"Tracking training," Batman had said.
Robin had, at the time, wondered why he hadn't said "Agility training-part-two." After all, it was supposed to have been the follow-up to last week's session. The exercise wasn't hard: the "runner" was designated a three-minute head-start, after which the "chaser" was to pursue until either he fatigued or caught the runner. There had never been any particular rules—it began as quickly as it ended, one, two, three, go, among the simplest of their exercises.
But this time, there had been no simple flick of the wrist to signal the game's start. Batman had said "Tracking training," and then pulled the cowl over his head, systematically checked the compartments of his belt, and turned to Robin. "Today I'll be utilizing my entire network in evading you. Your job is to locate me by taking advantage of every non-shared resource you own."
"You're going to be hiding?" Robin blurted out. He was supposed to find Batman? Nobody found Batman!
The older man shot him a look, promptly shutting him up. "There is a time limit for this exercise. If you can't find me within twenty-four hours, you fail. " Robin tried not to let Batman see him gulp. Did he have to sound so ominous about it?
If Batman saw – which he probably did – he gave no indication as he adjusted his gauntlet. "Start."
"So...why come to us?" Wally tilted his head to indicate that he was listening, though his eyes remained glued to the flickering T.V. screen. The others were giving him a bit more of their attention.
Robin ran a hand through his short hair, sighing in frustration. "I told you; Batman's gonna be giving his A-game, and I won't even get a glimpse of his bat-dust if I don't do the same. That means I need you guys."
Megan grinned and clapped her hands together. "I think we should do it! It sounds fun!"
"I don't get it." Superboy scowled, his eyebrows knitting together. "You're playing hide-and-seek? What's the purpose of it?"
"It's not hide-and-seek," Robin said, flustered. Artemis gave him an amused sort of half-smirk, and he glared at her before looking back at Conner. "It's a training exercise, and it'll be good practice for all of us. You know, working on our ability to follow leads and track down someone who's actively evading us."
"Not a bad idea considering we're supposed to be the covert team," Artemis offered. Superboy pulled his mouth into a thin line, apparently satisfied with the explanation, and Kaldur nodded in agreement.
The five looked over to Kid Flash, who continued listlessly hitting the channel button on his remote. Eyes narrowing, Superboy moved next to the television and reached his arm behind it. The picture suddenly burst into static and a message that said "NO SIGNAL".
"Dude! I was watching that!" In response to Wally's cry, Superboy wordlessly tossed a few wires to the side. Robin reminded himself to fix the T.V. later. Again.
Seeing that Superboy clearly wasn't intending to feel remorse for his actions, Wally threw his hands up. "Okay, okay! I'm in! Jeez."
"Excellent." Kaldur nodded as the team gathered in a small circle. "You said there was a time constraint, Robin?"
"Yeah. Twenty-two hours, now."
"Then we should begin as quickly as possible. Do you have an idea of where Batman might be hiding?"
Robin shrugged, but brought up his gauntlet and activated the built-in projector. A large hologram of Gotham City sprung up over their heads. "He'll stay in Gotham, but that's all I can tell you. He knows it like the back of his hand, has most of his contacts there, and probably expects me to be coming back with you guys."
"Then we are already at a disadvantage," Kaldur muttered. His eyes flicked to Megan. "Perhaps your telepathy?"
"Don't even bother," Robin cut in. He tapped two fingers against his right temple. "Batman's got more blocks up and running than Blackgate."
The martian nodded, biting her lip. "Uncle J'onn once told me that Batman's mind is one of the most resilient ones he's ever experienced. And that he really doesn't like it when you try and peek inside."
"Hey, don't get yourself so down about it! Who knows what kind of creepy-crawlies Bats has in there, anyway?" Wally raised his hands and wiggled his fingers nefariously, only to be stopped by Artemis' swift hand of justice across the back of his head. "Ow! Hey!"
"Won't he get tired? Make mistakes?" Superboy spoke up. Twenty-four hours was a long time for a human to go without sleep.
Once again, Robin responded in the negative. "He won't even slow down until the forty-three mark. It'll be pushing fifty before he starts messing up."
Megan put a finger to her chin. "What if we split up?"
"We don't even know what to look for," Artemis argued.
"Then what have we got to lose?" Robin began highlighting sections of the hologram, splitting the entirety of Gotham into six color-coded sections: blue, green, black, white, yellow, and red. "Everyone takes a part of the city and does what they can." After a moment of deliberation, Robin switched off the hologram and smiled uneasily at his teammates. "And guys? Try to subtle. As far as Gotham citizens are used to, the only super-powered guys in town are the ones trying to kill them."
