A girl needs a little Norma Desmond in her life. That's what Chloe had said when Pete hopped the door and nestled himself into the passenger seat for the long drive to Metropolis. She played the part well enough, a magenta scarf tied neatly over her hair and cat's eye sunglasses hiding her thoughts- and Pete wondered if he was the only one in Smallville who hadn't gone crazy.
With judicious smiles and lies, he'd bummed the ride from Chloe so he didn't have to explain to his parents why he wanted to go to Metropolis. Half-truths convinced Chloe she needed a road buddy on her way to meet her destiny at the Planet. Even though he had a mission, well, more of a plan- mission sounded like something out of a sci-fi movieit was just good to get out of town.
He was tired of hearing his mother complain about her day without really saying anything; even though Judge Ross believed in confidentiality, somehow, the papers knew that Lionel Luthor's cadre of lawyers had swelled her dockets with motions to declare Lex and Helen dead, to take back the castle, to gain temporary stewardship of LexCorp. Mom didn't like the Luthors most of the time, but these days, she was just about ready to snap somebody's head off if she heard the name one more time.
Usually, it was the Kents tied up in knots over the Luthors, but they barely moved anymore. They were hermits again, the same people who only let Clark have one friend, and never had anybody over at their house for long, and from what Pete could tell, they were eating out of cans and boxes. The lawn needed cutting, and the dishes needed washing; he'd mowed the lawn, but pretended not to notice the full sink. On Tuesdays, Mr. Kent would drive up to Metropolis and circle the city looking for Clark, and on Thursdays, Mrs. Kent did. They never went together; Pete didn't ask, and they didn't tell.
Even Lana was off; she'd lost her brave face, that false, heavy smile she used to shine whenever something went wrong. Lately, she'd been breaking dishes at the Talon, and showing more teeth- long, pale flashes ready to bite. She jerked her shoulder, saying "Whatever, whatever," without saying a word, and she didn't sound much like she meant it when thanked the customers for stopping by.
The power went out in Smallville in May, and it never seemed to come back on. Maybe a girl needs a little Norma Desmond, but Clark had had two months of James Dean, and whether he liked it or not, he was coming home.
Clark let the brunette- Tisha or Tricia, he couldn't remember- hold his water bottle for him. All he had to do was open his mouth, and she'd shoot a cool stream into it; she had it timed perfectly so that she didn't get spattered when he spat the water back out. The blonde- definitely Kristi, she had it embroidered on most of her shirts- held his towel, and rubbed him down between each bout. They called him Kal, and so did Vangie. Vangie was five foot six inches tall, and about the same around, greasy, with a combover and a missing front tooth. He wore expensive suits that didn't fit, and owned a body shop in Ryder's Mile, mostly to launder the profits from the pit.
Subterranean, damp, and leeching electricity from the surrounding warehouses and factories for its makeshift lighting, the pit had wooden stadium bleachers and condensation on the walls, and a big, open space in the middle for the fights. Metropolis banned cockfighting in the forties, dogfighting in the sixties, but the only laws about people fighting had to do with zoning, so as long as Vangie kept it underground, in a building he already owned, setting a couple of rabid people on each other sang with pure profit.
Last spring, the crowds were only so-so. A couple of kickboxers made a good showing, and there were a handful of homeless guys who'd been important in Vietnam once, who could spill blood pretty regularly, but such a variable crew made it hard for spectators to place bets. All that changed this spring, when Clark showed up wearing sunglasses and sneering at the crappy accommodations. He paid five dollars to get onto the floor, and took home three hundred when he laid out all six guys on the roster in record time.
Now, instead of betting on who would win, people came to bet on how many broken noses would decorate the end of Clark's fist before the end of the night, and how long it would take them to crawl out of the ring. One really good night, two of Clark's opponents watched his first fight, and forfeited. Just so everybody got their money's worth, Clark threw them out for Vangie, one in each hand, like they were made of feathers.
