In fifth grade we did a bird watching unit. We had to go somewhere and bird-watch for a certain number of hours each week. At the pond one day, this girl in my class was there at the same time I was. She found a little duckling on the shore and was scooping up water to sprinkle on its head. When the duckling got back in the pond, she continued to pour water on it. A few minutes later its feathers became so waterlogged it couldn't swim properly and drowned, unable to lift its head out of the water. It was unbelievably depressing seeing that tiny little body floating in the water, not moving.
Now that I've successfully ruined your chances of being in a good mood, I'll explain that this little anecdote was the inspiration for a metaphor in this chapter.
As Star conversed with a young boy and his father, Danny heard something. Or rather, he sensed it. "It" being more of an impression in his mind than an actual sound.
"Phantom. I need to speak to you."
Danny shook his head as if to dislodge the sensation, his good mood evaporating. He watched Star crouch to shake the little boy's hand and lean in for a swift kiss on the cheek, resulting in one seriously red little face. The father laughed boisterously and his son shot him an embarrassed glare. They began to move away, Star waving goodbye with a happy smile. As much as Danny hated to put a damper on her good mood, he couldn't just disappear on her either.
Moving forward, he briefly touched her shoulder to get her attention. "Freakshow's calling me," he said as she turned. The happy spark in her eyes flickered, as did her smile, but she recovered swiftly. Standing from her crouch, she nodded. "Okay. I'll be fine alone for a little."
Resisting the urge to touch her face, her hair—for his comfort or her own, he wasn't sure—Danny tried to reassure her with a smile and turned away, leaving her to her next group of admirers.
He found the ringmaster quickly. He'd built up a sort of sixth sense concerning the man; while he couldn't necessarily sense his presence from anywhere on a whim, Danny could always locate him when Freakshow called. As if the crystal ball on his staff were a magnetic pole, and Danny a compass.
Freakshow was shaking the hand of a rather depressed-looking woman with short, curly hair, thanking her for her patronage and compliments toward the circus. When he saw Danny approach he gave him a brief nod and quickly ended his conversation.
"Come back any time you need some excitement!" Freakshow encouraged with a little wave of his fingers. He stepped away from the woman and gestured Danny over to his side.
"What?" Danny asked, somewhat petulantly.
Freakshow's eye twitched. "Watch your tone," he admonished, his previously pleasant expression now gone. He gripped Danny's shoulder with fingers like a vice and lowered his voice. "You'll be going out tonight," he informed him.
Danny stiffened in surprise. Are you kidding me? We're in Jump City; you're gonna risk robbery here?
Aloud, he said, "I thought this wasn't going to be a 'normal stop.'"
"Not that kind of going out," Freakshow hissed, irritated that he had to clarify.
Danny's eyes, still crimson for the moment, lit with realization. Great. Just what I needed. Way to ruin what was almost a good night.
His lips pulled into a hard line. "He's not going to have anything for you," he argued. At that moment a disguised ghost bustled past them, bumping Danny's shoulder and earning a nasty glare from Freakshow. The ghost squeaked out an apology and scurried away, none too eager to attract the ringmaster's ire.
Danny continued. "It hasn't been long enough. He hasn't had enough time to figure out what you want. If you would just let me go to my parents I bet I could find someth—"
Danny shut his mouth. And making him mad is not going to help you get out of this, Fenton.
"I said you're going. So you are." His grip on Danny's shoulder became painfully tight as he emphasized his next words: "Whether of your own will or mine."
Danny swallowed the sharp retort that immediately jumped to his tongue. Because heaven forbid he actually listen to someone making sense when he can just threaten people with mind-control, he thought acidly. "Sure, fine," he relented, fists clenching at his sides. "I'm going."
"Good," Freakshow ground out. He released Danny's shoulder. "I wouldn't want to force you." He held up his staff to accent his point and Danny winced as its crystal topper sparked to life, sending an uncomfortable wave of power through the bands on his wrists. The energy ran up his arms and zipped immediately to his temples, pressing into his skull with a brief, drilling pressure. Not quite a headache.
"You're a better communicator when you're not completely mindless, I've noticed," Freakshow added. "So this is really better for all involved."
He glanced over Danny's shoulder, suddenly giving a start as whatever he saw there. Before Danny could turn to follow his gaze Freakshow's crystal lit again and that pressure in Danny's head sharpened into a flash of pain, red lights bursting in his skull. Instantly Danny's own thoughts became sluggish, churning at a near-standstill before they dissipated like smoke in the wind. He lost any and all desire to turn and see what Freakshow had been looking at. Any and all desire to do anything.
Freakshow spoke again, the words simultaneously filling Danny's head as both sounds and impressions. "Phantom. Be a good little ghost boy and get out of sight."
Danny immediately obeyed.
Shock. Tension, taut as harp strings.
Anxiety. Squirming, worming, painful.
Helplessness. A drowning duckling with waterlogged feathers, desperately, uselessly struggling.
Hope. A bright ray of sunshine in the blackness.
Cold dread. Fear, sharp and poignant.
