When Miller pushed the hatch open with a loud creak, Artyom couldn't help but shiver in both fear and anticipation: first time being outside since he was a small kid at Exhibition, exploring the tunnels with Zhenya, completely oblivious to the dangers that threatened their otherwise insignificant lives. Their silly mistake had cost the Metro way too many souls, too many resources wasted; he was there to fix this, however, and this was the only consolation he had.
Miller went first, motioning for the others to follow him and Artyom checked if his gasmask was on properly and the glass visor wasn't broken; choking to death thanks to a crack would be a stupid way to go. He went over the rules in his head over and over again - Miller had told him about the stalker signal, the three circles with his flashlight, also don't shoot anything unless it's hostile. And, Artyom found this one particularly odd, don't look directly at the Kremlin stars.
Pity, Artyom had thought; he had seen the Kremlin and its famous, massive ruby stars in one of the postcards he kept glued to the wall in his room at Exhibition. An impressive piece of architecture at its time; he kind of wanted to see it himself, the real Kremlin, the stopped heart of a dead country, mauled by the war but still maintaining some of its, although sinister, charm. But Miller made it very clear that he is not to, under any circumstances, look in that particular direction, much to his disappointment; some crazy stuff happened to those who did, Miller had informed him.
And if Artyom hadn't believed in weird phenomenons before, he started to immediately after meeting Khan; guy definitely had some loose screws rattling in his head, but all the apparently insane things he was saying and doing started to make sense at some point. Not to mention Zhenya and the others babbling things without meaning around him, and Bourbon just dropping dead; he had then stopped trying to find some logical explanation for everything and allow himself to believe that in fact, the metro itself was very much alive, and out to get them.
Ulman tapped him on the arm, startling him; the jokester of the team smiled at him widely from behind the mask. He owed him big time after he saved him from a certain death at the hands of the Nazis, but the Ranger didn't hold it against him, nor mentioned it. While not exactly an expert at making friends, Artyom felt as if he was halfway there with the always happy Ranger; he rarely bumped into people he immediately liked around here.
"Anybody home?" He half yelled, the amused look on his face never leaving him. "Don't tell me you're still upset about the Kremlin, you nerd." He cracked a smile himself at the banter; Ulman was there when he expressed his disappointment about not being able to actually see the building, and teased him mercilessly.
"I like to think of myself as more of a nostalgic, thank you very much." He retorted, a wide grin spreading across his lips. He was merely a toddler when the nuclear missiles scorched the land his parents once called home, and all he remembered was a green piece of the Botanical Garden and a woman with no face that he felt was his mother. He wished he'd lived more of those days. See the world as it was when there was peace, and not as it is now, torn with violence and the primal instinct to survive, which often argued with one's morals.
"Alright, grandpa." Ulman rolled his eyes and hunched his back to resemble an aging man, but straightened up when Miller shot him a stern look; Artyom was still smiling like an idiot.
He caught the first breeze of cold air on a piece of exposed skin on his neck and it wiped the silly grin off his face; he buried his head deeper into his collar, clenching his hand around his Kalash. Watchmen howled in the distance, too far away from them to actually pose any threath, but still an unnerving presence. Miller led them out of the tunnel that ran right under the Library, and exited a few meters away from its eastern wall. Artyom crouched slightly, dodging overgrown plants and fallen beams. The sound of his own breath through the filter drowned most of the noise of countless mutated critters roaming the surface; he struggled to level his breathing to become more aware of his surroundings.
Out of the corner of his eye he could see Ulman and another Ranger whose name he didn't quite catch readying their weapons. He risked a quick glance upwards at the tall walls of the Library, the roof so high he couldn't tell exactly what it was made of. If his people ever had a thing for something, it would be huge buildings, meant to impress and intimidate. Too bad, he thought, they had to fall down and decay at the hands of the same men who built them. A shame.
"Look out!" Miller shouted a short warning, extending an arm to the side to halt their movement; a large piece of plaster cracked, fell off one of the pillars and shattered on the marble flooring at their feet, sending fine dust and small pebbles flying. Artyom's head jerked to his right, and was met with a breathtaking sight.
