|American Now Departed: War of the Heart
Author: historyman101 PM
Sequel to American Now Departed: How to Save a Life. 1943: Peter and Tanya have returned to America after a harrowing escape from the Soviet Union, and now are trying to start over anew in Peter's hometown. However, as they come to terms with their feelings for each other, an old enemy from their past lurks in the shadows, eager for a chance at revenge. Reviews are much appreciatedRated: Fiction T - English - Romance/Adventure - Chapters: 14 - Words: 103,048 - Reviews: 7 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 4 - Updated: 05-13-13 - Published: 12-07-12 - id: 3080928
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Author's Note: In case anyone had reservations of how the story would go from here, we've reached the end of the first act, so to speak. Now the story really picks up after this.
February 14th, 1943
Mill Valley, California
Valentine's Day had come without much incident. They only spent the day walking through town and occasionally bumping into old friends and Tanya making new ones when the opportunity presented itself. Peter had not planned on giving her any extravagant gifts like Walter did with Peggy, but he did spend an entire day with her and she was satisfied with that.
He had resolved today to finally come clean with himself and with her. The weeks of wandering, brooding, contemplating and turning to friends for support and advice finally cast light on the answer he was so desperately seeking to that all-damning question that had driven him to madness since the day she uttered it to him:
Petroshka, if you were destined to stay in Russia forever, or if I was a citizen of your country, would you and I have fallen in love?
Looking back, if things had truly been as she said, then maybe…no…they definitely would have. He couldn't cut himself off from her if he tried. She swam in his blood. She sang in his ears. She abided in his soul.
Now he only sought and searched through all means of finally being honest, not just with the closest thing to a love for him in this world, but with himself. There had to be the right opportunity to finally come out; it could not be put forward too early or too late. He had finally come to understand everything he felt in his heart when he received a letter from Petya, only two days shy of Valentine's Day that finally set the record straight for him of what kind of emotions he was wrestling with in his heart.
3rd February, 1943
Your recent letter has clued me in to what is troubling you. I was once in your position and I know exactly what it feels like. The truth is I was in love and just didn't know it. I had much thinking and reflecting to do as you do every day, and what I had to consider was how being around Natasha made me feel. She made me feel my best days were ahead of me. I felt the rest of the world didn't matter and only she did. She made me feel comfortable with myself and with life. If I needed comfort and a caring word, I would turn to her. I can only tell you that those are all clear signs that you're in love.
My friend, it is sometimes best to simply listen to what your heart has to say. Consider what you feel towards Tanya, and see if it all syncs with what I have described. Is she someone dear to you? Can you imagine her not existing? What do you feel when you are with her? What does she mean to you? Consider these questions carefully, Peter. They will provide the answers you are looking for.
I can only think of one other piece of advice for you to think over: don't be afraid. Love is a beautiful and powerful thing, and I can hardly see why it causes you so much pain. The only pain I sense is from fear. Love sometimes means going out on a limb to tell her how you feel. If you were able to fight your way through Germans in our Stalingrad to find her, you are able to find your way to confess to her.
Find the right moment, and tell her everything. You will feel much better for it.
Your reliable friend,
He had done as Petya recommended, and it did not take long for him to discover the answer. He just had to find the right moment to say everything…to release all the pain that he had inflicted on himself and on her this past month. He said nothing for the moment though, and only continued following her through the streets.
She led him by the hand, as they walked through the town and through the cold damp air. There was not any particular direction they were walking in, only the restless wanderings of a soul quietly crying in agony and another soul quietly crying for love. They passed by stores that seemed to tell of happier days before war and depression, of fond childhood memories that were now whispers in the wind. Each store displayed different wares and told different stories.
A toy shop told of days of innocence and looking forward to playthings for Christmas, birthdays, and rewards for good work in school.
A clothes shop spoke of recent days she spent with her new American friend, searching for the right clothes to entice and attract.
A lingerie shop…they only ran fast past it, despite a small chuckle escaping her lips from the memory of attempts of charming him.
It was an exceptionally cold day, with a heavy fog hanging over the town and permeating every street. The lampposts a few blocks down were almost indistinguishable, the fog was so thick. It proved to be a severe problem as they could not even see the next street signs.
They took a wrong turn and ended up in a dark alleyway. The only light provided was from lamps hanging from the rooftops of the buildings, and gave off the damp and weak glow found in a red light district where only peoples of the night traverse.
"Peter…" Tanya said, clutching at his hand and frozen in fear, "gdye miy?" (A/N: Where are we?)
"Nye znayu," Peter responded, his entire body tense with anticipation, for what he could not discern. "I think we took a wrong turn." (A/N: I don't know.)
