Sea and Sky XIV:

Shadow of the Bat

by Dannell Lites

and 'rith



Archive: Ask first, please.
Warnings: M/M slash implied. If this concept disturbs you, read no further.
Fandom: Modern comicsverse. Fourteenth in the "Sea and Sky" series, the previous parts of which can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/.
Thanks to Dannell for patience. And to Kael again and always, for making the most difficult parts of this entire arc clearer with her always-insightful comments.
Disclaimer: All characters property of DC Comics. What we have done with them is ours.


PART I by 'rith.
PART II by Dannell and 'rith.
PART III prologue by 'rith, main portion by Dannell.



Part I.


Some weeks previous:

IMAGE of a man dressed in a costume that inspires fear. The emblem on his chest shouts it. A man in a cave, steeped in darkness.

MOVEMENT as the man stands and paces the floor, passing mementos of past triumphs and past tragedies. He stops briefly at a glass case that holds a costume of red, yellow, green. All contrast to his form, shrouded in black and deepest gray.

SOUND as something emerges from his throat, not quite a growl, and he throws the cowl impatiently back to reveal his face: chiseled features set like stone, handsome and unreadable.

FLICKER as the façade breaks and the ice-blue eyes rage with emotion, the jaw tightens, his hands clench at his side. A motion--almost a shudder--goes through him and the mask again falls cleanly into place, denying everything.

FADEOUT on a man, in darkness.

Now:

A contralto voice from deep in the Cave brought him out of himself. "I would help you if you allow it, Beloved."

"Talia." The Batman turned to see her slender form emerging from the shadows. She was dressed as elegantly as ever, her simple gown probably concealing any number of weapons or perhaps just her deadly hands. Her brown hair fell long and straight across her shoulders like silk. She loved him. He-- "Why are you here?"

"You are--distressed. And have been so for some time."

He frowned. "Why would you think so?"

She looked at him patiently, amber-brown eyes meeting his even through the shrouding cowl. "I may not have your most-perfect detective's instincts, my love, but I can analyze a changed pattern of behavior and draw a conclusion. News from Gotham is...most important to me."

Batman was silent for a moment. Then he said, "And what did you see?"

Talia nodded briskly. "I have read in the reports from the police and the physicians at Arkham Asylum that the criminals they apprehended after you had done with them were in considerably worse condition than usual. None shed a tear over this, but some wonder at the excessive force. And Jim Gordon himself, whom you trust, begins to fear that you have once again been 'replaced' by an unworthy substitute."

"He knows I wouldn't--" he began, then stopped himself. "I'll speak with him. Anything else?"

"Only that Bruce Wayne has been even more absent than is his wont from both his business and social affairs. Most are willing to excuse that by virtue of the reasons you set in place. Although Lucius Fox seems more annoyed than usual."

Batman didn't bother to question how she knew even that. "I see."

"Yes. But I do not." She drew closer, moving to sink down gracefully to the floor by his chair. Her scent, a corner of his mind automatically noted, was cinnamon. "This city and even the world needs you, Beloved. If something hinders you, allow me to remedy it."

His voice remained cool. "It remains in Ra's interests to have me at peak efficiency, I suppose?"

Talia's eyes flashed anger. "I am my father's daughter, but not his slave. This has nothing to do with him."

"Doesn't it?" Batman rose, ignoring her outstretched hand. "What do you want me to do, Talia? Trust you? Every time Ra's al-Ghul sets one of his plans in motion you're right there beside him."

"I believe in his vision. But I did not come to debate philosophy. Bel--Bruce, *look* at me!" He did, turning to see her staring at him with challenge. "You refused to allow me to aid you in reclaiming No Man's Land. Perhaps correctly. But you *did* seek the help of your allies, your children. Why are they not here to help you now?"

"Because--" he snarled, then went silent.

Talia studied him for a moment. "Because it *concerns* them. One or more."

Batman said nothing.

"Then this *is* a matter only you can resolve. I cannot...would not interfere. I thought you had learned the truth that you needed them for your great task, and would not shut them from your life again." She rose and nodded. "Tend to this. You do yourself only hurt, and your city as well, by neglecting it."

"Talia." It was a whisper. "You don't know."

"No. And much as I wish otherwise, you do not trust me to tell." She approached to within an arm's length. "Someday, Beloved." The daughter of the demon raised her hand and touched the Batman's cheek. A fleeting second, and then she moved past him toward the exit. But her voice stayed with him.

"Tend to this."

And the Batman resolved, then and there, to do just that.

