SPIFFY DISCLAIMER THINGIE!

Ah don't own The Batman, Azrael, Jim Gordon, Leslie Thompkins, Brian Bryan nor any of that
crowd:):) DC Comics does! Ah'd treat them all much better if'n Ah did own them, believe me!
*fume* *fume* This is a fanfic for entertainment purposes only and not meant to infringe upon
copyrights held by DC Comics or any others, so don't sue moi! GRRR!

Rated G for absolute purity of content! No sex, no drugs, no Rock and Roll! phui!:(:(
WARNING: Character death here in!

The song "The Wind That Shakes The Corn" is used without permission.

Basically folks, this one is just for moi's own self, because Ah wanted to write it. Ah don't expect
too many people will want to read it.:):) But heah it is, anyway!



Crossing The Bar
By: Dannell Lites


Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

~"Crossing The Bar"~
Alfred Lord Tennyson




He was the one who identified the body.

It went swiftly enough, all things considered. He had, after all, done this before, hadn't he? Practice
makes perfect. This was a much larger body, though. A man; not a fifteen year old boy named
Jason wearing a gaudy colorful costume.

Jim Gordon stood close by his side as the Coroner drew back the pale, pristine white sheet that
covered the face. For an interminable instant his world spun and twisted with a sickening lurch until
he forced it to right itself with an effort of will. He found himself staring down into wide sapphire
blue eyes with no spark reflected in their endless depths. His guts roiled and churned. He
considered the irony that the other had met his end staring up unafraid, accepting even, into the
burning eyes of the Angel of Death.

'Well, I suppose that means you have your answer, now, don't you? You were never Death, after
all.' he told the dead.

There was no answer, of course.

His breath came slow and even, calm and unhurried, because he forced it to bend to his will. He'd
spent his youth learning control. It threatened to desert him, now; he refused to let it. But the
muscles of his jaw tightened, rolling like thick cords underneath his chill skin.

'You couldn't do it, could you? You couldn't kill him. And you knew you wouldn't be able to bring
yourself to do it, didn't you? When you left me, you *knew* ... ' Unbidden, he heard that low,
musical voice once more.

< "... if I survive... ">

<"You'll hear from me. Or *about* me ... ">

He looked so peaceful, the watching man thought. The dead man was smiling slightly. Like a tired,
sleepy little boy on the eve of Christmas falling into reluctant slumber, eagerly anticipating the coming
morning with its piles of wondrous gifts and mounds of sticky, sugary candy. Not even the many
cuts and bruises marring the smooth face could change that. Absently, he began to catalogue them
with methodical plodding, the ease of long practice.

It was something to do.

Heart shaped bruise over the left temple. Fumikiri geri, cutting kick, most likely. Long, jagged
laceration along the right cheekbone. Nukite uchi -spear hand strike. Another laceration splitting the
full lips. Crane strike or possibly willow blow. Massive bruise covering at least a quarter of the high
domed forehead. Head butt.

And, yes there it was. Small, tiny almost, virtually unnoticeable. Less than the size of a dime, lurking
just under the sharp chin. Barely even discolored. Ura Zuki - close punch. Deathblow. He didn't
need the Coroner to tell him death came as the result of a broken neck.

"Batman?" Jim Gordon's voice was low and quiet, as if he didn't wish to intrude but could see no
other choice.

The Dark Knight blinked, then nodded, slowly. "Yes, that's ..."

The frown took him unawares.

What should he name him?

Should he call him by the masked identity most familiar to others?

Or should he, perhaps, in death, give him his *name*; the name he fought so hard to acquire.
Struggled so long and bled for?

He'd earned it, after all.

" ... Jean Paul Valley. Azrael."

Discreetly, the Coroner moved in silence to cover the battered face once more. One dark
gauntleted, implacable hand reached out to prevent it. "Wer -were his eyes," the Guardian of
Gotham began and then brought his betraying voice under iron control. "Were his eyes open like that
when they found him?" The Police Commissioner of Gotham City nodded.

The Batman's hand did not tremble even in the least when he reached out and slowly closed those
accusing eyes and he was very glad of that.

