The dream is always the same. He can smell the popcorn from the movie theater as it drifts on the cool night breeze, mixing with odors of urban development. The exact words spoken escape him, but he feels their laughter, shares their joy. He feels his heart pounding because he knows what is about to happen, but his dream-self is oblivious, lost in a haze of child-like wonder as he tries to re-enact scenes from the movie they had just left from. He barely registers his father's warning of traffic before the gun points at them from a side alley.
There is never a trigger man, only the cold, dark steel of the gun barrel, hovering in the air like a demonic imp of fairy tales. He can almost make out the grooves of the barrel, tell-tale marks of the process involved in creating such an efficient killing device. The gun speaks to them in a cold, raspy voice, but he feels no fear. He stands near his father, a god in an overcoat and scarf. His father would make the gun go away; his father would take control of the situation.
In a flash of light, his father was dead.
A second flash, and his mother was also gone.
The gun laughed and bobbed up and down, wavering at him. He could smell the gun powder, feel the rain falling upon his body and could hear the blood pouring from the wounds in his parents' bodies. The sidewalk before him, as he sank to his knees, turned crimson and he watched as the tide spread out before him. The air had a coppery taste to it and it reminded him of when he had lost a tooth. The gun moved too and fro, darting around, always laughing, always taunting him. He tried to raise his arms, to fight back, but they wouldn't move and when he looked down, he saw his fingertips were in the blood that seemed to be coating everything.
He turned his eyes up to sky and tried to scream and it was then that the cold barrel of the gun was pressed to his forehead.
The gun continued laughing as it pulled it's trigger.
Click. Click. Click.
Bruce Wayne awoke screaming, again, and it took only moments for Alfred Pennyworth to sprint out of his own bed and be at his young master's side. The boy was pale as a ghost, Alfred noted as he turned on the light, and sweating. In fact, the teenager looked as if he had been standing out in the rain. Bruce, at first, fought off Alfred's calming hand's on his shoulders, but as he soon began to realize he was awake, he began to stop thrashing.
Alfred reached over to the nightstand and grabbed the glass of water that was setting there. As he handed the glass to Bruce, he noted that the pills the psychiatrist has prescribed were still in their small dispenser. Bruce took the glass and nodded his thanks. "Same dream, Master Bruce?" Alfred asked.
Bruce finished his drink and nodded his head. "I'm okay now, thank you Alfred." Bruce looked over at the clock and saw it was only two hours before he had to get up for school. "I guess I'll get up now," he said getting out of bed.
Alfred noted that the firm, muscular form of the youth in his charge was shaking slightly. Truly the dream had been most vivid this time and Alfred was doubly concerned about how his young master was not sleeping very much at all these days. At most, the boy was only getting four hours of sleep a night. That was not nearly enough, in Alfred's opinion, to ensure stable mental health.
As Bruce moved off to start his shower, Alfred considered calling Dr. Thompkins, Bruce's personal physician. She was an old friend and trusted by Bruce as much as he trusted Alfred. She had been a friend of Bruce's father before he had been killed that dark night some 8 years before. However, Alfred reasoned she would only try to prescribe a sleeping agent and Master Bruce had made it abundantly clear he would not take any narcotics, mood distorters or any other drugs he deemed as "unnecessary".
Young Bruce was becoming more and more like his father every day, much to Alfred's joy, but to Bruce's uncle's disappointment. Thomas Wayne's brother, who had perhaps met young Bruce once before the tragedy, was not much of a fatherly figure. A failed businessman who had seen most of his inheritance drift away, he was hoping that Bruce would be more interested in obtaining wealth that they could both share. While Bruce's uncle was by no means an evil man, for Alfred believed he did care for Bruce in his own way, he did not feel the need to be by the boy's side every minute of every day. In fact, it had been nine months since either Bruce or Alfred had even heard from the man.
That suited Bruce and Alfred just fine. Bruce was busy preparing himself for something grander than himself, though Alfred could scarcely hazard a guess as to what it was. He was sure that the boy had no clue either, only that he needed to channel the rage deep within himself into something more positive. Since that fateful night, the once bundle-of-energy seemed to become possessed by an unholy presence that forced him to labor without pause to attain some hidden prize. Day after day, he watched as the son of his beloved employer put himself through physical and mental regiments that would leave any man that Alfred could name panting and possibly begging for sweet, merciful death. The boy did not spend his summers vacationing with the other privileged members of Gotham City society; no, he would instead travel around the world to train in obscure skills or in the martial arts.
