A/N: I blew off easily 10+ other WIPs in favor of writing this, but I have a feeling it's going to run pretty long. Caveat lector; things are going to get dark in here, but I promise to see this through to the end.
Special thanks to DS (kadajlozyazoo) for putting up with my constant chatter about this AU (and for making it better in every way). I am so grateful for you and all of your writing!
I'm actually traveling right now, so no promises re: EXTREMESPEED updates, but I hope you enjoy the ride. Depending on how much interest there is in this fic, I may find the time to post the next part sooner. :-)
June 25th, 1986
Nature is beautiful, Edward told himself on his hands and knees, cowled in sprawling stems and summer leaves. Three words. He said them again to make it six. Nature is beautiful.
Nature is beautiful, just like the emerald-green poster in the orphanage's foyer said, the only smear of color on those four drab walls. Everything there meant something, so Edward had always wondered what that sentence meant. Perhaps it was just a simple expression of truth; even cowering in the weeds like a servant, everything was wet with sunlight and rich with life, and he did think it was beautiful. The breeze was soft and tasted sweet, tousling his hair like it tousled the leaves in the trees. It smelled like the other side of the ocean, like something he couldn't recall in words.
Beautiful indeed. And still, he was so far away from it.
There was one large poster in every major limb of the orphanage, each a different color sealed in with thick black frames, and no room was linked together except through a door. Everything had been set in place that way for as long as he could remember. Even wrist-deep in the dirt on the other side of Gotham, Edward still felt like he was there, like his body had fully become that great, lumbering building. One of each stripe of the rainbow had been set aside and marked for each piece of him, shaped into quiet, obedient rectangles. That green color haunted each blessed goodbye and unfortunate hello through the foyer, each passage through that southernmost door. On the hour, every hour since the last goodbye, Edward prayed that he would never have to see that emerald door again.
Green, like the enchanted forest in that solitary poster. Green, like that feeling of being sick to his stomach.
All green things grow towards God, Father Nashton had said once—although Edward couldn't remember where or when, just the way those six syllables rang in his ears like great big tunnels of sound. All green things grow towards God. In the Wayne family's garden, some of the stems that crowded against Edward's thighs grew in all kinds of directions. The leaves faced upward, toward the waters of Heaven, but the stems bowed and twisted in knots, kinking in on themselves. If pressed to name which direction they grew in, he thought he'd be in a great deal of trouble.
An expression of truth, or yet another painful lie. Just like always, Edward couldn't tell which was which.
It was Wednesday, the third day of the week after the Sabbath, and Edward smiled into the leaves, ducking his head down so no one would see. Genesis 1:11—three of the same number, just like the Trinity—also detailed the third day: And God said, Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth: and it was so.
Reflecting on the Word, Edward thought he might not be alone after all. Not completely. At the very least, it was true that his Bible said that, and that it said the same thing every time he read it, and that that verse didn't hurt him when he read it; having one truth to hold onto made his shoulders relax just a little bit, but having three truths in one could have put him to sleep. He burrowed further into the greens to hide his watery smile, sighing into the loamy earth, slack and contented—if only for a moment.
His watch chirped, and he glanced down at its plastic face. 19:00. In the practiced whisper of all the Church Fathers, he recited, "Oh Lord my God, be not far from me," as he had hundreds of times before. Then, with the voice of a child, he prayed, "Please don't make me go back."
The dirt on his hands felt a little bit warmer.
"Edward! Hey, Edward!"
And there he was again. Bruce Wayne, dragging out the E and a in Edward, careening out of the stairwell and into the rooftop gardens. If he was here, that meant that Thomas and Martha couldn't be far behind, and Edward wasn't finished weeding yet. His head snapped to attention as Bruce bounded up to him. All the blood drained from Edward's face.
"You're back?" He swallowed. "Already?"
"Yeah! It didn't take as long as I thought it would, and Alfred is going to pick up our food for the rest of the week on his own." Bruce leaned down. Edward thought, in that moment, that he looked remarkably like his father.
"Hey, what's wrong? Are you sick?"
"I'm not—" Edward swallowed another shaky breath, "I'm not done pulling up your mother's weeds."
"I was supposed to finish pulling them all out before you all came back," he wheezed, sweat veiling his face. "I'm not done yet. I thought I'd have more time."
Bruce relaxed. "Oh. Is that all?" He smiled. "That's fine, Edward, I'll help you."
"I don't think your parents would like it very much if you got down in the dirt with those nice clothes." If you got down here with me.
"It's fine!" Bruce clambered up into the garden box, settling in to Edward's left. "I'm sure they won't mind. Besides," he peered under the leaves in front of him, hunting for slugs. "I never get to spend time with you like this. I promise it's okay."
Promises were made to be broken, he thought, but he didn't say that out loud. Edward nodded, the pallor in his face staying as it was. "Great," he said. "Thanks."
As they crouched down together, those three words rattled and screamed inside Edward's mind.
Is that all?
