It started with a routine hacking job. Queen Bee was posing trouble for the world again, and Dick was assigned to go through the Bialya system and find information that could help them fight the arrogant woman.
When Dick found the files on both Justice League and Young Justice, he couldn’t resist altering some of the data just to mess with the Queen’s head and prepare a bit of a nasty surprise for her: it only went downhill after he opened the file on M’gann.
At first, Dick thought the Bialyans knew he was in their database and planted the video file to mess with him in turn. But the longer he watched, the more sickeningly obvious it became that the file was genuine. M’gann, or the white, scaly thing that was supposed to be M’gann, screamed at Simon before she – it – blasted him out of consciousness (and mind). Dick kept frowning at the screen for a long, long time before he logged off the database and the room went dark.
He was not sure what to do. He understood now why M’gann chose to look like a silly sitcom character – even that was better than looking like THAT. Dick shivered with the realization that M’gann really wasn’t human: with her current humanoid form, he’d never really given much thought to it, treated her much like any other meta-human, like someone who just happened to be green and have psychic powers.
But this… Dick glanced at the grey screens again, the image of that white thing burned vividly into his eyes. He would’ve liked to say that this changed nothing… but he wasn’t so sure. Dick knew he probably shouldn’t have believed M’gann that day a long time ago when she’d said her true form was essentially the same, only without the hair… he shouldn’t have, but he had, dismissed it all as girls’ vanity… and now, Dick felt immensely stupid for that.
And she kept the truth from them. From her team, her friends, the people whose lives depended on trusting each other in life-or-death situation. She kept it from them, and Dick wondered what else she would do to keep them in the dark about her true form. Would she endanger a mission to keep her appearance a secret? Dick would’ve liked to think she wouldn’t… but… he truly couldn’t be sure.
The door behind Dick’s back slid open and Kaldur stepped in, illuminated by the lights of the corridor, lit up like a sudden prefect answer to Dick’s dilemma. He knew he should solve it on his own, but Dick had long ago realized that he was not to Batman what Conner was to Superman; he was not Batman’s or Bruce’s clone, and while he still understood the possibility of him taking up the Batman mantle one day, he also understood that not being another Bruce Wayne was just fine. Dick had decided that becoming Batman would not necessarily mean loneliness for him, and where Batman solved everything on his own, Dick did not hesitate anymore to ask for aid.
At least not from his teammates. And Kaldur was perfect for just this, for the times when Dick needed to hear someone calm and rational and yet not completely cold. Dick had been trained to entertain people, later to protect them, to persuade, threaten, interrogate, spy on – nobody ever truly taught him to interact, and on rare occasions, when the personal and the professional overlapped, he would have trouble discerning the best approach.
“Are you done?” Kaldur asked, stepping closer – Dick could see him raise an eyebrow at the empty screens.
“Not… completely,” he said tentatively. “I found something.”
Kaldur looked at him, his grey eyes reflecting the faint glow of the screens.
“What is it?”
Dick shifted in his seat, still not sure whether he should say anything, whether he shouldn’t talk to M’gann first… but walking up to someone and saying ‘hey, I know you look like a Pokemon’ was not the easiest thing to do, and Dick really, really did not wish to get a lecture from Black Canary about careful approach of sensitive girlish matters.
And after all, Kaldur was their leader. The one thing why Dick did not really mind was the fact that Kaldur was the one who got to deal with all this difficult crap.
“It’s about M’gann. She’s not… who she said she was,” Dick muttered and turned in his chair to face the screens again: “I’ll show you.”
Before he could get back into the database, there was a warm hand on his shoulder and Dick stiffened briefly, not used to such casual touching.
“No need,” Kaldur spoke softly.
“If she does not want us to see, she must have a reason.”
“Damn right, she looks like a cancerous Lego robot,” Dick snorted, and he could almost hear Kaldur frown. He could most definitely feel the slight, warning squeeze of Kaldur’s hand on his shoulder.
Dick sighed, for a second wishing Wally was here, because Wally was a normal human and would get the reference, unlike the Atlantean.
“Basically, she looks pretty awful.”
“That is not very nice.”
“No,” Dick agreed in a huff, “but her attempts to hide it could be dangerous. Who knows what she’ll do to prevent us from knowing. She’s been hiding it for years now, Kaldur!”
“It’s her right,” the leader said, and Dick turned his head to glare at the man. Kaldur stared back, and it unnerved Dick to no end. He did not take kindly to orders from someone else than Batman, and this particular order, however softly spoken and more insinuated than actually voiced, did not sit well with Dick.
“It’s her right to deceive us? Or to mind-blast us because she wants us to think she looks like some washed-up actress?” Dick grunted, voicing some of what had stung the most while he watched the video feed of M’gann’s fight with Simon – that she had hurt them, however briefly, to keep them from knowing the truth. “She’s a white Martian, too, and who knows why the normal Martians don’t like them? Maybe there’s a valid reason.”
