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Thirteen Shades of Gray

(working title - at least until I remember where I swiped it from)

 

It was a cloudy early afternoon in Sarajevo. The streets were deserted, people unwilling to trust the uneasy lull in the bombing. By the October of 1993, the residents of Sarajevo had time to learn the expensive lesson - bombs don't discriminate and are highly unpredictable. Serbian siege has claimed thousands of lives in the last fourteen months and Sarajevans have decided that life in the basement was better than no life at all.

The operative checked the hidden camera again. Lack of people on the streets would be a hindrance, but the operation was simple enough. Pass by the building that supposedly acted as a meeting place of Bosnia's military and political leaders and gather preliminary data. Piece of cake. The outside of the building was run-down and inconspicuous. Two men in civilian clothing were standing in the entrance, no visible weapons, but the long jackets they were wearing could hide a small arsenal. The windows on all three floors were boarded up. Another man visible in a window of a building across the street. Not much information to be gained by cursory overview, but it was a start. Another look around. A woman clutching a bag of groceries and speed-walking away. A car with a female driver pulling up a block away. Time to go.

*************

Ines Salih shut off the engine of her battered green Golf and slumped back in her seat with a sigh. Things were not looking good. Guns and light artillery of the Bosnian militia against cannons and anti-aircraft guns of the Serbs stationed high on the hills around the town just did not add up. At least they were making headway with eliminating some of the Serb snipers around the city.

She checked her 9mm Beretta well hidden below her black suit jacket before slipping out of the car. Barely twenty-one years old, with blond, green-eyed, healthy beauty of peasant folk, Ines acted as the official spokesperson and translator for Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia's Muslim President. Her open, youthful face could be seen on TV screens almost as often as the President' and if not, she was always near the old man. The reporters, both domestic and foreign, liked and trusted the shy smile and the open gaze of the young girl, falling for the perfect disguise. What they did not know was that Ines Salih was the President's personal bodyguard and head of security.

At age 21, the young woman who looked barely over seventeen, was deceptively innocent. Beneath the public shyness and heavy drawl of Northern Bosnia, lay an intelligent killer whose only goal was vengeance.

Shrugging, she settled the jacket on her shoulders before walking across the street. Black Armani pant-suit she was wearing was purchased during their last official visit to Rome and did not match the bullet-riddled car she was driving. The car was not important, it ran properly and that was all that mattered. Her appearance, however, and the wardrobe she insisted for the President, were another matter. They had to appear cosmopolitan and modern if they wanted the rest of the world to consider them a part of Europe. Ines knew how easily the world powers could turn a blind eye to Rwanda or Ethiopia, or any such God-forsaken country. In world politics, every little thing mattered.

Walking towards the building slowly, she took time to take stock of the security layout. The man on the 2nd floor across the street was careless. Unacceptable. Otherwise, the street was abandoned but for a couple of passerbys. They had cleared the area of Serb snipers, but she substituted them with her own men. Every now and then they'd fire a few warning shots at people, missing narrowly, making them think the Serbs were still around. The less people noticed the activity around the headquarters, the better. Now only an old man in peasant clothing stooped by the years and work, was pushing his rusty bike along. Ines hoped the sniper wouldn't choose this time to spook the pedestrians. She was behind him, catching up rapidly to his slow shuffling when he looked back at her. A flash of bright blue eyes and then the old man continued trotting forward.

************

Bingo! The President's bimbo herself is here. I guess the boys got it right this time... The operative was now almost level with the building, both of the handles of the bike holding tiny cameras. Their suspicions were confirmed and after these photos are reviewed, the real job could start. Piece of cake. Past the entrance of the building now, the guards not sparing a glance toward the old man. Ten more meters, turn the corner and go get a beer. A sudden wave of panic, and the bike was dropped and a hand was reaching for a gun under the worn jacket, but the sound of a gun being cocked and the cold feel of metal at the base of the scull told the operative it was too late. How the fuck did these men see through the disguise?!!

Imagine the surprise of Lt. Randy Sanders of American Army Intelligence when the voice behind the steel of the gun pressed against her head turned out to be decidedly female and in effortless American English.

"Getting careless in your old age, huh?"

 

************

 

"If you decide to go for that gun, you will make me a very, very happy girl. If you want to live, however, raise your hands slowly and put them behind your head." Finger tense on the trigger of her gun, Ines watched the man in front of her slowly withdraw the hand from the front of his jacket and place them behind his head, interlacing long, slender fingers in matted gray hair.

"Emire! Haris!" She called the surprised guards at the door, not taking her eyes of her target. "Stanite ispred njega i drzite ga na nisanu!" The guards in the doorway stood in stunned silence for a long couple of seconds before obeying her order to come up front and keep the bedraggled-looking old man in the sights of their guns. Though young, they knew not to question the blond woman's orders, no matter how odd they seemed. She did not tolerate insubordination.

Making sure not to step between her men and the spy, Ines walked around to face the old man. The facial mask was immaculate, down to the 3-day graying stubble and bushy eyebrows. Sunken eyes and lined cheeks rounded the appearance of a man in his early 70s. Only the bright blue of eyes that clearly reflected surprise at her appearance and now erect standing gave away the disguise. Even the clothes were studied to perfection - worn, heavy wool black pants and shapeless black jacket of peasant folk and scuffed black leather shoes. Had I not caught him staring at my breasts, I never would have thought twice...

Looking back up - way up - to the blue eyes in front of her, Ines could not help but smirk. They were still moving from the gun in her hand to her expensive outfit, to her face and back. When the man saw her smile, understanding flashed in the azure of his eyes, followed by a gleam of respect. The he squared his shoulders and all that was left in the glacier pools of his eyes was impassivity.

Ines frowned. That did not add up. Not leaving the spy out of her sight, she spoke to her men in English.

