“My first memory?” Robin asks doubtfully, licking icing off his cookie—everyone acted weird at first when M'gann served snickerdoodles with cream cheese frosting and peach jelly, although Superboy thinks they taste fine—and then his fingers. “Why, does it matter?”
“Naw, man, it's just this project I've got for school,” Wally says with a sigh, throwing a dramatic arm across his eyes and slumping back against the couch beside Robin. “We're supposed to write an essay about our first memories and the 'significance' of them and it is so boring. I thought talking about it might, you know, help?”
“That does make sense,” Kaldur agrees thoughtfully from the kitchen, where he's helping M'gann clean up. Superboy meant to help too, but listening to the others talk distracted him—he's still not very good at talking, so he does a lot of listening. “I am not sure if other peoples' memories will provide you with the focus you need, though. What is your first memory, Wally?”
“Throwing up on Mickey Mouse at Disneyland,” Wally replies witheringly, arm still thrown across his eyes, and Superboy blinks.
“. . . I see why you need the help,” Kaldur manages eventually, mostly tactful, and Artemis bursts into laughter and falls back in her chair.
“Right?!” Wally demands, throwing both hands and his armful of notes up into the air. “What kind of significant memory is that, what am I supposed to say, 'clearly this means I was destined to embarrass myself and those around me from an early age'?!”
“That sounds—that sounds pretty good to me!” Artemis gets out between gasps of laughter, and Wally nails her with a high-speed pillow.
“My first memory is my parents teaching me how to shapeshift,” M'gann interrupts helpfully, smiling a little anxiously over the half-washed cookie tray in her hands.
“I believe mine is my first day at the academy as a child,” Kaldur says. “That is the clearest one I can think of, at least.” Wally groans, and covers his face again.
“Seriously?” he demands. “This is so unfair, those are both perfect! Do you know how much I could write about those?!”
“I don't think you could actually write about learning how to shapeshift,” M'gann points out with a concerned little frown. “That wouldn't be very good for your secret identity.”
“I could, I don't know, metaphor it!” Wally says indignantly. “Make it about learning to ride a bike or something, whatever. What about the rest of you, you guys got anything?”
“My parents tossing me back and forth,” Robin says, then immediately stuffs his mouth full of cookie. Superboy assumes it's so he can't answer questions.
“Getting taught which pressure points to attack first,” Artemis puts in, immediately making any concerns Robin had totally null and void.
“Your life is not last night's ninja movie!” Wally protests indignantly. “We didn't even watch a ninja movie last night!”
“I mean learning how to ride a bike,” Artemis says, eyes slanting sidelong. Superboy frowns, and the rest of the team gives her odd looks. Artemis just purses her lips, folding her arms defiantly. “I stand by my obvious lie.”
“Whatever,” Wally grumbles, sinking down in his seat again with a sour expression and picking up a few pages of his scattered notes. “What's yours, Supey?” he prompts distractedly as he puts the papers in order. Superboy pauses, frowning deeply in thought, and a few of the others subtly wince and less subtly glare bloody murder at Wally, although Superboy doesn't know why.
“I was sad, and someone was talking to me. Then I stopped being sad,” he says at length, and the rest of the team give him surprised looks.
“Wait, what?” Wally asks in bemusement, lowering his notes to give him a weird look. “Why the hell would the G-gnomes put that in your brain?”
“They didn't,” Superboy replies, shaking his head. “That was before.”
“. . . what?”
“What do you mean by 'before'?” Kaldur asks, puzzled. Superboy just shrugs, not understanding why the others look so confused.
“Before the G-gnomes,” he clarifies anyway.
“Before?” Robin wrinkles his nose, calling up his computer and cycling back through old, copied documents. “Dude, what before, Cadmus's files say you were hooked up to the G-gnomes from the moment you were conscious.”
“But I wasn't,” Superboy says, frowning. He was in the pod for a long time, but it's not where he was first.
“Are you certain the G-gnomes did not implant that memory in you for some reason?” Kaldur asks, although he looks as confused as anyone else as to why they would.
“I didn't learn to walk in a pod,” Superboy points out, mildly annoyed.
“. . . huh. You know, Supey's got a point,” Wally says, blinking rapidly in bemusement, and Superboy scowls at him for looking so surprised by that. “I mean, no matter what they stuck in his head he'd have needed at least some muscle memory to move and talk that well first thing out of the wrapper, right?”
“Possibly,” Kaldur agrees warily. “But considering Cadmus aged him sixteen years in sixteen weeks, I do not think we should assume they could not have fooled his body in some way.”
“The records all say he was grown in the pod,” Robin interjects in exasperation, waving his computer. “You never existed outside it, Supes, except as cells in a petri dish.”
“Yes I did,” Superboy says, scowl darkening.
“No, you didn't,” Robin says, frowning back at him, and Superboy's scowl turns into a glare.
“Yes I did!” he repeats angrily. “I remember it!”
“You kind of remember a lot of things that never actually happened,” Artemis points out, raising an eyebrow at him. “Why would they lie in their own records?”
“I don't know!” Superboy snaps, glaring at her. “It's Cadmus, they did a lot of lying.”
“Yeah, but that was like, mind-control lying,” Robin counters. “Why would they not keep fusing records if they could just brain-bleach anybody who saw something they shouldn't?”
“. . . 'fusing'?” Artemis asks, eyeing him skeptically.
“Opposite of 'confusing'. So 'easily understood',” Wally translates, and scowls himself when she eyes him suspiciously. “What? We hang out socially, okay, a guy picks stuff up!”
“Isn't this hanging out socially?” M'gann wonders with a doubtful frown.
“And you're picking stuff up, aren't you, beautiful?” Wally counters reasonably, then grins wolfishly at her. “I know what I'd like to pick up, all things—”
“Write your stupid essay already,” Artemis says irritably, hitting him in the face with a cushion, and after that they all get distracted and forget about it.
Superboy doesn't quite forget, though.
“Oh crud,” Robin says, right before the computer blows up right in his face. Which would be a problem, normally, but Wally's right there and the nice thing about having Wally right there is those times when instead of one of the team's more fragile members getting their face blown off, they end up on the opposite side of the room safely out of shrapnel range because he has the reaction time to escape the blast radius of an explosion as it's happening.
Superboy figures that's about as aster as anything can get.
“What the frick was that?!” Wally screeches, still basically plastering himself and Robin both to the wall and glaring accusingly back at the smoking wreckage.
“Thanks for the save, bro,” Robin replies, giving the other a pat on the shoulder and then slipping underneath his shielding arm and heading to the next computer in the row. Well—next surviving computer in the row. “I am definitely not using that override again.”
“Perhaps remote access would be a wiser course of action?” Kaldur suggests warily, and Robin looks dubious.
“Yeah, sure, if you wanna take all week about it,” he retorts. “It's cool, I know what I did wrong.” Kind of, his expression says. “All I gotta do is figure out this freaking code and then I'll have the right passwords for those handy-dandy 'don't destroy mankind' overrides. Otherwise we are looking at a lot of really angry robots. Worse, a really angry Batman.”
“Ugh, don't remind me! Give us the code again?” Wally asks, leaning over his shoulder and glowering irritably at the screen.
“1921-KC, 1942-IA, 1950-AT,” Robin reads off, looking unimpressed. “They're pseudonyms for 'gods', but how the heck am I supposed to know who guys who invented killer robots are going to call gods?”
“Capek, Asimov, and Turing,” Superboy replies automatically, leaning over his other shoulder to peer at the computer.
“. . . what,” Robin says blankly.
“1921 was the year Karel Capek introduced the word 'robot', 1942 was when Issac Asimov first used the word 'robotics', and Alan Turing proposed the Turing Test in 1950,” Superboy clarifies, pointing to each encrypted password in turn. He's pretty sure those are the years, anyway.
“Who the hell are those guys?” Artemis asks in bemusement, giving him a weird look, and Robin and Wally both fall silent.
“Say again?” Wally manages after a moment.
“Karel Capek, Issac Asimov, and Alan Turing,” Superboy repeats, and Robin's fingers fly across the keyboard, striking keys like a shot. “Is that right?”
“. . . yeah,” Wally says, staring at the not-exploding computer screen. “Yeah, it is.”
“So whelmed,” Robin says, staring at it too and then shooting Superboy an accusing look as the angry red screens all flash to a mellow, nonthreatening green. “What the heck, dude, have you been holding out on us? I know you failed the advanced robotics section in those assessment tests Batman gave you!”
“This isn't actually that advanced, it's really just history stuff,” Wally points out. Robin does not look placated.
“I'm the tech guy!” he says indignantly, scowling at the computer as he re-attacks the system with a vengeance. “SB knowing stuff I don't is just not on!”
“Knowing one thing you don't know?” Artemis asks, giving him a wry look. “One obscure thing you don't know?”
“Batman would never miss the obscure thing,” Robin says grumpily, not looking away from the screen.
“Pretty sure he would've at thirteen, dude,” Wally points out dryly, earning a glower for his trouble. No one bothers to ask Superboy where he learned those names, but he thinks about it himself on the way back to the bioship, after. The memory is a little like G-gnome memories, in that it's about the relay of information, but what Superboy really remembers from it is the big arm that had been wrapped around him and the strong chest he'd been leaning against and the sound of a real voice reading to him.
Superboy doesn't have many real memories, and he's unsettled that he could have forgotten one of them.
It makes him wonder what else he might have forgotten.
“You know, I used to think if I had different parents my life would be different,” Artemis says neutrally as she lines up a shot, and Superboy looks away from the punching bag, a little surprised to hear her speak. For a second he thinks she can't be talking to him, but he is the only other person in the gym. “But I guess that's not true, is it.”
“What do you mean?” he asks, frowning faintly at her. Artemis lets the arrow fly, and nails a perfect bullseye.
“Nothing,” she says. “Every kid wishes Superman were their dad at some point, right?”
“I guess.” Superboy's frown deepens, and Artemis nocks another arrow.
“Pretty much,” she replies, taking aim, firing, drawing another arrow, nocking it. “He's perfect, you know? Except he actually is your dad, and—”
“Superman's not my father,” Superboy corrects automatically, frowning deeper, and Artemis fires her arrow and rolls her eyes.
“He sure doesn't act like he is,” she says, like she's agreeing, and Superboy's frown goes even deeper. Superman's not his father; he's never thought of him that way. Stolen DNA's not enough to make someone a “father”, not even by the loosest definition of the term. It's not like having a condom break or missing a pill or just being irresponsible; it's theft. Maybe the closest analogy is rape, he admits to himself uncomfortably, and looks back at the punching bag.
He doesn't want Superman to be his father, though, he just wants Superman to care he exists and maybe help him figure out what's wrong with his powers and maybe sometimes they could . . . talk, just a little. No one else has these powers, no one else experiences the world the same way, no one else . . .
Superboy wants to understand himself. He wants to understand his DNA, his heritage, the place that he really came from. Not just the place that built him. Cadmus doesn't own him and Superman isn't his father and Krypton isn't his home planet, but he also isn't human and won't ever be.
But he wants to be good. He wants to belong here, to be accepted here, and Superman is good and Superman belongs and Superman is accepted, so maybe just . . . if he could just tell him a few things, a little bit of how he managed that . . .
Superboy does not want to live in Mount Justice forever. He does not want to never exist outside of Young Justice (“outside of the Justice League, someday maybe, maybe someday,” something whispers inside, soft with hope and fear and doubt and desire). He does not want to spend his life saving people he never meets.
It wouldn't be bad to meet them, he thinks quietly, still just looking at the punching bag, listening to the rapid fire of Artemis's arrows as she draws and releases again and again and again. Maybe he could even be one, once he's older. He could make up a name, ask Batman to forge an identity for him, get a job and rent an apartment and . . . and do whatever people do. Everyone else has another name and another life to go back to; why couldn't he? Not now, he knows he isn't smart enough to do it now, but maybe in a few years . . .
He'll know enough then, right? Even if Superman doesn't want to teach him, he can still figure it out.
It's just . . . it'd be easier, if someone who understood everything he had to hold back would teach him how to. That's all. It'd be easier, and maybe if Superman would talk to him a little then he could stop thinking about those memories that . . . the memories before the G-gnomes, the faint, barely-there ghosts of them that make him want . . . something. Something that has to do with acting human, or at least belonging where humans belong.
But Superman is never going to talk to him, so he can't stop wanting that something he can't name.
There's really only one thing to do if he wants to understand, then.
“Can I ask you a favor?” Superboy asks awkwardly as M'gann is cleaning up breakfast—stickysweet French toast with strawberry syrup and slightly underdone eggs and slightly overdone bacon. Neither of them really needed to eat or was even really hungry, but the television is big on having meals together and when the others aren't around it's their best reference on how humans act. They're both pretty sure they're supposed to act human, or at least try to.
“Of course, Superboy!” M'gann says, giving him a surprised look like it's strange he even thought he had to ask. He wonders why she'd be surprised by that. “What do you need?”
“I wanted . . .” He hesitates, feels stupid, then feels angry for feeling stupid, and then shakes all those feelings away because they aren't important right now. “Can you look in my head for memories from before the G-gnomes? I want to know if there are more of them.”
“Memories from before the G-gnomes?” M'gann repeats, tilting her head to one side with a puzzled expression, and Superboy nods. “Well, I can look, of course, but are you sure you want me to?” she asks, biting her lip in concern. “I know you don't like having anyone else in your mind. Hello, Megan, of course he wouldn't!”
“It's okay if it's you,” Superboy tells her, shaking his head, and M'gann turns pink. If she actually has blood or if she just blushes because that's what humans do, he doesn't know, but he does wonder why someone wearing an assumed form would ever have an involuntary physical reaction.
He thinks that he thinks too much about M'gann, sometimes.
“Well, alright then,” M'gann replies shyly, reaching out and pressing her fingertips lightly to Superboy's temples. “Um, just to warn you, I'll try not to look, but I might see some things accidentally. Is that okay?”
“It's okay,” Superboy tells her again, bowing his head to let her touch him easier. He has a feeling of missing in himself and he wants to know why, and he knows he can trust M'gann not to do anything he doesn't want her to. Not because of all that extra thinking, just because. M'gann turns pinker as she looks up at him—they're very close, he can feel her breath against his mouth—then closes her eyes and exhales. Superboy feels nothing—except her breath, of course.
Then the world collapses.
“Conner,” the man before the G-gnomes says as he steps through the doorway. His voice is cool and strong and distant, but his eyes are sharp and attentive. Conner lights up at the sound of his voice and rushes over, and the man watches neutrally as he jumps onto the back of the couch in one clumsy leap to get closer to his eye level—the man doesn't like being jumped on.
“Faffer, Faffer!” Conner greets excitedly as he steadies himself on the back of the couch, nearly toppling over twice, then beams up at him and reaches up hopefully. The man's head tilts to one side and then he smiles, indulgent and amused. Conner feels warm delight at the sight of that smile, and the man's hand settles heavily on his head and pushes back through his hair.
“Have you been a good boy for Hope and Mercy, Conner?” he asks.
“Yah good!” Conner declares loudly, wrapping his arms around the man's wrist and hanging off it—he was very good, he ate all his squashed potatoes and he hid his green beans really well this time and didn't even break anything except the living room floor a little.
“That's my boy, not even two and already perfecting your spin. You'll be conquering the world in no time,” the man says with a low chuckle, wrapping an arm around Conner's waist and carrying him into the kitchen where two women—Hope and Mercy—are cleaning dinner off the ceiling and looking just barely disgruntled.
“This wasn't in our job description, sir,” Mercy mentions dryly, and the man smiles that indulgent smile again.
“I suppose we could all stand to get a bit more country air,” he allows, and Conner cheers.
“Play ou'side, play ou'side!” he crows excitedly, pulling at the man's wrist. He loves outside, he hardly gets to go except when they're really, really far away from people and it's never ever enough, he wants to go right now! “Dada, Dada, play ou'side!”
“Father,” the man corrects absently as he tucks him into the crook of his elbow like a habit, and Conner giggles and wraps his arms around his neck. “No son of mine is wasting precious developmental time on baby talk.”
“Faffer,” Conner repeats obediently, and earns another pat on the head.
“Good boy,” Father says, and Conner beams.
“Oh,” M'gann says from her perch on the counter, looking surprised. Superboy is surprised too, but not as surprised as he would've expected to be.
Somehow, he thinks, this is the only thing that could've fit.
“You are certain?” Kaldur asks, looking concerned, and Superboy and M'gann both nod firmly.
“It definitely was a real memory,” M'gann says. “There's others, too, but they're very old and childhood memories are pretty hard to get through as it is. Uncle J'onn could do it better, but . . .”
“'Old'?” Kaldur repeats, frowning, and for a moment Superboy doesn't understand the frown but then he realizes—he doesn't have “old” memories. Bialya would've been a lot different, if he did. “How old?”
“Very,” M'gann says hesitantly, her eyes flicking between them. “Almost . . . at least fourteen years. Probably closer to fifteen.” Kaldur stares at her.
“M'gann,” he starts carefully, “Superboy has not existed for fourteen months.”
“I know, but—but they aren't transplanted or made-up!” M'gann blurts, covering her mouth with her hands and looking back at them with wide eyes. “They're real memories, and Superboy really has them. Believe me, I could tell if they weren't.”
“. . . we need to call Batman,” Kaldur says after a moment spent staring searchingly at her, and pushes himself to his feet.
“The Justice League's still off-world,” M'gann reminds him nervously. Kaldur curses in Atlantean and drops right back down into his seat, lips pressed into a thin line. “It's okay, Kaldur! They're not bad memories, they're . . . well . . .”
“They're nice,” Superboy supplies, because it's the truth.
“But they do not make sense,” Kaldur replies lowly, just looking at him. “Superboy, you should not have fifteen year-old memories in a six month-old body.”
“I. I don't think he's six months old,” M'gann whispers, covering her mouth again, and the other two stare at her.
“What?” Superboy asks blankly—she didn't say anything about that before. And maybe he should've realized or thought of it himself, but somehow he hadn't quite gotten that far.
“I think—” M'gann fumbles nervously for words, hands wringing together so tight they warp, and finally just plunges ahead: “I haven't been fully in Superboy's head before, so I didn't notice until today, but it's—it's full of clean places. Like there used to be something there, but it got sort of . . . scrubbed away. That's not normal. And it's in a lot of places, like it kept happening over and over.”
“What are you saying, M'gann?” Kaldur asks quietly, and M'gann squeezes her hands together like she's bracing herself and meets their eyes.
“I think Superboy really is sixteen,” she says. “Cadmus just kept reprogramming him over and over again, trying to give him the personality they wanted. The documents Robin found were talking about a persona, not the body they were putting it in. That's why he didn't have any memories in Bialya, because he forgot to back before the . . . before the current personality.”
“. . . you should consult your uncle as soon as he returns to Earth,” Kaldur says quietly, while Superboy's mind is still too numb to think. “Immediately upon his return.”
“Okay,” M'gann replies softly, looking down at her feet, and Superboy still feels . . . nothing, mostly. What does this mean, he wonders; just that he'd been aged differently from how he thought he was, or something so much worse? Has he escaped like this before and Cadmus brought him back and wiped him clean so he wouldn't again, will they try to do that again, is he even . . . is he even a real person, or will he eventually fall apart without the G-gnomes at his shoulder and be just the blank slate again? How many versions of himself has he been? How many people has he forgotten?
And more importantly, right now somehow most importantly—who was that man who told him to call him Father back at the beginning of it?
The man who called him son.
Superboy doesn't go to Metropolis very often—Superboy doesn't go out very often—but just because Superman doesn't like him doesn't mean Superman will mind if he looks at his city sometimes, he thinks.
Especially if Superman happens to be off-planet when he goes.
Superboy knows Metropolis better than any other place on Earth, even his own bedroom, even his own pod—the G-gnomes taught him every piece of information about it that they could find. He knows how the city started, how it's grown, where the good restaurants and bad neighborhoods and expensive hotels are, where the newspapers and television stations are, the bridges and the parks, the rich and the poor and the neither, the everything. The G-gnomes taught him, because Metropolis was supposed to be his, if he ever got let out. If Superman ever died, or had to be stopped, or . . .
