Sea and Sky:
This is a sequel to the splendid "Safe and Dry" (http://offpanel.net/sevenall/dry.htm) by Sevenall. Read that first and tell her she's brilliant. Tina also provided constant, perceptive commentary while this fic was in progress. Sweetheart, this one was always for you, and all my love goes with it.
Thanks to Smitty for smut triage and patient beta, and Becky for a much-needed kick in the transition.
"We never know the worth of water 'til the well is dry."
In the weeks since Garth's collapse, they'd adjusted to the new status quo by necessity. The move from the Tower pool back to the house in Bludhaven went smoothly enough, but Garth's air-breathing spell was still failing to work and his physical status improved slowly, when at all. Dr. Anarres from the Embassy couldn't offer any further suggestions, nor could Dr. Kang at STAR Labs. They both agreed that Garth wasn't in any immediate physical danger...as long as he kept to the water.
So that was the way it had to be.
Tempest took official leave from the Titans. That was the easy part. Garth's diplomatic duties were picked up by others at the Atlantean Embassy, though the ability to call on the one representative who could *travel* beyond their walls was sorely missed according to the frequent and urgent emails of the other diplomats. Garth did as much work as he could from the pool using waterproofed Atlantean datapads, supplementing those efforts with brief phone calls.
Dick's own schedule couldn't be adjusted further, and Garth wouldn't let him take any more of his nonexistent sick time, so he settled for being as efficient as possible while on the job and leaving it behind him when he went home for the day. Amy proved silent but quietly sympathetic, and didn't balk at letting him slip out early when possible. "If Jim was sick..." she started once, then waved him off.
Nightwing's excursions started again, slowly, then regained their previous regularity when Garth pointed out there wasn't anything Dick could do loitering around the pool and weren't there crimes in need of stopping? Which there always were in Bludhaven, no arguing the truth of that. Garth further swore that he'd call if he felt worse, or hit the panic button if it came to that, so there wasn't any more excuse on that count.
The answering machine tape and then the mailbox filled with get-well wishes. They received official missives from the Atlantean Embassy and more personal ones from Alianne, Arthur, and Mera. Cards arrived from virtually every Titan, past and present, and Bridget Clancy and Lucius Fox. One evening brought a rare phone call from Connor Hawke, sweetly awkward and honestly concerned. Personal messages came from J'onn and Dinah and Clark, as well as an invitation from Diana for Garth to recuperate at Themyscria's Isle of Healing, but Garth had already refused to return to Poseidonis and Paradise Island was even farther away. Donna came to visit with Garth for a couple of days, sitting by the pool in a swimsuit with a book when he slept and conversation when he was awake. Leslie sent her love and Alfred sent messengers with containers of his special vegetable broth. Barbara checked in daily. Bruce didn't...but Dick knew he was keeping close tabs nonetheless.
They received a collective "Get Well Soon" card from Young Justice, doubtless organized by Tim. A surprise basket was delivered from the JSA, represented by Alan and Molly Scott, and separate cards from every current member of the JLA. One or two of whom, Dick thought in his most cynical moments, didn't know Tempest at all and might have only sent their sympathies for Nightwing's sake...or maybe even for fear of Batman. But that was an unworthy thought.
The weirdest call came from the guy at the Chinese grocery down at the Bludhaven dock, phoning to find out why Garth hadn't come by in weeks. Turned out Garth had been chatting with him whenever he went by to pick up food or herbs, keeping up on his Cantonese. Dick hadn't known that. Why hadn't he known that?
But all the sympathetic wishes in the world didn't change the fact that Garth really wasn't getting any better. His respiration remained stable as long as he kept to the water, but he was still sleeping too much and eating too little, as far as Dick could tell. His tolerance for air breathing had diminished below even ordinary Atlantean norms; worse, Garth said once with something between disgust and despair, than when he was Aqualad. He'd counted on being able to spellcast once his system stabilized enough to handle the stress, but a handful of attempts left him breathless and so weak that Dick, watching helplessly from poolside, nearly called for an emergency transport to the nearest JLA teleport tube, and Atlantis. Only Garth's unyielding refusal to go and Dick's own fear of letting him kept Dick from calling for the relay he knew Oracle had on standby.
"No more of that," Dick decreed when Garth had recovered, and Garth agreed without argument. It felt, he explained haltingly, like the magical energy gathered and then dispersed without forming into the structure of the spell, draining more of Garth's own energy as it went. And despite all his concentration and most careful incantations, he didn't know how to stop it.
Dick didn't either.
Their conversations circled but never addressed the possibility neither wanted to admit: that Garth might have to go back to Atlantis to stay.
And Dick was trying, he really was, but sometimes the fear that accompanied that thought kept him from talking at all, because he couldn't let Garth see the depth of his apprehension. It wouldn't *help.*
Anger was easier, because Nightwing could always vent his wrath on deserving felons. He could work out his fury at himself, for not seeing what was happening, and the unvoiced exasperation toward Garth, for not telling Dick about his growing weakness. But even those exorcisms left him with unfocused rage at the universe at large for threatening to take his lover away, *again.*
Both of them were *wallowing* in denial. That Garth would spontaneously get better, that this wasn't anything more than a speed bump. That they hadn't been, in essence, thumbing their noses in defiance of all logic that said an Atlantean and a human could never actually build a life together.
They'd been doing fine on that score, just fine, until *this* happened and it became all too painfully clear that Garth's magic, unique to him and irreplaceable, was the only thing that allowed Garth to stay on the surface to begin with. It'd been so easy to forget that, in the routine of their lives. Dick had known it, he'd prided himself on being aware of Garth's hydration issues and all the adjustments Garth had made to stay with him, and he'd still come to take those facts for granted.
It hurt even worse to realize that he hadn't thought about those issues at all when he committed to the relationship, that he'd been so oblivious that it took a near-fatal episode to make him aware of how...*fragile* the factors that allowed them to be together really were. Bruce, he thought, had tried to give warning in his oblique way. So had Arthur and Mera--not out of disapproval, Dick came to understand in retrospect, but out of concern for both of them.
Well, then, lesson learned. But that didn't mean he had to accept *anything* as inevitable. Garth might never ask for help, and maybe he wasn't supposed to either, but Dick had no compunction about abandoning the rules when there was so much at stake.
Barbara refrained from her standard disparaging commentary regarding the recipient when Dick asked her to place the video call. "If there's anything else I can--," she started, as she had so often in the past few weeks, but Dick knew by now there wasn't.
"I know," he said too sharply, and more gently, "thanks."
"Good luck," she said, and then he was face to face with the king of Atlantis.
Best to come at it directly. "I-- we need your help."
Arthur nodded as if he'd expected nothing less. "I've been waiting for your call."
It would be easier if he looked smug about it, but instead he seemed...resigned. Dick wasn't anywhere near there yet. "Garth doesn't know I'm calling."
"Oh? Is he--"
"No change," Dick hurried to assure him. "But there's only one person I can think of who might be able to fix that, and you're the only one who can reach him."
Arthur's comprehension earned Dick both an exhalation of water and a raised eyebrow. "You're sure about this?"
It'd taken Dick too long to come to this conclusion to waste time arguing about it. "Garth needs the spell. The spell isn't working. So he needs someone who can help him make it work, and this is too specific for Zatanna. I've already asked her."
(She'd been sympathetic, but regretfully unable to help. "It sounds like a feedback loop," she'd said, looking doubtful. "But I haven't had much luck with Atlantean magic--you remember that thing with Gamemnae--and you really need an expert if he's having such an adverse reaction. I'm sorry, Nightwing. Please tell Garth I'm thinking of him." Zatanna paused, then added, "'I hsiw uoy htob doog kcul.' For what that's worth.")
"Magic," Arthur muttered, sounding so much like Bruce for a moment that Dick had to repress a smile, despite everything. "And if Atlan can't help?"
"Then we'll deal with it." He held Arthur's gaze, refusing to back down. "But I won't give up without trying every possibility first. And then we'll invent some new ones."
"Fair enough. Though asking Atlan's aid may fall under the category of 'be careful what you wish for.'" Arthur smiled wryly. "He never does anything without involving his own agenda."
"If it's a chance, I'm willing to take that risk."
"I believe you are. As you wish, then. I'll see about contacting him...but it's not as though I have his private number." Arthur gave a tiny, almost apologetic shrug. "He comes and goes as he will."
"Thank you, sir," Dick said, sincere about the gratitude and the honorific for perhaps the first time.
"I do hope he can help. For both your sakes." Arthur sighed. "But things tend to become...complicated...where my father is involved."
Dick could only wait and hope he hadn't made a mistake. The little he knew about the Atlantean sorcerer Atlan came from what few details Garth had shared. Awhile back Garth had vanished for months, during one of those too-frequent times when the rest of the Titans had no idea where he was and what he was doing. Arthur had never bothered to alert anyone to Garth's disappearance, not that they could have found him anyway: Garth had wound up in Atlan's pocket dimension, where time ran differently--Scotty-time, only in reverse. Minutes became days, months turned into *years.* When Garth emerged he'd gone from being one of the youngest of the founding senior Titans to the eldest, having gained power and experience he'd never been able to acquire in all his previous adventures either on the surface and undersea, and a new sense of peace and confidence as well.
Hard-won, Dick recognized, even if he didn't know all the details.
The time had evidently consisted of constant tests, trials, and rituals...one of which had resulted in the scars-turned-tattoos on Garth's face. An inch closer, Dick thought, and Garth might have lost his eye. Precisely *what* had caused those scars, Garth wasn't at liberty to say--something about magical secrets that Dick probably wouldn't have understood anyway. He hadn't said much more about Atlan himself. Dick had formed the vague impression of a Gandalf-type who employed Batman-style training methods...except that Batman's teachings, while undeniably rigorous, had never so visibly scarred his protégés. If *Arthur* had reason to be wary of Atlan's help....
Still. For the chance of Garth's recovery, Dick was willing to try anything short of a deal with Neron.
