"You look like crap, Roy," Dinah informs him the instant Ollie has whisked Lian out of earshot, off to build a castle out of blocks or play embarrassing pretend games, no doubt. "And I'm not just talking about your injuries."
"Thanks," Roy mutters sarcastically, plopping back onto his chair. They've just finished washing up after Thursday dinner, and while he's known this moment was coming since he rang the doorbell, he's always still somehow surprised at Dinah's ability to call him out.
"Do you want to talk about it?" she asks, leaning over her own chair.
"Do I have a choice?"
"Not if you're going to be reasonable about it."
And she's got him there. If he doesn't get some of this stuff off his chest soon, he's going to lose it. Or maybe he already has. With a sigh, he leans back, folding his arms over his chest and trying to figure out where to start.
"I hear you had a chat with Nightwing the other day," Dinah offers, pulling out her chair and taking a seat opposite him. "How was that?"
"Informative," he says, after a moment. "He's...a lot more like Bats than I'd thought."
"I was afraid of that," Dinah nods with a sigh. Roy cocks his head curiously but doesn't ask.
"I guess there were a lot of things I thought I understood that I didn't," he continues, drumming his fingers against his arm. "I don't know how much you know about the whole situation, but..."
"Nightwing debriefed the League," says Dinah, filling in his hesitation. "I know about the plan he and Aqualad made, and about some of the complications they ran into in the middle of things. He didn't get into a whole lot of detail, but I expect I know about as much as you do at this point."
"Yeah, well," Roy sighs. "That's not saying much."
"Probably not," says Dinah, then pauses as if considering her words carefully. "But...do you really wish they'd kept you in the loop?"
He glances up at her.
"What do you mean?"
"Think about the last three years, Roy," says Dinah seriously. "What would you have done differently if you'd known? What would you have been able to do?"
"Something, at least," says Roy, frowning. "And even if I hadn't been able to do anything to help them, I don't see how it helped anyone to have me think Kald...Aqualad had turned like that. I didn't exactly take that news well, as you might remember."
And how could she not? She was the one who'd set him straight and gotten him clean after that particular breakdown. Roy feels a familiar, embittered embarrassment flit through him, but he's got enough to think about without reliving all of that, too, so he sets it aside and goes on.
"I guess I just feel like...I...I thought he...I thought we were closer than that," he says, voice quieter now. "I thought he trusted me more than that."
Dinah doesn't reply, just watches him, waiting for him to go on.
"And even if it was fair, to decide not to tell me while I was still in bed with Jade, uh, so to speak," he continues, "Artemis said Jade figured it all out a few weeks after her 'death.' So at that point, they were all keeping it from me just...because."
He shakes his head, brow furrowing as he remembers those days, Paula's grief and Ollie's guilt and his own disgusted disbelief at what his best friend had become.
"Maybe they wanted you to have a normal life," Dinah suggests gently.
"You had finally found Speedy. Jade had left you with Lian and disappeared, for the most part. Things were settling down for you," she says. "You had made it clear to everyone you were leaving the hero gig, at least for a while. Maybe they were just trying to respect your decision."
"They couldn't even give me the courtesy of the basics, though? Not even a phone call, 'hey, Roy, by the way, Artemis isn't dead and Kaldur isn't evil, you can stop questioning if anything in life is permanent or meaningful now?'"
Dinah raises an eyebrow at his joke, if it can be called a joke.
"Roy, don't take this the wrong way," she says, "but I doubt anyone thought it mattered to you all that much. Yes, you took the initial news badly, but not many people outside me and Ollie knew that. And after that you did a pretty darn good job pretending not to care. Nightwing and the others probably just assumed that you didn't."
"He was my best friend," Roy protests. "How could they think I didn't care?"
Dinah looks at him across the table.
"You don't always show you care in the ways people expect," she says quietly.
Her words are delicately chosen, but he can sense the harsher meaning beneath them and the truth of it all stings something fierce.
"Kaldur would have known," he says, his last, feeble objection. "He would have known I cared."
"Yes, well, I imagine he had a few other things on his mind at the time."
Roy stares at the table, struck once again by the magnitude of his friends' scheme. Three years. How could anyone live a false life for three years without being detected? How could they trick even their closest allies into trusting the lie? And more to the point, how could anyone – most of all Roy – have ever believed that someone as good as Kaldur could have turned from the light? Shame washes over him, shame that previously his anger had kept at bay, but he's had a hard time holding onto his anger since his visit to the Cave. How could he have accepted the news so quickly, and with so little question?
Dinah seems to sense his humiliation and reaches out to lay a hand on his arm.
