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This wasn't supposed to happen. How could this have happened? How could he be here, right now? Why was the universe seemingly out to thwart him at every turn? Artyom was crawling through the dirty and wet terrain, forcing himself to get up and put one foot in front of the other. He had lost his guns, lost his pack, lost everything.

Lost Pavel.

Even the charm that Hunter had given him two years ago was bent and destroyed, completely ruined by the bullet. His chest stung and ached, as did the rest of his body. But Artyom kept moving forwards, following the railroad on unsteady steps. He would make it. He would make it and kill those bastards for what they did to him.

Damn anyone who stood in his way.

~*~

All had started well in the beginning. They ascended to the surface together and began picking their way across the Dead City. Pavel let Artyom lead the way, as he was much more knowledgeable about the area. And he knew where he was to be going, where he would stop to find the last signals. Pavel followed silently, opting to not talk much in this leg of their journey. He was still mulling over Artyom's motivations.

Why had he come back?

Artyom obviously still cared about him, that was for sure. Maybe he didn't even realize Pavel's feelings? He was quite addled with pain when Pavel ended up having his little meltdown. Perhaps he forgot and still only thought of Pavel as a good friend? He could live with that. As long as Artyom was still in his life. All of his fretting and asserting to himself that he would never see Artyom again had fluttered away as soon as he saw the other man, and he was already coming up with ways to keep spending time together.

Artyom had led them up a hill, extending a hand down to Pavel even though he could very well make it up himself. He took it regardless. He looked around, appreciating the view of the city around them with its mottled clouds and snow drifts. It must have been a real beauty. The railroad curved around the base of their hill, tracks still intact and gleaming. Strange.

"So, D'Artagnan," Pavel began, putting his hands on his hips and ignoring the sting in his wrist from where he felt Artyom touch him. Stop thinking like that. "We're farther out then usual, huh? I'm sure something will show up on that radio of yours now." Artyom stared at him and let his pack fall to the ground. He shook his head.

What in the world did that mean?

"Artyom?" Pavel asked as Artyom fell to his knees before him, digging through his pockets and pulling out that old grubby journal. Pavel knelt down to his level as well, alarmed to see his friend's hands shaking. "Are you alright? Is it the radiation?" He couldn't keep his own hands off of him, grabbing his shoulders and arms in an attempt to steady him. Artyom's breaths were heavy and strained through the filter of his gas mask, ringing in Pavel's ears. "Say something, Artyom!" He yelled, shaking his shoulders and finally tilting his friend's head up to face him.

Artyom's eyes were red-rimmed and worried. Pavel had only seen him like this once before, and that memory was not a good one. Artyom shook his head and thumbed through his journal, flipping eagerly through sketches and pages filled with writing. Pavel couldn't help but cast a glance down, attempting to see what Artyom was searching for.

Whatever it was, it must be important.

Artyom finally stopped with his frantic movements, head hung low and staring down at the pages before him. He quickly shoved the journal into Pavel's chest, springing away as though his touch burned. Pavel had to fumble to catch the old thing. "Is this what's got you so riled?" He asked, holding open the journal but not quite looking at it yet. Artyom didn't respond, only pointed at it. His eyes wouldn't meet Pavel's; almost as if he was afraid. There was a ringing in his ears, a loud roaring as if some great beast was approaching swiftly. "Well, it couldn't hurt to take a look, then...?"

Just as his eyes glanced downwards to read the first line of messy scrawl,

Pavel, this is something hard for me to say--

The blow of a horn sounded, snapping his head up. Never in all of his years had he heard anything like that before. Artyom was likewise astonished, panic forgotten in the short moment that the sound rung out. Pavel whipped around in order to find the source of the noise when the horn rang again, pounding in his ears.

Smoke was rising up from the railroad. It only took a few seconds more before the train came barreling across the tracks, at a speed that seemed impossible. Pavel's mouth fell open from behind his mask and he slammed Artyom's journal shut. "Artyom! Look, are you seeing this?" He shouted, shoving the journal haphazardly into Artyom's backpack and hauling him to his feet. "A train! A real, working--" He cut himself off as Artyom rose to stare at the machine with wide eyes.

Artyom was right. The thing was coming in from outside of the city, so that meant there must be people living beyond its sprawling ruin. Pavel handed Artyom his pack and rushed down the hill with him following. He'd never thought to have seen a train, one that shone in the sunlight and bellowed out its call to all who could hear. Artyom was similarly excited as well, his journal and its contents forgotten in the depths of his pack.

As they ran along the slushy mess of dirt and snow after the train, another horn rang out from behind them. Pavel shot a glance behind him to see another vehicle following, speeding up and passing them before drifting to a stop right in their path. They dug their heels into the ground right there, Pavel throwing out an arm in front of Artyom and holding his gun at the ready. The side doors burst open and a few soldiers poured out, one of them waving his flashlight in three large circles.

Artyom tapped Pavel on the shoulder and pointed, waving his own flashlight in a similar pattern. "They friends of yours, then?" Pavel questioned, still a little cautious about the men. Artyom nodded and tapped his flashlight. He began walking forwards to meet the soldiers and Pavel had no choice but to follow him.

"Hey! You chasing the train? Get in, then! Cover more ground with us!" The soldier who shone his flashlight shouted at them, waving his arm in a 'come-hither' motion. Pavel still kept a hand on his gun as they approached, eyes narrowed slightly. It was almost too convenient. Artyom jumped up into the vehicle and held out a hand for Pavel to take once more.

And of course, he had to take it.

~*~

What a stupid mistake. Everything had went downhill from the moment that Pavel had taken Artyom's hand to get into the vehicle. They were beaten and subdued, knocked to the ground by people Artyom thought he could trust. How had they known about the Stalker's code? How could they have taken advantage of it? Pavel had been knocked unconscious and Artyom bound, trussed up like prizes next to a couple of people who looked to be captured as well. Their things were laid out on the other side, taunting them with how close they were.

Artyom had put up a fight, that was for sure. Too much of one, in fact. He struggled and resisted so much that he nearly put an eye out of one of the men trying to restrain him. The soldiers in the car had deemed him too much trouble and pulled over, muttering something about how it would be too hard to get him put to work. They shoved him out of the vehicle and he fell onto the snowy ground, guns cocked at him.

Pavel's slumped body was all Artyom saw before the bullet came, knocking him from the cliff and tumbling down the rocky side. He landed in a heap at the bottom, wind knocked out of him and struggling for breath. His mask had cracked on a rock, nearly breaking his nose. A shard of glass sliced his nose and cheek; blood poured from it and pooled in his mouth.

If he could, Artyom would have laid there and allowed death to take him. But not yet. Death wouldn't touch him, not now. And so Death's spindly fingers stayed far away from his heart and soul as Artyom rolled over to his side, retching. He coughed and sputtered, pushing himself up onto his hands and knees. His gas mask was useless now, so he pulled it off and threw it away with a wordless yell. Bodies surrounded him in the small ravine, and he crawled over to one that had an intact mask. He cursed and blessed his luck simultaneously as he fitted it on.

Now he had to find Pavel. He had to chase down that train and figure out what in the hell was happening.

Nothing would stop him. Nothing could stop him.

Chapter Text

Pavel had a migraine when he awoke. His arms were cramped and the rope securing his wrists burned. The room was dark, and there was no one else around him. His head was pounding, he was nauseous, and he had no idea where he was. The current situation was bad, indeed. Pavel thought back to the last time he was in a similar position, on his knees with his hands bound. The day he met Artyom.

Artyom.

Artyom!

Artyom was gone. Pavel was alone. There was no sign of the men who captured them, who tricked his friend and brutalized them both. It was hard to think straight. His head just would not stop pounding. He wriggled his hands. The rope holding them was much tighter than the work of the Nazi's. After a few minutes of struggle, Pavel let out a harsh sigh. His legs were falling asleep, and he probably didn't have much longer before someone came back to check on him. After some careful maneuvering, he was able to stand. The wall behind him was cold to the touch, and he leaned his feverish cheek against it with a shaky exhale.

There was a table in the corner. A rusty stool was pushed under it, one of the legs broken and lopsided. A smirk crossed Pavel's lips at the sight. These people were a bit more stupid than he expected. With a short glance at the door, which remained shut, he made his way over to the table and pulled out the stool with his foot. It fell over and he kicked it so that the broken leg was facing up. Falling to his knees, he situated the rope securing his wrists under the jagged edge, keeping one eye on the door as he began sawing.

The rope gave way after some moments, and Pavel rubbed the chaffed skin. Alright. Inventory check. He had:

Nothing.

They took his pack, his guns, his knife, even his damn hat. An angry hiss escaped him as he took in just how much he was missing. His heavy coat and gloves were also gone, leaving him in his thin undershirt and pants; at least he still had his boots. A quick jiggle of the doorknob revealed it to be locked, and another cursory glance over the room only proved that it was pretty much barren. No wire. No small objects. Nothing sharp. This would be a challenge.

But Pavel was nothing if not resourceful.

~*~

It was laughably easy to infiltrate the bastards' hideout. They weren't even hiding, and if one knew where the tracks led then that was already one step down. And the base was so large that keeping it secure would already be a challenge.

Not to mention this was Artyom. He had no qualms about crawling around in vents, through pipes, and just about anything. Shadows were rampant for him to hide in, and he made quick work of any who came close to discovering him. They were left unconscious and disarmed within the very shadows that he used to his advantage. Artyom had even met an older man, Yermak, who promised to help him in exchange for freedom. But first Artyom had to find Pavel.

Before all of this had happened, he felt like his torment would finally end. To either be replaced with happiness or a whole new kind of torture. Pavel was holding his heart right there, cradling it in his hands without realizing the slightest squeeze would kill Artyom. He was about to truly know the extent of his feelings, free to do with them what he will. No one else had ever laid their hands on Artyom's journal until now.

And then the whole world went to shit. Again.

Artyom had to find his pack. Had to find his journal.

His guns would be a nice addition as well, as they had gotten him out of many scrapes before. They were reliable and well cared for. The revolver that Sukhoi gave him when he came of age, his trusty Valve that he got when he joined the Rangers, and his old Kalash. The worn wooden handle that was still used to another owner's hand. It never fit right, but Artyom couldn't bring himself to sell it or trash it. It was too important, too personal. A symbol of his first journey. And while he doubted the damned thing would ever bow to him, would ever forget the previous man it belonged to, it didn't matter. Because Artyom would never forget either.

Yermak told him the most likely place his things would be held; a little supply room where the bastards dumped anything worth value from their prisoners and casualties. It also had the convenience of being near the holding rooms, which were of a particular interest to Artyom. More so than his weapons and anything else. A human life was infinitely more important. Especially one that meant so much to him.

