When Roy pulled up to the plaza, it was no small event. One of the policemen taping off the area around the bus for clean-up suddenly straightened out with a cry of "look who's here!" and as Kaldur watched, several other officers turned away from the witnesses they were interviewing or the damage reports they were filling out, and instead rushed over to greet the archer, crowding around and clapping him on the back. It seemed he was a bit of a local hero.
(Although as soon as he thought it, Kaldur felt very stupid. Of course Roy was a local hero. He was definitionally a local hero.)
"Hey Red Arrow!" one of officers called out. "I hear you and GA just took out Corcifus!"
"Seriously? The whole ring?" another asked dubiously.
"Just the boss," said Roy, dismounting his bike and looking around as if distracted. "And whoever you rounded up here. Should be a start, though."
Kaldur rose from where he'd been slouching against a wall and drew his friend's gaze; when Roy spotted him, the two shared a nod.
"Well, it's only noon," a policeman joked. "You've still got time."
"Nah," Roy dismissed with an easy smile. "I got other plans today. 'Scuse me."
He shouldered his way through the crowd of babbling officers, eyes trained on one thing alone. Kaldur stood to watch him approach, and all the bustle of the plaza seemed to fall away for the few second it took to close the distance between them.
"You are bleeding," he remarked as Roy came to stand before him at last. The archer's uniform was ripped at the knee, and he had accumulated various scrapes and bruises, including a nasty cut on his forearm, above his bow guard. But Roy didn't even look down to see what Kaldur meant.
"Oh," he said simply, and kissed him.
Somewhere nearby, somebody gasped. But truly, Kaldur could not bring himself to care. Roy's lips were warm and rough against his own, Roy's touch firm against the side of his neck, Roy's arms strong and sure as they finally slipped around him to pull him impossibly close, and it all seemed to go on forever in the best possible way. When finally they broke apart, it took Kaldur several moments to regain enough sense to realize that most of the people in the crowd around them were either staring or trying very hard not to.
"We just busted Star City's biggest drug ring," muttered Roy, noticing the stares, and Kaldur's discomfort. "They can deal. C'mon, let's go home."
With a final visual sweep of the area, Kaldur satisfied himself with the knowledge that the police had things under control. Then he looked back to Roy and gave a nod, letting the archer take him by the hand and pull him back through the crowd to his motorcycle, which was now sporting a cracked headlight.
"Occupational hazards," Roy shrugged, and mounted it anyway. Kaldur slid in behind him, and soon they were speeding away from the noise and the lights and the police tape, toward the quiet of the harbor.
Kaldur watched as Roy entered the necessary codes and voice cues to open the tunnel and the two slipped into the shadows, the bike wheeled between them. He hadn't been paying much attention the first time around, too focused on the heat that had consumed him then, but now he could appreciate the usefulness of such a space – not only did it protect Roy's true home from detection, it could house his entire secret identity, with room for his motorcycle, his uniform, his bows and his considerable stock arsenal of trick arrows. The only clue the apartment itself needed to hold was the trapdoor, which was nearly invisible in the kitchen floor.
As the tunnel closed behind them, the two parked Roy's motorcycle against the south wall and continued through the underground, the sounds of the city dying away at their backs. About ten paces in, Roy's hand brushed Kaldur's gently, directing him through a turn he hadn't seen in the darkness; the innocuous touch sent goosebumps running up his arm, and with a faint sense of disbelief he realized that such a reaction was no longer inappropriate. He was allowed to feel this way now.
A moment later, it happened again, and he actually dared to enjoy the brief contact, letting his hand linger against his friend's even after they'd navigated the turn; he sensed Roy cast a glance at him through the black, but neither said anything. The third time it happened, Roy's fingers slipped between his, half-intertwined as his thumb brushed lightly over the webbing between Kaldur's thumb and index finger. Unable to suppress the ripple of pleasure the touch elicited, Kaldur let out the tiniest of gasps. Then suddenly, and without a word of warning, Roy had slammed him against the nearest wall and claimed his lips once more, hands fisting in the skintight material of his costume.
"Why – " the archer panted between sudden, fierce kisses, " – didn't you tell me?"