“One day,” Father says as he looks out the window down at the sprawl of streets and skyscrapers far below, Conner sleepy and tucked into his arms, “this will all be yours.”
Metropolis was supposed to be Superboy's city, and Superboy loves it. He hates living in Happy Harbor instead of here. He hates just not being here, because forget the pod and Cadmus and Mount Justice and everywhere before and after and in-between: if he was ever, ever supposed to have a home, Metropolis is the place it was supposed to be.
But Superman doesn't want him in Metropolis. Superman doesn't want him anywhere, really, but most especially not Metropolis. And Superboy doesn't want to upset Superman, or make him like him any less than he already does—he stays away from his city, now, except when he knows Superman's too busy to notice. Even then he sneaks around in a zipped-up jacket, hiding the shield on his shirt, trying to blend into the other people the way Canary's been trying to teach him how to do. He tells himself it's practice.
It is, technically, but he knows he shouldn't be doing it here. Superman wouldn't like it.
Everything's . . . things are very complicated right now, though, too much is in his head right now, and he needed to be someplace he could think. He can think here, walking the streets he was raised(programmed) to love and protect, being in the place he was built to belong.
At least that's the theory, until vengeful green and purple robots fall out of the sky and smash him into the pavement.
He can never just go out.
“TARGET: SUPERMAN. TARGET ACQUIRED,” one of the robots intones as bystanders scream and run in the background, and Superboy feels hot and angry and stupid, and kicks its optic sensor in.
“I am not Superman!” he roars at it, and then the other five dogpile him and there isn't really time for arguing after that. Not fair, he thinks to himself from the bottom of the pile as his fists refuse to even dent the robots' armor, not fair at all, he doesn't have heat vision and he can't even fly, what is he supposed to do here? He's not Superman, he'll probably never be good enough to be Superman, so what is he supposed to do?!
The answer to that turns out to be “get captured”. Which is better than “get killed”, definitely, but still really, really humiliating.
Superboy does not want to explain this to Batman.
Of course, he thinks as the robots take off with him, he might not get the chance to.
“Superman?” a woman's voice asks, sounding mildly bemused, and Superboy tries to twist in the robot-tentacle bonds he's still struggling with and manages to catch a glimpse of a woman in a gray chauffeur’s uniform. She looks like she's standing on the ceiling, which is when he figures out that all his fighting's gotten him is turned upside-down. “Huh. Lex didn't even think this would work. He actually took a meeting.”
That is . . . really embarrassing.
“Superman's busy,” Superboy snaps, and manages to get an arm free just long enough to completely fail to punch out another optic sensor. They're really smart robots. But it could always be worse, he reminds himself: it could be robot monkeys again.
“So what, you're babysitting Metropolis with his DNA signature?” the woman asks, tone turning dry. “Not likely. Let me guess, Boy Scout—have another run-in with the magic-using crowd? How are those pandimensional imps this season?”
“I don't—” Superboy kicks a robot in the shoulder, earning exactly no reaction from it—“know what you're—” kicks another, more solidly, and gets it to wobble, which is pathetically gratifying at this point—“talking about!” He thinks he'd like to scream he's so frustrated right now, but Canary's been telling him to cut down on that. It's not very covert. Also, when the woman with the sonic shriek tells you you're being too loud—well, she'd know.
“You do make a cute kid,” the woman observes, and steps around to smirk up at him in casual amusement.
Superboy goes still.
“Mercy?” he asks blankly. She arches an eyebrow.
“You sound so surprised,” she says. Superboy stares at her. You're real, he doesn't say, but only because too many other options are warring for the right. What are you doing here? and What do you want with Superman? and Where's Hope? and Don't you ever wear anything else?, just for a start.
And . . . and the other question.
That question too.
“I'm not Superman,” he manages finally, because anything else is too . . . nothing else is going to come out right. And shouldn't she know this, he wonders, unless he's crazy, unless Cadmus really did implant those memories—except what would've been the point of implanting memories of a father in him? What would've been the point of implanting memories of this woman, this person who's actually real and apparently knows Superman and sends robots after him?
. . . also, robots. What's the point of the stupid robots?
“Really now? Then who are you?” Mercy asks, smirking in unimpressed amusement. Superboy, Superboy doesn't say because it's not really the answer, is it, and Conner, he definitely doesn't say because . . . because he's not sure why, he just doesn't. But there isn't an answer.
“I thought you knew,” is all that comes out in the end, lame and pathetic and useless, and Mercy just looks at him and laughs, turning away.
“Please,” she says. “Lex built those with his own two hands, they wouldn't touch anybody but you.”
“I didn't say I didn't have his DNA!” Superboy snaps at the back of her head, struggling in his bonds again—when she's not looking at him it's easier. Of course, then she looks at him again.
She looks at him . . . really frighteningly.
“Authorization: Mercedes Graves,” she says sharply, and the robots all straighten to attention, nearly crushing Superboy's ribs in the process.
“AUTHORIZED: MERCEDES GRAVES,” they echo back in one voice, and Mercy's eyes narrow.
“What is the percentage match on Target: Superman?” she asks.
“TARGET: SUPERMAN: FIFTY PERCENT MATCH,” the robots intone in reply, and Mercy's eyes go even narrower.
“. . . 'fifty'?” Superboy repeats uncertainly, the numbness creeping into his mind again. But he's Superman's clone, he . . . how can it only be fifty?
But he can't fly, he remembers just an instant later, he can't fly and doesn't have heat vision or ice-breath and isn't anything compared to Superman, isn't even worth noticing to someone like Superman, and . . . and so . . . so does that mean . . .
“That bastard,” Mercy Graves breathes through gritted teeth.
Superman is not his father, Superboy thinks at the ceiling of his lead-lined and soundproofed cell for the thousandth time. He's never thought of Superman as his father, never expected Superman to be his father. At best they're . . . siblings, in a way. Half-siblings, he corrects himself, still staring at the ceiling.
Not father and son, though. Nothing like that.
He doesn't want that. Or expect it. Or need it, even, he doesn't and he never did and it doesn't matter what some stupid, brainless robots think, doesn't matter what Mercy Graves thinks, except . . .
Except Mercy Graves should know.
She does remember him, doesn't she, he wonders to himself. Why would he remember her and not the other way around, she was an adult. Is an adult. If either of them remembered it ought to be her.
Except he still doesn't know how he went from that apartment to Cadmus. That place was a . . . that was a home, something in him whispers, why would he have lived in a home? He is harvested cells, an imperfect clone, not anyone's son. But once he lived with a man who carried him in his arms and read him a book about the history of robotics and made him feel better when he was sad and told him to call him “Father”.
What is that?
Superboy punches the wall of his cell. It doesn't dent, but since he's already punched it a good dozen times that's no surprise. He just wants to hit it anyway.
No. That's not what he wants. What he wants is to know why someone told him to call them “Father”, and why he spent sixteen years being—being erased every time he made a decision that didn't fit with someone else's master plan. If someone was his father, why would that happen? Parents are so things like that don't happen, right?
Not that he'd really know. He just . . .
Superboy closes his eyes and sifts through the jumbled memories M'gann brought back to him. He sees more books about robotics, sees metal and wire and tools, chemicals and scribbled notes, scientific journals, genetic codes, models of DNA, tiny moving machines. The man before the G-gnomes was a scientist. The scientist who built him, he can only assume, except he wasn't at Cadmus—he wasn't, was he? Superboy does not think he could forget that man, no matter what the G-gnomes did to his head.
But he forgot him once. Didn't forget Capek and Asimov and Turing, didn't forget being held, didn't forget that something was missing, but forgot him.
He doesn't know how he could have.
“Ahhh, Faffer, Faffer, look look look!” Conner squeals, pointing excitedly at the TV, and Father watches neutrally as the man on the news braces himself against the tracks to slow the out-of-control bullet train speeding down them. “Big man!”
“That's Superman,” Father tells him, still neutral, as close to blank as anyone can get without actually LOOKING blank.
“Suuuuperman!” Conner repeats, delighted with the name and clapping his hands together, and Father's eyes shutter.
“He'd want you to call him 'Pa', I suppose,” he murmurs, and turns back to his work. Conner looks at him, and then back to the screen.
“'Pa'?” he repeats shyly, and the man on the news smiles.
Superboy's eyes snap back open and he stares at the ceiling in confusion, breath coming too fast for no good reason. Fath—the man had said that like he'd know what Superman would want. He'd been wrong, the last thing Superman wants is to be Superboy's father (which is fine, Superboy really DOESN'T think of him as his father, it isn't like that at all, he doesn't even NEED a father), but he'd still said it like he'd thought he knew.
Why would he think he knew?
Superboy spends an hour in the cell before the hallway wall explodes inwards and pelts him with debris. He wipes dirt and gravel off his face and shakes shards of metal out of his hair and glowers through the smoke at Robin, who looks sheepish but unapologetic.
“Might've gone a little heavy on the C4,” he says casually, and M'gann flies in through the gaping hole in the wall and throws her arms around Superboy's neck with a relieved cry.
“You're alright! I was so worried when I stopped sensing you—I couldn't find you anywhere, we had to check the security cameras on the streets and the satellite overheads!” she exclaims anxiously, and Superboy puts a hand on her back and closes his eyes and listens to the five most perfect heartbeats in the world. He thinks about what he would do if someone muffled one of those heartbeats, and can't help but be surprised the building's still standing.
“I'm fine,” he reassures her, and M'gann wraps her arms around him even tighter.
“I'm so glad,” she says in choked relief, burying her face in his neck. He thinks about hugging her back, but isn't sure he'd do it right.
“Um, guys, running?” Wally hints from down the hall, leaning around the corner and practically vibrating in place. “You know we're kinda in a LexCorp building here, it's not really the best place to be loitering post-explosion, yeah? I mean, unless you want to wait for security to show up and have us all for elevensies.”
Then, of course, security shows up. Specifically, security shows up as more stupid robots.
“. . . riiiight. Think Luthor's compensating for something?” Artemis asks after a moment, raising an eyebrow as they all tip their heads back to stare up. And up. And then a little more up than that.
“We should run,” Superboy says, remembering very clearly what happened the last time.
“Seconded,” Wally agrees immediately, shooting a hand up into the air. “All in favor?” The robots' mounted cannons start glowing ominously.
“Motion passes,” Kaldur says, fast, and they tear off down the hall dodging laser blasts and bladed projectiles, Robin with his computer already out and typing furiously. Next time he visits Metropolis, Superboy decides, he's doing it while only Superman is off-world.
There are some days he just doesn't want to have when Batman's not around.
They can still see the smoke from LexCorp fifteen blocks away, which Superman is probably going to be mad about, Superboy thinks as he bites the top off his popsicle. It tastes really good, which is a little better to concentrate on than the bruised and battered and smoke-stained condition of the team, and way better to concentrate on than how unhappy Superman's going to be. Also, he ruined another shirt, which just figures.
“We should always get ice cream after we save the day,” Wally says decisively. His gloves and boots are scorched and he's on his fifth sundae cone—or maybe sixth, it's hard to keep track. M'gann hums eager agreement around a mouthful of creamsicle, her uniform colors visibly brightening underneath the concrete dust with each bite.
“Yeah, because that's totally professional for a covert ops squad,” Artemis snorts, although she got a fudgesicle and doesn't seem inclined to stop eating it anytime soon, or to fix her mussed and half fallen-out ponytail. Robin sniggers around his own ridiculously colorful popsicle, his fried computer sparking intermittently on his wrist, and Kaldur who's covered in even more dust and scorch marks than M'gann and Wally put together just gives his frozen pineapple bar an assessing, doubtful look.
“A little fun never hurt anyone,” he allows, finally taking a careful lick and seeming surprised by the taste. Superboy guesses they don't really do fruit in Atlantis, much less ice cream. “I believe we should leave the city as soon as the fuss dies down enough for us to sneak out of the park and find a place with enough privacy to bring down the bioship, though.”
“Probably a good idea,” Robin says, eyeing the milling crowd on the other side of the park all staring at the billowing plume of smoke their swathe of destruction left behind. “We are so lucky this didn't happen in Gotham.”
“I don't think Bruce Wayne is the Lex Luthor type,” Artemis replies dryly, and Wally chokes on his ice cream. “Not obsessive enough, for one thing. Definitely not smart enough.” Wally's choking seems to be getting worse, but he waves M'gann and Kaldur off urgently when they scoot over to check on him.
“Good point,” Robin agrees, looking especially innocent but kind of like he wants to laugh, too. Superboy wonders what the joke is.
“Mind you, I would fight the heck out of him if he were a supervillian,” Artemis continues, leaning back in her seat and gesturing with the fudgesicle. “Can you picture that man in spandex?”
“Oh, I'm picturing it,” Robin says, unusually straight-faced as Wally falls off his end of the wall with a strangled noise.
“Are you going to need mouth-to-mouth again, Wally?” M'gann asks in concern, leaning over, and he shakes his head furiously. He must have been choking really badly to not even make a joke about that, Superboy thinks with a frown.
“Don't Gotham villains usually wear suits?” he asks, keeping a concerned eye on Wally as the other manages to scramble mostly back up the wall.
“Clayface didn't,” Artemis replies, noticeably leering around her mouthful of fudgesicle. Robin pauses mid-bite, and Wally falls back over without preamble.
“I hardly think that is an appropriate way to talk in front of Robin and Superboy,” Kaldur says disapprovingly.
“I'm older than her!” Superboy protests indignantly, at the same time Robin protests, “I'm from Gotham!” Artemis just smirks, then bites through her fudgesicle in a way that makes Wally and Robin cringe and Kaldur look especially disapproving. Superboy doesn't get it, but for once really doesn't want to. Ever.
“Please tell me the fuss has died down enough,” Wally begs. Kaldur peers over at the crowd, then sighs quietly.
“I do not think so,” he says. “There are quite a lot of witnesses.”
“You guys suck so hardcore at covert,” Robin says dubiously.
“Dude! You were the one who blew up the elevators!” Wally yells at him. “And the north wall, and the west wall, and half the lobby!”
“And the brand-new helipad on the roof,” M'gann puts in helpfully, like she thinks she's just reminding him. Robin looks unbothered.
“That was strategic collateral damage specifically targeted to cover our butts in the escape,” he says primly.
“That was you being a dick to Lex Luthor,” Artemis corrects. Robin smirks.
“That's cold, guys,” he says, clapping his free hand to his chest. “You really think I'd do that?”
“Yes,” everyone says in unison, and Robin just sniggers.
“Come on, what kind of superheroes would we be if we went to Metropolis and didn't hack off Lex Luthor?” he asks. “It's practically a tourist attraction. Anyway, Superman should thank us, we totally smashed up a whole slew of evil robot assassins that wanted his big red cape.”
“I don't think he's going to thank us,” Superboy says glumly, looking back to the plume of smoke. It's gotten a lot blacker; he suspects another fire's broken out.
“Superman is a dick,” Artemis says emphatically, and Wally and M'gann nod agreement. Superboy tries not to frown.
“Superman is not a . . .” Kaldur breaks off and sighs again, just shaking his head. “People are not automatically bad people just because they do not reciprocate other people's feelings, just like those other people are not bad to be having unreciprocated feelings to begin with.”
“Ciprocated,” Robin suggested. “Two-for-one cutdown on the prefixes and way easier to say.”
“. . . I am never going to use that word, Robin,” Kaldur says, eyeing him for just a moment. Robin shrugs dismissively and finishes off his popsicle.
“Your loss, bro,” he says. “Superman is kind of being a dick, though. I mean, what, it'd be so hard to toss SB a couple tips on how to use the heat vision? Or, you know, fly?”
“Or the ice breath,” Wally volunteers, and Artemis rolls her eyes.
“Nobody cares about the ice breath,” she says. “Freezing things is, like, the lamest superpower ever.” Wally looks insulted.
“Hey, freezing things is awesome!” he protests, and Robin gives him a funny look.
“Dude, are you about to start defending the Rogues again?” he asks doubtfully, and Wally scowls at him.
“Don't even tell me you aren't going to tell her a Mr. Freeze story after that one,” he says accusingly.
“Gotham villains don't need defended,” Robin retorts breezily, and this time Wally and Artemis both roll their eyes.
“This is a really weird conversation,” Superboy observes, trying to ignore the soft curl of jealousy at knowing he will never have Metropolis the way Robin and Wally have Gotham and Central City, and M'gann and Kaldur nod agreement—M'gann cheerfully, Kaldur wryly.
“Oh! Hello, Megan, I can totally call the ship down on that hill over there!” M'gann suggests a moment later, pointing across the park. “We'd be seen getting in, but that's okay as long as we get out quick, right?”
“Camera phones. And the crowd would have a perfect backdrop of the smoke from that angle, too,” Kaldur reminds her, and M'gann's face falls.
“Oh, right,” she says, and sighs in disappointment. “I guess the Justice League wouldn't like that.”
“To put it mildly,” Robin snorts.
“We could always get more ice cream?” Wally suggests, tossing the last of his crumpled-up wrappers into the nearest trashcan. “As long as we're stuck here, might as well enjoy ourselves.”
“I'm out of cash,” Artemis replies, shaking her head. “We kind of left Mount Justice in a hurry, I only had the change from my last patrol on me.”
“Yeah, all I've got left's the Bat-credit card, and I really don't want to explain how Nutty Buddies were an emergency situation,” Robin agrees.
“My metabolism is an emergency situation!” Wally protests, pointing at himself. Robin gives him an evaluating look, then shrugs and pulls a black credit card out of his utility belt and holds it out to the other.
“Fair enough,” he says. “But I want one of those firecracker-shaped ones this time.”
“Ooo, ooo, the star-shaped pink and green one!” M'gann blurts excitedly, clapping her hands together. “I wanted to try that!”
“I guess I could eat another fudgesicle,” Artemis puts in grudgingly, eyeing the empty stick in her hand. Superboy considers his own mostly-gone popsicle absently, wondering if he's supposed to want another too.
“Okay, firecracker for Rob, a lovely star for the lovely Miss M, another boring fudgesicle for Artemis—you guys want the same again too?” Wally asks, credit card flipping back and forth between his fingers in a blur. Superboy looks at Kaldur, who just shrugs, and for lack of a better response they both nod to Wally. “Got it, be right back!” he says, and zips off. Superboy follows him with his eyes, but it's difficult; he notices the others don't even try.
“I don't think I've ever had ice cream before,” he mentions absently. Wally's already out of sight.
“Technically you still haven't, that's a popsicle,” Artemis points out, and Superboy frowns. Maybe he has, he thinks, but it's not like he'd know. He tries to recall anyway, but nothing comes to mind except—
“Sorbet,” he remembers abruptly, and the others give him puzzled looks. “I've had that.”
“Sor-what?” Artemis asks, wrinkling her nose, and Robin frowns.
“That's . . . weirdly fancy for you to have had before,” he says doubtfully. Father let me try it, sounds like the wrong response, so Superboy just shrugs and sucks the last bite of his popsicle into his mouth.
A limo pulls to a stop on the street in front of them, and Superboy pauses with his popsicle stick still in his mouth. He can't hear anything from inside the car, can't see through the doors or windows, can't even see heat on it despite the fact the engine's running.
But Mercy Graves is driving, so none of that really matters anyway.
“Um,” he says.
“Oh,” M'gann says, her eyes widening.
“I've still got explosives,” Robin immediately suggests. Artemis gives him an incredulous look.
“How do you still have explosives?” she asks disbelievingly.
“I always still have explosives.”
“We are not blowing up a limousine,” Kaldur tells them sternly.
“And I think that's a gun turret tucked in under the bumper.”
“And this is a public park,” Kaldur counters pointedly, just as Wally zips back with the ice cream and gives the limo a bemused look.
“Uh, this might sound like a weird question, but should we be fighting that?” he asks doubtfully.
WE can never just go out, Superboy corrects himself internally as Mercy gets out of the car and smirks over at him before heading around to open the door.
“Probably, but I don't really want to,” he says, and pushes off the wall.
