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Greeting the Gentle Sunrise

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A sigh escaped the woman’s lips as she flicked open the leather-clad wooden cigar case only to find it empty, despite clearly remembering buying a new pack of Cohiba just yesterday. It was late - nearly one in the morning, though Integra had gotten used to going to sleep no earlier than three. She planned on finishing the novel she started reading a while back to wind down after a day of arguing with other military bosses and comparing pieces of evidence from her newest crime case. Now, Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground” laid on her lap as Integra contemplated abandoning her plans and finishing it anyway, or attempting to search the villa for something to soothe her nicotine cravings. The woman decided on the latter, and slowly got out of her bed and exited the room.

She quietly shut the door to her room, as to not wake the other residents of the house, those mainly being her staff and her partner’s subordinates. The last thing she needed was a commotion about the unreasonability of her sleeping patterns. A gush of the marine air from the open windows of the corridor gently blew her blonde tresses over her shoulders. She could hear the waves of the Alboran Sea crashing on the Playa de la Malagueta despite the villa’s fair distance from the coast. Taking a glance out the window, Integra took a second to acknowledge the gleam of the moon bouncing off the waves. The sea looked serene, contrasting the overall mood of the situation. 

The case was easily one of the most exhausting situations the Englishwoman had seen since the Millennium war. A no-name mob with enough skill and confidence seized several opiate production warehouses in Southeast Asia. Their route stole a good portion of Roanapur’s clients, as the city acted as a connecting point between the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent, and most of the drugs travelling across the world did it with the help of the Roanapur mafia, so she first heard about the situation from Sofiya when the Russian visited her in London. Fast forward a few months, and the Round Table knights call a meeting at Her Majesty’s request. The Queen apparently was informed about a newly formed mafia organization smuggling a massive amount of drugs from Southeast Asia and the Middle East into Europe, particularly the United Kingdom, which threatened both the economy and the safety and health of the country’s citizens. After several successful missions in Roanapur, Integra was deemed an expert in handling problems concerning that region, so the Hellsing Organization was sent to represent England at the emergency session organized by several countries to counteract and neutralize the criminals as their ship was set to pass through the Strait of Gibraltar. This also set the location of the session - the city of Málaga, Spain.

The villa that was acquired specifically for solving the case at hand had an interesting layout. It was divided into two wings, allowing the Hellsing Organization and Hotel Moscow to exist within their own spaces, as members of both parties led significantly different lifestyles and forced 7nonstop interaction would cause unneeded tension. In the center of the building were the meeting room and dining room, the two places where the organizations usually interacted. Every day would begin at eight in the morning with breakfast, after which either the villa would be visited by other military bosses for a conference, or Integra and Sofiya would leisurely get into the Rolls Royce Phantom occupying the villa’s massive garage and visit one of their colleague’s residences to discuss the same topic. Arguments and stress often accompanied these conferences, and the two strong and usually unwavering women found themselves entirely drained of energy afterwards. They spent at least an hour in complete silence following the meetings, either having the chauffeur drive the Phantom around the more picturesque places of Málaga or sitting on the patio looking over the shore while sharing a smoke and a drink before the time for dinner came. Usually, this occurred during sunset, so they basked in the light of the sky painted different shades of red and orange. Málaga was a beautiful city, and if not for the frustrating case the women were there to solve, they would have found the experience enjoyable and maybe even romantic. 

Integra was heading to the side of the villa occupied by Hotel Moscow, set on asking Sofiya if she had any cigars left. There was a chance she would be asleep by now, but over the time they spent together, Integra learned that the mafia boss never was the one to go to bed early either. The woman was surprised to see the light from the meeting room seeping into the corridor. Her first instinct was confusion, as besides her and Sofiya, only the second-in-command of their organizations had the keys to the room. 

Before she could think over the potential possibilites, Integra knocked on the door softly, but loudly enough for whoever was on the other side of the door to hear, and entered the room. The sight surprised her only slightly: out of all of the possible scenarios happening in the meeting room, she somehow expected it to be Sofiya working on the case for longer than the drug lords' scheme deserved to be studied. The woman became aware of Integra’s presence immediately, despite her composure remaining almost relaxed.

“Did I wake you?” Her voice was softer than it usually was, in this state it was nearly melodic. Clear blue eyes lifted to meet Integra’s own, and though her expression remained neutral, the present atmosphere in the room seemed inviting, so the Englishwoman closed the door behind herself and slowly made her way into the room.

