"Recognized, Artemis. B07."
The interior of Mount Justice looked exactly the way she left it. She wasn't sure what she’d been expecting: chaos and ruins, or upgrades and a shinier entrance – but the mountain remained just as unchanged as a mountain should be, even if this one in particular had been used as a hub of operations for superhero business for well over three decades now. Artemis blinked as she did the math. Was it really that long? By the time she had joined the Team down here, the Justice League had long since abandoned the Cave as their primary headquarters; but then the team had made it their own.
That had been well over eight years ago, and while she may have first entered this place as a young girl with a checkered past, Artemis felt like she was seeing the place for the first time all over again as someone far older and arguably wiser. Twenty-three was all that old, though, except that when Artemis wandered the halls, her gaze unfocused and fleeting as she took in the surroundings, she suddenly felt old.
The place was decommissioned. More than that, it was derelict. In her youth, it had felt intimidatingly large, like a yawning cavern that housed more surprises than Christmas morning. Now, it was… hollow, too cold and… empty. Distantly, the strangeness of that revelation made Artemis’ skin itch uncomfortably. It was like being an intruder in a place that had once been her home. It looked the same, she supposed, but Artemis no longer felt secure here anymore. What was the saying? You can’t go home again. For a beat, Artemis almost wished Aqualad had chosen some other point of rendezvous, but it was a good place to talk privately. No one would suspect, and of course, she hadn’t declined him because – well, he was Aqualad. Despite the deviating paths their lives had taken, Artemis couldn’t cut off ties from her past teammates.
Not all of them, anyway.
Which begged the question, where was he? Given that Aqualad had sent an urgent message, she’d expected him to greet her at the entrance. With a frown, she started the search; she wandered down the hallway, past the main living quarters, peeked into the hanger, cut across the training area, and then finally returned to the galley. The kitchen was empty and cavernous now, no longer fully stocked. The echoes of countless days watching Wally raid the refrigerator briefly flittered through her mind.
“God, Wally, could you be anymore of a pig? How can you eat that much meat?”
“Hey, I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain just to be a vegetarian.”
Artemis locked down on the memory, and turned away. “Aqualad, are you here?” she hollered out, a little concerned and trying desperately to cover it up with an impatient tone. Her voice echoed through the Cave. “Aqaulad, c’mon! You can’t drag me all the way back to Rhode Island and then disappear. I didn’t even take the Zeta-beam. I drove.”
On a motorcycle that she’d taken (borrowed, of course, without permission) from Cheshire; it might prove to be an opening salvo to another sibling spat, but Artemis was used to that anyway. Besides, she could always blame it on Roy.
“Hey!” she screamed, pivoting around. “Anyone home? I’m starting to take this personally—”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, babe,” a voice came from behind, and that voice, Artemis recognized it instantly, and she froze. “We’re back here.”
For a long second afterwards, Artemis remained rigid and unmoving. She hadn't seen Wally in years, and even then, their last few meetings had been nothing but brief and perfunctory, jabbed with awkward silence that would explode into a vicious fight with no warning at all. She braced herself with a slow inhale, and then turned around as she exhaled. Wally was halted at the foot of some secret entrance that must have been installed since the last time she’d been here; his head was tilted to one side, hands jammed in his pockets, goggles shoved up and perched across the tuff of his red hair. She took in his appearance in a microsecond, and he wore loosely fitted washed jeans and a red long-sleeved shirt under a short-sleeved yellow one; the sight of him lodged all words in her throat. She hadn’t been expecting him.
“Hey, Arty,” he greeted with a biting smile – and like a fingersnap, the spell was broken; she hated when he called her that, which was exactly why he did it. “Long time, no see. You’re looking gooood. Been working out—”
“Where’s Aqualad?” Artemis cut in, determined not to take the bait.
He tipped an eyebrow up, feigning hurt. “Nice to see you, too. Aqualad had some things to do.”
“Seriously, Wally, what the hell? Kaldur calls me up out of the blue for an emergency, and then isn’t even here. What’s going on?”
“Jeeze, Artemis. He’ll be back in the morning, and figured I could be with the welcome wagon.” He gestured wide, a mockery of a bow. “You’ll excuse me if I didn’t bake cookies in celebration.”
Annoyance surged up her spine, but Artemis couldn’t help it. The mood was beyond her control, and he may have done nothing (yet) more egregious than greet her with that insufferable smirk, but seeing him had thrown her. Aqualad hadn’t mentioned Wally; everybody knew that they weren’t on speaking terms since their breakup. His sudden appearance put her on the defensive, and if there was one thing Artemis had learned from a young age, it was to come out swinging when she was on the defensive.
But then Wally derailed all thoughts in a single breath. “It’s M'gann,” he said, and they dropped all passive aggressive bullshit because he suddenly looked like he didn’t have any fight left in him. His shoulders sagged, his tone took on a somber lit, and his green eyes darkened. “She’s... she’s dying.”
The secret passageway was completely unfamiliar, but Artemis followed Wally through the long stretch of hallway without comment. In fact, in a rare moment not often seen of them, they were both completely silent. Artemis was having problems digesting the news of M’gann’s condition, and though she hoped it wasn’t obvious, she was using the few precious seconds walking to prepare herself for what lay ahead. According to Wally, M'gann was sick and the League suspected there was some form of Martian toxin that was wrecking havoc with her mind. The thought tumbled inelegantly as Artemis tried to absorb it. M’gann was poisoned. All of her steadying breaths and efforts for mental composure were for nothing, though. As soon as Wally pushed open the final door, nothing in the world could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her.
M’gann was floating at least a foot above her bed, head tossed back, eyes closed, completely oblivious to the waking world. Artemis had seen her Martian friend like this only a few times, only in moments where M’gann had retreated so far into her psychic connection that she had lost touch with the physical realm. Her cape wafted in the air beneath her, some unfelt or psychic current running alongside it so that it billowed around her in an eerie sort of way. The entire room was hushed, and it took a second for Artemis to take in anything other than the Martian form. Then she noticed the figure braced against the far wall; Connor with his arms folded over his chest. His eyes were fixed on M’gann with this fierce look of concentration, so focused that Artemis wasn’t entirely sure he was aware of Wally and Artemis’ presence.
“Connor,” she called out, hesitantly, and Superboy looked up.
Superboy was no longer a boy, though. When he glanced up, Artemis was struck by the changes she saw in him, more stark than the ones she’d seen in Wally. He was as broad-shouldered as Superman, just as tall and just as muscular. His impressive physical stature was hindered by the look on his face, though, like it took a full second for the cobwebs to clear and for him to realize Artemis was standing in front of him.
“Artemis,” Connor finally managed, sounding hollowed out and surprised all at once.
Artemis closed the gap between them and pulled Connor into a hug. He froze against the embrace, and then collapsed a little, arms snaking around her waist with enough force for her to realize he was out of it because it was just a touch too tight, too strong. When he released her, Artemis tried to hide the wince on her face.
“Who did this?” she asked, turning back to M’gann.
“The League of Shadows,” Connor answered, and there – there was that familiar fury in his voice. He’d gotten better over the years at controlling his base reaction of anger to – well, to pretty much anything. But Artemis knew the grief of M’gann’s condition would test him like no other.
“We need your help,” Wally offered, from behind. Artemis turned back to face him; he looked contrite, like he wasn’t looking forward to her reaction to what he said next, and Wally looking apologetic before he even opened his mouth was never a good sign. “We need your… your connections.”
Artemis stared, uncomprehending for a second because she didn’t have any connections to the League of Shadows except for – oh. Oh, no. And suddenly, Artemis knew why it was so urgent that’d she come, because it wasn’t for moral support or for a reunion over M’gann’s beside. No. With startling clarity, it was suddenly so obvious.
“Sportsmaster,” she breathed out, eyes hardening.
Her dear old dad was a former member of the League of Shadows and the personal enforcer for The Light. Her father would have been disappointed in the way Artemis froze at the mere mention of him, to see her like this, like some insipid little girl taken over by anxiety. Never show weakness, baby girl. But then Artemis reminded herself that Sportsmaster had long since been locked in a cell of his own doing, and his opinion no longer carried any weight with her.
Artemis slid her gaze away. Of course, even after years, even after all this time, her father’s sordid history still had a way of upsetting her life.
“Okay,” she tried, recovering. “Start from the beginning, and don’t leave anything out.”
It was worse than she imagined, which was saying something.
Apparently the League of Shadows had been making merry sport of targeting all the members of her former team; Aqualad had barely escaped a personal beating by Ra’s Al Ghul last week, and the Riddler had been repeatedly hounding Dick – who now went by Nightwing after he retired from being Batman’s sidekick two years ago. Wally and Superboy had both suffered attacks, but it was M’gann who’d taken the most insidious assault – by poison, they suspected. No one knew how she’d been infected, and J'onn was still on route back from Mars so they didn't have solid answers yet.
“Everyone on the team has been targeted,” Connor said. “Zatanna, Rocket – everyone.”
Not everyone, Artemis realized.
No one had attacked Artemis, but then again, Artemis had left the team over four years ago.
She shook her head and faced Connor. “You want my sister, not my father. Cheshire is the one with the best former connections to the League of Shadows, and at least she’s willing to play nicely.” Barely. After a few years of fighting and another handful of reluctant reform. Cheshire’s volatile nature would take some delicate handling, but Artemis was sure she could get her sister to come in on this. “I can call her and see—”
“It has to be your father,” Connor cut in. “I was contacted by Lex. He dangled a ransom for M’gann’s cure, and apparently the price is your father’s execution.”
“What?” she exclaimed, whirling on him.
“He wants me to…” Connor began, and he looked to Wally for help.
“Sportsmaster must know something valuable,” Wally answered, vaguely, looking disgusted. The brunt impact of what they were implying hit Artemis with its full force. They wanted Superboy to kill her father. And Wally must’ve sensed her impending freak-out because he reached forward for her hand; Artemis was so overwhelmed that she forgot about the fact that physical contact with Wally usually led to complicated things, which led to bad things, and she allowed the hold to linger for a long beat. Then she remembered herself, and straightened. Wally dropped his hand as if he’d been burned. “It’s our running theory, anyway,” Wally recovered, sourly, folding his hands defensively against his chest. “We need you to find out why he’s so important that the League of Shadows wants him dead.”
“And why they’re asking me to do it,” Connor added, pointedly.
“And what?” Artemis replied, turning to Wally because he'd understand better than anyone the ridiculousness of the request. “You expect me to talk to my dad and get the reason. Because I’m still Daddy’s Little Girl? I got him arrested, Wally! I got him sentenced to life in prison. The last thing he’d want to do is to tell me anything except to fuck off.”
“You have to try,” Connor cut in. “For M’gann. There’s a cure somewhere out there, and the League of Shadows has a weakness. Your father might be the only one to know it.”
The simple declaration brought Artemis to a halt. Yes, he was right. For M’gann, Artemis had to try, no matter how futile it seemed. M’gann would do the impossible if the situation had been reversed. M’gann would never give up; she’d never let her own anxiety and past hang-ups keep her from doing what needed to be done in order to save a teammate. Former teammate – whatever.
“Fine,” she said. “But you better come up with a Plan B for when this one turns out to be a crapshoot. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, my dad’s a stubborn asshole and you can’t argue with him. He’ll drag you down to his level of douchbaggery, and then beat you with experience.”
She didn’t care if the others were against it. The first thing she did was call up her sister. Unfortunately, her sister wasn’t receptive to the idea either. “My opinions may have changed,” Cheshire said, warily, “but not the fact that I’m right. Me and your little band of misfits in tights do not get along.”
“C’mon, Cheshire. Stop suffering from your inflated ego and just—”
“I don’t suffer from it,” he sister cut in, smugly. “I happen to enjoy every second.”
“I could really use your help with Dad,” Artemis’ voice took on a desperate tone.
There was a long pause, rather pregnant. They’d reconciled years ago, but while bygones were bygones, neither one of them had been able to forget their particular thorny history. Cheshire was still trying to make up for it, in subtle ways – but it was the effort that counted most with Artemis.
“This is going to be a mistake,” Cheshire declared, with a long suffering sigh.
Artemis rolled her eyes, though her sister couldn’t see it. “Yeah, you still say that every time you hook up with Roy.”
“Yeah, well, some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.”
“Cheshire,” she tried to keep them on track. "Can you come?"
There was a long beat, and then an aggravated noise. “Fine. I’ll be there by morning. You can’t exactly visit Blackgate Penitentiary at night anyway, unless you plan on breaking in to prison to pay dear old dad a visit.”
Artemis paused. “No, I guess not."
M’gann’s condition was expected to hold for another three or four days.
“Good. Now just make it through the night without doing anything insufferably stupid like hooking up with your former boytoy, and I’ll see you in the morning. How is Kid Quickie, anyway? Still batting those baby blue eyes at you?”
“They’re green,” Artemis cut in, before she could stop herself. Then grew flustered and annoyed, especially when she heard Cheshire’s knowing chuckle on the other end. “Look, I don’t wanna talk about Wally, because there is nothing to talk about. It’s done. It’s over.”
The condescension dripped off her voice, “Sure, little sis.”
“I’m serious!” Artemis barked. “I’ll hook back up with Wally when pigs fly.”
“You know, with sufficient thrust, pigs can fly just fine.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
"Hey," Artemis said, caught off guard.
She hadn’t expected Wally to be standing at the back entrance that faced the ocean. With a start, she realized she hadn’t been out here since that day where she’d broken up– since Wally had asked– the first time since. It was a dark night, the sky half-obscured by clouds and the moonlight more suggestive than forceful. The ocean lapped with a distant lullaby, and for a full beat, they just stared at each other.
“So,” Wally tried, giving an awkward half-chuckle. “Good weather, eh?”
Talking about weather was just as inane as expected, but Artemis recognized the strain to reach for something that wouldn’t set them both off, and god knew that those subjects were few and far between. It was a peace offering, an olive branch. Artemis decided she could respond in kind. “Yeah. It’s… nice and cool.”
Awkward silence fell. She had no idea why it had be this awful. Actually, scratch that – she knew exactly why. She just wished it was different. But with two stubborn people like them? There was no way that they weren’t going to suffer the fallout when things ended badly. And things always ended badly. Wally believed in universal constants like the speed of light or gravity or Pi, but Artemis knew better. The only real constant in the universe was that everything ended. Everything. It was a life lesson she had learned, over and over again.
He scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck, a small gesture of anxiety, and Artemis hated herself for noticing that his arms had filled out just as nicely as the rest of him. She could already tell the years of training and superhero shenanigans had been kind to him. He’d gained some muscle since she last saw him, broader in the shoulders and chest. Gone was the teenage boy that was lanky but toned. He wasn’t nearly as bulky as Connor, but Artemis preferred Wally’s build anyway.
It sucked that even after all these years, Wally could affect her like this.
She resented it.
“I’m gonna go back in,” Artemis said, abandoning any pretense that she could deal with this. Wally made a gesture as if he was going to say something, but she didn’t wait for a response. In a quick move that would’ve made Dick proud, she pivoted on her heels and disappeared back into the cave.
It was stupid. It was cowardly. Artemis didn’t care. When she’d returned to Happy Harbor today, it hadn’t been the expectations that she’d be faced with her ex-boyfriend. Aqualad hadn’t mentioned one word about Wally being part of the picture; had, in fact, left any and all details annoyingly vague. Her former leader was lucky he wasn’t within earshot of her because, right then, Artemis really wanted to give Aqualad a piece of her mind about springing all of this on her without warning. Not that—not that she wouldn’t have come, if she’d known. She’d have come for M’gann. It was just— a heads-up would have been nice, y’know?
Artemis tried not to let it get to her. She needed to burn off some energy, maybe work out. She hadn’t even given Wally the opportunity to do anything to piss her off, but she was sure it wouldn’t have taken much. They’d spent their formative years wrapped up in a relationship that had ping-ponged between bickering and making out; Wally West had been many firsts in her life: her first real boyfriend, the first guy she’d ever loved, the first guy to take her to bed. He’d also been the first guy to break her heart; the only one, if she were being honest with herself, because god knew after Wally, Artemis hadn’t been the type to let many guys affect her, even if she had dated a spattering of guys here and there.
She grabbed her gear and then took to the exercise room, the one place in the Mountain where she’d always been able to clear her mind. The bow in her grip was a comfort. She stood at one end of the expansive room, planted her feet firmly, nocked her arrow and drew it back across the bow. She took a calming breath, slim shoulders shifting under the cotton of her shirt. Then, eyes focusing, she took in another deeper breath and released the arrow as she exhaled. The target hit dead center, of course. Repeating the process, soon the target range across from her was riddled with bulls-eye hits, one after another. Some clustered almost atop each other. After the first round, Artemis plucked her arrows and restocked her quiver. An hour passed without interruption. Artemis lost herself to the exhaustive practice – so lost, in fact, that she didn’t notice she had gained an audience at some point.
“Still haven’t lost the touch, have you?” a feminine voice announced, with a whistle.
Artemis turned around in surprise – this time, a pleasant one. Zatanna was dressed as if she’d just come back from patrol, which for most other superheroes meant spandex or leather. But Zatanna had always adopted a look modeled after her father: a white shirt, bow tie and gloves, black blazer, and black stockings and boots to match. Artemis was always a little envious of how classy the other girl could look with, literally, a snap of her fingers.
They embraced in a quick hug, a warm rush of reunion that wasn’t, for once, overshadowed by grief or awkwardness. “How long have you been back in town?” Zatanna asked.
“A few hours,” Artemis answered, setting her bow against the wall. “What are you doing here?”
“Same thing you are, more or less. This place may be officially abandoned, but since Connor decided to house M’gann here, I wanted to swing by and put up some magical wards.”
They talked excitedly as they exited into the hall, where the lights had all come on and Artemis made her way towards the kitchen without thinking. It was suddenly like she’d been transported back in time, making her way towards the common area after practice with one of her teammates – the déjà vu was almost unsettling if it weren’t so damn comforting. She suddenly missed M’gann even more.
“Dick told me you might show up,” Zatanna was saying. “I didn’t think Aqualad would follow through on calling you, though.”
Artemis looked away. “Yeah, well, there’s really no one else that can talk to my dad. As much as I’d love for anyone else to volunteer.”
“Yeah,” Zatanna said, softly. “I get that.”
The distant tone alerted Artemis to something awkward, and then a second later as realization hit, she felt like a fool. Of course, Zatanna would get the awkwardness of talking to an estranged father figure. Who else was behind Doctor Fate’s mask? It wasn’t the same thing as Sportsmaster, but god – it certainly qualified as an equivalent headtrip. Not for the first time, Artemis lamented over how screwed up their lives were, having grown up with their unique childhoods full of superheroes and supervillains. Most people their age were just getting out of college. Instead, Artemis was dealing with enough emotional baggage as any sane person three times her age, and she knew she wasn’t by any means the only one.
