Insult to Injury @dorminchu
Never Be The Same

a/n: Here's my attempt to tackle Safin's backstory, working inside the guidelines provided by various quotes by both the film's director and the actor, as well as my own inferences. (Is it obvious I've been thinking about Berserk a lot?) That aside, I hope it's to your liking!


CHAPTER SEVEN:
NEVER BE THE SAME


The mining sector in Guinea contributed around a quarter of the country's income, with bauxite production taking priority of importance. Over the last few years there had been an ongoing effort to modernise and re-structure the aluminium industry in order to increase production as well as efficiency. Guinea possessed over 25 billion tonnes of bauxite—perhaps up to one-half of the world's reserves. In addition, Guinea's mineral wealth included more than 4-billion tonnes of high-grade iron ore, significant diamond and gold deposits, and undetermined quantities of uranium. Options for investment and commercial activities existed, but a combination of poorly developed infrastructure and rampant corruption kept the matter obstructive to most outside investors. But not to SPECTRE.

Three companies were responsible for the bulk of Guinea's bauxite production. The largest producer was the Sangarédi, operated by Compagnie des Bauxites de Guinée (CBG). Half was owned by the Guinean government and the other half by an international consortium, itself a joint venture. The Alumina Company of Guinea (ACG-Fria) was the main aluminium producing company in the country. It was majority-owned by foreign investors. The state owned Societé des Bauxites de Kindia (SBK) handled the Kindia mining operations, whose production was exported to the Ukraine.

Among his other dealings No 8 would handle the matter of negotiation—and embezzlement—with the companies involved in joint venture as well as their proprietors. No 7 was working to temper the unavoidable narrative of chemical warfare. No 12's job was to ensure the aforementioned companies were able to conduct mining operations and transport bauxite to the harbour without suffering further interruption from outside forces. The harbours had been tentatively reopened but under strict guidelines—only a handful of companies were allowed passage, at specific times, and CBG and AGC-Fria took priority.

[[MORE]]

No 12 was overseeing his own detail as before. They would arrive in Sangarédi Airport, make contact with the LAGUIPRES SECURITE—a security detail local to the country—and proceed from there to the aptly named sub-prefecture. Their route for mobilisation passed through several integral mining sectors. Once the mission was completed, No 12 and the adjoining operatives would await orders from No 3.

Safin was born May 9th, 1978, the unwanted by-product of a military commandant and a prostitute. The first fourteen years of his life were spent in Verny, Kazakhstan as a ward of the state. Due to development by the Soviet Union as well as relocation of workers and industries from European areas of the Soviet Union during World War II, Verny had plenty of ethnic Russians and Ukrainian. He knew from his records that his father was Russian and his mother was mixed—North Caucasian and Czechoslovakian—but had never met either parent before. Alive or not, Safin figured this was indication enough of where they stood. Confidence in this decision did not erase the hollow sentiment of being discarded. There was always this terse understanding that he was an exception, not anyone's first choice—so his relationship with the entities that served to protect him were similarly detached and cautious.

In spite of this he did not go out of the way to cause trouble for the man who fostered him during this period—a non-descript veteran of the USSR now in his mid-to-late forties. Sokolov was his name. He'd been in counterintelligence. Suffered several injuries during the war but was never discharged for it. Now he had made an attempt to settle down. His wife had passed on a few years ago, leaving behind a decent, empty home. Despite her wanting a child, they had none of their own—the most Sokolov ever deigned to say about the matter was that she was barren.

His home was pretty small, but sparingly furnished. It got cold as hell at night. Sokolov kept few pictures; his family, and his wife, and that was it.

Any affection between them was understood in terms of deeds, not words. A colder impression of love, but it rang true—Safin was young enough to soak up that impression and carry it with him for the remainder of his life. Sokolov could only pass on what he knew from his own father. Obviously he decided that Safin had to be put through schooling. He taught him enough about the country's history on his own time and asked a few questions about his own heritage that Safin honestly could not answer aside from what he knew from his records.

Most of the time Sokolov was genial. Never truly happy, in a deeply intimate sense Safin wouldn't quite understand until he was older. He smoked infrequently. Drank more often. He liked listening to music—old waltzes, mainly—and had a subtler appreciation for literature that he would try and impart onto Safin with varying measures of success. But he was clearly struggling with his own demons, if not from the war, then four decades worth of ruthless propaganda.

