A fanfiction by Velkyn Karma
Summary: As it turns out, not everyone is made for showbiz. A 'prequel' of sorts to the season 1 episode "Performance." Friendship only, no pairings.
Warnings: May be some spoilers for Season 1, Episode 24, Performance, and anything before that.
Note: I've had this idea for ages, ever since I watched the Performance episode, but I've only now gotten around to finally doing it. The team did a pretty decent performance in that episode...but how much work did it take to get them there? Heh heh...
Disclaimer: I do not own, or pretend to own, Young Justice or any of its subsequent characters, plots or other ideas. That right belongs to DC, Warner Brothers, and associated parties.
Robin had been through a lot in his short thirteen years. He'd probably seen more than most adults in those thirteen years too, both good and bad, and had long since learned to adjust to the wild flurry of activity and constant change of pace. He even enjoyed it, most of the time; he'd never been the type to sit still and stagnate quietly, after all.
But for all that, there was one constant in Robin's life, one all-important factor that would never, ever change: to Robin—Dick Grayson—family was incredibly important, and took precedence over all else. You never left family behind if they needed you.
For years it had, of course, been his parents and the circus, and after that night it consisted of Bruce and Alfred. He'd have done anything to make them happy and help keep them safe—it was one of the reasons he was Robin now, after all. More recently his family had grown and he had the Team now as well, and he devoted himself just as much to them as to Batman, looking out for his friends. But it was important to remember one's roots, too. So when Dick stumbled across the knowledge that Haly's Circus was in trouble, he was determined to do something about it.
The problem, however, was that it definitely wasn't a job he could tackle alone. Nor was it a job he wanted to simply hand off to the League, or Batman; this was personal. Bruce would understand his frustrations at Haly's Circus being used as some sort of front for theft, and understand his desire to be part of the solution himself. But he also wouldn't want Dick to get involved personally for the simple reason that he could be recognized and his cover blown. Most people would never make the connection between Dick Grayson of Haly's Circus and Robin the Boy Wonder, after all, but most people weren't members of Haly's Circus, and if Robin started flitting around using some very familiar skills it wouldn't take long for them to make the connection. From there it wasn't a great intellectual leap to deduce that Batman was Bruce Wayne, and if that happened...well. Things could get ugly for everyone.
Robin understood the logic. Of course, he'd also understood the logic of staying put while the League dealt with the blotting-out-the-sun mission, and that had held up well. It was pretty logical; that didn't mean Robin had to listen to it. And there were other ways to get help on this personal mission, as long as he was clever.
Which he was.
So this would be a snap.
The easy part was convincing the Team that the Haly's Circus operation actually was an official mission. After all, he was one half of the Dynamic Duo that also consisted of Batman, the one who deployed them on missions. Every single one of them trusted Robin, and if the boss' partner brought them clear details on a mission, who were they to argue about its authenticity, or question the Dark Knight?
It was easy enough to take the lead on this mission too...largely because Robin was very careful to announce it to the team when Aqualad was on one of his visits back to Atlantis. Kaldur was smart enough to figure out that the mission was not authorized by Batman, especially if he decided to verify details like he sometimes did, and Robin didn't want this stopped before it started. He excluded Wally, too—easy enough, thankfully, since he was doing some family thing or another for a few days—for more personal reasons: he just didn't want Wally, the only one to know his connection to the circus, questioning his objectivity at a bad moment. With neither one of the two potential objectors tied into the mix it was easy to snag lead on the assignment, in part because he'd brought the details of the mission to begin with, and in part because Connor, M'gann and Artemis were used to him acting as a secondary leader after Kaldur, anyway.
Robin admittedly felt a little nervous when Roy invited himself into the mission briefing, and it was only his training with Bruce that let him more-or-less hide it. Roy could sniff out a discrepancy or deception at fifty paces with his suspicious nature and intuition, and he could get more than a little ornery and obsessive about it if he thought he was onto something. He was fully capable of shutting down the mission before they even got started, if he wanted to, and it was clear he was looking for something right off the bat.
Fortunately, the deception he was searching for this time was the team mole, which meant Roy had his eyes set on Connor, M'gann, and Artemis. While Robin disliked having his friends suspected—especially since he trusted his own judgement of character and was fairly sure by now that none of them meant any deliberate harm—it did, fortunately, distract Roy from taking a closer look at him. The older archer did not so much as blink twice as Robin explained the rest of the mission details, having already dismissed him as a potential suspect, which meant he was completely overlooking the other trick going on in the room.
Robin couldn't help but breath a mental sigh of relief at that. Carefully, of course, so M'gann didn't catch it.
"That sounds easy enough," M'gann said brightly, once Robin finished with the briefing. "So, since we have all the schedules for the tour already, we can just fly ahead and join at the next stop, right? I'll go get the bioship ready!"
She turned to leave, with Connor close on her heels, but Robin held up a hand quickly. "Woah woah woah, not so hasty! We're not leaving right this minute. We haven't prepared our undercover guises yet."
Connor looked a little irritable at having been stopped, and snorted, raising an eyebrow. "What's to prepare? We're just going as stagehands, aren't we? It'd be easiest."
"Roustabouts," Robin corrected automatically.
"Bless you," Artemis said, blinking bemusedly at him.
"No, no," Robin said, "That's what they're called. Roustabouts. Not stagehands. Circus lingo. Better learn it or you'll stick out like a sore thumb. And no, we're not joining the tour that way—we have to be part of the act to get this right."
All of them, even Roy, stared at him blankly. After a moment, Artemis voiced what they were all clearly thinking. "What? Why? Connor's right, it'd be easier to just join as part of the crew."
"It would," Robin agreed, grinning a little. "That's why we can't do it." And when the stares continued, he added, "Oh, come on guys, think about it. We're going undercover to catch thieves. Thieves that are in that circus somewhere and by now are probably aware they've made a pretty obvious pattern with their heists. They're going to be expecting somebody to come after them. And then five roustabouts who clearly have no idea how the circus works join all at once? Kinda screams I don't belong here and have an ulterior motive, don't you think?"
"You don't want to tip them off," Roy summed up.
"And how is an act any different?" Connor asked with a frown.
"It makes all the difference in the world," Robin explained. "An act requires more skill, which means it's a tougher disguise, which means the thieves won't be expecting it. And acts come and go in these things all the time. A troupe of performers joining has an obvious motive: they're either in it because they love it, or because they're hunting fame and notoriety. Skulking about as a random hired hand trying not to be seen draws unwanted attention, but a skilled performing troupe deliberately trying to draw attention is just too obvious, and nobody'll look twice at our covers as a result, see?"
M'gann scratched her head, and said after a moment, "Is this another one of those...hiding in plain sight things?"
"That's exactly what it is," Robin said triumphantly, gesturing at her. "We'll be hiding in plain sight. Plus it just works better for our numbers to do a group act. Groups have more to work with and more to offer; if we can whip up a good performance, we can attract plenty of attention, which increases our chances of joining the tour successfully and decreases our chances of getting caught by our targets while we try to identify them."
They seemed to mull that one over for a moment, until one by one they finally nodded, accepting the logic of it. It was mostly true anyway, although Robin wasn't about to tell them part of the decision was made out of a simple desire to just want to perform again, if only for a few nights.
"How do you know so much about this circus stuff, anyway?" Connor asked with a frown. "Doesn't seem like something you'd come across in crime fighting all that much."
"I like circuses," Robin answered, a little more defensively than intended. "They're awesome. Besides, you know who I work with...and since he assigned me as team leader, I made sure to do my research so we won't blow our cover first chance we get."
None of them would argue with that one, of course. M'gann even grinned and said brightly, "This one ought to be easy for you! You do so many flips and things in combat, you're practically an acrobat already. I bet you'd feel right at home in a circus act."
You have no idea, Robin thought to himself internally. It took all of his willpower and a good deal of his bat-training not to start laughing.
