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Seclusions of an atoll

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Kaldur scuffed his closed-toe shoe through the frozen dirt as they waited for their ride. Batman had been letting Robin practice flying the Batplane as of late, and while its stealth mode may not have been on par with Martian invisibility (something Kaldur felt had a lot to do with Batman’s willingness to let Robin fly it for this not-entirely-official League business – it was not un-Batman-like to use less than forthcoming methods to perform test runs for his tech), the League had managed enough limited government approval for use of the Pokolistan airspace that a little sighting would be fine.

“I am sorry we found nothing,” Kaldur finally said into what had been a long silence, his breath visible in the cold air. This mission had been difficult, for many reasons that had little to do with the mission itself. Their usual ability to easily play off one another’s cues had been replaced with something strained and sad. This was not how Kaldur had wanted it to go.

“Me too,” Roy said, avidly avoiding eye contact. He was looking up at the gray sky of eastern Europe’s early winter. Though perhaps he was not avoiding eye contact – they were waiting for stealth aircraft, after all.

Kaldur briefly worried that Roy was not taking this as well has he had been claiming he would, and this was only the start of familiar, viciously stubborn and self-imposed exile. Would Roy stop contacting everyone and disappear into his work and –

But then Roy scoffed. “Man, and after Superman himself went to talk to the Pokolistanian government? Our last grand adventure was kind of a letdown, y’know.”

Ah, that was his sense of humor showing in the face of defeat, of another false lead. Roy was okay. Kaldur let out a small, disbelieving laugh. “I would not call navigating an abandoned, booby-trapped, Cold War era Cadmus laboratory necessarily a ‘letdown’.”

Roy laughed as well. “Hm, well, perspective matters I guess. Compared to some of our other attempts it was definitely less…lively. More booby-traps, less all-out firefights.”

Kaldur looked at Roy, amused and very vividly reminded of the Ukraine lead that had led them straight into an ambush of sorts, and shrugged. “I suppose that is true.”

Though somewhat appeased, Kaldur continued to closely watch his friend – Kaldur was not as worried about the fact that they would soon be separated by miles and miles of land and sea as he would have been months earlier. But still… “You are in rather good spirits.”

Roy let out another peal of laugh, true and loud and surprised. “Geez man, are you trying to make me broody and upset? I’m trying to stay on the bright side of things, I’ll be fine.” He grinned, like he knew he was about to miss the point Kaldur was getting at, knew this full well and yet kept going anyway because he was missing it on purpose. “You leaving won’t slow me down too much – I’m the one who gets all the contacts that get leads on where Speedy might be, so I’ll keep busy while you’re gone.”

Kaldur rolled his eyes at Roy’s too-pleased-with-himself grin, but… But the thing was that was the problem, that was the thing Kaldur was afraid of. Kaldur had been living with Roy because his ‘keeping busy’ with finding Speedy could sometimes cross over into destructively obsessive – and initially had.

“I know you will ‘keep busy’.” Kaldur began very carefully. How could he advise Roy something along the lines of ‘please do not overdo it’ without stepping on some of Roy’s more sensitive issues? “Try not to… Just – remember the League has that special channel for Atlantis to League-affiliated bases communication. If you ever get overwhelmed, I am just a call away.”

That channel had been created for a very specific variety of emergencies that had cropped up over the past year: the increasing risk of a state of emergency in Atlantis as Prince Orm’s betrayal and the extents of his treachery were uncovered, King Orin’s adamancy that his family be in easy reach in as many ways possible, and now the increasing co-dependency of Kaldur and Roy’s friendship.

Though discussing the special clearance they had managed to obtain in order to have access to that channel brought up a whole other set of issues the two of them probably needed to talk in detail about, Kaldur left it mostly alone at the moment. It was their last day and he did not want to push the issue too much, especially since they still had an evening planned once they returned – the team had been insistent on a going away party. If he said the wrong thing, if he pushed too hard at things still raw and undefined, he would indeed ruin Roy’s high spirits and the night would become more of a minefield to navigate than a time to be enjoyed.

Roy heard the careful handling of Kaldur’s tone despite all his effort, but there was a lot to be said for the months behind him of mood swings and sudden abrasiveness and struggling through many guilt issues that he only sighed and threw an arm over Kaldur’s shoulders amicably. “Yeah yeah okay, I’ll call and check in so you don’t have to worry – I’ll be fine.” There a slight pause before Roy then admitted, “The apartment’s going to be weird and empty while you’re living in Atlantis, though.”

Kaldur nodded in empathetic agreement: by this point, if the situation had been reversed, he would barely be able imagine living in the apartment without Roy. It was easy to understand how foreign the concept would be, living alone after their long-term co-habituation.

Roy sighed again, leaning a little heavily against Kaldur. “I can’t promise it’ll stay clean, because I’m going to have to keep busy and distracted and work is just going to…find its way home with me. But I’ll keep in good contact with the team – do missions with them more often than usual so everyone knows I’m not dead in a ditch somewhere – and I won’t freak out and go missing for days on end without giving someone a heads up first. Agreed?”

And while not perfect – Roy was using rather subjective terms here, after all – those were agreeable terms Kaldur could get behind. The early days of Roy (not) handling the news of his origins were things Kaldur would never like to revisit – and Roy probably felt the same, his agreeable cooperation in attempting to avoid falling back into old habits said as much.

“Okay,” Kaldur said. “Just take care of yourself. I am sorry I – ”

It was Roy’s turn to become disapproving, and he pulled Kaldur even closer so he could press their heads together, temples now touching as they exchanged words. “Hey, don’t be sorry. It’s an important job, and you have to do it.”

Kaldur let his arm curl around Roy’s waist and left it hanging loosely there. Roy’s warmth was welcoming in the somewhat abysmal winter cold. “Though as Wally continues to point out…it is not necessarily military work and more of a babysitting job.”

Wally was joking, but it made Kaldur uncomfortable at how close to home this description hit. His King and Queen had both asked for his assistance, and there were indeed serious security issues at risk that he needed to lend a hand to. But the details did not change the nature of the job: watching after the royal heir due to his being all of nearly eight months old and incredibly vulnerable.

Roy only scoffed in response, because he knew all this. They had talked about this, about Kaldur’s insecurities and anxieties about Atlantis’s looming instability and the possibility of an attempted assassination of an infant, along with what it meant for Kaldur helping Roy look for Speedy. After all, Kaldur was helping Roy slowly comb through the dead ends and look for fresh leads, was helping Roy keep his personal stakes and issues with it all managed best he could, and this mission and its distance meant that would have to come to an end temporarily. There was something like guilt resting heavy on Kaldur’s shoulders because of this.

Robin had offered to help Roy go through the research and pull out information while Kaldur was away, which Kaldur knew Roy was seriously considering. This was reassuring. Interestingly enough however, even with the loss of a live-in companion and the threat of loneliness being the most especially daunting thing for the both of them, Kaldur less sure whether or not Roy was going to take Green Arrow up on his continued offers to move back in. Roy’s interactions with Green Arrow and Black Canary often bordered on strained and distant but caring, and the relationship was slowly becoming less…fiercely tedious. And though Kaldur wanted to point out to Roy that, should he need to, nothing bad would come from staying with them, there were some things that were not his place to interfere with. And Kaldur would respect that.

Kaldur would not worry about Roy any more than Roy wanted him to believe was necessary – otherwise it would be as if he did not believe in Roy’s progress. And he did.

“I do not think anyone believes my new mission is unimportant, or doubts that I must do it,” Kaldur said firmly, locking eyes with Roy to show him the depth of his conviction. “And I want to do it. I only…worry. I can only focus on one or the other, Surface or Ocean, because I cannot be at both at once.” It bothered him, the loose ends he left wholly unattended when he chose one for the other, but it was an inevitability he was better at dealing with by looking away from it.

“Look,” Roy said, softly and seriously. “No one’s mad that you have to go. And we can all take care of ourselves and each other just fine. You just look after yourself too, okay?”

There were – things, many things, Kaldur could say to that. But Roy was so earnest and quietly worrying in his own way, and their comms sprang to life with Robin’s lilting and cheerful voice (“I will be at your current position in less than thirty seconds – god I love this thing’s specs – ”), so Kaldur did not go there. And as Roy’s warmth kept his body humming just above too uncomfortably cold, and the nearly-silent engine of the Batplane whirred in the near distance as it closed in on them from above, Kaldur only nodded silently.

 

+++

 

Kaldur’s homecoming garnered more attention than he anticipated it would – mostly because Tula and Garth met him at the zeta tube with the prince in tow, and thus a small fleet of soldiers from the Royal Guard had come along with them as escorts.

“Welcome to the job, and the end of your notion of the necessity of privacy,” Tula joked, and Kaldur shook his head as he tried not to smile.

Garth too was attempting to maintain professionalism. “Tula,” he said, going for firm, but the prince at that moment reached up and tugged at Garth’s bangs while making a gurgling noise. Garth’s attention was immediately riveted, and he smiled down at the baby balanced on his hip, readjusting his arm more securely. “You are fine, little prince. Look,” he said and he pointed towards Kaldur. “A new friend!”

Kaldur’s eyebrows rose significantly and he looked to Tula for help, for an explanation or something similar. Clearly much had happened in his absence: the three of them had never had much prolonged interaction with children younger than those able to attend academy, and though they were all good at mentoring, small children had often been mysterious and unwieldy entities to them. Now, with the way Garth cooed endearments to the prince and cradled him easily in his arms, it was as though he knew precisely what he was doing – and loved it.

Tula only shrugged in response. “He is…maternal, we have found out.”

Kaldur smiled. “Well. That is something I can certainly see.”

Garth spared them a fraction of his now divided attention, only to shoot them a light glare. “You say it as if it is a bad thing. You will be doting on him soon enough Kaldur, trust me.”

Tula scoffed, “I have been on this assignment with you for near a month and no one dotes quite as much as you, except for perhaps the king and queen.”

Garth only mirrored her reaction, scoffing right back, “Well certainly, I have to make up for you after all.”

Kaldur, for a small split second, was irrationally afraid that these barbs were real – Garth stared her down while Tula pursed her lips, the two in a standoff. But then that second passed, and Tula rolled her eyes with a laugh and swam up to Kaldur to pull him into a hug.

While embracing, Tula faux-whispered loudly enough so that even all the soldiers could hear, “He is just still annoyed that I completely dominated the prince’s playdate last time. The other nannies named me queen of the swimcircle – and he was hoping to covet the title for himself.”

Kaldur laughed at how incredibly smug she looked – and at how mutely furious Garth was trying not to look.

“She had candy that time, that is not even a fair fight,” Garth said in the most exasperated tone he could manage, even as he too was swimming over to hug the two of them together, though only with one arm as he continued to balance the prince carefully with the other. “I will win it back from you next week.”

“Be careful,” she warned Garth, now squished between the two of them. “I thought you said Kaldur would soon be doting as well? He may be hard to beat, if he lives up and beyond your expectations.”

“I am glad to be back,” Kaldur told them on the tail end of a laugh. “I have missed you both.”

 

+++

 

Queen Mera returned later that night from her time abroad with the king to welcome Kaldur back. She was alone, as King Orin was relentlessly continuing his search for his brother’s stronghold. Upon her arrival, after she cooed and kissed Prince Arthur her hellos, she pulled Kaldur into a tight hug.

“It is good to see you, Kaldur’ahm,” She said as they parted, and she looked him up and down to inspect his wellbeing.

“It has been too long.” He said in agreement, then added solemnly serious, “I promise to ensure your child’s safety. I will not fail you.”

Her expression became tender. “Oh Kaldur’ahm, I know you three will do well in protecting my son. Thank you.”

She then paused, looking at Kaldur much more intensely than before, and then looked at the prince. “Wait, do not tell me this is your first time seeing Arthur? Surely Orin has made sure you’ve seen our pride and joy before?”

She looked stern, as though if Kaldur answered wrongly she would have a few cross words. He was not intimidated, if only because he knew from experience that those cross words would be with his king and not him. “I saw him when he was first born. And the King talks about him often.”

The queen instantly returned to smiling. “Good. Has he not grown splendidly?”

Because she was due to leave the next morning to handle kingdom affairs in another city-state in the king’s stead, they were given the night off, the Royal Guard left intact to watch over the queen and prince. They left for the dwelling in which Tula and Garth were staying at for the mission, as it was near enough to the palace in case of emergency.

“Usually we sleep in the palace,” Garth explained as Tula set the table and Kaldur examined their décor. “The nursery includes a second room for a nanny or wetnurse or what have you, so we sleep there when we are on duty.”

Kaldur noted how, in that case, the place was not as bare as he would have expected it, with the occasional decorative object or casual tome laying around in the living room. The plates and utensils Tula had finished putting down matched and the cabinet she had retrieved them from had a few more items within it. “How often are you excused from your duties?”

Tula sat herself down atop the counter, crossing her ankles. “Usually whenever the king or queen come back and are able to spend time with the prince, they dismiss us.”

Kaldur nodded. “Understandable.”

Garth floated to the counter and sat down next to Tula. “They try to do so often, but…”

“But trying to cleanse the kingdom of traitors loyal to Ocean-Master is hard,” Tula said. “Especially when he has been cultivating his movement for years.”

Kaldur thought about joining them on the counter space, but was unsure if that was a boundary he should keep intact. “And when he has even managed to infiltrate the Royal Guard. Finding security detail that is trustworthy is difficult, I am sure.”

Garth made a noise of almost exasperated acknowledgement. “Well, if we are already going to talk about work while we are not on the job, I suppose we should get down to business then?” They had planned to review schedules and logistics over dinner, since Kaldur would be new on the job tomorrow. Now seemed as good as ever to get started.

“So the queen leaves tomorrow for Crastinus, to discuss import quota contracts.” Kaldur said. “The king is chasing rumors of Ocean-Master on the outskirts of Nanauve and does not have to return as long as no royal duties that cannot be handled by the Queen crop up. Where does this leave us?”

“Not much different than usual,” Tula said. “We often watch the baby together, though we may split up so that one of us can help the escort guards. Once a week the prince has a playdate with a few other nobility children of the same age. It is for social growth – and of course because it is never too early to start combing through potential suitors.”

Kaldur could understand the logic of that, though Garth immediately looked annoyed. “They are all babies, it is impractical to attempt matchmaking this soon.”

