Ethan scowled at the muffled sounds and shook his head. Another fight. That was one thing he could do without. He didn't mind throwing punches in the service of his country, but the pointless fights for dominance, cigarettes and other unimportant things were tiresome. Even though he'd already established himself as someone not to be fucked with, he tried to stay away from confrontation after the first few weeks.
Ethan turned away from the sound, but paused when his keen hearing picked up a familiar voice. "Leave me alone, please. I-" The voice was cut off, and the sound of several punches being thrown came again. The voice was one of the newer inmates - he'd been in for only a few months, and despite his height and heavy build, he was known as a meek man, an easy target. Word had it he was connected to an arms dealer, which made him a potential asset, but he was so mild Ethan had a hard time believing he had any criminal connections. Naturally, Ethan was too experienced an agent to let that influence him - appearances were deceiving, and some of the coldest killers he'd met were also mild-mannered.
Ethan had noticed bruises on the man before, but they’d always seemed like the work of a single attacker, and he’d never witnessed any of the fights. This sounded like a group attack. Ethan veered away from the yard and followed the sounds. He found the men in the shower room, just inside Sector Seven. There were five men surrounding their hapless victim. Ethan recognized them immediately – a small gang led by Petr Iliov. The victim cowered on the floor against one wall, while one of the men pummeled him. "Tell the truth,” Petr was shouting. “I know you have more!"
"I don't, you took everything! I'm telling the truth, I don't-"
Aleksandar, Petr's second in command, kicked the man on the ground. "Liar! You've got connections, you-"
"Hey!" Ethan gritted his teeth as the men looked toward him, stunned. Ethan, what the hell are you doing? "He said he doesn't have anything,” Ethan said aloud. “Why don't you leave him alone?"
"Why don't you mind your own business?" the ringleader said. "You're tough, but there's five of us."
Ethan shrugged. "I think the man's had enough. Why don't you back off, so I don't have to hurt you?"
All of them, including the wavy-haired man on the ground, stared at him in utter disbelief. Then, the attackers started to laugh uproariously. "The Terrier wants to play rough," Aleksandar said.
The man on the ground shook his head. "You... y-you don't have to do this.”
"Shut it!" Petr snapped.
The gang advanced on Ethan, and he prepared himself for a fight. He looked at each of them briefly, assessing them - their stance, their build, and what he could remember from previous fights he'd seen them in. When the attack started, he was ready. The altercation was shorter than Ethan expected. In the end, his knuckles were sore, and he'd probably gotten himself a black eye, but Petr's gang had it worse. There were two broken noses, one man who was completely unconscious, and all of them were badly bruised. Those who could still move limped away, leaving the unconscious man behind.
Out of habit more than real concern, Ethan checked the unconscious man, making sure his heart was still beating. Satisfied, he returned to the victim. The man was still crouched on the floor, but now, his back was pressed against the wall and he was staring at Ethan in wide-eyed astonishment. "You okay?" Ethan asked.
The other man nodded. "Th-thank you," he said breathlessly.
Ethan nodded back, and checked himself in the mirror. Not too bad, but there would definitely be bruising. He rinsed his sore hands, then grabbed some of the rough paper towels, dampened them, and approached the other man. The man cringed, and Ethan held out the towels without moving any closer. "I'm not going to hurt you," he said.
The man reached hesitantly for the towels, and took them without ever taking his eyes off of Ethan's face. "What happens now?" he asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I... I d-don't have any way to pay you back."
Ethan shrugged. "I don't smoke," he said.
The man frowned worriedly, then looked down at the paper towels in his hand. A drop of blood from his nose splashed onto the towel, and he jumped slightly, looking disgusted. Wow, Ethan thought. Disturbed by the sight of blood. The man dabbed at his nose, wincing with the pain, but determined to get the blood off. When he looked up again, the blood was cleaned from his nose, and from the gash on his forehead, but his eyes were still filled with worry.
"If you don't smoke, what... what do you want?" His eyes moved to Ethan's mid-section, and he averted them quickly. Ethan knew immediately what the man was worried about, but he didn't attempt to reassure him yet. He had no intention of raping anyone, but he didn't mind looking like the type who might. It added to his image as a complete hard-ass. He just shrugged again, even though he knew exactly what he wanted - information about the man's connection to the arms dealer, and whether or not Cobalt had ever made any requests. But if he just asked, it would seem more than a little suspicious. If he could get the information discreetly and without risking his cover, so much the better.
"What's your name?" Ethan asked.
"Bogdan," he replied nervously.
"Sergei," Ethan said, extending his hand. Bogdan shook firmly, though his arm was trembling. Ethan softened by a fraction. "Bogdan. I won't force you to do... anything. Okay?"
"Okay," he said slowly, still looking apprehensive. "Then... what should I..."
Ethan knew it was useless to say he'd saved Bogdan because five against one wasn't fair. One did not do things out of the goodness of one's heart in prison. "Why don't we just say you owe me a favor?" he said.
Bogdan nodded hesitantly. "Okay."
"Fine." He glanced back at the unconscious man and shook his head. Petr would not be happy about this. "You should stay close to me from now on. Where's your cell?"
"Sector three, cell 329."
Ethan was surprised, and he couldn't help showing it. Bogdan was in one of the cells reserved for dangerous criminals - solid doors, with only a peep-hole for the guards to look in occasionally. It was the type of cell Ethan had been placed in - a man who'd single handedly killed six men. What could an arms dealer - or rather, an arms dealer's assistant - have done to land him in a high security cell? Especially a man who shied away from fights and couldn't stand the sight of blood. "Good," he said aloud, saving his questions for later. "Talk to Dimitri."
Bogdan's eyes widened, and he laughed aloud in disbelief. "Talk to... I... is that the favor, because..."
Ethan laughed, but he understood the man's hesitation. Dimitri from 329 was about 6'7" tall, four feet wide, and more than three hundred pounds of pure muscle. "He knows me," Ethan explained. "Tell him you're friends with Sergei from Sector Five. I leave him and his friends alone, he leaves me and my friends alone."
"S-sure, okay. And I... I get to be your friend now?" Ethan nodded, and Bogdan grinned. "How long will you... what are you here for?"
"Murder." Bogdan's eyes widened, and he edged back slightly. "I killed six men," Ethan explained. "Two with my bare hands. They killed a friend of mine." Bogdan stared at him, mouth agape, eyes so wide Ethan could see the whites all the way around. Ethan smiled and held out his hand. Slowly, Bogdan reached out, and Ethan helped him up. Bogdan was a little over six feet tall - soft, but there was muscle underneath. He could probably fight well enough if he was absolutely forced into it, and if the fight was one on one.
Even though Bogdan was several inches taller than he, Ethan knew that the other man’s slight slouch, nervous expression, and general air of mild anxiety would leave no doubt in an outsider's mind that Ethan was the one in charge. He smiled and patted Bogdan's arm. "Don't worry, Bogdan. I always take care of my friends."
The moment he entered the cafeteria, Ethan became aware of his new friend. He made no effort to seek Bogdan out, but his eyes seemed naturally drawn to the nervous man with the shoulder-length wavy hair, tightly clutching his tray and peering around the room. After three months, Bogdan still hadn't learned to fake a tough attitude - he looked like the new kid in school, trying to find an unobtrusive place to sit where he wouldn't get laughed at or shoved, and where he wouldn't be stepping on anyone else's territory.
Ethan got his own food, keeping his ears open for any sound of distress from Bogdan. He heard nothing unusual. By the time he made it out of the line, Bogdan was edging nervously toward him. When he caught Ethan looking, he paused, suddenly uncertain. Ethan beckoned to him to follow. Now was as good a time as any to publicly establish the fact that Bogdan was under his protection.
Bogdan followed him meekly, with no more than a whispered "good morning". Ethan decided against pressing his luck, and moved past Petr's table without more than a glare at the bruised and defeated occupants. They did not engage him, and Ethan made a point of leaving them in possession of their table. They eyed him warily, and Ethan continued to glare, but said nothing. Truce established.
Ethan walked to his customary table, where ample room on his preferred side had been left for him. He glanced around at the seven men he shared his table with. They were not weak by any stretch of the imagination, but they were some of the first men that Ethan had proven his own strength against - the basis of his reputation. He'd heard Andrei, the blonde heavy-weight at the far end, had been the first one to coin his nickname - the Terrier. Ethan let the nickname stand, partly because it amused him, but mostly because it was accurate. Like the dogs, Ethan was small, but fierce and absolutely deadly if the conditions were right (or wrong, depending on your point of view).
"Morning, gentlemen," he said, loud enough to be heard by some of the men at the surrounding tables as well. The men at Ethan's table looked up at him expectantly - almost worriedly. "Bogdan is a friend of mine," he said, nodding in Bogdan's direction. "Can you make some room for him?"
The words sounded like a question, but everyone present knew they were an order, and acted accordingly. They looked at Bogdan, committing his features to memory, and no doubt wondering how he'd come to gain the Terrier's favor. The men across from Ethan shoved down together, giving Bogdan almost as much room as Ethan had. Even the ones on Ethan's side moved over, in case he wanted Bogdan beside him. Ethan gestured for Bogdan to sit across from him, and he did, glancing hesitantly at his neighbor, Dimitri from Sector 1 - far less of a threat than Dimitri from Sector 3, but still an intimidating figure.
"Thank you, gentlemen."
"Sure, Sergei," and variations of the phrase came from all of them. Bogdan looked at them, eyebrows climbing, and Ethan gave him a slight smile. Bogdan smiled back and seemed to relax.
Bogdan ate the tepid porridge they’d been served with a relish it most certainly did not deserve. Ethan downed his own bowl at least as quickly, but more from a desire to get it out of the way as fast as possible than from hunger, or any actual pleasure in the taste. He spent the most time on his single, treasured boiled egg. He cut it into small pieces and savored it - sans pepper or salt, but he hardly even thought about those pleasures anymore. He focused on the delicious flavor of the yolk and the varied textures, like a true connoisseur. It was like a meditation for him, and though he remained watchful always, he allowed himself to become absorbed in this one, glorious delicacy. Prison could be hell, mission or no mission, and he took pleasure in the little things.
A hand entered his field of vision - too close. Ethan moved on pure instinct, gripping the wrist and slamming it down onto the table. In the next instant, his other hand tightened around a throat, and he felt, rather than heard, the man gasp. "Sergei!"
Ethan started at the terrified, strangled voice. He immediately released the choke-hold on Bogdan's throat and let go of his wrist. Ethan raised his hands and backed up. "Sorry."
Bogdan collapsed onto the bench, every limb shaking violently. "You mustn't startle the Terrier," someone whispered.
Ethan frowned, but he didn't bother to look for the speaker. He kept his eyes on his terrified new charge. Ethan sat down slowly, keeping to his own side of the table. "I'm sorry, Bogdan."
"It's okay," he said shakily, sitting a little straighter. "It's my fault, I... I sh-shouldn't have startled you."
Ethan shook his head, and glared at the men at the table, who were staring openly at him and Bogdan. "Mind your own business!" They immediately stared at their plates, as intent and fascinated by tepid grain cereal as any group of people could possibly be. When he looked back at Bogdan, his new friend was still watching him nervously, but the trembling had lessened just a little. "Sorry," Ethan said again. "Wasn't your fault. Did you need something?"
Bogdan ducked his head shyly, and slowly held out his hand again. He held it at a "safe" distance, and opened his palm to reveal a (now slightly cracked) boiled egg. "I was going to give you this," he said softly. "You seem to like them, so..."
Ethan gave him a warm smile - something rarely seen at Rankow (if ever). He usually avoided smiling unless he happened to smile after victory in a fight, but remorse for frightening Bogdan, and appreciation for the gesture made him feel that his fullest, most glowing smile was warranted now. "That's good of you," he said. "But you don't have to give up your food. You-"
"But I want you to have it," he said. "Take it. Please, okay?"
Ethan hedged. "The porridge doesn't last long. And lunch is-"
"Sergei," he said, and there was almost a sternness to his tone. "For the first time in nine weeks, I came to eat and nobody shoved me around or stole my hot water." Ethan started to reply, but Bogdan spoke over him. "Last night, for the first time - first time in nine weeks - I got to keep my pillow and my blanket when I went to sleep. I don't even know how you did it, because I got so scared when I went to talk to Dimitri I couldn't even open my mouth."
