Ok. So. Long update time. Reeeaalllly long update time. Sorry about that. My computer's failing at life and my own heinous schedule have made finding ways and time to write increasingly difficult. But alas, the latest chapter is finished, and it's long (again. But this should be expected now). Might be some issues/errors in this one, as my proofreader was taking just too damn long in getting back to me, and I didn't want to wait much longer to let loose the next chapter on the world. Regardless of whatever crap I just said, as usual, comments, feedback, unending praise, hate letters of complaint and disdain, and any other forms of response are more than welcome. This ends your akhusky Public Service Announcement. We now return to your regularly scheduled Red, White, and Blue.
Chapter 5: Bullet with Butterfly Wings
Alexei Pavlov woke to the finite rays of a young sunrise, still warmly glued to the slender, white, unclothed body of his feline girlfriend. He couldn't quite recall all of the details from the previous night's excitement, but what he did remember caused a contented smile to stretch across his face as he lightly kissed the back of Stephanie's neck. The cat began to stir, stretching and rubbing against the husky. She questioned his actions in a low tone, "Aren't cats supposed to be the frisky ones? What's gotten into you?" Alex responded in a voice of mock offense, "Well if that's the response I'm gonna get for attempting to be romantic, I might as well not try." "Oh, quit it," Stephanie said playfully, "I like sentimental Alex, he makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside." She turned over to face her lover, kissing his nose. Alex posed the question, "So how does physical Alex make you feel then?" She smirked slyly, "Warm and some other things inside." Their lips joined together as they wrapped their arms around each other, and their combined mass twisted, leaving Stephanie on top. The cat sighed, "Alex, you know I want another round as much as you do, but I think I may need to kick you out now." Alexei's eyes widened in legitimate shock, "You mean kick me out, like, permanently?" Stephanie discovered the miscommunication and clarified, "No, that's not what I meant. I'm just saying you should probably leave now so my parents don't find a naked male in my bed. They'd probably freak out if they saw that."
Alex rubbed his paws along Stephanie's back, "And if I don't care about that and don't want to leave?" "Then I'll just have to take away your motivation to stay," Stephanie countered, hopping out of the bed and donning a loose robe, "I don't need to get dressed, as I'll be cleaning up as soon as you leave, but hopefully not having an uninhibited view of my boobs will help you calm down a little." "You know," Alex smirked, "I need to get cleaned up too. Maybe I could stick around and help you with the harder to reach area-" Alex was cut short as his pair of boxers hit him in the face, "Thanks for that." Seeing as he was two for two on getting hit by something when suggesting cooperative showering, Alexei made a mental note to not bring it up in the future.
He swung off the edge of the bed, visibly turning away from Stephanie as he began to dress. The cat commented, "Jeez, what's with the self-consciousness? I've already seen everything down there." "It's the principle of the thing," Alex replied, searching the room for his pants. Stephanie sat on the edge of her bed, quietly watching the husky put on his pants and undershirt and sling his dress shirt and tie over his shoulder. She watched the subtle flexions of his muscles, and considered how the relaxed football player had been so much more tender and romantic the previous night than anyone would give him credit for at face value. Seeing he was ready to go, she walked past her lover to the door, semi-seductively dragging her tail across his waist as she passed, and gesturing for him to follow her. She led him to the front door, and before he crossed its threshold, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, pulled him in, and kissed him deeply. They held each other for a moment or two, then mutually separated as Alexei entered the SUV and set off toward the Shadowstep residence. Stephanie sighed as she shut the door behind her, then made the journey back upstairs because she really did need a flipping shower.
Alexei entered the Shadowstep house to find Bronco sitting at the kitchen table, seemingly waiting for him. The black cat lazily looked up from his newspaper and coffee for a moment, "So, how was she? Better than Elise?" Alex poured a cup of the caffeinated black life fuel for himself and sat down across from the cat, "She was lovely. And seriously, I haven't done anything with Elise, and apparently never will." "If you say so," Bronco snickered, knowing Alex was unaware of Elise's presence at his football game two nights prior, despite the non-couple's colossal breakdown the preceding weekend. "So, I'm assuming you'd prefer to rest today instead of going to H.U.R.T.," Bronco continued, "and that's okay. I doubt you'd be able to effectively lead to the full extent of your abilities after the amount of exertion you've exhausted over the past two days. We did, however, just pick up a new member, and I think you'll be a fan. His name is Pavel Svrbada, and he's not an actual soldier; he's the new comms and tech guy. But he is closer to your age than most of H.U.R.T., and I'm sure you'll have a lot in common."
"Interesting," Alex said, sipping coffee and mulling over this new recruit, "So how young is he exactly? I mean, the others aren't that old. Kristoff's only 26, and I think Manny might be younger than him. Also, where's he from?" "Svrbada is 21 years old, around Elise's age, and we recently picked him up from the Slovakian government. You're the only member of Strike Team 13 he hasn't met yet. He seems to be getting along quite well with Zimmerman, as they argue about the NHL more than I would ever dream of." "Hockey fan, huh? You know what we should have? H.U.R.T. sports day. We could play basketball or hockey between the different staff members, or even play kill the carrier with Blake Tannehill as all-time carrier," Pavlov suggested. Shadowstep laughed heartily, "That sounds exciting. Everyone gets a turn to mess up Tannehill. We can even put people like Elise at the end of the line so they can destroy him, too." "Wait a minute," Alex contested with a puzzled look, "you really don't think Elise barreling toward you with a vengeance would be as intimidating as any other member?" Bronco pictured the blonde dingo in a rare fit of abject rage, and shuddered as he made the correction, "Alright, maybe we put her at the very end so when she hits him, there's nothing left afterwards."
They continued their banter until Shadowstep eventually brought up the subject of H.U.R.T.'s progress on tracking down Kossenko. This jogged Alex's memory of the previous night, and he promptly shared with his adoptive father and boss, "I think I may have a lead to information about him. Natalya Romanova, the daughter of one of my father's ex-"business associates", says she has knowledge about the hit on my father. I'm supposed to meet with her Monday morning, and I'm hoping she can at least point us in the right direction." Bronco stroked his chin, "Daughter, eh? Are you addicted to two-timing or what? Anyway, I'm wondering how she came across this info. Is she an operative in the mafia like you were?" Alexei shook his head, "No, she broke into her father's office because she felt something was up with my father's sudden 'disappearance'. And I'm not fucking her either, so chill out with the sexual implications." "Alex, this sounds really sketchy," Bronco said lowly, "If you're not sleeping with her, how do you know her, and how do you know she can be trusted?" Pavlov explained their tight friendship and their hiatus after her learning of his work. Bronco sighed, "It's something. And something is better than most of we've got right now. I'll tell you what: you go meet with her tomorrow, and tell me whatever you find out. If it's substantial information, we'll have no choice but to follow it.
"When did you set up the meeting?" "I was dancing with her last night and she told me where and when to show up," Alexei recalled. Bronco raised an eyebrow, "And Stephanie was okay with this?" "Yeah, she told me to go with Natalya," Alex replied cautiously. Bronco continued looking at the husky skeptically, "So she told you to dance with other females and then directed you to her bedroom afterwards? Either you're straight up lying to me or she's setting you up for some bad news." Pavlov crossed his arms, "You jump to conclusions too fast. What bad news could she have?" Bronco shrugged his shoulders, "How am I supposed to know? Anyway, I'm moving to the living room to watch the NFL pregame shows. You can follow me, or retreat back to your room to recoup some of that sleep you didn't get last night." Alex elected to do the latter, and hiked upstairs to rinse off and flop down on his bed for some quality shut-eye.
Alex hated Mondays. Some might use this statement as a hyperbole, but the husky honestly and unequivocally despised the first business day. His body had to adjust from ridiculous weekend hours back to rigid school ones, he had to put up with long, boring classes instead of fun activities, and he had to run gassers at practice. He shuddered at the last thought. Sprinting across the field in full equipment sounded like the ninth circle of Hell at that moment, and he tried not to think of it anymore. Instead, he turned his mind to the reason he was on an empty subway train as opposed to his normal annoyingly crowded one. This morning he was finally meeting with Natalya. The suspense would at long last be over. Not just the information regarding Kossenko and his father, but also simply their reunion in his mind was a cause for celebration in and of itself. He reminisced about how he and the vixen had once declared themselves to be "together for infinity", and although they were only ten years old when they said this, it had appeared to be true until they had so suddenly split apart after she found out about his occupation.
Alex cursed himself for ever becoming an assassin. He believed that if he had just grown up like a normal kid, none of the bullshit he found himself smothered in now would have happened. He would have more time for his friends, he and Natalya would be a stable, happy couple, and his father might still be alive. He sunk his head into his paws, attempting to push away any regrets about his life. What had been done had been done, and there was no going back. He cheered himself up by thinking of all the awesome people that had entered his life: Stephanie, Bronco, Kris, Manny, Mansfield... Elise. Still, he couldn't escape considering what improvements could have come out of a happier story, and looked back on better times, when he and Natalya were still inseparable.
It was perfect, idyllic to the point of surrealism. The scene was a grassy, treed park. It was a late summer Saturday, just into the beginning of Alexei's Freshman year. The wind flowed through the vegetation, carrying with it the sonic euphony of music coming from the soundstage. Central Washington High School was sponsoring its first annual Battle of the Bands competition, and the newly formed garage band Hawt Proxy was supposed to be a leading act. The four members of the band (they didn't know Dex yet) were still young, and most of the time they didn't know what they were doing. But the quartet managed to establish something early on that some groups never understood; they didn't take themselves seriously.