{end part 1}


'rith's extraneous timing note: Doesn't really matter, but those of you reading the comics know some pretty significant stuff has happened recently with Bruce and Ra's and Talia. All this is set considerably before that point; I'm planning a fic to show where exactly the series is in regards to canon, but not for awhile yet. (Suffice to say that story-arc in JLA hasn't happened yet; we're just post-NML.)


Part II.


Dick was coming home today.

Against the advice of his physicians, but Richard Grayson was more stubborn than they; and besides, he'd said smiling at Garth, you'll be there for me.

Ohhh, yes.

His business in Washington concluded, Garth had returned to Blüdhaven to ensure that Dick's apartment was still livable. Not unexpectedly, he'd found the cupboards bare save for a half-empty and stale box of cornflakes. Garth suspected it gave Dick some kind of perverse delight to insist on eating like a child.

So he'd gone out to pick up some essentials, the rest would be delivered later and he was heading up the stairs when a cheerful lilt hailed him. "H'lo, again!"

He'd met Bridget Clancy some weeks previous, in passing. "Hello, Miss Clancy--"

"Ah, just Clancy, we're not formal around here." The landlady grinned up at him. "But it was kind of you t'call and let us know Dick was all right. I..." she blushed faintly and went on, "...we've been worried about him. So he had a bit of an accident?"

Clancy's concern didn't surprise Garth at all. People fell in love with Dick as easily as breathing. He knew what *that* was like, and smiled at her. "Yes, but he'll be fine; he's healing and should be home today."

"Good. We've missed him around here. But, ah, I should let you get on before that all melts." She nodded with her chin toward the bags in his hands. "But you be sure 'n let me know if I can do anything. I c'n bake some o' my famous cranberry muffins as a welcome-home...."

"I'm sure he'd like that." Actually Dick *hated* them, but he was too polite to say so. "I'll tell him you asked after him."

"Thanks, Garth. Be seein' you."

She watched him go, smiling slightly, rueful.

***

Then Dick was home, finally, and three days of blessed peace. Dick was under strict orders *not* to exert himself, no matter how much they both wanted to do just that after so long. Mostly he slept, the after-effects of his concussion making concentration difficult...and when awake, complained. Until:

"I'm sorry, Garth, you've been here three days and all I've done is bitch."

"It's all right, Dick. I think people who have concussions are allowed to bitch."

"Yeah, but you shouldn't have to put up with it. Not after--I mean, I should be bringing you flowers and stuff, not making you listen to me gripe."

"You can make it up to me later."

"At this rate, it's going to take years."

"...that sounds good, actually...."

But despite that they were together and that mattered.

During one of Dick's more coherent moments he'd finally called Barbara to apologize face-to-face for his rudeness some weeks previous. On seeing them both she'd waved it off with no more than a "Do it again and I'll kick your ass, Grayson" and a wink for Garth. Somehow having someone *else* see them together made it more real...which is what had set Dick off in the first place, of course, but this time he just laughed and drowsily promised to visit her as soon as he could. "You'd better. Both of you. And I want *details.*" Her wicked grin left them both wondering just exactly what she meant--just as she'd intended, no doubt. Trust the Oracle to sign off with a cryptic remark.

It mattered that even if Dick was sleepy and...irritable, he still refused to sleep at night without Garth there; it mattered that the first thing Garth heard on waking was a murmured, "I love you"; it mattered that Dick reminded Garth to bring some of his things from Titans Tower to here, and mused idly on maybe finding a bigger place.

This morning Dick had almost been his old self, cheerful and affectionate, and if Garth hadn't needed to go out for the day they might very well have--

*Tonight,* Garth thought, and the promise of it was enough to send a thrill of anticipation down his spine.

***

An agonizingly long time later, hours feeling like days, and he'd almost vaulted the stairs in eagerness to be *home.* And found--

A note. "Felt cooped up. Gone 'flying.' Back soon." A scrawl that almost might have been a signature, and Garth could only shake his head. Stubborn, reckless--

But not out of character in the least. That impulsiveness was, he thought, something he could learn from. And learn to love.

In three days they'd barely begun to see how this new pattern of their lives would form. Neither was entirely certain how or where they'd work out the mechanics of their relationship but both were determined that they *would.* Garth had no intention of pulling Dick away from his adopted home in 'Haven, or his job here. Add to that their responsibilities elsewhere: the Titans, certainly, for both of them, and that meant Manhattan. He himself had duties in the Atlantean cities and his new diplomatic ones both at the UN in New York and in Washington, D.C. ...and surely Dick would, on occasion, be summoned to Gotham.