"Haris, step behind him and keep your gun pointed to his lower back. Emir, stay where you are. If he even so much as twitches, shoot."

Making sure the spy understood her instructions and the consequences of sudden movement, she put her gun away and reached back to tie her long hair into a loose ponytail. Then she reached into her pocket and withdrew a switchblade. Holding the knife in her right hand, she gingerly approached the spy and removed his hidden gun from the shoulder holster, tucking it in her waistband. Reaching out again, she quickly patted him down, and not finding any additional weapons she grabbed the collar of the loose white shirt and ripped it open with the knife.

Lightweight bullet-proof jacket came into view and after cutting through the straps and discarding it, smooth tanned skin of the abdomen and a sports bra covering a generous bosom were revealed. A low whistle from Emir fully reflected Ines's own feelings. "Well boys, it seems we got ourselves a pussy-cat this time..."

Stepping back she put her knife away, letting her gaze appreciatively linger on the woman's exposed skin. "Let's see if this kitty can scratch."

Taking out the woman's weapon, she looked it over. It was a compact 9mm Sig, standard issue for American troops in the area. Looking up at the withered face, she let a playful glint enter her eyes. "Not bad." She winked, surprising both herself and the woman in front of her, as evidenced by the widening of the blue eyes. "But, mine's bigger."

Creasing of the cheeks and yellowish teeth revealed in a brief smile were the response. Ines again admired the discrepancy of the decrepit face and the lithe body beneath it. Then the woman spoke, a low, lazy rumble that sent a chill down her spine. "Yours might be bigger, but I can assure you that mine performs better."

This got a delighted chuckle out of Ines. "Does it, now? We'll just have to see that."

Keeping the conversational tone of voice, the tall woman asked. "How did you know to speak English with me?"

Ines laughed again, lightheaded from the adrenaline side-effects and truly surprised by almost lighthearted bantering they were engaged in. The guards kept a vigilant watch over the woman. "If you're asking me if we were expecting you, we didn't." She waved in the woman's general direction with the gun. "The disguise. Serbs and Russians have nothing like it. Germans and Greeks wouldn't dare do anything by themselves. The French and Italians don't give a shit enough. That, m'dear, leaves the Brits and the Americans. Simple deduction. Plus..." she smirked again "...that's the only foreign language I know."

This time a low chuckle greeted her response. That laugh could be addictive. The unexpected thought snapped Ines out of her reverie and she let the cold fury always ticking in the background come back to the fore. The transformation was immediate and obvious, the cold gleam substituting playfulness in green eyes and both the guards and the spy noticed it. Stepping in again, she let her voice drop to a warning level. "You shouldn't have gotten yourself caught, spy. Around here we know better than to try and tame wild animals."

With that, the blonde stepped back, pulling out the confiscated gun. Her eyes never leaving the blue ones before her, she fired a single shot into the taller woman's knee. With an anguished cry the spy fell to the ground grabbing the wounded leg.

"Haris, cuff her." Her voice was clipped, cutting short the broad accent of North-West Bosnia from her voice. "Stop the bleeding and get her a doctor. Make sure she doesn't' bleed out. Frisk her and strip her to her underwear. Bring everything you find to me. I'll look her over later personally. If you miss anything, I'll make sure you find out the true meaning of the phrase "fucked", understand?"

Brisk nods assured her she was understood. At her feet, the woman was now silently clutching her wound, clenched jaw and silent tears the only signs of pain on the weathered face. I want to see your face, spy. Shaking the thought off, Ines raised the woman's gun in a mock gesture of farewell, throwing back a "Not bad" before turning and walking into the building without a backwards glance.

**************

 

Twenty-four hours later

"What?!!!" The sting of her palm slapping the open surface of the desk was barely noticeable, outrage consuming all of her senses. "You can't be fucking serious! You can't just let her go, for god's sake - she's a goddamned spy! I haven't even interrogated her yet!"

In front of her, sitting behind a large oak desk, was sitting a long-nosed, thin-lipped man in his late sixties, calmly watching her outrage. "Ines, do calm down. We have no choice. General Perkins himself called me on this one. They want her back, and I'm not about to take on the goddamned Commander of the US Army." Leaning back as Ines slowly backed down, he continued. "You know the Americans hold us by the balls anyway, we need their support."

Dropping into a stuffed chair across from him, Ines scowled. "So what, Mr. President, should we just roll over and play dead when the Americans snap their fingers? For all we know, they can turn tomorrow and support the concept of Greater Serbia and Croatia on our expense - we can't afford to have them collecting garbage in our back yard!"

"I do understand that, dear child. After all, we did catch them red-handed, and that changes the odds. Slightly." Alija Izetbegovic, the President of the divided Bosnian government took on the tone of a patient father. "If there is a next time, however, I'll personally order their operatives executed." He paused for effect, an ingrained politicians act, earning him an eye-roll from Ines. "But, those cameras you found were feeding live via satellite, giving them a nice show. They were on the phone demanding we turn her over before you even got to the headquarters. We can't play the "I don't know what's going on" game, and they clearly expect this to be our show of goodwill." He sighed. "Frankly, Ines, I don't think we have a choice at this moment. We're in no position to bargain and they know it."

"Goddamnit, Alija..." The defeat was evident in her voice. "I know we have no options, but they don't have to rub it in our faces. If they have no respect for us, what can we expect from them?"

"We're not in it for their respect, child. Politics are a game of give and take. They've given us something involuntarily, and now they're taking it back. There is no choice in it for us." Cold eyes trained on the blonde head belayed the warm tone of voice. "You look exhausted. Get her ready for pick-up at four and then get some rest. I won't need you until the morning." And with that, she was dismissed.