Mercy opens the car door and Superboy stops in front of it and looks inside. It's the man, of course, sitting in the far corner with a darkly amused expression, like he's just heard the funniest, most horrible thing and decided to laugh about it.
The man makes a beckoning gesture, and Superboy glances back to his startled teammates, then slips into the limousine and takes the seat across from the man. Mercy closes the door, but doesn't get back into the driver's seat. He assumes that's supposed to look like a compromise, but it doesn't feel like one.
“Perhaps we got off on the wrong foot,” the man says, looking so much older and sharper around the eyes despite the fact he's smiling. Not the man Superboy remembers, but exactly the man Superboy remembers.
He has never been so uncomfortable in a car as he is sitting across from this man—but then, until yesterday he thought he'd never been in a car before.
That was with this man, too.
“Don't think you're too indestructible for seatbelts,” Father tells Conner dryly, and Conner pouts up at him.
“Wanna sit lap!” he insists, tugging unhappily at the straps.
“Not in the car,” Father says, his eyes on his paperwork.
“Lap NOW!” Conner whines, and Father's expression turns disapproving.
“Conner, what have I told you about getting what you want?” he asks. Conner pauses, reconsiders, and tries again.
“Lap now, bath home?” he bargains suggestively. He doesn't like baths, but it's HOT today and the water would be fun to play in, so that's like winning twice anyway. Father smiles like he knows that, and unbuckles his seatbelt for him.
“Good boy,” he says.
“I don't think we got off on the wrong foot,” Superboy says. The man smiles.
“That's an excellent view to take,” he says approvingly, and Superboy tries not to react the way he wants to react to that. He's still not . . . he isn't really sure what happened, and he doesn't know what to think about all this, much less feel. “I must say, I was certainly surprised when Mercy brought you to my attention. Where's the big blue Boy Scout been hiding you?”
“Nowhere,” Superboy replies, wondering what the strange malice in the undercurrent of the man's voice is about, the sudden way the man's heartbeat speeds up. “Batman hid me.” The man cocks an eyebrow, and then laughs.
“Of course,” he says, sounding amused but not looking it at all—not in his eyes, anyway. Not sounding it, either, in the tense rhythm of his pulse. “How is your father? He hasn't been sticking his nose into my business lately, I'm feeling a bit neglected.”
“. . . Pa's off-planet,” Superboy tells him, slowly, watching the man's eyes narrow as he speaks, hearing his heartbeat change again. The word feels weird and wrong in his mouth, and the way the man's eyes . . . the way Father's eyes look doesn't help: flat and cold, like green stones. It's not something he'd ever call Superman to his face—it's not what Superman is, he reminds himself, fiercely—but he thought it was what Father would expect.
“Ah, just too busy for us mere mortals again?” Father asks archly. He looks like he's smiling, but Superboy can't help but interpret it more as a baring of teeth. The “too busy” doesn't help, cuts right through, and he flinches before he thinks better of it.
Father's eyes narrow again.
“Too busy for you?” he asks in an odd, silken tone. Superboy presses his lips into a thin line, looking away. He shouldn't have gotten into the car, he thinks.
“I need to go,” he says.
“Stay,” Father says, smiling with his teeth. “We'll . . . talk.”
No, Superboy tries to say, but it comes out wrong.
“It seems I missed your debut last month,” Father mentions casually as he leans back in his seat. His heartbeat is slow again, controlled and unwavering. “There wasn't any usable footage of the bridge incident, and the papers have had surprisingly little to say on the subject.”
“Why would they?” Superboy asks. He isn't important; he isn't even interesting. Father looks sideways at him with an unsettling smile.
“Aren't you a precious thing,” he says, and Superboy stiffens at the word “thing”. But if anyone can call him that . . . this is the man who'd know, if anyone did.
He doesn't like thinking that, though.
Why did you give me to Cadmus, Superboy wants to ask, did you make me on commission, was I always supposed to be their weapon? Did they offer you money or a grant or a job?
Did I just stop being good enough for you?
But he doesn't ask, and Father keeps talking.
“What's your name?” Father asks. “No, wait, let me guess—Jonathan?” And he smirks at that, like it's funny. “Jonathan and Jor-El. That sounds like Clark's style. Or lack thereof.”
“Who's Clark?” Superboy asks, confused. Father starts to smirk again, but then he looks at him and instead his expression goes strange.
“You don't know,” he says in a slow, wondering tone. It's not a question, but Superboy shakes his head anyway. Father just keeps looking at him with that strange, strange expression. Superboy doesn't understand—Father has a name to call him by.
He does, doesn't he?
“You didn't come from some silly small-town farmgirl. What did he do, knock up a grateful alien princess? Shame an Amazon?” Father asks brusquely, watching him with strange eyes, and Superboy blinks, startled, and can't decide if he's more confused by the mention of farmgirls or by the fact that Father is talking like . . . as if he were actually Superman's . . . as if he weren't a clone. And that makes no sense, Father would know that better than anyone, so why would he. . .?
“You don't . . . know me?” he manages finally, embarrassed and ashamed at the idea, and Father stares at him. Superboy flushes in worse embarrassment, deeper shame, and looks down at his hands.
Father says nothing.
“I thought—I thought you knew me,” Superboy tries again, because the silence is humiliating and terrible. Father's expression doesn't change, Father's stare doesn't waver, and Superboy flashes back to those first moments outside of Cadmus, to showing the torn emblem on his solar suit to Superman and the way the man had . . . cringed is the only word he can think of, the only one that seems to fit.
Father only built him. That's all—and built him to be a weapon, on top of that, just built him and left him to be programmed and reprogrammed and reprogrammed again. He shouldn't feel . . . he shouldn't . . .
It's not a rejection.
Not a rejection that should matter.
But then Father's eyes narrow, and Superboy's heart clenches painfully. It's worse, something in him thinks pathetically, it's worse because Superman never even tolerated him, but Father . . .
“Your mother,” Father says, sharp and short, and stops making sense again. “Who is she?”
“'Mother'?” Superboy repeats helplessly, just staring at him. He doesn't have a mother, Father knows that, he—
. . . he does know that, doesn't he?
“You really don't remember me?” he asks after a moment, unable to meet the other's eyes, unable to keep the way he's feeling at the thought that maybe Father doesn't off his face, and Father goes . . . Father goes very still.
Superboy has never seen a human so still.
“Fa—” he starts, stupidly, and—
“Get out,” Father cuts through brutally, green-stone eyes just a little too wide. Superboy balks, alarmed, and Father's expression darkens.
“I said get OUT!” Father roars, jerking forward in his seat like a threat, and he's only human but Superboy doesn't think he's ever been so terrified of someone. He grabs the door handle hard enough to smash finger-grooves into it and bolts out of the car faster than he's maybe ever moved in his life, and Mercy looks startled to see him and M'gann practically collides with him, her arms locking around his neck. Superboy grabs her around the waist and pushes her back towards the team, and she curls her feet off the ground and just keeps holding onto him.
“Superboy,” she says against his shoulder, low and urgent, and he realizes she must've felt that blast of rage and fear, that she must've been lunging for the car and that's why she was there so fast when everyone else is still perched tense on the wall, pretending to be paying attention to melting ice cream.
“We're leaving,” he says quickly, walking right past them with M'gann still clinging anxiously to him and without looking back. He doesn't know what happened, doesn't know what's happening now, but he doesn't want to stay and figure it out.
He doesn't know if he ever wants to figure it out.
They get home and Superboy thinks about locking himself in his room and never coming out again, but instead follows M'gann into the kitchen and watches her rummage anxiously through the refrigerator. She's upset enough that she hasn't even shifted out of her uniform, and no one else seems inclined to change either—they're all in the living room, looking drained and confused.
“The park,” Kaldur says abruptly. “No one should mention it.”
“The park is the last thing I am ever going to mention,” Robin says, covering his face with his hands, and Superboy frowns into the living room in confusion.
“I don't understand,” he says.
“Supey, you got into Lex Luthor's car,” Wally says, giving him an incredulous look. “Half the League's already convinced you're a sleeper agent or something, this is like hanging a big neon 'I have dubious allegiances!' sign over your S-shield!”
“That's his name?” Superboy asks, a little hesitant. The others give him startled looks.
“You didn't—how did you not know that?!” Artemis demands.
“He didn't say,” Superboy replies, shrugging awkwardly and feeling like he's missing something again. But he usually is.
“No duh he didn't say, he's Lex freaking Luthor!” Wally protests, jumping to his feet and throwing his arms into the air. “The guy probably hasn't had to introduce himself to anyone from this solar system in the past ten years! People from dimensions where only shrimp and bunnies live know who Lex Luthor is!”
“So who is he?” Superboy asks, and Wally groans in disbelief and falls back into his chair.
”KALDUR!” he protests despairingly.
“He did not come up in your education?” Kaldur asks carefully, and Superboy shakes his head. He doesn't see why Father would have, that seems—“Lex Luthor is generally considered to be one of Superman's most effective arch-nemesises. He is an exceptionally skilled businessman and scientist, and he tends to . . . well . . .”
“His whole reason for living is basically to make Superman's life suck,” Artemis volunteers, and Kaldur winces a little at the phrasing but nods agreement. “You know how most people go against Superman trying to take over the world or destroy it or whatever? From what I hear, Luthor just does it because he likes giving him shit. And if he conquered the world in the process that'd be, I don't know, an accident.”
“And he'd probably go public with it the next day anyway,” Robin adds.
“I don't think you can sell stock in an evil empire,” Wally says doubtfully, and Robin just snorts.
“It's Lex Luthor,” he says, and Wally makes a face.
“Okay, point,” he says. Superboy tries not to frown, or look at them, or look at much of anything, or even really think but . . . but suddenly he's upset, upset at knowing the mad scientist who mixed him up in a lab wouldn't approve of what he's doing with his life, and isn't that . . . isn't that stupid. He already knows the man doesn't like him, definitely knows the man doesn't want him, so why . . . why should it matter?
“He's bad?” he asks uncertainly anyway. It's not a real question—he thinks of those flat green-stone eyes and knows it's not—but he can't keep himself from asking it.
“Very much so,” Kaldur agrees. “The Justice League would not approve of you speaking to him, much less speaking to him in private.”
“What did he say to you in the car?” M'gann asks tentatively, and then Superboy does frown and looks down at the floor, arms folded tight and defensive across his chest.
“He thought I was Superman's son,” he says uncomfortably. “He wanted to know who my mother was.”
“Ouch, dude,” Wally says, wincing. “Even the megalomaniac supervillian goes there before Superman does?”
“Wally!” Artemis hisses, and Superboy tries not to wince himself.
“Superman's not my father,” he says, forcing himself to ignore the way the others look at him as he does. “He didn't have anything to do with making me. Even genetically speaking we're closer to siblings. Or—well, half-siblings, I guess.”
“Half?” Kaldur frowns.
“The robots who captured me said I only have fifty percent of Superman's DNA,” Superboy replies, uncomfortable again and not quite looking at the others. At least he knows why he can't fly now, he tells himself. That's . . . good, to know that.
“Okay, first off, having his DNA at all makes you his offspring, even if asexually,” Wally says, pointing at him accusingly. “Secondly, having half his DNA definitely makes you his offspring.”
“What's the other half?” Robin asks, frowning, and Superboy blinks, derailed from the argument he was about to make.
“Other half?” he repeats blankly.
“Well yeah, dude, if you're only fifty percent Superman, somebody's got to be picking up the genetic slack. You can't just have half a chromosome flapping in the breeze,” Robin points out ruefully, and Superboy just looks at him for a moment, mind refusing to restart. He didn't even think of that. It makes sense that Father built him out of incomplete DNA—it makes perfect sense, with how flawed a result he turned out—but the idea of having another genetic donor to fill in those blanks just . . . didn't occur to him.
“Oh,” he says uncomfortably, and M'gann looks . . . very sad, for a moment, and ducks her head and covers her mouth with her hands.
“You shouldn't feel like you're not a whole person,” she murmurs, so quiet Superboy doesn't think anyone else hears. None of them react, anyway.
She could've just done it in his head and had an easier time of it, he thinks, and feels . . . odd. That she didn't.
Not a bad odd.
“We could run a DNA test ourselves?” Wally suggests after a moment. “It's not really that hard to do, I can just swab your mouth quick and throw it at the computer. We're probably not gonna be able to find out who your mom is but we can at least figure out what she is.”
“. . . what?” Superboy says slowly, head just barely tilting.
“You're probably half-human, but it never hurts to check,” Wally says, as if that's the part that needs clarifying. “I mean, if somebody raided the Amazonian or Thangarian DNA we're kinda gonna wanna figure that out before it bites us in the ass.”
“How would that, um, bite us?” M'gann asks, frowning slightly as she lowers her hands again. “They don't have natural weaknesses like fire or Kryptonite, do they?”
“Not that I am aware of, but Amazonian physiology is magic-based and Superman is much more easily affected by magic than most other methods of attack,” Kaldur tells her. “That particular combination could potentially be unstable.”
“Going by that logic Amazonian DNA could be the best thing to stabilize Kryptonian,” Artemis points out, leaning back against the wall with a doubtful expression. “Isn't it supposed to be really crazily complicated?”
“Which would all totally be relevant if magic existed, but I was more thinking 'wow, I bet Wonder Woman would be totally pissed if somebody built an Amazon and made them a guy',” Wally snorts, then zips down the hall and reappears immediately with a cotton swab and an evidence bag, waving both at Superboy. “Or Hawkman and Hawkwoman having a lovers' spat that takes out half the Watchtower, which would kind of suck too, or it being something completely different that does come with its own personal Kryptonite.”
“Look guys, the files all say he's a hundred percent Kryptonian,” Robin cuts in, waving his computer at the team and scowling. “Luthor's just trying to screw with Superman, again.”
“We have reason to believe those files are not referencing Superboy's physiology,” Kaldur says neutrally, and M'gann bites her lip and covers her mouth with her hands again. Superboy folds his arms uncomfortably, looking back down to the floor. How many of me have there been? he wonders again.
“'Reason to'—what aren't you telling us?” Robin demands, immediately suspicious. Kaldur's mouth thins and M'gann winces a little, but neither of them says anything. They don't look at Superboy, but he knows they're waiting to see what he wants.
Well. It's the team, so he knows what he wants.
“I'm sixteen,” he tells them. Robin's nose wrinkles, and Artemis and Wally give him odd looks.
“Well, yeah, we know that—” Wally starts, but Superboy interrupts.
“I'm really sixteen,” he says. “M'gann's pretty sure, anyway.”
“It looks like Cadmus was erasing his memories and giving him new ones to get the personality they wanted,” M'gann explains softly, glancing down to her hands as she speaks. The others look shocked, and Superboy looks away. “And if he didn't . . . if Superboy didn't turn out 'right', they just erased them again and started over. The files Robin downloaded aren't his real files, they're just a cheat sheet so the scientists can keep track of the information they're feeding him.”
“How can you tell?” Artemis asks suspiciously, and M'gann . . . well, her hands look about as fascinating to her as the wall feels to Superboy, right now.
“I found memories from when he was little,” she says, so soft and quiet that the words really shouldn't feel so harsh. “Before he was in the pod. When he was . . . when he was with his, um . . .”
“Father,” Superboy says, short and flat, and M'gann winces again and nods confirmation.
“What the hell,” Wally says, eyes just barely widening, and Superboy crosses his arms and looks at the kitchen wall so hard he can almost see through it.
“That's what he told me to call him,” he says. “The man who built me.”
“Wait, I thought Desmond made you,” Wally protests, and Superboy stiffens, fingers digging into his arms. He thought that too, but he hasn't really . . . he hasn't really thought about that, since he found out different. Hasn't thought about how it was . . . about the part of him that thought it was better, to be built by someone else, someone who seemed to think he was . . .
“No,” he says. “Luthor did.”
Silence drops like a hammer, and Superboy doesn't look at any of them. It's not any different, he tells himself; Desmond was a bad man too, it doesn't matter that a bad man built him, it isn't . . . it isn't important. Who built him doesn't matter.
Except . . .
Except Desmond he hated for building him, for locking him up, for crushing his mind down small, for everything. Father—Luthor—whoever—he taught him how to do things and how to learn things for himself and read to him in the dark and carried him in his arms.
Superboy always knew Desmond didn't want anything from him but direct and unquestioning obedience. Luthor wanted him to learn how to lie and manipulate and be strong and have control and . . . and . . .
And he used to think Luthor really was his father.
That's the difference, the thing holding him back. Confusing him. Making it all so complicated.
Making some part of him not want to hate him.
No one says anything for a long time. Wally and Robin jitter on the couch, Artemis shifts against the wall, M'gann makes cookies—three batches—and Kaldur sits very quietly at the kitchen counter with Superboy.
In the end, Superboy's pretty sure the only reason anyone talks at all is because M'gann runs out of sugar in the middle of her fourth batch and starts crying into the cookie dough.
“I'm sorry!” she blurts, scrubbing the tears away furiously and glaring through wet eyes. “It's just—it's so unfair.”
Superboy realizes she's crying over him—for him—and feels odd again.
Still not in a bad way.
“It doesn't matter anyway,” Artemis says abruptly, her eyes fixed on the television screen. “Who anybody's dad is. You're not your dad.”
“Either of them,” Kaldur says, speaking very softly and just looking at Superboy, who looks down at the counter. He knows that's supposed to be a reassurance, knows he could let it be one, but . . .
“We should tell Batman as soon as he gets back,” he says, still looking at the counter. Still upset, because that makes it sound like it's a confession, something bad and wrong. Because it is a confession.
“Yes,” Kaldur agrees with a quiet sigh.
“Dude, are you guys high?!” Wally demands. “What, the League doesn't have enough trust issues with Supey?”
“All the more reason to tell them immediately,” Kaldur says.
“No, that is all the more reason to never tell them ever!” Wally protests, and Artemis grimaces.
“Not to agree with Kid Mouth or anything, but . . .” she trails off, making a “so-so” gesture.
“Someone is going to find out eventually either way,” Kaldur replies patiently, shaking his head. “Luthor has no reason to stay quiet on the subject. It is a much better idea for us to break the news gently rather than allow him to use it as ammunition in a potentially delicate situation.”
“. . . how delicate a situation are we talking here?” Robin asks, eyeing the television, and Superboy frowns at the strange tone in his voice.
“I suppose that would depend,” Kaldur says, frowning too. “Why do you ask?”
“Look at the TV, guys,” Robin says, and everyone's eyes flick automatically to the screen. Superboy blinks, and tips his head.
“Is that—oh crud,” Artemis groans, burying her face in her hands as the news footage goes in for a close-up on Superman being smashed into the street by a familiar style of robot. The words “LIVE FROM METROPOLIS” are splashed liberally across the screen.
“You know, they could at least text us when they get back from deep space,” Wally attempts, but his heart obviously isn't in it.
Superboy stares at the screen and Kaldur and M'gann both rest a concerned hand on his arm, but he barely notices either. He remembers the soft leather couch he'd sit on with Father, watching news reports just like these, and remembers Father's casual breakdown of the fights—discussing the openings Superman left, the mistakes his opponents made, pointing out more economical uses of his powers.
Frowning a little, sometimes, when Superman didn't do well.
On-screen, the robot explodes, another half-dozen pile onto Superman, and Father steps out into the street in crackling green and purple armor, smirking like he knows how the world is going to end.
And like he planned it all himself.
“This may be a problem,” Kaldur murmurs.
“On the positive side, it's not your problem,” Mercy says casually, and they all whip around to see her standing in the doorway with an energy pistol and a good dozen robot enforcers. Wally swears, Artemis and Kaldur grab for their weapons, and Robin's already behind cover with a fistful of batarangs.
M'gann reaches for Superboy's hand, and holds it tight.
“Um,” she says, very quietly. “Would you like some cookies?”
“Are we . . . being held hostage?” Kaldur asks doubtfully, eyes flicking from Mercy's pistol to the motionless and bag-laden robots flanking her. Normally this wouldn't be a necessary question, but Superboy's pretty sure normally the hostage-taker's robot enforcers don't bring groceries when they break in.
