Sea and Sky XIII:

Fever Dreams/"And Then I Woke Up"

by Dannell Lites

and 'rith



Archive: Ask first, please.
Warnings: M/M slash implication. If this concept disturbs you, read no further.
Fandom: Modern comicsverse. Thirteenth ('rith’s lucky number! ) in the "Sea and Sky" series, the previous parts of which can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/.
Thanks to: Clara, my favorite EMT, for making sure I didn’t screw this up. To Alestar for encouragement. To Dannell for patience. To Carmen just for being her, and also my Muse. To Phil Jimenez for Tempest and to Chuck Dixon for reminding me how much I liked Nightwing. And most especially to Kael for fabulously detailed and helpful beta.
Disclaimer: All characters property of DC Comics. What we have done with them is ours.




Fever Dreams


Much later, it laid out in a clear chain of events. Bruce, hearing my voice and the pain in it, traced the call. He learned I was in D.C., called the nearest hospital for an ambulance, and came down from Gotham like an avenging...Bat. I'm told the cops and paramedics had a hard time getting me into the ambulance; even half-conscious, my defenses were on automatic. They brought me in nonetheless, one cop with a broken nose and one of the parameds nursing a badly wrenched arm, and advised the ER physicians at Georgetown University Medical Center to strap me down. Which they did.

Good thing I was fully unconscious by then.

I don't remember a lot. The doctors pumped me full of drugs--*after* they'd made sure I wasn't already strung out on something, an assumption I can't blame them for--and started fixing me up.

When I woke the first time it was to incredible pounding in my brain and a case of dry mouth from the O2 that went all the way down into my chest. Nasty. I could barely speak and what I *did* manage to say didn’t make any sense. I had a nice moment or two of panic before the doctor came in and reassured me that the disorientation was temporary, I just needed to rest. One hell of a concussion, various lacerations, cracked ribs and the accompanying bruising--"You were very lucky not to rupture anything, Mr. Grayson." Lucky. Right. I felt like I’d been dragged across that proverbial hundred miles of rough road.

They’d found my insurance card and "in case of emergency contact" numbers. Bruce, of course, who was already on his way down; and Barbara.

I can't even imagine what she must have gone through. The nurse tells me she was on the phone nearly constantly until they were able to tell her I'd be all right. Then she called only slightly less frequently. I'm sure the nurse wondered why my girlfriend--had to be that, so concerned!--didn't come to see me. I understood why; between the aftermath of NML, the JLA crisis of the week, and Sarah Essen-Gordon's death at the hand of the Joker, she'd already been overwhelmed. Oh, Babs, I'm so sorry.

The next time I woke, the first thing I saw was a pair of relieved blue eyes. The look in them hit me hard, just like it always did when Bruce let down his masks and let me see--

"Dick," he said. Just my name, like he'd been waiting for me to wake to hear it.

He probably had.

For all his growing coldness over the years, all the pain between us, I never doubted that he cared. It was everything *else* between us that was the problem. Things I couldn't say. Things he couldn't express.

I fought for focus against the cotton in my head. There was too much right now, too close to the surface, and I didn't want to *deal* with him. Not after what I'd been through. What Brian had said. But he was here, and I had to try. "H--."

My tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and without a word he handed me a glass of water. He’d been injured enough times to know what I needed. He stood patiently and gave me a couple of minutes to clear my brain, pushing past the pain for clarity. Tibetan mind tricks, like I’d told Gar. I cleared my throat and started again. "H-hi. Boy, am I glad you got my call--"

"Yes." A pause. "You'll be all right, Dick." Reassuring himself as much as me.

"Yeah." I swallowed again and tried for levity. "See, and everyone thinks hard-headedness is a fault.... Anyway, Bruce, thanks."

There was a lot of intensity behind his eyes. I couldn't quite read whatever was going on there. Relief, and...? "We should move you to Leslie's clinic or even the house; Alfred can--"

In the mansion? With Bruce. Not a good idea, considering. "No, I'm all right here. It'll help--see, I got mugged, and...."

He nodded, tight-lipped, stopping my words. "Of course."

