All Kaldur can do is stare.
Blood clouds the water, golden hair stained, golden skin gone gray. Sha'lain'a drifts, a horrified expression frozen on her face.
He suddenly feels the cold of the deep: it seeps into his bones, his veins, and Kaldur goes numb as he slowly moves forward, gathering his mother to him for the last time.
"Kaldur. You look troubled," Aquagirl notes in Atlantean, sitting down beside him and dangling her feet in the water.
He sighs. "I am."
Tula gives him a gentle smile and lays her hand on his arm- she's always been touchy feely by Atlantean standards. But after serving for so long on a team with Wally (who's always slinging his arm around someone's shoulders, or leaning against one of the others), Robin (who views the entire world, including his teammates, as his own personal jungle gym), M'gann (who dispenses hugs with a readiness he's never seen), Artemis (she has no trouble elbowing the others when they're being obtuse, slapping them upside the head, pinching, or otherwise making her displeasure plain), Zatanna (who is as affectionate as M'gann), Connor (no matter how irritated he gets in sparring, he always offers his opponent a hand up), and Rocket (even months in, her boldness still sometimes takes him aback), Tula is less exotic to him than she had been when they were younger; now Aquagirl is a welcome addition to the ever- growing Team and a comforting, steady reminder of home. Tempest rarely comes to the surface, preferring to stay in Poseidonis and try to contain the growing unrest there, and Tula leans on Kaldur as much as he does her.
"If you would like to tell me about it, I would be happy to listen," she offers.
"I do not wish to burden you-" Kaldur says, and she laughs.
"What is that saying? Burdens shared are burdens halved?" She nudges him. "Come, Kaldur. We have known each other for most of our lives. Do not start keeping secrets from me now."
He smiles helplessly. How is he supposed to keep from being in love with her when she does things like this? Kaldur would never jeopardize the relationship of his two oldest friends, and he keeps his jealousy to himself, but he can't stay away from her as Roy tells him to every time Kaldur mentions her name (it's not like Red Arrow follows his own advice anyway; his path crosses Cheshire's too often for it to be a coincidence, and not once has he brought her in). "It is nothing in particular, Tula."
She hums. "But small misfortunes build to large ones." She ticks them off on her fingers. "There is the prejudice against the surface and a restless populace in Atlantis. There is always trouble on the surface itself, always someone to fight. Red Arrow grows ever more reckless in his odyssey, all to rescue someone who has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared off the face of the earth. And the tension between Batman and Robin is impossible not to notice."
Kaldur leans back, sighing, as he looks at the full moon and thinks of a night, long ago, when he saw the Justice League descending from the sky like gods. "Yes. All of that. And I... I cannot help but keep seeing..."
He can't bring himself to say it, but Tula knows him better than anyone else. "Oh, Kaldur." Her eyes water, and she presses herself against him in a quick hug. "Tempest, Queen Mera, King Orin and Prince Orm are all looking for those responsible for- for what happened to Sha'lain'a."
"I am not sure I want them to find him," Kaldur confesses, hands fisting, tattoos starting to glow slightly. "I am angry, Tula, and this anger is like nothing I have felt before. I cannot rid myself of it, no matter what I try; reason, meditation, distraction, nothing works. I... I do not know what to do." The words taste like ash.
Her voice is as firm as their Queen's. "Kaldur'ahm. You carry on; you do what you can. And it is not a sin to be angry." She looks over the water, eyes distant. "Anger is not evil in and of itself; it is our response to it, whether we control it or let it control us, that determines character. You have reason to be angry. The mistake, Kaldur, is in keeping it to yourself, letting it fester." She smiles at him, and he feels his tension dissipate. "Do not be afraid to need your friends."
He's choking on the blood in the water, but Aqualad won't let it slow him down. Righteous fury propels him forward; Death itself would not stop him.
Ocean Master realizes he's not going to make it to open water and spins. The hard water opens gashes all along his left side, but Kaldur isn't fazed; he whips out his weapons and charges in, sending one water- mace high as a distraction and avoiding a blast from Ocean Master as he splits his second and entangles his opponent.
Ocean Master struggles, but Kaldur wraps the water tighter around him. The battle has loosened the villain's mask, and his agitated movements take it off entirely. Aqualad stares with widened eyes as the mask drifts away.
Prince Orm bares his teeth in response. "Weren't expecting that, were you?"
"I... must say I was not." Kaldur admits. "Prince Orm, why?"
The Prince laughs, and Aqualad flinches at the sound. "You must ask why? The King you serve allows all manner of people into Atlantis- he prioritizes the Surface over his kingdom and all of Atlantis suffers for it."
Kaldur begins the trek back to Poseidonis, dragging Orm behind him. "And the fact that the King has produced an Heir has nothing to do with it." he says, flatly skeptical.
"Of course it does." Orm readily admits. "I would prefer to rule, but not solely for love of power itself- as Prince, I have plenty. No, Kaldur'ahm. Orin is too soft to be a good King- he does not eliminate his enemies, he is too trusting of those he does not know, and he is too lenient with his underlings."
"I would not call King Orin 'lenient.'" Kaldur mutters.
"Oh? Perhaps not." muses Orm. "He does keep information to himself. Not unlike Batman."
Kaldur actually laughs. "Aquaman is no Batman, Prince Orm. You may trust my word on that."
"Do not be so sure you know him, Kaldur. Were you aware that the battle in which you assisted him, and were subsequently made Aqualad, was not the first time you came to my brother's attention?"
Kaldur says nothing, but Orm continues anyway. "When Calvin Durham fell in love with your mother and decided to stay with her, the both of them approached Orin to petition for Durham's citizenship. They told him they could offer him something, information, to 'sweeten the deal,' as I believe the surface- dwellers say."
