I don't own Young Justice. This took a direction I did not intend. So it goes.
There were so many reasons this was all wrong. It wasn't just the obvious – not just the enemy's unexpected strength and numbers, not just the failure of their com tech at their most dire moment, nor the way they'd been split up and so easily subdued. Yes, they had failed their mission. But worse than that, they had failed each other. Superboy knew this in no uncertain terms as he cradled Aqualad's head in his lap, searching for the words to convince their leader to stay in this world, or failing that, the ones to send him off to the next. But none came. The horrible silence of the destroyed warehouse swallowed his thoughts whole, and all he could do was keep his hand pressed to the gaping wound in his teammate's chest and wish M'gann were there. She would know what to do.
"Aqu- …Kaldur," Superboy said, voice catching a little against his will. "Hold on. The League will be here soon. Please…just hold on."
The Atlantean shifted ever so slightly, then stopped, a faint groan escaping his lips.
"Has…the threat…b…been…eliminated?" he choked out, eyes still closed.
"Yes," Superboy replied. "The others are safe. They will be here soon, and Wally will bring you help. Don't go to sleep."
A sudden cough wracked Kaldur's body, and blood spattered Superboy's pale arm. Atlantean skin was thick, but not thick enough to withstand a ton and a half of sharp-tipped steel thrust through the torso, not with a wall at your back and the heat in the building turned up to roasting temperatures. The enemy, it had seemed, had predicted the League would send their younger counterparts to reclaim the stolen Waynetech blueprints – the stifling heat of the inner rooms had compromised both Aqualad and Miss Martian almost immediately, forcing their teammates to cover for them, but by that time it had been too late to retreat, too late to call for help. Rounded up and forced into separate combat, they hadn't stood a chance.
"The…blueprints…" Aqualad rasped. "Did…"
"Gone," Superboy said, cutting his teammate off. "Don't talk."
"I told you not to talk."
Superboy frowned deeply. He was tempted to lift his hand, to check the wound, but the thick blood seeping out between his fingers told him he needed to keep the pressure on. If only he had been able to protect his teammate. If only he had been there to take the hit in Kaldur's place, or at the least to knock him out of harm's way…his brow furrowed in anguish, then anger. This was his fault. If only he hadn't been so caught up in his own fight…
The new voice pierced the silence and Superboy's thoughts. His head jerked up just in time to see Miss Martian float through the air towards them, then she was touching down, feet sinking into the sea of broken robot parts and pieces that littered the floor around them. Robin appeared in the doorway a moment later and silently began to pick his way through it. Superboy noticed the Boy Wonder had a pronounced limp; both the new arrivals seemed worse for the wear, but their attention wasn't on their own injuries.
"Kaldur," M'gann gasped, dropping to her knees beside the two of them. "Is he…"
"He's still with us," Superboy said softly. Kaldur coughed once more as if to prove the point, but it was weaker, fainter than it had been before.
"Wally's gone to get the League," Robin informed them, eyes darting over his teammates as he assessed the situation with his arrival.
"Do not…waste their time…" Kaldur whispered.
"I told you not to talk!" Superboy reprimanded, harsher than he'd intended, but fear for his friend's life was eating at him.
"The blueprints…gone…" continued Kaldur, ignoring the outburst. His lips barely moved, as if even that basic movement took the greatest of efforts. "Our foes…are defeated…the League need not…not…intervene…"
"Hush, Kaldur," M'gann pressed, taking his hand in her own. With a quiet gasp, she noticed that the webbing between thumb and index finger was torn clean back to the natural skin. "The League isn't coming for the blueprints, or for the enemy. They're coming for you."
"They will be too late."
The tremble was largely gone from the Atlantean's voice, and despite its quietness, his absolute conviction had never been more frightening.
"Don't say that!" M'gann reprimanded sharply, looking to her teammates as if for help, but Robin only shook his head quietly. Superboy gritted his teeth.
"You're not going to die," he insisted, tightening his grip on his teammate.
Kaldur was silent, eyes shut, expressionless.
"You're not going to die, Kaldur," Superboy repeated, as if trying to convince himself. But Robin, ever the pragmatist among them, was already kneeling by their leader's side, peeling off his gloves to run his hands gently over the bruised and broken body. With two fingers pressed to the side of Kaldur's neck, he paused, masked face unreadable.
"He's fading," he said quietly. "It might be best if we just make him comfortable."