My cover story might fool the rest of the world, but never him. Even the pretense of his acceptance was an acknowledgement all by itself. "Aw, I'll be okay. Nice vacation, pretty nurses fussing over me, no--"

"And your 'mugger'?"

Flat tone. Almost Bat-voice. Of *course* he'd already suspect who'd done this, D.C. was Azrael's town. And the last time he'd seen us together, Nightwing and Azrael had barely been civil toward each other. God, what a mess.

I *couldn't* let this happen. He'd go and...punish...Jean-Paul for Azrael's "crime," and I couldn't allow that. Especially since it'd all been my fault to begin with.

Oh, lord, I can't even think about what I've done to him. Azrael will be all right. But JP...God, I hope Brian can help him. And the only way he'd be able to is if Bruce *stayed away.*

"Please, Bruce--let it go." It took all my strength to meet his eyes and say firmly, "Forget about it. Don't pursue this. I'm telling--" no, better rephrase that! "...I'm *asking* you not to."

His eyes narrowed. "Why are you protecting--the person who did this?"

"Maybe I wasn't the only one who got hurt." More than the truth, there. I could only hope he'd believe that.

His gaze faltered and he turned away, just a bit, and I started to wonder what he really knew. I would've been mortally embarrassed if I hadn't been so worried and flat-out exhausted. After a moment he blew out a breath and said, "Fine."

"Promise?"

*That* was a mistake. He turned back and gave me a *look.* "Yes." After a moment he went on, "Tim is watching Blüdhaven. And if I'm not--needed here, I have to get back to Gotham."

Pride, so much pride. Both of us. "I'm sorry, Bruce."

He nodded sharply and let that concern show again. "All right. I--hope to see you on your feet again soon." He hesitated, just briefly, and went out.

For possibly the first time in my life, I was glad he hadn't tried to touch me.


***


Later that afternoon....

The door opened, and Garth came in.

He was wearing, I noted fuzzily, a suit. A very *good* suit. It looked strange and absolutely wonderful. Really set off his shoulders. Oh, God.

I tried to fight my way into a sitting position, felt a wave of dizziness hit, and then Garth's hand was behind me, adjusting the pillow, helping me up. "T-thanks." God. What could I *say?* I wasn't ready--

"Are you all right?" Garth's voice, low, concerned, but not-- It was the concern of a friend, a teammate. Then, with something more: "I was in the city. Barbara called me."

That made sense. Considering what Babs knew...oh, yeah, that was just about right. Sending Garth was her way of telling me, again, that I'd been an idiot.

I wasn't inclined to argue.

I steeled myself and looked up into purple eyes. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Garth went still; his eyes carefully reflecting nothing. Or maybe there was just too much for even a look to express. He let out a breath, took another, and said gently, "Rest. Heal. This--isn't the time, or place."

"But..."

"Not now. When you're well." Garth hesitated, then nodded. There was something very resolute in his face. "We *will* talk."

No way to know what that meant, except that maybe I had a chance to salvage something after all. If Garth could forgive. I'd have to explain about Jean-Paul. And about why I ran in the first place. Nothing short of brutal honesty would do and Garth was probably right; there was no way I was up to that now. Even if I knew what to say. "Please. There's so much--"

"There is. But not now." Garth's hands held so tight to his sides, not reaching out. "I--I saw Bruce."

"Yeah, I know, I saw him this morning--"

Garth gave me a *look* that made me stop talking. It was a day for it, I guess. "He was here for days, actually. I overheard the nurse. They had to call Security to keep him out of the ICU."

I didn't want to talk about this. "Well, he knows I'm okay, he's gone back to Gotham." Ohhh. I had to wonder-- "Did he--say anything to you? About anything?"

He paused, then said, "Not in so many-- No." He shook his head, dismissing whatever he was going to say next. If I hadn't been so groggy maybe I could have figured it out. "I should go. The nurse was very firm about letting you rest. I'll tell Donna and the others you're mending."

He turned and left, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Unpleasant company, at best.


***


Let me tell you, lying around the hospital may *suck,* but it's great at provoking introspection. Whether you want it or not. And considering how *little* I'd been thinking about what I'd been doing lately, the enforced inactivity was probably a good thing. Long past time to take stock of where I'd been...and where I was going.

