I don't own Young Justice.
The knock is so quiet, Roy almost misses it, but years in his line of work have sharpened his hearing, so it catches his attention despite the murmur of the kitchen radio. Rising from the table, he squeezes Lian's shoulder and makes for the door, leaving his daughter working contentedly on the jigsaw puzzle they've been piecing to life together. It's a Wednesday evening and he's not expecting company, but Dinah occasionally drops by around now, or sometimes Mia or Ollie, just to check in and to spend some time with Lian, whom they all adore (and who can blame them?).
But it's not Dinah, or Mia, or Ollie.
Roy feels himself freeze up, instinctively reaching for the panic button he had installed on the underside of the coat rack when Lian first came to live with him, but then he remembers the memo from Nightwing, the one the younger hero showed up to deliver in person a few weeks back.
…an undercover agent, it had read, identified only to Batman and Nightwing, working to infiltrate the Light…now to stand trial in Atlantis for crimes perpetrated under the identity of Black Manta II.
("I'm sorry, Roy," Nightwing had said, sincere regret in every syllable. "We wanted to tell you, but…you know how these things go.")
"Lian," Roy says, looking back at his daughter but keeping the corner of his eye on his visitor. "Go and get ready for bed, all right, babe?"
"But it's only eight fi'teen," she objects.
"Go and get ready for bed," he repeats more sternly, and she seems to catch the change in tone – he hears her slip off the chair and pad towards the bathroom, humming some song Auntie Dinah taught her under her breath.
When he hears the sink begin to run, he turns his gaze back to the doorway, where Kaldur stands like a ghost out of a long-abandoned dream.
He is taller than Roy remembers, and broader-shouldered, with hard lines to his face that weren't there four years ago (has it really been that long?). Gone is the old blue sports jacket he always used to wear, the one with a high collar to hide his gills; now he wears a simple tee shirt over dark jeans, making no effort to conceal the gills, or the tattoos, or the unfamiliar scars that litter his once-smooth skin.
But his eyes are that same shade of stormy grey-green, and he stands as eerily still as he used to, back before, when they were –
– Four years. Has it really only been that long?
"Roy," says Kaldur finally, breaking the silence.
Roy doesn't know what else to say. There are a thousand things he could, but he's not prepared to give any one of them the priority of being first. Too much has changed since they last saw each other, or at least since the last time Roy saw Kaldur and not the faceless helmet of Black Manta, out in the field, when he last screamed for him to come to his senses until his voice gave out and Superboy had to muscle him back onto the Bioship because he was endangering everyone, himself most of all.
"If you would like me to leave, I will," says Kaldur quietly.
"Why'd you come?"
His voice is gruffer than he meant it to be, thick with emotion (though what emotion, he's not sure).
"Because I…wished to see you," Kaldur replies haltingly, his eyes flicking over Roy's apartment. It's not the one they shared, years ago; this one is larger, more appropriate for a child, warmer in its décor and cleaner in its upkeep, though not exactly tidy. "And because I believe you deserve answers, if you desire them."
Roy lets out a strange sound, some kind of choked perversity of a laugh. He runs a hand through his hair, clenching and unclenching his jaw as he searches for a more coherent reaction than this.
"Trial over, then?" he manages to say. "In Atlantis?"
"Yes," Kaldur replies, eyes dropping to the floor for a moment. "I…have been acquitted of all charges, in acknowledgement of my role in the sabotage of the Light's attempts to engage Earth on the universal battlefield."
Despite the apparently good news, there's something heavy in his tone, and when Roy doesn't say anything in response, Kaldur continues, his voice softer:
"The verdict does not reflect public opinion in Atlantis."
Roy takes a moment to process that.
"Aquaman?" he grunts at last.
"Has asked that I remain on the surface, for now," says Kaldur. "To give him time to think over recent events, and for my own safety."
Roy knows (or knew) this particular shade of calm – Kaldur used to get like this when he was holding it together on someone else's account, for the team or for his mother or for Roy, stripping himself down to the bare facts, the very shallowness of his explanation betraying the depth of what hadn't been said. Roy isn't sure that the man standing before him is the same man who used to do that, but the signs are all the same – the faint curling of his hands, the careful set of his shoulders, the blank edge to his green-eyed gaze. One hand on the doorframe, Roy watches him and wonders what it means now, what Kaldur is holding back, and who for.
Kaldur lifts his eyes back up after a tense moment.
"You look well," he murmurs timidly.
"Oh," says Roy, realizing he's not exactly holding up his end of the conversation.
Then again, Kaldur had four years of silence.