"No!" Superboy objected, so much more loudly than he'd intended that M'gann nearly jumped straight into the air. "No." Now he was quieter, but just as intense, staring down at their fallen teammate. "Kaldur, can you hear me?"
The Atlantean's hand tightened around M'gann's, a movement so slight that she barely noticed it, but she nodded to Superboy and laid her free hand on his back as if encouraging him to go on.
"A long time ago, there was a time when I thought…I had no choice," he began, his voice tight. "I thought that fate had decided what I was to be, and that all I could do was follow that path. But it was you – you, Kaldur – who told me that I could decide for myself who I wanted to be. What I wanted to be. I chose to be free, to decide my fate for myself. And I'm asking you now…I'm asking you to choose for yourself as well. To choose to live. Stay with us. Please."
For a moment, the words just sank in the room. Then Kaldur's lips moved the tiniest amount, a faint rasping escaping his throat. But if there were words, they were unintelligible. Robin glanced over at his teammates, at Miss Martian in particular. She nodded.
"Will you let me…?" M'gann asked softly, the question dangling unfinished. Again, a faint squeeze of her hand gave her an answer. Lifting her other hand from Superman's back to her own temple, she closed her eyes, and plunged into their leader's mind.
The first thing that struck her was a wave of horrible, horrible pain, so intense that she cried out and nearly wrenched herself back out of the psychic link. But Robin's hand darted out, landing on her shoulder, and the touch grounded her in the solid world long enough to get a grip.
The next thought she encountered wasn't exactly a concrete one; in the haze of agony that was Aqualad's mind, words seemed to be more and more of a struggle. This was just a sense of apology, of regret, as if he wished he hadn't had to ask her into this place, into his pain-addled brain. M'gann could feel death like a black hole in Kaldur's mind, stretching and distorting and ripping apart his thoughts as it devoured them like helpless stars. He was dying. But at the same time, she could also feel a steeliness, a determination to hold on long enough to get something out. Something important.
Tell me, she thought to him, unwilling to bring Superboy and Robin into this moment. I will tell them in turn.
And as he began to force the words to his mind, she began to speak them aloud.
"The choice will not be mind for long, my friends," M'gann spoke for him, voice hushed as if afraid to disturb Kaldur's focus. Superboy and Robin stared intently at her as she continued. "I will stay as long as I can but I fear it will not be long enough. Please convey my regret to King Orin. I have failed him. And I have failed you. As your leader…I should have known better. I placed all your lives in danger. It is only fitting that mine…should be the one forfeit for it."
"Don't be an idiot," Robin said coldly, though the harshness seemed to be a front to hide the tremor in his voice. "Putting our lives in danger is our job. It's what we do."
M'gann shook her head, trying to hush him without distracting herself from Kaldur's thoughts. They were growing more and more disjointed, and a new feeling had arisen, a feeling so powerful that it crossed the bridge between them readily, like a surging wave that tugged at her legs and begged her to come along too. It was a sort of desire, the intoxicating closeness of utter peace to one overwhelmed by pain and struggle. It was Atlantis. It was home. It was death.
"No," she whispered, her own words this time. "No, Kaldur, don't…"
Biting her lip, she continued the transmission obediently, though tears had begun to form beneath her eyelids and slip down her green cheeks.
"I have not been all I planned to, but it is too late for regret. I wish only…that you will not begrudge me this last weakness. If this truly is the end…then good-bye, my friends. It has been my greatest burden, and my greatest honor, to serve as your leader."
M'gann felt the pull of the mind-tide grow stronger, then suddenly she was left alone with her own thoughts. Whether Kaldur had evicted her from his mind, or his mind had simply ceased to exist, she could not be sure. Superboy glanced to her questioningly, but she could only shake her head, staring down at the still body between them. Robin moved to check his pulse again, when suddenly a noise at the door made them all look up, and there was Wally, with Artemis and several members of the League behind him.
"Are we…?" he gasped, panting and dropping to a crouch in exhaustion.
Robin slowly stood up, face expressionless as ever.
"If any of you real superheroes have something up your sleeves…perhaps," he said. "But hurry."
As the cavalry flooded the room, M'gann tried one last time to access their fallen leader's mind, Superboy's hand on her shoulder lending her the strength to face the task once more.
But there was only the ocean, warm velvet blue, and deep, deep peace.