They had the most relaxed, laid back attitude while on stage, never becoming too tense or rigid. Even though their music was still flawed and imperfect, they used their stage presence to bring the crowd into the act, causing them to overlook the mistakes in their performance. During the show, Alexei wasn't even paying attention to his surroundings much. He just lost himself in his guitar and its melody. He couldn't even notice anything when he looked to the crowd instead of his instrument or bandmates; his eyes always tracked to one pretty vixen in the front of the pack, her brown eyes opened wide, her lips permanently arranged in a shy smile. He would always meet her eyes with his, then they'd feel a red tint tinge their faces, and would turn away, only to repeat the process seconds later. They played through a five-song set, gathering improbably numerous cheers from the mostly upperclassmen crowd.
After their fourth song ended, Jay announced the band's thanks to everyone in the audience, and introduced their finale, "All Day and All of the Night" by The Kinks, an oldie but a goodie. Alex stepped up to the front of the stage, and made a half-grin at Natalya as he played the opening power chords. Kurt pounded out a drum fill working from the snare down the toms, cuing Tony to join in with the bass. Once Jay sang the first vocals, the band was in the zone. Everything flowed without a hitch. Each time Kurt hit the crash cymbal, it seemed as if the rest of the park hit it with him. By the time they hit the chorus, the surprisingly large draw in front of the stage was completely in it, waving their arms and cheering as Jay belted out the familiar hook and Tony provided backup vocals. The song progressed, and Alex was afraid his heart was going to beat out of his chest. He hadn't been in a scenario before when the band controlled the audience so well, and his guitar solo was approaching. As the end of the second chorus drew near, the husky let himself drift away into the sound once again as he swaggered to the front of the stage and began playing his leads. He strummed and picked, bent and slid, hammered on and pulled off, culminating in a quick shred up and down a scale done faster than he'd ever before. The interlude ended with another heroic drum fill pounded out from the mountain of a wolf at the back of the stage, and Alexei retreated back to his original position, pleased with the performance. After one final chorus, the song came to a close, with the members of the band jamming randomly on their instruments in a noisy finish.
Hawt Proxy descended from the stage amidst cheers and applause, their ears ringing noticeably. They moved their personal equipment away from the playing area and into a van, and once everything was loaded, they collapsed to the ground smiling and laughing due to all the tension that had just been relieved. No one had expected the opening act to really make that big of an impact, but they had defied all logic and captivated the park with their amazing spectacle. A few students walked up to them and asked them questions about their band and if they recorded a demo CD. They responded to the inquiries as best as they could, and though they denied making a demo, they promised to get right on that (it was eventually released about a month or two later). Suddenly a blonde female golden retriever shouted Tony's name and threw her arms around him, nearly wrestling him to the ground in the process. The tiger had met Leah two weeks prior, and they hit it off almost immediately, but Jay and Alex had their doubts about how long their relationship would last. Kurt maintained a less cynical view of it though, and claimed that the pair would be together for a long time. As it turned out, the intellectual beast of a wolf was right, and the pessimists were wrong.
Before Alexei could get into any arguments regarding Tony's love life, however, someone much more important tapped him on the shoulder. The husky spun around to see a striking red-haired, red-furred vixen standing in front of him, smiling with her head cocked to the side a little. She spoke up, "You know Knyaz Alexei, for being royalty you're very ignorant of your subjects." "Knyaginya Natalya, you are far more than a simple subject," Alex responded, pulling her into a tight hug and wagging his tail uncontrollably. Natalya whispered into Alexei's ear that he did great before pecking him on the cheek, all the while squeezing him back and continuously adjusting her paws on his back. At the moment the pair were just friends, but there was a significant energy between them, and they knew it. Both of them wanted to advance their lifelong friendship to the next level, but it seemed as if neither was willing to make the first move.
They separated, and talked to the rest of the group for a few minutes until they all decided to split ways. The van was Tony's parents', and the Stryker family would be dropping off the equipment and band members at their individual houses. Kurt, Jay, Tony, and Leah climbed into the vehicle, and the older tigers offered Alex a ride, but he declined, thanking them and bidding farewell to his comrades as he turned back toward Natalya, innocuously taking her paw in his as they set off toward her apartment. The fox openly wondered why Alex was with her instead of staying to watch the rest of the bands, and the husky responded that he had his priorities, causing her to smile. They discussed the concert, school, and any plans they might have, and in the blink of an eye Alex realized they were rapidly nearing the Romanova residence. Desiring to prolong their time together, he suggested they stop at the newly opened ice cream parlor that was supposed to be good. The fox instantaneously saw through his ploy, but went along with it, leaning into him and putting her head on his shoulder as she accepted the offer.
After entering the place, Alex bought them both sweets with his meager allowance and they sat across from each other at a table inside. Alexei caught Natalya giggling at him, and with his normally stark white face emanating red, asked what she was laughing at. She answered, "I think it's funny that the future leader of the American Mafiya has a profound weakness for strawberry ice cream." Alex didn't mind that she mentioned his heir apparent status in a public spot; who would believe the innocent 14 year old was anything more than just that, a young, impressionable teenager? Besides, Natalya believed that Alexei wasn't doing anything particularly evil. She thought he was doing finances or something dull and unexciting like that, and this was an impression Alex liked to cultivate. The last thing he wanted her to know would have been his true profession, as he didn't want to impose his daily stress on her. He hadn't actually killed anyone yet, but he had been training every day for that purpose, and much to the chagrin of his father, had seen some things that shouldn't be seen by pups his age.
"Weakness? A simple indulgence isn't a weakness," Alex defended himself. Natalya rolled her eyes half-seriously, "Come on, don't deny it. Even Superman had Kryptonite. Yours is just a little less impressive." "Well if it's that big of a flaw, why are you telling it to the world? That might put me at risk you know," Alex contested, barely visibly grinning. "I'm sure tons of people are going to try to draw away the fearless leader from his desk with ice cream," Natalya teased, nonchalantly resting a paw on the table. "You could," Alexei threw in, placing his paw on top of hers without thinking. They sat in silence, neither of them knowing how to properly break the moment. Alexei felt that this was the day the wall would finally break down between them, when they could finally bridge that gap and openly be together as a couple instead of friends. He had nothing to worry about; she was perfect. Natalya felt largely the same. She wasn't so naïve as to not know the true nature of her and his fathers' business, but she believed deep down that the male in front of her wouldn't, no, couldn't ever get directly involved in the dirtier aspects of the work. She had seen the ones her father had pointed out as killers. They were terrifying, disgusting, everything Alexei wasn't. They left the shop holding each other, not saying a word. Anything they could have wanted to say was sufficiently communicated almost telepathically as they inched down the last short stretch to Natalya's apartment.
At last they arrived at Natalya's doorstep. Whenever Alexei walked her home, the general parting consisted of a hug, maybe a kiss on the cheek, and a goodbye. Today was radically different. The fox turned to Alex, sliding her arms up and around his neck while he put his around her back. He whispered to her, "I wish we could do this more often. I'd rather be here than anywhere else, and if everyone else seems to be getting together, why can't we?" They came so close together that their noses touched as Natalya whispered back, "Do you love me?" The husky answered the normally challenging question in a heartbeat, "Yes, of course I do." "Then I don't see what's stopping us," the vixen uttered quietly as the young pair closed their eyes and joined their lips together, at last tearing down the infernal barrier that had kept them apart for so long. Alex felt a chilling surge run up and down his spine, counteracting the warm body pressed so close against him. The moment was beautiful, magical, life-changing, and they both clung to it for dear life, unwilling to let it pass by even remotely quickly. After what seemed like a veritable eternity, they broke apart and agreed not to tell anyone yet, as they wanted to keep it their little secret for a short while at least. As Alexei walked away after seeing Natalya inside, he couldn't remember feeling this warm and just... good inside. He couldn't wait to see where this would end up after the move had finally been made.
Six days later, Natalya witnessed a fight between Alexei and his friends and a gang of miscreants, and did not speak to him again for two years.
Alex mentally slapped himself in the face as he entered Central Washington High School. His attempt to clear his mind with happy memories only led to more heartache and stress. Why did every good memory have to be marred by stupid bullshit? He reverted to cursing anything and everything until he set foot in the courtyard, and suddenly everything faded away. She sat on the bench, legs crossed and hugging herself, looking up when she heard his footsteps. Time stopped for a moment as the earth bended to the will of two furs that had been kept apart far too long. Natalya stood up. Alexei dropped his backpack. They ran to each other, forgetting the world momentarily as they took shelter in each others' arms in the lonely courtyard. They did not move, nor did they speak until Natalya at long last whispered, "I love you." Alexei did not respond verbally, but he grabbed her so tightly she thought he would break her spine and buried his snout in her neck. He breathed in her soft fur as her claws made themselves noticed along his back. Enjoying the moment but wary of breaking his trust with Stephanie, Alex slowly and very reluctantly separated himself from the vixen.
They retreated to a bench and sat down next to each other, with Alex rubbing one of Natalya's paws as she asked, "So we're here. Where do we begin?" Alexei looked deeply into her eyes, "Right where we left off." Misinterpreting the statement, Natalya closed her eyes and moved her snout toward his, but the husky set a finger on her lips before she could get very far, clarifying himself, "In our story, not our pseudo-relationship. You said you would tell me why you left originally. I know it's because you found out about my work, but you still didn't explain everything. We can start there." Natalya looked away, flushed from absolute mortification from her faux pas, muttering, "It's kind of a long story..." Alexei stroked her hair and mentioned they had all morning. Struggling to make eye contact, Natalya began to relate her experiences of their split.
Natalya entered her apartment that Thursday night buzzing with excitement. Alex had played one of his first football games for Central Washington earlier that evening, and he did great. Well, technically she had no clue because she didn't really understand football yet, but based on the reactions of Mr. Pavlov and some of the other parents he had looked pretty impressive. For a freshman football player, that is, but that didn't matter. The husky- no, her husky had appeared amazing to her, and that was the most important thing. During the game she would call his name enthusiastically, and though he probably couldn't hear her, she liked to think her cheering was the solitary thing that fueled his success.
