I don't own Young Justice
What We Carry
Lian wouldn't have noticed, but he set dinner on fire and now she won't stop babbling about it, about how Mommy never set dinner on fire, Mommy never had to put the stove out with the water in the pasta pot, Mommy never said bad words like that when she cooked, and on some level he wants to turn around and tell her that today, Mommy probably would have burned the whole goddamn house down. But he doesn't, and he can't actually be angry. It's not her fault. She doesn't know.
(Also, even if it were her fault, he still wouldn't be angry. Not at Lian. She's the one thing in this world that his anger will never, ever touch.)
They eat takeout, and he lets her talk – she chatters on about how Auntie Donna told her she had a pretty voice when she sang for her, how Auntie Dinah says Daddy should "come talk to her one of these years," how Uncle Ollie said that school is where they go to turn your brain to applesauce and make you a part of the Big Capitalist Machine and she doesn't want that to happen ("Daddy, what's capitalism?") so she's not going to school, ever, is that okay? And he nods and gives her a distant smile, trying to pay attention, because he'd much rather follow her train of thought than his own. But it's difficult to concentrate.
She colors while he washes up, and he stares out the kitchen window with the suds up to his elbows, wondering how five years went by so fast. They would be adults now, all six of them – even Robin would have been eighteen last month, for Christ's sake. The thought is mind-boggling. It's hard for Roy to imagine him as anything but a sassy little child prodigy; then again, they probably couldn't have imagined him as a father, either….
As his thoughts turn back to Lian, he turns away from the dishes to check on her, but she's happily filling in the Flash's outline with the wrong colors, despite having personally witnessed the right ones just two days ago, when Uncle Barry took her to northern Canada on his lunch break "for a real sno-cone." He bites back a bitter smile as he wonders what sort of shenanigans the others would have gotten her into. It's not as if she has any shortage of "aunts" and "uncles," but he can't pretend there aren't any names missing from that list, names he still has never told her, because he can't say them out loud without breaking down.
Still, he wonders.
Would Conner have held her as an infant, and finally seen what tenderness was?
Would M'gann have taken her mother's form those first long nights, to quiet her crying?
Would Robin have taught her to break out of her crib, then her room, then the house?
Would Artemis have filled her developing young vocabulary with her own favorite (unsavory) words?
Would Wally have rushed her to see the sun rise in every state?
Would Kaldur have shown her Atlantis, like he'd promised he'd show Roy, five years and a day ago today…?
But she doesn't know who they are, and she never will, because they're all gone now. Someday he'll take her to visit their graves, but she's only four, and the idea of death is still kind of big and scary and unfamiliar to her, and it's not her job to take on her father's ghosts. Not yet anyway. When she's old enough, they'll make a roadtrip out of it. They'll have to forgo Mars and Atlantis, of course, but…it'll be something.
"Daddy, there's no purple," Lian pouts, jolting him out of his thoughts. He dries his hands and walks over to her, craning his neck to get a good look at what she's coloring now.
"Lian, babe, Green Lantern doesn't wear purple," he points out. "That's why he's the Green Lantern."
She narrows her eyes threateningly, and he backs off.
"Right, I mean, he could wear purple, though, if he wanted to," he says quickly, holding up his hands. "You just work on coloring the uh, the non-purple parts, while I go find it for you."
It takes him a few minutes to find the right crayon (it's under the cushions on the sofa), but the look on Lian's face when he hands it over is worth it. She goes back to coloring, and he goes back to thinking, and they continue in this vein until it's getting late, and he remembers that little kids are supposed to have bedtimes, even if their parents pretty much never sleep.
"All right," he says, turning off the television and rising from the couch. "I think it's time for you to brush your teeth and get bedward, kiddo."
To his surprise, she agrees cheerfully, and clambers off the kitchen chair to head for the bathroom. He comes in a few minutes later to tuck her in, and doesn't bother to point out she's put on her pyjama shirt backward, since it's clearly working for her. As she climbs into bed and he pulls the blankets up around his daughter, she lets out a big, big yawn.
And he should have known that her earlier obedience was only a diplomatic ploy, because the second he tries to stand up, he discovers she has a death grip on his shirtsleeve, and she looks up at him with the sweetest, heart-melting look and says,
"I want a bedtime story."
"It's late," Roy deflects gently. "Maybe another night."
"Auntie Donna always reads me a bedtime story," counters Lian.
"I'm not Auntie Donna," says Roy. "And you've read all the books we have in here, hon. You know all those stories."
"Then make one up," says Lian. She lets go of his arm and wiggles down into the pillows, looking up at him expectantly.
"I'm not good at making up stories," Roy says, frowning.
"It's okay, Daddy. I promise to like it, even if it's bad."
He hesitates. Then, with a sigh, he takes a seat on the edge of her bed, reaching out to smooth a strand of jet-black hair out of her eyes. He knows he's stalling, but he needs the time, to think of something to tell her, something besides that, because Lian's fairy tales don't end like this story does, and he wants her to stay in that world as long as she possibly can. But it's been five years to the day and it's taking up too much space in his mind for anything else to fit. Today, it's all he has.
He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and begins.
"Okay. There was a – "
"Once upon a time," Lian interrupts. "You have to start with 'once upon a time.'"
He looks at her, opens his mouth as if to argue, then stops.
"Once upon a time," he says deliberately, waiting for her nod of approval, which she gives. "There was a…a beautiful kingdom, with big blue oceans and endless bright skies, and rolling mountains and busy cities all different kinds of people living in it."
