A few things:
Immolation: the process of sacrificing, especially by fire.
The song Signs by Bloc Party was the inspiration for this fic and I seriously, seriously want you to listen to it when reading. The song is as important as a scene in the actual story and I listened to it 52 times while writing this so obviously I think it important.
The Aftermath of Immolation
"It was so like you to visit me to let me know you were okay.
It was so like you to visit me. Always worried about someone else."
July 7th, 2016
9:38 PM EST
Going through the motions, he finds, is easier the third time around. It's easier to pretend he's holding up okay after he's gone through the death of his parents and handled the death of his brother. It's just his best friend this time around, no one of blood relation. How hard could it be?
The truth is, it's crippling, and he's not sure he can hold up much longer. He spends his days casually attending the classes he'd skipped for months (the whispered conversations of students who are so surprised that Bruce Wayne's son finally showed up to class aren't lost on him), feigning interest in learning. He tries to take up new hobbies and pick up old ones, but instead he finds himself dragging through the days.
He tries to reassure everyone; reassure Babs and Tim and Bruce and Kaldur that he's okay, but he knows it's useless. They know him too well and while others might think that he genuinely just needs a break, he knows they know it's a little bit more than that. He has difficulty talking to anyone, but to them especially, sometimes; the weight of the grief and the guilt pressing down on his lungs, suffocating him.
He still hasn't seen Artemis since the funeral and he has no idea when he will be ready to see her again. He doesn't know if he ever will be because he still doesn't know if this is his fault or not.
So many things were his fault. He wouldn't be surprised if it turned out this one was, too.
He comes home one evening to find Barbara in his bed, her shoes by the door, her purse on his couch. It's a far from an unusual sight; in fact, she's there more often than she's not these days. Death has a way of making you want to cling to what you have left, and he would be lying if he said he hadn't been clinging to Babs so tightly that he left bruises on her flesh. He'd be lying if he said that there weren't half moons in his skin from where her nails dug in.
Death has a way of making you be afraid of losing everything.
So he finds her, the pale orange sunlight peeking in through the curtains of his bedroom, sitting up in his bed and rubbing a knot in her shoulder. He feels guilty that she has essentially stepped into his role on the team as he never wanted this for her. Never wanted this for anyone, but especially not for her. She seems to be coping better than he did; she's a natural leader, of course, but she's still a little more tired than she used to be. Seeing the exhaustion underneath her eyes makes his stomach lurch most days and sometimes, it breaks his heart.
"Hey," she greets him, still working at the knot in her shoulder. "I'm sorry to just…show up, but I'm exhausted and your apartment was closer."
Dick smiles at that slightly. "You zeta-ed from the Watchtower," he says, seeing the red blush rush up her skin. "Nowhere is closer than anywhere else."
She rolls her eyes. "So, you caught me. I missed you and I wanted to see you. I'm your girlfriend; sue me."
Pulling off his jacket, he tosses it on the chair. "Exactly," he says, sliding on the bed next to her. He's come from the gym, still decked out in sweats and a t-shirt. "You're my girlfriend. You don't need to make up excuses for why you're here. I want you here. I've always wanted you here. You know that."
Barbara smiles at him, a genuine warm smile, and rises up on her knees so that they're eye level. "I do know that," she says, bringing her lips to his. "I just like being reminded."
"I missed you," he says against her lips. "Even though I saw you this morning."
"I missed you, too," she says, kissing him deeply. "Even though I just saw you this morning."
They settle into bed next to each other and he clutches her against him, her body a shadow against his. She fits perfectly into his frame and he thinks about how lucky he is that after years of playing cat and mouse, they're finally together. He thinks about how much that frightens him.
Barbara is one of the strongest people he knows. One of the few people he knows can handle anything. There was a reason he had said she was ready to take his role on the team while he got his life back together and it had nothing to do with her being his girlfriend. It had everything to do with her and how she was exceptional at everything she did, and that included being a better leader than he could ever hope to be.
But despite this, despite knowing that she could handle herself against almost any situation, every time he's out of her presence, he worries about losing her. It's hard not to, after Wally, after everything that's happened. He worries about hearing dreaded words. He worries about making a memorial for her along his brother and his best friend.
The thought is paralyzing.
"Don't leave me," he whispers against her skin, and he feels her tense. "I'm so terrified of waking up and you being gone. Please don't leave me. Please."
"Never going to happen, Dick," she promises. "Never."
He believes her, if only because her words lull him to sleep.
