Disclaimer: Not mine, never were.
Notes: Thanks to thete1 whose fault it is. And buggery, for not stopping me. And many thanks to notpoetry for the beta.
Tim, Bart and Kon, preYJ.
Carol and Preston are really cool, and Bart's really happy they're his friends, which is why he sometimes feels a little guilty for tuning out when they're talking to him. It's not like he means to do it, but he can't help it. It's just... It's just that they're not quite enough. Bart needs-- he *knows* he needs a lot of things, and he thinks that maybe they're part of it, but not all of it. He wants someone who can understand.
He thinks he might have found them. Maybe. He hasn't exactly had a lot of opportunity to find out yet, but it *fits*. Like maybe he could fit, too.
Robin is very cool and very scary. Bart actually tried to do that, the cool, aloof, *capable* thing, but he only managed it for a minute and nobody noticed he was being cool and aloof and capable anyway so he gave up. It leaves Bart kind of impressed that Superboy can just *accept* it like that, being pushy and challenging and friendly all at once, like Robin isn't the scariest thing to come out of Gotham since, well, Batman. Only shorter.
Okay, so Bart does that kind of thing to, but it's different for him. He just doesn't think about it, asking Robin if Batman's ever taken him to that ice-cream parlour on Greigsen Street, 'cause he knows they're okay with people in costume and they must get hungry sometimes when they're out all night and...
Robin just gives him this *look*, and when Bart notices it, it's enough to shut him up. Usually.
He really likes hanging around them, though, even if he hasn't done it much. It's *stabilising*, like having something normal, not just normal for the world, but normal for *him*, and it's just so cool, that he has a bat and a super, 'cause it runs in the family, but they're *his* ones. He needs to get a Lantern, too, 'cause that's also traditional, but it can wait. He's having enough trouble knowing how to handle Superboy and Robin, and they're-
Well, not *easy*, but difficult in a way he can cope with. *Understandably* hard. And it's not like being with Carol or Preston, or even Jesse or Wally. There's a chance that they might *get* him.
It'd be nice to have someone who understands. Even nicer to have two people. Plus, he'd like some of that experience to rub off on him, like to get some of that *knowledge*. Robin's all about the planning, and he knows so much, knows how to do all this stuff, knows how people and things and the *world* works, and he can use that knowledge to totally kick the butt of anything he wants. Except for Batman, obviously, and Max and probably Wally and maybe Jesse, too. But everyone else.
And Superboy is actually *younger* than Bart, which is extremely cool. And he knows all about living as the guy who's not the original, the guy that's not the guy everybody *wants*.
He sort of hopes Superboy can show him how to get treated like an adult, 'cause even though Superboy has "boy" right there in his name, he gets to live in his own house, where he wants, and has all kinds of adult things. Probably girlfriends and boyfriends and no-one ever tells *him* that he's not allowed to watch the adult channel, even though he totally knows all about sex, and was just curious about, like *specifics* and what's the big deal anyway?
Superboy probably can go out and just get that stuff first *hand*, and with aliens and superheroes.
Robin too, but that seems a lot less likely. Robin's very *walled*, like he has this special aura of can't-touch-this, to make up for not being invulnerable. He's not like Superboy, who's always touching and grabbing and pulling. It actually makes it kind of cool that he does a little of that stuff to Bart. Okay, so some of it's probably just trying to stop Bart from running into a blender or something, but still.
Bet Wally's Bat-co-hero never touches him half as much as Bart's does. Bart might just be starting out, but he's already managing to have good relationships with other heroes. That sort of thing's *important*. He just needs a reason to meet up with them. Something other than the needing-to-bond thing, because Superboy and Robin are probably really busy, and wouldn't want to visit him just for that.
He needs an *excuse*.
* * * * *
"Do you know where Tigger is?" Bart says, finishing off the energy bar.
"Visiting Roo?" Max suggests, not looking up from his book. Bart thinks about grabbing it and seeing what it is, but Max has a pretty good grip on it and it probably isn't anything interesting anyway. His stomach is being pretty insistent about Bart having other priorities, so he wolfs down a couple of banana-nut muffins.
"Oh, cool. I was kind of worried 'cause I haven't seen him around." And he's still hungry, so maybe he should get another energy bar? The bars taste kind of like really sweet muesli and they make his mouth dry, but Max says they're military issue and they're small enough that he can have enough in his locker to stop dying of hunger before lunch... He can dip it in nutella, that might make them taste a bit-- ooh, and then dip that in the pine-nuts Max keeps for making salads and--
And Max is looking up at him, frowning a little. Maybe the pine-nuts were a bad idea. "Wait, who are we talking about?"
It takes him a minute to rewind the conversation. "Huh? Tigger, Mrs Johansen's cat. He's kind of gray and black and keeps bringing me frogs, which is, I mean, I know it's the thought that counts? Only I wouldn't mind if it was mice, but I *like* frogs, they're actually pretty cool."
"Tigger is a real cat?"