“No. I was looking for you, actually.” These words resulted in a hum of acknowledgement as Sofiya focused her gaze on her partner, who casually walked around the massive wooden table and sat down in the leather armchair next to her, “I was going to ask if you had any cigars left. I think I ran out of mine.”

The aura around the mafia boss shifted after those words, and though years of experience in the field allowed her to mask her mood changes almost perfectly, Integra was skilled enough to pick up the change in her partner’s emotions. Immediately, she began to sense that something was off.

“You asked me to take out two cigars from your case today when we were driving back from Chevalier’s. I should’ve told you those were the last two, a mistake on my part. I finished my pack already as well, but I think I have an unfinished pack of Sobranie. It should be on that shelf to your right.” Sofiya explained, her eyes flickering back to the papers she was looking at  beforehand. Integra took notice of the hint of bitterness in her voice as her hand trailed on the red oak shelf and found a wide black box of cigarettes. The woman reclined in her seat while she opened the pack, but her mood lowered as well when she realized that the only two cigarettes remained there. The fact that the cigarettes left in pairs amused her.

“It’s the last two. Would you like to share a smoke?” The woman inquired, taking the gold-lined rolls of tobacco out of the box and discarding the latter.

“Of course.” The reply followed and Sofiya took one of the cigarettes with a perfectly manicured hand. Sometimes, especially at meetings, the women shared a lighter when taking smoke breaks, and it evolved from a simple convenience to an act of camaraderie and mutual trust. Integra metally remarked that they seemed to share a lot of things nowadays as she took out a lighter from her back pocket and watched her partner light her cigarette with the one laying on the table. It was then she took note of the clothes Sofiya was wearing, which differed from her usual work attire. A white sleeveless turtleneck with high waisted linen burgundy pants correlated with Integra’s own oversized white collar shirt and black shorts which acted as her nightwear for their stay in Spain. The air was hot and humid, hotter than it was in London, but, according to Sofiya, the climate was nearly the same as it was in Roanapur. 

Integra exhaled the smoke from her cigarette and glanced down at the papers and books scattered on the table. Some were military books about submarines and torpedo boats, others were copies of blueprints for those vehicles. There were also notes that the Russian seemingly wrote herself, and those made up the majority of the papers. In the middle was, as usual when they were discussing the case, a map of the Strait of Gibraltar and its surroundings.

“Are you testing which boat would be the most effective at capturing the liner?” She asked. 

The woman nodded, “Rinaldo suggested a military boat today, but I think that’s a ridiculous idea. There are too many things that could go wrong once the imbeciles realize they’re being pursued.” Sofiya took a drag of her cigarette and sighed, “If this were Roanapur this job wouldn’t even be worth our time.”

“I think that you’re just not a fan of working with organizations that rebuke the mafia’s way of deciding matters.”, The tired cold glare sent her way confirmed Integra’s assumption, “Either way, that’s not a problem for one in the morning.”

A silence arose in the room as it became engulfed in the meaning of those words. The ash from the mafia boss’s cigarette fell onto the plastic covering of the map and she watched the gray pieces shift with an empty look, “Problems don’t care about the time.” 

This solemn statement definitely didn’t just focus on the task at hand. It led the conversation to a different territory, one far more heavy and significant than a liner filled with opium. Integra’s interest was piqued, “I never thought of you as the type to overthink such things at night.”

The woman in question gave a small chuckle as her cigarette wandered dangerously close to her hair. She shook her head and replied, her eyes opening to look at Integra again, “You’d be surprised.”

Sofiya definitely practiced a pragmatist philosophy, but for the longest time Integra suspected that to be an effect rather than a cause. She wasn’t quick to make her assumptions, as her observant nature collected pieces of evidence that, when they came together, like a puzzle, painted a picture that didn’t fit the image of a bloodlusting warmonger too well. 

“I’m still considering conducting the operation before the ship passes Oran.” The Russian changed the topic of conversation and captured her partner’s attention as she pointed at the eastern side of the Alboran Sea, “Around that region, we sail two boats with a dozen people in each, and seize control of the ship before it reaches Gibraltar. It’ll be easiest to moor the ship in Algeciras if the crew consists of our people.” 

Integra took a drag of her dying cigarette and waited a few seconds before nodding, “I have to agree with you. Considering our options, this is the best idea. Now we just have to get the rest of the board to agree and we’re all set.” 

