Kaldur's eyes cracked half open. Batman was standing over him. The Dark Knight came between him and the sun, casting an imposing shadow across his body. The relief from the light was welcome. He couldn't feel anything.
Someone was sobbing. M'gann, from the sound of it. His immediate impulse was to go to her, but he couldn't move.
"I read the researchers' minds…" she was gasping. "The things they did…oh God…the things they did to him…"
Then J'onn's voice, deep and soothing.
"Hush, little one. It is done."
"Wally, if you don't keep still, I swear I will design an experiment that will revoke your powers, and then have your mother ground you for life."
"Let me bgo/b, where are they, OW, is everyone…"
A pause, and a whimper of pain. Then a sigh.
"Take it easy, Kid. They're going to be okay."
"Where is he?"
Batman this time, gruff and impatient. Kaldur opened his eyes once more.
"Mid-Nite's still patching him up. You saw the beating he took."
Kaldur let his head roll to one side. Green Arrow and Artemis were crouched over Roy on the rocky shore. Their bodies blocked his face. What he could see of Roy's lay still. Kaldur wondered.
"He's had worse. Tell Mid-Nite he needs to get down here immediately."
"But he – "
" – this is more important."
"…alfen tabor…meahcolla…učinne…mo'ra…ondun quintd'mo…russ…Òxuss forca…th…d'bailar…alkor."
Why was Conner speaking Atlantean? Kaldur could only hear every other word.
"…endun ah'irchel…cordat…mëdet v'ndeth….Kaldur'ahm ôn Tula…o'barnth en…Annex Orin!"
Garth's last two words rang out louder than his previous ones. Several people stirred around Kaldur; he felt the stones around him shift as they moved away from him, clearing a path. Then suddenly, Orin was there, was by his side, was falling to his knees and reaching out with bloodied arms to pull Kaldur to his chest, tears trickling into his beard as he whispered "Kaldur'ahm, pǽdun, pǽdun," my child, my child, and in that moment it didn't matter that it was just an expression, just something the king said to all his subjects; Kaldur knew Orin was speaking for him alone, and he closed his eyes and gave himself back to the darkness knowing that he was safe now. It was all over.
When he next awoke, he panicked and shattered the entire infirmary tank from within, inadvertently drenching a very surprised Wally, who had been sitting in the nearest chair at the time. As the medical alarms went off, terrifying him yet further, Black Canary rushed into the room and promptly put her first through the whole damn system, which was apparently a way of shutting it up. Then she placed her other hand flat on the Atlantean's heaving chest and looked straight into his wide, frightened eyes.
"It's us, Kaldur," she told him, her tone firm and unyielding and yet somehow gentle all at once. "You're safe now. It's okay."
As his heartbeat gradually slowed its frantic race and his breathing calmed just a little, Kaldur turned to look at Wally, who was huddling in the corner, his face scraped from the broken glass and his clothes dripping wet.
"I am sorry," the older boy rasped, lowering himself back onto his elbows. His body was trembling violently and he couldn't seem to control it. "The…the tank, it…"
"It's okay," Wally squeaked, shaking his head. "Um are…are you, though? Okay, I mean."
Before Kaldur could answer, Canary interjected, stepping between the two beds and brushing some of the broken glass off Kaldur's chest and onto the ground.
"Let's get you into a regular bed," she frowned. "Maybe the tank wasn't the best idea, all things considered."
"I…did not mean to destroy it. I am sorry."
An expensive piece of League equipment, and he'd smashed the whole thing. It had only existed for himself and Orin in the first place. He looked away, ashamed. Canary put a hand on his arm, shaking her head.
"Don't worry about it. Really."
She reached out her hand, gesturing Wally to come help her. Carefully, the two of them helped Kaldur to the other side of the infirmary and onto one of the standard-issue beds, propping him up on the pillows. Wally awkwardly pulled a blanket up over the older boy, looking nervous and unsure.
"I'm going to reinsert your IV, all right?" said Canary, pressing a few buttons on one of the medical computers. Kaldur nodded shakily, looking around the room to remind himself that this was not Manta's lab, that he was among friends, that it was over. It occurred to him a moment later that they could have restrained him in the med-tank if they'd wanted to, prevented him from destroying it the way he had, but someone had decided that his peace of mind upon awakening was more important than the equipment itself. That in itself counted for a lot.
As Canary slid the needle into his arm and taped it in place, reaching up to adjust the pouch to which it was attached, he looked over at the window and noticed that the bed closest to it was unmade. Wally followed his gaze.
"Roy," the speedster offered in explanation.
"He's fine," Canary assured him, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing it briefly. "I need to go look after a few things, but someone is always around, okay? Just press the call button, or send Kid Flash out for one of us."
He nodded, watching her pick her way through the mess of the broken tank.
