Author's Note: First off, thanks to all of you who have read my other Spark in the Dark stories and have waited so patiently for this one. I'm sorry it took two weeks longer than expected to get off the ground, but hopefully you find the end result to have been worth the wait.
The title for this story was inspired by Katy Perry's song of the same name, which I also consider the anthem for this part of the series in general.
There was a brief second after the awful snap that no aerialist ever wanted to hear during which Dick thought that maybe, just maybe, everything would be all right.
He was standing at the base of the ladder that led to the thirty-foot platform, one foot on the bottom riser as he prepared to scurry up for his part of the act, when it happened. Normally by now he would already be in the air, his father's strong fingers closing around his wrists as he caught him at the end of the quadruple somersault that was the boy's special entrance. Tonight, however, the show was running a couple of minutes behind, thanks primarily to the flurry of activity that had accompanied the arrival of some rich local man. Pop Haly had hustled to make special accommodations in the risers for the last-minute guest, only to be told that it really wasn't necessary. By the time the unusually nervous circus director was convinced that the billionaire really did just want to try and blend into the crowd, their timing was already delayed.
The result was that Dick was on the ground when the first wire broke. His gaze turned upwards as the echo of the support line's failure was drowned out by a collective gasp from the audience. Mom! he screamed in his head. She seemed to freeze for an instant, almost hovering before gravity caught up and yanked her downwards. No!
Then, suddenly, a rescuer swept in. John Grayson, through some impossible contortion, had managed to reverse his swing and turn back, arriving below his wife just in time to grasp her legs as she tumbled past. It wasn't a clean arresting of her momentum by any means, and her face relayed as much as her ankle dislocated in his hands, but it was far preferable to what had been about to occur. Neither the performers nor the spectators had any time to celebrate the seeming miracle, however; Mary's weight, added to that of her husband, was the last thing that was needed to snap his own wires. No sooner had her fall stopped than it began again, and this time there was no one to catch her.
Everything shuddered to a halt when they hit the ground. After a second someone in the stands screamed, breaking the spell and initiating a cacophony of cries and motion. Dick didn't notice; his entire world had closed down until the only things he could see were the two broken figures in the center of the ring, the dirt beneath them darkening with blood. Even in death, they were the centerpiece of the show, as the spotlight that had followed their ghastly descent out of sheer habit remained trained on them, its operator having dashed away to vomit.
The boy tiptoed out without realizing what he was doing, nothing in his ears but a steady hum of disbelief, and fell to his knees between them. Mom. Daddy. Please... If he could have ignored the grotesque twist in his mother's long, stately neck, or erased the resigned horror in his father's expression, he might have pretended that they were just sleeping. No. This is a dream. This is a bad, bad dream, he told himself. He'd had a similar nightmare a few weeks earlier, he remembered desperately; it had stuck with him not only due to its vividness but also because sleep terrors weren't things he normally suffered from. It's just…just another dream, his mind flailed against reality. In a minute dad will wake me up, and tell me it's okay, and that breakfast is ready, and then I'll go help feed the elephants and we'll load up and go, because this can't be real, we're leaving town tomorrow morning and it must…it must just be…just be a dream…
But there'd been no blood in his visions, not leaching out from under them and certainly not beginning to drop slowly from his father's agape lips. Those steady tears of crimson were what restored the rest of the tent to his shocked young mind, and as his sense of hearing returned he turned to the other figure. His fingers stretched out to graze the still-shining locks he'd watched her comb out less than an hour earlier. Mommy. Please…
"Dick!" Kind but desperate hands jerked him away. He fought weakly – they'll wake up, just give it a minute, they have to, please, no, no, no, nooo… - but it was no use. Pop Haly's grip, hard from years of work but gentle by nature, spun him around. The boy craned his head over his shoulder, trying to keep his eyes on the bodies, still waiting for the magical moment when they were sure to leap up and announce that it had all been a terrible joke.
"Dick, look at me," Pop Haly begged. Like every other member of his circus present in the big top at the moment of impact, he had stared incredulously until a shriek broke him out of his stupor. Only then had the older man noticed the child slipping out to where his parents lay twisted on the earth, and he'd ignored the half-dozen people already clamoring for directions from him in order to give pursuit. No one could have survived that fall. He shouldn't be near them like this. It's too much. "Talk to me. Please." Scream, cry, something. Anything.
"Vhat has happened?" a heavily accented voice came up behind the crouching man. "…Oh…Zahn…Miry…no…"
"…Soraya," the director spoke to her without looking. "I need you to take Dick out of here. I have to sort everything out, and I don't want him left alone."
