As a journalist, Katia had known that the war was coming for a while before it did and that knowledge had given her time to stockpile food and other resources in her house before the prices had shot up. She had tried to warn her friends but they hadn’t listened to her, thinking that the whole thing would simply blow over, she didn’t know what had become of them now. She had holed herself up in her basement to avoid the shelling like so many others and stayed there, rationing her food and water as much as she could. Two weeks had passed, though, and she knew that she would have to go out and look for food if she was going to survive regardless of how dangerous it was. The radio had said that there were gangs of bandits roaming the streets which Katia had expected but still, it didn’t make her life any easier.
As Katia stepped out onto the street that had once been so familiar to her and into the sunlight for the first time in weeks she was filled with a sense of newfound dread, everything was desolated and bombed out, it seemed as if the colour had been drained from the city. It looked as if the city had been abandoned for decades with graffiti along the walls and rubble and rubbish everywhere. Even in her wildest imaginings of what the war could possibly be like, even in her most vivid of nightmares, she had never considered that it would have been like this.
She needed to move quickly, though her hopes of finding food in the supermarket were looking a lot more distant than she had previously thought. Katia kicked herself for not thinking of it before, surely all the shelling should have tipped her off and she had been listening to the radio. She just didn’t want to believe it before, she supposed.
Making her way towards the supermarket Katia soon realised that she would have to be sneaky, there were a few people making their way around and while most of them just looked like normal civilians there were some that even to her untrained eye looked dangerous.
Katia didn’t even make it to the supermarket before she heard the telltale sound of voices behind her and she froze, she couldn’t make out what they were saying but something in their tone of voice told her that it wasn’t good.
“Come over here, sweetheart, chat with us!”
Fuck, Katia thought to herself, heart beating fast, I need to get out of here.
She couldn’t go back the way she came as she would have to pass them and the street was utterly deserted, the only thing she could think of was to hide but they’d already seen her so the chances of that working were slim, it wasn’t like she was a spy or anything.
“Come on!” The other thug shouted, “You don’t want us to get angry!”
They sounded a lot closer this time. Katia made her decision and ran towards a nearby alley, hoping against hope that it went somewhere else so that she could run and lose them. No such luck, a dead end. So she did the only thing she could do, duck behind an overturned bin and hide with her eyes tightly shut, holding the pipe she’d taken with her as a weapon tightly but knowing that there was no point in using it, she’d caught a glimpse of them and there was no way in hell that she could take one of them, let alone both.
Katia kept her eyes closed, far too scared to even consider opening them even as she heard the footsteps approach and their laughter.
“Oi! Leave her alone!” A rough and distinctly male voice shouted, though thankfully different to the thugs’.
“Or what, Roman? What’s a coward like you gonna do?” Oh, she thought dreamily, the voice has a name.
One shot and then another rang throughout the alley she was cowering in and Katia shuddered. She heard footsteps against the dirt and a hand rested gently on her own, she noted that it was rough with callouses.
“It’s ok, you can open your eyes now,” the voice, Roman, said and so she did. Deep brown eyes met her own. He was stood closer to her than she had expected and she gasped in surprise.
“Thank you,” her voice was shaky, “I don’t want to think about what would have happened if you hadn’t intervened.”
He looked grim, “I know too well what they would have done and I couldn’t let it happen.”
“But they know you?” She asked, a terrible realisation striking her, “You’re one of the militia too.”
“I was, but not anymore,” He stood up and offered her his hand which she took and he pulled her to her feet easily, a show of strength that made her a little troubled. He may have saved her but that didn’t mean that he was to be trusted, “Anyway, those guys were always rapist bastards, they’re better off dead.”
Katia gasped at the realisation that they were actually dead and looked past him and noticed that the two bandits that had been threatening her less than a minute ago were lying there like puppets with their strings cut with not an ounce of life left in them. Blood was pooling beneath them and she gagged and would have thrown up if there had been anything in her stomach.
“Fuck, I know it was either them or me but...look at them,” she bent over double, unable to take her eyes off of them even as they filled with tears.
“Actually I think it’s better if you don’t look at them, it’ll only make it worse for you,” the man stepped in front of her, blocking her view and stood her back up, “I’m Roman.”
