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After Rain

Chapter Text

24th September 2015.

 

This was a rainy day in Hereford. The overcast, gloomy sky and the high rainfall was an evitable part of life in this old English city nearby the Welsh border. In the SAS base in the suburbs, the special force operators still went to their routine training despite their wet and muddy gears.

“The hostage is in the compartment behind this wall.” A SAS operator on the attacker side gave the information after investigated the area with his drone. “Sledge? Open the way.”

“Let me take it!” A tall, bald man with a large sledgehammer stood out. Even all soldier here had the well-built physique; he was particularly outstanding among them. 6'3" of height, broad shoulders and chest, sizeable arms, and perfectly fit waist and sturdy legs. The man of perfect trapezoid body shape looked likely to be able to flex his muscle under the shadow blue coloured, thick SAS uniform. He held his trademark hammer firmly, the small tartan scarf tied to the handle fluttering, “Gar!” then he smashed. As soon as the hammer hit the wall, it got collapsed into debris in no time. He immediately moved sideways to avoid being spotted. “Stay alert. Hostile inside.”

“I only detected two beside the hostage. Only blurry images before getting stopped by dispute signal.” The operator replied.

“I see. Must be them. ” Sledge answered shortly. He knew Mute and Smoke were inside -- his defender teammates and they collaborated in the same group for years, so Sledge knew their tactic well. Smoke was notorious for the toxic gas canisters he made, crazy stuff which only he could handle. Mute, who had signal disputers he developed as the trademark, was also crucial support in defence. Beside disabling drones, any wall set the disputes couldn’t be breached by explosives who required an electronic way to launch. It was not a problem to Sledge’s hammer though, as the only thing it needed to do the magic was his muscles. However, Mute was still dangerous at his unusual ways to set explosives. He even developed a unique technique to throw his nitro cell toward hostiles like a grenade then immediately detonate it, especially useful against anyone welding a ballistic shield. Of course, he wouldn’t use real explosive in training, but having the dummy nitro cell erupt the disgusting green paint to splash over the body would be the least favoured outcome to them.

“I can protect you in.” The operator volunteered to be the pioneer.

“Aidan. Don’t give Smoke any chance to launch his toxic in the room. I’m luring him out.” Sledge nodded and reminded him of the tactic. “Ok, let’s go!”

Aidan rushes in while Sledge followed, and he noticed a mattress stood up beside the desk in a strange position and grasped that someone must use it as the bunker. Sledge threw a grenade toward the gap between the mattress and wall, then the orange gas bursting out proved Sledge’s thought. “Go back!” Sledge told Aidan to hide behind a steel file cabinet, as he located Smoke’s faint silhouette among the gas cloud, almost spent no time to prepare his L85A2 and shoot. After Smoke was down, he found a grey plastic brick taped with an old cell phone was placed at his feet. The ripping sound signified its activation, but it didn’t explode. It must be Mute’s nitro cell so he might be –

“Crap.” Mute’s short curse interrupted their channel, as he walked out behind the deployment shield he was hiding. The red paint on his mask signified he had taken by a headshot. “I can’t believe. The trick doesn’t work anymore?”

“Call it the power of teamworking.” In the meanwhile, Aidan showed up with his rifle, raised his thumb to his leader “Nice tactic, Sledge.”

“And nice shooting skill.” Sledge patted his shoulder, replied friendly.

“All hostiles cleared. Good job, Seamus.” Another attacker wearing an SF10 mask entered the room, praised in a calm and slightly hoarse voice. All men – included Smoke and Mute – stood still at once. The scene proved the man was highly admired in the group.

“You’re overpraising, Baker.” Sledge nodded awkwardly.

“Relax, lads!” Thatcher clapped his hands twice to remind everyone to free his posture. “Isn’t Sledge in charge here?”

“It’s obvious. You’re the most experienced one.” Mute answered while wiping the colour off his mask.

“I know. But Seamus, don’t be so demure by my presence. You’re meant to be a leader, so you must always take the lead no matter your teammates are older than you or not.” Thatcher patted Sledge’s shoulder, “Ok, the session is over, lads! Move your arse out.” He clapped twice in front of his teammates to notice the end of the training.

Afterwards, the operators went to change room to take a short rest and prepare for the shower. Compared to Smoke’s giddy attitude toward Mute who gave him an indifferent response, Sledge stayed quiet and started undressing. He arranged every piece of gears he took off neatly, and shortly there was only his underwear remaining on his body.

“Seamus,” Thatcher’s voice dragged Sledge’s attention, “I want to tell you something.”

“What’s up?” Withdrawing his hands from the waistband of his boxer briefs, Sledge turned to his elder. He hadn’t removed any of his equipment except the mask.

“After an hour we have important visitors.” Thatcher looked up at the Scotsman who was significantly higher than him.

“Just you and me?” Sledge formed a smile while questioning back.

“James and Mark are going, too. But damn, where have they gone?” Thatcher sighed while looking for the defenders until he discovered the awful partners grappling, as Smoke already undressed Mute, pushed him on the bench and rubbed his face. Mute showed resistance by pushing him back and punched on his chin.

“You hellfire motherfucker!” Mute stood up, grabbed the neckline of Smoke’s undershirt.

“Why? I just want to go shower with you.”

“Who wants to go with an arsehole like you?”

“Behave yourself, James!” Thatcher shouted at them and made Smoke and Mute bring up serious attitude. Three men stood in front of their senior, as it might be a hilarious view as two of them were only in underwear, but nobody cared.

“Ok, let’s start again. We have visitors at 13 in the main meeting room, regarding a briefing on a global collaboration program, and we will meet four operators from FBI SWAT who will be our future teammates. Show your best side to these Yanks.” Thatcher finished fast before he told others to go, “Dismiss.”

“Yanks to be our teammates? Am I dreaming?” Smoke’s giddy attitude returned as soon as left the sight of his senior. He undressed in a second and grabbed Mute to a shower stall.

“Quick, or we won’t have time to grab our lunch.” Mute replied coldly and pinched Smoke’s bottom cheek while taking a shower.

After finishing their lunch, Sledge was browsing the news with his tablet. His teammates sat beside them, frowned at the latest “White Masks” attack in Puerto Rico.

“What a bloody crap.” Smoke sighed while looking at the news. “Last week we just dealt with these masked arseholes in London. And they spawned in America again?”

“They spread across the world, and even don’t have a name.” Mute commented, “The only commonality is the white masks they wear, and it’s what media call them, too.”

“It’s unlike any group of terrorists we’ve known.” Sledge shook his head while drinking up his coffee mug. “Wait, Baker, regarding the global program, is it……”

“You catch it so fast, Seamus.” Thatcher nodded, “Come on, we should go to the meeting. You will know the details then.” He made a sign as others followed him out of the canteen and went to the meeting room.

In the meeting room, there seated a woman in a black suit, with short black hair and copper-colour skin, along with two armed retinues standing beside. The sharp and confident eye expression told the woman’s extraordinary and capability. “She’s one of our visitors today. The founder of the global program.” Thatcher introduced his teammates of her name before they sat on the opposite seats.

“I am the director of the reactivated The Rainbow.” The woman nodded and spoke in a North American accent, “Call me ‘Six’.”

“Six?” Thatcher inquired, “I know ‘Six’ is the codename for the director of The Rainbow by custom. May I ask your name other than this?”

“It is not important to you. As you all would only work with me as the members of The Rainbow.” Six answered neutrally, “Operator Baker, or ‘Thatcher’. I am informed by your experience of the collaboration with the old Rainbow. However, the policy and rule of the new Rainbow are entirely different. Don’t let the past fool you.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Thatcher replied politely, but Sledge could read the resentfulness concealed inside his voice.

“Such a rarity to see somebody pissing off Mike so much.” Smoke murmured in a low voice.

“You never mentioned it before, Baker?” Sledge turned to his senior.

“It’s always been a secret,” Thatcher answered while shaking his head. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter at now, just like she says.”

“Let’s get into the topic.” Six continued, as everyone brought their attention on her, “The Rainbow is ‘blacker than black’, the global elite force under the direct supervision of NATO and prevented terrorist plots from 1999 to 2010 by General John Clack’s lead. As the recent White Masks attacks have been impacted the safety of the world, we have decided to relaunch the project.” She scanned at four operators by her sight, one by one, “Based on here, the old home of the global elites.”

“Wait, what?” Sledge exclaimed, “Was Hereford also The Rainbow’s base once?”

“Now, you know why I worked with them before.” Thatcher made an amusing comment.

“We are going to recruit the most elite operatives from over the world. At the first stage of the program, we have selected twenty, from GIGN, FBI SWAT, GSG9, Alpha Group of Spetsnaz – and certainly, you SAS.” Six kept stating as if not minding their comments. “At now, you are going to meet the four operators from FBI SWAT Los Angeles.”

Then the door opened again, followed by the orderly steps of the American operators all in their uniforms. Their faces were still partially visible as none of them wore a mask. The one went in first was a slender woman with an FBI cap, and long red hair formed a braid. The second one was a man wearing a helmet and round goggles, everything on him looked normal apart from the stained bandages on his hands and strange scald scars all over his forearms. He seemed somewhat relaxed among them as he smiled and waved to the Brits as a greeting. The third one was a tall man of creamy-white skin and shaved head with a pair of large sunglasses. “This bald guy looks handsome. Different from our chrome-dome.” Smoke whispered to Mute’s ears, who nodded with the same thought. The last one was a muscular man with chocolate-colour skin. Unlike others, he only wore a half-sleeved shirt under his body armour exposed the thick and sturdy arms with popping vein. The helmet and goggles also protected his head as well as identity.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all. I’m Thermite, presenting for FBI SWAT Los Angeles. And here are my teammates Ash, Pulse and Castle.” The man with bandages on his hands stood forward then spoke in slight Texan accent to introduce the future American members of the new Rainbow, one by one from the red-braid, the shaved head and the black hunk (their first feature Sledge caught). Sledge stood up and greeted back, “I’m Sledge, nice to meet you too. Here are Thatcher, Mute and Smoke. They are the best ones in SAS and looking forward to working with you.”

After all, the British and American operators had shaken their hands, they seated on the table and removed their hats and goggles.

“Six, have we readied to brief our first operation?” Ash’s face conveyed impatience as she pinched her black FBI cap tightly.

“We should wait for other operators who are expected to arrive here next week. Group training and manoeuvres are also necessary before you can put in the operation together. No matter how much experience you have got from your CTUs, in The Rainbow, you all start from new.” Six answered in a tough tone before standing up, “I am going to bring the profiles of your future teammates to display to you. Pardon me for five minutes.” She then left the room with her retinues.

“I can’t understand.” After Six left, Ash turned to her FBI teammates, commented sarcastically, “Shouldn’t they prepare well before the briefing?”

“Ash, I think it’s on purpose.” Sledge, who was on the seat beside her, interrupted in a gentle tone, “She would like us to talk freely and know each other first.”

“Oh, reasonable!” Thermite commented wittily to the Scotsman, “You’re pretty smart, sort of a surprising feature for your bulky body.”

“Do you burn your hands frequently on your work?” Smoke turned to Thermite and pointed at his forearms.

“I work with explosives. Very hot ones. So, it’s natural.” Thermite replied as he extended his arms in front of Smoke to check them.

“How hot?”

“The one I developed can blow off thick metal plates and make a big fucking hole,” Thermite tried to use a metaphor, “You can imagine it’s like a patch made of hot lava from Mauna Loa.”

“How crazy! I like it.” Smoke chuckled heartily.

“What’s your gadget then?”

“You better not know the detail. All I can tell is, it’s toxic.”

“Interesting. But have you got the permission to use it in fields?”

“I know, it’s sort of on edge.” Smoke smirked, “It’s exactly my way to do things.”

Suddenly, Sledge found out all his teammates had begun their conversation with these Yanks. Castle was with Thatcher on their family and interest in languages as Thatcher was amazed that Castle had started learning Korean. Mute and Pulse were sharing each other with their gadgets as the Yorkshireman showed the will to bring Pulse to visit the workshop after the briefing was over. Ash was the only one idle without any word but witnessing the discussion in an awkward look. Sledge noticed her and tried to launch a talk with her. “Ash, how do you do?”

“Fine.” Ash replied emotionlessly before taking off her cap, “I mean, I think we’re here for briefing our future missions. Not for these nonsense social things.”

“Maybe Six has her reason. If we know each other better, I suppose it’s also beneficial to our work.” Sledge answered, “Do you know her well?”

“No. All I know are that she worked as an agent in CIA and cooperated with John Clark’s first Rainbow.”

“Does it mean she has other callsigns?”

“It doesn’t matter as she never says. And her previous experience in detail is top secret.” Ash shook her head, “I’m fine with that. As I mentioned, I’m here just for work. Give me a request, and I can do it perfectly. That’s all.”

“Okay. What’s your special skill for trade?”

“In a word, I breach things,” Ash answered, “From a significant distance. My projector is small and light, but it’s excellent to break things without approaching them.”

“I also breach things,” Sledge nodded amusedly, “with my hammer.”

“Hammer? What an old-fashioned method.”

“Trust me, it works excellently in many cases.” Sledge formed a friendly smile and explained, “Of course, you need muscles strong enough to handle this big caber.

Ash observed the vague bulging lines on Sledge’s arms hiding underneath his navy-blue shirt, as she agreed that the tall man was undoubtedly made of big muscles. She began to imagine what would this body look like without his shirt and body armour’s cover – before a sudden opening sound of the door dragged her attention back.

“I am back. How are you going?” Six returned with slightly soothed expression, looking at the operators who just paused their conversation. “Let’s brief the rest of operators from other three CTUs, as it is helpful for you to know them first before meeting them in person. First, let’s start with GIGN –” The projection curtain immediately displayed a video of four GIGN agents in heavy-looking blue and grey armour, then proceed to the solo scene of the tallest one among them, who was a shield wielder. He stopped after running for a distance with his shield, and the rim of the shield started to extend to cover all his body. Then the shield received the bullets which made nothing but small dents. “He is Montagne.” Six described, “His ‘Le Roc’ Extendable Shield is a legend in GIGN, so does himself. As the only one Le Roc expert still in the service, his experience would be great to us.

Le Roc , huh? I’ve seen some in missions with GIGN before. Sadly, it’s on the way to retirement.” Thatcher sighed.

“If he does well in this team, this shield might have a second spring,” Castle remarked.

“So, who’s the next one?” Ash questioned in slightly impatience.

