It takes six months for Kaldur to realize he’s doing little more than treading water. The team is a success and he believes he’s leading them with all the wisdom his mentors would ask of him, but there’s still the shadow of grief that shows no signs of fading, still the memory of too long playing a role that stuck to his bones like tar.
He’s made up of so many masks he’s no longer sure he knows who resides beneath them.
It is, he supposes, time he found out.
“You’re kidding?” she says, hands on her hips as she stares him down. “Why me?”
Kaldur takes in her squared shoulders, the challenge written across her face, and knows that this at least is a decision he won’t regret.
“Because you’ll be an excellent leader,” he tells her, “and because there’s no one I trust more.”
Artemis closes her eyes for a moment, and when she opens them again she’s looking at him as a friend and a confidant and a brother.
“So,” she says, her smile unguarded and beautiful in its rarity, “what’s the plan?”
Kaldur sighs and doesn’t pretend. “I have no idea.”
“Well,” Artemis says, “you know the team’s always here if you want back in. Not as leader, though, because there’s no take-backs.”
There’s a glint of mischief dancing behind her eyes and the expression reminds him so much of someone else that he can’t resist reaching out and wrapping her in his arms.
She holds on tight and doesn’t say goodbye.
It’s not until Queen Mera suggests that he return to the Conservatory of Sorcery that he starts to contemplate a different path.
“I think,” he says one night over an informal dinner in the Queen’s garden, “that I may apply to school on the surface world.”
He’s not sure why the choice seems to have stuck so firmly in his head, or if it’s even possible considering his education thus far has been entirely Atlantean, but the last five years have done nothing but affirm how much he still has to learn about the world, and, well--
It’s worked for his friends, in the past.
His Queen quirks an eyebrow, setting down her fork and placing her chin on folded hands as she eyes him thoughtfully.
“I think,” she says, eventually, “that we must all do what our heart requires of us.”
Kaldur takes it as the blessing it is.
“Yes,” he says, “as well as a few others.”
Roy laughs, and Kaldur realizes with a start that he’s never actually heard him sound truly happy before. “Well sure, but you should come out here, and only a little because of all the free babysitting I’ll wrangle from it.”
“How is Lian?” Kaldur asks, smiling at the contented hum Roy makes.
“Gorgeous,” he says. “Gorgeous and loud and kind of stinky most the time, and, just, man. I never thought I’d be a dad but now I look at her and it’s everything, you know?”
“I’m happy for you,” Kaldur says, his heart aching with how true it is.
“Come to Star City,” Roy says, and, well.
It doesn’t come as easily to him as he’d feared, and the challenge leaves him more content than he’s been in a long time.
“You got plans for tomorrow night?” Roy asks, gulping down coffee like his life depends on it (when Kaldur had asked if he was okay Roy had just laughed and said “teething” meaningfully). “Any wild parties or football games or whatever it is the kids get up to these days?”
“You’re barely older than me,” Kaldur reminds him, and doesn’t bring up maturity levels because he always strives to be the bigger person. “Also, no. I tend to spend my weekends catching up on reading and sleep.”
“Great,” Roy says. “Well, boring, but great. Jade’s taking Lian to visit her mom for a few days, and I have this lead on a gang…”
“You need backup?” Kaldur asks, and Roy grins.
“Not really, but I’d like the company.”
Kaldur thinks of the paper he has to write for next week, of the eight hundred pages his professor assigned them less than an hour ago, and of the ten hours of uninterrupted sleep he waits all week for.
He says yes anyway.
It’s an easy answer.
Afterwards, with sirens piercing the night air and bruises blooming across skin, they fling themselves through the window of Kaldur’s dorm and collapse in a heap, adrenaline ebbing away.
“I’m really glad you don’t have a roommate,” Roy says, wiping at the cut above his eyebrow with the back of his hand, and Kaldur hums his agreement whilst halfheartedly digging for the first aid kit he knows is somewhere under his bed.
“I’m not sure I’m cut out for this anymore.”
