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Special Forces Chapter LXX: The Sum of All Things

January 2006, Edinburgh

Dan had a good long chinwag with Kisa, which ended for the umpteenth time with him trying to talk her out of wanting to join the Hungarian Forces and her being adamant that she would join them. She was just as boneheaded as he'd always been, and he really shouldn't be surprised, especially not with that mother. When he got back into the main areas downstairs, he noticed Vadim with Dr Williams and the Baroness in a quiet corner in the Balmoral bar. He smiled and waved at them on his way past, then spotted Maurice and George in the Brasserie, talking at one of the small tables. He grinned to himself, wondering if the surgeon had calmed down these days, or if he was just trying to chat up the only seemingly single man - unless he might find a single woman. Time would tell. Dan was still miffed that he never got to shag Maurice, but he wasn't going to remedy that anymore.

Walking on, he got to another table in the bar, with Dima and Markus, and he steered towards them. "I haven't had time to properly talk to you two yet." He addressed them as he stopped at the table.

Dima stirred his tea, and nodded to him. "Come on, sit. Scones?"

"Aye, always." Dan handed the cane to Markus, who put it against the wall. Dan sat down. "How have you been faring since we last talked? You look like a picture perfect couple."

"We are." Dima grinned and pushed the dish with the scones towards Dan. "I was hoping Markus would catch the flowers, but then I thought, well, no flowers, probably?"

Markus laughed, "I keep telling him that he should catch them. Why me? He's better at sports anyway."

"What, are you planning to follow suit?" Dan grinned from ear to ear, putting jam on his scone. "And does that also mean you got a different passport now, Dima?"

"Ah, I pulled some favours and got some things adjusted." Dima winked. "You only have to know how to ride the beast that's bureaucracy, who to pay off and what kind of papers to get. Much easier than convincing anybody I should be their citizen. The places we go certainly work that way."

"Of course I had nothing at all to do with such shenanigans." Markus winked, pouring himself some more tea.

"Of course not ..." Dan took a bite off his scone.

"We never thanked you for introducing us." Markus smiled.

"Bollocks, I was simply into the matchmaking business, still am." Dan laughed, "and as long as you're happy ...."

They didn't need to tell him that they were happy, because it was so very obvious. Dan stayed for a while, chatting with those two close friends, until it was time for dinner.

The Baroness had arranged it so that several tables were reserved in the restaurant. For anyone who wished to explore Edinburgh and eat out, the hotel had put together an excellent guide on her behest. Most of them stayed, though, and the restaurant was filling up. Eventually Matt and Hooch came down for dinner, dressed rather elegantly for the occasion, and when Beauvais and St John turned up, only marginally late, they were for once in civilian clothing and blended in better than before. Maurice and George had opted for finding a place to eat away from the others, because George had claimed he knew the city quite well and was happy to play tourist guide for the French surgeon. The American ex-crew and their families chose to stay, together with the whole lot of Krasnoradas and the large group of McFadyens, with babies, toddlers and children.

A lot of the Spa mates stayed for dinner as well, before heading out to Rose street, to go on the piss. Some of Dan's old mates from the Gulf and the Balkans joined them in the meal, and they had convinced the two legionnaires to come with them to a pub crawl after dinner.

The multi-course meal was excellent and the company great fun. The Baroness smiled with joy and amusement at the level of noise that would otherwise have been unacceptable, and, sitting beside her old friend Charles, the doctor, they kept exchanging quiet words. They both retired to a whisky and a chat fairly soon after the dinner was over, when the whole large group began to scatter. Guests either went out, like Duncan and Gordon, the two Glaswegians, who took Matt down to the train station to head into Glasgow and to hit the scene, or those with children went to their rooms, while others stayed in the comfortable bar a while longer.

Eventually, only Dan and Vadim were left. Hooch walked over to Jean, leaned close and murmured something into his ear, which made Jean grin and stand up. They both walked over to where Dan and Vadim were standing at the bar, enjoying a drink, while Dan smoked a fag. One of the few places the hotel still allowed smoking.

"Hi guys," Jean said, grinning. "Ready for the stag night, or would you rather pass?"

Vadim glanced at him, then at Hooch, but Jean's face gave more away - with that smirk and a hint of excitement. Good kind of anticipation. Stag night. That seemed to mean a foursome. He looked at Dan.

"Do you honestly think that I would say no?" Dan smirked, "unless your plan is to make us wear glittery learner driver plates, pink fluffy bouncing headgear and angel wings, and take us to a pub crawl. In that case, you can fuck right off."

Jean laughed. "Damn, not a bad idea at all. No, I guess Hooch and I had a rather more intimate setting in mind. Upstairs?"

"Our suite? Sure, we've got enough space in there to host a whole Rugby team." Dan added while stubbing out his cigarette, "shit, isn't that a nice idea."

Hooch pointed to the lift. "Up, then."

"Never knew you'd be so bossy." Dan grinned, then made his way to the lift, that took them to the suite that overlooked the castle and most of Edinburgh.

Hooch waited for Vadim to step through the door as the last one, then closed it behind him. "Did you actually bring any toys?"

"I did," Jean said.

"Not necessary, Dan has his own stuff, and plenty of it," Vadim murmured. Trust these guys to bring toys into the foursome. He didn't get much time to ponder what this meant, though, because Hooch was suddenly close, suddenly demanding, pressing into him and kissing him.

Jean dimmed the light a bit, then stepped to Dan to kiss him, arms around him, one of those tender playful kisses. "I'd rather have you blindfolded," he murmured, pulling a blindfold from his jeans pocket and offering it.

"Why?" Dan eyed it somewhat warily.

"To work with your imagination," Jean murmured, between kisses, then pulled his shirt off and tossed it on a chair.

"But that means I don't get to see this." Dan pointed to Jean's chest, but when Jean just smiled at him, he conceded. "Okay." Lowering his head, "and what about Vadim?"

"Don't worry about him." Hooch's voice, in between the kisses.

"No. No worries … at all." Jean slipped the blindfold over Dan's face, then moved him towards the bed. There was plenty of space. He cast a glance towards Hooch and Vadim, who were kissing just like Hooch had kissed him, deep and passionate, full body contact, and Vadim really got into it, eyes closed, unreserved, showing a trust and desire that seemed almost not like him. That was what Vadim looked like when he actually opened up.

Dan sat down on the bed, dropping the cane onto the floor once he was seated. Hooch pulled out a blindfold. He was prepared, and between Jean's suitcase and his own, they might not even have to improvise with the kit that Dan carried around. Hooch didn't ask Vadim, wordlessly pulled back from the kiss, offered a grin, then slipped the blindfold on and reached to buckle it in the back of Vadim's head. Black leather, and secure.

Vadim exhaled, but didn't protest, instead went back into the kiss, even more interested, if that was possible, as if telling Hooch he trusted him. Hooch started to undress him, while never stopping the kisses. He finally had Vadim naked, while he was still dressed.

Jean got rid of his clothes now, undressing himself and Dan on the bed, who let it happen, even though he felt uncomfortable at first, but then got into it, with more of Jean's kisses and touches. Jean rubbed his face against Dan's cock, allowing him to feel the warmth of his breath there, then glanced at Hooch to check on the other guy.

Hooch steered Vadim towards the bed and got him to sit down on the other side of Jean and Dan. The bed was massive, four poster, with bed hangings and a brocade ceiling. "Will be right back." He murmured, then quickly undressed himself, getting in record time out of elegant shirt, tie, suit and shoes. He gave a silent thumbs-up to Jean, who grinned, got up, and took the bottle of whisky that sat on a table nearby. Just to blur the taste, and maybe blur perception. He took a mouthful himself, then offered the bottle to Hooch, indicating the swap with a creative use of military hand signals, which almost made Hooch huff a laugh, but he got himself under control by taking a very large mouthful of whisky.

Hooch indicated he'd understood, reached for a tumbler on the night stand, and filled it with whisky, then handed the bottle over and gestured that he'd deal with Dan now. He silently made his way across, placed the tumbler onto the other bedside table and swapped with Jean.

"What the hell are you doing?" Dan complained, patted around on the bed, trying to find someone, but before his hand could reach Vadim it was snatched away and placed back onto his chest. Neither Hooch nor Jean said anything, but Hooch gestured to restrain the two, or the game would be over too soon.