"We should head back…"
Tanya tugged at Peter's trench coat sleeve, beckoning him to follow her back, but Peter held his ground, sensing something amiss. It was the sense he often got while on patrol in Stalingrad. The sense of an advancing enemy, waiting for the right moment to strike. He eyed the ground ahead, consumed by mist and fog as thick as pea soup. But soon they both heard footsteps. It sounded like an army of men were coming their way. Then, like specters rising from the grave, the young couple saw four men, all roughly in their early or mid 20s, approach them in a single line.
Tanya squeezed his hand, fearful of what may happen next. The men approaching them did not look to be agreeable or harmless. Peter motioned for her to go while he face the wolf pack. But Tanya refused to move, despite his silent and subtle pleas to leave him. He had always defended her. He had always fought for her. He had risked life and limb to save her, and she had defended him in their great trek back. If theirs was to face certain death together, she had no qualms. Peter, sensing her firmness of purpose, only tightened his grip on her hand and nodded. They'd stay and fight and face the darkest of threats together.
"Well, well," the man in the middle said with a thick Slavic accent, "looks like we found our target. And picked up a good-looking bird as a bonus."
Peter turned to the man in the middle with ice blue eyes glimmering with the luster of a bayonet and brown hair hanging in his face like stray threads hanging from an old shirt. He had a white ascot tied around his neck, as did the other men with him. His mouth was contorted in a crooked smirk, the kind found in only the most conniving of men.
"If it's money you want, I have it," Peter said.
"We're not after money today, my little friend," the brown-haired man replied. "We're more interested in you…Peter Ivanovich Daniels."
Peter's piercing green eyes widened and hardened in suspicion of this gang of irascible youths.
"How do you know my name?"
"Who doesn't know your name now? You're practically known the world over, aren't you…American Russian?"
He said nothing, but only took one step forward with his Oxford shoes.
"Since you seem to know me, I'll ask once: who are you?"
The brown-haired man only laughed, hiding the past of his old homeland he would much rather forget.
"Back home, I was called Valya."
"I take it you're Russian, then. Am I right, Valya?"
"Russia was our home once, but no longer. This is our home."
"Then what brings you here? What do you want with me?"
The gang of four stepped closer, and Tanya retreated behind Peter, shaking in fear of what these men would do.
"I come from the city, and I live in a world where only the strongest survive. I and my friends have fallen on hard times, lately. Enemies are moving in from all around, and we desperately need some recognition. We'd like it if you came with us back to the city."
"What do you plan to do with me there?"
"You're a bargaining chip," Valya said casually, as if this was a trifle of a request. "If someone else is interested in you, we hand you over to them for a price. All else that happens is out of my hands."
Peter felt the gaze of Tanya, looking up to him and tugging stiffly at his coat sleeves and saying with begging and pleading grey eyes, "Don't leave me." He placed one hand over hers and asked the supposed ringleader with a voice of iron,
"And what of the girl? What happens to her if I go with you?"
"She is free to go as she pleases," Valya said, sloughing her off.
"She and I are linked," Peter said with purpose, tightening his grip on her delicate hand. "I go where she goes and vice versa."
Valya saw what Peter was getting at. He shrugged his shoulders and seemed contrite.
"If she likes the prospect of being held for ransom so much, she is free to join us. Maybe it'll bring us an extra penny or two, to bargain not just the life of Peter Daniels, but the life of his prize from the battlefield…"
At the word "prize," Peter's eyes narrowed and Tanya heard his teeth grind in anger.
"Don't you dare call her that…"
The entire gang of four laughed at his apparent apprehension of the comment.
"Well aren't you the little spitfire, Peter Ivanovich?" a black-haired man with brown eyes put in. "As feisty in peace as he was in war…"
"I've killed Germans," Peter continued with resolve, much to Tanya's surprise, "and I can kill all four of you if I have to."
"I invite you to try," Valya boasted raising his unkempt eyebrows.
He then turned to the black-haired man and a man with silver hair and green eyes who seemed an angel in the wrong place compared to the men surrounding him.
"Andrei, Leo, show him how White Scarves fight."
Andrei and Leo approached him, cracking the bones in their knuckles and eyeing the two of them with menacing and malicious intent. Peter quickly turned to Tanya and whispered to her,
"Keep back. Don't interfere."
Tanya took two cautious steps back and could only watch as Peter took a fighting stance and readied himself to fend off these street ruffians of the city. She silently prayed that the strength Peter had fought with in Stalingrad would serve him now, and both of them would be safe from the hands of these wayward youths. Maybe the strength he found in fighting gangsters would give him the same strength of being honest with her.
