"Superman,” Black Canary called at the end of the meeting, “I need to talk to you. Privately,” she added when Beetle and Booster looked like they would take the opportunity to discuss their latest assignments more in detail. She didn't need to shout to be heard. Superman vaguely wondered if it was a secondary aspect of her power, that she could make herself be heard clearly by speaking at an even level.
The two stragglers pulled fatalistic faces; as he exited, Green Arrow caught Superman's eye and shot him a glance that reminded Superman of the sympathetic looks Green Arrow gave more junior members when Batman called for them and they were about to be told off. It reminded Clark of nothing so much as high school or the Daily Planet, when the principal or Perry called you in their office.
There were a handful of reasons why Canary might want them to have a private word. As the League's spokesperson, she kept on top of all their crises, and several more that judicious treatment didn't let grow into crises.
When Beetle pulled the door closed behind him, Canary spoke again. She was wearing an expression that he'd noticed meant she was about to talk about things that wouldn't make him happy; she was wearing the expression that she wore to talk about the children's group.
“Clark,” she said reasonably.
“Did Bruce put you up to this?” he asked. He tried to keep his voice as calm and in-control as he could, not to let her know he'd been destabilized by this ambush, but it came out terse.
She shook her head, and leaned back against the table. Defensively, he crossed his arms when she wouldn't. He could wait this out.
“No, Diana did,” she said. “If you want to call it like that.”
His arms fell uncrossed. “But she hasn't—she's the only one of us who hasn't been on my case, recently. Why would she start now, and not talk directly to me? I presume it is about the clone, right?”
“It's not about Superboy,” Canary said. He was Superman, he had super-hearing. He could tell she didn't stress the word in any way – Bruce would've never have missed the opportunity to make him feel bad – so why did he want to-- to defend himself, as though she had? “Only tangentially. Diana's concerned about you, Clark.”
She looked at him, and – perhaps it was because she'd used his first name – for the first time since they'd started talking Clark saw her as Dinah. Outside the superhero community, she'd be dismissed as too young, too female to be able speak wisely. But she was one of the best tacticians and the best listeners he knew. She was a good friend.
Thoughtlessly, he rubbed the back of his neck. “There's no reason to. I'm as alright as I've ever been,” he answered truthfully.
Except for the thing with the clone. People would not leave him alone about it. Though to be fair, that was mostly Batman. Clark knew that a non-powered human had to have a will of diamond and a stubborn streak a mile wide to become a threat to the criminal underworld, and even more so to enter the Justice League and stand shoulders to shoulders with the likes of Wonder Woman, Icon, Martian Manhunter, and Superman. He'd trust Batman to refuse giving up out of sheer bloody-mindedness and keep kicking long after everyone else admitted it was hopeless. It was the most reassuring thing about the man he was proud to call a friend. But goddamn it if sometimes Bruce wasn't far overstepping his boundaries.
Clark forced the burst of anger at the thought down. Bruce wasn't here, Bruce had nothing to do with the situation. That at least was certain; Bruce might be an incorrigible manipulator, but Diana could see straight through any lie or maneuver. It probably wasn't coincidence if she was the only one Bruce respected enough that he never tried to bullshit her.
“She's got the feeling that you're under a lot of stress.”
He shrugged. “I'm Superman. I'm always under a lot of stress.”
Is that really how you intend to play this, her raised eyebrow asked. He ignored it.
“She says she thinks you and Bruce have been fighting,” she went on, when Clark gave no sign of picking up her conversational gambit.
Again, he shrugged, like it didn't deserve a spoken answer. He and Bruce were always having fights. It was the charm of being one of Bruce's friends, or an occupational hazard of the same. In any case, nothing new, and this time neither of them had quit or been fired from the League over it. It didn't hamper their ability to work together, and so wasn't worth mentioning.
“But I think we both know what the issue between you and Bruce is, don't we?”
How she managed to pin him where he stood with nothing but a glance, while at the same time keeping her tone perfectly casual, he had no idea.
“He is the most pig-headed, self-righteous, arrogant s--” he began hotly.
Dinah cut him off with a offhand wave she'd copied from Ollie, and a wry smile. “Yeah, he is,” she agreed. “But that's not really the matter, is it? Don't get me wrong, if you told him a few home truths and that's why you two are the way you are right now, I don't want to ruin it. But I don't think this is about Bruce, this time.”
“So this is about the clone,” Clark said, sardonic like it was a victory. He turned around, preparing to pace this lecture out.
Dinah's hand on his arm stopped him against his will. Ma and Pa Kent hadn't raised him to walk out on women who called his attention; he'd had to make an exception out of Lois Lane, otherwise he would never have escaped her journalistic clutches and his secret identity might have been among the casualties of her hostile takeover, but he wasn't planning on making a habit of it. Lois wouldn't approve.
“This is about you, Clark.” She regarded him, gravely. “This is about both of you.”
“I knew it.”