Far sooner than he had any hope or right to expect, Dick arrived home after his shift to find a man dressed in costume-like tunic and tights lounging insouciantly against the doorjamb. He yawned and stretched extravagantly as Dick approached, looking expectant. "You must be Richard Grayson."
Dick let his eyes flicker down the tights. "I am," he said carefully. "And you are?"
The arched eyebrow, a mirror of his son's, would have made the answer obvious even if the clothing hadn't. "Names are power. Even a landsman should know that, as I suspect you do. Nevertheless, you may call me Atlan."
He wasn't at all what Dick had expected. For an ancient, immortal sorcerer, he was awfully...
...*gorgeous.* The realization prompted an immediate surge of unreasoning jealousy. Atlan looked to be in his mid-thirties at most, he had long blond hair and crystal-blue eyes, he was really built--and Garth had spent *how* long alone with this guy, in his private dimension?
Christsakes, get a GRIP, Grayson, he snarled at himself, and held out a hand. "I'm pleased to meet you."
"No, you're not." Atlan ignored Dick's hand and quirked a knowing smile at him. "But really, you've nothing to worry about. I never laid a hand on him." He smirked, watching as Dick, rattled, fumbled with the door key. "Though the thought did cross my mind. Once. Or thrice. He could never quite stop seeing me as 'Arthur's father,' unfortunately. Pity."
He was here to *help,* supposedly. Dick could grit his teeth and bear the innuendo, though the comment demanded a reply. "He was your student, and his life was in your hands."
The door finally opened and Atlan swept into their home as if he owned the place, waving dismissively. "Masters and apprentices...an age-old tradition. But as I said, nothing ever happened. He was oblivious to the entire idea. Garth had other things to worry about, then."
"Like surviving your teaching?" Dick said acidly, unable to maintain the pretense of politeness in the face of Atlan's leering arrogance, all his frustration of the previous weeks finding a too-convenient target.
The sorcerer's eyes flashed. "I *pushed* him to find his birthright. He never would have discovered it otherwise. I'm still sorely disappointed that he hasn't explored more of his magical heritage. Your lover has tremendous potential, if he ever chooses to *use* it! You apparently have some influence," he concluded with a twist of his mouth, "you might consider encouraging him rather than allowing him to ignore his power."
Dick breathed in, breathed out, and silently counted to ten in three different languages before he answered. "He's not your pawn, Atlan, and he's certainly not mine. Whether Garth uses his magic or not is up to him. Regardless of whatever 'destiny' you've decided for him."
"...hrmph." Atlan scowled at him, then suddenly laughed. "Well. It was worth a shot." He grinned as if his vehemence a moment ago had been nothing more than an idle thought. "I suppose it's a good thing neither of you can be bullied. Your loyalty does you credit." He stretched out a hand. "Now, I *am* pleased to meet you."
Dick shook with him, smiling a little despite himself; but he knew instinctively that he'd never be able to fully trust this man. It had been too smooth a performance, worthy of a master politician. "Manipulative," Garth had called his former teacher, and Dick felt he'd just seen proof of that for himself.
Close at hand his resemblance to Arthur was unmistakable, although Atlan's features were more finely drawn. But aside from the almost-tangible aura of arrogance, his demeanor failed to reflect his son's in the least. Which might be a positive thing, or not; at least Arthur's motives were straightforward, and easily discernable. Atlan nearly reeked of sly mischief and secret schemes.
"I was wondering how long it would take someone to call me," Atlan commented idly, immediately setting Dick's teeth on edge again. It was too casual a remark to be anything but a deliberate goad, but if this was Atlan's idea of entertainment--if the possibility of Garth's healing was allowing himself to become the target of constant jibes--Dick was willing to satisfy him.
"So you knew he was in trouble and didn't bother to check on him?"
"I would never dare to intrude uninvited." The implication was obvious: that once invited, he might prove difficult to dislodge. Dick thought briefly of garlic and crosses, almost wishing things might be that simple.
But first things first. "Since you've come so far, then, how about we go see the reason you're here?"
"Let's do." They walked down the hall, Dick barely leading. Atlan held his tongue until they reached the entrance to the patio. "He was sleeping until a moment ago; he woke when the door opened."
Clearly it pleased Atlan to have more information about Garth's condition than Dick could know. Dick acknowledged the detail with a tight smile but didn't care to rise to the bait.
Garth called from the pool intercom as soon as he opened the door. "Before you ask, I did eat today. But I heard talking, we have a guest...?"
"I called for help. I hope you don't mind," Dick said softly, and stood aside.
Garth's eyes widened. "Atlan! What--"
The mage cut him off with what sounded to Dick like a prepared speech. "You're having difficulty with your magic, are you not? I'm pleased *some*one in this house had the wit to call on an expert. But I'm sorely disappointed--and hurt--that you didn't call me yourself."
For a moment Garth looked genuinely ashamed, and then he grimaced. "No, you're not. This way you had the satisfaction of being asked for help *and* you had the opportunity to make a grand entrance. Did he?" he asked, turning to Dick.
"Restraint. I'm impressed."
"I'm not." Atlan's voice was a flat rebuke. "Well? Come out of there and let's see what you've done."
Dick saw Garth take a deep breath under the water and then exhale strongly, so that when he came up into air he only needed to cough a few drops of water out of his lungs.
Atlan waited impatiently, and not without comment. "You look terrible."
"Thank you," Garth retorted irritably, "for the newsflash."
"*Temper,*" the mage admonished without a hint of rancor. Like he'd seen it before. What *had* Garth been like during those isolated training years? "Cast the spell."
"Wait, he can't. It--*drains* him," Dick objected, looking to Garth for confirmation.
"Does it now," Atlan murmured. "Which *should* tell you all you need to know, but apparently hasn't." His hands wove a subtle, intricate pattern in the air. "Try it now."
Dick started to protest again, but Atlan waved him off. "Trust that I won't allow him to come to harm. Garth, cast the spell."
Garth looked hesitant but began to chant under Atlan's critical eye. The incantation Dick knew by cadence if not by meaning sounded the same to him as ever, magical words rising and falling like a wave. Whatever Atlan had done, it prevented that appalling siphoning consequence, but Garth still shook his head at Dick's hopeful look when he'd finished. "It's not working."
"Of course not. But I see how it is." Atlan's tone grew progressively more acidic with every word. "You wake up in the morning, kiss your lover, take your shower, cast your spell, eat your breakfast. You've reduced spellcasting to another *task.* Something to be done by rote, with no more attention paid to its process than mouthing the words."
Dick expected Garth to protest, but he merely stood, accepting the criticism without comment. Atlan continued as if he'd expected nothing otherwise. "You've forgotten the first lesson. Magic is not a *tool* to be picked up and used and discarded when you've finished with it. Tell me, precisely, how it was when you realized the spell had begun to fail."
Garth looked as if what Atlan had said had hit him hard, but he repeated what he'd told Dick. "I felt...dry. The spell was taking too much energy to maintain, like there was a hole in the construct, but I couldn't find it."
Atlan's voice was merciless. "Now tell me why."
"I wasn't...paying attention." Garth seemed to have come to some distressing realization as he sat down heavily on one of the poolside chairs. "You're right."
"Of course I'm right." Atlan grinned, again demonstrating that mercurial change of manner. "I'm always right. You can stop looking so grim, Mr. Grayson, all will be well. Garth's recovery will take time and teaching, but will be complete. You have my word on it. He has a destiny to fulfill, you know."
Garth looked up sharply at that, but Atlan merely waved a hand. "Just making sure you were listening. Now. Where am I to be staying?"
"Here?" Dick asked weakly, and Atlan frowned at him.
"Naturally, here. I *could* transport myself from my home daily, but that would be a waste of energy, don't you agree? Especially since you've just seen a vivid example of magical wastage."
"You're welcome to the guest room," Garth said, with a glance at Dick that asked him not to argue. "But we do need to make one thing clear. You may be right about a great many things, Atlan, but you are mistaken in one respect."
Atlan eyed him coolly. "And what might that be?"
"Kissing my lover," Garth said, all calm dignity, "is never a *task.*"
The mage considered the statement and looked Dick up and down, appraising. "Yes, I see where that would be the case. I stand corrected."
That was...just about enough. "I'll show you to your room. Garth--"
"I know." He sighed and slid back into the pool.
Dick hated seeing that drained and painfully defeated look on his face. He crossed the patio and kneeled down next to the water, ignoring Atlan no doubt watching behind him. He reached down to take Garth's hand and was met halfway. "Thank you," Garth mouthed up at him.
"I'm just relieved you're not angry."
Garth gave him a tired smile. "I can't believe I'm saying this...but I can't wait to get out of this pool."
Dick felt his throat tighten and he squeezed Garth's hand. "God, I hope--"
The sound of an ostentatiously cleared throat interrupted him. "This is all very sweet," Atlan said, voice dripping with sarcasm, "but unless you're going to climb in there with him and give me something to watch...."
Garth snorted. "In your *dreams,* old man."
"Quite likely," Atlan leered. "But speaking of beds and such, my room...?"
"Right," Dick said as neutrally as he could. "This way."
"Is he eating?" Atlan asked quietly as they went back up the hall from the patio.
Dick shrugged, taken aback by Atlan's sudden seriousness. "Some. Not enough. I've tried everything I can think of, even had the Embassy send over some Atlantean food, but...."
Atlan nodded, looking not at all surprised. "It's all related. His--you would say 'chi'--is out of true. He's been treating spellcasting as a device, a convenience, when it's intrinsic to his being. Neglect the mystical, and the physical suffers. And vice versa."
It sounded as likely as anything else. "You're sure you can help him?"
"I promised, did I not? I am no less concerned than you for Garth's well being. For different reasons, of course." He glanced sideways, voice still lacking mockery. "You were right to summon me, Richard."
"Richard" mentally ground his teeth. "If you're staying, you might as well call me Dick."
Atlan smirked. "I wouldn't dare."
Dick clamped down on his tongue and swung open the door to the guest room. Atlan stepped inside, nodded, and started pulling books out of a case he hadn't been carrying a moment ago. Dick decided it wasn't worth asking about--he had the distinct impression he was going to be doing that a lot--and headed back down to the pool.