Jean nodded, grinning, and found some leather cuffs. It was strange, to say the least, tying Vadim's hands together, but Vadim accepted that, no questions, no hesitation, and Jean felt weird for a moment as he was claiming Vadim's trust and didn't actually deserve it. He climbed on top and tried to kiss Vadim the way Hooch usually kissed, while lifting his hands up and tying them to the poster. He began to stroke Vadim's cock, which had an immediate effect, as Vadim stretched, hardened, and sighed. No doubting yet who was doing this to him.

Hooch had nylon ropes in his hands and when he took hold of Dan's wrists, to swiftly and expertly tie them together, Dan protested. "Jean, what the hell are you doing?" But Hooch didn't answer, only leaned down, concentrated, and put all is emotions, every scrap of feeling he'd ever had for anyone, into a kiss, as playful, tender and sensuous as he could make it. It worked, Dan relaxed into the kiss, allowing Hooch/Jean to tie his arms over his head and onto the bed post. It was their stag night, after all, and if the two grooms were to be ravished, side by side, by their best men, who was he to struggle?

Jean almost laughed, but that, too, could give them away. He fished for a note he'd written beforehand and only now felt confident enough to hand to Hooch, who came up from the kiss and tried to remember how Jean had stroked him. Making sure that Dan remained interested while he took the note.

Jean had spent some time thinking what he wanted to do and what would likely happen, so he handed the scrap of paper to the other best man.

It read: "I lied, I do let him fuck me, and if you tell that to anybody, I'll have to kill you."

Hooch's reaction was priceless. First a widening of his eyes, then a swift, growing grin, that soon turned into a rare, full-blown smirk, and he fought hard not to laugh out loud. He kept stroking Dan, who was moving into his hand, getting hard. Hooch signalled 'okay' with his free hand, he'd understood, he wasn't suicidal, and would keep the secret. He held up his hand, signalling to Jean to give him a moment, before spending a minute licking and kissing Dan's cock to buy himself some time. When he looked up he grinned again, gestured and mouthed silently that he was willing to fuck himself on Vadim, and that since they'd never find out who exactly was doing what when, they could swap back now, and no one would know that Jean wasn't doing the same, when they'd swap once more, before Hooch would take Dan as well. He shrugged in the end.

Jean considered it, really did. He wasn't too eager to do it, it had taken a long, long time until he could get his head around it with Dan, and Vadim … but on the other hand, Vadim didn't appear much larger, and secondly, Vadim was tied down - and had no idea it was him. He'd still have to do it like he expected Hooch to do it, which meant likely with a lot less care and more speed than he'd normally do it. 'Oh fuck', he mouthed, but stayed on top, grinding against Vadim and playing with his nipples, biting them, which made Vadim groan and shudder. He knew the man was sensitive there, while Hooch lavished attention onto Dan's cock, as far as Hooch knew, Dan wasn't much aroused by nipple play.

After a while, Hooch moved off the bed, reached for his trousers to get the mini packs of lube, and handed them over. He indicated to Jean that 'he' would fuck himself on Vadim first, before he lowered himself back down to pay closer attention to Dan's cock. When he slowly sucked down, Dan arched up with a groan and a string of expletives, softly cursed under his breath.

Jean grabbed the lube and poured some in his hand, slicking Vadim's cock up, which again made Vadim shift and push up slightly, seeking leverage, friction. Fuck, Jean thought. Was it really all that different that it wasn't Dan? Whatever. His idea, or was it? Hooch had come up with it, or had he? Wouldn't be different. He got on top and took Vadim' s cock. Not different, not the pressure, or the breach, that forceful stretch. Vadim's groan helped, the way the man tensed underneath, how his breath went faster, unaware this wasn't who he thought it was. Hooch wouldn't go slowly. Jean grimaced and forced the cock inside, the sensation so intense it made his whole body tighten and tense. Oh fuck. He fought to remain silent and follow through with this, taking Vadim completely.

And Hooch helped. Leaving Dan who groaned in protest, but who accepted the replacement of lips, mouth and throat with a hand, just as he'd accepted the whole stag night game. Hooch leaned and arched across, all the time continuing to stroke Dan, and took Jean's cock in one swift motion down his throat, to counteract the discomfort. Jean couldn't help but groan, one hand on Hooch's head, feeling lips and tightness and that hunger and moved, harder and faster, fucking himself which was only really possible like that because Vadim couldn't see him, Dan couldn't see him, and Hooch kept him in a good place, wanting and aroused while he gave Vadim what he could. The Russian underneath was panting, moving his lips silently, and Jean moved harder, trying to force Vadim to come, to speak, to give up that control.

"Vadim?" Dan's voice, breathless, blindfolded head turned towards him. Hooch was stroking him irregularly, too occupied with sucking Jean, but Dan didn't know what was going on.

Vadim's arms bulged as he tried to move, unconsciously, pushing up into the guy on top of him. "Yes," he said, voice rough, then clenched his teeth again, breathing harshly between them, as the need built up further and the movements became more reckless, more demanding.

"What ...," Dan struggled himself, trying to move into that hand to get more, feel more, "do you feel?" Hooch then kept his head steady, throat relaxed, and allowed Jean to enter him as he could or needed, while focusing more on Dan.

"One's on … top, on me …" Speaking in sentences seemed like an enormous challenge to Vadim. "Hot and tight and … the other's sucking him, I think." It was his best guess, with the hair brushing his skin. He remembered Jean sucking him off, or Dan, or both of them, then somebody squeezed his balls, added sudden pressure-pain to it, and he came, tensing and sweating, groaning, body pumping.

"Shit." Dan got out, was about to demand, want, ask, when limbs moved, bodies shifted, lips were once again on his cock, and he lost all orientation. Which man was where, whose hand he felt, whose thighs straddled him. He didn't know and couldn't talk, because suddenly there was cool air on his saliva-slicked cock, and then even cooler lube, which made him shudder and curse, but then he stilled, whole body tense like a drawn bow, when he could feel the tip of his cock against something tight. For all he knew it was Jean, Jean who rarely did this, and only with him. Jean, who trusted him enough, and who right now lowered down slowly, ever so slowly and carefully, like he would, never as reckless as he himself was.

Hoch paused, looked at Jean with an intense gaze in his dark eyes, as if asking for something, then moved once more in small increments. Stretching, breaching, filling, nothing compared to the self-inflicted cruelty of most of his life. More like the 'fun' and vanilla stuff he did, putting all the emotion he was capable of for the very few people in his life, into fucking himself on Dan, who could do nothing but moan, open-mouthed.

Jean felt sluggish and weak from his own orgasm that had very nearly surprised him when Hooch had made him come, close to Vadim, and he moved to Hooch to kiss him; maybe that was what he wanted, he had no idea, but it seemed like a good enough response, because Hooch clearly relished how Jean kissed him deeply, passionately, tasting himself on this strange occasion, but what did it matter, they were all enjoying themselves. His hand pumped Hooch, slow but intense, giving more friction than he could have managed with his throat.

Speeding up, yet more carefully than he would have, Hooch fucked himself with long, slow, but powerful thrusts, enough to force Dan closer and closer to the edge.

Dan was muttering nonsensical words, of "what..." and "how ..." and "oh shit ..." as the body on him sped up after a long time of riding him steadily. With a ferocity born from lust, Hooch was thrusting himself down, forcing Dan to topple over. He came with a shout, lost, intense, hardly noticing the cum that splattered his chest as the man on top of him, Hooch/Jean, came as well, but without a sound.

Jean managed to get off the bed, feeling sore, but he got to the bathroom to clean up and returned with towels, one for Hooch and one for himself. Grinning, because those were nice images, nice things to remember. Hooch's way to do it, and both Vadim and Dan pretty much helpless with no idea who it was they were fucking. He stretched out on the bed, lazily wiping himself and then Vadim, who smiled tiredly and blindly.

"I would ..." Dan moistened his lips, "ask what you're up to now ... if I could think." Stretching into the touch, while he was wiped down.

Hooch's voice close to his ear after a moment, between the two on the bed, so that Vadim could hear as well. "We could feed you, water you, then wait until you get it up again, and make you watch. No touching allowed."

"Watch what?" Vadim asked, not sure what Hooch implied.

"Us." Hooch cast a glance at Jean and flashed a grin. It was all open to negotiations, but they had all night.

Jean nodded at that. He was game. As long as it didn't involve him getting fucked again, he was game. "Yeah. Would you like that?" Jean teased.

"But you …"

"We made up," Jean murmured and Hooch let out a small sound of agreement.

