Sea and Sky XXII:
Archive: Ask first, please.
Notations: m/m relationship, nothing explicit.
Fandom: Modern comicsverse. S&S series. The previous parts can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/.
Disclaimer: All characters property of DC Comics. What I have done with them is mine.
Bonus fic: A tangential conversation that serves as a primer to this part can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/stories/Conversation.html, but is not required reading for this story.
Many thanks to Casey and SKH for extremely helpful suggestions for those pesky gaps!
Also, S&S #20 has not been posted, but it's referenced here. Summary: Dick and Garth tell the Titans. Wally is paged for a JLA meeting, where he spills the beans to Kyle, who then proceeds to tell the rest of the JLA. Lots of reactions all around. Wally and Dick talk. Arthur and Garth talk. Various other people talk. Yadda yadda yadda. *g* Later (as posted), Kyle tells Connor, who subsequently talks to Nightwing (20a); Clark visits the guys (20c); and Clark and Bruce chat (20d).
"...Uh-huh.... Sure, Alfred, thanks. I'll let you know." Dick hung up the phone, looking bemused.
Garth was fairly sure the call must have concerned Bruce somehow, considering the look on Dick's face, but his tone didn't indicate anything too dire. "What is it?"
"An invitation for us. From Bruce. To dinner." Dick glanced over at him. "I mean, from *Bruce.* D'you know how many times I've actually sat down to dinner with Bruce Wayne since I quit being Robin? No more than a handful, if that."
Garth nodded, then said slowly, "Do you think this is a...peace offering? Something to mend the fences between you?"
"I--" Dick went quiet for a moment, the way he always did when *this* subject came up. "He doesn't...have to apologize. It's nobody's *fault.* If he thinks I hate him because of--" he broke off, flushing.
"Then tell *him* that. You two don't communicate very well. At all," Garth amended, then walked over to touch Dick's shoulder, hard with tension. "You need this. It's a barrier between you both that shouldn't be."
"Yeah. And it's me who put it there, 'cause HE never would have said a word. I know, I know, I had to."
"Yes. But it was he who chose to...confront me, the way he did." Garth paused. "In a way I'm glad."
Dick started. "I don't...why?"
"Because it forced the issue, where left alone neither of you would ever have addressed it. But Dick, I know how important he is to you...will always be to you." Garth smiled a little. "You're too much a part of each other to keep letting all these things get in the way."
"And that's okay with you?" Dick asked quietly.
"It's who you are," Garth said, "*he* is part of who you are. I never expected that to change."
Dick snorted softly. "So shouldn't I be saying the same about Aquaman?"
He tried not to let it show, but Garth could feel his whole demeanor going...quiet. Subdued and internalized. It was almost an automatic reaction to things he really, truly didn't care to discuss. After a long moment he said without inflection, "It's not an equivalent situation."
"Yeah," Dick muttered darkly, "I sort of got that impression."
Garth had a good idea of what Dick was thinking, and exactly how wrong he was. But that would have to wait. "We'll...talk about it sometime. Not today."
"Sometime," Dick said, the word sounding like a pledge Garth was sure he'd be held accountable to. "Meanwhile, are you up for this? The dinner, I mean."
"Yes. It's a good idea," Garth replied, trying to sound sure about it, because Dick needed to hear that. Until the rift between Bruce and Dick was repaired, there'd be something missing for the both of them. His own situation with Arthur...wasn't comparable on any level.
Dick would never understand how similar yet fundamentally different their two mentors were.
Going into Gotham City required more mental preparation than physical. Dick's much-tinkered-with and innocuous-seeming car sufficed for the latter. For the former...Garth had to keep reminding himself that Bruce had *invited* them. Granted, he'd done it via Alfred, but the invitation was still a step in the right direction. At least that was his hope.
Dick mentioned he wanted to stop somewhere on the way, so they headed into the city early. Garth figured they were going to see Barbara, which only seemed logical, but they passed the exit to her Clocktower without slowing. Dick tossed him a grin and said without prompting, "There's someone else I want you to meet."
They drove into the northern section of Gotham, an older area that obviously hadn't seen much benefit from the post-No Man's Land urban renewal. "Crime Alley," Dick said briefly, and Garth understood this was where so much of his life had been shaped, as a direct result of Bruce's tragedy here. The windows of the once-elegant homes with the Park Row addresses now gaped with neglect and misuse, and the streets themselves seemed shadowed despite the afternoon sun.
It was probably only his imagination, Garth thought, but shivered anyway.
Dick parked in front of a squat building that still exhibited damage from last year's earthquake. Underneath a sign reading "Thomas Wayne Memorial Clinic," men and women pushed in and out through the doors. Many of them, Garth noted, wore clothing that looked as worn as the surrounding streets. But while those headed inside bore expressions of pain or anger or grief, those exiting seemed to have found at least some measure of solace within.
They headed toward the clinic, Dick diverting them to an unmarked door at the side of the building. He produced a key card and opened the door, as casually as if he belonged here. But then, it was part of Dick's character that he seemed at home nearly anywhere, his gypsy heritage manifesting itself in his ability to feel comfortable no matter what his surroundings.
Dick glanced back and caught him smiling. "What?"
Garth shook his head. "Nothing. So, is there a reason we've crept in a side entrance rather than using the front door?"
"'Crept in,' ha." Dick looked insulted. "If I'd *wanted* to get in without anyone knowing, there're at least eight ways I could've done it without...hm." He paused. "The clinic needs more security. I'll let Bruce know. Thanks for pointing that out, Garth."
This time he laughed out loud. "That was all you. And you didn't answer my question."
"Aren't you supposed to be the patient one?" Dick refused to say any more as he led the way through the winding passages, intent on some goal. Garth thought he could guess at it, now. Dick had a life outside the Titans, he always had, but he hadn't been so closemouthed about it that they didn't all know--at least by name--the people who were important to him. Dick's willingness to bring Garth into this part of his life signaled a significant shift in his prior determination to keep those elements separate...at least as far as his personal life was concerned. He would always be constrained by the limits of how far a secret identity could stretch, which was one of the things they needed to discuss with Bruce.
But unless he'd misjudged, *this* particular meeting should be considerably less tension-ridden.
Dick finally knocked on a door bearing only a plain brass nameplate. It opened after a moment to reveal an older woman with silvery hair clad in a doctor's white coat, stethoscope around her neck. Her face brightened on seeing him. "Dick! Right on time. I'm so glad you called." She reached for him and Dick leaned forward, hugging her fiercely.
"Hi, Dr. Leslie. I hope we didn't take you away from anything important."
She smiled. "I can always make time for you."
Garth was highly amused to see the faintest blush stain Dick's cheekbones as he spoke again. "I wanted you to meet someone...this is my, my partner, Garth."
"Hello." Doctor Thompkin's eyes were bright with humor as she registered Dick's awkwardness. She stretched out a hand to Garth and he took it. Dick had mentioned his 'Dr. Leslie' infrequently over the years, but always with great affection. He knew that Dick was deeply impressed by her dedication to pacifism, even if his own chosen life's work had little room for that kind of philosophy.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor Thompkins."
She laughed. "Please, call me Leslie. Or Dr. Leslie, like Dick does. Nice to meet you, too. Dick so rarely brings his friends to see me." She gave Dick a look that was both reproving and full of teasing.
"Yeah, yeah." Dick's blush deepened. "Garth, she's still ticked that it took me, uh, awhile before I introduced her to Kory."
"*Ages,*" Leslie said dryly. "And the poor girl looked so nervous...!"
"Understandable," Garth said, smiling, "given how intimidating certain others of Dick's...family have been known to be."
"Good point," she agreed. "Come in, both of you, no reason to stand in the hall."
Her office was small, but adorned with padded chairs and green plants to make it seem more inviting. They stepped inside, but Dick had acquired an extremely suspicious look. "You already knew."
She turned on him with mock anger, hands on her hips. "If I'd waited for *you* to tell me, Richard-- well, you see how long it took! You force me to seek out other sources of information."
"So you've seen Alfred lately?" Dick asked slyly, and Leslie flushed.
"He's been kind enough to keep me up to date. We're just friends, really."
"Uh-huh," Dick teased, obviously unconvinced. "I'll have to get the truth out of *him.*"
"You may try," she said, turning to Garth. "As I understand it, you've known Dick for quite awhile?" The look she gave him told Garth she knew exactly what the circumstances were. That was fortunate, because Garth had the distinct impression it would be impossible to dissemble under that piercing glance.
"Yes, we--" he couldn't restrain a chuckle. "We're still figuring exactly how, precisely. Given Dick's civilian status."
Leslie nodded with comprehension. "I'd been wondering how you intended to handle that."
