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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.