Is Max being *deliberately* slow? "Well, duh."
"Oh. Oh, I see." Max is kind of smiling.
"What did you think? Is there an imaginary cat? Is it like that bunny in that film Wally made us watch? Because that would be *cool*."
"Tigger is a character from a children's story," Max says.
Bart shrugs and goes back to his snack. "Does this mean you don't know where Tigger is?"
Max shakes his head. "No, but some cats like to wander. He'll probably turn up." He's looking at Bart, one of those carefully-judging looks he gets a *lot*. "Would you like a cat?" he says.
Bart flashes on all the cats he's ever seen. He could have a white one, and stroke it and be all "yes, Mr Bond," or a black one and it could be his *familiar* or a big, tough ginger tomcat that would totally rule the neighbourhood. "Really?"
Max nods. "Maybe. It might teach you responsibility." He's kind of smiling again, like maybe he doubts that, but is willing to try anyway.
It'd be really good to have a pet, but... "It wouldn't be safe for it, right?" he says. "'Cause we can run away when bad guys come, but it wouldn't know, and they might hurt it to send a message to us." Bart shrugs and gets a pineapple out from the fruit basket, cutting it into easy to eat triangles. "And we wouldn't be able to feed him if we got time-zapped or had to fight aliens on another planet or something."
Max is giving him this look. It's not unreadable, because he can see something like affection and pride and sadness. He just doesn't get what it means.
Tigger isn't there the next day, and neither is the scary tortoiseshell that sometimes hangs around, which is a little disappointing. Bart has only ever gone near the tortoiseshell once, and learnt that cats can be *painful*, but he kind of likes looking at it. It's big and looks soft, but is actually really tough and strolls around like it owns the place. If Bart was a cat, he'd like to be a cat like that, a cat the other cats respected. Except he probably wouldn't hiss when people wanted to stroke him.
Normally, you can hear the cats at night. They yowl like one of Linda's records that Bart is never allowed to touch, not ever, not even if his life, Wally's life, and the fate of the world depended on them. Bart asked her if Wally knew she valued her record collection more than him, and Linda just laughed and said that was half the reason Wally moved in with her. She was probably joking, because probably *anybody* would want to move in with her, even if they weren't all in love with her like Wally is.
No screaming cats the next night, and he overhears one of the girls in his class talking about how her cat's gone missing and it's starting to look like it might be something serious. When he tells Max that they should probably investigate, Max tells him that he's not getting out of doing his homework that easily, and by the time Bart's finished arguing about Max's priorities *and* done his homework, it's already bedtime.
If *Max* doesn't think it's important then Wally probably won't either. Which is probably fair; Wally's priorities are probably one the saving-the-world scale, and figuring out why the kitties are disappearing probably doesn't count for much, except that it's probably a bad sign, and Bart saw on TV that lots of serial killers start out by killing, like, pets and things, and if it *is* a serial killer, he could find him now, before he starts killing *people*.
It's better than just catching a serial killer, because he'll get him before he even *kills* anyone. Or her, it could be a girl. Girls can be just as evil as boys. More so.
And it just might be a good enough that he can call Superboy and Robin, 'cause this is, like, not *quite* Justice League level of seriousness, but a team effort will probably help and they can *bond*. They should probably get that stuff out the way, before they have to fight planet-eating aliens or something.
And he can ask them stuff, like why the secret identity thing *matters*, and what they say when someone asks why they haven't done their homework and when people tell them they'll never be as good as their mentors.
He doesn't actually have any way to contact Robin, and he's under strict orders to only enter Gotham if there's a JLA level crisis, but he does have a number for Superboy. He has a business card, actually, with his email and a fax number and a website to join the Superboy fanclub. The website's okay, and he gets a free poster and a chance to win a life-size cardboard cut-out of Superboy when he joins, but the message boards are *scary*.
The telephone number actually goes through to a message service, but he gets a call back the same evening.
"Cats?" Superboy sounds surprised and irritated. Bart should be used that by now, but he twists the phonecord around his fingers anyway.
"Yeah, they're missing. And I was thinking you and Robin could come and help me figure out what's happening to them, because someone should and it's not, like, Justice League important, but you and Robin could stay with me and Max for a while, and..." Bart slows down, because he's starting to sound like one of the girls on those teen dramas Preston likes to watch. "You know, if you don't have supervillians to fight or anything. We have cable," he adds. "Max has the good channels blocked, but my friend showed me how to get around that. So, do you think you want to?"
"Cats?" Maybe he's developing psychic powers, because he can almost see Superboy shaking his head at the other end of the phone-line --what is Impulse thinking? Is he thinking? Why doesn't he think?-- so he's really surprised when Superboy says, "I'll need to check I'm not needed here. Should be okay. But, uh, let me talk to Robin, okay? He might need persuading."
