Disclaimer: Characters and premise are the property of DC, I'm just borrowing them for a little non-profit fun.
It took Clark most of the event to get Bruce alone, and even then he only managed it long after Dick and Superboy had retired to their rooms... and after Lois had mysteriously vanished.
"If you're looking for your partner Robin left her in a utility closet on the fifth floor," Bruce said flatly without glancing in Clark's direction.
"You said he was cured," Clark accused. "Roy bringing the cure was what tipped Young Justice off to his involvement with the Light!"
"Damn half-baked plan to prove himself by infiltrating the enemy," Bruce muttered. "Nearly getting himself killed thinking he's a double agent when he's really just playing into their hands."
"You said he was cured."
"I said Roy provided us with Cadmus' stabilizing agent." Bruce stated coldly. "If you'd been paying any attention at all you would have known it did nothing for the damage that had already been done."
"You should have told me!"
"If I'd had a quest to send you on I would have," and Clark started hearing the anger under the ice in Bruce's voice. "What he needed, needs is the very thing you've consistently refused to give him: attention."
For several moments Clark glared. He tried to find the right words to refute Bruce's accusations. "What happened to him?" he asked finally, the shock he'd felt ever since Cat had first pointed out the crutch overriding he desire to lay blame for having been blind-sided.
"The lesions spread to his brain," Bruce said. "Before we were able to stop them the damage had caused memory loss, difficulty with sequential tasks and hypertonia preventing the extension of muscles in his right leg. And there's still the physical damage from the earlier lesions."
Clark could only stare as Bruce laid out the full extent of the damage Superboy had suffered.
"The memory loss at least is correctable. Relearning things normally rather than through implantation even appears to be shifting the activity in his brain back toward a more normal distribution. He's undergoing physical therapy for the loss of muscle tissue in his arm as well as for the hypertonia."
"When will he be okay again?" Clark asked sounding lost.
Bruce glared at him furiously. "Parts of his brain are gone!" he snapped. "He's relearning things he knew a few months ago. He uses his wrist computer remind him of things that should be routine. He's on muscle relaxants and maybe, maybe with enough refinements he'll be able to walk without the damned crutch again. But even then there are still the occasional spastic events when it suddenly gets worse for no reason at all. On top of that there's the stabilizing agent that he has to take just to keep his body from breaking down!"
"STAR Labs managed to reformat all his medication into so that they can be administered as an inhalant. We don't have to expose him to Kryptonite every day just to give him a damned shot. Instead he just sleeps with a gas mask because it takes the whole night to get an effective dose. Okay? That was a pipe dream by the third time we cut into his brain. I'm shooting for getting him to the point where he can stand to live with it."
Bruce sounded angry, frustrated and tired and Clark suddenly realized as much as Bruce really was upset with him he was also a convenient target. Angry, that was normal, for Bruce anyway. Frustrated, given what they did they all had their days. No matter how many villains they put away there were always more, there were always the ones who wouldn't stay away. Tired, tired was not normal, especially not for Bruce. It occurred to Clark that the situation with Superboy was wearing him down in a way that nearly a decade of fighting a war that couldn't be won hadn't.
"Why didn't you ask me for help?" Clark felt like he'd asked this before, or maybe not. This time he's asking about Bruce as well as Superboy.
"One of the few mercies this nightmare has granted him is that he forgot you."
Clark drew back. Bruce's words hurt and from the look in the other man's eyes they had clearly been meant to. "I've been trying to help Superboy," Clark protested.
"Anything that doesn't require being in the same room with him," Bruce replied acidly. "His name is Conner, by the way. Superboy would ve raised a few too many questions when I was filing the paperwork. Not to mention it's cruel."
"I've been doing what I can, what I know," Clark exclaimed. "I never knew how to deal with him, with what he wanted from me. What am I supposed to do?"
"Now? Nothing." Bruce's tone left no room for debate. "Now, we've managed to convince him that he won't be killed if he's not useful. Now, he's come to accept, even if he doesn't understand, that we value his continued existence, even now. At the moment an emotional equilibrium has bee reached. When Conner's recovery reaches a plateau and it's no where near what he wants, what any of us want, it's going to be bad. I'd rather reserve what little resilience he has left for that rather than wasting it on your discomfort with his existence. Once I told him to give you time. Time's up, he gave you more than enough."
