Ulman had never glorified his job like others. He had never claimed that it only brought honour and was littered with good deeds. He had never claimed that only the bad people suffer the consequences. He had never claimed that he was the hero of this story.
In the end, he was just a soldier who had to follow orders. No matter if they came with dirty aspects. Ulman was not in the comfortable position to debate those. And so, his job came with tasks that needed to be done. The things that nobody else dared to do – regardless if it was fear holding them back or even an inability to start with. Ulman could not allow either of those to stop him. So he stepped in when nobody else would: to do whatever was demanded, steady, unswerving, and cold-hearted.
After all, Ulman had sworn an oath to protect the metro as a whole; his actions were on behalf of the greater good. It might be a hopeless task, but Ulman was simply too stupid and stubborn to give up on it.
On some days, this oath rewarded him: he received an honest thank you, small acts of kindness in return, celebrations among his squad, or even seeing a family reunite with a child he picked up in the tunnel …
On other days, the same words he had sworn his life to, mocked him. They loathed him for what he had done in order to fulfil his oath. Today was such a day.
Even as he stepped into the warm light of Polis he could not forget the sensations: the smell of burnt flesh, the feeling of someone squirming with all their might underneath him, the screams and shouts, and the accusation those eyes beheld as they looked straight at Ulman. In exactly this moment, Ulman had become the face someone else would see in his nightmares …
This should have started to get better the further he had walked from Nagatinskaya and the closer he had been to Polis but the tightness in his chest only increased with each step. Because what was one backwater station to Polis anyway?
Sure, Miller could ask the council for additional help, for the supplies that were so desperately needed now. But those people picked and chose who they wanted to help, hiding behind political arrangements, if it suited them. If there was no gain, then Polis relied on its presence as a city state which needed to take care of its own citizens primarily.
Ulman knew that they sat in their comforts of neutrality, adored from all sides for being the last hope and beacon of humanity left in this crumbling world. But when push came to shove, they hid inside their four stations. Their walls guarded by one of the finest fighters of the metro, and of course, the Spartan Rangers.
After all, Polis could rely on them because of some bullshit agreement made years ago. Then they could send the lovely Spartans to the poor station in need. Even though, The Rangers were trained fighters and their supplies consisted mostly of weapons and gear. Those had their limits, especially when humanitarian aid was far more needed.
However, as Spartans, they could not decide who deserved their help and who did not. If shit hit the fan, they crawled through it. If that was not possible, they would stand until the last man! There was no other option. There was no picking and choosing, so when ordered to hold a man still while they cut into his body, Ulman had done it without batting an eye!
“Hey, hey, welcome back.”
Ulman spotted a few familiar faces in the group of Rangers he had walked past them, noting their lighter gear and the relaxed atmosphere. So Ulman put on a friendly smile and nodded at them in return.
There was no reason to ruin their next shift of boring tunnel guarding. The smiles and waves which told Ulman that he was home did nothing to remove the knot deep inside his chest. Not even seeing Pavel at the end of the group managed to turn his fake smile into a real one.
He should be glad that Pavel was not hurt beyond comparison or crushed to pieces. He was alive and well, in deep conversation with Krasnov.
If only he could hide in Pavel’s arms, so that this hell that still followed him would disappear. He wanted to hear Pavel’s promise that everything would be alright again. He wanted to hear his breathing, and feel the sense of home and comfort that he had always given him. It was a desperate wish for a world that was less brutal …
Pavel stopped in front of him, and it was only then that Ulman realised that he had reached out for him. The remains of a smile were still visible on Pavel’s face, but now his brows were knit, his eyes searching Ulman’s face for any clues.
But Ulman did not want to explain, so he took a step forward and wrapped his arms tightly around Pavel, hugging him.
“Hey …” it was a mere whisper from Pavel as he closed his arms around Ulman, pressing the side of his head against his.
The small movement caused tears in Ulman’s eyes but unwilling to let them fall, he pressed his face in Pavel’s shoulder. In order to keep some sort of control, he concentrated on Pavel’s breathing, hearing it against his ear, feeling his chest against his own. A steady and calming constant.
“… what happened?”
The only response Ulman could give was a shake of his head. He did not want to remember the hell he had stepped into, the ceiling caved in with people crushed underneath the debris. Screams, and desperate calls for help … Why hadn’t they passed out? Why hadn’t the station fallen into deafening silence instead?
Not even the pain of an unsedated amputation had been enough. Instead, people continued to scream, scramble, and try to hit and scratch Ulman. The only person strong enough but also willing to force them to hold still during the procedure. If an animal had been in such pain, shooting it would have been considered a mercy compared to the fate Ulman had forced upon them.
Pavel nodded briefly and pressed a soft kiss on Ulman’s temple as he moved back ever so slightly and cupped his cheeks. Ulman was surprised that anyone would still grace him with such a gentle touch, even the worry in Pavel’s blue eyes surprised him. Pavel did not see the same monster as others had. Instead, he seemed to be looking for obvious injuries but Ulman knew that he had none.
Just as Pavel opened his mouth to speak, someone shouted “Zorin! You wanna turn to stone over there?!” and effectively commanded him away.
Neither looked at the source but Pavel let out a long breath and rolled his eyes. But Ulman was too tired, and too beaten to react to this. In the end, he could not keep Pavel from his tasks.
Pavel should not press the top of his head against Ulman’s, he should join his squad instead. After all, he had sworn the same oath as Ulman had, so wasn’t it duty above everything else? No matter the situation? Ulman could hardly be the exception.
Since Pavel did not rush away, Ulman almost believed that maybe they did not live in a world that was harsh beyond comparison. There might be some gentleness left.