"It was a particularly dark time for you, then," she says softly. "You didn't know what to believe about the world, or about yourself. It was just one more surprise. One more person you saw abandoning you. You weren't in a place to think straight about any of it. What's important is that you're both safe. We're all safe. You, me, Ollie. Artemis. Kaldur. Lian."
Roy looks up, nods slowly, trying to accept that whatever has already come to pass is done, that all he can do is go back to his life with his daughter and do right by her, but he can't quite believe it because there is one question still hanging over all this complicated business, which he voices:
"Where do you think he going to go?"
"I spoke briefly with Aquaman about it, at the Watchtower," she says. "After we all heard the news. I think he's still processing it himself, but he said that he doesn't believe Kaldur can return to Atlantis for the time being. That it wouldn't be safe."
"What's 'the time being?'" Roy asks. "Are we talking a few weeks to jump through some bureaucratic hoops, or..."
"More like years," says Dinah flatly.
Roy chews on his lip. He tries (as he has tried for days now) not to think the thought that's begging to be thought.
"I'm sure Nightwing will provide him with the means to start a life on the surface," Dinah continues. "From what I understand, money isn't a concern, and Kaldur is very capable. He could hold any number of jobs here. Picking the hero mantle back up might be...complicated, but he might also be able to do that, though I'm not sure he'd want to after all this. He might just want some time to relax."
"We both know he's going to need more than a place to live," Roy mutters, rubbing his temple. "He's been to hell and back. I doubt he can just find a flat and 'relax' after all that."
"There are plenty of people who could look after him until he's healed."
"I'm not really talking about the physical injuries."
When Dinah doesn't reply for a moment, he looks up to see why, and finds that she's looking at him with a strange look in her eyes, her head cocked slightly to one side.
"Fatherhood has changed you," she remarks.
He watches her warily.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"You never used to believe in the kind of hurt that doesn't bleed."
Roy doesn't respond. He thinks it's a compliment but it's an uncomfortable one, tied up with past versions of himself he'd rather forget existed, and besides, it's not like he's ever been good with compliments. Mercifully, Dinah carries on:
"So, you're thinking about having Kaldur come stay with you while he recovers."
Roy's head jerks up.
"I didn't say that," he says sharply.
"Sorry. I was fast-forwarding," Dinah says, folding her arms neatly on the table. "Am I wrong?"
Staring determinedly at the wall behind her head, Roy grinds his jaw for a brief moment before he sags and sighs, pushing a hand through his hair. There's no point dancing around it. In a fight or a serious talk, Dinah will always be able to outmaneuver him.
"Maybe I am," he admits.
"What's your hang-up?" Dinah asks curiously. "Lian?"
Roy nods. In the brief silence between them, he listens carefully, and he can hear his daughter's laughter from the room down the hall, where Ollie is doubtlessly subjecting himself some humiliation for her entertainment. The sound puts him at ease like nothing – not even the drugs – ever did.
"She's never met him," he says, turning his attention back to Dinah. "I don't know how she'd take it."
"She'd adjust," Dinah shrugs. "I'm not pushing you to make one decision over any other, but if Kaldur is anything like the man he was when he left us, I think she'd warm to him quickly enough."
"Well that's the thing," Roy sighs. "I have no idea if he is the same person. A lot has changed. I know I'm not the same at all, and inviting a stranger into the house is a gamble I'm not sure I'm willing to take, even if that stranger used to be my best friend."
"Well, have you talked to him?" asks Dinah.
"No," says Roy, just as another shriek of laughter sounds from the next room. "Not yet."
"I'd say that's a good starting point," Dinah tells him, and rises from her chair. "Now, it sounds like they're having a little too much fun in there. What do you say we go and join them? You look like you could do with a laugh or two."
Roy snorts slightly and pushes up from the table.
"Yeah," he mutters as they head for the playroom. "Yeah, probably."
He doesn't get a chance to visit the Cave for another four days – Lian is a little bit sick, just some sniffles and a low fever, and he has to take a day off work to tend to her since the daycare has a pretty strict illness policy. To make up for it, he has to work on his usual day off, which further messes up his schedule, but at last on Monday he clocks in some morning hours and frees up the afternoon to zeta to Mt. Justice (it still always amazes him how quickly the Lanterns managed to restore the place after the Light – well, Kaldur – blew it up).
"Sorry to chat and run, but I need to be out of here by two," Nightwing tells him when he arrives. "Publicity thing in Gotham, need to be suave and media-savvy by 2:30 Central Time."
"Publicity thing?" Roy repeats confusedly. "As Nightwing?"
"Uh, no, as...you know," says Nightwing, glancing around. "You didn't do a whole lot with that name I gave you, did you?"
