Summary: While Paula and Lawrence Crock were on a week-long undercover mission, the Crock family lived in Haly’s Circus. Eight years have passed, and Artemis has completely forgotten about that small part of her life. However, seeing Dick on the trapeze reminds her of a boy she once knew…
Note: First part is set right before Performance. Includes the Crock family, the Flying Graysons, Haly’s International Traveling Circus, and little-kid Traught.
December 10, 2010
Artemis cursed as she tripped over a wire she had been too dazed to notice. Ropes and nets and other strange objects decorated the Cave workout room, creating a web of trip wires for people stumbling through. For their upcoming operation, an undercover mission in Haly’s International Traveling Circus, Robin had taken his role as mission leader very seriously. Too seriously, Artemis thought as she rubbed her ankle.
In order to properly prepare the Team, he insisted on setting this equipment up and created a rigorous practice schedule for their upcoming performance. He assessed what “act” they would each suit best, choreographed their performances, and had them run through their parts at least a hundred times.
In a separate target practice room, Artemis and Roy used blunted arrows and practiced firing their shots simultaneously in the air, while M’gann and Robin worked in the modified gym, and Conner pumped weights as usual. Like a clock made of several gears, they had to perfect each moving part of their performance until they mastered it, and then they would put all the pieces back together again.
It was two days before they would present themselves before Jack Haly, and Robin had set this date and time as their “pre-dress rehearsal” during which they would perform together without their Daring Dangers costumes.
Wearing a plain workout tank and fitted leggings, Artemis sat down on a bench and waited for the rest to arrive.
Roy, the rebel of the troop, had predictably “forgotten” to show up for most of the practices. Artemis sniffed and frowned at the thought. She wasn’t exactly upset, because his absence meant she didn’t have to deal with his obvious prejudice against her. However, she didn’t want to have to pull his weight in the performance or deal with the consequences of his lack of practice, such as accidentally sending an arrow through Robin’s head.
As if her thoughts had summoned the Boy Wonder, Artemis heard the door behind her open as Robin strode into the gym. She lazily bent her head in his direction, watching as he walked past her wearing workout clothes and his mask. Robin and Artemis were always the early ones for any Team meeting, less because of natural promptness and more as if they had something to prove.
It didn’t hurt that they traveled by the same Zeta-Tube route, Artemis considered with a wry twist to her lips. Not as if Robin knew that.
At first he didn’t seem to notice her presence (as if Batman’s pupil wasn’t keenly aware of every hidden camera in a room, much less the bulkier form of his teammate), then he stopped, turned to the side, and tilted his head at an angle as if he had just realized she was there.
She hoped that he would subliminally detect her bad mood and move on with his life without talking to her, but as if he had just read her mind and then decided to bother her anyways, Robin smiled at her in greeting.
“Hey ‘Mis. Early as usual?”
She grunted a wordless, noncommittal response, and then took out her phone and pretended to text on it. She was too busy being irritated at circus nets and Roy Harper to have the patience for small talk.
Not put off by her lack of interest, he continued, “Roy said he was coming today, just to let you know.”
This received another mumble-grunt.
“So…I’m going to go work on the trapeze for a bit, okay?”
He smiled wanly, as if hoping she’d grace him with some form of actual response, but after an awkward second his grin faltered, and he turned to walk away.
“Don’t mind me; do whatever you want,” she muttered softly as he walked towards the equipment and out of hearing range.
Artemis couldn’t tell if it was a good or a bad thing that she was mostly immune to Robin’s charms, because she saw through his witty quips to his hungry craving for attention.
She also couldn’t understand why Robin was aware of which Artemis body language queues meant, “Don’t ask more questions” or “Leave me alone,” but consciously decided to ignore them. Wally and M’gann couldn’t read her well and tripped over her boundaries because they were too blind to be aware of them. But Robin…?
She shook her head as he climbed up the ladder to the top of the trapeze platform. Artemis did not think she provided enough response to satisfy someone like Robin. For every twenty times he trolled her, she would just stand there, maybe throwing out a clumsy or irritated comeback if she was in a particularly good mood.
So why did he do it?
For some reason, this behavior reminded her of something.
She bit her lip, rested her elbow on her leg, and placed her cheek in her hand as Robin took a moment to stretch his limbs a little. Then he used a hook on the end of a long white pole to pull the trapeze wire closer to him.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t think of what.
