When Pavel was able to use his senses again, the first thing he noticed was the warmth. And he was glad for it. It was the same kind of warmth he had felt only for a moment while lying on the cold and frozen floor. It was familiar and it felt like home. It felt like … Ulman.
The thought should have brought a smile to his face but the realisation was quickly drowned out by the memories returning with a vengeance. Ulman’s desperate scream. The explosion. The lack of hearing. His inability to walk. The hatred. The cold … and …
Pavel swallowed hard and forced his eyes open. He was breathing heavily, and hadn’t there been a weight pressing him onto the bed, he would have started a desperate attempt to run away from here.
He noticed the brick walls, washed so many times and yet, some dirt still stuck to them. He smelled a petroleum lamp that gave light to this god forsaken station: Polis.
Had he managed to return? No. He knew that he had not. So the Rangers must have found him …
The voice was muffled, distant, like someone had shoved something inside his left ear … but it was one he would recognise anywhere and anytime since it was Ulman’s voice.
Was he alive? Pavel realised that he must have survived. After all, this was not an afterlife, and if it was it was far more painful than anyone could have guessed.
Suddenly, Pavel choked on his own breath and heard a deep sob escape him. It sounded disgusting, and he hated himself for it. And yet, there was nothing he could do to stop it.
“Hey, Pasha …” Ulman whispered and the weight from Pavel’s chest was removed.
Through the haze of his tears and panic, he felt Ulman rest his forehead against his. He could feel his warm breath on his face. It was calm and even – in stark contrast to Pavel’s ragged and short breathing, which he had lost control over.
Pavel was unable to make any sense of what had happened to him. How he had started to hate this forsaken world, how he had had demanded an answer why it hated him in return … and how, despite all this hatred, Pavel was left with regret …
It had felt like he had been broken apart to be understood better. In the end, Pavel had still no answers. He only held the broken pieces …
“It’s alright …” Ulman told him softly. “… try to breathe.”
Those words felt like a lifeline to Pavel. Ulman’s voice was something he could cling onto to find a way out of the chaos inside of him. So he concentrated on Ulman instead, on feeling his head against his. The undeniable warmth of being so close. And the fact that Ulman had cupped his cheek and gently stroked him, all while breathing deeply. Ulman remained calm in this storm, and Pavel tried to match his breathing with Ulman’s.
If it took only a few moments or even minutes, Pavel could not tell but eventually his breathing started to even out.
Slowly Pavel opened his eyes once more; seeing and sensing the world around him. The stale air that never left Polis, mixed with disinfectant that clearly told him that he was in the infirmary. He could see Ulman again, see how he had his eyes closed …
Pavel was too afraid to believe that it was true but when he placed his hand into the nape of his neck, he felt his warm skin against his, he could feel his hair tickling, and even the beating of his heart was unmistakable …
Ulman pressed a kiss on the top of his head. “Better?” he simply asked.
His voice still sounded distant but it clearly belonged to Ulman, and it clearly meant that Ulman was alive and that Pavel was alive as well.
“Eduard, I really thought …” but he stopped. He was unsure if it was because he was too weak to admit his thoughts, or because his own voice sounded wrong as well.
Ulman took a deep breath and sat back. “Well, it wasn’t.”
It was a crude statement but spoken with such determination and confidence that Pavel found himself unable to disagree with him. Even the lingering doubt, even the self-hatred of what had just happened ebbed away. Pavel was still alive, and that was that, Ulman was right. Which meant that now he had to go on from here.
So Pavel nodded and watched as Ulman took his hand between his after giving it a gentle squeeze.
The small smile that had formed on his face, slowly fell as he noticed how tired and beaten Ulman looked. He knew that he should not be surprised by this, after all he had been through hell and back as well.
Even so, from a physical standpoint, Pavel could not make out much because Ulman always wore long-sleeves. He could only tell that his upper arm was bandaged, as well as seeing red skin near his neck and sleeves … so Pavel asked him, “How do you feel?”