Even more than watching the contest, however, Natalya loved the occurrences after the game. The players had all been bussed back to school so they could retrieve their belongings from the gym locker room, and with the time it took them to do this and turn in their uniforms, Natalya had made it back to the campus by herself, and waited for her male in a dark spot at the front of the school. Unaware that Natalya was waiting for him, Alexei walked past where she was and paused and looked around, as if he knew someone was there. The fox thought this behavior was slightly unusual, but let it slide, focusing instead on jumping out at him. Before she could get to him, though, he turned and forcefully grabbed her, but immediately loosened up when he discovered who his assailant was. Natalya was a little freaked out; normal people don't do that. But they weren't necessarily normal. Even if Alex was sailing a desk for his job in the organized crime culture, he could still be paranoid. The one thing that stood out to her the most was the unmatchable look of relief on his face once he saw it was her. "I'm sorry, knyaginya, I wasn't expecting you and I panicked a little," Alexei explained, "But please, Natalya, don't ever do that again." Natalya looked at him puzzlingly, "Who did you think it was then?" The husky closed his eyes and said, apparently honestly, "I don't know." Natalya wrapped her arms around his neck, "I'm sorry Alexei. I didn't mean to scare you."
Alex forgave her and inquired as to why she was there anyway, and she answered that she wanted to see him again that night. He chided her for traveling alone in the city at night, remarking that it was often a dangerous place. "Now that I think about it, you're right," Natalya said, a smile forming on her lips, "do you think there are any handsome huskies that could walk me home around here?" "I doubt you'll have to look too hard to find one," Pavlov played along before gently pressing his lips against hers. They set off toward the Romanova apartment with Alex's arm around her shoulder and her head leaning against his shoulder. In Natalya's mind, she and Alexei were already married; their relationship right up to the vows would just be a technicality. Her mind drifted to a host of different things, with the foremost being actually telling others that they were officially a couple now. As far as she knew, the only ones who knew for sure about this fact were her and Alexei, and she couldn't wait to change that. As their time together progressed, her reveries became more and more far off as she considered the qualities of living with the husky for the rest of her life and raising a family. For such a young person, this prospect was sort of intimidating, so she was half-glad when they reached her home and her boyfriend turned her mind to other matters.
As they stood in front of her door, Alex announced disappointedly, "This is your stop." "So it is," the fox said as she moved directly in front of him, grasping him in a hug and letting their noses touch, "I love you, knyaz." The husky reciprocated his feelings, then let their lips lock together in a passionate embrace, repeated dozens of times in the ensuing minutes. The pair made out on Natalya's doorstep for a solid amount of time, reveling in each other's company and wonderful body. With each kiss they were less inclined to ever split apart, and the termination of their romantic moment came with much difficulty, as they broke off tenuously, still sliding their paws up and down each other's backs. As Natalya finally left the shelter of Alexei's arms, she declared that she was telling everyone about them the next day. The husky couldn't help but smile as he signified his agreement, and the fox restated her feelings for him one last time before she headed inside.
She closed the door and leaned against it, her heart beating out of her chest. She glanced around the entrance hallway to see if her father was anywhere around, and didn't find him in her immediate vicinity. Just like the others, Vladimir Romanova was unaware of his daughter's and boss's son's relationship, but that didn't mean he wouldn't approve of it. The black wolf viewed it as a ticket to immunity in the mafia, kind of like medieval arranged marriages between royal families made to serve as treaties. Natalya was grimly aware of his outlook on this matter, and for this reason she was quite glad that he would be one of the last people to find out. She didn't want anything to be tainted by his "enterprising" nature.
Don't get her wrong; she still loved him. He was her father after all. She just disagreed with some of his philosophies. Walking further into the living quarters, she found her father's head slumped down on his desk through the open doorway of his den/office. She panicked for a second, but quickly relaxed when she noticed he was still breathing regularly. She shook him a little and told him to wake up, and after some coaxing, the older wolf eventually complied. He slowly got up out of his chair, mentioning that he needed sleep, and as he went to shower off, he told Natalya to bring a set of files from his office to his bedroom when he got out.
Following her father's command, she went to a filing cabinet and retrieved the documents, innocuous junk that didn't pertain to anything important. When she heard the rush of water coming from the bathroom, she set the papers down on the desk and decided to check out the file that her father had fallen asleep on on the desk. The title on the folder said "Proekt Chernyi Koshmar" (Project Black Nightmare), and this greatly intrigued Natalya. She opened it to find something she found rather disgusting. It described operations that were being authorized by the highest levels of the organization, including Anton Pavlov, whom she admired as a leader almost as much as she admired his son, that entailed little more than street-sweeping tasks to clear out all other crime circles in the area. She found it horrendous that a group as well constructed as this would have stooped down to such a low level of clearing out the city in this way. Even worse was the mentioning of who was involved. Certain members of the organization had been handpicked to be trained as assassins for the Washington mafia, enforcers of its will. She flipped the page and found a list of operatives with a hand-written note at the top of the page, which denoted all names circled in red to be agents who were to be put into the field active immediately. Out of the dozen or so names on the page, she noticed only five were circled: Borodin, Ivan; Fedotenko, Pyotr; Kalinsky, Roman; Kovalev, Konstantin. The last one she almost missed, but when she came back to it her heart stopped. She looked at the name a hundred times, hoping that her eyes were deceiving her and that she was reading it wrong, but the paper played no tricks in its displaying of the last name: Pavlov, Alexei Ilya.
She took her paws off the page like it was coated in poison, and covered her mouth with them, in a state of total shock. It was a mistake. It had to be. Alex wasn't capable of killing in cold blood like that, and he had told her he was just doing mainly office work for his father, staying away from all the dirty areas of the business. His father... There was no way Anton would get his son involved in this so early. None of it added up, but he was still there, and circled as one of the top operatives no less. She still didn't quite believe it, so she went back to the filing cabinets and looked through the mafia personnel documents until she found Alexei's personal file. She carefully opened it, and her heart sank when she saw a tab labeled "Assignment Dossier". Members of the upper echelon don't get assignments; they give them. The assignments could have been anything though, so she couldn't resist looking at the section. She had to know the truth. She flipped to it, and what she saw made her feel sick to her stomach. Nothing mentioned Alex participating in actual killings, but he was definitely there, and definitely involved. And the Black Nightmare file said he was about to be activated.
Things started to make sense now. His "training" from his father. His paranoia when she jumped out at him earlier that night. She felt tears start to well up in her eyes. How could he do this? How could he act so kind and gentle around her, then lie to her face and be a merciless criminal as soon as she looked away? That male whom she thought she loved was the same that she despised. How could she- how could anyone love a murderer like that? She wanted to believe it was all a hoax, one giant misunderstanding that would be erased, but deep down she knew she had stumbled upon the truth. She heard the water of the shower turn off and hurriedly replaced all the files she had removed to where she found them, picking up the documents her father had asked for, leaving the office, and closing the door behind her. As she approached the door of her father's bedroom, another thought struck her: if he clearly knew about Alexei's assignments, how come he didn't feel it was pertinent to tell her? Even if he didn't know they were together, he at least knew they were good friends. Everyone knew that. So why did everyone keep it from her? She couldn't possibly tell anyone, and she would have liked to know the "love of her life" was a vile thug before she kissed him. Convinced that everyone and everything was now against her, she set the files angrily on her father's bed, then walked away to clean up and get some sleep herself.
That night she fitfully tossed herself to sleep, and began dreaming. She was on a gondola in Venice, and the only other occupant was the male steering the boat. She clearly recognized his form as Alexei's even though he wore robes that covered most of his body. They got out to open water, and Alex dropped the oar, shuffling over to her. He knelt down in front of her, professed his love for her, and took her head into his paws before softly kissing her. As he pulled back, she instinctively reached for one of her cheeks, and when she looked at her paw, saw it was stained with blood. She looked at Alexei's paws, and found to her horror that they were saturated with blood up to his forearms. She crawled backwards until her back struck the bow of the boat, and Alex threw back his hood, revealing a face that was covered in sanguine fluid as well. He grabbed some of the fur near his ear, and with a nauseating tearing sound, ripped the flesh from his skull, leaving solely scarlet stained bone. Seemingly out of nowhere, he produced a scythe as he dropped the remnants of his face into the water. "Natalya, I really do love you," Reaper-Alexei spoke, "but you know about me now, and assignments are assignments. It is time for you to go." She looked at him pleadingly and fearfully, begging him not to kill her, but nevertheless he raised the weapon and brought it down violently on her neck. Natalya followed the long, curved, wicked blade as it approached her in slow motion, and saw it surreally slice through the muscle and bone of her throat...
Natalya woke up with a start, on the borderline of screaming right before Reaper-Alexei finished decapitating her. She sat up in her bed, and not knowing what else to do, broke down and sobbed. Even if she could salvage some feelings for him, everything she had worked for her entire life with Alexei had died in minutes, and they couldn't ever be the same again.
The following day, she saw his fight, and what he displayed during the scuffle only cemented what she had discovered the previous night. No innocent pup fought like that. Concluding that Alexei was not the male she had committed to, she ran as far away from him as possible, not talking to him anymore, finding new friends, and avoiding anything that had to do with him. As time went on, she regretted leaving him so suddenly and inexplicably, but never could summon the courage to confront him. To her dismay, it took the actions of another lover of Alexei to bring them together again, which still resulted in her telling of this depressing and painful story.
