“People always make war when they say they love peace.”
- D.H. Lawrence
19 August 1941
Two mornings ago, Yuri Plisetsky had been sitting in the yard with Mila, bending over a notebook and writing hurriedly as she looked over his shoulder. Both were attendees and the top students in their respective years at Yakov’s Academy for the Gifted, in Leningrad. She’d made a comment about how his hair was beginning to get to long again, and then hauled him up from his notes to take him to get it cropped short once more. He'd cursed her under his breath, but had gone along anyways, knowing that if he refused she would continue to pester him until he got it done.
Mila had always taken it upon herself to look out him, ever since he’d showed up at the Academy not three years earlier at eleven years old, completely on his own except for a grandfather who lived in Moscow to the south. Every day since then, she'd gone out of her way to at least pass by him in the halls between classes or drop unexpectedly into the empty seat besides him during meals. Because of this, Mila was always the one to note when his hair began to get too long by the Academy's standards, and take him to get it cut.
Now, though, Yuri kept running his fingers through his cropped hair, even two mornings later, causing it to stand up haphazardly before smoothing it down, only to repeat the process over and over again. It would take days to get used to the shortness again, and months before it was at his preferred length, when Mila would not notice for a few days before dragging him out to the barber again. Personally, Yuri liked it better when it was long.
Yuri’s knee bounced impatiently as he sat on the bench, once more besides Mila, outside of the ticket office at the train station. He could hear Victor’s raised voice - an oddity on its own - on the opposite side of the door, arguing with the station clerk. They'd been there before the gates to the train station had even properly opened, shoving through the crowd waiting outside, with little resistance as soon as people took a glance at Victor's uniform.
When Yuri’s hand unconsciously reached up to push through his too-short hair again, Mila rested her fingers over his, stopping him.
“Relax, Yurochka. All will be well,” she murmured. Her red hair framed her face as she looked at him, smiling softly. "Victor will take care of it."
Yuri jerked his hand away from hers, placing it instead on his knee in an attempt to stop fidgeting. It was only a few moments before he was at it again, both knees bouncing alternately.
Mila sighed besides him, leaning her head back against the wall behind them, and for several seconds Yuri wondered why he had wanted her to come along. He knew that it was his way of repaying her for looking out for him the past few years, but still he questioned himself. He wasn't even sure if he liked her, or if she was just someone that he tolerated on occasion. It was much too late to go back, however.
Not two hours ago, Victor had burst into the dormitory room Yuri shared with several other boys his age who attended the Academy. They were all asleep. Yuri had wanted to strangle the perpetrator who had awoken him at such an early hour, when classes wouldn’t start until well after sun-up, until he recognized Victor’s brilliant blue eyes staring at him, more serious than Yuri had ever seen the man.
“Yuri, pack your things,” he’d said quietly in greeting.
Without a second thought, Yuri had jumped into action. He’d just started to shove his spare clothes into the bag he kept under his bed when he stopped, and turned to face Victor.
"You cut your hair," Yuri blurted.
Victor gave him a long look, as though to say honestly?
"So have you. Pack your things. Quickly."
Yuri continued to stand there, and Victor sighed, impatient for the first time that Yuri could remember.
“What are you doing here? I thought that you were supposed to be - “
“I know. I was. But I was relocated here, not a month ago, because of the impending siege. Yuri, we need to hurry - “
Yuri had stared at him, dumbfounded. Major General Victor Nikiforov, his idol and mentor before being called away to the war, had abandoned his position, if even for a few hours. For what? What could be so important that he would shirk his duties? He prided himself in fulfilling his role.
“Victor, what is happening?” Yuri hissed, only just tamping down his terror as he jumped to conclusions. “Are they here, in the city?”
Victor moved quickly to stand before Yuri, looking around to ensure the other boys still slept before placing his hands on both of his shoulders as he peered down at Yuri. “No. They have not made it into Leningrad. Yet. But before long, no one will be able to leave. So we’re going, now.”
