Disclaimer: Ancestrally not mine.
A/N: A year in the making, though more because it's a prize for Midni8ght Imp, who won last year's Scrib!Fic Fanart Contest, than because I've actually been writing this for a whole year. She asked for an Aqualad fic without him as part of a pairing. This took me a while, so sorry about that, Imp, but it decided to just. Keep. Growing. Seriously, every time I thought I'd finished, the fic kicked my arse and said, "No you haven't. Write on, wench!"
Water is Thicker Than Blood
© Scribbler, May 2009.
We all grow up with the weight of history on us. Our ancestors dwell in the attics of our brains as they do in the spiralling chains of knowledge hidden in every cell of our bodies. -- Shirley Abbott.
"You're a complete freak, you know that?"
I sighed and looked up to see Speedy jogging along the corridor. Though I couldn't see her yet, from his shout I knew Bumblebee couldn't be too far behind. 'Freaks' would have meant Mas y Menos.
Except that Speedy would never have called them that. He took longer than the rest of us, but eventually even he realised that treating the twins to the same name-calling he uses on the rest of us was like clubbing a pair of baby seals with a giant-sized mallet – one studded with pieces of broken glass and rusty nails. Mostly, we all just ignored their antics or waded in and fixed what needed fixing with the same weary resignation you develop after you realise that, despite your best efforts, plus the efforts of the most expensive trainer this side of Jump City, your cute little puppy will never be fully house trained.
So, anyway, back to the yelling – or, as I mentally tagged it, Round Four-Hundred-Thousand-and-Sixty-Seven of the Great Battle of the Sexes. Funny how, even though there were four guys living in the Tower, that kind of infighting always seems to boil down to Speedy and Bumblebee. No matter what they go through, or how many times they save each other's butts, they can never get over the irritation that sends them running down corridors, screaming at each other, and provides entertainment for the rest of us.
I didn't mind being distracted. I wasn't really concentrating on the police report in my hand, anyway. I'd been antsy all morning, unable to settle to anything and trying not to think about the circle of red pen on my calendar. Not the main calendar in the control room, but the personal one I kept where nobody else could see it. I'd been trying to distract myself with everything I could think of all morning, but nothing was working.
Mind you, I could've done without Speedy running right into me – although he came off worst when he sent us both cannoning into the pool. He thrashed about like a panicked tourist until I dragged him to the side by his collar, where he sputtered and glared at me like it was my fault.
"The hell are you doing getting in my way, man?"
At least, I think that's what he said. It was hard to tell through all the spitting and gurgling.
I didn't have to reply. The shadow that loomed over us made the eyelets on his mask go wide.
"You wanna repeat what you said, Sassafras?" Bumblebee asked cheerfully. You could only tell she was pissed if you looked into her eyes. Her smile said 'cheerful', but her eyes said 'gonna smoke you like I just discovered fire and the novelty ain't worn off yet'. "Something about me being a freak?"
I looked up at her. She was wearing a soft pink towel, wrapped toga-style around her body, and another on her head in a turban that kept slewing to one side. Unlike most girls, who seem able to bind their hair so not even a thermonuclear explosion could unravel it, Bumblebee has never mastered the hair turban. Speedy sometimes says it's yet more evidence she skipped the line for Feminine Charm when she was made – right before she punches him.
Bumblebee plus towels and wet hair plus Speedy running away? It didn't take a genius to figure out what had happened. Inwardly I groaned. I wanted distraction, but I didn't need this. Not today. Not any day, actually, but especially not today.
For someone who said he hated her guts and constantly announced how manly she was, you could count the number times Speedy had been caught in the bathroom while Bumblebee showered on more than one hand. Admittedly, this time might have been my fault, since one of my distraction techniques had involved cleaning the boys' bathroom. You really can't concentrate on anything except the task at hand when you're scrubbing crud from a toilet bowl.
I hauled myself out of the pool and left them to it while I wandered out onto the terrace.
I don't, as habit, wander anywhere. If I'm moving it's because I have somewhere I need to be and I'm on my way there. Humans like to wander. I've watched them in the park, meandering along, going in circles with no obvious destination. Maybe it's something to do with being born on land. They don't get to use their feet for the first few years and want to take time out to enjoy them later on in life. Atlanteans can swim straight away – not well, but we can do it, and swimming without a destination can be a dangerous business in the ocean. Humans have constructed a civilisation that cushions them from predators and most threats in the natural world. There's a reason no Atlantean has ever tried to tame the oceans the same way.
The terrace has a great view of the sea. I've dived off it a few times. My skin is tougher than humans', but even so, diving from that height isn't something I'd do lightly. Four out of the five times my life was in danger, and the fifth Mas was headed for the water after Mistress of Chaos knocked him off the railing. A human body smacking into the surface from that height is like it hitting concrete.
I turned. Bumblebee had followed me. I stifled my surprise. Usually she'd be busy for at least fifteen minutes lecturing Speedy, even in a towel. The pink fluffy fabric didn't make her look soft at all. Despite her curves, Bee has hard edges in her personality you can cut yourself on, and which you can almost see when you look at her.
"You need me for something?" I instantly regretted phrasing it that way, considering what she was wearing. Don't get me wrong – no matter what Speedy says, Bumblebee's body can be called 'manly' the same way Brother Blood could be called 'fatherly'. I may not be human, but I could appreciate the view. Even so, I've never actually been attracted to her. We slot together like a team and neither of us is willing to mess that up over feelings that may amount to only a heap of seaweed left to rot on the beach.
Yeah, I know – last of the great romantics.
Bumblebee looked at me quizzically. "You okay?"
"You don't look fine."
"How do I look?"
"Like fifteen oil tankers just dumped their load into the bay and you got put on sole cleanup duty." She tilted her head back, talking to me with her chin raised. It's what she does when she's in uncomfortable territory – talking about stuff like feelings, emotional health and stuff that goes deeper than skin-surface but can't be yelled at to make it go away. Sort of a physical C'mon, take your best shot.
I chuckled. "Sounds about right."
"You wanna, y'know, talk about it?" To her credit, she didn't flinch, or make it sound like she'd rather pick up cigarette butts from the gutter with her teeth.
Bumblebee's a good leader. She doubts herself like crazy, and would chew off her own leg before admitting that, but she really was the best for the job. She gets people. She may not always interact well with them, and she may rub some of them up the wrong way with her brusqueness, but the point is she gets them. She understands how people's minds work, what makes them tick, and she's willing to do stuff that makes her uncomfortable to connect with her team on their own level. Cyborg chose well.