 

**************

The main city hospital had been put out of commission by heavy bombardment early on during the siege. All but the most sever casualties were sent out right after the treatment. With surprise mortar attacks and snipers, the number of severe casualties hospitalized in the cramped basement of the hospital, the only area safe enough, kept climbing. Dr. Salihodzic was glad to hear that the woman prisoner was being taken away. The single room she was being held in could accommodate four patients after she left.

Checking the bandages again, under the watchful gaze of an armed guard, he nodded with satisfaction. The bullet had missed the kneecap and the bone, making minimal possible damage with a wound like that. With proper care, the woman would walk with an almost imperceptible limp in no time. Pity... The woman was...

"Doctor!" His head snapped up in surprise, and he was faced with the cold eyes of the President's poodle, as the young woman was nicknamed in the general public. Sweet-looking face and an innocent smile framed by long blond hair, Ines looked innocent enough, but he knew better. Too many war prisoners were taken from the hospital by Ines never to be seen again. He didn't know what exactly was her position within the Army and Government, but he knew she had power and was not afraid to use it.

"Yes? Got anyone else you want me to patch up for you?" He couldn't keep the sarcasm out of his voice, but Ines didn't' seem to notice.

"Did you keep her sedated as I told you to?"

"Yes, I did. She should be out well after they come to get her."

"Ver good. Thank you doctor, that'll be all." Dismissing the man without a second glance, she turned to the guard. "Samir, see the doctor out and wait there."

Alone in the room, Ines let her shoulders slump a bit. She was getting tired of it all. There didn't seem a way out of the hell that was war in Bosnia, and she was caught in the middle of it, and sinking deeper in every day. Death was her daily bread, her breakfast and the nightcap. Meaningless death and blind destruction, and she was failing to see a point to it all anymore. It was a dangerous combination. Turning, she took a first good look at the prone woman.

Naked under a white sheet Ines slowly peeled off, the clump of the bandaged knee the only distortion in the sleek contours, the woman was an amazing sight. All sleek muscle and coiled power, the body in front of her, even in repose, exuded more life energy and will than anything she'd seen in a long time. And that face...

When she was in Italy with the President last month, the Bosnian dignitaries were taken to the Ufici palace in Venice among other places. She, of course, went along. The woman's face, even drawn and with heavy shadows under the eyes as it was now, paralleled in beauty those of the ancient Greek goddess's that she saw at the museum. Long silken tresses of black hair framed the angular face and Ines found herself unconsciously reaching out to touch them. The woman was mesmerizing and the sight of her filled Ines with heavy melancholy. She felt a sudden, overwhelming sense of loss and she had to shake her head to shake it off. She couldn't afford to feel like that. It was pointless. Reaching in her jacket, she pulled out a beautifully made silver pendant in a shape of a running wolf. The animal was portrayed mid-leap, teeth barred. It hung on a slight chain and was the only personal item beside a pocket knife, retrieved from the still unnamed woman.

Ines realized that it was the exact replica of a tattoo on the inside of the woman's right thing. The wolf's open muzzle reached the middle of the quadriceps while the tail curled around the back of her leg. It was a beautiful and dangerous looking tattoo and Ines could help but smile at the thought that it might hint at what could be found between the woman's legs. I wouldn't' mind risking getting bitten to find out... With another rueful smile, she placed the silver chain back around the woman's neck, and left the room without a backwards glance.

 

 

************

One year later

"I'm going back on a fucking boat, and there will be no arguing about that!" The anger and ferocity behind the clenched words were genuine and the four men in the entourage exchanged silent looks but did not comment. "Just what needs to happen, one small 'mishap' and the whole goddamn Bosnian government plummets to death! Did you see that pimply-faced teenager they call a pilot? Who in heaven gave him..."

A deep laugh cut short Ines's nervous pacing across the small waiting room as well as her ranting. She stopped and looked at the only man of the small group who dared laugh at her. "Something funny, Mr. President?" She was so not in the mood.

"Oh, for heaven's sake, sit down child, you're making me motion sick all over again. We landed well over a half hour ago, we're safe now." Tall and lean, Alija Izetbegovic had the gaunt look of a suffering intellectual. In his late sixties with a big nose and thin lips, deep lines of thought and worry etched around his mouth and between his brows, he looked nothing like a modern-age politician. He looked like a man thrust into the position of leading his country through a bloody war after having been imprisoned by the Communists for his support for the freedom of speech and religion. He looked like your grandfather, not like a man who should be responsible for stopping ethnic bloodshed. He evoked sympathy. And he had the world fooled. "Now," he turned to her, gracing her with a small smile, "Do you have my speech ready yet?"

Ines nodded and went to retrieve her shoulder bag. Soon, she was pouring over a few printed pages, underlining certain things and making notes in the margins as the old man looked on. He knew her better than any other living being did, her family eradicated during the war, and he knew that, when scared, nervous or feeling cornered, Ines reacted by lashing out. Nine hours on a plane provided her with a healthy dose of all three sensations. So, either keep her occupied, or have her strangle the first man who walks through that door...

Alija was a smart man, but what made him different from other smart men in his line of duty, he knew how to keep that fact a secret. He shuffled when other men stood straight. He stammered in the face of cameras. He forgot himself in the middle of a sentence and had to start over. He looked and acted as a decaying man thrust into a game he was not cut up for. Behind the scenes, however, he knew exactly how the game of politics was played and he rarely made mistakes.

Bosnia, and he, as the Muslim president, was not in an enviable situation - occupied by Serbs on the East and North, Croats in the South, and no weapons for defense. When he reached the position of what little power the presidency of Bosnia presented in the early nineties, his options were very clear. He had no bargaining chips. Hell, his people barely had food and water to survive. And that's why Alija went after the only thing Bosnians could manipulate - world outrage. He played the pity card for all it was worth, pleaded anyone who would listen, turned over and played dead for the Americans, the Germans, the British and French, anyone and everyone who yielded power in the world today. He played a Muslim to the Turks and Arabs, and a European to everyone else. Now, after three years of war, they were finally at a bargaining position, with an organized and armed Army advancing daily and mild political support of the United States.