The next day Clark discovered he couldn't concentrate. Lois practically had to shake him to get his attention. He tuned out in the middle of Perry shouting about... something? He'd have to ask Lois what Perry was upset about. Even in the middle of a fight with one of Luthor's creations Clark found himself more absorbed in listening to a voice from a posh hotel room across town than he was in the fight.
Superboy, Conner kept up a near constant conversation with his computer aid. Over the course of the morning Clark had come to realize that the computer must contain step-by-step instructions for all of the boy's routine activities. Conner would quietly note each thing he did and the computer would beep at him if he skipped a step. More than once Clark heard Alfred biting back offers of help, letting the boy figure out what he could still do for himself.
Red Tornado dropped by during the early part of the morning to help with Conner's physical therapy. Clark found himself getting angry that he hadn't been asked to help all over again at the realization that a large part of the therapy for the boy's leg required someone with superhuman strength. Then all of Clark's anger drained away as it hit him that if it had been Wally or Dick who had been hurt no one would have needed to ask Barry or Bruce to help.
Then Dick joined Conner and both boys settled down to attend to their respective studies. The sound of pages turning and the scratch of Dick's pencil against paper was companionable enough that Clark managed to wrench his attention back to the article he was supposed to be writing for almost two hours, until: "I hate this!" Conner's angry exclamation was accompanied by the sound of a dull thud and the fluttering of loose pages; a book disintegrating after being thrown at a wall. "I should just know this!"
"You're not supposed to 'just know'," Dick argued. "All of the rest of us had to learn."
"I hate being stupid!"
"Look at it this way: Six months ago the alphabet got erased from your mind, now you're reading pretty well. It took me three years to get that far."
"You were a little kid."
"And you're how old? A year and two months? I'm the older brother remember?" Dick insisted. "And I say you're doing great."
Three days later when Clark woke-up with his hearing focused in on Gotham and Conner's morning rituals he wondered what was wrong with him. Always before it had been so easy to decide that the boy was someone else's problem and put him out of mind. He wasn't Superboy's father, no matter what Bruce might say. He had no responsibility for the boy's creation, he hadn't asked to have his DNA stolen and turned into an angry, lost, dangerous teenager.
When Bruce told him the boy needed him, Clark had told Bruce to deal with him. And Bruce had. Bruce had taken care of the boy when he'd gotten sick, had named him and had become Conner's legal guardian. Now the only thing anyone was asking from Clark was to stay away. Why was it so hard now to do what he'd done since the first? Now, when no one wanted him to take an interest in the boy Clark found his attention turning to Gotham every few moments.
He discovered that he felt vaguely jealous when he learned that Bruce brought Conner along with him to most of the business meetings he was required to attend as the president and primary stock holder of Wayne Enterprises... and that Bruce would spend the whole of the meeting working with Conner on cognitive exercises. Clark could imagine how Perry White would react if he brought family matters to work. Bruce's top execs were apparently just glad that Bruce was there, awake and that he didn't reek of some model's perfume.
Superboy's former teammates were apparently frequent visitors in Gotham these days. Clark was surprised that Bruce was willingly tolerating so many Metas in his city. And it wasn't just the kids. Clark hadn't been wrong when he'd thought Bruce sounded tired, but he hadn't realized it had been enough to convince the normally intractable dark knight to change. Batman was apparently as prickly as ever about other vigilantes operating in his city but the other mentors were allowed to help with Conner however they could, even if it meant Bruce had to trust them with his identity. The kids in particular seemed to have a specific agenda: they were trying to help Conner find interests he could pursue. From what Clark could hear it wasn't going so well. The only interest Superboy had ever had was being a hero.
"Mom, could I talk to you?" The hesitation in Artemis' normally strident voice drew Clark's attention away from Wayne Manor. "It's about one of my school friends."
"A friend? At your new school?" Artemis' mother asked teasingly. "And you said it would never happen."
"Okay, fine Mom, Gotham Academy hasn't ruined my life, I admit it. Now are you going to help me or not?"
"Of course, I'm your mother, I live to advise you."
Artemis hemmed for a minute. "One of my friends from school, his brother is disabled and it's pretty recent. I study with them sometimes, and I can see the brother, well like I said. It's recent. He's sort of on the verge of having it sink in that things aren't going to go back to what they were. I thought, maybe... You're life didn't end because of that wheelchair. I thought maybe you could talk to him? I don't know what to say, or not to say, and you know my mouth, I'm practically scare to talk to him at all in case I say the wrong thing. But well, you've been where he's at and you're still here and could you talk to him? Please?"
