I don't own Young Justice.
The Sub isn't what Artemis expects.
From what she's seen of Manta – cold, calculating, mechanical – she's expecting chrome and steel and bleak efficiency, spartan bunks of crisp, sterile linen and silence so stifling it may as well be digitized. But there are faces under those helmets, as it turns out, and at least on the smaller shuttle Kaldur operates, there is an almost friendly rapport between the men and their leader. Honestly, it's disturbing how well Kaldur fits in. In this pseudo-military environment, the mannerisms Artemis once found cold or standoffish now seem fitting, almost warm, and in some perverse way Kaldur seems more at ease here than he ever was with them, but she tries not to dwell on that thought.
They take care of the wounded. Kaldur introduces her as "a friend" and they make their way through the sickroom, setting broken limbs, administering pain aid, cleaning and wrapping open wounds. Artemis has to fight to keep the guilty look off her face when she pulls a green-fletched shaft from one man's shoulder, even though she knows she only did what she had to.
These are the bad guys, she tells herself as she tends to him. You were defending innocents.
(It's harder to make that argument, though, when you're extracting an arrowhead from the flesh of a boy who can't be older than nineteen, and you can see the clench of his jaw and the sweat on his brow as he refuses to cry out.)
Finally, the computer announces their arrival at the principal sub; Artemis's stomach twists in anticipation, and for a moment, she doubts. What if Black Manta sees through the glamour? What if he doesn't trust Kaldur enough to allow him a companion? What if she fumbles, somehow, and ruins their cover? It would be so easy for them to die here, miles under the sea, for her to slip up and ruin everything Kaldur's worked for over the last year and justify every objection Wally ever made about this mission.
But then she looks to her left, where Kaldur is watching her with that same level gaze he's always had, and she remembers that first mission with the team, and the strange but reassuring feeling of his webbed hand around hers as he shook it to welcome her, to make her one of them. He trusted her then, before he'd had any reason to, and the look in his eyes now says that that much hasn't changed. It's time to step up. This isn't kid stuff anymore. Taking a deep breath, she squares her shoulders and follows him up into the lion's den.
Black Manta is an imposing man, tall and broad, with chiseled features much like his son's. Artemis briefly wonders if Kaldur gets the same feeling looking at him that she gets looking at her father, that sudden and violent impulse to scrub all resemblant features from her own face, as if somehow eliminating her inherited appearance would void whatever claim he has to her life. But Kaldur greets his father with surprising warmth (for him at least), and soon enough she's stepping up, shaking the supervillain's hand, letting him look her up and down with that critical brown-eyed stare, and Kaldur is introducing her as "Tigress," placing his hand on the small of her back, standing a little too close, and she knows the game has begun.
"Very well," Manta says at last. "You have earned yourself certain indulgences, Kaldur'ahm. I trust you will be a gentleman and show her around the sub?"
Kaldur nods, steers Artemis away from the command room, and she lets out a breath she hadn't meant to hold. They tour the place – it's a large vessel, with a crew of nearly four score – and at last, arrive at what Kaldur indicates are his chambers, which consistent of a study and a bedroom and a small lavatory. They are sparsely decorated but immaculately kept, much like the temporary room he had in the Cave. Again, Artemis is struck by the fact that the identity Kaldur has assumed here is dangerously close to the one he's always worn.
As soon as the door slides shut, though, something clicks in his demeanor as well. Before her eyes, he seems to grow older, wearier, perhaps sadder, though he is as hard to read as ever. He steps forward to set his helmet down on the desk (he'd been carrying it this whole time) and reaches over to flick on an overhead light, illuminating the room, and the mirror across from them. She can see herself in it over Kaldur's shoulder, dark-haired and square-jawed, though when she looks down at a strand of hair gathered in her hand, it's golden as it always was.
"Zatanna's work continues to impress," Kaldur remarks, meeting her eyes in the mirror. She stiffens, but he turns to face her and raises his hand to silence her unspoken fear. "The only eyes and ears here are our own, my friend. Manta ceased monitoring my chambers some time ago."
Artemis nods slowly, tucking her hands into her jacket pockets.