Dick Grayson, this is your life.

In the earliest days being Robin was just pure fun. We made a hell of a team, Bruce and I. He with his dark knight image--only an image then, not the reality it is now--and me spouting those awful puns. It seemed the only thing to do against the villains we fought; strange insane creatures who were more pitiful than terrifying, back then. Now there's no laughing at Two-Face, Poison Ivy, the Scarecrow, the Joker. Especially not the Joker.

Somewhere along the line things changed, evolved, as the villains got scarier and so did Bruce. I don't think he changed so much as *emerged,* the hard dark side of him becoming more apparent every day. It was his response to the changing face of Gotham and to the changing faces of those enemies. *My* response mirrored his; it had to. One too many times of being "Robin the Boy Hostage" drove home how serious our jobs had gotten. Deadly serious. So by the time the Titans reformed I had the mask down pat. See, analyze, act. I ended up the leader by virtue of that training, and felt even more that it was the leader's job to stay aloof, stay detached.

Koriand'r changed all that.

We laughed about it a lot, later; the way she chose to learn English. Here was this alien woman, gorgeous, unlike anyone I'd ever seen before, and she was kissing me. Passionately. I'd have to have been *dead* not to respond to that. She woke something up in me, maybe some of that Romany-gypsy-circus brat wildness I'd been suppressing to be a better partner for the Batman. I started to find my own way with her help, once I accepted that I *could* love her--and that was a battle, all right. But finally I did, and we were together, the Titans were working as a team better than ever, and I was still a good partner for Bruce despite a wider gap between us. Even with that, it was good.

Until Kory's sister Komand'r started a civil war on Tamaran, and she and I and Joey went to help sort it out. Turned out the only solution involved Kory's peace-treaty marriage to Karras, a representative of the fractious southern colonies. So Koriand'r, as a good princess of her people, agreed to marry him. And she did.

I don't blame her for it. I *don't.* Her love for me versus the survival of her entire *planet,* and I didn't even have the right to ask her to choose. I hated it, she hated it, and it was all necessary. Part and parcel of being a hero, right? Do what you have to, no matter the cost. Or how much it hurts.

So Joey and I came back from Tamaran, and I was a wreck. The woman I thought I'd love forever was gone, I believed I'd never see her again, and it was really only Joey who kept me anywhere near sane. It sounds strange now, that I went right from her bed to his, but God, I needed him. His empathy, his gentleness and understanding, it was just about all that kept me together.

Joe Wilson was--special. The circumstances were terrible but for a few weeks he became the center of my world. It wasn't just some rebound-reaction to losing Kory, either. I fell for him hard, and I have to believe he felt the same way. Or maybe Joey's heart was big enough to hold me along with everyone else; he was like that. He accepted everything I was and never asked a thing in return.

I was more at ease with him than I'd ever been with anybody. No pressure, no expectation, just love. I'd never...felt that.

In the end, much later, it was that very empathy that caused his death--but I don't like to think about that. I want to remember his kindness and the warmth of his hands on me, a talisman against the dark.

But back then, just as I was learning to appreciate Joey for all that he was, the most unbelievable thing happened.

She came back.

Her marriage, she said, was only a matter of state; and she still loved me, and had chosen Earth rather than a royal life on Tamaran to be with me. I...believed her. I didn't have any choice. Even though I suspect now that wasn't entirely true, I'll never ask. It was all this sidestep rationalization: I couldn't be with her if she were married, so she couldn't be. Not by Earth standards, not for real.

I was torn. I loved her and loved him, and I couldn't bear to choose. Joey made it easy; he kissed me and said, graceful hands moving like water, that he knew I still loved Kory and he couldn't bear to see me so upset, not over this. Over loving both of them. Kory wouldn't have had a problem with that. Tamaranean morality's a lot different than Earth's. And Joey never had a jealous bone in his body. But me, I just *couldn't.* That's me, stupid Dick Grayson, head firmly stuck in the one-faithful-lover mindset. So Joey said that he understood, and he chose to step back, and he said he'd always be there if I needed him.

