a Justice League story
by Merlin Missy
Bruce knew it was a dream because he was happy. Things were happening around him, strange events with airports and sticky pink currency and an old bottle of wine, but none of it mattered, only the feelings of warmth and joy did.
The woman in his dream, dark-haired and lovely, shook his shoulder. "Master Bruce, it's time to wake up." Her face morphed into Alfred's, and considering what they'd been doing in the airport lounge, Bruce was lucky he didn't scream.
A millisecond later, he was fully awake.
"I'm terribly sorry, sir. I know it was a late night. However, Mrs. Waller is in the front hall."
"Thank you, Alfred." Bruce rubbed the back of his neck and glanced at his clock. Nine a.m., so he'd had two and a half hours of sleep. He'd gotten by on much less.
Bruce pulled on his robe and slippers, then went to the top of the stairs.
"Mrs. Waller," he said neutrally, walking down. "Is this a social call?"
"What do you think, Wayne?"
"I've readied the study," said Alfred. "This way, ma'am." He led her in and Bruce followed.
Tea had magically appeared. Alfred was always fast on his feet but this was a new record. As soon as the door closed, Bruce indicated a chair.
"I thought you'd be in church this morning." Bruce poured out two cups of tea and handed one to Waller.
"So did I," she answered, accepting the cup. "My network is getting slow. I didn't find out until an hour ago."
"Find out what?" Bruce took a sip of his tea. Alfred had made it strong.
"You've got a new child in your care. Tell me about him."
Child. Singular. "I think I'd be more interested in what you think you know."
"His name's Rex. No middle name given, no last name given. According to the head of Gotham Social Services, you managed to get temporary custody by claiming to know the boy's parents, who are now dead."
"So who were his parents? And what's his last name?"
"Old friends of mine and none of your business."
"He's got scars all over his body, old ones, and two prominent ones at his shoulders. Your friends weren't very good parents."
"They did their best." He hadn't called Leslie to ask her to examine the boys yet. He made a note to do so as soon as Waller left.
"Metamorpho, real name Rex Mason, is an old friend of Green Lantern's, isn't he?"
"I think they served together." His respect for her edged up several notches. He'd made the connection, of course, but he'd had far more information.
"I saw a picture of the boy. He's got her eyes. How long was she gone before she rejoined the League?"
"Shayera's not his mother." This was a true statement.
"He's not human, not entirely. I don't really care who his parents were, except for that fact. Is he dangerous?"
"No." He thought he might manage additional subterfuge, but he also thought Waller would make a more valuable ally than enemy. "No special powers, no secret agenda. He's a six year old boy."
"And an alien."
"And that," he said.
"Are you planning on making him the next Robin?"
"Good. How is Robin?" She sipped her tea.
"He'll be fine. What do you want?"
"Transparency. If I'm supposed to be a proper liaison between the League and the government, I need to know about undocumented aliens and metahumans. It's the only way I can do my job."
"He's just a child. That's all."
"Is Lantern his father?"
"Not yet." But in the future, Rex would call him "Dad," and that meant everything to John. "He wants to adopt him. We've been trying to get the paperwork together."
"Forged, you mean."
"Whatever it takes. I think we both know he needs better care than the state can provide for him." He met her eyes. She watched him, and he could see the gears turning in her head. Had they met as friends, back at the beginning, she might have helped him rewrite the world.
"I'll see what I can arrange," Waller said finally. "No reason to take this out of the family. So to speak." She drained her cup. "Your butler makes good tea."
"I've always thought so."
"I'll see myself out. I might make a late service if I leave now." He walked with her to the door anyway, and said a quiet good-bye.
At the edge of his hearing, he'd noticed a strange sound, like a trapped sparrow, chirping to get free from a distant chimney. He tied his robe tighter and hurried up the stairs. The noise was coming from Tim's room.
He banged on the door. "Are you all right?"
The door opened and Tim dragged him inside. Rex was huddled in a far corner of the room, wide-eyed and terrified, whistling and hooting and unresponsive to Bruce's gentle shaking.
"We watched Waller come in," said Tim. "He's been in here since, making that noise. It's Thanagarian, isn't it?"
"Probably. Watch him." Bruce cursed the fact that he'd stopped wearing his ear communicator months ago, as he ran down to the Cave to call Shayera.
Tim just let me into his room. Bruce filed that away for later.
Alfred tucked the blanket in tighter around the child. He'd stopped shuddering, stopped making those dreadful sounds, and was nursing a mug of cocoa in the dining room.
Miss Hol looked at Master Bruce. "Can you tell me what he was saying?"
"Not my language, sorry."
"It was nothing." Not once in his many years of raising boys had Alfred accepted "nothing" as an answer. He suspected it was not to be the case here, either.
"I'll continue searching for the other lad, shall I?"
"No," said Bruce. "He'll come out when he's ready. Give him some time alone."
Miss Hol sat beside the boy. "Tim said it was Waller." Rex quivered. "What happened?"
"Nothing," he whispered, sliding deeper into the blanket.
Bruce sat to the boy's other side. Alfred decided to stay. All things considered, neither of the other adults present had his experience with children. He could excuse himself when the master's other acquaintances from the League arrived.
