Warning: This was written after hearing about the events of JLA: OUR WORLD AT WAR, and consequently it contains MAJOR SPOILERS for that issue. So if you haven't read the story and don't want to be spoiled, don't read this. I mean it. Herein are also spoilers for GOTHAM KNIGHTS #18, for which same goes.
...okay. Since we're still in midcrossover as I write this, I'm making certain assumptions about how the rest of the storyline will go. I have no idea if that's what will actually happen. Oh, and I'm ignoring recent developments in GREEN ARROW for purposes of the story.
Disclaimer: Trust me, folks, they aren't mine. I'm just--well--actually, I'm not quite sure why I'm doing this, except that somebody had to. The Muse hath its reasons whereof reason knoweth not.
Dedicated to 'Rith, who told me about this, and did me a beta even though she was having a really bad morning. See, 'Rith, I posted it. Happy now? :)
Garth has to tell Mera that they've found Arthur's body.
She stands there in her chambers, listening to him stumble through the words. With every syllable the burden becomes more tangible, more true; the sick thing inside him becomes heavier.
She stands there and listens, and when he finishes her face is wiped clean; a distant part of him recognizes shock in her blankness.
"He died to save us," she says finally. And it's true. But she doesn't sound as if that comforts her.
He wants to do--something. To help. The days when she was half a mother to a lonely boy are long past, beyond recalling, but since her return they have been building something cautious, and he's discovered that he likes her, one adult to another.
But he can't. Can't break the perfect stillness, the way the water feels heavy around him. So she nods, and thanks him--royal manners, so instinctive that they serve even when the world is falling to pieces. And she asks him to leave.
He's barely shut the door behind him when he hears something crash against the wall.
It's so utterly Mera that he almost smiles. Almost. He can't quite manage smiles right now.
He can't throw things, either, or scream, or beg the gods to make this right. He can't even weep. He feels cold and empty and far away, as if he were looking down from a great height.
Arthur. Arthur is gone. The words are senseless, incomprehensible.
Arthur, who was monarch, savior, mentor, elder brother, beloved friend. And even during the worst times, even when Garth almost hated him, Arthur was always there, his touchstone. Solid as a rock, the landmark that he sounds by, echoes returning to guide.
He feels a vague resentment--it might be anger, if he could feel enough for that--toward Mera. At least she knew that he loved her.
At least she'd told him that she loved him back.
How long had it been since he and Arthur had said those words?
He can't remember.
There's work to be done, of course. There's always work to be done, and now is no exception. This latest disaster hadn't been targeted on Gotham for a change, but there's still a fair amount of collateral damage, not to mention the usual assortment of predators.
But just for the moment, the Batman lingers in his cave, thinking.
The cave is empty, as it has been lately, since they all left. (Since he drove them away? He avoids the thought.) As empty as it was the night he got Arthur's call.
//"I heard about Gordon, and I just wanted to--"//
Totally unexpected compassion, coming from someone whose lack of tact was legendary, to him, who most would have assumed wouldn't need or accept it. From the boy scout he would have expected it, but from the pragmatic Arthur it had come as a genuine surprise.
His mouth curves in a faint, sad smile. *But why not? Maybe it's understandable that the pessimists should find comfort in each other's miserable company...*
He hadn't thought that, precisely, when he'd called back. Hadn't thought much of anything except that--
It seems cowardly not to admit it, now. That he wanted someone to talk to.
So he'd come up with an excuse that was almost literally a joke. That he needed a giant penny excavated from a crevice, courtesy of last year's earthquake. And Arthur had actually gone along with it, with only a mild remark about using royalty as handymen.
He tries to imagine being summoned on a similar errand. He suspects his response would not have been nearly as benign.
But then, Arthur had known perfectly well that it wasn't about the penny. //"It's not going anywhere. But you knew that before you called me."//
The silent words seem to echo through the cave, one more ghost for a place with more than its share.
He looks over at the empty Robin costume in its case, then looks away.
But he'd thought, perhaps, that this time the memories being created would be good ones. *"Bruce, listen--next time, just ask me to pick up some beer and videos on my way over, okay?"*
He supposes he should have known better.
He looks down at the water, where a two-hundred-and-sixteen pound penny still resides.
"It was nice of you to drop by," he says quietly.