More crowds meant more money; an unbeatable fighter meant more toughs coming in from Edge City and Gotham trying to prove the legend wrong. Week after week, the pit swelled with sweaty people waving fistfuls of green, fight after fight, Clark tucked more of that green into his jeans' pockets. The spectators liked it when he sat on the bottom row and laughed at the latest comer. They liked it when he spat water on the floor and rolled his eyes before taking two steps to knock somebody new on their ass.
The ladies especially liked it, a motley bunch of bleached blonde and distressed red, all shades of skin, but common with each other for their cheap jewelry and overlong manicures. They wanted to massage Clark's shoulders, and sit on his lap, and sometimes the most interesting part of the night was betting on the slap and scratch fights going on in the stands over who'd get to do either. Tisha and Kristi smacked the rest of the women down, and came to a mostly equitable solution. They'd both be his pets, one with the water bottle, one with the towel, and they followed him where ever he went- decked out in his signature red, from head to toe.
Pretending it was legitimate, Vangie announced the next fighter down to his weight and height, and Clark took another shot of water before standing. The girls had tried to convince him he'd look sharp in red silk boxers, but he was plenty happy in black jeans, work boots, and nothing else. Just like always, he rolled his eyes, making sure everybody saw just how unimpressed he was with the musclebound marine huffing and snorting at the other side of the ring, then shrugged. Two steps, one swing, and the marine was picking himself- and probably some teeth- up from the floor.
Two hundred more dollars, and Clark hadn't even broken a sweat. Kristi rubbed him down anyway.
When he left Chloe at the front doors of the Planet, Pete promised he'd see her later at her cousin Lois' apartment. She told him not to do anything she wouldn't, but since all she did these days was work, work, and work some more, it wasn't a standard Pete planned on bearing. As soon as he found Clark, he'd drag him home, and make things get back to normal. Once they saw him, maybe Chloe would quit acting like she didn't care about anything, and Lana would quit cussing under her breath. Maybe the Kents would stop haunting their farm, and when Pete was feeling especially generous, he'd wonder if maybe Clark couldn't find Lex and bring him home, too- just to get Lionel out of his mom's hair, of course.
Everybody thought they knew Clark, but Pete was the only one who knew all of him. Nobody else remembered how much time they spent walking miles of drainage pipes when they were kids, nobody else knew the whole, unedited version of what it was like to put on a red rock and turn into somebody else. Pete kept Clark's secrets, all of them, from the time he cried and had to go home at three in the morning on their first sleepover, to the night last fall when he tried to explain how sometimes, he wondered what would happen if he let go and did everything as hard as he could; fight, run, burn, anything. Everything.
Walking in the shadows of long buildings, Pete started where the Kents would never think to look. They probably spent their time going through homeless shelters and hostels, imagining Clark hungry and cold, scared and broke. With what Clark could do without the ring, and considering what he liked to do with it, Pete started at ground level, looking for a mirror image of of his best friend, using his fists to make money, and his wits to keep it all underground where nobody, not his parents, not the IRS, not the police, would notice it.
Descending into the subway, Pete tried to look tough, and hoped that when Clark said he wanted to do everything as hard as he could, that he still had some limits in his screwed up head. According to the papers, murders were down, and there weren't any more arsons than usual in Metropolis, so Pete figured whatever he was doing to get by was legal enough that he could walk away from it. In his pocket, Pete had a list of clubs he'd printed off the Internet, dives that needed bouncers and didn't seem like they'd care too much about proper ID.
He got on the train headed for Lorraine Avenue, and puffed himself up in a back seat so nobody would bother him. People from home would have laughed at the hard set of his jaw, and the way he narrowed his eyes, but things were different here. In Smallville, nobody held their purse tighter when he walked by; they stopped to ask how his brother Mike was doing at IU, or whether his dad's tomatoes had started to come in yet. People in Metropolis didn't know him, and as soon as it started to get dark, he knew he'd hear car doors lock when he stood at the corner, and tall, willowy women would duck inside coffee shops until he passed by.