Kaldur groaned as Roy's palm slid up his chest, heavy and warm.
"I – I intended to," he managed to gasp out. Roy's lips had dropped to his neck, leaving him practically writhing with excitement. "But then you – got shot – bad…bad timing…"
"To hell with - timing," hissed Roy. "Waited – too goddamn long – I should've – mmmph!"
Kaldur had pulled him up sharply for another kiss, muffling the rest of his sentence.
"Told me?" the Atlantean prompted breathlessly. "Why – nngh – why didn't you?"
Roy suddenly pulled away, a strange, hollow laugh escaping his lips. As the two of them caught their breath a moment, he leaned his forehead against Kaldur's, one hand against the side of his face.
"Kal," he said finally, taking a deep breath. "You don't touch something clean with dirty hands."
"I…I do not follow."
Roy's thumb brushed softly over the curve of Kaldur's cheekbone, tracing the outline of his face as he seemed to ponder his next words.
"You're good," he said at last, voice quiet. "And I'm just…not. Not like you. You've been the one consistently good thing in my life ever since I met you, and frankly, the further away from me you are, the better off you'll be. I couldn't…I could never bring myself to risk messing that – messing you up, like I do everything else. I'm bad news, Kal. You deserved better than that. I mean, you still do. What are you even doing here? Get the hell out."
But his hoarse laugh and the way he failed to move away in the slightest betrayed his words.
"You undersell yourself, my friend," said Kaldur softly, seeking Roy's gaze in the darkness. "One wrong turn does not make you 'bad news.'"
"I'm not talking one wrong turn," said Roy. "I mean, come on. You know me. I'm a walking attitude problem."
Kaldur laughed and lifted a hand to adjust the strap of Roy's quiver, letting his hand linger a little too long against the archer's bare shoulder.
"It is part of your charm," he said with a coy smile.
Roy's lips found his in reply, and Kaldur slid his hands up from his shoulders, fingers carding through Roy's hair as their talk dissolved once more.
They carried on breathlessly. Both seemed lost in a moment that had been so long and arduous in the making; Kaldur found that even with Roy's hands pressing him to the cool cement of the tunnel wall and Roy's mouth eager and hot against his gills, he was having a hard time believing it was all real, and not just some cruel delusion brought on by the chemicals still lingering in his blood. Then abruptly, Roy's teeth raked over the puncture site in his neck, and a sharp sting pierced the pleasure, drawing a pained hiss from his lips.
"You okay?" Roy gasped, pulling away and running his hand over the spot. Against his will, Kaldur flinched. "Sorry. That's a no, then."
"I have had worse," Kaldur protested.
"I know you have," said Roy, stroking the uninjured side of his neck and watching the resulting shudder with no small amount of satisfaction. "But I want to be able to kiss you wherever the hell I want and not worry that I'm hurting you."
With considerable effort, Kaldur forced his attention away from the callused fingertips that were caressing the slits of his gills.
"I suppose your wounds require tending as well," he relented, shivering.
Roy reached up to pull the lever that would bring down the stairs, and as the light from the apartment flooded down to illuminate them both, he smirked.
"Just the wounds?"
"I'm starved," Roy announced as he set aside the med kit and moved to wash his hands – he'd just sewed up the gash in his forearm, leaving Kaldur to wonder at the fragility of human skin. "Lunch?"
"I can cook," Kaldur volunteered.
"Hell no," said Roy, looking up from the sink with a grin. His hair was still wet from his shower and his blue eyes were piercing in the afternoon sun that slanted through the blinds. "My identity's safe again. We're ordering delivery."
He called it in as Kaldur relaxed into the (surprisingly comfortable) couch. He was exhausted, and still fairly sore – getting hit by a bus tended to have that effect, even on Atlanteans – but gone were the worst of the withdrawals, the nausea and the hot flashes and the bone-deep aches that had plagued him the day before. Perhaps it was only a temporary reprieve, but he was grateful nonetheless, that he had the clarity of mind to appreciate the moment.
"I'm about to inaugurate the porch with a cigarette," Roy called from the kitchen. "Join me?"