Andrei made a jab at Peter's face, but he quickly dodged it and made an effort to land an uppercut punch to Andrei's jaw. Andrei moved back and tried to grab Peter's hand, but Peter grabbed Andrei's free hand and soon were engaged in tussle, each struggling to bring the other down. Peter kicked Andrei in the shin, and used the opening to turn on his heel and chop on his neck, knocking him out.
Leo then attacked him and tried to grapple him to the pavement, but Peter ducked out of the way and tried to land a firm kick to his back, but Leo dodged this attempt and made a grab for Peter's wrist. However Peter landed a firm punch to his face, sending him back a few feet. Leo charged him again, but Peter took the ready stance as a boxer would before the sound of the bell. Leo went for a quick jab at Peter, but he sidestepped Leo and tripped him, sending him to the ground with a thud. Peter grabbed Leo's leg.
"This is called the Siberian foot-lock. You can't get out of this one…"
Leo screamed in pain as he experienced what felt like a thousand knives stabbing him in his knee, and heard a sickening crack. Peter let his leg go and it fell to the ground mangled and bruised before turning to Valya and crossing his arms, challenging him to fight again if he dared.
"Marat," Valya spoke to a fiery-eyed auburn-haired man brandishing a switchblade, "it doesn't look like he's going to come quietly. Maybe a few cutting words might persuade him…"
Marat lunged at Peter, the blade shining like a full moon on a crisp winter night. Peter sidestepped him and tried to knock him over. But Marat turned on his heel and tried to stab him in the chest cavity and finally put him out of commission. As Peter was backed against the alley wall, he kicked Marat in the abdomen, hoping his leg would provide enough strength to keep him back. Marat continued to attempt short and aggressive jabs at Peter, now aiming for his face. Peter felt the blade cut just below his left eye, and felt the warm liquid of life hemorrhage. He winced in pain at the nick, and prompted Tanya to almost step in.
"No, Tanyusha! Keep away!"
Tanya, against her base reactions to jump to Peter's aid, stayed out, knowing she might end endangering herself as well as him. All the while, she was mesmerized at his superb skills in combat. She had seen him fight against agents of the secret police in Vladivostok and Stalingrad, but it was always with a note of reluctance from him. Here he fought with ferocity, unseen since his days in Stalingrad. What drove him to fight so much despite his hatred for it?
Peter now used the moment to punch a distracted Marat in the eye, leaving him with a blackened socket as he skidded across the pavement and tried to lunge again at Peter. Peter now leaped forward and tackled him to the ground, wrestling the blade out of his hand as they struggled with each other for a few moments. Marat had Peter at his wrists and tried desperately to hold him from grabbing the switchblade and turning the tables. He landed a hard punch to Peter's jaw, but Peter retaliated with a blow to his remaining eye rending him blind. Now Marat's grip on his wrists loosened and Peter seized the moment to grab the switchblade and stab Marat in the palm of his hand.
Marat yelled out in pain as Peter then rolled on his back and stabbed the remaining hand before finally stomping on his abdomen and kicking him over.
Bloodied, bruised, but unbeaten, Peter turned to Valya who had yet to fight him. He raised the switchblade and took the stance of en garde, awaiting Valya's next move. Valya laughed, and slowly applauded him.
"You fight quite well for someone so young, Daniels. I am impressed."
"Will you let us go then?" Peter proposed, brandishing the switchblade in his direction.
"Not yet," Valya declined, sifting through his pocket for something neither Peter nor Tanya could discern. "The best way to settle this is a test of strength."
Peter's eyes narrowed indignantly at the thought of a personal duel with this hoodlum. Fighting Germans and his own Russian brothers was bad enough, but to fight one of his own kind, over such a thing as who was the strongest? Wasn't this question of who was the strongest what got the whole world into this mess? Germany claimed it was the strongest of all nations, and started the war his country was now embroiled in. Japan claimed it was the strongest nation in the Pacific, and now his father was away fighting against the hordes who wished to conquer. What meant strength? The power to rule over all? The will to survive in a fight? Or was it something closer…deeper…and simpler than all of those temporal vanities and delusions of grandeur?
"Valya," Peter said with the voice of a sagely scholar, "you will come to learn there are other ways to prove who is the strongest rather than fighting."
"Then tell me, Peter Ivanovich," Valya responded, unfazed, "which strength do you believe in? The physical will? Whoever wins in a duel?"
"Strength is not determined by violence, and it is that very notion that started this war. True strength is decided by what is in the heart."
