Artemis' automatic reaction to freefall was to dock an arrow and shoot herself a safety line. She had to resist the urge to do that as she plunged toward the water, new rebreather at the ready. Water. It's always water.
She fell, neatly, into a pair of arms. The catch took less than a second, but now Kid Flash would have to start the water funnel up all over again. That bought the Team several seconds at least. Sure enough, he sped right after the bioship and began circling again. "That wasn't fair," he said, sounding a little choked-up. Artemis knew they were hitting below the belt, but she didn't see how their ploy could upset him that much.
"Neither is this," she added, twisting in his arms and tripping him with her bow, causing them both to topple forward into the water. They struggled for a few seconds to pull their heads above the waves.
"What was that?" Kid Flash snapped once they were both afloat.
"My KF could've dodged that."
"Well this KF wasn't expecting to be randomly attacked by the girl he just caught."
"That seems to be a running theme with you future guys." Artemis spat out some salt and glanced at Kid Flash, then found she couldn't look away. Kid Flash was... not so much kid any more. Wow. Five years was a lot of growing. How much had both of them changed in that time? What had put that grim, tired look in his eyes? And were they still...?
He watched her too, a long, somewhat blank stare. After awhile he looked away, after the bioship. Could she distract him until it got to Happy Harbour? She had to try.
"So, future, huh? Still in neon yellow, I see. No time to upgrade in the costume department?"
"Are you okay? Did you get hurt?"
"What, from a fall and a tumble into water? You know me and water."
Was that a wince? He wasn't looking at her at all any more. He pulled his goggles down and looked out after the bioship once more. Scanning? Or just hiding his eyes? "I have a job to do." He put his arm out without looking at her. "You coming, or do you prefer a nice relaxing swim?"
She took his arm and let him pick her up. He built up enough momentum to move on top of the water again, and they made for Happy Harbour.
Too late. She'd bought the Team enough time.
Conner, La'gaan and Tim were too late.
The Team had already made it to Happy Harbour. The SuperCycle easily found the bioship, but she was empty. The fervent hope that Tim had been harbouring, that the Team would see the ruins of their old base and then just turn around and go back to Antarctica, vanished. They weren't in the ruins. They must've gone to ground in Happy Harbour.
"Robin, you and I need to get civvies from the bioship and scan the town," Conner said, sounding resigned. "La'gaan, you're on coastal duty in case they try to leave the island that way." With the loss of Mount Justice, there were no zeta platforms in Happy Harbour any more.
Why did they land in Happy Harbour though, after they saw Mount Justice in ruins? They may simply have had no choice, if Kid Flash had caught up with them. Robin changed, made sure his eyes were hidden behind his sunglasses, and strode out into Happy Harbour.
It didn't take him long to spot Dick, blending into the crowd in civvies. No... the walk was wrong. Had to be Miss Martian, posing as Dick. He couldn't safely take her on alone. Unless it was Dick posing as Miss Martian posing as Dick. That guy and his head games.
Well, it didn't matter, because they were in a crowd, so it's not like anybody was going to start a physical fight. Tim shadowed his target as he wove through the crowd from what should be a safe distance. He'd never be able to shadow Nightwing like that; the boys had been trying to secretly follow and sneak up on each other since he'd become Robin and both had become extremely good at picking up the other's presence. But this five-year-past version hadn't done any of that, except maybe with Batman. And that gave Tim the advantage.
Somehow, Dick melted away into the crowd.
Okay, maybe less advantage than he'd thought. Had Dick always been a troll? Tim had assumed he'd picked that habit up as an ongoing training exercise. There! On the rooftop! Freaking acrobats. Tim may not have grown up in a circus but he'd learned enough under Nightwing; he found a suitable wall with enough protrusions and made his own way to the roof. Dick would've done it faster, and more artistically, because he'd learned to do things showy. Years of being Batman and Nightwing had trained a lot of that out of him, but there would always be traces of it, and Tim usually used those traces to his advantage, calculating which beams and rooftops would appeal to an acrobat to track him. Until Nightwing figured out what he was doing and used those exact assumptions to lay traps and ambushes. It was an ongoing mental arms race.