The hallway was lit with a single dingy bulb suspended by a flimsy wire. It flickered slightly as he walked down, boots resounding heavily on the stone floor. On the right, he said. Artyom exhaled quietly and jiggled the knob to said room. It was unlocked. The door opened with a creak, revealing the supply room.

The first thing he saw was his Kalash, propped up on a crate. Above it was his Valve. A small smile curved his lips as he scurried over to them, relishing the familiar weight of the sniper rifle in his hands. It missed him, he could tell. The Kalash felt as odd as always, unable to get a completely proper grip on it. But that's how he knew it was his. He took a careful glance around the rest of the room, wanting to find other useful supplies. However, even though two of his guns were there, those were the only items of his that were. His revolver and pack were missing. Artyom's heart began racing at the thought of them being gone.

There was another rucksack there, however. It was half-empty, things strewn upon the ground haphazardly. He rifled through it but found nothing useful, only a few odds and ends that didn't make it. He stood and made his way over to the shelves, grabbing the bag off of the ground and slinging it over his shoulder. There were a few open cases of ammo, bullets strewn about like someone had just grabbed handfuls of them. Artyom took some seconds, loading his weapons with careful movements. There were a few other things in the room like spare clothes and supplies, and he loaded his new bag with them as well.

He left the room feeling a bit more secure, gun slung over his shoulder and another in his arms. The door across from him was the one marked as a holding cell. If Pavel was anywhere, he would be here. Artyom braced himself with a steadying breath, hand on the knob.

He turned it and opened the door.

~*~

So far it had been a couple of minutes and Pavel was no step closer to escaping than he had been before. There was nothing in this room that could be used as a weapon. He had tried stomping down on the chair's broken leg in hopes that it would snap off, but he had no such luck. It bent but would not break, testament to his lousy fortune.

At least his headache had let up a little bit. That was the only upside of his current situation. So Pavel committed himself to pacing around the room and clenching his fists, eventually settling by the door in order to ambush whoever decided to come in and check up on him. It was a perfect plan, obviously. No chance of anything going wrong, of course not.

There was a sound from the door. The handle twisted. Pavel braced himself as the door swung open.

~*~

The room was empty.

Well, not empty. There was a man slumped over in the corner, unconscious. Artyom rushed over to him and turned him over, disregarding the pained groan. He didn't recognize him. There was nothing of any use, and Artyom huffed in exasperation. Pavel wasn't here. Perhaps he was somewhere else? Now all that was left was to make his way to the train where Yermak would be waiting. Hopefully he would find Pavel on the way, but now Artyom was uncertain as to where he would even be. There wasn't anywhere else that they held people, except maybe on the other side of the facility. But Artyom might not have enough time to make it all the way over there and still escape in time with Yermak.

This was bad.

~*~

"What the--" Was all the soldier was able to get out before Pavel elbowed him in the face. He dragged him into the room and kicked the door shut with his boot, wrapping his arm around the man's neck in a choke-hold. He wrestled him into submission and knocked him out, letting his body fall to the ground. You don't mess with a Red Line soldier.

Pavel checked them man's belt and pockets, happy to find a knife as well as a key. He had a gun as well, and Pavel quickly liberated it. He dragged the man over into the corner and positioned him facing the wall on his side; hopefully that would trick any guards who just gave a cursory once-over to the room. At least for long enough until he could escape.

Pavel peeked out into the hallway to find it deserted. There was a door across from him and he tried it. Locked. The key he took from the guard worked, however, and he opened it with a smirk. As the door swung open he was acutely aware of a few things first.

One: Damn that was a lot of ammo.

Two: His clothes that they took were there, sitting on top of a crate. Pavel made a beeline for them first, eagerly welcoming the familiarity of his heavy coat.

Three: Artyom's bag was sitting right there, next to a few guns. Pavel's own pack was laid on the ground next to it.

His next course of action quickly became clear. Artyom wasn't here, probably was long gone. Where, Pavel knew not. But he knew that he couldn't just leave his friend's things here. So he went about emptying his own bag of anything useful, shoving necessities into Artyom's and shouldering it. There was a revolver on the crate too, and Pavel opened the cylinder to reveal it empty. No matter, there were shelves of ammo just waiting to be plundered.

He loaded the revolver and grabbed a knife, slotting it into his boot. Things were starting to look a lot better already.

~*~

Where the Hell is he? That question found itself being repeated over and over again in Artyom's mind. How was Pavel not here? Where could they have put him? Why couldn't he shake the ugly feeling that Pavel had never even made it to the facility? That was certainly a morbid possibility. One that might even be true. Artyom wouldn't put it past his luck, if recent events were anything to go by.

There was a door ahead of him. It led to a control room of some sort. Yermak had told him he would need to go through here in order to make it to the train. The window was dingy and tinged with dirt, but he could still see the outline of a person through it. It would be too conspicuous to open the door and still remain hidden, so he would have to be quick indeed. A test of the handle revealed it to be unlocked, and Artyom took a few steadying breaths before slamming it open and jumping the man inside. He let out a shout of surprise at the intrusion, grabbing Artyom's gun and wrestling with it for a moment. He surged forwards and knocked the gun into Artyom's chest, knocking the wind out of him. A finger reflexively tightened on the trigger.

A spray of gunfire shot out, damaging the controls to their side. It distracted the man enough for Artyom to overpower him, smashing the side of his head with the stock of his rifle. He fell to the ground in a heap and a few agonizingly heaving breaths escaped Artyom. Hands on his thighs, leaning down in order to gain a second wind. A deep inhale inwards, sucking in air greedily. His breathing calmed after a moment and he stood back to his full height in order to gauge the situation.

A map of the world hung above him, pin-pricked with a single glowing light in the heart of Moscow. Warnings blared out from the machinery below, lights flashing red chaotically. He looked back up at the map only to see it illuminating, tiny dots of green overtaking the landmasses. A cacophony of voices in all manner of languages, not just Russian, blasted out from the speakers. Artyom's hands fell to his sides as he gazed up at the map in awe. His ears were being assaulted with the blaring notes of malfunctions, with the melodic sounds of people. Other people. Other words, words he couldn't even begin to describe, much less say.

He was right. He had been right all along.

There were other people. Whole other civilizations. Places he had only read about in books, had only heard about from grizzled elders down in the Metro.

He could only wish that Pavel was here to see it. To share in this discovery.

Artyom shook his head with a smile, tears pricking his eyes. Now was not a time to get emotional. Yermak was waiting for him. He had to go, now. The courtyard would lead him to the turntable controls, and then in turn to escape upon iron rails.

~*~

The courtyard was cold and damp, like that was a surprise. At least the snowstorm gave him cover. Pavel snuck past it no problem, despite the guards being on seemingly higher alert than normal. Strange. Perhaps they already found out his ruse and were looking for their escaped prisoner. There was something panicky about their movements, a tension and anxiety under the veneer of professionalism.

Pavel wasn't complaining. He was still able to get past them without a problem, making his way across the blizzard-stricken yard to a set of stairs. He was crouched as he ascended them, leaning up in order to peek through the window. There was a man within, hands on a control panel of sorts. He reached out to turn a lever and Pavel opened the door on slightly squeaky hinges.

Guns raised as he whirled around to face him, eyes wide with surprise. It took a scant few seconds for his face to register with Pavel's mind, and a wide grin broke out almost immediately.

"Artyom!" He nearly yelled, lowering his revolver and rushing over to him. A relieved smile painted Artyom's lips at the mention of his name, brows lifting as he holstered his own rifle, opening his arm to the side. Pavel took the greeting for what it was, too excited to see Artyom again to even think about anything else as he wrapped an arm around the man's shoulders in a tight hug. "Chuvak, I nearly thought you were long gone! How did you get here? What are you even doing?" Artyom's arms came around him as he babbled, patting his back reassuringly.

Pavel pulled away, clearing his throat. Artyom's hands dragged across his arms and fisted into the fabric of his sleeves, holding him there. His chest ached with how close they still were. "I, uh..." Pavel trailed off, swallowing and looking off to the side. He couldn't meet Artyom's eyes right now, not while knowing what he'd see. "What's the plan, D'Artagnan? You looked busy over here." Artyom stepped away and began making a couple of vague hand movements, brow furrowing in struggle. "Ah, one moment." Pavel slipped the bag from his shoulders, holding it out to Artyom. "I grabbed this for you." He said as Artyom's face lit up with delight. "Thought you'd want to see it if I ended up finding yo--"

An explosion cut him off abruptly. The guards had found them, had figured out their plan to take the train. And now they were trying to bring down the whole area around them. The floor shook and gave, sending Pavel tumbling down into a roaring inferno below. Or rather, he would have fallen if Artyom hadn't grabbed a hold of his wrist moments before he fell out of his reach. The Ranger was barely holding onto the ledge above, grunting in exertion as the room shuddered around them. Pavel was dangling by a thread, the heavy weight of the bag in his other hand another source of struggle. "Artyom!" He shouted over the flames. "Hold on! Can you pull me up?"

Artyom's head shot down to meet his gaze. His eyes were pained as he tried in vain to lift Pavel up. With only one hand as a support it was nigh impossible. He shook his head, tortured. The fire grew, and another explosion rang out. Pavel's feet scrambled for purchase against the textured metal flooring. His shoulder ached with the weight bearing down on it. Artyom opened his mouth in a silent yell, jerking his head down towards Pavel. "What?" Another jerk of the head, eyes focused somewhere below Pavel's line of sight. He looked down to see the drop was a bit higher than he would have liked, stomach churning in fear. "A little bit far, d-don't you think?" He asked, hoping against hope that wasn't what Artyom wanted to do.

The Ranger shook his head, jerking it again in the same direction. Pavel's arm was on fire inside his coat, muscles pulling and stretching painfully. He chanced another glance down again only to see one other thing that Artyom could have been referring to. The bag. Artyom's bag. The one he carried along with the intent to give back to the man in question. The one still in his hand and feeling like it could have weighed a hundred pounds. Pavel looked back up at Artyom, the meaning clear. "Drop it?" He chanced to ask, an underlying plea to his tone. He didn't want to.

Artyom nodded. Not without a struggle, but it was still a nod. He buried his face into the metal floor, gritting his teeth with the strain of keeping a hold on both Pavel and the ledge. His strength was about to fail soon. This entire communication took place in the span of a few seconds, stretched out to almost a crawl with the hyper-awareness of adrenaline. Pavel's hand finally let go of the strap to the pack, arm shooting up to grasp at Artyom's as he got a bit of a brace against the floor. He kicked against it, and with the help of the Ranger, was able to pull himself up. They dragged themselves up onto the ledge and rolled to the side.

They had made it. Artyom was up almost immediately, reaching down to help Pavel to his feet. They burst out of the door on the other side of the room and rushed down the steps, past scorching flames and detonating charges. Artyom shielded his head with an arm, keeping a grip on Pavel's hand. Pavel had to cover his eyes at the bright light. He let Artyom take the lead, as the Spartan seemed to know where he was going. They vaulted over crates, slid past overturned barrels, dodged bullets, and knocked down any who stood in their way.