Singing lessons would have been good at least once as Bruce began to sing some latest top 40 song in the shower. Alfred was relieved that he did have some typical teenager qualities. Though not as into music and fashion as maybe he should have been, young Bruce knew enough to talk about it with his classmates intelligently. He knew all of the latest dances, including something that was become the "thing" called "break-dancing". Alfred, who couldn't think of very many things better than a waltz with a beautiful and refined woman, found the entire idea repugnant.
Alfred busied himself with laying out the young man's clothes, for if he didn't do it, he knew that his charge would end up walking into the exclusive Gotham Academy in his undershorts and a smoking jacket. He understood fashion, but just didn't practice it, at least not without Alfred's help. It was going to be his last day this semester and Alfred wanted to ensure that he would make the correct impression. The cover story was that Bruce was going to try wintering in the Carribean aboard his uncle's yacht; the truth was that Bruce was off to train in a new skill under two masters of their craft.
"You still aren't going to approve of this, are you?" Bruce asked as he walked in, clad in a monogrammed bathrobe, toweling dry his dark hair. The warm shower had brought the color back to his skin.
Alfred continued laying out clothes as he answered. "Does it really matter? If I disagree, you'll simply galevant off without me, as you did last summer."
Bruce examined the shirt that Alfred had laid out. "I was gone for two days and you knew exactly where I was at. Besides, I think it did us both some good having time away from each other. You haven't taken a vacation for eight years..."
"First of all, young sir, you going off to a Japanese brothel and leaving me to worry in a hotel room is not a vacation and as to knowing where you were at, I knew that you were engaged in behavior that I did not approve of somewhere on the island. Do not attempt to justify your...romp into adulthood as something to give me time alone. I assure you, once you have reached the proper age, you will owe me a great deal of vacation time." His voice was stern, but his heart was giggling. It was the first sign of rebellion in Bruce, when he had decided to learn the secrets of the bedroom from trained geisha's, against Alfred's strongest protests. Alfred had went so far as to "put his foot down" and still Bruce disobeyed. It had been the first time and it had demonstrated that the boy was able to think for himself, to weigh possibilities and still reach a conclusion. Alfred only wished it had been over something like loud music or even a tattoo, not sleeping with whores.
"Sorry," Bruce said sheepishly as he examined the slacks. "I don't like this color."
Alfred saw that he pulled out a pair of charcoal slacks; the same color he had worn the night his parents had been murdered. "I'm sorry, Master Bruce, I'm afraid I've let my emotions get the best of me again," Alfred said, reaching for the pants.
Bruce handed them over. "Don't apologize, Alfred, you do more for me than anyone. I should be able to dress myself, you know."
"Unless you plan on terminating my services after you reach the age of 18, Master Bruce, I would think you would begin to understand that this is what a Gentleman's Gentleman does?"
Bruce held up a hand, indicating he was conceding to Alfred's wisdom. "Have you taken care of the details I asked you to?"
"I have the plane tickets to Florida, I've spoken with the headmaster of the school...you're assignments will be sent via United Parcel Service...and you will do them, Master Bruce, or else the charade is over..."
Bruce picked up on the threat immediately. "I've never asked you to do my work for me, Alfred, except that one cooking assignment..."
Alfred pulled out a pair of navy slacks. "I do not see why you do not think cooking is an art you need to master as well. Many a fine lady have found a man that cooks to be very attractive."
Bruce took the pants as the smile faded from his face. "I don't have time for girls, Alfred, you know that. I have more important things to do."
"Such as?" Alfred asked, raising an eyebrow. "What is it that you push yourself towards? Why must you be the best at everything? What is the purpose?" His voice resounded with the despair in his heart. He wanted the boy to open up to him, to let him in on the most private of demons that tormented his young mind. He felt useless as he followed the lad, a man trapped in a boy's body, all around the world, pretending to be a parent of sorts. He wanted to help so badly....
"I don't know, Alfred, I just don't know. All I know is that I won't let what happened to my parents happen to someone else. I will stop it, I will make the world safe again so children can go to the movies...."
Alfred saw that the young man's eyes were beginning to tear up and he immediately excused himself to go change and prepare breakfast. Perhaps some other day, when they were both a little older, they could confront the madness that lay just beyond the eyes of Bruce Wayne.