And then he's gone.
Dinah ignores the knocking on her door. She's disconnected the phone, turned off the computer, even closed the blinds. There's no one she wants to hear from right now.
#Dinah?# Her head comes up at the gentle mind-touch. Oh. Well. Maybe one person.
She draws back the deadbolt, swings open the door. He's standing there, brown-haired and broad-shouldered and as human as can be, to all appearances. But appearances deceive.
He stands, waiting silently for an invitation; that inborn courtesy that has been part of him as long as she's known him. She waves him in, busies herself for a moment relocking the door. When she looks up again, the human has vanished, and a familiar green-skinned figure stands in his place.
"J'onn." Her voice is just a little unsteady, but she ignores it.
"Dinah," he responds quietly. He gives her that look, the one that makes you feel like he's looking into your eyes and beyond them to all the thoughts that lie beneath. It used to unnerve the hell out of her, especially when she found out he actually *was* a telepath. But she's known him too long and too well for that to worry her anymore. And it's not like he needs telepathy to know what's bothering her now.
She nods. "My partner knows everything." She remembers the quiet, apologetic voice--"I know you went way back...if you need to talk..." Dinah's refusal had been curt, no energy wasted on politeness. But she doesn't want to talk to Babs about this; the other woman doesn't, can't, understand. Her isolation is a thing of choice, and Dinah...
She bites her lip, hard, and avoids finishing that thought.
J'onn's attention has been drawn by the thing she was studying before he came in: a scrapbook, open on the coffee table. He moves around the table and picks it up to study it better. She knows what he's seeing: a newspaper clipping, gone brittle with the years. It's a front-page article, boldly headlined "JLA WINS AGAIN!" It's not the article that holds their attention, though, but the photograph that goes with it.
She doesn't need to look at the picture to see it: she remembers when it was taken, can see it easily in her mind's eye. Barry smiling in the center, a little awkwardly; he hadn't quite gotten used to the cameras yet. Hal, laughing and clapping him on the shoulder--no modesty from *that* quarter; his grin blazes with satisfaction. J'onn, standing slightly behind, but undeniably part of the group; the look of pleasure on his face as much of a triumph as any battle won. Herself, one fist raised in victorious enthusiasm--and her other arm slung carelessly around Arthur.
*God, we were so young...*
The youthful blond smirking cheerfully at her from the photo doesn't bear much resemblance to the stern sea-king of later years. But then, they all changed, didn't they? Time kept stealing parts of them away. Voices. Hands. Family.
Suddenly exhausted, she leans back against the wall. *Dammit, it isn't fair...*
Funny. She thought she'd gotten past the concept of fairness years ago.
J'onn's looking at her, still holding the photo album. "It was a good time. For all of us."
"Yeah, well, some of us aren't going to have any other times, are we? Barry, and Hal, and...Ollie..." And normally she can say that name calmly, but not now, not today. She doesn't bother to wipe the tears away; she doesn't need to dissemble with J'onn. She just swallows, and finishes. "...and now Arthur."
She looks at the photograph, at those exultant forms. They'd been so happy, so secure in their comradeship and the rightness of their world. And one by one they'd fallen, leaving only a handful of memories behind. Anger and grief combine in her voice. "How do you do it, J'onn? How do you handle having outlived all your friends?"
For a frozen moment, his face goes even more expressionless than normal. And she remembers that whatever her loss, his is incalculably greater, and she wants to yank her tongue out by the roots. "I'm sorry. That was a rotten thing to say."
He shakes his head and that awful stillness departs his face. "No. It was understandable. And the answer to your question..." He puts the album down, very carefully, on the table, and then takes three steps toward her, stopping just far enough away, and looks down at her. "...is that I remind myself that I am not alone even now."
"Oh," she whispers, and moves forward. His skin against her cheek is cool and dry, and his arms are very gentle. And they stand there together, two old friends sharing a moment outside of time.
Kyle Rayner is sitting on the beach, watching the ocean and thinking how it really isn't as calming as everybody says. He's wearing an oversized black sweatshirt and a pair of old jeans, slightly damp from the wet sand. He's not in the mood for his costume. And anyway, there's blood on it...
