"Dick!" he cried, "Dick, mon cher! You are speaking to an employed person! Systems Design Consultant for Intel Industries!" With a flourish, he produced an official looking document on heavy white letter headed paper. "Voila! I begin within the week!" When there came no immediate answer to his outcry, the youth looked around. "Dick, mon coeur?"
"In here, JP ... "
Ignoring the sadness his sharp ears told him resided in that hesitant voice, the young French hero leapt into the bedroom, brandishing his paper before him like a knightly banner streaming in the winds of victory.
Dick Graysons shut his eyes tightly against the sight of that sun bright smile; those clear sapphire blue eyes gone wide with wonder. His hands ached to cover his ears against the music in that softly accented voice but he forced himself to keep them firmly at his side.
And then Jean-Paul's eyes fell on the neatly packed duffle bag sitting on the bed beside his lover and Dick's stomach lurched to see the fear growing there like a noxious weed in a garden. Jean-Paul's eyes met Dick's and locked. Dick watched the muscles of the young Frenchman's face tighten and his broad shoulders tensed.
"Where are you going?" he inquired softly. Dick could not bring himself to meet those eyes. Not for the life of him could he meet those eyes. He studied the intricate weave of the carpet at his feet and cursed himself.
"JP," he began, "I - " But he got no further. Hands at his sides curling into fists, Jean-Paul Valley stepped quickly to the bedside where Dick sat.
"When - when will you be back, little cricket?" he asked in a voice that reeked of despair. Dick winced at the sound of Jean-Paul's favorite nickname for him.
"Don't look at his eyes," Dick told himself, "for God's sake don't look at his eyes. You'll never leave if you look at those eyes. This is for the best. For both of you." But despite his best intentions, he lost himself in those azure depths. The confusion and dread he found there stabbed at him viciously. But something else dwelt there as well. Something hard and sharp like the rocks waiting, lurking at the bottom of a tall cliff.
Was Brian right, he wondered? Was he running away again? Then where would he run this time? Who was left? When he was 16 and most frightened he'd run to Babs and then the Titans; hiding from himself ... and Bruce. And there he had met Garth for the first time. Garth. Fled into the friendship of the Titans friendship, forming bonds that had lasted even 'til now... Fled straight into Kory eventually. Kory whose love cradled him but in the end frightened him away at the first real travail. How many beds had he fled to or from? Did it even matter any more? For here was the end result. This man. Jean-Paul Valley. His current sanctuary.
"JP," he gulped, "I'm not coming back. I have to go. It's better this - "
"You are leaving?"
Dick's head snapped up and his eyes widened.
"Christ Jesus," he thought, dazed by the speed of the thing. "Even his voice is different; lower, deeper ... harder ... "
"Why would you want to leave?" demanded Azrael, the Avenging Angel.
Dick had never seen it happen quite like this before. Azrael had fought by his side only once in the few short weeks they had been together and his mask covered all of his face, of course. But, now, there was no concealing cloth to shield him from the sight of Azrael's arrival. Jean-Paul Valley, who loved him, was gone. In the end, there was only Azrael. He seemed taller than Jean-Paul. He stood straighter and his body shouted tension like a tightly coiled spring. And ... and ...
"He wears his face differently," Dick thought, absurdly. Gone were the rounded curves and gentle sloping plains of Jean-Paul Valley's face; replaced by the sharp angles and shadowed crevices of a harsher, tauter face. The face of Azrael. And the eyes ... Dear God, the eyes ...
"He deserves better from you," said Azrael.
"Yes, he does. That's why I have to leave. You understand that, don't you?" For a moment there was silence. When it was broken it was shattered completely.
"I understand many things, Dick Grayson," said the voice of Azrael, so different from Jean-Paul Valley's melodic baritone . "More than you know. I understand that he loves you. And I understand that you have used him terribly. Used me terribly." Dick did not deny it. When Azrael reached for him he didn't move; he simply sat there and waited.
"It's not Jean-Paul," he tried vainly to convince himself, "it's not Jean-Paul ... If you hurt him you won't be hurting JP, you won't, you won't ... But he did not believe it. And, besides, he was -
"Guilty," Azrael was saying, "you are guilty. And the guilty must be punished." Dick struggled to get away, then, but it was too late. Azrael was too strong. As he had always known he would be.