“Only a little,” Mercy answers as the robots head into the kitchen and start unpacking the groceries around them and plating M'gann's cookies in surprisingly pretty arrangements. Mercy slings herself down onto the couch next to Wally and sets a small communicator on the living room table in front of them, still casual.
“I thought babysitting wasn't in your job description,” someone says, and it takes Superboy a moment to realize it was him. Mercy laughs.
“Hostagesitting is,” she says, and Superboy's eyes flick to the groceries. They're mostly junk food, the kind of little treats the others like to keep in the base and Batman and Black Canary don't want them eating too much of. They don't look like hostagesitting food to him.
Kaldur opens his mouth to say something, but the communicator says something first.
“Luthor,” it growls. Superman's voice. A spark goes up the back of Superboy's neck and his eyes snap to it, and he feels stupid and awkward and made-wrong and weak, and can't for the life of him tear his eyes away.
“So nice to see you again, Boy Scout. To be honest, I wasn't sure if you'd even show—I hear you've been too busy for Earth lately,” Father's voice drawls, and Superboy doesn't know if it's a bad sign but the uncomfortable spark goes out at the sound of it.
“What is this?” Artemis asks, eyes narrow. Mercy shrugs and inspects her pistol like a different woman would probably inspect her nails.
“Mr. Luthor just wanted to check up,” she replies mildly. “He likes to be in the loop, you know. Unfortunately he had a prior engagement, so he sent me instead.”
The robots—they're not the same kind as before, still green and purple but much smaller and much more delicate—shoo M'gann and Kaldur out of the kitchen, and hand a plate of M'gann's cookies to Superboy and shoo him out after. He remembers, for the first time, similar machines puttering around Father's apartment on and off. Not this sophisticated, but similar all the same.
“This seriously puts the dis back in turbing,” Robin says, staring at the robots. He's still behind cover, which Superboy doesn't blame him for at all. Actually, he kind of wants to be there with him, which is a pretty unprecedented feeling for him.
“What do you want, Luthor?” Superman's voice says, low and dangerous amongst the screams of tearing metal, and that lights that uncomfortable spark again instantly, to the point Superboy's almost dizzy with the back and forth of it.
“What do I always want from you, Superman?” Father purrs, and still somehow manages to make it sound like he's spitting the words. Superboy doesn't know what he should be thinking about this. Doesn't know what he should be feeling about this.
“I've never understood,” Superman says, voice very quiet. Very quiet, and very strange.
Superboy's never heard anyone sound that strange before.
Father doesn't say anything. Superboy sets down the cookies and his eyes automatically flick to the television screen, and Father's expression is terrible. He's not even sure what kind of terrible, only that he never wants to see it again. Only that it makes his spine prickle and his shoulders tense and something in his chest go painful and tight.
On the screen, Superman drops the twisted metal in his hands and steps forward as if to attack, but doesn't. He just . . . stands there, and Father just stands there with that expression, this look that makes Superboy feel like he's seeing the moon for the first time, like he's seeing Superman for the first time.
Like he's seeing that awful way Superman's always looked at him for the first time.
Superman takes another step, and starts to lift a hand—and then hesitates.
Father's eyes narrow.
“Of course you don't,” he says darkly, and lifts a hand like Superman didn't. His gauntlet glows bright green, and a burst of energy hits Superman in the chest and sends him skidding backwards across the street, the camera swinging wildly after him. Superboy jerks, M'gann gasps, and Mercy laughs. It's a mean laugh, though, and not one that actually thinks something is funny.
Superman gets up, dust and rubble sliding off his shoulders, and he and Father collide and Superboy still doesn't know what to feel.
“If you wanted to go, you could just say,” Mercy says, raising an eyebrow. Superboy looks down at his hands, and realizes they're in fists.
“No,” he says, and sits down down abruptly. “I don't want to go.” Mercy smiles, or does something like smiling, and M'gann and Kaldur lean against opposite sides of his chair and touch the backs of his hands. Artemis shifts like she wants to go for her bow, Robin's fingers are an inch from his glove, Wally is blurred around the edges, and Superboy is just staring at the television screen, watching Superman and Father fight, wondering what the point is.
Is there a point? Is something supposed to happen, or change, or . . . or anything?
“Lex,” Superman's voice hisses through the communicator, soft and pained and startling, and Father laughs.
“Superman,” he hisses back, mocking, and on the television glowing-green hands come together and the explosion rocks the entire street. Artemis and Wally both swear and Kaldur stiffens as the video feed cuts out, and Superboy just watches the news anchors' mouths move and listens to the communicator.
What else would he do?
“It doesn't have to be like this,” Superman says, angry, and Father laughs again.
“You don't even know what this is,” he says, and then, casually, “I found footage of the bridge incident. It was surprisingly difficult. But I have to say, I never did picture you for such a stern father.” The audio quality is good enough that Superboy hears the breath Superman sucks in.
“Kryptonian biology is incompatible with human biology,” he bites off sharply, and again, Father laughs. This time it's . . . bitter? Superboy's not sure—to his ears it just sounds ugly, but something in his head still says “bitter”.
“Is that what you told him?” he asks, and Superboy's ears hear “amused” but that something in his head knows that's nowhere near right. “What does he think, that he fell out of the sky?”
“He isn't my son,” Superman snaps, and Superboy wonders if anyone else in the room hears Father's heart skip the same pained beat that his own does. They must hear his, at least, it's too loud in his ears for them not to have. He knows Superman isn't his father. He never asked him to be his father. He never asked him to do anything except help train him and maybe help him figure out what was wrong with his powers. He'd like . . . he'd have liked more, liked to be able to ask him if he knew how to pass for human, if it was even possible to restrain himself enough to live like one, if . . .
He just wants to know where he came from.
“That's my boy,” Father says, smoothing a hand through Conner's hair.
New footage pops up on the television screen, probably a different camera and definitely a different angle, high up and far away. Father and Superman are standing in the wreckage of the street, surrounded by destroyed robots and devastated buildings and standing so close that their chests are practically touching.
“He doesn't even know your name,” Father says, lowly. “Why doesn't he know your name?”
“He's not my son,” Superman repeats through gritted teeth, and Father makes a low, spiteful noise.
“If you thought that, then what did you take him for?” he hisses. “And you didn't even have the goddamn decency to tell me it was you. That idiot who shot me, he thought he was working for scientists—do you know what I thought?”
“What are you—you built him?!” Superman demands, voice flashing with horror and fury, and Superboy can't repress the cringe. M'gann and Kaldur's hands grip the backs of his, hard and lasting and like a promise, but he still just wants to curl up and disappear at that tone in Superman's voice. “You sick—I should've known, who else would be that arrogant. How dare you!”
Father doesn't say anything, and Superman snarls wordlessly and grabs the front of his armor.
“My people are dead!” he shouts. “There will never be another Kryptonian born! And you cook up some mockery of one in a lab to kill me!”
Father's gloves burst into green light, and the energy blast throws both him and Superman skidding backwards through the rubble, the camera swinging wildly from one to the other and the news anchors practically shouting in the background. Superboy feels sick, and can't stop staring at the screen.
“I'll kill you,” Father breathes, and this time it's not just instinct: this time Superboy actually hears the terrible crack in his voice. “You stupid—you thickheaded, cornfed—I'll kill you. Did you even look at his DNA?”
Superman gets to his feet, and even from that terrible angle and so far back, even through the camera, Superboy can feel the rage bleeding off him.
They're both so angry.
“What did you do,” Superman demands lowly, stalking forward in a swirl of tattered red cape and . . . Superboy did not know Superman could look menacing like that, he's never seen him look like that—uncomfortable, disapproving (smiling and kind, on the television), but never menacing.
Father . . .
There is blood on Father's face and a LOOK on Father's face and the bad man on the floor is whimpering in pain, but Conner is in his arms and not afraid at all.
Superboy's eyes close, and he curls his legs up and wraps his arms around them. Kaldur and M'gann are leaning in so close they're just shy of pressed against his sides, practically on top of him, and he has the sudden irrational desire to hide behind them like Robin and that chair.
“It's not what I did, it's what you didn't,” Father sneers as he whips his gloves up again, leaving trails of green light. Energy blasts out and Superman darts around the beams, flying straight for Father, and they collide again and go smashing back into the nearest building. Superboy notices his eyes are back open only after he's registered that, and hides his face against his knees. He's supposed to be Superman. He was made to be Superman.
Father's fighting Superman.
Father's fighting Superman in Metropolis, the place Superboy aches for, and he still doesn't know what to feel.
He should know what to feel.
The communicator is all grunts of pain and breaking concrete and angry curses that won't stop and Superboy still can't think, face buried in his knees and M'gann and Kaldur close against his sides. They won't stop fighting. They shouldn't be—they—why are they fighting?
Superboy, M'gann says inside his mind, soft and concerned, although the intrusion still makes him reflexively flinch. Kaldur's hand squeezes his shoulder.
Robin has alerted the League, he murmurs as M'gann opens the link between them, which is the first Superboy realizes that the others have been talking. But he doesn't blame them for talking past him; he doesn't want to talk even now. Red Tornado and Black Canary are uninjured but restrained in the gym, and the Zeta beam platform has been disabled. My king and the Martian Manhunter are attempting to break into Mount Justice as we speak, but there are more robots outside.
The immediate reaction is the wrong one, Superboy knows, because some part of him is . . . flattered, almost, that Father went to so much trouble.
Oh, is all he actually manages.
What do you want us to do, Superboy? Kaldur asks quietly, kindly, and Superboy hates that Kaldur has to ask him. He wouldn't know. He doesn't know anything. He almost shakes his head, then covers it instead.
I don't KNOW, he snaps, and then cringes at himself for snapping. It's obvious what he should want, they should be tearing through the robots and knocking Mercy into a wall and fighting their way out, and—and doing something. But really, what would they do, anyway? Superman doesn't need help, wouldn't want it, and Father . . . Father is the bad one.
He can't help Father.
Alright, Kaldur replies, mental voice even quieter, and squeezes his shoulder again. Superboy wants to punch something. That would help, he thinks, except for how really it wouldn't help at all.
He wants it to help. It's all he's good at, even though he's not even that good at it. It's all anyone expects him to—
“You really do take after him,” Father says with a sigh, torn between resignation and amusement, and Conner beams down at him from the tree branch, rescued kitten purring in his arms.
”Hold this panel steady,” Father says absently, absorbed in his work and the schematics pinned to the wall in front of him. Conner braces his hands against metal with a little frown of concentration, and watches Father's drill spark against the panel, which vibrates underneath his hands. “Good boy. Now, the first thing you have to know about energy cannons is that you will never need one, but that alone is reason enough for everyone ELSE on the planet to. And if you're creating a demand, well, you might as well go ahead and create the supply while you're at it. Never let it be said a man can't profit from his enemies.”
“'Nemmenies'?” Conner repeats, brows furrowing again as he tries to wrap his tongue around the unfamiliar word, and Father smiles indulgently.
“Enemies,” he repeats more slowly, sounding out each syllable and lifting his head so Conner can see his mouth move. Conner frowns deeper.
“Nemma—enna—anemma—” he tries, stumbling over the word.
“Enemies,” Father repeats for him again.
“Annamies. Enemies!” Conner exclaims, delight flaring up with the triumph, and Father smiles in that indulgently amused way again and pats his head before returning to his work.
“Good boy,” he says, then starts explaining what he's doing to the cannon, and Conner grins.
”One day this will all be yours.”
Superboy's eyes snap back open and his head snaps back up, and on the television there's another burst of green light and something else explodes, and from the communicator Father and Superman's voices are tangled in angry, wordless sounds of fury, and he should . . . he needs to be doing something. There's nothing he can, but that doesn't stop the need.
“Come now, Superman! You're really that offended by my parenting style?” Father shouts, and he's trying to sound cool and detached but he doesn't, at least not to Superboy. “Not every little boy grows up on Mom and apple pie, you know!”
“Parenting—” Superman's voice breaks off into a snarl, and Superboy can hear both their pulses raging. “You grew a weapon in a test tube!”
Father's gloves burst with green light again, and they go crashing into another building.
“You're such a fool,” Father hisses roughly. “Think you're so high and mighty, so much better than the rest of us, but you still had to steal your own—”
“It's not my son!” Superman roars, and from a very distant place Superboy hears Father's pulse change.
“White noise,” Father says like he's sheathing a gun, terrifyingly calm for just one breath, and Mercy jerks forward and grabs for the communicator. Wally's faster, though, even though he looks surprised to be holding it at all. Mercy's amused little smile vanishes.
“Give me that,” she says flatly, bringing up the pistol.
“Um,” Wally says, and his eyes slant to Superboy. “No.”
“You don't even want him?!” Father snarls in a different, purer rage. Superboy flinches without even registering the action, and Mercy's eyes narrow and she's across the table and kicking Wally's feet out from under him. Wally drops the communicator, and Robin snaps it up a second before Mercy's gloved hand can close around it. “What did you take him for, if you don't even want him?!”
“Authorization: Mercedes Graves! Delta Black protocol!” Mercy snaps, and the robots rush out of the kitchen. Kaldur grabs one around the neck, M'gann sends two flying with a telekinetic sweep, and Artemis whips out a mini-crossbow from somewhere and fires three quick bolts for the nearest one's joints. They explode on contact, and Wally hits right after them in a blur, his momentum and the small explosions enough to send the robot staggering backwards.
“The League isn't leaving a weapon like that in your hands!” Superman snaps, and Superboy should be on his feet, should be helping the others, but all he can do is listen to Father's breath catch, Father's pulse change.
“I can't believe you,” Father says incredulously, and for a second . . . just for a second, he sounds like he's . . . disappointed. Then he just sounds furious again, so fast Superboy almost thinks he imagined it. “My SON is not a WEAPON!”
Superboy blinks, slowly, and in that time Robin nearly drops the communicator, Artemis does drop her crossbow, Wally runs himself into a wall, and M'gann and Kaldur both get thrown into walls.
That was probably distracting to hear, he thinks.
Then he buries his face in his arms and tries to remember how to breathe.
“Kid,” Mercy says warily against a background of explosions and breaking concrete and the sizzle of heat vision, and M'gann and Kaldur are gripping his shoulders again and even the stupid robots seem to have forgotten what they were doing, and Robin's still clutching the communicator.
Superboy feels like he's going to be sick. Or . . . or cry, maybe, although he's never done that before.
Except he has. He has and Father was the one who soothed him when he did, he's cried and Father made it so he didn't have to and. And.
“If you ever call my son an 'it' again, you'll find out just how gentle I've been with you all these years,” Father's voice spits through the communicator, and Superboy's eyes burn. Not the way the G-gnomes told him they would, with bright light and destructive force, but somehow it still feels destructive. He doesn't lift his head or look up again, doesn't let himself think.
Doesn't even feel his name, right now. It's . . . it's not . . .
He doesn't think he has one, right now.
Except he does.
“Kid,” Mercy says again, a little sharper, and the communicator clicks off the instant Superman starts to speak, but not before Superboy hears fury and disgust in that first syllable. He's never heard Superman sound like that, unless hearing his own voice counts.
“I want to go now,” Superboy says, still not lifting his head. Mercy's silent for a moment, then he hears her move.
“Authorization: Mercedes Graves. Stand down,” she says. The robots all go completely silent, and Superboy finally looks back up, feeling weak and exhausted and numb around the edges. There are crossbow bolts and scorch marks on the walls—Mercy fired that pistol and he didn't even notice—and a lot of the furniture has been knocked askew or slashed, but the robots are all deactivated and Mercy has sheathed her weapon. Artemis is holding the crossbow again, Robin still has the communicator, Wally is standing tense with his back to the wall, and Kaldur and M'gann are both back at his sides. They're all still covered with dust and scratches and scorch marks of their own from breaking him out, and they're all still here.
Superboy still doesn't know how he feels about most of this, but that the rest of the team is still here . . . he knows exactly what he thinks about that.
“Miss Martian?” Kaldur asks; she's already nodding.
“The bioship's ready to go,” she says, and that fast they're all out of the living room and running for the hangar. This must be a terrible idea, Superboy thinks, but no one else says anything and he can't bring himself to. They pile into the ship, and it takes off before they even get to their seats—before the door is even closed.
“Did we seriously just leave Lex Luthor's right hand and half a dozen of his robots alone in our base?” Artemis demands breathlessly as they tumble into their seats, although she sounds more amused than concerned.
“I think it's safe to say it's compromised no matter who we leave in it,” Robin replies dryly, looking sour at the thought. Superboy should be bothered about that, he knows, but . . .
“We have more important concerns,” Kaldur tells them.
“This is a bad idea,” Superboy says after all, and Kaldur leans over to grip his arm and meet his eyes, expression calm and serious and professional.
“We know,” he replies in that unfailingly reassuring voice, and it's . . . surprisingly comforting to hear, actually.
“Okay,” Superboy says, looking at his feet.
“What do I tell Uncle J'onn and Aquaman?” M'gann asks nervously, and Kaldur and Robin share a glance.
“The situation is under control,” Kaldur answers after a moment's pause, which is, Superboy suspects, the closest thing to “lie” Kaldur can bring himself to order when it's Aquaman they're talking to. He definitely isn't under control, he knows, and there's nothing they can do in Metropolis no matter how fast they get there, but he still needs to be there. He just—can't not be.
It's his city, something stupid and misguided whispers inside of him, and he has to be there for it.
And Father and Superman . . . whatever else they both are and aren't, they're part of that city.
It takes too long before the bioship stops over that same wrecked street that they watched on the news, but some part of Superboy doesn't even care. He drops out of the ship—”If you're going to insist on jumping out windows, you're going to do it RIGHT.”—bends his knees, relaxes his muscles, and lands on the balls of his feet, immediately dispersing the force of impact into a roll. He still hits hard enough to crack the pavement, but for once not hard enough to crater it. Which shouldn't even matter, the state the street's in, but matters all the same.
Black Canary's tried to teach him how to do that, he remembers as he straightens up and looks down at the cracked street, the others landing beside him, sliding down ropes or in M'gann's case just floating down. Somehow, though, the memory of Father teaching him how to do it . . . somehow that cuts through clearer, makes more sense.
It shouldn't, but it does.
“Nice, dude, keep this up and we'll pass for covert yet,” Wally says, grinning down at the cracks, and the others look impressed and pleased too. Superboy wonders if they'd still look that way if they knew what finally let him figure it out, and then realizes that he already knows.
It's . . . it's nice, to already know.
“I don't hear any fighting,” he says. M'gann points down the street.
“The highest concentration of people is down that way,” she says. “Police and civilians, a few blocks away. I don't know about Superman and, um . . . Mr. Luthor.”
“Okay, let's never call him 'Mr. Luthor' in front of the Justice League,” Robin says, looking pained. “Seriously, Batman will bench us all and ground me.”
“What do we know?” Kaldur asks as they head in the direction M'gann's indicated, as if it's any other mission. If nothing else there'll be people who they can ask what happened, Superboy guesses.
“Superman's a crap dad,” Artemis supplies, and Kaldur sighs.
“What do we objectively know,” he amends.
“That was objective!” Artemis protests.
“And also seconded,” Wally adds, raising a hand.
“Super-hearing,” Kaldur says evenly, pointing up at the sky, and they both wince. “Now, what do we know?”
“Superboy's really sixteen,” M'gann puts in immediately, raising a hand.
“And was built by Lex Luthor,” Robin says, frowning.
“And used to live with him,” M'gann adds.
“Wait, you actually lived with him?” Artemis demands, head whipping around to stare at Superboy in bemusement. “Like what, he kept the petri dish in his fridge?”
“Like I lived with him,” Superboy says, scowling defensively. Why does everyone have to keep bringing up the petri dish?
“He read science books for bedtime stories,” M'gann volunteers. The others stare at her.
“Um. What?” Kaldur asks carefully, which is the closest to speechless Superboy's ever seen him.
“. . . well. He does have a very soothing voice,” M'gann replies lamely, fiddling with the cuffs of her gloves. “When, you know . . . um.”
“When it's not full of malice?” Artemis suggests sarcastically, and M'gann brightens.