“If those brainwashed government dogs start droning on about their hypocritical code of honor again, I’ll carry everything out myself. Finding a way around them won’t be a problem, it just requires a plan B.” Sofiya put out her cigarette and reclined in the leather seat, crossing her arms over her chest, her sapphire eyes examining the fretwork ceiling. It was then Integra noticed the clearly present dark circles under them. Everything about her, from the aforementioned state of her eyes to the too-solemn expression on her face screamed that she was exhausted. For someone who orchestrated the downfalls of the most infamous on a daily basis, a two-week long operation with government officials should have been a walk in the park. Whether it was a result of a change of environment or the fact that the situation required extensive cooperation with the people she never took a liking to, the fact that Sofiya’s usual demeanor changed this drastically, even if it happened only when it was just the two of them, didn’t sit right with Integra.

“You know, the one thing Western Europeans enjoy more than following their ideals is good whiskey.” Integra pushed the tip of her cigarette down into the marble ashtray and watched as the smoke around it dimmed.

“Oh, whiskey sounds amazing right now.” Sofiya mused. 

“There’s a bottle of Macallan in the bottom left drawer to your right.” This statement caused the mafia boss to open an uninjured eye in confusion, prodding Integra to continue, “I ordered it when we just arrived here in case we needed a drink amongst this madness. I think that now is the right time to open it.” 

A smile spread on Sofiya’s features, and she laughed lightly, “You know how to prepare for disaster, Teggy.”

The nickname elicited a smile from the Englishwoman as well, and she watched her partner open the drawer and take out a bottle of the golden liquor. The blue of the Macallan label complimented the blue of Sofiya’s eyes, Integra noted, as she held the bottle with a satisfied victorious grin.

There were two whiskey glasses in the drawer beside the bottle and they were also placed on the massive oak table and filled to the brim in one swift move. The head of the Hellsing organization began to wonder just how eager her partner was to drink away her problems as the liquid swirled in the tumbler she held.

“What shall we drink to?” Sofiya asked as she held the glass merely a few centimeters above the table.

To the fact that I managed to distract you before you overworked yourself to death. “To the brilliant cooperation of our forces.” The clink of crystal glass echoed in the room as the two women finished the glasses in a matter of seconds. Both were experienced drinkers and although one glass of whiskey wasn’t enough to phase either of them, it partially removed the walls they built around themselves in order to upkeep their professional exteriors.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the ocean’s rhythmic dance in the distance through the open window. The unease concerning the case they were focused on minutes prior faded and gave way to a much more soothing feeling. They could finally relax, both because of the setting and the general atmosphere that was created by their mutual bond. The two women trusted each other fully, and that trust was shown in more ways than one.

Just as naturally as she did with the first glass, Sofiya poured another round of whiskey in the now empty tumblers on the table. This time, she wasn’t so enthusiastic about the action, and seemed as if she now wasn’t drinking to relieve stress, but for a slightly different reason. Her gaze lifted to meet Integra’s as she drank her liquor and the Englishwoman could make out the melancholy anxiousness her eyes depicted. Usually, they were glazed over in a state of perpetual coldness, and if those with whom Sofiya conducted her business were to look into them, they would get burned by that blue flame. That accentuated when she became manic; once pushed to the brink, she turned nuclear, ready to cut through any poor bastard that dared to cross her without even lifting a finger. Her harsh glare alone was enough to wipe out all who stood in her path. Having fought for so long, she became a weapon in her own right.   

There were times, however, when her stare wasn’t a hellfire or a typhoon. Few people were allowed in her company when it became a barren winter field, devoid of light and life. All of the despair she made an effort to masterfully conceal presented itself outrightly, showing a path to the deepest ends of her soul. Those that even she herself never liked to explore. 

A mirror was placed on one of the walls of the room which stood opposite to the window. The table where the two women sat allowed them a clear view of the reflection of the moonlit sea. They had just started to feel the effects of their drinks.

“I can’t sleep.” Sofiya’s tired voice sounded as clear as day in the silence of the room, immediately capturing Integra’s attention.

“What do you mean?”

Another pause engulfed the space before the Russian continued her train of thought, “My desire to finish our crime case isn’t the only reason why I’m sitting here instead of counting sheep in the comfort of my bedroom.” Sofiya lifted her eyes to meet Integra’s knowing gaze and chuckled, “Though, judging by how you’re looking at me, you were already aware of that.”

“I know you well enough to see when something is bothering you.” The head of Hellsing shifted in her seat so that she was facing Sofiya entirely, “So, what’s on your mind?”

“Hm, I don’t even know where to begin. I started having these thoughts when you and I first got acquainted about two years ago. Do you remember how we met? I think about that day often now.”