Thankfully, Artemis helped on that front with a perfectly-timed observation. "It's a great plan and all, except there's one problem: we don't have an act. Robin here might be able to perform on command, but I know I sure can't."
Robin did laugh this time. "That," he said, smirking around at them all, "is where the preparation comes in."
Preparation, as it turned out, was a little more difficult than Robin had initially expected.
He had exactly twenty-four hours to whip his performers into shape before they needed to head out on the bioship overseas. He couldn't leave before then; he was waiting for Bruce to attend a last-minute business trip, and if he caught the Team leaving early Batman would shut down the whole operation, which Robin wasn't about to risk. But if he waited too long Kaldur or Wally could return from their own family things and put the mission in jeopardy as well. Not to mention, of course, that if they waited too long the thieves that the entire mission centered around might be able to get away with whatever they were planning.
So they were operating on a very tight schedule, but they'd done it before, and Robin hadn't been too concerned about it initially. His friends all had some pretty impressive individual talents, and with a little direction Robin thought he'd be able to put a great show together. They were all fast learners and worked well together, and after surviving explosions, fighting giant plants and animals, and dealing with multi-dimensional mishaps, he figured putting something together worthy of Haly's center ring would be a piece of cake.
He realized very quickly that this had been a horrible assumption to make. He realized equally quickly that showbiz, apparently, was not for everyone.
Robin started the project with himself, of course. Since he was the only member of the Team that had any actual performing experience he'd need to utilize his skills to the max to make it believable, but in order to do a good aerialist show he'd need a partner. Neither Roy nor Connor were built for the trapeze; they were just too big and didn't have the necessary gymnast training to manage it, especially on such short notice.
That left the girls. Artemis might have been able to manage it if given enough time, but in the end Robin chose M'gann to offset him. Her shapeshifting would let her automatically adjust to the needed size and flexibility, but more importantly if she did fall she'd be able to save herself. Robin was all too aware of the dangers of the trapeze, and he'd be lying if he said he didn't feel uneasy about bringing one his friends back to the exact same place where his parents had fallen—especially when said friend would have far less skill than his parents. There was no way he was letting anybody else he knew suffer that fate, not when he actually knew how to do something about it this time.
Of course, just because M'gann could actually fly did not mean Robin was going to let her literally fly through her performances. Which was why the first stop for their undercover prep was one of the training rooms, the one with the higher ceiling that allowed for just enough space to set up a pair of swinging trapeze but was still low enough that a fall to the mats would hurt little more than their pride.
"Okay," he called to the others, once he was situated on one of the platforms, with one of the trapeze bars in his hands. He'd ditched his cape and gloves for the moment, so as to not get in the way, and chalked his hands for good measure. The others, bemused and intrigued by the change, watched curiously—except M'gann, who watched eagerly, excited at the prospect of learning her new role. "M'gann, we're gonna start you off nice and simple."
And that was exactly what he did—a simple somersault and leap, catching the opposing trapeze bar easily before fluidly shifting from that one to the second makeshift platform. "Got it?"
"Sure!" M'gann said brightly, hands clasped together in excitement. "I can totally do that!"
"Great! 'Cause you're doing it without powers."
M'gann froze, halfway through shifting to her form-fitting stealth costume without the cape. The enthusiastic grin melted off her face, to be replaced with a look of horror. After a moment she squeaked, "With...without powers?"
"Of course," Robin said with a blink. He'd thought this part was obvious.
"But...but I mean, I can fly, so..."
"C'mon, M'gann," Robin said, as though it were common sense, "This has to look natural. If the thieves get a hint of somebody using powers out in the ring, they're gonna get suspicious. We don't want to tip them off early—that's why we're going undercover with the act, remember?"
"I...but...I can't...I mean I don't know..." She still looked more than a little terrified, and asked meekly, "You're sure I can't fly? I mean...we're going to be really high up, right? And doing that while not flying seems kind of...um...not...safe?"
Robin shook his head. "Trapeze skills are all about careful timing and weight shift," he argued patiently. "If you're just flying through it all, people will see the difference, even if it's only subconscious. You need to know how to do it for real or it won't be convincing." Not to mention his own aerialist pride practically screeched in horror at the thought of somebody cheating their way through all the hard work and skill, and potentially making the profession look bad, but he couldn't tell them that part.
"Don't worry," he coaxed soothingly, when M'gann still remained firmly rooted to the ground, "It's simple enough. Look, I can't levitate and I do just fine." He demonstrated by performing the same simple somersault and leap, returning to the side he'd first begun on.
But M'gann still looked horrified when he glanced down at her again, and even the others looked rather stunned at the move. After a moment the martian said in bewilderment, "That's simple? If that's simple, what do you call complex?"
Ooookay, Robin thought, with an internal sigh, maybe we need to simplify this even more.
This was going to be harder than he thought.
The others, at least, he didn't have to coach through even the most basic of trapeze maneuvers...but figuring out what to do with them was a task in and of itself. The trapeze act would have to be the centerpiece, but what could he do with three grounded heroes-in-training to include them?
Roy's unexpected inclusion into the mission actually made it a little easier, Robin realized after a little thought. With Roy and Artemis both on the job, he had a matched set of archers; they could easily perform tricks on the ground to offset each other, and the range of the bows meant he'd be able to include them in the aerialist tricks as well, somehow.
That was something he could think on later, at least. After teaching M'gann a very, very basic beginner knee-hang and simple flip and coaching her through it a few times, he let her practice and get herself used to the trapeze on her own. He kept a careful eye on her at all times, of course, but kept the other eye on his archers, putting them through their paces to see what they could do.
While Roy's inclusion was a blessing in allowing them to have an interesting composition for the show, he was something of a problem when it came to actually being undercover, Robin soon learned. His skills weren't the problem—Robin was absolutely convinced Roy could hit anything, moving or otherwise, at a ridiculous distance without breaking a sweat. There were definitely abilities to work with that could be turned into something eye-catching and entertaining. The problem was Roy refused to practice the second part...or focus on the matter at hand.
"Arrow," Robin hissed in exasperation, "Would you focus on the target? Connor is busy keeping his eyes glued to M'gann, I'm pretty sure he's not going to turn around and blow up the Cave in the next five minutes."
Roy dragged his attention back to Robin with obvious effort. "That's why I'm on this mission," he reminded grouchily. "To keep an eye on your three potential mole suspects while you cover everything else."
"Yeah, that's great," Robin agreed, waving that issue aside, "Except you're going to blow the mission if you can't go undercover properly, and I know I'm pretty amazing, but even I can't shoot your bow for you when I'm up on the trapeze."
"You wouldn't have to," Roy grumbled. "I can hit any target you want me to, especially in the confines of a tent, moving or not. I don't need any practice, I can shoot just as well when we're actually in the show."
"It needs to look good, not just be accurate," Robin said. "C'mon, just...just shoot the target for me, okay?" He gestured to the still target at the far end of the training room.
Roy actually looked insulted by the request, and regarded the perfectly stationary target on the other side of the room with disgust. "I've been able to hit still targets from this distance for years. You know I can do it. This is a waste of time! I should be keeping an eye on those—"
"Roy," Robin hissed, using his real name, "Focus. Just shoot it. For me. Please?"
Roy grumbled under his breath, but finally did as bid. With lightning-quick efficiency he drew an arrow, set it to the bow, and fired. The arrow was quivering in the center of the target by the time Roy re-slung his bow over one shoulder, crossing his arms. "Happy?"
It was an impressive shot, exactly what Robin would expect of a crime-fighter—quick, clean, efficient, and accurate. Robin shook his head anyway. "Not good enough."
Roy looked affronted, and his voice was practically a growl when he spoke. "Excuse me? That was a perfect bull's eye. I dare you to do better!"
