This is not to say that becoming a father automatically makes you a good father. Fatherhood, like marriage, is a constant struggle against your limitations and self-interests. But the urge to be a perfect father is there, because your child is a perfect gift.
According to online maps, the route to Smallville from Metropolis was approximately two and a half hours. They made it in an hour and ten minutes. Robert spent most of the drive with his attention focused on the dashboard or out the window as the suburban scenery flashed by. He was careful not to glance at the speedometer because he was certain that every time he did, they put on another five kilometers. The hybrid Aston Martin's engine was so smooth and silent that it was hard to hear the acceleration, but he wouldn't put it past this driver.
So he sat back against the custom leather seat and let himself be regaled with stories of farming mishaps and fertilizer snafus. They arrived in Smallville at half past six. Robert didn't need to make out the sign as it whipped past; he saw the clusters of matching ranch houses and condo developments melt into open fields, golden in the setting sun. Like the inevitable suburban sprawl had hit an invisible dam, and Robert had a good guess as to who that dam was. This, too, he wouldn't put past his driver.
There was very little he would put past Lex Luthor, when you got down to it. The man was a supervillain, after all. The supervillain, even.
"There's the Luthor manor," Lex said, pointing out his window, "and yes, it's an imported castle, don't ask, just be grateful you never met my father. We're almost there. It took longer when I used to live here, but with the new road there's direct access. Admittedly it's access by way of Rutger's pig farm—hence the closed windows—but it's convenient, as long as old man Rutgers isn't holding a hog race—and you can try to explain to him that asphalt is too hard on pig hooves, but he'll just cry LuthorCorp interference, and never you mind that LuthorCorp went bankrupt fifteen years ago, that was only a commie plot—you think I'm joking? I assure you, I'm not—and it's still the root of all evil in Smallville. And here we are."
Lex jerked the wheel around, twisting the Aston Martin down a long dirt drive and ending in a dust-raising fishtail in front of a yellow farmhouse. Jostling the car into park, he swung open the door and climbed out. After making sure all his limbs were intact, Robert followed suit, just as a man emerged from the barn beside the house. He was tall, raw-boned and weathered, with a healthy ruddy tan and a little sandy blond still peppering his gray hair. "Lex!" he hollered. "Haven't you crashed enough vehicles for one lifetime?"
"I didn't know you cared, Jonathan," Lex called back.
"You spook the cows!" He got closer, then whistled. "That is a beauty, though."
"2012 Aston Martin DX5," Lex said, grinning, "and you're welcome to take her for a test drive." He spun the glittering key ring around his finger, then pocketed it and stuck out a hand. "Great to see you as always, Jonathan."
"You really need to come by more often." Jonathan pumped his hand in both of his, then turned to Robert and said, "And you must be Mr. Hawkins."
"Robert, Jonathan; Jonathan, Robert," Lex said. Jonathan's hand was calloused and warm, his grip strong as a working man's should be. His open smile reminded Robert of Clark's, even knowing there was no blood relation.
"Good to meet you, Jonathan," Robert said, feeling a little unavoidably intimidated. This was the father of the greatest hero on Earth.
"Likewise," Jonathan said, "and I have to say, it's an honor. I met your son last year, during that Wichita Weather Witches tornado catastrophe. That's an amazing young man you have."
Robert blinked. "Thank you."
"Even if you do have questionable taste in friends," Jonathan added, with a sidelong look at Lex.
"As questionable as your taste in in-laws, apparently," Lex shot back, arching an eyebrow. "Besides, Robert's a business associate. A gentleman wise enough to see the inevitable advantages of partnering with LexCorp," and he smiled his best shark smile.
Which vanished in an instant as the door of the farmhouse banged open and a woman in a green check apron hurried out. "There you are! I didn't hear you pull up."
"Martha!" Lex said, all smiles without a hint of fang, as Jonathan's wife came down the porch steps. She threw her arms around him and he kissed both her cheeks, pulled back still grinning to nod at her appraisingly. "More beautiful than ever. Whatever's in the water here, I wish I could figure out a way to bottle it. We'd make a killing."
Water aside, Robert had to agree she was lovely, the white streaks in her auburn hair and the smile lines around her eyes adding character to classic beauty. "Robert, isn't it?" she asked, shaking Robert's hand as Jonathan slid an arm around her shoulder that wasn't quite possessive. "Martha Kent. We're so glad to have a chance to pay you back for how good you've been to Clark and Lex."
"Not at all, it's been our pleasure."
"Speaking of which," Jonathan remarked, tipping his head back to look at the twilight sky, "shouldn't they be here by now?"
Lex checked his watch. "There were a couple last-minutes arrangements for tomorrow's ceremony that Clark was going to discuss with the chief of the Metropolis PD, but they should be—"
With a whoosh, three figures appeared floating in the sky ten feet overhead. Superman's rippling cape stood out boldly against the purple-lined clouds. Virgil and Richie were both sitting on Static's disk, holding onto Superman's arms. They were in slacks and open silk button-downs over polo shirts, and Virgil's wide eyes were visible from the ground.
"Hi, all! I'll be right back," Superman said, and vanished in a red streak in the direction of the house, leaving the younger heroes levitating on Static's glowing disk.
"Wow," Virgil said, pawing his dreads into some order, as they floated down to the ground.
"Told you," Richie replied, taking off Gear's helmet and running his fingers through his own cropped blond locks.
"That was, what, five seconds from Metropolis to here?"
"Four point three. And it could've been faster, if we didn't mind ending up as smears on your disk. Hey, Mr. H!" He waved back at Robert.
"Hey, Dad! Mr. Kent, Mrs. Kent!" Virgil hopped off his disk, folded it up and stowed it away. "Great to see you again!"
A confused glut of greetings, handshakes, and hugs followed, as Robert verified with Richie that they had been going too fast for anyone to snap a picture of their civilian identities, and Jonathan mentioned how good it was to meet the young heroes sans masks. Lex got the insanely expensive bottle of wine he had brought out of the car, and the covered plate of brownies, which Robert presented to Martha with Trina's apologies. Busy with an urgent case in Dakota, she hadn't been able to accompany him to Metropolis for the weekend.
The cheerful chatter doubled when Clark Kent reappeared—Robert did a double take; for a man who didn't bother with a mask, it was striking how different he could seem from Superman. Now he was different again, in jeans and a red flannel shirt rather than cheap business casual, and no glasses in sight.
"Clark," his mother said after the obligatory hug, picking critically at the flannel, "don't you have a newer shirt? We do have guests."
"Mom," Superman replied, rolling his eyes.
"You have to give him credit, Martha," Lex put in, "at least he doesn't fall prey to trendy crazes. Nothing stays as consistently far from any sort of fashion whatsoever as...that," and he waved a hand at Clark's apparently unspeakable shirt.
"Hi, I love you, too," Clark said, put his arms around Lex and kissed him soundly, with the obvious and successful intent to shut him up. Martha beamed at the pair fondly.
Robert found himself watching the two of them as well, as they made their way indoors, even as he caught up with Virgil on his law classes and his and Gear's latest heroing. Clark didn't surprise him that much. After meeting him a few times off-duty, Robert was gradually getting more comfortable with the superhero's human side, so this wasn't unexpected. Even the most mature and responsible adults revert in the presence of their parents, though he could tell Virgil and Richie were as amused as he was by the big, carefree farmboy that had replaced Superman.
