A/N: This went through so many different variations and versions and moments of just "I hate this, I need to rewrite the entire thing" that I'm honestly amazed this turned out as well as I think it did.
Disclaimer: Don't own YJ. This is also technically an AU.
One Gypsy Traveler
She passed him on the street one day. Across the street, really.
She walked over the weed-ridden Gotham pavement with her head bent down and her backpack hanging heavy like a yoke on a working ox. Her hair was tied up in a ponytail with a ribbon, navy for Gotham Academy. Her uniform was itchy, and she turned a little to pull the too-tight skirt away from her skin when she saw him.
He was across the street. A pretty boy with two bright blue eyes and a smile as big as Kansas. In his hands were three colored balls that he threw around with ease, his eyes on the small crowd that had gathered and their reactions as he began to get fancy, adding in strange arm movements or even trying to catch one in his mouth. Moving hands, restless hands, kept those balls in the air and soaring gracefully, their brilliant colors interrupting the grayness of dingy Gotham.
And there was a little light in her life, a reason to smile for the day. Her homework hadn't gotten done, she had a midterm and a quiz today, and the girl had forgotten to pack a lunch. But she was smiling because there was a boy on the street juggling, trying to entertain people, trying to bring smiles.
It worked. And Artemis Crock smiled. She silently thanked the gypsy boy, knowing he was across the street and would not see her simple nod of acknowledgment nor the grin that he had granted her. She needed that smile to get her through the day.
On her way home from school, she did not see him on that same corner. She did not see him at all. Some part of her, some very hopeful part, was eager to see him again, a street boy living with a joyous smile and a light heart. He had so little as far as she could see and yet he seemed to live so fully.
Artemis Crock made her way through the slum streets as dusk rattled through the air in the form of street lights revving up to guide the roaming Gothamites across the rolling black streets and blacker alleys. She picked her way up the stairs to her apartment building and kept her head down, trying not to make eye contact with the ignorant neighbors who let the nights go by like nothing was wrong. A few looked her way with pathetic eyes, but she felt nothing but burning stares that searched her skin for black and blue evidence.
After locking the door behind her in the apartment, the fifteen-year-old dropped her book-bag by the front door and moved to get a drink; the walk home was tiring, and she was parched.
"Your teachers called. Said you weren't in class today. And that you missed your scheduled detention. And the nurse mentioned that you slept in her office all day." The somewhat drunken voice from the couch was mild and neutral for the moment. Playing Switzerland. Playing quiet. "What is that all about, Artemis?" he asked with a dark edge on these last words.
"I didn't have any tests today and I was tired. I wanted to stay up tonight and study for Pre-Calculus and U.S. History tomorrow because I have tests." She swallowed hard, but her throat felt sandy and rough. She had yet to find a glass to take to the tap. "I'm sorry, Daddy."
"Go study in your room," he ordered, voice louder and more assertive now. A low crunch! sound echoed as he crumpled another beer can and tossed it towards an already overflowed waste basket. "Now."
No water, no dinner, Artemis picked up her book-bag and moved down the short hall to her little back bedroom. She unzipped her bag and pulled out her books. She turned on the only light in the room, a little desk lamp that was too far away to do much good, and opened up the minted pages to pour over material, hoping she could cram enough information inside her brain to pass tomorrow's tests.
She did not want to have to wear the school uniform's pants again just to cover up the bruises from the lashings. They were itchy and uncomfortable and the girls teased her, constantly asking where her skirt was.
She studied hard and late into the night, and still he came in, told her she wasn't trying hard enough, put a bowl of applesauce on her bedside table, and left her to her work.
Artemis Crock did not sleep.
One little gypsy boy stood on the corner. No more than fourteen, no less than eleven. A piercing blue eye even winked at her as she passed by, this time on his side of the street. It was early yet, he had no crowd, just a big smile and a care-free mind.
He was on a different corner this time, moving between spots to get as much viewership as possible to hopefully get a few more dollars in his little plastic cup, hardly bigger than ones used to rinse and spit with at the dentist's office. And because he was on her side of the road, he could now converse.
"Morning, miss," came his small yet charming voice, holding every ounce of that smile on his face in two words. Today, he was contorting, bending and flexing in ways that seemed inhuman and impossible. One leg was linked over his shoulder while the other stood him upright. His hands were linked together with meshed fingers as he pretended to jump rope with his arms. An acrobat and a juggler. What talent.
"Care to make a donation?" he asked softly and sweetly, not pressuring, just suggesting.
Artemis couldn't hardly manage to look in his direction: she wore a black eye and didn't want anyone to see. Especially not him, but she couldn't pinpoint why. Either way, the girl felt a half-smile on her face and the strong urge to pause and chat, but she was embarrassed by her empty pockets and blue bruises. She didn't look up and kept walking.
She'd lie to Barbara about this, say it was in a fight, that she was almost mugged on the way home- it wasn't uncommon. Maybe she'd ask Barbara for a bite of her lunch too, enough to keep her stomach grumbling during the PreCalculus test today. And tonight, she could sleep again.
As long as he wasn't angry.
"I'll see you again tomorrow then, miss!" called the little gypsy boy after her. His voice still betrayed his grin. And she heard a sneaker slap the ground and a bag unzip. As she looked over her shoulder, she saw him pull out his colorful balls for juggling.
She hoped she'd see him tomorrow. Artemis Crock walked on, hoping he didn't see her black eye when she looked back.
On her way back home, she did not see the juggling street boy. She saw people shuffling around where he'd been this morning, almost like they were looking for something- for him?
Some part of her was hurt that his smile wasn't there to brighten up her day and some part of her wondered where he could be right now, if he was safe, if he was fed.