Ulman smiled weakly – it was a sad smile which already told Pavel more than enough: Ulman was drained and needed rest but physically it would all heal at some point. Mentally? Time would tell …
“Alright, I think …” Ulman began slowly and then shrugged his shoulders. “Got a few burns, quite a cut on my arm …” He nodded towards the area. “… and cracked ribs.”
Pavel winced at those words – they both knew how painful and frustrating those could be. However, this was a far better out-come than Pavel had imagined. After all, Ulman was still alive and he had made sure that Pavel had lived as well. Wasn’t this what they had sworn to one another? Ulman had been incredibly lucky, but Pavel realised that maybe he had been too. Even if it was for another reason …
Clearing his throat Pavel went on, “and how am I doing?”
Ulman did not respond quickly, and the silence stretched instead. Pavel knew what this meant – somewhere bad news was waiting for him, and Ulman was weighing his words.
“You should be okay,” Ulman stated eventually. “A few cuts here and there. You haven’t lost any body parts. We found you just in time …”
After that Pavel could tell how he lost Ulman. His mind producing any possible outcome … reminding him of all that could have happened. But it hadn’t, and Pavel reminded him by freeing his hand and cupping Ulman’s cheek.
Ulman looked up and pressed into the touch. He let out a long breath before taking his hand and giving it a quick kiss. “You’re right,” Ulman mumbled. Then he cleared his throat. “Your knee’s shit.”
Pavel actually felt relief as he heard those words. Ulman would not have been so blunt if the injury would have had any long-term consequences.
“You are on morphine right now, so you can’t feel it,” Ulman explained. “Basically, you dislocated your kneecap and in doing so tore almost every tendon possible. The good doctor said it was a relatively common injury back in the day, so she already sewed it together. Might take a bit, and some training but you’ll be fine there.”
The statement should have been spoken with ease but Ulman’s voice had clearly betrayed him. So Pavel took a deep breath. “Tell me.”
Ulman sighed and looked him in the eyes. “She’s not sure if your hearing is going to return to what it was.”
It was such a simple sentence but the gravity it carried was enormous. Of course, he had noticed the difference and he knew that if he was unable to hear an enemy approach, being unable to follow two conversations, or not knowing left from right … If he was unable to decently cover a fellow Ranger his days in the field were over.
“I am sorry, Pasha,” Ulman mumbled. “She said everything has to heal first and then she can assess the actual damage. If there even is one left by then.”
Pavel swallowed hard at the thought. They’ve had other Rangers who had wounds that kept them from being able to go on missions; there were other duties available and yet, the thought bitterly ate at him. This would not be what he wanted, he wanted to help people, and as selfish as it sounded, he did not want to be stuck in one place.
Pavel did not want to think about it. “What …” Pavel stopped himself, after all he knew what had happened in that tunnel. “How did the explosion happen?” he corrected himself.
Ulman sighed and shifted. Maybe he had not picked the best topic but Ulman answered his question, “Whatever made them leave the station, they did not bother to turn off their fail-safes. Apparently, they had been scared that someone might tap into their grid …”
At that he stopped and shook his head.
“We checked,” whispered Pavel. Of course they had, they had walked the whole tunnel up and down and nothing had been out of the ordinary.
Then Ulman released his breath and trying to remove some tension from his shoulders. “Well … yes, but not for a gas pipe …”
Pavel swallowed, realising why the smell had been so familiar.
“… the more energy we ran through the grid, the more gas was pumped in the air.” And since they had been positioned quite high, Ulman had only noticed the smell when he had gone below out of boredom. “When you turned it completely on …”
“… it only took a small spark.” Pavel finished for him.
Ulman nodded sadly. Only now did Pavel realised that this could have ended far worse. The gas could have ignited sooner, it would not have needed the full load. Even so, it could have happened later as well, at any time. It had been a catastrophe waiting to happen. It was a hellish system.
“Quite a clever system actually,” Ulman continued talking, it was obvious to Pavel that he couldn’t bear the silence. “It had no consequence on the station, so they would have been fine hadn’t they fucked off a while ago. And it only takes one little valve to turn it off, if you know what you are looking for.”
