Heroes in a Box
by Constance Eilonwy (a.k.a. dotfic)
Short continuity note: This deals with fallout from events in my prior fanfic "I, Janitor" but it's not necessary to have read that to read this. There is also one gratuitous shoutout to "The Fuzzy End of the Lollipop."
Disclaimer: Justice League is the property of Warner Bros animation/DC Comics. The amazing Merlin Missy beta read this. One Wally was harmed in the making of this fanfic.
Wally wondered about the origin of the phrase "chopped liver," as in "what am I, chopped liver?" He wondered who had first said it, and why would anyone at any point in history want to be eating chopped liver anyway. He wondered this because at that particular moment, he felt like chopped liver.
Ever since the incident in the hangar, this had been going on. Just a few minutes ago, Wally had said "hi" to Superman in a normal way, and just a few minutes ago, Superman looked right through him. It was unnerving to discover Superman had this ability. He'd thought Bats was the Master of Cold Stares. That was the problem with Superman—he was such a nice guy, that when he did get angry, he could be scarier simply because of the contrast.
So, he'd said "hi" in a normal way, Superman had acted like Wally was invisible, and a second later, Superman had hailed one of the janitors and asked how his kids were doing.
This had been going on for weeks.
The others had noticed how things were, and they knew why—at least, they knew Wally and Kara were now a thing, (and what with the way gossip spread on the Watchtower, this was unsurprising), and that Superman was pissed because he thought Wally wasn't good enough to date Superman's cousin.
Who did he think he was, anyway? Sure, he could fly, and bounce bullets off his chest, and lift a Boeing 747. Big deal.
His stomach made a grumble of agreement. "Yeah, you know what I'm talking about," he said out loud, patting his midsection. Stomach muttered again. Pizza. That's what he needed, pizza. With pepperoni, extra cheese…he was sure the Watchtower mess would oblige. So it wasn't from Tony's Original Pizzeria. The chefs on the Watchtower, like everything else in this place, were top notch.
Ooooh. And a banana split. And a milkshake.
Make that two milkshakes.
He passed one of the janitors mopping the floor, who called out, "Watch it, wet patch," then added, "Wouldn't want you of all people to sprain an ankle, right Flash?"
"Right, thanks." Wally lifted his hand in acknowledgment and side-stepped the danger spot.
See? That guy thought he mattered.
Wally changed direction, switching onto the corridor that led to the mess. There seemed to be a lot of people in that corridor for this time of a Watchtower day cycle, but Wally was thinking about maybe getting mushrooms with that pepperoni and didn't really pay much attention.
Two techs in EVA suits outside the window waved at him. Wally waved back, giving them his patented Flash grin. It was impossible to tell who they were through the helmets but he knew most all of the crew. They seemed to like him, and he liked them. To the crew, he wasn't the youngest and most annoying Founding Member. To the crew, he was The Flash with a capital "T," capital "F," and they looked up to him. He was just another hero.
Hero. H-e-r-o. As in, not chopped liver.
Superman had snapped at him three times last week, all for minor infractions and mistakes that made even Batman just do the look but not say anything. Really, they weren't such bad mistakes, how was he to know not to push the blue button on the Sector 17 console?
It was worth it, because of Kara. For Kara he would think being trampled by a herd of rabid tapir would be worth it. Still, his stomach clenched as he remembered that blank stare earlier.
"Flash, wait a moment, please." One of the techs stood in his path, holding up her hand. She nodded to the side. "We're just testing some modifications to the Watchtower force field. It's delicate work. You should probably wait before passing through."
He sighed, and stopped. The activity ahead of him now snapped into focus—there were a dozen techs gathered around an open panel in the corridor wall, some jotting on clipboards, some holding unidentifiable tools. The EVA-suited techs outside the window moved closer to the space station. A familiar red-caped figure, his face covered by a breathing mask, hovered protectively near.
"Oh," said Wally.
He fidgeted in place while someone called out "Grid A online" and someone else confirmed "Grid A online," and there was a humming, electrical sound.
Damn, he was hungry, he hoped they would finish soon.
