Sea and Sky XII:

The Next Best Thing

by Dannell Lites

Prologue by 'rith



SPIFFY DISCLAIMER THINGIE!! Ah do not own any of these guys! DC comics does --- more's the pity:(:( Ah have only borrowed them for use in a work of non-profit fanfiction! So, no infringement of copyright is intended! Don't sue moi!:):)

Rated for non-explicit (undepicted, actually!) M/M sexual themes. So if'n that isn't ya'll cuppa, then best skedaddle now:):)

Blessings to my Sea And Sky co-writer rith for a great beta:):) Ya'll are the best!

Twelfth in the "Sea and Sky" series, the previous parts of which can be found at http://www.offpanel.net/kerithwyn/.


PROLOGUE

Lazy Sunday. Nothing much to do, not even for the guardian of Blüdhaven. He did all his best work at night, anyway.

A knock at the door, oddly hesitant, and Dick Grayson went to see who it was with something like a premonition of fear.

Jean-Paul Valley stood there diffidently, so unlike the avenging angel Azrael who lay just beneath the surface. In his hand he held a softball. THE softball. His voice was quiet. "I-- I would like to see a game. Will you show me?"

And he was opening the door wider, inviting the man in, knowing he was making a mistake. Doing it *anyway* because Jean-Paul looked so needful, and because he was lonely. Because they both were.

Sitting on the sofa. Finding a game on the satellite. Getting snacks and a beer--one, just one for himself, and a bottle of water for JP because Jean-Paul didn't drink. Neither did--

Never mind. Watching the game, explaining the rules and the moves, dissing the announcer. Just two guys who weren't quite friends, watching a game.

Jean-Paul's hand shyly reaching out to touch his own.

He didn't *decide.* Deciding meant considering the action, weighing the consequences. But Jean-Paul was here and wanting and willing and it didn't really *have* to mean anything, did it?

And no one had to get hurt.


{end prologue}


****


Washington D.C., the apartment of Jean-Paul Valley:



Being very careful to come no closer than absolutely necessary, Brian Bryan handed the just-washed soup bowl, still dripping with steaming water, to Dick Grayson to dry. "How does he *do* that?" Dick wondered absently. "I'm standing right here. He's handing me dishes... so why do I feel as though I'm not really here at all? And if things get much chillier, that damned water is gonna freeze."

"You don't like me very much, do you, Brian?" he said in a casual voice.

The psychiatrist met Dick's questioning eyes squarely. "No, Mr. Grayson," he returned calmly, "I don't. You're quite right."

Dick grimaced. "At least you're honest," he said wryly.

The older man crossed his arms over his stout chest and regarded the hero with an intense, level gaze.

Dick almost smiled. "You're about ten years late with that one, buddy," he thought. "That's *nothing*... *nothing.* I learned in a harder school than yours, believe me." Still, he looked away from the other man. Without warning, he found himself staring into a well-remembered pair of dark blue eyes, sharp and cutting as the edge of a blade; and the exact color of ancient glacial ice, frozen for a long, long time. Beneath the ice and just visible around the edges, great passion burned and flamed, awaiting release.

Ice and fire...

When he realized that those weren't Jean-Paul's eyes, he thrust the memory away almost in a panic.

"Don't even go there, Grayson," he cursed himself. "Don't even go there."

But then the other pair of eyes likely to be staring back at him in his dreams and accusations were no safer, were they? Deep violet in color, they were soft and gentle full of compassion and love. Dangerous eyes. More dangerous than the others? Perhaps. He saw them sad and full of pain... And Dick had been so sure that he could not give them what they desired. He saw them full of burning anger, flashing purple fire. And he wasn't sure which frightened him more; the anger... or the love.

He found Brian studying him with an almost-clinical detachment when he turned back to the older man. The psychiatrist cocked his head to the side and lifted one shaggy eyebrow.

"And why shouldn't I be honest with you, Mr. Grayson?" he inquired softly. "Why shouldn't I tell you that I think what you're doing is reprehensible, damaging?"

Dick paled for an instant at the accusation and then flushed crimson with anger. "Jealous?"

"Absolutely, Mr. Grayson, " replied Brian, drying his hands on a dishtowel. Startled, Dick frowned. Brian set the towel aside and faced his adversary.

"You have something I'd give anything to possess," he said, "and haven't a chance in Hades of ever obtaining. Look at me, Mr. Grayson. I'm a forty-two years old, balding, ex-drunkard with falling arches and twenty pounds too much weight. My desire for Jean-Paul is plain. Everyone in the world can see it. Everyone but *him.* A day late and a dollar short, as they say. You, on the other hand... well, the differences are obvious, aren't they? You're one of the most beautiful human beings it has ever been my pleasure to lust after from afar. But what you *really* are isn't obvious at all, is it?" Dick's eyes widened and Brian didn't miss that telling sign that his words had struck home.

