Sea and Sky:
Whatever You Need
by Dannell Lites
and Rachel Ehrlich
Dannell: This story is an amalgam of moi's talents and those of Rachel Ehrlich! She wrote the Jericho parts and Ah wrote the Nightwing parts:):) The character of Omar is the sole creation of Rachel Ehrlich. The usual disclaimer apply! Rated PG-15 for M/M sexual situations.
Rachel: DISCLAIMER: All characters are copyright DC Comics. They certainly wouldn't approve of what we've chosen to do with them, but we've done it anyway, in the hope that no one decides to take legal action against us as a result. There wouldn't be much point, since we have no money and aren't making any from doing this. 'Twas all just for fun. Oh yeah, M/M slash, so if that scares you more than it does Rachel, run away now. Or at least before you get to Dannell's parts.
And here I'd always thought that winters in England were cold. Silly me.
Then again, maybe it wasn't usually so cold on Okaara. I had no doubt that the physical chill of the caves was exacerbated by the emotional chill of the people presently inhabiting them. Things between Dick and Kory were positively polar at the moment.
Well, and whose fault was that, Mr. Wilson? I'd overheard Karras on the trip to Tamaran; why didn't I tell Dick and Kory about it? Why did I wait until things played themselves out in the worst possible way?
I winced inwardly. I had debated about telling my friends what I'd heard, but there hadn't been an appropriate opportunity before everything had unraveled. OK, I admit it, there was more to it than just that. I didn't want to be the bearer of ill tidings -- especially ill tidings that were neither my doing nor in my power to change. I tried to find a way to change them anyway, but honestly, what could I have done? To support Kory's choice in obeying her father would have alienated an already frustrated and uncertain Dick. To support Dick's rejection of the entire sociopolitical system on Tamaran would only have made the situation worse for a distraught Kory, who had never truly understood the profound differences in human and Tamaranean outlooks.
I must admit, I was every bit as shocked and dismayed as Dick when Kory's father announced his intent to force her into a political marriage. Hadn't he done enough to destroy her life already? Why on Earth would she or Karras agree to such a thing?
'Why on Earth', indeed. That was the heart of it: we weren't on Earth. Earth had nothing to do with it. We were on Tamaran, and for good or ill, this was how Tamaran was run. We could object all we liked, but our alien Earth views were politely ignored. I would have been offended if not for the fact that we probably would have behaved no differently had we been on Earth, attending the wedding of Dick and Kory, and an outraged Tamaranean delegation had shown up to protest such a thing. Yes, we understand your views, we're terribly sorry you don't agree, now be so kind as to silence yourself while we hold our ceremony, there's a good chap.
Trying to make Dick see that, though, was an effort wasted. He didn't want to cede anything to King Myand'r, least of all the right to tell his daughter what to do. Honestly, I couldn't blame him; all three of us had been hurt by our parents in the past, and this struck too close to home for any of our liking. Granted, Dick's parents hadn't meant to die and leave their son an orphan, but then, my father hadn't meant for me to be kidnapped and nearly killed on account of his activities as a mercenary, either. Intent is irrelevant when you're in that much pain.
And Kory's father had meant to sell her into slavery. Rationalizing that it was to end a war and save lives is a sick self-delusion when you're sending your own daughter into a life of misery and endless abuse. Even worse, he'd learned nothing from the incident, and was more than ready to repeat himself, this time to sell her into the 'slavery' of an arranged marriage that neither she nor her intended husband wanted. No, I was far from a supporter of King Myand'r, but Dick's hostile behavior to everyone around him wasn't making it any easier to support him.
It isn't as though I didn't know he was in pain; been there, done that, don't want to do it again, thanks but no thanks. I just didn't know what to say that might make him feel better. Like me, Dick tended to internalize his pain; unlike me, his pains fueled his insecurities, which then added to his pain in a downward spiral of self-destruction. I had to snap him out of that spiral now, before it got past the point that I could do anything at all to help.
A fortnight on Okaara was long enough, especially when considering the time before on Tamaran meant that Dick had been under intense stress for nearly a month. Longer, if the strain in his relationship with Kory while still back on Earth was taken into account. Small wonder, then, that he was at his snapping point, something I should have noticed a lot sooner than I did. Well, Donna isn't the only one who strives for perfection; she just manages to achieve it more frequently than I do.
I sighed and sat up, quickly tugging the covers over my shoulders to ward off the sudden attack of cold air. There was no point in my lying in bed and pondering the situation; either do something about it, or go to sleep. No choice, really; Dick was my friend, and I couldn't just ignore him. Not unless I wanted to be nagged by my guilty conscience all night.
I slid my feet out from under the protective warmth of the covers, gasping as the bare soles made contact with the frigid stone floor. I thought about putting on my boots, but since I wasn't wearing anything else, it seemed too odd. Dick's room was right next to mine, anyway, so I wouldn't have far to walk. Good thing, too, since the warm, fur-lined covers were too heavy and awkward to drag off the bed. I wrapped the thin undersheet around myself and made my way through the barely lit cavern.
The main entrance to the guest chamber had a solid metal door that could be locked from within to provide both privacy and security. The bedrooms, budded off from the main chamber, had only a thick curtain draped across each entryway. Dick had locked the outer door in a nonverbal message to everyone else that no matter what happened on Okaara or Tamaran, he was not at anyone's beck and call. At least, I think that's why he did it, since he and I were the only ones in the guest rooms, and I certainly hadn't asked him to lock it.
Light flickered from behind the curtain to Dick's room. I wasn't surprised that he was still awake; I was convinced he hadn't slept much at all in over a month. Dick drives himself too hard at the best of times -- and this was anything but the best of times. Even from out here, I could feel the waves of anguish emanate from his room. Silently, I pushed aside the curtain and stepped inside.
He was fully dressed, sitting on the low bed with his knees pulled up and his arms draped loosely over them. He stared ahead at the small brazier that threw its flickering light across his face, the motion of the dancing shadows contrasting with the utter stillness of his form. If he was even aware of the chill in the air, he gave no outward sign of it.
"We should go home." Those were the first words he'd said to me in days. That he'd spoken to me at all was enough of a good sign that I ignored the monotone in which the words had been said. Instead, I knelt by his bedside and studied his profile. His expression gave nothing away, but his eyes were deep wells of pain, swirling pools of loss and betrayal, anger and despair. I'd seen those eyes before, in the mirror, but now was not the time to think of Penny Lord; now was the time to think of Dick Grayson, and what I could do to change the look in his eyes.
