Sea and Sky XI:

El Dorado

by Dannell Lites

Minor additions by 'rith



SPIFFY DISCLAIMER THINGIE!

Nightwing, Azrael, No Man's Land and all the rest are the property of DC Comics! Ah do not own them:) More's the pity! This is a work of fanfiction for entertainment purposes only and is not intended to infringe on any copyrights held by DC Comics or others!

Rated R for mature subject matter and situations. WARNING! HERE BE M/M SLASH! If'n that sort of thing offends ya'll then skedaddle:)

As usual, there is no continuity to speak of in this story:) It takes place sometime Post-Quake and before the current storyline where Gotham rejoins the USA! The poem, "El Dorado" by Edgar A. Poe is used without permission but, again, no copyright infringement is intended. And I'm pretty sure not too many other folks have used the Bible as erotica.... but there ya'll go! Ah don't own *that*, either:):)

Eleventh in the "Sea and Sky" series, the previous parts of which can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/.
Note: For the original version of "El Dorado," visit the Batman! site at http://www.geocities.com/Area51/Shuttle/4853/ElDorado.html



"What the hell are *you* doing here!" demanded the strident voice of Nightwing, Dick Grayson, louder and harsher than he'd intended at first sight of the other, larger man.

"The same as you, I imagine," replied Jean-Paul Valley, readjusting the duffel bag on his broad shoulder. "The Batman needs our help, non?"

"*Non* is right," snapped Nightwing. "He doesn't need *your* help, anyway."

The tall, blond man sighed. "Mon ami," he began, but Nightwing cut him off abruptly.

"Don't call me that! I'm *not* your friend," he spat.

Twin searchlight beams stabbed through the heart of the night, shattering the concealing darkness. Nightwing and Jean-Paul both threw themselves to the ground out of range of the probing brilliance.

"Guard shack. 100 yards. East..." signaled Jean-Paul in Amslan, his hands moving swiftly in the language of the deaf.

Startled, Dick blinked back astonishment before he replied in the same silent tongue. "Know it. Meet you."

With a silent nod, they headed for their rendezvous, each in an opposite direction to confuse anyone who might be watching. Moving like a shadow as the Batman had taught him so long ago, Dick Grayson considered that Jean-Paul Valley knew Amslan. He, too, had been taught by Bruce Wayne, after all, and the language of the deaf was perfect for communication in utter silence when the necessity called for it. Still, despite that...it surprised him. He found himself frowning. How many other things about Jean-Paul Valley did he not know? What else lurked behind the shield of those mild, round professorial glasses and that mane of long blond hair? A sharp intelligence, it seemed. The thought disturbed him.

As he made his way in the dimness and silence of the rigidly patrolled perimeter of No Man's Land, Dick realized that he had never thought of Valley as stupid. There might be plethora of things he disliked and resented about the young French hero...but that wasn't one of them. From all evidence, the man was almost as good with a computer keyboard as Oracle. And Babs was second to none. Valley was at least as good a hacker as Tim; and the third Robin to wear the costume and take the name frequently made Dick feel inadequate in front of his computer.

He lost himself so deep in thought that he almost passed the rendezvous point without noticing. "Damn it, Grayson!" his inner voice was harsh, castigating, "get it together, pal! You've been a total wreck since Alfred called this morning. Alfred said that Bruce has been 'incommunicado' for 72 hours. He said that he had 'cause for concern'. And that's *all* he said, okay?"

But if Barbara had called in Jean-Paul Valley...then things might be a little more uncertain than simple "concern," mightn't they be?

And the truth was...he'd been more than a little relieved to get that call. Not that Bruce was missing, of course, but for the necessity of *doing* something. Getting out of his apartment and the routine of the 'Haven, which had been uncommonly quiet lately. Never a bad guy around when you needed one. But at least this got him moving again and let him stop thinking about Garth. What he'd said to Garth. The sneaking suspicion that he'd been really *stupid* about--

Taking a deep breath, he backtracked himself and slipped silently into the darkened guard hut. Perversely, he touched the side of his mask to turn the nightvision lenses off. There was nothing here he *wanted* to see--but despite that, he found that he didn't need his eyes to tell him of someone else's presence. He settled into the darkness, letting it cover and comfort him. How many times had he and the Batman waited patiently in just such a place as this, just such a darkness? Touching and talking for hours like Helen Keller and her beloved teacher Annie Sullivan. Waiting and perhaps a bit afraid...but not alone.