That's good. That's better than good. Bart has to stop himself vibrating right through the floor with the effort of not jumping up and down. He's so excited he has to do laps of the state, stopping back every few seconds to see if the phone's ringing. He actually has to take a few deep breaths, run his mind over several of those meditation techniques Max has been trying to teach him, before he can answer it again without worrying that he's going to sound like a total idiot.
"It's Robin. Superboy told me about your problem."
"Does this mean you can come? It's okay if you can't, because you probably have all kinds of bad things happening in Gotham all the time, but I was thinking that the cats disappearing might be because of someone's that going to be a sociopathic serialkiller when they grow up, because I read that that's how they start."
"Impulse, breathe." Robin's voice is *sharp*. "Yes, I'm coming. Superboy and I can join you in a day or two. Meanwhile, see if there's anything you can discover on your own. Try and find out how widespread the phenomona is, how many cats have disappeared, if there has been a recent increase in the number of cats reported missing. And check with the pound and animal rescue services to see if any more animals are turning up. Got it?"
Bart nods, realises Robin probably can't see it, and says "Yes."
"Good. Robin out."
Bart's up early the next day. He checks every telephone pole for missing cat notices, writes down all the names and numbers, tries the animal shelters and spends most of the day at school trying to find out who has missing pets. He makes lists and charts and graphs and sets up a support group for people who've lost their pets, before running home to do his homework *quickly*, so Max has no excuse for making him stay in.
After that Bart runs around town, waiting for Superboy and Robin to show up and trying to decide what he wants them to see first. The place where Tigger used to come? Or maybe they'll be hungry, and he can show them the all-you-can-eat buffet, and Robin can help him come up with a disguise so he can sneak back in. They haven't let him go back since he made the manager cry.
He's racing past the town hall when he sees the message. It's flickering against the side of the building, so fast only a speedster could see it, and it directs him to a small, empty warehouse about half a mile out of town.
"Impulse." The voice is exactly the same, which is good because otherwise Bart definitely wouldn't have recognised him. Robin's dressed in normal clothes and his hair is *blond* and in his eyes and he's wearing glasses and he looks really different. Like he could maybe be a cousin of Robin or something, but not actually Robin, except he is, which is just really cool.
Superboy is in normal clothes too, but Superboy in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt looks like Superboy in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt, not like a whole other person.
"You're here! This is so cool," Bart says. He's not jumping up and down on the spot, he's *not*, and he's kind of impressed by his own cool. "Is it okay? Batman wasn't all Batmanish about coming?"
"I work independently sometimes. And Superboy convinced me I should come." He gives Superboy a look and there's some silent conversation Bart can't follow, but since whatever it was about meant Superboy and Robin came down, he doesn't mind. "So tell me about the cats."
Bart gives Robin all the stuff he found out and concentrates on slowing down. He's not sure how well he succeeds, because it feels like *hours* before Robin looks up and hands a few sheets to Superboy.
"Thorough," Robin says. It's a compliment, a proper Robin-type compliment. Bart kind of glows a little, on the inside. "Any theories?"
It's so cool to be asked stuff like that. "I thought it might be someone who's gonna be a serial killer when they grow up. I read that a lot of psychos start out on animals, so maybe that's what's happening."
Superboy waves the sheet he's been reading, with the list of names. "Seems like a lot of cats for one psycho gonnabe." He looks at the list again. "What kind of person names their cat "Purr-varotti"? That's one cat that must get beaten up in the kitty-garten."
"There are some sick people in the world. Impulse, I want you to change into--"
Bart's back in his normal clothes before Robin can finish that sentence, but Robin sends him back for something a little less colourful. Robin frowns before he gets some gloop and a comb out and does stuff to Superboy's hair, confiscating his sunglasses before turning around to Bart.
Bart actually *wanted* Robin to show him how to do cool disguises and stuff, but Robin's expression is kind of scary. Superboy slaps his hand down on Bart's shoulder. "Take your hair-treatment like a man."
After, Bart's hair looks darker and its style is different. Robin's still kind of frowning. "I should have bought some coloured contacts," he says.
Superboy's lifted the TTK and Bart backs a safe distance away. "Dude, I'm not letting you stick stuff in my eye."
Robin gives him a look like-- like nothing Bart can identity. "We need to split up." Robin touches something on his palmtop. "Okay, there are three animal shelters locally. Impulse, you and I will take the County Animal Sanctuary, Superboy, you take the Manchester Humane Society and we'll meet up at Ted Genz." He hands Superboy a map.
"Why am I coming with you," Impulse says. "I could do Ted Genz and be back like, like this." He holds up a leaflet, grabbed from the front of Ted Genz home for wayward kitties.
Robin does that not-quite-smiling thing again. "No. I need you to be the good cop."
Bart isn't stupid. He twigs pretty quickly that Robin is probably keeping an eye on him, but he's kind of okay with that. He's heard stuff about the Batfamily. They don't trust anyone, ever, if they can help it. Robin wanting to keep an eye on him isn't personal and doesn't say anything about what he thinks of Bart.