"He really trusts you?"
"He does," says Kaldur, and for a moment Artemis thinks she can detect a note of conflict in his voice, but it's gone as quickly as it came, and he continues. "Though my rooms are not exempt from random sweeps. We cannot leave any physical evidence of this deception."
"No mementos, I know," Artemis nods grimly.
(Dick had told her – no photos, no keepsakes, no trace of who she truly is (was?). Anything you want to remember, you remember with this, he'd said, flicking her forehead with forced playfulness. After that conversation, she'd made every moment count: Wally, her mother, Dick, even Nelson, who she hoped was sharing the bed with Wally that very moment. Nothing like dog breath in the morning to distract you from something worse.)
"You must be tired," Kaldur says, breaking her reverie. "I will have food sent over, then you should rest. You have had a long day."
"Yeah," she admits. Food actually sounds really good right now. Weirdly normal, but good. "Staking out a rocket launch, getting killed by an old friend and coming back to life as someone completely different? Not my typical day. At least not lately."
Kaldur steps around his desk, reaches for a panel in the wall and enters some kind of code into a keypad.
"I am sorry to pull you out of that life," he remarks quietly.
"Well," she shrugs, forcing a casual tone. "Someone's gotta do it. World won't save itself and all those other clichés, right?"
He murmurs his assent, slides the keypad back into the wall, and begins the laborious process of removing his armor. Briefly, she considers offering to help, but something about his smooth, deliberate movements tells her that this is a ritual of a sort, so she holds her tongue and watches as the black hard shell comes off piece by piece, revealing her old friend beneath it. A little taller, a little harder, little more muscular than he was before, but still Kaldur, and when the last piece is stacked against the wall she can finally see the outline of the man who once led them with a steady hand and all the patience of the ocean itself.
"What happened?" she asks hesitantly, gesturing to a scar she doesn't remember from before, a thick white line interrupting the dark ink of the tattoo on his left bicep.
He looks down at it as though he'd forgotten it was there.
"It is a dangerous line of work," he says, and looks back up, clearly done with the subject. "Dinner will arrive soon, I expect. I am going to shower, now, unless you would prefer to do so first."
"No, it's fine," she nods, and he slips through the doorway, leaving her alone in his study.
In the silence he leaves behind, the reality of the situation begins to sink in. Artemis knows how dangerous their game is – she's known since Dick's first broached the subject about a month ago, and she's been ready to face that danger since she accepted the mission a week later, but it's more than just the danger. It's the weight of the task before them. It's the knowledge that it could be days before she sees daylight again, weeks before she has a chance to talk to Wally or Dick, months before she has Manta's full trust, a year even longer before they can make their move. It's the fact that in that time, every hour of every day – every hour not spent in one of these three small rooms – will be a game, an act, a gamble. And it's the realization that when (if?) she does surface at the end of this charade, she will have to face all the trust she's broken up above: her mother, her sister, her friends, even Wally himself, who opposed her involvement in this mission all along…
The door slides open, the door that leads into the corridor outside.
It's Black Manta, bearing a tray with two covered plates. Artemis has a feeling he doesn't usually deliver Kaldur's meals in person, that this is probably a special occasion, if the bottle of wine is any indication, and as she turns to face the villain a sudden dread seizes her. Kaldur is the one who knows how to play this. Without his lead to follow, she's unsure what to do, how to act, even though Dick has pounded her character into her head a thousand times. It's just not the same. Maybe she is rusty.
As it turns out, she doesn't need to say anything. Manta regards her with a cool stare, sets the tray down on the desk beside the helmet, and speaks before she has a chance.
"My son is a gifted strategist and a brave warrior," he begins. "He does not lack skill or conviction, but he is…unaccustomed to a solitary life. If your presence will bring him happiness, you are welcome on this vessel and among my crew."
She keeps her face guardedly neutral, even as his own expression darkens.
"But I warn you, stranger," he says, voice dangerously low. "Do not become a distraction to him. Kaldur'ahm has a greater purpose to serve than you can comprehend. If you divert him from it, your disembarkment from this craft will be immediate and irreversible. Do I make myself clear?"