Ethan nodded. "I figured you might have trouble. I had a talk with him myself, so-"
"See?" He took hold of Ethan's hand, eliciting gasps from a few of the men who'd been watching from the corners of their eyes. One did not startle the Terrier, so one most certainly did not touch the Terrier. Heedless of the attention, Bogdan turned Ethan's hand over and gently, but firmly, placed the egg into his palm.
Ethan didn't protest. He took the egg, and smiled at Bogdan again. "Thank you."
Bogdan nodded, smiling brightly, and proceeded to sip at his tea with Ethan savored his extra egg.
"So, what are you in for?" Ethan shoved the barbells slowly toward the thoughtful, upside-down face of his companion.
"Possession of stolen firearms," Bogdan replied.
Ethan feigned surprise as he lowered the barbells, and pushed up again. "So, the rumors are true? You work for an arms dealer?"
"I did," he said with a shrug. "I think he's probably furious with me now. I lost him over twenty thousand."
Bogdan nodded. "Yeah, American dollars."
Ethan whistled, looking sympathetically at him as he pushed through the last three reps in the set. "Maybe he'll get over it."
"I don't know, he's pretty serious about his money."
"Right. Who isn't?" He rested, and Bogdan left his post as "spot" and sat down. "How'd you get caught," Ethan asked.
Bogdan shrugged and sighed. "FSB caught me driving the truck. But the route was supposed to be secure! I don't know how they found me."
"Maybe they followed you from your pickup point. Your boss might have been under surveillance." His eyes widened, and Ethan nodded. "You might have been taken as a warning. Were you close to your boss?"
Bogdan nodded. "He's my cousin. But I worked my way up," he added quickly.
"Of course," Ethan said, assuring Bogdan that he believed there was no favoritism in his cousin's business. Considering Bogdan's meek nature, Ethan was sure he'd either had to prove himself, or his cousin had quite the soft spot. Arms dealers didn't tend to give out charity positions, even to close relatives. "He trying to get you out?"
Bogdan sighed. "Can't. He says it's too dangerous. He said he couldn't even write me much or call, because he can't risk associating."
"He's probably right," Ethan said grimly. "Especially now - he probably knows he's under surveillance. Did anybody ever question you?"
"In the very beginning," Bogdan said with a nod. "But I pretended I was just a hired driver. They beat me, but I'd never give my cousin away.
Ethan smiled. Bogdan wasn't a fighter, but stamina under interrogation – especially the kind that FSB was known to give - was hard to come by. "You're very loyal," he said. "That's good."
Bogdan smiled at the praise, and Ethan lay back on the workout bench. Bogdan hopped to his feet and returned to his position above the bars, hands lightly on the barbells. "I'm surprised they put you in a high security cell, though," Ethan said. "I mean, you didn't commit any violent crime, so..."
"They did it to scare me," Bogdan said. "When I wouldn't tell who I worked for, they said they would put me in the same cell with murderers and rapists and let me fend for myself."
"Assholes," Ethan said.
"Yeah, but it wasn't so bad. They knew the guards wanted to scare me, so they weren't too bad. I did get shoved around a lot at first, before you talked to Dimitri. And they took my blankets like I told you. But nobody did anything worse than that."
"That's good. So, what kinds of weapons did you work with," he asked casually.
"Oh, all kinds. Machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, all kinds."
"Hm." "Sergei" was impressed. "Ever deal with nuclear stuff?"
Bogdan choked on nothing, and Ethan paused mid-rep. "No, no, never," Bogdan said. "My cousin thinks nuclear is like suicide. I mean... literally, and suicide for your business, too. Makes you a huge target, and puts all the major governments after you. Plus, there's the part about fallout. He keeps his eyes open and avoids people who look like they might touch nuclear bombs."
"Smart guy," Ethan said, returning to his exercises. He let go of the questions for the moment. Bogdan's cousin may or may not have been approached by Cobalt, but it was nice to know that at least one dealer out there would turn him away. "I wouldn't worry, though," he said. "I mean about him being mad at you. If he was under surveillance, it's not really your fault that you were caught. If your cousin is fair, he won't hold it against you."
The smile was back. "I hope you're right. I don't know what I'll do when I get out if he doesn't help me."
"Don't worry, Bogdan. If you can't get help, write me and I'll get my friends on the outside to help you."
Bogdan smiled, but his face grew melancholy almost immediately. Ethan set the barbells down on their holder and sat up. "What's wrong?"
Bogdan shrugged noncommittally. "Nothing," he said softly.
"You're lying," he replied. "Come on, what's wrong?"
He shrugged again and sat beside the weight machine. "I have five to ten years to serve," he said. "But you'll be here for life." He slumped in his seat and sighed again.
"Don't worry, Bogdan," Ethan said. "I'll be fine." He would be more fine than Bogdan realized. The Secretary of Defense would leave him in prison as long as was necessary, but he wouldn't force him to stay here for life.
Bogdan still looked morose, and Ethan moved to the bench beside him, and put a hand on his shoulder. "Bogdan," he said. "You're worried about the future when you don't need to be. We're here right now, yes?" He nodded. "We're friends, and we look out for each other, right?" He nodded again, with a slight smile. "Well then!" Ethan patted him heartily on the shoulder. "That's all that matters."
Bogdan's smile grew wider, and he patted Ethan's shoulder in turn. "Okay, Sergei. Okay."
Ethan dreamed about Julia. Brown, wavy hair, warm smile, and that sweet voice that could melt his defenses in under a second. So beautiful.
He shuddered, sickened. Blood trailing down the side of her face. Her sweet voice raised in terrified screams. The man on the right slaps her hard, and it's more than Ethan can take. They're dead within five minutes. All of them. He doesn't ask any questions, doesn't make any demands. He just kills. When the last one dies - the one who slapped her - he keeps punching until the face is unrecognizable.
When he looks at her, she has tears in her eyes, but there's so much love in them too. She doesn't think he's a monster. She's grateful. She's beautiful. She's alive. He saved her!
But then he's there. Davian. He's got the gun pointed at her, and he's going to kill her no matter what Ethan says – no matter how much he pleads.
The gun goes off. That fast, she's dead.
Ethan screams. Davian shakes his head sadly. "Luther was right. You should never have married her. Murderer."
Davian shoves Julia's body roughly out of the chair, and her blood spreads across the floor. Her vacant eyes stare at him, but her blood-stained lips move. "Murderer," she whispers. "Monster."
Ethan screams. He screams and screams and screams, and the tears break forth and he can't stop them. It's not just because she's dead that his gut twists and screams rake his throat. It's because they're right. They're right. He's a murderer. Monster!
Ethan woke up screaming. Slowly, his surroundings coalesced, and he became aware that he was in his cell. Someone was pounding on his wall, calling someone else's name - yelling at him in Russian.
"Sergei! Sergei, wake up! Wake up, Sergei!"
He shuddered, clenching his fists, trying to control the tremors. He slammed his fist against the wall, and the other inmate stopped yelling. "Spasiba, Yuriy. Thank you."
"Da," Yuriy replied.
Ethan swallowed, his voice still feeling raw from the screams. "I owe you."
"I know. Three times this week, Sergei. Don't let it get to you, my friend. Don't crack."
"Thanks," he said. He lay back in bed, but kept his eyes wide open. She's alive. She's fine. You saved her. He told himself the Secretary would protect her. Catherine Trellis was an unknown - a registered nurse in a large hospital in Seattle, and no one but Ethan cared who she was, or who she used to be. She was fine.
His eyes closed, and the image of Davian's assistant - shot before his eyes wearing Julia's face - flashed before him. He gasped and sat up. It was hours before dawn. Fuck it. He got up and started a set of push-ups. He wasn't getting any more sleep tonight.
Ethan was subdued at breakfast, and Bogdan's mood was toned down to match. He sat silently at his table, and the men lowered their heads and talked in hushed tones. It wasn't wise to disturb the Terrier when he was in one of his dark moods.
Ethan stared at the porridge, knowing he should eat quickly before it got too cold to stomach, but hating the thought of touching it. After several minutes, he sighed and downed the bowl as quickly as possible, washing it down with hot water. He hadn't even bothered to steep his tea. He shoved the bowl away from him and stared at his boiled egg.
Usually, the ritual would start around now. He would crack and slowly peel his egg, and while he was slicing, the newest part of the ritual would occur. Bogdan would call his name, to be sure Ethan was aware of him, then he would pass his egg over and Ethan would peel, slice and enjoy his second treat.
Today, after his third consecutive night with hardly any sleep, he felt like he was moving in slow motion. He held the egg in his hand without cracking it - just staring and listening with peripheral attention to the murmuring sounds of the other inmates.
"Sergei?" Ethan looked up at Bogdan's timid whisper. Bogdan's large blue eyes regarded him with concern. "Did..." He glanced at the others, but they were deep in their own quiet conversations, unconcerned. "Did you dream about your friend again?" Ethan nodded, and his friend frowned. "Bad one?" He nodded again. Bogdan let out a short sigh, and looked around the room. He seemed to make a decision about something. He took a deep breath, nodded slightly, then looked back at Ethan. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?"
"To get something to make you feel better. I hope, anyway." Ethan started to ask what it was, but Bogdan just smiled and got up from the table.
Ethan watched him keenly, and his eyes widened when he approached Dimitri from Sector Three. He (nervously) spoke to Dimitri for a few seconds. The two of them looked toward Ethan, and then Dimitri shrugged, nodded and got up from his seat. What the hell? Dimitri went back to the food line and had a word with the somewhat intimidated line worker. Something was hastily passed from the worker to Dimitri, then from Dimitri to Bogdan. There were thanks from Bogdan, and Dimitri turned and nodded at Ethan. "Sergei" pretended he understood and nodded back.
Bogdan trotted back to the table, a broad grin on his face. Ethan found himself smiling slightly, mainly in confusion. "What the hell was that?" he asked, still smiling.
"I got it," he replied.
"Close your eyes." Ethan gave him a look, and Bogdan waved his hands. "Okay, okay, don't close your eyes." He reached into a pocket, produced a small bag, and proudly set it in front of Ethan's plate.
Ethan stared at it in disbelief. "Is... is that pepper?"
Bogdan nodded, smiling broadly. "You said you used to eat them that way, and I..."
"How did you-"
"I told him you would consider it a personal favor, and I promised him two cigarettes every time he gets me a new bag."
Ethan stared at the bag of pepper - certainly enough to last a full week with care - and he felt a lump developing in his throat. He swallowed hard against it, chastising himself. Jesus, Ethan, are you crying over pepper? He looked up at Bogdan, still feeling somewhat overwhelmed, and gave him a smile. "Thank you." He frowned slightly at the crack he could hear in his voice.
"Sure, Sergei," Bogdan said seriously. "You okay?"
"Yeah." He cleared his throat, and forced himself to calm down. "Yeah, fine. Thank you very much."
Bogdan smiled. "You're welcome."
"I'll help you get the cigarettes if-"
"No, no, it's okay, I can manage it. It's not a gift if you pay for it, is it?"
Ethan shook his head, and didn't argue the point further. While he peppered his first egg, Bogdan cracked and peeled the second one for him and sliced it exactly the way Ethan liked it. Ethan smiled again - a sight that was becoming less and less rare when he was with his friend.
When he'd been free, the highlight of Ethan's day had been his nightly run. It was his chance to breathe - to be alone with only his breathing, his thoughts, and the sound of his feet hitting the ground. Even though the last time he'd taken a run, his entire world had basically been destroyed, he still looked back on his runs with a wistful eye.
Now that he was an indefinite "guest" of the state, the highlight of his day had changed. He enjoyed exercise in the yard and the occasional game of "football" (aka soccer) with the others, but running around a yard of watchful inmates and guards could not compare to his usual runs.
Now, the best part of the day for Ethan was his shift at the prison laundry. Boiling the sweat and grime-stained bedding and prison uniforms of hundreds of convicts didn't seem like the most attractive job, but it was more pleasant than the monotonous mechanical line jobs, and food service was almost impossible to break into. Besides, in Laundry, the guards weren't so strict about talking and moving around, and it was a great opportunity for Ethan to spend some time doing his real job - seeking out Cobalt's potential contacts. It was a laundry worker who'd let slip that the infamous Sabine Moreau had actually done a few jobs for a "nuclear nutcase". Uncle Viktor (aka, the Secretary of Defense) had hardly been pleased with that particular letter.
But besides all that, there was something satisfying, almost on a visceral level, about cleansing filth from an object and making it new. Well, as new as prison garments could hope to be.
