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Special Forces Chapter LXV: To the Bone

March 1999, Vienna

The conference centre was beginning to fill up. Vadim gently pulled the shirt from under the suit's cuff, briefly checked the cufflinks were immaculately in place, and watched the crowd. The same everywhere, wherever they did the 'circus'. Men from their mid-thirties, more often in their fifties, often well-fed, gleaming with lametta. Their 'clients'. At least no Konstantinov, no repeat of the Nelson episode. He'd had quite enough of life/work complications.

The coffee and the snacks were inadvertently excellent. All creature comforts were available, that included the hookers lingering at the edges of the conference. Vadim thought sometimes these meetings were more about getting away from the usual routine than the actual networking.

Another group came in. Several large, bullish men, and Vadim thought shit, Russian army, that was what they looked like these days.

The familiar weight of a well-known hand descended onto his shoulder, and Dan's scent as he leaned down, standing behind the seated Vadim. "Funny how they made it safely through to another regime and ideology, aye?" Murmured, Dan grinned.

Vadim huffed. "I'd be surprised if the army had changed at all. It was always completely its own entit..."

Lesha. He stared at the man. Lesha, absolutely no doubt. His eyes, his lips under the peaked cap, in the full regalia of a Russian ... general. "Holy fuck. He made it."

"What's up?" Dan straightened up, looking towards the group as he leaned on the cane. "You know one of them?" Alerted, even though Vadim's reaction hadn't been alarmed.

Vadim nodded. "Alexei Ivanovich Petkov. The ... general."

"Friend or foe?" Quietly, as Dan made his way to sit down on the leather settee, beside Vadim.

"Friend." Vadim looked up, then his eyes darkened. "I have no idea."

"Been a long time?" Dan leaned back, lighting a cigarette with the new expensive lighter Vadim had given him. Slim, sleek, silver.

"We were both raw recruits. We'd joke we'd both become generals. Seems he won." And I got nothing. Nowhere. Just myself. What I always was. Even then. But there stood the career he'd tossed away to became what he was. He didn't regret it. It just stung to see it right there, on his old friend.

"You'd be above a general, given the chance." Dan exhaled the smoke slowly. "But there's only really one way to find out if he is a friend, aye?" Looking at Vadim with a smile that despite the expensive tailored suit in the highly professional surroundings was nothing but tender.

"Yeah." Vadim stood again, saw Lesha talk to one of the men around him, noticed he'd got a paunch from, no doubt, sitting at desks most of the time or maybe the good life, even if he looked a bit worried, not very well rested. Maybe too much work. Too many worries under the new regime. Moscow licking its wounds, a former superpower brought low and crumbling, threatened from all sides - and within. It paid to be a freelancer, and when it did, it did so well. Vadim kept looking at him, until Lesha noticed him.

His old friend looked him up and down, then passed through the group of men around him, and offered an outstretched hand. "Vadim Petrovich."

Vadim hesitated at the slightly more formal address than he had been used to from Lesha. "General." Reacting wrong, increasing the distance dictated by title and age, now. To be on the safe side.

"I saw the programme and I thought, I know that strange name." The general smiled. "'How a superpower fought and lost'? That's a good title."

"Thank you."

Dan was watching from his seat, within earshot, but without making himself known. The powers of observation had never left him, and he noticed the once dark hair, seemingly still full beneath the cap, glimpses of silver at the temples, expressive brows and the fairly pale eyes shaded by dark lashes. That man had been stunning, once. He leaned forward to flick ash into the ashtray, wondering what kind of 'friend' the man had been. Fitting a mould too well, and he smiled slightly to himself.

"Please, I would like to invite you for a drink after the panel discussion. I can imagine it getting 'heated', a drink will be welcome." Lesha, or Alexei Ivanovich, continued, unfazed, smooth. "Are you free?"

"Yes, Sir, of course."

"Good man." Lesha patted his shoulder, then moved on, and Vadim was left with a strange feeling he couldn't quite put into words. He sat down next to Dan again. "Not sure that answers the question, really."

Dan scratched his chin. "No, that clearly doesn't. The guy's either terrified or an arsehole." Quiet enough not to be overhead.

"The communist brother kiss went a bit out of fashion ..." Vadim frowned. "Shit. Now I'm nervous." He glanced over his shoulder, but the general and entourage had left.

"Why? They can't get you here." Dan frowned, stubbing the cigarette out. "No one can touch you."

Vadim inhaled. "But Lesha? Terrified? I hope not."