Lex, however...Robert hadn't fooled himself into thinking that he had really gotten to know Lex Luthor in the past year. The man had more facets than a carved diamond and was as about as glass-cutting hard as one. While Robert had seen enough of the real Lex to trust him, in spite of the enormous ongoing confidence game he played with Superman, he wouldn't go so far as to believe he understood Luthor.
This Lex, though, was not like anything he had imagined seeing here or anywhere else. The slick sophistication was not just toned down but gone, replaced by an easy confidence that might be mistaken for arrogance, or else just the healthy ego of an indisputable genius. It was a common superhero trait; Richie and Virgil both showed such tendencies, but in Lex it had matured into a dry wit, less needling than observational. Robert thought of the drive here, Lex's running commentary about the sights, told with no small affection for this farm town that had evidently been his adopted home.
He wondered who else Lex had to tell such stories to. Not many of his associates, in either his legitimate or his less legal businesses. Lex Luthor had a reputation to maintain, in either realm, and homey stories of small town Kansas didn't exactly fit his image. Undoubtedly it would be harder to strike terror into the hearts of men if when they looked at you they saw a young man showing up at his second factory director's meeting in a straw-covered cashmere coat, after getting butted into a haystack helping feed a friend's goats.
Clark had told a different set of Smallville stories one dinner at Robert's house; those would be even harder to sell to Lex's current audiences. The young man who had traded himself for a roomful of teenage hostages—it was a Lex Luthor even Robert had had a difficult time picturing. It wasn't as difficult to see now, watching Lex help Martha with the serving dishes in the kitchen, while Jonathan retreated upstairs to change and Clark finished preparing the table in an impressive blur. Robert and his boys hovered, asking how they could be useful, only to be instructed in no uncertain terms by the matron of the house to sit in the living room and make themselves comfortable, drinks and crackers insistently provided.
Through all of this, conversation continued unabated between the rooms, the standard introductions of 'What do you do' and 'What's Dakota like', accentuated by an absolute sympathy for the plight of raising a young superhero or two. It was when Jonathan came back downstairs, pulled a chair up next to him and said, "So when did you find out about Virgil's powers? Did he tell you right away or did he keep them to himself?" that Robert felt at home, in a way he rarely had before.
"He didn't tell me a thing," Robert said. "I suspected, of course—we had a lot of strange electrical problems around the house starting from the same time, and I had a few encounters with Static, but not in any situation I could see him clearly. I didn't find out for almost two years."
"Oh, that must have been terrible for you!" Martha called, sticking her head out of the kitchen long enough to aim a disapproving maternal frown in Virgil's direction. "I can't imagine what you must have gone through, trying to figure out what was up with him."
"I was worried about drugs, for a long time," Robert admitted. "It horrified me—I meet a lot of troubled kids in my work, good kids who run into problems, but that it could happen to my own son without me noticing...but when I asked Virgil, he always assured me nothing was wrong, and I didn't want to betray his trust, either."
"We had the advantage, knowing about Clark before he did," Jonathan said. "And there were still times he didn't tell us the whole story. It's difficult enough, raising a teenage boy, but when it's a teenage boy who doesn't feel like he can tell you everything, because you really can't understand what he's going through..."
"As—uncomfortable as I was sometime, knowing Virgil was putting himself in danger at such a young age," Robert said, "it was much better once I knew. I couldn't understand, exactly, but at least I could help."
"I would have told you sooner, Pops," Virgil said in a guilty mumble, glancing at the kitchen in fear of another Martha Kent frown. "It was just...it's not an easy thing to say, you know? 'Hey, I'm a mutant freak and hopefully I'm not going to go crazy and start tearing up the town like most of the other Bang Babies.'"
"Tell me about it," Clark paused in his super-speed table setting long enough to interject.
"I still haven't told my father," Richie said quietly, then ducked the senior Kent man's glare.
"Son," Jonathan said gravely, "it might not be my place to say, but..."
"Jonathan," Lex interrupted, leaning one shoulder against the kitchen lintel and looking coolly impartial to the point of conceit, for all his jacket was off and his silk sleeves were rolled up and he appeared to have mashed potato on his elbow, "I feel impelled to remind that not all fathers are as astoundingly understanding as you or Robert."
Jonathan looked disgruntled, shaking his head at Lex. Richie manfully broke the silence by going on, "My mom knows, I told her a few years ago. My dad...I don't feel comfortable coming out to him. Not yet. Not about being Gear, or...other stuff," and he glanced at his partner at his side.
Virgil instantly slipped his hand into Richie's, interlacing their fingers and bringing Richie's hand up to his lips to press a quick kiss to the back. "S'okay, babe," he murmured. "Maybe someday, if he gets to the point he could handle it. If not—whatever. His loss."
Having met Sean Foley, Robert had never argued with Richie's position, though it saddened him to think of how awful that lost chance could be, for both of them. Relations between Richie and his father were strained enough already, but it was a terrible shame that Sean might never know how truly proud he should be of his only child. And cruel to Richie as well; his mother had nothing but support for him, and Robert never lost an opportunity himself to tell the boy how proud he was, but it wasn't the same.
It hadn't occurred to him before that there was a selfish aspect to him wanting Foley to know. Talking with the Kents now, Robert realized how much he had needed this himself. To be able to discuss these things with other parents, who could understand exactly what it was like to be the ordinary raising the extraordinary—it must have been even more difficult for them; Virgil had been born a perfectly normal human boy. It would have been wonderful to have had their support when he had first found out, and had to struggle alone with the reality of his son fighting crime before he could legally drive. Now, years later, he believed he had managed it acceptably, but it was nevertheless a great feeling of relief, to not only be able to tell the truth, but to have the understanding that his son or even other superheroes—or villains—couldn't give him.
He guessed Jonathan and Martha felt it as well. Martha put in, "We must do this again sometime," before they even sat down to eat. Then Robert got into a discussion with Jonathan that quickly devolved into a contest of who could tell the most outrageous story of rearing a super-powered teenager, while their respective sons grew progressively more mortified. Robert had finished describing the sunspot effect on Virgil's static electricity which had rearranged the furniture in the entire house, and Jonathan was beginning, "Then there was the time Clark almost burned down the school, and the local coffee shop—it was when his heat vision first came online—"
"Dad," Superman said, in a tone usually reserved for addressing supervillains attempting to take over the world with a convoy of hamster-wheel-powered tanks, and went on in a desperate non sequitur, "You and Mom are coming into town for the League ceremony tomorrow, right?"
"Of course we are," Jonathan said. The unveiling of the new Metropolis communication tower was going to be a circus, absolutely; half of the League was scheduled to put in an appearance, and the other half would probably be needed for crowd control. It was worth it for the sake of good superhero-government relations, Lex had said on the drive over, though publicly LexCorp had filed a formal protest. LexCorp's stance on the League and heroes in general was a matter of carefully established record. Though, Robert had thought, Lex needn't look quite so gleeful describing the organization of the informal protest, the picketers carefully selected to drive people away from their anti-hero cause.
It wasn't the necessary game Lex played that bothered Robert, so much as how obviously the man enjoyed it.
All the same, Robert was looking forward to tomorrow's event. "You'll be coming, too, I take it?" Jonathan asked him.
Robert nodded. "It's why I'm in town."
"Oh, you have to come with us. Not that we get seats of honor or anything," since the parents of a hero's secret identity could hardly be made public.