Never alone.

"Azrael?"

"He is not here, I'm afraid. Will I do?"

"Don't play word games, Valley. You know what I mean. He's here all right. In that duffel bag you brought with you. All you have to do is put on the suit. Joy, joy. I'm stuck here with you until daylight. Just before dawn is best for crossing into Gotham. The guards are tired and least observant then. Until then, can we just ignore one another or something?"

Even the weary sigh that reached Dick's ears was melodic, musical. "Nightwing...I didn't *choose* to become Batman when Bane broke your mentor's back. Must you continue to punish me for the Batman's decision?"

Dick curled up in a corner of the darkened shack as far away from the sound of that voice as he could find. And still it followed him; gave him no peace. Valley was right, wasn't he? It was Bruce who'd made the decision. Bruce, who hadn't trusted his sidekick Dick Grayson, little Robin, to be good enough to succeed him and aspire to the Mantle of the Bat.

Bruce.

But it was Jean-Paul Valley who'd always paid the price in Dick's scorn and the sharp edge of his quick tongue.

"It should have been *me,*" he hissed into the silence and the dimness. "*Me!*" The pain in his rough voice surprised even him.

"Yes, it should have been."

"You...admit that?"

"Should I not? It is true. Choosing me to replace him was the gravest error the Batman has ever made. Like all the rest of him...his lapses in judgement are not small. Non, there's nothing small about him."

The voice tightened a bit before it continued. For a moment Dick was glad that he could not peer into the darkness that enwrapped them. He had no desire to see Jean-Paul Valley's face just then. And even less desire than that to understand him better.

"But it was not I who paid the piper for that mistake. Nor even the Batman. Nor *you.* That blood was shed by two innocents. And would you like to know the greatest joke of it all? Of the whole, entire tragedy?"

"What's that?"

"I can't even remember their names, anymore. The two who died. There have been so many.... Their names are lost in a legion of others. But I still see their faces." The silence that descended like a curtain between them separated them just as surely.

Then why do you let Azrael do it? Dick wondered. Why aren't you strong enough to stop him? Dick did not want to feel compassion for the lost young man Jean-Paul Valley. He did not. The question that came to him was only supposed to be only a diversion, a swift change of subject. But even before it left his lips it became something more; much more.

"Jean-Paul? Can--can I ask you a question? Maybe you know the answer."

"Of course. Ask away."

"Did Bruce ever say...ever tell you *why* he passed me over? Why I wasn't good enough?"

At his side his hands knotted themselves into tight fists until he was sure Valley would hear the sound of his knuckles cracking. Again, he was glad of the sheltering, concealing darkness. Perhaps Bruce was right to love it so. And Valley had gone silent.

Long enough to start thinking again, that same old self-rationalization. "I'm just tired is all. Tired and worried. Things have gone from bad to worse for Gotham and Bruce. And the 'Haven is starting to really feel the pressure of all those new people. Cadet Grayson is still about the only honest cop in town. You've been working overtime both as the 'Wingster and Dick Grayson. How long has it been since you've had a good night's sleep, anyway?" Since Garth left. No, be honest; since he made Garth leave. Dammit. He hated sleeping alone. "You're just tired."

From his corner, Jean-Paul Valley spoke at last and drew Dick back outside himself. "He did not have to. The why of it was plain to me from the beginning. But I lied to myself, convinced that it didn't matter. That, given time, I could earn his respect, his...affection...."

From the direction of the young Frenchman's voice came the sounds of restless Brownian movement, as if his body were searching frantically for a way out, some means of flight or escape. Holding his silence, Dick Grayson rested his head on his knees and waited. He'd always been very good at that.

"He did it for you. Because he didn't want you to face Bane."

Dick's voice was bitter and brittle in his own ears like flawed crystal.

"He didn't trust me to be good enough."

"No! That's not it at all! How can such a one as you be so great a fool?"

"Thanks."

"You really can't see it, can you?"

In the darkness, a shrug. "What's there to see?"

"The truth. That his fear led him to do something he knew was a mistake. That he betrayed himself with his desire to keep you safe. There are many ways of dying, my friend. Azrael is an expert on that." If Jean-Paul noticed that Dick did not protest being called "friend" this time he gave no sign of it. Dick's hands began to loosen themselves and he sat very still.

