Real vs Not Real
Disclaimer: Characters and premise are the property of DC, I'm just borrowing them for a little non-profit fun.
One minute he's fighting along side his friends in Young Justice against a strange looking man in ragged clothing with straw sticking out from beneath his pointed hat. The next he's back in Cadmus. He stands impassively as Desmond begins his experiments on Robin, Kid Flash and Aqualad.
"Don't start thinking now. See you're not a *real* boy, you're a weapon. And you belong to me. Now get back to your pod!"
And he goes. Kaldur's pleas fall on deaf ears. Because Desmond is right, he is nothing but a weapon. A tool to be used then put back in its box.
Sometime later he watches through the clear glass casing of his pod as their bodies are carried past the lab on the way to the incinerator. Kaldur's calm voice is silenced. Robin seems even smaller, his broken body carted along with ease by one of the Genomorphs. Wally's endless, restless energy is gone, leaving behind a still and empty shell.
He watches from his pod as they are taken away but does nothing. He's only a weapon, Desmond's tool and this is Desmond's will.
"Kryptonian physiology protects them from damn near everything... even help." The word 'Kryptonian' caught Clark's attention from five decks away on the Watchtower and his mother would scold him for eavesdropping but Flash had to be talking about something that involved him. "How Scarecrow managed to concoct a fear gas that worked on Superboy... We haven't been able to reverse engineer the delivery mechanism. We can't get the antitoxin into his system."
"Right now, all we can do is let it run its course and hope he's strong enough," Black Canary's voice sounded raw, emotionally spent. "At least it didn't send him into a panic. This is ugly to watch but he's got a chance and, hell, with his strength it would have been a disaster if he'd reacted violently. The kids are watching him now, I couldn't stand it anymore. God, I hate being helpless."
"Batman's still... chatting with Scarecrow. You might offer a hand," Flash suggested. "I have to get back to the lab. Just because I haven't cracked Scarecrow's formula yet doesn't mean I've given up."
"Tempting, but no," Canary sighed. "I just spent three hours watching that kid go through hell, and the other five are only in marginally better shape even with the antitoxin. You put me in the same room with Crane and I'll break his scrawny neck."
Clark listened to their footsteps as the two parted ways, uncertain of how he should react. He sighed, since that night in the ruins of the Cadmus lab he'd spent a lot of time feeling uncertain. It wasn't something he was used to. Normally he could tell in an instant who should be protected and who should be fought but the clone triggered both instincts in nearly equal measure. He was a child. He was an unnatural thing created for nefarious purposes. 'Which aspect am I supposed to react to?' Clark wondered.
None of it was real, that made perfect sense. He'd never been outside his pod. He'd never felt the sun or wind on his face. He'd never stood on the shore with waves lapping at his feet. The Gegnomes were simply getting better at providing sensory data that was complete enough to fool his mind into believing it was real.
No one had ever come to rescue him. Why would anyone rescue a weapon? It was a ridiculous notion. He was where he belonged, where he'd always been and always would be: In his pod, waiting for Desmond to use him or dispose of him, probably the later. Who needed a Superman-copy that couldn't even fly?
His purpose was to replace the Superman should he die or turn from the light. Superman would never become evil, he was perfect. If Superman were ever killed what could he do against something that had defeated Superman? He was a flawed imitation, worthless, unwanted.
No one would come. He would never leave his pod. It was stupid to think otherwise.
Kaldur would never offer his friendship. M'Gann would never smile at him. Black Canary would never offer to mentor him. Batman would never tell him he'd done well. Wally would never try to joke with him. Artemis would never make her confusing comments that he didn't get but still thought he sort of liked. Robin would never try to help him with the homework Red Tornado assigned; he'd never have homework because the Gegnomes would put anything Desmond wanted him to know into his head. He wasn't a real boy, he didn't need to know how to learn because he'd never have a choice about what he wanted to do or be. He was a weapon, something to be stored until needed or decommissioned and replaced with a less defective model.
Flying high above Gotham it didn't take long for Superman to pin-point the location of Batman and Scarecrow's 'chat'. All he had to do was follow the sound of the terrified whimpering. As he got closer he began to pick out Batman's cold, gravely voice. "The delivery system. How does your new toxin reach its victims? Tell me and I end this. The delivery system, that is all I care about. Give me that and I'll give you the antidote."
Superman used the window to enter a small, barren room in Gotham's warehouse district. "Is there something I could do to help?" he asked.
