With hardly a change in his breathing or position, the man awoke, smoothly transitioning from deep slumber to wakefulness. He didn't move for several minutes, content to merely drink in what his senses were telling his mind. The sheets were light and soft against his bare skin, the pillow just a little too warm for comfort. His ears noted the sound of birdsong outside his window, intermingling with the soft snores of the woman beside him. He sat up slowly, eyes lingering on the curves of her naked body and the long black hair fanned out on the pillow.
Weak sunlight peeked through the heavy velvet drapes, faintly illuminating the expansive bedroom. The digital clock on the bedside table read 8:02. A compact, jet black cellphone rested beside it. Shifting, the man sat up and reached for a shirt hanging haphazardly on the head board.
Beside him, the woman groaned tiredly. She reached out a hand, touching his back lightly.
"Come back to bed, darling," she murmured sleepily, running a finger up and down his skin. "It's still early."
"Later," he replied briskly, deftly buttoning up the dark blue shirt before reaching for his pants. "I have to call the men, make sure they're in place."
She sat up with a sigh, snaking an arm around his waist. She pressed her lips to the back of his neck, nipping the flesh there playfully. "They understand the plan, Colton. And you know Catherine will make sure your-"
"No, Lorelei." He said firmly, shaking off her hands and rising to his feet. "I have waited long enough for this opportunity to come again." He picked up the cellphone and stowed it safely in a back pocket. "I should have had him years ago, but I foolishly entrusted that task to others. That small mistake allowed Emerson to outmaneuver me." Inhaling deeply, Colton squelched the brief flare of anger and schooled his thoughts into calmness. "Today will go as planned."
Lorelei pouted, lying back onto the bed in a languorous pose. She watched as he opened a drawer and withdrew a handgun from its depths. "And where do I come into play in this grand scheme of yours?" She looked over his tall, strong form with unabashed appreciation, wetting her full lips with a quick swipe of her tongue.
Her lover noticed all of that, but showed not a trace of it on his face. "Keep an eye on our leverage," he instructed firmly. "She doesn't know about today."
Rolling her eyes, Lorelei rested her chin on her hand. "She will find out."
"Eventually she will. It will not matter in a few hours."
"Fine, but it's so tiresome to-" She stopped mid-speech as the man grabbed her wrist, gripping it tightly.
"This is not a game, Lorelei," he growled lowly, fingers vice-like around her hand. "I will accept nothing less than success today of all days."
For a fleeting moment, Lorelei looked defiantly back into Colton's dark eyes. After a heartbeat though, she dropped her gaze. "Yes, of course."
Tony Almeida snapped awake, his pulse racing as the remnants of a nightmare convulsed his awareness. There was a name on the edge of his tongue, but he restrained the urge to say it. She was dead and long gone, alive only in the landscape of his dreams. And he dreamed of her often.
Slowly, he moved into a sitting position, back stiff from the hard bunk. Around him, inmates in their own cells still slept: some peacefully, most fitfully. He considered himself to be in the latter.
The dreams themselves were not a bother to him, despite the pain and longing that always followed. Rather, it was the unrestrained time that ate away at him. In prison, there were many tasks and such to occupy his physical attention. But none of these consumed his mental attention, leaving Tony alone to languish in memories of Michelle. He saw her face each time he closed his eyes, heard her voice in the short snatches of sleep he had at night. His heart was almost used to feeling heavy and burdened.
There were times he almost wished he'd never met her, that she'd never come to work at CTU. Perhaps then he could have been spared from the soul-deep anguish that haunted his every waking hour. Perhaps then he could have been ignorant of what true happiness felt like, and not be utterly destroyed when it was wrenched away from him.
But he held on tightly to each minute, to each second that he had shared with his wife, no matter how much it pained him to remember. It was all he had left of her. Recollections of their last moments together filled his nightmares: he had argued with her in the minutes before she'd walked alone to the car. Before the bomb went off.