"And a king and a queen?" Lian asks hopefully.
Roy contemplates how to answer that.
"Lots of kings and queens," he decides. "Many great kings and queens, whose sworn duty was to protect their kingdom, all together. The…the kings and queens lived in…in a floating castle in the sky, because they could see the whole kingdom from there, and protect it from danger that way."
He's expecting another interruption, but Lian is just watching him with those big brown eyes, waiting for him to go on, so he does.
"One day, a very bad man came to the kingdom," he continues, his mind easily traveling the distance back to that day. "He…attacked the castle in the sky, and all the kings and queens gathered to defend their home."
Extraterrestrial disturbance, rapidly approaching Earth. Full League response requested on the Watchtower.
"But the evil man's true intent wasn't to hurt the kings and queens," Roy says, watching Lian's eyes grow big. "It was to take control of the kingdom. The attack on the castle was just a trick to get the kings and queens to go there, and once they were all gathered, he trapped them inside with powerful magic, sealing them in the castle, far away from their subjects. They couldn't get out."
Zeta functions jammed, and there's some kind of energy seal in the atmosphere – don't try to fly through it, Clark, are you crazy? Look at these readings. You'll be dead before you hit the troposphere.
"As soon as he knew the kings and queens couldn't reach the kingdom, he built his own castle, not in the sky but right in the middle of the biggest ocean. He used magic to lift his fortress right out of the sea, and he sent a message to all the people of Ea– of the kingdom, and told them he would be their king, now, instead of the old kings and queens. He said if they didn't acknowledge him, he would destroy the whole kingdom, piece by piece, until they did."
This is Cat Grant, reporting for GBS news. A new threat has emerged in the Pacific, and the Justice League is mysteriously absent. World leaders across the globe are debating furiously over how to respond to this frightening new development, but the situation looks bleak.
Lian is looking alarmed at this point; Roy covers her hand with his own and gave it a reassuring squeeze.
"But the evil man had forgotten one thing," he tells her, his voice quieter now. "He had forgotten about the princes and the princesses."
Just as he'd expected, Lian smiles broadly at that, her eyes lighting with excitement.
"There were only six of them," he says, "But they were there to protect the people of the kingdom in the absence of the kings and queens. They were – "
"What were their names?" Lian wants to know.
Roy stops for a moment, looking down at her and deciding if and how he should and can answer.
"There was…there was Prince Conner, the Strong, who could break through steel with a single blow," he begins, smiling despite himself, though it is a strained, trembling smile. "And Prince Wallace the Swift, who could run faster than anyone else in the kingdom. There was their leader, Prince Kaldur'ahm the Wise, who kept them steady in the face of the great danger, and his second-in-command, Prince Robin the Clever, who was the youngest of them but by no measure the least. As for the princesses, there was Princesses Artemis the Brave, who always chose the right path, even when it wasn't the easy one, and Princess M'gann, the Kindhearted, who could see through all deception into anyone's true self."
"Those are weird names," says Lian suspiciously.
"Maybe so," he replies with a faint smile, shrugging. "But it didn't matter that they had strange names. They knew what they had to do. They got into their magical flying machine and went to face the evil man in his castle, because they knew the fate of the kingdom was in their hands, now. Three of them – the Strong, the Wise and the Brave – engaged him in battle, distracting him so the others could look for the source of…of his magic, so they could restore the kings and queens to earth. It was…it was a fierce battle."
"Red Arrow, do you copy?"
"Where the hell are you?"
"You know the answer to that, my friend. I am where I must be."
"You – "
"Listen carefully. I do not have much time. You must - "
"What do you mean you – "
Silence, save for Kaldur's labored breathing. Then, finally,
"You must tell the League what happened."
"Why don't you tell them yourself?"
"…you know that, too, my friend. I am sorry."
"Their plan worked," Roy continues, somehow keeping the tremor out of his hands ,though not out of his voice. "They found the magical machine that had kept the kings and queens away from the kingdom, and they devised a way to destroy it."
"It will detonate in two minutes. Robin thinks the device's energy radiation should be contained to a few miles' radius, but we cannot be sure. M'gann and myself will attempt to…control the blast…with water and mind."
"Why are you breathing like that? What's wrong?"
"Focus, Roy. Tell the League that they must collect the pieces, and ensure they are never reassembled. This is imperative."
"You can't – "
"Promise me. Please."
"I…I understand. I'll tell them."
A deep breath.
"Goodbye, my friend."
Roy pauses, looking over at Lian. Somewhere in the midst of his recollection, she has fallen asleep, her long, dark eyelashes vivid against her pale cheeks, her little chest rising and falling steadily. She is not awake to see her father hunch over as though taken by some great pain. She is not awake to hear the sounds he doesn't make as his body shakes with silent, violent sobs, and she is not awake when he finally straightens out and leans over to whisper hoarsely in her ear,
"And they all lived happily ever after."
He plants a trembling kiss on her forehead. He gets up, he turns out the light, and he leaves.
As he buckles his arsenal into place, slinging his quiver over his back and his bow over his shoulder, he remembers something Lian's mother said to him, back when mutual grief had brought them together, back before divided purpose had torn them apart. She'd looked at his stunned expression as she consumed enough food for a small army, and had said simply "I'm eating for two."
He slips out the door and activates the many complex security systems that will guard his daughter in his absence. The night is waiting for him, the moonlight slanting through the foggy streets of Star City, and he will not sleep tonight. He will not sleep most nights.
He is living for seven.