Disclaimer: These characters aren't mine.
Dick Grayson, aka Nightwing, stared out the passenger window. Rain fell in sheets across the interstate. Cars and semis were crawling in the rain, drivers desperately trying to see the lane markings through their rain drenched windshields. Some drivers – the smart ones – had already pulled onto the shoulder to wait out the downpour. Others – the stupid ones – continued to zoom past, oblivious of the torrential rain and the need to actually be able to see the roadway to drive safely. Wally West, aka the Flash, muttered a curse as one such driver zoomed past them. Wally fit into the category of not smart enough to just pull over and wait out the rain, but at least not stupid enough to think he could still safely drive anywhere near the speed limit.
The weather reflected Dick's mood. Dark, dreary and depressing. He wanted to go home. He wanted this supposed vacation to end. Had it only been five days ago that his best friend had basically kidnapped him? Okay, maybe he hadn't exactly been kidnapped. Dick knew he could beat Wally. Wally had never quite seemed to grasp the fact that his speed, while a strength, was also a weakness. A weakness Dick knew how to easily exploit. Right now he could be at home in his apartment in Bludhaven. Or he could be spending time with Tim or Barbara in Gotham. Instead, he was stuck in Wisconsin. Joy.
Every year he and Wally took a vacation together. It was tradition. Every year the task of planning the vacation seemed to fall to him. Again, it was tradition. Every year that is except this year. For some weird reason, Wally had gotten inspired to actually plan the vacation. Dick knew he should have been suspicious. Wally could never make up his mind when it came to deciding on a vacation destination. Why was this year any different? He should have asked more questions, yet it had been such a relief to finally have a year off. It could be a true vacation.
Then he had learned their destination…Wisconsin. Yeah. Badgers, Packers and Cheeseheads. If Dick had any say in the matter, this would be the last year Wally planned their vacation. Maybe that had been his friend's plan all along. Could Wally actually be becoming devious? Was his true plan to show Dick how easily he could ruin a vacation so Dick would always plan their vacations in the future? If Wally were Roy, the answer would be yes. But this was Wally. Wally didn't have a devious bone in his body.
Besides, as much as he hated to admit it, as much as he just wanted to go home, he had enjoyed himself. Spending time with Wally was guaranteed to make almost anyone – Bruce being the obvious exception – relax and have fun. Wally could redefine spontaneity. Combine that spontaneity with his general naivety and innocence, and, well, it was no wonder Roy had so much fun teasing Wally over the years.
"We're almost there," Wally announced.
Dick frowned. He tried to peer out the rain covered windows for an indication of where they were. He hadn't been paying attention to the road signs. They had been heading south. As far as he knew, they were still on the interstate, still in Wisconsin. "Where's there?"
Dick sighed. Another hip, happening Wisconsin town. When the vacation had first begun, Dick had been hopeful. Yes, it was Wisconsin, but the vacation had potential. When Wally announced the first stop would be Milwaukee, he had started to relax a bit. Maybe this vacation wasn't going to be as bad as he had thought it would be. Then Wally had explained the reason for visiting Milwaukee. All hope had immediately died. Of course Wally didn't go to the usual spots. No art museum or history museum. Not even the Harley Davidson museum. Not even tickets to see a baseball game. No, they had stopped in Milwaukee so Wally could have their picture taken next to the bronze statue of Henry Winkler, aka Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz. Aaay. It had not been a happy day, at least not in his book. The day had only gotten worse when Wally had also insisted on recreating the opening scene from Laverne & Shirley. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 Schlemiel! Schlimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated! Yeah. There were times one needed to be in the mood to appreciate Wally's version of fun and Dick simply hadn't been in the mood.
From Milwaukee, their destinations had remained eclectic. The next stop had been to Two Rivers, the birthplace of the ice cream sundae. Only Wally would plan a trip around his stomach. At last the city had been along the shore of Lake Michigan. Dick had managed to convince Wally to spend a few minutes enjoying the view from the shoreline…which in speedster time was a couple of hours. From there, they had journeyed to Woodruff to see the world's largest penny, or rather the world's largest penny outside of the one located in the Batcave. The penny had been rather disappointing. Next had been the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame in Hayward. Not surprisingly, Wally didn't have any interest in viewing the museum displays. Instead, his sole interest had been to have their picture taken next to the world's largest fiberglass sculpture, a muskie.