"Depends on what kind of friend he was and depends on if he knows the accusations." Dan countered carefully.

Vadim paled. "Shit. We weren't ... we were comrades. Friends. We were close, but ... I never touched him. I had a crush on him, yes, but it never went beyond ..." Lying and killing for each other. More than he'd shared with Dima, come to think of it. Yet Dima was still a 'brother', still loyal.

Dan smiled. "Then it depends on what he thinks about a - the accusations and b - men who love men."

Vadim fell silent, and lowered his gaze. That was true. It came down to the matter of being gay and what Lesha thought of that. He checked the time on his watch, saw nothing, then checked again. They still had ten minutes, but they could get settled in. The thought still lingering. Drinking with the general. That could mean anything. Lesha had remained noncommittal, and Vadim realized he was scared that Lesha would tell him to fuck off, between a drink or two. "Panel discussion."

"Come on, then." Dan briefly touched Vadim's thigh. He got up, leaned for a second on the crutch, before they headed to the room, side by side.

The discussion went on for longer than expected. Whenever Vadim's eyes went to Lesha, the general listened, interested, head slightly tilted, sometimes rubbing his chin in a thoughtful gesture, always concentrated. The discussion was lively, especially in light of the current developments in the region, and it wasn't quite that straightforward to get out of the room and to the bar. When they finally did, Dan understood without too many words, and left Vadim on his own at the bar, while he sat down in a leather club chair within earshot. Sampling a Speyside whisky, he flicked through one of the many newspapers. Lesha showed up eventually, without his flock of bully boys. Dan glanced up once, studying the man, before he returned his fake attention to the paper. All he could hope was that this general wasn't an arsehole, after all.

"Interesting ideas", said Lesha in Russian and ordered - not vodka, but wine.

Vadim inhaled deeply and nodded, saw in the bar mirror that his jaw muscles had tightened. "You mean 'outrageous'?" Answering in Russian, aware that his command of the language had suffered from disuse.

"Well." Lesha gave a nod to the bartender. "Certainly thought-provoking."

"Or provocative?"

Lesha smirked. "Mincing words, Vadim?"

"In the absence of anything else to mince." Vadim felt sudden anger rise in his throat. "Why are you here? It's not like you haven't heard these theories before. I thought they were fairly widely discussed."

"But less candidly. We are trying to learn from our mistakes. There are commissions, archives ... our military historians are tackling the subject."

"I'm not sure a wolf should write the wolves' history."

"But the lamb instead?"

"Well, you could have a lamb and wolf committee, and then they present the findings to the President." Vadim shook his head. "Fuck. That's not how I wanted to meet you again."

"I thought so." Lesha leaned against the bar, studying Vadim. "I could have imagined much better situations for that, but time wasn't gentle."

Vadim nodded. "How's the career going?"

"Not too bad. A lot of trouble - money is short, certain ethnic groups are volatile as ever ... very little really changes outside Moscow."

"That's candid."

"I know whom I'm talking to." Lesha gave him a wry smile. "And you're now a private security specialist. You must be making a lot of money. I have an idea of the fees you're charging - very impressive. I'm glad you are well-secured."

"I grew too old to remain a mercenary." Vadim lowered his gaze. With a patriot like Lesha, the word mercenary equalled prostitute. "I'm not playing, Lesha. I am getting too tired."

Lesha inhaled. "I can imagine."

After these words, Lesha fell silent. Vadim sensed the disapproval, and he knew that his old friend was gone. Lesha wasn't the man whose life he'd saved. He was being civil and went through the motions, but there was nothing left. No common ground.

"Do you have any questions? About the past?" Vadim asked.

"Why are you asking?"

"I get the feeling we won't meet again. I believe in tying up loose ends ... entirely possible you have something on your mind that you'd like to see resolved. Then let's do it - because I'm tired, and I could be lying in bed and getting rested up instead."

Lesha looked at him for a long, long moment. "One thing."

"Anything. Come on. Ask me."

"Did you kill the officer? I mean ... did you cause him to?"

Vadim shook his head, for a moment. That was the question. Not 'did you do it', not 'were you a traitor?' but 'did you kill the bastard who almost killed us?' He looked Lesha in the eye and nodded. "Yes. And I'd do it again, and a hundred times more. The bastard very nearly killed both of us, and he got what he deserved." He stared at Lesha, who sat there, visibly shocked, and Vadim suddenly knew that Lesha, all his life, had rationalised that the officer's suicide had been an accident, that Vadim couldn't have had anything to do with it, but there had been nagging doubt. That was now resolved.