"Rex," said Bruce, in what Alfred was sure he believed was a reassuring tone rather than a frightening one, "you need to tell us what you know."
"Sir," said Alfred. "May I make an attempt?"
Alfred knelt beside the boy. "Is the cocoa satisfactory?" Rex nodded, watching him warily. "Do you need anything? Another blanket?" Head shake, negative. "We could attempt to locate your brother and bring him here."
"No," he said in a tiny voice.
"You should know, I've raised a number of young men."
"Three," said Master Bruce.
"'Three' is a number, sir," Alfred reminded him. "It has been my experience that when something troubled one of them, telling someone, often myself, was the first step to finding a solution. I believe you have met Mrs. Waller's counterpart in your universe. In ours, she is an acquaintance. May I ask what she was to you?"
Another shudder. "She was bad." Alfred flickered his gaze to Master Bruce, who watched the child intently. Alfred had no doubt he was pondering his own journey to the boy's home universe, and debating the relative merits of "good" and "bad" as seen through the eyes of the Justice Lords' offspring.
"Indeed," said Alfred. "May I ask why she was bad?"
"No." Then he chirped something.
Miss Hol's eyes widened. "Watch your language, kid."
"That's what you called her. What Mom called her, I mean."
"Translation?" asked Master Bruce.
"Don't ask," said Miss Hol. "Why did she call Waller that?"
"Cadmus. She ran Cadmus."
"Here too," said Miss Hol.
"They were the ones who chased us. All the time. We had to stay hidden. Sometimes I hid with Dad, sometimes with Mom. We weren't together a lot. Too easily seen."
Alfred touched his hands. "I assure you, Cadmus no longer exists here. You will not be chased. You are safe."
He shuddered again. "No. No. Not from Cadmus. They'll find me. They always find me, and they'll take me again."
Mr. Stewart arrived five minutes later; he had been by early that morning, but had been called away for an emergency. Alfred felt it unwise to comment on Ms. Macabe's absence either then or now. Mr. West dashed through the door before it had even swung closed. Ten minutes after that, Princess Diana arrived, and half an hour later, speaking their apologies, Mr. Kent and Mr. J'onzz had come in through the back entrance. As they entered, Master Bruce explained what each had missed from the discussion. Miss Hol remained beside the boy, asking him questions.
Alfred took the opportunity to make a thorough search for their other guest. It was just as well to be out of the room, seeing the sick looks on so many powerful faces. He did not blame them.
Apparently, Mr. Hall's counterpart had been watching the lad when their universe's Cadmus had located them. Mr. Hall had been killed, rather messily by the boy's account, and the child taken into Cadmus custody.
There had been experiments. The expression on Mr. J'onzz's face at that revelation had been enough to frighten Alfred from the room.
Rex was unsure of the duration of his stay, nor even of his age at the time. Alfred's rough math put him at about four years old through most of the ordeal. He had been housed with many of the other children raised by their Cadmus, knew both Galatea and Ace as close friends. When Master Bruce told him of Ace's passing in this universe, he'd gone still and quiet and then asked politely to be allowed to see her grave at a later point, to which Master Bruce agreed.
Alfred looked under the couches with no success. The curtains yielded no small boy, nor did a complete tossing of their bedroom. He sighed. Wayne Manor had more hiding places than was strictly necessary, he thought.
He wondered if perhaps Miss Hol would not be a better person to search. Carter's fierce attachment to his mother was now easily understandable: Mr. Stewart's counterpart had died freeing his elder son, and Carter could have been no more than three at the time. He would have few or no memories at all of his father.
A bad situation all around, Alfred thought. He had no pity in his heart for the Justice Lords. They had become dictators on their world, would have done the same to his own. There was no doubt that they'd made their own beds in the matter.
It was simply a shame they'd had to share those accommodations.
Shayera asked Carter if he wanted more flying lessons while Bruce's doctor friend examined Rex, but he stayed close to his brother, quiet and interested as the doctor checked every scar, took his temperature and pulse and everything else. When the doctor pronounced Rex the healthiest human/Thanagarian hybrid she'd ever met and turned to Carter, the interest turned to fear, and Shayera found herself struggling with an armful of terrified preschooler.
"No doctors," said Carter in English. He said a number of other things in Thanagarian, and again she marveled at the language her counterpart must have used around the children.
"It's all right, Carter," said the doctor kindly. "It won't hurt at all."
"No!" he shouted, and he broke free from Shayera's grasp with a sudden burst and flew.
Shayera sighed and followed him into the front hall. "Come on, Carter. You've got to stop hiding like this." Funny. It was getting easier to think of the name "Carter" as the name of John's son, and not as the name of the man she wasn't going to be dating any more.
Despite the fact that she'd been right behind him, she couldn't find him anywhere, and he didn't come out until after Dr. Thompkins had left.
In the Cave, Carter mirrored Shayera's flight patterns perfectly, even the most complex ones, while Rex watched from below. "You're good," she said, landing lightly. He touched down beside her, an ear-to-ear grin on his face. He smiles so much more easily than Rex does. Cadmus has so much to answer for.