"Have you ever thought of what might have happened if you'd fought Bane? You might very well have survived and the Batman knew that. You are clever and skilled. But most likely you'd have had to kill Bane to stop him. The Batman knew *that,* too. Could you have lived with that?"

"I--don't know."

"He wasn't willing for you to have to try. And there was always the possibility of your death at the hands of Bane. Battle is an uncertain thing, not always won or lost by the skill of the men who fight. He'd rather have died himself than let you risk your life."

"So where did *you* fit into all this?"

The answer was immediate, like an echo. "Into the slot marked 'Disposable'...'Expendable.' That killing Bane might...disturb...*me* he never considered. After all, I was *Azrael*--and Azrael was a thing made for killing, carefully shaped and crafted for it by the Order of St. Dumas, like a well-designed sword or pistol. And my safety was not so much a matter to him of trust as it was the lesser of two evils. He was willing to live with my death if he must. But not yours."

"That's not true! He-- Bruce would never..." Dick found his words trailing off. Jean-Paul did not bother to answer. The other man's silence was answer enough, after all.

"Wouldn't *you* risk the life of a relative stranger to protect Bruce?" Dick asked himself with relentless honesty. "Wouldn't you?" He began to chew at the skin of his lower lip and it wasn't until he tasted the salt tang of blood that he had his answer.

Yes. Yes, he would.

For *Bruce.*

"That must have hurt you deeply."

"Does that matter?' The voice that came to Dick's sharp, discerning ears was strained, not entirely steady. Despite strong efforts to the contrary sadness and loneliness rang through it like a chiming bell.

Dick's hands shook and he clutched at his knees, tightly, in a futile effort to calm them. In his own small corner of the tiny shack, he heard Jean-Paul Valley stir; the soft susurrus of cloth upon flesh. Finally Jean-Paul spoke, filling the looming, threatening silence.

"Are you hungry?"

"A little."

"I have chocolate."

The effort at lightness and humor was a valiant one. Yet still, the soft voice betrayed the speaker. Dick heard the almost-silent sound of a zipper in action and guessed that Jean-Paul was opening his duffel to get at the promised treat. He smiled at the quiet sounds of digging and fumbling about that reached him along with the muttered words of impatience.

"Where...I know I have it in here someplace...I--Merde!" The explosive burst of profanity startled Dick, bringing him completely alert. What in the name of--Jean-Paul, *cursing?!* Dick's knowledge of the language of Voltaire was, admittedly, a bit rusty, but not so oxidized that he didn't recognize the French word for "shit."

"Jean-Paul? What--"

Before he even felt the round hardness tap him gently on the knee, he heard it rolling across the floor in his direction. By instinct, he reached out and grabbed it before it could roll away once again. Sensitive fingers brought him the feel of taut stretched leather, precisely sewn seams. In searching through his bag for the chocolate to be shared Jean-Paul had evidently dislodged a--a--

It was a baseball. No question about it. He was holding a baseball. A Little League-style softball, by the size and feel of it. The smell of the thing was new and his fingers brought him no sign that it had ever been used. He held it to his nose and inhaled more deeply. There was no lingering scent of ink about it, nor embossing. Probably not signed, then.

Apparently, it was just an unused, not very remarkable softball of no special make or quality. Available in the Sports section of toy stores or department stores virtually anywhere.

The rising, frantic note in Jean-Paul's voice propelled Dick out of his puzzled reverie and back into the situation at hand. Dick could hear the young Frenchman feeling frantically about with his hands, searching for his lost baseball with quick, sharp movements that grew louder with each passing moment.

"Where is it?" he cried. "It must be--"

"Hey, hey.... Easy, Jean-Paul, easy. It's all right. I've got it right here. It isn't lost. Don't worry."

Soft footsteps swiftly approaching. A looming presence, felt but not seen, in the darkness. Grasping hands claiming their prize, then the hurried steps of an embarrassed retreat. And not a single word spoken. Not one.

"I didn't know you played baseball." Dick tried to keep his voice level without awkward inquiry or accusation.

"I don't," came the flat voiced reply, after a moment.