Tim heard the chuckle. Classic example there. Showy, gave him at least 2 seconds' warning. He used it to slip a gas mask on and press his closed eyes into the crook of his elbow before the roof was covered in flashing light (carefully directed so as to be almost unnoticeable below) and smoke. He pulled infra-red goggles over his eyes, although he knew Dick was already gone.
Tim took a deep, calming breath before activating his communicator. He still had trouble bringing himself to talk to any of the Team except the other Bats, especially the original members. Superboy and Miss Martian were idols. Superstars. He wasn't sure how he managed to get more than two words out without babbling like a crazy fan and begging for an autograph. In fact, he hardly ever managed to get more than two words out at all. But it was easier over the communicator.
"Robin to Superboy and Lagoon Boy. I'm tailing past-Robin on the rooftops. There's a chance he'll disappear into the crowd again and I don't want to cause a scene. Please advise."
"Catch him if you can do it discreetly," Superboy responded, "but not attracting attention is top priority. We do not want our enemies learning of this, not until we've resolved it anyway. Superboy out."
Try to force a confrontation on the rooftops. Got it.
Easy enough. This Robin was a lot showier than Nightwing was. A lot happier, too, which was a little chilling. Was the strain in Nightwing's eyes just something that the hero life did to them? Even Batgirl had become noticeably more serious in the short time that Tim had known her. Did the hero life just... wear people down?
Focus on the task at hand. Force a rooftop confrontation.
He could do that. Dick wasn't the only one who could do showy.
Tim walked slowly out of the smoke, drawing his staff in the most cool-looking motion he could manage. He carefully scanned the rooftops ahead. He resisted the urge to look behind himself, although he couldn't tell if he was imagining the gentle footfalls or not.
That creepy, repetitive chuckle surrounded him once again, and he carefully timed the moment he'd need to squeeze his eyes shut.
The flash came half a second early, blinding him. Dammit. He'd been expecting Dick to predict he'd close his eyes immediately and to attack during that time. He hadn't expected him to change the flash timing in case that didn't work out. But he didn't need sight to know where Dick was; he could hear the soft tap of his foot striking the roof as he launched into a kick. Tim quickly stepped aside and swung his staff. A miss.
"Since when does Robin fight with a staff?" Dick's disconcertingly young voice asked as he went in for another attack. Tim had no way of blocking the punch he couldn't see. "And why is your costume cooler than mine?"
Tim swung and caught Dick's foot with his staff, but he knew that Dick would have no trouble regaining his footing. Dick made to trip him; he similarly recovered with no problem. The lack of sight was a serious obstacle, but if he could get him wrestling... he tried to move closer, but Dick was having none of that. He stepped back. "And why don't you ever say anything?" A kick from behind. "Robin talks! It comes with the gig! You're ruining my public image."
Well, Tim had learned one secret about Dick's dark past – he was an annoying brat. Tim froze, trying to hear where Dick was. He knew he was inviting attack, but Dick seemed reluctant to use ranged weapons. Didn't want any stray projectiles alerting the townspeople? Didn't want to risk hurting Tim? It didn't matter why.
Tim felt a foot against his ankle, a hand on his neck, and in that second, he knew he'd lucked out.
He knew that move.
A twist. A dodge. The butt of a staff between the ankles. Tim slid out of Dick's grip and knocked him down, leaving him flat on the roof with Tim's knees on his back. Tim's vision started to clear. He didn't bother trying to restrain Dick with cuffs; instead, he pressed Dick's palms together and wrapped his hands in duct tape to immobilise them. Sweet, flexible, unpickable duct tape.
"Let me guess," Dick grunted as Tim moved on to taping his ankles. "I taught you that move?"
La'gaan knew that patrolling the water was waste of time. Superboy probably just wanted him out of the way. If Kaldur was going to leave by water, he was long gone. And the beach was a little too big to patrol effectively.
But he hadn't counted on raw curiosity.
When La'gaan got to the water around the ruins of Mount Justice, Kaldur was still there, inspecting the debris. He didn't seem to have noticed La'gaan. La'gaan fought hard to clamp down on his rage, fought the urge to take the traitor by surprise and clobber him into the rock before he had a chance to react. No future knowledge. No tipping him off to his own betrayal. La'gaan could see the sense in that – that sort of information might make him betray them even faster. So instead he clamped down on his feelings, got ready to inflate at a moments' notice, and said, "Kaldur."
"La'gaan." He didn't look away from the debris. "How are you?"