Another hand, naked and exposed, untouched or protected by kevlar or nomex, lay itself lightly on
his tense shoulder in comfort. "I'm sorry," said Gordon's quiet voice at his side. "He ... was one of
yours, wasn't he?"

It surprised him that he scarcely needed to think before he answered.

"Yes."

He turned away, then, and allowed the Coroner to do his job. "Tell me what happened, Jim," he
demanded in a gruff, harsh voice he bitterly recognized as his own.

Jim Gordon slipped his horn-rimmed glasses off his aquiline nose and absently began to nervously
polish the immaculate lenses with his handkerchief. Batman waited patiently. His thoughts gathered,
Gordon pushed his heavy glasses back onto his nose and cleared his throat. He was on familiar
ground, now, The Batman sensed. Making a report.

"The Tavis Country Sheriff's Department called us early this morning. Double homicide. They
dispatched two officers in a black and white out to the old Mission Francais grounds to check for
damage after that violent storm last night. It's pretty isolated out there according to them, so they try
and keep a friendly eye on it when they can. The officers found two bodies. Unidentified male,
early to mid twenties, wearing some 'strange clothing'. Female, mid to late twenties, at the bottom of
a cliff. The woman was later identified as one Lilhy Dumas. Last known residence: The top two
floors of the Gotham Arms Hotel, here in Gotham City. So they contacted us for information."

"Did they find an abandoned car? Late model silver-gray Porshe?"

The Commissioner frowned, shaking his graying head. "No, they didn't," he answered.

The Batman moved to turn away, but Jim Gordon put out his hand. "What do you know about
this?" he urged. "Let me help you, damnit!" The Batman stood very still for a long moment, not
looking back and a frustrated Jim Gordon thought that he was going to be ignored. It seemed a
small eternity before The Batman spoke again in that cold, harsh voice. Beneath his insistent fingers,
Gordon could feel the steel muscles relax, as if a difficult decision had been reached.

"Tell the Tavis County Sheriff's Department to issue a warrant for the arrest of Jeremiah Ezekiel
Thompkins on suspicion of murder. Premeditated murder. He'll be accompanied by an unknown
oriental man wearing 'strange clothing'. Advise them that under NO circumstances are they to
approach or attempt to apprehend the man in the costume. He's extremely lethal. Way out of their
league." The full lips thinned themselves into a long white line. "Leave him to *me*. Tell them to
expect me soon. I'll forward files and photographs from the BatComputer. You can pass them
along."

The pause was a tiny, insignificant thing; easily overlooked by someone less familiar with The Batman
than Jim Gordon.

"And ... have them issue an APB on a 1999 silver-gray Porshe SLX99, license number GC181766.
The car's registered to Bruce Thomas Wayne, resident of Gotham City. Registration number
6A00073BTW. Their murder victim was driving that car. Since it wasn't found on the scene the
odds are that Thompkins and his false Azrael took it when they fled."

Jim Gordon's eyes flew open wide.

No, he decided. Now was not the time to contemplate the full implications of what he'd just been
told. No. Not now.

"Thank you." His voice did not shake. He was very proud of himself for that. "If there's anything
else I can do ... " He let the inadequate words trail off feeling too much like a weary, foolish old
man.

Since The Batman was cowled, with his back to the shorter man, Jim Gordon could catch no
glimpse of the pain in those deep arctic blue eyes. But the voice, when it answered him, was soft
and very, very human.

"No, Jim. Thank *you*. I'll be in touch."

Jim Gordon was as surprised as anyone when he left by the door this time.



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


He found them waiting in the chapel. Barbara Gordon and Leslie Thompkins; sitting in silence ...
waiting. Waiting for him, he knew. Forcing steel into his weary, sagging spine, he walked in, the
sound of his boot steps echoing off the seprucal, noiseless walls. He was not at his best, here, in this
place. Churches frequently made The Batman nervous. Churches were for happy six year old little
Brucie. Sunday School, listening attentively to his beautiful mother teach the weekly Lesson, holding
her hand, wearing his best suit and brightest smile, feeling so awfully, awfully grown up. Saying his
prayers every night.

