S&S: SAFE AND DRY
Dick shuts off the engine, then the parking lights. Before the overhead light can switch on, he hits it, breaks it or switches it off, he doesn't care. He's more tired then he's ever been; all he wants to do is sit in the dark and not think, not deal.
The mistake is an easy one to make, he'll admit that. Five intersections allowing a right turn on red and then the sixth which doesn't. A driver in a hurry, a young woman jaywalking and Dick himself too far away to make up the difference, though he did try.
He can still hear the sickening thud as she was hit. That isn't me, he thought at the time, sprawled on the asphalt. When he heard a baby crying, he knew that wasn't him either. He was the ranking officer at the scene and he had his duties.
A square of light at the top of the stairs leading up to the house and Dick knows who's there. The car door opens.
"You look done in," Garth says and Dick can tell, just from the tone, that someone has filled Garth in on the events of the day.
He groans a little when Garth pulls him from the car, but Garth's Atlantean superstrength is an irresistable force the same way as Superman's is. You can dig your heels in all you want; he doesn't even notice. And in truth, Dick has no objections to being steered upstairs, to a glass of juice and a few mouthfuls of noodle soup, to a long hot shower, which Garth shares with him.
Garth doesn't say much beyond short requests for Dick to eat, to turn around so Garth can soap his back and at last, to stretch out face-down on the bed. Dick appreciates and another time, he'll tell Garth just how much. For now, the world has been reduced to Garth's hands, strong and sure.
Somewhere between waking and sleep, he asks:
"When Atlanteans die, what do you do?"
Garth's hands pause, then resume their movements.
"That depends. Why do you ask?"
Funny how hands can be amused when a voice is not. Dick would to turn his head to see if Garth is smiling, but is too relaxed to stir.
The room smells of salt and bitter herbs from Atlantean gardens. Garth puts a pinch of the powder in the tub sometimes, or in boiling water. For Dick, he puts it in massage oil, the better to rub away tension and strain. It's a comforting scent.
The smile have reached Garth's voice now.
"Traditionally, we have had sea-burials just like you," he says. "Sewed into a cloth, a cannon ball at the feet, a gold coin in the mouth for passage, when it's time to go into the depths."
Dick imagines Tula's slight body spinning away with the current, sinking out of sight. Full fathom five thy father lies.
"Other customs dictate a surface burial. Your Zoroastrians have something rather similar, with the Towers of Silence."
From Garth's carefully non-judgmental tone, Dick knows that he finds the idea repulsive. Dick does too. In his mind, he sees Garth desiccating under the glare of a merciless sun, skin parched and peeling, violet eyes dull behind drying membranes.
"Some raise monuments for their dead, "Garth says, sounding a little distant. "We did, for Tula. It's not necessary, of course. It's…"
Garth is rarely lost for words, only when Tula is in the room with them. Dick's heart aches with sympathetic pain. He knows all about things unnecessary, among them the things you do for nothing but love and memory.
"But most Atlanteans living today are rather more utilitarian", Garth says briskly, all back in the present now. With Dick. "We recycle in the sea farms. There," and he's moving away from the bed, wiping his hands on a towel, "that's the best I can do. You should be more careful."
"You shouldn't jaywalk," Dick grumbles, flopping onto his back.
His spine feels more aligned now. Less like he's been hit by a car. Dr. Leslie said nothing was broken and snorted when he asked her to look again.
"Diplomatic immunity," Garth answers. "A car hits me, they are in trouble. Go to sleep, Dick."
Two days later, Dick falls off a roof. At the time, he isn't chasing or being chased, he just slips off the edge, inexplicably. The first line he shoots out bounces off a window ledge, the second catches badly and he's forced to let go if he doesn't want to slam into the wall head first. The third line catches only marginally better, but he really doesn't have any choice at that point.
Dick supposes other things happened between him bracing for impact and waking up in Dr. Leslie's clinic. For example, an emergency call to Oracle, then a speedster or a frequent flyer coming to scrape him off the sidewalk, then an initial examination involving at least band-aids and gauze. He isn't sure. He does know that he's concussed and bruised, which has happened before and is doubtlessly going to happen again and there's absolutely no reason for anyone to have called Garth out of his UN meetings. No reason for Garth to sit in the swivel chair just across the room and look as if his favourite sea-horse just up and died.
"I don't have a favourite sea-horse," Garth remarks mildly.
He doesn't look mild. He looks as if he's in a snit. Thinking aloud may have its drawbacks.
"Water?" Dick asks, changing the subject.
Garth gets up, hands Dick his own glass which is almost full. He frowns at it and the water cools perceptibly. Dick tastes it. You can usually count on Garth to have a nicely cooled Evian supply at hand, but this is from the tap.
"I used it all up on the way here," Garth says. "Train was hot."
"Train?" Dick sits up, water forgotten. "How long was I out for?"
"You were technically unconscious for about twenty minutes, though you woke up intermittently," Garth informs him. "Dr. Leslie examined you and yes, you are concussed out of your mind. She kept you awake for a couple of hours to make sure you didn't start bleeding into your brain. After that, she's been checking on you every twenty minutes, until I got down here and relieved her. Ten hours or so, since Nightwing fell off a roof."
"Nightwing? Yeah, I guess I had my gear on," Dick says.