“Nothing is permanent, I am sure,” Kaldur pointed out, somewhat amused at how immediate and visceral a reaction that had caused from his friend. “It is probably more about the message it sends, about establishing who might be eligible for consideration later down the road.”

Garth only rolled his eyes, perhaps at Kaldur’s presumptions. Kaldur could only quirk an amused eyebrow, while Tula snorted.

“Such attitude,” she murmured, as though it were a secret that Garth could get emotional in such ways.

It, in Kaldur’s opinion, was not. “Such,” he agreed.

Garth pulled another face, “So moving on onto things that matter?” Kaldur and Tula shared a glance before they both made a show of rolling their eyes and huffing exaggeratingly.

Garth ignored this, and took it upon himself to continue. “The prince has daily swim lessons and we take him on outings to museums, academic libraries, and observatories to introduce him to Atlantean legacies, mythologies, history, what have you. Other than those things we are free to do whatever we wish with him.”

Tula reached up and pinched Garth’s cheek. “Oh no, what a sour expression. Did we hurt your feelings?”

No longer able to hold himself back, Kaldur pushed off the chair he was leaned against and swam to the counter as well. “We honestly meant no harm, Garth.” Kaldur sat on the end, next to Garth so he could bump their shoulders together.

Garth sighed, resigned to their teasing. “Are you even listening to me?”

Tula hummed a noncommittal answer and laid her head on his shoulder, reaching across his lap to lightly lay a hand on Kaldur’s leg. Something in Kaldur’s chest stirred, old yet new – healed over in a different way than before. “I have missed you both,” he whispered. Maybe he only meant to say it to himself.

“You are repeating yourself,” Tula said quietly.

Garth wrapped his closest arm around Kaldur’s waist and pulled Kaldur tighter against his side in a sort of hug. “Of course you have. And we you.”

And for a moment, though the whispers of civil unrest and assassination attempts loomed on the horizon, Kaldur was calm.

 

+++

 

It did not take long at all for Kaldur to fall into step with the job – nor to fall hopelessly head over heels in adoration with the prince. The last time he saw the boy, he was perhaps a month old and asleep. Now, Prince Arthur was going on eight months and had a bubbling little personality. He was able to swim already, strong and sure – though he tired quickly and his ability to tread in place was weak if not nonexistent. A game they played to keep strengthening his swimming skills was to let the prince swim from one of them to another as they traveled short distances, such as across the royal courtyard.

Garth was correct about how quickly Kaldur found himself doting, though it was interesting that Tula, for all her boasts of apathy towards children, was little better than them at not spoiling the prince.

“Is this really okay, I wonder?” Kaldur said one afternoon over the comm link to Roy as Garth put the prince down for a nap in the nursery. Tula was running through guard detail outside the palace along its perimeter, while he cleared the library’s table of the tomes covering basic ancient magic symbols. Though Kaldur was enjoying himself, something within him was clawing sharply, uncomfortable and setting his teeth on edge. “I know we are guarding him, but…”

“But you feel like you’re playing a lot of house?” Roy said jokingly.

Before Kaldur had time to reply, Garth swam in asking if the prince’s favorite toy had been left somewhere in the large library, and Kaldur had to say a quick goodbye and sign off in order to more thoroughly and efficiently search the mess on the table, and then the bookshelves themselves.

And joke it may have been, it was a conversation that stayed with him. Over the following days Kaldur mulled over what exactly was setting him on edge about performing his duty as an Atlantean. He should be honored – and he was, of course. But…

But as he felt as though he was idling, he found himself observing and analyzing this mission and its circumstances to perhaps an excessive extent. Tula and Garth, they had found a comforting familiarity in this mission that kept them sane against the daunting threat of instability their mission had been borne of. And while Kaldur too depended on that familiarity for the very same thing, he could not help but fear his presence had changed something sacred and important. It was not problematic often, but at times like lulls in the breakfast conversations and quiet moments during palace garden strolls that Kaldur felt his time away. There were jokes he did not get and references he could not understand. He had not figured out how to deal with these moments because he knew it was the tradeoff. He had chosen it – he just had not had to face it so blatantly before now.

Another change he had not had to so blatantly face until now was that Garth and Tula were together. Any demonstration of that fact was no longer hurtful or bothersome for him, and had not been for quite some time. Kaldur had long accepted and moved on from that heartache, especially as he had come to the realization that his two best friends being together did not mean they would suddenly alienate and abandon him.

However, Tula and Garth had not seemed to realize Kaldur’s thoughts on the matter. That they were together was clearly something they thought was still a sensitive subject for him – and he could tell they were attempting to hold back and hide their more romantic interactions. Though there was justification for this behavior, such as being alert on the job and setting a proper example for the baby and the constant silent audience of the soldiers, Kaldur knew that it was in large part for his sake. In this way the role of becoming the third wheel was being forced on him when he had determined to avoid such a situation. In this way his friends told him that they did not know what to expect from him – and that they did not know him.

And so this became a task for Kaldur, to allow them chances when they felt holding hands or kissing would be appropriate. He did not want their relationship to suffer under undue stress for his sake. He did not want to impose where he was normally absent. There was little he could do though, past taking on as much guard detail as possible or letting them know he was going to make lengthy calls Roy before hiding away in quiet corners of the palace to do just that.

“Kal don’t tell me you’re now…not spending time with them at all?” Roy asked incredulously when Kaldur admitted to his excessive volunteering for shifts and other avoiding tactics. It was often during these shifts that Kaldur also found proper time and privacy to talk about such insecurities with Roy, as the soldiers were permanent silently observing fixtures in his life now and he had learned to think of them as good secret keepers (the best ones were the ones who did not care, after all) when it came to his normally private matters.

“No,” Kaldur briskly retorted, insistent on convincing Roy that his plan was working. What else did he have going for him, after all? “We all have to be familiar with guard formations to protect the prince, so I would be on these duties regardless. And the three of us spend a lot of time together as is. I simply…feel uncomfortable hindering them. I do not want them to begin resenting me.”

On Roy’s end of the line he sighed low and long, and it transmitted with a crackle. “You’re dumb.” Was all Roy said flatly, an unamused grumble. Kaldur rolled his eyes, because Roy, as always, had such a way with words.

There was another sigh, and perhaps the signal was weakened or perhaps Roy’s tone had grown softer, gentler. “Kaldur, sure you’re growing up and a little apart, but don’t punish yourself for choosing your way of life and living up on the Surface.”

Kaldur had little he could say to that: I am not punishing myself and I did not know it seemed that I was would be lies, because in the smallest corner of his heart, he…

But he did not want to think about that.

“What an interesting way to put that,” Kaldur finally managed after a moment of silence, somehow shaken in a place that was guarded and buried deep within himself. Roy had a knack for that, Kaldur had found over the years of their friendship – especially as of late.

 

+++

 

It turned out that though Kaldur had thought his actions to be in favor of his friends’ wellbeing, they did not feel the same.

Garth handed Prince Arthur over with excessive gusto one day. “You never hold him.” Garth insisted.

“I do,” Kaldur began to say, but Garth leveled him with a glare.

“You do not hold him nearly enough.”

Kaldur blinked and suddenly became aware that he now successfully had an armful of squirming baby. Prince Arthur wriggled in Kaldur’s arms, and as Kaldur looked down at him, the prince stared up and back with big curious eyes.

“Well? Talk to him,” Garth insisted further, face stony.

But Kaldur was not sure what to say. “…Hello, baby prince,” he finally tried, cautious. He may have adored the baby – his future king after all – and had spent plenty of time taking him on field trips, teaching him legends from books, and overseeing play dates. But, Kaldur slowly began to realize, that was as a group with the others – and so this was new. Garth was often in charge of the more intimate acts of putting the prince down for bed, and though Kaldur had seen even Tula bouncing the baby on her hip and murmuring to him, Kaldur had not tried these sorts of one-on-one tactics before. But better now than never, Kaldur decided as Garth’s glare deepened and he made ‘go on’ gestures.

“You might know me,” Kaldur said carefully, as if the prince could understand such nuances of language yet. Perhaps he could, though. “I hang around your…aunt and uncle.”

“You are a relative-in-spirit, just like us.” Came Tula’s voice, and Kaldur looked up to find her swimming up from behind Garth. “Uncle Kaldur’ahm has such a nice ring to it, after all.”

Kaldur blinked at her, unsure what to make of this moment, and Tula only sighed at what was probably a blank look on his face. “And you do so much more than ‘hang around’ us,” she said. “Or at least you would if you were not upset with us.”

She made a displeased face, one Garth seemed to share, before continuing. “Which, we would appreciate you talking to us about those sorts of things from now on.”

Kaldur looked between the two of them, Garth with his hands on his hips and Tula with her arms crossed. “I…believe this is about more than bonding with the prince?” Kaldur ventured to guess.

“It is about that too. But it is also about you avoiding us.” Tula said evenly. “Every chance you get, you take guard duty or hide in a corner when we are all together.”

“And to call your Roy,” Garth added heatedly, and Kaldur looked at Garth with wide eyes, surprised by the level of anger in his voice with those words – and Garth was not finished, as he crossed his arms in a defiant stance. “Do you miss your surface life that badly, that fast? And that much more than us?”

Something pulled taut in Kaldur’s chest, nearly choking him with disbelief and muted shock, that Garth – or Tula – could ever think this to be the case. “That is not even – ”

Prince Arthur’s tiny fingers, Kaldur realized, were digging into the skin of his arm – not enough to hurt but enough for the pressure to register. Kaldur looked down at the child and found that the prince was glaring up at him in a distinctly baby way, with his entire face screwed up in anger. Kaldur then realized that his own grip had become too tight with the rigidity that had taken hold of him in his panic, as he held the prince. Kaldur loosened his hands slightly, and the prince’s fingers released as well. Though there were still lines creasing between the prince’s eyebrows, his expression morphed from unhappy to only suspiciously curious at this somewhat-stranger who was holding him.

Kaldur suddenly felt as though he was seeing the prince for the first time – not as a mission or a precious but distant conceptual thing for the kingdom and the royal family, but as a tiny and soft and vulnerable child – and he suddenly felt as though Prince Arthur, Garth, and Tula all had every right to be upset with him on every level.

“I am sorry,” Kaldur said, loosening his grip even more just to be on the safe side. He was peering down into the prince’s eyes, but he was talking to all three of them. “I was preoccupied with worrying over you all instead of communicating that worry. I am told I often do that.”

He looked up and at Tula and Garth with a small smile, one they were slowly but surely returning. “Both by my friends here and by Roy, too – even his parting words to me…” Kaldur trailed off, stung by the realization that he really never learned from his mistakes, in the end of it all. He repeated them over and over.

With a shake of his head, Kaldur closed his eyes for a moment and sighed, then opened them again with his smile renewed. “I truly do apologize for that tendency.”

“Do not apologize,” Tula said. “Just learn to trust us a little more to help you help us. And for us to help you, too.”

Kaldur mulled that over – and then Prince Arthur made a little whimper-wail, the kind that warned of imminent crying if his needs were not taken care of. He had eaten not too long ago and his naptime was not for some time, so it was perhaps a cry for attention – they all continued to spoil him time and time again, after all. So Kaldur let out the lightest huff of a laugh and shifted the prince so he was balanced against Kaldur’s side and only one arm was needed to maintain this balance. With his free hand Kaldur took one of the prince’s tiny hands into his own, soft between his fingers, and lifted it to his mouth, kissing it softly. “I see you, little prince,” Kaldur said, hand still pressed to his mouth. “And I am sorry for not doing so sooner.”

“Kaldur…” Garth said quietly, and when Kaldur looked at him it was easy to tell that he was visibly touched.

Kaldur lowered the prince’s hand from his lips and looked at his two best friends directly. There were things to be set straight. “As for you two, I was trying to give you space as to avoid you eventually hating me, since I was a third wheel hindering your displays of affection.”

The bewilderment on their faces would have been more humorous at some other time. As was, Kaldur was pressed to explain himself further. “You do not seem to realize that I am not as deeply affected by your relationship as you continue to assume. And in that way I am afraid…am realizing that I am slowly becoming a stranger to you.”

Both of their expressions softened into something sympathizing, but Kaldur shook his head while readjusting the once again the now wriggling prince as to hold him with both arms. “My behavior, regardless of intent, is not excusable,” he admitted. “I should have known to talk to you rather than waste these past weeks on avoiding the problem.”

“Oh you idiot,” Tula said, lightly berating but mostly affectionate, her expression somber. “We love you. You are never a stranger.”

Garth said, “Nor a third wheel. We apologize for making assumptions of our own as well. If you are comfortable with it, we – ah, we…” Garth trailed off and looked to Tula for some sort of reassurance, and she offered a shrug before Garth looked back to Kaldur and continued. “Let us just say there were opportunities missed, and that regret is often harder to face than disappointment or anger.” Garth eyed him hopefully, as if willing to make him understand.

And Kaldur did understand – that it was the regret that had been a big part of what had taken him so long to come to terms with the change of their trio’s dynamics, for his unwillingness to face the truth of the matter. “Of course,” he said quietly. “Your empathy is appreciated.”

“Stop it,” Tula said quickly, nipping any new regrets blossoming within Kaldur about time lost in the bud. “We have made our mistakes too, you are not the only one in the wrong here – so be quiet about how great we are in however many multitude of ways.” She then smiled softly, even as she said haughtily, “Though it is true, our limitless extents of greatness and all that.”

Kaldur laughed at that, and then was surprised by the quavering edge to his voice. Perhaps he had expected more of a fight, less understanding and familiar compatibility between the three of them. Perhaps he had been afraid that he truly was a stranger after all. Kaldur swallowed thickly, then hoisted Prince Arthur higher up against his side and hid his face in the prince’s soft hair – his smile felt weak with the threat of relieved tears.

He laughed again, voice still shaking ever so slightly, when familiar arms wrapped around him in a tight embrace. The prince squirmed and whined quietly about being squashed between the three’s group hug, but somehow that only made it even better.

 

+++

 

It was not until a few days afterwards that the subject of Roy was brought up between them again. And it was only after Kaldur had returned from talking to Roy in privacy. It was foolish, Kaldur realized in hindsight, to forget of Garth’s dig at Roy and not address it sooner and on his own terms, especially in light of where their discussion that day had gone about miscommunication, lack of communication, and overall dynamic changes. And if there was any change that heavily affected Kaldur and many of his relationships (and honestly had helped to develop his tendency to spend more time on the Surface), it had much to do with Roy.