Valya frowned, obviously dissatisfied with Peter's answer. To think that a hero who had seen deadly combat and fought in the harshest winters the Motherland had yet to give would still think in such lofty, idealistic terms! To hear a man of great deeds still entertain the notion of any principles, any hope left in this world that had gone to Hell! Valya knew the harshness of the world, growing up among men who only thought of power and intimidation of rivals. He had grown to accept the world as he found it, and he would think Peter would be far more in touch with that reality!
"You think this world knows of such talk, Peter Ivanovich?" Valya spat in disgust, his nihilism rising in his voice. "You think men of power still dream of such glittery promises when they drag us to war? You think the soldiers of our Motherland still fight for such ideals when they see the fascist hordes marching towards them? Are you really that naive, Peter Ivanovich?"
"Think of me as you like, but that is my belief," Peter responded, refusing to hide his conviction.
Valya laughed, despairing for the hero who still held on to dreams that now belonged to a foolish and childish past. He almost felt sorry for bringing this down upon him as he fished out a knife from his coat pocket.
"If you wish to live in a world of illusions, then I will break them from under you!"
Valya charged Peter, and made a stab at his lung, but Peter dodged it by inches, barely cutting into the fabric of his grey trench coat. Peter made a lunge of his own and tried to cut him at his fighting arm, but Valya sidestepped and spun on his heel to deal a swift kick to his shins. Peter was sent straight to the pavement but he wasted no time in rolling over and avoiding the plunge of Valya's knife and managed to cut at just above Valya's wrist. Undaunted, Valya tried to tackle Peter, but he kicked him in the chest and moved in for the final blow.
Before Valya could mount a sophisticated defense, Peter plunged the switchblade through Valya's fighting hand and then to his thigh, covering his pant leg with blood. Wanting to keep up the momentum, Peter quickly kicked Valya in the jaw, knocking him out.
A final groan of pain from Valya brought an end to the violent scene that Peter wished he could forget, like so many other things that haunted him. He sighed, cursing in his head the wickedness and unhappiness in the world that drove men to each other's throats for hope of personal gain. He had become one of the victims as well as the perpetrators in the daily crimes of man, but he feared not for his fate in the life to come. For one woman, true in spirit and mind and honest in body and soul, provided him with all the reason he needed to carry the sin with no word of complaint. It was she who he turned to, and spoke in the language only they knew.
"Let's get out of here."
They turned to walk away from the macabre scene, only now, Peter led her by the hand. He would take her away from all of this, lead her to a life that only had love and tranquility in its wake, and reveal to her secrets he had kept held in his heart.
Just then, a drop of water landed on Tanya's head. Then another, and another, and another. The pavement turned dark with rain and a thunder clap that told of the wrath of God broke the stillness of the town. Soon it began to pour and they took shelter under the canopy of a bookstore as they discussed how to get out of the rain.
"Let's go home," she said, tired of seeing the town after the horrors that unfolded before her.
"We're too far away now," he lamented, obviously wishing to go back. "We'll be soaked by the time we reach home."
"Then we should wait out the rain. Is there anywhere in this town we can go to?"
"Da," he answered, resolved. "I know a place."
He led her through the rain-covered streets, sprinting as fast as track runners in search of the place of sanctuary that only Peter knew. Further inward, beyond the town square and the cafe where seniors play chess and children laugh and sing of happier days, there was an old bridge, one that had been in town as long as Peter could remember. It was made of stone and mortar, and started to show its age with the growing of moss and vines on its arches.
What started as a drizzle was now torrential rain, with thunder crashes loud as cannon fire going and lightning bolts striking up the dark cloudy sky with an unsettling, foreboding portent. They stood under the bridge, and looked out into the tempest that played out before their young eyes, as their hearts searched for words to questions they knew not of. Tanya eyed her dearest friend and closest thing to a love, seeing once again the depression that had gripped him since returning from Russia.
Peter leaned on the wall of the bridge arch, looking out into the storm that seemed to visualize the swirl of emotions in his own heart. His coat was slightly torn at the shoulder, and spots of blood stained his collar from his wounds. His ash blonde locks were dripping wet, sticking to his forehead and the nape of his neck and served to highlight his glassy green eyes, aimlessly staring out into the distance without a sense of rhyme or reason. He looked weighed down by something.
"Peter…" she started.
He turned his head slowly to look to her, her snowy grey eyes begging him for something, but what he could not discern. She called out to her bewildered and downcast companion, asking him to answer what had left her in a quandary.
"How is it you can fight so fiercely when you despise it?"
Peter sighed, turning to her and speaking in a voice that spoke of weariness and resignation.
"I'll fight for anything that is precious to me, Tanya. And I will always fight especially for you."