Thinking about it made his blood run fast with adrenaline; it etched a furrow in his brow and made him want to ask them just what they thought he'd do, probably in a loud voice that would scare them even more. But at the same time, he hoped it worked the other way, that -he'd- be safe because people would shy away and stay away, so he swallowed down the bitter taste in mouth and tried not to feel too small in the endless sprawl of the city.
"I'm out of here," Clark said, after he let an old drunk break his knuckles on his chest. In the stands, the crowd shuffled and milled, people popping up like prairie dogs to find out why the next fight hadn't started. They still had money and most of a day, their cigars were only half-smoked, and they grew restless when the star wandered away from the pit and into the shadows.
Vangie twisted the gold ring on his pinkie. Bare-wired klieg lights enhanced the shine on his face, and drained all the color out of his oversized eyes, and he frowned as the brunette capped Clark's water, and the blonde handed him a t-shirt. "Hey, Kal, I know you got better things to do than hang around here, but all these people, they're coming to see you."
Clark shrugged. "They can see me some other time." Silent for a moment as he pulled on his shirt, the white cotton slid down his face to reveal a sharp smile. "They'll want it more if they can't have me all the time. Isn't that right?" He looked down at his perpetual ornaments, and they bobbed their heads in time.
Jabbing a finger in the middle of Clark's chest, Vangie leaned in. "We got an agreement, a verbal agreement, that's as good as a contract."
Eyes darkening, Clark trailed his gaze down slowly, giving Vangie enough time to realize just how stupid he was for touching him, but not enough to pull his hand away before he closed his fist over it. Squeezing slowly, with pressure that turned the tips of Vangie's fingers white, then purple, Clark lolled his head back with a smirk. "Let's renegotiate."
Wheezing, a little more sweat staining his upper lip, Vangie nodded agreeably. "Hokay, okay, yeah, I can be flexible. Real flexible."
"I come and go whenever I want, and you don't say anything about it. How's that sound?" Clark chewed the space between them with a feral smile, disappointment wavering on his brows when Vangie didn't answer immediately. He finally got the desired result when he squeezed hard enough for something to crack.
"Hokay, hokay, okay!" Yanking his hand away, Vangie shook it and hissed something foul under his breath. With a squint, he ground his good teeth, the dark spot in the front menacing when he smacked his lips. "Go on, get the hell out. I'll see you whenever." He walked away, muttering a little more, suggestions for places he'd like to see him again, in the morgue, in hell, in pain. Like he said, he was flexible.
A nude, neon sylph flickered with a beckoning hand. Her pink silhouette blinked, standing up, then bending over, tempting passers-by to come inside and see her fleshy counterparts. Ignoring the call, Pete gritted his teeth. "I don't want in the club, I just want to know if he works here!" He strained against the bar between him and the real, disinterested, woman on the other side of it.
She looked fake, like an actress playing the part of a manager. Her ripped t-shirt and spiderweb pants matched the dingy surroundings, but she wore them stiffly. She had purple streaks in her hair that looked like they came out of a spray can, and all of her jewelry clipped onto her flesh instead of piercing it. When it became obvious that Pete expected an answer, she took the picture (nails painted a conservative shell-pink,) and glanced at it. "Never met him."
In the distance, thunder rumbled, and the sky- already darkening for the end of the day- had started to churn, spitting out ever-deeper shades of grey by the moment. Pete glanced up and dared God to rain on him, and in a little way, genuinely expected God to obey. He felt like he'd walked the west side for a thousand years, avoiding panhandlers and puddles of questionable liquid; his feet ached, tension knotted in the space between his shoulderblades, and he truly believed he deserved a meteorological break. Instead of taking the picture back, he strained over the bar again. "Could you actually look at it before you blow me off?"
Disgust wrinkled her nose, and she made a big show of holding the picture at arm's length, then drawing it in until it nearly touched her nose. Her sarcasm of gesture suddenly settled with a blink, and she rubbed the edge of the picture. "Does he owe you money?"
"He's my best friend." Pete relaxed against the bar, and almost smiled. Some of the ached washed out of him, replaced by relief. He was on the right track.