But, when it counted most, God didn't answer those prayers, did he? Pastor Cummings soft answer
to a tearful small boy's plea. "God always answers prayers, Bruce. Always. It's just that
sometimes the answer is, 'No.'."

Like now.

Again.

Leslie looked up, staring at him with dull eyes that stabbed at The Batman in wordless accusation.
With a sharp intake of breath of her own, Barbara reached out and took the older woman's hand, as
if to protect her from what was coming.

"Leslie ... " His voice was harsher than he'd intended, he discovered to his regret. Too late, now,
though. Too late for so many, many things. He was always too late, wasn't he?

The doctor stared at her resting hands. So still and quiet. Not even a tremor. "Don't bother," she
said. The Batman winced at the resignation and dull, steady pain reflected in that too calm voice.
"It's Jean-Paul, isn't it?" She didn't even wait for his tiny nod of affirmation. "I knew." The Batman
winced. Her tone was neither cold nor accusatory. Just ... dead. "From the very beginning, I told
myself I was a great fool for caring. That it was bound to come to this. Every time he left, every
time you summoned him, I waited for this. All the while castigating myself for my folly. But ... he
slipped in under my guard, you see. Conquerored me when I wasn't looking."

His hands knotted themselves into fists.

"He ... was good at that."

She met his eyes. "Like someone else I know ... " she said.

He looked away. His breath came in deep, ragged gasps until he calmed it.

Barbara must have released her hand, he thought later, because the small hand that reached out,
cupping his chin, forcing him to turn and face her once more, was soon joined by another. She
framed his face with her physicians hands, trained in the arts of healing and comforting those in pain
and the dying. With a swift motion like a strong, wind, warm and soothing, she swept the cowl from
his face and stroked the night dark hair beneath.

"Take off the mask," she insisted firmly. "Take off the damn mask. I don't want to talk to The
Batman. I *can't* talk to The Batman. The Batman won't understand what I have to say. But
Bruce Wayne will. I *hope*."

"He's listening." came the quiet response. But, to her dismay, the mask quickly replaced itself.

"Bruce," she pleaded, "don't do this to yourself. Please. Damn you, I won't let you. I won't lose
you, too, do you hear me? I *won't*. God help me, I've fought for you since you were barely six
years old. I've watched you smother Bruce Wayne, kill him inch by inch by bloody inch. All in the
name of Justice. Well, where is justice for Bruce Wayne? And I can't watch it any more, I can't.
You didn't kill Jean-Paul. And you didn't kill your parents, either. You were only six years old, for
God's sake! You can stop punishing little Bruce Wayne for that, now. You didn't kill them!"

"Didn't I?" The bitterness ringing in his voice, like stale soured brine left too long to fester in its
neglected oaken keg, surprised even him.

She shook him and he did not stop her.

"Stop it!" she cried. "Stop it! Jean-Paul's dead. There's nothing you can do to change that.
Nothing. Neither can I. But what we can do is try to see that some good comes out of this horror.
Jean-Paul would want that."

He thought of Jeremiah Thompkins false Azrael.

<"I feel I have to save him ... ">

The weakness that made him lower his head onto her shoulder for a moment shamed him. Slowly,
he rose and straightened the concealing cowl, his battered, almost breached armor, into its proper
lines with sure fingers.

"I'll ... try," he vowed.

The small delicate hand that squeezed his larger calloused one was strong. The hand of a healer and
a surgeon.

"I know you will," Doctor Leslie Thompkins said.

He knelt again at her side. "I promise you, Leslie, I'll find Jerry for you. I'll find him and then I'll get
him help. I *promise*."

She closed her eyes for only a moment. But when she opened them again he was gone, melted into
the gathering shadows as if he'd never been there at all. Barbara Gordon was almost smiling through
the grief that ravaged her lovely face.

"Now I know how he does that," she murmured.



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


Alone on the hospital roof, he shot out a jump line and leapt out into the yawning void, free falling
...flying ... flying ...

Dick was right to love this so, he thought. The city ... *his* city ... spread itself out before him like
an anxious lover and he embraced it with all that he had left to give.

He had one more stop to make.



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



Sharp ears brought him the sounds of soft music playing in the small apartment.