Now, eight months after he'd gotten the job, Ethan had found another reason to enjoy his work shift. After a moderate bribe to the shift manager, Ethan had arranged to get Bogdan a job in Laundry, on Ethan's same shift. With careful management, he'd arranged to have the transfer seem like a regular shift rotation, rather than a special favor - just to avoid any unnecessary attention from the other inmates.
Bogdan was ecstatic with the change - metal works wasn't his favorite either. He stared at Ethan with gratitude in his eyes as often as he could on his first day, knowing that he couldn't thank him aloud. Ethan kept a casual eye on him through the hasty training, and wasn't exactly surprised when Malikov (the shift manager) "dumped" Bogdan on him at the end of the training.
"You've been here the longest," the manager said. "Any mistakes this one makes count against you for the next two weeks."
Bogdan looked appalled, but Ethan just nodded and gave him a brief "yes, sir". When the manager went away, Ethan gave his friend a tap on the shoulder. "Relax, Bogdan. It's not rocket science. And what can they do to me if you do make a mistake? It's not like they can increase my sentence, you know."
Bogdan seemed to relax a little. He watched while Ethan and Ivan cranked the vat of steaming pre-soaked clothes onto large mesh racks to drain. Then he helped load them into the large cloth bags. "I'll take them from here," Ethan said.
"You sure?" Ivan asked.
"Yeah, yeah, we'll handle it. I'll show Bogdan the dryers."
"Thanks, Sergei, I owe you."
"Don't worry, Ivan, I'm a reasonable man." Ivan laughed and went off (Ethan knew) to find a quiet spot to smoke.
"Thank you, Sergei," Bogdan whispered when Ivan was out of sight.
"You're welcome," Ethan replied. "What are friends for, right?"
Bogdan smiled. "The machine line was horrible," he said, following Ethan's hand motions and bagging the darker clothes in a separate set of sacks. "I fell asleep three times last week, and the whole line was delayed."
Ethan shook his head. "I'm surprised they didn't put you in solitary for that one."
"The shift manager said I was leaving anyway, so why bother."
"Lucky you," Ethan said. "Here, bring three of those bags and follow me."
Bogdan did as he was told, and Ethan picked up three of the heavy bags himself and led the way to the giant dryers. "Wasn't really luck," Bogdan said softly.
"Hm?" Bogdan smiled, but didn't repeat himself or clarify. "If you fall asleep around here, they probably wouldn't even notice."
Ethan stepped into the wide hall with its rows of industrial sized dryers. "See the green lights?" Bogdan nodded. "Green light means it's available. Put in a bag and a half and give it seventy-five minutes on high, and they'll be dry when the cycle is done. Don't mix the blues with the whites or Malikov will have your ass and mine. Stay away from twelve, nineteen and twenty-seven. The doors don't latch. They open after two minutes and you'll either come back to wet clothes in an hour, or you'll have to lean on it for an hour. Either way, if Malikov finds out, he'll what?"
"Have your ass and mine," Bogdan replied.
They loaded the machines, and Ethan showed Bogdan how to empty the lint drawers, and where to dispose of the trash. When everything was settled, Ethan took a quick look around, verified none of the guards were watching, and beckoned to Bogdan. "Come with me, I'll show you something."
Bogdan followed, and Ethan made his way to the back of the laundry room - past the dryers, and away from the sorting and folding area. In an alcove between some unused carts and shelving, Ethan had created a small, private space for himself. There were a couple of smaller crates, upturned so he could have a place to sit, as well as a low "bed" made from torn sheets and blankets he'd "rescued" from the incinerator. Ethan gestured for Bogdan to enter. He looked around in amazement at the little "room", as if he'd just entered a cathedral or an art museum.
"You kept this to yourself?" he asked.
"Yup. It's all mine." He lifted one of the crates and pulled out two boxes of grape juice he'd squirreled away over the past month. "Now, it's ours," he said, sitting down and gesturing for Bogdan to do the same.
"You're amazing," Bogdan said, taking the proffered box of juice.
"Yes, you are," he said, as if he couldn't believe Ethan was not aware of this. "You made this place yours - like... not this place, but the whole prison. You have respect, you have a truce with Dimitri, you have this room, and... you're sharing it with me." He seemed to grow serious. "Why are you so good to me?"
Ethan looked at Bogdan in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, what have I done to make you treat me so well?"
Ethan shrugged, beginning to feel embarrassed. "You're good to me, too," he replied. "You made arrangements for the pepper, and you bring me-"
"You fought five people to save me before you even knew me. You're always helping me and bringing me things. I haven't done nearly as much for you as you've-"
"That's not true," Ethan said seriously. "You keep me sane in here, Bogdan." He placed a hand on Bogdan's leg. "You're a good friend. You're loyal, and you're a good listener. You-"
Ethan trailed off. Bogdan had leaned closer as he spoke, and Ethan suddenly became aware that his face felt warm. He chuckled slightly, and Bogdan gave him a smile. "You're amazing," Bogdan said again, this time his voice barely above a whisper.
"So are you," Ethan whispered back.
Bogdan leaned closer, and Ethan felt the heat between them rise. And urge struck. A few objections glanced through his mind - attachments are dangerous, you're a married(ish) man, this was supposed to be information gathering only - but the entire stream lasted no more than a split second. The part of his mind that "sounded" louder had very little to say. Fuck it, I want it, I am going to take it.
With the determination and confidence born of over two decades of service with the Impossible Mission Force, Ethan reached for his friend, ran his fingers through his dark, wavy hair - so much like Julia's, his mind helpfully supplied - and took firm hold of the back of his neck. Bogdan gasped slightly, but didn't resist or protest in any way. Ethan pulled him close, let his eyes drift shut, and kissed him.
Bogdan responded eagerly, letting Ethan lead, but tentatively exploring as well. He placed a hand on Ethan's arm, and soon, Ethan had him in a tight embrace. By the time he broke the kiss, both men were breathless and Ethan knew his face was as flushed as his companion's.
Ethan pulled back slightly, noting with a smile that Bogdan seemed to reflexively tighten his grip on Ethan's arm. "Sorry if..." Bogan shook his head, cutting off the attempt to apologize.
"Is... are we..." Bogdan didn't finish the question.
"Have you ever been with a man before?" Ethan asked, speaking as quietly as possible.
Bogdan nodded slowly. "Have you?"
"So, then... we're..."
"Do you want us to be?" Bogdan's face reddened, and he nodded. Ethan smiled. "Then we are."
Bogdan gave him a bright, glowing smile. "Ok," he said. He leaned in, and Ethan kissed him again. Ethan let the kiss linger, reveling in the sensations he hadn't experienced since he'd said goodbye to Julia. The heat that had risen to his face seemed to spread throughout his entire body, and he clutched at Bogdan with an urgency he wasn't accustomed to showing. Bogdan clutched him just as eagerly, and by the time Ethan took a second to breathe, he'd practically dragged Bogdan's blue tunic off his shoulders.
Panting slightly, Ethan grinned at Bogdan and almost involuntarily glanced at the makeshift cot. Bogdan smiled back and shrugged off the tunic. He looked mildly worried for a moment, and glanced toward the "entrance" of Ethan's hideaway. "Will they look for us?" he whispered.
"Not for at least half an hour," Ethan replied, tugging at Bogdan's tank top. Bogdan pulled it the rest of the way off and dropped it, reaching for Ethan again at the same second. Ethan took another kiss, while guiding Bogdan to the bed. Bogdan allowed Ethan to draw him down, and he reclined on the re-purposed bedding - chest red and face still flushed. Ethan placed a hand on his leg, motioning for him to wait a moment. He reached under the second crate and pulled out a small plastic package.
"Didn't think I'd ever actually need these," he said with a smile. "But I'm glad I have a thing about being prepared."
He held up the package for Bogdan to see, and the other man laughed. "You're amazing," he said, still laughing.
Ethan grinned and set the condom near the cot so it would be within reach when he was ready for it. He pushed Bogdan down gently but firmly, and knelt over him. "Amazing huh? Like they say in America, my friend - you ain't seen nothin' yet."
Ethan and Bogdan worked diligently and quietly at their tasks in the laundry facilities. When Ivan slipped away for his smoke break, and they slipped away for their private trysts, the shift manager was none the wiser. As the weeks passed, Ethan felt his affection for Bogdan growing stronger and stronger. Thirty minutes of privacy had been acceptable at first, but Ethan soon longed for more time. He wanted time to rest, to talk - to experience "afterglow". He also wanted to be able to fully enjoy his time alone with Bogdan without having to worry about a guard or another inmate possibly getting curious and walking in on them.
Ethan tried to quell these desires. They were futile, since he had no idea how long he would be assigned to Rankow. The movements of lunatics like Cobalt were somewhat difficult to predict, and his promising inmates were dry lately when it came to talking about business on the outside. Still, even though he couldn't have what he really wanted - an uninterrupted day with Bogdan outside the walls of the prison - he began to formulate a plan for getting what might be the next best thing.
As with most good things he got at Rankow, Ethan's surprise for Bogdan began with a bribe. Needless to say, Uncle Viktor was a generous benefactor. He sent money to his "nephew" as often as he could - sending enough to let the guards know Sergei had a wealthy uncle, but not enough to arouse suspicion. This was considered mission funding, and Ethan's actual salary was sent to a secure account in the U.S. for the unknown date when he would return home.
Of course, Ethan never saw the amount of money that Viktor said he sent. The guard checking the mail skimmed ten percent off the top. Then there was the 700RR to the Sector 3 guard for extra razors each week, and there was the occasional padding here and there for various other comforts. Ethan always stuck to guards that were middle-road men: not too greedy, and not too rigid. He had a few favorites - always ready to make a quick buck, and always willing to keep their business away from the Captain's ear.
One of Ethan's favorites was Alex - a young man with four kids and a working wife who could be counted on to turn a blind eye on certain activities around the yard. The other was Oskar, a man almost ten years older than Ethan, and who'd been working in prisons practically all his life. Oskar had seen enough to know the ins and outs of prison politics. He'd taken pity on Ethan during a particularly long stint in Solitary after breaking a man's arm in a fight. Oskar had come by the cell every twenty minutes during his rounds and paused to talk briefly to Ethan. Oskar had been left alone in closets as a child, and it was the worst part of his job - seeing people in solitary confinement when he felt they didn't deserve it. Breaking a man's arm for snatching his fruit cup apparently didn't qualify as "deserving" of solitary as far as Oskar was concerned.
Ethan would need both of them for his plan to work. He worked on them slowly, feeling them out - gauging how willing they might be to help him with something fairly elaborate without explaining what he wanted. Both Alex and Oskar seemed amenable to the basic idea that he wanted a bigger favor than usual. Sergei was dependable - he made good on his promises, and he had no intention of putting anyone's job in jeopardy.
Once the atmosphere was established, Ethan broached the subject of what he wanted. They were both reluctant at first, but Ethan assured each of them (separately, of course) that no escape attempt would be made. He just needed a blind eye at three specific moments, and that was all. No one would be the wiser, and they would be paid handsomely for the help.
Once deals had been made with his two favorite guards, Ethan focused on the simpler details – little changes that would make all the difference if he was able to pull this off. The most difficult part of the plan was keeping everything a secret. Bogdan sought him out at every "free" period and at every meal. That was exactly how Ethan wanted it, but it was difficult to keep from discussing how things were going with his plans. Debriefing was a customary part of handling missions, and in a way, he treated this project just like another mission. The stakes were fairly high, if not life threatening. If he got caught he could end up in solitary for quite a while, not to mention getting Bogdan stuck in the box, too, and risking getting his cohorts fired. But he couldn't exactly tell Uncle Viktor how things were going with this particular assignment, and the desire to share what he was planning with someone was strong. It was getting harder to keep his mouth shut around Bogdan.
After nearly six weeks of planning and waiting and preparing, Ethan was finally ready to put his plan into action. He notified Alex and Oskar first thing in the morning, and made the final payments on his rather hefty bribes. He tried to be as casual as he could around Bogdan, but he couldn't help feeling a bit smug about the soon-to-be fruits of his labors. Bogdan noticed his change in mood and mentioned it at lunch.
"What's gotten into you?" he asked.
"Hm?" Ethan regarded Bogdan with his most innocent expression.
Bogdan shook his head, smiling. "You've been very cheerful all morning, Seryozha," he said, lowering his voice as he did whenever he used "Sergei's" nickname in public. "It's not a mail day, so what is it?"