She wanted to change the subject, both for Zatanna’s sake and, quite frankly, because she didn’t want to talk about Sportsmaster anymore than she wanted a root canal performed by a team of specially trained monkeys. “So, how’re things in the League? Adjusting well?”
Zatanna immediately grinned. “That’s one way of putting it. I like to think of it as a work in progress.”
The Justice League. Artemis stifled the pang of longing. Zatanna had gained membership over a year ago, one of the last of her former teammates to gain membership. Zatanna had taken some time off to do college and other “normal” things; at least she had a college degree to show for the lapsed time. Artemis had done nothing in the past few years except putter around from state to state, adopting a gypsy lifestyle, taking out baddies where she saw fit and, on occasion, bugging her sister and Red Arrow into helping her take down a few bigger baddies.
Once upon a time, Artemis would’ve given anything to be a part of the Justice League, but she’d given up that dream years ago. Still, that didn’t mean that once in a while, Artemis didn’t stop and wonder about what ifs: what if she hadn’t dropped out of the team? What if she hadn’t cut ties and fled the moment Wally had started talking about marriage? What if... what if her mother hadn’t been murdered?
Artemis busied herself by pouring a glass of water, only half paying attention to Zatanna as she talked about her life as a League member. If Zatanna noticed Artemis’s distraction, she didn’t mention it.
“Have you seen Wally?”
Artemis snapped her gaze up. The sudden change in topic was jarring, but Zatanna only looked softly sympathetic and… yep, there was that damn knowing look in her eyes, too. Like Zatanna was silently thinking the same thing Cheshire had been saying – damn it, why was everyone bringing up Wally? It seemed like every turn she took in this place, she was confronted with her past.
“Yes,” Artemis offered, wryly. “It’s kind of hard to miss a big red-yellow blur, even if he does break the sound barrier.”
“I take it that it didn’t go well?”
Artemis shrugged, like it didn’t really matter. “We haven’t really talked much.”
Zatanna raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Really? Because last time I checked, talking wasn’t one of the things you guys had trouble doing. It was getting you guys to shut up that was the problem.”
“Oh, ha, ha,” Artemis said, and threw a half-hearted glare. She was long used to the teasing; such were the benefits when you dated one of the biggest dorks in all the League for nearly four years. “It’s better this way. Avoidance will curtail that pesky thing we do.”
“You mean,” Zatanna said, offhandedly, “hooking up?”
“Fighting,” Artemis corrected.
Zatanna muttered something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like foreplay, but she let the conversation drop without further comment. Artemis was grateful, because unlike her sister, Zatanna seemed to know when it was good to tease and when it wasn’t.
Nothing like M’gann, though. M’gann always knew exactly what to say, even when Artemis wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it.
Another pang of grief kicked in, and suddenly Artemis was bone-tired. With a start, she realized that it was nearly four in the morning, and if she wanted to make it to Gotham City in the morning at a reasonable hour, she might as well catch a few hours of sleep. She bid Zatanna goodnight, and automatically made her way towards her former quarters. She thought about checking up on M’gann and Connor again, but the thought felt too draining.
She froze, then whirled about, spooked. The corridor was empty, but for a second she thought— no, never mind. It had been her imagination.
She resumed her pace towards the living quarters, then slowed when she reached the end of the corridor. To the left were her old quarters; to the right was Wally’s. She had a moment to wonder about the collective wisdom of the Justice League when it thought that housing hormonal teenage boys and girls in such close proximity, with only a random chaperone on base, was ever anything less than an exceptionally risky idea. Artemis had lost count of the times that Wally had snuck into her room, or she his. Misspent youth, indeed.
She wavered. Was Wally in his room?
And so what if he was? What was she going to do about it? Surely, nothing as stupid as poke her head in. She’d spoken the god’s honest truth to Zatanna when she’d said that avoidance was the best course of action. Because any interaction with Wally usually ended in one of two ways, and both were explosive. Add that to the dynamic of available empty bedrooms, and – yeah. It was best to avoid going down that road.
With a determined gait, she marched to her room and never risked a glance back across the hall. She shut the door behind her and collapsed against the frame. With a slow exhale, she had the abrupt thought that even though it was already halfway over, it was going to be a long night.
Correction. It was going to be a long mission.
She’d been right about a rough few hours of sleep.
Having spent most of the night in a restless slumber, by morning Artemis’ mood had not improved any. In fact, she was a bit surly as she emerged from her room and wandered down the hall. The waft of morning breakfast did a bit to lift her spirits, but then she turned the corner and remembered how Wally West liked to celebrate breakfast.
The table was filled with piles of pancakes, eggs and bacon, three different flavors of cereal and a box of leggo my eggo that she remembered was his favorite. The man himself was standing behind the stove, his back to her as he whistled out a ridiculous tune to some song she could only half recognize. When he whirled around, speeding up to place another plate of pancakes on the table with lightning speed, she couldn’t help but stifle a laugh at the Elmo apron he’d donned on. God, he was ridiculous.
He looked up, then froze, startled to find her there. He whipped off the offending apron like he was suddenly embarrassed at having her seen him in it. “Morning, sunshine,” he greeted quickly. “I made you breakfast. Well, I made me breakfast, mostly, but I’m sure you can pick and choose what you want and I made your favorites. Blueberry pancakes!”
God help her, he was trying to be sweet.
This was going to be worse than she imagined.
“What time did you get up?” she asked, surprised. Doing all of this must’ve taken a bit of a while, even for a man as fast as Wally. “At the crack of dawn?”
“A quarter passed seven,” Wally answered. “And, yes, the sun was up, birds were singing, bees were trying to have sex with them, as is my understanding.”
She shed her jacket and threw it across the back of her chair, settling down slowly. It wasn’t often that Wally was trying so hard to be civil with her, especially in the occasions they’d met up after their break up. A part of her wanted to take advantage of that, but the pit of her stomach twisted unpleasantly and another part of her rather deal with his surly side. She knew what to do with Wally’s temper, and more importantly she knew where to tell him to stick it. It was when Wally got… soft with her that Artemis had the most trouble keeping things in her head straight.
For a man that displayed such insufferable qualities, he could be utterly gentle and sweet when he wanted to be. That was Wally, a walking contradiction.
“So,” she began, “How are… things with you?”
Wally shrugged, grabbed a plate for each of them, and settled down opposite of her. “Oh, y’know, League business keeps me busy. It was… difficult, for a while. After, y-know…”
Artemis could fill in the blanks. Two summers ago, his Uncle Barry had given his life to save Earth when destroying an antimatter cannon that was aimed at Earth. Wally had donned on the Flash uniform after that, no longer a kid in pretty much anything. She’d never told him, but Artemis had attended Barry’s funeral, hidden in the shadows in the far back. She’d watched from a distance as Wally had openly mourned the loss of his uncle and mentor, and the entire time, Artemis had wanted desperately to close the gap between them to offer some comfort. She hadn’t, though. She stood silent and secluded. No one except perhaps Wally’s mother had recognized her from the crowd, but as far as Artemis knew, to this day Mary remained the only one aware that Artemis had been in attendance.
“What about you?” Wally asked, volleying back the simple question. “How’re things with you?”
“Oh, y’know. Same old, same old. Kicking ass, taking names. Different city, same rules.”
Wally nodded, and silence fell. She could practically feel the unvoiced question pulsing in the air the same as when Wally got so impatiently agitated that his body vibrated with energy.Why can’t you do that stuff for the League? Everyone else on her former team was now an official Justice League member. And then stood Artemis, who by comparison sometimes felt like a glorified vigilante.
She’d made her choice long ago, and Artemis wasn’t the type to waver. “I need caffeine,” she announced, suddenly. She busied herself with pouring a cup, while Wally dug into his breakfast.
“You still drink it black?” he asked, between mouthfuls. “That tastes like tar.”
“It builds character,” Artemis countered.
“Yes, because if it weren't for tar-coffee, you’d have no distinguishable personality whatsoever.”
“Whatever, Baywatch. You’ve got no room to talk about my eating habits.”
She sat down and grabbed a plate of pancakes before there would be nothing left in the aftermath of Tornado Wally. They ate mostly in relative silence, but it wasn’t as uncomfortable as before, perhaps because they had the excuse of stuffing their mouths to cover for the hush. The conversation skittered from one topic to another, never anything particularly deep.
When she’d finished off her second pancake and Wally was probably on his thirtieth, she excused herself from the table and a grabbed an extra plate of food for Connor. She hadn’t seen him emerge from that secret cove once, and she suspected he wouldn’t leave M’gann’s side for much. As she made her way down the long passageway, she was overcome again with the need to brace herself for unpleasantness. It wasn’t as much of a shock to see M’gann floating in the air today as it had been last night, but the sight still caused Artemis to flinch.
Connor was sitting stiff in his chair at her bedside. She walked over and deposited the food on the corner table, but he barely took his eyes off M’gann’s floating from.
“We had a fight,” he said, suddenly, out of the blue.
There was a lengthy pause, and then Connor looked up at Artemis with darkened eyes. “We had a fight the day she slipped into the coma. About kids, of all things. I don’t even know why I got so angry.”
Artemis paused. She didn’t know how to respond to that – were Martians and Kryptonians even able to have kids together? But the question seemed heartless to ask when Connor looked so devastated.
“The last thing I said to her was something…” Connnor paused, eyes clouding, “angry. Of course it was angry. It’s always angry.”
Artemis didn’t know what to say, so she looked to M’gann and tried to figure out what her Martian friend would say if she were here. “That’s not true,” Artemis said, settling down in the chair next to him. She put a hand over his, and pressed once in consolation. “You’re different with M’gann. You’ve always been different with her. She knows that. Even when you guys are fighting. Every couple fights.”
“I just wish it wasn’t the last thing—”
“You can’t focus on that, Connor. M’gann wouldn’t.”
Connor looked up, and then offered her one of his rare smiles, though it was strained around the edge. “No, she wouldn’t, would she?”
Then, suddenly, there was a call over the intercom. “Artemis,” Wally announced, sounding annoyed. “Your sister is here.”
“I was just saying,” Wally’s voice drifted in from afar, and oh boy, Artemis recognized that tone well enough. He’d never gotten along with her sister – ever. “That maybe breaking and entering into a secure facility isn’t the best way to ingratiate yourself with the occupants. You could have just flagged one of the security cameras and we would have let you up.”
“Could’ve,” Cheshire agreed. “But this way was more fun. Don’t be such a drama-queen just because all the speed in the world doesn’t make up for your slow-wittedness—”
“Slow—” Wally began, voice wrangled. “I’m not the one that’s a waste of two billion years of evolution.”
“Oh, sweetie, for a second there I thought you were going to shock me and say something intelligent.”
“Okay,” Connor managed as they entered the room. “Enough!”
“Oh,” Cheshire said, pivoting on her high heels to face Connor. She gave an appreciative glance up and down. “My, someone’s been eating their Wheaties.”
Connor and Wally both stared at her, matching glare for glare, and neither blinking. Eventually Cheshire pulled away with a huff, and slid onto the sofa, lounging there with her feet up. “Honestly, Artemis, I don’t know what you ever saw in the kid when you had Superboy around,” she remarked, idly. “Though, personally, I’ve always preferred the company of men anyway.”
Artemis sent her sister a withering glare. Wally made this grunting noise in the back of his throat like he was contemplating different ways to murder, and having been on the receiving end of that look on more than a few occasions herself, Artemis was aware of just how colorful and imaginative some of those scenarios got.
“Look,” Artemis said. “We have to work together for the day. Let’s just all play nicely.”
“Lovely to see you too, sis,” Cheshire returned. “Let’s not forget I’m here as a favor to you.”
“And I appreciate it,” Artemis tried, through clenched teeth. “Just don’t—I know you don’t like it here, but please, for me, take it down a notch?”
“Whatever,” her sister returned, dismissively. “We ready to go?”
Connor had to hang back to watch over M’gann, so despite Wally’s protests, Artemis was the one that flew the bioship to Gotham. It didn’t matter that it had been years since Artemis had done it – it was like riding a bike. Aside from M’gann and Superboy, Artemis had always been the most proficient in flying it.
The Blackgate Penitentiary was located on a small island in the east bay of the city, just along the ragged cliffs of the ocean. Her father had almost been imprisoned in Belle Reve or Arkham Asylum, but Commissioner Gordon had petitioned to have Sportsmaster sent to one of the other correctional facilities instead. Artemis knew why; a criminal like Sportsmaster had a lot of connections, and Belle Reve and Arkham had both been infiltrated and corrupted by various members of The Light over the years. Blackgate wasn’t much to look at, but it had kept Sportsmaster locked up for nearly a half a decade so it must have been doing something right.
The closer they got to her father, the more anxious Artemis became. Her sister nursed her agitation by constantly poking fun at Wally, and though Artemis had tried to step in more than once to settle both of them down, eventually she’d given up. Cheshire and Wally traded barbs with each other the entire flight over.
Her mind took on other worries. Seeing her father just brought up messy memories of their past, none of them pleasant. When she was seven, and her mother had gone to prison for a crime her father had committed. The news of her mother’s paralysis. The day Cheshire had left home. The moment when Sportsmaster had, literally, thrown Artemis to a pack of wolves in order to teach the young girl about survival. Years of verbal and mental abuse, and then finally Artemis had had enough. When her mother had finally been released from prison, Artemis had been determined to turn a new leaf, start over – this time without her father’s interference. And she’d done it for some time, many years, in fact.
She’d joined the team, become a superhero, taken up a cause that she’d believed was right. She’d made friends – more than that, a true family. M’gann, Superboy, Robin, Aqualad, and most important of all, Wally.
Then one fateful day, it all came to a head. Sportsmaster had always been an incessant shadow those first few years she’d joined the team. Always there, always taunting, even escaping prison once or twice whenever Artemis was able to catch him – but it was four years ago when he’d joined a gang of other Injustice League members that had forever and irrevocably scarred the youngest member of the Crock family.
Her mother had died that day, at the hands of the Injustice League. For Artemis, it was the bullet heard round the world, a wake-up call, a galvanizing event that had ricocheted through every part of Artemis’ life. The team had given Artemis a home for four long challenging years, filled with more good than bad, but it wasn’t enough. Everything changed. Her mother had been caught in the crosshairs of the never-ending battle between good and evil, and that day would live on in Artemis forever.
She’d always blamed her father for it. Sportsmaster maybe hadn’t been the one to kill her mother, but he might as well have. He’d joined forces with the same people that had pulled the trigger, and for that, Artemis hated him. Hated him in a way that ran deep and ugly, a sick manifestation of all her darkest feelings packed into one tight ball of hatred.
The funny thing was… a part of her wondered if maybe he didn’t hate himself a little bit more.
When Artemis had captured him that final time, it had just been too easy, too quick; he hadn’t put up a fight. Four years later, he was still residing in Blackgate. Maybe the facility was just topnotch with its security, but Artemis wondered if it was more than that. That maybe Sportsmaster had given in to a self-imposed exile. She still remembered the devastated look on his face when she’d confronted him, not far from her mother’s broken body. The grief, the pain – Artemis almost believed the tears to be the most genuine display of emotion she’d ever seen from her father. Too bad it was too late.
Too little, too late.
She snapped out of her revere to spy the prison facility emerging from the thick haze of fog. It was a bad day for Gotham; the fog and crummy weather had mixed in with the prevalent pollution that the City was infamous for, and the facility sat on the edge of the cliffs like some haunted building out of a horror story. Blackgate was where some of the most hardened criminals came, the ones deemed sane enough. Penguin, David Cain, Monsoon, Ernie Chubb, KGBeast and various henchmen, mobsters, and mafia bosses were all incarcerated there, but none of them – absolutely none – compared to her father. Not to Artemis.
She descended the plane, already dreading the confrontation heading her way.
The interrogation room smelled of vomit.
Actually, Artemis was sure the name for the room was something else, something that was meant for visitors, but that didn’t matter. When they’d requested from the Warden to detain Sportsmaster and talk to him in private, they were immediately escorted to a room that could only be used in interrogations. It wasn’t much. There was a hard, long table made of steel that sat in the center, full of knicks and scratches that had dulled the surface over the years. Despite the fact that they were a company of three here to see a prisoner of one, there was only two chairs provided. The room was concrete and empty, otherwise. One wall was lined with a double-sided mirror, waist-high to ceiling.
Cheshire exchanged a look with Artemis as they waited for the guards to bring in Sportsmaster. It was quick, furtive, but sharp. “Oh, Boy Wonder,” she called, turning to Wally.
Wally sighed. “Boy Wonder is Robin.”
“Whatever. Why don’t you make yourself useful and find a windmill to power or something. This is best left as a family reunion.”
Wally straightened, opened his mouth – but Artemis cut in. “Actually, Wally, I think it’s best we talk to our father alone.”
Wally began to protest, but then thought better of it. She could tell he wasn’t happy about it, but after a silent beat he nodded and left. She knew he’d spend the entire interrogation behind the two-way mirror, but Cheshire was right. This was best left a family reunion.
“Whatever you do,” Cheshire advised, softly enough that Artemis knew the words weren’t meant for any eavesdroppers, “Don’t let him get you talking about Mom.”
After a lengthy pause, Artemis nodded.
The door opened before there was any other exchange. The last time she’d seen her father was the same day he’d been sentenced to life in prison. She’d watched from the benches in the back of the courtroom as her father was led away in chains and an orange jumpsuit, the look on his face never once belying any response to the sentencing. There was no outburst of surprise, not from him and not even from the audience. The Jurors had had an easy decision before them.
He’d been tall and well-built then, but it was nothing in comparison to the bulking mass that walked through the doors now. Apparently, he’d spent his time in prison working out because his biceps were now big enough that a comparison to a tree-trunk wasn’t all that far off its mark. He’d always been obsessive about training; now, she supposed, he had nothing else better to do.
“Well, well, well, if it isn’t my little girls,” he said as a greeting.
The guards secured his chains to the floor, so that he wouldn’t be able to move more than two or three feet in any direction. Shackled, like a dog. Artemis stared, coolly.
“Dearest Daddy,” Cheshire began, bracing a hand on the table and leaning over. “What have you been up to lately?”
“Little of this, little of that. You know me, same old, same old.”
Artemis remembered answering Wally earlier that day with a remarkably similar answer. On a good day, she could convince herself that she shared no commonality with the monster before her; today was not starting off on the right foot.
Cheshire immediately went for the jugular. “The League of Shadows wants you dead. What have you been up lately that could piss them off?”
If Sportsmaster was surprised by the news, he didn’t show it. In fact, he actually smiled, shaking his head. “Don’t know. But friends come and go. Enemies have the habit of accumulating. Why? What price do they have on my head?”
“The life of a friend of mine,” Artemis answered, coldly. “Still haven’t decided what I’m gonna do about it.”