Vadim stood. "Thanks for the drink, general." And left.

Dan looked after him, alerted, but when he stood up he didn't follow, took instead the couple of steps towards the man who'd remained seated at the bar. "General Petkov?" Leaning casually on the cane, Dan studied the man.

The general glanced up and nodded, speaking English. "Mr McFadyen. Please, have a seat." He looked to the barman and nodded towards Dan, in the universal gesture of 'on my tab'.

Dan was clearly surprised, hadn't expected the polite reaction. "Bhunnabhain, please." He nodded to the bartender. Sitting on the bar stool, he leaned the cane against the bar. "I hadn't expected you to remember my name."

"I have a knack for details. Very useful in my position." The general smiled. "And you were cited as the co-author of an analysis that kicked up a bit of dust in certain circles."

"Ah, that. Vadim has a knack, too. That's to turn my ramblings into readable sentences." Dan smiled politely, lighting another cigarette after offering one to the general. "Would have never thought he was an intellectual, back then." He raised one brow in a most minuscule way, testing the waters.

"He could even be poetic, sometimes. Some way with language, and an unorthodox thinker. Finding solutions, even if it meant tricking his way out." The general sipped his wine.

"And you think that has changed?"

"Ah. You caught me. I don't know how much he has changed. That was how I knew him, as a recruit in the same barracks, and when I moved on to become army, and he special forces, and then later, in that unspeakable country."

"Later?" The whisky arrived and Dan took a sip of the smoky smoothness. "Afghanistan, that's where we met." Not having a clue how much and what the general knew.

"Vadim tricked me when he faked a heroin addiction, to win a few weeks away from any superior's eye. I invented orders for him, or rather, requests, that were duly granted. That was in the mid-eighties. That was the last time I saw him. A desperate man, a proud man who begged me for protection, which I granted him, of course. He'd saved my life when I was a recruit. He ... killed a bullying officer. Only we thought it was suicide. But just now, Vadim admitted to it. Twenty years later. No. Closer to thirty years."

Dan shook his head slowly. "Yes, that's the way he is. Protecting those who are closest to him. His friends, comrades." Dan took another mouthful, relishing the taste of home. "Do you know why he 'tricked' you in the eighties?" Pondering for a second, but there was nothing to lose, only to gain. "I was dying. Torn apart by a suicide bomb, lying in a hospital in India. He came to see me. A friend amongst enemies." Looking steadily at the general. Friend, lover, who cared. Perhaps he was getting diplomatic in his old age. "Vadim is the most loyal man I know."

"Oh, I didn't doubt he did it for the ... most honourable reasons." The general took off the cap and sat it next to himself on the bar. "I trusted him that much. And it's a shame we lost him. There are many who think that, but only now some begin to speak about it. I doubt he'll ever get pardoned ... There won't be a friend's hand stretched out in brotherhood towards him, and his reputation is eternally tarnished with those ghastly suspicions and the trial, but there are elements that think what happened to him is ... a disgrace."

"A disgrace? That's the biggest understatement ever. He never betrayed anyone or anything. But yes. He was and is homosexual." Dan watched the general over the rim of the glass. "And does that warrant torture?"

The general's brow darkened. "Personally, I don't think it warranted torture." Giving a weary, bleached-out smile, he continued: "But I don't condone his lifestyle. Is that the word? Lifestyle? I am not intending to insult you - or him."

Dan huffed a humourless laugh. "'Lifestyle'? What's there to condone? It's not a choice."

"There is always a choice involved. Especially with somebody as cerebral as Vadim. He has made certain decisions. But it's illegal in the army, and in our country. Still, if he'd kept quiet about it, he could have ... followed his leanings. But instead, he stood in a court room and said what he'd done with a man, and an enemy, was not a disgrace. You don't think that the military could just take that challenge, pat him on the shoulder and let him go for it?" The general looked unspeakably tired.

"No, but that's Vadim for you. Standing up for what mattered." The love. Their love. Dan shrugged, letting it pass. The general would never understand and when it came down to it, he didn't give a shit anymore about those who didn't understand. "I just have to wonder, is there anything of the friendship left?"

"I ..." Lesha sighed. "He saved my life. I thought we were friends, but whether that was real or ... I don't know."

"Ah, that's what it is." Dan inhaled the last drag of smoke. "You wonder if he wanted you sexually, or if he was a friend, and if the one excludes the other."

The general nodded, mute.