"It was a great shot," Robin agreed, "But it wasn't flashy enough. You did it too fast; the audience would never see it. There was nothing special about it and nothing to draw attention to the fact that you shot it. Skeptical watchers might even think it was an illusionist trick."
"It wasn't!" Roy snapped, now indignant.
"I know it wasn't," Robin soothed, "But they might, and that's bad for the act, you know? Look, remember that one time a year ago when me and KF were helping you with that drug ring in Star City, and that one guy shot at you and you did that crazy backflip and shot him back in midair?" Roy nodded, frowning. "Okay. So do that when you shoot."
Roy scowled. "That is completely inefficient and stupid when I'm just shooting at a stationary target. Why would anybody fight like that unless they were dodging?"
"This isn't crime fighting, Roy," Dick said, with as much patience as he could manage. How was this such a hard concept to get? "This is showbiz. You're not supposed to do it practically, you're supposed to do it awesomely."
"Is that even a word?" Roy asked, voice petulant.
"Yes, that one actually is," Robin shot back. "You can look it up in a dictionary, after you do the flip."
Roy was clearly not happy, but to his credit, he did as told. The second arrow smacked snugly into the target next to the first, and he glared through his mask at Robin, as if daring him to challenge him further.
"Much better," Robin applauded, grinning. "Just keep coming up with things like that. You and Artemis can put your heads together later and see if you can come up with a few other moves, too." As Robin suspected, mentioning the newest protege to Green Arrow seemed enough to kickstart Roy into actually trying, and while the older archer grit his teeth at the assignment he finally nodded and turned back to the target.
Robin smirked to himself as he successfully managed to funnel Roy's obsession with the moles into the current training, and went to check on Artemis on the other side of the room.
Artemis, to Robin's relief, was doing much better than Roy as far as her showmanship went. In part it was because she just a slower shot than Roy was—she was good, but Roy had years of practice on her. It made each shot she took visible and obviously hers. But she had also already come up with a number of ways to show off her trick shots, including flips and spins, shooting multiple arrows at once, and tossing moving targets to snipe out of the air.
Robin was impressed, and said as much. He gave her a few quick tips for how to play the audience better, and work up a little dramatic tension to get their invisible viewers excited. "Pretty good start," he finally said. "At least you're getting the hang of it. You might be able to give Arrow a few tips later."
Artemis looked particularly smug at this. "Hah," she crowed triumphantly. "I knew there had to be something he sucked at, and I was right, wasn't I?" The smirk she shot in Roy's direction was viciously superior as she added, "I guess Artemis can teach Red Arrow a thing or two."
Robin had to admit to himself that he wasn't entirely surprised this was turning into a rivalry thing, although he wasn't sure if he wanted to start laughing at it or groan in frustration. He really didn't want to have to spend his time interrupting spats between the two archers, especially when they were low on training time as it was. Then again, it did seem to be useful in at least one regard; Roy was watching them from across the way, and dedicating himself more to his own repertoire of tricks, apparently just to keep himself from being shown up by a potential mole. And as long as they didn't kill each other...
"Just keep it civil," Robin finally said. "You guys will need to work together in the show after all. Help each other out, okay?"
Artemis snorted, but grudgingly agreed as she turned back to her practice. Robin nodded, and turned his attention towards the last member of the team.
Connor was going to be tricky to place. Robin had been trying to decide what to do with the final member of his team while running the others through the basics, and had been coming up blank. He was the odd man out, literally, with no sixth member to pair off with him. Composition-wise it meant he'd have to be the center of the group, even if the trapeze was the highlight, but what could they do with him? Connor had plenty of skills, but a lot of them centered around his combat prowess and Kryptonian heritage, none of which could really be marketed for an audience without giving them away.
In the end Robin decided a strongman act would be best. They were popular enough in shows, and it would let Connor utilize his super strength to their advantage. As long as he dialed it back so that he wasn't literally inhumanly strong in front of an audience, it could work. And since Connor wouldn't have to actually work at the strength part, like most humans would, Robin could teach him a few extra tricks to play up the act even further.
Connor appeared to be indifferent to the entire showbiz plan, neither impressed nor displeased with the idea of being on stage with hundreds of people watching him, and that indifference remained when Robin pitched the strongman act to him as well. Robin suspected his currently impassive nature had to do with never having actually witnessed a major circus, concert, show, or anything else of that nature, which he personally considered a travesty; hopefully the experience would be fun for Connor, at least. The Kryptonian didn't seem to understand the point of the act, though, and stated as much with his usual bluntness. "People really pay money to watch other people pick stuff up?"
"It's more than just picking stuff up," Robin said. "It's feats of strength that normal people can't do. Bending heavy bars, breaking chains, supporting huge amounts of weight—"
"I do all that stuff all the time," Connor interrupted, unimpressed. "People don't think it's that exciting."
"That's because you do it during covert ops when we're not supposed to be seen, and we've all seen you rip apart tanks with your bare hands," Robin countered patiently. "After that snapping a chain or bending a couple iron bars is nothing, at least to us. If you were doing that stuff out in public, trust me, you'd be getting an audience real fast." It was on the tip of his tongue to add that Superman drew crowds all the time whenever he used any of his powers, but at the last second he realized that would be a terrible idea and held back. It was fortunate he did, because the way Connor's eyes were narrowing he was already thinking the same thing, and the last thing Robin wanted to do was set him off.
"Besides," he segued hastily, "you're not just gonna be picking stuff up or bending a few metal bars, I figure with your super strength we can go bigger. You'll have to hold back a little bit of course..." He paused a moment, meeting Connor's eyes.
"I can do that," the Kryptonian answered after a moment.
Robin nodded, and continued, "But there's no reason we can't play it up a little. I figure we can do some other interesting stuff...like juggling!"
Now it was Connor's turn to stare. After a moment he deadpanned, "Juggling."
Another long pause, and then Connor stated the obvious: "I don't know how to do that. Juggling wasn't a skill Cadmus implanted me with."
"Obviously they don't know what's important in life," Robin said cheerfully, hoping to shift away from the Cadmus subject. It was always a little grim to begin with, but Connor had been particularly touchy about it recently.
With a quick flick of his wrists he produced three palm-sized beanbags from where he'd tucked them in one of his utility belt pouches, having anticipated he might need to teach this particular skill at some point for the mission. With casual ease he sent all three spinning into a few simple rotations, grinning a little as he did so. Juggling was a skill he'd picked up at Haly's too when he was younger, just for the fun of it; the resident jugglers and fire-eaters had been all too happy to teach him and thrilled to learn he was dexterous and quick enough to manage it so young. His parents had forbidden him from trying the more dangerous things like knives and lit torches until he was much older, but he'd gotten quite skilled with balls, bowling pins, fruits, batons and a host of other objects, and had even started learning more advanced techniques and rotations with even more items.
He grinned through the flying beanbags at Connor, but the Kryptonian did not look impressed. "You want me to do that."
"Sure! It'll look cool." Robin continued the cycles, almost magically producing a fourth beanbag and including it into the mix, and then a fifth, and a sixth.
Connor snorted. "I'm not seeing why I have to, if you're so good at it."
"I am pretty good at it," Robin said, without a hint of modesty, "But I'm afraid I can't do it with really big things, which is what you'll be doing. I've seen some pretty impressive acts with people juggling bowling balls, but you could go even further, right? Big chairs, lawnmowers, barrels, whatever—we'll figure out the what later. Point is, people will be really impressed." He sent the bean bags spinning high into the air one last time, and deftly caught each one as they came back down, spinning and finishing with an impromptu flourish and bow.
Connor still did not look enthusiastic. "I don't see why I can't just go as a stage hand."
"Roustabout," Robin corrected again, and then added, "C'mon, SB, it'll be fun."
Connor gave him a look that said, quite frankly, he did not think it would be fun in the least.
Plan B then, Robin decided. "Okay Connor, look—juggling also takes a lot of skilled hand-eye coordination and dexterity—skills you can also apply to combat."