She meets his eyes, forcing herself not to look away despite the burning hostility in his gaze, and replies.
Just as he nods his approval and turns to leave, there is a noise from the next chamber over and Kaldur appears in the doorway, skin still glistening from his shower.
"Father," he greets in barely-perceptible surprise, his eyes trailing to the food on the table. "You need not have troubled yourself."
"It is no trouble, Kaldur'ahm," Manta replies evenly, and gives Artemis a look heavy with meaning before turning to go. "Good evening to you both. I will be in my suite if you require me."
The door slides shut, and Artemis breathes again.
"My apologies," Kaldur murmurs as he uncovers both their plates – the food looks good, fresh and well-prepared, and Artemis's stomach rumbles slightly. "I had not realized he would deliver it personally."
"It's fine," Artemis reassures him. "Have to get used to it sometime, right?"
"Did he say anything of interest?" he asks.
"Not really," Artemis shrugs. "Said I was welcome on your account, but that if distract you from your duties he'll kick me out."
"Predictable," Kaldur nods. He pulls back his chair, a contemplative look on his face, before he looks back up at her. "Fath – Black Manta is a hard man, but he is surprisingly…romantic, at times. He loved my mother, of that much I am convinced. He will not pry, but it would be best if he believed I brought you here under similar pretenses."
"I know," Artemis nods. Dick had told her as much. "I'll play along, don't worry."
They settle in. Kaldur offers her wine but doesn't drink any himself, and for the better part of the meal they're both silent; Artemis gets the feeling that he's trying to give her space to think, but after a long pause he finally clears his throat and asks haltingly,
"Is there any news from the surface?"
She isn't sure what he's asking, at first, nor is she equipped to figure it out. Lately her life has been classes and textbooks and 4 AM cram sessions in the library with Wally, none of which he wants to hear about, probably. She keeps tabs on the old gang, but she doesn't see them all that often, and it's not until it occurs to her that he hasn't seen them in over a year that she realizes he doesn't want hot gossip or indulgent details. He just wants to know how his family is coping without him.
"The team is…a little different," she says. "I'm sure you heard Zatanna and Raquel joined the League?"
"Yes," he nods. "Nightwing told me."
"Well, with me and Wally in retirement, and you down here, that leaves just him and Conner and M'gann from the original gang," she says. "Karen and Mal stuck around, they're still doing well, still together…"
"M'gann," Kaldur interrupts, and he never interrupts. "Nightwing mentioned he was troubled by her behavior as of late. Is she not well?"
"I…don't know," Artemis confesses, taken aback. From what she's seen lately, M'gann isn't much different from how she's always been, but Dick does see her more often, so maybe he'd know better. "If anything, I'd say Conner's the one who's a little…I don't know. Lost, maybe."
"I don't know," says Artemis for the third time. "I think the breakup, and…well honestly, I think he misses you. You were practically his mentor that first six months before Superman came around. He looked up to you a whole lot, so this whole thing has been…kind of hard on him."
Kaldur lowers his eyes, guilt in his expression. Biting her lip, Artemis reaches out to place her hand over his, ready to reassure him that it's not his fault, that he is where he needs to be right now, but she's startled back when he flinches violently away from her touch.
"I am sorry," he says quickly, placing his hand back on the table. "I did not – do not mean to…"
He trails off, unable to meet her eyes, and she gets the feeling it's been a while since he's had any physical contact, at least of the non-violent variety. Manta seems to have affection enough for his son but he doesn't strike her as a touchy-feely guy, and well…who else does Kaldur have? He's not saying it, but Artemis can read it now, in his body language, in his eyes, in the way he's listening so intently: Kaldur is desperately lonely.
"Wally's good," she offers, and he nods, waiting for her to go on. "I mean, you saw him earlier, you know but…yeah. He's good."
"I am glad to hear it," he says, hesitating before his next question. "And…Red Arrow?"
"Oh," says Artemis, remembering. "I…well…I don't know if Nightwing told you or not. They – Red Arrow and my sister, that is – found Roy. The original Roy. Speedy."