"No. Should I have?"
"Doesn't really matter," the acrobat dismisses. "Anyway, he's awake, if...if that's what you were here for."
"It is," says Roy. "Though I might want to talk to you briefly after."
"Well, if it's urgent, comm me, all right?"
"Deal," Roy nods. "Go be...suave. Or whatever."
"I specialize," says Nightwing, clapping him on the arm before striding into a zeta transporter and disappearing into the light. The Cave, it seems, is otherwise empty.
Roy takes a moment to look around and steel his nerve before he heads up the stairs, towards the medbay. The quiet is somehow unnerving, like Nightwing kicked everyone else out just so they could have some privacy, or maybe he's just reading way too much into this because it feels like the conversation he's about to have should be a bigger deal than it is.
The door to the gamma rest room is open, not just ajar. When Roy steps in, Kaldur is in much the same position he saw him last – lying in bed, leg elevated, eyes closed – but at the sound of footfalls on the metal floor, his eyes slide open. The right is grey-green and alert as ever; the left is a tad cloudier, the skin around it still littered with scabs and scars from the broken visor glass.
"Uh...sorry," Roy says hesitantly. "Nightwing said you were awake."
"I am," says Kaldur, moving his hand to flick a switch by his side. Slowly, the machine holding his broken leg up begins to lower it. "And I was before you came in. Do not apologize. You look well."
"Thanks," Roy murmurs. "You uh...look..."
"...half alive," Kaldur fills in with the hint of a wry smile. "I am aware. My compliment was not a formality; you did not need to return it."
What isn't a formality with you? Roy wants to ask, but doesn't.
"It's not that bad," he shrugs instead, shoving his hands into his pockets. "You look a lot better than when we first pulled you out of the bay, at least."
"I do not doubt it," says Kaldur. "Thank you for that."
"Don't," Roy dismisses.
Silence falls awkwardly between them, until Kaldur shifts himself, maneuvering his legs over the edge of the bed as if he intends to stand.
"Um, what are you..."
(Roy doesn't want to ask, but it looks uncomfortable, and if he can help he will, but he has no idea what's going on. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good summary of their relationship at the moment.)
"I assume you would like to talk more than just to remark on my appearance," says Kaldur, reaching for a set of metal crutches resting against the wall by his bed. "And I am tired of this room. I was thinking the kitchen might better suit our needs."
"Do you want...uh..."
Roy trails off as Kaldur pushes himself jerkily to a standing position. In retrospect it was a dumb thought to offer help – it's not like Kaldur doesn't have upper body strength to spare, with his Atlantean physique and his years of combat training. But it's still strange to watch him move so gracelessly when Roy's memories of him are all poise and elegance, like swimming through air.
"I do not," says Kaldur, in response to the question Roy never did manage to ask. "If I move too slowly for your tastes, I will see you in the kitchen."
"That's not what I –" Roy protests, but bites his tongue and moves for the door instead of pursuing the topic further. He doesn't want to get into an argument before they even get past the pleasantries.
The walk down is tenser than Roy thought it would be. Kaldur does indeed move slowly, but it's not really the pace that puts Roy on edge, it's just that it's even weirder than he'd expected, being around him. There's something different about him and it's more than the fact that he's an inch taller and considerably more muscular and in possession of a lot more scars than Roy remembers. Even the fact that he can't figure it out is a problem – Roy never used to have trouble reading Kaldur.
They reach the kitchen and Kaldur sets about brewing a pot of tea.
"So," he says at least, when the kettle is on the stove. "I presume you have come with questions."
Roy, seated at the table, shrugs noncommittally.
"Not...uh, not really. More just wanted to check in, see how you were doing."
Kaldur gives him a strange look that is too fleeting to parse.
"It will be a number of weeks, perhaps months, before I can consider walking unaided. If that is what you were asking."
"I wasn't – I mean, I'm glad your leg is healing," says Roy, struggling for words. "They...feeding you okay around here?"
Kaldur leans against the counter.
"I do not go hungry."
"Probably beats whatever shit they were serving on that submarine, huh?" Roy jokes, but falls rapidly silent when he sees Kaldur staring at him, completely stone-faced. "Sorry."
Kaldur looks down and lays a hand against the side of the tea kettle, apparently deciding it's got a ways to go.
"How is Star City?" he asks, changing the topic smoothly. "I hear you are working at a bank there."
"Yeah," says Roy. "Um. It's pretty boring but, I got bills, groceries, rent. You know the drill."
"And Speedy?" he asks. "How is he?"