"We were going to work the details out with Bruce," Dick interjected, and Leslie's blue gaze swung sharply toward him.
"You've spoken with him recently, then?"
"Not, uh, technically. But we're having dinner over there tonight." Dick's reply came back casually, evenly. Too even? Garth couldn't tell.
"Good. I'm glad you--" she hesitated infinitesimally, "you two are talking."
Dick shrugged elaborately. "Sure. Same-old, same-old."
"Not so much conversation as long, involved silences," she said in a careful, overtly neutral tone.
Dick snorted, but Garth could see it now: Leslie was no less one of the Bat-clan than the others, 'civilian' or not. They had raised the practice of leaving things unsaid to a high art form. Bruce's influence, surely. Or perhaps the long habit of keeping secret identities and secret lives had so permeated their interrelations that even the most innocent-seeming conversation was loaded with surreptitious meaning. And *this* discussion had ventured into dangerous territory.
It seemed clear to him that Leslie knew the context, if not the specifics, of the tensions between Dick and Bruce. Dick wanted--perhaps *needed*--to believe she was entirely unaware of the situation. And since neither of them would ever talk about it openly, there was no reason to prolong the agony.
"Dr., ah, Leslie," Garth tried, improvising, "I know you've managed this clinic for a number of years, but I don't know much else about it--how large a part of Gotham City do you serve?"
She turned back to him, not the least bit fooled by his awkward change of subject but willing to play along. "Well, we're classified as a Level II trauma center, and licensed for-- but you don't need to know the technical details," she interrupted herself. "Basically, we provide services for most of the North Gotham area, which is everything north of the Sprang River. There are a disproportionate number of hospitals serving South and Central Gotham--more money there, you see." She sounded realistic rather than cynical. "St. Swithin's handles part of the area, but that's a bit far for most of our patients. It's really only through Bruce's generosity that we've been able to handle the caseload, especially since we have a large proportion of economically disadvantaged clients." Leslie smiled. "And that's probably more than you wanted to know."
"Except the part about how you *stayed* in No Man's Land when Gotham shut down, to care for people left behind." Dick sounded both proud and outraged on her behalf.
She waved off his acclamation. "It wasn't a difficult decision to make."
"You stayed for Bruce?" Garth asked, thinking he understood, and was surprised by the resolve in her voice when she answered.
"Partly. But mostly for the promises I made to Thomas and Martha. They *loved* Gotham and would have been appalled at its abandonment. I wasn't going to leave their legacy to-- to die."
Dick grinned at Garth. "And that's why we love her. Because Dr. Leslie's tougher than all the rest of us put together."
"So I see," Garth replied with absolute sincerity. Leslie Thompkins obviously believed in her principles, strongly enough to die for them. The people of Shayeris, by contrast, had clung to their "pacifism" as a cowardly excuse when they exiled Berra and remained purposely oblivious to the events of the outside world. Leslie's example only made their behavior seem even more shameful.
"Stop it, both of you," Leslie protested. "I want to hear about *you* two. After knowing each other for so long, how did you discover you wanted to be together?"
"Good timing," Dick said with a smirk.
Which really, Garth thought, just about summed it up. But there was still room to tease. "I knew years ago. Dick was somewhat more...deliberate about it."
"Hey!" Dick sputtered, but Dr. Leslie was laughing, delighted.
"He *can* be slow about these things. I'm pleased he finally figured it out, for both your sakes."
"Go on, team up on me," Dick muttered.
"Actually, I was wondering..." Garth said, although he'd just realized it, because her acceptance was so total. "You weren't surprised at all?"
"Not really," she said, glancing at Dick, who nodded to her.
"Go ahead, tell."
"When he was a teenager, Dick talked to me about being bisexual," Leslie said. "I was...very glad he felt comfortable enough to confide in me, even under the mantle of doctor-patient confidentiality."
"No one else," Dick shrugged. "That was in-between teams, Garth, and I wasn't sharing much those days."
Leslie sighed. "If I remember correctly, I advised you to trust in your friends."
"That part I didn't listen to. If I had..." Dick glanced over at Garth with a small smile. "I wonder."
Garth thought back to all those years ago and everything they had been through since. "The timing wouldn't have been right."
"No. I know." Dick looked pensive for a moment, and then he shook it off. "Anyway, yeah. Timing. And your sexy new costume. That definitely helped."
Dr. Leslie's chuckle made it impossible to be as self-conscious as Dick's statement might have otherwise made him feel. He liked the sound of it. "That's fortunate, because I was running out of ways to get your attention."
"Olè," Dick said softly, and this time Garth *did* blush with the memory the word evoked.
"I'm sure there's a story there I don't need to know," Dr. Leslie murmured, looking enormously amused. "But I would like to ask--" She smiled somewhat tentatively at Garth. "I feel like I have so many questions, but don't want to pry."
"I understand it's impossible to avoid the required family inspection. Please, go ahead."
She laughed again. "Well, if I may...I know you're from Atlantis. My, just saying that sounds like you stepped out of a legend!" She paused, seeming a trifle embarrassed. "I must admit, the physician in me is *terribly* curious about your physiology. Not that I have any right to--"
He interrupted her, smiling. "It's all right. We're not so far removed from human--that's what we were to begin with, before Atlantis sank. The sorcerers worked magic to adapt the survivors so they could survive under the ocean."
She shook her head. "'Sorcerers'... 'magic.' I know these things are commonplace in your lives, but it all sounds so fantastic to me. So you're equally comfortable above and below water, then?"
With anyone else Garth might have prevaricated, but Leslie deserved honesty. "Not...entirely. Most Atlanteans can't survive for more than about an hour out of water. I have atypical abilities that allow me to pull water of the air to stay hydrated, and I know a spell to prolong my tolerance as well."
"Goodness." She blinked at him, an appraising look in her eyes. "It sounds like it requires considerable effort for you to stay here."
"I have good reasons." He glanced over at Dick, who had been watching the exchange with a small smile. "What's so funny?"
"Nothing. You. I think that's the most anyone's ever managed to get out of you at one time." He grinned. "I'll have to remember Dr. Leslie's interrogation technique. Very efficient."
"What, talking to people rather than assaulting them?" Leslie asked dryly. Almost immediately, her expression turned apologetic. "I'm sorry, Dick, that was unfair. I know you do your best to keep from truly hurting anyone."
"I try," he said, looking at her with a mixture of resignation and regret. "If all the bad guys quit making life difficult for the rest of us, things might be different. But for now...."
Leslie took a couple of steps toward him and reached out, brushing back the hair that had fallen into Dick's eyes. Garth often performed the same motion on those recalcitrant strands, but from Leslie the gesture appeared...undeniably maternal. "I know, sweetheart."
Garth saw Dick swallow hard, as though around a lump in his throat, and take her hand gently. "You...remind us what we're fighting for, Leslie."
"You don't need me to do that." She smiled and squeezed his hand, then pulled back a little. "And you don't need to right all the world's wrongs single-handedly, either."
"I don't?" Dick gave the doctor a look of feigned innocence. "Gee, you could have told me that years ago, before I spent all that time in New York, outer space, alternate dimensions, and 'Haven--which is sort of like an alternate dimension all by itself."
Leslie's expression held a measure of mild reproach. "All that time in other worlds, and so little to spare for the people who love you. I'd like to see you more often. Really, Dick, it was difficult keeping up with you when you were in New York. At least with you based in Blüdhaven I can expect you to drop by once in awhile."
"I never call, I never write," Dick said with mournful self-mockery.
Leslie glared. "You *don't.* And I don't nag you about it, either. But I don't like having to depend on Alfred to find out what's going on in your life." She pulled Dick into a hug, as if reinforcing her right to be concerned about him. Dick readily returned the embrace. After a moment they separated.
"I guess we should be on our way, Leslie," Dick said. "We don't want to be late."
Leslie smoothed back her silvery hair and gave her lab coat a straightening tug. "And I have patients to get back to. Take care, dear, and give my love to Bruce."
"And to Alfred?" Dick asked, pokerfaced.
She held his eye, though the color was high in her cheeks. "I'll tell him myself. And don't misunderstand, Richard. Alfred and I are friends, very good friends. We lean on each other because we share some of the same secrets. But don't imagine we're...going to elope or something ridiculous like that. Our obligations come first."
Dick looked rebellious for a moment, and then sighed. "I know better than to argue with you."
"Wise," Leslie agreed, "very wise. Especially given the demands of your own work. " She turned to Garth, holding out her hand. "It was so nice to meet you."
He took her hand and shook, gently. "You, too. I'll try to make sure Dick is more...communicative."
