It proved remarkably simple for the mysterious Oracle to lure him to the killing ground with promises of information. Dick was right about the bait, too. Dick made splashy appearances all over Gotham wriggling splendidly on the end of that hook like a fat, juicy worm. Jean-Paul was really angry, if the battered perps he left in his wake were any clue.
So when Oracle sent out feelers concerning information on the whereabouts of the suddenly missing Nighwing, Azrael bit like a hungry shark. He might be suspicious of the timing, but the opportunity was too good to pass up. So there he was, skulking his way into the dockside warehouse waiting to receive him.
"Hello, Jean-Paul." Dick's ominous voice echoed eerily off the walls of the huge building; it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at all in the same breath. The throat mike we installed in the cowl, then hooked into the warehouse's old intercom system was working just fine. Satisfied, I decided to test the vid. With a touch of my hand, I tested the visual pick up from my minicams we'd carefully installed, scattering them throughout the warehouse. Clear as a bell. I smiled in relief. I was plugged into to all the action. In a very real sense I was right there with Dick. As I should have been in reality.
"Welcome to Hell, Angel-man."
Watching carefully, I pressed several buttons and sealed all the perimeter locks on Dick's prearranged signal. I almost found myself smiling. One thing that Dick Grayson has never lost whether as Robin or as Nightwing, is his flair for the dramatic. In any case, Jean-Paul Valley wasn't leaving this warehouse anytime soon.
"All secure," I assured Dick. Aren't microchips and miniaturized electronics wonderful? It's amazing what they've done for the science of communication. On the floor of the warehouse, Dick smiled and nodded imperceptibly at my voice in his ear.
"You'll like our little playground here, pal. Party time!" He chuckled and the sound echoed like thunder from the walls. "Play nice now, this place cost me a fortune. Fortunately, I *have* a fortune. You saw to that."
"He was a blasphemer and a devil," said Valley. "He had to be dealt with. Can't you understand that? I have no quarrel with you."
For a moment, I almost felt pity for Jean-Paul Valley. After all, he wasn't really responsible, was he? Twisted by his creators and their cruel "System" and then driven to madness by the weight of the Mantle Of The Bat, he was almost tragic. I set my teeth. Tragic he might be, but whatever else he was, Jean-Paul Valley was a murderer. And very, very dangerous.
Through the remotes installed in the costume, I heard Dick's steady breathing, the regular beat of his heart. It was remarkable. Not once did his heartbeat exceeded fifty-two beats a minute, quite normal for an active athlete of Dick's caliber. He was cold as ice.
"You're a one talent man, Frenchman," he told Valley. "And one sick puppy. But that's all right. There isn't a damned thing wrong with you that I can't cure. With my hands." At my terminal I shifted uneasily and bit my lip. Like a ghost, Dick stepped from the shadows behind Valley.
"Lets rock and roll!" he called. His opponent spun to face him. Jean-Paul's foot slipped for an instant in an ancient grease stain on the concrete floor. In a flash of lightning I saw another, slimmer foot slip on wet stone, pulled inexorably toward a great precipice. My arms felt like leaden weights as memories stirred. As swiftly as it came, the lightning vanished and I watched, shaken, as Valley righted himself.
Jean Paul's eyes narrowed dangerously when he saw the costume.
"There is only one true Batman," Valley declared. "And it isn't *you*. The Avenging Angel is going to send you to the furthest depths of Hell where you belong." From his gauntlet the flaming ionic sword that named him Azrael sprang to hellish life.
"You *first*," snarled Dick.
Almost faster than the eye could follow, twin batarangs flew from Dick's hand and buried themselves in the delicate circuitry of Valley's wrist gauntlets. The Sword of Azrael flickered and died.
"Psycho little boys shouldn't play with nasty toys," Dick opined, taunting Valley.
Silently, Dick's larger opponent removed the batarangs and crushed them in his hand. He was angry, it was easy to see that in the straining cords of his neck and the straight stiffness of his back. But he hadn't yet lost control of his temper as Dick intended.
