He stumbled away, then, into the bathroom and the sounds of heaving and retching that emerged soon sent me fighting for my feet. But Babs got there before I did. On his knees, clutching the cold porcelain of the bowl, Jean-Paul Valley vomited again and again and again until he had nothing left to give. At his side, Babs kept his long blond hair, still spattered with bright red heart's blood, from that foulness, at least.
She laved his face with a cool cloth that came away the deep red color of the most precious ruby as he choked and gasped. Then she stroked his hair. And I couldn't even work up the wherewithal to be pissed.
"Not now, Jean-Paul," Babs insisted, as if it might, later, be permissible to shatter into a million broken pieces like fragile Waterford crystal. "You still have work to do, Father. Carlos is dead, I'm afraid... but you might still be able to help the others."
He staggered to his feet and closed his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he plunged forward, grabbing for the sink and anything else handy to steady himself as he made his shambling way way back into the central examining room.
Following him, Babs squeezed my hand. Her fingers were soft and dry and smooth and so perfect resting in mine that I wanted to cling to them forever. Fat chance of that.
"Are you all right, Jays?" she whispered. The concern in her voice warmed me in places I didn't remember that I had.
My hand was sweaty and clammy and cold. But it warmed up fast, sheltered in hers. I squeezed back. "I'll live," I said.
For the next couple of hours we were all kept busy. Watching Valley, it came to me that this was just another way of fighting for him. He was, I realized, still struggling, still battling an implacable foe. This time his weapons were blood plasma and antibiotics, bandages and bone splints, x-rays and painkillers. Babs and I fetched and carried as best we could. But if it hadn't been for Albert, the clinic's volunteer PA, who sure as Hell wandered into work at the right time, I'm not sure what we'd have done. God knows what Al thought. I was whipped, dead tired, but I kept on keeping on. So did Jean-Paul. Didn't this guy ever quit, I wondered? Wasn't there any 'time out' between bouts with Azrael, with the streets, with God, or whatever the fuck other demons he fought constantly?
I guess not.
I remembered Bruce, then. Hell of a thing, right? But suddenly I understood as never before exactly why Bruce had once chosen this guy to replace him. I handed The Angel another pint of O+ blood and stepped back. 'Do you like driven people, Bruce?' I asked The Batman, silently. 'Or do you just understand them really well? Jesus God. Is that what you saw in me? Did you take one look into my eyes when you caught me trying to boost the hubcaps off the motherhumpin' Batmobile and just know what you'd found? Did you?' My hands clenched themselves into hard fists.
'Well, you were wrong, damn you, wrong! I'm not like that! I'm not! I'm me ... Jason Todd. Sure, Draco's a part of me. A damned important part. But only one part. I've got a life outside the suit. When I'm under the hood of Gina's cranky, dying taxi, when I'm sitting on my favorite stool at Aunt Danny Fanny's Tyler Texas Pitt Bar-B-Que scarfing down Atomic Chili, when I'm baby sitting Gina's hellions ... I'm me. Who are you, Bruce? Who are you? Do you even know anymore?'
My eyes fell upon the struggling Jean-Paul Valley.
'And who the Hell is he?'
In the end, we lost all five of them to shock and blood loss. Christ, it was like trying to fill the ocean with a goddamned thimble. There weren't enough drugs, enough time, enough us to make a difference. One by one they died. Just like that. Poof. No more bangers. No more kids. No more mother's sons. Just five corpses, five dead bodies, now. Five times I heard Jean-Paul stammer his way through Extreme Unction and The Office For The Dead. "E tu absolvo ... " When the last of them slipped silently away Valley just stood there, sweat dripping off his forehead, still covered in blood, still clutching his scalpel with a white knuckled grip, his head bowed, staring at the floor like it was a holy relic or something. I had to look twice to make sure he was still breathing.
"Jean-Paul? You did your best, okay?" an exhausted Babs said. "We all did."
He didn't move a muscle. Not one.
"JP, dude?" Albert Strosser pushed his granny glasses further back on his aquiline nose. Albie still lives in the sixties. No one's had the heart to tell him yet that it's 2001. To him, that's just a far out film. You drop acid before you watch it. "Man, don't zone out on us like that. Creep City, brother."
