The snow had turned his lips a soft blue, frost dusting them over, hand still clenched around his gun, beloved coat splattered with his blood. Piercing cerulean eyes stared into the dark sky, full of expression even in death, with shock and pain still mingled into his face. Uniform thrown open at the throat and trampled over with footprints. The sweat on his palms slowly starting to freeze over. Cheeks drained of color. Golden hair scattered around his head like a halo, awkward cowlick standing away from the strands. Frozen, freezing, arms sprawled out against the snow, as if he were making angels, was going to get up and laugh at any time.
Matthew Williams stood over the frozen body of his twin, staring down at the once bright and alive and grinning Alfred, his mind not quite comprehending what he was seeing.
It was unreal to see his brother like this, see him so cold and still, skin encrusted with ice. He expected him to stand up and grin at him, loud voice exclaiming out a sharp, “Hah, gotcha, Mattie!” Unfortunately, it’d been about fifteen minutes, and he still hadn’t gotten up. Matthew refused to let the thought that he might actually be dead sink in just yet, clinging to the hope of it all just being an elaborate joke. The smaller twin crouched in the snow beside his fallen brother, reaching over to flip his uniform closed so he wouldn’t have to look at the blood.
“Alfie. Get up.” He urged, hand gently nudging at the stiff body’s shoulder, then shaking it a bit more aggressively as he desperately attempted to escape the crashing reality of the situation. There was no way Al was dead. He was always Arthur’s favorite, surrounded by friends, going on dates, making enemies. Making statements. Putting himself out there. Someone brave enough to speak what they were thinking all the time…..couldn’t just…..die. It wasn’t something that happened in real life.
“Come on, Alfie, this isn’t funny…..get out of the snow. You’re going to catch hypothermia.” Matthew shook his brother again, frowning, still dodging what he knew was true. “This isn’t funny.” He bit his lip, trying so hard not to let it sink in, this weight on his shoulders, the weight in his mind, a hovering cloud of the truth slowly seeping to clog every corner of his being. Again he shook his still twin. “Alfred Farley Jones, just listen to me for once! Get out of the snow!” His voice cracked and rose, louder than the normal whispering, louder still, until he was shouting out into the frozen Russian tundra, to the scattered remains of both his allies and enemies. “You’re gonna die if you stay there any longer! Don’t you dare fucking ignore me this time! Get out of the fucking snow and stand up!” Shaking, shaking, his hands starting to tremble, tears releasing from their hold to run down his cheeks. Reality had sunk in at least.
Matthew’s twin, his second half, was dead.
Matthew’s demands broke off into sad, sick wailing, mumbling, hands scrambling over his brother’s chest to check over and over again for air, to see if he was wrong, if he was breathing; in between the gargled sobs, he rambled as though he were insane, endless rounds of “Get up, get up, get up, wake up”. His shoulders trembled and tears pooled on Alfred’s frozen skin. Wisps of steam came from these pools, quickly getting sucked into the frozen air, the scrawny blonde’s blank eyes watching but not seeing. How did it come to this? All the years of playing together, fighting, making up and helping each other. Telling each other things no one else knew, learning so many things about each other, from each other, separate people but still one being; needing each other, being there for each other when no one else was, being twins, being brothers.
What was Matthew without his twin?
There eventually came the sound of crunching feet, steps skirting over the snow on the ground, and still Matthew did not get up. He just cried, his back aching from bending over Alfred’s cold body, hands balling up his shirt and turning blue. He didn’t look around. Didn’t reach for his gun. Only mourned the loss of the person he loved so much, felt so connected to, hated with a passion, loved in a way only brothers could love one another. Crunch crunch ice smashing under boots and Matthew didn’t look up. He didn’t move or stand or even fully register the rapidly approaching sound of feet on ice, at least, not until the mysterious person was only a few yards away from him.
“Fuck off!” In a moment, the blonde had his gun in hand and had whirled around to face the figure, finger hovering over the trigger threateningly. The other person’s hands immediately went into the air, body stiffening as they froze in place. “Just fuck off! My fucking brother is dead! I don’t care what side you're on, don’t you fucking dare take another step closer unless you want your ass blasted to pieces, because my twin is dead, and I’ve been with him my entire life, and I deserve a chance to cry over him! Don’t you dare even try to kill me, because you’ll end up dead first, and leave me alone until I give you fucking permission to step any closer! Leave me alone! Alfred’s dead and I have every fucking right to mourn him! You can wait five fucking seconds until I give you the okay to shoot me!” The sudden screams surprised Matthew himself; he went as far as to shoot a warning bullet at the stranger’s feet(who jumped back and fell in a panic) before tossing the gun aside and leaning over his brother’s body once again.
