Artemis had questioned Batman’s grasp on reality when he’d issued the assignment and told them there was “no need for a rendezvous,” but three hours into the mission her head hurt from the club lights and heavy bass line of the music, and she’d lost count of the guys who’d tried to grope her. She knew she looked amazing (due to the strategic amount of skin she was showing off, she also looked legal, probably), but she didn’t appreciate that her “not interested vibes” were totally ignored unless Wally was within an eighteen-inch radius. She was also parched; Artemis didn’t trust the club atmosphere enough to try drinking even bottled water.
“This is a routine mission for reconnaissance purposes,” Batman had told her. “You and Kid Flash are to observe White Rabbit, a nightclub we believe to be a front for criminal activity, particularly illegal drug distribution and arms dealing. Maintain radio silence and submit a written report with documentation of your findings.” (She was pretty sure the “written report” part was to get Wally’s goat—Batman was remarkably unsubtle about disliking Kid Flash—and she was equally sure that Wally would get distracted and make her file the damn thing.)
It was just as well they were maintaining radio silence; Artemis doubted she could have gotten useable recordings, let alone called for help if she’d needed it. At least the hours they’d spent waiting in line and fake-partying seemed to have garnered some useable footage, so they probably wouldn’t need to reconnoiter again. Batman had some limits, it seemed, and he apparently drew a line at using underage girls to entrap bad guys. Artemis did not exactly envy Black Canary that job, but whatever.
She elbowed another creep and leaned against Wally; he slouched in her direction immediately. He’d been relatively decent all night, and she was starting to not exactly mind. Sometime during her last sweep of the club activity, he’d rolled up the sleeves of his button-down, which didn’t hurt.
“Had enough of the meat market?”
“I have three months left to live,” she deadpanned. She couldn’t hear him laugh over the noise, but his chest moved in that hiccupping way that meant he was chuckling.
“That’s my girl,” Wally took a last swallow of his Coke and slung his arm over her shoulders; she used the movement as camouflage, and tucked the fake hipster-glasses Robin had monkeyed into a video camera into his breast pocket, because: she looked hot, which meant she had no available pockets. Artemis twirled away from him, grabbing hold of his hand, and made to leave; for a long, stupid second, she thought his stumble was part of their cover, because Wally was only graceful during odd, intervening moments that she definitely did not notice.
Still, when his pulse—already fast—jumped, skittered, and sped up, Artemis had her first inkling that something was off. She dragged him out the exit and shoved him up against the alley wall outside the club; hopefully any bystanders would think the usual.
Wally grunted but did not leer, which was her second clue.
“Wally, what the fuck did you drink,” she hissed in his ear. He shuddered away from her and blinked hard, but she could tell he wasn’t tracking.
“I just had a Coke,” he whined. “Don’t gang up on me, one of you’s already unfair.”
“What are you talking about,” she snapped. He was starting to flush, cheekbone to jawline, and his unnerved fidgeting was slowing down to almost human speeds. “Wally, god, did you leave your drink unattended? Are you stoned?”
“My parents are going to kill me,” Wally slurred, far more relaxed than any human had a right to be. “But I guess it was fun while it lasted. You’ll come to my funeral, right?” He leaned down sloppily and almost knocked his forehead against hers. “Heeyyyy. Artemis. Artemis.”
“Great. You got roofied. Why am I not surprised,” she snapped. “When did you last eat?” They had to get moving soon or there’d be hell to pay. She was starting to wish Zatanna, at least, had come with them; Zatanna was definitely at the top of Artemis’s list of people she’d want with her when someone got roofied.
“’M not hungry.”
“Okay, I’m officially weirded out,” she announced, and pulled him away from the wall. “The utter moron I know is always hungry.”
“Only because I messed up my metabolism,” Wally kept pace with her easily enough (another bad sign, Artemis thought; and here was number four, because all the fight had gone out of him), but she still looped her arm around his waist, if only to steer him. “I blew myself up! For science. Everybody forgets that part.”
“Yeah?” Maybe humoring him would do the trick until he sobered up. For once she wished she had a smartphone, the better to WebMD his shit in case of emergency. “How does that work.”
“Metabolism is a set of biochemical reactions involved in storing fuel molecules and converting fuel molecules into energy,” Wally lectured. “A byproduct of the recreated ‘Flash’ experiment resulted in the ability to run at accelerated speeds, with the side effect of an astronomical increase in my basal metabolic rate.” He spoke with exaggerated care, slow enough the Artemis could actually count his syllables. It was surreal.