“So I find it interesting that Roy was who you took your refuge in when you thought you were losing us,” Tula said lightly, not even looking up from playing a hand clapping game with Prince Arthur. Meanwhile Garth had pinned Kaldur with an intense stare and that was challenging him to try and get the topic to drop.

“Uh,” Kaldur said, very intelligently. These two were teaming up on him, he realized suddenly. This was not good.

“Yes,” Garth added in the same airy tone, despite his sharp gaze. “Interesting.”

Kaldur was not sure where this was going and how to stop it from getting there, but usually playing along until the last second was the best evade and escape tactic when they were working together.

“You know he is my best friend on the Surface,” Kaldur replied. “But also that I am not replacing you with him. I should hope that is obvious.”

“Hmmm,” Garth said.

“‘Hmmm’ indeed,” Tula echoed.

Right, Kaldur realized, or playing along could also end up being the worst strategy and there was just no way to escape this until it ended of its own accord.

But he could try his best, despite his poor chances. “You know all that has happened in the past year,” Kaldur said, trying to preempt that sudden flash of anger he had witnessed from Garth, trying to decipher if that was the source of concern here. “I call Roy not only for myself, but his sake as well. He gets lonely and then is prone to getting himself in trouble when he thinks he is alone and misunderstood.”

Kaldur paused for a moment and thought about that further. “…Well, honestly he is prone to getting in trouble regardless because he is headstrong and stubborn and occasionally reckless. But that only gets worse when he is left to his own devices.”

Tula paused in her clapping and looked up from the prince, who made a loud shriek-like noise in protest at her no longer playing with him. “Oh?” Her expression was playfully inquisitive and scaring Kaldur with what was next to come – but fortunately she had to look back down as the prince’s shrieking became louder and more insistent the longer her ignoring him went on.

Kaldur still gave up though, as he was wholly unprepared for this battle while she, and a carefully poised Garth, had clearer objectives. “Alright,” he said with a sigh. “What do you want to hear from me? What is this start of an inquisition about?”

Garth was the one who answered. “No reason, just wondering about some things,” Garth said, tone still a little too intense to pull off casual. Tula was suddenly pretending she could not hear either of them, instead murmuring gibberish words to Prince Arthur.

Kaldur sighed then reached over to put the flat of his palm on the entirety of Garth’s face, covering up the increasingly grim, stern expression gracing his friend’s face. It was comical how he could feel Garth’s expression change under his hand, from a serious frown to an annoyed grimace. “What ‘things’ were you wondering about Garth, since Tula is suddenly unable to hear us.” This last part was aimed at her in elevated tones. Tula only began to loudly hum a nursery rhyme in response, a successful tactic in that the prince began to joyfully clap along with her tune.

“We were just wondering about your personal relationships while you are up top – if this ‘Roy’ knew how to look after you like we do.” Garth admitted, words muffled but serious enough that Kaldur finally removed his hand. Garth was looking at him with a somber expression. “We worry about you especially since you are prone to shouldering everyone else’s burdens.”

“It is your little bad habit after all,” Tula added, suddenly participating in the conversation. “And it seems to pop up in such a variety of ways, if left unchecked.”

Kaldur was not sure how to respond to that. It was not as if he could deny what he knew to be at least somewhat true. “I… Okay. Okay, that is a fair observation. In fact,” Kaldur scoffed a little at the thought. “I am sure it will please you to know that you two and Roy would have something in common to talk about concerning me. He worries plenty about my ‘bad habit’.”

Garth and Tula both beamed at that, and Kaldur rolled his eyes at how they were almost playing parents to him at the moment. He supposed he would just let them have their fun, though.

“It is simply nice to know you have someone you can trust and confide in.” Garth said breezily, as if he had not been stony faced a mere few minutes earlier.

“Yes,” Tula said, capturing the prince’s hands between her own and leaning down to kiss his forehead. “And someone who knows to hound you for overworking yourself.”

And Kaldur shook his head in something that was meant to be exasperation, but really it was not so bad to have his best friends trying their best to look after him. There were worse problems to have.

 

+++

 

“My friends were…investigating you,” Kaldur told Roy later. “Asking about you.”

“Ah?” Roy…more breathed out than said.

Kaldur frowned, the tone taking him aback. But perhaps – Kaldur tried not to assume the worse right away – perhaps Roy had been sleeping or had had a long day. “Roy…are you alright – ”

“Fine fine,” Roy grunted. “What, they were asking about me? Trying to make sure that you’re not living with a psycho or something? ‘Cause it’s sort of late for that.”

Ah, and then there was Roy’s way with words. Kaldur shook his head good-naturedly. “They were more trying to discern whether I am depending on a person who is…” Kaldur realized how his next words would sound but decided to say them anyway, “Good for me.”

Perhaps his decision had been a bad one, because there was a long pause that followed.

“…What are they matchmaking you while you’re down there, what the hell?” Roy finally said with heavy sarcasm, and Kaldur had begun to smile at Roy’s reaction when Roy suddenly took a sharp intake of breath.

“Roy, are you not alright?” Kaldur asked hurriedly, concerned.

Roy let out a tight and strained laugh. “Calm down Kal, I’m not in imminent danger or anything.”

Kaldur too could use sarcasm, especially when Roy was being particularly difficult. “‘Not in imminent danger’? Good, because that is definitely my definition of being alright.”

Roy laughed again, less strained this time around, but not by much. “Good, because I can do you one better, then. I’m in fact at our place, sitting on my butt, healing. Got a little tied up in some business of one of my contacts and then got caught in an explosion. So I’m a little banged up and bruised some ribs, but I’ll be fine in no time.”

Kaldur’s immediate and appalled worry was apparently audible over the line without him having to say anything, because Roy continued with little further prodding. “Yeah yeah, I called in the team so they know. And I used the medic facilities at the mountain base and Wally insisted he and Robin do concussion checks on me every now and then so I won’t die in the middle of the night without anyone knowing.”

Oh. Good. Kaldur was…relieved, somewhat. That had been easier than usual, honestly. “…Right. So how much is ‘a little banged up’?”

“A little,” Roy insisted. “Anyway, even if it wasn’t, there’s nothing you can do about it while all the way in Atlantis, so just calm down already.”

That Roy was being difficult – well a brat, actually – made Kaldur roll his eyes. Roy was indeed fine, if he could muster the energy for this kind of behavior. “Fine. Can I at least ask how you are holding up in general? What have you been up to – I feel like we have only been talking about my problems over the last few weeks.”

Roy made a noise of protest that stifled into a pained grunt. “There’s nothing wrong with that. And nah, not much is going on around here that I can talk about over a not-entirely secure line.”

Now Kaldur sighed in exasperation. “What about you though? I do not care if what you talk about is not about your missions and your research. In fact, I would rather that you not talk about that.”

Roy scoffed disbelievingly. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Kaldur shook his head, and though he knew Roy could not see it he was sure Roy was aware that he was doing it. “That it is not your missions and your research that I miss. And that if I am a worrywart, then you are too driven. Obsessive even, sometimes.” Something about the distance made Kaldur unafraid to navigate these sensitive issues. Maybe it had a lot to do with understanding a little better the two-way flow of expectations and trust.

Roy scoffed, and though it was weak he sounded as though he were preparing to protest – so Kaldur brought in the heavy artillery, and hoped it would not be a step too far. “Is our apartment clean?” He asked pointedly.

“…Enough, yeah,” Roy begrudgingly replied.

“You know what I mean.” Kaldur said. “Have case files from you hideout found their way into the apartment?”

Roy grumbled something much less intelligible, and Kaldur could tell from the lack of enthusiasm that this time his struggle for words was not due to injury.

“My point,” Kaldur said. “Is that despite how much you harp on how I handle my feelings poorly, I am not the only one who does as such. Or whose problems we are allowed to openly talk about.”

Roy snorted, then made a small noise of pain. “Oh ow, that was stupid – but no, Kal just…jesus, you’re ridiculous.”

Kaldur frowned. “You currently have bruised ribs from an excursion gone out of control and only told your friends – and probably only the minimum amount of information, I might add – because we have been hounding you about your behavior for the past year.”

You’ve been hounding me,” Roy corrected. “The others have learned to respect my moods.”

“The others do not live with your moods,” Kaldur said, only the slightest of dry bite in his voice. It was all that was necessary. “Of course they allow you to mope and have temper tantrums.”

Roy’s laugh was one that was clearly surprised out of him: it was short and higher pitched than his normal laughter, more bark-like. His breath caught and Kaldur winced at the way his next inhale rattled over the line, though Roy only paused for a moment before continuing to laugh more softly and carefully. “Oh wow, why don’t you tell me how you really feel then?”

Kaldur laughed as well, and when it tapered into a sigh he found himself feeling strangely sentimental. The edge had been toed and…well, they were alright afterwards. Good signs. “You will take care of yourself, right?” He asked. “Tell people if you do not feel well – and stop going on missions until you are better?”

Roy was silent for a moment too long – during which Kaldur grew increasingly concerned.

“I’m not – I’m not gonna do anything stupid,” Roy finally said, somewhat begrudgingly. “I – just – I can’t flat out promise I’ll sit at home quietly and wait for all my injuries to heal. Some stuff’s happened, and it’s uh.” He paused, and Kaldur could almost see Roy’s expression falter, from earnest in his own scowling way to unguarded and open for the briefest of moments. Kaldur could certainly imagine it vividly enough.

“It’s different.” Roy finally seemed to settle on.

Kaldur had no doubt that Roy could handle himself well enough when it came to close calls, when discovery seemed right around the corner only to make itself elusive. They had come leaps and bounds, Kaldur once again had to remind himself, from the aimless and angry energy and self-neglect that had come with Roy’s initial obsession after the infamous New Year’s revelation. But just because Kaldur knew this did not mean he would never worried. “When you say that ‘stuff’s happened’ do you mean with the Speedy case? And do you mean infiltrating old Cadmus bases that, in our past experiences, tend to be either abandoned but filled with still working security, or still in use by unfriendlies, miscellaneous Cadmus branches or otherwise?”

Roy waited a very long time before answering, a sure sign he was either trying to work out the least inflammatory way to say his words or in fact much more injured than he was trying to let on. Neither possibility brought Kaldur any peace of mind. “Not…entirely,” he said, his labors of hesitation resulting in seemingly little result. “I’m not going to infiltrate a base, I’d just get myself killed right now. I just. It’s hard to explain?”

Kaldur found himself tilting his head in confusion and in unchecked worry. “Roy, what are you getting at? We both know that I am trying to – to figure out if I have to dissuade you from acting like an idiot, let us be honest here.”

Roy scoffed, then sucked in a slow breath. If Kaldur was not so preoccupied with working out what precisely was going on with Roy he would have insisted they end the call. As was, he was… Confused. Analyzing.

“I know I know, I have a horrible track record with not being a dumbass when emotionally compromised,” Roy admitted lightly, as if there weren’t numerous horror stories and near-miss brushes with death associated with that very fact. Which, of course he would say this lightly – Roy was callous in these kinds of ways, with these kinds of things. “I promise it’s nothing like that. It’s just a whole confidentiality thing, some weirdness with figuring out where to get information and leads – and then figuring out where these leads are being sourced from…ha, listen to me sounding all…I dunno.”

Roy’s voice practically had a shrug in its tone. That was a good sign. Roy tended to go the other way, more tightly closed with his feelings, a wall slowly building with each and every word, when he was…emotionally compromised, as Roy had put it.

“It’s seriously not a big deal, I don’t think,” Roy said. “It was just a seriously weird experience is all. Maybe I’ll tell you about it when you get back, huh?”

And it was then that Kaldur felt the distance between them, suddenly super-aware of it. It was one of those things where if he did not think too hard about it, it was easy to push away from his feelings – it was the same tactic he used while on the Surface when it came to his friends and family here in Atlantis, and was this not a strange reversal of the norm?

“I will be happy to hear about it,” Kaldur said, and for some reason it sounded more like I will be happy to come back.

It was not untrue, regardless of how happy he was to be back here at home. This could be because of the reasons for his return and long term stay in Atlantis – going back to his and Roy’s apartment would mean no more assassination attempts, a little less chance of civil war or uprisings, and the end of finding a silent audience of soldiers a normalcy. As the days wore on and Kaldur grew a little more attached to the prince, understood a little better how much unrest was quietly but steadily mounting, the fear and possibility of their failure began to loom horribly in the back of Kaldur’s mind.

(This could also be because this was simply his life now: always wanting to be where he was not, torn between two worlds. Kaldur would not think too hard about that, either.)

“Good,” Roy said, and Kaldur knew he had heard those hidden words too. What Kaldur should make of that, he was not sure.

 

+++

 

The king returned suddenly and with shocking news.

“You are dismissed from duty. Thank you for the hard work, it is very much appreciated.” King Orin told them, trying to smile heartily at them, but mostly only looking weary.

There was stunned silence from them all, the queen included. “Is…this your way of telling us you have found Ocean-Master?” Queen Mera asked. “Found and done battle with and killed him?”

He placed a hand on her arm, one that looked weighty with meaning that was beyond Kaldur’s ability to understand, and shook his head once. “No. But this security detail is no longer needed.”

“But…is there still a threat? I do not…” Tula tried, then failed, ultimately falling silent with uncertainty.

“If you have not found him,” Kaldur began as well, but stopped. How to approach this and question the decision without sounding rude and flat-out as though he doubted the king’s decisions…? Kaldur could not think of a way, and so let his silence lay where it had been delicately and uncertainly placed.

“It is fine,” King Orin insisted calmly.

“Are you certain, my king?” Garth asked, even at the king’s gaze swept over them with something that seemed to be finality – and dismissal.

“Yes,” the king said, more sternly this time. “It is fine. You three should go and enjoy each other’s company, instead of worrying about these political trivialities.”

They were not simply ‘political trivialities’ Kaldur thought, and surely the king understood that they knew this – but as King Orin pulled the silently poised but rigid queen aside to begin whispering to her, Kaldur knew there were to be no further questions.

The three of them had little choice but to do as they were told – it was a royal order underneath the requesting and suggestive tone, after all.