His memories are in such a muddle. He can recall the moment he slipped and how he shot out three lines in succession, but he doesn't know why he slipped or if he hit the ground or just the wall. Trying to recall it just makes it worse.
Nonetheless, good thinking from whoever brought him here instead of to a public hospital. The identity issue is a tangle, he doesn't know how they are going to deal with Nightwing falling off a roof and Dick Grayson getting all beat up. He sips some more water.
"You should rest," Garth says. "Maybe the next time you wake up, you'll remember our conversation."
"I'd rather get out of here. I can rest at home."
"Why don't you you just ask Dr. Leslie? You can wake me up at home, too."
Garth sighs, pushes himself out of the chair. Dick stifles a smile. A little whining lets Garth save face and do exactly what he wants while pretending to cater to Dick's wishes.
"Very well," he announces. "I'm sure she'll be only too happy to see us on our way; in spite of your efforts to monopolize her, she does have other patients to attend."
Dr. Leslie checks Dick out, while Garth calls a taxi and makes other arrangements. Dick makes the usual promise to call her if he should feel any worse. He's sure Garth has made a similar promise and has Barbara on speed-dial, just in case.
When the taxi arrives, Garth carries him downstairs and loads him into the backseat. Dick lies down, resting his head on Garth's thigh and falls asleep again.
The next time he wakes up, he feels awful. His head's spinning, he's sweating and he's sick to his stomach.
"Garth," he croaks, "I'm gonna…"
"Stop!" Garth orders the driver and the car skids to a halt.
Like an Imperial command, Dick thinks and then he's leaning out of the car, trying not to vomit on the inside of the car door or himself. How undignified and disgusting, but at least Garth has the sense to stay away, while Dick spews the contents of his stomach all over the sidewalk. When it's over, Garth hands him a bottle of water to rinse out his mouth. The driver has tissues and Dick wipes at his face with them. Looking up, he realises they're only blocks from the house.
He climbs back in and sits quietly for the rest of the ride. He doesn't protest when Garth carries him upstairs. The only thing he wants is to brush his teeth and throw away the brush. Garth lets him. Then he crawls in between the sheets in their bed and is out like a light.
Sometime in the night, he thinks he hears the shower starting up, but he isn't sure.
"How many fingers?"
If Dick had a nickle for every time he had been asked that question, he could treat Garth to a fancy dinner for the money.
"Shouldn't you have been asking me that before?" he asks.
"I did. So far, your short-term memory fails to impress me. Please answer the question."
"Four. Three on your left hand and one very suggestively so on your right."
"Good. I've called in sick for you at the department and I've taken the day off, too."
Dick becomes aware of the bucket beside the bed, the glass of ginger ale and water and the piece of thinly buttered toast sitting on the bedside table. The carpet is neatly rolled out of the way in case of projectile vomiting. He must have been out of it, if he didn't notice Garth setting this up. Maybe he should have stayed at the clinic; it's unfair to make Garth stay home and look after him. He sighs.
"After your performance in the cab last night, I took some precautions," Garth says, misunderstanding Dick's sigh. "I'll be in the living room, if you need anything."
Working, he means.
"Wait." Dick tries to sit up and manages it, barely. "What about Bruce, did anyone…?"
Garth looks puzzled for a moment, then smiles. It's a very gentle smile.
"He was Oracle's second call, after Wally. He came in while you were still sleeping. I told you, when you first woke up. I'm sorry, I should have kept telling you until I was sure you remembered."
"Okay," Dick says.
Bruce needs to know he still has a place in Dick's life. If not, he'll assume he hasn't and walk away. You have to tell him things like these, before he puts his own spin on it. IT's good to know that Garth understands this, too.
Dick spends the rest of the day napping. Garth comes in to nudge him awake every hour, though Dick suspects it stopped being for medical reasons around noon.
"You're getting off on this," Dick accuses him, as Garth rouses him at 4 pm, beep.
"Certainly not," Garth says, sounding scandalized at the thought. "Doctor's orders, that's all."
The glint in his eyes implies otherwise and the dinner he makes, steam-boiled veg and rice, no spices and light on the salt confirms Dick's suspicions.
"To keep your stomach settled," he says judiciously. "Here, have some more ginger ale."
Dick hasn't drunk this much ginger ale since he was eleven and under a misapprehension. He clinks the glass against Garth's and chokes it down.
"I'm going to take a shower," Garth says, rising.
Dick looks at him with sudden concern. It's only half past six. Of course, Garth has been up all night and using up more water than ordinarily.
"You okay?" he asks.
"I'm fine. Are you done with that?" Garth says pleasantly, reaching for Dick's plate.
"Garth." Dick snatches the plate out of reach and Garth rolls his eyes.
"I'm fine, but unless you need me tomorrow, I have afternoon meetings at the UN. If you'll release your plate, I can wash up and start hydrating myself."
Dick relinquishes the plate meekly. He would rather skewer himself than interfere with Garth's hydration. Their life together is the result or a few very fortunate coincidences; no other Atlantean can spend so much time out of the sea as Garth. Dick has gotten so used to it that he sometimes forgets what an anomaly Garth is and how close he may be to his tolerance limits. With Garth, you need to pay attention.