Back in the present, Natalya finished talking and looked to Alexei for a response as the husky sat paralyzed in shock. Finally regaining his composure, he slowly started, "I never meant to hurt you. I kept all of that from you to protect you, to shield you from the evil I had to do to keep you and everyone else safe. I guess it was inevitable that you would find out, but I wish you would have just stayed and confronted me rather than push me away. I would have done anything for you then; we could have worked something out." The fox placed her head on Alex's shoulder, recalling, "I know... I guess I just panicked. I wasn't thinking straight. Alexei, would you still do anything for me?" Alex stared at the wall of the building in front of him, hoping if he looked at it long and hard enough, the question would go away. Natalya reinforced her previous inquiry, "Alexei, you can't avoid answering me forever. Do you still love me or not?" Alex grimaced and sighed, "You say I can't avoid you forever, yet you avoided me for two years. Shouldn't you at least grant me the right to do what I want after all this time? And I don't know, Natalya. I really can't say; I just don't know who you really are anymore."
The fox shamefully looked away as Alexei continued, "For example, why are you talking to me now all of a sudden? Why are you suddenly okay with my work now?" Natalya showed visible signs of anger at what Alex observed was herself as she retorted, "Because I should have fucking known. I shouldn't have been so naïve as to believe that the future leader of the mafiya wasn't doing any dirty work. What had stung the most was the way you lied to me, and how I had fallen for every misdirection. But eventually I realized why you lied, and that what you were doing wasn't wanton murder. I can live with the violence and the crime, and I can cope with the danger you put yourself in, but I could never coexist with someone as morally bankrupt as the rest of the names on that list I found two years ago."
"Okay, that makes sense," the husky said slowly, absorbing the new information, "but how do you know I'm not a ruthless killing machine, and why did you want me to tell you I loved you so fast?" Natalya mustered up some courage and looked Alex directly in the eye, "I know you, Alexei. It made sense that you were a killer, that much was just an inconvenient truth. But for some reason, seeing you as a bloodthirsty monster just didn't work, and after a while it occurred to me that this was because it simply wasn't true. I discovered within myself that you might be an assassin, but the male I was committed to was still there as well; it had just been suppressed by my own confused thoughts. I spent two years seeing other guys, trying to get you out of my head, but you still remained. Recently I realized there was a reason for this, and it was that I didn't need to get you out of my head. I needed to get you back, period. Also, before you say anything, I know my reputation as a slut, whore, skank, whatever you want to call it precedes me, but it's not true. I never went to a disgusting extreme of offering myself up to whoever wanted me. I did obviously date several guys, and went all the way with a couple of them, but I'm sure you've done much the same with the females you've been with in that time. That rumor was started by little more than a jealous ex-boyfriend."
Alex shuddered at the similarities between the vixen's internal struggles and his own. As of two nights ago, he couldn't even dispute her last accusation. Deep down, there was a section of his heart that would always be reserved for Natalya, but for both the good of the world (he needed to find out about Kossenko) and his own good (he didn't desire to cheat on or break up with Stephanie any time soon), he blocked this part out, focusing instead on the important matters at hand. He could always come back to emotions, but defusing the plans of a megalomaniac couldn't wait until tomorrow. "Natalya," he started, "you said you had information pertaining to my father's murder. I hate to change the subject so quickly, but this could possibly affect national security."
The fox looked at Alexei with a tinge of anger or jealousy, he couldn't tell exactly what it was, "Is this about your new involvement with H.U.R.T.? Do your stupid organization and your own messes take precedence over my- no, our feelings? Is that it, Alexei?" The husky's eyes widened to the point where they were about to burst out of his skull, "How do you know about H.U.R.T.?" "It was in the damn file with the rest of that shit," Natalya explained, evidently still miffed at her apparent rejection by the "love of her life", "The file mentioned some kind of skirmish with the organization and something like a competition over who got the rights to your employment. Sickening." Alex was starting to get a little flustered himself over Natalya's incessant attitude, "Natalya, that's enough. What's wrong with you? You can't expect to come back from two years of separation and have everything immediately go back to the way it was. We don't live in a fictional universe; that's just how the world works. Now what else was in the file?"
Natalya was thankful that the solitary tear that ran down her cheek was on the side of her face away from Alexei as she continued, "Some guy I've never even heard of is in charge of practically the entire American mafia now. His name is Igor Kossenko, I think. With your father out of the picture, Papa has stepped into some sort of role as the director of the Washington groups. Anyway, I don't think Papa had anything to do with it, but this Kossenko guy seems to not know much about the inner workings of the local business. From what the file stated, he got one of the other Washington hitmen to do the job. If you ask me, it was all a terrible mistake. You're in over your head with this whole mysterious H.U.R.T. thing, and I think maybe you should just come back to the family. With Papa in control, you wouldn't have to do anything bad. We could be together again and everything would just be... okay."
Alexei cupped his face in his paws. He couldn't get mad at Natalya for this. She displayed a heroic amount of naiveté, but her heart was in the right place. Alex was still mainly disappointed as far as new intelligence went. Most of what she told him was stuff he already knew or something she had completely wrong. The husky was well aware that Kossenko knew of his father's position, and the hit was intentional, and that if he for some reason did desert H.U.R.T., he would only be faced with more killing in the mafia. Some things still didn't add up either. When his father was in charge, Vladimir Romanova was the keeper of personnel documents, not assignment data. He would have had no reason to have that sensitive information on the intricate details of the Black Nightmare Project. He also found it sketchy that "Papa" had gotten quite the promotion once Kossenko rose to power over Anton, but he elected to not tell Natalya about any of this. He understood the stress she was going through, and the most likely imminent danger she put herself in to try and get what she could out to him. Suddenly, a question popped into Alexei's mind that would possibly give him at least something to bring back to Bronco and Mansfield.
"Natalya," he inquired, "do you by any chance remember the name of the person you saw was selected to carry out the assignment?" Natalya racked her mind for a second, fearing that she was now completely redundant in the life of Alexei Pavlov, before remembering quickly, "Yes! Yes I do. His name was Konstantin Kovalev. I don't know where you would find him or anything, but that was definitely the name in the file." Content with an inkling of success (this would give the new tech guy- what was his name? Paolo? Pablo? Something like that- a test of his real skills on tracking the joker down), Alexei decided to try to calm down Natalya a little, "Look, Natalya, I'm sorry about this entire morning. I know all that's happened has been difficult, and I've been kinda short with you now because it's been hard for me as well. You know I wish everything could just go back to the way it was, but this is real life. We'll potentially get there, but no matter where we end up, it will still take time."
Natalya appeared to be watching her toes intently as she unconfidently bequeathed, "Alexei, this might be a lot to ask, but, do you think I can rejoin the group? I don't know how the others will react, and seeing as you're not taking me back I don't want to hurt you and Stephanie... It's just that I don't want to play these stupid games with the jerks of the school anymore." Alexei felt a wave of something unknown sweep over him (he later found out this was stupidity and impulsiveness) and moved a paw to Natalya's far cheek, stroking it and directing her head toward him. Moving his other paw through her hair to a rest at the back of her head, he swooped down and gently but meaningfully kissed her on the lips before breaking off and declaring, "Of course you can be back in. No matter what happens between us or anyone else, remember that I love you and will always love you."
Given the previous conversation, Natalya was understandably in shock, stammering out the word "what" in a tongue-tied and garbled utterance. Equally surprised and unaware of what just happened, Alexei confusedly stared at his own paws, openly wondering, "What the hell was that? I don't even know where that came from." Natalya's red fur did a quite apt job of disguising her flaming blushing, but some of it still showed on the white parts of her face as she responded, "I don't know either, but whatever it was, it was beautiful. Did you mean that?" The husky said that he honestly didn't have a clue, and regardless of the uncertain and vague answer, the fox snuggled up to him again, remaining entangled with him until other students began to pour into the building. As they split apart to go their separate ways for the time being, Natalya nuzzled him and kissed him on the cheek one last time, thinking to herself as she walked away from him that if his subconscious was any indication, Stephanie would be toast within a week, give or take a few days. The vixen had potentially worked her way back into a good set of friends and had wormed back into Alexei's heart, all before school. Today was looking like a good day.
The school day progressed onward, reaching its apex at the sweet, relaxing period of unequivocal nothingness known as lunch. Only today, one of the members of the group was less than pleased with certain events that had occurred that day. Natalya had been quite clingy with Alexei all day long, and Stephanie Hemingway was what one might eloquently call "pissed". The feline was not particularly happy with the possessive attitude the vixen had displayed with the husky. He was Stephanie's boyfriend after all. Who the hell did she think she was? Over the course of the day, she had received a fair amount of unhelpful comments from Kim, such as "I told you not to get involved with Natalya. She only leads to trouble. But does anyone listen to me? No, no, no. And look what happens- tall, dark, and handsome looks like he's gonna be back with petite, red, and slutty." Stephanie's typical response to the panther was, "Shut up, Kim." She was not feeling particularly witty that day.
Currently though, she was standing at her locker when she noticed a canine shadow come up behind her, and a snout attached to this silhouette descended and kissed her on the back of the head. "No obnoxious red fox with you?" Stephanie asked cynically, turning to face her larger than average male. "I don't see one anywhere," Alexei spoke, grinning, "should there be one?" "No, absolutely not," the cat responded, a slight hint of acidity in her tone. As the couple ventured to the cafeteria, the mildly confused husky asked cautiously, "Steph, what was with that? Do you have a problem with Natalya?" Stephanie glared at Alex, "Why yes, yes I do have a problem with her. More specifically, I have a problem with her being on top of you all the time. Alex, I'm not that possessive. I don't mind if you hug other girls or whatever. It's not like you're making out with them. But Natalya... Natalya goes too far. I think you need to set some boundaries with her before she starts touching you more than I do."
Alexei sighed, feeling that Stephanie was probably right. The one thing he was worried about, though, was his moment this morning. Right as he was thinking this, Stephanie continued, "You know what else she did today? She tried to convince me that you kissed her this morning. Seriously. When I sent you to talk to her on Saturday I was clearly unaware of how much of a bitch she was." Luckily, Alex had not been drinking water at the time of her saying this, or a colossal spit-take would have just happened. Alex was legitimately surprised, as he didn't think she'd actually tell people about that. Seeing her boyfriend's reaction, Stephanie clarified, "You didn't kiss her did you?" "No," Alex flagrantly lied, "I wouldn't cheat on you like that, and I don't really understand why she would say something like that at all."