She frowned. "You sure?"
No. "Yes." I patted the railing and backed off. "I'm going to go out for a while."
"Take your communicator."
I produced it, flipping it open and shut for emphasis. "Done."
"Hey, Waterboy?" Her eyes were troubled. Part of me wanted to tell her everything, but the rest resisted out of instinct. Old habits … you know the rest. "Be careful, okay?"
That gave me pause. "I always am."
"Yeah, well, be extra careful out there today."
"You know something I don't?"
She narrowed her eyes at me and pushed the end of her towel turban from her face. "I know something's eating you up. You've been jumpier than a cat in a room full of rocking chairs for the past few days."
Countdown. Three, two, one, red ring. "I told you, I'm fine."
Her mouth said, "Yeah, I know," but her eyes said I know you're lying, but I'm not gonna call you on it. Yet.
I saw Speedy on my way out. He was in the garage, throwing a leg over his motorcycle and gunning the engine before he'd even got his helmet on.
"She still mad?" he asked when he saw me.
I leaned on the doorframe. Speedy, the big scary hero, running for his life from a girl in a pink towel -who had only shaved one leg, but was still scary enough to send him scurrying away like a frightened rabbit. If his fangirls could see him now… "Not at me."
"Wiseass." He fastened the helmet and popped the door, but instead of screeching away he looked back at me. I couldn't see his face behind the visor. Still, I got the feeling he was hesitating before he asked, "You want a ride into town?"
I hadn't planned on going into town. Truth be told, I wasn't sure where I'd planned to go. 'Out' was as far as I'd gotten. I knew I was just killing time, but that didn't make it any easier. I considered his offer for maybe a second. "Sure. I'll be your bodyguard."
"Wiseass. The spare helmet's on the hook. Hurry up or I'll leave without you."
He didn't. Neither did he ask where I wanted to go. Speedy can be incredibly dumb sometimes, but other times he's really perceptive. As in, ridiculously so for someone who can remember the barcode for his favourite hair gel, just so the assistant can get his order exactly right, but forget to buy milk even after pouring lumps onto his cereal. I think he could see how I just needed something to fill my time and take my mind off stuff, so as soon as I was on the bike he took off and didn't look back until we were past the suburbs and deep into the wilds of Steel City.
Steel isn't a pearl of a city. It's not even a fake pearl, like the ones you get on cheap bracelets in Christmas crackers. The words 'pit', 'hell' and 'third world battleground' used to feature heavily when we first moved here, but after months of hard work we'd begun to make a difference – from 'hell' to merely 'hellish'.
Steel has always been just like its namesake: hard, grey and cold. The people could be described the same way, until the crime rate finally took a hit and Bumblebee lobbied Starbucks and McDonalds to open branches here. Anywhere those two conglomerates can't stay in business is truly dead, but six months after the mayor cut the ribbons (yes, the grand opening of homogenised food outlets actually brought out the mayor), people were still eating Big Macs and drinking Caramel Lattes. Everywhere else in America they're condemning both, but here in Steel they're welcomed as a sign of a perking economy.
Speedy eventually pulled up outside the gates of the Municipal Park, which is more grey than green, but has grass and a pond with a few moth-eaten ducks, and so qualifies for the title. He flipped up his visor but didn't remove his helmet.
"Not one of your usual hangouts," I remarked.
"Just call me Mr. Culture."
"Plus she'll be checking your usual spots."
"Screw you. Get off the bike."
I shrugged and dismounted. Speedy followed suit, locking the motorcycle with the immobiliser and all the other contraptions needed to keep it safe. In Steel City, not even the superheroes' vehicles are exempt from the chop-shoppers.
"You going in or what?"
"Why do you want to go to the park?"
Speedy made a movement with his shoulders that could've been a shrug or a spasm. "Better than waiting around for a call-out."
See, that's the thing about Speedy. When there's no crime and no evil supervillain who needs squashing, the rest of us breathe easy and take the opportunity to rest. Speedy, on the other hand, thrives on adrenaline and gets restless if things are slow. It's probably a throwback to a childhood in tights, running around Star City as Green Arrow's sidekick. Speedy has never really lived without doing this job – or the trimmings that come with it, as his massive fanbase shows. For him, the idea of not being a hero is like … like me giving up swimming, or Bumblebee giving up flying. His inability to keep a good work versus rest-of-his-life balance is what discounted him as leader material.
Well, that and the fact his idea of a good strategy is 'just keep shooting it with different arrows until something works'.
We went into the park and just … wandered. Speedy thrust his hands deep into his pockets. As we walked, he let out little huffs, which became progressively louder as his irritation rose.
Finally he couldn't hold it in any longer. "This is so boring it makes watching paint dry seem interesting."
"This was your idea," I pointed out.
"Yeah, well, it was a bad idea."
"You have those?"
He scowled. "Everybody has off days, okay?"
"And days when they ogle girls in the shower even though they know it'll get them new dents in their head."
His cheeks went the same colour as his suit. "Well if you hadn't decided to clean our bathroom I wouldn't have needed to use the girl's bathroom, and that wouldn't have happened, would it?" He added hastily, "And I wasn't ogling her. She just happened to be there already."
"Mmm." I folded my arms. "That happens a lot to you, doesn't it?"
His scowl morphed into a glower. "Just what are you implying?"
Usually I wouldn't have been implying anything, but I was pent-up as well and needed an outlet. Teasing him was as good a means as any.
I'm not good at being playful. I don't always know where jokes are supposed to end. Beast Boy often accuses me of being 'just too stuffy to grow a proper sense of humour'. I never mention that I didn't really have great role models for it, or that growing up the way I did, with practically nobody my own age to talk to, probably stunted my social skills. There doesn't seem any point.
At that thought, the circle of red pen loomed large in my mind. My playfulness, uncommon as it was, instantly nosedived. I shook my head and moved off. I had no pockets, so I couldn't put my hands in them. Instead I linked them behind my back and walked, spine ramrod, along a line of emaciated trees that wouldn't have looked out of place in photos of post-napalm Vietnam. "Nothing. I'm not implying anything."
"Hey, wait up!"
