Wally was panicking, again. Which meant that Artemis was having her shoulder crushed while dealing with the fact that the Bioship was vibrating, shuddering in the sky as a result of speedster-fast foot tapping.
“Calm down, Baywatch,” Artemis grumbled, rolling her eyes as she monitored Kaldur’s vitals on the console screen. “He’ll be fine.”
Wally’s hand left her shoulder. Artemis watched the screen’s reflection as he threw his hands in the air. “Why are we having Kaldur defuse the bomb, again? Supey’s indestructible!”
Kaldur’s voice sounded low and even in their minds. ‘The intent is that it does not go off in the first place. Of the two of us, my temperament is more suited to this task.’
‘I’d take offense to that if I didn’t know you were right,’ Connor grumbled across the link from where he and M’gann were keeping guard on the docks.
Wally groaned, collapsing back into his seat. Artemis had to suppress a snort as he almost fell out of it, flailing to right himself. Robin didn’t bother holding back, snickering openly at his best friend. ‘Dude. You’re acting way too chill for someone trying to defuse an underwater explosive!’
A warm hum of amusement sung across the link. ‘I am keeping things in perspective—either I will be successful, or it will no longer be my problem.’
Artemis snorted, laughing into her hand. ‘Good one, Kaldur.’ She looked up. Two sets of eyes watched her, disturbed and a little horrified. M’gann and Connor were dead silent. “What? It was a good joke?”
Wally, of all people, had the gall to look judgmental. “Kaldur might die. What about that is funny?”
Artemis rolled her eyes. ‘Whatever, Baywatch. Keep it together, Kal.’
Artemis could almost swear she could feel Kaldur’s answering smile. ‘I’ll try to keep from falling into pieces.’
Wally went a little green, grimacing. “You two are the worst.”
“Hey, what the heck? Is that fish?” Wally asked loudly, talking around a handful of popcorn as he walked into the kitchen. Artemis grimaced, watching little flecks of buttery spittle fly out of his mouth as he chewed. How the fuck she was even a little into him (on a physical level, only! He was obnoxious but she had eyes) she’d never understand.
Kaldur looked up from where he was cutting a long strip of bright red meat into chunks. He raised one stupidly nice eyebrow (again, eyes!) at Wally’s exclamation, the picture of unimpressed. “I am Atlantean.”
Wally shoved another handful of popcorn in his mouth. “Yeah so like. Isn’t that cannibalism?”
Kaldur frowned, continuing to prepare his lunch. “Actually,” he said in a light tone, shooting a sly smile at Artemis. “Most Atlanteans eat more fish than people.”
Artemis smiled, twirling her ponytail for emphasis. She grinned sharply at Wally, who narrowed his eyes suspiciously at her, his expression suddenly wary. “Oh, really, Kaldur? More fish than people? So totally weird that a species that lives in the ocean eat more fish than surface dwellers.”
Kaldur smiled, lifting a piece of bright red meat to his mouth and eating it in two snapping bites. Artemis could see Wally’s Adam’s apple bob as he eyed Kaldur’s sharp canines. “It’s true. Fish are a staple of the Atlantean diet. And it's been at least a month since I ate a human.”
Wally gagged, blurring away down the hall towards the bathroom, abandoned popcorn bag spilling out on the floor. “Hate you guys!”
Black Canary sighed, frown pinching early crow's feet into the corners of her eyes. Not that Artemis was judging. She figures she’d be lucky to live as long as BC had, let alone look as good in her thirties.
Dinah flicked her hand, pulling a mission brief up onto the Cave’s main monitor. Artemis and Kaldur were the only members of the team present—everyone else was occupied with their own missions, and it was a two person only gig, anyway. “This mission is dangerous. You guys might not make it back from this one.”
“Promise?” Artemis shot back, overlapping with Kaldur’s flatly stated 'One can only hope.'
Dinah pinched the bridge of her nose, massaging her temple with her other hand. It mussed her hair, completing the picture of exhaustion. “The two of you really know how to make a licensed therapist feel incompetent,” she griped.