One of the benefits of sign language is that it forces the listener to give his full attention to the conversation at hand; no listening with half an ear, so to speak. But the downside was that I had to get his attention to begin with. To that end, I reached out from under the sheet and stroked his cheek with the back of my fingers.
It worked. He turned to face me, and as our eyes met, I knew precisely what he needed.
I took a deep breath. I was walking into an emotional minefield, but if that's what would help Dick, so be it. I wasn't afraid of getting hurt, but I didn't want to end up doing more harm than good in the long run. It would have to be his decision.
'Tell me how I can help,' I said. 'Whatever you need, I'll always be here for you.'
He surprised me with the sheer desperation of his response, but at least it meant that I'd done the right thing after all.
You wanna know the worst part of the whole incredibly ugly thing?
It wasn't that Kory married someone else. Not really. I mean, OK, I'm not exactly on the same wavelength as this whole royalty thing. This whole noblesse oblige noise. Condescending as hell as far as I'm concerned. And, as a form of government, a monarchy makes about as much sense to me as a screen door on a blasted submarine. Archaic doesn't begin to cover the subject. And King Myand'r was about as archaic as they come. He really believed all that crap. Especially the part that told him he had the right to make life-changing decisions for a whole planet full of people. Jesus!
The trouble was, Kory believed that, too. She always had. I had begun to realize that this was the true reason behind her savage ways and her refusal to change them while on Earth. She felt she had the right to do these things, conveyed upon her by her high birth.
But, no. That wasn't the real problem at all.
Because, even thought royalty and associated minutia might give me an enormous gas pain, one of the things I do understand extremely well is duty. Duty to others. Duty to a concept; a cause. Christ, I've had that ingrained into my mind and body by an expert since I was nine years old. Don't tell me about duty! And God knows there's enough precedent for what Kory had in mind right here on good old Mother Earth; Terra Firma. Kings and queens rarely have any say about who they marry. So, sort of as a consolation prize, I guess, you have the mistress.
Or, in my case, the gigolo. The kept man.
All nice and quiet and no one comes up stiff as long as there's an undisputed heir and public propriety, right? Kory seemed to think it was a done deal. The natural course of events. And only my stubbornness was standing in the way of our blissful happiness. Stay on Tamaran and take up residence in the Palace as Her Highness' Royal BoyToy.
No, what hurt was the sudden, crushing knowledge that Kory, the woman I loved, the woman I shared my body, heart and soul with, didn't understand me at all. How could she, if she didn't even understand me well enough to know that... that... I could never do that.
All right. Call me stupid. Call me hopelessly unhip. Call me old fashioned. It might not bother Kory in the least to shatter her marriage vows like that...
But I just... couldn't.
It was only the beginning of my education in how very different Kory and I were. God help me, but I still loved her. I just didn't understand her anymore. I was beginning to see how truly alien she was. How could I have fooled myself for so long? I -- I guess I have a bad habit of lying to myself, don't I? It's so easy to do, after all. It probably started way back in my mid-teens when I got real good at deceiving to myself about... about...
Oh, Christ! I just couldn't deal with... with... Bruce right now. If I tried I was gonna lose myself, drown in all that pain. I told myself that I had quite enough of that to deal with at the moment, thank you very much. I remember stumbling over to the low bed, crawling into it, and pulling my knees up to my chest to try and stop the painful pounding of my heart against my ribs.
It was the cold, the damned cold... had to be, right?
I'm not sure how long I just sat there, trying so damned hard not to think; not to hurt. It was a long time I think. I was so lost, so wrapped up in my own misery that I never even heard him when he entered the room. Some World's Second Greatest Detective, huh? I opened my eyes, looked up and quickly looked away. But it didn't dim the image seared into the back of my eyelids. There he was; just standing there in the flickering half light of the brazier. The flames danced in his wide, expressive green eyes. And.... and...
He was wrapped in a sheet. That's all. Just a thin sheet from his bed. Oh, God...
I think I eventually spoke. I'm not at all sure about that. But, I must have. The next thing I really remember with any clarity, Joey was sitting beside me on my bed, a warm, comforting presence that glowed with a life of its own in the chill darkness. Joey isn't usually very aggressive at all. I think even if he weren't mute, Joey would be the quiet type; easily overlooked, blending into the background. God, sometimes I wish I could do that. So I must have been the one to make the first move, I'm sure.
I sat there, basking in the warmth of his nearness. It felt so good. Just so damned good... not to be alone. Not to be in pain. At first, I didn't even realize I'd reached for his hand, until I felt its slender, elegant length filling mine; warming my own chill, shaking fingers.
Joey has the most beautiful hands in the world. Long, slim fingers; agile and supple like fine silk cloth. And soft, I discovered. So very, very soft... And when those hand began to move... such grace... weaving poems in the air with every elegant gesture...
God... so beautiful...
Like Joey himself.
Joey is an empath. I had to believe that he knew exactly what he was doing, exactly what to expect, when he came to me clad only in a bedsheet. He knew. Oh, yes, he knew... I needed...
I cupped his face and kissed him softly. His mouth still tasted faintly of the tart sweetness of the Tamaranean havafruit he'd eaten for supper. My fingers curled possessively around the curve of his neck, trailing lightly down his spine. He shivered, moaning softly.
Gently, I swept the sheet's scant cover from off his shoulders and watched it pool in liquid folds upon the cold stone floor. He didn't protest. In the dimness his eyes sparkled and I fell willingly into those verdant sea-green depths and almost drowned. I lay him down on the bed's softness, kissing my way down the long, ivory column of his neck. My flesh began to harden at the many small cries of pleasure that escaped him, then. He gasped and entwined those lovely hands in my hair. My body began to ache it was so eager and hard.
"Joey..." I whispered his name like a benediction, a prayer.
And so it was.
When his hands wandered down to that certain small spot in the middle of my back and caressed it with deft hands, I was lost. I wrapped my tongue around hard nub of one nipple and began to suckle like a child.
And those hands... such skillful hands...