“So do you believe that Ocean-Master has truly been taken care of?” Tula asked once they were safely tucked back in the off-palace dwelling. “I want to trust King Orin’s judgment, after all.”

“But,” Kaldur said, voicing the concern in her voice in blunter words. “But his judgment seems off.”

Garth’s brow was furrowed and his chin balanced in his hand. “I cannot understand this. I – there must be something that has happened. Perhaps a – an understanding with the Justice League?”

Kaldur looked to Garth with a stern look as he racked his brain for possible contingency plans worked out so quickly and quietly with the Justice League for the delivering and containment of Ocean-Master out of the oceans – and the implications of such action. Surely there would have been some hint and talk of that, or at the very least someone on his team (Robin, most likely) would have stumbled upon something suspect and begun investigating it. “Why would the king attempt to keep secret that sort of plan?” Kaldur asked, even as he realized –

“Not even the queen seemed to know what was going on, and he seemed eager to tell her something in confidence,” Tula said, voice calm as though she were not on the brink of accusing the court of contemptuous acts. “And it would make sense that, with the discontent rising in Atlantis, the king would want to appear able to handle his own affairs without Surface intervention.”

Kaldur found himself without words, with his throat feeling as though something were constricting it. Though he had a newer, better idea of the discontent brewing than when he had first arrived, Kaldur knew he had not been in Atlantis, not outside of the palace here in Poseidonis, long enough to truly gauge the extent of unrest – was it really so bad as to warrant that sort of strategic propaganda?

Perhaps his expression was far more stricken than he thought, for Garth hurriedly reached over and put a hand on Kaldur’s knee. His words were an attempt to be soothing, “We are just assuming things – and even if this is true, I would rather this than a king who cannot make good judgments.”

Kaldur nodded, trying to wrap his head around this possibility while visibly showing his friends he was alright – as alright as he could manage in such a situation. “Yes. Better that than a dead prince,” Kaldur added quietly.

Tula made a noise that was part sympathy and part indignation and she too reached over, placing a hand on his other knee. “It will be alright, Kaldur. Regardless of what I have said, of what has happened, we can only trust in our king.”

Kaldur stared at the far wall and carefully tucked his alarm for the wellbeing of the entirety of Atlantis somewhere far away in himself, a place where he would not touch on it – there would be no good to come of worrying about things so out of his control.

“Yes, you are right. We have to listen to him whether we want to or not, after all,” Kaldur admitted. Still, something very similar to panic began to well up within him, and Kaldur tried to dispel it with a long sigh. Once it was over, he attempted a smile and a try at optimism. “The king did tell us we should enjoy each other’s company with our time off…and since it may be some time before we will be able to do so again we should – ”

Tula and Garth’s expressions both instantly froze and Kaldur realized that he had taken a misstep somewhere in there.

“What are you saying?” Garth asked, hand tightening on his knee, while Tula instead sighed and removed her hand with a shake of her head. “You say that as if it will be forever until you will return to see us.”

Kaldur started, just a little, at the realization that this was precisely what his words sounded like. But… Kaldur could face this better than the way his insides trembled at the thought of a civil war, with or without Ocean-Master’s direct involvement.

“That is because I most likely will not return here so soon after I leave,” he said. “I have spent so much time here for this assignment, and I will be behind once I return to my team. I will not have time for leisure.”

“It is not a zero-sum game,” Tula murmured sharply as she stared away from him. “You do not get to add and subtract the days and decide one assignment that lasts a few months depletes your reserve of how long and often you visit your home. We have gone over this, Kaldur.”

“She is right,” Garth said quietly. “Please do not do this to us, when we have talked about this. About you tendencies to self-sacrifice.”

Kaldur, feeling a little lost and a little hopeless and yet a little determined, tried his best. He put his hand over Garth’s, and with the other reached to touch Tula gently on the back. “I know we have talked of this. I…know I have a problem with my excessive dedication to a sense of duty, and lack thereof to my personal wellbeing. But I have chosen to protect people by doing what I can on the Surface, and I learned early on that I must choose to commit to this cause, this decision.”

“Learned?” Tula challenged, just short of angry as she turned her body back towards him and stared him down stonily. “Learned from a Surface dweller who is exempt from having to make the same sacrifices that come with such commitment?”

Kaldur frowned, and his next words were on raised voice. “I would not say that is a fair accusation – ”

“Well now you understand how we feel,” Tula said. “When it comes to unfairness.”

Kaldur bristled – but before he could retort with anything Garth, removing his hand from Kaldur’s, shifted and maneuvered himself over Kaldur and into the space between he and Tula.

“Calm down, both of you,” Garth said, shooting a sharp warning look at first Kaldur and then Tula. He then turned more towards Kaldur and said, “Really though, how many times must we discuss this, Kaldur? You should not have to choose. The king does not.”

Kaldur shook his head, unable to see the logic in that point. “But he is the king.”

Tula made a noise of disbelief, but did not hiss out her next words. This time they were wearied. “That does not matter. This is your home. You fear becoming a stranger here and yet…” Kaldur looked closely at Tula’s expression as she desperately peered at him, and he realized her face was twisted with sadness instead of anger now. “Just…you must come home more often. Please.”

And Kaldur…knew they were tired of this same conversation. These same issues. He was too: come home more, worry less, do not internalize others’ problems. It was not as though Kaldur was not aware that his ways of dealing with compromise and dedication were unhealthy and unbalanced. But awareness did not make the problem go away any more than naïveté would have, and instead only made the subject sensitive for him to discuss. But he had to try, because Kaldur feared that this time, after staying so long and interweaving himself so firmly back into Tula and Garth’s lives, it could be a disaster all over again if he pulled away with any lesser explanation than the truth.

“Originally it was a habit,” Kaldur admitted quietly, averting his eyes. “And it sometimes still is. I was hurt by my absence being to blame for – for when I confessed my feelings for you and they were not reciprocated. It was easier to throw myself wholeheartedly into my decision to stay on Surface and avoid facing the two of you. And then with all the crises we had… Even after I had gotten over myself, it was hard to visit without it interfering with something else. Especially with Roy and his…issues with his origins.”

Tula’s eyes flashed briefly, as she asked, “Are you blaming me for driving you away first and foremost?”

“No,” Kaldur quickly corrected. “Never. I am only trying to explain that I have used excuses in the past, which is wrong – and that I avoid facing the fact that my disconnect with my home grows larger the longer I am away. It is a problem that requires my acknowledgement if I am to fix it, and yet I…do nothing differently.” Kaldur felt a flare of frustration at himself, and his words dropped into a tight whisper. “I am…bad at facing personal issues. I know.”

Tula stared at him for many long moments – and then her anger had drained from her, an unreadable expression in its place.

Garth was the one to sigh this time, closing the space between himself and Kaldur and, cupping Kaldur’s face between his hands, leaned in to press a firm kiss to his forehead. This was a relic from their shared past, a gesture of affection Kaldur would never not love. “Then let us and others help you.”

Tula swooped in too and, after nudging Garth out the way with a small scoff, also cupped Kaldur’s face in her hands and kissed his brow. “I will have you know, silly boy, that it was never about choosing – or about lack of reciprocity,” she whispered against his skin like it was a secret. “I wanted – we wanted – well. Like you said, your being on the Surface disconnects you with here, with us. But we can work on that, yes?”

Kaldur blinked, trying to process what precisely she was – was implying there – and that needed to be talked about, that needed them to sit down and talk and – and on a less crazy day, then he would analyze that. They would talk about that.

Garth laughed and, as Tula simply held Kaldur’s face tenderly and touched the tips of their noses together, Garth embraced her from behind and balanced his chin in the dip of her shoulder.

“Just come home more, Kaldur,” Garth insisted once again, and Kaldur – dizzy with too many revelations and too many emotions – let out a laugh as well. It sounded mostly resigned with confusion, because though these two made it sound so simple a decision to make, it still was not.

(Though perhaps slightly less complicated than he had assumed – had feared.)

 

+++

 

Kaldur opened the door to the apartment and was greeted with a clean and dimly lit living room. There was a dull hum that was coming from what seemed to be all over the apartment, but before Kaldur could investigate the source, Roy came from the small hall leading to the back rooms.

“Hey,” he said, light smile on his face. “You’re back already? I thought for sure you’d hang around the base for a bit before – ”

Kaldur could not help but interrupt Roy, gesturing around at what he could now identify as strings of multicolored holiday lights wrapped around and hanging from the furniture fixtures. “What is all this?”

Roy rolled his eyes, then shoved his hands in his pockets in a way that conveyed nervousness. It was good to be back and see Roy’s emotions and body language in person rather than imagining in over a comm link channel. “You’ve been submerged in the ocean for over a month. It’s not too bright down there, right? And also I figured you’d be struggling to get used to the dryness of being on land all over again – I still remember when we were younger and you were still new to the whole Surface thing, y’know.”

Kaldur tilted his head, not understanding how precisely lights helped with dry air. Roy sighed and shook his head, said flatly, “The lengths I go to just to be unappreciated,” then pointed to the corner of the room. Kaldur peered and, after a few seconds of looking, could faintly make out several humidifiers placed strategically throughout the room. Ah, so the humming…

Roy shrugged and looked away. “I got a bunch of humidifiers and put a couple of ‘em in every room. It’s no underwater wetness, but I thought it’d be better than no climate control at all.”

Kaldur smiled in a way that Roy would probably classify as ‘sappy’ later on. Right now, Roy was too busy avoiding eye contact to do as such – and at any rate Kaldur could counter such barbs by accusing Roy of the very same sentiment, what with this welcome home display. “Well this was very thoughtful of you – I guess it would be safe to say you missed me?”

Roy rolled his eyes so hard it was nearly violent, then grabbed Kaldur – bags and all – and pulled him in for a hug. That Roy’s grabbing was slightly more careful than usual helped Kaldur to remember Roy’s still healing ribs just in time for him to reciprocate the hug more lightly than initially intended.

Roy scoffed quietly, as if the very notion of Kaldur having to ask such a question at all was preposterous. “Of course I missed you, Kal.”

Kaldur breathed in the familiar scent of Roy and their apartment, the barest foreign hint of cleaning products underlying it in the dry air, and felt just at home right here as he did in Atlantis. “And I you.”

After they parted, Roy waited until Kaldur had the chance to go to his bedroom to put down his things and change out of his mission clothes before asking any questions. “How was the trip back?”

“Good,” Kaldur answered as he stretched out on the couch and squinted, his eyes aching dully even in the low light. “I spent an extra day to visit my parents before returning. And our mission, though it ended rather suddenly, was…successful.” Kaldur wondered if he should tell Roy about the suspicions and secrets that surrounded the king’s actions and Ocean-Master’s fate, about how he was mulling over perhaps leaving the Surface – and therefore Roy – more often in the near future, about how he was rediscovering that he was a little useless without Tula and Garth around.

Kaldur was not aware he was squinting increasingly more severe as he frowned in deep thought until Roy took notice for him. “Are these lights too bright?” Roy asked, leaning in to examine one of the dim strands of lights. “Maybe I should use fewer…or get candles?”

Kaldur waved his hand in the air dismissively. “No no, I am fine. I may have had the luxury of coming back at night, but I will have to face direct sunlight soon enough. By the end of tomorrow my eyes will be nearly – ” Kaldur cut off, words interrupted by a sudden yawn that took even him by surprise. “ – ah, excuse me. But my eyes will adjust soon enough.”

Roy stared long and hard at Kaldur, and Kaldur tried to stare back but was suddenly stricken by how tired he was, falling prey to another yawn.

“Did something happen in Atlantis?” Roy asked slowly. “Was everything okay?”

Kaldur had purposely put his worries about the entire kingdom on hold. He was going to trust the king, he had decided. He would hold steadfast to that decision. “Everything was fine,” Kaldur said. “Why do you ask?”

Roy shrugged and had the expression he wore when he was trying his best not to be too intrusive but wanted to check things out regardless. “Just, you sounded kind of weird when you mentioned your mission just now. You okay?”

Kaldur was going to listen to orders. He was not going to worry about it. “No, I am fine,” he said shaking his head. “I just…”

But it was still bothering him, just a little bit. That the king was so blatantly calling off security detail without a clear report of what the situation was. And though his friends had suspected Justice League intervention, Kaldur had fished around for details through the team first thing once he had returned to base and had come up with nothing. There was the slight possibility that the League really was doing a top-notch job at keeping an intervention in Atlantis hushed up, but Kaldur more suspected that there simply had not been involvement of the other heroes. And what that indicated was far more worrisome. And Kaldur was thinking about it, was worrying about it, because he couldn’t help it.

Perhaps things would look better, other possibilities for what exactly was going on would make themselves obvious, in the morning on the other side of sleep. “I am just tired,” Kaldur said. “I think I may go to bed now.”

And Roy accepted that easily. “Alright, see you in the morning.”

Yes, Kaldur thought as he shuffled down the hall to his bedroom and shut the door behind him, he would re-examine his suspicions in the morning. They would probably turn out to be nothing.

 

+++

 

The next morning Kaldur woke up to little new revelation, other than personal confirmation that his suspicions were indeed not ‘nothing’. But honestly, Kaldur was having a hard time deciding what to do with the conclusions he was drawing. He was no longer on mission in Atlantis and instead was on the typical mandatory leave that followed long missions. He was in no position to try and step in whatever was going on in his kingdom, and even if he were to try he would need more concrete reasons than gossip and conjecture to try and undermine his king’s orders.

Kaldur heaved out a long sigh and then stepped into the kitchen, where Roy was reading a newspaper at the table. Roy looked up immediately at his entering the room and asked, “How’d you sleep?”

Kaldur took the vacant seat across the table. “Fine. You?”

Roy was looking intently at him again, scanning for the little details and trying to figure out an untold story. “I slept fine too. But why do you look like you’re shouldering some larger than life problem when you should be celebrating and relaxing and enjoying your well-earned time off?”

Kaldur considered for about half a second not talking to Roy about it, but he could not bring himself to keeping silent on such an important matter. “I am just worried,” Kaldur admitted. “The more I think about it, the more unsettling it becomes.”

Roy frowned a little. “What, how the – what was it you said – the job ended so suddenly?”

Kaldur nodded. “The king returned and dismissed us from the mission, with absolutely no word about if Ocean-Master was found or taken care of.” Kaldur grimaced slightly. “And I do not think my king accomplished either task.”