The wrinkle of disgust came back, and she flipped the picture at him. "He quit coming here when we threatened to call the cops. Couldn't keep his hands off the girls." Retreating back into the foyer of the club, she looked Pete over, her eyes measuring. From the hard quirk of her mouth, he didn't pass. "Try the Redball." She waited until Pete thanked her and turned to leave to throw in an aciddabbed codicil. "They'll let anybody in."
Leaning against the cool shower wall, Clark scrubbed water down his face and tried not to listen to the girls squabbling on the other side of the bathroom door. He didn't know what they were bitching about this time, and he didn't really care. They had more than enough room in Lex's penthouse to stay a mile away from each other at all times; if they felt like they had to kill each other, then more power to them.
Clark liked the penthouse, with its bathtub big enough for four, and beds so wide, he could sleep on them sideways. He'd tried to call Lex before he moved in, but nobody answered at the castle, or on his personal line. Probably too busy getting busy on his honeymoon, Clark decided- he wouldn't care if he borrowed his apartment for a few days. Or weeks, or now, a couple of months, not that he made a big deal out of counting days anymore.
Free of Smallville, and all its little people, Clark did what he wanted, when he wanted, with whoever interested him at the moment. Tricia... Tisha and Kristi stopped interesting him two days ago; the only reason he hadn't kicked them to the curb yet was that one of them was a good cook, and one of them was good in bed. At the moment, he couldn't remember which.
Stepping under the hot spray, he turned his face up to it and let water sluice through his hair. It skimmed down him, running into his mouth and nose, washing away the lingering atmosphere of the pit. It'd serve Vangie right if he never came back- it wasn't like he couldn't start a pit of his own. Hell, he knew the secret passages into LuthorCorp; it'd be pretty funny to run a ring in the basement. Let Lionel stick his beaky nose in, and he'd find out that money wouldn't keep him from being broken.
Restless, Clark turned and spread his arms out, pressing a hand into the wall and the other into the glass door. Holding himself up, he stared at the tips of his toes as water pooled around them. He remembered being scared of Lionel; he remembered being scared of a lot of things. That didn't happen anymore, even when the alien's voice drifted into his dreams and days. It still said he had to obey, and lately, he'd taken to informing it that it could suck his dick. Jonathan Kent couldn't tell him what to do, and neither could some audible memory.
A shriek rang out, and Clark rolled his eyes. That was it; neither one of them were good enough at what they did for him to put up with this shit. He didn't bother with a towel, he just turned off the water and dripped all the way down the hall to find them. The blonde had the brunette bent back over the couch, a fistful of her hair in one hand. Clark jerked a thumb toward the front hall. "Get out or I'll throw you off the balcony."
Both women blinked, sliding away from each other in oilstain undulations. Plastering one voice on top of the other, they protested until Clark took a step toward them. They only had to look at the balcony once to be convinced that a hundred stories down worked better in an elevator. Gathering their things, they made penitent noises until they closed the door behind them.
The quiet motionless of the penthouse spread out around him, and he stood in its midst for a moment, soaking up silence. No voices, no laughter, no breath except his own, the watercolors of Warrior Angel looked past him, and the bust of Alexander gazed into nothing, perpetually blank and solitary. Clark didn't get lonely anymore, so he named the nagging sense of emptiness in his chest "boredom," and returned to the shower. Tomorrow, there would be two more dollies, or three or four if he wanted, and the only thing left to ponder as he stepped beneath the water again was where to find a slightly higher class of slut.
Something cracked under Pete's feet, and he refused to find out what. Ripe, wet garbage clung to the alley pavement, bits of it moving with hidden life when he took high steps over it. The unmistakable scent of decomposition hovered in the humid night air, and Pete swore when he found Clark, he'd bring him out the back way just so he could suffer the smell, too. Leaning against the back side of the dumpster, Pete listened as someone jostled a series of locks, then opened the back door.
