There is a storm coming.
A man stands on a rooftop and tastes the raw electricity on the tip of his tongue. It makes his hair lift and crackle; gives him a subtle static shock every time he touches his belt or his weapons.
He looks up at the sky – dry, but dark. It is night, but this an opaque darkness – one created but tumultuous storm clouds, that roll and rumble overhead like great chariots, pulled by phantom horses borne of shadow, and shade, and…
The air is thick and heavy; hot and cold, bitter and sweet all at once. A storm is coming, you see.
The city below festers – just as it has always done. Past; present; future. Not that it even matters. Sometimes there is rain alone; but it is not a cleansing shower of crashing crystal tears, as though wept by the piteous gods high above. No, because this city has changed, ruptured, wept, bled and crusted over.
It can't heal itself – and when it rains, the sky becomes a perpetual oblivion of grey, and an opaque, choking cloud of dust arises and settles over the city.
And what a city. A jungle of concrete and twisted metal girders; of towering billboards, sky-high pylons thick with webs of sparking wires, black reflective windows. This city looks as though it was once a part of the very depths of Hell itself, which began to rise, buckle, grow – and burst through the skin of the Earth, kept on pushing, up and up and up, until it settled itself here and decided to stay.
Which is… so very strange, because this isn't Gotham City. And this isn't Metropolis, or Steel City, or, Heaven forbid, Blüdhaven. They all look like this too, but… that doesn't surprise him.
But this – this was Jump City once, and once upon a time, Jump was no Gotham. It was bright and crisp, with the glimmering allure of a handful of new silver dollars.
But that was many 'once upon a times' ago; a time when there were five of them.
But then she disappeared (ohStarfirehowdareyouleavehowcouldyouneverthinkhowmuchIwouldneedyou…?) and it all fell to pieces.
This man is thirty-six years old, with a blue bird emblazoned across his muscular chest; his hair is waist-length, ebony, with the gloss of ravens' feathers; and entangled with secrets and whispers and tears and sorrow and rage.
His name is Nightwing – and when he looks across the black bay at the ruins of a tower, he knows that he must be Nightwing, for what else is there left for him to be?
Not Dick Grayson; and not Robin, certainly. Those are carefully sandwiched layers, never to be disturbed. Because he is a part of a web – not a single person. He is only a single pillar of a legacy.
Once a boy; now a man; but always, always a page in the Bible of Batman.
He considers, and remembers, the story of another boy.
The first boy.
And another storm.
Welcome to the Layer Cake.
"There, a mugging became a double murder. There, a mother took one last look into the eyes of her only son, and saw him become a demon." – Alfred, All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #5 (Frank Miller)
Amazing, really, how the crashing of thunder could suddenly sound like a symphony of pearls hitting concrete; or how the flashing of lightning could suddenly look like the flare from the barrel of a gun.
The wildness of the storm rattled throughout the boy as he sat on the wide windowsill, his eyes dry and burning. Completely prone, unmoving – with his dark eyes fixed on the storm beyond the window. There was a hunger in them, as though he wished he could have the power of that storm, be the fear of it.
Less than twenty-four hours ago, he had had a mother and a father. A beautiful mother, with pearls threaded at her throat; and a handsome father, with an embrace like the strongest wall ever crafted, designed to protect his wife and his son.
A wall that had been torn down by nothing more than a two-bit punk with a gun and a greed for a string of pearls.
Now he had no-one.
No, that wasn't exactly true…
Alfred Pennyworth stood in the hall with Dr Leslie Tompkins; the door to the drawing room was open, and they could both clearly see the child sitting there on the sill, still as a porcelain doll, watching the storm.
"You have to make him eat something, Alfred," Tompkins said quietly. "Drink something. Rest. I know he hasn't slept since…"
"I will try again," Alfred replied wearily, "but he has refused anything I have offered him all day."
"What are you going to do… about the funeral?"
"Mr Wayne's more professional associates will take care of that, I am sure. I was only their manservant. It is not my place."
"Well, then… if nothing else, it is your place to take care of Bruce now that his parents are gone."
Dr Tompkins paused a while longer, lingering at the door.
"Very well. I'll come back tomorrow. I think he will need counselling, you know."
"That is a wise idea." Alfred opened the door for her. "But for now, as you suggested… nourishment and rest."
"Yes. Goodnight, Mr Pennyworth."
Alfred bid her goodnight and closed the door; then quietly crossed the hall and went into the drawing room. Bruce saw him approach in the reflection in the window, and spoke as the butler came to a stop behind him;
"I hate him, Alfred."
Alfred did not speak; perhaps alarmed by the venom in the young boy's voice.
Still watching Alfred's reflection rather than turning to the man himself, Bruce went on;
"I hate him. He killed my parents. I hate him and I want him dead." He paused, and took a breath; finally turning his face towards the butler. "Is that… bad?"
What could he say to the child; to this dark-eyed angel, who, at only seven years of age, could know nothing of morals?
Or maybe he did understand. Maybe he understood all too well.
"It is… natural." Alfred sat down on the windowsill next to him. "Of course you hate him."
The boy clenched his small fists in his lap. There was a feral wildness in his eyes as he took another deep, shaking breath. No tears – only dry, angry eyes that burned and ached.
"But… is it bad?" He looked up. "Alfred?"
Alfred drew him into a hug then, as though trying to recreate for him the lost wall; and the boy put his arms around the elderly butler's neck, clinging tightly.
"Yes, Bruce," the Englishman whispered. "It is."
But when, all those years later, the boy who grew up to become Bruce Wayne pulled on the cowl for the first time, and saw his faithful friend and manservant suppress a little shudder as he turned fully to him, he smiled.
It was a cold, glittering smile; humourless and sadistic.
This beast, this creature, this… Bat-man…
This was the fear of the storm; and the power of it too.
Bad was this year's good; and black was this year's blue.
Inspired by a whole bunch of stuff – Teen Titans, Frank Miller, Nightwing, various Batman lore conventions…
This fic is about Dick Grayson, BTW, not Batman – but he comes first in the layer cake, so he was dealt with first. Layer Cake comes from the title of a British crime film starring Daniel Craig pre-James Bond, but this has nothing to do with it.
Stay tuned for more soon… ish…