Shadow had always been pretty damn sure that the world had been going crazy for a while. Now, looking at his old cellmate's face - illuminated by the glow of one of his cigarettes - he was pretty damned sure of it.
The first time they really talked was on Shadow's second day inside, when they were outside. Shadow didn't remember much about it, really. They'd been standing by the wall of the exercise yard, and Shadow had noticed three big guys picking on a kid who looked way too young to be in prison. He remembered being mad about it, remembered entertaining some vague ideas of getting up and helping the kid out -
"Why do you wanna get involved?" his cellmate asked from his vantage point against the wall.
Shadow looked back at him, blinking. "Who says I want to get involved?"
"Don't bullshit me, kid. It's all over your face." Low Key's smile was twisted and strange. Shadow had no idea what someone could've done to the bastard that would've scarred him like that, but it must've been horrible. "You wanna get involved. Probably you wanna help that kid over there, because you think he's helpless and you wanna be some kind of hero."
"So what?" Shadow sat down. "Is that a bad thing?"
"Maybe not out there so much. But if you jump into things like that in here, you'll get yourself killed real fast." He yawned and turned away. "You can't do that kid's time for him, so don't try. Keep your head down. You've got your own time to do, and that's enough."
"Yeah, right." Shadow shook his head and turned back to the fight. He thought again about breaking it up, grabbing the kid. He was a big man, and he was tough. He could do it.
Then he shook his head and turned away. "What would happen if I did?" he asked.
"You'd be a target. No one in here likes a hero."
"Course not," Shadow muttered to himself. But he turned away all the same.
Television shows had not adequately prepared Shadow for prison. He'd expected riots, prison fights every day, people trying to stab each other with anything that could possibly be used as a weapon. Prison shit like that happened, sure, but not like that. Frankly, he was relieved; if it had been anything like he'd been expecting, he'd thought that he'd end up dead inside of a month.
Then there were the other things they talked about on the shows, the stuff that the inmates did to each other on the inside. Shadow wasn't sure if he believed it or not.
But Low Key shrugged it off when Shadow mentioned it. "It happens. No big deal," he said. "Keeps the inmates outta trouble, so who gives a shit?"
"You talk like you know a lot about it."
"What's that mean? You've done it before?" Shadow asked as casually as he could. This was one of those topics that he never, ever would've considered asking anyone about before going inside, but hell, he'd never figured on being inside, either. Might as well go for broke.
Low Key shrugged. "Had a partner outside for a long time. We'd switch, sometimes."
"Switch?" he said, momentarily confused, before it hit him. "Oh. You mean you took turns."
"Pretty much. Sometimes I'd screw him, sometimes he'd screw me. Depended on his mood."
Shadow nodded. There didn't seem to be much to say, really. Having Low Key answer that question was even weirder than actually asking it; if anyone had asked him about his own sex life, he would have told the bastard to mind his own damn business.
Then again, ever since he'd met Laura, she'd been the only one. And that was special, that was untouchable in his mind somehow. This was different, this was... detached. Like this entire conversation was going to disappear as soon as he got out again, like it was only a way to make prison a little more unlike reality and a lot more like some crazy dream.
"See, thing about my old partner," Low Key continued, ignoring Shadow's silence and apparently unashamed of anything, "was that he liked to be in charge. Even when I was fucking him, he got off on thinking that he had everything under control, including me."
"What about you?"
He smiled his twisted, scarred smile. "I got off on letting him think that."
The wall of Shadow's cell was cold and rough beneath the palms of his hands. He was bracing himself hard, trying to stay on his feet - it was a bit weird, since he'd expected to be on his knees for this, from what little he knew about it. The position had been Low Key's idea, though; he'd said that it would be easier.
"You sure you don't want me to suck your cock first?" Low Key said in his ear, very casually, as if he were just asking about the weather. His hands were doing things that Shadow was trying his best not to think about, at least not specifically; thinking too much about it made it harder to relax. "Wouldn't bother me a bit."
"I'm sure," Shadow managed between gasps, ignoring the way that his cock twitched eagerly at the thought. Yes, he wanted that, wanted it very badly. But then he thought of lying back on his bed at home, his hands tangled up in Laura's hair, her fingertips lightly touching his inner thighs, and he couldn't stand it. It felt like betrayal, just like fucking someone - anyone - would've felt like betrayal. But at least he and Laura had never done this, so he couldn't really call the image up in his mind and remind himself that he was cheating on her, in a way. And he couldn't deny that Low Key was good at it, damn good.
It wasn't real, he reminded himself. He was inside, and Laura was outside, waiting for him, back in the real world. He just had to keep himself from losing it a little longer, and this - Low Key did something with his lotion-slicked fingers that made him jerk and shudder and bite back a moan - this was a way of staying sane. Keeping himself together. You couldn't last long in prison without something like this.
It wasn't as if he'd planned it. It was just something to take the edge off. He kept telling himself that the whole time, detaching himself, as if he'd been watching another prison fight and trying to keep his head down. Don't worry about the guy behind you, he told himself. He's doing his time. You do yours.
There didn't seem to be anything to talk about afterward. They both just went to sleep, Low Key thinking of his old partner or whatever the hell it was he'd done outside or whatever, and Shadow trying his best not to think about anything at all.
It wasn't a nightly thing. There was no way in hell it could have been, even if Shadow had wanted it to be. It was an often-enough-to-keep-him-off-the-edge thing, up until the day when his cellmate had disappeared, leaving behind not much more than an old book. At the time he'd thought it had worked, and that he'd be able to get through the rest of his sentence, that he'd be with Laura again and he could forget all of it.
It was almost funny how things had really worked out, or would've been if it had happened to someone else.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say you weren't all that happy to see me."
"Were you expecting me to be happy to see you?" Shadow shot back.
"Not really." Low Key threw his cigarette to the ground, crushed it with his heel. "Not many people are."
He had no idea what to say to that. Stuck in the middle of nowhere, seeing what might as well have been ghosts... frankly, Shadow had finally stopped wondering if he was going crazy. The irony was killing him.
"Y'know, we could use the limo, if you want." Low Key - Loki, he mentally corrected himself - grinned that same, twisted, familiar grin. "Just for old times' sake."
"Fuck you," Shadow said without thinking, and regretted it almost immediately when he felt the old familiar twitch, reminding him of just how long it had been. Not that it was enough to change his mind; nothing would've been enough for that, not there, not then.
"That would be a switch." But the knowing look in his old cellmate's eyes was enough. Shadow's point had been taken.
They turned to head back to the dead hotel.