He stroked his two-day beard thoughtfully, eyes still on the blonde head of the girl, but his thoughts were far away. Now was the time to lay the cards and collect the winnings. International aid was pouring into the devastated country and siphoning off into family accounts in Geneva and Cairo. He had had his share of rubbing elbows with the world leaders, power plays and lavish dinners and now was the time to cash in and enjoy his well-earned retirement. It was time for the Dayton peace talks.

"Here." A sheaf of papers thrust into his face interrupted his musings. "You already know the gist of it. Read it a few times and pay attention to the notes in the margins. Pause after words highlighted in yellow, make a long pause after ones in red. And, Alija..." the green of her eyes bored into him "drop the pity act. We are on the horse now. No need to look for sympathy anymore."

He accepted the papers with a small smile and a nod, dropping his eyes to read them. He was almost going to miss the little dyke. To the general public she was his assistant and translator, not even the inquisitive American journalists seeing past her doll-faced façade. In truth, another one of his well kept secrets, Ines Salih was a masterful tactician and a trained killer, besides being an extremely talented speech writer. Such patriotism. Such naivete. The girl would have been an indispensable asset to him if she weren't so idealistic. She knew nothing of his monetary dealings, and he intended to keep it that way. Ines would be bound to do something stupid as to demand he return it 'to the people it righteously belongs to'. And yet it will be hard to let her go. In the three years she was with him, she practically carried by herself the responsibilities of his personal safety and public appearances. Not bad for a village bumpkin with barely a high school diploma to her name. Not bad at all. Now she was pacing again. What was taking the stupid Americans that long anyway?

"Ines, can you please see what's taking them so long. We don't have that much luggage." They were waiting for the military escort to take them to their rooms in the United Nations headquarters in New York. A brief speech at the UN Council in the evening and tomorrow they were off to the compound in Dayton, Ohio, for the peace talks with the Serbs and Croats. If all went well, and Americans demanded free elections in Bosnia after the signing of the peace talks, he could be cooling his heels in the Black Sea within six months.

Ines shot him a withering glance, but headed for the door to find out what's going on. I need to blow off some steam anyway. They had been situated in a small customs office with military guard posted in front of the door for the last hour. She still needed to work through the knot in her stomach from the flight and finding a Sergeant or such to yell at was as good as anything she could do until she got to a gym. She purposefully left her suit jacket in the room, leaving her shoulder holster with her 9mm in plain sight. The young soldier in front of the door gave her a sidelong glance before prudently continuing staring at the wall in front of him. The long hallway before her was empty and brightly lit, and she headed for the door at the end hearing voices drifting through.

Halfway through she still had about twenty feet to the door when a figure stepped through and started walking toward her. It took her a few seconds to take the in the long stride, feminine curves unobscured by military fatigues and strands of black hair escaping the green and brown camouflage cap. Ines instinctively slowed down her walk, coming to a stop, watching the soldier in front of her do the same some ten feet away. The brim of the hat still obscured features of the woman's face from her, but in the couple of seconds before their eyes met, Ines found herself stubbornly denying the obvious until the coldness of the blue gaze gave credence to the bad gut feeling she had about the whole trip.

In front of her, big gun strapped at her hip and rigid military pose badly hiding the 'what goes around comes around' swagger, stood the American spy she should have killed a year ago. She could literally feel the blood draining from her face at the sight of the eyes she consciously did not think about since she last saw them. You're fucking kidding me... For the first time in a long time she was speechless, but instead of reaching for her gun as survival instinct dictated, she assumed the same wide-legged, arms clasped behind the back stance of the American and stared back.

A long eyebrow quirked up almost imperceptibly at her reaction before the soldier started speaking, and Ines felt as if she passed some sort of a test. That made her angry.

"Good morning." The voice was a measured burr, like she remembered it, but with no hint of amusement in it this time. "I am Lieutenant Mallory with the Army Intelligence, and I was assigned to be your military contact. I will be in charge of security during your stay in the United States. If you will..." A disbelieving snort from the blonde woman cut her short. The soldier looked at her with measured patience. "Is there a problem, Miss Salih?"

Ines smiled, covering her nervousness. Why am I surprised she knows my name? If there was one thing she didn't like, that were surprises. And a loose end from her past showing up in a position of power was a very bad surprise. "That is very kind of you Mallory, but if you think I will allow a spy to be 'in charge of security' for the President, you must be even more stupid than you proved yourself to be the last time I had the pleasure of your company." Another tight-lipped smile. "So you can go back to whosever hair-brained idea this was and have them send someone else."

The tall woman smiled, a smile that reached her eyes, crinkling them around the corners, but contained no warmth. Randy was impressed, despite herself, again. Besides the quite obvious, but quickly masked expression of shock when the blonde first saw her, and appearance of a slight Eastern European accent that betrayed the fact that the Bosnian was flustered, there were no visible signs that Ines Salih was affected by her sudden appearance. Yet, it was obvious that she clearly remembered who Lieutenant Randy Mallory was.

She bowed slightly at the waist, still managing to look down on the blonde woman, before she replied with a smirk. "At your command, Miss." If I can't shoot the little shit, I might as well piss her off until she shits through her ears. She could hear more than see the man coming up behind her, and when blonde's tight-lipped face averted from hers to look behind her, Randy came to attention and spoke again.

"Miss Salih, Lieutenant-General Perkins, commander of US Army."