“Next one is ‘Twitch’.” Six replied as the screen changed to a female operator in her balaclava, and hands holding a special-designed drone resembled a mini buggy in shape. “She is notable with outstanding technology talent, and her shock drone—”

 


 

 

This night, the FBI SWAT operators stayed in the base for their collaboration training tomorrow. Sledge decided to go to the gym, as it was what he always did to relax his mood. On his way, he passed the door of the workshop, and he found it was open. Who would be there? Smoke and Mute couldn’t be as they were resting in their quarter. He knew Thermite and Ash were technicians from his brief knowledge so one or two of them might work on their gadgets to see if there were rooms to improve. Driven by his curiosity, Sledge entered the workshop and looked around, before he discovered a pile of weapon components and many crumpled papers on the ground. Following the trail of paper balls, he found Ash laying on the desk. There were her M120 Crem – the projector of her breaching rounds and a pile of technical drafts around her.

Sledge shook his head with a funny smile. The lass just came here today, and the long travel must consume most of her energy, despite that, she immersed herself into work instead of taking a rest. He approached Ash and patted her shoulders gently, “Ash, you should go to your room to rest.”

“What--" Ash was woken up suddenly, jumped off the chair and looked at the tall Scotsman with a strange expression. “It’s so late, what’re you doing?”

“It’s my sentence,” Sledge answered with a broad grin. “I’m just going to do some exercise before sleeping.”

“Well, I can see.” Ash leaned on the desk, tried to act calmly but looking at the man of exceptional physique in just a grey tank-top and training shorts somewhat made her hard to do so. She noticed a large Celtic knot tattoo on his left shoulder and a relatively smaller one on his left forearm with a round crest of a cock rampant. Ash guessed it was Sledge’s clan crest from her little knowledge of Celtic culture (thanks Thermite, his teammate of Irish descent).

“Shouldn’t you take a rest? You look really tired, and we have training the next morning.” Sledge insisted.

“I’m fine! None your business, Scots.” Ash lifted a corner of her mouth.

“You’re my teammate now. Every teammate’s business is my business.”

“Stop commanding me!” Ash took a piece of her drafts off the desk, crumbled it and threw it on Sledge’s face. “Don’t talk to me like a girl who needs protection or guidance. I can and like to do things on my own. Understand?”

“I’m not in doubt of your ability. It amazed me so much.” Sledge picked Ash’s projector up the desk and made a ready position like holding a rifle, which was a bit small for his big arms. “Can I try it?”

“Keep your hands off from my weapon!” Ash yelled and tried to take her M120 CREM back, but Sledge raised his arms high that she couldn’t reach.

“Promise me one thing, and I would give it back.” Sledge beamed.

“Stop teasing! Return to me right now!” Ash jumped to get it, but she failed again as Sledge transferred it behind his back.

“Promise me that you will never exhaust yourself by over-working again.” Sledge’s face got serious and his every word sounded stern.

“Just that simple? But I’m not over-working.” Ash frowned.

“Then how do you get this sleepy face?” Sledge form a smile again while giving Ash’s gadget back.

“I’m thinking of how to decrease the noise. This breaching round makes while keeping the same explosive power.” Ash held the projectors tightly, “Tried many ways but none of them works. It puzzles me so much these days.”

“Maybe what you need is put it down for a while.” Sledge asked in a soft voice, “How about doing some exercise with me?”

“With you ?” Ash showed her doubt.

“One of my habits. Feeling my muscles working out can relax my mind.”

“You sound like a gym rat. Looks like one, too.”

“I won’t deny. And doing such a job, having the best physique is essential, don’t you agree?”

“Well, fine.” Ash sighed while putting her gadget on the desk, “I’m going with you.”

 


 

Just like what they predicted, there was nobody around them in the gym in such late night. Ash changed to her workout outfit and went to a rowing machine, while she observed  Sledge who was deadlifting. The weights hanging on each side of the bar seemed large and heavy, but Sledge lifted them up as if it was nothing to him. While they finished a session, Ash went to check Sledge and found out he was wiping off his sweat.

“Oh! Feeling better?” Sledge recognised Ash by his side and chuckled.

“So much sweat,” Ash commented. “I mean you.”

“Yeah, it’s true.” Sledge pulled the neckline of his wet tank-top. “Don’t you mind taking it off?”

“No. I’ve seen enough naked skin of my teammates around me.” Ash shook her head.

“You mean those lads who came along with you?” Sledge removed his damping singlet, showed his buffed pecs and abs. Ash confirmed again -- the body made of a mass of muscles could drive her mad. His body odour made her feel addicted as if she consumed a big barrel of whisky.

“I mean Thermite and Pulse. They always wear nothing except for their underwear in the quarter.” Ash shook her head to focus with a sigh.

“Smoke is like that.” Sledge drank his water bottle before continuing, “But no underwear.”

“My Goodness.” Ash tilted her head, “Fortunately he’s not in my team, or I would be mad watching him wobbling his dong in front of me.”

“Exactly what he often does toward me.” Sledge chuckled, “I told him so many times, ‘stop! I’m straight,’ as he responds, ‘oh, really?’ while still keeps rocking his waist.”

“Damn him.” Ash facepalmed. “Wait, do you mean he’s…… gay?”

“He is.” Sledge answered honestly, “And Mute is in that kind of…… relationship with him. You know, do that thing just for fun.”

“The couple I just mentioned are also like that.” Ash squeezed a wry smile.

“Oh, no. No wonder they become a friend in a flash. Birds of a feather.” Sledge laughed while patting the bench beside him. “Hey, want to try some powerlifting? I can help you to do bench press.”

“I know how to do it. I’m not a newbie.” Ash felt annoyed.

“Just to help you to put on the plates, come on.” Sledge kept encouraging before Ash laid on the bench with a sigh.

Sledge took a bar to Ash as she held it tightly. “How heavy do you prefer, my lady?” Ash could sense the giddiness in the Scotsman’s words, and she thought the endorphin might ease his mood for “a little too much”, but she decided to ignore it. “Don’t like to get it too hard at the start. 40kg.”

“I think it’s heavy enough for your slender body.”

“Shut it up and put them on, baldhead!”

“Ok, ok, calm down.” Sledge put each side with a 20 kg plate. “Good?”

“Easy to me.” Ash extended her arms to lift the barbell up slowly 10 times with steady movement. “Give me more.” She requested

“Sure, how much do you want?”

“20kg.” Ash circled her arms to relax, before going back to the ready position. This time Sledge just took the plates on without any word. Ash heaved after deep breathes, and Sledge could see that she started squeezing force in her body to lift it. She released the bar after the laps, panted heavily, “Not enough. I want more.”

“You’re straining yourself. I don’t allow it this time, as I think you’ll get hurt.” Sledge puckered his forehead along with a broad grin.

“Shut up. I know my limit.” Ash insisted. “I can lift more.”

“Ok, then give you 10 kilos more,” Sledge took the additional weight on the barbell then Ash attempted to push it up. She clenched her teeth while getting it up strenuously before Sledge held the bar to take it over. “I’ve said that. Don’t get yourself hurt.” He put the barbell on the rack before taking all weight plates off.

“What are you doing? I said I could lift it.” Ash yelled in anger.

“My experience tells me that even if you can lift it up once, it won’t benefit you.” Sledge declared, “We have training tomorrow, and I don’t want my teammate injured due to improper exercising.”

“Well,” Ash sat up and scratched her head, “Okay, you’re right. I’m just not so used to be corrected like this. None of my teammates can do that.”

“They can’t?” Sledge questioned.

“Don’t get it wrong. They’re professional and achieve the best at work.” Ash explained, “But they like to relax while resting and might be too relaxed sometimes. So, I must be responsible for them.”

“I’ve thought your team is either Thermite or Castle in charge.”

“Oh, Jordan is the titular leader, as in private he’s just like a cheerful boy, not so reliable.” Ash drank her water then commented in sarcasm. “Miles is a good and wise man. But he’s usually too good to argue with me. Jack…… Out of his professional area, he’s a mess, too.”

“I can see how challenging it is to kick their butts up.” Sledge sat beside her on the bench.

“If I can’t get myself stronger, neither can my team. Therefore, I believe I must take any chance to challenge my limit.”

“But getting too much pressure on you is not healthy. Your teammates won’t like that either, right?” Sledge patted Ash’s shoulder.

“They also say the same thing to me, but I don’t care.” Ash rolled her eyeballs, “I can’t accept myself to slack off. It’s not what my countrymen want to see.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just like what I mean.” Ash’s expression hardened, “I’m born in Israel, enlisted in the Israeli Defense Forces, then joined FBI SWAT as an international elite. If I don’t work hard and keep myself in the best form, everything would be nonsense.”

“I see.” Sledge nodded sympathetically, “I can understand. Being an ‘outsider’, and how much effort you should take to reward who raise and cultivate you—Honestly, I never feel I’ve done enough.”

“Where are you from?” Ash got curious, “I mean, where in Scotland.”

“John o' Groats. A small fishing village in Highland.” Sledge answered, “It’s the most northern settlement of Britain. Most people live there know each other, like a big family.” He pointed at the round crest on his arm, “It’s the symbol of my clan. Wearing it makes me always feel connected to my home.”

“My hometown is Jerusalem. I know you would probably like to say ‘oh, holy city’, but I don’t like that place at all.” Ash pouted, “I’m happier with the life in America, or anywhere else.”

“Hey, it’s your turn to help me put on some weight.” Sledge requested while lying on the bench and placed the bar above him.

“How much you want?” Ash checked the plates, “I think you should take it hard and heavy.”

“Oh, I want to start from light as well.” Sledge chuckled, “40kg, on each side!”

“It’s not light at all!” Ash exclaimed.

“It’s light to me.” Sledge laughed, “You’ll be awed at how much I can lift, I’m sure.”

Ash readied the barbell as the Scotsman’s instruction, then set aside to look at him. To be honest, the view of the hunk working out was perfect for eye candy – the moment she knew that handing the sledgehammer was not his muscles’ only function. How long was the last time she ever got attracted to a man? She couldn’t tell, and the feeling was strange.

After Sledge finished the session and was replacing the weights, “Do you like to practise some obstacle courses one or two days later?” Ash gave another request to divert her attention away from Sledge’s body.

“With you?” Sledge answered.

“Just me for now. I wouldn’t mind you bringing others though.”

“I’ve heard Thermite said that you move dramatically fast.” Sledge gazed at the FBI operator directly, “Probably I can learn one or two tricks from you? And I can reward you by guiding you to train your physical strength more efficiently.”

“If you can bear my awful teaching style. Let’s make an appointment?”

“Tomorrow’s collaboration training is expected to finish at noon. So, an obstacle course in the afternoon, and the gym at night.” Sledge placed his hand on his chin, “Good for you?”

“No problem.” Ash nodded, “Let’s hone each other for the incoming first operation.”

“You sound excited.” Sledge made a witty remark.

“No! I just like to ensure everything is ready.” Ash retorted in an amused tone.

“That’s fine,” Sledge hooked Ash’s shoulder, “I’m excited too. And now, I’m certain we can make the best team.”

“Where does your confidence come from?” Ash made a sarcastic comment but still couldn’t hide her laughter. They ended up laughing together while on the way back to their quarters.

 


 

In the meantime, the director’s office.

“Colonial Sweeney? Come on in.” Six responded the knocking door before it opened and revealed a man in SAS uniform, with brown skin and black batch cut head.

“Yes,” the man approached Six’s desk with a smile, “Tell you so many times: just call me Kevin.”

“What brings you in at this time?” Six sighed while gazing at the profile jackets on her desk.

“Just want to see if you’re alright.” Kevin replied in a steady tone, “Isn’t it part of the work of your right-hand man?”

“I’m good with my own. Your only task at now is just preparing for guiding their collaboration training tomorrow.”

“Why? Baker can do better in coaching than me.”

“Sweeney--” Six cocked an eyebrow.

“Okay, okay.” Kevin giggled, “Just kidding. And I must thank you for selecting Baker for the team. I knew he'd been aspired to be a part of such a global program, and I believed General Clark would select him for the first Rainbow. When he chose me instead, I had concern if this would disappoint my elder bro in the team. However, Baker put the trust on me and encouraged me whenever I felt down – I mean, such a wise senior is essential to the team. He deserves this chance.”

“Well, but I select him just for his ability. Same to the reason I assign you to be my deputy. As one of the former members of the old Rainbow, your experience will benefit us much.” Six made a gesture to remind Kevin to seat in front of her. “Since you’re here, can you help me with one thing?”

“Happy to help. Which thing?”

“You know, we should have a leader among these operators,” Six explained, “Like Ding Chavez, not only remarkable by his ability but also has high charisma which made everyone listen to him.”

“Agreed. Have you come up with any potential choice?”

“I’ve thought of Eliza Cohen,” Six took out Ash’s profile. “I know her for a while. She’s always the responsible one to her team, thinks forward and acts fast. But she’s not good at soothing her tension, and it might be negative for the group.”

“So, you’re looking for someone who is more positive and encouraging.” Kevin assumed, then he chose one of the files and showed it to Six. “What do you think about him?”

“Seamus Cowden, callsign ’Sledge’.” Six murmured, “The tall and big Scotsman using the big hammer. Refer to his profile; he captained Scotland U-20 national rugby team before enlisted……”

“Yes. Baker always remarks him as a natural leader.” Kevin commented, “Not unlike Ash, he stands and moves in front of people, knows how to raise their motivation and willingness. And he has the calm and stable character to balance Ash’s impulse.”

“Is it a promotion for your SAS teammate?” Six questioned half-jokingly.

“I don’t recommend him for his SAS background, but what kind of person he is.” Kevin beamed, “I think he will do perfectly as the leader of the new Rainbow.”

“How about making them work together?” Six thought for a while before the suggestion. “It can be the way of transnational cooperation.”

“Good idea!” Kevin thumbed-up.

“Ok, then you must notify them before tomorrow’s training. Dismissed.” Six arranged the jackets in order as she told her right-hand man to leave.

Later at this night, while Sledge was resting in his quarter, he had not known the new role he was going to be, neither the fact that he would lead the team together with the slender Israeli lady. The flushing sound passed through the window to let him realise the rain got heavier, but he didn’t divert his mind from tomorrow’s training and the appointment hereafter. The busy day and exercise shortly ago made his body tired for a degree, but not his mind. He went to bed with a smile of expectation, let the rain sounds accompany him to dreamland to call it a day.

Chapter Text

In October 2015, the reactivated Rainbow was launched after gathered all 20 elites from 5 countries. The remaining operators arrived about the same time and immediately completed the group training sessions before throwing into the operation.

 

Just like what Six planned, Sledge and Ash made a surprisingly perfect duo to lead the international team. They kept helping each other to improve, as Ash taught Sledge the technique to move faster, while Sledge rewarding Ash back by assisting her in weight training. With Ash’s surprise, the big Scotsman who gave others the first impression of depending his raw and wild power was good at thinking when trying his best to follow up Ash’s engineering topics and becoming the best assistant in her gadget’s improvement. Their collaboration showed a great example to fellow operators.