Roy’s frown became increasingly prominent. “That is ‘unsettling’. So…what exactly are you thinking is going on, then?”

This was the thing Kaldur had had too much time to think over – this was the thing that was making him dread admitting that his fears were likely to be true. “I fear…I fear that he wants there to be an assassination attempt, to draw out a lead.” Kaldur said quietly, shaking his head at the very thought. “Or something equally worrisome.”

Roy stayed silent, folding up his newspaper and regarding Kaldur with a serious frown but otherwise blank face. Kaldur stared back, though the back of his neck prickled with the fear that Roy was thinking him to be paranoid and ridiculous. Though, maybe if Roy told him he was overthinking things, Kaldur would have no choice but to drop these delusions.

“Huh, that certainly is a thought, Kal,” Roy finally said, putting the folded up paper carefully down on the table and standing up. Kaldur suddenly took note of the fact that Roy was dressed in his uniform, except for the mask, and fully geared up.

“Did…I cause you to put a job on hold?” Kaldur asked, alarmed. He hadn’t realized he had overslept to such an extreme.

Roy scoffed and reached over the table to layer his hand over Kaldur’s, just letting it rest there. “Not really. Don’t worry about it. Seriously, you just got back from a long escort detail, and now you’ve got some valid suspicions about…well.” Roy seemed hesitant to put Kaldur’s accusations into words, but he seemed to find them valid. This was both a relief and a cause of increasing concern for Kaldur.

Roy shook his head as though to clear it. “Look, we’ll figure something out. You just chill out, you’re allowed a few days off. Hang out around here, and I’ll be back soon-ish.”

Kaldur squinted at him, now vaguely suspicious. “Are you up to something?”

Roy shrugged – and pulled away to pick up and shoulder his quiver. “Some small stuff, gotta…get in touch with a new contact – long story. Might see to some crime on the way. And a few other errands, too.”

Kaldur leaned back in his chair and though he stopped squinting he did not stop analyzing Roy’s body language. Nothing too suspect there, so Kaldur settled on throwing a playful barb, just show that he was not panicking, that he was ‘chilled out’. “Is this new contact warrant to get you caught in explosions like the last one? That, if I recall correctly, was a ‘long story’ as well.”

Roy laughed. “Geez, been back for not even a day and already nagging. I keep telling you not to worry, so don’t.”

As Kaldur watched him leave for the front door, the uneasiness from his king’s sudden dismissal – and from how Roy found his uneasiness indicative of something, from how Garth and Tula too had thought it reasonable, from how everyone was still for some reason telling him to wait and listen and trust – rolled low in his stomach, Kaldur found the concept of ‘not worrying’ incredibly beyond his grasp.

 

+++

 

Though he was on strict orders to not go to the Cave while on ‘vacation’, the rules of calling in were, as always, less addressed.

“We’ve missed you Kaldur!” M’gann greeted first, chipper.

“You have cut your hair,” Kaldur said, a little shocked. She had been out on a date with Conner the other night when he had checked in with his report and gotten basic medical after his mission.

M’gann grinned wider and shook her head to show of the change in length in how the bounce of her hair was different. “Well, really I just morphed it short, but you know – yeah. It’s short now!”

Conner, standing quietly by her side, reached up and brushed her now wayward bangs out of her eyes. “I like it.”

“You also like just about everything about M’gann.” Raquel said, only a little pointedly, her way of joking. “Anyway, fearless leader, has the countdown for you returning to our team begun?”

Kaldur nodded, only for Robin to appear from pretty much nowhere with a cackle. Same old same old, though it was getting impressive how nimble Robin was managing to be even as he was having growth spurts and adjusting to new gangly limbs.

“Are you calling in to check-in and tell us all the juicy details of guarding the heck out of a crowned baby-prince and Aquaman tracking down and beating up his evil brother?” Robin asked. “Because that would be pretty cool to hear about, you know.”

“…You just said ‘juicy’ with extreme relish,” Zatanna said, her eyebrow arched in the utmost amused expression. “Like, the most extreme relish I have ever heard in my life. I’m sorry, let’s rewind and examine that.”

“Well you are the one that gave me the sweatpants with ‘juicy’ written on the butt as an early birthday gift,” Robin pointed out. “So you should probably rewind to that point first for examination.”

Artemis groaned. “Yeah he actually wears those sweatpants, Kaldur,” she informed him wearily, like she was at the end of her ability to handle ridiculous things. Kaldur could easily relate. “So, yes Zee, thanks for that.”

Zatanna held her hands up defensively. “Yeah, didn’t know he would do that, sorry.”

Raquel laughed. “Uh, your man has no shame, so I think you did know that he would, somewhere deep down inside.”

“So am I the only one just a little concerned about how not secure our supposedly secure, Batman-approved channel lines are?” Wally could be heard in the background, the distance not making much dent on how loud he could manage to be. He walked on screen, presumably from the kitchen area, as he had a plate full of chips and a submarine sandwich. “I mean, Kaldur’s calling from Seattle or California or whatever, right? I’m just saying, that’s a lot of distance and I’m not entirely convinced that absolutely no one can accidentally stumble in on a cross-country call.”

Artemis rolled her eyes. “Wow, what a mood killer.”

Wally made a tch-ing sound and threw a chip at her, which she promptly caught and popped into her mouth.

“So when will you be back?” Conner asked. “Aquaman hasn’t shown up and Batman just said you’re supposed to have some downtime before you start back up.”

Though Kaldur felt that familiar dread rise through him at the mention of his mentor and king, something told him not to share explicit details of his worries with his team. He had already aroused some suspicion from all of them but Conner and M’gann with his roundabout questions about Justice League intervention in Atlantis. Knowing them and their track record (of which he included his own tendencies) they would insist on doing something: make some sort of plan, go out and get some information from someone, something. And Kaldur was still mulling over if that was precisely how he wanted to approach such a delicate situation.

“There has not been any specific date set,” he said lightly instead. “And Roy seems to be…insisting I make the most of it. So it will be a little time before I come back.” He would probably be out for at the very least a week, really, if Roy had his way. Roy – like Tula and Garth – liked to make a very big deal about how hard Kaldur apparently worked himself.

Very interestingly, Kaldur noticed the team fall silent – and few of them, like M’gann and Zatanna, suddenly found not making direct eye contact with him an imperative.

He was almost afraid to ask. “…What?”

“Nothing dude, nothing.” Wally hastily answered, then grunted when Artemis and Robin both elbowed him in the stomach. “What, okay I am sorry but I want you to know that that is totally uncalled and violent behavior, jesus christ you two.”

Artemis scoffed. “Oh I’m sorry, next time we’ll take turns.”

“Don’t worry about it Kaldur,” Robin said instead, ignoring Wally completely and smiling at him instead. “It’s nothing.”

“You saying that only serves to do just the opposite,” Kaldur pointed out.

“It really isn’t anything that’s our business,” Raquel insisted firmly, though she had a hint of a smirk. “Sorry, we all got used to being gossipy, overdramatic hens while you were gone. We reacted poorly just now.”

“…‘Gossipy, overdramatic hens’?” M’gann asked, incredulous sounding interestingly like awe from her. She pointed at Conner with a growing smile. “Him too?”

Raquel gave Conner an appraising look. “Oh, him most of all.”

Conner quirked an amused eyebrow, playing along. “Oh yes, me definitely.”

Zatanna had her face hidden in her hands, but the shaking of her shoulders meant she was simply hiding her laughter.

“Wow what an unbelievable lie, guys,” Artemis snickered.

“Yeaaah no one wants to hear that from you,” Robin said with a laugh.

“Shut up – ”

Wally snorted. “He’s got you there little miss ninja – ”

Shut up – !”

Kaldur sighed and he too hid his face in his hand. “Never mind. Just… obviously you all are going to dance around what exactly is going on here. I give up.”

They broke off their tittering and joking to look at him with something pretty closely resembling pity. He could not tell if this was conspired joke as well. At this rate Kaldur was actually going to enjoy his time off.

“Aw he’s moping,” Raquel said. “Look guys, look.”

Robin poked out his bottom lip in an empathetic pout. “Oh no.”

Conner tilted his head, and Kaldur could swear there was the briefest flash of amusement in his eyes before it was replaced with wide-eyed naïveté. “What if we gave you a hint?”

“Hint number one, it’s about you and Roy,” Wally said immediately, rather eagerly.

M’gann lit up at the prospect of the game, and she nudged Artemis as if to volunteer her for the next hint. Artemis shrugged and went for it. “Hint number two is that we’re a really speculative group and spend way too much time together.”

“Hint number three,” Zatanna said slowly, teasingly. “I dunno, it’s probably that whole you two living together doing the domestic thing for, what, a year now? If we all spend way too much time together then you two, like, win the prize for never not being in each other’s faces. But I dunno.”

Kaldur frowned at them all. “I – what?”

The team looked absolutely delighted with themselves for leaving him tongue tied – and though he was at a loss for words, Kaldur was not dumbstruck. He could see precisely what they were getting at and…well. That deserved some…some prodding or discussion or something – though said discussion was most needed between he and Roy. Kaldur, again, was not dumb – this newly discovered you make this place feel like home sentiment he had towards Roy on top of their issues of interdependency he was already dutifully ignoring, they left him well-aware that there were things that needed addressing.

But, as Kaldur had realized with Tula and Garth and that discussion, now was most definitely not the time.

“You all – ” Cannot be serious, maybe was what he should say. Have not done this to Roy have you, was probably what he was going to resort to, even though they most likely had not. Roy would just glare and leave to practice his shooting in some remote place if they did – a considerably less amusing reaction for them to go out of their way to incite.

However, before Kaldur could make up his mind on a plan of attack, somewhere in the background the zeta tube announced the arrival of –

“Huh, now that’s interesting,” came Black Canary’s voice from off screen. “I could have sworn I assigned drills to you all that you should be working on right now.”

“Oh wow, gotta go Kal,” Robin said, ducking out of the group and heading presumably towards the training mats. As he went he called over his shoulder, “Artemis, I wanna pair up with you!”

Dude,” Wally zoomed away in an instant at that.

“She’d just kick your butt in like two seconds, I’m doing you a favor – ”

“He’s right,” Artemis said, after offering a wave goodbye to Kaldur and walking off as well. “Thank your best friend and go sit down, glassjaw.”

The others began to disperse as well, with just as brief goodbyes. “Hope to see you soon!” M’gann said before signing off.

Kaldur stared at the blank screen sitting before him. Then sighed.

He was really going to enjoy his time off, then. Or at least try to.

 

+++

 

It turned out that his time off was cut much shorter than either he or Roy expected it to.

Roy opened the unlocked apartment window from the outside and slipped in with the utmost urgency, standing from his crouch and staring Kaldur down with a stern expression. Kaldur immediately turned off the television – he had been dozing off, but now was switching into alert mode.

“I asked around to figure out what was going on in Atlantis,” Roy said, no preamble needed. Kaldur had not decided – had not been able to decide, rather – how he wanted to approach the issue. That Roy had made that decision in his stead and had gone about taking action quickly was a blessing Kaldur was reluctant to immediately appreciate.

Roy continued. “Turns out Robin and Wally could work out how to worm their way in and monitor that private channel we used – and if someone had used it recently enough, they could start hacking through all the channels that had been contacting and contacted during that use.”

Kaldur carefully placed down the remote so he did not crush it in his fist, clenched in anxiousness. “And?”

“And Aquaman used it to contact his wife. Turns out he’s on the move to hunt down Ocean-Master again, or at least very obviously not in the capital. So if you were right…”

Kaldur went cold all over. If he was right about King Orin’s plan, then there had been an assassination attempt. Or was about to be one. “I have to – ”

Do what? Kaldur came to the startling realization that some part of him had been sure the king would contact him as backup, not take all these heavy risks on his own. It was…it was understandable, that the king felt that the Ocean-Master had to be stopped as soon as possible in order to avoid further civil unrest on top of that which had already been laid. They were indeed not at contented peace, and in order to deter further and greater costs that the possibility of war threatened something had to be done. But that Kaldur had been sent away, that Tula and Garth had been sent away –

“Any word on if he has back up?” Kaldur said even as he was untwisting himself from the blanket he had been curled up with and heading for his bedroom in order to change into proper attire. “Any word on if the soldiers are – or if Tula and Garth – ”

“That’s all I know, sorry,” Roy, indeed sounding truly apologetic, called from behind Kaldur from the living room. Kaldur stripped off his pajamas and pulled out his mission clothes as quickly as he could manage. “Aquaman hasn’t called in any other heroes though, that’s for sure.”

“Thank you, my friend,” Kaldur called back, with sureness and calmness he did not feel as he thought methodically through his next course of action. He needed to get to a zeta tube as soon as possible and, at the very least assess the situation. Maybe get his own backup if things were bad enough.

“I’ve been thinking, with what I know about it all anyway,” Roy said, having moved and now standing in the bedroom doorway as Kaldur slipped on his wetsuit, the task more time consuming than Kaldur would have liked. “You…don’t think Aquaman would let his kid get assassinate just to get an opening to get Ocean-Master, do you?”

Kaldur almost did not answer as he swept past Roy through the door. “I do not think he would let that happen without a fight. I think the plan is to try and avoid that outcome.”

But he also thought that the king was prepared to make that kind of sacrifice if need be. Why else, Kaldur thought as Roy let him leave through the front door without another word, would he make sure Kaldur, Garth, and Tula were distanced from this all? The cold winter air hit him unforgivingly as Kaldur ran towards the nearest zeta entrance he could think of, determined and heartbroken all at once.

 

+++

 

When Kaldur arrived through the Atlantis zeta tube, things were far too quiet and still – abnormally so. Soldiers were nowhere in sight, which meant they were either hidden and prepared for taking out threats through long distance or stealth, or the king had truly grown desperate and blatant with his plan and had dismissed them all.

Unsure of whether it was worth the risk to approach the palace, Kaldur headed towards where Garth and Tula had been staying when not stationed in the nursery, hoping them to be there. It had only been a few days since they had parted ways, but the possibility that the two had already headed home, or worse somewhere abroad for vacation, was likely enough that Kaldur worried his plans for backup would be foiled…

He had barely made it to the academy, however, when he felt that eyes were on him. It was surely not any of the highly trained snipers of the Royal Guard, who were skilled enough to track someone without being detected, and so Kaldur ducked behind a pillar and began scanning for a pursuer.