This, in turn, would translate into physical violence. Sokolov wouldn't apologise afterwards so much as wordlessly decide if Safin was able to walk and look presentable. He never did anything else to harm him, and he wouldn't antagonise him outright while sober.

As Safin got older, and with the ongoing threat of the USSR's collapse in the background, there was a sense of unease that hadn't been there before. Safin had decided for himself, very early on, that he would not be made a victim or remain indebted to others. Life in the company of any state-imposed foster candidate was better than trying to survive on the streets or waiting around on behalf of the government to be picked out.

He was not a particularly sentimental boy but he felt crippled by the persistence of his own emotional dissonance and abandonment in ways he could not articulate. So he withdrew into himself and brittle, hollow anger followed. This did not help him at school. He'd come home with minor injuries, bloodied knuckles, silent. Sokolov would say little of it. He was oddly understanding in that sense—at least for his standards, and only up to a point.

The only way Safin knew how to explain any of this was to ask, gruffly, if what he felt made him weak. Sokolov seemed incredulous at the idea, even offended. All he said was: "You'd have never made it this far if you were."

And it was true in more than one sense. Sokolov was drinking more often. He never beat him within an inch of his life, but several times came close enough that Safin wondered if he'd remember to stop himself. He started getting looks, a few questions from his instructors that only ever resonated in the sense of protocol rather than genuine concern.

But there were strange moments of levity. Sometimes Sokolov would just talk about what he'd seen during his childhood, or enlistment, or his wife, and Safin would listen, because it was obvious to him that this man had no one else to share the knowledge with. Sokolov wanted him to be equipped to face the world in ways he had not. The innumerable horrors as what had befallen Russia and its neighbouring countries under occupation of Soviet rule, when his own father was a boy, back at the turn of 1910s. There was no more war, not officially, but this peace was a transitionary period. The most consistent rule Sokolov put into his head was to keep what he knew to himself and not to trust this new era of glasnost being heralded by the public at large to protect him. In the end, all he had was himself.

Due to No 12's prior success with Conakry, as well as a string of other similar deployments, there was a high demand for his skillset. Safin had no foreseeable vices to exploit. Ostensibly he simply did what was ordered and nothing more. He had the military background and the ground-level experience, so he could blend into a variety of settings and not be questioned. Most of his projects with SPECTRE up until 2012 were just unofficial periods of enlistment anyway—and a good number of his fellow associates wouldn't set foot in the middle of these less-developed countries without their own private detail at minimum. Now, Safin figured it was not unwise to take precautions, but he also liked to think this set him apart.

The dead and wounded workers had to be replaced—and the CBG did not employ locals. Tension was inevitable between their displaced labourers and substitutes, as well as the local Guineans who could probably do the work just as efficiently. The businesses aligned with SPECTRE were allowed free passage. This, coupled with a series of crippling power-shortages throughout the week, was reason enough to incite a riot. Several had been attempted but quickly put to a stop by the on-site military force. Casualties were severe, but to be expected. It was up to No 12 to ensure a cleaner job.

From the miners, and eventually among the Guinean half of the detail, there was a lot of talk about the circumstances surrounding the initial situation in March. Since it was now strongly suspected to be a chemical attack and not a virus, their official intelligence had been quick to blame the insurrectionists despite an obvious disparity of resources and specialised military experience. Few, if any, trusted the government's official word. They looked to Safin differently. He was not just another bureaucrat but an officer—whether he was to be respected or loathed would depend on how he acted.

No 12 employed the same procedure with civilians as he did the team assigned to him. He made contact with the necessary outliers in order to determine where the disruptions were coming from—a smaller village not too far from their initial site. He sent a team of locals to gather intelligence and provide misinformation to those suspected to be the key figures. If they succeeded, they would be paid a small but respectable cut and left alive. There would be no excessive use of force. Any active insurrectionist would be brought in and interrogated. If they opened fire or attempted to incite any damage to the property or workers, they would be shot on sight and their sympathisers were no different. Hesitation or failure to follow these orders would get you shot. Negotiation was only acceptable up to a certain point, in the interest of sparing bloodshed.

For the ones that proved themselves capable, Safin would usually offer a greater shot than what their local government was and secure a few private military contracts when appropriate—once you had their loyalty, you didn't need to resort to intimidation or brute force or false promises. On a more subtle level he sometimes imagined he was doing them a better service than their supposed benefactors, but this was his own, private tenet.

