The circus is on fucking fire.
They hadn’t even been inside when it happened. The Daring Dangers, half of them anyways, along with most of the stage crew and performers, were gathered round a collection of grills and a sizeable bonfire— laughing together, tasting honey-golden fried fish and spiced vegetables skewered onto wooden spikes, listening to stories of old from the legacy families, breathing in the scent of burning pinewood and feeling a smile grow as everything clicked into place and he was home —when the main tent burst forth with flames.
It sent them flying. Robin hit the ground hard, feeling a wave of heat wash over his skin, popping and crackling all the way. His ears were ringing, somewhere to his left he heard the muffled sound of Artemis calling to him. But he couldn’t make out a word.
He could only hear the thunderclaps of wood collapsing in on itself and the roar of scarlet ribbons eating up yellowed canvas tents, lighting up the darkened grounds and drowning out the stars. The big top was the worst of all. While the storage cabins stood smouldering, the performance tent was a wall of orange and red. Ashes were already raining down, staining his clothes and dotting over his hair like a paintbrush covered in grey.
He slowly propped himself up on his forearms and froze, unable to push himself up, not with the blinding ache that settled into his skull.
Frantic, clumsy footsteps of dozens crashed all around him, dulled by the hum buzzing through his head. From the corner of his eye, Robin could see people running, picking up the young and dashing away, shouting at one another to head for the valley.
His eyes stayed trained on the ever-growing monument of heat. The skin on his face was already peeling, but he couldn’t move. He just lay there, crumpled into a heap and choking on blisteringly dry air, arms shaking beneath him, staring in a horrified trance as the timber folded.
He was violently torn from his awful reviver by Artemis— thank god —grabbing his arm and hauling him backwards.
Oh. That’s right.
He’d been close to the tent, hadn’t he.
Maybe that’s why he could smell the stench of burning hair.
“Hey, Robin. You okay?”
She had dragged him a good few yards back, Conner hovering close by. He blinked blearily, trying to remove the glare that adorned his vision, surrounding her in a shaky halo. “Yeah.” He push himself up, “Yeah, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.”
She gave a relived smile, and nodded.
The three of them began to quickly trudge towards the collection of people huddled together. Robin didn’t say a word when Conner slipped an arm around his shoulders.
The world was tilted too far on its axis for him to be stubborn.
Most everyone was already gone, save one or two elders being helped along, and half of his team. Roy and M’gann had turned in early and, as far as he could see, the trailers were empty and untouched by the flames. So that left them out of harms way. He did his best to ignore the heat crawling over his back, and the sounds of crackling wood the burrowed into his ears.
The silhouettes in the distance were pulling into focus like a telephoto lens when his feet stopped moving.
Artemis kept pushing onwards, she was focused and rushed, but as Conner’s arm slipped away, he stopped and turned.
His head was clearing and a realization slammed into him like a freight train.
Those shadows, the dancing outlines of people he knew. They were all so easy to pick apart, to tell whose who. And Robin knew— Dick knew —that someone was missing.
“Robin?” Conner called, moving cautiously towards him. Each step crunching through the frosted grass, creating a little trail.
They stood side by side, Conner staring at Robin, Dick staring his childhood as it burned.
There was some level of understanding that dawned on the young clone.
There was another voice calling for them to hurry as Dick took a step forward, as though in a daze.
Then another. And another.
A hand on his shoulder stopped him from breaking into a jog.
Conner’s grip was tighter than it needed to be, would probably leave a little bruising.
“I know. I know.” Conner wrapped his arm protectively around the smaller boys chest.
He’s voice was steeped in a frustrated type of fear, one Dick was quite familiar with. “We can’t. Not now, buddy.” Conner’s grip tightened slightly, not enough to hurt but enough to punctuate his words.
“Come on, it’s not safe.” He tugged Dick back, his feet catching in the snow and grass as he took stumbling steps backwards.
The same hand was back on his shoulder. More urgent than before.