Kaldur did not really frown, he just kept looking, and it was Dick who averted his defiant glare first.
“She has not compromised any mission yet,” Kaldur reasoned, and Dick had to agree, albeit reluctantly, “and… I know how it is to live in shame of one’s origins.”
Dick looked up again in surprise. He would never put ‘shame of origins’ and ‘Kaldur’ in the same sentence: the Atlantean never flaunted his roots, that much was for certain, but there was efficiency in his fighting and calmness in his speech that did not betray anything else than pride in his land. Dick understood that Kaldur was some sort of a hero in Atlantis, due to something that had to do with saving Aquaman; he was certainly a hero above the sea, and Dick could not imagine what could make a hero ashamed of himself.
“Something needs to be done,” Dick insisted with a scowl, aware of the hand that still lingered on his shoulder. Warmth seeped in through the fabric of Dick’s shirt, and he wondered about the Atlantean’s biology: he was supposed to be colder than a normal human, much like a fish, but there was nothing cold about Kaldur; if Dick didn’t know where he came from, he would think that Kaldur was a permanent resident of California or maybe some other sun-lit country. Could that be it? Were other Atlanteans paler? Aquaman certainly was, and the very few others Dick had seen were nowhere near Kaldur’s level of dark. Was that what Kaldur had referred to when he spoke of shame?
“You have my permission to observe, discreetly. If you notice anything wrong, talk to me. Until then… speak of this to no one,” Kaldur commanded, his voice still quiet, but Dick knew he would not disobey. Kaldur had developed a sort of love-hate relationship with being in command, but when needed, he had that air of silent authority that did not require a raised voice or harsh words. Something in it reminded Dick of Batman, marginally and half-subconsciously, but Kaldur’s orders did not usually turn out badly, which only gave Dick a slight moment of doubt whenever Kaldur said something, doubt he rarely acted upon.
So Dick nodded this time as well, and turned back to his screens. He could still feel Kaldur behind his back, even after the hand retreated, but he didn’t comment and the Atlantean eventually left Dick to his work, wondering if he should delete the compromising files. But that would raise questions, awareness that someone had infiltrated the databases, and in the end he left it where he could find it if the need arose, and tried to focus solely on his duties.
For the first time in years, it did not work completely.
Dick thus made it his mission to observe M’gann. Usually it meant glancing at her while she fought yet another battle with flour and sugar and eggs or watched TV, trying to improve her understanding of the Earth. As far as Dick was concerned, TV shows she watched provided a highly flawed perception, and it was just M’gann’s luck that her boyfriend was as far from a normal human being as possible while still retaining human shape. And said boyfriend put Dick into an even more uncomfortable position: more often than not, observing M’gann’s behavior included observing her intimacies with Conner, and Dick found his looks straying to their leader instead, half out of discomfort, half bored out of his mind by silly smiles and touches that were supposed to be hidden and were painfully, sickeningly obvious.
Kaldur provided distraction whenever Dick felt disappointed by his self-assigned mission – heavy on the dis, in both cases. Not that their leader would change his usual patterns; it was all the same, his small smiles whenever he was pleased with something, slight frowns whenever some inaccurate information about the sea-world appeared in the media, general blankness when it came to emotions. Kaldur was his normal, slightly bland self: but suddenly, Dick found himself looking underneath.
Or at least he was trying to. He told himself it was all because of the truth he knew about M’gann; that it was simply trying to discern whether Kaldur, with his self-admitted shame, under all his neutral behavior, posed a similar danger. So Dick observed, and found out several things that unnerved him, quite a lot.
It wasn’t that Kaldur would do anything unnerving per se – it was more the fact that Dick started to notice little things he never saw before. Never cared enough to pay attention to. Like the way Kaldur would become more animated, his gestures wider and a certain unrest in his eyes, whenever it rained heavily, as if the humidity in the air provided some sort of fuel for the Atlantean. Dick found himself wondering if Kaldur was a different person under the sea, whether the water could make him look livelier, less isolated.
That was another thing Dick could see, now that he was looking. Kaldur was amiable enough to all of them, listening whenever someone had something to say, providing guidance when it was asked for, or simply a shoulder to lean on. Kaldur was there for them: he helped M’gann with her biology class, since she was hopeless with it and Conner had photographic memory, but sucked big time at explaining anything in terms that made sense; Dick told himself he was merely observing how Kaldur behaved around M’gann now that he knew she wasn’t who she looked like. It was more difficult to excuse his watching of Kaldur when the older boy (a man by now) was listening to Conner, the clone speaking so softly Dick couldn’t make out the words – but Kaldur was listening with his head inclined towards Conner, his expression neutral and just nodding occasionally. It quickly became obvious to Dick that Conner simply needed someone to listen, and Kaldur did, Kaldur always listened.