In that moment, a sprout of envy rose up and colored the vault of Edward's heart. Bruce Wayne, the golden child, had everything he could ever want, but more than anything, he had freedom; the freedom to go where he pleased when he pleased it; the freedom from fear of consequences, from responsibility over himself or others; the freedom to get dirty—the type of dirty that could be washed clean by ordinary soap and water—to have that be the dirtiest he ever got.
Just like everything else, it wasn't fair. Just like everything else, it was horrible.
Just like everything else, it made him feel disgusting.
So why can't I stop thinking about him, Edward pried a weed up by its root system and tucked it into his bag, even when he isn't here? His heart trembled in his chest as he worked. Even when I try my very best, I—
"Hey, Edward," Bruce rooted around in his pocket. "I got us something today when we were out."
A gift. "That's… nice of you," he said, trying to be polite. A gift from Bruce Wayne. He didn't look up from his weeding. "But I don't need anything else from your family. You've all done more than enough for me. I'm already in your debt."
"It's okay, Edward," he leaned in closer. "It's for both of us."
He unfurled his fingers. Edward watched them fall away, exposing the center object; it was a small packet—just one—with the word 'Nasturtium' printed on it in soft, curly letters. Underneath the name, there was a photograph of a five-petaled flower, red-gold in color and girdled with simple-looking leaves. Something about it drew Edward in, transfixing him. Time seemed to disappear into the flower's middle; he sank into it, feeling his body deaden comfortably—now that was a gift if he'd ever seen one.
"Flower seeds! Look, you can even eat them!" Bruce jabbed his finger into the tiny EDIBLE printed on the bottom left corner of the photo. "Isn't that amazing? People even put them in salads. I didn't know you could eat flowers like that!"
Edward thought they must have put the EDIBLE label on there just to appeal to kids like Bruce. He hid a tiny smile against the back of his wrist.
"And they're supposed to keep weeds and bugs out of the garden," Bruce added. "So you won't have to work so hard out here."
Edward felt his cheeks warm. He changed the subject.
"What else does it say? How long until they'll be ready to bloom?"
"Um," Bruce studied the packaging, "it says the flowers start to come out in four to six weeks." He turned to face Edward with an innocent smile. "I can't wait." He leaned closer and whispered, "I'll make sure to save a bunch for you, don't worry."
Edward shivered as Bruce's breath washed over the shell of his ear. "I'd—" he felt something warm twist to life in his stomach. "I'd really like that," he whispered.
"Yeah!" Bruce smiled, pressing the seeds into Edward's lap. "I'd like it too."
"And, um," Edward looked down at his hands. The color had returned to his skin—he felt even more of it start to gather in his cheeks. "Thank you," he said, meaning it this time. "Really."
Before he could defend himself, Bruce flung his arms around Edward's shoulders, crushing him in close. All the air went out of him, and he nearly struggled out of Bruce's grip, but for some reason he sat still, accepting it—Edward couldn't remember the last time someone had hugged him, not with such lengthy, bone-counting honesty. Bringing honesty into the equation, he thought, the answer might have been never.
It made his head spin, but eventually—after making sure no one else was around—he nested his brow in the crook of Bruce's neck, and the two of them stayed there as long as they both could manage.
Bruce had, apparently, mastered outrunning his parents. It took Thomas and Martha the better part of thirty minutes to make it up to the gardens, and they were quiet—not at all unkind, but quiet. Thomas's eyes lingered oddly on Bruce, Edward thought, moving between him and Martha as he swirled his wine in its glass. Something drifted over his face, but Edward didn't analyze it, didn't look back long enough for Thomas to notice he was being watched.
In the shadow of the setting sun, the two of them poked their seeds into the ground, each about an inch apart from her neighbor. For a time, Edward's heart mellowed in his chest. He forgot about Father Nashton and all of the other foundlings assigned to his quarter until his watch chirped 20:00; he sent up one last quiet prayer in his heart, and with it, one small additional wish.
Please let me see those flowers in bloom.
The sunset on the evening before Thomas and Martha Wayne were murdered had been just like any other summer day, but for them—and for Edward Nashton—it would be the last.
November 29th, 2005
Evening settled over Gotham, the first hints of cold moonlight falling over WayneTech's northernmost tower. Beneath the early winter dusk, Bruce Wayne's thoughts were elsewhere, hovering at the lip of the manor roof in June, and he was pretending to be on page 15 of a deep-stapled report from the CFO.
It was no real wonder, then, that he ran right into one of the decorative columns that lined the hallways of the top floors. The real shock was that said column turned out to be a person instead.
Their bodies collided in an instant, so suddenly that Bruce dropped everything in his hands; he very nearly slipped to the floor, papers and all, but he caught himself, steadying himself against the other man's shoulders before catching his mistake. Bruce untangled their bodies almost as quickly as they had come together; the man he had run into let Bruce pose his limbs freely, acting more like a mannequin than a person.
He was utterly still. His silence stole any of the words Bruce might have had right off the back of his tongue.