Once he reached his formative years he was put through military school. The year was 1992. Almaty Republican Military School was one of several Republican Special Boarding Schools. These were created in the early 1980s on the basis of the Suvorov Military Schools and were subordinate to the Ministry of Education of the USSR until last December. The Commonwealth of Independent States were nationalised and so his school, as well as several others, came under the auspices of the local defense ministries.

There were stories passed around by other cadets about brothers, fathers, other relatives beset with the peacetime draft and their rates of success in absconding—this was their foreseeable future, and there was not much patriotism left. Within the first month Safin had ensured he would not make himself a target. In the eyes of the instructors he was, for the most part, just another conscript to be shaped into a reservist in four years. In the eyes of his peers it seemed he would not be winning anyone over.

Even at fifteen, Safin was smaller for his age. He talked so infrequently that there was initially some concern with the medical staff that he had, thanks to his erratic upbringing, suffered some kind of developmental disorder. Otherwise he was a diligent student. He followed orders well but chose to avoid working with anyone else if it could be helped. He was a decent shot. He made acquaintances with some of the other boys but he wouldn't really call them friends. He didn't talk about his life before enlistment, and after a month they gave up trying to ask him anything and just watched him resentfully from the side-lines.

Most of the time he was left alone. But not always. One would think they'd all be able to put aside their differences and find some kind of common ground, talk about how shitty the food was, and these damned instructors trying to prepare them for a war that had for all intents and purposes ended last year, but no. None of his peers were particularly affluent nor were they damningly poor, but it hardly mattered. The other boys all travelled in packs, like wild dogs. He was a loner by choice.

So by proxy it was decided he must think himself better—in retrospect, he made himself an easy target. Usually happened during unarmed combat. He wound up in the infirmary frequently enough, bloodied and sullen and slightly humiliated that he was still just as feeble as he'd been before. Well, that wasn't quite the case. He could hold his own in a fair fight—he knew how to leave his opponent in far worse condition but had enough sense to hold back; he didn't want to be kicked out for unwonted brutality. He could not retaliate reliably when up against someone bigger—such was the case with Bronev. There was something inscrutable about Safin that got under his skin. He had the same look in his eyes that Sokolov would get when he also asked about his background. Safin told him he was just here to become a soldier like anyone else.

Within the span of a few more days Bronev was circling him like a vulture. Always trying to start something. This culminated in throwing a few innocuous punches at each other during passing time, much to the delight of the other boys, spoiling for some excitement. It didn't go much further than Bronev sporting a bloodied nose by the end of it. There was a crushing handshake and few disgruntled comments from the nurses. But nothing more came of this for a week.

Safin wanted to figure that was the end of it. But he knew better. Bronev wasn't just bigger but cleverer. He didn't want to look like he'd lost in front of the boys for—whatever stupid reason he had it out for him. He'd bide his time.

They were exiting class, due for unarmed combat. Back in the courtyard. Bronev lingered back so he might catch up to Safin. Different, older crowd of boys met and enclosed them. The reason was irrelevant. Just another fight. Stupidly, Safin said: "I'll go easy on you."

Bronev grinned, all teeth. Then he said something about the instructor coming over. Other boys looked up convincingly enough that Safin fell for it. Bronev sucker punched him.

World tilted—winded, Safin found himself on the ground and Bronev on top of him—incredulity turned into rage that he'd been tricked so easily. Threw his arms up but it wasn't much help. Mouth full of blood, Safin went for his stomach, groin, anything—worked enough that his grip lessened—and blood was slippery—got enough distance between himself and Bronev to land a punch, hard enough to split knuckles on teeth. Bronev on the ground, shocked, recoiling. Safin didn't stop. Other boys were yelling. It wasn't encouragement. It took two kids to pull Safin off and hold him back. Panting hard.

Bronev was still breathing but he didn't get up. His face was a mess of flesh and blood.

Safin remembered sitting upright in the infirmary afterwards, still running off adrenaline. It was a clear day outside and the sunlight against the white sheets reflected blindingly. The flow of blood from his nose had lessened, still pulsed dully. He was able to staunch it but could not use his right hand without significant pain in his fingers. Probably broken. He was no longer furious enough to ignore his injuries. Blood spattered on his uniform had dried. His jaw was starting to bruise. He felt around for a loose tooth and the pain grounded him.

The nurse had given up trying to expend pity a long time ago. Now she just tried not to look at him—well, she didn't understand, she hadn't been there.