***** ***** *****
"Now, Mr. Haly is away for the next three months, on safari in Africa, trying to round up some new animals for our act. He wanted me to thank you, Mr. Pennyworth, for arranging the generous donation to the Circus by the Wayne Foundation. However, I want to make clear that he stressed the risks involved with letting your..." the bespectacled man waved his hand towards a fidgeting Bruce Wayne, "employer?"
Alfred smiled and nodded politely. "That will suffice for now."
The man sat up and straightened his glasses. "Our insurance won't cover him if he gets hurt. You'll have to sign these waivers our lawyers drew up." He pushed a stack of papers across the desk towards Alfred.
Bruce stood up, reflexively ducking as his head raced towards the low ceiling of the circus wagon. "Look, I thought it was explained before that I didn't want anyone to know I was down here. Signing those papers leaves a paper trail."
The man seemed to be taken aback by Bruce's stunning outburst. The teenager, who was much larger than the man, was probably very intimidating. "I assure you, Mr. Wayne that your privacy is our primary concern..."
"We have no problem, " Alfred interrupted, "signing these release forms so long as we may retain copies of them. I would also like to have the name of your lawyer so that our own counsel may call upon them." Alfred then cast a glance at Bruce, who was about to protest, but then sat down, a angry look on his face. "Have you contacted Mr. Grayson and Mr. Brand?"
The man appeared even more nervous. Clearly, he wasn't used to dealing with hush-hush situations such as this. "Mr. Brand is unavailable. He decided to take a vacation, believe it or not. His first one in a decade. Said he wasn't interested. Mr. Grayson has agreed to train your...employer, but only after he has agreed to several conditions."
Once again, Bruce started to stand up, but a firm hand on his forearm eased him back down into the wooden seat. "Go ahead, sir," Alfred said.
"Mr. Grayson wants to make it perfectly clear that if, at any time, Mr. Wayne here does anything to endanger his own safety or the safety of the other members of the Circus, the training will immediately stop. No refund, no explanations, no excuses. Second, Mr. Wayne will be required to also perform menial tasks like any other member of the Circus..."
Bruce's jaw dropped. "Like doing what? I'm not cleaning up elephant sh..."
"Yes, you will," Alfred said in hushed tones. "You wanted to do this so badly, young sir, and now you will be able to. If you remember correctly, I did try to warn you."
The man continued. "Mr. Wayne will also be required to sleep here at the circus, but he will have his own tent. He will not be permitted to leave the Circus grounds without permission." He turned to face Bruce. "These are standard rules for all of the minors that apprentice here. You're not officially an apprentice, but we don't want to stir up trouble, you know?"
Bruce said nothing, but Alfred knew that his young mind was flying at a hundred miles per hour, calculating every possible outcome of these conditions and weighing them against the potential benefits of being trained in acrobatics by the legendary John "The Great" Grayson. "It's a deal," Bruce finally said.
The man smiled, obviously relieved. "Excellent!" he clapped his hands together and stood up. "Would you like me to take Mr. Wayne out to meet everyone while you sign the documents, Mr. Pennyworth?"
Alfred waited for Bruce to object, and when he didn't, Alfred nodded his approval and turned to review the stack of papers he would no doubt spend the rest of the morning completing.
***** ***** *****
They had traveled around the winter grounds of the Haly Circus, and the man, who identified himself only as Mr. Andrews, took Bruce on a tour that allowed the young man to meet virtually every single employee that was wintering with the actual circus. Several of the younger women smiled politely and whispered to each other as Bruce approached and he was at a loss of what to do. The same thing occurred whenever he walked through the halls of the Gotham Academy, but there he was sure they were making comments about the "poor little orphan boy". Some of the girls were very pretty, especially a girl with golden hair who seemed to stay in the back of the crowd. She looked to be around Bruce's age, possibly older, with haunting blue eyes and a slight smile that did something strange to his stomach when he looked in her direction. He wanted to inquire about her, but was pulled off to meet other people.
John Grayson was just a little taller than Bruce and maybe a decade older, Bruce couldn't recall. His form was similar to Bruce's, with the exception of the shoulders and forearms. The seemed to radiate silent power and Bruce found himself, for the first time in many years, jealous over the fitness of another man. Since the age of ten, he had religiously worked out and knew he could compete against Olympians when it came to weight lifting. He had also trained in the martial arts, which gave him a limberness that few his age commanded. Had he wanted to, he knew he could have played high school football, or ran track or participated in any other sports offered by the academy. He was confident that he could even give the nationally recognized Smallville athelete Clark Kent a run for his money.