I sat within the valley green
I sat with my true love

The dulcet tenor voice of Tommy Clancy lulled him for a moment, crouching there unseen on the
small ledge. He was not a devotee of Irish music, but this song he remembered well.

My sad heart had to choose between
Old Ireland and my love
I looked at her and then I thought
How Ireland was torn
While soft the wind blew down the glen
And shook the golden corn

It was the work of but an instant to jimmy the window lock and slip silent and uninvited into the small
room. Dr. Brian Bryan lived frugally, it seemed. Immediately his nose brought him the stale scent of
alcohol wafting from the rumpled figure sprawled unconscious on the comfortable looking couch.
He wrinkled his nose. The half empty bourbon bottle, fallen to the floor from numb fingers, spoke
with simple eloquence of the sorrow that lived here, now.

He searched the cabinets and found the coffee in the top one, hiding behind colorful blue and yellow
boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. His hand betrayed him and shook slightly when he spied the
label. Jamaica Blue Mountain. Jean-Paul's favorite. Alfred's fine, tasteful hand in that he'd always
suspected.

Alfred ...

Someone *else* who was gone.

He found the Jameson's in plain sight in the lower cabinet and brought it out. When the coffee was
ready he carried the aromatic cup and the whiskey bottle into the living room, sat them both on the
living room table, and waited.

He didn't have to wait long. Within moments Bryan began to stir. Scrubbing his craggy face, the
physician sat painfully up, lowering his head onto his knees when he saw the coffee and the whiskey
awaiting him.

"It's up to you," said the harsh voice from out of the shadows and Bryan had the presence of mind
*not* to jump. He wasn't really surprised, after all. "It always was. You can pick up either one of
them; the coffee or the liquor. Decide."

Almost a full minute passed before an unsteady hand reached out to warm itself over the steaming
coffee cup, breathing in the fragrance of the dark brew.

"Ahhh, you're a hard man you are, boyo," he declared, taking his first sip. "Come out of the
shadows, for God's sake. You'll not be needing them here."

"I'm comfortable in the shadows," the voice replied, softer now.

"And now wouldn't *that* be giving dear old Sigmund a hard pecker, it would?" the older man
smiled. Not a pleasant sight. When there was no reply the psychiatrist's face clouded with his rage
like a stormy day.

"Come out of the fookin' shadows, ye bastard!" he snarled, his accent thickening with his wrath. "I
want to see yair bloody face! I want to *see* the man who killed him."

When he stepped forward into the light the lenses in his cowl adjusted themselves to the brightness,
so he didn't even blink.

"Here I am Brian," he said quietly.

And in the background, almost unnoticed, the song played on.

So blood for blood without remorse
I've taken in the glen ...
I placed my true love's clayful corpse
I've joined true Irish men

"Does it get any easier with time I'm wondering?" Brian demanded. "The death and the loss?
Identifying bodies, taking yair revenge, then calling the scales balanced? I'm thinking it must. How
many others have you sent to their deaths, ye obsessed ghoul? A dozen? Twenty? More? How
many soldiers lie dead on yair personal battlefield, buck-o? What's the body count?"

He stood rock steady; did not flinch at the word "soldier". Would not let himself.

<Jason Alan Todd, the tombstone read. A Good Soldier.>

And this newest tombstone in his garden of graves ... what would it read?

<Jean-Paul Valley. Another Good Soldier>?

"Doctor Bryan I need your help." he said simply. And waited.

The muscles of the other man's face twitched and spasmed, working themselves violently, like a sun
burning itself out in the noiseless void of space. The full bottle of expensive Irish whiskey flew across
the room, shattering into a thousand pieces with an almost musical sigh, amber beads of savory
moisture flowing slowly down the anointed wall, releasing the strong odor of peat and a warm
crackling fire into the still calm air of the small room.

"Damn ye!" Brian cried and it was a broken sound like the remnants of the shattered whiskey bottle
laying forgotten on the hardwood floor. "Damn ye to Hell ... "

"*Will* you help me?"

The stout, barrel chested man sank back down onto the couch like a puppet with no strings to
support its wooden weight. He buried his head in his broad hands. But even through that fleshly
barrier he could not block out the sight of the dark shadow cast by the other man.

And The Batman waited.