Nobody ever listened to Kaldur.
Dick thought it might have something to do with the fact that Kaldur never really said anything: he talked, but it all had to do with missions or advice or other people in general. They had all come to accept that Kaldur was a soldier, a hero, a good boy and later a good man, but that he was also a bit… boring. Wally had voiced his opinion more than once, whenever he’d tried to drag Kaldur to some party and Kaldur would always politely decline. Wally had exclaimed that Kaldur acted like he was seventy instead of twenty and left it at that – now, after hearing that comment about shame, Dick could not help but wonder whether there was more to Kaldur than met the eye.
One stupid little off-hand comment, and Dick’s eyes were wide open.
He was not sure he liked that. On occasion, when he found himself staring at Kaldur again, he would ask whether the older boy did not do it on purpose, drop a disguised, quiet bomb on Dick’s subconscious to make him see, to make him wonder.
But if there was one thing Kaldur was not, it was cunning, sly, dishonest. After a while, it became painfully obvious that Kaldur was not deceiving anyone and Dick’s excuse for watching him was lost.
At that point, he did not need an excuse anymore.
And Kaldur noticed.
“Weren’t you supposed to keep an eye on M’gann, not me?” he pointed out the obvious one evening, when he and Dick were left alone in the living room, when Artemis and Wally were beat after a mission and took to bed early, and M’gann and Conner were out on a date.
Dick felt strangely uncomfortable on the couch, exposed in his observations.
“I was wondering whether you might turn into a dolphin one day,” he smirked snidely, his protective humor set in place even as he felt rattled by Kaldur’s words. It was one thing to deny it to himself, but if Kaldur took notice, then Dick must’ve been too obvious, and that was something he would not stand for, if only to keep his pride intact.
“I would’ve told you if I could do that,” Kaldur shrugged, eyes still on the TV, and Dick was taken aback by the sincerity he could feel in Kaldur’s voice. It was strange – they were in a darkened room again, neither of them bothering to turn on the lights when the sun had set, and the flickering glow of some inaccurate historical movie lit up Kaldur’s eyes again. Maybe it was only in the faint shine of electronic devices that Kaldur could open up briefly, let Dick in for a glimpse of who he was underneath his calm façade. Maybe that was a valid point… Dick would have to test that theory further.
For that moment, however, he was satisfied watching some gentleman run his sword in a very polite manner through another guy.
It took him some time before he realized he was watching Kaldur a lot more than the movie. A nervous twitch ran through Dick’s body when he realized that Kaldur was very much aware of Dick’s eyes on him.
“Would you tell us even if you were a particularly ugly dolphin?” Dick inquired, because something needed to be said, and a joke was better than the myriad of half-formed questions that swirled around in his head.
Kaldur looked at him. For a long moment. Someone must’ve built in a time-stretcher in the TV set, Dick was quite sure.
“Would you trust an ugly dolphin to lead you?” Kaldur asked, and Dick almost took offense: well, he did, but it quickly dissipated when something exploded onscreen and the brighter light cast different shadows on Kaldur’s face – and Dick could see a corner of Kaldur’s mouth rise a little.
Was he joking? Kaldur of all people was… joking? Something was certainly wrong with the world. Dick turned to the TV just to see whether it was still as stupid as it had been ten minutes ago. It was, which meant that they were still home.
“That would depend on whether the ugly dolphin would use dolphin magic to make me think he looked like that,” Dick waved his hand vaguely at the TV, right now showing a guy that was most likely supposed to look like every woman’s dream, and in Dick’s opinion, if women wanted THAT, then he did not want to live on this planet anymore.
Dick would swear he heard Kaldur snort in amusement, because there was no drink or popcorn to choke on at the moment.
“I don’t think that would be much of an improvement,” Kaldur shrugged, and Dick looked at him again. Yeah. That was definitely a joke… the world must’ve been coming to its untimely, horrifying end.
Afterwards, they kept silent.
Kaldur did not comment on Dick’s staring anymore.
That one silly joke was pretty much the same as that stupid little comment about shame had been. If Dick could not stand something, it was not knowing something.
He definitely did not know Kaldur’Ahm. And it was driving Dick crazy, because to think he had spent years, YEARS, thinking he knew all members of his team to the core, was a fatal mistake that could’ve cost him dearly if Kaldur were an enemy.
Maybe that was not the only reason that drove Dick to watch Kaldur intently, but he did not care about reasons at this point. He made it a matter of pride to learn every tiny bit of information about Kaldur that he could.
Kaldur always put a lot of salt on his meals; he rarely ate seafood. Dick thought that the former had something to do with his biology, the salt in his food standing for the salt the Atlantean would usually get from the water; the latter made Dick wonder if Kaldur thought of the fish as his kin or something.