They went on like that for a while and they'd gotten up to "Grid B, section 2, online" when the steady humming stuttered like a bumblebee smacking against a car window, followed by a cascade of sparks that filled the corridor like lightning bugs. The lights flickered, and then there was a roar and a bang.
The explosion initially knocked him off his feet, but in .34 seconds he was down the corridor snatching two techs out of the danger area. Klaxons blared over the intercoms. There were flames, but Superman was already inside and dousing them with his breath.
He sped back and grabbed two more. When he went back again he saw the one who had stopped him in the corridor, leaning against the wall and coughing, a trickle of blood down the side of her face. She didn't even know he was there before he deposited her gently with the others. By the time 5 seconds had elapsed, all the techs were out of the corridor. Wally assumed Superman had pulled the ones in the EVA suits to safety before coming in.
The panel door was still open and blue strands of energy twisted and snapped against it as if trying to break free. A second alarm sounded
Steel walls slid down from the ceiling, across the ceiling, and down over the windows, as the blue energy strands leapt, crawling across the steel like spiderwebs.
The barriers sealed into place with a vehement CLANG.
It grew horribly quiet. No klaxons, no shouting. Something else was missing too but Wally couldn't quite place what it was. The air smelled faintly of smoke and the odd, burnt scent of electricity.
Slowly and deliberately, Superman said a very bad word. Wally stared. Did Superman even know what that word meant?
"What…" Wally's voice came out scratchy for some reason, catching in his throat. He coughed and tried again. "What just happened?"
"Automatic fail-safe," Superman said curtly. "The system sealed off this section to prevent the fire from spreading."
"What do you mean, 'sealed off'?" Wally was quite sure he knew what that meant, but he was hoping he was wrong.
"They'll have to deactivate the fail-safe from the outside. Until then, we're trapped."
Wally closed his eyes tightly, then opened them again. He let out a small, nervous laugh. "You mean, we'd be trapped except you can bend steel, right? Hey!" His nervousness subsided. "And I can vibrate through solid matter, you know. I don't do it too often, it gives me a headache. It feels kind of creepy, too."
Before Superman could answer—if he even intended to answer—Wally was at one of the barriers. He concentrated. Doing this to his body really did hurt. It made his teeth feel like they might fall right out of his head and sometimes his ears would ring for days afterward. But this was an emergency.
His body struck the wall hard. A jolt not quite like electricity, more like a heavy, soft invisible material, shoved at him.
"Ow. Ow ow ow." He staggered back, rubbing his nose, which had struck the wall first. "What the…"
Superman looked at the barrier, eyes narrowing. He launched himself forward, one arm crooked, the other extended in a fist.
He bounced back the same as Wally. It looked like he hadn't even been able to touch the steel. He did three more runs at the barrier before giving up.
The look on his face was not comforting.
"No." Wally mentally calculated the size of the space where they were trapped—a box maybe 12 x 12 square, three sides metal and the fourth the corridor wall which was made of some material Wally couldn't pronounce even if he could remember the name. "No no no no no. Superman? Why can't you break through?"
"They were testing the new force field."
"It's based on Kryptonian technology."
"It works on YOU?"
"Yes. It was designed to be strong enough to withstand anything including meteors, radiation, and a direct hit from a missile. For it to be that strong, Kryptonian technology was the right choice. Which means it even works against me."
"But they'll open it any moment now, right?"
"Unless the grid is too damaged, then they'll have to do it by hand."
"By hand? But that could take hours…"
12 x 12.
Maybe he'd over calculated that.
Maybe their prison was shrinking, boy was that a cliché, the trapped heroes and the walls sliding closer and closer while some megalomaniac big bad cackled wildly in the background.
"Right? It will take them hours, it's probably pretty hard to cut through barriers like that but we're talking, what, 2 hours maybe? Tops? Hey, maybe the grid isn't even damaged. We could be out of here in a just a few minutes." His stomach growled loudly in the unnatural background quiet. "I was on my way to the mess when this happened, I wanted pizza. You know what? We haven't tried contacting anybody yet. I'm sure they know we're here but shouldn't we try to call up J'onn or something?" Wally touched his communicator. "J'onn? It's Flash. Come in, J'onn."