It took longer than Artemis liked to get far enough away from the club, and she didn’t dare let him walk unassisted. Thankfully, the city was laid out in a grid and there was some illegal community bonfire winding down in Harold Washington Park, so there were enough crowds of drunken university students roaming around that the two of them looked harmless. She was pretty sure no one was following them; still, when she frisked him for his phone, she was gentler than she needed to be.
“Usually pretty girls walk away when I talk science stuff,” Wally said bemusedly as Artemis tried to figure out his smartphone. “Or, you know, pretty much girls walk away when I talk. I changed my mind, I am hungry.”
She gritted her teeth. Wally West was the reason she probably needed a night guard, but she refused to dignify his super-obnoxious behavior with a response. Except, in his defense, he wasn’t actually being obnoxious now and it wasn’t really his fault she was freaking out; but on the list of things Artemis didn’t care much for, being Wally’s advocate ranked only slightly higher than due process.
“You are a huge nerd, and you ate my emergency granola bar on the way over,” she responded, and brandished the phone. “How does this work?”
He leaned into her personal space (he was high and couldn’t help being so touchy, that was the only reason she didn’t mind) and swiped the back panel with his index finger. “Locked,” he told her. “Fingerprint reader—cool, huh?”
And of course his wallpaper was the freakin’ Flash insignia. “Way to be subtle,” she said, and began scrolling through his contacts. Wally was one of those people who thought it was hilarious to label people with descriptive nicknames, apparently, and she couldn’t figure out if “fearless leader” meant Kaldur (did Kaldur even have a phone? God, she wished Kaldure were here) or Batman (like Wally would have a direct number) or something.
Artemis finally settled on “ice ice/boss” and tapped the number. While she waited for the other end to pick up, she steered Wally to a convenient park bench; he was moving even slower now, and his heart rate was crazy-fast, enough that Artemis felt mildly inclined to panic. At least it was a nice night, for March. “Score one for global warming,” she muttered.
“Hello?” The voice on the other end was suspiciously mature and female sounding.
“Uh, hi, this is a friend of Wally’s—”
“This is his mother,” said the woman, crisp and worried. “What’s the emergency? You are calling in regards to an emergency with my idiot son?”
Mothers made Artemis nervous, even if Wally’s mother seemed pretty on the ball. “We were at a party and I think someone slipped him something, I don’t know for sure, but he’s acting funny—”
“Where are you,” Mrs. West said, or possibly yelled quietly. It was hard to tell. “What city and state, I mean. Sorry, dear.”
“Um, Chicago. Hyde Park.”
“I am going to give Batman such a piece of my mind,” Mrs. West said. Then, muffled, “Rudy? He’s in Chicago. Call Barry.”
“I don’t know where the closest zeta is, but if you text me I can bring him to you.” Artemis adjusted her grip around Wally’s waist and tried to sound responsible.
Very quietly, Mrs. West said: “Mother of god.” Then, “thank you, dear, if it’s not too much trouble. I suppose you’re Artemis?”
“Uh, yeah—-” —the phone vibrated against her ear. “I think I just got a text? I mean, yes, I’m Artemis. Ma’am.”
“Well, that is a weight off my mind. We’ll see you both shortly, Artemis. Barry—Wally’s uncle?—should have sent you a map.”
Though he’d leant up against her, Wally had been suspiciously quiet during this exchange, and when Artemis looked closely she saw he’d gone white beneath his freckles.
“Where are we?” He asked. Artemis fumbled with his phone again, but the screen had gone dark and she needed him to unlock it.
“We are on an adventure,” she told him. “It’s like a date, except I don’t feel even remotely like kissing you when this is over. You have a text.”
“Down the rabbit hole,” Wally said, and swiped the fingerprint reader. “It’s a map. I like maps. Did you know—”
“Hold it,” she said, squinting at the screen. “Three blocks, thank god.”
“Maps,” Wally insisted. “We’re in Chicago? You talked to my mom, we’re in Chicago and originally so was Rand McNally and Company, which basically invented the way Americans use road maps, in case you didn’t know.”
“I did not know that,” Artemis said in the fake-cheerful voice she used with the administrators at her terrible school. “Please, Wally, tell me more about Rand McNally. Just move your feet while you do.”
“’See America better by car,’ yeah, right.” But he moved anyway. God, she could feel every rib through his shirt; she always forgot how thin Wally was, which was stupid; he wore bright yellow half the time, he looked like a freaking highlighter.
