I don't own Young Justice. Prompts for Kaldur Week on tumblr came from honortasticheroes.
Debriefing lasts longer than Artemis would have expected. Usually when Kaldur comes back from these routine assignments, he's back in his chambers within half an hour to check that everything has gone smoothly on her end, to see that she and her cover remain safe, as he's always strangely anxious to see her after his missions. Her best guess why is that as the one with a year's more experience down here, he feels responsible for taking the lead in their ruse, and so he constantly worries about her when they have to be apart, which is often. It would be sweet if it weren't so necessary.
This time, it's more than an hour before she hears the tell-tale beep of the electronic lock and the door slides aside to reveal him standing there in the corridor. She almost swears, then remembers she needs to play it cooler than that, and simply stands up.
He's a mess – bruises purple his face and arms, and there are a series of what look like puncture wounds in his left shoulder, singed around the edges. One grey eye is nearly swollen shut.
"What the hell happened?" she asks as she rounds his desk, instinctively touching the charm at her neck to be sure she's still in disguise.
"One of my men tripped an alarm," Kaldur replies as he steps inside, his voice betraying none of the pain he must be in. "The raid was unsuccessful."
"Sit down," Artemis instructs. She's already moving to the cabinet where he keeps his medical supplies. "Why weren't you wearing your armor?"
Kaldur obeys, taking a seat on the edge of his bed.
"It was necessary for the mission that I approach as a civilian to make the initial entrance," he says. "Disguised, of course, but the armor would have drawn too much attention. Did your meeting with the Shadows go as planned?"
"It was fine," says Artemis, taking a seat beside him and handing him an ice compress for his eye. "I have an assignment next week, busting Black Spider out of lockup. Shouldn't be too hard. But forget about my end. How did your dad react to yours?"
"Black Spider," Kaldur muses, ignoring her question. He flinches slightly as her fingers, smeared with disinfectant, touch the rim of what she now guesses must be laser wounds. Typical Atlantean military technology – he was fighting his own. "After all your work to put him there."
"I know, it's a little ironic," Artemis concedes, continuing her ministrations; she pushes the strap of his uniform aside for better access and he responds by simply reaching up and taking his shirt off, revealing yet more bruising across his chest and abdomen. Given the amount of force it takes to bruise Atlantean skin, Artemis can only imagine what kind of hits those must have been. Biting her lip, she rises and goes to get another ice pack. "But your dad, Kaldur. You were in the command room for ages. Is everything okay?"
"He is displeased," says Kaldur, sounding as though he is choosing his words carefully. "But he has given me a chance to redeem myself. We are retrying the mission with a fresh crew. I depart in an hour."
"An hour?" Artemis repeats incredulously, stopping in her tracks. "That's ridiculous. You haven't slept in two days – no, don't argue with me, your bed was untouched this morning and the last – and you just got beaten half to hell because one of your stupid goons messed up your orders, that's not – "
" – they are not goons," Kaldur interrupts quietly. "They are men. Misguided men, but men all the same. And a leader must take responsibility for all his team does. Good, and bad."
"When's the last time you ate?" Artemis demands.
"That is none of your concern."
"Like hell it is, Kaldur," Artemis frowns, sitting beside him again to resume tending to the laser shots in his shoulder. "You can't keep doing this. Borrowing from the future to pay for the present. It's all going to catch up with you."
"My father expects discipline. Disappointing him jeopardizes the entirety of our mission."
"This isn't discipline," she objects. "This is suicide."
"No," he says. "It is sacrifice."
She shakes her head in frustration.
"That's a meaningless distinction."
"One has purpose. The other does not. I hardly find that meaningless."
"Kaldur," says Artemis, her brow creasing as she unwraps a fresh roll of bandaging and begins to wind it up his arm, just above the elbow. "You don't have to do this. I'm sure – "
" – there are two ways to prove myself to my father," says Kaldur, cutting her off once again. "To give my life, or to take others'. Which would you have me choose?"
She falls silent, his point weighing heavily on her as she reaches across him to secure the bandaging. This close, it is easy to read the traitorous signs of his exhausted body – the fresh wounds, those still healing, the scars of the ones that never will. There is a slump to his broad shoulders that was never there three years ago, even on the Team's most trying days. There is a vacancy in his eyes that chills her every time she glimpses it.
He's already half gone. And if things continue like this…
He rises as she finishes wrapping his shoulder, straightening his stance and closing his eyes for a moment, then he crosses to the door, pausing with his hand on the switch. She knows he is giving her a last chance to say something before he opens it and their secrecy is lost.
"I must brief my new crew on the mission," he says, as though prompting her. "Do you require anything of me?"
"Just…think of what's waiting for us after," she says, voice imploring. "Save something for that. For when we're done with this and we can go back to the people we're fighting for, to the way things were before all this."
He turns away from her, but not so quickly that she misses the icy, bitter smile that flashes across his face.
"It is a good thought," he says, then opens the door.
Long after he's gone, she can't help wondering if he actually finished that sentence.