This ended up being a pointless labor: as soon after he had hidden himself, Kaldur heard a hissed and surprised, “Kaldur!” from above. Kaldur looked upwards and saw that it was Garth, who was swimming down from his nearby vantage point. He had been the eyes Kaldur had felt, then.

Kaldur did not feel any more at ease with the situation as a whole at the sight of his friend, but was glad nonetheless. “You have not left.”

Garth looked around, checking for – anything, really. “No. I assume our worries are the same reason why you are here now?”

“Was there an assassination attempt on the prince’s life?” Kaldur asked. “And where is Tula?”

Garth’s mouth twisted into a crooked smile. “Not yet. And is that not odd? That the king has left to continue his hunt, yet without taking the very same precautious for his queen and heir?” That response told Kaldur that they indeed were on the same wavelength. Yes Queen Mera was strong, and perhaps her guards were nearby though hidden, but if she were outnumbered and overpowered…well.

Garth answered Kaldur’s second question without pause. “Since it was just the two of us we split the work. Tula has gone on ahead to hopefully offer her protection to Queen Mera. I am trying to survey as much of Poseidonis as I can to figure out – ”

And at that moment there was a rumble of explosions in the direction of the palace. “Go,” Kaldur said, curt and low, and they both began to quickly swim towards the noise.

 

+++

 

The explosions turned out to be Ocean-Master’s forces infiltrating the palace, and the eerie silence of the capital was no more as they charged the extravagant building. Kaldur and Garth immediately jumped in the fray, which was clearly one of both close and long distance – there had indeed been soldiers hiding nearby and the fact that the innermost ring of infiltrators were floating, either unconscious or dead, told Kaldur that there were snipers at vantage points meant to deter the first wave of attack. These tactics spoke wonders to Kaldur, and he now had his concrete proof to confirm his fears – hopefully not a little too late.

“How much help do you think we are right now,” Garth yelled as he passed by Kaldur to take out a cluster of foes with his Tempest attack. “Is this us being effective?”

Kaldur transformed his sword into a large hammer and went in for a side sweep attack, catching several men off guard. “Why do you say that, my friend?” He yelled back, not looking to see if Garth was close by – the gentle outermost pull of a whirlpool let Kaldur know approximately where Garth was without looking up from his own battle.

Garth swam to his side just as Kaldur punched an infiltrator in the face and sent an electric current through him. Above them a conjured giant manta ray protected a small battalion of soldiers and part of the palace wall from a large energy gun blast, and the light refracted strangely across Kaldur’s vision.

“They are attacking from all sides,” Garth said, quickly and urgently, eyes scanning the battlefield – Kaldur too was on alert even as he listened to Garth’s explanation. “Though we have managed to keep them mostly out and away here, I think they have managed to get inside – I heard a general send some of his men towards the courtyard-side wall.”

Kaldur created a shield as a gun blast ricocheted in their direction. “I do not think two less men will heavily impact the battle out here,” Kaldur agreed as they huddled behind his defenses. “If there is a battle as Ocean-Master’s forces get inside and look for the queen and the prince, we could do more to help there, most likely.”

Garth and he shared a nod, and they made a break for swimming off towards the courtyard side of the palace. Once there, they found that though there was a battle ensuing to keep infiltrators out, a sizable hole had already been inflicted on the palace barricade. The way the soldiers were sticking close to the hole and defending it told Kaldur all he needed to know about whether anyone had already gotten through.

“We will track down the queen to protect her,” Kaldur shouted to the defending soldiers as he swam through their ranks.

“She has her security escorts,” one the men said to him, not sparing a glance up from shooting magic at enemies off in the distance. “She and the prince should still be fine!”

This was true – and Queen Mera was also very capable of handling herself. Kaldur just would rather they not take unnecessary chances.

“An increase in numbers would not hurt the interior defenses,” Garth reasoned as he too passed through, and they were off into the inner halls of the palace.

Suddenly everything was more quiet, the fighting and the tremors and loud noises it brought mostly muffled through the thick palace walls. Kaldur’s heartbeat, racing with adrenaline, was beating in his ears in the sudden stilled quiet surrounding him. “Where do you suppose the queen may be?” Kaldur whispered to Garth, as they swam quietly and as much in the shadows as they could manage.

“I would assume the nursery, the royal chambers, or the throne room,” came Garth’s answering murmur. “Unless she has chosen to try hiding away to buy time…”

Kaldur shook his head. “That does not sound like Queen Mera. She would want to be somewhere that, if she were attacked, she would be able to counter it without worrying about constraints.”

Garth nodded. “Then our best bet is the throne room.”

No sooner had these words left his mouth, an explosion sounded distantly from somewhere deeper in the palace. Now was not the time to trade speed for stealth, Kaldur realized, and with a shared glance with Garth the two slipped from the shadows and began to swim top speed towards the centermost room, where the thrones were located. The further inward they traveled into the palace, the more leftover damage of ransacking and the struggle of battle they began to see.

The throne room’s large decorative doors were blown clear off their hinges and were lying inside the room, Kaldur noticed as they arrived to the room and swam in. Queen Mera was in the very back of the room, defending the raised platform on which the thrones sat – and Kaldur could only assume the prince was behind her on the thrones, as it was too hard to make out from across the battle. The interior soldiers were fighting their all, and Tula was at the forefront. She was working with several magicked beings at once, her eyes and tattoos aglow, even as she kneed one of Ocean-Master’s men in the gut and followed up with a punch. Even so, this battle seemed much more deadlocked, as Ocean-Master’s men were not spread nearly as thin as the interior security was – Garth had made the right call about effectiveness, it seemed.

Kaldur created dual swords and spun into battle, first taking care of some of the men one of Tula’s conjures battled with.

“You have arrived,” Tula managed to yell, voice abrasive from battle but still holding a hint of relief as she threw a ball of electricity into a foe’s face. “What took you so long?”

“It is an all-out war out there,” Garth yelled in reply, throwing water discs to take out a man who threatened to break through the ranks and to the queen.

“We apologize if we worried you,” Kaldur managed to shout before switching all his concentration to the battle at hand. They would not let this palace fall to Ocean-Master so easily now that they were here.

“You will leave this place, either dead or with regrets!” Queen Mera roared from somewhere behind him as Kaldur simultaneously grappled and electrocuted a man into submission. As he saw in his peripheral vision the familiar tentacles of a large octopus construct begin to reach out and strike, Kaldur knew the queen had the very same sentiments.

They would win.

 

+++

 

When it was all over, things were not ideal. Many interior palace walls were damaged, cracked or in shambles, and furniture and important relics had been damaged and uprooted and overturned. The soldiers had finally taken the unconscious and unmoving intruders out, the merely incapacitated but conscious ones having been the top priority to get into custody. Now the palace did not look like some sort of graveyard of floating bodies…though the probability that many of the invaders had been killed was, of course, high. That Kaldur felt little sympathy at this moment was perhaps the leftover adrenaline from the battle still winding him up.

Queen Mera cradled the prince tightly to her bosom, eyes flickering over him as though she could not quite believe he was sleeping, quietly though fitfully, in her arms. Kaldur had been right in his assumptions – she had placed him on the throne and cast magical protections over him and the dais before the battle had begun. When everything had finally calmed down, the excitement of the whole ordeal had left the prince restless and upset, to say the least. It had taken nearly an hour to coax him to drowse off, all while the soldiers had searched for remaining threats and slowly transitioned Poseidonis out of emergency shutdown.

Tula was the one to break the silence finally. “My queen I…I do not understand.”

The queen did not look up from her child. Garth looked first at Kaldur and then to Tula anxiously. “Queen Mera,” he said. “Why would you and the king take such risk with the prince’s life in order to perhaps draw out Ocean-Master?”

Still staring at the prince, Queen Mera said firmly, “There was no risk. Of course I and the guards would have been able to protect my son. At any cost.”

Her tone was cool and calm and – oh.

Oh, Kaldur realized suddenly, perhaps they had been sent away for slightly different reasons than they had thought. Not to leave Prince Arthur unguarded, but instead in attempt to protect them from witnessing the death of their queen – had that been the outcome.

“And at any rate,” she continued just as calmly, now looking up and taking care to meet each of their gazes one by one. “There was no ‘perhaps’ here. We knew such an invite would result in Orin finding his brother. There was a guarantee.”

None of them could reply to that immediately, at first digesting and then puzzling over what her words meant.

“Did…the king find contact with Ocean-Master during his travels?” Kaldur asked, because it was either this theory or that the king had somehow properly deduced the extent of his brother’s pride and initiative. “Was this some sort of agreement?”

Queen Mera’s expression was one of dull acknowledgement to his words, as if they were old hat to her. “Of sorts. A wager, more like.”

“With the enemy?” Garth asked breathlessly, confused and unsure.

“A trade off,” Queen Mera said more firmly, as though she had found the words she wanted. “Before Orin returned to dismiss you all, they had met – and fought briefly. Orin attempted to convince his brother to see the error in his ways, only to have Orm scoff at him.” An old flicker of anger took hold of her expression, but only for an instant: she soon smoothed it over with blankness.

“So then Orin accused him of cowardice that would have him wait even in the face of opportune chances, accused him of unfit to rule a kingdom even if he was successful in tearing ours apart. That a new movement and new king could not be so slow and cautious to action, that one of such would be doomed to fail. Orin hoped Orm would see reason and step down – he did not. Orm instead took him to challenge over his words. I…” The queen blinked and, with a pursed mouth, looked to a top corner of the ruined room.

“The king did not share with me great detail of the specific direction of that part of the conversation, but…but there was the folly of pride on both their parts, I believe,” her lips upturned into a rueful smile at that, and she paused as if gathering her thoughts.

After a small lapse of silence, she readjusted her hold of her son – Prince Arthur had begun squirming and making tiny, unhappy noises until she shifted him onto his stomach and up against her shoulder – and continued. “At any rate it was decided to simplify their fight, lessen the losses on both sides. Compress months of hide and seek and underhanded tactics into a final blow. Orm may have betrayed his country, but he apparently can still be swayed to act honorably, if only by the barest minimum.”

Prince Arthur kept making his noises of protest. Queen Mera began to rub his back soothingly, but still looked into the distance. “So there was a wager placed: Orin offered to leave the capital open for attack with as light of security as he could manage, and Orm could direct his own forces as he saw fit as long as he remained in a place where Orin could find and challenge him to a one on one battle – wherever Orm chose that place to be.”

Kaldur started at that revelation, while Garth audibly gasped and Tula whispered out a quiet, “what?”

The queen pressed onward as though her words were not startling in the slightest. “So you see, the only uncertainty was whether the king would find Orm and defeat him in a timely manner. The king and I were well aware that Orm would use the tactics Orin accused him too afraid to use, if only because the king had accused as such. And I knew I could hold my own against the attack – and that, if I died in the process, the guards would ensure the prince’s survival in order to someday take the throne. These were easy decisions to make.”

Kaldur looked at her with such disbelief, and such a growing sense of muted horror, that he felt numb. “But…but then the king left to face Ocean-Master alone?” He could only face one thing at a time, and this was the thing that had not yet seen an outcome in their favor.

The queen nodded. “Yes. I choose to believe that Orin will be fine, though I have not received confirmation of such – and if he does die, then I will make sure that this trade off does not end in vain. We have already weakened Ocean-Master’s forces and shown the capital capable of withstanding attack. That should help to address any who have thoughts of turning traitor against the country, and give me time to launch a campaign to track down and finish off Ocean-Master and his remaining subordinates.”

The queen must have realized the shock with which they were staring at her with – Kaldur had known her to be tough but this was beyond his expectations of her capabilities – as her blank mask slipped away to be replaced by a sympathetic expression. Her fingers tightened, ever so subtly, on the prince. “I am sorry to have worried you. These are the pitfalls of ruling a kingdom. We did not see any reason to get you involved in such a muddled way of dealing with the threat. And…”

She again looked down at Prince Arthur, who had finally fallen silent again, head resting in the crook of her neck. Kaldur knew from experience that his lips were moving against the skin of her throat as he slightly suckled in his sleep. Her eyes softened, endeared to her child, and Kaldur tried to not think too hard about the fact that his queen had knowingly placed herself in a position where she may have died for a political wager. What must it feel like, to decide that for this love you would risk death? Something squeezed itself frightened and real and hot in Kaldur’s chest as he thought of his friends and family and he realized that – everyday he worked as a superhero he did the same. For them, he would risk death.

Queen Mera craned her neck pressed a soft kiss to the Prince’s head, then reclaimed enough of her focus to finish what she had to say. “We sent the three of you away for a reason. If anything were to have happened to the both of us during this ordeal, we needed you all to be alive and able to watch over Prince Arthur. That is a duty we have decided best rests with you three.”

The amount of resignation in the queen’s voice, that she was sincere and somber, completely bowled Kaldur over – and his friends too: Tula looked away and into the distance with furrowed eyebrows, face twisted into the defiant expression she often resorted to when upset, as though protesting her emotions; Garth let out a strangled noise, a cross between a sigh and a near-sob, and crumpled in on himself with slumped shoulders.

“I see,” Kaldur managed out, voice quiet and heavy, and then he sighed, long and low, closing his eyes with the weight of such trust on his shoulders.

 

+++

 

The king had not yet returned nor had any word been received yet, and so a search party was sent out in the direction where he last been seen headed, as the place of battle for he and Ocean-Master had not been disclosed to anyone. Kaldur was currently functioning under the assumption that King Orin was simply injured and unable to make contact, slowly making his way back to Poseidonis. He could only handle so many shocks for one day, and refused any that were self-inflicted by this point.

The three of them were not assembled as part of the search team – for now obvious reasons – and instead, after being checked over by medics and found to all have injuries minor enough to avoid overnight stays in the medic ward with the healers, were sent to rest at home – or rather at the temporary dwelling outside of the now in disrepair palace.

“So do you think we will become knighted as royal escorts or something?” Tula said in the dark of the bedroom. The three of them were crammed into the perhaps too small bed, battle-wearied and still shocked by all the revelations. “Surely there is some sort of official process that must be undertaken to ensure the status and rights of glorified nannies.”