I kept walking. Maybe I was trying to escape the red circle. It felt like something was closing in on me as the day wore on. I'd tried ignoring it, distracting myself with chores, work and this outing – why else would I have voluntarily cleaned behind the boys' toilet? – but nothing was working. I could still feel the line of the marker pen tightening like a noose around my neck.
Stupid. I knew it was stupid. Still, knowing it and knowing it are two different things. My head told me it was just a day, like any other day, but my heart threw itself against my ribcage like it wanted out whenever I thought back too far, to when this day actually meant something. Or at least when it meant something different.
"Man, wait the hell up." Speedy caught my shoulder and spun me to face him. "Screw this softly-softly crap. What is wrong with you?"
"Nothing's wrong with me. Unless you count a dislike to people invading my personal space."
"Take your hand off me."
"Now look here -"
"Take. It. Off. Me."
Speedy looked down at his hand and slowly removed it. "Okay. Now tell me what's bugging you."
I quit trying to deny there was nothing wrong. "I don't want to talk about it." I turned and walked towards the pond, where the ducks quacked hopefully in case we had bread.
A young mother with a pushchair was crossing the ornamental bridge, and a couple of teenagers who were obviously skipping school walked along the line of trees. They billed and cooed like a pair of dolphins, him ducking his head every so often to sneak a kiss, her dancing away and forcing him to chase her. Humans really have no idea how close they run to the animal kingdom. They think they're so much higher than anything that goes on four-plus legs, or flies on wings, or swims with a tail. They think civilisation makes them better or something. Funny; I never heard of dolphins starting wars, or ducks developing biological weapons that could wipe out the planet in the blink of an eye.
I turned away from the pond and stalked back the way we'd come, away from the young couple and the ducks and the mother with her pushchair and … just everything. Everything I didn't want to think about, everything I probably should've examined in a lot more detail, but which made me want to break things. It used to be a lot easier to deal with today, when it was just me and Tramm, or just me. Having teammates complicated my life from the very beginning.
No, scratch that. Having friends made things complicated.
I'm not used to being open about emotions, or being with people who want me to be open about them. It used to be just me, until BB and the original Titans sucked me into their world like a riptide. Tramm never forced me to talk about stuff. Why would he? He was there, so he knew not to ask. Even though he never raised the issue of my powers, he's not stupid. A guy who can repair the T-Sub – surface-dweller technology, which is all metal and wires, no organics at all – only five minutes after first laying eyes on it? He had to have figured it out when he first saw –
An almighty splash pierced the air, followed by a scream. I was already past the treeline, but I heard Speedy's voice.
Another splash, and sobbing. Someone kept shrieking, and the high-pitched yap of a small dog started up in tandem with her. Instinctively I turned and ran back to the pond to see a buoy of ginger hair cutting through the water towards a suspicious cluster of bubbles. Leaning over the railing of the bridge was the young mother I'd observed earlier. She had a leash in her hand, attached to the yappy dog, but no toddler in the pushchair.
Speedy's head disappeared beneath the surface. I was already in motion, cursing myself even though there was no way I could've known this would happen. I was better suited to water crises, not Speedy. Not that he can't swim, but it's like sticking a band aid over an arterial wound.
I ran into the shallows and executed a typically perfect dive, reaching with my aquakinesis for anything that shouldn't have been beneath the water. It's difficult to describe how I 'see' things when I use my powers. The best I can do is to say it's like a coloured tickle in my brain – like the bursts of lights you sometimes see when staring into the blackness of a dark room at night. I ghosted over weeds, which appeared to me like waving purple fronds in a sea of grey. Tin-cans, old Coke bottles, a discarded shopping cart – green mesh, the glimmering yellow of water on glass, and then two lumpy purple-black blobs that moved more than anything else.
I swept out, reached without my hands, and made contact without actually touching either of the two bodies. The water was a conduit, my connection with the molecules that made it up even stronger because I was actually in the pond. I ratcheted up behind them and broke the surface seconds after they did.
Speedy was clutching the toddler like he had no idea how to hold small children, but at least he had the kid's head tipped back, which made it easier for me to draw the water from her nose and mouth. She hadn't swallowed too much, thank goodness. I've never been happier to hear a child start crying that I was right then.
"My baby!" I realised the mother was screaming at us. "Charlotte! Give me my baby! Give me my Charlotte!" She yelled like we were trying to kidnap her instead of save her.
"Jeez, lady," Speedy coughed, too low for her to hear over the toddler's crying. "Don't say thank you or anything."
I called up a fountain to raise us to the level of the mother's arms. She snatched greedily at the little girl and hugged her close, glaring like we'd tried to drown her. I could see Speedy frowning. He doesn't suffer fools well.
But his expression morphed into shock when, instead doing my usual thing of mediating everyone into a calmer frame of mind, I exploded, "Why weren't you watching her?"
The woman's eyes grew round. Evidently she hadn't been expecting me to snap, either. Everyone in Titans East has a reputation – Bumblebee is the tough chick, Speedy is the vain one, Mas and Menos are the comic relief, and my role is level-headed mediator. I make sure Bee doesn't work herself into the ground trying to prove she's risen above her villainous roots. I keep Speedy from antagonising everyone too much, and Mas y Menos from destroying everything in their attempts to have ten-year-old-super-speedster fun. I'm the voice of reason; slightly po-faced and more serious than the others. I don't bark at distraught women.
Expect that I did. And I kept on barking at her, like an attack dog at the end of its leash – bigger, meaner and more dangerous than the little mutt in her hand.
"Don't you care? She could've drowned. If we hadn't been here, she could have died. Don't you know you're supposed to keep watch of little kids around water? What kind of mother are you?"
"I … I …" she stuttered. "I only took my eyes off her for a second. The dog was tangled … she can undo her safety belt …"
I glowered at her. "So you should've been watching her even more. How would you have felt if nobody had helped her?"
"I-I…" Her eyes filled with fresh, angry tears. "Don't you yell at me! Don't you dare yell at me! You got no right to be yelling at me. I got civil liberties; constitutional rights and all that stuff. You don't got no right to yell at me, buster. I'm doing a great job raising my daughter. It ain't easy being a single mother, y'know? So don't you start yelling at me like some common criminal when I make a mistake. You got any idea what it's like raising a child without a daddy?"
My eyes blazed. The backs prickled like they were hot stones. My expression must have broadcast loud and clear that I was about to say something we'd all regret – especially me.
Speedy put a hand on my shoulder. "Leave it, man."