"Don't ever go into a fight mad, Babs," Dick once advised me. "You'll lose. Angry people do dumb things." Jean-Paul Valley might be crazy, but apparently, he wasn't stupid. I began to be very afraid. Valley lashed out at Dick with his longest weapon, his leg, but his target wasn't there.
Dick dodged, rolled and landed on his feet. Absently, he spread The Batman's cape and smiled.
"Don't like my new suit?" he asked.
For his answer Valley's lips thinned in anger.
"Come and take it off me, then," Dick invited.
With a tiny, quick movement of one hand he gestured Valley forward. With the touch of another button on my terminal, from the overhead intercom speakers came the harsh sounds of music. A hard driving relentless beat, that rolled over the listener like a great pounding juggernaut. I paled.
"Name that tune in five notes," I thought giddy with fear. As far as I knew, it didn't have a name but I recognized it, all right. Dick spent hours writing and practicing it. But this was the first time I knew that it had *words*. And such words ...
"Like the song, Jean-Paul?" Dick asked. "I wrote it just for you."
Valley shook his head to clear it. I *think* that's what he was doing. Maybe not. At first I couldn't tell if he were listening or not. It wasn't until Jean-Paul clasped his hands over his ears to shut out the assault of musical fury that I had my answer.
He was listening all right.
Dick palmed something from his utility belt and tossed it on the floor in front of Valley. And the song continued its relentless assault on Azrael. In the seconds before my electronic cameras filtered out the brilliant flash of bright light, Dick disappeared.
With a small cry, Valley threw himself away from the explosion.
"Magnesium is a volatile element," remarked Dick. "Combine it with thermite and sudden exposure can cause blindness for up to three minutes. With the filters in your mask I figure you're good for about a minute."
Jean-Paul stood still, listening intently, searching for the source of that voice with his ears, now that his eyes were temporarily useless. I grinned and wished him luck against the echoes in the huge building and the omnidirectional intercom.
I know my business.
"He lied to us both, you know," Jean-Paul said quietly into the darkness where Dick had plunged him. From his shelter behind a support pillar, he listened for a reply. I saw Dick hesitate, frowning, and the tips of my fingers went numb. Damn, damn, damn!
[I *do* remember you] the song caroled in our ears.
"He lied to *me*," Jean-Paul continued, "about what he wanted. He told me he wanted me to punish the guilty. He told me that I was Batman and then he took that away from me. He lied to *you*, too. He made you love him. And then he didn't love you in return."
Dick seemed to be immobile; frozen into place by Jean-Paul's biting words like a deer caught in the headlights of an onrushing semi.
"Dick!" I cried, "For God's sake, move your butt! Move! Move! Move!"
And in the background the song played on.
[I set myself to hunt for you
Lithe as a gazelle, Dick leapt into the air, somersaulted backwards and landed lightly on the overhead catwalk, crouching low. With a small explosion of air, I began to breath again. Momentarily, a faint memory of the feel of the sleek, iron muscles of those legs beneath my hands, stirred. Resolutely, I pushed it away. Two of Azrael's metal darts whizzed by Dicks ear.
Dick leapt again, dodging low to the ground of the catwalk, now. His hand shot out to catch himself as he swung up to the exit platform. Skilled fingers grasped for the crossbar and closed around it tightly. Another lightening flash of memory struck me blindside.
Swift as the lightning itself, I saw that familiar gauntleted hand streak out and close itself around another, larger, darker gauntleted hand. Pain shot through my shoulder and I let go of my terminal and cried out. For a moment I could have sworn my foot slipped on slick wet stone. Then slipped again. Wind howled in my ears, but I still heard a voice that wasn't mine cry out, "Hang on, Bruce! I've got you, man, I've got you!" And then my foot slipped again, drawing me ever closer to the edge.