He laughed, calling her bluff for what it was – and she hated that he could still make her feel so childish even after all this time. “Baby girl, we both know it’s not in you. Your sister? Maybe, if the price was right. But you being here only means one thing. You want answers. Well, tough. I ain’t talking.”
“They’ll kill you,” Artemis said.
“They’ll try,” her father corrected. “That all? Because if so, I got things to do. Every Tuesday they have movie night. I think today I’m finally gonna see the end of The Lord of the Ringstrilogy.”
“Let me guess,” Cheshire said with a biting smiling, “You’re rooting for the one-eyed asshole to win.”
“Tell us what you know,” Artemis demanded. “You’re defenseless here, and they’re threatening Justice League members, so you better believe they’re bringing the heavy hitters out for this.”
Sportsmaster’s eyes rose to Artemis. “They threaten you?”
Artemis stilled; the question threw her. “No.”
He looked away. “Look, I don’t give a shit what’s going on out there. The League of Shadows, Injustice League, Justice League – they can all go fuck themselves. I’m not in the game anymore.” He raised his shackled hands, noticeably shaking the chains so they clanked and rustled. “Or ain’t you two noticed that I’ve been a bit preoccupied these last few years to visit for birthdays and Christmases?”
Cheshire scoffed, rolling her eyes. “Are you really that stupid? We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t serious. Just spill it. We all know you’ve got nothing left to lose, anyway.”
“Maybe,” he agreed, “but like some guy once said, when the fall’s all that’s left, it matters a great deal.”
“You and your damn pride,” Artemis spat in disgust. “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”
She couldn’t pinpoint exactly why, but something in her sank with misery. Had she really been naïve enough to hope for even a second that four years here had changed him? He was still the same stubborn jackass as always.
God, she hated him.
Artemis stood, abruptly. “This is a waste of time.”
Cheshire tried to call to her but Artemis didn’t respond. She stormed out of the room without a backwards glance, and it took a second to realize it, but it was almost like her vision was turning red – she was so disgusted with him. She couldn’t stand being in the same room as him. Her breath was short and her heart was beating. Her fingers were fisted so tightly into balls that her fingernails dug into her palms, drawing blood. She hadn’t realized how tightly wound she was.
Wally walked out of the adjacent room, spotting her. “Hey, you okay?”
Wally had witnessed everything, of course. A flash of shame washed over Artemis, because she realized she had accomplished nothing in there. She’d barely spoken more than five sentences. She whirled away, facing the door, but god – she didn’t want to go back in there. She didn’t want to face her father, and she hated that he still had that hold over her. Cheshire didn’t run. Cheshire didn’t flee. Her older sister had always been able to confront her father without succumbing to being an emotional wreck afterwards; why couldn’t Artemis do the same?
“Hey, hey,” Wally said, catching up to her. Her face must’ve looked as wrecked as she felt, because he quickly pulled her into his arms in a vice-like hug. Artemis collapsed against him, infuriated with herself when she realized she was crying. Crying, like a little girl. Damn it. “Don’t worry, it’s gonna be all right—”
“No, it’s not, Wally. M’gann is sick, and that bastard is the only one with information, and he’ll never talk. I know him. He’ll never say a word, not even if his life depended on it.”
Before Wally could respond, there was a sudden explosion.
Artemis came back in quick, jarring flashes of consciousness.
It was disorienting. Bright lights. A glimpse of a hand moving toward her. Someone calling her name. Pain. She registered a lot of pain, but only distantly as feeling returned, and then she wished it rather hadn’t. When she finally managed to pry her eyes fully open, the scene around her was one of chaos. The interrogation room that she had just left was blown wide open; for some reason, though, she was lying at least twenty feet away rather than right next to it, and Wally was on top of her. She couldn’t understand why – until she realized he’d used his lightning quick reflexes to sped her away and shield her as soon as the bomb had gone off.
He groaned as she pushed him off her, and Artemis immediately came back to herself, forgetting her own injuries as she saw his. The back of his uniform was shredded and bloody; he’d taken the brunt of the explosion. Artemis’ ears were ringing, and she still wasn’t quite sure what had happened, but the sight of Wally injured cut through the haze.
“Wally.” She touched his face, both relieved and distressed when he responded to her touch with another moan. “Wally, can you hear me? You’re okay. I got you—” She looked up, registering the source of the explosion. The interrogation room. Her sister. Her father. A chill ran down her spine. She looked back to Wally, finding his eyes fluttering closed again. “Hey, no, don’t close your eyes! Wally, stay awake! Stay awake!”
He inhaled a sharp breath, then mumbled, “Sure thing, beautiful. Whatever you say.”
The old endearment brought a fresh wave of tears, and she looked around. “Help,” she called out, looking around. “Someone, I need medical help down here! There’s a person injured!”
More than one, likely.
Artemis looked to the wreckage where a wall had once stood. A noise from behind distracted her, and she turned to see a few of the prison guards had managed to climb over the debris to find them. One of them looked to have a first aid kit under his arm.
“Stay still,” she told Wally. “Don’t move. There’s some men here to help. I have to check on my sister.”
She hated to leave him, but she needed to find Cheshire. With a flinching apology, she moved his head gently off her lap and handed his care over to the guards, who immediately started checking him out. Artemis stood on wobbly legs. She braced a hand against the wall as she walked down the wrecked corridor. There were cuts and lacerations all along her legs and back, but as far as she could tell, there was nothing broken. Of course, she could be suffering from one hell of a concussion, but that wasn’t a priority.
She found the interrogation room an absolute mess, but to her surprise, there was no sign of either Cheshire or her father. The explosion wasn’t just from the interrogation room – it had broken apart the outer wall. She looked beyond one gaping hole in the hallway to the next gaping hole that led outside. To the coastline. To freedom.
Missing father, missing sister, bleeding lover, and a gaping hole in her world.
Yep. It was just like old times.
“I don’t care what it looks like,” Artemis insisted. “My sister wasn’t a part of this.”
Aqualad didn’t respond. He’d arrived sometime after Wally had been wheeled away on a gurney, and half of Artemis was still crazed with concern even after the doctor had assured her that he’d only suffered minor injuries. She wanted to check up on him, but Aqualad had insisted on questioning her first.
“I know you may have trouble with this, Artemis, but—”
“I’m telling you, my sister wasn’t involved. They must have—they must have taken her like they took my dad!”
“Whoever,” Artemis gestured, wildly. “Whoever took Sportsmaster. The ones after him. The League of Shadows.”
To his credit, Aqualad kept his doubts silenced. It didn’t matter. Artemis knew what he was thinking, even if he didn’t say it out loud. She knew how it looked. She knew that Cheshire and Sportsmaster had been alone, unobserved, in the interrogation room when the explosion had gone off. It wouldn’t have been too farfetched to imagine a scenario where Cheshire had broken their father out – but Artemis refused to believe it. Cheshire had put that life behind her. She was different now. And besides, there had never been any love lost between her older sister and her father.
“Cheshire has old ties to the League of Shadows,” Aqualad offered, quietly.
“She severed those ties. She stopped working for them years ago. And besides, she didn’t even want to come here. I convinced her.”
“But she did come. And you did leave the room, so you weren’t there. The camera footage of the interrogation was destroyed in the explosion, so there’s no way to tell if she was in on the escape, or if she was indeed a patsy like you claim. Either way, Artemis, we have to look at all possible scenarios.”
It was sage words. Aqualad had always been wise far beyond his age, and that ability to remain composed and sensible in the midst of chaos or even in the aftermath of one was what made him a born leader. It calmed Artemis, as it always did. With a tight feeling in her gut, she nodded. She still refused to believe the worst of Cheshire. But Aqualad had a point, and her protesting it until she was blue in the face would convince no one. She needed proof.
She needed to find the people that had taken her family. Her father could rot in hell, but her sister – Artemis found fire burning in her veins. Whoever was behind this would pay.
“Where’s Wally?” she finally asked, needed to refocus.
“He’s in the infirmary, though I imagine not for much longer.”
Artemis huffed a breath, half a laugh. Wally had suffered minor injuries. Rest was what he needed, the doctor had said. Clearly, the doc had no idea who or what Wally was, because Wally hated hospitals, much less prison hospitals. As soon as he was able, Artemis was sure he’d sped away from any medically enforced rest. It helped that he had a fast metabolism and quick healing.
“You should get checked out by the medical staff,” Aqualad instructed. “I’ll speak to the Warden and the other authorities on your behalf.”
She nodded, distracted. “Yeah.”
He paused, then braced a hand over her arm in gentle consolation. “Although the circumstances could have been more agreeable, I cannot deny that it is good to see an old friend. It’s been far too long, Artemis.
She smiled back. “Yeah, it has.”
They regarded each other in a solemn beat of silence, and then he swiftly nodded and left to handle the Warden. As she made her way towards the infirmary, she mused that though there were worlds of differences between now and her past life as a team member, some things stayed the same. Aqaulad wasn’t her leader anymore, and had in fact joined the lower ranks with the big boys and girls in the Justice League, but she mused to herself that seeing Kaldur again and reporting to him had been just like old times. He looked good, too, not that she’d had much opportunity or wherewithal to really pay attention. But life, she knew from many conversations with him over the years, had been kind to him in the League. It suited him. She was not the least bit surprised.
The infirmary was a bit chaotic when she arrived, unsurprisingly. She’d waved away the doctor immediately after the explosion, insisting that she was fine and he had Wally and other better things to worry about. Now, the adrenaline was coming down and Artemis was regretting the fact that she hadn’t at least sought medical attention from a nurse or something. The lacerations on her legs were hurting like a bitch.
Her eyes sought out Wally in the pandemonium. She heard his voice first, somewhere behind a white drape that had been drawn closed. She walked over to yank the curtain back, only to be greeted with a half-naked Wally in the midst of redressing. The burns on his back were already healing, a pink stain to his skin, but Artemis wasn’t really paying attention to the color. She’d been right about him gaining muscle over the years, but it was another thing entirely to be confronted with the naked evidence of it.
Finally remembering herself, she snapped her eyes up, only to find Wally smirking. “No, no, please, keep undressing me with your eyes.”
She flushed in the face. “Shut up, Wally. If anything, I’m imagining putting more clothes on.”
“No need to protest,” Wally chided, insufferably big-headed. “I’d have trouble pulling my eyes away if I were you, too.”
“Ugh. Do you have any idea how creepy that sounds?”
“Hey, art is art, babe.”
She made a gagging noise. “I’ll just—I’ll just wait out there while you finish changing. Try to look for your charisma, too. I’m sure it’s somewhere within your charred and hopelessly ruined uniform.”
She drew the drapes shut again, and decided to perch against the edge of an adjacent bed, biting her fingernails. And it wasn’t intentional, at least not on her part, but there was a small gap in the drapes where she could still see Wally. She wouldn’t have put it past him to be aware of that, because the next thing she knew, a flicker of movement caught her eye and she ended up receiving more than just an eyeful. She couldn’t seem to make her eyes pull away. She tried not to stare, tried everything in her willpower not to focus on the flex of his muscles on his back, the strong hard lines of youth and vitality. He stripped off the ruined uniform for a spare one he kept just for occasions like this, and she saw everything.
Something clenched very low in her body, and she tried, but her eyes didn’t comply and by the time it was over, she had seen too much.
“It must have been so hot,” someone said.
Artemis snapped her gaze over to discover a nurse speaking to her. “What?” she managed to choke out.
“The explosion,” the nurse clarified. “I heard you were very close by. God, it must have been terrifying.”
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, it was… you know, explosion-y,” she finished, lamely.
On the other side of the curtain, Wally chuckled to himself.
“Let’s just get you checked out,” the nurse said.
“And please,” Artemis muttered, under her breath. “Check for head injuries.”
They returned to Mount Justice two hours later, and Artemis realized they had company. She found Roy’s red modified motorbike resting in the docking bay, and halfway through the hanger, the man himself popped up like he’d been waiting for them.
“Shit,” Roy said, as soon as he saw the state that they were in.
“We’re all right,” she told him, quickly. “It looks worse than it is.”
Wally added, “There’s no coming out of an explosion without it looking like you’d just, well – come out of an explosion.”
“Jade is missing,” Artemis told Roy.
“I know,” he answered, but didn’t say anything else.
He didn’t need to. Her sister and Roy had long since been caught in this weird on-again, off-again relationship that, at the beginning, had just been plain unhealthy. But somewhere over the years, Artemis had actually gotten used to seeing them together. Jade’s taunts against him became less caustic, and Roy’s condemnations against her became less virulent. Despite the appearance of their schizophrenic relationship, she knew that Roy cared about her sister. Because of that, over the years Artemis had gotten to know Roy well – so well, in fact, that she could spy the concern on his face even when she wasn’t sure many others could spot it.
“Cheshire wasn’t in on it,” Roy said, turning to Aqualad. “I know that—”
Aqualad raised a hand, stopping him. “My friend, I have already heard her defense from Artemis. I am inclined to give Cheshire the benefit of the doubt, but we need proof. The sooner we find Cheshire and Sportsmaster, the better.”
Roy seemed to take this in quickly with a nod. “Fair enough. We should head towards the back. J’onn and Doctor Fate are with M’gann now.
Given the evolving situation with M’gann, she knew why J’onn were there, but why was Doctor Fate?
“It isn’t poison,” Fate announced, as soon as they were through the door. “Whatever ails the young female, it is a form of a psychic coma that I have never witnessed before. Something disturbing is happening.”
That, coming from Doctor Fate, terrified the fuck out of Artemis. They all looked to J’onn for confirmation, and he did so with a nod. “It is no poison that I am familiar with. I have tried to consciously meld my mind with hers, but it is as if she is on another plane of existence entirely.”
“You can’t communicate with her?” Wally asked, confused. “But I thought you could just go into her mind and—”
“That is just it,” J’onn cut in, looking distressed and heartsick. “It is as if she is not… there. Her body lies right before me, but her mind is so far away that I do not know where to even begin searching for her.”
“There is a psychic disruption,” Fate said, stiffly. “In fact, I feel its shroud now, intensified. I have felt it for nearly a day, but in this Mountain, the effects are a hundred fold. Someone or something is playing with the fabric of time, of this reality. I can see the distortions, but I am yet unable to see what is happening.”
Something had both Doctor Fate and J’onn stumped.
That could not be good.
There was a loud thud in the corner, and the group whirled to discover that Connor had taken his frustration at the setback out on the wall. There was a fist-sized crater in the plaster. “We have to do something,” Connor demanded. “I can’t keep sitting here and doing nothing. There has to be someone that can give us answers.”
There was. “My father,” Artemis and Connor said, simultaneously.
Artemis looked across the room at Connor with a start. Of course. This was one of those moments where Artemis remembered she wasn’t the only one suffering from bad DNA. Lex Luther and Sportsmaster. There were two of a kind, even if their methods differed.
“Well,” Wally cut into the awkward silence that descended. “We tried Sportsmaster. Let’s try Lex next.”
“I can do this by myself,” Connor declared.
Aqualad stepped forward. “Indeed you could, but you should not. Superboy, you know as well as I do that we work better as a team. Artemis and I will accompany you.”
“Wait,” Wally exclaimed, frowning. “What about me?”
“You, my friend, must rest. Doctor’s orders.”
“Oh, c’mon. I feel fine! Already healed—”
“Wally,” Artemis added, because she knew perhaps better than anyone just how much recuperating took out of Wally’s system. “You need to refuel and rest. Otherwise you’ll crash.”
“Don’t make me call Mary.”
“Really? Really? You’re going to drag my mom into this?”
“If it works,” Artemis replied with a shrug, unrepentant. “Mary always liked me.”
“She also liked bell-bottoms in the seventies, so I wouldn’t go trusting her judgment too much.”
“Hey, I actually liked bell-bottoms.”
“You would,” Wally said with a roll of his eyes.
She blew out a huff. “This from the man that has what could be construed as a giant phallic symbol on his chest.”
“It’s a lightning bolt! As in quick as lightning!”
“Yeah. Sure. Or you’re just overcompensating for something.”
“That’s not true and you know it—” Wally broke off, abruptly remembering that they had an audience. Artemis turned to find everyone else looking awkward, exasperated or a combination of the two. And then there was Doctor Fate who looked – well, as expressionless as a man with a gold metal helmet could look. Still, Artemis felt distinctly judged.
Red Arrow picked up the ball again. “Anyway, someone has to stay behind and watch over M’gann. I’ll stay with you.”
Wally sighed, shoulders sagging. “Fine. All right.”
J’onn stood to gather his things, and Connor went over to M’gann’s floating body, stopping to whisper something in her ear that the rest of the group pretended not to hear. Wally, Red Arrrow and Aqualad decided to leave them for a moment of privacy, but when Artemis made to follow, she realized that she had the undivided scrutiny of Doctor Fate still on her. He was staring, kinda creepily.
“What?” she said, self-consciously.
“I see everyone’s fate but my own,” Fate said. “But you are not like the others. Where is it that you come from?”
Artemis wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Uh, Gotham City, originally,” she told him.
“No,” he countered. “You came from a place that cannot be.”
Artemis stared. Were the words ominous and foretelling, or was it just the standard affair of half the things that Doctor Fate said that she never understood. Awkwardly, she decided to brush it off. “Yeah, okay… thanks, I guess.” She turned to Connor. “You ready?”
Connor joined them with a nod and a distracted look back at M’gann. “Let’s go.”
They joined Aqualad, and together the three of them made their way to the Northern exit. She passed Wally with an acknowledging nod and a sympathetic smile, because she knew staying behind couldn’t have been easy for him. Then a moment later there was the thumping, whirring noise as they left the base through the Zeta-beams.
Outside, they spilled out of a broken payphone into a back alley in Gotham City. She quickly learned from the others that getting to Lex would be trickier than she first imagined. The megalomaniacal billionaire was in Gotham City for some charity ball. Normally, it wouldn’t have been that difficult to bypass his security guards – as expensive as they were, they were child’s play to superheroes, especially when Connor was in such a distinctive mood. But apparently Lex was spending the evening surrounded by hundreds of the richest and most influential people this side of the ocean.
So, instead of ambushing Lex’s men to get a meeting, Aqualad had made arrangements to go another route.
“Three invitations,” someone said, suddenly appearing out of the shadows to startle the trio. “Just like you requested.”
Artemis turned around, and then laughed, barely able to contain herself. She threw her arms around Dick in excitement, and he let out a familiar laugh, full and joyous as he enveloped her in a hug. It was a little uncomfortable because of his costume; he was wearing a variant of his old Robin outfit, but she noted it was starkly different too – the all black leather outfit bore no cape, and held the addition of his Nightwing insignia etched across the breastplate. Dick was certainly no longer a thirteen-year old boy, that was for damn sure.
She pulled back with a grin on her face. It really did feel at moments like they were getting the band back together.
(Unbeknownst to her, there was a quick red-yellow blur in the streets behind her.)
