Clint groaned, trying to sit up. He was too sore to move. Swordsman had been pushing him harder and harder now that he was training with Trickshot—and with Dick, but Clint didn't mention his training with Dick to anyone, not after the way Barney had reacted—and somehow Clint couldn't get the routine right. Both Swordsman and Trickshot told him he had it wrong. He kept trying, but neither of them was happy.
He didn't know that he could do either of the routines today, though. He couldn't make himself move. He didn't remember how he'd gotten back to the trailer after his last failed attempt at the routine. Swordsman must have brought him back. Dick would have taken him to his own trailer, made a fuss over him with his parents' help, and would still be sitting beside him now, watching over him.
He kind of wished Dick was here, because he didn't think he could get up on his own.
“Jacques! So help me, if you laid one hand on that boy, I will feed you to the lions,” John Grayson called from outside the trailer.
“That is too good for you,” Mary said. “And I'd feel sorry for the cats. No. The circus made a decision. We want you and your act gone. You give us Clint and leave quietly and we won't get the police involved. If you don't—”
“You don't have any right to tell me what to do. That kid is mine. I'm training him. You got no business telling me how to train him.”
Clint grimaced. He didn't want to be in the middle of this fight. He didn't want anyone getting hurt because of him, and he didn't want to leave Swordsman because he liked his routine when he had it right. He liked the bow and the tricks. He didn't want to be a trapeze artist, even as nice as the Graysons were. That wasn't him.
He heard something creak, and he turned over to see Dick in the doorway. “Your so-called room doesn't even have a window.”
“It never mattered before. When I needed to get out, I got out.”
Dick nodded. “Well, now you need to get out. Come on. When you didn't show up today, I got worried. Mom and Dad were worried. They met with everyone in the circus besides Trickshot, and they decided that Swordsman had to go.”
“I heard them yelling at him,” Clint said, and Dick moved over to help him sit up. “You shouldn't do this. It's not right.”
“No, the way he treats you is what's wrong. Plenty of people don't understand the circus, and it's always been a refuge for the ones others call freaks, but it's not a haven for people who hurt people. That's not what we're about. You know that. Some circuses are different, some cheat their customers and don't care who they hire or what kind of bad things they did, but we do. He's wrong to do this to you, Clint, and it has to stop.”
Clint frowned. He didn't know how to react to any of this. “Barney won't like it. He's the one that takes care of me.”
“He will still be your brother if you're staying with us,” Dick said. “It just means you won't have to get hurt when he's not around.”
Clint nodded, standing with Dick's help and making his way to the door.
“Do you think she's pretty?”
Dick nudged his friend as gently as he could, knowing that Clint was still recovering from the last beating Swordsman gave him for getting the act wrong. Trickshot hadn't done anything when any of them were watching, but Dick didn't like him any more than he did Swordsman, and he wished his friend wasn't still training with him.
“Her. That girl there.”
“I don't know, Dick. It's a girl.”
Dick snorted. “You don't fool me. I know you don't think girls have cooties, not anymore. We're both too old for that. Though I'm not sure I'm ready for finding a circus girl and settling down to have a bunch of Flying Grayson babies.”
“Oh, but think of the act,” Clint teased. “You could have a huge family of performers. Little monkeys everywhere.”
Clint grinned. “Which one of them are you supposed to marry? Or is the twins? That would be kind of weird, marrying conjoined twins.”
“Some people make it work,” Dick said. “But really, Clint, they're in their twenties. That's so wrong. One of them could have been my mother.”
Clint laughed, and Dick would have shoved him if they weren't in one of his perches. Clint had started finding them everywhere, not just in the big top where the trapeze was set up, but anywhere he could. Sometimes Dick worried about that, but then he found he liked being up high just as much as Clint did, so he didn't usually object.
“Come on,” Clint said, nudging Dick this time. “They must have picked someone they think you'll end up with, and it bothers you otherwise you wouldn't be trying to pick some stranger out of a crowd in Gotham to be the 'One.'”
