The weeks following his recovery from radiation poisoning had been some of the worst of his short life.
"That's a hard score to beat." Stepan had commented, reading the white board he'd written the message on. "You've been through a lot of shit."
"Are you doing better, Uncle Artyom?" Nastya came in every day to ask, but never got dissuaded when he shook his head no. The boy he'd rescued (they, really, but Miller was gone now), Kirill, always trailing behind her. They would share secret looks and expressions while adults were around, but they were his most ardent visitors.
It took months before he was well enough to be walking around alone, without Katya, Anna, Stepan, Duke or Damir hovering somewhere nearby. It was in these new quiet moments that the two children would invade his space. With his newfound lucidity (recovering from radiation poisonings for a year then getting a fresh dose and almost killing himself for real had made him more loopy than he'd been aware of) he noticed things that they did he'd not been cognisant of before.
The adults were always busy with tasks to keep them alive and well, but Artyom wasn't ready yet for physical labour (Katya was a harder woman than the Polis doctors had been) and so spent his time freely as the "supervisor" of the children.
Frankly, if the children had of been any more subtle about it, he likely would have never clued in.
"Uncle Artyom actually fell asleep at the wheel?" Nastya chirped.
"Yeah, he did! I was scared!"
He'd heard the story before, Duke always encouraging Kirill to tell it. They weren't around a fire now - they were basking in the sun in a meadow by the shore, away from the train and the bustle.
"How did the truck not crash? Wasn't Miller dead already?"
"He was. That was why I was more scared. But the little one's hand came through the open window and steered it to the side of the road."
He opened his eyes, looking over at the children.
"Yeah! He wasn't much bigger than me. He said he was a friend of Artyom's, from the Metro. We drove together most of the way, but when Artyom started to wake, he climbed out the window onto the roof."
"I wonder why they didn't tell him they were here."
"They scare the others. He said they didn't want to hurt them, make them run away or start trying to hurt them again."
"I guess that's okay. I don't like guns pointed at me either." Nastya stuck out her tongue.
Someone drove us back to the Aurora?
Kirill turned to face him, a bright smile on his face. "Yup! Do you not remember Arkadi?"
He cocked his head. He must have been out a while to have not noticed someone, ostensibly, on his lap.
"That's what he calls himself." Kirill nodded. "You like the name, so he kept it for himself. A reminder."
Wait- He'd not spoken. He'd never been able to speak. His mother had home-schooled him for that exact reason. How are you hearing me?
"Great." Nastya pushed Kirill over. "You blew it. He knows we can hear him now. Arkadi said to keep it secret because Tyoma didn't know!"
"Sorry." Kirill apologized demurely. "I got caught up in the moment. Uncle Tyoma listens, but doesn't even think very much."
"No, no! That's not what I mean!" Kirill cried.
Nastya rolled her eyes. "You don't think in words a lot. Feelings and impulses, more like. You are really loud when you write, though."
Okay. Time for a different tactic. Arkadi? Are you there?
The little Dark One appeared over by a tree, standing straighter and taller, but not an adult yet. He waved, still wearing the hand-wraps he'd made out of old fabric. He'd outgrown the overalls, it seemed.
"I'm sorry." Kirill sniffed. "I know I wasn't supposed to say anything!"
It's okay. Tyoma is good to us. Arkadi said(?) And moved closer. Several others appeared as well.
How? Where did you find me? I thought you needed radiation to live?
"They do." Nastya answered. "There's some not far. They don't stay very long."
I was in the Dead City and saw you there. I could tell you were sick. I had to help you. Others helped me. We got you back to the train, then we were on top of the train to come with you. Not many, though. Just us here.
"Don't tell the others!" Nastya pleaded. "They think we see things. And they'll want them gone."
I won't. I won't hurt them again.
Arkadi did a little hop and made a small sound, like a chirp. I'm happy to see you again, brother! I thought for a long time I wouldn't see you again, but I'm glad that wasn't the case.
Me too. I missed you too, Arkasha.
Arkadi chirped again, hands in the air as he spun in a circle, approximating a dance. A nickname! You gave me a nickname!
He chuckled, smiling at the little One.
"You have to keep coming." Nastya informed him. "We're all friends. Not too much adult nonsense for you."
I've had enough adult nonsense for one lifetime. He agreed. I will stay here a while, I think.
Arkadi hopped over, wrapping his gangly arms around him in the little One's best approximation of a hug. Good, brother. Rest now. You are safe.