"Batman? Wonder Woman?"
Oh god oh god oh god, the communicators weren't working.
"The force field short-circuited, and now it's surrounding the two of you. It's interfering with the communication devices."
"I'm communicating with you telepathically." Oh. It feels weird having you in my head. "We're working on getting you out. Don't worry." Don't worry? Are you nuts? How long will it take to get us out? "We don't know yet. The barriers are strong enough to withstand an atomic blast." Oh crap oh crap oh crap… "Flash! Calm down. Your heart rate is dangerously accelerated." No kidding! Really? "Sarcasm doesn't become you. Now stay calm, I promise we're getting you both out of there as fast as we can."
Oh. It feels weird having you in my head.
"We're working on getting you out. Don't worry."
Don't worry? Are you nuts? How long will it take to get us out?
"We don't know yet. The barriers are strong enough to withstand an atomic blast."
Oh crap oh crap oh crap…
"Flash! Calm down. Your heart rate is dangerously accelerated."
No kidding! Really?
"Sarcasm doesn't become you. Now stay calm, I promise we're getting you both out of there as fast as we can."
He thought J'onn's mind had slipped out of his—and maybe it had, but then he came back.
"Flash…I know he's mad at you. It doesn't mean he isn't still your friend."
And then J'onn was gone.
"J'onn says the force field is messing with the communicators but they're working on getting us out. He says he doesn't know how long it will take but he says not to worry."
"He's already apprised me of the situation."
"Oh. Right. Isn't it creepy how he can talk in your head like that? I mean, he can hear my thoughts back. I always have to work really hard not to think about certain things. It's just not right, having someone in your head like that."
Superman just stood there. Wally couldn't tell if he was listening to him or not—he could hardly avoid it, given the size of the space, but he didn't so much as nod in response.
"For God's sake, will you say something already? It's like being trapped with Batman. I know you're mad at me because of Supergirl but this is getting ridiculous! You've been giving me the silent treatment for weeks. But we're trapped here. Aren't you carrying this too far?"
Again there was no response. There was something zen-like in Superman's quietness. It made him seem like he the alien he was, some remote, mysterious creature.
"We only have two hours of air."
"J'onn told me not to tell you. He said your vital signs are already dangerously elevated and he was afraid you would panic. The force field formed a bubble. It's trapped limited air in with us."
Now Wally realized the sound he hadn't been hearing: the faint hum of the station's life-support systems. He looked up at the ceiling, which was covered in steel. No air ducts.
Reflexively, he brought his hands up to his throat and took a deep breath. Were they suffocating already? He hated enclosed spaces, always had even as a child—he had a memory of being very small and accidentally locking himself in a trunk in the attic. His parents hadn't found him for hours. After he got his powers it was worse, because he felt like he had to be constantly in motion.
The Watchtower was usually okay, it was familiar, it was almost, not quite, like home and there was always plenty of cool, fresh air blowing around.
There was no air movement at all now.
"I probably shouldn't have told you. But that's why I wasn't answering you just now. Not because I'm mad at you. I was, in fact, holding my breath so there would be more air preserved to sustain you."
Wally slid down to the floor, his back against the cool surface of the corridor wall. To his surprise, Superman sat down next to him, long legs stretched out, his red cape pooling on either side of him against the gray floor tiles.
"We're stuck here for a while, huh."
"Be quiet. Save your air."
With a great effort, Wally stopped talking. He folded his arms, tapped his feet, stood up, paced, sat down on the opposite wall facing Superman, readjusted the headpiece of his uniform, took off his left boot, wriggled his toes, shook out a tiny bit of grit that had somehow gotten worked into the boot, put the boot back on, began counting the floor tiles.
Minutes passed, or maybe it was hours. It was impossible to tell. There was no sense of time, no stars to look at, no techs or other Leaguers coming and going, no station sounds, announcements, or alarms.
"Stop that," Superman said, when Wally tapped his feet for just a bit too long.
He closed his eyes, thinking maybe if he took a nap it would help pass the time. His stomach felt oddly hollow. How many hours it had been since he had eaten?