"Don't worry about that," Lex reappeared from the kitchen to put in. "I'll make sure you have a good view of everything."
Jonathan began to nod, then paused and eyed him narrowly. "You wouldn't have something planned for this, would you?"
Virgil and Richie both turned their heads toward the kitchen. "Say, what now?"
"Me? Plan something?" Lex's chuckle was more suited for an old James Bond movie than a billionaire mogul. The cold laugh he could manage when in character was a good deal more skin-crawling, but then he cut the parody short, tilted his head back to throw his face in shadow. "Nothing you should concern yourselves with," he said, all sleek danger, and it was as if those gray eyes were holes, sucking in the light and warmth of the farmhouse. "Surely you heroes aren't so useless as to be unable to handle an occasional...unexpected turn of events."
"Oh, shit," Virgil muttered, "please tell me it's not those pheromo-spores again—"
"Ow!" Lex exclaimed, as Martha Kent whacked him soundly over the knuckles with a wooden spoon, splattering sauce on his shirt and knocking the blue back into his eyes.
"You know the rules. No supervillains at my table," she said sternly, then smiled at the rest of them. "Please come sit down, dinner's on."
The roast was enormous and smelled incredible, and the spread of side-dishes covered the table and buffet and spilled over onto the kitchen counter, including fresh baked rolls, seasoned mashed potatoes, a cheese rice dish, and almost every variety of vegetable Robert had ever heard of. "All locally grown," Martha assured him; "And most in her garden," Jonathan proudly included.
"It looks delicious," Robert said, nudging his boys, who mumbled echoes, too busy slavering to bother with manners. Martha beamed, familiar with superheroic appetites, taking it as the compliment it was when they all dug in with ravenous gusto. Robert might have been ashamed, had the food not been that good, and the last of his embarrassment was put to rest when Jonathan leaned across the table to remark, grinning, "I take it those batteries need a lot of fuel to recharge?"
"How did you manage to afford feeding him through high school?" Martha inquired. "We could grow our own groceries for Clark, but it was still a struggle!"
Sensing eyes on him, Virgil swallowed, got out, "This is unbelievably good, Mrs. K," and once more devoted himself to his fork.
"Sorry," Clark apologized; he could chew quickly enough that he never had to worry about talking with his mouth full. "We were busy all afternoon with the ceremony set-up, and then there was the bank robbery and a six-car pileup downtown..."
"And a dozen kittens up trees. There's always a pileup," Lex said airily. "Now where are the heroes when my invisible stealth submarine sinks into the Mariana Trench, I ask you?"
"That was an unmanned sub, Lex," Clark said.
"Which was conducting illegal tests violating fourteen different offshore agreements," Richie pointed out.
"And also, hello, invisible?" Virgil added. "How are we supposed to stop invisible accidents? Who do you think we are, superheroes?"
"I spent fourteen million on that venture, and it didn't even make the front page. What times we live in, when a proper villain can't get any respect," Lex said, stabbing his fork into his peas and very deliberately not looking at Clark next to him, who looked like he was avoiding snorting milk up his nose only by superhuman resolve.
Almost an hour later, the table was fairly demolished but the conversation was still carrying on strong. Martha began sorting out the few serving bowls that had survived the combined attack, then glanced at the empty glass by her plate and exclaimed, "Oh, Lex, your wine, I completely forgot to put it on."
"Not a problem," Lex assured. "A fine Montrachet white goes better with dessert than red meat as it is—no, don't get up, I can find the corkscrew."
"So, Robert," Jonathan said as Lex took a couple of the leftover bowls with him and excused himself to the kitchen. "We've never heard the whole story—how exactly did you meet our favorite supervillain, anyway?"
"Well, last year, when LexCorp bought out Alva Industries in Dakota—"
Robert paused, hearing the front door suddenly bang open, and a teenage voice call out, "Hey, Grandma, Grandpa! You still have dinner on, or did I miss—" Boots clumped down the hall; then in the dining room entryway, the newcomer stopped and stared.
The dinner table gathering stared back. Even if the young man hadn't been wearing the black-and-red t-shirt of his uniform under a jeans jacket, he would have been hard not to recognize. Superboy had been mistaken for Superman before, even by those personally acquainted with the hero; Robert now could see why. He wasn't quite as tall or as broad, but nearly, and his features were almost a match to Clark Kent's, the same square jaw and chiseled cheekbones, though rounder with youth. This must be what Clark had looked like twenty years ago, growing up on this farm.
Or almost. Robert had heard that Superboy wasn't exactly a clone of Superman, but a genetically engineered hybrid. Something of the shape of his face was slightly different, like a distorted reflection, and his blue eyes shaded more towards gray rather than Clark's green. There was something familiar about that look, which Robert couldn't put his finger on. Still, there was no mistaking the resemblance to Superman.
His voice, too, was like a younger version of Clark's, if less certain than the famous hero's. "Um, sorry, didn't realize you had company. Uh. Hi." He looked like he had walked into the tiger's cage at the circus by mistake.
"Hey, Kon, m'man!" Virgil said cheerily, bouncing up to put him at ease. "No sweat—it's us, Virgil and Richie. You know, Static and Gear. And that's my dad, he's down with all the hero stuff."
Superboy returned Virgil's high-five and grinned, relaxing. "Oh, okay. Hi, nice to meet you, sir, I'm Conner. Sorry, Grandma, for barging in like this."
"Nonsense, we're glad to have you," Martha said, rising to give him a hug and a peck on the cheek. "We were almost done, but let me go get you a plate."
"Hi, Grandpa—and Dad! What are you doing here?"
Robert had heard that Superman's relationship with his sort-of clone was complicated at best, but Clark's smile didn't look the least strained or put-upon. "Conner, it's great you could make it! We've been wanting to introduce the Hawkins to Mom and Dad—sorry we didn't invite you, I thought you had night class tonight."
"Yeah, about that," Conner started to say, then hesitated. "Did you say, 'we'—"
"I thought I heard—" Lex was saying, emerging from the kitchen with the corkscrew in hand, and then he stopped.
Superboy and supervillain looked at each other across the table for a moment in silence, expressionless. "Conner," Lex said finally.
"Father," Superboy said back, in the exact same tone, and Robert realized why his gray eyes looked so familiar.
"And what happened to Modern Macroeconomics?" Lex asked, calmly enough, as if the dining room weren't suddenly ten degrees cooler. "I suppose the professor cancelled for personal reasons? Or perhaps there was a problem with the lecture hall?"
Twenty degrees, as Conner answered, "No, I'm just skipping."
"Conner," Clark began.
"Don't sweat it, Dad, it's only the second night I've missed, and I'm getting straight A's anyway. I got both of your brains, you know, I'm not a moron." His glance shot back to Lex. "Even if I don't spend every hour of the day in the office living and breathing Machiavellian business theory."
Clark frowned, not so much angrily as confused. "Conner, what—"
"Or will you send me back? I should be able to catch the last fifteen minutes of lecture, if I superspeed."
Lex set down the corkscrew on the table in a contained, deliberate motion that managed to imply that any lesser man would have flung the tool across the room by now. "Since you are here, be polite to your grandparents and take a seat."
Superboy, who was pulling out a spare chair from its space by the china hutch, pushed it back into place and stuck his hands in his jeans pockets. "Never mind, I was just going. Sorry."
Clark looked from his clone to his nemesis. "Lex..."
