It’s a long way back from Bialya, and they’ve had an even longer day. Or two. It’s well into Sunday now, and Artemis was supposed to go school shopping. She decides that Green Arrow can explain that one to her mom.
She doesn’t foresee herself having the energy for much of anything after this trip. She imagines the others feel much the same. The bioship has even reconfigured itself in tiny ways to accommodate their sorry state, responding to Megan’s unspoken commands as she perceives the others’ needs.
If any of them has a habit of forgetting just how young Robin is, it’s impossible now. Some 30 odd hours wandering around in the desert would knock out just about any 13-year-old, Boy Wonder or no. His seat hasn’t quite turned into a bed, but it’s subtly bigger, reclines further, and just looks generally more comfy than usual to Artemis. It’s hard to tell when his eyes are closed through the mask, but the light snoring can’t be mistaken.
Across from Robin, Wally continues making his way through most of the rations they packed before the mission. In fact, Wally is intent enough on “refueling” that he doesn’t seem to have noticed that Superboy’s seat is substantially closer to Megan’s than it usually is.
Earlier, Superboy had spent a while playing with that giant metal ball… thing that he and Megan brought back, which was entertaining enough. (Though really anything Superboy does while shirtless automatically rockets up in entertainment value.) For the last hour, however, he’s just been sitting there intermittently gazing at Megan, who would doubtless be gazing more herself if she didn’t have to watch where they’re going.
Mouth full, Wally calls out some terrible line about how delicious Megan is, and Artemis thinks that he’s either in deep denial about what’s going on there or just doesn’t care.
Of course, the extreme degree to which she has no intention of making it her problem can’t be rendered in real or imaginary numbers. Attempts to forcibly dislodge the bullshit generator in Wally’s brain aside, she’s pretty intent on keeping her distance from all that business, in general.
On take-off, a seat for her popped up next to the gurney in the back. Without his brain scrambled from dehydration, restoring Kaldur’s memories seemed to take little more than a brief sweep of Megan’s hands across his temples.
Dehydration requires a bit more recovery time.
He’s still on the IV. He doesn’t look quite so ashen, and his face isn’t hot to the touch like it was out in the desert. It’s certainly not like back in Dr. Fate’s tower when she could feel him trembling in her arms, strength and sureness being leeched out of long, lean muscles by the second. He just looks tired, like he’s had an epically shitty night, which, to be fair, he kind of has. There was something in his face the moment after Megan finished that seemed like more than the normal wear and tear of superheroics.
Artemis has some theories, but she hasn’t decided whether to do anything about them yet when Kaldur comes to again. His eyelids flutter, and his eyes are pale enough that they take on the tint of the low lighting in the bioship, obscuring their normal gray-green. He tries to sit up and Artemis can see the wave of dizziness hit him. She presses her palm against his chest to hold him steady.
“Easy,” she says. “You’re still weak.”
He frowns, but props himself up on his elbows and doesn’t try to move further.
“You do not have to watch over me,“ he says in that deep-voiced formal way he has, like he’s in a period film.
“I wasn’t under the impression that I had to.”
He cocks an eyebrow at her, somewhere between curious and dubious.
“You don’t have to look so surprised,” she responds, crossing her arms. While it’s true that she’s not, as some might say, the Goddess of Congeniality — and she has little interest in being so — it’s still a little bit insulting. She can have a soft touch; when she wants to.
He studies her quietly for a moment before inclining his head.
“I apologize.” She can tell that he means it. Kaldur doesn’t seem to be given towards rote statements. “It is only that you are not often so… nurturing.”
At this, she can’t help but grin.
“Yeah, well,” she says. She leans over to adjust the gurney so he can sit up further. “I’m only not-nurturing when people deserve it.”
For a split second, she thinks he might smile, but apparently it takes more than that to crack the mighty Aqualad.
“Thank you,” he says instead, shifting slightly against the safety belt banded around his narrow hips, before leaning against the raised back of the gurney. “For now and for before.”