Funny thing was, all these little things went unnoticed by everyone. Dick wasn’t sure how he hadn’t seen it all before, but he hadn’t, and it made him think that Kaldur was probably the true stealth master here, making himself invisible by putting himself in plain sight, the outwardly shell making all inquisitive glances slide over it without truly betraying what was inside.
It only made Dick want to know more.
When it came to training, Kaldur always worked out with all teammates in equal measure, testing his strength against Conner, resistance against M’gann or Artemis and speed against Dick or Wally. He never truly failed, even if his true power was in the combination of all of the above, physical strength, agility and strange Atlantean magic. Kaldur was not excelling in any one of those, but he combined what he had and what he had learned so well that Dick found himself watching with interest. Kaldur’s muscles flexed and his magic created an aura around him in a fight with Conner, and it was truly a sight to behold – even if Dick did not mind leading the team sometimes, he couldn’t help but think that Kaldur was a good leader, the best they could get.
The strength and agility were easily explained when Dick discovered that when Kaldur had the time, he went out through the back of Mount Justice and to the beach, to the sea. When the older boy disappeared in the water, Dick sat down in the warm sand and stared at the waves. He wasn’t sure why he was waiting there: it wasn’t like he knew what Kaldur was up to down there. But he waited anyway, watched the sunset and thought of a million things and nothing at all.
When Kaldur finally resurfaced, it was almost completely dark, and he did not seem surprised to see Dick on the beach.
“I was training,” Kaldur said and Dick frowned a little: he hadn’t asked, so how did Kaldur know what Dick thought…? Dick just hoped it wasn’t any sort of telepathy, because even if Dick did not really mind J’onn or M’gann, he was not fond of telepaths as such. He liked to keep his secrets intact, thank you very much.
The Atlantean sat down next to Dick, and the boy stared at Kaldur’s skin, shiny from the water and wet as if Kaldur was sweating from exertion – but his body was cool at Dick’s side, not heated. It was strangely appealing, and Dick found himself shifting almost unnoticeably closer.
Kaldur was looking over the sea, his eyes a little distant, filled with silent longing that Dick never saw before, or never noticed. There was passion and love in his gaze as it swept over the swishing waves, and Dick wondered if there was love for someone in Kaldur’s heart too, kept just as quiet as everything else, waiting to be discovered by someone who cared to look.
A sudden flare of possessiveness tightened in Dick’s stomach when he imagined some girl discovering the gentleness and strength that was Kaldur, those many, many corners of Kaldur’s soul that twisted like a labyrinth into a well-hidden center. Dick was still only halfway there, sneaking through the corridors and finding his way – and he decided he would not let anyone get there faster.
He called it competitiveness for the sake of his sanity.
“How do you train alone? Dolphins help?” Dick joked, because it was beginning to feel strange to just sit there and look, even if Kaldur did not seem bothered, did not shut Dick out: his expression remained open, his eyes clear, just like always. Dick wondered if that was the reason why so many people dismissed Kaldur as bland: he always seemed completely open, honest, simple. Under the surface, though, Dick could suddenly sense so much more, and he wanted to dive in, force Kaldur to show the sides of himself that maybe he himself didn’t know either, so Dick could see, explore, know.
“Dolphins are not very good fighters,” Kaldur offered a small smile, and Dick suddenly felt like a child: like he was being treated like a child, like Kaldur was amused by what Dick said, like one would be amused by a kid spouting nonsense and asking idiotic questions. He frowned, because he was not a child, not for a very, very long time, not even in age anymore. Kaldur’s calm amusement felt condescending and Dick shifted away, staring at the sea as if he could ignite it and force some kind of a reaction from Kaldur.
“Training underwater feels different,” Kaldur said, still staring at the sea, and Dick glanced at him with a little frown: did he just go all Batman-y again with the ‘knowing what you’re thinking’ thing? Dick didn’t like that. He’d learned to tolerate it, get used to it from the actual Batman. But from anyone else, it just felt creepy. Uncomfortable. Dick did not want people to know what he was feeling or thinking, especially when he himself wasn’t sure of his thoughts and emotions anymore.
“How?” he asked, focusing on the practical part instead – that usually helped. Kaldur merely shrugged, and looked strangely lost, out of place, sitting next to Dick, sand sticking to his uniform and to his wet fingers as he trailed them over the ground.
“Underwater, movement is more difficult. I have to put more strength into the same move I would do with ease above,” Kaldur explained, and Dick felt it made sense… but something still didn’t exactly fit.
“So. You train alone?”
He tried to tell himself his only reason for asking was to prevent the team from any damage, to find out whether Kaldur wasn’t associating with wrong people. But the way Dick’s breath caught in his throat insinuated fundamental reasons that had nothing to do with the team whatsoever.
Kaldur nodded with another slight shrug.
“Sometimes, when he has the time, Aquaman comes with me.”