It helps that he wanted to hang around Robin anyway. It gives him more chances to watch Robin at work. Robin speaks really *quietly* to the volunteers at the centre, and after he says that it was good that Bart was there, even though he didn't really do anything.
"You helped put them at ease," Robin says. "You're... easy to trust. Non-threatening."
Bart can't actually tell if that's a compliment or not. He doesn't ask in case it isn't.
"Was Batman really okay with you coming down here? I know you said that stuff, but..." He shrugs.
Robin looks blank. "I think he felt that it was better I come here than you take a trip to Gotham."
Bart can actually feel his eyes go wide. "Really? 'Cause that-- wait, that was a joke, wasn't it?"
Robin raises an eyebrow.
"That was one of those jokes that are jokes because they're true, wasn't it?" Bart decides.
Robin smirks. "Let's just say he thought this arrangement had some merit. And besides, he knows how many sociopaths start small." He looks at Bart. "I think he was-- pleasantly surprised you made the connection."
"Oh. 'Cause of the serial killers that start out with animals and stuff?" Bart chews his lip. "Uh, I didn't actually read that. I kind of saw it on TV. On True Crimes. I just said I read it 'cause it sounds better."
Superboy's waiting when they get to the last place. He's got cat fur on his shirt and is carrying a stack of leaflets and looks like Wally sometimes at the end of a conversation with Bart- kind of confused about how he got there. He's got a stack of leaflets he must need his TTK to lift.
"Dude, those volunteers are scary."
"Really? Ours were nice," Bart says.
"Did you get any useful information?"
Superboy shrugs. "Leslie, the woman that runs it, says there have been more people reporting their cat missing, but fewer cats coming in, lost and strays both. She says they only have 15 cats for adoption. Normally, this time of year they've got twenty plus."
"So that means there really is something happening, right? I wasn't imagining it or anything."
"It's starting to look that way. I think we need to interview some of the owners."
Which turns out to be no use as far as Bart can tell. They get a lot of information, and way too many pictures of missing cats, but none of has the cats acting weird, or suspicious people coming around or anything. It's just really frustrating and a big waste of time, but when he says that to Robin, Robin just raises one eyebrow and says that it was still useful to know that there were no clues before that the kitties were going to get kit-napped.
That doesn't make any sense either, but Superboy just ruffles Bart's hair and said, "Trust him, he trained at the foot of the World's Greatest Detective."
Robin frowns and smacks Superboy's hand. "Stop messing with his disguise," he says, getting out the gloop and touching it up.
Bart sticks his tongue out at Superboy, who crosses his arms and tries to look like he didn't just get told off.
Starbucks is busy. Bart gets a double mocha with extra cream and a shot of hazelnut syrup, then loads it with sugar. Superboy gives him this weird look and even Robin looks a little taken back.
"Are you allowed to have that much sugar and caffeine?" he says.
Bart shrugs. "My metabolism takes care of it too quickly to have any real affect. I might get hyper for, like, a minute, but it's not like anyone's gonna notice the difference."
Robin nods and goes back to his orange juice. Superboy has a double espresso, black with no milk, and Bart kind of thinks that maybe Superboy got that as some kind of macho thing.
"The first cat you noticed missing was a housecat, right?" Robin says.
Bart nods. Robin's *thinking* and Bart wants equally to watch him very carefully and yell "Boo!" right in his ear.
"It's interesting that both pets and feral cats seem to have disappeared," Robin says.
Superboy's leaning forwards, pushing his empty cup out of the way. "Why?"
"If you're stealing cats and don't want it to be noticed, then you'd stick with strays and ferals," Robin says. "If you're stealing household pets, then you'd stick with pedigrees, animals that would be worth something when they're sold. This is a mixture and it doesn't make sense." He finishes his juice with a semi-dramatic slurp. "It's kind of... stupid."
"They're just taking cats at random. Any one they see, without any plan," Superboy says.
Robin nods. "It looks that way. Okay, we want to keep our ears to the ground. See if anyone's heard anything that might give us a clue." Robin kind of half-smiles. "It doesn't look like we're dealing with any great intellectuals here, no-one with any real foresight, but probably with access to personal transportation. I think we might be looking at teenagers. Superboy, see if you can find any likely suspects or anyone that might know anything. Impulse, you have contacts in the community. Ask around, see if anyone's been acting strangely, especially if they've recently started throwing money around. Meet back here in two hours."
It doesn't take Bart anywhere near that long to ask his friends, so he tags along after Superboy, before heading back to the Starbucks where Robin is waiting. It takes him a moment to remember what Robin looks like --he automatically looks for a flash of red and green and *dark*-- and then he sees the blond head.
"Where's SB?" Robin says.
Bart points at where Superboy is surround by a group of girls. There was probably some special name for that, like a gaggle or a giggle. They're almost cooing over Superboy, and he's totally cooing back. It's kind of funny and kind of annoying, since they have a *mission*, and Superboy shouldn't let himself get distracted like that.