Oh, God, I wish that had been true!

For a little while it was almost like old times again with Kory, except it wasn't. It turned out something had broken between us I didn't know how to fix. I figured it was just all we'd been through--her on Tamaran, my brainwashing at the hands of Brother Blood--and I tried to hold on because that's what I was *supposed* to do. The right thing, the honorable thing. I think I was trying to prove I wasn't Bruce by doing what he never had. Maybe he never wanted to try. Maybe he never found the right--

By the time I proposed to her things had reached the breaking point. The whole horrible end to the Wildebeest nightmare and Joey's death destroyed the team. The Titans were falling apart, Bruce had withdrawn almost completely into the mask of the Bat, and I was desperate to hold on to something of the old days, better days. Not that I didn't still love Kory as a friend and something more, but the passion had gone out of it. I can't help but think now that awful as it was, it was probably for the best the wedding was interrupted…even though at the time it was just another blow, maybe the worst. Joey was dead, Kory was gone, and while all that was going on Bruce had been broken by Bane. I never even knew until it was too late and after that he refused to let any of us help him. Untouchable.

And after that....

It went from bad to horrible. I wasn't even with the Titans anymore and I’d become totally disconnected from everyone I cared about. It took a long time to fight my way back from that; it took a wretched city that needed me, and a couple of crises where Bruce needed me, and then finally a team that...well, I don't know if the Titans really needed me, but Wally was probably right when he said I needed *them.*

Ha. No "probably" about it. Rejoining the Titans felt like the healthiest thing I'd done in a long while. Even making the 'Haven my home felt like--

Felt like running away.

That's the whole point. It feels like all my life I've been running from something. Away from Bruce to the Titans, and to Kory. Even to Joey when I thought I'd lost her, then after I really *did* to Emily and Miggie and even Helena. Blüdhaven got me away from all of them. But I couldn't resist when the Titans reformed, and Garth....

Garth felt like a place to stop running. And that scared me more than anything else.

Which is totally *stupid!* But aside from Kory--and briefly, Joe--every time I've fallen into a relationship it's been awful. Destructive. And there I went again, doing the exact *same* thing with Jean-Paul. And all because I was afraid--

Of what? Being happy? That's just...twisted.

Unbidden, unwanted, the thin, ascetic voice of Brian Bryan echoed through my mind.

"You fell in love with someone who fell in love with you instead of choosing someone safe...someone who couldn't or wouldn't fall in love with you. And the fear and the guilt are eating you alive."

Funny. All my life I've been trying not to turn into Bruce. The last thing I ever wanted to learn from him was how to shut people out the way he shut me out. Oh, Christ...just *look* at what I've done.

The only question now is, what I was going to do about it.

I could keep running. I could run back to Blüdhaven, quit the Titans, and let myself turn into Batman Jr.--isn't that the *exact* warning Babs had been trying to pound into my thick skull!

Or I could take a chance, maybe my last chance, and try to hold on to something better. If I dared.

God, what irony. Garth dared so much in reaching out to me, letting himself be that vulnerable again. Even after all this time that couldn't have been any kind of easy, not with the way he'd lost Tula and never thought to have anyone like that in his life again. And he told *me*--

Our first night together, he said, "You're the bravest man I know, Dick. You're not afraid of anything." That blinding smile; like a candle in the darkness. "And you lend me part of your courage. You always have."

Yeah. Irony. I did such a good job of lying to myself--Brian was right *again,* damn him--that I fooled everyone else. Garth, I'm not brave at all. I *am* afraid. I'm frightened to death of you.

I'm frightened of reaching out; of asking you to forgive me. Do I even have the *right* to ask? Maybe not. But--

But I'm going to ask anyway.

Please, Garth...lend me some of *your* strength now.

Please.


***


The next thing I knew it was the middle of the night and I couldn't breathe and there were alarms everywhere, must be something wrong oh wait that's *me* with the oxygen mask and the world swimming as the nurse told me to breathe just breathe from the mask and relax--


***


Nothing like a couple of concussion-driven nightmares to liven up your week. I was having flashbacks, hallucinations. I remember obsessing about my hands.