Listening to two voices complain about the third floor bathroom, Pete steadied his breath and listened to them move. A lighter scratched, and then long breaths followedsmoke break. He'd hoped that an employee would just pop out to take out the trash- out for just a moment, then in again, too distracted by work to wait for the door to close completely. With a smoke break, it'd be at least five minutes, and probably forty, before he could sneak inside.
Pete could blame Clark for just about everything, but he blamed his dad for this. That's where he'd gotten the round cheeks and the lack of height. Everybody else he knew, except for Lana, could probably fix their hair, stand up a little straighter, and convince a bouncer they were born in 1982. Pete was pretty sure he'd still get carded until his hair turned grey.
The voices started to drift away, shoes scraping on the pavement, and Pete dared a little peek around the rusting dumpster. Two guys wandered toward the mouth of the alley, trading a cigarette back and forth as they kicked at refuse with heavy, black boots. Estimating that they were a good forty feet away, Pete crept toward the door. They'd left it propped open, a piece of cardboard in the latch.
Palms starting to sweat, Pete rolled his lips and focused on the employees again. The taller one had tugged up the hem of his shirt, showing off something beneath a bandage on his hip. His stomach turning over, Pete dragged his attention away from them and counted steps to the door. He could make it in four- three maybe, if he took really big steps. It was just like sprints, he told himself, start off fast, and don't stop until you hit something.
Tensing, Pete closed his eyes and took a big breath. Run fast, grab the handle, run fast, grab the handle, his feet slid on the scummy pavement, but finally caught. The handle cut into his hand, and the breeze sucked out when he threw open the door, but he was inside. Kitchen sounds clattered as he jogged down the narrow hallway, and they slowly gave way to grinding club music.
When he turned a corner, a strobe light stuttered the club into slow motion, and catching his breath, Pete melted into the crowd. Edging along the outside wall, he searched faces for a familiar one, and quietly blamed Clark for taking all the fun out of his first time sneaking into a bar.
"You know you want to have a little fun with me." Clark peered over the top of his sunglasses, already stroking a possessive hand against the girl's waist. He liked her dark, glossy hair, and the fact that she had to crane her neck to look up at him. The position made her loose top gape at the neck, revealing honey-gold cleavage, and it took Clark a minute to register that she'd said something. Something that sounded like no. Instead of stepping back, he squeezed her waist a little and arched a brow. "What, are you frigid or something?"
A hand fell on his shoulder, and Clark turned slowly to face the intruder. Tiny diamonds of reflected light skated along the smooth curve of a bald head and the guy- not Lex, Lex wouldn't be caught dead in a suit that ugly- raised his voice to be heard. "Leave her alone."
Pretending geniality, Clark dropped his hands on the guy's shoulders, jollying him with a mirthless smile. "I think the lady and I can work it out, but thanks for stopping by." Clark shoved him, immensely pleased when his arms windmilled back. It was almost artistic, what with the lights and everything. Turning back to the girl, he opened his mouth to charm or insult her again, and felt another hand on his shoulder.
Annoyed, he moved to shove the guy again, then blinked when a sharp spangle of pain blossomed at the bridge of his nose. Everything turned red for a moment, and he caught the edge of the bar to steady himself. A coppery sharp flavor coated the back of his tongue, and Clark reached up to touch the sticky course of blood edging slipping toward his lip. Over the tips of his stained fingers, Pete came into focus.
Nostrils flared, breathing hard, Pete kept his balled fist up. "Time to go home, Clark."
"Pete." Straightening up again, Clark exhaled a derisive sigh. "I should have known."
With a wave of his fist, Pete agreed. "Yeah, you should have. So are you going to give me the ring, or are you gonna make me take it from you?"
Thin, sharp laughter rolled out of Clark and his sharp teeth flashed with he dared, "I'd like to see you try." He bobbed his head forward, squinting a little in threat. "Because, see... you have to touch me to get it, and between you and me? I don't think you can get that close." His brows rose and quavering waves of heat obscured his vision.