“I heard,” Katia replied but smiled, not wanting to sound rude, “I’m Katia,” he didn’t give a last name so she didn’t either, it didn’t seem like the time or place to exchange formalities.
“Ok, we need to get you out of here. What were you doing out here during the day?” He asked, looking at her like she was some sort of idiot which she felt like she was at the moment.
“I could ask you the same thing,” she retorted before sighing, calming down slightly, “I’ve run out of food and I was planning on going to the supermarket to see what I could find.”
“Well, it’s good that I found you then, don’t go in there. You need to be well-armed and prepared to fight which…” he looked at the pipe clutched in her hands, “you don’t look like you are.”
“Then where should I go? I honestly have no idea, the radio wasn’t that helpful,” Katia complained.
Roman shrugged, “Well I was on my way...well anywhere, honestly, but there’s a house that I heard about that’s not too far, there might be something there but no promises. I can make sure you get there in one piece.”
“You’d….you’d take me with you?” Katia was shocked, nothing about Roman made him seem like the type of person to be kind to anyone, especially when it could mean less food for him.
He shuffled from foot to foot awkwardly, “I’m just saying it might be a good idea for you to go there. And besides, if I just left you here I might as well be leaving you for dead.”
Katia grimaced at just how right he was, “Thank you, I really appreciate it. Um, you said I shouldn’t go during the day, right? Well, what should we do then?”
“Well the sun looks like it’s about to set, the bandits don’t know that I’ve left yet so they won’t bother us.”
“The militia on the other hand….?” She asked.
“Very different story, but they can be avoided if we’re careful which we will be.”
“I remember hearing that the militia was to be avoided but...I just don’t understand,” Katia knew she sounded upset but given the day that she had so far and what she was likely to go through she felt that her reaction was perfectly reasonable.
“They’re basically treating everyone as a bandit and some of them have let the power get to their heads, complete bastards basically,” Roman then scratched the back of his head awkwardly, “I am biased, though.”
“Well any good journalist knows to take everything that they hear with a pinch of salt,” she laughed but stopped when she remembered the bodies and the situation they were currently in, “We should go, I don’t want anyone to see that we did this.”
“Well I did it, technically,” Roman said as they began to walk out of the alley
Katia smiled despite herself, “I don’t think that would stand up in court.”
“You’re really a journalist?” He asked in a clear attempt to make conversation which she appreciated.
“Oh yeah, one of the best if I do say so myself,” she pointed at herself to illustrate, “I mostly covered political stories and the like so I had more of an idea of what was going on well before most people did. I guess they just didn’t want to believe it.”
“That’s certainly true,” he agreed, “I was seeing it all firsthand and even I didn’t want to believe it. But we’re here now and the only thing we can do is survive.”
“Speaking of surviving, thank you again for taking me to this house and for saving me from those men. It’s more than a lot of people would have done, I’m sure.”
Roman blushed slightly which amused Katia, he didn’t seem like the blushing type, “Yes, well, you caught me on a good day. I just defected from the rebels and I’m a lot more aware of the fact that I’m alone than I would have been otherwise.”
“Why are you telling me all this? Not that I mind,” she clarified, not wanting him to clam up as it would make the trip unbearably awkward and besides, she was curious.
“I’m not going to see you again and you don’t know me, I don’t see the harm in it,” he replied bruskly, speeding up his walk so that she nearly had to jog to keep up.
“If it makes you feel any better I kicked over my neighbour’s gate on the way over here,” Katia said, wanting to make Roman warm up to her again, not entirely for survival reasons either-she found she rather liked his company. But then again that might be the two weeks of loneliness talking.
He laughed, seeming to forget to be annoyed, “What? Why?”
“He was a class A arsehole, always used to complain if children played in the street or anyone had a garden party, real kill-joy, you know?” she explained and Roman nodded, “He also slapped my arse one time so I think I had a right to do it...plus the gate had nearly fallen over anyway.”
Roman chuckled, a deep sound, “We have very different ideas of retribution, it seems.”