Here, though, was a man, not even in his physical prime yet and he was beyond impressive. Bruce had researched all of the acrobats of the various circuses of the world, and two of the top ten were employed by the Haly Circus. "Good afternoon, Mr. Wayne; or would you prefer I call you Bruce?"
"Bruce would be fine, Mr. Grayson," the teen replied, slightly in awe. Despite his reservations about the conditions of his training, standing here before this man, he knew he had made the correct choice.
The man smiled from under a dark moustache. Bruce had yet to develop enough facial hair to grow a decent one. "Fine, then I ask that you call me John. Has Mr. Andrews explained my conditions?"
Bruce nodded. "Yes, and I've agreed to them all."
Andrews patted Bruce on the back. "Well, I don't think you two need me anymore, so I'm going to go check on Mr. Pennyworth. I'll see you both at supper." Andrews quickly made a hasty retreat and John motioned for Bruce to follow him.
"Everybody here earns their keep, Bruce. I realize that you arranged to have a large donation made to the Circus, and we all appreciate it, but that doesn't give you a free ride. With so many of our people out for the winter, everyone has to double up on everything. You aren't afraid of hard work are you?"
"No, but I don't exactly like the idea of shoveling...dung."
John laughed, it was a deep, hearty laugh that made Bruce imagine him as a lumberjack. "Not to worry, the animals are taken care of by their trainers. We wouldn't want you to get eaten by a lion now, would we?"
"I thought the lions were gone?"
"No, not quite yet. It takes years to properly train animals for the show. Each circus has a different way of doing it. The Russians are experts at it; they can do it in half of the time we do. Mr. Haly is merely on safari to plan for the future." They stopped in front of a pile of various trapeze supplies. "You're job will be to tend the lines and ropes and bars, making repairs as necessary. You might have to help out in the kitchen, too. Can you cook?"
Bruce lied. "Yes, I'm a wonderful cook."
John smiled, knowing the boy was lying. "Good. Now, may I ask you a personal question?"
Bruce nodded. "I suppose you have that right."
"Why would a trust-fund kid want to come learn about the circus? Seems to me that your money would be better spent on vacations to exotic locations."
Bruce was silent for a moment. "John, I want you to know that I respect you very much. I've followed your career and Boston Brand's for about two years now; you're both experts at what you do. Why I want to do this is my business, what you need to know is that when I learn something, I will only settle for the best."
John pursed his lips and looked Bruce over. "Fair enough. If you want to be mysterious, that's fine. We get all types here. Have you trained in acrobatics before?"
"I trained under Miles Rainier at Gotham State two summers ago."
John nodded. "I know Miles, he's very good...very safe. He could have gone to the Olympics if he hadn't hurt his leg in Viet Nam. We met last year when he came to the circus."
"I was in the group from the Gotham Academy that came to see the show. Have you ever thought about adding someone else to your act? A third person?"
"Well, my last partner quit three months ago, went back to college to be an accountant," he said. "I have a new partner and, if things go my way, perhaps one day I will have a third member to add to the act. I've even got a name: the Flying Graysons!"
Bruce's mind went back to the Time magazine article he had read on John Grayson's life. "I didn't know you were married?"
Again, there was that laugh, which seemed to fill the entire tent. John pointed to the tent opening. "No, not yet, though not for a lack of trying. There's my newest partner now! Mary!" he called.
Bruce turned to see the blonde haired girl he had noticed before approaching them, a smile on her face and Bruce felt that funny feeling in his stomach again.
***** ***** *****
It was the first time he had slept eight full hours in years and he awoke feeling worse than when he went to bed. John Grayson was a merciless taskmaster, running Bruce ragged, testing his limits. Bruce smiled as he felt the muscles of his chest groan with the exertion of breathing. He hadn't had such a good workout in so long, he was beside himself. He was learning new exercises he could use later to build up more strength.
He quickly dressed, thankful that John was not making him wear the tights that he normally wore when they trained. Two weeks into his training, and he still hadn't been up on the trapeze, which was the entire reason for his coming here. He knew that it was a skill he needed; not that he knew why, but he simply had this feeling. In his heart, he wanted to believe that his parents were guiding him from beyond the grave.
When he steeped out into the cool morning air, Mary was waiting for him, as usual. She had taken to the habit of walking with him to breakfast, discussing what he had done right and wrong the day before. Bruce reasoned that her and John would critique his performance after he had gone to bed, and that she was elected to discuss the issues with him because of her age. In the weeks prior, he had managed to get a wealth of information out of her on these walks.