Ethan shrugged and maintained his air of innocence. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Danya," he said. "Maybe I'm just happy to be alive, hm? Ever thought of that?"
Bogdan laughed. "In this place?"
"There are worse places," Ethan answered.
"Well… I guess so."
"There you go. It's nice weather-"
"And I'm in good company. Plenty of reasons to be in a good mood."
Bogdan didn't argue the point further, but Ethan still had a feeling he was suspicious. It didn't matter. Bogdan would never guess what he had planned.
Their shift at the laundry went as it usually did – work quickly and efficiently, dodge the shift manager and other workers, and have a few moments of private time with each other. Ethan considered it a point of pride that he managed to keep his secret in the few minutes they had alone together.
Finally, the time came for them to go out to the yard. Ethan performed his normal routine – four laps around the yard, now at a modified pace so that Bogdan could keep up with him – followed by his strength training exercises. As usual, he worked with the barbells last, and Bogdan spotted him. While Ethan pumped, Bogdan told him the latest information about the men in his cell and the few others who bothered to talk to him (or near him). Ethan had let Bogdan know that he was interested in the comings and goings of anyone who might be connected to a nuclear arms dealer, or any type of arms dealer, really. He thought one might have had something to do with the death of his friend, so he'd appreciate it if Bogdan would let him know if anything was mentioned.
Ethan had learned a few useful pieces of information, including the fact that Cobalt was scouting for a new agent – someone more dedicated to his cause than the completely, unreservedly mercenary Moreau. He also tended to hear a lot about the goings and comings of arms dealers that Ethan had no interest in. Bogdan was a fellow arms dealer, and people imprisoned for similar offences seemed to be a little more open with one another.
Ethan listened to the latest news about a small-time dealer trying to make money in Budapest with good humor. Toward the end of their time in the yard, Alex made his final round and paused near Ethan. The guard checked his watch, tapped the face twice, then held it to his ear. He gave a satisfied nod, and Ethan got up from the exercise machine. "Come on," he said quietly to Bogdan.
"Come," he whispered, moving toward the second gate. "Now."
Bogdan followed him, looking nervously at Alex. The gate was unlocked, as Ethan had asked Alex to leave it, and Ethan slipped into the gate, pulling Bogdan quickly through. "Sergei, what-"
"Shh, it's okay. Come on." He led the way back to Sector Five. Oskar met them at the half way point and "escorted" them the rest of the way, so that they didn't have to worry about dodging any other guards.
"Sector Five is on loop," he said simply.
Ethan nodded, and walked confidently toward his cell with the mystified and nervous Bogdan hard on his heels. When they reached Ethan's cell, Oskar opened the door and let them inside. "Spasiba, Oskar," Ethan said.
"Don't mention it," he replied, giving Ethan a slight smile. "I'll see you in the morning."
Bogdan gasped, and Ethan beckoned for him to come inside. He stepped in, and Oskar locked the door behind him. Bogdan stood just inside the doorway, apparently too stunned to move. Ethan couldn't keep a playful smile from his face. "Surprise!"
Bogdan stared at him, then looked back at the locked door in disbelief. "Wha… how… I…" He looked back at Ethan, eyes wide. "What's going on, Sergei?"
"You were right earlier," he said, sitting casually on his bed. "I wasn't just feeling cheerful because I'm alive. I've arranged it so we can spend the night together."
Bogdan continued to stare, his eyes growing larger and larger, until he looked positively comical. "How… how did you manage this? What about the hallway cameras?"
"Oskar Krelin likes me," Ethan replied. "He has control board access, and he put the cameras for Sector Five on a loop until we got inside. In the morning, we'll get out the same way when they call us to breakfast."
Bogdan was impressed. "But… what about my cell? There are six men in there. You couldn't have bribed them all! Could you?"
"Not exactly," Ethan said. "But Dimitri will swear that you were in the room all night, and the others won't dare to dispute him."
"You owe him now?" Bogdan asked nervously.
"No. I paid him what he asked already, and he's got enough cash to bribe the others if necessary. Come." He beckoned to Bogdan to join him on the bed. When Bogdan didn't move right away, Ethan beckoned to him again. "Come on, Danya. Don't worry, I have everything all worked out. We have one full night together, with no debt hanging over our heads."
Bogdan hesitated, glancing back at the door as if he expected a guard to come bursting in at any second. "I… I don't… how can this be possible?"
"It isn't," Ethan said with a smile. "But I did it anyway." Bogdan chuckled nervously, and Ethan stood up and reached for him again. "Come on, lover," he said softly. "I don't know when, or if, I'll be able to do this again. Let's enjoy it."
Bogdan needed no further encouragement. He stepped toward Ethan, apologizing. "You're right, I'm sorry. I shouldn't-"
Ethan shushed him and pulled him close. He kissed Bogdan, tenderly at first, but his fervor increased with each second. Finally! The fruits of his labors were his at last – he had Bogdan alone, and they had considerably more than thirty hurried minutes to spend together. He maneuvered Bogdan toward the bed, never letting him go or breaking the kiss. They didn't come up for air until Bogdan was out of breath and laughing happily. He lay flat on his back on Ethan's cot, and the older man leaned over him. "I've been waiting for this nearly two months," he whispered.
Bogdan's eyes widened. "You've been planning a long time."
"Oh, yes." Bogdan looked like he might be about to say more, but Ethan dove for his neck, and whatever he'd intended to say was instantly forgotten.
Even though Ethan had gone through quite a lot of trouble so they could have more than thirty minutes, their first time was fast and furious, leaving them both sweaty and breathless, without having even bothered to fully undress. Ethan lay half on top of Bogdan, breathing hard and smiling to himself. After a few moments, he reached under his bed and found one of several bottles of water he had stashed there. He took a sip before passing it to Bogdan. They lay beside each other for a few minutes, resting and allowing each other to catch their breath.
Soon, though, Ethan felt Bogdan's hand on his chest, gently stroking. Ethan was ready to start again, as well. He stood up and began undressing slowly, while Bogdan watched – expression somewhere between amazement and desire. Ethan surprised Bogdan by undressing completely – a luxury he could never afford while they were in the laundry-room hideaway. They'd always had to stay half-dressed, with their shirts handy just in case of an intrusion. Now, there was no chance of being interrupted. Oskar had assured him that the guard who made the night rounds in Sector 5 would pass by Ethan's cell when it was time to check inside the cells. Ethan was thrilled with the new freedom, and intended to take full advantage.
Bogdan stared at him in amazement, the "wow" evident in his eyes, even though he never said the word aloud. He gazed at Ethan for a few moments, before he began pulling off his own clothes. When he'd completely disrobed, he stood before Ethan, looking shy and a little self conscious. Ethan eyed him with open lust, hoping to help dispel his nervousness by making his own desire completely obvious. Despite the strong and sudden desire to grab Bogdan, shove him onto the bed and take possession of him, Ethan forced himself to move slowly this time. He caressed, and petted and kissed until he was sure Bogdan was no longer thinking about whatever shortcomings he might imagine Ethan saw, and was only concerned with the feeling of Ethan's touch on his body. Bogdan made an effort to reciprocate, but Ethan gently held his hands down and focused on giving pleasure – making it last as long as possible this time, before bringing Bogdan to climax.
Again, Ethan lay with Bogdan while the younger man panted and vibrated slightly after his exertion. Before long, Bogdan reached for him again, stroking and kissing Ethan now, bent on reciprocating. Ethan allowed himself to yield and enjoy Bogdan's rather skillful ministrations, until he was stifling screams and clutching the rough sheets in his ecstasy.
Finally, they lay on the bed, exhausted, breathless and completely satisfied. Despite the sweaty sheen that covered him, Ethan relished Bogdan's closeness – the fact that the bed was too small to hold them both without them touching each other was absolutely fine with Ethan. He folded Bogdan in his arms and pulled him even closer, pressing Bogdan's head to his chest. Bogdan acquiesced, curling his legs up and around Ethan's, so his feet wouldn't dangle off the end of the cot.
Ethan smiled and let out a contented sigh. Laying like this reminded him strongly of how it had been after making love with Julia. She'd been a cuddler, and since he loved to rest and be close after, too, it worked. Oddly, he found that now, with someone else lying in that crook of his arm, he could think about his time with Julia without the stomach-clenching feeling of guilt and sadness that usually plagued him when he thought of her. Ethan would have believed that being with Bogdan would increase the guilt, but it was the opposite. Finding peace and comfort with Bogdan opened the possibility in his mind that Julia might be able to do the same. That should have made him jealous, too, but it had been his decision for them to separate. It had been the only decision after their final scare in Croatia. Even if he "retired", there was no way Jullia could be safe as long as she was connected to him. He certainly couldn't begrudge her the chance to be happy again, and he knew she would not begrudge him the same chance.
Bogdan shifted and tightened his grip on Ethan's waist, drawing his thoughts back to the present. Ethan stroked Bogdan's back and stared down at him, still feeling blissful. "Hey," he said softly. "You hungry?"
Bogdan looked up at him, confused. "I didn't think we'd be able to go out again until morning."
"That's true, but you didn't think I was going to starve you all night, did you?"
"But…" Bogdan grinned and sat up so that Ethan was free to move. "Okay, Sergei, tell me. How did you manage to get dinner in here?"
Ethan allowed himself a smug grin. He found his stash of clean towels pilphered from his "job" and gave one to Bogdan, using the other to wipe the sweat from his body. When he felt cleaner, he pulled out the fold-away checkers/chess set Uncle Viktor had sent him early in his sentence. It was about the same height as a TV tray when unfolded, but quite a bit sturdier. Ethan took a third towel and draped it over the wooden board. From a crate under his bed, he produced two boxes of juice, a bottle of water, and the makings of dinner.
Over the past weeks, he'd collected several items from his sources. Uncle Viktor had sent him two boxes of gourmet crackers and a box set of salami, firm cheeses, mustards, jams and other semi-perishable goods. He'd squirreled away several fruit cups while Bogdan wasn't looking, and he produced those as well.
"Wish I could get fresh fruit in here," Ethan said. "But they'd never make a trip through the mail, and my uncle can't visit in person."
"Mmm." Bogdan nodded sympathetically. "I miss that, too," he said. "I love strawberries and cream. I used to eat that all the time."
"My favorite are blueberries," Ethan said wistfully. "Blueberries with a little bit of sugar. Or just by themselves, actually. I could sit and eat a pound of those and still have room for more."
Bogdan smiled. "Well. Maybe one day, when I get out of here, I can bring some to you. But what you have here is… unbelievable!"
Ethan chuckled. "Yeah, I think we'll do okay. But wait until you see this." He reached into the very last box, pulling out books and letters from the Secretary, until he found what he wanted. The tour de force was the riskiest gift of all. Ethan had, frankly, been amazed when the gift made it through check-in. Two small bottles of semi-decent wine had been cleverly disguised inside trick aftershave bottles, along with a note to conserve them, because Viktor could only get that brand of aftershave at rare intervals. Bogdan had been growing more and more amazed with each item Ethan pulled from his boxes. When Ethan detached the false bottom from his aftershave bottle, Bogdan gasped aloud.
"How did you-" He covered his mouth, glancing toward the door. He never finished the question. Instead, he grabbed Ethan and kissed him deeply. "You're amazing."
"I try," Ethan said with a smile. "Come on, let's eat
They shared a surprisingly hearty meal considering the fact that the Secretary of Defense couldn't send through a huge gift box and expect it to reach Ethan intact. Ethan was glad he'd resisted the urge to break into his precious outside stores until today – especially when he saw the joy on Bogdan's face just from the simple pleasure of eating something better than the watery soup and stale bread that seemed to be Rankow's favorite dinner menu.
After dinner, there was (naturally) a round of celebratory sex in honor of Uncle Viktor's gifts. After a brief rest, there was another round of celebratory sex in honor of the successful first round. At some point, they opened the second miniature bottle of wine and finished it off, before getting back to the important task of lovemaking once again.
By the end of the night, Ethan was completely exhausted and thoroughly pleased with himself. Bogdan had finally succumbed to his exhaustion a couple of hours before dawn, even though he tried his best to stay awake. Ethan was tired, but thanks to his IMF graining, he could force himself to stay awake for upwards of thirty-six hours on will power alone, and he insisted on doing so now. Bogdan had fallen asleep in that same comfortable position, his head against Ethan's chest, limbs draped over him. Occasionally, during his last few hours before wake-up call, Ethan watched Bogdan breathe. But he spent most of the time looking at the frosted window, letting his mind wander and enjoying the simple pleasure of having another person nearby who was neither hostile, nor indifferent to him. This, too, was something precious that most people had, but few recognized or appreciated.