Ghosting over my body, stroking, caressing, wresting from me such pleasure that I cried out in a loud voice that rang off the cavern walls like thunder, giving vent to all my pleasure and wonder. Joyously, I spent myself, then lay quiet in his arms, still trembling with the tiny aftershocks of my orgasm. We lay there, each listening to the others deep, contented breathing in the stillness of the Okaaran night, warmed by the merrily dancing fire of the brazier. It was several moments before either of us could speak.
"Joey?" I murmured. "Just wanted to say thank you. Thank you for wanting me... thank you for... for..." My fading voice failed me entirely and I had to let the sentence hang there between us, unfinished, unspoken.
Joey's fingers moved, caressing my cheek in Sign.
'My pleasure,' and that made me smile. 'Sleep, now... everything will be better in the morning... sleep... sleep...'
And I did. Nestled like spoons, we fit together like the pieces of a puzzle, safe and warm in the fastness of the long, attar-strewn night. My dreams, after that, were full of laughing sea-green eyes and indescribably beautiful hands moving through the air with slow, lyrical poetry of motion.
Mission accomplished. Dick was out like a light, the occasional soft sigh escaping his lips as he dreamed. Unfortunately, now it was my turn to stay up, pondering the significance of what I'd just done.
I hadn't meant to. Please, I'm not that crass; I would hardly have used this heartbreaking episode as an excuse to seduce my best friend. Until he'd looked at me, I hadn't even known that he was interested; I'd only ever seen him with Kory, and eyes for no one else.
But deep down, I knew. I didn't mean to do that, either, but I can't control it. As a side effect of my power, I subconsciously learn things about the people I possess, and when I took over Dick Grayson the first time I met him in the Tower, I learned things about him that even he didn't know. I wasn't able to list them all, but the knowledge worked itself out in odd ways; knowing without being told what colors he preferred, or what music he would be more apt to enjoy. It was like having a small piece of him inside my head. Multiply that by everyone I've ever used my power on, and it's a wonder I have any personality to call my own.
That might explain my own preferences, though. After all, I'd possessed as many women as men, so it was only natural that I might be equally attracted to both. Another side effect of my mutation, it seems, was empathy. Not like Raven's -- nowhere near that powerful -- but just enough to make me very sensitive to what the people around me were feeling. As a rule, empaths are attracted to emotion, and secondarily to the people feeling those emotions. Gender, if it rates at all, is only third on the list. Most people can't grasp that concept; they're attracted to what they see, which puts gender first, and to have someone tell them that gender is irrelevant is too alien a thought.
Or should I say, too Tamaranean a thought? I would fit in here -- an odd realization if there ever was one. Superficially, I look about as Tamaranean as a human can; green eyes, curly hair, give me a good tan and you'd never know I wasn't born here. Well, OK, my irises are too small and I have visible pupils, but maybe the Tamaraneans have mutants, too. It could happen. And except for the bloodthirsty warrior thing that runs under the surface of their culture, I could flourish in this environment, artistically, spiritually, emotionally.
Not Dick. They say that opposites attract, but he and Kory were too opposite; there has to be some common ground in a relationship, and sexual attraction alone won't do it for long. Sure, there had been some benefits to their relationship; Dick had provided Kory with her first stability and real love, while Kory gave Dick the sort of unconditional love and acceptance that Bruce never had. But overall, they were at philosophical odds. Kory was a warrior; Dick abhorred violence. Kory was a free spirit; Dick kept himself very restrained. Kory understood her duty as a member of the Royal House of Tamaran; Dick saw only the infringement of an individual's right to self-determination.
Dick was a human, and as sweet as she was, Kory was just too alien for him.
Which isn't to say he didn't love her. Obviously he did, or he wouldn't have been in the kind of pain that drove me to offer him what I did. But now that I had, and he had accepted, where did we go from here? Neither of us favored short-term casual relationships, and I didn't see myself as any better a match for him than Kory. What he thought about it, I don't know. A telepath I'm not, and thank God for that -- bad enough having people's emotions pressing in on me without adding their thoughts, too. And people wondered how it was I understood Raven so well! There were times that I'd have given anything to be just a normal person, like Dick. Grass is always greener, eh?
I lay back slowly, exhausted in body if not in mind. What little I'd done had helped, but Dick needed to release his anger as much as he needed to feel loved. The combination would make for some serious aggression, but I had no doubt that it would always be under his iron self-control. I imagine he gets that from Bruce; it fits the image I have of Batman. Of course, I've never met Batman -- or Bruce -- but my subconscious understanding of Dick suggested he might have had a wilder side to him once, which got suppressed between the trauma of his parents' deaths and the rigor of his training as Robin. Releasing that wild side might be just what he needed.
At least I didn't have to fear that he might turn violent as a result. Just another little something I knew about him, I guess, but it was a real relief for me; I'd been in an abusive relationship before, and I wasn't out to repeat the experience. Dick wasn't Omar, though; the only thing they had in common was black hair and good looks.
I had met Omar al-Hadif my final year at Eton. Mum's insistence that I go to school in England probably had more to do with keeping me away from the danger inherent in her work than any benefit I might derive from attending her father's alma matter. Omar, following the tradition of many rich families from Saudi Arabia, had been sent overseas for the purposes of learning the Western way of doing business. With his noble background and exotic Mediterranean features, he was used to getting what he wanted.
He wanted me.
A pity that, since I alone of all the students was unimpressed by Omar's appearance. He took it as a challenge, going so far as to learn basic sign language in order to attract me. That -- and his overwhelming charisma -- did the trick. Omar managed to talk the head prefect of the senior form into assigning me as his flatmate, and before I knew it, we were sleeping together.
No one said anything. What was there to say? There are so many poofs in England you'd think it was contagious. We never flaunted our relationship -- well, I didn't, at any rate -- and if anyone was bothered, it was only because two of the most handsome men in the school had just been taken off the eligibility list. That sounds immodest, I know, but really, English aristocracy is known for two things, poor dentistry and inbreeding, neither of which does wonders to improve the looks.
Things were fine the first trimester. Omar could be imperious at times, and was more controlling than I fancied, but he respected my differences of opinion enough to know that he needed to charm me if he wanted to continue getting his way all the time. I chalked it up to cultural dissimilarities, and ignored all the early warning signs. Coming from an Islamic country, Omar wasn't supposed to drink alcohol. Apparently, Saudi Arabia was more liberal in that regard than most of its neighbors, because Omar was exceedingly fond of wine, and knew enough about the various vintages to show that he was no novice. Since I rarely drank, it was just one of the many things to which I paid no attention, until the night Omar showed up back at our flat absolutely pissed.