The first thing Superboy had learned about Gotham was that nobody liked it when he used his powers, and that he liked it even less, because it always ended in people cowering before him with wide, frightened eyes.
When he first began, he'd covered distances by jumping, but the people didn't like that. Every time he landed there was someone backing away. Husbands would step in front of their families. Little girls with pigtails would scream and run, abandoning their toys in the street. Wary eyes would filter through blinds in the surrounding apartment windows. Perhaps they were afraid of how he dropped from the sky and slammed into the ground with a shuddering crack, or small crater he'd create upon each landing, or just the way he'd walk up to them and ask where Batman was.
One guy even pulled a knife on him as he approached. Knives wouldn't hurt Superboy, but it was annoying, so he took it and crushed the blade. The man ran away before Superboy could ask him anything else.
He'd stopped jumping after that. But walking was much slower, and there was a lot of ground to cover. And people were still afraid of him when he approached and asked if they knew anything about Batman. Some would answer him—usually to say that the Bat was a harmless bedtime story, or that he was a lunatic pervert, or something outlandish and stupid that made Superboy angry. Most of the time they would go away after he harshly corrected them, but it didn't matter. They were useless anyway.
Robin had warned him of this, and up to a point, he felt as though he'd been very patient and fair—but he hadn't expected people to be so very fragile. He understood what it meant when they recoiled from him, when his rising voice or narrowed eyes sent them stammering for excuses to leave even when he wasn't threatening violence. It was slightly disturbing and incredibly frustrating. And it left him wondering, not for the first time, whether or not the only thing he was ever good for was punching things.
He didn't like not knowing. And he hated the idea that he might be right.
Occasionally, he'd run into someone who recognized the 'S' symbol emblazoned on his chest. They were usually more willing to talk to him, but they annoyed him the most. They often just asked if he was hunting Batman, and when he replied yes, they'd shake their heads and click their tongues and wonder aloud what Batman had done to get Superman on his tail.
He managed to ignore the first one that did it, but eventually he had to firmly tell them that he wasn't Superman, and that Batman wasn't in trouble, and then they'd lift their eyebrows, apologize, and then be on their way. They were all a waste of time, but they didn't matter, either.
What mattered is that when he was making his way to the next neighborhood, he happened to pass a street clock sitting in a community park. He hadn't glanced at it for more than a moment before he had to double-take—and realize that he'd already wasted two hours with no answers and only a few miles of covered ground to his name.
He'd promised he wouldn't get frustrated. Robin had pulled him specifically aside and asked him not to. He even managed to remember these things as a guttural sound rumbled deep in his chest and he swung at the street clock. The pole cracked sharply, and when Superboy yanked his fist away from the gnarled metal to look up, it doubled crookedly over his head like a bendy straw. The growl jumped to his throat as he balled his fists at his sides. Now Batman and Robin would be angry that he broke something in their city.
Gotham City. What was so great about it, anyway? It was dark and dirty and everyone in it were cowards! It was nothing like Batman—noble, authoritative—even less like Robin, who commanded a room with his sideways grin—and seemed to spit on both of them in either ingratitude or ignorance, and both concepts made the blood boil in Conner's veins.
Why struggle so violently for a city that hated them, or even refused to acknowledge their existence? He'd have given up on this trash hole long ago, let it burn itself to the ground. But Batman and Robin wouldn't, for whatever reason, because Superboy knew that they always had a reason and it was always a good one. He might have doubted that before, but then he remembered that his fighting Cadmus was their reason for letting him join the team.
When he was being honest, Conner was angriest that he never had a reason for anything.
Robin had told them to cooperate with Gotham's law enforcement. It would make their lives easier, he'd said, if they didn't have bullets flying at them from the good guys and the bad guys, and best of all, he and Batman wouldn't need to clean their mess up later. Batman apparently had a thing about letting other heroes operate in his city, and the fact that he'd turn away seasoned Justice League members but let a group of teenaged superheroes run around unfettered might tick some eyebrows.
Superboy decided to ask Robin, when he got back, if letting himself sit in the back of a police car in handcuffs is cooperating too much.
The officer who arrested him was on the police radio, relaying his report. According to him, he'd been dispatched to apprehend a violent teenaged male who was going around and harassing everyone on the street. It was a lie—the "violent" part, at least. He hadn't punched anyone. But the police car had pulled right up beside him, the man inside eying that symbol on his chest and the grim expression on Conner's face, and that had been that.