A state away and ten minutes after Clark overheard Artemis' request Lois snapped her fingers in front of her partner's nose. "You in there Smallville?" Lois gave a slightly exasperated huff. "You've been a space case all week. You want to tell me what's on your mind?"
"Sorry Lois," Clark said. "It's... personal stuff I've been trying to sort out in my head."
"Well, judging from the way you've been staring off into nothing looking miserable, you're not making much progress," Lois said
Clark sighed. "Around a year ago I was asked to take an interest in a-a kid from my hometown...he'd just... moved to the big city. I didn't. Said he didn't have anything to do with me. The kid got hurt, bad. It wasn't anything I could have stopped, at least I can't think of anything I could have done to stop what happened. Still, I feel guilty. From what I've heard no one expects him to really get better. His friends and, well, family, they're trying to get him to accept that. It makes me want to shake them, for giving up on him."
"Doesn't sound like they're giving up him," Lois replied bluntly. "It sounds like they're being realistic. You know, Smallville, one of the things I think is -cute- about you is you believe in happy endings. But in the real world, sometimes you have to settle."
"So he's just supposed to deal with it?" Clark demanded.
"It sucks, but yeah. Better for him to get over it and get on with his life than to waste away wishing for what should have been."
"Course, that's not the big story here is it?" Lois asked. "Someone asked you for help, and you said no. That's not exactly like you Smallville. Why didn't you want to help?"
"I can't remember," Clark replied softly, his voice strained. "I must have had a reason, right? But I think back and I can't remember anything that makes much sense to me."
Clark was with his parents when it happened. He hadn't been going to see them nearly enough, not for the last year. Ever since Superboy appeared Clark had found going home to be increasingly difficult. His parent had figured out right away that something was wrong, but they didn't push. They'd always had a good relationship and they trusted him to know when to ask for help, trusted his judgement.
Lately they've been pushing him to talk. Clark hadn't yet. He couldn't think of what good it would do. Not now, not anymore. Superboy, Conner's legal guardian had been distinctly clear about not wanting him to be a part of Conner's life. Clark couldn't see how it would help to tell his parent that they sort of, kind of, but not had a grandchild. Who was physically and mentally disabled. Who they couldn't see. Because he hadn't wanted anything to do with the kid when he'd been asked to take responsibility for him.
Still Clark was glad he was with his parents when it happened. With anyone else he'd have had to make explanations, with his parents? He heard Conner cry out in pain, heard him fall and Clark was hundred miles closer to Gotham before the plate he had been holding hit the floor of his parents' kitchen.
He found Conner lying on the ground, curled in on himself, gasping from the sudden onset of pain. He looked horribly, unnaturally small and the angle of his leg was all wrong. For a moment Clark was certain that the leg was broken, even if he couldn't image how. But X-Ray vision showed that the bones weren't broken, they were being pulled out of place by muscles that were contracted well beyond what was natural or healthy.
It took several seconds for Clark to notice that Bruce was there too. Bruce's face was hard and grim, no cowl but Bruce Wayne's public mask stripped away completely. He didn't look as shocked or terrified as Clark felt. Bruce forced a breathing mask over Conner's mouth and nose. "Deep breaths. Come on. I know it hurts, I know you don't want to scream. But stop holding your breath. Deep breaths. It will help. Trust me."
The medication gradually took effect. After several minutes that seemed to go on for centuries the spasming muscles relaxed. Conner lay half in Bruce's lap, exhausted from the attack, sobbing softly and holding on much too tightly although Bruce didn't appear to be bothered. "Make it stop," Conner begged.
Bruce stroked Conner's hair, he offered physical comfort but no words, no promises. For a moment Bruce's eyes met Clark's over the top of Conner's head. At first Clark didn't know what to make of the guilt in Bruce's eyes, then he remembered Bruce talking Superboy into going through with the operation, into clinging to life. In Bruce's eyes Clark saw that, in moments like this one, he wasn't sure that this was the lesser evil.
The next thing Clark knew he was at the Fortress.
The hardest thing Clark had ever had to learn about being a superhero was that he couldn't save everyone. No matter how much power he had, no matter how hard he tried, bad things still happened and even he couldn't save everyone. But Superboy, Conner was a child. One of theirs, maybe not his anymore but still one of their children. Surely that rule didn't apply to him? How could they be so helpless when one of their own children was hurting?