Dick shook his head. “They didn't pick one. I just keep seeing that one everywhere, and when I do, I end up staring because she's there again and my parents thought she was why I messed up in practice and now they don't want me to do the finale with them.”
“You're kidding, right? You have done the finale with them since you were in diapers.”
Dick grimaced. “That's an image I didn't need, and you're wrong, but thanks because I know you're trying to help in your own messed up way.”
Clint smiled, and Dick almost hit him, but he held back, not wanting to add to the bruises. The other boy leaned back a little. “What is it about this girl?”
“I told you—she's everywhere I look.”
“Uh huh. Sure,” Clint said. He looked at his friend and grinned even wider than he had a moment before. “I know what it is—it's her hair. You like the hair. Dick Grayson has a thing for redheads.”
“I hate you.”
“You like redheads.”
“So do you.”
“You were staring at her, too. Ever since I pointed her out to you. I think you have a thing for redheads, too.”
Clint's mouth thinned into a line. “Do not.”
Dick laughed, this time allowing himself a playful shove against his friend's good arm. “Bet you twenty bucks you end up with a redhead.”
“I bet you fifty you end up all alone because no one's gonna marry you, Grayson.”
“It's so sad. We'll be two lonely old men sitting in a nursing home someday, lamenting all the redheads we let get away...”
“You're a dork,” Clint said, fighting a smile. “You should get back to practice. You're part of the main attraction tonight, remember?”
“A few more minutes won't hurt. I'm not in the finale anyway.”
“They turn you into a tight wearing freak yet?”
Clint turned around and sighed. “You know it's not like that, Barney. The Graysons just gave me a place to stay after the circus kicked Swordsman out. They didn't force me to join their act, and they won't. Trickshot hasn't asked me to be a part of his act, that's still all you, but I get to stay because they want me with them.”
“You're supposed to be with me.”
Clint folded his arms over his chest. “I don't know what it is you've been doing for work outside the circus, but a part of me doesn't think it can be anything good. I don't like it. I'm worried about you, but you're never around for me to talk to about that, and you get mad at me for talking to the one person I can talk to. Dick is my friend. He's not my brother, he can't replace you, but you are so jealous you won't listen to me.”
“I am working for our future. This is going to be better than anyone taking you in out of pity. You don't need the Graysons.”
I want the Graysons, Clint almost said. He swallowed that down. Barney was his family. He loved his brother. He wanted to be where his brother was. Still, he wanted more than Barney. He wanted the love and affection that John and Mary always gave Dick, and he wanted Dick for a brother, too, and the Graysons wanted to give all of that to him. He'd have parents again, and he wanted that. He liked to hear Mary sing or even just talk to Dick, because she always had such love in her voice, and she called him Robin, giving him a nickname and all that implied, and John, he was like an older version of Dick, and it was just as fun to be with him as it was to be with Dick.
“I never chose them over you,” Clint insisted. “You know Trickshot only has room for you. That was how it was from the beginning. The Graysons gave me a place to stay. That's it. So I sleep in their trailer. That doesn't mean anything. It didn't when I was with Swordsman.”
Barney grimaced. “You need to be careful. Word on the street is that he got very angry about the circus kicking him out, and he probably blames you for that.”
Clint clenched his fist. “I didn't tell anyone what he was doing. I didn't complain. He hit me when I got it wrong, and I didn't do anything about it. Swordsman brought it on himself because he went too far. He hit me so much everyone noticed. Everyone but you.”
“You said you were going to take care of me, remember?” Clint asked. “Where was that promise when Swordsman was hurting me? Dick stood up to him more than you did, and you're my brother. If you're taking care of me, where the hell were you?”
Barney's jaw tightened, and he glared back, his own hands curled into fists. Whatever Barney was doing to get them money to get away from here had to be bad because he wouldn't be so angry if it wasn't. Clint shook his head, not wanting to think about that again, about what sick or criminal things Barney was doing for their future.
“Just stop, okay? You don't have to do it. The Graysons are good people, and they will take care of both of us without you having to do something wrong. Please, Barney. Let them.”