"My family is originally from Russia...the Soviet Union," she had confessed one day as they walked. "They were performers in a small circus and escaped to the West shortly after the war. I was born here in the States, just as my sister, Harriet was."
Further discussions had revealed that Mary was an accidental birth, born to parents looking forward to retirement, not to raising another child. Her sister was at least twenty years older than her and the two were not very close. When her parents had died, she had to move in with her sister, but the two did not get along. So, then 17-year old Mary Roman (the Americanized version of Romanav) left for Florida, where she lied about her age and got a job as a dental assistant.
"The only problem was the old dentist wanted to explore more than my teeth," she joked.
"What did you do?" Bruce asked, totally amazed that a doctor would do such a thing. Crimes committed by doctors infuriated him.
"I knocked his teeth out!" she said, holding up fist. "After that, I just sort of drifted here. My cousins, who work for Ringling Brothers, had trained me to do the high-wire act and Mr. Haly immediately took me in."
Through each one of their discussions, Bruce found himself being attracted to her more and more. She was 19, just a few years older than him, and of small frame. Her facial features, with the sparkling eyes and thin eyebrows, betrayed her Russian origins, and she walked with a self-assurance that came from hard work, not money. Bruce could not stand the girls he went to school with, he felt they were all phony and fake. He tried to explain it to her, detailing how all they would do is talk about how much they wanted to marry a member of Duran Duran and settle in a small English castle.
"What's wrong with Duran Duran?" she asked, stopping. She placed her hands on her hips and stared into his eyes.
Bruce could not return the stare. He lost his confidence. It was not the first time it had happened to him, but it certainly wasn't as bad as it had been before. "You look like you listen to heavy metal music...Ozzy Osbourne, Deep Purple..."
Bruce shook his head. "Actually, I like disco..."
She actually jumped a little. "Ohhhh, I just love to dance. Do you dance?"
The truth was that dance classes were a requirement at the academy, and Bruce had also taken the time to watch several popular dance shows in order to keep up on the latest steps. He was a competent dancer. "No, not really. I don't have a lot of time..."
"Well, we'll have to make the time, won't we?"
That had been a few days ago and today the topic had somehow got turned to her relationship with John Grayson. John had indicated that the two were an item, while Mary's attention to Bruce made him think otherwise. There was no engagement ring on her finger, but he wasn't sure if he was confusing simple friendship with something else. The truth was that there were not very many men her age at the circus and she did not seem to get along with the other girls. One, a tall redhead named Zania, who trained the horses, had burst into Bruce's sleeping quarters, stripped and climbed into bed with him, ordering him to pleasure her. He had flatly refused and told her to leave before he called the police. She had left, making some comment about his "little blonde trollip".
It was obvious to him that rumors were starting to circulate about him and Mary. What bothered him the most is that he believed that he wanted the rumors to be true. He had told Mary what had happened.
"You have to watch her, she's a nymphomaniac. She did porn in the seventies before ending up here. I think Mr. Haly is sleeping with her; has to be because she's awful with those horses!" She started laughing, making small snorting sounds when she did. "As far as John and I, it's complicated. I know what he says, but I don't know if I'm ready for the commitment that he wants. I'm still young...I want a little romance in my life, don't you?"
"I don't know what I want," Bruce said flatly as they entered the main tent.
She stopped him with a light touch to his forearm. "Sometimes, when I look in your eyes, Bruce, I see such rage. I saw it in my uncle when he would talk of the P.O.W. camp he was kept in by the Nazis. You have to do something about that. You need to talk to someone. Perhaps your friend Alfred?"
Bruce shook his head. "Alfred is my best friend...but there are some things I don't want to share with him..."
She stepped a little closer and the scent of her perfume found its way to Bruce's nostrils. "I would listen if you want."
Bruce nodded and said he would think about it, but he doubted that he would. As they turned to head to the practice area, John Grayson was standing there. Behind his smile, he was hurting. He loved Mary, and had since the first day she had arrived at the circus. Now, he felt as if he was losing her to the handsome, young rich boy from Gotham City who could give her absolutely anything she ever desired without blinking an eye.
***** ***** *****
"You're doing well, Bruce," John said several weeks later. He was finding it harder and harder to remain cordial to the boy, even though he knew that Bruce had done absolutely nothing to him. Mary was devoting more and more of her off time to being with Bruce and John found himself sorely missing her company. Perhaps he should have proposed to her when he had first bought the ring, he kept telling himself, only he kept losing his nerve. His people, the Rom, the gypsies of legend, were fearless, passionate peoples known for their ability to express any emotion in song and dance. He had been raised in America, cut off from his roots. He felt like a coward.