"Wow," Dick whistled as he stepped back onto the patio, "you *lived* with that?"
Garth lifted his head out of the water and shrugged helplessly. "I'm sorry. He's...."
"Yeah," Dick agreed, "he is. But it doesn't matter. He'll help you get well, I'll put up with anything."
"He'll push for the sake of it," Garth said, watching Dick's face. "He'll call his provocation a 'lesson,' but--"
"He's amusing himself. I got that. But you *did* learn from him, right?"
"Yes. And he's right about the cause. I should have seen it for myself."
"Never mind that now," Dick said firmly, before the self-recriminations began in earnest. It seemed to *him* as if Garth had been paying attention--Dick hadn't noticed any difference in the familiar, often-repeated chant--but if Atlan and Garth both thought something was wrong there, they were the experts. Still, as far as he was concerned, dwelling on it would be counter-productive. "He seems to know how to fix it, so that's all that matters."
"I hope you're right," Garth replied, which Dick knew was his way of saying 'you don't know what you're talking about, but I don't feel like arguing about it.' That was okay, too. It would be as much his job through the coming...days? weeks? to play cheerleader to Garth's recovery as to be the target of Atlan's taunts.
Magic, he'd heard Zatanna say more than once, was half faith, whether it rested in a greater power or the sorcerer's own ability. If Garth had lost his faith, it fell to Dick to hold it in his stead.
Meanwhile-- "Oh, you gotta hear this. That rookie I was telling you about, Robertson? Nice kid, but about the clumsiest thing I've ever seen on two legs. Today--" and he launched into the story, which really wasn't all that, but Garth listened and chuckled in the right places. For a couple of minutes they could both pretend the mage upstairs didn't, perhaps, represent the last hope they might have to be able to sit together and tell inconsequential stories.
"Not as comfortable as my own abode, but it will do," Atlan announced from the patio doorway, reminding Dick that privacy in their own home was about to become a thing of the past. "Not as functional an environment for magical work either, but I understand from Arthur that your return to Atlantis is nonnegotiable."
"That's correct," Garth replied firmly, and Atlan merely nodded.
"It's just as well. If you cannot find your balance in your own space, you have little enough chance of regaining it elsewhere." He sat, folding up his legs under him, disdaining the patio chairs and even the floor in favor of thin air. Garth exhaled a tiny, exasperated sound and Dick tried not to smirk. "In regard to the actual process...." Atlan paused to regard Dick thoughtfully. Or with a credible facsimile of consideration, at any rate. "You must appreciate that much of this work will involve complex theory and, shall we say, privileged information."
"Things landsmen were not meant to know," Dick acknowledged without hesitation. "I'm not interested in your secrets. I'm only interested in seeing Garth get well."
"Good." Atlan's gaze sharpened as he turned to Garth. "As for *you*--"
Garth flinched and Dick felt instinctively that this was a test. If he protested, if he tried to defend what Atlan saw as Garth's failure in any way, it would be akin to meddling in matters he'd already admitted not to understand. Atlan was establishing his authority, his right to speak to and command his former apprentice as he willed. As much as Dick wanted to object, the stakes were simply too high to allow bruised feelings or protectiveness to interfere.
"--begin with the basics to determine what else you're forgotten," Atlan was saying, although his tone wasn't as harsh as Dick might have expected from the words. "Once the balance is restored, your physical recovery will simply be a matter of time. Do try not to exert yourself overmuch," he added wryly, casting a sideways glance at Dick. "Despite all temptation."
Dick had already come to realize he was going to be subject to a constant barrage of comments in a similar vein. He steeled himself to ignore all the insinuations and innuendo; it simply seemed to be the man's way. How serious he was about it, Dick didn't know and didn't care.
"How long?" he felt compelled to ask, then added hurriedly, "I don't care, honestly. It takes what it takes. But Garth studied for three years the first time...."
"Dear Pallais, I hope not," Atlan said, seeming horrified. "Back to basics, yes. But I do not, I hope, have to re-teach all that *theory.* A month. Perhaps two at most. I suspect it will be shorter since you two are no doubt eager to be rid of me."
Garth looked like he wholeheartedly agreed with that statement. "Let's get started."
"Dinner," Atlan said pointedly, "first."
Infuriatingly, he was right again. Dick hadn't eaten since a hasty and inadequate fast-food lunch, Garth likely hadn't even finished his minimal repast, and it was getting late.
"I'll order in--" Dick started, but Atlan wouldn't hear of it.
"My first night here? I'm sure even this city has an acceptable restaurant to its name, where we may sit in comfort and be served as civilized beings."
It was too cruel a taunt, and despite his best intentions, Dick felt his temper snap. "Garth can't be away from the pool that long!" He threw an apologetic glance toward the water and Garth, who was studiously avoiding his gaze. "I'm sorry, but it's true."
"It does him no good to be a shut-in. And Garth is not," Atlan replied with deliberate patience, "the only one who can cast a spell."
...which, once said, was so obvious that Dick could only attribute his lack of awareness to the stress of the last month. "...I'll get changed."
He'd swallowed a few aspirin to deal with the jackhammer that had begun pounding behind his left eye and was still looking for a clean shirt--despite his best efforts, laundry duty had slipped away from him without Garth's reminders about it--when Garth entered the bedroom. It was almost incongruous seeing him here, after the weeks spent in the pool. Hell, *Dick* had barely used the room at all, preferring to sleep on a cot next to the water so he could at least stay in earshot of Garth, if not contact. "Atlan already--"
Garth nodded. "He's not much for delaying once he's made up his mind."
Dick wondered, briefly, if Garth found that having the breathing spell cast on him by someone else had the same effect as when Garth cast it on *him,* and decided never to ask. "Feel okay?"
"I can breathe." Garth's faint smile made it clear he was grateful for that much. "Still weak, though. Tired."
"You sure you want to--"
"Go out? Yes. It's a fine pool, but I've had more than enough of the view."
Dick winced and shrugged into the first shirt he could find that passed the sniff test. He watched as Garth moved slowly around the room gathering clothes, suppressing the urge to help. He never appreciated being treated as an invalid when he was sick and neither would Garth.
"I never thought I'd miss *shoes,*" Garth commented ruefully, as much an indicator of his eagerness to leave the house as any. He found one, looked around, and reached down to pick up its mate that Dick had inadvertently kicked half under the bed. As he bent, his hand shot out to grip the bedpost for balance, his knuckles going white along with his face, and Dick was easing Garth down to sit on the bed before he'd even registered the idea of moving.
"I'm sor--" Garth started, but Dick wasn't interested in hearing it.
"Don't. It's not your fault."
"But it *is,*" Garth returned with a snap. "We determined that when I didn't tell you about the spell failing, and with the very reason for its failure."
Never mind that Dick had felt but never voiced the same thought in the preceding weeks, because it simply wasn't worth holding onto any longer. And the sooner Garth accepted that, the better. "Fine. But whatever you did or didn't do, that doesn't matter now. The *only* thing that matters is whatever we need to do to get you well."
"No. I don't *care.*" But all the assurances he could muster wouldn't convince Garth of it, so Dick changed tactics. "If I have to put up with that arrogant bastard for weeks, you can forget about placing blame and just listen to what he has to say so you can--" his voice broke and he swallowed hard before he finished. "So you can stay."
Garth blinked at him, looked away, brought his gaze back with a tiny bemused smile. "His parents were married."
"...noted," Dick said as his brain caught up with the comment, and would have laughed except that Garth had brought his hands up to frame Dick's face and pulled him into a kiss.
Which was even better. Certainly more fun than forty rounds of blame and reassurance and if *this* was the kind of encouragement Garth wanted, Dick could get behind that with his full enthusiasm. The kiss tasted of desperation and fear and gratitude and this close he could feel that Garth was enthusiastic about it, too--
"Alternatively, we could skip dinner and move directly to dessert."
He whirled around to see Atlan leaning against the doorframe, leering at them. Dick had been momentarily shocked speechless by the intrusion, but Garth stayed where he was and hissed a single, furious word: "*Boundaries.*"
Atlan looked surprised, and then almost contrite. "You're quite correct. Cry pardon." He gave a short nod, nearly a bow, and stepped backward into the hall and out of sight.
"Son of a *bitch,*" Dick spat, half-hoping Atlan would hear, "and don't tell me his mother was a perfectly nice woman. What an *ass.*"
Garth sighed. "I'm not about to apologize on his behalf. That was inexcusably rude, and he knows better."
Dick turned back to look at him. "'Boundaries'?"
"When I was training, we lived in very close proximity. It was entirely his domain, and I was just a student, but I still needed space of my own. Sometimes he has to be reminded he's not welcome everywhere.
"Do I need to block off the hall with police tape? Because that is *entirely* doable."
Garth reached for his hand. "He's just testing, Dick."
"Yeah," Dick muttered, "my patience and boundless good nature." He recognized the lip-twitch that meant Garth was smothering a grin. "*You* laugh. First time I've had you here in weeks--" But he hadn't meant to say that, and cut himself off before Garth took it as something else to blame himself for.
But this time Garth looked like he entirely concurred. "Maybe later? I'm actually hungry," he added with more than a touch of regret. "And we should go before he decides to redecorate the house." Dick raised an eyebrow at that, but Garth just shook his head. "Trust me. His idea of décor is...different."
"I'll bet," Dick said, and reached down to pick up the itinerant shoe.
Atlan was waiting for them downstairs, as calmly as if he hadn't just been playing peeping tom. "Where are we going?"
If he wanted to ignore the entire incident, that was fine. As long as he remembered it. "Local place a couple of blocks away. Very casual." He wasn't about to take Atlan to his and Garth's favorite restaurant, the one with the cozy romantic atmosphere and balcony view of the ocean. Dick was about to suggest a change of clothes nonetheless when Atlan spoke again.
"I doubt my idea of 'casual' is the same as yours, so." A brief blue glow flared around him and then Dick was looking at a different man entirely: same features, but dressed in jeans and a red collared shirt and with far shorter hair. Still attractive, but nondescript, at least from a distance. Dick might not have given him a second glance on the street.