Conner might have Superman's features, but the set of his square jaw was an exact mirror to Lex's. Robert looked between them with some bemusement. In the last year, neither Lex nor Clark had mentioned having a son, and he hadn't brought up the question of Superboy himself, thinking it might be a sensitive matter. The young hero's origins were publicly unknown, and even rumor had little to say about it, beyond the vague mention of hybrid clones.
Considering who was responsible for ensuring rumor never questioned the relationship between Superman and his arch-nemesis, Robert had a decent idea why this matter never came up, either. Even Virgil and Richie hadn't been told of this part of the subterfuge, judging by the way they too were rubbernecking between Lex, Clark, and their younger peer.
Virgil coughed finally, cracking the silence with the courage only a superhero could muster. "So, uh, Kon, is Superboy gonna be putting in an appearance at tomorrow's bash?"
Conner's gaze skipped to him, then back to Lex. "I don't know—am I, Father, or are you going to lock me in a kryptonite cage and throw away the key?"
"I thought we agreed, since Superboy's not an official member of the League—" Clark began.
"Kryptonite is kept in reserve for confrontations with my nemeses," Lex said icily, over Clark's pacifying tone.
"Then you better check some out of reserve. Because I'm going, otherwise." He turned to Clark. "I was thinking, Dad, I could just make one pass, fly a circuit. I don't have to be included on the roster, just remind people I'm out there, get them used to seeing me with everybody."
"Well, maybe one pass—"
"No," Lex said.
"Oh yeah?" Conner grinned. It was unnerving to see Lex's shark smirk on Clark's gallant features. "How are you gonna stop me?"
"You think you'd have time for flying around stopping fires and fixing dams, if your university fees weren't covered by LexCorp scholarships? Even with your GPA, you aren't going to win a full ride."
"Go ahead, cut me off. I'll just drop out. You don't need a degree to be a superhero."
"Conner," Clark said.
"You made a name for yourself before getting yours, Dad, I can manage."
"And what will your secret identity's career be?" Lex inquired. "Burger flipper? High school janitor?"
"Hey, LexCorp custodial staff has the union, right? I could polish toilets and picket for dental. And slip away with documents before they get shredded. Think of the whistle-blowing opportunities."
"You are not going to be a LexCorp janitor, Conner," Clark said. "That's why you're going to college, to find out what you really want to be."
"And what if I really want to be a janitor?"
"Considering the state of your bedroom, I don't know if you're cut out for that line of work, dear," Martha remarked mildly.
Some men, when enraged, reddened in the face. Lex was the opposite. He was as pale as bone now and his lips were so tightly drawn over his teeth that they were whitening. "Drop out now, and just see if you can find the lowliest of jobs in the meanest hellholes in Metropolis. Or any other city in the nation."
"Now, Lex," Jonathan began, "crushing your own son's career isn't really—"
"Too late, Father, I already have a job that you can't take away. And even if you hate that I'm flying around with Dad instead of choking myself with a tie and slaving away as one of your office monkeys, trying to earn a supervillain's approval—"
"Conner!" Clark said sharply. "That has nothing to do—"
"There'd be no place for you in LexCorp even if you begged," Lex said. "I don't hire drop-outs or fuck-ups."
"The only thing I've fucked up was believing I could tell my father I'm actually thinking for myself."
"That implies you are capable of logical thought. I saw no evidence of such this afternoon."
"Lex! Kon-El!" Clark's fist came down on the table hard enough to rattle the dishes. It was an impressive show of restraint; the wood only dented a little, not even cracking. "What's this about? Conner, with college and your powers still developing, I thought we'd agreed that Superboy wasn't going to join the League for a couple more years at least."
"Static and Gear both signed on when they were nineteen," Conner said.
"Only part-time until we graduated, though," Richie said, and then shut his mouth and made a belated attempt to blend in with his chair, as two pairs of hero and one pair of villain's eyes turned his way.
"Well, your birthday is in a few months," Clark said, "we can discuss it—"
"We're discussing nothing," Lex cut him off. "You're not going to join that organization this year or the next."
"Whatever. I don't need a supervillain's signature on the permission form anyway." Conner turned to Jonathan and Martha. "Grandma, Grandpa, you're onboard with this hero stuff, right?" His smile was bright and friendly and as false as Lex's when crushing a corporate competitor.
"Conner," Martha said, shaking her head and not smiling back, "this isn't..."
"The Kents may be your legal guardians, but I am your father," Lex said, the steel in his gray eyes a match for any of Superman's strengths, "and you are not—"
"You're not my father, you're my fucking genetic donor!" Conner screamed, his face screwed up and flushed. "Just because you paid for my test tube doesn't mean you can ruin my life!"
"Conner, please—" Martha said, raising her voice as she glanced in embarrassment at their guests.
"Conner Alexander Kent," Jonathan thundered, "you will not talk to your father like that under this roof—"
"Kon-El," Clark projected over his parents, "I said, we'll discuss this later—"
Lex's cold, even intonation was quieter than any of them, but the only voice that was clearly heard. "You think you're ready to be a hero, when you can't even handle a verbal confrontation? Your performance in my office this afternoon was disgraceful enough, but this is pathetic."
Conner closed his mouth with a gulp and stared at Lex, shoulders heaving and his face going red and white and red again, warring genetics on full display.
Clark looked between them. "This afternoon? Conner, you went to LexCorp?"
"He interrupted a meeting with three gentlemen from Gotham and Central City's less reputable sides. In costume," Lex said.
"You dismissed them before I had a chance to say anything!" Conner protested.
"Then proceeded to rail at me in stunningly uncreative invective for a good fifteen minutes, loud enough to be heard five stories down."
"You always say people like constancy in their heroes and the League should leave the creative lines to the villains anyway—"
"Then he informed me he would be on hand at tomorrow's event to stop whatever nefarious scheme I have planned, and left, publicly, out the front window." Lex inclined his head, such a smooth, steady gesture it was impossible to tell if his anger had subsided or advanced to a new stage of fury. "Visibly in tears, might I add."
Conner went redder than before. "I wasn't crying, I was so fucking pissed off—"
"Language, Conner," Martha murmured.
Clark had his head down, forehead resting on the palm of his hand. "Conner," he said, "you know that you aren't supposed to be going near LexCorp, not as Superboy—"
"But everybody thinks I am anyway, Dad," Conner told him. "They all know I'm your clone—your nemesis is my nemesis." He gritted his teeth, glared at a point somewhere just to the side of Lex's head. "Even if Lex Luthor's not big enough to handle having another hero going after him."
"I'm seriously supposed to accept a teenage boy as a nemesis."
"Dad was just equivalent to my age now, when you and him started this whole thing!"
"That was a little different," Clark tried to intercede.
"Your dad didn't break down in tears mid-confrontation."
"Well, you probably didn't try to buy him off with a new Ferrari!"
"No, it was a pick-up," Jonathan muttered. "With a bow. Should've known right then."
"I can handle this, Father—I've been training to be a superhero all my life." Conner drew himself up, made a visible effort to calm himself and assume the mature mantle of a hero. He squared back his powerful shoulders to emphasize the logo on his chest, his t-shirt not merely clothes but his uniform. "My powers are almost fully developed, as far as we can tell. I can deal with whatever you want to throw at me, you know I can. I know you still think of me as a kid, but I'm not anymore. I can go up against you right along with Dad. I'm ready."