Dick tore his gaze from the fire to look at Conner, who was apparently unaware of how tightly he was squeezing the smaller boys collar.
He sounded off, even in his own ears. He sounded so tired and resigned and like a liar.
It was good enough though, because a wavering smile lit up Conner’s face as they shuffled to the collection of carnies and acrobats.
Artemis rushed up anxiously, “I didn’t know you stopped.” She sounded apologetic before concern melded onto her brow and worked into her lips, pulling the corners down.
“Are you okay?”
Robin stayed silent, staring into the group of flickering outlines with glazed eyes, hands shaking at his sides.
The taste of ashes was heavy on his tongue as he ticked off a mental attendance list. In essence: he didn’t even hear her.
Her eyes fluttered over Robin helplessly before turning to Conner.
“Is he okay?”
He shrugged, “Not sure. He just sorta... froze up.”
Artemis looked over her shoulder, her hair flicking gold and yellow like sparks in the wind. “We can find M’gann and— and she can link us up. Sometimes people can’t talk if they’re in shock.”
Conner said something in protest, but it brushed past Robins senses like it wasn’t there at all. He felt himself fading and drew in a deep breath. The world went quiet except for the hissing and screaming of wood and flame. Dick opened his eyes, lightless and full of premature regret. The two were deep in conversation, each gesturing frantically.
The world fell away and Dick ran.
Towards the pillars of suffocating smoke and splintered fingers of red grasping all around the make-shift structures. Towards his home. Towards Jack Haly.
No one else has seemed to notice that the man had been missing. They were frenzied and scared.
So Dick ran.
He refused to lose any more family in his own home.
His legs were wobbling and there was a shout from behind him. He didn’t spare them a glance. Instead he snagged a discarded tarp as he pitched forward, willing his shocked body to move faster. Soon heat was shivering its way across his arms and face, driving soot up his nose and surely staining his face with blisters. There was a little opening, one that the fire had yet to claim. Dick covered his shoulders and head with the tarp, then dove into a hell-scape.
Some part of him registered someone screaming his name behind him.
His eyes burned and watered. Dick skipped and danced around ambers and collapsed canvas doorways. Every inch of the world was dyed red and burning. He pushed on, trying not to choke on the growing wisps of smoke floating around his head like a crown. It was a morbid scene from a fantasy. An act that he might preform one day, right now the audience was unseeing. His eyes roamed every crack and crevice.
There was nothing. Nothing.
No one was here. Maybe Haley was already— no.
No. There was no way in hell he was getting beat by this. A fiery beam disagreed, groaning as it tipped towards Dick.
It grazed his shoulder and he ducked away. He clutched the wound, seething and spiting swears to make a sailor proud.
None of it mattered.
He’d drag Haley’s soul back from the afterlife if he had to.
Otherwise, Dick promised to curse the selfish old bastard for dying. Especially while he was there. Of all the times! Inconsiderate, honestly.
He almost wanted to laugh, but two steps later his legs gave out.
Dick sat there on his knees, heaving and gasping. This isn’t fair.
His eyes were still burning.
Life’s not fair. A voice told him, it sounded tired and gentle. Pleading, almost.
Blood slipped from his cracked lips.
He spat and shook.
“Please,” his voice was hoarse and strangled.
“I can’t do this. Not again.” He didn’t know who he was talking to. Maybe the fire. The voice in his head, perhaps.
“Give me something.” He squeezed his eyes shut and pretended it was just the burning heat that made them spill tears.
He breathed in hot air and screamed.
Maybe he was too stubborn for his own good. Maybe he was just too exhausted to tap into a sense of self-preservation. Maybe death had waltzed into his life and laughed too many times. But he couldn’t leave. He wouldn’t.
Eh. Probably the first one.
Somehow, miraculously, he heard an intake.
His head snapped up.
A shadow was bent over, wheezing into their jacket. Dick surged forward, catching Haley as he stumbled. “Who..?” He breathed out, looking down at Dick blearily.
“I know a way out.”