The world exploded in pain and he went flying across the small room like a feather on a howling storm wind. His head crashed into the legs of the writing desk in the corner of the room and he couldn't seem to breathe. Futilely, he tried to rise, pulling himself to his feet using the desk as a clumsy lever. Swift as striking lightning, he felt himself jerked to his feet. The face of Azrael was a double-edged blur, swimming before him like an ocean current. Azrael shook him like a rag doll and let him fall to the floor.
When he looked up again his vision was crystal clear and he found himself staring into great blue eyes gone wide with horror. "OH God," he thought. "Just look at this mess! Look at what I've done to him! And done to myself! I fled here because I didn't want to hurt him. Or myself. Because I was afraid. Because I didn't want any more harm to come to anyone. Or so I told myself. And I've done more harm here than I could ever have done elsewhere. Oh God!"
"D-Dick?" It was Jean-Pauls voice that ushered him gently back to reality.
"Azrael, you cowered," he thought, "why do you always leave JP to clean up your mess? Come back here, damn you. God, JP, I'm sorry ... so sorry ..."
"Pardonne moi!" Jean-Paul whispered and covered his face with his hands. But it was Azrael who reached out to jerk Dick to his feet.
Dick groaned and sat up, coughing bright red blood. He didn't even consider running away; not for an instant. What ever else Azrael was minded to do to him he deserved. But, strangely, Azrael offered him no more violence, lifted not so much as a finger in his direction. When the blond man lay hands on him he was gentle, almost tender. Cupping Dick's chin in one hand, the tall man stared down into Dick's dark blue eyes. Then he kissed him chastely on the forehead.
"You have a strong sting, little cricket," he said. "I should have remembered that."
Dick closed his eyes, trying not to think about how often Azrael might have done this. How many times had he killed? He drew in a quick breath as he felt himself pulled forward into almost impossibly strong arms. Resigned, he gazed up into smoldering blue eyes. He could feel the renewed trip hammer beat of his heart, sense the blood blazing through his veins.
"Sting me anytime you like," Azrael's rough voice urged. He entangled his long fingers in the long hair at the nape of Dick's neck and pulled back, harshly. "Jean-Paul isn't the only one you desired, is he? You want me," he rasped. "I know you do. I can see it your eyes, smell it on your skin." The kiss was bruising, punishing but Dick didn't struggle. Azrael's mouth still tasted faintly of blood. For a moment the Avenging Angel looked almost unsure.
"I've never seduced anyone before," he hissed, chest heaving. "I don't know how." His nostrils widened and he drew in a great shuddering breath. Slowly, he expelled it again. "Just don't make me wait too long," he advised, narrow eyed. "You won't like it if you do." He closed his eyes, almost as if in prayer and his fingers slowly loosened and released Dick.
When Jean-Paul Valley opened his eyes again Dick was gone. He moved on such silent, noiseless cat feet that the young Frenchman never even heard the door shut behind him. Bursting into tears, he sank slowly to the floor grasping his knees for comfort, rocking back and forth, murmuring, "Pardonne moi! Oh, pardonne moi!"
And that was how a horrified Brian Bryan found Jean-Paul Valley, hours later; covered in blood, scrubbing futilely at the still bright stains on their carpet, until his slender killing hands were raw and bloody, mingling his blood with Nightwing's; begging forgiveness from someone no longer there to grant it.
"Pardonne moi!" he wept. "Ah, Dieu! Pardonne moi!"
It was an old fashioned telephone booth; one of the enclosed kind with the sliding door for privacy. God only knew how old it was. Dick fumbled again in his pockets for money, wiping the blood from his eyes. Clark would love it, Dick thought crazily. Christ, if he could just think ... But his every breath brought him pain and despair. His chest was on fire.
"How may I help you, Sir?"
"I need ... I need to make a call. I'm afraid I don't have any change. Please ... could you make the call for me? I - have to talk to somebody - I ... " His voice trailed off weakly and he coughed violently. More blood. He gripped the cold metal of the phone for support.
"Sir?" came the cautious voice. "Sir? Are you all right?"
"Please," he whispered, "the call ..."
"I'm not supposed to," the hesitant voice returned. "I could lose my job ... " Dick closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against the cool glass sides of the booth.
"Ple- please ..."
"Sir? Are you sure you're all right? Maybe I should call a doctor or -"
The phone rang almost ten times before it was answered.
"Hello." The world spun topsy turvy, but Dick was flooded with relief at the sound of the deep, familiar voice.
"Dick! Where are you? Dick?"
" ... help me ... "
The phone slipped from now nerveless fingers and the last thing Dick Grayson heard before the darkness claimed him was the sound of deep, abiding fear in the voice on the other end of the line.
So much fear ...