"But?" Bruce asked, his arms folded over his chest. He had put on an extra inch of mass on his chest and his facial hair was growing in much darker. He was beginning to look like a man.
"You're too rigid in your executions. I can tell you've had martial arts training. In order to do what I do, you have to be willing to be free, to embrace gravity..."
"Embrace gravity?" Bruce repeated, a slightly sarcastic tone to his voice.
It was then, despite an extreme effort of will, that John snapped into a verbal barrage. He read Bruce the riot act and proceeded to use curse words that Bruce would later have to ask Alfred to explain to him. A crowd began to gather as John's assault continued gather momentum, all the while Bruce simply stood there, eyes not blinking, breathing very slowly.
Towards the end of his rampage, John noticed a slight change in Bruce's eyes and for the first time in many, many years, John began to feel afraid. It was as if Bruce's eyes suddenly went dead, as if the shadows within the tent seemed to gather around him, to shelter him from John's tirade. A thought, a word actually, from a story his grandmother had told him of the "old country" passed through his mind: vampyre. John found he couldn't even finish what he had started and his voice began to trail off. He began to wonder what the hell was trapped inside the soul of this boy.
"Grayson!" Mr. Andrews yelled from the tent entrance. "Get your ass over here now!"
It was the first time anyone had heard Andrews use such a tone of voice and the circus workers began to disperse immediately. John stopped talking and Bruce continued to stare, his eyes slowly following John as he moved away. Even turned around, he could feel them burning a hole in the back of his head. It would be a long time, he knew, before he would be able to sleep without dreaming about those eyes.
Outside the tent, Andrews called Grayson over to a spot next to the lion's cages. Even the great hunters of the African savannah seemed placated before the small man's rage. "Are you an idiot or what? What the hell do you think you're doing? That's not some stupid kid in their, that's a goddamned millionaire with a ton of lawyers!"
"To hell with your apologies! Good God, man, what has gotten into you? That kid practically idolizes you...or at least did! Is this about Mary?"
John didn't answer, but instead looked down at his shuffling feet.
"Do you know that kid's story? You don't do you? You don't know how his parents were killed...they were shot to death in front of him. They bled to death right there in his arms in a dirty alley in Gotham City. He's being raised by his freakin' butler for God's sake and hasn't had a female influence in his life, as far as I can tell, for almost eight years! So, he has a case of puppy love for your girl! If you love her so much, ask her to marry you, but don't take it out on the kid! He's been through enough!"
Andrews stomped off, leaving John to contemplate his thoughts just as a rain began to fall.
***** ***** *****
There was a knock at the flap that served as the door to his sleeping quarters and Bruce tossed around the idea of telling the person to go away, to leave him alone. He had done nothing to deserve what had happened to him, and his face was flush with anger and embarrassment. At the time, he had gone rigid, focusing only on the way John shook his finger at Bruce, the way it danced around his face...so much like the dream. He had frozen in place, his mind chanting 'I'm not a boy anymore".
Somewhere, deep inside of him, beyond that place that felt funny whenever he spoke to Mary, a voice had cried out. It was a dark voice, cryptic...telling him to reach out, seize the opportunity, take control of the situation.
It had been his own voice.
Bruce now began to realize that maybe, just maybe, he needed to talk with someone about his feelings, about the ever present rage that boiled up in his throat like bile. There was the knocking again and Bruce decided that he would tell the person to go away and then he would leave, catching a cab for the hotel Alfred was staying at. It wasn't so much the rage that bothered him; it was what it wanted him to do. The voice had told him to protect himself, to use the skills he had to beat down his aggressor.
Bruce shook his head; he would not become some mindless beast, lashing out at everyone who made him angry. He was not going to give in to his baser desires. He stomped up to the door flap and pushed it aside. Mary stood there in tears.
"I'm so sorry, Bruce, this is my fault," she said between sniffles.
All at once, the anger poured out of him as he saw someone before him, an innocent, hurt. "No, it isn't anyone's fault, it's just the way things are."
"May I come in?" she asked, dabbing her eyes with a hankerchief.
Bruce nodded agreement and showed her in. He invited her to sit on his bed while he stood.
"That was totally uncalled for, what John did," she said.
"Maybe. Maybe not. I was angry at first, but I'm not now."
She shook her head and more tears began to fall. "He's so arrogant sometimes, believing that I'm his..."