"Can we do it again?"
"Not now. I'm an old lady and need my rest. Your mother teach you those moves?"
"Yep," said Carter.
"Good for her." Something tickled at the back of her thoughts, something important.
Carter asked, "Can we go up and have a snack? Please?"
"It's almost dinnertime. I don't think Alfred would like that."
"Fine," said Carter, crestfallen.
"Unless of course you'd want to eat the snack in the dining room with the rest of us."
"We'll wait," Rex said.
She wondered if they'd withheld food from him, if they'd used food to drug him, to hurt him. She wondered how many of them John's double had taken out with him and she knew it wasn't nearly enough.
Tim ate his dinner in silence. He could hear the kids talking next door. There was an occasional laugh — that would be Carter — amid the general chatter. He'd thought it would be annoying, like having a too-noisy neighbor. Instead, he found that he missed them when they wandered the rest of the Manor.
Tim didn't go out of his room. Ever.
He'd tried, a few times. His first sessions with Doctor Nichols had been in Bruce's study. Then one day he'd discovered that he couldn't step out of the room to go talk with the doctor, so the doctor had come up to talk with him.
He was safe here. He didn't have to be anyone here except a teenaged boy with questionable taste in music and video games. Alfred brought food, and Babs brought conversation, and Dick brought games and friendship, and Bruce brought nothing at all.
He hadn't even thought about it this morning, dragging Bruce into his room like that. A child was in danger. That had been the only thing that'd mattered.
Now he looked around the room, listening to the voices from the bedroom next door, and for the first time in months, he wanted to go out of his room. To go one over, he thought giddily. That was all. Not downstairs. Not to the Cave. Just next door.
He opened his door, went to the threshold. Couldn't cross it.
Tim stood there, trying not to cry. He was too old to cry, dammit. He was ...
The boys' door opened. "Hi, Tim," said Carter. "Can we come over and play?"
"Sure," he said. "Come on in." He stood aside, let them come into his room. Maybe importing company was the next best thing, for now.
As they always did, the kids sat at the foot of his bed. Rex took a controller and handed Tim the other. Carter sat and watched, chatting amicably until Tim kind of wished he'd shut up. Rex made better company anyway. He wasn't always so damned cheerful.
" ... and Mr. Wayne says this Uncle Clark has a zoo ... "
Tim veered his robot out of the way of Rex's lasers, not quite in time. Rex wasn't nearly so distracting, either.
"Carter," Tim said, "will you go downstairs and ask Alfred if we can have something to drink?"
"I'll go with you," said Rex, putting down his controller.
"Carter's big enough to go by himself. Aren't you?" He blasted a drone out of the way and then paused the game.
"Not yet he's not," Rex said, grabbing his brother's hand. Before Tim could stop them, they'd gone.
He'd call them both freaks, but all things considered, he knew he didn't have a leg to stand on.
Monday morning dawned cool and grey. Alfred opened the curtains as was his wont, brought in the paper, did his morning dusting, cooked breakfast for the members of the household he expected to be awake, and contacted the cook and maids to inform them their services would not be required for tomorrow, but that they were to enjoy their paid vacation.
He set a tray outside Tim's room, and another outside the boys' room, tapping lightly on both doors. He'd heard Master Timothy's water running twenty minutes before.
The young lads' door opened first. Rex peered out. "Morning, Alfred."
"Good morning, young sir. Per your request, I have not brought you any eggs this morning. I do hope waffles are acceptable fare."
"Sounds great, Alfred," said Master Timothy. Alfred's eyes widened. Tim sat on the floor in the boys' bedroom. A half-finished game of checkers sat before him.
"Tim, can we eat alone, please?" Carter asked politely.
"Sure." Tim slid nimbly to his feet. "Back in a few. And I know where all the checkers are, Rex." Carter giggled.
Tim walked past an astonished Alfred to his own door, picking up the tray as he did. "I'll be in my room."
"Of course, sir," Alfred said, still not quite believing his eyes. Both doors closed at the same time. Bemused, Alfred went to call Miss Gordon, who had worked out of her own apartment the past two nights, to share the news.
Bruce pulled himself from bed at ten, hours earlier than he would have liked, to ready himself for a lunch meeting with the heads of R&D and Marketing. Alfred had already laid out fresh clothing for him by the time he exited the shower, and had left a large mug of coffee on a doily on his night stand. Bruce drank the coffee, shaved and dressed, and went down to the kitchen.
"Good morning, sir," said Alfred, handing him a single waffle on a plate.
"Good morning, Alfred, and thank you, but I have ... "
"You will be better armed for your meeting with a small amount of breakfast in your stomach, sir. Also, I have discovered that these are magic waffles, and I should like to determine their effect on you."
"Magic waffles, Alfred?" Bruce smiled around a quick bite, careful not to drip syrup on his shirt.
"Yes, sir. They were powerful enough to lure Master Timothy from his den this morning." Alfred remained deadpan, but Bruce saw the happiness in his eyes. "I must say, the waffles themselves were probably not the actual agent of his departure. There was a game of checkers involved, as well."