“Stop it,” Garth said, draping his arm over her hip. His fingers brushed along Kaldur’s arm in the process, as Kaldur was laying on Tula’s other side. “You should be honored that we have been chosen to protect and serve the prince.”

“I am,” Tula insisted, voice wavering suddenly. “I only wish our role had not resulted in us being…being…”

“Being locked out of important information?” Kaldur offered quietly. “In our king and queen deciding themselves able of ultimate sacrifice while we should sit on the sidelines doing nothing?”

Garth’s fingers searched him out as well, carefully trying to avoid Kaldur’s worst injury on his shoulder by scaling down the length of Kaldur’s arm, and eventually clasped around Kaldur’s wrist. “It was only for this plan, this strange situation. As the queen said, if Ocean-Master has been finished then all is well and done. And if not, and the king is…unable to return to his post, then Ocean-Master will be dealt with in less drastic ways. But dealt with. This plan was a success.”

At those words and implications of the king’s death Kaldur went cold and inhaled sharply, and Tula shuddered between the both of them. Garth pulled them into a tighter embrace, their limbs tangling further.

“It is fine,” Garth continued to insist. “The king is probably fine…and if he is not, then we will respectfully mourn him and then move on. He dealt a heavy blow to the traitor movement. He saved many of his subjects and his entire kingdom from tyranny. He will have died protecting those he loved. And we all will still have each other.”

Kaldur made a sound, and whether it was a strangled laugh or a pleading whine was an uncertainty to even him. Tula squirmed and wriggled until she had turned and was facing him, and she reached up to take his face between her hands. “He is right,” she said quietly, still subdued. “We will be fine because we have each other. Dead or alive, the king has given us something precious.”

Kaldur reached up and touched one of her hands on his face. “I know,” he said, just as quietly subdued. It took some maneuvering, but he dislodged his other arm from stuck between the bed and their bodies and reached above where Tula’s head lay between them to reach out to Garth – and managed to lay his hand on Garth’s shoulder. And like that, they fell silent and faced the remnant of the night.

 

+++

 

Kaldur was preparing to leave the next morning when word finally arrived that the king was indeed alive and successful in defeating Ocean-Master.

“Are you not going to wait for King Orin to arrive?” Tula asked. The king was being escorted back for more intensive medical care and had not returned yet, the journey apparently long enough without the king’s condition to take into account.

Garth frowned. “Or at least say goodbye to Queen Mera?”

Queen Mera was, last they had heard, in the nursery with Prince Arthur – where she had been all night after the attack. Kaldur did not think his departure necessary enough a thing to interrupt her alone time with her child, especially after the events that had recently transpired, and the expectations she had faced those events with.

So Kaldur shook his head. “I must return. I am sure my team and friends are worried. And Roy…” A familiar feeling fluttered in the pit of his stomach, it reminded Kaldur of his realization after the heat of battle, of risks that were worth it (and of ‘you make this place feel like home’ and how ‘this is your home’ and he was a little bit useless without – but he was a little codependent on – ). “I must thank him for helping me with this ordeal.”

Tula raised an eyebrow – Kaldur’s tone may have changed at the mention of Roy. And admittedly that was a very big reason for Kaldur’s hurry to return to the Surface – Kaldur kept replaying the urgency with which he had left Roy, the lack of communication the past day, that outside channels had probably ceased to work during the start of the attempted invasion and were definitely not working now. Oddly enough, Kaldur was also thinking about how – how Roy claimed his reliance on others small and yet could not manage loneliness without constant calls and check-ins, could be sure to let his work overrun him in a strange sense of martyrdom and self-imposed punishment without supervision, had a callous sense of humor about how many times he had nearly died due to recklessness – and about how despite all the little things and occasional bad relapses that Roy had made it incredibly far from the dark days, and Kaldur had been there and witnessed it and had helped, maybe a little…

Kaldur blinked and realized he had zoned out, as Tula’s expression turned from questioning to cautiously watching. Kaldur smiled lightly and shook his head to clear it, and blamed his absent mindedness on the sheer number of things he had gone through in such a short period of time. And that was the other reason for Kaldur wanting to leave in such a hurry.

All the shock and disbelief from the prior day’s events, he thought about admitting, these were also to blame for his lack of eagerness to deal with the royal family so soon. He was tired and they were thankfully alive and the prince was going to officially be his responsibility to protect for the rest of his life – and that was all Kaldur could think of when faced with the prospect of discussing anything with the king or queen.

But he did not voice these thoughts. “I will return soon and see them then,” Kaldur said instead. “Poseidonis will need serious repairs from the battle. And the defeat of Ocean-Master does not mean the abrupt end of his ideas. And anyway, you two have been telling me to visit more often.”

Tula’s expression darkened, presumably at the thought of the still strong though less openly violent purist ideals, but this passed – and then brightened when she registered his last words – and she reached out and took his hand into hers. “Please return soon,” she said, eyes glinting nearly mischievously, and she went on to joke. “It would not do to have this Roy steal you away from us.”

Kaldur rolled his eyes, and as he did so Garth took the opportunity to firmly clasp his shoulder, looking at him earnestly. “I want you to try to forgive the king and queen for their presumptions and sacrifices,” Garth said, then looked to Tula as well, expression hopeful. “You as well. I know you both are hurt, but – ”

It said a lot of their friendship that neither Kaldur nor Tula were surprised by his astute observation – neither had put in so many words their feelings on the matter.

“Of course,” Kaldur said wearily. “I will soon enough – you know and I know, and they probably know too, that I will.”

Tula sighed and waved her free hand. “It was for the best, it turned out the best it could, yes yes. I know – we know.”

Garth lifted an unamused eyebrow at their flippancy, “You two…”

Kaldur lifted an amused eyebrow in response while Tula only smiled sweetly at Garth. Garth sighed and shook his head pinning them both with a resigned expression, and then Tula’s smile changed to something more like a sneaky grin, and Kaldur could only watch as she and Garth began to share some sort of silent conversation with just their eyes and eyebrows. By the end of it Garth was smiling as well and Tula’s now-grin was widening further as she turned back to Kaldur.

“Ah yes,” she said, and she leaned in and lightly kissed Kaldur, first on the tip of his nose and then on his lips. It was a brief kiss, but sincere and tender and familiar, and it left him feeling like he had remembered an old comfortable thing he had forgotten. She pulled away, smile less wild but just as amused. “We are the ones more likely to brood, remember?”

Kaldur let out a small laugh, the comment a nearly ancient one, an old and often recurring professor’s remark from their young days as an inseparable trio at Academy. “Yes of course,” he replied easily. “But we will let our friend with the less gentle and sensitive disposition calm us down.”

Garth sighed, partway exasperated and partway nostalgic as well. He too leaned in, and kissed Kaldur on the cheek and then on the lips, just as brief but heartfelt, their lips brushing as Garth pulled away in slow-motion – and here with these two was this sense of belonging that Kaldur missed.

“If anything,” Garth said. “I need someone to calm me down from the two of you – your ‘sensitive’ dispositions often lead to spontaneous brashness that drags me along for the ride.”

Kaldur swallowed a laugh and reached out, having to release Tula’s hand to manage this, and to pull them both into a tight hug. “It is simply the hand you’ve been dealt Garth, sorry.”

Tula was less apologetic. “You like it. Otherwise you would do nothing but your studies and – and take care of royal crowned princes bouncing on your hip.”

And Kaldur realized that though the warmth in his stomach when he thought of Roy – the way Roy had tried to increase the moisture in their apartment to impossible degrees and could be persuaded to make bad jokes while waiting in the cold of Pokolistan’s remote countryside and had simultaneously told Kaldur to enjoy his leave to the fullest extent but took Kaldur’s worries into his own hands for him – meant something important, this here too meant something important in perhaps the very same way.

And maybe that was alright – would be alright, somehow.

 

+++

 

Kaldur returned through the zeta in the mountain first and foremost, if only to begin putting together a case file and notes, as Robin was becoming increasingly fast and efficient in that field, able to piece together decent reports from minimum detail – when he chose to apply himself and put in the effort, at any rate.

“So what’s this I hear about a state of emergency in Atlantis?” Were the first words out of Robin’s mouth upon Kaldur’s entrance.

Case in point, Kaldur thought. “I suppose you heard that there was one?”

Robin beamed, “Correct! Oh man, no one ever plays along with that anymore.”

Kaldur shook his head briefly amused, “You are welcome. Anyway, I want to brief the important details on it, just to start a file. Aquaman should be up and about later on and he will have a more complete view on what happened for you.”

Robin gave him a salute, “Aye aye, captain!” He was clearly in one of his good, choosing to put in the effort moods, because they started right away.

“Where is everyone?” Kaldur asked as he looked around after they worked through the background information of how Prince Orm was discovered to be Ocean-Master. The cave was surprisingly empty, and no one had passed through in past several minutes.

“Out and around, on errands picking up new tech for Batman and Red Tornado,” Robin said, fingers lightning-quick on the keyboard. “I was finishing closing up some case notes in Gotham, so I got here late.”

Kaldur blinked, and then was retroactively surprised at Robin’s compliance to his request. “Oh. I am sorry then, about making you do the same repetitive task.”

Robin shook his head. “Nah, I wasn’t doing anything, since I missed the fun.” He pulled a face. “If you can call picking up specialty parts fun. I’d more call it chores, but whatever.”

They continued on at an easy pace, which was fine – Kaldur was not necessarily prolonging returning to the apartment for any particular reason, but he needed a moment to just…be okay with everything. And Kaldur had not realized, in all the commotion and adrenaline and shock and worry and revelations, but his shoulder injury was a bit more irritating than he had thought. And since he had returned so soon to Atlantis during his leave, the dry air was once again slightly uncomfortable to breathe. So the somewhat slow speed at which Kaldur explained his case details and Robin interpreted and wrote up in a Batman-preferred-and-approved format was welcomed.

They were nearly to the end of it when the sound of the hangar opening and the ship coming in echoed faintly all the way into the main room.

It took about ten seconds before Wally showed up. “Oh good, a distraction – he’s been bored out his mind and bugging the rest of us,” Wally sighed out, as though his best friend was the biggest burden in the world, per usual. “So cool, thanks for distracting the little dweeb.”

Robin didn’t look up, but did stop typing with one hand to make a shooing motion towards the zeta platform, verbally shooting back, “Go home, you’re the annoying one.”

Wally was not deterred. “Yeah okay. Also hey Kaldur, when’d you get here? You just about done with your vacation?”

Kaldur shook his head at their play-antagonistic behavior, and offered a small smile. “Just about, Wally,” he answered.

“Kaldur!” The others had begun coming in, and Artemis perked up at the sight of him, lifting her hand in a wave. “Long time no see.”

Kaldur nodded at them all, though Raquel scoffed and rushed him with a quick hug. “Idiot, we heard something weird was going on in Atlantis and that you had to go back. Don’t give us that stoic act.”

“Sorry,” Kaldur said, a little amused by the fact that she was pulling away before he had a chance to hug.

“Are you okay?” Conner asked, looking him over – and probably using his supervision to check out his vitals as well. By his side Wolf tentatively sniffed the air in Kaldur’s direction as well.

“Fine, fine,” Kaldur insisted, even as M’gann floated over and carefully hugged him as well.

“Good to hear,” she murmured to him before pulling away, and Kaldur squeezed her arm in reassurance before she was out of arm’s length.

“Soooo why do none of you have boxes if you just came back from an errand run?” Robin interjected.

“Wow you can’t not be the center of attention for like two seconds,” Wally teased.

“Oh zing,” Artemis said with a grin, and she held her hand up for a congratulatory high-five, one Wally reciprocated with great delight.

Zatanna snickered and agreed as well, “I know right? It’s a problem.”

Robin saved and closed the case file (Kaldur also knew from experience that trying to do it now, no matter how close to finished they were, would be pointless) and turned around to lean in a way that looked startlingly like a pose against the keyboard. “I can’t help it,” he said, moving into another dramatic pose and flinging his head back. “I mean, I run around a dark gloom and doom city wearing red and yellow and with a man who dresses up as a bat. I just crave attention.”

Zatanna gasped, seriously surprised as far as Kaldur could tell. “I never thought of it like that!” She hummed. “Now the question is…will I be able to take Batman seriously now?”

“Don’t,” Robin advised far too gleefully. “I don’t.”

“Don’t you?” Artemis challenged. “I’m pretty sure you’re the biggest one pushing on us how awesome the Dynamic Duo is and how Batman’s the greatest detective and all that.”

Wally tsk-ed, “Ah, but my lady, he’s hitting those real teenager-y years. The cynical skepticism and devil-may-care attitude are starting to set in. The end is nigh.”

Zatanna covered her mouth with her hand and shook her head vehemently, “Oh my god, yes totally.”

Artemis tried to swallow her laughter but just ended up snorting instead. “Oh my god Wally, you’re ridiculous.”

“Right, hate to break this to you but you guys are not even that much older than me,” Robin pointed out.

Raquel was stroking her chin in what Kaldur assumed to be a faux-philosophical manner, also playing along. “Oh but those years make a huge difference. You’ll understand one day, angry little teenlet.”

Kaldur ultimately decided not to get involved in that conversation. He turned to M’gann, who watching on at the antics with supreme interest, and Conner, who was scratching Wolf behind the ear vigorously and mostly ignoring everyone. Kaldur had a feeling they felt as he did towards the line of conversation, in that it was intriguing but hard to follow and play along with. There were just certain culture barriers that never went away.

“How was your mission?” Kaldur asked Conner. Now that they were here he did not want to simply leave for the apartment without catching up with his team – he would be back to working with and leading them very soon now, and he was sure much had changed and happened in his long absence. Now that matters really had been, to a certain extent, settled in Atlantis Kaldur could think beyond those issues and instead to how reentry into his usual way of life would go.

Conner shrugged. “Alright – we just made the rounds to different suppliers, wasn’t too troublesome.”

M’gann’s face brightened with realization. “Oh right, the lack of boxes, Robin,” she said, loudly enough that the others fell quiet and looked at her. “We were told to leave them in the transport bay, since some of the supplies are getting moved out for distribution elsewhere. Roy’s doing inventory check over the stuff.”