It felt like years before he’d finally screamed himself raw.
The stranger hadn’t moved. As Matthew straightened to get a look at the intruder, he noted that it was indeed a man; about seven feet tall, from the looks of it. His hair blended in with the background, a blank platinum blonde. His eyes were an unsettling violet; even more unsettling was the wide smile on his face. “Вы закончили?” The unfamiliar language meant nothing to Matthew-it only confirmed that this was indeed one of the troops he’d been fighting only about half an hour ago. The only survivor. Just like him. “Я не собираюсь стрелять в тебя. Пожалуйста, избавиться от этой идеи.”
The blank stare he was met with seemed to make something click in the big man’s mind. “О! Вы должны говорить на английском языке.” He chuckled a bit before speaking again, this time in a way Matthew could understand. “Do you speak english?”
“.....yes.” The audible crack in his voice didn’t waver Matthew’s wariness as he stared at the Russian, waiting for a sign of movement. “If you were wondering, you can shoot me now. I just lost my brother. There’s nothing left to live for.” His voice was calmer, not letting on what he actually felt; now that the shock was gone, there was only a crushing, suffocating sadness, cloaking every inch of him, wrapping his mind in a fog of darkness and agony. There really wasn’t anything left for him now. He always had Alfred to look out for him, to hide behind, to rely on and pick him first for group projects in school; he always used Alfred as his excuse to remain unseen; without him, he was alone, flailing in unfamiliar dark waters. He didn’t know who he was even supposed to be.
“I am not going to shoot you.” The man said, smile still in place. He moved-carefully and slowly, so not to end up with a bullet in his head-to sit in the snow beside him. Now that he was closer, Matthew noticed he didn’t have a gun on him. At least not visibly so. The stranger gave the small man beside him a considering look before folding his hands in his lap. “My name is Ivan Braginski. We’re the only ones left, da?” His voice was amused, almost sweet, like it was fine to be cheerful in such a grim situation.
For the first time, Matthew took a good long look around. He was right. Everyone else, comrades and enemies, lay scattered in the snow, lips parted, bullet wounds still trickling blood and staining the white sheet around them. Except for them. Everyone else was dead. “It seems that way, eh?” His voice had become quiet again as he fumed over this strange man beside him. Why hadn’t he killed him? Why bother trying to make conversation? Kill him, leave the mess and walk away. It would’ve been easy. On the other hand, why didn’t Matthew kill him? Then maybe himself? “Everything just happened so fast. We charged, got trampled, fired a few shots and then suddenly everyone was gone and I found my brother frozen. It was a big blur.”
Nodding as the smaller man opened up a bit, Ivan reached into his coat and produced a flask, twisting off the top and taking a swig. “I am not supposed to have this,” He stated as he passed it to Matthew. “But take vodka from a Russian, and you might as well take away the air he breathes.” He pulled his feet closer to him, chuckling as Matthew sniffed the contents of the flask suspiciously. “Hey, why are you involved in this war? Just out of curiosity. I mean, if you really wanted to fight, you would have shot me already.” He took the flask back and drank, then passed it back, looking at Matthew curiously. Matthew let out a sigh as he drank the sharp, burning alcohol. It left a trail of fire down his throat, but warmed his belly and brought the blood back to his fingers slightly.
“Because he was.” Was his simple response. He was the responsible twin, always. Alfred did something stupid, and he cleaned it up. He wanted to try something that would most likely result in a broken neck, and Matthew was the one to talk him out of it. Alfred joined because he loved his country; Matthew joined to make sure he’d be okay. It was out of love and obligation. Not because he wanted to. “I would much rather be out filming polar bears then be here, trust me.” He sighed softly as he laid back in the snow. “I just worried about him. I had to make sure he wouldn’t do anything stupid. Looks like I did that well, huh?” A cool, dry chuckle followed the statement, another sip of vodka taken. “I wish I was home. There wasn’t any way to talk him out of joining the navy, though. I tried my hardest.”
With a sigh, Matthew sat up again and started talking, propping a supply bag behind him so he had something to lean on. He didn’t know why he felt it was okay to spill his woes to this guy, who he was supposed to hate. It just was. He didn’t hate him. “We grew up with two fathers, Arthur and Francis. They always loved us, always told us that, tried so hard to make it clear. I always knew they loved us.” He tucked in his feet and looked at Alfred as he spoke. “They got a friend of Francis to have us. Her name was Elizabeta. They were so happy when they found out she was having twins...I remember her doting over us. She had a husband, too. They ended up moving to Hungary.”