The look Dinah gave him was sufficiently annoyed that he remembered that despite her uncanny listening and/or counseling abilities, she wasn't actually Diana, and this sort of juvenile behaviour was sorely tempting the limits of her patience. But she didn't say anything out loud, trusting him to translate the message accurately. Dinah was a Gothamite by birth, though she'd moved to Seattle a few years back.
“You've been retreating onto yourself, these past few months. You haven't been up on the Tower as often, and last week Aquaman asked me if you were avoiding him. And when you are up there, you're sticking with junior or part-time members.”
“Nothing wrong with making friends with the new guys,” he muttered, but his heart wasn't in it.
“No, there isn't,” her voice was soft, filled with so much understanding he wanted to fly away suddenly, like he was naked in front of her, like Diana had caught him in her lasso, “and if I thought you were sincerely interested in that I'd be glad for you. Sometimes I think it's even harder for you to make friends than for Bruce.” He jerked at that, honestly surprised, but she didn't pause. “But I think you're hanging with them by default, like you're avoiding us.”
Us. The old crowd. Those in the know, mostly, people he'd call friends on top of colleagues, and who knew that Clark Kent wasn't merely the name of a Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter.
“I hang with Diana,” he demured.
“Yes, and she's the only one who doesn't ask about the children. Did you know she chose not to get involved? She doesn't have a junior partner; she didn't think it was her place. You'd hang with Hal and John, if they weren't with the Lantern Corps.”
He searched her face. Even with X-ray vision, there was no judgment there. It pulled something free in him. He knew that she wouldn't tell, and she wouldn't hate him for it.
“She's the only one who doesn't badger me about—about Superboy. She's the only one who doesn't blame me.”
“No-one blames you, Clark.”
“Bruce does.” It hurt to say aloud. It sounded pathetic.
“Clark...” Her eyes, at least, didn't shine with compassion the way Diana's sometimes did when she used the lasso. “Bruce has more issues about family than Gotham has unsolved murders. And even so, I don't think he blames you.”
“Sure looks like it from where I'm standing.”
“I think he envies you,” Dinah corrected, and while Clark gaped and tried to adjust his world-view to the enormity of what she said, she went on, “but that's really not why I wanted us to talk. If you want, we can talk about Bruce, or I can talk with him and make him promise to be sincere with you, but I thought we should first get back to you, and Conner. Bruce's issues won't disappear in the meantime, I promise.”
“If you're not blaming me, then why the hell won't every one leave me alone with this already?” he finally burst out. “Why do you have to insist I—take responsibility about, about Superboy? He's not my responsibility! He's not my son! I'm no more responsible for him than the rest of you, until he was standing in front of me I had no idea he existed! I didn't imagine someone like him could exist!”
In the silence that followed, Clark waited for Dinah to speak like he'd wait for the ground to swallow him and throw him in the darkest pits of hell. He couldn't hear her breathing, and to his super-senses it was as subtly disturbing as if she'd been replaced by an android; his blood was thrumming loud enough to drown out the sound.
The ground didn't swallow him, and Dinah didn't lose her calm. If anything, the subtle frown that had tensed her forehead smoothed away.
“You didn't think you could have a son,” she acknowledged, and immediately raised her hand again when he opened his mouth. “I know; I know, he's not your son. I'm not saying he is. Did Bru—oh. Yes, of course he did. Issues. Let's just put that aside for the moment, shall we?” Expectantly, she looked at Clark, and seemed satisfied with the jerk of his chin. “But this situation is somewhat similar to that, don't you think?”
Reluctantly, Clark nodded. From Bruce or Lois, the question would've been a verbal trap, designed to ensnare him and spring back his own words on him a later point. Still, he could see the intellectual similarities. It wasn't the same thing, but there was a clear parallel, and from the perspective of intellectual honesty, he had to admit it.
“So it was a double betrayal, in a sense.”
“There was no-one to betray me,” he pointed out, croaking past the knot in his throat.
“I wouldn't know. It seems to me Cadmus, and by extension the Earth, betrayed you by building a weapon designed to take you down.” She paused again, matter of fact. The shadows of Bruce's contingency plans hung between them, but she didn't drag them in the light. Clark was pathetically grateful.
“And then there was your DNA.,” she continued, and she was sounding more like Batman than like Wonder Woman by the second. Gotham heroes. They always go for the throat. “You didn't let yourself imagine it could be used against you.”
He swallowed. “I've asked Bruce and, and Mr Terrific to—to see what they could do. For years. If, if maybe Lois and I— they told me it can't be done.”
Dinah's chin lowered to her chest, and when she spoke, it was with a strangely deep voice. “It's very painful to have the possibility taken from you,” she said, quietly.
Clark startled. Did she--?
Then she looked up again, her eyes bright and her lips set. “Clark, this isn't my secret to tell, but you should know: you're not the only male in the League who's found himself the progenitor of a teenager he didn't know about.”
“Oh?” This was news to him; in a flash, he tried to think who might-- not Bruce, of course, but maybe Hal-- Dinah tugged on her glove, a gesture both she and Green Arrow had, he after a trick shot or a cheap shot-- “Ollie,” he blurted out, and stared at her.
He hadn't even thought what Lois would make of Superboy's existence.