 

They had begun to treat each other as good friends. Nevertheless, Ash still had an odd sensation of desiring more from the Scotsman, mostly, his tall, broad and ripped body. In fact, Ash supposed that anyone who didn’t see the attraction containing the mess of muscle must be blind. And she couldn’t believe such a good man was still untaken, either. She didn’t ask as it felt a bit shameful to her professional image and belief. What she could do was just musing the Eros secretly, and it had troubling her day by day.

 

At the same time, the team had succeeded different missions in a dramatically short time: from stopping a bioterrorist attack in Boston, hostage rescue in an industrial area in Hamburg, protecting a VIP among a siege taking place in Abidjan, and more. These crazy two mouths with full of tension finally ended, as their eventually had a chance to take a short rest in December.

 

On the day they returned the base, Sledge was resting in his quarter. After a quick shower, he lay in the bed in just his underwear, as he was too lazy to take on other clothes at that time.

 

Didn’t know how long passed, “Seamus,” Thatcher’s voice waked him up, “Sleep naked again? You will catch a cold by that.”

“Hmm,” Sledge opened his eyes and found Thatcher sitting on a stool beside the bed, wearing his grey jumper and black pants. “I’m from the Highland. Little cool weather is nothing to me.”

“It’s already December. You’re too important for the team, so, you should take care of yourself better.” Thatcher patted Sledge’s exposed chests while frowning in disagreement, “Anyway, I’m here to remind you it’s dinner time.”

“Shit.” Sledge jumped off and collected his clothes in seconds, “I’m dressing up.” He held the waist of his cargo pants and hopped into it quickly. When they went out the door, he finally put on his white singlet and tartan shirts and found Smoke was waiting outside.

 

“Ah, nice and fine evening then?” The short Englishman greeted, “How I want to go to a bar to reward myself by drinking out.”

“You’re always a bloody mess with alcohol.” Thatcher disapproved.

“Don’t be so rude, we have done so many works, right?” Smoke kept persuading in a witty tone, “Let’s meet at the same place after dinner!”

“Discuss this later. Don’t let Mark wait too long.” Thatcher cocked an eyebrow while fastening his steps.

 

They then went straight to the canteen, as there were already bursting with soldiers and officers. “Mark, thank you for reserving the seats for us.” Sledge greeted Mute who was waiting at a table.

“No worries. Today who’s the cook?”

“I’ve heard it’s Tachanka and Glaz’ turn to prepare today’s supper.” Thatcher sounded slightly worried, “Can that loud Russian handle it? Glaz is also like—”

“His eyes,” Smoke stretched his eyes with thumbs and index fingers, “Can kill people! I can already see the sniper forcing you to eat up all the food with cold gazes and voice…… ‘Mark, behave. Eat your vegetable.’ Don’t you think it’s horrifying?”

“James, not funny.” Mute coughed. “Stop mocking our teammates.”

Sledge knew Glaz might be a strict man to detail from an action when he commented positively on his beanie before received his serious answer of “the hat names Chechenka” in a cold face. But what if such the man attentive to detail also applied this character in cooking? “Well, Let’s take our food here.” Sledge then stood up to check it. And overall, they were all hungry and in need of the food.

 


 

Beef stroganoff with fusilli, borscht with Smetana, a small bowl of stir-fry fruit salad and three pieces of sourdough rye bread. The Brits were amazed at the simple but delicious and nutritious Russian style home dinner, and they all agreed the two Spetsnaz’ culinary skills were far higher than their expectations.

“Okay,” Smoke commented humorously, “I think Glaz definitely doesn’t need to gaze at me to get me to eat his food.” Before Mute groaned annoyedly with moving his lip to sign him “Shut your fuck up”.

“I’d like to thank them for this wonderful dinner, and to have some chats.” Sledge left his seat with an empty plate in his hand.

 

At the table seated Spetsnaz operators, four men talked loudly in their native tongue, then Glaz noticed the impressive view of the Scottish giant approaching them.

 

“Hey,” Sledge lowered his head to greet, “Thanks for your nice dinner.” He recognised the youngest Russian guy with wheat-blond hair and stunning cornflower blue-coloured eyes. The jacket Glaz took off was hanged on the back of the chair, as a sleeveless dark-blue striped undershirt was the only thing on his upper body. The swirl and floral pattern tattoos on his right arm caught Sledge’s eyes.

“Just some handy dishes, you’re overpraising,” Glaz turned to him and answered in English in a gentle tone, “By the way, I made that beef stroganoff, and Alex did the borscht.”

“From my mother’s receipt. Believe or not, it has received all my comrades’ positive comments as the best borscht they ever had.” Tachanka – the elder Russian with a shiny blond butch cut hair and wrinkles on his white skin signifying his age -- smirked, “I began to learn cooking since being a boy. Timur is the same.”

“Amazing,” Sledge continued, “How do you feel about here? Like, working with others from various countries can be a rare experience to you, right?”

“And a good challenge.” Glaz replied, “I would be happy to know you all better, sadly we barely have the chance. We’ve been all so busy.”

“Oh, and you can just call our names in private, Seamus.” Tachanka introduced others, “Here’s Maxim, the hooded hunter and trap maniac. And Shuhrat, the silent and dangerous ‘Mr. Boom-boom’. A note to us is: never get him close to hostages.”

“I never hurt any innocent. Risk can happen, but all in my control.” Fuze answered emotionlessly.

“Ah, so it’s now the social time?” Kapkan groaned, “Not my speciality.”

“Come on, the Scottish just wants to make friend with you all!” Tachanka shook Sledge’s hand firmly, “Right? Friends.”

“Uh, yeah.” Sledge felt a bit stuck of words.

 

In the meantime, Smoke appeared behind the Scotsman, “What are you doing, Seamus? Just saying thanks needs so much time?”

“They’re more passionate than I thought.” Sledge made up.

“Oh, really?” Smoke pointed back, “Don’t forget soon later we’re going to a pub!”

“Pub?” Tachanka noticed the keyword, “We’re also planning to go to drink out! You know any good one here?”

“There’s a pub just 4km from here we always go to, and it has a discount to the military.” Sledge answered.

Хорошо! I know you’re good bro.” Tachanka hooked Sledge’s shoulder, “Let’s not waste any time.”

“You might fancy having a few more friends with you.” Glaz suggested, “Who would you bring to the pub?”

 

“Hmm,” Thatcher reckoned, “Maybe Gilles?”

“Then I get Dominic.” Smoke laughed, “My valuable lewd buddy!”

“So……” Sledge scratched his head and glanced at FBI operatives’ table, “I take Eliza?”

“How about all the team go together?” Tachanka laughed, “The more, the merrier, don’t you think?”

“Liquors are always welcomed. But with so many people? No.” Kapkan shook his head to his old comrade. “Save my ass from it.”

“Neither do I.” Mute made a sarcastic comment in a low voice. “We’re in an elite force, not a damn orientation party in a university.”

“The Director might not agree that we all going out at the same time.” Glaz made reason.

“Glaz is right. It’s what I’ve concerned.” Thatcher agreed with vigorous nodding, while he noticed somebody pausing by his side. “Kevin? Aidan? What’re you doing here.” He found another two SAS operators as well as the part of the Rainbow after turning his head.

“Just got curious at the Russians who made today’s dinner.” Sweeney formed a friendly smile, “It tasted wonderful.”

“Seam, you’re going to Nevermind for a drink, no?” Aidan requested, “Take me with you.”

“Look, we’re going to have a large party!” Tachanka laughed louder.

“So, I said Six won’t—" Thatcher knocked the eldest Russian’s shoulder before being stopped by his old SAS teammate.

“Mike, stop being so stubborn. I see you lads want a pub night, right?” Sweeney took out his phone, “One minute, I’m asking for ma’am Six’s consent.” He went away speaking for a moment before coming back, “She agreed.”

“What—” Thatcher’s jaw slacked in astonishment, “Impossible!”

“Hurray!” With a cheer, Tachanka fist-bumped with the deputy director, “I already love you, Sweeney!”

“You heard him, let’s get others,” Sledge urged in a joyous tone, “We’re going to have a pub night!”

 


 

The pub Nevermind in the adjacent town of the base was always one of SAS soldiers’ favourites for a precious relaxed and tipsy night. Not unlike other pubs in the city of Hereford or other places in this country, it offered the best quality liquor, beverage, food and entertainment. There was two LCD TV always showing sports live locals enjoyed like rugby and football. The stage in the middle would have jazz musicians in weekends to make their performance as an elegant amusement. For customers fancied something intense, sometimes there were even a group of dancers arrived the stage showing seductive dances. Although they wouldn’t strip to naked due to the traditional English bar was not mainly for the kind of entertainment, but to these men, watching these pretty girls’ rocking titties covered in lacy bras was exciting enough. Of course, some thirsty guys such as Tachanka and Smoke would be the loyal fans for such the show, but there was no any performer this day, so like others, they would just relax and have some nice chats over the power of alcohol.

 

The soldiers quickly ordered their drink and started mingling with others. “I’d like to seat outside, anyone with me?” Smoke made an implying gesture. Then Bandit, Kapkan, Glaz, Thermite and Sledge followed them out.

 

They found a round table outside and seated, and all of them except Sledge took out their cigarettes. “You don’t smoke?” Bandit handed him a cigarette while asking politely.

“Seamus? He’s a giant boy. Smoking is too mature for him.” Smoke chuckled his banter.

“I can see. Your face is surprisingly white and smooth. What’s the brand of face tonic and lotion you use?” Thermite inquired, “Kiehls? Task Essential?

“Uh, I never use them.” Sledge shook his hands.

“You’re such the envy by your naturally perfect skin, you know?” Thermite sighed when lit up his cigarette, “Recently, I found the amount of my white hair gets even more. Can’t escape this, huh?”

“You can get shaved like Seamus does.” Smoke laughed. “You know what, I help him to shave his head about once a week. I think I can help you with it, too!”

“No, I don’t think it suits me.” Thermite lifted an eyebrow, while others all followed the laughter.

 

“Anyway, I just like to chat with you.” Sledge put his arms on the table, “Such as, in the dinner time, Glaz’ tattoos caught my eyes. Can I have a look?”

“You mean this?” Glaz rolled the sleeve of his jacket to show the art on his right arm. “It’s like…… One day I got too bored so that I treated my body as a canvas.”

“You make this on your own?” Sledge asked in surprise.

“Timur has artist’s eyes and hands,” Kapkan answered.

“I know how to make a tattoo and create some original designs as well.” Bandit moved closer to the sniper, “We might be able to make a collaboration. Open a tattoo studio and make a lot of money. How do you think of this idea?”

“Don’t ever dare to entice Timur into your bullshit, fuckboy.” Kapkan snorted while pulling Bandit’s elbow to take his body which almost leaning on the sniper away.

“Oh, yeah. A possessive lover you are.” Bandit chuckled his reply while shaking some ash off his cigarette.

“I’ll deck you for this, you know that?” Kapkan sounded angrier with clenched fists.

“Hey, better stop this.” Glaz separated them and switched the topic, “What do you like to do in casual times?”

 

“Boxing is my main hobby, but I’m generally into all martial arts.” Smoke answered in complacency, “If you’re looking for an opponent exercising hand-to-hand combat skill, or just want someone to fight with, I’m your man.”

“I like riding bikes, body arts and making fun!” Bandit interrupted, “But mostly I love looking at people’s different expressions. It’s amusing to me.”

“Well, chemistry is my professional as well as my biggest interest.” Thermite replied, “Don’t take me like only able to make explosives or another big fucking hole. I also make casual things in my free time. Like soaps, face and body lotion, ointments, muscle-soothing cream…… Even fragrance candles.”

“You make scented candles?” Sledge couldn’t believe his ears.

“Is it so surprising? It’s quite easy to make. Just combine some wax, essential oil and a wick in a glass jar, then ta-dah!” Thermite chuckled, “It’s your turn, Scots.”

“My hobbies…… Watching rugby games and working out.” On the amusement, Sledge was not the one could come up with many ideas. “I also practice empty handed combat with James often.”

“Um-hmm. You appear like a gym nut enough.” Kapkan nodded, “I bet you’re always the most distinctive one in the gym.”

“Your tattoo looks great. Is it an emblem?” Glaz took Sledge’s hand to observe his forearm in an enthusiastic expression.

“My clan’s crest.” Sledge answered.

“Can I draw you? It’s the first time I clearly look at your face.” Glaz stubbed his cigarette out then took his sketchbook and pencils out his backpack, “It won’t take long.”

“Uh……” Getting a little surprised at the sniper’s extreme passion about arts, Sledge still stayed still to let Glaz depict his figure on the paper.

“You better be quiet,” Kapkan turned to others, whispered his reminder with a calm face. “Timur doesn’t like to be disturbed in such the state.”

“If it’s the case,” Smoke groaned in boredom, “I’d like to go indoor.” He drunk up his beer and went up. He extended his hand to the door handle, but the door opened by somebody else before he touched it.

 

“Oh, Smoke, you’re here!” Tachanka’s significant figure appeared at the door, while Fuze standing behind him. “I bet you all have a happy time?”

“We had a nice chat before Timur immersing into his art shit.” Smoke scratched his head.

“Oh, yes. Timur told me he studied in an art school in teenage. I’ve seen some of his artworks.” Tachanka nodded before turned to Fuze. “You too, no? Shuhrat.”

“Yes. I like his painting.” Fuze expressed in his iconic impassive voice, as Smoke couldn’t decide if it was sincere or just a courtesy.

“He’s now sketching Seamus.”

“The Scotsman? He’s definitely someone Timur loves to draw.” Tachanka laughed gently.

“Timur likes beefcakes,” Fuze added.

“Uh, thank you for the information.” Smoke responded sarcastically.

“I’d like to wait for him finished, but I need to get Sledge.” Tachanka turned again to peek the interior. “Because Eliza…… Ash seems a bit strange right now.”

Strange?” Sledge turned his head to the Russians after he heard the keyword, “What do you mean? What happened to Eliza?”

“She’s just sitting alone there, appears like thinking of something.” Fuze explained, “And already finished several shots of strong drinks, as what I can see.”

“I think she’s not in a good mood. She shouted me back after I greeted her. What a rude girl.” Tachanka sounded salty, “But I know you’re a…... good friend of her, right? Therefore, I reckon you have some ideas to cheer her up.”

“Maybe she’s just, you know, in period?” Smoke tilted his head with cross arms, “Better just leave her that way.”

