His first memory is of a tightrope. Taught beneath his bare feet, a light pressure upon the sensitive flesh of his soles. Two hands holding his own, one in each, a reassuring presence that he would not fall. The rope was, at best, a mere three feet above the ground, but while on it he nearly stood at his father’s shoulders. He felt on top of the world.
His last memory is of falling.
What does fear taste like?
Like hot coals burning through tongue creating a chasm of heat and the taste of ash that stuck to white teeth like soot. Like acrid bile rising up in the back of the throat, corrosive, eating away at the smooth muscle, gnawing and gnashing, and you try to swallow it down again, just swallow down again.
He tastes fear for the first time when he learns to fly. Mother birds teach their little ones to take flight by first pushing them out of the nest. They plummet down to an unknown world, wondering for the first time is this what death looks like? But then wings catch on unseen currents of wind, filtering through feathers, and up high they go, Icarus to the Sun.
He tastes fear for the first time when he falls. When the trapeze is ripped from his hand and he's suspended in the air and he thinks ah, so this is what it's like to be frozen in time. He thinks he's falling, to the ground, to beyond the ground, whatever may lie there for a creature like him. But then there are hands in his and his joints snap as his arms are yanked tight and he's flying through the air once more.
Dread is different flavor than fear.
It does not taste like anything. It is empty and sinks heavy in the gut. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth uncomfortably dry and he tastes something unknown, something foul or rotten perhaps, akin to a scream. It fills him up inside, an insidious carnivore that eats at his intestines relinquishing a sickening blackness.
As he watches his parents fall the dread is overbearing, sitting in his stomach like lead, and it's so overbearing he can barely breathe, and it’s so overbearing he think he might throw up but he doesn't know if there's anything left to come up.
Dread tastes wholly different than fear and somehow altogether the same.
He wished he could mar his tastebuds until they were rubbed raw and didn't exist, rip out his tongue and feel the absence in his mouth.
Dick wakes with a start, limbs flailing aimlessly. Sweat covers his forehead in a thin sheen and his darkened hair sticks together in clumps. The nightmare comes and goes, comes and goes, an ocean of relentless memories beating against him. The sun hangs just below the skyline, dull hues of orange and yellow painting the city, kissing the midnight blue goodbye. He presses his hands to his eyes rubbing them raw until starbursts cloud his vision. Leaning his weary body over the edge of the bed, he pushes the after-images of the memory back into his subconsciousness to begin anew until the sun sinks below the horizon and black covers the sky once more.
The uniform fits him like a second skin. First the shirt, then the tie, pull it tight, right under the chin, badge shiny—all brass, not a single scratch on it. A gun heavy in his hand. He hated the gun. What he hated even more was when he busted a particularly gruesome scene, like a man hovering over a child with his belt undone, and his hand would itch for the metal, would grab for it finger already on the trigger before his mind could catch up.
His past in acrobatics lent their hand easily, giving, and he takes and takes and takes. He's faster than most and more agile. They try to run away, to fight back but he's stronger and swifter. He uses his body like a weapon, a fury of angles and limbs, and he bears his teeth in satisfaction whenever bones break beneath his grip.
“Grayson, you're early.”
“Am I?” He feigns surprise if only to seem more normal. More human.
He glances at the old hand-me-down watch on his wrist. Thirty minutes early. Damn, he thought he'd timed it better. The Captain had been getting on his case more often lately. You're coming in too early and staying too late, he'd say. You'll burn yourself out like his, he'd say.
Fire already consumes him.
Despite it all he persists on, he tells himself, for the greater good, a higher cause. To relish in the chase, the catch, justice served and job well done. A blackness tainted his insides but he's going good, he is good, he can pretend to be good.
These nightmares haunt his waking eyes.
The first call of the day takes him to a murder scene.
His partner wrinkles his nose screwing up his mouth. He looks sickly pale green like he's ready to upturn the street dog they'd had for lunch. Dick sidesteps just in case. This kid was just a rookie. Training duty had befallen him and he cannot be more dismayed; you'll be good for each other, the Captain had said. Looking at the guy, Dick begged to differ. He was just a rookie, a greenhorn, a child. This was no place for children.
“Lovers quarrel?” The lead detective asks the medical examiner on scene while the beat cops like Dick and Rookie keep curious eyes away.