I shrugged him off. I was ready to continue, but he wasn't ready to let me.
"Aqualad," he snapped. "I said leave it." He looked at the mother. "But he's got a point, lady. And a thank you would've been nice."
She flipped him the bird. A true model of modern motherhood. "You're superheroes, aren't you? It's what you're paid for."
"We get paid for this kind of abuse?" he echoed.
I turned away, disgusted, and dived off the fountain of water. I resurfaced at the shoreline where I'd run into the pond, then turned and dumped Speedy on the opposite shore. I didn't think he'd want to be let down next to the woman. She might've set her dog on him. He yelled something, but I walked away. Whatever it was, I didn't want to hear it. I was fizzing inside like a shaken up bottle of soda. That mother's face was suddenly ringed in red marker in my mind.
I kept walking. I walked right out of the park, along the sidewalk, and onto the byway that intersected the main street. I stood on the corner waiting for the WALK sign to signal me across. It was too slow, even though I could only have spent ten seconds staring at it. I turned on my heel and stalked stiffly away like I had metal rods in my limbs.
Speedy caught up with me outside the Starbucks. The logo stared down at us, a polished homage to capitalism and caffeine. I kept my eyes on it as he thundered up behind me and whirled me around.
"Okay, playtime's over," he gritted. "What the hell is wrong with you?"
"Nothing is -"
"Don't give me any of that. You went apeshit back there. Completely over the line."
"Apeshit? Is that a technical term?"
He stared hard at me, as if searching for the answers in my face. When he found none he spoke again, his voice hard as the diamond-tipped arrows in his arsenal. "That wasn't like you. I don't think I've ever heard you yell like that except at people trying to kill us. Yeah, that woman was irresponsible, but you looked like you were ready to rip out her eyeballs and give them to Bumblebitch for earrings."
I kept up my scowl for a few more seconds before I let it deflate. Being that angry was tiring, and suddenly … suddenly, against my better judgement, I wanted to tell him. Speedy and I first met when we were trying to tear chunks out of each other in the Master of Games's whacko contest. It wasn't the best footing for a lasting friendship, and some days it felt like we were barely tolerating each other, but at that moment his demeanour told me he wouldn't offer me sympathy I didn't want, advice I wouldn't take, or condolences I didn't need.
I sighed. "Want to go in?" I nodded at the Starbucks.
"Since when do you drink coffee?"
I stared at him.
He relented. I could hear the grating noise as he caved – like the heavy grind of stone on stone. "Okay."
The thing is, I really don't drink coffee. Speedy and Bumblebee fight for the pot each morning, each not wanting to be left with the dregs, but I've never wanted to compete – not just because I have more sense, but because I don't like the taste. I once swam through an area of ocean after an oil tanker went down. I was sick for a week. Drinking coffee just reminds me of that.
The barista behind the counter was utterly bored and in no mood to wait around for an inexperienced patron like me. He was to customer service what standing on an aeroplane wing is to wind chill factor. He sighed, he tutted, he rolled his eyes and perused the chipped black polish on his nails. Eventually he slammed a teabag into a large paper cup, dumped hot water over it and thrust the results at me. Speedy, at least, got a sullen bobble of whipped cream on top of his frappuccino thing. It was weird; I'd always imagined him drinking his coffee black, no strings, like he does first thing in the morning, not going for one of those overly complicated concoctions that takes five minutes to say. Maybe the morning ritual was just more competition with Bee, who really does like her coffee so strong you could stand a spoon up in it.
We sat across from each other in giant squashy chairs, tucked into a corner where nobody could overhear us. It was uncomfortable. I kept sinking backwards, but pulling myself upright again quickly grew awkward in the silence. Our drinks sat on the low table between us like guns pointed at our heads. I wondered which would go off first.
"Do you know how Atlanteans are different than humans?"
Speedy seemed surprised at my opening gambit. "What?"
"Just answer the question."
"You breathe underwater and take offence when people eat fish."
Trust him to boil it down to a thinly-veiled insult. I stared at him. Humans aren't generally aware of Atlantis, or its people, and that's the way most Atlanteans want it. They dislike the surface world and those who live in it. As far as I know, I'm the only one who's ever chosen to live up here.
Speedy sighed. "Atlanteans are stronger than humans and … um … have tougher bodies to withstand water pressure. You have freaky eyes for seeing in the dark at the bottom of the ocean. And you don't have tear ducts because, duh, you live underwater. Atlanteans' lungs … hold more air?" He was struggling. "You talk to fish. You can move water with your mind."
I nodded. "That's right. I do."
He squinted at me. "You mean other Atlanteans don't?"
"Can't," I corrected softly. "Most Atlanteans can only speak telepathically to each other, and perhaps a few more of the more highly developed species if they're talented enough. The physical stuff you mentioned is common to all – eyes designed for low-light environments, more durable skin, stronger bones and more resilient internal organs that can cope with living underwater – and but not the aquakinesis. That's specialised."
"Like only a few can do it?"
"A very few." I didn't flinch. "Only one family, in fact." I forced myself to keep my voice level. "Do you miss your dad?"
Speedy did flinch. We don't talk about our secret identities much, especially not in public. Before he became Green Arrow's sidekick – before he was renamed Speedy and was still just Roy Harper – he lived with his father, a widowed forest ranger who worked extensively with the Navajo Nation. His father's work was directly responsible for him getting into archery in the first place, when a medicine man called Brave Bow took him on as his student. Through him Roy first met Green Arrow, another of Brave Bow's former students.
When Roy's father died in a suspicious cabin fire the ensuing events led to Roy working with Green Arrow to take down the men responsible: smugglers his father had come perilously close to uncovering. Green Arrow was impressed and Brave Bow was too old to adopt a teenage boy. The rest, as they say, is history. I knew the story because Speedy prefers to lay all his cards on the table in one go, and told it to all of Titans East right at the very beginning. We took it and didn't push for more than he was willing to give.
He narrowed his eyelets at me. "Yeah," he said after a moment. It'd been years, but the rawness still lurked under his tone like an unhealed wound under a bandage. "Every damn day."
My wound had gone septic under its dressing. "My mother died," I said.
His face twisted up. "Aw, jeez. When?"
"Not recently. Before I met the Titans. Underwater rockslide. Total accident. I didn't have anyone I could go after for retribution to make myself feel better afterwards."