"You can't seem to hit the target," Dick chuckled. "C'mon, man! You've got to aim straight!" I snapped back to the present, barely giving myself time to wonder what was going on. Why was I remembering Raven's vision? Why? Was this what Dick had really seen?
With cat-like grace, Dick ran along the guard rail of the walkway, followed like a persistent hound by Azrael's darts. Wood splintered and metal sparked as they tore great gouges in the walls and the iron of Dick's temporary refuge.
When Dick darted passed one of my concealed videocams, I cursed under my breath, then watched it crackle and die, stuck by an errant dart. One of my screens flickered, dimmed, then went blank and I reminded myself firmly that I had others. But I hate being cut off like that. It makes me feel ... well, helpless.
In awe, I looked on as Dick tucked himself into a tight little ball and launched himself between one step and another at Jean-Paul below. Valley is probably stronger than Dick, but *no one* human that I know of is faster.
Dick slammed into Azrael's midriff like a highballing freight train and the two of them went crashing into a packing crate. Jean-Paul's armor absorbed most of the force of the impact, I think, but the momentum was another matter.
Dick surged to his feet and kicked the still prone Jean-Paul Valley directly in the left temple, snapping his head back smartly. . Then, like a wraith, he melted into the shadows.
"Pitiful," was Dick's opinion, "really pitiful. You're no fun at all. Bruce taught you better than this. C'mon, pal! Concentrate. Focus."
Valley towered to his feet, moving cautiously, searching for his enemy.
"He taught me well," he gasped, his breath coming in thin shallow pants now, like a winded predator brought to bay. "And you also. We have a lot in common."
"We have *nothing* in common!" At my console, my fingers froze and then fairly flew over the keys.
"Center on my voice, Dick," I whispered in his ear, "Concentrate on me. Don't listen to him."
"He saw himself in me," Valley persisted. "That's why he chose me. Because, like him, I am driven. He thought he could use that. Lies. It was all lies. We shouldn't be fighting like this. We are brothers, Richard Grayson."
With mounting panic, I heard the harsh rasping of Dick's breath, saw the quick raise and fall of his chest. In the warehouse, miles distant and beyond my control, Jean-Paul Valley stepped calmly from the relative safety of his concealment and stood still, fully exposing himself.
"I loved him too," Jean-Paul murmured.
*Was* he lying? Or was he only telling the truth? Just a clever ploy to draw Dick out? Probably. Maybe. Christ, I don't know. But if it was, it worked like a charm.
This time even I was lost. All I could hear was the music ...
That damned music ...
On my monitors, Dick's heart rate shot up past one hundred sixty beats a minute, then plummeted like a stone as he conquered his anger. For an instant, but only an instant, I breathed easier. Thank God. Silence reigned in that huge warehouse. I swear I could hear the mice scurrying in the walls on their little rodent feet.
And then all my hopes were dashed when Dick landed, light as a bit of thistledown, and almost as silently, behind Jean-Paul. Before his feet even touched the concrete floor, though, a batarang whistled through the air and struck the whirling Valley, burying itself deep in the flesh of his hip. I saw blood seep through the armor. I pounded my console in fury and helpless frustration. But I was miles distant; I could only watch. Helpless as any other cripple.
"You don't kill someone you love," Dick said.
Feinting to the right, he leapt at Azrael from the left. But Jean-Paul was ready for him. The larger man, rolled, grabbed a passing leg and held on. Dick twisted from out of that vise-like grip, springing away with a parting kick to Valley's unarmored head. But it cost him. He landed hard with an explosion of departing breath. Azrael struggled to his feet and threw what had to be some of the last of those steel darts of his at Dick, wordless as a statue.
Reaching under the cape, Azrael's opponent pulled out his escrima sticks and knocked the speeding darts from the air, almost casually. He spun the sticks ambidextrously in his hands, smiling. He learned that smile from Bruce. It isn't true that The Batman never smiled. He did. But his smile was like the rest of him ... not something you ever wanted to see.
"I've got some new toys," Dick declared, "wanna play?" Valley's eyes narrowed, but he just stood there.
