On the hot sands of Afghanistan, the sun used to beat down on them and the weight of their backpacked supplies resting on their shoulders pull down on their spine. In Afghanistan you're lucky if the wall your back is pressed against survives the onslaught of bullets. In Afghanistan you wish you had died instead of living in shameful poverty for the few years to come after the war. In Afghanistan. There was the truest kapitan.
There was Sofiya Pavlovena. Boris never forgot that name, no matter if it was something-odd years after he had every spoken it. As soon as the unit saw her skill they simply called her Balalaika.
She had short blonde hair and a small serious mouth, simply otherworldly with her sniper, especially to a group of broad-shouldered Russian me who were on their last leg, anyway. She was intimidatingly tall, tall and broad like them and of course they didn't take her serious at first.
She was a woman, trying to prove to her grandfather that honor didn't leave with when his son did.
(When her father did; he left her alone in a fancy Soviet house with a demanding uncle.)
She commanded with earned ease, and knew where to hit, to hide, to seek shelter when even the elements tried to melt their brains. Pavolvena had more sixth senses then they could count.
They leaned against the ruins of a building, the color blurring into the sand, a distinct color of beige stained by blood and grey smoke. Grey mountains framed the landscape. Bullets scattered into the sand around them. Yet the sky remained an innocent shade of baby blue, oblivious to the warfare going below it. Boris could hear his own breath hard and solid inside of his gas mask. His heart pounding in his chest, he glanced over at Pavlovena, noticing her lean forward to the group, slightly; preparing to speak.
She yanked down her hood, pulling down her gas mask where it rested on the ground.
"Lieutenant? Lieu-" Boris asked in confusion, looking at her. Despite his low-voiced confusion, he knew she'd never hear his question over the sound of gunfire.
"Hey Menshov, the dragunov!" Sofiya yelled, her eyes squinting as harsh sunlight glittered like a knife into her eyes.
"Here!" The muffled reply came to the man next to them, only separated by the gaping maw where the explosives had made their mark on the crumbling wall. He tossed the weapon, it sliding into Pavlovena's fingers easily. Her ice-blue eye glanced through the scope, needing only a moment to focus herself to shoot a hole through several of the men shooting on a green truck. The flashes of light from the enemies' guns stop instantly; they slump over, dead. Her gloved hands gripped the gun with such ferocity, yet a tenderness to not break it.
Her scope dragged along a trench, avoiding cowering civilians to puncture more hands behind semi-automatics.
Sofiya is right, she belongs on the Olympics, Boris thought to himself, as she punctured a few enemies with her gun. She didn't need to look for a long period of time and focus herself to kill them. Her face was impassive. So he told her, shouting his deep voice over the gunfire.
"Excellent! If this were L.A. you'd have the gold medal!" Boris replied to her spot-on gunshots, before bringing out his own rifle to join in. The rest is a blur, him continuing to shoot while she led the men, having paved the way. In fact, she always paved the way. She always knew where they were headed, what to do and how to properly manage it. Pavolvena turned them into real lethal engines.
She didn't reply or blush or stutter a thank you, that's not Sofiya. She'll give a short smile with a healthy glow in her cheeks and a damp crinkle of a chuckle after a few glasses of vodka, but not now. But Boris knows she heard it.
The hair slaps against her face, brushing her chin, her lips drawn together to not inhale as much gasoline-tinged dust into her mouth.
They nickname her Balalaika, their deep voices trilling the 'lala' while she grins behind a drink of liquor; finger tapping the thick stem of the bottle. For how she wields the Dragunov like a musical instrument, fingers plucking the trigger like thin strings.
Under the beaming sun, a child wearing an over-sized jacket is holding Pavlovena's hand, walking away from the ruins of another battle. He is crying, and the news footage covers that. And then they are all discharged. Voluntary.
Boris doesn't die. He gets a mighty cut across his face- gift wrapped shrapnel puncturing into his skull neatly, he doesn't go blind, he doesn't lose his ability to speak coherently. He loses his ability to fit into society- It's scary, at first, when the stack of water bottles falling from a shelf isn't a bomb going off mere inches from his dugout.
Other soldiers were worse off- he knew that. One had little cancers sprouting in his lungs, their delicate leaves weaving around the veins of his lungs and esophagus until he can't stop coughing and he suffers alone in that damn hospital bed.
The ex-soldier can't find work, but he finds the men of his unit again and they bound themselves to each other, afraid of their alien world where everyone walked pretty much safely, there were no ruined stone buildings to duck behind, and no SV-98 at their fingertips.
(They find Sofiya again, except she's no Sofiya anymore.)