“Hello Megan, that's when!” she agrees, clapping her hands together. “And that's where Superboy learned about Capek and Asimov and Turing! And, um, how to disassemble a Smith & Wesson Sigma SW9EV 9mm, but I don't think that's going to come up anytime soon. Um.”
“Why would he teach you that?” Wally asks, looking vaguely horrified, and Superboy shrugs.
“I think he just liked to multitask. He'd clean it while he was reading,” he replies.
“To a kid?! What if it went off?!” Wally protests, and Superboy gives him an odd look.
“It would've tickled,” he says.
“. . . okay, point,” Wally admits, expression turning disgruntledly mollified. “But still, the principle of the thing, dude.”
“If we could focus, please,” Kaldur says, raising a pointed eyebrow as he pauses to absently straighten a knocked-crooked mailbox.
“Superman has super-hearing, Superboy's really sixteen and used to live with Lex Luthor, and when Cadmus had SB they kept erasing his personality trying to get one they liked,” Robin rattles off, then frowns and gives Superboy a puzzled look. “How did Cadmus even get you, anyway? Batman didn't turn up any connections to Luthor when he went over their computers.”
“I don't remember,” Superboy replies uncomfortably—he doesn't want to, because he doesn't like any of the explanations that come to mind.
“Mr. Lu—I mean, Luthor was talking about Superman stealing you,” M'gann says, frowning faintly too. “Do you think . . .”
“It did not sound like he meant from Cadmus,” Kaldur muses in something like agreement, but also kind of not. “And he said the man who took you worked for scientists.”
“Trusting Luthor's word is so not happening,” Robin says dubiously. “Especially considering he knew Superboy was listening.”
“Especially considering he was talking to Superman,” Artemis agrees, tugging her ponytail straight. Superboy frowns.
“But he wasn't lying,” he says. “He never sounds mad when he lies.” The others look uncomfortable, and after a moment Kaldur tries to smile but it comes out a little too concerned.
“You were very young when you knew Luthor, Superboy,” he reminds him. “Your opinion of his trustworthiness will naturally be biased.”
“I didn't say he was trustworthy,” Superboy replies, frowning again—he can't even think that far yet, it's too complicated and he's not smart enough, he knows. “I just said he wasn't lying.” Kaldur looks bothered for a moment, then thoughtful.
“I suppose there is a distinction,” he murmurs.
“That still doesn't mean you should believe him,” Robin cuts in quick, and Artemis nods emphatically. Superboy feels awkward looking at the rest of the team, and looks at his feet instead.
“I know,” he says.
“I could . . . check,” M'gann offers cautiously, glancing at Superboy. “If you wanted me to, I mean. Do you want me to?”
“. . . later,” Superboy says. He doesn't want to know the truth; Father will be able to tell if he knows the truth. He just . . . he wants to know what Father will say, either way. M'gann just nods, and the others look bothered again.
“We're here,” M'gann says suddenly, pointing ahead, and as they round the corner of the next building they see people down the block, all clustered together. They're far enough away that Superboy mistook their combined heartbeats and breathing and rustlings as just the sound of the wind and the machinery of the city. But he hasn't really spent much time in cities, except in his head. There's police and police cars and paramedics and ambulances and even people in bright orange already cleaning up the street, but mostly it's citizens watching all the fuss, clustered on the other side of barricades as everyone on the city payroll does their jobs.
Father is sitting in the back of one of the ambulances, stripped of his armor and stained with blood and expressly casual.
“Ah,” Superboy says unthinkingly, something catching in his throat. His legs tense and he almost jumps the distance between them, but Kaldur grabs his arm and then he realizes that might get taken the wrong way by all those upset-looking law enforcement people, and the street's torn up enough already anyway.
But he still wants to.
They walk instead—most of them walk, M'gann drifts and Wally zips ahead like always—and no one looks very happy to see them. Artemis lags behind the group a little as a policeman comes towards them, her heart rate picking up like she's expecting a fight, and some distracted part of Superboy wonders why.
“You kids need to get out of here,” the irritated-looking officer says, pointing to the other side of the barricades, but Superboy's really only looking at Father. Father's handcuffed to the ambulance and watching them with an odd little smirk despite the blood in his eyes.
It looks like he's trying not to smile, Superboy thinks.
“Is Mr. Luthor alright?” Kaldur asks evenly, and the nearest officers all give them incredulous looks.
“Are you kidding me?” one says. Kaldur waits patiently, and the woman laughs in disbelief. “He's fine, unfortunately. At worst the bastard has a concussion.”
“Thank you,” Kaldur replies politely, and the officer just laughs again, shaking her head incredulously. The other officers don't look any less bemused. “May we speak with him?”
“Superman already—” one of them starts, and Kaldur shakes his head.
“Not like that,” he says. The officers frown, a few of them shifting into more aggressive postures, and a few of them just sharpening a little around the eyes.
“Then like what?” one of the sharpened ones asks suspiciously.
“Like he's my father,” Superboy says uncomfortably, shoulders hunching, and then—then the officers stare.
Mostly at his chest.
Superboy wishes he'd worn his jacket, suddenly, and could zip it shut.
In the end the police are shocked enough to let him through and Superboy ends up sitting on the steps of the ambulance next to Father, who smiles indulgently. More than a few of the officers are muttering under their breaths and one's radioing their boss, but Superboy tunes them all out—there's only one place his attention belongs right now.
“Come all this way just to say hello?” Father inquires, tugging lightly at the handcuffs so they clink against the bar they're chaining him to. “Aren't you a thoughtful boy.”
“Kid Flash got the communicator before Mercy could turn it off,” Superboy says abruptly, and Father's eyes flicker, just for a second. “That's what she was supposed to do when you said 'white noise', right?”
“That's correct,” Father says, looking like he's smirking without actually smirking at all.
“Why did you tell her to do that?” Superboy asks.
“I don't believe in fighting in front of the children,” Father replies with a dismissive gesture. Superboy frowns.
“But you were really fighting,” he says, and an odd slant comes into Father's eyes.
“Fighting Superman has nothing to do with hitting him,” he says. Superboy starts to protest, but . . . well, it's Superman. How many people can really hit him and hurt him anyway? The only reason Father survived this fight—the only reason Father's survived a lot of fights, according to the others—is because Superman doesn't want to kill him. Because Superman never wants to kill people.
He's the most powerful person on Earth, and he never wants to hurt anyone.
Superboy only wishes he could be like that.
“Why did you give me to Cadmus?” he asks, wishing he didn't want to know, and Father's eyes flicker again, then darken rapidly. Superboy immediately feels like he should stop talking, but the words come spilling out anyway and won't stop. “I—did I come out wrong, was I supposed to be—was I supposed to be different? Or did I not—”
“I didn't,” Father cuts him off, his voice coming down like a guillotine, and Superboy's chest goes tight.
“Oh,” he says.
“You were kidnapped,” Father says, and Superboy feels that uncomfortable not-heat-vison burning trying to start behind his eyes again, because “kidnapped” is just a word but . . . weapons are stolen.
“I thought,” he tries, and almost immediately has to try again, “I thought because I was a flawed clone . . .”
“You aren't a clone,” Father tells him in that guillotine-voice, and Superboy stops, and blinks.
“What?” he asks blankly.
“Genetically speaking, you are my son, as well as Superman's,” Father says, and smirks in a strange way. “Of course, it's biologically impossible for two male specimens to reproduce, but it's also biologically impossible for humans and Kryptonians to reproduce. So why not?”
“Why would you do that?” Superboy asks, staring at the ground in a slight daze. Superman isn't his father, something inside reminds him.
Except apparently, he is.
“To prove I could,” Father says casually, except something underneath the surface isn't casual at all. “Besides, Luthor brains with Superman's brawn? You'll be unstoppable.” Superboy starts to say something, but . . .
Father's lying, he realizes in bemusement, and just stares at the other. Or not . . . maybe not exactly lying, maybe not completely lying, but he's not telling the truth either. He's avoiding something.
“I'm not actually that smart,” he tells him instead of asking what that something is, a little abrupt, a little anxious. Father just scoffs, disinterestedly examining the torn cuff of his sleeve.
“You were trying to speak at six months, figured out how your fingers worked at eight, and started using sentences at nine,” he says, lightly brushing rubble out of his cuff. “You're brilliant.”
“No I'm not,” Superboy replies automatically, instantly resenting the additional lie. Father's eyes narrow, and he stops pretending to be paying attention to his clothes.
“You were three when they took you,” he says as his eyes lock with Superboy's, even and matter-of-fact and looking like he'll destroy the world if someone so much as mentions how hard his hands are fisted in on themselves. “You were reading at a fifth-grade level, had the dexterity of a six year-old, and had the vocabulary of an average middle school student. I know you. Just because some fools in a lab didn't bother actually educating you, don't think I don't know what you're capable of.”
“But I'm not,” Superboy repeats, shaking his head fast and feeling suddenly hot and uncomfortable and a little terrified and that look on Father's face is—he shouldn't have come, of course Father was just going to lie, he probably wants—who knows what he wants, except to hurt Superman, except to lie, except to—
“How long did they have you?” Father asks with narrowed, terrifying eyes, and Superboy looks down at his hands, feeling . . . weak. Weak and stupid. It was one thing when he thought he was only in Cadmus for a few months, but knowing he was there for years and years and years and never figured out what they were actually doing to him, never escaped, never even tried to . . .
Then again, maybe he did, and they just took it away from him.
“Until two months ago,” he says. “They, uh . . . I didn't really . . . remember you. Until recently. I kept turning out wrong so they kept erasing my memories so . . . I guess so I'd be a better Superman? More loyal.” Maybe that's why he's not as smart as Father remembers him being, he thinks suddenly, maybe that's why he gets so angry and stupid; they just erased his head a few too many times and anything smart or good or right he had in him got ruined.
If that's true he's ruined, he thinks. He isn't who Father remembers. Even if it's not true he's still ruined, he never learned any of the things Father wanted him to learn and didn't grow up how Father wanted him to grow up and he's not a worthy weapon or a worthy person or—
He realizes, a second late, that Father is still looking him in the eye as he thinks these things, and a second later than that realizes that something in his own expression is making Father's into a rising storm. Superboy cuts off everything in his head, goes stiff and straight-backed, but Father keeps looking at him like the slightest breath of wind will unleash a monsoon or a hurricane or a tidal wave or the absolute final destruction of the universe.
His hands are not clenched anymore.
“They wanted you to believe you were Superman,” Father says. It's only sort of a question, but Superboy nods anyway.
“I was supposed to replace him. If he died or turned from the light,” he replies awkwardly. Father cocks his head at that, eyes narrowing a little; like he's storing away a piece of information that's caught his interest but isn't important yet. “I thought—they told me they cloned me from him. For that. But I can't fly and I don't have heat vision or ice breath, so . . . well. You know that, I guess,” he murmurs, ducking his head, because of course Father knows that. Father's DNA is probably why he can't do those things, although he isn't sure how he feels about that.
Superboy wants to fly, more than almost anything does he want to fly, but does it really matter that much when it's just that he can't, and not that he was made wrong?
“I just thought I was an imperfect clone,” he says finally, helplessly, and Father's eyes darken again. If lightning were green, Superboy thinks, Father's eyes are the green it would be.
“Has he even spoken to you?” Father asks through gritted teeth. For a second Superboy doesn't know who he means, but that's stupid—of course Father's talking about Superman.
“Yes,” he says quietly, ashamed to remember either time and how stupid he'd acted. “When Aqualad and Kid Flash and Robin broke me out of Cadmus, and on the bridge.”
“Twice. In two months,” Father says in an odd, measured tone. Superboy grimaces and looks away. He knows he's not . . . he knows he isn't a worthy successor to Superman, he knows he isn't even a successor to Superman—he's only “Superboy” because he doesn't have another name—but it hurts to be reminded so clearly. Hurts worse to be reminded by Father's voice. But it's not Superman's fault he's not a real person or Superman's fault he doesn't have a name, it's . . .
. . . wait.
A name, he . . .
“I'll tear him apart,” Father swears, jerking to his feet and pulling something small and metal out of the back of his mouth as he steps away from the ambulance. The police officers start shouting and Superboy stares; the handcuff wasn't even locked. Father strides forward, doing something to the little metal thing, which starts flashing green and letting off low, urgent beeps, and the closest policemen swing up their guns and shout warnings that Father ignores.
Superboy keeps staring, and then the first shot's fired. The sound is loud and for the first time frightening—for the first time a danger—but Father's not where the bullet is. For a second Superboy thinks Wally grabbed him, but then realizes—no, it was him, wasn't it, because he's standing on cracked pavement and Father's off the ground and in his arms and looking mildly exasperated, as if bullets aren't a concern even though he's so human and breakable and killable and human.
Superboy didn't even know he could be that fast.
Father gives him a cool look and gestures to be put down. Superboy thinks about it, some part of him, but instead tightens his grip. The policemen haven't lowered their guns, but his teammates are right behind them, tense and alert, and he knows what would happen if one of them tried to fire again.
“You can't,” he says to Father, and carries him back towards the ambulance quickly as Kaldur talks the policemen down. Father raises an eyebrow at him in that indulgent way, like he's still three years old and wants to jump out windows and rescue kittens from trees. There's an undercurrent of something else there, though, the storm Father wants to unleash on Superman, and Superboy can sense it simmering inside him; hear it in his pulse and feel it in the tense muscles coiled in his arms.
“Believe me, I can,” Father answers evenly, although he doesn't try to get free. Superboy's not sure if he could or not, but since it's Father he's assuming yes, if he really wanted to.
“Please don't,” he tries instead, and Father gives him an unreadable look. Superboy tries to think of a less stupid way to put it than I don't like it when you fight, but there isn't one so he doesn't say anything. He sets Father back down in the ambulance and looks at him, and Father smirks and snaps the handcuff back around his wrist. Indulgent again, a grown-up waiting for the kids to leave the room before he does grown-up things, but good enough, Superboy thinks.
He crushes the lock to make sure it stays locked, this time, and Father laughs. At him, maybe, or maybe not, but Superboy doesn't try to figure out which.
“Can I have that . . . the metal thing. Whatever it is,” he says, and holds out his hand. He doesn't know what it does, but he knows Father was going to hurt someone with it. “Please.”
“Your pa couldn't fly until he was eighteen,” Father remarks as he hands it over, like it's nothing at all, and Superboy's eyes widen and he almost drops the thing. That's not—he didn't—“Didn't get the heat vision or ice breath until around then either.”
“What?” Superboy tries, hands curling around the metal thing he still hasn't even bothered to look at, and Father inspects the crushed handcuff with a disinterested expression. Superboy's eyes burn and he looks at his cupped hands and doesn't know . . . doesn't know what to do. Or say. Or be, even, because he doesn't understand what Father wants from him at all.
Father tugs at the torn front of his suit, and reveals three very old puckered bullet-hole scars in his chest, a surgical line where he must've been cut open to take those bullets out, and—much lower, and even older—another surgically clean slice in his gut.
Superboy stares, and something flashes bright and hot in the back of his mind.
Father and Mercy are bleeding. Father and Mercy are bleeding and a stranger has Conner and he wants FATHER and the stranger is holding him so tight with metal arms that HURT, breaking a needle against his neck and holding him too tight—nothing has hurt before, nothing has EVER hurt like this before—and Father is bleeding and bleeding and BLEEDING—
Father is bleeding, and staggering towards him with the most terrible expression. The stranger laughs incredulously, and shoots him again.
Father falls down and lies still next to Mercy. Like they're sleeping, but too still for even that, and Conner can hardly see them, he's crying too hard, fighting too hard to get free of those horrible metal arms. The door breaks in and Hope bursts into the room, and the stranger swings his gun towards her but her own is already on him, and the bullet tears through his shoulder and the stranger drops backwards off the window ledge and takes Conner with him. Hope lunges, leaps straight out the window AFTER them, but the stranger's boots glow like a star and blast them up, and Hope's grab misses and she falls down. And down and down and down and down and they keep going UP—
“DADDY!” Conner screams as loud as he can, but it doesn't make Father come and it doesn't drown out the sound of Hope hitting the ground far, far below.
“You are not imperfect,” Father says, Father's scars say. “I wouldn't waste my time bleeding for a failed experiment. You are not a weapon, either. Weapons are things for someone else to wield.”
Superboy stares at those scars, and can't think past the sight of them. They are old, they are terrible, they are proof of—proof of something, something he can't name but something all the same.
“Your stomach,” he says, a little inanely. “What's that from?” Father's eyes flicker, and he pulls the torn fabric back over his flesh.
“I told you. I bled to get you,” he says. Superboy thinks about asking for a better explanation, but really, that's all the explanation he needs.
“Okay,” he says, and glances back towards his team and the police. Most of the officers still look upset or suspicious, but his teammates are all waiting patiently, unbothered. Well—as patient and unbothered as Wally and Artemis can get, anyway. It's . . . it's reassuring in a way that's really hard to explain, except actually just embarrassing to think about explaining. He guesses he's still not very good at having teammates yet.
He looks back, and Father's waiting the same patient way for his attention to return to him. Superboy feels immediately flustered and looks at his hands, struggling for something else to say or another question to ask or . . . or he doesn't know what.
“Do you live in Metropolis?” Father asks; regret flashes through Superboy, and he shakes his head. Father's eyes narrow, just a little. “Gotham?”
“No,” Superboy says, shaking his head again. “I live at our base.”
“But your teammates don't.” Father's eyes are still narrowed.
“Miss Martian does,” Superboy attempts, not sure what to think of that expression; Father just looks dissatisified.
“I'll have Mercy arrange an apartment for you while the lawyers are dealing with all this,” he says, as simply and casually as if it really were something simple and casual, and Superboy stares at him. Why? is mostly what he wants to ask, although he knows he should be saying something about how he can't accept anything from a supervillain or . . . whatever.
“No,” he finally manages, and quickly amends: “No thank you. The base is fine.”
“It's not in Metropolis,” Father says, and Superboy wonders how it can be so obvious to Father that this is the only place he wants to be when no other adult he knows seems to have noticed at all—it's not that this is Superman's city. Not just that, anyway.
This was supposed to be his city.
Superboy loves this city. He can't not; Metropolis is as much a part of him as his powers and his anger and the purpose that he sacrificed to see the sun and moon and Superman. The first things he remembers the G-gnomes ever showing him were Superman and Metropolis, and for a long time those were his first and most vivid memories.
He remembers other things now, but if anything, that's only made him feel it more.
“Mercy could have the apartment set up by tonight,” Father says.
“I don't think Superman would like that,” Superboy tells him, and Father smirks.
“No, he wouldn't,” he replies with a quiet, malicious pleasure. “But he would notice it.” Superboy looks at him for a long moment and remembers . . . remembers a lot of things, but mostly just the one.
“If there's one thing I ever teach you, boy, it'll be how to get what you want,” Father says with serious eyes, crouched down on Conner's level. Conner nods agreement, although he's not exactly sure what he's agreeing to, and Father tilts his head a little and keeps looking at him with those serious eyes.
Father's never looked at him so serious before.
“I will give you the world if I have to destroy everything between this moment and that one,” he says, very quietly, and MEANS it.
Conner has never, ever felt so loved.
“I need to go now,” he says, because if he stays any longer he'll probably break those stupid handcuffs off again himself or do who knows what or—or he doesn't even know. Or nothing. Or everything.
“If you must,” Father says, watching him in a way that . . . Superboy looks away, embarrassed, and steps back. No adult has ever looked at him like that. He doesn't think even his teammates have looked at him like that, and it's not something he knows how to react to.
“Yeah,” he mutters, and takes another step back, awkward and uncertain. Father keeps looking at him, though, and the idea of leaving him is . . . Superboy knows Father will not be alone if he leaves: there's Mercy and his lawyers and they're surrounded by police and civilian spectators and Father is wearing that cool and competent expression, that smile like the world is just another obstacle to be conquered, like everything is under control and always will be. Like everything's fine. And he won't be alone, Kaldur and M'gann are waiting right there for him and Robin and Artemis and Wally are just past them, distracting the spectators with a loud argument that has no other purpose than to get their attention and block their cameras.
