I don't own Young Justice.
He doesn't do it intentionally.
Robin comments on this strange inclination on occasion, usually with pretended lightness.
"Hey, I'm not aching to be leader that bad," he says once as Kaldur lies recovering in the Cave infirmary; the Atlantean had ordered Miss Martian to retreat when they'd discovered the enemy's fire-based abilities, yet he'd ignored the risks to his own heat-weak body. They both laugh, but it is the awkward laughter of two people who are both avoiding talking about the same thing, and know it.
Another time, while Doctor Mid-Nite patches up Kaldur's shattered left arm, Robin points out that Superboy could have taken that hit just as easily and without taking any actual damage, and suggests with forced humor that Kal must just like the attention. Kaldur smiles uncomfortably and says nothing because even now, he isn't quite sure why he pushed the Kryptonian out of the way of the robot's blow when all it would have given him was a headache. In the heat of the moment, it just seemed the right thing to do.
This particular time, he wakes up to find the Boy Wonder staring down at him with arms folded over his chest; the sky behind Robin's head swims blurrily and he has to close his eyes again. His body aches all over.
"That was a cheap trick, Kal," says Robin's voice from above him, and he feels someone's hands – Superboy's, guessing by the size – slide behind his back and lift him out of the rubble of the exploded building.
"The others…" Kaldur manages to gasp out. It hurts to breathe.
"We're fine," says M'gann's voice from his other side. "We're all fine. Why did you call a retreat?"
"I thought…you would not obey if…"
"If you gave us an order to leave you behind with a madman and a ticking bomb?" Robin asks, and he sounds irate. Kaldur manages to open his eyes for a second but quickly shuts them when nausea rolls over him in awful waves.
Artemis's voice issues a short, disbelieving laugh from behind him.
"Yeah, well, we wouldn't have - "
" - because it was idiotic," finishes Wally; Kaldur hears him skid to a halt beside the rest of them. "Robin could have disarmed that thing, and the rest of us could have easily handled Nutso. Instead, you locked us out and let it blow the both of you up. Are you trying to get yourself killed, Kaldur? Because if you are, there are way more efficient ways to do it."
Wally's voice is piercing in Kaldur's ears, which still ring from the explosion. It's excruciating.
"I was merely trying…to protect…" he rasps.
"Stop talking," Conner snaps, cutting him off. The Kryptonian sounds annoyed, but a different sort of annoyed than his normal sullenness. There is something more behind it, some sort of vague disgust, perhaps disappointment. Kaldur wants to figure it out but he thinks right now, while he's half-unconscious and Conner is carrying him like some detestable, priceless, broken burden…well maybe right now is not such a good time.
As he lies recovering – this time, it may be a week before he's back in action, and Batman is not pleased – he finds himself wondering why he does it.
It is not a conscious desire to bring harm upon himself. That much is for sure. He doesn't enjoy these moments spent in the infirmary, using time to recover that could have been spent training or studying the sorcery he never had time to learn at the Academy, and the pain is real and thoroughly undesirable. That isn't why he uses himself like this. And despite Robin's joke, he doesn't enjoy the attention either; he cringes every time the door opens, and sometimes he pretends to be asleep just so they will go away. Part of this, he thinks, must be a lingering sense of guilt at his uselessness, a nursing of his wounded Atlantean pride. He wants to be strong enough to keep his teammates from harm and get right back up and lead them again, but he just isn't.
It's fear, really. Fear of the looks on their loved one's faces if he ever came home with that news, fear of the consequences if the worst ever happened. All of them are so deeply connected to the others in their lives. To let any one of them die could break any number of other people.
He has seen what will happen to Wally if they lose Artemis. He knows what Conner would do if harm came to M'gann, and can't bear to think of what they'd find in telepathic link if by some horrible stroke of luck, Conner fell in the line of duty. And it's more than just those bonds, too. Many of them have families, and all of them have friends. The Flash would fall apart if he lost Wally, and M'gann's twelve sisters and her uncle J'onn would never forgive him if he didn't bring her home safe. It is impossible to imagine Robin and KF without one another, and though Kaldur doesn't quite understand the bond between Batman and Robin, he knows that if he came home and Robin didn't, the Dark Knight would never be the same.
And beyond all this, they are the only family he has. He wishes he had infinite lives to give for their sakes, to ensure that nothing bad would ever come to them. But he only has this one, so he lays it down again and again, anything to keep them safe. Somewhere between love and fear, he has to.
"Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid," Wally says as Kaldur slips his waterbearers into their sheaths and steps up to the transporter.
Roy shares a look with Robin, then nods back to Wally.
"I'll keep him in line," he says.
Kaldur and Roy disappear into the light together, and reappear in a back alley in Capetown. It's a weapons deal they're here to interrupt and they don't need to speak as they head out, their own weapons close at hand.