Babs wheeled herself hastily to my side and touched my elbow to get my attention. "Jays? Do something for me, okay?" I nodded absently. Anything, Babs, anything. Swear to God. "I'll get some clean clothes," she said. "You take him into the shower and get him clean. Nice warm water, all right? He doesn't need any more shocks right now."
Trapped and trying hard not to look as pissed as I was, I lead him away wordlessly, docile as a child to the waiting shower.
"Cleanliness is next to Godliness," I muttered under my breath.
Shit, I even had to undress the bastard.
No, nothing happened. Get your mind outta that garbage can, ya perv, before I scrub it with a steel bristled brush, got me? You gotta mind like a sewer, you know that?
While Valley and I were in the shower, Babs took care of everything. I never did find out exactly what all she told the cops. I'm betting they didn't ask a lot of questions. I mean, this is The Corner, after all. Gang fights and dead bodies happen around here. A lot. Just another day in paradise.
Babs was waiting with a pair of pajamas when we were done. Yeah. JP actually sleeps in pajamas. Imagine that. I wasn't at all embarrassed when I undressed him by myself but I sure as Hell was red as a fucking beet when I dressed him again with Babs watching. She'd have grinned even bigger if she hadn't been so tired, I know she would have. Women are natural sadists, I tell ya.
Between the two of us we got him to bed. Watching Babs tuck him in like a little boy, I wrinkled my nose in unseen disgust and started peering around for a teddy bear to stuff under his chin. Christ on a Cruise missile what is it with some women and damaged people? Waaaay damaged in this case.
But ... you know what?
It was the damnedest thing. My jealousy meter didn't even twitch. Not once. I watched her fuss over him and brush the hair from his haunted eyes. I saw the compassion in her own eyes when she kissed his cheek and it didn't bother me at all. It took me a minute or two to figure out why, I'll admit. It's simple, really.
I wouldn't be Jean-Paul Valley if he were the last man standing on earth. Not for love nor money. Not for anything.
Not ... not even for Babs.
I hit the sack and was gone and out instantly. I don't even think my head actually hit the pillow first. I was one tired little dragon, let me tell you. I have no idea how long I slept. Not nearly damned long enough, though, I can tell you that. I was still groggy and aching in my bones when Babs' urgent voice woke me.
"Jays? Jays, get up. C'mon, up and at'em, kiddo. We've got to find Jean-Paul."
Turns out I slept away another half a day. So did Babs, I guess. Because when she woke up the small bed in the clinic's tiny apartment/kitchenette was empty. Jean-Paul Valley was nowhere to be found. She wanted to search the clinic again but I took her hand before she could roll grimly off. I thought I was beginning to get the hang of Jean-Paul Valley, now. Sorta, anyway. Just a little.
I shook my head. "No," I assured Oracle. "I know where he is."
Hey, I may not be Bruce (you couldn't pay me to be Bruce!) but, it didn't take a genius to figure this one out, okay? Babs would've thought of it herself if she hadn't been so damned distraught and still dead tired. Had to figure, right? Where else was a priest gonna go, I ask ya?
And I was right, too.
Father Doyle met us on the steps of St. Annunciata's looking like he'd just attended the Crucifixion personally. With what happened later, I guess maybe he had, in a way. The poor man tried to be cheerful and all pleasant and shit. He really did. Got to give him points for that at least. But it sure as Hell wasn't working. His eyes were wide and kinda wild looking around the edges.
"C-Can I help ye?"
I don't do the religious thing so it was Babs who answered, "We're looking for Father Valley. Have you seen him, by any chance?"
The guy turned white as a choir robe.
'Score one for the Gipper!' I thought in triumph. 'And the crowd goes wild!'
Oh, yeah. He'd seen him all right. Better believe it.
Without a word, he lead us through the quiet corridors of his aging Church until he came to a small chapel off the main lobby. St. Annuncie's is like most of the rest of the Corner; slowly decaying and waiting to die. If it weren't for some of the older people like Mama and Papa Beldacci, who scrubbed and cleaned, painted and polished, then built and repaired, the place would probably fall down tomorrow. Not too many young people at St. Annuncie's. The Church of The Streets usually got them first. Which reminded me in a sad way to worry about Gina's younger brother, Paolo. The priests who are assigned there by Monsignor Hardy, Bishop of Gotham City, are usually not in anybody's good graces. Fact is, St. Annuncie's is considered a "hardship" post. For which polite words read "punishment" post. Suddenly, I wondered just what Jean-Paul had done to end up here. Besides being Jean-Paul, that is.