That knowledge alone scraped his conscience raw. Countless times Tony had kicked himself: his last words to her were graceless, borderline cold. And yet Michelle had stopped his protests in their tracks with a simple, gentle kiss. Almost as if she knew unconsciously that their time together was coming to a close. That was one of things he had admired and loved most about her: Michelle was every bit as strong-willed as he was, but she tempered it well with compassion. If nothing else, he wished he could have had the chance to tell her that.
The sun filtered feebly into the cell block, highlighting the pale, off-white brickwork and floors. On reflex, he glanced at the wall opposite the bunk: the paint there was marred by a series of scrawled tallies. The number was significant today, one Tony had counted up to in the past few weeks since the warden had informed him of what was to happen.
They were transferring him. Maximum security was required for inmates with sentences numbering more than twenty years, and Tony had received that in spades. His first stint in jail had been cut short by the fortunate influence of two friends. This time around though, Tony knew no such help was forthcoming. His crimes were plain and irrefutable, his guilt something he didn't bother to deny. After all, his goal all along had been revenge; Tony had come to terms with the consequences of his actions a long time ago. Perhaps in another time or another life the prospect of wasting away in a maximum security prison would have chilled him to his core.
But after Michelle's death and his failure to kill Alan Wilson, imprisonment hardly registered as a pressing concern. He'd failed her, first with Henderson and then with Wilson. There were times he could barely restrain the explosive frustration beneath a stoic exterior. There were times that the what-ifs nearly choked the life out of him: what if he'd saved her, what if he'd gotten to Wilson a minute sooner, what if he'd been the one to trip the bomb... It ate away at him from the inside, mixing with guilt and sorrow until Tony wondered what exactly he was living for anymore. But the what-ifs were infinitely better than his brief thoughts about what might have been: if Michelle had lived, if he could have seen his son.
These lines of thought were almost always too painful to pursue for long.
Again, the endless time was the worst. All the thoughts and considerations he had previously pushed aside with work and plans returned full force. At the forefront were his last few encounters with Jack.
He always thought of Jack with a curious blend of disgust and nostalgia. It was not possible to erase the memories of their early years together at CTU. During that time, their relationship had fluctuated like the tide, but Tony had grudgingly recognized that Jack was unique: he was both a person's best and worst friend, a near-unstoppable force without equal. Tony had thought that out of everyone, Jack would understand the thirst for retribution that assailed him. He had erred, and cursed his former friend's name every single day.
And yet, after the initial tempestuous rage had died down, Jack's words came back to haunt him like a burdensome conscience: You're not honoring Michelle's life. You are reveling in her death, and she would despise you for this.
That moment...he had almost broken. Almost.
Because Jack was right: Michelle had been one of those truly, thoroughly good individuals that came along only once or twice in a generation. Acting for the greater good had come naturally to her, even when it came at heavy personal cost. She likely would have viewed his actions with horror and outright disgust.
And that thought alone made his heart ache as though it had been pieced with a blade.
A sharp, buzzing sound jolted him out of his thoughts, and Tony raised his head in time to see a group of guards pass through the main gate to the cell block. There were eight total, each looking grim as they entered the common area. Two stopped in front of the gate while the other six climbed the metal staircase leading to the second level. Three of them walked ahead, past Tony to another inmate seven cells down. The remaining three stopped outside his bars. With a sigh he rose to his feet.
The lead guard towered above the other two, his black hair cropped short. "Face the wall, Almeida," he barked roughly. "Put your hands through the slot."
He did, shivering slightly as the cold metal handcuffs locked into place around his wrists. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony could see two other inmates being restrained and herded out towards the gate. His guard finally released his arms, calling out over his shoulder, "Open on twelve!"
There was a buzzing sound, and then the cell door slid open with a clang of metal scraping metal. Two of the guards held him by the forearms, leading him out onto the walkway. The third followed behind them tensely, his right hand resting menacingly on his tool belt. The threat was plain, but Tony ignored it. He didn't plan on causing trouble today; he knew it would have been a futile gesture.
"We've got the three cuffed and ready, warden," the rear guard said into his walkie as they passed through the gate. "Be out in a few."