When he was presentable, he was called down to see Voronin, the head instructor. Voronin was highly respected by his peers and the students had a complicated relationship with him, erring somewhere between admiration and intimidation. There were several persistent rumours that he had ties to the USSR but no one dared ask about it. Of all their instructors, he was the most exacting as well as the oldest. He asked a few questions about Bronev's history with him, and Safin answered honestly. He had entered the office fully expecting to be discharged.

Instead, he was informed that he would be discharged if this happened again. His marks and reputation for staying out of trouble had saved him in that aspect.

Most of the other boys didn't seem to hate either of them outright. Safin's reputation with them didn't go beyond the realm of petty jealousy, or the easily understood desire to stay out of the line of fire. Safin could not fault them completely—in their position, he'd probably do the same—but it was difficult to look any of them in the eye and maintain respect. None of their superiors seemed keen to do anything about it as long as he could run through drills and complete his assignments—which also wouldn't have rankled with Safin much, except for the fact that he was clearly being singled out. He didn't care about the reasons behind it, just wanted to put an end to this. As tempting as it was to resort solely to few words and intimidation, this was clearly not enough anymore. If Safin couldn't have respect he would take fear.

Once Bronev had recovered they were both made to be sparring partners for the next two weeks. They were not paired off without close observation from the instructors but it was increasingly obvious something was amiss. Safin didn't understand it until Bronev mentioned it to him once, in-passing: "They think you're a fuckup."

"What?"

"They want us to kill each other. Or for you to kill me so they can kick you out."

Safin, at a loss, didn't answer. Bronev grunted: "So are you, or what?"

"I thought once was enough."

Bronev shut up. They were definitely not friends. But neither of them wanted to be kicked out. After two tense weeks they were no longer stuck with each other and Bronev left him alone. For the rest of his duration in military school Safin had no trouble.

There were still plenty of other, grisly stories thrown around about dedovshchina—the informal practise of initiation, hazing, or else abuse of authority, on part of the senior officers that had cropped up in the Soviet Armed Forces and was no different for the Russian Armed Forces. Just something else to look forward to in the next step.


December, 1995. He'd be turning eighteen in May, ready to graduate.

One morning the instructor pulled him aside and told him there was someone asking to see him. For a brief, stupid moment Safin thought of his biological father, not Sokolov. He tried to stuff the feeling down.

The man introduced himself as Doctor Guntram Shatterhand, a retired horticulturalist and botanist. Back in the sixties he had specialised in subtropical species. He made the right connections with the equivalent authorities in Japan, as well as several experts in the Ministry of Agriculture, and sunk at least a million pounds into establishing an private garden in which he would stock with a priceless collection of rare plants and shrubs from over the world. He had made back his money and then turned a steep profit.

From that job description he didn't seem like the kind of man who'd be fraternising with a bunch of teenage cadets. But he claimed to have heard about Safin from the instructors and was interested to know if he would hear him out. "I have a proposition," said Shatterhand. "A colleague of mine has requested a simple hit on his wife. You have been trained accordingly, yes?"

"Yes, sir."

"Should you agree, you will be provided transport to Altaussee and back to Kazakhstan by way of an associate—his name is Gruber. He will collect you in two weeks' time. Perform satisfactorily and you will receive the appropriate payment. Fail and your contract will be terminated."

Safin paused. "How much?"

Shatterhand didn't smile. But there was a flicker in the eyes that made him pause. "I will assess your performance and then decide."

Two weeks later, Safin was checking into the Hotel Seevilla under a false name and considering his plan. It was certainly a step-up from what he was used to. The climate here was biting and Gruber had gotten a kick out of his quiet fascination with snow, much to Safin's disgruntlement.

He received several odd looks because he was obviously not from around the area, but he let Gruber do most of the talking and tried to be polite. He had a package waiting in his room for him—postman's uniform, complete with bag. A standard-issue pistol and silencer. And a porcelain mask, intricately painted. Seemed impractical.

He was instructed to take the motorised dory because it would be anticipated by Mr. White. It was not the approach Safin would have favoured but he had no choice.

The lake was almost undisturbed. He was struck by the sight—like a sprawling pane of glass. He willed himself to focus on the task at hand. When he reached the dock he left the motor running. It was a two-storey cabin, well-kept. A flight of stairs led to the door. He walked up to it, pistol at the ready. At the door he knocked, stood back, waited. From the other side came two voices in muffled French.