It struck Dick then what felt off about Kaldur: in all his serenity, he seemed immensely lonely, in that deep, profound way that seemed as if Kaldur did not know about his loneliness himself, as if the loneliness was so deeply rooted into his soul that it was not a matter for thinking anymore, it simply grew into every other thing in Kaldur’s heart; and the worst part was that Dick could sympathize. With Conner and M’gann dating, the two of them usually had different things in mind than visiting theme parks or having a video-game battle; it was some time now since Artemis had decided that Wally was extremely annoying, but also too attractive to ignore, and their relationship went down the same way to Sappyville as M’gann’s and Conner’s – only with a lot more cursing and make-up sex, which Dick did his best to not hear or see or notice at all. Bruce was more Batman than Bruce lately, and with schoolwork and Young Justice, Dick did not really have the time to bond with anyone. Bruce and Alfred were family to him, but family was often the people who stood silently in the shadows, just existing, just there, and it should’ve been enough, but now, watching Kaldur’s solemn, subconscious loneliness, Dick knew it was not nearly enough, not anymore.
He missed Wally. His jokes, his stupid grins and remarks and hitting on girls and insatiable appetite for junk food. Dick knew he hadn’t really lost it, not completely, but it was someone else’s job to keep an eye on Wally now, to be near him when the older boy needed it, to share deepest secrets without words. It wasn’t Dick’s job to say anything: it was not a best friend’s job to say ‘I miss you, spend more time with me.’ It was his job to be quietly, unobtrusively happy for Wally’s happiness, to sometimes be loudly disgusted about the physical aspects of said happiness and to cheer him on and be content that Wally had found that special someone who could give him what Dick never could, never would, never thought of.
He missed being ‘and’ with someone, like once he had been a part of ‘KF and Robin,’ like now, with years and hormones and experience, ‘M’gann and Conner’ were, or ‘Wally and Artemis.’ Sure, he was one half of ‘Batman and Robin,’ but that was work, an obligation instead of a choice, and even if Dick would not trade that partnership for anything, he missed equality, warmth, the ability to just argue with someone and walk away without the consequences of lost civilian lives.
Dick or Kaldur weren’t really an ‘and’ with anyone, and suddenly, in a moment of clarity, Dick felt a desperate, unyielding need to be that for someone, to have that other half that fit perfectly and complemented everything that Dick lacked, taking everything Dick had in return to piece together a mosaic that would seem whole, perfect, absolute.
His fingers had cooled with the wind blowing from the sea, so it did not feel cold when he touched Kaldur’s hand half-buried in the sand. The older boy (who had not truly been a boy for some time) turned to look at him, his eyes open and clear and questioning, and Dick felt his face color, so he jumped up enthusiastically and raised his hands over his head, trying to get rid of the weird tightness in his chest that had seized him with that simple, little touch.
“I’m starving!” he exclaimed, and the sound of his giggle was too loud over the murmur of the sea, but Dick needed loud now to drown out the confusion in his head.
“Let’s go grab something to eat.”
“Okay,” Kaldur said and rose, not questioning Dick’s motives and brushing the sand off his clothes with long, efficient strokes. Dick shivered at the sight.
It was just the evening chill, for sure.
“We can order something,” Dick offered, because he did not feel like going out into the anonymous mass of unknown people at the moment. Kaldur nodded again, and Dick suddenly felt powerless in the face of Kaldur’s polite, blank shell into which he was apparently retreating again. Dick decided to struggle to keep him out of it for a few moments longer.
“No seafood,” he said with a small smile, and Kaldur just looked, a question in his eyes so obvious that Dick wavered. “I mean… you don’t like it, right? Eating fish? Because they’re from the same realm or something?”
Kaldur blinked, then smiled, and something in his face was not his usual self, the one that seemed like water, just there, calm and collected and capable of withstanding almost anything, capable of force if needed, but still clear, still flavorless, odorless, pliable. This smile seemed almost warm, open through more doors than usual, and it sent a shiver through Dick’s body again. He wrote it off to the pleasure of succeeding in his fight against Kaldur’s shell.
“Do you mind eating cows and pigs?” Kaldur asked, and Dick sniggered:
“You can’t be friends with Wally and not like hamburgers.”
Kaldur nodded at that with a little chuckle, almost inaudible due to the wind, but Dick heard – Dick was good at hearing hidden giggles.
“It’s the same for me. There’s not much besides fish to eat underwater,” Kaldur said, and Dick raised an eyebrow.
“I grew up eating freshly caught fish. The ones up here are either frozen or several days old. They don’t taste the same,” Kaldur shrugged and Dick sniggered, because he had never really thought of Kaldur as a spoiled one, and Kaldur having such a quirk about something as ordinary as food was strangely endearing, and almost as thrilling as the fact that Dick, with all his careful observations, had been wrong, that Kaldur could surprise him with something so tiny.
“How about pizza then?”
