It's not usually all that noisy, but for Ryan it's never quiet, either. He always knows when he's in a city. It's not that he can hear individual thoughts, but he can always feel the people, faraway but still there. Twinkling like stars.
The Kents' farm was maybe the nicest place he's ever stayed. So quiet. Out on the farm, Ryan couldn't hear anybody except Clark's mom and dad, and when they were asleep, it was almost like he was-- normal.
Cities are never silent. His step-parents liked the worst parts of them, downtown hotels and motels crowded with wakeful thoughts. Sometimes they'd spend all night in the car, and his step-parents would take turns staying awake. Those nights, Ryan almost never slept.
For Ryan, living in a city is like standing in the middle of a cloud of fireflies. Not that he's ever actually done that, but he imagines it would be the same. It's like cities have their own bigger minds, constantly humming and thinking, little bits being happy and lonely and crazy and hating each other. And every city has a different feel, so far. Metropolis sparkled like electricity, like the curves of a neon sign. Smallville was kind of schizophrenic, half spinning slow like a globe, half gleaming and jagged.
Edge City burns.
It's barely dipped below ninety degrees since Ryan moved in with his aunt. He can't remember the last time he saw a cloud. Outside, once-innocent surfaces become dangerous. Door handles on cars and buildings, metal railings, sidewalks-- they're all just waiting for someone to brush up against them and get hurt. Maybe the heat gets to the people in Edge City and makes them burn on the inside, too.
Aunt Constance is a teacher at Edge City University, and she lives in an old-fashioned two-bedroom walk-up. There's a cafe/bar next door where the college kids like to shoot pool, and there's usually a crowd hanging out there until three in the morning every night. Through his open window, Ryan can hear the click-clack of the pool balls knocking against each other, and swift waves of talk and laughter when the doors swing open and close.
Two days ago, Ryan's aunt bought him a fan for his new room that used to be her office. But the first time he turned it on, the noise kept her from sleeping, and she stayed awake worrying about who was going to be assigned as her new department head till three in the morning. She wasn't going to tell him not to run the fan, but Ryan still tries not to turn it on unless she's already asleep.
It's late. His room is hot and still and dark. Aunt Constance wedged some of her file cabinets into a closet so he'd have room for a fold-out futon, and she promised that as soon as the heat breaks, she'll get some more of her stuff moved out so he can have more space. She meant it, too. Ryan does feel a little guilty about always checking to see if she means it when she says things. But part of him knows you always have to check. So far she's meant it every time.
There's not much of a breeze coming in from the window tonight. He's only wearing cotton boxers, but it's still way too hot. Stretching his arm up over his head, Ryan taps a little on the wall. He can hear a very, very sleepy response from Aunt Constance. There's a part of a person that never really goes as deeply to sleep as the rest, evaluating all the little noises to make sure there isn't a threat, and Ryan's aunt is still too awake for him to turn the fan on. He sighs and rolls over onto his stomach, letting the cold air wash across his sweaty back, pushing his pillow aside to rub his face into the cooler surface of the sheet underneath.
What he hears first is the trashcan in the alley behind the bar being knocked over. Ryan raises his head, blinking in the dark. It might be just some drunk students staggering back to their dorms, but it doesn't feel like that. College kids who've drunk too much feel floaty like a bunch of bubbles, shimmering and wobbly, or else they contract in on themselves, dark and quiet and cold.
Right now there's someone in the alley who's really fucking scared.
Ryan usually doesn't feel individual people this strongly. People in the city move around, they come in and out of range and there's just so many that they drown each other out, like a thousand drops of rain in one big puddle. But this--
He stands on his futon and peers out the window, but his window faces the street and whatever's happening is around the corner, in the alley. Closing his eyes, he tries to listen, but there's too many kids in the bar and in the apartments in his building, some asleep and dreaming, some not.
He can tell there's other people in the alley, though. There's the one just being slammed by waves of fear, like the picture rolling on a broken TV, and then, yeah, the others. Two, maybe more-- black and red and angry-- they feel like Ryan's step-parents, and now he's scared too.