Unlike most plans, this one goes smoothly. They disable the delivery truck without a problem, then turn over the drivers to local authorities and the weapons to the League for disposal. From there, they infiltrate the meeting site and collect video intel of the deal and the people behind it, since the men meeting here are only representing their employers.
It's the breaking up of the meeting – the endgame – that doesn't go quite as they intended. One of the cartel representatives has a detonator in his hand and it doesn't matter that Roy has him targeted in the clear, it's obvious the man can press the button before the arrow can get there. And then one of the other men grabs for his gun on the floor and fires a few rounds at Kaldur, and the sound startles the first man, who accidentally hits the damn button, and they have fifteen seconds.
"Give me your hand," Kaldur demands instantly, turning to Roy. With his superior strength, he can launch the archer into the rafters high above, where he'll probably be safe from the explosion. As for himself…well, he's survived one this month already. He can probably handle another. Atlantean skin is quite dense.
Roy does gives Kaldur his hand, except it's in the form of a stiff punch to the face that leaves Kaldur gasping and reeling, more in shock than in pain. Then the archer hops up onto the railing and fires off a calculated shot that bursts down through the nearest window, a zip line trailing behind it.
"No," Roy growls as he hooks his bow onto the line and holds out his hand to Kaldur. "You give me yours."
They fly out of the warehouse as it explodes behind them, all heat and noise and color at their backs, and when the line goes slack and they begin to fall, Kaldur grabs Roy and attempts to maneuver them so that he will hit the ground first. But Roy will have none of it. He wrests himself out of the Atlantean's grip and shoves Kaldur away angrily, drawing his bow and grasping for a particular arrow from his quiver as they plunge towards the pavement some fifty meters below.
The foam blossoms out from the arrowhead on contact with the ground, billowing into a giant cushion. It doesn't make for a powder-soft landing, but it makes for a bearable one, and with little bits of the destroyed building floating down around them, the two young heroes plunge into it and emerge sputtering.
Before Kaldur even has a chance to catch his breath, Roy's fist connects solidly with his jaw and he goes spinning back into the muck.
"What the hell, Kaldur?" the archer growls, yanking him back out by the straps of his waterbearers. "Is this what Robin was warning me about?"
"I don't know what you are talking about," Kaldur replies defensively, spitting out blood and avoiding the other's eyes. For a non-meta, Roy hits obnoxiously hard.
"Cut the crap, Kal," Roy warns. "Your little savior-of-the-people act back there. You were going to let yourself get blown to pieces to protect me."
"My physiology makes it more likely that – "
"Shut the fuck up, Kal."
Roy looks like he's about to punch him again, so Kaldur does.
"Robin warned me when I asked for someone to back me up on this mission and you volunteered," says Roy, letting go of Kaldur and pushing a hand through his hair in agitation. He lets out a frustrated sigh. "He said you've developed this habit of trying to prevent any of the others from getting hurt, at any cost to yourself."
Kaldur is silent as Roy stares at him waiting for a response. He is too honest to deny it. Yet when Roy finally speaks again, there is a sudden softness to his voice that catches Kaldur completely off guard.
"Why would you do that?"
"I…the others…they…" Kaldur attempts, but it suddenly sounds very self-effacing to say that they all have people who will care if they die.
"Can look out for themselves?" Roy fills in. "Don't want your death on their hands? Need you to be around to lead them?
"It is not them, really," says Kaldur softly, looking away. "It is the people who would be hurt by their deaths."
"What, and you think no one would be hurt if you died?"
"I have no family to mourn me," Kaldur argues, still refusing to meet Roy's eyes. "The team…would overcome the loss, in time."
"Kal, you're a damn fool."
"I am aware."
"Don't make me hit you again."
Both of them are silent a minute, Roy processing what Kaldur has said to him, Kaldur watching the people watching them. A small crowd has gathered, transfixed by the foam and the blown-up building and the two costumed heroes having some kind of argument in the middle of all of it.
"This is unbecoming," Kaldur says in a low voice, glancing around. "We should alert the police of our actions and return home."
Roy nods after a moment and retrieves his bow from the foam. He is silent all the way back home, seeming preoccupied, and despite Kaldur's attempts to convince him to stay at the Cave for the night, he insists on returning to Star City and leaves without so much as a bandage for his bleeding arm.
Kaldur next sees Roy on a mission some weeks later. The schoolhouse is burning down because some sick fuck set fire to it, and though Robin and KF and Superboy are off chasing him down and they have evacuated all the children, Artemis is still in there somewhere, and Miss Martian is panicking. There is not enough water nearby to put the fire out, and no time left to think.
Kaldur orders M'gann to stay back as he rushes towards the flaming entrance, but a red-fletched arrow whistles out of the sky and plants itself in his path like a warning from heaven itself. A split second later, Roy pulls his motorcycle to a skidding halt beside the arrow and dismounts in one fluid motion.
"I don't think so, Aqualad."
"We do not have time for this."
"Then don't get in my way. You're not cut out for this one."
"You do not give my orders."