His brother shook his head. “You don't know anything. You just don't. I'm gonna go find Trickshot. We're on in a few minutes.”
Clint watched his brother go and sighed. Why couldn't they just get along? Why was it so wrong for him to have both his brother and the Graysons?
Clint had sat in the Grayson's trailer for too long. The sun had gone down, and the show was starting. He could hear the music. He hadn't meant to miss any of it, but he hadn't been able to stop thinking about his brother and this whole mess, and he thought maybe he should get his stuff out of the trailer and give up on the idea of having both—his family was his brother, and he should be with Barney.
He didn't want to do that, though.
He wanted to stay where he was. He wanted a home.
Barney should be his home. That should be enough.
He sighed. He needed to get to his perch. He'd found the best place to watch the whole show under the big top, and while he didn't feel like watching Barney, he would because he supported his brother even when he was mad at him. He rounded the corner and stopped dead when he heard the last voice he wanted to hear.
“What took you so long? I told you right where the money would be. They always put it there when they're done selling the tickets.”
“Relax,” the other voice said, and Clint tried to place it, but he didn't know who it was. “I got the money. You do what you need to do?”
“Yep. Soon enough, that swing is gonna make the bough break and then bye-bye birdies.”
“No!” Clint heard himself say, and then he cursed himself for being stupid, but he couldn't let that happen. That was his worst fear—Dick and his parents dying in their act—and he knew it would be his fault because Swordsman had gone after them because of Clint.
“Well, if it isn't the brat. This night just gets better and better,” Swordsman said, and Clint reached behind him for his bow, knowing he had to use it against his former mentor, that he had to warn Dick and the others.
He lined up an arrow and fired. The sound of it hitting Swordsman's leg made him sick to his stomach. Swordsman howled, and Clint started running in the other direction.
Dick would never stop hearing that scream.
He saw people moving around him, some of them in his face or touching his shoulder, asking him questions, trying to keep him from looking at the sheets in the middle of the ring, but he couldn't hear the voices. He could only hear his parents' screams. His own scream.
They trained without nets most of the time. He had never been afraid of it. He knew that it was dangerous, his parents had never let him forget that, but he had never feared it. He never thought it could be like this.
He tried to swallow, tried to understand what he'd just seen, but he couldn't. Screams. Death. He saw it. He heard them.
His parents were dead. They had fallen.
He felt sick, but he couldn't move. His parents were dead, but they wouldn't stop screaming in his head.
With difficulty, Bruce pulled his eyes away from the sheets in the middle of the ring to face the commissioner. Jim had taken control of the situation a long time ago, giving orders and calming the chaos, and Bruce admired the other man for it. He couldn't have done it. He didn't even know that he'd seen all of it. He had seen his own parents' murder when those acrobats fell in front of their son's eyes, and he relived his own nightmare.
“You got anything?” Bruce asked, wondering if he sounded like himself or like Batman just then. The question was Batman. The emotions were Bruce, and Bruce couldn't control them. “Was it an accident?”
“Doubt it. Looks like the wire was deliberately cut.”
“Damn it,” Bruce said, his eyes going to the boy on the other side of the ring. A clown was trying to talk to him, but Bruce didn't think the boy could hear anything he was saying. “Who the hell would do that?”
“We don't know for sure yet, but someone also stole the circus' sales for the night. It could be a simple robbery.”
“You believe that?” Bruce asked. He knew his parents' death was a simple robbery, a stupid senseless tragedy, but he felt like this was different. It was tragic, yes, and he wanted to do something, anything for that boy over there, the one who looked as lost as Bruce must have been at almost that same damn age.
“It's possible the wire being cut was a distraction for the robbery, but I get the feeling this was personal. A few of the roustabouts mentioned one of the men being kicked out a few weeks back before the whole circus closed ranks and started not talking at all.”
Bruce shook his head. “They can't do that. The man who killed that boy's parents can't get away with it. Look at him, Jim. That boy is a mess.”
