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Pavel had to admit that he had missed Ulman among their usual group tonight. Then again, seeing Ulman with his new boyfriend in the bar had also brought a smile on his face. After all, he had noticed the slight dip in Ulman’s mood, and how his answer about how it was going had become quite crude and monosyllabic. 

Today, however, Ulman had smiled and seemed comfortable again – getting more drunk by the hour, and laughing like an idiot. It was a lovely sight and it seemed that they had worked it out.

Pavel was glad about that, because he wanted to see Ulman happy … even if he did not want to think about specifics when he had seen them leave the bar together.

Not long afterwards, Pavel had excused himself from his friends – tired of the day as well. It was time to hit the hay, and he wanted to get an early start because their car was in desperate need of an oil change. Something Pavel would have to squeeze in before Miller would take it out … If only Miller bothered to adapt the schedule to Pavel’s needs, then life would be easier.

Those had been the days; when Pavel had still been able to stand in an actual shop and tell some stuck-up costumer that sorry, they only had a spot at 07:30 available sink or swim, bitch.

“Come on, you’ll like it.”

The smile from Pavel’s face disappeared as he heard that. He rolled his eyes, wondering which drunk couple had snuck around the corner because they couldn’t wait a few more minutes to get home.

“I … I don’t … I am not …” Pavel frowned, hearing the stutter. “I don’t want to.”

Finally, a full sentence made out, and despite the fear and stuttering, Pavel was sure that it was Ulman’s voice.  

“I didn’t hear you complain the last time.”

Hearing Ulman so scared made Pavel quickly forget any other thoughts and he followed the noises.

“I am not in the mood.” It was Ulman but Pavel could tell that he was damn close to tears and he did not like it one bit.

“I can change that.” 

“No …”

The plea was barely audible and hadn’t Pavel just rounded the corner, he might have missed it. In the dark backroom, Pavel saw them: Ulman pressed against the wall – looking anywhere but his date, who had pinning him against the wall. His hands pressed onto Ulman’s shoulders, leg prominently between Ulman’s as if to demonstrate power.

“You’ll like it, I know you do.”

Ulman tried to press off the wall, but it was clear that the alcohol had muddled his senses. Boris had an easy job to pin him down again, pressing his body against Ulman and cupping his cheek so that he had no choice but to look at him.

“Please, don’t.” It was barely a whisper.

“Hey, fuckface!” Pavel’s words echoed in the small room, and instantly Boris looked at him – the anger clear on his face.

Before he could even respond, Pavel took a few steps forward and grabbed Boris by the shoulders – giving him such a strong push that he fell onto the ground.

“What you want, asshole!” Boris shouted back. “You want to fuck the slut yourself?”

Pavel was shocked by the utter anger and disdain in Boris’ voice – a man who seemed to have had genuine feelings for Ulman; feelings Ulman had returned despite his own fears at the beginning.

“Should have known that he’s spreading his legs for you,” Boris mocked him and snorted, despite his pathetic position on the floor.  “Wait for your turn, bitch, because I am still going to fuck him  ---”

The rest of the sentence did not make it out because Pavel rammed his knee into Boris’ face. The crunch was hard to miss, and then Boris fell flat onto the floor. Whining, and curling into a ball as he held his face – blood dripping from it.

Which was just as well because Pavel did not want to hear another word. While Boris was not unconscious, Pavel knew that he was out of it and unable to do any further damage – physical or verbal.

So Pavel turned towards Ulman, finding him with ease because he had slumped onto the ground, hugging his own legs and burying his face in them.

“Hey?” Pavel whispered it merely as he went onto his knees in front of him. “Look at me?”

Only when Ulman slowly looked up, could Pavel see that his eyes were rimmed red and despite Ulman’s effort to wipe the tears away they did not stop. Pavel did not even have to ask if Ulman was okay, because the answer was an obvious no.

Taking a deep breath, Pavel offered him a warm smile in the hope that it would tell Ulman that he was safe again.

“Come on,” Pavel offered and gently rested a hand on his knee. “I’ll bring you home, alright?”

At this Ulman merely nodded but did nothing to get back on his feet. So Pavel offered him his hand, watching as Ulman slowly took it. 

“Can you stand up?”