"Yes. Reeshurd…dahlink…" She knelt before him, her thin, be-ringed fingers replacing Pop Haly's thick, plain ones on his shoulders. "Come vith me, mm?" She steered him away, directing his lifeless steps to a low crate in the prep area of the tent. Here, out of sight of both the quickly departing audience and the remains, she pulled him up into her lap and held him, rocking back and forth in the way that had calmed him since the day he'd been born. "You vill be fine, dahlink," she assured him gently. "You vill live vell. I have seen eet…" But I did not see zhis, she lamented to herself. I failed you, Miry…I failed all three ov you…
In her arms, Dick drifted, the thuds that had marked his parents' departures from life repeating in his head and drowning out the words of the fragrant woman trying to comfort him. Coherent thought escaped him entirely; all he knew was that there was something sorrowful clawing behind his ribs, tearing his heart to shreds. Despite the awful pain, he couldn't seem to manage to cry out. Instead, he allowed himself to be cradled by his mother's closest confidant, the fortune-teller who had been as an aunt to him for as long as he remembered, and for a while knew nothing other than the agony eating him up from the inside out.
Back in the center of the ring, the circus director assumed command, shoving his shaking hands into his pockets to hide their instability. "Clear everyone out," he directed those of his people who had gathered in a mournful semi-circle around the bodies. "Make sure the police have been called. Goro," he called hoarsely after one of the roustabouts, "bring me a tarp or something." Left alone for a moment, he dropped to the same spot that Dick had occupied a short while before, his knees creaking. Johnny… His hand hovered over the dead man's disfigured shoulder, not quite daring to touch him. …I'm so sorry. I should have just agreed, but it was so wrong, and so dangerous, and I didn't think…I thought they'd come after me, if they even followed through. I never dreamt they would target anyone else…oh, god…
The deaths of the two performers that he had loved as if they were his own children had to be tied to the threats he'd received only twenty four hours before, he was certain. John had been born into a respected line of aerial artists, and since joining Haly's Circus just over a decade earlier he had allowed no member of his family, blood-related or otherwise, to risk their lives on wires that he hadn't checked personally. If there had been anything wrong with them, he would never have let anyone go up tonight, the older man knew. And for two wires to break like that…no. Someone did something. I don't know what, but…oh, Johnny, if I'd just known!
A few tears ran down his cheeks as he turned to the other figure. And sweet, wonderful Mary. You made him so happy, you and Dick…You were the only one for him. The way you came along with us when we left town, only three days after you'd met him…I never thought you'd do that. What college girl from a good family runs away with a traveling circus? Johnny has…had…charm, that's for sure, but it still surprised me when he got you like he did. I'm so sorry. You were the best thing that ever happened to this troupe, even before you turned out to be such a natural in the air. Part of me is glad the two of you died together, he sniffed, but Dick…I'll do whatever I can for him, Mare, Johnny-boy, you know I will, but…oh, god, why? Biting back a sob, he moved the woman's hand over to rest on top of her husband's. …There. That's as it should be, at least.
He stood, feeling much, much older than his fifty-some years, and turned slowly around, expecting to see a policeman. Finding the guest he'd struggled to seat earlier instead, he shook his head. "Mr. Wayne," he choked. "I'm…I'm terribly sorry that this happened the night you came. I…this has never happened before," he faltered. "They…if you could have seen…" Goro was approaching with a bundle under one arm, and he broke off. "…Excuse me, I need to cover them," he apologized, accepting the tarpaulin. "Goro, would you-" He was about to say 'help me,' but before he could finish the distraught roustabout saw what had been done with the deceased couple's hands, burst into loud, raucous tears, and fled.
"Please, allow me to lend a hand."
Haly stared at the billionaire. "…I'm sorry?"
"You need help with the tarp, don't you?"
"I…yes," he shook himself. "Thank you." Once they'd draped it over the worst of the mess, they walked a short distance away. "…Mr. Wayne, I'm confused."
"About what, Mr. Haly?"
"About…why you're still here, when everyone else has left."
"…The boy. He was theirs, right?" He already knew the answer, of course - the Flying Graysons had been billed as a family act on every flyer and poster he'd seen on the way in – but it was a good segue. After the adults had fallen, half of Bruce's attention had been taken up examining everything he could from his seat, certain that he'd just witnessed the end result of a brutal crime. The other half had gone straight to the child, all too familiar with the wretched denial and loss that had to be coursing through him as he stepped away from the ladder and minced out into the ring to join his parents. …What happens to him now? he found himself wondering as he waited for the circus director's response.
"Yes. He's theirs," was whispered back finally. "Why?"