"In that case ..." Dan moved his head as if trying to peek through the blindfold, "I'm not adverse to begging. We've only got the once chance of a stag night in our lives."

Hooch huffed a dry laugh. "Whisky first, agreed?"

"I'd agree to anything at that prospect."

Hooch filled the two glasses and handed one to Jean, clinking them together, "to Dan and Vadim and a long night."

"That, and blindfolds and handcuffs," Jean laughed, taking a mouthful and winking at Hooch, who grinned at the dismayed expression on the two grooms beneath them.

* * *

The next day, Dan and Vadim were glad that the ceremony didn't take place before the early afternoon, and that the Baroness had arranged a luxurious and extended brunch for all of the assembled guests, including those who arrived in the morning.

The chance to have a lie-in was very much appreciated after the stag night, which had lasted well into the early hours of the morning, and left them wondering about what exactly had happened at times, but also utterly sated and feeling every single year of their age. In a damn good way.

After brunch, a colourful affair where everyone seemed to talk to everyone else, enjoying conversation and laughter, trading stories and tall-tales, they went back up to their suite. Like the guests, they were dressed for the ceremony.

"Are you ready to get knocked out by the best looking Scotsman ever to grace Afghanistan?" Dan grinned, leaning against the doorframe to the bedroom, where he'd hung his exquisite outfit, wrapped in its cloth bags.

Vadim pulled the jumper over his head and regarded himself in the mirror. "I think I deserve the best-looking Scotsman to ever grace Afghanistan," he said. "Don't you think? After all, this is a commitment for life."

"Another twenty-five years, you think?" Dan grinned, studying Vadim with an interest that had never waned, and neither had the scars. 'Cunt', pizdar. A lifetime ago. "How am I going to bear that?"

"With all the grace and strength you've had so far."

"Aye, that'll be a doddle." Dan flashed a smirk and Vadim glanced at the clothes bag. "You'll have a captive audience for whatever you'll wear."

"Best I get cracking, then. No peeking until I'm done, it might be a while." With that Dan pushed the door open with his cane and went through.

Vadim grinned. "No. I'll change in the bathroom." His suit already hung there. He stripped in front of the mirror, thinking that, indeed, for his age, he was doing alright, but of course age was slowly getting to him, or not so slowly. Lines in his face - frown lines, across the forehead, around the eyes, and even lines that suggested he smiled every now and then. And it took far more effort these days to maintain his own standards. Being blond helped, the silver hardly showed. He headed into the bathroom, had a shower and shaved. Well-worn routine. He'd been to a hairdresser a couple days ago, everything else looked like he wanted it to look. He towelled himself and unzipped the bag. Running his hands over the fabric which looked and smelled carefully ironed. The tailor had finally got him to take one of those; smart black trousers, dinner jacket, matching shirt, black tie and cufflinks. Dan would appreciate the irony that the stone was blue with golden specks.

When he got out of the bathroom there was some muffled cursing coming through the bedroom door, and the sound of something clattering to the floor or against the side table. Eventually, the door opened, and Dan appeared in the doorframe, smiling. His hair brushed, gleaming, more silver now than dark, and his face, lined these days, still tanned and still striking. Even the scar in his face had faded, as if it had accepted that the years of danger were well and truly over.

He stood in the most exquisite dress kilt the Edinburgh tailors were capable of producing. Handmade and tailored from finest wool, wearing the McFadyen hunting tartan in elegant blues and greens on black. Even the mess of scars his knees sported seemed suddenly of no importance. The short black Prince Charlie jacket with its square polished silver buttons accentuated his trim and fit body, and so did the snugly fitting black waistcoat underneath, with the same elegant buttons. He wore a white shirt and an understated black silk cravat, his only deviation from the truly traditional outfit. The sporran was made from smooth black fur, with silver decorations. His polished brogues were laced up neatly over the knee high off-white hose, leather laces tied off just below the knee, and the tartan flashes there as well. He'd slipped a bejewelled Skean Dhua dagger into the hose at his right calf. The kilt pin glistened understated, silver and garnets, a copy of one of the magnificent ancient Scottish brooches.

He'd wound the lapis lazuli prayer beads around his left wrist, making a faint noise whenever he moved his hand. "You look stunning, Russkie."

Vadim smiled and moved closer to kiss him, remembering, weirdly, the slap against the chest he'd received from Katya, a lifetime ago, about not kissing the bride (and possibly smearing the lipstick). No such concerns with a man, which was funny, in its own way. "You should dress up a bit more often, it suits you," he murmured. "And we both look stunning."

"Only if you are taking advantage of me in my kilt this time. I am, after all, a proper Scotsman."

"Let me take advantage of you after the party." Vadim grinned. "We shouldn't head down all crinkled up and sweaty."

"That is a very good point. Maggie has organised a photographer through all of the day and night to take candid shots and not posed ones, because I really can't stomach posing. Thank fuck." Dan reached out to run a hand through Vadim's short hair, and smiled. "You think it's time yet? Who has the rings?"

"Jean has the rings. He keeps making jokes about losing them." Vadim took Dan's good hand and squeezed it lightly. "Yeah. That's it. Are you ready?"

"I'll just pop some more pills and I'm ready to go."

"Okay." Vadim went to the door to open it, keeping it open with his back while watching Dan vanish to get his pills and then return. He let it fall shut behind them and offered his hand again. Somehow, he wanted Dan close, touching on the way down, and Dan gladly held Vadim's hand.

"You know," Dan mused on the way to the elevator, "If anyone had told me at thirty, that I'd walk along in public, holding hands with a man, I would have punched them. If they had told me I'd actually marry a man, I would have punched myself." He chuckled.

"Yes. And I swore never to marry again." Vadim let Dan step into the elevator first, then followed. "But, come to think of it, we're not doing too badly as ageing middleclass faggots, are we?"

Dan laughed out loud as the doors of the elevator closed behind them. "You can call me a faggot any time, but middleclass? That's an insult." He winked, and leaned against the mirrored wall. He really didn't want to use the cane during the ceremony itself.

"Aye, we're as bourgeois as they come these days. Respectable." Marxist or Leninist rhetoric had faded, sometimes it returned, like an ironic commentary from a long bygone era.

"Bour… what?" Dan grinned and shook his head. "After we step out of that elevator, what are the chances we won't have a single second for each other from then to when it is all over ?" he leaned close, close enough to kiss.

Vadim smiled. "Just stay close. Because they might decide on some prank like the one we pulled at Jean's party. I'm not sure I'm in the mood to get abducted again."

"I think we're too old for such shit." Dan chuckled quietly, before Vadim kissed Dan, but the doors opened right then; he didn't draw back, merely smiled and kissed Vadim again. "Off we go," he murmured.

Still holding hands, they had hardly taken a step out of the elevator and onto the first floor area, when Kisa's voice cut through the noise of the crowd of people.

"Here they are!"

There was cheer and clapping, and some of the regular hotel guests who didn't belong to the wedding party, turned their heads at the two splendidly dressed men, who were walking hand in hand towards the crowd. The heads turned even more, when a gentleman in full US Army officer parade uniform stepped towards them, closely followed by another handsome man, blond, and elegantly dressed.

"Ready, buddies?" Hooch smiled at them from beneath his peaked cap.

Looking at Hooch, Vadim hoped he'd get a photo of him in that striking outfit. Jean, by comparison, looked very normal, if expensive, but it was understated - a true reversal of the men's actual dispositions, or what they usually portrayed. "Got the rings?" he asked Jean, who gave him a mischievous grin, but patted one of his pockets and nodded.

"I think we're ready." Probably have been for years and just needed the world to catch up with us, Vadim thought.

The Baroness appeared out of the crowd, the epitome of elegance in her silk mauve suit and elegant hat, smiling at them. Dr Williams, in a dinner suit with bow tie, at her side.

Vadim inhaled deeply, feeling a little nervous as everyone made their way into the room. Everybody's eyes on them, as the guests filed through, for a moment it felt as officious as a military parade on Red Square, but they were all friends here, and Vadim managed to relax a little. He could almost hear Jean, who stood behind them, telling him to 'lighten up', and he tried, smiling, if a little stiffly.

"My dear friends, would you mind waiting a moment?" The Baroness stood at the door, smiling at the two grooms and their best men, when everyone else had found a seat inside. "You have to forgive me, but I am terribly old fashioned and also incredibly delighted to be able to organise this wonderful occasion for you. If you could just follow the ushers, everything is arranged for the important moment."