There was a moment of silence; Wally was still hovering over the bed as if afraid Kaldur was going to bust out of that, too.
"Wally…is there something you wanted to say?"
Face reddening, the speedster shook his head quickly and backed off a step.
"No, sorry, it's just…I'm just…really glad you're, you know, awake, among other things," he tried to explain. "Sorry. I can go away if you want to rest."
"It is fine," Kaldur reassured him. He was glad of the company. "How long have I been asleep?"
"Two days," Wally mumbled. "Maybe more like a day and a half."
Kaldur shook his head. Valuable time, wasted to his own weakness.
"And the others?"
"They're fine. Everybody's got bruises, well not Conner but um, you know what I mean. But we're all fine, just a bit banged up. I've got super healing so I'm fine, and Rob and Artemis didn't do too bad in the first place. Your friend has thick skin like you, and once M'gann cooled off a bit she was pretty much okay, so you don't need to worry about that. Roy…Roy's got a concussion and his arm's busted pretty bad which is somehow making him even grouchier than usual but really, we're all worried about you more than…more than anything else. Are you…did you…I mean…"
"There is much of it I do not remember."
There was also much of it he did, but he had no desire to relive any of it at the moment.
The speedster fell silent, then after a moment, moved to take a seat on the next bed over, rubbing his hands together anxiously.
"Is something bothering you, Wally?"
Wally took a deep breath, glancing out the window before he looked back at Kaldur.
"Look…I…" he mumbled. "I said some stuff on that last mission that I'm not proud of and I…I'm really sorry, Kal. Honest."
"There is no need to apologize."
"But there is," Wally objected. "I…it's your job to lead us, and sometimes that means you don't get to be our best friend. You did what you had to do. It…it was wrong of me to blame you for that. Wrong of all of us. I'm really, really sorry."
Kaldur was silent a moment, thinking. But just when he opened his mouth to reply, a new voice interrupted them from the doorway.
Both of them looked up to see the rest of the team gathered in the doorway, four heads all poking inside curiously. Robin's face fell in surprise as he saw the mess of shattered glass and broken tubes that had been the med-tank.
"What happened?" he asked in bewilderment, stepping inside. The shards crunched beneath his sneakered feet.
"An accident. Don't worry about it," Wally said, glancing at Kaldur, who gave a tiny nod of gratitude.
As M'gann used her telepathy to sweep the remains of the tank up and out of the way, the other three moved across the room to crowd around Kaldur's bedside, looming over him excitedly.
"How're you feeling?" Artemis asked, sitting down on the edge of his bed and placing her hand over his own.
"Alive," he responded with a tired smile.
Robin gave a short laugh, hands in his pockets, eyes shielded by his usual sunglasses.
"You had us worried there for a little while."
"I am sorry. I did not mean to…"
"Jesus, Kaldur, don't apologize," Artemis interrupted, rolling her eyes. "You're what? Really sorry you almost died saving us all?"
"I…" Kaldur started, then trailed off sheepishly, avoiding their eyes.
"Yeah, that rescue mission didn't go exactly as planned," Robin confessed, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry about that."
"Good thing you're tough as rocks," said Artemis with a rare grin.
M'gann suddenly appeared at the foot of the bed, smiling a little nervously down at Kaldur, who was beginning to feel a bit claustrophobic from all the attention.
"Are you hungry?" she asked. "I can make you something if you want, we've just been hanging around for two days so I've been cooking a lot, and I know you've been out for a long time so if you wanted something to eat I could…"
"I am fine," Kaldur interrupted, cutting off her anxious babbling. He really had no appetite. Not yet, anyway. As her face fell, he gave her a reassuring smile – he hadn't meant to hurt her feelings. "Thank you, M'gann. Perhaps in a little while."
As he finished speaking out loud, her voice sounded in his head, gentle and worried.
I know what you've been through, she spoke softly, to him alone. If you ever want to talk…
Have you told the others?
No. Just…just Batman. In…in the debriefing. He wanted to know.
That is fine. I…would prefer you told no one else.
He met her eyes, his expression serious.
All right. she relented. But promise me, if you need to talk…
I will come to you. Thank you.
"Your friends from Atlantis are here, by the way," Robin said, breaking the physical silence that had taken the group during their conversation. "I don't think they like us very much."
"Yeah, the redhead is really cute, though."
"What? I'm just being honest."
"Yeah well let me be honest for a second and tell you that there is no chance on Earth, hell or Atlantis that…"
Kaldur closed his eyes, tuning out the noise as Wally and Artemis slipped into their familiar bickering. In some ways it was almost relaxing, to know that the team had come out of all of this the same, that it hadn't changed anything between them. But he was exhausted, and however much he appreciated that they cared, he was beginning to want nothing more than to be left alone so he could sleep.
"Don't you people have anything better to do?"