"Or feel free to call me yourself," Leslie suggested. "Everyone in this family could certainly do a far better job of keeping in touch with each other."
Being so casually *included* left Garth feeling almost overwhelmed, all the way out through the same side door and back to the car. It was, he thought, probably simple kindness on her part, so easily offered by her compassionate nature. But it was still a rare enough experience for him.
Most likely Dick had drawn on that same empathy, years before. Now having met Dr. Leslie, Garth could imagine what it must have been like for a younger, troubled Robin to confide in her. Particularly about such a sensitive matter as his sexuality.
"I didn't think before, how it might have been for you... was it difficult, when you realized you liked men? You talked to Leslie about it?" Garth asked, after what seemed like a long silence. They had left the shadows and urban gloom behind them as they crossed the bridge leaving Gotham City, headed for the suburban green of Bristol.
Dick's blue eyes left the road momentarily, landing on his with a soft expression of understanding. "Yeah. I needed to tell someone. I couldn't talk to Bruce, and Alfred... I knew he'd be okay with it, but I guess I was too embarrassed. Dr. Leslie really helped."
"Wait. If you only told Leslie about your, hm, preferences, how did Alfred know?"
Dick rolled his eyes. "How does he know anything? Alfred knows *everything.*" He paused. "And I might have, uh, left a magazine around or something."
Garth raised an eyebrow at him. "A magazine? Like the ones I found under the mattress? Interesting variety."
"Guy's gotta have a hobby."
"Judging by the volume, it's a whole other career," Garth said dryly.
"And you'll notice," Dick said archly, "how dusty they were, because since *you* moved in I haven't resorted to them at all."
"Dick," Garth replied with exaggerated patience, "*everything* in your apartment is dusty."
"...this is true." Dick appeared to mull over this fact for a few moments, then deftly changed the subject. "I guess it wasn't a big deal for you, huh."
"Poseidonis doesn't have that particular prejudice." He didn't need to add that those it did have had affected him far more. "But I'm glad you had Leslie to talk to."
He glanced out the car window, musing about Dick and Leslie's relationship, and almost jumped when Dick poked him in the ribs. "Penny for your thoughts."
Garth laughed. "Only a penny?"
"I'd offer something more interesting," Dick said wryly, "but then we WOULD be late for dinner, and Alfred would be very unhappy with us. Later. So...?"
He wasn't sure how Dick would react to his hesitant words. "I was thinking that it must be nice to have a grandmother."
"Huh. I never thought about her that way...but yeah." Dick seemed to give the idea earnest consideration. "I never really did, you know, not even back in the circus. My parents' folks were gone by the time I came along. But Leslie's always been there for me. She-- oh, shoot." His glance over at Garth held a belated awareness. "I didn't mean to gloat."
Garth smiled a little, reassuring. "No, you didn't."
The two men fell into another silence as the car continued along a beautiful, tree-canopied country road. Before long, an ivy-covered stone wall obstructed the pastoral vista along one side of the road. Dick turned off the main road onto a driveway.
Garth watched the gates of Wayne Manor swing into view.
Dick pressed a button on the dash of his car and the wrought-iron gates swung open. They passed through and drove up the leaf-littered driveway toward the grandeur that was Wayne Manor. Dick stopped the car at the base of the portico steps. Both men got out of the car, and Garth gazed up at the imposing mansion.
Dick glanced over. "Ready?"
He took a deep breath. "Ready," he said, and squeezed Dick's hand as they approached the door.
Alfred Pennyworth opened the door with such speed after Dick rang that he must have been lurking in the foyer for their arrival. "Master Richard, it's so good to see you here again."
Dick leaned forward, catching the older man in a sincere hug, rumpling his dignity. Garth thought that despite his proper restraint, Alfred didn't seem to mind in the least. "Glad to be back, Alfred."
Alfred extricated himself with some difficulty. "Ahem, yes. And Master Garth, a pleasure to have you here. Welcome."
"Thank you," Garth returned gravely, appreciating the formality. It was easier to fall back on conventional courtesies than to pretend to an ease he didn't feel. *Bruce* had asked them here, he reminded himself, not Batman. But he could feel the yawning chasm of the Batcave beneath the floorboards, the presence that would overshadow every word spoken in this house.
"This way, please, Master Bruce is waiting." Alfred turned to lead them, winking briefly, the motion at odds with his demeanor but offering a great deal of reassurance.
Dick hung back for a moment, perhaps catching Garth's trepidation. "It's going to be fine," he said. "I'm fairly sure he wouldn't kill us in the house. Alfred would never forgive him for the bloodstains."
"Quite right, young sir," Alfred said without turning around.
The total seriousness of their tones ironically made the tension retreat a bit. "Oh, well, in that case."
Alfred ushered them into one of the "smaller" dining rooms in Wayne Manor, this one only capable of comfortably seating a dozen visitors. Bruce Wayne stood there, impeccably dressed yet seeming out of place in the luxurious space. When they entered, he turned to them and addressed Garth first.
"I need to apologize to you. The things I said were...inexcusable. I had no right."
It wasn't at all what Garth had expected. "That's not necess--" Garth broke off, feeling Dick's hand on his arm. Perhaps it *was* necessary, for all of them. He started again. "Thank you, sir. I don't see any reason to speak of it again."
"You're very kind." Bruce looked at them both. "Thank you for coming. I wasn't sure-- I wanted-- " He sighed. "I'm very bad at this."
It occurred to Garth that this might be the first time he'd ever seen Bruce Wayne, the *real* Bruce Wayne, not the thinly veiled persona of the Batman in Wayne's clothing or the vacuous socialite he presented to the world. It was like watching the man settle into his own skin, rarely used and thin with neglect.
Fortunately Alfred chose that moment--surely, no accident--to ask what they would like to drink, and to assure Garth that the meal he had prepared was entirely vegetarian...a thoughtful touch. When he left Bruce asked casually how things in Blüdhaven were going, and discussing that took them well into the main course.
Bruce had actually asked Dick for some information--something to do with a gunrunning network that might be spilling northward from Blüdhaven into Gotham City. Dick's eyes widened only slightly as he responded. 'Shop talk,' Garth thought with amusement, and listened with fascination. Once they got into the specific details, Dick and Bruce communicated on a level far more comprehensive than mere words could account for. Part of it was a complete, thorough understanding of all aspects of the situation, from the actual minutiae of the operation to every possible implication and effect of the network's involvement in both cities. Garth listened to them extrapolate scenarios, one postulating a solution and the other analyzing the risks and probable outcome, accounting for all factors.
For all the time the Titans as a group had known Robin and then Nightwing, they had rarely seen him actually at *work* with Batman. Garth felt that he was witnessing what Dick had talked about for many years: the true partnership he and Bruce shared, complete with an innate understanding of each other's thought processes that ran so deep they barely had to finish sentences to pick up on the other's thoughts. And it didn't reflect in any way the relationship of a "sidekick," or even an ex-sidekick, to a mentor. They were equals. Absolute equals, even if Dick sometimes refused to believe that Bruce considered him in that light. Garth had no more doubt that Bruce unequivocally did.
"...so I'll check on that when we get back to 'Haven," Dick said with finality, and flashed a grin at Garth. "Sorry. Didn't mean to get so deep into it."
It was a level, Garth knew, he would never be able to reach. But he had other gifts. "I don't mind. It's interesting, watching you at work. Both of you, I mean."
"Obsessives 'R Us." Dick shrugged. "Too easy to get caught up in it to the exclusion of everything else. I'm happy having a life *outside* of Nightwing." He paused and glanced at Bruce. "Not that I mean, uh--"
"Never mind," Bruce growled, though seemingly without overt irritation.
Dick continued on, undaunted. "Actually, that's something we've been meaning to talk over with you."
"The matter of your identity," Bruce said without hesitation, as if he'd been impatient for Dick to broach the subject.
Dick tossed him a wry smile. "That, exactly. We need your help in providing a good cover story. Garth mentioned some waterproofing and other technologies Wayne Enterprises might be interested in...."
"Oh?" Bruce's eyes narrowed as he glanced over at Garth. "Such as?"
Garth had prepared for this. "Waterproof substances, of course, and the means to make other materials water-resistant. There's also some agricultural and textile industries that could lend themselves to mutually beneficial commerce, as well as technical ones; I think there are a lot of possibilities in exploring the differences between the Internet and our Grid."
"Hm." Bruce nodded slowly. "We'd certainly be interested. I assume, then, you met through those negotiations. Tricky, but I think...perhaps, Dick, if you let it be known that my 'condition' for approval of your move to Blüdhaven was more involvement in my various businesses...in case things there didn't work out. Scouting for new prospects and the like."