"At ease, Lieutenant." The man standing in front of Ines now was tall, even taller than the American woman, and she knew the name, if not the face, very well. He was a lean, gray-haired man with eyes that matched the blueness of the spy's, and a no-nonsense attitude. She took the proffered hand automatically. "Pleased to meet you Miss Salih. I understand that the decision to place Lieutenant Mallory as the head of your security during your stay might raise some questions." She snorted incredulously at that but before she could say anything, the general continued. "Please, let me explain. Lt. Mallory is one of the best soldiers I have had the pleasure of working with, and I can assure you that, as a trained professional, any previous incidents during the tour of duty will not detract from her performance. I can personally guarantee that."

Ines looked up at the tall man, his open smile and relaxed pose imbuing his words with sincerity. She blinked up at him. Twice. Slowly. Then she offered him a beatific smile, the kind that flared her nostrils and crinkled her nose. The kind that averted attention from her eyes, which were cold, and distracted from her words, which were sticky sweet until the meaning registered. She even added a bit of a Southern twang to her now impeccable English, the way she imagined Scarlet O'Hara would do.

"Well, General, it is most comforting to hear that you value our safety so much that you would put an operative who got caught and shot during what was, I presume, a basic reconnaissance mission, in charge of the President's security. That is truly thoughtful of you." She cocked her head, watching for reaction on General's face. When she saw none, she continued. "Will she be expected to do any thinking on her own this time, or should I just point her in a direction and say 'shoot'?"

Again no reaction save the slight quirking of the already upturned lips on the general's face. Not waiting for an answer, Ines turned and walked back toward the room. "I will let the President know you are ready. People were getting hungry. You would think at least in America we wouldn't have to starve."

Lieutenant-General Jason Perkins shook his head with a dry chuckle as he turned to the now stone-faced Lieutenant. "Well, well, then. Heh." A long eyebrow lifted and the woman's jaw muscles shifted even as she still stared straight ahead, and the general raised his hand, waving her off. "None of that, Randy. You agreed to help us out, loud and clear, and until a month from now you are again a fully commissioned officer of the US Army, with all the duties and responsibilities that come with it." She cut him a side-long glare before nodding stiffly and stepping to the side and behind him, facing the door behind which Ines walked away. He straightened up and nodded once as well, for himself, before he started down the corridor. Randy let her mouth quirk at the barely audible "God help us all" from the general before she followed.

******

 

Ines was tired, hungry and additionally pissed off for a whole slew of reasons the main of which was sitting across from her in a roomy limousine, staring at her. She flipped open and closed her knife in a fluid motion with barely a move of her fingers in what she knew was obviously a nervous tick, and ignored the woman watching her. She was too tired to think about the implications of having a spy with obvious reasons to dislike her on a personal level in charge of the security, yet she knew she had to. The President hadn't seemed too worried about it when she explained the situation to him, waving her off and saying "Take care of it, child. Stay with her and keep her away from me and don't worry so much. This is a global event, dear, the Americans will not allow any one of us to fart too loud, let alone try and harm each other." When she still looked too stunned to move, he leaned in whispering "Go on, there's more than one way to skin the cat. The Army doesn't look too favorably on dykes, I hear, and she just looks to be your type." And with a wink he was gone, the whole entourage following, while she was left with a woman whom she should have killed more than a year ago. Not that she was one to delve on missed opportunities. The knife opened with a click again, and she hesitated before closing it again.

"Nice blade." She looked sharply at the blue eyes across from her before looking away without a word. Until she figured out what to do with the American spy she was going to keep to herself and keep quiet. And then she remembered - both the knife and the gun she was now carrying were taken from Lieutenant Randy Mallory when she was captured. The knife was a beautiful Benchmade blade with a handle made of black and blue titanium strips and Ines idly noted the colors complemented the woman before her perfectly. The gun was a 9mm Sig and she had kept both as an afterthought, never really questioning her decision.

She looked back up to the inscrutable gaze of the American soldier. Save a man who acted as a translator and had come with the delegation, and another soldier, both intently looking out the car windows, they were alone in the big limousine. "Yes, it is, isn't it?" She made a show of slipping the blade out and inspecting the knife carefully. "It was a gift, you know? Practically fell into my lap."

"It was a gift." The voice was quiet, so quiet Ines wondered if she only imagined the woman saying it. "My father gave it to me for my birthday."

The blonde smiled. She preferred to find little cracks like this herself, but who is she to turn away free information? If the woman before her thought she would achieve something with this pretense of casual indifference, she was wrong. Ines could play the chit-chat game as well. "Really? Nice present." She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, the blade pointing towards the knee of the woman across from her. "Your ability to walk was a gift from me. Three centimeters lower and you could have kissed your kneecap goodbye. Happy belated birthday."

A pensive nod, and then those eyes turned towards her again, taking her in whole, and Ines suppressed an inexplicable shudder. "That is true. I never did get to a chance to thank you before I left." The woman's voice was still quiet and Ines strained to catch a note of anything but this morbid sincerity that came off the soldier. A long fingered hand reached up, lightly fingering a silver chain that hung around the tall woman's neck before falling away. "That was very considerate of you. Thank you."

This time Ines gave in to the surge of incredible laughter as she leaned back in her seat. She would never claim to be a good judge of the character, but she always knew if someone was being sincere or not. And this woman seemed genuine. Genuinely certifiable, if nothing else. "Oh, you're welcome", she said sweetly, before facing the window and dismissing the soldier for the remainder of the ride. "any time."

 

********

The cottage was spacious, though it consisted of only one large room. A minimalistic but well stocked kitchen was assembled along the wall directly across from the entrance. Large windows above the sink and the stove looked out across the meadow that ended in the dense woods some thirty meters out. In the same area was a small dining table and four chairs. The rest of the room was taken up by a large sofa which was placed in the middle, in front of a large fireplace. To the right of the fireplace were stairs leading up to the loft which was placed directly above the door, and held a simple, queen-sized bed. Ines looked up to where she was supposed to sleep, and shook her head with disgust. What am I, a fucking bat? Like it's not bad enough they dragged us here in the middle of woods and cow droppings, now I have to risk plummeting to my death every night?