There was a brief burst of static before a man's voice answered. "Good. Transport is scheduled to leave at 8:45 sharp."
The cellphone on dashboard vibrated, prompting the man behind the wheel to sit up straight and reach for it. He flipped it open, glancing at the woman sitting in the passenger seat. "Wèi?" He listened for several moments silently. "Wǒ míngbáile." He passed the open phone to the woman. "It's Colton calling for you, Miss Shiva." His voice was soft, clipping the English sounds awkwardly.
"Thank you," she murmured briskly, and pressed the cellphone to her left ear. "Yes sir?"
As she spoke, the driver turned his gaze back towards the outside. It was stifling hot in the van, and the sun glinting strongly against the bare sand surrounding them only increased their discomfort. Yang and his two men waiting in the back were covered with perspiration, their clothes soaked through. He glanced again at the person seated next to him. Catherine Shiva was an enigma to him and his comrades, and they treated her with fearful deference. She was cold, humorless, and frighteningly efficient. But it was those traits that caused Colton to make her his second-in-command.
Her physical appearance only highlighted the difference between her and the rest of their organization. While almost all of the separatists led by Colton were strictly Chinese in background, Catherine was an uncommon sight among them: she was tall and statuesque, her skin a muted copper-brown. Her long, jet-black hair was always pulled back into a tight ponytail, accentuating the sharp lines of her face. But it was Catherine's eyes that made the biggest impression amongst the men: bright and green as an emerald, there was an ever-present light of madness in them. Many of those under her command seldom met her gaze, dreading to incur her wrath.
Catherine snapped the phone shut crisply, slipping it into her jacket pocket. "Colton just received word from our source. The convoy is leaving fifteen minutes later than originally scheduled."
Yang looked at his watch. "Did something go wrong?"
She shook her head, picking up a pair of binoculars. "It seems two additional prisoners were added to the transfer today."
The driver frowned. "Will this complicate things?"
"No." She aimed the binoculars to the north, looking for any telltale clouds of dust along the road. "Our target has not changed. Once he is secured, kill the extras. Understand?" This last part she directed to the other two men in the back of the van. They both nodded in silent understanding.
Catherine turned back towards the road. "Arm the primary charges. Switch the secondary explosives to remote detonation mode."
He nodded, typing rapidly on a tablet that lay on his lap. "And the backup charges?"
"Set them to proximity detonation," she replied after a moment's consideration. "I want no survivors."
Yang looked up, his fingers frozen for a second. "Miss Shiva, our source will be with them on the-"
Catherine cut him off curtly, her eyes narrowed as she turned to face him. "Our source is expendable. The target and the success of this mission are not. Do I make myself clear?"
"Y-Yes." He lowered his gaze hurriedly, hands trembling as he finished his task.
Sweat collected in droplets on his forehead as Tony climbed into the armored van. It was stiflingly hot on a day such as this one, and being inside a virtually airless vehicle didn't help things. They were absolutely not designed for prisoner comfort, after all. The other two inmates being transferred with him had already been loaded onto the van, and they eyed him as the guard cuffed him to the bench.
Tony recognized one of them: a muscular African-American man with a distinctive, jagged scar running along the length of his left cheek and partway down his neck. He had arrived to the prison shortly after Tony had, but his notoriety was already well established. DeAngelo Marshall had been kingpin over an expansive drug cartel spanning into many large cities and seaports, with his base of operations located in Los Angeles. He had ties to several terrorist and mercenary groups, and was rumored to have devoted a significant portion of his finances to supporting them. Marshall had almost as many enemies as he did allies, but his dealings with such groups gave him formidable clout in his world.
It had taken undercover DEA agents nearly a decade to infiltrate Marshall's organization and gather enough evidence for the district attorney to build a solid enough case to prosecute with. Marshall's guilty verdict came at a high price though: their undercover officers were gunned down by the kingpin's men in revenge, and several key witnesses were found murdered in their homes. That these hits were ordered by Marshall himself was established as a fact.