“Oh? What would you have done?” Katia asked, cocking her head as they walked around a corner and Roman motioned for her to duck behind a wall.
“Shot him,” came the matter of fact reply, “Stay here for a second, I need to check if the coast is clear.”
“Aye aye, Captain,” Katia snorted.
“What?” He frowned in confusion which made her chuckle more so she hid her mouth behind her sleeve to muffle the sound.
“You know? Check if the coast is clear, coast, captain,” she explained before huffing a sigh when he just carried on looking bewildered, “It was a joke, you know? Something people say for fun.”
Roman just shook his head, “It was a bad joke. Just stay here for a second and try not to get killed.”
“Will do, Captain,” she saluted as she ducked back behind the wall and waited with her heart in her mouth.
Honestly, she had no idea how she had even made it so far without dying. Gangs of bandits were raiding people’s houses, she knew that much from the radio, but she also knew that the chances of her continued survival alone were slim to none. She shook her head as if to dislodge those macabre thoughts and focused on keeping an eye out for any dangers, Roman had said not to get herself killed, after all.
Luckily she seemed to be alone and she settled against the concrete to get as comfortable as possible as Roman was certainly taking his time. The sky was cloudy which reflected her mood but it didn’t give her much to look at as she certainly didn’t want to focus her attention on the desecrated buildings that surrounded her, judging her silently. Katia knew that she could have tried harder to warn the people, to warn her friends and family, a family that she had no way of contacting. Blinking away the tears she turned her gaze from the sky to the ground, still listening hard for approaching footsteps.
“OH FUCK!” She yelled, launching herself backwards and scuttling back quickly.
Roman sighed, “It’s a good thing no one is around here because you would’ve alerted them.”
“Shit, sorry. You just startled me,” she said bashfully.
“Well I wouldn’t have scared you if you had been paying attention and I could have easily been a bandit,” he said, pulling her to her feet.
Katia felt utterly chastised by a man that she barely knew but he wasn’t wrong, she wasn’t cut out for this at all and it terrified her, “Well, you are a bandit.”
“Militia member, technically and not anymore as of twelve hours ago,” he retorted but he didn’t seem so annoyed which calmed her down. He struck her as the type to be quick to anger and she wanted to stay on his good side.
“Ok, um, you said it was clear, right? Well, let’s get going, then.”
Roman didn’t reply and just started walking very quickly down the pavement even though it was covered in debris and walking in the middle would make more sense, Katia guessed he wasn’t the type to follow social norms, though, so there must be a reason. She didn’t ask and just followed behind, trying not to let on how tired she was; hunger makes sleeping harder and it left her drained and slightly spaced out as if she was high. It bothered her to be so out of control. In normal circumstances, she wouldn’t be following some random man around who had proven that he didn’t have a problem with murdering people. Though also if Roman had wanted to kill her he didn’t need to take her to a secluded location to do so.
The silence was starting to get to her so she started to wrack her brain for a conversation topic. Roman wasn’t helping at all, in fact, he seemed perfectly happy to walk in silence but it was beginning to make Katia feel nervous, the echoing silence of the street around her made her especially jumpy.
“How should we split any food that we find?” It wasn’t the happiest of conversation topics but Katia needed to know the score.
Roman shrugged, “I’m not gonna go all good samaritan on you, you would be dead without me so...70/30.”
“Oh bollocks to that!” she protested before regretting it, “Sorry I just...really need that food, I have nothing at home, not even a crumb.”
“At least you have a home to go to, I don’t even have that. Being homeless out here is a real ball-ache,” Roman kicked a nearby piece of rubble, it went skidding away and broke in half as if to illustrate his point.
“Ok how about 60/40?”
“Will you shut up if I agree?”
“Temporarily,” she replied, smiling a small smile to herself.
A long pause.
“But really though, what are you going to do after this? You can’t just sleep in the streets,” Katia had wanted to leave Roman to his silence but seeing her first semi-friendly person in nearly a month left her desperate to talk in a way that she never had been before.
Roman groaned loudly, “Oh for fuck’s sake, that silence didn’t last ver-shit! Get down!”
