Dracoverse/Beach Boys:

Valse Fantaisie in B Minor

by Kael



Title : Valse Fantaisie in B Minor
Rating : PG
Summary : Here There Be backstory for the Dick and Garth who dwell in Kaylee's Dracoverse. Titans stuff, from the old days. Some moments have power we never expect. Not really relationship fic. A decision point.
Disclaimer : No money, don't sue, and we merry few love them better anyway, so get over it.
Note : Things that are different from DC canon. Uhm. If you read Hero you saw where Kory (Starfire) went. I've started Joey (Jericho)'s tour with the team early by several years, made it so the team didn't actually disband either of the first two times, and let them avoid getting involved with Jupiter. Roy and Donna's lives get slowed down a bit on the timeline, but not changed much, and I go into that more in later stories. I also have Dick still operating as Robin, even though Jason Todd is wearing the same suit as Batman's official partner. Anything else that's different gets covered pretty explicitly in the story, I hope.
Feedback : Cherished for good or ill. Come on, tell me something! Or there will be. Uhm. Sharks. Yeah.

Thanks as always to kerithwyn for relentless cheerleading and for giving Kaylee the idea to put Garth in her universe in the first place.

==

"Fuck off, Robbie."

Dick stood just off the mats at the edge of the gym, watching Roy take a heavy bag apart. He was throwing flying kicks, and jump kicks, and spinning kicks, and jump spinning back kicks -- the kind of moves that were mostly impractical and occasionally life-saving, and were great for burning energy. There'd been a flying take-down the Titan's leader had felt in his own hips -- a take-down hurt when the recipient didn't fall -- but Roy'd just bounced off the bag, then bounced off the mat, then thrown himself into another series of kicks.

When he'd leapt for a repeat of the same take-down, a slight shift of hips as he hit the bag offset the momentum that'd jolted back into Roy's body the first time, sending the bag spinning on its heavy chain. Roy'd rode the spin, then arched off into a handstand, then a back flip. He'd stuck the landing and pivoted precisely to return to his attack on the bag.

That'd put Robin directly in his line of sight, where he couldn't pretend not to see him, but Roy had waited until a repeat of the move brought him out of the back flip bare yards from his watcher to growl his greeting, before another sharp pivot took him back to his fight.

The steady tone under the annoyance let Robin tick off the last item on his after-battle checklist, so he turned and headed for his room without another word.

When the door closed behind him, he picked the mask from his eyes and threw it to bounce off the mirror and flutter onto his dresser, stripped out of his costume and went to just stand under a spray of hot water for awhile.

It had not been a good day to be a Titan. Not that the world had almost ended, not that anyone had died, but they had come off looking like a bunch of kids and amateurs in front of the JLA, without whose assistance they would've had their butts thoroughly handed to them by Pravus Valde.

Dick scrubbed roughly at his neck and tried to focus on what they'd done right, before he worked himself into an impossibly worse mood. Changeling and Cyborg had put in a good day's work -- for someone who hadn't been raised in the business, Cyborg was making very few mistakes, and he and Changeling were good for each other. And despite them all getting knocked around pretty spectacularly by Pravus Valde, the only person he'd even been worried about afterwards was Speedy. Roy was the only other full-human on the team. While the powerhouses of the JLA were doing cleanup and before Robin'd been able to check him for dents, he'd gotten into a yelling fight with his mentor, Green Arrow, on the sidelines of the battle and then stormed off by himself.

When Cyborg, who'd volunteered to man the control room, had finally notified him of Roy's return, Dick'd gone to watch him work out his frustrations until he was sure the guy really wasn't hurt. That Roy had given him time for it, and even acknowledged what he was doing in his way, was some reassurance that Roy, at least, wasn't in a frame of mind to take off and do something stupid.

Dick had briefly considered the attractions of taking off and doing something stupid, himself. At least when that went ass-up, he could console himself with the knowledge that he'd expected it.

He stretched his shoulders and groaned slightly, and turned to let the hot water pound into the sore muscles of his back, leaning on his arms against the back wall of the shower. He'd done everything he physically could, stretched it to the absolute limit, and they still would've dropped the ball if the senior team hadn't shown up. And he knew he was still screwing up, because he was having trouble getting past his burning embarrassment over the "rescue" far enough to analyze the team's errors. He needed to be sorting out why they'd made the mistakes that'd made the rescue necessary, not standing there resenting that it'd happened.

Roy'd been showing out and not listening, which wasn't exactly new. Donna, Wonder Girl, had been distracted and unfocussed, following orders without thinking for herself, which was very new. Changeling and Cyborg hadn't done anything wrong, but Dick knew in retrospect that he'd set Gar and Victor Stone up to be ineffective. He hadn't been working with them on their strengths. Lately, he hadn't been working with them at all except as peripherals and back-up.

Dick sighed and reached for the shampoo. That'd been a stupid mistake, and a waste, and it'd cost them today. But if he recognized that, he had to look at the bigger problems in the team today's mistakes were only a symptom of. And once he had that thought, avoidance stopped being an option.

In the past few months he'd gone back to thinking of the original remaining foursome as "the team." After losing Raven, and Joey... His mind still shied hard when he started to think of the circumstances that'd brought the team down to six, but a bitter taste at the back of his throat acknowledged them. That, that was what had him trying to reconsolidate the old foundation, even if he hadn't put it to himself that way until now.

He'd been trying to take them all back to the beginning, without even realizing it, and that couldn't work. The things he'd once depended on in the original group weren't there anymore. They'd all changed, including him, and he had good, steady, new people whose strengths he'd started disregarding because he hadn't wanted to adapt to the changes. It was his job to weigh each individual's strengths constantly and keep the team -- the whole team -- working together in the least risky and most effective ways. It was a job he hadn't been doing since their latest run-in with the Wildebeast Society.

Bruce hadn't even said anything when the battle was over. He'd been getting Pravus Valde's human accomplices squared away while Superman and Wonder Woman secured Pravus Valde himself, and Dick hadn't been willing to wait around once Superman gave them the nod to clear out. Oliver Green and Roy had already had it out and Roy had gone, and Aquaman had stalked off with Garth trailing slowly behind him. Donna had been standing just beside him as usual, but offering none of the insight and strength he'd come to depend on, obviously a thousand miles away, and there'd been nothing left for Gar or Victor to do.

He'd told them all to head back to the Tower. He'd felt Bruce watching him leave. The Batman would've seen every mistake he'd made, would've noted every resource he hadn't used to maximum advantage, would've noticed him putting the wrong person to the wrong use and, damn him, probably seeing why.

There'd been a time when he never would've put Aqualad in a key position in a land battle, but Garth's fighting had developed a lot and he'd been doing well since his most recent decision to stay with the team. It'd been the second time he'd almost left them, and there'd been no Joey to help hold him this time, but from a weird midnight conversation Garth and Dick had somehow given one another a reason to keep trying. Since then, the dizzy spells that'd been making Garth more and more unreliable in the preceding months had vanished, and Victor Stone had developed a device that would deliver a very small amount of water in a precise way to accommodate Atlantean physiology, allowing Garth an extra hour of air breathing in an emergency. Without the clock ticking quite so relentlessly on his surface activities, Garth had found something like confidence in his ground work.

After seeing Victor's invention, Dick had worked with him to develop a proposal to be submitted by proxy to WayneTech, and Bruce had unobtrusively directed it to the attention of the the R&D department without asking any questions. Who knew? Maybe the water irrigation suit would have medical or fire service applications if it couldn't be turned into a novelty item, and Victor might get some money out of it. As long as WayneTech's research and development people worked the specs out far enough for Victor to fit it with the Atlantean-built aerator Dick had acquired (learning more than either Garth or Arthur probably knew about Atlantean smugglers in the process), Dick had no further interest.