Kaldur blinked. Oh. “Roy is…here?” He did not care if his team looked at him with that playful and knowing look or if they began to pick fun at him again. There were things he had realized about himself and about life, and at any rate leaving Roy thinking he was still handling regicide attempts and villain ambushes would be cruel if Kaldur could prove to him otherwise. “How is he?”

Artemis shrugged. “Being particularly Roy-ish lately, kinda more snappy and standoffish than usual, but you know…” She made several gestures that seemed to mean basically nothing. In her loss for words, she simply shrugged again. “Just, you were gone, so he was just doing his usual thing he does when you’re busy.”

Kaldur normally would have asked her to explain what that was supposed to mean, many things lost in what Kaldur could only assume were colloquialisms, but he understood enough to hear the Roy was worried and pretending he wasn’t.

“Oh wait…” Robin said, as he too realized the implications of Artemis’s words. He had helped on the case report, and so he understood better what the situation was. “Oh.”

Kaldur did not wait for anything else, simply turned and walked out the main room, heading towards the hanger as quickly as he could without frightening the others with misunderstandings of his urgency.

Once there, Kaldur came upon Roy, crouched with his back towards the entrance as he sealed a box.

“What do you want?” Roy asked, hearing the echo of footsteps before looking over his shoulder. “I’m almost done – ”

His abrupt stop and wide eyes made Kaldur smile. “Hello.”

Roy stood up and whirled around, eyes searching Kaldur’s face as if he could glean everything he needed from Kaldur’s expression. Maybe he could, in some ways. “How did it go? I – when did you get back?”

“Not too long ago. And…there were some shocks and surprises and nasty injuries, but everyone is fine. Everyone is alive.”

Roy breathed out a weighty exhale, as though he had been holding his breath since Kaldur had left yesterday. “Good, good.”

Kaldur, a bit confused at the persisting distance between them, hesitated at his next move. “I have a lot to tell you.”

When Roy raised his eyebrows in earnest, Kaldur faltered in knowing what to follow with. He thought, perhaps irrationally, of how most shocking was perhaps his news of how the post-crisis would have been handled if the king and queen had died in the ordeal. “There were royal decisions made that may have altered my future plans,” Kaldur tried to explain, at a loss of what else to do now that he was uncertain of an approach. “Perhaps far in the future plans, but – ”

Roy made a sound of exasperation and closed the distance suddenly, across the room in a few long strides and pulling Kaldur into a tight embrace. “As far as I’m concerned your royals and their decisions can go jump off a bridge right now.”

Kaldur let out a small laugh and hugged Roy back, now feeling unexpectedly overwhelmed. “Okay. Then we will talk about that later?”

“We will talk about that later,” Roy said with firm conviction. “And when we do there’s some stuff I have to tell you about too. But in the meantime…”

Kaldur blinked in confusion as Roy pulled back and looked directly in his eyes. “What?”

Roy exhaled deeply and his eyes roamed over the details of Kaldur’s face again, more slowly and calmly this time. “Jesus christ I’m glad you’re alive,” Roy said, leaning in carefully to kiss him.

This kiss was deeper than those he had shared with Tula and Garth, though the same sort of warmness and sense of belonging spread through him, and Kaldur’s grip on Roy’s civilian shirt tightened.

“Okay,” Kaldur whispered when they parted to breathe, barely inches apart. “So this falls under things to talk about later.”

Roy huffed out a quiet laugh. “Okay, yes definitely, god you think you’re all cute and – and, shit I don’t know, delightful or something don’t you?”

“You are the one kissing me,” Kaldur pointed out.

“Sure am,” Roy said, and went back in for another kiss.

This time there were catcalls and whistles that accompanied Roy lightly nipping on his lip, so Kaldur knew even before they pulled apart that their teammates had found them.

Get it,” Artemis jeered, and the whole team dissolved into laughter of varying intensity – from Conner shaking his head and lightly chuckling to Robin covering his mouth with both hands as his body was racked with his laughing.

When Roy glared at her, she shot him a completely unapologetic and unfazed look and simply said, “Just doing my role as your sort-of adoptive little sister.”

Roy rolled his eyes, then looked to Kaldur and asked, “Is it later? Can we leave?”

“It can be, yes,” Kaldur answered. Now was as good a time as ever to return to their apartment.

Hilariously enough, and touching in its own way, at least in Kaldur’s opinion, the team gave them a round of applause as they left through the zeta platform. Roy just scowled at them all, but certain things were to be expected.

 

+++

 

They did not immediately get to the talking part. They kissed a bit more, ending up laid out together on their little couch in the living room, and then Kaldur realized how tired he was when he started to yawn while Roy was kissing a trail along his jaw.

“Sorry,” Kaldur barely managed around another yawn.

“Nah,” Roy said, untangling himself from Kaldur and getting up. He leaned down and pressed a soft kiss to Kaldur’s forehead. “You’ve had a rough time. Get some rest. I’ll set up the humidifiers then go through case files and keep busy, so…” Roy shuffled in place awkwardly, then shoved his hands in his pocket. “So take your time.”

So Kaldur did just that.

When he woke from his nap, he was surprised to see it had gone from afternoon to night. Roy was, surprisingly, on the living room floor – instead of at the kitchen table or in his room – with all his files spread out, a notepad in his hand and a pen in his mouth.

“You know, we are going to have to start reinforcing that whole ‘do not bring your work home’ rule again.” Kaldur’s voice creaked from disuse. “Ugh, how long was I out?”

Roy took the pen out his mouth and laid both it and the notepad down, turning to face him. “Couple of hours, no big deal. You okay?”

Kaldur waved a dismissive hand and he struggled into a sitting position.

Roy watched him in silence and then, as his expression flickered between unsure and determined, Kaldur knew he was working up the nerve for something. Kaldur could wait.

“So those things we need to talk about…” Roy finally said, after a solid thirty seconds that was just him staring at Kaldur rub his eyes and carefully stretch his injured shoulder out.

Perhaps it was the long wait that enabled the question to take Kaldur by surprise. Kaldur was suddenly breathless and at a loss for words, so he cleared his throat as he readjusted and sat up more straight-backed, trying to look more alert than he felt. “Ah… Right, so as the others say we are ‘domestic’?”

Roy looked at him funny. “Are you still half asleep? I can wait for you to be awake enough that you aren’t spouting gibberish.”

Kaldur shot him a displeased look. “Ha ha. Roy, we live together. We are a little codependent – ”

“Are not,” Roy said immediately, not even in an angry tone. Just…mutely shocked, but mainly weary, like a knee-jerk reaction Roy did not even realize he had. “So what that I make sure you don’t worry yourself into the ground, and you make sure I don’t drive myself crazy looking for Speedy – which, speaking of…” He looked almost guilty as he gestured at all the files and papers on their living room floor. “I’m close to another breakthrough. So…uh, yeah, if it’s alright with you, could you come along?”

Kaldur could have pointed out the near-hypocrisy in Roy’s insistence and his request, but instead he chose to be the less stubborn one. “Perhaps codependent is too strong a word,” Kaldur conceded. “But we have made little niches in each other’s life. And the others have noticed – and I have noticed. And I would like for our constant presence in each other’s life to not end. So we should probably discuss it and work something out.”

Roy was back to sending Kaldur incredulous looks. “What, you think once I find Speedy I’m going to want you to move out or something? I really didn’t think about this…ever…ending…” His words slowed as he heard his own words, and Kaldur quirked an eyebrow as if to silently say See? though he was feeling charitable enough towards Roy to refrain from vocalizing the word. Small favors and all that, he figured.

Roy’s eyes widened and, after a few seconds, he groaned. “Oh wow. Wow wow wow.”

“You already kissed me,” Kaldur pointed out as Roy palmed his own face and rubbed at his brow. “I hope this is not you having an existential crisis.”

“No, kissing you was the easy part.” Roy admitted. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while, kind of. The timing sort of worked out this time around.”

“Ah,” Kaldur said. What was the appropriate response to something like that, he wondered.

Roy hummed out a quiet, “Yeah.” And then they sat in a contemplative silence for a while.

“So we’re dating?” Roy finally said.

“I suppose,” Kaldur said. “Though really, the difference between us as ‘best friends’ and us as ‘boyfriends’ is not really…much.”

Roy laughed. “True, but no shame in that, you know? There’ll be more kissing though, so that’s cool.”

Kaldur smiled – then realized that, on that subject, there was still more they had to discuss. “Ah Roy, about kissing…”

Roy’s face immediately took on a guarded expression. “What?”

This was a delicate matter, because it was not as if he and the other two had ever sat down and put things into more concrete words or concepts of what and how. It had been more about working out the why, in a way. “With Tula and Garth…that is…”

Roy’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you guys had a threesome during your nanny stint.”

And yet another thing to discuss: the ‘nanny stint’ evolving into their becoming, as Tula had suggested, royal escorts…or honorary escort knights, perhaps? Whatever it was the court decided the official title would be. So yes, that was another thing – because Kaldur foresaw that demanding new responsibilities from him. But the first subject needed serious clarifying, so Kaldur chose to hold off on the rest for now.

“No, there were no threesomes,” he said. “There has just been a few instances of kissing and. Well, it is complicated.”

Roy squinted at Kaldur. “Wait, are you two-timing me? Or, well I guess you’d be two-timing them.”

Kaldur sighed. “No. I just…they and I have begun to breach purely friendship relationship but…it is. It has been platonic, but emotionally it…it has always been…” Kaldur sighed once more and gave up trying to properly explain the complexity of the situation, especially using English. “Roy, you know how much I love them. We have been a trio nearly our whole lives.”

Roy abruptly stood up off the floor only to plop himself next to Kaldur on the couch, bumping their shoulders together. It was a little reassuring, the easiness of touch between them, especially now that Kaldur felt he was losing Roy in a sea of the confusing indefinites of emotions and relationships.

“No,” Roy insisted. “I sort of am getting it. It’s like…you don’t want me thinking you’re cheating on me with your best friends when we’re all kind of sharing each other…?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Whoa, weird. Or not? Are there gonna be rules? Can I ask for a more concrete explanation of what you three are…doing, I guess?”

Kaldur nodded firmly, a little surprised at the quick turnaround how well this was going. “Yes. We will talk. All of us. But I…you and I are different than Tula, Garth, and I.” Kaldur was failing at explaining this properly. But he was determined to try despite that. “Nothing beyond close friendship may come of the three of us together. I am not sure. But with you…” Kaldur did not know where to take that either. Instead he reached up and carefully, softly, touched Roy’s jaw and hoped it would be enough to express what needed to be understood.

Roy nodded slowly, blinking in excess as he stared into Kaldur’s eyes and leaned his face into the touch. “Okay…yeah, okay this might get weird, but I’m willing to try it. I guess.”

“Sorry,” Kaldur said, trying to feel out the limits of Roy’s boundaries. “I know this is a lot to suddenly take on when we have just established that we are dating five minutes ago. If you do not like it, I can talk to the other two and we will agree to keep things exclusive. It is just…complicated. And the Surface has such a different concept and view of polyamory.”

Roy draped his arm over Kaldur’s shoulders. “What, a lot of Atlanteans run around with harems?”

Kaldur twitched at the flippancy and extent of which Roy did not understand polyamory as he did. They could work on that, slowly. “It is not as common as couples, but groups of three or more being romantically involved is seen often enough to be a norm of some sort. As long as we keep communication open, it is possible for this to work out.”

Roy nodded slowly, as though mulling over the concept carefully, so Kaldur turned his head and leaned in to kiss him on the cheek as a thanks for even considering something so foreign to him.

“Oh, communication…” Roy turned and looked at Kaldur, with something like guilt crossing his features. “Er yeah, the thing I wanted to talk to you about…I kind of. Well, one of my contacts ended up being Ja – Cheshire, right?”

“Artemis’s sister?” Kaldur was surprised. Last he knew of her, she had been spotted doing some freelance work in Colombia a few months back but ultimately laying low. “Really?”

“Well,” Roy continued, a little too fast for Kaldur to not get a sense of where this was going. “I’m a familiar face, right? So while you were gone, she got in over her head in something, I don’t know she wouldn't really tell me the details, and showed up here injured because she didn’t have much of a choice. So I helped her out and we hung out and got pizza and watched a B-rate horror movie?”

Kaldur blinked. “So…you made a new friend.”

Roy shrugged. “Well, yeah, but then we sometimes met up during my patrols and we’d just, I don’t know, talk about random stuff. And, I don’t know, I was lonely a lot, so I invited her over a couple of times, and once we went to an Italian restaurant and it was pretty cool.”

“…So you are dating?” Kaldur asked.

Roy made a noncommittal indiscernible noise. “I don’t think so. Chesh doesn’t really want all that. But we hang out and have a good time and keep each other company, so I just…wasn’t sure if you’d have a problem with it – she’s a sort of villain, after all. And she’ll probably still stop around sometimes.”

Kaldur blinked, then, laying his head on Roy’s shoulder, he began to laugh.

“What?” Roy asked. “What’s so funny?”

“Just make sure you tell her about what she’s getting into. I’ll let Tula and Garth know, too.”

Roy scrunched up his nose. “But why is that funny?”

Because Kaldur had set out to have this talk in order to clarify where their boundaries lay. Because he had been prepared to commit to Roy and never explore the possibilities that had been lost to he, Tula, and Garth because of his decision to live on the Surface and all subsequent events. Because the Cheshire factor was blindsiding him with how suddenly it was coming out of left field, and maybe that was nothing but he had heard enough Catwoman tales from Robin to think otherwise, at least until proven to the contrary.

It was all just funny.

“Nothing,” Kaldur finally settled on. “As long as we are upping the ante and attempting to surprise each other at every turn of this conversation, I might as well tell you: the ‘nanny gig’ has not ended. The royal family wants to make the three of us his official babysitter knights or something to that effect and watch over the prince for life.”

Roy spluttered, “What, so you’re a godfather or something now?”

“Or something,” Kaldur said. “Since this was all explained right after how the queen and king had prepared to sacrifice one or both of themselves for the good of the kingdom, the titles were a little vague.”

Roy blinked. “…Uh. Well. Okay then.”

Well okay then indeed, Kaldur thought, more laughter bubbling up from deep within him. Later he would explain what precisely had happened in Atlantis more clearly. And later he would talk to Tula and Garth and maybe the five of them would work something out. Or maybe they would not. They could save the world and entire cities and kingdoms; they could figure this out, one way or another, and it would be alright somehow.