He heard the voice behind him as if its speaker had been conjured by the thought.

"Make yourself at home," came soft words from out of the shadows, and the startled Atlantean mage spun around to face the owner of that deep voice. "But then, I see that you already *have.*"

Garth met Bruce Wayne's eyes, the shadowy figure now emerging into the light with slow deliberation. Not that he needed his eyes to tell him whom he faced. And he *should* have sensed his presence, he'd been too distracted by his own thoughts of the future and besides, if anyone could fool Atlantean hearing it would be *this* man....

How foolish to feel "caught," like an intruder in his own home. "Mr. Wayne! Dick didn't tell me he was expecting you."

"He wasn't. I wanted to speak to him." That rich voice was leashed like a pit bull, under tight control. But then...when wasn't it?

"Is there a problem? Can I help?" Surely this was some Gotham matter, and if he was to be a part of Dick's life then perhaps he might lend his aid as well--

"*You've...*" the cold control shattered like fragile glass, "done more than enough." Like glass strewn in the pathway of an unshod man, the way before Garth became suddenly very dangerous; fraught with peril. And painful. Icy rage and fury burned at the edges of that sharp, sharp voice.

Astonished, he could only react with the truth. "I don't understand."

"No, I don't suppose you would." Bruce moved toward the door, deliberate, his back to Garth a straight tense line.

It didn't make *sense.* "This can't...you don't...you came to speak with him about *me?!*"

Bruce stopped. "Don't you know what you're doing?" He turned, gaze intent and angry. "Look at what's happened to him. He's distracted, not concentrating on what he should be doing. That's dangerous."

...He'd heard that before, or something like that, from Dick's own lips...back when he was busy denying what Kory might mean to him. It was as untrue here as it had been then. Garth fought down the impulse to call the man a liar to his face and replied as mildly as he could. Considering. "So he is never to love another, only to care for his *chosen* duty?" Emphasizing that while Bruce was...driven to do what he did nightly, Dick had chosen that life.

Unperturbed, Bruce went on. "You're going to get him killed. Is that what you want, Garth? If it is, then just sit back and watch."

The whole conversation felt unreal. The only weapon Garth had was honesty. "I would never allow that. I love him too much. And if you can't understand that, or approve of it, that doesn't change the fact."

"Can't understand *what?* That you want him? That he wants you? I...understand that well enough. *You* don't understand the commitment. How could you? Barely a Titan, always fleeing back to Atlantis...." Bruce's lip curled in disdain.

"There were reasons for that," Garth snapped before he could stop himself, and saw Wayne smile slightly in victory.

Bruce Wayne. *Not* the Batman. And Garth refused to be intimidated by this man, *here,* when he and Dick were just on the verge of discovering what they might be to each other.

"Why are you here, Mr. Wayne? Why am I worth such trouble? Why do you regard me as a threat? You never interfered with his relationship with Koriand'r." Garth tilted his head and regarded Bruce thoughtfully. "Why is that?"

No answer, and Garth reached for the one he'd sensed even back then. "You don't believe she mattered. You were wrong! You underestimate what he learned from Kory."

Bruce snorted, an unwilling angry sound. "I can guess what he got from her."

"No, I don't believe you can."

Ice-blue eyes narrowed. "Enlighten me, then."

"Support. Affection. *Unconditional* love, which you never gave."

"How *dare* you!"

No visible reaction except for a tremor in Garth's hand he couldn't quite still. "I...we all admire you, sir. There was nothing any of us wanted more, than to earn your respect. There was nothing *he* wanted more--" Garth took a deep breath--"except your affection. Growing up with him, we saw him suffer from your coldness, and hurt. It always fell to us to make up for that lack."

"How many times do he and I need to *have* this argument? I'm proud of him, he knows that."

"He does *now.* Back then...well. As you say, you have had that argument before."

"You have," Wayne said, very softly and very deliberately, "no idea what you're playing at here, do you."

"I'm not afraid of you, Mr. Wayne," he tried to reply. But the words came out muffled and blunted of their force by a sudden thick Atlantean accent, reminiscent of his childhood. Evoked by the man here...whose whole manner made him a child once more.

{{ Arthur shouting at him again. "Speak English, Garth! English! Damn it, boy, it's *you* not *oou!* *You!* Say it properly!" }}

Garth bit his tongue in frustration and Bruce smiled.

"No, you're not afraid of me, are you?" said the other man, cloaked in his own shadow. "You never were. It's not *me* you're afraid of at all." His stomach roiled and Garth closed his eyes. When he opened them....