"I have to take you back to Antarctica, you know."
"And you are prepared to fight me?"
"You have no idea."
"Then I surrender." He tipped his palms up in a half-serious gesture of capitulation.
"Well, aside from having no interest in hurting a friend, it would be foolish for me to get into a fight with a sorcerer considerably more powerful than myself for no good reason." Only then did he turn to smile at La'gaan. "I noticed that your tattoos are invisible. I'm impressed. Working on this Team has not allowed me to advance my abilities as I should. But you, I see, made sure you had proper training, and are all the stronger for it. And now you too have come to the surface world, like you wanted. I am glad."
"You were my inspiration," La'gaan managed to say around the lump in his throat. "You and Tula and Garth."
"They are on the Team too?" Kaldur's smile brightened. "Nightwing was not kidding about there being no quota on Atlanteans." He looked back to the ruins, his smile fading. "Mount Justice was... I cannot believe that it can be gone."
If only you knew. "It took everyone by surprise. I didn't believe it myself, until I saw the ruins."
"You weren't here at the time? I am happy to hear that."
"Actually I was an enemy captive at the time."
"This was a recent explosion."
"So are you okay?"
"You must have escaped fairly recently. Are you okay?" Kaldur's look of concern was identical to the look he used to give La'gaan when he hurt himself during combat sorcery training.
"... Yeah. Yeah, I'm fine."
"I am not with your Team. Did I die here?"
"You know I can't answer that." La'gaan swam closer, but didn't make the mistake of getting within arms' reach. "Come back to the bioship."
Kaldur shook his head. "Not without information."
"It's dangerous to – "
"Not information from here. Information from you. One question. I want you to promise me that you will answer it honestly, as yourself, with no regard to your orders. Or of you can't, you'll tell me so. Promise?"
"I can't – "
La'gaan looked into the open, honest eyes of his friend and hero. The first protege of Aquaman, the first leader of the Team, the one who had introduced him to M'Gann. Who had helped him with his spells when he was younger. Who had never betrayed him, or his King. Yet. "I promise."
"Do you think I should go back to Antarctica right now?"
La'gaan paused. Nightwing... Nightwing had been adamant that the timeline not be changed. But maybe, forewarned with future knowledge, there was a way to save Tula and Artemis' lives. And keep Kaldur from betraying them. If this younger, good Kaldur knew what had happened and why...
But it was the same Kaldur, and just because La'gaan wanted his previous illusions about Kaldur's sense of good and justice to be right didn't mean that they were. He'd seen who he really was. He'd watched him turn after learning who his father was. If he had that information now... would he simply turn earlier? Would Tula and Gar, and then La'gaan himself, be brought in too early? Would Nightwing have to take up leadership of the Team before he was ready? How many lives had been saved by those precious few years of experience they'd all gained while Kaldur was still playing the good guy? To gamble that many lives on a wish that the good guy act was real and permanent, just because he missed Kaldur as an ally and role model...
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I can't risk trusting you. It was your decisions that led to this. Not mine. But I'm sorry.
"Yes," he said. "I think you should stop looking for answers here, and come back to Antarctica."
"Then I will come with you."
La'gaan frowned. Kaldur was definitely under the impression that he'd recently died, and he... wanted to go back? To let that happen? "Are you sure?"
"If you are sure then I am sure. I trust you."
"You... do understand...?"
"I am not afraid to die in service to the Team or to Atlantis. It would not be the first time I have sacrificed my own life. There was this one training exercise... My point is, if you want this to happen, then whatever I died for must have been worth it."
"You don't even know what happened."
"I do not need to. I trust your judgement, my friend."
M'Gann and Conner weren't hard to find. They stuck together.
Superboy answered a quick enquiry from Robin and watched his younger self from a distance and pondered what to do. He wasn't worried about being detected; he was, after all, standing in a crowd, and people were walking and talking all around him. Super-hearing shouldn't help.
But telepathy did. Superboy felt M'Gann's mind curl around his, and froze. It had been so long since she'd touched his mind with anything more than a mission-vital communication link that he'd actually not considered that she could sense him that way. He still wasn't sure whether she felt truly guilty or whether she just didn't want to anger him further, but he'd been grateful for the space.
M'Gann touched his mind, snaked through his surface thoughts. He could have resisted, could have begged her to stop. He didn't.
