Sea and Sky XXVI:

Diplomatic Relations II

or, Our Dinner with Arthur

by 'rith


Archive: Ask first, please.
Fandom: Modern comicsverse, still pre-Tower of Babel. S&S series, a few days after the Wayne reception. The previous parts can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/. Mention of Alianne refers to "Affairs of State" by Elay: http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/stories/Affairs.html
Notations: m/m and m/f relationships, nonexplicit.
Disclaimer: All characters property of DC Comics. What I have done with them is mine.
Thanks to: the usual suspects, Smitty for 'rithsitting, and Kael, who knows why.
Summary: Atlantean politics and dinner with the *other* in-laws.



A certain measure of...embarrassment over the miscalculation with Alianne had kept Arthur from contacting Garth personally for awhile. Oh, he'd sent official communications, including congratulations and approvals on the Wayne Enterprises deal. He *had* considered making an appearance at the reception, but it really was Garth's accomplishment; he'd thought it more appropriate that Garth receive all the credit for it.

Besides, attending would have meant going into Gotham, and an inevitable confrontation with Bruce. Not that Arthur didn't enjoy a good conflict on occasion...but contesting the Bat on his own ground was poor strategy.

But by now, surely, Garth had forgiven the subterfuge with Ali. Mera and he had only been thinking of Garth's well being, after all. But if Garth's...relationship...with Dick was sure enough for them to make a public declaration of it, Arthur wasn't inclined to meddle further. He still was far from convinced that they would be able to make a true commitment, given so many conflicting factors in their lives, but saying so would only make Garth even more stubbornly certain of his choice.

In that, at least, he and Garth were not so different. After all, Arthur himself had ignored certain factions that disapproved of his liaison with an other-dimensional queen, wanting him to find a mate closer to home. But Mera had stolen his heart, and she held it still...even if, at the moment, they had only taken the first steps toward reconciliation.

Patience was difficult for him. He was sure that someday, Mera would return to his bed and share his life and be his queen once more. It wasn't a question of love as much as trust; she loved him, he was certain, even after all the death and betrayal and madness that had passed between them. Trust was harder. He had done as much as he could to prove that he would not pressure her, and that the throne by his side would remain empty until she made her decision.

But Garth...in some ways, dealing with Garth was more difficult. Garth had performed his ambassadorial duties admirably, but his personal relationship with Atlantis was...distant. And with Arthur himself, even more so. Arthur had finally admitted his culpability to Diana, and once having said it aloud, he couldn't bring himself to blame Garth in the least. It appeared that the only way Garth could deal with him was at a distance, and in a way, that made it easier. Arthur wasn't much given to avoiding trouble...but in this particular case, anything he might say or do could backfire.

He couldn't order Garth to come home, especially since Garth had as much as declared that Poseidonis *wasn't* his home any longer. As he'd acknowledged to Diana, Arthur didn't have the right to say much of anything to Garth's decisions at all, except insofar as they affected Atlantis. Who Garth chose to love...wasn't even an issue.

Arthur didn't have anything against Dick himself, aside from the fact that Dick was the son of his most annoying ally, which naturally put Arthur's teeth on edge. What he knew of Nightwing suggested competence, youthful energy, and inherent charisma that had made him as natural a leader as Superman. But Nightwing was no 'boy scout' and didn't have Clark's aura of naiveté. That kind of innocence wouldn't have survived Bruce's teaching.

Batman rarely spoke of his protégés, but over the years Arthur had picked up bits and pieces of gossip from the others. He'd learned, secondhand, how the first Robin had either quit or been fired--accounts varied--how the second Robin had died, and how the third had all but forced Bruce to accept him. The very fact that Dick had left Gotham to forge his own identity as Nightwing was, in Arthur's opinion, a mark in his favor. He didn't know much else about Dick personally. The lives of the Titans had been, frankly, far beneath his notice, particularly once Garth left the team.

Perhaps, then, it was past time to learn.

***

"Guys...."

Barbara's voice through the monitor sounded unusually diffident. Curious, Dick vaulted over the couch and went over to the computer. "Hit the video, Babs. What's up?"

The Oracle's mask briefly replaced the flying toasters screensaver and then dissolved into Barbara's face. She seemed vaguely concerned, though not distressed. "Hi, Dick. Is Garth there?"

Nodding, Dick called into the bedroom for his partner and turned back to the screen. "Something wrong?"

"I have a call for you, both of you. From the Watchtower." She paused infinitesimally. "From Aquaman. If you're busy, I can tell him you're not available."

Her tone of voice suggested she'd be all-too-pleased to do exactly that. Garth approached the monitor, and Dick stepped aside so Barbara could see them both. Garth glanced at him, looking almost apologetic. "I do have to take this."

"Sure." Garth was obligated to answer the communiqués of his liege. But Arthur wanted to talk to him as well? This, Dick thought, could be interesting. "Patch him through, Babs."

Barbara gave them a last, uneasy smile and reached over to touch something on her keyboard. The image of a clearly impatient Arthur instantly replaced hers. It wasn't an improvement, as far as Dick was concerned.

"Good, you're there," Arthur started without preamble. "I won't keep you long. I want to see you both in Poseidonis in three days."

It sounded more like a command than a request, but Garth didn't seem to take offense at the phrasing. It wasn't like he could object if he did. "Of course I'll be there. Dick..." he glanced over and Dick leaned in.

"Assuming nothing in Bludhaven or Gotham blows up, or the Titans are needed somewhere...I should be able to make it."

Arthur seemed taken aback, though whether by his agreement or the qualifiers, Dick couldn't be sure. "Of course. If you have obligations...." A female voice from off-screen, not decipherable from the 'Haven end of the connection, pulled Arthur's attention away. After a moment he grimaced slightly and turned back to them. "Perhaps I should have been more clear. I would...like...the two of you to join Mera and me for dinner. If you're available."

"I'll make sure to clear my schedule," Dick replied without inflection, and Arthur gave him a quick sharp glance before nodding.

"Good. Garth, if something comes up and you two can't make it," Arthur allowed himself a brief ironic smile, "let me know. Otherwise, I'll see you then." He signed off without further comment.

Barbara came back on, eager. "What was that about?"

"An invitation to dinner with the *other* in-laws." Garth seemed terribly amused by the idea. "Dick's turn under the microscope."

"Ohhh. My." Barbara bit her lip, her expression caught somewhere between sympathy and hilarity. "Facing the lion in his den, huh? Or the sea-lion, as it were."

"Funny," Dick said dryly. But that other voice.... "Babs, is Wonder Woman at the Watchtower?"

She glanced off to one side, presumably at another monitor. "Yup, she is. Kind of unusual; she's usually hopping around the planet this time of day, or at her embassy. You need her for something?"

"Nah, just curious." That explained Arthur's sudden turn into diplomacy. Dick wondered if Arthur had asked Diana to stand by for that very purpose. Or perhaps she'd taken that task on herself, knowing of his intent.

"I'm sure some sort of dire emergency might erupt," Barbara offered, only half-joking.

"Nah. We have to do this sooner or later...right?" Dick glanced to Garth for confirmation and received a slightly rueful nod in reply. "Better to get it out of the way now."

"Better you than me," Babs quipped, then glanced over at another screen. "Incoming call from Canary. Later!" She cut off the connection, all business.

Dick turned back to Garth. "Well--"

"I hope-- It should be all right." Garth shrugged slightly, apologetically. "If he had any real objections, we would have heard about it by now."