Their short-haired leader died when fire wrapped like a thick whip around her body, then she covered in gore and blood and- "Is she breathing?"
One of the soldiers- Polansky, asked frantically one arm wrapped around her waist to support her, Boris' tree trunk-equivalent practically held her up.
"We have to get her to the helicopter."
Boris wasn't one for words. His monotone shout betrayed the volcanic turmoil of fearful emotion inside of him.
Four boots pounding against the sandy, dusty ground, one pair skimming the ground, covered in blood. Boris feels as if his heart is in this throat, and he's not alone in that department. They pass other members in their unit, some casting barely disguised worried looks while empty shells glittering like silvered jewelry litter the ground.
She isn't dripping blood. Instead it stains them, her broken and blistered skin, her clothing, her hair, her eyelashes caked with it. Like someone turned her epidermal tissue upside down and inside out. He was afraid to touch her when the smoke cleared. Like one brush of his dirt-caked thumb would tear her flesh away like a curtain on a stage. Exposing the sharp white realization of bone.
Her thick shirt isn't much of a shirt as it is a makeshift bandage, it being splayed against the flayed skin. The material presses to Boris' side and he feels the extreme heat, the blackened rib, the scrambled heart and sunny-side up lungs. He feels like he's melting with her; turning into a thick pink cream laced with gentle dark chocolate curls that turn to dust in your mouth.
(That's all he tastes nowadays, the thick layer of ammunition dust.)
Sofiya's corpse lands heavily on the bed strapped to the left wall, as soon as they board. Balalaika looks up at two of them through a maroon-crusted eye- the other is buckled in by the melted flesh. Her body is a mess…. Long ropes of burnt flesh wrapped around her torso and chest, and finally ending with a curve up through the right half of her face.
The medical members group around her, ripping the shirt stuck to her epidermal wounds, and Balalaika opens her mouth to cry out, but instead clenched her teeth. Boris returns to the field, his boots stamping into the dust.
Boris had seen gore before. He had seen his fellow Soviets festering on mats, their limbs left back out in the sand; their organs pooling on the sand beside them. There'd been those who wanted death to take them, and by god did death creep ever so slowly. He'd seen children butchered, women raped, and men begging to take them instead, not them, please. Mothers pleading for their children and children in the bodies of men pleading for their mothers. But nothing did compare to the living corpse that Balalaika had been that day.
He doesn't bother praying anymore. Why would he need to? War is the only thing that ever truly stood by him, unlike his countless comrades that faded into the sand.
-and her burnt clothing, the smell of fiery hair.
During the years of barely having enough to pay for an apartment, during the years of feeling the ominous phantom hiding in a box next to the small closet- (he opens it, only finding the grey-green of his uniform) the years of having no leader. He and his group felt aimless. Blind and fumbling in the dark for a light. Bumping into each other, noticing the scars and limps. Noticing how they can be happy again, yet doing nothing.
Nikolay, one of his teammates- or used to be- finds Balalaika again, in a dingy apartment with a flickering television. Boris doesn't bother to inquire where he found such information, knowing the answer would be fruitless. Nikolay was as good with emotional words as he was.
The whole inside of the building is a continuous color pattern of dull browns and grays. They enter the one room apartment, feeling much too tall and much too big. They clutter inside like dishes spilling out of a tiny cupboard. The unit used to be so swift on their large feet- used to blow flanks apart with their expertly handled rifles; a leader who taught them how to be real soldiers- no matter how much grit was in her mouth.
Balalaika's eyes are on the television- the Olympics are on. The television itself is no marvel, static flickering throughout the glass. It;s bent yet continues to tenaciously work. Boris read somewhere that the screens on televisions are made of rose quartz glass.
"-And the gold medal goes to Launi Meili of the USA!" its static voice, like a ghost, buzzes in the dark air above them. None of them speak it, but it was obviously known they knew how badly she wished to join and win in those televised games. It'd be insulting to bring it up now.
She doesn't move to get up, instead her spine is slumped as she stares at the screen. The blonde leader doesn't spare a glance at them. Her voice cuts though the excited cheers on screen, as her hand turns the volume off. "And what do you want me to do about it?"
"All of us have been stripped of our military ranks," Her voice is tired, her whole person seemed to radiate an intense energy of exhaustion, of years of sleeping in a dingy apartment; being careful not to roll onto the sensitive puffed tissue that decorated the right side of her body. This... stranger to the brave leader that oversaw their expeditions across the steaming landscape. "so no longer am I a kapitan, it's all over. You are not in my company anymore."
She sounds exhausted, the thin blanket wrapped around her scarred legs is stretched tight under her clenched fists. "The country we gave our lives for… the Soviet Union... no longer exists in this world."