He hadn't realised just how much he'd missed her touch. Even he didn't really understand his own longing for it. He'd been born into telepathy, and it hadn't been until he'd been freed from Cadmus that he'd understood what a violation it had been, that his mind and thoughts were his own and nobody else had an inherent right to them. He'd gritted his teeth and tolerated M'Gann's mindlink for the sake of missions, resisting the urge to automatically flinch away from any mental touch, because he couldn't let the Team down. He couldn't be difficult. They'd all said it was okay, and they knew a lot more about right and wrong than he did. Everything he knew about the world had been forced into his head by Cadmus. So he'd told himself not to be so sensitive, so weak, and had endured quietly until he could feel the brush of others against his mind without flinching.
Circumstances had contributed a lot to his comfort with the whole thing. Having his memories replaced by M'Gann in Bialya, where he was in no state to resist and she didn't have the option to refuse, was the first time he'd experienced a true melding of minds, and real communication. It was only then that he understood how she felt, trying to communicate complex ideas through clumsy verbal language. Humans didn't know what real communication was. Over time, M'Gann had shown him that connecting with somebody didn't have to be about power and control and violence. It could be about sharing, and joy. And it had taken Psymon's brutal violation to make that lesson possible... the irony wasn't lost on him.
So when M'Gann had started using her powers like Cadmus or Psymon, he knew that there was no point approaching Nightwing about it. He might help, he might even be able to stop her, but he wouldn't stop the problem. Nightwing wouldn't understand, not really. Conner could only approach her himself. And when she tried to control him, when she demonstrated that the whole thing had been some kind of temporary, lucky reprieve because she was as ready as their enemies to use it as a weapon of power and control, even on him... after everything... when she showed him that just maybe, all telepaths really were the same...
He'd lost her touch. Forever. He might trust her in battle as a teammate, he might hold out hope that she would one day see that what she was doing was wrong, but some kinds of trust can't be won back. He'd gone back to flinching under the mindlink. He didn't think he'd ever stop, not this time.
But the younger M'Gann... a younger, more innocent touch, with no hint of violence, no history of misuse since he'd been born. He flinched, but he couldn't let it go. Even through the anxiety, he wanted that touch to last forever.
She started digging too deep, into information she couldn't know yet. Information that could change the future.
-M'Gann,- he said, -stop.-
Superboy knew that she must be having a telepathic conversation with his younger self, because his younger self suddenly turned and skimmed the crowd, eyes very quickly settling on Superboy. She put a calming hand on his shoulder. After a few more seconds, he shrugged, and Superboy felt the mindlink open in his own mind.
-So I guess you're just going to follow us around for the next few hours and wait for all these people to go home?- his younger self asked.
-If I have to. I'd prefer if we could skip the part where we hit each other, though. Maybe go now and save ourselves some time?-
-I don't think so.-
-What's even the plan here? To just wander around for a few hours and delay the inevitable? There's nothing here for you.-
-Then leave us in peace.-
-Wait a minute... is M'Gann reading people's minds to get information on Mount Justice? She is, isn't she?- There was no response. -Learning too much about your own future is dangerous! Stop it!-
His younger self ignored him. -How's it going, M'Gann?- he asked.
-Ugh. Nobody seems to know anything. I have a date for the explosion and there were some heroes hanging around the rubble for a week or so afterwards, but I'm not getting anything useful.-
-And you won't,- Superboy insisted. -Just come back with me. Please.- His communicator crackled to life. Robin and Kaldur were both en route to the bioship. Artemis still hadn't been found.
Then, Nightwing's voice. "Nightwing to alpha squad. You need to get the past Team back here was quickly as possible. There's a fluctuating field here that might act as a portal back to their time, but at its current rate of growth, we have about three hours before its usable. Impulse thinks it will probably collapse in on itself after that so we have one shot at this."
Three hours! That was barely enough time to get back! He needed to hurry... force a confrontation now, or trick them, or... he was overthinking the whole thing.
He told them what Nightwing had said.
-Then we'll have to find another way back,- M'Gann said firmly.