The waves roll peacefully onto the beach in front of him, indifferent to his mood. It's a calm day, which seems wrong. Today the waters ought to be gray and stormy, mourning their master's loss. He thinks briefly of invoking ring-energy and stirring them up, but dismisses the thought. It wouldn't change anything.
He picks up a seashell, turns it idly in his hands; traces the spiraling ridges gently with one finger. Then in a sudden, almost angry motion, he draws his arm back and tosses it into the water, where it vanishes without trace.
"Now, was that nice?" asks a familiar voice behind him. "That seashell's probably been trying to get here for hundreds of years, and you throw it back."
He shrugs. "Life isn't fair. How'd you find me, Jen?"
"I have my ways." His girlfriend plops down beside him, shifting out of costume as she does so. Her clothes are rumpled and there are shadows of fatigue under her eyes, but she's clean and she smells good and she's in one piece, only a few bruises smudging the green skin as testimony to what they've all been through.
He wants to pull her close, to bury his face in her hair and taste her lips against his. To inhale her hereness, warm and breathing against him, and forget all the nightmare visions of past and future.
But the empty ocean is still there before them, and it's just so easy to imagine what could have happened.
"Guy woke up," she says softly.
He nods, still looking out at the ocean. "I know. Oracle called it in; she figured I'd want to know. The doctors say the prognosis looks good. That Vuldarian physiology, I guess."
"Too tough to kill," she says, and she means it as comfort, but he flinches, a tiny noise escaping unbidden. Because Guy wasn't the only one who got hurt, and some of those people won't be waking up. No matter how tough they were.
Jen's not dumb; she catches it. Of course, his choice of scenery was probably a hint. "I'm sorry, Kyle." She reaches out and places her hand over his. "Were you close?"
He shifts, sighs. "No. Not really. He wasn't exactly...the open sort." She waits, silently, and he makes a small frustrated movement with one hand. "He was grouchy and arrogant as hell and sometimes he acted like we were all out to get him--everyone on the surface, I mean--" He takes a breath and goes on. "--And he could be nice when you didn't expect it, and he had a sense of humor, and he was *real*. And he never ever gave up, he just kept fighting--I mean, Batman and Superman practically just have to look at something and it falls over but he'd just hit it again and again--"
And now he's shaking, and before he can think about it he just blurts it out. "I don't know if I can do this anymore." Her face goes blank and she looks down at the ring, and he shakes his head and tries again. "No. Not that. I'm not going to stop. I know I could--I know. But it's important and I--I'm not going to. Even now. But you--you were out there, and you could have--"
And there's something still and cool in the air, like that storm is coming after all. But her hand stays on his, and her gaze is steady. "Are you asking me to quit, Kyle?"
"No," he says again. "I'm saying--maybe we should break up."
Because he knows she's a warrior, and now he knows war's price. If the ocean's king can go down, then anyone can. And he doesn't think he can take losing anyone else.
Dolphin is curled up on the couch when Garth comes in. She looks up, fast, when she hears him. Her face is unnaturally pale, almost the color of her silver hair, and her eyes are very bright.
A quick flash of sense-memory at the sight of her: the look on Arthur's face when he found them together, that moment before it passed into silent rage. Shock, and worse, betrayal. For a moment he is furious with her, that she was part of his hurting Arthur then--
But she's speaking, her voice shaking so she can hardly get the words out. "Garth--Garth, they're saying--"
He doesn't have to say a word. She looks at him, and her face just--crumples. "Oh--oh no, no, no..."
She wraps her arms tight around her chest, folding in upon herself. Her breathing comes in long ragged gasps, and it's a moment before he realizes that she's crying, the tears streaming silently down her cheeks.
Her grief is utterly sincere, raw feeling, and it reaches through his remoteness. He moves to the couch, enfolding gentle arms around her, and she shifts position, cuddling against him.
"I loved him," she murmurs, brokenly. "I didn't know. I didn't know. All this time I still loved him..." His anger is gone, banished by this flood of mourning, and he can only hold her closer as she chokes out the words.
"I never told him," she whispers into his shoulder.
And with that the cold around him vanishes completely, and his own grief overwhelms him. "Neither did I," he answers, and starts to weep.
They have been growing distant in recent weeks, loving less, arguing more. But for now, that breach is closed; they are partners in mourning, and they hold each other desperately close, shields against a world suddenly so much emptier than before.