Taking Pavel’s other hand, Ulman nodded again. Then Pavel got up and carefully pulled Ulman back onto his feet. Now he noticed that Ulman staggered, and how clouded his eyes were – which made Pavel wonder how drunk he was exactly. Especially given that Ulman hardly ever got shit-faced since he was a lightweight. Pavel did not like the implication at all that it had happened when Boris had served him the drinks all night.

“You can lean on me.”

Pavel placed his arm around Ulman’s shoulder as the other man held onto him. Then they started to walk, letting the silence stretch.

After all, Pavel did not want to force Ulman into sharing anything he did not want to. At the same time, he continued to wonder how those seemingly sweet and harmless dates had taken such a horrible turn.

The thought made Pavel’s gut twist because he did remember how reluctant Ulman had been at first. At least until, about a week later, Ulman had quietly admitted to Pavel that despite being in his mid-20s he had never dated before. Weapon specifications were just much more interesting, Ulman had joked about his youth.   

Despite this, Ulman had wanted to try but feared that he was not up to standards. So Pavel had carefully explained that if Boris really cared, he would understand and they could take things slow.

“And here we are,” Pavel announced as he opened the door for Ulman.

As they entered, Pavel could not see anything out of the ordinary: Ulman’s usual mixture of messy clothes and books, paired with uncanny detail and order to anything military related. It should feel perfectly at home for him, and yet, as Ulman stood there in the middle of his room, he looked lost.

Pavel could hardly blame him for it, and quietly closed the door. Without saying anything, he stepped up to this closet and took out a fresh shirt as well as comfortable cotton trousers.

Then he handed them to Ulman, who inspected the goods for a moment but seemed to understand the offer and nodded.

“I can turn around or leave,” Pavel suggested.

Even though casual nudity had never been a problem between them – after all, Polis had public showers, and the dressing room in their training area did not leave much privacy either. However, given what had happened, Ulman might be uncomfortable with the current situation.

Ulman merely shook his head and without much ado pulled his shirt over his head.

Pavel bit his lip, seeing the red spot on his shoulder already knowing that it would turn into a nasty bruise over night. At least the rest of Ulman’s skin appeared unharmed but Pavel knew that the damage was still there.

“It was my fault anyway,” Ulman mumbled it and shrugged when he saw Pavel looking at his wound.

Pavel could not fathom how Ulman could come to this conclusion, but he knew that it was not true. “I doubt that.”

When Ulman finished changing, he merely shrugged and thew the old clothes onto his dirty laundry pile in the corner.

“Yeah, not Boris’ fault that I am a freak.”

This had to be the alcohol talking, so Pavel shook his head. “You are not a freak, Ulman.”

As an only response Ulman shrugged. Despite his best efforts to hide it, Pavel could tell that Ulman was close to tears. Not wanting to scare him, Pavel carefully took a step towards him and placed a hand on his back, rubbing it gently.

Suddenly, a hiccup escaped Ulman and he shook his head – unable to stop any other tears. So Pavel took him in his arms and pressed a kiss on his hair. “It’s okay,” he whispered softly, and continued to hold him while Ulman sniffed but tried his best to get back in control again.

When Ulman carefully pulled back just a little, Pavel suggested, “Come on, sit down.” And guided him to the bed. While Ulman sat down placing his legs on the bed to hug them once more, Pavel filled a glass with water and handed it to him. “Here, drink a little.” Maybe it would also help to sober him up.

Pavel noted that Ulman’s hands were slightly shaking when he took the glass, making him wish that he could do something to take all the fear away. They faced death every day, and were comfortable with it, but to get abused by someone within their own ranks – someone you trusted – that was nothing anyone could be trained for …

So Pavel merely continued to rub Ulman’s back and removed the strands of hair from his face. At least, Ulman had no problem with Pavel touching him – if anything, he even pressed into the small gestures of kindness.

As Ulman handed the glass back to Pavel, and Pavel placed it onto the nightstand he asked, “why would you think that you are a freak?”

He could still not wrap his head around how Ulman had gotten to that conclusion. He was far from; a kind man with a good-hearted nature who was smart enough to not take any shit for it. On top of that, Ulman was fiercely loyal to his friends. In fact, Ulman was probably the only person Pavel knew who loved so deeply and openly.

 “If Boris told you that, I am willing to break his nose again.”

There Ulman smiled weakly but even Pavel could see that it had done nothing to remove the sadness. “He didn’t need to,” Ulman merely mumbled it.