"I'm afraid in that case," Dan smiled wistfully as he stood up, "you'll never find out unless you are Vadim's friend." Taking hold of the cane, he nodded politely to the general. "Thank you for talking to me, but now I have to leave you, because, you see, I love Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada, and I need to check how he is."

"Of ... course." Looking chastised, maybe, or just uncomfortable, or maybe Dan had hit a nerve, point blank.

Turning to leave, Dan stopped, glancing back. "And that is our choice." He gave a brief smile. "Good night, general."

"Good night. And ... tell him about the disgrace thing. If you would."

"I will, rest assured."

Dan left towards the elevators, shaking his hand to free the lapis lazuli beads that had caught themselves in the cufflinks. It didn't take long before he reached the suite, calling out softly as he opened the door. "Hey, Russkie."

Vadim was sitting on the bed. He'd shed the jacket of the suit, the tie, too, lying at his feet like a dead snake, white pristine shirt several buttons open, reaching past the pecs. He was sitting there, staring into an empty glass, a bottle of duty free whisky at his feet, and he hadn't bothered with the screw top. "Am I?" he asked. "Russian?"

"Not if you're drinking whisky instead of vodka." Dan made a light-hearted joke despite knowing damn well that this was no light-hearted matter. A swift glance at the bottle, one quarter empty, quite unlike Vadim these days. Pulling a chair close he sat down in front of Vadim and dropped the cane. Leaning down to take the bottle, pry the glass out of Vadim's hand and refill it. "I guess it's a bloody good question, though, if you are Russian or not."

"Yes. Yes it is."

Taking a large mouthful, Dan handed the glass back to Vadim. "Perhaps I should look for another nickname for you, aye? What do you think?"

Vadim stared at the glass again. "Don't know. Few nicknames I've ever liked. Certainly not 'Vadya', even if Jean never got that."

Dan quirked a small grin. "What about 'light of my life'?"

"Don't feel very bright just now, sorry." Vadim took another sip, but at the same time reached over to touch Dan's shoulder. "I'd drink piss if it made me less Russian."

"Why right now?" Dan remembered the time Vadim had refused to speak Russian. "Or is that a really stupid question to an obvious answer?"

"It's easier to be Russian when there are no other Russians around. Once they show up, I want to be their enemy ... or at least something else."

Dan nodded, placed a hand on Vadim's knee, squeezing once. Blue stone around his wrist, blending into the darkness of the fine wool of Vadim's suit. "The general asked me to tell you that many believe, now that they dare to speak out, that what was done to you was a disgrace. Russia's disgrace."

Vadim closed his eyes, then got up, Dan's hand slipping off his leg. Pressing his lips together. His back was taut, neck rigid, and he wasn't breathing, fighting the surge of emotion at those words. "That's ... that's why he's here."

"What?" Craning his head back, half-twisted on the chair, Dan looked at Vadim incredulously.

"Guilt." Vadim turned around, eyes blazing. "The bastard feels guilty because he didn't repay me."

If anything, the confusion grew, until it hit Dan. "You mean, because he didn't save you when you were imprisoned?"

"He's a fucking general." Vadim inhaled deeply. "Don't tell me there was nothing he could have done. The bastard!"

Dan swivelled round to fully face Vadim again. "You really think so? It took the upper ranks of the British diplomacy, and they still failed. Besides, was he a general then? What do you think would have happened to anyone who spoke out for you, back then? Do you really think his career would have survived another day?"

"No." Vadim shook his head, lowered it again, the anger deflating, but not leaving him. "Doesn't mean it's not guilt. On some level."

"Okay, I can see that, and it wouldn't surprise me."

Vadim tossed back the whisky. "Or he just wanted to look at me. Look me in the eye. Hear me say things that would have got me into a mental institution if I had been high-ranking and stupid enough to say these things."

"What the fuck?" Dan reached for the glass, pouring himself a large measure. "First of, what things would that be and secondly, who the fuck do you think he is, getting you institutionalised? That's absurd. The guy has no handle on you. No one has."

Vadim inhaled, forced himself to breathe and fight down the whirl of emotions, ranging from anger to paranoia, to hurt pride, fear, regret. Too much. He couldn't think clearly anymore, and it wasn't the alcohol. "What ... what now? What do I do with him?"

"Do you need to do anything with him? Why don't you just let him go. Didn't seem to be a friend to me." Dan drank most of what he'd poured.

"Let him go." Vadim stared at the door. Would be for the best. This man wasn't the Lesha he'd known, saved, cared about, lusted for. It hurt. The memory was still there. Of the young soldier in the rain, pale, lips blue, shuddering violently, uniform soaked with rain. "Yeah. I'll let him go."