Tanya blushed and felt her heart stir, moved by his sincere admission. Despite his obviously heartfelt statement, his answers were also so ambiguous, so unclear. He always dodged the question, hiding something from her that she desperately wanted revealed. She was honest with herself as far as he was concerned, so why can't he be the same? But she resolved to get the answer out of him this time. If she didn't ask now, she never would, and she would never be able to live with herself afterward.
"Then what am I to you, Peter?" she asked, her voice hard as stone. "Am I your prize from Stalingrad like Valya suggested? Am I just your friend?"
"Tanya…" Peter said slowly in shock, having never heard her speak so harshly before now.
"You've never been direct with me, Petroshka," she continued, her snow grey eyes unflinching. "You've always avoided the issue when you could, and you've always acted like you're hiding something from me. I'm sick and tired of you stringing me along! Dai mnye tvoi otvyet seichas!" (A/N: Give me your answer now!)
She stomped her foot on the ground in anger and resolution, her indignation at his continued reticence and restraint evident by the scowl on her face and the fire in her eyes that dried her wet, wavy, dark brown locks. She left him there, standing with a mouth agape, as she awaited his answer.
Peter saw this was the moment. It was now or never. He just had to find the right way to express it. Thousands of ways to finally say what he had meant to all this time zipped through his head. In milliseconds he considered and threw them out, none of them seeming appropriate. He was about to give up all hope when he spotted a stone on ground. He then looked to the walls and in an instant, it was all made clear.
"I have an answer, but I can't say it."
He picked up the stone and said, green eyes glimmering with desire for forgiveness,
"I'm sorry, Tanyusha. This is the best I can do."
Tanya tilted her head in confusion at what Peter did next. He turned to the walls of the bridge arch and started to write, the stone leaving a dark thin trail of his very heart and soul that he had kept hidden from everyone and from her. In a shaky and uneasy hand, he wrote out in small simple words that damnable and agonizing feeling that had driven him to the brink of insanity since returning home. Two short sentences formed that spoke volumes, far more than all the books in the world could.
TЫ ПРЕКРАСНA, TAНЯ. (A/N: You're beautiful, Tanya. Pronunciation: Tiy prikrasna, Tanya.)
Я TEБЯ ЛЮБЛЮ. (A/N: I love you. Pronunciation: Ya tebya lyublyu.)
"And now you know what has driven me insane this whole time…" he said, not facing her.
Finally honest not just with the love of his life but with himself, he only leaned against his personal engraving and silently awaited a response from her. A word of rejoice, a cry, a whimper, anything that would give him the confidence to know that she now understood what had been the method to his madness, the source of all his pain, and the one reason he would give up his own life. There was silence for what seemed like an eternity until he heard something.
It was like the whimper of a wounded dog. Soon the whimper turned to crying and then to sobbing. He turned and found her face buried in her hands, crying her heart out not out of sadness, but out of joy in finally knowing the true feelings of her one companion in this life.
She raised her head and sported the brightest smile he had ever seen on her face since the day he met her, shining like the rosy fingers of dawn and singing like the trumpets of a thousand angels. Did she reciprocate, and felt the same in her heart since the day he came back? She soon gave her answer.
"Peter," she said, fighting through tears of elation, "eta vyso, shto ya khotela." (A/N: That is all I wanted.)
"Then do you love me?" Peter asked, holding back his own tears.
He had to know now, so that all of these efforts of travelling across the world, fighting and killing Germans, becoming a hero and then a villain, receiving bloodstained laurels and enduring the costly war in his head were not all in vain. If she could not reciprocate, he would be trapped in another never-ending battle with himself who would only cry out how he had failed in his campaign, and how a chance of living a life with a quiet and tamed heart would be forever beyond his grasp. He had to know her heart now, just as she had come to know his.
"Da," she said, tears streaming down her face in rivers of revelation. "I love you with all of my heart, Peter Ivanovich Daniels."
With those words, his campaign was at last complete and the gap in his heart closed. At last he had found the answer to the heart-wrenching question she posed to him those many years ago. But at the same time, he felt like he had wronged her greatly for leading her on this whole time. He stood on his feet and embraced her in an instant, as she cried into his chest, soaking his trench coat.
"Tatiana Petrovna, I'm sorry!"
"Why, Peter?" Tanya asked, sniffling, still trying to stem the flow of her tears. "Why should you apologize for anything?"
"I've been a fool. I thought there was some answer I had to reach to finally ease the pain in my heart. The answer has been right beside me and I never realized it!"
Tanya giggled, nuzzling him and sinking deeper into his embrace.