Shaking herself from her musing, the archer focused her attention on the scrawny boy wrapping his thumbs around the trapeze bar with a strange familiarity, like a pro bicyclist gripping the handlebars of his bike.
She hadn’t seen Robin perform before (because her practice sessions had taken place in another room, and usually their exercise gym did not include a trapeze), and she was curious to see what the Boy Wonder could do.
His expression darkened a hair before he launched himself off the platform, as if looking down had reminded him of a bad stomachache. Then he let himself fall down through into the air and flew.
She’d suspected from the start that this circus thing wasn’t new to him. His ease as he pumped his legs to gain momentum, swinging higher and higher and then spinning as he let go of the first trapeze and grasped the second bar midair, confirmed her suspicions.
What she hadn’t anticipated was a sudden surge of déjà vu coursing through her, nauseating in its intensity. Her hand moved to steady her head as her thoughts whirled. Why did this feel so familiar?
What about this boy and a trapeze brought a sense of “I’ve seen this all before” to her mind?
October 7, 2002
Artemis’ parents had completed an innumerable amount of odd jobs, but this was definitely one of the oddest.
<”Mom, why is Daddy buying cats from that man?”> Artemis asked, speaking in her mother’s native tongue.
<“Not just cats. Tigers and lions!”> Paula answered with inflection, kneeling down beside her youngest daughter. <“Your father and I are taking you and Jade on a circus trip while we do a small job.”>
<“But what are they for?”>
<“For our circus act, of course,”> her mom replied, as if the answer was as simple as a children’s picture book.
Artemis’ frown put worry lines on her plump baby face. The Crock family was not prone to do normal things like going to the circus for fun, so all Artemis had to associate with the circus was the stories she had heard and the cartoons she had seen on T.V.
“Will there be clowns?” she asked in English, because she couldn’t remember the Vietnamese word for “clowns.”
“I think so.”
“I like elephants,” Artemis said with characteristic seriousness.
“Well I like tigers,” Paula growled, swiping playfully at her now giggling daughter.
Her mother’s head jerked to the side at the sound of her husband’s voice. The teasing expression that had formed on her face as she doted on her daughter fell away, leaving no trace of its existence.
“Yes Lawrence?” Her thinned mouth was all business and no pleasure.
Jade was standing by her daddy’s side, eyes as wide as moons after seeing the big cats in their cages. The eleven-year-old beside the big hulk of a man formed an unnerving picture, and her happy and curious expression contrasted the harsh scars on his face.
“I’ve got the animals. You sure you know how to keep these cats in check?” he asked.
“Alright. I’m trusting you on this.”
“When do you really trust me with anything?” Paula mumbled to herself as she ushered the girls to the van. Only Artemis and Jade could hear her whispered words, filled with resentment after years of doing her husband’s dirty work and years of his disrespect.
If Sportsmaster and Tigress were caught, Paula always took the fall. If they were hired to pose as lion tamers, Lawrence’s wife would deal with the cats and risk the danger of their teeth and claws while he did the behind-the-scenes work. He played it safe while she put her life on the line in every job they accepted.
If they succeeded, he never gave her any credit. If they failed, she was always the one to blame.
What hurt Paula the most was that if Lawrence decided to come home and tell Jade how inadequate she was, how she was just as stupid useless as her mother, Paula could only stand by and wait until the damage was done.
She would have left the life if it didn’t pay to keep food in her daughters’ mouths. She would have left Lawrence if she had the bravery to do so.
So Jade and Artemis looked up towards their mother sitting in the shotgun seat with the mixed fear and worry of children who are aware something is wrong in their world, but don’t know enough to put a name to the pain.
Lawrence hopped into the car, slammed the door, and backed up towards the trailer holding the tigers and lions. After the salesman’s employee hooked the trailer up to the Crock’s van, Lawrence stepped hard on the gas, and they sped off towards Haly’s Circus on the other side of town.
October 13, 2002
Predictably, the “Andersons” were accepted into the circus after their brilliant audition (which included lions standing on their back paws and tigers jumping through flaming hoops). However, they were only allowed to perform after the circus posters had been adjusted to include an advertisement for their act and when the circus had moved on to a new venue, Blüdhaven.
Today marked the first occasion when the Crock couple would perform, but Artemis would not be allowed to watch.