It was easy to fall into a comfortable routine with Kaldur: when everyone else would be off doing what couples usually did, Dick would go to the Atlantean. Sometimes they would have take-out for dinner, making M’gann all flustered about it in the morning when she found the boxes in the trash; sometimes, they would watch some movie and point out all the stupid things in it; sometimes, Dick would simply take his laptop to the living room and type his homework or work on a team project while Kaldur sat beside him, reading some book. It was not the kind of a loud, cheerful companionship that Dick used to have with Wally – but he did not mind the difference. He was not really trying to replace his best friend, and it was alright that he did not feel the same with Kaldur as he’d felt with Wally.
Dick was also surprised by his capacity to keep quiet, something he had never truly explored with Wally. Dick was usually the talkative one, joking and ranting and generally never shutting up if it was not required for an undercover mission. With Kaldur, Dick found out the comfort which silence could offer when it was not forced, strained, when he let it wash over him like waves of the sea, rustling with Kaldur’s turning pages or the sound of Dick’s fingers on his laptop. It made Dick feel at peace, like he could think about anything when Kaldur was there, a quiet companion to Dick’s musings. But when the silence shifted and Dick needed to talk, Kaldur would turn his bright grey eyes to Dick; there was a certain unobtrusive intensity about Kaldur when he listened, like all his attention was focused solely on Dick and his words, and Dick would quickly get used to it. Sometimes he would rant about school or missions or life in general, sometimes he would put his words in a way meant to draw out tiny bits of information about Kaldur too, but Kaldur always listened, answered and looked at him as if nothing else mattered in the world at that moment but what Dick was saying. That kind of focus always churned in Dick’s stomach in an unknown, unnerving way, but he became addicted to it nonetheless. Soon, he would think several times a day ‘I have to tell Kaldur’ or ‘Kaldur will be amused when he hears this,’ imagining the Atlantean’s expression.
So it was only natural that when Artemis dragged M’gann off one evening for a ‘girls’ night out’ and Wally, bored and frustrated, came to Dick for help, Dick’s automatic response was to nod and put away his laptop and say:
“Okay, I’ll go ask Kaldur if he’s got plans.”
“Dude,” Wally said, in that extremely obvious way of his that usually translated to ‘what the hell?’
Dick just raised an eyebrow at the speedster over his sunglasses, somehow irritated by Wally’s reaction, because it reminded him that what felt natural now would have been if not unthinkable, then definitely strange in the not so far-away past.
“I thought it could be just, y’know, the two of us. Like the old times,” Wally shrugged, messing up his hair as he scratched the back of his head, and Dick realized with a start that he had not thought of ‘old times’ in quite a few days, if not weeks. He had come to accept that Wally was not there for him at all times anymore, that he had a life to build with someone else… because now, Kaldur was there, whenever Dick needed company. It didn’t really feel like Kaldur had replaced Wally – Dick still considered Wally his best friend, loved him like a brother and trusted him with his life. It was just that Dick wasn’t sure whether Wally was his ONLY best friend from now on.
“Well, if you want to repay your girlfriend for ditching you, then it’s a boys’ night out, and Conner’s obviously NOT busy either, so it makes sense that we got to ask Kaldur, right?” Dick reasoned, masking his slip-up and not really knowing why it was so important to him that Wally would not know how close Dick got to Kaldur. It could be seen on Wally’s face that he hadn’t been completely convinced, but he did not voice his protests, just waved his hand:
“He won’t come anyway. He’s only ever into boring stuff.”
“He’s not,” Dick felt offended on Kaldur’s behalf – in the past weeks, Dick had come to appreciate Kaldur’s quiet, calm existence, and his smiles and chuckles counted all the more because he did not waste them on everything that came his way.
As if on cue, Kaldur walked in, holding a DVD and Dick remembered they had made plans to watch a movie which had looked so horrible that it begged for silly commentaries. Dick was almost tempted to tell Wally to go sulk with Conner about their girls, but… he had not gone out to party with Wally for quite some time, and he could benefit from some change of air.
And from seeing Wally and Conner have a drinking contest again. They definitely needed supervision for that, if the last time they’d done that was any clue.
“Hey,” Dick grinned at the Atlantean, who smiled back:
“Hey. Got that DVD-“
“Yeah, yeah – Wally wants to go out, though. Do you wanna come?”
Kaldur’s face was unreadable – or it would have been, several months ago. Right now, Dick could see confusion, maybe a bit of displeasure around the corners of Kaldur’s eyes – he looked like that when something on a mission went wrong, not horribly wrong, just… not like they had planned.
“No, thank you. You go have fun,” Kaldur said in the end, his expression shifting to neutral again, but Dick would not have it, especially when he heard Wally snort something that sounded suspiciously like ‘told ya.’ As Kaldur sat down next to Dick, the younger man plucked the DVD out of the Atlantean’s hands:
“You’re coming with us.”
