Peter was clad in the garish orange of a traffic cone, but somehow, he got the feeling that wasn’t why he was being gawked at. He had the horrid suspicion that it was because he was young, and because he had all his teeth. Or whatever passed for “pretty” around here.
His suspicion was confirmed when a whistle from the upper balcony made him jump.
“Hey, chicken! Wanna lay my eggs?”
Peter ignored the ensuing hoots and hollers, his ears burning. Ignoring them wouldn’t suffice once he was in the communal showers, or in the mess hall, or in the exercise yard, or in any public place that wasn’t his cell. Even his cell mightn’t be safe, if his cellmate turned out to be bigger and meaner than he was.
Almost anyone would be bigger and meaner than Peter was, given that Peter was only here for the crime of intellectual property theft, and even that was a frame-up by Norman Osborn. The heaviest object Peter had ever hefted in his skinny arms was a CPU, and his smarts wouldn’t get him far in a world where brute strength reigned supreme.
Unless Peter quickly deciphered the complex power structures that existed within the prison system, and managed to ingratiate himself with a faction that would shelter him, or with a boss high enough in the hierarchy to offer him the same degree of protection.
He tried not to imagine what ingratiating himself would involve. Maybe he could offer his more cerebral skills as a bargaining point. Not that he wanted to commit any crimes—he wasn’t a criminal—but surely hacking the computer network for simple and relatively harmless reasons, such as downloading pornography for sexually frustrated prisoners or sourcing contraband such as cigarettes and alcohol from outside the prison, wouldn’t trouble his conscience overmuch. Or make him feel like he belonged here. Which he didn’t. All he had to do now was to ensure that he never would.
The guard leading him to his cell stopped in front of a massive steel door with no window hatch whatsoever. The other doors had hatches. Peter had the creeping sense that this was not a good sign.
“Oh, my,” said the guy from the opposite cell, in a twangy Texan drawl. “A little lamb for the wolf, huh? Do they think that’s gonna calm him down?” He winked at Peter and said, “You better pray you’re his type, boy.”
“Shut the hell up,” barked the guard, as Peter’s heart sank.
The guard—whose badge bore the name George Yaxley—gripped the baton strapped to his waist, white-knuckled, clearly bracing himself before opening the cell. That couldn’t be a good sign, either.
Yaxley pressed a series of buttons on the keypad on the outside wall, a series Peter promptly memorized, on autopilot. Yaxley caught Peter looking.
“Don’t bother,” he said. “The computer changes the password every six hours. You won’t have the opportunity to use this again.”
But it’s a computer, Peter thought to himself. If it’s a computer, I can hack into it. And reprogram it. Wait, why was he even considering that? Breaking out would be a real crime, and he wouldn’t have a future if he did it. If he hung in there for the eight years he was sentenced, he’d still have more of a life left than if he—
Spent those eight years getting fucked?
The metal door swung inwards with a creak, and Peter didn’t even have the chance to freak out about stepping into his very own personal torture chamber, because Yaxley just shoved him in and slammed the door shut before Peter could make any independent movement of his own.
“New roommate, Deadpool,” the guard announced through the door, and fled in an audible hurry.
Peter took a deep breath and focused.
There… was a man in the cell.
Well, of course there was a man in the cell. Not like there’d be a leprechaun. Although at least a leprechaun would be too small to overpower him, and maybe Peter’s rambling subconscious was just trying to dream up a situation in which he wouldn’t get brutally sodomized on the regular, but—
He had to stop panicking.
He took another deep breath.
The man lounging on the only chair in the room had a bunch of playing cards in one hand, with his other arm slung casually across the back of the chair. The sole table in the room also had playing cards on it, despite there being no opponent, and Peter felt a frisson of disbelief at the surreal revelation that his potential rapist was playing solitaire.
“Why, hello,” said the prisoner—Deadpool? What an alarming nickname—and studied his cards, not even bothering to glance up at his new cellmate. He was covered in hideous scars. Rather, the scars covered him, because there wasn’t a single visible patch of unscarred skin on a body that was otherwise heavily muscled and intimidatingly tall. It was like he’d been burned, shot and stabbed in every conceivable way, and yet he was, unbelievably, alive. Peter didn’t dare to dwell on how strong that must make him. “Are you supposed to be my bribe for behaving myself? An actual roommate after an eon of solitude?”