Still, the difference was startling and enough to provoke a kind of odd double vision...like seeing Bruce do his "Brucie" act once the truth was known. Dick wondered if the trick was illusion or actual transmutation, but didn't want to admit to care enough to ask. Garth could tell him later.
He retrieved their jackets out of the hall closet, pulling out one for Garth that was in principle too warm for the April weather, but there was no sense in his tempting a chill. The distance was short enough to walk and the exercise would do them all good. And it'd keep Dick from killing Atlan in the enclosed space of the car.
At the restaurant, he discovered with something like relief that Atlan flirted with *everyone.* The boy who came to fill their water glasses. The waitress he charmed into sending over the owner. The owner, with whom Atlan conversed in fluent, perfectly accented Italian until he had the man nearly weeping tears of joy and promising to pull his best bottle out of the cellar and order the chef to make them "something special."
To Dick's surprise, Atlan didn't share Garth's vegetarian credo.
"You could at least put chicken in that. It wouldn't even kill you," Atlan said with considerable asperity toward Garth's tortellini order, "to eat a steak once in a while."
Garth just rolled his eyes, but Dick had to fake a cough and grab for a napkin to hide his grin. For a moment the mage had sounded like nothing so much as a stereotypical Jewish mother, and the *image* that engendered had him biting his lip to hold back a case of the giggles.
"Since I'm staying in your home, I suppose you'll want to know all about me," Atlan proclaimed, and launched into his life story before Dick could register his vote.
It was, Dick had to admit privately if not vocally, a fascinating history. The man was over three thousand years old and had seen civilizations both on the surface and undersea rise and fall. His accounts would be invaluable historical artifacts if he ever decided to make them public. For his part, Atlan had spent the centuries observing various cultures from afar, honing his magic, and appearing occasionally throughout Atlantis to nudge people and events in directions he deemed favorable.
"Which included seducing other mens' wives," Garth commented dryly.
"A fact Arthur should thank for his very existence," Atlan replied.
"I don't suppose it hurt," Garth shot back, "that Atlanna looked like a mirror image of you."
Atlan grinned without a hint of shame. "Not at all."
Narcissism, yay, Dick thought with a vague tinge of nausea. Granted Atlan and his descendant were so far removed by generations that the incest taboo was virtually irrelevant, but the idea was still...unsettling. And Atlan's obvious glee about the situation even moreso.
Atlan glanced at him. "I wouldn't expect you to understand," he said, tracing an idle finger over the rim of his wine glass. "The demands of prophesy and destiny are rarely comfortable, especially for those at the center of such matters. Not so much in *that* particular case, but...one may be compelled to act in ways he never imagined to derive a certain necessary outcome."
Utterly appalling, that Atlan could sit there and offer such a blatant--and to Dick's mind, ridiculous--justification for his actions. But that, Dick thought, went a long way toward explaining the mage's attitudes. He might never be called to account for his behavior if "prophesy demanded" he act a certain way, and he'd made himself such a figure of mystery that his proclamations defied challenge.
But Dick was remembering something he'd read in the "Atlantis Chronicles," and *he* had no compunction about confronting Atlan regarding his actions...eventually. For the moment, he was too pleased to see Garth actually eating to allow his own outrage to interrupt.
"Still feel all right?" he asked under his breath, knowing Atlan could hear every word and not caring.
Garth took a long drink of water before he answered. "Fine, Dick, really. Tired, mainly."
"You're leaking energy, physical as well as mystical," Atlan put in, his tone empathetic rather than condemning. Like he was speaking from experience. "I've shielded you as best I may, but there's only so much an outside control can accomplish." He shrugged slightly to Garth's inquiring look. "Every mage endures a similar episode at one point or another. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by yours, my excellent teachings notwithstanding."
"Every--?" Garth started, but Atlan cut him off.
"That doesn't negate your inaction in the matter, however. Inevitable that it happened? Perhaps. But allowing yourself to deteriorate to this state is entirely your error."
Dick found himself biting his lip again, this time in an effort not to agree.
But Garth was simply nodding. "So I understand. But I have also been reminded," he shot a grateful glance toward Dick, "that wallowing in that fact is unproductive."
Atlan leaned back in his chair. "True. And I'm glad to hear it, because your capacity for guilt, earned or not, is frankly boring."
Dick and Garth were still staring at him when the check arrived, sparing either of them the need to reply.
Dick reached for it, but Atlan put his hand down first. "Oh, do allow me. As thanks for your hospitality." Atlan pulled a platinum card out of his jeans back pocket, although Dick suspected "out of thin air" might be an equally valid description.
"Legit?" he asked, arching a skeptical eyebrow.
Atlan beamed at him. "Of course. I'm very fond of modern currency. So much more convenient than piles of sea shells."
He put the card down on top of the bill and Dick read the inscribed name. "But--'Allan Johnson'?"
"Closest transliteration. 'Atlan Honsu's-son' would be a bit conspicuous, don't you agree?" He glanced at Garth, not waiting for Dick's reply. "You use 'Tharson,' I assume."
Garth sighed. "Not...exactly." Dick was smirking; he already knew this story. "I needed a surface identity before I ever knew who my father was, so...my friends took it on themselves to find me a last name."
"...wait." Atlan's eyes had gone narrow. "Are you saying that my son made no provision for such things?"
"That was," Garth returned evenly, "a long time ago." His tone stated, clearly: let it alone.
Atlan sat still for a moment, jaw clenched, then let out a sigh. "As though I needed further proof of his ignorance. Do go on with your tale."
Garth waited until the waitress had picked up the bill and "Allan's" card. "Donna especially was enamored of the idea. So was Roy, in his own...particular way."
Atlan snorted. "Tried to talk you into adopting obscenities, no doubt." He was obviously familiar with the Titans' identities. Maybe Garth had told some of his own stories, during those training years.
"He came up with some doozies, too," Dick recalled. "Some of the Navajo words sounded pretty good until I dug the up the translations."
Garth smiled wryly. "And some were less than subtle. 'Garth Chokes-on-Land' was one of his favorites. But by then I knew enough to ignore even his reasonable-sounding suggestions. Dick offered a number of prevalent landsman names--"
"Not very creative," Dick added. "I was thinking you'd want to go with a common name to blend in."
"But Donna wouldn't hear of it. She was intent on finding me the *perfect* name. She was also fascinated with foreign languages at the time, the more exotic the better. Her own fascination with Hippolyta drew her to Greek, but that proved unwieldy, so she finally settled on Latin." Garth reached for his wallet and brought out a card.
"'Maris'," Atlan read. "Meaning 'of the sea.' Cute, if not overly imaginative." His next comment was mild, but the question was barbed. "But that was a child's inspiration, years ago. Once you learned your father's name, you gave no thought to adopting it?"
Garth hesitated, then shrugged. "What I'd established serves as a last name for a credit card. I didn't see any reason to change it."
"None except, perhaps, acknowledging your heritage," Atlan returned pleasantly, and smiled at the waitress returning with the charge slip.
Dick bristled at the insinuation, but Garth just looked weary. "You want to bring this up now, in addition to everything else?"
"Fair point," Atlan acceded with a nod. "Consider the subject closed, for the duration." He scrawled his name and stood. "Shall we?"
Dick hung back as they left the restaurant and started down the street, watching Garth walk, seeing him clearly taking pleasure in the simple motion. Just *watching* him moving again--more than just from the pool to the kitchen or bathroom and back--made Dick think of all the other things he'd been missing. Sex had been...awkward since Garth's collapse, partly due to location but more as a result of his near-constant exhaustion. Dick hadn't been willing to strain Garth's energies by suggesting the water-breathing spell for himself, and the fact that Garth hadn't offered was evidence enough that he hadn't felt strong enough to cast it. They'd found ways to make do with a limited range of activity, but maybe now....
Atlan caught his arm, disrupting his train of thought. "Richard...abstain awhile longer, if you would."
Dick felt a furious blush come up over his face. Stupid, stupid to let the man get under his skin, and their sex life was none of his damned *business.* But it was even more infuriating that Atlan had called him on it. "You're reading my mind now?"
"A *blind* man could see your intent. But this isn't prurient interest...or not mainly." Atlan smirked briefly, but then the expression shaded to seriousness again. "The spell *is* a strain on Garth's system, even if he's not the caster. I wasn't joking about exertion. He'll need his energy to get well."
And he'd hamstring himself rather than interfere with Garth's recovery, so that was that. Dick allowed himself one very private mental sigh and asked brightly, "Who's for ice cream?"
Garth had been visibly worn out by the time they returned to the house, and Atlan had as much as ordered him to get some sleep. "You'll need it" being the unstated but understood implication.
The next morning began like any other in the past few weeks. Dick woke up, checked Garth's monitors, stretched out the kinks from sleeping on the cot, set the coffee maker, took a shower, got dressed for work--
And came back to the pool to find Atlan lounging on the cot, in *his* space, disturbingly at ease and watching Garth sleep.
That decided that. Despite all his best intentions he couldn't simply leave, not on the first day, not when so much hinged on Atlan's lessons. He planted himself and refused to go regardless of Atlan's glowers and Garth's insistence that his presence wasn't necessary. He was finally told to "be still and silent," and took up a position in the corner of the patio.
At first he thought there might be magical displays, invocations and gestures, but mostly the "lesson" seemed consist of long stretches where they sat and did...nothing.
Nothing didn't *actually* mean nothing. Meditation was a perfectly legitimate teaching tool. And the occasional frown on Garth's face might or might not have indicated telepathic communication.
It was, from Dick's point of view, wholly boring. He got up silently and went to use the gym, itchy from hours of no movement. As the day wore on he debated interrupting to see if anyone needed food and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. Dick made himself lunch, read a couple of reports, needled Babs for gossip, and checked in with Donna and Roy and was both grateful and vaguely irritated that he wasn't needed.
He peeked in after several hours to find them in the same position. If this was meant to be *his* lesson, he'd learned it. Dick went back into the living room and threw himself down across the couch. There had to be a movie or two he'd missed on the pay-per-view.