Panic made Pete forget to breathe. His heart pounding, he smacked at the hot spot on his chest. His thoughts screamed, terrified that he'd burst into flames, furious that Clark would do that to him, and he wasn't going to forgive him for -that-. Maybe the ring -did- do something to him, but the idiot put it on on purpose, and rage was good, because the quick rush of adrenaline took the pain away and made Pete feel fast. Not as fast as Clark, but Clark was too high, too confident to take him seriously as a threat.
This is what the pit was missing, Clark decided. Lights and music, air scented with sex sweat instead of labor. Liquor and heat, and a stage to make it a real show. With a smirk, Clark circled away from Pete, nailing him with short, hard bursts of heat. He'd learned all kinds of tricks in the last two months. He could look through a shirt without irradiating the flesh beneath it; he could tense his eyes just enough to make heat instead of fire. Honing his abilities to subtle perfection, he didn't have to stand still and gape to get the job done anymore... as Pete discovered.
Pretty sure that the last blast would leave blisters, Pete lunged and swung. The meteor rock cut into his palm on impact, and Clark's teeth scraped against his knuckles. Vaguely aware of the circle clearing out around them, Pete opened his hand and pressed the rock against Clark's throat. One more streak of fire glanced across the side of his head. Something popped above them, and a sudden shower of white sparks rained down on them. Screams rang in his ears, but Pete kept shoving until he had Clark sprawled out on the floor; until he could concentrate enough to see the ugly green poison spreading under Clark's skin.
Dropping to straddle his chest, Pete watched pain contort Clark's face as he reached for his limp hand. The ring didn't want to come off; Pete had to pull it hard, and Clark whimpered when it ground over his knuckle. The metal felt sickly alive in his hand, warm to the touch, but slowly cooled. Sucking in deep, uneven breaths, Pete raised the ring. Light glanced off the stone, and he saw a hazy reflection of himself in it, amazed that such a little thing could cause so much trouble.
Pete pushed himself to his feet, wavering over Clark. Red in one hand, green in the other, he stepped over him. "Get up. We're going home."
With a groan, Clark planted his hands against the floor, his head pounding as he stood. He could feel the flatness of the red washing away with physical pain, and he looked around. People stared at him in varying shades of disgust. His shoulders slumped when he noticed the expression on Pete's face: hard and annoyed. "It wasn't me, Pete, I'm..."
"Don't even think about telling me you're sorry." Shoving the ring into his pocket, he gestured to the exit, and with the meteor rock still firmly in hand, he followed him out.
Chloe said a girl needs a little Norma Desmond in her life; it was a long bus ride home to Smallville with a reformed James dean. Pete took the aisle seat, mostly out of spite, and didn't feel all that bad when Clark had to fold his legs up like an accordion against the window. For the whole three hours, Clark never looked -at- him, though he'd occasionally try to catch his gaze in the green-tinted window. After the first hour, he quit trying to apologize. After the second hour, he quit trying to talk at all, though he did listen in when Pete called Chloe and made an excuse about needing to go home right away.
When the bus let them out across from The Talon, Pete tipped his head up to look at the clear, smogless sky. "I was thinking about getting a ring with the green rock in it."
Penitent, Clark just nodded. He stared at the tips of his toes, and shivered though he wasn't cold. "That's... that's probably a good idea."
Zipping up his letter jacket, Pete frowned. "I'm not doing it, Clark. I'm your best friend, not your babysitter." Shoving his hands into his pockets, he turned slowly, trying to make out constellations, suddenly realizing that one of those pinpoints out there might still be blinking light around the place that made Clark and sent him here. "Grow up. Everybody else had to this summer."
Clark raised his head, calling out when Pete started to walk away. He sounded desperate and alone. "I didn't think!"
A long shadow inking out behind him, Pete looked back over his shoulder. "Guess it's time for you to start then, huh?" Rolling his shoulders, Pete hunched down into his jacket and kept putting one foot in front of the other toward home. Whatever happened now was up to Clark; Pete had done his job as a best friend, and now all he wanted was some sleep. Turning the corner, out of the light and into a patch of dark, he felt just a little bit like John Wayne.
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