“From my knowledge, I don’t think she would be grumpy by that.” Thermite answered seriously, “Even if it’s the case, she won't come here at all, but just stays at the base.”

“It’s my fault.” Sledge got restless, “It’s me urge her to come, but……” He gazed at Glaz, who just stopped his pencil, “You haven’t finished, right? Sorry about that.”

“No need. I can continue it anytime. You must go to talk to her at now.” Glaz nodded in understanding.

“Then pardon me,” Sledge went up and strode to the door.

 


 

Sledge found Ash seating at a small round table the corner, shaking her glass with a hard face. “Eliza, you alright?” Sledge sat at the opposite of the table. And they both realised that they were not feeling so close in the distance like this, as if a couple on a date. “If you feel unwell, I can take you back to get a rest.”

“Oh, excellent,” Ash gave the Scotsman a sour look, “You sound like an over-protective dad, you know?”

“No, how come do you think this way?” Sledge made a wry smile, “Listen, as we’re teammates and friends, tell me anything in your mind. Is it good?”

“I just…… Don’t like here.” Ash sighed, “Too crowded, noisy, makes me hard to concentrate.”

“Every pub is like that, people communicate there, do everything fun and relax.” Sledge pointed at a large table seated Castle, Pulse, Thatcher and Montagne playing poker, and the bar counter seated Blitz, Jäger, Smoke and Doc watching a Premier League game on the TV.

“Yeah, I know that, but ----” Ash still intended to defend, but another woman’s approaching interrupted them.

“Oh, my, who’s the lonely and pity girl?” IQ grabbed a chair to sit beside the pair, “Still can’t mingle with others, Eliza?” She purred in a strong navel sound, and the faint alcohol smell expressed her status.

“Monika, you’re drunk.” Ash frowned in disgust.

“No, how come I’m drunk? I just won Emma in a drinking game.” IQ laughed loudly, “She’s now leaning against Julien like a kitty.”

“Why everyone is like that?” Ash shook her head to IQ, “Honestly, discussing on technical topics in the workshop with you girls is more enjoyable to me.”

“Well, then you can make friends with Fuze and Chanka. They won’t show any difference no matter how much they drink, isn’t it amazing?” IQ giggled, “I just watched them trying to beat each other in who can drink more vodka, what a view!”

 

“So, you are all good?” Suddenly, Glaz arrived with his sketchbook in his hand. “I’ve just thought if Ash feels unwell about the pub night, seems like I worried too much.”

“Great, then it’s you.” Ash pouted, “Don’t mind me.”

“As you lead the team, I think it’s normal to me to care about you.” Glaz sat between Sledge and IQ, “When I was in the service for 45th Guards Brigade, I met a great leader inspired me that the real strength of a team is not from raw force, but our bond and trust.”

“I trust you all in actions,” Ash answered.

“True, but work is not everything in our life.” Glaz made a kind smile, “He told me that: before being a good soldier, be a good person first. I will never forget his word.”

 

“Hey, how about that, let’s think of some ideas to entertain Eliza. Make our first pub night unforgettable!” Sledge patted Glaz’ shoulder before got up, as the Russian followed. “Just give us a moment!” Two men then went to the owner of the bar who was serving drinks behind the bar, seemed like to discuss something. Despite feeling strange, Ash didn’t care too much, took no reaction but shaking the glass in her hand.

 


 

15 minutes later.

 

“We have two guests just volunteered to present us a special performance. Let’s have a round of applause for Euan & Tim’s military hunk show.” An old man in bartender’s suit with grey hair and short beards seemed like the bar owner announced with a microphone.

“What?” Ash jumped off the seat and went in front of the stage with the surmise of what was going on, while IQ followed her with an excited face. Suddenly, two muscular men stepped on the platform, showing the well-built muscle line exposed from their tank tops. Although their faces were covered by balaclavas, Ash immediately knew they were Sledge and Glaz. The customers included her teammates cheered loudly, while the duo starting flexing. Ash groaned in a low voice while looking at the Scotsman’s bulging biceps vibrating by his force, and his proposing eye expression made her so uneasy.

 

They made some poses before switching into a fighting pose to each other then began throwing fists. Looking at Sledge’s movements, Ash recalled their empty-handed combat practices. “Wow!” Amazing exclaiming came out from the crowd when Glaz dodged Sledge’s straight punch with a backflip. In a flash, Sledge squatted to sheer Glaz’ flying kick coming after, then caught his legs to take him onto his shoulders. Sledge supported the Russian at his hips then wrapped his arms around him to form a bear hug. Sledge then bent back, lifted Glaz over his shoulder to put him to the ground upside down. Glaz then did a handspring to leap back to an upright position. “Nice tricks!” A random customer got excited and urge to see more.

 

“Hey, wait!” Tachanka leapt on the stage with a dissatisfied groan, “You guys didn’t call me to the muscle show?” He removed his jacket in a blink, rolled up his T-shirt and discarded them on the stage. He curled his arms high, elbows levelled with each other to make the iconic “front double biceps” pose with a perky smile.

“Idiot, it’s not your one-man show. Don’t you know the reason we are doing this?” Glaz knocked his elder comrade’s elbow with the banter.

“I know, for that lady.” Tachanka glanced at Ash, who appeared faintly confused at the scene. “And my muscles can easily win that Scotsman, don’t you think?”

“I beg to differ.” Sledge smirked while removing his white tank top, then paused his hands on his belt buckle, “I’m going to show you what I gain from the hard-working in these days.” He undid it in a teasing movement, then slowly pulled his pants down. Ash almost lost her breathe while looking at the strong and perfectly shaped glutes only partly covered by Sledge’s black-coloured, thin and tight sports briefs. He took off his boots along with pants and kicked them away while standing straight, then discarded the balaclava. “Oof! What a masculine badass!” Smoke, who occupied the position beside Ash she had overlooked until then, yelled loudly with raising fists. Sledge made a confident grin after turned to his front side and flared his lats to emphasis his bulging pecs and arms. Ash tried her best not to notice another significant pack on his tight underwear. Sledge then transferred to the “side chest pose” while flexing his pecs and thigh muscles while looking at Ash, the ardent eye expression was asking his lady if she liked this show.

 

It looked just like a hilarious dream. The Scotsman she had begun to admire to display himself with no cover – she didn’t surprise at Sledge showing up to her without a shirt – he did that almost every time they went to the gym together. But to watch him showing off to the public was a completely fresh experience. With more sounds of jubilation from the crowded, Ash noticed other two Russians also stripped to underwear without any hesitation and competed with the Scotsman in posing. She couldn’t decide if the scene was awesome or ridiculous, as she finally lost control of her mouth corners.

 

“Look, Seamus,” Tachanka patted Sledge’s shoulder, “Eliza just smiled at me.”

“She thinks you’re funny.” Sledge shook his head with a smirk, “It doesn’t mean she likes you.” He then changed into the rear double bicep pose, “What do you think of my back?” His excellently built latissimus dorsi twitched and rewarded more cheering sounds.

“Good, but I think I’m still better.” Tachanka turned to his young comrade, “You too, Timur, show him what we made of.”

“You don’t even have to ask,” Glaz turned around to form a pose like Sledge did, and another wave of laud came out, as the sniper who has significantly smaller build than other two also had surprisingly deep muscle lines on his back.

 

In the meanwhile, “Can I join? It looks fun!” Montagne ran to the stage in nothing but a navy-blue pair of boxer briefs. The tall Frenchman’s figure was undoubtedly another potent competitor in showing muscles.

“Gilles? Why?” Sledge was amazed at the elder GIGN who usually appeared professional and rigorous joined.

“A reason is that I lost all my clothes in the poker game.” Montagne chuckled, “Another is, I’m certain to win you all in flexing!” He then pulled the hem of his undergarment up to expose his bottoms entirely.

“Great, now we can make a true contest!” Tachanka looked at other teammates under the stage, “Anyone else wants to join?”

“Count me in,” Blitz shed off his shirt while joining them, “Let you all withstand the pride of a sportsman.” Despite being the shortest one, the German expressed the confidence in his imposing physique.

“And me.” Castle followed Blitz on the stage sporting his shirtless torso like a basalt sculpture, “I don’t usually participate in this, but…… Blame Jordan and Jack for it.”

“Then I volunteer to be the judge so that there are five from each different country.” Glaz announced with a microphone, “And this lass will be another judge.” His index finger pointed at Ash, who was looking around while receiving her teammates – especially Thermite, Pulse and Smoke’s gestures to urge her to go.

“Me?” Ash went to the stage in perplexity, “I don’t understand, what are you guys---”

“And the winner can take her as the trophy!” Glaz continued while bathing in the big wave of cheers.

“No! I’m not into----” Ash began to grumble, but it didn’t last long before Glaz put his finger on her mouth to sign her to stop.

“Eliza, I understand how much you are confused at now, but please believe Seamus and me.” Glaz whispered to Ash’s ear, “And I know Seamus wants to be closer to you.”

Closer? Who inform you this?”

“Mark and Miles told me in a chat. They’re the first ones noticed what’s going on.”

“How about others?” Ash peeked at the five “competitors” on the stage, and the remaining operators blending in the crowd.

“I don’t know. I only care of finding a way to help you both.”

“Well, so you’d like me to cooperate in your show, right?” Ash rubbed her braid, “Fine. Just for this time.”

 

“Thank you very much.” Glaz’ mouth formed a glad curve while guiding Ash back to the stage with another announcement, “Let me introduce the competitors again, the first one is Euan the Highlander from Scotland!” His tone was unusually bright and loud like the host of a TV program, different from his usual reserved and quiet image. Ash doubted that where he learned such the skill. And Sledge made another pose by placing his hands behind his head, stretched his diamond-cut abdominals.

“Look at the pecs and abs…… What a glorious built!” Recalling her tasks in the program, Ash squeezed a dry exclaim, rewarded by a wave of amused laughter.

“Can you turn around again?” Glaz spook to the Scotsman, who immediately rotated to back to the audience. He spread his wings to full extension while folding the back of his briefs into the groove between his buttocks, which could be described as delicious with the large and firm muscles shaped flawless V-shape. If not considering others’ eyesight, she could touch and rub these butts already.

“Would you like the man to lift you up, Eliza?” Meanwhile, Glaz throwed Ash a sudden question.

“Uh……uh, YES!” Ash nodded quickly with a stiff grin. She believed her awkward expressions had screwed it up, but instead, she heard more laughter as the crowd had got more fanatical. She shared a glance with Sledge who made her the biggest smile in this day as if telling her this perfect physique was all built for her. A strange sensation of joy flowed to her as a sign of the start to integrate into the atmosphere.

 

“And the next competitor,” Glaz continued while proceeding to his elder comrade’s side, “Alex the Lord, from Russia......!”

 


 

The pub night was finally over, and the special program had a satisfying result: Sledge won the prize to hug Ash as his trophy, along with 100 mugs of beer on Sweeney’s deal (which Sledge generously shared with everyone in the team). All SAS operators were proud of the Highlander secured the honour for them, and others also felt happy for the fantastic night. Ash already had the idea of Sledge’s victory might be Glaz’ work though, she didn’t say it as she thought it was better to the Scotsman to believe that he genuinely seized the triumph by his power. Another thing she confirmed was that, it felt like on the moon to be carried in his thick arms, despite her tipsiness could be a catalyst for it.

 

This midnight, in the shared living room in the barrack.

 

“What a crazy night,” Sledge felt into the sofa, “Still can’t believe it’s ended. How do you think about it, Eliza?”

“You want my opinion?” Ash’s forehead creased, “It’s not so bad to indulge ourselves sometimes, as all guys enjoy this so much and it exactly strengthens our morale.”

“It’s not the answer I want.” Sledge chuckled, “I mean, do you feel happy about this?”

“Uh, yes.” Ash gave a short but honest answer, “It stunned me when you going to show off your muscle, and I was afraid this act would take us to the risky high-profile. But seems like other civilians in the bar all treat us as regular customers. Lucky us.” She sighed. “Overall, I can say I enjoy this night; however, if we have the next time, can you guys control your playful mood for just a little?”

“Okay. I also suppose such the mad experience is enough to have one time.” Sledge hooked Ash’s shoulder, “And you’re right, ‘pub night’ should be a regular event, we can suggest this in the next meeting.”

“How about the bodybuilding contest, too?” Ash asked with a funny poker face.

“Seriously?” Sledge’s lash fluttered.

“Just kidding.” Ash knocked Sledge’s elbow.

“Come on, I know how much you want to feast your eyes on my big muscles.” Sledge laughed heartily while getting up, with his hands readied on the hem of his tank top. “I can flex right here again, just for you.”

“Idiot!” Ash patted Sledge’s hands off, “It’s not proper to do it here.”

“I’m also kidding.” Sledge shrugged while sitting back.

“By the way, the next morning in five thirty, are you free?” Ash inquired.

“I think I am. I always wake up early.”

“I know I’m not a morning person, and I want to change that, so I reckon to go jogging after getting up can be a good way.” Ash explained, “And I’d like you to join.”

“You don’t invite others, do you?”

“Just two of us.” Ash gradually move her hand onto Sledge’s, “I just…… Want to spend more time with you.”

 

“Of course. Always have time for my lady.” Sledge approved while gazing at Ash with a loving smile. Suddenly, he bumped his lips on her cheeks.

“Hey, what did you just—” Ash responded in a higher tone.

“You don’t like this?” Sledge formed an innocent face.

“Not even for a bit.” Ash grabbed Sledge’s shoulders heavily before pushed her lips onto the Scotsman’s mouth. She even thrust her tongue in, left him in shock after being released. “I’m not a pure girl. Try to get more aggressive next time.” She stood up with the notice and went on her way to her quarter.

“Alright.” Sledge rubbed his lips in a complex of astonishment and joy. “Good night then.” He waved to Ash while getting up and received her shaking hand from the back. While on his way back, Sledge thought he should thank Glaz during the next breakfast, for helping him with the idea of the performance. Indeed, the others’ assists to boost up the mood and made the sternest lady in the team end up relaxed and delighted at this pub night couldn’t be forgotten, either.

Chapter Text

12th February 2016.

 

Ash returned to the FBI SWAT Quarters at night after a whole day’s training and work. Usually, it was the regular time of hanging out with Sledge in the gym, but he was not here today. He was on his days off, left this morning to go back to Scotland. Not for visiting his family but saying farewell to his old friend.

 

It traced back to the massive operation in the European Commission in Brussels, at the end of last month. Rainbow succeeded to save the hostages, who some of them were forced to put on bomb vests to be the suicide bombers. Although they resolved the crisis, it was a hard and cruel day they would never forget.