After all this was Pavel, who had always shown kindness towards him, laughed about the stupidest jokes, and never pushed him into a hellish situation. He had remained good-natured, kind, and gentle, the opposite of what Ulman feared he had become. Even though, the list of Pavel’s sins could easily match Ulman’s.
One way or another, Ulman was sure that this oath would kill either of them. As Rangers they did not even fear death anymore, it was an eventual part of their lives. But what would Ulman become when he would lack the reminder of humanity and kindness that Pavel was for him?
“I’ll come to you afterwards, alright?” Pavel whispered quietly as he ran his thumb along his cheek.
The only answer Ulman offered was a mere nod. So Pavel kissed the top of his head, and gave his shoulder a squeeze. There was a gentle smile on his face but Ulman knew that he worried more than he should …
It took a moment before Pavel stepped away from him to join his squad.
“Did you want to make out there as well?” came loud enough that even Ulman heard it, even though, his back was turned towards the group.
“Shut the fuck up, Lesnitsky!” It was Pavel; the tone crude and commanding in response to the subordinate officer. “Be useful for once in your life.”
Bit by bit, the remainders of the day were removed by Ulman. The blood on his clothes had washed off, and with it the smell of burnt flesh. In order to remove the sensation of a squirming body from his hands, he punched a boxing bag until his body could no longer take the punishment.
What remained were the screams. Those continued to haunt him, and Ulman did not understand why. After all, he could take being insulted, cursed upon and words filled with hatred. He had suffered through almost every type of physical abuse before, he had been tortured and had still lived to see the next day … so why was he unable to forget those screams?
Those replayed in his head over and over, begging for mercy while Ulman just kept wondering why the hell this person would not pass out. So he had pushed down harder until desperation turned into a kind of anger and disgust he could not define. The accusation in those eyes and screams had been clear, Ulman personally had been to blame for this.
As Ulman lay on his side in bed and hugging his own legs, he wondered if maybe this was not too far from the truth. What else was he meant to do? Leave those people to rot, with their legs and arms crushed underneath debris? Would Ulman not hate the person who would do anything like this to him? Probably …
It was not like Ulman had had a choice. He had been ordered to help as best as he could, and this was what had been required of him. Refusing had been out of the question. So what did it matter if they thought of Ulman as the stuff of nightmares now?
Maybe if he drank the rest of his senses away, the question would no longer be a problem. Ulman even wondered if the bitter taste of alcohol would burn the memories away.
Then Pavel would find him bent over a toilet as he vomited his insides out. Even then Pavel would not scold him and push him aside. He might not even mention the unhealthy behaviour, but Ulman knew that it would break Pavel’s heart. Ulman had spread enough pain for one day.
How else was he meant to get the rest Miller had ordered him to take? How was he supposed to wake up the next morning with his typical good-hearted nature that everyone expected? How was he supposed to believe that all the pain he had caused to people who did not deserve any of it was fair?
Maybe other Rangers did not care about this, but Ulman did. It was a fault but one he was unable to fix either.
If he was not able to accept these dirty aspects, was he even worthy of the badge he carried around his neck? As the thought crossed his mind, Ulman reached for this tag, feeling the engravings on the metal: The Order’s emblem, his name, the day and month he had joined, his year of birth, and then his blood type. A whole life so neatly compressed that it fit onto such a small space. As if this made it into a simple one.
If it weren’t for this tag, what would be left of Ulman? Where else would he go? And what would he even do? He could not be a simple mercenary who did whatever shit jobs were offered for the highest pay.
That was simply not who he was. The world still ate itself when there were only so few left, and Ulman wanted no part in the senseless wars between them. Instead, he wanted to do what was right, to offer a hand when the situation seemed hopeless and nobody else dared to.
How could he claim that he still did this, when he had caused so much suffering to innocent people today?
Ulman was about to rip the chain off with one tug when he felt Pavel’s hand enclose his, stopping him.
Pavel offered no words, no empty comfort, no condescending words for his pathetic behaviour. Instead he merely hugged Ulman from behind, wrapping his arms around him.
When the last remains of Ulman’s composure finally broke apart, Pavel was the only anchor left. Somehow Ulman would have to hold onto it, even as all the emotions washed over him and threatened to wreck him. All the anger, pain, hatred, sadness and dread wanted to crush him, pressed him down without mercy just to mirror what Ulman had done today.
Yet, Pavel remained steady and unyielding – even as Ulman screamed and tried to push him away only to break down a moment later, unable to even breathe. Pavel was still by his side. He whispered in quiet words, that this would pass. Ulman would be able to breathe again, Pavel promised, and he never made promises he could not keep.
Even as the fight left Ulman’s body and he could not fix the mess he had created Pavel did not leave. He wiped the tears and snot from his face, and kissed his cheeks.
“You’re not a monster,” Pavel merely whispered it. Even though, Ulman could not remembered what he had even shouted. Now, he only heard Pavel’s voice, and felt him wrap a blanket around him. “Were you meant not to give a shit? You are only human.”
Ulman knew better than most, that humans were fundamentally flawed and so was he. Right now, Ulman could not even find the energy to open his eyes again; let alone talk. Only a pitiful hiccup escaped him.
“That’s not a bad thing …” Pavel went on. Now Ulman felt him combing through his hair, sorting through the strands that had gone awry. “… sure, it hurts like hell sometimes, but it also enables you to do this. There are thousands of people who do not give a shit. They would have walked past. You are right, nobody else would have done that but because you did those people continue to have a life.”
Ulman felt Pavel shifting and lying down next to him. His arms wrapped around Ulman, pulling him towards his chest. Pavel’s heart beating underneath him … for the first time during this whole day, it was the only sound Ulman heard.
“Tomorrow the world will start to make sense again …” Pavel whispered as he pressed a kiss on the top of his head. “… pinkie promise.”
Oddly enough, Ulman believed him.