Lex's eyes were flat slate and his voice was merciless, sharp and hard as a blade. "You're nowhere near ready. You had a chance to convince me of your performance this afternoon, and you proved any hopes I had wrong in five minutes. You'll have to earn another chance to prove yourself, and it won't be for a long time yet."
"You didn't give me a fucking chance!" Conner cried. "You treated me like a kid, not a hero, the moment I came through the window—don't blame me because you're not ready! Just because you're scared to fight against me, don't think that I'm not strong enough to take it. You think I'm the little kid—you're the one who's being the coward, just because I'm your son. You love Dad enough that you're not scared to fight him in public, but you don't trust me that much."
If Robert had thought Lex couldn't get colder, he had been mistaken; Lex's eyes narrowed to slits, their gray the freeze of absolute zero, extinguishing everything. "I don't trust you in this, because you're not worthy of that trust."
Conner reeled back like he had been slapped, then jerked up his head. In real rage he was pale, too, but his voice cracked like ice breaking. "How's this for a performance, Father—I hate you! I hate you!"
Then he was gone. Robert blinked, having barely seen the blur of superspeed; it was almost as if he had teleported.
"Conner!" Clark said, standing. He looked back at Lex. "Lex, this—you—it'll be okay, but I better go after him—" and then he too was gone. Robert, though looking straight at him, didn't even see a blur this time, or hear any footsteps, just the front door clattering shut.
"Oh, dear." Martha rubbed her temples. "Lex, hon, why didn't you say something? I know you and Conner have been going through a rough patch lately, but..."
Lex said nothing, eyes dark and his pale face unreadable. "He'll come around, son," Jonathan said. "Teenage boys...he didn't mean it."
Martha pushed back her chair and rose. "If they haven't gone far, maybe I can find them."
"They could be halfway to the Fortress by now," Jonathan said, but he got up with his wife.
"No, Jonathan, stay with our guests," Martha said, smiling in a strained way at Robert and the two remaining superheroes. "Lex, maybe we—"
"I don't think that would be for the best," Lex said, turned on his heel and left the room in the other direction and the regular way, his shoes tapping on the hardwood floor. The back door creaked as it opened and clapped shut.
Martha sighed. "And it was so lovely, having you here. I'm very sorry about this, Robert, boys."
"It's okay, Mrs. K," Virgil said awkwardly. "When I was that age—Pops and me, we got into a couple serious blow-ups. It was pretty tough. And Pops here isn't a supervillain. Maybe we should be going..."
"No, please, stay. There's plenty for dessert," Martha said. "I'll be right back." She hurried out the front door.
Robert cleared his throat, stood himself. "I should go...ask Lex where he put the wine. For dessert," he said, and headed for the back door.
Behind him, Jonathan, Virgil, and Richie leaned back in their chairs and regarded each other across the remains of dinner. Jonathan finally rose, started collecting plates. "Uh, should we help?" Richie asked, reaching to stack his own plate.
Jonathan shook his head and took the dish out of his hand. "You boys stay put. Martha would have my head if I let guests do chores."
Virgil fidgeted. "So...uh...have you always lived on a farm?" He glanced at his partner. "Y'know, Richie wanted to be a farmer, before he decided to go into the advanced physics instead."
"No I didn't."
"You wore that straw hat every day, the summer after seventh grade. And you wanted to have twelve cows, so you'd always have fresh milk."
"So I like milk."
"Oh, yeah, I know."
Jonathan regarded them. "Want to see the barn?" he asked.
Once outside, Robert wondered what he was thinking. He had been acting on instinct, the automatic urge to help a situation that wouldn't fix itself. Now that he was here, however...he had counseled more than a few parents and children through difficult times and broken communication, but never a superhero. Or a supervillain. He had had enough trouble dealing with his own son's gifts; how could he possibly consider himself prepared to advise another father?
The farm wasn't as dark out back as he would have expected, given the absence of artificial lights. It had been a couple years since he had been camping, and these open fields were different than the wooded mountains around Dakota. The moon was low and almost full, and there were so many stars filling the night sky that he might be able to see without that yellow lantern. The crisp spring breeze against his face was ripe with fresh grass and less appealing smells. He treaded carefully on the dirt drive, suspicious of any shadowed mounds darker than the earth.
Lex was a couple hundred feet from the barn, leaning on the wooden fence around an empty pasture. He was standing in the short new grass on the side of the road. Robert supposed he didn't have anything to worry about; no cow patty would dare get under Lex Luthor's thousand dollar loafers. He picked his way through the grass to the fence.
Lex's head turned toward him, the pale shape ghostly in the moonlight. He didn't say anything, but he didn't walk away, either. Robert supposed it was a good sign that he hadn't run as far as his son—but then, he couldn't, could he? It was easy to forget that as infamous a supervillain as Luthor might be, intimidating influence and fantastic wealth were not in fact superhuman abilities. The man himself was as human as Robert. Unlike Clark, or their son.
Maybe he wasn't prepared for this, but who else was there? Robert took the last step, propped his arms on the fence's solid wood beside Lex. "Hey," he said. "So."
Lex's eyes were dark smudges, coming into focus as Robert's vision adjusted to the darkness. The billionaire cleared his throat, said formally, "I apologize for that. It was an inexcusable exhibition."
Robert shrugged. "Teenagers sometimes prefer to pick fights in front of company. Gets more attention, makes them feel like they're being listened to."
"Conner can get quite enough attention without such a display. And I..."
Robert rarely heard Lex hesitate, had never heard him stop before. "You don't fight with him very often," he concluded.
"At one time, no. Not in private. That's been different lately."
"But you've never had a fight with him like that." What Lex had said hadn't surprised Robert so much; the man was a supervillain. That he would treat his own son so viciously, and not while playing the part of his public performance, had taken him aback. Robert had no way of knowing what their relationship was usually like, however, not even having known Lex was a father until half an hour ago. But it seemed like Lex was just as shaken by his own attack.
"He usually doesn't test me like that. And I don't encourage him to. Not when there's no point to it."
Publicly, Lex would bait Superboy, as he did with any superhero, to preserve his villainous image. "But you weren't in private, were you," Robert realized. "You both had an audience—do you ever argue in front of others? Conner doesn't know me at all, and Virgil and Richie only casually. And we're just friends, not family. It wouldn't be the same."
Most families kept their dysfunctional moments closeted, would automatically apply a veneer of manners and control when there was an audience. Even attention-seeking teenagers were subject to that social pressure; small children were given to public tantrums, but maturity introduced an awareness of the public eye, and embarrassment would reign in the worst displays.
But Lex Luthor's antagonistic relationship with Superman was a matter of very public record, deliberate camouflage over what Robert knew to be a solid and surprisingly healthy bond. Their nemeses performance only stopped when they were sure they had no audience, and it had still taken some time before they had been entirely open around Robert. He didn't think he had seen the entire truth of it until this very night, under the Kents' influence. And if Lex were that careful with his lover, how much more careful would he need to be with his son—the stakes had to be that much higher; if anyone got an inkling that Superboy could be used against Lex Luthor...
"You're suggesting we were both grandstanding, instinctively," Lex said. He brought up a hand to rub his forehead. "One can't fault his act. He is my son."
The rough wood was hard on his elbows. Robert shifted. "So...he's not just Superman's clone, then."
"No. He wasn't conceived in the...traditional method, but Conner's genetic code is fifty percent Clark's and fifty percent my own. Kryptonian genes are more dominant when it comes to physical appearance and attributes. But from the beginning I was astonished by how much of myself I can see in him."