He hadn't mentioned that project to Garth yet, and he knew Victor hadn't. Garth had acted too weird about Victor's pocket breather, stunned and almost ashamed, amazed they'd thought of it and apologizing for needing it, and telling them earnestly that he hoped it would keep him from being any further liability to the team.

Dick sighed and turned his face up into the spray, feeling the shampoo-bubbled water trace a slick line down his spine. His hair was getting shaggy. He thought idly that he needed to either get it cut or officially decide to let it grow out. The cooling spray felt good on his closed eyelids.

He'd done so many stupid things lately, but what was worse was realizing they weren't new things, for the most part. Things he hadn't seen, faulty evaluations and preconceptions that'd been with them for years, they all seemed to be coming home to roost at once. The routines he'd fallen back on for so long to deal with team problems not only weren't working, but were showing him all the ways they hadn't been working all along, while he was being too goal-oriented to notice.

Garth was amazed they'd thought to design a breather for him now. When Victor first approached him with the idea, Dick had found himself distantly horrified that no one had thought of it sooner. It was one more mistake he'd made, had been making for years, and had been endangering the life of a teammate countless times by making. With all the resources at the command of the JLA and the Titans, he couldn't understand why Aquaman hadn't had something like it made when Garth was just a kid. Dick'd assumed, or he supposed he had because it seemed too obvious a point not to've crossed his mind when the team first got together, that there must be some reason, some idiosyncracy of Atlantean physiology, maybe, that precluded the kind of stop-gap measure Victor had provided, since Arthur hadn't had it done years ago.

Was it possible Arthur hadn't thought of it? Dick knew he wasn't so susceptible to dehydration; had the man thought Garth would grow out of it? Even if the Atlantean King wanted to maintain the legend that only he and his chosen partner were strong enough to live upworld, surely secrecy could've been maintained. Or was it--

Speculation was pointless, and Dick knew it was really only a blame-dodging exercise anyway. He was the leader of the Titans. He was responsible for the safety of everyone on the team, and he'd missed something incredibly vital and basic for more than five years.

Abruptly he shook his head, hard, in the spray, then cut off the water with an amused breath and reached for a towel. Kory would be teasing him, and Bruce would be lecturing him, if either of them had caught him wasting time guilting himself over irrecoverable errors rather than focusing on the present. It was, depending on who was chastening him, either self-indulgent and pointless or silly and vain.

He scrubbed the towel over his head and neck and ruefully acknowledged that they were both probably right. He dropped the towel and slung himself across the bed without bothering to dry the rest of him off. He was tired, and most of him was sore, and he had too much to think about that he didn't want to think about at the moment. Wallowing in past mistakes wasn't a very good distraction, though.

Things -- everything -- had just gotten so difficult since his stay as Brother Blood's guest. Since Kory had left, and Raven was lost, and Joey...

God, they were such a mess. It wasn't just him; the whole original team was, in different ways. Garth was the only -- possible -- exception, and that was really only because he'd taken the first turn at head-tripping himself. Psychosomatic weakness and fainting was seeming pretty innocuous at the moment. Dick didn't know how to ask about Donna's marriage. He didn't know what to ask about what Roy'd been getting up to.

The Titans had always been like a family, the only true siblings those raised at the right hands of legends could know, and maybe that was the problem. Dick felt like he knew them all too well and not at all at the same time. Their individual priorities were shifting as their lives spread out into the world beyond the team. They were each judging everything by different standards now, and none of them seemed sure they were interested in following where he might lead them.

He wasn't sure he knew how to lead them, anymore.

Garth was the only one who appeared to have the old faith in him these days, though Vic and Gar would still do what he told them. After this battle he knew he'd, deservedly, probably lost that faith and possibly even the obedience. He sighed and rolled over. He had really messed up today, and he was wondering if the reasons were anything he was going to be able to fix.

He'd been working intensively with Garth lately, looking forward to the day the wet suit would be finished and Garth could contribute fully to the team, without risking his life every time out just by being there. Aqualad's contributions in a water battle were manifest, and even on land he was both very strong and very difficult to hurt. His anatomy was evolved to stand pressures of 8000psi as a matter of course. Dick'd been using that in recent drills, working out ways to set those strengths as anchor and balance for the flyers and fast, agile fighters. Once the initial adjustments were made, it'd been working out very well for the group.

Garth was strong enough to wear a full atmospheric suit full of water and make the dangers of asphyxiating in the air moot, but the reason that'd never been a real option was that, besides strong and relatively invulnerable compared to humans, the Atlantean was also clumsy and uncoordinated on land. Even with nothing but his own weight to balance and his own limbs to maneuver, Garth had always been perfectly capable of falling over his own feet with little provocation. That was something that'd been strongly remedied since Tula's death, although only recently to the point of reliability, and it hadn't been harshly tested until today.

Garth had been through a rough couple of years, starting with losing his lover, Tula, during the Crisis, and more recently being tortured at the hands of Mento and getting put in a weeks' long coma by an attack during the whole Wildebeast Society fiasco. He seemed to've made more of a recovery than could reasonably be asked of anyone. In training, and in the relatively unpressed battles they'd scrambled for since the team's near destruction, Garth had kept focused and unshaken and had proven more effective than even Dick had expected. Roy, the Titan least inclined to offer either untried benefit of the doubt or any compliment to skills that would never match his own, had gone out of his way to voice sarcastic approval to Robin in Aqualad's hearing only a week ago, and Dick thought Garth had taken it in the spirit it was meant.

Maybe it was because Garth performed better when he thought no one was counting on him, or maybe he was just having an off day, or maybe it was just because Pravus Valde was so much freaking faster than anything his size had a right to be, but Garth hadn't been holding up his part of the fight even before the Justice League showed up. Garth's original placement had been a sound decision. Leaving him there after the first couple of contacts had been blindingly stupid.

The Titans hadn't lost wider sanction just because Batman had officially dismissed Dick as Robin. They could still call on the other teams for help and know they'd be likely to receive it. Dick hadn't put the call out when things started going against the team, which was an error he recognized now would've been the most devastating of all, if whoever was manning the JLA conn at the time hadn't been paying attention. He suspected he had J'onn J'onnz to thank for his ability to be worried about all his teammates' mental states, no matter how much he hated that they'd needed the assist. Objectively, the tactician in Dick couldn't help but acknowledge that in a few more unreinforced minutes the Titans would've lost.

All six of them had been getting ragged before the senior team swept into play, but they'd pulled together pretty well under the reprieve. Except for Garth. He'd practically tripped over himself while giving way instead of making a collected withdrawal. Aquaman had said something to him, sharply, in Atlantean, and Garth had attempted to throw himself back into the fray without taking the time to regroup. Mostly, his only contribution after that was to hinder the others' efforts.

Dick should've put Victor Stone in that position. He should've swapped them out thirty seconds into the engagement. Cyborg had the strength and some of the resistance to injury, and had so far proven impossible to faze, and the powerful mechanical legs would've given him the edge of speed and agility to keep ahead of Pravus Valde. Garth could've fallen back to cover Donna.

Garth just had so much to prove, mostly to himself -- that he could make a real place for himself in the surface world, could provide a real contribution to the team even out of his native element. Joey had convinced him he had the potential while talking Garth out of leaving the first time, and Dick had persuaded him to really try for it after Garth's torture at Mento's hands, when the Atlantean was worried even his skills in the water were lost to him.

Dick hadn't thought he'd had it in him at the time to care enough about anything to be persuasive, but Garth had scared him into it that night, talking about how he'd defied his King's wishes in returning upworld while Mera was still missing and had no place in Atlantis, how he'd lost his ability to interact with the minds of the ocean dwellers and had no place in the wider sea, how Tula had died right in front of him, and he'd proven a liability to the team, and he had nothing to offer anywhere and so was going to take himself off to himself for awhile, and they weren't to think anything of it if they didn't hear from him.