 

People said no victory comes without sacrifice. That time, Aidan – Sledge’s fellow Scottish teammate, was listed as one of the costs. Deployed with the team as one of Rainbow’s support operatives from SAS, he exerted the utmost effort to protect and save hostages until he got shot in an attempt of rescue. His willpower supported him to make a final distance to take the packs to the evacuation area before he collapsed, then Doc came to treat him immediately. Unfortunately, his wounds were too severe with a terrible amount of blood loss, which made him pass away in the following day.

 

The moment was carved in Ash’s memory -- Doc felt frustrated at ending up unable to save Sledge’s old friend while the Scotsman consoled him with a kind smile. Ash didn’t know why, but she was annoyed by it. She already knew Aidan was Sledge’s best friend for years. He mentioned that he left home to enter a grammar school which had a remarkable rugby team in Edinburgh by his speciality in the sport when he was twelve years old and felt homesick and challenging to get along with others.

 

Aidan, Seamus’ classmate, was the first one who befriended with him. He came from a worker’s family in Glasgow, got the scholarship to study in one of the best schools in Scotland. Keeping in the top in grade, Aidan didn’t show any arrogance but was keen on learning, while also being eager to help Seamus with his homework. Referred to Sledge, if it wasn’t for him, he couldn’t have passed all subjects so smoothly. After Seamus managed to adopt the new life, his promising talent in sports won him a place in the school’s rugby team, and later in Scotland’s youth national team.

 

They originally had different dreams. When Seamus showed the potential to succeed as a professional rugby player from captaining the U-20 national team at dramatically young age, Aidan did his best in study to with the aim of the medical college of The University of Edinburgh, until Aidan’s father – his family’s primal resource of income got a severe illness and was unable to continue his work. To support his family, Aidan decided to enlist in the army, and it also set Seamus’ decision between his aspiration of public service and the path of a sportsman.

 

“Hey, don’t worry about me. The study can wait. I can get back after I did good works with bringing my young siblings up enough to take care of my parents!” This was Aidan’s word to console his friend who showed concern on his face.

“Your father is sick. It’s strange to see you so optimistic about this.”

“It’s just what happened. But how to face it is my decision.” Aidan made a fist bump with Seamus, “Anyway, It’s good that you are coming with me. I’m sure such a strong lad like you is what the army always needs.”

“Yeah, let’s go.” Sledge hooked the shorter young man’s shoulder while getting on the train to the recruitment centre.

 

Sledge once said they were close like brothers. After five years of army’s duty, they both passed the selection of SAS at the same time. It might be a coincidence, but it precisely strengthened their relationship. Everyone could see how deep their understanding in tactics was, even after Seamus became one of the operators of Rainbow while Aidan didn't. Losing him could be agony to Sledge, but he didn’t show any sadness to anyone. The sense of leader’s responsibility could be the source of his fortitude, and Ash clearly knew Sledge believed himself had full responsibility to deal with the loss. Nevertheless, Ash still couldn’t understand why he tried so hard to keep up.

 

Suddenly, Ash realised the reason for her being upset – she expected to share the burden with him, but Sledge didn’t let her. To be honest, she had the crazy impulse to fly to Scotland to see Sledge right now, maybe bring his SAS teammates like Thatcher, Smoke and Mute as well. How much she wished Sledge to know there were so many people caring about him.

 

“Hey Eliza, what’s the problem?” When Ash going straight to her room, Thermite’s voice stopped her.

“Not your business.” Ash retorted coldly while looking at the Texan sitting on the couch.

“I know it’s about Seamus, isn’t it?” Thermite nodded in certainty.

“You understand nothing.” Ash made a salty response.

“Calm down! I mean, if you don’t like him bearing that alone, neither should you.” Thermite grabbed Ash’s elbow, “Let’s talk to our English amigos to figure something out, alright?” He took Ash out of the quarters, “I’m calling Miles and Jack out, too.”

“Wait!” Ash was dragged to the recreation room and pushed on the sofa before she could react in any way. Thermite and Castle sat beside her, while Pulse chose another armchair.

“Hey, Jack, no. I think this seat is for Baker.” Thermite chuckled.

“Why?” Pulse asked in confusion.

“Because he’s a granddad and every armchair is for a granddad.” Thermite made a witty smile.

“Not amusing at all.” Pulse puckered his forehead, “And I don’t think Thatcher likes to be treated in this way.”

 

In a minute, Thatcher arrived with other two English teammates. “So, I heard you want to talk about Seamus’ issue with us.” They seated on the couch opposite to the FBI operatives.

“That’s right,” Thermite replied with a kind smile, “Eliza thinks he needs comfort.”

“Hey, I don’t ever say that—” Ash tried to explain, “He intends to deal with this alone, and I respect his choice.”

“So, you don’t worry about him at all?” Castle threw another question.

“Maybe a little, but just in a friendly way.” Ash pouted, “I mean, I’m not his girlfriend or anything else, I don’t like to stick on it for too much.”

Girlfriend?” Smoke cheered, “Finally, our big Scots boy finds his spring!”

“Idiot!” Ash retorted in rage, “I said not!

“I understand the truth: Seamus likes you.” Smoke shook his finger with a smirk.

“Shut up, or I will cut off your tongue.” Ash clenched her fists.

“You two, enough!” Thatcher separated the two in tension away, “Ash is right. Seamus and Aidan had known each other from childhood, and they had a deep relationship. I believe we must give them a private moment without any interruption…… For the last time.”

“Yeah, you have a point.” Thermite shook his head, “We can’t fly to Glasgow to see him now, after all. Maybe we just need some talk to him after he returns.”

“Would it work? From my knowing of Cowden, he’d just tell you ‘I’m fine’.” Mute threw them a flat piece of truth. “He believes such a private issue is just for his own consideration and should keep away from bothering others. Therefore, if you all want to know if there’s any way to help him, I’d give you a ‘no’.”

“But Aidan was also our teammate, and we’ve already worked and lived together for quite a long time,” Pulse groaned, “is there anything we can’t share with each other?”

“Such as undergarments?” Smoke answered hilariously.

“Oh, I can lend one or two pairs of boxers to you. Like, I have one with a flame pattern. Don’t you think it’s cool?” Thermite got Smoke’s humour and kept on the track, and was rewarded by Smoke’s joyous chuckles and others’ stern look.

“Can’t you two behave like proper grown-ups?” Mute complained.

 

“Let’s get back to the topic. You know, Valentine’s day is coming.” Castle suggested. “We can do a little celebration and relax.”

“Lovers’ day? We’re not the kind of people who celebrate this.” Thatcher shook his head.

“For example, my parents always book a restaurant and have some nice chats on the day,” Castle continued with his family custom.

“I guess it’s just what husband and wife would do, isn’t it?” Smoke scratched his head and turned to his senior, “So, Maggie, can you tell me when will you get a woman?”

“Stop calling me like that, and it’s not your bloody business, muppet!”

 

Ash didn’t mind others’ banter as she was deep into consideration, “I guess it can work. But don’t get it wrong, I just want to have a discussion, nothing else.” She got up in a hurry to her room with nodding, “I’m gonna draft a plan. Bye.”

 

“Gone like the wind.” Pulse commented, “She’s always like that, acts immediately with any new idea in the brain.”

“On Valentine plan, you already have one, do you?” Smoke patted Pulse’s shoulder, “With your hubby.

“It’s a secret.” Pulse shared a glance with Thermite.

“Ha! Same do I.” Smoke laughed, “We will know on that day, after all.”

“I’m going to rest, you shouldn’t stay any longer either.” Thatcher groaned while getting up, “If I see your sleepy face in the next morning, I will take care of you very well.”

“Killjoy.” Smoke struck out his tongue to Thatcher’s back playfully.

 


 

On the next day, Ash finally had some free time in the afternoon after a day’s work. She stayed at the workshop with Thermite, Mute and Fuze to discuss Sledge’s preference on food so that she could book the right place.

 

“I don’t think Seamus has any preference,” Mute answered, “Maybe the only thing he really likes is protein. Just choose any place you fancy.”

“He’s Scottish, so, find a place that serves his hometown cuisine then?” Thermite reckoned, “Uh, no. I forgot he’s already back there. Let’s think of other options.”

“How about ramen?” Fuze turned his head from his blueprints, “I know there’s a Japanese restaurant Wagamama serves delicious ramen in the downtown. I like it there, so I sometimes drive to there for a quick but comforting dinner.”

“Uh, noodles?” Thermite showed disapproval, “The most unromantic choice in my mind.”

“I reckon it’s a good idea.” Ash’s eyes sparkled, “Instead of fancily decorated restaurants, such a casual place might be better to let him feel relaxed.”

“And do you have any gift in mind?” Mute inquired, “Like chocolate. Better hand-made.”

“Gosh, chocolate…” Ash facepalmed, “I barely know how to do sweets.”

“Because you’re a spicy girl.” Thermite interrupted.

“I can help,” Fuze stood up, “I’ve learned baking from my бабушка. And I’m going to meet with IQ in the kitchen to make a delight for tomorrow.”

“Monika? I guess it will be Black Forest cake?” A certainly famous German dessert came to Ash’s mind.

“Correct.”

“You’re making a cake?” Thermite jumped off the chair, “Count me in.”

“We’ll reserve a piece for you, but before then, keep your feet out of the kitchen.” Fuze raised his hands with the declaration.

“But Eliza can go with you?”

“IQ said she doesn’t want you to burn everything off there.” Fuze followed Ash out of the workshop, while Thermite collapsed in the chair with a sigh.

 


 

When Ash and Fuze arrived in the kitchen, IQ had already prepared the ingredients on the worktop. “Oh Shuh, you’re here? And Eliza is here for help, too?”

“I don’t know to make desserts, I’m afraid.” Ash answered, “I’m here for some gift ideas for tomorrow.”

“For your special one? Oh my, how romantic!” IQ giggled, “Just chocolate is too boring. How about brownies? It’s tasty, and easy to make.”

“Well, seems like a good idea.” Ash agreed. “I think I’ve read a recipe before…”

“I can lend you a hand after we’re done with the cake, don’t worry.” Fuze turned to Ash, “You can help us with something in making the cake as well.”

“Yes, because we’re making a big one!” IQ began melting the chocolate and butter in a saucepan. “Eliza, can you help me to grease the cake tin and mix the flour and sugar? And Shuh, whisk these eggs with buttermilk.”

“Can do that.” Fuze and Ash responded positively and went to the tasks they received.

 

Ash wasn't into culinary stuff especially sweet food, but the tasks she was assigned didn’t trouble her at all. On the contrary, she started to find out it might be an exciting amusement. After they put the cake in the oven, they went to help Ash to make the brownies and to prepare the topping and icing to put on the cake when it was the brownies’ turn in the oven. Their efficiency in every operation might also apply in the baking, as they had all tasks done neatly without any time wasted.

 

“Shuh, make a heart on the cake with these chocolate flakes!” IQ urged Fuze to do the final decoration on their Black Forest gateau.

“Are you sure it’s a proper task for a man like me?” Fuze felt confused.

“Yes, it’s the perfect job for a cute guy like you,” IQ smirked.

Fuze shook his head while arranging the flakes on the top of the gateau according to IQ’s request. He did the shape with extra care and received IQ’s positive remark, while Ash was figuring out into how many slices this cake must be divided.

“Twenty-four,” Ash quickly made her answer with a low voice. “Except us, I also count the Canadians who just joined last week, and Sweeney, who provided so much effort to build the team.”

“And of course, Madam Six must have it too!” IQ added, “And Sledge’s slice, I’d save this in the fridge to keep it fresh. You can take it to him after he's back.”

“Thanks.” Ash nodded in appreciation before turned to Fuze, “Shuhrat, another thing… Do you know how do Timur and Maxim celebrate Valentine’s?”

“Can I know the reason you ask it first?”

“Nothing special, I just got curious if the Russian… Or the queers’ custom would be different,” Ash explained.

“Hm, neither of them is into sweets, as I know. I think they would do something spicy for the day instead, just like other days.”

Spicy?” Ash raised her tone while noticing something unusual in Fuze’s words.

“I won’t continue on this.” Fuze frowned and blushed slightly.

“Shuh, no need to be embarrassed.” IQ patted Fuze’s shoulder and answered in understanding, “We all know what’s going on.” Ash didn’t make any reply but got into her consideration of that if the Scotsman was another man low-key loved spice while merely pretending to look pure and professional on the appearance. Fuze didn’t grasp the reason behind the Israeli’s strange reaction against his answer, but he chose to not mind it.

 


 

Then it was the 14th of February. Sledge wore a smile when he returned to the base in the morning before immediately going into his daily tasks. Ash managed to grab a chance to meet him in the corridor and ask if he would like to have dinner with her. Sledge agreed without a second word. Everything seemed smooth so far, but it was just a start. She worried about how to mention the lost friend without making the Scotsman too sad.

 

In the afternoon, Ash worked with her Texan teammate in the workshop just like usual. When they were wrapping up, Thermite handed a gift box to Ash and told her to give it to Sledge this night. “Don’t worry, it’s not something weird. I want Seamus to unpack it, so can you promise not to open it before then?” Ash surveyed the Texan’s act and instruction with a confused face, although she had a mind that he must have a reason.

“So, it’s your gift to Seamus?” Ash asked in confirmation.

“I just think he might find what’s inside the box useful.” Thermite made a friendly grin, “Have a nice evening then.”

 

In the evening, Ash and Sledge met at the front door in their casual outfits, then Sledge drove his car to take Ash to the Old Market Shopping Centre. It only took 15 minutes of driving to the downtown, and as soon as they got into the circle of the city, the iconic large red brick building was just in front of them, easy to identify.

 

“It’s the largest shopping centre in the city.” Sledge suggested while parking his car, “Wouldn’t you like to take some time to walk around these shops? Still, we have time until dinner.”

“Hmm, you know I used to work in Los Angeles, and that city has a lot of malls larger than it.” Ash asked, “Do you come here often? What kind of things do you usually buy here?”

“Nothing special. I come here to get some casual clothes to wear when I’m not on duty.”

“Let’s take a peek, as we don’t have anything better to do, yes?” Ash agreed and got off the car to proceed to the ground floor in the shopping centre.

 

Many couples, young ones, old ones, held their hands together. Yes, on the date this scene must be typical, any single customer could be treated as a rarity in the place, but it provided Ash with an odd feeling. She glanced at Sledge who put his hands into the pockets of his jackets relaxedly.

 

“Seamus,” Ash made a gesture to notice Sledge get closer so that she could whisper to his ears, “Can you take my hand?”

“Why?” Sledge asked curiously.

“To make us look more like a normal couple.” Ash emphasised the word “normal” with a severe face.

“Alright then,” Sledge stretched his big hand to take Ash’s and held it with a little too much force.

