Summary: There was a seldom-used grove partially hidden on the back-most grounds of the Hall of Justice's expansive property. At the site, tucked among the spindling nests of vines and wildflowers, stood proud an all-too-populated fleet of memorials to those who had long since fallen in their call to duty.
AN: This is the response to Students of the Arts "The Last..." prompt on the YJ Challenge Forum here at . My prompt was "The Last... smile at you" with Tula and Batman... Man, I really wish I could say that I'm talented enough to come up with something on the spot. Despite the difficulty I had, though, I have to admit that I'm kind of okay with how this turned out. Reviews are love, and thanks so much to all my readers. (:
Disclaimer: I own nothing. (The quote is from "Hero of War" by Rise Against)
A hero of war; that's what I'll be
And, when I come home, they'll be so proud of me
I'll carry this flag to the grave if I must
Because it's a flag that I love, and a flag that I trust
Warriors Never Smile
Rain fell from the grey-tinted, clouded sky in thickets, pouring across everything it touched and soaking the path it roamed over to the very core with its icy, spiking fingers. There was no escaping its grasp—those who held umbrellas watched as water flew off their shields' edges, splashing already-saturated midnight slacks; though most had given up any attempt to stay even some small degree dry. The crowd gathered in the storm was small, yet still substantially sized in all such circumstances; there was, however, no denying that he had been well respected by everyone that he had touched. Here, on the Surface World, there would be no proper burial—he would be taken home for a more traditional Atlanean ceremony—but they had wanted so send their teammate, friend, former leader off with the knowledge that they cared for him enough to honor his passing in both lands. There was, however morbid it seemed to be, a seldom-used grove partially hidden on the back-most grounds of the Hall of Justice's expansive property. At the site, tucked among the spindling nests of vines and wildflowers, stood proud an all-too-populated fleet of memorials to those who had long since fallen in their line of work—their call to duty. Damp eyes scanned the white-washed stones and the engraved names that stood out as would blood on a blank canvas. There were no civilian names; only hero aliases that had become so much a part of each victim that, in cases, such other identities were not necessary.
And now a new plaque stood strong among the ranks, forever to be remembered by the people of both worlds: Aqualad.
Even during times of grief, there was an unspoken need for secrecy among the sorrow-filled heroes gathered, scattered, as the designation speech was solemnly presented by a drenched, dress-suit-clad Aquaman, dressed as such in an effort to respect the surface-world custom of dark clothing during rituals of death. Similarly, each human and metahuman alike was clothed in black formal wear, the only indication that this ceremony was anything more than an unfortunately-oft practiced funeral being each heroic guest's mask worn to protect his or her identity in the unlikely case that a civilian passerby should interrupt. Most prevalent among the disguises was the array of variously-designed domino masks somehow acquired by most cowl-wearing vigilantes, only adding to the sobered mood with their colorless, uniformed style. "…his life, his work, and his legacy will be forever remembered by those who carry his memory with them, and those in generations to come who shall hear tales of his great bravery…" Onlookers stood stoic and silent, each fully aware that, in the inevitable event of another such tragedy befalling their League, his or her name held the all-too-likely possibility of someday adorning a similar stone. Only one cried, her salted tears disappearing into the night as they mingled with falling droplets trailing their way across her naturally-resistant skin. "…there will never be another like him—he can never be replaced in our hearts…"
Bruce tilted his head, glancing over toward where two young heroes had gravitated together. It seemed, to him, as though a lifetime had passed since that fateful Fourth of July so many years ago, bringing the then-teenagers closer than any mere bond of friendship ever could. With the formation of that Team, they had become family, and, despite the countless changes that had brought themselves about over the years since, the remained so. Dick, now bearing the independent identity of Nightwing, stood much as his father did: straight-backed and hard-lined, showing no indication of care as the sleek, long black hair pulled tight dripped steadily down his back. Gone was the jovial, English-butchering, vibrant young thirteen-year-old that had once bounced around the Cave, seemingly without a care in the world, and in his place grew a darker, serious model of the man he had vowed never to become. By his side, easily identifiable by the shock of still-effervescent orange hair, remained the young man who had, at far too young an age, stepped forward to take his revered uncle's hero mantle after the Scarlet Speedster's scarring death. Much like his brother—who shared such a title not by blood, but a bond just as strong—the skirt-chasing little rascal who had once brought neon life to the hardened members of the League had nearly faded from existence, replaced by a stronger man, beaten by tragedy but refusing to be held down for long. Now, only they remained as proof of what had once been—of the covert gathering of talented minors with the fire to change the world.