Dan grimaced a little, realising that what she really meant was for them to have a 'grand entrance', but after a glance at Vadim who gave a small nod, he bowed his head a and smiled at her. "Anything you wish. You know, Ma'm, I would never not follow your orders."

She gave a small laugh, eyes twinkling, before stepping into the room herself, being seated at the front by one of the ushers, who had seen to the guests being seated on either groom's side, depending on whose family or friends they were - or indeed of both of them. Not a single one of the guests was dressed in anything but their best, from the 'Sunday best' suit on some of Dan's ex-mates from the Gulf and the Balkans, to expensive suits on some of the other guys, including the ex-crew of the chopper, and many long dresses with big hats on most of the wives and girlfriends. Culminating in the vision of beauty and elegance that was Solange, seated in the front row as one of the best men's wife. She sat beside Matt, as the other best man's partner, and they looked as if they belonged to each other, with Matt in a sharply cut suit that accentuated his impressive body.

The Krasnorada family, with Kisa in a long bright red dress that showed just how tall and lithe she was, with her unruly dark hair in a lovely up-do with glittering pins holding the mane together. She sat beside her mother, was dressed as coolly elegant as ever. All of the Krasnoradas including Anya's partner were seated in the front row on Vadim's side. Dr Williams sat with them. The other side of the room saw the entire McFadyen family, which needed three rows by the time the Baroness had settled in the front row as well. All of the men of the McFadyen family had come in tartan: each of them wearing the full Prince Charlie outfit with the McFadyen hunting tartan, the same that Dan was wearing, even though Dan's outfit was clearly a cut above the rest. Duncan sat proudly, beaming from ear to ear, with Mhairi at his side, who was dressed rather splendidly in a tailored suit with long skirt and tartan throw over her shoulder, fastened with a thistle brooch. She had splashed out for once, unlike her usual self, when Duncan had encouraged her to go to one of the best 'mother of the bride' fashion shops on the Royal Mile. She, as well as her daughters in law and fiancée, were all wearing wide hats. Even the boy toddlers sported kilts, the girls wore fine dresses, and the newborn baby had been dressed in a tartan romper, which made everyone chuckle. Duncan and Gordon, the two chaps from Glasgow were in their kilts as well, and so was Dougie, the ex-Sergeant from the Gulf, with whom Dan had rekindled a matey friendship in the last five years.

The ceremony room, decorated with thistles, was full to bursting, and when finally even the last of the guests had been seated in extra chairs, the remaining usher asked Hooch and Jean inside, to stand at the front. They had both been waiting patiently, beside an ever increasingly anxious Dan, who had a hard time pretending that he wasn't nervous, while holding Vadim's hand tighter than technically necessary. Vadim reached over with his free hand and placed it on Dan's arm, which was taut with tension. "It's not a parade," he murmured. "We're just getting civil partnershipped."

When they were finally asked by the usher to make their way into the room, and to walk 'down the aisle' towards the registrar at the front, a hush came over the guests. Music was starting up, the Baroness had hired a piper, a fiddler and a drummer, all of them in full Scottish regalia. They played a moving piece that Dan wondered for a few moments about. It sounded fairly Scottish, quite traditional and yet not, until he realised, just before they reached the front, that it was Promontory from the Last of the Mohicans. He smiled at Vadim, touched by the way the Baroness had gone for a mix of the traditional and the modern. Just like their lives together: twenty-five years, a mixed bag of extremes. A past that had been overcome by the present, no more Soviet Union, no more ban on homosexuality in the British Forces, equal rights for same sex couples, and most importantly, no more wars for the two of them.

Dan felt all eyes on them, and for possibly the first time in his life he became oddly self-conscious, until he saw Jean and Hooch smiling at them.

After a while the music stopped and the registrar's face brightened with a smile, while waiting for silence to settle, before he addressed the two men.

"I would like to welcome you to the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh today. We are here today to celebrate the commitment to each other of Dan and Vadim, and on their behalf I would like to thank you for joining them to celebrate this happy occasion, hopefully a day to remember for the rest of their lives."

Vadim glanced at Hooch right next to him, who had taken his peaked cap off and was carrying it under his left arm; if he hadn't known him so well, the uniform allowed no guess at what kind of man was inside. Different to the camo, which he thought never quite strangled the character in such a way. Jean, on the other side, looked in a way the most civilian, most harmless, his face always ready to break into a smile, to mock, lie, or joke. Then the registrar, who's little speech had sped up his heartbeat. He was nervous. It wasn't that the other groom could run away, or that it was, after so many years, anything but a ceremony. But it was a very public statement of what they were, and a bold one at that, at least for their generation. After everything they'd seen and encountered, after the shame, the humiliation, and a prison term, after the secrecy and the excuses and lies. From the first meeting with the Baroness, where he'd told her he needed to find an enemy because he respected him, to acting as if they were just comrades when meeting Dan's family. All the lies had slowly melted away. These days, they on the outside what they truly were inside, deep down. No more need to hide or trick. Even if that had had its own rewards - he wouldn't want to have missed Katya or her children, hers and his.

The registrar pulled Vadim out of his thoughts when he continued. "We are here to witness the formation of a Civil Partnership between Dan and Vadim." He paused, nodding to both of the two men and their two witnesses, and then addressed the room.

"If any person present knows of any impediment to this Civil Partnership they should declare it now."

He paused, again, and for just a moment, Dan felt ridiculously anxious. Like an old fear creeping up his spine, the old order, the old world with its rules, duties, threats and destruction, but then there was nothing but silence in the room. Nothing but the hushed sounds of the guests sitting, breathing, and waiting with anticipation. Dan turned his head to glance at Jean, who grinned at him, mouthing something he didn't get, because the next moment the registrar spoke again.

"Dan and Vadim have found love in their relationship with each other, and now they have chosen to offer to each other the strength and security that comes from the commitment of this legally binding contract."

Dan felt a knot in his stomach, the silly, sudden fear had turned into nervousness, and he felt even sillier. Why were there ants racing around his guts? He was fifty-six years old and had been with Vadim, one way or another, for twenty-five years, but when he now glanced at Vadim, his face flushed.

The registrar continued, once more addressing the whole room. "I am sure all gathered here today wish you both every happiness and success in your future life together. May your trust and understanding of each other increase your contentment and strengthen your joy in living."

The reaction of the guests was unexpected, some cheered, others clapped, and the solemn occasion turned for one moment into a jolly party. Even Hooch gave one of his customary half-grins. The registrar waited until the cheer had quietened down, then asked the guests to stand. This was it, the moment had come, and Dan's stomach went from knots into flip-flops, while Vadim cast a glance over his shoulder, but he only saw a blur of people.

They turned, facing each other, after the registrar had asked them to. "Each to repeat after me." He turned towards Dan. "I, Daniel Ewan McFadyen ..."

"I, Daniel Ewan McFadyen," Dan only grimaced a little at his middle name.

"... promise to share my life with Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada."

"Promise to share my life with Petr... Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada." Dan flushed a deeper shade, suddenly so nervous, he was garbling his words. It hit home, well and truly, what the words signified and what the pledge meant.

"I promise to respect, support and care for you, to honour and encourage you."

Dan looked at Vadim's face, knowing each line, angle, each touch and kiss, and speaking got difficult. The emotions had become full force and with no quarter given. "I promise to respect, respect ... support and care for you, to honour and ... and encourage you."

"I will respect you as an individual and be true to you through all the changing scenes of life - in good times and in bad. I undertake to fulfil this promise until life's end."

Dan repeated the words, managed the first part, choking up at "changing scenes of life, good times and in bad." Those they had had, plenty of them. There was no doubt. A lifetime of good and bad, testimony to their love, strength and determination. They were still together. His voice became firm, when he finished off, "I undertake to fulfil this promise until life's end."

Yes, he would.

Vadim, in a way, had it easier, used to wearing the mask and abide by all the pompous rituals of his past. Yet the words reverberated through him, like the beating of butterfly wings that could cause turmoil, far away. "I, Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada ..." Petrovich ... the son of my father who will not understand and cannot understand, yet who was there with me in the worst hour ... "promise to share my life with Daniel Ewan McFadyen." He had to breathe, feeling his pulse up in his throat. "I promise to respect, support and care for you, to honour and encourage you." I would have killed and died for you, too. "I will respect you as individual and be true to you through all changing scenes of life - in good times and in bad." He realised he'd dropped an article, which these days only happened when he was very emotional or nervous. "I undertake to fulfil this promise until life's end."