"And the truly tragic thing, Richard John Grayson, is that now that you have him...you don't really want Jean-Paul Valley at all, do you? No, you don't. *He's* not the object of your desire." The stout man snapped off the whistling tea kettle bubbling on the kitchen's electric stove.

"One day I really should meet the Batman," he mused. "He must be an...extraordinary...man." Turning, Brian poured hot tea into two waiting cups, filling the air of the small kitchen with the sweet, soothing fragrance of strong-blended Darjeering tea, then reached for the sugar bowl.

"One lump or two?" the student of Sigmund Freud and Karl Jung inquired patiently.

"Damn you--!"

"Damn me to what, young man? Hell?" Brian smiled. "Been there. Done that. I didn't much care for the accommodations, so I left. The walls need paint. The liquor was nice, though."

"What gives you the right to screw around with my head, Brian?" Dick demanded.

The psychiatrist added two lumps of sugar to one steaming cup and stirred slowly. "Why, nothing, Mr. Grayson," he acknowledged. "Nothing at all. And I don't. It seems to me you have that thankless job quite well in hand yourself. You're running away from something and someone who frightens you deeply. And not just the Batman. There's someone else too, isn't there? I don't know who it might be, but you're running away from whoever *that* is as well. And you've run straight into the arms of someone guaranteed to punish you for it." Sipping, he made a wry face. "Too much sugar," he lamented and added a spot more tea.

Dick's blue eyes narrowed in warning. "You're really good at playing games, aren't you, Brian? Well, I'm no slouch, either, pal. Be careful."

"No," Brian replied, "as a matter of fact, I'm very bad at playing games, my young friend. That's why I retreated into a bottle of Scotch. Much simpler. And safer. But, then, I was never as good at lying to myself as you apparently are." Brian turned away from the younger, larger man but angry hands pulled him back.

"I'm not a liar!" Dick shouted, offended.

Flushed, Brian pulled himself angrily away from the younger man and stared at him. With a towel he began to wipe the wet tea stains from the white cotton of his shirt. He picked up the broken cup and carefully placed it in the kitchen garbage can. When he again turned to face his roommate's young lover he was scowling.

"I usually charge about $250 an hour to be lied to and abused by my patients, Mr. Grayson," he said crisply, "but you've caught me in a generous mood, so I'm going to talk to you for free."

"And just what do you have to tell me that you think I need to hear, Brian?" Dick snapped.

"The truth," said Brian.

"And that would be...?"

"How many lovers have you had in recent days, Mr. Grayson?" Brian inquired, his voice deadly calm. "How many beds have you popped in and out of in the last few years, I wonder?" Dick looked extremely uncomfortable, but Brian was relentless. "Did you ever wonder *why* you can't seem to settle down?"

"Do you think I *like* being like this?!" Dick cried. "I can't-- I just-- I just haven't found the right person, that's all," he defended himself stoutly.

Brian shook his thinning head, still unwilling to back down. "Not true," he corrected the agitated youth, "you've found 'the right person,' all right. A long time ago. You just can't have him, that's the problem. You know *exactly* who you want and *exactly* what you want from him. Unless I'm mistaken, you've known that since your early teens. Probably before you were even old enough to have wet dreams about him, am I right? He was the first lover you ever really wanted, unless I miss my guess. And he's such forbidden fruit it frightened you so badly that deep down you think all love is forbidden and dangerous. So you keep running away from it. But you keep ending up in all the wrong beds. All that guilt. Are you certain you're not Catholic, young man?"

"I-- I don't-- " began a startled Dick, but Brian cut him short.

"Now he's going to say he doesn't know what I mean," Brian mused aloud. The psychiatrist made a disgusted sound low in his throat. "He's going to tell me that I'm wrong; that I'm a sick pervert for even thinking such a thing." His thin lips curled back in anger.

"Sick pervert?" Brian shook his head. "No, Dick," he said, almost sadly, "that's *you.* I'm not the one who wants to sleep with his father."

Dick Grayson's fist shot out and Brian Bryan found himself suddenly sailing across the small kitchen like a kite in a high wind. He told himself that he wasn't going to cry out. That he wouldn't give the younger man the satisfaction. But despite himself, he did. When he hit the far wall with a meaty thunk and slid bonelessly down the wall, sprawling onto his buttocks, he *tried* to cry out. He did. But he couldn't seem to breathe properly. Quicker than it took to tell it, he felt Dick's gentle, experienced hands leaning his dizzy head between his knees. It helped.