“They’re going to cut off the railways,” Yuri said, not even bothering to hide the fear in his words this time. “We’ll be trapped - “
“You will not be stuck here. You’re leaving, on the first train this morning. It leaves in two hours, at dawn. That is why we must hurry.”
Yuri hastily began to pack again, wary of waking his roommates - before he stopped once more.
“What about the others?”
Victor looked at Yuri in exasperation, then at the other sleeping boys. “What about them?”
“Are we going to just leave them?”
“Yuri, there is only so much I can do. There won’t much space on the train, and my top priority is getting you out of here.”
“What about Mila?”
He didn’t know why he thought of her in that moment, but the question was out before he considered it. The redhead was annoying, yes, but she was his friend. Sometimes. She’d looked out for him these last few years when no one else would.
“Babicheva? How old is she now?”
Victor considered, then nodded his assent.
“Okay. We can take her as well, but I don’t know if there will be space. I will try. But only her, understand?”
Yuri hadn’t considered why her age had mattered, until they were sitting on the bench at the station waiting for Victor to come back out of the station clerk's office. Children would have priority, and because she wasn't old enough to be considered eligible to enter active service in some form, Mila might still be considered young enough to be considered as a child.
The door to the office flew open, and Victor looked at them both. Yuri and Mila leaned to look behind him, to see the station clerk looking flustered as he adjusted his tie, muttering under his breath.
“You both have your papers, yes?” Victor asked, yanking the door shut behind him. It slammed, and Yuri and Mila covered up their startled jumps by moving quickly to their feet.
“Yes, Victor,” Mila said, her gaze dropping to the ground. “Is there room for us both?”
Victor flashed them a smile. “When a Major General tells you he needs space for two passengers on the first train, they make room for two passengers.”
“Two? You’re not coming with us?” Yuri asked.
Victor did not answer. He swept in the direction of the platform, which was filling with people as they spoke, all scrambling to try and gain passage aboard the train crouching patiently, smoke rising from the engine’s stacks as it prepared for departure.
“Victor!” Yuri shouted, hurrying after him, his hand clenched around the strap of his bag.
Mila followed, her own bag hanging from her shoulder, and bouncing against her back with every step.
When people saw Victor moving towards them, they slipped to the side, clearing a path for him. They stared in awe at the uniform he wore, gaping at the star on either of his shoulders. He carried himself like a man in charge, and they responded in kind.
It was how they’d gotten into the station before it had properly opened, as well. The ease with which the attention shifted to Victor, and people scrambled to do as he asked. It caused envy to surge through Yuri. All his life he had wanted that sort of treatment, for people to see him and gawk. To be known and appreciated. To be important.
His grandfather had told him that was why he sent him to Yakov’s Academy. To allow him to become that person, to become someone that all of the Soviet Union - all of the world, even - would recognize the name of.
Victor and Yakov had even told him he was destined for greatness, though not in those exact words. Yakov would never outright say something so uplifting about any of his students, not even to Victor when he had attended the Academy several years earlier. Having both of their attention and favor, though, was why he was so high up in the Academy, why Yakov gave him more attention than just about everyone else in his year.
Mila pushed Yuri towards Victor, who had come to a halt at the edge of the platform and was now waiting for them. Yuri shot Mila a glare, but she only shook her head at him before returning her attention to the tall man before them. Victor placed a hand on each of their shoulders, drawing them in close.
“Listen to me, both of you. You get on this train, and you stay on this train. You do not get off until you are in Kazakhstan, understand? And you stay together.”
“Kazakhstan?” Mila asked, her brows furrowing. “We’re going to Kazakhstan?”
Victor looked her in the eye. “Yes. As far away from all of this as possible.”
“What about Moscow? My grandfather is there, can’t we - “
“No!” Victor snapped, his grip tightening on Yuri’s shoulder. “You do not get off at Moscow. You stay on this train until you are in Kazakhstan. Do I make myself clear?”