Superboy comes back looking really smug, which Bart doesn't get. The girls are just girls, they're not, like *special*, not like getting Jessie to laugh or Carol to say something good about your homework. It seems like Superboy put in a lot of energy getting the girls to like him, when he didn't even *know* them.
"You really like that stuff?" Bart asks.
Superboy gives him a confused look. "What?"
"All that kissing and girls and stuff. You really like it?"
"Well, yeah. It's fun, Bart. Girls are-- At its best it's..." Superboy's expression twists for a second. "At its best, it's... I can't even tell you. You'll find out when you're--"
"That's such a cop-out. Every time someone can't be bothered to explain something, they just say "You'll know when you're older." I'm not stupid, and I'm not-- I'm not as young as everybody treats me."
Superboy looks shocked. He puts his hands up and gives this smile that's probably meant to calm Impulse down. "Okay, I get it. Just chalk it up to me not being good with words and it really being the kind of thing you have to experience to understand, okay?"
"Sex can be very intimate," Robin says. His voice is very clinical. "It can be a way of feeling close to someone, of expressing your feelings."
Superboy has an odd expression, but he turns back to look at Bart. "Whatever text book that came from, got it right. Kissing and the rest, it can be fun, exciting." He smirks. "Enjoyable. And sometimes it's more than that. It can be-it can be feeling so close to someone, so in tune with them, like you know them better than you know yourself. Like there's just you, and like part of you is always together, even when you're not."
"Yeah, but you're not gonna get that with those girls," Bart says. "Right?"
Superboy grins. "Nah, that's not what I was looking for there. Just fun, flirting and..."
"Fucking?" Bart offers helpfully when Superboy trails off. Superboy starts coughing and even Robin looks like that got a reaction. Bart looks around. "What? What's so funny?"
Superboy's still laughing. "Bart, dude, just don't-- You shouldn't be using words like that."
"Huh? Why? I know you're not meant to use them at school, or when you're swearing or something, but that was a good place for it, right? The right word?" He looks at Robin for confirmation, but Robin is *smiling*. It makes Bart feel good, even if he's not sure what he said that was so funny.
"It's not age-appropriate," Robin says.
"Neither am I. And Superboy's younger than me, and he can do it, so he should be able to say it too."
Robin's definitely smiling now, and he's not looking at Superboy. "Point. Just try not to use it in front of the Flash. We don't want him to think we're a bad influence."
Bart grins. He can't help it.
"So learn anything interesting. Anything useful," Robin corrects himself before Superboy can open his mouth to say what he was about to.
"Maybe. One of the girls is working as a model. She's heard there might be a big new contract in the works for a new make-up brand, once they get approval."
"You think that's it?" Bart says. He frowns. "That seems kind of dumb. Why would you steal animals for make-up?"
"Save money. Get around certain legal requirements." Robin frowns. "It's a possibility."
"You think it's something else?"
"I think it's too soon to make a decision like that."
Superboy looks a little bit frustrated, but he shrugs. "Fine. What else should we be looking into?"
"I have some ideas. I want to check on something first. Batman wants me back in Gotham before nightfall. If we meet up tomorrow, same place at nine?"
"You're not staying?" Bart's trying not to sound too disappointed, and he hadn't worked out the details, like actually asking Max if it was okay, but he'd kind of hoped.
"I have other responsibilities."
Which- Bart knew that already. And Batman probably doesn't even like Robin coming down here anyway. Robin's probably going to get the Bat-equivalent of the "you need to think more, focus more" talk.
And probably a big part of Bart learning that responsibility stuff is, you know, not complaining that Superboy and Robin are going off to do independent hero things, while Bart's back in Manchester looking for missing cats. And you know, they came here to help figure out why the cats were missing, so Bart really shouldn't feel disappointed that that's all they did.
"Anything you think we should have a look at while you're in the Great Gloom?" Superboy says, putting his arm around Impulse's shoulders like he's using Impulse as a prop. It's something to with the metabolism, but most people feel kind of cool to Bart, unless he's been *really* concentrating on slowing down. Superboy actually feels kind of warm.
"Interview some of the owners; see if they noticed their pet acting strangely before it disappeared. If something urgent comes up, this number will work for the next 24 hours." Robin scrawls a number down on one of the leaflets from the county shelter and hands it to Superboy. "I want to meet back here at 4 am. I'll let you know if I'm going to be late."
"Four in the morning?" Superboy says after Robin's left. "Robin can pretty much be spelt S-A-D-I-S-T." He pushes his hair off his face, messing up Robin's disguise. He turns to smile at Bart. "So, where's a good place to eat?"
"There's a good pizza place about a hundred fifty miles from here," Bart says, turning to face him.
"I was thinking of something a little closer," Superboy says.
Right, someplace within easy distance for a non-speedster. "Uh, there's an all-you-can eat place, a few blocks from here. I'm kind of banned, but maybe if we go undercover?" He tries to beam hopefulness into Superboy's brain.