Roy grits his teeth.
"Together, then," he relents, and the two of them charge in without another word.
It's blazing hot inside and Kaldur can feel his strength draining by the second but there are more important things to worry about. He radios Robin, asking if Artemis's GPS signal can be traced, and the Boy Wonder reports back between what sound like bursts of gunfire that she's somewhere in the northeast corner of the building, but that leaves three floors to check. Roy keeps looking back at him like he's going to keel over at any second and maybe he is, but he ignores his burning lungs and charges up the last flight of stairs (because naturally it's the last floor they check) and finally, there's Artemis, her legs trapped from the thigh down by a fallen rafter beam, unconscious from the smoke, and Kaldur kneels down without a second thought and picks up the burning beam in his bare hands and throws it aside.
His hands are blistering but his head is so light from the smoke he hardly notices. Roy picks up Artemis, slings her over his shoulder and bends to pick up her bow (an archer knows an archer's priorities).
"Out, now!" he orders, and this time Kaldur does not dispute the chain of command.
They burst out onto the front lawn to find that the cavalry has arrived. An ambulance is waiting with oxygen for Artemis, and Robin and KF and Superboy are talking to the police while the villain sits in the back of the patrol car, and Kaldur looks around just long enough to take it all in before he falls to his knees and succumbs to his exhaustion.
When he wakes up, it is to find Roy pressing a glass of water to his lips. The archer has somehow maneuvered himself that Kaldur's head is resting on his knees, and Kid Flash is crouching by the Atlantean's side, wrapping up his treated hands in some kind of gauze.
"I thought we talked about this," Roy frowns as Kaldur lets him tip the water into his lips.
"I believe we reached an understanding before."
Roy's jaw tightens in irritation.
"There," says Wally, tying off the second bandage and patting Kaldur's shoulder. "That should be good enough until we get you back to the Cave. You really need to stop doing this stuff, Kal, it's probably not good for you long-term. I'm gonna go check up on Arty. Ro - Red Arrow, make sure he doesn't do any more dumb stuff before I get back."
Roy waits until the speedster is out of hearing range, checks to make sure Superboy is still preoccupied with the police, then turns his attention back to Kaldur, who is sitting up and taking the water into his bandaged hands.
"I thought about what you said," he says quietly. Kaldur looks up from the water warily.
"I get it."
That isn't really the reaction he had been expecting. More reprimands, perhaps a few choice curses, maybe a reasoned argument about how he can't discount his relationship with Aquaman like that. But not something as blunt and humble as this. Roy gives him a grim smile.
"I mean…look at my life," the archer laughs humorlessly. "No family, no team, no mentor, not even any real friends. Plenty of enemies, at least there's that. But…I get it, Kal. Feeling like you don't really mean anything to anyone."
"I am your friend," Kaldur objects quietly.
"I know you are," says Roy. "But you apparently don't think I'd be at particular upset if you let yourself get killed."
"That is not what I – "
"Yes it is," Roy interrupts. "It's what you said and it's what you meant. Don't worry about it, I'm not about to go home and cry over the fact that you clearly think I'm a bad friend, because you're probably right. But this self-sacrificing business has got to stop, Kal, if not for me or any of them then for the sake of the team as a whole. Whether or not you can see it, we care. I care. Cut it out."
Kaldur is silent a long moment, somewhere between touched at Roy's awkward gesture of friendship and frustrated at being lectured yet again.
"I…" he begins, then trails off.
"Look, don't respond to that," Roy says, shaking his head. "Just…make me a deal. If you'll cry at my funeral, I'll cry at yours. Since neither of us has any family…maybe we can be each other's."
Kaldur can't help but laugh quietly. Only Roy would manage to put so kind a sentiment in such cynical words. He considers it a moment. The two of them, ever alone, the eternal outsiders. But maybe if they're alone together…
"Deal," he says at least, nodding.
Roy gives him a bleak smile, then slides an arm around Kaldur's shoulders, careful to avoid his injured hands. He helps him to his feet as the others finish up with the police.
"Kal!" Robin calls out. "Heard you did it yet again. Glad you get to explain that to Batman and not me."
Roy smirks as they make their way over to the others; as they draw near, he leans over to Kaldur's ear.
"This could be the end for you," he mutters with mock seriousness. "Didn't realize I'd have to follow through on that promise so soon."
With a hollow laugh, Kaldur lets Roy help him onto the Bioship. As the archer turns to leave – again, he refuses to return to the Cave with the rest of them – he hesitates a second.
"Brothers?" Roy asks, his voice low. The question is for Kaldur alone.
Kaldur pauses, then nods, and they share a quiet smile.
As the ship takes off, he watches Roy from the window. The archer is sitting astride his motorcycle, neck craned up to watch them go; when they clear the skyline, he pulls up the kickstand and zooms off, into the city and out of sight.
"Brothers," Kaldur repeats to himself in a whisper.
The word tastes promising.