That was unlike him, to have gone on such a bender in public. On top of it all, he was clearly in a bad mood, but I had no idea why; I had declined the invitation to the party he'd attended, so whatever had transpired there was known only to him. Not that I was overly pleased myself, to see him come home in that condition, but I figured I'd make him some coffee, see him to bed, and let him sleep it off.
Ever since the Jackal's attack, my mother had been obsessive about teaching me self-defense. I wasn't a black-belt martial artist, but I knew how to fight in a wide variety of styles. Omar knew that, of course; we hadn't spent all this time together without talking to each other. I could deflect nearly any blow I saw coming, which was why he made sure to attack from behind. A kidney strike is designed to take a person down, and his kick dropped me like a stone. Paralyzed with pain, I was unable to move, much less defend myself from the rest of the blows he rained down on me. I barely managed to curl into a fetal position, and waited for the hurricane of his rage to pass.
Hours later, after Omar had succumbed to an alcoholic stupor, I dragged my battered body to my side of the bed and lay there, shivering from the shock of the assault. It had been so unexpected that my mind didn't want to accept the facts of what had occurred. Where had this violent monster come from? What had happened to the Omar I'd known?
He was back the next morning, apologetic almost to the point of embarrassment. He professed ignorance to what he'd been doing, swearing that he would never, ever do it again. My body, at least, knew what my mind refused to acknowledge, and I couldn't stop myself from flinching whenever he touched me. Maybe I was imagining it, but he seemed perversely pleased by my reaction. That, too, I ignored, and foolishly accepted both his apology and his oath.
For what little they turned out to be worth. Second trimester was coming to an end, and I was busy with the revision for my exams. Engrossed in the details of Immanuel Kant's philosophy, I didn't notice when Omar set down his textbooks and left the room. I was reading about Kant's concept of the categorical imperative when the back of my skull exploded in agony and the world went dark.
I awoke three days later in the hospital. The doctors told me I was lucky to be alive; according to my flatmate, a gang of hooligans from another school had accosted me with cricket bats, leaving me with a broken collarbone, shattered left wrist, five cracked ribs, a broken right tibia, and a serious basilar skull fracture. Naturally, Omar had single-handedly rescued me and brought me to the hospital. The whole tale was a load of rubbish, but there was no point in saying so; it was my word against Omar's, and of the two, he was the one with the ability to make others believe him. I could honestly tell the doctors I had no recollection of the event. They nodded sympathetically and said they would notify Omar that I was awake.
Not that I cared to see him. It would have been beyond daft to forgive him this time; it would have been suicidal. Kicking me purple was bad enough, but landing me in the hospital was an order of magnitude worse. If I allowed this to continue, I might as well just ring my mother and tell her to select a coffin, since I'd be in it before year's end.
He strode into the room with complete confidence. And why not? Everyone from the headmaster at Eton to the doctors in the emergency room had bought his story. He'd succeeded in beating me senseless twice and gotten away with it; if I hadn't said anything the first time, I wouldn't say anything now. After all, I'm generally a very pleasant fellow. I should be; I try hard enough at it. It takes a lot to anger me, and it's next to impossible to make me mad enough to want to hurt someone. But I couldn't reject my parents' genetic inheritance as easily as I had their convenient morality. One look in my eyes, and Omar knew he'd crossed a deadly boundary.
We simply stared at each other for the space of several seconds. It was a challenge, but this time, I wasn't backing down. Without a word, he turned and left; it was the last I ever saw of him. Later, I found out that he'd made up some excuse for a sudden return to Saudi Arabia, and by the time I was released from the hospital a month later, he was already long gone. But the twisted bastard had left a parting gift lying on my bed: the splintered, bloodstained cricket bat he'd used on me.
I left England for good that summer, venting my pent-up anger by joining my mother in Searchers, Inc., something I never would have done in my right mind. I love my mother dearly, but I disagree with her on nearly everything, and the way her 'covert intelligence operation' works is one of those sticky wickets. Three things came of that stint: the accidental discovery of my mutant power, my first meeting with Penelope Lord, and the realization that I didn't want to be in Searchers, Inc. for any great length of time.
I shut my eyes. I would not rehash the whole Penny Lord incident. I loved her and would have married her. She was using me to help her father establish control over a new branch of the H.I.V.E., and if she happened to love me too, it was only secondarily; her true loves were money and power, and she was willing to see me die to attain those goals.
So it's understandable that I'm a bit skittish on the relationship issue. I want to trust people -- that's my natural instinct -- but I've been burned so often, and so badly, that I have a hard time allowing myself to trust anymore. In that, I'm actually a lot like Gar; we force ourselves to trust others and hope for the best.
Could I trust Dick? Would I even have to? This was a temporary situation, to help alleviate the pain of Kory's decision to remain on Tamaran with her new husband. Once Dick got past her, we would go back to being just friends, and no harm done.
Content with that, I finally managed to fall asleep.
I don't usually deal very well with "the morning after". Jesus, does anyone? You're sad and alone and desperately trying to fill the emptiness that's aching inside your gut with something... anything... anything at all will do. My eyes fluttered open.
And there was Joey.
Somehow he was still there. He hadn't disappeared in a puff of noxious smoke, after all.
A smile tippling the corners of my mouth, I snuggled closer, laying my head against the broad expanse of his chest, listening to the steady, reassuring beat of his heart. I seemed to absorb the sound of it through my tingling skin. The fine blond hairs of his chest tickled my nose and I had to suppress a chuckle. Do you have any idea how nice it was to start the day with a smile and a laugh? God. It had been so long since I felt this good, early in the morning... or anytime at all, I guess.
And I owed it all to Joseph William Wilson.
I happen to like hairy chests, OK? Color me primal. But not too hairy, is the thing. The dusting of light blond fur on Joey's muscular chest was just right as far as I was concerned. I had to restrain myself to keep from running my itching fingers lightly through the sensual whorls of it. Delightfully hidden and surprising in its own small way. I like being surprised. And, as you might guess, it doesn't happen to me very often.