The train was moving at a crawl, seemingly Artyom's goal. The bright light of the sun shone through the orange haze, and Pavel had never wanted to be outside as much as he did now. The smoke was choking his lungs. Artyom leaped onto the platform, pulling Pavel up by the arm and steadying him on the moving vehicle. A bewildered laugh escaped Pavel's throat, hoarse from the struggle. "Artyom...?" He wheezed.

Artyom just nodded his head towards the stairs leading up into the cab. He started ascending him and Pavel followed. An old man was standing at the helm, manning the controls.

"Ah, there you are!" His voice was gravelly with age. "I was wondering when you'd show up. Put your masks on, I think the ventilation might be bad in here. Better safe than sorry..." Artyom nodded and fitted his gas mask to his face. Pavel did the same, not even thinking to question what was happening. He was still running off of adrenaline; once things calmed down he'd be able to get a grip.

Clink, clink.

A metal canister fell through the skylight, bouncing off of the ground and rolling to a halt against Artyom's boot. It took them all a second too long to realize what it was before the flash bang exploded, sending the world around them into a blinding white.

Chapter Text

Artyom stood leaning on the railing, staring at the landscape rushing past him. The wind was on his face, nearly stinging his eyes with the force. His hair was blown back, whipping around his head wildly. He took another deep breath through the mouth, unable to get enough of the air.

It was so clean. So fresh and pure. Nothing like the dense and choking air of the Metro. It was the first time that he had no obligation to wear his gas mask where the sun still shone. He had to have been standing out there for at least an hour, eager for a reprieve from the scolding of the others. Miller had shown up at the scene with a group of Rangers, all of whom Artyom knew personally. This made explaining things infinitely harder, what with his inadvertent sabotage of the radio jammer, his subsequent deliberate destruction of the train that pursued them, finally adding him being in the company of a Red Line soldier. Tensions were still slightly shaky in the Metro, despite everything. And now they were undoubtedly even worse due to Artyom's actions.

They shouldn't have been going around, kidnapping people. Who cares if there's still a 'war', there's going to be repercussions for the stupid shit they were doing. And he supposed there already were. They were headed across the country, out of Moscow. After the stint that Artyom pulled, it would be a miracle if they were ever allowed back down below. The Invisible Watchers must have been sick and tired of his shenanigans by now, and would have him executed if he were to ever return. Good riddance.

Just because Artyom was happy to be out in the world, wind in his hair and sun truly on his face, that didn't mean anyone else was. Miller was positively fuming, barking out orders and glowering at Artyom any chance he got. Anna had punched him when she saw him, yelling out about what an idiot he was. The rest of the crew was silent in their musings, still trying to wrap their own heads around the possibility of there being a world outside of the Metro. The only ones who didn't seem angry were Ulman and Duke, both preferring instead to talk amongst themselves about matters that didn't concern Artyom. One would occasionally look up and crack a joke at him, but that was it. Even they were uncharacteristically quiet.

Pavel was at the end of the train car. He hadn't said a word since they woke up to the furious shouts of Miller. He only took one glance at Artyom and left through the back door, with the air of someone who wanted desperately to be left alone. He wasn't even a Ranger like the rest of them; he probably felt so out of place. But Artyom would wait, would give him space until he felt ready to talk. Then he would try again.

He would give him the journal, and--

The journal.

The fucking journal. The journal that Pavel shoved into Artyom's backpack instead of the pocket where it should've gone.

The backpack that was too heavy. The backpack that Artyom told Pavel to drop into the fire in order to lift him up.

The backpack that was probably reduced to ashes, nothing more than a mere memory. Artyom's heart stopped. All those years, everything that he had catalogued so meticulously. Gone. Just like that. A testament to the Metro's fleeting nature for anything held close to one's heart. All those drawings, all those notes. Studies, entries, sketches, communication. Everything. The outpourings of his emotions too complex for simple hand gestures.

The final four pages that had amounted to a fucking speech. One that Pavel never got to read. One that Artyom doubted could ever be truly repeated; could ever be as real and raw as it was when he first wrote it. Artyom's hands clenched on the metal railing, teeth gritting with anger and grief. He had poured his heart and soul into that journal, every paper in it was seeped in his love and caring.

And now it was gone.

Artyom's eyes were stinging and his throat was closing up. Good thing nobody wanted to talk to him right now, as he doubted he'd be very good at responding, or even listening for that matter. He needed to take a step back and process what had just happened for a moment. Blood was rushing in his ears; his heart was pounding a frantic rhythm. He needed to sit down. But going back inside was not possible at the moment, not with his current state. So he leaned against the railing, attempting deep breaths and watching the ground below race by.

"Artyom?" A voice called out. He whipped around only to face Anna, who had a concerned look on her face. "I wanted to come out here and check on you, you've been up here for two hours and--" She cut herself off at the look on his face. "Are you alright?" She took a few steps towards him and put a hand on his arm. "Hey, I know my dad was a bit harsh on you, but he'll get over it. You know that's how he is. He's just worried about all of us, and that Red soldier you've got is putting him on edge even more." Artyom shook his head, waving his hand to dismiss her assumptions of Miller bothering him.

He tapped his throat at her confused expression, their symbol for 'can't talk'. Anna immediately shut her mouth, quieting her next line of questioning. She stood there with Artyom as he took in a few deep breaths, patting his arm. He coughed and held his hands out, miming writing in a book. "Your journal?" A nod. A quick burst of movement out from the center. "...Exploded?" Close enough. Another nod. "Oh, Artyom..." She wrapped her arm around his shoulders. A couple of quick pats to the bicep showed her sympathy. She wasn't much good at words like that, but Artyom understood.

He wasn't much good at words at all.

"I think going back inside will be good for you. Ulman misses you, and you don't want to keep him waiting, huh?" She asked, rubbing his arm. "Maybe we can find you some paper in the meantime? At least until you feel comfortable talking." Artyom shook his head at that final sentence, feeling for all the world like he'd probably never talk again. It's not like it'd be much of a change from his usual silence punctuated by a possible odd word or two. It was just easier to be silent, now moreso than ever. He couldn't defend himself verbally from anyone now; it was just easier to take it.

Anna tightened her grip on his shoulder, guiding him off of the railing and steering him back towards the door into the train. "Come on. They've calmed down a bit now. I think they've understood now that they can't go back to Metro, and are coming to terms with being up here. It's not so bad." She opened the door with her free hand and brought Artyom inside. The other Rangers didn't pause in their conversations, only glancing over to him for a moment. Ulman and Duke shot him a smile, waving him over to come and join them.

Pavel had decided to come back in sometime while Artyom was out in the front. He was next to Yermak as the old man babbled on about the train's mechanics. Pavel had shot a quick glance over to Artyom when he entered, but when Artyom met his eyes he quickly looked away with a pursed lip. That wasn't a good sign. He didn't even smile at Artyom like he usually did pretty much whenever they looked at each other.

But that could be dealt with later. Right now Artyom's top priority was to find some paper.

Chapter Text

Artyom liked being on his own, now more than ever. As he trudged across the swampy and slushy mess of snow and mud, he felt his mind clear and heart lighten. The first time, other than his dreams, where he could roam free. No mask. Life had been tough these past couple of days. He'd lost everything, and nearly everyone. Now here he was, searching evermore for a way forwards, a way to help.

He let his back fall against a wooden post. It had been a long time since he left the group to find a man who could help repair their train. The Aurora was faring badly after damages done by bandits and the cultists who made the river their home. And Artyom was glad to be the one sent away; he still needed some time alone after all that had happened. He would have liked to have Pavel come with him, but he was still avoiding Artyom. That made the Ranger furrow his brow and swallow worriedly. He slid down the post and sat on the cold ground, bending his knees and resting his arms on them.

A deep sigh; a gaze cast towards the night sky. Stars dotted the expanse of emptiness, swirling and sparkling. In Moscow they hadn't been visible due to the almost constant cloud cover, only the moon bright enough to shine through. Occasionally you would get the odd twinkle or two, but nothing this intense. So he was quickly overcome at the sight. He was free. Finally. But at what cost?

Even though he disliked living in the Metro, it was still his home for almost his entire life. And now he would never be able to return. Never be able to flip through old books at VDNKh's library, never be able to sit around the communal fire and swap stories with his fellow station-dwellers, never be able to hug his stepfather again. Sukhoi... What was he thinking right now? He was waiting for Artyom to come home, probably. With baited breath, eager to see his son again. Artyom's eyes stung at those thoughts, at the fact that the man would forever wonder where the child he raised had gone. Whether or not he perished to mutants or the radiation. This was probably torture for him...

Artyom sniffled and wiped his eyes. Now wasn't a good time to be dwelling on what was lost.

He could see the crane from here. Krest would be there, Katya had told him. Artyom stood and brushed off his legs, stretching his back and getting ready for another long trek onward. A quick look back towards the way he came before he set off once more, feet leaving imprints in the snow.

~*~

Pavel was sitting on the edge of the railroad, away from the train and the other Rangers upon it. most of them were asleep by now, with one of them staying up to keep watch. Pavel could feel the back of his neck crawl whenever eyes were on him. It was nerve-wracking. He knew none of these people except in passing, save for Anna and Duke. Duke wasn't even here now, not that Pavel minded. He'd preferred being left alone by that young whelp anyways. But Anna still put him on edge, especially with her parting words last time they spoke.

Artyom was gone. He had left to find an engineer to help fix the train. Pavel wanted to go with him, but refrained from doing so. He was still angry. At Artyom? Perhaps. He couldn't even describe it. While he was overjoyed at the fact that Artyom had been right all along, and the Ranger was now pursuing his dream of finding his home on the surface, Pavel couldn't help but feel slightly out of place and almost resentful. The Metro had been his home, his family. To have it all torn away in a single day was more than a little disconcerting. And if Artyom hadn't taken him that day, then...

He would have never seen him again. Pavel sighed and looked up at the starry night sky, filled with pinpricks of light. If Artyom had gone without him then Pavel would have lived the rest of his life wondering if he'd ever return. If he had finally lost it, finally gotten caught by a pack of Watchmen or a flock of Demons. Or even succumbed to radiation poisoning, alone and cold in buildings that should have been safe. That had been safe until two decades ago.

Those were small reliefs. The fact that he knew Artyom was relatively safe was a small virtue in the grand scheme of misery he currently was dealing with. He didn't know the crew, only trusted them because Artyom did. Pavel never truly wanted to leave the Metro. It was the life he knew, and he was comfortable with the routine of it. And though he knew Artyom probably never wanted this to turn out the way it did, he couldn't help but be a little bit angry at the Ranger. It was, after all, still his fault that all of this had happened. Pavel gritted his teeth and glared at the sky, eyes stinging.