Which was probably true. But if he was expected to face Arthur and retain any semblance of civility, he needed more information than his own biased observations and Garth's guarded comments. "Then I think it's time we had that conversation."

*Which* conversation didn't need to be spelled out. For a moment Garth held perfectly still, the tension in his body making it clear that he wanted to protest, make any excuse to avoid the topic, but after a moment he simply answered, "If we're really going to talk about this, I need something to drink."

"Sure." Dick had reached the cabinet and was automatically reaching for the water glasses when Garth's voice stopped him. "I wouldn't mind a glass of wine, please."

That was highly unusual. With his carefully balanced metabolism, Garth didn't care for the effects of alcohol on his system. Not to mention the memory of what had happened the last time Garth had been inadvertently under the influence, thanks to Mera. If Garth wanted a drink, that meant the discussion was likely to be both involved and painful.

Dick retrieved the wine glasses without comment and reached into the slightly dusty wine rack for a bottle of merlot. Anything Alfred might allow on his dinner table would need to breathe before being judged acceptable to drink, but Dick didn't have that kind of patience. Or, to be honest, the kind of wine appreciation that would demand a higher-quality vintage. He handed Garth a filled glass and watched as Garth took a sip and grimaced faintly.

"Not as good as anything from Bruce's wine cellar," Dick started apologetically.

"It's not that. The taste is fine, it's the alcohol itself I don't care for." He was rolling the glass between his hands, an uncharacteristically nervous gesture. "I--don't know where to start."

"At the beginning?" Feeble, and he knew it, but Garth still seemed at a loss. All right, then. "Let's start with when we were kids," Dick said as evenly and as calmly as he could, "and all the times you showed up at meetings nearly too bruised to move." He knew he was overstating, but it might be easier to get Garth to talk about it if he made the issue as black and white to Garth as it was to him.

Garth looked at him, wordlessly, then sat down heavily on the couch with a motion lacking anything of grace. "And how often were you bruised, in training?"

The lack of immediate denial was telling. He hated feeling that he was on the attack, but this had festered too long. "It's not the same thing and you know it. Don't try to make excuses for him. I *remember* him dragging you off, more than once. He wasn't gentle." Whereas Bruce had never needed more than his voice to bring Robin to heel, even in his wildest moments.

Garth stared down at his wine glass for a long moment and finally ventured, "Dick...is that really what you think?"

He started to answer, stopped, and let the question simmer briefly in the analytical side of his brain. Righteous anger would have been easier, but there were other factors involved here. Garth *had* been bruised, but.... "No. If for no other reason that if he'd been beating you up on a regular basis, J'onn would have sensed that and no one would have let Arthur get away with it."

That was, obviously, a new bit of information as far as Garth was concerned. He shook his head, still avoiding Dick's gaze. "I hadn't realized that."

Dick perched himself on the edge of the couch. "Yeah. J'onn kept an unofficial eye on all the 'kid sidekicks,' even before we were the Teen Titans. Less over the years, as we proved ourselves and he got more busy with the League and his own projects. He'd all but stopped by the time Roy got himself into trouble, and I think he still feels guilty about that."

"I had no idea. I thought... I thought I was invisible, to them. To the League." Garth glanced up and offered a small smile tinged with apology for his own misconception. "I wasn't the presence you were, and Arthur didn't go out of his way to introduce me. I thought that was his way of saying I wasn't worthy of meeting them."

Dick said nothing, keeping the urge to swear violently locked safely behind his clenched teeth.

Garth went on as if the memory of his own perceived insignificance no longer mattered. "In any case.... He was physically rough with me on occasion, but even then I knew it wasn't out of maliciousness. He simply didn't know how *else* to deal with me. Considering the circumstances of his own childhood." He smiled wryly. "I should show you how a group of dolphins roughhouse. They're not gentle with each other, even the young ones. Of course, their skins are tougher than mine was. He wasn't...trying to hurt me."

"You're sure of that."

"Yes."

Nothing to do but accept it as truth, given Garth's surety and his own knowledge of J'onn's watchful eye. Maybe he'd even known it, deep down, because otherwise the senior members of the League would have confronted Arthur long before now. Garth may have thought himself overlooked, but the League policed their own.

Still. There was a difference between the bruises he'd acquired from Bruce's teaching and the ones Garth acquired at Arthur's hands. Bruce had never touched him in anger or frustration. Maybe Arthur hadn't been intentionally trying to hurt, but his own temper made his brand of "help" into something perilous. Inadvertent mistreatment was still...

...obviously not a subject he could continue to press Garth about. Garth wasn't about to suddenly decide he'd been abused after all, and judging by his reactions, *that* wasn't the crux of the difficulty between him and Arthur anyway.

But this was still a *discussion,* not an interrogation, and Garth would tell it all in his own way. Even if Dick couldn't resist helping the process along. "So he wasn't intentionally physically abusive...though I still have a hard time believing he didn't realize he was hurting you. He'd been around *people* by then. But--" Dick held up a hand when it looked like Garth was going to interrupt-- "if you're satisfied with that, I'll have to be as well. The thing is, though, you're still angry with him. And I want to understand why."

There was a long, long pause.

"Dick...did you ever doubt that Bruce loved you?"

That *question,* asked by someone who knew the deeper truth, and the old, automatic reflex kicked in: Dick felt himself flush a deep red all the way to the ears. "I-- You know he--"

Garth gestured impatiently. "Not that. I mean, that he cared for you. Looked after your well being. Was invested in your life."

Dick nodded slowly. "No, never."

"Arthur wasn't. Or at least, I never believed he cared. I was...often inconvenient. And he...left me alone." Garth seemed to be struggling for the words, and Dick didn't want to disrupt his train of thought. Finally, he went on, "I don't have a lot of memories from before Arthur found me. It's mainly blur of time and confusion. Atlan had something to do with that, and I'm grateful to him for it. I don't need to remember those years. But I *do* remember such...gratitude toward Arthur. Realizing I wasn't alone, that there was someone else who lived in my world." He paused, clearly searching for a way to explain, and finally looked up with an expression that asked pardon for his next words. "Dick, think of...how you felt, when your parents were killed and you discovered that Bruce understood that sense of loss."

Dick nodded, slowly, recalling the emotions. "Like finding the one person in all the world who knew *exactly* what I was going through."

"Like that. Only for me, Arthur WAS the only person in the world. When he brought me to Poseidonis, I was *terrified.* There were too many people, their voices screaming in my head before I learned to block them out...and once they got a look at my eyes, they projected fear or suspicion. It was easier for me to hide in the 'Aquacave'." Garth smiled, seemingly despite himself. "You and Bruce started a fashion, you know. Batcave, Arrowcave, Aquacave...."

"You were all just jealous. We had cooler toys."

"True. But I remember you talking about patrolling with Bruce, how you would do whatever you needed to do that night and then go back home and *talk* about that, or other things going on in your lives. It wasn't like...." Garth sighed. "I don't know how to say this without sounding melodramatic. He didn't treat you like a tool or a weapon, he treated you like a partner. What time Arthur and I spent together...was usually fighting some threat or another. And then I would go back to the cave until he called me again. I didn't understand, early on with the Titans, what you and Wally were talking about, that partnership. Donna didn't have a mentor in that sense, and Roy was far more independent than I was. He didn't wait for Ollie to call."