"…I have a foundation, part of which is dedicated to helping survivors of violence," he replied smoothly. "I'd like to lend any aid that I can to him."
Haly turned to him, eyes narrowing. "…How do you know this was…violence?" he queried suspiciously. Are you with them? Were you part of this?
Bruce's face remained calm. "The Graysons were obviously professionals. I don't imagine that they would have let their equipment degrade to the point of a double failure, do you? The only other thing I can think of is that someone tampered with the act."
"…No, you're right. Johnny would never have let something like this happen. He…he always checked the wires himself…" Don't jump to conclusions, he warned himself. If this man can help Dick somehow, then you need to do everything you can to keep him on your side.
"C.C. Haly?" a new voice interjected. Both men swiveled to find two police officers approaching.
"That's me," the director took a deep, steadying breath. "As you can see, we've…we've had a tragedy here tonight."
"Yeah, that's what we heard. Bruce Wayne, right?" the cop doing all the talking directed at the billionaire.
"Didn't know you were into the circus."
"Everyone needs a distraction now and again, officer. I stayed after the others to offer assistance from the Wayne Foundation. For the child," he clarified. And to try and learn what I could about the crime, he didn't add. He couldn't do much more than observe, not as Bruce Wayne at least, but that was still more than he could have done had he tried to run home and come back as Batman. They'd have had everything half cleaned up by then, he knew, and that would be useless to me.
"A kid's involved? Dead, or…?"
"No," Pop Haly shot him a look. "He's being taken care of by another member of the circus, a dear friend of Mary Grayson's."
"Get CPS out here," the policeman directed his partner.
"CPS?" the older man frowned.
"Child Protective Services," Bruce explained the acronym, his mouth also turning down. "…Is that necessary?"
"Kid has to be booked," the officer shrugged, flipping open his notebook. "…Look, I'm sorry he's an orphan, all right?" he snapped, seeing the dark looks both civilians were leveling at him. "But I've got procedures I have to follow. So tell me what happened."
I hate that word, Bruce fumed as the director began to explain haltingly. 'Orphan.' People like you who throw it around so easily clearly have no idea what it feels like to have the most important people in your world suddenly ripped away from you. His displeasure faded somewhat as he listened to the part of the story he hadn't been present for. …So someone wanted something out of these people. This seems like a pretty extreme response, though. Busting a couple of kneecaps, that's a normal reaction to a 'no'; killing two people who probably had no idea what was going on, that's extreme. So if the wires were tampered with, who did it? And why make an example out of these two?
"Okay, well, we're going to have to take a look at those wires that broke, then, and talk to anyone who might have seen anything," the officer's comment broke through his musing. "Look, Mr. Wayne, not to be rude, but there's not really any reason for you to be around while we do this, so…I don't know, maybe your organization could contact CPS in the morning?"
"Having a detailed understanding of what happened will help determine whether or not we can assist the boy," the billionaire countered. "The more I can tell my case managers right off, the faster we can get him what he needs. I'm sure none of us want the child – I'm sorry, Mr. Haly, what's his name?"
"Dick. Well…Richard, but no one actually calls him that other than Soraya."
"Who?" the cop frowned.
"The point is," Bruce overrode the question, "I'm sure none of us want Dick to be left in the social services limbo any longer than absolutely necessary."
"I get that, Mr. Wayne, and it's very noble of you, but if there's something to this threat thing then this is an active investigation. Which means it wouldn't be so good if you saw something important and let it slip to your latest lady-love during pillow talk."
Who in their right mind considers murders they've witnessed to be pillow talk? "Well, if that's your only concern, Officer…Caruso," he peered at his nametag as he pulled his cell phone out, "I'll just call the Commissioner and get permission from him. Will that be sufficient for you?" He was bluffing – he couldn't imagine Gordon responding to his request to remain at a crime scene in order to do a little charity work with a resounding cheer – but it worked, and Caruso backed down.
"…Fine. Just make sure you run anything you're going to submit to your organization through us first, and keep your mouth shut about what you see otherwise, all right?" With that, he stomped past them and towards the covered bodies, still muttering something under his breath.
"Yes, Mr. Haly?"
"…Can you really do something for Dick? Really?"
Meeting his gaze, Bruce realized just how worried the older man was for the boy's well-being. Dick's not completely alone in the world, he decided, although I know that's how it feels to him right now. This person cares for him, and I'm sure there are several others in the troupe who would be happy to take him in. He has a family here. The problem is going to be getting CPS to realize that. "…I'm going to do everything I can, Mr. Haly," he swore. "I promise you that."