And now they were going to Baraboo. God only knew what was in Baraboo. Dick knew he needed to keep his expectations low. Was there really any way for Wally to top the Fonz, a giant penny, or a giant muskie? Dick highly doubted it, but then again, this was Wally. He had learned never to put anything past the speedster.
Baraboo. Oddly…scarily…the name had a familiar ring to it. Why? Something about it tickled the edges of his memory, but nothing more. That only increased his apprehension. No battles or super villains came to mind. What else could it be? "Should I even ask?"
Wally grinned. "Trust me on this one, you'll love it."
His worry increased. "I don't know. It's going to be pretty hard to top the muskie."
Wally's grin widened. "That was pretty cool, wasn't it."
Dick rolled his eyes. Between their stops, Wally had continued to meet the needs of his stomach and dine on the state's cuisine. Dick felt as if he had gained at least ten pounds. Bratwurst, cheese, cheese curds, fried cheese curds, fish boils, fish fries…what wasn't fried in grease seemed to be drowning in butter. Sometimes it was both. Alfred would not be pleased. Every morsel of food that had entered his mouth would never be found within the walls – nor even within at least a five mile radius – of Wayne Manor. Yet, Dick had to admit everything tasted pretty good…except for the fried smelt. Never again. Even Wally had agreed the smelt had been a bad idea.
Wally glanced at his watch. "Good, we're still on time."
Dick frowned. They were on vacation. Time shouldn't matter. "On time for what?"
"Would you just trust me?"
"The last time I trusted you I-"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah. This time is different. I promise."
Yeah, right, Dick thought. Bruce still hadn't forgiven him for the last time. He and Wally had ended up in jail. They had been bailed out by Roy. Calling Roy for help hadn't been one of their brightest ideas, but both Donna and Garth had been unavailable. Calling Bruce or Alfred hadn't been an option. Calling Linda or Jay hadn't been an option either. Dick had hoped Bruce wouldn't hear about it, even though he knew Bruce would find out. Bruce always found out. And although all the charges had been dropped, Bruce's payback had been hell, something Wally hadn't had to endure. At times life just wasn't fair.
The stupid grin remained on Wally's face as they drove through town. The town was small, only a couple thousand people. Dick looked around, trying to find a clue as to what Wally found interesting in Baraboo. Nothing looked familiar. Then he spotted it. A sign. Circus World. Wally wouldn't. No, Dick thought, his friend definitely would. "Wally, tell me we're not going to Circus World."
"Okay, we're not going to Circus World," he replied as he turned the car down the street.
"Wal, I'm not kidding, I don't-"
"Would you just give it a rest already and trust me?"
Dick heard the irritation in his friend's voice. Whatever Wally had planned was a little more serious than their other little side trips around the state. But Circus World…what good could come from visiting Circus World?
His life was divided into two distinct worlds – life in the circus with his parents and life with Bruce. He cherished both. He had long ago come to terms with his parents' deaths, but it didn't mean he wanted to be reminded of what life could have been. Wally understood that. So that only raised the question of what was Wally doing? What did his friend have in mind? Dick took a deep breath and used the relaxation techniques Bruce had taught him years ago. Sadly, it wasn't the first time he had needed to use them with Wally. Nor would it be the last.
Wally parked the rental car in the almost empty parking lot. The museum wasn't scheduled to open for another hour. Could this be yet another ominous sign? Why would Wally insist they be on time when the museum wasn't even open yet? With a sigh, Dick followed his friend to the museum's entrance. Wally knocked. Shortly a woman appeared. Wally stated his name. The clerk smiled, nodded and let them inside. Within minutes, a manager appeared.
"Mr. West, I'm glad you made it," the man greeted. "I'm Tom Wilson. We spoke on the phone." Wally shook the man's proffered hand. Tom turned toward Dick. "And you must be Mr. Grayson. It is truly an honor to meet you."
Dick shook the proffered hand as well. "An honor to meet him?" That statement could only mean one thing. The man knew who he was. Dick supposed he shouldn't be surprised. This was the manager of a circus museum, and while Dick would never brag, it was a simple fact that the Graysons had made their spot in circus history – both their abilities and their murder. He sent a questioning look to his friend. Wally only smiled. "Mr. Wilson-"
"Please, call me Tom."
"-Tom is in charge of Circus World. He oversees all of its operations," Wally clarified.