Mila bows her head, and Yuri nods hesitantly.
“This is the only way I have to protect you. To get you out of here. Do not ruin it.”
“Yes, sir,” Mila said, threading her arm through Yuri’s.
As much as he wanted to pull away from her, Yuri allowed the contact, moving his bag to his other hand with a frown.
“Good. Here are your tickets. You stay on until you are in Kazakhstan. Do not lose these, nor your papers. And you stay together. Those are the three most important things you must remember, understand?”
They nodded their understanding, and Victor drew them both into an embrace. Each of his hands went up to press against the backs of their heads, even when they both hesitated to return the hug.
The train whistle blew, and people began to surge forward in an urgency to get on. Officials swept in, pressing them back. Victor held Mila and Yuri tighter, not allowing them to see the panic on the faces in the crowd.
When at last he released them, he pressed them both forward towards the nearest rail car. Mila immediately stepped onto the lowest stair, and paused when she realized Yuri wasn’t immediately behind her.
He’d stopped just a few steps away from Victor, and was staring at him.
“What are you going to do, Victor?”
“I have something I need to take care of, back in the east, as soon as I have a chance to get out of here. And then I will come and find you again.”
“Promise?” Yuri asked.
The train whistled again. Mila, on the steps into the rail car, glanced towards the doorway, then back to the pair standing on the platform. The crowd beyond the line of officials was growing frantic, their shouts becoming a roar of fear as they were being held back.
“I promise,” Victor said, barely audible to Yuri above the ringing voices.
Yuri shook his head. There was urgency in his voice when he spoke. “No, Victor. Do you promise ?”
They both thought of the last promise that Victor had made. It left a sour taste in both of their mouths, Yuri still feeling abandoned and floundering, and Victor regretful of having broken his word.
“I swear it. When this is over, I will come and find you. I will not fail you like that again, Yuri. Never again.”
Yuri nodded, and threw his arms around Victor. Victor held him tightly for several seconds, until the whistle blew a third and final time.
“Yuri!” Mila shouted. Behind her, a conductor stood, watching the two on the platform with guarded understanding.
“Go,” Victor said, pushing Yuri away.
Yuri went, allowing the push to propel him towards the steps into the rail car as the train gave its first chug, lurching into motion. Mila leaned out, clasping Yuri’s forearm and hauling him up besides her onto the steps.
They both held tightly to the handles jutting from the side of the rail car, watching Victor as the train slowly began to pull away from the platform. Victor did not move. He stood at attention, watching them both stare back at him.
“Best find your seats now,” the conductor said.
With a last glance, Mila and Yuri climbed the last few steps and entered the rail car. The conductor slide the door closed behind them. The train sped out of the station, just as the swarm of people on the platform burst through the line of officials trying to keep them back.
They did not see the crowd careen carelessly into Victor, nor did they know that after that day, Victor would not be seen again for some time.
As they settled into their seats, crammed in with an elderly couple and what must have been their grandchildren, Yuri stared out the window at Leningrad beginning to wake. The sky outside was beginning to lighten in the east, the first strands of sunlight stretching into the dawn.
Within minutes of their departure, Mila was asleep against his shoulder, her red hair tickling his chin if he turned towards her. He didn’t have the heart to push her off, and let her be as he continued to stare out the window as they left the city far behind.
One of the children on the bench across from them stared at him. He ignored her, especially when she smiled to reveal several missing teeth. When one of her younger siblings began to cry, he shot a glare in their general direction, freezing when Mila shifted in her sleep. The grandmother rocked the crying child, shushing him and murmuring a lullaby. When Mila settled back against his shoulder, still asleep, he exhaled, and met the toothless girl’s gaze again. This time when she smiled towards him, his own mouth moved to return the expression against his will.
He looked back out the window.
They were still on the train the following day, August twentieth, speeding steadily south towards Kazakhstan, when news reached Leningrad that the railway had been severed by Axis forces, preventing any others from evacuating the city by train.