Arthur Curry had known Kaldur'ahm since he was a young man. In all of his years, he had never known a soldier as strong and level headed his protege. There was no denying that Kaldur'ahm led his team well. There was no second guessing his commanding presence, or his ability to strategize or think on his feet when the tide turned against him.
Kaldur had the making of a great king, and one didn't need to be royalty to see that. However, there was always this small problem that always worried King Arthur. There were times when The Team would host parties at the cave. It always gave each mentor joy to see their proteges together, mingling, relaxing, breathing at a pace that was leisurely. Every warrior must learn to place down their swords, right?
Kid Flash would grab a drink and flash a smirk at M'gann. Robin leaned against the wall and made stupid jokes at Zatana. Even Superboy, for all of his grumbling showed a faint interest in Artemis. But whenever Kaldur was present, his stood by the punch bowl, a warmed drink in his hands, and a dazed disinterest in his eyes. For some reason Kaldur had grown reserved (more reserved than usual) and it gave King Orin pause. What was troubling his protege?
Kaldur was never one to speak of his ails. No, he was trained to fight on, regardless of the wounds he himself had endured. That was the way of the Atlantis military, but Kaldur was still a boy. A boy far from home, in a world that was not his own. Arthur knew that unease, and to add to it the burden of leadership was a hardship one so young should not carry alone.
But, Arthur knew Kaldur. He would not speak freely of his own mind. Not even at the request of his mentor. So...Arthur needed another way. He walked over to Robin, drink in hand and shoulders erected.
"Robin, may I speak with you for a moment?"
Robin obliged and the two found their way into the halls. "What's up?" Robin asked.
"It is about Kaldru'ahm. I feel he is...troubled by something."
Robin nodded, "I mean. I didn't want to say anything. Kaldur's a pretty private guy, but he has seemed rather...reserved? Maybe? Lately he's been making Batman look like Mr. Personality."
This was gettin serious.
"Y-you're his friend. Has he confided in you at all? Perhaps told you what troubles him, or-"
Robin simply shook his head. "Well, you know Kaldur. I don't think the guy would even know how to express discomfort over something. He's more of a bottle-it-up-for-later kind a dude."
Arthur didn't like this. It was one thing for Kaldur'ahm to feel burdened by leadership (and whatever else was weighing on his mind) but every leader had his limits. Every soldier had the right to place his weapon down and bask in the glow of what he fought to protect. And now, as the rest of the team celebrated, Kaldur'ahm stood by. Uninterested.
And Arthur was terrified.
"Black Canary, may we speak?"
Black Canary was something of a den mother to the team. She was always around whenever the team needed a sympathetic ear. Surely, Kaldur would have mentioned something to her.
"What is it Aquaman?" she asked,
"It is about Kaldur'ahm. I'm growing concerned. Has he come to you with any of his issues? Talked about his problems?" It was strange for Aquaman to ask these questions. After all, Kaldur was his protege. If anyone should know the young man's biggest problems, it would be him.
"Well," Black Canary said, "I haven't talked to the team since M'gann's psychic episode, when the team believed they had all died. I took each one of them, one on one, aside to talk about the issue."
"And?" Arthur asked.
"Kaldur showed more concern with how he failed the team as a leader than anything else." Canary sighed, and ran his fingers down her stockings. She always did that when she was nervous. It was a tell. "Frankly, I found it disturbing that a kid so young felt that much responsibility. It was incredible. But," she hesitated, "But also a little unnerving."
That was all Aquaman needed to hear.
Arthur turned and left. So it wasn't just his imagination. There was definitely something wrong with Kaldur'ahm. But...what exactly could Arthur do? He could ask Cal Durham and Sha'lain'a for some guidance. But, what if Kaldur had not revealed his troubles to them? As mature as Kaldur was, he was still a teenager, and Arthur doubted Kaldur would confide in them. Neptune knew Arthur never confided in his father when he was Kaldur's age.
"Still," Arthur said, "Something shall be done."
When Aquaman returned to The Cave, he saw Kaldur'ahm monitoring the computer feeds for any strange activity. Ah, the burden of leadership, and Kaldur bore it well. But... every king must have council.
"Kaldur'ahm," Arthur called into the computer room. His voice bounced off the cave walls and into the air like a whale's song.
Kaldur stood, clasped his closed fist against his forehead and nodded. "Hello my king." His voice was as smooth as the underside of a manta ray's stomach. "Is there something I can assist you with?"
"At ease my friend," Arthur said. "Actually, I was hoping you and I could spend a little time together. I want to see how my protege has adopted to surface life."
"Oh," Kaldur said, "My king, you needn't worry. Surface life has treated me well. And I would love to be by your side but," he turned back to the monitors, "I have my duties to-"
"I've already asked Robin to step in for you. And I even got permission from Batman to relieve you of your responsibilities for the evening. On the surface world, we call that a 'Day Off'."
"But my Annex Orin-"
Arthur just smiled, "I'm expecting you to be ready in five minutes."
As much as Kaldur'ahm loved the surface world, he really wasn't one to partake in its pleasantries. It was strange enough walking around on dry land, but understanding the surface world's customs while ensuring that he did not make a fool of himself was a different matter altogether. Still, if his king wished to see how well he had adapted to surface life, Kaldur was not going to let him down.
King Arthur had taken Kaldur to a donut shop down town. Kaldur had only visited the establishment once, to pick up the team's reward for a job well done. He did not have time to take in the atmosphere of the place. To note how the air smelled like stale dough, or how the fans overhead creaked with each turn. Why had King Orin wanted to take him here?