You need to pay attention. That's why Dick gets up when the alarm sounds the next morning. His headache has faded considerably and he feels a lot steadier on his feet. Garth looks quizzically at him but makes breakfast for both of them. Dick settles on the couch as Garth takes another long shower; he doesn't feel quite like logging on the computer yet, but he can read the cartoons and the headlines off the newspaper.
"Do I look alright?"
Garth always look alright, it's difficult not to when you're built like a pro swimmer, but Dick gets a special kick out of seeing him in a suit. Charcoal gray today, with a mauve shirt. The tie is the one Dick gave him for his last birthday.
"Splendid," Dick says, meaning it.
"I'll keep my phone on. If there's anything…"
"I'll be fine." Dick almost lets it slip that he might go down to the department later today, to pick up some half-finished reports, but catches himself in time.
"You might give Dr. Leslie a call." Garth rubs his temple as if that would help his recall. For all Dick knows about Atlantean anatomy, it does. "And Barbara, if you feel up to it. Just don't overdo it. I'll be home around seven."
Dick adjusts Garth's tie, not because it's needed, but because he can and Garth is standing there, looking utterly delectable. Garth's hair is still wet and drips on his collar and Dicks' neck, when Dick leans in for a kiss.
"Love you," he breathes. "I'll be more careful, I promise."
"Promises, promises," Garth complains, but he's smiling his rare, sweet smile. "Love you too, you crazy man you."
Then he's gone and all that remains of him in the room is the scent of salt in the air.
Dick is, in fact, down at the police station when he gets the call. Actually, he's not even the one getting the call, just a note taped to his desk, when he and Amy get back from a late lunch. Call James Gordon's daughter, it says and Dick's blood turns to ice in his veins. It's Bruce or it's Garth. Maybe Tim. Can't be Barbara if he's supposed to call her.
"Dick, are you okay?" Amy asks, concerned.
"Fine." He forces a smile, takes out his cell and hits the number three. Oracle picks up at once. She always does.
"Are you at the station?" she asks without preamble.
She cuts him off..
"Go outside. Wally will pick you up. Now, Dick."
She hangs up. Dick stares at the phone, willing her to come back online, to tell him what's wrong. Please let nobody be dead. He takes his coat, the paperwork can wait another day and walks out. When Oracle says to move, you do. You don't even stop to tell your boss or your partner what's going on. Especially if you have no idea what's going on. Please let nobody be dead. He thinks about how he told Garth he loved him before he left. Please, please, please.
Wally is outside as promised, wearing the mask and the spandex.
"Garth is at the Star Labs," he says, motioning Dick around the corner. Not a good idea to get up to speed in a crowd. "He got dehydrated, I don't know any details, but pretty bad. I got an Atlantean doctor to see him, have to bring her back in a few. Sorry and all that, but we've got to get moving."
Dick nods. He has no objections. His head moves up and down until he thinks it might fall off his neck. Garth. Dehydration. Oh God. Wally helps him strap on the security harness. Secures it with a snap and click and they're off.
They almost overshoot their target. Wally has to slow down outside the city borders, sound barrier and all that, but cuts it a little too close and enters from the east instead from the west. Then, since being a speedster doesn't do a thing for your navigational sense, he has to stop and ask for directions. Dick would find all of this hilarious, were he not strapped to Wally's back as a piece of luggage and as useless.
Dick hasn't been at Star Labs for years. He'd know the building anywhere, though, it's the second building in the US designed to look like a peptide bond if you look at it from space. The first and uglier one is on Long Island. The security guard, obviously briefed, waves them through the gate and they head off towards the marine biology area. Dick hasn't been here since…when did Garth stop being Aqualad? Start using the spell? Since then.
Dick's feet know the way. Not much has changed. Glass coffins are lined up along the far wall, two of them currently occupied. They seem to be tight fits, but with less water bulk, you can change the conditions instantaneously. Dr. Kang stands between them, a transmitter unit close to her mouth. She is the Star Labs resident expert on Atlantean physiology and a friend.
"Flash. Mr. Grayson." Dr. Kang looks up. "He's stable for the moment."
Dick walks over to stand on the other side of the pressurized tank. The oxygen dial is turned up to maximum, he notices, as is water flow speed. The pumps are hissing. Garth is lying on his side, propped by a foam wedge. He's very pale. The dark hair streams with the current. The purple eyes are open wide, but sees nothing.
"Garth," Dick says, stupidly.
Wally tugs at him and there's a chair to sink into. Dick does so.
"Flash, if you would, Dr. Anarres needs to go back to the Embassy," Dr. Kang says.
"Sure," he says, running a hand through his hair. He's looking at Garth, too, Dick realises.
"He'll be fine," Wally says in a rough voice. "I'd stay if I could, but…"
"I know. Thanks for getting me here, Wally."
Dr. Anarres emerges from the other tank, revealing herself to be a middle-aged woman with long dark hair dripping down her back. Wet feet slap against the floor and she huffs and spits, emptying out her lungs. Dick thinks he should go over and thank her, but Wally's already got her and they're gone.
There are bruises on Garth's chest, as if someone has tried to get him going with CPR. Dick throws a glance at the instrument panel to reassure himself that Garth has a heartbeat, which is indeed the case. But he's tachycardic, the sinus wave is jumping all over place and, worst of all, his blood oxygen saturation hovers around the low eighties.
