Disclaimer: Characters and premise are the property of DC, I'm just borrowing them for a little non-profit fun.
The notion for this story comes from the following YJ_Anon_Meme prompt:
Superboy starts to suffer from clone degeneration. He tries to keep it secret from the team, the team find out. The team tries to keep it secret from their mentors (paranoid about how they'll treat the news, since they're not exactly happy about a clone of Superman running around), maybe getting desperate as they try and reverse it, but they end up failing at that, too. Anything else is up to the author.
Twisting around to look at his back in the mirror Superboy glared at the spot on his back. It was an unhealthy looking greenish thing just below his left shoulder blade. He stretched and contorted his body until he could watch in the mirror as his fingers sought out the spot and probed it roughly. It felt soft and mushy in contrast with the surrounding, normal tissue. When he moved a faint tugging told him the muscles under the spot weren't contracting like they should. It was only about the size of his fist, not big enough to affect his mobility, but it was bigger now than it had been a week ago when he first noticed it.
Superboy pulled his shirt back on and resolutely turned his back on the mirror.
Two weeks later, when he noticed another spot beginning to form on his arm Superboy went out and bought several long-sleeved tee-shirts with the S-Shield printed on them. He stuck with black shirts because the color didn't show it when pus oozed out of the older spot. The spot that was slowly but surely turning into a black, rotting pit in his back.
Aqualad opened his door at the sound of a hesitant knock.
"Kaldur, could I talk to you?" Robin asked.
"Come in," Aqualad replied, holding the door open for the younger boy.
Robin wasted several moments examining the Atlantean's quarters. He picked up a shell, glanced at the ceiling light in which the normal white light had been replaced with a much softer, bluer bulb. Robin didn't show any sign of bringing up the topic that brought him there.
"You wanted to talk?" Aqualad prompted.
Robin grimaced. "Superboy's favoring his left side," he said quickly. "I didn't want to say anything, 'specially to Batman or one of the other mentors..."
"Because it feels like tattling," Kaldur finished.
Robin nodded miserably. "It's not like I've never hid it when I did something stupid and hurt myself. I can tell Supey's trying to cover it. At first I thought maybe he'd pulled a muscle or something stupid, I though it was something like when I sprained my ankle show-boating while I was fighting Mad Hatter. I really didn't want Batman knowing about that, it was stupid, and really not that big of a deal. I thought it was like that, I get why he'd keep it quite, so I didn't want to say anything..." Robin trailed off, he fidgeted with the shell uncomfortably. "But I've been watching him for eight days. It's getting worse not better. I'm starting to worry." He looked up at Kaldur, "What if it's not just a strain or something?"
"Why are you telling me this?" Kaldur asked.
Robin gave him a hopeful look. "Supey listens to you more than the rest of us. You know he's sort of prickly. I didn't want to get him all defensive. And what if it is nothing? I really don't want to have told Batman on him if it's nothing important."
'And I'm team leader. It's my responsibility to judge what needs to be passed up to our mentors,' Kaldur thought. 'I should have noticed something was wrong myself.'
Kaldur stood in the shadows surrounding the team's gym, watching Superboy stretch. Now that he was looking for it the reason for Robin's concern was plainly apparent. There were hitches in the way Superboy moved; short falters, as if his coordination or muscles had failed him briefly. The longer Kaldur watched the more convinced he became that Superboy couldn't lift his left arm above shoulder level.
"You should let someone know if you're injured," Kaldur said quietly.
Superboy spun around and stared at him with wide frightened eyes. "I'm sorry," he blurted out guiltily. "I can still fight. I'm still useful. Don't take me off the team, please? Please, don't tell?"
Kaldur stared at Superboy in confusion. "You're hurt. You need to tell someone so you can get treatment."
"Please? Please don't tell. Don't take me off the team. I'm still useful," Superboy reiterated and Kaldur wasn't certain the other boy had heard or understood him at all.
Kaldur frowned, he honestly didn't know what to make of Superboy's reaction. He seemed terrified of having his injuries discovered. It simply didn't make sense. He could understand Robin feeling embarrassed at injuring himself through carelessness, but this was an entirely different level of wanting to hide an injury which seemed completely irrational to Kaldur.
