“Unbelievable that the council is not helping you,” Ulman began to complain as he closed the door to his ‘apartment’ behind Artyom.
While Ulman still had the energy to argue and belittle the council of Polis, Artyom had none left. He only felt emptiness and could not speak anymore.
“Politicians. A dog could make better choices and would not be so useless,” Ulman huffed, his voice filled with sarcasm.
Maybe under different circumstances his display of sarcasm and wisecracking might have been able to bring a weak smile onto Artyom’s face. He could not deny that normally he appreciated the lighter touch when the situation turned sour.
However, right now he couldn’t force himself to respond. He wasn’t even sure how he was still standing. Everything had been in vain … Everything! … his own hardship, the injuries, the suffering, the deaths that his journey had caused: Bourbon, and even Ulman’s comrade Pavel had died for nothing. Not to mention the deaths that this useless journey would bring to his home … his friends and family.
Artyom noticed that his vision was starting to blur. What if this would be another nauseous attack?! Then another of these terrible … what were they? Dreams? Visions?
“Artyom?” he heard Ulman, his voice carrying a softer tone. “Sit down before you fall over, kid.”
As his chest tightened, he also felt a tear run down his cheek and he realized that he must have started crying. And so, he let Ulman guide him without offering any resistance. He carefully pushed Artyom to sit on the bed.
Suddenly, Artyom flinched as Ulman reached for his face.
“Easy,” Ulman whispered.
The second time, Artyom kept still, expecting the touch. As his felt the warmth of another person’s skin against his own, another wave of despair started to swallow him. He had tried hard to hole it up but now these thoughts came to haunt him. He had seen too much devastation and horror on his journey …
Artyom wanted nothing more than to hide these emotions but when Ulman carefully shifted his head to take a closer look at him, he did not resist. Maybe Ulman would have the answers that he was looking for.
However, Artyom did not find answers when he looked into his eyes. Instead he saw worry, and pain … The emotions mirroring the ones he saw when Ulman had realized that Pavel would not return to Polis with them.
“It was a rough day,” he eventually heard Ulman’s voice. He sounded sympathetic as he continued to speak. “We are going to figure this out. I am sure Miller is working on it … it’s not like he has anything better to do.” He was probably trying to fill the silence and used his typical modus operandi to do so.
Since this had no effect, Ulman stayed quiet. He bit his lip and looked down, as the silence stretched between them.
Maybe Uncle Sasha had been right and giving up was the right way to go this time, Artyom thought to himself. After all he was only one man, and he was not even a skilled ranger like Miller or Ulman for that matter. Was there even anything left that he could do?
When he looked up again, Artyom noticed that Ulman had not gone way. He was still standing in front of him with one hand on his shoulder and the other on his cheek where he absent-mindedly wiped away the tears. Maybe that was for Ulman the only thing he knew was right in such a moment.
As their eyes met, Artyom started to realise that he was not quite as alone as he had thought. After all, Ulman was still here, wearing a small frown on his face as if to attest the situation. Then his eyes dropped towards his lips, watching as Ulman opened them but before he could speak, Artyom darted forward and pressed his lips onto them.
In his doing, he was so ferocious that he ended up pushing Ulman backwards. Only when they impacted with the wall, did his brain catch up with his actions. Was he still kissing Ulman?! What if Polis had strict laws about these sort of things? What if it was not tolerated as long as they kept it to themselves? What if Ulman would reject him, beat him, and then throw him out for the mutants to eat?! All of that just because Artyom wanted to feel something other than pain, fear, and despair.
Suddenly, Ulman grabbed him by the shoulders. Since Artyom was bracing for a violent impact, he froze when he kissed him back instead. Ulman’s eagerness and enthusiasm almost matching with his own. Maybe he wasn’t alone in wanting to experience something good and kind for once. And who knew what Ulman had lived through as a ranger. So if this was the way, Artyom told himself, then there was nothing wrong with it.
While Artyom unzipped Ulman’s jacket, he felt Ulman rest a hand on the back of his neck and pull him closer. He expected a rougher touch, something that mirrored the eager encounter. Instead, he was met with a gentle touch that was almost too much to bear.
Artyom’s breath hitched in response and he felt a tear run down his cheek. He would have done anything to hide this reaction from Ulman, who pulled back and paused. Instead of being repulsed by the sight, Ulman pressed his cheek against Artyom’s. He did not say a word when he did so. Only taking a deep breath and leaning against him. Artyom noticed how his own breathing followed Ulman’s, and slowly the darkness seeped out of his system.
They remained like this for a while until Ulman carefully placed his lips against his cheek. He left a butterfly kiss there before moving on to his forehead, nose and finally meeting his lips again. This time the urgency was gone, and he took his time. Artyom responded, not rushing either.
He hoped that this time could be different. Someone might really care for him, and not leave after satisfying his own needs.