Bruce Wayne was gone. Garth was alone with the Batman.

Garth watched one dark eyebrow lift like a gathering storm cloud at sea.

"Arthur changed after Arthur, Jr. was born, didn't he Garth? He'd been willing to play the game of family before then. But with a son of his own...you became just another common subject. And one who dared to speak as if you had some "right" to his affections. Such presumption. How many times did he remind of your place? Reject you? And you never said a word. Not one." For a moment the young mage thought he glimpsed fleeting compassion in the cold blue depths of the Batman's eyes.

"Were you really that desperate to belong?" he asked softly. "Was it worth the humiliation of Arthur's disregard and temper just to have someplace to *be?* That's sad, Garth. Very sad. But Dick isn't the answer. He's not what you're searching for. He never was."

Garth could feel the bones creak in his own hands, his fists tightening in reaction. Hearing more than he wanted to beneath the surface of those cold words.

"Find another target, son," advised the Batman with narrowed eyes. "I want you to leave Dick alone. Do we understand one another?" When Garth remained silent, the Batman gave him the coldest, most unpleasant smile Garth had ever seen mar a human face.

"I see that we do. Good." The tall man had his hand on the door handle, opening the door to leave before Garth found his voice.

"No, Mr. Wayne," he said quietly and watched the Batman pause to listen, "you don't know me very well. 'Aqualad' is gone. And so is the Robin you remember. I'm not Arthur's 'little minnow' any longer and he's not your 'chum.' I will *not* leave him, not because you wish it. Only if he does." For a long moment Garth thought that he might simply leave. But when his hands slowly fell away from the door handle and the Batman turned to face him, the young Atlantean stood his ground.

No easy task.

"Don't fight me, Garth," he said, low-voiced. "You'll lose."

"No. I won't." He saw it all, now. "I may not have been with the Titans as much as I would have liked, but I was eager to learn all about the surface world in those days. I watched. I learned. I didn't meet you for quite some time, but I learned from you even so. I learned how fortunate I was merely to endure Arthur's indifference. Dick suffered far worse." Steadying himself, Garth took a breath and spoke truth. "You denied him the one thing on Earth he wanted more than anything else: you. You made him love you...and then couldn't love him back."

Then it was just too much, and he quickly turned away before the other man could see the gathering tears in his eyes.

No single sound betrayed movement, not even to Atlantean senses; but when Garth steeled himself and turned again Bruce Wayne was gone, fled into the gathering darkness.

***

*Say nothing.*

*I can't do that.*

*You'll ruin it.*

*Leaving this will ruin it.*

*But if--*

If, what? If this--"situation" was allowed to go on, to *fester* as it had for so many years already, it would taint the foundation of whatever he and Dick tried to build together. This would never be over until those two both come to terms. With themselves, and with each other.

A sound from the back window, the window-frame scraping open to allow Nightwing quiet reentry into Dick Grayson's apartment. Dick coming in slightly sheepish but unable to hold back a grin. "God, what a rush."

Garth knew how he must have looked--shell-shocked and pale. In a moment Dick was by his side, concerned. "What--what's wrong?!"

"Dick..." it was a terrible cliché, but even so. "...we need to talk."


{end Part II}


Part III.


{Prologue}

I shouldn't have gone out, I knew that, but I just *had* to. I'm a terrible patient. I get...cranky. Garth had been so good about putting up with me, I was probably tempting even his patience by slipping out, but I couldn't help it.

Sometimes I just need to fly.

I was still learning this city, her open ways and hidden mysteries. Most of them nasty, I wasn't harboring any illusions about that. Gotham is shadows and light. Blüdhaven is gray, all shades blending until you could barely tell one street from the next, one crime, one criminal, one more dirty secret.

I loved it.

Which says something about me, maybe. But I'd come here determined to make it better, one small step at a time. It suddenly struck me that Garth could manipulate *water,* and how much easier it would be to clean up the city--

Guess I hadn't outgrown the bad puns, either. Grinning, I swung around and headed back toward my--our apartment. Garth would be back and I was *really* looking forward to spending...quality time with him.

I landed and opened the apartment window, slipping inside. Back on solid ground I had to catch myself--just a touch dizzy, I'd automatically blocked it out while on the jumpline out of habit but maybe I'd overdone it a little. I felt *good,* though. I stopped long enough just to strip out of my costume and throw on some clothes--which, I hoped, I wouldn't be in for too long.

But you know what they say about the best-laid plans.