It made him want to agree to Superboy's request just to erase the fear from his eyes. But Kaldur remembered the way Superboy had moved. "Let me see it," Kaldur bargained, maybe with more information he could justify giving in to Superboy's wishes. "Then I'll decided whether or not we need to tell one of the mentors."
Superboy shrank away from him defensively.
"Please," Kaldur said gently. "I can't promise unless I know what is wrong. Maybe I can do something. If I can, we can keep it just between us."
Reluctantly Superboy stripped off his shirt then stood there staring at the floor, his shoulders hunched as if waiting for a blow.
Kaldur gasped at the ugly gangrenous lesions concentrated on Superboy's left side, starting at his ribs then going up and over his shoulder to trickle down his arm. Some were small and greenish, like healing bruises, others were bigger and black, the worst of all were open sores, pits of necrotic looking tissue weeping pus.
In a state of horrified shock Kaldur reached for his com unit. "Robin, it wasn't nothing," he whispered still staring at Superboy. "Get Batman NOW. Superboy needs doctor, immediately."
"I can still fight," Superboy repeated mournfully. "I'm still useful." In a small voice he added, "Don't throw me away."
Dr. Midnight stepped out of his examining room. He canted his head to the side, listening for a moment, then frowned. "Why isn't Superman here?" he demanded. "The boy's a minor, as long as he's in costume his mentor acts as his legal guardian." He turned to Batman. "That is what you insisted on."
Batman and Black Canary exchanged an unhappy look. "Superman is not acting as the boy's mentor," Batman stated shortly. "He is a member of Young Justice. Canary, myself and Red Tornado have been acting as mentors to the team. In Superboy's case, in the absence of a better alternative, you may consider the three of us to be his acting guardians."
"Fine," Midnight nodded shortly. "Why the hell wasn't that kid taken to a doctor two months ago? There is no excuse for advanced gangrene in obviously visible surface tissue in this day and age in a developed country! Do I need to check the rest of the kids under your care for negligence!"
Neither Batman nor Canary argued with Midnight's assessment.
Midnight sighed. "His cellular structure is breaking down. My preliminary theory is that there was a flaw in the cloning process that created him. I'll need to compare samples of his DNA with Superman's to confirm. Regardless, due to the length of time in which the damage went untreated it's become extensive. The dead tissue needs to be removed, just as soon as I can determine the best means of debridement. There's going to be significant, permanent damage. In the meantime, one of you get in there and start acting like a parent! That kid is terrified."
Batman and Canary looked at each other. "Roy always went to Ollie when he was hurt," Canary said. Then she shrugged, "Or more to the point he'd let Ollie catch him favoring a hurt and then Ollie would have to drag the story out of him and figure out what to do about it. Roy always felt embarrassed about me knowing he'd gotten injured."
Batman grimaced. He, Dick and Alfred had their system as well, but it had come about due to how badly he'd mishandled things the first time Dick had been seriously injured during Robin-related activities. Now if Dick got hurt he took it to Alfred. Alfred patched him up and reported back to Bruce. Then Bruce reassured Dick that the injury did not endanger their relationship or Dick's roll as Robin. After he'd been reassured Dick could relax enough to actually heal and things would return to what passed for normal. Still, he liked to think he learned from his mistakes.
"Remind Clark that Kryptonite exposure will cause a degradation in a DNA sample," Batman said. "An intense, localized exposure to red sunlight would be the best means of acquiring a useful sample."
"Thanks," Canary said, acknowledging the Batman was taking the tougher task.
Batman turned and walked into the dimly lit examination room. When he entered the room Superboy stood up quickly, coming to parade-rest the way the team normally did while Batman was debriefing them. Only this time Superboy was trembling so violently he could barely stay on his feet.
"Sit down," Batman ordered. The boy had been acting strange ever since Robin and Kaldur had summoned him. "I've spoken with Dr. Midnight. The problem seems to stem from Cadmus' cloning process."
Superboy neither sat nor did he look at Batman. He nodded jerkily. "The Genomorphs, same thing sometimes."
Batman noted that Superboy's breathing was too quick and too shallow. He stepped closer to do something before Superboy hyperventilated and the boy flinched away violently. Already unsteady on his feet, the sudden movement sent him tumbling to the floor where he stared up at Batman with panicky blue eyes.