Dick held himself very still. "So you're telling me that Arthur only paid attention to you when it was convenient for him."

Garth hesitated, but couldn't deny the conclusion of his own words. "...yes. I know you're not looking to hear excuses, and I'm not looking to make them. I understand now that he didn't know what to do with me, that in his way he was trying to protect me from the people in the city who would have exiled me, again. After a while I did have a room at the palace and went to school, though I wasn't very good at...fitting in. By that time, Arthur had married Mera and was occupied trying to fill his new roles as husband and monarch, and later father to AJ. Most of the time, after lessons I went back to my room. Until Tula noticed me, and followed me, and thereafter made it her business to ensure I was never alone again." This time his smile was entirely genuine and filled with loving memory.

"Thank God for her, then."

"Yes. I do."

Dick sat back, thinking. It all had the ring of truth, at least from Garth's perspective, and Dick didn't believe Garth was holding anything back.

Somehow that made it even harder to understand. For all of the tension between him and Bruce, all of the difficult and admittedly *weird* ways they had built a relationship as mentor and student and eventually as partners, Dick had never doubted that Bruce cared. That was, in the end, the only reason they had been able to maintain any kind of connection at all during the worst episodes. Without that essential quality--that *love*--those ties would have been broken a long time ago.

Garth seemed to be saying that he and Arthur didn't share any kind of similar bond of loyalty and friendship, much less affection. Which made it beyond Dick's comprehension *why* Garth even spoke to the man at all, never mind defended him.

Irony, that, considering most people probably held the same opinion about him and Bruce. The difference being that Dick *knew* the truth, so their judgments didn't matter. Garth, by his own admission, had no such assurances.

Garth was watching him hesitantly. "I know you...expect that I should hate him, in light of these things. I don't. I can't."

Dick slumped back against the couch, feeling somehow defeated. "You've...forgiven him for all this?"

Garth shrugged. "Clearly not. Or we wouldn't be talking like this. But it's irrelevant. It doesn't *matter* anymore. Whatever his failings, I will always answer when he calls if for no other reason than *because he is my king.*"

He reached for it, seizing at the explanation like a drowning man. "Is that all? Because I could understand if--"

But Garth was already shaking his head. "*If* that were the only reason, it would be enough. But it's not. It's--not the same reason you answer Bruce's calls. But there's still--" he raised his hands in helpless acceptance-- "a relationship, however difficult. It's not something owed, or a debt to be repaid. It just *is.* I-- I need you to respect that, even if you can't approve of it."

Unspoken, as an echo: the way that I respect your relationship with Bruce. Garth wasn't asking him to like it, merely to accept it. Dick could only sigh and nod his agreement.

***

Three days later and Dick found himself on edge throughout his patrol. "Personal stuff," he finally said to Amy's annoyed glance, and was relieved when she didn't press further. Sooner or later someone at the stationhouse would see the tabloid reports from the reception, and then there'd be a whole other situation to deal with, but Dick was happy to put *that* off for as long as possible.

Arthur had been gracious enough to pick a Friday night for his invitation, which spared Dick the need to take yet another day off of work. They wouldn't be home until long past even Nightwing's bedtime, since tonight they were taking the "slow" route. Both he and Garth agreed that the JLA transporter, while convenient, wasn't a tool for their personal use except on rare occasion. In any case, that would have required accessing the nearest transport tube...which meant the Batcave. Dick *knew* he wasn't up to facing Bruce's inevitable commentary about Arthur, not when he'd already be tasked with holding his temper. Besides, it wasn't as if either of them was particularly eager to reach Atlantis and this dinner any sooner than necessary...except maybe in the hopes of getting through it all the quicker.

Still, they wouldn't have time to dawdle. Dick swung by the apartment long enough to change into a t-shirt and sweats he could swim in and pick up his suit, carefully packed into a waterproofed case. Garth would meet him at the water, having gone ahead to prep their transportation.

He rode down to the waterfront and chained up his bike in the best-lit parking garage he could find. Garth was waiting at the water's edge in his Tempest uniform, and if someone's camera happened to catch a shot of the two of them together, more power to 'em. The value of being able to meet Garth publicly without having to sneak around was worth whatever trash the tabloids might make of it.

Garth greeted him with a tight smile, mirroring Dick's tension, and cast the water-breathing spell without ceremony. Feeling that magic course over him had the same effect on Dick every time, but there wasn't an opportunity to do anything about that right now.

"Ready?" Garth asked, and Dick smiled.

"Let's go."

They began the swim out to the transport that would take them to Poseidonis--or rather, *Garth* swam, while Dick held on and was pulled along, the spell protecting him. He figured Garth was moving at about 50 mph, nowhere near his top speed and clearly slowed for Dick's comfort. Half an hour at that pace still brought them well outside the boundary of U.S. waters to where Garth's compact shuttle waited, idling in place by means of the Atlantean version of hover technology. The craft represented the kind of technical expertise the WayneTech eggheads were most eager to get their hands on through the new contracts.

The shuttle was--of course--filled with water. Garth signed an apology, hands flashing in ASL, explaining that this craft was for his personal use. Shuttles intended to ferry surface visitors could be drained dry for air-breathers, but those wouldn't become available until the embassy officially opened. He touched a keypad and Dick felt a warm current run though the water, like turning on a space heater in a chilly room.

"Thanks," he signed back, and settled in to watch the ocean go by.

The three or so hours it'd take to reach Poseidonis would likely be the longest part of this nearly drive-by visit. Dick had nearly made a crack about dipping his toe in the water, then thought better of it. Next time, Garth had promised, he would meet everyone including Alianne, if Dick didn't see her at the embassy opening party first. Dick agreed with relief. Dealing with Arthur in this context would be more than enough drama for one evening.

Garth was busy piloting, which left his hands too occupied for more than occasional conversation. Dick resolutely picked up the Atlantean datapad with the Atlan-to-English translations he'd been intermittently studying. The symbols weren't difficult to memorize, but the sentence structures were tricky and he hadn't, in all honesty, devoted as much attention to learning the language as he should. The fact that Garth had nearly choked laughing at hearing Dick sound out a few words for the first time probably didn't help his concentration any, either.

He got in a good hour before he found his attention wandering. Poking around on the datapad led him to discover an odd solitaire-like game, which kept him occupied for another couple of minutes. After that, he gave up and let himself drift into a semi-doze, looking out the ocean through half-closed eyelids.

He must have fallen asleep, because the next thing he knew, Garth was touching his arm. He sat up and looked out the window to see the domed city of Poseidonis.

The city rested among the valleys of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, its exactly location carefully obscured from satellite observance and out of the reach of even the most intrepid human oceanographers. Seeing it, Dick was struck by the sense of *history* contained beneath that dome. "Atlantis" might only be a myth to most landsmen, but the cities had been real, fallen into the ocean nearly twelve thousand years ago and preserved through science lost before the rest of humanity had fully thawed from the final Ice Age.

Garth swung the shuttle in a wide arc, bringing them down to a small iris opening in the dome a couple hundred yards from the main "gate." The craft docked in a bay filled with similar transports. "The palace 'garage'," Garth signed. They swam out and Garth waved him through an airlock--waterlock?--into a sparsely appointed dry chamber.

The transition from water to air caught Dick off-guard and his whole body heaved in automatic reflex, forcing water out of his nose and mouth and gasping to replace it with a more familiar medium.