As Batman watched, Wally leaned ever-so-slightly closer to his best friend, before whispering into the frowning man's ear. In response, Dick gave a miniscule nod—though he never shifted his gaze from the Atlantean King as he continued to speak. At the affirmation, the former Kid Flash gently clapped a hand on his shoulder, before slowly moving toward another pair positioned apart from the main group of mourners gathered. It had been quite some time since Bruce had set eyes on either individual, and, in time since, the young man had not changed much, physically. There was no doubting his skill as both a fighter and accomplished sorcerer, however, as indicated by the lithe muscle visible even under his borrowed tuxedo. His brown locks had darkened with age, though he had, apparently, chosen to maintain its length. Unlike his peers, he bore an expression of anguish rather than anger, not yet having had his heart encased in stone as many of the heroes felt inclined to do over their careers. The young man—Garth, Bruce recalled—held tight to a strikingly beautiful young woman; the very same redhead that continued to weep over the loss of her friend. She did not return his embrace, and only stared ahead at the memorial stone with the open, pain-filled eyes of a child who has just lost his innocence.
Just as Wally approached, King Orin declared his choked—but strength-filled—closing remarks, receiving weak, polite claps from the crowd gathered. A strained hush fell over the onlookers in the minutes that followed, and, slowly, one by one, heroes began to trickle away, back toward whichever life they chose to return. Kaldur'ahm would never again have such a privilege, the older man thought bitterly as he watched the Flash and Garth exchange a firm handshake. Hushed words were exchanged, before there was a pause in their brief conversation. Reluctantly, the dark-haired man glanced toward the now-quieted young woman that he continued to hold, but, at his hesitation, she released herself from his embrace. With a solemn nod and a gentle squeeze of her shoulder, she ushered him on to whatever needed to be taken care of—though Batman, as leader of the League, was well aware of the reasoning. Soon, Wally was leading Garth toward the Hall of Justice—toward civilization—and Aquaman slowly trailed behind after seeing the two depart, Dick soon following to join the impending meeting. This left Bruce and the young woman—her name escaped him, though he was well aware that he had known her at some point in a distant life—relatively alone after several moments of heroes passing through. Though Aqualad had become a full-fledged member of the League and a prominent hero to his own people, he had never become a well-known, major player on the Surface World. People came and went, but, for most, it seemed as though their presence stemmed more from respectful courtesy and a self-imposed reminder of their own mortality than any extensive affection for their fallen comrade.
After what seemed like much too long wrapped in his own thoughts as he stared at the little memorial, Bruce was tripped from his mental web not by the stinging, frigid numbness that had crept its way over his aging body thanks to the rain having infiltrated his tuxedo, but by a soft voice that could not have been heard by an ear any less trained. "He spoke of you often, you know." Batman had never been one partial to words, choosing instead to listen rather than contribute to conversation. She seemed to understand this for whatever reason, and continued on as he looked toward her. "He would come back and tell us stories of the Great Batman, Fearless Protector of the Surface World." There was a pause as she collected herself, during which Bruce made no move to add a word. "After our King presented him a special division of the Atlantean Royal Guard to train, he would always credit you with his ability to teach." Now, she trained her wide, sapphire eyes against his masked windows. "I would not doubt that he held you in the highest regard, second only to King Orin, himself." There was yet another lapse in conversation, as both lost themselves in the cusp of memories resurrected by her words. They stood like that, alone in the night, separated by distance but still close enough to see each other through the ever-thickening downpour, for what could have been minutes or hours—both lost track of time as they relived their pasts.
The silence was broken some time later as the Garth returned from his talk with various League members, jogging out through the storm just as the first bout of lightening cracked across the sky. "Tula, what are you still doing out here?" He placed a loving arm across her shoulders, gently guiding her away from the lonely scene. His voice was soft, caring; "Come, let us return home. There is… much I would like to discuss with you." She nodded slowly, her gaze lingering over the plaque even as she turned her back toward his black-inscribed name.
As they approached him in the blackness, Bruce let out one sentence low enough so that only the pair could hear—though only the young woman understood—not that there was any one else remaining to witness. "Aqualad was a talented young man." She paused in her steps, causing her match to falter in his, as well, and gazed up at the worn, aging hero with her open, trusting eyes.
A sad, tired upturn crossed her lips and she shook her head ever-so-slightly, causing the streams of water cascading from her auburn locks to flick in various directions. "I know." It was only a simple, two-word expression, but it held such conviction—such emotion. With that, the pair continued on, leaving the somber, stoic vigilante alone in his domain—the night—once more. He did not return her gesture; no, it had been too many lifetimes passed since he had uttered any such sentiment. He was war-torn, scarred, beaten. He was, like the fallen men and women displayed before him, a soldier in the bloody war that ravaged humanity, and warriors never smiled.
AN: Secondary note: All events (excepting Kaldur's death, 'cause he's an exclusive YJ character) are comic canon, so please don't eat me. Thanks.