“Sooooo...” Tula drew the word out, her face scrunched in confusion, as she tried to process what Kaldur'ahm, one of her best friends in all the world, was trying to tell her. “You meet this guy who you never tell us about,” And gods, did he have any idea how badly that had hurt her feelings, that he hadn't confided in her? “You fall completely in love with him, and everything is going great,” She bit her bottom lip, her eyes on him. “And then you break his heart and run away.”
It didn't sound very much like Kaldur'ahm. Not the one she knew, who never ran from anything.
“When you say it like that,” Kaldur protested, obviously trying to refute her very factual account, but coming up with nothing, from the way he just trailed off.
“When she says it like that, it kind of makes you sound like an ass.” Garth pointed out. Kaldur glared at him, while Tula sighed to herself. “What, Kaldur'ahm, you're the bad guy in this story. No other way to put it.”
“This is for the best.” He replied firmly.
“Which is why you're here. Moping.” Tula said, raising an eyebrow.
“Hey, he's not moping,” Garth was quick to rise to the defense of his fellow male, a leftover from being two of the few males in the conservatory in their year. “He's, you know,” Garth struggled for a word and Tula leveled him with a look.
“He's moping.” She stated.
“Yeah, you are kind of moping.” Garth conceded. “Not that I blame you. Even if it is your own fault. I mean, you probably just screwed everything up completely with this,”
“Garth, just please stop talking.” Tula cut him off, pinching the bridge of her nose in frustration with her boyfriend. “You are not being helpful.”
“I am helping! Aren't I helping, Kaldur?”
“I know you mean well, Garth,” Kaldur replied, seemingly wanting to avoid hurting his friend's feelings. “But perhaps Tula is more suited for discussion of this subject.” Tula silently agreed. She loved Garth, deeply, but he was still a little obtuse about matters like this.
“Kaldur! Bros before hos!”
Kaldur stared. Tula stared.
Garth slowly started to blush.
“They say that on the surface.” He said, with a bit of a sulk in his tone.
Tula sighed and turned to Kaldur. “Is Red Arrow this bad of an influence on everybody else?” She asked wearily, while Garth crossed his arms defensively. The strange slang he kept bringing home confused her, and though she could guess 'bros' was some kind of shortening of 'brothers', she wasn't sure what 'hos' meant, or whether she wanted to know.
“If he believes he can get away with it, yes.” Kaldur answered, with a bit of a smile.
“Kaldur, I just do not understand.” She really did not, and she needed him to elaborate. “I know he is a surface-dweller, but he is not a female, and you know the laws are more flexible with that kind of relationship.” The union of two males was as illegal as the union of a male and a female, but Kaldur would have been sure to receive a quick allowance from the king. It was not that uncommon. “Why did you never allow us to meet him? Why did you break it off with him? You love him, that much is obvious. Why put yourself in so much pain?”
“Red Arrow said it was because he was jailbait.” It took Tula only a moment to realize what Garth had revealed, and he realized it at the same second, cringing as she rounded on him.
“You knew?” She demanded.
“I. I um. You um.” He struggled for words under the force of her wrath, but seemed to pull himself together quickly enough. “Look, I figured there was a reason! Kaldur wouldn't keep something like that from us without one. So no, I didn't tell you, because I wasn't even supposed to know, and it wasn't mine to tell in any case.”
She was still irritated, but Garth's explanation left little room for her to argue. He was completely right, and she would have done the same, but it still rankled her that he had kept something so big from her, something concerning their friend.
“'Jailbait'.” She repeated the strange word, forcing herself to focus on Kaldur. “What does that word mean, Kaldur?”
“Robin is only sixteen.” He confessed, and she shook her head, as she saw what exactly the problem was.
“Which means he was only fourteen when you began a relationship with him, while you were seventeen.” He nodded, and she took his hand in hers sympathetically, trying to give him some comfort. “You must have been really in love, to look past his age. And he must really be something.” She turned stern quickly though. “But he was still only fourteen. Kaldur, you didn't...” She paused, and he seemed to realize what she meant, what she was nervous to even voice aloud. “Did you?”
“No. To do something like that would have been wrong. We waited until this year, when he turned sixteen. Where we lived, that age is considered old enough by the law.”
“But not ours.” She said, saying what he couldn't. “Three years age difference, at this point in life. And with a surface-dweller. You broke more than one law for him.”
“I showed weakness I had never thought myself capable of. He was insistent, and I let myself be swayed, because I wanted to be swayed. I knew in my heart that what I was doing was wrong though.” He looked relieved, and maybe he had needed to confess all of this for a long time. How lonely he must have felt, these past two years, almost three, unable to tell her the truth for fear of her condemnation.