He could see Connor's interest peaking at that. "Really?"
"Really," Robin agreed. He was stretching it a little, but in Connor's case it actually might help; dexterous Connor was not, and he could use a few more subtle abilities in his skill-set. "Just give it a shot, okay?"
Connor seemed to consider it a moment. "As long as I don't have to do that stupid spin-bow thing you just did."
"Ouch, Connor, that really hurt," Robin said, placing a hand dramatically to his heart. Then he laughed. "I think we can figure out something else for you to do. We'll worry about that later." He held out three of the bean bags. "So?"
Connor regarded them a moment, and then sighed. "Alright, fine," he agreed finally, accepting the bags carefully. "Just tell me how to get started."
Robin grinned, brandishing his own three beanbags. "Right, so first you want to just practice tossing one back and forth..."
Twenty-four hours later Robin was pleased to see that, while his friends were not the most amazing collection of performers, they had at least moved up from 'God help us all' to 'passable.'
M'gann had managed to move past her crippling fear of trapeze work without the use of her powers and had, after some difficulty, mastered the basic exercises Robin had taught her. It helped that falling was mostly a non-issue since, while she had missed the swings more than once while practicing, she could catch herself easily in a fall, and was already so used to flying with powers she wasn't afraid of heights. Robin had started running through a basic routine with her, including some simple catches and joint tricks. M'gann had been a little nervous at first when she'd discovered she would have to be the catcher (because Robin just wasn't big enough to manage that, despite his skill) but after a few reassurances that he trusted she could handle it and a few successful runs to bolster her confidence she seemed mostly okay with her job. She was a hard worker and eager to please, at least, which made up somewhat for her lack of experience.
Roy and Artemis had grudgingly accepted that they would be a matched set in the show, which meant they mostly didn't outright snark at each other and almost worked together peacefully enough. Artemis had, as she'd agreed with Robin, shown Roy a few tricks to improve his showmanship and make an entertaining act, but she'd done so smugly and with as much superiority as she could manage. Roy, for his part, had at least accepted the suggestions instead of ignoring them outright out of spite, and had managed to improve his own archery displays enough that they would be visible and entertaining for an audience. It almost could have been mistaken for Roy taking the high road, except that he killed it by continuing to keep a glaring eye on the three potential moles, and Artemis in particular due to proximity. It only caused her to grow more defensive and thus more intentionally superior as a result, which started the cycle all over again. Robin was sure he was going to have a headache by the time he was done with the two, but at least they'd kept it to verbal sparring and left each other in one piece.
The same couldn't be said to be entirely true for Connor—or at least, the things around Connor. Tables, chairs, punching bags, appliances, training equipment, and other odds and ends had ended up little more than shredded, twisted, cracked or smashed in entirely as Connor vented his frustration on the nearest object every time he dropped a beanbag or mistimed his throws, which was often, at least at first. His hands were more coordinated for punching through solid steel and grappling with Cobra Venom-juiced monsters than the more dexterous wrist-flicks and twists necessary for even simple three-object juggling, Robin noted. But eventually he started to get the hang of it, things were dropped less often, things were broken less often, and Connor was able to start keeping up a three-beanbag cycle for longer and longer periods of time. By the time twenty-four hours had passed, Robin had just introduced him to a fourth beanbag, which had elicited a few irritated grimaces when things started dropping again but, thankfully, no further attacks on the Cave's furniture (Robin was dreading having to explain that bill to Batman as it was).
It wasn't as amazing as Robin would like, but it was enough to get them started—and that was good, because they were out of time. Bruce had headed out for his business meeting that morning, and he knew Wally was due back from his family whatever-it-was in a few days, and Kaldur probably about the same. He wanted to be in Europe and putting the final touches on the mission by then, before it was too late and they could be recalled.
So he announced that they were prepared enough to head on over to the mission location, and it was with various levels of excitement that his team complied. They packed up a lot of the practice gear to take with them for continued training and clambered into the bioship for the long ride overseas to Belgium.
The ride itself wasn't terrible, in Robin's opinion. The bioship was both fast and comfortable, and M'gann chattered with him excitedly about how much better she was getting at flying without really flying as she steered. Artemis and Roy, unable to practice in the confines of the ship, had decided to make use of the time by designing and assembling a few harmless trick arrows to spice up the show with sparks, lights or sounds. Roy had far more experience in this regard, and Artemis had grudgingly begun asking him for tips. Roy was mature enough to give them, once she'd cut back on the smug superiority, and they eventually lapsed into an uneasy neutrality as partners. Connor continued to practice his juggling, and growled loudly every time they hit turbulence and he dropped a beanbag as a result. Thankfully he refrained from damaging his surroundings this time, because by now they'd all accepted that the bioship was sort-of alive and hurting it would not only be cruel, but infuriate M'gann.
So it was that they arrived at the outskirts of Bruges several hours later in relatively good humor. Haly's tour was scheduled to arrive there in a few days, which would give them enough time to put the final touches on their act and prepare for an audition. In the meantime they would set up shop in a woodsy location not too far from the city itself, close enough to obtain supplies or food but far enough that they wouldn't be disturbed while practicing. Living out of the bioship was easy, since M'gann could shift it with a thought to contain all the necessities of home.
It took maybe an hour to set up their campsite and training equipment, and then Robin, rubbing his hands together excitedly, called them all together. "Alright," he said, "So now that we're just waiting for the circus itself to show up, it's time to put together our act."
The four of them blinked at him for a moment, and then M'gann said in confusion, "That's...not what we've been doing for the past day?"
"No, you've been practicing some of the skills we'll use in an act," Robin corrected. "What we need to do now is put it all together into an actual show. We need a routine, and a way to connect trapeze, archery, and strong-man skills together, see?" They seemed to think about it before nodding, but when nobody volunteered any ideas, Robin went on. "I figure we'll section it—everybody'll do an individual piece first, or in pairs, just to introduce us all and what we can do. Then we finish it up with a grand finale, when we combine everything into one."
"Sounds good," Artemis agreed, "But again I ask—how do we do that? None of us have any idea how to do a show."
"We practice," Robin said with a grin, "And work it out with a little experimentation."
So that was what most of their first day in Europe was devoted to—figuring out how to combine all of their skills into an act so impressive Old Jack would not hesitate to bring them in on the tour.
It was hit or miss—in some cases literally. Since the bulk of the combined act would have to center around himself and M'gann while they were doing aerialist stunts on the trapeze, it meant including the other three was going to involve a lot of flying objects in their general vicinity. Roy and Artemis, at least, could be counted on to place their arrow shots accurately enough that while it looked death-defying and dangerous, shooting at or around the trapeze artists, they were actually missing quite safely. They had also picked up on how to accentuate the acrobatic stunts by firing the trick arrows they'd designed on the ship, sending cascades of sparks and flashes around both Robin and M'gann ad exactly the right moment while not actually blinding them in the process.
Connor was another matter entirely. Robin had been quick to find something much larger for him to juggle once he successfully hit five-object rotations without dropping anything for a while, and had obtained five large metal barrels for him to practice with. Connor hadn't had too much trouble adjusting to the size or weight of the barrels themselves, and was juggling all five easily enough within an hour without any major problems.
The real problem had started when Robin set him below their trapeze equipment to first try and include him into the full act as well. Connor had tossed the barrels so high and with so much strength in the middle of an attempted flip and catch that M'gann had been forced to screech to a hovering halt or risk slamming right into one. Robin and performed a highly advanced twist and flip to avoid the same thing, vaulting off the nearest barrel itself (he was surprised it took his weight as well as it did in midair) and narrowly managing to catch M'gann's trapeze with the tips of his fingers. It was a pretty amazing recovery, if he did say so himself; if he'd done that in front of a crowd they'd be going wild right about now.