Heh. As if that weren't enough.
Carefully cracking the door just barely enough to let the two of us see into the darkened room, Father Doyle stepped back, chewing on what was left of his fingernails.
And there was Jean-Paul Valley. On his knees, praying, with the flickering candlelight of the small room glinting off his long, disheveled blond hair like a softly glowing golden halo. He clutched the silver cross around his neck with white knuckled hands as if it might flee from him first chance it got. His lips moved, murmuring Latin prayers. Occasionally his broad shoulders shook as he drew a shuddering breath.
Son of a bitch.
I think Father Doyle heard my low curses, but if Babs heard them she didn't let on. The only thing in her world right now was the tortured figure of Jean-Paul Valley. Her green eyes grew wide as I watched. Father Doyle crossed himself with quick but stumbling fingers. A gesture he must've made about a zillion times a day and his goddamned hand shook so badly it almost wasn't recognizable.
"He's been like that since yesterday," the priest whispered. "I found him this morning when I came to Mass. He wasn't there. He's always at Mass. Have ye any idea what troubles the lad so?"
"It's a long story, Father," Babs said wearily.
Doyle shook his head and stared at Jean-Paul with concerned eyes. "Tisn't natural, I tell ye," he opined and crossed himself again. I had to agree. There was sure as fuck nothing *natural* about Azrael. I glanced at Babs. Swear I saw tears in her eyes and that was enough for me. I took a firm grip on my rising temper but I could still feel my lips begin to curl back from my teeth in anger. Ass hole made Babs cry. Sure, my eyes were stinging, too, but that was only from the candle light, got me? Or maybe a dust mote, okay? Not because I gave a damn, that was for fucking sure. Somebody had to do something, right? And it looked like it was up to me to save the stupid bastard from himself.
Grimly I stalked forward, intent on my rescue. To my surprise Babs grabbed my hand and pulled me to a halt.
"Let him alone, Jays," she said softly, squeezing my hand. "Let him alone."
"Babs, I don't think he needs to be alone right now," I countered, frowning. Shit. What the Hell did I care, anyway? Who the fuck appointed me Jean-Paul Valley's Keeper for Christ sake?
Babs studied Jean-Paul Valley's beatific face, shining in the votive candle light for a long moment.
"He's not alone, Jays," she said simply. "Don't worry."
I stirred uneasily and looked quickly away. "Yeah, I guess maybe you're right."
In silence, she wheeled herself away and I followed, muttering imprecations. My teeth set when I thought of Jean-Paul Valley. And hey, if maybe it took a little longer than usual to work up just the right degree of pissed and if those teeth weren't quite as tight clenched as times before, what of it, huh? My business, nobody else's.
'We've all got probs, Angel Man,' I thought sarcastically. 'So what makes yours so much worse than anybody else's, huh?' I glanced at Barbara Gordon, wheeling herself along at a steady clip. 'How'd you like them apples, bud?'
And just as suddenly as that, I knew that Jean-Paul Valley might switch places with Babs in a heartbeat. That he'd much rather be trapped in that chair than trapped where he was; as what he was. After all, from that chair there was only so much damage that Azrael could do, right? It also occurred to me that a handicapped Jean-Paul could fill Oracle's shoes handily. Babs has a lot of respect for the guy's talents with a computer keyboard and she should know.
Babs flying across the rooftops of Gotham again, laughing and free. Oh yeah. In a heartbeat, baby. A heartbeat.
Savagely, I pushed the thought aside, then stomped on the quivering remains.
Valley used God like a crutch, limping along with his hands folded, crawling on his knees toward Salvation. Or whatever the fuck he was looking for, anyway. I decided if I were God I'd think seriously about cutting those apron strings. Let the son of a bitch stand on his own two feet for once like the rest of us. See how well he liked it.