“I never considered her our mother, really. She was more of a friendly aunt. To us, Francis and Arthur were daddy and daddy. There was nothing weird about it. We just didn’t need a mom.” Matthew hummed softly as he drank another sip from the flask before passing it back to Ivan. “Our thoughts changed when we started going to school. American schools are very disfunctional, you know. We got bullied for being weird, two twins with two dads. Accused of being gay, like it was a bad thing. They thought we were in love with each other.” A bitter laugh escaped his lips, turning to mist as it hit the cold air. “Our dads tried so hard to help. We got home schooled for a while, until high school. I never really stopped to appreciate how much they did for us. Even if they fought a lot, they always made up. Sometimes Arthur would leave, take me and Alfred with him. Sometimes I stayed with Francis.”
“Arthur was always the one to leave, always taking Alfred or both of us. Alfred was his favorite.” He paused a moment, eyeing Ivan, who was listening with interest. He didn’t seem judgemental or rude. He just looked thoughtful, waiting patiently for Matthew to continue. “I was okay with that; I always liked Francis just a little bit more. Sometimes Arthur would want to take me to go live with a friend for a while, but I would make a big fuss until he let me stay. Francis was always so nice to me. He would talk to me and play with me, let me vent when I needed to, gave me real advice, never sugarcoating anything. He would sing to me when I was little. Even if he still forgot I was there in the end, I knew he loved me a lot. He was gentle and bright and cheerful, and when I talked to him, I never felt so lonely or forgotten.”
“Arthur’s heart was always in the right place; he just didn’t have that bond with me that I had with Francis, and it bugged him, a lot. He would always just default back to Alfred. He tried. I’m glad he did.” Matthew sighed a bit, adjusted, continued. “But yeah, high school consisted of me saving Alfred’s ass, him going off and leaving me sometimes with nowhere to sit at lunch, dating, following him around because I had no one else to talk to. I made some friends, yeah. Even had a few girlfriends. I think they liked the whole ‘quiet shy guy’ thing. Alfred let me hang out with him all the time, let me tag along with his friends. But he would end up forgetting about me. He’d talk to someone else and remember me when we got home. But still, he was a brother. He’d give me rides when I needed them and talked to me about girls and our sexualities and all that. Funny, the bullying stopped. Last time I got picked on, Alfred punched the guy doing it.” Deep sigh.
“Then he started talking about joining the military our senior year. I was taping a lot, learning photography, getting ready to move out once summertime came and go to college. We fought about it a lot; I didn’t want him to go, because he’d get killed. He wanted me to mind my own business. Funny, Arthur took my side on that fight, and Francis said that he could do whatever he wanted, it was his life. We argued over it for god knows how long, when I finally snapped and insisted that I would go with him, and that exploded a whole new round of arguments. We weren’t on speaking terms when we came here…..I wish I could’ve apologized to him...But he’s dead now, so.” Finishing his speech, Matthew leaned over and took the flask straight out of the guy’s hands, apathetic and needing the alcohol. The last of it trickled past his lips, and he returned the flask to its owner.
Ivan didn’t seem angry by the sudden loss of his vodka. He only chuckled and tucked the flask back into his coat. “My father was abusive. He hurt me and my sisters, all the time. I remember crying every time he came home, swaying as he walked, and running to my big sister’s room to hide under her bed. She would put our younger sister, Natalia, under there too, and take a lot of the damage until he found us. It was always bad. So, when I turned eighteen, I killed him.” The words came out casual, as though he’d repeated the story a million times, his mouth permanently etched into a half-smile. “I ripped a pipe out of the sink and smashed his head in. My sisters were there. They were scared of me. For a long time, they were scared of me.” The smile finally disappeared then, and Ivan pulled his knees up to his chest, saddened by the memory. “Just when we finally began to talk again, I was driving us home. We got in an accident. They both died. I loved them to pieces...they were the only thing I had. I have nothing left anymore, as well.” He paused a moment before resting his chin on his knee. “You haven’t told me your name.”