"You'll still have the memory. You saved his life, he must have meant a lot." Dan pushed himself up, taking the step towards Vadim. "But a friend … Hooch is your friend. Hooch would pull you out of a fire, even if it meant he'd burn." He smiled, tilting his head.

"Yeah. Hooch would." Hooch he'd met not long ago, taken apart and put back together. Hooch, who had recovered well from the torture and injury, both mentally and physically. They'd found new limits, new height, depths. There was complete trust, the strangest and deepest friendship Vadim had ever known. Hooch was worth a dozen friends. Vadim looked at Dan, eyes showing anger and pain. "I killed a man for him. Lesha. Because he'd have killed him. An officer. I broke the bastard and he committed suicide - that way, he couldn't take revenge on us." Us. Nothing like that had ever existed. "Guess ... I guess I was in love with him."

"Aye, and he never paid you back." Quietly, Dan could see the anger, but could do nothing about the pain, except for touching Vadim's shoulder. "And never reciprocated." Wanting to draw him close, but he'd learned that this didn't always work.

Vadim nodded silently, then moved towards Dan, pulling him into a powerful embrace, hiding his face against Dan's shoulder, breathing, struggling.

Dan said nothing, just holding, strong and steadfast. So fucking glad Vadim touched him, wanted him to be there, hold, and let him inside. Stroking the back of Vadim's head, fingertips carding through the short hair, he had his eyes closed and just stood. If he'd learned anything in his life, then it was patience.

Vadim eventually turned his head to kiss Dan's neck. "I'd be so fucked without you", he murmured, sounding calm and tired. The alcohol had had time to kick in as well.

"Don't think I wouldn't be buggered without you, either." Dan chuckled low. Turning his head to kiss Vadim's temple. "What do you say about a hot bath and spa and a relaxing blow-job?"

Vadim nodded. "I'm game." He finished the bottle, poured the rest of the whisky into his glass. "Fuck Russia." Saluting Dan, and then emptying the glass.

"Yeah, and you'll be putty in my hands in a minute." Dan grinned, then went into the bathroom to start filling the large tub.

Vadim grinned, seemed to grow more pensive for a few moments, looking at the door, but forced himself to stop thinking about it. Lesha was dead. Better men than him had died. Platon. Sasha. For all Vadim cared, Lesha's bullet had just missed him. Maybe he was luckier in Chechnya or wherever he worked now.

They had a long hot bath, the spa relaxing, and the whisky mellowing. True to his word, Dan got Vadim into the bed afterwards, and proceeded to give him a slow and torturously skilled blow-job, with all the tricks in the book - and he knew a lot of them.

When Vadim fell asleep, Dan was holding him, like he usually did. Spooning behind him, watching the back of his neck in the gloom of the bedroom, until he, too, fell asleep. The past would always be part of the present, but at least that was true for both sides: the good and the bad.

* * *

The next morning, after a quick shower and shave, Vadim and Dan headed back to the breakfast room. Vadim wasn't surprised to see the Russian delegation sit together at a table, the general framed by his bully boys. He studiously ignored the man, but thought he felt his gaze a few times.

When Dan got up the second time to help himself at the buffet, he caught the general's eyes and nodded with a polite smile. Wishing "good morning" in Russian, before presenting his well-dressed back to the delegation as he loaded his plate once more.

The general nodded, entirely civil, no onlooker could have seen anything amiss, neither distaste nor previous encounters. Lesha played the role well, thought Vadim, sitting next to Dan when he returned, sipping coffee, and every now and then touching Dan's hand on the table.

Dan looked up, smiling, the bullet on its chain around his neck caught a spark of light as he turned and the collar of his high-class leisure shirt opened wider. "I was thinking about going for a stint in the gym and swim later. Anything you want to do in the meantime?"

"Network", Vadim said. "Not sure I got everybody's card last night." He added a smile to that.

Dan grunted. "Guess that means I still can't let go of the Maggie-skin yet and have to behave?" A wicked grin crossed his face, "unless you'd want me to go hunting for potential fun."

Vadim pursed his lips. "Get us some fun. I'm quite in the mood, and we'd still catch our plane early tomorrow." It felt reckless, liberating to discuss this with Lesha in the same room. Not ashamed, or at least not hiding. "I'll trust your judgement."

"Hmmmm …" Dan mused while his grin grew. "You feel up to spending a wad of money on some high class hooker, or two? Been thinking about it, and not just because I'm getting older." he winked. "It's been a lifetime since I last bought a whore, and it sure as fuck wasn't anything like what I'm looking for now."