"What's his status?" Dick asks, trying to be professional about it.
Dr. Kang shrugs.
"He's dehydrated. Classic case of carbon dioxide poisoning. We'd try venting him to get the carbon dioxide out, but his membranes are too fragile for the stress. For the moment, he's breathing through his gill pores."
Garth has never stopped breathing before. He'd get in the tank and Star Labs would fix him up.
"He was leaking electrolytes when he came in," Dr. Kang continues. "That's why he's still taching. I don't think he'll seize, but we've kept the restraints on, just in case."
Indeed. Dick can see bruises already blooming around the black rubber bands tying down Garth's wrists and ankles.
Dick wants to add that Garth was fine this morning, making breakfast and kissing him goodbye. Nothing makes sense.
"He overextended himself, badly, and ignored the first symptoms of dehydration; that's what happened," Dr. Kang answers.
Dick hates her. Garth is so careful, he would never do that.
"Can I use a phone?" he asks, trying to sound as if he doesn't hate her. Much.
Oracle will know. Oracle knows everything.
"Yes, of course, but it's in the office. I thought you had a cell?"
"Can I…?" Dick gestures at the medical equipment.
Dr. Kang shakes her head at him, nicely.
"Yes, of course," she repeats and adds: "As you understand, I can't make any promises. This is an advanced case of dehydration. But we're doing all we can for him and he's fighting."
Dick has no idea how she can tell. Garth is pale, lips and nails tinged with cyanotic blue, he doesn't look as if he's fighting. He looks as if he's already dead.
Still, Dick takes out his cell phone, thumbs it open and calls Oracle. This time, it's Barbara who answers.
"How's Garth?" she asks right off.
"Holding on," Dick says.
He can hardly tell her that Garth isn't breathing and that his blood oxygen is dropping point by point. Dr. Kang says that Garth is fighting and her medical opinion is worth more than Dick's. Dick is just the guy who loves Garth. His opinion isn't worth shit.
"I'm so sorry," Barbara says.
"Yeah. Me too. Look, Babs, do you have any idea how this happened? He was fine this morning."
Making me breakfast, kissing me goodbye. Trying on a couple of different shirts. He hears Barbara type a query or a few into her database. Click-click. Clickety-click.
"At 2:16 pm, Garth hit his panic button," Oracle says. "It was routed here through the Tower as a priority one call. Wally was on stand-by already, just waiting for a location, while Donna and I traced the signal to the UN building, thirtieth floor."
Dick remembers. Garth would have been in a meeting with the Japanese ambassador and a representant for Sony. Usually, this would have been handled by Lucius, but Garth had taken a special interest in some of the Sony technologies and was negotiating as Ambassador as well as representant for Wayne Enterprises.
"Apparently, around 2 pm Garth excused himself from the meeting for several minutes and returned with wet hair. Shortly after that, he began to have trouble breathing."
She doesn't have to draw him a picture. He knows very well what it looks like, he saw it often enough when Garth was Aqualad and vulnerable. First, Garth's breath coming short. Then the shallow pants as carbon dioxide builds up and the harsh coughing, which breaks up what little water cohesion still lines his lungs. At last, and this is his imagination only, the dry rasp of membranes ripping, at which point it's all over.
Gasping like a fish on dry land. Dick hates that metaphor.
"Dick, are you alright?"
"I'm fine." It's almost true. "Go on, Babs."
"I'm afraid no one at the meeting realised what was happening or had any idea what to do about it," Oracle says. Dick winces. "And Garth was in too much trouble too quickly, to let them know. It was one of the aides who remembered that Garth was Atlantean and took him into the washroom to douse him with water."
"He needs medical tags," Dick says. "I'll see he gets them."
Oracle is silent for a long while.
"That's…a good idea, Dick," she says at last. "You do that."
He's tired and his head hurts and he wants to snap at her. She won't hold it against him, it's part of her job to deal with them when they're at their worst. She sees them when nobody else does. Still, she isn't his to snap at. He wrenches his mind away from the snide comebacks he can't keep from surfacing.
"Anyone tell Arthur yet?" he asks.
"He sent Dr. Anarres."
She sounds surprised at the question and yes, he should have figured that out by himself.
"Arthur's visiting the Pacific sea farms this week. He'll be there as soon as we can spare the personnel," Oracle says.
There's hardly anything more useful in an emergency as a speedster; they need to be kept on standby. To add to the problem, Wally has probably done his share for today and Dick is so very grateful for it.
"I'll call Arthur later. In the meantime, could you keep him updated? Tell him…"
He can't think of anything he wants her to tell Arthur.
"I have. I will," Babs says. "Give Garth my love and keep some for yourself."
Barely thirty minutes later Garth's blood oxygen saturation level drops below eighty for good and Dr. Kang decides to try venting him again. She starts depressurizing the tank in preparation.
"Can I stay?" Dick asks, suddenly desperate to see the lid of that tank open.
Dr. Kang frowns at him.
"It isn't a pleasant procedure."
"I don't care."
"I don't believe you do. Very well. You can assist." Seeing Dick's look of frozen horror, she rolls her eyes at him. "I meant that you can hand me the instruments when I ask for them."