"What - what do you want?" Brian Bryan finally whispered.

Beneath his cowl The Batman's face drew itself into lines of patience and burning intelligence,
prepared to listen and learn.

"You kno - knew Jean-Paul better than anyone," he said. "Understood what it was that made him
Azrael. I need that knowledge, doctor. You see, there's another Azrael out there ... the one who
killed Jean-Paul. And I've got to stop him."

Brian Bryan, the self confessed 'world's worst psychiatrist', took a deep breath and, after a moment,
began to speak.

And, still unnoticed in the stillness, Tommy Clancy sang on.

But 'round her grave I wander drear
Sometimes in early morn -
And with breaking heart sometimes I hear
The wind that shakes the corn ...



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



Three Months Later:

The tall oriental man stood staring down at the grave for long moments, his face an impassive mask.
In the hidden distance sharp eyes watched him. He was motionless, still as a statue, the harsh
Winter wind blowing around him, leaving heavy wet flakes of snow to pepper the dark hair. The
light dusting of falling snow covering the gravestone leant the recumbent figure of the fallen Angel
straining upward toward Heaven a particular poignancy, the watching man decided. Silently, he read
the chiseled inscription on the stone.

JEAN-PAUL VALLEY
Friend
Fellow striver against the Shadows ...

The standing man's shallow breathe barely disturbed the frozen air, issuing forth only as a thin stream
of white to announce itself.

Time to make himself known, the watcher thought.

"Hello, Azrael."

The figure did not spin or start. In fact, he barely moved at all. He merely crouched, automatically
assuming a defensive stance and waiting for his unseen opponent to move.

Bruce Wayne stepped from the shelter of the concealing tree in the tiny graveyard of the sprawling
Wayne estate, and considered the irony that neither of them were wearing their protective masks.
No armor to shield either of them from the harsh reality of the other.

Or the harsh reality of the lonely grave at which they gathered.

Whatever happened here, he knew, would lie between Bruce Wayne and -

He did not know the other man's name, he suddenly reminded himself.

"Brian said you'd come here. That all I really had to do was wait. He was right, I see. As a matter
of fact, you've been here four times in the last month. I've watched you."

The other man tensed, though he said nothing. But, then, neither did he flee.

Wayne smiled; a tiny thing almost invisible in the frigid air.

"Oh, that's right. I forgot. You're not much of a talker. Jean-Paul explained that about you.
Neither am I, usually. But I think I can manage for the two of us. I've had some practice at that
recently. I have another young friend who doesn't speak much. Her name's Cassandra. You'll like
Cassie when I introduce you two. You've got a lot in common."

The other man almost seemed to relax a bit, then. Good, Wayne decided. He was being as
deliberately non-threatening as he could. No small accomplishment for The Batman. Still, he did not
approach the skiddish youth any closer. No sense taking chances. And he did not want to pursue
Azrael. Emboldened by seeming success, he thrust his chill hands into the deep pockets of his coat.

"Do you have a name?" he asked. "I mean, I can't just call you 'Hey, you!'"

The younger man lowered his eyes. "Azrael," he said, after a moment.

Wayne would not allow The Batman to frown. "No," he said softly, "I mean your *name*. Tell me
your name. My name is Bruce."

Hesitation. War waged itself in those dark eyes. A war that Bruce Wayne knew all too well. A
war for trust. *Would* Azrael trust this stranger Bruce Wayne? Trust did not come easily to either
of them, it seemed.

<A tentative hand perched lightly on a muscular shoulder. A deep, trusting voice ringing with the
accents of Middle America. 'My name's Clark, my friend. Clark Kent.' The bottomless void that
opened up in his roiling, churning stomach, threatening to consume him before he conquered it. The
shaky hand that slowly pushed back the cowl. 'Hello, Clark. My name is Bruce.'>

The passing moments crawled like cautiously advancing slug-like centuries until the answer finally
came.

"Shang Chi." Blunt, killing fingers touched the middle of his chest to confirm the name.

Wayne made a slight bow; an inclination of the head. A courtesy between equals. "A fine name," he
said in perfect Cantonese, the most common dialect of Chinese. It was not likely that the boy spoke
Mandarin, after all. "It means, 'the raising and advancing of a spirit', does it not? An auspicious
name, young friend."