Clark couldn't stop moving, restless, purposeless movement. There had to be a way. Had to be something they hadn't tried yet. Something they hadn't thought of yet.
He glanced down at the ring he'd absently picked up, at the stylized 'L' with the multi-pointed star above it. It was a memento, a token, but most importantly it was a signal. A signal that would be heard in a place that wasn't, yet.
The trio appeared in a flash of light: A teenaged boy with green skin and blond hair, a pretty, blonde girl with a ringed planet as her emblem and a dark haired boy in a black and purple body-suit.
"Kal!" the girl exclaimed. "Look at you! It's so strange to see you all grown-up."
The two boys also greeted him warmly, but there was a touch of wariness in their eyes.
Clark addressed their concerns directly. "I know there are rules governing time travel. I know those rules exist for a reason... I also know you've bent them before. I've always abided by your limits. I've never pressed you to show me or tell me anything you weren't comfortable with. I've never asked you to bend the rules for me before. And if it can't be done I'll accept that. But I've never asked before, so please? Hear me out and please consider what I'm asking you to do."
"Kal, we can't even hint about anything in your future," the girl said sadly.
"That's not what I'm asking," Clark said. "What I need to know is if there's a way to regenerate damaged neural tissue in the 31st century."
"We can't help you," the green-skinned boy stated.
"At least consider it," Clark protested.
"It's not that we don't want to," the other boy said. "We can't help. The technology you're asking about exists, but it won't work for anyone in this time. As a routine check-up everyone in the 31st century has detailed scans of themselves in a healthy condition. Without a healthy template to work from the tech is just so much scrap. Maybe we could justify lending you some tech from our time, but for this to work we'd have to go back to a time when your friend was healthy. And that's not just bending the rules, that's feeding them to a planet crusher then using the remains for target practice."
Clark smiled brilliantly. "It'll work," he said. "We have a healthy template. He's a clone of me, so I should be able to serve as the template shouldn't I?"
"Theoretically," the green-skinned boy admitted. "Still, there are considerations. We can't just jump into the past and change things. You know that."
"We could go back and check into it," the girl suggested. "Run a few scenarios, see if it would really cause any problems, couldn't we?"
"It never hurts to check," the dark haired boy agreed. "I mean we haven't done anything yet have we?"
The green-skinned boy rolled his eyes. "You might as well go get him. No matter how bad an idea this is, they're going to find a way to justify it and you know it."
Clark watched the beam rastering over Superboy's form. The boy was suspended within a matrix of light. To Clark, the legion's medical device seemed to work a bit like a teleporter only in slow motion. It's beam swept over Superboy's body, inch by inch it destroyed him and created him anew.
Brainiac5 had needed to modify the process to account for the difference in Clark and Conner's ages. He assured Clark it wasn't totally unheard of, that sometimes data would become corrupted or someone would let their yearly check-ups laps and it would become necessary to use an older scan. He claimed that aging a scan up was actually more challenging than de-aging the template data, not that either could actually be considered a challenge to someone with a 12th level intellect.
Regardless of how certain Brainy is of his abilities as Clark watched the procedure he found himself remembering the scene at the Fortress when his three friends from the future had explained that only Clark would be allowed to accompany Conner to the future for treatment. The thought of going through an operation without Bruce watching over him had upset Conner. While Bruce had pulled the boy aside to reassure him Dick had had a few words for Clark.
The smile on the thirteen-year-old's face had made Clark's skin crawl. "This won't end up hurting him more than he's already been hurt. Or else." It should have been ridiculous, the top of Dick's head was barely level with the bottom of Clark's rib cage and that was completely ignoring the issue of powers. But Dick, Robin, was totally serious, and Batman's protégé, not someone to be taken lightly. But for Clark the real shock was the saddening realization of how much trust he'd lost over the last year.
The first step to being worthy of having that trust renewed was being there for Conner at lest this once when Bruce wasn't allowed to be. It was easier said than done. The genetics they shared didn't actually mean much. In truth he and Conner were almost complete strangers. The implanted memories from the Gegnomes had proven frail and easily damaged. Without those memories all Conner had to remember of Superman was being ignored or avoided a few times. While they waited for the final adjustments to be made to the Legion's regenerator Clark sat beside the silent, withdrawn teenager and tried to think of something useful to say. He hoped his presence wasn't making things worse instead of better. The way Conner's gaze seemed to avoid the S-Shield on Clark's chest as if it hurt him to look at it was a bit disquieting.
