Jason Todd was eight when he first met Dick Grayson.
The tent that sat to the side of the circus fortune-telling booth and the fried dough stand was shabby, with a faded sign that was almost unreadable in the haze of late summer. The door was only half open, and the inside looked dark as pitch, with no sign of movement. It was free, though, and since Jason technically snuck over the fence near the restrooms and didn’t have any tickets, he wandered in.
A woman sitting just inside the tent door jerked when Jason ducked inside. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” She clapped her hands. A string of lights lit up around a circular tank, so wide around that it was bigger than the living room of Jason’s old apartment. He padded up to it, and peered into the green, brackish water.
There was a shape down at the bottom, on the other side of the tank. Jason walked around it, and the shape started to take form, changing into a perfect statue of a boy a few years older than Jason, sitting on the bottom of the tank. He was shirtless, and instead of legs, he had a glossy black tail that lay still and flat on the scummy floor. The fins waved in the slowly swirling water, and whoever sculpted him had added something that looked like real hair, too, blowing about his eyes.
He blinked, and Jason jumped.
“Is it a robot or something?” he asked the woman at the front. The statue glanced his way and blinked again, twice, one pair of lids moving sideways, the other pair dipping down with long, fanning lashes.
“He used to be more energetic,” the woman said. Jason squinted in the dark, and the statue pushed off from the edge of the glass, swimming with a slow, fluid grace to the opposite side. “But when his parents died last year, and Haly got voted out, he kind of… well, he’s still something, right?”
“So he’s real?” The woman shrugged, and Jason ran to the boy’s side again. He placed a hand on the grubby glass, and the boy turned to him. He knew that expression well enough. It was the same slow, dull look Jason wore after his mom died, when he had to sit there while the landlady explained that she was sorry, but she couldn’t let him live there anymore. The same look he wore every time adults asked where his parents were, or why he wasn’t in school, or what he was doing hanging out in an air conditioned store, looking too dirty and small and out of place.
“I lost my parents, too,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
The boy made a motion with his right hand. Jason frowned, shrugging, and the boy rolled his eyes and made the sign again, pinky finger out, rocking back and forth from his chest to Jason. He mouthed the words, and Jason saw strange dark flaps at his neck expand and contract as bubbles rose to the top of the tank.
“Oh. Thanks.” Jason looked over to the woman at the edge of the tent, who was sitting by the door so she could read a book. He lowered his voice and inched closer to the glass. “Are you okay?”
The boy shook his head.
“So you’re stuck in there?”
A shrug. The boy pointed to his tail, looked back at the woman, and pushed off from the glass again. He curled in on himself, and Jason pressed his hands to the glass as the fin slowly broke apart, shaping itself into two very skinny, very human legs. The boy frantically swam for the surface of the water, but the tank walls were too high and slick for him to climb. He clung to them, panting for breath, and his bare feet squeaked as they struggled for purchase.
“Wow,” Jason said, after a moment. “That sucks.”
The boy nodded. “Sure does,” he said, and fell in with a splash that sent the attendant running.
Four hours later, Jason came back.
He came with his father’s old tool bag over his shoulder, full of screwdrivers, hammers, wrenches, and little picks and strips of metal that had proven infinitely useful over the past three years. Jason had stuffed a spare pair of pants in, too, and a stolen box of granola bars. The bag banged against his back as he slunk behind the empty tents at the edge of the circus, trying to keep silent as he listened for approaching footsteps.
He hefted a hammer in his hand, heart beating hard in his throat, but there wasn’t anyone guarding the tent where the boy had been. Jason didn’t bother turning the lights on, going straight for the tank instead.
“Hey,” he said. It was too dark to see anything more than a foot deep, and Jason nearly shrieked when the boy’s face swept into view, just inches from his own. The black flaps on his neck were out, waving like lace, and his mouth was open enough for Jason to see that his teeth were much sharper than his own.
“I’m gonna get you out,” Jason said. The boy frowned, and made a series of signs. “Look, you might wanna do that weird thing with your tail. Or legs. Or whatever.” He set his tool bag down and dug through it. “Does your tank have like, any screws or something?”
The boy’s hand pressed against the glass, and slowly started to slide along it. Jason followed him, dragging his bag, and stopped at what looked like an unused maintenance door.
“Perfect,” he said. “Hang on, okay?”
The boy’s worried face disappeared into the dark, and Jason started to work on the bolts in the service door. He’d just gotten one loose, letting out a sharp stream of filthy water, when he heard a light voice overhead.
“Are you insane?”
“Don’t think so,” Jason said. He started working on the other bolt.
“Then why are you…” the voice cut off with a slosh of water, and there was more squeaking and sliding. “Why’re you doing this? Plenty of people get, you know, freaked out, but…”
“Then they’re jerks,” Jason said. “Anyways, I’m an orphan, too, right? People like us—“ He grinned as a long line of water started sluicing down from a crack in the door, and dug his fingers in the gap. “We gotta look out for each other, yeah?”