When the pale light of dawn crept through the frosted glass and cross-hatched bars of his cell, Ethan sighed heavily and roused Bogdan. "Come, Danya," he said softly, when Bogdan blinked sleepily at him. "We only have about an hour."
Bogdan looked around him, then seemed momentarily elated, and almost immediately saddened. "Don't want to go back," he said quietly.
"Neither do I."
Bogdan sighed, not making the slightest effort to move. After a moment, he kissed Ethan and smiled warmly at him. "That was the most wonderful night I've had in a very long time." Ethan looked at him in amazement, smiling with pleasure. "Never expected to say that about any night spent in here. Thanks, Seryozha."
"My pleasure. If there's any way I can manage it again, I will. May have to wait a while, though."
Bogdan nodded. "We'll see. But I don't want you to get into trouble, or into debt."
"I'll be careful." He nodded toward their dinner table. "Come on, there's a little fruit left. Let's finish it before Oskar comes to take us back to prison."
Life flowed on for Ethan in a fairly predictable manner, as life was wont to do in prison. Exercise, eat, work, sleep – a monotony broken only by skillful conversations about arms dealers, disguised as curiosity, and by his time with Bogdan. Occasionally, excitement would rise with the arrival of a new inmate, but it wasn't the kind of excitement Ethan enjoyed. Now and then, a new guy would get the brilliant idea of proving how tough he was by challenging the toughest current inmate. It never took long for him to find out that Dimitri and Sergei were the most highly feared men in the prison. Since most people assumed that challenging Dimitri was tantamount to suicide, Ethan almost always had the dubious honor of defending his right to be called the toughest.
Whatever heinous offenses had brought these men to prison, Rankow was not a maximum security facility, and therefore rarely attracted members of any country's former secret agents or military men. Not a single man Ethan had ever fought had possessed the level of combat training Ethan possessed. Although he was never in danger of losing a fight against any single combatant (or even a team of them, if it came to that), Ethan soon grew weary of being targeted by random new men who had somehow managed to learn he was the toughest around, but had not managed to deduce that they were therefore destined for failure.
In his early months at Rankow, Ethan had been in the habit of dispatching his attackers as swiftly, and with as little violence as possible. He'd strike at the base of the neck, or hard on the temple, his opponent would drop, and that would (usually) be the end of it. Some of the fallen would try again, certain that his victory had been a fluke. On the second round, Ethan would leave them with plenty of bruises to help convince them of his sincerity.
As the months turned into years, and his patience with the situation grew shorter, Ethan began to allow the fights to last longer, taking out his usually well-contained frustrations on the hapless, unwitting challenger. By the time Ethan had marked his fourth year in Rankow (and his first full year with Bogdan) only the most foolish of newcomers would dare challenge the Terrier.
About four months into Ethan's fourth year of imprisonment, one such fool challenged Ethan in the cafeteria – stepping up to Ethan's table, and shoving his tray roughly down toward the other men on the bench. Bogdan and the others gasped and stared at the new man in shock. Ethan froze, honestly shocked by the man's audacity. One of the absolute worst things one could do was screw with The Terrier while he was meditating on his boiled egg.
Bogdan and the other men stared at the newcomer, but Ethan had already sized him up some time earlier. He was tall, around 6'3", muscular but nowhere near as built as Dimitri from Sector Three. He was young, too, no more than twenty-five, if that, and already had been seen trying to gather a crew together. At the moment, he stood alone, and clearly didn't comprehend the true meaning of that fact. No doubt, his two followers had told him it would be more effective to challenge Sergei alone, but if he'd been smart, the newcomer would have realized that they didn't want to be part of the carnage.
"Get up, shorty!"
Dimitri (from Sector 1) and Ivan cringed. "Better be careful," Pavel said.
"Shut up, or you'll be next," the boisterous man shouted. "Come on!"
With his peripheral vision, Ethan saw his table companions edging out of the way, and a few men at other tables began to mumble about suicide. Ethan continued to stare straight ahead. "Nikolai," he said calmly, knowing from the gasp that he'd shocked the young man by using his name. "You should calm down." Ethan turned his head to face the young man and continued. "Put my tray back in front of me and go back to your seat."
Nikolai's face reddened, and he seemed to grow absolutely furious when various inmates called to him to save himself and do what the Terrier said. "Don't dare speak to me like I'm a child, or a dog, Terrier!" he snapped. With a frustrated growl, he reached over, grabbed Ethan's tray and pulled it completely off the table, eliciting more gasps from the stunned inmates.
"Hey!" Bogdan cried. He half rose from his seat, but Ethan held up a hand, and Bogdan immediately sat down and closed his mouth, still fixing Nikolai with a baleful scowl.
"Look!" Nikolai shouted. "He has you trained like a damned dog!" With surprising speed, and before anyone could react, Nikolai punched Bogdan on the side of the head.
There was a chorus of alarmed shouts, and Bogdan cried out in pain and fell hard against Dimitri, who eagerly helped to support him. Ethan saw this, and the hasty retreat of Stefan and the others on his side of the table, in a split second. He was already on his feet before he was even truly aware of his own movements. He yanked Nikolai away from Bogdan, and in the same movement, landed a fierce blow to Nikolai's jaw.
With Nikolai's attention back on Ethan, the battle began. Nikolai was a challenge, but only because he was several inches taller than Ethan. However, Ethan was not concerned at all about losing. Nikolai soon showed himself to be the kind of fighter who depended entirely on his size and brute force to intimidate his opponents. There was no cleverness – no finesse to his fighting at all.
Not that there was much finesse to Ethan's fighting at the moment, either. He was absolutely incensed that this son of a bitch had dared to lay a hand on Bogdan. No one had dared to do such a thing since Petr and his gang had been so thoroughly defeated over a year ago. Ethan could tell Nikolai was shocked by the speed and ferocity of his attack, but the other man managed to hold his ground fairly well at first. Each blow Nikolai managed to land only served to infuriate Ethan more. Soon, he could feel his rage boiling over. His vision flashed red, and he lost sight of the inmates gathered in a loose circle around them, and of Bogdan having his head dabbed with rough napkins by Dimitri. All he could see was Nikolai – all he could think about was vengeance.
Ethan rained flurry after flurry of ferocious blows, until finally, Nikolai began to weaken. His strikes were weaker and he began to show his fear. That was all the encouragement Ethan needed. Like a wild predator, Ethan felt the signs of Nikolai's fear, and they fueled his fury. Before long, his adrenaline-powered blows forced Nikolai to the floor, and Ethan crouched over the younger man, pummeling him mercilessly. He was peripherally aware of someone calling his code name, but he was busy at the moment.
Seconds later, the voice shouting his name became more urgent, and Ethan realized that the voice belonged to Bogdan. "Sergei!"
In the same instant, Ethan felt a searing blow across his shoulders. Baton. Ethan registered the cause almost immediately, but he was still so enraged that he couldn't resist landing a final blow against Nikolai. "I said stop!"
A second blow came, this time sending Ethan reeling. He fell to the floor, looking up at the uniformed man. The guard's billy-club was raised, and Ethan feared another strike from the guard. He tried to raise his arm in self defense, but wasn't sure if he actually moved.
"Don't, please!" It was Bogdan.
"Stay out of this, Anasenko! You want..." Ethan was fairly sure the guard was threatening Bogdan with a taste of the baton, but he couldn't actually hear. He felt nauseous and dizzy. With a glance at Nikolai to be sure he wasn't moving, Ethan shut his eyes, and gave up the fight to stay conscious.
Ethan awoke in a dark room, not entirely sure how he got there. He stayed completely still for a few moments, waiting for his head to clear and his memories to coalesce. Eventually, he remembered the fight and the guard's intervention. Fuck. He knew immediately where he was. Solitary.
Ethan sat up slowly, wincing at the pain in his shoulders. He did a careful self-inspection. The tender spots from Nikolai's blows were hardly noticeable by comparison to the harsh welp across his shoulders, and the swelling against the side of his face and neck from the guard's club. It seemed that Bogdan's distraction, and the fact that Ethan had almost immediately passed out, had saved him from a harsher beating. He didn't feel any other major wounds that would have come from a baton. He was grateful for that – solitary was bad enough without dealing with a full-fledged beating as well. Two strikes was quite enough.
Ethan sighed, and slowly inched toward the back wall of the small cell. The single, tiny window – too high for anyone to look out of – was against that wall. During his infrequent stints in solitary, he always kept close to the window. It was one of the many tools he used to keep calm while he was stuck in the box.
It was night, late enough that the moon hardly lent any light to the tiny room. Ethan didn't need any light. He knew exactly what the room looked like. It was about half the size of his regular cell. Instead of a cot, there was a small mattress sitting directly on the floor, along with a single blanket and pillow. In the corner near the door, on the opposite wall from the bed, there was a plastic bucket with a snap-on lid, since he wouldn't be allowed access to the communal bathrooms.
Fuck. Ethan sighed again. Rankow wasn't exactly a resort prison, but the few comforts he had access to in his cell would be sorely missed. His extra towels, chess set, and the myriad of other little things he'd become accustomed to were all out of reach for an indefinite period.
Ethan closed his eyes, and forced himself not to think about how small the room was, where his possessions were, or how long "indefinitely" might be. His thoughts immediately turned to Bogdan. He was worried about his friend. He knew Nikolai would be in solitary just like Ethan was, and he seriously doubted that Nikolai's two minions would dare do anything. But he wasn't completely sure about everyone else. Petr's lesson had been taught over a year ago, and Bogdan was technically unprotected while Ethan was stuck in solitary. He wasn't sure if Dimitri would proactively decide to protect Bogdan in hopes of a reward later, but it certainly wasn't guaranteed. He hoped that his reputation alone would protect Bogdan, but the uncertainty made him nervous.
"Shit!" he hissed. Why did the fight have to happen in the cafeteria? The line workers were right there, and could easily call the prison guards. But, what else could he really have expected to do when that bastard hit Bogdan right in front of him? Ethan felt his fists clenching involuntarily, and the rage heating up again. No. He'd be damned if he let some not-headed newcomer disrespect him and get away with it. He hoped Bogdan would be okay, but if anyone bothered him while Ethan as away, he would make them pay. They would suffer, and they would be examples for everyone else. Mess with this one and endanger your life. Even if he ended up in solitary again, no one would dare take the chance.
That decided, Ethan was able to relax just a little. It was still late, and even though he must have been unconscious for a few hours at least, he decided to try to get some sleep. He lay down on the tired, sagging mattress, shut his eyes and tried to pretend he was back in his own cell.
Ethan edged toward the opening at the bottom of the cell door and watched the food tray slide in. He resisted the urge to pull it further, and called out to the guard before the door was slammed shut. "Sir?
"What?" the guard asked impatiently. Damn. It wasn't Oskar.
"Can you please tell me how long I'm in for, sir?" he asked calmly, switching to his Marine Corps manners. It was always wisest to stay on the good side of the guards when in solitary confinement. Not that he made a habit of disrespecting the guards at any time – that just wasn't wise. But the men making rounds during solitary confinement had the power to make an already difficult experience an absolute hell if they wanted, and Ethan always preferred to use a little extra caution when dealing with them.
There was a laugh from the other side of the door. "You should be happy," the guard said. "The new boy will get six weeks when he comes out of the infirmary. We know he started it. But the Captain says you should know better than to disobey the guards. You could have killed the little fool, you know."
"Yes, sir, I know," Ethan replied, fists clenching tightly. Two weeks. He knew he'd gotten off lightly, considering the fact that he'd put a man in the hospital, but still. Two weeks without any of the usual comforts, or anything to busy his mind, would be torture.
Ethan pulled his food tray in, noticing that – as usual in solitary – the pleasurable parts of the meal were missing. He had a bowl of porridge and a cup of water – nothing more. The small opening in the door was snapped shut, and Ethan was left in the twilight gloom of early morning, listening to the guard's footsteps recede down the hall.
One day at a time, Ethan thought grimly. He made short work of the porridge, drank the water slowly, and pretended he didn't miss his tea, his egg, or his Bogdan.