"Sneaky." Dick's eyes sparkled with mischief. "And who would have guessed I'd meet such a...fascinating representative for the Atlanteans."
"Something like that," Bruce said dryly. "Garth, we'll need to talk to your people quickly. I can...persuade...Arthur to let this go through without argument."
"That won't be a problem," Garth replied evenly. "There's been a lot of discussion in the Council about opening up trade with the surface. Wayne Enterprises has a good record on environmental issues, which has been a prime concern in the past."
Bruce raised an eyebrow. "You've done your research."
"Yes. This isn't all about Dick and me. There's been a good deal of prep work already done, and I have the authority to bring an offer to the table. As my people's representative; it's my duty to see to their best interests." Garth smiled a little. "And to drive a hard bargain on their behalf. Although my job would be primarily to set things in motion and arrange for our negotiators to meet with yours."
"Good. Dick, you'll need to be involved in at least some of those meetings. And I have one last question." Bruce paused a moment, then looked squarely at Dick. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"I'm sure." Dick's voice was firm. "When I was dating Kory I had yet *another* secret identity to deal with. That stupid wig. I couldn't even be *myself* with her until it was too late! Maybe that's why--" he stopped, looking a little surprised with himself, then shook his head and went on. "Anyway. People've already seen me and Garth together in 'Haven. I'm not about to start lying now."
Bruce nodded. "But you're talking about a public revelation. Playing devil's advocate...why do you consider that necessary?"
"Sooner or later this will come out anyway, right? I'm not hiding. Maybe nobody cares what rookie cop Dick Grayson does at home, but Garth's ambassadorial duties will get him notice...and he's the spokesman for the Titans, besides."
Garth blinked, surprised. "I am?"
Dick nodded decisively. "Sure. Well, I should say, you and Donna--but considering how fragile she's been lately, I didn't want to push. Nightwing *can't* talk to the media, Jesse doesn't want that public a profile, Toni's too young to handle it, and d'you really want *Roy* speaking for us? I mean, I love the guy like a brother, but c'mon." He smiled. "You're well-spoken and won't bite some reporter's head off for the thousandth stupid question. Never mind photogenic. So *eventually* people are gonna get curious about you, one way or the other, and I'd rather we had all this in place sooner rather than have to scramble for an answer about how we met later."
"Oh." Garth leaned back in his chair, considering. "I see your point." And such a far cry, he mused, from the days when 'Aqualad' would have been the last person to speak for anyone. It was a measure of how much he'd changed that the thought didn't fill him with apprehension, and of Dick's faith in him at the same time. "I'd be pleased to."
Dick smirked, looking as if he'd never doubted it. "So, see. You're gonna be *famous.* And I'll just be your--" he stopped short, seeming to remember where they were. "Uh. Anyway."
"We can meet with Lucius tomorrow, if you're available," Bruce said as if he hadn't noticed Dick's near-impropriety. Not much hope of that, Garth thought, biting back a grin. It was an enormous relief that Bruce had chosen to not only put any issues aside, but also to actively help them arrange things. Even if it was only enlightened self-interest that motivated him--both in mending fences with Dick and protecting his own identity--Garth was thankful for it.
Dick caught Garth's nod of assent. "That's fine." He hesitated for a moment. "Listen, Bruce...I know this compromises you as well. Anyone who knows I'm Nightwing would have a pretty strong line to you. Tim proved that. And thanks to Wally and Kyle, anyone in the JLA who didn't know my ID before will be able to guess at it once we go public. So--"
"So," Bruce said, sounding as if this were old news, "the current members of the JLA and the Titans will know. I would...prefer...that the news not spread any further than that."
Dick winced. "Connor Hawke knows. About our costumed identities, at least."
Bruce actually raised a hand to pinch at the bridge of his nose, as if in pain. "Kyle," he growled, "needs a muzzle. Anyone else?"
"Not that I know of. Wally cut him off before he shared it with anyone else, I think."
"Fine. You'll need to be...extremely discreet while in costume. I realize that may be difficult," Bruce added dryly.
Dick glanced over at Garth with a grin, almost visibly bit his tongue, and settled on, "I'm used to keeping Nightwing out of the public eye anyway. But it would have been impossible to keep this from the Titans, and I wasn't interested in trying."
Bruce didn't reply. Garth felt the brief impulse to apologize, and stifled it. The ruse would be complicated, but Dick was determined to make it work. And they had nothing to apologize for. Dick's relationship with the Titans had always been based on trust, unlike Bruce's with the JLA. There might be some difficulty if the team accepted new members, but they'd worry about that when it happened.
With his usual gift for excellent timing, Alfred chose that moment to come and clear the dishes. Garth stood to help him. "Please, Master Garth, that's not at all necessary."
"Maybe not, but it gives me a good excuse to follow you back to your kitchen, where I hope I can persuade you to part with some of your recipes." Garth smiled and continued gathering plates. His gaze went to Dick, and then Bruce, and then back up to Alfred with a raised eyebrow; Alfred pursed his lips and appeared to consider.
"Well, perhaps. These *are* old family secrets, you know...but anything that might encourage Master Richard to abandon his appalling diet of pizza and tooth-rotting cereal...."
Garth laughed. "I'm trying, believe me. But he's stubborn."
Dick groaned and put his hands over his ears. "Thanks. If you're gonna talk about me behind my back, how about not doing it in front of my face?!"
"Very well, if you insist." Alfred sniffed in mock disapproval, the smile dancing at the corner of his mouth betraying his affection. Garth followed him out of the room after a last glance back at Dick. At the very least, Bruce seemed to accept their relationship. The rest...Dick and Bruce would have to work out themselves.
"I'm doomed," Dick said cheerfully, watching Alfred and Garth disappear toward the kitchen.
"Quite possibly," Bruce said, and then gave him an intense look. "You do know what you're letting yourself in for."
Dick cocked his head questioningly. "I don't--*oh.* You mean--"
"Homophobia, prejudice, societal disapproval, outright hated," Bruce finished for him flatly.
"I'm not trying to make a statement, Bruce. I only want to love who I love. And I'm not going to hide."
"And I'm not trying to dissuade you. I just want you to be aware."
Dick was about to nod automatically, but he paused for a moment and considered. "...You know...I *hadn't* really thought about it. Maybe you did such a good job of teaching me to look past that kind of prejudice that I never thought about it in reference to myself. It's never mattered before."
"You've never dealt with it publicly before," Bruce said quietly, and Dick gave him a sharp glance, wondering what he knew about Joey, about those few others....
He decided it didn't matter now. "You're right. Doesn't change my mind, but I get the point."
"All right. You have my full support, of course." Bruce paused. "Public and private."
Dick swallowed hard. "Thank you, Bruce. That means--everything."
"Dick..." Bruce's voice was very low, his tone almost painfully beseeching. "I know we can't be--what we were. But do you think we can be friends?"
Dick blinked quickly, hearing everything unspoken behind the words, an apology for things Bruce would never refer to again. "Oh. Yeah. Bruce, I-- that's what I want. I never wanted you to think you wouldn't always be one of the most important people in my life."
"And you in mine," Bruce said softly.
"Okay. So...." Dick took a breath. "Promise you'll *call* me when you need help. Friends do that, right? Don't shut me out. I'm busy, yeah, but there isn't a hell of a lot so important that it'd keep me away if you needed me here."
Bruce actually smiled a little. "...I know. And I also didn't want to intrude, because when you moved away from Gotham I thought it was at least in part to move away from me." He held up a hand to forestall Dick's protest. "It doesn't matter now. I'll...try to do better. I can promise that much."
"That's all I want, Bruce."
Alfred had allowed Garth to bring dishes to the kitchen, but flatly refused to allow him to help clean them. "You're a guest of this house, I won't hear of it."
Knowing himself so clearly outmatched, Garth made himself useful in whatever small manner Alfred allowed--which mostly translated into staying out of the way. Alfred's rule over this kitchen would obviously brook no disruption to the order of his domain.
Garth had mainly been looking for a reason to leave Bruce and Dick to talk alone, but Alfred took him at his word, describing the recipes he'd made with clear directions while at the same time cleaning with astounding efficiency, no movements wasted. Garth listened, mentally taking notes, while considering the magnitude of Bruce Wayne's demonstration of support and what that meant to Dick. And to him, for that matter, if only because it would make things between the three of them so much easier.
Alfred abruptly interrupted his task, turning from the sink with a dripping plate still in hand. "I should have mentioned earlier--if you need to, ah, refresh yourself, please feel free to use a shower upstairs."
Garth blinked at him for a moment, then smiled. "That's thoughtful. I'm fine for the moment, thank you."