Hope gone. Despair. Sorrow. Hatred.
Shock again, inspiration. A bolt of lightning. Renewed, flickering hope. Shaky anxiety once more. A whiff of flirtatiousness that only poorly hid the frightened uncertainty.
Then she was gone, taking her storm cloud of misplaced emotions with her.
Raven felt it all. The second Angel had seen them and her eyes had lit with recognition, the storm had begun, with Raven and her empathic powers its only witness. Initially she thought Angel was just extremely excited to meet them, but the mounting anxiousness, the desperation, had built too suddenly and come out of nowhere. Something was wrong with that girl.
Raven was about to say as much as soon as Angel was out of earshot, but Beast Boy spoke before she had the chance.
"Dude. I think I'm in love."
He turned almost unsteadily to the rest of the Titans, a slow, loopy grin stretching from one pointed ear to the other. He practically oozed infatuation, and Raven almost wrinkled her nose. She blocked out Beast Boy's emotions as best she could.
"There's something strange about that girl," she said before anyone could respond to Beast Boy's comment.
Her teammates looked at her in surprise. "Angel?" Cyborg asked. "Considering where she works, isn't that sort of a given?" He lifted a hand to make a vague gesture at the scenery around them—the circus freaks running around, the noisy, milling crowd, the giant purple tent.
Raven's lips twitched. "I mean besides that."
"What do you mean, exactly?" Robin asked, fixing her with a curious stare. Something in his face suggested he might have followed her train of thought.
"Didn't any of you notice her acting strangely?" Raven explained, looking seriously at each Titan. "Did you see her face when she wrote that autograph?"
"And when the ringmaster showed up?" Robin added.
Beast Boy, his shining moment dimmed, shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot, forehead creasing. "Well she did seem a little surprised for a second, but then she seemed pretty normal…"
"Flirting with you, Beast Boy, is not what I'd consider normal," Raven quipped. He scowled, and Cyborg snickered.
"I also agree that perhaps the Angel seemed almost… afraid?" Starfire offered. She fiddled with a lock of her hair, a thoughtful frown pulling at the corners of her mouth.
Robin touched a hand to her shoulder. "I saw it too, when Freakshow came over. She jumped like she'd been caught doing something wrong. I didn't think too deeply into it until Raven brought it up, but…" He focused his attention on his hooded friend again. "I'm guessing you got some strange feelings from her?"
"To say the least," Raven confirmed. "But I'm not sure what any of it means."
"And how do we know it means anything in the first place?" Cyborg said. "Maybe she's just weird and emotional. Maybe she's a crazy, obsessive fan, so she was acting nutty."
Raven cast her eyes to the ground, pondering. She knew what she'd sensed, she just didn't know why. So, perhaps, Cyborg was right. Maybe Angel really was just that weird, or she had some personal problems bothering her, or she'd had some disagreement with the ringmaster. Something. But… even strange people didn't feel fear that powerful just out of the blue.
But then again… But, I just don't think… Anything is possible I suppose, and yet—Ugh.
Raven shook her head. "Whatever," she finally said, dismissing the strange girl's stranger emotions. "It's her problem. Let's just go home."
"Whew!" Cyborg said, relieved. "That sounds like a good idea to me. I do not wanna be left here once all the normal people've already gone."
Robin, after a last glance into the crowd where Angel had disappeared, nodded his consent.
The Titans proceeded toward the front of the tent, Robin leading as usual and Beast Boy sulkily bringing up the rear. "You guys totally killed my mood," he grumbled, scuffing one toe forlornly against the ground as he walked. He let out a little yelp as Cyborg gave him (what was supposed to be) a playful punch to the shoulder that almost knocked him off his feet.
"As if you could have handled that girl anyway," Cyborg grinned.
"Dude, she was so into me," Beast Boy protested. "You saw! She even winked at me! And look—" He pitched forward to grab at the compartment of Robin's belt that held his autographed notebook, ignoring his leader's protests. "She signed her name all girly and loopy, and there's a little heart coming off the end of the L!" He hastily flipped open the notebook to the desired page and held it out as proof, jabbing his finger to the vital little heart.
Cyborg scoffed. "She probably signs her name like that all the time!"
"Well what about giving me her number then, huh?"
They were at the opening of the tent now, stepping out into the crisp night air along with a stream of other circus-goers. "Is that what she wrote upon your arm?" Starfire inquired, pointing to the limb in question.
"Yep," Beast Boy said smugly, puffing out his chest. He pulled up his sleeve, squinting in the darkness to try and make out the script. Giving up, he slid the sleeve back into place. "And you know what? I think I'll ask her out tomorrow night after the show. Then we'll see who can handle a girl!"
This last proclamation earned him another punch from Cyborg, and the two quickly became involved in a scuffle all of the way to the T-car, separating only when Raven let out a hissing growl that clearly said she'd had enough. She crossed her arms impatiently while she waited for Cyborg, rolling his eyes and muttering to himself, to turn off the alarms on the car.
