Still the holiday season, but a bit late. That's me-a day late and a dollar short.

As always, I don't own.

Though Stained Glass **

Jim Gordon looked at the small table next to the podium and the infinitesimal pile of reports in sleeves of various colors. Seven colors, to be exact. "I seem to be missing thirty-four papers," he grumbled, walking over to the podium. He looked around at the class, spread out through the auditorium. It was the day before Christmas Break (winter recess, he had to remind himself), and there were only about twelve students actually in attendance. "You can tell your friends that I want them all by eleven p.m. on the twenty-fourth, or they all get zero's." This was only slightly worse than collecting evaluations at performance review time. He was used to one or two supervisors filling out reviews while he stood there, waiting for them.

He picked up an envelope that was on the podium and pulled out the teacher evaluation forms. was inescapable. "Before I hand out these things, do you all have any questions or comments you'd like to direct to me?"

"Why're you letting us hand our papers in on Christmas Eve?" Nate Wilkenson asked from the back row. His feet were propped up on the chair in front of him, and Jim suspected that those were the young man's flannel pajamas peeking from beneath the long canvas duster pulled around him like a blanket.

Jim pushed up his glasses and gave the smile of a man about to share a secret. "I'm expected those of you who're less studious to hang yourselves, which means less papers for me to grade. Seventy-three percent of you do not live in this area. I expect almost all of you to be returning to your families as soon as your last class is over, which means that they will both have procrastinated because of my policy of accepting late papers, then will immediately forget said paper in the light of family festivities."

A couple of the kids chuckled to themselves. "Aint got nothin' to do this Christmas, huh?" Nate asked. "Sigma Alpha Epsilon's havin' a party on the 24th. You can totally come."

Jim almost laughed. Half the students were still afraid of him and his grading scale, and how he gave them all just enough rope. The other half seemed obsessed with the possibility of drinking him under the table. "Mr. Wilkenson, let me finish grading your paper before I commit to carousing."

The young man took his feet off the top of the chair and shrunk a little with embarrassment. Nate's paper was NOT in the pile. His midterm paper was three pages short of ten, and he was only showing up today because he needed all the kiss-up points he could get.

Jim handed the papers and envelop to the young lady in the front row. "Sooner you guys fill these out, the sooner you can start your break. Laura, can you bring them to the department secretary on the fifth floor?" The young woman nodded, and Jim began gathering up his things. "Have a good break, people. And I'll see whoever's taking the 400 level next semester." Grabbing his hat, he walked out.

James Gordon's office was sparsely populated by one ancient desk and a wall of mostly unused book shelves. He'd brought in a now-dying plant and a few criminology books from home mostly for show. He felt awkward being the only adjunct faculty member in the department with an office, no matter how cramped and musty it may be, and felt compelled to at least make a show of living there.

After putting his coat and his bag into the empty drawer in the bottom of his desk, Jim sat in the creaking chair he'd been issued, and began leafing through the papers, carefully dodging the clunky monitor of the unused computer on the desk.

He noted that it looked as though the few he'd received had actually been decently written. He wasn't much of a spelling and grammar man, so it had to be pretty bad if HE caught it. Sometimes the papers were so bad they were indecipherable, which was a feat, considering he'd been reading Harvey Bullock's reports for fifteen years. Taking out a black pen, he opened the cover of the first paper. It was better to get through the legible ones first, he supposed.

The ancient analog phone on the desk began ringing, the bell inside causing the unit to shake. He was pretty sure who was calling. Not even Barbara bothered him at the university.

"Hello?" he answered after the first ring.

There was a pause, and he knew whoever was on the other end was about to hang up. This was the second time he'd gotten this call in the last two weeks.

"I told you not to be a stranger, and I mean it. Why don't you stop over tonight?" he asked the silence on the other end.

He waited for a response or acknowledgement but all he got was the barely auditable sound of the caller hanging up.

"Stubborn," he muttered, noticing Laura in his doorway. "Yes?" certain feelings never changed; getting caught talking to thin air by a visitor at his office door.

"Ms. Hill said to tell you that she has to mail out evaluations because your attendance was so bad," the young woman said tentatively. She pulled the sleeves of her orange and red striped sweater over her hands and held onto the cuffs. She was thin and studious, and kind of reminded him of Barbara, if it weren't for her shyness. She'd been working as office help within the department since the middle of the semester, and Jim had yet to see any change in demeanor.