Robert chuckled. "That's always the kicker. I don't think I ever got over it—watching Virgil and Sharon growing up, I could see so much of my wife sometimes, and then it'd be like looking in a mirror. And then, they're themselves, too, more than they're anyone else. That's what really gets me. Seeing Virgil being his own man now, I can hardly take credit for most of it, but the feeling of pride, all the same..."
"Conner is..." Lex released a long breath. "He's a miracle. I couldn't be prouder of him. All the more because he isn't me, even if I can see aspects of myself. Fortunately everything else of him is greater than those aspects."
Not knowing what to say to that, Robert instead agreed, "He really is amazing. I didn't know genetics technology was that advanced. If people knew the truth about him, his origins..."
"They're never going to." Lex shook his head. The determination in his voice was as cold and imposing as a glacier. "I've made sure of that. He's got enough prejudice against him, being seen as Superman's lesser substitute. He doesn't need the taint of a supervillain's bloodline."
"You've been keeping it a secret his entire life?"
"Not from Conner," Lex said. "But everyone else. Most of the League doesn't even know, and they never will."
"It must be hard, every time you meet him in public," Robert said carefully. "You have to be so careful not to let it slip, either of you." Lex played the same game with Superman, but when it was just a boy, and your own son...
"Conner knows how to keep a secret," Lex said. "He gets that from both sides of his family. I've never worried that he might make a mistake. Though lately...he's been doing his worst to anger me."
"You're worried he's going to reveal it just to get to you."
"He wouldn't be that careless. He's far too smart for that." Lex didn't sound entirely convinced, and that was an uncertainty Robert had heard a hundred times before, from all sorts of parents with all sorts of children, superpowers notwithstanding.
"I can't imagine how difficult it must be," Robert said. "Pretending to be enemies, pretending to hate him. Having to fight your own son...it was trying enough for me, watching Virgil going out on the streets, knowing he could get hurt. To be the one who might hurt him..."
"I won't," Lex said, and there was no uncertainty in his voice now. "Conner's strong enough to take whatever I can throw at him, and then some."
"So you do think his powers are developed enough for that?"
Lex glanced at him. "His powers have nothing to do with it. He has Superman's genes, and my own. Do you think there's anything he couldn't do, if he wanted to?"
"And if he wants to be a superhero..."
"There's not much I can do about it," Lex said. "He will need to polish his performance, to be properly convincing when he goes up against me. But he's ready."
"You're not concerned that he might overreach himself?" Robert asked, thinking of his own fears with Virgil. "Superheroes...they can be overconfident."
Lex shook his head. "Connor knows his limits. Clark trains with him regularly, and I've tested his abilities myself. I know what he's capable of, everything he'll be, when he becomes a full-fledged hero." Lex was all the harder to read with his face in shadow, but Robert heard no doubt in his voice, no hesitation, only confidence in his son.
And no regret. "You don't sound like you mind he's following in Clark's footsteps, instead of your own," Robert observed cautiously, knowing how dangerous this ground was for so many parents.
But Lex only replied, easily, "I never have. It was obvious from the beginning what Conner was meant to be; he's never considered anything else. You heard him, Robert—he doesn't even have any interest in a secret identity. I'm hoping that will come with maturity, but...like his father, he was raised to be a hero, and that's what he's choosing to be." Definitely no regret; he said it with unmistakable pride. And more; anticipation, even. "He'll take on the worst villains without fear."
"You're looking forward to it," Robert realized with some confusion.
"I am," Lex said. "As I said, I know what he's capable of. Clark—he always holds back a bit. Not only with me; with anyone. He's been so careful all his life to not give himself away and not to hurt anyone that he has trouble letting that go, even when he's in costume. And even after all these years, he worries...excessively at times. When it comes to our performance, he puts on a good show, but he doesn't dare follow through, not entirely. But Conner is different. He'll throw himself entirely into the game; Conner won't hold back."
"Got that from his old man, I take it," Robert observed.
He couldn't quite see Lex's shark smile in the dark, but he could hear it in his voice. "You better believe it."
"But if that's the case," Robert pressed, "why are you so opposed to him joining the League? It seems like it's a natural step..."
"I have no opposition to him joining," Lex said, looking away, out over the dark field. "It's inevitable that Superboy would; I've known that all along."
"Then why the fight?"
Lex set his hands on the rough struts of the fence, his arms braced straight and rigid. "He doesn't have to join so soon. There's no reason he can't wait another few years. He's only a freshman now, he hasn't even completed a year of college. He can finish school, find a profession for his alter ego. Make friends who don't wear tights or capes on their off-hours. Have a chance at a regular relationship or two—it amuses you that I'd give a damn about this?" The question was icily incisive.
Robert had not let a chuckle escape, had thought the darkness would conceal his expression; he should have known better. "No, I'm sorry," he quickly denied. "That's not it at all. It's totally understandable, and I know exactly how you feel. Most parents do." It didn't amuse him that Lex would care; he respected the man far more for that than for his billions, or his games. But there was something irrepressibly funny in knowing that a supervillain would have the same trouble with a superhero son that any parent might. "You're proud to see him becoming a man, but you don't think it needs to happen just yet."
"Conner is ready now. But he doesn't have to be." Lex lowered his head, almost in defeat. "He deserves the chance to be a boy. For a little while longer. If he'd let himself be one."
"It can be the hardest part of being a parent, having to let go, and for a part of you it's always going to be too soon," Robert said. "But Conner is his own man, too, and if he's making these decisions—he's probably old enough to make them. What you're feeling, though, Lex, you're not alone." He put his hand on Lex's shoulder. "There isn't a father around who hasn't felt, at one time or another, that their little boy is growing up too fast."
"Growing up too fast. You don't say." Lex clapped his hands down on the fence, rattling the slots in the posts, and shrugged off Robert's hand to turn and face him. "How old would you say Conner is, Robert?"
Robert considered. "Well, I'd have said twenty, but knowing he's a freshman in college—eighteen or nineteen, I'm guessing?"
"A reasonable guess," Lex said. "In a couple months, Conner's going to be seven."
"I see. —Ah, what?"
"That's chronologically," Lex said. "Physiologically you're right, he's approximately twenty. And legally, according to his falsified birth certificate, he's going on nineteen."
"Conner didn't have a traditional conception, or a traditional gestation. That test tube he accused me of paying for was rather more complex than a glass bottle. The process took approximately three months, and when he was...birthed, he was equivalent to a fourteen-year-old boy. More or less; the Kryptonian aging pattern isn't identical to a human's, though it's similar enough through adolescence."
"What...why did you...?"
He could feel Lex's eyes on him in the dark. "How much do you know of Superboy's debut, Robert? Do you remember why he first appeared?"
"Of course," Robert said. It might be seven years ago, but it wasn't something he was likely to forget. There was hardly a man, woman, or child over twelve on Earth who couldn't remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard Superman had died. "When Doomsday apparently killed..." He stopped. This had never come up in their previous conversations, either.
"There was nothing 'apparent' about it," Lex said. Robert was used to his cold controlled anger, and the flat tone he got when apprehensive, but this was different.
"So the death of Superman," Robert said carefully, "I take it that wasn't one of your hoaxes."
"No." Lex shook his head. "It wasn't."
"That must have been..." Robert wondered how to even say it.