"Fantastic." Bruce wolfed the last bite. "Where are the kids?"
"Mr. Stewart arrived first thing this morning and has taken them fishing in the north pond."
"There aren't any fish in the north pond."
"I did mention that, sir. I believe Mr. Stewart considers that an added feature to the experience."
"I don't suppose Tim went with them?"
"No, sir. He has returned to his room. However, I overheard the youngest Mr. Stewart extract a promise from him for another game later."
Bruce allowed himself a smile. "Good."
The doorbell chimed. Alfred hurried to the front hall, with Bruce strolling after him. He'd take the Bentley today, he decided. After the meeting, maybe he could invite himself into the checkers game too. God knew he needed to interact with Tim more. This might finally be the opportunity they'd been waiting ...
He didn't recognize the man and woman, didn't recognize the vehicle parked outside, did recognize the format and style of the papers they had just handed Alfred. He'd been mentally praising Question's expertise on similar documents just a few hours before, after all.
"Sir," said Alfred. "May I introduce Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell? Apparently they have been sent by Social Services."
"I'm sure they have, Alfred. How nice to meet you both." He shook their hands politely, as if he met people every day who unwittingly intended to destroy his world. The couple gazed around the front hall, awestruck, as Bruce made his excuses to go retrieve Rex.
The north pond wasn't far, but was fortunately out of sight of the main driveway. The Caldwells wouldn't have seen anything. Bruce was wearing good shoes, knew he'd have to change them for ones without grass stains before he went in to the office.
John's voice carried. "Now pull back slowly. You want to make the fly look like it's dancing over the water slow enough for the fish to grab it." Rex held the pole, face screwed up in concentration, as John guided his hands and arms. Carter sat atop the cooler John had brought, drumming his legs quietly against the side. Just another lazy spring day, with a dad and his boys out fishing. Bruce himself didn't have a single memory quite like this, suspected Rex and Carter didn't either, if they'd been on the run all their lives.
And now it was his job to ruin it.
John looked up. "Morning, Bruce. I didn't expect to see you up so ... "
"They?" Confusion turned to comprehension. He shut his eyes. "Dammit."
"Rex," Bruce said. "There are some people here who are going to take custody of you for a little while."
"No." Rex set down his pole.
"He's not going," said Carter. "We're staying here." He jumped off the cooler and hugged his brother.
"You can't," Bruce replied. "At least Rex can't. If we try to keep him, we could all go to jail."
"He's not going!" Carter shouted.
"Kids," John said. "It's temporary. I promise." He got to his knees and held Rex's shoulders. "We've got the paperwork ready. We'll have J'onn come get you as soon as we can.."
"No," Rex said again. "I don't want to go. Carter needs me."
"You can't make a scene," said Bruce, feeling awful. "We need them to think you're sad to leave but otherwise healthy. There can't be any questions."
"Or they won't let me come back."
"Yeah," John said.
"Okay." It was barely a whisper. Louder, he said, "Carter, you have to be good. Do you understand?"
"No." Carter scowled.
Rex gave him a hug and said, "I'm ready."
John said, "Carter, can you please stay here until I get back? You have to stay out of sight."
"John," Bruce warned, "you probably shouldn't be seen, either. They might recognize you."
"They won't." John indicated his old jeans and faded sweater, perfect for a day of rough and tumble with the kids, but hardly his normal uniform or even his typical attire while in public. Bruce suspected Vixen had something to do with the latter. "And if they do, you and I met at a fundraiser."
Bruce nodded. "Come on, then."
The three of them walked slowly back to the Manor, Rex holding tightly to John's hand. From little things he'd mentioned, Bruce guessed he'd been closest to his father back in their universe. Losing him would have been devastating.
The pain, the old pain, came back to Bruce but he shoved it away angrily. Now wasn't the time.
The front hall was empty. Alfred had relocated the Caldwells to the parlor. Both had cups of tea before them. Both stood as Bruce, John and Rex came into the room.
"Hello, Rex," said Mrs. Caldwell, getting down on her knees to his level. "I'm Annie. This is Joe."
"Hi." He stayed clinging against John.
Mr. Caldwell smiled at him. "You're going to come live with us. We've got a little boy and little girl at home who'd love to meet you."
"Do I have to?"
"I'm afraid so," said Bruce.
Mr. Caldwell said, "I know you've had a lot of fun here with Mr. Wayne, but we have fun at our house, too."
"Can I come back to visit here?"
"Of course you can," said Mrs. Caldwell. "After you've settled in." She looked at Bruce. "If it's all right with you, Mr. Wayne."
"Call and Alfred can pick him up within the hour."
"Good," Rex said.
John said, "I'll go up with you to get your things."
"Okay." They went upstairs together. Bruce hoped Lantern didn't do something stupid. There wasn't much chance of that, but as far as John was concerned, they were about to take away his child. People did extraordinary things in those situations. Bruce had almost killed the Joker for it.
Despite his concern, John and Rex returned within a few minutes. A small bundle was in Rex's arms: the clothes he'd worn upon his arrival.
"Is there anything we should know about him?" Mr. Caldwell asked Bruce. Bruce turned to John.