She looked up at him and the light from the single lantern in the room was reflected off of the tears in her eyes and it almost took his breath away how fragile she looked at that moment. Like a china doll, he thought, and he poised himself without thinking to hurry and catch her should she fall. "I'm not his fiancé, and I don't know if I'm even his girlfriend. We've talked and talked about it, but it never seems to get any better. So, since he wasn't willing to help define our relationship, I assumed that there wasn't one."
"And then I happened along..." Bruce began, his voice filled with hurt and regret. He had been right all along; the older girl was only interested in his friendship and he had allowed himself the luxury of playing the horse's ass for her.
Her jaw dropped. "No, nothing like that, Bruce. The truth is, I'm very attracted to you, but there is this darkness that seems to follow you wherever you go. At times its very exciting, almost hypnotic. You're very, very handsome Bruce and whether you want to admit it or not, you have a softer side to you. The way you talk so fondly of Alfred or your parents, its so disarming. Then you can stare right into a girl with those deep blue eyes, those dark curly bangs and for a second...sometimes...I just lose myself."
Speechless, Bruce stepped back to find comfort in the wooden doorway pressed against his shoulder blades. "But you and John...?"
She stood up and moved closer to him and Bruce found his breathing becoming shallow, his chest lifting up and down in an effort to bring more oxygen to his starving brain. She said nothing, but reached out to close the wooden door. As she moved to do so, he could smell her hair, practically taste the shampoo. She took his hand in her and moved it up to her lips, where she slowly kissed the fingertips.
He was beyond excited and did not know what to do. His actions in Japan had been different, as his gold card had dictated the actions of the women. Here, there was nothing but instinct, and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to do.
As she pulled him to the bed, she whispered, "Tonight, there is no John, but only for tonight. Do you understand?"
Bruce nodded that he did, but in truth, it would be many years before he actually would. It didn't occur to him that Mary and John were very much in love, but that without communication, that love had begun to die and wilt like a rose trimmed from the bush and given no water. Bruce had not been a device of revenge, he had simply been a choice. In the end, the better man, who realized that his own fears were costing him his true love, won out.
Shortly after Bruce had left, for after the way John had spoken to him he could not go back, Mary and John had married. He didn't pretend to understand, but instead was thankful for the one night he had gotten to share with a real woman.
***** ***** *****
"Are you sure you don't want to attend the actual show, Alfred?" Bruce asked as he poked his head into the driver's side window of his limousine.
Alfred had a look of boredom on his face. "I would rather forget the entire episode, if I could Master Bruce. You were heartbroken for months."
Bruce gave him a sly smile. "I wouldn't go that far, Alfred...."
"Besides, sir," Alfred said, pointing to the blonde busy putting on another coat of lipstick, "you appear to already have a date and I would think she would be more stimulating conversation."
As if in response, the blonde called to Bruce. "Brucie! Hurry, or we'll miss the animals!"
"You know, she scored very high on her SAT's," Bruce said to Alfred as he popped his head out and turned to join his date.
Alfred muttered as he pulled away. "I'm sure she is a veritable treasure chest of information, sir."
Bruce took his date's arm and tuned out her constant jabbering as they headed to the entrance to the Gotham Pavillion. Tonight was the final show of the Haly Circus and Bruce had held off until tonight to come. In fact, he wasn't really sure he should be here for two reasons. The first, obviously, was he didn't know whether or not John Grayson had gotten over his "fling" with Mary before the couple had even gotten engaged. Which, he thought, he would have to ask about, since they were married less than a month after he had returned to the Gotham Academy.
The second reason was that it just wasn't common knowledge that playboy millionaire, excuse me, billionaire Bruce Wayne was an accomplished acrobat. Those skills were reserved for his times in the costume of the Batman. Tonight, he was relying on the acting skills taught to him by his friend and companion, Alfred. Over the years, the two had grown closer as Bruce began to open up to him, but there was still that darkness that seemed to follow him wherever he went. He didn't know quite how to shake it and would only lose sight of it momentarily when he had to play the role of the fop as he was now.
"Kitten," Bruce began, "why don't you find our seats while I see if they have any champagne available?"
The blonde bounced up and down, causing 10 pounds of silicon to momentarily become airborne. "Oh, that would be great, Brucie!"