“Well, you said it was compliant with their laws.” Tula said, trying to give him something to hold on to. “Perhaps it is not quite the evil you think it is. You do love him, deeply, and I believe that is a mitigating circumstance.” She really did think it should count for something in Kaldur'ahm's favor, that he was not taking advantage of someone young and naïve, that he was truly in love with this boy.
“Do you think our king would see it the same way?” He asked, and she frowned, trying to assess her king. She did not know him on the same personal level as Kaldur.
“I think our queen would tell you to follow your heart.” She said, choosing to say what she did know for sure.
“I think his majesty would want you to be happy.” Garth said, speaking up. “Robin does not sound like a typical surface-dweller, not from Red Arrow's descriptions.” He smiled a little. “Though some of his descriptions were not favorable. It seems Robin has a habit of never, uh, 'shutting the hell up', to quote him. He often said he had no idea how you had put up with it.”
Tula smiled to herself at the thought of quiet Kaldur with someone so apparently talkative. She wanted to meet him, this boy who lit Kaldur up, who made his grey eyes as warm as the burn of magic in her hands. She wished she went to the surface more often, like Garth and Kaldur, that she knew these people they spoke of so fondly.
It wasn't exactly impossible, she supposed. She was a graduate, and an honor student of the queen. She could go.
“Red Arrow and Robin have gotten along less as they have gotten older.” Kaldur was saying, his voice soft and warmhearted. “Their personalities are rather similar, you will find.” Except she didn't think he'd never loved Roy the way he so clearly loved Robin. It would have been simpler if he did, she thought. “Robin is perhaps less angry at the world than Red Arrow is.”
“Kaldur'ahm,” She sighed. “I do not know what to say. I have no real advice to offer. Part of me thinks you did the right thing, but the other half hates to see you in so much pain. Maybe if I met with him,” She suggested, the idea already taking root in her mind, the way she would pose it to the queen, how she could contact his friends through the League.
“I would prefer you did not, Tula,” He said, breaking into her plan. “Though the sentiment is appreciated. He is still angry with me, which I do not deny deserving, and I think if he found out I had kept him a secret from you, it would only hurt him more.”
“I suppose.” Tula agreed.
A week later, she stepped through the light and stood in the open air for only the tenth time in her whole life.
Then she tasted the dinner from the night before and swallowed hard.
“Oh, that was absolutely awful.” She groaned, and a pretty, green-skinned redhead, Miss Martian she assumed, rushed forward to catch her. It had been her first time using a zeta platform, and her stomach felt like a maelstrom, churning and spinning.
“Sorry, it gets everyone the first time. You won't even notice it after a few journeys. Artemis did tell you not to eat anything beforehand, right?” Tula nodded, her queasiness starting to subside. “You should be okay in only a moment, I promise.”
She let go, and Tula took a few shaky steps, the nausea subsiding, to be quickly replaced by the uneasiness of being on the surface. She had been before, more than once, but she was still not as used to it as Kaldur and Garth were.
“Are you okay now?” Miss Martian asked, still hovering. Literally, hovering.
“Yes, thank you. It is just big difference, you know.” Miss Martian smiled perkily at her, nodding along. Of course she would know, she was from another planet. “I had hoped to meet Artemis as well. She was so helpful in arranging this.”
“Oh, Artemis is out with Superboy, Kid Flash, and Zatanna for a 'training exercise'. We figured if they were here, it would just make this visit, and its purposes, more difficult.” She winked at Tula in a conspiratorial way. Tula frowned in confusion.
“My purpose is only to speak to Robin, know him a little better.” Miss Martian smiled, showing quite a few shiny white teeth, and nodded, before pinching her index finger and thumb together and drawing them across her lips, a confusing gesture that Tula could not discern the meaning of.
“Right. Of course. No other underlying purposes. Definitely not.”
“Miss Martian, I believe we have misun-”
“Who are you?” A young, dark-haired man wearing sunglasses had appeared, seemingly from nowhere, and the word ninja rang through her head. He was of average height, and she realized Kaldur, tall for even an Atlantean, must tower over him. He had a slight, lean build, almost too slight.
He was scowling.
He'd seen her gills then.
This could potentially be more difficult than she'd initially thought.
“I asked you a question. Miss Martian, did you give her clearance?” Miss Martian giggled in a nervous way, and then disappeared right through the floor, leaving Tula on her own with Robin.
“My name is Tula.” She said, bracing herself. “I am a friend of Kaldur'ahm's.” His scowl deepened for a moment before disappearing, his expression becoming entirely neutral.
“His friend?” He asked. “Or his girlfriend?” She didn't miss any of the bitterness in his voice, and she didn't appreciate the question of Kaldur's character.
“You two are just barely broken up. Do you really think that is what he is like? Because if so, I am wasting my time here.” He glared at her, then shook his head, albeit obviously with reluctance. “Good. Now, we need to talk.”