That night had been -- odd. Intense. But in the end Garth had listened to him, and agreed to stay. Dick had asked for trust, and been given it, and today he'd let Garth down. It was his job -- any leader's job -- to make sure the ones with something to prove weren't given opportunities to hurt themselves or others by trying too hard in the wrong ways. To make sure the ones with barely budding confidence weren't put in positions where they were guaranteed to fail.

Garth had trusted Dick when he hadn't even trusted himself. There was no way of knowing how Dick's mistakes of the day were going to affect Garth's tentative, painstakingly constructed faith in himself. That Dick was almost more disturbed by that particular failure than at endangering his team was just one more screw up to add to the list.

Dick clamped a pillow over his head with a groan, then tossed it off the bed in self-disgust as he rolled over again. Lying here in the dark getting pissed off at yourself is really helping matters, isn't it, Grayson? It was stupid, yes, thank you, Bruce, but he didn't feel up to imitating Roy at the moment to vent the mood, and he'd be damned if he just froze it out like some people he knew would--

He spent another few minutes having it out with his inner Batman, but it really didn't work as well as it had even a few months ago. He'd gotten a little too old for the exercise of telling himself it was Bruce -- who didn't, couldn't, understand the Titans -- who would be finding his performance wanting. Then he spent a few more minutes wondering just what the heck he was going to replace teenage defensiveness with in his coping arsenal. Then he rolled over and threw some clothes back on.

He'd checked on everyone at least once already, but he needed to do a last pass by the control room and thank Victor for his tirelessness, after the day they'd had, in taking the first watch. As he walked through the echoing metal halls, he catalogued the few responsibilities that couldn't wait for morning. He needed to set the watch roster, and run an anti-surveillance sweep, since the Tower'd been left completely unattended for hours. He needed to spy a little, and make sure Roy really did go to bed, and not out to a rave, when he got tired of the bag. He needed to see if there was any word on Garth, yet, and if he was back Dick needed to talk to him, at least a little. Enough to keep him from packing his things during the night and leaving a note to say goodbye, although that didn't fall entirely into the category of responsibilities, did it, Grayson?

He needed to sit every member of the team down and talk to them, individually and as a group, but that definitely wasn't on the agenda for the night. He hadn't been the only one making stupid mistakes today, and it could so easily've cost them more than humiliation in front of their respective senior partners. A team of warriors -- friends or no, almost-family or no -- couldn't survive long composed of half-hearted, half-committed members.

But he couldn't keep from asking himself just how much of his own heart was left in the Titans, anymore. He couldn't imagine his life without the work, but maybe Wally had the right idea. The Kid Flash had made a life for himself in his own city, outside the costumed circles, and since his mentor was lost in the Crisis he'd moved into the Flash uniform and been determining his own agenda on an international stage. Despite himself, Dick was beginning to wonder if all the original members might be better off following Wally's example, and taking whatever brand of hiatus suited them. Despite himself, he was beginning to wonder if that didn't apply with added emphasis to himself.

It made it difficult to work up a strategy to bring the rest of the team back around.

He was too tired to do complex thinking, even if he'd wanted to have that serious a conversation with battle-weary teammates. And he recognized that thought as complete avoidance. When the hell had all his ways of dealing and not-dealing with things become so utterly transparent? People were supposed to have blind spots about their own coping mechanisms, blast it.

He wanted to turn around and go back to his room and go to bed. Instead, he hit the code for the door and stepped into the control room. "Hey, Vic."

"Robin." Stone's metal-accented face rarely looked actually cheerful, except maybe when Gar was making a desperate effort for it, but the glance he shot at his arriving leader was positively grim.

Which was unsurprising. The man had a good mind and a sharp eye, and it wouldn't take his genius to figure out how wrong -- how fundamentally wrong -- things were going with the team, or that they'd been in completely unnecessary mortal danger today.

"Everything's quiet. Got a confirmation from the Martian Manhunter that Pravus Valde is secure, and the Newark PD's got the human creeps in custody. There's a private message for you, too. I didn't come get you because it's marked low priority."

Which meant Stone had tried to contact him and discovered his leader had shut his intercom off. Without even knowing the final status of the combatants. Wonderful.

Batman would never send him a private message through JLA channels. It was probably Superman, being nice, offering a chat from one leader to another. He'd never lost by listening to Clark's polite, carefully-phrased advice, but he wasn't in the mood to even think about it at the moment. Tomorrow would be soon enough for that.

"Thanks. I'll check it when I come on watch." He sat down at one of the other consoles and began manually reviewing the security logs. "Is everyone down for the night?"

"More or less. Nobody's gone out, and Aqualad got back about an hour ago. He's the only one still moving around." A metal finger tapped a couple of indicators -- lights and movement were showing in the gym most convenient to the pool.

Dick finished with the logs, and posted the schedule he'd made in his head on the walk up with a quick clatter of keys. He's been back for an hour. "Well, hopefully everyone'll get some sleep."

"Yeah... Robin?" The serious eyes were on him as he got up and, if the voice hesitated, there was nothing reticent in the tone. It sounded as if in saying his name Victor had come to a decision.

Dick leaned back on his hands against the edge of a console and offered a tired, serious smile. "Will I be able to convince you I'm not blowing you off, if I tell you I'd much rather have this conversation tomorrow?"

Victor blinked.

"You pay attention, and you're a strategic thinker, and I'm guessing you want to talk about what went wrong today, and about what's been going wrong with the team in general."

"Good guess." Victor shook his head, then turned it into a nod, agreeing to the rain check. As emphasis, not disagreement, he added, "We need to talk."

"I agree. Completely. But I need to decide what I think about a few things before I try to talk to anyone else. Let me sleep on it."

"All right." Stone glanced away, eyes flickering over the monitor boards, then turned his chair around and stood up. "One thing right now."

Dick straightened out of his lounge, acknowledging the man's seriousness.

"What happened... that wasn't Garth's fault."

"I know that." Dick almost closed his eyes, but nodded under Victor's level gaze and sighed quietly instead. "Believe me. I don't blame him."

Stone's jaw hardened at the light stress on the last word. "It should've been me, in there." He shifted in a way that indicated he'd be pacing, if metal legs didn't make such a production of it. "You need to tell me right now, if there's some reason you'd rather risk lives than trust me--"

"Whoa." Dick raised a hand and Victor stopped, but his face was intent. "This is one of the things we need to talk about, and plan for before the next time out. But don't think it's that. Trusting you isn't even a question. I made a mistake -- well, quite a few, but that was definitely one of them. I know I have to reevaluate the positioning, it's one of the things I've been thinking out, but don't think--"

It was Victor's turn to raise a hand. "I got you. I just needed to make sure we were on the same page."

The page where Robin made critical tactical errors and the Titan's plank owners were flaking out. Right. "I think we are." The idea of talking to Stone, specifically, seemed like a very good idea on a larger scale, as well. He didn't have the baggage that seemed to be interfering with Dick's ability to see things. If Dick asked him for his objective evaluation, Stone would be no-nonsense and businesslike, and he wouldn't be too caught up in protecting Dick's feelings to point out the boneheaded mistakes.

Victor looked at him for a minute, then nodded and sat down. "Okay. But, hey-- you might wanna check on him." The silver fingers waved at the still-bright indicators for the pool and gym. "He didn't look too great when he came in."

"What did he say?"

"Nothing. He didn't come up."

Dick hesitated, evaluating the tone behind the suggestion. None of them were exactly bouncing, after the day they'd had, and he found he was prepared to be extremely defensive if Stone were using the suggestion to allude to the special interest he had in Garth. He and Garth barely knew what the hell they were doing, yet, and they certainly didn't need to be Tower gossip. Dick knew their whatever hadn't influenced his fighting decisions, that he was perfectly capable of looking at Garth as a team member first -- it was all he'd been doing for the last hour -- but he'd just been waiting for someone else to suggest it had.

There was nothing remotely insinuating in Victor's voice, though, and the gathering over-reaction subsided. Victor just sounded concerned, and Robin should be the one to talk down a teammate -- any teammate -- he'd put in a position that'd have anyone strung out.