That was the man now glaring across at Tony with hostility clear in his dark eyes. There was a mirthless smile on his face, making Marshall look veritably ghoulish at that moment. "I know you," he hissed lowly after the van door had been closed. "You're Almeida, the ex-cop."
Tony met his gaze evenly, face expressionless. Technically, he thought the term was inaccurate, but such nuances were ignored by people like Marshall. "Yeah. So?"
"So," The man leaned forward as far as he could before the restraints on his hands and legs stopped him. "I fuckin' hate cops."
Tony responded with a brief, dry chuckle devoid of humor. "Good for you." He glanced at the third passenger, who seemed completely unperturbed by the tension developing right next to him. Marshall wasn't the first inmate he'd encountered who resented him for his former occupation. With a rumble, the engine turned over. Tony braced his feet against the floor as the vehicle accelerated and bumped over potholes riddling the road.
"Hey, I'm talkin' to you, ese." Marshall growled, his temper virtually palpable. "You act all tough now, but when these cuffs come off..."
He let the threat trail off as one of the guards rapped sharply on the glass separating the holding area from the front. "Hey! You guys shut up back there!"
Tony's blank expression didn't waver as he sat back, impassively returning Marshall's angry glare. In another time, another life he might have been worried about obvious threat that the other inmate was presenting. But losing Michelle had given him clarity about one thing: there was only one thing he was really, truly afraid of losing. And Alan Wilson had taken that away from him. It left Tony a broken, empty man...but one without fear at the very least.
He closed his eyes, ignoring the rattle of metal and the sweltering heat. Perhaps Michelle would have called it a perverse kind of courage.
Catherine squinted into the distance. There. An unmistakeable flurry of dirt and sand was making its way along the single road, the metal of the van glinting dully in the early morning sun. It was several minutes late, but that fact didn't concern her unduly. Her eyes coolly took in the vehicle's speed, her hand reaching over and snatching the tablet out of Yang's grasp. "Let's go."
Stepping out of the car, Catherine strode briskly across the arid landscape, her gaze never wavering from the incoming van. As it drew closer, she could make out three men sitting in the front: one driver and two guards. Two of the men had spotted her: they were gesturing out the window with alarm in their eyes, one of them reaching for a cellphone. But the driver smirked.
She almost smiled back. It's too late. Looking down for a moment, she keyed in the activation code.
In the van, Tony sat up straighter. The guards were suddenly nervous, looking out onto the road with skyrocketing apprehension.
"What the hell? There's people approaching the road."
"Shit, I don't like this-"
"They're heading right for us."
"Call base, tell them-"
Tony jumped, adrenaline surging through his body as the roaring crack of gun fire abruptly filled the air. Blood splattered on the glass as another shot rang out. The van swerved for several seconds before steadying.
Craning his neck, Tony managed to see into the front: the two guards were slumped in their seats, their bodies held in place by the seat belts. Telltale bullet wounds were visible on both their heads. The driver set his revolver on the dashboard as he slowed down the van.
And all at once, the world was on fire.
Heat and pain raked across Tony's skin as an explosion punched through the vehicle. He vaguely registered the screams splitting the air, instinctively grabbing onto the bench as the van began to tip over. Metal screeched and crunched as the force of the bombs shredded steel like paper. They were trapped and disoriented as the vehicle rolled, the sound of chaos and destruction filling Tony's ears. Unbidden, an awful memory rose up within his mind: a car bomb, charred smoking remnants of a car and a limp body lying on the lawn.
But before he could give it thought or make sense of what was happening, his head slammed into the side of the van. There was a moment of dizzying pain, and then nothing but darkness as Tony sank into unconsciousness.
A/N: This is unbeta'd, so please excuse any mistakes. Comments are welcome and appreciated. Any technical inaccuracies about prisons, inmate transfers, and other stuff like that is my fault. I simply was too lazy to do super thorough research about it. Cause let's face it, that would take hours, and my browser history would have looked like something out of "Prison Break".