Outside, the sun was burning off the last of the day's cloud cover, warming Star City past what the time of year would normally allow. Kaldur zipped up his jacket as he stepped outside, but didn't bother to put on shoes – no one would be able to see his feet from the street, and he liked the feeling of the wood beneath his toes anyway.
They shut the front door behind them. Roy smoked and Kaldur watched the harbor, the two falling into comfortable silence as if they had been doing this for years, which, to be fair, they had. But it was different now. This time, it wasn't odd that Roy watched Kaldur watch the water, and it wasn't strange that when Kaldur caught him doing it, they just shared a knowing smile and went back to what they were doing. Kaldur's thoughts drifted, wondering how much time they had thrown away, not knowing the secret the other kept, both too proud or paradoxically too scared to say anything.
"What're you thinking about?" Roy asked after a time, taking a drag from his cigarette.
"What makes you think I am thinking?"
"You're a thinking kind of guy," replied Roy. "And you've got that look in your eye."
Kaldur smiled guiltily, turning around to rest his back against the porch railing.
"You know me too well, my friend," he said.
"Okay, hold up a second," said Roy, the hint of a mischievous smirk playing at his lips. "How long are you going to keep calling me that?"
"Calling you what?" Kaldur asked, confused.
"Oh," said Kaldur, blinking. "It is an Atlantean expression of familiarity. Does it not translate well?"
Roy laughed, shaking his head and tapping out the ash from the end of his cigarette.
"No, forget it. It's cool," he said. "What were you going to say?"
"I was just thinking about…what you said earlier, about what you told your dealer," said Kaldur slowly. He cast a glance at Roy to make sure he was not making his friend uncomfortable, but the archer just seemed to be waiting for him to go on. "I do not understand when you could have told her such a thing. You have been clean for two years now."
Roy took a drag from his cigarette, then let it out in one long breath, letting the wind carry the smoke away. His expression hadn't changed.
"Two years," he echoed, as if still waiting for Kaldur to finish the question. "Yeah."
"But you…" Kaldur frowned. He didn't understand. "Did you continue to see her, after you had quit?"
"No," said Roy.
"Is it really that hard to believe I could keep my mouth shut for two years?" Roy interrupted.
Kaldur blinked in surprise.
"Sorry if that's retroactively ruined any good memories or whatever," Roy said, blowing a smoke ring. "I just figured you were better off not knowing."
Kaldur was silent a moment. He was still recovering from the shock of finding out that Roy returned his affections in the first place, but to learn that he had harbored such feelings long before Kaldur himself had…it was all rather overwhelming (though also flattering, to be sure).
"Did you think I would spurn your friendship if you…spoke of your feelings?" he asked at last.
"No," said Roy, shrugging. "I know you're better than that. I just didn't want to put that on you. I know you, Kal. You wouldn't have just forgotten about something like that. You would have made it your problem, and I didn't want to do that to you, to be that to you. You had enough on your plate as it was, with the new language and the new culture and the new sidekick gig."
Kaldur looked at his friend a moment.
"You are very good at rationalizing your tendency to keep your problems to yourself," he remarked.
"Yup," Roy agreed, flashing an easy smile. "And look where it's got me."
Roy punched him in the arm.
"You're an asshole," he laughed.
Kaldur just smiled.
"I learned from the best."
Happiness was a strange emotion for Kaldur. He had survived on contentment for so long that he had almost forgotten what it felt like to derive joy from anything other than the fulfillment of duty.
That night, he remembered.
Late the next morning, there was a knock on the door. Roy, halfway through his second pot of coffee, looked up from the stove and over at Kaldur, and the two shared a look.
"You wanna get that?"
"I am not exactly dressed."
"Neither am I. Trust me, no one will complain."
With a disapproving (but fond) shake of his head, Kaldur rose from the table and went to the peephole. Who would be visiting Roy at eleven in the morning on a weekday…? The new apartment wasn't exactly common knowledge yet.
It was a woman, tall and athletic, with short black hair and a strikingly pretty face, and it took him a second longer than it should have to recognize her without the blonde wig and the fishnets. But as soon as he did, he opened the door, and she stepped inside, looking up from the newspaper she'd been perusing.
