidding him to follow into the living room.

The flat had a good view over the roofs of the old city. The leather couches were new, everything was meticulously clean, ordered, like she liked it. Nothing of the children. She'd decided to face him alone.

"How was the flight?"

Vadim leaned back, regarding her, as she sat there, opposite on the single-seater. Hands in her lap, betraying the tension of a coiled cobra. "It's the war that bothers us - transportation is no big issue."

"The war?" Then she opened her lips, understanding. "You're not talking about the mess in the Balkans?"

"No." He inhaled, then focused on taking things slowly. The way she was anticipating, she was in the defensive. As the attacker, he could take his time. And he was reasonably sure that she had nothing to strike back at him. "The Balkans are going to hell. That's not a war. Not like I know it." He leaned back, rested his arms on the back of the sofa. Knowing what message his body language sent. "You used me to find Dan."

"I knew he would be in the same location as you."

"Yes, well, he got the photos. Now all I'm wondering is whether you achieved your aim - whether we have to acknowledge you scoring a point, or not. From the way it felt, it sure looked like an attack."

Katya's brow darkened. "You think?"

"Did you or did you not tell him to never get in touch to see whether he's a father or not?" Vadim leaned forward now.

"Vadim, I …"

"Did you?" Vadim's voice was cold. "I was, as you remember, rotting in a KGB prison while these things transpired, so I want the story from you."

The cobra swayed. He could see her shift in her seat, coiled. Not sure from where the attack had gone. He'd caught her off guard, even though he'd been sure he'd sent a message with his body language. No embrace, no kisses, no gifts. It should have clued her in that he wasn't here to congratulate her on her fine children. Three, not two.

"Katya, just tell me the truth." He leaned back, using his body to lie to her. He'd learned a thing or two in interrogation and during his time working with the Afghans. If he could deal with boneheaded Pashtuns that flew into a rage when they felt their honour impinged, he could deal with her. "Did you tell him to never be in touch? Because she would be your child, not his? Right?" He'd also learned that saying 'yes' for somebody being interrogated was always easier than saying 'no'.


Gotcha. Vadim nodded at that, leaning back some more. "I thought so." Inviting now her counterattack, blade lowered, but he could easily block her even so. Offering her an opening didn't mean it was a real opening.

"There was really just one thing I wanted from him." She stood. "Do you understand?"

"I understand. Now, between us, that was love. Even though I was never the man you'd wanted me to be."

She turned around, ready to strike, and Vadim raised a hand, vaguely touched that she moved to defend him. His image. The man she'd married versus the man that now sat in front of her.

"But I am Anoushka's father. And even though I … found it very hard to be in touch, she's still somewhere there, in the background. Something of me, outside of me. Are those her awards? Fencing?" He pointed at the sideboard.

Katya nodded. "Lefthanders have it easier."

Vadim smiled, fleetingly. "Yeah. As I said. When we made her, that was love. Whatever I feel, and however it turned out, but I loved you then, and I loved you as my wife, and then, later, as somebody very close to me. You and her, and Nikolai. Now, Nikolai, he was certainly also conceived in love. Sasha loved you, you had a crush on him, and so did I. Love, lust, the whole complicated thing. And it's good that something of Sasha survives. Your memory, mine, and his son, whom I love like my own. Even though, again, I'm nowhere near the father he deserves. But I know you're doing a great job bringing them up. They'll be good people, Katya."

"What are you aiming for, Vadim?"

"For your unguarded left hip, Mrs Lefthander, as always. You defend too high, sometimes. Kisa. You made Dan give you Kisa. You used him. Now, to an outsider, it looks like you've always used your men to get the children you wanted."

She bared her teeth, getting angry. "You …"

"I said, to an outsider." Raising his voice, speaking loud and sharply. "Hear me out."

Snarling, she pulled back, staring at him, guarded now, realising how much she was in the defensive and trying to find her rhythm back.