'This wasn't normal', Batman thought, he threw out everything he'd learned for dealing with Dick except the part where he'd learned not to assume he could guess at a teenager's reasoning process. Batman backed away and crouched down to put himself back on eye-level with Superboy. There was no way the boy would make it back to his feet as hard as he was shaking.
"Tell me what you're thinking." Bruce ordered, trying to keep his voice gentle.
"I can still fight. I'm still useful." Superboy began again desperately. Bruce said nothing, only gestured for Superboy to continue. "I can still help with the team. I'm still useful. For a little while anyway. You don't have to kill me yet."
Bruce could only stare, 'How had he come to such an insane conclusion? Thinking they'd kill him for being hurt?' He wanted to grab Superboy and shake him for thinking something so outlandish. 'Permanent damage, for such a fucking stupid notion.'
Superboy looked at the lesions on his arm with despair. "I'm defective, a mistake. Defective units are a waste of resources; to be rendered for their proteins and fed to developing Genomorphs, since they serve no other purpose. But I can still be useful! For a while at least. Don't kill me yet."
And suddenly Superboy's logic didn't seem so irrational, it was based on his experiences after all. He'd been taught to call himself a weapon. He'd developed in an environment where he was looked at as nothing more than an experiment, where life was engineered for specific purposes and had no value beyond it's ability to fulfill the purpose it had been created for.
"This is not Cadmus," Bruce snapped, his harsh tone causing Superboy to cringe away from him again. 'Two months, watching his body breaking down, thinking he was going to be killed when he couldn't hide it anymore,' Bruce reminded himself, 'It's no wonder he's a mess. Don't make it worse.'
He sat on the floor across the room from Superboy and leaned back against the wall, trying to be less threatening. "We don't kill people for being sick," he said plainly. "We brought you here so that you could be cured, not disposed of."
"Cure?" Superboy asked uncertainly.
"We're going to try to correct the damage. You are a person, your life is valuable. We don't kill people for being hurt, we try to make them better. You have worth beyond your usefulness to the team."
Superboy stared at him doubtfully, Bruce could see in Superboy's eyes that what he was saying was too different from what he'd been raised to think to be accepted as real. He looked very young, very scare and very alone.
Slowly Bruce reached up and pushed back his cowl, letting Superboy see his face, see his eyes. "I'm trusting you. Please trust me. Even with your injuries you are not 'a waste of resources'.
Besides, they're ours to waste and we do not consider you defective or a waste. To us you are worth fixing."
Bruce couldn't see any understand in Superboy's eyes; the idea that his life had intrinsic value was too alien for him to embrace; but he saw dawning belief that at least Bruce believed what he was saying.
As the mission ended Superman noticed Flash, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman gathering off to one side. After a moment Green Arrow joined them. "Batman, Canary and Reddy, not one of them answered the signal," Flash said, his voice full of unspoken significance and worry.
'The kids,' Superman realized with a start. He flew over to join the small group of mentors as they tried to contact their proteges.
"Kaldur reports that Superboy is ill," Aquaman relaid. "The team was sent to recover records from Dubbilex and the other Genomorphs who rebelled against Cadmus."
"That tallies with what I've got," Flash said. "It sounds like the kids are pretty shook up. We should check with Bats, see if there's anything we could do to help."
Martian Manhunter nodded. "At times he forgets to ask for assistance."
Clark drifted hesitantly on the outskirts of the group. He'd given Canary a DNA sample twelve hours earlier, in fact his arm still felt weak from the concentrated burst of red light that had been required to draw his blood, but he hadn't thought much about the clone after giving Canary what she'd requested.
"Bats, we just heard from the kids," Flash was saying as Clark turned his attention back to the group. "What happened to Superboy?"
"Cadmus engineered in a fail safe mechanism to prevent his turning against them," Batman growled. "Comparison with Superman's DNA showed a deliberate pattern of genetic defects. If he doesn't get regular doses of a stabilizing agent his cell begin to degrade. The notes recovered from Cadmus on the formula were incomplete. The Atom and STAR Labs are trying to fill in the blanks. Dr. Midnight is working on a treatment plan to contain the existing damage."