“I know.” Jim rubbed the back of his neck, showing his fatigue. “We're going to do everything we can to find this guy, but it's not safe for the kid here, and I need to move those bodies, but I don't want to do it in front of the kid. The circus did tell me that's all the family the kid has. I had an officer call social services—”
“Let me take him home with me,” Bruce said. His friend frowned. “I know it's unorthodox, but I can't think of a better person to help that boy than Alfred. He got me through what happened to my parents, and that boy needs him.”
“That was different, Bruce. You were already close to Alfred. He'd be a stranger to that boy.”
“You are not sending that boy to a group home after something like that. He's traumatized. Look at him. At least give Alfred a chance before you do that.”
Jim hesitated, but then after a moment, he nodded. “Alright. I'll fix it with child services.”
Bruce almost smiled. “Thank you.”
Jim shook his head. Bruce ignored it, crossing over to the boy and the clown. He knelt down in front of the kid, waiting for the boy's eyes to focus on him. “Richard, my name is Bruce. I'm going to take you home with me tonight.”
The clown frowned at him. “Look, we may be circus folk, but just because the boy lost his parents doesn't make him free to be your whore. We take care of our kids. We don't let people hurt them. Not Dick and not Clint and not anyone else.”
“I'm not going to hurt—”
“Clint!” The boy cried, throwing off the clown's hand and running out of the tent. “Clint!”
Dick had to find Clint. He knew something was wrong. He hadn't been able to think before, to do anything but see his parents die over and over again, but he'd heard his friend's name and he knew that Clint would have been with him if he'd been watching from his perch.
Clint hadn't been watching. Something was wrong.
Maybe even more wrong than his parents dying.
Dick ran, checking every place he could think of as he did, looking around the circus with desperation. His parents were dead, and he couldn't find Clint. He didn't know what to do. He had to find Clint. If Clint wasn't okay, Dick didn't know what he would do.
The sound of his name stopped him, and he did puke this time. He shook it off, crawling toward his friend. He sat down next to Clint, shuddering. “You... blood... Everywhere...”
“Swordsman... your parents...”
Dick would have covered Clint's mouth and forced him to stop talking if Clint's eyes hadn't closed, and Dick put his hands on Clint's chest, trying to stop the bleeding. He couldn't see through the tears, and he couldn't breathe, choking on the sobs.
All the numbness from his parents' fall was gone, and now he was feeling everything. It was too much. He couldn't do this. He couldn't.
“Help! Someone help! Please!”
The man who'd been talking to him when he remembered Clint was there not long after that. Dick didn't know if he'd been looking for him or not, but he didn't care. He was just glad to see someone, anyone that might help.
“Swordsman,” Dick heard himself say. “He killed... Killed my parents. Don't let him kill Clint. Please. Don't.”
“The ambulances are still here. Come with me.” The man picked Clint up, and Dick thought his friend looked so small, smaller than he'd ever seemed before, and he heard his parents screaming again, and Dick wanted it all to stop, now. He didn't get up. He couldn't walk.
“Just take him. I... I can't.”
“I'll come back for you,” the man promised, and Dick nodded, closing his eyes and shaking with the sobs.
“What the hell happened?”
“Looks like this killer had another victim tonight,” Bruce said, setting the boy down on the cot they'd been about to use for one of the fallen Graysons. The EMTs moved in, starting to work on the boy's wounds. Bruce shook his head. He didn't like it. That was too much blood.
Jim swore. “How'd you find him?”
“I didn't. The kid did,” Bruce said, forcing himself away from the wounded boy and back toward the traumatized one he'd left behind.
“They said he didn't have any other family.”
“I think the boy's just a friend, but that doesn't make this any easier,” Bruce said. “He was trying to stop the bleeding. He's covered in blood. I'm not a doctor, but I wouldn't give that boy good odds.”
Jim said nothing, silent anger overtaking him. “I want this guy, Bruce. I want him more than I've wanted a criminal in a long time. I deal with a lot of scum, but this one—not only did he hurt a child, but he murdered two people in front of dozens of them, including their son and my daughter.”