After this Ulman became quiet and only mumbled, “which we obviously didn’t.” After all, new gas pipes were not marked as such like old ones had been – so they could not have known and decided to leave all the valves as they had found them.
Pavel only managed a weak smile, but he did not have anything to add onto this, and neither had Ulman. Instead, he kept staring at the floor, a frown on his face …
In order to pull him back towards him, Pavel gave his knee a gentle squeeze. When Ulman looked up at him, Pavel offered him an honest smile, and whispered, “I am glad you are okay.” For Pavel it still felt like a miracle.
Ulman nodded briefly. “Yeah, I was lucky.” But he did not elaborate on it. Maybe Ulman would tell him in the future what exactly had happened to him but for now it was enough to know that he was going to be okay. “Sort of.”
There was defeat in his voice, but all Pavel could offer right now was a little comfort. “Come here,” Pavel whispered and poked his thigh. “Before I get cold again.”
Ulman laughed weakly and nodded, so Pavel shuffled to the side in order to make room for the other man. Without saying anything further, Ulman removed his boots and slipped underneath the blanket. It took a little to sort themselves out given the lack of space and that Ulman was careful not to touch anything broken.
When Ulman looked up, Pavel nodded in approval and Ulman leaned forward to kiss the top of his head. Afterwards, he remained so close to his face that Pavel felt his breath. He knew that he wanted to say something, anything … Pavel knew the feeling but at the moment neither of them had the strength left. They were beaten and battered, and nobody knew how long it would take until all of these wounds healed – or if they even would.
However, Pavel knew one thing for sure: right now, they still had each other, and there was nothing that they had not managed to bring down together. They were okay for now, and that was all that mattered. So he smiled up at him, and pressed a kiss onto his cheek, soft and gently and Ulman leaned against it.
In a moment, the tension in his shoulders was gone. In return, Ulman took Pavel’s hand and kissed his knuckles. Even though, Pavel knew it to be impossible, he was also sure that Ulman had understood his thoughts.
Then Ulman snuggled onto his chest, his head tugged underneath Pavel’s chin as Pavel wrapped his arm around him. He could feel his breathing, the weight of his arm on his chest and his warmth …
Pavel took a deep breath, the thoughts of the cold and hard ground coming back to him. This time, they did not hurt him – they were at a distance as if Ulman’s mere presence kept them away. But no matter how close Ulman was, he could not give him an answer to what had happened to him on the surface: the hatred towards the world, that had turned into regret for past choices. Even though, he knew that not all of those had been his fault. Sometimes the Metro forces you to choose between two horrible things, but at least you learn to live with one.
Pavel could not imagine his life if he had chosen to stay with his father and brother; watching as anyone who spoke up disappeared, violence as the answer, and watching as people he used to love become complete strangers. He had lost his family in this time.
At least he had been lucky to find another family within The Order – just as Ulman had. On the surface, Pavel had been convinced, even until the last moment, that those strangers only felt hatred towards Pavel, and Pavel did not feel love towards them either.
Now, he wondered if this was really true … if Pavel did really not feel anything towards them, then why was there a tinge of sadness when he thought of them. Even when after more than 10 years, Pavel’s opinions had not changed. The anger had faded over time, and the sharp edges were sanded down.
He found it hard to believe that he would be alone with this. Or could they have really forgotten him forever, without second thoughts?
In the end, Pavel was still someone’s child. While he doubted that words alone could fix this, or even if it could be fixed, his father would probably want to know that his child was still alive, maybe even that he was a Spartan Ranger, and despite everything that he was a happy man.
Pavel blinked the tears away and looked down at Ulman. Seeing him clutch his shirt and breathing deeply and steadily calmed Pavel already. He really was a happy man, Pavel realised, and he also knew that Ulman would not let him go for the whole damn night. No matter what was to come, or what Pavel would decide, he was sure that Ulman would stay by his side.
As Pavel closed his eyes, concentrating on Ulman’s breathing and closeness, he wondered if he might even be a little lucky.