He just wanted to go home.

~*~

Artyom panted and wheezed, shakily raising a hand to cover his eyes from the bright spotlight that shine down on him. The corpses of those disturbing mutants surrounded him, too close to human to ever be mistaken as anything else. People. They were people once.

"Oi! Get the hell up here, then! The crane is lowered now!" A voice shouted from above, and Artyom didn't need to be told a second time. As soon as he set foot on the outstretched arm of the crane it jolted upwards, making him grab the railing unsteadily. He was being lifted out of reach of any more mutants. He made his way up the arm, into the small room that had been made livable by its occupant. "You held your own there, huh bratukha? Pretty impressive. Come on now," he said, grabbing his arm and leading him to sit down on a low counter. "Catch a breather, that's it." Artyom's chest was pounding, but steadily evening out.

He looked around, took in his surroundings. The little room was cozy, just enough for one to live in comfortably. Out of reach for most creatures, situated high atop machinery in order to grant a view of the surrounding river. It was gorgeous below, the night sky illuminating and reflecting on the water. Krest was hunched over a fire, heating up an old kettle. "Want some of this? You seem like you need it, after the fight you just had." He smiled when Artyom nodded silently, turning his focus back to his task. Artyom's body slowly released the tension that had overtaken him, finally relaxing in this safe place. Krest was older, probably middle-aged. He also had this air about him, one that Artyom could sense on people who had lived before the world ended. It was a type of longing, and easy to spot if you knew what you were looking for.

"So what brings you here? You from that train gang? It's a miracle her engine is still running, I could see the damage from here with my binoculars, blyadj." Artyom nodded again when Krest turned around to offer him a cup of tea. The heat from the tiny cup permeated his gloves; the steam wafted across his face. It smelled good, nothing like the mushroom tea they had down in the Metro. Though he did miss it. "You look like you're more reasonable than most of the people around here. Maybe I'll pack up and join you, eh? Hoofing it on my own is starting to get a little old, with no one to watch my back."

Artyom was just glad that Krest didn't seem to need any convincing to come with them. He just sat there and sipped his tea gingerly, letting the warmth seep into his body. Krest leaned back against his workbench and gazed out of the windows, a small smile on his face. "For a while I ran supplies, the bandits around here usually left me alone. But then those damn cultists keep ruining everything around here. How can they be so opposed to electricity? They thought I was dealing with Satan, ridiculous." Artyom let out a silent laugh and shook his head into his cup. Krest had no idea. "You're quiet, huh? You haven't said a word." Artyom froze and looked up.

Krest was staring at him, brow cocked. He was intrigued, curious. Artyom cleared his throat a few times, trying to make words form. It was hard, especially in front of someone he didn't know, but he managed to grunt out a few vague syllables that sounded like his name. "Artyom, huh? No need to strain yourself now. I talk enough for three or four people, you can just sit there and be quiet for as long as you need." Artyom let out a soft sigh of relief. He was worried about Krest's reaction, but it seemed those worries went unfounded.

Maybe Krest would come with him back to the Aurora. It would be nice to have a partner to travel with, especially at night.

"Artyom, come in!" It was Stepan, voice crackling from Artyom's radio. He unhooked it from his belt and clicked the response button, tapping the microphone and indicating that he was listening. "Your Red buddy wandered off about thirty minutes ago. At first I thought he was going to take a piss, but he hasn't come back and I've made a few cycles around the Aurora now. Wanted to let you know while you're out and about. He went east." Artyom froze, eyes wide and breath quickening. Any sense of peace that he had while with Krest was now completely gone. Pavel had left? Where did he go? He clicked the button again and tapped, a bit too urgently perhaps. Stepan gave an affirmative once he knew his message had gotten across and disconnected.

"You missing a crew member?" Krest asked, setting his own cup down when Artyom jumped off of where he sat. "Woah woah there, calm down bratukha." He gripped Artyom's shoulders and held him in place before he could go off. "Your man said east? Of the train? The train is west of here, going back that way might bring you in his path. How about I come with you, see if we can't find your friend on the way, huh?" Artyom nodded and finished his tea in one gulp, needing that extra bit of calming warmth before setting off.

He had already lost so much. There was no way that he would lose Pavel, too. Not after everything.

Chapter Text

Krest was a good companion. He knew the surface well, or at least the expanse of the Volga. Artyom took every word of advice he had to heart, working on keeping himself calm even during this stressful time. Krest was smart, and quiet, and damn good at sneaking about through the cover of night. He knew how to avoid the mutants, and often went first through the reeds to scope out possible danger.

"So, bratukha, who's this that's got you so high strung? You're acting like this guy is your wife or something," Krest commented as they walked alongside the river. Artyom had been able to get a handle on himself shortly after they left, explaining a few things to his companion before falling silent again. Now he looked away and gritted his teeth. Was it that obvious? He'd have to be more careful. Krest, for all of his usefulness and wit, was still a wild card in Artyom's book. He didn't know the man's values, his goals, anything. So he just shook his head and kicked a stone as they passed by it, flinging it into the water with a soft splash. "Alright, you don't have to say anything. I'll meet your friend soon enough."

Good. Drop the subject. He didn't want to hear any more about Pavel or his relationship with him. He'd probably give Pavel a good thrashing the next time he saw him though, for making him worry so much. This world was undoubtedly more dangerous than the Metro, easy to get lost and ambushed by a pack of ravenous mutants. And distraction would kill you. They spent the rest of the journey in silence, punctuated by the odd whisper of directions. They kept an eye out for any structures or disturbances, anything where someone could get lost. Nothing. Nothing out of the ordinary, at least.

Krest tapped Artyom's shoulder, getting his attention. There was an old tower, rusted and bent. Below it were a few scare trees and bushes. It was something to check out, at least. Artyom nodded and stalked over to it, keeping his gun at the ready just in case of a mutant hiding in the shadows. One could never be too careful. A quick glance to his watch read 3:47; close to sunrise. It would be good to find Pavel now and return to the Aurora for some much-needed rest. Artyom could feel the fatigue beginning to set in. He kept his eyes to the ground and to the short stalks of plants, searching for any evidence that someone had passed through here.

"Artyom!" Krest whisper-shouted, getting his attention. He was standing next to a tree and crouching on the ground. Artyom rushed over to see that he was on top of a hole of sorts, leading down into a small bunker. And inside it...

Pavel!

Artyom was on his knees within the second, fumbling with taking most of his gear off in order to lower himself down into the hole where Pavel lay unconscious. He must have fallen. "Watch it!" Krest grabbed his shoulder, drawing attention to the now frantic clicking of his Geiger-counter. It was going crazy, almost haywire. "You can't just go down there!" But his words had no affect. Artyom had been though lethal doses of radiation before; something like this would never stop him. Especially not now, not when someone's life was in the balance. He didn't even know how long Pavel had been down there. A quick hop down was all it took; his breath was short and haggard. He quickly put his gas mask on and took a few deep inhales.

Pavel wasn't looking good. He had curled in on himself and Artyom knelt down to turn him over, frantically feeling for a pulse. Faint. Fluttering. But there. He shook Pavel's shoulders in attempts to wake him, but only got drowsy coughs and mild protests in return. A hand fumbled at the other man's belt in order to unhook his gas mask and secure it onto his face before it was too late. He looked around at their surroundings, making note of the hermetic door and frail grating of the window next to them. On the other side was the valve that commanded the door. Now wasn't the time to be careful and slow. Now was the time for loud and fast.

Artyom flipped his Kalash around and began vigorously smashing the stock into the rusted grating. It bent and screeched, the old metal not even close to being strong enough to hold up against such an assault. He could hear Krest shouting something from above, but was unable to listen as his mind was overcome with one goal. One need. Only one thing to even think about.

Save Pavel.

Please make it through this. I'm sorry for bringing you here. I'm sorry for not ever telling you...

The grating finally gave and he lurched forwards due to the loss of tension. He was quick to recover, though, as he leapt and scrambled and shoved himself through to the other side. He threw himself against the wheel, gripping it with shaking hands and turning it as quickly as he could. Not fast enough. Too slow, too slow.

The doors opened. Krest was on the other side. He rushed in and grabbed Pavel by his shoulders, hoisting him up and dragging him out of there. Artyom followed hastily, already feeling lightheaded and nauseous. He grabbed Pavel's feet and began carrying him with Krest, eager to get as far away from that cursed place as possible. Pavel would need some serious medical attention; hopefully Katya would be able to help him. Maybe he could get a blood transfusion. Those had helped Artyom countless times when he was near dying.

He would give every drop of blood if it meant Pavel would live.

Once they were far enough away from the hotspot, and the counter began finally dying down, they rested. Artyom fell onto his back and sprawled out on the ground, tearing his mask off and breathing heavily. The stars mocked him from their position on-high. He grimaced at them and turned over, moving up to Pavel's side and removing his mask as well. He was breathing. That's all that mattered for the moment. The Aurora was close by; they could carry him back if they needed to. He sighed in relief and let his head sag, gripping the fabric of Pavel's jacket on his chest. If he hadn't have made it...

Krest was silent. Absolutely quiet. His presence made Artyom rethink his actions for a moment, sitting up and brushing off his hands. He cleared his throat and pointed up to where the Aurora sat perched atop the hill. A soft grunt from the back of his throat. He stood and gathered the things he had dropped in his haste to get to Pavel, slinging his pack over his shoulder and adjusting the load so he could better support an unconscious man. Krest had an odd expression on his face, but said nothing as he helped lift up Pavel. Each had an arm around the man's middle, supporting him from his shoulders and waist. It would be a hard trip up the incline to the tracks, but with both of them it would be easier.

Artyom had thought Krest wouldn't say anything, would keep his damned mouth shut. They had dragged Pavel up the hill, who had finally become a little more aware of his surroundings and had started to pick up his feet some. And Artyom glared down at the tracks below them as they slowly made their way closer to the train. Pavel would really have some explaining to when they got back. When Katya healed him up nice and good, when he got some new blood in him in order to stave off the radiation. Once he was healthy, he owed some explanations. "Can't wait to meet the rest of your crew, Artyom," Krest finally said as they drew closer to the train. "But I can't help but wonder how much they care about your man here? Didn't seem too concerned earlier." Artyom grunted as he lifted Pavel up to get a better grip on the arm slung over his shoulders. Pavel was stirring now, finally waking up and making soft noises of protest. Murmurs and whispers.

Idiot was the man on watch when they got back, jumping up from his seat in order to help them. He was shouting something to the rest of the crew, but Artyom wasn't listening. He needed to get Pavel inside of the train, now. Needed to get to Katya. She was a doctor, she knew about these things. She would help. Everything would be fine.