“Too firm!” Ash complained in a low voice, “Didn’t you ever date a girl?”

“One or two in my teenage years.” Sledge answered in dry chuckles, “I barely have a chance to meet any lass since I enlisted.”

“Unlucky you.” Ash made a joke, “But I can see you make it reasonable with ‘I have too many jobs to do’.”

“Ha! You’re right.” Sledge stopped at clothing retail store to look at a mannequin in a royal blue dress. “Eliza, I think this dress might look good on you.”

“Are you nuts?” Ash lifted an eyebrow, “I don’t think I’m a dress kind of person.”

“I know. This is the reason I’d like you to try.” Sledge made a kind smile. “Come on, give it a try, it won’t hurt.”

 

Even before Ash could understand the situation, she was half-forced to the shop and put on the dress. She checked the mirror in the fitting room suspiciously – well, it might not look bad. The sleeveless midi dress fit her perfectly, with her slim arms and long legs exposed. The light-weight material provided surprising mobility for the body, either.

 

When she stepped out, Sledge was already waiting for her, “You look absolutely fabulous, my lady.” He already tried a piece of clothing in the shop as well – an aqua-coloured ombre stripe shirt. Ash was low-key amazed at how good it looked on him as the vertical stripes made him taller.

“I’m not sure.” Ash checked herself, especially at her exposed arms and waist, commented in doubt.

“You can be fabulous as a model,” Sledge kept encouraging.

“I take it as you haven’t seen any true one,” Ash made a mild sarcasm.

“Actually, I can pay for it—” Sledge took out his wallet with a grin.

“No! I don’t want it,” Ash extended her hand, tried to snatch Sledge’s wallet. “And don’t waste your money on such a silly thing.”

“Why so serious, just kidding.” Sledge chuckled while pointing at the retail clerk looking at them with an amused smile, “And the shop assistant would be upset by your comment on the shop’s dress!”

 

“Uh, don’t mind me.” The shop assistant was a joyous young girl with a stylish brown bob haircut, looked just passed twenty. “Just thinking, what a happy couple you are.”

“Well, it’s not what you see—" Sledge’s mouths were covered by Ash hilariously as soon as he intended to explain.

“Already forget that? We have to be a couple here.Ash hissed her whisper, followed by a sigh. “Never mind. Let’s change back and get out of here.”

 


 

They arrived at the place Ash appointed and found a table for two in size to seat at it.

 

“Looks delicious,” Sledge praised the chilli chicken ramen heartily as he even took out his phone to take a picture of it. “Can I take a picture of yours, too?”

“Go ahead,” Ash shifted her teriyaki lamb soba closer to the Scotsman.

“Okay,” Sledge chuckled while adjusting the angle of his phone to take the dish of soba in the scene as well, “How does Japanese say it? Well, I think it’s itadakimasu.” He began with a large mouthful consumed in his mouth.

 

Despite Los Angeles being a cultural furnace with various kinds of restaurant, like Thai, Indian, or even Japanese sushi, Ash never had a try as she wasn’t interested in any of these colourful cuisines. She would prefer to do pita or hummus on her own -- she learned all the cooking from her savta. Sometimes, Ash thought her food might be the only thing she liked about her.

 

If those weird-tasting instant noodles Thermite got from God knew where didn’t count, then this was the first time Ash had tasted Asian noodles. Nevertheless, she decided the soba was a delight, as the grilled lamb was tender, and the soy sauce perfectly balanced the meat’s flavour. The soba was cooked just right, not too hard nor too soft and featured a unique aroma.

 

“Can I have a taste of your noodles?” Sledge requested as Ash agreed and put a small amount of the soba into a plate for him. “I like the noodle. The smell reminds me of Timur’s kasha.

“Really? I’m not a fan of his kasha.” Ash sighed, “But those Russians awfully love it.”

“Yeah, you know, they are both made of buckwheat.” Sledge commented, “It’s rich in various nutrients like iron, zinc, magnesium and niacin while relatively low in calorie.”

“Um-hmm.” Ash nodded, “It’s my turn to try your ramen.”

“Here you go,” Sledge separated some noodles and soup into a small bowl and even placed a slice of chicken over it. “You should eat more to get more muscles.”

“Thank you for the concern,” Ash replied in a playful sarcasm before eating the ramen, “It’s spicy! How could you eat it?” She exclaimed at the chilli-flavoured soup.

“Too hot to you?” Sledge chuckled.

“Oh, in fact, I love any food mixing with peppers,” Ash explained, “I just surprised that you also eat spicy food.”

“It enhances appetite, especially in such the moist weather.” Sledge answered.

“You mention that today is likely to rain.” Ash asked, “Do you bring an umbrella?”

“I do.” Sledge grinned, “You already come here for a while. Does the weather here trouble you? I know, unlike England, California usually has sunny days with a clear sky.”

“It’s not hard to get used to.” Ash pouted, “Don’t treat me like a delicate girl.”

“Yeah, I know.”

 

Then they went into minutes of awkward silence – except for the sound of sucking their noodles until there was nothing left in the bowls. Ash tried to form a word about Aidan’s death, but strangely any syllable ended up invalid in her throat. The Scotsman was already checking his phone for messages. Probably from his SAS teammates regarding his first date with her. How embarrassing.

 

“Seamus,” Ash finally determined to get it straight, “I have to apologize to you.”

“What’s it?” Sledge raised his head while putting his phone aside.

“I couldn’t bring Aidan back safe,” Ash stated in a low regretful voice, “I’m sorry. Losing him must be heartbreaking for you.”

“No, it’s not your fault.” Sledge lowered his head, “He was my closest buddy in SAS, and it should be my task to protect him, but I failed. But I know our missions have high stakes, and he already knew that anything could cost his life might happen. He accepted that with no regret.”

“But do you accept this?” Ash frowned, “I don’t like you hiding anything.”

“I…Even I say ‘no’,” Sledge started to defend, “The fact won’t change, right? We’re too busy to mourn the lost.”

 

“That’s why I’d like you to express.” Ash explained, “Listen, you have a whole team caring for you, even Jordan was thinking of how to cheer you up, you shouldn’t turn your back to them.”

Sledge felt in silence and mouth stayed to a straight line, but eyes shone regret.

“Above all, I like you… And we are meant to work together. So, I hope you might rely on us, on me, even just a little more.” Ash put her hand on Sledge’s and asked sincerely, “Isn’t it hard to you?”

“Not at all.” Sledge lowered his head, “I don’t know what to say. You really care for me so much.”

“That’s why I invited you out.” Ash explained, “I thought we should have a one-to-one talk like this, without concerning others.”

“Just that? Isn’t it supposed to be a date?” Sledge answered humorously.

“You idiot!” Ash slapped Sledge’s head, “You genuinely think this way?”

“Who suggested to pretend to be a couple today?” Sledge rubbed the aching part with a complaint.

“Oh, you’re right.” Ash gave him a hint with blinking her eyes, “Well, I’m not taken. And not against you to be my real boyfriend, either.”

“What—” Sledge’s face turned entirely red.

“Now I know why James said you are a ‘big boy’. Look at you, like a teenager that just received the confession from a girl he likes secretly.” Ash remarked in light chuckles.

“I’m just surprised,” Sledge turned his eyesight aside, “But yes, I also like you, so may we get a little…closer?”

“We can, as long as you don’t hide any feeling from me.” The corners of Ash’s mouth raised for a bit, “Oh, and I have something for you.”

 

“Valentine gift? Damn, I haven’t prepared any.”

“I didn’t prepare it myself. Jordan requested me to take it to you.” Ash took out the gift box and handed it to the Scotsman. “I don’t know what’s inside as I’ve not checked it. At least it’s not something that booms, I promise.”

“Let me see,” Sledge undid the ribbons and opened it in a second, retrieved the items from the sea of cushioning peanuts. “There are… Two bars of soap. And a jar of the candle.” He showed the glass jar containing the wax featured a delightful violent-toned colour, with a nicely fitting glass lid.

“I know Jordan likes to DIY based on his chemical knowledge. He also gave me soaps as presents before.” Ash commented, “But candle? What does he think?”

“There’s a letter attached,” Sledge discovered one more thing.

“Show it to me.” Ash requested.

“Of course.”

 

Howdy, Seamus. Several months passed since the first pub night, and I still can’t forget how you impressed us with your, well, muscles. I’ve considered how such an international team would work out, as the cultural difference is not an easy thing to come over with. You know what? Jack even mocked my Texan accent once when we just met each other. Hard to believe, isn’t it? It’s a lucky thing to us that all people in Rainbow have built the relationship over the respect and trust. I’d take that as the effort of your leadership. Primarily, your significant figure in the frontline somewhat makes me feel safer and more stable. I think others would think the same, too.

 

It’s the first time I make things for someone apart from my American teammates. The soap has the scent of cedarwood, bergamot and sandalwood, along with Shea butter, lemon verbena and oats that are all good to your skin. I promise that I won’t be jealous again even if your skin gets even smoother after the shower. Maybe.

 

The candle is specially made for you. I added lavender, patchouli and bay leaf that can be helpful to relax the mood. And a little of thistle. The symbol of your country. I personally don’t like its smell, but I believe you would love it, so I decide to give it a try. You’re free to complain if I made the wrong decision.

 

P.S. Sadly it seems like you’ve already stolen our girl’s heart away, but I can’t oppose it at all. Just promise me that you’ll take care of her well unless you want to end up beaten up by all of us!

 

Jordan

 

“How sweet,” Sledge put the stuff back to the box, “It seems like they already know what’s going on between us.”

“Indeed. All blame your over-protective eye expression to me,” Ash retorted.

“Can’t help that. You’re much smaller than me.” Sledge chuckled.

“I can still knock you down, you know that?” Ash cocked an eyebrow, “Or from now on, I don’t need to do it on my own, but ask Jordan, Miles and Jack to do it for me instead—”

“No!” Sledge shook his head, “I never do anything bad to you, do I?”

“You know I’m just kidding.” Ash gave him another smaller gift box, “And it’s actually my gift to you.”

“Oh my, you have another one for me? I feel so popular!” Sledge unwrapped the box quickly, “Brownies! You made them?” The fudgy, nicely baked chocolate dessert brightened his eyes.

“IQ and Fuze helped me. Can’t do it without them.”

“How does it taste?” Sledge took a cube into his mouth, “Fantastic!” He thumbed up.

“I’m glad that you like it,” Ash scratched her hair, blushing slightly.

“Would you mind if I share them with others?”

I would!” Ash shook her head, “I made them just for you. Moreover, IQ already took some to other teammates.”

“Fine, fine,” Sledge chuckled, “Then let’s share it with each other in our place.”

“Well, I’m curious about the candle’s smell, too. It’s time to go back.”

“Oh, it’s my treat. Don’t worry about paying,” Sledge went up too and took out his wallet.

“I would say I can pay for my own dinner,” Ash nodded, “But if you intend to do so, then why not?”

 

When Sledge drove their way back to the base, “So, where should we try the candle? I don’t feel the recreation room is a good choice. What if it smells awful?” He questioned Ash in a half-joking voice.

“Go to my room.” Ash answered confidently, “At least you can complain and deck Jordan there if it’s really so bad.”

“Is it an invitation for sleeping over, too?” Sledge made a beaming smile before received Ash’s pinching on his arm, “Ouch!”

“Already thinking this way?” Ash gave him an exploratory glance, “Well, it’s a chance to prove yourself, see if on the bed you’re as good as on the fields.”

“Oh, my,” Sledge laughed loudly, “What an exciting night we will have.”

Ash also followed him with softer laughter, until the sound of scattered drops transferred their attention. Suddenly, it became a massive sheet of rain. Sledge turned on the wiper to remove the rainwater from the windshield.

“Okay, let me tell you another truth,” Ash sighed, “I hate rainy days.”

“So, what I think so far is right.” Sledge answered positively, “But I know you’re trying to get used to it.”

“It won’t be a problem to me at all, as here I’m working along with the best in this world.” Ash smiled gently, “Especially you.

 

Chapter Text

13th November 2016.

 

This day began with another job for Tachanka. He was going to regain the control of a weapon facility in Murmansk, and Sledge, Glaz, Kapkan, Buck, Frost and Echo were with him. Tachanka supposed that one possible reason the squad was selected was for their resilience to the cold Arctic weather.

 

Although Sledge was appointed as the leader of the team, he gave Tachanka a guidance role to benefit from his local knowledge of the Russian military complex. It was the most pleasing decision to him, as the Russian believed the team should put more trust to him considering his experience – despite Six and Ash disliking this idea. Right, Russia was not a part of NATO, and from the first waves of White Mask attacks (which mostly took place in America and West Europe), some critics believed Russia was behind it -- thank those stupid and greedy Ukrainian nativists. However, the later terrorist assault to Kafe Dostoyevsky, the cultural landmark of Moscow proved them wrong. And this was the second time the white plague did harm on his dearest motherland. He won’t allow it to happen.

 

A requirement of the high-stakes mission was keeping it clean and low-profile to avoid raising outside attention like press report. To Glaz and Echo, it was like their speciality, as the sniper was so used to live in shadow, and the Japanese’s special drone “Yokai” featured an active camouflage so it could scan the whole building without being detected. The team quickly stormed the complex, located Colonel Fadeyev (the commander of the facility) and the attackers escorted him out for further questioning. Tachanka noticed Glaz’ eyes when cuffing the colonel looked even more threatening than ever as if telling how wrong he had done to betray his country. If his chilling stern could kill people just like what Smoke joked about, the man would be already damn dead now.

 

And the only task left for the defenders was to protect the complex from White Mask reinforcements. Tachanka already deployed his RP-46 Degtyaryov Machine Gun on a spot facing the gate that should ideally keep them from entering the building. Kapkan and Frost installed their traps to cover all other escape routes, and Echo set his Yokai on the ceiling to watch the entrance. How could anything get wrong?

 

One minute after the escort team went to the extraction zone, the reinforcements came. The shower of bullets from Tachanka’s LMG mercilessly penetrated the terrorists even before they could react. Seconds later, the first wave seemed to be gone, so did the LMG’s first magazine. Tachanka quickly changed it into a new one and waited for the next wave.

 

“Tachanka, watch the hatch.” Echo’s voice popped up from his headset, “I’ve seen hostiles coming from the second floor.”

 

The closest trap door was at his left side. He knew it because he reinforced it, and normally no one couldn’t destroy it and go down in this way. But if they had hard breaching technicians who worked similar to Thermite or Hibana, things could go bad. His LMG was unable to cover such a broad angle so he must unmount it to avoid being flanked by hostiles coming from there. Of course, if the hatch broke, it would produce large noise so he would notice. He decided to stay still and keep watching the gate which still appeared no one. He could feel his hand slightly sweating. Perhaps it was the first time he had gone nervous for so many years.