It was a real struggle for Babs and I both to get her up those stairs at the clinic. She wouldn't let me pick her up and carry her the way The Angel had. My back and ribs were really grateful for that but the rest of me was pretty pissed, I've gotta admit. Sure, her independence is important to Babs. Christ, I can get behind that for real. But how did Valley rate so much, huh?
The strain on her face tore at me as I watched her grimly wrestle with that chair and her own inert body. Kinda like Jean-Paul, actually, I realized suddenly. Always fighting something; struggling to overcome. No wonder she sympathized so with The Angel. She must understand a lot about battling constantly the way he's forced to.
'Yeah, Babs,' I thought with a strange sadness, 'we've all got our crutches, don't we?' The thought thrummed through me that Babs' cherished independence was her crutch. She used it all the time to fend people off, to turn them away. It was so much safer that way, wasn't it? 'You just pity me and I don't want your pity so go away!' No messy romantic relationships to worry about there. No "significant other" to fuck up the smooth course of an orderly life. Simple and logical as one of her computer programs.
And just about as empty of joy, too.
If it weren't for her independence, she might be with Dick. I faced that a long time ago. It doesn't bother me anymore, honest to God. I used to wonder sometimes if Dick and Garth would ever have gotten together if things had been different ... if Babs had been willing ... And then I realized that it didn't matter one way or the other. Not where it counted.
All right, I'm an idiot, okay? We all know this. Fuck you. I should've been back home two days ago kicking the tires on Gina's ratty, rattling taxi, preying on the lady customers who liked their men a little rough looking around the edges, and guzzling beer with Barry. But, Hell no. Where was I? Sitting in this goddamned clinic like an ass waiting for Jean-Paul Valley to finish wrestling with Jehovah. For two days I waited. Waited until I was about ready to suit up and pay St.Annucie's an unannounced night time visit. Close encounters of the Draco kind. What the Hell was he doing in there, anyway? Shit.
Except I was pretty sure that I knew exactly what he was doing in there. I'd bet my life that he was still on his knees, still praying. Like a fresh coat of gleaming white paint slapped on a ramshackle, tumbled down house to disguise the rot beneath from prying eyes.
Babs collected her laptop. "Jays," she husked, "I've got to go. Tim can't handle Oracle all alone for much longer, okay? I'm sorry." She ran her fingers nervously through her flaming locks. "Damn! I feel like the rats deserting a sinking ship, here."
What could I say? I sure as Hell didn't want her to leave.
But she did.
I had to call Barry again, but he was cool with taking care of business at the garage until I got back. Whenever that turned out to be. A great guy, Barry. I don't deserve friends like that. But, then, does anybody, I wonder? Gina dropped by a couple of times so that was fantastic. She and Albie and I stuffed ourselves on Mama Beldacci's pasta until we groaned under the assault. Hell, we even got pizza out of the deal. From Mama, again. And I'm talking the real deal here: deep dish Italian pizza pie; none of this skanky American squeeze. Aunt Danny Fanny personally dropped by to ply us with ribs and Atomic Chili. And to "pester" me, naturally, about being more careful. We shared some beer and some bad jokes and I lost twenty bucks on the Knights. Monday Night Football sure is better when you share it with good friends, isn't it? It was like Grand Central Station. Dick and Garth and Tim. Hail, hail, the gang's all here.
Bruce even came by but that's a story for another time.
On the third day, I woke up to the sight of Jean-Paul Valley sitting by my bed. Rubbing my eyes hard and shaking my head to clear it of the morning fog, I regarded him closely. Pale and shaken, he gazed back at me with tired eyes. Not surprising, I guess. Unless I was very much mistaken, he hadn't slept in about three days.
"I am sorry," he began without preamble. Neither of us paused to ask what he was sorry about. We knew. "Has Albert been taking care of you?"
I nodded. "Al is aces," I assured him and watched him settle back into the uncomfortable chair with a small sigh, closing his eyes. He looked whipped, defeated, like a boxer about ready to toss in the towel. I bit my lip. Well, what the Hell was I supposed to do, anyway? He'd either get through this or - or he ... wouldn't. Not my prob. At the moment, I wasn't taking any bets either way. I was already long overdue to go home and start living my life again damnittohell. I've got one of those, you know. A life, I mean. Surprised the fuck outta me, all right.
