The faint breeze was enough to cause the palm fronds to rustle, but it offered little relief to the man who walked purposefully across the neatly tended lawn. After only a minute or two out of the icy blast of his car's air conditioning, he was forced to remove the ever present leather jacket. Wearing a white t-shirt and worn blue jeans, and with the jacket slung over his shoulder he looked only slightly less dangerous than usual.
His eyes restlessly scanned his surroundings from behind dark sunglasses only coming to rest when he spotted what he was sure must be his destination.
The headstone stood out from the others. Not because it was large or ostentatious. No, it was a simple gray stone on a small well tended plot. There were no expensive floral arrangements; instead tiny pink flowers grew all around its base. It stood out because of the writing that would have been at home in some snow covered Russian graveyard, but was a complete mystery to most residents of this sunny Florida retirement community.
The small slab of marble with its Cyrillic characters drew Alex Krycek like a magnet.
He sank to his knees in front of the stone and reached out to hesitantly touch and then trace the curved and looping letters.
"I'm sorry," he managed to choke out before grief and tears overwhelmed him.
He knelt like that for hours, gently tracing the words on the stone, crying silently and then resuming his tactile study of the text. The sun traveled from one end of the sky to the other, visitors came and went from nearby gravestones, and Alex was oblivious to all of it.
"Did you know Zofia," a man's voice quietly asked from behind.
Alex leapt to his feet, his hand automatically inching towards the weapon hidden in the folds of his jacket as he evaluated the newcomer. The man was older, in his sixties at least, but his dark tan gave him the look of an active and vital man. He was dressed in light blue shorts and a loose plaid shirt like so many of the other residents of this quiet town. Alex judged the man to be harmless; still his hand didn't stray more than six inches from the gun.
"Who are you," Alex responded angrily. He wasn't used to getting caught off guard, and his instinctive response to being surprised was one of barely suppressed violence.
"Anatol," the man responded, extending his hand, trying to be friendly. Despite his initial question it was obvious to him that the younger man knew Zofia; a grown man didn't weep at the tombstone of strangers. "I know it sounds silly coming from a man my age, but I suppose you could say I was Zofia's 'boy'friend," he finished with an embarrassed smile.
Anatol was surprised to see the other man's entire body jerk in reaction to that statement. He let his extended hand drop to his side and his smile faded, afraid that he had just said the wrong thing. But instead of the increased anger he had been expecting, the young man frowned and visibly fought the return of his tears.
"So...so, this _is_ her grave," Alex asked hesitantly.
"Yes, of course," Anatol replied, surprised. "Can't you read it?"
"No," Alex nearly whispered.
"But...," Anatol stumbled, "but...I'm sorry...But I thought you might be Sasha."
It had been more than twenty five years since anyone other than his mother had called him by that boyhood nickname and avoided a punch in the face. Alex felt the tears well up one more time, and was less successful at suppressing them.
"I'm sorry," Anatol continued with a half-turn back the way he had come. "Perhaps I should leave you alone..."
Alex considered letting the other man leave so that he could be alone with his grief. So that he wouldn't embarrass himself any further in front of the stranger. But he realized there was something he needed to know.
"Wait," Alex called after the older man. "I need to ask you something."
Anatol turned and looked at him dubiously.
"I am Alexandr -- Sasha," Alex acknowledged with his most innocent looking smile. "You can call me Alex."
Anatol didn't look convinced.
"My parent's didn't teach me Russian, they wanted me to be an American boy," Alex explained, the smile becoming more genuine as the memories of early childhood came back to him. "I picked up what I know of the language -- curses mostly -- from my grandmother."
Anatol nodded. "What do you want to know?"
"How," Alex paused and took a breath to steady himself. "How did she die?"
Anatol took a deep breath himself before answering -- his own grief was relatively fresh. "Heart attack," he replied grimly.
Alex felt a sort of insane relief and had to turn away quickly to make sure Anatol didn't see any trace of it on his face. He wasn't to blame. There had been no one waiting in a dark corner of her apartment to shoot her simply for the sin of being related to him. Of course the people he worked for could arrange all kinds of deaths. Heart attacks weren't particularly difficult... No, Alex cut himself off, there was nothing to be gained from that line of thinking.
A hand on his shoulder startled Alex. Anatol had misunderstood his reaction as the need to hide his grief and provided what comfort he could.
"Let's have a drink to your mother's memory, Sasha," Anatol offered. "I have some good Russian vodka at my place."