Straightening her shoulders, she fixed them both with a sharp look. “Cut the gallows humor. Kaldur, I’m frankly surprised at you. You know how irresponsible suicidal ideation jokes are. Especially for kids your age.”
“Forgive me,” Kaldur asked, hands clasping contritely behind his back. “I have bad habits from my years in the militia. Normally I’m better at reigning it in.” Green eyes flicked to Artemis. He smiled warmly, a helpless fond thing that Artemis knew had Dinah forgiving him instantly. “Artemis brings out the worst in me.”
Artemis grinned, eyes crinkling as she slugged Kaldur in the shoulder. “Bullshit!” She exclaimed. “You’re usually the one who starts it, Mr. ‘Tell My Boyfriend He Was Adequate’!”
Canary frowned, raising a hand to silence them. “Back up. You’ve been Aquaman’s protege since you were fifteen. When were you…?”
Kaldur blinked. “Compulsory service in the Atlantean military begins at the age of twelve.”
Dinah’s face twisted. “Compulsory what in the what? Oh, Orin and I are having a talk later.”
Artemis yawned, glaring bleary eyed at Kaldur, who was already awake and fully dressed as the rest of the team shuffled into the kitchen for breakfast. “Do you even sleep?”
Kaldur shrugged, sipping his coffee. “When the nightmares do not keep me awake, yes.”
M’gann looked up from mixing pancake batter. “Nightmares?”
Artemis waved her off. “Don’t worry about it, Miss M.” It was too early in the morning to explain compulsory military service to the aliens. Or gallows humor.
Wally arrived, hair mussed from sleeping with Dick on the couch. He had little creases pressed into his face, the red lines highlighting the constellations of his freckles. Not that Artemis noticed. “Morning, gorgeous,” he said to M’gann.
M’gann rolled her eyes, floating the butter out of the fridge and over to the skillet. “Good morning, Wally.”
Wally wandered up behind M’gann, pressing close on the pretext of watching her flip the pancakes. “What’s cookin, good lookin’?”
Artemis frowned. Wally had sworn he’d start laying off M’gann. She caught Kaldur’s eye, who looked very tired, and who subtly pointed to the white-knuckled grip a certain clone had on the metal countertop. Those finger dents weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Artemis breathed in deep, then smirked. She knew exactly how to defuse the situation. “Hey, Kal. Got a new one for you.”
Kaldur raised a brow, sipping his coffee as he played along. “Oh?”
“What’s the difference between me and cancer?”
Kaldur smiled, eyes bright. “I’m not sure. Enlighten me?”
Artemis eyed Wally, just waiting for his reaction. “My dad didn’t beat cancer.”
Wally spun, wide eyed. “Hey!” He pointed at Artemis. “Not cool!”
Artemis rolled her eyes. “Relax, Baywatch. My dad doesn’t have cancer.”
Wally bristled. “No! The other stuff! That shit actually happens to some people, you know!”
Artemis quirked a brow, hands on her hips. She was getting angry, now. “Well, duh. It happened to me.”
Silence fell over the room. Artemis’s ears burned, aware of all the eyes on her. Even Robin had popped his head over the couch. A thirteen-year-old with extreme bedhead shouldn’t be able to project quite that much carefully blank attention, but the sunglasses helped a lot.
Wally’s mouth was grim. “You know that’s not. Not okay, right?”
Artemis resisted hugging herself, digging her nails into her hips over the jersey of her sleep shorts. “Yeah, Wall. I know. Just because I joke about it doesn’t mean it was okay. You get that, right? Like, did you ever think about why Kaldur and I are like this?”
M’gann piped up. “Kaldur’s parents never would have done that. I’ve met them—they’re really nice.”
Kaldur rose from his chair, moving to stand beside Artemis. “I was not abused as a child, true,” Kaldur said gently. “But I was a member of the Atlantean militia at the age of twelve. I did not see combat against fellow Atlanteans. But it was not without its perils—both the physical, and the psychological.”
Wally looked stricken. “I’m sorry. I never. I didn’t realize.”