“Than, I have nothing left to live for either, Matvey.” The Russian smiled at him a bit, before lowering his knees. “Which is why I wanted to talk to you, instead of shoot you. See, I have a proposition to make. You’ve heard of the game Russian Roulette, da?” At Matthew’s hesitant nod, Ivan continued. “I have played this game many times. I always win. See, I am a big believer in fate. I know I have no reason to live, but every time I win at this game, I do. It is odd to me. Obviously, I was not supposed to die when I played at those times, but maybe it’s time for me to die now. Would you like to play? Seeing as, well, Alfred is dead.” With a slight smile, he flicked his wrist at the corpse beside them, his eyes locking with Matthew’s. “It is completely up to you, of course. I can always find another willing player in the next battle I end up in.”
“Next battle?” Still trying to process this new information, Matthew questioned the statement for some extra time to digest the words. Ivan leaned back on his hands, exhaling through his nose and watching as the cloud of heat was swallowed. “Da, next battle. I am not here because I want to fight the Americans, Matvey. I’m simply here because I love my country. If I want to die, why not die fighting for one of the few joys in my life? I’m not here because of my people’s thoughts; I am here because people are attacking my home, and I want to protect it. I hold no grudges.” He shifted, pulling his feet against his thighs, before finishing the thought. “I will fight for it as long as I last.”
Matthew nodded slowly, his mind churning over Ivan’s offer. He looked at Alfred’s still, icy form beside him; a long, long look, as he fought with himself. The one person that understood him completely was ripped out of his life. Arthur was going to be beside himself. Miserable. Francis too. They would most likely be disappointed that Matthew didn’t keep a better eye on him, didn’t try and stop him, didn’t protect him as though he were a child. The death and guilt would haunt him for the rest of his life. And what’s more, his base was miles away; he wasn’t sure which direction to head, if he should go AWOL, if he would die out in the frozen tundra, and here was his chance to escape all of this, in the hands of a man with a kind smile and bitter past and scarf wrapped around his neck.
Did he want to die?
“I’ll go ahead and play, Ivan.”
Ivan blinked once before smiling softly. “Thank you for doing me this favour, Matvey.”
“No problem. I like you. You’re a good person, Ivan.” Matthew stood up and stretched, giving Alfred’s body a sad look one last time, and Ivan pulled a revolver from his jacket and made to stand as well.
So he had a gun on him after all.
“I am not a good person, my friend, but I appreciate the compliment nonetheless. You’re a much better person than I am. That, I’m sure of.”
Without a moment’s pause, Ivan popped a bullet into the cylinder and gave it a sharp spin, giving Matthew a patient look. “Are you ready?” The simple question hung in the air a moment; Matthew was finally starting to realise what he’d agreed to. He was going to die. He was certain of it. His heart began to pound, his breathing hitching just slightly. “Oui.” Ivan smiled sweetly, spinning the cylinder a few more times for good measure. “There are six chambers in this revolver. You have a one in six chance.” His smile softening slightly to reassure the other player, he reached over to place the gun in Matthew’s palm. “I like to play a slight variation of this game. You aim at me instead, and I at you, rather than at our own heads. Like I said, I want to die, just not at my own hand. Is this alright?” Matthew gave a slight nod, the hand with the gun shaking unsteadily, and Ivan ruffled his hair before moving about three yards back. “Just point and shoot. You’re free to change your mind whenever you feel to.”
Nodding again, Matthew held the gun up in a better position, frozen fingers trembling. His pointer finger moved to cover the trigger. He pushed his arms away from him, as though they were another person, or not his own, as if the farther he stretched them, the farther away they would get, over the tundra like taffy, and he wouldn’t have to look at the silver piece of death clutched in his hands anymore. His breath hitched and sped up as his nerves began to get to him, his heart speeding up, his strength beginning to fail him, world spinning, nausea building up in his throat. The Russian in front of him seemed to fade in and out existence as he stared, only his smile remaining. Quickly Matthew shut his eyes. He felt sick, felt like he was going to fall over.
He pulled the trigger.
“My turn.” Ivan’s smile was still in place, his huge hand reaching out towards Matthew patiently. Matthew released the gun with an unsteady hand, his breathing still uneven and jagged, his eyes widened in fear. Ivan’s expression grew sympathetic as he watched the short man’s reaction. Gasping, Matthew let his hands fall back to his sides, his lungs screaming to get the air pumping through them once again. “I--I--I need-I need a break.” And with that mangled, whispered statement, he sunk to the ground.
Shaking, holding himself close in a ball, short, panicky breaths. He had to hold himself steady, cursing himself for being so scared. You’re okay, Matthew. You’re just fine. You’re okay. You’ll get to apologize to Alfred after all of this is over, okay? You just have to hang on, keep your hands steady. You’ve got this under control. It’s all for the best in the end, anyways. You’re alright. You’re alright. You’re alright, Mattie. A few deep breaths, a few moments with his eyes shut, focusing all his will on calming himself, and he felt better enough to finish what he’d started. Standing on still-slightly-trembling legs, wobbling like a newborn deer, he turned to Ivan with a sigh and a soft, “I’m alright. Take your turn.”