Screw Jean-Paul Valley.
'Freudian,' whispered Dick and I sat on him.
If the son of a bitch couldn't pick himself up and truck on, deal with this, then it wasn't my goddamned fault. No way! If he wanted to spend the rest of his life on his knees sobbing and puling like some weak-sister, that was his look out, not mine. I had about decided to pack up my torn and bloodstained long underwear and leave him to wallow in his own misery. In fact, I was examining my costume, trying to decide if the damned thing could be repaired or was a total washhout destined for the ragbag, polishing chrome and removing grease, when I heard her voice.
When she stepped into the room I frowned. Young. Very young. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. Yeah. Sixteen going on fifty if her eyes were any clue and I thought they might be. And almost painfully thin. She was kinda pretty, I'll admit, with long black hair and deep, dark eyes that shone in the low light. It was weird. I'd never seen a black girl wearing a 'fro before except in pictures. On her it looked dy-no-mite, though. My frown deepened. Yeah, she was really pretty; but around here that can be a curse, you know? Gina was really pretty once. And look what it got her: Louis Brown, two kids and twice that many scars. Hell, I think she's still pretty, okay? But, then, I'm prejudiced.
I balled the costume up before she could see it and stuffed it into a plastic bag that was gonna serve as a suitcase. Then I made myself scarce. Valley stirred and looked up at her.
Her frown was deep. "My name Contessa, Father," she insisted.
Jean-Paul smiled. It was kinda wan and way too brief, but it was a smile. "To me," he said softly, "your name will always be N'juma."
She dismissed it with a wave of her bracleted hand. The bangles on her wrists tinkled merrily. "'Contessa' mean some kinda noble lady, Father. It's Eye-tal-yun or somethin'. I'd rather be some Eye-tal-yun blue blood than have some stupid African name, anyways."
I didn't have a Hell of a lot to pack, so I sat down in a chair. I tried not to listen, honest to Christ. But it didn't work. Valley looked sad.
"It's a lovely name," the Angel told her. "Like you. I looked it up. In Swahili it means, 'abounding in joy'."
Like a deflated balloon she sank into a nearby chair and covered her face with her hands. "Ain't got too much of that left, Father," she wept. The tears leaked between her fingers, rolling their salty way down her forearms, leaving bright trails to mark their passage.
Jean-Paul Valley closed his eyes again. He released a ragged breath, running his hands through his thick hair. From my hidden vantage point I could almost see him pull the shattered pieces of himself together. I gulped and tasted blood where I bit my tongue to remain silent. On cat feet he padded to N'juma's side and knelt down before her. His strong arms reached for her and he embraced her tightly as if she might be something precious he ws in deadly danger of losing. Gratefully she sank into his arms and buried her head on his broad shoulder.
"I hates Africa!" she whispered. "This disease come from Africa, they say. This AIDS. It gonna kill me and ain't nothin' I can do. Soon I be dead. I'm scared, Father. Oh God! I don' wanna die!"
He stroked her hair and let her cry, offering her the only comfort that he had: the nearness and warmth of his body. "I know, I know," he whispered back. Not once did he loosen his tender hold on her or let go. "I heard a song once. 'Eve'ybody Wants To Get To Heaven (But Nobody Want To Die!)'. So very true, non?"
She clutched at him. "Ain't you scared, Father? Ta - ta be close to me like this? Lord, that 's the worst part of all this. Ain't nobody wants to touch me! Not hug me or kiss me friendly like or nothin'. It's like I was already dead."
He kissed her mahogany cheek.
"Non," he said, "I've never been afraid to die. In some ways I was made for that. But touching? Oh, yes. I am greatly afraid of that. Because I am not worthy of it."
Confused, she roused herself from the depths of her pain and sadness. "Not worthy?" she questioned. "I - I don't understand. You're one of the nicest men around here, Father! I don't know how's I'd get on without you."
"Camouflage," he whispered. "If you really knew me ... knew the thing that lurks inside me ... you would not think so." He touched the collar around his neck with shaky fingers. "Even this, I fear, may be only camouflage. God forgive me, am I only hiding within the womb of the Church? Sometimes I fear so. To make restitution for the evil within; my sins. And - and I can never do that. Never."