Goosebumps prickle all over his body. He drops back down to his futon again and hugs his knees. He should call the police. Or campus security. But they're not going to listen to some kid, and even if they did it would take too long and something's happening now and all he can think is: what would Clark do?
Fuck fuck fuck is all Lucas Leonard can think as Teddy Block's boys drag him further back into the alley. Shouldn't have come down to Jack's tonight. Christ, he knows better than to be so predictable. But hustling the college boys at pool is easy money, and he needed the stake for next Sunday's game at the Biltmore.
He doesn't think he's going to be playing on Sunday. "C'mon, guys. C'mon." He grins at them, playing it cool. "We can work this out. I can talk to Teddy about this. We can talk."
There's two of them holding his arms, big motherfuckers. One of them socked him in the kidneys already, and this is not fucking good, he's got no aces. None. It's not really the bruisers he's worried about, it's the other one, the one just smoking a cigarette and smirking. He's one of Block's go-to guys. One of the guys who gets shit done. Lucas doesn't want to be done.
"Hands on the wall," the go-to guy says quietly. Lucas twists and struggles as the bruisers get him by the wrists. Still trying to stay cool, but inside he's right there with the raccoons or weasels or what-the-fuck-ever kind of animals that chew off their fucking feet when they're in traps. Pure blind instinct clamps Lucas' hands into tight, protective fists before he even consciously gets what they're going to do.
"Shit, no. Come on," Lucas he blurts as he realizes, and the motherfucker on the right jabs his thumb right into a pressure point on his wrist. Lucas' right hand tingles and goes numb and then it's pressed up flat against the wall, fingers spread, the other motherfucker close behind him, twisting Lucas' left arm up against his back. He turns his head, panting, staring the go-to guy down. "Breakin' fuckin' fingers for a living, jeez, your momma must be proud."
"We're not gonna break your fingers, Leonard." Teddy's guy tosses away his cigarette, reaching into an inside pocket of his jacket. "Broken fingers heal."
He flicks his wrist and there's a swift click, metal flashing in the faint ambient light of the alley, and everything goes really slow and clear. Lucas can feel every bump and plateau of the uneven pavement under his shoes, every shift and twitch in the bodies of the men holding him down. Every inch of the rough, warm brick under the palm of his right hand.
Play it, play it, Lucas tells himself, and lets out some of the panic, lets it work for him. He struggles hard, almost managing to jerk his wrist free, but the guy who's got his arm twists it harder and he sees white, nearly passes out, no, fucking no, not his fingers-- but--
At least nobody told them he's left-handed.
It's so hard to find good help these days.
He laughs but it comes out shrill, and that is one seriously fucking scary knife getting closer and closer to his hand. Solid steel, serrated edges, and Lucas licks his lips, ready to turn his head and bite the collar of his leather jacket if he has to. Everybody runs out of luck sometimes. Lucas has had a pretty fucking charmed life so far, but it looks like this is just not his night.
He's not gonna scream.
Also, passing out would be a fucking bad idea, so fucking breathe-- he's concentrating so hard on keeping his cool that he doesn't even hear it at first. But the motherfucker's grip on his left arm loosens just momentarily in surprise, and then Lucas hears it too, a constant high-pitched ring. Someone's pulled Jack's fucking fire alarm.
Lucas starts laughing for real, taking advantage of his captors' momentary confusion to yank himself away. He stumbles, dizzy with relief-- charmed fucking life charmed life, gotta love it-- trips over his own two feet and falls on his ass, hitting warm, sticky asphalt. Just then the bar's back door slams open with a metallic thunk and a crowd of happy stupid fucking morons stumbles out into the alley, all bitching about leaving their drinks and their bar snacks to come stand out in the heat.
Lucas pushes himself to his feet and walks. Fast. There's a cafe near the front of the building, but it closes early so nobody's coming out those doors, there's no cover, except that just as Lucas reaches the end of the alley a skinny little kid in sweat-shorts and a t-shirt runs past him. He ducks into the entryway of the old apartment building next door to the bar, and Lucas follows.