Ethan had a method for dealing with solitary confinement. He'd refined part of it during the captivity training for IMF, and he'd developed the method further in his first two years at Rankow. Coming into prison at lower than average height had put him at a disadvantage in the eyes of the other inmates, and he'd been the object of more than a few attacks at the beginning – not all of which had gone unnoticed by the prison guards. His reputation as a hard-ass had been won through swift and harsh retaliation against any and all attacks – physical blows or any sign of disrespect was enough to set him off. Although the inmates learned quickly that the new one was "small, but crazy" and he was soon left alone, the peace had come at a price. Combined, he'd spent almost eight of those first twenty-four months in solitary confinement. Never for striking a guard, or attempting to escape, or any other offense – always for fighting.
In that time, Ethan had learned a few things that helped make life easier. He was always pleasant and respectful to the guards. Naturally, that was specific to Rankow (or any other state-run prison). When it came to being captured by terrorists or enemy governments, Ethan's motto was "fuck you right back". In public prison, while he was undercover, there was no true reason to be defiant.
Being too polite in the regular areas of the prison could make you look like a potential snitch and damage your reputation. But being extra-polite in solitary was hardly ever damaging. Prisoners were kept out of earshot of each other (of course), and even if a guard mentioned one's behavior in passing, most people accepted that you did what you had to while you were in the box. There was a much higher guard-to-prisoner ratio in solitary, so being in the box was like being under a microscope. The most trivial of offences could be used against you to increase your time. More time meant a greater risk of having one's spirit broken, and if being an asshole to a guard was what got you the extra time, said guard as likely to let word of your weakness "slip" where your enemies could hear. On the other hand, while groveling wasn't a good idea, being nice could be beneficial. The right man might even say a good word to the captain and have your time shortened, or (like Oskar) might be convinced to bend the rules a little, making the time more bearable.
Aside from public relations, the most crucial part of surviving solitary was staying occupied. Ethan had each hour of each day scheduled. The day was divided by meal times, since that was the only time anyone in the outside world was allowed to interact with him. He usually awoke around six, but knowing how his sleep pattern was in solitary, he accounted for being awake as early as four. From four to five, he would jog in place. "Laps" around the tiny cell would only frustrate him. Five to six was strength training – squats, lunges, push-ups and crunches – enough to fairly exhaust himself. Six to seven was a meditation hour, where he would practice breathing exercise and steer his mind toward the goal of zero thought.
Breakfast came at seven. Ethan would have preferred stretching out the meal, but porridge was impossible to savor, so breakfast usually took up a total of fifteen minutes, from the time he slid the tray inside his cell to the time he returned it and the guard walked away with it down the hall. Between breakfast and lunch, Ethan practiced mental exercises. He quietly recited poems and song lyrics to himself, and gave himself kudos if he could recall ten or more. He silently recited all the code names he'd ever used, and the numerical ID's of his friends at IMF. If he caught himself leaning toward melancholy thinking about friends he might not see for years (if ever), he forced himself to remember the most ridiculous limericks, or the most hilarious poems he'd read, and he could usually bring his mood back up.
Lunch, he could make last for a good thirty minutes. Bland soup and stale bread were decently palatable, even at room temperature, and he stretched his time with the food by breaking down the bread into tiny pieces, searching through the soup for various vegetables, and the odd actual piece of meat. He'd made bets on how much chicken he might find, and tally probability and statistics and volume ratios for his theoretical study on how Rankow could potentially keep hundreds of men alive on a total food purchase of three chickens a week, four heads of celery and an unlimited supply of tap water.
The lunch to dinner period was the most difficult. This was work time and yard time, depending on the day. It was the time Ethan was most productive, both at his IMF duties, and at his prison duties. In solitary, he was robbed of both. He spent this period exercising – working on the muscles he'd neglected in the morning.
Then came dinner – more soup and bread – more math games. From dinner to the time he fell asleep, he played more word games, exercised, and thought about IMF-related things. Extraction procedures, contact numbers, security and release codes – things that were second nature, but that he liked repeating to himself all the same – a type of comforting mantra that often lulled him to sleep.
There were a few things Ethan hadn't counted on in this latest stint in solitary, and they made his first few days extremely difficult. First, there was the healing. He'd always accounted for a little healing time, but this was the first time he'd let fury control him so much that he hadn't stopped immediately when the guards intervened. The pain across his shoulders and his head made his usual vigorous exercise impossible. That cut away a minimum of three hours from his schedule, which he had to try to fill with other activities.
Then there were the nightmares. He'd gotten used to having Yuriy next door to wake him when the nightmares got bad. He'd been mercifully free of nightmares for several months, but on his third night in the box he woke up screaming, and his friend was not there to help calm him down.
Then, of course, there was Bogdan. When Ethan had been in solitary before, he had certainly missed Julia, but he'd already known he would not be able to see her again. He had certainly not been seeing anyone on a regular basis, spending a good portion of his waking hours with anyone, or spending at least thirty minutes a day in close physical contact. Ethan felt the loss keenly. More often than not, when he was supposed to be meditating, or calculating beet to celery ratios, he was thinking about Bogdan – worrying about his safety, wondering how he was coping with the separation, and generally fretting about him.
Ethan's higher-than-usual anxiety wasn't helping with the nightmares eiher, and by his fourth day in the box, he was edgy, exhausted, and not entirely sure how he was going to make it through the next ten days.
Ethan slept fitfully on that fourth night, waking often, half afraid that he would slip into another nightmare. At some point, well before dawn, he gave up trying to sleep and sat on the bed absently toying with the edging of the mattress. Restless, he trued push-ups, noting that although it was still painful, his bruises had healed enough for him to do the exercises. He lost himself in physical activity, making his best attempt to shove all worries aside. At some point, he realized that he must have fallen asleep mid-workout, because he was startled awake by the sound of the food door sliding up. He sat up and looked at the tray blankly, feeling disoriented.
"Ivanov!" the guard snapped. "You want it or not?"
"Yes, sir," Ethan said, shaking himself and moving toward the door. He wished, for the tenth time, that Oskar still took shifts on the solitary block. Happy as he was for the man since he'd taken on control room duties full time, Ethan missed Oskar's friendliness. Romanov wasn't evil, but he wasn't exactly a gem either. "Sorry," he said, pulling the tray in.
"Don't worry," Romanov said. "I'm paid to be here all day." He laughed, and Ethan chuckled slightly with him. Romanov was feeling uncharacteristically sociable and charitable this morning. He rarely said more than he absolutely had to. Ethan vaguely wondered why he was so (relatively) chipper, but he didn't really care. If it made Ethan's life easier for one day, that was all that really mattered.
Ethan set his tray on the bed, ready to get through the porridge while it was still somewhat warm. He pulled off the lid and gasped. He looked toward the door, as if Romanov might still be there, waiting to snatch his tray away at any moment. When no one came in to confiscate his breakfast, Ethan turned his eyes back to the tray and stared at it in shock. In addition to the porridge and water, the tray contained two boiled eggs and a small bag of pepper. Hesitantly, Ethan turned one of the eggs over, almost shocked when it didn't turn out to be a hallucination.
"How…?" Before he could fully form the question, Ethan thought of Bogdan. It had to have been him – who else would show the Terrier such kindness? Getting the eggs into solitary was one thing, but the bag of pepper was an addition that would require a completely separate arrangement – one that Bogdan had already established. But how had he managed to get any of these things into solitary?
Ethan pondered the problem for several minutes – all through his hasty disposal of the porridge. The arrangement would have had to take cash, or some other serious exchange, and it wouldn't work without the morning guards' cooperation. The food for the men in solitary was stacked onto carts and wheeled in. Theoretically, the guard who put each tray down wouldn't even look under the lid, so for Ethan to get a special dish, Romanov would have to look for it. Could that be why he was so unusually pleasant? Was he getting a little extra bonus from Bogdan? But how could that be, when Bogdan's cousin couldn't risk sending him letters or gifts?
Ethan looked down at the tray again and shook his head. It was a puzzle he wasn't up to solving, and he decided not to worry about it anymore. Bogdan had gone through great lengths (whatever they might be) so that Ethan could enjoy his breakfast, and he decided that it was only right to do just that.
He slowly and carefully cracked his first egg, setting the shells away from the tray. He didn't want anyone asking difficult questions when the dishes were collected. Later, he could put the shells in the lidded bucket that was his toilet. No one would be poking around in there when it was taken out for its weekly cleaning.
There was no knife to cut his egg the proper way – even plastic "weapons" were not allowed in this cell block. It didn't matter to Ethan. He used his spoon to create the best approximation, opened his pepper and savored the surprise delicacy. He wanted the second one, but forced himself to save it. It would be nice to have another treat later in the day, and he seriously doubted Bogdan could work more miracles at the other meals.
Bogdan's treat had a wonderful effect on Ethan's spirits. He felt well enough to do his usual exercises, and he worried less. Logic dicated that if Bogdan was arranging presents for Ethan, he was not in the infirmary, nor was he struggling against constant attack (or fear thereof). Ethan didn't feel that Bogdan was completely out of danger (only Dimitri could boast of that accomplishment), but he was no longer in a constant state of anxious unrest over Bogdan's safety, either. After enjoying his second egg, a few hours after dinner, Ethan enjoyed his first peaceful night's sleep since his stay in solitary began.
Each morning thereafter, Ethan received two boiled eggs with his breakfast. There was no pepper included, but the first bag was enough to last a full week, and he didn't doubt that Bogdan would find a way to get him a second bag before the two weeks were up.
On his eighth day in solitary, Ethan received an additional surprise. Underneath the soup bowl on his lunch tray, Ethan found a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Russian translation, of course). He couldn't hold back a stunned cry, and he was glad the guard had already left the area. This was almost too much. How could Bogdan have managed this? A couple of eggs was one thing (though certainly amazing in itself), but a book? Reading materials were only allowed for prisoners who would be in solitary for three months or more. And this wasn't one of Ethan's books – it was new. That meant Bogdan had either ordered it, or asked one of the guards to buy it for him. Ethan couldn't imagine what kind of debt Bogdan must be getting himself into. He fretted about that for a few minutes, absently drinking down the soup without even sparing a thought for his usual mathematical games.
When he finished his food, he gingerly set the book on his bed and moved the tray back to the door of the cell. When, a few moments later, the guard taped on the gate and unlocked the small opening, Ethan couldn't help but make an attempt to talk to him. "Thank you," he said, when the guard pulled the tray out.
Romanov laughed. "Thank you? What for? For doing my job?"
"Er… I…" now that he'd opened the window to a conversation, Ethan wasn't exactly sure what he wanted to say. He didn't want to mention Bogdan directly, in case Bogdan hadn't spoken to Romanov personally. "I… I just thought the soup was good today, sir," he said.
Romanov burst into a roaring laugh as if Ethan had just told the world's most amazing joke. "You must really be losing it in there, Ivanov," he said, still laughing. "The soup's no different than it was yesterday. But you know that, don't you?"
"I guess so," Ethan said.
"Right. Doesn't take a genius, or a detective to figure that out, yeah?" Ethan gasped, but forced himself to join with the guard's boisterous laughter. "Well, whatever," Romanov said, calming down at last. "You feel like the soup was special, who am I to disagree? Fine, fine, you're welcome." He slapped the small door shut and locked it, still chuckling as he walked away.
Ethan went back to the bed, now with more questions than before. He'd learned that Romanov definitely knew what was going on, but he still had no idea how Bogdan had gotten to him. As far as Ethan knew, Romanov was rarely anywhere near their block. And how much could he have offered such a hard man to get him to agree to these rule-breaking activities – especially with such a jovial attitude?
Ethan forced himself not to worry about it further. If Bogdan had promised money, Ethan would pay him back, no matter how much Bogdan protested that gifts shouldn't be paid for. In the meantime, he planned on enjoying the book immediately. Ethan had six days left in solitary, and there were twelve stories in the collection. It couldn't have been more perfect. He devoured the first story right away, then forced himself to put the book down and do something else. He waited to read the next story until shortly before the last of the daylight left his cell. When dinner came, he went back to his statistical analysis of the food just to keep himself from reading the third story prematurely, squinting at the words through the wan moonlight coming through the tiny window.