Robin secured his helmet before mounting the R-cycle, revving up the engine as his friends settled themselves in their seats. As the car's engine came to life with a quiet, powerful rumble, Robin flashed the car's occupants a mischievous grin through his visor.
"Last one in the ops room is a Mad Mod!" he shouted. He barely had time to take in the surprise on their faces and Cyborg's competitive answering cry before he took off, swinging his bike around in a graceful arc and zipping away.
"Oh no you don't!" Cyborg bellowed, and the T-car was off.
Raven turned over for the fifth time that night, irritation reaching its peak. She snuggled into her pillow and exhaled slowly, focusing on relaxing each muscle individually, trying to clear her mind of everything but sweet oblivion. But it was not to be.
She sat up with a harsh sigh. She tossed her blanket aside and sat slightly hunched, head bowed between dark curtains of hair, and focused on the heavy quiet that had befallen Titans Tower. Her own breath was the only sound in existence, it seemed. She passed a hand over her face and pressed cool fingers to her eyelids, wishing the soreness of her eyes was enough to convince her brain she needed sleep.
But something was nagging at her, her brain insisted. It squatted at the back of her mind like a fat, noisy toad, leaping away when she tried to look directly at it.
She sat up straight and folded her legs beneath her. The tips of her forefingers met her thumbs as she rested her hands atop her knees. Her eyes closed once more and she took a slow, measured breath.
If I can't sleep, at least I can meditate.
"Azarath…metrion…zinthos," she whispered, and the unorganized currents of her mind became smooth.
Maybe I'm still curious about why that girl was acting so…abnormal.
She pondered this idea for a moment before dismissing it. She felt rather than knew this was not quite the right answer, though she was on the right track.
Maybe I'm uneasy about the ringmaster himself.
She hadn't mentioned it to the others (and had in fact been so preoccupied by Angel that she hadn't thought much of it herself), but looking back, the ringmaster's emotions hadn't fit the situation any better than Angel's. His words had seemed pleasant enough. His actions too; before leaving he'd patted Angel on the head in what appeared to be a gesture of affection. But his emotions, the little she'd picked up through Angel's broiling sea of conflict, had not felt so pleasant. He'd felt smug. Vindictive perhaps. Angry? Threatened?
Raven took a soothing breath as the echoes of these emotions ran through her, quietly chanting to ease her mind and prevent her powers from slipping out of the crack under her mental door. No need to go breaking random objects in the room by getting herself riled up in someone else's feelings.
That's still not what's really bothering me, she realized. But I'm definitely close with Angel's and the ringmaster's off-base emotions. Just a little closer and…
She replayed in her mind the Titans' arrival home. The others had been full of energy after their race, tackling each other in their haste to beat each other out of the garage and up to the main ops room. Raven, who would not tolerate being the Mad Mod, had simply summoned a shadow to swallow her up and deposit her within the room. Her feet touched solid ground again just as the others burst through the automatic door in a noisy pile of elbows and knees and fists. They promptly fell flat on their faces, crying foul at her tactics as they struggled to extricate themselves from the tangle of teenage limbs on the floor. She'd given them a superior smirk.
In the present, Raven allowed herself an actual smile at the memory. She'd allowed herself a lot of those, actually. Ever since she'd defeated her father she'd been much more at ease letting herself be emotive, even if only in small degrees.
They'd spent some time in the kitchen, everyone helping themselves to a late snack and chatting a bit around the counter before heading off to their individual rooms for bed.
Did we forget something…?
Raven stiffened. All at once, she knew what was bugging her.
Beast Boy forgot about Angel writing her number on his arm!
Her eyes flicked open. She hadn't the foggiest idea why Angel's phone number would be important, but she was certain it was the source of her agitation. And now that she'd "caught the toad," she'd never be able to fall sleep without following up.
She stood fluidly and hurried across the room and out, immediately heading for Beast Boy's next door. She stopped short, however, when she realized how strange it was to willingly venture anywhere near this disaster zone.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. She braced herself. She went in.
"Beast Boy," she called into the darkness. She feared walking too far beyond the doorway; she'd definitely trip over something. Hearing no response to her call, she turned and ran her hand along the wall in search of the light switch. Finding it, she flicked it on.
The instant the room flooded with light, Beast Boy stirred in his bed. He rose up on his elbows and groggily blinked his eyes open, then promptly squeezed them tightly shut and buried his head beneath his pillow with an agonized groan.
"Beast Boy, I need to see your arm," Raven demanded, gingerly picking her way over the wreckage strewn about the floor.
"Fih moh minuh!" he groused through his pillow. She ignored the plea and successfully navigated her way to his bedside, snatching his wrist without further ado. He peeked out at her from under his pillow, bleary-eyed and irritated.
"Not cool," he muttered, glaring. "Wha time is it?"
Again, she ignored him. Tugging his sleeve away to reveal the skin beneath, she turned his arm and stepped to the side to allow the light to shine down on the message scrawled there. The ink had blurred, just a little, from rubbing against his sleeve. But the meaning of the words was clear, and it froze her where she stood.
"We're prisoners. Please help us. You're our only chance."