Ezra Pound, The Seafarer
It seemed to Alex Krycek that the longer he lived, the less he wanted to die. Early days in his business he had not really cared one way or another; a man with nothing to lose is a most formidable enemy, after all, he is willing to take higher risks to get the job done. It could be considered an asset. Alex had not honestly expected to live long working for the Consortium, and it was really all right, this high mortalitly rate amongst his fellow employees, because Alex's life in the civilian world was completely empty.
Not so now.
It seemed that he had woken up one morning with everything to lose, and having reached that particular morning -- his 30th birthday, to be precise -- he found himself anxious to ensure that other mornings like it followed. Safe, quiet mornings, surrounded by the things he suddenly held so dear.
Upon reflection, he could almost be thankful for the loss of his arm. Nikolai Markov had found him in St Petersburg, quite literally licking his wounds and assessing his options. He'd paid his respects to the Russian Syndicate, and they'd allowed him room to breathe. But the options were still few. Spring came late to the northern cities of the old empire, Alex had been keeping himself warm with vodka and trying to keep nightmares of the knife at bay. The knife, the oil, the gulag, the silo, there were nightmares to spare, a veritable grab bag. Sometimes he thought the harbour might welcome his body; suddenly he, a man of all callings, had no calling at all. A one-armed spy was not inconspicuous, and he'd never been the best shot.
Then Nikolai came, with an offer to, more or less, make an honest man of him. Nikolai's oldest boy, rather the Russian version of Sonny Corleone, was insisting that he be allowed to go to university in the US. His father was amenable, provided that Ilya had a competent guardian.
"Why me?" Alex had asked bitterly.
The old man had shrugged and spread his hands. "I can not think of anyone better."
Once his personal hangups about going back into the field were worked through, the idea appealed to him. It had nothing to do with the Consortium, which was a major plus. Nothing to do with them meant no weirdness, another plus. It was low profile and low stress. The payroll was well laundered money, sure, but Nikolai was offering to secure for him dual citizenship and diplomatic immunity, both of which were good things to have. Upstate New York, small college town, apartment, stipend, all for keeping the Markov scion out of trouble.
After some thought, Alex decided it was the deal of a lifetime.
Adelphis University in Adelphis, New York. He and his young charge moved there in August, could it be only five months after Tunguska? Aldelphis was a warm, green change from the windy streets of St Petersburg. Rationally he knew that this part of New York was prone to long winters and deep snow, but that August he revelled in the pine covered mountains and the valleys full of wildflowers.
It was as if someone had colourized his life; the sun was brighter, the sky was bluer, the air definitely was cleaner. Summer melted into fall, and the hills were ablaze with gold and scarlet and orange. For the first time in years, Alex felt very nearly alive. And it was one such day in early October that Ilya came home and announced that they would be having dinner with his history professor, she'd be over at 6.
"Why?" Alex had asked.
Ilya shrugged. "She's Russian."
To give the boy credit, he hadn't been in much trouble since their arrival. A couple of fights, that's all. Alex hadn't felt the need to follow him 'round campus from class to class, figuring he didn't need alienation, and so far he'd made friends. But it was obvious from time to time that he missed his homeland, and he often spoke fondly of Dr Jagielska, who taught his Western Civilisations class. He said that she was Belarussian, had come to America as a child, and that they often talked about Russian politics together. He said her Russian was flawless despite her years in this country, and that it was good to hear a voice beside Alex's speaking his language.
What he failed to mention was that she was beautiful.
Anna Jagielska was nearly as tall as Alex, with bright blue eyes and the auburn-red hair that every Russian woman wants, but so few get from nature. Those eyes sparkled with wit and intelligence, her expression was warm and open. For years Alex had resigned himself to the knowledge that, the mercenary game being what it was, he could not afford to succumb to emotion. The liasons he engaged in usually involved cash on the nightstand, and how many really good women did you meet in his line of work, anyway? But this was a really good woman, every instinct told him so, and no matter how corny it sounded, it was the warmth of that first smile that began to melt the ice around his heart.
Later Ilya would staunchly deny that the dinner had been any sort of match-making endeavour, but if it was one, it was wildly successful. Dinner became dessert, then drinks, then coffee; suddenly Alex realised that it was 3 in the morning and he'd spent what were, at that point, the happiest hours of his life just talking. Learning about the woman before him.