The registrar smiled slightly. He had been prompted that there would rings, and he took hold of a velvet lined board. "Dan and Vadim are now invited to exchange rings. Would the ring bearer please hand me the rings?"

At that, Jean produced the rings. Vadim had bought them with Solange; they were from a small workshop in Paris, where a fairly young Algerian - one of her friends - had taking up making jewellery that used some untraditional materials. He'd been agonizing over what material to use, gold, white gold, platinum, the simple rings had seemed too simple, and anything over the top Dan would veto. They'd have to wear those rings for a few decades more, every day. Eventually, the young man had brought four rings made from a patterned material. Damascene steel, Solange had translated, from which blades had been made. The patterns were formed from different kinds of steel to make the blades strong and flexible. The dark patterns were much like the grain of wood, and Vadim thought that these were perfect. Blade steel. Weapons had brought them together, it was only right that they kept them together.

The registrar nodded when Jean carefully placed the rings onto the velvet board. "Repeat after me."

Dan took hold of one of the rings, both of them were the same size. The moment he touched the cool steel he remembered all those other tokens and symbols of who they were and had been, of their love, what they meant to each other, and what they would be in the future. Prayer beads, energy bars, boots, scars, blades, and a bullet. He looked up and into Vadim's eyes, as he took hold of his hand. Suddenly the nervousness was gone, and the ring was just a logical continuation of everything that had gone before. Twenty-five years. From hatred to this.

"I give you this ring as a token of my love and a lasting reminder of the promises made between us today. I promise to care for you above all others and cherish you throughout the rest of our lives together."

Vadim's hand closed involuntarily around Dan's fingers when the ring slid on, and he had to smile to bear the emotions. He couldn't remember having ever been so nervous, not in this way, not in ways that had to do with emotions rather than his public face. He cleared his throat to make sure his voice was steady: "I give you this ring as a token of my love and a lasting reminder of the promises made between us today. I promise to care for you above all others and cherish you throughout the rest of our lives together." Token. Scars. Steel, and memories.

Dan looked down at his left hand, a ring there, for the first time in his life, and the swirls of steel echoed the irregular pattern of scars on his hand. Functional and fucked up, just like them, but when he lifted his head and smiled into pale blue eyes, he knew that they were everything but merely functional.

The registrar's voice pulled them out of their silent intimacy. "We now come to the signing of the schedule, which will bind Dan and Vadim together in law. Each partner to repeat after me. I declare that I know of no legal reason why we may not register as each other's civil partner."

Dan repeated the sentence, still looking at Vadim, still holding his hand, and still smiling. Seemed he'd never stop to smile that day. All that mattered were the warmth and strength of Vadim's hand in his and the words he repeated.

"I understand that on signing this document we will be forming a civil partnership with each other." Vadim repeated. A formality, a legal act, and just as binding and emotional as the 'man and wife' thing. Vadim wondered for a moment what Katya thought of that, at the front of the crowd behind him.

The registrar nodded and half-turned towards the narrow table close by. "Dan and Vadim, will you please now be seated at the ceremony table to sign the civil partnership schedule." Turning towards the guests, "you may be seated as well."
The fiddler and the drummer quietly played a melodic tune, while Vadim helped Dan sit, unobtrusively so, then sat next to him, watching him sign with his full name "Daniel Ewan McFadyen," and put his own "Vadim P Krasnorada" on the indicated line.

"May I now invite the two witnesses to add their signatures." The registrar said.

Jean invited Hooch to go first, grinning, watching the man step in his tailored uniform to the table, to bend down at the side and sign in the place indicated. Hooch flashed a smile at both Vadim and Dan, before he stepped aside to let Jean take his place, who signed right after him.

The registrar indicated to Dan and Vadim to stand up once more, this time Dan accepted Vadim's help with even more good grace. The guests, too, were asked to stand once more. A moment's silence settled over the room, before the registrar raised his voice.

"Daniel Ewan McFadyen and Vadim Petrovich Krasnorada, you are now partners in law. Ladies and Gentlemen will you please congratulate Dan and Vadim as they celebrate their partnership."

The applause and cheer drowned out even the piper and the drums, and came to a crescendo, when Vadim stepped a little closer, and, ringed hand against Dan's face, kissed him - the other arm around Dan's shoulders. He'd wanted to do that all the time, the 'sealing' kiss, and then placed his forehead against Dan's. "I love you," he murmured.

Dan smiled, felt the smile etch itself into his memory by the sheer magnitude of emotion. His voice was shaky and thus he whispered, in Russian, "I love you, my cunt."

Vadim laughed and shook his head, then noticed that Jean and Hooch stood there, Hooch offering his hand. He let go of Dan to shake it, then Jean's, who congratulated him, too. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed the photographer shooting away, and he grinned that moment - a photo that turned out really well, showing joy and alertness and Dan and friends around him. Not isolated, not alone, and from that photo, nobody could have guessed the story; a normality that he always found striking when he looked at that photo in the coming years.

Then the guests came to congratulate, Katya embraced Vadim and kissed him, much like a sister would have, and he held her for a little. "Thank you, Katya, it does mean a lot," he murmured in Russian to her.

"I know - it means a lot to me, too," she said, stepping back and squeezing his hand, then she turned to Dan and embraced him, too. "Good luck with him," she said and gave a laugh.

"Thank you, I've had a few years to get used to his finer points." Dan laughed, then let go of her when his daughter threw herself into his arms and he held her tightly. Laughing even harder when she asked him if that made Vadim her stepfather, and he claimed that it was all too confusing to ponder at the moment.

She had hardly moved to embrace Vadim in the same exuberant fashion, when Duncan and Mhairi stood before Dan, smiling brightly, from ear to ear. "It got you finally, aye?" Duncan grinned, "congratulations big brother." He pulled his Dan into a bear hug, covertly handing the cane back to him, which made Dan grin with relief and wink. Mhairi, too, embraced him, and kissed his cheeks, before both went to Vadim.

"We have long ago welcomed you into our family." Duncan said to Vadim, with his warm smile, arms open, "let us welcome you once more, brother in law."

Vadim embraced him with no second thought, just the word, "brother" held a strange magic for somebody who couldn't imagine how it could have been, growing up as a team, sharing blood like that. Brother and sister in law. "Thank you, thank you," he murmured, not quite sure what else to say.

"No, thank you, Vadim." Duncan murmured into Vadim's ear, "thank you for having given me my bother back." Duncan smiled when he stepped away and Mhairi embraced Vadim, then the whole family followed, the whole large clan of McFadyens.

The embrace from Vadim's daughter and her pregnant girlfriend was more reserved; Anya was playing along, for appearances sake, but Vadim was sure that she either resented him or expected more of a apology from him than he'd given her. Probably something like he'd given Nikolai, but his son had been easy to talk to, easy to connect with. Whereas Anya was much like he'd been when he was young. Aloof, masked, fierce in her dedication to follow her own way, whatever the cost, whatever the sacrifice. A narcissist of the highest order. He could respect that, and thought, ruefully, that he'd somehow taken his own father's place - unable to truly connect to his offspring. Too similar; even in the preference to her own gender, but Lizabeta wasn't Katya's calibre, she looked shy and pale and feminine.

Nikolai hugged him, too, and Vadim held him only too gladly. No misgivings here. When Nikolai was anywhere near Australasia, he flew over for a few days and they caught up. He seemed happy with short, physical affairs with women, and had partnered with a former boss and a financial firm that invested in resources. He was involved in finding deposits and marketing the exploitation rights--which meant he got to travel a lot and worked hard, for ten years longer, he sometimes said, then he'd do something else. Vadim wasn't worried about him. Nikolai really just needed two things; freedom and his own space, and plenty of that, 'so I can hear what I'm thinking', he used to say, grinning. "Congratulations, dad," he said now, close to Vadim's ear, and Vadim smiled at the 'dad'. As if. It was a gift, but probably nobody else understood that.

"My congratulations." Dr Williams had appeared out of nowhere, suddenly in front of Vadim. His remaining hair was bright white and he was smiling at him, eyes crinkling in a wrinkled and kind face. He shook Vadim's hand in a firm grip. "I don't think I can express satisfactorily how happy this today makes me."