King Orin sat opposite of Kaldur'ahm. The booth the two occupied was next to the window, something the king had requested special. No matter how accustomed Orin had been to the surface world, he still liked to be near the outside world, where the soft patter of the waves could remind him of home.
"Your majesty," Kaldur said, "Is there something wrong?"
King Orin shook his head, "Of course not my boy." He smiled and stirred his coffee cup. "It has just been so long since I've had the pleasure of your company and I wanted to ensure you were adjusting well. I must apologize. I haven't been as present in your transitions as I would have hoped."
"You majesty," Kaldur said, " I understand the burdens of leadership. You have nothing to apologize for-"
"Kaldur'ahm," King Orin said. "While I appreciate your understanding, as king, I am a servant to my people, and frankly, I haven't been the best mentor to you. Yes, I have responsibilities but as my protege I have a special responsibility to ensure your well-being. And in that duty I have failed." And the last person Arthur wanted to fail was his faithful protege. Kaldur was the last person anyone should think of forgetting. He was too good a man to leave by the wayside.
"I...appreciate your words, my king." Kaldur bowed his head slightly. In minutes the waitress had returned with a large tray of doughnuts. Arthur had insisted on paying. It wasn't every day a king could repay a soldier's loyalty. Of course, Kaldur was far more than just a soldier. He was family.
"Tell me my son," Arthur said as he picked up a boston cream donut and squeezed it's filling onto a plate (it was a nasty habit Mera hated), "How're things with Tula?"
Kaldur took a sip of his coffee. "Oh, she and Garth have begun a wonderful relationship together." He placed his coffee cup down, tapped his finger on the sticky table, and wheezed. His eyes glazed over in a dull sadness. "I wish them nothing but the best."
Tula and Kaldur weren't together? As often as Kaldur liked to keep things to himself, there were some aspects of his life that even he could not hide. Specifically, his feelings for Tula. But...Arthur had never believed the two had ended their relationship.
"Oh, Kaldur'ahm. I am so sorry." Arthur spoke as if Kaldur had lost his mother. "I-I was unaware."
"It does not matter my king," Kaldur said, "It was for the best. Now I have no more distractions to keep me from being the best leader I can be for my team."
"Kaldur," Arthur said as he placed his hand on the young man's shoulder, "Being a good leader is a fine goal, but you mustn't forget that you are a man as well. Even kings need the support of a loved one." Was Kaldur'ahm throwing himself in his work to avoid his heartbreak?
"Do not worry my king," Kaldur said. "It is for the best. I had even taken counsel with Batman over the matter and-"
"Batman?" That pointy eared freak wouldn't know good advice if it were dangling from his cave. Batman was probably the worst adjusted member of the Justice League, and Kaldur'ahm taken any advice from him was disconcerting. "What does Batman have to do with any of this?"
"On my last visit to Atlantis, Batman told me that as the leader, it was my duty to place my team above all else." Kaldur spoke with a dimmed voice.
Kaldur wasn't wrong, the burden of leadership was hard...but a leader who forgot about what he was fighting for wasn't fit to lead. Also, Arthur made a mental note to punch Batman in the face the first change he got.
"Have you looked for any other romantic possibilities? Perhaps Artemis? I know you and Roy are very close, perhaps there may be something to explore." Arthur smiled. Kaldur'ahm was still young, naturally his mind would wander to romance once in a while.
"My king, my thoughts are only of how to better serve the unit as a whole, just as my king serves his people."
Why did Kaldur have to be so damn noble?
"Kaldur," King Arthur said, "I believe it is time you and I discuss more personal matters."
"Personal matters, my king?"
Arthur smiled, "Why, the next person who shall set your heart alight, my son."
And for the first time in a long while, Arthur saw Kaldur's face break from the stoic leader Kaldur was, to the impassioned young man that Arthur had learned to miss. "My king. I am afraid that is not a priority at this moment."
"Nonsense!" King Arthur said, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear, "Every good leader must understand that he is a person, in need of warmth and closeness with another." Arthur's lips curved into a smile, "Now Kaldur. You may be a leader, but you're still growing. Despite your ability to temper your desires, I can still tell that a passionate heart burns in your chest. It would do you well to find someone to share that passion with."
And Kaldur's eyes sunk to the tabletop, he was too afraid to look his king in his face, "I-I will do as you command, my king."
And there it was again. Kaldur returning to the dutiful soldier who followed orders. It made Arthur worry more than Black Manta, or Ocean Master ever could.
"Kaldur'ahm, my son, it is not an order from your king, but a request from your mentor." Arthur reached over and clasped his hand on the young Atlantean's shoulder, "I know Batman has counseled you in the ways of guiding your team, but there are limits to even Batman's knowledge. And I would never wish to place you, my trusted partner, in the same dark places that Batman revels in. You're life should be more than charts and battle strategies."
"But my king-"
"No buts my son," Arthur said sternly. "Even Queen Mera has concerns. She too believes you spent too much time as a warrior and not enough time as a person. So, effectively immediately, you're on vacation."
"Yup," Arthur said with a smile. "You can spend some time in Atlantis with your family, and then afterwards you can return to the surface world, find someone nice spend time with. Have a 'summer romance'. It'll be good for you to get a taste of what you're always fighting to protect."
Kaldur looked puzzled, "A taste of...what, exactly?"
"Life, Kaldur'ahm. A taste of life."