"But I know that's not true. Because I know what I felt and what Sasha felt and what you felt. Now, Kisa. She's a completely different case. You never used Anoushka against me. Granted, Sasha didn't live long enough, but why …" Vadim had to swallow, the anger was constricting his throat. "Why the fuck are you using Kisa, from the night she began to fucking now, all the way, to hurt her father? Because you know that men aren't made from fucking stone." He'd never cursed in front of her, cursing wasn't like him, and he could see her being unpleasantly surprised at his coarseness, the vulgarity. Soldier. "You know exactly what I felt, or Sasha felt. Sasha begged me to let you go, and I would have. I would have let you go, and my daughter, so you could be happy. Why the fuck do you try to break Dan? Is there a last axe you have to grind with me? Because you know that he'd be there, with me, fucking hurting because of what you did. Why, Katya? You can't even see him suffer. Is it enough to imagine him in pain? For what?"

"He ruined you."

"You could think he got me into prison. Truth is, I got myself there. And he got me out of it. He'd been keeping me together, Katya. He's keeping me sane. He's there when I wake up screaming at night. He's there to guard my back against the savages down in the Balkans. The Gulf. And wherever else we go. We're soldiers, still. Mercenaries. We put our skin out there, our hearts, minds, whatever we are, and we already go through so much shit. My mind's broken, and Dan's body is starting to come apart, and all we want is to gracefully retire and make it out alive, and then you use his child to hurt my partner? The man I depend on for my sanity? That's low, Katya. That's off target, and you know it. And I know it, because you've never done anything this ignoble and downright wretched before. I know. I know you're made from steel and bone, and I've always respected you. But hurting Dan like that? Kicking a man who has never done you any harm? Not a nice thing to do, Katya." He looked at her, and she was pale, taut, angry, shocked.

He waited, breathing, knew he'd let his anger out, too much of it, likely. Truth was, somebody had had to say it. "I said my piece." Inhaling deeply. "I'm sorry this meeting didn't go as you wanted. I truly am."

He stood, and closed the jacket.

"Do you not want to see the children?"

Vadim shook his head. "I'm dying to, but I can't. I'd be looking at them while Dan looks at the photographs? No way." He glanced around. "Where's Szandor's sword?"

"In the kitchen. The rest … is there, too."

"Thank you." He found the kitchen, where, wrapped up, the unmistakable shape of the sword rested on the table, next to it, a neatly packed box. Vadim opened it, saw it was photos and documents. He took both, placed the envelope Dan had given him where the box had been, then, without looking back, left the flat. On the next landing in the corridor, he felt a wave of nausea and regret, but it had been the right thing.

If she thought she could hurt Dan, now, he could hurt her back. She'd given him the weapons for it, too.

She got a taste of her own medicine.

* * *

Vadim went back to the hotel. He had no idea where Dan was, and simply assumed Dan would come back eventually. He changed, had a long, hot shower, then decided he was too angry and did his isometrics, pushups, exercising in the hotel room until he was sweaty and tired. He had another shower, took his time with a shave, then watched TV in the bathrobe, lying on the bed. The sword and the box untouched next to him.

It wasn't long after, barely ten, when the door opened and Dan slipped inside. He stopped, a look of surprise on his face, which immediately turned into a smile. "Didn't expect you back, yet." He was carrying a bottle of Hungarian red wine under his free arm.

Vadim switched the TV off and sat up in bed. "And I thought you'd learn Hungarian in a few hours and bring back two young, Hungarian hunks to share."

"Nah, sorry, I wasn't at my best tonight." Dan closed the door and leaned the crutch into a corner, holding up the wine. "But I got some plonk, will that do?" Sitting down on the bed. "How ... did it go?"

Vadim made a non-committal gesture. "We had a bit of a fight, but I won."

Dan cocked his head, said nothing for a moment, fiddling with the bottle instead, to get the seal off. "Should I ask about what?"

"About a matter of character, the past, what we thought of each other, what it all means." Vadim shrugged. "I gave her something to think about. Somebody had to do it."