Vadim licked his lips, grinning wolfishly. "You just won yourself a credit card." Reaching into his pocket, he pulled the black leather wallet out and handed it to Dan. "Get the prettiest you can get. I don't mind blowing this time's fee on them."

Dan laughed, "they won't be that expensive, I'm not getting them gold-coated, after all."

"Well, if you don't like their clothes, get them something nice to wear. Some hookers have a horrible dress sense."

"As if I had a better dress sense." Dan rolled his eyes and finished his coffee, then pocketed the business account credit card. "I'll see you this afternoon." Standing up, he grinned. "Don't enjoy yourself too much while I'm gone."

"Hardly." Vadim grinned, watching Dan leave, then his eyes inadvertently trailed back to Lesha, smile receding, vanishing, until all he did was regard Lesha from under heavy lids. His face carefully neutral, stoic, thinking how Lesha had become exactly what he'd always despised, but in more senses than one. A bigot, a general, a career officer who valued the rulebook higher than comrades. Seen from that perspective, Vadim thought, Lesha was the traitor in the room. And in a way, that gave him a grim satisfaction.

Eventually, Lesha stood and left his entourage, and took two steps closer to Vadim. Probably waiting to be invited to Vadim's table. You won't get me unprepared this time, thought Vadim. "General?"

Lesha regarded him for a long moment. "I have to be at the airport in two hours, so ..."


"If there is anything else ..."

"I can send you the text of the presentation, General, if you leave me your address. You might find I have revised it in the meantime. There were a few scholars I haven't had time to examine." Vadim smiled, baring his teeth up to the first molars. "It would be my pleasure entirely."

The general paused, but to his credit, his facial muscles didn't twitch. "That would be very welcome." He reached into the uniform jacket and found a card. Official looking. He kept it non-personal. Bastard. Vadim noticed a mark on his finger, like he'd worn a ring ... for a long time. Divorced? Who the fuck cared.

Vadim looked at the card briefly, but let it lie on the table cloth. "Have a good trip back, General. Thanks for coming."

"Thank you."

Lesha was about to turn when Vadim added: "And tell the others I don't care for their pity or what they think of me. Whatever they think of me, it's true. Whatever you think of me, it's definitely true. I'm all that, and I don't give a fuck what you think." Coarse soldier's Russian, the only language they'd shared, once upon a time.

Lesha nodded, brow dark, but he didn't shoot back. "I understand. Well, Mr Krasnorada, that was very enlightening."

"I bet." Vadim stood, took the card to dispose of it later, and left the room.

* * *

Dan was in a rather good mood when he returned in the early afternoon. He found Vadim sitting in the tea room, sipping a glass of wine, listening to a guy playing on the piano. He had a folder with papers in front of him, but he either hadn't started work, or was finished. He looked up. "Chopin", he murmured. "Hey, had a good day?"

"A successful one, aye, you could say that. Even though our business account is going to be somewhat lighter." Dan didn't sit down, just leaned against the chair opposite to Vadim. "We'll be having 'guests' at seven tonight." He bared grinned sharply. "I was assured that the hotel is very much used to visitors of any nature."

"The bill they charge us, they better be." Vadim leaned back and grinned. "What are they like? How did you find them?"

"Now that would be telling." Dan tapped the side of his nose. "Let's just say that internet, mobile phone and personal vetting go very well together. Also, whatever you have heard about Austrians being prissy, it's not true. Vienna seems to be a positive den of sin." He grinned, "and for what those guys are like … I saw each of them personally. Can't think of anything other than 'perfect'. Not a flaw. Mid-twenties and exactly what they should be like: too perfect to be real. By the way, I got us a dark one and a light one." He winked.

Vadim laughed softly. "I guess you know my type fairly well." Vadim motioned for Dan to sit down, relax, offered him some of the wine. "Seems like a good ... climax for a less than ideal work assignment."

"And you did say that hookers don't count, that we'd share them." Dan smiled and took the wine. "What are we going to do before seven? Sex is right out, we don't want to spoil us for our expensive 'guests'."

Vadim laughed, "no, you are right. What about going out for a meal and some sightseeing?"

"As long as the meal makes up for the sightseeing, I am game."

With Vadim's promise, delivered with a grin, they headed off into the epitome of Baroque cities. Even Dan was impressed by some of the architecture, the exquisite gardens, the marbling and iron work, but after two hours, he was tired of it and demanded his food. He got it soon in one of the finest restaurants, with a famous Viennese coffee to close an excellent meal.