The museum gallery had been converted into a gala, and it was spectacular: the classical features of the gothic deco was enhanced by the new glass ceiling that cast a shadow onto the polished stone floor below. It was breathtaking—clean and open and laden with the most powerful men and women in all of Gotham, each one lavishly dressed up for the occasion in crisp black and white tuxes and gorgeous gowns worth more than Artemis could make in a month doing anything decent with her living. But one of the benefits of being Bruce Wayne’s ward was that Dick had been able to supply everyone with the appropriate attire for the evening, even on such short notice.
Artemis was wearing an asymmetrical gown that hung off only one shoulder, in a deep red color the shade of blood. It was fastened at her waist with a black satin sash, and the plunging neckline showed a little more skin than she was comfortable with – but Dick had assured her that she’d fit right in with the crowd. She wasn’t sure about that. She felt like a girl playing dress-up among adults, and fidgeted uncomfortably in the high heels, annoyed that the formal wear meant she couldn’t carry her bow and arrows. She’d been forced to stash them underneath the flowing white tablecloth of the hors d'oeuvres table, but she’d at least managed to hide a few throw knives in a sheath along her right thigh. But if shit hit the fan, Artemis knew she was going to have to rely on her fists more than anything else.
“So,” Dick said, appearing at her side without a sound. She flinched, then glared, even though she was long used to his stealthy behavior. “No Wally?”
“He had to sit this one out,” she explained. “He was recovering.”
He nodded like he wasn’t buying it, but Artemis didn’t want to take the bait. Instead, she eyed him in that tux of his. So, sue her, she was only human. It wasn’t every day that she got to see Kaldur'ahm, Connor Kent and Dick Grayson in tuxes. It was enough to feed any girl’s fantasy for months. And Dick was the one that had changed the most over the years, which wasn’t surprising because he was the one that had started off as the youngest. He was no longer some short skinny boy, but one that was nearly out of college. There was something different about Dick, though. She couldn’t pinpoint it, but it was like the years spent growing up not only as Batman’s sidekick but also as Bruce Wayne’s ward had endowed him with a self-assured confidence that few men could ever pull off, at least not without seeming like a… well, a dick. Lowercase D, not uppercase.
“Hey, I got something you’ll find amusing,” he said, and then gestured for her to come forward. He pulled out his cellphone and hit a few buttons. It wasn’t his normal tech, but Artemis leaned over and spied the screen, curious and then amused as he pulled up a photo. “Recognize this?”
She nearly laughed. It was the oldest photo they’d ever taken together, Artemis Crock and Dick Grayson, on her first day at Gotham Academy. “We'll laugh about this one day.” Artemis looked up at him, and they did just that.
“Found it a few months back in my old stuff when I was moving,” Dick explained, with a quirk of his lips. “Kept it on my cell ever since.”
“For what?” she teased back, feigning annoyance. “Blackmail material? I can’t believe it took me so long to figure out it was you.”
He shrugged, not even having the decency to look chagrined. “Don’t feel so bad about that. Not all of us are cut out for the whole secret identity thing.”
“Oh, ha ha,” she glared at him.
Out of everybody, Artemis was the only one that had never bothered with an alias. She was just Artemis, plain and simple. Briefly, when she’d still been on the path towards becoming a Justice League member, she had thought about adopting a superhero persona like the rest of them. She’d even chosen a moniker – Tigress. But it had all seemed moot, after she left the team.
Dick seemed to realize his good-natured teasing had struck a nerve, and covered for the awkward silence with a smile. “So, dance?”
After a beat, she nodded. “Don’t mind if I do,” she agreed.
Dick led her to the dance floor, and she stepped comfortably into his arms as he led her expertly through a waltz like he was trained in it – which, knowing Dick’s upbringing, he probably was. Mostly, she just let him guide her, her feet falling into step with his. Over his shoulder, she spied Aqualad and Connor standing near the hors d'oeuvres. Connor looked dangerously close to upending the pyramid of Champagne glasses that decorated the table behind him; the stark smoldering look of impatience was apparent in his stance. Thankfully, Aqualad was nearby to keep him in check. Lex was still nowhere to be seen.
“And right on time,” Dick murmured under his breath, and then nodded to something behind her. “Looks like there’s someone here that wants to cut in.”
Artemis was confused, then turned on her heels to find Wally making his way through the crowd. She sucked in a breath, even though it was apparent by Dick’s comment that his appearance should have been expected. Artemis didn’t fully process that. She was too busy staring at Wally, and she was fairly sure Dick had been responsible for his tux as well because it fit like a glove; Artemis definitely needed to send the tailor her compliments, as soon as she remembered how to form words. His normally floppy red hair was combed back neatly and his well-tailored suit was like her kryptonite.
“Hey,” Wally managed as he reached them, and he sounded nervous. “God, Arty, you look… um,” he faltered, turning red, “…good.”
“Smooth,” Dick coughed into his hand.
Suddenly self-conscious, Artemis smoothed a palm down the side of her dress. “What are you doing here, Wally?” she tried to recover. “You’re supposed to be resting.”
“I rested,” he insisted, then traded some type of secret handshake-fistbumb thing with Dick as his way of greeting. God, they were such dorks. “Everything cool so far?”
“No sign of Lex,” Dick confirmed, then exchanged a look between them, “I was just about to go over and see if Aqualad needed a break in his babysitting duties.”
Before either one of them could comment, he had already left. Artemis turned back to stare at Wally, and for a beat, she couldn’t think of anything to say. The music continued to swirl around them, as did the dancing couples. After a beat of awkward silence, Wally offered his hand and Artemis couldn’t think of a polite way of declining him. So, she allowed herself to be pulled into his arms and immediately realized how much trouble she was in. There was the familiar scent of his cologne, the one that she knew he had so often worn because she once told him she liked it, and it played havoc with her senses. Unlike with Dick, there was no easy air of camaraderie between them; instead she was intensely aware of how close their bodies were.
She hated herself for it, but she had to fight the urge to fidget, especially with her hair, which for once had been released from its practical ponytail to spool over her shoulders in long, blond waves. Wally had always liked it like that.
God, what the hell was she doing? She wasn’t supposed to care about what Wally liked anymore. They were beyond that. They’d been beyond that for years, now.
“So,” she managed, trying for a scolding tone. “At least tell me you didn’t run all the way to Gotham.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
She sighed, knowing that meant exactly what she feared. Stupid, idiot boy. She latched onto the familiar spark of annoyance. Why couldn’t he ever do anything the smart, sane way? He had an IQ of 160, but sometimes she wondered how he’d made it passed his childhood without licking glue off of every single one of his arts-and-crafts projects in grade school.
“Oh, c’mon, Arty,” Wally whined. “Stop glaring. Your face could get stuck like that, you know.”
“Oh, shut up, Wally.”
“Oh, we’ve already descended into second-grade banter. What I’d do to piss you off that badly?”
“You mean besides ignoring medical orders and ditching your babysitting duties over M’gann to crash a party that no one invited you to—”
“No one invited you,” he pointed out.
“Dick did,” Artemis rebutted.
“What do you know? I got the same invite.”
She rolled her eyes. “I don’t care if he did. You shouldn’t have come!”
“Because you said so?”
“Yes! No! I mean, because you needed rest, you unbelievable jackass!”
“Your concern for me is overwhelming.”
She made a half-choked noise in the back of her throat, imagining the pleasure she’d get out of strangling him. God, how could he be so infuriating? She’d gotten less annoyed by people trying to kill her.
“Oh, c’mon,” he tried to reason. “What was I supposed to do? Sit back and wait while you guys hob-knobbed it up in a classy shindig like this?”
“We’re here for a mission, Wally. This isn’t fun.”
“You sure looked like you were having fun with Dick,” he muttered, under his breath.
And she pulled back to stare at him, incredulous. He immediately looked contrite, but the damage had been done. His tone on that last remark had carried a flavor of jealousy, which was just ridiculous, because Dick was… Dick. As handsome as he’d grown up, he would always be her friend. Only that. She thought she’d never have to explain that to Wally of all people, before she stopped with a sudden start, remembering they’d been broken up for years.
She snapped her jaw shut, and resumed dancing with him, but it was just awkward now and not the good kind of awkward either. Silently, she fumed, until a long beat passed and Wally sighed. “Sorry,” he said, sounding genuine, if a bit frustrated. “That was uncalled for. I just… I just, it was weird, seeing you dance with him.”
She rolled her eyes. “Dick is just my friend,” she answered, before she remembered that she didn’t need to explain herself to him.
“I know, I know!” Wally insisted. “It’s just… I wish things were different. Between you and me. The sight of you with any other guy—”
“Wally,” she cut in, before he could go any further. “Don’t. Please, just don’t.”
“Don’t go there,” she tried, painfully. “Don’t flirt, don’t talk like we still have a chance together.”
“Don’t we?” Wally threw back, pulling back just enough to stare at her. His eyes locked onto hers. “Because it feels like we still do.”
She looked away. The declaration was too weighty for her to refute. The heady admittance to herself was like a sucker punch, but she couldn’t deny that the very air between them seemed to cackle with energy whenever they were in the same room; it had only been a day since she’d reunited with everyone, but already she could tell that she was still aware of Wally’s presence in a way that she had never been aware of any other man. They way they stood side-by-side; the brief feel of his touch that seemed to linger on her skin long after he’d moved away; the way he looked at her sometimes, like she was the sun and the moon and the stars and the entire cosmos all wrapped up in one. No one had ever made her feel the way Wally did.
Bad enough she had that to contend with, but it was intensified by the fact that she was currently swaying in his arms to a dance that seemed never-ending.
“Wally,” she tried. “This changes nothing. We’re broken up. We’ve been broken up.”
“Yeah,” he said, with a spark of frustration. “And I still don’t get why. That night when I proposed—”
She flinched, and pulled away from him. “I’m gonna get some fresh air.” She started to walk away, but she made it no more than two steps before he caught her by the arm. She whirled back on him, annoyed. “Wally, let go.”
“No,” he declared, adopting a stubbornness that clashed with hers. They’d always been well matched, that way. “Not until we have a conversation that we should have had a long time ago.”
She shook her head, and then noticed with a start that Connor had found Lex Luther, and the two seemed locked in a heated argument. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, but it was obvious that Lex wasn’t pleased at being ambushed at the Gala.
She gestured toward Superboy and Lex, pointedly. “You wanna have this out here? Now? Because we’ve got better things to do.”
Wally glanced back at Connor and Lex, then turned his back on them, crossing his arms over his chest like he wasn’t concerned in the slightest. “They’ll keep. It’s a good a time as any. I wanna know what sent you packing all those years ago. What I said that night that was so awful that you took off without a goodbye or even an explanation. Just a note. Goodbye, Wally. It’s been fun.”
“That’s not what I wro—”
“It might as well have been,” he countered, angrily. “I think I deserved a face-to-face. An explanation. I think I deserved at least that.”
He did. That was what made everything that happened afterwards even worse: how over the subsequent years, every time they met, it just became more and more painful, a growing fester. She’d been a fool to let her guard down this time, to allow Wally to lull her with a few jokes and a smile, their flirtatious banter reestablished almost without thought – because it was such a slippery slope and as bad as it was fighting with Wally, it was less dangerous than making up with him.
Because that way led madness. That way led heartache. Artemis had had enough heartache and loss to last several lifetimes.
“I still want it,” he declared, overriding her thoughts. “You and me. I still want that. We still have that chance.”
The words left her stricken. Wally had always been one of the bravest men she knew, the most loyal, but the words belied a courage in him that she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to match or reciprocate. The tension between them shivered, waiting.
Two seconds later, a barrage of bullets cut through the air as someone opened automatic gunfire on the ceiling. Everybody flinched, but Artemis and Wally both whirled towards the noise immediately, eyes drawn to find Ra’s Al Ghul storming in with a small army of men behind him.
“So,” Ra’s Al Ghul declared, coolly. “Where is Lex Luther?”
All hell broke loose.
Artemis wasn’t exactly sure why, but it seemed the villains were more interested in killing each other than with the complications of any present superheroes. Artemis planned on disabusing them of that notion. Three ninjas surrounded her, and Artemis reacted: she slammed a foot into one man’s face and then flung him back into another, knocking both down instantly. The last one tried to use a rod on her, but Artemis grabbed his arm, twisted at the wrist, and then hurled the rod back towards him. She slammed the flat-heel of her palm up against his nose, and he went down.
She rolled over, popping back up on her feet near the hors d'oeuvres table, and retrieved her bow and arrow. There were two men gaining on Wally. She let loose two arrows consecutively, taking out both.
The room had cleared of civilians in the mad rush of panic that had followed Ra’s Al Ghul’s untimely arrival. Aside from his band of ninjas, Artemis could see Lex Luther pinned behind an upturned table, surrounded by a group of his finest guards as they tried to protect him from the encroaching assassins. It was a futile exchange, though. She had no idea what had turned Ra’s Al Ghul against Lex, as the two had formerly been known to be chummy, but she couldn’t stop and interrogate.
Superboy had somehow found the split-second to change into his customary superhero costume, complete with a cape and all. The sight was remarkably similar to Superman’s costume, except for the bold colors of black and red instead of the blue and red. Aqualad was busy fending off a trio of ninjas with a spike and a shield both made of water that he drew from a fountain in the back.
Across from her, Wally flung a ninja across the room so that the guy careened into the remaining assassins, knocking them over like bowling ball pins.
“Artemis!” Dick called out a warning, from behind.
She turned just in time to fend off an advancing attack, letting loose another arrow. The ninja dove out of the way, barely escaping. She caught a roundhouse kick to the face that made the left side of her face go numb. Collapsing onto the floor, she had just enough time to recover to block another kick, when Dick swooped down to tackle the last assassin to the ground.
“Thanks,” she offered.
“No problem,” Dick returned.
Dick offered her a helping hand up, and Artemis climbed to her feet unsteadily and looked around to survey the disaster. Lex Luther and his men were all unconscious, as were the ninjas, but Ra’s Al Ghul had somehow managed to vanish into thin air during the fight. Her friends, who had started out the evening in smart, crisp tuxes, now looked far worse for wear. Wally and Dick’s suits were completely ruined, even Aqualad looked a mess, but Superboy just walked across the room in his cape and costume, looking completely untouched. Considering Artemis’ own dress was completely ruined – and damn it, she had really liked this dress too – it was almost a little annoying how Connor always came out of these things without a hair out of place.
“And man, Batman declined tonight’s invitation,” Dick muttered, wryly, “thinking it was gonna be an overrated event. I’d say it’s been fairly rated, wouldn’t you?”
Artemis rolled her eyes.
Dick reached for his communication piece. “I’m calling up Batman. And maybe Superman—”
“Not until I talk to Lex,” Connor warned. “In private.”
The rest of the team cleared out of the room, and Wally sped away only to return with everyone’s uniform so they could all change properly before the authorities showed up. Connor was the only one that didn’t have a secret identity to protect, not from Lex anyway. They all quickly changed, but a somber mood had settled over the group. They had no choice but to trust Connor to keep his temper in check as he interrogated his father. Artemis wasn’t sure what Connor expected to drag out of the billionaire, though. Lex Luther wasn’t known as a rat, and whatever had gone down to turn members of the The Light against each other, Artemis would bet money it was epic.
She righted an overturned chair, and sat down. Across the room, she tossed a curious look at Dick as he tapped in a few things on his wristband, some advanced looking PDA that was obviously Wayne Tech. She saw him exchange a few words with Wally, and whatever the conversation was about, it wasn’t good. Both men looked concerned. Artemis almost stood to find out what, but she needed a moment. Her face still stung from recent pummeling, and she wasn’t looking forward to finding a mirror.
Aqualad sat down next to her. “Are you all right?”
She shrugged off his concern. “Nothing a pack of ice can’t cure.”
He smiled, then reached over for the lone pitcher of water behind them. He overturned it, and as it spilled out into his hand, the water crystalized into ice under his direction. She laughed, and took the ice, wrapping it up in a napkin and pressing it to her face. “Thanks,” she offered.
“It was no bother,” Aqualad returned.
She looked to the entrance that led to where Connor was interrogating Lex. “You think they’re all right?”
Aqualad nodded. “Connor has gained much control over his anger these last few years. I fear that M’gann’s condition may have unhinged him a little, but he is still far more in control than he was. It is not an easy thing to be saddled with an ill reputation like that. I feel sometimes we do not give Connor the benefit of the doubt. At least where Lex is concerned.”
Artemis didn’t comment. She understood the struggle to find peace and purpose beyond the legacy of a fallen father figure, but she had never quite managed to get out from under Sportsmaster’s shadow. Not fully, anyway. It hung over her. Which, given her lifestyle choices, was entirely apparent. The training she had received as a child under his tutelage had been put to good use as a vigilante.
“Hey, guys,” Wally called to them. “I think we got something.”
Artemis and Aqualad rose to join them in the corner. “I took this off one of the assassins,” Dick explained, holding up a USB drive. “It looks like the attack on the museum wasn’t entirely driven by Lex’s presence. They were after something here. Or at least something that might’ve been once housed here.”
Dick frowned. “An ancient Egyptian artifact called the Pharaoh's Quest. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but it sounds familiar.”
“It does?” Wally asked, surprised. “Is this one of those geeky things that you heard about from watching the History Channel?”
“No,” Dick snapped back. “It’s—”
Connor emerged from the room. “It’s no use,” he declared, before anyone had the chance to question him. “Lex isn’t talking. He says he’d rather deal with the wrath of the League of Shadows than spill secrets.”
“My friend,” Aqualad said, “did you offer him protection?”
“I—” Connor said, sighing. “I tried. He declined.”
“What did he say about M’gann’s cure?”
“He admits it was a lie,” Connor explained. “He knew I’d do almost anything to save her, and when he heard she’d fallen sick, he decided to,” he took a breath, needing to rein in his agitation for a second as he continued, “he decided to take advantage of that and use it to sick me on Sportsmaster.”
“Why?” Artemis asked, heatedly, even though she knew Connor didn’t know. She advanced toward the room to find out from Lex himself, but Connor stopped her.
“It’s no use. He won’t talk.”
“He won’t talk to you,” Artemis said, and broke free of Connor’s hold.
She marched into the room to find Lex leaning against the wall, a cell phone in his hand. No doubt calling for his men. He looked beat up and bruised, not because of Connor but because she knew Ra’s men had gotten a few lucky hits before Lex had dropped unconscious. He quickly looked up at Artemis’ entrance, but then dismissed her presence almost immediately, looking away. Anger nipped at her heels. God, they were all the same, weren’t they? Dismissing her because she wasn’t playing in the same field as the big boys and girls with capes. That, however, was where Lex miscalculated. Because Connor and the rest of them had a code to uphold. Ethics and a sworn oath.