"A fan. Hey, I can relate. Football is my game. Gotham Knights' fan all the way. Got the T-shirt and everything. Bruce and I buy each other season's tickets every year for our birthdays. Don't usually get to use them much, but..."

"I have never seen a game of baseball played. I know nothing of the sport."

"Then why--? Sorry. None of my business, really."

"It...was a gift."

"A gift? That's great. From who?" Idle conversation was not always an easy thing to come by with Jean-Paul Valley.

"My--my father."

"He was a fan then." The stillness from the other side of the room was increasing geometrically, it seemed. Nervous, Dick shifted his weight and waited.

"No...he never saw a game, either..."

"Then *why*--?"

Dick bit his tongue. The awkward question was no more tactful the second time around than the first, he discovered to his chagrin. Why can't I get myself together around this guy, he wondered? What is it about him that makes me so crazy? Uneasily, he stirred again, already suspecting the answer to *that.*

"A woman with a small child suggested to him that he might wish to buy his son a present. She had no way of knowing... the truth. That I had only seen my father very seldom and then only for a brief time. Ludovic Valley was a stranger to his son and his son was a stranger to him. A baseball. A foolish thing, non? A f-f-f-oolish..."

"Are--are you crying?"

"No!"

But he was. The lie was...a foolish thing. Dick let his ears guide him across the room to the source of those soft sobs. Such deep grief...and so very very *quiet*...as if it did not wish to intrude itself upon a busy world. When he touched it, Jean-Paul Valley's face was wet. Uncertainly, he slipped his arms around the other man's shoulders.

"Shhhhh. It's all right. It's okay to cry; it's okay. I've cried a lot, over the years, about...things...Shhhhh... Shhhhh..."

"Azrael does not cry."

"Maybe not. But I'll bet Jean-Paul Valley cries. I know Dick Grayson does."

"I was a week past my twenty-first birthday; a graduate student in computer science at Gotham State University. He forgot my birthday. There was no word from him then. I did not expect any. Why--why a gift *later*? Did he know...somehow sense.... And why a baseball? That is a gift for a child. He knocked on the back door to my apartment, the alley entrance, and when I answered the door there he was. He didn't say a word. He simply handed me the sack with the baseball in it. 'What's this?' I asked. 'A present,' he replied. And then he left, in silence much as he arrived." The body in Dick's arms shook and trembled. "A foolish gift from a foolish man..."

Dick tightened his embrace, holding the other man more closely against the warmth of his body in the vastness of the night as if to protect him and waited again.

"The next time I saw him, the next time I heard that quiet tap at my back door, he was dying, grievously wounded. He could barely speak. Knowing that.... He did not tell me he loved me. He did not say good-bye. He told me that I was Azrael. And that Azrael must not fail in his mission of vengeance."

Dick Grayson ran his fingers through long silky blond hair, stroking, comforting, and Jean-Paul Valley did not stop him.

"He was no one to me; nothing and no one. I did not know him."

"He was your *father.*"

"I have other 'fathers!' A cat for quickness and agility. A wolf for fierceness. And I am strong. Very strong. There must be a great ape somewhere in my genetic makeup for strength. And other...less desirable...*things.* The Order of St. Dumas was very particular. They chose only the best animals when they made me." Silence. But that was soon shattered.

"But no *bats,*" Jean-Paul Valley observed in bitterness. "I was a poor Batman, indeed."

Dick closed his eyes.

"Torturing yourself doesn't help, you know. Take my word for it. *I'm* the expert on that."

"Non? Then w-what does help?"

"Other people. If you let them. And if they care about you."

"Where would I find someone like that?"

"Maybe...closer than you think. That's usually how it works, anyway. Unexpectedly. They sneak up on you when you're not looking."

"Nightwing?"

"Dick...you know my name, Jean-Paul, you can use it."

"Dick?" He could feel the smile grow against the flesh of his neck. "An--unfortunate--name in many ways, non?"

Dick laughed. "Oui," he agreed. "But there're plenty of people who'll tell you that it fits me like a glove...that I'm a--dick, all right."

Against his will he felt himself stir at the feel of the man in his arms, the sound of that musical voice with its soft accent. He ground his teeth together in frustration. "And, by God, they're right about that, aren't they, Grayson? The damn thing seems to be the only part of your body that never fails you. Christ."