"Peter, you may be a fool, but now you will always be my fool. Nothing from here on out will ever change that."
"Then can you forgive me for holding back for so long?"
"Have I ever not forgiven you?"
"Never," he chuckled, stroking her soft brown hair.
"You shall have no worries, then. All I have of you is one request."
"Anything," he whispered. "Just name it."
"Kiss me, and don't hold back. I want to feel from your lips just how much you love me."
Peter smiled and nodded, and leaned in gently to her face, cupping her cheek in his hand. Inch by inch, the barrier between them narrowed and with it the final victory in a long campaign in sight. Peter hesitated for a moment when he was barely a centimeter away, evidenced by a nervous gulp. But everything else from his admission, his times with her, to the times that would be spent in the future, ruled out any hesitance he had left in his heart. With no warning or reason, he pressed his lips to hers in a kiss.
It was smooth and gentle at first, a kiss that would be shared between children after a long day playing in the fields of youth. But all the passion he had kept locked up now overflowed, and he could not hold back if he tried. His kiss deepened, now to one of passion between soulmates, years spent of two hearts linked in spirit. Theirs was sweet like sugar, before diving even deeper into the ocean of fire, lips pressed close together and still embracing each other hard enough to make their ribs cry in protest. But that did not deter him. He would go deeper and deeper, as deep as he could to prove to her just how much he had loved her and how it had not changed one bit from then.
Throwing any caution she had to the wind, she returned the kiss, giving Peter all the love she had kept hidden in her heart. But this kiss, the first real one from the one she had loved for so long, made her stomach flutter, feeling like it was filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of excited butterflies. Snaking her arms around his neck, she used him as support. Her knees weakened, the passion she was feeling turning the rest of her insides to jelly now that everything that they had kept hidden was finally free and out in the open.
Peter finally broke away, gasping for much needed oxygen, though he would much rather still be locked with her in the kiss that set them free and made long-held emotions finally made known, with love crying out in both of them now.
"I've wanted to do that for a long time," Peter whispered, in-between breaths.
"At least this time, it was real," she responded resting a hand upon his uninjured cheek. "And it will be for as long as we can be together."
He smiled and gently placed one hand behind her neck and beneath her soft mane of dark brown hair and slipped the other around her hips as he rested his head against hers.
"Ya budu s toboi. Vsegda." (A/N: I will be with you. Always.)
Away and out of sight of the two recently admitted lovers, a hooded figure watched this passionate scene from behind the shadows and under the shelter of a canopy. It was a woman, roughly the age of the boy, with golden blonde hair hidden beneath her light blue cloak and hood. Beneath the darkness of her hood stood a solid ocean blue eye that gazed upon the two of them, standing there under the bridge engaged in the ritual only lovers know.
A tear came to the eye and ran down the woman's cheek, crying for a lost opportunity with someone who she only now realized to be her love. She had been a fool, thinking there was always more time. If she had said something or acted, she might had changed the whole outcome of this little story of intrigue and repressed feelings. Now one tear turned to two. Two turned into a river. A river turned into a torrent, as she sobbed out her regret while laughing at the irony of the scene.
"I see! I understand now, Peter! I know now what has driven you mad! It was her. It was always her. You had always loved her…poor little fool…you and I…we're both such fools…"
February 16th, 1943
The snows had just begun to melt, and spring was creeping on Mother Russia. It had been only two weeks since the German surrender, and the city still appeared to be in a state of siege. Reconstruction had not yet begun, and all in the old city realized that it would be many a year and many an hour of hard labor before the city was inhabitable again. The soldiers that now marched out of the city westward bound still gave any visitor the impression that the metropolis was still a battleground. As for the civilians who began to return, the primary thing on their minds was to simply find their homes again and begin life anew.
A woman of short light-colored hair and sharp green eyes had received orders from a superior to meet in the basement of an undisclosed building. The note she carried in her coat pocket merely said to look for a sign, any sign.
You will recognize it when you see it.
She wore the traditional uniform of an Interior Ministry agent: a dark khaki jacket with blue riding pants tucked into tall black boots. The shoulder boards denoted the rank of a junior lieutenant, an anomaly if ever there was one in the NKVD; women hardly got promoted past sergeant, for Hell knows what reason. A law by Stalin? A law made at the first Politburo meeting? A decree by the NKVD chief of staff? She knew not. All she knew was she was a servant of the state, and what was good for the state was good for her, or so she was taught from birth.
All she could hear was the crunch of resisting snow beneath her boots as she walked along upturned streets and passed mute broken apartments, monuments to the ongoing struggle of a people united against a hostile invader. On every building she passed, there was graffiti that spoke of the ongoing battle against fascism, that extolled heroes, demonized villains, and mourned victims.