"Tell Attila that she can do what she pleases," Jim grumbled back. There was something about the structure of a university that reminded him why he'd left the force. It wasn't the horizontal pressures that got to him, it was the lateral ones.

The girl lingered in the door way, seeming to wait for better instructions.

Jim's shoulders slumped a little. "Tell her to come down here and talk to me, if she has a problem."

As soon as the young woman was out of his office, he began to pick up his things. One thing he'd learned in dealing with city politics.sometimes, the best way to deal with bureaucracy was to avoid it.

* * *

For the next few nights, Jim left the window in the dining room open, the apartment lights dim, and did everything but send an engraved invitation to the Bat. He really was hoping for a drop-in. He wanted to know if all of their traditions were to be broken, now that he was no longer commissioner.

On Christmas Eve, he graded papers by the light of the small lamp on an end table in the living room, the evening news murmuring quietly in the background. He realized he was coming to the end of his stack, the end of his cup of coffee and the end of the newscast when the doorbell rang.

There was a flash of quirky optimism, before realism caught up with him as he went to the door. His friend was seldom so obvious, and Barbara had plans with friends for the evening. He paused at the drawer containing his service weapon, but kept going toward the door. He was getting paranoid in his old age.

"Mr. Wilkenson," he said as he opened the door. Jim tried hard not to smile or laugh. The young man was red-faced from the cold, and a little out of breath. The elevator must have been broken. Again. That was the punishment for procrastination, he supposed.

He handed Jim a paper in a slightly worn Manila folder. "Like. five hours early."

Jim grabbed a bright green paper off the small table near the door. "The party starts at seven. A flyer mysteriously made it into my mailbox."

"Oh come on, you don't have plans," Nate said with a certain boldness.

The kid was probably more stupid than brave, but Jim let it be. "I may have plans. You don't know."

Nate looked over Jim's shoulder, to the pictures on the far wall. "She would TOTALLY be here if you had plans. She's probably out drinking it up, and you should be too, yo." Suddenly the young man became self-conscious. He looked Jim in the eye. "Sir."

"She?" Jim asked, having a pretty clear idea to what his student was referring.

"The redhead in the pictures." He looked down at the ground, a little embarrassed at his ascertations. "Your daughter?"

"You're really not as stupid as you look," Jim said gruffly with a sigh. He looked around at the chilly, empty apartment.

"No excuses," the young man said in a way that infuriated Jim. It was the same tone of voice that Barbara used to use to get him out of the apartment after Sarah had been killed. He really was an old fuddy duddy.

"And what possible fun can an ex cop three hundred and fifty times your age be at a fraternity kegger?" Jim asked in protest.

The young man grinned. "It's not a kegger. Some dude makes this truffle brownie crap with nuts and caramel and stuff. You need the beer to wash it down."

The kid showed up to one out of three classes a week, on average, was handing in his paper down to the wire, then was trying to drag Jim out the door? There was something else going on. "You'll need to do better than that."

"This is totally not a grade bribe, sir," Nate promised, crossing his heart.

Jim kept silent. He waited and waited, until it drew out like taffy; sticky, warm, a little uncomfortable. But he knew the kid was smart, but not that smart, to out play him at the old pumping for information routine.

Finally Nate looked around, then ran a hand through his freshly washed hair. "I dunno. I've been thinking about it all semester, and I got kinda upset about you letting us hand our papers in late, and more upset cuz I know you're not doing anything, because I know where you're gunna go."

Jim took one step backwards. Nate stepped into the apartment, and Jim closed the door behind him. "Ok," he said, letting the young man know that he had the old cop's full attention.

"So, there was that thing that happened. Like. ten years ago?" Nate became very uncomfortable and fidgeted. He looked back behind him, as if wondering if he'd made a mistake. "So I was the alter boy that found Fr. Adamski. And I know you go back there every year. And it makes me. I don't know."

Jim pursed his lips. He didn't know what to say. The priest had been found by an altar boy sneaking outside for a pre-mass smoke just outside one of the less used back doors, right before midnight mass. He'd been stabbed seven times, once in the face.