His eyelets narrowed even further, practically just lines in his face now. I knew he was wondering if that was meant as an insult.
"I kind of wish I had, though," I went on. "Someone I could punish, or blame, but there wasn't anyone. That's the thing about accidents; nobody's responsible. You're left feeling really useless and … pointless." For a second I was back there. I heard her cry out. I heard the rumble of rocks and felt the rush as I sped towards her, faster than ever but still too late.
Hastily I shook the images away. Nobody needs to relive that kind of thing.
"I tried to save her. It was the first time I ever used my aquakinesis. The first time it showed up in me at all, actually. It didn't help, but because of it she had to tell me the truth. She wanted to explain that I was different than regular Atlanteans, and why. It was the last thing she ever said to me, along with 'Don't try to find him'."
"My father. Me and my mother, we lived in a little settlement outside Atlantis, with non-Atlanteans. I'd wondered, as a kid, why we didn't live with our own people. It turned out it was because she was hiding me."
"My father's advisors. People at court. Unscrupulous people who would've used me as a bargaining chip against my father if he ever knew I existed. Overzealous loyalists who would've seen me as a messy loose end that needed to be tied up. People who would've wanted me out of the way, and wouldn't have been too fussy about how that happened. People who would've objected to a baby who was born to a commoner but could do things no other commoner could."
Speedy's eyelets widened as he caught on. "So your father -"
"Yeah. And she was right; I shouldn't have tried to find him. There's already a prince of Atlantis." I snorted. "Would you believe we share the same birthday? Talk about irony. I'm two years older, though. In Atlantis the month is called Seaweed-Turn, because of when it falls in relation to the seaweed harvest. You call it September up here. Fifth day."
"But that's –"
"Yeah." I spiralled a lacklustre finger in the air. It didn't leave a red line of ink, but it might as well have. "Happy birthday to me." And my mother's death was the gift that just kept on giving.
I didn't say anything.
"You never wrote your birthday down in your file." Speedy's tone was vaguely accusing.
I shrugged. "I don't like to make a big deal of it."
I forced away the memory of going into the city to find the celebrations in full flow. All hail Prince Nadeen, true and rightful prince of Atlantis. There were pictures of him strung up on poles, one for each year he'd lived, and each depicting him on a previous birthday. He had black hair, cut short in back with the front strands piled on his head in a topknot, and eyes the colour of onyx at the bottom of a deep canyon. I remembered people looking at me as I stood staring, their eyes going to the pictures and then back to my face. If I hadn't been wearing my hair long and loose we could almost have been twins.
He came out onto the balcony of the palace with his father and mother. There was uproar. Atlantis isn't somewhere that belittles its royals, maybe because in Atlantis the royal family don't just sit pretty on top of taxes without actually doing anything. The king and queen looked at Prince Nadeen with such love that even far below, at the back of the crowd, I could almost taste it.
Like Speedy said, a major difference between Atlanteans and humans is that Atlanteans can't cry. Until I got to the surface world I didn't even know what crying was. What I felt when looking up that balcony, though … if anything ever made me want tear ducts so I had a way to vent that emotion, it was then.
I left without even trying to get into the palace. I knew then that there was no place for me there. I swam as far from Atlantis as I could, eventually taking shelter in caves so near the surface world no self-respecting Atlantean would find me by accident. Tramm came after me. He was my mother's friend, and he stuck by me. If it hadn't been for him, I think I may have gone mad.
I stayed in those caves even though he encouraged me to go back to the settlement. I was pretty self-sufficient, since I'd had a lot of practise while growing up. I didn't want to be where everything reminded me of my mother. Until Beast Boy and the Titans arrived in their sub, exploding my peace and showing me there was a different way, I thought I was fine dealing with life with as few people in it as possible. It wasn't anything as well thought-out as 'fewer people to hurt me or let me down'. I was just … not happier, but it was easier when it was just me and Tramm. I wasn't an Atlantean Prince. I hadn't been born into that life, so the world had no right to then ask me to be responsible for more than just myself.
But whether I have the title or not, the responsibility of a ruler was too ingrained in me. That business with Trident unearthed my deep-seated need to protect – things, places, people. It turns out I don't have an undying loyalty to Atlantis, but I can't bring myself to just ignore it when innocent people need help. It'd be easier for me scrape off my own skin with a blunt fishhook.
Huh. Even now I think it's weird, how things went. Whenever I'd thought about having this conversation at all, I'd imagined it with BB. I had to earn his friendship, which … I don't know, maybe that made it mean more. I'm used to working hard for things that are important. If I do have a 'best friend', it's Beast Boy. Yet when it came to crunch time, it wasn't BB sitting across from me, it was Speedy: teammates first, tenuous friends second, and so not the people you'd expect to be sharing secrets.
"Trident almost killed him once," I suddenly blurted.
"Nadeen. The prince. Trident was a known criminal. The Atlantean authorities thought they'd captured him, so they dropped their guard. They were wrong. They just had one of his clones. A few days later he infiltrated a convoy of merfolk who were headed to the court market. He somehow smuggled himself into the main palace, intending to assassinate the king and usurp the throne. Trident thought he was perfection come to life, so in his mind it was only right that he should rule. The prince intercepted Trident on his way to the throne room. He tried to stop him. It didn't go well."
I was brief when I told Speedy the part about how news of Nadeen's terrible wounds reached even my isolated corner of the ocean. King Orin vowed to punish Trident, but he was torn between setting out personally and staying by his son's side. Nobody knew whether Nadeen would make it. The king, everyone said, was in turmoil. He wanted vengeance, but if his son died while he wasn't there, he wouldn't have been able to live with himself.
"Is that why you were so gung-ho about getting Trident?" Speedy asked. He'd heard the story. I canvassed huge areas for days, and honed in on reports of Trident-spottings like a shark when blood hits the water. "Because he hurt your -"
"No," I cut him off. "I had no connection with either Nadeen or the king, other than biology. I still don't. They don't even know I exist. They think the Titans defeated Trident, and I'm happy for them to think that. Atlanteans don't bother with humans or human affairs if they can help it." I paused. "Well, except for me. But I didn't go after Trident because he hurt Nadeen, or because he tried to usurp the king."
"So why did you?"