It turned out there were several, but he'd watched a third of three different films and read chapters from four different books before he decided that it was dinnertime and that even dedicated mages needed to eat.
This time when he looked in Atlan acknowledged him with a nod. "That's enough for the day."
"Yeah. Chinese takeout okay?"
Atlan acceded with an indifferent wave. Dick saw that Garth seemed exhausted, even moreso than the current status quo. He filed that away until after dinner and cornered Atlan out of Garth's earshot.
He had obviously been expecting the interrogation. "Yes, he's expending energy. Quite a lot of it. It may not seem so to you, but this work is no less than your exertions *there,*" Atlan said, waving dismissively toward the room that held Dick's gymnastic equipment. This close, Dick realized that the mage's careless façade seemed strained and that he was noticeably tired too. The observation was perversely satisfying.
Still. "But if he's not eating all day--"
"We did. My...servants prepared a meal they delivered from my own realm. Again, please trust that I won't allow Garth to come to harm." Atlan cocked an eyebrow at him. "Any further objection?"
None that Dick was willing to voice at the moment. It helped that Garth confirmed what the mage had said, when Atlan finally retired to his room for the night. "It's hard work. Reviewing three years of lessons in a day." He hesitated, unmistakably uncomfortable, and finally added, "You...really don't have to stay."
Garth-speak for 'get lost,' typically so circumspect that Dick had to grin at him. "I'll be out of your hair tomorrow."
Dick stuck to his resolution and gave Garth and Atlan no argument the following morning, just waved good-bye and left them to it. Just as well; he'd already used up all his leave and more, and the department wouldn't let him take any further lost time.
He spent the day going over paperwork he'd missed, catching up on cases, and trying to get back in Amy's strained good graces by working through lunch and generally behaving like the professional she was always urging him to be.
It was also, no question, the second-best way to avoid thinking about what was going on at home. The first, of course, being rooftop-diving, but that was a distinctly nighttime activity. During the day, at the station or on patrol in the car he could concentrate on what he was doing and not think, for example, about Atlan's blond head hovering so possessively over Garth.
That was irrational and baseless jealousy, and he knew it. He disliked that as much as he resented feeling like a guest in his own home. What he hated most, though, was the way Garth simply *accepted* Atlan's sniping comments and dismissive attitude. And the way he was forced to accept it as well, by circumstance.
That night was takeout again, and the next day followed the same pattern, and five days into this new routine Dick finally realized that he hadn't really been *talking* to anyone outside of Garth and Atlan--and the latter as little as possible. Everyone he knew wanted to help, but he hadn't wanted them to get too close because...because this was his and Garth's problem to deal with, that was one reason.
But mainly because he hadn't wanted to admit to *anything* out loud. He simply couldn't confess to the gnawing fear that things wouldn't work out. Certainly not to *Bruce,* of all people. Allowing defeat or even the possibility thereof wasn't in the Bat-lexicon. That was the same reason he couldn't talk to Barbara, and he wasn't about to burden Tim with difficulties he couldn't help solve.
Donna, bless her, had known better than to push. "Whenever you want to talk, honey," she'd said, but her compassion would have unraveled what little control he had over his feelings. Roy had been as sympathetic as possible, which in his case meant laying off the jabs and innuendo. Wally would have listened supportively but still with that vaguely weirded-out expression whenever he thought of them together...and after everything he'd been through with Linda, Wally wouldn't be able to imagine there wasn't a solution *somewhere.* Which was nice to imagine, but difficult to hear with no concrete answer in sight, even given Atlan's promises.
He'd generally been avoiding the Tower, only checking in periodically. Donna and Roy had virtually taken over mission planning and the day-to-day ops, of which there were blessedly few. Dick supposed he ought to have been more concerned that his absence had so little effect on the team, but it was more of a relief than anything not to be needed for something else. Come to think, Bruce hadn't summoned him to Gotham in the last month, Tim had dropped by merely to visit rather than consult with Dick about cases of his own, and Barbara had passed on inconsequential news and gossip from the superheroic community but nothing he would have felt compelled to act on.
They were treating him with kid gloves, in other words. Another time he might have resented it. Now he was only grateful for the consideration.
By the time the next weekend rolled around Dick knew he had to get some fresh--or at least different--air for awhile. Both Atlan and Garth looked relieved when he told them he was heading up to New York and the Tower for the day. He tried not to take it personally.
The ride up to the Tower was uneventful and Dick discovered the place largely empty when he got there. Roy took one look at his face as he entered the monitor room and promptly challenged him to spar. Dick accepted the offer with not-inconsiderable relief.
He and Roy had developed a particular style of sparring over the years, in which it was understood that anything short of a maiming blow was permitted. Donna, catching them at it once, had scolded them both and then left declaring that if they wanted to kill each other, she didn't have to watch. Garth hadn't said a word at the time, watching in silence with a slight smile, but he'd asked Dick later if all that pent-up aggression wasn't...symptomatic...of some other emotion.
To which the answer was an emphatic "No!" and Garth had been kidding, anyway, straight face or not. Really. Dick was positive about that.
It absolutely shouldn't have been so therapeutic to beat the hell out of one of his best friends (and, simultaneously, have Roy beat the hell out of *him*), but Dick was inclined to skip the self-analysis and simply go with it. That got him through the afternoon and its attendant bruises, through the clean-up afterward, and into the take-out pizza, when he ended up venting all of the frustrations of the past few weeks: Garth's situation, his worry, and the complications of Atlan's presence.
Roy listened without interrupting for once and finally asked, "You don't, uh, think this Atlan guy would actually *do* anything?"
"No! No. Not really." At least, Dick thought, not without invitation. "He just...won't *stop.*"
"And he's the only one who can help."
"So he's a creep, and he's taking advantage because you guys need him, and you have to live with it." Roy seemed to consider. "That sucks."
Hearing his situation put so baldly, Dick found himself laughing. "It really...does. And not in the good way."
Roy grimaced at him. "TMI! Seriously. Dude."
"Oh, yeah, your virgin ears," Dick retorted. And realized he was grinning, maybe for the first time in weeks. He'd *needed* this, needed to get away, and immediately on thinking that was hit with the predictable wave of guilt that reminded him, of course, Garth was stuck back at the house and--
He wasn't going to play that game. He wasn't going to be able to get through this if he fell apart himself.
"Hey," Roy was saying, "it'll be okay." His expression was earnest, bearing no trace of his usual mockery. "You two...you're good. I mean, I never would have thought, but..." he flapped a hand in a gesture utterly renouncing his previous skepticism. "You *work.* So you'll find a way."
Dick stared at him. "Holy crap. You're a *romantic.*"
Roy leveled a finger in return. "Don't spread it around."
But even to Roy he couldn't voice his real fear, that Atlan's ulterior motive had less to do with Garth's healing than it was to convince Garth that he didn't belong on the surface, that he should return to Atlantis and take up his magical studies and become the true mage Atlan wanted him to be. Paranoia talking, no doubt, but still...he wasn't entirely sure why Atlan would *want* to help Garth remain on the surface. Atlan was trying to help Garth get well, that wasn't in doubt, but...how well? Well enough to stay? Or just well enough to realize that he couldn't live here after all?
And even worse, what if Atlan really did have Garth's best interest at heart, and *Dick* was being selfish by keeping Garth from exploring his heritage, his native power and birthright?
He hadn't wanted to believe that. Especially since Garth had consistently reassured him, in word and action and every other way imaginable, that *he* didn't think that was the case. He'd never wanted to return to Atlan for training, hadn't cared to delve into that portion of his father's legacy more than he already had. He didn't feel the need to be *more* powerful than he already was. All reasons, he swore, that had nothing to do with wanting to stay on the surface for Dick.
Dick took him at his word, because he didn't have any other choice, and because he wanted to believe it. He honestly didn't think Garth had lied about any of it. He also knew, deep down, that Garth was perfectly capable of avoiding issues he didn't want to deal with--Arthur, the throne of Shayeris, his mother--by immersing himself in his other relationships and obligations. If Dick had been part of Garth's avoidance tactic, he'd unreservedly let himself be used as such and had no cause for complaint about it.
But Atlan's comment about urging Garth to explore his birthright kept coming back to him. If it'd been anyone else--say, Tim--wouldn't Dick have pushed him to find out all he could? Dick had been taught to stretch his limits, to never stop learning. Had he been complacent about Garth's development as a mage because he'd feared it would send Garth on a path away from him?
He hadn't deliberately held Garth back, no. But he'd been perfectly happy to enable Garth's own lack of progress without a second thought.
It was a distinctly uncomfortable realization.
As the days wore on, Bruce didn't drop by, and he didn't call. He didn't send a card or a basket. He did something altogether more useful.
He sent Alfred.
Alfred arrived bright and early, just before Dick was about to head off for work. Over Dick's sputtering he marched directly into the kitchen, eyed the contents of the cupboard and refrigerator with a critical eye, and began making a list.
"You don't have to," Dick started to protest, and shut his mouth again at Alfred's brief but pointed *look.* Bruce had never quite managed to infuse his glare with that level of significance, no matter how Bat-like he was being.
"Your ego, I see, remains as healthy as ever. I do assure you, my efforts are not primarily intended for *your* benefit." Alfred checked the vegetable bin and made a disapproving noise under his breath, then returned to his list and added several more lines.
Dick stared at him. "You like Garth better than me. Admit it."
"He *does* have an innate understanding of the use of a napkin, which you were never entirely able to master." He spared Dick another short glance. "And besides which, I long ago ceased trying to influence your nutritional habits or lack thereof. 'Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs,' indeed."
"They're tasty," Dick muttered.
"As you say. However, Master Garth would no doubt appreciate relief from the array of take-out options and over-processed foodstuff that comprises your diet."
"He would," Dick said with no hesitation whatsoever, "and so would I." He paused for a moment. "Did Bruce tell you about Atlan...?"
"I have been fully apprised of the situation." Alfred pointed at the clock without looking up from his list. "You're running late, I believe."