"Then you need to get some rest as well. And yes, we can arrange for you to sleep in here if you'll take a walk and get something to eat before the cafeteria closes."
That's probably the best deal he's going to get. He nods his agreement. After the tube has gone down Garth's throat, he will do whatever she says.
When the tank pressure has dropped to 1 bar, Dr. Kang injects something into one of the lines.
"Analgesic," she explains, then begins turning the valves. Dick helps. This, at least, he knows how to do.
Reaching down into the water, she pries Garth's mouth open. Her stethoscope dips into the water, transmitting any sounds her patient might make. Tilting his head backwards, she slowly feeds the tube down his throat, past the sensitive larynx and far down into Garth's respiratory system.Dick stands beside her with the flashlight and magnifying mirror, gloved up and feeling singularly useless.
"Right." Dr. Kang relaxes fractionally. "A tracheotomy would have been so much easier," she sighs.
Another thing to put on those medical tags. You can't trache an Atlantean. You can try.
"I bag him and we'll see what happens."
A gentle squeeze on the bag to push oxygenated water down Garth's lungs and what happens is that Garth…convulses, back arching, limbs thrashing.
"Hold him!" Dr. Kang barks and Dick really, really tries, plunging halfway into the water and leaning on Garth with all his weight and strength.
"Do something!" he yells back at her and then Garth goes limp under his hands and he just knows this is the end of all things.
He steps back and searches the monitors for the flat green line, but no. The ECG is still going and the blood oxygen levels are rising through the eighties, settling around a good and steady ninety-three. Dick can hardly believe his eyes. Dr. Kang, hooking up the line to yet another pump, smiles triumphantly.
"Breathe," she says and takes a moment for Dick to realise she's talking to him.
Sometime during the night, Dick wakes up. The lights are low and someone has pulled the blankets over him, so presumably it's been a while. The room smells strongly of sea-weed and salt. Arthur.
The King of Atlantis stands by the tank. Arthur's tawny hair is wet and slicked back, the beard is dripping. He's barefoot. As if he's been swimming half the night and maybe he has. His features seem to be carved in stone. Dick wonders what he sees, the heir, the sidekick, the boy he raised as his own. It's hard to tell. Then Arthur's eyes flicker to the monitors, the screen lights wash over his face and Dick recognises the expression
This is the look on Bruce's face when he thinks Dick isn't watching. Half pride, half pain and if some would call it love, let them. To see Arthur wearing it, if only for a moment, is oddly disconcerting.
The tank lid is open. Dr. Kang said it was safe to leave Garth at surface air pressure. She took the tube out, too, and he's breathing unassisted. The water is still oxygen saturated to relieve his lungs and there are a million things that could go wrong, but right now, Dick just wants to be glad Garth is alive.
Arthur's mouth is moving and Dick realises he's speaking, in the Atlantean lower register, almost inaudible to human ears. You can hear it, if you strain to.
Dick stirs deliberately, pretending he has just woken up. Arthur will never forgive him for witnessing a breach in the formidable defenses.
"Sir," he says stiffly.
Arthur inclines his head in greeting, without taking his eyes off Garth.
"Are you comfortable?" Dick asks.
"Quite. The facilities here are most accommodating."
Meaning he's got a nice tank of his own somewhere near. Dick doesn't have to worry about another Atlantean collapsing on his watch.
"Are you blaming yourself for anything, Richard Grayson?" Arthur's voice is sharp.
The words are out of Dick's mouth before he can stop them:
"I thought that was why you were here. Sir."
Arthur looks up, seeming genuinely surprised.
"I got Dr. Anarres report. If the spell stopped working, I don't see what it has to do with you."
Ah. Another reminder that the world doesn't end and begin with Dick Grayson. Just what he needed. Then the deeper meaning sinks in and his heart begins to race.
"Stopped working? What do you mean, stopped working?"
"It looks as if it did. I don't imagine he forgot, do you?" Arthur smiles grimly. "This," he gestures towards the tank," isn't a particularly pleasant death."
Small pieces of information are starting to surface and merge in Dick's mind. Early showers. Finishing up his water supply.
"He didn't forget," he says, knowing what it means. "I heard him say the words."
They've used up their time together. The rest will be measured out in coffee spoons, hour by hour. There will be no more days spent together, no more nights. He knows he's being selfish, he knows he should hold onto the happiness of Garth-is-alive, but it hurts like hell.
Arthur hesitates most uncharacteristically, then says:
"As soon as he can be moved, I'll take him back to Atlantis."
"No." It's a childish no and Dick has no arguments to back it up with, except that he doesn't want to lose Garth yet.
"We're not sea-monkeys," Arthur snaps, with the first flash of real temper Dick has seen tonight. "You can't just put us in water and decide we'll be fine. Any kind of water, at that! He needs to go home to recover and if you can't understand that, perhaps I shall have something to blame you for, after all!"
"It isn't your decision, sir" Dick's voice trembles a little and he wills it to stop. "It's Garth's. We'll take of him, we've done it before, when he was hurt or sick.."
Arthur's eyes blazes and Dick is reminded of the purplish bruises on Garth's wrists, on his back. This is what Garth saw, before he got them. Not malice, Garth swore to that, not abuse and J'onn said the same, just a temper and frustration with a boy who saw things differently.