When they returned to the hotel they left instructions to send the 'guests' upstairs to their room, and then retreated to freshen up. Dan joked that there was no point in dressing, but Vadim figured that it was them who should get an eyeful, certainly for the money they paid, and not the other way round.

When the two young men arrived, they were indeed as perfect as Dan had promised. One dark haired and green eyed, the other blond and grey eyed, and even the fact that he'd helped the white blond of his short hair with the bottle didn't diminish the appeal. Both tanned, both smooth, and both ready and willing to do anything Vadim and Dan asked for.

The night turned out to be longer than even Dan had expected, with those two guys truly being worth their money as they shared each other, while Dan and Vadim watched, turned on by the beauty and perfection and the professionalism with which the make-belief seemed more real than real. Slick, perhaps, too faultless, but they were a treat, rare and different. When it was Dan and Vadim's turn to make use of those beautiful men, it was a combination of watching, taking in the image of the other with one or two of them, and of taking their fill.

When the two finally left in the morning, both Dan and Vadim were relaxed, sated, and Lesha had become a mere memory. Another page or two in Vadim's diary.

August 1999, New Zealand

The phone rang and Vadim picked it up. He'd been sitting in the living room, a book on his stomach, a notepad at his side, the phone within easy reach. He could hear Dan rummage around in the kitchen. Tea time.

"Yeah?" he asked.

"Hi Vadim."

Only one person who'd speak Russian with him, and he found himself shift back into the language. "Katya. How are you?" Almost four years. Four years since he'd written the letter, told her everything. There had been no response, and he'd gone on living his life, earning money, keeping busy, writing whenever he felt the past become too oppressive. It had been a good four years, though. Despite the nagging feeling that he should ... should do something, anything, that there was a connection that was still bleeding, somehow.

"I'm just calling to say happy birthday."

"Thank you." He leaned back, closed his eyes, listened to her terse, strained voice. There was something wrong, he could tell, but he knew from experience that straight-out asking her would merely be skilfully parried, and then there would be a counter attack.

"How is it, being fifty?"

"Hardly feel a difference." He did - they both did. The wear and tear meant there were pains, but the active life meant they suffered a lot less than anybody their age bracket they knew. "And how are you? How are the children?"

"Anya is studying medicine ... she says she wants to become a heart or brain surgeon."

"She's a clever one", Vadim said, with tenderness. He'd assumed she'd be good. Cool, self-collected, clever and perceptive. "And Nikolai?"

"Ah, he's going through a phase. Boys his age do."

Vadim paused. "Military service?"

"I took care of that." Her voice was steel.

"And what about Kisa?"

"Healthy child. Strong-headed." Katya grew increasingly terse.

"That's good to hear. I'm ... glad you called. Been a while, but ... did you get my letter?"

"Yes. I've read it just before I called you. I might have called you earlier, but ... life caught up with me."

"Doesn't sound good."

"The things you wrote - it was strange, because I guessed much of what you told me, but not the extend of it. I only saw a surface; I never realized how much you were hurting, how much you wanted to be free, and how difficult you found it to relate to people."

"I still loved you and the children. I still care." Spelling everything out, facing emotions like regret, love, all that, head-on, communicating, being open.

"I know." Her voice sounded thick. "I know, and I thought I'd made my peace with all this. Our marriage, the children. That you would remain a fond memory, even though you cast us from your life. I understand now why you did it, but it hurt, and I hated you."

"Fair enough. I deserved that hate." They didn't speak for what felt like several minutes. "You can't take defeat, Katya, I know. It was that which inspired me all those years. Your strength."

"And I hated your partner."

"Fair enough", Vadim repeated. "There's plenty of that in him, too."

"Yes," she conceded.

"Do you know you were the only woman I ever loved that wasn't my mother?" Vadim murmured. "I always wanted to be the husband you deserved, but I wasn't. I wasn't made like that, I couldn't be the man you loved. That's a massive failure. I'm sorry for that. If I had been, I promise ..."

"Oh Vadim." Some of her old tenderness was in those words. The tone that she had for him when telling him he'd let the bath cool because he was too engrossed in a book. "You were perfect. I never wanted to hurt you. You'd have let me go with Sasha, I let you go with Dan. I made you to, even though I didn't feel he was right for you, but after ... almost twenty years or so ... you've spent far more time with him than with me, and I hope it was a good twenty years and you'll have another fifty years, not regretting anything."

So open and honest, calm, strong. "What happened?"