The door opened and the woman set eyes on him. Safin fired twice, into the chest and the head. The woman crumpled. Behind her the entrance hall lay undisturbed—there was a girl. She did not move from her position beside the stairs, as though her lack of movement would make her less of a target.

The coat told him she was well looked-after. She looked old enough to know better than to linger. They stared at each other. She raised her arms out in front of her and his eyes locked onto the gun in her hands. She pointed it at his face, her teeth bared, eyes glittering with hatred. He levelled his own gun at her. Part of him didn't think she would be foolish enough to try and retaliate.

Then she pulled the trigger. Her gun wasn't silenced. Her aim was slightly off-kilter and it hit his jaw, broke the mask—white-hot pain. He was angrier more than pained. Knew he couldn't linger. She wasn't firing any more rounds. Was she stupid? He could easily retaliate. He worked his jaw and heard a different voice barking from the hall—the girl froze, wide-eyed.

They locked eyes. It wouldn't do him any good to kill her. She had not seen his face and it was likely she had no idea who he really was. If he tried to dissuade her she might change her mind and shoot him in the head—so he raised his hand towards her in a sign of surrender but kept the gun ready. Her hands trembled. He pivoted his body as though to duck. By the time she found her nerve and fired again, he was already out the door.

He did not take the dory back. It was a miserable hour's walk around the lake. His jaw throbbed. As soon as he was in a secure location he disposed of the mask and set to treating his wound. The girl was a decent shot for a civilian—but more importantly, she was an outlier. Shatterhand and Gruber had neglected to inform him there was a daughter. With this luck he'd probably be set upon in a few hours by White's friends.

To say Safin was furious with himself was an understatement—in his mind he'd just fucked up one of the biggest opportunities of his short-lived military career. But once his anger cleared he reminded himself that he could not afford to be rash. He had not been seen explicitly. He had killed the woman as directed. The girl was pretty much insignificant.

When he returned to Shatterhand he was congratulated formally. Safin was about to mention the mask then thought better of it. It was Shatterhand that brought up the situation, and the daughter—Madeleine. The guilt must have shown on Safin's face because Shatterhand misinterpreted his reaction, shrugged him off and said he had several more like it—as a matter of fact it was only a replica. When Safin didn't respond, the man looked almost incredulous, or amused, coldly so.

He turned eighteen in May, and was due to report to the local military commissariat, or voyenkomat, for assessment for military service. The list of summons came from every school and employer in the area. Since the fall of the USSR and a lower birth-rate in 1991 the number of applicants was not ideal. Safin had no other prospects. They could not dismiss him. He was of-age and able-bodied. The voyenkomat worked to quotas sent out by a department of the General Staff, in order to determine the amount of men required by each service and branch of the Armed Forces.

There were only a small number of professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs), as most were conscripts themselves meant prepare them for section commanders' and platoon sergeants'. The NCOs in turn were supplemented by praporshchik warrant officers, positions created in the 1960s to support the increased variety of skills required for modern weapons.

The Soviet Army's officer-to-soldier ratio was top-heavy in an effort to compensate for the military manpower base's lower education and absence of professional NCOs. After World War II there had been a great expansion of officer education. Officers now were the product of four-to-five-year higher military colleges. Newly commissioned officers received only three days off per month. Annual vacations were under threat if deficiencies were found within the unit. Morale amongst young officers was severely lacking. As before, Safin ensured he would be seen as exceptional. He did not undertake the effort for any ostentatious reason. He wanted to be seen as nothing less than what he was—a highly valuable candidate who could not be dismissed without thought.

After three years of this, he was transferred to Volgograd, in Russia, to continue as an Engineering Specialist. There was talk of reform for the Russian military forces throughout the duration of his enlistment as well as afterward. The issues with the military were complex and the result of several factors. Lack of success in the Afghan War reflected on the professional credibility of the Soviet armed forces. Several links with the Communist Party saddled the military with the politicians' corruption and incompetence. Glasnost only served to damage the reputation of the military further with stories of abuse of authority. And so on, so forth. It was a seemingly endless amount of problems and a lack of manpower and coherence to resolve this cleanly.

Safin had seen enough during his conscription to solidify his tenet. He wasn't a prodigy or anything so ostentatious. But he was a hell of a lot more dedicated than most of the other conscripts around him, because he knew he had no options outside of this environment. Most either thought he was insane or some kind of politicised idiot who fancied himself a savant. He had not been born into a life of peace. He wasn't about to settle for being at the whims of any incompetent or disrespectful officer. He was willing to bide his time and do whatever it took to reach the very top of the ladder. Then he could start enacting changes and reform the military. This much was in-reach.