The kid's got keys, and he's letting himself into the lobby. Lucas dives for the door as it closes, but he's a second too late. He bangs a hand against the barred glass window in the door, and the kid looks over his shoulder. Lucas can't really see through the glass, but the kid doesn't look too startled, which is good. He knocks again, hoping he looks enough like a scared, drunk piece of shit to pull this off. "Hey, kid-- Kid, I forgot my keys."
The skinny kid approaches the door, all elbows and knees inside his wrinkled pajamas. The t-shirt's got some cartoon superhero on it, one of the X-Men or something. "You don't live here," he says, quietly but clearly, and glances over towards the alley. "You better go."
"Let me in," Lucas insists. The fire alarm's still ringing. The sound makes the back of his neck itch. "Come on, come on--" Teddy's boys are going to be coming around the corner any second. "Let me in."
The kid stares at him, then finally twists the doorknob-- Lucas yanks open the door, ducks inside, pulls it fucking shut and then takes a few steps further into the small, dimly lit lobby.
"Over here." The kid grabs at his sleeve, pulling him through another door, into a quiet stairwell and out of sight. "You can wait here till they go away."
Lucas looks up sharply, but the kid just looks back with this blank, wary 'who me?' vibe. Lucas knows what makes kids look like this, too damn skinny for their age and always trying to hide in plain sight, but it still sets his teeth on edge. Lucas is hard proof that just because you grow up a certain way, you don't have to let it define who you are-- but not everybody gets that. Not everybody's strong.
"You pulled the alarm in the bar," he says, and the kid flinches back a little, then nods. Lucas grins at him, still breathing hard but trying to make it kind of a big brother grin. Not that he ever had a big brother figure he didn't end up wanting to cut into pieces and bury in a concrete slab, but he hears that's apparently not a universal experience. "That was good. Good-- good thinking." Especially pulling the alarm at Jack's, instead of the one in this building. Lucas is a little surprised that an eleven or twelve-year-old kid managed to sneak into the bar, but then, he's only seventeen himself. "I owe you one."
The kid just shrugs, crossing his arms over his chest, apartment keys clutched tightly in his hand. "No, you don't."
"You saw them, didn't you?" Lucas leans forward. "You know what they were going to do."
The kid surprises Lucas by making eye contact and holding it. "You made them pretty mad."
Lucas feels his smile twist into something not brotherly at all. His left arm still hurts like shit, so he reaches awkwardly over his shoulder with his right hand and flaps the back of his jacket to cool himself down and get some of the fear-sweat off. It's been a hell of a night, but it's already turning itself into a story in his head, one of the good ones where he wins because he kept his head, didn't panic, and because he's just a fucking lucky bastard and God loves him. For some inexplicable reason. He's probably not paying too much attention.
Ryan watches carefully as the older boy leans back against the stair-rail, one leg stretched out, one foot propped up on a step. He's still kind of scared, which means he's unpredictable, thoughts bumping around almost too fast to follow, like the inside of a pinball machine. But he's not thinking about doing anything bad here in the building as far as Ryan can tell. Which is good. Aunt Constance is friends with the building manager, who lives on the first floor with her roommate who's really her girlfriend-- Ryan's aunt thinks they're probably gay, but she doesn't know for sure. Ryan does, but they're both always really nice to him, so he doesn't want to cause any them trouble.
Lucas thinks Ryan looked out his window and saw what was going on. Ryan's just going to let him think that. God, he really did it! Just like in the comics. Okay, not exactly just like in the comics, but close enough. Clark's never going to believe this.
On second thought, Ryan thinks, he probably shouldn't tell Clark. It'd just make him worry, and the Kents too. Clark's mom and dad both liked Aunt Constance, but neither one of them was so sure about sending him off to live in downtown Edge City. He doesn't want them to worry.
Ryan waits in silence and watches Lucas sitting on the stairs, tapping his fingers unconsciously on his knee. His thoughts are still jittery, everywhere at once, and Ryan's beginning to think maybe that's just how he is. Everybody who lives in a city is feral to some degree. There's too many strangers and dangerous things. Too many shadows. People let that animal part of their brains take over more often, tell them how to react. It's scary, not because they do bad things, but because Ryan can't really read those impulses as well as the surface thoughts, the things that people actually think about and put into words.