"Regardless of where we were, as long as we were fighting under you the path would surely open. We all believed that. Even through this… shameful poverty." Pavlov spoke up, his voice tired. They were all tired. Tired, broad-shouldered men who couldn't find work yet still managed to buy wine and cigarettes.
The woman in the chair continued to monotonously stare at the television. She didn't respond. A smiling Launi Meili, broken up by static, waved onscreen.
Kruglov is dead. Because you die when you get involved with narcotics and bribes, illegal weapons and lying. He wasn't careful, always reckless with a cocky grin on his face. His biological family didn't bother to come to the short service.
Instead, his makeshift family arrives, wearing what clothing was the nicest. Even after the months they talked to Balalaika, many couldn't find work. Some were too depressed to find a job, others still recoiling from loud noises, or simply couldn't.
Sadness was when you find out the Soviet Union, what you fought for, what your teammates gave your lives for is gone. It's when your favorite weapon is put out of commission of a stray flinging boomerang of shrapnel; or when it embeds itself in your face.
Grief immobilizes your entire being. Your pink organs, squirming inside of you are grey and lifeless. A corpse, forever cold, armpits damp because you have to cling every limb close to your body. An awake sleepwalker, eyesight lined with grey newspaper of everything going wrong in the world.
People they loved died before, but grief was always a new experience each time a wave hit them. The people they fought with, fought for are gone and will never come back.
Boris felt his whole body overcome by such feelings. His thick heart cringed like a dying animal. As if someone put a lethal dose of into the pulsing artery in his wide neck. The second-in-command's fingers brushed his throat, but finding no squeezing hand there. The whole squadron felt it; the circles under their eyes the hazy blue color of a vein.
He had his usual stoic face but Lagransky covered his weeping face with his hand, shoulders trembling. Tsaplin could hardly stand up. Others bent their heads and clutched their dull hats to their curled chests, feeling their heart shudder inside of them.
"-Comrades!" He hadn't heard the heavy-booted footsteps. He hadn't heard that word in ages, none of them had.
Balalaika stood in her uniform, her blonde hair curling like flames down her back. Her iron-hot scar had faded on her face, only the rumpled pink re-growth remained. Her expression was determined, her skin devoid of blood. She was their leader, only different now, more damaged, more undead than alive, more passionate. Yet the sorrow was evident, the sorrow of losing a rumpled-shirt smirking soldier. The type of grief only a leader could understand. Her eyes narrowed.
"Comrades, raise your fists! As of now we return to active military duty on our own terms."
Boris' fist raised first. The others followed suit. How his veins, his capillaries, his dying and newly-born cells ached to hear such words. To do the one thing he was meant to do; to be a soldier. And so he, and the rest of them, saluted Balalaika, their leader. No longer would their talents waste away in grocery isles or tarring rotting roofs! The whole affair felt like a dream; tall crosses looming overhead.
It's all they know.
Was it a dream? Roanapur felt like the island of Misfits, the island where Pinocchio and the group of children were turned into donkeys. The streets were hazy with smoke and the occasional gunfire. The water was serene but around the docks it was slogged by garbage and the plastic bag full of bones. Prostitutes, braless and in jean skirts, waved at the chiaroscuro Triads in their pressed suits, sleazy hunched-backs lesser gangsters, and the occasional wide-eyed traveler who was dead by the end of the evening.
It was perfect (a "powder cake") for Hotel Moscow, the once abandoned unit lead by... who was it again? Pavlo... Palva... Some blonde unscarred woman. They were transformed into the steel bar supporting the waterside town up. A group of former Red Army paratroopers.
When they touched their feet upon the soiled soil, Mr. Chang shot their blonde leader in the chest, and she fell into the depths of the cerulean ocean, only to be rescued by the Black Lagoon. Dutch, the small group's leader, specifically. (He's been in her favor ever since)
Boris is always almost ill with worry for Balalaika. Their posse almost lost her for good, almost went blindly into destroying the streets. They couldn't handle losing her again. They need a purpose.
She was different, yes. Sofiya was a harsh leader with an iron but gentle fist, bringing their unit as close to glory as she could. Balalaika was colder, her pupils pinpricks in an ocean of water glittering under ice. Instead of heavy green material it's a sleek magenta suit complimented by high heels.
There was love for them, of course there was. But please understand, Balalaika never mothered them, never held them tight to her, but instead was the wisdom-beyond-her-years guardian that taught them more than the military schools ever did.
And to repay for that infinite kindness that taught them to survive in Afghanistan, they protected her more than they ever did before.
Her manicured fingers bring a fat cigar to her lips. Boris always thought it was a very nice substitute to the smoke of semi-automatic gunfire.