Before. During the “trekking through the desert trying to soothe him as he moaned and babbled in Atlantean” portion of their adventure.
Artemis can’t really blame him for talking around it. She wouldn’t want to say that outright either. Much like she has no intention of ever bringing up the “way too much close physical contact with Kid Flash” segment of her day.
“No problem,” she says. She could blame the silence that follows for what happens next, but the truth is she’s never been very patient or high on restraint. Especially when she’s curious about something.
“So, who’s Tula?”
He stares at her wide-eyed like she’s walked in on him doing something particularly embarrassing. There is a faint compulsion to stop, but her father taught her too well. It isn’t in her to waste an opening. There are so many things she wishes she had the luxury to forget, but she doesn’t. So, she doesn’t.
“You kept saying it, out in the desert. Well, you said a bunch of stuff I didn’t understand, actually, but that sounded like a name, so I was-“
“She was- is a friend.” He’s gone stiff, and he’s not really looking at her. His eyes stare out at the far wall.
“Just a friend, huh?” She means it to be teasing, but the face he makes screams ‘direct hit.’ Fatal blow, even. She’d wish she could take it back but there aren’t any takebacks in life. Her dad taught her that too.
“I do not wish to speak about this.” He’s all serious and baritone, with just an edge of Batman’s well-worn Conversation Over voice.
It might actually have convinced her if she couldn’t see his eyes, which are full of decidedly non-intimidating emotions. She quiets anyway.
It’s sort of surreal to see him like this. She knows she hasn’t been with the team that long. Still, Kaldur has always seemed- not infallible, they’ve all taken their share of beatings, but just… impenetrable. Above mere mortal concerns and failings. Sure, he’s kind of bossy and, sometimes, she can read the desire to smack Wally in the head as clearly as if it were written in neon across his face. But it’s easy to lose track of the fact that he’s only a year older than she is.
It’s weird to imagine him being a (sort of) normal teenager: with insecurities and private embarrassments, having crushes and ex-girlfriends, flirting and dating and making out. Weird, but not particularly unpleasant. Not at all.
“Look, I didn’t mean to-“ she begins, but he cuts her off.
“It is fine.” He pauses and his eyes dart towards the front of the ship. They’re far enough back and speaking quietly enough that no one could hear them but Superboy. Given that Wally is now leaning over Megan’s chair between her and Superboy, Artemis doubts he’s paying attention. Kaldur evidently determines the same thing.
“Things between Tula and me- It did not work out. This all,” he looks up at the ceiling of the bioship, towards the heavens, waves his hand in a vague manner, “complicated things.”
Artemis raises her eyebrows and he continues.
“Being Aqualad. The team. I was not there so she… moved on.”
It was already obvious but now it’s even moreso: it’s not so easy for some of them to just go home at the end of the day. She wants to ask him why he does it, in light of that. Sixteen seems pretty early to be giving up a life to live this one. But if she asks him, he might ask her, and she’s not ready to answer that question for anyone. She may never be.
Kaldur chose a fresh start. Artemis needed one.
She reaches out and grasps one of his hands lightly in hers. Her fingertips press against the webbing between his thumb and index finger. It’s cool and smooth to the touch. She buries the impulse to stroke it.
He squeezes her hand in his larger one, just a bit.
“I appreciate your concern. I will be all right.” The first part: he means. The second: she’s not so sure. She thinks it’s true, but it’s clear he’s not convinced.
“You will. You’re a great guy, Kaldur,” she says, and she’s not saying it by rote either, she realizes. “Besides, you know what they say.”
He gives her one of those Protip: Not From Around Here looks, and she leans in.
“There’s plenty of fish in the sea,” she finishes and can’t keep a straight face as she squeezes his hand back.
He rolls his eyes and sighs deeply at what she’s sure is probably the millionth horrendous fish joke he’s heard since the day he stepped onto the surface. But when he shakes his head and groans, “That was awful,” his eyes are bright and the corner of his mouth quirks up, which was kind of the whole point.
She releases his hand and pats his knee as she sits back in her chair, letting the comfortable silence settle between them again.