I have the world's ugliest hands. Really. I do. Trust me on this. I was barely four years old when I first began learning to use those hands to grasp an aerial bar and fly. I have large, blunt hands with short fingers. And calluses that rise like mountains from the plains of my palms. My hands are strong like vises and sure, capable of many, many things. Good, reliable hands. But they are not beautiful.

Joey's hands were lovely.

I could so easily picture those hands, long and slender. I could feel them whispering over my body, ghosting down my flesh, leaving passion and desire like a warm summer breeze in their loving wake.

The first time I ever made love to Joey, I hid my hands in shame. Joey coaxed them patiently, tenderly, from out of their hiding place in my armpits and stroked each finger, kissed each callus as if it were a reward for a job well done.

"Beautiful," he insisted.

Speechless, I flinched and shook my head to deny it. He framed my face briefly with those beautiful speaking hands, so different from my own blunt rough-hewn ones. His sea-green eyes shone like brilliant stars in the night sky. I remember shivering.

"Yes," he said again. "Beautiful. They're beautiful because *you* are beautiful. And they are a part of you."

And he made me *feel* beautiful. When he touched me; when he made love to me. And when he let me touch him and make love to him. It healed me to know that regardless of everybody else in my life, there was one person who loved me and wasn't afraid to let me know it.

I imagined he was there, in the hospital with me.

Thinking it was him I squeezed the hand I could feel holding mine and began to fight my way back to consciousness. It was a scary journey, let me tell you. I spiraled down through Bruce's rejections, those stated and never said. I watched my identity as Robin snatched away from me. From there I fell right into the nightmare that was supposed to have been the happiest day of my life: my wedding day. The memory didn't seem to want to let me go no matter how hard I struggled. Trapped and suffocating, I fought back, lashing out with all I had left, hoping and praying that it was enough. My head spun and I couldn't seem to breathe.

But I had to wake up. I had to! I could still feel that hand resting so quietly, with such trust, in mine. Someone I loved was waiting for me. Depending on me. After so many, many failures in my life, I couldn't face the possibility of failing here, too. Gradually, like a drowning man struggling his way to the surface of the sea, I clawed my way back to reality.

And bit my tongue to keep from crying out. The first thing I discovered was that reality hurt like blazes.

But there was still that hand in mine. Someone I loved. I forced myself to focus on that, shoving the pain into a small, dusty unused corner of my mind to be dealt with later. Just the way Bruce had taught me so long, long ago. Carefully, I opened my eyes.

And saw Garth.

Garth sitting awkwardly in the hard confines of a large straight-backed chair pulled close to my bed. Garth, whose sleeping face spoke so clearly of worry and exhaustion it lay like a stamp upon his features. Garth, whose slender, magical hand clutched at mine tightly, refusing, even in the dark abyss of sleep, to let me go.

I hadn't been dreaming after all. Someone I loved...was waiting for me.

My heart leapt into my throat. I swallowed hard. It didn't help.

Like an unfolding, healing miracle here was Garth. Again. Who, like Joey, like Kory, loved me in spite of myself. And who, in return for his love and passion, only wanted to know that he was also loved. I hadn't been able to tell him that simple thing. Or face it myself.

No more running, Dick.

No more.

I squeezed Garth's hand once more in mine, waiting for his eyes to open. Calm descended on me like a warm comforting blanket and I just *knew* what to do. I was committed, now.

And I wasn't afraid any longer.

His eyes opened.


{end act I}

***


"And Then I Woke Up"


"Hi..." I greeted him softly, feeling like ten kinds of fool. Oh, great beginning, Grayson. Just what he wanted to hear, I'm sure. His eyes were guarded when he looked at me. Slowly, he released my hand and started to get up.

"Good," he said, "you're awake. I'll call the doctor."

I shook my head urgently--and then winced as my headache redoubled. Regardless, I didn't want the doctor; I needed to talk to Garth. "Garth, please.... The doctor can wait."

For an instant he froze; didn't move a single muscle. Then he sat down in his chair. Looked at me. Waited.