Shatterhand kept in touch through proxy of Voronin and other nameless associates; Safin found the pay was better when he stuck to outsourcing. He remained dependable and precise, and pretty soon he had a reputation.

January, 2014.

Progress overall had been slow but manageable. There were several attempted riots and attacks, but all were intercepted quickly. No deaths. Only minor damages sustained. Their route continued and it was more of the same; no deaths, minor damages. And then—several chemical attacks in Boké. The SECURITIE men were growing uneasy. Unlike Safin and his private team they had families and livelihoods—a lot more to lose. He kept this in mind as he ordered them accordingly.

A week before this No 12 and No 4 had discussed the consequences of wiping out massive swathes of the African population in order to acquire natural resources. No 12 thought it was unnecessary to kill a massive amount in such a short amount of time. The corruption within the government was useful but not the issue—if they were to let it play out like a virus, it would, with enough scrutiny, soon enough draw unwanted attention to SPECTRE's machinations—there were always eyes on them. If it were introduced into the hands of supposed insurrectionists they could be used as a proxy—it was not only true but easily manipulated.

No 4 had agreed. Then asked why in the hell 12 saw fit to keep messing about with these ground-level tactics when he could simply stand back and let the government handle it. It was a lot of extra legwork and far less efficient. It introduced another proxy layer, cushioning the blame.

No 12 had been ready to agree. Then No 4 added:

"As I've said, you're only one man. It's inefficient this way. And it lays the groundwork for unreliability. Take No 11; despite his experience as MI6, despite his cyber-terroristic prowess, despite all of this, in the end he proved to be a loose cannon. Same as Le Chiffre or any other failure which was not tolerated. Any one person can develop a conscience or his own set of principles, and go awry—we are a fraternity first and foremost. It is fear that is a more powerful harbinger to the world at large."

"If these smaller groups and their governments can benefit from joining us, they will have less reason to act out of line. Just keep them around and dispose of them as needed."

"Yes. But you're presuming they will not begin to form their own ideas." No 12 had looked at him coolly. "Come on, they're hardly professionals. They're just—well, you've been down there yourself."

"You can't always ensure anyone will perform to their potential from behind a desk."

No 4 had laughed. "Of course not! I didn't mean to imply there is absolutely no use for ground-work. That would be—well, a utopian ideal."

Truthfully, Safin's experience as a soldier had gotten him fairly little recognition in the long run. More probably, his skillset was too specific and could only get him so far in the world of organised crime—he was not some bureaucrat and would be displeased to be taken as such.

Over the years, he'd managed to create a small, tight-knit network of specialists and ex-military operatives from various countries. He wasn't interested in money, though in 2009 he'd accrued enough to secure a small submarine pen on the coast of Vis, a small island off of Croatia. The naval base in question was a vestige of WWII and had seen several occupants, the last of which by the Yugoslav People's Army until it was abandoned in 1989. In 1991 Croatia secured its independence and their navy made no efforts to reclaim the base. Officially it was reported to be under renovation in the interest of civilian use. This was a front. Throughout the years he slowly built up the resources to make something of it. His plans were well-kept and known only to him and a handful of people.

Pretty soon he had created an unofficial, unnamed organisation tucked away within the many arms of SPECTRE. Blofeld never questioned this outright but he was acutely aware of it. Silva had been the one to suggest that Safin should follow through on the idea, but never put his faith in it completely. Safin guessed he just wanted to wash his hands of it.

By the time he was twenty-four he'd taken part in a variety of operations, several having to do indirectly with the Second Chechen War. Dozens if not hundreds of smaller jobs on behalf of Shatterhand's contacts, rather than the man himself. These were mostly political assassinations and threats of intimidation. It got him favours and took him up the ladder far more quickly, but he accrued just as many enemies. No matter. He was a senior officer by now. With any luck, in a year, he'd be in the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation, the principal security agency of Russia and the main successor agency to the Soviet Union's KGB.

It was only a matter of time before everything caught up with him.

Overall command of the federal forces in Chechnya was transferred from the military to the FSB in January 2001. Then after less success, the government transferred the responsibility from the FSB to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in July 2003.

Safin had been tipped off by an associate of Voronin's that there were concerns of terrorist activity at the hydroelectric plant in Volgograd. Obviously, if the factory was to be targeted there could be massive casualties, both mortality wise and economic. If they were to send more than one or two men, this might cause the operative to flee; it had to be him.