"Okay, SB," he drawled, as he easily flipped himself up to sit on the trapeze bar like a swing, "Here's a tip: do not give your aerialists concussions, that's extremely bad for everyone. Especially when they're flying, because, just so you know—and I know the title is misleading—they don't actually fly."
Connor grimaced as he collected the wayward barrels, but glanced at M'gann, who was still hovering in midair between the swings, before giving Robin a pointed look.
"Okay," Robin corrected himself, "Well, this one doesn't. And that one can't either in front of an actual crowed, so it's basically the same."
"Sorry," Connor muttered after a moment. And then a little more defensively, "It's hard to aim them away from you guys and juggle at the same time. I don't know why you want to put me right below you, that's stupid."
"You need to be a part of the show, that's why," Dick said patiently, kicking his legs a little to keep the swing going, "And it's the only place we can put you compositionally that works." But Connor did have a point, too; it would be hard to keep a rotation going, especially with such heavy items, while simultaneously changing it for timing-specific aerialist stunts above.
The near-crash experience did give him an idea though. "Those barrels are pretty wide around," he observed, idly flipping himself upside-down to hang from his knees as he spoke to the clone below him. "M'gann and I could both fit through them...if you punch out the top and bottom and smooth it out so we don't get cut, think you could toss them at just the right intervals for us to jump through them?"
The timing on it was brutal, to say the least. He and M'gann had to leap simultaneously, and Connor had to throw the barrels at just the right moment so they'd be at the appropriate levels for the two of them to jump through. More than once M'gann had to catch herself or Robin telekinetically when the timing was thrown off and they took a tumble, and several trees had been turned into kindling when Connor vented his frustration on them after more missed throws. Roy and Artemis both offered him tips on how to judge the distance and speed appropriately, though, and Robin and M'gann figured out the leaps through trial and error. Eventually they started to get the hang of it, and when the archers joined in with their trick shots the entire finale looked truly spectacular.
The skeleton of their act was finally coming together.
Day two was largely devoted to more in-depth lessons in playing to the crowds and really making the show pop.
They still practiced the actual routine, of course; Robin didn't think they could do that enough before Haly's Circus showed up, and they needed all the rehearsals they could get. But they were fast learners and all of them were used to learning through muscle memory, which meant they could move through the basics of the performance fairly easily by this point.
The problem was most of them were largely performing by rote. They knew that one trick shot needed to be followed by the next, or that a forward somersault had to be immediately followed by a catch and toss, but they did it mechanically and that still made it boring. They need to learn to make it lively, energetic, and fun, or they could be performing the most amazing, impossible tricks in the world and it still wouldn't catch. And they also had to learn how to turn everything to the advantage of the performance, even mistakes.
"Mistakes?" M'gann asked, bewildered, when he brought it up that morning at breakfast. "But we're practicing this hard to make sure we don't make mistakes, right?"
"Ideally," Robin agreed, "But mistakes happen. Trust me, they just do. The trick is you have to make it look like it wasn't one."
They gave him baffled stares, and he sighed, falling back on something he knew they knew. "Okay, look at it this way. You're in a fight, and you go to hit your opponent, but you miss. Do you stand there gaping until they punch you back?"
"Of course not!" Connor snapped immediately, crossing his arms. "What idiot would do that?"
"Okay," Robin said, leading them along, "Then what do you do?"
Artemis answered. "I guess...just roll with it? Try to turn your miss into an advantage or a distraction or something..."
Robin gestured triumphantly. "Exactly! And that's exactly what you do here, too! Except instead of losing a fight or a mission, you'll be losing the audience's respect and excitement. For a performer that is disastrous, heavy on the dis. So if you do mess up, find a way to make it work and make the audience think it was just a fake-out, or part of the show. They won't know the difference unless you let them know."
They finally nodded in understanding, and Connor muttered darkly, "This is harder than fighting enhanced animals or assassins."
It took every scrap of self-discipline Robin had to keep from laughing and irritating the Kryptonian further.
Individual lessons on playing the audience were more prominent. How to put a lot of energy into the performance, to make it exciting and refreshing. Waving to the audience, to acknowledge that you knew perfectly well where you were and it didn't bother you, you were happy to let them watch you do amazing things, and hoped they'd enjoy it. Dramatic pauses to build tension before a particularly good trick. Playing up the difficulty of the stunts, making them look more impressive than they might have been. Smiling, and looking like you enjoyed being there, even if you didn't.
Roy was perhaps the worst offender on the last one. He'd gotten the hang of more showy shots and less practical maneuvers, but still wore the same hard-faced scowl he typically did when fighting bruisers like Brick. "Would it kill you to smile, Arrow?" Robin finally asked in exasperation, after hours of working through the routine.
"It might," Roy deadpanned back, as he fired off another shot in the middle of his and Artemis' partner routine, while Robin coached them.
"Can you try?" Robin asked. "Seriously, the audience is going to be half convinced you'll turn on them next. We don't want them to run screaming, we want them to be enjoying this."
Roy grimaced in distaste, but complied. The results were less 'smile' and more 'rictus snarl of barely suppressed irritation-bordering-on-hatred.'
"Okay, wow," Robin said, eyes wide behind his domino mask. "You know what? Never mind. Never do that again. Just...just don't. How about you just go for neutral instead?"
The results were better that time; Roy at least looked more like he was in deep concentration over the act, rather than plotting to attack half the audience.
Robin didn't even try with Connor—he was pretty sure the clone's perma-frown wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. At least he wasn't breaking things anymore.
By day three the team more or less had the act down.
It still wasn't the most amazing thing in the world, but for a group of non-performers who hadn't even been at it for a week, the routine was pretty spectacular. Connor no longer threatened to concuss anybody in midair now that he'd perfected his aim, M'gann was much more confident on the trapeze, and Artemis and Roy had more or less stopped squabbling and worked together on their archery act without further problems. Roy had even stopped bringing up the mole issue to Robin every five minutes (which didn't mean he wasn't watching—it would be a cold day in Hell when he did—but at least he was being less vocal about it).
They had the timing down perfectly by now: Connor opened with his strongman tricks, lifting, stacking and finally juggling the barrels, then Artemis and Roy with an assortment of savvy shots, until they finally fired upwards towards Robin and M'gann to draw the audience's attention to the trapeze tricks. After everyone had done their piece the five would work together for the finale, combining all their talents seamlessly. They were getting better at their showmanship, remembering to wave to the imaginary watchers, smile, and make sure the act looked flashy, and it was no longer painfully obvious that they'd never done this sort of thing before in their lives.
With the heart of the act completed, and with the circus arrive in just two days, it meant it was time for the final touches on their routine: a theme, and a look. That meant names and costumes—which, as it turned out, was a lot more of a hassle than Robin had initially been expecting.
"We need a name," Robin said during their next breakfast. "For the whole group, and for us as individuals. We're all a part of this one so I figure we can all pool some ideas and try to come up with something to match the act, instead of just assigning code names."
"We need names now?" Connor groused. He hated coming up with them; he hadn't even named himself, and the names he gave other things were typically just...what they were.
"Sure," Robin said. "The show as a whole needs a theme. We can't go in marketing ourselves as 'those kids that do flips and shoot and throw things.' So...ideas?"
They tried, but weren't as much help as Robin had hoped. Most of them hadn't even come up with their own partner names, just borrowed from their mentors (or in Superboy's case, been named without his own influence), and Artemis hadn't even come up with a code name for the field. When they did have a few halfway decent ideas, they were too individualistic and didn't reflect on the group as a whole, which didn't help the show any, and they sounded too much like superhero names.
"This isn't like crime fighting, guys," Robin finally said with a sigh. "A name hinting that you're a sharpshooter or super strong is great when we're out in the field because that's what you do, but that's not gonna help here any. The aim is different in an act. We're not crime fighters when we're out there, we're a group of normal kids with a few above-average abilities and we need to show it. It needs to be catchy. And something that ties us all together—this is a troupe, not a group of individuals."