"Very smooth," he wheezed when he could breathe normally again.

Garth handed him a towel, looking sympathetic. "It took me a long time to learn the trick of it." He waited until Dick had finished coughing, then said, "We should change for dinner. They're waiting."

Dick glanced at him questioningly. "Telepathy?"

Garth laughed. "More mundane than that, I'm afraid. I called from the shuttle while you were sleeping."

"Duh," Dick snorted at himself, and started stripping his suit out of its bag. Garth had an outfit waiting for him, red and black like his costume colors. Warning colors, Dick thought, but kept the idea to himself.

Once dressed, they walked down a narrow corridor hung with tapestries depicting scenes of Atlantean life. Dick wondered if it'd been built with surface visitors in mind, and asked.

The answer came tinged with faint embarrassment. "Not originally. This used to be a servants' access way. The dining room was a storeroom. Arthur had it flushed dry and decorated when he became king."

"Thoughtful of him," Dick said, meaning it.

Garth looked pensive. "I think...he was grateful to the early JLA for accepting him, for making him welcome in a hostile environment. He intended that there should always be a place for them here, if they chose to visit."

"Did they?"

"J'onn, once or twice," Garth said, confirming Dick's speculation. The irony being, of course, that J'onn would have been the one JLAer in least need of special accommodation. But then, the Titans hadn't visited Garth, either.

The corridor branched twice before ending at a stark door. "We're here," Garth said, and then, "It'll be fine." Dick wasn't sure who he was trying to convince, but didn't have time to speculate before Garth knocked briskly, twice, and opened the door.

The room beyond wasn't overly large, but if Garth hadn't revealed its previous life as a storeroom, Dick wouldn't have guessed at it. Opposite the single door, an archway cut into the wall led onto a small windowed balcony that looked out onto the city beyond. Warm domed lights--the dome seemed to be a major architectural style here--adorned the ceiling, illuminating an elegant table set for four. And the two people who sat waiting for them.

Mera rose, smiling, as they approached. She was a tall, attractive woman in her mid-to late 30s, with a vivid cascade of red hair down her back that reminded Dick, incongruously and just for a moment, of Kory. Arthur remained seated, his expression neutral beneath the plain golden circlet across his brow.

"Welcome," she said, and servants came through the door as if summoned by her voice, carrying the first course.

***

Atlantean wine, Dick decided, had a strong but not entirely unpleasant flavor. The food was...a revelation. There was fish, of course, and seafood he recognized and some he didn't. He was presented with a lobster claw of such size that, extrapolating from its heft, might have been harvested from a creature the size of a Holstein. Cooking was accomplished via controlled chemical reactions, Garth had explained, fire under water. Caviar wasn't a luxury here; milk was, reserved for the very rich and imported from the surface at great cost. Gourmet landsmen might brag about their Wagyu beef, but Atlantean fine dining featured bluefin ootoro fresh enough to make a sushi chef weep for joy, at such size that surface markets never dreamed of. Garnishes consisted of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables; Dick was determined to try everything, and followed Garth's lead lest he accidentally eat the Atlantean equivalent of parsley. Or the table decorations.

Arthur and Mera excused themselves periodically throughout the evening. Dick thought wryly that their breaks for a breath or two of water were probably equivalent to an asthmatic escaping a cigarette-smoke filled room. Still, he was glad they were willing to inconvenience themselves for his sake, and said as much. Trying to eat under water would have held far more potential for embarrassment. Besides, Mera said, they wanted to be able to converse with him without difficulty.

Not that there was, actually, much conversing. Dinner was a formal, uncomfortable affair. At least, Dick thought, fully aware of the irony, he and Bruce had things to talk about. Garth and Arthur didn't seem to have reason to communicate beyond their official roles as king and ambassador. Dick was aware of Arthur's eyes on him from time to time, measuring, and did his best not to respond with a challenging stare.

Mera carried the weight of the conversation. Dick had the sense that this was an accustomed role for her, even though she and Arthur were still...separated? Working toward reconciliation? He'd have to ask Garth later. Regardless of her personal status, she seemed entirely at ease in her role here as host, filling the silences with comfortable discussion where Arthur could or would not.

She asked him about his life on the surface, his civilian and other responsibilities, and Dick was startled to realize that his 'secret identity' and Bruce's were no secret at all to her. He'd met her briefly when he was younger, but Batman's habitual indifference to the social lives of his colleagues meant that Robin didn't socialize much, either. What he knew about her came mainly from the little Garth had said...and, of course, the extensive files in the Bat-computer. Batman's indifference didn't preclude his need to gather as much information on his allies as possible.

So Dick knew that Mera had been a ruling queen in an other-dimensional ocean, and that she had left her home waters to be with Arthur. He knew about the trials she'd been through since, including the death of her son and the mental instability that followed. Looking at her now, he saw a mature, self-possessed woman whose pride had been tempered by loss and hard-gained wisdom. A woman who was, by birth and by nature, true royalty.

A small, spiteful part of him wondered what she saw in *Arthur* that bound her to Poseidonis, but he could be fair enough to acknowledge that his own dislike of Arthur would probably keep him from ever understanding the attraction.

Her relationship with Garth was interesting, too. She didn't, quite, relate to him as a mother might...they weren't so far separated in age as that. And Dick had gotten the impression from Garth that she'd been too concerned with her own affairs to pay him much attention when he was younger. Now, though, they seemed to share a fair measure of mutual respect.

Dick wasn't necessarily inclined to *like* her, not after her part in the subterfuge with Garth's friend Alianne, but now that her ploy had failed she seemed willing to accept him as Garth's chosen partner.

Arthur...Dick had no idea what to make of Arthur. He was cordial enough, though for a man who had extended an invitation ostensibly to speak with them both he seemed remarkably uninterested in *doing* so, as if he had abdicated that responsibility to Mera and wanted little more to do with the entire affair. Halfway through the dinner Dick was struck with the unwelcome thought that perhaps Arthur didn't know *what* to say to Garth, or to him. Not that he'd ever known the sea king to be reticent about speaking his mind, but Garth had mentioned that lately Arthur had "backed off," at least in terms of commands that didn't have anything to do directly with Atlantean diplomatic business. If Arthur's silence stemmed from an unwillingness to push, Dick was more inclined to make allowances for it. But there really was no way to tell if that was the true reason.

As it turned out, he felt more awkward for Garth's sake than for his own. He was the guest here, and was being accorded the courtesies of a visitor. Garth was the native, and supposedly at home. But while he talked with Mera pleasantly enough and answered Arthur's few comments with formal politeness, everything in his body language said he would rather be anywhere but here. Dick thought again of their dinner at Wayne Manor and reflected that for all the potential and actual discomfort of that evening, he had never wanted to leave purely to escape Bruce. Garth had friends here, and it couldn't all be like this...but for the first time, Dick was beginning to understand how truly difficult it must be to feel uncomfortable in your own homeland.

The dinner dishes had been long cleared away and they were now lingering over coffee--a surface affectation, Arthur admitted with a wry twist of his lips, that had ensnared him before he realized its addictive properties. That was one crop he was determined *not* to bring to Atlantis, even if the plants could be grown beneath the waves. Those who could afford the import tax were, of course, perfectly welcome to indulge in whatever luxuries they wished. That discussion diverged briefly into the difference between Atlantean and landsman tastes; Dick found himself laughing at Mera's description of her first encounter with ice cream and reflected that despite all awkwardness, the evening could have gone much worse. And then berated himself for temping fate, knowing it wasn't over yet.