"Is there anything we can do?" Clark asked.
"Go visit him," Bruce answered instantly.
Clark didn't reply and the silence between them quickly became thick with tension.
"Your medical records don't list anything that can be used as an anesthetic," Bruce said, there was a strange note of surrender in his voice.
"Anesthetic?" Flash broke in. "Midnight wants to operate on the kid?"
"The degradation was allowed to progress far enough to present as gangrene. The dead tissue has to be removed," Batman replied. "Our best option is a high intensity laser to burn the necrotic tissue away."
"Cauterization? That's medieval! Why don't you just dump maggots in the wounds?" Barry demanded, outraged.
"We tried that, they don't eat Kryptonian," Batman said flatly. "If they did we wouldn't need the damn anesthetic, they wouldn't damage the surrounding, living, tissue."
"Toyman!" Clark exclaimed. "He used some sort of gas on me a few months ago. It really warped my perceptions. I'll get you a sample. Maybe it could be modified to block pain."
"This idea's going to work out," Superman reported as soon as he recognized Bruce's voice.
"Clark, stop." Bruce said tiredly. "We're out of time, we're going ahead with the operation. Stop looking for a miracle pill. Just get back here and give him a hand he can't crush to hold on to while we cauterize the lesions."
"I'm certain this one will pan out," Clark insisted.
Bruce cut off the communication. "He's not coming," he told Midnight. "Let's get this over with."
Midnight nodded. "The equipment is waiting. I'll leave you to prepare Superboy."
"So once this is done you can come back to Mount Justice?" Artemis asked. "The base has been severely lacking in scenery with you stuck up here."
Superboy frowned at her. "That doesn't make sense," he complained. "Scenery is the ocean or the mountain. I didn't move them."
"Don't worry, Wally can translate 'flirt' for you," Robin said, volunteering the red-head with a grin. "But we are all eager for you to get back."
"I won't be on active duty," Superboy said. "Not until they make sure no new lesions are going to form and Canary says I can compensate for the loss of mobility."
"We'll still be glad to have you back on the base," Kaldur assured him.
"And you'll be back to normal in no time," Wally said. "The Atom, STAR Labs and Midnight, Uncle Barry says their absolutely the best. There's no way they can't fix something losers like Desmond and Cadmus screwed up. You're going to be fine, you just watch."
M'Gann hung back, she stared at the open sores visible on Superboy's arm with teary eyes. "Does it hurt?" she blurted out finally.
Superboy shrugged. "They don't hurt. The nerves are dead."
"That's-" M'Gann began with a forced imitation of her normal cheery outlook. Then her face crumpled because it wasn't good, and she knew that to be sure all the dead tissue was removed they would have to take some of the surrounding tissue and that would hurt. She floundered for a few moments. "I'm going to make chicken soup for when you get back," she declared finally.
"It's time," Batman said from the door way.
Superboy nodded. He got up and followed Batman down the hall to the operating room.
"You'll need to be restrained," Batman explained as Superboy stared warily at the frightening looking contraption waiting for him. "If you move during the operation it will cause additional, unnecessary damage."
Superboy nodded, his lips pressed together in a grim lime. He took off the scrub top he wore, exposing the rest of the lesions. He stared at the thing in the operating room with trepidation. It was harsh cold metal, designed to withstand his strength and hold him still and helpless against being hurt. Superboy cringed, 'If this was curing, maybe Cadmus' way was better after all.'
Batman removed his cowl and gauntlets, stripping away his armor and letting Superboy see the person beneath. "This is necessary if you want to stay with us." In the newly revealed eyes Superboy could see that Batman hated that this had to be done. "We won't kill you, but if you don't get treatment you will die. I'm sorry. It is going to hurt, but it's necessary. We want to keep you with us."
And the thing was slightly less terrifying with gentle hands guiding him to sit and lean forward so his arm and left side were position and secured for the procedure. A heavy, solid feeling ball was placed into his hand. "Squeeze down on that when it hurts," Batman told him. He covered Superboy's hand with his own. "We'll get this over with as quickly as possible. I'll be right here the whole time and your friends are just down the hall waiting to take you home with them."