Artemis didn’t have the same qualms. She wasn’t a Justice League member like the rest of them; she was just Artemis, with a bow and arrows and an admittedly big chip on her shoulders. She didn’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of them.
“Why do you want my father dead?” she demanded.
Lex shook his head. “Why do you care? He’s never done anything for you but complicate your life.”
“Did you kidnap him?” she asked, voice hard-edged. “Did you kidnap him and my sister?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Lex offered, coolly.
She strode forward and slammed him up against the wall. He was a tall man, muscular by design, and she didn’t have any superpowers, but there was no denying that Artemis was capable of inflicting damage onto him if she wanted. “Yeah, I bet you don’t. I bet you’re entirely innocent—”
“Artemis,” Wally cut in, announcing his presence behind her. She looked back to find her former teammates gathered at the entrance, and something about her face must’ve belied the intensity of her anger, because they looked concerned about what she might do. Even Wally. “This isn’t the way.”
She scoffed, turning back to Lex. And it would be so easy, she thought, to apply some pressure to his windpipe, to force answers out of him. The bastard didn’t deserve mercy. It was mercy that had allowed him to reign for so long, to go unpunished by society for the innumerable crimes he had committed. She didn’t have the same familial connections that held back Connor, or the superhero creed either. She’d long ago turned her back on that way of life, hadn’t she?
“Artemis,” Wally called again, firmly.
His voice managed to seep in, even despite herself. With a frustrated sigh, she released Lex so that he dropped to the floor. The billionaire barely flinched, but he looked as rumpled and unruffled as she’d ever seen him before, and that at least gave her some satisfaction.
“You’re lucky,” Artemis warned him. “But if anything happens to my sister, you’re a dead man.”
Lex had the audacity to smile. “Funny. My son said the same thing about Miss Martian. I wonder if you can grasp the measure of my concern, though. I have trouble putting your threats ahead of men like Ra’s Al Ghul, who have demonstrated repeatedly and creatively that they have no misgivings about taking life.”
Artemis shook her head. “Yeah, see, when you can’t tell your enemies from your friends, that’s when you know you’ve really managed to screw things up royally. What happened, Lex? Get into a fight at Cheesy Villains Anonymous about who has the most dastardly plans? Ra’s wouldn’t let you play with his new toys?”
Lex looked like he was growing less and less amused with her disdain. “One day, young lady, you will regret saying these things to me.”
“Yeah?” Artemis said, then socked him right across the jaw, so that he went down cold and unconscious to the floor. “Not today,” she declared.
Her legs felt swollen and painfully stiff as she stepped out of the museum into the cool night air. Artemis slung her quiver over one shoulder and walked across the street, and the wind was surprisingly strong as her hair fluttered around her. Annoyed, Artemis tried to keep it out of her face. This was why she usually kept it up in a ponytail; still, even as she felt the wind biting hungrily at her ears and nose, as a woman who wore a mid-riff barring costume even in the coldest of Gotham winters, she was long used to it.
A few cops gave her an acknowledging nod as she crossed the street, and down at the other end she could see Aqualad and Superboy talking with Commissioner Gordon.
“Nightwing tells me you’re staying in town,” a dark voice spoke up from behind, spooking her.
Artemis whirled to find Batman standing directly behind her. Swearing inventively in her head, she straightened and tried not to listen to the voice in her head that had always deferred to the Dark Knight in a way she’d never done with any other authority figure, not even Green Arrow.
“Yeah,” she recovered. “Just for a while.”
Batman nodded. “The team performed adequately tonight,” and she fought off déjà vu, “but the rumblings of various members of the League of Shadows is disconcerting. This may be the beginning of dissention in the ranks, or it might be a new plan of attack.”
“I don’t know anything, if that’s what you’re thinking. My sister and my father were taken before he could tell me anything.”
“I know,” Batman cut in. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t know anything. Think back, Artemis. You may not know it, but you spent a significant amount of time studying your father—”
“I was trying to avoid becoming him,” she corrected.
“The end result is still the same. You spent a lot of time learning his motives and methods. In that time, you may have picked up on something that could prove useful now. Something is happening with The Light. Your father might prove to be their Achilles Heel.”
Artemis stared. “Yeah,” she said, dubiously. “Okay.”
He left, cape billowing after him, without a word of parting, or actually even one much in greeting. She watched him approach Commissioner Gordon while his words rattled around in her head. Achilles Heel? What made Batman think that? What could her father possibly know that could cause such dissention and malcontent among a group of villains as crafty as The Light? They were enigmatic and dangerous, a selective and more covert group than even the League of Shadows and the Injustice League. From what Artemis knew of them, which was admittedly barely anything, The Light were the real players behind the scenes. No one had ever gotten a clear handle on their agenda or end goal, though.
Shaking her head, she turned and reached the end of the alley where Wally and Nightwing stood talking; it looked like she wasn’t the only one feeling the night’s exhaustion. Wally was leaning against the brick wall, hunched over with his hands braced on his knees – like the wind was knocked out of him. Artemis traded a covert look with Dick as she approached, and it was a look between two concerned friends that conveyed everything. Wally had overtaxed himself. Of course he had. Wally should have been spending the night resting and recouping after the beating his body had taken in that explosion. Instead, he’d run halfway down the coastline and gotten caught up in a night of crime-fighting. There was a reason they’d wanted him off the roaster for the night.
“Look,” Nightwing said, returning his attention to Wally. “You need to refuel and rest, man.”
“I’m fine,” Wally insisted, and she wondered who on Earth would ever believe him when the pallor of his skin beneath his red-and-yellow suit was so pale. “I can make it back to the Zeta-tubes and—”
“Take my bike,” Dick dangled his keys in the air, holding it up to Wally. “I’ll hitch a ride back with Batman. And don’t go back to the cave tonight. You need rest. You mom and dad’s place is still in Star City, right?”
Artemis swiped the outstretched keys before Wally could protest. “I’ll drop him off. Way I drive, we’ll be there in an hour.”
Wally made a face. “An hour?” he said, like that was an egregiously long time.
Nightwing just nodded at her, then took off as abruptly as his predecessor had done just moments before. Artemis watched him, silently musing that Batman had a knack for making a small legion of super-stealthy crime-fighters. First Dick, but Artemis was aware the legacy had extended to another Robin named Tim and now a Batgirl, too. It was turning into a small batclan family, practically.
She turned back to find Wally studying her, a look of confusion etched on his face. “You’re giving me a ride, huh?”
The words were laden with the standard innuendo, but mostly Artemis could see beyond that to the unspoken question hanging between them. I thought you’d wanna be as far away as possible from me? Yes, and no, Artemis mused. Like all things when it came to Wally West, she thought and felt contradictory things.
“This isn’t about us,” she warned him, before he got any ideas. “You’re bound to run into a brick wall if you tried to superspeed it back to a Zeta-tube in this condition.”
He stared at her, not commenting. She wondered what he was thinking, but mostly, she was too tired to process or overanalyze anything. At least, tonight.
“C’mon,” she tugged at his arm, warily, and it was a mark of how tired he must have truly been, because there was no crack, no joke, not even a teasing smile. He looked exhausted enough that a gust of wind might’ve picked him off. “Please note that a I-told-you-so is very much appropriate in this moment, because I totally called this. You’re gonna run yourself into the ground one of these days, Wally.”
“Nobody likes a know-it-all, Artemis.”
Said the boy who’d once wasted an entire night educating her on the Solar System rather than making out with her, as any sane and normal seventeen-year-old boyfriend would have done.
Together, they walked across the dark alley where the Nightwing motorcycle rested. She deposited her quiver into the side carrier, and then settled in; a second later, when Wally climbed on and tucked his arm around her waist, she had to remind herself of his condition. The warning bells that went off due to his proximity were dulled because of that exhaustion, but even with that Artemis was intensely aware of his hold. Expelling a breath, Artemis keyed the ignition and revved the throttle. They took off, the city of Gotham a quick blur as she took the streets at sixty – seventy, ninety, one-twenty miles per hour.
“You planning on having us immortalized as a splotch of red stuff on the highway pavement?” Wally commented, screaming into her ear.
“Are you actually complaining we’re going too fast?” she asked, incredulous.
There was a pause. “Point taken. But of the two of us, remember I’m the only one that has super fast reflexes if we hit the pavement at a hundred miles per hour.”
“You’ll catch me,” Artemis said, without even thinking about it. Because they both knew it was true.
They reached his parent’s place in record time. Mary and Rudy West still lived in the same house that Wally had grown up in, and that type of consistency sorta freaked Artemis out a bit, even if she found it admirable. It was a quaint two-story house in the suburbs of Star City, and from the outside it looked as unchanged as the last time she’d visited over four years ago.
“Your parents,” she commented, with a sense of awe.
“What about my parents?” Wally remarked, bewildered.
She climbed off the bike without replying. She was worried with the way he just sat there, as if he’d needed a moment to even marshal together energy to stand. She tucked herself under his arm, and lifted. Growing more and more concerned with every step, by the time they reached the front door Artemis was relieved to find it already opening to the familiar and warm face of Wally’s mom.
“Oh, Wally,” Mary West said, looking distraught. “Dick called and said you were—” she stopped, staring at Artemis in surprise.
“Hi, Mrs. West,” she greeted, a tad self-consciously.
Artemis was just now appreciating the awkwardness of the situation she’d volunteered for – but Mary quickly snapped closed her hanging jaw and then pulled Artemis into a hug, half dragging Wally with her. Artemis tried to cover her squeak of surprise, but mostly she just smiled into Mary’s sweater, relieved at the warm welcome. Not that she should have expected any different, now that she thought about it. Mary had always been warm and gracious, even to a fault.
She quickly ushered them both into her house, all the while calling out to her husband. “And guess who won the bet?” Mary hollered to Rudy, in some cheeky voice.
What bet they were talking about, Artemis didn’t have the chance to ask. Wally groaned next to her as if his mother was embarrassing him to death. Then he became distracted. Mary had apparently already spent the last hour cooking up a storm, and Wally seemed to perk up with the smell of home-cooked food. They reached the kitchen, and before Artemis could even comment about the ridiculousness of the amount of food set out on the table, Wally was already digging in.
Wally’s father, Rudy, appeared behind him. He took in Artemis, then his son’s gluttonous eating, and smiled like the sight of the former was just as expected as the latter.
“So,” Rudy said in a musing tone, “Busy night?”
She had always liked Wally’s family. The house was spruced up for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, and Artemis stood in the living room for a moment with a cup of hot chocolate in her hands, musing that the only time she’d ever really celebrated a normal thanksgiving dinner had been in Mary’s home. It felt like something out of a storybook or a tv show, but homes like these actually existed, full of warmth and love. It never failed to make Artemis awestruck and a little homesick.
Artemis found herself missing her mother desperately, all of a sudden. It was a sick, dull ache. But familiar. Paula Nguyen-Crock may not have been Martha Stewart, but she’d been the singular bright presence in an otherwise oppressive childhood. Where her father had trained her, and her sister had abandoned her, Paula had always been there, steadfast and supportive. It had been years since her mother’s violent death, but the gaping hole left behind had not lessened with time. If anything, it had gotten worse. No measure of justice or revenge had ever picked away at it.
“Here, sweetheart,” Mary said, appearing from the kitchen to hand Artemis a pack of ice. “Are you sure you shouldn’t be going to the hospital for that?”
She waved away the concern. “It just looks ugly. The discoloration will fade in a day or two.” In the meantime, she’d be sporting a nasty black eye. It wasn’t anything unusual in her line of business, but Mary seemed overly concerned about it. “Well, I should get going—”
“At this hour?” Mary startled, incredulous. “Artemis, it’s almost four in the morning. We have three spare bedrooms. You can stay here.”
“What?” She paused, blinking. “Oh, no. I can’t. I’ve got to—”
“I insist,” Mary cut in, then turned around. “Rudy, get the spare blankets and pillows out of the closet!” She turned back to Mary. “I’ll see if I can find any spare clothes for you to sleep in.”
And then she left, leaving Artemis standing in the middle of the living room, staring blankly in disbelief at how quickly the night’s arrangements had been settled. Awkwardly, Artemis brought up the icepack to her face, and turned to find Wally leaning against a pillar wall, smirking.
“You paused,” he mused, wryly. “Never give my mother a second’s hesitation in opening. She’s used to reacting faster than the speed of light with me around.”
Artemis gave him a look of hopelessness. “I can make it to a Zeta-tube in half an hour. It’s no problem.”
Wally shook his head. “You know my mom. You really want to argue about it?”
She sighed. No, not really. She liked Mary. Giving in with a nod, she flinched as she tested the tenderness of her cheekbone with the icepack. Yep, definitely a day or two of discoloration. Wally pushed off the wall and then told her to come along, and she followed him to one of the spare bedrooms. It was across the hall from his old bedroom, and she peeked in briefly to spy that his room had barely changed, even though it had been years since he’d had any real reason to stay there. It had all the same furniture, and his geeky astronomy telescope stuff was still set up near the window, just like it’d been in high school.
Wally brought her to the guest room. “So,” he said. “Thanks for the ride, by the way.”
She shrugged. “No biggie.”
He opened his mouth to say something, then closed it. After an awkward beat, he offered, “Look, about what I said earlier at the Gala, about us—”
“Wally,” she protested, stiffening.
“No, no,” he said quickly, raising a hand in surrender. “I’m not bringing it up. I just… I was gonna say we can talk about that later. I’m not pushing.”
She released a breath she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding in. “Thank you.”
Their complicated relationship was enough of a landmine. It was something she had trouble maneuvering around in a good moment, when she had all her wits about her, but if he pushed her about it tonight – it wouldn’t end well. Though, his earlier words managed to worm into her consciousness anyway. I still want it. You and me. I still want that. We still have that chance. Wally wasn’t a man of articulate words, especially when it came to his feelings, but sometimes he could knock her down with the force of his declarations.
The silence was broken by the reappearance of Mary. “Oh,” she glanced up at both of them. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Nothing to interrupt,” Wally offered, then quickly stammered out a goodnight, and left.
Mary gave a glance towards the door, at Wally’s abrupt exit. She looked to Artemis. “So, you guys are acting fairly civil towards each other.”
Artemis was too tired to play coy. “Give it two more minutes of interaction, and we’d have been screaming again. Your son is a very… frustrating guy, sometimes.”
Mary gave a smile. “Tell me something I don’t know. It’s a trait that runs with the men in this family.”
“I heard that!” Rudy commented, randomly, passing by in the hallway.
Mary rolled her eyes, and both women shared a laugh. Mary turned and deposited a set of PJs and an off-white tank top onto the mattress. “Do you need anything else? A glass of water, or milk?”
A shot of whiskey was probably too inappropriate to ask for.
“No,” Artemis managed, on her best behavior. “I’m good.”
Mary reached for the door. Just before leaving, she paused, and turned back with a soft look. “You look good, by the way. Black eye notwithstanding, you look better than the last time I saw you.”
Artemis paused, because the words seemed harmless enough, but suddenly Artemis realized there was subtle sympathy in the words. She abruptly remembered that the last time Mary had seen Artemis had been only two years ago, across a crowded sea of silent mourners at Barry Allen’s funeral. Artemis had shown up mostly as moral support for Wally, but it had been an aborted attempt because she’d chickened out at actually approaching him. He’d never known that Artemis had been in attendance at the service, but Mary had seen her. Just a glance, furtive and knowing. As far as Artemis knew, Mary had never said a word to anyone about it.
Artemis was grateful. Grateful for the way Mary had kept her secret then, and for the way she was keeping it now.
They shared a smile, and then Mary left, leaving Artemis alone to rest.
She dreamt, though. She dreamt horrible things: her father’s jeering taunts that she’d never change, that she’d always be like him. That was bad enough, but halfway through M’Gann appeared, sprouting awful things about the end of reality, and how Artemis needed to die to save everyone, how she needed to end this quest by sacrifice – self-sacrifice; at that point it had gotten so bad that Artemis felt like a broken shell of herself, crying and desperate, like it couldn’t get any worse. It did, of course.
Amidst a chaotic maze and revolving doors, Artemis stumbled upon the scene of her mother’s death. “Artemis,” Mom gasped out, sickly. She stretched out a bloody hand. “I love you.”
Artemis awoke with a start.
Sweat-soaked and gasping, it took a second to reorient herself with the environment. Even then, her emotions had a stranglehold on Artemis. The digital clock on the nightstand told her it hadn’t been more than two hours since she’d fallen asleep, but god, the nightmare had seemed never-ending. She ran a hand shakily though her hair, attempting to calm herself, but her breath was erratic and so was her heartbeat. She squeezed her eyes shut against the welling tears, telling herself it was just a nightmare; it was over; it was nothing.
The words had no effect whatsoever.
Before she even knew it, before she’d made much of a conscious decision, her feet had sought out a destination. Artemis found herself scrambling out of bed, walking out of her room, crossing the hall, and opening Wally’s bedroom door. In the darkness, she could tell he was still fast asleep, and so for a long beat she just stared at him, knocked out and utterly oblivious to the presence of the distraught woman standing at his bedroom door. A part of her felt so foolish, so entirely stupid for seeking him out, for needing him in that moment, but the specter of her nightmare seemed to be a living, breathing thing, and she needed to shake it off. Nothing had ever made her feel as safe as Wally.
Crossing the span of his bedroom, she stood over Wally’s form and reached out a hand to rouse him. Something stopped her, though. Some measure of sanity – or maybe fear? She had no right to be there, and what would happen if he awoke? He’d comfort her, surely. Wally would, because he was Wally – arrogant and stubborn and maddening and sweet and the only man who’d ever made her think she could have a shot-in-hell at being happy. There was no way Wally wouldn’t try his best to console her. But did she have that right? She’d spent every waking minute previous to this convincing herself and trying to convince him that there was nothing left of them. Nothing left of the us he kept trying to invoke, over and over again.
Seeking him out like this would be damning, to both him and her. She knew that.
Indecisively, Artemis wavered, but the idea of returning to her room, to sit alone with the haunting shadow of her nightmare hanging over her – that clinched it. Quietly, cowardly perhaps – Artemis just pulled back the covers and slipped into bed. The noise and movement, as expected, disturbed Wally into waking – he blinked blearily up at her, but she didn’t wait for the fog to clear. She settled against him, tucking herself alongside his body – and Wally, to his credit, only tensed for a few beats. She half-turned to look back at him in the darkness, and even the shadows didn’t cover for the way his eyes widened or the bob of his Adam’s apple as he swallowed thickly.
In the morning, she’d have to answer to Wally. She’d have to explain herself, and suffer the consequences of this. Right then, she just wanted Wally’s arms wrapped around her.
