I don't own Young Justice. Written for the Christmas Koy competition, which is some nice alliteration.

What Counts

It's raining in Bridgeport, Connecticut on Kaldur's first Christmas after leaving Atlantis. He is fourteen, passing as eighteen to his law-abiding landlady, and he spends the morning alone in an apartment that is bare of decoration save the miniature tree King Orin bought him ("It is important to understand the people you protect, Kaldur'ahm").

The streets are quiet, the sky is pale and the raindrops slither down the windowpane under his watchful gaze as he sits on a kitchen chair and contemplates going home. Orin cautioned him against visiting too often in these first few months, saying duty would require total immersion in this new environment, that he will have to learn to be a part of this world before attempting to belong to both. But Kaldur has not seen his mother in a hundred and six days, and it is Christmas, and he is lonely.

It is a common misconception that Atlanteans don't celebrate Christmas. True, it's hardly a religious holiday there; most Atlantean citizens revere Neptune or no god at all, but fun celebrations have a way of taking root wherever there are people looking to have one. So while the tree and the wreaths and many of the songs are unfamiliar to him, the idea that he ought to be surrounded by loved ones exchanging gifts is not.

Kaldur watches the rain, and he thinks of home.

That is his first Christmas.

The next year is different. As a result of his recent friendship with fellow sidekick Speedy, Kaldur finds himself at Oliver Queen's annual corporate Christmas Gala, the collar of a high-necked sweater tickling his gills as he hugs the wall in self-defense. There are people everywhere. Neither his surface manners nor his English (though nearly unaccented at this point) have prepared him for this level of social inundation, and he knows he does not remotely look fifteen, but he has never been hit on by so many tipsy middle-aged ladies in his life. Actually, prior to this night, he has never been hit on by anytipsy middle-aged ladies in his life.

"You look like you could use a drink," Speedy (no, not Speedy, not here – Roy) remarks, raising an eyebrow as he returns from his excursion onto the dance floor. There is a glass of something or another in his hand.

"That is not exactly legal, is it?" asks Kaldur, trying not to show how relieved he is to see his friend. "Even if I were nineteen, as my lease attests."

"Yeah because Ollie's huge on underage enforcement," says Roy, rolling his eyes. "Knowing him, if he saw you like this he'd probably be the one pressuring you to drink."

"I do not think my King would approve," Kaldur deflects. "And I am unsure what effect it would have on me. I have never had surface liquor."

The other boy shrugs and takes a swig from his cup.

"Suit yourself."

"Perhaps it is something we could try when I am not so desperately trying not to make a fool of myself," Kaldur suggests.

Roy gives him a look.

"It's Ollie's annual Christmas party," he says, gesturing around them. "The whole point is to make a fool of yourself. Loosen up."

"The invitation was a generous one," Kaldur protests. "Your mentor hardly knows me yet extended it anyway. I do not wish to return the favor by making a scene."

Roy laughs. It's a harsh sound, but Kaldur enjoys it anyway, or perhaps enjoys knowing he can elicit it. The older boy is usually so self-consciously serious; it's always nice to see him take pleasure in something.

"I'd like to see you try and make a scene, fish face."

"Another time," Kaldur promises, smiling and leaning against the wall.

The night wears on. Roy drinks; Kaldur does not. The two stay reasonably close together, Roy occasionally drifting off to make obligatory conversation with Ollie's society friends who claim to remember him when he was only a bratty little child ("do they think you have changed?" Kaldur will joke when Roy returns, and dodge the halfhearted punch the older boy throws at him). When at last the caterers close the bar and the guests begin to drift away to their cabs and lives, Roy grabs Kaldur's hand and scribbles on the back of it a nine-digit code – the security key to Queen Manor.

"Don't spend Christmas alone," he tells him seriously (Kaldur has told him about last year).

Kaldur promises he will not. On Christmas Day, he turns up respectably late in the afternoon so as not to disturb any family festivities, and Roy, with a surprised and pleased grin on his face, invites him in and up to his wing of the sprawling house, where they share a great number of beers and Kaldur learns that his tolerance for surface liquor is in fact fairly strong.

That is his second Christmas, and the memory of it makes Kaldur smile for weeks after.

The next year, they celebrate together again, though things are different, to say the least.