"You could leave," Batman stated, without bothering to spare him a glance.
When Superman didn't immediately comply Batman glared at him and gestured to the ragged figure huddled in the corner. "He expects you to save him. I won't get anything from him with you here... If your conscious bothers you, this is a diluted version of his poison, something I use on myself to test the effectiveness of various mental disciplines. It's no more than a fifth as potent as the brew running through your son's veins."
With Batman seemingly having turned his attention to Superman, Crane made his move. He scrambled across the dirty floor and seized a piece of broken glass. He raised it toward his own throat. Batman casually kicked the shard out of Crane's hand then knocked him back into his corner. "I won't allow you that escape. That or any other," he informed Crane. "Tell me about the delivery system. That is the only escape for you."
He turned back to Superman. "We were lucky in how the gas took the boy. He went catatonic almost immediately. Most victims have an initial panic stage. During that stage most react with irrational violence. Even when restrained there remains the possibility that their hearts will simply give out. With time, most progress to despair, then victims frequently become suicidal. Given the options, catatonia really is the best possible outcome."
"Just tell me what to do?" Superman asked.
"He's at Mount Justice along with his teammates," Batman said. "Tornado and most of the mentors are monitoring them. The after effects are almost as unpleasant as the toxin, if less deadly. They could probably use another adult."
"Why didn't you ask me for help?" Superman asked.
"Superboy puts an unhealthy importance on gaining your regard. Continue ignoring him and he'll get over it. He'll also despise you." Batman shrugged as if that outcome was irrelevant. "But if you turn inconsistent, you will break him. Go if you care about him. Leave him be if you don't. Either way, stop dithering."
"Dithering!" Clark exclaimed in outrage.
"He was a shock. You want more time to get used to the idea of him. I understand, you're supposed to get around nine months right?" Batman said sarcastically. "That's fair I suppose. This is life. There's a twenty percent chance that he won't survive the next forty-eight hours."
Months and years passed and nothing changed. He remained in his pod. The Gegnomes fed him what information Desmond wanted him to possess and that defined the limits of his world.
Then finally it happened. "Today's the day," Desmond told him. "Today I finally have a use for you, my weapon. Today we'll see if you were worth the bother to make."
And they opened his pod. And they took him out into the world he'd been told of but had never seen.
The wind felt good on his face, like a phantom hand's caress. For the first time in his life the air didn't smell sterile.
Kaldur, Robin, Wally, M'Gann and Artemis stood arrayed opposite him. They weren't children anymore (he'd never know them as children, never seen them or anyone outside of Cadmus before). They'd grown into adulthood, succeeded their mentors and become recognized as heroes in their own right.
"You're my weapon. Kill them for me," Desmond said.
"No?" Desmond laughed. "You're a weapon! You don't think! You don't choose! You don't have friends or feelings. You're just a weapon. I point you at a target and you destroy it. That is all you are. All you were made to be."
"I don't want to."
"It doesn't matter what you want. I made you. Do you think I would be so careless as to make you so that you could betray me? You may fool yourself, lie to yourself and everyone else. But you are my weapon. You will destroy what I chose to have destroyed. You have no say in it!"
"They're in the lounge," Orin said, intercepting Clark on his way to the Infirmary.
"Is that safe?" Clark asked.
"They decided the Infirmary was too sterile, too much like Cadmus' labs." Orin grimaced. "Hospitals hold few positive associations for anyone. They're all in rough shape. If Superboy's condition degenerates the Infirmary is less than a minute away, until that bridge is crossed they might as well be in comforting surroundings… Although Oliver draws the line at relocation to any of the bedrooms." He grinned very briefly at that. "I'd like to have Kaldur back beneath the waves myself, but he needs his team close more than he needs the ocean."
Clark nodded and turned toward the lounge. There he found the room transformed. The cushions had been pulled off the couches, the bedrooms raided for pillows and blankets to make a large nest on the floor.
Superboy was curled up fetally with his head in Kaldur's lap. The Atlantean boy stroked his hair gently while watching the over the rest of the team. Robin and Wally sat back to back near Superboy's legs. Occasionally one or the other would reach out and pat him. Robin clutched a baterang in one hand and watched the door while Wally watched the shadows. Wally's legs were tangled with Artemis', her bow lay near at hand. M'Gann had taken out Artemis' ponytail and was slowly weaving the other girl's hair into an elaborate plait. She sat so that her legs rested along Superboy's back.
