Kaldur leaves in a halo of bright, white light born of sorcery and science. He has told her, in passing, that light on the surface is different, filtering down from the sun in ways that it never reaches the depths. His eyes would shine the way they always did when he spoke of the surface -- the way that always made her wish that she could see it and see it with him.
Tula stares at the broad plane of his back until it disappears, until the afterimage dances in front of her, and she could close her eyes and still see Kaldur. Not so unfamiliar.
She can yet feel his arms around her, the furious beating of his heart even when his words were calm and detached. His fingers flexed, with just the barest hint of a tremor, between her shoulder blades and at the small of her back.
She knows she doesn't have any right to call him back.
It does not stop her wanting to.
Garth's hand is in hers, steady. As steady as his voice is when he answers Kaldur: "Never."
They have never, either of them, wondered how things could have been different. They have never wondered what would have happened if Kaldur had stayed.
Tula does. But no one asks her.
She imagines that they are both more comfortable not knowing her answer.
It is an obvious fact, but it is one she attempts to comfort herself with again and again: it is not as if she planned it.
Sometimes, most times, she feels as if she had never truly seen Garth until Kaldur was gone. He sends her writings from the surface, right after the first time he ever goes up with King Orin. There are English idioms: a hard act to follow,a long shadow cast. They are all about the difficulty of noticing what is good about a thing when there is something greater preceding it.
None of them fit.
It is not that Garth is less — not to her. It is only that she has always seen Kaldur foremost. Without Kaldur to fill her vision, to warm her blood, to make her mind spin in those early days of awakening and think what if what if what would happen if I- she could realize Garth's sweetness, his diligence, his sensitivity, things that had always been there, but that she had quite simply taken for granted.
Without Kaldur, she could realize that Garth loved her.
She loves him too; that was the penultimate realization.
At first she thought it was the last, but she is not very old or very wise, and she also thought that loving Garth meant that she would stop loving Kaldur.
They return to the conservatory and Garth kisses her behind a pillar, a few meters off from their usual alcove. She returns the kiss —- his soft, pliant mouth an anchor from which she does not want to break away —- and then makes an excuse. He knows that she doesn't have studies to do at the moment, nothing that could possibly be dire. The city is in disarray and classes are suspended. The fact that he does know that makes it all the more effective. The question is there in his eyes, but Tula is not ready to answer it yet.
She goes to her room and gulps and gulps in and out fitfully until she can calm herself. She rolls onto her back and just drifts for a while, like a drowsy child, gliding lazily into walls, letting the nearly imperceptible current take her.
It is a terrible person, Tula thinks, who loves a boy and then loves his best friend while he is gone —- who chooses his best friend over him.
What then of someone who cannot choose at all?
As long as they did not have to tell Kaldur, she could pretend. That Kaldur was the only one who got hurt. That one thing had replaced another instead of taking up residence beside it.
That she was sure.
Tula has questions of her own that she doesn't want to answer. She asks herself anyway, and it pulses in her mind, throbs in her throat the way her heart does when Garth's brow wrinkles in concentration, when Kaldur's lips turn up into the slightest of smiles.
How much can she really love either of them, if she doesn't want one more?
Kaldur has always been brave. And decisive. And assertive. And handsome. Kaldur has always been the one to whom others look, including Garth himself.
When Garth turned down the opportunity to become King Orin's apprentice it was, in part, because he knew that Kaldur would be better at it. Eventually, anyone tires of being second best.
Garth has never called it envy -— Kaldur is also a very hard person to resent —- and he has no illusions about his own worthy qualities. Many things come to him less naturally, but still they come.
With his studies particularly, Garth excels. Kaldur set himself apart, as he always did and, in the process, gave Garth the opportunity to do the same. He gave him the opportunity to be the one to whom others looked. Even when they shouldn't.
Garth has never meant to love Tula, but that has never mattered. He feels like they've been this way since beginning of time: Kaldur loves Tula and Tula loves Kaldur and everyone knows (and Garth loves Tula but no one can ever, ever know).
The first time she kisses him, he thinks that she must have made a mistake. Not the mistake of ruining their friendship and their friendships with Kaldur, but a genuine accident. Her mouth pressed against his, she caught his bottom lip between her teeth, and Garth considered waking dreams and poor aim and, really, she couldn't possibly have meant for her tongue to do that.
The next time and the next time and the next, he accepts that she means it, that she means a lot of things he had only ever dreamed of in the darkest, guiltiest corners of his mind. It is also from those corners that a pang of disappointment arises, one that he quiets viciously and with great shame.
As it turns out, he takes no pleasure in finally having something that Kaldur does not.
Tula still loves Kaldur. Garth is far too perceptive not to see that.
