It’s Alex who’s out with it first, to bring up the conversation.
“Mind if I ask you a loaded question, if that isn't too weird?” Alex asks from below, seemingly apropos of nothing on one of the better evenings in their cell. It was his voice that really tips Donovan off. The kind of tone you would use after rehearsing both sides of a conversation in your head.
Donovan shrugs, the movement causing the bed frame underneath him to creak, replying, “Coming from the guy who literally puked on me. So hey, I think I can take a weird, loaded question. What's up?”
That seems to do the trick as Alex snorts a laugh, causing the slightest smile to settle on Donovan’s face.
“Sounds about right,” Alex mutters, faltering back into an awkward silence for a few, long seconds.
With a frown, Donovan rolls onto his side, neck craned so he could read Alex’s face. Alex spares a brief glance up at him before his eyes flickers away, out past their cell door and scanning rows after rows of identical cells carved into the rough red walls. “So. Furnace is… an all male population.”
“I know, thanks for that. But.”
Donovan has a feeling where this was going.
"I was wondering, because this prison is guys all around, do you ever get the feeling… if like- if anyone is…” Alex’s eyes shoot up back at Donovan and his mouth clamps tight once more.
Ah. There it was. He isn't sure exactly what face he made, but it must've been something amusing as Alex immediately sputters, “You, uh, don't have to answer that if you don't want to.” Donovan holds a hand up, sparing Alex from the chance to dig his hole even deeper, and rolls back flat onto his mattress with a slump.
It hadn't been like this was the first time Donovan thought about the topic, Lord knows he had enough time to.
And unsurprisingly, his thoughts turned to Adam.
Thinking about Adam felt like a prodding the hole in his heart where he was carved out. Every movement and memory is laced with pain, an all too familiar grief weighing heavy on the forefront of his mind. Donovan tries his best to remember the little things. He thinks of the gentle squeeze of a hand on top of his own, a shoulder he had sobbed on as they stood in front of their pitiful Christmas tree, their arms pressed together as they laid side by side in the tiny, tiny bunk beneath him, just the two of them on a world of their own somewhere a million miles away.
Beneath him is still the bed he used to sleep in not too long ago, now filled by another boy, nothing alike he’d ever known.
A burst of resentment blooms in his mind at the thought, immediately followed by fresh horrified guilt. He had told himself he wasn’t going to do this, no comparisons. It wouldn’t be fair any of the three of them, but it was hard to shake the stirring motions of wrongness to seeing this unfamiliar face in the morning.
He stifles his frustration with a long, even breath, and runs a hand through his hair. “I'm not mad, dude. If you want me to give it to you honestly… This isn't exactly the place where you'd be encouraged to discuss it.” Alex remains quiet. Donovan hears himself painfully adding: “I have a pretty good idea of who was… y'know.”
God, this was too much. There wasn’t any kind of way to express what they had that didn’t feel like either an oversimplification or like bleach on the wounds too raw, too fresh, and too real to explain to the kid he just met weeks ago. Five years of together, five years of the endearment and concern between every “you okay” and every reverent “yeah” in reply.
It also didn't help that Sawyer for once in his life wasn't asking or making some dumb-ass remark.
When he finally did speak up, all he had said was, “Before all of this, I used to ask myself if it’d be worth saying anything.” Alex snorts, his voice tinny and somewhere far away in his memories. “I mean, I’d already gone so far from what Mom and Dad wanted of me, y’know? What’s one more drop in the bucket. Now that I'm here, it might be fucked up to think of it here, but I can’t help but wonder if I told them, maybe I’d give them a reason to care enough about keeping me from falling off the wagon.”
Alex trails off.
Did Donovan just hear his cellmate try to come out to him? What were you supposed to say to that ?
Donovan feels ill. His heart twists at that, questions and scenarios that had no goddamn business popping into his head the way they did. He buries the question of how his mom would react, that had its own place in its own time. More than anything, it feels wrong to know this intimate detail about Alex, but he can’t help his curiosity. He wants to know how Alex knew, if he could ever be so sure. Did Alex ever had someone the way Donovan had Adam? Would he understand? Could he?
It takes a second for Donovan to realise he now was keeping Alex hanging, who probably looked as though he was about to get sick again with each passing second. Donovan inhales sharply - grabbing Alex’s attention once more - and breathes out slowly as he curls his fingers tightly. “Alex.”