"Yeah. Thanks, Alfred."
Dick turned to go, but not before he saw the smile on the old man's face and heard his reply. "You're quite welcome, young sir."
He spent a relatively uneventful shift at work and came home to find Alfred still at work in the freshly stocked kitchen, a pot on every burner and the oven on full blast. There were enough containers waiting on the counters to feed an army.
Dick read the neatly lettered labels. "Mushroom barley soup, breaded eggplant, vegetarian paella, meatless burger mix, beef stew--aw, Alfred, you do care."
"A moment of weakness, no doubt."
"Well, I'm grateful for it." He inhaled deeply, the aroma of fresh marinara overwhelming all the other scents. "Man, I've missed your cooking. I know, I know, 'Anytime I want to come home....'"
But Alfred was looking at him, surprised. "I was under the impression that *this* was your home now."
Dick was across the room and had grabbed Alfred into a fierce hug before he could protest. "How do you always know exactly what I need to hear?"
"Long practice," Alfred said in his customary long-suffering tone, but he neglected to immediately extricate himself as usual. Dick felt Alfred's hand come up to brush against his head, like a blessing. "*Ahem.* Since you're here, you might as well make yourself useful and stir the marinara."
Dick pulled away with a final squeeze, grinned, and picked up the long-handled wooden spoon he was fairly sure they hadn't owned before today. "I must be doing something right if you're trusting me not to get it all over the floor. And the walls."
"And the ceiling," Alfred reminded him, "we never *did* get all of the stains out."
"Which is why I spent more than one long afternoon repainting the kitchen. I remember," Dick returned cheerfully. He lifted the lid of the largest pot with an oven mitt and stirred the red sauce carefully, bringing it up from the bottom. The pot was deep enough that the sauce nearly reached up to the end of the spoon, enough to freeze for several meals. "So did you meet--" Dick cocked a head toward the pool.
"They have not yet emerged. I *do* know better than to interrupt a dedicated training session."
Dick was about to answer when the voice interrupted behind him. "That makes you a man of good sense, obviously." He turned to see Atlan lounging in the doorway, posing dramatically. "Garth assured me the trespasser we heard wasn't a burglar. I would have been inclined to invite an intruder in earlier, if this cornucopia was to be the result."
Alfred's eyebrow took a sharp header toward the ceiling. Dick figured he'd better step in before it launched itself off of Alfred's face altogether. "Atlan, this is Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred, Garth's mentor Atlan."
Perhaps by design, Alfred's hands were too full to allow him to shake hands. "I understand Master Richard and Master Garth owe you their gratitude for your help."
"Yes, quite." Atlan was staring at Alfred with concentration. "You have," he said abruptly, "one of the strongest auras I've ever seen on a landsman. Or an Atlantean, for that matter." He turned to Dick. "Was this man one of your teachers?"
"One of the best," Dick replied with pride.
"The source of your resilience, no doubt."
Dick chuckled. "One of them. But you haven't met Bruce, either."
"Who-- oh, your 'Batman.'" Atlan waved a dismissive hand. "Yes, yes. A very impressive personality, but brittle."
"We all have our foibles," Alfred interjected with smooth neutrality. "As for my so-called 'aura,' I'm gratified that you find it so interesting."
For the first time since he'd entered the house, Atlan looked almost...off-balance. "'So-called'? See here--"
"Atlan," Garth said, coming up behind him, "you debate with Alfred at your peril."
Alfred nodded his acknowledgement to Garth, but Dick saw the flash of concern in his eyes as he noted Garth's physical state. "I believe this is all well in hand. I should be heading back to Gotham."
"But," Garth started, at the same time that Dick stated firmly, "No way. You have to stay and eat with us."
Alfred looked as scandalized as Dick knew he would. "That simply wouldn't be appropriate."
"My--*our* house," Dick took great delight in telling him, "our rules. And we won't take no for an answer."
"Please stay," Garth added simply, and that seemed to be the deciding factor.
"...If you insist."
"Smorgasbord!" Dick announced with glee over Alfred's wince. "C'mon, it all looks great, we have to try a little of everything." He started lifting the lids of the other pots. "Okay, I guess we can save the burgers for another night, but the soup looks done, and we can do up a bit of pasta for the sauce, that'll be great with the eggplant, too. And a little of the paella on the side, and we can put together a salad...."
Alfred reached toward the oven again, but Dick waved him off. "Sit, everyone sit, I'll take care of everything."
He found an unused pot and started filling it for pasta as the others pulled out chairs at the kitchen table. Over the rush of water he heard Garth tell Alfred, "Let him. It helps him feel useful."
"I heard that," Dick threw back over his shoulder.
"You were meant to," Garth returned.
Even Atlan seemed to be getting into the spirit. "I have a bottle of wine I'd been saving for an occasion. I suppose this counts, in honor of our guest. It won't take but a moment to retrieve it."
He left the kitchen before Dick was compelled to address the comment, and then Alfred beat him to it. He could hear the raised eyebrow in Alfred's voice as he spoke to Garth. "'Our' guest?"
Garth sighed. "Atlan makes himself at home wherever he is. Sometimes too much so."
"Say that again," Dick muttered, digging into the extraordinarily laden fridge for salad components. "Alfred, you're going to let me pay you back for all of this, right?"
"I assure you, the total has already been added to your tab. Since declaring his independence," Alfred went on to explain for Garth's benefit, "Master Richard has been made responsible for all use of equipment and resources that his former guardian provides."
"In other words," Dick said, his voice echoing in the vegetable bin, "Bruce was so pissed off when I wrecked his favorite car that he made me pay for it, and he's been making me pay for it ever since."
"You *what?*" Garth exclaimed, sounding a little too delighted for Dick's taste. "That's a story you never told the Titans."
Dick shrugged, emerging from the refrigerator with an armful of vegetables. "Not much of a story. I took the car, I was careless, I smashed it up, the end." He glanced over to see Garth and Alfred exchange identically amused looks. "Yeah, it's hilarious *now.* Back then, not so much."
"Here we are," Atlan announced, reentering the kitchen. "Château Latour 1966. I trust you have an adequate corkscrew?"
Dick rummaged through the utensil drawer wordlessly and held it up. It had been another gift from Alfred, which had accompanied a fine bottle they'd long since shared with friends. Alfred, quite rightly, hadn't relied on the state of Dick's kitchen to provide.
But Alfred was protesting. Atlan's offering had apparently made an impression. "This is hardly a suitable meal--"
"Nonsense." Atlan grinned, looking pleased. "If I'd truly wanted to impress, I'd have brought out the '61." He uncorked the wine with a flourish, pouring it into a glass decanter he hadn't been holding a moment ago--showing off, despite his words. He'd explored the kitchen enough by now to know where the wine glasses were, and pulled down four as smartly as if they'd been his own. Though his, Dick thought with random irritation, would probably be a set of long-lost and infinitely rare crystal instead of store-bought and essentially disposable glass.
Garth waved the wine off as usual; Dick wouldn't have thought anything of his refusal except that Atlan saw fit to snap at Garth about it. "Have half a glass. Your control can hardly be *worse* than it is now."
"That's not true," Garth returned with what Dick thought was admirable calm, "and you know it."
After a moment, Atlan broke their eye contact and snorted. "True enough. You have made *some* progress."
"Salad," Dick announced to forestall any further analysis, setting the various sliced accompaniments in the center of the table. "Oh, stop looking so horrified, Alfred, this way everyone can take whatever they want."
Alfred picked up a paper napkin, holding it disdainfully by the edge. "And this is supposed to be...."
Dick snorted. "Please. Even you didn't pack picnics with cloth napkins--oh, wait. You did. But ours are somewhere in there--" he waved vaguely toward the pantry--"and I never remember to wash them anyway."
"How terribly surprising," Alfred returned, eyeing Dick's wrinkled shirt and unpressed pants.
"Hey, anytime you want to drop by and help out...."
Alfred precisely folded the paper napkin into place. "I have quite enough chores to keep me occupied, thank you."
"As we both know well," Garth interjected with a frown for Dick, "and we *are* grateful for all of this."
"Don't mention it again," Alfred said with a decisive nod, and Dick just had to shake his head.
"Likes *him* better than *me,*" he muttered with a smirk, loud enough to be overheard, and ostentatiously ignored both of their looks in favor of filling his own salad plate.
"Regardless," Atlan announced, "it's gratifying to have someone else to converse with. The dialogue hereabouts was wearing thin." And immediately belying his own comment, he proceeded to monopolize the rest of dinnertime with tales of his lifelong observations. To his credit, at the very least they weren't accounts Dick had already heard, but ones clearly chosen in an attempt to impress Alfred. Alfred retained his customary straight face throughout, commenting politely as required and deflecting overly personal queries with his usual aplomb. It was far too entertaining to sit back and watch the byplay to add to it. Dick exchanged amused glances with Garth over the table and contented himself with indulging in the culinary bounty.
Atlan continued his attempt to win some visible sign of Alfred's approval for awhile after dinner, but eventually declared his intention to spend the rest of the evening in magical research. "The three of you doubtless have topics you'd like to discuss without me," he'd proclaimed before he retreated to his room upstairs, sounding both indifferent to the idea of landsman secrets and disdainful of the idea that any subject they could muster would possibly be of any interest to him.
"Charming," Alfred commented in his driest tone, the one he usually reserved for Bruce's most vapid dates. Dick snorted laughter while Garth merely lifted his hand in silent apology.
"Would you care for tea?" Garth asked, and set a pot to brew at Alfred's affirmative. The three of them cleaned up and packed food away, then settled back at the kitchen table.
Alfred was silent for a moment, and then he addressed Garth. "Forgive me if the question is too personal, but...this man *is* helping you?"
"Despite all appearances," Garth replied, "he is."
"I see." Alfred's voice was shaded with sympathy. "A difficult position, no doubt. For both of you."
"Whatever it takes," Dick said firmly, with a glance at Garth, who was already showing signs of strain from the hour or so away from the pool. "Garth--"
"Yes." He sighed. "I would love to stay and talk, but I'm afraid...."