"Because …" I paused again. I'd had more than enough time to think about this, but I still couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer. "I think because I wanted them to keep what they had. I wanted them to stay together. If Nadeen was going to die because he tried to protect his father, then I wanted his father to be with him. Like I was with my mom." I frowned. There was more to it than that, but how do you tell someone like Speedy about the hollow need to make sure someone else has what you can't have? Like an anorexic feeding up people around them, or a crippled sportsman coaching others. I couldn't put it into words, even for myself.
Maybe that was why I'd been so antsy all day, and gone off at that woman when she failed to take care of her child. Parents need to value their children. You can't get back the time when that connection isn't there, or has been neglected, or lost. My birthday brought me closer to Nadeen. I could just picture the celebrations lining the streets again; one more picture to add to the displays. I wasn't a nobody anymore, I was a Teen Titan. I had become somebody, but Nadeen had always been a prince, and would always be one, too. Even if he'd died, I couldn't have taken his place or that role.
I was never given the opportunity.
I shoved that thought away before it could take root.
Speedy stared at me. I looked at my rapidly cooling tea, but I could sense he was staring. Were we connecting? Was this what was called a 'moment'?
"You're an idiot, you know that?"
"What?" I lifted my eyes to meet his – or the eyelets of his mask, at least, which were now scrunched up in disgust.
"All this time we've been treating you like an ordinary palooka, and you're a freaking prince."
"I'm not," I said shortly. "I'm not a prince."
"Your dad's the king of Atlantis. That makes you a prince."
Ladies and gentlemen, Speedy: master archer, wannabe badass, sensitivity of a hardboiled egg. "I am not," I gritted, "a prince." Did he really just miss the entire point of this conversation?
"You're still an idiot. And a coward."
I bristled. "What did you just say?"
"You're sitting a foot away from me. You heard what I said." Speedy folded his arms. "You were too scared to reveal yourself to your family. You have a father and a half-brother, but you've done everything you can to stop them finding out about you, and why? Because you don't want to give them the chance to reject you. That's what it is, isn't it? It's not about wanting to keep the status quo, or not bring your father's 'indiscretion'," he made quote marks with his fingers, "to light. It's that you don't want them to say they don't want you, so you don't give them the opportunity. As long as you think you're the one making that decision you can keep acting all noble and shit. You even moved onto the land – where you dry out and have to dunk yourself in water every few hours just to stay alive – to keep them from finding out about you." He shook his head. "And I thought you were so good at holding yourself together. It turns out you're just as screwed up as the rest of us."
"Speedy," I growled. I'm not kidding, I actually growled. The barista paused in picking off his nail polish to glance over at us.
But Speedy wasn't to be put off. "You know what I think? I think you went after Trident because you were frightened someone would come after him and find you by accident, so you took care of the problem and let Robin's Titans take the credit to make sure it couldn't be connected with you. You didn't want the slightest chance your family could track you down."
My teeth crunched. I realised I was grinding them. "Do you realise how close you are to taking that coffee through an orifice other than your mouth?" It bubbled like it was still over a heat source, the froth getting bigger and bigger under the force of my anger. Did I mention that my aquakinesis is affected by my emotional state?
And also something else. Something other than anger.
Because what Speedy was saying? I couldn't say it was completely, one hundred percent untrue. I'd just spent so long avoiding the thoughts that hearing someone else put them into words made my stomach acid – also stronger than humans' – rise into my gullet like a burning fountain.
I swallowed. Suddenly I felt dried out, like my skin was about to crack, even though I'd been in the pond recently. My whole body felt tighter, squeezing me like an ill-fitting bodysuit.
That's bodysuit, not unitard.
When I get dehydrated it's worse than if a human does. Male human bodies are about sixty percent water, females are fifty-five percent. You know that saying about how you can survive longer without food than without water? Take that saying seriously. When a human gets dehydrated they get thirsty and headachy, like they have a bad hangover, which gradually progresses into muscle cramps, spotty vision, fatigue, dizziness and, in really bad cases, fainting. It usually takes a few hours for real dehydration to set in.
When I get dehydrated I go through all those symptoms in about fifteen minutes, and by the time I get to the fainting stage I'm delirious and nothing short of throwing me into enough water my entire body is submerged will do any good. Life on land is no picnic for an Atlantean.
So why do I stay?
Because I'm a Titan. Because I can do actual good up here. Because part of me does enjoy the hero worship. Because I like having friends. Because I took an oath when I joined Titans East.
Because I'm scared.
I got up and walked away from Speedy without looking back.
I walked back along the high street, back to the park. I power-walked past Speedy's bike, through the gates and right back to the pond. The toddler and mother and yappy little dog weren't there anymore, but I stood where they'd been on the bridge and just stared at the water. When I heard footsteps I jumped over the side and dived in.
I didn't come up for a while. When I did, I wasn't surprised to see Speedy leaning over, waiting for me.
"You finished having a tantrum now?"
"Dry up." A true undersea insult – not that he'd know it. Say that to an Atlantean and they'd punch you in the face. Say it to a human and they think you're being cute.
"I'm the human, remember? I like being dry." Speedy turned in time for the water I'd raised on the other side of the bridge to splash him in the face. It twirled around him like the ribbon on the end of a stick in a gymnastics dance, giving him no place to go if he didn't want to get soaked. "Hey!"
I said nothing, just narrowed my eyes and pulled the vortex tighter, forcing his arms to his sides.
"Oh this is real mature. I say something you don't like so you lash out at me. If your fans could see you now I'll bet they wouldn't -"
"You followed me."
"Well duh. I'm your teammate. You can be the most irritating, hypocritical asshole on the planet, but that doesn't mean I won't come after you in a pinch. Titans together, remember?"
"I'm in a pinch?"
"Depends. What're you gonna do now?"
I pressed the water so close it was brushing the hairs on the nape of his neck. His shoulders rose. I dropped it back, giving him a few inches breathing room.
"Just because I told you some personal stuff doesn't mean I'm going to have some big epiphany and go running to the palace with my arms open."
"Fine. But that means I have permission to call you an idiot whenever I want."
"Why not? It's true. I'd kill to see my dad again. You have a ready-made family waiting for you, and you won't even let them know you're alive. Talk about selfish."
"You don't get to tell me what's selfish and what's not. Not about this. Our situations are totally different."
"Except for the part where I'm so jealous I could cheerfully impale you on a diamond arrow."
"Your ears not working today? I said I'd want to see my dad again if I could."
I processed this. It was wrong of him to guilt-trip me, but since when has that ever stopped Speedy? It wouldn't today, it won't tomorrow, and it didn't then.