“Like I said,” Dinah smiled dryly, “it's not my secret. But Ollie and I talked about it, and if you have questions you want to ask him, he's willing to answer.”
Ollie. Ollie with his sidekicks, Ollie with Dinah, non-powered, formerly a millionaire, now penniless Ollie. He was a flirt, though he was passionately faithful to Dinah. He loved women like Lois loved the truth, like they couldn't imagine living without. He was a hot-head, he spoke like he didn't care about the League's standards half the time, he was no-one's role-model though he could claim to be the best disreputable cool uncle in the superhero community. He was best friends with the people he most often fought with, Hal, Barry, Bruce. He seemed to live life cheerfully for itself and himself and those he cared about, and sometimes, seeing him and Roy and Dinah, Clark would be brushed with the wing of wishfulness.
Straight-forward, cheerfully obnoxious Ollie had a teenage son.
“Is it a boy or a girl?” he asked once he could talk, and then he realized he'd spoken like Dinah was pregnant, and blushed.
The glint of intelligence in her eyes said that she was as aware of it as he was. “A son.”
Dumbly, he nodded. There were other things he wanted to ask, he was faintly aware of the questions, swarming around in the back of his brain, invisible and pressing, but he didn't know where to start, and he was aware asking them might be overstepping his boundaries. Dinah had told him, ask Ollie.
I'm a deadbeat father, he suddenly realized. Pa and Ma would be ashamed.
“I need to sit down,” he said. Every word croaked out of his mouth, like a dying frog. He felt like a robot, leaden and stiff, disconnected, as his body marched back to the chairs around the League's table, pulled one out, and he flopped into it. “God, no wonder you judge me.”
Dinah looked somewhat distressed. “Clark, I swear, I don't blame you,” she said urgently. “You learn out of the blue you have a child, a teenaged clone that according to all probabilities was designed to destroy you, and you didn't even think you could have a child – how you reacted was normal. If it were me-- no. If the situation was different, I wouldn't press. I would never pressure someone to bond with a child they had no willing part into creating.”
“Ollie...” he started vaguely.
She shook her head ferociously, blond hair like a lion's mane. “Ollie was different, he's always wanted children, and he didn't miss much opportunity to make them. I wouldn't be surprised if there were a couple more walking under the sun he simply doesn't know about. Tell you the truth, that's probably why most of the League who don't know Artemis' history haven't pushed for it: blond archers beneath the age of, say, eighteen are safely assumed to be his.”
“Oh,” he said again.
He'd never thought much of the superficial physical resemblance between Artemis and Oliver: it didn't go further than hair color. He hadn't even imagined they could pretend or let people think she was his daughter. The possibility hadn't even crossed his mind.
Bruce had thought of it, Clark knew instantly. He'd counted on it when he'd introduced Artemis as Oliver's niece. Of course. Playing up superficial resemblances was something Bruce Wayne made a habit of, with Dick. It was simpler if the gossip-mongers thought Dick was his biological son. Dirty, but less dirty than if they didn't.
He shook himself. “I... see. I think. You were saying?”
She needed a second to find her train of thought again, which cheered him up. So he wasn't the only one this conversation was putting through the emotional wringer.
He knew she found it again because of how intense she became again.
“Yes. But the thing is, it's not just about a man discovering there's a person out there with his DNA, that he didn't consent to make. It's about someone with incredible power who needs to be taught how to use it, if we don't want to risk him going rogue. He needs a Kryptonian to mentor him, Clark.”
She let the weight of her words sink in her gaze on him so steady he couldn't – wouldn't – erupt into arguments the moment she was done. He let her words sink in, slowly.
After a while, he spoke up, probing at the expression that had most alarmed him. “Is there-- do we think he might go rogue?”
Whoever we might be.
He didn't say I told you so. He categorically forbid himself from taking a tone that would imply it. Dinah's answering look was equally somber and grateful.
“I think he's a teenaged boy with phenomenal and practically untapped potential who needs to figure out a place for himself. He makes a habit to take in all the strays that cross his path, and then names them the most uninspired names you can think up. There's a sentient machine, an over-sized wolf, and god only knows what he may bring back next time.” She rolled her eyes; she'd leaned forward to talk about the boy, and her voice, which had started clinical, had grown warm with affection the more she went on. She looked at him, sudden and clear.
“He doesn't know what he's here for. That wouldn't be so bad if he was a normal teenager going through the soul-crushing grief, anger and confusion most teenagers do, especially the meta ones – I'm guessing it wasn't any easier for you than it was for me, so I'm also guessing you must remember that time,” she wasn't expecting a response this time, but Clark nodded all the same, “but he knows he was made with a goal. He knows there's a mission his creators meant him to fulfill. Until we present him with an alternative, he's going to be stuck.”
She planted her gaze into his.
“And you're the only one of us who can do that.”
She didn't blink, and Clark passed his tongue on his lips, suddenly dry. “I'll think about it,” he told her.
“Don't think too long,” she replied. She wasn't smiling anymore, but she rested her hand on his shoulder before she left.