"This isn't a matter of broken ribs or being slapped around by the villain of the day," he hisses. "This is a serious injury! It will take weeks, maybe months before he's recovered."
If he does. If the membranes hold up to the stress, if he doesn't get an infection, if if if.
"You'd know, sir," and this time the tremor is from pure rage. "Better than I."
"Boy," Arthur grits out between his teeth,"the damage could be extensive. To his lungs. To his brain. There is no guarantee he'll ever be able to spend time on the surface again."
"There are no guarantees in life," Dick spits. "None. And it's still Garth's decision. Not mine. Not yours."
Dick half expects Arthur to deck him for impudence, but instead, Arthur's shoulders slump a little.
"I'd be sorry," he says softly, the broad fingers tracing a circle on the glass. "For his sake. I know he's been…happy with you, Dick Grayson."
Dick doesn't say anything. He can't.
"Well, I need to get going," Arthur says. "Goodnight."
He leans over the tank and murmurs something in Atlantean, then leaves.
Purple eyes open slowly. It's not as much a surprise as it's a consequence of Dr. Kang injecting a mixed stimulant into the feed line.
Dick watches Garth swallow and wince. His throat must be all torn up and the heavily medicated water probably tastes awful. But he's looking straight up at Dick and mouthing his name.
"Hello, Garth," Dr Kang says, leaning over the tank.
An underwater sound transmitter is attached to the glass.
"Doctor," Garth rasps.
"You obviously recognise us. Do you know where you are as well?"
Somehow, Garth manages to sound like it's the most evident thing in the world. Dr. Kang snorts, amused.
"Do you remember what happened?"
Garth frowns deeply.
"I was…in the washroom?"
That's close enough, Dick thinks.
"You were severely dehydrated. Do you have any idea why?"
"Are you sure?"
"Okay." Dr. Kang smiles. "Dr. Anarres will come by to have a look at you later. The transmitter can stay, but I want you to rest. You won't feel much like talking anyway. It's good to see you back, Garth."
"Can I have these off?"
He means the restraints. Dr. Kang chews her lip, looking uncertain, but flips a switch, releasing him.
"You're not to get out of the tank," she warns him, as she leaves.
"I'll sit on him," Dick promises.
The moment they're alone, Garth motions Dick closer. The stimulant has been flushed out of the tank and he looks dead tired.
"I heard you," he says, voice cracking on the last word. "You and Arthur. Before."
"Yes." Dick looks at him steadily. "Whatever happens, we'll get through it."
Garth makes an impatient gesture.
"Not that," he wheezes, clearly out of breath.
Dick doesn't know what Garth is talking about, but whatever it is can wait. Getting agitated isn't doing him any good.
"Shh," he says. "Rest."
Dr. Anarres arrives right before lunch and Dick takes the opportunity to sneak down and get some junk food. Pizza slice and coke. He still eats like he's in college and why not? He works it off.
To prevent infection, Dr. Kang has flooded the tank with antibiotics, antivirals and antifungals. It smells terrible and Dick can't imagine how Garth must be suffering, but better that than pneumonia.
He checks in with Oracle, who is running interference for him with everyone. He's glad to be able to give her better news than the last time.
"All the usual people want to come visit, but I held them off, I wasn't sure what you wanted," she tells him.
"Good." Dick exhales. He isn't sure he could deal with the influx of all the Titans and the extended Bat-family besides. "Please thank them for me, but Garth isn't up to visitors yet."
"And you? We'd come for you too, you know."
He does know that.
"I have everything I need," he says. A feeble joke, but there's some truth to it.
Oracle has to attend to something else and they hang up.
Halfway back to his room, Dick realises that he wants Bruce to come, because if Oracle knows everything, Bruce is the one who can make everything alright or at least make some sense out of a terrible, bloody mess. But Bruce won't come, not for this. Dick moved to Bludhaven and grew up and taking care of your partner is something you have to handle by yourself when you're adult.
At times, Garth can be quite exasperating. After last night, Dick expected it to be rather a long time before he agreed with Arthur on anything, but he has to admit that Garth spending a week in Atlantis, under the care of Atlantean doctors who actually know what they are doing and with no stress on his system to compensate for pressure, electrolytes or pH, yeah, well, that sounds like a good idea. Garth, however, nixes it.
"I want to go _home_," he says and Arthur takes that as well as he would a kick in the head.
"You know you can't back go to the house right away," Dick interrupts, trying to be the voice of reason. "You'll have to stay at the Tower at first."
Nobody likes to hear the voice of reason, Garth least of all.
"I know that!" he snaps.
"And you're not stable enough to go anywhere for at least a couple of days. Think about it."
"I've thought about it already, I've made up my mind and I want to go home."
Dick gives Arthur a helpless look over the tank and shakes his head. Oxygen deprivation, who knows?
"As you wish, then," Arthur says, ceding ground gracefully. Well, gracefully for being Arthur. "If you change your mind, let me know. And I will send Dr. Anarres to check on you every day. That's non-negotiable. I'll see you later, Garth."
Garth mutters something in Atlantean and turns his back to them in an appalling display of bad manners.
"I'm sure he means to say thank you," Dick offers lamely.
Arthur's mouth curls upwards.