"I'll walk down there. Later."

"Yeah. Night."

--

Dick slowed as he approached the closed doors of the gym. The walls weren't soundproofed in the workout areas of the new Tower, and something that wasn't the lap of water or the shush/clink of exercise equipment was tickling faintly at his ears. Garth wasn't generally the kind to get mad because he was frustrated or upset, so he wasn't usually found punching or grunting his way to calm. There probably wasn't anything in the Tower Garth could let himself get wound up and let loose on, actually, without wreaking major havoc. As many years as Garth had been with the team, and Dick was still registering some of this stuff.

He laid his palm on the side of the door, suddenly unwilling to intrude, something in him counseling retreat as he struggled to place the sound. A bare whisper of speaker-hiss, an instrumental piece, barely audible to human ears, that was --

God. Oh, god. There was no actual time when he could handle this, none, but tonight he really, completely, could not deal with this at all, he just--

Garth was playing an arrangement from Valse Fantaisie in B minor.

--

The summer before his senior year, before a bullet from Harvey Dent had prompted Bruce to deny Dick's partner status, before the years' long estrangement with his foster father, before the future had stopped spreading around him like a ripe orchard waiting for him to pluck his every desire, he and Joey had done what thousands of other seventeen-year-olds did. They'd thrown their combined body weight in snacks into a hand-me-down car (from Roy, from a grateful almost-victim, actually, since hand-me-downs to either of them would involve Jaguars and Porches, and that was no way to blend) and gone on wandering trips through New England and down the Atlantic seaboard, visiting college campuses. In mid-July, Joey's mother Adeline Kane had arranged for them to spend a long weekend at Juilliard.

Ballanchine himself was of course long gone from the world of ballet, but the school where'd he'd left his mark, blending modern techniques into the ancient disciplines and creating something brilliant to renew the devotion of a changing world to the art, was still world renowned. Under the genius of Martha Hill, who'd developed the program through unbroken decades as ballet master until her death at ninety-four, Juilliard had come to be considered by the knowledgeable as without par in North America. To say that competition for places in the dance program was fierce was a bit like saying the Joker was eccentric, or Wonder Woman was attractive.

Their student tour guide had fixated instantly on Joey, obviously recognizing which of them was the hopeful. Dick supposed the eye for the body-discipline of a true dancer was as prevalent at Juillaird as the eye for a martial artist was among costumes. She'd spoken eloquently of the virtues of the current faculty and the curriculum, almost quoting from the brochures about "training in every aspect necessary to make a professional" and "transitions from studio to stage," but with an undeniable enthusiasm. She'd freely admitted to getting drummed out of the primary program during her third term but had emphasized -- unprompted, to his mild amusement -- to Dick that there was still a place at Juilliard for those with a love for the art of dance who would never be professional. It was one of the few breaks in her focus on Joey. There was a common culture they shared that Dick wasn't a part of, and they'd recognized it in one another instantly. Dick would always have a recognizable accent in that world.

Joey's mother had requested a sign-proficient guide, and the girl had been perfectly fluent, so Dick'd been able to hang back and let them talk ballet at a level entirely over his head. Joey'd been animated in a way Dick had never seen him, fingers flashing and eyes dancing everywhere at once, blond head bobbing every time the guide laughed. She'd taken them on the full tour, through the famed Alice Tully Hall with its magnificent acoustics and unique Theodor Kuhn pipe organ, the Lila Acheson Wallace Library with its 68,000 plus musical performance and study scores -- they'd almost lost Joey there, and the guide seemed absolutely shocked to learn his specialty was the music itself, not the dance -- and eventually on to the classrooms and dormitories.

As they'd walked the Lincoln Center halls past the dance studios, they'd seen small groups of young people stretching and warming up. The guide explained that they ran clinics for pre-admission hopefuls during the summer term, and the place was full of young, serious faces and ungainly bodies that became something almost more than human once they started moving. The body form imprinted by ballet was hard to appreciate while at rest, if you didn't know what the lumpy muscles could create with a flex of ankles. In a broad, large-windowed studio near the end of the hall, they'd found a group of young men just beginning stretches amid the rays of late afternoon sunlight. The guide had asked if they wanted to stand in for a session.

Joey'd instantly started asking whether leotards could be borrowed, or should he run back to the car, or wait, his shoes... then belatedly cast Dick a questioning look. Dick had waved him on and opted out with a grin. He knew he could hit the basic moves well enough to put on a decent showing, but not in a group where ballet was the ruling passion of every member's life. Whatever ineffable quality changed movement to art in dance was beyond him. It wasn't a bitter thought -- what they found in the studio he found in the air between trapeze grips. He could enjoy watching anyone giving themselves up to their gifts.

He'd taken a seat in a back corner with a few other watchers who looked like parents, smiling after his friend as the tour guide performed introductions. She'd grinned and backed off, too, after a couple of minutes, once she saw how easily Joey made himself understood without benefit of formal signing.

That day had impressed itself on his memory in photographic detail. Joey'd shown during the practice exercises, and if he wasn't as good as the best of the others it was by a margin Dick didn't have the subtlety to discern. He'd found himself amazed -- it wasn't that he hadn't known Joseph Wilson was a man who made art of everything he attempted, it was just that the other dancers probably devoted the majority of every day to their practice while Joey was out helping to keep the world safe enough for them to practice in. Maybe it was a strength of inspiration from the life he'd lived, but he could still match them.

And he'd looked so incredibly happy, relaxed in a way he never was during fight training, even if his body moved with the same fluid precision.

After about an hour, most of the boys had returned to the floor, stretching lightly to stay warm while each took a turn at an individual, solo routine they'd apparently spent the last month working on. Joey had taken his own turn without hesitation, smiling and making a gesture that wasn't sign, that the ballet master seemed to instantly understand. He'd taken his position just like those before him, standing perfectly still, eyes closed, as brief speaker-hiss moved into something more.

Then the music had risen, and Joey'd begun to move.

Dick had been to fully orchestrated ballet performances before, in Gotham when a particularly elite troupe visited the city and even at the Metropolitan Opera House when he'd been young enough that Bruce brought him on every business trip. He'd even seen the Valse Fantaisie in B Minor performed, more than once. Nothing had prepared him for the experience of watching Joey dance the male lead from a distance of meters. Maybe it was the contrast to the violence that usually surrounded Joey giving his all to movement, or maybe it was the visceral empathy that bound warriors who'd risked everything together, or maybe it was the sheer, transcendent joy with which Joey moved, but Dick'd known few moments in his life that'd been so crystally, uncomplicatedly perfect.

It'd touched something deep in his brain, where the geometry of movement had slipped into the unconscious as his ancestors moved onto land, and it'd touched something that was, just, beyond his ability to understand, the place humans hadn't quite evolved into. He'd realized he'd never truly felt what was so casually called the "appreciation of art" before in his life, and if he'd had attention enough to think of anything else, the Bat-disciplined Robin would've been ashamed at Dick being so unguardedly and whole-heartedly captivated by anything.

He'd almost slept with Joey that night. Joey would've, because they were friends and because Dick wanted him, and there would've been nothing shallow or wrong about it, not with what was already between the two of them, as friends and fellow Titans.

But Dick knew with certainty that, while he might enjoy a night with Dick, Joey's real interest was in women. Whatever spark took people from affection and pleasure to romantic love went in only one direction for his friend, and that was unquestionably toward the female of the species. Any night they spent together could only be friendly exercise, and Dick's heart couldn't've borne that.

He could've fallen in love with Joey that night. If Joey were just a fraction less forthright in his expressions, just the fraction less insightful that would've allowed him to misunderstand Dick's feelings, Dick could've fallen hopelessly and irrevocably in love with him, if they'd been intimate after that bright day when everything honed to violence had been transformed, in a breathing soul, to beauty.