"By no means should you concern yourself on my account," Alfred told him. "I shouldn't care to see my effort today undermined even for hospitality's sake."
"In other words," Dick took it upon himself to translate, "you're tired, so go to sleep, already."
Garth wasn't too weary to quirk an eyebrow at him. "I haven't quite lost my English yet."
"Yeah, but Alfred-ese is *much* more difficult."
"Thank you again," Garth said to Alfred, ignoring Dick's comment entirely. "I hope we can see you here another time, under better circumstances."
"I shall look forward to it," Alfred returned solemnly.
"Good night, then." Garth picked up his cup and left the kitchen, squeezing Dick's shoulder briefly before he went out.
Dick sighed a little before he could catch himself, but of course Alfred had heard it. "How are you holding up, Master Richard?"
"Me? I'm okay." He shrugged to Alfred's skeptical gaze. "Garth's the one doing all the hard work. I'm just trying to stay out of the way."
"No less a stressful task, at times," Alfred observed, and it struck Dick how profoundly he was speaking from experience. Watching all of his charges willingly launch themselves into bodily harm, day after day, year after year, had taken its toll as surely as if he'd been the one on the streets.
It was harder for Dick to sit back and do nothing more than watch and wait. To leave his fate so utterly in the hands of someone else...wasn't that unusual a situation. Problem was, this time he didn't entirely trust that someone.
But he trusted Garth. He had to believe this would work, for Garth's sake.
"We've been worried," Alfred said finally, "about your isolation."
"'We' meaning you and Bruce. Yeah. I wasn't...." Dick had to look away. "I couldn't talk about it. Not when it looked like Garth really might...have to leave."
"And now?" Alfred's voice was extraordinarily gentle.
Dick breathed out a pained sigh. "Nothing's certain. Atlan swore it'd be all right, for what that's worth, and Garth is determined to make it work. That's about as much as I know right now."
"The difference being," Alfred mused, "that now you have hope."
"Yeah." Dick rolled the word around in his mind and found himself smiling. "Makes all the difference in the world."
"As it should." Alfred heaved himself to his feet. "And now I really must return to Gotham."
Dick was compelled to make the offer, even knowing it'd be refused. "You could stay, we've got plenty of room...."
"I still have responsibilities to attend to tonight. As do you, I believe."
He nodded ruefully. "I've been patrolling, but probably not as much as I should."
"That's not," Alfred said with a significant glance toward the rear of the house, "what I was referring to."
Wise counsel, as Dick had learned to expect. He took the comment to heart and spent the evening in, watching Garth sleep. Not the most productive use of time, maybe, but it made him feel better. No doubt what Alfred had intended, after all.
As if Alfred's visit (and his cooking) had been some kind of catalyst, over the next week Garth progressed through a slow but sure recovery. That first step of realigning his magical centers--his "chi"--made a distinct improvement in his physical recuperation. He started eating again more normally and sleeping on a regular schedule. The dark circles disappeared from under his eyes and Dick could see the solidity return to his frame.
It was a considerable relief to see him reach a stable status, reattaining the base standard condition of an Atlantean of his age and build. Only then did the true magical training--or retraining--begin. From what Dick could tell, that meant the lessons became even *more* intense.
Atlan repeated his warning that Dick was to stay well away from their training sessions, but by accident (or perhaps design, it was hard to tell) he'd overheard any number of Atlan's admonishments, mostly focusing on Garth's need for further magical instruction. Garth didn't say a word about that in the few evening moments they had to themselves, and Dick was more than a little reluctant to bring it up. If Garth needed to go-- if he *should* go--
He was, Dick finally acknowledged, simply too selfish to bring it up. At least not now, while Atlan's influence hung heavy over the house and their lives. Maybe they might discuss it at some point, when things had gotten back to normal and the option would feel like an actual *decision,* a choice, and not something forced on them by circumstance. Pure rationalization, he knew, but one he was willing to live with for now.
Being on the periphery of the training process was difficult for another reason, one he hadn't mentioned to anyone else. The first night Atlan arrived, Dick had bit his tongue on the accusation he'd wanted to make. But as the days wore on, seeing Atlan take such a protective stance over Garth's health and wellbeing, the sheer *hypocrisy* of the man grated on him more and more.
It wasn't his place. Garth wouldn't appreciate his interference. So Dick held his tongue until the evening he came back from Nightwing patrol and found Atlan in the living room, idly looking over the bookshelves. The rest of the house was dark and *seeing* him there, seemingly so much at home, so certain he'd never be called on to account for his actions...it was just too much.
Dick went back into the bedroom, changed into civilian clothes, and grabbed the book he'd been researching out of the dresser drawer. Wrong or not, he'd been itching to do this since that first night and the decision to finally confront Atlan felt undeniably satisfying.
He stalked back into the living room. Atlan hadn't moved. "I *thought* it was you. But I had to check the untranslated version to make sure."
Atlan glanced at him without much interest. "Pardon?"
Dick held up the book face outward, the "Atlantis Chronicles" displayed in stylized Atlantean script. Garth didn't know he'd read this far into it, particularly not this version in the original rather than the translated one sanitized for landmen. "Right here in black and white. 'Beware of babes with purple eyes.' *You* said that to the Idyllists, three thousand years ago. Give or take."
Atlan had the nerve to stand there with nothing more than a faintly inquisitive expression. "Yes, and?"
"And that was the basis for the superstition that made a bunch of priests take a baby--take *Garth*--out to be exposed and left for dead!" All his built-up frustration erupted in a fury. "If you hadn't been so free with your 'prophesies,' none of that would have happened!"
"Ah." Atlan's slow nod did nothing to take the edge off Dick's anger. "So that's what you've been stewing about." He ran his fingertips over the books, as casually as if Dick's accusation was no more than an idle question. Dick could feel himself virtually vibrating in place with rage, but waited to hear what justification Atlan would offer.
"Three thousand years past," Atlan finally said, in a quietly musing tone. "Was I to know the identity of your lover so far into the future from then? Or how my words would be distorted by the ignorant and the foolish in all that time?"
"Doesn't excuse the consequences, not when you said yourself you were watching all that time," Dick spat back. "If you knew what would happen, why didn't you *stop* it?"
The mage turned on him with unexpected vehemence. "Do you dare to judge *me,* Richard Grayson, I was the one who kept him alive! When I saw what those ignorant Shalakites meant to do I calmed the tides, set spells to drive predators away from Mercy Reef until I could weave more permanent protections. I spent a decade devoted almost solely to watching over Garth, keeping him safe. I telepathically gave him language and the basis for socialization. Were it *not* for me, he would have been a feral child, irreclaimable."
It would have been a shock if Garth hadn't told him as much, back on the beach in Greece...but even that truth still left too many unanswered questions. "You did all that, and still left him to be alone all those years?"
Atlan looked tired. "If I could have done otherwise...there were reasons, Richard, I swear to you. He would not have done well, where I was. Believe it or not, he was safer alone. That was always my highest priority."
"He must be such a disappointment to you, then. Since he's not the mage you wanted him to be."
Atlan shrugged. "Garth has chosen his own destiny, rather than followed the one laid out for him. That's his prerogative. Forcing the issue would accomplish nothing." He smiled, a little secretively. "And who knows what the future may hold?"
There was no way to trust him, not with a statement like that, even given the knowledge of what Atlan had done. Dick had the distinct impression that Atlan preferred it that way.
Atlan neglected to share their confrontation with Garth, a fact that made Dick both grateful and resentful for feeling that way. He didn't mention it again and Dick, having said his piece, resolutely kept his silence as well.
...for a handful of days. And then, belatedly recalling how angry and frustrated he'd been when it turned out Garth hadn't been telling *him* everything, Dick confessed all. Garth took it in stride, nodding over the prophecy. "But there's no way he could have known it would apply to me, Dick."
"That's what *he* said," Dick grumbled, but wasn't inclined to pursue it further.
Garth was feeling better but working harder than ever, the strain of Atlan's instruction leaving him nearly as physically and emotionally drained at the end of each day as he'd been before. Since the first day, Dick had refrained from broaching the question of how much longer the process would take; he had the distinct impression that Garth didn't know himself, and asking for a timeframe would only frustrate them both. Garth was doing as much as he could. Dick had sworn to be patient. Atlan was--
Atlan was *Atlan,* endlessly patronizing and inappropriately brazen and infuriatingly ever-present. At least, Dick thought with petty satisfaction, the teaching seemed no less wearing on Atlan's part, so that in the evenings he rarely had the inclination to issue more than a few sniping comments before retiring for his own rest. But his presence lingered even when he wasn't anywhere nearby, and all the tensions and uncertainty of the situation with it.
Because even now nothing was sure, nothing was certain, despite the tenuous hope Atlan's assurances had given them. Either the spell would *work* or it *wouldn't* and that remained a thin line to balance the rest of their lives on. It was entirely too metaphorical for Dick's comfort. He was used to hurling himself into space without either net or backup, but falling now would mean....
Dick tried not to dwell on it, keeping Alfred's words in mind and simply concentrating on getting through each day. It became a mantra: another day, another lesson, and another step closer to normalcy. Garth *was* regaining his health and confidence, and as much as Dick knew anything about magic, he understood that the latter was more crucial than any arcane gesture or mystical word. Garth was pulling himself back to strength through sheer willpower; in the face of that effort, Dick felt, a little bit of measured self-control on his part was the least he could contribute.
That was how it went, days sliding into weeks, until midway through the fifth week when he came home to find Garth in the kitchen, eating leftovers out of a carton like a starving thing. And his hair *wasn't* wet.
The immediate questions were too daunting to articulate in case the answers weren't all he'd hoped. "Garth, did-- are you--"
"It's working." Garth had dropped the fork and was already moving toward him. "Dick--"
"Thank Pallais," Dick said as fervently as he'd ever heard Garth pray, and that was all before they were kissing, joy and relief and *lust* hitting him like a wave that he'd be happy to drown under if it meant Garth could *stay.*
Garth let him go a moment before Dick's own breathing seriously became an issue. Dizzy, Dick caught another glimpse of the laden table. He could try, for once, to be the responsible adult here. "You're eating. You should--"
"Food later. Sex now." Garth's eyes were bright with intent and Dick found he really didn't have any resistance to muster. He might have said something, he wasn't sure, but Garth's mouth was moving against his throat and words were irrelevant, anyway.