"Good morning," she greeted, eyes flicking between the two boys, both in varying states of undress – Kaldur wore a loose tee shirt over his boxers, but Roy hadn't even bothered with that. "I see you've both been wildly productive today."
"Hey, I'm totally making an omelet over here," Roy objected. Dinah laughed, shaking her head and tossing the paper down onto the kitchen table as Kaldur shut the door behind her.
"Well, I suppose you've earned a day off, given the headlines you made yesterday," she said.
Stepping over to the table, Kaldur glanced down at the newspaper to see what she meant.
ARROW PARTNERSHIP LIVES, the front page proclaimed. Then underneath, in smaller text, Green Arrow and Former Sidekick Team Up to Bring Down Corcifus Drug Ring.
Kaldur picked up the paper to admire the photographer's shot of the arrest – the black car they'd been chasing was on its side in the street, its occupants in the process of being handcuffed while Roy and Ollie looked on with grave expressions. In the background, Star Bridge stood sentry against a blue, blue sky.
"My favorite picture is on page three," Dinah said helpfully, looking over his shoulder. He turned to it, and with extremely mixed feelings (three parts fluttering excitement to two parts objective appreciation to five parts burning embarrassment) discovered that of course, someone had snapped a shot of their not-so-private moment in the plaza. There was no story to go with the photo, just a caption: Speedy celebrates his victory with fellow sidekick Aqualad.
"Classy," Dinah teased, eyes twinkling.
Roy wandered over and reached for the paper, frowning as Kaldur snatched it out of his reach.
"Don't make me hit you," said the archer threateningly, pointing the spatula at the Atlantean.
"They got your name wrong," Kaldur warned. "And referred to you as a sidekick."
"Old news," Roy dismissed. "Used to it. Lemme see."
Kaldur obeyed, and as Roy took the newspaper from him, he shared a look with Dinah, who winked at him.
"Mission accomplished?" she murmured.
"Mission accomplished," Kaldur agreed with the faintest of flushes.
"We'll see you in the Cave in a few days, then," she said. "Assuming you feel up to it. How have things been, recovery-wise?"
Truthfully, Kaldur had almost forgotten.
"They have been well," he nodded, thinking about it. "I have had so many other things to think about, it seems my body itself has been distracted for the time being."
"Well, they do say keeping busy helps," said Dinah, lips curving into a knowing smile. "And if I had to guess, I'd say you've been keeping plenty busy."
"Damn straight," Roy smirked, and Kaldur turned beet red before he realized Roy was actually remarking on the newspaper photo, which he'd just affixed to his refrigerator. The archer turned around, grinning. "We look good."
"Well," Dinah laughed, placing a hand on Kaldur's back. "I'll leave you two to enjoy your time off. I'm liking the new apartment, Roy. And the fact that it's not, well, disgusting."
"Give it time, give it time," said Roy, cracking a smile. "Send my regards to Ollie. That was one hell of a fast response yesterday."
"You say that like he doesn't keep constant tabs on you like the big sentimental worrywart he is," replied Dinah, raising an eyebrow.
"In that case, send this to Ollie," said Roy, but Kaldur caught his hand before he could complete the gesture.
"Tell him yourself," she said. "I'm sure he'd be glad to hear from you."
"Yeah, well," said Roy as Dinah made for the door; when the cold air rushed in from outside, he slipped an arm around Kaldur's waist. "We'll see."
Dinah turned back to look at them both for just a moment. A strange smile twisted her mouth, as though she knew something they didn't, something too good to be put into words.
"Have a good one, boys," she said at last. "Be safe."
And with that, she was gone.
"So," Roy grinned, turning to Kaldur the instant the door clicked shut. Suddenly, the hand on Kaldur's hip was up his shirt, and Roy's mouth was at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, teeth gently scraping the dark, smooth, dense skin exposed there. The archer pulled away after a few seconds and looked Kaldur in the eye, his own glimmering with mischief. "What do you you want to do today?"
"I could think of a few things," Kaldur replied, as evenly as he could manage.