"See, that goes right back to the not wanting to be a bad influence thing. I'm pretty sure we're only meant to use special Bat-disguises for good."
He hadn't thought of that. "Okay, then there's a rib place, close to where we met up. That's pretty good."
"'Kay, give me thirty minute to have a shower and get changed into something a little less cat-coated." Superboy says.
Bart swallows his instant reaction -30 minutes? What are you, a *girl*?- since it probably *does* take other people that long to get ready. The 29 minutes he has to fill after he got changed go by really slowly, slower than math class, and he's tapping his foot by the time Superboy appears.
He looks like he did before, as far as Bart can tell. Same jacket even, just in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt and with his sunglasses back on.
The ribs are pretty good. Superboy pays --he has his own credit-card, with "Superboy" actually written on it-and he only winces a little bit at Bart's order. And he lets Bart have half of his dessert, which just reminds Bart that Superboy comes from the line of heroes that *specialize* in being good and noble, even compared to everybody else.
Bart keeps talking about the cats, any moment when he's not eating, and trying to think of new theories. He's moved on from alien abduction to cats *are* alien when Superboy interrupts him.
"What made you call?"
"About the cats. Why didn't you take it to the Flash or something. Not that we're not happy to help, but... You've got other heroes closer to hand."
"It didn't seem important enough," Bart says, and he's so happy at not saying "I just wanted to see you" that he doesn't realise his answer sounds kind of... bad, for a few whole seconds. "I mean, it seemed important, just-- and you *said* we should meet up sometime and it's not-- I just thought you'd be the right guys to call. That's all."
"Uh-huh. On account of our great cat-catching experience."
Superboy looks at him. "You know, you don't have to wait for a crisis to call us," Superboy's voice is slow, like he's being very careful with his words. "We'd-- We can all always use the company. Someone who knows what it's like." He looks at Bart like it's only the fact that Bart is on the other side of the room that's stopping him reaching over and *hugging* him. "What I'm saying is, we can be friends, even when we're not fighting some big nasty."
And it's so close to what Bart wasn't saying, was trying so hard not to say, that he almost wants to cry. "You ever feel like you're just *behind* everyone else," he says. "Even if you're ahead in some ways, like you're--" he searches for a word and gives up. "Like there's this gap, and it's between you and them *twice*."
Superboy nods. "Sometimes. For me-- you know, I have age-appropriate knowledge, right? But it's not the same as experience. Sometimes I feel like a big kid, even though I'm not a kid, never have been."
And it's-- it's not exactly the same as it is for Bart, but it's close enough that he thinks Superboy can see where he is from there.
"Okay," Bart says. He nods his head a few times. "That's-- we've got cats to save, right?"
Superboy smiles, big and brilliant. "Right."
After the meal, they split up so they can get some sleep, and mostly so Bart can be at home enough to stop Max getting suspicious. Not that he's doing anything wrong, but he kind of doesn't want anyone else involved in his team. He sneaks out at just after three to wake up Superboy.
It actually takes a while. Superboy seems to have trouble with the whole getting-out-of-bed part of getting *up*. He burrows into the blankets and Bart has to bring out the big guns-- talk about how Robin probably never sleeps in, and how getting up at 3 a.m. is probably a big part of being a super-hero-- before Superboy groans and rolls out of bed and into the shower.
Which actually does wake him up, especially after Bart zips in and changes it to cold. Superboy's invulnerability turns out not to apply to sudden cold, which is kind of interesting. When they get out to the alley, Superboy's stopped shivering, but he's still complaining. Not seriously, though, just kind of ongoing, which isn't, actually, unpleasant. Makes the warehouse seem almost cosy.
Superman's invulnerable to cold, so Superboy might get that when he's older. Unless the clone thing of the half human thing means he only gets half the powers, which would kind of suck.
And-- not just for Superboy.
"You think you're gonna get more powers when you get older," Bart says. "Like, the heat vision and the superspeed and stuff." He can't quite look at Superboy, but he' s painfully of him. "'Cause that would be cool, if you had super-speed too. I mean, it'd be different for you, because you're not a speedster, but we could go running together and stuff. You-"
"Bart," Superboy says. Bart manages to look up at him, and there's nothing in face but sympathy. That's probably not a good sign. "Bart, I..." He pushes his hair back. "I'm not going to grow up."
There's a lifetime where Bart doesn't get it, and then it's like being hit by Grodd or something. "You-you're dying? Is it because you're a clone? They can do stuff, I mean, there are lots of scientists and maybe you can go to the future and-"
"No! God, no, I'm not dying." Superboy's smile is big and meant to reassure, and he ruffles Bart's hair. "No, I'm just... there was this clone plague, and the cure kind of stuck me at sixteen. I'm not going to grow any older."
"Oh. That's awful," Bart says, deep and sincere.