The group turned in surprise to the look to the door, where a very cranky looking Roy was standing, his right arm in a sling and his left on the doorframe.
"What's your damage, Red Arrow?" Artemis glared.
"You want the whole list?" Roy shot back.
Kaldur sighed. Truly, nothing changed.
"Is it your nap time, old man?" Wally teased as Roy made his way towards them.
"Yes," the archer snapped. "And Kaldur's too, I'd imagine, so you should all stop smothering him with affection and go have playtime or something. He's put up with enough for one week."
Grumbling, the team turned to leave - everyone seemed to realize the truth in Roy's words, despite their harshness. But before Conner reached the door, he turned back and spoke for the first time, in Atlantean:
"Your friend, Garth…he told me about Tula. Why didn't you tell anyone?"
"This is a really annoying development," Robin complained as the rest of them shuffled out of the room. "I speak seven languages but this isn't one of them. I feel left out."
Wally and Artemis rolled their eyes as they followed him out the door.
"It is a personal matter. I did not think the team needed to know," Kaldur replied, frowning.
"I'm not talking about the team, Kaldur, I'm talking about your friends. You could have talked to us. You don't have to bottle it up. We care."
"I know you do," Kaldur replied softly. "I will try to be more open. It is not that I do not trust you, it is more that I do not wish to be a burden. But you are my friends. I owe you the truth."
Conner gave him a quiet smile.
"You're never a burden, okay? Sleep well. It's good to have you back.
Then he went after the others, shutting the door behind him and leaving Kaldur and Roy alone in the infirmary.
"Get some rest," said the archer gently, all the grouchiness gone from his voice as he sat down on the edge of his own bed. "I know you need it."
"Thank you," Kaldur murmured drowsily, letting his eyes slip shut. He had many things to say, but was too tired just then, too drained from the whole ordeal, and he knew of all people, Roy could wait. "Good night, my friend."
"Good night, Kaldur."
When he awoke, he was alone, it was dark outside, Roy's bed was stripped bare, and there was a note on his bedstand.
I don't care who your father is or isn't. You're the closest thing to a brother I'll ever have, and anyone who picks a fight with you is picking a fight with me too, so if you were thinking of giving me some speech about how I shouldn't have gotten my ass kicked coming after you, you can save it. By the time you read this, I'll be gone – I've worn out my welcome here – but know that I've got your back, whether you like it or not.
Kaldur couldn't help but smile as he returned the note to the nightstand. Trust Roy to put a such a noble sentiment into such callous words.
Setting his blanket aside and removing his IV, Kaldur sat up and slid his legs off the bed, bare feet sliding onto the cool floor. Then he stood cautiously, testing his strength, and found that he could hold himself up. Good. He was already tired of relying on others to help him.
With small steps that gradually got surer and surer, he made his way out of the infirmary and into the hallway beyond. He still felt weak, but it was a bearable weakness now, and the pain had died down to the point that he could ignore it when given something else to focus on.
"Kaldur'ahm," said a familiar voice, and he turned to see Orin standing there, the worry showing clearly on his face. "You should not be out of bed."
"I feel fine, my king," he responded, raising his arm to salute, but Orin waved him off quickly.
"You have been through much. You must rest."
"With all due respect, your majesty, I have rested plenty, to the point where my mind itself has grown restless."
"Well…if that is truly the case, the queen and I have something we wish to discuss with you," Orin offered. "You must be hungry. Perhaps you would join us over a meal."
Kaldur nodded, noticing suddenly how famished he really was.
"I would welcome it."
It was strange to him to see the two of them there in the Cave kitchen – M'gann had been rather starry-eyed as she'd handed control of her domain over to the Atlantean royalty – but somehow also quite right. It was an odd blending of his two worlds, to have Orin and Mera there at the steel dining table rather than at their grander one in Atlantis, but the two of them seemed quite at home, refusing to let Kaldur help with the meal and forcing him to sit while they prepared it themselves instead. Though Mera was wearing a sweeping gown that covered much more of her than her usual Atlantean garb, Kaldur could still see the subtle swell of her stomach, and was reminded of her expectancy.
Finally, they sat down opposite him to eat, filling his plate with bread and fish and a traditional Atlantean seaweed soup. Every so often, one of Kaldur's teammates would appear in the archway entrance to the kitchen and abruptly disappear, not wanting to interrupt but clearly curious about what was going on.
"Not to speak out of my place, my king, but you said you had a matter to discuss with me?"
They had finished the meal, the empty plates still in front of them. Orin glanced to Mera, who gave him an encouraging nod.
"We had intended to speak with you about this sooner," he began, folding his hands on the table before him. "But League business and the affairs of the government at home…distracted me. We wish to ask a great favor of you, Kaldur'ahm, if you would accept it."