"Okay." Dan nodded, looked around the room and spotted the minibar, which - he discovered after rummaging around - held a corkscrew. "Did you see your kids?" Kid. Strictly speaking, or should he say 'did you see the kids'?

"No. Apart from seeing Kisa and Nikolai when we saw them, outside."

"Okay." Dan nodded again, found a couple of glasses and poured the wine, all the way to the brim, despite knowing better. Holding one out to Vadim, who took it.


"I don't know what to say and I don't know if I should ask." A small smile quirked one corner of Dan's lips. "Doesn't happen often, aye?"

"It's okay. It really is. I told her that I know what her game is with you and that I disapprove. Then I walked out. But I left the envelope."

"Game?" Dan took a sip. His eyes betrayed his surprise. He'd forever be shit at poker. "What game is she playing with me?" And if she was, how could he break the bitch's neck without hurting the kid? Unlikely.

"She's working hard to hurt you. Probably me. I'm not quite sure which of us two is collateral in this."

"I'm going to fucking kill her if she hurts you!" That came out, hissed, before Dan managed to engage his brain, and he stuck his nose into the wine. Shit.

Vadim moved over to place a hand on his shoulder. "I just told her I know what she's playing. I hope she has the good grace to change her game now that I've called it. Maybe. Maybe not. But I refuse to see my kids when you can't see yours, and that's a promise."

Dan shook his head. "No, Vadim, that's crap. You hold them hostage for the shit the bitch is pulling. It's not their fault, aye? Nor Kisa's." Drinking the wine down as if it was water.

"Like she holds Kisa hostage." Vadim shook his head. "I'm not going to pretend with her. She changes her game, then I will. I'm done being manipulated. I let her live her life, right? Why the fuck does she have to interfere with ours?"

"And what good would it do if she let me see Kisa? What would I tell the kid who I was? A nice uncle?" Dan shook his head, "no. Leave the kid with her. Whatever the fuck her game is, however much she hates me, I figure one thing she'll do right, and that's bringing the kid up." Couldn't bring himself to call Kisa 'his daughter'. Surreal, far too surreal.

"Yes. She'll do that." Vadim tried to not sound too weary. Dan had a point. They had no room in their lives to be fathers. And yet, maybe Katya would come round to do the decent thing. "Well. And I got a sword now."

"A sword?" Brows raised, Dan poured himself more wine. "I thought you already had one anyway." Waggling his brows in a feeble attempt to make a saucy joke.

"Not a historical blade." Vadim pointed at the wrapped package. "He wanted me to have this. He won it in a competition, I think. Or somebody gave it to him as a present. I don't know the story behind the blade. And that's strange, because he wanted me to have it, and I guess it was important … but I don't know why. What went on in his head that he wanted me to have it, and have this, of all the things …"

"He? You mean Szandor? I met him ... very briefly."

"You said. Shit. He must have been ill then." Vadim shook his head. "Makes me feel a bit guilty. Getting this and having no idea why."

"Didn't it come with some explanation or paper?" Dan looked around the room, before settling his eyes on Vadim.

"Haven't opened the box yet. Didn't want to do it alone."

"Maybe it's the blade he used when you two met?" Offering a smile, "some folks are that sentimental, you know." Oh so inconspicuously playing with the chain round his neck that held the bullet. He'd been wearing it again since they'd survived the 'adventure'.

Vadim smiled. "He didn't run around with a historical blade." He reached for the packet, pulled it onto his lap, and began to tear the wrapping, freeing the steel. It was slightly oiled, well kept, a blade that had been used for fighting, no doubt, not just to show off with. The basket intricate, darkened steel, with silver wire and etchings.

"It's beautiful." Dan sipped his wine, watching. "Like you." Fuck, and where had that stuff suddenly come from?

Vadim smiled. "Interesting theory."

"Well, I don't know. I don't know this Szandor. I saw him for a couple of minutes - you were his lover. So I guess you should know better."