The rest of Ethan's time in solitary confinement passed more pleasantly than he could ever have imagined possible. He got his two eggs each morning, and Bogdan did indeed find a way to get him a second bag of pepper. Ethan worked reading into his daily routine, taking one story mid-morning, and his second one mid-afternoon. In addition to his usual mental exercises, Ethan used the book to make up new games. He took bets on how many times Holmes' full name appeared in a story, or how many references to opiates were made. He made anagrams in Russian from place names in the stories he'd already read.
By the end of Day Thirteen, Ethan was still in excellent spirits, but he was definitely ready to be done with solitary. He missed Bogdan immensely, and he was ready to rejoin society again. The final stretches of solitary were usually the most difficult. This was when tension was highest – with the relative freedom of regular incarceration looming closer, fear of making a mistake or of a guard having a randomly shitty day and taking it out on the prisoner was high. Getting time added after you'd nearly completed your stay was the worst kind of unbearable.
Ethan made sure to stay on his absolute best behavior – if it was possible to inject more pleasantness and kindness into his demeanor than he'd already shown, Ethan did it. Breakfast was wonderful (Ethan even decided to eat both eggs in the morning, rather than saving one), and lunch was equally delicious when accompanied by Holmes and Watson's "Adventures of the Copper Beeches".
Romanov laughed again when Ethan thanked him for lunch. "If you thought the soup was good this afternoon, wait until you taste the dinner stew."
"I can hardly wait," Ethan said, wondering idly if that was supposed to mean he was to expect another gift. He brushed off the idea as wishful thinking and went back to his book. Getting out of solitary was the only other gift he needed at this point.
Ethan read the final story in his book, then started the collection again from the beginning. He took a break from reading about an hour before the dinner would be served, and did a few strength training exercises. Finally, he spent the last few minutes before dinner cooling down and just relaxing – happy that he'd made it so close to the end of solitary in such good spirits. Of course, that was almost entirely thanks to Bogdan's intervention. He couldn't wait to see him again – to thank him, and to ask how the hell he'd arranged it all.
By the time dinner arrived, Ethan had all but forgotten Romanov's comment about the stew. He pulled the tray in, and the guard chuckled. "Last meal in the box, Ivanov," he declared. "Enjoy it!"
"Thank you, sir, I'm sure I will." Romanov shut the gate and strolled away to deal with the other inmates.
Ethan brought the tray to his bed, looking forward to the day when he'd be able to eat at his table in the cafeteria again. He took the lid off the tray, and was startled to see something extra on it. There was a small, white, lidded container in one corner of the tray, near the bread. Ethan stared at the little container for a few seconds, before touching it. Now, what on Earth could this new surprise be? More eggs? But why would they be in a cup? Couldn’t be a fruit cup, either. Those already came in tins, so why put one container into another when the guard checking the trays was already in on the surprise?
Curiosity increasing, Ethan took the top off the container and gasped. He stared at the contents of the container for several moments, honestly wondering if he had somehow gone crazy in the two short weeks he'd spent in solitary. He was usually tougher than that, but… what was in the container could not possibly be real. "What the …"
Ethan was shocked beyond belief. The absolutely impossible was in front of his face – a small container filled with fresh, clean, delicious looking blueberries. He stared at them for a few seconds more, before picking up one of the small berries and popping it into his mouth. It was delicious. Sweet, just the tiniest bit crisp, and amazingly fresh. How? Could Bogdan have actually gotten someone to go to a market for him? HOW?
Ethan found he couldn't spend much energy wondering how Bogdan had accomplished this latest miracle. He hadn't had fresh fruit in years. Actual years. He picked up another berry and devoured it. Before he knew it, he had another, then another, then another. Any thought of reserving some for later in the night was out of the question. Ethan got to the bottom of the container in no time.
Ethan noticed what looked like writing on the bottom of the container as he got near the end. He carefully poured the few remaining blueberries into the lid and looked at the message. Written in slightly messy handwringing that one might expect from someone trying to write into the bottom of a cup, were the words "Can't wait to see you".
Ethan gripped the container, then released it immediately to keep from crushing it. He felt a heaviness in his chest, and his eyes stung. Without further warning, he burst into tears. His chest heaved, and he struggled to be sure that no sound could be heard outside his cell.
The outburst shocked him, not least because he was suddenly and vividly aware that the solitary confinement had, indeed, taken its toll. He was now painfully aware that he'd had no contact with anyone but Andrei Romanov for the past fourteen days. Simple as it was, Bogdan's note had touched a nerve, and somewhere inside – so deep inside that he could hardly bring himself to actually articulate the thought – Ethan knew that solitary confinement wasn't the only (or even the primary) source of his emotional outburst. It was love – plain and simple – and Ethan was so shaken, it took several minutes for him to regain control of himself.
When he felt that he could function without crying again, Ethan downed the cold soup, then finished off the last few blueberries. He put everything back on the tray and closed the lid, but thought better of it before setting the tray out to be picked up. He took the blueberry container and carefully tore away the sides, so that only the bottom was left. That, he folded in half and stuck at the end of his book. He ripped the rest of the container into small pieces, then covered it all and set the tray out.
"You were right, sir," Ethan said when Romanov came to take the tray. "The soup was more amazing than ever."
Romanov laughed heartily, and for quite a while, about that. "You're not bad, Sergei," he said. "And you're very funny. Have a nice night."
Ethan thanked him, and listened to his retreating footsteps. When he'd gone, Ethan took his book to the tiny patch of light created by his window, and began reading again. He tried to focus on the mysteries, but it couldn't be helped that every few pages, he found himself turning to the back of the book to look at his note. Can't wait to see you, either.
When the door to the solitary cell opened, Ethan was seated on the bed, composed and pretending he wasn't aching with every fiber of his being to get the hell out of the box. He'd wrapped his book (note still inside) in his shirt – bundled so that it didn't look like anything but a prison tunic. He looked up at Romanov and the other guard who'd come to escort him back to his own cell, and waited for instructions.
"Come on," the new guard said gruffly. "Get up and put your clothes on."
"Ah, I don't have all morning to wait," Romanov said, stepping inside and grabbing Ethan's bundle. "Shackle him and let's get this over with.
Ethan stood up and allowed the other man to handcuff him, then followed him out and away from the solitary confinement area, while Romanov brought up the rear. Despite the fact that Ethan would have liked to dance and sing all the way back to his cell, he kept his pace even, and his features serious. Any of the men who were in cells with gated doors would be watching him carefully, and they would see what they always saw if Ethan could help it – a strong, confident, somewhat angry Russian who was in no mood to be trifled with. He was certain to be thinner than he'd been when he went in, but he would appear no less powerful for the change.
When they arrived at his cell, the new guard opened the door, and waited for him to go inside before removing the cuffs. "Here," Romanov said, speaking gruffly and shoving the bundled shirt into Ethan's chest.
"Thanks," was Ethan's only response. Solitary rules of manner were officially out the window out here, and he knew Romanov would understand that. The second guard walked away, and Romanov winked at Ethan before pulling the door closed and locking it behind him.
Ethan turned away from the door and looked around at his domain. The cell was hardly a mansion – most dumpy hotel rooms in the bad parts of town had more square footage and better amenities – it was prison after all. But it felt like the penthouse at the Hilton after his stay in solitary. He stretched, and lay down on his cot – complete with an actual bed frame – and sighed contentedly.
After a few minutes, there was a knock on the wall beside him. "Sergei. You all right. How was it?"
"Okay, Yuriy," he replied. "But it was a bit tough those first few days not having you around."
"Ahhh," he said sympathetically. "But you sound good. I'm glad it's over for you."
"Thanks, my friend."
Ethan stowed his book under the bed, but not before taking out Bogdan's note and slipping it into his pocket. It wouldn't be long now. He wasn't sure how he would handle himself when they were called to breakfast. He knew he'd be tempted to crush Bogdan into a bear hug right away, but such a display would not be a good idea. First of all, he didn't need to give anyone an excuse to try to test out his reputation for being tough yet again. And second, if anyone knew that Ethan had received special treats, he didn’t need to make it completely obvious that Bogdan was the source. He didn't worry about it further than that – just let himself relax and enjoy the fact that he was in his own space again.
Maintaining his composure at breakfast was more difficult than Ethan had anticipated. He was pleased to see the inside of his cafeteria, and most of the familiar inmates made him want to smile. Two weeks of seeing nothing but four walls made even the most severe faces seem welcome.
When he finally saw Bogdan, he couldn't stop the huge smile that spread across his face. "Sergei!" Bogdan trotted eagerly to him, and Ethan half-hoped, half feared that an embrace was imminent. However, Bogdan merely patted his arm vigorously and smiled at him. "It's great to see you, my friend."
"It's great to see you," Ethan replied, leading the way to their table. "Thank you for… everything," he said under his breath.
"It was nothing," Bogdan said, his broad smile belying the modesty.
"It was hardly nothing, but we'll talk about that later."
"Sure, Sergei. Hey, how are you?" Bogdan exclaimed. "Did they feed you in there, you look like you've lost weight?" Ethan shrugged and Bogdan touched his arm again. "Wow! No loss there, though."
Ethan only laughed and led the way to his table. His regular space at the tale was waiting for him, which was a good sign. A lot could change in two weeks, but Sergei's reputation was such that no one had even tried to take over his territory. Ethan wouldn't have been surprised to learn that his spot had remained empty for the whole two weeks, with none of the others even daring to occupy his seat, even though they knew he couldn't possibly occupy it himself, and might never know they had used it.
Ethan and Bogdan took their seats, and the other men at the table bid him "welcome back".
"Thank you, gentlemen, it's good to be back."
The tepid porridge was certainly no better than it had been the day before, but the boisterous, bustling activity in the cafeteria was like music to Ethan's ears, and he ate the cereal with relish. When the porridge was gone, Bogdan placed a small bag of pepper onto Ethan's tray.
Ethan smiled and began to peel his egg. Bogdan peeled his own and began to cut it the way Ethan liked it. Ethan took his time, enjoying his relative amount of freedom, and pleased that he was able to finally take his seat at the "head" of his table again.
When Ethan took his last bite, Bogdan transferred his egg slices onto Ethan's plate, the way he used to do. The simple consideration threatened to bring tears to his eyes again. He contained himself before his eyes could even glisten. This was definitely not the place for such a display, and he had no doubt that crying about Bogdan putting his egg on his plate with perfect timing would be devastating to his reputation.
Ethan managed to get through the morning routine fairly well. Lunch was tough again, since he could be near Bogdan, but couldn't really touch him. He thought he would lose his mind during laundry duty. Fortunately, the others had taken up the slack while Ethan was gone, and the workload wasn't backed up. Still, going through the motions of his job while Bogdan was so close was like torture.
Finally, a little earlier than usual, Ethan gave Ivan the go ahead to take his break, and took Bogdan to their hideaway. The moment they stepped past Ethan's "doorway" of rolling carts and old containers, Ethan yanked Bogdan into a powerful embrace. Bogdan yelped, startled, but returned the embrace, squeezing Ethan tightly.
"I missed you, Seryozha," Bogdan whispered.
"I missed you, too, Danya," Ethan said. "God, I missed you. How… how did you…" He could feel Bogdan laughing, and he smiled at him. "What? You laughing at my sputtering?"
"A little," Bogdan said with a smile. "I'm just happy you're back."
"Me, too. So? Tell me. How did you do it?"
"Oh, don't play innocent with me," Ethan said with mock seriousness. "How did you get me all those things? My eggs, my pepper, the book, and… how did you get fresh fruit in here?"
Bogdan laughed again, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. "It wasn't too hard," he said at last. "In fact, you did most of the work yourself, really."
"Sure. Oskar Krelin likes you a lot," Bogdan explained. "I still had the arrangement with Dimitri to get you the pepper, so I just asked for that and two eggs to be put on your tray. And Oskar even agreed to buy the berries for you. He got Romanov to give you everything without reporting it by saying he would put in a good word with the Captain for him." Bogdan must have seen the dubious look on Ethan's face, because he quickly went on to say, "Well… that and a little extra cash, too."
"Okay, well where did you get the cash?" Ethan asked, sitting down on one of the crate "chairs" and motioning for Bogdan to do the same. Bogdan took a seat, but didn't answer the question. He seemed mildly nervous, and Ethan looked expectantly at him. "Well? Did your cousin send you money?"
Bogdan shook his head. "No, he… he sends me some, but not really enough for…"
"Then how," Ethan asked.
Bogdan shook his head, still reluctant. "If I tell you, you'll be angry with me."
"Bogdan, how could you possibly think that? Whatever you did, it kept me sane in there."