Joey, of course, had seen what Dick never could've said. Dick had been sitting on the lower bed of the tiny dorm room they'd been loaned, and Joey had looked into him in a way that made Dick believe the man almost didn't need his powers to deserve the name Jericho. Then he'd straightened, affection and a fleeting wisp of apology in his eyes.

Joey had smiled, the glowing joy of the day still marking his face, and had kissed him, fingers light on the side of his face, and then he'd left the dorm, giving Dick his privacy and, probably, going to find the pretty tour guide. After everything that'd happened since, possession and blood and horror, that was the moment Dick held onto. A soul that loved every moment and every friend to the absolute limits of possibility. That was who Joey was.

The memory of that day was one of a handful that could still wake Dick with a gasp in the middle of the night, sharp, bright pain cutting through his chest, burning with grief that the world was so much poorer, that it'd lost something so beautiful. Joseph Wilson was gone, and with him a basic innocence of heart that so few could sustain, much less through so much. Joey's was a spirit that could've changed the world if he'd only had a chance.

Dick brought his hands up to rest flat against the cool metal of the gym door and forced himself to push away. That routine from the Valse Fantaisie had turned out to be one of Joey's favorites, and they'd all gotten to watch him dance it at one time or another in the year after their trip to Juilliard, though Joey had decided against both that school and university all together.

After Tula died in the Crisis, when Dick had so barely convinced Garth to stay with the Titans despite his grief, Joey had provided the most significant part of the persuasion. Since joining the team, Joey'd become friends with Garth so unobtrusively that Dick hadn't really noticed it until then. Joey'd been such a complex person, and he'd connected with Garth in a way that had little to do with the way he'd befriended the others, or the aspects of himself he'd allowed the others to see and understand.

Dick'd been on the verge of giving up, as Garth was yet again giving his well-reasoned presentation of why -- with Tula's death a grief too new and profound to be mentioned -- he'd decided he had no place on an upworld fighting team, when Joey interrupted.

He'd offered to teach Garth to dance.

As a practical measure it'd been brilliant. Joey was an excellent and patient teacher, with a thorough knowledge of and love for his subject. If Garth felt as if he didn't know his own body on land, Joey believed there was no better way to reacquaint them. On a personal level, Dick had seen an instant change in Garth. His grief was something he'd kept private, a shadow in his eyes he never spoke of, but his interactions with his teammates had eased noticeably. When Wally made some comment that proved he still believed loyalty to one thing precluded any acceptance of another, Garth refused to be hurt, and when Roy made his sarcastic attacks on what he viewed as the easiest target on the team, just because he was Roy and he could, Garth refused to rise to the argument.

At the time, Dick'd only noted it as a positive for the team. He hadn't been particularly close to Garth then, but he hadn't wanted to see him leave, especially not in self-assumed disgrace. Especially not with what he remembered, from a long-ago conversation in the breakers outside Oliver Queen's beach house, of what Garth would be facing in trying to make a life for himself in Arthur's capital. In retrospect, he could see how spending hours of precise, unhurried physical exertion with someone with whom foreign language and culture were a non-issue compared to the universal simplicity of kinesics, had done as much for Garth's confidence in relating to upworlders as the mastery he'd slowly gained over his body had for his confidence as a member of the team.

Dick'd been invited to watch them, once, by Joey with Garth's permission, when torn cartilage in his chest had forced him into several weeks of increasingly grumpy inactivity. Dick'd thought it would make a good distraction from pain and boredom. He couldn't've known how right he'd be.

Joey'd obviously shared his favorite music, and Dick had felt his heart lighten just from hearing the first bars. The moves had been drastically different from his Juilliard performance, something unique Joey had choreographed for the specific purpose, and were much less intricate. The two of them together, though, had been amazing.

If he'd been watching two people practicing kata, he would've seen every delicate adjustment the more proficient member made to keep in synch with the lesser. In dance, all he'd seen was two bodies moving in seamless compliment. The moves themselves were basic even to him, but with that music and Joey's inspiration evident in every minute detail... He'd been entranced.

Garth would never be able to make art of the movements, but his balance and ease of motion had increased geometrically from before the lessons. And those incredibly powerful legs that could propel him across oceans ahead of the fastest ships had served him well in the jumps. Some of the world's most elite dancers had been celebrated for an ability to visibly defy gravity in the float of a leap. That quality was Garth's for the price of skill enough to flow into the landings. He'd looked as if he were in his natural environment when he was in the air, buoyancy no human could match adding a magical surreality to the routine.

Garth's face had been transformed. With his focus absolutely internal, concentration consumed by the fine control of every muscle, he hadn't had awareness left for the self-consciousness that usually drew lines around his eyes. He'd been lost in the music the way Joey was when he danced alone, and Dick had felt the same primal and transcendent wave of attraction he'd felt for Joey at Juilliard. He'd never noticed Garth before that -- never noticed him, the tempting lines of hips and shoulders, the fineness of barely-pored skin, the expressiveness below the surface of wide violet eyes.

He'd been with Kory at the time, and entirely in love with her, and had known she wouldn't hold his reaction against him. He'd let both his friends know how much he'd appreciated watching them, and then firmly set thoughts of the more intense, more personal affects of the performance aside.

That night he'd asked Kory, only half teasing, if she'd let Joey teach her how to dance. She'd laughed her sunlight and honey laugh and said it would really be cheating for a ballerina to literally be able to fly.

It'd been months and a lost Princess before he'd let himself remember how it'd felt. It was a lovely memory, and one he didn't want to be thinking about now.

Everything Joey had taught him, Garth had failed at against Pravus Valde. He would never have the balance and control of the surface-born fighters, but after he'd started making mistakes he'd lost focus, and with it all the self-possession he'd gained at Joey's hands. Dick had created the circumstances and the opportunity for Garth to fail, but there was no way to get around the fact that it was Garth who'd done so.

His own reawakened grief aside, the idea of what Garth had to be feeling to be subjecting himself to this made Dick's throat ache. Self-flagellation wasn't normally one of Garth's flaws. He usually just got quiet and withdrawn, and understatedly desperate to make amends. This was Roy-level masochism.

If he opened the door and Garth was dancing Dick wasn't sure if, between grief for Joey and empathy for Garth, he could stand it. While he was still trying to muster the courage to go in, the notes tapered to silence. Relieved and feeling like a coward, he started to turn away. Then the piece began again. Dick sighed and triggered the door.

All the lights were on, in the small gym and in the pool room beyond. Garth was sitting in the center of the mat in the middle of the room, with his arms around his drawn-up legs and his forehead on his knees. He was still in the garish red and blue of his costume, and water trickled slowly from the frizz of his hair.

Remembering what Stone had told him, Dick's chest clenched at the idea of Garth sitting like this for an hour, with the music repeating over and over.

He knew Garth wasn't crying -- he wasn't physiologically capable, and Garth had told him the thick fluid that did protect Atlantean eyes when irritated made an incredible mess in air. If he were doing that, he'd be in the pool. He was just sitting absolutely, deathly still, surrounded by music that meant joy and hope and life.

Knowing it was probably the wrong thing to do, and that he didn't have any right, Dick went over to the sound system and shut the muted strains entirely off. He couldn't stay with it playing, and he couldn't leave Garth alone like this.

When he turned around, Garth hadn't moved. Which wasn't really surprising, since if he'd planned on acknowledging Dick's presence he would've done it when the door opened. With his hearing, there was no way he could've missed it.

Dick stood by the wall as several minutes ticked by, composing and disgarding half a dozen things to say. Reassurance would be pointless -- Garth had messed up, and knew it. Telling him it'd all been Dick's fault, Dick's mistakes, wouldn't be well-received, and seemed somehow self-centered, like dueling with guilts. How could he comfort something when there was no way to make any part of it better...

Finally, he just went and knelt behind the curve of Garth's back, and put his hands lightly on the hard shoulders.