"Hey," he tried, leaning forward into the grate that divided the car in half. This was worth a shot, at least. "I came with you like you asked, but I'm wasting time. Could you let me go?"
The officer turned around to peer at him behind the grate. He stared in silence for a few seconds before turning back around with a shrug. "Sorry, kid. You want my opinion, you look harmless. I was told to be on the lookout for a rampaging nut with an apparent Superman complex."
Superboy managed to not growl at that. It was very difficult. "So let me go, already."
"We probably will. But first I gotta take you downtown so we can ask you some questions, ID you...it's all just protocol, kid, you don't gotta worry as long as you never actually clocked anyone."
Conner's mind flashed back to the street clock, bent like a pipe cleaner over the sidewalk. Wally would probably find that really funny. "Fine. How long will it take?"
"Depends on how long it takes to process you. Probably not more than a couple hours—oh, quit it, kid, it ain't that bad," the officer chastised. Luckily, he didn't actually turn around to see the dent Conner's forehead left in the grate. "You'll give yourself brain damage."
"Look," Conner began very patiently, after deciding that breaking loose to continue his search wouldn't be worth the trouble. "Maybe there's some way we can—"
He never got to finish, thanks to the explosion. Abruptly, a building not several houses away erupted into flames, fire and debris spewing from its shattered windows. The police officer cursed loudly and slammed the breaks. Tires screeching, the car swerved sharply before it rocked to a halt.
"Shit!" The officer yelped again, palm slamming into his steering wheel. He grabbed the radio and began yelling into it, but Conner's attention had shifted to the building—it looked like an apartment complex, four stories. The fire was pouring only from the second story's windows, but he knew a few things about fires, and it wouldn't stay that way for long. Already there were people streaming from the building, tripping over each other as they bottlenecked at the entrance.
"You!" Conner's attention snapped back to the officer, who glared at him through the division. "Stay here. You understand? Don't move a single inch!" Without waiting for a response, he threw open his door and rushed out.
Conner pressed himself up against the grate, watching the scene unfold. The officer had begun directing everyone trying to escape from the building, but wasn't doing a damn thing about the fire itself; Conner looked up and saw the third-story windows belching flames as well. He could hear sirens already blaring in the distance, but they may as well have been whispers in comparison to the screams he could hear within the building.
He growled, throwing himself back against the seat, and closed his eyes. "Hey! Is anyone there?" He had done the mental equivalent of screaming into their telepathic link, but after a few moments, nobody had replied. Conner grit his teeth and tried again. "Anyone! Robin! Kaldur! There's a fire! I need help, here!"
Dammit, the line was dead. They must have been too spread out for M'gann to keep them linked. That tore it—literally, as Superboy ripped his cuffs apart, hand flying to the radio hidden in his ear. As soon as he hit the button sharp static burst into his ear, and he jerked his hand back, cursing under his breath. He didn't know what was wrong with their regular comms, but he was getting pretty sick of "cooperating"—a fact he decided to make clear by kicking the door off its hinges and leaping outside.
The entrance was still being blocked by panicked civilians, so Superboy took the next best thing—he charged straight for the building, ignoring the officer's cry as he did so, and slammed his shoulder into the wall. It crumbled like wet sand, and immediately Superboy was greeted by smoke billowing from the newly-created entrance. He picked himself up—he'd landed in some kind of kitchen—and dashed for the next room.
It was a living area filled to the brim with oily smoke. But that wasn't the eye-catcher—in the middle of the room was a man pinned beneath a cabinet that had probably tipped during the explosion. His watering eyes went wide when he saw Superboy; wheezing, he pawed at the carpet, trying to get out some kind of plea.
Conner bent and lifted the cabinet in one easy motion, tossing it to the side. The man sucked in a greedy breath and was immediately wracked by coughs, but continued scrabbling at the floor, finally managing to grab Superboy's pant leg.
Superboy crouched down and lifted the man slightly. "Are you injured?"
"M-my daughter," he choked out, eyes growing impossibly wider. He snatched at Superboy's collar. "Sofie—she's d-down in the—"
The sudden, harsh voice in his ear made him freeze. His hand flew to the radio in his ear. "Who is this? How did you get this frequency?"
"GCPD—look, we can go over the logistics later, but right now we've got to get these people out of here."
"Working on it," he growled, focused on the man's eyes which were rapidly glassing over.