For a long time I just lay there, enwombed in the safety and comfort surrounding me with the warmth of Joey's tall body. I like tall men, too. Sue me. I didn't dare move, or even breathe too hard, I feared, lest I disturb the magic... the dream. And then it might go away. It took me a long time to convince myself otherwise, but I think I finally managed. Gusting a contented sigh, I opened my eyes again.
Joey was still there.
Drawing in a suddenly shaky breath, I began to watch him sleep. For many long, eternal moments it was just he and I, in our own little pleasant world. I allowed myself to thoroughly enjoy the rhythmic rise and fall of his chest. God, breathing is such a simple thing. But... how wonderful it is. In his slumber Joey was smiling. When he moaned -- oh so very softly -- and stirred momentarily, I knew what he was dreaming about. My toes began to tingle, I was so pleased at the thought that I had invaded his dreams, his desires. Gently, I kissed his cheek and when he murmured and snuggled closer, clinging to me, I gasped.
I didn't want to wake him. Not just yet. I wasn't... I... I...
The truth was, I wasn't sure that I was ready to face him just now. Deliberately, I bit my lip, tasting the salty, metallic tang of blood on my tongue. On the inside. Where no one else can see it, of course. My cloud of euphoria began to descend just a bit, dipping perilously back down, threatening to collide with reality.
How was Joey going to feel about what happened last night? That was the sixty-four thousand dollar question, wasn't it?
And, God help me, I didn't know the answer.
I lay there, very still, for a seeming eternity.
The funny thing is, I'm usually the one who runs away faster than a scalded cat at the first sign of any serious development in a relationship. I can't seem to help myself. I mean, it's like an autonomic reflex, almost. I have no control over the damned thing. None.
See love happen. See Dick run. Run, Dick, run! Faster!
Funny, huh? Yeah. Real funny.
Funny like a freeway accident is funny.
So what was different this time? Why wasn't I afraid?
I'm not really sure. Couldn't tell you if my life depended on it. And maybe it did, at that. I just knew that I wasn't. No, I wasn't afraid at all... Somehow this just felt right. Just so very, very right. Karma. Kismet. Call it whatever you like. But it was real; and it was something that I wanted. I was only just now beginning to realize how very badly I wanted it.
Bad enough to fight for it?
I felt like throwing off the blankets and leaping to my feet with my newly discovered determination. With a silent oath I restrained myself. Cautiously, I slipped from beneath the protection of the bed covers, being careful not to wake Joey.
Truth is, I've gotten pretty good, over the years, at creeping out of bed without disturbing my lover. After all, practice makes perfect, right? And I'd had a lot of practice. My bare toes curled at the touch of the stone floors' biting cold and I drew a sharp breath. It was freezing. During the night the brazier had dimmed and finally gone out completely. Only smoldering coals were left to remind me of the cheery, dancing fire of the night before.
That, and my blissful memories.
First order of business, I decided, was to rebuild the fire. Couldn't have Joey waking up in this blasted refrigerator. Lousy way to start the day. And not at all the mood I had in mind to set, either. I smiled at my own deviousness.
Shortly, I had a roaring little fire crackling and popping in the braziers heated, polished metal basin. Yeah, I was a good Boy Scout. Made Eagle Scout on my first try and in record time, too. Why do you ask?
Now for breakfast.
Stepping briskly to the door, I summoned the sleepy servant stationed nearby. Recalling the taste of the havafruit on Joey's tongue last evening, I smiled and asked the drowsy fellow if he could bring some more. Neither Joey nor I really drink, so I passed on the usual breakfast beverage of sweetwine; instead, I asked for some sparkling water faintly redolent of some tart Tamaranean or Okaaran mineral. A light flaky bread-like pastry accompanied by a sweet sauce vaguely reminiscent of clover honey topped off our breakfast menu. Satisfied, I smiled as he dashed off on his errand.
Carefully, with gratitude, I slipped back into our warm bed. Joey was still in the arms of Morpheus; still smiling softly in his sleep. God, he was beautiful. I think that must have been what made me decide on such a spectacular way of awakening him. I figured we just about had time before breakfast arrived.
I was right.
The room was warm enough again, now, so I cautiously slid the bed covers from off his nude body. So beautiful; it took my breath away for a moment. But only for a moment. He murmured in his sleep for a tiny instant, but curled back into his pillows. I smiled evilly.
With gossamer hands, I stroked and caressed him, showering many delicate butterfly kisses down the tall length of his responding body. He moaned low in his throat and his back arched in pleasure. But his eyes were still closed in dreams. I, on the other hand, was totally awake, now. And hard enough to temper steel.
It wasn't until my eager mouth engulfed his burgeoning length, stroking and caressing with my tongue, now, that those ocean-green of his eyes flew open like a bud unfurling in the sunlight. He threw back his head, his mouth curling into a small, round O of perfect bliss, his hips worked, and he gave his passion a loud voice that echoed off the stone walls.
Those lovely, beautiful hands brought me to my own completion and I think I was even louder than Joey. Spent, we clung to one another for many moments before we found our voices once more.
"Morning, Roo," I smiled.
Joey looked confused, and I had to come to his rescue. Of course, that didn't stop me from wearing a grin bigger than the cat who ate the canary when I did it.
"A baby kangaroo," I explained with almost unholy glee, "is called a joey." He laughed and gladdened my heart. Of course, he had his revenge.
Joey smiled back, signing against the broad expanse of the flushed flesh that was my chest. 'Morning, Robbie'.
Personal names, especially nicknames, are a problem for Sign. A person is usually identified in ASL by the use of the first letter of their name and then some distinguishing thing about them. In this case, to indicate 'Robbie' Joey fingerspelled 'R' and then indicated wearing a pair of short pants with a wave of his expressive hands.
It was the first time he'd ever called me by my oh-so-familiar nickname and it sent a thrill flashing like lightning up my tingling spine.
I was right about the havafruit, I discovered. I had to really fight for the one piece I managed to snatch from his greedy, questing fingers. But he wasn't totally averse to sharing, mind you. Kissing is such a great thing, isn't it? Remind me to canonize whatever lucky guy or woman who invented it, will you? They deserve it. I highly recommend it. And, I can tell you, that sweet sauce really does make an awfully nice aperitif all by itself when you lick it sensually off the fingers and nipples of someone you love.
In other words, breakfast took a long time.