For all the thoughts that had been running whirling around my head, I still didn't know where to begin. Except to say again, "I'm so sorry."

That resolution was back on his face. "I'd wanted to wait until you were well enough to hear it. And you're not, but I need to tell you anyway--"

I could only imagine what he'd been thinking all this time.

He breathed out and caught my eyes. "One thing, regardless of anything else. Dick, don't ever...shut me out like that again. I can bear anger, or confusion, or whatever other honest emotion you have to give--but when you lie to yourself like that, lie to *me*--even if it were only as friends I can't...tolerate that. It's too--" he faltered, and I could see him struggling with some kind of painful truth. I waited, tried to look encouraging and let him get it out on his own.

When it came his voice was soft and full of too much pain. "Too familiar."

Oh. God.

Of course.

Arthur's temper is legendary and Garth had been on the receiving end of it more than once, occasionally physically, much more often emotionally. For all that, though, what hurt Garth far worse was Arthur's coldness. An unbridgeable emotional distance. And there I'd gone and put that same kind of distance between us.

"I won’t accept that. Not from you, or anyone. Not anymore." He said it flatly, but I heard him fighting with what he really felt.

"You have a right to be angry, Garth," I told him softly. "Every right in the world. I was an idiot."

His expression shifted, reflecting that anger, his lips pinched into a thin white line. He replied so quietly I barely heard him. "...Yes." Then, "I was angry," he whispered, and I could still hear the echoes of it in his quiet, firm voice. That and a rising shame.

It was only then, I think, that I realized just how hard that was for him to admit, and just how badly he needed to do it.

"Garth, I *deserve* your anger, okay?" I tried so hard to keep my voice calm and level. But I don't think I succeeded. I took both his hands in mine and stroked the long, slender fingers. "For God's sake, I ran out on you! For reasons that are so bogus, so *stupid*, even I can't believe them. Dammit, Garth, I *earned* your anger! Hang onto it until I do as much to earn your forgiveness! " His grip on my hand tightened until it was painful, but I silently gritted my teeth and held my tongue.

"Anger is--difficult...." he hissed between his teeth and looked away, unable to meet my gaze.

I should have been ready for that one. After all these years I should’ve known it before he said it. "Garth?" It took him several moments before he could look at me. But I can be a patient man with anyone but myself. When it's as important as this. I could still see that tension in his eyes, reflected in the set of the muscles of his neck and shoulders. "Anger isn't a sin, you know. You wouldn't be human if you didn't get angry. It's what you *do* with the anger that's important. And you’ve never let yours hurt me, or anyone else." He lowered his eyes for a moment, staring at our joined hands. When he looked back up at me his grip lessened just a bit and my bones didn't ache anymore.

Deep breath. And my turn for truth. "There's something else I need to tell you. Before anything else."

His expression shifted back to neutral, and I could see him mentally preparing for the worst. "All right."

"When...after I.... Shit." I rubbed at my eyes and didn't dare look at him again. "Bruce went missing a couple of weeks ago. Alfred called me, and Babs. She also called Jean-Paul Valley."

I heard him shift in his chair. "You mean Azrael. The one who--"

"Yeah, him." The one Bruce depended on instead of me. Oh, get OVER it, Grayson. "We were waiting outside the NML zone...it was...." I swallowed and tried to start over. "We talked. I didn't want to understand him, but I did, and he--there was this baseball his father had given him, it rolled away and I caught it and he *cried.* I couldn't just...leave him in the dark."

An indrawn breath, almost too soft to hear, and I was too much of a coward to face him.

"Dick..." he began, "you--you don't have to--" He stopped, started again. “This isn’t the time--”

But it was, or I might never get up the courage to say it at all. "Garth. Don’t. You need to know this, and waiting isn’t gonna make it any easier. And I *need* to tell you, okay?"

No answer. All right. Brutal honesty.