Roy falls against him, panting his laugh into Kaldur’s neck. “Me neither,” he says, and it’s a joke between the two of them, as though they’re not barely in their twenties and more world-weary than most anyone. As though Roy’s not a clone and Kaldur’s not the punch line of a Disney movie.
“When did this become our lives?” Kaldur asks, though he can trace the answer back through every action and every thought.
“No clue,” Roy lies, and he still sounds too close and too happy. “I think I’ll keep it up anyway.”
He isn’t, however, used to teammates appearing outside his nine a.m. class with coffee and pastries.
“Hey,” Dick says, and he looks tired but looser somehow, as though he’s reached the point of breaking and has finally started finding the pieces to put himself back together. “I bought gifts.”
They end up sitting under the tree that Kaldur’s taken to mentally thinking of as his, the one with the branches that reach almost to the ground and the thick grass that keeps dirt off of his clothes. Dick watches the world move around them for a few moments, then says, “It’s been a while.”
“It has,” Kaldur agrees, cataloguing the way Dick favors his right arm and how the collar of his expensive jacket is turned up despite the warm weather.
“How’s all this going?” Dick asks, and it’s not flippant the way it would be with anyone else. Words have always been Dick’s raison d'être, and Kaldur hears the larger question behind them the way he’s always done.
“Well,” he says. “I’m enjoying it more than I ever thought I would.”
When Dick smiles it’s with genuine affection. “That’s good. But--” He pauses for a moment, like he’s deciding whether to actually voice his next question, and Kaldur waits patiently. “Aren’t you lonely?” Dick asks eventually, and Kaldur blinks in surprise.
He thinks about the people he’s met on his course, the friendships that are beginning to blossom out of common interest and circumstance, and knows that that isn’t what Dick means, knows that the question is rooted in family, and shakes his head anyway.
“No,” he says truthfully. “I have Roy.”
Dick’s smile, when it comes, is knowing in a way Kaldur can’t quite decipher.
“Artemis misses you, little one,” Dick says when he gets back from the restroom, graciously ignoring Lian’s slight in favor of cooing at her giant smile and chubby fingers. “She wants your mommy and daddy to come see her real soon.”
Roy quirks an eyebrow and shoots Kaldur a look.
“I didn’t know you were back with the team,” Roy says, snatching a piece of pie out of Lian’s grasp before she can topple the plate to the ground.
Dick keeps looking at the baby. Kaldur knows avoidance when he sees it.
“I’m not,” Dick says. “We’re just hanging out. It’s-- easier. To have someone around who gets it.”
The teasing expression on Roy’s face falls away then, replaced with one of sympathy and warmth and a touch of sadness, and Kaldur’s chest is tight as he watches them both.
“Artemis seems to be excelling in her leadership role,” he says when the silence has dragged too long and Dick’s shoulders are beginning to tense under the scrutiny. “I get frequent emails about it from everyone. I’d be offended if I didn’t know how idyllically suited to it she is.”
Dick laughs, finally looking up, and Kaldur can see the pride written all over his face. “She’s brilliant. The first thing she said when she saw me afterwards was “finders, keepers”. It’s doing wonders for her, I think.”
“Well,” Roy says, smiling softly and signaling the waitress for more coffee, “Kaldur’s always been the smartest of us where people are concerned.”
The compliment washes over Kaldur like an evening wave, familiar and warm.
It raises a lot of questions that beg answers, but Kaldur’s always been the patient type.
Artemis calls him for advice sometimes, and Conner calls him when everyone else is driving him crazy, and Dick calls him just to catch-up, and Bart still sends him awful fortune cookie insights, and Kaldur feels like maybe he’s getting the best of both worlds, and maybe all those masks fell away a long time ago.
It’s a relieving insight.
Their hands are resting close together on the plastic tabletop and the misshapen swoop of Roy’s collar sings of late night lullabies and Lian’s grasp and everything smells of coffee and cherries, and Kaldur wants to drown in it forever.
“I’m not lost anymore,” he says, and knows it’s the right answer from the smile in Roy’s eyes.