Footsteps sound in the hallway, and Roy turns to see Lian standing there with her pajama shirt on backwards, regarding the newcomer with a curious expression. With a slight twist in his stomach, Roy is struck by the obvious truth that they are strangers to one another, his past and his present meeting in a single icy, awkward moment.
"Give me a minute," he mutters, turning away and crossing the room to steer his daughter into her bedroom. He fixes her shirt quickly, and while her head is lost in the fabric, she asks the inevitable:
"Who is that, Daddy?"
"It's…" he hesitates, not sure he knows the answer, much less what to tell her. "Just someone I know. Knew."
He tugs the shirt down and her head pops free – she is regarding him critically with her beautiful black eyes, hair mussed and face serious.
"Are you okay?" she questions.
"Lian, babe, I'm fine," he mutters, smoothing down her hair and turning her towards her bed. "Everything's fine. Up you get."
"You look sick," she tells him as she clambers up onto the bed and lets him pull the covers up around her.
"Well I'm fine," he repeats, internally cursing his daughter's precociousness. He bends down and smoothes the bedclothes down, pressing a quick kiss to her forehead before he straightens out and flicks off the light. "Go to sleep now, all right? I love you."
"Love you too," he hears her murmur as he shuts the door. He turns back towards the kitchen, where Kaldur is still standing in the doorway, the dark of the unlit porch at his back.
In retrospect, Roy should have known this visit had to be coming, but he had so effectively routed Kaldur from his mind and his memory that the news of the Atlantean's return had seemed something distant, unrelated to reality or to the present. Roy had recycled the packet from Nightwing the minute the other hero had left and thought nothing more of it, until this moment.
Now he is struck by a sudden and inexplicable surge of anger.
How dare Kaldur come here? How dare he intrude like this? How dare he disturb the perfect peace of this home, invade this life that Roy built painstakingly from the ruins of what came before?
But he's not the hothead he once was, and he swallows the feeling, crossing the room to stand before his once-friend again instead. He knows courtesy dictates he should invite Kaldur in, tell him to have a seat, offer him a beer or something, but he can't bring himself to do it, so he just leans back against the corner of the kitchen counter and slips his hands into his pockets as the cold air from outside blows into the warmth of his apartment.
"Shut the door," he says.
Kaldur obeys, stepping just barely over the threshold and pulling the door closed behind him without a word. Another silence follows.
"I do not mean to impose myself," says Kaldur finally. "If you would prefer I leave, I will not question it."
There's a strange hesitation at the end of his sentence, and Roy knows despite all the years that this is where the "my friend" would have gone, but those days are behind them.
Roy pauses before answering, choosing his words carefully before they come out exactly how he didn't mean to say them, bitter and spiteful and heavy with pain:
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Kaldur closes his eyes a moment, chest expanding with a deep breath.
"I could not," he says quietly, too quietly. "When the moment arose – when Tula was killed and my parentage revealed to me in such quick succession – there was but a small window of opportunity during which I could seek out Manta with plausible cause for defection. I consulted with Nightwing, developed a strategy, and departed. You were…unavailable at the time. Occupied with the hunt for the original Roy Harper."
"You had four years," Roy bites back. "You had four years after that."
"I could not compromise the mission."
Roy can feel his pulse rising.
"You saying I would have blown your cover?"
"That was not my – "
" – you really trust me that little?"
"You were volatile at the time, I was not – "
" – that's bullshit, Kaldur," Roy snaps, suddenly realizing his hands are in fists at his sides. "Four fucking years, thinking you'd just up and left, waiting to wake up from what had to be some jackpot of a nightmare, and you couldn't bother to drop me a line, to tell me it was just – "
" – Roy," Kaldur interrupts, voice hoarse. "Please – it was never that simple."
"Do you know how long I looked for you?" Roy demands, staring right at the Atlantean, whose shoulders have stiffened defensively. "Do you know how many months I spent running every tracking program the Cave ever had, visiting every place I knew you'd ever been, questioning every Atlantean I could make contact with, only to finally find you and have you throw me off a goddamn cliff?"
"I knew that Miss Martian and Kid Flash would not let you drown," Kaldur protests, though that particular incident seems to have triggered a response – there is a look in his eyes that hints of wildness, of shame. The façade is cracking.
"And you had to keep up appearances?" Roy asks bitterly.
"Yes," Kaldur murmurs, lowering his eyes. "If I showed the team any mercy, Fath- Manta would have withheld his trust from me, kept me too far from his inner circle to learn anything of the Light's workings, and my work up to that point would have been all for naught."
Roy closes his eyes, fighting back the violence of his impulses. He wants to hit Kaldur, wants to make him bleed, wants to make him hurt as badly as he's been hurt and hear him beg for mercy, because the very calm he used to love so much in the Atlantean is making him want to scream now. It's not right that after everything that's happened, Kaldur can still stand there like nothing's changed. It's not right that when Roy has felt things that nearly broke him, Kaldur can still speak like he's felt nothing, all these years.