So that was how he ended up alone at three in the morning. In hindsight Safin had no clue how he hadn't seen it coming until he was already in the thick of it. Arrogance? A desire to believe he could salvage the nature of the military infrastructure through whatever means necessary?

It hardly mattered. There was an incident, and it fell due to his lack of attentiveness. The authorities could never prove how it happened. His injuries were severe. He was discharged, to the outward dismay of very few. Hospitalised for weeks. Vengeance became his only consistent bedfellow. Every day he woke up fully expecting to be killed. Yet nothing more came of it. His only wish was to throw himself right back into work. A suicidal ideal—but what else had he to cling to? No family or friends of lasting importance.

Even when he had recovered enough to leave, he was crippled badly. He could not track down any one man in particular. It was around this time that Shatterhand reached out to him one final time. He had heard of the incident and thought his talent might be put to better use elsewhere. If Safin was still interested, he was not to respond but to talk to Voronin.

Unfortunately, Voronin was dead. He'd been found in his home. The story put out was that he'd passed on in his sleep. Privately Safin had to wonder elsewise. But then another name cropped up—Tiago Rodriguez. The former MI-6 agent from 1997. With enough digging, and some patience, he and Rodriguez got into contact indirectly. Safin got in touch with Shatterhand again, who in turn, introduced himself by the name of Ernst Blofeld.

And that was how he wound up in SPECTRE—a contract killer turned counterintelligence officer, defecting to one of the most infamous crime organisations in the world. At the time, he was the youngest to join at twenty-six but he refused to let it discourage him. He returned to his work, a great deal more ruthless and uncompromising. His scarification only exemplified his conviction.

Shortly before joining he adopted the name Lucifer. An ironic choice; given the history between the Russian Empire and Chechenya, it was all the more appropriate in his eyes—but he was not a man of any dedicated religious tenet. He had nothing to come home to and no one to lean on. For the following years, between his duties with SPECTRE and new work in the FSB, he made a name for himself.

By mid-February the mission was completed. On Safin's end there had been several casualties for the terrorists. Most by now were dead or else crushed beyond reckoning. The mining companies had gotten off without permanent damages, only some inconvenience in the last two weeks. One of the members of the Guinea-side team had defected and subsequently had to be killed. For the next few days the damage was palpable. His mission became a matter of minimising casualties rather than transporting goods. That delayed their operations by at least a week. But now it was done. The suppliers were pleased with how he'd handled it. No 1 would most likely be a different story.

The cabin of the private plane carried a sombre tension. Finally remembering what you are going home to. This time it was just No 12 and No 8, the security detail, and the pilot. No 7 and No 4 had stayed behind to cement a new narrative on account of the unforeseen complications.

"Happy to be going back?" asked No 8.

No 12 looked over at him but did not answer. No 8 scoffed. "I forget how little you talk. Well, that's all right with me. I suppose you will let me do the honours."

No 12 did not dissuade him. He was too weary.

"On our level," said White, "you don't get fired, you know that. After thirty years of productive work, they can't say to a man like me, 'All right, now get out!' They just can't do that. So what do they do? They create a situation. A situation you can't work in and finally that you can't live in with this tension, abuse. Small humiliations. It all starts out on a scale so subtle, so microscopic that at first you can't really believe it's happening at all. But gradually the thing begins to take shape. The pieces fit together—all the little bits. And it becomes unmistakable. They chip away at your pride, your security until you begin to have doubts, and then fears."

Safin's eyes were trained on the window, but he was listening intently.

"Understand, I am not looking for your pity. I suppose that I merely wish to… impart my own perspective onto someone with a bit more tenure to spare."

Safin still said nothing. He heard White sigh.

"Thank you for keeping her safe."

Safin didn't need to ask. He turned slightly. Cast under the overhead light, White's age became apparent. He looked almost frail.

"I know, between us, it has only ever amounted to business. But… this. This is different. You cannot understand unless you have had children. And, you're aware, she's all I have left." White paused. "She's more likely to accept her situation coming from someone else. You've seen that much yourself."

Safin held his gaze. White's expression carried the same exhaustion he'd seen in the eyes of his daughter. He said: "I'll make sure she is made aware."

White nodded, turned away. "There's a reason why No 1 has favoured you this long."

He said it plainly, without obvious emotion—he was too beaten down to resort to petty envy. But his eyes were very grave.