Jim remembered the blood on the frozen white-frosted grass. The blood on the white and gold vestments, the awful tear in the man's face from his cheek to his eye, and seeing teeth through the wound. Apparently he'd stepped outside to get a breath of fresh air from the warm incense-filled sacristy before the service began. No one knew if he'd struggled much, or screamed; they had not heard the sounds of violence over the joyful prelude of the organ.

Jim went back every year and stood outside that window. He wasn't sure why, but there was an oddly shaped piece of translucent stained glass making up a manger in one of the windows, and he always looked through it. Year after year he stared at the people, murmuring before mass then ritually singing a joyful hymn they'd sung a hundred times before. He watched other priests process up the center aisle of the church, singing and swinging the incensor as they went.

He could never see the altar from his spot, so he just watched the people during the muffled echoes of the opening prayer. Some were attentive, some were doing their duty. He was always very interested in their faces for some reason. And he was never alone. His now-suddenly wayward friend was always behind him.

They watched and let the miniscule tendrils of incense escape through the closed side door of the church. It was their moment together each year.

By the end of the opening prayer, they'd both go their separate ways.

"My plans might have changed," Jim said lamely, then he looked back again at the open windows, and sniffed at the breeze gently striping away any holiday warmth from the apartment.

"Barker will be there," Nate promised.

"William Barker goes to those things?" Both of Jim's eyebrows shot upward. "That man's out of MY age bracket."

"He only comes to the Christmas thing. He was Sigma Alpha Epsilon like a gillion years ago. Doesn't have any kids, so he's been coming since the old lady died. Like two years ago."

Jim walked over to the window, pulling back the curtain and looking out. "Is this some kind of charity project?" There was nothing but Christmas lights and errant snowflakes for as far as he could see. The shadows had no form, and held no welcome. It looked like if he went to that church, he'd be standing outside alone. They were supposed to be friends, but when it came down to it.

"We tried to get it to count for a service project, but he's our organization sponsor," the young man said sheepishly.

Jim closed the window and shut the drapes. Well, there were a lot of people from work he didn't get to associate with any more. Many traditions had been broken and reshaped over the years as his family situation had changed. Why should this be any different, or more sacred?

* * *

The frat house, a three story Victorian structure bought by the university about ten years ago, was lit with mismatched arrays of Christmas lights taped up on the porch and inside the parlor. It looked a little lonely, and sounded too quiet. He'd broken up parties thirty times worse than what he saw before him.

As they crossed the dark porch to the door, Jim noted how dark the first floor was. Just the Christmas lights were illuminating it. The only loud sounds were coming from the second floor, an obnoxious stereo. A window was open on the second floor, and two third years were blowing cigarette smoke through the screen,

"See, this isn't so bad," Nate promised. "YO!" he hollered.

Someone shouted greeting from the kitchen, "yo!"

Jim followed Nate to the kitchen. What in the world was he doing here?

He thought of walking out, until he saw a young man mixing an entire bottle of vodka into a punch bowl by the illumination of a string of red chili pepper lights and nodding as Professor Barker droned on, from his seat at the kitchen table about "The Great War." Jim wasn't sure if Barker was sharing personal experiences, or if someone had failed to tell him that his history lecture had ended. Jim supposed he was to be a buffer between ancient and crotchety and the young who were disposed and away from homes for the holiday.

"I found another one," Nate said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder at Jim. "You might wanna order another couple of pizzas."

Jim was about to say that he didn't eat THAT much, when Nate walked over to the table which was stacked high with caramel covered brownies, snatched two, and handed one to Jim. For the first time, he noticed two empty beer bottles in front of Professor Barker.

"He tells really good stories when you get a few in him," Nate whispered, taking a bite out of his brownie. "I should get you one too, You're gunna need it." He swallowed hard to get the rich concoction down his throat.

"I've got punch!" the kid at the counter declared, dipping a soup ladle into the bowl and pouring it into a paper cup.

"Who made all these?" Jim asked, impressed.

"Brad Knightington," Nate explained. "He's got OCD real bad, and if you get him drunk, he cooks and cleans for you," he said proudly, letting Jim in on the little secret.

"We didn't have OCD in my day. We had ass-whoopings," Professor Barker chimed in, lifting his beer. He took a good solid swig, then thunked it down on the table top and grabbed another brownie.