Bruce straightened himself up, getting a good look at the man he'd crashed into. His hair was cut short, clinging strangely to the curve of his skull. He seemed skittish, withdrawn. Sweat clung to him with thin hands, like he'd been running only moments ago, although Bruce didn't remember him doing that; he hugged his arms close to his body, slouching as though hiding from Bruce's face.
"Sorry," the man said, finally breaking the gulf of silence between them.
Bruce shook his head. "Don't be," he assured, ducking down to scoop up his report. "It's my fault, really."
"…Is that so."
"That it is. Would you believe me if I told you this isn't the first time I've run into someone like this?"
The other man smiled. Not really, the look in his eyes said—and he would have been right if he objected, if he called Bruce's bluff, but he didn't.
Bruce changed the subject. "I've never seen you here before. Are you one of the new transfers I heard about?"
He nodded. "My name is Parker. Patrick Parker." The man's eyes hid behind his smile—empty, clear whites around even emptier irises. "Just Parker is fine," he added. "That's what everyone I work with calls me."
"Bruce Wayne," he smiled in turn, although he hoped his eyes had a bit more light than Parker's. "Just Bruce is fine."
Parker looked like he hadn't anticipated Bruce's sense of humor. "Really," he studied Bruce's features. "The papers always call you Bruce Wayne, though." He watched for Bruce's reaction. "All capital letters, sometimes."
"Well, those are the papers," Bruce's smile didn't waver, painted right onto his face. "When it comes to Wayne Enterprises, I really don't mind."
"Well," Parker parroted, slowly as though tasting the word, "That's Wayne Enterprises, isn't it?"
They were both silent for a moment before a grin speared Parker's face.
"Well," he said again. "Bruce Wayne."
"I guess I'll be seeing you soon." Parker picked at his fingers, but he kept his eyes on Bruce's face. "You called me on being a transfer. I'm one of the new accountants for WayneTech."
Now he remembered. Lucius had suggested directly headhunting a new accountant after one of the tenured men in the department had been found dead. Homicide, GCPD had said. Gun violence. Robbery. Bruce had avoided thinking about it.
Bruce brushed his fingers through his hair. "You'll probably talk to the CFO a lot more than you'll talk to me. And, ah… Lucius Fox—have you met him yet, Parker?"
Parker shook his head.
"If you ever have business with the CEO, you'll probably talk to him instead. He makes a lot of the decisions around here in my stead."
Bruce tried to say it like it wasn't a big deal. Like it wasn't at least a little bit embarrassing. "Wayne Enterprises doesn't make that too public, but you're internal now, so keep that in mind."
Parker watched him shift on his feet. He had strange eyes, Bruce thought. Inset exactly at the front of his face. Predatory.
"Aren't you supposed to be the CEO of this fine company, Bruce Wayne?"
"…Yes, I am." Bruce tried not to wither under Parker's bluntness. "That is my position here."
"Then what is it that you do here, exactly?" Patrick's smile sat perfectly unchanging on his mouth, square below those raw, unblinking eyes. "What are you really? Just another pretty face?"
Bruce almost had to laugh.
"Some might say."
"So you don't actually do anything?" Again with that smile. "You just sit around and rake in the money while everyone else runs around underneath you?" He peered dryly at Bruce's face. "How generous. You're a true philanthropist, aren't you."
"I would say that it's much more complicated than that."
Bruce realized he needed to choose his words more carefully. He hadn't expected Parker's tone to run so hostile—no one talked to him like that. They never had.
"But," he continued, "people are free to say what they want to say in this city. Especially under this roof. If you want to put it that way, I won't fight you on it."
"Free to say what they want to say, huh." Parker stared through him. "Are you sure about that, Bruce Wayne?"
"Well, that's what I was raised to believe, and I'd like to continue believing it," Bruce said. "You're certainly free to say what you want to me here."
"That's very touching," Parker replied. "But if it's alright with you, I'd like to keep my job for at least a few hours."
What the hell is his deal? Bruce thought. A headhunter went out and recruited him with this kind of attitude?
"Then I'll tell you this much, at the very least," Bruce said. "You must be very good at what you do if you ended up here."
And with that, Bruce answered all of his own questions.
"Just like they always used to say," Parker stared through him again. "Only the best for the Wayne family."
Bruce smiled again, although hollow. Only the best for the only Wayne left to see it.
"Congratulations on your new position, Parker." The whole thing rattled Bruce tremendously, but he didn't let it show. "Welcome aboard. And good luck."
"…Yeah," Parker relented. "Thanks."
Relieved, Bruce dipped his head. "I'll be seeing you, then."
"Be seeing you," Parker repeated. He rushed past Bruce all at once like a river by a stone, and then he was gone.
Bruce sighed. It came in a deep, shuddering breath that he hadn't realized he was holding back. He straightened his tie, tucking a disheveled lock of hair back behind his ear. Another long day of work, he thought to himself. Another long day of nothing at all.
He took another breath, and all at once, he became sharply aware of how tight his chest was—because there was only one person in all his life who had persistently called him first name, Bruce, last name, Wayne, and that person had been dead for twenty years next June.