He was in the living room, quiet, and one look at his face told me *something* had happened. "What--what's wrong?!"

And he said, "We need to talk."

My heart just about stopped. And nearly failed to start again when he said, "Bruce was here."

I couldn't process it. Here...but he hadn't stayed. And Garth had seen him. And...what? "W-what did he say?"

"Too much. I...." The same kind of resolution on his face as in the hospital when we'd talked, except even more determined. "I think you need to work things out with him. You can't let it go any longer."

Shit. No. No. I didn't want to I didn't want to say--"I'm...over that. "

"Jean-Paul."

I winced. "A big, big mistake."

I think the worst thing was that Garth wasn't even *accusing,* just stating things as fact. "More than that. You're not the only one who's looked for...comfort when you're hurt, in people you shouldn't. But *that* choice--Valley is a pale reflection of someone you've always wanted."

Something like desperation tried to claw its way out of my throat. "That won't happen again. I don't want...that, I want you!"

His eyes reflected such pain as he said, "We're only beginning to know how much we could be to each other. I *want* to know. I think we could be very good for each other." He paused, and then said very softly, "I want to be with you. But for both our sakes I won't...if you continue to let him overshadow everything you do. Everyone..." he closed his eyes. "Everyone you try to love."

"Garth...."

"Think about it. That's all." He leaned over and kissed me, once lightly on the mouth, and walked out.

So I thought about it.

Bruce had always been there, whether I acknowledged it or not. In my dreams, in my fantasies, the shadowy figure I never dared to put a face on.

And he knew. He *had* to know. World's greatest detective could hardly miss what was sometimes quite literally under his nose. He never said a word, never gave a hint he knew.

He was so closed off from his emotions, deliberately so. And even if he wasn't, I understood all the potentially nasty elements; I'd been his ward, in his care since I was a child, and--

Brian Bryan had it pegged, all right. "I'm not the one who wants to sleep with his father." I hit him for that, but not because the essence of it didn't ring true at some basic level.

Except that Bruce isn't my father. He never *was* a "dad"--we were *partners.* That's the best and truest word for it. And somewhere along the line I'd fallen in love with him. Can't remember a time when I didn't feel that way.

But the pure fact was, there wasn't any point to it.

He wasn't going to change. I wasn't going to call him on it. These were the constants of our world.

And maybe I couldn't stop how I felt, but I *could* stop letting it...shadow me.

I thought I *had* done that, I really did. But Bruce showing up tore it all open again. Why would he do this? He'd come, and he'd stayed only to talk to Garth, and now Garth was *gone.* What had he said? And why *now?*

What did he *want* from me?!

No. I wasn't going to sit back and take it, this time. *This* time he was going to face me, not do the "silent-Bat" thing I'd dealt with all my life: This time...

Bruce had some explaining to do.

I headed for Gotham.


{end Prologue}


Christ, I must have trod these same stone steps a million times by now. Cold hard stone leading down, down into the darkness.

Like the darkness echoed in the man waiting for me at the bottom.

I've walked this stone almost all my life, peered into that darkness. I spent my childhood making a light to shine in that darkness, hoping to lead the man trapped there out into the sunlight because I was the only one who could make him smile. Because I was the only one who could reach him. I've dashed down these steps on eager feet, laughing in anticipation of adventure; and I've climbed up them, racing out of the blackness with tears in my eyes more than once. But I have never, *never* stormed down them with such violence in my heart. God help me, I was so angry I'm surprised I didn't leave molten footprints behind me in the stone, I was so hot.

And there he was.

Stripped to the waist, Bruce pulled himself casually up on the high bar in a one-handed chin-up. In the shadows of the Batcave his skin gleamed like gold and the muscles of his chest and shoulders rolled smoothly beneath his skin like oil on coiled, fire-tempered steel. Christ, he was beautiful. I felt my flesh stir just watching him. In rage and frustration at my own weakness, I pounded the top of my thigh with a tightly clenched fist, relishing the pain. I was going to have bruises that reached to the bone tomorrow. I bit my lip until I tasted blood. Without any effort at all, I could recall those strong arms around my shoulders in rough affection, the feel of those broad hands on my body as we trained, the sight of those full lips pulled back in a rare smile....

And for the first time I looked without hiding, not a sideways glance or a furtive peek but really *looking.* The lines of him. The strength. Finally acknowledging to myself that I wanted him.

GodGodGod

So beautiful....

