SPIFFY DISCLAIMER THINGIE!!!

They don't belong to moi! Ah'm just borrowing them is all:):)

Rated Rated R for m/f and m/m imlied sexual themes and some violence! If'n that offends ya'll then skedaddle:):)

The Next Best Thing

An Azrael Tale by Dannell Lites

Being very careful to come no closer than absolutely necessary, Brian Bryan handed the just washed soup bowl, still dripping 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 meet 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 them 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 ... 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, soft voiced. "Why shouldn't I tell you that I think what you're doing is reprehensible, damaging?" Dick paled for an instant at the revelation and then flushed crimson with anger.

"Jealous?"

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

"You have something I'd give anything to poccess," 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 of victory.

"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, the other man 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. Garyson," 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 that frightens you deeply. And not just the Batman. 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.

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

"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 roommates young lover he was scowling.

"I usually charge about $250/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 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 one, 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 one', 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 shrift.

"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 takes 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, 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 make 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 Graysons 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 was beginning 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. 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 your lover, do you?" The boy winced at that and Brian looked away.

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 of wrath. "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, perhaps.

"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?"

"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 was nowhere to be seen. 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."

End, Part One

Part 2