-I don't think there is another way back,- Superboy insisted. -This might be our only shot.-
-M'Gann...- Superboy's past self laid a hand on her shoulder. -What's wrong?-
-Nothing's wrong, I just think – -
-Future you creeps you out, doesn't she?- Past!Superboy shot an apologetic look at his counterpart. He held his past self's gaze, and a silent agreement passed between them – to get M'Gann home, to protect her, no matter what.
-It's not that. It's just... it isn't important.- She looked away.
-This is great and all, but can we do it in the bioship?- Superboy asked. -We still need to find Artemis.-
It occurred to Wally that his choice of interception point hadn't been very well thought out, because the closest place to take Artemis was Happy Harbour. He left her on the beach for half a second while he went to find civilian clothes for her.
"You should let your hair down too," he insisted as he pressed them into her hands. The absolute last thing they needed was for there to be even any hint of a rumour that Artemis Crock was alive and hanging around Happy Harbour. The chances of that happening were miniscule, but they weren't zero, and when it came to endangering Artemis, that meant they were too high.
She shrugged and got changed, stashing her costume and bow in a little shoulder bag. Her impossibly long hair fell in tendrils over her face and down her body; in an easy movement, she brushed it all behind her shoulders. Oh god, he'd missed that. It was amazing how much he missed the little things. Artemis never wore her hair down out of the house; he didn't think he even had any photos of her hair down. That movement was something she did curled up on the couch watching a movie with him, or coming to bed, or just after she'd blow-dried it.
She was so young. That smile, the same smile, on a 5-years-younger face. Those eyes, so certain of the details around them with barely a glance, and able to look right through him. "So now what?" she asked. "You gonna try to keep me out of trouble until your friends show up to take us all back to Antarctica?"
"Pretty much, yeah."
"Coffee, then? We should definitely get some coffee. Is that little place on Carter Street still open?"
Wally fell into step behind her and they made their way to Carter Street. Wally ordered their drinks. Her preferred coffee was something he'd never forget, although the Artemis with him didn't know that yet, and merely shot him an indecipherable cocked eyebrow. They sat in a little corner out of the way, she nursing her chai latte, he fitfully stirring a straw through his iced coffee.
"So," she said in a carefully neutral voice, "am I dead?"
"What?!" Wally dropped the straw onto the table, splattering little flecks of milk everywhere.
"Come on, Wally. We haven't been going out long – from my perspective I mean – but I know you. And you're an uncomfortable, nervous wreck. Not the 'hey I dated this girl for a couple of weeks and it didn't work out and now it's awkward' kind. The 'something is seriously screwed up here' kind. You look at me like you haven't seen me for ages and you're terrified I'll break or disappear. So either something really, really terrible happened between us, or I'm dead."
"It's not... it's not like that."
"Isn't it? Did I kill your puppy or something then?"
"No! Nothing happened."
"Nothing, huh? You're rusty, Wally. You're out of practice. We both know it. And you don't like me being here. Something big went down, didn't it?"
"I do like you being here."
"Hmm." She smiled to herself. "I think it's only fair to warn you, I have absolutely no intention of dying young if I can help it. I'm not going back without a way to fix this."
"You're not dead!" Wally hissed. "It's..." he sighed. "look, I can't tell you anything."
"What, you don't trust me not to screw up time?"
"It's not you. It's everyone else. If they know, it puts you in danger. I'll tell you what's going on but you have to swear to keep it a secret."
Artemis held his gaze expressionlessly for a long time. Finally, she said, "I promise."
Wally told her.
He started with Kaldur's 'betrayal' and went through their retirement, Nigtwing's proposal and her 'death', all the way up to what he'd learned from Dick about the destruction of Mount Justice. She listened, mostly silently, interjecting with a question here or there.
"That sounds... dangerous," she said finally.
"It is. You can see why I'm worried."
"Yeah, but Robin... Nightwing... knows what he's doing, right? I'm not sure the secrecy is a good idea though. Secrets have nearly torn out team apart before." She stared hard at the half-drank latte in front of her.
"The thing with the quid piece wasn't your fault, you know. Our enemies would've found a way to get it regardless. But you see why you can't tell them."
"I know. But you should. Or Nightwing should."
"Are you kidding? He didn't even want me to know. He only brought me in because you refused to help otherwise."
"... And my family?"
Wally swallowed. "Let's just focus on getting you home."