Because there was, after all, a limit to how long four people could dally over a single carafe of coffee, particularly when only two of them were drinking it. Mera and Garth had opted instead for a kind of local tea, but Dick had felt he needed fortification for the rest of the evening. At last Arthur put down his cup with finality. "Garth, as long as you're here, I wanted your input on some recent proposals to the council."

That seemed to be the signal for Mera to touch Dick's arm, lightly, drawing his attention to her. Dick watched out of the corner of his eye uneasily as Garth and Arthur exited the chamber, but it would have been unutterably rude to follow.

"It's a shame you can't stay longer," she commented, "but I imagine this must be a difficult environment for you. I always felt the same, on my journeys to the surface."

He turned to her and waved a hand around at the dining room. "Much less difficult than I expected, really."

"But you can see so little of our home. Ironic, isn't it," she mused softly, "that Garth can live in your world more easily than you can visit his?"

Dick didn't care for the insinuation at all. "We both thank his magic for that," he replied firmly, and hoped she would leave the topic be.

"Of course." She blinked at him, blue eyes guileless. He didn't trust the expression in the least. "We all do have reason to give thanks for that, given his other work on the surface." She seemed to hesitate, a pause Dick was equally as sure was both conscious and deliberate. "I've said as much to Garth, but I wanted to apologize to you as well. When you meet Alianne, please don't be angry with her. It wasn't her fault for what happened, but mine." She offered him a small, rueful smile. "My enthusiasm for the idea of a match ran away with me."

"No harm done," Dick heard himself say, although he wasn't entirely certain it was true. She probably *hadn't* meant any harm, at least as far as Garth's welfare was concerned, but he'd never have much patience for the topic of royal responsibilities. Particularly when it came to arranged or engineered marriages.

"You are gracious. I fear that Alianne has yet to forgive me. She's a lovely girl, and she cares for Garth a great deal. But rest assured, it shan't happen again." Mera went on, perhaps sensing his discomfort, sparing him the need to reply. "On another topic entirely...I admit to some fascination with your surface custom of secret identities. How *do* you keep your lives separate?"

Small talk, Dick recognized, but easier than the previous subject. "It helps if you don't mind losing sleep," he told her with a wry smile.

"I imagine so," she chuckled, and then coughed faintly. "How embarrassing. Please excuse me."

"Sure," he said, and Mera exited the chamber, leaving him alone. That was just fine by Dick. Maybe it was uncharitable, but Mera's need for a breather definitely reflected his own wish for a time out.

***

The proposals had made a tolerable pretext to speak to Garth alone. The problem, Arthur thought with annoyance, was that he had no idea how to follow up on that pretext.

What was he to say, after all? That he thought Garth was doing a fine job as ambassador? *That* fact was obvious in Garth's own accomplishments. Was he supposed to comment about Grayson? Surely that tack would only lead to embarrassment, and further awkwardness. Garth was already on edge, he could see it in the boy's--in the man's whole demeanor. The last thing Arthur wanted was to add to that tension...something he seemed to do merely by breathing.

It seemed safest to keep things formal, to speak of council affairs and contracts and dealings with the surface, all topics that *needed* to be spoken of, after all. Anything else would be not only unnecessarily complicated, but painful. Except--

One thing. "You'll be interested to hear," Arthur said as casually as he could manage, "that the priests Dardana and Virlan are no longer welcome in any of the councilors' advisory committees."

Garth went still at that. As well he might, hearing that the Shalakites he'd thrown in Arthur's face months before had been removed from their positions of authority. "Did you," he started, and then stopped.

Arthur knew what he was asking, all the same. "No." Best to say it flat, so there was no misunderstanding. "I *cannot* interfere with the workings of the council or its members. Remove their autonomy and the institution becomes a sham." No matter how often he would rather have cracked their heads together. "But it was becoming evident to the council that their isolationist policies were no longer appropriate, nor useful."

Not a *personal* reason, it could never be a personal reason, even if the arguments Mera had whispered in the councilors' ears hadn't been entirely true. He would give the citizens of the city no cause to call him a dictator; they had known too many of those in their recent history to chance even the slightest implication that their king had eliminated advisors that he found...personally distasteful.

Although given the freedom to do so he might have sentenced *them* to Mercy Reef, as the priests had done years before to infants they deemed somehow dangerous or unfit, and seen how well they fared.

"That's...welcome news," Garth finally replied, clearly hesitant and unsure if he should offer *thanks,* even given Arthur's disclaimer. Arthur didn't want his thanks, particularly not for something he should have seen to himself, long ago.

"We're well shed of those relics of the past," Arthur said, and honestly wasn't sure if he was still speaking of the priests.

***

The evening was turning out to be more wearing than she wanted to admit, but a much-needed respite in the nearest flooded passageway helped to bolster her endurance. Mera took a final lungful of water, breathed out, and triggered the waterlock into the dry hall.

Arthur and Garth met her at the junction leading back toward the dining room. They both seemed...calm, which was well. Too often private discussions between them ended in anger, or the very least exasperation with each other. She could only hope this momentary peace boded hope for the future.

"I just needed to step out a moment," she said before Arthur could ask. "I'm all right."

"We shouldn't stay much longer," Garth offered, clearly sensing her discomfort. He opened the door and Mera spotted Dick on the alcove balcony. Garth was obviously ready to go, but she still had things she needed to say to him.

"Arthur, if you would...I wanted to speak with Garth briefly."

Arthur raised an eyebrow at her but refrained from argument. "I'll...see how Mr. Grayson is enjoying the view."

Garth looked alarmed at the idea, and no wonder, but she caught his arm before he could follow. "Garth, a word, please."

***

Dick stood on the balcony outside the dining room, looking out through the transparent dome over the alien architecture of Poseidonis. Pedestrians and vehicles moved in flow patterns he could not discern, guided by ocean currents rather than any visual cues he might distinguish. The city was formed by angles and patterns he didn't recognize, based on a culture he was only beginning to know.

"Atlantis" might be mistaken for one unified nation, but in reality it consisted of a collection of independent city-states--an alliance forged by millennia of wars spawned by both internal conflicts and outside invasions, and held together by a fragile accord. Arthur's leadership, Dick knew, had a lot to do with the relative current stability of the political climate. That was a telling part of Arthur's personality, too. A king didn't need to be *liked*; he needed to be respected--or if necessary, feared.

No wonder, Dick thought with reluctant acknowledgment, Arthur and Bruce didn't get along. They had far too much in common.

The door opening and then a heavy footfall behind him told him that the old adage remained true. Think of the devil, and-- "I appreciate your making time in your schedule to accommodate my request," Arthur said behind him.

Deserved sarcasm, after their previous exchange. "No trouble," Dick said mildly. "I expected this, sooner or later. Garth and I had dinner with Bruce a few weeks ago."

Arthur let out a harsh bark of laughter. "Ha! Of course. And since you're still together, he decided that Garth was good enough for you?"

Dick could feel his whole body stiffen up, his face freezing into a stone glare. He tried to moderate his tone, but it still came out flatly. "Bruce's opinion has nothing to do with anything. And Garth is...frankly, Garth is too good for me. I'm sure you agree." He wasn't sure of any such thing, and turned to retreat into the dining room before he said something truly rude. Like that Arthur could take that golden harpoon-hand of his and shove it far up his--

He heard Arthur swear behind him, softly, and then his name. "Richard."