“What?” But she didn’t have time to continue when Roman dragged her to the floor and pulled her behind and crumbled wall, she scraped her hands on the concrete on her way and bit her lip to stop herself crying out.
“It’s the army,” he hissed into her ear and she froze, this was not good.
“What do we do?” Katia replied in the same hushed tone, looking at him desperately. If he didn’t know what to do then they were both fucked.
“Wait for them to pass, the only thing we can do,” Roman look over to where the tank was rolling over with grim resignation. Katia hadn’t heard it before but now that it was coming closer she had no idea how she had missed it, the tank rumbled across the road and it seems the shake the very ground as it did so.
So they just lay there with Roman basically on top of Katia from when he had tackled her to the ground. There wasn’t time for her to feel awkward about it, however, as a shot rang out as it hit a nearby wall and ricocheted near to where they were.
“I see you two!” Came a shout. Shit, Katia thought, twice in one day? “Get out here now with your hands up.”
“Roman?” She asked, meeting his eyes properly for the first time since he told her to open them in that alleyway.
“We have to do what they say.”
So they stood up and stepped out from behind the wall and towards the tank, Katia hiding behind Roman slightly as they walked. He held his head high as he walked, even with his hands up he still looked like a force to be reckoned with and not for the first time Katia wondered just what type of life he had led, to be able to walk up to a tank, ostensibly unfased.
“Alright, what were you two doing out here during the day?” The soldier had a mean set to his face which didn’t put Katia at ease in the slightest.
The tension was thick and in that moment Katia knew that Roman had no idea what to do. Adrenaline flooded her blood as her mind raced, a plan formed in her head instantaneously though she had no time to think it over.
“My husband and I were looking for food for our little girl, we were desperate and we couldn’t wait until it got dark. I’m sure we must have looked very suspicious to you, I apologise,” she shocked herself with the audacity of her lie but the soldier seemed to buy it.
“You certainly don’t seem like the bandit type, your husband on the other hand…” the soldier looked thoughtful for a moment, “I feel like I’ve seen him before.”
Katia’s heart stuttered in her chest but she knew she had to protect Roman the same way he had for her without even knowing her.
“Do you have a school age child?” She asked and the soldier nodded, looking slightly puzzled, “Well he’s the coach of one the under 16 football teams, you might have seen him at a game.”
“Really? Well, that explains that. Now get out of here you two before I change my mind.”
They practically ran away from the tank, only stopping when they had ducked into a nearby alley. Roman turned to look at her with wide eyes, still panting.
“Well, fuck, you really got us out of a tight scrape there.”
That was as close to a thank you as she was likely to get, “You’re welcome, Roman. What do we do now? I have no idea where this house you’re taking us to is so I don’t know if we can avoid the militia.”
“I think I can manage to avoid a fucking massive tank, thanks.”
Katia snorted, leftover adrenaline maker her braver, “Well, you certainly didn’t last time.”
Roman glared at her, “That was because I was looking after you.”
“You’re not my babysitter,” she pouted which didn’t help her argument, she knew, but it couldn’t be helped.
“Then act like less of a fucking child,” Roman retorted hotly, glare in full force.
Katia knew she had to calm down, having an argument with a man she met less than an hour ago in the middle of a warzone was not how she had planned for today to go and it wasn’t going to happen, not on her watch.
“I’m sorry,” the apology felt forced but she didn’t want to descend to petty squabbling, “I don’t want to fight with you. I’m really appreciative of everything that you’ve done for me, I really am.”
“It is kinda stupid,” he agreed, “You know you’re not as useless as you look.”
“Gee thanks, I thought we weren’t fighting anymore.”
“You know what I mean, we do make a good team, though,” he pointed out.
She laughed, “That we do, an odd pair to be sure, though.”
Roman shuffled from foot to foot slightly, a gesture that she had noticed that he did when he was about to say something he deemed embarrassing, “Maybe we should stick together. You have the house, I have the street smarts, fighting ability and dashing good looks-we might just make it.”
“Hey! I’m the one with the dashing good looks and you know it, but yes, I think that might be a good idea. Being out here alone isn’t something that I want to keep doing, everything is awful now and I don’t think I’ll make it on my own,” she replied, the jollity fading from her voice quickly as reality struck her again. As much as she had forged a bond with Roman in the short time that she had known him the situation in which they met had hardly been ideal and it hadn’t gotten much better.