"Nothing much, Vadim. I'm just feeling like I should pick up some pieces."

"What happened?"

"They thought I had cancer, but the biopsy came back negative. Not malevolent. I won't die of this."

Vadim felt his breath stall. "Honest?"

"Yes, honest. But when I got the result, I thought, what if? What if I'd die a slow death like Szandor, and Kisa is still a child." You're both not fathers, her tone said. What of the child.

"I'm ... glad to hear you're good."

"Yes. If you want to meet the children ... if you happen to be somewhere in Europe at some point ..."

Tempting him away from those last, dark promises, that he'd refuse the children as long as she held Kisa hostage. And what did it actually mean? That he was still standing by his word after those years, after that monstrous What If? What if she'd been dying? Would he still have denied her? "You're not playing fair."

"I'm sorry." She might even be, but the old grudge was still there, and that was a damned shame. "You still won't ..."

"No, Katya." Despite the fact you could be dead. In a way, it would be treason, and he'd not go so far after all those years. "But thanks for the offer. It's appreciated."

"Well, enjoy your birthday."

"Thank you." He switched off the phone and opened his eyes.

It took a while, sitting in silence, before a faint rustle, deceptively deliberate, announced Dan's appearance in the doorway. He was carrying one mug of tea and one of coffee.

"Everything alright?"

"Katya called." Vadim straightened, took his coffee, and sighed. "We're still on square one." He shook his head.

Dan put the mugs down before sitting down on the couch. "Damn, it's been how long?"

"Last time I was in touch. Nearly four years … But Kisa is doing alright. Head-strong, she said."

"Doesn't surprise me." Dan smiled at first, then frowned, "Katya brought it onto herself, but what about your kids?"

"Anya's studying to become a doctor, and Nikolai … she said he was having a phase, like young men do." Whatever that meant. Drinking? Girls? Hormones? Rebelliousness? Nikolai? He was the shyest kid he'd ever known. Him going 'through a phase' sounded wrong, but what did he actually know about his children.

"You should see your kids, Vadim." Dan said quietly, before having a mouthful of coffee.

Yes. No. "Shit. Happy birthday", Vadim murmured, and Dan got up, laboriously, only to scoot closer, and to wrap his arm around Vadim, who touched his head to Dan's.

"There's a party on Saturday to look forward to, and you haven't even opened your present."

Vadim smiled. "No. Sorry."

"No need to be sorry, I haven't given it to you yet, was wondering if you thought I'd forget your 'big O'." Hardly possible with an enormous birthday cake in the fridge. Dan twisted to get to the back pocket of his black jeans, and produced a small envelope. Grinning triumphantly. "Here you go."

Vadim laughed. "Careful. My Big O is just a few months before yours. Thank you." He opened the envelope and smiled as he read. Two weeks holiday in a luxury spa hotel in Tuscany with personal trainer and beauty treatments. He noticed that Dan had ordered the treatments for 'two adults', which meant Dan would subject himself to the same regime. Vadim leaned over and kissed him. "Sounds good - when are we flying?"

"Sunday." Dan grinned, "but at least I made it an afternoon flight from Palmy, so we can recover from the party."

"That's very considerate. Tuscany. You know that's dangerously close to Rome with all those museums, galleries and archaeological sites?"

"Oh no!" Dan exclaimed in fake horror. "I knew I shouldn't have done that, it's going to bite me in the arse. A propos arse, if I let them wax mine, and if I suffer through that horrendous pain for your viewing, touching and tasting pleasure, are you going to leave me in a place with good food and booze while you do that culture shit?" He grinned from ear to ear.

"It's a deal. Museums are better if I don't get the 'Are you done yet' question every five minutes. Even though you'd miss all those naked and semi-naked statues the Romans liked so much."

"Russkie, you're a bastard, you know that? I don't complain every five minutes, it's every ten at the most." Dan laughed, "and I'd rather have a semi-naked Roman than a fully naked Roman statue." He had another mouthful of his coffee. "As for naked men, I recall that you haven't had your birthday blow-job yet. Am I right? In fact, shouldn't that be fifty, one for each year?"

Vadim laughed. "Aren't you a bit optimistic about my endurance?" He turned and kissed him. "I'll take one of the fifty, and keep the others for later."

"Aye, that'll do."

They didn't bother to go upstairs, and they found a way for Dan to enjoy his favourite pastime of all, there and then, and with never waned enthusiasm.

They might be fifty, but they weren't past it yet.

Special Forces Chapter LXVI: Above and Beyond
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 24 February 2009