" If he's never used that word with you, there may be hope for your relationship," he says. "Walk me out, Dick."
Once out in the hallway, Arthur says with feigned diffidence:
"The Tower would be…an acceptable area to test his limits in. Have you talked to him about it yet?"
Magic is half faith. No use making Garth doubt himself.
"He won't be strong enough to cast the spell for days. Make sure he doesn't try."
"He knows better," Dick answers with a confidence he doesn't feel.
Arthur sighs, as the deep sea sighs.
"I'd hope so. Take care of him."
That, Dick thinks, is easier said than done, but he'll do his best.
Dick has never figured out how Garth can say 'yes' in such a way that it sounds like "no". He slides a gloved hand into the water and is encouraged when Garth doesn't shy away from the touch.
"Talk to me. What happened?"
Garth groans, rolls over on his side.
"I'm tired," he says. "Too many drugs in the water, I can't think."
He coughs painfully and Dick doesn't have the heart to press him further.
"Do you want me to get Dr. Kang?"
Garth shakes his head, eyes sliding shut.
His hand closes around Dick's. The water is colder than Dick likes and the position is uncomfortable, but none of that matters, only Garth. Dick wonders when his focus got so narrow, his world so small.
The next morning is better. Garth is well enough to be transferred to one of the larger tanks. Dr. Kang and Dick roll the glass coffin into the other lab so Garth won't have to foot it far.
Climbing out of the tank seems to be an effort for Garth and Dick quickly throws an arm around his waist, supporting him as he wobbles the few steps into the airlock. Without the spell, gravity is an unpleasant surprise. Only two days since Garth's collapse, but he looks gaunt and ill, his cheeks sunken and he feels much less solid than Dick's used to.
"Don't worry, Dick," Dr. Kang says kindly. "The antibiotics knocked him down for a bit, but he'll recover more quickly from now on."
Garth kicks off from the wall and drift upwards and inwards, towards the center of the tank. He comes to a stop about seven feet above the floor, floating stomach down and resting his head on his arms. He carries a portable com and an oxygen monitor, both of them water-proofed to the best of Atlantean abilities.
"I hope so."
"Provided he can stay underwater, he can be released later today. With underwater, I mean a clean, preferably chlorinated pool, not the waterfront outside your house. A few breaths of air won't hurt him, but try to minimise air exposure."
The Tower, then. The pool isn't chlorinated, but the water is filtered through the Atlantean version of a HEPA filter and everything Garth needs for a few days' stay can be arranged. Also, someone will be around twenty-four hours a day to keep an eye on him. Like it or not, Dick has to go back to work soon.
"Liquids only for the next few days, he won't feel like anything else anyway. The mineral supplement he usually takes. And unless the building is on fire, he's not to get out of the water. He'll have to live like a regular Atlantean for a while."
"I understand," Dick answers.
Baby steps. Maybe they won't ever regain the ground lost, maybe the spell won't ever work again, but in that case Dick will happily put on the scuba gear and do for Garth what Garth has done for him. And Garth can be the one to worry, for a change.
Donna meets them at the door. While tubing in, Garth has taken more than the few breaths of air Dr. Kang advised and leans heavily on Dick. Without commenting, Donna takes Garth's other arm and they walk him down to the pool together and settle him in.
"Is he okay? Donna whispers. "He looks awful."
"He'll be fine," Dick says, rubbing his forehead. "I should've told you before, but thanks. If debts like these could be repaid, I'd owe you one."
Donna blushes, a little embarrassed, a little pleased.
"I, uh, it was a bit of a mess," she says. "You know. I'm just glad Wally got there in time. How are you doing, Dick? You look almost as bad as he does."
"Right." Donna knows better than to argue with him. She just plows right over him. "Your room is ready, get upstairs and get some sleep or I'll sic Barbara on you. Maybe your doctor friend, too."
He is pretty tired.
"I have to hook up the oxygen monitor alarm to the Tower system," he says.
"No worries," Donna says, taking the small screen with its hanging wires out of his hands. "I'll do it for you. Relax, Dick. You're among Titans. You're safe."
For the first time in days, Dick feels like it might be true.
Dick steps out of his shoes at the door. He sheds the bathrobe on the way, almost lets it drop to the floor, but throws it at a deck-chair instead. Miss. At least he tried. And he's been trying. Garth only gets out of the pool for a few minutes each day and Dick doesn't want him to see mess when he does.
This is life without the spell.Dick has gone back to the BPD and he's back on patrol, even if he cuts the shifts a little short, sometimes. Amy lets him take the paperwork home.
Garth hasn't asked for his paperwork. He spends most of his time sleeping; Dick has to wake him up for meals. Dr. Anarres and Dr. Kang say it's normal and nothing to worry about.
Dick hunkers down at the edge of the pool and sticks his hands into the water. Waves them around. It's like knocking. Garth comes gliding along the bottom, looks up at Dick.
"Tease," he says through the com. "Get in."
"Not so fast." Dick holds off, though Garth has begun nibbling on his fingers, which is most distracting. "Did you take your pills?"
"Did you eat?"
The purple eyes are open, guileless.
"The leftovers are still in the fridge," Dick points out.
"I made a protein shake."
"Yes, because what you need now is Slimfast!"