He wakes with a start hours later. There's a rustling in the kitchen, and the warmth of the body beneath his palm and the strands of red hair tickling his nose tell him it's not his girlfriend. There's someone in his kitchen.
He tenses, thinking of the possibilities of who it might be. Bruce or Tim would never make that much noise, so there's no way it's either of them. Kaldur would never be as inconsiderate to show up in the middle of the night, unannounced. Whatever it was, no matter how pressing, he'd almost always wait until the morning. Conner or M'Gann weren't the types to show up in his kitchen unexpectedly and it had been years since Zatanna just dropped by.
He glances at the clock. 2:16 AM and there's someone in his kitchen and chances are, it's probably someone who wants him dead. Someone who's figured out his identity, found his home, and is here to end things. He's made his own enemies during his time in Bludhaven, and even more during his time on the team, so really it was inevitable.
He slides out of bed slowly, weighing the pros and cons of waking Babs. On one hand, if there's more than one of them, he could use the back up. But on the other, he thinks that it's best if he pretends that she's not here; if someone is here for him, he doesn't want to implicate her. He doesn't want anything to happen to her. His hands reach for his escrima sticks that he keeps underneath his bed and he feels his heart pound as his fingers close around them.
He makes his way to the kitchen slowly, slowly, slowly and then—
"Really, Dick?" comes a voice. "This is all you have in the fridge? And you have a live-in girlfriend, too. How in the world is this possible at this point?"
Standing there, illuminated by the light of his fridge, is Wally West, his best friend.
His best friend who is dead.
The escrima sticks clatter to the ground.
"W-Wally…?" he trails off. "W-what are you? Who...what's happening? I, fuck, I'm dreaming, aren't I? This is a fucking dream."
Wally quirks an eyebrow, his red hair messy and his smile crooked. He looks like he did everyday of his life. It's unsettling. "Uh, no," he says, chuckling slightly. "This is me, in your kitchen at nearly two thirty in the morning, wondering why you don't have any food."
"I…haven't been…grocery shopping," Dick says, stepping into the kitchen and slumping into the barstool by the counter. "Been…kind of busy."
Wally pokes his head back into the fridge, bustling around through the contents. "Oh yeah?" he asks, "with what exactly? You're on a leave from the team, so what else are you doing? Is it perhaps a smokin' hot redhead that you've been in love with, I don't know, most of your life?"
Dick feels his hands start to shake. Everything feels cold and warm all at once. Wally is standing in his apartment. Wally is pulling the peanut butter out from the fridge and unscrewing the lid. Is this happening? Is this not happening? "Um, yes. I mean no, I mean…" he swallows, watching as Wally finds the ingredients for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. "Wally, what is going on? You can't be here. This…this isn't real. You're…you're dead."
His best friend, standing in his kitchen, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, stops and looks at him. "What?" he laughs. "What are you talking about? I'm clearly not dead, Dick. I'm in your kitchen after all. Did you get a whiff of some Fear Gas again?"
"No!" Dick shakes his head. "No, you are. I was there. You died saving the world. You're a hero. A martyr. I was there."
Wally laughs again, taking a large bite of his sandwich. "No, dude, I didn't. I saved the world, that's for sure, because I'm awesome, but then we all went home and Artemis and I had great sex and then we all partied up for a few days. I never died. Jesus, how fucking dramatic would that have been?"
Dick squeezes his eyes shut. "But you did, Wally. You're dead and this is a dream. This isn't real."
"Dude, you're starting to scare me, man," Wally says mid-chew. "I'm not dead. You must have just had some crazy nightmare or something. Is Babs here? Should I wake her up?"
"No!" Dick says quickly once more. "No, don't wake her. She's…she's sleeping. She's…don't wake her. You're right, you're right. It must have…just been a dream."
It has to have been a dream. It has to. After all, Wally is here, standing in front of him, and he can feel the energy practically bouncing off of him. He's getting crumbs everywhere and chomping noisily and dead people don't do that. Ghosts don't do that. Nothing about Wally, nothing about this seems out of the ordinary. He still sees where he threw his jacket earlier, sees Babs shoes and purse lined up by the door. They must have come home from dinner or something and fallen asleep and that must have been when he had that ridiculous nightmare that Wally died.
That must have been it.
Wally frowns at him, concern dancing across his features. "Okay. If you're sure." He takes another bite of his sandwich. "So she really is a live-in, huh?"
Despite everything, the curiosity of being so convinced that Wally was dead when he clearly wasn't standing at the forefront of his current confusion, Dick finds himself grinning. "Not exactly. I mean, I don't think we're at that stage just yet. Maybe in a few months…or a year. I don't know."