Superboy laughs, kind of shocked. "Someday you're going to have to look up tact in the dictionary. Hey, young and pretty forever. There are people who'd probably give their right arm for that." He puts his arm around Bart's shoulders and gives him this half-hug, trying to make Bart feel better, which seems really kind of wrong, so Bart leans into it and *really* hugs him.
Which, actually makes Bart feel a bit better, which wasn't the point, so he keeps it up for a bit longer, hoping Superboy can get some by osmosis or something. Superboy rubs his back a little.
"We're still gonna be friends, right? Even when I'm, like *Max* old, and you're probably still drooling over cheerleaders." Bart feels his mouth stretch wide as he has a great idea. "You can be my sidekick! I mean, I know it's not traditional, because sidekicks normally have the same theme, but we won't let that stop us, right?" He races back to his room, finds a couple of sheets of A3 and some markers and starts back, before realising he needs an easel too. Gets it all together and heads back and draws a quick poster of how they'll look, before Superboy can even blink.
"We'll be Impulse and his sidekick, Superboy, that's you. We'll totally be breaking the mould." He draws a close-up of Superboy. "See, this is your new costume, so you have your S and a lightning bolt to show you're under the speedster family's protection."
Superboy doesn't look upset anymore, and he's not trying to reassure Bart, which is even better, so he must like the idea, even if his kind of shaking his head in amazement. "You're a freak, Impulse," he says.
"Well, duh. Geeze, what was the first clue, when I vibrated through the wall or outran that bullet?" Bart shakes his head. "It's a good thing we've got Robin for the brains."
"Thank you," Robin says. Bart jumps, but it was probably too fast for anyone to see. Superboy's not so lucky.
"I swear, somebody needs to bell you," Superboy says.
Robin raises an eyebrow. "I'm sure Gotham's criminals will appreciate that."
"Yeah, well, you don't need to hide in the shadows around us," Superboy says.
"Force of habit."
Superboy raises one eyebrow and Bart makes a mental note to practice that expression. It looks really good when Robin or Superboy does it. "Yeah? I think you just like seeing us jump."
Robin raises an eyebrow to match and Bart is *definitely* learning how to do that. Robin's in uniform, so Bart zips into his. Robin holds up a bag. "Small transmitters. They send a signal if they start moving at over 15 miles an hour. We stick these on as many cats as we can and wait until they get triggered." He throws the bag at Bart then gets another out and passes it to Superboy. "There's a comm in the bag as well. They go just behind the ear. When you've finished deploying the transmitters, we'll rendezvous outside the town centre."
Bart pulls the communicator out the bag and fiddles about, getting it stuck on.
"We want to do this quickly. Most of the cats that disappeared have done so between midnight and 6 a.m."
Bart learns pretty quickly that no matter how fast you are, angry cats will still scratch so. He wishes he had gloves like Robin does, or at least some kind of super-toughness. Fast healing doesn't mean it hurts less, only that there's less time for anyone watching to sympathise with you. He's the first back at the town hall, unless Robin is lurking in the shadows.
Robin actually turns up being carried by Superboy. Bart wonders what they were talking about. He didn't hear them talking over the comms, but that doesn't mean anything. He knows that they haven't actually spent that much time around each other, not more than they've spent with Bart, probably, but they seem a lot closer.
And they weren't talking about the mission, because when they land, Superboy says, "So, you dug up any likely suspects while you were in Gotham?"
Robin nods and does that half-smile thing, that's probably closest to smirking, but not *exactly* the same. "Rumour has it that a grimoire of the Kagenoneko cult disappeared in Mississippi two months ago."
"...Okay. Should that mean anything to us?" Superboy says, and he gives Bart this look Bart translates as "hey, even though we like him, isn't Robin is kind of *freaky*", which makes him feel a bit better about the obvious connection Robin and Superboy have.
"It's a psuedo-ancient cult, which first rose into relative prominence in the 80s. Among other things, the cult includes sacrifices in some of their rituals. An older cult, or one with an established branch, would have found discreet ways of getting the sacrifices for the rituals. They also wouldn't bother with cats in most cases. Nothing smaller than a goat, which is why I initially judged it unlikely. If they were just starting, on the other hand, with no priest to offer guidance..."
Superboy smiles. "Newbies."
Robin nods. "Newbies. Hard to tell how many members. Don't know the ages either, although it's a reasonable assumption that at least one of them is old enough to drive. They'd need a place to hold the rituals. Either someplace isolated or with good soundproofing."
"Probably the first." Superboy grins. "Come on, these are wannabe cultists. If they're not doing this in their mother's basement, they're going to try and find someplace spooky for the atmosphere. Some abandoned, semi-derelict southern mansion, probably. Trust me," he adds. "I know melodrama."
Robin pulls out something that looks like a TV remote, but is probably the tracker. "Now we wait."
"Aw, man. I suck at this," Bart says, sitting down on the steps with a grunt.
"Learn to be better," Robin says. "Impatience will get you killed just as often as ignorance does."
Bart rolls his eyes. Superboy sits down next to him. "So, you got a gameboy or something?"