It seemed like he must have fallen asleep because he couldn't remember waiting and fidgeting, he just closed his eyes and then in what felt like just seconds later, heard J'onn in his head again. Only it couldn't have been mere seconds, since Superman had shifted position and Wally's legs felt stiff from not moving.
engineers think they can get the doors open but first they have to
change some wiring. It may take another half an hour, hopefully no more
than an hour." How long have we been in here?...J'onn…? J'onn! How long? "Your
girlfriend is here. She tried to break down the barriers, despite the
fact that I told her it wouldn't work, and now she is angry at me
because I have nothing for her to do. She has told me to tell you to
hang in there." Tell her I'll be out soon.
How long have we been in here?...J'onn…? J'onn! How long?
"Your girlfriend is here. She tried to break down the barriers, despite the fact that I told her it wouldn't work, and now she is angry at me because I have nothing for her to do. She has told me to tell you to hang in there."
Tell her I'll be out soon.
He allowed himself the mental image of Kara hovering around J'onn, driving him up a wall, and smirked at the idea, before he remembered J'onn could read every thought.
"Green Lantern has also asked me to convey a message: if you don't follow my orders, he will personally kick your ass."
This time, it had been comforting to have J'onn's voice in his head. When he left, Wally felt more alone.
Superman looked like he was holding his breath again—not that it was easy to tell just by looking at him, since it didn't seem to require that much effort on his part. The way the broad chest didn't rise up and down was one clue. Also, it was just too quiet. Superman wasn't a chatterbox like Wally but he was no Batman either. Having him be this silent was giving him the heebie-jeebies.
"Are you still made at me?" Wally asked, unable to help himself, defying the conserve air routine. Needing to fidget, Wally picked at a loose bit of rubber at the edge of his boot sole. "Did anything I said in the hangar make sense? Do you understand that I really am in love with her?"
"I get that."
"Then what's the problem?"
"I guess I am still mad at you."
Wally threw up his hands. "But why? If you understand that Kara and I are together…oh. Okay, it's just like I thought, then."
"You do think I'm not good enough for her."
"It's not that simple."
"Flash, not now." Superman fell silent again.
"You don't want me to date her because my last steady job was in fast-food and I once endorsed running shoes. You think I don't act like a superhero should. I embarrass you."
"That's not true."
"Will you shut up!"
They were both on their feet now, facing each other, and Wally knew he was yelling and that probably was a bad, bad thing to do right now but he no longer cared.
"Is it really so terrible to have me and Supergirl together that you have to freeze me out the way you've been doing? Everyone else gets the Nice Boy Scout and I get the Glare of Death. I'm not bad for her and I know she's good for me, and it's kind of a shock to find out that all this time you really don't think much of me at all."
"You know how I know it's me, personally, you object to? Because you're very human and I know how you feel about this planet, you love it probably even more than Hawkgirl does and look what she gave up to protect it. You think humans are pretty swell. So it has to be that you think I'm just too much of a loser to date your cousin."
"I don't think you're a loser!" Superman snapped.
"Then what is it? Why do you have to interfere with every aspect of her life? She'd kill me dead for telling you this, but she told me it's really upsetting her. She loves being part of the League and helping people, she's so proud of her job—and she wants your approval more than anything but all you do is criticize her."
"She…I…never meant to make her feel bad. And if I've treated you unfairly, I'm sorry."
"It wasn't fun, you know." Wally scuffed the toe of his boot against the tiles, making a squeaking sound. "You wouldn't even look at me."
Superman turned to him, surprised. "It bothered you that much?"
"I'm used to the others criticizing me. I know I get on their nerves and I make mistakes. And to be honest, maybe I do get why you act that way with Kara, because I know that Batman and J'onn and the others are just trying to help me improve and that's why they're so hard on me. But you—you don't judge. You were just my friend. Kara's one of the best things that ever happened to me in my whole life, but I'd be miserable if it meant you never talked to me again."
As if there were stars to look at and not just steel, Superman turned away from him, no anger in his posture, just a strange sadness.