Only a very few people could call him that without setting his teeth on edge. "My friends," he replied automatically, "call me Dick."

"Nightwing," Arthur said with deliberate precision, "I withdraw the remark. It was...ill-considered."

It wasn't an apology. But perhaps it was as close to one as Arthur could come. Dick turned back to him and Arthur continued, his tone mild. "I do, actually, respect your accomplishments. Not that my opinion has any effect on Garth's choices, either."

Dick nodded, still not sure enough of his temper to speak.

Arthur regarded him evenly. "You have something to add, Mr. Grayson?"

"Not now," Dick gritted through his teeth. Hanging onto his temper by a thread.

"If you have something to say to me, spit it out."

Well, then. He honestly hadn't intended to confront Arthur, but if the man *invited* it, Dick was perfectly willing to speak his mind. He glanced over toward Garth and Mera, making sure they were still deep in conversation before going ahead. "Garth cleared up certain misconceptions on my part, but that doesn't alter the fact that you played a considerable role in making his life more difficult."

"I made mistakes," Arthur said quietly. "I was young, which doesn't excuse it, and completely wrapped up in my own problems, which at least explains it. But I'm not inclined to beg for forgiveness."

"Why the hell NOT?"

Arthur simply looked at him. Dick was reminded, quite forcefully, of exactly where he was: the bottom of the ocean, fully in this man's domain, in a thoroughly hostile environment with nothing but a spell to protect him. Arthur's expression had no menace in it, nor even a warning; merely an unspoken reminder that he was speaking to a king in his own territory. The same way that visitors to Gotham bowed to the dictates of the Batman, no matter how they might feel about him personally.

The king inclined his head slightly in response to his outburst. "Quite frankly, I don't owe it to you. No more than your mentor provides explanations for *his* behavior to anyone outside his innermost circle. If he even does that."

Dick shrugged, conceding the point. "This isn't about me, anyway. It's about Garth. You--" he broke off, remembering. All the times Garth had returned to the Teen Titans, physically and emotionally bruised. All the years he believed he was unwanted and unloved, feelings that his nominal protector had made no effort to alleviate. Over a decade of constant prejudice that Arthur could have ended with a decree or a simple show of faith. "You *hurt* him."

After a long moment, Arthur nodded. "I know."

"That's it? You *know*?"

Arthur said wryly, "Give me credit for that, at least. For years I didn't."

"Good for you," Dick said flatly.

Annoyance creased Arthur's face. "I've also learned patience. To a point."

Dick bit down very carefully on his tongue to forestall any further expression of ironic congratulations. "I agree," he finally said through clenched teeth, "that you don't owe me anything. But like I said, this isn't about me. At the very least, I would think that a monarch who acknowledges that he treated a subject unjustly might have something to say to the person he wronged."

"Garth understands," Arthur began, but it wasn't enough. Dick cut him off.

"He does *now.* I know because he very calmly explained it to me. He completely understands all your justifications. The fact that he *excuses* you for them...."

"You excuse Batman for his behavior."

"Bruce," Dick snarled without the slightest hesitation, "loves me, and I love him. He's my mentor and my friend. So yeah, I excuse his occasionally shitty behavior because he's earned my trust. The same way he trusts *me* not to let him get away with it. You can't even *begin* to claim the same. "

Arthur fixed him with a piercing gaze. "And again, you're angry on Garth's behalf and obviously don't trust him to speak for himself. *Garth* never came asking me to cry his pardon."

Dick snorted. "He won't. He can't. You're his *king.* It'd be treason."

"He's spoken 'treason' to me before. I think you underestimate the limits of my tolerance for truth from those who have earned the right to speak it. *You* would not be here, saying what you have, if I was as inflexible as you believe." Arthur's eyes caught his, held, forestalling any reply. "But regardless of what you may think, I have learned from past errors. Unlike some, I choose not to dwell on them. And while I acknowledge your...outrage...on Garth's behalf, I do not require your approval in any respect."

"Clearly," Dick muttered before he could stop himself, but part of him was regretting the entire conversation. For Garth's sake he had agreed to respect the relationship, if not Arthur himself, and still he hadn't been able to guard his tongue. Damned if he would apologize to Arthur--nothing the man had or could say would merit that--but ultimately this situation was Garth's to deal with. And he would rightly resent Dick's intrusion, the same way that Dick would resent anyone trying to rebuke Bruce for his sake. "I've said what I needed to."

"Good. Then you and I know where we stand."

***

Mera kept her voice low. "I won't ask if you love him, because I can see that you do. So I will only ask...you're sure of this?"

His gaze was steady. "I'm sure."

"Even considering the cost? To make a home on the surface...." she shuddered delicately, unable to restrain the instinctive reaction. "I know you're able to do so, thanks to your magic. But to leave the waters...."

Garth's reply was touched with a wry irony. "You left *your* home and all that you'd known to follow Arthur."

Mera shook her head. "But still for another ocean. We are *bound* to it, Garth, our souls are here. You can't simply leave all of yourself behind."

"I never meant to. Dick understands that."

"Does he?" she murmured, and went on before Garth could protest in his lover's defense. "What about your own responsibilities, your obligations?"

This time his look was tinged with impatience. "I can do more *there* than in Poseidonis. My presence isn't required here. It's...easier this way."

"How long," she shot back, not bothering to hide her own annoyance, "are you going to hide behind old arguments as an excuse? Even if you are set on this choice...don't justify it at the expense of the people here. They *don't* fear or disdain you any longer. You've proven yourself too often and too well for that. They trust you as Arthur's chosen representative. You can no longer claim their superstitions as a reason for avoiding the city."

His face, she noted with satisfaction, held a certain measure of shocked surprise at her words. Well, good. These were truths that Garth needed to hear. Arthur would never speak them, thinking--probably rightly--that his opinions would simply be disregarded. Garth wouldn't be so quick to dismiss *her.*

He chose to reply with humor, clearly trying to deflect her. "I thought you had agreed to stop trying to drag me back after your scheme with Ali."

"This is no scheme. What I planned for Alianne...was a mistake, and I admitted as much. If I had known how serious you were about your landsman, I would not have interfered. But that doesn't change my opinion. As much as you don't want to admit it, Garth, you will *always* belong to the sea, and to its people."

She had been deliberately provoking, trying to rattle him. Now she saw the anger he hid so carefully under the surface, like a wound that refused to heal. His voice, when it came, was low and bitter.

"They sent me to die, Mera."

She refused to relent. "They did the same to Arthur, and now they welcome him as king. Your own throne in Shayeris waits for you to claim it. The people there, too, seek to make amends for the past...and you won't allow it. Things have changed, whether you wish to acknowledge it or not." Mera softened her tone. "I'm not asking you to foreswear the surface. But I would like to see you accept that you have a home here as well. You're not an outcast any longer, except in how you choose to see yourself."

"Even if...even if that's true--"

"It is," she said with decisive firmness, and decided on a tactical sidestep of subject. "You know that Arthur declared me his heir?"

Garth raised an eyebrow. "So I heard. Are congratulations in order?"

"It's a stopgap," she said bluntly. "You know as well as I that you are still the best and only choice."

"I don't believe that." Garth sighed. "I have neither the temperament nor desire for it, Mera. I thought you had accepted my choices."