Warm sunshine reflected off the crimson red face of an immense star, so high up the sky he could've sworn it was a sign from the heavens. His mind suddenly emptied of all the thoughts, his feet carrying him forward, towards the gorgeous light; step by step, he felt as if he wouldn't be able to stop until he touched the smooth, blistering hot surface. That was his only goal, reach the star and bask in its glow like it could cure him of anything that's ever touched him.
A hand wrapped around his wrist and almost startled him - he tried jerking himself free, annoyed at whoever was keeping him from moving forward, towards the healing, inviting light. With no success, however, the person holding onto him tightly as if their life depended on it. He whirled around, ready to strike, but stopped at the familiar face. Ulman. With a serene expression, as if all his worries had been erased. Had he seen the light, too? Was he after it as well? Artyom suddenly felt angry - it was his, and he was less than willing to share.
But Ulman made no move; he stared with empty eyes at Artyom's face, saying nothing. Back turned to the stars, Artyom saw the light flickering in Ulman's black orbs like a slowly dying fire and the urge to keep it alive took over him. He ripped their masks off without thinking, their cold lips crashing together in a hasty embrace. The taste of coffee and bourbon filled his mouth as he licked softly at the other man's open lips.
Getting no reaction out of the Ranger, he gripped at his arms tightly, fingers sinking into the thick coat and warm flesh hard enough to hurt; the sensation jerked Ulman awake from his odd slumber. He leaned his body further into Artyom, eyes looking over the younger man's shoulder at the stars smiling and cooing at them from afar. Artyom felt his chest move against his own with each breath he took and tightened the grip even more, until his fingers hurt and Ulman let out a half pained, half delicious sigh against his mouth.
It made his head spin, starting to feel dizzy, breathless; breaking the link between their mouths, he gasped several times before realizing it was not the kiss that emptied his lungs of air. His mask was nowhere to be seen, and judging by the panic that shot across Ulman's face, he was feeling the same way. The light turned cold, unforgiving, merely laughing at their imminent, painful demise. He sank to his knees, still holding onto Ulman's arms, who was now staring in horror at the horizon.
A sharp pain in the back of his head and the feeling of something cold and hard being pressed to his face brought him back to reality. Blinking slowly, he looked around only to realize he had, in his trance, walked away from the Library towards the stars of the Kremlin, and judging by the way Miller held his gun, it took a solid hit to the back of the head with the wooden butt to wake him up. He brought his hand to his mouth quickly, gloved fingers finding the plastic filter; he sighed, rubbing the back of his head.
"What happened?" He asked with a small voice, the pissed off look on Miller's face already telling him more than enough. The Colonel had his arms crossed in front of his chest and Artyom suddenly felt terribly small and insignificant.
"What happened is you looked at the stars, you moron." He scolded him, but at the same time offering him his hand to pick himself off the ground. Artyom took it, muscles tense and aching; both his arms felt as if they were on fire, and gripping Miller's hand was painful. The desperation with which he had clung to Ulman was leaving its mark now. But why Ulman?
"What were you doing, looking at the ceiling?" He didn't reply, watching instead how only a few meters away from him, the other Ranger was checking on Ulman, who was holding his head in his hands. He saw the stars too, that's why. He bit his lip and ran his tongue over the bottom one, tasting coffee and alcohol. It couldn't have been real, could it? Miller would have mentioned something. Was it possible that they both had the same hallucination, or was it different for each person? He tried to guess, but Ulman's face was hidden from his eyes.
"Ulman tried to make you snap out of it and he saw them too. You've endangered the mission and both your lives." Miller was still ranting his ear off, with good reason. He shouldn't have looked at the ceiling in the first place. But somehow his concern for Ulman's condition was greater than the one for his own life right now. What has that light done to him? He managed a half assed apology before taking a few hesitant steps towards Ulman. The other man was fixing his gasmask, repeatedly opening and closing his eyes as if trying to make something go away. A simple headache, or worse, a vision. Something he's experienced and wanted to forget.
Artyom bit his lip, standing at Ulman's side but not saying a word, watching the other fumble with the clasp of his mask. When he finally saw him, he smiled widely as he usually did, whole face brightening up, and something stirred inside Artyom's stomach. "You owe me one, you big nerd." He said, shaking his head and clapping him on the shoulder. He left his side all too quickly, before Artyom could apologize, but not before he noticed how his eyes glanced at his own lips for a mere fraction of a second.
He wasn't sure what to make of that newfound sinking feeling in his chest, now.