Crouching, the adventurous millionaire traced the symbols of the fortuitous name in the snow and
smiled. Cautiously, the Chinese youth crept closer for a better view.

"Eight letters. A lucky number. You are most fortunate." He looked up, his sharp blue eyes
studying the younger man. "Were you born in Hong Kong? Kowloon?"

The onyx dark eyes widened briefly in surprise, but the nod of assent was small, almost
imperceptible. Wayne nodded in return. Quickly, his fingers drew a wide circle, then quartered it,
hastily filling the girth with the many signs and symbols of a Chinese geomancer.

"You were born in one of the years of the Dragon, I think. Your element is fire. Fire and
destruction. Born in Kowloon you are oriented towards the West. Towards the Shouting Winds.
Another sign of destruction. Feng shui advises that you must be especially careful entering and
leaving large, inviting doorways. You must always enter them from the East ... towards the Calming
Winds. The door leading into The Order of St. Dumas was huge, wasn't it? Irresistible. But you
mustn't be afraid. The door leading away from them faces the East and is small and humble. My
guess is that you were born in the Hour of The White Dawn. Around five of the clock. When the
shadows are retreating; falling, vanishing before the coming Light. That's your salvation. It means
that you have a powerful streak of loyalty and compassion to guide your strong chi in times of
trouble. Times like these." Dusting the snow from his hands, the faux playboy rose.

"You ran away from him, didn't you? Left Jeremiah Thompkins to his madness and his crusade. Hid
yourself. But you know where he is."

Azrael did not reply.

"That's all right," Bruce Wayne said nodding, his voice very calm. "You don't have to tell me where
he is until you're ready. Or I'll find him myself. Without you he's not a very big threat. But I
promised his sister Leslie that I'd find him and get him help. And I will. I think you'd feel better if
you were a part of that. And ... well, I can't make you any promises, but ... I'm sure it'll go much
better for you with the authorities if you help bring Jeremiah to justice and the therapy he needs.
Under the circumstances, it should be easy for you to plead 'diminished capacity', especially if you
cooperate with the court. I can introduce you to a smart man named Brian who can help with that.
Lawyers won't be a problem. I know some of the best. And if The Batman testifies on your behalf,
explains what was done to you ... I expect the court will be inclined to leniency."

The Dark Knight stepped closer and, surprisingly, the younger man did not retreat. One broad hand
lay itself lightly on the tense shoulder offering comfort.

"I think you owe it to Jean-Paul to give yourself a chance. We - both do. He couldn't kill you. And
you didn't want to kill him. You spared him once, in the desert. And you'd have done it again if you
could have. But the voice of Jeremiah Thompkins was right there shouting at you. *Ordering* you.
And Azrael *must* obey. No, you had no choice. You had no choice. But Jean-Paul did. He
*chose* to die. So that you could live. You two were the only ones in the world who understood
what it was like, being Azrael. He called you 'brother'."

Silent as a shadow, Shang Chi slipped to the frosty ground, covering his face with his hands. His
shoulders shook. "... regret ..." he choked in broken English, " ... not want ... not want ... he say to
me, 'Better that it is I ...'" To hide his shame, the youth buried his head against the warmth of a
strong thigh, clutching at the dark cloth with frantic fingers as if it were the sole solace in his
despairing universe.

Feather light, scarred fingers touched the sable head. Then, kneeling to look into the young man's jet
dark eyes, Bruce Wayne cupped the strong chin with his hands. "You mustn't be sad," he urged.
"Your brother wouldn't want that for you. Don't you see? Jean-Paul wanted this. He wanted me to
help you. And ... and you to help *me*. There's a lot you could teach me. About caring and
reaching out. A lot we could teach each other. Will you come and learn with me?"

Rising, the hero of Gotham held out his hand in invitation.

Long seconds passed before, uncertain and not quite trembling, another hand folded itself into his
with great trust.

"You must be freezing," the squire of Wayne Manor observed, leading the other man to one of the
many entrances to the Manor. "Don't you have a coat?"

Embarrassed, Shang Chi shook his head.