<”But Mom!”> Artemis wailed in shrill Vietnamese, <”Jade doesn’t have to go to some stupid day care! Why can’t I watch the show too?”>
<”Jade is not just playing. She’s helping clean up after the animals and sweeping the stands after the performance. You are too young to help out yet or to sit by yourself in the audience, even if we could afford you buy you a ticket in the first place! So you will stay here with the other circus employee children.”>
<”Please, can I just stand behind a curtain somewhere? I’ll be quiet and good, I promise!”>
<”No, you will get in the way of other performers.”> Pushing the thick curtain aside, Paula ushered her daughter into the alcove of the circus tent where employee’s children were kept when their parents were busy at work. <”You will stay here until I come back, understand?”>
Artemis nodded glumly, and her mother kissed her on the head before she left the tent. What Paula failed to notice was there was not any adult supervision in the room. Besides Artemis, there was only a boy who was at least two years younger than her.
He had been staring at Artemis from the moment she had come in the room. Most of the circus players were young and single and did not have children or left their families at home when they went on tour, so it had been a while since he had seen someone remotely close to his own age.
Dressed in khaki shorts and a nicely pressed t-shirt, the boy was carrying a plush elephant almost half his size. Its blue-gray coat was stained, and the animal looked as if it had gone through the wash one too many times. However, someone had taken the time to mend the many rips and tears on the toy with strong grey thread.
A strange resentment broiled in Artemis’ chest at the sight of this obviously well-cared-for, clean little boy. Her father had allowed her one stuffed animal as a child, a white bunny she had carried with her everywhere. However, when he decided she was too old for toys, he threw it away.
“Boys aren’t supposed to have stuffed animals,” she told him snidely.
“Zitka is mine. You can’t take her,” he said, holding the elephant closer to him as if she might try to snatch it from him.
“What? I don’t want your stupid elephant.”
A sullen pout formed on his face. “Don’t say that! Zitka is not stupid. You’re going to hurt her feelings.”
“How do you know she has feelings? She’s a stuffed toy.”
“Well why do you have yellow hair if you’re eyes are pointy…” he pulled his eyelids into a crude imitation of her olive-shaped eyes, “…like this?”
“Richard. That is enough.” Moving through the opening behind Artemis, an older woman in a leotard entered the section of the tent. By her sharp blue eyes and delicately attractive face, Artemis guessed she was somehow related to the boy with the sissy elephant.
“You need to apologize and make it up to her,” the woman said. “Boys should never say nasty things about a girl’s looks. It’s improper and mean.”
Cowed by her authority, ‘Richard’ looked at the ground around Artemis’ feet and mumbled, “I’m sorry for making fun of your eyes. I…I think your hair is very pretty.”
After his strange mixture of an apology and complement, Artemis didn’t quite know how to respond. Her cheeks reddened and she grunted something indistinct, but her fumbling attempt at forgiveness and thanks was understood. The woman smiled, and Richard found the bravery to look up shyly at the now blushing girl.
When the stranger’s attention shifted from Richard to Artemis, the woman’s eyes softened. She walked towards Artemis nonthreateningly and addressed her in a surprisingly even tone.
Instead of kneeling down or using a higher pitched voice to communicate, she said matter-of-factly, “Hello, I am Mary Grayson. What is your name?”
“Are you in the Anderson family?” Taking the time to remember that ‘Anderson’ was her fake last name, Artemis nodded. “I met your mother just the other day in passing. You look just like her!”
Artemis beamed at this. Usually, people would compare Jade to Paula and Artemis to Lawrence and ask Artemis questions like, “Why is your hair so blonde?” which she honestly didn’t know the answer to. How was she supposed to know why different people looked different?
If kids made these comments, Artemis would punch them. If an adult said something like, “It’s so interesting, a biracial child with such beautiful hair!” she would refrain from kicking them and only scowled.
“Artemis, this is my son Richard,” Mrs. Grayson said, motioning towards the boy. “Richard, her family is new here, so be a gentleman to her, okay?”
He smiled and nodded. “Yes Mother.”
With a smile, Mrs. Grayson patted Richard fondly on the head, giving his black hair a tease. Richard’s grin widened, and even when his mother had taken her hand away, his obvious happiness in pleasing her did not lessen in the slightest.
“Mama’s boy.” Artemis muttered in his general direction. When his mother had turned her back to them, Richard stuck out his tongue at Artemis in response.