"You want a piece of me, *Avenging Angel*? Then come and take it!"
Dick tumbled his way to within striking distance of Valley, who was already in motion himself. With a sweep of those long legs, he brought the Frenchman crashing to the floor. Lashing out with his escrima sticks, he battered Jean-Paul ruthlessly about his face and his unarmored midriff.
From behind, Azrael kicked Dick in the back of the head with a free leg and gave a powerful heave. Dick went flying across the warehouse floor, smashing brutally into a support pillar. I gasped for breath and held onto my console for dear life as if it might save me from the scene on my monitors. Dick slowly regained his feet, wiping the blood from his nose and eyes.
With a flying leap, Azrael, the would be Batman, piled into his opponent and bore him back to the ground with his greater weight. Steely fingers began choking the life out of my one time partner. I'm not sure how I kept from screaming.
"You really don't understand, do you?" Jean-Paul marveled. The quiet, sick torment in his voice stabbed at me like one of his metal darts. "You think he choose me to replace him because he didn't think you were good enough. You're not, but that isn't why he picked me." Dick struggled beneath those crushing fingers, his body arching and straining. I doubt very much that he heard what Jean-Paul was saying. But I did.
"He picked me because he didn't want you to face Bane. He wouldn't risk your death. But *I* was expendable. He was a cold man. No, he didn't care about me. None of you ever cared about *me* And he thought he could use me. But he was wrong, wasn't he? I proved to him that he was wrong."
Desperate, Dick ripped off Valley's cowled hood, then brought his cupped hands violently together on each side of Azrael's head, over the ears. Jean-Paul screamed and loosened his grip involuntarily. That was all the opening Dick needed.
While Valley was still clutching his ears in pain, Dick doubled his fists and brought them to bear on his foes nose. The sensitive electronics installed in the warehouse and in Dicks costume brought me the sickening sound of splintering bone.
By this time, I was was almost sobbing. Whether with relief or despair, I wasn't sure. That last was meant to be a killing blow, I realized. Only a miracle or an inappropriate angle kept it from accomplishing its job. Oh God. Dick, you promised! We were supposed to stop him; not kill him. You promised! I was helpless. Always so damned *helpless*.
Temporarily or perhaps even permanently deafened, Jean-Paul Valley didn't hear Dick shout, "Liar!"
My monitors brought me a close up of Jean-Pauls face and I saw his eyes. The certainty of death lived there. Certainty and ... acceptance. And I found myself staring down into Bruce's smoky blue eyes mirroring that same acceptance.
"Let go, Dick," Bruce said. "You have to let go."
And there came the now familiar sensation of slipping feet, grasping for better purchase. And finding nothing. With dizzying swiftness, I was looking out of Dick's desperate eyes as Bruce's greater weight pulled Dick's upper body over the precipice. His feet were scrambling for something that wasn't there and his arms and shoulders were afire with pain.
"Let go, Dick," came that deep, insistent voice again, utterly calm and certain. "You have to let go."
Dick kicked at the writhing Azrael, but Jean-Paul must have seen the blow coming. He deflected the strike, grabbed Dick's ankle and twisted. Again, I heard the snap of breaking bone. Dick's sharp cry of agony tore a great gaping hole in my heart, making it hard for me to think. Somehow I had to stop this. I *had* to. Reaching for the keys on my console, I activated my private commlink to Dick.
"Dick, you can't do this!" I hissed at him. "Listen to me! Don't drag yourself down to his level. If you do this, then he's won. He needs help, not a judge, jury and executioner!" I was babbling.
Dick shook his head and ignored me. With his good leg, he sprang at Valley. Over and over they rolled on the filthy floor of that carefully prepared warehouse, first one then the other ascendant. Locked in a death grip they battered at each other, pounding and tearing at one another until I thought that one or the other of them would literally beat the other to death. I didn't dare speak to Dick again. Any distraction now might be fatal for him. I chewed my lips to bloody ribbons and didn't even notice.