"Hey, we're not exactly experts on this," Artemis said defensively. "If you think you know what you're doing, by all means, name away."
"Alright, if you want to play it that way," Robin agreed, when the others nodded. He stared thoughtfully for a moment at Artemis, considering, before saying slowly, "Okay, Artemis...your part is archery, so we can play with that, but keep it subtle...Diana? No, Diane! Yeah, that's it!"
The others stared at Robin, and Artemis blinked. "That's kinda...normal?"
"That's the point," Robin said excitedly. The ideas were flitting about in his head now, faster and faster, and he was starting to get into it. "It's a neat little trick; somebody clever might notice it, but it won't point back to Green Arrow's protege at all, they'll just think it's because you're sharpshooting with a bow. And if we can tie in everybody else's name..."
His mind whirled now and he surged to his feet, pacing back and forth as he thought. "Diane...Diane...part of a group that does a whole bunch of death-defying, delightfully dangerous stunts...Danger!" He snapped his fingers, and the others all started in surprise. "Yeah, Diane Danger, that's it! We'll play it up, everyone gets a D name, it's perfect! Let's see, Daniel, David, Dean, Darren, Don, Dane, Damian, Derek, Devin...oh, and you've got lots to pick from too, M'gann, there's Dana, Danica, Dawn, Danielle, Donna—"
"That sounds stupid," Connor interrupted bluntly, never one to hold back on his opinion.
"It...it sounds like one of those old sitcoms," M'gann added tentatively. "You know, when all the siblings have similar names..."
It might have been intended as doubt or discouragement, but Robin leapt on the statement instead, eyes lighting up. "Oh, great idea! We can market the troupe as siblings, people'll eat it up!"
"People can't really buy into that, can they?" Roy said, just as bluntly as Connor. "We don't even look alike. It's obvious none of us are related."
"You don't have to be blood to be family," Robin countered, and gave Roy a pointed look. Roy of all people ought to know that, after all—Ollie had adopted him, however poorly they were getting along at the moment. Roy frowned, but looked down at the ground, acknowledging the win.
Satisfied, Robin turned his attention back to the group as a whole. "Look, guys, I know it sounds a bit silly and gimmicky, but it's a catchy, memorable stage name. People will notice us. And we want to be noticed, remember? A real act would, and if we draw so much attention to ourselves the thieves we're hunting disregard us, we'll be hiding right in the open. So unless you guys have a better idea for a name that you haven't been volunteering..." He let it hang, and looked around at them.
The others exchanged glances for a moment. M'gann and Artemis shrugged, and Connor grumbled, "Fine, as long as I don't have to be Darren. That sounds dumb."
"Fine with me," Robin said brightly. "Anyone else have any preferences?"
Costumes, as it turned out, were even trickier than names.
The team had tossed name ideas back and forth while running through yet another rehearsal of their act, and had finally settled on Dan, Dawn, Dean, Dane, and Diane Danger. They were all one-syllable D names that rolled off the tongue nicely and sounded snappy next to the memorable 'danger' surname.
When they were comfortable with their new names, Robin broached the topic of costumes at lunch. He'd figured after the names this one ought to be easy—all of them were used to running around in costumes and masks, after all, what was one more design?
He should have known better than to bring up costume design with four other teenagers, all with their own individual styles, self-image issues, and personal tastes.
"No tights," Connor said flatly, almost immediately after Robin brought up a few images of other circus performers on his wrist computer to give them a few design ideas.
"They're all wearing them in the pictures," M'gann pointed out. Artemis nodded along. Robin had a sneaking suspicion there was an alternative motive there, but was smart enough to not point it out.
"I won't even wear them during missions," Connor scowled. "No capes, no tights, no thanks. You can find yourself a different strongman if you want him to wear'em so bad."
Robin pinched the bridge of his nose, and said after a moment, "Okay, look, the only ones who actually have to wear the leotards are me and M'gann because we'll be in the air, so the three of you on the ground can wear looser pants if you want, as long as it doesn't interfere with your act. Fair?"
Connor appeared somewhat mollified, but added, "I can't believe you're actually going to wear one of those things."
"It is nearly the same as what I'm wearing now," Robin said, gesturing to his combat uniform, "Just without the cape and extra armor. I'm perfectly fine with it, trust me. So, moving on..."
It went a little better from there, with M'gann helpfully using her shapeshifting to model approximately what they were looking for. The three on the ground would be wearing looser pants and calf-high boots, while the flyers would be outfitted in the leotards, all with intricate swirling designs. The girls had short ruffled skirts that didn't affect their performance, while the boys all had sashes. Masks, of course, would be part of the entire ensemble for their own protection, decorated in the same swirling patterns as the rest of the costumes. There was a snag when they had to figure out what colors to use—Artemis argued fiercely for green somewhere, while Connor and Roy were both advocates of using red. Robin preferred red himself, and Artemis eventually grudgingly agreed to it, provided she could have her say on a few other costume details. She immediately decreed the grounded boys would be wearing vests, to show off their muscles.
"It'll draw attention," she added, with a satisfied smirk. M'gann appeared to agree. Connor didn't appear to care one way or another (but then again, he ended up shirtless at the end of half their missions anyway, so it wasn't like it was new territory for him), but if looks could kill, Roy would have shot Artemis dead from his irritated glare.
"Fine," he growled finally, and apparently not mature enough to resist a final barb, he added, "At least we've got my color."
Artemis spluttered indignantly. So much for getting along. Robin massaged his forehead and decided that, while they were out getting supplies for the costumes, they'd also be picking up some aspirin.
An afternoon trip into Bruges in their civilian clothes interrupted their constant practice, so that they could collect everything necessary for their performance. In addition to the supplies needed for their costumes, Roy and Artemis also needed new bows for the act; Roy's Red Arrow weapon matched the Danger theme but was too distinguishable, and Artemis' collapsible green bow didn't match at all.
They collected everything they needed, treated themselves to an early dinner, and reconvened at their camp to assemble the final products. Robin, Roy, and Artemis were all familiar with patching up their own costumes and were no strangers to needle and thread (Robin had learned from the best, after all). And while M'gann was far from an expert she learned fast enough, and could help them assemble things quickly with her telekinesis. They worked well into the evening, and it was with a great deal of triumph that they tried on their costumes that night (or shapeshifted, in M'gann's case), examining themselves in the full-length mirror that M'gann had temporarily formed one side of the bioship into.
"This is the stupidest thing I've ever worn on a mission," Connor finally said. "And that includes that one time with the inhibitor collar."
"At least it's not a cape and tights," Robin told him brightly. "Could be worse, right?"
"I guess," Connor conceded.
"You could be wearing a heart on your chest," Roy added dryly, giving the swirling pattern on the front of Robin's outfit a pointed look. Robin gave him a glare from behind his mask. Alright, so he hadn't exactly been thrilled about having a big swirly heart stamped on his front, but M'gann had thought the design looked nice on the girls, and unfortunately he had to match them to make the composition look right. It really hadn't been worth the fight in the long run, not when they'd already spent hours arguing over every other aspect of the costume.
"I think he looks adorable," M'gann said brightly. "The audience will love it, don't you think?" Behind her, Artemis raised a fist to her mouth in her efforts to hide her snickering.
It took all of Robin's willpower to keep his eye from twitching. Helping the circus, he reminded himself. Totally worth it.
They spent their last day before Haly's Circus was due to arrive at Bruges running through their routine again and again, this time in costume. There were a few minor snags as the team got used to performing in their new outfits (literally in Artemis' case, when her hair, loose for the performance, snagged painfully on a low-hanging branch, until she figured out how to use the mask's straps to keep it in place). But for the most part they handled it well, and Robin really had to hand it to them, they had come a long way since he'd first proposed the mission.
And then, at last, it was time to officially begin infiltrating the circus.