"But I may have done something…" He shrugged, still worried. "You may not like it."
Ethan frowned. Now what could that mean? "All you’re doing is making me more curious. Come on, tell me."
"Well…" He paused, squirming a little, but Ethan stared at him, waiting for an answer. "I… I told Oskar that you wanted me to… do something for you if you ever got sent to solitary."
"We never discussed me going to solitary," Ethan said, confused.
"No, but I told him we did. He helped me get the address, and I-"
"Wait, what address?"
Bogdan shifted, but answered him. "Your uncle's address," he said softly. Ethan's eyes widened, and he stared at Bogdan in shock. "I know, I'm sorry, I probably shouldn't have. But I knew he could help, and I wouldn't have been able to pay Oskar and Romanov, and the kitchen worker, and I… I hoped it would be okay."
Ethan continued to stare in amazement, wondering what the Secretary must have thought when he received a forwarded letter to his personal box from someone other than Ethan. "So… what did he say?"
Bogdan's cheeks reddened slightly. "He said he was glad I was looking out for his nephew, and he sent money to help. He even sent the book, so I decided to try and get it to you. I… I hope you're not angry that I wrote to him. I don't know if he'll want you to pay back, or-"
Ethan vaulted for Bogdan, squeezing him into a tight hug, stopping him mid-apology. Bogdan yelped, then laughed when he realized what was happening. Ethan kissed him repeatedly, pulling him toward the bed. "Of course I'm not angry. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you!"
Bogdan laughed, sounding breathless from Ethan's hungry kisses. "Your uncle won't want the money back?"
"No, he won't. He takes good care of me. But what about you? Are you in debt to anyone?"
Bogdan shook his head. "He sent enough that I took care of everyone. You don't owe, and I don't owe."
Ethan grinned and smothered Bogdan with kisses, working Bogdan's shirt off in the process. "You're the best," he said. "Thank you, Danya."
"Of course, lover," Bogdan said. He winked. "I always take care of my friends."
Ethan could hardly contain himself through the dinner break. Their work time tryst had not nearly been enough, and he had to keep his hands to himself while sitting only a few feet away from Bogdan. He wanted to set up another all night stay with Bogdan, but it would seem a little strange to request more money now, after Uncle Viktor had already supplied enough money to make Bogdan's little gifts a possibility. Still, patience was difficult.
Going back to his cell after dinner was agony. He couldn't openly touch Bogdan past a simple pat on the arm, and now it would be hours before he'd see him again. Now, more than ever, his captivity grated on him. If he could get out and take Bogdan with him, he'd finally be able to have what he really wanted – a day with Bogdan in the real world, with no guards or buzzers or regulations between them.
Ethan tried reading to take his mind off of the impossible, but the books were stale to him. He definitely was in no mood to play chess. With a sigh, he got up and went to the crack in the wall, near the cell door. He pulled out his favorite stone – a well-worn piece of the wall that had served as a quasi-bullet to hone his targeting sills, a stress reducer, meditation aide, and even just a toy for when he wanted the simplest form of mindless amusement.
Ethan flopped back onto the creaky bed, leaned his head against his arm, and tossed the little stone against the window sill, striking at just the right angle so that it would ricochet off the side of the sill and come flying back to him. He switched sides a few times, just for the hell of it, and tried to clear his mind. Driving himself crazy about what could not be was the quickest way to losing it. He'd survived through solitary without losing his head - now was not the time to let captivity get to him. But of course, thinking about surviving solitary only made him think about Bogdan again.
Ethan reached into his pocket and felt for the little note that had been at the bottom of his blueberry cup. He felt the edge of it and smiled to himself. Silly, sentimental crap he hadn't done in ages, but here he was holding onto what wasn't even really a love note. He sighed and went back to playing target practice against the window sill.
Sleep refused to come, and it was almost dawn before he even began to feel remotely tired. A few minutes before sunrise, Ethan heard a scuffle on one of the lower floors. He paused for a fraction of a second, but it couldn't be at Bogdan's cell, so he didn't concern himself with it. Moments later, though, the alarm began to sound. Ethan paused in his stone-tossing game, and listened for a few moments. Sounded like a serious fight, but the guards would have it locked down in ten minutes or less. Their riot procedures were swift, harsh and extremely effective.
Then, out of nowhere, music blared through the speakers - a bold brass opener to a Dean Martin song played louder than even the alarm claxon. At almost the same moment, Ethan's cell door opened on its own. Ethan turned toward the door. The prison didn't look very pretty or modern, but the cell doors were highly sophisticated, with locking mechanisms that could only be cracked by a few agencies. IMF was one of them.
Work. Home. They were like instinctual drives, sirens calling to him to get up and get moving. His mission must certainly have been moved to another level of urgency, or else there was something going on that was even more pressing than pinning down an intelligent, frighteningly dangerous nuclear extremist. Either way, it was time to say goodbye to Rankow.
Ethan put his rock away and moved cautiously into the hall. No other doors were open on his level. Of course they weren't. There was no access to anything on this level. From the lower floor, he could get down some stairs, and to a small room that had subterranean access. They would probably be breaking in there.
Ethan walked up to the railing across from his door and glanced down. No fighting in his wing at all. He flipped over the rail and lightly dropped himself onto the lower level. The second his feet touched ground, the door at the end of the hall opened. Sewer system, just as he expected. He took a step toward the door, then stopped.
Up to that point, Ethan had moved on instinct alone - a faithful servant of the state, off to do the duty that was like a second nature to him now - part of his blood. But taking that step toward freedom had made his other duty rush to his mind - his duty to Bogdan. Besides the fact that Ethan had dreamed of hardly anything for weeks except the day that he and Bogdan could get out of this place, the meeker man would not survive in Rankow alone. Not with the fear of Sergei's wrath completely gone. He'd probably have it worse than he ever would have if Ethan hadn't taken him under wing in the first place. Even Dimitri wouldn't protect him for free, and no arms dealer would funnel his money into prison bribes, cousin or no cousin.
Ethan turned and felt his heart sink at the sight of the battle being waged on the other side of Guard Station Three. Still, there was no choice. He walked toward the door, and motioned to whatever IMF tech was controlling the security cameras to open the door. There was no response but the jovial sound of good old Dino singing away about how great his life was going to be.
Ethan frowned up at the camera and motioned for the door to be opened again. Still no response. Ok, now you're fucking with me. Feeling his anger rise, he pointed directly at the camera and then at the door, so that there could be absolutely no mistake. Still nothing. Ethan kept his cool, as best he could. Yes, he was walking away from their planned extraction point, but he had his reasons, and it just didn't fucking matter if the extraction team didn't know what those reasons were. Ethan was damned if he was leaving this place without Bogdan. The extraction team would be answering to the Secretary if he wasn't where he belonged in time, not Ethan.
He leaned against the guardrail, casual as could be, and waited. The guards inside the control room were in a panic, unable to escape the room, and apparently unable to control anything at all. Oskar was staring at him in open-mouthed disbelief. Ethan gave him a "what can you do?" expression, and continued waiting. He started to get pissed again as the seconds ticked on, and he raised his fist to the IMF operator behind the cameras. Moments later, the door opened. Ethan gave him a sign of his heartfelt gratitude, knowing that the operator was probably having kittens wherever he was.
The next few minutes moved very quickly. Ethan raced through the halls, and doors opened at his command without further silent argument. He slammed the gates shut behind him as he went. No doubt, the Secretary would find it a little disturbing if an unauthorized side-track led to the escape of any more inmates than intended. Bogdan would be... interesting enough to explain, but random men could not be allowed to escape.
He managed to get through Sector 3 well enough, and with minimal altercations. Most of the inmates who saw him, recognized him and let him pass, despite the fact that they were embroiled in their own battles. He was shoved around a few times, but managed to dance through the battle without anyone landing a punch. Bogdan's cell wasn't open yet, but after a quick command, the lock shifted, and the door opened.
Ethan was rushed by the many inhabitants of cell 329. He rushed in when he could, but Dimitri glared down at him and stalked out. Ethan backed off - he was in Dimitri's territory after all, and he had no desire to aggravate the larger man when he was most certainly short on time. He glanced at the melee, but Dimitri was clearly in a mood. After several precious seconds, Dimitri apparently decided that he had sufficiently shown his disapproval of Ethan's intrusion, and he turned away without a word and joined the fray. When he was gone, Ethan sped into the cell. It appeared deserted, but Bogdan had definitely not been in the group that rushed out. "Bogdan?" No answer. "Bogdan!"
Bogdan's dark wavy hair appeared slowly from behind one of the cots. "Sergei?"
"Come on," he said urgently. "Time to go."
Bogdan stared at him in confusion. "Now?"
"Yes, yes, now!" Bogdan sunk down under the bed again. Normally, Ethan would have sympathized - Bogdan was about the least confrontational individual he'd ever met, and Ethan knew he wouldn't want to go anywhere near the fight. But now was not the time for hesitation. It wasn't the time to argue, either. Ethan ran in, grabbed Bogdan by the collar and dragged him out of the cell.
Getting back to the extraction point was trickier, to say the least. Ethan had to shove off the other prisoners, fight riot guards, and keep an eye on Bogdan. Ethan moved instinctively to dodge a swing, and poor Bogdan took the hit. Bogdan nearly gave up on the whole endeavor, but Ethan dragged him back in the right direction.
Ethan's attempts to keep extra prisoners from escaping were nearly rendered moot by a fallen guard stuck between the wall and one of the security gates. In a flash of desperation, Ethan looked up at the camera and cried in English, "Open ALL of them!"
With Bogdan in tow, and using the prisoners as a distraction for the guards (and vice versa), Ethan sped toward the hall door and slammed it shut behind them. Dino was approaching his resounding finale, and Ethan felt his sense of urgency increasing. He guided Bogdan down to the next conveniently opened door and slammed it behind them.
When he turned back to Bogdan, the younger man was staring at the opposite wall of the supply room - his posture that of a man who has suddenly lost all hope in humanity. "Oh God." Ethan crouched near one wall, not certain how IMF planned to get them out, and wary of a blast. "Oh God, oh God, oh God!" Bogdan wailed, turning back to Ethan. He crouched before him, utterly panicked, begging Sergei to tell him that there was more to the plan than hiding in a closet. Ethan understood Bogdan's concern, although he was too busy listening to everything around him to share in the excitement. Rankow's methods of dealing with escape attempts were usually very effective at discouraging repeat attempts, and it wouldn't do to get caught here. But if he knew his agency, they would be miles away before the guards got the riot under control, much less thought to go checking unused storage rooms.
Some time during Bogdan's frightened outburst, the music stopped. Ethan held up his hand, and Bogdan stopped speaking. There. There was a barely audible rumble beneath the floor, and the piping began to rattle. Ethan pulled Bogdan back toward the wall and waited for the ground to open up.
Bogdan was stunned, but Ethan's mind was already running to the next step. The sewer system wasn't too deep, but it would be at least a fifteen foot drop to the ground. They'd need a hand down. Ethan looked up suddenly and saw Bogdan peering over the edge into the hole. He grabbed him and yanked him back against the wall, a split second before the drop-line shot up and lodged itself in the ceiling.
Ethan stepped over to the hole once it was safe, and caught the two carabiners that were tossed up from the unknown agent in the sewer line. He separated them, then showed Bogdan how to get down safely. Bogdan looked as if he thought Ethan was trying to kill him. He shook his head and edged back, but Ethan motioned for him to (basically) get himself in gear and take the hook. Bogdan nervously grasped the metal hook, and twisted his leg around the line. He squeezed his eyes shut and jumped. Ethan couldn't resist a smile at his dismayed cry on the way down. The drop was nothing for Ethan, and he easily slid down. "Let's go," he said to Bogdan.
When Bogdan had gone out of earshot, their rescuer - a young woman Ethan had never seen before - looked him over. "Agent Hunt?"
She had to know who he was, so he didn't answer. "And you are?"
"Agent Carter," she answered, much as if she fully expected him to know her as well.
He headed for the junction of the two tunnels, and Carter called out, "Who's your pal?"
"I'll tell you on the way," he said. As soon as I come up with a plausible story, he thought. Bogdan was waiting in the connecting tunnel, and Ethan gestured for him to go ahead to the right. Ethan caught sight of the fuse line that Carter must have trailed through several yards of the tough, brick sewer system. When Bogdan was a good distance ahead, Ethan looked over his shoulder at the young agent.
"Light the fuse."