M'Gann found Artemis easily with a simple mental scan and she, Artemis and Conner lead Kid Flash and the future Superboy to the bioship. They arrived on the bioship just as Kaldur finished cutting the duct tape off Robin's wrists. Artemis and Conner immediately burst out laughing.
"It is so not funny," Robin said, rubbing his hands.
"New Robin kicked your butt," Artemis said. "That's pretty funny."
Everyone stood around awkwardly for a few minutes while they tried to figure out who was actually in charge, before Superboy – the older one – cleared his throat. "Miss Martian, could you get us out of here?"
She nodded, and they began the long, largely silent trip back. The older team moved into the hold while their younger counterparts remained in the cockpit. In the hold, Wally and the others exchanged half-smiles, waves and nods and pretended not to notice that they were being left out of what was probably a very fervent psychic conversation.
"I'm sorry about Artemis," La'gaan eventually said quietly. "I didn't get to know her as well as I wish I could've, but..."
"Yeah. I know." Wally looked away.
A lifetime later, the younger Artemis came into the hold to inform them that they were about to land. The team trooped out into the cockpit. Conner waited until the others had left, then took Artemis' elbow. "Promise me something, okay?"
"Cape Canaveral. March... March 2016, I mean. Don't go, okay? Don't ask me why, just... promise you won't go."
"Conner, you know I can't change – "
"Screw history! Just stay away from Cape Canaveral."
"Conner..." Artemis took his hands. "I don't... think I would've told you this, in the future, so let me say it now. The decisions I make are to help people. So even when they turn out to be bad decisions, I don't regret them. Nothing will make me regret joining this team, and although I haven't done it yet, I'm sure nothing will make me regret future decisions either. Even bad decisions can be right decisions. Okay?" She ducked around him, not waiting for a response.
They filed out of the bioship and into the ice tunnel, the older Conner keeping Nightwing updated, and paused at the edge of the flood. "I'll take front, you take back," Kaldur said to La'gaan, walking forward into the icy water. One by one, the others grew gills or fitted rebreathers and followed. When Artemis and La'gaan were alone, he cleared his throat. "Archer."
"I know you don't know me yet, but... look, in about five years, there'll be a satellite launch at Cape Canaveral. Stay away, okay?"
She frowned. "You know, you guys are really bad at this whole 'don't reveal the future' thing."
"We guys? Who else has spoken to you?"
"It doesn't matter. Thanks for the warning." She turned back to the water.
She frowned again. "For what?"
"For being you. For showing... people... that we determine who we are by making our own decisions. Strong, brave heroes don't just protect people, they inspire them too, so... thanks." He paused awkwardly.
Artemis looked taken aback for a moment, then smiled. "I know you can't tell me anything about yourself now, but I look forward to meeting you." She dove into the water.
Nightwing and the older M'Gann were waiting in the corridor next to the time travel room. It quickly became apparent why they weren't inside the room – something was... wrong... with the air. It sparked and wavered. Nightwing was monitoring something on his wrist computer. He glanced up as if to confirm everybody was present before announcing, "Good timing. Our window opens in about three minutes, and then we have maybe five before it collapses."
"Are we... sure it's safe?" Conner asked.
"But none of us understand the physics involved – "
"We're here, so it works."
"I'm pretty sure time travel doesn't work like that," Wally said. "I mean I've been watching Impulse and – "
"Well he's from the future, not – "
"I don't see how that – "
"Look, we don't have any other options."
M'Gann watched her older self with eyes and mind. She was still closed-off, isolated, except for a mind-link with Nightwing, the superficial kind they used for field communication. It would be impolite to try to hack into the link, but even from the outside she could feel the contention in it – they were arguing. She waited for them to stop before opening her own private link with her. -I don't get it,- she said. -What made us like this? What made you so shut-up? So human?-
-It's a temporary security precaution,- she replied.
-I understand that there are things you can't tell me, but if you think I can't tell when my own self is lying to me – -
-I really wish you could.-
-What's that supposed to mean?-
-Nothing. It's just... our powers are dangerous. Never, ever forget that.-
The air in the room crackled and opened up, creating some kind of dark void that was dizzying to look at. "About thirty seconds," Nightwing reported.
"Until a strange portal you don't understand using physics none of us understand might open up, according to you and a kid who has made it clear he's not a chronal expert?"
"Yes, until that happens." He turned off the display on his wrist computer and, with one stern, serious glance at his team's M'Gann, looked at Kaldur's team. "Guys. I'm sorry about this. But..."