They’d been together for over four years, and in that time, he’d consoled her after more than a few nightmares. (As she had through his.) After particularly brutal missions, there was almost an established routine in place. Wally stared at her in the darkness, and then without a word, he relaxed. His arm slowly inched his way across her waist, and she felt him draw her closer to his body, whispering familiar soft-nothings into her ear. Artemis closed her eyes, and tried to even her breathing. The drying tracks of tears on her face left her already-throbbing-cheekbone feeling stained, but Wally was swiftly calming her.
“Thank you,” she whispered, just once, softly.
“Yeah,” Wally managed, thickly, and squeezed once in reassurance. “Go to sleep, babe. I’m here. I’m here.”
For two such known loud-mouths, it was shocking how sometimes neither of them needed words.
In the morning, she awoke to the startling bang of the door flying open.
“Wally!” Rudy called, then stopped short with surprise at the sight of Artemis in his son’s bed. Artemis shot up with a deep blush spreading across her face, while Wally only muttered something incomprehensible and rolled over, instantly falling back asleep. Rudy only paused briefly. “Wally!” he shouted, more persistently. “You need to get up now! Something’s happened.”
Wally blinked his eyes open. “Dad?” Then he blinked again, clearly confused as he tried to make groggy sense out of finding his high school sweetheart in his childhood bedroom with his father standing over them. Wally’s eyes quickly widened. “Uh, it’s not what you think!”
Rudy adopted a look of abject disbelief, then shook it loose. “Look, sorry, didn’t mean to, uh, barge in – didn’t know you were – uh, just. There’s something you two need to see,” he managed, tightly, urgent. “Come. Quickly.”
He left as quickly as he’d barged in, leaving Artemis and Wally blinking at each other. They quickly climbed out of bed, and Artemis tried to get a handle on her embarrassment, just beginning to realize the ramifications of Wally’s dad catching them in bed together – but we didn’t even do anything, a voice defended itself in her head.
It was a rather weak voice.
“Wally!” Rudy shouted.
“All right, all right!” Wally shouted back in frustration.
Wally grabbed some sweats to thrown on over his boxers, exchanging a bewildered look with Artemis while hopping on one foot to pull his pants on. Though, a part of her mused, the one benefit of such a rude wake-up call was that it at least cut down the immediate need for Artemis to defend her actions from the previous night.
They emerged into the living room to find the television blaring. His parents were standing in front of it, and both looked distraught; Rudy had his arms wrapped around Mary in comfort.
“From the Daily Planet’s lead correspondent out in Gotham City, we bring you Breaking News.” Artemis and Wally both whirled to find a shot of a male anchorman cutting away to Lois Lane. “Early this morning,” Lois began, standing at the top of some skyscraper, “known members of the League of Shadows were seen mounting several attacks on the city. Batman and Robin were seen earlier battling a group of terrorists at Wayne Tower as the streets crowded with the morning commute. Several more attacks have spread out in the New Troy boroughs and the financial district, and—”
“When did this start?” Wally demanded.
“Early this morning, apparently,” Rudy said, “And it gets worse.”
“—as of the latest count, over two dozen citizens have died. Furthermore, it seems,” Lois suddenly faltered, needing a moment to regain herself, “initial reports indicate that Batman may have been incapacitated and kidnapped—”
“We gotta get there for back up,” Wally cut in, flashing in a split second away to his room.
Artemis was about to join him, but something about Lois Lane’s distraught face on the TV stopped her.
‘This is wrong, Artemis,’ a voice whispered.
Artemis straightened, spooked. “Did you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Wally demanded, rushing back into the room in uniform. “What are you still doing standing here? C’mon, Artemis! We gotta move!”
Even as she heeded Wally’s words and moved to collect her things, she couldn’t shake the goosebumps. For a second, it had sounded like… like M’gann’s voice in her head, whispering to her. This is wrong, Artemis. Had M’gann awakened in the night? Was she trying to communicate with Artemis?
What was going on?
She didn’t have time to stop and consider everything. Grabbing her gear and changing, she hightailed it out of Wally’s old house with barely much in goodbye to Mary and Rudy. They abandoned Nightwing’s motorbike in the front yard, instead opting to use a more expedient method of travel.
“Just like old times, eh?” Wally said, sweeping her up into a bridal carry.
And then they were off.
Eighteen hours later, Artemis collapsed heavily against a wall in Mount Justice. She bit her lip, struggling not to cry out as her sore body slid roughly down to the ground against the wall. She was shivering, cold and wet from the most recent skirmish she’d taken on, one with Captain Cold and she had barely survived it. This was the first moment of reprieve she’d had all day, just a few moments to herself, and the emotions of the past eighteen hours caught up to her. A full day of non-stop battles, of surprise attacks by the League of Shadows from every corner.
Superheroes were going missing across the globe. First, it had been Batman, then Martian Manhunter. Over the course of the day, Hawkman, Black Canary and one of the Green Lanterns had been taken as well – and reports were still trickling in.
She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath.
Wally found her like that, sitting on the ground. “You injured?”
She shook her head, even though it was a lie. She hated the show of vulnerability. Last night was different; in the light of day and in the aftermath of battle, she knew she couldn’t afford to be seen as so weak. She couldn’t afford to be weak. In her experience, it took ten times the amount of energy to pull yourself back together then it did to keep it together in the first place.
“Artemis,” he said again, “Are you injured?”
She rolled her eyes, straightening. “I’m fine. I’m the least of anyone’s concern.”
Wally made a noise at the back of his throat. "Right, then," he said, tiredly but with a hint of annoyance. "I won't bother worrying in the future. I'll just assume you're safe and healthy, never mind if the world is ending, does that sound fine?"
“Peachy,” she replied back, archly.
They stared at each other, and she realized it was ridiculous to be snapping at each other like this, but they were both exhausted and the toll of the day was weighing them down. Wally seemed to realize this too, and with a sigh, he settled down beside her without a word.
“You heard from Nightwing?” she asked.
Wally nodded. “Still no sign of Batman and the others. He talked to Robin, too. Poor kid is taking it hard, blaming himself.”
She winched in sympathy. Tim Drake was barely a teenager. Artemis remembered how overwhelming everything seemed at that age. She had tried to act above it all, like she could take on anything the world could dish out – but who had she fooled? She’d been as reckless and clueless as the average teenager. Maybe even worse.
They stayed like that for a while, sitting side by side. Actually, they’d been side by side all day. Every time she’d faced down a villain, she would look over her shoulder and there would be Wally, fighting his own battle within shouting distance. He’d saved her once from getting crushed by an upended car, and she’d returned the favor later by taking out a guy that had been two seconds away from clobbering him over the head. She knew he’d been keeping such close proximity to her on purpose. Given all the superheroes going missing, she might’ve been doing the same with him.
The truth was, Artemis was grateful he always had her back, even when and perhaps especially when she insisted she didn’t need it. In her life, there weren’t many people she could count on to be there even when she was at her worst, most obnoxious self. Granted, Wally’s worst, most obnoxious side wasn’t a treat either. But oh, this was reckless of her. She knew better than to go down this road. Every thought, every second, was already being coated over with a flavor of Wally West. Like she didn’t already have enough troubles to deal with, but somewhere along the way, he had crawled underneath her skin again. And, the stubborn idiot, he wouldn’t leave.
“Hey, Wally,” she said. “About last night…”
She felt him tense a little, beside her. “Yeah?”
“Thank you for… y’know…”
There was an awkward second of silence, before Wally prodded, “For?”
She sighed, unable to look at him except out of the corner of her eye. “Being there, and not making a big deal out it.”
“Not making a big deal out it?”
A beat. “Not making a big deal out of it?” he repeated, slower, in a tone.
Artemis couldn’t identify the tone until she looked over to find a tint of redness spreading across his cheeks. She recognized it as a familiar sign of anger, but for the life of her, she couldn’t pinpoint what she said that was making him so angry.
“What?” she managed, bewildered.
“No, no,” he said, shaking his head. And then he was off the wall, standing in front of her and then pacing. Left to right and back again, as if he needed to expel energy – as if any of them had any energy left to spare. “Of course it’d mean nothing. Why would it mean anything? We just shared a bed together for the night. Who doesn’t do that? It was completely platonic and meant nothing—”
He whirled on her. “Is there a national shortage on comfy mattresses that I don’t know about? Because I maybe missed the headline on that.”
“Wally,” she tried. “It isn’t like that. I just meant—”
“What? Because last I checked, sharing a bed isn’t nothing, Artemis. It is most definitely something, especially between us. I mean, I’ve heard of women faking orgasms, but unless you faked our entire four-year relationship, I know you well enough to know last night meant something to you too. Don’t deny that!” She couldn’t find her voice, and Wally apparently wasn’t in the mood to wait around. “You know what?” he snapped. “Fuck it. Share your bed with whoever. I don’t even care anymore.”
Before she could recover, he’d already sped away. Artemis blinked, thrown by how quickly that had descended when all she’d truly meant to do was just thank him. God, why was everything so complicated? But then she felt the memory of their past surge forward. She knew why. Wally felt everything intensely and could carry a grudge and a slight to his grave. Not that she was any better. She was lucky they weren’t at each other’s throats more often.
She took in a deep breath, and stared blankly at the wall across from her, trying to process everything. It was all a blur, though. She was just too damn tired, and confused, and damn Wally West for demanding more than she was comfortable with giving. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t even in the same universe as fair.
Repressing a groan, Artemis finally lifted to her feet. She could have found Wally and attempted to sort this out, but she had been fighting with her bow and arrows all day, and she wasn’t up to round of verbal jujitsu; she took a left towards M’gann’s hidden quarters. Artemis went over, disengaged the wall to reveal the dark passageway, and took the long corridor without any light to guide her.
She missed her friend. She missed M’gann’s unerring support and calming presence, and in that moment, she missed M’gann’s advice. The woman may have been from another planet, but she’d always been able to sort out the messy intentions of Earth men better than Artemis ever had. M’gann had even been the first one to tease Artemis about Wally’s affections for her, back when Artemis was convinced the only affections Wally had were towards the green Martian herself.
“Oh, c’mon, Arty! It’s so obvious. He fights with you all the time because he likes you!”
“Wally like me? M’gann, you’ve been watching too many soap operas, and I think it’s dissolving your braincells.”
When she reached M’gann’s room, it was only to discover her alone. Superboy was still out, fighting in Mexico, last she heard. Wally and Artemis would probably be sent back out any second now to rejoin the fight, but for the moment, Artemis decided to sit beside M’gann’s floating body. Her friend’s condition had not changed. Artemis recalled that brief moment earlier in the morning where she’d thought she’d heard M’gann in her head, but clearly it had just been her imagination. A residue from her nightmare, perhaps?
Artemis sighed. Outside, the world was churning, falling apart, but Artemis had not forgotten the reason she’d returned to Happy Harbor in the first place.
“I’m sorry, M’gann,” Artemis said, stretching out fingers to grasp M’gann’s hand. “We’ll get you out of there. I promise—”
The world went black. A chilly wind prickled her bare arms and legs, carrying with it a thick stench of molasses and a distant hum. It was recognizable and oddly comforting, and by the time Artemis opened her eyes, she was in a familiar and both unfamiliar place. M’gann’s mind. Artemis had been here more than a few times, but each time was like the first. It was a dark shapeless room with hazy purple light everywhere, beams criss-crossing and the ambient glow that seemed otherworldly. Appropriate, given this was otherworldly in every sense of the word. Inside an alien mind.
“M’gann?” she called, thrown.
No response came.
There was a flashy surface to her side, something made of steel. Artemis stared at her reflection in the mirror, glaring at the dark blazer, the starched shirt and tie, the ironed pleated skirt, the tall stockings, and the shiny new dress shoes. She looked seventeen again, just as she did when she’d first started Gotham Academy. She had no idea why she was dressed like that.
“It’s because that’s how you remember yourself at seventeen,” M’gann answered, from behind.
Artemis turned around, and then gasped. M’gann was in her true form, the appearance of a White Martian with long limbs and a hunchback. Artemis hated herself for the split-second that she recoiled.
“Hello, Megan,” came the familiar voice, sounding chagrined. A second later, she was in her Green Martian form with amber eyes and short, tidy red hair. “Sorry! Forgot about my appearance.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Artemis said, feeling guilty about her instinctual reaction. She tried to make up for it by rushing forward to embrace the other woman in a tight hug. “Thank god you’re okay. You are okay, right?”
“I…” M’gann said, trailing off awkwardly. “Well, I suppose it depends on your definition of okay. I’m mentally fine.”
“Trickier,” M’gann acknowledged, and then sighed, shoulders slumping. “Which is still nothing on the wackadoo of a problem I have with the psychic world. Artemis… something bad is happening.”
The lights all flickered on and off.
M’gann shook her head. “It’s complicated.”
“Use small words and I’ll try to follow along,” she joked, but M’gann was gravely serious. There was a beat of silence where her Martian friend turned away, looking towards the endless horizon in this place of nowhere inside her mind, and the aura that hung off M’gann was like something out of a funeral. Dead, heavy, despondent. “M’gann, what is it?”
“I’m not sure you’re ready to hear it.”
Artemis blinked. Something bad was going on, all right. She’d only seen her Martian friend like this on a few occasions, and usually with good cause. That didn’t bode well for anyone. Then she started thinking about the strangeness of everything else – like how M’gann had pulled in Artemis into this dreamworld rather than anyone else. Why not her Uncle? Why not Doctor Fate? Why not Connor? Artemis wasn’t exactly known for her wherewithal when it came to the concerns of the psychic world.
“Tell me how to help, then,” Artemis said, at length. “How do I get you out of here?”
“I’m already doing it,” M’gann dismissed, turning back to her. “I’m tying myself to you right now. It’s difficult because the fabric of reality is very fragile. I might disrupt it, but I have to take that chance.”
“What are you talking about?”
M’gann sighed. “Do you trust me?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then trust me when I say I can’t explain. Not yet. It’s too dangerous.”
“M’gann, you’re scaring me. Just tell me what’s going on.”
“Some things aren’t meant to be told, Artemis,” M’gann replied, heavily. “Some things, you have to witness for yourself. And I’m going to show it to you. So this isn’t all in vain. I’m going to show you the haunting truth that has hung over the Justice League for the last eight years.”
The next thing Artemis knew, she awoke up with a sudden gasp, startled to see M’gann waking up alongside her.
They took M’gann to the infirmary, even though she insisted she was fine.
Connor carried her to the gurney in his arms, while Red Tornado was summoned to check up on her. A thousand questions raced through Artemis’ mind. She’d thought to leave M’gann briefly to give her some privacy while the medical check-up transpired, but the entire time the Martian woman’s gaze was fixated on Artemis, even from across the room. M’gann hadn’t spoken much, except to assure everyone that she was fine. Artemis wasn’t really buying it, though. Not even when Red Tornado confirmed the diagnosis, and they had no reason to doubt it.
Artemis watched Connor speak quietly to his girlfriend of eight years, the entire time feeling something sink into the pit of her stomach. M’gann was quiet. Too quiet. And there had been no explanation offered as to why she’d been comatose or how she’d suddenly awakened.
“She looks shaken,” Roy observed to Artemis, standing just behind her. “I wonder what happened.”
Artemis almost didn’t want to know. “She’s scared. Something isn’t right.”
“There’s a lot of that going around,” Roy acknowledged, darkly.
And the way M’gann was avoiding eye-contact with Connor only made things seem worse. Artemis felt bad for him. The poor guy had been through seven levels of hell trying to get M’gann back, and when it finally happened, there was this fog of awkwardness and avoidance hanging about her. Artemis winched, recognizing the familiar sting of rejection on Connor’s face from the many times she’d seen it flitter across Wally.
Despite herself, Artemis felt her eyes drawn towards Wally, who was braced against a wall with his arms crossed, clear on the other side of the room. He wasn’t speaking to her at the moment, which she supposed was well-enough because they had plenty of other pressing concerns that took priority over their petty disputes. Still, it stung. Artemis never set out to hurt him, but sometimes it felt like that was all she was capable of doing.
“There’s something I need to tell everyone,” M’gann announced, slowly, straightening. Some measure of resolve seemed to settle heavily on her shoulders, and M’gann started to look a bit more like her old self. “I’ve… discovered something in my time comatose. A long lost secret. Do you remember eight years ago, during the time that Savage gained control of the League? All members of the League were accounted for, for most of the time, except for six of its members who were gone for sixteen hours with no record of where they went or what they were doing for Savage.”
Artemis snapped her attention to Roy in concern, but her friend’s face had already started to darken. All those years ago, he had unknowingly been the mole that had very nearly undone the Justice League, and this was a shadow that very rarely left his thoughts. She hated how even the mere mention of it eight years later had Roy tensing, closing off.
“I now know what happened to them,” M’gann announced. “And I’m going to need the League’s help in dealing with the consequences.”
Artemis tensed. The mystery of those missing sixteen hours had always haunted the League, but despite the significant resources of its members, no one had ever figured it out. It couldn’t be good, whatever it was.
“How bad was it?” Connor asked, stepping forward.
For the first time, M’gann found the courage to look at him directly. “Connor,” she breathed, a bit brokenly. “It has to do with Project Cadmas.”
The woods extended a few miles in every direction, but the large number of League members gathered around made Artemis feel like she’d stumbled upon the famed JL headquarters, and no one had bothered to kick her out. M’gann had insisted on calling practically everyone from the League, and everyone had shown, knowing that M’gann wouldn’t have summoned them like this if it weren’t for good cause.
And good cause, she had.
A mere sixteen hours, from eight years ago, was enough time for the Light to collect DNA samples on the six missing League members — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and The Flash. They had served Vandal Savage by posing as extra-special guinea pigs.
And now, a new Cadmas facility stood deep in the faded woods.
It was housed in the old industrial neighborhood just at the edge of Gotham City. The looming factory wasn’t much to look at from the outside, gray and dingy, but the hi-tech security defenses that Dick had scanned upon arrival was a reliable indicator that they had the right place. The entire building was teeming with armed guards. Superman dolled out the orders, telling the majority of the superheroes to invade while a few hung around to serve as back up. Artemis, unsurprisingly, was chosen to guard the periphery. She tried not to take offense, because honestly, what else did she expect? She wasn’t a League Member; she was just a glorified vigilante. Still, when M’gann led Wally, Connor, Roy, Dick and Kaldur into the siege, Artemis felt the bite of exclusion.
The sunrise encroached over the land, and Artemis steadied herself for a fight, but it turned out to be moot. Between the League Members, the facility was seized in a matter of minutes. Artemis didn’t even have to do anything.
Feeling slightly useless, like a kid playing at the grown-ups table, Artemis quietly trailed behind everyone. She entered the facility, and waited as the elevator took them deep below into the subbasement levels. Artemis took a calming breath, reaping a moment to settle her nerves and center herself. She wondered what she would find. Project Cadmas. The Light had developed countless genetic experiments over the years, some genomorphs, others clones. They had created both Superboy and Red Arrow – two people that Artemis now called her closest friends. But it was a project that had also caused a lot of nightmares and a lot of bloodshed.