With a leap, I sprang for the overhead trapeze. Just as my questing fingers wrapped themselves around the bar I saw Bruce drop gently to the floor now thirty feet below me and watch me with smoky, hooded eyes. I began to swing, grabbing for the rhythm of the bar. I was going to have to time this exactly, focus past the lingering dizziness from that monster concussion. Not even I had ever done this without a catcher. And not a net in sight, either. If I missed.... Below, in the dimness, I saw Bruce frown. Resolutely, I pushed everything else out of my mind. There was only me, the trapeze in my hands...and the other trapeze calling to me across the gulf of air. All I had to do was reach for it. Just reach for it. That's all....

{ "Come on, Dicky Boy," encourages my father, smiling, "you can do it! Just reach for it, son ..." }

{ "Watch me, Dad! Watch me!" }

I closed my eyes. Before Dick Grayson was anything else, before he was Nightwing, before he was Robin, even, he was a flyer; an aerial boy wonder. The star of the Flying Graysons. I did my first triple somersault on the high trapeze when I was eight years old. I'll never forget the look of pride on my father's face.

I let go of the bar and for a brief, heartbreaking moment I was flying ... flying, the cool wind rushing through my hair and over my face like a lover's caress. I was free. Free ...

With perfect timing, I spun through the air, uncoiled and caught the other trapeze, smoothly. The world's first unassisted quadruple somersault on the high trapeze.

"Just for you, Bruce," I thought, bitterness like ashes burning in my mouth, "just for you...."

From the shadows I heard Bruce's sharp intake of breath, saw fear widen those glacier-blue eyes. But when I let go of the trapeze, dropped lightly to the floor, tucked, rolled and came up on my feet facing him, he didn't make a sound. Not one.

I'm one of only two people in the world who can manage a quadruple somersault on the high trapeze.

Two.

In the world.

Want to know one of the things I'm proudest of in all my life?

The other one *isn't* Bruce.

I was never able to teach him the quad. Oh, he's good on the trapeze. Really good.

But not as good as *I* am.

So why had I just risked my life to remind him of that?

Or was it myself I was reminding?

Almost faster than the eye could follow, I grabbed a batarang and threw it at him. Almost faster than the eye could follow, he dodged. Chest heaving, I flung myself at him until I was close enough to smell the musky scent of his sweat, see the arctic ice in his eyes.

"Damn you!" I cursed at him. "Damn you to Hell. Why? Why, Bruce, why?" He didn't move a muscle. Didn't retreat one inch. The Batman stared back at me from out of eyes hard as stone and just as expressionless.

"Why couldn't you just leave me alone, Bruce? Garth is gone! He left and this time I'm not sure if he's coming back!"

At least he had the good grace to look away, unable to met my eyes.

"I'm sorry," was all he said. Just ... "I'm sorry." That was it. My whole life reduced to two simple words: "I'm sorry." Inside, something precious and long cherished withered and died.

"You're not a very good liar, Bruce!" I snarled like the trapped animal I felt. "And you are like *hell* 'sorry!' If you were *sorry,* you rotten son of a bitch, you'd never have done it, would you?" My fist lashed out and he just stood there. He let me hit him and didn't flinch, not even to wipe off the blood dripping from his nose. In a dark pool, it spattered the stone floor of the Batcave and sank deep into the heart of the rock. It certainly wouldn't be the first drops of Bruce's blood to become a part of the Cave. The Batman built this grim, cold technological marvel he calls the Batcave on blood and sweat, with not nearly enough tears to dilute the blood. He built it on all these things.

And the body of someone I love very much. A little boy who died one week to the day past his sixth birthday. Who never really had a chance to live.

A little boy named Bruce Wayne.

I looked at him now, bleeding and in pain, but still invulnerable behind his high walls of deep silence and I had to look away. He was headed somewhere now that I couldn't follow him. Down a long, dark path to someplace I didn't want to go. And I couldn't stop him.

I tried to bring him back from that path once, and I didn't make it. I wasn't strong enough. I grew up every day of my life watching someone I love slowly shut himself away from everyone else; growing more and more distant until I couldn't reach him anymore. Until I wasn't even sure he existed any longer.

Already the blood was staunching its flow, drying on his face. Bruce has a marvelous body for quick healing. And a special gift for enduring and inflicting pain.

"Master Bruce has an affinity for suffering," Alfred once observed with a sigh, wiping up the bloody remains of another night spent patrolling the streets of Gotham. "And the Batman likes to share it."

"Feel better now, Dick?" Bruce asked, his quiet voice echoing softly off the walls of the Cave.

"Fuck you, Bruce!" I hissed. "Fuck you."