"I'm sorry," Dick said, "I didn't mean to... You-- shouldn't have said that... "

Brian pressed the handkerchief that Dick gave him to his nose, which was still streaming dark blood. "No, I shouldn't have," he admitted. In his own ears his voice sounded tinny and shrill. He winced inwardly at the weak sound of it. He sighed, closed his eyes, and hoped reverently that he wasn't trembling as badly as he thought.

"Sweet Jesus," he mourned in silent despair, "why do we have to grow old? Must age be so demeaning and humiliating? Curse you, Rabbi Ben Ezra. 'Grow old along with me,' indeed!"

"Brian?" Dick's voice was small and forlorn. "Were you just trying to hurt me or did you..." He let the words just lay there, unable or unwilling to finish them.

Brian looked up to see the other man breathing hard, in quick gulps as if he were the one who'd been struck. He wiped the last of the blood from his nose, grimacing in pain at the light touch. Carefully, he set the bloody handkerchief aside.

"Oh, I meant to hurt you, all right," he said. "No mistake there. And for that I'm truly sorry. It was petty and unnecessary."

"But? I distinctly heard a but at the end of that sentence."

"But," supplied Brian, "that doesn't make it any the less true, I'm afraid." The larger man looked so stricken and lost that Brian was forced to look away to catch his breath.

"Pain is instructive," he reminded himself, harshly. But how to soften the blow? How to make him *listen*?

"We Irish are famous liars, Dick, my young friend," he said softly. "Remember when I said that I didn't like you? Well, I lied. I *do* like you, Dick Grayson. Damn me if I don't." Dick's wan smile was a good sign, he told himself.

"He isn't actually your father, is he?" Not really a question, but Dick answered it with a quick shake of his dark head in any case.

"I thought not. Which only makes it worse, in a way."

Brian rose and Dick helped him to his feet, then to the kitchen table. The youth puttered about the stove, but finally managed to pour more hot tea into a waiting cup and handed it to Brian. The warmth felt good in his shaking hands. He sipped in grateful silence, enjoying the delicate flavor of the hot Darjeering tea against his tongue. Brian Bryan had discovered some years ago that, when it came to certain things, he was a patient man. A very patient man. He waited.

"All my life," Dick whispered. "All my life he's been the center of my world. I almost can't remember my real parents, anymore. I can't see their faces clearly the way I used to. I feel guilty about that sometimes." He lowered his head in shame. "Christ, I don't know how it happened. I just woke up one day and *knew* he was the one I wanted to be with. Can something like that really happen, I wonder? I-- I thought I was crazy. But it wouldn't go away. Still hasn't. From the time I was old enough to know that you could do more with a penis than pee with it... Bruce was there."

"And he never...responded?" asked Brian with care.

Dick smiled, a mere twitching of his full lips. "Not even once. If he *had*... Well, I'm not THAT strong."

"Which is why he probably never did," Brian thought. Cautiously, he lay a gentle hand on Dick's shoulder and hoped that he was doing the right thing. As the self-confessed 'world's worst psychiatrist,' if he were wrong.... But no; he wasn't wrong about this. He knew it in his bones. He squeezed Grayson's shoulder.

"Listen to me, Dick," he said and the young man looked at him levelly. "What you're looking for isn't here. Jean-Paul *isn't* Bruce."

"I know that," Dick said.

Brian shook his head in negation. "No, you don't," he declared in a voice gone quiet with compassion. He tapped Dick lightly, squarely in the middle of the forehead. "You know it in *here,*" the older man said. "But not *here.*" And he tapped Dick over the heart. Dick paled and hung his head in silence. Brian began to worry about that silence. Dick was not usually so reticent and the quiet desperation in those deep blue eyes seemed to grow even as he watched. What to say? What to do?

In the end he was left with only the cruel truth to offer. And he feared that it was not nearly enough. Not by half.

"I imagine it was easy to convince yourself that you were in love with him. In so many, many ways, he's perfect for you, isn't he? Physically, Jean-Paul Valley is a lot like Bruce Wayne; he's tall and broad shouldered with long legs and a great deal of physical presence. He's almost like a photo negative of the man. Like looking into a mirror... brightly. He's driven and intense and that appeals to you. But he smiles and laughs and he isn't afraid to touch you or to show you his feelings. He's everything that you wish Bruce Wayne *could* be, but isn't. And it doesn't even end there, does it? No, it doesn't. You really are in love with someone else. And it isn't Jean-Paul. You screwed up this time, Dick. You fell in love with someone who fell in love with you instead of choosing someone safe...someone who couldn't or wouldn't fall in love with you. And the fear and the guilt are eating you alive." The stout middle-aged psychiatrist closed his eyes and told himself sternly that he would not weep. He would not.