They made it to the zeta, but it felt like time had slowed to molasses; it was just verging on crazy-late, almost four, and it was Saturday. The amount of bar-hoppers starting to spill out in a post-last call haze nearly gave Artemis a bad case of hives. She hadn’t realized how used she was to Wally’s almost-believable regular person speed until he actually walked like a regular person.
As soon as they stumble out of the zeta, Artemis got her first glimpse of Wally’s family: Mrs. West (so that was where Wally got the hair) rushed at them but stopped short of actually grabbing Wally’s shoulders, which Artemis appreciated (she startled easily, and Wally was using her to support most of his weight). It was Mr. West who actually hoisted Wally off Artemis’ shoulder and led him to the car parked haphazardly at the curb. Wally’s mom didn’t exactly hover over the operation, but she was fiercely present. Artemis felt an awful lump forming in her throat and would have turned away and gone…back to Gotham, she supposed, except Mrs. West reached out and wrapped an arm companionably around Artemis’ shoulder.
Funny; she hadn’t noticed she was shaking.
“I’m so sorry about this, Artemis,” Mrs. West said. “Please, come back to the house. We’ll all feel so much better knowing where you are.”
Later, Artemis would wonder if Mrs. West could read minds. She got in the car.
Wally’s uncle met them at the house and helped Mr. West carry Wally upstairs, which left Artemis standing awkwardly in the living room. It was…really nice. Cozy, even; Artemis had grown up in a city and didn’t really see the point of the suburbs, but the West’s house was so Midwestern as to have been lifted from a Willa Cather novel. She was starting to feel wildly inappropriate in her clubbing attire, even though it basically showed less than her uniform, when Mrs. West reappeared.
“Artemis, Wally’s told us all good things about you, I only wish we were meeting under better circumstances.”
“I’m really sorry about what happened,” Artemis managed. “You have a lovely home.”
“Well, Wally’s always had more brains than sense,” Mrs. West sighed, but the worried, pinched look didn’t leave her face. “Please, call me Mary. I can hear you thinking ‘Mrs. West’ over and over again and I know how tiresome that gets—I think I called Rudy’s mother ‘Mrs. West’ until just before we actually got married.” She shook herself, lightly, the way Wally sometimes did when he tripped over a segue and lost his train of thought. “Why don’t we go into the kitchen, dear. I’d say it’s more comfortable but it’s really not—hardback chairs and all—but I need to make something for Wally to eat and I hate to leave you by yourself.”
‘Something for Wally to eat’ turned out to be a gross protein shake with a side of hard-boiled eggs.
“Just boil the whole carton, dear, they’ll get eaten,” Mary said, adding peanut butter and what looked like Ensure to the blender. “Twelve minutes, unless you have a system. Wally’s not picky, small mercy.”
“Very small mercy,” Artemis muttered, squinting at the gas range. The apartment used electric.
“Well, he is sixteen. I’m told it comes with the territory.”
“You can’t pick and choose, anyway,” Artemis said without thinking, and burned her hand. “Shit!”
To her horror, the headache that’d been hovering behind her eyes threatened to turn into a full-on crying jag.
Mrs. West—Mary—appeared from the other end of the kitchen so quickly Artemis half-wondered if superspeed was a genetic tendency, and draped a damp towel over the burn. “If I had to choose, I think I’d be caught between having a son who cleaning his room or having a son who actually did his English homework,” she said. “But all things considered, and I’m first to admit I’m biased, Wally’s shaping up to be a good man, one of these days. Hold that against the burn, it doesn’t look too bad.”
Mr. West came and took the smoothie and half a dozen eggs upstairs, returning a few moments later with the empty dishes. He rinsed the tall glass before turning to kiss his wife; the gesture made Artemis want to look away.
“He’s rattling on about this or that,” Mr. West reported. “Barry thinks it’ll wear off pretty soon and he’ll have a hell of a headache, but it’s always tough to say. He’s one of a kind.” He looked to Artemis and smiled; he had a nice smile, underneath the moustache, and the corners of his eyes crinkled a little. “Thank you for bringing our son home,” he told her. “Is there anyone you need to call?”
Artemis thought of her mother alone in the apartment, maybe sleeping and maybe counting down the hours until eight o’clock. “Not really.”
The Wests exchanged glances; it was hard to believe they didn’t have a telepathic link.
“We won’t be going back to bed,” Mary said, Artemis realized that she was wearing a nightgown and housecoat and that it was almost five-thirty. “And I’m sure our idiot child isn’t the only one who’s hungry. Would you join us for breakfast?”