Kaldur blinked, then frowned – not anger, Dick knew by now. Thinking, a bit of questioning, maybe just a splash of worry.
“Yes, you can. C’mon, it’ll be fun,” Dick kept his grin. Kaldur sighed, then shook his head.
“I’m not carrying anyone home,” he warned and stood up, glancing at Wally: Dick found it endearing that the leader of the team would seek approval for coming along when off-mission, but there was no time to waste: Dick jumped up too and slapped Kaldur’s shoulder playfully:
“Now go get dressed and stop whining. You’ll have fun, I promise.”
Kaldur sighed as he walked off, and Wally’s jaw was somewhere on the ground for sure. Dick couldn’t help but giggle when he looked at the speedster – who gaped right at him.
“Did you put him under some mind-control? I’ve been trying to convince him to come along for YEARS, dude,” Wally whispered in that loud and not at all secretive manner, and Dick giggled again, amused already:
“Nah. It’s just that nobody can resist my charm.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Wally snorted and Dick raised an eyebrow: what was that supposed to mean?
He wasn’t in the mood to go through the lengthy process of pulling emotional info out of Wally, which usually went about as well as pulling a spiked arrow out of one’s stomach: so he decided on the next best approach, laughed it off and went to change.
It required a quick shower and a shave (hell, sometimes he missed being thirteen and prepubescent). When Dick reappeared in front of the zeta tubes fifteen minutes later, dressed in jeans, a shirt and a hoodie, Kaldur was already there – in a black turtleneck that covered his gills and left his tattooed arms bare – looking like a fish out of water (Dick wasn’t even sure he was sorry about the pun). He did look nice, though, a little bit like in stealth mode, and Dick snickered at the thought that Kaldur took even the night out as a mission that needed to be completed without as little damage as possible: not that it was not a fitting description for an evening where Wally, Conner and drinks were involved.
Wally dragged them all to some club he knew: it was nothing too horrible, the air stale just enough to get half-drunk (and half a lung cancer) simply from the fumes, the music just on the verge of ‘I’d never buy that, but I’ll bear with it for an evening,’ the number of people just a tad on the ‘crowd’ side. Dick had been in worse environments, even if mostly, in such situations, he could think of the benefit of saving mankind if he endured. In places like these, Dick couldn’t help but wonder if he couldn’t just go about saving the mankind selectively: some of these people seemed beyond redemption.
He ordered a drink and watched Wally and Conner mix into the crowd almost immediately: they were greeted like old friends by the crowd, mostly of the female sort. Apparently being a tall muscular guy paid off when it came to chasing women. Dick was not the same thin, short kid he had once been, even if all of his friends were still taller than him… but he was not in the mood for chasing skirts at the moment. He glanced at Kaldur, who had slid into the seat next to him and was staring at the bottles behind the bar as if they were going to burst into flames.
Dick felt a twinge of sympathy for the Atlantean’s suffering and leaned closer: he could smell that Kaldur had taken a shower too, the light, fresh scent of soap still discernable and somehow familiar, homely among the heavy, perfumed body odors and cigarette smoke.
“Let’s make the best out of this,” he grinned and Kaldur glanced at him, his pale grey eyes changing with the colorful lights of the club. He nodded, silent, and let himself be dragged to the dance floor.
Kaldur was not an excellent dancer, but like with everything else, he wasn’t really an embarrassment either. He moved much like in a fight, in a fluid and measured manner, and Dick wasn’t the only one who noticed the appeal of that. Soon, Kaldur had two girls snaking arms around him, pressing their breasts against Kaldur’s body and giving him those sorts of smiles that could only ever be interpreted in one way.
Dick found himself gritting his teeth forcefully, his nails digging into his palms as he clenched his fists. In that one moment, he could see it all clearly, the way he felt comfortable near Kaldur, the way Kaldur listened to him, the way they could communicate without words or even M’gann’s mental link when on a mission, each knowing exactly what the other was going to do; the way Dick’s heart had stopped for a second when he’d seen that villain attack Kaldur and the Atlantean had dodged just barely.
In that one second, with two girls grinding against Kaldur despite his weak protests, Dick could see what he had not seen before.
He did not want Kaldur to go home with those girls. He did not want Kaldur to go home with anyone, ever, because he felt with him what he’d never felt with Wally: with the speedster, Dick had always accepted that Wally was going out with Artemis. He could not imagine the same with Kaldur, could not imagine himself accepting Kaldur’s future girlfriend, and Dick wasn’t stupid enough to be capable of lying to himself any longer.
He knew what it meant. It was frightening and heart-clenching and Dick felt a little sea-sick because his nerves were a tangled mess, but he knew what it meant, with clarity that did not allow any excuses.
He spent the rest of the evening trying to get to terms with his feelings: whenever a girl came too close to Kaldur, it would hit him anew and regaining stability in such environment proved immensely difficult.