Though, she had to admit, other than the deplorable sleeping situation, the setting was not too bad. Besides, they had work to do and personal comfort was of little importance now. She dropped her bags next to the sofa and relaxed into it with a soft "oomph". "I guess I can sleep here. No big deal." She peered up at where her bed was again. "I bet Alija and the other two bastards got nice cottages with a real bedroom. Stupid fucking Americans."

She sighed, closing her eyes. It had already been a very long two days, and the real work hasn't even started yet. Not that she quite knew how she was supposed to do her job, having been situated on the opposite side of the compound from where Alija, along with the heads of the Serb and Croat sides as well as American president and numerous other European dignitaries have been housed. First she raved at the stone-faced man who informed her of her lodging whereabouts, but when the soldier helpfully pointed out that her rooming situation was quite beyond his control, she went to Alija, to see what he had to say.

He'd just shrugged, and had she known better she would have recognized the brief flicker of relief that flitted across his face before he waved her off. "Child," he'd said "all of our watchdogs have been positioned in the periphery of the compound, including the Serbs and the Croats. We're in the middle of bumfuck cow-country here, with American soldiers swarming all over the place. Besides, it wouldn't look good for the cameras if there were Balkan thugs with guns strolling about." Then he'd turned away from her, clasping his hands behind his back and speaking to the window. "You've done your job, child. You kept me safe and made sure I got here. Now let me do mine."

And that was it. Alija and the shifty-eyed Vice President had gone to have dinner with the rest of the big-shots, and she'd been dismissed. The staff and soldiers, she was told by one of the many fresh-faced Americans, all eat in the mess-hall together. Not that she was hungry in the first place, but just the thought of sitting at one of those tables that stretched forever, grouped according to ethnicity, Serbs on one end, Croats on the other, Bosnians in the middle and Americans all around, killed any though of food she might have had. If she had cared to admit to herself, the thought of coming across the American spy was by far more unnerving than any other scenario.

The truth was, since they got dropped of at the UN headquarter on their arrival day, she'd only seen the tall American a couple of times, mostly from afar. The woman had kept her distance, and only when they were getting ready to depart for Dayton did she approach Ines again. Ines was in the hotel restaurant, piling up her plate with breakfast food from the buffet when she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She hadn't turned around, but very soon she heard quiet footsteps approaching her from behind. She remembered grabbing the serving spoon in reflex and startling herself when she realized what she'd done. What are you going to do, feed her to death? The thought made her chuckle and look up at the soldier standing next to her just as Randy softly cleared her throat to let her know she was there.

She had surprised the tall woman with her involuntary smile, she could tell, because blue eyes widened slightly when she caught her gaze and the woman's mouth, already open to say something had closed shut. The taller woman had offered her a tentative return smile then, before curling her lips in a smirk and raising an incredibly long eyebrow. "You sure you have enough food there?"

That had snapped her back to reality, making her drop her eyes to her overflowing plate and away from luminous blue eyes. Despite the obviousness of the fact, Ines had just let herself acknowledges for the first time how attractive the tall woman was. Not simply beautiful, physical beauty by itself had never moved her before. It was something else, something behind those eyes, in the way the woman moved, in the timbre of her voice, that made Ines unsettled. She didn't like that feeling.

"What can I help you with, Lieutenant Mallory?" There was no sense of entertaining such thoughts. Ines had schooled her features, cooling her voice, but a small smirk of recognition still lingered around the American's mouth.

"If you don't mind," the woman pointed to an empty table, "I'd like a word with you. It won't take long, I just wanted to brief you on a couple of security issues."

She'd nodded and they seated themselves at the table, Ines pushing her plate away, waiting for the soldier to speak.

"You are not going to like what I have to say, but I just want you to know that this issue is not open for discussion." Tight-lipped, Ines nodded for the woman to continue.

"Though you are in charge of security for your delegation, the peace talks are taking place on American soil, under American supervision which means, in short, we run the show." The tall woman had stopped, looking over at Ines, and continued after a terse nod from the blonde. "All three sides will be housed together in a relatively small area for an indefinite period of time. Once at the compound, no one will be allowed to leave until the completion of the talks. This, in addition to the obvious animosity of everyone involved towards everyone involved, makes for an explosive combination, and..."

"No, really!" Ines was trying very hard to hold on to the tattered remnants of her thinning patience. "If you're capable of it, would you mind making a point sometime soon. My eggs are getting cold."

To her annoyance, the tall woman gave her a quite obvious once-over while biting of a smirk. "Very well. No one, aside from the members of the US Army in charge of the security, will be allowed to bring any weapons to the compound. That..." she raised her hand, cutting off anything Ines had to say, "that includes you, anyone on your team, as well as anyone in the Serb or Croat delegations. No one, aside from my soldiers, will be armed."

"Oh." Ines leaned back, letting a gentle smile grace her lips. Nervous darting of blue eyes from her lips up to her own eyes let her know she had unsettled the American. Thought I was going to blow my top, did you? "If that will make you feel better, Lieutenant." She placed her hands on the table, raising up and leaning forward on her arms, still smiling at the American. "It won't do you much good though, if I decide to misbehave. After all, I do know how to kill a man with a chewing gum."

She had turned away at that, and walked away, leaving her uneaten breakfast behind, but not before she heard an incredulous chuckle bubble up from the woman left sitting.