It's not like before, when someone took him someplace awful and lonely and he couldn't come back. It's just him leaving for now—Superman doesn't like him being in Metropolis, but it's not up to Superman or anybody but himself whether he comes here.
So he can leave, and it'll be fine.
Father's still looking at him, though. And Father smiles, long and slow.
“When you're older, then,” he says casually—or not casually at all, it's hard to tell—as he leans back in his seat, and an unfamiliar feeling creeps into Superboy's chest. “After all, one day this will all be yours.”
And it's exactly the thing Superboy wants most, but somehow it only matters because Father is the one saying it.
“You said that before,” he says, looking at the handcuffs. Father smiles.
“Yes, I did,” he replies. “Did you believe me?”
Superboy hesitates, and then he's not really sure how, but he ends up sitting next to Father, which he's sure he shouldn't be, and looking . . . maybe still at the handcuffs, maybe at the ground, maybe at Father; maybe just at nothing, because everything's just a distraction anyway.
“Yes,” he says softly, and Father smiles wider.
“That's my boy,” he says, and reaches over. Superboy thinks for a second that he's going to take back the little metal thing or hit him or point at the torn S-shield on his chest, and when Father's hand rests on his head instead he's not . . . he doesn't really know what to think, then.
“I don't think . . .” he starts, and hesitates, then, because . . . because should it matter, if Superman wouldn't like that? It's not . . . Superman's not his father, except for how he is; Father was his father, and maybe still wants to be, even if . . . even if he's not as good as Father thinks he is.
But he's not as good as Father thinks he is. He's not anything like Father thinks he is, Father hasn't seen him in more than ten years and—and—
“Conner,” Father says quietly, and Superboy blinks. And chokes.
“What?” he manages, staring at the pavement. Father's hand drops down, lays across the back of his shoulders. Superboy chokes again, the sound strange in his ears and the feeling uncomfortable in his throat and his eyes are doing that . . . that thing again, like they're burning. Except not like they're burning.
He's not what Father thinks he is. Or wants him to be. And Father's going to notice that, just like Superman did, and then he'll know better than to mean . . . anything he might mean right now. But Superboy still can't bring himself to leave yet, even knowing the longer he's here the sooner Father will notice, and the sooner Father will just be Luthor.
“Mercy will arrange the apartment,” Father says, watching him with a strange expression. “You can stay in it when you're in the city, if you'd like.”
“I don't come to the city that much,” Superboy mutters, trying to keep his eyes on the ground and not sure why it's so hard.
“That's fine,” Father replies dismissively. “It'll be there when you are.”
“I'm not Conner!” Superboy snaps, head jerking up and teeth gritting and it's not fair, he thinks, he just wants to feel wanted like he used to deserve to. But he's not like that anymore, he's incomplete and half-made and he doesn't deserve any of those things. “That was—that was somebody else, Cadmus erased him. Just because—just because I remember some of him doesn't mean I still am him.”
“Is that what you think?” Father asks, and Superboy's fists clench painfully hard.
“I know that!” he snarls.
“You have his temper,” Father observes, and then the anger rushes out and Superboy stares blankly at him. Superman doesn't have a temper. Superman is perfect. Or is Father not talking about Superman?
But who else would he have anything from?
“I don't . . .” he starts in confusion, but then can't think of anywhere to go, and Father smiles grimly and straightens the torn front of his suit.
“I found the man who took you,” he says. “You would've been six at the time—almost seven. He didn't know who he'd worked for; sloppy mercenary-for-hire, you know the type. He didn't even know who I was, at the time. Not a clever man by any stretch.”
“You looked for me?” Superboy asks, voice going embarrassingly weak for a moment, although Father doesn't look as if he cares about that.
“He led me to believe you were dead,” he says, and for a moment Superboy almost asks, why did you believe him. Then he sees the way Father looks, and thinks he understands. Or . . . not, exactly.
“Killing people isn't right,” he says quietly, and Father's smile is unpleasant and dark and his hand is still on his shoulder.
“No,” he says. “It's not.”
Superboy can't decide if they're talking about the same thing or not, but he knows Father's not sorry either way. He knows . . . he knows he should be upset, either way, but mostly what he's doing is remembering being small and feeling completely, perfectly safe.
And he remembers someone destroying that feeling, too.
“I failed you,” Father says, and then Superboy forgets about anything else and just stares at him. What—“You are my responsibility, and I let someone take you. And a Luthor doesn't take failure lightly.”
“What?” Superboy repeats inanely, and can't stop staring. Father leans forward, expression grimly cold, and for a second Superboy is almost as terrified as he was in the car, as if—as if he's not even sure, because he's not afraid of being hurt but he's afraid of being hurt. And he's seen that face before, but never straight on; never facing him. He knows how devastating that face is.
“I will not allow that to happen again, and I will do terrible things to anyone who tries to keep you from me,” Father says, low and dark and sharp and clear. A chill goes up Superboy's spine and he can't even tell if it's a bad thing; can't even tell if it's a threat or if it matters if it is. Or if he likes if it is.
It's the wrong kind of devastation. Not the devastation he meant. Not . . . not what he meant at all.
“But I'm not—” he still starts reflexively, and Father's eyes darken so suddenly that the rest of the words won't come past the sight of them.
“You are my son, whatever damn fool name anyone else calls you,” Father retorts sharply. “Whatever they think you are, I'm the one who knows what you are.”
“But I'm not how you made me,” Superboy manages to get out this time, his voice humiliatingly small, and just for a second Father looks so tired. Tired and maybe even hurt, a little, although Superboy's probably imagining that part—but only for a second.
“If you think that's enough to stop me, you don't remember me at all,” Father says. And he's right, Superboy thinks, remembering bullet scars and bullet wounds and dark and ruthless eyes. Remembering being safe, and being scared, and bodies hitting the ground and job descriptions and less-sophisticated robots and one day—
“I'm still defective,” he mutters. “I'm not what you wanted.”
“I don't want anything from you,” Father replies. “I want things for you.”
“I don't—what? What does that mean?” Superboy asks uncertainly, and Father's expression flickers lightning-fast through a hundred things. For a moment he almost looks like he's struggling with something, but then his face smooths and his eyes go clear and mild, and he looks like it's nothing.
“Never mind,” he says, and lets his hand drop off Superboy's shoulder. “You'll understand soon enough.”
It sounds like a promise, so Superboy decides to take it as one.
“Screw professional, we deserve so much ice cream for this,” Artemis says vehemently as they walk back to the bioship, and Wally and Robin both nod in just as vehement agreement. Superboy thinks about it, but only because it's easier to think about than Father and Superman and the ruined city block and the building they blew up this morning and Hope and Mercy and hitting the ground. But mostly anything would be, he figures.
Conner was something else. Something Father wanted, created; something Father thought should exist. Someone Father thought should exist. Superboy is . . . whatever else he is, he's not Conner. He can't design or build or repair robots, he can't reason out the reasons that people do the things they do, he isn't someone Superman wants to be called anything by, much less . . . much less what Father told him he'd want to be called.
But he knew what Father was talking about when he said “someday this will all be yours.” Superboy isn't Conner, but he knows what Father means when he talks.
Most of the time.
“I don't want anything from you.”
“I want things FOR you.”
“Superboy, are you okay?” M'gann repeats, and Superboy's too-slow brain catches back up and he wonders, how can he be so fast and so slow at the same time?
“Yes. No,” he says, then shakes his head and corrects himself. “I will be.”
He thinks it's true, anyway.
“I'm glad,” M'gann says, touching the back of his hand and smiling a little weakly, or a little softly, or a little of both. Superboy looks down at her fingers and thinks about the time he was in her head and what it felt like—what it felt like coming back to himself inside her.
“If you need to speak to someone about this, we will all listen,” Kaldur promises, and Superboy thinks about coming back to himself to the sound of Kaldur's voice, too. He's been gone so many times there isn't even any point in counting, wiped clean like he was never there at all, but . . .
“I just don't want to forget again,” he says, and M'gann's fingers press just a little tighter against the back of his hand. He thinks about turning it so her fingers press into his palm instead, but isn't sure what he'd do then—he thinks he wants to hold her hand, but he doesn't know why and everything else is making it hard to figure that out. He doesn't even know if Conner would want to do that, or if it's just this pasted-on person that he is. Or is supposed to be. Or . . .
“I don't know if I'm real,” Superboy says, staring down at the pavement and feeling vaguely sick. “If I'm—programmed. Instead.”
“Do you want me to check that too?” M'gann asks hesitantly, touching the back of his wrist. “When I look to see how Cadmus got you?” Superboy blinks, and looks back up. He'd forgotten about that.
“I know how they got me,” he says. “Father had—Luthor had scars from it. He showed me them and I remembered.”
“Wait, scars?” Artemis asks in bemusement. “How does he have scars from freaking lab work?”
“Obviously you've never done real lab work,” Wally scoffs, and Superboy sighs.
“Not like—” he starts, then remembers the unexplained scar on Father's stomach and frowns to himself. “A little like that. But he got shot, too.”
“In the lab?” Robin asks skeptically, tilting his head. “Dude, that is not picious.” The others stare accusingly at him, then more accusingly at Wally.
“Suspicious without the 'sus', means 'trusty, believable', something like that,” Wally supplies automatically, which gets the conversation immediately back on track aside from Robin's big dramatic “why can't you people read my MIND yet” sigh.
“At home,” Superboy corrects. “Someone broke in and stole me.”
The stares get rerouted.
“'Home',” Kaldur repeats, very carefully, and Superboy folds his arms and tries not to tense. The apartment was Conner's home; what else would he call it?
“Yes,” he says. Kaldur looks at him for a long moment and for a second Superboy's almost angry, because Kaldur said—
“How old were you?” Kaldur asks, and Superboy deflates.
“He said I was three,” he replies uncomfortably, arms falling to his sides. “I'm not . . . I remember stuff from before, from when M'gann found the old memories, but it gets . . . frayed. There.”
“Do you remember anything after you were taken?” Kaldur asks. Superboy shakes his head, shifting uncomfortably, and tries to pretend everyone isn't watching him right now.
“Not really,” he murmurs. “Just bad feelings, and . . . and it was bad.”
“Daddy,” Conner sobs, curled up small in the bottom of the scary white tube and cringing away from the looming monsters—little ones in all the shadows and big huge ones that won't let him OUT, he just wants Father, he doesn't want to BE here and the tube and the monsters are so scary and he can't stop crying.
“Keep it quiet,” the man in the white coat snaps, the man who's the scariest thing of all, and one of the little monsters jumps at Conner and he shrieks in terror and everything goes—
Superboy doesn't manage to repress the flinch, although “flinch” is probably too weak a word for it.
“Superboy . . .” M'gann touches his arm, eyes big and worried, and he grits his teeth and tries to just . . . he doesn't know, exactly, what he's trying to do.
He called me that name, he tries to say, but can't say. Except M'gann's eyes soften anyway and of course she heard and he doesn't even know how he feels about that.
“Conner,” M'gann says, and wraps her fingers around his wrist.
“Don't call me that,” he snaps out quick, eyes widening, and M'gann looks so sad. “That's not—I'm not him, he's gone, they erased him. They erased every stupid—I'm not him.”
“I can check,” M'gann says quietly, and Superboy hates that soft tone in her voice and her gentle fingers around his wrist and the metal arms that took him away and the white walls that ruined him.
“Okay,” he says.
M'gann stands in front of Superboy's seat in the bioship and touches his temples with the very tips of her fingers. It's not something she needs to do to get into his mind, he knows, but the physical signal that she's about to is . . . is something. He's not sure what something. They haven't taken off yet, and Wally and Artemis are both outside in the street; Kaldur and Robin are hanging back against the wall with unreadable expressions.
M'gann's eyes close, and Superboy's not sure if his do too, but inside he feels like he's falling. Inside he feels . . .
“Too soft. Start over.”
Superboy feels . . .
“Too hard. Start over.”
Feels like . . .
“This one STILL won't stop crying.”
“It tried to WHAT? What in—forget it, just scrap it.”
“You useless . . . look at those eyes, is it even IN there?”
Superboy feels like
“This is no good.”
Inside Superboy feels like—
“You are my son, whatever damn fool name anyone calls you. Whatever they think you are, I'm the one who KNOWS what you are.”
—like Superboy, and not any different at all.
His eyes open, and M'gann pulls her hands back like she's about to cover her face, but then stops and covers his instead. He doesn't understand why, for a moment, but then he feels her gloves slip against his wet skin and oh. That's . . . that's why.
That's what that feeling when his eyes burn means.
“Conner,” M'gann says and Superboy hears it again, a promise, something he'll understand soon enough or something he almost, almost understands right now or he's not sure. But something. One of those things. Something he wants to fall apart over. “They weren't programming personalities into you, they were just . . . starting you over. Raising you different.”
“. . . what does that mean?” Superboy manages, wanting to see her face but pretty sure he couldn't even if her hands weren't in the way. His eyes are still burning.
“It means you're Conner. You've always been Conner. You just . . . don't remember things,” M'gann murmurs, and lets her fingers fall away. Superboy looks up at her, lost for what to do with that, and blinks fast to clear the blur in his eyes. It doesn't really help, so instead he looks at the floor.
“Yeah, so much ice cream,” Wally announces from the doorway, and Superboy blinks and looks over and he and Artemis are both standing there carrying a good half dozen half-gallons of ice cream on each arm.
“. . . I didn't get the Bat-credit card back after the limo showed up, did I,” Robin says with a pained expression, dropping his head into his hands; Wally and Artemis grin.
“Just remind Batman we blew up a LexCorp building when he asks,” Artemis tells him with unnecessary glee, brandishing her share of the bags. Catching a glimpse of the receipt hanging out of one, Superboy has to wonder where they found ice cream that expensive that fast, then realizes that's kind of a stupid thing to wonder.
“I blew up the LexCorp building!” Robin protests indignantly, rolling off the wall and rifling through Wally's uniform until he comes up with the credit card.
“Well we helped,” Wally huffs, hugging his own bags to his chest.
“And yelled at me for it!”
“They make dark chocolate black cherry ice cream,” Artemis tells the rest of them, ignoring Robin and Wally and grinning widely. “Did you know they did that? I didn't know they did that.”
“Perhaps we ought to return to Mount Justice before it melts, then,” Kaldur suggests with a wryly amused expression and the kind of thinking that definitely makes him the best choice for leader, and Superboy's so relieved they aren't talking about who he isn't or maybe is anymore. The bioship's barely off the ground before Wally's sneaking into the key lime ice cream, though, and as soon as they catch him at it Robin's into the cotton candy and Artemis is digging out the chocolate cheesecake. M'gann floats the bubblegum over to herself and drops the strawberry into Kaldur's lap and the apple pie into Superboy's; he frowns down at it curiously and turns it over in his hands, trying to remember what sorbet is like and wondering how ice cream can taste like pie, anyway. Not that he knows what pie is supposed to taste like.
The ice cream is pretty good, though.
He looks around the ship, from Wally and Robin and Artemis jeering at each other and threatening an ice cream fight to Aqualad curiously inspecting chunks of frozen strawberry to M'gann steering the ship in-between floating bites of bubblegum, and he thinks about the things he doesn't remember, and the things he almost remembers—the things M'gann stirred up in him looking around.
He thinks about holding her hand again, too, but instead of doing that takes a bite of ice cream and focuses on how good it tastes and not how he'd never have tasted anything like it if not for the others, but how he'd never have tasted anything like it again.
And he thinks about Father and how he almost never remembered he existed.
“Did you get a good grade on that paper?” he asks abruptly, scooping up another spoonful of ice cream and concentrating very hard on it. “About your first memory?”
“Oh heck no, dude, I went down in flames on that thing,” Wally groans, sprawling dramatically in his seat as he crushes the already-empty container of key lime. “It was an unmitigated disaster, my parents are still pissed.”
“Mitigated,” Superboy corrects absently, still thinking about things he might never have remembered and things he maybe never will. The others give him puzzled looks, except for Wally, who looks horrified, and Robin, who looks thrilled.
“Dude, you've infected him!” Wally says, dropping his head into his hands. “He is going to say 'aster' to Lex freakin' Luthor and we are all going to get shot!”
“Worth it,” Robin declares gleefully, grinning so wide he looks like his face might crack. Superboy doesn't get it and just frowns at both of them, and Kaldur sighs quietly and then smiles over at him.
“Mitigated?” he questions, and Superboy glances away in embarrassment, spoon poking halfheartedly at his ice cream again. It's . . . it's how he feels, he thinks, but it's hard to say.
“Incomplete, not totally,” Wally defines despairingly, slumping lower in his seat. “I am seriously going to be a translator forever now, you guys are jerks.” Robin huffs and Artemis smirks, but Kaldur and M'gann just smile and Superboy feels even more embarrassed, still poking at his ice cream.
“Would you like us to call you Conner when we're not on missions?” Kaldur asks gently, handling the name like he's testing it out, and Superboy stares into his ice cream and doesn't know. Even if he really is Conner underneath it all, using that name still feels like so much.
“Maybe,” he says. “Not yet.”
“Very well,” Kaldur replies, smiling at him again. “If you ever decide you would like it, only tell us and we will all be glad to.”
“Batman is going to be totally whelmed about it, though,” Robin mutters around his spoon, eyebrow quirking noticeably behind his mask.
“Is that good or bad?” Artemis asks doubtfully, and Wally opens his mouth to clarify but M'gann yelps in surprise and drops her ice cream on the floor. It swallows it, and Superboy wonders if that's a cleaning function or something else—it's hard to tell, with the bioship. For one thing, it's called a bioship.
Then he looks to see what made M'gann react like that and forgets that kind of question entirely.
“Frick!” Artemis curses, she and Wally both nearly jumping out of their seats, and Superboy keeps staring out the window at the person flying alongside the ship.
“Should I. Should I let him in?” M'gann manages awkwardly, and it's only when no one else says anything that Superboy realizes she was asking him. And some part of him does feel like he should know the answer, but for whatever reason it just won't come.
He never does know the right thing to say around Superman, though.
They land inside Mount Justice—they weren't far from it anyway—and Superman comes down outside the ship's door and stands there, waiting. It feels weird, Superboy thinks, for Superman to be the one waiting. Not bad weird but nothing like he's used to and part of him worries that it'll make Superman angrier, if he's angry. Which he probably is. Which the whole League probably is and for the first time he thinks what if they don't WANT me anymore?
They might not. He's not—he's not from where they thought he was, and Kaldur said Father was Superman's nemesis. Cadmus is one thing, but a “nemesis” . . . that's so personal. Anyone would be suspicious.
And Superman already doesn't like him.
“Oh this is so not fair,” Wally moans, dropping his head into his hands. Superboy wonders how well the bioship is soundproofed, to Superman. He can't hear outside it very well himself, but Superman is Superman and so he just . . . doesn't say anything. All he can think about is Batman telling him he's off the team, that he can't be trusted.
“Dis, dis, total dis!” Robin hisses urgently, edging in front of Superboy like he thinks he can—what, hide him? From someone who's not even looking at him, and never has? Superboy doesn't really know, although he appreciates the thought, he guesses.
Superman just keeps standing there, waiting. Superboy thinks about asking M'gann to turn the ship around and going back to Father. He's already in so much trouble, that couldn't possibly make it that much worse, they'll probably send him back to Father except he's still not the person Father wanted him to be and the League probably wouldn't want to send Father a weapon like him anyway even if he is defective and—and. And even if Father says he's not a weapon.
He's probably lying anyway, Superboy tries to tell himself.
Except he remembers how Father looks when he lies.
“What do we do?” Artemis asks warily, touching her bow.
“As we must,” Kaldur replies, calm and even and steadier than anyone else Superboy has ever known. “Please open the door, M'gann.” Artemis scowls and Robin shifts uneasily and M'gann bites her lip and the door opens, and Superboy can't think of a worse idea than getting off the ship. But then Kaldur and M'gann both touch the backs of his hands, just once, and then following them out of the ship isn't nearly as hard as he'd thought it would be.
Still so much harder than he wishes it were, though.
“We, ah, need to talk,” Superman says to the empty space past Superboy's shoulder as they all disembark; despite everything it takes Superboy a moment to realize he's talking to him specifically, so it's Kaldur who answers.