Garth didn't exactly flinch, but there was a faint trembling for a moment, and Dick almost pulled away, feeling helpless and lost. Then Garth stilled, and leaned back into the touch without raising his head. Dick moved closer, pressing his chest to the damp fabric of the uniform and sliding his arms down to curl around Garth's wrists. Garth shivered again, then finally looked up, not turning his head but cutting his eyes back to meet Dick's.

Dick swallowed, and lowered his forehead to rest on Garth's shoulder. He'd known, when he'd heard the music he'd known, but that didn't make it any easier to see a pain so raw it didn't even allow for Garth's habitual, wry self-dismissal. This wasn't the usual internal withdrawal to nurse a wound. This was a bleakness that bound Garth entirely to the present, to cut himself on every sharp-edged thought of failure. Dick pulled him close against him, tightening his hands. He had caused this. It was a gnawing, nasty hollow in his chest.

Garth settled back into him, those faint tremors coming every few minutes at first, then easing away. Dick was prepared to sit there all night, or until some words that could actually help came to him, but after a while Garth dipped a shoulder and shifted around, letting his knees fall beside him, and Dick made himself sit back.

It was a surprise when Garth kissed him, but it was light and slow, with welcome rather than hunger behind it, and Dick returned it gently, not quite brave enough to open his eyes. He'd learned that physical contact couldn't fix things with Garth the way they had with Kory, but maybe this was the exception. With his arms wrapped around Garth's shoulders and the light brush of lips against his, it felt something like healing.

His hand had slipped up Garth's arm when he turned, and Dick dropped it to slide around the curve of his waist when Garth began to slowly deepen the kiss.

Garth's mouth withdrew, and there was a soft gasp that didn't sound as if it had anything to do with pleasure. Dick's eyes widened and he jerked back.

"You're hurt!"

Garth's expression was odd, his eyes closed and lips pressed together. Whatever Dick had touched couldn't've hurt that much, could it-- then Garth straightened away from him and opened his eyes. "It's only a bruise. I'm sorry." He gathered himself to really pull away, and Dick's hands went after him, fingers trying to hold on and not touch anything that might be painful at the same time.

"Hey, no." Dick thought his own stomach was going to turn itself inside out. He'd been angsting all afternoon about how he'd made Garth feel, never even allowing himself to think his mistake could've resulted in-- And Garth was apologizing for messing up, when it never would've happened if-- "God, Garth, don't. Wait." The tense muscles stilled under his hands, but Garth had managed to turn away and showed no interest in reversing course. This is not about your guilt, Grayson. Don't make this worse.

Dick made his hands stop grabbing, and calmed his voice. "It's really, really not your fault. I just didn't realize--" With the way Superman and Wonder Woman had cleaned Pravus Valde's clock, he hadn't even considered that he could've really hurt Garth, despite all the knocking around. He began rubbing small, light circles where his hands were resting on shoulder and back. "I didn't realize you'd been injured. What counts as 'just a bruise'?"

Garth didn't make any response for a long minute, but he relaxed slightly under Dick's hands, then stiffened sharply. Finally he sighed a little, and got clumsily to his feet. One elbow stayed tucked close, guarding the side Dick had accidentally touched. Dick decided that waiting for Garth's lead had been the most effective tactic so far tonight, and stuck with it.

Somehow, at the moment, patience wasn't very difficult.

When Garth slowly turned around, Dick winced, but got rid of it before Garth looked up, and when he did Dick was glad he'd managed. Garth didn't look as upset as he had at first, but this was possibly worse. His face was perfectly still, and those eyes were resigned and unhappy and looked almost as if he was bracing himself for something . He had a purplish-red mark on the side of his face, a fortunate inch too low for the swelling to affect his eye. It curved into his hair above his ear.

Dick raised his hand and Garth just watched it, not moving a muscle. When Dick touched his jaw with gentle fingers, the under-the-skin tremor came back. Garth's mouth and eyes tightened, and he shot Dick a weird, searching look before turning jerkily away. "Don't," he said roughly. "Don't -- what are you--"

"Did that hurt? Garth, you did get checked out, didn't you? If it's that bad you could have a concuss--"

"What are you doing?" The question was angry and ragged, and Dick watched Garth's fingers curl and then convulsively open. "Don't-- I can't-- Is this pity?"

"Pity?" Ah, man. "Garth, the only thing I pity you for is having a leader who could've killed you today." It couldn't be blown confidence or bruises, could it? Of course not.

"What?!" Garth turned around, a little wild-eyed. Dick hadn't seen him this upset in a long time. "What are you talking about? I let--"

"I dropped the ball today, I sent you to-- I left you to do something you couldn't've done--"

"You what?" Garth was genuinely startled, enough to shake him out of the intensity of his self-disgust, but it only lasted a moment. "Why don't you just say it like it happened? I failed, Dick. People were counting on me to carry my weight in the fight, and all I did was get in the way. I'm a liability, still, after everything. I let--" He turned back around, and the slightly raised tone of voice faded. "I let you and everybody else down. You know that. Why are you--" He made a jerky gesture with the hand that wasn't curled around his ribs. "Why--" He made a sound low in his throat, frustration and something worse, and Dick really wanted to touch him again.

When he didn't say anything else, Dick cleared his throat and asked evenly, "I don't know it. And why what? I really don't understand." Another long minute, and still nothing. "Why aren't I mad? Because I'm the one who let you down. Why am I mother-henning you over bruises? Because the last time you got hurt there was a month when noone knew if you were ever going to open your eyes again." Still nothing, although Garth's shoulders shifted a little. "Garth, I don' t have any more whys."

"I caused your team to look like incompetent children today." There was something biting and wrong under the words, still mixed with that unusual trace of anger. "We had to be rescued! How much respect and influence did we lose with the other meta teams today? What's it going to mean to our enemies, how much trouble have we invited, now that we've shown ourselves to be this weak?"

"I'm not worried about--"

"How can you not be worried about the safety of the people you're responsible for!? Do you really care so little about the people under your command, the people who trust you, that you're indifferent to this? This isn't just about image, this was a material failing. We didn't just look weak, we were weak! And it's because I--"

"Garth--" It clicked, finally, and Dick winced in a double dose of empathy. He thought he knew where this was coming from, what Garth was feeling, because he'd felt and done the same thing too often. But this was the first time he'd realized how Kory must've felt, when he'd gotten upset and started channeling a Bat-reaming.

Something in his voice stopped the gritted words. Garth breathed loudly for a minute, and wiped one of his sleeves over his face. Dick heard him swallow before he turned around.

The stillness melted when Garth looked at him, and something tearing and spooked and completely confused ate the acid out of the violet eyes. Dick watched the mental reset, and then as Garth's expression moved through searching and worried, to guilty and shocked, to the wild shame that would precede a gushing, earnest apology.

Dick closed his eyes in absolute mental exhaustion. He was fairly sure that if Garth apologized to him at this precise moment, standing there with his bruised face and raw eyes, he would start screaming. "Can we--" He raised a hand without opening his eyes when Garth made a pre-speech noise. "Can we just not do this right now? Please?"

Then Garth's hands were touching him, his arm and his cheek, and it felt like an apology even without the words, but then they slipped on around his shoulders and Dick decided he would take it. He returned the hug with careful hands, resting his cheek on Garth's shoulder and feeling him breathe. God, he would take it.

--

They'd been sharing Garth's bedroom more nights than not, lately. They eventually walked tiredly that way in unspoken consensus, Garth moving carefully but not really having trouble. Dick left him long enough to run up to the control room and change the watch roster. His opinion of Victor's Stone's perceptiveness went up another notch when the man gave him a look equal parts sympathy and irritation when Dick told him Garth was injured and off the active duty list. It would definitely be a good idea to have a long talk with Victor. Soon.