"Listen carefully—leave the upper floors to us. This is an old building. The infrastructure was compromised during the explosion, which means the bottom floor is the most susceptible to failing—"
That was when the floor collapsed.
It just fell out from under his feet, and as they followed suit, he hugged the man to his chest and cursed for the umpteenth time the fact that he couldn't fly.
It was a short trip. Only a moment passed before Superboy plunged into a pile of wood and cement that would probably shatter a human's spine, and with that very concept in mind, the first thing he did once recovering was check the man in his arms. The fall had knocked him unconscious—but he was still alive, if the jagged breaths he was taking were any indication.
Superboy eased himself into a sitting position and looked at the hole above their heads. No smoke or fire had spread to this room yet, whatever it was. He glanced around, spotting a row of washing machines lined up along the wall.
"Superboy! Do you copy?"
Oh, that guy again. Superboy eased the man down and hit the radio. "I'm here. Found out first-hand what you meant by the infrastructure being compromised."
"Where are you?"
"Some kind of laundry room."
"Are there any civilians down there?"
He looked around once more. "No. One fell down here with me, but he's still alive."
"Get him and get out of there," the man on the other end commanded. His tone was like that of a general's; someone used to giving orders and having them followed. "I need you to keep traffic flowing on the first floor."
Before Superboy could respond, he heard a ragged breath being drawn. His eyes drifted down to the man in his lap, but when it sounded again, he realized that it had come from further away. "Hold on," he replied, getting to his feet and picking his way down the wreckage.
When he got closer to the wall, the breath suddenly turned into a choked sob. The hairs raised on the back of his neck as he spotted it—a fissure in the wall, just big enough for a child to fit through. He approached it and crouched down, peering inside; it must have been deep, because he could only make out the faint outline of a small figure.
"Whatever you're doing, I hope it's more important than the building burning above your head," the voice barked into his ear.
"There's someone down here," he replied, raising his voice in frustration. He looked into the crack again. "I think it's a kid."
"Get them out! Now!"
"I know!" Superboy all but yelled into the radio, quickly shutting it off. He turned back to the fissure. "Hello? Is anyone in there?"
"I know you're there," he said. "I can hear your crying."
A sharp, but quiet intake of breath followed. Then there was just more silence, and Superboy found his nerves beginning to wear. "Look, you need to get out of there," he said a bit curtly.
"I...can't," a voice finally admitted, tiny and feminine and just barely above a whisper. "I'm scared."
"Staying in there isn't going to do you any good," Superboy explained. Surely the child could see that much? "Just come with me and—"
"No!" her voice was louder, now, and carried a hint of hysteria.
Superboy groaned and backed away, looking more closely at the fissure. He couldn't force his way inside without risking serious damage to the girl, and he didn't like his chances of being able to pry it apart without bringing the entire building down on them.
"Kid," he tried once more, and this time his voice was all stone and authority. "Come out of there."
All he got in response was a muffled sob. Stifling a curse, Superboy glanced back up at the hole above, watching the fire eat away at the building. It wouldn't be long at all until it came downstairs.
"What," hissed a very deliberate voice, "is the holdup, Superboy?"
"I can't get her out!" he cried, too frustrated to find irritation in the man's tone.
There was a pause, and Superboy realized that he only noticed it because of how rapid-fire the man's responses usually were. Finally: "What have you tried?"
"I'm telling her that she isn't safe in that little hole, but she won't listen! And it's not like I can force her out!"
"No, you can't," he agreed. "Listen. There's a time for authority, and a time for compassion. You can't bark orders at a frightened young child and expect her to fall in line like a soldier."
"Then what am I supposed to do?"
"Appeal to her self-interest. Convince her that it's safer to be with you than it is holed up."
Suddenly the stench of burning grew more powerful; Superboy turned to see smoke had begun seeping in from beneath the door. Frustration boiled hot in Superboy's stomach, and the force of his finger jabbing into the radio button very nearly broke it in half. "This is pointless! I don't have enough time to—"
"Superboy." The tone, sounding all too soft and like it came from a different person entirely, stopped him in his tracks. "There's no reason to be angry."
And even with the fire burning overhead, the girl's soft cries sounding in the air, and the pounding of his own heartbeat in his ears, the world managed to grind to a halt for just one moment. Conner swallowed, eyes sliding down to the fissure. And the anger was gone.
"No good reason," he corrected quietly. Then he knelt down and peered into the crack once more, forcing down the near-panic thrumming in his chest. "Hey. You still there?"