But finally, full and satiated -- in more ways than one! -- we fell back onto the bed in sleepy repletion, just holding one another. Eventually, I opened my eyes and propped myself up on an elbow, watching Joey carefully for some clue, some beacon in the lift of an eyebrow or the sweep of a high-boned cheek.
I think that was when I first realized that I hadn't thought of Kory since last night.
But in the week that followed, it was hard to ignore her. Had she been completely absent, maybe I could have, but she was there... with Karras. Wherever she went, he was there, too. It got to the point where I purposefully avoided her, just so that I wouldn't have to see him there with her.
When it should have been me who was there.
Everything came to a head, as I knew it would. I just couldn't clamp down on the anger, the feelings of betrayal, any longer. I told her I was going back to Earth, and she could come or not, as she chose. I don't really know what I expected; she hadn't said 'no' to her royal duties the whole time we'd been in the Vegan system, so why should she ditch them now?
Well, she didn't. Big surprise. Joey and I headed home alone.
I guess that's when I lost it. I remember smashing things on Ryand'r's ship, and I remember Joey doing his best to calm me down. Joey... God... he's been so good to me -- he's been so good for me. I don't know if I could have made it through that week on Okaara without him and his soothing, silent presence.
I decided to let him know that night. I could only pray he felt the same way. Swallowing hard, I screwed my courage to the sticking point, in the memorable words of the Bard. I beat down a sudden attack of pure, blinding panic and plunged ahead recklessly, perhaps.
"I'm not good with words, OK? Not like you are. But, I - I - I have to ask you this. I don't know any other way to do it, so I'm just going to tell it bang. Would -- I mean... Do you think it would be all right if - if I told you that I love you?" I leaned down and kissed his closed eyelids and he shivered. With pleasure, I could only hope. "Our first night... that night was glorious. I don't think I've ever been happier than I am right now, this minute; with you. At least not for a long time. I want you in my life, Joey. I want to wake up in the morning and have the first thing I see be your face, shining in the rising sun. I want you to be the last thing I see before I tumble down into sleep at night. I want to dream about you every night. I want to love you always."
There. It was said, now. Out in the open; exposed to the sight of any and everyone.
The rest, I knew, was up to Joey.
Oh Lord, why didn't I see this coming?
He loved me. And it wasn't just the rebound from Kory, as I had originally thought. There were other issues here -- hidden issues, Bruce Wayne issues -- but Dick either didn't see them or wasn't ready to acknowledge them. All that mattered at this moment was me; I was the new center of his universe, because he loved me.
And, God forgive me, I didn't want him to.
It was nothing to do with him. Really, it wasn't. Dick Grayson was a wonderful human being. I could say that with utter certainty; thanks to my powers and to the Titans, I knew him better than I ever did either Omar or Penny. He would never hurt me, never betray me, like they did.
But I couldn't risk it. I didn't want to risk it. Everyone is hurt when a relationship fails, join the club, but it's sheer agony for an empath. We invest so much more in a relationship, and we lose that much more when it ends. Such failure does more than merely hurt us; it shreds our souls and leaves us with emotional scar tissue that builds upon itself like the walls of a fortress, sealing us off from others even as it protects us from further harm. Too much of that, and we wither emotionally, reduced to pantomiming the feelings that others still possess.
After Omar and Penny, I really didn't need any new reinforcements of my walls.
And what would happen anyway, when Dick finally confronted his deeply suppressed feelings for his former guardian? The existence of those feelings didn't bother me; Dick was old enough when his parents died to remember them and keep them in his mind as such. Bruce was never his father -- I don't think they ever even pretended to those roles -- so Dick's attraction to him wasn't as incestuous as it might have first appeared. I can't rightly say I understood those feelings, as the brooding, controlling sort wasn't my type at all, but that didn't make them any less real.
Try as I might to resist, though, I found myself returning Dick's affection. Empaths call it "mirroring", when one's feelings are the result of those closest to them, and secondhand though they were, the feelings were every bit as powerful as if they had originated with me. I was drowning in the magnitude of his emotions, and my mirrored responses set up a positive feedback loop that bound us even more tightly together. If I was trapped, it was as much my doing as Dick's.
The time on Okaara had given me no warning. In some dusty corner of his mind, Dick still believed that Kory would forsake her homeworld and return to Earth with him, but when we decided to leave Okaara yesterday, it was without Kory. She had chosen to stay with her people... with her husband. The finality of that decision is what drove Dick to distraction, and what fueled his fixation on me. If he had needed me then, he needed me that much more now.
I wandered aimlessly through the corridors of Ryand'r's ship, stopping at one of the viewing platforms and staring into the endless blackness of space. What was the matter with me, that I couldn't back away from this? That I couldn't simply say "no"? Yes, yes, Dick needed me; but what about my needs?
The truth can hurt, but I've never been any good at lying, even to myself. I had thought that I could do this, that I could help Dick without getting emotionally involved, but I was wrong. So very, very wrong. Like it or not, want it or not, I was as much in love with Dick as he was with me.
I cannot be doing this. I can't.
Right. You betcha. This is all just a bad dream and sooner or later -- please, God, let it be sooner! -- I'm going to wake up and it'll all be over with. It's the only thing that makes any sense, after all, strange as that may sound. Oh, yeah, trust me. I know how strange that sounds. But I have to believe that. Really, I do.
It's either that or face the truth: that I must be out of my damned tiny little mind!
I mean, for God's sake, just LOOK at this mess I've made! Merciful Christ on a Cruise missile... how can anybody be this bone deep, stick stone stupid, I ask you? Unless they've lost what small mind they ever had? Actually, I know that isn't true. Unfortunately. I'm as sane as ever. For what that's worth, anyway. Yeah. For all the good it does me. No, I'm sane, all right. More's the pity. Hell, I only wish that I was crazy. At least then I'd have some kind of a legitimate excuse for this incredible madness that passes for my life.
But no such luck. Not for this little former Boy Wonder turned second rate creature of the night. Nope. Not the way my luck generally runs at all. Like, since when did I ever get that lucky, I ask you? Since never, to be specific.
Back on Earth and back in my bed. And the really crazy thing is, I still haven't quite yet figured out how exactly how that happened. Do I even care?
Karras is out of the picture. Kory tried really hard to make her "marriage" work. She did. But... it just didn't. They both tried. According to Kory, though, she was never officially married. It wasn't a real Tamaranean wedding, after all. Just a peace treaty. So at least I'm not an adulterer...