"I am your servant, as ever," Kaldur responded humbly, bowing his head. Orin looked to Mera, who placed her hand over her husband's and gave his protégé an earnest smile.
"If all goes well, in a few months, there will be an heir to the throne," she said, laying a hand on her stomach. "We would be honored if you would serve as our child's pǽtrun."
Kaldur's eyes widened in surprise – perhaps the closest land equivalent of the earth was godfather, but in Atlantis the concept ran deeper. It was considered a binding relationship, a true family tie. It was more than an honor; it was a responsibility.
"What of Prince Orm?" he asked in confusion, too surprised to remember his manners.
"My brother will always be by my side," Orin reassured him. "The same blood runs through our veins, and I am confident he will be a part of the heir's life one way or another. But the queen and I want our child to know your face, Kaldur'ahm – you may have chosen the surface world, but a part of you will always belong in Atlantis."
Kaldur felt something swelling inside him, a rush of overwhelming gratitude and pride and perhaps even love that warmed him from the inside out. Hiding the unseemly display of emotion with a bow of his head, he raised his hand to his forehead in salute.
"It would be my greatest honor, your majesties."
"It is settled, then," Mera smiled as Orin slid an arm around his wife's shoulder. "I trust you will attend the ceremony when the time comes."
After what felt like an age of convincing Black Canary, Orin and Mera that he felt well enough to return to his own home, Kaldur finally found himself standing in the cool night air, toes sinking into the sand of the beach on Mount Justice. Garth and Tula stood beside him – the king and queen had insisted he allow someone to accompany him home – and the whole team had come out to wish him farewell as the moon reflected off the calm ocean behind them all.
As Orin pulled him into a firm embrace, the king spoke quietly into his ear:
"I am sorry I kept the truth from you, Kaldur'ahm. I had hoped there would never be a need."
Kaldur pulled away, shaking his head.
"There is nothing to forgive. You did what you saw fit."
As he turned to wade into the ocean, he recalled the last time he had entered these waters – he had been alone, with the team's anger at his back and his own doubt plaguing him. Tonight, it was different. The people he loved had gathered on the shore to see him off, and a strange sort of peace filled him, despite everything that had happened in the last week.
With Tula and Garth at his side, he slipped beneath the waves and began to swim, gliding easily through the water towards home. There was a silence between them that could never quite be easy, but it was comfortable enough. At last, Kaldur was the one to break it.
"Did you know?" he asked quietly.
"Know what?" asked Tula. Her voice was silvery and gentle as ever.
"Of my roots."
Tula and Garth exchanged a look as they swam along half a length behind their friend.
"Yes," Garth said at last. "We had guessed."
"Yet you befriended me anyway."
"Blood does not define us," said Garth simply.
They swam on.
"Why did you never tell me?" Kaldur asked, frowning. It seemed everyone had known before him.
"We never thought of you as Black Manta's son," Tula shrugged. "You were – are – Kaldur'ahm, our friend You are your own person."
"Your path was your own," Garth agreed with a nod. "He was no more part of your story than any other enemy of the kingdom."
"And…we thought you knew," Tula finished guiltily.
Kaldur was silent as they continued on, until at last they were walking up out of the waves, across the shore towards the plain apartment building that he called home on land. As they approached, he turned to face his friends.
"I have much to think about," he said softly. "You must forgive me if I am not as hospitable as I should be."
"You are entitled to your thoughts, brother," Garth nodded, stepping forward to clasp Kaldur's arms warmly. "But remember us if you ever wish to share them."
"We miss you," added Tula a little sadly, stepping forward as if to do the same, then suddenly throwing her arms around him and embracing him instead.
"Please don't be a stranger," she whispered.
He smiled faintly.
"I will do my best," he replied, and let her go.
His apartment was exactly as he'd left it, and the familiarity washed over him comfortingly as he readied himself for sleep. For the first time in more than a week, he was truly alone, yet somehow he was not lonely. He could think in this quiet. And as he lowered himself gently into his bed of water and shut his eyes, he felt a peace that had eluded him for so long, he wasn't sure he ever remembered it.
He did not belong to the in-between. He was not a lost child of the divide, caught between worlds, but a beloved child of both, just as much a part of one as he was of the other. And he could be what his team needed him to be.
Manta had showed him that.
Kaldur stood before the mirror in the morning light, staring into the face that belonged to another, yet was somehow his own. The scars were healing and his body had grown strong again. He was ready.
Recognized: Aqualad, B-02.
Batman was waiting for him, holding his reconstructed waterbearers. Behind him, the team stood ready in full mission gear, all watching their leader approach. As Kaldur stepped forward, the Dark Knight held out his weapons, and without hesitation, the young hero took them and sheathed them into the pack on his back with a practiced gesture.
Batman nodded approvingly.
"Welcome back," he said, stepping back to clear the path between Kaldur and the others. "Your team is waiting."