It has been 174 days since the team formed and Roy went solo, 109 since he called Kaldur for help in Rhelasia, 55 since their Halloween counsel about the possibility of a mole on the team, 20 since their disastrous mission to obtain Cheshire's briefcase, and two since Roy agreed (as Kaldur has insisted all along) that there is, in fact, no mole. That this abrupt and mysterious change of heart took place on a mission of which Kaldur neither approved nor had knowledge is troubling, but for the moment Kaldur is glad that the recent tension between them will not result in another solitary Christmas. Much as Roy's behavior has caused him grief of late, he still holds the archer among his dearest friends and would be loathe to see anything come between them, especially at this time of year.

(Also, he dares not go home for Christmas. His mother has just found out about Tula and the last thing he wants right now is her pity. It has been a long, long year, and all Kaldur wants to do is exchange gifts, have a few drinks and pass out on the couch, and only Roy will tolerate this sort of laziness without comment or photo documentation.)

"Hey," Roy greets as he opens the door at Kaldur's knock. A smell wafts out of the warm apartment, something...well, 'edible' is about as specific as Kaldur is willing to get. "You came."

"Did you think I would not?" asks Kaldur, stepping inside.

"Dunno," Roy shrugs, shutting the door as Kaldur shucks his shoes and his coat, both of which he wears more for security than for warmth. "I've pissed you off a lot this year. Thought you might just drop off some coal and head home to Atlantis or whatever. Wouldn't blame you."

"My patience is stronger than your attempts to try it," Kaldur tells him, hanging his coat on the wall peg.

Roy chuckles and heads for the kitchen, Kaldur tagging along behind him.

"Well I hope your stomach is stronger still, because I think I burned the shit out of this chicken."

The chicken is indeed burnt. Kaldur eats it anyway, making nary a face as he scrapes the blackened parts off the top and searches for the less carcinogenic bits further in. They eat in silence, which would be strange for a meal at the Cave, but for the two of them it is fairly normal, and in fact to Kaldur extremely welcome, and it is only after the dishes are washed and put away that Roy finally speaks again.

"We didn't specify if we were doing gifts," he says, shifting his weight a little uncomfortably. "I uh, got you something just in case but if you'd rather not, we..."

"I got you something as well," Kaldur interrupts, and lets out a small smile at Roy's visible relief.

"Well then," says Roy. He jerks his head towards the living room, hands slipping into his pockets. "Shall we?"

They settle onto the familiar lumps of Roy's secondhand couch, a single strand of Christmas lights giving the room a halfheartedly festive glow. Roy reaches under the coffee table for a small wrapped box, but Kaldur is quicker, procuring an envelope from his breast pocket and passing it to the archer before he can protest.

It's an abalone file clip, hand-crafted in Atlantis and classy as all hell, but more importantly it's holding a gift certificate to Roy's favorite restaurant, the one he's been avoiding to keep his budget in the black since he went solo. It's the kind of gift only a few people would know to get him, and he doesn't have to say anything for Kaldur to know it's the right one.

"You're coming with, right?" Roy asks, waving the paper gently. His voice is softer than usual.

"Only if you wish me to."

"Don't be an idiot. Of course I do," says Roy, and the gruffness is back quickly as if it had never been gone. He sets Kaldur's gift aside and reaches for the wrapped package, handing it to the Atlantean with a muttered disclaimer that isn't entirely intelligible but might contain the words 'nothing fancy like yours was.'

Kaldur unwraps it with methodical precision that Roy clearly finds irritating, then withdraws a small, leather-bound book. It turns out to be a photo album, filled with various pictures (posed and candid) of Kaldur's time on the surface.

"I know...you haven't had the best year up here," says Roy quietly, watching Kaldur flip through each one from the other side of the couch. "And I know you've been thinking about home a lot. I just wanted to give you something to remind you that there are people up here who uh...who l-love you, too. Y'know. Love as in like...ugh, never mind, you know what I mean."

Kaldur raises an eyebrow, amused at his friend's obvious difficulty with the sentimentality of it all, but also very moved at the thoughtfulness of the gift. It is true that this year more than any other he has felt adrift. Roy knows this better than anyone, as he is the only person to whom Kaldur has confessed any of his doubts or frustrations, and the fact that he has put the effort into a present that actually addresses those conversations instead of pretending they haven't happened (as Roy usually does with any sort of talk about personal matters) is both surprising and sweet.