However, as he reached for the buckle of Ulman’s military belt he froze. He felt unsure if this was really what he wanted … Was this the only way? The only way to ignore the void inside of him and to not be alone again.
Ulman had also stopped and moved a small step back. “Artyom?” he whispered.
Since Artyom could not find the words to describe what was happening in his head, he only managed to look up at the other man.
“It’s okay,” was the only reassurance that he got. Those were empty words, of course, because Ulman had no way of knowing what had made Artyom stop. But then Artyom watched silently as Ulman took his hands between his and pressed a soft kiss onto the raw knuckles. “We don’t have to do that.”
Artyom marvelled at his hands between Ulman’s. They were littered with small cuts; despite the protection he had worn. Ulman’s were filled with similar injuries but some older. This was only a reminder that there was no kindness in the Metro, and yet, with his hands between Ulman’s he felt warmth and safety.
“You need rest,” Ulman stated, a tinge of authority in his voice. “Sleep.”
When Ulman placed his arm around his shoulders, Artyom knew that he would send him away. After all, he was no use to him like this. There was nothing he could return for a little bit comfort.
“Come on,” Ulman mumbled but much to Artyom’s surprise he was not guiding him towards the door. Instead he led him to the bed, taking care that Artyom would not trip or fall over if fatigue overcame him.
Artyom sat onto the bed and could only watch in wonder as Ulman went onto his knees and untied his shoes. He proceeded to move the jacket off his shoulders, careful not to touch any bruises. Ulman unsuccessfully tried to suppress a wince but did not comment on them. Even Artyom could no longer tell where they had come from; when he had fallen off the railcar? Or maybe when the other car had overturned at Depot? Or also from when the Nazis had caught him and beaten him bloody? He was not sure if it mattered anyway …
“Do you want to keep your shirt on?” asked Ulman as he sat back onto his knees, carefully folding his jacket.
Only when Ulman looked up again did Artyom answer with a slight shake of his head. However, Artyom did not have the strength to lift his arms anymore. His whole body hurt, finally feeling the strain from the journey. Ulman seemed to sense that and wordlessly nodded. He stood up and helped Artyom out of his shirt, trying to avoid any bruise and wounds.
“Don’t worry, there is nothing sleep can’t fix,” Ulman began to chat in his nonchalant style. “You’ll dream of nice things. Get some shut eye, and when you wake up, you are going to feel like a refreshed and whole new person … but with a bed-head.”
Artyom could not help it, and a brief snort escape him. Ulman smiled in return, and gently nudged his side. Then he pushed him into the bedding and ruffled his hair. “Sweet dreams, and don’t let the bed bugs bite you,” he added as he wrapped the blanket around his body. “Not that we have any here … just for the record.”
Then he stood up to leave, but as Artyom reached for his hand he only managed to catch two of his fingers. This was enough to make Ulman stop, who looked from his hand to Artyom with a small frown on his face.
“I am not going anywhere, Artyom,” he explained and took his hand fully into his to give it a squeeze. “Promise.”
Artyom looked at their hands, Ulman had not let go even though it would have been easy given his lack of strength. Could he really trust him? Then again, he had saved his life, he had given him his seat on the trolley, had waited exactly where he had said that he was going to be, and he had taken care of him. Yes … he could trust him. So Artyom watched as his hand slipped from Ulman’s, letting go.
Ulman offered a weak smile in return and stepped towards the desk where he began to undress. Artyom noticed with sleepy eyes, that his body also showed numerous scars: smaller ones here and there from falls and cuts, but also more prominent ones. Artyom could recognise that the claws of a mutant must have gotten him on the arm, leaving a permanent mark. Others had been manmade.
Yet, when Ulman had noticed his staring, he only looked down at his body. He offered no explanation to any of them. Neither did he crack a joke. The only response he got was a seldom shrug of his shoulders, and Artyom knew that with that the topic was over; after all Ulman lead the life of a ranger, a dangerous profession, and Artyom had no right to the stories that lay behind any of those scars.
After Ulman blew out the candle at the desk, Artyom quietly scooted over to make room for him on the bed. With a small sigh, Ulman crawled under the sheets. Lying side by side, and chest to chest, Artyom could feel the heat of his body. He thought that it was a pleasant sensation, comforting … Carefully, he placed a hand onto Ulman’s chest, and felt his heartbeat: slow but steady. At the same time, Ulman wrapped his arms around Artyom, letting his head rest on his arm. The other holding him close around the middle.
No longer fighting against it, Artyom’s eyes fell shut. “I’ll be here,” Ulman whispered and placed a soft kiss on the top of his head. “It’ll be alright.”
Even though, he could not tell why, Artyom believed him. Only minutes later did he slip into a restless sleep. At least he always felt Ulman next to him. He heard him in his dreams, calming him when he trashed around. He did not leave him alone, just as he had promised.