Without a word, Wayne slipped off his long cashmere topcoat and slid it over the other's shivering
shoulders. "We'll take care of that soon enough," he smiled.

As they approached the doorway, the young oriental paused and stared with wide eyes up at the
imposing edifice sprawling before him. Wayne chuckled. "Don't worry," he encouraged. "This door
faces the East. And you can see that it's quite small and very simple. I picked it especially for you."

The smile that claimed Azrael's not so inscrutable features was a tiny thing, almost unnoticeable. But
it was there, nonetheless. With only the slightest hesitation the youth stepped forward and then
through the open doorway with firm purposeful strides of his long legs.

Seating his young guest in the kitchen, Wayne scrabbled through the voluminous cabinets, frowning,
pushing aside aromatic bottles and boxes of exotic spices and canisters full of flour and baking soda.

"It's got to be in here somewhere!" he muttered, darkly.

"It's in the lower cabinet, over the sink," instructed a calm cultured English voice. "Next to the Earl
Grey. You never could find anything in the kitchen, Master Bruce."

Heart pounding with wild joy, Bruce Wayne turned to face the slim, well dressed Englishman
standing in the kitchen door. His eyes sparkled. Clutching the tin of tea tightly in his hand, he drew a
deep breath.

"Alfred. You came back," he murmured.

Laying aside his ubiquitous umbrella, Alfred Pennyworth smiled. "And just in time, I see," he
opined. "Here, you'd best give me that," he said, reaching for the tea. Bruce handed it over
gratefully. And if his hand lingered just a bit longer than was utterly necessary ... what of that?
"Ginseng tea is quite delicate. I shudder to think of the mess you could make of it." the gentleman's
gentleman remarked.

"Am I growing up, Alfred? Learning to work and play well with others?" Wayne whispered.

Alfred turned from the stove where he'd set the copper kettle on to boil. "Indeed." he replied. "And
so you are, young man." He sounded pleased as he reached out to briefly squeeze Bruce's muscular
forearm in reassurance. "Indeed."

Bruce swallowed. "I'm ... trying ... old friend, " he vowed. "I'm trying."

"No one ever asked more of you, Bruce," Alfred whispered in his ear as he pulled him close. For a
long moment they embraced one another, basking in the warmth and comfort to be found in the
nearness of another caring person. "I came as soon as I heard about young Master Jean-Paul," the
valet said sadly. Before Bruce could reply, Alfred stepped away, regarding with hopeful eyes the
quiet youth sitting at the table.

"I see you've made a new friend," he smiled.

Wayne nodded. "Alfred," he began the introduction, "This is Shang Chi. Azrael. He'll be staying
with us."

Alfred bowed slightly from the waist, as was proper for one member of the family to another.
"Welcome, Son of Heaven," he said. "The Middle Kingdom rejoices."

When the tea was ready, steeped to perfection, the butler poured three cups and joined the two
others already seated at the table. He sighed, sipping the fragrant, calming tea.

They had a lot to discuss.


The End


NOTE: The sitch is this -- Dr. Leslie Thompkins asked Jean-Paul Valley to help her find her brother
Jeremiah, a medical missionary, with whom she fell out of communication some time ago after
receiving some decidedly "strange" letters from him. And Jean-Paul DID find him. Unfortunately,
Jeremiah Thompkins has lost most of his sanity. He now believed himself to be a Prophet and had
set upon a course of "punishing" the unjust and unrighteous. Rather permanently punishing them.
Even more unfortunately Jeremiah soon had help in his crusade in the person of a young Chinese
follower of St. Dumas who was brainwashed into being the Order's new Azrael. In Azrael #75
Jean-Paul defeated Jeremiah Thompkins and put an end to his crusade. But the young Chinese
Azrael was killed despite Jean-Paul's valiant efforts to save him.

FURTHER NOTE: The best way to regard this fic is just to think of it as an alternate ending for
Azrael # 75 and go from there. Just a little What If? What If ... things had gone just a bit
differently?

LAST NOTE: For those knowledgeable people paying attention, yes, I borrowed the name of the
new Azrael. Ten Brownie Points to the first person who can tell moi from where:):) <G>