"Thank you," says Kaldur quietly when he has reached the final picture (which is actually from last Christmas, Kaldur holding up his first ever beer while Roy grins with one arm around Kaldur's shoulder and reaches up with the other to snap a shot of them both).

Roy makes a sort of strangled noise in response. He's looking at the picture in Kaldur's lap and his expression is uncharacteristically uncomfortable.

Kaldur gives him a look.

"Are you all right?"

Roy's head jerks up and he rubs his arm, eyes flicking to Kaldur then to the Christmas lights, then down to the couch.

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, I...uh...yeah I'm fine, I just..."

"Just...?" Kaldur prompts, confused.

"Never mind," Roy says, shaking his head and standing up. "Forget it. It's Christmas. Let's get sloshed and watch a shitty TV movie like last year. What d'you want? Beer? Wine? I got some cheap scotch if you want."

"Whatever you are having is fine," says Kaldur, deciding he is a little too tired to pursue whatever topic Roy has just avoided. Roy breaks out the scotch, which is almost as bad as the Christmas special they find on TV, and they spend the rest of the night drinking to the mangled strains of whatever pop starlet was coerced into recording the soundtrack.

That is Kaldur's third Christmas, and it is months (plus a series of earth-shattering New Years' revelations) before he figures out that what Roy did not say that night was I love you.

(When he does, though, it's a very good day for them both.)

Three years later, Kaldur has received invitations to several Christmas gatherings – Conner and Megan and Gar's, Wally's family's, even Garth and Tula's – but intends to spend the holiday alone.

He does not tell the others this plan when he declines their offers, of course, because they will think it pitiful or self-punishing that he would rather spend the day by himself in his barren apartment than in the company of his friends or his family. And perhaps it is. But Roy is still missing, and the second Robin's death is fresh on Kaldur's hands, and he is not up to feigning a festive spirit.

Neither of these things is his responsibility, the team claims, of course. Roy's search for Speedy has taken him many dangerous places thus far, and it isn't anyone's job (least of all Kaldur's) to accompany him on what is almost certainly a fool's errand, and there was nothing anyone could have said to dissuade him from going, or so they say. But Kaldur can't help but feel that if he had ever succeeded in conveying to Roy how little he cares that he isn't the 'real' Roy Harper, how irrelevant he finds the origins of Roy's birth, how empty his own life would be if (God forbid) the worst should happen, maybe Roy would have had a better reason to stay. And maybe Kaldur wouldn't be spending Christmas alone.

(The second Robin is another story. It wasn't a team mission to begin with, but Kaldur should have never deployed such a green squad to respond to the distress signal, even if it had looked like a routine extraction. He should have known. The Joker is never routine. He should have known better. And Robin – Jason, Dick had said his name was – had paid the price for Kaldur's underestimation.)

There is no tree and there are no lights, and the few presents other people have thrust upon him sit unopened in a modest pile on the living room floor. Kaldur does not feel worthy of gifts at the moment. He will open them in time, but not today.

For the better part of the morning, he studies his textbooks, sorcery and tactics and surface world history. At noon, he makes himself a quick meal of bread and butter and cold fish, eats it standing at the window and watching the grey world outside, then out of habit checks his communicator to see if Roy has attempted to contact him (he hasn't).

At one in the afternoon, Kaldur zetas to the Watchtower (which, unlike the Cave, he knows will be empty) and heads for the training room. For two hours he puts himself through the most grueling combat regimen he and the simulator can muster, then he hits the showers, makes note of areas of intended improvement in the computer log, and zetas back to Connecticut. No one disturbs him.

He arrives home to find the front door unlocked, which it was not when he left. Kaldur does not forget to lock the door, ever.

Slipping one hand up into his sleeve, he curls his fingers around the hilt of one of his waterbearers, intending to use it as a blunt object against whatever intruder has decided to engage in a little Christmas breaking and entering. Kaldur is more than a match for any burglar, and he is more annoyed than anything else that the reverie of his solitary holiday is to be broken by something so stupid as a petty robbery.

But it is not a burglar.

Kaldur recognizes the bag first.

It is a stupid thing to remember, of all Roy's things; he could have noticed the bow slung over the kitchen chair, or the boots in the doorway, or even the leather bracer protruding from the bag, but no, it is the bag that his eyes light upon when he steps into the kitchen, that makes his stomach lurch in anticipation. He has snuck so many things into that bag in recent history – food, warm clothes, a GPS tracker that Roy found and eliminated embarrassingly quickly. He wouldn't mistake it for any other. It may look like a simple black duffel bag, but to Kaldur it means more: it means that Roy is leaving – or that he has come back.