“I guess.” There was another splash, and the boy was in front of Jason again, pushing at the door even as Jason pinched his fingers raw trying to pull. Together, they wrenched it open about a foot, and then the pressure of the water shot it off its hinges, sending it rattling into the grass. The boy fell onto Jason along with most of the water in the tank, and they landed hard on their sides. The boy tried to get up, but it seemed like he wasn’t the best at using his legs on land.
Outside, they heard a distant shout. The boy grabbed Jason’s hand, and the two of them got to their feet. “They heard us,” the boy whispered. “Come on, I know the layout.” He turned to the back of the tent and ran for it, stumbling awkwardly on his bare feet. Jason grabbed his sodden tool bag and ran after him. They ducked under the bottom of the tent and out the other side just as they heard someone run in, and the boy took Jason’s hand again.
“I don’t…” He frowned. “They changed things since Haly left, I guess.”
“Then let’s do it my way,” Jason said, and towed the boy along the empty rows of tents, towards the portable restroom he’d tipped over as a means of escape. Behind them, they heard furious shouting, the ringing of a bell, and, tipping off an alarm in Jason’s mind that he’d honed through years of sneaking through warehouses and stock yards, the baying of dogs.
“I don’t think they’ll hurt me if I say it was a mistake,” the boy said, and Jason tightened his hold on his damp fingers. “I mean, my parents and I were pretty popular.”
“Yeah? What were you doing in that, huh?”
The boy didn’t answer. Jason helped him up over the wall just as bright circles of light danced in his eyes, coming from countless flashlights held by indistinct shadows. Jason scrambled up and dropped to the grass on the other side.
“They’ll find me,” the boy said, as he staggered after Jason down the side streets heading out of the outskirts of Gotham. “I’ve never been out of the water before, not for long. I don’t—“
“You’ll be fine,” Jason said. They were passing an old manor, one of the fancy old ones with crumbling walls and special houses for their butlers. Jason skidded to a halt at the gate, and hopped from one foot to another. “Actually. I don’t see any lights on in there, do you?”
“There are lights everywhere,” the boy said.
“Yeah, but not here. I bet whoever owns this place doesn’t even live here most of the time. I bet,” he said, smiling at his new escaped convict, “that whoever it is has a shed, or maybe even a spare house that no one uses. We can lay low there, and when the circus is gone, you can go back to the ocean or whatever.”
“I’ve never been to the ocean,” the boy said.
“Well, we have a river. You can live with me!” Jason waved him to the gate, which had bars big enough for two skinny kids to pass through. When they were safe in the front drive, Jason took his hand again. “And we can live in my place. Or, well, it’s my dad’s old place. What’s your name, anyway? I’m Jason. Jason Todd.”
The older boy risked a smile. “Dick Grayson. The circus’ll still be looking for me, you know.”
“I bet we can take ‘em.” Jason led them to a side door, which still looked bigger and more ornate than anything he’d seen before. He left Dick to figure out how his spare pair of pants worked while he picked the lock, and he nearly whooped when the door swung open.
“Don’t think anybody’s home,” Jason whispered. “What kind of rich guy doesn’t have a security system, anyways?” He beckoned Dick inside, and they sighed when they clicked the door shut behind them.
“What if they come looking?” Dick asked. They were in a long hallway, covered in thick, plush carpet and lined on either side with paintings so fine that Jason’s fingers itched. He could make a fortune with this hallway alone.
“Don’t think they saw us,” Jason said. “And this place is huge. I bet we could stay here forever, and whoever lives here wouldn’t even know.”
“Who do you think it is?” asked Dick. “This guy?” He pointed to a painting of a large man in a pinstriped suit. Jason snorted.
“With that mustache? Gross. What about her? With the pearls? She looks classy. Maybe we can say we’re poor orphans and she’ll take us in, like they do in the movies.”
“Uh, we kind of are orphans, Jason.”
Jason shrugged. “Oh, this guy looks built.” He tried to mimic the pose of the latest painting, a man in a trim black suit that did nothing to hide his powerful frame. “Whaddaya think?”
“Wow. You could be his son,” Dick said, and covered his mouth to hide a laugh. Jason scowled, and he laughed again. “No, wait, that’s perfect! Keep making that face.” Jason glowered at the grim man in the painting, and stalked off down the hall.
“Let’s find a place to lay low,” he said. He pushed open a door that led into another hall, wider and more open, which branched off in a dozen different directions. “Or maybe a kitchen. When was the last time you ate?”
Dick shrugged. “A few days?”
“I’ve done that,” Jason said, matter-of-fact. “Well, now you’re with me, that ain’t happening again.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m older than you, you know,” Dick said. He still stumbled a little, but he was doggedly keeping pace with Jason. “Shouldn’t I be looking after you?”
“Oooh, well, o-kay, Mr. Grayson,” Jason said, giving Dick a mock bow. “Please, help me find where this rich old asshole keeps their food.”
“I believe,” said a light, deeply amused voice from behind them, “I may be able to assist.”