“How may we help you, Superman?” he asks, smiling polite and serene and serious. Artemis and Wally are scowling and M'gann's floating slightly off the ground, her toes just barely brushing it, and Robin's still standing in front of Superboy. Most of them are, he notices belatedly, except M'gann who he'd think was positioned to cover his back if this were a combat situation.
But maybe it is, he admits.
“Am I in trouble?” he asks before Superman can get around to answering Kaldur, which for some reason is taking him too long anyway, and the others tense and Superman winces.
“I—it isn't—no,” he says, shaking his head. “No, I just . . . we just need to talk. About—please.”
Superboy stares up at him, unable to even begin to understand where that “please” came from. He's the one who's always been waiting, the one who gets said no to; he's the one who turned out all wrong and can't find the words.
Superman's perfect. He never has that problem at all.
“Okay,” he says finally, because what else can he say? Superman just looks more upset, if anything, and Superboy feels embarrassed and angry and ashamed—why can't he ever do the right thing? At least say the right thing?
M'gann touches his arm when he follows Superman into the hall, and her fingers are cool and ice-cream sticky and he really, really wants to hold her hand: that want is a picture in his mind, clear and perfect and loud, and she turns bright red and her hand doesn't drop even once he's past her. He doesn't look back, because looking back would get him even more twisted up, but in his head he feels her voice.
We're all right here, she says, and suddenly that is clear and perfect too.
I know, he says.
Superman takes him to the training rooms, which are both comfortably impersonal and a frustratingly effective reminder of all the things Superman won't do for him, ever. Superboy doesn't—he's not—Superman is not his father, if anyone is his father it's Lex Luthor, not that Lex Luthor is—apparently—the kind of father he should have. Or want to have.
Except so far he's been exactly the kind of father Superboy would have wanted, if he'd ever really thought about having one. Superman . . . he just wanted Superman to train him. Not all . . . not all this other stuff. Just that.
“I—do you—has anyone told you—” Superman starts and stops and starts and stops and starts and stops again, and Superboy tenses uncomfortably and M'gann holds onto him from the hangar, her mind against his mind. He feels her leave the hangar—feels all of them leave the hangar—and folds his arms across his chest, pretending it's not because some part of him is trying to hold onto some part of them.
“Told me what,” he asks, although he can't make his voice come out right so it doesn't sound like a real question. Superman steels himself, it looks like, that's so stupid the Man of Steel has to steel himself just to talk to him—
“Lex Luthor is a criminal,” he says.
“Aqualad told me,” Superboy replies—“Aqualad”, not Kaldur, because using real names with Superman just seems wrong, like a right he doesn't have or a thing he doesn't want to share or maybe both at once.
“Oh,” Superman says, awkward, and then doesn't say anything. Superboy doesn't understand his expression and stares down at his feet in frustration rather than try to figure it out; he doesn't want to end up wearing that stupid searching lost look he can always feel on his own face every time he tries to understand Superman, ever. The angry one's less embarrassing, at least, but only sometimes—sometimes he just feels even stupider about it.
He never asked for a father. He never asked for anything, just—he just wanted trained by someone who only wanted to train him, like everyone else. He wants to be—not “human” but a person, someone with value to something, and how can he—how can he have value without being shown how to, told how to? There are no more G-gnomes feeding information into his mind, no more scientists to write his programming, no more rasping whispers echoing down the hall to bring him to his own mind.
His. His own mind.
He has his own mind.
He just thought . . . he thought Superman would be the one to know how to use it.
“Am I in trouble?” he asks, staring at his feet, the floor, anyplace but Superman and the bright and inspiring and heartbreaking emblem on his chest.
“. . . not with me,” Superman says quietly, which is such a strange and surprising answer that Superboy looks up before he can think better of it. Superman's expression still doesn't make any sense, but he's looking . . . at him. Not almost at or just past or away from, just . . . at.
“Stop that!” Superboy blurts reflexively, a little panicked, and Superman looks startled.
“I—what?” he asks, clearly bewildered, and Superboy burns with humiliation and just shakes his head roughly and stares so hard at the floor that he can see the ghosts of heat from the mostly idle electronics under the floor. “Superboy—”
“I'm not going to go bad,” Superboy snaps, fists clenching against his own arms. He already made that choice, he gave up his whole life and threw himself on the mercy of strangers just hoping that maybe maybe maybe he could be a better kind of weapon than the kind of weapon Desmond had wanted him to be, that maybe maybe maybe he could go outside and breathe free air and see—the sun, the moon, the sky.
He gave up everything he thought he was for a sky he's never gotten, except Father—Luthor—he said he could still have it. Someday. Maybe.
Could you really not fly until you were eighteen? he doesn't ask, because Superman doesn't want to answer questions like that, and instead tenses up tighter and keeps staring through the floor. There's a place where there's supposed to be heat and isn't; he should tell Black Canary something might be burned out.
“It doesn't matter who made me anyway,” he says. I'm still YOUR clone, I still want to be as right and good as YOU, he doesn't say. “Cadmus screwed me up. I'm not how he wanted me to be. He won't—he'll figure that out and go away. So you don't have to—to worry or whatever.” Or take me off the team, PLEASE don't take me off the team, they're all I have, they're the only ones, the only thing, I wouldn't have ANYTHING—
He breathes too fast and his heart goes too fast and Superman can probably hear that, of course Superman can hear that, and M'gann clings tight to his mind, soft and solid and not cold or crushing or anything like what Desmond made the G-gnomes be like, not making him think anything, just making it easier to think. Somehow.
He's still so terrified of losing them, and in the instant that it takes Superman to open his mouth to speak five voices cry out inside him, strong and sharp and his and bursting into something fierce and fervent and more intense than he's ever felt outside of M'gann's mind.
No WAY Batman's letting him kick you out just for who your dad is! Artemis fumes, all spikes and arrows and torn-up teddy bears, dark shadowed places covered in armored masks and the sensation of a spinning wheel and the shape of the quiver her words are yanking out of and DEFINITELY no way, Batman is totally not like that, Robin agrees fast, light and bright and breathless and too bright to see, spotlight-bright and blind but always caught, no hesitation, all color, practiced and perfect and again and again and even falling there's a net strung black and shadow-soft that will always make the catch and Frick, NOBODY in the League is like that! Wally yells, spilling like chemicals and shocking like lightning and cracking fast as a whip, a tiny sonic boom with no doubt in its place and purpose and We would not let them, even if they were, Kaldur murmurs, quiet as the moment before the inevitable wave crashes down, steady as a rocking boat and the liquid draw of water, pure and bright as electric moonlight and. And.
You're one of US, Conner, M'gann says, soft and strong and everywhere and impossible to quantify, nothing the G-gnomes showed him could ever summarize the enormity of her, and his eyes come back open burning and he doesn't even care that he's this close to crying in front of Superman because—because who cares, anyway?
He wishes he understood what Father wanted him to understand, and then wonders if what Father wanted him to understand was something like this—like who created him and if someone ruined him are the same thing, flip sides of a coin that he won't be blamed for holding. If what Father wanted him to understand was that he wouldn't go away, no matter how screwed up he was.
But that can't be right.
“No,” Superman says, and Conner closes his eyes again and feels M'gannKaldurWallyRobinArtemis against his mind and. And nothing, except that. “I've never seen Lex give up that easy.”
Superboy's eyes snap open. “Lex”? he thinks blankly, staring at the curve of red-splitting-yellow, framing it, holding it in. Yellow sunlight gives Superman his powers, he remembers, sudden and inane. Red sunlight—doesn't.
“Superboy . . .” Superman hesitates, seeming torn about something, and then he lifts his hand and—what. What is he.
“This isn't about who made you,” Superman says, so quiet that Superboy has the irrational feeling that no one else in the world could hear him, even if they were right here. He doesn't take his hand off Superboy's shoulder. “I just—wanted to make sure. That you were . . . okay.”
“Why?” Superboy asks unthinkingly, made stupid by Superman's hand that is still on his shoulder, and Superman winces. Superman—winces. Like something actually hurt him, oh God. Cadmus put faulty programming in him, he's gone insane. That's the only—there's no other explanation for Superman looking like that.
“Luthor's very . . . Lex is very charismatic,” Superman says. “He makes people want to trust him, even ones who know he can't be trusted.”
“I told you, he'll go away,” Superboy says, voice coming out a little more uneven than he wants to admit even to himself, and Superman . . . looks at him, and then just sighs.
“No. He won't,” he says. Superman says.
And then Superboy—Conner—and then Conner cries.
Superman absolutely unequivocally did not mean “my mad scientist nemesis will never, ever leave you alone no matter what” as a good thing, but even knowing that Superboy couldn't help hearing it as one. If Superman said it then it has to be true, then Father can't not have meant what he said, then it really is just like his team.
Then it really is okay that he isn't right, and Father won't leave him for it.
That doesn't make it any less horrifyingly embarrassing that Superman got all flustered and panicked and sat him down against the wall and used his super-speed to bring him a blanket and hot chocolate overflowing with marshmallows and two different kinds of tissues, like—like actual boxes of tissues, that is just the most mundane thing ever, has Superman ever even used a tissue? And a blanket and hot chocolate when it's summer and it's not like he even—he barely cried. Two tears, three, and then he'd scrubbed them away and felt infinitely stupid and infinitely better and like hiding in his room for about the rest of forever.
And then Superman had basically flipped out and now here he is staring in bemusement at the man he wanted to grow up and be and being stared at by the man he wanted to grow up and be and—and he isn't sure who Superman is seeing, exactly, but he . . . him . . .
He feels like Conner again, for the first time.
He is Conner again.
For the first time.
“Um,” Conner starts awkwardly, “are you okay?” And he can't imagine why he's asking that, except barely crying in front of someone should not warrant this much of a reaction, especially not when it's a someone who didn't even want to give him the basic cheat-sheet for his powers, much less take the time to actually train him.
“I. Yes. Yes, I'm fine,” Superman manages, pushing a hand back through his own hair and still staring at him. He looks . . . kind of panicked, still. Which yeah, okay, Conner's seen “panicked” on Superman before, but it wasn't anything like this. “Are—you're okay?”
“I'm okay,” Conner says, wondering why he's even asking.
“You're sure?” Superman asks, holding out a—a tissue. For him. What?
“I'm sure,” Conner replies uneasily, just staring at the tissue. He feels like he should take it but if he did he might accidentally touch Superman and that's . . . no. No, that's not an acceptable risk. The situation is awkward enough as it is.
“Okay,” Superman says, faltering a little but still holding out the tissue. And then Conner does take it, even though the risk and even though he doesn't need it. He can't just leave it hanging there. “I. Okay. I'm sorry, I—didn't mean to upset you. Like that.”
“You didn't,” Conner lies into the hot chocolate. Superman is always upsetting and he is so tired of how obvious that is to everyone else. He wishes it weren't. He wishes supervillains weren't easier to talk to than Superman.
Or he sort of wishes that.
“He's a dangerous person,” Superman says quietly, his life-preserving, world-saving hands curled around the cheap pink cardboard tissue box like he's holding something precious and starlight-fragile. It looks . . . ridiculous.
“Everyone I know is a dangerous person,” Conner retorts childishly, and embarrasses himself enough with that childishness that he actually takes a gulp of the hot chocolate, if only to have a place to hide his face and something to mute his mouth. He doesn't know what he's supposed to say here. I'll stay away from him, maybe, except that would be a lie and lying isn't hard but lying to Superman is just . . . he doesn't think he can do that. He doesn't want to lie, anyway, he doesn't want—he doesn't—having a father shouldn't be a dirty secret.
And Superman—Superman said. Father will never go away. And if Superman said it, it's definitely true.
After hearing that, Conner doesn't care if the League won't trust him anymore, so long as M'gann and the team are still warm against his mind and Father won't go away. Or—he cares, of course he cares, growing up and becoming a real member of the League is the only future he's ever even dreamed of, but he can . . . deal with it. If they don't.
If he has to.
“What do you want to do, Superboy?” Superman asks, quiet and awkward, and Conner wants to do basically anything but answer that question.
“He's my father,” he says anyway, gritting his teeth, the words feeling dizzy and strange and perfectly right between them. “I want to see him.” Superman looks pained, and opens his mouth to—
“About that,” Mercy says casually from the doorway where she's fiddling with her cell phone, and they both jump a mile at the sound of her voice. How she snuck up on either of them Conner will never know, but he doesn't think his heart is ever going to recover from the whiplash—he didn't even think she was still in the base. “Your apartment will be fully furnished by tonight; whenever you'd like to stay in it just call ahead to the building manager, tell him when you're showing up, and it'll be stocked and clean by the time you get there. If there's anything in it you don't like or want changed, tell him that too and it'll be taken care of by the next time you're there. I have mock-ups for your identification and legal paperwork whenever you have time to look at them; as soon as you approve the information we'll have them ready within the hour. Oh, and the cards don't have upper limits, so feel free to get excited with them.”
“What?” Conner asks stupidly, staring, and Mercy smiles and dangles a shiny-bright set of keys and an even shinier set of credit cards in the air between them.
“Lex says hi,” she summarizes neatly. “When would you like to have lunch? His schedule's wide open.”
“. . . isn't there a court—”
“His schedule's wide open,” Mercy repeats smoothly, and Conner bites the inside of his cheek. Superman does not look amused.
“Um,” Conner says, trying not to glance too obviously at Superman, who just sighs very quietly and then reaches out and does that—thing, again. With his hand. Being on Conner's shoulder. Which makes no sense but okay, since when has Superman ever made sense anyway?
“Batman and I already talked about it. You can see him if you want to, but there's a catch. However much time you spend with him, you have to spend the same amount with me,” Superman says warningly, his expression very serious. Conner waits for the catch, but Superman doesn't say anything else. He waits another moment, but Superman still doesn't say anything else.
“Okay . . . ?” he finally hazards, still waiting for the catch, and Superman doesn't relax, exactly, but at least looks a little less grave.
“There's one thing I know Lex was right about,” he says. “I owe you more than I've given you.”
“You mean—you'll train me?” Conner asks uncertainly, eyes flickering back and forth between Superman and Mercy, if only because Mercy's a direction that isn't Superman to look in.
“For starters,” Superman agrees, although Conner can't imagine what the finish would be. He also can't imagine Superman owing him anything, though, much less enough that he'd actually train him and oh God, he really—Superman just said he'd train him.
“Could you really not fly until you were eighteen?!” he blurts, and Superman looks surprised.
“That's right,” he says—answering a question about his powers, Conner thinks in giddy shock, nearly reeling. Actually, more like nearly just falling over right now and never ever getting up again, ever. “Why do you ask?”
“I. No reason,” Conner manages distantly, still reeling inside and taking the keys and credit cards from Mercy just to look like he has something to do. It's not a defect that he can't fly. He's not—defective. “And the heat vision?”
“The same,” Superman confirms with a nod, looking searchingly at him. The keys are brand-new and still gleaming in Conner's fist. He's pretty sure someone just made them—possibly someone just mined the ore, from how new they look. He blinks fast, blaming that shine for the need to, and looks everywhere but at Superman.
“Okay,” he says. Mercy gives him this crooked little smirk and leans back against the door without saying anything, long stockinged legs crossing at the ankle and going on a mile, and Wally accidentally thinks something that is really embarrassing to hear, but sort of—weirdly comforting, too, like Artemis's mocking laughter and Robin's pained groan and all the normal things in the world, the parts of everything that aren't any different at all. Nothing is different, except now he knows some things he didn't know before.
Nothing is different except . . .
“I can clear my schedule too,” Superman says.
“To have lunch with Father?” Conner asks blankly, confused for a moment with his head too stuffed-full and spun-around, and Mercy's eyebrows shoot up and Superman looks startled again and oh, why can't he ever not sound stupid in front of—
“Of course I'll come,” Superman says. Like it was an invitation, Conner thinks, giddy and disturbed again. “Whenever you'd like.”
“Wednesday,” Conner picks randomly, and Mercy types it into her phone and Superman nods, polite and serious.
“What time?” he asks, and Conner barely swallows something that he can't help thinking would come out as hysteria if he let it.
“Noon,” he says. That's when people eat lunch, right?
“What restaurant would you like to go to?” Superman asks, and every Metropolis food service establishment the G-gnomes ever named scrolls fast through Conner's head and he absolutely cannot fathom this question, this universe in which Superman cares which restaurant he wants to go to. He's never even been to a restaurant except in his head, and maybe he got punched into one once. It might've been a coffee shop—there wasn't exactly time to sight-see.
“I don't care,” he says helplessly, hiding his face behind the hot chocolate again. “There are seventeen within walking distance of LexCorp headquarters. Pick one.”
“Let's just make everyone's lives a little simpler and try The Eaves. Better security,” Mercy says; Superman looks a little nauseated.
“That's a bit . . . expensive,” he says.
“Please, you're Superman,” Mercy counters, punching it into her phone. “If they actually make you pay, I will eat my hat. And stockings.” Wally audibly chokes, which Conner pretends not to notice. “You still like French, don't you, Conner?”
“I don't know,” he answers honestly; she smirks a little and raises an eyebrow.
“Well I guess we'll just have to order one of everything, just to make sure there's something you like,” she says. Superman looks pained. “Don't worry, Boy Scout, Lex'll pay child support. You won't have to worry about Conner liking him better just because of the money.”
“You can tell him that won't be necessary,” Superman says, eyes narrowing, and Mercy smirks dark and wicked and heavy-eyed and Conner remembers the shape of a gun in her gloved hand, the slick metallic-smelling shadowshine that looked black on her boots and left red footprints on the floor.
Remembers her lying still on the floor in slick metallic-smelling shadowshine and Hope diving out a high-rise window without a second's hesitation.
He knows she's not good, but he doesn't know if she's the exact kind of bad the Justice League would tell him she was.
And Father . . .
“Whatever you say, Boy Scout,” Mercy says, pushing off the wall and pocketing her phone and still smirking like she knows a terrible and beautiful thing. “I'll pick you up at ten on Wednesday, Conner. Don't worry about what to wear, Lex'll send you something to change into.”
“Uh—okay?” Conner manages, slightly horrified that he's just agreed to a dress code—what if they get attacked or the building collapses and he ruins the outfit?
“Then I'll take you home after,” Superman says like he's cutting in line, and Conner nods speechlessly because oh God Superman just offered him a ride. Mercy just laughs.
“Don't crowd the kid, Superman, it's just a car ride,” she says, dropping a brand-new cell phone that looks like the upgrade of hers into Conner's hands. Conner remembers the gun turrets and armor on the limousine and is pretty sure that's a horrible, horrible lie. Mostly the others project agreement in his head, but he thinks Wally and Robin might think it was worth it. Of course, judging by what Conner's heard about the Batmobile Robin might also think that counts as “just” a car ride, so it's hard to be sure.
“There's never a 'just' with—” Superman starts to say, and then hesitates and glances at Conner, and then doesn't say anything at all. Conner doesn't get it for a second, but then he realizes—Superman doesn't want to badmouth Father in front of him.
Oh God, he really has lost it.
“Heard it all before, Boy Scout,” Mercy says anyway, then spares Conner a wave and another smirk as she struts out like she owns the place. “See you Wednesday, kiddo.” He manages to nod in reply, holding the phone tight, which takes—heroic amounts of effort, honestly, and then tries to find a new something not Superman to look at.
“I think it'd be best if you kept living here for now,” Superman says, still looking upset but sounding calmer with Mercy gone. Conner nods, not really because he agrees but just because he's expected to do something. “You can schedule visitations however you'd like, and we'll work around you. In a few months we'll re-examine everything and see if it's working out.”
“Okay,” Conner says as he looks down at the phone, because he's expected to do something, and Superman looks pained again, just a little.
“Do you want to keep living here, Superboy?” he asks. Conner thinks of the apartment, but less the apartment and more the city it's in. Thinks about everything he's admitted today and lately and everything he's felt today and lately and everything he was and wasn't promised.
“No,” he says, feeling the weight of the blanket on his shoulders like the weight of a cape on his life. “I want to live in Metropolis.”