When he got to Garth's room, Dick found him just inside the door, leaning against the wall and looking far enough away that he might've spent the night there. Sticking to what had worked, Dick put his hands on his shoulders and brushed a light kiss over his lips and, once he had Garth's attention, started helping him strip out of his costume. Garth let him, but kept his face turned away in embarrassment. Dick finally got a view of what constituted "just a bruise," and bit his lip without comment.

It looked like a glancing blow had run along the bottom edge of his rib cage, each bone leaving a darker streak of purple in the red contusion, and found purchase in the soft spot between ribs and hip. That bit looked like it hurt. There was another mark on the inside of his left forearm, a defensive streak that curved to match the way Garth's arm had turned in a block. All three were on the same side, and could've been the result of the same contact. Dick wondered if that's why he'd missed it happening. He wanted to ask if it'd been at the beginning of the fight, if that was why Garth had lost focus, but Garth wouldn't take it as a mitigating factor, so it really didn't matter.

As he'd done down in the gym, Dick raised a slow hand to touch the skin beside the injury, and Garth went very still and watched him. When Garth made no move to pull away, Dick rested both hands lightly on his hips, letting them stroke lightly over skin on their way.

Minute ripples of superficial muscle followed his touch, Atlantean chill bumps, then they suddenly went to a whole-body tremor as Garth made a small, strangled sound. Dick looked up. Garth had his face turned away, obviously struggling with something.

"Am I hurting you?" He didn't think so, but--

"No! Pallais, no. Just--" His voice dropped, and Dick felt him gathering to pull away, like he'd done before. But if he wasn't hurting him, and Garth knew he wasn't angry for the so-called failure that'd resulted in the injury, why did he suddenly look so intensely ashamed?

The penny dropped when Garth shook again, briefly, as Dick's hands trailed across bare skin as Garth pulled away.

It was much easier to catch him and hold on firmly when he could see where the bruises were.

"Don't. Dick, don't--" The words were barely audible, and sounded like they wanted to be angry, but wanted much more not to exist at all. Garth looked like he wanted to disappear off the planet, but his body was moving into Dick's hands, and Dick knew he'd guessed right.

He'd been in too many fights from too young an age to get like this over regular battle dents, but there was more than that going on with Garth today, wasn't there? After the -- thankfully few -- times Dick'd been tortured it'd almost broken him, and been more than he could stand, and exactly what he desperately needed, for gentle hands -- Alfred's or Joey's or Kory's, at different times -- to touch him where the violence of malice had left its marks. Somehow that touch, that soothing contact, could blot out the flash images of hate-filled, leering faces enjoying his pain that were the legacy of isolation and captivity and torture. The gentleness of hands and eyes that wanted nothing from him but that his pain be eased could ... restore... something vital, something like hope or self or faith that the world wasn't all callousness shading to cruelty.

He had really, really failed the team with his decisions today. He should've had a better gauge on Pravus Valde's abilities and what Garth could physically handle. He should've reacted faster and remedied the error, adapted to the situation, before it was too late. Poor utilization of resources, failures in tactics and in judgement, all of those had been his today. The Titans couldn't afford to be ineffective. The stakes were too high at the level they played; too many people were counting on them, and too many lives were usually in the balance. And he was officially beyond caring how wrong it was that what he hated most was making Garth feel like this.

He'd only seen Garth like this once before, and he only remembered it at the moment as new knowledge applied itself to old memories. They hadn't been close enough at the time for it to register. When Garth had gone below to help Arthur search for Mera and help care for Arthur Jr., he'd assured them it would be a brief absence, and he'd kept his word, showing up to turn the literal tide against the Crown of Thorns. He'd been pretty knocked around by the time Dick got to talk to him at the end of that day's fight, too, with a deep stab wound apparently inflicted by one of the things spines. He'd diffidently let them know he was back for the foreseeable future, if they would have him, but without his King's sanction. Arthur hadn't officially forbidden it in a way that would have law enforcement at the Tower door to enforce the Atlantis/US extradition treaty, but he hadn't given his blessing.

With a second Robin working beside the Batman in Gotham, that announcement hadn't made much of an impact. Dick'd more noticed that Joey was worried about Garth than he'd noticed anything wrong himself, and Joey hadn't been willing to say why, but there'd been an undeniable shakiness in Garth's work after that it'd taken weeks to overcome.

That was the point, wasn't it. This wasn't anything as simple as Garth indulging himself in self-loathing because he'd messed up, because he was embarrassed or had stung his pride. He'd won the fight for them the last time. With the insight of recent intimacy, Dick realized the foundling of permanently uncertain status was consumed, then and now, with questioning if he was where he belonged, or if he belonged anywhere.

Had Garth really thought the Titans, that Dick, wouldn't have him after today?

Dick ran his fingers over the smooth face, barely brushing the still-swelling cheek, and Garth let him but still didn't look at him. No, he didn't think it was that serious, despite the level of Garth's distress. Garth was just - shaken. Really, fundamentally shaken, and Dick was back in the zone of never knowing what Garth was thinking, in trying to figure out all the whys.

He'd finally realized, with Kory, that there were some things he'd never be able to really get about a person raised with obligations of honor to a monarchy and a nation, in a warrior culture. Garth had the first in spades, but his "culture" was unique to himself and absolutely unlike Dick's own singular unbringing. Garth had lived in complete isolation from humans of any kind for the first eleven years of his life, and the first relationship he'd known was with a planetary hero and ferociously devoted sovereign of ten thousand nations.

Dick'd been raised to self-discipline by his birth parents and to rigid, self-imposed ideas of obligation by Bruce. He might struggle to meet the standards he'd set for himself in the Batman's shadow, but he knew he couldn't have any idea of the conflict Garth was fighting inside himself. How hard must it be for someone who'd spent childhood utterly without external expectations to reconcile who he was with the burning desire to be a proper Atlantean, and subject, and team member, and hero, when a whole host of people were telling him different things about what he had to do to be worthy of claiming to be any of those things?

He let his hands trail down Garth's neck, onto his shoulders, circling half a dozen times for every inch moved. He wasn't capable of really hurting Garth, even with the injuries, but he'd learned that Atlantean skin was exquisitely sensitive. What in humans was a subcutaneous fat layer was an actual sense organ in the people of the sea. Sharks had the substance in their noses, and it had been speculated by scientists that it functioned as a natural global positioning system, letting them navigate the vastness of the oceans. Garth had confirmed this, but seemed nonplused when asked to explain how it worked -- Dick suspected he understood about as much of the answer as one born blind could understand of sight, but Garth had given it his best effort. What it meant practically was that even the light pressure human fingers could apply was felt intensely, at least when it was done right. Slowly, the struggle left Garth's face, settling into something like numb disbelief.

In recent months, Dick had learned what touches soothed, and what kinds aroused, and how to relax Garth into a dishrag with only a few minutes of slow, precise stroking. He used every detail of that carefully hoarded knowledge now. Garth kept almost pulling away, his face turned and his breath coming in little choked noises, until Dick noticed that the physical struggle, at least, stilled when he spoke. So he started talking, and kept talking as Garth hung his head, breathing hard but evenly. He murmured by Garth's ear, and into the skin of his shoulder, a constant flow of words that had meaning in the moment but wouldn't out of it. He stopped, once, as his hands found the heat of the bruised arm, and Garth straightened with a strangled noise it was painful to hear, even before words followed it in an absolutely ruined voice. Lacerating, self-torturing, and still apologetic words, and Dick caught him close and started talking again, right over Garth until he fell silent again. It was a lesson he wouldn't forget, that providing words to fill the silence could allow Garth not to find his own. It seemed like a good move, when the only words Garth seemed to possess were drenched with a self-hate that couldn't be forgotten if given voice, even after the moment passed. Dick had said a few things like that to himself over the years, and he wouldn't wish them into the memory of his worst enemy.