 

"Listen Sasha, this weapon never failed me and it's the reason I'm here alive today."

 

Tachanka recalled the story told by his dedushka Pyotr, a Red Army veteran who participated in WWII in his young age. When he remembered the black-white picture featured his grandfather in his young age, the Red Army soldier in a rough, face-concealing steel helmet, Tachankla thought it somewhat resembled the MASKA helmet he was now wearing. Pyotr’s experience had become the Senaviev’s legend; therefore, all his sons followed his step into the army, included Viktor, Alexandr’s father who was brilliant and eventually promoted to General of the Ground Forces. Alexandr knew how many times his father reminded him Pyotr’s effort led the country’s victory and prosperity as well as his family’s stable life. It was the reason he followed his dad and granddad’s steps, and he put all his trust in his long-service companion nearly had a hundred years of honourable history behind it.

 

In a flash, a cracking sound came from above Tachanka’s position, but it was different from a breach charge. It was more like a knocking sound of Sledge’s hammer. He looked up and found a rupture on the ceiling, exposed the frame and the view of the upper floor behind it. When he saw a White Mask’s face and his gun pointing toward him, it was too late. A cracking sound of a bullet hit his helmet hardly was the last sound he heard before falling unconscious.

 

«Дед, папа, Леонид… Простите, Я потерпел неудачу.»

 


 

7th February 2017.

 

Ash sat in the common room nervously. On her left side sat Twitch, and IQ at right. A world map was on the table under their arms, with some pins on it. They glared at each other as if defending their opinion and not giving in any way to each other.

 

Well, if someone else saw it, they might consider the two women were having an argument about their missions until they began speaking –

 

“I would say,” Twitch pointed at the map, “Italy is the best for them, historical and beautiful view there, like Roma. Every girl would like to visit Roma at least once in their lifetime. Don’t you agree, Eliza?” She turned to Ash, eager for her answer.

“It’s good, I don't doubt, but…” Ash replied uncertainly.

“Silly, it’s too popular. I don’t like seeing crowds and crowds around my sight. I would suggest a wild choice, like Bolivia,” IQ pointed at another side at the map, “I visited there once, the Salar de Uyuni after rain looked like a borderless mirror, I couldn’t describe how fantastic it was!” She looked at Ash more aggressively, as if forcing her to accept the option.

“Well, it sounds nice, too…”

“And you can visit Antofagasta in Chile, a port city not far from there. Not many travel books describe it though, it’s a hidden gem to me! I love the coastline and beach there.” IQ continued, “What haven’t I said? Oh, alpaca! I remember a local family let me touch an alpaca cub they kept. It was so cute!”

“I appreciate your suggestion, but I would…” Ash raised her hand to sign the German to pause her speaking.

“So, which one do you prefer?” Suddenly, their faces got even nearer to Ash, so near that they almost touched her. Ash subconsciously leaned backwards.

“I already said,” In a flash, Ash stood up, voice filled with irritation, “Can’t you just let Seamus and me decide the destination of our next vacation? Moreover, we don’t know when it will be. Maybe we’ll never have it until we deal with those damn White Masks!”

 

Meanwhile, Frost, Valkyrie, Caveira and Hibana came into the room – Ash didn’t know if it was coincidence or planned, but all female operators in the international team had gathered up at the same space now. IQ turned to them and asked, “Hey, girls, I want to collect your opinions. If you’re all going to have a vacation, which place is your first choice?”

 

“Me?” Frost answered, “Not so sure. Maybe Baffin Island? Can go hunting foxes, see the glacier, and aurora.”

“God! There’s terribly cold! But well, you Canadians must be most comfortable there, I understand.” Twitch exclaimed.

“I fancy Phuket,” Valkyrie commented excitedly, “Great for scuba diving!”

“You said this just like a real SEAL.” IQ chuckled.

“I would just like to go home in Nagoya to see my family.” Hibana scratched her head, “I know we went to operation there not long ago, but it feels different. And I know how much my papa and mama expect the day of my wedding. I wish it can come true.”

“Then you must become more enthusiastic. Jack’s a silent boy, after all.” Valkyrie patted Hibana’s shoulder and stated in a half-joking tone, “And stop Jordan from keeping hanging out with him!”

“Not your business.” Hibana stuck out her tongue.

“So, how about you, Taina?” Ash questioned, “where will you go for a vacation?”

“What a stupid question,” Caveira cocked an eyebrow, “fine. If you really want my answer… I will go to Barcelona.”

“What’s the reason?” IQ continued asking.

“Isn’t it obvious? Barça -- one of my favourite clubs is there.”

Hearing the Brazilian’s answer, IQ and Twitch gazed at each other for a second, then laughed together, “Why didn’t you tell me you’re a football fan!” delight busted out in IQ’s voice.

“I usually watch it alone, sometimes with Capitão. So, I didn’t think I should tell you.” Caveira replied coldly before walking away.

“Still a spiky girl,” IQ shook her head with a wry smile.

 

“CQB session in 15 minutes. You all better prepare.” Just before the girls began another conversation, Sledge’s reminder crushed the party mood. The crowd made a slightly disappointing sigh before spreading away but left Ash alone on her seat. “Still considering the place for vacation?” Sledge’s voice softened in front of his girlfriend and sat opposite to her.

“Monika and Emma believe they can give me some ideas about it,” Ash answered honestly.

“I can see,” Sledge replied, “But no rush, anyway, we don’t know when we will have time to go.”

“Time will tell.” Ash sighed, “so, where will be your first choice?”

“You mean vacation?” Sledge thought for a few seconds before pointed at a chain of island in the Mediterranean Sea close to Spain. “Ibiza. I’d like to visit there.”

“I see. Aiming for the summer clubs there?” Ash made an implying glance.

“I know the clubs are nice there, but not my main reason.” Sledge explained, “The first time I heard the name was in my 16, from one of my rugby teammates. He described his family trips there excitedly, saying how beautiful the sea and sunshine looked, like a living painting. He even tried jetski which he claimed it was the most enjoyable thing he ever played. I envied him so much and made a secret wish that I would bring my family for a vacation there one day.”

“And you still haven’t been there for once?” Ash questioned.

“No. My family was not so rich to take such the trip. After I enlisted, I lived frugally and finally saved enough to take all of them aboard, but I still don’t have enough days free to do so.”

“You’ve been too busy.”

“True. I’m not upset despite it. I love my work and know how much effort I should do to live up to the head person of SAS.” Sledge stood up, “okay, it’s time to go training, my lady.”

“Ibiza,” Ash rolled up the map on the table and followed the Scotsman, “good suggestion. Maybe we’ll visit there someday.”

“Well,” Sledge chuckled, “you’re welcome.”

 


 

Director’s office.

 

Six and Sweeney were looking at a map on the large pinboard, surrounded by newspaper clippings, photos and stick-it notes. “Specialist Ramírez’s intel mentioned a recruiting and training base of White Masks in Ibiza.” Sweeney put a pin on a small island off the eastern coast of Spain, “the Spain mainland has reported terrorism activity, too.”

“We must act fast and with the collaboration of GEO.” Six nodded, “where’s Pandey?”

“On his way back here from Heathrow, but he said there’s a traffic jam so would be a bit late.” Sweeney reminded, “didn’t you check the message?”

“I just forgot it.” Six sighed.

 

“Hey, Aurelia, Kevin, how do you do here?” The door opened and revealed a slender, intelligent but soft-looking man in a beige safari suit with black hair, scruffy beard and black-rim glasses, and a large briefcase, “Good news first. Specialist Ramírez and Álvarez accepted our offer. They’re the best hands in their field and exactly who we need.”

“Harry, you always make the same comment regarding every operator who is going to join.” Sweeney reminded.

“Do I? Well…” Harry turned to Six and continued, “And another news is, the upgrade you requested for Senaviev is almost done.”

“It means the Russian can go back to the field,” Sweeny commented, “after it goes through proper safety test, of course.”

“To make such the antique weapon work to fight terrorists in the 21st century is certainly a big challenge,” Harry remarked delightfully, “Nevertheless, I believe the man is important to the team even more than what we think. I don’t think those Spetz guys could keep in such the wonderful morale if without him.”

“You mentioned good news,” Six asked, “so, what’s the bad one?”

“It’s more like—well, do you know Operation Blue Orion?” Harry launched carefully, “I have the report of it and says the rivalry Álvarez developed with Cohen ‘needs to be observed’. In Madrid, I asked Álvarez what happened, but she didn’t give a clear response but just giggling. Maybe she didn’t mind about it so much, however…”

“You have a concern that Ash still has grudges.” Six added.

“Correct.”

“You should leave the issue up to them,” Sweeney suggested as if already figured out what Harry was thinking, “you just can’t force them to work along smoothly like magic. People need time to get used to others. I trust they’re professional enough to get over whatever issue they have.”

“You’re on the point,” Harry seated on his desk and retrieved the Spanish operatives’ files and looked to them, “I’ll keep an eye on it, just like always.”

 


 

The multimedia room.

 

It would be considered a rare case with only Spetsnaz operators in the room. They were contacting Tachanka, who was recovering from his injury and participating in the upgrade of his LMG along with Mira in Madrid.

 

Glaz was using a computer to launch the video chat, with Fuze and Kapkan leaning behind him to watch the screen. Suddenly, the window appeared Tachanka’s head which still wrapped some bandages and his upper body which also had patches. The background showed a workshop which seemed like the place he worked on his gadget, and his tools and components scattered around. The oil stain on his hands -- even a bit went to his Multicam sleeveless undershirt. His face scrunched up, unsure if it was due to the pain of the injury or his bad mood.

“Pardon that I might move frequently. I’m still working on that old bastard,” his face displayed unpleasant, “I needed to craft a foothold for Mira’s shield, and most of its parts required replacement. Certainly, I must make many of them by my own hand since the antique’s original components are hard to find.” He took the flash hider he just shaped and stood up, revelled his lower body only in an army-green pair of boxer briefs.

“Where are your pants? Exchanged for the ballistic shield?” Kapkan remarked sarcastically.

Козёл! I just don’t bother to put it on. I slept over here last night and started working since I woke up.”

“Did you have breakfast?” Glaz asked.

Tachanka then showed a half-eaten bocadillo in a plastic container. “Ryad got it for me. But well, you know I tend to eat less when concentrating.”

“Just don’t overwork and exhaust yourself, okay?” Glaz expressed his care. “You're not fully recovered yet, anyway.”

“Nah, I’m fine, really. Except for the modification strangling my brain.” Tachanka snorted while installing the new components on his Mounted LMG, “But I think I’m close to finishing it. The only thing left now is Mira’s shield.”

 

In the meanwhile, the door of the multimedia room opened, and three Russians looked at there almost synchronously. There was only Sledge dropping in, “Hi, lads,” he made a casual greeting and sat down beside them, “I’m asked to check on Alex’s status. But it seems like you’re already calling him?”

 

“Yes, we are.” Glaz answered in a friendly tone and turned back to the screen, “Alex, Seamus wants to speak to you.”

“Just him?” Tachanka felt a bit confused, “Well, fine. Plug him in.”

Sledge moved in front of the webcam, while other Russians left the room with the tacit understanding that what Sledge requested was a one-to-one talk. “So, Alex, how’s things going in Spain?”

“Nothing special. Mira and I keep working on our gadgets, and Jackal collects intels. Besides, as I don’t have anything else to do, I ask them to teach me Spanish.” He took the sandwich and bit it down with an odd frown, “I even bought a book so I can learn by myself if they are both busy. You must think I’m becoming a nerd now.”

“You keen on learning new things, it’s good.” Sledge chuckled, “Just want to remind you to take some break. You’ve done good jobs, and we all have your back, so don’t push yourself too hard.”

“I know how much I fucked up.” Tachanka shook his head, “don’t try to comfort me.”

“May I know the reason that you keep using such an old weapon?” Sledge asked cautiously, “not offending, but I think even in Russia there’s no one using it, as it’s already replaced with RPK.”

“Nah, you have a point. It’s quite strange, huh?” Tachanka chuckled, “And I’m not always an ‘old-fashioned’ soldier. In fact, I’m one of the earliest in the army adopted Kord machine gun when it developed in 1998. Of course, you know it’s too heavy for any Rainbow operation. In one hand, I just love old weapons, and I have confidence and the knowledge about them.”

“What’s on my mind is if there’s any story behind it to make it so special to you.”

 

Tachanka made an amused face at Sledge’s comment, while touched his LMG gently as if it was his child. “It’s all from my grandpa’s war story he told me when I was a boy.” He raised his hand, “bring Maxim and others back here. I guess they’d be interested in it, too.”

 

When other Russians returned with confused expressions, Kapkan particularly felt oddly sentimental in the air. “Sasha, you’re strange today.” He called Tachanka by his nickname, which would normally make him mad and retort back, but instead, he slightly laughed and began the story, “so, everything starts from about I was a six years old boy. Hearing my grandpa’s story was my favourite, so did my older brother, Leonid, who’s just one year above me.”

 

“I can still remember how excited grandpa was telling his story in Eastern Front. He was a true hero to us by defending the frontline just 40 kilometres away from the centre of Moscow with the Degtyaryov machine gun. He stated that he was fortunate to have the weapon to keep him alive. We both admired him, especially Leonid, who was already determined to be a soldier like him and use the good old machine gun to defend the motherland.”

 

“How about you?”

“Believe or not, but I was not so enthusiastic like him. And one day I found a firearm encyclopedia in papa’s study and saw an article saying it was replaced by newer guns like RPD after WWII. I showed it to Leonid and claimed that ‘it’s too old so you’re not able to use it anymore’, he refused to believe and insisted on touching it even just for one time.”

“So, you’re not into it from the start?”

“Nah, I was occupied by another thing. Because my mother decided to send me to a ballet school. I was a naughty and hyperactive boy who could barely sit still for 5 minutes, so she thought it could use up my energy as well as cultivate my mind.”

“What?” Sledge exclaimed, while other Russians gazing at each other on the shocking fact.

“How could a tough guy like you do ballet?” Kapkan snorted.

“Surely, I no longer do that after I enlisted, and I don’t need to tell you how much such many years can change people.” Tachanka chuckled, “apart from that I still do stretching every morning and night as I can’t give up the habit. So, my body is always flexible, unlike yours which is hard like a stone.” He performed a front split to prove what he said was true, while Kapkan glaring at him with a sour look.