God forgive me, that isn't true, is it?
Lord God, what am I going to do about Joey? I haven't got the first clue. Right now the only thing that I know for sure is that this thing is about to tear me apart, rip me into little, tiny still bleeding pieces. Hey, if I was Roy I'd know just what to do. No big deal; no problem at all. Just keep 'em both hanging on -- enjoy myself -- why the Hell not? And that's fine. For Roy. Mr.-I'm-So-Slick-I-Amaze-Myself could most likely find some way to do it; some way to pull all his overheating irons out of the fire without hurting anybody. Except maybe himself. The trouble is, I'm not Roy. I'm Richard John Grayson in all his old-fashioned glory. Gotta admit it; I learned a lot from Bruce. Much more than just martial art forms and detective skills. I'm just not made that way. I'm not. I'm a one-lover sorta guy. Can't help it. Nothing else feels... right...
I'm so damned confused.
On the one hand... I love Kory. Yep, still do. Isn't that amazing? Either pretty amazing or pretty pathetic; I can't quite decide which, right now. But I do love her. I was so angry when I left Tamaran. It was eating me up alive inside. Joey put an end to that, thank God. But from the instant I saw her back here on Earth, I was lost. I stared into those pupilless, cat-green eyes of hers, so similar and yet so different from Joey's, and went under for the third time. The next thing I knew she was in my arms and in my heart as if she'd never been gone at all. And... Jesus! It felt so good... so... so -- right that I almost melted right there.
And she was just so sad. About Karras and about... everything.
"Why didn't you say something, Dick?" she sobbed. "X'Hal! Why didn't you say something? Anything!"
I had nothing really to say to that, I guess, so I didn't even try. I think my silence must have hurt her again. I'm almost sure of it. But the only thing I could do about that was hold her tightly and pray.
As if God would ever listen to a prayer like that...
God, it still hurt. I was never going to forget the sight of the woman I loved, clad in bridal finery, taking sacred vows -- or so I thought -- with another man. Never. There was a part of me, a large part of me, in fact, that wanted to scream my anger at Kory for hurting me like that. Who wanted to shake her until she whimpered for what she'd done to me. For what we'd done to each other with our enshrouding silence.
But I couldn't.
Treading down that path... that would have led somewhere I wasn't ready to go. Somewhere dangerous. It -- it meant telling her about Joey.
And I couldn't do that.
So I suppressed my rage; stuffed it hastily down into a dusty, neglected corner of the back of my mind and tried to forget about it. Out of sight, out of mind. I do that a lot. It's another thing I learned from Bruce. Funny thing is, I thought Kory was the one who taught me how to stop doing that.
I guess not.
And then she told me about Karras and all the rest of it. Oddly enough, she didn't cry; maybe she'd done enough of that on Okaara and Tamaran. She simply clung to me, dry-eyed and trembling. Hell, I was the one who cried.
The Batman's former partner doesn't do that.
But Dick Grayson does.
On the other hand, I love Joey, too. A lot. And I guess that scares me. Christ, I know it does! Who am I trying to kid here? Myself? Pretty good at that, I'll admit. But I don't think I'm fooling Joey at all. He knows. He sees right through all my defenses with those sea green eyes of his, with those lovely speaking hands. And maybe... maybe... that's the scariest thing of all. I can keep secrets from Kory if I have to. After all, I've done it before. She's an open book as far as her own emotions are concerned, and since she isn't deceitful, she doesn't think to look for it in others. I can hide from her when I want.
But not from Joey.
God! What am I thinking? How could I hurt him like this? I lay here in bed -- the bed that Joey and I have so joyously shared -- beside Kory's warm, yielding flesh and I've never been so frightened in my life. He doesn't talk about it a lot, but Joey, like me, hasn't had a lot of luck in the love department, if you know what I mean.
Raven was unobtainable.
And Joey cried.
And Joey cried.
Penny Lord betrayed him, then took vicious pleasure in telling him she never loved him.
And Joey cried.
Omar -- God! I'd love to wrap my hands around his sick and twisted throat! Omar beat him.
Well, I guess he didn't cry about that.
At least not aloud, where anyone could see him.
The fact is, Joey is usually so quiet, so steady that most of us never think of him as having problems like the rest of us.
How in the Name of God could I add my name to that list? Become just one more person who hurt him? Who didn't love him enough? But if I'm going to be with Kory, then I'll have to find a way, won't I? Somehow. Someway.
Joey, will you ever forgive me for what I'm about to do?
I don't think I'll ever forgive myself, God knows.
I was furious, and she knew it. Tamaranean emotions have no subtlety, though, so Kory isn't half as good at reading others' emotions as she thinks she is. She assumed that I was mad at her for hurting Dick, and I did nothing to disabuse her of that opinion. But the truth was that I was angry she had returned, because she had no right -- no right to turn her back on Dick, wait just long enough for him to form an attachment to me, and then waltz back to Earth as though she still had a place here. As though she still deserved a place here.
OK, that was uncharitable of me, but I was upset. I didn't have the energy to deal with Kory's return; it was bad enough that Dick hadn't even told me he was going off in search of Raven, much less asked me to accompany him. After Donna told us of the fight she and Dick had prior to his leaving, I understood that he hadn't been rational enough to take the time to ask me about it, but that only raised concerns about his safety; I'd never known him not to consider having any backup on a dangerous mission like this.
It didn't help that no one thought much of my suggestion to go help Dick. Everyone seemed to think he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, despite his uncharacteristically reckless behavior of late. No sooner did Kory show up and make the same suggestion, though, then we were off in the T-Jet and heading to Zandia. That hurt twice over; first the abrupt rejection -- however unintended -- of my opinions as a Titan, and then the hasty departure which thwarted any chance of a private discussion with Kory about what had happened since Tamaran. All of which only made my anger grow, festering in the deliberate silence of Kory's denial.
I paid for that anger. I was too busy fuming about Kory's return, and not concentrating well when the Brotherhood attacked us in Zandia. I managed to save Vic from their assault, but not myself. After twelve hours of alternating physical and psychological torture, courtesy of Houngan and Phobia, I wondered if they had given me up for dead. Dick would have found a way to rescue me by now, had he been leading the team. After the second twelve hours, I was certain that Kory had convinced Donna to resume the search for Dick and Raven, regardless of who got left behind. I know, I know, Kory wouldn't do that, but I hadn't been thinking too clearly to begin with, and after so many hours of abuse, I wasn't thinking at all. By the time Mallah tied me to the lightning rod atop the capitol building in the midst of a raging thunderstorm, the only thing going through my mind was, At least Dick won't be forced to choose between us.