As they drew near to the center of sustenance, Stephanie looked at the ground and quietly asked, "Am I being too possessive right now? Alex, am I losing control?" He squeezed her paw and told her she was acting perfectly rationally to Natalya's unpredicted witchery. Right in mid-sentence, however, he heard his name being called as the vixen bounded over to him and threw her arms around his neck, much to the chagrin of Stephanie, whose ensuing death glare was so menacing that it alone caused Natalya to back off some. Holding up his end of the bargain with his significant other, Alex told Natalya to watch the PDA, as Stephanie was still his girlfriend, not her. The fox obliged without much conflict to the vexation of the still linked pair.
A few minutes later, the group sat at their circular table, which they enjoyed because of its ability to sustain conversation with everyone equally. On this day, everyone felt somewhat cramped, though because of the recent additions to the group, Natalya, Jen, and Kelli (who was kind of let in out of the goodness of the group's hearts, not because of any connection to a core member.) Alex made brief eye contact with Jen from across the table, and for some reason felt like she was observing his soul. Alex was too practical and skeptical to believe anything that had to do with the supernatural, but Dex's new female was definitely getting under his fur, and he couldn't tell why. He had talked to his coyote friend about her earlier, and even he agreed that there was something markedly different about her, but he also added that he didn't care because in his eyes it made her even better. Alexei chalked the oddity up to the fox's eerie green eyes and moved on with his life.
Alex was flanked by Stephanie and Natalya at the lunch table, and the latter sat deep in thought, careful not to slam too much affection on her target male at the risk of ticking off either him or his feline female. Instead, Natalya decided to take a different approach from here on in. The way she saw it, Stephanie's days were numbered anyway, so she didn't necessarily need to steal Alexei right away. She could wait a few days in exchange for the infinite ribbon of happiness that she foresaw as her and her childhood friend's relationship. Because of this, she dumped the bitch façade, and adapted her (strangely enough) more natural mild-manneredness to suit her cause. Up until this point she had tried to be decisive and manipulative, but she had quickly come to the conclusion that the success this had was somewhere between zero and also zero. The obvious solution then was to be nice enough to everyone else to the point that they'd be more than OK with her taking Stephanie's place. Maybe she would still have to break the kitty's heart, but hey. Every good thing needs a little sacrifice.
Saturday afternoon was a tumultuous time for our fearless hero, as he lay face down on his bed at the Shadowstep household, conversing via cell phone with Kurt. He was explaining to his intimidating best friend the circumstances leading up to the worst news he could have possibly gotten yesterday. Stephanie had broken up with him. Just like that. Alex had been devastated, and only hours of smacking him out of his pit of despair from his compatriots allowed him to compete adequately in that evening's game.
He told Kurt how Stephanie had been getting even more abrasive and paranoid as the week had gone on, seemingly even more frustrated at Natalya for being nice. While the guys and Leah recognized this persona as Natalya's real personality, the other girls such as Stephanie and Kim saw the sudden change in her actions as sketchy and suspicious. As frustrated as Alex was, he recognized that this was a reasonable assumption for someone unfamiliar with Natalya, and he and the others had attempted to calm Stephanie down, but in her mind Natalya was just trying to gravitate attention to herself and take Alex away from her.
Pavlov had thought it was to be a short-term deal, and that the normally cool and controlled cat would get over it in a short while, but the shit really hit the fan on Friday. The couple had decided to spend the short amount of time they had before Alex had to report for his football game cavorting behind the gym. While they snuggled and kissed each other, they heard a relatively soft voice call Alexei's name from around the corner. Stephanie made her signs of agitation quite visible. The only person who called her boyfriend "Alexei" was Natalya, and she was not welcome right now. The fox rounded the side of the building to see her least favorite white cat in the arms of her favorite husky, and Alex turned and asked her what she needed. Natalya said it was nothing important, and that she didn't mean to interrupt, but Alexei asked again, truthfully believing that if she had sought him out like this she probably had something important to say.
Needless to say, this attention to Natalya miffed Stephanie, and unable to hold it in any longer, she blew her top. Alex relayed over the phone to Kurt as close as he could what she said to him, "Oh really? She has something 'important'? More important than spending time with me? What's your problem, Alex? Am I just not good enough for you now? Is that it? I get it. I was just some sort of temp that you used while this whore was indisposed taking every stiff dick she could find and shoving them inside all of her orifices. And now she prefers yours, so you don't need me anymore. I hope you two will have a fucking long and happy life together because you're definitely done with me." She violently pushed herself away from him and stormed away, giving one of the most terrifying scowls he had ever seen to his female childhood friend. Alex stood in shock, and Natalya at once walked over to console him, but Alex told her he wasn't in the mood to talk to her, perhaps a little too forcefully.
Back in the present, Kurt jokingly told Alex that he had absolutely no prospect of maintaining a committed relationship given his track record, and would probably die alone. Alex shot back to Kurt that he wasn't helping, and the wolf stated that he really didn't know what to tell him. He suggested that Alex go back to Natalya, since that was what everyone seemed to expect anyway. "Hey," Kurt began, just thinking of a possible alternative, "what about the one secretary from H.U.R.T.? Did you patch things up with her at all?" "Elise? Nah, I haven't talked to her since the debacle a couple of weeks ago, and honestly, I'm kind of afraid to. I assume she's still not happy with me," Alex replied, causing his heart to sink a bit more. It wasn't really because of the apparent hopelessness with Elise (he was beyond over that), but rather the discussion of H.U.R.T. reminded him of a major stressor that was to take place that night. On top of the emotional strain he bore at the moment, it was the night of his first legitimate operation with H.U.R.T., a mission to find and get whatever information they could out of Konstantin Kovalev.
Kurt knew about the op, and he was pretty sober about it. Both he and Alex felt some excitement, but neither one was naïve enough to not understand the imminent danger that came when real bullets started flying. As his conversation with Kurt ended, Alexei sat up on his bed, anxiously awaiting the knock on the door that would signal it was time to go. The mission was supposedly simple; go to Kovalev's cabin out in the Virginia woods somewhere, knock him out, and drag him in for questioning. He would be in a more detailed briefing at HQ shortly, but that was the gist of the operation. He contemplated maybe going to see Elise before he left, but thought better of it, as he didn't need too many females clogging his mind at a time when it needed to be perfectly clear. The very lives of himself and four of his closest comrades depended on this stipulation.
Alexei Pavlov walked into the main briefing room at H.U.R.T. headquarters, the area buzzing with the conversations of the members of Strike Team 13 and their new technological expert, Pavel Svrbada. After riding to the base in total silence, absorbed in nervousness (this in and of itself was rather unusual, as he really hadn't felt that way before any of his mafia hits), the heated sports-minded discussion between Kris and Pavel eased his mind and helped him chill out. "I'm telling you, Zdenko Chara is the best player in the NHL," Pavel insisted. "Seriously? You're saying a defenseman is the top player? You're just saying that because he's from Slovakia. Sidney Crosby is where it's at," Zimmerman contested. "Maybe if he could stay healthy," Svrbada half-agreed, "but anyway, if you disapprove of defenders so much, then I'm sure Marian Hossa would fit the bill quite well." "Again with the Slovakians," Kris said, rolling his eyes, "what about Steven Stamkos then?" "Hey!" Svrbada less-than-seriously snapped, "you're just saying Canadians, too!" Zimmerman looked up at the ceiling in exasperation, "Three quarters of the NHL is Canadian! We invented the sport, of course we're the best at it."
Alexei approached and greeted the bickering duo, and the two formed an unspoken truce on their verbal hockey war. Svrbada was a smallish wolf, primarily dark gray furred, with smatterings of brown throughout. He really didn't have much in the way of muscle mass, but one could tell that, for a computer nerd, he got a fair amount of exercise from his definition and the veins that seemed to jut out from his taut hide. He wore standard H.U.R.T. fatigues and a pair of thin, barely noticeable glasses on his snout and had an old looking watch strapped around his wrist. Alex noticed that though the newcomer had a distinct Eastern European accent, his mastery of the English language was quite exceptional, most likely from frequent use of the Internet.
In the minutes prior to the start of the briefing, Alex introduced himself to Pavel, and the two hit it off quickly. Just like Bronco had predicted, the husky found it comforting to have someone close to his own age that could understand him more than the veteran professional soldiers he had to deal with otherwise. The new friends found they shared common musical interests and visited similar websites in their free time (they spent a fair span of time professing their love for the humor site Cracked). Alex asked him a few questions regarding the more important matters at hand, as well, such as how he tracked down Kovalev and what he was to be doing in the current operation. The clearly cunning and intelligent wolf informed Alexei that he would be working the UAV overwatch tonight, but refused to tell how he pinpointed the killer's location, maintaining that a "magician never tells his secrets". Pavlov was less than impressed by the last comment, but Shadowstep and Mansfield arrived in the briefing room before he had the chance to express his sentiments.
The Rottweiler director of H.U.R.T. broke the newly induced silence with the uncomplicated phrase, "Gentlemen, this is the big time." All of Strike Team 13 grinned at the notion. They had been waiting for this day for weeks. Everyone except for Tannehill. He just stared like an idiot. Continuing on with his pre-fight spiel, Mansfield explained, "What you are about to do tonight could make or break the combined governments of North America's campaign on stopping internal organized crime and terrorism. You all know you have been specially selected for this express purpose, and I cannot stress to you enough that your people- our people need you right now, at this very moment. Your target today isn't the leader of the Russian mafia. In fact I would dare say he isn't the leader of anything, he's solely a minor peon, a pawn in the grand strategy of greater minds. But what I want to tell you, men of this righteous institution, that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that single step today is Konstantin Kovalev, a thug of less than desirable character who is believed to have performed the actual murder of Anton Pavlov. Gentlemen, this may seem like an easy operation, something you can do in your sleep, and we like this thought. Feel confident that you can easily take care of any threats, yet, alas, I warn you, do not lose your composure for a single second. Every stray bullet, every far-flinging shred of shrapnel can tear the fine fabric of your life from this world at any given moment.