"Maybe on some level I was-- I was trying to punish myself. I don't know. There's no real excuse for what I did. To myself, to Jean-Paul...or to you. I'm not even sure I can explain it. I was hurting, Garth. Hurting...and really frightened. And suddenly-- " I had to stop and gulp for a breath. "Suddenly there was Jean-Paul. Who--who needed somebody. I know now that it wasn't me he needed. It was never me. But it was easy to lie to myself. I thought I needed someone, too. And JP...I thought he was safe." I felt the acid burn of bile in the back of my throat, and it had nothing to do with my injuries. "Because I *didn't* love him. But it was nice to feel wanted. Comfortable. And I convinced myself that it was okay. You know? That we were both getting what we wanted out of the deal."

Low voice. "And did you?"

"*No.* God, no. It was completely *wrong.* I broke it off with Jean-Paul and *this* happened because Azrael...didn't take it well."

"You broke with Jean-Paul for his own sake. That sounds familiar, too."

I'd never heard Garth sound that bitter before. Not even after Tula's death. I 'd earned every bit of it.

"His sake, and mine, and Garth--it wasn't the same at all." I tried to figure out how to explain, slowly putting my thoughts in order. "I left him because I was hurting him by being there. He's too...vulnerable...and the truth is, I was using him to try to forget about you." There it was, as ugly as truth ever got.

"But--*Valley.*"

Something in his tone made me finally open my eyes and look at him. What I saw there, in his face....

He knew.

Garth knew not just why, but why *Jean-Paul.* The same thing Brian Bryan knew. The same thing--

I didn't want him to know. *I* didn't want to know. Ashamed, I closed my eyes again. Even in that brief moment I'd seen a kind of...horror in his violet eyes, a disgust I felt mirrored in myself, at myself. That was it, then. If I couldn't even face it, how could I expect Garth to?

...Causes and effects. What I never faced with *him* underlying all that fear of...losing someone I loved again. Not daring to care that much because it always went bad, so that this time--

My voice choked and threatened to desert me, but I refused to let it. "I pushed you away because I was afraid. Afraid of admitting, even to myself, how I really feel about you...about us."

I felt rather than heard him sigh, and take my hand. "Listen. Look at me."

I looked again, and saw. No disgust, no horror--at least, not the kind I'd been thinking, the kind born of moral outrage. Rather dismay for my sake, and compassion. More than I deserved.

His words were very clear and very firm. "Make up your mind, Richard. I'm not going to let you play games with my feelings any more. This isn't about today, or yesterday, it's about tomorrow. And I want a tomorrow with you, but you need to decide--"

"I have. I did, I mean, when I left Jean-Paul, it was because I knew--God, Garth, I hurt you and I never, ever wanted to do that. I want to try again. Can you--would you stay with me? I don't want to lose you."

I held my breath, waiting.

"Did you ever doubt it?" That was simple truth, clear and honest and pure, and I wanted to weep at the sound. Yes, I had. I promised myself I'd never be that stupid again.

"I don't deserve you. But I-- God, I haven't even said." I squeezed his hand. Tried to put everything I felt into my eyes. "I love you. I want this to work, between us. I want to try."

His eyes on mine, searching. "Say that again."

"Love you. I love you. Give me the chance and I'll say it for--for as long as you let me. I'm so sorry I hurt you. Let me make it up to you? Please? I know--I know I'm awful at this, I've never been good at relationships, I'm a bad bet but if you can put up with me--"

"Dick! Yes."

"...did you say yes?"

He nodded solemnly. "Yes."

"You're not even going to make me beg?"

Garth blinked and smiled. "If you really *want* me to, Robbie...but no." He got up and leaned over me, the look in his violet eyes going right to my heart. "'As long as I let you' could be a very long time, you realize. I won't let you go. Not that easily, not again."

Please, don't. "I'm counting on it."

"Good." He bent and closed that last gap between us.

He tasted of love, and forgiveness, and the sea.



I'm not naïve enough to think it'll be as simple as that. We have a lot more to talk about, things to figure out. But the one thing we both know is how we feel; and that, with work and a little luck, can see us through the rest.

It's a beginning.



{end}



NOT the end. Thank you all for your patience. There's much more in store... but now, I'm going to go collapse into a nervous wreck. *g*

Once again, to Dannell: without whom not a word ever would have been written. Thank you for giving them life--and love. :)

'rith