A lover’s quarrel: the M.O. for most cases. Homicides were usually caused by either a loss of love or the prospect of diminishing power. After all, love was power and power was the lack of love. The bodies lay amongst piles of garbage bags in the narrow alleyway, positioned close together, fingers almost brushing—the woman supine, hand outstretched palm up towards the man laying a few inches away. Their heads were turned opposite ways with the woman looking down and the man facing heavenward. He looks at the scene, a loneliness creeping up his spine as he remembers a school trip to a museum in his childhood: standing in the great room, neck hurting from looking up at the massive rendition of The Creation of Adam. Only now he was looking at the destruction of Eve.
“Mm, not sure yet,” the medical examiner says. “Preliminary findings showed multiple stab wounds to both bodies, although the woman died from asphyxiation. Her stab wounds are post-mortem.”
“What about the guy?”
Rookie moves at his side and Dick side-eyes him as he presses a napkin to his mouth.
“You okay?” Dick pats Rookie on the back feeling sorry for the guy.
Rookie nods slowly, eyes watering as he surveys the bodies.
Another day, another death.
And life goes on.
This is his routine: wake up before dawn, before the birds begin their morning symphony; run, run, run, anywhere and towards anything, run to forget the dreams, run to reach a new horizon; get to work too early, always too early, but the captain notices (he makes a mental note to get to work later tomorrow but he already knows it's a fools bet); work through the day, catch criminals, or don't, regret; go to the gym and let the sweat cleanse his skin of all the grime and terror and hate; walk home in the dead of night when one world goes to sleep and a new one awakens.
This is his routine.
Get to work too early.
Do the job.
The long walk home.
So much blood.
This is his routine.
Everyone has a vice.
Dick makes the gym his vice.
Visions of dead bodies blur together behind bleary eyes as Dick hurls his fists against the worn cracked leather of a punching bag. His parents are among them—snapped necks and distorted limbs—fists gain momentum the faster the images dredge up from the depths. Swinging, harder, harder, the creak of the chain threatening the inevitable collapse of the ceiling. He hits the bag so hard bruises form along the knuckles beneath his fingerless gloves. With each punch a new rush of adrenaline surges forth at the pain. With each swing he pushes the day from his mind, pushes his sanity to the brink of exhaustion.
Some days though he just needs a drink.
The night is alive as Dick leaves the run-down gym in search of his favorite bar. Along the busy main street, music fills the air from pubs and clubs; high tempo beats, floaty melodies with melancholy words, string guitars and booming bass and banging drums. The different tunes meld and clash together to form a new song and he walks along to the beat of the city.
Laughter fills the air as a door swings open in front of him. He steps away just in time as a rowdy crowd emerges from a lively bar at the same time someone turns the corner and slams into him.
He stumbles backward a few steps before catching his balance.
“Oh, I'm so sorry,” a voice says.
He is on fire.
She's tall, taller than him by quite a few inches, with dark shimmering skin and a fire burning in her eyes and on her head and he knew without a doubt that she was the most beautiful woman he’ll ever meet in his whole life (forgive him Mary).
“No, ah, I'm sorry. I wasn't paying attention,” he says, a slow smile spreading on his face.
She smiles back tucking a loose curl behind her ear and his heart fucking flutters and it's never done that before but he doesn't hate the sensation.
“Were you just leaving?” She gestures to the door behind him where he could have run into a different somebody, could have run into a different fate and he silently thanks God that he just so happened to be on this particular street at just the right time.
“No,” he lies. This definitely is not his favorite bar he's in search of but it could be with proper company, so he says, “I was just getting some fresh air.”
“So you were leaving but not the bar?” She has a slight accent of some kind and when she tilts her head to the side, small smile crinkling her eyes, he subtly pinches himself to make sure he didn't die earlier in the day during patrol.
“Uh…yeah,” he says slowly.
“Then, can I buy you drink?”
“Only if I can buy you one, too,” he grins.
The dimly lit bar is loud and crowded with people pressing tightly together in the small amount of space it offered. Dick strains his eyes in the low lighting trying and failing to find an empty spot at the bar. Then a warm hand tugs at his shirt sleeve and she leads him to a secluded corner. He wonders if those bright eyes had magic in them that allowed her to find the only open seats in the place. Laughter fills the air, people speaking loudly over each other's conversations in a gladiatorial match. They sit close together, arms brushing just the right amount to flirty and fun and still give ample room to be comfortable. She turns to him, eyes narrowed and roaming up and down, assessing her subject. Then she orders him a whiskey sour. He laughs, makes a show of mimicking her action before settling on a Moscow mule.
