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Yolkov finished chewing his kasha before answering. “If you wanted to hurt me you could have done it during the riots.”

The burly prisoner scoffed through his nostrils. He took a hunk of black bread from the meal Yolkov had laid out before them. Zhirov salted the bread casually, as if it wasn’t a delicacy he’d been deprived of for the last fifteen years.

“So, I protected you during the riots, and now my beautiful dreamer thinks he owes me?”

Yolkov looked away. “Maybe you believe I’m only going to be nice to you a few times, and then will leave you to rot in the pit. The truth is I actually like your company. You’re more intelligent than any of the shitheads I work with.”

Zhirov laughed. “How romantic.”

Yolkov’s brow rose, but then he realized he deserved the admonishment. He’d provided the most intimate setting the prison could afford them: dinner alone in the second floor monitoring station. No cuffs. No other guards.

Yolkov couldn’t resist seeing him again no matter how many rules he broke. What they’d been through—Yolkov truly believed it had changed his life.

High-max security had levels to its horror, and Zhirov had been relegated to worst of it. Referred to as ‘the pit’ it was a concrete abyss under the prison with deteriorating cells that hadn’t been renovated since the soviet era. Guards never entered the pit itself, only the periphery kitchen where lower security prisoners crammed food scraps from the rest of the prison into molds and then shoved the barely edible cakes it through tiny windows cut through the concrete for the two hundred or so inmates to fight over. Hydration came from the few bathroom sinks that still functioned.

Deep in that hell Zhirov had beaten a horde of desperate dogs away from Yolkov. This was mostly with words—when Zhirov shouted even Yolkov cringed. A few prison mongrels he’d smashed in the face or the guts. The massive man could dole out violence without anger, making him even more terrifying. It took only a few vain attempts before the rabble backed away. Yolkov was surrendered to Zhirov without further incident.

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