"It wasn't a particularly good time," Lex said, and Robert could hear the whole story in his voice. The game he must have been playing then... Publicly, LexCorp's CEO had been expressing politically correct grief with the rest of the world, joining in the mourning. But everyone had known the truth, how with his cronies, the crime bosses and other supervillains, Lex Luthor must have been triumphant, celebrating the loss of his hated foe.
And in those rare shielded places where he dared drop his act—Mercy might have been allowed to see it, and the Kents; Robert had no idea if there were anyone else—privately, Lex would have been suffering the loss of his partner and lover of more than a decade.
The con game of nemeses Lex and Superman played was mostly beyond Robert's understanding as it were, but he couldn't conceive of how any man could have endured that pressure without buckling. Even Lex Luthor.
"Clark and I had started the project which led to Conner a couple years before that happened," Lex said. "For a number of reasons, personal and professional. The original plan was never for a Superman clone; we always intended to create a hybrid. But there were numerous failures, enough for many of the scientists to doubt that it would ever succeed. We kept trying, but...
"After Doomsday, I put every resource I had on the project. I made it LexCorp's central program. Throw enough money at a problem—that's not a guaranteed solution. Science doesn't work like that, and as a business practice it's more than just risky. But in this case...we got lucky."
"You had to do something," Robert said. "The world needed Superman."
"I didn't give a damn about the world's need." Lex looked away. "You could not have called me sane, by that point. I'd lost all sight of the reasons for the project, public or private; I didn't care. I didn't even care that I was ordering the creation of a living being—a person. A child. My child. It wasn't that much in my mind—'it', I kept thinking of 'it', the final product. The next best thing off the LexCorp production line. 'It' would be a hero; 'it' would be my nemesis. I didn't...I couldn't...
"But I was there when Connor opened his eyes, and he was never an it after that. He was Conner, from the moment he took his first breath; he was my son. And he—he loved me. I had to love him, he was my child, but he—I don't even know why. But he did, from the beginning. He called me Papa—his mind wasn't as mature as his body, it took him a few weeks to grow up, and to come into his powers, and it wasn't easy. But he did it, he did everything, and more. He became Superboy, practically right out of the artificial womb, and whatever rumors say, there was no brainwashing. I only told him about his other father, about what he had been and what he could do, and Conner, knowing he could do the same, didn't want to do anything else. He was....he is incredible."
"But you feel like you pushed him into it," Robert said. "Even if it is the life he's choosing."
"He doesn't have to choose any life yet. He shouldn't—he's not even seven years old. What kind of childhood is that?"
"But he's not a little boy," Robert said, thinking of the tall young man. "Lex, one of the hardest things for a parent to do is to let go of your expectations and accept your child as who they are. To be proud of them as who they are, not who you want them to be. If Conner is Superboy..."
"I don't expect anything of him," Lex said. "And I'm always proud of him. But I want..." He stared out over the empty, dark pasture. "I didn't have much of a childhood. My father...I didn't have much in the way of responsibilities, or discipline, in the normal senses. Maybe too much in other ways. I never once felt like an ordinary child; I was never allowed to be. Then, Clark—you're a city boy, can you imagine growing up here, Robert? Chores out in the fields, getting on the school bus every morning, playing with your friends after class. Clark had twelve years of that, twelve years in this town with his family, before he even knew what he was. Twelve idyllic years until the day I hit him with my car."
"The day you what?"
"Oh, did we never get around to that story? There's a bridge about a mile from here, I was speeding, swerved to miss something in the road, hit a teenage boy and knocked us both into the river. I would have drowned then if Clark hadn't fished me out."
"'The man who drove a Porsche off a bridge'," Robert quoted, recalling Lex's code phrase the day they had met.
Lex nodded. "Clark was a hero before that, of course; he couldn't help but be one. But that was the day he found out he was going to be a superhero, though he didn't see it at the time. I did, but..."
"You want Conner to have some of those years."
"When Conner's birth certificate was forged, I made him twelve, even if physiologically he was closer to fourteen. It gave him a little more time. And the Kents have been so good to take another boy in. But he's only had a handful of years here. And he's been Superboy the entire time, even if not every day."
"But Lex, he still has a life here, it looks like. And if he's going to college, too, he'll have a normal life there. Relatively," Robert amended, thinking back on his own college days, to say nothing of the stories he knew Virgil wasn't telling him. "Even if he is Superboy, too, maybe that's enough for him."
"I hope it is enough," Lex said.
Robert looked at him, trying to make out his expression in the shadows. He sounded grim in that moment, anxious in a way Robert instinctively grasped was important, maybe at the heart of this. "What do you mean?"
Lex let go of a short breath in almost a sigh. "There's more to being a superhero than the powers. Look at Clark and me, Robert—which one of us is the hero, and which is the villain?"
"Lex, look at me." Robert frowned, folded his arms. Lex stepped back from the fence and faced him head-on, as Robert said, "When I look at you and Clark, far as I can tell, I see two heroes. Even if you don't wear the cape or tights."
"Thank God for small favors," Lex muttered.
Robert didn't care for the cool distance in his tone. "You can't pull that with me now—you're not the villain of this story, Lex. Maybe you play one on TV and on the news and, uh, most other places. But you're on the same side as any of the superheroes. Even if almost no one knows, I do. And you do, and Clark and his parents do, and Conner does, too."
"Does he?" Lex didn't quite sound ironic.
"He must," Robert said, and suddenly realized what Lex wasn't saying. He reached out, took hold of Lex's stiff shoulders. "Just because he wants to fight against you, superhero versus supervillain, doesn't mean he thinks you're the real thing. You said yourself you're looking forward to it; he probably is, too. He wants to show off his stuff to you. Show you how much you've taught him. He doesn't want to fight his father, I could see that much tonight; he wasn't any happier than you were, arguing. He wants to fight the supervillain Lex Luthor. As Superboy."
Robert squeezed Lex's shoulders. "He wants to follow in his fathers' footsteps. Both of his fathers'. Having the, um, two parents he has, I can't imagine how Conner could be anything but a genuine hero. Whenever or however he grows up."
Striking Lex Luthor speechless was not a common event. Robert allowed himself to savor the moment before going on, "But you already know all of this. And I'm not the one who should be saying it, or the one you should be saying it to. Conner should hear it for himself."
"Yes." Lex's face was turned into the moonlight, so Robert saw his mouth quirk into a smile. "I suppose you're right." He turned away, looking down the road towards the house and barn, and raised his voice to call out, "Did you hear, Conner?"
"What do you mean—" Robert began. Then Superboy dropped out of the night sky to touch down on the road in front of them.
A second later Clark also emerged from the dark sky to land behind his son. "We heard, Lex," he said quietly.
Lex inclined his head at the hero. "All of it?"
"I did. Your superhearing was strong enough to catch it from the stratosphere, right, Conner?"
"Yeah," Superboy said with his head down, not sounding much like a superhero at all.
"From the stratosphere?" Lex asked. "Really? That's impressive, considering the difficulty of sound transmission through thinner atmosphere—you must be practicing your telekinetic wave transmission."
"Yeah," Conner said again. "Father, do you really think..."
"I meant everything I've said now," Lex said quietly.