Garth let him touch, and kept shaking, harder and more frequently until he was wrapped around Dick and just holding on, Dick's hands continuing their rubbing across his back, never still. He didn't stop talking again until Garth eased away. It wasn't the denial or withdrawal of before. Garth's hands slid coolly over Dick's skin until they could take his wrists. Then Garth kissed him, with no other contact between their bodies, deep and intense and with blinding gratitude over-riding the disbelief still in his eyes.

Dick smiled, and tried to communicate whatever return Garth needed for the sentiment. He really would never understand him sometimes. Through all this, Garth had never once wanted to blame or be angry with him. There was just the fear and then the gratitude.

Garth stepped carefully into his tank, that arm automatically guarding his side again against even that slight movement. He was going to be so sore tomorrow, once the muscles involved in those bruises stiffened, Dick knew from his own long history of lumps. He really didn't like the look of the one on Garth's face; it went further across the side of his head than it'd seemed at first, and it was darker than the larger bruises. Garth had probably blocked his side, dividing the force of the blow between his arm and body, but that one on his cheek looked like a clean hit. At the very least he had to have a hell of a headache.

"You never said -- did you get checked out?"

"There -- wasn't time."

"But couldn't Arthur--" He saw the long muscles immediately start to tense up again, and gave it up. He knew instantly that it'd been a tactical error, mentioning Arthur at the moment. It probably wasn't any more fun to be reminded of a Royal telling-off than of the Bat variety. Garth's eyes had looked fine, and he hadn't been acting dazed -- well, any more dazed than being lost in self-recriminations could explain. A solid night's sleep was probably the best thing for it, anyway.

"It isn't necessary, Dick. There's nothing that would -- warrant it. Really." There was something weird in his voice, again, like he was bracing himself, like he'd done in the gym; something worried and a little pleading. He got out of the tank with a too-obvious attempt to prove his words, and Dick resolved not to say anything else. Garth didn't need to be making himself hurt worse by trying to prove something to Dick.

Garth got in bed without drying off. They'd discovered that, with the right sheets, it wasn't unpleasant as long as they were both naked. Garth lay very still, not looking up, the fact that he was in it as much request as he was apparently able to make. Dick smiled and wrapped himself into the hard body, too quickly and thoroughly to prevent any protest. This was the most familiar thing so far tonight -- a battle-injured lover who wanted to be held but was too stubborn to ask for it, or even accept it if given a choice. Garth's arms didn't hesitate in curling around his back and pulling him close, after a bare instant of trembling surprise and restraint.

One of the great things Dick'd discovered about having super-human lovers was that he could lay all over them, without having to worry that he would constrict breathing or put limbs to sleep. He indulged in the benefit with shameless thoroughness.

Garth's mouth found his, lightly, and then with an invitation to passion. Dick thought that was a profoundly bad idea -- he was sore and Garth was hurt and they were both exhausted. If the kiss had been demanding it would've been easy to deny it, but this was more like the weird, almost frantic giving that he usually only got from Garth after they'd disagreed about something.

God, he was still apologizing. Dick didn't think he could take it, but knew what Garth would think if he didn't accept, and that Garth still wasn't willing to hear his own apology. It made him ache, but he couldn't bring himself to pull away.

It took about two minutes for the urgency to fade, and maybe one more for Garth's struggling, slowly-blinking eyes to stop opening. Dick kissed the corner of his mouth, then lay his own head on the pillow, their foreheads almost touching. He stayed like that, one hand tracing idle circles on Garth's side above the bruise while his mind returned to smoking its tires about a dozen things at once. It seemed too soon for it, like much less than an hour had passed, when Garth's breath started coming faster and cooler against his cheek.

He nudged Garth with his jaw, and watched the violet eyes drift open from a distance of inches. Garth would wake up on his own before he was in real distress, but not before he'd given himself a sore throat, rasping increasingly dry air across tissues made for saturation. Garth gave him a sleepy, dopey smile, and a brush of lips on his forehead, and rolled neatly off the bed into the tank.

Dick had watched Garth sleep before, but as the long arms and legs moved awkwardly, taking almost a minute to settle, he wondered for the first time if water and glass and a thin mat were enough to make a comfortable bed, or if Garth spent every night in the Tower in the Atlantean equivalent of a blanket spread on asphalt. He curled himself around what had been Garth's pillow, and reached a hand down to rest tentatively on a bare shoulder. Garth made a small, happy, flex of muscles and Dick smiled, about to drift off himself.

He was almost asleep when a few of the thoughts spinning in his brain met in a brief moment of collusion, and Dick murmured bemusedly, "If I just decided to chuck this whole superhero/leader thing, and got an apartment somewhere and became an idle dilettante, would you still let me visit?" The idea of being a transient in the Tower was surprisingly attractive, at least at the moment, if he left the idea of distance from Garth out of the equation.

He knew Garth wouldn't have trouble hearing him if he wasn't already asleep, but he blinked blurrily and curled tighter into the pillow, not expecting an answer either way.

Garth usually had no trouble projecting his voice coherently through water, either, but what came back was a long, sleepy mumble.

"Hmm?"

Garth drew his hands in and pushed himself far enough up to clear his face, and Dick wished he'd stayed quiet, until Garth looked at him. "I said, make sure there's at least a river there, when you're picking a city. And that the apartment floor can support a bed." He tapped the wall of the tank and gave another sleepy smile.

Dick wasn't sure who moved first, but they were suddenly in a quick, intense, kiss, wordless communication working for them for once. Garth rubbed his good cheek against Dick's when it let go, then flumped back into the water and was promptly asleep.

Dick thought he'd be up longer, now that he had a whole other, unexpected category of things to think about, but he found the racing multi-tracks of his brain all braking over one warm, pleasant thought, letting sleep claim him in the lull. Garth hadn't let him make the apology, but he'd been forgiven anyway. He hadn't lost his faith, after all.

--

"Dick, wake up! You need to get up here!" Donna's voice in Garth's room had Dick scrambling to pull the sheets up, before he realized it was coming out of the intercom.

Instantly alert, he went for his clothes, peripherally aware of Garth starting up from the water. "I'm coming, Donna, what is it?"

"I don't--"

Then Victor's voice interrupted -- Did the man never sleep? -- "Just patch the radio to him, they're repeating it, there's no official report yet."

An announcer saying, "Over to you, John," replaced their voices, as Garth made a very quiet noise and Dick turned to see him struggling to get out of the tank. His arm hadn't held his weight when he'd moved to vault out, and he'd banged his side against the metal-reinforced edge of the glass. He looked about as awful as Dick had expected, now that the bruises'd had time to set.

Dick bit his lip and went to put his hand on Garth's back, rubbing gently for a moment, until Garth could focus through the pain again. "I don't know what's going on, but you're out of it."

"No, I can--" Garth gritted his teeth and gathered himself to climb out, and Dick caught his shoulders, knowing it would have no actual effect except to punctuate his seriousness.

"I know you can, but unless you have to -- Man, Garth, this looks--" He was monitoring the newscast for whatever had caused Donna to wake him in alarm, and Garth stopped trying to get up when he froze.

"...just in from Ethiopia. An explosion, reportedly caused by the costumed criminal known as the Joker, destroyed a warehouse during the early hours of our morning. Noted philanthropist Bruce Wayne was in the vicinity, visiting a Red Cross outpost, reportedly on an inspection of the work his grants continue to subsidize. There are unconfirmed reports that his recently adopted son, Jason Todd Wayne, was killed in the explosion. I repeat, there are unconfirmed..."

Garth's hand was around his upper arm. The strong fingers were the only sensation registering for a moment, until Garth's other hand touched his face, turning it to meet his eyes.

"I-- I have to--" Dick's ears registered the numb words; belatedly realized they were his own.

"I kn--"

He straightened away from his slump against the tank and raised his hands. "I have to--"

"I know, Dick." Garth's eyes were so calm. Dick wondered if he could be calm enough for both of them, just long enough for him to get a hold on the thousand sharp pieces his insides had turned into. Garth touched his face again, then pushed him gently away. "Get dressed. I'm coming with you."




{end}