She shook it off. He wasn't important. What was important was that she fell asleep during one of her tests and had to finish it during detention and the only hope that kept her heart warm and safe was that maybe the school hadn't called him to let him know. It made the steps leading up to the apartment so much more daunting.
But they had.
And he made her aware of how embarrassed he was of her behavior and he scolded her relentlessly by the end of his belt. Artemis cried and shouted for help, but those ignorant neighbors would not look her way through closed eyes, would not hear her prayers with closed ears. And as much as she called up to God, hoping the one thing in the world that could help her would reach a hand down and drop a heart attack in her father's chest; it seemed even the Lord had abandoned her.
She was served dinner an hour later, a nice steak with some peas. She ate it with a blank, neutral face and went to her room with her backpack, opening up her textbooks and going right to work.
As she tended to the welts and cuts that had been slit into her skin, she looked out the window to see a star in the night. And if God couldn't help her, what good could a measly star do to destroy the pain and havoc in her life? So she sent up a different wish to that measly star: to see the gypsy boy tomorrow so that he could bring her a smile.
He was there in the afternoon and on a completely different corner where the warm Gotham sun was making beads of sweat accumulate on his furrowed brow. Concentration swirled in the air about him as he focused on the flaming torch that he balanced on his lined forehead. He was panting through a victorious smirk and even let out something of a triumphant chuckle as he kept that torch above his head while pulling out his juggling balls.
Coins jumped, danced, and rattled in his little cup, and a couple bills floated through the air like drifting butterflies with airy wings.
Artemis felt at her pockets for a contribution but remembered that all her money had gone towards the vending machine at school for a small bag of Chicken Whizees. She felt empty and helpless with her out-turned pockets and discretely hid her hands in the pants of her uniform. Still, she was glad she stood around to watch today.
He let out a laugh, menacing and daunting yet full of life and joy. And it echoed in her mind.
He was juggling and managed to keep the torch on his head. More donations were placed at his post before people carried on with their lives, such entertainment only trivial in the grand scheme of the universe and its plans.
After a while, she was the only one watching him. And he threw all three balls up in the air at once, snatched the torch off his forehead and blew it out as quickly as he could before catching the three balls in one hand. Seeing he had an audience of one, the gypsy boy bowed to the lovely lady and shot her a handsome smile. "Miss," he greeted.
She swallowed and did not acknowledge him, did not address him, did not speak to him. The girl kept her hands in her pockets and moved away, heading to her own side of the street and towards her apartment building. She disappeared inside, painfully aware of how he watched her enter her home; he was encroaching on her home turf, but she didn't have the energy to try and be sneaky about getting inside without him noticing.
She went upstairs. She passed the ignorant neighbors. She locked the door behind her. She locked herself inside with the Devil.
Artemis Crock dreamt of fire that night. Colorful balls ablaze.
With fresh bruises appearing on her wrists, she had to wear a jacket on an unusually warm day in the middle of September. All the girls at school wore their plaid mini-skirts and their short sleeve collared uniform tops; Artemis had her heavy pants and a blazer. Hiding in plain sight.
She walked to school that morning and saw the gypsy boy tapping away atop a trash can, making music and smiles. His own grin was lopsided and goofy but so charming at the same time. His eyes said they knew everything, yet nothing.
In the afternoon, he'd camped out on a different corner and was contorting again, his body being manipulated in so many different ways. Every movement seemed graceful and full of life. His body was smooth edges and soft motion. Everything about him was calming and sincere.
So she stood in his crowd again and watched his gentle movements, fluid as he flowed from one pose to the next, body like a silk sheet rippling in a fresh, crisp breeze. He was living, breathing motion.
She felt at her empty pockets before resolving to simply stick her hands in there in defeat. She just watched and enjoyed, actually feeling her heart swell at the sound of coins pinging off the concrete sidewalk.
Humans dispersed, their lives moving forward as the Gotham wind carried them to their destiny. Finally, it was left at just he and she. One gypsy traveler and one lost girl.
He slowed his movements and eventually pulled himself into a normal standing position to get a clearer look at the girl he'd kept an eye on.
Slender, yet built. Hardened, but a soft face. Tanned skin, hidden bruises. Tired eyes, holding a wish for life. That was Artemis Crock. And that was what Richard Grayson saw in her.
He put a hand out to her, an offering. She did, after a moment of thought and with much reluctance. And he clasped her hand tightly.
Artemis flinched but did not cry out, did not panic. She watched as he reached gingerly with his other hand and pulled up the cuff of her blazer: black and blue shone in the sunlight, her abuse clear as day.
"You don't have to suffer anymore," he told her in almost a whisper. He tightened his grip on her hand, giving it a quick, reassuring squeeze. "I know. And I understand." He watched her eyes flicker in fear but understanding. And in her face, he saw hope. He saw light beneath the darkness that so shrouded her life in pain and terror. "You can leave."
She saw an answer. She saw joy. She saw no more pain, no more hate, no more hurt. She saw freedom. She saw life.
She saw a small gypsy boy with nothing more than a cup full of change and a kind smile.
He could never hurt her more than her father would.
She took his hand in both of hers and forced herself to smile. She would miss her home, she would miss her life, but this freedom, this joy, was too good to pass by. She would never graduate high school, she would never have real friends, and she would never see her father again.
But on that day, she ran away with a small gypsy boy in hopes of finding something long lost from her life:
A/N: I had a couple other ideas for this, but I figured this would be concise, consolidated, and still really good. So let me know what you think: this is my first time writing an actual AU that's meant to be totally AU. Drop a review, and thanks for reading (: