The movie playing on the big screen in the communal area of Mt. Justice was black and white. It was obviously produced when men had pompadours and women wore poodle skirts year round as a fashion statement of choice and not simply because it was Halloween. Such a film was the sort of classic that everyone who grew up watching television had seen at least once. That is to say, even M’gann had watched it, but when learning of its significance she insisted on them sharing a viewing.
Those who’d seen it tried to reason that its importance was based on cheap digs for ratings and pathetic attempts to fill programming slots often. Such grounds were ignored when it was discovered that Superboy and Kaldur hadn’t heard of it. M’gann had popcorn nuking in the microwave before any of them could protest. Robin, Artemis and Wally huffed but settled in on the large sofa alongside the rest with no further complaints.
Though he wasn’t so much excited at the idea of down time as he was with hanging out with his friends, Wally raced for the couch to access prime real estate. He planted a hand on the back and leapt over the headrest to land in the center of the sectional couch, smack-dab between his boyfriend Kaldur and Superboy. Superboy grunted at his antics, but Kaldur was unfazed by his behavior.
“I forget I have to call dibs around here,” Artemis groused, sitting at the far end to leave room for M’gann while Robin deigned to pick a spot on the floor, resting against Wally’s legs.
“As if you’d finish saying that before I did. You can’t even get to the seat first,” Wally said.
“I wouldn’t have to if you’d share!”
M’gann arrived with enough food for all, levitating bowls of popcorn and bags filled with chips into the room. Superboy promptly ordered everyone (namely Artemis and Wally) to be quiet because M’gann said a good part was coming up. He and Artemis made snide faces during the entire scene, with Wally stopping only when Robin nudged him with the boniest part of his elbow. He sulked and cuddled into Kaldur, who wrapped an arm across his back and rested a hand on his shoulder. Wally forgot the whole exchange.
“I don’t understand the significance of this ‘going steady,’” Superboy admitted halfway through the movie.
Robin leaned his head backwards as he answered semi-upside down, “It’s an ancient tradition that couples adhered to.”
“It’s not that ancient,” Artemis said. “People sometimes still call dating that.”
“Yeah, if they’re old and square.”
“So it’s the precursor to engagement?” Superboy asked.
“Close enough,” Wally replied. “Though in practice there’s a lot of differences – it's much more conservative, for one.”
“Yeah, I’m glad musical numbers aren’t expected now,” he agreed.
Kaldur chuckled, the whole sound flowing from his chest and through Wally’s side. “I believe that aspect is merely limited to entertainment. But yes, even my people’s way of courtship has evolved from what it once was.”
“It has?” Wally asked, ahead of Superboy. The other team members seemed to perk up, too.
Kaldur did not often speak of his home in Atlantis. Some reasoned that the subject might be sensitive, forbidden, or made him homesick. He opened up about it less and less these days, so when he did no one interrupted. The movie went ignored.
“Yes. The process is steeped in decorum and convention. It is often conducted gradually, but only if the parties involved practice it the habitual way. Influences from outside cultures, while limited, have played a part in looser and faster expectations on relationships.”
Wally licked his lips, coming to a decision in the split of a second, and asked, “So, like, you gotta ask for consent or some other harsh stuff, like, in medieval days or something?”
“Going steady isn’t that old!” Artemis reiterated, at the same time as Kaldur – no inflection in his tone – said, “Yes, or something, Wally.”
“It is fascinating how civilizations, and even species, still develop similar concepts in social practices,” M’gann noted, rewinding the movie because they’d missed a substantial amount of detail at this point. “On Mars there are many names for how we interact with members outside our families, most instances like dating or going steady, and there are expectations affiliated with each. Some no longer apply, also.”
The viewing of the movie resumed, though Wally didn’t even pretend to be paying attention. His mind was still on the conversation and a mounting concern borne from it.
Wally was dressed in full uniform and pacing outside the Zeta Beam stationed at the cave. He adorned it regardless of a mission, feeling more comfortable as Kid Flash than naked in his own skin, but today demanded it more than ever. He wanted to appear professional, capable and more heroic while addressing Aquaman.
