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Blood on cotton

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His is the last face you see.

It's fucking ironic, the two of you meeting your ends like this at the hands of some two-bit crooks that wouldn't have lasted three weeks doing what you've done. Goddamn ironic, yes, but poetic in its way --this is peacetime, this is calm. You've done your bit.

They shoot him first.

You haven't flinched since you were eighteen.

You don't get the chance to do it again.

 

*

 

It's Victor who finds you, half a kid still and a hundred pounds soaking wet --soaking in your own blood, as it happens, and your own piss as well because half a year ago your mother was still sneaking you sweets for lunch and now you're out here with a gun the same size as yourself.

He's not Victor then, of course; just the enemy.

(That word has lost its meaning months ago.)

A Victorious enemy, and that will get you both a good laugh later on, much later, when you've said goodbye to your army greens and hello to the Motherland.

Right now, though, right now you're bleeding out in the dirt and you're not even sure which town you're in.

"Stay still. Don't talk. I’ll get you out," is what he says; and it seems silly to die here in this nameless place with shrapnel seeking out the places between your ribs when there's a man kneeling next to you who says I'll save you with his eyes.

You nod, and trust the enemy.

You regret it half a second later, when he tears out the something embedded in your thigh and your vision whites out for an interminable instant; dying, then, seems preferable.

Maybe you do die, a little, in the spaces between your frantic heartbeats. Maybe you are someway reborn when you next open your eyes to the world, to the enemy calmly tying a tourniquet around your leg with his fingers dark with your blood.

If you did die and come back, Victor's was the first face you saw in your new life.

 

*

 

You follow Victor through a second war and then all the way to England, because it wasn't the Motherland that saved you but a man; and that man has moved on.

 

(There is no moving on. You take war with you where you go, but you've reshaped it to your liking. You were a child, then a soldier, then spetsnaz; and these soft-bellied British slabaki have always been nothing.)

 

*

 

You meet him only once you’re on English soil. He towers above you and Victor and the occasional old-fashioned doorway, and you’ve heard of him of course -’ruthless’, ‘sadistic’, ‘mad’- but seeing him is something else.

“Czar,” you say brightly, hand outstretched, because when Victor stopped being ‘the enemy’ and became Victor, you stopped being what your mother called you. “You’ve got quite the reputation.” You didn't mean to add the compliment.

His hand, like everything else about him, dwarfs your own.

“Anatoli.” His grin is a test and a challenge and easy comradeship all in one. “Victor tells me you've got a reputation of your own.”

It’s been a long time since you’ve felt this small.

(you think where were you when I was seventeen, shooting blind bullets into Grozsny smog)

It’s been even longer since you wanted anyone’s approval.

 

*

 

"Beautiful," he says, looking at your scars; "beautiful," and here's a man who gets it.

(Uri, for all his wealth, does not get it. Uri has never seen the inside of his guts glisten in the sunlight; has never seen his blood mix with his enemies’ until it runs the same triumphant shade. Working for him is the one thing you cannot forgive Victor for.)

You don't get to say it back, because the ublyudki that you're protecting this money from seem intent on giving you a few more battle souvenirs.

Finally.

 

*

 

When you manage to walk again without tilting to port, you find him lying on the tracks like a disposable extra in a western.

You're reasonably sure he's still alive. Rotten bastards like you die hard -case in point being the fact you're still on your feet yourself.

Goddamn British degenerates.

Since your lives are not a western and he is not an extra, you let your aching body carry you down to your knees and shake his shoulder.

"Hey," you say, and then when he makes a noise: "Don't talk. I'll get you out."

He looks at your face like he's not seen it before.

You are not the enemy and nothing needs tying off, and for that you are glad.

 

You carry him home -'home' a room too luxurious for comfort to either of you. You prop your cuts and bruises up against the bar and leave a message on Victor's voicemail -failed mission, lost chauffeur, forgive us Victor, forgive us- while chugging back something strong enough it almost makes you reconsider your opinion on this country's spirits.

He comes up behind you noiselessly. Presses a wet rag to the wound on the back of your head, and you start. Unforgivable. Nobody's managed to get the jump on you in close quarters for a long time.

Nobody's taken it upon themselves to patch you up for a long time.

"Stay still," he says. "You're bleeding."

You know that.

"Head wound. Not as bad as it looks," you say, which you know he knows but you're thinking of his massive hand holding your head in place and of the careful movement of the cloth, and your words won't really line up straight.

“Sit.”

You sit. Blood and grime on Egyptian cotton; just enough of you to make the room feel the slightest bit like yours.

"Your reputation doesn't do you justice," he rumbles, and your bruised ribs scream. "Never met a man who lasted longer in battle than me." You have no reply to that.

He moves to clean the cuts on your face; you hiss at the sting. In response, his hand gentles -funny how that works, this giant of a man-shaped war machine, and you know what this is. He's sneaking you sweets, is what he's doing; and you haven't needed that from anyone in a good long while but all the same it makes you wonder. For the briefest of moments, it makes you wonder whether you could let the whole thing go. Whether you can grant these lowlifes a clemency nobody besides Victor ever granted you.

Then he turns away to rinse the cloth, a constellation of blacks and purples mottling up his spine, and your mind settles back into itself.

These bastards will fucking pay.

 

*

 

His is the last face you see. You make it so.

 

They shoot him twice. Once in the head, another in the throat and he falls in slow-motion, he falls faster than you can blink.

You make sure to keep your gaze on him for the several lightning-quick eternities it takes the gun to turn to you. That way you die good. You die right, looking at something that's worth it.

 

They give you the honour of a third shot.