“About what? He broke up with me, so if you're here to yell at me, save it.”
“I am not here to do anything of the sort! Are you always this defensive?” His attitude was getting on her nerves, especially after seeing Kaldur so broken up over this boy. So far, she had seen nothing worth his trouble, or hers for that matter.
“Are you always so nosy about stuff that doesn't concern you? I've never even met you, so don't come in here acting like you know me, or that you know Kaldur!” He shouted.
“Kaldur has been one of my best friends since he started at school, and the only reason we have never met is because he never bothered to tell me you existed!” She shouted back, stomping her foot in anger. As soon as she said it though, she cringed in self-deprecation. She'd gone and said the one thing likely to make this worse, even if she had seen it as more of a slight against herself than Robin.
He was staring at the ground, his hands balled up into fists, and she swore she could see a tremor in his shoulders.
“Never?” He asked, and she hated herself for how choked his voice sounded. How young he suddenly sounded.
“It...it had nothing to do with you.” She tried, wrapping her arms around herself. “And that is why we need to have a talk. So I can explain what Kaldur'ahm could not.”
“Okay.” He swallowed, and sniffed, turning around so he could rub his eyes. Maybe it was because she was a stranger, he didn't mind her seeing his pain. It made her want to drag Kaldur back and force him to fix it, make the boy stop. He seemed so utterly heartbroken all of a sudden, and she realized his anger had been a facade, a safe expression of his hurt.
“Okay.” She repeated, and followed him to the kitchen.
They didn't speak for the whole time it took to put tea on, him doing it as though it were second nature, though he had none for himself. He put the cup down in front of her, and pushed a glass jar full of a golden liquid towards her as well.
Surface tea was something she had never indulged in, and she sniffed it cautiously.
“Put a spoonful of honey in.” He told her, and she did so, understanding it to be the name of the thick, sticky substance. When she took a sip, she was pleasantly surprised, and it must have showed on her face. “That's how Kaldur likes it too. I figured tastes must be kind of similar. You don't get a lot of sweets down there, do you?” She shook her head and took another sip, the sweet so good and perfect. She wondered if she could take the jar back with her.
Then she focused, and realized what he had said.
“Did you make Kaldur's tea?”
“He's not very good at taking care of himself, when there's something going on. Too busy taking care of all of us.” He shrugged. “I liked getting to take care of him. It made me feel, I don't know, useful to him.” Even through his sunglasses, she could see how he glared at the table. “Guess I wasn't all that useful.”
“Robin,” She put her tea down. “Kaldur'ahm will be twenty this year.”
“So everyone keeps reminding me.”
“And you are sixteen. There is a three year gap between the two of you.”
“So, your relationship is illegal by Atlantean law. In more than one way.” She said, and his eyebrows went up in surprise. “Did you not know it is illegal for an Atlantean to engage in a sexual relationship with a surface-dweller?”
“He,” Robin swallowed. “He never said anything. I never even thought to ask if it was an issue.”
“Well, it is. It is to stop certain...accidents, from happening. The genes do not mix well, and children from the unions are often deformed, and almost always die young. Kaldur is actually the only case I have known personally that not only survived, but is able to pass.” She'd clearly bestowed another tidbit of knowledge Robin hadn't known, because he gaped at her. “Oh. Oh dear, I assumed-,”
“Why wouldn't he tell me that?” He asked. “Doesn't he trust me?”
“It has nothing to do with trust. Kaldur'ahm is ashamed of his heritage, and that is probably the reason for his withholding. For all he knew, you might hold it against him.”
“That's stupid, he knows how I feel about him! It doesn't matter to me who his parents are.”
“It might.” She kept the other part to herself, knowing that if Kaldur hadn't confided one part of his secret, he certainly hadn't confided the other part. “He broke that law for you. Punishment would likely have been avoided, yes, because a child is not possible in your union, but Kaldur is still the protege of our king, and much beloved with the royal family, in spite of his heritage. He is supposed to be an example, and he cannot get away with the things I, or Garth, could. To engage in a relationship with you was to put his standing in jeopardy. Yet he did anyway.”
“I didn't know.”
“He did not want you to, I suspect. He did not want you to feel guilt, most likely. You know Kaldur. He would prefer to suffer alone. And then there was the matter of how young you are, compared to him. Kaldur will be considered an adult, when he turns twenty. And you, while not a child, are too young by our laws to be engaged in a relationship with him. The gap limit is two years, in our laws, two years exactly, and no more. And after his birthday, he will be considered old enough to marry, and with his position, our king will start pushing him.”