Wally suddenly felt drained, and a bit lightheaded. He sat down again, leaning his back against the corridor wall.
Again he had no sense of how much time passed, how long they just waited. And waited.
Superman stood and held his breath and Wally began counting floor tiles again, then rivets in the steel barriers. He got up and stretched but that made him feel lightheaded so he sat down again.
How long could it take to switch a few wires? Or better yet, find a blowtorch? Maybe they should send Captain Atom. Or use dynamite. Maybe Hawkgirl's mace could make a dent in it. Or, hey, call Superman!
This struck Wally as hilarious and he began to laugh weakly.
"'sfunny," Wally said, "you an' me getting trapped together like this just when you were mad at me. How it works out. I mean, without the explosion, you might have gone on being mad at me for months and months and months. Which would have totally sucked, having Superman mad at me. 'Cause Superman's nice to everybody, 'cept maybe Lex Luthor."
"Flash." Superman frowned.
"I'll bet Kara's real upset. J'onn said she tried to break down the barriers, just like you did. Kryptonian technology…good idea but I guess no one thought through what would happen if a Kryptonian got caught in it." He giggled.
J'onn's voice broke urgently into his brain: "Stop talking. Right now! That's an order!"
"Go 'way," Wally said out loud. "Tryin' to sleep. It's boring in here. And I hate small spaces, didja know that? Bet you did, since you can read my mind."
Superman knelt and took his shoulders. "You have to stop talking. You're consuming oxygen too fast."
"Got locked in a trunk once when I was five. B'longed to Uncle Barry, we were jus' keeping it for him…no air in there either. Ever since I've hated being shut in."
"The more you talk the more air you use up and there is only a small amount left. Your vital signs are dropping. If you don't stop talking and conserve the small amount of air left, you'll develop hypoxia."
"If there's s'posed to be no more talking," Wally shouted, not caring that J'onn wasn't right there, and could hear him silently, "how come you're using all those big words?"
Huh. That was unusual. First names were for just hanging out, for talking over moccachinos (well, unless you were Batman and then first names were just not done except maybe once in all the time they'd know him...) They weren't often used during a crisis, and getting trapped by a Kryptonite force field in his mind equaled crisis.
Some part of his brain fumbled in the direction of coherence and just missed it.
"The lock on the trunk jammed…" It seemed terribly important to get this information across. "Couldn' opennit." This felt a lot like that time when he'd been drugged with truth serum. "Screamed and cried…no one heard me until Dad thought to look in the attic. Used to love to play in the attic, use to pretend it was a spaceship an' I had to save the galaxy. There was this really cool--"
"I'm sorry about this, Flash."
"Huh? Sorry 'bout what?"
The last thing he saw was Superman's fist rushing at him.
"That's right…come on, wakey-wakey."
Wally opened his eyes. A blurry face hovering benevolently above him focused into the familiar features of the Flash's personal doctor.
"How do you feel?"
"I have a headache."
The doctor clicked his tongue against his teeth. "I'm not surprised. You should see the shiner on your left eye!"
"Shiner?" Confused, Wally put his fingers to his face, and winced.
"Yeah. That was my fault."
Turning his head, Wally now saw that Superman was lying on top of the covers in the next bed. They had attached some electrodes to his neck and wrist. Otherwise he looked fine, except for a pained expression.
The doctor shined his pen light in each of Wally's eyes. "Pupil response is normal." He snapped off the light and straightened. "I'll be back to check on you in a bit." On his way out of the infirmary, he nodded to J'onn, who was on his way in. "He's fine. Just keep him here for observation for the next 48 hours. Superman"—he gestured with his pen light—"can go when he likes. He's disgustingly healthy. Although if you want to be sure you need to get your S.T.A.R.. Labs guy up here."
"Thank you," said J'onn. He stood at the foot of Wally's bed.
"What happened?" Wally asked. "I can't remember yet."
"Really?" Superman said hopefully, but J'onn shot him a look.
"Give it a moment," J'onn suggested.
Wally squinted, concentrating. "There was an explosion. They were testing the new force field…it was based on Kryptonian technology. Oh. Superman and I got trapped. Then…hey! You hit me!" He sat up, gesturing accusingly.