Before Mrs. Grayson left entirely, she looked back and said, “I’m not going to be watching after you kiddos today, but Darcie, the tightrope walker who hurt her ankle last week, is on her way over. Stay right here until she gets here.”
“We will,” Richard said confidently. His mother smiled and then disappeared from sight.
“So,” Artemis asked slowly, recognizing that this small boy was her current source of entertainment, “what do you do when you get stuck in here for hours?”
All the space contained was a few folding chairs, some coils of rope, various odds and ends, broken props and screws, and two children.
“Um, maybe we can play pretend?” Richard suggested. “Zitka and I go on all sorts of adventures. Just yesterday we went to Canada and swam with polar bears!”
Artemis perked up at the word ‘pretend.’ It was one of the only forms of games Jade and Artemis could successfully play on a regular basis. Well, until Jade started thinking she was too old for pretend. Maybe Artemis didn’t have stuffed animals like Richard, but this was something she could do.
“Okay?” Surprised at this surly girl’s sudden willingness, Richard’s head and mouth tilted to the side.
His shock annoyed her, and she gruffly replied, “Do you want to play with something other than your elephant or not?”
He nodded hurriedly.
“Good,” Artemis said with authority. “I’ll be a tiger and you can be a…”
In the next hour and a half, the two of them tamed tigers, forged through the jungle, conquered the seven seas, discovered a planet, and gave Alice in Wonderland a happier and more sensible ending. Alice (Artemis) and the Mad Hatter (Dick) fought and won against the Queen of Hearts and lived happily ever after drinking tea and playing croquet with flamingos.
They were so busy in their imaginary worlds that they didn’t even notice Darcie, their designated babysitter, hadn’t arrived until Richard pointed it out.
“I don’t think Darcie is coming.” He looked both ways before whispering conspiratorially, “She’s probably with her boyfriend.”
Artemis’ little nose wrinkled in distaste. “Ew.”
“But that means we can sneak out!” he said, cheeks glowing in excitement. “Don’t you want to see the final act?”
“Um, I’m not sure we should Richard. My mom said…”
“You can call me Dick,” he interrupted as he lovingly placed Zitka on a chair. “I like my friends to call me that instead. My uncle came up with the nickname, but mother doesn’t like it for some reason. So don’t tell her I told you to call me that, okay?”
Dick grinned at Artemis encouragingly, but her grimacing face struggled between dread of the possible consequences of disobeying her mother and her desire to see the circus for the first time in her life.
Growing impatient, Dick gently took her hand and tugged her along behind him.
“Come on! We’ll just be able to catch the end if we hurry!”
She stopped struggling and followed quickly after him as he weaved from one part of the circus to the next, finally guiding her to one of the entrances to the seats. The black doors were closed, but when Artemis and Dick pushed them open just slightly, they could see all the way down the center aisle to the stage.
“My parents are on!” he exclaimed with glee, pressing his nose up against the crack in the doors.
Artemis’ gaze flickered around the center stage until she spotted a few smaller specks on the high platform. The ringmaster introduced with gusto, “The Flying Graysons!”
The audience as a whole gasped as Mary Grayson swung from her trapeze, somersaulted midair, and grabbed her husband’s arms just before she dropped towards the ground far below.
Artemis could feel her stomach plummet with each death-defying feat of acrobatics, and her eyes and mouth hung open in awe.
Since Dick had seen this routine over a thousand times, he enjoyed glancing up every once in a while just to watch his new friend’s face shift and change with the performance. Seeing her stupefied expression made his heart beat with pride for his dazzling family.
Suddenly, heavy boot steps sounded down the hallway, and Dick and Artemis dashed like rabbits back to the tent folds from which they came.
Panting heavily in the heavy fabric, the two flinched as the man muttered, “Dammit,” and Artemis’ eyes brightened with recognition.
“Daddy?” she whispered, poking her head out just in time to see Lawrence Crock dressed in a concession salesman’s uniform and pushing through one of the theater doors.
Dick and Artemis waited for him to come back down the hallway, but the moment never came.
Instead, three shots rang out. The world behind the tent’s inner walls went completely silent, and then in an explosive moment, all the sounds came back in a rush. The two children huddled close to one another as people in the audience screamed and shouted and started running out the doors.