"*I* do, and I sincerely wish you much joy of them. But if Atlantis needs you--"

"Atlantis will survive. Everything I'm working toward now will ensure that. And if you need to name another so badly..." he shrugged, "Vulko has ruled in Arthur's stead before."

She waved a hand, dismissive. "Minister Vulko is a fine administrator. He is no king. Your blood is royal, Garth, your heritage makes you worthy."

He snorted. "Oh, please. Look back far enough and *all* Atlanteans can claim royal blood. If that's the only criteria...you might as well name Alianne to the throne. Her family's lineage can't be disputed. But if you're so concerned with finding Arthur a legitimate heir, Mera," his eyes sparkled with mischief, "there is a way you can be certain to assure him one."

She should have been embarrassed, or offended, or angry. Instead she found herself laughing. "Now *that* was inappropriate. Did you learn that from your surface friends?"

"I blame Roy," he said, smiling, adding in response to her raised eyebrow, "Master of the inappropriate."

"Ah." She fixed him with an earnest gaze. "Seriously, Garth, I don't want to harp on this issue...but it *is* a concern, one that won't simply vanish because you wish it."

"No. I know." He sighed again, looking out toward the balcony where Dick stood, talking with Arthur. From their body language, Mera could see that the discussion was a tense one. In another moment she would rescue them both, but first she wanted to hear what Garth had to say.

"It's not a choice I ever want to be compelled to make," he said finally, "because either way represents a betrayal. I can't...say what I would do. I know you expect me to confirm that I would do what duty required, no matter what the cost. I can't promise that. If it came to that, as much as Atlantis might need a king, it wouldn't deserve one who despised the entire idea of being placed on the throne."

"It's been said that no one who *wants* power truly deserves it," she observed. "But for the moment, the entire question is hypothetical. Please believe, I'm not trying to force you into anything. Neither is Arthur. Gods willing, it's not a choice you'll ever have to face."

He turned back to her, his face troubled. "I know you think I'm being selfish--"

"I don't," she interrupted. "What you're doing on the surface for *all* of our people, Atlantean and landsmen alike, is more important than anything you might do here at the moment, I agree with that. If you have ulterior motives for doing so, well, that simply ensures your dedication to the task. And I... I do care for your happiness, Garth. I haven't always been kind to you, nor fair. But I hope you can trust me now, when I say that I would have no part in compelling you to any duty that wasn't absolutely unavoidable."

Garth nodded, acknowledging the qualification. "If it came to Atlantis's survival, you would do what you must."

"And so would you," she said softly. "But let us not tempt fate by speaking of it further. I think both Arthur and Dick would appreciate rescuing, don't you?"

She hadn't really expected that Garth would change his mind about any of it. He had clearly made his decisions. But he looked as if he had *heard* her, and that was as much as she could have wished for.

As she passed him, Garth leaned in to kiss her cheek. "Thank you, Mera."

She blinked at him, surprised. "For what?"

"For trusting *me.*"

***

Dick was never more relieved than to see Garth and Mera crossing the room toward him and Arthur. Garth was looking between the two of them apprehensively, obviously having heard their raised voices.

Mera had, too. "It's been a lovely evening, but we know you both have exceedingly busy lives. If you need to go--"

She looked as startled as Dick felt when Arthur interrupted. "It's getting late. You could stay...." he offered with evident diffidence.

Garth said it before Dick could. "Some other time."

Arthur hesitated, nodded, and maybe even seemed a little relieved. "That's probably best. We'll say our good-nights, then, and Garth, I'm sure I'll speak soon."

"Of course," Garth murmured, and Arthur inclined his head toward them both before turning to leave.

Mera rolled her eyes. "Abrupt, as always. Dick, it was a pleasure to see you again. Garth..." she paused, long enough for the silence between words to become significant. "Don't be a stranger."

"I won't. Thank you for...reminding me." He turned. "Dick...?"

"Let's go," he said too quickly, and grinned apologetically at Mera. "Sorry. Past my bedtime, you know."

"Oh, I don't think that's the case," she returned with a gleam in her eye.

"--Anyway," he jumped in again before she said anything that might scar him or Garth for life, "thanks again."

"My pleasure. His too," she cast a sour glance toward the door, "even if he refuses to say so. Good night, gentlemen."

"Good night," they both echoed, and headed down the corridor toward the airlock as fast as propriety allowed. Dick changed clothes and Garth recast his spell over him with the usual predictable result--aside from the gained ability to breathe water. He wondered vaguely if the shuttle might be set on autopilot for the return trip.

Sadly, the answer turned out to be no. Garth needed his hands for piloting, which limited conversation as well...leaving Dick to brood about all the things he'd said to Arthur and shouldn't have, and the things he didn't say and *should* have. And to wonder what Mera had been trying to talk Garth into this time.

Garth didn't seem inclined to discuss the evening, not in the shuttle or on the swim to the shore or even on the ride back to the apartment on Dick's bike. It wasn't until they had showered away the harbor-water stink and Garth had put chamomile on to brew that he finally asked, already knowing the answer.

"You and Arthur...argued?"

There was no denying it. "Yeah. I--shouldn't have said anything."

Garth looked as if he agreed completely, but refrained from saying so aloud. "It's funny," he said at last, softly. "He and I spoke almost like...peers, tonight."

Not like friends, or like family. The distinction wasn't lost on Dick, but he figured he'd put his foot in it enough for one day. "That's good. Seriously, I meant to keep my mouth shut. He--" but he wasn't going to pass off the blame, not after he'd made a promise. "It doesn't matter. I shouldn't have, and I'm sorry."

"I've no doubt he provoked you." Garth had apparently found the process of pouring tea into the cups vastly complicated, because he was doing so with his full attention.

"Yeah, but that doesn't excuse--okay, *stop.*" Garth glanced over at him, startled. "I'm trying to apologize, here."

"It's not-- it's all right, Dick." He sighed, putting down the kettle. "Anything you said to him was probably well deserved. It's...things he needed to hear." After a moment he added, almost too low to hear, "Things I never found the courage to say."

Dick swallowed his immediate response, that the list of things he'd never said to *Bruce* had to be at least three times as long. "It's not like he really *invites* that kind of...sharing. And you said yourself, it doesn't matter anymore--no matter what I think--so maybe you should take tonight as a positive step forward. If you can both...be adults about it?" He shrugged to Garth's raised eyebrow. Part of him couldn't believe he was letting Arthur off the hook, but it was better than having Garth beat himself up over yet another perceived failing. "Preferable to the alternative, right?"

Garth finished pouring the tea with only a reasonable amount of concentration. "No, you're right."

"I'll be civil when I need to. I promise. For real this time." Garth smiled in acknowledgement and held out a teacup for Dick. He came over and took it, swinging up onto one of the kitchen stools without spilling a drop. "So, uh, what did Mera say?"

"She promised not to interfere again."

"Yeah, she told me the same thing." Dick eyed him over the cup rim. "What else?"

"She...reminded me of my responsibilities." Garth glanced into Dick's face and visibly winced. "Not in the way you're thinking."

Dick had felt his expression turn stony as soon as Garth said the word. "Responsibilities," where Garth was concerned, usually meant something to do with Atlantean politics, and specifically in regard to his being on the surface and not *there.* "She found something *else* to berate you about?"

He knew it was a mistake the moment he'd said it. "Mera is more sympathetic than you imagine." The words came out flatly, in that way that signaled annoyance Garth wasn't willing to express further.