No 1, known to others as Franz Oberhauser or in exceptional cases, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, was a thin man whose age was not immediately apparent from the way he carried himself. He had an enigmatic smile and a childlike sparkle about his eyes that came about when he was discussing something that fascinated him. Or destroying his enemies—there was little difference. His voice was light and flat, even when he was about to send you to your death. Only the eyes ever gave him away. In official meetings he kept himself cloaked in the shadows, no longer a man but a force emanating from the head of the table.

"No 7 has delivered on her promise. You have also ensured the safe transfer of shipments. It is No 8 who came up short. A quarter of a million." Blofeld's lithe hands on the table remained very still, like a taxidermized model. "No 8 has claimed he was disrupted. I have reviewed the report; you were intercepted twice?"

"That's correct, sir."

"In the fourteen years you have come to work with SPECTRE you have provided satisfactory output. But you must understand that I have my limits. I was generous enough with QUANTUM. In this case the fault with No 8 is clear."

No 12 waited. It was easier to go along with No 1 unless he was asking you a direct question. Most of the time he did not care either way. He was just looking for ways to pick apart whoever was on the other side of the desk.

"In addition," continued No 1, "I have received confidence from No 4 about our colleagues over at MI6. One of them may be coming around to stick his nose into our business very soon. Their concerns lie with our involvement back in March, which will inevitably trail back to the MSF's meeting in Oslo. This will take place a week from today." The thin lips twisted into a smile, which did nothing to disguise his latent contempt. "I have already debriefed Dr Swann on the matter. It is your job to ensure she is kept out of the line of fire for as long as it can be helped. Otherwise you will have to take action."

"Has there been a problem?"

"Not yet." No 1 studied him for a moment. "I thought you would enjoy being out of West Africa for a while."

"I'm fine where I am, sir."

The smile on Blofeld's face never touched the eyes; it was just another mechanical action. "There's no need to be modest. You cannot work to your potential sticking to ground missions alone."

"That's nothing to do with it." No 1's eyes sharpened. "Given Dr Swann's position as informant, it's inevitable she will be targeted internally or by enemies of SPECTRE. If I am to return now, it will run the risk of compromising her further."

"For what reason would your presence compromise her?"

He thought: You're making her into a scapegoat. I'm not about to be pulled into something I cannot finish. "This isn't anything to do with her. It's about No 8."

Blofeld's head inclined very slightly. "You are the third party. Aligned to no one but SPECTRE."

No 12 was furious. It was difficult to know unless you knew him. But there was a rigidity to his frame that hadn't been so prevalent before. His voice was taut. "You must forgive me. I was under the impression my assignment here was more pressing than—"

"No 12," said Blofeld pithily, "it is unlike you to hold reservations. This mission is just as crucial as your previous assignment. Dr Swann is only valuable to SPECTRE as long as she remains malleable. In the five months she has been with us she has offered no trouble. You have given her more than enough information to warrant her trust and provided no signs of deviation. No 4 will refer to you once the nature of your next assignment has been decided. Until then, you will return to Olso and ensure Swann remains in workable condition."

"Understood."

Pause.

The grey head bowed almost imperceptibly. "Very well, No 12. That will be all."


a/n: That's a wrap! And now, some notes:

While the three mining companies in Guinea do exist, obviously none of them are owned by SPECTRE.

The continuity with the side-fic Blood Simple has been discarded and flipped on its head; Safin is recruited by Silva rather than the other way around.

Dr. Guntram Shatterhand is the primary villain in the novel You Only Live Twice but, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I will only add that he operates under a pseudonym. In this case his function is similar. Parallels between that continuity and this one might come into play later….

Mr. White's house is actually a restaurant IRL. It's called Jagdhaus Seewiese, and can be reached on foot from the Church in Altaussee in 30 minutes, or from Hotel Seevilla in 60 minutes. There is a path on the northern shore of the lake. But there's also the option to rent a boat. Honestly I would have written this differently if I'd known, but what can you do?

Part of the monologue from Mr. White to Safin is taken directly from the 1956 film Patterns, directed by Fielder Cook and written by Rod Serling. 10/10 would recommend.

1. A Thousand Details 4430 0 0 2. Gratitude 5125 0 0 3. Hedgehog's Dilemma 5607 0 0 4. Hopeless 5836 0 0 5. Smile! No One Cares How You Feel 5596 0 0 6. Like Home 5603 0 0 7. Never Be The Same 7558 0 0