Kaldur's eyes widen just barely and he sits back in his chair, nodding slowly.
"That is good news," he says after a moment. "Nightwing had not told me, no, but we have not had much time for idle chatter lately. So Speedy lived, all this time?"
"Apparently," Artemis nods. "Missing an arm, but he'll be okay."
"Roy must be pleased," Kaldur murmurs. There is something strange about his tone. Not for the first time, Artemis wonders if the falling out the two of them had right around the time of Tula's death was part of the act, a scene designed by Nightwing to keep Kaldur's best friend from poking too far into his fall, or if it was just another thing Kaldur didn't have time to fix before going under.
"He's taking better care of himself, I hear," she says instead of prying, because it's not her turn to ask questions yet. "Got himself a real apartment, started actually eating and sleeping once in a while."
For some reason, she doesn't mention Lian. Maybe he knows. Maybe he doesn't. But it's a conversation she's not quite ready to have, not when he already seems so distant.
Kaldur nods distractedly.
They finish the meal in silence. Artemis has a feeling this won't be the last time he asks her about the others, but he seems to have sufficient food for thought for the moment, at least, and she's too tired to offer him anything more at the moment. When it is clear both of them are done eating, he corks the wine, placing it in a cooled cabinet beside his desk, and stands to clear their dishes.
"Mind if I take a quick shower?" Artemis asks, rising from her own chair.
He shakes his head.
"There are nightclothes on the bedstand," he says. "They should fit you. If they do not…blame Nightwing."
It's the closest thing to a joke she's heard from him today, and the small smile that accompanies it is simultaneously relieving and disturbing. It looks out of place. It looks like he's forgotten how to do it properly. The thought twists her stomach. What's she going to look like, a year or however long from now…?
The shower is a cramped glass affair, but the hot water eases some of the tension from her taut shoulders, and the solitude gives her a moment to collect her thoughts. By the time she emerges from the bathroom, dressed in the pajamas Dick apparently provided, she's feeling like she might actually be able to do this, with a little sleep and some practice.
Kaldur is waiting, seated on the edge of the broad bed. He rises when she enters.
"I apologize, but I could not ask without raising suspicion," he begins. "There is only the one bed. I will sleep on the floor, if it will make you more comfortable."
Artemis gives him a look.
"Don't be stupid," she says – the floor is metal. Besides, the bed is plenty big enough for two, and honestly, she wouldn't mind a little company tonight, something familiar in the midst of everything that's happened, that will happen. "I went to kindergarten. I know how to share."
"If you are certain," he says, bending to pull back the covers.
She slips into bed and he flicks off the light, plunging them into near-darkness. In the faint red glow of the communications panel on the wall above them, she sees him make his way around to the other side, pushing the covers away from himself and lying down on the bare sheets with his back to her.
"Kaldur," she says softly. "I'm not a damn blanket hog."
"I rarely use them," his voice deflects through the darkness. "This room is plenty warm."
She stares at his back for a moment, wondering if he's being honest or just a gentlemanly idiot. If they're going to pull this off, they're going to need to be direct and clear with each other, but at the moment she doesn't have the energy to call him out, if there's even calling out to be done; Atlanteans don't get cold as easily as humans, it's true.
She knows that's part of why she's here, though. She knows that Dick worries he's spent too long down here, that Tula's death and Roy's estrangement and the strain of pretending will get to him, and he'll stray from who he's supposed to be under the armor.
Frankly, from what she's seen so far, she's more worried that by the time their work is done, there won't be anything under the armor. But she doesn't entertain that thought yet, too tired to give it its due. Instead, she closes her eyes, gathers the blankets into a snug cocoon about her body, returns her mind to where she slept last night, a warm bed in Palo Alto, warm breath ghosting across her neck, warm fingers intertwined with hers, warm arms holding her safe and secure. Soon enough she's drifting off to sleep.
Kaldur lies awake a while longer, hollow eyes staring uncertainly into the darkness, until at least he too succumbs, lulled by Artemis's steady breathing and the rustle of the water outside the sub as it carries them ever deeper.