“I'm. Like. That.” The words were strained and barely audible, but Donovan can tell Alex caught them, trying his best to suppress some sort of audible surprise. Donovan can’t look, his head firmly planted against his pillow. He forces a crude laugh from his throat. Whatever shock Alex was trying to keep cool about, Donovan wasn't about to have it because fuck him he already hated the tremble that wavered in his tone.
“Listen, Alex,” he begins, forcing out that tight laugh once more, “I'm telling you this because. I don't know. You seemed like you were lost there? And I guess I need this too. I swear to God, just, don't get weird about knowing that I'm gay too.”
All he gets in response is the ambient hum of Furnace’s background noises, the buzzing of prison lights and indecipherable shouts punctuating from the yard below. Against his better judgement, Donovan slowly peaks over the top of his bed again.
More than anything, Alex’s face is overwhelmed with fluctuating, indiscernible emotion. He still hasn't said anything to Donovan’s words, and wow, pour your little gay heart out to your friend and that dumbstruck face is the best he can come back with?
Admittedly, Adam and Batek had done exactly that when he told them, in few less words.
(This was different. He didn’t expect to say as much so soon.)
Donovan’s expression hardens, clenching his jaw and waiting for what would come next, daring Alex to make a move, to say something.
The younger boy stares back a second longer, his face softening, actually seeing Donovan eye to eye. He keeps his gaze, cocking his head to the side, patting the empty space on the mattress next to where he sat.
An invitation, requesting permission into a moment he was never a part of.
With a sharp inhale, Donovan runs a hand through his hair again, speechless. He finds himself slinking out of the top bunk regardless, ignoring the flinch he receives in response as he takes a seat beside Alex. Donovan crosses his arms, leaning his elbows against his knees while Alex sits rigidly, glued to the spot with his hands folded together in his own lap.
“I have to admit,” Alex murmurs, the barest huff of a laugh leaving him. “I thought I was reaching.”
“Wow, you must’ve been thinking about me that much, huh?” Donovan quips, unable to stop himself. “Wishful thinking?”
Alex’s eyes go wide. He flushes, an attempt to hide his ruddy cheeks by scratching the back of his neck, eyes averting Donovan by turning all the way back up to the ceiling. He looks as if there was a surefire escape plan written right there, and only he can decipher its code.
“Does it still count if it turns out to be true?” Alex offers in return after a moment, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips as Donovan scoffs and flicks his arm. “It is nice to know I’m not alone though.”
“Yeah,” Donovan says. “It is nice.”
Alex glances at him out of his periphery, head still tipped up to the ceiling, quiet. There are many things about Alex Sawyer that Donovan doesn’t quite know yet, but subtle he is not. He can practically feel the inquisitiveness radiating off the boy in waves, a flimsy enough layer of self-preservation holding him back.
Donovan sighs. He knew there was more he needed to say anyway.
“Used to sleep here not too long ago.” Donovan admits, whacking his palm against the metal bed frame digging into the back of his knees. “Top bunk, Bottom bunk, the mattresses suck either way, but this was the preferable height to fall onto the floor from.
“I’m way too tall for a bed this damn small, and Adam used to make it feel even smaller. But that was okay.” His throat feels scratchy, and he finds himself blinking over and over and over as he tries to find his words. He leans back, and braces a hand against the bunk above him. “The first time I tried to sleep up here though? Might as well have been a California King and I still would’ve resented the space all the same.”
Alex had twisted in his spot to meet Donovan’s eye, his hands twitch as they unfold, pushing against the mattress as Alex leans back until he is lying flat against the bed, his legs still dangling off the side. He looks almost lost in the shadows, but his gaze is firm on Donovan as he too reaches a hand upward, fingertips braced against the bottom of the bunk.
“Would he think our plan is too crazy?” Alex asks softly.
Donovan closes his eyes, and he can feel the sting of Adam’s hand clapping him upside the back of his head, his bemused snickering following shortly thereafter.
“Nah.” A dry huff of a laugh, and when Donovan opens his eyes once more a fat tear threaten to roll down his cheek. He catches it with his fingertips, and shakes his head as a gentle smile blooms across his face. “Ain’t as crazy as any other plan he’s been in on.”
There’s a spark of light in Alex’s face as he considers this, lips parting as his grin grows. He drops his hand back to himself and nods, “I like the sound of this guy already.”