Artemis shrugged. “It’s not something either of us advertise.”
“But maybe it’s something you should talk about?” M’gann said softly.
Artemis grimaced, panicking a little internally. She didn’t need any other Leaguers digging into her family history. Batman and Green Arrow knowing was already bad enough. “Pass. I’m over it, really. Dad’s not in the picture anymore.”
Kaldur frowned at her, but remained silent. She had the feeling he felt like spilling his guts about as much she did.
M’gann looked pained. “Just. Think about it.”
Artemis half stumbled to the galley, one hand braced on the ice cold wall of the Manta Flyer. On good days she was only a little ungainly, land legs still unused to the dipping sway of the ship as it cut through the water beneath the waves. But the last week had been exhausting, keeping almost twenty hour watches over M’gann as she pieced Kaldur’s broken mind together.
The stress of their situation had made the little sleep she did get uneasy. She’d never been prone to nightmares, but the anxiety crushing her heart like tinfoil had kept her awake, eyes staring sightlessly at the unforgiving steel of her chosen prison.
Now that Kaldur was finally back on his feet and M’gann had escaped, Artemis had managed to get a few solid hours in. The deep sleep of exhaustion had left her head muzzy, and her feet unsteady beneath her.
The strong smell of coffee hit her as she opened the hatch into the galley. Their cook, Hamilton, waved brightly to her as she stepped through the threshold. “Morning!” he chirped, settling a steaming cup of coffee at Artemis’s side as she took her customary spot, left of the head of the table.
“Hamilton,” Tigress said roughly, glad not for the first time that the rasping voice Zatanna had unwittingly chosen for her hid her exhaustion. As Kaldur’s second and Manta’s third, it wouldn’t do for the grunts to know Tigress was anything less than on top of her game. “Remind me to tell the boss never to promote you.”
Hamilton laughed. Artemis was pretty sure his real name was Devon. She wasn’t sure though. It’s not the kind of thing a woman like Tigress would bother to learn. And not the kind of thing Artemis wanted to. She might have to help kill this man to preserve their mission. Despite the fact that Hamilton, nickname ‘Coffee Guy’ was just about the nicest person on the ship.
The heavy thud of a man in full armor approached, and Artemis was relieved to see that it was Kaldur who appeared at the doorway. “Greetings.”
“Hey there, baby boss!” Hamilton exclaimed. “Nice to see you’re finally up! Have a nice nap?”
Kaldur smiled. From experience, Artemis could tell it was genuine, a small quirk of his lips that appeared any time the younger members of their team amused them. “It was most restful.”
Hamilton shook his head. “I bet. Food?”
“Toast only, please.” Kaldur replied, sitting across from Artemis at the right hand of the head of the table. Not for the first time, Artemis wondered who sat there before Manta’s son joined the crew. And whether Kaldur had been given that place, or had been forced to earn it.
She still hadn’t asked him about some of the rumors she’d heard about the things he’d done to gain Manta’s confidence. Wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Hamilton frowned, setting a full breakfast of eggs and sausage before Artemis and four pieces of buttered wheat toast before Kaldur. “Hey? What gives? I thought you liked eggs.”
Kaldur quirked another smile, this one wry. “I relate to them a little more than I’d like to, now.”
Artemis snorted, flailing as hot coffee flew up her nose. Recovering, she punched Kaldur firmly in the arm from across the table, targeting the area uncovered by armor. She grinned, wondering as she did if this was the first time she’d ever smiled as Tigress. “Kaldur, that’s horrible.”
Hamilton looked between them, vague confusion and not a little disgust at Tigress’s treatment of coffee coloring his look. “What? Did I miss something?”
Tigress shook her head, digging meaningfully into her own eggs. “Miss Martian basically scrambled his brains. Guess he knows how it feels.”
Kaldur maintained a carefully blank expression. “My sympathy for smoothies has also increased.”
Hamilton grimaced. “Y’all are messed up.”
Artemis grinned at Kaldur, shrugging. “We’ve been told.”