Of course Integra remembered. It was an April evening, during a meeting of influential military bosses. The Russian woman intrigued her immediately, and as the meeting progressed, Integra began to feel like she was looking into a warped mirror — the two of them were alike in everything from their physical appearance to their manners of speech, but somehow, there was an outstanding difference between the two of them, and it wasn’t just summed up in the fact that one of them was the boss of a military mafia and the other the head of a secret government organization. It was a notion that unravelled like a ball of yarn as they got to know each other and the dynamics of their relationship got more interesting and complicated. Integra smiled at the remembrance and nodded in response to the posed question.

Sofiya smiled as she got the approval of the fact that they were on the same page, “Just don’t take this the wrong way, alright? I actually disliked you when we first met. Specifically, I hated the fact that you were so loyal to the Queen, and your country, in general. I estimated your words and actions and halfway through the first meeting I thought “how ridiculous, the willingness to put your life in the hands of an institution that sees you as nothing but its political cannon fodder.” That’s the idea that stuck with me for the first half a year that we knew each other. We went to restaurants, visited each others’ countries, sat beside each other at meetings and the entire time I believed that you were a naive young woman who didn’t understand the dark swamp that is the structure of the government.” The woman paused to look at her partner to see how she was taking the information, but Integra remained as composed and neutral as she was before Sofiya began explaining her thoughts. Truthfully, she took no offence at the words. If anything, she found it amusing that she now, technically, lived together with the same woman with whom she had a rivalry in the beginning of their partnership. 

Integra prompted her to continue, and seeing that the statements were perceived well, Sofiya resumed. ”When you came to Roanapur in November of that same year to collect supernatural evidence was when we had our first sincere conversation. I told you that you should call me by my first name that day. I’m sure it was after that I realized that it wasn’t you I was mad at the entire time. It wasn’t your fault that you were born to lead one of England’s main special forces, and that you completed your duties excellently. The truth was a lot more… uncomfortable than that. I thought about this before I met you, too, but never entertained that thought for long. It was a painful thing to think about — it still is. However, I believe that it’s as close to the truth as I’ll ever get.” A heavy sigh halted her speech and she made the choice to pour more whiskey into their tumblers. She saw that Integra began to reach for her glass and once her hand retracted from the table, Sofiya downed the liquor, no longer caring for formalities. After all, the last thing their current conversation could be considered was formal. Setting down her glass, the mafia boss closed her eyes and waited several seconds for her brain to feel the whiskey. By no means could she continue speaking if she were completely sober. Rose lips parted and she continued to speak in a much lower tone, “You were a witness to my nightmares once. We never talked about it afterwards, and I’m grateful for that, because you don’t need to deal with the specifics of the imagery my mind decides to show me on a regular basis. Despite that, I want you to know one thing: it’s not the memories that make me finish an entire pack of cigarettes as soon as I wake up, at least not just them. I had dreams once, a long, long time ago, when my grandfather was still alive and a country called the Soviet Union threatened the Eurasian continent with its imposing ideals. My family could have been considered upper-middle class, since my grandfather was a higher officer in the ranks of the Soviet Army, and earned the proud title of a Hero of the Soviet Union for defending Moscow during the Great Patriotic War. I was following in his footsteps, training in military school to, one day, participate in the Olympics. That was my goal for the first half of my life, and it was supported by everyone I knew, from my parents to the politruks who visited my school sometimes. The friendliness that the local ideological leaders showed towards me for that didn’t last long, unfortunately. My father was an eccentric man, typical of an artist and a member of intelligentsia. He had plenty of friends overseas with whom he liked to discuss the wonders of the Western world and its democracy. He often told me stories of the lands I was set on conquering with a gold medal one day, and how I would see that there is a life besides patriotic songs and red ribbons. Sadly, that is what caused him to be arrested for violating the 70th article — Anti-Sovetism, and exiled to the city of Gorky as punishment. He was fine, as far as I know, and even sent letters sometimes, but this fact tainted our family’s reputation significantly. Nevertheless, it only powered my desire to fulfill my goal. I believed that if I won a gold medal at the Olympics, my family could reunite once again and my father would not be looked down upon by members of the Party. This was also the reason why I decided to go to Afghanistan. I was inspired by my grandfather’s service, and believed that if I spent a year fighting for my country, I would be immediately accepted into the Olympic team, and when I got back from the tournament in Los Angeles, both of my parents and grandfather would welcome me home with open arms, and say “You did it, Sonya. We’re finally together again.” As you can guess, that was not the case whatsoever. War doesn’t have regard for people’s life plans. 