Kaldur and his Robin exchanged a glance and a tiny shrug. Of course they'd already figured it out.
"But you're gonna wipe our minds. We get it," Robin said. "Gotta preserve the timeline. Future knowledge is dangerous and all that." He looked to the older M'Gann and made an inviting gesture in the direction of his own head. "Go."
"But what we've learned here could be useful," the younger M'Gann protested. "Help us not to make mistakes."
"No." Kaldur looked from La'gaan to Nightwing as he spoke. "Our friends are in a better position to make this decision than we are. I trust their judgement."
"You're the boss," Artemis shrugged with a smile.
"No. I may be in command, but I will not try to order anybody to consent to this. However, if you are nervous or mistrustful..." ignoring the younger M'Gann's protesting splutter at that, he stepped forward... "Then I will go first."
"We have the gate," Nightwing said. "Better hurry this up."
Kaldur smiled at the older M'Gann and gave a small nod. "Then let us proceed."
M'Gann met the open, trusting eyes of Kaldur. A younger Kaldur, a pristine mind that she hadn't... Just go in, take what you need, get out. You've done it before. He won't resist, he wants this... this needs to happen...this is for the good of the Team, of everyone...
"I... I can't..."
After several motionless seconds, her younger self took the lead, reaching into his mind and pulling out everything post-explosion. It was fairly easy with new memories, formed since the last time somebody slept; except for a brief search for the explosion, she didn't even need to read them. The older M'Gann quickly knocked him out and levitated him through the portal. By then, her younger self had moved onto Robin; one by one, she neatly sliced the memories from her teammates while the older M'Gann carefully knocked them out and sent them home.
"It's getting unstable," Nightwing reported as the last of them, Artemis, was levitated through. The younger M'Gann floated towards the portal herself, only to be caught in a tight mental grip. Her own mental grip.
-You too, I'm afraid,- her older self said.
-I don't think so.-
-Please don't resist this. It'll be so much easier to do this without hurting you if you don't resist.-
-You couldn't even bring yourself to touch their memories! What makes you think you can bring yourself to take your own?-
-Are you kidding? My own memories are about the only ones I could trust myself to take. The only ones I have the right to.-
"Better hurry this up, guys," Nightwing warned.
No time for clumsy superficial mindlinks. They needed thought-speed communication. No choice. The older M'Gann gritted her teeth and, for the first time since her uncle had left Earth, opened herself up to a Martian mind.
Ah! She'd almost forgotten what true communication felt like. Complicated notions could be outlined faster than it took to pronounce a single word, precise feelings and concepts could be transmitted accurately... her younger self watched her shock and relief with apprehension.
"How could this happen?" she wondered. "I couldn't stand being that isolated, there's no way I could become..."
"Become what, responsible? Your powers are dangerous. The sooner you stop ignoring that, the better."
"Untrained they are, but used to help people – "
"And how do you know how to help people? There's a line. This isn't Mars. Most people here are practically defenseless. It's not safe to make more contact than necessary. But it is, apparently, necessary to make you forget all of this, so if you'll excuse me – "
"No!" The younger M'Gann rebuffed her attempt to pull up her memories. She didn't push, afraid of hurting her. "No. I'm going to stop this from happening. I'm going to stop whatever destroyed our home. And whatever made me like this."
"You can't beat me. I have a lot more experience than you do."
"I don't need to beat you. I just need to hold you off. You're not going to do anything that might hurt your younger self permanently, and you're not going to let me miss that portal. How can you be
okay with this? How can you look at Mount Justice now and think it's not worth trying to save it?"
"The mountain? That's your concern here?"
"My concern is whatever was strong enough to make a mountain disappear!"
"The mountain isn't the problem! Forget the mountain! The problem is you."
"Oh, right, something's wrong with me; I can't wait to be more like you, that'll make everything better."
"You want to know what happened? Fine. I'll show you." She pulled the relevant memories to the surface of her mind, watching her younger self's eyes slowly widen as the whole story played back.
"No. No... I'd never..."
"Wrong. You would because you did. In tiny steps, you told yourself you were good. You were helping. It was okay because they were bad guys, and when they were good guys they were misguided and just needed to be set straight, and you were helping, because you were a hero."