The tour's train arrived overnight, and by early morning the tents had already been set up in a clearing right outside of Bruges and were attracting enormous amounts of attention. The first show would be going on tonight, and Robin intended for them to be in it. He picked his timing carefully, waiting until after the major setup had been finished but before the troupe started prepping for its first performance. Jack Haly would be caught in the middle of the few hours of downtime they had then, able to watch their act without dismissing them completely in his rush to get the first show ready.
So at his signal the rest of his team obediently packed up all of their gear back into the bioship, and with a mental command from M'gann it hid itself away deeper in the woods. Since they'd be traveling with the circus, they wouldn't need it for the time being, and if they suddenly did M'gann could always call it back.
After that it was a short trek to the temporary circus grounds. For Robin it was like literally coming home after a very long time away, and he felt himself relax almost immediately. For everyone else it was something entirely new, and he couldn't help but smirk a little at his friends' expressions as they watched all the activity going on around them.
They were stopped fairly quickly by one of the roustabouts, an enormous blond man wearing suspenders. "You're not supposed to be here," he told them, holding up one hand in warning.
"We're looking to join the tour, actually," Robin drawled. "Not watch it."
"Oh," the man said, eyes lighting up as he surveyed them all again, this time taking a closer look at the costumes under their jackets. "Fresh meat, huh? Hold on, I'll get Haly." He turned and vanished into the crowd, occasionally stopping to point something out or slap another performer on the back as he assisted with whatever task they were handling at the time.
"Okay guys," Robin said quietly, as they waited. "This is it—showtime. Remember, we're looking for a thief, so keep an eye out and keep an open mind—but we've also got to nail showcasing our talents or we've got no way in, so don't lose focus on that either. Once we're in we can focus more on the mission itself." They nodded in understanding, and just in time, as the roustabout they'd spoken to was already returning and gesturing for them to follow.
They were led inside the main tent, where the ring and seats had already been set up. Jack Haly was waiting for them, in regular clothing rather than his ringmaster's getup, and had his thumbs hooked into his belt as he watched them enter. "Ten minutes," he warned them. "I've gotta get back to setting up and I don't have time to waste." His tone was gruff, but Robin knew him well enough to know it was more bark than bite. He also wasn't as rushed as he was claiming—he wanted to see how well the new potential act handled under pressure. If they got nervous over something as small as this there was no way they'd do well in front of a live audience, after all.
The ringmaster's eyes swept over them quickly. Robin hesitated for a moment, but Haly's gaze passed over him without any recognition, and he breathed an internal sigh of relief. No reason for him to know me, he rationalized. I've grown a lot since I was here last, we're a long way from Gotham, and I'm in the company of four kids he doesn't recognize at all.
"We won't waste time then," Robin said, cutting to the chase. He kept his composure and tone calm, which seemed to help his team. He 'introduced' them one by one, sketched out the act roughly, and gestured for everyone to take their places. Haly watched impassively, waiting to be impressed.
Here's hoping we do, Robin thought. I'll be able to nail it of course, but who knows how the others will act?
The audition went...awkwardly, to say the least. They didn't do terribly—all that practice had helped—but it was clear that, for all the many times they'd rehearsed their routine, his team wasn't quite used to the idea of performing for a total stranger. M'gann was clearly nervous about messing up, enough to bring back some of her initial trapeze-related anxiety. Connor was obviously not happy with people staring at him (he never had been) and it caused him to nearly miss his timing when tossing the barrels for the aerialists to leap through. Artemis, of all people, almost shot Dick during one of their final combo moves when her hands slipped. Only Roy seemed to be on the ball, and even then he appeared to be distracted by watching Haly almost as critically as Haly was watching them, as if waiting for the ringmaster to bolt out of the tent and try to steal the nearest advanced weapon he could find.
But still, awkward as it went, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Most of them slipped up at least once, but Robin had to hand it to them, they had paid attention during his lessons on mistakes. All of them had recovered relatively seamlessly and worked the stumble into the act, making it look all the more impressive. Between that and Robin pushing himself for all he was worth to up the performance, he was relatively sure they'd done a decent job selling themselves.
When they had finished, they assembled again in the center ring, collecting in front of Jack Haly as they anxiously awaited his final verdict. Haly looked over them thoughtfully again, and seemed to be considering as he glanced at each member of the 'Dangers.' Robin wouldn't have minded, except his eyes seemed to rest on 'Dan Danger' longer than the others.
It's fine, he told himself. It's reasonable. Dan Danger has been acting as the spokesperson for the troupe, it only makes sense that Old Jack would look to the leader the longest.
At last, after an agonizingly long wait, Haly finally spoke up. "I've got an act down with the flu. They were supposed to go on mid-show. You'll take their place instead. Rest up—you're on tonight. Don't be late!"
M'gann squealed excitedly and threw herself at Robin enthusiastically, nearly bowling him over in a hug before hurling herself at the far more immobile Connor next. "We did it, we did it!" She repeated happily. Behind her, Artemis was grinning, and even Roy had the ghost of a smirk on his face that wasn't completely terrifying. Robin felt himself smiling as well, both at his friends' happiness and at their success in the matter.
The show was on.
The rest of the day was focused on mission-related reconnaissance. Under the guise of being new troupe members trying to learn who their new family and coworkers were, how things worked around Haly's, and what to expect for the shows, the team started analyzing others in the show and hunting for clues. Robin, for his part, largely did his best to stay away from anybody that might actually recognize him. A lot of the performers he knew years ago had since moved on or retired for one reason or another, but the heart of the circus was largely the same, and any of those people—or Haly—could easily recognize him if he slipped up. He kept most of his own investigations to newer acts, ones that would only know the name 'Flying Graysons' in passing, not in person.
Unfortunately, they didn't get very far; other than the string of odd thefts and the twenty-four hour bug that appeared to be cycling around the show, nothing at all appeared to be amiss with Haly's circus. Even the bug wasn't that uncommon for this time of year—it was winter, after all, only a few days before Christmas. Not a fun time to be sick, certainly, but not unusual.
They exchanged disappointing intel as they prepped for their act in the show itself, and Robin was not surprised in the least to see mixed feelings of discouragement and unease as they waited in the small staging area where the first roustabout they'd met, Ray, gestured for them to remain in until their act was ready to head out. They were used to getting fairly immediate answers, after all; their official Batman-deployed missions, even the recon ones, rarely took more than a few hours.
"Look, guys," Robin said quietly, over the mind link M'gann had established for them, "It's only day one. We still have time. The thief will probably try something anyway now that the show is in Bruges; if nothing else we'll be able to catch them in the act, right?"
"I guess," M'gann said, although she was still frowning a little.
"Trust me guys, stay whelmed. We've got this. We've got a good cover and nobody's looked twice at us the wrong way; we're fine. But for now we've got to focus on maintaining that cover. We're on in two more acts—we really need to make our debut performance pop if we're going to sell this to the audience and the circus and the thief, okay? So for now just focus on the routine. RA," he added warningly, giving Roy a look, "that means cool it with glaring around at everybody for ten minutes, okay?"
Now that they were back on the mission in full, Roy had apparently been reminded that he was here to keep an eye on moles as well as on the lookout for thieves, and had subsequently been watching team and circus alike with an overbearing intensity. The warning was intended to get him to leave Connor, M'gann and Artemis alone too, although to them it would sound simply like a request to leave the other circus members alone.
Roy did not look pleased at having been called out, but grit his teeth and answered shortly, "Fine. I can do that."
"Good." Switching to vocal speak, he added, "Remember—don't smile."
"Everybody else smiles, though," Robin added. "Except for Dean, I'm not sure he knows how, but that's okay, because we know he's more bark than bite."
"I could break you in half, Dan," Connor said with a scowl.
"Have to catch me first, bro."
"If there was ever any doubt we were related, people are probably second-guessing themselves now," Artemis muttered under her breath.