He wondered, vaguely, where Atlan was and recognized that he didn't actually care as long as the mage stayed away.
Garth's hands were greedy on him, skating over his clothes, pulling his shirt out of his pants to get at the skin underneath. Another minute and he'd be entirely naked, a conclusion Dick was all in favor of, but the last thing he wanted was an interruption. "Bedroom," he gasped as Garth's hand slid under his dress shirt and fingertips brushed over an already-sensitive nipple, "*door.*"
Garth growled low in his throat but let go long enough for them both to stumble up the stairs and down the hall into the master bedroom and push the door closed behind them.
Buttons flew everywhere as Garth's impatient hands pulled Dick's shirtfront open without bothering to unfasten it first. Dick felt himself pressed against the wall while Garth moved down his chest, lips and tongue on him like he'd forgotten the taste of Dick's skin. Dick sprawled against the wall, bracing himself, and happily let himself be ravaged.
"I missed you," Dick sighed contentedly, rolling his hips forward as Garth ripped open the uniform pants and dragged them down his legs.
Garth didn't answer. He was too busy tearing Dick's boxers out of his way.
His mouth was everywhere at once, hot and eager, and Dick couldn't move even if he'd wanted to. His pants were tangled around his ankles and his boxers were somewhere in the vicinity of his knees. He wasn't entirely sure they would be serviceable after this. He wasn't entirely sure he'd ever want to put on underwear *again,* if they were even a brief impediment to Garth's tongue doing *that.*
Vague thoughts like "wait" and "bed" and "let me" tried but never made it into actual words. It'd been too long, it felt too *good,* and he was too busy making loud and incoherent noises in any case.
The seconds stretched into infinity before Dick came and half-fell, catching himself with his palms against Garth's back. Garth held him, arms strong around his waist until Dick got his breath back and tumbled them both to the floor.
One small benefit of Garth's being housebound for so long was that he'd dispensed with anything more than minimal clothing. Dick slipped his hand down past the tie of Garth's drawstring pants, too eager to wait. Both of them were clumsy with haste, but it hardly mattered; Dick had barely touched him before Garth groaned and shuddered and came in Dick's hand.
"Missed me too, huh," Dick quipped, grinning so Garth would recognize it as a joke.
"Like air," Garth answered, still shaking. His grip on Dick's body remained gentle but his eyes were wild.
Dick reached for the tattered remnant of his shirt to clean them off, took a few swipes at the most offending messy bits, then gave it up as a wasted effort and pitched the shirt toward the waste can. More interesting ways to clean up, after all. "Then let's get you breathing. On the bed."
Garth stripped off his remaining clothes with as much care as he'd paid to Dick's, then paused, speaking with over-deliberate enunciation. "He's gone for the evening. 'To celebrate his achievement,' he said."
There were too many things Dick could have replied to that, but he contented himself with a nod and the utter mental dismissal of Atlan's presence or lack thereof. He watched Garth lay down on the bed, stretching out and sliding a little against the sheet as if to remind himself what sprawling on a solid surface *felt* like. The motion made the fact that Dick was still on the floor and not with him even more wrong.
Dick got up and waited another moment until Garth had settled and then climbed over to stretch out on top of him, skin to skin, fully aligned. His fingers found Garth's and entwined, but he held his head up long enough to watch Garth's eyes and see some of the desperation in them drain away. Then he lowered his head so his lips were resting against Garth's mouth, not quite a kiss. They lay that way for a full minute, breathing each other's breath, until Dick said softly, "You're really all right?"
He felt more than heard Garth's nearly silent exhalation, an amused sound too quiet to be called a laugh. "Really yes," he said, his body under Dick's confirming the words, "but perhaps you'd like to investigate for yourself."
"My precise intention," Dick said, and set about doing exactly that.
He began with a kiss, which Garth returned with interest, and then started to work his way down, rediscovering what he'd missed the past several weeks. He'd wanted to go slow but Garth shifted and reached into the bedside table and slapped the bottle of lube firmly into Dick's hand. He glanced up to catch the look in Garth's eyes, direct and intense.
No chance or even desire to resist so imperative an invitation. Dick braced on his knees and squirted lube into his palm without breaking eye contact with Garth. He touched himself, folding his hand around the base of his cock and sliding it firmly to the head, lube slicking up one side. The skin at the head tingled under the hard callus of his palm and he twisted his hand around for the downstroke.
Good enough, he decided, uninterested in touching himself. He added more lube to his fingers and leaned forward, dropping the lube into the bedclothes and bracing himself on that hand. "Lift up," he rasped, reaching between Garth's legs. Garth was already lifting his thighs--less muscled than they should be, Dick tried not to notice--and Dick's fingers sank easily into the dry warmth of Garth's opening.
Garth broke eye contact first, dropping his head back to the mattress and groaning in unqualified abandon. The sound thrummed through Dick, who was used to his lover's quieter and more restrained reactions. He finished quickly with his fingers, sacrificing a sheet to clean them hastily, and then moved between Garth's legs and into his body.
Garth bowed beneath him, arching from shoulders to waist, even as he lifted his head from the pillow.
"Robbie," he whispered hoarsely. "Dick."
"Right. Here," Dick gasped, punctuating his words with deep, sharp thrusts.
Garth reached blindly for him and Dick grabbed his wrist in a trapeze artist's catch. Garth mirrored Dick's grip, locking their arms together. Dick held Garth's thigh tightly against his side with his other hand and felt Garth hook his ankles together at the small of Dick's back.
Dick felt a droplet of sweat trickle down the nape of his neck and between his shoulder blades. He arched his hips forward, pushing as deeply into Garth as he could bend his body.
One word and Dick saw it on Garth's lips more than heard it over the sounds of their skin together and his own faint grunts of exertion. He ducked his head and doubled his efforts, increasing both speed and force, using his grip on Garth's arm to strengthen the push-and-pull of his movements. The rhythm built until he finally glanced up through damp strands of hair and saw Garth's eyes shining at him. His muscles clenched and he managed to drag his arm away and find Garth's cock with his hand before he came in a dizzy rush. When he finally shuddered back to reality, covered in sweat, he realized that his hand was wet as well.
"Garth--" he managed, wiping his hand on the sheets next to him. He shook his head in lieu of finishing his half-formed thought and withdrew from Garth's body carefully. It was short work to drag himself up the bed and collapse onto the pillow.
He glanced over and finally realized that Garth's face was wet with tears.
Garth didn't cry. At least, Garth never cried that Dick could remember. Dick had been on Tamaran when Tula died, and by the time he'd gotten back Garth had...well. Truth be told Dick hadn't even *seen* him for months after that, not until the Wildebeest disaster and Garth had ended up comatose in a STAR tank. The memory was too unpleasantly reminiscent of their recent situation and if he never, ever had to see that *again*--
He reached out and pulled Garth closer. "Shh," he murmured, and "it's okay," and other similarly useless expressions while Garth shook against him.
Garth's words followed slowly, broken and hesitant. "I was...so afraid that I'd have to leave." Garth breathed in as if still not believing that he could. "That we'd never find a way to be together."
"Hey," Dick said, going for humor now that he could speak of it in past tense, "never happen. They're doing fabulous things with scuba gear, you know, not very sexy but for you I would've made the sacrifice."
Garth made a strangled noise, half laugh and half sob. "I couldn't...let myself think about it."
"We'd have found a way. I swore I wasn't going to let you go, remember? Don't think for a second I didn't mean it, even if I had to follow you to Atlantis and live in a goddamn bubble."
"You couldn't." There was no disputing the solemn truth in Garth's eyes and his words. "I know you mean what you're saying, but that would kill you. And it would give me no joy, even to have you with me, to watch you die by inches. No more than I could have lived in whatever...*aquarium* we built here."
"Don't," Dick said quietly. "Stop. All this is telling me is that neither of us can keep taking your magic for granted. I know I have, and from what Atlan said you have too. If that's really the only thing that makes *us* possible...." he smiled lopsidedly. "Then we *both* have to do whatever it takes to keep it strong. If--if that means you need to go study with Atlan, or whatever--"
"Time," Garth said with decisiveness that meant he'd been prepared for the question. "It's going to take more time than anything. I can't...simply cast the spell and go on as before. " He sighed slightly. "I'll need to meditate while you're on patrol. I'll start doing my work in the pool when you're not home. I'll swim up to New York, rather than take the train. I've been living like a landsman, when I'm...not. And I probably *will* need to study more, because Atlan very pointedly reminded me that magic is not a static state and I shouldn't expect it to work precisely the same with every casting."
He'd clearly had plenty of time to think about the necessary changes. Dick filed them away for later contemplation, choosing to comment only on the last detail. "You want to wave your hands around more often," he said with studied casualness, "it's all right with me."
"You-- oh, Pallais, Robbie." Garth's eyes were wet again, but this time Dick knew it was as much relief as anything. "I'll show you all the hand-waving you want."
"One more thing." He hated to mention it, but didn't want to leave the thought to fester unsaid. "Something like this *does* start to happen again? You tell me. Right away."
"Yes." No argument, just a simple word as good as a vow.
"All right." He saw that Garth's eyelids were beginning to droop and reminded himself that whatever changes they needed to begin making, began now. "Do you need to go back to the pool?"
He watched as Garth started to say no by reflex, then obviously and deliberately make himself stop and consider. "I feel all right. But I'll shower just in case."
"You can wash my back," Dick grinned, "and my front, since you got me all sticky."
"It's a good look for you," Garth said, his eyes glimmering with promise. "And tomorrow...."
"And the next day, and the next," Dick pledged, and held out his hand.
Showering took longer than strictly necessary, since neither of them was ready to stop touching each other. But eventually it was enough that they ended up back in bed, finally sleeping coiled around each other, the way they'd both been missing for weeks.