~*~

Katya was not happy. She asked him all sorts of questions about Pavel that he was ashamed to say he couldn't answer. No, he didn't know his blood-type. Was that important? It was at this time that he regretted being so out of it whenever the doctors explained to him the importance of blood-types and transfusions. His knowledge consisted of knowing his own, and the fact that he was lucky he was the universal recipient.

Luckily Duke had heard their conversation and decided to answer for him:

"He's O-negative, Katya." Katya paled at this information, running a hand through her hair nervously. Pavel was lying down on a pallet in the train car, groaning and gritting his teeth. "Does he have to have a transfusion?" He asked, leaning on the doorway.

"Well, it would greatly improve his chances of surviving! We're talking about a near lethal dose of radiation here!" Katya was exasperated with the lack of knowledge. "Does anyone on here have O-negative? That's the only blood type his body won't reject outright. If there isn't..."

"I do."

It was Anna. She had heard the whole thing. She pushed past Duke and sat down next to Artyom, facing Katya and rolling up her sleeve. Her tattoo was dark against her pale skin, displaying to all the world. Katya leapt into action immediately and began prepping for a transfusion, grateful to be doing something other than talking for the moment. Anna glanced over at Artyom as Katya fussed. "You and I need to talk about this. Later." He nodded, not trusting his mouth.

He only felt a wave of gratitude towards Anna for her kindness. He hoped she could read it on his face.

Pavel soon quieted down and finally calmed, no longer tossing and turning in agony. Katya stayed and watched over him to make sure there weren't any negative reactions. She noted with relief that he seemed to be doing fine, no fever or any negative side effects. Artyom was relieved too. He couldn't help but feel a little bit useless, unable to help Pavel. But he was glad that he was able to at least do something by bringing him here to people that could help. Anna was silent the whole time, and when Katya finished the transfusion and patched her up she stood to leave. Before leaving she leaned down and grabbed a small notepad by Pavel's bedside, putting a hand on the door frame and looking back at Artyom. She jerked her head for him to follow, and he stood with slight reluctance.

He could only guess at the chewing out he was about to receive. "Come on. Outside." She said, exiting the train and walking across the tracks until they were out of earshot by any of the crew members milling about. When they were far enough away, she spun around and held the pad of paper out to him. She crossed her arms over her chest after he took it. "Now. I don't expect to understand anything. I just wanted to get an explanation. Why? Why is he so important to you?" She asked, furrowing her brow and honestly looking like she was confused. Not angry. Not disappointed. Just wondering. Artyom pulled out a pencil from his pant pocket and was poised to write; he tried to sum up all of his feelings in ways that would be easier to understand. He still didn't want to give away too much.

I don't know.

I can't help it.

I think of what he's been through already, and I hate it. I just want him to be safe. He's my friend. He cares about me too. He knows that I struggle, and doesn't mind. He understands. He's my friend.

And I just want him to make it. I just want him to be there with us. I just want to be able to save at least one person. Because if I can, then it'll all be worth it. If I can at least keep him close, keep him safe. Maybe that can make up for all of those who I couldn't keep.

All who I lost. All who I failed.

When he finished, he handed the notepad back to Anna who looked over it eagerly. Her eyes flicked back and forth across the page, soaking in his words like they were water. He could tell her these things. She understood. She would be able to help him. Artyom could be weak around her, could cry and pour his heart out. He knew that she would understand. He knew that she would care, would never belittle or hurt him on purpose. Not now. Not after everything they had been through. She finished reading the page and handed it back to him with a sigh.

"Artyom." She took in a deep breath. "Thank you for telling me. You could have just as easily lied to me, but you didn't. I'm glad that you have something to fight for. And I know it's hard for you to admit that you can't save everyone," she murmured, stepping forwards and grabbing his shoulders. "But you have to understand that you didn't fail anyone. Sometimes people can't be saved, and you mustn't dwell on it. You're a good man. And I would hate to see you lose yourself to that grief." The sincere moment passed and she bit her lip, trying to think of what to say next. She punched his arm playfully and began leading him back to the train. "Now. Let's go and talk to my father about what to do next. That Krest guy seems like he knows a lot about the area."

Artyom was glad she didn't push it. Perhaps she didn't read any further into his words, but he knew that she was most certainly smart enough to.

Chapter Text

When Pavel woke up he found himself being watched by the woman who began accompanying them, along with her daughter. He was a bit out of it, not remembering exactly how he got there. There were a few hazy memories, of falling and losing consciousness. Two people lifting him up and dragging him back to the train. Soft black hair and glittering blue eyes looking down at him.

But now the only eyes looking at him were a warm shade of brown. They belonged to Nastya. The little girl was cute, keeping her attention on him with her mouth pursed in focus. When he opened his eyes she smiled toothily and called out to her mother to let her know he had woken up. Katya looked up from her work and did a once-over of his position on the low bed, sighing and smiling at him as she turned around fully.

"You are a lucky man." She shook her head and stood to walk over to him. "I was worried for quite a while about your state. But the transfusion went over well and you seem fine."

"I certainly am feeling quite lucky right now," he replied, shooting her a small smirk. "Waking up comfortable, warm, and with such a nice young lady to watch over me!" Pavel directed the last part of his statement to little Nastya, ruffling her hair as she giggled. Katya moved closer to check his vitals and he laid back down in order to allow her to do her job. She asked him a few questions about how he was feeling. "Any nausea? Migraine?" She felt his forehead for a fever and announced that his temperature felt normal. A few quick presses to his abdomen, asking if there was any pain from the pressure. None.

"Well you seem to be perfectly fine right now. No symptoms of acute radiation syndrome so far. Just let me know if you start experiencing any of the things that I just checked for. Within the next few days or weeks, and if nothing seems out of the ordinary then you're good to go," she told him, letting him sit up and swing his legs off of the bed. Pavel stood and shook her hand, nodding and promising to tell her if anything came up.

As soon as he stepped out of the room he nearly ran face-first into Anna, who was walking down the hallway to the back of the train. He took a few hasty steps back and held his hands out in front of him, not eager to antagonize her any more. He just wanted to stay out of her way; she made him uneasy. Anna was surprised to see him walking around for just a moment before her gaze hardened into something determined.

"You're awake."

"Ah, Anna! It's, uh, good to see you. Erm, did you want something?" He asked, crossing his arms and quirking a brow while trying to stay nonchalant. Anna tilted her head to the side and fixed him with a strange look. Pavel couldn't quite discern her expression, but she narrowed her eyes and tilted her head.

"Come on, Red. I need to have a word with you." She pointed her thumb over her shoulder down the hallway, turning on her heel and expecting him to follow. Did he even have a choice? The sun was bright above his head when they exited the train, walking to the other side away from Stepan and Idiot who were gathered around the small fire at the front of the train. He looked around, trying to see if Artyom was anywhere nearby. "He's scouting. We've decided to steal a boat once night falls and Artyom is doing a quick survey of the area before we go." Pavel opened his mouth to ask her how she knew when she whipped around to face him. She put her hands on her hips and pursed her mouth.

Pavel quieted immediately. "You almost died, Morozov. Radiation is no joke and you nearly took a lethal dose of the damned stuff while you were out on your little adventure. What were you thinking? Artyom and Krest practically carried you back here." He could tell she was angry; while she didn't raise her voice high enough for others to hear, she was talking fast and harsh. "I hope to whatever God is out there that you don't wind up getting yourself killed. It would destroy Artyom. He was a mess when they brought you back, and we cannot afford to have him distracted." That was a lot of information to take in at once. Pavel's mind completely skipped over any Artyom-related feelings (those could be dealt with later) and instead focused on her comment about radiation sickness.

"Katya mentioned I needed a blood transfusion. But how in the world was she able to get one of those Rangers to donate? They don't even know me, nor trust me much from what I've seen." He knew that they were uncomfortable around him; they still didn't completely trust him. And for good reason. Some of them probably knew who he was at this point, and didn't appreciate much what he did before they ended up allying forces. That's not even mentioning his blood-type being notoriously hard to accept other's. Anna froze and crossed her arms, looking off to the side across the river.

"Consider my debt to you repaid. You helped save Artyom's life, so I return the favor." She wasn't looking at him, still gazing off into the distance. Anna had donated her blood to save his life? Anna? She had the same blood-type as him? There were too many questions swirling around in his head right now to even begin processing what in the hell was happening. Pavel laughed to himself at his wild luck. "You still haven't proved yourself to me yet, and whatever Artyom sees in you is completely lost on me. But I guess that doesn't matter," she sighed, finally turning to face him again. Her expression had completely changed now, something just akin to resignation. "All that matters now is that we all stay alive. And that includes you. So start pulling your weight like the rest of us, and we'll watch your back."

She pushed past him and back to her fellows, leaving a very confused Pavel in her wake. He didn't turn around to stare after her like some sort of dog. But he did walk over to sit down on one of the barricades around the train, eyes scanning the horizon as his brain began to wrap itself around what had just happened:

1. Artyom had saved him when he fell, along with someone else that he hadn't met yet.

2. Anna donated her own blood to save his life from deadly radiation. This was to thank him for doing the same for Artyom.

3. Anna was a Spartan Ranger, and knew them well. So her vouching for them and claiming he would be accepted once he started 'pulling his weight' was a big deal.

But what in the world did Anna mean by those comments about Artyom? That he saw something in him? About his reactions to Pavel's possible death? What was she trying to--?

Oh no.

Did Anna know? Did she suspect his feelings towards Artyom? Pavel thought he'd been keeping it fairly under wraps, especially now. There were just too many other things to be worried about, strange and wrong feelings were most certainly not one of them at the current time. While Pavel was horrendous and concealing his emotions during times of peace, whenever shit hit the fan he was able to just compress everything into a tiny little box until he was ready to deal with it.

Namely, never. He never wanted to deal with it. He never wanted to deal with any of these agonizing aches in his chest whenever Artyom fixed him with his soft gaze. Or when he smiled at a joke. It had been much too long since Pavel had seen the other man smile. It was concerning. Even his body language was completely different from before; it was closed off and almost cold at times. Like he didn't want anyone near him.

It was something that bothered Pavel greatly. Even though his own heart was an absolute mess, the least he could do was check up on his friend and maybe help him. Artyom deserved that much. He didn't deserve to be shunned and ignored just because Pavel couldn't sort out his shitty feelings. Hopefully he was just reading too much into what Anna was saying, and she actually didn't suspect a thing. I mean, how could she even know? It's not like this is a conclusion to jump towards. He's a man, and men don't normally feel these things about each other. It's just--

It's just something that will pass.

Even if Artyom did find out, he would never be so cruel as to use it against Pavel. That was something he could be sure about.

Perhaps it was time for a talk with Artyom.

Chapter Text

When Artyom got back from his scouting mission, Pavel stepped forwards to pull him aside. I need to talk to you, Artyomshka. Please it's important. But Artyom shot him one look and shake of the head before going to Miller, flattening his hand and sweeping it out from his chest. Artyom's symbol for 'not now, later'. It made sense, as it would be easier to talk once they got out of this damned place. But Pavel still couldn't help but feel a little bit hurt by the rejection.