The king was relatively laid-back and approachable, as much as Wally could deduce, but still royalty. In the past, they’d held one minute conversations when crossing paths, and Wally considered him likable. He admired and respected him. Despite all that, he was nervous because he intended to discuss an intimate topic: permission to date Kaldur. He’d never spoken to Aquaman personally on the subject, though he was sure Kaldur had confided in him. It must have gone well, since they were still seeing each other.
That only marginally calmed his anxiety. Wally was smart, he realized this, but…occasionally he exhibited trouble with expressing his feelings in words. He could recite scientific algorithms under duress with perfect accuracy, but he couldn’t even say ‘I love you’ without choking.
It wasn’t that he doubted it; he loved freely. He loved his family – Mom, Dad, the Barrys and the Garricks, his teammates – whom he’d die for, and Kaldur, whom he felt both a familial bond and deep friendship for. There was something else there, however, something more that he couldn’t yet identify. He wanted to find out what it was with no one else, save Kaldur. This was true love, a soul-wrenching and one-of-a-kind emotion reserved for him that couldn’t be anything else.
The problem was saying all that in three little words without sounding like a loser in front of those whom Kaldur admired or were crucial to his existence. Wally figured it was possible, just as he had when he recreated the experiment that granted the Flash his powers. He just needed to conduct the right experiments to achieve the best results…
And he was running out of time, as indicated by Aquaman appearing from around the corner. He’d stopped in to receive a report from Kaldur on their most recent developments as a team. Wally had hoped to catch him on his way out, and now was his chance. Straightening in posture, he waited by the Zeta Beam until Aquaman acknowledged him.
“Greetings, Kid Flash. How are you?”
“Good, good. And you?”
Stupid! Wally thought vehemently, his plan already unraveling before his eyes.
“I have my health, as does my family and subjects. It is a fine moment in the history of the Atlantians.”
“That’s great. Really great. Really!” he stumbled, swallowing. “So, uh, can I borrow a moment of your time? It’s about Kaldur.”
Aquaman nodded. “I can always spare my counsel for those in need, and you as well, Kid Flash. You know that. What is it? Kaldur’ahm looked to be in high spirits. Does he hide to his king?”
“No!” Wally squawked, mortified. The last thing he wanted to accomplish was to get his boyfriend in trouble. “He would never lie to you, for any reason! Unless you ordered him to, but that would be a paradox.”
Aquaman said nothing, so Wally did what he did best and kept talking.
“The thing is, I mean the real thing is…” he stumbled again.
He’d rehearsed this speech a hundred times at home in the mirror, while in the shower, and in his head at all other times of the day and night, but he still struggled. Wally could understand why this practice had gone the way of the greasers, it was so unbelievably…
What? Scary? He’d faced villains from Gotham and survived them, so confronting an ally couldn’t be nearly so bad. There were worse actions to partake in, like cleaning up after an alien attack or eating his dad’s cooking.
The initial reason for this was to repay Kaldur for his kindness. In some ways he was old fashioned: requesting permission to kiss him, paying for dinner when he picked the place, and taking things slowly. He would respect Wally’s boundaries and tried hard to adhere to his customs, so this was his chance to return the favor.
He could do this. He was the man.
Steeling his jaw, he kneeled. “Aquaman, I formally request your acquiescence to court your loyal pupil, Kaldur’ahm. I promise to watch his back in battle and make him happy no matter what.”
“Oh, and have him returned to his residence promptly at nine PM on all weeknights.”
There was still nothing from Aquaman, but Wally refused to bend and remained staring at the ground. This was why he was surprised when Aquaman finally did.
“Rise, Kid Flash. No one so honorable need bow to me,” he said and reached out a warm hand to firmly bring him to his feet. “I am only king of the sea; my rule does not encompass that of the heart. I do not know why you have come to me this day, but as you have seen fit to honor me with this request and for your bravery, I will grant you my blessing. I trust that you will take good care of Kaldur’ahm.