The shower is running but the fridge is untouched. Once Kaldur recovers his wits, he connects these facts and moves to set a pot of water to boil on the stove, foraging around in the fridge for something to serve pasta with. Sometime in the middle of his dicing the chicken, the shower stops. While he has his head in the pantry, searching for the alfredo sauce, he hears the scrape of a belt buckle against the tile of the bathroom floor. And just as he has scraped the last of the onion into the sizzling fry pan, the door opens, and he turns, and there is Roy, hair wet and face freshly shaven and clothes wrinkled but very much alive, and Kaldur feels alarmingly close to the edge of control.

"Hey," Roy greets after a silence, seeming to sense Kaldur's paralysis. "I...hope you don't mind that I...uh...let myself in."

Kaldur just nods. There is a strange lump in his throat that should not be there and he dares not speak. He cannot decide if he wants to kiss Roy or punch him, or rather, which he would like to do first.

"Smells really good in here," says Roy a little sheepishly, glancing past Kaldur to where the linguini is bubbling away and the chicken and vegetables are simmering madly.

Once again, Kaldur just nods. They stand across the kitchen from one another, neither daring to move, until finally Roy takes a halting step forward and opens his mouth to speak again but Kaldur doesn't let him, just closes the distance and throws his arms around his friend and lover and draws him into an embrace that is so tight it must hurt, but neither of them seems to feel it if it does. Roy's face is pressed into Kaldur's shoulder and Kaldur's knuckles are white in the back of Roy's shirt. Neither of them speaks. It lasts until the oil in the fry pan begins to pop and spray.

Kaldur wrenches himself away, Roy's arms lingering reluctantly as he does, then turns back to the pan to stir it back into obedience. He lifts a hand to swipe over his eyes but will never admit that there was anything there to begin with, and if Roy notices he has the decency not to point it out.

"It is good to see you safe, my friend," says Kaldur, his voice hoarse.

Behind him, he feels Roy step up, feels the warmth of the archer's chest press to his back as freshly-scarred arms wrap around him and hold him secure.

"I couldn't face another Christmas without you," says Roy's voice in his ear, so quiet it doesn't even sound like him, if the sentiment weren't enough. Roy never says these kinds of things. Not out loud.

Kaldur stirs the fry pan again, then reaches for the jar of sauce. Roy's body follows his, unwilling to let go.

"I take it your mission is...has not yet succeeded," he murmurs. He pours the alfredo slowly over the meat and vegetables, adjusting the heat when it threatens to spatter.

"I don't want to talk about that," says Roy, nuzzling his nose against Kaldur's neck and making him shudder. "I just want to be here, with you, right now. I don't want to think about anything else."

Kaldur nods. It is exactly what he had hoped to hear. They have too little time together to waste what they do have arguing, which is all they seem to have done lately, and today he does not need an argument. He needs peace. He needs Roy.

They eat, or rather Kaldur moves a little bit of food around on his plate as Roy devours the meal with the ravenousness of a man who has not had a proper one in weeks, or longer. Kaldur finds that he does not mind that Roy's things are already strewn across his apartment, a splash of chaos on the crisp canvas of his meticulous housekeeping. Nor does he mind when Roy pulls him away from the dirty dishes to kiss him with an even greater hunger, hands tense against the sides of Kaldur's face like he's afraid he'll disappear.

And it may be true that Kaldur also doesn't take objection when Roy destroys his pristinely made bed to make room for the both of them between the sheets, because disorder – or fear, or inconvenience, or unpredictability – is a small price to pay for the feeling that fills him when Roy's mouth is moving against his gills and Roy's hands are holding his hips steady, skin on skin and the warmth of the one man who has ever truly made him feel like he has a place in this world.

"Merry Christmas," Roy whispers later when they are coiled together in the darkness, lips bruised and hands intertwined.

"Welcome home," Kaldur whispers back. It is the same meaning.

Outside, the neighbors' lights go on, casting multicolored shadows on the wall opposite the bed, and the two of them curl into each other beneath the covers and drift off towards a morning neither wants to come.

That is Kaldur's sixth Christmas, and in the dark years ahead, he will return to it to remember what love and hope feel like.

It is a memory that will last him until he doesn't need it anymore.