Now, it was coming full circle.
The elevator doors pinged open, and Artemis couldn’t contain her gasp. There were rows upon rows of large glass containers, each carrying a different specimen suspended in water. Or not water. Some liquid substance, meant to nourish and sustain their lives. A cryo-containment pod. She didn’t recognize the first few rows of specimen, but she didn’t get much of a chance before Aqualad found her.
“Artemis,” he said gravely. “There is something you need to see.”
She didn’t say anything. She just followed Aqualad silently through a few rows, reading to herself the unfamiliar names on the large glass containers. G-Goblin, G-Dwarves, G-Elves, G-Gnomes, G-Sprites, G-Trolls. Artemis lost count of the containers after the fifth row, and then felt her heart leap up into her throat when she started reading familiar names. She stared up in horror at the familiar form of Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, both in stasis, and then gasped aloud when she found Red Arrow standing in front of a pod with Speedy in it.
“Oh my god,” Artemis breathed out, unable to silence her shock.
To this day, the boy known as Speedy had been missing, an open and festering wound that she knew Roy (her Roy, the only one she had ever really known) had never gotten over. He’d taken that guilt hard for the first few years, abandoning his post as a superhero and descending into a depression the likes of which had surprised Artemis. It was, strangely, her sister Jade that had finally managed to pull Roy out of his self-destructive path; Artemis knew she’d never really learn how Jade had managed that, but whatever animosity that had once stood between Roy and Jade had given way to genuine affection – albeit a bit more complicated than the standard romance.
Jade had been one of his handlers when Roy had been the unwitting spy for the Light. The dark stain of that guilt had hung silently over Jade for many years. Her older sister had never been a girl scout, but Artemis knew she’d never really been evil either. It was ultimately one of the main factors that had motivated Jade into abandoning her allegiance to the Light.
But none of that made up for the fact that they’d never recovered Speedy, and it was always a solid barrier between Jade and Roy, preventing them from moving forward, from being anything truly open and secure. Instead, their relationship was rocky at best.
And now here he was – Speedy, encased in a container, suspended in some coma, one arm missing, half the size of his clone standing in front of him. Artemis looked up at Speedy, and she could barely recognize him as Roy Harper. The Roy Harper she knew was strong and tall and—the man in the cryo-pod was only a boy.
She stepped up beside Roy, and tried to find the right words. “Are you all right?”
There was a long pause, and Roy answered, “No, and I shouldn’t be.”
“Don’t call me that,” he said gruffly, in a tone she hadn’t heard in years. He was backsliding, retreating into that haze of guilt that had defined his life for so long. “Not in front of him. Not in front of the real Roy.”
You’re real to me, Artemis wanted to say.
Red Arrow may not have come into this world like Speedy had, but Artemis had known him for years. She saw him as, almost, a brother-figure. It cut her to see him torn apart by guilt that he had no true responsibility over. It wasn’t his fault that Speedy was in this condition, but she knew better than to argue with Roy about it.
After a few beats, Roy said, “Give me a few minutes, Artemis. I need to be alone right now.”
Artemis swallowed her protests, and then turned on her heels to honor his wishes. Aqualad was waiting at the end of the row for her, a soft look of pain in his eyes. “I feel this will negate years of work,” he confided to Artemis in a whisper. “It pains me to see my friends in such agony.”
Artemis started to nod, then froze. “Friends?” As in plural?
Aqualad looked to her. “This is only one facility. M’gann suspects that there is a second facility somewhere which houses more clones. It may also be the same place where Batman and the other kidnapped League members are being detained.”
Maybe even where Artemis’ sister and father were being kept.
“You should find Wally,” Aqualad continued, and took a heavy breath. “He is on sublevel three. Artemis, he’s found a clone of Barry Allen.”
Artemis was having trouble dragging air into her lungs. She wanted to run away, retreat back to Happy Harbor – or to anywhere but Happy Harbor – and pretend she wasn’t feeling entirely out of her depth as she approached Wally. The grief was mixed in with pain and fear; fear that she’d do or say the wrong thing again, and make a bad situation even worse. Because if there was one thing Artemis was good at, it was making a bad situation worse. At least when it came to Wally.
Much like Roy, she found Wally standing entranced in front of a cryo-containment pod, staring up at an unconscious body suspended in liquid. Another Cadmas clone, this time of the original Flash. God, she couldn’t even imagine what Wally was going through. The memory of his uncle’s funeral flashed across Artemis’ mind: how she’d flaked out of actually approaching Wally, but had stood distantly and silently, watching as Wally had grieved; the sea of mourners; the sight of Barry Allen’s casket being lowered into the ground. Two years ago, she’d taken the chicken-shit way out. She had no idea where she’d find the courage now, but she didn’t have a choice.
Artemis braced herself with a deep breath and slowly reached forward, slipping her hand into his.
His response was immediate, and strong. He curled his fingers around hers, almost vice-like, though his eyes never lifted off the familiar face of his uncle.
“The others are still debating,” Wally said, in a hollowed voice, “But I know what to do. We can’t leave him in there – any of them. We have to release them.”
Artemis stayed quiet. She knew he was right, but a part of her recognized the inherent complications. In Barry Allen’s case, it was like bringing back the dead. But in so many others, it’d be even more complicated. Speedy, or the six other superheroes whose DNA was taken without their consent. How would all of them respond to coming face-to-face with their clones? How would the clones react to waking up and discovering the origins of their existence? It wouldn’t be easy – Red Arrow was living proof of that.
But Connor hadn’t turned out so bad, another voice in Artemis’ head pointed out.
She looked around, studying the adjacent rows of cryo-tubes. The farthest one on the left housed a clone of Batman. And suddenly, Artemis understood the sudden siege on superheroes that had arisen lately. The Light was playing their endgame. They had already kidnapped the original Batman. If they kidnapped the original superheroes and replaced them with clones, none would be the wiser to the switches. It was Red Arrow all over again, except on a grander scale.
God, it was like a nightmare. The worst that Artemis could imagine.
There was no way any of this could end well. Not for everyone.
“We’re going to find the people that did this,” Wally spoke up, his grip on her hand tightening until it almost hurt. Artemis didn’t make a sound. “We’re going to find every single member of the Light, and we’re going to make them pay.”
It was a promise she knew Wally would fulfill, or take to his grave.
She awoke the next day to a parched throat and an electrified headache. A staggering amount of combat and an endless few days of crisis management had left Artemis in a bad state. She’d only managed a few hours of sleep, but with a glance towards the digital clock on her nightstand, she realized it was more than she’d expected. Trying to keep quiet, she carefully moved the heavy arm off her. Tucked behind her, still oblivious to the world, was Wally. He was stretched out on the narrow expanse of her twin bed, taking up a sizable chunk of the space. He’d fallen asleep here the night before, and she remembered being the one to invite him in. Had insisted on it, really. Things had never moved beyond sharing physical space, body warmth and comfort, but she wasn’t naïve enough to label it as something platonic.
She knew she couldn’t afford to make a habit out of it, but at the same time she couldn’t dredge up the willpower to stop herself. It demonstrated shitty judgment, but Artemis was almost altogether too weary by it to let it stop her. She was tired. He was grieving. They had both been through the wringer the last few days. She reasoned that they’d earned the right to be a little stupid.
Artemis was careful not to wake him as she threw her legs over the side of the bed. She ran a hand through her tangled hair, feeling like she was hung over without the benefit of the alcohol that should have preceded it. Grabbing Wally’s sweatshirt off the backend of a chair, she threw it on and quietly tiptoed into the bathroom, using the facilities to clean up a little before stepping out into the cold hallway. After a few turns, she reached the kitchen and poured herself a glass of water. A noise alerted her to some company, and she turned around to discover M’gann already dressed and ready for the day.
“You’re up early,” Artemis remarked, who by comparison probably looked like something out of some horror movie.
M’gann shrugged. “I think I’ve slept enough for a while.”
Maybe it was the morning malaise that had dispensed with her normal brain filter, but Artemis wasn’t thinking in the slightest when she blurted out, “Yeah, I still don’t get what happened with that coma.”
Then winched, because god, way to be tactful about a traumatic event, Artemis.
She watched M’gann glance away. There hadn’t been much of a real explanation behind her coma, or even one for how she had managed to pull herself out. Everybody may have been preoccupied the last twenty-four hours by the reemergence of Project Cadmas, but Artemis knew there was a whole host of unanswered questions just simmering beneath the quiet exterior of her friend. And M’gann, stubbornly for once, seemed to be tight-lipped and unusually secretive.
“I can’t really explain it,” M’gann said, sighing heavily as she joined Artemis at the breakfast nook. “I just know that something major disturbed me psychically. Something that no one else felt.”
That, by itself, wasn’t entirely surprising. M’gann had always been the strongest psychic that Artemis had ever known, impressing and surpassing even her uncle J'onn.
“What was it?” Artemis asked.
“I still don’t think I’ve got a full answer to that. But let’s just say, it was a psychic shock so strong that it sent me into a coma, and it was you that pulled me out.”
“Good timing,” M’gann answered, with a helpless shrug. “I’d spent days regaining my energy, unscrambling my brain from the confusion. When you touched me, I reached out and used you as a lifeline. An anchor. You saved my life, Artemis.”
Artemis blushed, because she really didn’t think she’d done all that much. In fact, she was fairly sure she’d done nothing at all. But the way M’gann was watching her – had, in fact, been watching Artemis like a hawk since awaking – made Artemis feel like she was only getting half the story.
Of course, maybe that was just paranoia? God knew there had been enough crazy revelations the last few days for anyone to feel a bit loopy.
Artemis wanted to shake loose the unsettling reminder, but she couldn’t. “Have you heard anything from the League members about the clones?”
“No. Have you heard from Red Arrow?”
Artemis shook her head. She didn’t like the action that the Justice League had taken – or should she say, lack of action. Instead of waking up the clones, the counsel members had decided to keep the clones in the cryo-chambers for the time being, at least until they had a better handle on the situation and the missing League members could be recovered. Plus, there was the additional concern of any Cadmas programming that the clones could have undergone at the hands of the Light. Artemis saw the wisdom in the decision, but she also thought it held a flavor of cruelty.
Wally had wailed against the decision, Connor had pointed out the hypocrisy, but Roy had been the worst. His burst of anger had been explosive, and it had taken the collective restraint of Dick, Kaldur and even Wally to calm him down. After that, he’d insisted on accompanying the clones to their new secured location, some secret facility that even most JL members weren’t privy to. Artemis hadn’t heard a word from Roy since, but she hoped he was doing better than the last time she’d seen him.
“God,” Artemis breathed out, roughly, “it’s all like a nightmare.”
“It is,” M’gann said, staring at Artemis intently. “Isn’t it?”
The lights in the building all suddenly flickered on and off, as if there was some electrical disturbance. Artemis and M’gann glanced around in confusion, before Artemis settled her gaze back on her friend.
She pressed a hand to M’gann’s shoulder in concern. “Are you doing that?”
M’gann’s psychic powers had always been powerful and a bit unpredictable after a traumatic event. But M’gann only gave a small rueful shake of her head, and turned away. Artemis watched as M’gann moved about the kitchen, opening cupboards and removing ingredients here and there. After only a few seconds of this, there was already a growing pile of items spread out over the kitchen countertop. Artemis realized M’gann was comfort-baking; she always baked when she had too much on her mind.
There was something M’gann was hiding. Artemis was sure of it. But if there was one thing she’d learned about her teammates – former teammates – it was to trust them. M’gann was scared, or still processing, and the last thing Artemis wanted to do was push her too hard when she was still recovering from the entire ordeal of her coma. Instead, Artemis joined M’gann near the counter and resolved to help her whip up a quick batter of pancakes and some brownies. M’gann gave a smile of gratitude, and the next half-hour sailed by as the two settled into a familiar routine with light-hearted chitchat and quiet laughter taking up the space.
M’gann would tell Artemis what was wrong when the time was appropriate. Until then, Artemis would keep an eye out for her friend.
It was the least she could do.
Artemis carried a tray full of food back towards her bedroom, only to discover Wally gone. With a frown, she looked across the hallway where she could hear movement from Wally’s room. When she pushed open the door, she found him standing in front of his open closet, the red-and-yellow Flash uniform hanging up on the hook in front of him. Wally seemed mesmerized by the uniform as if he’d never seen the thing before in his entire life. He made no indication that he heard her arrival, but a second later when she deposited the tray on his corner table, he said, “I’d thought you’d left.”
She paused, frozen for a beat, well aware of the insinuation that the words carried. “Just went to get breakfast. M’gann made her famous brownies, plus pancakes. You should eat, Wally.”
He hadn’t eaten much of anything in the last twenty-four hours, at least not for him. Had barely spoken, except to rage against the injustice of the JL’s decision. She’d had to coax him to rest by tugging him by the hand into her room, and she’d held him all night long, even through the worst of two separate nightmares. It was just like old times. Artemis had spent a large portion of her formative years dealing with the backlash of heroic escapades, and it was almost a little scary how easily she could fall back into the pattern of comforting Wally in the aftermath.
He turned around and stared at her. “What are you doing, Artemis?”
“What do you mean? I’m trying to get you to eat—”
“Why?" he asked, his voice sounding hollow. "Why do you even care?”
And she flinched, because that hurt. “Of course I care."
“You care one second, then you’re gone the next. What makes this any different?”
As much as it pained her, she couldn’t deny it – she had a history of running. It was practically her thing, her fallback response to all things Wally West. Artemis had no idea what had changed, what precipitous event had left her with the courage to stand there when her instincts usually screamed to bolt for the nearest exit so fast it would make even Wally’s head spin.
“It’s just…” Artemis said, a little helplessly. She didn’t know how to explain. “It’s just different.”
He snorted, a quick derisive thing. “You don’t care, Artemis, because if you cared, you’d stick around. You’d fight for it, but you never have. That’s where you and I differ. I don’t give up. I care too much to ever give up.”
Artemis didn't know how to respond. A part of her hoped he didn't really think so little of her. She knew that the sudden discovery of Barry Allen’s clone was jarring and painful, and he was still reeling from that, but she also knew better than to blame his battling mood on the excuse of grief. Wally may have been upset for many reasons, but his words held a flavor of brutal honesty.
“What do you want me to say, Wally? I’m trying, here. I'm just trying to help–”
Wally turned away, managing to imbue both a sense of anger and resignation in the same gesture. Her stab of sympathy was quickly overridden by a tick of frustration. She was tired of tiptoeing around the pink elephant in the room. She was exhausted by how much energy it took out of her every time Wally was around. Mostly, she was pissed as hell at how much she apparently sucked at keeping him at a distance because no matter what she tried, how much effort she put into it, she couldn’t shake Wally West. Four years of running had been undone by just a handful of days, and here was Wally, ungluing her this much and then acting as if she was uncaring. If only.
She watched as he went through the stack of pancakes in ten seconds flat, feeling a bit like she could gain footing or lose it entirely by how she played this conversation; it was conversation, probably, that had been coming for a long time now.
Resolutely, she came to a decision.
She left the room with a quick spin of her heels, striding back to her room. Her duffle bag was sitting in the corner, resting with the flap half-open. Artemis marched across and grabbed the straps, dumping the contents out onto her bed. Everything to her spare uniform to her toiletries to her old pictured frame of her mother came spilling out, but Artemis was after something specific. After a few seconds of impatient searching, she finally found it.
She snatched the item up, and stormed back into Wally’s room. She found him in much the same position as she had left, and he seemed startled by her return - as if he'd expected her to have stormed out and never come back. God, that pissed her off, even though she knew he had reason to think it.
“I care,” she said, and then walked over, grabbed his hand, opened his palm, and deposited the silver chain into it. “I’ve always cared, Wally,” she finished, with conviction.
Tangled up in the chain were two separate rings. One had belonged to her mother, given to Artemis on her seventeenth birthday, an apparent Crock-family heirloom. It was one of the only things she had left of her mother after all these years, one of Artemis’ most prized possessions – second only to the other ring that accompanied it. The engagement ring that Wally had given her all those years ago, the same one she’d declined, the same one he’d then angrily tossed away, aiming haphazardly for the sea.
“Is that—” Wally said, staring, partly in confusion and partly in disbelief. “I thought it was lost.”
“It was,” Artemis said, faintly. “I went and searched for it. It took me four hours to find it in the sand. In the dead of night, too. It was a bitch to find.”
Wally stared in surprise, the genuine kind like she’d caught him off guard, then his face closed off again. “A lot of work for a ring you didn’t want in the first place,” he remarked coldly, but there was that familiar sting of rejection in his voice. “What is this supposed to prove?”
Artemis sighed, struggling for words. Four years ago she’d left Wally West standing outside this very mountain, out on the seashores of Rhode Island; there had been an untouched picnic laid out bare for them, and his pants had been coated over with sand from where he’d bent a knee. Artemis remembered that night vividly. Wally had talked about a future, about how he’d seen them spending the rest of their lives together – and the entire time, panic had built in her veins.
“Yeah, I ran,” she admitted, painfully, “I said no. But I still call bullshit on the idea that I didn't care. I cared, Wally. It hurt too goddamn much for me not to have cared. Maybe it’s a side-effect to growing up with—”
“Don’t,” Wally warned, angrily. “Not everything is your father’s fault, Arty.”
“It wasn’t about my dad!” she cried out, frustrated.
If anything, it was more about her mom.
She tried to marshal together an explanation. “You see things in black-and-white, in right and wrong, and nothing in between. It doesn’t work like that. At least, I don’t. I mean, you went from hating me to dating me in a blink of an eye, and that has always been the way you work. I get that, but I have never been that way. I see the world in grey.”
“We were together for four years,” he pointed out. “How was that grey?”
“I lost my mother less than four months before,” she pointed back, feeling tears well in her eyes. “I had been in this rickety, quick-sand place in my life, where I couldn’t imagine the next week, much less the rest of my life. And there you were, talking about The Future, in capital letters – marriage, and then what? Kids? You had gotten too serious, moved too fast.” And god, there was a shocker. Wally West, moving too fast. “I had only been 21, Wally. I got scared.”
“You could have said that,” he spoke up. “You could have explained—”
“I tried. You wouldn’t listen.”
And he hadn’t. Artemis could see the point land home for him. She saw his face fall as he acknowledged her words, because both of them remembered the details of that night too clearly: he’d taken her first bout of hesitation as a slap in the face, and the next thing she’d known, they were both arguing and screaming, and what had started out as a romantic night out on the beach had quickly turned into this heart wrenching fight; her hesitation had Wally’s anger quickly nipping at its heels, and she’d always responded to his anger with some of her own.
It was the biggest drawback to two stubborn idiots like them dating, because both were prone to lashing out and rash action. Everything had happened so fast, so brutally, and by morning she’d found herself riding her bike as far away from Wally as fast as humanly possible.