The apartment is too big, is Conner's first impression, and it's also not just an apartment; it's a penthouse that takes up the full top floor of an alarmingly luxurious luxury building. But then he pictures the others visiting him here all together and sees the glass roof and windows and patio that go all the way around the apartment so it can get sun all day long, so he can see the sky whenever he looks up, and then it's perfect. The bedroom's still too big to sleep in, but the closet should be okay.
Conner grips the duffel bag that everything he owns fits inside and stares out the windows at the city skyline, and Superman comes back from giving the place another going-over—checking for bugs and cameras and traps and Kryptonite-laced paper towels, Conner assumes—and stands stiffly beside him.
“If you need anything you can call my communicator,” he says. “I'll reserve a private frequency for you; it'll go straight to me no matter what.”
“Okay,” Conner says uncomfortably as he looks down at the phone Mercy gave him and scrolls through the pre-programmed contacts list—Mercy, apartment super, apartment security, private security, office 1, office 2, office 3—and on through 456789— and all the way to Father.
There's a contact labeled Pa with three different numbers under it and he isn't even surprised. Without really thinking about it, he starts to look for Hope, but then he—can't, quite, and turns off the screen instead. He'll . . . later. He'll check later.
“What if I don't need anything?” he asks, because he's run out of things to be scared of saying.
“That'll go straight to me too,” Superman replies. Conner can't say anything to that, so he just tightens his grip on his duffel bag and nods. Tries to nod. It—probably sort of looked like a nod. He hopes.
This is all so fast and terrifying and all took much, much too long.
“Superboy, I—if anything feels wrong to you at all, call me and I'll come get you right away. Anything,” Superman says, quiet and earnest and reaching out to grip his shoulders. His hands are big; big enough to completely cover Conner's shoulders. Much bigger than Conner thinks his are ever going to be. He stares at the wall past Superman's head, because Superman, because Superman is touching him, and manages to mostly nod again.
He isn't afraid of saying things anymore, at least not right now, but that'd only be useful if he had anything to say.
“And if you need anything you don't have to . . . don't do anything that makes you feel indebted to Luthor, the League can—I can help you if you need anything,” Superman continues and he is still looking at him, standing there touching him and looking at him, and Conner really doesn't know what to do with that. At all.
“Okay,” he says finally, because he doesn't have any idea what else to say, and Superman squeezes his shoulders and then lets go and gives the apartment another going over. About eighty times, Conner figures, considering it's actually taking him more than ten seconds. He looks at the contacts list in the phone again and finds Hall of Justice and Justice League Headquarters and, genuinely disturbingly, Batman. He almost tries calling that line out of morbid curiosity alone, but figures he's in enough trouble as it is and goes back to scrolling the list while he waits for Superman to come back and . . . something.
The list is interesting, anyway, even if Conner doesn't think all the numbers are numbers he should have. Lois Lane, James Olsen, Anthony Ivo, Star Labs, Amanda Waller, Ra's al Ghul, Jonathan and Martha Kent, Lawrence Cro—wait. What?
“Um,” Conner says, staring at the contact picture that appears to be a taken-by-satellite candid of an older couple talking to Superman, and Superman is by his side immediately.
“What's wrong?” he asks. Conner keeps staring at the picture.
“Do you have parents?” he asks without quite meaning to, something about the way they're standing together making him wonder, and Superman makes a strangled noise.
“How did you—” he demands, grabbing for the phone, and Conner is so startled he doesn't even try to hold onto it. He's never seen Superman look so—flustered. Or . . . embarrassed? “How did he—is that the Fortress?!”
“The what?” Conner asks helplessly, and Superman stops glaring bloody murder at the screen and looks embarrassed instead.
“Um,” he says, pushing the phone back into Conner's hands. “Never mind, just—be careful. With that. Everything in that.”
“Um. Okay,” Conner says, holding the phone to his chest and staring at Superman's. He doesn't really know what else he'd do with all those numbers anyway.
“Do . . . is there anything I can get for you?” Superman asks, shifting back, and Conner shakes his head because he's still in a little too much shock for anything else. This is all . . . this is so much more than he'd ever thought he was going to get and maybe going to take away everything else he'd ever wanted to get and maybe . . .
The phone rings.
Superman blinks; Conner looks down at the caller ID. Metropolis Police Station, it says, and he answers it unthinkingly.
“Hello?” he tries, uncertain, and the response is a low chuckle that Superman's eyes narrow at the sound of. Oh—“Father,” Conner manages, heart in his throat. “How—I thought you were in jail.”
“Well, they do give you one phone call,” Father replies reasonably, which would make perfect sense except—
“Didn't you use that for Mercy?” Conner asks, and Father chuckles again.
“Conner, if I had to actually call Mercy to get things done she wouldn't be any use to me,” he says.
“Oh,” Conner murmurs, and his voice probably sounds weird but it's only because he's trying not to smile. The way Father says that name—it really is his name, when Father says it. And Father had one phone call and is spending it on him instead of anyone else and that's . . . that's more than he would've wanted, if he'd known he could want things like that.
“How do you like the apartment?” Father asks, and Conner doesn't even waste time wondering how he knows but feels warm and weird inside all the same that he'd bother to ask.
“It's—it's cool,” he says, not quite looking at Superman because he's not sure if he's allowed to do that when he's talking to Father. “Uh, Mercy said we could have lunch at The Eaves on Wednesday. Is Wednesday okay to have lunch?”
“Of course, that'll be fine,” Father says breezily, and Conner catches sight of Superman's disapproving expression out of the corner of his eye and feels guilty for possibly giving Father a reason to obstruct justice. Although, it's Father; Conner is pretty sure Secretary's Day would be enough reason for him to obstruct justice.
Then again, not many people have secretaries like Mercy, so that might not be a fair comparison.
“Okay,” he says, staring at the floor and trying not to smile again, turning away from Superman a little to hide his expression just in case he can't stop himself. Superman probably wouldn't like seeing that. “I—yeah, okay.”
“Tell your pa we'll work out the custody agreement at lunch,” Father tells him, and a flash of unease passes through Conner like a—“Also, that I've already called Christmas and your birthday.”
“Okay!” Conner blurts quickly, even though Superman has super-hearing and must've heard all that for himself, plus he's kind of old for Christmas and he's not sure if he even has a birthday. But Father would know, obviously.
“Good boy,” Father says with genuine approval, and Conner flushes and ducks his head, even though Father can't see him, and then looks to Superman and tries not to look too obvious about . . . everything ever, more or less.
“Did you hear that?” he asks. “About, uh . . .”
“Custody,” Father supplies, and Superman sighs and folds his arms and Conner feels unsettled at the sight and just barely hunches his shoulders. It's not even the right word, he thinks, shifting restlessly; like “pa” isn't the right word for Superman, no matter what Father says or thinks himself. “Visitation”, maybe, except Superman's only going to visit him to make sure Father isn't tricking or corrupting him anyway, except it's not like he's really Superman's—
“Superboy,” Superman says gently, suddenly in way too close and reaching out to cup his shoulders again, and Conner jumps and nearly drops the phone.
“I. Uh. Yes?” he manages to stammer out, eyes too wide as he stares up at Superman, and he knows, he knows everything he feels right now is all over his face and he's so ashamed of that, so embarrassed to be so transparent here. He's holding the phone much too tight, and is a little amazed it hasn't broken under the pressure.
Superman opens his mouth to speak, then hesitates and looks to the phone. Yesterday Conner would've ended the call immediately, anything to make Superman want to talk to him, but yesterday Conner was only Superboy and so he hesitates. He doesn't know when Father will be able to call him again, or vice versa. Wednesday, probably, but it’s not Wednesday yet.
“I see we're still having issues addressing our offspring,” Father drawls over the line, and Conner turns bright red in humiliation and smothers the phone against his chest but still doesn't cut off the call. “Really, Superman, I expected better from you.”
Superman stills, an odd look in his eye, but all Conner's attention is on the strange tone in Father's voice, like he meant that. Like he expected better. Like he's . . . disappointed, almost, that he didn't get it.
But that can't be right, Conner thinks, certain that it is.
“Superboy, it’s not—” Superman starts again, still obviously struggling for words, and Conner is not just Superboy but he feels like just Superboy.
“It’s fine,” he says, looking anywhere but at Superman. There’s sky and city out the window; that’s not a bad thing to look at. A lonely one, suddenly—suddenly the view is making him think of everything he’s never been able to do, everything lacking in him, and no matter what Father’s said his gut still twists at the reminder.
He’s human, a bit, so he can’t fly. Or he can’t fly because he’s not eighteen yet. He doesn’t have heat vision, he can’t breathe ice, he isn’t a worthy successor or a worthy son, he isn’t . . . he isn’t Luthor brains and Superman brawn, just a pale, wasted shadow of both, and he doesn’t know if that makes him a bad photocopy or just wasted potential. He’s not their son, not really. He’s Father’s experiment and Superman’s embarrassment and he’s . . . and he’s . . .
And he’s not their son. Not really.
But he is their son.
“It’s fine,” he says again as he tightens his grip on the phone, gut twisted up and eyes aching like they could burn down anything, but they can’t and probably never will. Because he is their son, almost, but Superman isn’t the one who made him that way. “I know you’re not really—I know you’re not really.”
“Not really what?” Superman asks, carefully not looking at the phone. Father makes a derisive noise and Conner almost ends the call just to make Superman stop looking that way, but still can’t. Still won’t, he admits to himself, the thought small and uncertain but very, very certain all the same.
“My father,” Conner says, and hates the way the words come out almost as much as he hates the way Superman’s eyes zero in on his face as he says them. “I know everybody says—I wasn’t the one saying it. Everybody else was.”
“Yes, ‘everyone’ is a particularly unconvincing sampling,” Father remarks idly, and Conner reddens in humiliation. He hadn’t—he didn’t mean it that way, as if it’s some foregone conclusion the rest of the world’s been operating on. Even if maybe it is, a little.
At least what parts of the rest of the world that actually matter, anyway.
“Nothing. Every kid wishes Superman were their dad at SOME point, right?”
”TARGET: SUPERMAN: FIFTY PERCENT MATCH.”
“Okay, first off, having his DNA at ALL makes you his offspring, even if asexually. Secondly, having HALF his DNA DEFINITELY makes you his offspring.”
“That was objective!”
“He'd want you to call him 'Pa', I suppose.”
“Superboy—” Superman starts, again, and—
“Conner,” Father cuts in to supply. Superman pauses, frowning.
“Who?” he asks.
“My son, you unimaginable dolt,” Father retorts witheringly, and Conner can’t decide if he should wince or smile. “Did you honestly think I was calling him ‘Superboy’ when I was changing his diapers?” Superman doesn’t say anything for a moment, his frown deepening, and Father makes an outraged noise. “You did!”
“I assumed it was more along the lines of ‘Project Kr’,” Superman mutters under his breath, looking bothered. “Or at least Alexander Junior.”
“And you would’ve named him Jonathan, I’m sure,” Father scoffs, unimpressed.
“That’s not—why ‘Conner’?” Superman asks, biting off his own sentence, something tense and unidentifiable in his tone. Conner looks at his boots, wondering if maybe he shouldn’t be here. Even if he gave Superman the phone and left the room he’d still be able to hear, though.
“Are you judging?” Father asks incredulously. Conner can hear the eyebrow raise.
“I’m asking,” Superman snaps back, and Father laughs at him.
“You know why,” he says. A pained look flashes across Superman’s face, or at least Conner thinks it’s pained—he’s never seen Superman actually in pain, so it’s not like he’d know.
Jonathan. Is that Superman’s name? Is that what Father was talking about in the car? Jonathan and Jor-El, like they were names he should know, like they were—and “That sounds like Clark’s style,” he remembers abruptly. Father thought “Clark” would name him the same thing he thinks Superman would’ve, so is that . . .
Conner stops thinking about it, knowing it’s nothing Superman wants him to know and that he’s probably wrong anyway. But if Superman cares enough to have another name, then it’s definitely not one he wants him anywhere near.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” Superman says resignedly.
“You have,” Father says. “Conner, I’ll see you on Wednesday. Enjoy the apartment. Have some friends over, maybe, give the place a proper housewarming.”
“Okay,” Conner says helplessly.
“That’s my boy,” Father says. “Have a good time, son.”
“Okay,” is, again, all Conner can manage. They say their goodbyes, and Father hangs up. Conner stares at the phone with no idea what to do with it. It’s probably tapped or bugged. Batman’s probably going to want to take it apart. Superman’ll probably tell him he can’t keep it.
“Are you alright?” Superman asks. Conner laughs. The idea of Superman asking him that . . .
“I’m alright,” he says, rubbing senselessly at his eyes and putting the phone in his pocket. He thinks about checking for Hope’s name in the contacts list again, but still doesn’t. “Are you mad?”
“I’m not mad,” Superman says gently. Gently. Conner doesn’t know what to do with that. “Superboy . . .”
“Conner,” Conner says abruptly. It’s not like he has a secret identity to protect, and even if he did, would it really matter here of all places?
“Conner,” Superman repeats after a moment’s pause. “Will you be alright here on your own?”
“Yes,” Conner says. He’s not very good at being alone—he’s never really been alone, he thinks, except for when Father’s robots mistook him for Superman and Mercy locked him up, and maybe in Bialya when he’d lost his memory. Other than that, though, there’s always been people around or someone in his head. It’s Superman asking, though, and the apartment Father gave him. He doesn’t really know how to say “no”.
He could call the others, probably. Father said it’d be okay. He’s going to have to ask Batman if it’s okay, though.
“There’s somewhere I’d like to take you this weekend,” Superman says. Conner looks at him and imagines calling him “Pa” and can’t wrap his head around the idea at all.
“Where?” he asks.
“A couple of places, actually,” Superman says, folding his arms uncomfortably. “There’s some people you should meet. Should’ve met already. And some things I should show you.”
“Okay,” Conner says. It’s not much of an answer, but what, he’s going to turn down Superman? No, not likely.
“Okay,” Superman says. He walks out to the patio, and Conner follows him. Superman looks at the city below. Conner looks too. It’s beautiful from this high up, and almost far enough away to be quiet. Only almost, though.
Superman can probably hear everything, but he’s Superman.
Conner knows every corner of this city better than he even knows himself, loves this city more than he loves anything else, and standing next to Superman and looking down on it in all its bright and shining glory is . . . is something. Something very hard to define.
“. . . this is all going to be your responsibility, someday,” Superman says quietly. Conner blinks, and keeps staring at the city. It’s not what Superman said, exactly, but what he hears is . . .
“One day this will all be yours.”
“I know,” he says.
Superman gives him the private frequency and leaves. Conner calls Batman, who wants to know where he got this number and isn’t thrilled with the answer, but agrees to let him invite the others over. Conner invites the others over. They show up in the bioship and leave it hovering over the glass roof, and all spill into the apartment through a skylight with bags and bags of snacks. It immediately feels better with them there, and Conner feels relief all the way through him.
He wants to live in Metropolis very badly.
He wants the team around just as badly, he thinks.
“Thank you for having us,” Kaldur says, setting the bags he’s carrying on the counter.
“This place is insane!” Wally says, zipping around the apartment almost as fast as Superman had. “Oh my God, Supey, have you seen your TV?!”
“I didn’t really look around much,” Conner admits. Between Superman and Father . . . no, he really hadn’t looked around much.
“Well, we’re fixing that,” Wally says, blurring to a stop beside him and grabbing his arm. “C’mon, come check it out!”
Wally proceeds to give them all a tour of the apartment, which mostly consists of him exclaiming loudly over expensive or cool or expensive and cool things while the others look around and Conner gets increasingly overwhelmed by the size of the place. Somehow it’s even bigger than he’d thought. Even the bedroom closet is nearly the size of his old room in the base. He might end up having to sleep in the hall closet, if it comes to it. At least that’s almost a normal size.
Well, normal compared to what Conner knows, which is admittedly a limited perspective. The G-nomes weren’t too informative about normal closet dimensions.
“It’s pretty aster,” Robin says. “You know, for being from a supervillain and all. I’m definitely asking Batman for a penthouse for Christmas now.”
“It’s kind of big,” Conner says, embarrassed. “I didn’t know it was going to be the whole floor.”
“Well, you don’t have to use the parts you don’t need,” Kaldur tells him, which helps a little. Conner really might just live in the hall closet at this rate. It’ll fit all his things fine.
The bed is big enough to fit all of them, he realizes, so yes, he’s definitely going to be sleeping in the closet.
They finish looking around the place—Conner doesn’t want to talk about the size of the kitchen and bathroom—and finally settle down in the enormous living room with the snacks the team packed and the game systems Mercy apparently thought to buy. It’s strange, though it’s probably supposed to be normal. Giant penthouse aside, anyway. Conner’s still having a hard time thinking of any of it as his, but since everything else he’s ever owned fits inside one duffel bag, he figures that makes sense.
He’s not really sure what to think, honestly.
Wally and Artemis bicker over what game to play while Robin boots up the system and Kaldur and M’gann settle in on the couch on either side of Conner. M’gann’s a little closer than Kaldur is. Conner is also not really sure what to think about that, or maybe it’s more that he’s not sure what to think about the fact that he noticed that.
“It’s a nice place,” she says, offering him the bag of popcorn in her lap.
“Yeah,” Conner says, taking a small handful just because she’s offered, not really because he wants any. She smiles when he takes it, which—he wants that, he thinks. He wants things that will make M’gann smile like that. “We’re going to lunch on Wednesday.”
“You and Mr. Luthor?” Kaldur asks.
“And Superman,” Conner says. Everyone falls silent for a moment, then Robin starts cackling. Kaldur clears his throat.
“I’m sure the restaurant will survive,” he says diplomatically.
“I’m not,” Conner says.
“Do you want any of us to come?” M’gann asks. It’s a good question, Conner thinks, and he considers it for a moment before shaking his head. Father and Superman are a lot to handle, especially at the same time, but he’s not going to figure out how to if he doesn’t try. He hopes he’ll figure out how to, anyway.
He’ll have to eventually, right?
“That’s okay,” he says. “It’s gonna be weird.”
“We’re weird!” M’gann says.
“We are super weird,” Artemis agrees, leaning back against the bottom of the couch. She won the game fight, which Wally is still sulking over. “Besides, so what? We’ve all dealt with way worse than lunch with the greatest superhero of all time and his least favorite supervillain.”
“What about Green Arrow?” M’gann asks.
“What about Green Arrow?”
“What about Batman?” Robin asks, looking insulted.
“It’s okay,” Conner says again, shaking his head. “Father doesn’t believe in fighting in front of the children.”
“Oh my God,” Artemis says. “Did he phrase it like that?”
“Yes?” Conner frowns at her, puzzled.
“Oh my God,” Artemis says again. “Do they, like, have a custody arrangement too?”
“Superman says I have to spend as much time with him as I do with Father,” Conner says, not sure if that’s what she’s asking.
“Oh my God.”
“See, that part, that’s weird,” Wally says, pointing at Conner. “50/50 custody with your least favorite supervillain? Talk about a mess.”
“Is it?” Conner frowns uncomfortably. M’gann puts a hand on his arm.
“It is admittedly a difficult situation,” Kaldur says. “If it is what you want, though . . .“
“Yes,” Conner says immediately.
“Then that is fine,” Kaldur says, smiling faintly at him. “We will support you in whatever decision you make.”
“Any decision?” Conner says.
“Any decision that isn’t totally stupid and self-hating,” Wally says. Artemis swats him upside the head. “Hey!”
“Any decision that isn’t stupid and self-hating,” Artemis agrees. Wally gives her an indignant look.
“Okay,” Conner says, looking around at the others briefly, and then glancing up to the sky and bioship overhead. He still can’t fly and he maybe won’t ever be able to and Superman is still so complicated and hard to talk to and Father is still a supervillain and Conner’s still not quite who either of them wants him to be, much less how they’re going to get through Wednesday, but . . . but.
But he’s in Metropolis, and his team is here, and he has Father’s phone number and a direct line to Superman, and he’s not sure what else he could ever ask for.
And one day . . . one day this will all be his, won’t it.
Or maybe it already is.