A thought crossed her mind, interrupting her musing, and she sat up, frowning. With a quick look to the right and left she groaned with frustration. "Honest-to-God goat motherfuckers!" There was no TV, no radio, no electronic equipment of any kind in the cottage. The only things that hinted at civilization were the phone on the coffee table next to the sofa, and the fact that she had electricity. Frowning again, she got up and walked to the door to the left of the fireplace which opened into a tiny bathroom. "Oh, goody, running water, and it's hot too. Whatever did I do to deserve this?"

A soft knock startled her, and she slid her knife out of the pocket of her jeans and flipped it open. That had been the one concession on weapons she received, after she smiled up sweetly at the tall American woman and told her that she simply could not part with a possession that had such a sentimental value to her. To her surprise, the American didn't try to hide the soft sigh nor the expressively sad twitching of her lips as she turned away from Ines instructing the nearby soldier to let her keep the knife.

The door Of-fucking-course did not have a spy-hole nor side windows to look out through, so Ines sidled up to the wall next to the door handle and asked softly "Who's there?"

"It's Lieutenant Mallory, Miss Salih. Do you have a minute?"

Ines swallowed reflexively, before closing her blade back and returning the knife to her pocket. It was early afternoon, and soft sunlight was pouring in from the windows behind her, but she still wasn't ready for the sight before her as she opened the door.

The American was standing before her in full navy-blue dress uniform, shiny black shoes, knife-blade ironed slacks, starched white shirt, tailored jacket and all. Her hair was pulled off her face, and a thick braid fell down her back. One hand was nervously tapping a folded blue cap against her leg and the other was holding a large brown bag. The brunette's face was slightly flushed in the early Fall cold but her eyes bore straight into Ines.

"We need to talk."

 

********

 

Randy could see the blond-haired woman hesitate a moment, fighting the urge to close the door on her, and then swallow and push it open, turning and walking further in the room. She let herself exhale with relief, knowing she won a chance to talk to this woman.

Stepping in, she closed the door behind her and then turned around, looking for the Bosnian. The blonde was crouching before the fireplace, quickly putting together wood for a fire. Not certain whether or not Ines expected her to simply rattle off her spiel and leave, Randy stood awkwardly for a few seconds, looking at the younger woman expertly build a small fire.

"Uh, mind if I sit down?"

"Suit yourself." The blonde didn't turn away from her task, but something in the tone of her voice slightly heartened Randy.

"Thanks." She placed the bag on the coffee table next to the sofa and then carefully balanced herself on the edge of the seat, elbows on knees, her hands twirling her cap between her index fingers.

The small flames started licking at the dry wood pyre in the fireplace and Randy found herself mesmerized by the ancient dance of the new devouring the old. The smells and the sounds of the fire touched something deep inside of her, and if she were to distance herself enough to try and analyze it, she would admit that it tied directly to her Indian roots. The Irish in her could never override the Cherokee, and she had always taken fierce pride in her heritage. Her doggedness and quick mind were traits inherited from her Irish side, and the Indian in her had a deep regard for all things raw and wild, unencumbered. She had learned from her mother early on to draw on her instincts and not doubt them. And both the love of the untamed and her instincts were strongly attracted to the young woman before her. A loud pop from the fire made her blink, dispersing her thoughts and when her eyes focused again they were caught in the scrutiny of a green gaze. Ines was sitting cross-legged in front of the fireplace, watching her silently, and Randy wondered what the blonde could have seen in her face to make her so thoughtful.

Her cap slid from her nerveless fingers and she scrambled to pick it up from the floor, breaking eye contact. When she looked up again, Ines had leaned back against the wall next to the fireplace, her legs stretched in front of her and was watching her with cold detachment. The blonde was dressed in well worn carpenter jeans and a tight, plain green T-shirt, old black Docs completing the outfit. Her hair, as every time Randy had seen her before, was pulled back in a simple pony-tail ending between her shoulder blades, with a few unruly wisps curling around her face.

What would have been described as touching, but somewhat ordinary beauty of a perfectly symmetrical face, was made unique by the depth of Ines's green eyes and sensual expressiveness of the full lips. Randy had realized that, while the blonde could school her features at will and draw a veil of coldness over the depth of her eyes, her mouth tended to give away her emotional state quite clearly. I'm sure she doesn't realize it. When upset, the blonde's lips would draw a thin line, a hint of teeth gleaming behind them, a startling contrast to the usually full beauty of her mouth. A slight twitching and pursing, barely visible, would give away her anxiety or nervousness, usually when first faced with Randy. Only the last time they had spoken, yesterday, in the hotel restaurant, did Randy see an involuntary curl of a smile grace the girl's lips as they spoke, which let her know that the blonde's statement about killing a man with a piece of a chewing gum was a joke. Hopefully.

Also for the first time yesterday did Randy see a full-blown, uncalculated, just-cause-I-feel-like-it smile grace Ines's face. She had already accepted the inexplicable pull the young woman had on her, almost a kind of shawni - spiritual connection the Cherokee had talked about. From the first time she had seen her on that street in Sarajevo, had looked into green eyes, something had settled within Randy. She had not known what or why, but the inner peace she gained with a look in those eyes had made the ordeal of capture and months of recovery that followed it almost worth the pain.

And yet nothing had prepared her for the first sight of an actual smile in those green eyes, even though it had not been for her benefit. Yet. Not yet.

"You done staring, or should I twirl around once for your full enjoyment?" The voice was sarcastic, but there was a clear note of teasing in there that made Randy smile in response. The file she had on the woman was very explicit about the blonde's preference for her own sex. It also said she tended to speak her mind despite the consequences, as if I needed a file to tell me that and expected the same from the people she dealt with. Very well then.

Randy drew a deep breath and leaned back in the sofa, keeping eye contact. "I do apologize. It's just that, in my line of duty, I don't often get to see such a beautiful woman."