“And my biggest dream was to act the prince of The Nutcracker, on the Christmas show in Kirov Theatre. To a Russian male ballet dancer, it was the highest glory.” Tachanka continued while transforming into a sad face, “Papa didn’t support it because he believed that dancer was not a job I – the son of an army General should do. More precisely, he wanted Leonid and me both to become officers like him. But mama, Vera – my elder sister, Leonid and even my grandpa all approved. My grandpa once told me that –

 

‘Just like I fought on the frontline, defended the country from German invaders with the machine gun; if you do well in dancing and spread the value of Ballet Russe across the world, it was also a big contribution to our motherland.

 

Therefore, I kept learning and challenging more advanced movements with his words in heart, until sixteen.”

 

“Okay. Leonid aspired to join the army, and you were a ballet nut. Then what happened?”

“Leonid,” Tachanka lowered his head like sobbing, “died in a car accident on his way back from school.”

“Oh,” Sledge and other Russians exclaimed at the same moment.

“Therefore, I decided to give up ballet and enlist in his place.” Tachanka raised his head, “grandpa also had a severe illness and passed away just a month before I left home. He didn’t talk much before then but just told me to be a good man and do good things no matter what. I think they’re the reason that I always favour Degtyaryov machine gun despite there were many newer and better weapons. It has my grandpa’s memory and Leonid’s dream. When I’m on it, I always feel like I’m not fighting alone because I can feel their souls at my side to make me powerful and invincible.”

“Now I can see how meaningful this weapon to you. Thanks for the story.” Sledge nodded.

“I think Six and others already had a kind of sense of that it’s growing a part of me, too. So, they decided to upgrade it rather than make me replace it.” Tachanka laughed again, “after all, I won’t be the ‘Tachanka’ you like anymore without the good old machine gun, am I right?”

“Agreed.” Sledge followed the laughter, while the sound of Tachanka’s phone broke their mood.

 

Blayt, have we talked for too long?” Tachanka picked his phone up, “Mira is calling me for lunch. Better put on my pants and get out soon. You should hurry up to the canteen, too. Bye!” He picked up his trousers from beside before the chat shutting off.

 

----

 

This afternoon, Mira invited Tachanka to “go for a spin” with her. She even half-forced him to put on a new set of men’s casual clothes God knew where she got -- a sky blue short-sleeve button-down shirt, a pair of khaki chino trousers and white sneakers. The clothes, in fact, fit him perfectly and comfortably. However, it didn’t release him from doubts about what she was up to, considering they still had tasks to finish.

“Just be quiet and go with me.” Mira stared at him while getting in her Land Rover, “I have something to show you.”

 

After the car ran for a while, the street view became crowded with buildings and people. Apparently, they were at the downtown of Madrid.

“So, Elena,” Eventually, Tachanka couldn’t hold his nervousness and asked, “where will we go to?”

“My father’s shop,” Mira replied, “there’s my home, too. Just on the main street of Latina district, we’re almost there.”

“What are we going to do there?”

“Not a big thing. Just seeing my father before we go to the action tomorrow.” Mira looked back, “don’t worry about your LMG. You’ve done a great job, and I’ve already finished working on the ballistic shield. Just do some tests, and we’re all good.”

“Okay. So, I’m seeing your father, right?” Tachanka asked, “Will we see any other of your family?”

“No. There’s only my father and me at home. And some staff in the shop. I have aunts, uncles and cousins too, but they live in other houses.” Mira answered while glimpsing back at him quickly.

“Anything I should pay attention when facing him?”

“No. Just be normal yourself is fine. He speaks English, too.”

 

Víctor! It’s me!” Mira yelled as soon as she stepped into the shop, and Tachanka followed. He then realised a common point they shared – their father’s first name. But there was no one there, apart from a Volvo SUV in the middle of the garage, probably in the maintenance.

“Elena, you’re back!” A grey-haired and slim old man - who wore a navy-blue polo shirt with orange collar and sleeves appeared like the store’s uniform, grey work pants and black-rim spectacles- opened the door to the office (Tachanka guessed it was since the sign wrote “Sólo personal autorizado”). “I’m still working on the car. But I nearly finished it.”

And a young, black-haired and a bit thicker guy followed him out. He dressed mostly the same as the old man, but added a red cap with an emblem likely belonging to a sports club. Tachanka could see he was one of the staff in the shop. “Elena, ¿quién es ese tipo duro a tu lado, tu nuevo novio?” The young guy pointed at the Russian with a broad smile. He spoke too fast for Tachanka’s elementary ability of Spanish to grasp what he said.

“Elena, what did this guy say?” Tachanka whispered.

“Oh, Manu believes you’re my new boyfriend,” Mira explained relaxedly.

“No!” Tachanka exclaimed, “I mean… Solo soy un amigo ordinario. (I’m just a normal friend.)” He emphasised the word “ordinario” strongly that made others laugh.

“Such an amusing guy!” Víctor patted Tachanka’s shoulder, “Can I know your name?”

“Alexander,” Tachanka answered, “just call me ‘Alex’ is fine.”

“Good, just get rid of the car and today’s work is over.” Víctor continued the repairing task from installing the new rear bumper. “Do you like Tapas?

“Tapas? What is it?”

“In this country, it’s a set of small dishes of appetisers served in bars, mostly with drinks,” Mira explained.

“Oh, so it means we’re going to drink out.” a delightful smile burst on Tachanka’s face, “You know that I’m always in.”

“Great, I know a fabulous bar nearby. I usually go there after work.” Víctor turned to his daughter, “Elena, I’m sure you have many things to tell me, too.”

“Yes, I do.” Mira glanced at the Russian quickly, “if Alex isn’t afraid of hearing us talking in Spanish, which sounds like a machine gun shooting non-stop, after all.” Tachanka couldn’t make any reaction but nodding with a wry smile.

 

Spanish bars looked way different from the ones Tachanka was familiar with in Russia or England. When the magnificent and delicious view of a row of Jamón serrano hanging above the bar struck him, he already felt his belly began rumbling. The atmosphere was all bright and cheerful over the power of tasty foods and wines. If by seeing bars one could see the country’s culture, Spanish ones were indeed what he liked. Tachanka immediately decided to take a plate of tapas featuring sliced Jamón serrano on slices of baguette with grilled bell peppers and green olives as toppings. The perfect chromatic combination of hot pink, yellow, crimson and green were appealing enough.

“Alex, wanna try some Sherry?” Víctor half-filled two copitas with goldish brown liquor, “It’s my favourite brand. On my treat.” He handed one to Tachanka.

“No, no, I can pay for it,” Tachanka raised his hand nervously.

“Hey, el jefe normally doesn’t treat anyone unless he believes you’re important,” Manuel whispered to Tachanka’s ear in English, to the Russian’s surprise. “You better take the treat.”

“Really? Well,” Tachanka decided to receive the glass and sipped a bit. “Hmm, good wine!” He poured the content into his mouth in just a second, then excitedly picked up a piece of bread with topping, also consumed it in a flash. “I like the ham in this country, too.”

“You eat too fast, Alex,” Mira chuckled, “although it seems reasonable. You barely ate earlier this day.”

“So, Alex, where are you from?” Víctor asked.

“Me? Russia.” Tachanka picked up another piece from the tapas dish. “My home is at St. Petersburg.”

“You come from so far away,” Víctor looked like thinking of something. “Elena mentioned you once to me. She said you’re now her colleague. Are you a police officer, too?”

“No. I serve in the army.” Tachanka answered shortly.

 

“It’s what I’m going to tell you.” Mira moved closer to her father, “We’re now working at an international team; therefore, I will have many days away from home. It’s all I can say.”

“Oh, I see… It must be an important work. Just stay safe and call home when you can.”

“Y encontrar un buen chico para establecerse. ‘Ocupado’ no es una excusa! (And find a good guy to settle down. ‘Busy’ isn't an excuse!)” Manuel interrupted.

“Manu, I’m nearly forty. Don’t you think it’s too embarrassing saying this?” Mira turned at him with pursed lips.

“I know your job is important, but so is the shop!” Manuel turned to Víctor, “you also need a man to inherit the business along with Elena, right?”

“My younger brothers can also take care of this, don’t worry about it too much.” Víctor made a beaming smile.

“I know it’s an option, but I don’t like them.” Manuel shook his head, “to me, it’s always been yours and Elena’s shop. I worked at the shop for so many years since I was 18, and Elena is like my big sister. I can’t imagine one day you two not being there.” He then turned to Tachanka, “so, how about your mechanical skill? I know Elena would never pick a guy not good at it.”

“I repair weapons mostly, sometimes vehicles.” Tachanka snorted, “hey, what do you think this is? A marriage interview?”

“Manu, enough of the joke,” Mira kept chuckling, “we only have a professional relationship so far, nothing more.”

“Alex, try the tortilla de patatas.” Víctor paused the topic by handing a pie-like dish with alluring golden colour and smell of fried egg. “it’s my always choice when coming here.”

“Ooh, I love it already,” Tachanka bit it down and the taste immediately grasped his heart. He became low-key envious of how those Spaniards could make such the perfect combination of egg and potatoes. “I think I can eat this for all days. A small piece is totally not enough.”

“It means you can have many more different foods, as well as a comfortable moment with beer, wine and friends, it’s the spirit of tapas.” Víctor’s hospitality expressed out, “how about this one? Ensaladilla rusa. It’s in fact…” He picked up another dish while winking to his daughter, “one of Elena’s favourite foods.”

“Hey!” Mira knocked her father’s elbow jokingly.

“Does it mean Russian salad? Why does a Spanish bar serve it?Tachanka received the small bowl of salad topped by some black olives, scrapped eggs and a layer of mayonnaise. It was hard to figure out what content was inside the bowl unless flipping them up. He picked it up with a fork, put it into his mouth and recognised the familiar taste of boiled potatoes and tuna, “oh, I see. It’s салат Оливье (Olivier salad). A traditional Russian dish which plays a key part at the dinner on New Year’s Eve.”

“So, it really comes from Russia.” Víctor tasted the salad in his own dish, “I’ve always thought it’s a metaphor. The mayonnaise looks quite like a layer of snow; hence I believe it inspires people with the image of Russia.”

All other burst into loud and hilarious laughter in unison, “Papá, you sincerely think this way? Aren’t you kidding?” Mira didn’t contain herself as not minding gazing from others.

“Geez, only old people think so! I’m going to make a post about it on twitter.” Manuel took out his iPhone and began texting.

“Does it sound so strange to you all?” Víctor’s face mixed with confusion and amusement.

“The snow in my country doesn’t look like this for a bit,” Tachanka murmured in a low voice while shaking his head.

 


 

On around 20:00, Mira and Tachanka took their way back although Víctor suggested they could stay. The upgrade of Tachanka’s LMG was almost finished. Mira took out the ballistic shield he had been waiting for. “Nice shield.” Tachanka knocked it gently as if checking its hardness.

“I believe you’ve done a lot of work these days too.” Mira checked the LMG which appeared clean and new considering the years in service. “It now looks quite like a new gun.”

“Yep, changed a lot of components, and the biggest modification is that it can now move the aiming up and down. Not for a large degree, and the overall recoil has increased for the change, but I guess it’s enough for an improvement.”

“It’s far more than enough.” Mira laughed slightly and took the shield. It fit the foothold perfectly, and she fixed it with screws. Finally, she flipped the side panels out, “How does it look? Seems like ready to take those bad guys down anytime?”

“Good. But it looks a bit lacking in ‘decoration’. I’d put a red star on it.” Tachanka followed with a peal of louder laughter.

“Or something else.” Mira began thinking, “Your British teammate, Seamus called me a few times. I still remember his humorous comment on how you behave like an emperor in the base.”

“Don’t believe him. He particularly loves to joke about me. So does James – well, although that guy generally likes to do that to everyone.”

“I know that, but he spoke a thing I felt convincing. He said that you play the role of the Russian teammates’ emotional supporter as well as the catalyst of morale in the whole team.” Mira commented seriously, “at the start, I thought you’re just a Slavic army dickhead, but now I know how terrible I was wrong. You have good hands, and are more careful of your work and your equipment than I imagined with my first impression.”

“If I didn't take care of my guns properly, I wouldn’t be alive at now,” Tachanka responded neutrally.

 

“And you get along with my father so well.” Mira continued, “after joining your team, I will have to deal with the terrorism around the world instead of just in Spain, right? I’m alright with that, but I have a concern about my father. I don’t want him worrying about me too much, so I initially intended to reject Six’s invitation. However, when Rainbow requested me to make a shield for your LMG, I had a chance to have a brief knowledge of how the team work out. I think Six’s ambition inspired me quite a lot.” She then raised her head with a certain look, “you’re a key to my decision, too.”

“I’ve always thought you were already going to join us when making my shield.”

“Six’s advisor, Harry, gives me a lot of room to consider it. He knows it’s a big thing and wishes me to make up my mind before accepting the offer. For a psychologist working a long time for MI6, it’s rare thinking.” Mira chuckled. “Anyway, my father would be at ease after knowing who I will be working with first. Ryad is dependable in action, but he’s too introverted. I brought him to see my dad once before and he barely talked a word. He tends to get too nervous around new people.”

“Really? I think he’s quite a nice guy. He bought me a sandwich, and even taught me some Spanish.” Tachanka felt curious.

 

“Because I told him to treat you a bit more nicely!” Mira laughed when extending her hand, “looking forward to work alongside you in the future, Alex.”

“Me too, Elena,” Tachanka answered politely when shaking hands. He then discovered that he was still in the casual outfit Mira got for him. “By the way, do I have to return the clothes? Don’t know who owns them, though. Neither Ryad nor your dad seems likely to fit these. Perhaps they belong to Manuel?”

“No worries. They’re now yours.” Mira smiled, “Ryad picked them for you, actually. He has a hidden skill that can measure a man’s size just by eyes observation. And I think you should learn how to dress up more ‘amiable’. If you showed up to my dad in your uniform, he might get a shock.”

“Ha, it’s true,” Tachanka grinned, “I’ll say thanks to him later.”

 

“Oh, on the decoration thing,” Mira took out her design drawing of the shield, “how do you think of putting a word on it? Like a Russian word. Which word do you like to use to describe a ‘lord’?”

“There are several different words to say. You can even just transcribe it into Cyrillic alphabets. Like this.” Tachanka opened his notepad and wrote the word “Лорд” on it.

“Looks good, I’d take this one.” Mira nodded while starting to revise the design drawing and depict the letters on the left side panel in detail, “this would show them who is in control!”

“Oh yes! I can’t wait to show it to everyone.” Tachanka commented humorously, “I already love you. You know, if you can come up with the method to add wheels for the LMG and make it a real Tachanka in modern times, I’d marry you.”

“Maybe we’d think of it later in the free time,” Mira laughed wholeheartedly when looking at the upgraded weapon and the result of their collaboration, “as I’m starting to like your antique, too!”