"Dick, stop it! You're killing him!" I wailed.
"Yeah," he breathed, "I *am* ... "
And Valley's head bounced off the concrete again.
Frantic, I called in as soft a voice as I could mange in my fear, "Bruce wouldn't want you to do this, Dick! Don't lie to yourself and tell yourself that you're doing it for *him*, my friend. This is for you and no one else. Bruce died saving your life, Dick."
Against my will my voice grew steadily more shrill.
"You had firm hold of him.alright; but you didn't have an anchor and you were slipping. Weren't you? Don't let your guilt eat you alive the way it did Bruce. It wasn't your fault! Anymore than it was Bruce's fault that he survived his parent's deaths! *He* let go of *you*! He was the one who let go."
Around Valley's throat, Dick's hands loosened and began to shake. He closed his eyes to shut me out, but I wouldn't let him. It was all falling into place, now.
"Remember. Remember the vision I have given you this night," said Raven's soothing voice. "Remember ... "
"He didn't want to take you with him when he fell. He let go of you because he refused to let you die, too. And if you kill Jean-Paul you *will* die. On the inside where it counts. Damn you, if you kill Dick Grayson, I'll never forgive you! Never! Bruce will have died for NOTHING! You always thought that Bruce wanted you to be like him. But he didn't. He wanted you to be *better* than he was. The whole complete person he could never be. Is this how you want him to remember you? *IS* it?"
Silence was my only companion in my terror for the longest time.
"Answer me, Dick!" I cried. "Answer me!"
Dick thrust his hands deep into his armpits, as if he didn't trust them to be free and unencumbered; he began rocking back and forth straddling the fallen, unconscious and bleeding Valley. His teeth gritted and the muscles of his neck danced and trembled with the effort of so much restraint.
"Sing!" his voice shook. His body swayed as if in the teeth of a strong, punishing wind.
"Sing!" he pleaded.
Sing? What in the name of God was he talking ab--
Then it hit me. In the background I could still hear the furious strains of the song Dick had written for Valley, playing endlessly like a howling storm.
[I know what dreams you've harbored
Hello. Hello. Hello.]
With an oath, I pounded my terminal with my fist and strangled that cold, angry voice in mid note. But what to replace it with? Like a man suffering a deep, mortal wound, Dick clutched his shaking body and rocked, back and forth, back and forth. Waiting.
And then I remembered how Bruce had taught Dick French when he first came to Wayne Manor as a lost and lonely nine years old boy grieving for his parents. Dick was the one who taught me the song when I was his baby sitter so I had no trouble remembering it. It was his lullaby.
With no trouble at all, I could hear Bruce's deep baritone voice fumbling over the words. Well, I can't sing as well as Alfred, who trained for it, or even as well as Bruce who loved that little boy more than he loved his life, but I loved Dick, too, and I *did* know the tune. I was praying harder than I ever prayed before when I began to gently sing, pouring out my love in a throaty, inadequate voice.
After the first few words, Dick began to sing along with me, choking, mangling the words and the tune, but not the love at the heart of them. I sang on, crying now myself. Me, who never cried for Bruce when Dick did. Me, who knew, at last, how I felt about Bruce.
Standing tall, Dick limped rapidly away from Jean-Paul until he found a packing crate and leaned his back against it for support. His escrima sticks dropped to the concrete floor with a loud clatter from suddenly nerveless fingers. Silently, he slid slowly down the length of the large, rough wooden crate until he was sitting on the floor in the dust and grime. He pillowed his head on his arms, resting on his tightly drawn knees, as if its weight were suddenly too heavy a burden to bear.
"Dick?" I said, uncertainty making my voice unsteady. My heart clenched when there was no answer for many long minutes.
He looked up at me, then, with clear, sapphire blue eyes that were sad but no longer haunted. No longer in great pain.
He looked at me with Dick Grayson's eyes.
"Call an ambulance, Babs," he said. "And the Police."
Joyously, I obeyed.