"It has fourteen vitamins and minerals. I'm fine, Dick."
A slight tug on Dick's wrist tells him that if he doesn't get in the water, Garth will make him.
Dick sighs, swings his legs over the edge and slides in, Below the surface, Garth's arms come around him, slick and wet. Cool lips presses against Dick's throat. He kisses Garth back, on the forehead, and tastes salt.
"How do you feel?" Dick asks.
"How long were you up?"
"Thirty minutes, maybe. Long enough to read the get-well cards."
Dick sighs. Garth isn't making it any easier for him.
He strikes towards the shallow end, where he can sit down on the steps. Garth follows. Dick pulls him into his lap, careful to keep nose and mouth below the surface at all times, and tries to become a comfy chair.
"We have to talk," he says, when Garth has settled.
As he anticipated, Garth goes perfectly still.
"Don't," Dick says sharply. "I'm not in the mood."
"I know." A breath. " I'm…sorry."
"Don't be. Just level with me. What happened?"
"I don't know. I'd been feeling out of sorts. A little dry, but it always seemed to go away when I had some water or a shower. Most of the time I wasn't even feeling dry, I swear.. Just as if I was swimming against the current. Put a little more into the spell and then the spell was taking too much out of me, put a little less and I'd dry out faster."
"For how long?"
"About a week."
That tears it. That definitely tears it.
"Fuck it, Garth!" Dick yells. "A week and you never said a word!"
"I was busy at the time! You fell off a roof on Wednesday, remember? You got hit by a car on Monday!"
"Oh no, no, no. You're not going to make this about me," Dick hisses. "Sure, I got hurt. I'm not the one who ended up in intensive care."
"You could have. I had to…"
"No. You didn't have to, that's my whole point. You could have told me: Dick, I'm feeling kinda funny, maybe I should call the Embassy doctor and take it easy for the next few days."
"I thought you would overreact and you had a head injury."
"You almost died, Garth. I'm not sure there is an overreaction for that. I sat in that lab and watched your oxygen levels drop and asked myself why I hadn't noticed something was wrong."
"You couldn't know."
"Of course I couldn't, because you never told me, but I'm blaming myself and I'm not, I'm not talking about me now, I'm talking about you. Why didn't you tell me?"
Garth looks away.
"There never seemed to be a good time. You did get hurt, Robbie."
"But you knew, or you thought you knew."
"Yes," Garth says slowly, "I suspected the spell had stopped working. Or weakened, at any rate."
"Don't make me ask again. I'm serious, Garth."
"I wanted more time," he says at last. "I kept trying for just one more day with you."
Dick stares. Then stares some more.
"I don't know what the oxygen deprivation did to your brain," he says," but what the fuck does the spell have to do with our relationship?"
Garth’s mouth tightens.
"Could you live like this, Dick? Think about it before you answer."
Well, that's an easy one.
"I can if I have to."
Relationship for three hundred next, please.
"You didn't think," Garth points out.
"Because I didn't have to. Saves me time. And what kind of question was that anyway? You think I can't handle a partner with special needs? Is that it?"
Dick would have been happy to change Barbara's diapers for the rest of their lives. Or Bruce's if it had come to that. There has never been a moment when he has minded Garth's special needs.
"I know you can handle it!" Garth glares at Dick. "But this, you didn’t sign up for."
Dick makes a tut-tutting sound.
"Nice try," he says, "but there's no way you're making this about me, just because you’re scared."
"I'm not," Garth retorts in a tone so icy it could stop global warming.
"Oh yes, you are," Dick says brightly. "When Atlanteans get scared, they jump to all sorts of funny conclusions. Really. You should have heard Arthur rant about how you'd wake up a vegetable."
"Yeah.Yeah, I've thought about it. I don't mind going down here for dinner and we can afford a bigger poolhouse with all kinds of plants and would you like a couple of fish to keep you company? No, be quiet and listen, I don't care how hard it is for you. I knew this about you, like you knew about me going on patrol at night. I didn't know you'd shut me out. That one, I'm having a hard time with, so if you could explain, it'd mean a great deal."
Garth is quiet for a long time, looking up at Dick through two or three inches of clear, greenish water.
"I was scared," he admits at last. "And you may have a point about the oxygen deprivation. I thought I'd let everyone down. Bruce, Wayne Industries, the Embassy, the whole Atlantis. Arthur. You."
If Garth can blame himself, he will. No air in outer space? That's because Garth hasn't put in enough work into the algae sea farms. Dick is torn between wanting to smack him upside the head or kiss away all his silliness. Maybe he’ll do both. Or neither.
"Don’t think it," he says, "not even for a moment."
"I should have..."
"You should. You'll do it next time, right?"
"That's all I need to know."
"Aren’t you going to let me finish a…"
"Why do you need to? Couples do it for each other. I’ve heard." And in a lower voice: "Shut up and let me, Garth. Just…shut up."
Garth shuts up. He’s good at following directions. Instead, he lifts his head above the water, wraps wet arms around Dick and kisses him so hard their teeth knock together. Which is another thing he’s really, really good at.
It ends too quickly. Garth’s lung capacity isn’t what it was a couple of weeks ago and he has to go below the surface again. Dick follows him, because, well, one of them has to. One of them has hold his breath and right now, Dick can do it for longer.