What Katya Knew
"Her name was Katya—and she was better than all of you…there was no reason for her to die. No reason." – Alexandra Udinov
The first time that Nikolai holds baby Alex, Katya has to fight the urge to snatch her back into her arms.
He's gazing at their daughter with so much love, so much pride—and all she can think of is the terrible uneasiness that is gnawing in her chest.
"Hello, Alexandra," the new father croons, "Welcome to the world."
Katya leans back against her pillows. She has about 50 of them. Not used to being helpless, her husband had commandeered them all in some misguided belief that it would make the delivery easier. She'd never tell him but his earnest gift had provided her more than a moment of private laughter.
She wants her daughter back.
The baby is gazing at her father, taking him in for the first time. Katya has just met her ten minutes ago, but already she knows that she would die for her. The little lips, the big grey eyes, and the way she'd quieted when the nurse had placed her in her arms had hooked her. She's a mother now.
She pushes herself upright with difficulty and gathers what is available in her vocal chords.
"Alexandra!" she whispers desperately.
Nikolai looks up from the baby with a boyish grin. She knows instantly that he did not hear the desperation and a part of her is grateful. She's being silly after all. It's hormones, possibly the morphine too, that are making her react like this.
"She's ours!" her husband's voice is swelling with pride as he comes closer to her bed.
He hands Alex over tenderly, almost reluctantly, and she feels reassured in her own ridiculousness.
"I love you and as long as I live, nothing will hurt you," she silently swears fiercely to her daughter.
Baby Alex sighs contentedly and nestles into her mother.
Nikolai squeezes her hand.
"I love you," he says, "and her."
Alex's eyes are starting to close. Katya smiles at her husband.
"You're going to spoil her aren't you?" she teases, "I'll have to be the big bad mother telling her she can't have a panda as a pet and you'll be on the phone calling the zoos."
Nikolai throws his head back to laugh.
"No pandas," he promises.
Katya shakes her head.
"You may not know it yet, darling" she tells Alex, "But your father is a marshmallow."
Nikolai grunts in feigned and exaggerated consternation.
"Marshmallows don't run business empires," he complains.
She rolls her eyes.
"You'll have him wrapped around your little finger," she promises with a grin of her own.
Nikolai taps a gentle finger against the now sleeping baby's nose as he kisses his wife's forehead.
"I will give you everything, Alexandra," he promises, "You will be the next Udinov."
She hates the fear that snaps back towards her all the more because she does not know its reason but once again she is fighting the urge to slap her husband away from her daughter.
Seven years later, everyone can see that Katya's prediction came true. The tiny Alex wields a scepter in her father's heart.
"Mama!" the little girl is running towards her with tears streaming down her face and her hair streaming behind her.
The only one who can't see her own power is Alex.
"Sweetheart," Katya puts her purse and jacket on the coat rack and kneels to her daughter's level.
She narrowly avoids being knocked over when Alex launches herself into her arms.
"Alex, Alex, darling, what's wrong?"
Alex only sobs.
Katya strokes her hair and kisses her head, waiting for her to quiet. Finally, Alex sits back on her heels and bites her lips.
With cool hands, Katya pushes stray hair away from her daughter's hot forehead and prepares to listen.
"He got mad at me, Mama," Alex says.
"Who did?" Katya coaxes "Papa?"
She really needs to talk to Nikolai.
But Alex shakes her head.
"No," she says "Mischa."
It's Katya's turn to sit back on her heels.
"Mischa?" she repeats quizzically.
He was a low level guard working for her husband. He seemed nice enough but she had no idea Alex cared so much about his moods. Had he made friends with her daughter? Had she really missed that?
"Mischa…" her brain is still catching up even as she repeats the name out loud.
Maybe Nikolai will hear from her on a different topic tonight.
"Mama!" Alex's indignant call snaps her back to the present "You aren't paying attention."
She mentally clears her head.
"Mischa, honey? What was he angry about?"
Alex gives her mother a patented Udinov glare which makes Katya stifle a smile. She is so like Nikolai sometimes—and like Nikolai, she doesn't glare at Katya for long.
Rather, her lip begins to quiver again.
"I wanted to play football," she explains tremulously, "and I didn't know Papa was having a meeting."
Katya closes her eyes, beginning to piece together the story.
"So I kicked it," Alex continues "and it went really far, Mama!" A note of pride is in her voice but then it drops again, "and it hit the door behind Mischa and he got really mad at me because he said Papa would hear and he was scary—"
Right then, Katya wishes her husband was a normal man and Alex could grow up in a house without guards and without fear.