When Kaldur returns, there are moments when Tula looks at him — touches him, embraces him — that make Garth feel like it must all have been a dream, that everything is as it ever was.
He remembers the day they met. Garth had come to the city alone, to live and to study. He had never felt quite so small or so insignificant as he did swimming in the wake of his minders around and through the sprawling and ominous structures of the conservatory.
Reaching the other children was not a refuge. Most were older -— only the particularly gifted started so young as him —- and seemed every bit as unapproachable as the smoothly hewn statues that peered down at them all from the parapets.
Tula saw him first, and Garth colored to be pointed at by one of the few children his age present -— he was already foreign, already strange -— but it was Kaldur who left the semi-circle in which they had arranged themselves and approached. He looked at Garth, huge eyes earnest, and smiled.
"Welcome," he said, and extended his hand. Garth took it, and Kaldur towed him back to the others. He never said "thank you." Kaldur never made him feel like he had to.
Before she goes to dinner at the palace, Tula pushes Garth up against the cool tiles in the alcove between the east meditation chamber and the outdoor training platform. Tula presses her hand against him and herself against his thigh, and she whispers into his neck that tonight, tonight she'll tell Kaldur, and then everything will be fine.
She cannot force conviction where it does not exist, but she tries.
Garth cannot fault her methods, but he wishes he could find a way to tell her that she need not bother.
Of all people, he understands how easy it is to love Kaldur'ahm.
When Kaldur leaves it feels like it's for the last time. Tula immediately begins avoiding him.
Queen Mera cancels one of their sessions and Garth has arrived early enough to be the one to carry the news. This is the only way he catches her alone. She reads the desire to talk on his face and, for all her tenacity, can run from it no longer.
"I am so sorry, Garth," she says once they are in her room, and when he opens his mouth to speak she raises a hand to silence him. "Please, let me finish."
"I love you, but I do not love you the way you deserve to be loved." He looks at her and feels like she's shrinking, proud, fierce, vibrant Tula, and it rends his heart into even more pieces. "I do not love anyone the way they deserve to be loved."
He glides over to her with one swift kick. She doesn't move away.
"That is not true," he says, and he means it. She loves him in a way that leaves him wanting only for things that it is not possible for her to provide.
Her hand is gentle as she strokes his cheek, the affection clear in her eyes.
"You do not understand," she says with absolute certainty.
"I do," he insists. Garth doesn't know how to say it any other way, to articulate something unfamiliar and fragile, to voice desires that can never be fulfilled, so he just says: "He's gone."
For a heartbeat, he sees relief rush through Tula, take the tightness from her body, return the light to her eyes. Before Kaldur left, none of them had suffered alone since the day they'd all met. It's a terrifying thing to feel after all that time. (Garth hopes Kaldur's teammates are good to him in the same instant that he hopes he and Tula can never be replaced.) When the relief dies away, Garth can see the simple fact of his statement crash into Tula. It's when she squares her shoulders again, as if to bear up under the torrent of loss and longing.
"He's gone," she agrees.
No matter how he tries, in the end, he cannot stay away forever. His body isn't made for it. Neither is his soul.
Kaldur dared to hope that on the surface it would be easier not to think of them. He already knew from experience that it was not the case. He's never made a habit of lying, not even to himself, but he thinks he deserves just one exception.
When he can stand it no longer, when every part of him cries out for home so loudly that it cannot be ignored, Kaldur appears in the depths.
He hates that it makes him feel wrong, off balance. He was supposed to have made a choice, but now he just feels less like he belongs in either place.
When he sees the conservatory, the longing to look more closely, to see what has changed after this latest absence, is strong. But King Orin has invited him to dinner once more and he can see Queen Mera, at least, then. He hopes, fleetingly, that the others understand. If not, then the burden of that explanation can fall to Tula and Garth. He doesn't feel as guilty as he should.
Queen Mera is beginning to show, her belly rounding, and talk of the unborn heir is far preferable to the significant looks and concerned gazes. Both the King and Queen knew about Kaldur's conflict the last time he came home. It cannot have taken them too long to work out how that conflict resolved itself.
Tula and Garth are the last thing he wants to talk about with them. They are the last thing he wants to talk about with anyone.
Only fitting then that Tula should appear after dinner, when he goes out to think. His luck has been very bad for some time now. Nothing fits and everything comes together in a tangle, exactly as it shouldn't.
She lurks in the garden in a way that would get her into quite a lot of trouble if someone wasn't already aware that she was there. Kaldur suspects Queen Mera, though he's sure he'll never be able to extract a straight answer.
"Kaldur," she says. He hates that it still shoots through him that way, when she says his name, hates that it makes his ears burn and his stomach quiver.
"What do you want, Tula?" He means for it to sound distant, stand-offish, cold, but it just comes out weary and sad.