“But know that while my people may be a community, they are warriors in their own right and thus able to function as independent defenders of life. It is Kaldur’ahm that you must prove your devotion to and whose favor you must earn to keep. I will tell you what I have told him: tread carefully, for both your sakes. I can see more than ever how deeply your loyalty rests in him, as does his, but love is as wonderful as it is treacherous. Time spent with my strong and beautiful wife has taught me this, and so I share my experience unto you.”
Wally listened attentively, but as soon as Kaldur was mentioned all comprehension was lost. “So Kaldur said…showed… He likes me, too? For sure? Sweet!”
He remembered the second thing he was going to ask Aquaman and reached for the waterproof dry erase board from his satchel. It was already written on.
“I’m sorry to burden you again, but can you forward this message to Kaldur’s mom? I tried writing in your language, but I think the archive the League has is incomplete. The tenses were all weird and I couldn’t figure out which were vowels, so uh…you might want to translate the English version I inscribed at the bottom.”
Aquaman stared at him again, the expression resembling the one his parents sometimes gave him when he missed the point of an important matter. At last he accepted Wally’s message with all the grace and responsibility afforded to his position and agreed to deliver it on his behalf.
Asking Kaldur’s dad was not going to be as simple, Wally reasoned, understating the situation substantially. Being related to the ocean’s, and even certain parts of the dry world’s, most wanted criminal made gatherings of any sort complicated affairs.
He was in the middle of contracting Robin and concocting a trans-time dimensional device to make meeting Black Manta possible when the team received the call informing them he was spotted stealing from a harbor in Florida. Finding him twenty years in the future when he’s possibly serving time in jail would have been easier, but Wally figured he owed the opportunity a chance.
The pier was crawling with Black Manta’s scuba goons when they arrived via M’gann’s bioship, but there was no sign of their boss. The crooks were in the middle of their heist, terrorizing civilians and loading scientific gear off boats intended to research improved methods of preserving the sea. Whatever Black Manta intended on using it all for was at the very least the opposite of that, so the team leapt to defend the locals and retrieve the pilfered equipment.
Kaldur led the charge, these instances with his father always affecting him. Not in a negative way, Wally observed, at least as far as his performance was concerned. It was as if Kaldur was channeling an icy calm that directed each strike and movement as skillfully as a soldier honed thrice his age. Outwardly, he was a force to be reckoned with, but Wally wondered if some of it was for show. It was as if he had to prove he was superior to Black Manta in all the ways that counted.
Speaking of his estranged father, as luck would have it, Wally found him first. Superboy had wrenched a dock out of the water with enemies remaining on it and chucked it wildly. The men and women went flying as the wooden structure headed in Wally’s direction. He was able to dodge it but ended up tripping on a trident dropped by one of their foes, skidding on several feet of water and going through a warehouse wall. He shook his head free of wood and liquid, sputtering as salt water gushed out of his mouth and nose. Not the most dignified appearance to meet a significant other’s birth father.
“Hey, Black Manta, there you are!” he cried out, earning him a shot from the man’s harpoon gun. Wally yelped and skidded to the side in a blur to avoid the attack.
“Stop that! I just want to talk to you, then we can scuffle mano y mano.”
“I’m busy, brat,” Black Manta said, turning fully away from the forklift he’d operated to concentrate his fire.
“You are be-” Wally zoomed to the right, a harpoon striking where he’d been standing five seconds prior, “-ing totally unreasonable,” he zoomed to the left, “and selfish! I am-” He ducked behind a wall of wet and rotting wood, the thunk, thunk, thunk of metal piercing the flimsy barrier close to his ears, “here because of Kaldur! You know, your son?”
“What of him?” Black Manta asked. He sounded almost amused, as if he had never expected the subject to be broached.
Heartless jerk, Wally thought bitterly on Kaldur’s behalf. No one so considerate should have to share relations with a criminal like Black Manta.
“So, like, it’s proper to inform one another’s parental figure of their intentions and junk. Can I date Kaldur or not?”