I floated, staring at the reflections around me, pulling oxygen from the water and absently replaying that conversation I once had with Bumblebee about how I'm even able to do that. I don't have gills, and despite all I've said about Atlantean physiognomy, I'm no expert. I can tell you the basics of how we're different, the same way you could probably tell me how you're different than chimps, or reindeer, or cows (by the way, four stomachs? Talk about overkill). I just can't give many details beyond that. All I can say is what I told Bee; that when I'm over-water I pull oxygen from the air, and when I'm underwater I pull oxygen from the water itself. I don't know how I do it, I just do it.
"I don't want to see him," I said at last.
"Do you even know what he looks like up close?"
"… Yes." From peering behind a rock when he came to thank BB and the Titans for dealing with Trident. King Orin is blond. I guess my colouring comes from my mother's side, and Nadeen's comes from his mother. Our eyes and slimness are from our father, though.
Our father. Our.
My father the king.
My father, King Orin of Atlantis.
My mother, Coraima, one-time handmaiden to the Queen.
Queen Ephyra, who was childless for so many years that people started calling her the Barren Queen, until Nadeen was born.
Prince Nadeen, who gave his mother a new reason to live; who became instantly beloved by the people and repaired his parents' failing marriage.
His parents, the king and queen.
The king, my father.
Me, the bastard result of his short-lived affair with a servant.
The servant, my mother, who was sent away when she fell pregnant.
She never told me whether it was the king who sent her away. Maybe it was Queen Ephyra. Maybe it was the king. Maybe it was neither of them, and she took herself off when she realised she was going to have Orin's baby. Whoever decided she should go, they also decided for me. I wasn't wanted at the palace when there were no children there. Would there really be a place for me now that emptiness had been filled by perfect Nadeen?
I missed my mother so much I felt sick. It was the one thing I hadn't said to Speedy.
I shut my eyes, ducked beneath the surface, and stayed there for nearly an hour.
By the time I resurfaced it was starting to get dark. The bridge was empty. I got out of the pond, shook myself semi-dry and left the park. I'd expected to walk home, but when I reached the gates the bike was still there. Speedy was on it, looking irritated, but he just held out the second helmet and waited for me to take it. There was the wrapper from a Big Mac in his other hand.
"I bribed some kid to go get it for me. Most expensive burger I ever ate."
"You waited," I said, arms by my sides.
"You still a Titan?"
"Me too, so I waited for you. Now get the hell on the bike so we can go home. I'm starving."
"You just ate a Big Mac."
"That's not real food."
He gunned the engine the moment I touched the seat. I barely had time to find my balance before we were roaring away, back to the Tower. The world was nothing more than smears of colour rushing by, and for a short time I had nothing to think about except hanging on tight and not turning into jam each time Speedy took a corner too fast.
The garage doors opened easily for us, but Speedy hesitated before dismounting and watched the elevator like he expected someone to burst through it wielding a cudgel with a nail through the end.
Or a pair of Stingers.
"She's probably forgotten she's mad at you by now," I said.
"No, she's probably found some other reason to be mad at me by now," Speedy corrected. "PMT for Bumblebitch means Permanently Mad and Trying-to-kill-me."
"Careful. People will start to think you don't like her."
He mumbled something that might have been words, and traipsed towards the elevator like a condemned man who'd ordered steak as his last meal and got gruel. "You coming?"
"I …" I hesitated. Visions of red marker rings started dancing in my head again. The water had drowned them for a while, but suddenly they were back, hot and red like fire – water's natural enemy. Douse fire with enough water and you can put it out, but expose water to enough fire and it evaporates.
"Oh no," Speedy snapped, grabbing my wrist and yanking me along. "If I'm gonna face her, you're my shield. As far as she's concerned we've been fighting crime all day. That's practically what she lives for, so it should please her, and she can't get all in my face if you back me up."
Having little option, I consented by following him into the elevator. He made good on his 'shield' idea by literally shoving me out ahead of him when we reached the top floor – where I was greeted by a burst of party poppers and tiny paper streamers.
"What - ?" I began.
A streamer hung off my nose. I brushed it away, staring around at the array of twinkly lights I recognised from last Christmas. The last I knew, they'd been stored in one of the sub-basements, where none of us ever went if we could help it. In amongst the lights were more streamers made from paper – all types of paper. I squinted. I recognised crepe, tissue, lined, back issues of the Steel City Gazette and … yes, toilet paper twisted into ropes and then coloured with felt tip. A lopsided papier-mâché statue stood to one side, still wet and glistening. I wasn't sure what it was meant to be until Mas and Menos zoomed over, picked it up and presented it to me with a flourish.
"¡Es un piñata!"
"They ran down to Mexico for the first one, but it got damaged in transit." Bumblebee emerged from behind a criss-crossed assortment of decorations that made the room into a maze of epic, if festive, proportions. "Right now a few pounds of authentic Mexican candy and small plastic toys are scattered someplace between here and the border. Me, I like this one better. More of a personal touch."
"No teníamos tiempo para pintarlo."
"No ha acabado el secado todavía."
"¡Es tan lento!"
"¡Es lento como caracol!"
Mas and Menos's rapid-fire back-and-forth chatter is always confusing if Spanish isn't your first language. Fortunately, I have an ear for languages. I think it's a throwback to my telepathy connecting me to creatures who don't even use words but can still communicate. Apparently the twins hadn't painted this piñata because it was drying so slowly. They were always complaining about the rest of the world being too slow, but this time they looked more apologetic than annoyed.
"What is all this?" I asked.
"Don't you recognise a birthday party when you see one, Waterboy?" Bee caught Speedy's eye over my shoulder, and I knew then what he'd been up to while waiting for me to surface from the pond.
My expression tightened. "I don't celebrate my birthday."
"Wrong. You didn't. But since your birthday ain't gonna bring about no apocalypse, I reckon you could stretch to sharing the thing with us."
I could feel my mouth hardening at the corners. Everything in me resisted the idea of celebrating this day. It was a knee-jerk reaction, one I'd fallen into the habit of not questioning. Yet when I looked at her folded arms, and the wonky piñata, the rigid core of resistance in my gut diminished – just a little.
I shook my head. "Didn't you guys learn anything from that stink with Raven?" We all knew about what had happened when she had her birthday. We'd had our own problems when Trigon came to Earth, even if the biggest ones were going on in Jump City. "You don't spring birthday parties on unsuspecting people."