"Means I'm sane enough to not drive everybody off," Vadim said with a good measure of irony, which held the knowledge that it could have been very different. "Thanks to you, sir."

"No, this was entirely down to you, you had the strength and the determination." Dr Williams gave Vadim's hand a last firm shake, before he, too, stepped back into the crowd, to congratulate Dan in turn, replaced with Dima who came to stand in front of Vadim, Markus at his side.

"Congratulations, Major," Dima said, and the rank was less of a joke and more a reminder between them.

"No saluting, please," Vadim said and embraced him. "Thanks for coming, Dima." He shook Markus' hand, and touched his arm. Never quite sure where the welcome touch ended, but Markus closed his hand over Vadim's and gave a squeeze when Vadim said, "and thank you. Must have been a bit of a pain to organize."

"That's what fierce admins are for, I told her that there was nothing more important than attending this ceremony, and she wove her magic. If I hadn't managed to get my deputy to take over for these days, Dima would never have forgiven me." Markus grinned. When they stood side by side, Dima had his arm around his waist, and the taller Markus had his arm around Dima's shoulders. Casual, intimate and tender. "We'll see you later." With that they let Vadim go, and turned to congratulate Dan.

Dan didn't know anymore who was who nor where, and kept shaking hands, left, right and centre. He even got a brief half-embrace from Beauvais. He kept laughing, smiling, a blur of faces, Manke, Gordon, Douglas, all of the American crew, his old mates from the Gulf and the Balkan, the men from the Spa and many of their partners, wives, girlfriends, voices, congratulations and music above it all. Matt embraced him at some stage, and at another he had the slender form of Solange in his arms. Eventually, he wondered where the Baroness was. Looking around, he found her standing a little to the side, watching the commotion of the guests, with a bright smile on her face. Like an onlooker who could not get enough of the spectacle of joy.

Dan managed to get through the last well-wishers, before walking over to her. He smiled at the Baroness. Tiny now, a little stooped and deceptively fragile, but the steel was still there, and the mind as sharp as a cut diamond. "There is something I've wanted to do for many years." He stuck the cane under his arm and bent down, wrapping his arms around her frame in a tight embrace. Holding her close, and after a split second, she embraced him back, with surprising strength.

Dan murmured into her ear, "I love you, Maggie."

After another squeeze, he straightened back up, grinning down at her. She reached out for him, and her eyes were dangerously bright, shimmering with an emotion so rarely expressed, as she patted his cheek.

"I know, Dan. I know." Her voice had a tremor in it. "Now off you go to your husband."

He chuckled, "I have to get used to that."

"You will." She smiled and shooed him off, but when he turned his head, he saw how she dabbed at her eyes with an emblazoned handkerchief.

* * *

The afternoon was spent with the 'wedding breakfast', a phrase that never ceased to make Dan laugh, and which consisted of an abundance of champagne, cakes and savouries. The Baroness had thankfully foregone the fully traditional route and there was no wedding cake to cut, instead a magnificent cake selection, a veritable feast for the eye and the palate.

The guests enjoyed themselves, each of them wanted the grooms' attention at some stage, and thus Dan and Vadim never got a chance to even look at each other, except for across the room. At some stage Dan had to sit down, but that did not stop the laughter and the conversation around him.

When it was time for the formal dinner, the assembly retired into the splendid dining room, with its magnificent gilded ceilings, its ornate mirrors and its crystal chandeliers, decorated in the most elegant way with silver, thistles and ivy. Dan murmured to the Baroness if the silver had the special meaning of an anniversary by chance, but she merely winked and then ushered them to their seats of honour at the top table. At long last they sat together, and while the piper, the fiddler and the drummer played quietly, everyone enjoyed an exquisite five course meal, during which the aperitifs, the wine and the spirits continued to flow freely.

At some stage, the Baroness announced that it was her pleasure to say a few words to celebrate the union of her dear friends, and her short speech left Dan with a lump in his throat. She invited others to say a few words if they wished, and to both Dan's and Vadim's surprise, more people stood up for an anecdote, a bon mot, a toast or simply a "well done, mates" than expected.

Jean and Hooch were the last ones to speak as the best men, and both their speeches were humorous yet full of emotional impact. When the guests demanded with a lot of laughter, cheer and encouragement, that the grooms should make a speech as well, Dan looked at Vadim in horror. He hadn't even thought about it.

"Okay, I'll do it," Vadim murmured close to him, to give Dan more time, then stood. "Of course I haven't prepared anything, so I'll take the opportunity to embarrass myself." Smiling, he gave a small pause, ordering the sentences in his head while he picked up a wine glass. "I ... and I'm sure Dan agrees, we've been together long enough to pick up on such details, am deeply honoured and pleased today. One of our oldest friends has taken it upon herself to arrange this occasion, and to her, Baroness de Vilde, go our heartfelt thanks for everything she has done. From the day she told an obviously lying Soviet soldier where his wounded enemy was being treated, to this, brighter and far more cheerful day. I wish to thank our families, for having been protective and accepting of our nature, as much as we were struggling with what has been our destiny. For the mentors and teachers that we encountered, some of which are here today, and others that have left us before their time. To our friends, witnesses and their partners, who have stood beside us, quite literally in war and peace, to those we hold dear and who crossed our paths. Thank you for sharing this day with us, but even more, thank you for the past, and, of course, the future."

The applause that branded up was only cut short when everybody drank a toast to Vadim's speech, and then Dan got up from his chair. He leaned in to place a kiss onto Vadim's cheek, and while Vadim sat down, Dan grinned into the round of guests.

"First of, I need to thank Vadim for rescuing me. I'm not a man of words, certainly not of eloquent words, and apart from a string of swear words, I am not known to come up with speeches." He let the laughter and the friendly hackling die down, before he continued, more serious this time. "I would also like to thank all of you, for sticking to our request not to bring any presents, but to donate instead to the Pascal Durant Foundation." Dan turned to glance at Jean with a warm smile. The best men and their partners were seated beside them, at the same table, and he saw Solange's fingers press Jean's arm. "If it wasn't for you, each and every one of you, all of you in your own ways, I wouldn't be running the Spa and Foundation. Instead I would be in need of its help. Without you, my family, old and new, dead and newborn, and you my friends, close and far, deep and loose, I wouldn't be as human as I am today." He raised his glass, then turned to look down at Vadim, "and without you, Vadim, I just wouldn't be at all." He paused, the room had gone very quiet, until Dan let out a huff of laughter to try and hide the sudden surge of feelings. "Let us drink to what you've all turned me into: a damned old fucking emotional fool." When everyone laughed and stood up to raise their glasses to toast the grooms, he called out into the room, "to love, loyalty, friendship and trust!"

"To love, loyalty, friendship and trust!" The whole room erupted, and everyone drank.

* * *

When the table was broken up, hotel staff quickly came to transform the grand dining hall into a ballroom, with plenty of space for the revellers. Clann An Drumma, the band for the evening arrived, to play their version of Scottish traditional music, delivered with such electrifying drums, it made everyone move or at least tap their feet. Soon Jean and Solange claimed centre stage, dancing.

A while later, Jean met Dan outside on the balcony that overlooked Princes street gardens, they were both in search of place to smoke a cigarette in peace. Lighting up, he glanced at Dan, then inhaled deeply and looked at the sky, while Dan kept staring at the illuminated skyline of the most beautiful city he knew. The castle, the buildings, the lights of Princes Street. It couldn't be any more different to the Afghan mountains, and yet the sense of majesty was the same.

"Who would have thought, hm?" Dan said quietly, exhaling into the cold air. The sound of music and revellers came muted through the grand doors behind them. He turned his head to look at Jean. "And you are such a big part of this, my friend."