The lighthearted banter was serving its purpose well—Robin could see the tension and disappointment starting to melt from his team's expressions and postures. It was interrupted by the excited screaming of the crowd in the main tent, though, as one of the acts finally finished. A few moments later they listened to Haly announcing the next routine, and the man nearby dressed like a demon pushed aside one of the tent flaps, entering the main tent in a burst of flames.
"You five are up next," another one of the roustabouts informed them. "Better step up and get ready—when Jack calls you don't want to keep him or the audience waiting!" Robin nodded and led the others over, feeling the same excited tingle down to his bones that he always got before a performance—that blast of energy, that eagerness to entertain, that vibrant feeling of living that only flying through the air or blasting over rooftops ever seemed to really make him feel. Just a few minutes and he could do it again, for a little while, at least.
"Um, Ar—Diane? Something wrong?" M'gann asked curiously. Robin blinked, and it took him a second to realize that Artemis had not trekked over next to the tent flap with the rest of them. She was frozen in place where they'd been gathered before, and staring at the tent flap in a way that suggested she'd rather fight an entire squadron of Cobra-Venom juiced crazies than walk through it.
"Diane," Robin said, heading back over to her, "What's up?"
"What's up is I'm not going out there," Artemis said, very firmly. She swallowed. Up close Robin could see she looked a bit pale, under her mask.
"What?" he hissed. "You have to go out there, our act needs you!"
"I can't!" she snapped back. "There's so many people out there, listen to them all! And they're all just...watching. Just...watching."
Great. Of all times to develop stage fright, it had to be now, about two minutes before they were due to go on for their debut. And of all people, it had to be Artemis! Robin wouldn't have expected it of her; of his four team mates, Artemis had adjusted the best to the tricks, learned his advice and tips the fastest, and had overall seemed the least concerned about their cover story.
"Why didn't you mention this before we started setting up the act? I might have been able to figure out something to help!" He tried not to sound accusatory, but it was difficult. He had a hard time comprehending the notion of stage fright to begin with—he knew it made other people nervous sometimes, but he'd never felt anything even remotely close to that before, not even for his first show with his parents years ago. He'd only ever been excited, then, to finally show off his skills that he'd worked so hard for. And now to find one of his own team mates was developing an unexpected case of it right at crunch time?
"That was before I saw that crowd," Artemis hissed back defensively. "I didn't realize it was going to be like that! And they're all going to be just...staring! Analyzing everything we do!"
And crap, Robin was pretty sure this was getting mixed up with a few deeper issues for Artemis, like the whole mole thing, or her very deep desire to not be scrutinized and connected to Sportsmaster or Cheshire, but this was so not the time. He had to fix this fast, and he had about sixty seconds to do it.
"Okay, look," he tried, his mind going lightning-fast as he reverted to M'gann's mind-link for the more sensitive stuff. "We've done some fighting in front of and around civilians before, right? You've never frozen then, you just keep fighting."
"That's different!" Artemis argued back, following his lead and reverting to mental speech. "I know what I'm doing then, for starters, and I can't bother to worry about the people watching us because I'm kind of busy saving their lives, so I can't exactly take time to focus on that!"
"Try focusing on just the performance, then," Robin suggested. "Forget about the people, just do the routine like it's only us."
"I can't do that! I know they're there!"
"Okay, woah, stay whelmed, Diane!" Robin said, holding up his hands placatingly. Alright, time to try a new tactic. "Look...did you forget how to use a bow?"
"What? Of course not!"
"So you still know what you're doing, right?"
"So there's no need to worry about messing up or anything, you've got this down cold."
"That doesn't stop them being there!"
"And they're not going to go away; they're here for us. Look, let's try it this way: All those people out there? They are bored as hell. You are saving that crowd. From boredom."
Artemis gave him a disbelieving look. "That...is the stupidest thing I've ever heard."
"No it's not! Look...they're counting on you to save their night, because they came all this way, and they are so. Bored. And they are counting on our group to help them with that. So if you don't go out there, we can't go out together, and they are going to die of boredom. And you need to save them from that, because we can't let that happen!"
Artemis looked like she was about to argue further, skeptical and unsure, but then Ray the roustabout called to the team. "Dangers, you're up!" Out in the main tent, Robin could hear Haly announcing the 'Daring Dangers,' working up the crowd again after the fire act was completed. They were officially out of time.
Which actually might work to his benefit. His team was used to working well under pressure, and Artemis had all but just said under pressure she could focus on the matter at hand. So he reverted to audible speech again, and said, "No time for that, Diane, we've gotta move! Just do it like we trained and we'll finish this just fine!" And he tugged them both towards the flap.
For a moment Artemis looked alarmed as they shifted out to the main tent, where their three other team mates were already at. "Help them!" Robin hissed at her, low enough that only she would hear it over the roar of the crowd, and nudged her towards Roy for her part of the act. He caught a hint of struggle on her face, but then all the practice caught up with her, and she automatically started waving and smiling as she jogged forwards towards her place. Robin grinned after her, genuinely proud of his team mate for the quick recovery, and headed for his own place.
The performance went off without a hitch after that. His team was in top form, there were no mistakes, and he was the only one that could see the intense concentration behind Artemis' showy moves and casual waves. He checked in with her once mentally mid-show, and she told him to stop wasting time and focus on his part of the mission, which meant his unorthodox pep talk had worked.
He was awesome.
The crowning moment of their debut performance came after it was over, and they'd retreated from the center ring to make way for the next act. Jack Haly, in between announcing routines, hunted them down and said gruffly, "You did a good job out there. Better than I was expecting. I'm moving you up to the top slot tomorrow night."
Robin grinned widely around at the others as Haly headed off to collect props for the next act. "Great job, guys! Top slot for a novice act is pretty high praise."
"As high as Batman actually giving us a 'good job' after a mission?" Artemis asked him mentally.
"Just like that," Robin agreed. "I'm guessing you took my advice then?"
"I wasn't expecting it to work," she told him bluntly. "But we were already out there and I figured, why not, and...well. It's weird, but it helped a lot, just treating it like another mission."
"Glad to be of service," Robin said, and even mentally, the amusement and satisfaction was evident in his tone.
Okay, so in retrospect, it had been really, really stupid to think Old Jack would never recognize him, just because it had been four years and he'd grown a few inches. Especially when he'd picked trapeze as his part of the mission's cover act.
Nice job, Dick, he told himself wryly. You blew your cover after all, just like Batman would have expected, and on top of that Old Jack knows you were responsible for catching the thief.
But he couldn't bring himself to be too annoyed with it. It was kind of nice, actually, to talk to the man who had been a lot like a grandfather to him during his Flying Grayson days, without trying to hide it. And Haly was smart, he knew better than to tell anyone. He'd intentionally covered for the Dangers when they'd been out hunting Parasite in Bruges, after all.
So he gave himself a little time to catch up with the old ringmaster, and agreed to the man's request to do one more show. He was sure the team wouldn't mind. But that prompted a question, and he asked slowly, "Did you know it was me when you first took me and my friends on?"
Old Jack looked amused. "I didn't at first," he admitted, "But once you were up in the air again I had a funny feeling it was you. I didn't really need the Dangers act, but I figured if you were trying to get in under a different name there had to be a reason for it. Otherwise you'd have just come talked to me, right?"
"Of course!" Robin answered immediately. "I just—you know—"
Haly held up one hand. "Say no more, I understand. Like I said, I have a feeling it's you and your friends we have to thank for that thief business."
Robin shrugged noncommittally. "I should probably let them know we'll be staying for one more show," he said after a moment.
"Go ahead," Old Jack agreed with a nod. Robin headed for the door, but just before he cracked it open, the ringmaster added, "Oh, and Dick..."
"Your Dangers are decent enough, and they learned fast, but...tell'em to keep their day jobs, got it?"
Robin just laughed.