".Up the hill both ways," muttered the unnamed young man with humor, then he wandered out of the room with the punch bowl,

Jim took a bite of the brownie and it was far too rich. Lifting the pink punch to his lips, he almost managed to take a sip before Nate grabbed it out of his hand and replaced it with a beer.

"That stuff'll put you in a coma. There's like six cups of sugar in it," he explained.

Jim accepted the beer gratefully and took a thirsty sip.

Barker rose and hitched up his pants in a perfectly old-fashioned manner. "Don't eat the Jello," he warned, and then marched off towards the bathroom.

Nate hid his eyes behind a hand, but Jim could guess that someone had tried to feed the nearly retired professor Jello shots.

"Mr. Wilkenson, I don't think you're as flighty as you appear to be," Jim informed him, staring at the place once occupied by the old professor.

"I gotta paper from the doctor that says I have Adult Attention Deficit Disorder," Nate deadpanned.

"What's your major?" Jim asked, trying to put together the full picture.

Nate dumped the sugary punch down the sink, taking his time at keeping his back to Jim. "Undecided," the young man muttered.

"In your junior year?" Jim questioned, more loudly than he wanted to. "What're you doing in my class then?" He suspected that at least a third of his students were only in his class in the hopes that he'd talk about the Batman.

"Dunno. Seemed cool to take," Nate muttered, looking up at the ceiling.

"I don't think so," Jim answered, knowing he was being harsh. "I just think you're a young man who has no idea where he wants to be."

"You, my mom, and my high school guidance counselor," came in sarcastic reply.

Jim was losing the battle, he realized, and needed to turn things around. But he had a feeling this was a war worth fighting. "How do you know I go back to that church every year?" he asked my gently.

The kid looked uncomfortable, and Jim felt bad. He knew he was opening up a wound, but he had a feeling he had to do this. Being responsible for one hundred and fifty students was so much better than being responsible for several million, but he still got the same sense of anxiety when he saw something senselessly wrong unfolding, especially something so preventable as this young man meandering aimlessly through life.

"How do you know I go back there?" Jim repeated.

"I dunno. I go back. Just at Christmas." He opened the fridge. It was entirely full with bottles. The party wasn't big enough for a keg, but obviously big enough for a full refrigerator. He pulled out something with a monkey on it, and opened it on the bottle opener attached to the wall above the counter. "Mom's changed parishes like twice. I go back just to look. I guess you do too." Nate blew into the bottle and it made a feint high tone.

"Makes me regret like hell taking up smoking at the tender age of ten. Folks were getting ancy, or something. Fr. Tom went outside because he was getting all heady from the incense smoldering in the sacristy. And the readers were fighting over the pronunciation of something or something. I don't know. I was thinking, hey, can I get out, and back in again before Father gets back? Because he'd have totally told my mom if he caught me swigging on a cancer stick. So I was like ok, I'll jump over the railing of those little steps, and just puff behind the window, and maybe if he comes back to the door, he'll just think it's incense." He took a sip from the beer, and seemed to contemplate the brown rim for a moment. "I even had my butt on the railing before I saw him. It was like. nuts. I mean, you could tell. There was something creepy about steam rising off that thing. the hole in his face. I knew he was dead. That was the guy who'd bought us all those super size candy bars for Christmas, gave 'em to the school and CCD kids. And let his dog wander into classrooms and stuff.

"And they did that for what? Drug money or something? How much money do they think a priest had? It was stupid. On so many levels." Nate looked down into the bottle, like the beer bubbles would have some kind of hidden meaning. "If they wouldn'ta needed a fix so damned bad, they coulda waited until folks were leaving church, and gotten something goo--" He realized what he was saying and looked up. "It just doesn't make sense to me. A lot. And mom left the parish right after that. Yanked me out of school, tossed me into counseling like four days afterwards, and kept telling me 'it's ok to talk about it, Natey,' and all kinds of other crap. I didn't get to go to the funeral. I didn't get to say goodbye to my friends, or say goodbye to Fr. Tom, or figure out how you pronounce whatever the hell they were trying to pronounce. I'm trying to do all that. I guess." He rubbed a finger under his nose.