"And, God help us all," he murmured, "Jean-Paul does loves you. And you don't think Bruce Wayne does. But you don't want to be in love with whoever you're running from, do you?" The boy winced at that and Brian gave him a moment to think that over.

Dick Grayson could feel slender, deft hands ghosting their way over his body; his nostrils filled with the scent of the salt sea and his mouth with the tang of its sharp flavor. But it was the eyes, those cursed purple eyes that grabbed him, that haunted him and would not let him go. He struggled until his body began to shake and tremble.

He opened his mouth and his lips formed the words, "... help me... " but nothing emerged. And he did not think it was Jean-Paul Valley with whom he pleaded. No. Not Jean-Paul. In the end there was only Brian's voice to succor him.

"But Azrael... " Brian's lips thinned into bitter, angry lines. "Azrael is something else entirely, isn't he? He's all the darkness that lives within Bruce Wayne; all the rage and the fear and the pain. All the passion that lies at the heart of his coldness. But Azrael dwells separately enough from Jean-Paul that you don't *think* you have to deal with him unless you wish."

Dick's face clouded over. "I don't *like* Azrael," he maintained with stout force, a bit too loudly.

"Oh yes, you do," Brian thought, but held his tongue. "Or a least a part of you does. The part of you that enjoys risking your life daily, that revels in the excitement of danger. The part that needs that adrenaline surge to pump the blood and kick start the heart to make you feel truly alive. I wonder if you realize just how hot the fire you're toying with is?"

Aloud, he said, "Dick, Azrael is dangerous. Listen to what I say very carefully, now. I've studied him for two years and I *know.* The St. Dumas fools who created Azrael called him the Angel Of Vengeance.... but he's not an angel, at all. He's a demon; a demon who lives inside Jean-Paul Valley. And make no mistake, Dick, my young friend, he *is* a part of Jean-Paul. Nomoz and his ilk did their job well. Azrael destroys things. Things and people. It's what he was made for. If you let him he'll destroy *you.*"

"Or you'll destroy *him*," Brian thought.

The sharpness of his thoughts was interrupted by the shrill cry of his ringing cell phone. The tension in the air was so thick it was almost palpable and the noise made Bryan jump.

"Yes?" he demanded into the phone, harsher then he'd meant to.

"Brian?" came the cultured English voice of Doctor John Nevins, M.D, creeping into his ear like an unwanted invader, "It's Sarah Bulchowski. Silly twit's tried to oft herself again. She's back in the cracker ward at General. You'd better come."

Damn!

"Can't you handle it, John? I'm... busy just now."

"Bry, I'm just a cutter, I sew them up, that's *all.* *You* put them back together again. She's your patient. Now kick the tart to the curb and get your bloody arse down here, old friend." The line went dead and Brian looked up wearily.

"Dick, I'm sorry, I have to--"

But Dick Grayson was gone. Silent as a whisper the young hero had disappeared. And the door to the bedroom was closed firmly, like a castle moat with the drawbridge pulled up.

On his way out the door Brian hesitated. Every instinct he had was screaming at him not to leave. Not now. But...

Sarah Bulchowski was his patient. She needed him. He put his hand on the door knob, glancing one last time at the bedroom door, biting his lip hard.

"Please God," he prayed as he stepped through the doorway into the corridor, "don't let Jean-Paul come home before I can get back. Please."

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

In a rush, Jean-Paul Valley bounded up the stairs to the large apartment and the man waiting for him there, humming softly under his breath. Flinging open the door, he thrust himself excitedly inside, his eyes searching joyously for the recent center of his world.

"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 letterhead 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 Grayson 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 duffel 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?" Valley 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. He of the violet eyes and gentle spirit. Garth of the beautiful hands and almost-palpable loneliness. And the other Titans, too. He'd fled into their friendship, forming bonds that had lasted even 'til now.... Fled into Kory eventually. Koriand'r, 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. Where he had fled from Garth.

"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. Now 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 said, "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. He thought of Garth's peaceful violet eyes glowing with anger at their parting and cried out. 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 left Garth 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-Paul's voice that ushered him gently back to reality.

"Azrael, you coward," Dick 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. Whatever 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 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 had left 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!"

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

"Op--operator?"

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--"

"Gotham-555-8780."

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.

"B-Bruce?"

"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....



The End