Artyom was to take Duke and Krest to the docks to steal a tugboat. They would then go to the bridge and find a way to get the train past. The rest of them had to get the Aurora ready for travel, securing the new train carriage and Krest's railcar properly. Pavel quickly volunteered himself to take a watch cycle as well as cleanup duty, eager for something to distract him until they left the river behind. The Tsar-Fish cultists seemed to want them to leave as well, so perhaps there wouldn't be any unneeded bloodshed. Working with the other men on the crew gave him some more insight as to their lives and values. They seemed nice enough, beginning to warm up to him the more he showed dedication to the team.

Maybe in time he would be able to call himself one of them.

Pavel found himself gravitating to Damir the most, as the soft spoken man often took initiative to check up on him. It was nice to see one of the Rangers showing concern for someone who wasn't one of them, and Pavel appreciated the sentiment. It also came to his attention that Damir was one of the men who had helped him carry Artyom back through VDNKh when he was wounded. As their resident medic he was often deeply concerned about everyone's well being, even going so far as to ask Pavel how he was doing after falling onto that old abandoned bunker.

What a stupid idea that was. He had just been tired of it all, wanting to go off on his own for a while. He never meant to trip and fall like an idiot, tumbling down into some hole and nearly knocking himself out on a bit of exposed pipe.

"Hey, man. You're one of us now, like it or not," Damir had said as they were hauling supplies. "It doesn't matter who you were before, only who you will be. Sometimes I felt like I didn't belong with the Rangers either, but they took me in regardless and I have no regrets." A pause as Pavel grunted and shoved a couple of heavy bags into a locker. "And if Artyom trusts you then I do, too."

"Um, thanks..." Pavel replied, almost a bit uncertainly. It was nice to know he had at least one ally here, someone who didn't seem to know or care about what he did before down in the Metro. He didn't want to get on any of their bad sides, as that was a surefire way of being left behind with no one to help him. Even if he didn't entirely agree with their current goal of making it to the Yamantau bunker. He still didn't think that any of this nonsense about 'occupying forces' was true. It had been over twenty damn years! It was simply impossible for a war to go on for that long, not to mention the absolute devastation that the world was already facing. There just simply weren't enough people to keep a war going on for that long. "Good to know. The same goes for you as well. Anyone Artyom trusts is good in my book."

Damir smiled at that and Pavel felt something deep in his chest tremble.

~*~

"How is it you can live in Metro for twenty years and still have shit Russian?" Pavel asked as the train thrummed beneath their feet. Sam laughed at the remark and shook his head, leaning back in his chair. They were making their way to the bridge now, where Artyom and Duke were waiting.

"You try learning a new language and alphabet when you're a couple years past your prime. I may be fluent now but you should have heard me when Miller first nabbed me." Sam straightened in his seat and then spouted out some of the most horribly accented Russian that could have ever graced Pavel's ears. He couldn't help but to burst out laughing at the sound. It made Miller, who was looking out through one of the windows, whip his head around to fix Sam with an incredulous look.

"Haven't heard you talk like that in at least fifteen years," he said. "You're lucky that your accent is a lot better now, else I'd have to protect you from an angry mob." Sam laughed again and slumped back into his seat. It was getting easier now to talk to the other members of the crew. Pavel realized that they were all rather laid back most of the time, and that he had only met most of them when things were still very uncertain and unknown. They were starting to warm up to him, and he found himself beginning to crack jokes with a few of them. Pavel was a social person, and spending time with people often ended up with him getting on their good side. It was something that he had used much to his advantage down in the Metro.

"You try learning English now, Pasha!" Sam waved his arm. "It's a lot harder than it sounds."

"Oh I don't doubt that," he replied, standing up to take his place at the helm of the train. Idiot had just gotten back from his rounds and it was Pavel's turn to keep watch and alert them if there were any hostiles. As he passed by Idiot shot him a small smile and a pat on the shoulder. Looks like they were really starting to treat him like a member of the team, now. He left through the door and walked on the railing until he was standing at the front of the train. It was raining, droplets splashing against his bare face. The first time he could claim to enjoy it. The only other time he could remember rain bearing down on him was the small sojourn over the surface with Artyom, on their way to Teatr.

They didn't have far to go; he could see the bridge from here and they were swiftly approaching it. Yermak was supposed to stop the train once they got close enough and wait for a signal from Duke and Artyom. Hopefully they would be able to solve this without further bloodshed and just leave the damned river behind. Pavel didn't exactly agree with the sentiment; he had seen some of the crazy shit that these guys had done. Some people couldn't be reasoned with. But he was just one man, and the rest of the team shared the same ideal of going through peacefully. So he wouldn't argue, only be ready for when things got ugly.

The brakes squealed as Yermak began slowing them to a halt a few hundred meters away from the bridge. Now they just had to wait. Pavel got out a pair of binoculars and held them up to his eyes, zooming in on the events on the structure. Maybe he could see if there was trouble. No such luck. The rain obscured his vision too much, making the view hazy and unreadable from such a distance. However, he didn't see any blaring lights or warning signals. That was a good sign for Artyom and Duke. Pavel had no doubts that Artyom could sneak his way through the base; it was Duke he had some concerns about.

That boy was just a bit too eager. Pavel had seen it in countless comrades before, that lust for adventure and eagerness to fight. An attitude like that would get anyone killed down in the Metro. He had lost a great many men to such foolhardy actions. It was one thing to talk big and joke around, another entirely to risk oneself in the name of glory. And Pavel loved to talk big. He relished being able to show off and brag about his prowess, especially in front of what he thought was just a naïve Ranger. But when it came down to business, Pavel was brutal and efficient. No room for risks, no room for posing. Quick, clean, and clear.

It didn't take long before the train jolted below him. Pavel had to grab the railing to steady himself as it lurched forwards. Another look at the bridge revealed it lowering, the gates rising up to admit them through. Pavel could hear Miller shouting from inside of the train as they passed under the structure on the top chord, where Silantius was preaching to his followers. They held their weapons at their sides, electing to not fire as they made their way past. Pavel stared down at them as they glared but made no move to attack.

It was time to go.

The train rumbled over the bridge and left without pause. Pavel watched as they sped away from the river and the cultists, leaving them behind in their ignorance. He scoffed to himself and leaned forwards on the railing once the threat of danger had passed. They were lucky that the Rangers were as merciful as they were; they would have gotten no such sentiment from Pavel if he had the soldiers. Now he just had to keep watch for a while longer, then he would retire to his room on the newly-acquired train car that Artyom and Krest had procured for them. Pavel stood out there on watch for a while longer, shivering as the rain slowly penetrated his clothes. Last time he was in this he didn't stay long.

"Hey, Red!" Someone shouted from behind him. Pavel turned around to see Anna leaning out of the open door, hand on the knob. "Get inside! It's raining like hell out there, we aren't worried about dangers right now." She waved her free arm to lead him in, and he followed her orders. She made a face at his wet clothes. "And change, you'll catch your death dressed like that. Duke found some clothes on a few of his scouting missions which should be good to wear until these dry," she told him, leading him through the train car until she stopped near the end. "Here. Not enough compartments for everyone, so you're sharing. Damn better than sleeping on the floor though." She tapped the door three times before it slid open, revealing a sleepy Artyom.

A soft grunt as he rubbed his eyes. His hair was messy and sticking up in random directions, probably from sleep. Pavel found his heart skipping at the sight. Artyom cleared his throat and let his eyes roam over the two people disturbing his nap. He perked up immediately once he saw who it was, a tired smile crossing his lips as he moved to the side in order to admit them in. Anna shook her head in refusal of the offer. "I have to check up on Duke and make sure he's alright. He's in with Katya if you wanted to see him later," she said as she left them alone.

Pavel stood there awkwardly after she left, fiddling with his fingers. Artyom jerked his head back and stood further to the side as he kept the door open. Pavel took that as an invitation and followed, hearing the door slide shut behind him. The compartment was small and cramped, probably not meant for two people to reside in. But there were two cots to rest on, and he found himself infinitely grateful for that fact. If he ended up having to share a bed with Artyom, too...

He elected to sit down on the one closer to the door, as he could tell that the one across from him had rumpled sheets. Artyom must have claimed it for his nap. Pavel's suspicion was proven correct when Artyom crossed the room in two small steps and laid down on his own bed, turning to the side to face Pavel. He had his head propped up on his elbow and knee bent, looking every inch like he was seductively posing for a drawing. Even his expression said the same thing. Eyebrow cocked with a small smirk playing upon his lips. Pavel swallowed and Artyom laughed silently, throwing himself down on the bed in a heap.

He had been joking, teasing. Of course he had.

"So..." Pavel couldn't think where to start. He wanted to yell at Artyom for everything that had happened thus far. He wanted to blame him for dragging him away from his home and livelihood. He wanted to thank him for saving his life, again. He wanted to pour his heart out right then and there. He wanted to say... "Do you really think that the war is still going on, after all of these years?" Way to go. Artyom fixed him with and incredulous look quickly followed by a scoff and a shake of the head. "So who's in that bunker then? The one your leader is so dead set on?"

Artyom let out a low sigh and reached out his hand to fumble with the small table at his bedside. He looked tired. Pavel thought that he probably was, after all of the shit that he had to do over the past few days. He didn't see the man sleep once the whole time they were in the Volga. Artyom finally got a hold of a pad of paper and scribbled a few words down on it, holding it out for him to see. This gesture was paired with a shrug that said: I don't know.

Important people? Maybe they help us.

The new medium wasn't lost on Pavel. Where was Artyom's journal? He looked around the small room and could only see a few postcards decorating Artyom's side, as well as his bag on the floor accompanied by a few other things he grabbed while at the river. "Hey, where's your journal? You usually use it to write."

As soon as he asked this question Pavel realized he made a huge mistake. Artyom's face instantly darkened, to such a degree that Pavel was transported back to the Red Square. That was the last time he had seen Artyom's eyes look like this, the green dark and roiling. Artyom clenched his fists and looked away, fixing the window with a glare. He dropped the pad of paper at his side, swiping his hands out to the side with fingers outstretched. Gone. Another jerky movement miming a blast from a grenade, followed by the waving of fingers to represent fire.

Pavel's heart fell to his stomach. It didn't take him long to understand what Artyom had meant. When they escaped with the train, when Pavel had Artyom's pack with all of his supplies in it. That had his journal. That he dropped. His throat ached and burned with the realization. "I... Artyom, I. Blyakha mukha, I'm so sorry. I, I know how much it meant to you and--" He quickly came to the conclusion that words and botched apologies wouldn't help now. That journal was Artyom's life; it was an extension of himself. It was one of the first things he had even noticed about Artyom, that his journal was pretty much as important as one of his arms. And now Pavel couldn't even say anything. He couldn't defend himself. How could he? He had hurt Artyom, again. Probably in the worst way that he could have ever hurt him. Robbed him of his voice.