“I hope Alfred can help him,” Jim said as they got close to where the Grayson boy was still sitting. “Did he say anything?”
Bruce hesitated. He valued Jim as a colleague and a friend, but he didn't want to give him the information that the kid had given him. He wanted to save that for Batman. “No. Nothing of use. Just babbled, begged for his friend not to die.”
“Alright. I'll try and talk to him again later when he's had a bit of time. Watch over him, Bruce. Don't let anything else happen to this kid tonight.”
“That's his fourth nightmare tonight,” Bruce said, watching the boy from the doorway. “That's more than last night already, and he's only been trying to sleep for a couple hours.”
“I suppose you are quite fortunate that you are unable to remember the sort of nightmares you suffered through in those first nights, but I assure you—this is not unusual. It would seem to be a typical reaction to this kind of trauma,” Alfred said, shaking his head with pity. “I do not know how to do more for him. He seems almost as frightened of us as he does his dreams.”
“And all he does during the day is stare into space,” Bruce agreed. His mouth set in a thin line. “I've been working on digging up information on this Swordsman he mentioned, and I think I know the gang he was with when he attacked the circus, but it won't be easy to get to him, not even for Batman.”
Alfred nodded. “I do hope you will be careful. This man has already murdered three people that we know of.”
The older man let out a breath. “You cannot keep it from him forever. I do not like the idea of traumatizing him further, but you cannot keep lying to him.”
“The only thing that kid has reacted to was his friend's name. He asked me if he could go visit him in the hospital. What am I supposed to do? Take away the last thing that boy has?”
“Sir, concealing the death of his friend may do more damage in the long run than the trauma we both would rather avoid him feeling now. He will lose faith and trust in you and me. He has lost too much to take that from him as well. I do not want to add to his burdens, but he does deserve the truth.”
“And if the truth breaks him?”
“I believe the child is stronger than you give him credit for, Master Bruce. He will overcome this loss, as you did, but he needs support, not lies, and certainly not false hope. If we allow him to believe his friend will recover, he will focus too much on that hope and it will devastate him when he learns the truth,” Alfred said. He sighed. “I am going to make some tea. Is there anything I can get you?”
“No,” Bruce said, his eyes going back to where Dick was tossing and turning with another nightmare. “I'm going out. Don't wait up for me.”
“I never do, sir.”
Clint opened his eyes, crying out when a pain shot through his stomach.
Barney put a hand on his arm. “Easy. Don't move, little brother. You need to stay still. You'll pull your stitches and make a bloody mess of yourself again.”
Clint frowned. He tried to swallow, and his brother brought over a glass of water, helping him take the straw in his mouth. He sipped a little and Barney put the glass to the side. “What... happened?”
“You went toe-to-toe with Swordsman. And lost.”
The memories rushed back to him, the sharp sting of Swordsman's blade, the taunting laughter, the sound of his bow cracking under Swordsman's boot. He shuddered and cried out again.
“Try not to move, you idiot. He almost killed you. And then social services tried to take you, so we had to bribe a doctor and steal you from the hospital,” Barney said, shaking his head. He had tears in his eyes. “Clint, you are—I almost lost you. What were you thinking?”
“I didn't mean to find Swordsman. It just happened. And then—Oh, no. No, Barney, he was gonna cut the wires. The trapeze. He didn't—tell me he didn't—”
“He did,” Barney said. He lowered his head. “The Graysons are gone. They died. All of them.”
Clint shook his head. “No. I saw Dick... He's not dead. He's not.”
“All the Graysons fell. All the Graysons died. We had a hell of a time getting you out of Gotham, and you are never going back there again,” Barney insisted. He looked over at the doorway where Trickshot stood.
“From now on, it'll be the three of us. When you get better, we'll start practice again. You've got talent, Clint. We can use that.”
Clint nodded, but he wanted to go back to sleep and wake up to find this was all a nightmare.
Unfortunately, though, the nightmare was just beginning.