"Yeah?" Roy smirked. "Such as?"
Kaldur lifted a hand and let his fingertips glide meanderingly down Roy's jaw to his neck to his shoulder and then across his chest, the pressure tantalizingly light. When the archer shuddered and closed his eyes, he leaned forward, lips curling upwards in anticipation as he breathed into Roy's ear:
"Putting out the fire you have started on the stove."
Roy's eyes snapped open. It took only a backwards glance to determine the truth of Kaldur's words – the forgotten, would-be omelet had burst into flames at some point, and the smell of smoke was rapidly spreading through the apartment, threatening to set off the smoke alarm.
Kaldur laughed as Roy rushed to thrust the frying pan under the tap of the sink, dousing the whole thing into submission. As the flames subsided and the danger with it, the archer turned back to fix him with a somewhat murderous look.
"You know you're asking for it, right?"
"Am I?" Kaldur asked, eyes twinkling.
"God damn. I've created a monster. A sass monster."
"You are enjoying this as much as I am, my friend. Do not think I believe otherwise for an instant."
"Oh, get over here already."
"If you insist."
Sunrise on the pier – the light spilled across the water, turning it all sorts of improbable colors as the two boys looked on from the edge of the dock, side by side.
"You should probably go," Roy murmured, making absolutely no move to do so himself. "Training starts at what, eight?"
"Eight," Kaldur confirmed, equally immobile.
A long, easy silence.
"You sure you don't want to just drop the whole Junior Justice League thing and come – "
" – Roy…"
"Never mind. Sorry."
"It is fine."
"I guess three days' vacation is more than we could have hoped for in the first place."
"True. You could always get yourself shot again."
"Don't tempt me."
"…I should go."
"You should go."
"I will be late."
"You're gonna be late."
"I am leaving now."
"Sure you are."
"If you would just – mmmph."
"…keep in touch, Kal."
"I will, my friend."
"Walk you to the zeta station."
"I am perfectly capable of finding it myself."
"That was a heads up, not an offer."
When he looked back on it later, Kaldur should have known that it would all have happened as it did. He had led the team long enough to know certain things about its members, to be able to predict how they would react to one thing another. His teammates were no mystery to him, most of the time.
Yet somehow he was still surprised and mortified when he beamed into the Cave to find that Robin had hacked the monitor systems to display the newspaper image of him and Roy kissing on every available screen in the whole damn mountain. And somehow he was still taken aback when Wally spent all of the morning training session complaining that Kaldur had gotten time off to "get some" while Wally himself had never been granted any such privilege. And somehow he still wasn't expecting Artemis to corner him in the hallway just before lunch and make a very explicit threat on Roy's life, should her predecessor ever fail to "be a gentleman."
"You may be nineteen years too late," he'd had to tell her, and they'd both laughed at the truth in that.
(Conner and M'gann had simply smiled, for which he was grateful. Falling back into routine was tricky enough without all his teammates involving themselves in his love life.)
At the end of the day, when the rest of the team had gone to hit the showers and Red Tornado had finally managed to restore the monitors to their normal state, Black Canary pulled him aside.
"You did well out there today," she told him, nodding in approval. He smiled gratefully, sheathing his waterbearers and wiping a beat of sweat from his brow. He had worked hard, and it was gratifying to know he had performed accordingly.
"It is good to be back," he said.
"And you're feeling well? No problems there?"
"None. I have not felt ill for some time, now."
When she seemed to have nothing more to say, he nodded his thanks and turned to make for the showers, but she caught his arm at the last second.
"One last thing, Kaldur."
"How's that…distraction we spoke of earlier? Any stray thoughts now?"
He bit back a smile.
She fixed him with a look.
"Perhaps a few," he admitted sheepishly. "But I…I no longer have a desire to purge them."
"That's more like it," she smiled, and patted him on the back. "Now off you go. I'm sure Wally has plenty more questions for you to avoid answering. You wouldn't want to keep him waiting."
"Of course not."
And he headed for the showers, body sore and satisfied from the day's work. It was a long and meandering road he had taken to track down his wandering heart. But in the end, some things were worth it.