ВРАГ БУДЕТ РАЗБИТ! (A/N: The enemy will be defeated! Pronunciation: Vrag budyet razbit!)
The walls are broken, but not our hearts.
Remember the American Russian!
At the words "American Russian," she harkened back to stories her comrades told during the days of combat in this once fair city. Stories told of a boy who had once visited the Soviet Union and this very city, and spent days of friendship with the people, becoming a Russian in all but name. When the Germans attacked, he hurried to the aid of his Russian brothers and sisters, and fought side by side with soldiers of the Motherland. It was in a time when it seemed the Soviet Union faced Germany alone, with little to no help from the Western Allies. His arrival provided a much-needed morale boost to the soldiers, and inspired them to continue the fight. When the battle was won, the American Russian disappeared, and was never heard from again. As for what happened to him, the stories were as varied as the members of the Animal Kingdom.
One said he went home, his duty done.
Another said he was killed on the last day of the battle.
Yet another said he still fights on with his comrades, but merely as a faceless soldier rather than the glowing example of support from across the Pacific.
Whatever happened to him after Stalingrad, he was now etched in all of their minds, a symbol of American alliance with the Soviets, and a testament to the friendship between their peoples. If he was killed, he would never die, because he would live on in their hearts. He was as loved a figure as Stalin, or the long-suffering Russian soldier.
She would be a terrible liar if she said she did not envy him, to achieve fame in such a short span of time. Her exploits were far less than glorious, as she had fought with her comrades in the NKVD since the beginning of the battle; her unit fought fiercely in the battle for Mamaev Kurgan, the old railway station, near Pavlov's house, and in the metal mazes of the Red October Tractor Factory. She had merely carried out her duties, fired her rifle, and killed fascists whenever she got a chance. Her only reward for braving through such horrors was the commission she had only recently received, and even after it, it meant little.
Most of her unit was gone, casualties of the battle. She remembered how her commanding officers were replaced practically every week, as they suffered a particularly high casualty rate. She was lucky she even survived the battle, let alone got a commission. Perhaps this meeting with her as of yet unknown superior was to assign her to a new unit. It was a prospect she was hesitant about taking on at best, and totally averse to at least.
The life of a combat soldier was extremely taxing, and it was not something she was accustomed to. She could remember a time when she could list her duties as an NKVD officer on one hand. The life of a police officer was more a job suited for her; she prayed and hoped that this would be the job she was to be assigned upon the meeting with her commanding officer.
Sure enough, a sign that her superior was nearby appeared before her; a guard, decked in full dress uniform, standing tall beside a doorway leading into what looked to be an ordinary cafe. She approached the guard and inquired about the new superior.
"He is waiting in the cellar."
"Yes. Go behind the bar of the cafe and you will find a trap door. You can figure out the rest."
The guard said nothing more, much to the displeasure of the NKVD agent. She shrugged it off, and did as the guard suggested. The cafe was completely deserted like a ghost town, yet another sign of the destruction and suffering this martyred city had endured in the past six months. She remembered a time during her duty before the siege how places like this once buzzed with conversations between friends, family, and lovers. No longer. Not now, when there was still work to be done. Not as long as there was an enemy to fight and defeat.
She went behind the barren bar and found what the guard said she would find: a trap door, leading down into a poorly-lit cellar. Wandering around the cellar, she realized how she forgot to ask the guard which room her new commander would be in. She was about to double back when she heard a cough from a room nearby and what sounded like a glass hitting a wooden table.
She turned right through an unmarked door and found a single bulb hanging from the ceiling. Beneath it, a worn circular wooden table on which stood a bottle of vodka and two shot glasses. Behind the bottle stood the silhouette of a man, who she could only guess was her new superior. From what little she could see in the light, he wore a Red Army uniform with insignia on his collar and shoulder boards denoting the rank of lieutenant colonel. He had a stubbly face, and judging from his body outline, he looked to be in his late twenties. Two icy blue eyes shot out at her, with as cutting a gaze as a fine steak knife.
"Comrade Lieutenant Colonel?"
"Ah, Agent 340," answered the officer in a deep, raspy voice. "Please, do come in."
Agent 340 stepped forward, and stood in front of the table, choosing not to sit down unless ordered to do so. She sensed the penchant smell of vodka that was heavy on his words and coated his breath. The eyes were bloodshot and hazy, easily from many a night contemplating troop movements to drive out the hated enemy. And yet they were magnetic and entrancing, like cheese strapped to a mouse trap. She wanted to look away, but did not have the power to.