"Yeah, I'm...having a severe case of foot-in-mouth today. Worse than usual, which is going some." Dick drained his cup and leaned over the counter for the pot. "At this point I'm hoping this stuff will knock me out before I say anything else stupid. But since that isn't likely, I'm going to apologize again and just *listen* this time."

Garth sighed and drank his own tea, more slowly, clearly taking the time to choose his words. "She's...not the enemy. She never was, as far as I'm concerned, even if her agenda didn't entirely correspond with mine. But she reminded me-- she was trying to tell me--"

He was struggling, but Dick had promised not to interrupt. "--I've been...avoiding certain things. Things that have nothing to do with Arthur, or my being here. Aspects of my, my relationship with Atlantis and its people." His words came slowly. "I've been...pretending to serve my people, when all I've really done is found another way to run away from them."

By that time Dick was openly biting his lip in an effort to keep himself from talking. Garth noticed and rolled his eyes. "Pallais's sake, Dick, say what you need to before you bite through your lip."

If Garth had been looking for another way to downplay his accomplishments, this time he'd come up with a doozy. "You've done *more* for your people than--well, anyone *else* outside of some obscure Atlantean history book, at least as far as current events go. Whatever you think you're not doing--everyone yells at *me* for trying to do too much, and you've got at least as many jobs. Cut yourself a little slack."

But he'd misinterpreted again, or missed the point of whatever Garth was trying to get across. "That's not-- I'm *proud* of my work here. But the *reasons* I'm doing it...." he hesitated again.

Dick put on his best supportive face. "Garth. Just tell me."

"I've become so used to believing I didn't have a place there," Garth said quietly, "that I never bothered to see that things have changed. That the *people* have changed. That I've been harboring grudges and...anger...that I should have forgotten years ago."

The worst thing, Dick knew, would be to dismiss the assertion out of hand. That didn't mean he necessarily agreed with it, but its accuracy wasn't for him to decide. *He* didn't know the people of Atlantis at all...but then, by his own admission, neither did Garth. "You're sure about that? That things have changed, that they've earned your...forgiveness. I'm not doubting whatever Mera told you," he added quickly to Garth's exasperated look, "but that's her perspective, not yours."

"Alianne told me the same thing," Garth said, his voice sounding remote.

"...okay," Dick started slowly, choosing his words. "So assuming that's true...what do you want to do about it? Do you *need* to do something about it? Because if it's only a matter of adjusting your thinking--maybe *you* think you've been running away, but I bet the view from Atlantis looks completely different." He pointed to a copy of the Wayne contract on the coffee table. "*That* speaks for you. Beat yourself up all you want because you think you haven't given your people enough credit--better yet, skip that--but don't try to convince me that you don't *care.*"

Garth was staring at him. "...or, you know, I could be talking out of my ass--"

"You're not," Garth said, looking bemused. "I just didn't expect..."

"...me to make that much sense?" Dick finished dryly. "I have my moments."

"Many of them." Garth rinsed out the kettle. "It's strange to think that I might be...welcome, when I never believed...." he trailed off again.

Dick didn't want to suggest it, but Garth needed this. "That you might have a home there?"

"*This* is my home." There was absolutely no hesitation in his voice at all. Dick hadn't really been afraid on that score--no more than a momentary wibble, anyway--but it was nice to hear the affirmation nevertheless.

He yawned and stretched, exaggerating the motion, knowing Garth was watching. "Glad to hear it. How about we take advantage of that fact and get to bed?"

"...you're not suggesting sleep, I hope."

"Oh, eventually."

***

As usual, she had to go looking for him. "The king is in his bedchamber, my lady," one of the palace servants told her. This one hadn't served long enough to remember the days when Mera and Arthur had shared that room, so she was spared either the insinuation that she belonged there or resentment that she'd ever left it. The servants who had been here the longest tended to be the least subtle about expressing their opinions.

No one's opinion mattered but hers, of course, and on this subject her emotions had been decidedly mixed of late. Arthur had been extremely solicitous in recent days, and since the reception, more *gentle* with his attention as well. It had been easy to enjoy...no, to *allow* herself to enjoy the slow flirtation. Very different from their previous relationship, so bound up in the events that beleaguered them through the years that they had both forgotten the true sentiment that had brought them together in the first place.

The chamber was open to her touch, as she expected. Arthur was at his desk, going over some scrolls, but he looked up when she entered. "So, what did you think?"

He stood up, stretching, and Mera tried to ignore the way her eyes tracked the motion of his body under his formal clothes. "About...?"

"The events of the past few hours," she returned dryly. "The dinner? Dick Grayson."

Arthur made a sound she couldn't quite interpret. "He stood up to me. He was...extremely irate on Garth's behalf. It speaks well of him."

"Things seemed tense when we interrupted."

The answering shrug spoke volumes. "He doesn't like me. It's not required. He'll defy me for Garth's sake, and that's all the loyalty I could ask for."

Mera stared at him, mouth working soundlessly in disbelief, until she finally threw up her hands with an exasperated sigh. "You always have to do things the hard way, don't you?"

"He's Batman's son! We were never going to sit down together as a loving family in any case."

"Not as long as that's how you view him, true," Mera agreed. "You tested him, and he responded as you anticipated. It could hardly have happened otherwise...given you'd already made up your mind. Personally," she overrode Arthur's probable reply, "*I* found him to be an interesting dinner guest, and perceptive."

Arthur glanced at her sharply. "His mind was no less made up, about me. I *admitted* to my mistakes with--with Garth. That isn't, apparently, enough."

"He had a point. Would it have been so difficult," Mera asked softly, already knowing the answer, "to say you were sorry?"

It was a step too far. "Actions speak louder," Arthur growled, "and I have done much already. I gave Garth leave to work his will as our ambassador and to live as he likes on the surface. I did *not* force him to a throne he doesn't want, or interfere with his relationship with Grayson--placing Alianne in his path, if I recall correctly, was *your* idea."

Mera felt a muscle in her jaw twitch, but she held her composure. "It was. And if *I* recall correctly, you agreed to it."

"Clearly," Arthur said stiffly, "a mistake."

Ah. Yes. Now she remembered. The subject might be different, but this was another variation on the fights they'd used to have. Legendary, according to the gossip of the servants who'd fled the vicinity of the Royal Couple when they argued.

But she was *not* his wife any longer, no matter how familiar this all felt, and had less reason to stand for it. "So it was. You are, of course, under no obligation to--"

"*Mera,*" he said in a frustrated, strangled tone, and then his trembling hand was cupping her chin, and she was trembling too, because now she *also* remembered why they'd argued so frequently and so heatedly. The sparks between them tended to flare equally into anger and passion and the difference between them was often too thin a line. Like now.

Inevitable, this, from the moment she'd returned to Poseidonis and chosen to stay as Arthur's advisor and confidante. But that didn't mean her course was necessarily predetermined. She could still remain aloof, carefully guarding herself against the emotions he stirred with his presence and his touch. She could still leave.

She didn't want to.

Despite his temper, and hers. Despite their shared loss, despite the years of battle against enemies from without and within, despite the fact that *peace* of any kind would elude them at ever turn. She had been the queen of her own realm and his and there was no one to match her save this king.

~Arthur,~ she sent, her mind touching his for the first time in years. Mera saw his eyes widen at the contact, and the stunned realization in knowing what that meant. ~Yes.~



{end}