John shrugged. "Keep him clean, keep him fed, he's happy. And let him eat in his room."
"We'll discuss that," said Mrs. Caldwell, taking Rex's hand away from John. Rex scowled at her.
Mr. Caldwell said, "Mr. Wayne, thank you for taking such good care of him. We'll make sure he keeps in touch. Rex, you need to say good-bye to Mr. Wayne and his staff now."
John's jaw tightened. He looked at Bruce and said quietly, "Told you." To Rex he said, "We'll see you soon, son … ny boy. Kid. Rex."
Unexpectedly, Rex smiled. "Okay." Then he pulled his hand free from Mrs. Caldwell and hugged John's leg. Bruce guessed the hug was as calculated as it had been when Rex had embraced him at the Social Services office, but there was a reluctance as he pulled away that told Bruce maybe John was getting through to him, just a little. "See you soon," Rex hesitated, "sir."
They watched from the windows as the Caldwells loaded Rex into their sedan and drove away. John cleared his throat, then without a word, headed back towards the north pond.
A few minutes later, Lantern flew back. "Did Carter come back into the house?" he asked Alfred.
"I did not see him, sir. It is possible the lad is hiding again."
John swore. "We have got to get that kid to stop hiding all the time."
Bruce finished adjusting his tie in the reflection of the clock. "Keep looking. I'll be back from my meeting in a few hours."
The clock moved, and Bruce stepped out of the way just as Shayera emerged from the Cave. "Hey." She looked around, saw their faces, and asked, "Where are the kids?"
When Bruce returned from his meeting, Carter still hadn't been found. Tim was firmly ensconced in his room and would only say no, Carter wasn't with him. John had scanned the area with his ring, Alfred had looked in all the secret hiding places he could remember from Bruce's childhood, and Shayera had searched all the trees on the property in case he was perching up high.
This was troublesome.
He called Clark, knowing x-ray vision could be useful had Carter trapped himself in a crevasse somewhere and gotten stuck. Unfortunately, Kent was in meetings for the remainder of the afternoon and wouldn't be able to come until later. Bruce called the rest, explained the situation, and was met with both a shared frustration and promises of help. Diana came right over, as did Flash. Diana took a hard look at the nearby coastline and touched her ear to call Arthur. Bruce didn't stop her.
They reconvened at five with not so much as a sign of him.
"Perhaps he ran away," J'onn suggested.
"I told him to stay where he was," John said.
"By the pond?" Shayera asked. "Are you crazy? You never leave a little kid alone near water."
"So now you're interested in parenting them?"
"I just don't want you drowning them before they've been here a week."
"I checked the pond twice. He didn't drown." John glanced at Arthur, who shook his head. Nothing at the shore either, then.
"Have you checked the security tapes?" The voice came from the top of the stairs. Tim stood just outside his door, both hands on the doorframe.
Don't frighten him, Bruce told himself. "Not yet." He hadn't considered it; prior to now, Carter had been hiding indoors, where there very specifically were no cameras. "I'll be in the Cave. Keep looking, and tell Clark to do an aerial search first when he gets here."
Bruce had already searched the Cave to his own satisfaction. He went straight to the bank of recorders which kept the outer property monitored and ejected the tape for the camera overlooking the north pond. If he could see what direction the boy had headed after they'd left him, maybe he could hypothesize where he'd gone.
He rewound the tape to the point just before he'd come to tell John the Caldwells had arrived, and watched the next few minutes of tape. Then he watched them again. Again.
Bruce got up from his chair, walked back to the recorders. Alfred used twelve hour tapes in each, changed them religiously, and kept them for a two week period. Bruce selected another tape.
"Twice in as many days. People will say we're in love."
"I need some files from you." He told her which ones. "It's regarding the project we discussed yesterday morning."
"I suspect you don't want them delivered at home. Metropolis Watchtower close enough?"
"It'll have to be."
He knocked on Tim's door.
"It's me." Tim didn't answer. "Can I come in?"
"It's your house."
Bruce opened the door, stepped into Tim's sanctuary. Tim sat on his bed, leaning against piled pillows.
"Find him yet?"
"No." So many things they needed to say to each other. So many words Bruce didn't have. "I need to ask you something. About the boys."
Wally went with J'onn. He didn't really want to go, wanted to stay and keep looking since he could search faster than anyone else, even after nightfall, but since Supes hadn't seen anything resembling Carter for miles, he guessed there was no point in staying. Also, he didn't have a famous face. Bats had thrown a dark wig on him anyway, just to be safe. On the drive over, he kept telling himself: "Your name is Albert Jones," just as he'd been instructed.
J'onn was a woman, not for the first time. Batman had shown him a photo of someone and J'onn had assumed her shape and clothing, and now "she" was sitting beside him as Wally drove, follow the signal from the little tracking device Bats had placed in Rex's pile of clothes.
Bats was a suspicious bastard, really.
Wally couldn't blame him, not in this. Wally had spent too much of his youth being bounced between the Central City Orphanage and half a dozen foster homes. He hadn't been trouble, not really, but he'd always been so active, even before his powers, and not many people had been able to handle that.