And I watched his face fall absolutely still. He never flinched at all when I hit him with my fists, but he did now, almost as if my words were blows. I smiled. Oh, I didn't need a mirror to know *exactly* what that smile looked like, either. After all, I'd seen it on Bruce's face for most of my life. I'm not likely to forget it.

"But, then, that's the problem, isn't it, *chum?*" I said cheerfully.

Stepping out of my sneakers, I began to slowly circle him, stalking him like a prowling predator. With a single motion, I stripped myself naked to the waist and Joey's favorite Pearl Jam tee-shirt fell to the floor in a wrinkled heap. It's all I have left of Joey and it's very precious to me. Usually, I'm awfully careful with it. I couldn't really tell you why I chose it to wear when I came here to face Bruce. Except....

Except maybe I just wanted someone who loved me to be with me, touching me, when I did this.

Lithely, I danced around Bruce. He began to back away from me, retreating now with quick steps until his back was literally against the wall. Wide-eyed, he stared at me. Was that fear I saw lurking there? He stumbled back a final step and caught himself with a swift hand. My smile broadened.

All that grace and power ...

Running away.

From *me.*

Was Bruce afraid of me? I wondered, astonished.

Oh yes. Yes, he was.

He was *terrified* of me. And I thought I knew why, now. Something clicked inside my head and suddenly a lot of things began to fall into place. I chuckled; an unpleasant sound that rattled off the walls.

When I was a child, Bruce was always there for me. If I woke from a nightmare, watching my parents fall again to their deaths, he was there to hold me. When he taught me to throw a batarang, he cradled me close to his body in instruction. When he taught me to fight, he used to touch me, unafraid. He laughed with me and we played rough boyish games. He didn't hesitate to hug me or ruffle my hair in affection. If I did something well he praised me with words and an arm slipped around my shoulder.

When I was a *child* ...

Fluid as water, I molded myself against him. I heard him gasp and climb up on his toes trying to get away from me. But he had no place left to go.

Neither did I. We were both trapped here in this dank, wet hole in the ground.

Love is such a bitch.

I ran my hands lightly over the broad expanse of his heavy muscled chest, down the washboard length of his stomach. Beneath my caressing fingers, I felt him shiver. His breath came in short, quick gasps like an engine, long unused, cold and dormant, now struggling to start. Searching for a spark to take fire.

"Do you like that, Bruce?" I demanded. He closed his eyes and turned the only part of his body he could move without dislodging me, his face, away from me. "Yes, you do, don't you?" I pressed my groin against his insistently. Like sunlight, I could feel the heat raising off his tense body in overpowering waves, scorching me. One hand slipped beneath the waistband of his loose sweats, stroking him and I tangled the other in the inky depths of his sweat-slick hair. I saw his eyes go wide and panicky, his breath harsh and uncontrolled as it almost never is.

"You want me as much as I want you, don't you?" I whispered in his ear. "You always have, haven't you? I understand now why you stopped touching me. I grew up, didn't I? I wasn't a little boy anymore. And you *wanted* me." I ran my tongue tantalizingly up the long length of his neck along the path of his carotid artery and sucked at his earlobe. "Are you hard yet, Bruce?" I whispered again. "Are you hard?" My busy fingers told me the answer and I smiled.

Hard as the stone beneath our feet.

I'm sure my smile looked exactly like Bruce at his emotionless worst. When liquid nitrogen could freeze at the look in his eye…but his face is absolutely empty. Lucky me. I'm one of the few people who can tell when Bruce is really angry. He *plays* at being harsh and frightening most of the time…

But when Bruce is really angry, he doesn't shout or threaten, pose or posture. It's when his eyes go dead and sparkle like old, old glacial ice that you'd better pay attention.

Because then, he *will* hurt you.

And I *hate* being reminded how much like him I can be.

Like sudden, striking lightning, there was an explosion of pain in my chest and I was flying across the room, sailing through the air almost as if I were weightless. Like flying on the high trapeze ... Considering the company he sometimes keeps, it's easy to forget how *strong* Bruce is. Bruce may not be Clark ... but then, neither is anybody else but Clark. Bruce gets by. With a dull roar in my ears, I landed in a battered heap against the far wall. I’d barely managed to turn in midair, catching my shoulder on the stone. Groaning, I gritted my teeth then tried to pull myself to my feet, struggling against gravity. I must have failed because the next thing I remember is the sickening scrape of my head against the wall and the warm feel of trickling blood oozing down my face.

When the world stopped spinning, I tried again to regain my feet. I didn't make it that time, either. Blurry eyes brought me a swimming vision of bright blue eyes and hair the color of deep midnight.