Peter realized that he had plastered himself to the door like a pancake. A very frightened pancake. He slowly unplastered himself, because heck if he was going to act the coward like that guard just did.
Deadpool looked up at him at last.
Peter stood there, petrified, a deer in the proverbial headlights. Deadpool’s eyes were intense, chillingly manic and feral, but at the same time, oddly playful. It was a jarring combination. An unnerving combination. Like the guy would laugh while pulling a knife on someone.
“Goddamn,” Deadpool said, surveying Peter from head to foot. “They must really want me to behave. Did they buy you off some Russian bride website? With words like ‘delicate’ and ‘waif’ in the description?” He got up, putting aside his cards, and Peter flinched.
Deadpool… paused. And sat back down.
“Relax, kid. I’m not into folks that aren’t into me. Which is most folks, let’s be honest. You any good at playing cards?”
“Eh, don’t worry. You’ll be outta here when they find out I didn’t bang you. I wonder how many adorable twinks they’re gonna throw at me before they figure out I’m not into assault.” Deadpool grinned. “Violent assault, sure. Sexual assault? Not so much.”
“Some kinds of assault are both,” Peter blurted, and then winced at his own words.
Deadpool raised an eyebrow. “Is that what you’re in for? Don’t reckon you could hurt a fly, though.”
“I’m—I’m not a rapist!”
“Lucky for you. ’Cause if you were, I’d have to kill ya.”
And Peter was back to staring.
Deadpool shrugged. “’S what I do.”
“And child molesters. And drug dealers that peddle to minors. And domestic abusers.”
“Is that what you’re in for?”
“Yep,” Deadpool said cheerfully. “If they deserve to die, I kill ’em. I’ve helped lower the criminal population of the city by at least a fifth. The government oughta thank me for all the money I’ve saved them.”
“You’re a vigilante serial killer.” Peter made himself say it, as if saying it would make it plausible, but it sounded like the plot of a comic book. A very badly-written comic book.
“Used to be a professional serial killer with vigilante ambitions. Became a bonafide vigilante just before getting arrested. Totally worth it.”
“By your logic, don’t you deserve to die, as well?”
“Not for those reasons. And they’re the worst ones.”
“You’re a hypocrite.”
It was Deadpool’s turn to stare. “That took guts to say,” he marveled. “You ain’t scared of me?”
“I’m shaking in my boots.” Peter blinked down at his feet, which were, in fact, quaking. “Shoes. Shaking in my ugly prison shoes.”
“But you still said what you were thinking.”
“I’m not a coward.”
“Not fond of cowards, I take it?”
“I got framed by one.”
“Claiming innocence? Haven’t heard that excuse in a while. You don’t look it, kid, but you wouldn’t be in a maximum security prison for just any crime.”
“You would be if the bastard framing you owned every judge in every county in every state in this country.”
Deadpool hummed. “There’s a tragic backstory there, but I only have you for, like, eleven hours, or however many hours there are until tomorrow. So, you wanna play cards, or what?”
Peter wasn’t up to whatever “or what” was, so he inched closer to Deadpool and said: “Fair warning, I’m a genius. And I won’t throw a game.”
Deadpool squinted up at him, a weird smile pulling at his mouth. “You ever actually played poker, kid?”
“Peter. The name’s Peter.”
“You ever played poker, Petey?”
“Then you’ll learn intelligence is only half of the game. Being able to bluff is the other half. And I’m willing to bet you can’t bluff your way out of a paper bag.”
That stung, because it was that very personality trait—gullibility—that had made Peter such easy prey for Osborn. Peter huffed, and to his surprise, Deadpool abandoned his chair, sitting cross-legged on the floor so that Peter could sit, too.
A courteous vigilante serial killer. What the hell?
Deadpool began shuffling the cards, all efficient and businesslike. “Now, the first rule of poker is…”
Peter settled down, his legs also crossed, the adrenaline that had ratcheted up his heartbeat beginning to die down. He couldn’t trust that this whackjob wouldn’t kill him, or attack him when convenient. But there was a strange quality to Deadpool, something electric and viciously free, like he thrived on defying people’s expectations.
Peter hoped Deadpool would defy his.