I don't own Young Justice. As with everything I write, written for YJAM. Also er, not entirely sober when I started, so please point out revisions if necessary.
The Surest Shore
The first thing Kaldur does when he reaches the surface is breathe.
He has swum many miles to come here, because he is eleven now, and in a week he will begin his military service, and he does not want to be the only soldier in his squadron who has only seen sunlight through the filter of the wavetops. It is part of becoming a man. Some make the journey with their fathers, but Kaldur has never been one to need supervision. He is alone, and it is exhilarating.
Air is different. Air is new. Air is light and fresh and ticklish against his exposed skin, the cool breeze of the Northeastern coast, and he has never felt anything like this before. Despite this, his body knows what to do; his chest expands, creating this new sort of hollow inside him that is both unfamiliar and absolutely right, and suddenly there is a strange coolness rushing through his throat. It fills him to the brim, and for a moment, he is afraid to let it go, as if in doing so, he will forever lose something that was once a part of him.
When at last lets out that first breath, he cannot help but feel that this cyclical pattern of filling and emptying must be some sacred ritual.
He glows with excitement, and he returns to the water.
The first thing Kaldur eats when he reaches the surface is chili.
This is not nice, and it is a long, long time before he can bring himself to forgive Roy for it, though in the end he does.
Traumatizing first experiences aside, in Kaldur's eyes, hot food is easily one of the best pleasures the surface world has to offer. He surprises everyone with his willingness to try new dishes, and even more with what is new to him (Wally, in particular, could never believe that he didn't know what "peanut butter" was, and insisted that someone who had never eaten something "as American as peanut butter" could never be a member of the Justice League "of America"). But because he has not grown up with the cuisine, he has no preconceived notions of what good food is supposed to be, and judges it all on taste alone. No food is traditional when it is not his tradition.
Indian food fascinates him – he cannot name a single ingredient in the first dish they set before him. He learns, eventually, but the novelty of the flavors never wears off.
Sushi is a bust. His teammates swear by it, but it bores him, having too many ingredients in common with the foods he has eaten all his life; if he wanted raw fish, he would go home to Atlantis and have his mother prepare it properly.
Greek food passes with reasonably good marks. He enjoys the contrast of the grains and the meats, and olives are just familiar enough to be likeable while exotic enough to capture his interest. On the other hand, he discovers he doesn't care much for garlic, which puts a damper on a whole lot of the cuisine.
Over time, he develops preferences here and there; he will try any kind of cooked fish, just to see how land-dwellers do it differently, and he enjoys a mildly spicy curry any day of the week. Savory flavors remain his favorite, and he never really does warm up to sweets, but he makes an exception for M'gann's cookies. Taste isn't always just about taste, after all.
Some nights Kaldur stands on the beach in Happy Harbor and watches the waves come in for hours, crashing over the sand in their endless game of charge and retreat. He will remember his first breath and think to himself that the waves are like the ocean's breathing, and then he will wonder how far each wave traveled just to get here, to spill out upon this particular shore, to spend itself and be gone forever.
Then he will wish there were a way to see it all in reverse, to watch the endless natural conclusion of the land world's motions.
Sometimes he thinks surface-dwellers would behave better if they could see that.
Earth has many cultures, as does Atlantis. By the time he is fifteen, Kaldur is old enough to have seen a great deal of both, and he can safely say that on the whole, the concept of childhood is probably the biggest difference between the two worlds, even with all their own internal disagreements.
In Atlantis, childhood is short. It ends with the beginning of schooling, which for most is around the age of four or five, at which time young Atlanteans take on heavy scholarly responsibilities that would shock most Earth adults. Out-of-doors playtime becomes a deliberate exercise period, and friends gather to study, not to play pretend.
When he all explains this to his new Earth friends, they express their condolences, and he is confused. They speak of childhood as if it is a brief period of freedom before a lifetime of enslavement at the hands of Responsibility, but Kaldur has never viewed it this way. He has never thought of himself as unfortunate in his upbringing, not in the least. His parents supported him in his studies, and he excelled, and learned to make something valuable of himself, and to an Atlantean, this is a great source of satisfaction – to have spent his childhood playing silly games and avoiding the accoutrements of adulthood would have been a great waste in his eyes.
All the same, there are some respects in which he appreciates the more lighthearted attitude of his neighbors above. "Fun" is a word he has to learn through experience, as there is no real Atlantean equivalent, but he enjoys his friends' attempts to educate him. In fact, he likes them quite a bit.
On a particular Sunday afternoon, he finds himself at Wally's house, sandwiched between Robin and Roy as he struggles with the strange contraption that allows him to control the onscreen figure he has selected as his avatar. Robin is mercilessly picking off Wally's character while the hapless speedster tries to fight back, complaining that it's not fair, because Robin's had the game since a month before it came out, so of course he's winning, he's had way more time to practice. At one time, Kaldur would have found this dissent alarming and tried to settle it through rational mediation, but he has long since learned that at least to these two, arguing can actually be a form of fun, so he leaves well enough alone.
Roy is going easy on him, and they both know it. But Kaldur no longer sees this as an insult to his potential. Rather, he recognize is it as a nod to his inexperience, and appreciates the graciousness that has led his friend to prioritize mutual enjoyment over personal vindication, especially given that for Roy this is an exceptionally rare circumstance.
Atlantis does some things better than surface-Earth, but this idea of "fun" – the devotion of time solely to personal enjoyment and good company – it is one Kaldur can live with.
Beneath the waves, there is smooth and rough, and not a whole lot of variation elsewise. It is strange – when one lives beneath the waves, one doesn't think of being wet all the time, since that is just the natural state of things; how they feel to the touch is just how they feel, and as a child Kaldur had never considered that any of it would be any different in any other circumstance.
But since coming to the surface, he has come to appreciate the thousands of shades of texture that exist when there is no great equalizer like the water. He is fascinated by touch, and can spend a great deal of time simply tasting new feelings with his fingertips without growing bored. And as with food, he develops preferences, over time.
The course grains of sand shifting beneath his feet as he walks across the beach.
The unyielding coolness of his waterbearers, steady in his grip.
The smooth, slippery surface of a pebble plucked from the shallows, rapidly drying in the sun.
The reassuring warmth of another's head against his shoulder when it gets late and no one wants to be the first to say goodbye.
Kaldur loves many things about the surface world. He has made it his home for nigh three years now, and in that time he has become a child of the shore, of the in-between, of the meeting-place between the two worlds. He will never outgrow his childhood home in the deep deep blue, but he will never again belong to it completely, not when he grown roots here on land as well.
And it is more than just the simple enjoyments. Like Atlantis, this world has its draws and its dangers, its charms and its challenges; it is not perfect, and Kaldur recognizes this. All the same, he will always have a place here, because here, there are people whom he loves, and who love him in return, and this bond is too strong for either world to claim.
This is not to say he never dreams of going back, of sinking deep down into the familiarity of his home and wrapping himself up in what he already knows.
But this is his home, too, and for as long as Conner is there, strong and silent and oh-so-uncertain, for as long as M'gann remains, just as new to this world and equally enchanted, for as long as Artemis stays, full of doubt and secrets and (he knows) fierce loyalty, for as long as Robin and Wally are there to squabble and Roy is there to laugh at the times he still proves himself a foreigner, Kaldur will live this new life, and gladly.
This is where he belongs.
Kaldur loves many things about the surface world, but his friends are the one force that will always pull him back, like an arrow to a target, like a distant wave to the shore it was always meant to find.