"Oh God! Dick - I - " Flinching, I crawled away from the sound of that deep baritone voice, from out of the reach of those hands.

"DON'T TOUCH ME!" I shouted.

And burst into tears. I cradled my head on my knees and rocked like a child.

"Damn, Grayson, " I thought, "just *look* at you! Blubbering like a baby. And for what? Something you can't have. Something you were never, ever gonna have to begin with. You're just a freaking walking tragedy, aren't you?"

I couldn't seem to stop crying. That's something I've always been afraid of, you know. Somehow, I've known since the beginning of this thing, way back in my mid-teens, that if I ever *started* crying for Bruce, I wasn't gonna be able to stop. Ever. That well is too deep to ever run dry.

All those years ... all those wasted years....

Beside me, I watched Bruce sink slowly to the floor, as if his body were suddenly too heavy for his knees to support, and sit down heavily without any grace at all. Strange, for the Batman. He seemed to have trouble catching his breath. For a long time we just sat there, together in our melancholy, listening to the whisper of passing time. I couldn't tell you how long we sat. Just ... a long time. Finally, an eternity later, I looked at Bruce and discovered that blood wasn't the only thing staining the stone of the Batcave, now. I've always understood Bruce better than most others. It's a gift or a curse ... take your pick.

But right now, I didn't *want* to understand him. God forgive me, but I didn't. I didn't want to look into the eyes of the sad, frightened little boy who lurks at the heart of the Batman. I didn't want to think about Bruce, growing old alone. One day even the magnificent instrument that was his finely honed body would betray him and the Batman would be forced to hang up the cape and cowl. What, then, would happen to Bruce Wayne?

"Bruce," I said gently, my voice threatening to tremble, "you don't want me." It wasn't a question. Even now he couldn't meet my eyes, couldn't look at me and face the truth.

"I-- can't.... " he choked.

Tenderly, I lifted his chin and looked into his eyes, a bright shining blue like the sky outside this huddling place deep in the bowels of the earth. I carefully wiped the tears from his face. "Then let me go," I pleaded softly. "Let me go to someone who *can.*"

Leaning down, I kissed his hair, chaste as a virgin and held onto him tightly. God, I didn't ever want to let him go.

But I was going to have to.

"I can't go on like this, Bruce," I mourned, "I can't go through the rest of my life looking for you in another body. I can't. I'll destroy myself if I keep trying. I almost did that with Jean-Paul. Worse, I almost took him with me. What's left there are little bits and pieces that I *hope* Brian can put back together. It's got to stop, Bruce, it's got to stop. I can't do this anymore." Like an exhausted child he closed his eyes and leaned his head on my chest. I stroked his hair.

"And neither can you," I whispered.

After a moment, so soon, so damned soon ... he slipped quietly out of my embrace and opened his eyes. They were as clear and peaceful as I've ever seen them.

"Garth went to Titans' Tower in NYC," he said. "He'll be going back to Atlantis, soon. You'd better hurry or you'll miss him."

I only looked back once. At the top of the stairs I paused, gazing down into the shadows of the Batcave. Bruce was still sitting on the floor, alone now, peering into the darkness as if he expected it to cover and comfort him. After all, it always had, hadn't it?

But maybe not this time.

Alfred met me at the door, jacket in hand. "You'll catch a chill if you're not careful, Master Dick," he admonished me sternly, proffering the warm jacket for my use. I swallowed, hard.

"Alfred ... " I stammered, "Bruce ... Bruce needs.... " My voice cracked unable to continue.

"I know," came Alfred's soft reply, wrapped in quiet dignity like a cloak.

"You'll take care of him?"

"I always have," said Alfred Pennyworth. Smiling, he handed me a small foil-wrapped package.

"I thought you might find these useful," he said. I didn't even need to open up the package to know what lurked inside. My nose brought me the delicious aroma of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, still hot and gooey the way I like them best. With stinging eyes, I reached out and hugged the only grandfather I'd ever known.

"I love you, man," I murmured, "you know that, don't you?"

"Indeed, young sir," Alfred returned, straightening my jacket on my shoulders. "There's enough there to share with Master Garth, young Sir," he smiled.

Blinking, I stepped from the gloom of Wayne Manor out into the bright sunlight of a perfect spring day. I thought about Garth, the calm center of my new world, waiting for me at Titans' Tower, his beautiful violet eyes shining in the light and I smiled. Taking a deep breath, I felt light and airy ... almost as if I were flying.

I was free.




The End