As she scampered off, men leering at her from behind, Bruce suddenly dropped the façade of the bored playboy and made his way through the cavernous pavilion until he reached an entrance marked "Circus Performers Only". A couple of hundred dollar bills got him past the guards and soon the familiar smells of the circus once again assailed his senses. For a brief moment, he was a younger man (not that he was old) and he started wandering amoung the pens and trailers. He recognized some of the troop members, but there were also many new faces. Such was the circus life.
There came a tapping on his shoulder and as he turned, his face changed from grim determination to half-drunk moron. His eyes, however, brightened at the sight behind him. "Mary!"
The blonde haired woman hugged him tightly. "Bruce!"
They embraced for a moment and then pulled apart. "You look well," Bruce said. He was not lying, for she looked even younger than she had nearly a decade before, if that was possible.
"Look at you! My goodness you turned out to be a handsome man! I think you've grown, too! At least another three inches!"
He laughed and they exchanged small talk. He spoke of his travels after high school and simply stated he was working nights when asked about his current activities. When the subject turned to her she shrugged. "John and I got married. What more is there to say? We became the Flying Graysons, the greatest trapeze artists in the world!"
"I noticed that you've added another member to the act, a son?"
Her expression changed slightly and she nodded towards the far end of the aisle where Bruce saw John Grayson, sans the moustache, playing with a boy of about seven or eight. The boy was giggling and carrying on, obviously happy to be spending time with his father. Bruce was jealous of the little dark-haired scamp. "Quite a kid, Mary. How old is he? Eight?"
"Nine," she said.
Bruce turned slowly to her and then shot a glance back at the boy. "Did you say nine?"
She smiled. "I was pregnant when John and I got married."
Bruce looked back to the boy. He couldn't tell. He and John Grayson shared too many of the same physical characteristics. "Mary..."
She put a finger to her lips. "We'll talk after the show. I want to introduce you to Richard and I know John still wants to apologize for going off on you like that."
Bruce wanted to ask more questions, but she simply waved and ran off towards her husband and son.
***** ***** *****
Of course, what happened afterwards is history. John and Mary Grayson were killed during the show, their rigging sabotaged by hired muscle for Boss Zucco, who was extorting the circus. Bruce Wayne made the front page as he cradled the young son, Richard Grayson, in his arms. The façade was thrown out the door as the orphaned billionaire stepped into protect the boy, to stave off the demons of the night that came in the form of dreams.
Yet, there was always that nagging question that Mary had been unwilling and unable to finally answer.
Deep in the bowels of the Batcave, located under stately Wayne Manor, the Batman held a manilla envelope that had been hidden down there for almost five years, ever since the first medical examination Leslie had performed on the boy. Without question, she had handed over the boy's blood, along with a sample of Bruce's to a well-respected lab in Metropolis. DNA testing was performed, no expense was spared. The results, which were only known to the technician who had performed the actual test, were inside the envelope.
The lab technician had "won" a major contest that they weren't even aware they had entered and had subsequently retired to Seattle.
Behind the Batman's cowl, Bruce Wayne studied the envelope, trying to probe it with his own form of X-ray vision. It didn't work. From behind him, Alfred cleared his throat. "I know you're there, old friend."
"Then you know why I'm here. You must either open the envelope or burn it, it's continued existence as it is accomplishes nothing."
Batman turned around and held out the envelope to his butler. "You open it."
Alfred raised an eyebrow. "Is that an order, sir?"
Batman shook his head and reached to his utility belt.
Richard Grayson was growing up to be a fine young man. As Robin, he was the light in Batman's shadow. He had proven himself time and time again of being worthy enough to someday put on the cape and cowl of the Batman, should anything happen to him. Every day, he saw a little of Mary in him, especially in the way he wanted to talk about everything, get it out in the open. Sometimes, however, the boy would become moody and withdrawn and Bruce could not swear that wasn't his own genes flowing through the boy's body.
Could he have gotten Mary pregnant? It only took one time, one single sperm cell out of millions to reach an egg.
Richard had told him his mother had said that he was conceived on their wedding night; she had told Bruce something different.
Was Richard really his son?
Batman looked at the envelope, pulled out the Bat-Torch from his belt and set it on fire.
"He's my son, Alfred; he's also John and Mary's son. I'm willing to share that honor."
***** ***** *****
Sometimes, the dream returns, only this time it is the man who stands facing the gun. Behind him stands his trusted ally, Alfred Pennyworth, and in front of him is his son, Richard. The gun wavers and bobs, trying to get a clear bead on him, but then others show up to cover him. His uncle; Mary Grayson; John Grayson; Kal-El and many others.
He no longer fears the gun.
The gun should fear him.