Alfred looked distressed. "I do hope I haven't been inappropriate. It was only that Vernon Questor once told me about an incident at Mr. Dayton's estate--Ms. Troy's wedding, I believe it was?"
"'Incident'? I'm not sure-- oh!" Garth grinned, remembering. "I suppose he would call it that. Gar had made sure to fill the pool with fresh water for Tula and me to rehydrate every hour. She...convinced me that bathing suits were irrelevant, and Questor found us there... ahem." The look on Questor's face had been *priceless,* and once he'd gone, Tula had turned back to Garth with a wicked smile. They'd nearly been late getting back to the party to see Donna and Terry's first dance...but recalling the memory now was worth the slight embarrassment he'd felt then.
Garth glanced up to see Alfred regarding him thoughtfully. "But, ah, my tolerance for being out of water is much greater these days."
"I regret I only had the chance to meet Miss Tula briefly," Alfred said quietly. "I remember her as a lovely, self-assured young woman."
"I know she would have been pleased to think you remembered her at all." Garth smiled to reassure Alfred that the memory he'd raised was a joyous one.
Alfred nodded, belatedly drying the plate in his hand with a dishtowel. "It was rare enough that Master Richard brought his friends to the house. I recall those occasions fondly...even if Master Wallace *did* insist on emptying the refrigerator of everything edible before moving on to the pantry!"
Garth laughed. "He *still* does that. Perhaps we're fortunate he's moved on to the JLA; they can afford to feed him more easily than the Titans can."
"I expect so." Alfred smiled slightly. "It was always a great relief to me that Master Richard found himself such good companions in his youth, and that those friendships have lasted into his adulthood."
--as opposed to Bruce's lack of the same, Alfred didn't say but Garth heard anyway. Alfred's two "sons" were so much alike in some ways, but in others, there simply was no comparison. "He inspires our love. He always has," Garth smiled. "Some more than others, of course."
"I doubt anyone could spend much time in his presence and be entirely immune to the effect," Alfred said, sounding as if he were simply making a statement of fact.
Garth nodded slowly, knowing that Alfred meant much, much more than he would ever speak aloud. It would be far too crass to follow along those lines. "Oh, I don't know. It's probably fortunate no one told us about his cooking and cleaning habits until *after* we couldn't do without him."
That earned him a laugh, quickly stifled as Alfred regained his deportment. "Yes, indeed. Quite deplorable, despite all my best efforts to teach him otherwise."
"He learned more important things from you," Garth said, hoping he hadn't overstepped. But surely Alfred knew that already.
Alfred turned back to the dishes, but not before Garth saw the simultaneously surprised and pleased expression on the older man's face. "I'm...very proud of the man he's become," Alfred said. Over the sound of splashing water, he continued, "And if I may say, it's a great relief to see Master Richard so at ease with himself."
Garth paused a moment before he replied. Dick regarded this man as a grandfather, as much a mentor as Bruce, and loved him dearly. Not that Garth had truly feared Alfred might feel otherwise...but hearing his tacit blessing was still a great relief. "I'm glad to hear you say that."
"Surely you don't need *my* approval." Alfred finished with the last plate and dried his hands.
"No, sir," Garth said quietly, "but it's good to have it."
Alfred faced him, smiling. "Please, Master Garth... do call me Alfred."
"Of course, sir...Alfred." Garth glanced at the doorway, then back at the older man. "I suppose they've had enough time to...."
"Indeed, Master Garth," Alfred agreed. "I'm sure Master Richard would welcome your rejoining him."
With a grateful smile, Garth nodded and left the kitchen.
When Garth re-entered the dining room, he found Dick leaning casually against a sideboard, his hands shoved into his pockets. Bruce stood next to his chair at the head of the table. Dick turned to Garth with a contented smile that went straight to his heart. Dick pushed away from the sideboard and stepped toward Garth.
"If we're meeting with Lucius tomorrow, we might as well stay in Gotham tonight." Dick glanced back at Bruce. "We can get a hotel room...."
"Don't be ridiculous." Bruce's voice was gruff with impatience--whether with Dick for the suggestion, or with his eagerness to move on to his nightly patrol, Garth couldn't tell. "You'll both stay here, of course. Your room's as you left it, Dick."
Dick nodded silently, then looked very deliberately to Garth. "Sound okay to you?"
"Certainly. Thank you again for your hospitality, Mr. Wayne."
Bruce shook his head as if waving off the thanks and turned quickly, walking out of the room with long strides. Garth glanced at Dick questioningly. "Did I say something wrong?"
"Nope. That's just...Bruce." Dick let out a long breath of relieved tension. "That went really well, don't you think?"
"Very. Are you-- did you talk?" Garth asked tentatively.
Dick nodded, smiling. "Yeah. It was good. I think we...I think maybe we might be friends. Which sounds weird after all these years, but..." he looked toward the door Bruce had vanished through. "I should offer to help patrol tonight." He glanced back over at Garth. "But I've had enough drama for one day, I think."
"A whole night off! However will you keep yourself occupied?" Garth teased.
Dick leered. "If we were home, I'd show you. But *now* we get to go annoy Alfred until he agrees to make us his amazing chocolate-chip cookies so we'll go away."
"I suppose you couldn't simply ask him?"
Dick rolled his eyes. "What would be the fun in *that*?"
"Right, I forgot," Garth said solemnly. "He did mention that you considered it your duty to bedevil him at every opportunity. Rather like a gadfly."
"He didn't." Dick's eyes narrowed. "What did you talk about, anyway?"
Garth smiled guilelessly. "I'd never tell."
"You will. Oh, yes, you will," Dick muttered darkly. "I have *ways* of making you talk."
"Cookies," Garth reminded him. "Interrogation later."
"At least wait until I get them off the cookie sheet," Alfred protested.
"But they're best right out of--ouch!--the oven!" Dick juggled two hot cookies in one hand while sticking the burned tip of a finger on the other hand into his mouth.
Alfred heaved a long-suffering sigh and slid the unpilfered cookies onto a plate. "So you suffer the effects of your own impatience. Would you care to try some?" he asked, offering the plate to Garth and patently ignoring the tongue Dick stuck out at him behind his back.
"Thank you, they smell wonderful." Garth took one gingerly, trying not to laugh at Dick's antics.
Alfred sat down at the table. "If you keep that up, Master Richard, your face will freeze. I imagine you might have some difficulty in your role as the scourge of Blüdhaven with such a handicap."
Dick smirked. "You used to tell me that all the time, and it never ever did."
"There's always a first time," Alfred said blandly.
Garth sat back with his hands cradled around his tea cup, enjoying their easy banter, the cozy atmosphere of the kitchen and its mingled pleasant scents. More than any other place in the manor, the kitchen had an inviting and comfortable aura. Even the dining room, luxuriously appointed as it was, had a certain...coldness to it.
But to Dick this was another home, and he loved it. It was easy to forget, watching him clown with Alfred, how much Bat he had in him.
"This meeting tomorrow sounds quite important," Alfred said, reclaiming Garth's focus.
"For a number of reasons. Not the least because it provides a convenient way for Dick and I to have gotten to know each other." He smiled at Dick, who was licking chocolate off his fingers.
Alfred held out a napkin in his direction without taking his attention from Garth. "That's a prudent stratagem, especially since it clearly wasn't his fastidious manners that drew your notice." He waved the napkin in punctuation. Dick, looking not at all chastised, took it and began wiping his hands with exaggerated care. "I imagine it won't be easy, working around your other identities' association."
Garth glanced over at Dick, who seemed entirely satisfied to let him answer. "No, but Nightwing's relative anonymity will help. It's been a long time since he openly appeared as the Titans' leader. And only a handful of people know that Nightwing is now based in Blüdhaven."
"Some of the wrong ones, unfortunately," Dick put in. "I'm still trying to figure out if I can have any kind of working relationship with the cops. I'll be lucky to find a handful of honest ones."
"How dreadful," Alfred murmured. "But if both Nightwing and Tempest are known to be operating in Blüdhaven, won't that create an obvious link between you?"
Garth hesitated for a moment. He and Dick were both aware of the complications, but hadn't discussed this aspect of things. "I...hadn't actually planned to work actively in 'Haven. If there's an emergency, of course, or if Dick needs help, particularly on the waterfront. But if the agreement with Wayne Enterprises goes through, I expect to be spending a lot more time in Gotham and in New York. Between that and the Titans, I don't think I'll have the opportunity to do much there."
"As long as there's still time for me in your busy schedule," Dick said, not entirely joking. "But yeah, there's a connection. Nightwing can't be seen cozying up to Tempest, and at some point we'll have to make sure I make a decisive appearance at the same time Nightwing is spotted."
"I believe Master J'onzz has been of help to Master Kent in that regard," Alfred noted.