She set her own grief and agony aside, shouldering his, and lay a hand on his smooth cheek. "It don' matter why you do it, Father," she said in a voice ringing with truth to my ears. "Not to me. And not to old Mrs. Boraslavsky and them heart pills of hers you deliver to her door, neither. Or to Rabbi Zuckerman and that new copy of his Holy Book, that Tor-rah, you got for him. Him and his people wouldn't even have a place to worship if you hadn't convinced Father Doyle to lend them space here at St.Annucie's. Why never mattered to any of us."
He swallowed, hard.
"I- I ... " His voice trailed off.
Tears squeezed their painful way past Njuma's rich, chocolate colored eyes. "Father, I don' know what to do," she pleaded. "You've got to help me. I'm scared to die ... but I'm scareder to live, I guess. It's gonna be bad, them doctors tell me. I - I ain't sure I wanna hang around for that, you know? Lately I been thinking, thinking hard .... I'm tired, Father. I cain't fight no more. I just cain't. I wanna ... I wanna go Home ... "
'Oh shit,' I thought. 'Here it comes. The big "suicide is a mortal sin" speech.'
I couldn't have been more wrong.
Slowly, like futilely trying to roll back a sea tide, he pulled up the sleeves of his shirt. With one blunt finger he traced the long, thin angry red scar there. Even from here I could see it. My eyes widened. Springing from the pulse point on his wrist, it snaked up his arm like a flame. Holy God. I guess he meant to do it right, though, because the serpentine path of the ugly thing didn't end until it reached the joint of his elbow. I began to realize just why he always wore long sleeves. Even in the heat of summer.
Unconsciously, he caressed it for an instant. "I have often thought of Home," he murmured, closing his eyes. "No more battles to fight; no more struggles. Only peace ... at long last peace. I might even be me. If such a creature even exists. But best of all, he would be gone. I have longed for it; prayed for it. God forgive me, I have even tried to kill for it."
N'juma was shaken. "F - Father? Why - why didn't you? Do it, I mean?"
I took a quick breath and held it, waiting for his answer. The tips of my fingers went numb and I was suddenly shivering. Hey, it didn't take a genius to see that this was an important question, okay? For both of them. And ... maybe for me, too.
He touched his forehead to hers and their tears mingled, two streams coming together to form the beginnings of a turbulent river. "Why? Because I am not yet worthy. Because, cursed and flawed as I am, perhaps I may make a difference in the world. If there is even a single person, one life, that I may save or aid, then I will be there for that person. Because nothing is forever, not even pain."
Sobbing, the lovely, dying woman buried her face in his shoulder once more, anointing him with her tears. He held her tightly and let her cry, because that's what she needed to do. He didn't stop her. When she lifted her head, she was almost smiling, I could see. She kissed his cheek and he blushed.
"Would it help if I told you you suceeded?" she asked softly. "Making a difference, I mean? With at least one person."
His eyes shone with happiness, great faceted sapphires glowing in the low light.
"God never burdens us with more than we can bear," he said. A look of wonderment settled deep into his blue eyes, as if he might be hearing, really hearing, those words for the very first time. "He has many different ways of making us the people we are destined to be. Of shaping us in His Image. And not all of them are pleasant."
"Not hardly," N'juma agreed, her voice acerbic and still troubled. "If -if I ain't goin' Home, Father, then what *am* I gonna do? Ain't trained for nothin' but whorin'. Ain't got long to make that difference. So what am I gonna do?"
"Whatever you can," he answered. "Whatever you can."
She grew thoughtful. "I gots a sister," she finally said. "Her no count man done left her and she's near 'bout to having a baby. Maybe ... maybe ... could be she might need some help when the child comes. 'Spect I'll ask, now. Might be nice taking care of a baby. Long as I'm able, anyways."
Valley squeezed her hand. "Your sister will need all the help you can give her," he said. "And there are breakthroughs in AIDS research every day," he pointed out. "And even now there are medicines, drugs, that may help."
"Not for me there ain't, Father," N'juma's voice was bitter. "Them drugs is 'spensive. Ain't got no money to pay for that."
End Part 2