Not literally, of course. Artyom had his ways.

But this was something dear and precious to him. And now it was gone. Because of Pavel. Damn it.

Artyom cleared his throat, bringing Pavel out of his trance. His expression had changed again, no longer angry but rather reserved. He shook his head and did a few slight motions with his hands, tapping his chest. I don't blame you. It's okay.

Don't look so sad. Please.

Pavel clenched his jaw and swallowed. Perhaps he added a bit more on to that interpretation of Artyom's signs. But Artyom had already moved on from the moment, or was trying to at least. He had sat up in his bed and looked thoughtful for a moment. Then a smile crossed his face, so dazzling that Pavel almost completely forgot about how sorry he was. He scrambled for the notepad and quickly wrote down something. The words were fast and messy when he held the paper up, excitement coloring the writing:

I have something for you. Found it in old campsite. Think you'll be happy to see!!!

Pavel couldn't help but smile too; whenever Artyom was happy about something it seemed to infect everyone around him. He straightened up and leaned forwards on his cot, straining to see what Artyom was doing as he dug around in the bag at his feet. He soon found what he was looking for, and pulled it out almost reverently to hand it to Pavel. A battered old copy of a book, black cover slightly torn at the edges. The title was faded with age, gold lettering just barely reading out the words:

Tri Mushketera

Pavel's heart stopped for what felt like the fifth time today. He took it from Artyom's hands and flipped it open, scanning some of the pages from the middle just to make sure it was the real thing. And it was. A quick look from the top revealed that it still had all of its pages too. What a rarity, what a treasure. And Artyom decided to give it to him. After everything he had done, Artyom still saw this book and thought of Pavel. Thought that he would be happy to have it. Who knew how this one book survived so long at the hands of such a harsh and cruel world, without being torn apart for kindling or a makeshift cigarette. Pavel had thought after he lost his own copy of the book, when he was about sixteen, that he would have never seen another again. And yet here one was, whole and clearly cared for by somebody. It would have never made it this long if it hadn't been.

He wasn't crying. Of course he wasn't.

"Thank you. This is... This means a lot to me, Artyomshka," he ended up saying, looking back up to see that Artyom had held out the pad of paper again. There was another note written down on it.

Maybe read it together?

Pavel smiled. "Of course, D'Artagnan."

Chapter Text

"On the first Monday of the month of April, 1625, the market town of Meung, in which the author of ROMANCE OF THE ROSE was born, appeared to be in as perfect a state of revolution as if the Huguenots had just made a second La Rochelle of it."

Artyom was lying on his cot across from Pavel, eyes shut and hands behind his head. He had a peaceful smile on his face as Pavel's voice resounded throughout the small room. The train thrummed beneath them; the deep rumbling of the wheels a gentle backdrop to the story. It had been a day since Artyom's lovely gift, and Pavel was going to make the most of it. Comforting, soft. Emotions like that enveloped him as his eyes flicked across the pages, lips forming the words printed upon them. It was easy to forget about where they were now, easy to come to terms with his current situation. In this little room, it was just them.

No interruptions. Just them spending time together. Pavel absolutely relished it, especially after the long time spent away from Artyom. Not talking to him was absolutely torturous when the other man was still so close. Like something wasn't right between them. But now that was in the past. And Pavel could spend as much time with him as he wanted. Artyom didn't seem to mind, and he was going to take complete advantage of that fact. In fact, this activity together was an easy and safe way to spend time together. It was distracting. Pavel didn't have any time to think about his jumbled emotions, didn't have to try and untangle that dangerous knot. Though... He supposed that it wouldn't really matter much anymore. Not out here, far from others. Others who would sneer and insult and possibly even throw punches.

But Pavel wasn't a coward. Anyone who questioned his morals would find themselves on the ground, clutching a bloody nose. That's just how it was in the Metro. Fight first before they could land the first blow. Before insults became frequent. But they weren't in the Metro anymore. The only other humans they encountered now were mostly aggressive on sight, desperate to defend their territory. But none of that even concerned Pavel anymore. He had a team, people to lean on now.

The other Rangers were still a bit intimidating though...

He still had Artyom to call as his friend. And that was worth more than everything he had ever left behind.

For as long as he had Artyom, Pavel would be able to make it anywhere. "He drew his sword entirely from the scabbard, and followed him, crying, 'Turn, turn, Master Joker, lest I strike you behind!'" At those words Artyom opened an eye incredulously to look over at his friend. It did not go unnoticed. "What is it?" Artyom turned ever so slightly to the side in order to fix Pavel with a jokingly confused expression. You say I'm him? Pavel stifled a laugh at the look on his face. "Just wait, my D'Artagnan. You will see." Artyom rolled his eyes and let his head fall back onto his pillow again, making an idle gesture for Pavel to continue.

He turned back to the book, finding where he left off and starting again. There was a slight tickle in his throat from reading out loud so much, overexertion of his vocal cords. He cleared his throat and continued:

"'Strike me!' Said the other, turning on his heels..."

~*~

They were able to finish the first chapter before the day was out. Which was good. Pavel wanted to continue reading longer than that, but his throat had other plans. By the end of it he was nearly hoarse with the effort it took to keep up the inflections. Artyom had quickly stopped him when he started reading out the title of the second chapter, fanning his hand out across his neck in a clear 'stop' symbol. Pavel's voice needed to rest anyways. So he folded down the corner of the page he was on and set the book under his own cot, lying back and staring up at the ceiling. A little rumble and a cough from his chest; an attempt to soothe his aching throat.

"Oof!" He cried out when something hit him in the stomach. His hands immediately moved to grab the offending object, closing around a slightly circular container. It was a canteen. Filled over halfway, heavy. Pavel shot a glance over to Artyom who was staring at him. The Ranger merely lifted his hand to his lips and mimed drinking. "You know I have my own, right?" Pavel asked, quirking a brow. Artyom's slightly playful expression changed at that, closing off and flicking his eyes to the side. Pavel scrambled for something to say. "Ah, but how could I resist such an offer? Especially when you practically assaulted me with it?" Pavel said with a laugh, unscrewing the lid and taking a short sip. The water was a little lukewarm but still a balm to his sore throat. He was tempted to take another long gulp, but decided it would be better to not drink all of Artyom's water.

He replaced the cap and lightly tossed the canteen back to Artyom. "Thanks, chuvak." Artyom caught it with a surprised air, eyes wide. And before Pavel could even say anything else, he opened it and took a sip of his own. Any words he was about to say died in the back of his mouth; he could only stare. Artyom's head was tilted back, long line of his throat exposed. His Adam's apple bobbed once, twice, three times. Once he finished, he pulled back with a short sigh. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and screwed the lid back on before tossing the canteen near his feet. For a second he looked at him like a man starving, desperate. But the glint in his eyes was gone as soon as it appeared, and he turned over in his cot. Artyom's back now faced Pavel.

Pavel was left blinking in confusion. What just happened? He thought, lowering himself down onto his side. His eyes bore holes into Artyom's back as the train hummed beneath them.

~*~

Yamantau was a mistake.

When the recon team returned from their journey to the bunker, Pavel was ready to welcome them with open arms and smiles. But he quickly schooled his expression into one of worry once he saw the state they were in. Miller and Sam leaning on each other, the younger man helping support the aged commander. Artyom was lending Anna his shoulder, and she looked like she had been to hell and back. Idiot and Krest seemed to be faring a bit better, although no less exhausted than the rest. Pavel and Stepan rushed forward to greet them, pulling them onto the Aurora and securing the railcar to its place on the train. Artyom nodded at Anna as he handed her off to Tokarev, inclining his head in a clear message for her to see Katya. Maybe she was hurt more extensively than what they could see.

Pavel grabbed Artyom by the arms and hauled him off to their room after a quick once over, noting that he didn't seem to be hurt too badly. Nothing major, at least. And the fact that Artyom didn't protest as he guided him away was a good sign as to his health. Pavel could hear Miller and Sam filling in the rest of the crew in fragments as they walked away, something about cannibals and madmen in the place of what should have been level-headed leaders. He couldn't help but scoff under his breath. Of course something had gone wrong. Nothing ever seemed to go right for them, after all. He nearly slammed the door to their tiny room behind him as he deposited Artyom on his cot, letting the man fall onto his back with a sharp groan.

"What is it, chuvak? You hurt? Come on, you can't be comfortable in all that gear," Pavel said, tapping Artyom's shoulder and attempting to get him to sit up. Artyom let a deep sigh wrack his chest as he righted himself. He looked much too tired to be of any use to their fellows right now. Pavel chewed on the inside of his cheek and dropped to his knees in front of his friend. Artyom's eyes widened slightly in surprise as Pavel lifted one of the Ranger's legs to rest his foot between his thighs. He made quick work of the laces to his boot and unceremoniously yanked the thing off before repeating the motion with Artyom's other boot. Pavel was methodical and quiet now, focusing entirely on making sure Artyom was safe and comfortable. There were no other thoughts running through his head now.

Artyom let out another groan as he struggled with the straps to his gear. His fingers wouldn't obey him and kept slipping on the buckles. Pavel leaned up on his knees to pull one of Artyom's hands away, cradling it in both of his own. He was slow, undoing fastenings and slipping the glove off before setting it on the small stand next to the cot. He did the same with the man's other hand, ignoring how his palms burned at the touch of Artyom's skin on his. He ignored the racing of his heart. He ignored the tickle in his throat and the tightening of his chest.

The only thing he couldn't ignore was Artyom's reaction. His hands were still held in Pavel's own, and he turned them around in his grasp in order to run his thumbs over his friend's wrists. Pavel kept his gaze lowered, not wanting to see Artyom's expression. He didn't know if he would be able to handle what he would see. And so they sat in silence, Artyom tracing lines on the soft skin of his inner arms. But it didn't take long before Pavel felt overwhelmed by the touch, and he snatched his hands back to hold them close to his chest. "Get out of that heavy gear and I'll patch up any wounds. Katya is busy with Anna and old Miller most likely." Pavel turned his head to the grubby window, gaze fixing on the rustling leaves of one of the trees next to the train. He swallowed and pushed any thought of Artyom (other than worry) from his mind.

None of that was important right now. What was important was making sure he was alright.

Artyom blew out a short breath from his nose, probably exasperated with Pavel's actions. But he obeyed, hands moving to the buckles at his waist in order to undo them. Without the gloves, and having a moment of calm, it was easier to control himself. His vest fell into Pavel's lap and the man stood up, hanging it on one of the hooks on the wall for Tokarev to inspect later. He was under no impression that he could mend their gear better than the older man. Pavel chanced a glance back at Artyom and was relieved to see nothing bloodying his torso. His armor did its job and did it well. It seemed that most of Artyom's exhaustion was merely from a harrowing experience, and not from any kind of injuries. Pavel cleared his throat and caught Artyom's eye. "Did you want to read a chapter before passing out? Or did you just want to sleep?"