“You would,” Donovan replies. “Him and Batek, and I know they would’ve warmed up to you and Zee real damn quick.”
“Meaning, just as quick as you did?”
“Man, don’t make me too sentimental,” Donovan laughs, lying down on the bunk like Alex. It’s impossible not to be sentimental, as if Alex didn’t just give him the key to unlock every piece of broken, unresolved baggage he’s been carrying. Tears flood his eyes, but he doesn’t make a move to wipe them away, letting them roll down the sides of his face, dripping onto the mattress beneath him.
Alex doesn’t try to stop him, just smiles sadly. “Tell me about them?”
With a shuddering exhale, Donovan does just that.
The stories start off as drips, of the mundane and quiet, when it didn’t matter if a day was awful, the little jokes and grins would ease the weight of them just a little bit. But with each one told a new bubbles to the surface, and he’s forgotten how cathartic it is to allow himself to speak so freely, until the details pour out of his mouth, interlaced with wet, choking tears.
Alex has never seen Donovan so unhinged, never heard him say so much. In turn, Alex listens. He laughs, and cries as much as he tries not to, and asks questions, countless questions, of course, but his eyes never lose their light, and he listens to every last word. It begs the question to Donovan, would he have ever said as much if Alex never asked? Would Adam and Batek forgive him for keeping their stories only to himself, and only himself to blame if nobody else ever heard them?
Donovan considers what they would be doing right now. Batek’s booming laughter as he gesticulates, arguing the legitimacy of his side of the story. A coy smile on Adam’s face, the weight of his arm around Donovan’s shoulders grounded and tight.
They would love Alex too.
Donovan considers what he and Alex are doing right now.
Lying down, their legs dangling off the side, taking in each other’s words like a breath of fresh air for once. They aren’t close enough to be pressed shoulder to shoulder, and it’s not enough to completely shut every distraction of Furnace from his head. And finally yet again, the world still feels a little smaller, but hell of a lot less lonely.
Donovan shifts onto his side, propping his head up onto his hand. He watches the rise and fall of Alex's chest, breathing even and mellow, the flush on his cheeks still widely apparent. There's nothing that can really stop him from unconsciously comparing, as much as he tries not to. The softness in Alex's face, the slope of his profile, how much smaller and thinner he is. Having just aired out his history, it hurts less to notice these differences.
"You alright?" Alex asks, slight concern creasing his expression.
"Just thinking," is Donovan's automatic reply. He glances outside of the cell for a moment, catching a glimpse of a pair sitting on the edge of the platform, one floor down, their grey jumpsuits crisp against rusted metal and muted earth tones as they dangle their legs over the yard. He glances back at Alex, hesitation on the tip of his tongue. "...What about you?"
"What about me?"
"I mean, shit," Donovan shrugs as he shakes his head. "You started this, you got anybody you missing out there?"
"Oh," Alex blinks in surprise. He crosses his arms, and grimaces as though tasting something bitter. "Well, yeah. I mean... I miss my best friend, man. He's the reason I'm even stuck all the way down here, but it's different." Something dark passes over Alex's face, and his hands bunch into the fabric of his uniform, something complicated stuck in his throat as he tries to speak. "It's different though, really different from what I got with you guys.
"Me, and Toby, and Brandon, we were all really tight. Then of course, Brandon's parents thought we were a bad influence and he put his foot down and went away, and then it was me and Toby and," Alex breaks, barking a slightly hysterical laugh. "Toby's parents thought that I was the bad influence but that never stopped him, he just didn't care what they would think, you know? Hell, they weren't wrong about me, but I didn't care either and we had a pretty good deal going not caring about anything any more."
Alex sighs, shaking his head and not hiding the regret written on his face, "Guess we never really end up talking like this either, you know?"
"I don't know him, so, no I don't," Donovan tuts as Alex swats at his arm, and cracks a small smile. "But, yeah, I think I know what you mean."
Alex smiles back at him, and relaxes as he turns his gaze back to looking straight directly up in front of him again. They lay back in contemplative silence, exhaling the suffocating heat in the air as Donovan shifts to ease the ache in his lower back from the lumpy mattress.
"I'm sorry, did you really think you were the only guy here into guys?" Donovan blurts out, Alex's original question jumping so absurdly into his train of thought again.
"I wanted clarification! You said nobody talks about it!" Alex sputters as Donovan howls with laughter, and only half-heartedly blocks Alex's indignant slaps in response.