She looks down at her feet, shuffles just a bit and drifts closer before stopping herself.
"We need to talk."
Kaldur wonders where Garth is now, the thought sudden and prickly in the back of mind.
It is difficult, King Orin said, to live there and love here.
Kaldur wishes it were that simple. He didn't just love in Atlantis, his life was there. Tula —- and Garth -— had been his entire life for almost as long as he could remember. Until the day he came home to find that a dreadfully outdated past. To find a Garth who looked at him like he was a stranger and a Tula who could barely look at him at all.
He's not been able to determine which hurt more.
Even when his feelings for Tula drove him to distraction, when it seemed that he couldn't pass an hour without being lost in thoughts of her hair and her voice and the slope of her shoulders, he still thought of them as three.
He knows when they, instead, became two and one. He is not sure whether to blame himself more for leaving or them more for going on without him.
He follows Tula back to the conservatory. She looks at him over her shoulder intermittently, as if to ensure that he is still there. She knows better than to touch him, to take hold of his hand and pull him along, and, for that, Kaldur is glad.
She leads him to one of the meditation rooms. It sprawls out before them, soft, low lights shining from the sconces on the walls where electricity crackles within glass orbs. The high domed ceiling looms above them, and they could whisper from across the room and their voices would still carry. It is intimate, but not so intimate as her quarters, and this, too, Kaldur appreciates.
His faith in her consideration for his comfort, however, is dashed when mere moments after they have arrived, Garth enters.
"If you wished to speak with me you could have asked me yourself," Kaldur says. Garth flinches, but does not respond.
"We both wanted to talk to you," Tula says.
It stings anew, the way she says it. They make decisions together now. They're both staring at him and he can see desperation in their eyes. They've determined that they want something from him — approval or absolution.
He has never felt quite so alone.
"I wished you both the best," he reminds them. He meant it. He did. He just doesn't want to have to see it. "Is that not enough?"
He darts forward, but Garth is in front of him. He puts a hand in the center of Kaldur's chest to stop him. It's not forceful, Kaldur could keep going, but the touch is so gentle, reminds him so much of the easy affection of the past, that he does not want to.
"It is not enough," Garth says. He sounds every bit as apologetic as Tula does when she speaks again.
"We know we do not deserve your patience, but please, Kaldur, hear us out. We want you to understand-"
Kaldur pivots and glides away, breaking contact with Garth, swerving out of Tula's reach as well.
"I do not want to understand!" It comes out louder than he intends, but everything that he tries to keep buried, hidden under weighty layers of sadness and longing, is bubbling to the surface: anger and resentment and sharp spikes of jealousy.
"I do not want to know how 'these things just happen' or 'feelings change' or- or-"
Kaldur doesn't want to know why Tula chose Garth or about the moment she started looking at his best friend the way she had always looked him or how quickly she forgot him once he was gone.
He doesn't want to know when Garth decided that he cared more about Tula than he did about Kaldur.
He doesn't want to know when they moved on.
"It is not that," Tula insists and she looks at him, pleading. "We love you, Kaldur."
He keeps underestimating how far apart they've grown. You can be friends for as long as they have and still not understand some things, but that is not one of them. Kaldur lets himself sink until his feet touch the floor.
"And I love you both. I cannot believe you would ever doubt it." Melancholy rears up again in the confusing tumult of emotions in chest. "We will be friends again," he says. "I swear it. I just need… time."
Garth shakes his head, so slightly that it's barely perceptible, and Kaldur hears Tula breathe out "no" before she's upon him, her hand curled around his nape.
"We love you," she repeats and presses her lips to his.
She's not holding him in place. The pressure of her fingertips is light against his skin, but Kaldur cannot move.
He cannot think, but of the firm press of Tula's mouth against his as his hands draw to the curve of her waist. He glances Garth gliding towards them before his eyes slip closed and he loses himself to the sweep of Tula's tongue, to the still-roiling emotions that have lost all form and focus.
Tula releases him and presses her forehead to his for a single ragged breath before she moves away. When Kaldur opens his eyes, he's staring into Garth's, wide and violet and searching.
It occurs to Kaldur, in a rush, that he has to re-contextualize at least half of his life. He doesn't look away.
When Garth takes Kaldur's face in his hands and kisses him, Kaldur just kisses him back.
Garth's mouth works against his and Tula's hands sweep along his shoulders, along his back, before she wraps her arms around his waist and brushes her lips against his neck.
"We miss you," Garth says and he's still close enough that Kaldur can feel the heat of his mouth. He feels like his nerve endings are all firing at once where Tula is curled against his back. He wants to kiss Garth again. He wants to run his hands through Tula's hair.
"I miss you too," Kaldur replies.
That, at least, is simple.