The grin that crossed Artyom's face at the mention of reading gave Pavel all the answer he needed. Pavel patted the man's knee before moving over to his own cot in order to grab the book. Once he located it and sat down, he began thumbing through the pages. A clearing of the throat made him look up in question. Artyom had situated himself on his own cot so that his legs were stretched out; his back was leaning against the wall. Pavel quirked a brow at him and Artyom patted the sheets near his legs, pursing his lips and staring resolutely at the wall opposite him. "You want me to come over there?" Pavel asked, scarcely able to believe it. He had to get some real confirmation, something to show him that he wasn't imagining his wildest hopes.

Artyom's murmured reply was all he needed.

Pavel let a soft grin cross his lips as he stood and crossed the room in two short steps. He sat down at the foot of the bed across from Artyom, letting his right leg press against the outside of Artyom's left. His other foot was firmly planted on the floor, helping support him on the thin cot. Pavel let his own back lean beck on the wall, opening the book and looking down as he flipped through the pages.

The smile never left even as he read the chapter. If Artyom noticed, he never made mention of it.

Chapter Text

Pavel had never felt more useless than he did now. He was a man used to the harsh Moscow winters, not the burning heat of the sun beating down on them. This place was a damn wasteland, and he couldn't even help them move on to their next destination. Wherever that may be. The heat was damn near getting to him, sapping the strength from his muscles and stealing his breath.

He could barely make full circuits around the little base they claimed without wheezing for air. It was torturous, amplified by the fact that he had no idea whether or not Artyom was okay. How that man was able to trudge around through the sand and sun was beyond Pavel. Damir was handling it rather well, too (although his troubles all stemmed from the mistreatment of his people). Pavel didn't know much about what was going on, but he knew that these oil-riggers were taking advantage of people weaker than themselves. That was most definitely a reason to completely destroy their influence, in Pavel's opinion.

It was just beginning to get dark when Pavel leaned against the low wall outside of the building that housed the rest of his teammates. Krest would occasionally check in with everyone, making sure that Stepan's heatstroke didn't worsen. Even though there wasn't much he could do at this point. Duke was also out of commission, weak and weary from the miserable weather. The sooner they left, the better. None of them were built to survive these kind of conditions for long periods of time. Except maybe Damir, and Artyom apparently. Pavel almost chuckled to himself at the thought of Artyom traipsing around the desert, unaffected by the blistering sun. But he was wracked with a sudden coughing fit. It was dry and crackling, stealing the breath from his lungs.

"Damn fucking sand, blyadj..." Pavel murmured to himself when he recovered. He reached for the flask of water at his hip and shook it a few times to gauge how much he had left. He could hear the soft pattering of water droplets on the inside of the damned thing. Not much left. Pavel had been trying to ration his water properly, but the wind whipped the sand, blowing it into his face and getting in his mouth, followed by his lungs, causing bouts of coughing that he couldn't seem to shake. He was damn ready to get the hell out of this terrible place. The sooner that Artyom came back with good news, the better.

He stumbled back into the building in order to get a respite from the weather to find that Stepan and Duke's conditions had worsened. Katya was fretting almost nonstop over the two of them now, and Alyosha was sitting next to them with his head in his hands. The heat was starting to get to him as well. Krest was hovering over a pot of stew, distracting Nastya from the dire situation that the crew was currently in. Pavel wanted to go over to them and help, but his legs were weak and he felt as if he could collapse at any moment. He made it to an open chair and fell into it, leaning his head back and closing his eyes against the bright light of the fire. He'd seen enough light now to last a lifetime. The sun reflecting off of the sand of the desert had nearly blinded him by now, and he was loath to see anything like it ever again.

Pavel could hear Idiot mumbling to himself in worry over in the corner. Ever since Artyom had brought back those satellite maps, he'd been working himself up into a frenzy over them. That probably wasn't a good sign, if Pavel could be honest with himself. Miller was with him, interjecting every now and then with some commentary that varied in usefulness. Pavel didn't really understand what they were talking about, as the names bandied about meant nothing to him. He was still a man of stations and underground tunnels, not this wide open world full of sunshine and complete freedom.

He didn't want to be here anymore. Obviously Pavel would follow Artyom's lead wherever he went, but this was straining the limits of his endurance as well as patience.

"Hey, Red. You holding up alright?" Pavel cracked open an eye to fix Krest with a tired look. "Ah-ha, you look absolutely miserable. Okay okay, I get it." Krest had often tried to initiate conversations with the younger man. Pavel didn't exactly know what his point was, checking in with him and constantly casting glances his way. It honestly made him a little uncomfortable. What was his problem? "Keep watch over the pot, my little helper. Who knows, maybe you can be as good as I am at cooking someday!" He directed his words at Nastya, who had been watching him with wide eyes for the past hour. She wrinkled her nose.

"I hope that I'll be better than you at cooking."

"Agh, you wound me! How can I endure such mistreatment? Well if you don't like my food then you don't have to eat it." Krest mocked, tapping the ladle against the pot and setting it down on his makeshift counter. Nastya sobered immediately and nodded, swapping places with Krest as he walked over and leaned against the wall next to Pavel. "But seriously, malchik, you look like shit." Pavel grimaced at the form of address.

"I'm not a little boy. Either call me Red, like what the rest of the crew seems to be fond of, or just by my name." Krest tilted his head back and laughed, crossing his arms over his chest.

"Ah, but you are just a little boy! You forget how much older I am than you. The way you act is like a broody teenager, too. You could be my little brother, you know." Krest kept laughing and Pavel felt a reluctant grin cross his lips. How this man could stay cheerful at a time like this was beyond him. "Anyway, that isn't what I wanted to talk to you about. I wanted to know how you were holding up, malchik." Pavel sighed at the use of the word again and resigned himself to it. It was unlikely that Krest would ever stop calling him that now. He just shook his head and sunk further into the chair, muttering something about the desert being the bane of his existence. Krest chuckled again. "Yeah, I hate it too. Kaduy was always cold, I'm more used to just a few degrees south of a nuclear winter. Much too hot here. Come on, you've got to get back out there. I'll keep you company."

Pavel nodded along, clearing his throat. His lungs burned and he wasn't keen on going back outside. The sand would irritate them all anew again. He stood with a groan and brushed off his pants. Well, it was a good respite for a moment. "But that Artyom, man. Have you ever seen him doing anything less than traipsing around in places he definitely shouldn't be?"

"Ah, it wouldn't be Artyom if he wasn't sticking his damned head into everything." Pavel replied as they walked outside, shaking his head.

"Damn right. You know, when I first met him he was trying to fight his way through a bunch of mutants. At night, too! Everyone knows that those things come out at night, especially where I used to set up base," Krest said, launching into a long tangent. "I mean, after I bring him up there next thing I know, he's running frantic. Trying to leave because you went and fell down a hole. Not that I regret helping you, as you'd be rotting down there if we hadn't come. But it seems like our young Ranger has a limited sense of self-preservation, huh?" Pavel was quiet as Krest talked. Why was he bringing up Artyom?

"Well..." Pavel started before falling silent again. How could he explain? "Artyom, he's... He likes to help people. One person saved is worth the world to him. He's been like that for as long as I've known him." Pavel let a small grin twist the corners of his mouth, thinking back to escaping the Nazi's with Artyom. That felt like a lifetime ago now. "You know, when I first met him, we were captured by some bastards. Had to escape together. Artyom was just... He couldn't leave any of the others behind there. Was able to free them all, even though we should have been getting ourselves out of there as fast as possible. That's just the kind of man he is. Always wanting to help the downtrodden. Even now I'm sure he's doing all he can with Damir to help the people here. It's the kind of man he is, you'd be crazy to not care for him."

"Sounds like he means a lot to you," Krest murmured, keeping his gaze locked onto Pavel. At those words Pavel immediately floundered, realizing what that sounded like. How could he say those things? Krest probably was suspicious of his intentions now.

"Well, I mean. He's my best friend! Of course! I'm grateful that him and the others welcomed me here." Pavel scrambled to rectify his mistake. "You know, that one friend who you just know is too kind for their own good? Artyom is that guy." Krest nodded before looking away from Pavel. The sandy desert stretched across their field of view, bright sun making the ground sparkle and glimmer.

"Malchik..." Pavel groaned inwardly. "Ah, I know exactly how you feel!" Krest's voice jumped and sounded almost falsely optimistic for a moment. "Seems like Artyom is a really upstanding guy, huh? You know, he kind of reminds me of..." Krest paused, words dying in his throat. He stared out at the landscape for a moment. "Reminds me a bit of my Dimochka."

Pavel's heart stopped.

"Eh-- um, huh? Your ah, who?" Words were hard. Sentences? Forget about it.

Krest just fixed him with a soft smile. He turned away and looked back out past the Aurora.

"Yeah. We traveled together for a while, a few years after I left home. Phooah, that was about... fifteen years ago? Almost inseparable. Joined at the hip, you'd say." Krest leaned against the low wall outside and talked as Pavel stood in silence. "My Dimochka was just like your Artyom. Always trying to help stragglers. We even took in some, at his insistence. Often they would travel with us for a while before parting ways. He was damn lucky that none of them decided to just rob us and move on. Sometimes I thought that he just couldn't understand that people could be cruel." Krest shook his head and sighed. Pavel swallowed.

"So, ah... What happened to him?" He dared to ask.

"Same thing that happens to everyone." Krest no longer sounded cheerful. Just pensive. "It was in Astrakhan, quite near here, actually. Bandits ambushed us in the night. Caught us by surprise. We got separated and... He fell." The wind whipped around them as Krest told his tale. Pavel felt something deep in his chest resonate at the story. He couldn't imagine ever losing Artyom in such a way. "I got in our truck and drove away. Probably one of my biggest regrets. Every time I think back on that moment I tell myself 'You should have stayed. Dimitri needed you, and you ran.' It would have been more honorable to have died there with him. But I guess I never had much of that."

"Me neither," Pavel muttered back. But he had to say something. He was never too good at comforting people, but something about Krest's story touched something deep within him. "I'm sure your friend wanted you to live. Better for one to make it and continue on than losing two." Krest's head whipped around at that moment. He shot him an incredulous look and leaned back so as to face Pavel more properly. After a second, his expression morphed into something more akin to resignation.

"My friend, yes..." He turned away again. A deep sigh; it sounded like Krest pulled it from his very soul. "Well. Sorry to ruin the mood. Keep Artyom safe. Men like him are always bound to get themselves into trouble. Their good nature always brings difficulty." Pavel laughed at that, wanting to brighten the mood a bit.

"Oh, you have no idea."