The uncertain hand that found his thigh in the dark took him completely by surprise. Startled, he stiffened and the hand withdrew itself as if it had touched fire.

Wrong, it would be wrong because--because....

Well, why *not?* He'd broken it off with Garth, he was a free man. In fact he'd broken it off because of the intensity, it wasn't likely to be that way with Jean-Paul, and--

And he just wasn't going to think about that anymore. This was--this was just...sex. Easy. Simple.

"Pardonne!" cried Jean-Paul. "I did not mean...I--I..."

After a moment Dick found his voice and answered. "That's a shame, then. I was hoping you did."

"N'est pas? You--you *were?*"

"Uh huh. You don't have to stop if you don't want to."

"I do not want to. But I...I do not know...I have never..."

Dick smiled. "First time with another guy, huh? That's okay. It's not my first--"

"My first time with anyone. Ever," said Jean-Paul Valley, slowly.

Dick lost his smile. "You're--not kidding, are you." It wasn't a question, really.

"I will try not to be too clumsy," Jean-Paul promised, his voice full of anxious embarrassment. "I have read books...heard others speak of such things...I.... I learn quickly."

Dick stroked his cheek. Such soft skin.... "No, no...it's not that. It's not that at all, Jean-Paul. I'm not worried about me. I don't want to hurt you or frighten you, is all."

"I'm not afraid."

"...and I'm not sure I'm up to this, frankly. I've never been anyone's 'first' before. That's kind of daunting."

A soft chuckle came to his ears. "Then...'but screw your courage to the sticking point,'" said Jean-Paul.

"Ouch. My God, that's a worse pun than any I ever made!"

"It pleased you?"

"A lot. You're a surprising guy, Jean-Paul. Do you like poetry?"

"Very much. I am fondest of Edgar Allan Poe."

Recalling the gloomy death-obsessed poet of the bizarre and the macabre, Dick rolled his eyes. "You would be." Then he smiled, reaching for Jean-Paul's sneakers. They came off easily and the young Frenchman did not protest. His breath grew shallow with excitement. Dick's own hands were steady when he pulled the thin T-shirt off and added it to the growing pile of discarded clothes beside them.

"I had in mind something a little more...traditional. You familiar with 'The Song of Solomon' from the Bible?" He could almost feel the other man's face brighten beneath his hands.

Dick ran his hand slowly down the arch of Jean-Paul's foot and began to caress it, then he pressed it to his mouth. With soft lips he kissed the instep, tasting the tartness of Jean-Paul's skin and the musk of his own rising desire. In the darkness his hands and Jean-Paul's voice were his guide.

"I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys," Dick said softly and Jean-Paul murmured pleasantly at the sound of the familiar words. Dick's hand ghosted up the tantalizing muscles along Jean-Paul's inner thigh before coming to rest on the rising swell of his groin.

"As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters. As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste." Dick lay his cheek on the curve of Jean-Paul's ankle and stroked the fine gold chain encircling it.

"Solomon was a great poet, mon ami," Jean-Paul breathed, "but not even he could have done *you* true justice." With strong arms the hero encircled Dick's waist and covered the other's lips with his.

Gently, Dick began to explore the sweetness of Jean-Paul's mouth. "Thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy locks." He kissed Jean-Paul's eyes, entwined his fingers in that long blond hair. Slowly, his lips moved down to the column of Jean-Paul's neck, leaving feather-light butterfly kisses in his wake.

Jean-Paul gasped and drew in a shaky breath. "Ah!" he cried. "Ah! Ah!"

"Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armory, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men."

Busy hand whispered down the tall body; over the muscled chest. Dick's lips and mouth teased and caressed their way down the soft flesh leaving pleasure behind them. Like a suppliant at an altar, he worshiped at the shrine of the other man's proffered body pausing here and there as it pleased his lover.

"Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies."

Like a whisper, Dick's hands traced the shape of Jean-Paul's nipples and felt them harden under his fingers. He lowered his head and worshiped them a bit more avidly.

"Come with me from Lebanon, my friend," Jean-Paul murmured, "come with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions' dens, from the mountains of the leopards. Thou hast ravished my heart, my brother, my friend; thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck. How fair is thy love, my brother, my friend! How much better is thy love than wine! And the smell of thine ointments than all spices."