"Yeah, but what you said. Maybe he thought the blade was me, that simple." Vadim wrapped it up again and placed it on the chair near the bed. "You would have liked him. Maybe not as a lover - too camp - but an honourable man. I remember … he had a sword bag for his training swords … and sheaths for them. And I remember something was written on one of the sheaths: 'Never draw me in anger, never sheathe me in dishonour'." He shook his head. "And I thought, fuck, how archaic. How fucking archaic … how … eighteenth century."

"We should have had something like that." Dan shook his head. "on our knives, rifles, pistols, garrottes. But we didn't."

"You think it would have made a difference? I'm not sure. Modern war doesn't allow for honour. All you can strive for is decency. And I guess this was about duelling, and duelling was always different from war. But I thought, this Olympian athlete, he really believed in the old archaic gentleman duel. Not modern at all. Not about winning. About doing it right."

"And what's different, then, to heading out into a desert to save a bunch of yanks you can't stand in the first place? You think that's not trying to do it right?"

"That was because I love you, Dan. I've done a few right things. Some good." Vadim opened the box, apprehensive of what he'd find, and felt something heavy shift inside, between the papers. Reaching for that, he realized what it was before his fingers had even touched it. "Oh fuck."

"What is it?"

Vadim got hold of the ribbon and pulled the medal free. That did it, his eyes suddenly began to water. Silver. Men's Fencing.

Dan looked at Vadim, then the medal, and he smiled. Putting the wine down, to reach out gently. "He really was in love with you at some time, aye?" Softly.

"Fuck." Vadim closed his fist around the medal, feeling it cool and heavy in his hand, as he fought the emotion. A punch to the guts. A powerful impact. "He knew how … fucking disappointed I was. Back then. Oh fuck."

Dan said nothing, just let his hand rest on Vadim's shoulder and waited, offered. A presence, like he'd always be there, no matter what. As long as no wedge of hatred was ever pushed between them again.

Vadim tried a smile, and breathed, relaxed, accepting the gift, the thought. Both gifts. "I should … find his grave. Tomorrow. We have time before we have to be at the airport."

"Aye, and for now, would you mind if I get you out of your clothes and wrapped myself around you? It's medicinal, you know? For your stitches ... and my knee ... and, I guess, all the rest of us."

Vadim reached over to Dan's hair, taking a handful and kissing him. "Let me put the box away, and get out of the bathrobe." That he did, and not much later they lay under the covers, side by side, touching, caressing, until Vadim rolled over to sleep on the side, and Dan right behind him, spooning.

December 1992, Austria

Dan had been glued to the window, half-way leaning across Vadim's lap, marvelling at the picture-postcard perfect beauty of the Austrian Alps. The weather had remained glorious, and during the descent into Innsbruck airport, they could not have wished for more of a view. Glittering snow, a brilliant sky, and the mountains a breathtaking back-drop. Nothing like Afghanistan, and yet something about the majesty, which pulled on Dan's heart, settling a strange ache, which was good and welcome.

They explored the capital of Tyrol for a couple of days, getting the necessary supplies and a winter-equipped 4x4, before driving through thick snow into the mountains.

The cabin was luxurious, the brochure had not promised too much. Allowing space and comfort, and all the mod cons that they could have wished for, including a generator - just in case. At the same time there was a rustic feel about it, everything wood and warm colours, and Dan felt at home immediately.

They settled in straight away, enjoying the first night - Christmas Eve - in front of the fire. Listening to the crackling of the burning wood, while enjoying a glass of 'plonk' as Dan called it. The night was silent, every sound of the surrounding nature muffled by the gentle snow fall, and if they did not know better, they would have believed the old adage of Peace on Earth.

Special Forces Chapter XXXXX: Old Dogs New Tricks
Warning for Readers

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

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby accept and agree that this is a work of fiction and does not reflect in any way the opinions of the authors. The authors do not necessarily endorse the views expressed by the fictional characters.

By accessing this work of fiction you hereby indemnify the authors against all claims and actions whatsoever arising from reading the work of fiction.

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


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Published 26 September 2008