When Conner reached up to rub his collar as if it were some sort of talisman for the forth time in as many minutes Clark took a closer look, X-Ray vision showed that it was one of Batman's tracers that the boy was using as a touchstone. "He wanted to come," Clark offered.
"I know," Conner said. "He sat with me every other time." The boy hesitated for a moment then added. "This is the first time an operation is supposed to make me better. The others were all just to keep me from getting worse, to stop me from dying. It hurts to think about it working, because what if I think that then it doesn't work?"
Clark was spared having to come up with an answer by Saturn Girl coming over to tell them they were ready to start. After that the only thing for Clark to do was wait and hope Conner was worrying over nothing.
When the beam reached Conner's arm Clark's breath caught in delight. It was the first place where there was visible, external damage to correct. There was something wondrous about watching the lurid scars vanish to be replaced with smooth, unmarked skin.
When it was done Clark helped Conner to step out of the healing matrix. Conner stared at the unblemished flesh on his arm with wide eyes. Then he took a deep, steadying breath and very hesitantly shifted his weight on to his right leg. He took a careful step and then another. He glanced back at Clark. "I'm awake?" he asked uncertainly.
"Yeah, this is real," Clark assured him. He offered the boy an encouraging smile.
Conner tried a few more steps then a tentative stretch. Clark could see he was still expecting the moment when his muscles would betray him and refuse to obey. Conner bend and straightened his knee then his ankle several times and found no resistence, his body wasn't fighting his desire to move. There was hope in his expression as he glanced to Clark again. "I'm-" he stopped and corrected himself, "The damage is fixed?"
Clark felt an unexpected surge of gratitude for whoever had been teaching the boy not to refer to himself as something that could be broken or fixed. "It should be," he confirmed.
Impulsively Conner ran across the room and back. "Thank you!" he told Clark. It struck Clark as slightly odd, the boy didn't sound any different from the hundreds of people who have thanked Superman for saving them over the years.
"I'm just glad I knew someone who could help," Clark deferred like he had hundreds of times before. Accept their thanks gracefully, then let them go back to their lives.
For the first time since Clark showed up in Gotham with the promise of a cure Conner's gaze settled on the S-Shield. There was frank curiosity in the boy's eyes. "I used to wear that, back before everything went wrong." Clark heard the question buried under the statement, he was asking if there was a connection between them. But it was just curiosity speaking, there was nothing of the intense, overwhelming, frightening need that filled the boy's eyes that first night in the ruins of the Cadmus lab.
Clark nodded. "You did, I'd be glad to have you wear it again."
"Thank you," Conner's response was gravely polite and showed hints of Aqualad's influence on him. Then a trace of eagerness crept into his voice, "Is it okay if we go back now?"
"A few tests first," Brainiac 5 interjected. "Initial observations indicate success but hard data is better than subjective impressions."
As the tests progressed Conner's anxious impatience to be back grew. By the time they left the Infirmary for the time-platform he was practically bouncing on his toes with eagerness to be home.
When Brainiac5 pulled Clark aside Conner shot the green-skinned boy an irrate look and Clark could practically hear him think 'Not another delay!'
Could I have your ring back?" Brainiac5 asked quietly. "We shouldn't have helped this time, but we found a way to justify it, because you asked us to. If you ask again, we'd find a way again. If you give in to the temptation having access to the future represents, our rules and knowing better aren't going to stop us from going along with you. So it's for the best to just remove the temptation now. I always said getting involved with you, with such a critical part of our past, was a bad idea. You proved me right today, let's not compound the mistake."
Clark slid the ring off his hand then joined Conner on the platform. A moment later they were back in the Fortress, back in their own time. Conner's eyes went immediately to Batman. He took a few steps forward then Robin darted around his mentor and met Conner half-way.
"You're not limping, that means your brain isn't misfiring," Robin deduced.
Conner nodded. "They checked: No crossed signals, no skips... I still don't remember long division though."
"You'll learn," Robin laughed. "And I can say it, finally! The team hasn't been the same without you. I can't wait until you're back on active duty."
"They were able to use my DNA to correct the genetic flaws Cadmus designed into him as well," Clark said quietly to Bruce.
Then Conner's gaze went back to Bruce and Clark recognized the anxious, hopeful look from the first time the boy had looked at him. "It's good to see you well again Conner," Bruce said with a slight smile.
At the sound of his given name on Bruce's lips the tension drained away leaving Superboy healthy, happy and accepted.