Artemis showered in the master bedroom, gingerly navigating the foreign landscape of another woman’s shampoo and face wash. (“Do you have any allergies, dear?” Mary called through the bathroom door. “I’ve left one of Wally’s sweatshirts for you to change into.”) When she returned to the kitchen, braiding her hair over one shoulder, Mr. West pulled a chair out from the table for her and Mary offered her a cup of coffee.
They’d made pancakes with coconut milk. Artemis couldn’t remember the last time someone had served her breakfast, or taken into account how she felt about dairy. As she ate mouthfuls of pancake and maple syrup, Mr. West regaled her with stories of teaching Wally to drive.
“He doesn’t really care about getting his license,” he confided over the rim of his chipped, obviously custom-decorated coffee mug (I LOVE DAD, it proclaimed. The last ‘d’ in ‘dad’ was actually a circle with a line drawn exactly down the middle). “But identification purposes aside, knowing how to operate and maintain a vehicle is a life skill. I just want him to have every advantage.”
She swallowed a suddenly dry mouthful of pancake and gulped her coffee. “I guess. I don’t drive, though.”
“City girl,” Mary interjected, flipping the last batch of pancakes from griddle to plate. “I know how that is.”
“Don’t drive!” Mr. West shook his head. “Well, if you ever decide to pick it up, you know where to find me.”
“He means it,” Mary leaned over the partition between the kitchen and the eating area. “I was hopeless at parallel parking until I met Rudy, he’s an excellent teacher.”
The warmth of the room, combined with the length of the night and the taste of maple syrup clinging to her upper lip, made her feel as though her headache or heartache might re-emerge. Artemis felt the need to bolt, or lash out, or do anything but sit still in the West’s kitchen and listen to stories about their stupid son. She did not do domesticity, no matter how good the pancakes.
“Now that you’ve eaten, I don’t suppose you’d take some pancakes up to Wally?” Mary said. She had that inescapable, sweet look Wally sometimes got when they had a mission that took them near little kids. “He’s probably still hungry, and now that you’ve eaten, he can’t put you off your breakfast.”
Anything to escape, Artemis thought, even though bringing breakfast to Wally in bed wasn’t much of an escape and was, in fact, more likely to become an indelible and obnoxious reference for the rest of her professional association with Kid Flash. But she brought a plate upstairs anyway.
Wally’s uncle had just stepped into the hall when she reached Wally’s room. (God, who, at sixteen, really found it necessary to have a sign on their bedroom door?)
“Hey, little lady,” he said. “Those for me? I know, I know. Kid’s inside. Tell him not to talk with his mouth full.”
“That never works,” Artemis said.
“Repetition is key to success,” Wally’s uncle said, and went past her down the stairs.
She kicked the door open, but softly; Wally’s room was messy in a way that was recognizable from TV depictions of slovenly teenagers, and the door caught on a discarded sweatshirt. Wally blinked hazily at her and sat partway up in bed. He looked awful.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” she said, handing over the plate. “I just ate.”
Wally had already taken an enormous bite, and miraculously did not rise to the bait. She waited until he finished every crumb before handing him a glass of green juice.
“What the hell were you thinking?!”
“Do we need to establish a protocol for responding to getting slipped a Mickey?” Wally asked, blithe and irritating. His speech was still slurred, but it had a little of the usual singsong back in it. “Because news flash, Walter Cronkite: that shit slows your reaction time way down.”
“I can’t believe you drank from an open container at a club known for drug peddling,” she bit out. “I can’t believe you would be so dumb—”
“I get it,” he snapped. “I was stupid and I didn’t know and I get that I’m lucky. So thanks bringing me home,” and his voice dropped and rumbled low in his chest, almost like he was on the verge of crying or waking up from a long sleep. “I’m glad you were there.” A flush emerged along his neck and face. Artemis sat down on the edge of the bed, suddenly not angry; just tired, worn by the highs and lows of the pitiless night long past.
He leaned his shoulder against her hip and let the sticky plate rest on his lap. “I have the recording in my pocket,” he told her, nodding to the button-down draped over his bedside table. “I can write the report in the morning. Or in a couple hours.”
“Nah,” she said, simultaneously not minding and deeply regretting it. She rose up on her knee and leaned over him, slipped the recording glasses from his shirt and held them in her palm, tucked into the overlong sleeve of her borrowed sweatshirt. “I got your back.”
She sat with him, watching his dark lashes flutter and fall against his face; when he was asleep, Artemis set her free hand against the precious, stupid curve of his skull, and wished.