His cheek twitched once, then Nate continued. "And sometimes, when I go, the shadows kind of move. And I think I see the Batman." He blushed at the confession. "And I thought I saw him that night. Which is probably why I spent like five years in therapy." Nate drank the rest of the bottle in two swigs. "The good news is, I haven't smoked since that night." He stood up straight, having made his confession. He looked at Jim, a certain determination about him. "Your turn. Why do you spend Christmas Eve standing outside of some church instead of going in?"

Jim tried to think of a good reason. He didn't really have one. Other than it being his tradition of passing the holiday for a decade. For some reason, it was necessary for both him and his dark friend to observe something in silence. He was certain it wasn't a prayerful time, but it was meaningful.

"That was the year before I became commissioner. It was the first year I drew the short straw and had to work Christmas. Seemed like it was the beginning and end of a lot of things," Jim noted, trying to make sense of it for himself.

"Like?" The kid knew how to ask the tough questions.

"I don't know. An end to the corruption on the force. A lot of bad habits were ending around that time. The end of simple crimes for simple reasons. Now they're sometimes stupid, mostly senseless, and always have an angle. Whether it was the plain-clothes criminals, or the costumes."

It was the year the first Robin had nearly died. That had scared him nearly witless. Not only had his friend Harvey Dent changed that year, but he'd changed into a murdering psycho who wasn't afraid to hurt children. Nor was his greatest ally as infallible as he'd once thought him to be. Not with putting a child in such a position. "The world had changed into a place where a man of God could be killed over the nothing in his pockets."

It seemed he mourned a lot of things at Christmas. People, promises, the past, the future. Christmas Eve caused him to look forward with trepidation into each coming year. It seemed to be a yearly milestone. Or tombstone, if one could be so melodramatic, and only became moreso with each passing year.

Since then he'd lost even more than what little innocence and anticipation for the future he'd once held.

"What was it? Five or six years after that. my daughter." He didn't want to go into the details. "Right before Christmas, she was shot. That was the same year that a friend lost his son."

"A couple years ago, my wife died on Christmas Eve." He looked down into his hands, glad his student hadn't said he was sorry. He'd heard it enough over the last few years. "She was murdered," he elaborated. "That was the one year I missed going there. I doubt anyone noticed. The whole world was a mess back then."

His wife had been killed, his daughter had been shot in a game with a madman. The Joker hadn't been victorious, but he had taken away his wife, and the light from his daughter's eyes.

Jim stared up into the red chili pepper lights, somehow comforted by the non-holiday atmosphere. "I guess I do have SOMETHING to mark each year."

He'd never given in, or given up. He'd never allowed himself to. It seemed like he was also mourning the loss of the opportunity to rest, to allow himself to be buried under the weight of it all.

"I go back there to watch the people's faces. Those that want to be there. The ones that don't. Some of them have seen worse than me, and I shouldn't complain. Some of them haven't. and I wouldn't wish it on them."

Taking one last sip of his beer, Jim rose. "I don't think either of us are ever going to find what we're looking for standing outside on Christmas."

"What're we looking for?" the younger man asked, wondering if there was something else at all out there.

"Something we shouldn't be looking for. Something that probably isn't coming back." Tossing his bottle into the half-full garbage can, Jim winced at the loud chinking sound. "We both need to look forward. I need to start working with what I have, and you need the prestige and graduate school resume building of being my unpaid lackey."

"Sounds great," Nate said sarcastically, but a small smile of excitement passed over his features. "Does this mean I get the photo copy card?"

"As long as Attila the Secretary doesn't come after me for making a million copies in a week," Jim told him sternly. He was sure he could mold the boy into something. eventually. He began walking to the kitchen door. "I guess we'd better call it quits. I feel the need to make a nuisance of myself with my daughter and her friends. And I think one old fart is enough."

"Why do you think HE goes every year?" Nate asked, looking for the light switch. He flipped it, and nothing happened.

"His motives, as always, remain his own," Jim answered solemnly. "Speaking of old farts. someone's been gone a long time."

Nate's eyes grew wide with worry for the old man, and he dashed out of the room past Jim.

"I go because you go," a shadow said quietly.

"You need a better reason than that," Jim answered sotto voce, not bothering to turn toward the darkest corner of the kitchen.

"As always, my reasons remain my own," the darkness repeated.

The end,