"The directions actually include 'Turn off the paved road.' Oh, man." Wally made the turn, looking out the windshield for house numbers in the dark.
J'onn pointed. "Over there."
"I thought you couldn't sense Rex."
"I'm not sensing him. Hurry." Wally sped up, screeching a little on the gravel as he turned into the driveway. All the lights were on in the house, and he could hear screaming.
"I'm not dressed for this," he warned J'onn.
"Go carefully. I think we will not need our 'game faces,' as you're thinking."
They went to the front door, J'onn in the lead with Question's forgeries under his arm. He rang the doorbell. Thirty seconds passed, and then a woman came to the door.
"Yes? What is it?" Her eyes were wide and scared, and her voice had a "Please ignore the screaming in the background" quality.
"Mrs. Caldwell, I'm Ms. Fowler from Social Services. I believe we've met."
"Oh. Yes. Hello. Can you please give me just a minute?" The door slammed shut. Wally heard a harsh whisper from inside: "For the love of God, be quiet!"
There was another scream.
"Still sure everyone's okay?" Wally asked J'onn.
The door opened again. "I'm sorry, Ms. Fowler. The house is a bit of a mess tonight. Our new boy has been a handful." Wally covered his grin. "Could you maybe come back later?"
"I'm afraid not. There's been a mistake. I need to take Rex back with me. He's going to be adopted." J'onn rolled his eyes. "There was a paperwork snafu. You understand."
"That can't be right," said Mrs. Caldwell.
"I'm afraid it is," said Wally. J'onn handed over the cover letter, with explanations and seals. Bats had assured them they'd have the real ones in place within forty-eight hours, if Waller held good to her word.
"This really isn't the best time," she said again. There was the sound of something shattering. "Honey, are you okay?" she called.
"I knocked over the lamp," came a man's voice, equally strained.
"Excuse me. What on Earth is going on?" J'onn pushed past her, forcing the door open. The living room was in shambles. In the dining room, a man held two children behind him, neither of them Rex, while brandishing what looked like an iron poker from a fireplace ...
... At Carter.
He flapped his wings happily in front of them, making faces, poking his fingers towards the man's eyes, and baring his teeth every time the man moved. The guy looked like he was both trying to hit him and trying not to be touched by him.
J'onn glanced at Wally; Wally caught the sigh, and also the nod. Wally stepped back and, as soon as he was out the door, sped to the other side of the house. Rex dropped from the window to the ground. When he saw him, he jumped back and growled.
"It's me," Wally said. "What the hell are you and Carter doing!"
"I'm leaving. He's distracting. Come on."
"Uh uh." Wally grabbed him and dragged him back to the front of the house, where he thrust him through the front door. Carter turned, saw Rex, and flew out of the room.
Mrs. Caldwell dashed to her family and clutched at her children. Her husband twitched, pointing the poker at J'onn, Wally and Rex.
"That ... That ... It came out of nowhere," he gasped.
"What did?" asked J'onn. Everyone in the room stared at him.
Play along, J'onn said in his head.
"You saw it," said Mrs. Caldwell. "Tell me you saw it."
Wally said, "I saw a dude waving a poker around in the air. Found this boy trying to get out the back. He says he's terrified of your husband there and I don't blame him."
Rex pressed against him. "Can we please go?"
J'onn touched his head. "Of course we can. Mr. and Mrs. Caldwell, I can assure you, you will be hearing from my office about this." Before they could answer, he shushed Wally and Rex out and closed the door.
"What now?" asked Wally.
"Now we leave," J'onn said. "Quickly."
"What about Carter?"
Rex said, "He'll meet us at the end of the road." They buckled him in, then Wally pulled out of the driveway. The Caldwells were looking out their living room window at them as they left, Mr. Caldwell still holding the poker.
At the end of the road, where the gravel ended and the asphalt started, Wally pulled over. The door opened and Carter got in, buckling himself in quickly. Wally got back onto the road.
A mile later, he glanced into the rear view mirror. "That really wasn't very nice, boys. You scared them."
"That was the idea," said Rex. Carter had sat in the middle, so he was next to his brother. He lay his head on Rex's shoulder and closed his eyes.
Wally decided it could wait. He could let John give the lecture. It'll probably make his day.
J'onn shapeshifted back to his normal form. Well, normal for when he was hanging out on Earth, anyway. "I will tell the others we have retrieved both children." His eyes went bright red, and then faded. He turned his head and silently watched the children in the backseat for the rest of the ride home.
The floodlights came on as Wally pulled into the parking circle at Bruce's place. He couldn't remember ever seeing them lit before; he supposed the others were still out looking. Except that didn't make any sense. J'onn had told them as soon as they got back into the car, hadn't he?
Wally shook his head, then got out and helped the boys out of the car. Alfred met them inside, gravely greeting Rex and taking his pile of clothes to tote upstairs, Wally guessed.
"In the dining room," J'onn said.
The others had gathered already, sitting in costume like they did in council. Wally felt underdressed. Batgirl and Nightwing were there, too, and he guessed Bats had pulled in everyone he could trust for the hunt. Funny, though; for people who'd spent half the day worried that Carter was dead, they didn't look relieved to see him. Even Tim looked more solemn than usual.