"And then—" Alex's voice brought Katya back to the present. Her daughter had begun to speak but then fallen silent again.
She seemed to gather courage. Katya could practically see her steeling herself. Finally, Alex set her jaw determinedly.
"I cried," her words rushed over themselves so that Katya almost didn't hear the confession.
When she did, she looked carefully at her daughter.
Alex's jaw was still set, but her eyes were searching Katya's anxiously.
"I didn't mean to, Mama!" she finally burst out quickly.
Katya decided to give up on the kneeling. She dropped fully to the ground and pulled Alex into her lap. The latter nestled her head into her mother's shoulder again. But, this time, she did not cry.
"Alex," Katya was at a loss, "It's ok that you cried. It's ok that you were crying just now."
Alex jerked away from her mother as though pulled by a string. She was still sitting in her lap but she was now leaning back so as to better observe her conversation partner.
For the first time, Katya felt a feeling with Alex that she had often had with regards to Nikolai. She had said something wrong—not wrong in a moral sense, but wrong to say to this particular person at this particular moment. She had pressed the wrong button somehow—displayed her incompetence.
"I can cry to you, Mama," Alex finally spoke seriously, "But I shouldn't have cried in front of Mischa."
She shook her head rapidly; and Katya almost hated herself for being relieved at seeing the water gather in her child's eyes again.
"Mischa will tell Papa and he'll know that I wasn't an Udinov," Alex whispered.
"Mama, where are you going?" eleven year old Alex stood in the doorway to her parents' bedroom.
Her tone was genuinely inquisitive rather than accusatory but Katya still had to stop herself from jumping at the unexpected voice.
"Alex!" she turned from where she had been gathering make-up into her bag, "Darling, I didn't know you were here."
"Papa and I got back early from camping," Alex grimaced.
Katya smiled at the sight of her daughter's exaggerated face even as her mind raced. She had been planning to meet Sergei at the helicopter pad. Did he know that Nikolai was home? Would she be able to warn him? Should she warn him? How was she going to explain the pilot with flight orders for Moscow?
"Uncle Sergei!" Alex's happy shout brought her back to earth again.
Her would-be lover now stood in the hall as well. As Alex leaped to hug him, his eyes met Katya's over her head. He winked surreptitiously.
Katya felt her heart stop racing. He must have taken care of the helicopter.
She began to remove the make-up from her purse.
Alex had disentangled herself from her "uncle" and was now staring up at him expectantly.
"Now what could the little Alex think that I have?" Sergei played.
"Uncle Sergei," she whined, "You always have a present for me when I come back from camping trips."
"Yes, yes," Sergei nodded sagely, "You are right. But, in this case you were early and a man cannot be prepared for everything at all times, you know."
"That's why not all men are Udinovs!" Nikolai joined the tableau at Katya's doorway.
Like Alex, he was dirty and appeared more tired for the wear. But he threw a smile towards Katya as he clapped Sergei on the shoulder.
Katya caught the smile weakly. There were times when she thought that she saw her Nikolai in her husband. But they were fewer and fewer between as the guards increased and his free time diminished.
He and Sergei were now talking about business that had developed over the weekend. Alex slipped between the men unnoticed and came closer to Katya.
"Mama," she asked "Where were you going before?"
Katya said a silent prayer of thanks that she had not taken her suitcase out of the closet.
"I was seeing what I could fit in this purse, Darling," she replied.
She showed Alex the purse.
"Sometimes grown-up women have to take small purses to special occasions. We have to decide what we will put in them. I wanted to practice with this one."
Alex shrewdly eyed the now empty black clutch.
"You could fit a knife," she said "especially if it was foldable. But you would never manage a gun."
Katya's shock overcame her relief that Alex hadn't questioned her flimsy lie.
"Alexandra Udinov!" she scolded in amazement, "I am not putting a knife or a gun in this purse. That is not necessary. Those objects belong with security teams, police officers, and soldiers—not me, and certainly not little girls!"
Alex did not seem to be phased by her mother's outrage. Always an affectionate child, she now threw her arms around her mother's waist.
Katya soothed her hair bemusedly.
"Alex, did you listen to me?" she asked.
Alex nodded. Then she squeezed her mother a little tighter before releasing her and flopping on the king-size bed that Katya theoretically shared with Nikolai (Practically, she generally had it to herself while the couch in his office claimed her husband).
