I don't own Young Justice.
The ride home was usually Kaldur's favorite part of a mission. It was the point at which he could know with utter certainty that his team was all there, all safe, that they had achieved their goal; and even if he had some reckoning with Batman waiting for him at the other end about how everything had gone down, the sheer predictability of it was relieving. KF would gorge himself on whatever food he hadn't eaten in the Bioship on the way there; Superboy would brood as M'gann chattered excitedly to him about something cool that someone or another had done on the mission; Robin would smirk and wait for him to get to the part about him, and Artemis would just sit back and watch them all (especially Wally) with an incredulous (albeit fond) look on her face.
But this time was different. The silence was thick inside the Bioship, underscored by the hum of the engine and the faint crackling of the Wally's energy bar wrapper. At least on the way over, Captain Marvel's constant patter had filled some of the awkward, tense space between them, but the return trip had no such luxury. Kaldur could feel the eyes of the others on him from where he sat on the far front side but didn't know what to say. On some level, he wanted to explain himself, wanted to make them see why he couldn't have told them about the mole, and how even if he had, none of them would ever have guessed that it was Red Tornado anyway – not even M'gann could read the android's thoughts. But he was too tired, and if he was being honest with himself, too full of self-doubt to say anything to them. Perhaps someone else would have figured it out in time and prevented it. Perhaps the tip would have kept them on their guard enough to avoid all that had almost happened. Perhaps he himself had divided the team by failing to return the trust they had all put in him…
When they disembarked from the Bioship, everyone split up without a word, leaving him alone with Batman. The Dark Knight watched them all go, impassive as ever, then turned to Kaldur.
"Everyone should be present for the debriefing," he said flatly.
"I…" Kaldur began. But he didn't know where the rest of that sentence could go. Forgot? Knew, but didn't say anything? Was glad, on some level, to see them go?
"Messed up," Batman filled in. Kaldur let his eyes drop to the ground. "Call them back."
"They will not listen."
His voice was quiet and full of doubt, and he knew that Batman could hear all of it but he had begun to think that Batman's anger at his failed leadership might be preferable to his friends'. With an unreadable look at Kaldur, the Dark Knight touched a hand to his com and said gruffly,
"All team members return to the mission room immediately."
There wasn't anything particularly special about the debriefing, just the usual discussion about what went wrong, whose strengths weren't put to their best use, what could be done in the future to prevent mishaps. The only real difference was the silence on the young heroes' part. Usually they spoke up occasionally to defend one another or to explain why they couldn't possibly have done X, why a particular situation had been unavoidable. But this time, Batman lectured uninterrupted. Yet Kaldur did notice that whenever he touched on a failure of leadership, of team unity, his teammates would share a knowing look. He couldn't have been more relieved when the debriefing was over.
As the team headed out once more, Kaldur turned to leave – he figured he would shower and rest up at home, rather than soak in the hostile atmosphere here – but Batman's hand descended on his shoulder.
"Now we have our private chat," he said.
There was nothing Kaldur wanted less in that moment than to go over all his mistakes yet again. Leadership was a heavy enough burden for someone who wanted to bear it, but the fact that Kaldur had been thrust into the position without seeking it, and even so had done his best despite a team divided from the start what with Superboy's temper and everyone's hostility towards Artemis, it all made the sting that much worse. He hadn't asked for this.
"I don't need to tell you all the ways you failed to be your team's leader tonight."
"No," he replies, eyes downcast. At least this will be short. "I understand."
He looks up.
"I placed my team in danger by failing to share the information about the mole," he began. "I further compromised their safety by failing to establish communications before the mission began. And I allowed Captain Marvel to be captured as a result."
"That's all true," said Batman, "But those are all ways you failed to lead. Not ways you failed to be a leader."
"I…I am not certain I understand."
"I've never doubted your ability to make the right decisions under pressure. My lack of faith in you is entirely grounded in your lack of faith in yourself."
Kaldur was silent. He couldn't tell if Batman was being kind or not (he rarely did, but this was especially ambiguous).
"You were right not to tell them about the mole," Batman continued. "Information like that would – and did – divide the team. You were right to prioritize rescuing Captain Marvel over the original mission. And you were also right in your assignment of specific tasks to each of your team members. But being a leader is more than making the right choices for your team. It's about commanding them. It isn't your job to trust them – it's their job to trust you, and your job to trust in your own abilities. They smell fear, Kaldur. They know it when you aren't sure of yourself, and that's when a team unravels. That's where you failed."
Kaldur was silent a moment, then nodded. The Dark Knight looked at him carefully.
"No one else can lead this team," he said bluntly. "Robin is too young, and none of the others have what it takes. Whether or not you want this, Kaldur, it is your responsibility."
This time, Batman seemed to take his word for it.
"Get some rest. You'll need to piece your team back together in the morning."
He uttered a quiet thank you and left. It was a few miles to his home, a small waterside apartment that his king had established for him when he had taken up permanent residence on the surface. Ordinarily after a mission he would simply stay at the Cave, but though he was exhausted, his mind was too cluttered to stay there. So he rounded the side of Mount Justice, making the short walk to the beach, and slowly waded in.
The water was cool and soothing on his aching muscles, and as soon as it was deep enough he dipped below the surface and began to swim. For him, it was the most efficient route home, and also the most pleasurable; he could help but relax a little with the moonlight shining on the surface above, the little luminous fishes darting around him, brushing his sides, the quiet and still of the underwater world. As he swam, it became easier and easier to forget that betrayed look in his teammates' eyes, the mess he had waiting for him in the morning. Down here, it was just him and the water. This was where he was supposed to be.
It was a long, long way to Atlantis, and Kaldur knew he didn't have time to make it all the way back home. But perhaps there was time at least for a detour. He needed to clear his head, and he couldn't do that on the surface, that much was for sure. So he altered his course, veered further from the coastline and further out towards the deep, where the current grew broad and strong and part of something bigger than itself. As his mind drifted, he found himself thinking that he was like the waves, in a way; at sea, they were majesty and power and grace and they belonged. But as the ocean grew shallow and they approached the land, they weakened, carried only by momentum and necessity, until they spent themselves on the sand and were no more.
He didn't know how long he had been swimming, only that he was now deep enough that the moonlight was nothing but a shimmer far above his head, and he had found some sort of peace, or at least the resolve to set right what had gone wrong in the previous few days. He would apologize, and he would do better. He would be what his team needed him to be.
It was then that out of the deep blue of the depths, something in front of him flashed a mechanical red, and everything exploded. There was one moment of unbearable noise and heat and light and pain, and then it was all gone.