Alex stepped into the blessed cool of Anatol's home. The walk from the cemetery to this small apartment across the street from the beach had not been long, but it was enough for Alex, in his jeans and black leather boots, to begin to sweat profusely.
Anatol had disappeared immediately into the kitchen, giving Alex a minute or two to look around. The place was sunny and clean. Crisp white walls were decorated with paintings of sunsets and the sea. The pink and green furniture looked relatively new and entirely too feminine for Anatol to have lived here alone. Alex had the uncomfortable realization that Anatol had not just been his mother's boyfriend, but her live-in lover as well.
Anatol chose that moment to emerge from the kitchen with two glasses, a frosty bottle of vodka and a shoe box tucked under his arm. He poured two drinks and handed one to Alex. Both men raised their glasses in a silent toast, too emotional for speech, and quickly drank the ice cold, fiery alcohol.
"You're mother left some things for you," Anatol suddenly said as he handed the box to Alex.
Alex was shocked. He hadn't communicated with his mother in any way for over five years; it was safer for her that way. He had hoped that she would simply try to forget him. That she might have been expecting him to come, waiting for him, saving things that she wanted to give to him, only added to the hurt that he was already feeling.
Alex cautiously lifted the lid from the box and stared at the contents. He reached inside and fingered a stack of cash, unconsciously counting the bundles. There was at least fifty thousand; probably every cent he had ever given her. Alex felt a sharp pain in his gut at this fresh rejection.
Next to the cash was a gun. Another of his gifts and just as unused as the money. Thank god for that.
Otherwise the box appeared to be empty and Alex wondered why his mother had saved these things. She had never approved of his choices, what mother would? And, in the past, she had frequently made her feelings known in hundreds of unspoken ways. But had she deliberately planned to rebuke him from beyond the grave? Alex shook his head and made to close the box when he noticed something. At the bottom of the box there appeared to be a scrap of paper.
Alex fished the small piece of paper from underneath the other contents of the box. It seemed to be blank until he turned it over and then couldn't repress a muffled curse as he recognized his own handwriting.
"I've gotta go," Alex muttered and he rose leaving the open box on the coffee table, the cash, gun and note clearly visible. Anatol didn't seem surprised at the contents, Alex noticed. He could feel the older man's condemnation just as clearly as he could sense his mother's judgment in this last message she had left for him.
Alex had his hand on the doorknob before Anatol realized what was happening.
"She had nothing...," Anatol began.
"...thanks to me," Alex interrupted still facing the door.
"Perhaps..." Anatol acknowledged and Alex turned to face him, furious. "But...let me rephrase."
Alex turned back to the door, pressing his forehead into its chilled unyielding steel. Anatol's once refreshingly cool apartment now seemed oppressive, but Alex couldn't leave. As much as he wanted to get away he also wanted to hear what the old man had to say. Whatever the punishment, he deserved it.
"Those things are all your mother had of you," Anatol explained. "She saved them, as another mother might have saved report cards or drawings."
Alex burst into humorless laughter. It was sick, twisted, just like so many other things he had touched in his life.
"She must have hated me," he confessed.
"No," Anatol replied. "She loved you."
The little apartment was unnaturally silent for several long minutes, until the sound of Alex's quiet crying rose above the low hum of the air conditioner.
"She just wanted you to stop, Alex," Anatol continued gently.
Alex shook his head, but was unable to turn around and look the other man in the face. "It's not that easy," Alex said.
"I don't understand it all," Anatol acknowledged. "But you're always running, wouldn't you like to just rest for a while?"
"Yes," Alex whispered into the door, too softly for Anatol to hear. Then he pushed himself upright, wiped at his eyes and turned. The look of confidence was back on his face as long as no one noticed the red-rimmed eyes.
"It's not that easy," Alex repeated grimly. "If I stop running, I might as well reserve the plot next to my mother's."
Alex put on his leather jacket as he moved to the coffee table. He tucked a few bundles of cash into his pockets and slipped the gun into the waistband of his jeans. He hesitated a moment, then picked up the note.
Alex turned to leave. He pulled open the door and the white hot sunlight poured into the little apartment. Standing in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the bright outside world, Alex flashed Anatol a brilliant, entirely fake smile.
"Run, Alex. It's my motto," he joked cavalierly, then carefully folded the note and placed it in his wallet
Alex left the momentary restfullness of his mother's last home and returned to his life on the run.