I don't really recall the details of our fight with Brother Blood; I don't imagine I was any more effective against him than I had been against the Brotherhood. Between the lingering aftereffects of what the Brotherhood had done and my concern about Dick, at least I had a good excuse for my failure. In the end, though, we prevailed, and that was all that mattered.
Well, not quite. But it was all I would admit to. Kory was hovering over Dick, who looked confused, distraught, and only mildly pleased at her return. I turned my attention to Raven, and not just as a distraction; she was a good friend in her own right, and I wanted to make sure she was OK. I'd forgotten that her empathy was so powerful -- that much moreso, now that Blood had amplified her powers -- and the look she gave me stopped me cold. One look, and she knew everything. Her eyes slid over to Kory and Dick, studying Dick's expression, then back to me. No horror, no rejection, just sympathy. I forced a weak smile and stared out the window of the T-Jet, desperately trying to concentrate on something else.
Raven's hand covered mine, the contact triggering an exchange of emotions more intimate than any spoken conversation, and every bit as informative. As a true empath, Raven had the ability to shield herself from others' feelings as well as block their perceptions of hers. She usually kept her shields firmly in place; it was the only way a powerful empath could stay sane in the company of so many other people. For me, though, she relaxed her guard, and allowed her emotions to wrap themselves around me like a warm, soothing blanket.
I knew what I had to do. I didn't want to do it, but there was no alternative. If I challenged Kory for him, in front of everyone, we'd all lose. Even the strongest friendships can't weather that kind of animosity. I wasn't willing to break off my friendship with Dick over this, much less break up the Titans over it. It was the ultimate irony: things were ending the way I had originally wanted them to, with our relationship flowing back into simple friendship, but now that it was over, I wasn't remotely happy with the way it had turned out.
I all but barricaded myself in my room at the Tower the moment we returned. That wasn't too difficult to achieve; everyone was tired and heading home, anyway. Kory had flown off with Dick before anyone could say anything, effectively delaying any potential fallout from her return for yet another night. Raven hesitated, then opted to give me time to work it out myself, vanishing to the apartment she and her mother had shared prior to their capture by Brother Blood. The others departed none the wiser, leaving me alone with my misery.
I took a shower and went to bed, but there was no way I could sleep. My anger had long since faded into depression, and that meant insomnia. I reached for my sketchpad on the nightstand and began drawing, allowing my hand to move without thought as to what I was creating. The outcome didn't surprise me; the picture was of Dick as he might have been had his parents never died, swinging from the trapeze with effortless joy -- the star of the Flying Graysons. Dick as he would have been, without the harsh control of Bruce or the harrowing demands of crime fighting. Dick as he should have been, had he never met Kory. Well, in that case, he never would have met me, either, but art isn't something that needs that sort of logical analysis.
My anger returned so abruptly it startled me. Why was it a given that I had to be the one who lost? Dick couldn't accept being in love with two people at once, that much I knew, but why choose her over me? He wasn't religious, and even had he been, the church wouldn't have condoned his relationship with an alien woman any more than his relationship with a man. She'd been first, yes, but then, I wasn't the one who'd up and married someone else, leaving Dick in the lurch. I wasn't the one who put duty before love.
But I was going to be.
The team had a group vacation scheduled for the next morning; I had originally planned to attend, but I was in no mood for it, now. I politely declined, tersely explaining that I had paintings I wanted to complete. Raven wasn't fooled, but she made no comment. Everyone else took me at my word -- amazing, what people miss when they aren't of a mind to look. Not that I wasn't used to fading into the woodwork; between being shy and being mute, it was all too easy for others to forget I even existed. For once, that suited me just fine.
Despite staying in the Tower, I didn't feel like being in costume. I pulled on my Pearl Jam T-shirt over a pair of khaki walking shorts and slid my feet into my comfortably battered old leather sandals. Having nothing to do but sulk, I dropped onto the couch and listened to the haunting music of Vladimir Vysotsky for an hour or so.
When the door buzzer sounded, I knew who it was. I almost didn't answer it -- why bother? -- but then my manners reasserted themselves and I opened the door for Dick. He stood in the hallway, hands jammed into his jacket pockets, looking as depressed and uncomfortable as I felt.
I was the one who broke the silence between us. 'You still love her, I know.'
He didn't deny it. "I love you, too, Joey; you know that." His voice was barely above a whisper, even though we were the only two people in the Tower.
Of course I knew he loved me; that was the whole problem! But he looked so miserable about it, I just couldn't stand it. Besides, I'm not the vindictive sort. I leave that to my parents.
I leaned forward, brushing my lips lightly over his in a gentle farewell. 'Go back to Kory,' I told him. There, it was official; he had my permission to abandon me.
"What about you?" He stopped just short of asking me to come with him; there were things we would each have to work out alone, and the sooner we did so, the better.
I smiled. 'I'll be fine.' Liar. At least Dick was feeling too guilty to notice it, though. That was a first, seeing how bad I am at lying to begin with. 'Whenever you need me again, I'll be here for you, always.'
He tried to say something else, but I held a finger to his lips, silencing him. Tapping my watch, I said, 'Go. You're already late.' He caught my hand and held it tightly. He always did have a thing about my hands, I remembered wryly; they were nicer than Kory's, he'd said. Be that as it may, it would be Kory's hands touching him from now on.
He brought my hand to his lips and kissed my fingers before allowing me to slide free of his grip. Our eyes locked for the briefest of moments, acknowledging all we'd been to each other and all we still were. Then he turned and walked toward the stairs that would take him out of the Tower, out of my life. I closed the door silently and bowed my head against it.
I'm sorry, regardless of birth, I make a lousy Brit. I'm too damn emotional, and even if I wasn't, there was no holding back this wave of sorrow. I buried my face in my hands and cried until I ran out of tears. Eventually, the last of the anguish drained away, leaving me empty.
At least I no longer felt sad; after so many years, after so much heartache, I was finally safe.
My walls were complete. I felt nothing at all.