"Exactly what I was thinking," Dick grinned. "But Alfred, speaking of the meeting tomorrow...do us a favor and have the tailor send over two full business suits in the morning? The whole outfit, shoes and everything."
Alfred nodded. "Of course. I have your measurements, I merely need to send over Master Garth's."
"Sure, that's easy." Dick walked to a counter, snagged a memo pad out of a drawer, and wrote down a couple of numbers. "That should do it." He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.
Garth regarded him with a raised eyebrow. "You're so sure of what will fit me?"
Dick seemed to bite back several inappropriate replies before he finally coughed and said in a strangled voice, "I have a pretty good idea."
Alfred had watched the exchange with evident amusement. "My. That looked like it hurt."
The table resounded with a hollow thump as Dick's forehead collided with its surface. "I've been good *all day,*" his muffled voice complained.
"You needn't strain yourself any further, Master Richard. I'm retiring for the night." Alfred got up, pointedly gathering the remaining cookies--all but one--into a container. "The house is yours."
Dick lifted his head to look at the older man with near-tangible affection. "G'night, Alfred."
"Good night, gentlemen." Alfred smiled at them both and withdrew.
Dick snatched the last cookie off the plate. "C'mon, grab a bottle of water from the fridge and let's go upstairs." As they made their way up the back stairs, he said quietly, "You know, the thing is, Alfred won't sleep until Bruce is home. He pretends he does, but he's always ready in case Bruce comes back wounded and needs stitches or something."
"Bruce is very fortunate to have him." Garth thought it was entirely too obvious a statement, but Dick nodded.
"Yeah. He's... well, he's *Alfred.* We both would've been lost without him." Dick sighed. "He's virtually given up his own life to take care of us. I wonder sometimes if he...regrets that."
"He loves you both," Garth said softly. "I don't think he regards being here as a sacrifice."
Dick smiled. "I know you're right."
Garth followed Dick through Wayne Manor's hallways and corridors to their destination. The first time he'd seen Dick's suite at Wayne Manor, years ago as a Teen Titan, it had seemed to Garth as large as Arthur's Imperial Suite in Atlantis, an enormous space for one small boy. From an adult's viewpoint, it appeared in proper perspective: a large sitting room in front, leading to a sizeable bedroom and full bath beyond. But it was decorated much the way he remembered it, stately classical furnishings clashing with Dick's own selection of tacked-up posters. Even though Dick hadn't lived here in years, the room remained spotless, frozen in time waiting for its true occupant to return.
The effect might have been creepy, but Garth found it reassuring instead: proof that Dick would always have a place in Bruce's life, no matter what came between them. The fact that Dick took the room's unchanged appearance as a given only reinforced that impression. It had obviously never occurred to him that things might be otherwise.
Garth couldn't even begin to count the ways those assumptions differed from his relationship with Arthur and Poseidonis, and no longer cared to. They simply weren't worth reexamining.
"Whew. What a day." Dick stood in the middle of the room, stretching, clothes clinging to the long line of his body. "I'll take a mob of 'Haven thugs over the cross-examination anytime."
"*I* was the one under interrogation," Garth protested mildly, too distracted by the view to be more emphatic about it.
Immediately Dick was at his side. "Poor baby. Anything I can do to make it up to you?"
He made a show of deliberating. "I could use a shower."
Dick slid in closer. "Want company?"
Morning came far too swiftly. Almost as soon as Garth felt himself drifting off to sleep, the sun was pouring in through the windows. He felt well rested nevertheless, perhaps the difference between waking in quiet luxury versus the urban noise of the 'Haven apartment.
Beside him, Dick groaned loudly as he stretched like a lazy cat. Garth lay back among the pillows, watching with amusement.
Dick sat up and scratched at his rumpled hair. "S'pose we ought to get up and get ready for that meeting." He looked at Garth with sleepy blue eyes.
"I think we're still missing something."
"Probably already hanging outside." Dick yawned hugely and bounced out of bed, heading for the door.
Garth watched him appreciatively for a moment before he realized. "Uh, Dick?"
Dick glanced back, already at the threshold to the sitting room. "Yeah?"
"Pants might be good here."
"I'd just be taking them off again," Dick grumbled amiably, and came back to grab the sheet off the bed to wrap around himself.
"Hey!" Garth sputtered, not because it was cold but because Dick expected him to.
"Easier this way." Dick went for the door again. Garth stayed where he was, listening. Aside from Dick's movements, the rest of the manor was silent as far as he could hear. But he wouldn't put it past Alfred to be Bruce's equal in stealth.
Dick came back into the bedroom, dragging two large wheeled contraptions: a movable clothes rack with two large garment bags hanging from it, and a smaller, squat cart with a coffee urn, a steaming tea pot, juice and water carafes, cups, and glasses piled on it. The sheet, Garth noted with amusement, had already been left behind. "Clothes *and* breakfast. Or a starter, anyway," Dick announced. He glanced at a slip of paper on the tray. "Real breakfast downstairs in an hour."
Garth wasn't interested in breakfast at the moment. "Exhibitionist."
"Look who's talking," Dick smirked, his eyes sweeping the length of Garth's body. "All laid out like..." his grin widened. "Dessert."
"Before breakfast?" Garth said with feigned horror. "No wonder Alfred was appalled by your eating habits."
"I never heard *you* complain before."
"Oh, and I'm not now. Believe me," Garth murmured. He paused. "An hour?"
"Yeah," Dick said, sounding regretful, "and it would be a really, really bad idea to be late."
Garth sighed. "It's going to take me longer to prepare than usual. I don't think it'd be a good idea to leave the meeting to rehydrate.
"I figured. But don't push it," Dick said firmly. "You'll be the star of the day. If you need a break, say so. Hell, if you need to leave altogether, don't hesitate. They'll be only too happy to reconvene at *your* convenience, given what you're bringing to the table."
"You'll...stay there, right?" He hadn't meant to sound so unsure, asking like that, but this was going to be an entirely different arena than he was accustomed to. Dick being in the room would help him focus on what he-- they-- needed to accomplish today. On the one hand, it signaled Arthur's trust in him, that he had been given the authority to initiate this arrangement...and on the other, it was simply another difficult task that the king had passed off to his former 'sidekick.' But if all went well, the potential rewards for Atlantis were worth any amount of anxiety on his part.
"'Course I will." Dick's reassuring smile accompanied his most ingenuous expression. "I wouldn't leave my new best friend the ambassador all alone with those execs. They have sharp pointy teeth."
"'The jaws that bite, the claws that catch'?"
Dick laughed. "Just like that. Except Lucius Fox. He's different. He's a good, good man. You'll see." He leaned across the bed to press a quick, promise-filled kiss against Garth's mouth. "Raincheck for later."
"Incentive to get me through the day. I'll hold you to that." Garth took the glass of orange juice that Dick handed him and drank with genuine pleasure. "Oh, that's good."
"Fresh-squeezed, of course. Alfred doesn't let juice in a box into this house."
Garth looked plaintively at the liquid array. "Are you sure we can't take him home with us?"
Dick grinned. "Maybe if *you* asked. I've tried. He tells me he's cleaned up after me enough for one lifetime."
"Just my luck," Garth muttered, and went to start the shower.
Forty minutes later, carefully spelled, he dressed in the clothing that Alfred had ordered. Donna would approve, he thought. Even "off the rack," everything fit perfectly. He especially liked the purple in the tie that matched his eyes.
"Peacock," Dick teased, coming out of the bathroom scrubbing at his wet hair with a towel, and otherwise still naked. "Stop preening. You look gorgeous."
"So do you. But I don't think that outfit's acceptable for a public appearance. Though I rather like it."
"That's because you're depraved. But I like that about you." Dick started pulling on clothing, his haphazard approach somehow concluding with him fully attired, the clothes falling into place with impeccable style. "There. Better?"
Garth grinned. "Not from *my* point of view." Dick headed back to the bathroom, probably for the hair dryer, and Garth saw that the pants fit like a proverbial glove. "On the other hand...."
Dick snickered and bent over to pick up the towel he'd dropped on the floor.
"Dick," Garth said, summoning all his willpower, "*you* were the one who said it'd be a bad idea to be late."
"Spoilsport." Dick hung up the towel and reached for the dryer. "I'll be done in a sec."
Bruce met them in the dining room, looking every inch the consummate executive, from his exquisitely tailored suit down to his perfectly shined shoes. One glance at his face, however, and the illusion broke utterly. No one would mistake those cool, calculating blue eyes for the carefree expression usually worn by the carefully crafted public persona of Bruce Wayne.