"That's good. It's good to be part of something." Jean smiled. "I guess that's really why I did the things I did, you know, marry, have kids, get that huge house, become somebody completely different. Too many guys end up alone, fucked up, betrayed or just simply broken. We're the lucky ones. I certainly am more lucky that I can say. The old lady that left me the house when she died, I'm sometimes thinking about her, how that really started everything. I was drifting through the country on R&R, sick of life, and god so fucking angry at everything and everybody." Jean inhaled. "Helping old ladies was the last thing on my mind, but there was this guy who was bothering an old lady. She was carrying some shopping and he didn't do anything to help and instead was shouting at her. I thought, what a jerk. I was itching for a fight anyway, so I got involved. The guy didn't have the guts to fight a legionnaire, and fucked off. I didn't actually want to get involved in any way, no tea and cake and whatever in her kitchen, but I guess I did. That's how I got the house - we signed a contract that I'd make sure she's okay for the rest of her life, and she'd leave me the house. She told me I should get a 'lady' to make sure I have a home. And then I realized that was what I really wanted. Have a place, a community, the people in the village and be a part of all that. I worked through the anger, I didn't want to turn into a feral animal. Okay, I wanted to not be a feral animal any longer, because at that point, I was. No more than a rabid dog, really good at killing and not giving a shit about anything but the next battle, the next war, the next meal, the next bitch. Pretty much in that order, too. Not easy to wean yourself off that anger and all that blood." Jean shook his head, working through a memory he pushed away eventually. "You're such a big part of all that, too. I kept understanding myself better, could let the defences down, you know. Trust somebody who wasn't ... isn't weaker than I am. You mean a lot to me, Dan."

"I know," Dan smiled, stubbed out his cigarette and leaned against the wall to be able to pull Jean into a tight hug. "You mean a lot to me, too. Perhaps we've both helped each other become human. You certainly helped me."

"The blind leading the blind," Jean laughed and held him.

Dan held onto Jean for a long time, until he chuckled quietly, "let's go back inside, aye? That fucking wind is an icy draft up my kilt!"

"Aren't you Highlanders supposed to be all manly about that?" Jean grinned and kissed him, when Dan laughed. "Alright, let's go back."

* * *

Inside, the guests were thoroughly enjoying themselves at the party. People dancing to the music, children amongst them, and even some babies sleeping in a corner, as if the drums and the pipes and singing voices were but a lullaby. The alcohol was in great demand, too posh to be called booze in that place, even though many of the ex-soldiers had long gone over to beer from the tap.

The Frenchmen had stayed with the wine, and while Maurice was still - or again - sitting and talking with George, with no one the wiser if talking had been all they'd been doing, the young Legionnaire walked across the ballroom. A glass of wine in his hand, one of many he'd already had, he smiled at the dancers. A free, relaxed, somewhat drunk smile, a rare sight. Nearly bumping into Gordon, who was talking to Matt, and who laughed when St John grunted a slurred apology, before being sent along with a wink. Hooch was close by, right where St John was heading to, talking with Beauvais. Hooch looked up when the young man approached, and something in his face, or the smile, seemed to tell him something, because he finished his conversation with Beauvais with a few words and turned to join Matt and the others. Matt lifted his head to smile at Hooch when he arrived, and placed an arm around his waist for one easily overlooked moment.

"Sir?" St John smiled at Beauvais, standing too close, and clearly worse for wear from all the wine, but a happy drunk. "Would you like to dance?"

Beauvais' eyes lit up with clear alarm at the request, the reflex too deeply ingrained to be suppressed, especially after some wine as well. Maybe they'd already been pushing their luck, the framework, the mask, and he felt a sense of nausea at being exposed, even in friendly surrounding, even with just friends in the room. It was out in the open, out of the box, and how would he be able to put it back into that box? It seemed like a shocking indulgence, too emotional by far, especially regarding what they were. "I would like to," he said softly, "but it is not possible. I cannot dance." I must not. I cannot.
I won't.

St John nodded, no defiance, no anger, not even disappointment, as if he never dared hope for much, but that night, with the joy and happiness all around them, nothing could put him down. He still smiled. The smile turned his face into more than just handsome. Open, warm, and achingly attractive. "Would you come with me to another room? I just want to kiss you. Please."

Beauvais' features softened and he nodded, indicating a direction. He led, away, outside, and St John followed, like he always would. Beauvais took them to the adjacent cloak room, deserted and quiet, with racks of the guests' coats and jackets, and nothing else. There was a small emergency light above the door, but when they stepped inside and closed the door behind them, the green glow was the only light, casting their uniforms and their faces into a surreal play of fractured shadows.

"I wanted to kiss you all night." St John said quietly in French. A little slurred, but undoubtedly lucid. "Wanted to touch you, like the others do." The alcohol had loosened his tongue, allowing his thoughts and feelings - usually cut off and shut away - to come unguarded to the surface. "I love you, mon Commandant, please let me kiss you."

Beauvais felt that love like a pain, too intense to be spoken. He even had to force himself to speak in bed, of needing and wanting, because for the rest of his time, it choked him. "Granted," he said, voice strangled. How did he deserve this man, and how much was he a prisoner to those two things, his job and his emotions. It didn't bear thinking about.

There were no more words, when St John embraced Beauvais, and kissed him with those pent up emotions. With the love that he felt, and that ran deeper than even his loyalty to the Legion. But Beauvais did not exist without the Legion, and thus St John put everything he was and felt and wanted into that kiss, that soon had Beauvais' back against the wall of coats, and St John all over him, murmuring words that would have been senseless out of context, but within, they declared feelings, needs, and hopes. Demanding, pressing into him, breathlessly, open-mouthed kissing and grinding against him. Forgotten the guests, the occasion, and any loyalty except to each other.

* * *

Inside the ballroom, Hooch suddenly stood beside Vadim, his hand in the small of his back. "Are you one of those who think we Americans get a medal every time we cross a foreign border?" he murmured into Vadim's ear with a grin. He shifted to stand in front of Vadim, in all his glory. The uniform accentuated the lines of his body, and true to his quip, his breast was a treasure trove of medals and ribbons.

Vadim laughed. "I know you do." He could read Hooch's whole career from those ribbons, every mission, every medal, and it was a busy career. "But crossing lines is clearly heroic. Lines in the sand, lines we set ourselves, imaginary lines ... challenging what's there. Yes. That's heroic."

"Then you are clearly a hero." Hooch smiled, "and one without whom I would not be able to keep redefining mine." Hooch turned round to a waiter who came along with a tray of wine glasses, and took two, holding one out to Vadim, who took it. "You mean a lot to me, Vadim. You are my friend, and I do not say this lightly."

"I know you don't. That makes it worth something." Vadim raised his glass. "It's an honour and privilege to be your friend; even though you're just a filthy American."

"That's alright, since you're just a Russian peasant." Hooch clinked his glass against Vadim's and winked. "Whatever happened to the Cold War ..." Instead of taking a sip from his wine, though, he leaned in and placed a brief kiss onto Vadim's lips. More than a buddy and less than a lover, but no one seemed to have noticed. "To many more years of friendship and of crossing lines."

"Oh, I sure hope so," Vadim said, smiling.

Hooch raised the glass to his lips and drank, dark eyes on Vadim. He commented with a smirk, when he put the glass down, "I hope you're creative, because one day I'll be too arthritic to kneel."

"There are ways to get around bad knees," Vadim said evenly, and smiled. The kind of smile that showed he was examining ideas to put into practice at a later date. If anything was good about age, it was the ability for patience.

"I bet there are, and I know you'll find them." Hooch's own smile held the promise to experience all of them.

* * *

The party went on, and there was no one who didn't enjoy themselves. Kisa was seen dancing with her youngest cousin, then her brother, chatting animatedly with the Baroness who she had met a couple of times before, and ending up for another dance with her uncle. After that, she picked up each and every military man she could find, to grill them about being in the Forces. She was still adamant she was going to join the Hungarian army after school, no matter what anyone said, and that she'd one day whop her father's ass in rank. She was so exuberant and happy that no one found her annoying, and she even managed to grab Hooch, who was too amused not to answer her questions when she grilled him, too, but none the less glad when she found another victim after a while.

He had sat down with a glass of wine to watch the revellers, when Matt sauntered towards him.

"Well, buddy?" Matt grinned at Hooch, sidling onto the deep window seat beside him. The corner was mercifully dark and fairly quiet, with a view over the magnificent city to one side, and over the whole ballroom to the other.

"Buddy?" Hooch rose his brows.

"You're not?" Matt flashed an impertinent, toothy grin.

"What happened to darling, lover, honey, or stud?"

"I would never call you shit like that." Matt laughed.

"Not even stud?"

"They must have put something into your drink tonight."

Hooch quirked a grin, more relaxed than his customary half-ones. "Perhaps, or maybe I'm just, like, glad to be here, with you, for this particular occasion."

Matt tilted his head, resting his hand on Hooch's thigh. No one was watching them, and if anyone did, it was highly unlikely they'd take pictures as evidence and reported the incident to the US military. "You know what, Bozic?"

Hooch let his brows arch up at that name.