"Didn't you learn anything from that?" Bee shot back. "No matter what problems you got bottled up inside, your friends will be there to help you no matter what. Keeping them bottled up is the bad idea. Sharing them and enjoying your life anyhow, that's the kicker."
I stared hard at Bee. "Shall I fetch the soapbox, or do you want to do it?" I turned to Speedy. "Nice to know things shared in confidence are kept that way."
"You never told me to keep that stuff secret," he replied without any hint of apology. "What, you thought I was going to let you keep on stewing in your own juices like some overcooked lobster?"
The thought of lobsters made my gorge rise. Seafood always inspires that kind of reaction. I forced it down and met his gaze.
Speedy shrugged. "Sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong, dude. In the field, fighting monsters, when you come up with a plan to keep our asses in one piece? That's when you're right. When you're making yourself miserable over stuff you can't change, and not changing the stuff you can, just because you're scared? That's when you're wrong. Personally, I was all for borrowing the T-Sub and going to Atlantis –"
My blood ran cold. Actually, it runs pretty cold anyway, compared to humans, but now it felt like an ice floe in my veins.
"– But Bumblebitch talked me out of it. And by 'talked me out of it' I mean she threatened to shove her Stingers so far up my colon I'd taste them." He glared at her. She glared right back.
Some things never change, even if some do. That was comforting, in a weird kind of way.
"We're none of us perfect, Aqualad," Bee said. It didn't escape me that she wasn't using her nickname for me. "You think the rest of us don't got skeletons in our closets we're not proud of, or that make us miserable when we think of them? The point is that the rest of the team is there when we stumble, or when it seems so overwhelming we just wanna stare at the wall and never go outside again."
Bee has always regretted working for Brother Blood. Some people think she was always a mole for the Titans, but she was a real HIVE Academy student before I met her. She was poised to be the top of her graduating class, too. It's her biggest shame, and one she seems to have dedicated the rest of her life to making up for. Thoughts of what she could have become if she'd stayed have threatened to overwhelm her before, and I've found her kicking the crud out of equipment – and herself – in the gym as she works through her emotions. Bee isn't one for staring thoughtfully at a sunset as she processes stuff. In her mind, if you're achy and sore, you've absolved another ounce of shame. The number of times I've wrapped her bloodied knuckles, or almost had to drag her away from the punching bag by force doesn't bear thinking about.
She hadn't forgotten that, judging by the look in her eyes. She tilted her head back, talking to me with her chin raised again. "Even if you don't want to actually do anything about it, keeping stuff to yourself is a bad idea. Real bad. Worst. We can respect your decision if you don't want to make contact," her eyes flicked to Speedy, "but at least let us in when you're hurting, or angry, or whatever. Maybe we can help. Maybe we can't. The point is we're there for you. Atlantis and the king don't mean squat to us. You do."
Mas and Menos exchanged looks.
"¿Ella se está colocando en un 'soapbox' otra vez?"
She swatted at them. "I am not soapboxing."
"Bee," I said softly, "you really are. But it doesn't matter." I sighed. Suddenly I felt more tired than I've ever felt in my life. It's exhausting, baring your soul and realising you've wasted so much time on ridiculous stuff.
Well, maybe not ridiculous. Everyone wants to know where they come from, after all. It doesn't matter if you're human, Atlantean, Tamaranean, or something else; everybody wants an identity. Everybody wants to know they're worth something, that they matter to someone as more than a tool. For a long time I reckoned I wasn't. I thought if I climbed onto the land and carved out a new identity as a teen superhero in the human world, I could make myself more than my own people had made me feel I was worth.
Something touched my hand. I looked down. Mas tugged at me while Menos held up the piñata. I must've been quiet for too long.
"Es más diversión si usted la cuelga para arriba y la golpea con los palillos." It's more fun if you hang it up and hit it with sticks.
Mas grinned. "¿Puede usted conjeturar lo que se supone para ser?" Can you guess what it's supposed to be?
I shook my head. It looked kind of like a gargoyle, or maybe Swamp Thing.
He leaned forward conspiratorially. "Era la idea de Bumblebee."
Bee's idea? I glanced up. She was smirking. I could already guess. Despite myself, I felt my mouth turning up at the edges.
"¡Es Speedy!" Mas and Menos declared in unison.
She spread her hands wide. "What better thing to hit with a big stick? It'd sure make me feel better."
Speedy made a noise that could have been words, possibly four-letter ones. Mas and Menos giggled and Bee continued to smirk.
These were my teammates. Moreover, these were my friends. And suddenly, I realised with a pang that went straight through the centre of my chest, and made me feel stupid for not realising it earlier, they were even more than that.
I held out my hand. "I get first dibs with the stick."
Speedy glared at me. "This is the thanks I get for trying to look out for you?" He stalked off to grab a slice of birthday cake. "Next time, screw it. You're not worth the effort." He chewed thoughtfully. "What flavour is this?"
"Waterboy's favourite," Bumblebee said with a wicked grin.
Speedy turned green. "Seaweed?"
"Special ordered from Carla's Cakes. She put a rush on it especially when I said you'd forgotten to order it earlier."
"What is this, Pick On Speedy Day?"
"Nah." Bee crossed the room to uncover a second, smaller cake covered in chocolate icing and studded with little marzipan bows and arrows. "Here. For not acting like a jerk long enough to show you care and help us set this whole thing up."
Speedy looked genuinely shocked at the gesture.
"Here," she said, taking the seaweed cake and shoving the plate of his own personal cake into his hands.
"Will this explode the moment I stick a fork in?"
"No, but I might if you don't start acting more grateful. I haven't forgotten that thing with the shower."
"I told you before, that wasn't my fault! I really needed to pee and you take so long in the bathroom making yourself look less ugly, I'd have died of old age before you got out of there."
Bee's expression darkened.
"¡Comience el funcionamiento!" Mas cried, advising Speedy to make a run for it.
"¡Funcione lejos si usted quiere vivir, usted engañan!" Menos added, pointing at the exit.
"Aw, crap," Speedy muttered.
Dysfunctional? Argumentative? Eccentric? Constantly at each other's throats, but ready to go to the mat for each other in a heartbeat?
I didn't need to go back to Atlantis anytime soon. I already had a family right here.
Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one. -- Jane Howard.