"That's right. Circus World is part of the Wisconsin State Historical Society. We are situated on the original winter grounds of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Did you know that the Ringling Brothers Circus was founded in Baraboo?"
That's why Baraboo had sounded familiar. "Yeah, I did," Dick answered. He had grown up a circus brat. Sure, he had been a Haley Circus brat, but he knew his circus history. The Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey's Circus had been the top circus act in the country. It still was. But Haley's and all the other circuses had earned their spots as well. They may not have been as big, but Dick would argue most of them were just as good, and some maybe even better.
"Of course, you do. What was I thinking?" Tom smiled. Dick frowned. "This site has been owned by the state since 1959. Today the site encompasses about 64 acres. We also have the Robert L. Parkinson Library and Research Center which is the world's foremost research facility on circus history. Would you like a tour?"
The last thing he wanted was a tour. "Would you give us a minute, please?" Dick asked. When Tom nodded, Dick pulled Wally to the side. "Why are we here?"
Tom overheard the question. "Ah, I see Mr. West hasn't shared the great news."
"What news?" His patience was almost at the end. Maybe it was time to again remind the speedster not to annoy the Bats.
"Mr. West donated a large collection of circus-related materials. More importantly, an anonymous donor helped restore many of the artifacts. While we are located on the original Ringling Brothers site, we collect materials from all circuses. The collection included materials from Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey's, Haley's, Shrine and others. Mr. West just had one request that you, Mr. Grayson, are able to preview the materials privately and that you are able to keep any of the materials in which you have an interest."
Dick looked at Wally in confusion. Huh? What? How? Wally didn't own any circus-related materials. Wally looked at Tom. "Will you please give us a few minutes?"
"Of course." Tom walked away.
Wally faced him. "Linda was researching a story. She visited this guy's home, a farm actually. In talking with the guy, he gave her a tour. One of the outbuildings was packed full of what he called junk and it mostly was. Anyway, he was looking to dump everything. Linda noticed a circus program, a Haley's Circus program. She looked a little closer and noticed other circus stuff, too. On a whim, she gave the guy a couple hundred bucks, and two U-Haul trips later, she and I had emptied the shed. Like I said, most of it was junk. A lot of it had been ruined by weather exposure, mice or bugs. But some things somehow miraculously survived or looked as if they could be restored. I called Alfred, explained everything to him, and he helped us find some restoration experts and appraisers. Better yet, he – or rather you know who – footed the bill."
In his chest, Dick's heart started to beat faster. Wally continued his story. "Turns out this guy's grandpa, who originally owned the farm, used to travel to Florida every winter. He hung around the various circuses that wintered there. There's stuff dating back fifty years. In one of the boxes that wasn't ruined we found posters advertising the Flying Graysons from before you entered the picture, or at least we think it's from before you were born." He shrugged. "We also found some pictures of your parents. Alfred thinks they are from before you were born as well. We sent everything here just to have them verify its authenticity. Needless to say, they started drooling at the possibilities of keeping everything. I sure as heck don't want it all. So I figure they can have it all, but with the condition that you can take anything you want….which they sort of have to allow since I haven't officially donated anything yet. Depending on what you take, they might make a duplicate, but you would be able to keep the original."
Dick barely heard most of Wally's explanation. He had focused on the "pictures of your parents." It seemed unreal. He had very few mementos from his and his parents' years in Haley's Circus. Growing up in a trailer, there just wasn't room to keep a lot of things. What little he had had mostly been destroyed when Blockbuster blew up his apartment building. Thankfully, he had kept a few items at the manor. They were all he had left. Now it sounded as if that all might change. "You have stuff with my parents?"
Wally smiled. "Yeah. There's one other surprise. There's a film that they were able to restore. It shows your folks practicing."
Dick paled. It didn't seem possible. "Really?"
"Yeah. No sound, picture's a little blurry at times, but…" Wally shrugged. Dick remained speechless. Wally clapped him on the back. "Let's go check everything out, okay?"
Dick nodded mutely, his mind desperately trying to process everything Wally had said.
"Hey, Tom, can we see the stuff?"
"But of course." Tom led them to a conference room. The room was filled with boxes. The conference room table was covered with posters, programs and other miscellaneous items. "Take all the time you need."
"Thanks." Wally shut the door.