"There's no one, absolutely no one, other than Captain Hubert 'Hooch' Bozic, I want to be with. And if you are too tired tonight to make good on yesterday's promise, I'll kick your ass."

"You and whose army, kid."

Matt leaned close, whispering into Hooch's ear, "me and my ass, which I'll wave into your face because you can't say no to anything if I do that."

"You think?"

"No, I don't think. I know." Matt grinned.

Hooch answered the grin with one of his own rare, full-blown ones, and in the relative safety of their corner he reached out to touch the handsome face in front of him. Fingers stroking the warm, smooth skin, he murmured the three words that he'd hardly ever said. "I love you, Matt Donahue."

"That, I know, too. My darling, my lover my ... you can fuck right off when it comes to baby, honey and stud."

Hooch laughed and Matt chuckled quietly, far more touched than he tried to let on, and he let his lips touch Hooch's for a brief but tender kiss.

They didn't realise that they were being watched from across a table, but watched by a man who smiled and quickly looked away to give privacy. "Seems today has a soppy effect on everyone." Markus reached out to take Dima's hand, squeezing it with a warm smile. "I wish we could do the same, albeit with a smaller celebration."

"We can do the same, it's just not legally binding," Dima said. "Austria's not quite there yet. Might never get there, either."

"You think we should have a celebration, and forget about the legal side of things? We are safe, what with insurances and everything set up, but I would like to celebrate our life together, with our family and friends." Markus smiled warmly, "would you not-quite marry me, Dmitri Starov?"

"Yes, I would." Dima kissed him. "But you don't know what you're getting yourself into. The place I come from? It's a backwater even compared to the places we end up working."

"You ask me if I know what I am getting myself into?" Markus laughed, "we've been together for how many years? I know all about your annoying habits. For example, you do snore at times, despite your claims to the contrary, and you still can't cook a decent egg Benedict, but I still love you." Markus reached for his glass to take a sip. "Next year, then? In our house in France? My mother will be absolutely delighted, but you know that, you have her wrapped round your finger."

"Well, it's obvious where you have your charm and intellect from, that much is clear." Dima pondered. "Why wait so long. What about spring ... May? We don't need to make nearly as much of a fuss about it, your admin should be able to put everything together in an idle afternoon."

"If she ever has an idle afternoon then I am doing something wrong." Markus chuckled. "But you are right. I've got R&R in May, and since we originally planned to spend it at home, why not do it there and then? I'll get things rolling when we're back in Africa." He leaned closer with a wink, "it's a shame, though, that we can't get properly married. I quite fancy your name. If I had the choice between Starov and Kaltenbrunn, I know what I would go for. I might have a chance of the BBC getting the shorter one right."

Dima laughed. "I wouldn't know who they talk about with 'Mr Starov" giving oh-those-carefully-worded statements to the press, shooting down their need to get all worked up about a little genocide or other humanitarian catastrophes. I would think I had suddenly wizened up." He pressed Markus' hand. "But if you want to, you can use the name."

"We'll see." Markus smiled. "I might be too high up the food chain to change my name, after all, but in here," he tapped his chest above his heart, "I've been your husband all these years."

* * *

Much later that night, some guests had retired, while many were still dancing, drinking, chatting and partying. Those with the young children had eventually gone to their rooms, and so had several of the elderly. Some were worse for wear and had had too much to drink, while others wanted to make the most out of the rest of the night with their significant - or not so significant - others.

Dan and Vadim finally found themselves in the same place at the same time, and they sat down in chairs side by side. Dan stretched out his legs, rested the cane beside his chair and downed a large measure of whisky. He leaned back and grinned at Vadim. "Well, it's late and there's the wedding night looming. Are you going to carry me over the doorstep?"

"I thought you resented the thought you were the 'girl' just because you're wearing a skirt," Vadim teased gently, but stood. He was still solid on his feet. "Come on, then." He offered his hand.

"You're fucking kidding me, aye?" Dan laughed, but took the hand and let himself get pulled up. "I'd flash the whole ballroom with my kilt, and I'm not sure that all of them appreciate my shaved bollocks."

"Maybe not all of them, but a fair part." Vadim grinned. "I can cover you with my back." He bent down and lifted Dan, who let out a sound of protest and then just laughed and clung to Vadim's neck.

Vadim was careful to move in a way that didn't screw up his lower back - at least not worse than it was. The hours he spent on working his stomach and back to minimize the pain had to be worth it, and so far, he managed the weakness, but he'd still slipped a disk a few years ago and while it had moved right back, there was always the potential he'd need an operation to fix it when it happened again. When, not if.

"Hey, look!" Someone exclaimed, and several of the dancers turned, pointing at Dan and Vadim and the mind boggling sight of two men like them, one carrying the other in his arms.

"The bride's getting carried to the wedding night!" Someone else shouted, and then an unmistakably American voice added, "he's the one wearing the skirt, after all."

Dan managed to stop laughing long enough to shout his own abuse: "careful, or I'll fucking have you, it's a kilt, not a skirt, and I'm more of a man in a kilt than you are in a whole damned pair of trousers."

Vadim laughed, shifting Dan's weight, and it was an effort, but he was okay. He'd definitely make it to the elevator, and he did crossing the entire ballroom with Dan in his arms, to the cheers and wolf whistles of the remaining revellers. Still, he was glad when he'd got into the elevator, and soon after, the doors opened, and they arrived on their floor. "Do you have the key card? Or I'll have to set you down."

"Aye, in my sporran." One-handed opening the flap, Dan quickly rummaged in his sporran to produce the swipe card, and managed to reach and open the door. "I keep wondering if I should be embarrassed, or touched, or just piss myself with laughter." His toothy grin nearly split his face.

"You clearly didn't have enough whisky." Vadim finally got them through the door, closed it behind them with a kick, then dropped Dan crossways on the huge bed. Dan ended up on his back, arms and legs sprawled, when Vadim followed closely to lie next to him. "Here we are ... feel any different?"

Dan didn't answer for a while, looking up at the brocaded ceiling of the four poster bed. He finally turned his head and smiled at Vadim. "Aye. I don't know quite how nor why, but I do. It's good, though. Damn good. And you?" he reached across to take Vadim's hand into his.

"I like wearing that ring," Vadim said, clicking his ring together with Dan's. "Always liked to wear a ring on that finger, as a reminder, when the other isn't close. To remember." He rolled over onto his side, and Dan followed suit, lying face to face. Hands still clasped, Dan reached his free hand to cup Vadim's face.

"Twenty-five years, aye? We're two fucking lucky bastards, all considered."

"And in the meantime, the world has changed. Just for us." Vadim grinned, liking that preposterous idea. "They ended the Cold War, made marriage possible ..." Just for us. As if. But it was a nice indulgence to joke about it.

"Sure, just for us." Dan chuckled softly. "And they made sure they put a lot of people into the world, just for us, to have friends, mates, and family."

"I wouldn't go that far. After all, many of those people were also enemies and ... other things." Worse things; rivals, torturers. Victims. "In the end, most of what we did happened because of our decisions. We're back to one of the favourite topics for discussion with my father ... how free is our will really. How much is our fault." Vadim groaned. "And I'm too drunk to care."

"Oh no, Russkie, don't go all deep on me. Not on our wedding night, when we should be shagging like rabbits, if we weren't too old, too knackered, and too pissed." Dan grinned, leaned his forehead against Vadim's and murmured, "it has almost become impossible to remember the hatred I once felt for you."

"That's good. You wouldn't marry somebody you hated, right?" And thank you for feelings changing; for that strange human ability to adjust and adapt and survive; for black becoming white, and white becoming black. That we are not carved in stone, not like marble statues, endless and immortal and unchanging, but human.

"I wonder how it all happened." Dan let his hand slide to the back of Vadim's neck, fingers splayed. "I guess if any of our grandchildren ever asked, we'll just claim it was magic."

"Good answer." Vadim moved closer, not caring about the suit, he didn't want to get up, certainly not get undressed, because he was content and tired and it was simply a good moment to lie there and touch Dan. "But they won't ask. Every generation has its own hang-ups and its own problems. Which is just as well."

Dan stifled a yawn, then wrapped his arm around Vadim to hold him close. The sporran was wedged between them, but he couldn't be bothered about it. "It'll remain our secret, then. Our very own story." He smiled, leaned in for a gentle kiss, and whispered, "for no one to tell."

- The end of Dan and Vadim's story -

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 21 April 2009