With a deep breath Dick inhaled the perfume of Jean-Paul's hair. When his lips found the other hero's full mouth once more he nibbled carefully and traced their outline with an agile tongue. "Thy lips, O my brother, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the smell of thy garments is like the smell of Lebanon." He kissed Jean-Paul again, more deeply this time. "A garden enclosed is my brother, my friend;" declared Dick as Jean-Paul arched his back and cried out, softly. "A spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard. Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices. A fountain of gardens, a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon."

Dick's hands drank in the feel of the other man, hungrily. When Dick took him, Jean-Paul abandoned himself completely, gasping with pleasure like a leaf in a high wind.

"Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south;" they whispered together, "blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits."

Soon after that, there was no time for even the most beautiful of poetry. Many moments passed before either of them found their voice again.

"D-Dick? Is it always like this? So--so *intense?*"

Dick let his smile creep into his voice. "If you're lucky."

Like magnets drawn to a lodestone rock, Jean-Paul's hand found Dick's waning hardness and lingered. "I will try and make it as pleasant for *you,*" vowed Jean-Paul. "You have set me a good example." Long fingers curved lightly along the sensitive underside of Dick's rising length and circled the head of its fullness with a thumb.

"And you took notes, I see!" Dick gasped and shivered at the young man's touch. Again, he could feel the heat of Jean-Paul's blush, imagine the twinkle in his blue eyes. Dick snuggled closer as Jean-Paul's hands roamed over his chest and lower belly, finally coming to rest once more between Dick's muscular thighs. Dick gasped.

"The Lord works in mysterious ways," he intoned, rising to the occasion, "his miracles to perform."

When Dick Grayson fell to sleep at last, he was smiling. He dreamed of gardens and spices and the feel of soft flesh beneath his hands and he was not tired any longer.

*******************

Sleepily Dick reached out for his companion in the darkness of the night. He lifted his head when his hands fell on empty air and looked blearily about.

"Jean-Paul?"

For a moment the silence was his only answer. In the dimness his sharp eyes brought him the shape of a tall shadow sitting utterly still and quiet in a neglected corner of the tiny guard post. He tensed. Somehow, the posture...the *presence* of the figure....

No...not Jean-Paul Valley. He knew that.

"Non, Jean-Paul is...gone...." said a deeper, harsher voice than the one he'd hoped for.

"Azrael," Dick sighed, mouth gone suddenly dry. He tried very hard to keep his lips from setting themselves into a thin, white line of distant disapproval.

And...loss?

He found that he did not entirely succeed.

"It's almost time for us to go," the Angel of Vengeance said, impatience staining the rich timbres of his voice. "The morning guards will be arriving soon." His mask covered the whole of his face, so Dick could catch no glimpse of the shy young man, Jean-Paul Valley. He sighed in resignation when he noticed the small pair of gold wire framed glasses sitting casually, discarded on a table.

"Give me a minute," Dick said and rose to dress.

"What's the problem here, Grayson?" he quizzed himself without mercy for his weakness of the night before. "You *knew* the Angel was bound to show up sooner or later. Jean-Paul Valley *is* Azrael. And you seduced him. Deal with it. You were lonely and afraid for Bru-- just afraid, okay? So you did something really stupid and now you regret it. It wouldn't be the first time. Ask the Huntress about that. And it probably won't be the last, either."

He refused to let himself look at Azrael, watching silent in his corner, as he pulled on the protection of his costume. What the other man though or felt, if anything, of the night before was, of course, impossible to tell. And perhaps that was best, after all.

Still...it would be comforting to know that it meant *something....*

"If it does, you'll never know it, pal," he told himself and reached for his boots.

He found the note neatly folded in his left boot pocket, tucked safely away from harm and all notice until he was ready to read it. He recognized the precise, controlled handwriting immediately. Its careful letters and small concise dotted i's and crossed t's made it plain to any stranger that there was more to the simple young man Jean-Paul Valley than met the eye. Reading the note, he smiled.

Gaily bedight,
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.

And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow-
"Shadow," said he,
"Where can it be--
This land of Eldorado?"

"Over the Mountains Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride," The shade replied--
"If you seek for Eldorado!"

There was no signature, nor was any needed. With another smile, Nightwing folded the note carefully and tucked it back inside his left boot pocket, where it once more rested safe from all harm.



The End