"Go away!" the girl's voice was practically a wail, and he saw the shadows shift as she tried to shrink back even further.
Superboy sighed. "Hey, look. I'm sorry for yelling. I just want to help...okay?" The girl didn't reply. It was better than crying, at least. "I'm Superboy. Can you tell me your name?"
A long pause.
"Sofie," came the tiny voice.
His mind instantly jumped to the other victim, lying atop the pile of debris—and despite the very real need to get him out of there before he breathed in too much smoke, not to mention the overall urgency of the situation, Superboy realized that a grin was threatening to split his face.
"Sofie, huh? Say, do you live here with your father?"
"I—I...uh-huh. On the first floor."
Bingo. "You know, I just rescued him."
"D-dad?" Her voice was slightly awed, and cracked with relief. Superboy saw her outline shift again. "He's okay?"
"Yeah. In fact, he's down here with us. He hit his head—but he'll be okay," he added quickly. "You want to see him? He was pretty worried about you."
He extended his hand as far into the crack as it would go. And then, after a few seconds' hesitation, he felt a gentle tug of fingers on his own. When he pulled her out, he saw that her red hair was tousled and her face was streaked with dirt and her clothes were crumpled, but she had the most nauseatingly trusting smile he'd ever seen.
Fire burst into the room. Superboy swept the girl up and dashed towards her father, hitting the button for his radio. "I got her," he breathed.
"I can't believe you," The police officer cried, face pale. "You do realize that you just ran into a burning building? Literally! Into!"
"So you're some kind of superhero, then? How long as the Bat been letting you operate in this city?"
Conner shrugged again.
"Are you all like this?" the officer asked a bit helplessly.
"No. Do you still need to arrest me?"
The officer gave a shaky laugh, adjusted his cap, and shook his head. "You know what? Forget about it."
Finally. He needed to get back to searching for Batman. "Tell your commander thanks for the help," he said.
The officer looked at him a bit funny. "My commander?"
"The guy relaying orders to everyone during evacuation."
Eyebrows raised, the officer took a moment to look at the still-slightly-smoking building. "Kid, as much as I'd love to take credit, we didn't do much of a damn thing before the fire truck showed up. You're the one who evac'd the whole joint."
Conner blinked. "That's not right. I only—"
He turned to see Sofie waving at him from the back of an ambulance. The cop chuckled. "Well, figure it out later. You've got a fan."
Conner turned and approached her slowly, unsure of how to handle the situation. "Hello," he said, a bit awkwardly.
"Thank you." To his surprise, it wasn't she that gave the muffled answer—but rather her father, stretched out in the back of the ambulance with a breathing mask attached to his face. His eyes drifted from the girl to Conner. "For saving my daughter."
"It's...nothing." Conner wasn't sure why his ears were still burning. He glanced back at Sofie. "You look like you're doing better."
"I didn't know you were Superboy," she said, that hint of awe returning to her voice as she gazed up at him. "You're a real superhero?"
Conner took a moment. "Yes," he finally decided. He looked back down at her various bandages. "Are you hurt?"
Sofie shook her head. "I'm okay. Daddy breathed in a lot of smoke, but the doctor said he'd be okay after wearing that mask for a while. Besides, know who else wears a mask? Batman and Robin! They're—"
She abruptly paused, eyes wandering for a moment. When they settled back on Conner again, she was wearing a smile a mile wide. "They're pretty cool, but I think you're my favorite hero, Superboy!"
She beamed up at him, while her father gave a few raspy chuckles. And Conner wasn't entirely sure, but he thought that maybe around that moment, he had found a good reason for something.
So...this isn't how I usually do things. At all. I hate splitting chapters into different parts, but when it came to "Tracking", I decided to do it because of two reasons: 1) It would be ridiculously long as one chapter, and 2) ...it's been how long since I've updated this story? I'm sure everyone who follows it thinks it's dead in the water by now, but it isn't! I do work on it! But alas, there is one word, that when uttered I am sure readers from all around will understand my difficulties: college. So it will come, but it will come slowly, and Tracking will take a while to complete.
Second order of business! Please keep in mind that this was conceptualized way back during the episode "Downtime"...so the setting for this story is somewhere around that time. Because of that, there might be some discrepancies from things that were revealed later in the show. I can only ask that you forgive these details!
Oh, and lastly, this is the first time I've published/updated under my new pen name. If you started reading this story while it was under the name Angelfeatherwriter, fear not! It is still I.
Okay, that's enough rambling. Have a good one, readers!