"But I'm not like that! I'm... I'm not..."
"White?" M'Gann changed the mental projection of herself to resemble her natural form. Her younger self instinctively stepped back. "Why, because you can hide your body? When will you get it into your head that nobody cares what you look like here? Policing your body won't change your temperament. It's your decisions that are the problem."
"I haven't made those decisions yet. And I won't."
"You haven't? So it was somebody else who brainblasted their own team in Qurac and put Psymon in a coma to protect a secret nobody even cared about in the end?"
"That's different! I didn't hurt them, I was protecting them. And Psymon was – "
"One of the bad guys?"
M'Gann sighed mentally. Her younger self crossed her arms. "There's nothing you can say that will convince me that – "
"I know. We didn't listen to Conner. Why would we listen to ourself? It seems the only way for you to learn anything is by making mistakes that hurt people."
"And now I can go back and avoid those mistakes."
"No you can't. You can't because I showed you everything and you still don't see the problem. You can avoid attacking Aqualad, sure. But you'll hurt somebody else. Maybe kill somebody else. Aqualad's strong... he can probably recover. But with this knowledge, with you changing the timeline... I can't be sure of the same from whoever ends up being your victim."
"Why is it that you're the one who left a good friend braindead and I'm the bad guy? No way am I letting you in my brain. I don't trust you."
"You're going to have to learn to." And then learn to again and again, every time you screw up. Which will be a lot.
"Why should I? You've done these horrible things. How do I know you're not going to just keep hurting people?"
"Because it's going to get better. Because I have friends to keep me on the right path... friends I should listen to more often, even if I don't like what they're saying. Because I have a history of mistakes to teach me, mistakes that you can't learn from properly without making. Because I'm going to make you a promise. Look at me, I want you to see my sincerity here. I swear on our life, Aqualad will heal. He'll heal if I have to break into Black Manta's headquarters myself. I swear that I will fix this."
Her younger self stared for a long moment and then, finally, began to relax her mental shield. "I don't want to forget. I want to remember..."
"You will remember. In five years. But for now..."
It was dark.
Muscles aching, Robin reached for a new glowstick and broke it. The blue light stung, even through his eyelids. Most of his joints hurt, his head wouldn't stop throbbing, and there was a dull sting on the inside of his right wrist. He didn't try to force himself to stand or open his eyes right away; instead he listened, identifying all four of his teammates by sound. Good.
"Is everyone alright?" Aqualad asked. He waited for everybody to respond before continuing, "then I think there is nothing more that we can do here. We should return to Kid Flash and retreat."
Robin slowly opened his eyes. Lots of shrapnel. Cracked ice, that might be dangerous. They were all piled at the entrance, where they'd been shielded by Aqualad's water-bearers. There was no piece of the machine left big enough to be worth analysing, but he scrambled for a random computer chip. "I just want to check this out, see if we can figure out what we're dealing with."
"Don't be long," Aqualad said as he led the others out.
When he was alone, Robin turned his attention to his stinging forearm. The glove covering the pain was intact, no shrapnel had pierced it. He slowly peeled the glove back, already knowing what to expect. Three pinpricks in a line, each the exact length of his thumbnail apart. They weren't driven deep enough to pierce anything important, but they were far too deep to be mistaken for random scratches. A code, a message from himself. Three in a line meant that if he didn't remember making the marks, his memory had been erased, but it was of his own volition and it was essential to the plan that he not try to restore it. Nobody else knew the code; it could only be there because he intended to send that message to himself. Unless somebody had read his mind. The protocol had made a lot more sense before he started dealing with telepaths on a regular basis.
Still, he had his mission; don't go looking for lost memories. The rest of the team probably had theirs erased, too; he might have to cover for missing arrows or unexplained injuries or suchlike. But he could do that. Avoid, cover, wait for the other shoe to drop.
He carefully pulled his sleeve up and then jogged after the others, leaving behind the scene of their unintended explosion. "You know," he wondered aloud when he'd caught up, "I don't think we're very good at covert. We're definitely vert."
"Do I want to ask?" Artemis asked.
"Well if they're being secretive and we're also being secretive it's covert, right, so if only their side is being secretive and ours isn't, doesn't that make us vert?"
"But you can still be covert if only one side is secretive."
"Huh. Then maybe we're unvert..."