"Before I turn your attention to your operational director, I would like to make some final comments in a more 'off the record' fashion. Guys, I've watched you train for weeks now, and I've personally seen what you can do. I expect you to go out there, kick some Commie ass, and bring home the motherfucking bacon tonight. Am I understood?" The members snickered and shouted an affirmative "sir sandwich" in assent. "Well then," Mansfield finished, "I don't have much else to tell you boys. Win one for the good guys. Mr. Shadowstep, you have the floor."
"Thank you sir," the black cat opened up, "First and foremost, I'd like to ask Director Mansfield where he ripped off that monologue from. My first thought was Macbeth, but then my brain kinda went to The Tempest. Apparently he's not answering me, and that's probably gonna be out of my paycheck. Anyway, as my superior stated, this does not appear to be a difficult operation, and you should have no trouble with it. Kovalev has been confirmed to be staying for the time being in a cabin about half a mile off the road that will function as your Drop Zone and Extraction Zone. As far as we know, he stays at this cabin alone, and this means that it will most likely be defended by only himself. Still, we send you in fully equipped because you just never know what might happen. This is live after all. In short, you'll be dropped from truck, hike the half mile through the forest, break into the cabin, incapacitate the sucker, grab him, and get the hell out of there. If for some reason something does go wrong, there is a clearing nearby that will be used as an emergency EZ, and directions will be given to this site if the need arises. Any questions?"
Once the members of the team confirmed that they understood the mission parameters, they were directed to proceed to the equipment room to get prepared and from there move to the designated truck in the motor pool. Once they were all in the truck, they would immediately be deployed.
Elsewhere in H.U.R.T. headquarters, Elise McAlester sat staring blankly at her computer screen. She was supposed to be doing something, but in all honesty she totally forgot what it was. She looked at the clock for the millionth time, and found that the night's operation was supposed to commence in minutes. The dingo wondered what was going on. Alex always stopped by when he was around, and she knew he had to be here. He was leading the op. So what was up with him? Surely Shadowstep told him that she had put their disagreement behind her. As much as she hated to admit it, she wanted him back, if not as a lover at least as a friend. Even friends seemed just too hard to come by now.
As she was in the middle of her contemplation, her Rottweiler boss walked in the door and told her to get to ops if she wanted to sit in on Operation: Cabin Fever (Mansfield wanted to shoot the guy that came up with that name, as did several other people) as the team was already en route to the DZ. Elise shot up in her chair and asked if he was serious. Mansfield cemented that he was indeed serious and that the mission would officially start within minutes. The Australian with one last fleeting hope asked if Alex had been looking for her. Maybe he had come, but just missed her? When the director said he definitely hadn't, however, she dejectedly looked down at the ground, now painfully aware that she had alienated the one person she could trust in this damn organization.
She clutched the heart pendant around her neck with one paw and bit her lip weakly as she got up and made the quick journey to the operations room, where she could do nothing but watch as Alex potentially risked his life out in the field.
A few minutes later and far away from H.U.R.T. headquarters, Alexei Pavlov lead his team out the back of a truck and into the Virginia woods. Covered in full forest camouflage, including some temporary fur dye for Sam and Manny, who did not have naturally dark fur, they stealthily crept around, staying alert for any signs of mischief. They all wore headsets under their helmets to provide communication both between themselves and with ops back at the base.
"You know, if it wasn't for all the guns, and the equipment, and the explosives, and the knowledge that we're probably gonna kill someone tonight, these woods don't seem half bad," Sam commented, taking some of the edge off, "It's just so damn peaceful, y'know?" Carlisle smiled and added, "Hey Gilchrist, if you like this place so much you can probably have Kovalev's cabin once we take him in. I doubt he'll be using it much after that." "I might just, my friend, I might just," the corgi added with an unseen grin. "Hey guys, if you haven't noticed, we might be entering a war zone right now," Tannehill interjected, "so maybe we should keep any conversation somewhat relevant?" The other four members of the team said the words "Shut up, Tannehill" with impeccable timing in response to the raccoon's buzzkillery.
Alex heard a different sound crackle through the earpiece of his headset just then, however. It was the distinct accent of Pavel Svrbada, who spoke in an unconfident and wavering tone. "Hey Pavlov," the wolf who was the team's eye in the sky began, "I'm getting some weird readings here. Thermal imaging is showing a fairly large group of guys in close proximity to the cabin, I'd say about twenty-five of them." Continuing on through the woodland, Alexei racked his brain for a benign explanation for the company, "Campers, maybe? Group seems a tad large though... Maybe it's the Boy Scouts or something. Where'd you learn to fly a UAV anyway, Svrbada?" The wolf snickered through the radio, "It's just like Flight Simulator." Alex asked quizzically, "Really?" "Nope," replied Pavel, "Not at all. The resident techies here showed me the ropes. It isn't that hard to pick up. More importantly, though, these bogies seem to be mobilizing. Pavlov, I'm not sure about this."
The husky could hear Svrbada informing Shadowstep and Mansfield of the current issue, and the response from the higher-ups appeared to be one lacking impression. They reasoned that the likelihood of that many armed hostiles being in the area was slim to none, and that if the team kept their weapons suppressed and didn't screw up, the civilians would probably not even notice. Neither Pavel nor the males on the ground were completely reassured by this logic, however, and they proceeded more cautiously and quietly now.
The team came to a point in the forest where a dirt road came in to sight, and they followed it until they reached the cabin, medium sized, with a pickup truck in the road leading up to it out front. "Hey," Pavel started again, "this really does not look good. They're moving toward the cabin, and getting pretty close. Word from Shadowstep is you can either take your chances with continuing the op and going inside, or you can try to check out now." Pavlov momentarily weighed the options in his mind, and concluded that they had to complete the mission. They didn't work this hard and come all this way for nothing. He ordered Gilchrist to get the front door while he and Zimmerman stacked up on either side of him and Blake and Manny set up just off to the side of the husky and Doberman.
Before trying anything else, Sam tried opening the door normally, and to his surprise, it was unlocked. Opening the door a crack, he was even more surprised when his highly trained eyes noticed the glimmer of a wire attached to the door. The corgi muttered the word "shit" under his breath and told his squad leader that the front door was booby trapped. Understanding the situation, Pavlov asked Gilchrist if he could see if the adjacent window was similarly trapped, and Sam confirmed that it was not. Alex was befuddled now. There was no way a killer with Kovalev's experience would set up a trap just over one door. The defenses had to have been set up in a hurry. When news came in that the mysterious others in the woods were in a position to cut off their escape route, Pavlov reluctantly ordered his team through the undefended window and in to the cabin. He knew there wasn't going to be a real good end to this.
Sam smashed the window and climbed in, followed shortly after by the other four. As the team started to move forward through the structure, they were almost instantaneously disrupted by the sounds of gunfire that emanated from the area surrounding the house. Utilizing night vision equipment, the team took cover in various corners of the front room and returned fire at the aggressors. Pavlov tapped Zimmerman on the shoulder and signaled for the two of them to keep moving through the cabin while the other three held the front room. These plans were also abruptly broken up by an enemy that jumped out from a room on the side of the main corridor, and Pavlov reacted with just barely enough time to evade most of the strike from the butt of the thug's swinging rifle. The blow still caught Alexei slightly, however, and he went to the ground for an instant. Fortunately, the enemy suffered a much worse fate, taking two bursts to the chest and face at point blank range from Kris's assault rifle. The Doberman helped Alex up and asked if he was good to go. He nodded his assent and, shouldering his C8 rifle, drew his twin Glocks for the close quarters combat. They checked the other side room, and found two adversaries waiting for them, both soon dispatched by Alexei's faster than light trigger fingers.
The pair approached the final room at the end of the hallway, and disregarding all safety, Zimmerman angrily kicked the door open. They had expected to find Konstantin Kovalev in this room, and so they did. What they didn't foresee was that he'd be lying face down on the desk in what looked like some sort of office or study, a neat, circular gunshot wound in the back of his head. Pavlov scrambled over to check for any possible vital signs, but found that the Lapphund was indeed deceased, pitifully stuck in a pool of his own blood. The husky swore and slammed his fist on the desk. They had all been duped, and now the op was in a sorry state. They could figure out the cause of the ambush later, but for now they had a singular purpose, and that was fending off the attackers.
Switching back to his rifle, Pavlov and Zimmerman took up positions in the side rooms for a while, picking off enemies when they could and succeeding, albeit precariously, at not getting shot themselves. Once they felt that they were needed more back at the front room than the flanks, they took the central hallway to the front, and just as they got there, Pavlov saw an object zoom in through a broken window and screamed for everyone to get down. The launched grenade exploded on impact, leaving a screen of dust and smoke and making Alexei's ears ring. As he willed himself to get up, he heard pained cries coming from one corner of the room. He stumbled over to the source, and couldn't stand the sight for more than a couple of seconds before he had to look away.
Sam Gilchrist laid on the floor, writhing in agony. His right leg had been completely severed, and his left was so shattered and shredded by shrapnel that it looked more like a sickening, bloody mess than a limb. Alex called Manny over, and told him to do whatever he could to stop the bleeding while he, Zimmerman, and Tannehill took out the last of the enemies. The husky brought his rifle to bear, and fueled by wrath derived from the crippling of his comrade, struck down three opponents in three bursts, scarlet spray spurting from their heads and upper chests as they lifelessly collapsed to the ground. The others, even stoic Blake, must have felt the same, as they dropped the opposing force like flies with cold efficiency. After a reasonably long firefight, the dust finally settled, and all the team were finally granted the opportunity to assess themselves and go into damage control.