Robin stared at the table hard enough to put a hole through it, and her heart twisted in sympathy for the poor boy. He had deserved to hear all of this from Kaldur, not her, had deserved the full truth. He was not a child, and she suspected Kaldur had sheltered him from some sense of protectiveness, a need to keep Robin from pain. And it had only caused greater pain.
“So he would have had to tell him why.” Robin said, his tone low. “And then he would have been in trouble. Or he could have kept seeing me in secret, and risked me thinking he was cheating on me when Aquaman started talking about all his potential wives.”
“And husbands.” Tula corrected. “Our king would actually be more likely to want to arrange a marriage with another male. Powerful as Kaldur is, any children he had would be at risk from his human parentage.”
Robin nodded in understanding.
“Why did you come here and tell me this?”
“Because you deserved the whole truth, whether or not Kaldur'ahm could get up the courage to tell you. He was too scared to hurt you, I think.” She said, hoping it at least soothed some of his pain.
“Yeah, that worked out well.”
“I am sorry for all of this. I wish there was something I could do, or say. There is nothing though.” She meant it, truly. She wanted to tell both of them to just defy everyone and stay together, but even her romantic heart knew what a mistake it would be. Kaldur would feel the loss of his home, of his people, and Robin would never not feel guilty for taking it away from him.
“I never knew something could hurt this bad.”
She smiled at him, and reached across the table to take his hand.
“Trust me, whatever you feel, Kaldur'ahm is no better. He's been sulking around the-”
“I believe you have said more than enough, Tula.”
They both turned to the entryway, where Kaldur'ahm stood, his eyes as hard as rock as he glared at her.
“Kaldur'ahm, I only wanted-”
“You only wanted to interfere.” He interrupted, striding in, and honestly, it was the first time Tula really saw what others had to see when they looked at Kaldur. To her, he had always been only her friend, just a boy, and for the life of her, she could not comprehend how anyone could be afraid of him. But now, with his shoulders held straight, chin tipped down, she saw that Kaldur'ahm had grown into a rather intimidating hero, sometime when she hadn't been looking.
“At least she told me the truth.” Robin said, his voice low. He kept his head down, his eyes away from Kaldur'ahm.
“Robin, I do not know what Tula has told you, but please,”
“She told me what I should have heard from you!” He shouted, standing up, his chair falling back to hit the tiled floor with a clatter. “I would have understood! I'm not a stupid kid!”
“Robin, I never meant to treat you like a child.” He ran his hand over his head, and Tula tried to think of a way to excuse herself. This was not something she should be witnessing. “It had nothing to do with that. I knew if I told you the truth, it would,” He paused, and looked at him, and the way he looked, the raw feelings displayed, overwhelmed Tula. “It would have changed you. You would have known it could not last. And I only wanted you to be happy when I had you. I did not want the burden of the knowledge shared.”
“Christ, do you ever listen to yourself when you talk?” Robin demanded. “That's what being part of a couple is, Kaldur! Not keeping shit like this from each other! You are always so sure you're right about everything, you never even thought about how I would feel when I found out that you could get in trouble being with me!”
“Fuck you!” He swore, taking off his glasses to rub at his wet eyes. They were blue, she saw, deep blue, like the ocean back home. “And fuck your laws! I'll be twenty in three years, and then it'll all be okay, right?” He turned to Tula, glaring. “When I'm twenty, he can be with me, and the surface dweller thing will get hand-waved by Aquaman, right?”
She nodded shakily, the full force of his stare defying his young age completely, showing him to every inch the adult he truly was, the adult Kaldur saw and loved.
“Robin, in three years, you will not feel the way you feel about me now,” Kaldur attempted, but Robin shook his head.
“And if I do, if I still love you? What then?”
Kaldur held his gaze, his grey eyes focused on this boy, this man, and the intensity he projected.
“Then we will see.” She could see it in his eyes though, the new determination settling in to him as plans for three years in the future were being built in his head, a possible future with Robin.
“And you won't get married?” Robin asked.
“I did not plan on it in the first place. No matter what my king, or Tula, has said.” He glanced at her briefly, and she shrunk, already knowing that they were going to be having a very loud and unpleasant conversation the minute they were home and alone.
“Good.” Robin swallowed, and put his glasses back on. “We're friends then. For three years.”
“Robin, your heart will change in three years,” Kaldur tried, but even Tula knew that Robin meant every word, and would not be swayed otherwise.
“Will yours?” He asked, his voice a challenge.
“Robin,” Kaldur'ahm said, sounding tired. “You know how I feel, but,”
“It's a yes or no question.” Robin interrupted, his voice sharp, and defensive. For all of his bravado, Robin doubted himself, doubted his place in Kaldur's heart.
Kaldur looked at him for so long, it seemed to drag out forever, and her awkwardness increased tenfold as Robin, and she herself, seemed to wait on tenterhooks for whatever Kaldur'ahm was going to say.