"I already know my father worked for Black Manta." Kaldur stiffly informs the Prince.
"That he did." Orm acknowledges, almost cheerfully. "But Sha'lain'a brought something just as valuable to the table."
At the mention of his mother, the tattoos on Kaldur's arms flare brighter in upset; Orm's pained grunt raises in him a spike of vicious satisfaction.
"Sha'lain'a was actually Durham's Atlantean contact." the Prince tells Kaldur. "She was the one who was to help him integrate into society-"
"Lies!" shouts Kaldur'ahm, forcing Ocean Master to the sea floor and dragging him.
"I haven't even gotten to the good part." scoffs Orm, gritting his teeth as he scrapes along the sand. "Sha'lain'a changed her mind, switched sides, betrayed Black Manta. A life on the run was not what she wanted, not when she had a child to worry about. When your parents went to Orin, Durham offered him information, but Sha'lain'a offered him something even more valuable: she handed over Black Manta's own son.
"You, Kaldur'ahm. In order to stay with Calvin Durham and in Shayeris, he and your mother renounced Black Manta, told Orin everything they knew, and raised you as an Atlantean, another subject of the King."
"Your story does not make sense." Kaldur says coldly. "My parents told me of my father's service for Black Manta. They did not keep it secret from me."
"They wouldn't have been able to keep it a secret from you." Orm points out. "Durham spent a lifetime on the surface, and Calvin is not an Atlantean name. You would have noticed; sooner or later, probably sooner, you would have noticed something awry. But why would they tell you that you were the son of the enemy? Why would they-"
Kaldur, unable to take it anymore, gags the Prince.
King Orin did not take kindly to the sight of his protege dragging his brother back into Poseidonis, or to Aqualad's accusation that his brother- the Prince of Atlantis, his only sibling, his right hand man- was a traitor, had been undercutting his rule for years. It was only Mera's skillful diplomacy that kept a fight from breaking out then & there; as it was, Orm's supporters had to be rooted out in an exhausting ordeal that forced the royal family & their closest supporters to question every relationship, to scrutinize every action by everyone around them.
Orm himself refused to speak to anyone save Kaldur- when Aqualad asked him why, the disgraced Prince smiled. "I trust your blood," he replied, and laughed when Kaldur lost his temper & decked him.
Interrogating the Prince was even more exhausting than cleaning up his mess. Orm was alternately coy & chatty, and most willing to talk when it would drive a wedge between Aqualad and Aquaman, or King Orin & Queen Mera; it took weeks to sort through his allegations & sift truth from lies, because Ocean Master always plants a seed of truth in his falsehoods.
And as it turned out, Orm had more supporters than the other royals quite realized. Prejudice against the surface was widespread; rumor ran rampant; distrust was fast morphing into paranoia.
The situation took months to contain, and with Aquaman, Aqualad and Tempest tethered to Atlantis, Aquagirl was the de facto surface liason.
The rising tension between himself and his mentor reminded Kaldur of the relationship between Batman and Robin, shortly before Robin couldn't take it anymore and just left, taking off into the night as Speedy had done years before.
Except that Robin was not Speedy; instead of striking out on his own, he showed up in a new costume and a new moniker, telling all of them to "Call me Nightwing" and throwing himself into work with a singleminded focus only rivalled by Batman himself.
Aqualad finally breaks when Orm decides to tell him every detail he knows about Sha'lain'a- including the way she was killed.
He storms into the Palace, refuses to take no for an answer, and demands to know the truth.
And Orin- after attempts to stall him that include invoking his title- finally relents, confirming that yes, his mother had had relations with Black Manta, and yes, she only cut those ties when she found out she was pregnant & fell in love with Calvin Durham. Yes, Black Manta is his biological father.
Kaldur shrugs his King's hand off his shoulders & makes a beeline for the surface, ignoring Mera as she calls out to him, a devastated looking Garth, or the flash of the console used to communicate with the surface.
It's Nightwing who tells him.
Aquagirl had taken on a mission that really should've gone to Aquaman. In Nightwing's opinion, she hadn't wanted to reveal that Orin's hold on his throne was in jeopardy (Nightwing, of course, knows far more about undersea politics than he should,) and had accepted the risk-
-and Nightwing had let her, he confides with a bowed head, because he had been more focused on the mission than the team.
His entire world has collapsed around him, and Kaldur can't speak, can't breathe, can't think. When Nightwing chokes out, "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," and reaches for him, Kaldur reacts on instinct.
He leaves Nightwing on the floor, dazed and bruised, and flees into the vast arms of the ocean.
He knows they'll be looking for him. Aquaman, Tempest, Lagoon Boy...
But it is Black Manta who finds him first.
His father feeds him, tells him who he is, tells him who his mother was. Black Manta confides his own story in his son, his resentment at having to answer to anyone else.
And for the first time, Kaldur realizes it has rankled him for years- the deference required of him, the loyalty demanded before it is earned.
Speedy had been right.
But it is this which wins Kaldur'ahm to Black Manta's side:
Black Manta wipes his mouth and leans forward. "Son, I'd like to propose an arrangement."
"What sort?" Kaldur asks, tone entirely disinterested.
"I'll bring you in as a partner. I've kept an eye on you- even fought you before, if you'll recall."
"You're smart, skilled and fast," Black Manta continues, "and my work would be much easier with a partner, someone I can trust as an equal."
That's it. No flowery professions of love or family, no demands that he prove himself when he already has. No lies, no obfuscations, just fact.
It's what Kaldur'ahm needs right now, and when he puts on the armor, settles the helmet into place, it is without regrets, without doubt.
Only ice and anger runs through his veins now.