Green Arrow and Red Tornado stood on either side of the door as if on sentry duty. J'Onn was sitting opposite from M'Gann, from the occasional flicker of expression or movement Clark could tell they were in telepathic communication but on such a tight band that he couldn't sense the slightest trace of it. Clark suspected that J'Onn was helping M'Gann to shield her mind so that she only had to deal with her own fear, not the emotions radiating off the entire team. The terror was obvious even without telepathy. Five of the children had woken from their nightmares but the remnants still lingered in the air and preyed on their minds. The sixth...
When Clark looked into Superboy's eyes he saw that for all their effort the other children had failed utterly to reach him. Superboy's eyes were desolate. He was locked in a private hell behind the shuttered windows of his eyes and no sense of comfort could reach past that barrier.
Clark faltered in the doorway. 'Why did I come? What can I possibly hope to accomplish? I can't even manage a real conversation with him under the best of circumstances. What am I supposed to do now?'
Then, without warning, Superboy lurched to his feet. "I won't!" he screamed. He stood with his back pressed to the wall, eyes fixed on something only he saw. "I won't be your weapon!" He clawed at his arms viciously digging bloody furrows from inner wrist to elbow.
Kaldur recovered first, he put his hands over Superboy's "Please, you need to stop."
M'Gann and J'Onn pulled together. Clark could feel their pooled powers reaching for the dark emotions in the room. Not trying to reach into Superboy's mind but trying to draw off the overwhelming despair in him, trying to clear his mind of the fear gas's fog.
Superboy tossed Kaldur away from him. "Even if I'm not real I still choose!" he shouted at the demons haunting him. "I won't be your weapon!"
Again he tried to rip the veins from his arms. This time it was Clark who caught his hands and pulled them inexorably away from his torn flesh.
In the background Clark saw Orin help Kaldur to his feet. Ollie pushed Artemis' bow down then wrapped an arm loosely around her shoulders. Red Tornado had a hand on Wally and Robin's shoulders, stepping in for their mentors.
"Not real. Dismantle. Won't be your weapon," Superboy muttered to himself as he strained against Clark's hold.
"Look at me!" Clark ordered putting all of Superman's authority into it. Slowly hazy blue eyes rose to meet his. "You are real," Clark said firmly. "You are not a weapon. You can't be 'dismantled' and I won't let you hurt yourself."
"You are real," Clark repeated, with a shock he realized that he might not have convinced Superboy but he had convinced himself. Clark released one of Superboy's hands and pulled him into a hug. "You are real. You're not a weapon and no one is going to use you. I won't let them, promise."
After what seemed like an eternity Superboy responded, clinging to Clark so tightly that even the man of steel's ribs creaked. He buried his face against Clark's chest, sobbing brokenly.
Clark stroked the back of his head and kept hugging him. "It's going to be alright. You just have to hold on. You are real. You're mine, my son. You are wanted." He closed his eyes, thinking for a moment, searching for some proof to offer. "Your name is Conner, like my uncle. He was my father's older brother and he was a hero, like you."
"How's he doing?" Barry asked much later.
"Better," Clark said. "The new antitoxin seems to be having an effect. He was coherent earlier. He's been sleeping for the last half hour without nightmares. How are the others?"
"The kids are pretty much back to normal," Barry said. "Us mentors are still feeling a little clingy. Of course we're all still worried about this one here, Conner is it?"
"Yeah. We talked about that the last time he was awake. He likes it." Clark grimaced. "I get the feeling he would have liked Mortimer if I'd suggested it, anything to be given a name like a real child."
"What took you so long?" Barry asked.
Clark shook his head. "I couldn't sort out him from what Cadmus had done. He's just as caught in the middle as I am."
"Even with all of this - Scarecrow, the fear gas, him being hurt – you seem more yourself than you have in months," Barry commented.
"I'm not feeling the need to avoid mirrors and my parents anymore," Clark admitted. "Once the toxin's complete clear of his system I'm going to have J'Onn check him over for any subconscious programming."
Clark nodded. "I've been informed that he doesn't like telepaths but one examination has to be a better answer to his fears than that," Clark brushed a finger over the bandages wrapped around the boy's forearms.
"Then I'm taking him to meet my parents," Clark smiled. "For me that will make it even more real that he's my family too, I hope he'll feel the same way."