Dick seemed oblivious to the dichotomy. Or perhaps he was so accustomed to it, he didn't find it worth commenting on. "Anything interesting on patrol?"
Bruce grunted a negative, and the three of them ate in relative silence. Garth was becoming increasingly aware of the importance of the coming meeting. His realization of the scrutiny he would be under didn't do much to help his appetite, but an occasional smile from Dick helped to scatter the butterflies in his stomach.
Before long, a Wayne Enterprises limousine arrived to take them all into Gotham City. The ride into Gotham was also quiet. Dick, always a bundle of kinetic energy, fidgeted, cracking his knuckles and tapping his foot, until first Bruce's glare, then Garth's hand on his knee settled him down to stare out the window. The limousine driver took them to the executive entrance of the Wayne Enterprises building.
Dick grinned. "Showtime."
As Bruce's hand touched the door handle, his entire demeanor changed.
The transformation was astounding.
Physically, he looked the same...but no magic could have disguised him better. He seemed to shrink, the elegant power in his brawny frame transforming into clumsiness and the sharp intelligence in his eyes becoming a vapid puzzlement. The jovial smile, Garth thought, was the worst because you wanted to believe in the naïve sweetness of it. It was probably a good thing that most people never recognized the cynical darkness hiding underneath.
As they passed through the building, Bruce greeted virtually everyone with a cheerful comment. "Kelly, how's your arm? Healing well? Good, good. John! I hear your wife's expecting. Congratulations! Make sure you tell Fiona where to send a gift for the baby shower. Listen, Nicole, if you need any help with arrangements for the company picnic, don't hesitate to ask."
The sheer level of deception would have troubled Garth more if he didn't have the sense that somehow, deep down, Bruce *enjoyed* playing this role. Not quite pretending to be the man he might have been if his parents had lived...but perhaps this smiling caricature served a different purpose. Garth didn't want to guess at what that might be. Bruce had his reasons, as for everything, and Garth knew that attempting to analyze his motives was far beyond the scope of their...acquaintance.
He respected what the Batman was, he appreciated the role Bruce played in Dick's life, but he really, truly didn't care to empathize with the man. The attempt wouldn't be appreciated in any case.
The three of them took one of the high-speed elevators to the executive levels of the building. They stepped out into the reception area of the floor, where Bruce exchanged more of the same kind of polite greetings with his employees. Some of them addressed Dick as well, a few with a touch too much eagerness, and Garth found himself wondering if they weren't trying to curry favor with a potential future CEO. The thought was...slightly disturbing in its cynicism. But others seemed genuinely pleased to see Dick, perhaps recalling a young boy who had run wild through the corridors years ago.
"Where's Lucius this morning?" Bruce asked. "Oh, never mind," he told the receptionist, "just buzz him and ask him to come to my office." Bruce set off down a hallway. Dick looked at Garth and jerked his head in the direction Bruce had gone, and they followed. Bruce burst through the outer door to the Chief Executive Officer's suite and greeted his administrative assistant, Fiona, with casual joviality before disappearing into the inner sanctum of his office.
Garth watched as Dick greeted Wayne's assistant with his most disarming smile. Dick made brief introductions, then gestured to Garth to follow him into Bruce's executive lair.
Bruce had already seated himself behind a massive desk and had begun scrolling through his email messages. Before Dick and Garth had the chance to take a seat, a tall black man whom Garth estimated to be in his mid- to late 50's entered the office. Garth glanced at Dick, who gave an almost imperceptible wink and nod.
"You're here early," the man commented wryly to Bruce.
"I brought visitors!" Bruce chirped, standing up and stepping out from behind his desk.
"So I see. Dick, it's good to see you again."
"You too, Mr. Fox." Dick smiled and held out his hand for Lucius to shake. "How's your family?"
"Fine, fine. How's life down in, where is it, Blüdhaven? Bruce never could quite explain to me what possessed you to move *there.*"
Dick grinned. "Well, there's a funny story behind that, but the upshot that is I found a job." He pulled out his badge to show Lucius. "Just graduated from the academy. Officer Grayson, BHPD."
"Well, I'll be damned." Lucius favored him with a wide, amazed smile. "Congratulations, son. That's quite an accomplishment."
"Thanks," Dick said, ducking his head in pleased response. Part of that was almost certainly the slightly airheaded persona he'd adopted, but Garth thought most of it was entirely genuine.
Bruce had watched the exchange with a benign, vaguely bored expression. Now he spoke up again, as if he was afraid Lucius would overlook him if he didn't. "Lucius, I wanted you to meet someone. This is Ambassador Garth--" He broke off, looking puzzled. "You know, I don't know your last name. Or do you have one?"
"We don't, generally," Garth said, smiling.
"Oh. Well, okay, then. Ambassador Garth, from Atlantis." He said the last word in an exaggerated voice. "You know, like that Aquaman fellow."
Lucius Fox smiled and held out a hand. "Yes, of course. Pleasure to meet you, Ambassador."
"Likewise, Mr. Fox." Garth shook his hand, noting the man's firm grip and piercing gaze.
"So what brings you to Gotham? I imagine it's not the scenery."
Garth laughed. "You do have some...interesting architecture. But no, I'd been discussing some trade possibilities with Dick, and he suggested I bring them to Wayne Enterprises."
"Oh, that's not *exactly* how it happened," Dick protested. "Actually, Lucius, what happened was--"
"Why don't we sit down and discuss it?" Lucius suggested. "We should take this to one of the conference rooms."
"Right, good idea," Bruce said. "I'll have Fiona send some refreshments in." He sauntered off.
"This way," Lucius gestured. "So, Dick, you were saying?"
"Bruce had asked me to think about new opportunities for Wayne Enterprises. Then there was all this stuff about Atlantis in the news, and I sorta knew Garth from when I, uh." Dick stopped and shook his head, grinning. "Wow, that was about to get overly complicated. First off, Garth is one of the Titans, you know, up in New York."
"I go by the name Tempest," Garth offered.
Lucius nodded slowly. "Okay, go on...." He led them into a comfortably appointed meeting room, seating himself at one end of the oval table.
"So when I was dating Kory, I kind of got to know some of the others a little. I heard some mention of an abandoned trade agreement with Atlantis, and then I read about Garth being appointed as an ambassador to the U.N., and long story short I managed to get in contact with him and we started talking. So, now, here we are." He looked expectantly at Lucius, and Garth had to stifle a smile. Dick looked exactly like a teenager who'd brought home a stray cat and wanted approval for the deed.
Lucius leaned forward and steepled his fingers. "Let me make sure I have this straight. Ambassador, you're approaching Wayne Enterprises on behalf of your people, in hope of opening...trade negotiations?"
"That's exactly right."
"That's extraordinary." Lucius shook his head in apparent amazement. "I would have expected it to take years to see this kind of offer. And you simply walk in and give it to us? Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but I am a little surprised."
Garth smiled. "This isn't entirely a...what is the term? A 'cold call'? We've been through this process before, though it's never amounted to much. There's been plenty of time to research various companies and their business dealings. Wayne Enterprises has an extremely good record in many areas of mutual concern."
Bruce ambled into the conference room. "So, Lucius, what do you think?"
"I think it's an enormous opportunity we've been handed, and I think we have a lot of talking to do before we're through here today." Lucius smiled, the predatory gleam in his eye offset by the aura of genuine pleasure he took in his work. "Ambassador, would you mind if I had a few others join us?"
"Not at all."
"Excellent. I'll need a few minutes to rearrange my schedule and bring in the others. Is there anything else-- oh, Fiona, good." Bruce's executive secretary came in, followed by two interns loaded down with water pitchers and coffee carafes and glasses. "Would you let Rita know to cancel my meetings today, please? And we'll need to pull in...."
Over the flurry of Lucius' directions and from across the table, Dick winked at Garth and then pretended to be engrossed in the view out of the high windows. Exactly as if he didn't already know the placement of every skyscraper and gargoyle by heart.
Garth smiled, watching Dick watch the city, pleased at how well everything had gone so far. If Mr. Fox's enthusiasm were any hint, there wouldn't be much trouble in forging a relationship between Atlantis and Wayne Enterprises. That it would serve his and Dick's private agenda as well was almost an afterthought to the potential importance of this meeting.
Almost. But never far from *his* mind, at least.
"Ambassador, I'll need some preliminary information," Lucius said, interrupting his reverie.
"Certainly," he replied, turning to where Lucius sat with his fingers poised over a laptop computer's keyboard. "I'd be happy to provide whatever you need."
Even if Lucius didn't know it, it was only payment in advance for the immensity of the favor he was doing them.