He poured a drink into the shot glass and offered it to her.
"No thank you, sir," she politely refused. "I don't drink."
"Well," he coughed, as he took the glass himself, "it is not a good habit, but all good habits do make a dull person. What's that old British saying? 'All work and no play makes…'"
"A dull man, sir."
The man laughed, but not the jovial kind one would share among friends. It was the kind of laugh that could strike fear as finely as a knife cut through skin. The kind of laugh that one would expect not from a friend, but from a feared adversary. She shivered in her boots just at his chortle, though she refused to let him on one centimeter to what fear possessed her mind.
"Right you are," the man continued, downing the shot. "There is a time for work, and a time for play."
He ushered her closer, and she took a seat in front of him, not minding the strong stench of his vodka. She figured it was now time for business between them.
"I have much work for you. Are you ready to take it on, Agent 340?"
"Whatever my orders are, I shall carry them out to the best of my ability."
"Are you willing to do anything to see your orders fulfilled? Even if it means risking your life?"
"Of course, comrade Lieutenant Colonel."
The man seemed contrite and poured another drink.
"You understand why I must ask you these questions, of course, Agent 340. With the tide only now beginning to turn, we must keep an esprit d' corps, if you will. But the enemy you will be facing is someone who may prove to be far more challenging than your average German soldier."
"Who is it, sir? Marshal Goering? Herr Goebbels? Or Hitler himself?"
"Actually, none of the above," said the lieutenant colonel, a knowing smile cutting through the dimness of the room. "He is not German. Besides which, I am certain that any of your choices would not give nearly as much challenge."
"Who is he, then, sir? If I am to be given an assassination mission, it is necessary that I—"
The lieutenant colonel raised a hand, indicating for her to stop. She did as she was asked, and waited for the officer to take his drink, which he downed with a hard gulp.
"He is someone that all of us are familiar with and love dearly. Do you, by chance, know of the American Russian?"
"Peter Ivanovich Daniels?" 340 asked in surprise.
"Sir, if I may ask, didn't he die on the last day of Stalingrad?"
The blue eyes shot a hard glare at her, noting how she was asking too many questions when she didn't even know what the mission was. 340 took the hint and folded her hands behind her back, as if to ask for forgiveness from a priest.
"No, he didn't die. He left Russia shortly after Stalingrad."
"Oh…" 340 said slowly, taken aback by this news.
Surely a man of such great repute would volunteer to stay on with the Soviets and fight the enemy to the end. To think that he would leave so soon after the battle was over, and when there was still a great deal of work to be done seemed surreal even in conception.
"Your orders," the man started, obviously with the hope of no questions, "are to travel abroad to America and find him. If you do find him, you are to kill him."
At the word "kill," she stifled a gasp. Where did this heavy-drinking, hard-staring lieutenant colonel misplace his brain to think that ordering the assassination of a national hero was an even remotely good idea? The thought was akin to ordering every soldier to take his gun and put a bullet through his head. She searched through her mind for any and every possible explanation for why this hero to the people should suffer death, and found none. She only turned to the lieutenant colonel, and entreated silently for an explanation. She didn't expect she would get one, but she had to know.
"You want to know why I am giving such an order, yes?"
"That is for me to know alone. I cannot give you clearance to that information. But all I can say is he is a hindrance to a future plan for our great nation."
"If that is the case, sir, why eliminate him now when our soldiers could use the morale boost—?"
At that question, the lieutenant colonel slammed his fist on the table, shaking the glass and bottle with the force of an earthquake. He stood up and for a moment, a brief fleeting moment, she could see his face before it became shrouded in darkness, with only the icy blue eyes illuminating and throwing ten thousand daggers straight through her soul.
"You ask too much, 340," he said, his voice foreboding with dread. "Are you not a servant of the Soviet Union? Is it not your duty to answer her call, carry out her orders, and fulfill her plans without hesitation or question? Is it not your obligation to serve her with loyalty and dedication, no matter what the circumstances may be? Are you not trained to follow orders, Agent 340?"
With a pair of stone-cold eyes glaring her down, she felt her feet shake in her boots, and knew that she risked her life if she spoke out of turn once more. She bowed slightly, asking for pardon.
"Forgive me, comrade Lieutenant Colonel."
"That's better. You leave for Vladivostok at the end of the month. There, you will meet your commanding officer and the rest of your team for the operation. I suggest you start preparing a cover for yourself, as you will need it in America. Do you have any questions regarding your mission, Agent 340?"
340 shook her head. It was more motivated by fear than lack of curiosity; another question and he might strike her with the now half empty vodka bottle.
"Good," he said, smiling. "You are dismissed."