“Good. We’re in agreement, then. Now let’s get going before my stomach starts eating my spine,” he said and Katia didn’t have time to reply before he was striding off down the road again and she had to trot to keep up. God, she thought exasperatedly, me running after him is starting to become a running theme, “You got any smokes?”
“Do I look like the sort of person that smokes?” Katia asked, half amused half annoyed.
“Smokers don’t have a particular look, you know. And I thought it would be too much to ask that you would have any, I’m absolutely dying for one right now. I’ve had a fuck of a day.”
“I was with you for most of it,” she pointed out.
“Oh no,” he disagreed, rolling his eyes or she assumed he was rolling his eyes from the shake of his head as she could only see the back of it from her view, “You were not there for the worst bit, the worst bit was having to run out of a militia base in the middle of the night, lie to all my buddies and spending the night in the freezing cold hidden in a literal rubbish bin.”
Katia put her hands up in surrender even though the gesture was wasted on his turned back, “Ok, you have me beat, Mr Rubbish Bin.”
“Are all your ‘jokes’ just calling me names?” Roman asked but this time he didn’t sound so annoyed.
“No! Yes...maybe? I don’t know anymore, I’ve spent a lot of time alone lately, ok? I don’t do well with being alone, I’m a social animal,” she said, wishing it didn’t sound so much like whining.
“I’ve noticed that...I think I’ve spoken more today than in the past week,” he said and Katia could see him shaking his head derisively.
Katia huffed, catching up with him at last by breaking out into a jog and hoping that he didn’t see, “That can only be a good thing, Captain Rubbish Bin. You can play the tall, dark, brooding stranger all you want but I know better.”
“I’m not playing anything. Tall, dark, handsome and brooding-that’s me.”
“I didn’t say anything about handsome.”
“You were thinking it.”
“Now you’re putting words in my mouth, you’d make a terrible journalist.”
“Or a great one,” he pointed out as they rounded a corner onto a street of dilapidated houses.
“Is the house on this road?”
He sighed, “Yes, we’re nearly there. It’s that one on the end with the ivy growing up the side.”
“Very cute,” she cooed, happy to look at something nice momentarily.
“Structurally unsound, that’s what it is,” Roman retorted, hopping nimbly over a piece of rubble.
“Do you know what movie character you remind me of?” She asked, smirking.
“Oh fuck, do I have to answer?”
“Ok, James Dean? Clint Eastwood?”
Katia sniggered, “You overestimate your good looks, you know?”
“Ah but you admit I have some,” he said, eyebrow raised.
“Shut up, anyway, do you want to know?”
“No, I literally could not care less. Not even if you telling me would get me another can of food,” he said, huffily though Katia now knew enough to know that he was mostly bark with very little bite.
“Well, I’m going to tell you anyway: the Grinch. Do you want to know why?” she didn’t wait for his answer, “Because he hates everything and everyone too.”
“Oh my fucking god I am regretting my decision to team up with you already,” he sounded genuinely annoyed so Katia quietened down, not wanting to really annoy him. She’d probably taken the joking too far, she did that a lot.
There was a silence for a few minutes before Roman spoke again, “Alright, I’ll be the Grinch but you have to be Max.”
“His dog?” She spluttered.
“Exactly, one, you’re a total bitch and two, you are the sidekick in this outfit.”
“I’m not the sidekick,” she hissed, holding back a snigger.
“I’m the one with the gun which makes you the sidekick.”
“I’m the one that got us out of danger which makes you the sidekick,” she argued.
Roman snorted, “I literally saved you from thugs, I am the hero which makes you the sidekick.”
“Hey, I saved you too which makes us at least even and if we-”
“Oh look!” He interrupted, acting like she hadn’t been speaking, “We’re at the house. If I walk back to where I found you can you get us back to your house in the dark?”
“Obviously,” she replied, a little offended.
“Well then, let’s see if we can find anything useful,” he said before adding quickly, “Also, you’re cooking tonight.”