Pavel could not tell if this was something Ulman had concluded by himself, or if those were words Boris had put into his head over the last few weeks. Pavel did not know which idea he hated more.

“What happened between you?” he asked carefully.

It was hardly a surprise when the only answer Ulman gave was another shrug. Then he continued to stare at his hands, clenching and unclenching them. Pavel knew those signs and knew that Ulman was close to end of his wits. So Pavel merely shuffled closer to let Ulman lean against his chest.

“I am here for you, alright.”

Ulman nodded and snuggled into his embrace. No matter what Ulman would do, Pavel would never hurt him, and because of this, he also had no intentions of forcing the truth out of him now. So he sat there in silence, holding him, and running is hands along his back – occasional kissing his temple and asking if Ulman was still okay with Pavel being here. A nod was always the answer, and so the silence continued to stretch.

“I just …” Ulman broke it with a mere whisper and so Pavel opened his eyes again.

“Hm?”

“I just hated it so much.”

Suddenly an ugly sob escaped Ulman, and he pulled a little back from Pavel as if surprised that he had made that sound. Yet, there were no more tears on Ulman’s face.

So Ulman shook his head and continued to talk, “At first Boris said that it’s okay. He can wait. We can take it slow, and I thought that’s cool … but eventually it would have to happen, right?”

Pavel did not answer because he feared the damage that it might cause. After all, Ulman’s speech was not clear, so he let him continue.

“And I thought I would start wanting it myself at some point. It’s a thing you do in a relationship after all. It should come naturally but it never did.” There Ulman shrugged. “But Boris said you can’t have a relationship without sex …”

Pavel released a deep breath, realising what Ulman was talking about and the intimate nature of it. So he pulled Ulman closer, wordlessly letting him know that he could tell him anything.

“… it does not work like that, he told me. If I really cared, I would have sex with him,” Ulman added it quietly. “And when I showed no interests in girls when growing up, people joked that I must be gay. That’s fine, and I like all that hand holding and shit, but I just can’t imagine …”

There Ulman broke off, and when he did not continue, Pavel quietly added “to have sex with one?” for him.

Ulman nodded. “And there’s always the hilarious joke that Ulman just needs a good fuck to get it over with, right? Because obviously I don’t know what I am missing out on.”

Pavel stayed quiet because in the last few weeks, he had also heard those hurtful rumours. Even though, he had not been able to fathom who had started them – now he had a pretty good hunch.

“Don’t worry, the joke is old. I heard it in almost every variation before,” Ulman added casually, as if this was a perfectly normal thing to hear. “This time I thought, hey maybe they are right …” Ulman sighed deeply. “… and Boris is right, relationships don’t work without sex. So maybe I just need to be fucked and spread my legs. And he did say that if I don’t like it afterwards that he’ll …”

There Ulman stopped and shook his head because now it was obvious that whatever Boris had promised, he had broken it. Not knowing what else to do, Pavel placed the blanket around Ulman’s feet and continued to run his hand along his back – hoping that this would give him any comfort.

“So I agreed and let him.” 

Suddenly Ulman shook his head and supressed a sob by holding his breath. Pavel wished that he knew the words that would help him right now, anything to take this pain away. At the same time, he also desperately wished that Ulman had never gotten into this situation.

After all, it was obvious that it had solved absolutely nothing for him. It had not caused the illusive magic switch to flip. If it hadn’t caused even more damage to begin with.

“I hated it,” it was a mere whisper.

Pavel was not surprised to hear those words. When Ulman leaned against him, and snuggled against his chest he offered him all the comfort he could give. Quietly he wiped the tears away, and ran his thumb along his cheek.

“I mean … I don’t know …” Ulman struggled. “It’s not like he treated me like shit, but …” Pavel did not push, wanting to give Ulman all the time he needed to find the right words. “It was like, someone was doing this to my body – only for their own pleasure, and I got off, but what I actually wanted wasn’t important. Only that I did not feel like it was my body this was happening to …”

Pavel swallowed hard but he continued to stay silent. Even though, he understood perfectly what Ulman was talking about – a nearly dissociative feeling, that left you wondering for days if that had really been you, and if it had been, then shouldn’t you feel anything positive in that regard? Instead, you were left with a numb feeling with a tinge of discomfort.

“And what can I really complain about now?” Ulman shrugged. “I can’t say I was violated because I did agree to it after all, even if …”

Then Ulman fell silent.