"Was everything just appearances?" Roy asks hoarsely, glaring holes in the ground because he can't even bear to look at the other man right now.
"I do not understand the question."
Roy looks up, meet's Kaldur's eyes and doesn't bother to hide the resentment and betrayal in his own.
"Did you even love me?"
(He still has trouble saying that word to anyone but Lian – he can only bring himself to say it now because he has enough spite to mask the fierce hurt beneath.)
Kaldur, for his part, looks as though he's been punched in the stomach.
"Roy," the Atlantean says, voice strangely breathy. "Of course I did. I – "
" – then why didn't you tell me?" Roy demands, finally losing it. He straightens out, stops leaning on the counter, fists clenched so tight he can feel his fingernails breaking the skin of his palms. "Why couldn't you take one day out of the hundreds I spent turning into some pathetic excuse for a clone of a human being, waiting for you to turn up and tell me just wait, just wait and it'd come right in the end, why didn't you send me a message or have Nightwing pass one on or just give me some sign to say you were still there, under the armor?"
"Roy – "
" – you left me!You just got up and fucking abandoned me right when I needed you most, and you turned into this thing I couldn't even recognize, that none of us could, and you went on your little secret mission and left all of us behind and made us think we'd lost you and now you want to come waltzing back like nothing's changed, like you can just – "
Kaldur's hand is on Roy's shoulder, until Roy notices, and seizes it, and throws it off him, sick with emotion.
"Don't fucking touch – "
" – Roy, listen to me, please," Kaldur begs, eyes flashing, and the ferocity of his tone startles Roy into silence. "I could not tell you, because you were the only person who could have turned me from my mission."
Roy stares, chest still heaving from his outburst, rage still running through his veins.
"We needed an inside agent," continues Kaldur. "After it became clear that Savage's Light was still operating, still a threat, it was our only course of action. I was the logical choice. The only choice. No villain would ever believe Batman's protégé to be a deserter. Kid Flash, Miss Martian and Zatanna were too softhearted to take on such a cruel role; they could not have preserved the lie for the years we knew it would take to earn the Light's trust, and Superboy was too impulsive, and Rocket too green. It had to be me."
Kaldur's voice abruptly softens, his expression twisting into something far more pained.
"I did not tell you because I could not have, Roy," he says. "You needed me, and it killed me to leave at such a time, but I had no choice. You have always said yourself that duty must come first, and I knew that if I ever allowed myself an honest moment with you, I would falter. I would not be able to return to my life as Black Manta's partner, not with fresh memories of what I had left behind. And…I…believed it would be easier for you to move on, if you had no hope for my redemption."
As Roy watches, Kaldur straightens his shoulders, takes in a deep breath, composes himself.
"I knew what I risked, accepting this task," he says, only the hint of a tremble in his tone now. "I do not ask forgiveness from you or from anyone, nor do I expect to be allowed in your company again. I ask only that you understand why I acted as I did. That it was never for lack of love for you that I did not inform you of my true intentions."
Kaldur keeps talking, but Roy drifts away, thoughts tangling and untangling at random.
He's always known that the only thing they really had in common was their obsessive devotion to justice. Both soldiers at heart, they had forged their bond out of a common drive to do right for all humankind, fighting alongside each other in the field, growing close but never close enough to threaten their loyalty to the ever-present third party in their relationship: duty.
And yet somewhere in all that, Roy had crossed the line without knowing it. He had fallen too far, grown too accustomed to the cool weight of Kaldur's body resting beside his own, to the sudden tenderness in the Atlantean's eyes whenever their gazes met, to the thought that perhaps for once, he was coming first in someone else's book. Kaldur (and eventually Lian) had been the one to challenge and ultimately upend Roy's fundamental convictions about what and whom he would defend should the world approach its end. So to learn that despite all that, the Atlantean's true loyalties remained with the mission…it made Roy feel a desperate fool.
He lifts his eyes back up to Kaldur, who is still speaking, something about that first encounter with the team. Kaldur never used to talk this much, and Roy can't help but feel that he's going on like this because he knows that as soon as this conversation is over, he will never have a chance to say any of it again, perhaps even to see Roy at all. There's a desperation in his eyes, in the edge to his voice, and suddenly Roy begins to read all the signs and put all the pieces together.