In all the commotion, someone had called 911, and Artemis could hear the sirens blaring outside. Fireman pushed their way into the entrance hall and waded past the panicking crowd into the circus tent, carrying two men and one woman out with them on stretchers.
Artemis couldn’t see the details of their injuries from a distance, but at the sight of the unmoving bodies, she broke down in sobs.
“What’s wrong?” Dick put a hand on her back, his brow creased with worry.
“My mom and dad,” she choked out. “They did this.”
Wondering how her parents hadn’t gotten caught for such a blatant assassination of three people, her cheeks paled as she watched policemen usher a bewildered man with a gun in his hands out of the tent. Obviously, he had been framed with the crime.
“What are you talking about?” Dick asked in confusion. “I’m sure those people will be fine. They’re going to the doctor, and doctors help people.”
“Stupid. You don’t get it. My parents are bad. Really bad. They aren’t lion tamers; they kill people.”
To Dick’s credit, he handled the news that his recently made friend’s parents were assassins quite well for a five-year-old boy. But perhaps that was because he had yet to experience the literal meaning of death.
He sat there for a moment and then hugged Artemis tightly, because that is what his mother always did for him when he was sad.
“We’ll probably have to leave and go somewhere else now,” she sniffed. “Before the good guys catch us.”
“But, you are one of the good guys, and…and…I don’t want you to go!”
Artemis laughed a little at his sincerity, but then her expression hardened. She extended her pinky towards him with complete solemnity.
“You swear you won’t tell anyone you met me and I told you about this?”
He looked back at her with a mixture of fear, loss, and admiration in his baby blue eyes.
His smaller pinky curled around hers.
December 10, 2010
Artemis shook her head in disappointment. The feeling of recollection had faded as quickly as it had appeared. All she could grasp from it was that Robin’s movements had triggered a sense of happiness and awe she had experienced before.
Roy, M’gann, Conner walked into the room, and Artemis shrugged and stood to her feet. She mentally wrote the gut feeling off as a fluke. Surely, it was just a byproduct of the unreliable and hazy memories of her childhood.
Thus, she pushed the incident to the back of her mind and forgot about it entirely.
Eleven years later
It wasn’t until Artemis was helping her newly-wed husband reorganize his apartment, making space so she could move in until they could afford a better place, that she made the connection.
In a worn cardboard box at the back of a closet sat a pile of old pictures. On the top rested a photo of two Gotham Academy school children standing shoulder to shoulder.
Artemis picked up the stack and flipped through the photos with wistful smile on her face, remembering the day she had discovered Dick’s identity and the laughter that followed.
He was such a funny man sometimes. For years he had waited patiently, keeping his true face just out of her reach and dangling tantalizing hints in her path. It wasn’t until she began to really see him and desire to know as much about him as he did about her that he let her catch up to him.
The picture collection didn’t have any organization or chronology to it, and Artemis wondered why Dick had neatly stacked these photos and tucked them away in the back of his closet. As she moved deeper into the pile, yellowed pictures from Dick’s circus days began to appear.
She paused on what she guessed was a Grayson family Christmas picture, all of them laughing and wearing gaudy holiday sweaters. Artemis’ eyes prickled at the sight of the mother-in-law and father-in-law she had never gotten the chance to meet.
Sniffing and wiping her eyes “because of the dust,” she tucked the photograph into the bottom of the pile, revealing the picture underneath it.
It was a group picture of the Haly Circus staff, with the Flying Graysons collected in a tangled bunch in the middle. A four to five-year-old Dick was laughing on his father’s shoulders, surrounded by his loving family. However, this time it wasn’t the Graysons that caught Artemis’ attention. Instead, she brought the photo up to her face, pressing her nose to the glossy paper as she stared cross-eyed at four familiar faces.
Still dazed from what she had just seen and the memories it had triggered, she looked down at the worn cardboard box again and noticed the tattered stuffed animal that had been hiding underneath the pile of photographs.
“Zitka…?” she whispered, clapping a hand to her mouth.
The stuffed elephant stared silently back at her.
Dropping the photo as if it had zapped her, Artemis turned around and stomped off to find her husband.
“Dick? You won’t believe what I just found…”
The picture floated to the ground in lazy circles and landed face-down.
On the back was scribbled in red ink, “Haly’s Circus, October 2002.”
On the front were two very different families who just happened to cross paths, never knowing their children would meet again and fall in love.