“… it feels like it.” Pavel whispered it. He knew that it needed to be said. After all Ulman hadn’t wanted to sleep with Boris to begin with, only pressured into it by the words that had been shoved down his throat. 

Ulman nodded. Then he snorted, “so what?” A weak laugh escaped him and he shook his head. “When I told Boris, he merely said that I didn’t have any complaints at the time. It was just nerves and I need to get used to it. I shouldn’t be so repressed.

“I am not fucking repressed!” Ulman snapped, only for the anger to disappear as quickly as it had come. Then he took a deep breath, in an effort to steady his nerves. “I don’t feel ashamed for sleeping with a man, I just don’t …” Ulman bit his lips, only muttering the next words. “… I don’t want to sleep with anybody.”

Pavel hated the tear that ran down Ulman’s cheek. So he pulled him closer, pressing a soft kiss on the top of his head and whispered, “which is perfectly alright.”

“It is not,” Ulman barely brought it out and shook his head. “It’s not just Boris, everyone knows that it’s not a real relationship without sex. It’s everywhere. I should just learn to suck it up because, really, who would want me like that? Nobody.” 

“That’s not true, Ed,” Pavel told him, meaning every single word he said.

Even though, it was clear that Ulman did not believe him – he merely snorted. So Pavel kissed his hair again, repeating his words, “It is not true.”

“What the hell do you even know?” Ulman spat it out. “I’ve seen you dating that Kshatriya years ago.”

Suddenly a laugh escaped Pavel. “Yeah, which was exactly two dates and then nothing. He doesn’t even bother to say hello anymore.” Which neatly summed up all of Pavel’s glorious dating efforts since coming to Polis.

As a response, Ulman looked at his own hands again – maybe sensing the reluctance when it came to this topic.

So Pavel sighed, not angry at Ulman’s outburst because he knew what it felt like. “I am like you,” Pavel admitted, maybe it was the first time he had come close to admitting the truth out loud.

“You’ve had sex before.”

Pavel snorted. “So?” But he did not feel the need to remind Ulman that, technically, so had he. “You wanna know when? With 17, when I started dating some girl because everyone was doing it. I just said yes, when asked. After all, it’s the thing you, right?”

Ulman bit his lips because just like Pavel, he could hear his own words reflected in those. Just that these had been Pavel’s thought at the time. Thinking that maybe this was what love felt like, or at least for him, and he shouldn’t complain, it is what people do – or that’s what he had been told and shown all his life.

“I’ve been there, Ed,” Pavel whispered and gave him a squeeze. “And afterwards, I never wanted to get into such a situation again. To me it felt like I was just getting used to the sex, accept the gross parts and comfort myself with the fact that I get off at least. So really, why complain? That’s the point of sex after all. Right?”

There Pavel shook his head and snorted at the pathetic reasoning of his younger self. But when he looked at Ulman, he could see that he had taken an interest in his words. There was no judgement. So Pavel continued to talk.

“At work, they kept rambling on about how great sex and all that is, who was hot, and who wasn’t. I had no idea how they could tell, or how they got from yeah, looks good to wanting to have sex. Man, I couldn’t even fathom why the hell they’re able to answer who to fuck first, when playing >fuck, marry, kill<.”

Ulman frowned. “The one who is left over is the one you have to fuck.”

“Yes! Thank you!” Pavel nearly shouted it because it was the first time, he had heard someone reflect his own thought process. “I always pick who to kill first.”

There a soft smile formed on Ulman’s lips. “I do that too.”

Pavel returned the smile, happy to see that Ulman had relaxed through this conversation. Maybe because he was starting to realise that he was not alone with his feelings. In an odd way, the conversation did the same thing to Pavel. Despite all his steadfastness about who he was in the last few years, he had never talked about this before – feeling like an odd one out after all.

“So how did you realise that you did not like … any of it?” Ulman asked carefully after a while.

“When the relationship ended, I never thought of it in a favourable way – even though it ended peacefully,” Pavel began to explain, taking his time to pick the right words. “It was like this, the more I started to act and feel like myself, the less I wanted to have any parts of that relationship. So we agreed that it wouldn’t work. Just that I wanted to forget ever having been a part of it, despite the fact that I had not been abused.”

Pavel took a moment to sort through his thoughts, Ulman waited patiently and merely leaned against him. Almost as if this time, he was the one supporting Pavel – maybe that was true.