God his throat hurt. Like razors had been slipped into his food along with heaps of lemon and salt. Breathing was getting hard, the dead weight on his shoulders wan’t helping.
At least Haley was conscious. He was standing on his own two feet, leaning heavily on Dick. Debris was raining down, some spiked with flames and some shrapnel. Sparks left constellations of burns over Dick’s back, he could feel blood dripping from his head, down his temple and off his jaw.
Must’ve gotten knocked by something heavy… not that he could remember; everything was blurring.
The scorches and slices and bruises grew in sync with his lightheadedness.
How were they even alive? This shouldn’t be possible.
He wondered if this was just a dream he came up with to settle into death. It was a quickly squashed thought.
The still unmarked entry stood proudly as the two staggered on.
“We’re here. We made it.” He was covered in sweat and ash and blood, but a smile plastered over his lips.
Life’s not fair.
Hah, yeah. Well, this time he made it fair.
They collapsed a few yards away from the exit into a heap of coughs and burns.
A rasping laugh burst out.
“Take that fate.” He huffed, hardly caring that his mouth was a mess of splits and dark red. They weren’t dead.
Dick wanted to holler and shout into the sky. They weren’t dead.
Instead he let the comparatively chilled air kiss his feverish skin and lull him back to his senses.
The pain was seeping back in through his shoulders, all the way down to his feet where his shoes had melted halfway off.
That was gonna suck to get off.
Suddenly there were voices. A ring built up around his ears as cries grew louder and a dark figure (figures?) came rushing up.
Hands were turning him over, dragging him away from the fire that licked at the ground. Blessedly cold hands.
A gasp from overhead and a blinding ray of light filled his sight.
Quite a bit, actually. But he didn’t have the energy to pull away or even close his eyes.
Besides... they were probably trying to help.
Might as well let them do what they need to, right? Yeah.
His eyes fell shut for only a moment.
They opened to empty space beside him where Haley was and more shadows spinning around him, speaking in muffled tones.
Maybe it had been more than a moment.
Something cool was pressing against his head. No, that wasn’t right… it wasn’t a physical touch. Like a passing thought that wasn’t his, urging him to stay awake.
He shooed it away, blinking hard to rid his eyelids of a searing, fiery afterimage. The thought poked at him again and something actually was pressing against his head.
Dick only knew because, this time, it hurt. A lot.
Like ice was being used to weld the gash on his temple shut with all the gentleness of a jackhammer. He was suddenly very awake, and very resentful of whoever was freezer-burning his face. He glared at the offending shadow, haphazardly raising a hand to the spot on his shoulder that had started to feel hot. His hand was batted away and the cold feeling migrated down from his face to hold against what he assumed was a burn. Someone was very rudely beating at this ankles where heat was tickling over his clothing. Maybe he’d caught fire at some point, who knows.
Dick’s face twisted in discomfort as cold spread down his arms in response to blistered skin. He blinked and the sky was different, the light from the fire was dimming.
Did he pass out? That’s twice now. Probably not a good sign.
There were less people around him. Just a presence at his side—he knew because they were poking into his thoughts and whispering reassurances—and someone with rough, calloused hands holding something damp to his shoulder and carding their fingers through his hair.
Breathing was getting harder, like Dick’s throat had been stuffed with cotton. A softer pair of hands touched his forehead and black floated into the corners of his eyes.
Dick blinked. He could feel his chest heaving and his lungs were somehow shot full of holes and unable to take in anything substantial.
He laid there, drawing in shallow breaths as flashing filled his peripheral vision.
There were lights in the sky, purple and blue and red.
The Northern lights would’t be here, right? It’s too far south.
The lights were flashing and pulsing and searing Dick’s vision.
The sky was moving. The stars shook, spun, and shivered and— wait no, he was moving.
Someone was moving him. The smell of rubber filled Dick’s senses and suddenly there was a mask being fastened around his mouth and nose.
Breathing was getting easier. His head was against something soft and the lights were dimming.
Dick let his eyes fall shut.