Wait. What the hell?
Wally said, "Um. We're home." He tried not to stare at Tim, who was the only other one besides Alfred who wasn't in costume.
"Are you all right?" John asked. Both boys nodded. "Good."
Tim got out of his chair and knelt down in front of Rex. "Hey."
"Hey," said Rex. J'onn took Wally's arm gently and steered him to a chair.
Tim said, "You and I have something in common, you know that?" Rex shook his head no. "About a year ago, I was captured by the Joker. He held me. He hurt me, a lot."
I don't want to be hearing this. Wally looked for a way out, any way out.
"He did things to me. Bad things. Three weeks, and I couldn't get away. I tried. But I wasn't strong enough. I couldn't stop him. I couldn't escape. The only place I could go was inside my head. So I did.
"I built a place inside me, a place that he couldn't get to. I put everything of me that was good, that was happy, everything that I wanted to keep safe, inside the box. It was where I put," he paused, "where I put Robin."
"Yeah. That's who I used to be. Caped crusader, crime fighter, defender of the weak. That was me. And I put him in a place where the Joker couldn't reach him.
Batgirl bit her lip and Wally thought she might jump up and hug Tim, but she stayed seated.
"He got in," Tim said in a cold, bitter tone. "Somehow, that bastard got in there too." He looked like he was fighting off tears, and man, Wally had never wanted to be anywhere else more in his whole life. The rest watched Tim and Rex, not saying anything.
Wally thought he might be the only sane one present just now, the only one who was thinking it was really creepy to be having Tim's therapy in the dining room.
"I think that's when I went crazy," Tim continued. "I'm probably still there." He glanced at Alfred, then at Batgirl and Nightwing, and finally at Batman.
"The thing is, Robin's still there, too. He's not part of me anymore, because I made him not be part of me. I've got a shrink, and he's an idiot, but he's right on one thing. I can't keep Robin out forever. Even though it hurts. Even though, when I look inside him, I see that sick maniac laughing back at me. Robin's part of me. And I can't be in two pieces and live.
"No one can.
"Do you understand?"
Rex stared at him. Then he nodded.
"Rex, Carter has to go away now."
Carter looked at Rex, confused. Rex looked back at him, tilted his head in a funny sort of way, and blinked his eyes. And Carter vanished.
The glow of the computer screen barely illuminated the Cave as Bruce updated his records.
"Codename: Ace. Real Name: Ashley Andrews. Species: Metahuman. Sex: Female. Parents: Unknown (deceased). DOB: Unknown. Approximate age at time of death: seventeen. Powers: Ability to manipulate the minds of others to perceive things that were not real (sensory information to include five human senses). Abilities exhibited same effect on all known alien species resident to Earth. Abilities eventually included telekinesis and transformation of matter. Current Location: Deceased. Additional Notes: Subject died due to aneurysm caused by use of metahuman abilities. See CADMUS Project Code 'Royal Flush' for further information.
"Item: Power disruptor. Designer: L. Luthor. Purpose: To interrupt the neuron flow in the body of a metahuman or alien. Duration: Permanent. Side Effects: Possible interference in fetal development, inconclusive. Known Quantity: 2. Current Location(s): Destroyed, remnants sealed in Fortress of Solitude. See Justice League File 'Justice Lords' for further information."
"Item: Power disruptor. Designer: L. Luthor. Purpose: To interrupt the neuron flow in the body of a metahuman or alien. Duration: Permanent. Side Effects: Possible interference in fetal development, inconclusive. Known Quantity: 2. Current Location(s): Destroyed, remnants sealed in Fortress of Solitude. See Justice League File 'Justice Lords' for further information."
Bruce paused. He needed to make these additions, needed to ensure his own file system was as complete as possible. But the next entry could wait. Telling himself this was merely a long overdue and certainly well-deserved break, he saved his files, walked up the stairs, and up the stairs again. He tapped on Tim's door.
The room was almost as messy as ever. But the suitcase was new, and the items being folded and packed into it lacked the usual disarray of Tim's possessions.
"You don't have to leave."
"Yes. I do."
"You're finally coming out of your room. That doesn't mean you're ready to go outside."
"We've been through this," Tim said, packing another sweater. "Dick will be here in ten minutes."
"Stay for dinner. It'll make Alfred happy." Stay forever. Please, Tim.
"I need to get out of here. I need to be ... somewhere else. Somewhere new." He tossed some underwear in on top of the folded clothes. "This place. It's going to kill me, Bruce. It's a tomb. It's been your tomb for thirty years. I have to leave."
Too much to say. Nothing that would make a difference.
"Call if you need anything."
"Dick has your number."
Later, after his world ended again, Bruce went back down to the Cave. Barbara would be by in an hour, and they'd start patrol, and his existence would go on, and that was how things happened.
He opened his files again.