“I'm Kory,” she says in a low tone just barely audible above all the noise.
“Dick.” He reaches a hand out taking hers and shaking it gently.
“Dick?” She quirks her lip, laughter in her eyes.
“My parents were old fashioned,” he jokes, leaning in closer. “You’ve got an interesting name.”
“So do you,” she grins. "And I think your parents were playing a prank on you."
"Well, I'm not the one who decided Dick was a good nickname for Richard," he says in defense.
"No, but you're the one who decided to go by that name," she teases. "Well, mine is a nickname too though. Kory is short for Koriand'r."
A surprised bark of laughter erupts from his chest and he grins as he says, "Corriander? Like the herb?"
"It's spelled differently," she laughs.
It sounds like starlight, or at least what he imagines the kind of music stars make. She's bright and effervescent and he can't quite figure out why she stopped to talk to him other than the fact that she felt sorry for nearly bowling him over. So he asks because curiosity never quite killed the cat.
“You can probably get anyone to buy you a drink, huh. Why'd you offer me one?”
“Well, you offered me one too,” she smiled.
“Ah. Clever game.”
“It's not a game.” Kory scrunches up her nose, brows drawing together and a pout on her lips looking downright adorable. Then she smiles that smile that sends his stomach swooping and soaring and says, "would you like another?”
“What about you?” He's smiling like an idiot and he couldn't care less.
She laughs again and he finds that he likes that laugh very much and would very much like to hear it again, all night long and in his dreams.
“Maybe it is a game then,” she says, a misheveous tint to her lips. “To see who buys who the most drinks.”
They talk for hours, until the quiet of the morning when the bars begin to close down and sleepy drunks stumble home with warmed blood and flushed faces. Kory is a model he discovers. He thinks it suits her, with her tall broad frame, long dark limbs and hair made of flame. She has the kind of looks that make people stop in their tracks just to gaze in awe then spend the rest of the day wondering if she was merely a trick of the mind because how could anyone that ethereal walk the full planes of earth and not the heavens above. Dick tells her he's a cop, the kind that wears blue. When she asks if he likes being a cop he smiles and tells her it's a rough but fulfilling job. He's a good liar. Kory just moved to Gotham in the summer and Dick spends time telling her all the good places that a worth seeing. She doesn't talk about where she’s from. Dick doesn't ask. He doesn't talk about where he's from. Kory doesn't ask.
After the bartend kicks them out Dick walks her home and she stands just close enough to give him a taste of her body heat. They are quiet during the walk home, stealing surreptitious glances at each other, exchanging shy smiles, fingers brushing. He wonders if everyone truly does live along a set line, making preconceived decisions until they are led to their destiny. So lost in though he continues to walk past Kory a few steps before he realizes she had stopped walking. He turns to glance behind him, backtracking to where Kory stands in front of a small brownstone.
“This is me,” she says, nodding towards the bright red door that paled in comparison to her halo.
He nods, rocks on his heels unsure, fists bunched in his pockets and shoulders haunches up like he felt cold but truthfully he just wasn't sure what to do with his hands. They ache to reach out, to touch, to hold her hand. But, he doubts himself, thinks maybe this was a one night thing, a whim, and maybe he should just take a chance, lean forward and tilt his chin just so claim that mouth just once. But he doubts himself (can he really turn away come morning?) So instead he smiles politely, murmurs goodnight. She smiles back, turns to leave and he can't help the rush of disappointment filling his veins. Then she hesitates. He watches as her steps falter and she stops, pauses for a moment, squares her shoulders and turns around to face him once more.
“Would you like go out again tomorrow night?”
A wide lopsided grin spreads across his face, the kind that dimpled his cheeks and made him look boyish and young and stupid.
Later when he's home behind closed doors he'll kick himself for being such a coward and praise Kory's bravery.
He says, "yeah."
Kory steps back onto the street with a wide smile and phone in hand and he reaches into his back pocket to grab his own. They exchange numbers, saying goodbye a second time afterwards, the tension from earlier melting into an ephemeral giddiness. She nods once, turns and hops up the steps to the brownstone before disappearing behind the red door. He makes it two steps before he texts her. She calls him immediately instead of texting back.
"Hey," she laughs breathily.
He smiles into the phone, looks up to the stars and wishes that Kory could become his new vice.