A wide-eyed look and a slight parting of the full lips were all the signs Randy needed to realize her comment had hit the mark. Ines clearly didn't expect that.

"Oh." It was quiet, almost bashful. The blonde head was bent down and Ines looked at her from behind lowered eyelids. "I guess you get shot by one even less frequently then."

 

Randy chortled first, and then laughed out loud. She got what she was asking for. She should have known by now that Ines always got the last word. She nodded her head, still smiling widely, enjoying the cocky grin on the Bosnian's face. "You could say that. Never having been shot before, and all."

Her answer seemed to sober Ines who leaned back letting her features harden, slowly, inexorably, ending with her eyes. "You didn't come here to flirt with me I hope, Lieutenant. It won't be too productive."

Randy nodded, schooling her features as well. "No, I did not. I came here to show you the big picture, Ines. And to see if I can get you to help me."

 

************

 

Randy had told her everything. That is, everything that she had been instructed to reveal. And if the retching coming from the small bathroom was any indication, she had been correct in her assumption that Ines had been ignorant of the shady financial dealings of the President of Bosnian government.

The plan was simple, as simple as political machinations go, in any case. The US government had invested too much money, man-power, interest and political clout in the Balkans not to have things go its way. Right now, the way to achieve that would be to keep the status-quo, namely have all sides exhausted by the fighting and ready to cooperate. The men at the heads of the three conflicting sides, though causes of the insurgence, were trained professionals in the political arena. They knew to keep their interests above any such minor matters as national pride, the greater good or something silly as national fervor. They were calculating beasts, easily controlled as long as the right hand kept a hold on the purse-strings.

Unfortunately, one of them had proven to be a step ahead of his peers, and the Americans could ill afford that. When the wind of Alija Izetbegovic's imminent retirement had reached American ears, certain steps had to be taken to prevent that from happening. Flux was not a welcome thing in the Balkans. Either one of the two possible succession scenarios would not work. Either a rabid nationalist would win the 'free' elections that were to be set up in the near future, and demand the return of Muslim lands, rallying Islamic nations for help in the holiest of wars - which, of course, was not to be allowed. The other possibility was that a meek ex-communist would win enough votes and try to revert to the hackneyed 'brotherhood and unity' ways of Tito-ist Yugoslavia, in which case, the Croat and Serb leaders would swoop in like vultures and tear apart the vulnerable belly of the Bosnian people. Which, of course, after all the hard work put into the artificial stability in the area of the ex-Yugoslavia, was also not a scenario Americans were going to allow to happen.

In short, Alija Izetbegovic was a perfect front-man for Bosnians as far as the US was concerned, inasmuch that he played both (or all three, or four, however many there were) sides of the playing field, and kept the precarious balance on which everything teetered. The US was not ready to let him go. And Randy was there to make sure she provided them with their ace up the sleeve.

A simple matter of embezzlement and siphoning off humanitarian aid money by Izetbegovic into private accounts (an activity taken for granted by most everyone involved, including the public), if revealed to the press, would make a great big stink for a while, but ultimately, if a man did not care about his reputation, he would still be able to draw on the funds and joyfully enjoy the fruits of his democratic rule. However, if there was a charge of crimes against humanity slapped to one's name, for such crimes as ordering slaughter of innocent civilians during war, or even just a simple case of homicide - well, such a thing would cause enough of the international uproar to warrant seizing up any and all internationally held property and funds from the accused until he was extradited and tried for his crimes.

And that was what the Americans were going to do. They were going to hit Izetbegovic where it hurt him the most, his pocketbook, and ensure he stayed right where he was for as long as it suited them. And that is where Randy and Ines came into play. Randy was to make sure Ines provided them with the needed information that was to be used as the bargaining chip.

That was the plan. However, as is the case with most plans, the successful execution of this one depended on proper performances of humans involved. And, as is the case with most humans, they tended to have plans all of their own which often did not agree with the big picture. Randy was quickly honing in on this fact.

The first tip-off had been the fact that, when she saw the ashen face of the young blonde upon hearing the news, and heard the choked-off sob, Randy absolutely knew that she could not consciously add to the mangled mess of losses and betrayals that Ines's life must have been. She could not add to the misery. Which meant, she could not play her part in the great big plan.

Ines's reappearance interrupted her train of thoughts. The blonde was leaning bonelessly against the doorframe to the bathroom, arms tightly wound around her torso. Her skin was pale, her eyes red, and her voice venom. "Well, America, is there anything else you'd like to tell me? Was my mother a whore? Did my sister suck off dirty Serbian dicks before she died because she liked it? There is no Santa Clause?"

Randy clenched her jaw, eyes skittering between the heat of the green gaze upon her and the scuffed M-shaped mark on the toe of her left boot. She had caused, purposefully, the pain that pooled in the beautiful eyes before her now. The pain which made anything but the truth obsolete.

"No. That's it. All I told you about him is true."

 

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

 

This story, so far, was difficult for me to write. I have wanted to write something that would not only center on the relationship of the two women, and the sacrifices they would have to make in order to make it work, but I also wanted to fit in a social and a moral message in there as well. And, I know, you must be thinking now - "Wait, *Xenalicious* talking about social consciousness and morals? What is this world coming to?"

In truth, I am disgusted with politics and the kind of manipulation leaders across the world involve in when it comes to exploiting such things as patriotism, religion, and common fear of the 'unknown' and the 'different'. Not that I'd consider myself totally imune to such crock of bull being served to us daily, but still. There are no knights in shining armour out there, just a bunch of priviledged men dangling a long, juicy carrot in front of the (m)asses.

But, back to the story. I have a vague idea of how this one would end, but there are some definite points I want to make on the way. So, this might or might not end up being finished some time in the future...

(Started - eh... April/May 2001?)

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