Four years have gone by. In that time, Kaldur has alienated his friends, his king, his friends, his family, his people, his lover. He has spent four years sustained by the nothingness of false bonds, connected only to Nightwing, who while a friend, has never been one of Kaldur's closest. He has come to be loathed in Atlantis, exiled from his homeland, displaced to the surface, where he knows no one now. He has placed himself in every kind of danger, risked exposure and death every day, and has emerged on the other side triumphant but deeply, deeply alone, and despite all this he has come to explain himself to Roy without asking for anything but his understanding.
Roy has always known Kaldur would die for a worthy cause, but it had never occurred to him he would give up his life in this much deeper sense.
His anger subsides. He can't sustain it, not right now, though he knows it will be with him a long while yet; no wound that deep can heal that quickly, but he knows now it will in time. As Kaldur continues to babble, Roy closes his eyes a moment, then steps forward, slips a hand around the back of the Atlantean's neck, draws him close and kisses him.
Kaldur's words die against Roy's lips. Without stopping for explanation, Roy presses into the kiss, his other hand lifting to brush across the unfamiliar scar on Kaldur's cheek, then to cup it with tender passion. After a moment, Kaldur's surprise seems to die away and he relaxes into the touch, four years of tension sagging out of his body as he wraps his arms around Roy's body and returns the kiss with desperate abandon.
When they pull away, there are tears in Kaldur's eyes, and Lian is standing in the doorway of her bedroom, looking more curious than ever.
"Babe," Roy says, disentangling himself from Kaldur's embrace and turning to face his daughter. "Are you…thirsty?
She nods quietly, and Roy casts a glance back at Kaldur, who nods.
As Roy pulls a glass down from the cupboard, Lian pads over to the kitchen, taking hold of her father's pant leg and looking up at his dark-skinned friend inquisitively. He lays a hand on her shoulder and and hands the glass off to Kaldur, who moves to fill it.
"Lian, this is Kaldur," he tells her as the Atlantean turns on the tap. "He's…an old friend of mine."
Lian holds her hand out and Kaldur returns with the water, crouching beside her and shaking it – his hand is easily twice times the size of hers, and she stares unsubtly at the webbing between his fingers.
"It is an honor to meet you, little one," he says. Roy notices that he isn't crying anymore, and that he must have wiped his eyes while his back was turned at the sink.
"Kaldur, this is Lian," Roy says, some strange feeling taking hold of his heart as he watches the two of them interact. "My daughter."
He escorts Lian back to bed with her water, watches her drink it down and tucks her in again. As he leaves, shutting the door gently behind him, he looks up and sees Kaldur watching him from beside the kitchen table, hands in his pockets.
"She has your smile," the Atlantean remarks.
"Nightwing tell you about her?"
Kaldur's expression is regretful, but at peace, and Roy realizes that really, Kaldur hasn't changed at all these last four years. He is taller and more broad-shouldered and there are lines on his face that weren't there before, but what lies underneath is still the same.
Things are never going to be what they were. But that doesn't mean they can't be better than they are now.
"You bring anything?" asks Roy.
Kaldur shakes his head.
"I did not expect to be welcome," he admits.
"You got a place to stay?"
"Not yet," says Kaldur, lowering his eyes.
"Right," Roy nods. "Well. I got some things that should fit you. If you want."
"You do not have to – "
" – I know I don't," Roy cuts him off. "You mind sleeping on the couch? Or you want to take the bed?"
"I – the couch is fine," Kaldur says, and Roy can read the relief and gratitude in his voice, deeper than words could ever convey.
"Just a heads up, Lian usually wakes up around seven and she's a hell-raiser," says Roy as he opens the linen closet and pulls down a blanket he knows Kaldur doesn't need.
"I think I am equipped to handle it."
Roy chuckles, surprised to find he's laughing after all this, and tosses Kaldur the blanket.
"Yeah, you probably are," he acknowledges. He knows it's early for bed but he sleeps on Lian's schedule when he's not patrolling now, and it's her bedtime now. With a nod, he slips into the bathroom to get himself ready, brushing his teeth and stripping down to his boxers and his undershirt, mind strangely calm when he knows it ought to be spinning. It's still weird, having the two of them under one roof, but maybe it will get less weird, with time. Time changes everything, after all. He would know.
As he walks back through the living room, where Kaldur has stretched out on the sofa, Roy pauses and rests his hand on the back of the couch. Kaldur looks up at him, clearly not knowing what to expect.
"Hey," Roy says softly. "Thanks for…coming by."
Kaldur nods, opens his mouth to respond, but Roy doesn't give him the chance. He bends down and captures his mouth in a soft, chaste kiss, moving away and flicking off the light a moment later.
"Good night," he says, his voice falsely gruff.
"Good night," Kaldur murmurs in reply.
As he moves into his room and shuts the door, Roy is unsure exactly what to expect when he wakes up the next morning.
Frankly, he finds that a welcome change.