Dick just stared at everything, not quite believing his eyes. The amount of material was overwhelming. This was "a few boxes"? "How much…how much did you throw out?"
"About ten times as much as this. The guy was a true packrat. Thank god we didn't stumble across any rats when we loaded or went through the stuff. As it is, we seem to have relocated at least two families of mice to our house, and our garage has been taken over by spiders." Wally visibly shivered. "Man, you should see these spiders. They're huge. I think they scared the mice into the house. And don't even get me started on the centipedes and silverfish." He shivered again. "We made the mistake of parking our truck in the garage and the next day it had been claimed by the spiders. It was one big cobweb. Linda was not happy. I want our garage back. I want the mice removed from the house. You or Bruce needs to pay for an exterminator."
Dick barely heard Wally. He stepped up the table and glanced at the materials. It was…amazing. Who would have guessed someone had all of this material packed away? Never in his wildest dreams would he have thought he would see a collection like this outside of a museum. Technically, he supposed he was in, or at least next to, a museum, but they didn't have possession yet. Wally did. "How much of this stuff did you go through?"
"Everything, but there was so much stuff that we only focused on keeping what we thought could be salvaged. Everything else we tossed. At first, we didn't pay too much attention to which circus the materials were from. Then Linda found the photos. We were pretty certain they were of your parents, but we weren't sure. Alfred confirmed our suspicions."
He briefly wondered how Linda would know what his parents had looked like. Maybe their name had been written on the photo. Then again, it really didn't matter. What mattered was that she had made the connection. Dick ran his hand over the materials. Posters, pictures, programs, newspaper clippings – where to even begin? Taking a deep breath, he forced himself to relax. "Well, I guess we better see what's all in here."
Before long, Dick found himself staring at an old photo of his parents, a wistful smile on his face. There was nothing written on the photo, and nothing in the photo, to give him an idea as to when it may have been taken. Given that his parents' costumes changed slightly each year, if he could find a program, he should be able to figure out the year. For now, though, it didn't matter. Just seeing his mom and dad, smiling in the photo, was enough. God, he missed them. Fifteen years later and the pain was still there if he thought about it too much.
"Hey, check this out."
Dick tore his gaze away from the photo and looked at his friend. Wally handed him a postcard. One side showed a picture of a pink flamingo. On the other side was written a note. While the ink was faded, he could still make out the words – "It's a boy! Richard John Grayson, born March 21, 6 lbs 12 oz, 20 inches. Mom and baby are doing great." It was signed John. Dick ran his finger over the handwriting. A smile ghosted his lips.
"Whoever this guy was, he knew your parents well enough to have them send a baby announcement."
"Yeah." He set the postcard aside into the "keep" pile. So far, the pile was relatively small. Just a couple photographs. "Wal, thanks for…" His throat grew tight. All of this was turning him into an emotional basket case.
"Pay for an exterminator and we're even." Wally grinned. "Besides, Linda's the one who deserves the thanks."
Time passed slowly. Together, they sorted through the materials, with Wally putting aside anything Haley-related. Dick finished sorting through the photos. In the end, he had almost three dozen, of which two photos included him, one as an infant, the other as a toddler. He also kept a handful of ones that included other familiar faces. Dick also set aside two programs and a few posters. The most cherished find was the film. It had been taken while his parents had practiced a routine. As Wally had warned, the quality of the film was marginal, but it didn't really matter. Just seeing the smiles of joy on their faces had filled him with his own joy. He only wished the film had included audio, to just hear their voices, hear their laughter again.
Hours later, with blue sky and sunshine having replaced the grey clouds and rain, they walked out of the library carrying a box and several posters. The change in weather also reflected his change in mood. After they had placed the items in the car's trunk, Dick turned to his friend. "Wal, I…I can't really begin to thank you and Linda."
Wally shrugged, slamming the trunk shut and leaning against it. "Forgive me for the vacation?"
"This was the reason? The rest was all a ruse?"
Wally grinned. "Well, maybe not a complete ruse. I mean, the giant muskie, come on, you have to admit it was pretty cool."
Dick returned the grin and shook his head. Only Wally. Yet another reason he valued and needed this friendship with the red-headed speedster. "Thanks."
Wally clapped him on the back. "Just remember. Exterminator, dude, exterminator."
A/N: Yes, all the little factoids about Wisconsin are true and only the tip of the iceberg. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction. On Wisconsin!