Ivan nodded almost imperceptibly before taking his spot a few yards in front of Matthew. Matthew let all the fear drain from his veins, concentrated on keeping his breathing controlled and steady, closed his eyes once again. He could feel the gun aiming at him. Ivan’s finger on the trigger. Feel the tension, the sadness, the anger and emotion clouding the air around them. Time seemed to hang in the air a moment, pausing, before continuing on in its speeding way on as time tends to do.
Matthew couldn’t help but sigh in relief as he took the gun, taking his turn with a steady, locked jaw, refusing to let his hands tremble. He could do this. If he died, well, everything worked out okay; he could tell Alfred how sorry he was. They could be twins again. If Ivan died….it would be doing a friend a favour. He could kill if he had to. A lot of the bodies on the ground had been at his own confused hand, after all.
Another turn, slow movements.
He was still alive. Time slowed and sped up again.
Matthew’s hands remained steady.
The world seemed to hold its breath.
Perspiration ran down his face, the air seemed to warm and grow cold over and over again.
Ivan’s eyes widened in surprise as he looked down at his chest.
A maroon blotch had already begun to appear, growing quickly, climbing down his coat in a steady dribble. He coughed, once, twice, blood welling from his parted lips, his hands covering the wounded area, protecting it from further harm. Just a little above his heart. He doubled over in pain, coughed, coughed. Without knowing it, Matthew had dropped the gun; He felt rooted to the spot, his horrified eyes unable to tear away from the scene playing out in front of him. The already red snow was scattered with blood once more, Ivan seeming to panic slightly, only causing further damage. He’d missed. Matthew was aiming for his heart-how did he miss, by so little? Couldn’t Ivan have had an instant death? He didn’t deserve to be choking on his own blood, tears dripping down his cheeks from the pain.
And yet, oddly, the big man lifted his head just enough to meet Matthew’s eyes. And he smiled. His teeth were dyed almost black from his coughing, his eyes crinkled as he held in the screams that were so desperately trying to escape from his lips. He smiled, watched, even let out a scraping chuckle as he fell backwards, clutching his chest, curling over on his side, gasping for breath. He wanted to speak, to say something; no. To thank him. But he couldn’t move without sending waves of pain coursing through his body. Well, it wasn’t the most graceful death; but with death came darkness, forgiveness, bliss, and the thought made it hard to mind it much. He was okay now. Content with this choice. It was his time to die at last.
It was several moments before he stopped moving.
Several more before reality hit Matthew.
All he could do was stare for a while, take in what he’d done. Ivan lay still, curled into himself like a frightened child. Alfred had collected a layer of snow by now, long gone, staring into the sky with deep, deep blue eyes. And Matthew didn’t move. Didn’t breathe. An animal in the face of a predator, the predator being the fact that he was still alive, the beast locking eyes with Matthew and freezing him in place. He was alive. His twin was dead, Ivan was dead, and he was alive.
And slowly he began to move. Walked over to Ivan. Moved him, ever so slightly, looked at him more closely. His face was paused in a soft smile, eyes closed, hands slick with his blood against his chest. With a gentle touch, Matthew brushed his fingers over his hair, over the scarf. He made to take it; he paused, however, unsure. It was worn and threadbare. Old. Falling to pieces. And yet, it was still around Ivan’s neck, snug and comfortable, exhausted but holding on. He debated taking it, changed his mind. It looked too natural with Ivan. Like a part of him. Taking it would be like taking his arm. Instead, he reached into his coat and felt for the flask they’d shared, retrieved it and held it close.
He moved to Alfred, brushing the snow off of him, taking off his uniform top to reveal the coat and blood underneath. He unzipped the jacket, carefully removing it from his brother’s cool corpse, wrapping it around himself. How was it still warm, heavy with his scent? Breathe in, breathe out, the last thing of Alfred Farley Jones still alive and vibrant. Close the uniform, stand up. Matthew only paused one more time to reach down and take one of the supply bags on the ground. Ivan was a big believer in fate. Right? Is that what he’d told him? Yes. So there must be a reason Matthew was still alive. As hopeless as it seemed, he was alive, there was something in his life that was still there for him.
He pulled the bag onto his shoulder and began to walk into the vast tundra.