“You can’t just shotgun not cooking,” Katia complained but she honestly felt too relieved to be truly annoyed.
“Ah but I just did,” he pointed out dryly as they stepped into the house.
Luckily it didn’t take them long to find the food that they were looking for along with some other useful stuff. With both of their bags full, they headed off back to Katia’s house with Roman leading the way for most of it purely because he walked so damn fast. As they walked into her house she marvelled at how a simple trip to get food had been so eventful. She found a man, though not in the way her friends had been pressuring her to find one, she thought to herself amusedly.
“This place isn’t too bad,” Roman commented as he plopped onto a chair, sighing in exhaustion.
“Uh huh, well we need to go down to the basement so you’ll have to forget about all the fancy stuff up here. I have a bed, a stove, a radio and not much else.”
“You only have one bed?” He asked, looking genuinely scandalised like a stereotypical Victorian lady who had been asked to show an ankle.
Katia huffed, “I wasn’t expecting visitors, you know. Ugh, if it makes you feel any better you can have the bed.”
He shook his head, “I’m a dick but I’m not that much of a dick.”
“You don’t say,” she replied sarcastically, “Anyway, I have some more blankets somewhere, I had been too scared to go and get them but this seems as good a time as any and who knows? Maybe I’ll find you a pillow.”
“Thank you, I’ll, um, put everything away while you do that,” he actually looked bashful which Katia found far too amusing, it reminded her of when her childhood friends would be invited for tea.
“Make yourself at home,” she gestured to the dark and sparsely furnished basement, “You will be spending a lot of time here, after all.”
“Of course, I will.”
Katia left Roman to his own devices as she rushed around trying to find him some bedding, it all felt oddly normal and domestic. It occurred to her that he could rob her and there wasn’t much she could do but she did trust him, they’d been through enough to warrant that. Maybe she didn’t trust him not to insult her or say something mean but she trusted him not to rob her blind which was something.
It didn’t take her too long to get the bedding but when she entered the basement again she found Roman cooking away, looking like he was concentrating very hard. It was kind of cute, she thought before pushing the thought away quickly.
“I thought I was meant to do the cooking. Are you being nice to me?”
“No, of course not. I just got hungry and you were taking forever.”
Katia rolled her eyes at his obvious ploy to look aloof.
“Ok, Grinch. Your heart really is growing, isn’t it?”
“If you don’t stop talking I’ll eat all of this food myself, don’t think I won’t.”
“Fine, Captain Grinch. I’ll go and read my book. Have fun cooking. I’ll put your bedding over here, it’s near the heater so it’s warm...well, warm-ish.”
“I warn you now, do not read your book aloud. I want absolute silence in the kitchen.”
So odd to think that he has a sense of humour, she thought as she got out her book and lay across her bed which was really just a mattress that she had hauled down when things got bad, he doesn’t seem like the type.
As she watched him cook she found herself fascinated by it and her book was soon forgotten. Katia had assumed that his reluctance to cook had been from laziness but now she thought that it might have just been because he was realistic about his abilities or lack thereof. He was holding the spoon like it might bite him as he pushed about the soup on the stove and when he added the peas he nearly overturned the whole thing and barely saved it, though he did burn himself in the process.
“Fuck!” He cursed, “And stop laughing.”
“You can’t begrudge me my small amusements in such a time of hardship, surely.”
“I can and will until I have some food,” he retorted shortly.
“Ok, Captain Grinch, I’ll leave you to your cooking. Don’t burn the house down.”
Roman didn’t reply, just sighed which was becoming a common occurrence which made Katia chuckle to herself as she picked her book back up and began to read. The smell of food, no matter how grim, also comforted her and for the first time in a long time, she felt relatively safe. Strange to think that it was with a ex-militia member who had murdered two men in front of her before she’d even seen him. He’d killed them to save her which made up for it but still, it didn’t exactly scream potential roommate material. They also bickered constantly and rubbed each other the wrong way but despite all that, they did make a good team and she felt a lot happier now that Roman was with her. Sticking together wasn’t such a bad idea, she thought as Roman passed her a bowl and she dug in happily, not such a bad idea at all.