Her family was from near Grodno, near the Polish-Belarussian border. She was born in 1970, she was going to be twenty-seven in November. Yes, she'd gotten her doctorate young, because she'd graduated high school at 17, and later had only taken a year and a half to finish her masters. Her family came to the US in 1982 when she was eleven. She had an older brother, Valery, who was in the Soviet Navy then, and had stayed. She had a younger brother, Peter, who was in med school at Columbia. She drove a forest green Altima and loved the Beatles. She liked to watch boxing and soccer, to read British murder mysteries, and took her tea black with two tablespoons of honey. To Alex,she was just about perfect.
Four dates later she asked about his family, saying it was unfair for him to know so much about her, which she knew so little about him. Alex had stared at the floor of her living room, it was a hardwood floor with throw rugs here and there, and he stared so long that she put her hand on his knee and said she'd not pry.
Something about that gesture touched him. He found himself pouring out his story to an attentive audience of one, a story he'd never told before, simply because he'd doubted that anyone would want to listen. Anna listened. He was the youngest of five born to Cold War immigrants, the one who could never do anything right. He grew up torn -- one minute his parents were admonishing him for abandoning the old ways, cut your hair, turn down that music; the next minute he was being told he didn't know how good he had it, this is America, he had better love America and the good life it stood for. "Russian-American" wasn't an identity to him, it was an identity crisis.
At nineteen, a B+ sophomore at an unreknowned college, he'd found his calling. He found (or was found by, he was never sure which) a man who smoked constantly, and spoke like some ancient Roman orator. He finished off his BA in Criminal Justice with a 3.89 and took a year off; in the fall of 1990 he entered Quantico to become an FBI agent.
A double agent, actually, (and later triple, quadruple, he lost count), those last two years of college and the year off was the grooming period for a fledgling spy.
Anna's eyebrows rose at the word "spy", then, unexpectedly, she began to laugh. At his bewildered look she had explained,
"When I was growing up in the old Soviet Union, my brothers and I weren't allowed to bring friends home. Valery was old enough to date, but he wasn't allowed to bring girls home, either. Papa's reason for this rule was that you could trust no-one, any one that you invite into your home could be a spy. Obviously he was right!"
Alex had to laugh with her, and then he could not find words to express his relief at her reaction. It was so easy -- instant acceptance. He told her he was done with the business, and she made a gesture toward his arm -- the missing one -- and asked it his retirement had anything to do with it.
"It has everything to do with it," he'd answered quietly, and for the second time she touched him and said she wouldn't pry. He was grateful for it, those demons were too near just yet, and it was a burden he couldn't share. He would share it later, omitting the stranger and more horrific details.
The first time they made love he had an attack of self-consciousness; how could any woman want damaged goods like him? He said as much, and she'd stared at him, her eyes growing very dark. Finally she began buttoning up her blouse, saying very quietly that if he did not think of himself as whole, then he couldn't very well expect anyone else to, either. Her words struck him with that peculiar power she had, the problem was his, not hers, and that was when he realised that she was the part of him that was missing, not the arm. He said so, and she turned back to him with tears in her eyes.
He hadn't ever thought of sex as a transcendental experience, but he quickly acclimated to the idea.
For Christmas he gave her a Rottweiller puppy, telling her with some embarrassment that he didn't like the idea of her alone in her rented house, and felt even more sheepish when she pointed out that he was nearly always there, anyway. "But in honour of the chivalrous gesture," she said, "let's name him Shield." Alex agreed.
How had his life grown so wonderful so fast? Suddenly it was January of 1998, and here he was turning thirty. Ilya was going back to St Petersburg in May, deciding that America wasn't for him. But Nikolai has arranged for Alex a job with the Russian ambassador to the UN, which mainly involved telecommuting and a few a days a month down in Manhattan. He was lying in bed watching the snow fall, the woman he loved was still sleeping beside him, the puppy was curled up at his feel. The nightmares were fewer now.
But now there was so much more at stake.
He supposed his fears were unreasonable, after all, if no-one had come looking by now, they probably wouldn't. He knew from bitter experience that the Constortium did not like their revenge served cold, at this point he'd probably been written off. Which was just as well.
Anna had asked him what he wanted for his birthday, and he'd shrugged, told her to surprise him. Suddenly, looking at her, he knew what he wanted. Not just for today, but for the rest of his life.
Alexandra Romanova to Nicholas II Romanov, ca. 1900
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