I was a righteous soldier, thinking that I was fighting for freedom and justice. I had this set of morals that I strictly followed because I believed that was the right thing to do. My grandfather was a noble war hero, who fought like he had nothing left to lose in the Battle of Moscow, and came out with fond frontline memories, a medal and respect for the rest of his life. I was foolish enough to believe that I would get the same treatment. The biggest mistake I made was putting my faith into the government that gave us up for choosing the laws of humanity over the laws made by bureaucrats. Through a series of transfers from one hospital to another, I was back in my hometown of Moscow and learned several things upon arrival: my grandfather died at the age of eighty-six a month before I returned to Moscow, both of my parents married different people and both of them moved cities, and my country, the one I gave my dreams, my future, my body, my life for, ceased to exist. The suffering I went through, the sacrifice of the dozens of soldiers who gave their lives for their country were all for nothing. To the new government who wiped their asses with dollar bills, we were nothing. ” Finishing the sentence, Sofiya took a deep breath to steady her voice. It was becoming difficult not to lose her composure, she observed, as she blinked her eyes to clear them of the blurs clouding her vision. Thinking these things through when she had the free time and getting rid of the unwanted thoughts by distracting herself with violence or alcohol was one thing, but speaking them aloud all at once was a lot more challenging than she anticipated. 

The process of setting her emotions straight was interrupted by the sound of metal clashing against glass as the cap of the Macallan bottle was twisted and removed. Not saying a word, Integra poured whiskey into both of their glasses to the brim and locked her eyes with Sofiya’s. The mafia boss didn’t break eye contact as she reached for the tumbler, and noted that there was no low pity in her partner’s gaze, but rather a sorrowful, yet deeply affectionate solidarity. They silently raised their glasses and drank the liquor.

The wind outside picked up, and lightly tousled the leaves of the magnolia which stood right under the window. The sea crashed against the shore with greater force than before, and though the weather also seemed to become tense, relating to a state of nature seemed like a comforting thought to Sofiya. Feeling calmer than earlier, she continued her discourse, “Some time ago, you asked me why I chose to station my forces in Roanapur when I had plenty of other options. I don’t remember what I told you, but know that it wasn’t true. In my country I was judged for abandoning the values of the Party, and in the country which now acts as a successor to the Soviet Union I was seen as a killer for an ideology which was no longer favorable. So, what was I to do: live out the rest of my life in poverty and disgrace, or turn to the world of mafia? I chose the lesser of two evils. Believe me, I hate it. Living amongst cheap thugs, causing and settling conflicts over shallow things like money and drugs. This endless goose chase with all dead ends. These people sicken me, but not more than the fact that I belong with them. 

My reason to antagonize you in the beginning is embarrassingly simple — I envy you. You fought your war with just as much dedication and honor as I did. You have the same impeccable leadership skills as I do. You gave up your life to serve your homeland, just as I did. However, your country rewarded you for your accomplishments, while mine disowned me once it realized it had no use for me anymore; that is where you and I differ. Our ideological conflict is not in the trite division of the world as “good” and “evil” because there are no such things. I didn’t want to become a criminal, and god knows I never wanted to be seen as evil. I was raised to be the face of my nation and a noble soldier, fighting for a better world. I simply ended up losing a rigged game, and paid with my life for sins that weren’t mine.” 

The words hung in the air as the room became submerged in silence once more. Even the waves rose and fell placidly seemingly in accord with the present situation. The moonlight from the window fell directly onto Sofiya’s hair, nearly illuminating it in the overall darkness of the villa. Even in her grim demeanor, she looked ethereal. Though the thought that she shared too much crossed her mind at first, it was overshadowed by the much stronger calming feeling of emotional relief. As dismal as they were, her words were the truth, and this conversation would be had sooner or later. She stated so to herself mentally, yet felt a sting in her palms and glanced at her hands, where she found her long fuschia nails digging deep enough into the skin to draw specks of blood. 

Integra noticed this as she let her partner’s words sink in. Acting instinctively, she shifted in her seat so that she would be closer to Sofiya, and cautiously yet steadily laced the woman’s hands with her own, looking deep into her eyes, “That was traumatic. You didn’t deserve any of it.” I won’t let anything like that happen to you ever again was the main idea behind those words, expressed implicitly through a deep passion in an azure gaze and an unwavering tone of voice, “I’m proud of you. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to sort everything out and come to an objective conclusion. You really are strong, even stronger than you think.”

The response to those words was a genuine soft smile contrasting with tired yet intense sapphire eyes, an expression that only someone who had walked through hell without a flinch could hold. In that look of flaming ice was a flicker of hope for the future, which, it seemed, hadn’t been stolen and sold away entirely just yet.