"He uh, he actually goes by 'Arsenal' now," says Roy. "He's pretty actively pursuing the hero stuff. Does way more for Star City with one arm than I ever managed with two, embarrassingly enough. Our paths don't cross a whole lot. I've gotten the impression that he's kind of eager to put some distance between himself and his old life."
"That is understandable," says Kaldur, pulling a mug down from the cupboard. "Tea?"
"I'm good, thanks," says Roy, wondering if Kaldur remembers that he hates tea. They used to tease each other about it, but it's been a long time. Probably Kaldur's had more important things to remember. In any case, Roy doesn't mention it.
"Nightwing informed me when you found him," Kaldur continues. Roy assumes 'him' is Arsenal. "I was...surprised, to say the least."
"Yeah, I think everyone was," says Roy, shifting a little uncomfortably. "You all pretty much assumed he was dead."
He's careful to keep his tone neutral – he doesn't want Kaldur to think he's saying 'I told you so' or anything as petty as that. Once upon a time he would have, with great vindication, but he's gotten some perspective since then.
"I am sorry the quest fell to you alone, in the end," says Kaldur. He pours steaming water into his mug, one finger holding the tea bag in place. "I am sorry we did not have faith enough to pursue it with you."
"Kaldur..." Roy frowns. "This isn't what I came here to say."
"My apologies," says Kaldur, setting his tea down on the table opposite Roy and clumsily lowering himself into the seat. Again, Roy is struck by the urge to help, but is stopped by the sense that it would somehow be inappropriate to ask. "What is it you did intend to say?"
"I...don't really know," says Roy. He internally curses himself for sounding so stupid, particularly when Kaldur, who has every right to be utterly delirious, is so collected.
If Kaldur is unimpressed, he doesn't show it, just picks up his tea and takes a sip. He seems to be waiting for Roy to go on.
"How long do you think you'll be staying in the Cave?" Roy manages to ask.
"I expect not much longer," says Kaldur. "As soon as there is no longer a medical necessity for me to be here, I will relocate. I believe my presence is...distressing to M'gann."
"Oh," says Roy, a little surprised. "Is she still...hung up on...uh, the plan?"
He doesn't know how else to describe Kaldur's stint as Black Manta II.
"No," says Kaldur. "I believe she carries guilt over her decision to gut my mind during the team's first infiltration of the Reach."
"To gut your mind?" Roy repeats. "What does that even mean?"
"It is fairly self-explanatory," says Kaldur, raising an eyebrow at Roy as he blows on his tea to cool it. "Believing me responsible for the capture and torture of La'gaan and the others – which to be fair, I was – she used her psychic powers to pull information from my mind in a particularly violent manner, leaving me in a semi-vegetative state for some time. In the process, she learned of the larger plan behind my actions, but it was too late to reverse the damage at the time. I recovered, for the most part, but...I am unsure she ever will."
"Wait, you were in a coma?" Roy asks incredulously. "For how long?"
He can feel his frustration rising back to the surface, anger at not being kept in the loop, at not mattering enough to be told things, but he tries to keep it hidden. Now isn't the time.
"Not a true coma," Kaldur corrects. "I had brief periods of consciousness, though I was not able to speak or form cohesive thoughts for several weeks. I had assumed Nightwing informed you of this when you spoke the other day. Did he not?"
"No," says Roy, frowning deeply. "We mostly talked about...what happened before. The stuff leading up to your decision to go under."
"You wanted to know why we did not bring you in on the plan."
Kaldur's statement is blunt, not a question or even a judgment, just a fact. All the same, it makes Roy feel damnably petty that he never got around to asking about any of the stuff that actually happened while Kaldur was undercover.
"Yeah," he mutters, fighting the urge to look down at the table, because Kaldur is staring across it at him with an unnervingly level gaze. "Yeah, I did."
"I knew you would be angry," says Kaldur quietly. "But I could not hold your anger equal to the lives of so many people."
"I know," says Roy, and he means it. He doesn't need (or want) to have this conversation yet again. "I get it."
Silence falls between them. Kaldur sips at his tea and watches Roy. Roy wonders if he should have had a cup of the nasty stuff just to have something to do with his hands because he has a horrible urge to fidget, just to ease the tension.
After a little while, Kaldur sets his mug down and leans back in his chair.
"Have you decided what it is you came here to say?" he asks finally.
Roy rubs his arm.
"Yeah, I guess," he says hesitantly. "I was...wondering. Where are you going, after this? What's the plan?"
"I do not have a definite one," Kaldur replies. "But this time in my life does not require as careful a design as the last. It hardly matters where I end up."
"Do you have any idea, though?" Roy asks, even as he registers a sense of disturbance at Kaldur's nonchalance. The way he's talking, it doesn't seem like it's a matter of not being worried, it's more like he just doesn't care.