Epilogue 1: Leslie (at the clinic)
Leslie had wanted to ask Garth about more personal things--his family, his life outside the Titans--but something dissuaded her. Maybe it was what Alfred had said, the odd inference about Garth's nonrelationship with Aquaman. Or something in his demeanor, which suggested that while he might have been willing to answer such questions, his discomfort in doing so would have been more than Leslie wanted to impose. Especially considering it wasn't any of her business. As long as they were happy--as long as *Dick* was happy, more to the point--she didn't deem it necessary to press further.
But aside from that small mystery, she'd found herself liking him. As Alfred had indicated: quiet, yes, but not introverted. He'd been perfectly willing to joke with Dick in her presence. More significantly, he'd stepped in to divert the conversation about Bruce when it might have become...complicated. That meant he was fully aware of the complexities of *that* relationship, which had to be a necessity in truly understanding Dick's character. Bruce's influence ran deep, in so many ways...and as much as she loved him, Leslie didn't see all of those effects as positive ones.
Dick, at least, allowed himself the 'luxuries' of friendship and love. There had been a time when she'd been afraid that Dick would emulate Bruce's denial of those same things, leaving him as lonely as his mentor. But Dick's natural ebullience had kept him from the worst of Bruce's isolation, and his innate charisma ensured that the people around him loved him in return.
The Titans, she knew, had been a big part of Dick's emotional growth. Bruce hadn't been entirely sanguine about Dick's relationship with Koriand'r, and Leslie understood why; the passionate, demonstrative alien girl had been approximately as opposite to Bruce's own carefully controlled nature as day to night. But Leslie had seen how Kory had drawn Dick out of his self-imposed solitude, and she'd approved. Not that Dick had ever required or demanded her approval, at least not overtly. The best she had ever been able to do was make herself available whenever he wanted her council.
It didn't surprise her at all that now Dick had found someone else who already knew the full extent of his dual existence. Leslie could hardly imagine otherwise. It wasn't in his nature to lie, at least not to someone he cared about that much, and the secrets he held were carefully guarded by necessity. Not that Dick wouldn't defy Bruce in that regard if he'd felt strongly enough about a 'civilian'...but perhaps it was just as well he hadn't needed to. There was enough tension between them already without that additional complication.
And if Bruce still had reservations about Garth after this dinner tonight... he would have to be reminded to keep them to himself.
Epilogue 2: Bruce (during dinner)
I remember a quiet and introverted boy. I see a reserved and...self-possessed man.
I begin to see what Dick does.
It disturbs me somewhat to realize that I'd missed these changes. Knowledge, after all, is my dearest weapon. Know your enemies...and your allies too.
In some ways I always dismissed the Titans. They were Dick's team, Dick's friends, young well-meaning teenagers who did well enough but never were powerful enough, *good* enough, to make a difference.
They aren't teenagers any longer, most of them. And I was wrong.
Despite her personal troubles, Troia is as dedicated and steadfast a hero as any. Arsenal, for all his bluster and annoying mannerisms, makes very good use of those talents he has. Jesse Quick shows considerable promise, given time and seasoning, particularly if she has inherited her mother's talent for command as well as her father's speed. Argent--well, she *is* the teenager among them, and can learn valuable lessons from these "ex-sidekicks" who have gone through it all before.
Nightwing is...everything I had hoped he might become, and more. He knows--I *hope* he knows--how proud I am of everything he's accomplished.
I duly catalogued the changes in his powers when I learned of them. Water manipulation and temperature control added to extant metahuman strength and endurance, and awakened magical potential of indeterminate intensity. I noted his apparent break with Aquaman and decision to make a life for himself on land, despite the difficulties.
I had not known anything of the man he's become.
He looks at me with compassion I haven't earned, the way I assaulted him in Dick's apartment. I don't-- I'm not accustomed to that. It's odd to think; this boy, this man, has known me passingly for years. I've barely spoken to him in all that time, and when I finally did, it was with cruelty. Yet he looks at me as if he understands all the reasons for it, and forgives anyway.
Is *this* the child that Arthur raised? I find that hard to believe. Arthur's compassion, when he displays it, is hard edged. Yet despite Arthur's guardianship, the loss of his first love, what seems to have been some kind of harrowing magical ordeal...Garth seems far more at ease with himself than Arthur will ever be.
I sense--I *see* -- what the Flash told me: that he would never hurt Dick in any way. I wonder if Dick knows precisely how firmly Garth has tied his destiny to Dick's, even so soon. I wonder if the inevitable stresses of what we do will come between them, or if the fact of Garth's heritage and responsibilities undersea will force them to part.
But Dick looks...happy. So my misgivings I keep to myself, and hope that these two find what they need in each other.
Epilogue 3: Lucius (at Wayne Enterprises)
As the day wore on, out of the corner of his eye, Lucius Fox watched them both.
Interesting. Dick seemed far happier than Lucius remembered seeing him in years...and it patently *wasn't* the artificial cheerfulness that Dick sometimes projected in social situations, hiding his discomfort with the society he'd been adopted into. Lucius had often gotten the impression that Dick, when younger, had wanted nothing more than to escape the receptions and parties and casual insincerities of Bruce Wayne's public life. As Dick had grown older, he'd either found excuses to avoid the occasions or adopted his own version of the social mask. But looking at him now, Lucius saw a sincere contentment in his demeanor.
Dick Grayson, a police officer! Lucius wondered how Bruce had taken *that,* particularly given his determination to keep Dick safe. That protective impulse had led him to making the boy his ward in the first place. The choice implied a deeper sense of civic responsibility than Lucius would have guessed at.
And now he'd brought an ambassador who also happened to be a Titan to Wayne Enterprises. Lucius wasn't entirely unfamiliar with superheroes. His children were entirely fascinated with the whole idea, collecting memorabilia and the various magazines devoted to super-powered celebrities. He himself had actually met the Batman and knew him to be more than an 'urban myth,' as most would claim. He didn't entirely approve of vigilantes--at least the Justice League had the sanction of the U.N.--but Lucius would never deny that Batman kept Gotham far safer than it would have been otherwise. The Titans seemed, on the whole, to be a benign association of heroes...even if their tower did have a distressing habit of exploding on occasion.
He only knew *that* fact as a result of Dick's involvement with Starfire. Oh, that had been interesting. Dick had never known--Bruce insisted that Dick should never know--what kind of mail both Bruce and Wayne Enterprises received about that. Everything from begging requests for photos of the lovely alien model to violent threats against Dick, Kory, Bruce, the company, and everyone associated with the "unnatural" relationship. Lucius had met her once, before that terrifying disaster of a wedding, and found her to be a fascinating woman. He'd never been entirely clear on what happened that day, and didn't find it necessary to know; some kind of villainous attack, he gathered, and left it at that except for keeping the worst of it out of the media.
Dick had lost her after that day, and Lucius hadn't been aware of any serious relationship since. Not that it was any of his concern, of course, except as a friend of the family. As it were. But with Dick moving to New York and then Blüdhaven, Lucius had nearly lost track of him, and it seemed that's how Dick had wanted it. Until now. If he meant to involve himself more closely in the Wayne business...that was as it should be. Richard Grayson was heir to the empire, after all, unless Bruce suddenly designated another or had a child of his own. Lucius didn't think either possibility was at all likely. Bruce hadn't been serious about a woman since...Silver St. Cloud? Had it been that long? And every single paternity suit brought against him--several dozen, each year--turned out to be a fraud. As far as Lucius was concerned, the sooner Dick began to accept his inevitable inheritance, the better.
He saw Dick lean across the table to refill Garth's water glass, and the appreciative smile he received in return. Well, perhaps that wasn't unusual attention, in this particular situation. Solicitous, but prudent, since Garth had privately let Lucius know about the limitations of his physiology on land. Lucius had of course assured him that they would do whatever was necessary to make him comfortable. For *this* deal, Lucius would be willing to put on a scuba suit and brush up on his sign language to talk underwater, if that's what it took. Garth had seemed confident that no extraordinary measures would be necessary, at least for this initial meeting.
And...yes. He was being subtle about it, but the ambassador was definitely watching Dick, keeping him in sight. A bracing touchstone, since Dick was his only friend here? Or... hm. He glanced at the contact information Garth had provided. Two addresses were noted: one for Titans' Tower, in New York...and the other in Blüdhaven.
But idle speculation, Lucius reminded himself, didn't serve any purpose. Dick had potentially done Wayne Enterprises an enormous service in bringing Garth here. Lucius had every intention on capitalizing on this advantage. Take *that,* Lex, he thought with almost vicious pleasure. He found Luthor's methods personally repulsive and professionally reprehensible, no matter how good Lex's PR department made him look. Getting ahead of LexCorp on an entirely new prospect would be a genuine triumph.
Anything else was merely a detail.