The four standing members of Strike Team 13 were all injured in some way or form, but none were nearly as bad off as Gilchrist was. All were veritably covered in cuts and scrapes from flying debris, and Alexei's head was in pain from the strike it took from a rifle butt. Their uniforms were torn, and their faces were stained with dried blood and black ash and dirt. As the adrenaline of the shootout began to wear off, the soldiers braced themselves against the walls of the room, suddenly feeling the dead weight of their physical and mental exhaustion. Manny had done an exceptional job given the circumstances applying a tourniquet to Sam's stump and bandaging his other destroyed leg, keeping the corgi from bleeding out and most likely saving his life. News came in over the radio from Pavel stating that he received no more heat signatures from the UAV in the general vicinity of Kovalev's cabin, and with this information, Pavlov made the call for a helicopter to retrieve them from the secondary extraction zone, which was closer than the road, but would create more noise. Alex didn't care much about detection anymore; if the shootout didn't draw any attention, the helicopter wouldn't be any problem.
Before they left, however, Alex wanted to take one last uninhibited lookover of the cabin for any useful intel. He relieved Carlisle of his duties with Sam, and replaced him with Blake, telling the cheetah to check the side rooms for anything of importance while the raccoon monitored their fallen teammate. Alex and Kris went together to Kovalev's study and began ripping the place apart, desperately looking for something of use. Finding nothing in the rustic room, they were about ready to quit when the Doberman spied something shiny underneath the bloody head of Kovalev's corpse. The pair carefully moved the late assassin's head back, leaving its still wide open glossy eyes staring at them eerily. Unable to cope with the unease, Pavlov used a paw to shut the dog's eyes before examining the object.
The reflective thing Kris had seen turned out to be the case for something else, and opening the container, they found a tablet of some sort inside. Alex turned the device on and found that it didn't have a password. A call came from an unknown number almost as soon as he unlocked it, and he told Pavel to track the call once he picked up. Pavlov answered and the tablet entered a video call mode, with the screen showing a stark white wolf with a menacing scar along the side of his face. "Hello Mr. Pavlov," Igor Kossenko greeted in Russian, "I've been waiting a long time to talk to you. You must be quite as efficient at your job as they say if you dealt with my attack so easily." Alex swore under his breath; they had been set up. Everything had been set up. The misinformation, the ambush, the call itself- all predetermined. The husky felt horrible for the lives he had just taken, as they were just pawns, meaningless drones sent by Kossenko who were clearly not expected to live past tonight.
The frustrated husky asked in a blunt and agitated voice, "What the fuck do you want, Kossenko?" The white wolf chuckled, "Such language, Alexei! How would one of your many loves respond to that manner of speech? Would Stephanie approve? Oh, nevermind, I believe you're through with her. What about Miss McAlester from your new employer, hm? Does she like it when you swear at her?" Alex couldn't stand it anymore and flat out snapped at the antagonist, "Leave them out of this! If you want something from me tell me now, you son of a bitch!" The boss seemed to be unphased by Alex's rage-filled demonstrations, and carried on, "Ah... So pushy, this new generation... If you really must know so soon, I want you working for me, Alexei. Tonight should have shown you who the better side really is. Think about it. We are one step ahead of H.U.R.T. no matter what. Not only that, but we know- I know what you're capable of, Alexei. You wouldn't start at the ground level of our organization, you would start at the top, groomed to be my personal successor. What you have now is the chance to join the winning team, Alexei. Is it really that hard of a decision?"
Alex shot a piercing death glare through the screen at the mafia leader, "No, it really isn't that hard of a decision. I'm staying with H.U.R.T. and that's final. I know how to pick out the good guys when I see them, and they're not you. You may be ahead of us now, but this isn't over." Still unaffected, Kossenko grinned, showing some of his razor sharp teeth, "You know that H.U.R.T. is a righteous organization, do you? Let me tell you something: they lied to your father. He told them everything, kept them informed on mob dealings, and what did they do? They promised him information in return, but they only gave him diluted reports. They had no intention of ever committing to assistance to the mafia or your father specifically. Had he done anything not in favor of them, I doubt they would have hesitated to 'remove his influence' from the world. Don't get me too wrong; the male that lies dead next to you was the one who killed your father. But he had nothing to do with the planning, nothing to do with the strategy. He was meaningless. It's painful, I know, but your father had to go. He was too much of a risk to us all. You can be so much better than he was, Alexei."
Alex was still angry, but he was more confused now. He had to ask Mansfield what Kossenko had meant, and if it was true. Regardless, the mafia leader was still seriously turning him off to the notion of joining his gang, and he retorted, "Is that all, then? There's still no way I'll ever associate myself with you." Believing he still had one trump card, the wolf mentioned, "Ah, but there is one more thing. I mentioned some females earlier. You never had true feelings for either of them, did you? You're still in love with Natalya Romanova, and you know what? You can have her. No one would dispute that. All you have to do is join us, and she's all yours. Otherwise, you may have to watch what you discuss with her."
Pavlov struggled to keep himself from gagging. He hated to admit it, but the theory that had just been incepted into his mind made perfect sense. Natalya sold him out, but why? Why would she risk his life to do... he didn't even know what. As Alexei looked speechlessly at the tablet screen, a blurred feminine figure moved in front of the camera and whispered something in Kossenko's ear. Upon closer observation, the figure appeared to be a youngish Malamute, though she quickly walked away. The white wolf took a breath and said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Pavlov, but unfortunately our conversation has to end. I am the leader of a major crime syndicate and I have my business to attend to. Remember, if you ever want to join the true path, just ask and you will be welcomed with open arms. You will know where to find me when the time comes. Until next time, Alexei."
Alexei and Kris stared at the tablet stunned as the call ended, while Pavel swore in frustration over the radio. He wasn't able to locate the specific location of the call; he could only detect that it was coming from somewhere mobile in eastern Canada, most likely somewhere in Ontario. Alex slowly told him that it was fine and that they'd catch him later. The primary goal now, however, was to safely get everyone to the EZ and back to HQ for medical attention. The team immediately left the cabin, finding no additional intelligence, with Zimmerman shouldering Gilchrist and carrying him to the pickup site. Along the way, they saw some of their enemies up close, and discovered that they were underequipped, and as Pavlov had assumed, just worthless members sent to do nothing but test his abilities. The thought of it nauseated him, and he struggled to keep his head on straight and keep moving forward. Safety was only a short ways away.
Some time later, Alex lied awake in a bed in the H.U.R.T. HQ medical wing, waiting for someone, anyone, to show up and talk to him. Because of the shot he took to the head, the medical staff mandated that he stay in the hospital sector for observation to make sure he didn't have a concussion or another related head injury. He hated being stuck there for what he considered a bullshit reason while his teammate, someone he had been responsible for, was in an actually serious situation, and might never be able to walk again. He cursed himself over and over again for the outcome of the operation. They shouldn't have stayed. They should have gotten out while they still could. Everything had gone wrong, and Sam almost died. Hell, to a point, they all almost died. He really hadn't ever been in charge of other people's safety before, and the abject failure of his first time was proving to be a traumatic experience.
Before he could really become lost in his own troubled mind, however, Shadowstep and Mansfield entered his room and pulled up and sat down in some chairs. The Rottweiler director of the organization spoke first, speaking the obvious and saying that the op did not go as planned. Pavlov started to become more depressed, but Bronco quickly interjected that given the situation, the failure wasn't related to his commanding. Both high-ranking members asserted that there was no way anyone could have predicted such resistance, and that Alexei did a fantastic job in just keeping his team alive. The reassurances still didn't really do much for the husky's psyche, as he was still drowning in his own sorrows. While they kept talking, something lingered in Alexei's mind. He felt he had something to ask or say to them, but he couldn't remember what it was. He resolved to come up with it later.
The cat and Rottweiler repeated over and over again that Alex wouldn't be blamed for the mission, and that there would be more operations in the future. Seeing they were not making a significant impact on the beleaguered squad leader, they left him with the final comment that he would not be losing his position as chief of Strike Team 13, and that a replacement for Gilchrist was already on the way.
Right after Shadowstep and Mansfield departed, Kris Zimmerman and Manny Carlisle took their places, sitting down in the two chairs. After an awkward first moment, Manny spoke of the condition of Gilchrist, informing Alexei that his wounded leg had to be amputated, leaving him wheelchair-bound for at least a while until they could get prosthetics in. Sam would probably be able to walk again eventually, but his career as a soldier was officially over. Wishing to change the subject somewhat, Kris spoke of the op, "Look, man, your first mission went FUBAR. These things happen. Part of our job is to take these kinds of situations in stride and come back next time. That's really all we can do." "Yeah," added Carlisle, "and don't fret too much about Sam, either. He knew what he was getting into when he signed up for this job. Fighting is dangerous, Alex. It's not fun or romantic, it just sucks. And we gotta move on."
The friendly pair talked to Pavlov for several more minutes, and Pavlov's mood was a little lightened, but not enough to the point where he was his normal happily sarcastic self. Feeling that the husky needed some time alone, Manny and Kris said they'd see him later, and once again followed in the footsteps of Bronco and Mansfield, leaving the room, and leaving him alone again.
Four males who had recently conversed with Pavlov all decided that he should have time alone. This conclusion passed in one ear and right out the other of Elise McAlester. She didn't care that the others said he was in a bad mood. She wanted to talk to him and that was what she was going to do, god dammit. The stupid comment from Kossenko implying a relationship between her and Alex kind of pissed her off. They hadn't done anything noteworthy, so what was the point of bringing that up? Maybe he was psychic, and foresaw them together in the future.