"I heard you," she said, "That was why I hugged you."
Katya's continued confusion must have shown on her face because Alex continued.
"Don't worry, Mama," she said, "When I grow up, I'll carry the knife just in case and you can carry the make-up."
Before Katya could reply, Alex squealed in delight. Sergei had produced a movie from inside his coat.
"Aristocats! Aristocats! Aristocats!" Alex jumped from the bed over to her uncle and her father.
"Thank you, Uncle Sergei!"
The man in question grinned.
"You think this is for you?" he queried in mock consternation, "Oh no, I have been meaning to catch up on my American animated films. I'm sorry. This is very awkward."
Alex placed her hands on her hips.
He smiled again and handed her the VHS. Alex grinned and hugged him. Then, she turned to her father.
"Papa, may I watch it now? Oh, please, Papa, may I watch it now? Please?"
Nikolai sighed dramatically.
"Sergei," he complained, "You are making me look bad in front of my daughter."
Alex was still staring at her father hopefully.
Katya tried to catch her husband's eye. When she did, she nodded slightly, hoping that he would catch the hint.
Alex squealed again when she saw her father's face relent into a smile.
"Yes! Yes! Yes! Thank you, Papa!" she hugged her father. "Thank you, Uncle Sergei!" she hugged her uncle and began to run down the hall.
"Alex!" Katya called futilely, "No running on the stairs!"
In English, people said that fire "consumed" things.
Until now, it had been just an odd expression to Katya.
But, as she lay on the hotel bed that Sergei had rented for her, under an assumed name for her protection, she thought that she understood the saying.
Consumption implied more than total destruction. It implied absorption and cessation—an empty space filled by the very force which had created the emptiness in the first place. No more.
Alex was absorbed—ceased—gone. There was no more Alexandra. No more warm arms that circled her neck, no more teenage years to dread, no more I-pods that she thought were hidden from Katya. There was no more Alex.
There would be no more Nikolai either. But there had been no Nikolai for a long time, not really. He had been alive; but he had been consumed long before the fire.
Katya had watched the fire creep towards her daughter for years. As she coughed out the smoke that was still in her lungs, she knew that.
She had missed the real fire, the one that people could see. She had missed her daughter's final moments. She wondered whether that was supposed to be something mothers wished they hadn't missed. She had been there, after all, for every other milestone.
Did all mothers wish to have died in their child's place? Did all mothers wish that they had been there—just to know whether anything could have been done? Or was it only mothers who were wives to the leaders of semi-black market empires?
Somewhere, a changed part of her—a part that had changed the moment she had learned Alex was gone—might be laughing cynically at what her life had become. But her vocal chords did not cooperate. They hadn't for some days. Sergei said it was shock.
"Katya?" It was Sergei's gentle whisper.
She squeezed his hand.
"Katya," he whispered, "Look at me, Darling."
"Katya," he whispered, "It has been confirmed that Nikolai is dead. I will take over Zetrov. I will not let him die in vain."
It was more a breath than a word.
"I know," Sergei responded comfortingly, "It's hard to believe right now."
No, Katya had no trouble believing it. But she tried valiantly to rally her thoughts so that she could fight it—at some point she had to stop the fire from consuming those she loved. Zetrov could not take Sergei too.
He was still speaking.
"…and I will be back after the meeting with the investors," he was saying "They are shaken, but Zetrov will rise."
"No," Katya tried again.
Sergei kissed her hand.
"I love you," he told her.
Sergei had already risen and crossed to the door.
"Give her whatever she asks," he told the guards "Or it is your life if she is unhappy."
"Oh God, no," Katya plead, louder this time.
"Ma'am, may I get you anything?" one of the guards inquired.
The door had shut. Sergei was gone. The fire had consumed Alex.
But Katya knew.
The one fire had merely beat the other in the race.
Zetrov had been headed for Alex, with all its oxygen-depriving force.
It had killed Nikolai; and it would have killed every future Udinov in its path.
It was consuming. It was a fire. Zetrov would consume Sergei too.
"No!" she shouted.
"Ma'am!" guards were by her side immediately, offering—no, forcing—anxiety pills towards her.
But she had to stop Sergei. Zetrov had consumed Nikolai. It had killed Alex. It would destroy him too. She had to stop it.
"Ma'am, please lie down," the voices were deferential.
She fought the stupor she knew was coming, but it came anyways. As she sank, she whispered again.
What Katya knew was that Zetrov was its own fire.
What Katya didn't know was that Sergei had already been consumed.