"But you guys are official?" Wally says, polishing off his sandwich. He turns around to make another. "No more of this friends with benefits bullshit?"
Dick laughs. "Yeah, those days are long over. She finally said yes. She's finally my girlfriend."
"Dude!" Wally shouts, reaching out for a high five. Nervously, Dick meets him halfway and their hands slap together, the smack echoing in the quiet kitchen. He feels the flickers of pain shoot through his palm.
It's real. He's really here.
"You dog," Wally begins making another sandwich. "It's about fucking time. Artemis will be thrilled."
"Speaking of Artemis," Dick says, "Does she know that you're here in the middle of the night?"
Wally winces. "Probably. We had a bit of a spat and I decided to give her some time to cool off. Distance and all that."
"Ah," Dick says. "Got it. Wally, I—"
"Dick!" Comes Barbara's voice suddenly from the bedroom. "Dick!"
Waggling his eyebrows, Wally smirks at him. "That the girlfriend?"
Standing, Dick nods. "Yeah," he says, "I'll go get her. She'd probably want to say hi. Counsel you on your relationship problems."
"Dick!" comes Barbara's voice again. "Dick, sweetheart!"
"If she can tell me how to get out of this one with Artemis, she will be my favourite person in the world," Wally says, scarfing down another sandwich. "I—"
He wakes with a start and Barbara is hovering over him, her eyes wild and her face frightened. He blinks.
"Are you okay?" she asks, placing her hand on his cheek, running her fingers through his hair. "You were tossing and turning and shouting. I assume it was a nightmare?"
His blood ran cold. It had been a dream.
It had been a nightmare.
"I…" he sits up, his head spinning. "I…I don't know." He looks up at his girlfriend, at her pale face and messy red hair. He looks at the series of small bruises on her arm that he caused from holding her too tightly again. He feels sick, his skin clammy; his heart clattering in his chest as his stomach turns.
It was a dream.
"It's okay," Barbara says, pressing a kiss to his forehead, pulling his face to rest against her collarbone. "It's okay, sweetheart. It's okay."
"I…" he swallows, his tongue heavy. "Wally."
"It's okay, Dick," she pulls back and kisses him on the lips gently. She laces his fingers through his. "Let's go get some water and try to go back to bed."
They step into the kitchen, his head still spinning and he staggers behind her like he's drunk. She flicks on the light in the kitchen and that's when he sees it.
The jars of peanut butter and jelly, sitting on the counter.
He rushes to the bathroom and throws up.
July 8th, 2016
8:43 AM EST
Sunlight trickles in through the windows. The night had been long and Artemis had embraced it. She had gone to bed early and she had slept through her alarm. Sleep was her friend. Sleep was her comfort.
Sleep was quickly becoming her home.
Her eyes open slowly. It had been a dream. He was not there. When she opened her eyes, he disappeared.
"It's not real," she mutters. "He's not really there. You're just dreaming. It's not real. He's not real."
She rolls over and glances around her childhood bedroom. Living in Palo Alto without him wasn't possible, so she enlisted Zatanna, Barbara, and M'Gann and they packed up her apartment for her (she couldn't do it herself). They put the majority of their things in storage (like it was temporary; like they'd need them soon) and sent her clothes to her mother's place in Gotham, where she was going to stay until…
She was going to stay there for a while.
After everything she put her mother through and everything that had happened, there was nowhere else she would rather be.
And now she was sitting in her bedroom, dreaming about Wally West night after night after night. He was haunting her. That was the only explanation.
"You're not real," she whispers, "Wally would not haunt me. This isn't real."
But it had felt so real when he touched her. When they kissed. When he held her. When he was inside of her. When he laughed. All of it felt real; his touch, his taste, his smell, his warmth. The dream was so vivid. It was so real.
She closes her ears and she can hear him calling. The temptation is too strong.
"You're not real," she whispers once more, and drifts off to sleep.
"Hey, babe," she hears his voice, "you think if I attempted the cinnamon challenge at super speed, I could do it?"
She never wants to wake up again.
"I see signs now all the time that you're not dead, you're sleeping.
I believe in anything that brings you back home to me."
An important note but: I'm still working out what I want to do with this monster, but know that I am terrible with science and could never be a comic book writer cause I just...am no good at thinking of insanely creative ways to make mythical things happen so this fic will probably be bound in reality as much as I can. BUT I have intentions for this fic to end...as happily as it can, so. This weekend was hard, guys. Wasn't it hard?