Somewhere in the middle of losing his fifth round of Thumb War, he notices Robin sitting up.
"We've got something," he says. His voice isn't excited, exactly, but it's definitely alert. "Two signals moving out of the city. And it looks like there's someone else going in the same direction with three. They seem to be heading out along route 56. Impulse, go ahead to the north exit off 12 and stay there." He looks at Bart like he's trying to implant the suggestion directly into his brain. "Keep low. Superboy and I will join you there. Okay?"
Bart nods and heads off.
This time of night, the streets are empty enough that he can go pretty much full speed. He hides behind the grass and guard-rail at the side of the road, keeping the image of Robin in his head and trying to match it. He realises that he's muttering "Be the Robin, be the Robin" and has to make an effort to stop. Hiding probably works better when you don't talk to yourself.
A dozen cars go past while he's waiting. A few of them take the exit and then he feels someone's hand on his shoulder. He jumps about ten feet into the air. "Sorry," Superboy says.
Superboy doesn't seem like he'd be good at the fading into the background, only to appear when it's going to freak out people the most, so it's probably Robin's influence. Robin's kind of contagious.
"Superboy will fly with me. Bart, you follow."
Robin's voice is even sharper now and he's scarily focussed. Bart's actually kind of relieved Superboy is carrying him and not Bart. About two miles down the road, there's a turn off onto an old dirt track and Superboy flies down it. Bart races up ahead, zipping past the cars until he comes to the end, then running back to Superboy and Robin.
"There's this old house," he says. "It looks really creepy."
"Looks like you were right." Robin's voice is crisp and loud over the comms.
"It happens more than you'd think," Superboy says.
There are a handful of cars outside of the house when the two they're following pull up. Robin gestures for Superboy to put him down, then does one of his disappearing acts.
"Jamie!" the driver of one car says. "Thought you weren't coming."
Jamie waves at him. "I need this. Merilyn is trying to take my place on the team. And then Katie and Melissa said they needed a lift so..." she shrugs.
"We totally blackmailed her into it," one of the passengers says. She comes out from the backseat holding a kittycarrier. "We thought we'd be late. Took us *forever* to pick up an offering."
The driver of the first car nods. "I hear ya. Damn things are getting harder and harder to find. Ended up pulling this one out of the neighbour's backyard." He shakes his sack and there's a very definite, very unhappy yowl from it. "Little bitch damn near took my hand off, getting her in the bag."
"I'm going to take them out." Robin's statement is like a *proclamation.* "Be ready to get the bodies."
Bart doesn't actually see what happens, but the three people out of the car just *collapse* and then there's a bit of shadow that becomes Robin and the girl still in the back seat is out too. Bart grabs the sack and kitty-carrier and Superboy lifts the bodies and pulls them away from the house and into the woodland. Robin drops next to them and ties them up, before stopping to check their pulses.
"They should be out for another hour," Robin says. He looks up. His eyes are glowing white and it's *spooky*. "Impulse, you should take the cats back to town and call the police. Superboy and I--"
"Wait, why are you sending me back to town? Send up the Reverse-Robin signal or something."
Robin looks at Superboy over Impulse's shoulder. It's one of those looks that makes Bart feel-- not just young, but *stupidly* young. Inexperienced. Superboy is younger than him, and grew up in an artificial environment like him, but Superboy's was designed to prepare him to deal with the world when he got out and Bart's-- wasn't.
"This is about the other cats, isn't it?" he says. "The ones that were already missing."
"Impulse..." Superboy starts to say.
Bart shakes his head. "No. This is my town. It's my problem, and I have to-- I have to, okay?"
Superboy looks like he's going to argue, but Robin rests his hand on Bart's shoulder. He doesn't actually speak, but he shuts Superboy up.
"Superboy, take care of the cars *quietly*, then contact the shelters and the police. Impulse, go around the back, Superboy, let us know when you're done and we move in on my mark, got it?"
The back door is off its hinges when he enters and there are weird shadows. Robin probably feels right at home. He taps the communicator and holds it down to go to Robin privately.
"Thanks for, you know, sticking up for me back there."
"Don't thank me until after we've gone in," Robin says.
Bart nods, because he thinks Robin can probably see it even when on the other side of the house and in the dark. "'Kay." He makes the effort to be quiet, but he feels really loud anyway.
"Impulse," Robin says. "I'm-- it was good of you to invite us down."
"We-- you know, Superboy probably needs friends right now," Impulse adds. He patrols through the house, not surprised when he doesn't see Robin. He stops at a door when he can hear voices and some kind of generic chanting music and one unhappy cat. "Because of the-- you heard that right?"
"Here," Robin says, out loud and not over the comms, but from right behind him. "SB, watch the exits. Impulse, get the cats and get out." He rests his hand on Bart's shoulder. It's cool, which might be Bart or might be the gloves. "And after this is done, assuming we still have our appetites, meet up back at Starbucks." He takes his hand away. "Superboy's treat."