"I—I'm..." In the dark Robert couldn't tell if Conner used superspeed, or just moved mortal-fast to throw himself at Lex. Lex caught his son and hugged him back tightly. Conner dropped his head to Lex's shoulder—though still shorter than Superman, he had a good couple inches on his human father—and snuffled, in a voice that was more the chronological seven years old than the physiological twenty, "I'm so sorry. For what I said before. I really, really didn't mean it."
"I'm sorry for what I said, too," Lex told him. "I didn't mean all of it. Your performance does need a little work, but..."
"I'm never going to be fighting you," Conner said. "I never want to fight you, you're my father. I'm never going to hate you. I love you."
"I know," Lex said, but softly enough that Robert could tell he had needed to hear it, as much as Conner had needed to hear everything else.
Robert stepped back for Clark to close in and engulf both Lex and Conner in a super-sized embrace. Then they all let go, Conner separating himself with the awkward rushed embarrassment of any young man caught too close with his family, superhero or not. "So, uh, Pops—about the League event tomorrow."
"Pops?" Robert could hear Lex's eyebrow raise through the darkness.
Clark was at Lex's side, his arm draped over his shoulder. "You always do complain about the 'Father', Lex," he remarked.
"Why can't I be 'Dad'?"
"Then who would Dad be?" Connor inquired, reasonably enough.
"Then what's wrong with 'Papa'?"
"This is the twenty-first century, Pops. So what about tomorrow?"
"I don't know," Clark said. "What do you think, Lex?"
Lex took his time. "Superboy can make an unofficial appearance," he said finally. "One city-wide fly-by, no longer than a quarter of an hour, starting at 10:15 AM precisely. If you oversleep, you miss the chance."
"All right!" Conner cried, pumping his fist. "Awesome!"
"Lex," Clark said, "what happens at 10:15?"
"Absolutely nothing," Lex said, in a very particular voice that Robert knew meant he was being completely deceitful by being entirely honest.
Clark put an arm around the supervillain's shoulders. "Then what happens at 10:30?"
"So there you are," Martha's voice carried through the night. Robert could make out her shadowy figure further up the road, silhouetted in the porch light. "Who's up for dessert, now?"
"Me! Awesome! Is there pie?" Conner asked, and zipped off toward the house.
Martha waited for the rest of them to walk down the road, watching them in the moonlight as they caught up with her. "So everything is okay?"
"It should be," Clark said. "We're going to have to sit down and talk out Superboy's entrance into the League, but it's all right."
"Part-time membership only," Lex said, "at least until he graduates."
"I completely agree."
"Robert, where are Richie and Virgil?" Martha asked. "They're not out here with you?"
"We haven't seen them."
Clark cocked his head. "They're in the barn with Dad," he said. "And. Hmm. Wait, what—"
Light cut through the night, a flash as bright as an explosion, streaming from the barn's open door. "Jonathan?" Martha called anxiously, and they all started to run.
By the time they got there, the light had faded to 60 watt levels. "Sorry," Richie said, looking abashed, as Jonathan and Virgil stood behind him and tried to blink their blinded vision back into order. "No harm done, I was just adding some juice and crossed wires..."
The horses were whickering in their stalls. Robert, Martha, Lex, and Clark all studied the conglomeration of old tractor parts, pipes, wire, and straw in the middle of the barn. "It's a low-noise pneumatic baler and transporter," Richie explained. "Or at least it will be, in a couple hours."
"I tell you, Martha," Jonathan said, taking his wife aside, "this young man's something—you have to hear some of his ideas. Helpful as Clark was, we could've run this farm with a twitch of our little finger if we'd had him around..."
"Sorry I'm not a supergenius," Clark said, sounding aggrieved.
"No need to be; that's why you sleep with one," Lex told him, twining an idle arm around Superman's waist as he peered at Gear's creation. "This is quite remarkable, though you wouldn't have the power overload problem if you decreased the torque on the underside pallet—"
"I know," Richie said, "but there needs to be enough friction to hold the bale—"
"And no, LexCorp can't have the patent," Virgil spoke over his partner, eying Lex narrowly.
"Hey, guys!" Connor's voice sounded outside from the direction of the house. "Dessert! Hurry up! There's pie!"
With some effort, they cajoled the geniuses away from the gadget for the moment, closed up the barn and proceeded back inside. Robert took up the rear, walking slowly and enjoying the cool night breeze.
When he reached the porch, Lex had drifted back from Clark's side and was waiting for him. He stopped Robert before they climbed the steps. "I apologize again for the...unexpected evening, Robert."
"Not at all," Robert said. "That's quite a boy you and Clark have there."
"Thank you," Lex said, and his blue-eyed smile under the porch light wasn't a shark's at all.
Even with Lex's adept and alarmingly accelerated handling of the Aston Martin, they didn't make it back to Metropolis until well after midnight. Robert got up the next morning in a hurry, showered and scrambled out of the hotel room just in time to meet the Kents at nine o'clock sharp. Rather than joining the thronging crowds in the cordoned-off streets around the new communication tower, they made their way to a cafe across the street from the tower. Lex had reserved them a table on the third story balcony, with a perfect view of the streets below and the sky above.
They breakfasted on delicious pastries and fresh-squeezed juice as they watched the increasingly wild displays below and above. Clowns and cosplayers competed with genuine superheroes; the easiest way to tell one from the other was by who was airborne.
Static and Gear made their tandem appearance a little after ten o'clock, to Robert's amazement; he didn't know anything got Virgil up before eleven, these days. He always carefully scheduled his classes for the afternoon. Night patrols, he argued; Robert, who had put up with thirteen years of dragging the kid out of bed for school, knew better.
About fifteen minutes later, the voice of the excited crowd swelled as people pointed to the sky, where a figure in a black t-shirt was swooping around the tower. "And here's one of the Justice League's most famous unofficial supporters," the announcer issued over the radio, "Superboy!"
Robert and Martha took pictures. Jonathan just watched and waved, grinning. He shook his head as Conner soared overhead, down the street and out of sight. "Still can't believe we have a grandson."
Martha nodded. "When Clark got together with Lex, we didn't think..."
"Well, they could have adopted," Jonathan pointed out. "But this..." He looked at Robert. "Are your boys considering...?"
"I...don't know," Robert said, blinking. "I have a granddaughter already, my daughter's child, but..." He had wondered if Virgil and Richie might be tempted to adopt someday, but this... "I'd never thought about it before."
"It couldn't be too hard. Considering they're both human," Martha said. "As far as I understand it, Clark's DNA was the biggest problem with Conner."
"Besides," Jonathan said, "I'm sure Richie could figure out any problems that might come up, if Lex couldn't. That young man is something else."
"I may ask them—what's that?"
The tenor of the crowd had changed. Some of the shouting sounded more anxious than excited. The cafe's patrons started to their feet, as the radio blared, "—something, appearing in the sky—"
A particular feeling of premonition prickled Robert's spine. "What time is it?" he asked with some trepidation.
"Just turned 10:30," Jonathan supplied, checking his watch.
"I thought so," Robert said, and sat back down again.
"It appears to be centered over the LexCorp Towers," the radio proclaimed, "a cloud of yellow and red dust that is sinking to street level and spreading, and yes, Wonder Woman and Superman are flying to investigate, with other heroes close behind—"
"Oh," Jonathan said, and he and his wife took their seats again with Robert.
"I wonder if it is the pheromo-spores," Martha remarked brightly, "I've been wondering if they're as interesting as Clark makes them sound," and the three of them leaned over the railing to get a good view of the carefully orchestrated chaos unfolding on the street below.