Superman heaved a great sigh. "Yeah. I had to. You kept talking."
"You were exhibiting the symptoms of oxygen deprivation," J'onn said.
"But…you hit me!"
"Being unconscious in that fashion slowed your breathing and heart rate. It slowed the rate of your oxygen intake, thus ensuring there was adequate air until the tech team got the barriers open twenty minutes later. Had he not knocked you out you might have suffered permanent brain damage."
There were voices out in the corridor, and then Kara strode into the room.
"Thank Rao you're alive!" She flung herself at Wally, hugging him heedless of electrode wires and IV's. He hugged her back, not caring at how the sudden jostling made his headache worse. Then she pulled out the hug. Standing by his bed, she took a good look at him.
Her eyes narrowed and she whirled to face Superman. "What did you do to him?" She advanced, her white-gloved fists clenched.
"It's okay," Wally said. "He saved my life."
"Oh." Supergirl stopped, and then a thought seemed to occur to her. "Are you okay?" She asked her cousin.
"Flash, you idiot." Green Lantern appeared, followed by Hawkgirl, Wonder Woman, and Batman. Lantern advanced towards Flash, expression thunderous. "I ought to whup your butt from here to Keystone City. Why the hell didn't you listen to J'onn and shut up?"
"I'm feeling okay, just a small headache, thanks for asking," Wally grinned. "Oh, and the shiner on my face? Superman did that. Only he had to knock me out to save my life so you don't have to kick his ass."
"Good." Lantern nodded at Superman. "I would have done the same thing."
"We're all glad you're okay," Wonder Woman said.
"Yeah," Hawkgirl echoed. "Even though I think I'll probably hold you down while John knocks some sense into you. Once you're recovered, that is."
"You all have to leave now, he's all right but he needs rest. Superman, you can go if you'd like, although my suggestion is you remain for further observation for another few hours. In case."
Kara squeezed Wally's hand and leaned down to kiss his bruised eye. "I'll see you later."
"Count on it." He felt light-headed again, but in a different way.
They all started to file out. Batman lingered last. He didn't say anything, he just looked and then turned and walked out. Wally understood by now; it was just his way.
J'onn adjusted a few settings on the monitors, and then he too left.
Silence settled in the room. Only it wasn't total silence. There was the sound of the medical monitors, and Wally would never take the soft background noise of the Watchtower air conditioners for granted again.
They each lay there, staring at the ceiling.
A sinking feeling settled in Wally's chest. It was just like when they were trapped inside the force field, only Superman didn't have the excuse for holding his breath. But he just stared at the ceiling tiles, relieved that there were ceiling tiles and not a solid wall of steel.
"It's not because I think you're a loser, and it's not just because I'm trying to push Kara to do better."
Wally opened his mouth to reply, but thought better of it. Instead he waited patiently. Superman toyed with the hem of his cape, twisting the fabric in his fingers. He couldn't remember seeing Superman fidget before. Finally the powerful fingers stilled.
"She and I are the very last of our kind." There was a terrible sadness behind the words that made Wally's throat ache. "We are the end of the line." He sat up, facing Wally. "If you and she ever…if you have kids…they'll be half Kryptonian. If they have children, their kids will be one quarter Kryptonian. Someday Lois and I…maybe…" he gestured vaguely, "…same result. So you'll forgive me if I'm very picky about who my cousin dates. And if I'm too hard on her, it's because I'm scared that if I don't teach her enough, she'll get herself killed on some mission. And then…"
"Then you would be the very last," Wally finished for him softly.
He wanted to say I'm sorry, except there had been far too much sorry already.
Superman shifted position, and the mood broke. "If you need my blessing for this relationship, you have it," he said. "I want to be perfectly clear on this. You're a nice guy, and you're a valuable member of this team, never forget that. I'm glad she picked you." He smiled a tiny smile. "And if you break her heart, I'll tie you into a pretzel and shove you out the airlock. You know that, right?"
"Good." Superman leaned back and folded his arms behind his head contentedly. "Just so we're clear."