The wall he was leaning against collapsed as Black Manta kicked it down. He rolled to avoid the blunt of the assault, but Wally ran out of room and ended up on his back with the enemy’s foot planted on his chest.
“Who but a young, lovesick fool would confess to an affliction for their comrade in the middle of a fight? Do you desire for this to be exploited so readily?”
Wally’s eyes narrowed, for in that moment he felt a welling inside of him to rival all the rest.
“You know what? On second thought, I don’t need your approval. I love Kaldur and there’s not a thing you or anyone like you can do about it. I don’t care who knows how I feel – I’ll take them all on if they have a problem!”
He grabbed Black Manta’s ankle and twisted just as the subject of their discussion called out Wally’s name. Kaldur ran in with the rest of the team. Black Manta was as fluid as the element he thrived in, moving with Wally’s attack and deflecting it. He dove into the water, and though the enemy’s helmet hid his face, Wally would swear Black Manta was watching him as he disappeared below.
“You okay, dude?” Robin asked, helping him to his feet while the other members tried to pursue Black Manta.
“Going steady sucks, Rob,” he confessed. The only sympathy he was given was his friend checking him for a concussion.
The downside to dating the head of the same superhero team, Wally found, was that the lectures were twice as brutal.
Case and point: “You broke from formation to engage the enemy leader on your own without notifying anyone-”
“Um, hello! Not my intention. You think I enjoy getting my butt kicked by the baddies?”
“And you confronted Black Manta with no back-up. That was beyond unwise.”
“He attacked me first, for the record. I never had any intention of taking him on right away.”
Kaldur crossed his arms as he looked down at him. He had to gaze farther than usual, since Wally was parked on top of the sand of the beach outside their secret base. Wally stared out at the waves, head perched on top of his folded knees and the lower half obscured by his arms.
“And furthermore, you confessed you loved me to the head of enemy forces before you did to me.”
“What was I supposed to do? It wasn’t like he was going to play checkers with me while we waited for…er, you heard that?” Wally asked, chagrined.
There was no one else on the secluded beach. The rest of the team was either at home or nursing their wounds. He was glad no one else was present to be a part of this conversation.
Kaldur sighed, shoulders slumping as he dropped any and all pretenses of being their leader and reverted to being just his boyfriend: the affectionate, honest and sexy guy Wally continued to feel fortunate to know. Granted, he was like that always, but Kaldur was a bit more open in moments where it was just them; his personality seemed enhanced.
“I was the first to arrive to the scene and overheard the last of your exchange, that is all.”
“Yeah, well,” Wally mumbled, and almost ended it there. “I meant it. I’m not taking it back. Just don’t expect me to be announcing it everywhere. It’s…you’re special and…”
Kaldur sat down next to him and sought his hand, which had buried under the sand in the time their argument had cooled.
“I would never ask you to, nor do I doubt your sincerity,” Kaldur promised. “I must confess to some curiosity, though. What initiated all this?”
“I was asking people for permission to date you. Aquaman and your mom said it was cool, but I think your dad is against it. We should totally elope someday to spite him.”
“What…prompted this particular course of action, exactly?”
“Oh, that movie night a couple weeks ago, when you talked about courting.”
Kaldur started to speak, aborting three or four times and resembling a drowning fish, before settling on shaking his head. “I think I see.”
“I did good, right? Anything else I should do to make us official?”
“No, you have done enough. Perhaps it is my turn to be serious, as you put it.”
“What, like, do the same to my family?” Wally laughed, kind of giddy at the thought of Kaldur meeting his guardians. “All right, sure! But I should warn you, it’s not Flash or my parents you really need to be wary of. Sometimes the Rogues are a little overprotective.”
Kaldur looked as if he was waiting for something more, but that was all Wally could think to caution him about. When he figured out nothing more was forthcoming, Kaldur cleared his throat and said, “Duly noted,” and asked to kiss him.
So maybe the 1950s had gotten it right, Wally mused as he told him yes and kissed Kaldur back.