Pavel quickly kissed his hair, and then continued, “so I started to consider why I even hated the mere idea of it because I wasn’t heart-broken. I felt fucking relief when it ended because I could finally be myself again.

“It turned out, I had never wanted to be in a relationship at all, nor did I want to have sex. Both was merely expected of me. In the end, I just did not like it – maybe even hated it.”

“How long did that take to figure out?”

“Longer than I dare to admit,” Pavel mumbled. “I also wondered if I wasn’t gay, because kissing a man; that’s good stuff.” At least that was not a secret between them. “But the dreams stop there, that’s a very hard and obvious line for me now. So I told myself that unless I wasn’t 100% sure, I just won’t be pushed into sex again.”

After all, the experience had been grave enough, and Pavel did not want to sort through those feelings again. To feel like a ghost in his own body, and merely watching as he did all those things … trying to tell himself that it wasn’t so bad while never being comfortable.

“And did you ever want to?” Ulman asked carefully.

Pavel shook his head. “No, that’s why Anton and I never had more than two dates.”

Anton had decided that someone else was just more suited and Pavel had shrugged at the break-up.

“It’s been, what?” Pavel quickly did the math. “Nearly 20 years, and the magic switch that makes me understand all that hasn’t flipped yet, and I highly doubt it will.” Then a laugh escaped him. “I think I don’t even have one.”

After Anton, Pavel had not really thought about dating. Even before that, his attempts had been far and few in-between. Then with Ulman nearby, he did not even feel the need to find someone else, having the closest person in life already near him.

“Eduard, you are the closest person I have,” Pavel knew that he deserved the truth, and they had never been shy about what they meant for each other. “And I don’t think of you as a freak, alright.”

Another tear slipped down Ulman’s cheek but the smile on his face told Pavel that it was not due to pain.

“And since you now know all of this about me, do you think that I am one?”

Ulman shook his head. “No.”

“Then do me the favour and extend some of that kindness towards yourself as well,” Pavel told him and kissed the top of his head.

“Alright,” it was a mere whisper, and Pavel knew better than to believe that it all would be fixed by tomorrow. Even the effort was enough for now.

“I know, I know that’s easier said than done, Pasha,” Pavel mimicked his voice which brought a smile on Ulman’s face. “Especially when it sometimes feels like you do not fit in. But I am always here to remind you that you are just perfect.”

When he said it, Ulman leaned against him, wrapping his arms around him.

“Do you really think that?” Ulman asked quietly.

Pavel’s heart skipped a beat, only realising how valuable and fragile this moment was. Ulman’s defences were already weakened by what had happened, and Pavel knew that he really should not bullshit right now.

“Of course, I do,” Pavel whispered the truth. It wasn’t like they had ever lied about this to each other, and Pavel would be damned if he started today.

The smile on Ulman’s face was worth it all and Pavel carefully cupped his cheek. He ran his thumb along, feeling Ulman press into the touch. A soft smile spread across his face. Yes, of course, he loved this man. He’d be a fool not to, but he also knew that tonight was not the moment to sort this out.

So he pressed a kiss on the top of Ulman’s head and whispered. “Try to get some rest, if you can.”

Ulman seemed to understand the unspoken words and nodded. Then he shuffled under the sheets and moved to the side before poking Pavel in the ribs.

“Can you stay with me?”

Not surprised by the request, Pavel nodded. Without much ado he slipped out of his shoes and jacket, letting them fall onto the ground before he snuggled closer to Ulman – carefully enclosing him while he offered his arm as a pillow to Ulman.

“Okay?” asked Pavel.

It took a few moments before Ulman relaxed, shifting his position slightly to be more comfortable. Then he nodded and closed his eyes.

Pavel did not break the silence, since he knew that Ulman must be in desperate need of some rest after what had happened. He was touched more than he dared to admit that Ulman still felt perfectly safe in Pavel’s presence, and Pavel wanted to make sure that it would continue to be this way.

“Thank you, Pasha,” Ulman merely whispered it – his voice already heavy with sleep.

A soft smile crossed Pavel’s lips. “Don’t mention it.”  

So Pavel let his eyes fall shut, feeling Ulman against his chest – feeling him breathe easily and deeply. They never had a problem with physical contact and had even cuddled and fallen asleep in each other’s arms on more than on occasion. So it did not take long until Pavel was also drawn into a peaceful state.