"Name: Rex Carter Stewart. Species: Human/Thanagarian hybrid (appears human). Sex: Male. Parents: Shayera Hol (Earth-2, deceased), John Stewart (Earth-2, deceased) DOB: Unknown. Current age: Approximately six years old. Powers: Ability to manipulate the minds of others to perceive things that are not real (sensory information to include five human senses). Abilities exhibit same effect on all known alien species resident to Earth. Current Location: Detroit, MI, USA. Additional Notes: Powers previously determined to be hazardous to users; subject currently being trained not to use them. See Batcave File 'Ace' for further information."
"Try again," Shayera coaxed. "Like this." She trilled lightly, then whistled.
Rex imitated her, but even John could tell it wasn't right. "Like this?" he called from the kitchen, and made his own attempt.
"Stop helping," Shayera said. "Wait. Do you have any peanut butter?" He wiped his hands, opened the cabinet and pulled out the half-empty jar of Skippy. "Thanks. Open wide, kid."
Rex obediently opened his mouth, and Shayera stuck her finger in, putting a dot on the roof of his mouth.
"Now, stick your tongue there and keep it there, and then try." She made the sound again. Rex repeated it. "Much better."
Shayera had decided without prodding that Rex needed to learn how to speak Thanagarian. At least, speak things that were repeatable in polite company. According to her, he could swear like a drunk sailor, and John couldn't tell if she was horrified or amused. She came around two or three times a week, stayed for a couple of hours, and left. This past week, she'd been staying a little later because Rex had discovered gin rummy and was desperate to play with anyone who wasn't John.
They had introduced Rex to Arthur's son, and the two met on an irregular basis to play whatever games they could figure out in common. Otherwise, he was with John, with Shayera, at a Watchtower, or in class at the private school Bruce had found for him. He'd even started to make a few friends, but he understood why they couldn't come over.
Carter had only come back twice so far.
John checked the roast, not wanting either of them to see the way his eyes misted. It had been like seeing a ghost both times: the ghost of a child who had never existed, who was never conceived.
The shrink Bruce originally hired to peer into Robin's head now made regular visits. He'd said all sorts of things that had made J'onn and Bruce nod, about Egos and Superegos. About Ace, too, but John and Shayera had missed her floor show the first time around. John didn't need the explanations. Once Bruce had told him, had shown them the videotaped recordings with just one child, John had known exactly what had happened. Rex had created a best friend who was the same age he'd been when his childhood had been taken away from him, and he'd "fixed" the new child, changing everything he thought was wrong with himself, making what he thought should have been the perfect Rex.
He told them, eventually, that he had created Carter when their Batman sent Rex through the gate, when he was on his own and alone; the child in his mind had been there with him since he'd helplessly watched his "uncle" die. Ace had just helped Rex figure out how to make his friend real.
God alone knew how he had the ability.
Maybe it was the genetic slurpee of John and Shayera's DNA, maybe it was Luthor's raygun, maybe it was the experiments at Cadmus. Perhaps all three had put a hand into the mix. John even suspected residual radiation from the ring might have had an effect. He needed to do more research into the children of other Green Lanterns to be sure. The focus, concentration and detail necessary to convince the world that Carter had been real told John Rex had inherited a lot of traits that made a good Lantern.
Except that he wouldn't join the Corps, and he couldn't be allowed to because it would kill him.
Just as he had lessons with Shayera, Rex had lessons with J'onn on mental discipline. Bruce and Clark both thought he was better off never projecting again. John privately agreed with Diana that it might not be a bad thing to train him in the actual use of his power when he was older and doing the superhero thing full time. Any advantage in a battle, even one he could use only rarely, might be enough to save his life some day.
Shayera said something in the Thanagarian spoken language — John had picked up that Low Speak had more whistles and clicks and hoots, and High Speak had more words that sounded like words — and Rex repeated what she'd said perfectly.
John missed Carter. Intellectually, he knew there was nothing in Carter that did not come from Rex, but part of him would mourn nonetheless. The thought of "bringing him back" now and then, either by accident or design, filled him with a tangle of emotions he was never going to completely unravel.
The timer beeped.
"Dinner's ready," John announced. "Lesson's over for tonight."
Shayera said, "Fine. Rex, practice that trill. Use more peanut butter if you have to."
"You're not staying for dinner?"
"I should get home," she said. They watched each other for a wary moment. Shayera had never asked what had happened with Mari, so he'd reciprocated by not asking her why Hall had stopped coming around. The reasons were probably not so different anyway.
Parallel universes were terrible things. They made people think about destiny and fate and all that other crap John tried to ignore. In the back of his head, he'd wondered since Rex had come through, was there still "supposed" to be a Rex Stewart born in this universe? If he and Shayera ever did get back together, would their offspring be like Rex's twin, just younger, or would they have another child, completely different? Would she even want to try? Would he, for that matter?
The moment was broken when Rex banged the cabinets open too loudly, getting the plates out to set the table. Without prompting, he set three places.
"Rex, I'm not staying."
"It's just dinner," he replied. "I heard your tummy rumbling when we were practicing."
"Good ears on that one," said John, going to the 'fridge to retrieve a glass of milk and two bottles of beer. Shayera sighed dramatically as he carved her a slice of roast and set it on her plate.
But she ate every bite.