Realizing the stupidity of what she was thinking, Elise mentally slapped herself back into reality. She couldn't deny she was interested in him now, but practicality dictated that the two would never become more than friends, so on this day she was just trying to regain that level. Just friends. That would do. Regardless, she still stood outside his room, fixing up her appearance and trying to make herself appear as attractive as possible. She literally did not care anymore that he was younger than her. She knew what she wanted, and what she wanted was Alex.
Before she could walk in, though, Manny and Kris caught up to her and asked what she was doing. When she said she was going to talk to Alex, the cheetah and Doberman looked at each other and shook their heads before telling her that that probably wasn't a good idea. When she asked, probably with more attitude than was necessary, why not, Carlisle responded, "Look. We've gone in there, Mansfield and Shadowstep have gone in there, he doesn't want to talk to any of us. He's in bad shape; he's still pissed about the op and I think he should be left alone. Plus, I think you'd be the last person he'd want to talk to anyway." Upon hearing the last segment, Zimmerman instinctively took a step back, and Elise's eyes widened and her snout formed a snarl, "Oh? And why the hell is that?" she growled. "Because he still thinks you hate him!" Manny shot back, "You're out here fixing your hair and puffing out your tits, what do you think that'll do to him? You're gonna overload his mind! He can't process that right now, just leave him alone." The dingo's eyes narrowed until they were able to pierce diamond, "I'll do what I damn well please." "Fine," Manny spat out, "if you honestly think that what Alex needs right now is some wannabe Bond girl dressed like a hooker walking in and trying to fuck his problems away, you go do what you do. We ain't gonna stop you." Carlisle stomped away from Alexei's berth as Kris walked after him, shaking his head at Elise.
The Australian secretary crossed her arms and contemplated the cheetah's words for moment. Maturely concluding that Carlisle was a stupid idiot, she briskly stepped into the room holding Alex. The husky lay on his back, staring blankly at the ceiling. There was an assortment of cuts on his face, and the fur was still dyed red in some places from the dried blood. He really didn't look too good. Things degraded even more when he spoke for the first time to the tune of, "I'm sick of visitors. Unless you're a doctor telling me I can get out of here, get the hell out." Elise closed the door behind her, and proceeded on through the room unperturbed, speaking his name gently. The husky's head snapped to the side to look at the visitor and he responded by uttering her name in a disbelieving tone.
"What are you doing here?!" the shocked squad leader questioned. "I just came to see how you were doing," the dingo answered, pausing while she pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down, "... and to maybe clear some things up." Alexei gave her a confused look, "Clear what up?" Elise, despite all of her confidence going into this, avoided eye contact, "The other night... I shouldn't have reacted like I did. You didn't really do anything wrong, and if you're happy with this Stephanie female I'm okay with that. Completely. I know we're not meant to be anything more than just friends, and I just wanted to say that I wanted to at least have that friendship back." Elise braced herself for the deluge to come. She expected that he would either A) reminded of the fight, get mad at her and forcibly kick her out, or B) start talking about how he and a cat (she choked on that thought) were madly in love or something. Contrary to her beliefs, Alex muttered, "Elise?" Signaling that she was paying attention, the husky continued, "Stephanie dumped me."
Oh. Well then. That had gone better than she expected. Feigning anger and support in place of her excitement, she asked when this happened and why she did that. "She did it yesterday," the husky recounted somberly, "because she accused me of paying more attention to another female than her. Now that I think about it I guess I really did, and that was wrong." Elise's heart sank ever so slightly. There was a third party. Great. "So what's up with the other girl?" she asked, trying not to let her disappointment show. "I did want to keep going with Stephanie, but I've loved Natalya my entire life and maybe subconsciously she just took priority," Alexei expounded. Argh... Fuck my life, Elise thought, wait... Natalya? Where do I know that name from? The husky added to his previous statement, "Only thing is, tonight's events point to her selling us out to Kossenko. I don't know why she'd do that, but logistically it makes a lot of sense." That solved the mystery of Elise's name recognition. Kossenko had used it during his conversation with Alex earlier.
Suddenly, Elise came to a certain realization. Alex's girlfriend had dumped him and his crush betrayed him. At least temporarily, she had him all to herself. A party erupted in the dingo's brain. There were streamers, confetti, and candy falling from the ceiling involved. She understood that two other females had lost him, but hey, they had their chance. Sucks for them. Her internal celebration hit a speed bump when Alex spoke again, this time more distressed. He said that talking to her had been really helpful for taking his mind off the night's debacle, but now that the conversation had come full circle back to the op, she should probably leave, as he didn't want her to have to deal with him in such a depressed state.
Unaware of what to do, Elise went into a rapid meditation with the poles of her psyche, represented as Demon Elise and Saint Elise. (They were kind of like shoulder angels, but they were neither angels nor were they on her shoulders.) "Fuck him," Demon Elise kicked off. "You mean, like, just leave and forget him?" Normal Elise asked. "No," Demon Elise explained, "I mean have sex with him." "Oh, that's real sound logic," Saint Elise countered, "Copulation is the solution to every problem, isn't it?" "You'd be surprised," Demon Elise commented nonchalantly. "Yeah. No. That's not happening right now," Normal Elise threw in, "Saint Elise, what do you suggest?" "I would say do no more than you do right now. Sit and listen, but keep a safe distance," Saint Elise claimed. "Wait, so neither of you suggest not staying with him, even though he just clearly told me to leave?" Normal Elise questioned. "Hell no! Are you retarded? Cute husky batdog is lying there all open and vulnerable! Why would you want to leave?" both Demon and Saint Elise shouted simultaneously. Unsatisfied with Saint Elise's totally paws-off approach, Demon Elise added, "Look. If you're not going to touch his wiener, at least get closer to him. Affection isn't a bad thing, you know." "Okay," Normal Elise said, "I think I've got this now."
Back in reality, the entire thought process had only taken about two seconds, and Elise had made her decision. She stood up out of her chair, and instead of leaving to the door like Alexei expected, she moved closer to the bed, lifted the husky's head, and sat down, resting Alex's head on the soft, smooth fur of her quite exposed thighs below her miniskirt. She stroked the top of his head with one paw and slid the other down the top of his recently donned hospital gown, rubbing the fur on his chest, and spoke, "When you first came here, you took care of me. Now I'm going to take care of you. Don't give me any of that 'leave me here, woe is me' bullshit, either. Listen: the others knew exactly what happened tonight, Alex. I was in the ops center but didn't really catch what was going on. What happened to make you feel like this?" Part of this statement was a total lie; she knew exactly what happened. But she had the opportunity to do what the others couldn't, and that was getting through to him. She thought that a little white lie wouldn't hurt, and indeed Alex seemed to respond to her.
"I shouldn't have gone in," Alex lamented. "Gone in where?" Elise asked. "Into the cabin," Pavlov clarified, "Pavel said there were others all around. I should have backed out. I shouldn't have let pride and ambition get a hold of me. All of us could have died, Elise. What was I thinking?" "You did what you had to," Elise countered, "You couldn't have known there wasn't anything in there. At least you found out for sure instead of being left wondering. Did anything else happen inside that's hurting you?" Alex's eyes started to water, something unfamiliar to Elise, or anyone else for that matter, as he recalled, "Once the bullets started firing, everything got all blurry. I remember splinters flying from the walls, and I could hear cries of pain from the hirelings who were hit outside the cabin. I was struck in the head by the back of a rifle, and only my reflexes, helmet, and luck saved me from being thrust into a coma or killed right then. Then I found myself staring down the barrel of that gun. You know how people say your life flashes before your eyes in a near-death experience? My mind couldn't even do that. I wouldn't be here right now if Kris hadn't taken out the enemy and helped me back up. I had almost been killed twice in ten seconds.
"But that wasn't all. Once we came back to the front room there was the explosion, and everything was so surreal I thought I'd actually died. And then I saw Sam. God, it was horrible. There was gore everywhere, and he kept screaming, and I guess I just lost it then. I don't even remember how I killed the other enemies... They just... ceased to exist." Several tears had started to roll down the husky's face by this point, and Elise didn't have much at all to say. She wanted to beat the shit out of both Mansfield and Kossenko. Alex shouldn't have to be in this position. He was at a stage of his life where he was supposed to be growing up and making friends, not getting thrown into life or death scenarios and having to kill others just to stay alive to serve a nebulous purpose.
"Elise," Alex started up again, "I'm not sure I want to keep leading the team. When I was with the mafia, if I screwed up, the consequences fell on only me. I also dealt with assassinations, never huge shootouts. I didn't know what to do out there, and I put everyone in danger." The dingo looked down at the husky squarely in the eyes and declared, "Alex, what happened out there is terrible. In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to deal with this. But unfortunately, this is real life. They gave you the position because no one could handle it any better than you. H.U.R.T. needs you, the world needs you, I need you. Promise me that no matter what happens, you won't give up so easily." "Where do you fit in in all this?" Pavlov wondered. "From here on out, we're here for each other. From day one we were supposed to be friends, and I think it's time we lived up to that pledge." Alexei closed his eyes for a moment then reopened them and his mouth, decisively stating, "I'll give it another shot. Maybe I'm not cut out for this, maybe I am, but I guess one day shouldn't decide my life."
Elise smiled at him, and the two talked about unimportant things for a few minutes until Alexei exhaustedly fell to sleep. Careful not to wake him, the dingo slipped out from under his head and replaced the now vacant space with a pillow. Double checking that Alex was completely out, she bent over and kissed his forehead, regretting the fact that they'd most likely never be romantically involved. Internally, she decided that the best thing she could do was not let any feelings she had show. She was fine with their rebuilt platonic relationship, and didn't want to trouble his cluttered mind any more than it already was. A member of the medical staff opened the door and disrupted her thoughts to quietly mention that visiting hours were over. Elise sent him such a menacing glare that he spun around 180 degrees as soon as it connected and left her alone with the patient. She sat down in the chair and rested her head and arms on Alex's chest, succumbing to sleep with the regular rhythm of his breathing.