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.
End, Part Two