"Wally and Artemis have extended an invitation," says Kaldur, shrugging.
Roy nods. That makes sense – Artemis understands what Kaldur's been through. She's been by his side this whole time, knows what he's had to do like no one else can. On the other hand...she's just come back, and Wally's been living this last year without her. And their university housing is hardly spacious.
"You...plan on taking them up?" Roy asks carefully.
"It hardly matters," he repeats.
Roy frowns, drumming his fingers against the table.
"I..." he says hesitantly. "If you...decide that's not what you want...I...have an extra room."
That's not totally true, but he could turn his study into one without too much trouble.
"You are attempting to repay a debt that does not exist," says Kaldur calmly. "Our paths split, Roy. You never owed me anything, nor I you."
"Look, I'm not offering it because I'm trying to – "
"Is that so? Why are you here?"
"Because you're my friend, dammit, I – "
"Am I still?" Kaldur challenges, gaze piercing. "I do not think we have been friends under any but the most generous definition of the word for some years now. At present, I doubt you know me at all. I think you are here because you have allowed some combination of pity and misguided guilt to convince you that if you take what is left of me in, you can make peace with our past and ease your own conscience."
Roy stares, staggered by the accusation (and by its truth). Kaldur never used to be this direct.
"And?" he manages to ask, struggling to meet Kaldur's eyes. "So what if I am?"
"It is a waste of your energy," says Kaldur. "I am a waste of your energy. You have a life to attend to. A daughter to care for. I knew what I was forfeiting when I sought out my biological father, and I am prepared to face the consequences of my actions. I will not impose myself on you and your family."
"It's not a goddamn imposition," Roy mutters, indignant. "Jesus Christ."
"I do not think you understand what you are asking," Kaldur tells him. "You have chosen a simpler life. A clean, honest life. I have walked the opposite path – these years, I have seen and done things that would send a man to hang, and they have changed me for the worse. I am not the sort of person you wish to bring into your home, least of all when you have a young child, Roy."
"You did what you did because you had to," Roy argues. "That's not the same."
"Intent matters little," says Kaldur, shaking his head. "I am responsible for what I have done."
"What, saving the world?" Roy shoots back. "Look, I may not know everything that happened while you were down there, but I know you."
He holds his hand up as Kaldur opens his mouth to interrupt.
"No. Let me finish. I don't care if you think you've changed, I know who you were when you went down there, and if there's anyone in the world I'd trust to sit among the worst of the League's enemies and never even consider becoming one of them, to make only the sacrifices absolutely necessary to get the job done, it's you. Maybe you did bad things, but that doesn't make you bad. You saved millions, no, billions of lives, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let you sit there and think that you're so fucking irredeemable that your very presence is going to turn my daughter into a goddamn supervillain."
Kaldur stares at him for a moment. He hasn't cracked so much as a facial expression since they began discussing the future.
"You are excitable as ever," he says at last. His tone makes it clear this isn't a compliment.
"And you haven't gotten any warmer," Roy shoots back.
The corners of Kaldur's lips curl up, but it isn't a smile.
"I will think about your offer," he says, struggling to his feet and reaching for his crutches. Once again, Roy fights the urge to help. "But if you will excuse me now, I believe M'gann and Garfield will be returning shortly, and I would prefer to avoid the fuss they will inevitably make if they find me out of bed."
Roy rises too. He has the feeling M'gann and Gar aren't the only reason Kaldur is in a hurry to end this conversation, but he doesn't pry. Instead he picks up Kaldur's mug and carries it to the dishwasher while the Atlantean slowly makes his way across the kitchen, crutches clicking with each step.
A moment later Roy falls into step beside him, and in silence they walk through the main chamber of the Cave until they reach the foot of the stairs that lead back up to the medbay. Just a few steps farther lie the zeta tubes that will take Roy back to Star City, but before he makes for them he turns and pauses.
"Kaldur," he says; the Atlantean has already turned to head for the stairs. Kaldur stops, looking back over his shoulder with one crutch on the first step, expression guarded. "I know things are complicated right now, and I'm sorry about a lot of things. But...I'm glad you made it through."
Kaldur smiles tightly and nods. Without saying a word, he turns away and clumsily mounts the first step, beginning the slow climb up to his room in the medbay.
Roy watches him for a moment, then turns away and heads for the zeta tubes. He can pick up Lian a little early from day care, maybe take her out for ice cream or get her the new shoes she's been needing for a few weeks now (why do children's feet grow so fast?).
He's said what he came here to say. The rest is in Kaldur's hands.