Not as difficult as stability was for Wally and Conner later on: Dick was sure they would be fine in just a few hours, their metabolisms worked like that, but Dick did not care to stay any longer in the club when he saw a girl slide her hands into the back pockets of Kaldur’s jeans, smiling up at him. Dick swallowed the thick, dry ball that formed in his throat at the sight, and approached the Atlantean:
“We need to go,” he yelled into his ear over the loud beats of music when Kaldur leaned down enough for Dick to reach. Kaldur followed Dick’s glance to the bar where Wally was unfairly winning a drinking contest by employing just a bit of superspeed in throwing back the vodka shots. It was getting just a little out of hand; Dick wouldn’t usually mind too much, but right now, it was a warmly welcomed excuse to get the hell out.
Kaldur nodded, immediately focused on Dick in that manner that made Dick’s heart skip, and helped drag Conner and Wally out of the club, ignoring the girl that insisted on going with them. Dick knew it was probably a bit sadistic, but he giggled anyway when Kaldur firmly, though politely told the girl that he was not interested.
Thankfully, the nearest zeta tube wasn’t far from the club; Conner and Wally had to be pushed through, because Conner was getting just a tad aggressive about being ‘capable of handlin’ m’self dammit,’ and Wally talked about running the alcohol off, which seemed a VERY bad idea, considering he could not even walk straight at human speed.
Kaldur wanted to step in after them: Dick’s hand on his wrist stopped him and he looked back.
Dick felt a little bad about the fact that he was glad they got rid of the other two: it was funny to suddenly feel that someone else was the third (and fifth) wheel, not him. But all he truly wanted was for Kaldur to stay here with him: it did not matter that the street was cold and stinky, that he had school tomorrow and should get some sleep. All that counted was that he was here with Kaldur, with his bright grey eyes and with his hand in Dick’s, awkward and cool.
Dick moved closer: he could see the uneasiness that tensed Kaldur’s shoulders. He hoped it was a good sign as he stepped into Kaldur’s personal space, shivering and trying to be bold when he was too afraid to speak.
“Robin,” Kaldur breathed out, a warning or a plea, and Dick was used to that name, very much used to it, but it seemed out of place in that dark alley, with Kaldur so close and with Dick so nervous.
He wanted to know everything about Kaldur, yes – he’d wanted that even before he realized what exactly it meant. But the feeling of wanting Kaldur to know everything about him too was new, staggering, and shyly welcomed as Dick raised his hand and slowly removed his sunglasses.
“Richard,” he whispered, correcting the Atlantean in a shaky voice, and Kaldur understood: he always understood without words, or among a flood of them, what it all meant, just like now: Dick could see him tense and his fingers shook as well when he tentatively touched Dick’s hand with the glasses.
It was more than Dick could put into proper words. The overused three-word cliché that could be printed with just two vowels and a heart picture could not possibly encompass all that filled Dick’s whole being to the brim, that overflowed and warmed and soothed and altered everything Dick ever was, ever would be, and Dick never thought he would so gladly accept anyone trying to change him: but Kaldur wasn’t trying, Kaldur was making Dick a different person with his every glance while keeping the best of him intact and polishing it to shine as never before. Dick could only embrace it as the best thing that ever came his way, because he never felt this complete, like a better, upgraded version of himself that had lacked some necessary component before but was working like it should now, like it never could before.
Kaldur didn’t know how to kiss, or maybe Dick could say that he was not perfect in it: he made up for the lack of technique with gentleness, with patience, with letting Dick take the initiative while his large, dark hands roamed over Dick’s back, just the right amount of pressure, just the way Dick liked it without even knowing so far that he liked it this way.
Kaldur was not loud; instead of groaning, he merely breathed out, but when Dick pulled down his turtleneck and licked the lines of his gills, he could feel them flutter against his tongue and Kaldur trembled all over, and it sent a jolt straight to Dick’s cock. It had been a long time since Dick had felt so thrilled, so restless and incapable of even a second of patience, but it was all perfect, wholesome, like an ending of a great book that fit all the previous pages without being anticipated, only Dick knew that this was a beginning, not an end.
If this was how Wally felt about Artemis, then he had Dick’s blessing - his true, genuine blessing, not the forced understanding he’d had so far. Dick had never understood, but now he did, now he knew how it felt to find without really searching, to find something, someone, who gave sense to all the chaos in the world. Something heavy lifted off Dick’s chest at that realization and he chuckled: Kaldur looked at him with a question in his eyes, and Dick felt like he would gladly spend the rest of his life looking back with answers.
“I want to be ‘and’ with you,” Dick whispered inbetween the kisses, and Kaldur breathed out a laugh and understood and pulled Dick to the zeta tubes, and Dick felt like he couldn’t just touch the stars, but build whole new worlds on them.