People who aren't thinking, people who just act, they're unpredictable. It's what made Ryan's step-parents so frightening, and so impossible to get away from.
He catches one quick flash of thought from Lucas. He's thinking about skipping town for a while, and the image that Ryan gets is so solitary it's almost stunning, just one shape quick as a shadow, no entanglements, no responsibilities, nothing but motion. Lucas has a motorcycle. Ryan wishes he could see it.
"You don't have a family," he says, remembering too late that it should really be a question. Lucas doesn't move, but still, all his attention is on Ryan just that quickly.
"No," he says. "You?"
"Just my aunt," Ryan says, and Lucas nods, unsurprised. He stands up, rubbing his hands together, then brushing his hands over his leather jacket.
"Let me give you a piece of advice," he says, and Ryan doesn't object, because what Lucas wants is to pay him back for his help. He won't be indebted to anyone; the need glares red, like brake lights on a car. "Stop sticking your neck out for people you don't even know."
It's not something Lucas actually thought about before he said, just something ingrained, automatic. So Ryan's actually surprised. "But I--"
"Look at me." The corners of Lucas' mouth jerk into sharp points when he grins. "I could be anybody, kid, I could be an ax murderer." He leans forward, regaining his feet in a graceful motion, forcing Ryan to move back till his shoulders hit the row of mailboxes against the wall across from the stairs. "Trust me, nobody's going to risk their ass for you. What, are you crazy, letting me in like that? This is Edge City."
Ryan doesn't blink as Lucas scowls down at him, brows knotted. "My stepdad shot my stepmom in the face with a twelve-gauge," he says, and his voice wobbles up and down. He hasn't even said that out loud to the child-services therapist. Why should he have to tell her? She already knows. "I was there."
Lucas' eyes open wide, and he rocks back on his heels a little. "Shit."
"I know," Ryan says, and swallows. "I know--" He knows better than anybody how easy it is to cross that line, even if you never really thought about it before. You don't forget what it feels like to kill another person. He doesn't think he could really explain. "You need to go."
Lucas blinks and glances down the hall, past the stairs to the back door that leads out to the other side of the building.
"They're gone. You can go," Ryan says again, keeping his fist clamped tight around his aunt's keys. Lucas goes sharp inside, thinking sarcastically about how it's his fucking fingers he's risking if Ryan's wrong. But he's not wrong.
"Ryan?" They both look up at the sound of Aunt Constance's voice, echoing down the stairwell. Ryan winces at the panic he knows he's going to feel. "Ryan! Are you down there?"
"Go!" Ryan whispers a final time, and Lucas slips away. Ryan starts bounding upstairs, hoping his footsteps on the stairs will cover the sound of Lucas ducking out the back. "I'm right down here," he calls. "I'm okay."
Ryan's aunt meets him on the first floor, reaching out for his shoulder and clutching tight. "What happened? I woke up--"
"I couldn't sleep." He stares up at her and sees himself through his aunt's eyes, small and frightened, circles under his eyes. "I had a nightmare."
She smoothes his hair off his forehead, and sighs. "Come back to bed." She reaches out for the keys, and he gives them to her. "We'll talk about it in the morning, all right?"
"All right." He follows her up the stairs.
Ryan tries really hard to forget about living with his step-parents. Usually there's enough distractions around to keep the memories out of his head. But now that he actually went and said it out loud, he can't stop thinking about his stepmother. She was mean and stupid and she thought Ryan was really, really creepy, but he still wishes she wasn't dead. One choke of pain and she just-- dropped. Nothing, silent, gone. He thinks he'd rather die just about any other way than that, all alone and flicked off like a switch.
Ryan's aunt locks up the apartment. Ryan goes back to bed. All that night a million different minds crackle and snap outside his window, like twigs and sticks on a fire. Lucas is one of the minds out there, moving too fast to see. Just another firefly.
Ryan hopes he finds someone to stick out his neck for him, someday.
All that night he lies awake and listens to Edge City burn.
Thanks to Celli Lane for the original suggestion that Ryan should meet Lucas in Edge City. Extra special thanks to Bexless for audiencing and beta.
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