Then, it had just been easier for her to keep running in that direction.
“I wasn’t ready,” she explained, “not back then. We were two stupid kids in college, and we’d been each other’s firsts. First everything. Most people don’t end up marrying their high school sweethearts—”
“We’re not most people,” Wally cut in, with finality. “Make all the excuses you want, Artemis. But I fell for you when I was seventeen, and I knew from the first moment that you were it. You were the one for me. And you just never felt the same.”
She felt the color drain from her face. “That’s… that’s not true,” she said softly. “Even after all these years, I still compare every guy to you and…” she trailed off.
“And?” he prodded, plainly desperate.
“They all fall short,” she admitted. “It’s always been you, Wally. Just you.”
She meant to say something else, add something about how he’d always been in her thoughts, not a day gone by in the last four years where she hadn’t missed him like a missing limb – but then Wally's lips crashed against her own. Her mind tried to play catch up but it was almost impossible because his fingers had tangled in her hair, his tongue had slid passed her lips, and the moan that passed between them had stemmed from her. She planted one hand against his chest, intending to push away to catch her breath and say something, to slow them down, but then he grabbed the back of her thighs instead, easily lifting her, and the next thing she knew she was pressed against the far wall; he’d used his speed to drive them across the room in a blink of an eye.
“Wally,” she moaned, brokenly. She didn’t know if she meant it as a protest or as encouragement, but when he choked out something like, missed you, missed you so goddamn much against her neck, she reached her decision.
She wanted this, wanted it as much as he did – if not a little bit more.
He barely gave her a chance to breathe, much less respond. It was difficult to think of anything while her fingers ghosted across the long stretch of Wally’s back, trying to catch purchase on his shirt just so she had something to grip while he pressed up against her. A thousand things collided in her mind, too disjointed to make sense, but one thing was for certain.
Enough talk. Enough awkwardness.
They’d both always been better at action, anyway.
More kisses followed as he trailed down her face, along her jaw line, dipped into the crevice of her neck and suckled at her collarbone. Heat flooded her body. His teeth scraped against her skin again and her muffled gasps melted into his harsh breathing. He was heavy against her, a weight she hadn’t forgotten in all the years between them – but he felt different too, a little wider at the shoulders, stronger muscles, even through the familiar haze of his kisses.
He quickly lifted her off the ground, though Artemis was barely aware of it until he settled her across the thin mattress in his room, his rough hands seizing hers and pinning them beside her head. There was a collision of mouths and bodies, fingers pressing into heated skin and stroking hands everywhere. The entire thing had progressed at an alarming speed, and she felt a very prominent hardening press against her inner thigh. She let her knees fall further apart, taking the full weight of his body more heavily onto hers.
His hands kept pulling her harder against him, tighter and more insistent, so she dragged her mouth away from his and said, halfway between breathless and demanding, “Touch me.” And he groaned, obliging to her order as his hand slid down between them. She bucked lightly, twisting beneath him, and a tiny muffled whimper escaped her lips when he got his hand inside her PJs. He pushed the material of her underwear aside.
“Wally,” she breathed out, and he grunted in return, a deep, dark possessive noise like he liked how she moaned his name. She burrowed her face into his shoulder as he stroked her, first with a few fingers, slow and steady, then harder and faster until she felt spots of colors explode behind her close eyelids. The thrill of arousal rushed through her, and he’d always been good at this, but she couldn’t get beyond that thought because her mind had fled. She arched her body into his touch, demanding more. “Yes,” she gasped. “God, Wally—” she clutched his shirt and almost sobbed into his shoulder, lower body working against his hand, “—don’t stop. Yes, yes, oh my god.”
After she came, hard and fast because Wally had always liked to see her come like that, she felt herself coming down with heavy breathing and an erratic heartbeat. She didn’t waste time. She flipped them over so that she was on top, still fully clothed, and felt his hard-on push up against her as he shifted more comfortably on the bed while still letting her straddle him.
He had her shirt off before she could manage it herself, and she laughed. “Oh, Wally. Slow down.”
“Really,” he replied, “I didn’t hear any complaints just a second ago—”
His words cut off when she shifted just so, adding warm friction between their clothes. He drew in a hiss and his eyes slammed shut.
“Slow can be fun, too,” she admonished. “Or don’t you remember?”
He gave her a lazy smile, red hair all tousled, the gleam in his eyes both amused and aroused. “You may have to remind me,” he said, like it was a challenge.
When she continued the movement, picking up momentum until she was swaying back and forth in a slow parody of fucking, he responded by moaning with such a low needy sound in the back of his throat, her body reacted to that as much as any friction she was creating. His hands moved to roam over her body, but she quickly grabbed one and guided it to her chest. He palmed one of her breasts, kneading with pressure that made her moan in return, and they were so well attuned to each other’s bodies, so familiar, but there was the dark thrill of a reunion, too, at familiarizing themselves after so long apart. She rocked again, hips moving back and forth with thin layers of clothing rubbing between them.
“Okay. Okay,” he breathed out, like he was admitting defeat to her. His eyes were drifting closed even though it looked like he was fighting to keep them open. She eased her weight off of him, remembering something important. “Wally, where are they?” And he opened his eyes and stared blankly with naked confusion, like she was talking another language, so alien, that she had to laugh again. “Where are the condoms, Wally?”
Even though they used to have sex in his bedroom all the time, she wondered if he still kept protection here. He didn’t verbally answer, just gestured vaguely to the bedside table to their right, and Artemis stretched over to search. She found a box, and when she wrestled it open, Wally’s breathing was so harsh she had to tease him about it, “Hey, remember, don’t go too fast on this.”
He looked offended at that. “Bet you finish before I do.”
They were always daring each other, even in the bedroom.
She kissed him slow and deep, a bit playfully. His tongue pushed deep into her mouth, trying to overwhelm her, and she was glad she could give him this, to blot out the pain and grief, if only for a little while. They got undressed fairly quickly, given how wrapped up they were in each other, and soon the condom was on. She stretched up to kiss him, pressing her body down against the entire long, muscular line of his. Something dark coursed through her as a sudden thought occurred. She wondered whether he’d slept with anyone else – knew, rationally, that it was only common sense that he had. They’d been separated for four years; she’d seen other men. But the idea of Wally sleeping with anyone else made her possessive and crazed.
She’d missed him so much, so desperately, and it was almost enough to make break her resolve to go slow. But when she sunk onto him, taking him in inch-by-inch, it was slow and measured, and he was careful as always not to bruise her hips where his fingers dug into her skin.
She moved, and then the staccato sound of their breathing and the steady rhythm of their fucking rippled through her, tightening her body. Pleasure started to mount again as she lost herself to the sensation of Wally buried deep inside of her. It continued for a mindless time until one of his hands gripped her hips and tilted her pelvis aside, a different angle, and the shift in position almost shattered her completely. He took back control after that, forcing her onto her back, gripping her by the shoulders so that he could lay heavy over her, thrusting into her, but he kept her pace, slow and steady, frustrating and maddening – and Artemis felt herself close to the edge.
“God, Wally,” she breathed, fingers digging into his outstretched arms. He was propped up over her on his forearms like a broken doll, and she intently focused on his green eyes as she came, the force of her release making her eyes water. Afterwards, he was still, looking at her with too much written on his face, too open, too pained by the history between them, too much knowledge and love, the first words out of her mouth had to lighten the mood. “Okay, you won.”
And he laughed a little, breathless. Then, still hard, he quickly thrust into her so urgently that she gasped loudly. He adopted a faster pace now, growing reckless with his thrusts. She swept a hand across his back, encouraging him until he jerked into her once more, then came. He collapsed against her, spent, head resting in the cradle of her shoulder, mouth aligned over the nape of her neck.
“Love you, Wally,” she managed, glad that she was the first to say it.
“Love you too, babe,” he breathed into her skin, sounding exhausted.
She wondered how everything would change now.
Three days passed.
Wally took her to his new digs in Star City, and even though the chaos was hardly over they at least managed to breathe. During the nights, Wally joined her in hunting down any known associates of the Light, hanging bad guys by the rafters, taking information off of snitches, pressing their advantage when they saw any weakness. Three nights, and they had only gotten one solid lead among a pack of lies, and even that one dried up fast. During the days, in between eating and sleeping and having epic amounts of sex, they planned for their next outing as vigilantes. And, Artemis felt slightly guilty a bit, what with her sister and dad still held up god knows where, but she found herself falling back into pattern with Wally, like they were together-together, like it was never a thing where they weren’t.
It freaked her out a bit, how easy it was to fall back into boyfriend and girlfriend status with him. She thought that was maybe why she ran so hard. Because it was this easy to backslide. The way her feelings always laid to waste any protest her head or her cynical nature had to say. Her feelings for Wally had always been like that, from the very beginning. She’d hated him right up until the point where she hadn’t, and then it was like, hi, uh, so this is love.
She always thought she was above this crappy romantic bullshit, but what else could you expect from a relationship that started with a New Year’s kiss?
Of course, it wasn’t always sappy. In fact, in the last three days, they’d had sex in every room in his apartment at least twice, even the kitchen with its hard countertop and cold ceramic floors, and she knew the neighbors had complained to Wally about all the noise just the other day; Artemis would feel more embarrassed about it, but of the two of them, she had always retained the higher threshold for this kind of scandalized amusement.
How did they even fall into this pattern again? So easily, like blinking or waking up from a dream.
Artemis almost had too much on her mind to analyze it. Almost.
Besides, it wasn’t like she had anything better to do. On Tuesday, Wally had to return to his daytime job running the biotech lab at Star City University. She visited him there the first day, but depending on who you asked, either it had gotten boring (her story) or she had become distracting (his story) – either way, he’d accomplished little and was already on thin ice with the Dean for having missed too many days of work. Whatever. Artemis knew any university would be lucky to have Wally, even if he was idiotic in most things non-scientific.
So, she was bored and wandered around his apartment, some airy two-bedroom flat filled with a clash of toys (equipment, Wally corrected) and junk. With difficulty, Artemis figured out ways to pass the time: cleaning her weapons, catching up on TV, even to her disgust, cleaning up the place a little because even though she was by no means a neatfreak and she damn sure wasn’t his maid, Artemis just needed something to do. At least until the sun set and she could go back to kicking ass and taking names. Real names. Names of people that knew what happened to her family.
By mid-afternoon on the third day, she finally got around to unpacking her bag, figuring she should at least manage that much domesticity. She found the familiar silver chain half hidden under a pile of clothes in her duffle bag. There were two important rings that hung off it – one, her mother’s ring, the Crock family heirloom, a simple gold band with small neat hieroglyphs etched into the interior, a saying that translated into “infinite possibilities, only one fate.” The ring was old, like – reallyold, but she never figured out if the ring had come into her father's possession with the inscription, or if he had added it. It seemed like something he would say, and in his misguided way, would think romantic. Artemis tried not to think about it too much.
Instead, she focused her attention on the second ring, the diamond ring. She wondered what Wally would do if she suddenly started wearing it around her neck. A second after the thought arose, panic set in and she discarded it.
No, that was too bold. Too soon.
Instead, she put the silver chain away. She meant to change into another pair of comfortable shoes and go for a run, or a workout or a sparring match against the dummy down at the local gym, where she could healthily expel some of her boredom. Instead she found herself shucking the idea of anything as mundane as that, tucking extra arrows into her quiver and a serrated knife into a thigh holster, slipping into her lycra in a mad rush. Broad daylight was outside, and she was hardly inconspicuous, dressed in a green mid-riff outfit with a lethal weapon at her back. She wasn’t sure where she was going when she shut the front door of Wally’s place behind her. Just that she wanted to get there. She picked a direction at random and climbed up, running full-tilt for as long as she could manage it, leaping across rooftops or using her arrows as a modified grappling hook to maneuver from building to building. She moved like something was right at her heels.
Half an hour later, she came to the seedier part of the city. Though, by comparison to Gotham City, that was a laugh. Artemis could always count on some dumb criminal in Gotham City to be up to something immoral even in broad daylight. Star City wasn’t as boring as Metropolis (thanks, Superman), but it had this wholesome vibe that made Artemis’ skin itch. She always preferred dirt and grime, everything upfront for what it was. It was the cities that tried to hide their shadows where Artemis felt the least safe.
But this place? It looked as disreputable as her old neighborhood in Gotham.
There was the smell of rotting garbage thick in the air, and a dingy cat hissed at her before jumping up the fire escape ladder. Artemis wandered further down the lone alleyway, before she turned the corner, and there – there was her latest mark.
Willy, a lanky guy with greasy hair and a two-day unshaven jaw, was a man with a known reputation. He had multiple ties with some of the gangs that did short-notice work for whatever the big baddies wanted outsourced – bank robberies, armed assault, he even had a murder wrap. Some of these guys were used when men like Lex Luther wanted plausible deniability or a scapegoat, and they were a dime a dozen. Artemis was hoping Willy might know something. It was a long shot, at best. Then again, as an archer she knew those were some of the most rewarding when made.
“Well, well, well,” he called out with a smarmy smile, spotting Artemis. “Be still my beating crotch.”
In two seconds flat, she had him kissing the brick wall with her arm braced against the back of his neck. “Listen, this is how it’s going to work. I ask you questions, you tell me what I want to know. You lie, you say something to piss me off, you stall – I’ll put you in the hospital so badly that you’ll still be paying for the bill when you hit Medicare. Understood?”
“What the fu—”
“Language,” she admonished, wryly. “Answer me this. You got connections into the League of Shadows?”
“Not that I’m telling,” he declared angrily. “They’ll kill me!”
She flipped him around and pressed back in, hand at his throat. “Worry about them later. Worry about me now.” To prove her point, she lifted him off the pavement, just a few inches, just enough to demonstrate that she could dangle him by the throat. She was half his weight, but she didn’t spend a few hours every day training for nothing. It strained her muscles, especially in her forearm, and she knew she was going to feel the burn in the next few hours, but it did the trick because the guy’s eyes widened in fear. “Am I making myself clear?”
“Yeah, yeah,” he grunted, and she released him so that he dropped onto his feet and stumbled a little.
“The League of Shadows,” she repeated. “Spill.”
“Man, the jokes on you. There ain’t nothing to spill,” he told her. “The League ain’t a League anymore. They’ve split. Disbanded. Yoko Onoed without the chick involved.”
“What?” Artemis said, bewildered – though it wasn’t that surprising when she thought about it. She had witnessed Ra’s Al Ghul fighting with Lex Luther earlier in the week during the Museum Gala. “Why?”
“Hell if I know,” the guy told her. “I just know they're fighting over something, and it must be big, because everybody’s choosing sides.”
“Yeah, and which side are you?”
“The one that pays me the most.”
She spent another ten minutes with the guy, but it was obvious he didn’t know anything else. She left him in the alleyway with a warning to play nice, and started heading back to Wally’s place. The League of Shadows had split, and criminals were making enemies out of former friends? What were they fighting over? What could be so powerful that it could have the most powerful villains turning on each other like a pack of rabid dogs?
She lost track of time, and so by the time she actually made it back to Wally’s, the sun had already disappeared behind the horizon; she didn’t really think much of it until she found the state of Wally inside. He snapped his head up, face a tight expression of worry and concern before it sagged in relief.
“God, Arty, where the hell were you?”
“Just went for a run.” He glanced pointedly to the quiver tucked behind her. Artemis had the good grace to look sheepish, but she rolled her eyes anyway. “Jeez, Wally, I was only gone for a few hours—”
“You could have left a note, or taken a comm, or even – here’s a funny one – answered your phone.”
She could, on some level, appreciate his concern. It was true that the last few days, the Light had slowed their assault against League members, but it was still a worry. But Artemis took one beat to shift under the uncomfortable weight of Wally’s concern, and decided that he was overreacting. If they were going to try a relationship again, the last thing Artemis wanted was to start off on the wrong foot. She didn’t need him coddling her; she’d spent the last four years on her own, pretty much – no team to watch her back, only occasionally fighting alongside Jade and Roy if the occasion called for it.
And she had never, ever been a damsel-in-distress.
“Wally, I’m not a League member,” she felt the need to point out. “They’re not after me.”
He snorted. “Yeah, ‘cause that’ll stop ‘em from hurting you.”
“Look, just – the motherhen routine is so not your best look. Drop it, Wally. I’m fine.”
“Hey, worrying works, babe! 90% of the things I worry about never happen.”
Artemis rolled her eyes, crashing next to him on the couch, ignoring the unfortunate greeting and choosing instead to curl up against him. If she was being honest with herself, it wasn’t that he was worried about her that grated her; it was more that she was still wound tight with restless energy. “Star City sucks,” she told him, in what might have been a petulant voice, if Artemis had one. “I didn’t prevent a single crime. Though this guy told me that the League of Shadows is apparently having an internal dispute, of sorts. If you believe him.”
Wally raised an eyebrow. “Yeah?” he said, wrapping an arm around her and she sighed a little.
This was nice. This was comfortable.
For a few blissful seconds, they just sat there and discussed Artemis’ information, but neither of them offered anything revelatory to the conversation. She couldn’t figure out what was going on, and neither could Wally – but it all seemed big enough on a scale to be downright scary. After a few minutes, silence fell and Wally puffed a strand of her hair out of his mouth, readjusting his hold into a more comfortable position. It was totally girly, but Artemis had missed cuddling with him. Wally had always been a good cuddlier.
“You could have waited for me to come with,” Wally pointed out.
“I got bored,” she replied, without bite.
“And I don’t worry too much,” he mumbled under his breath.
She playfully hit him in the arm. “You’re a freak that would worry about the sky falling, Wally.”
“Am I suddenly chicken-little in this scenario? I protest that.”
“Protest all you want, it’s true. You overreact.”
“Overreact?” he repeated, incredulous. “When have I ever overreacted?”
“Oh, I don’t know, how about that time I accidentally started a small fire in your lab? I—”
“That was not an overreaction! There wasn’t even anything flammable in the lab at the time. Babe, you challenged non-flammable items and won.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Artemis dismissed, a little red-faced. “What about that time you forced me to get a new doctor because you weren’t “comfortable with his competence,” or whatever.”
“Dude, it’s just a good rule of thumb: never go to a doctor whose office plants have died,” he quipped, even though both of them knew he’d had plenty of other reasons to question the man’s intelligence; despite herself, Artemis laughed and settled more firmly against his chest. “Besides,” he added, cheekily. “If being concerned about your welfare is a crime, then I guess I should have handed in my superhero uniform ages ago.”
He said it like a joke, but the really scary thing was… there was a part of Artemis that suspected if she asked him, seriously, no joke, to hang up his uniform for her, he’d actually do it. They’d talked about it, briefly, in college. He’d been willing to give up his crime-fighting days, all just for a chance at a “normal life” with her. Artemis didn’t even know what a normal life was, anymore. She just knew it scared the shit out of her the way Wally loved, because he did it like he did everything else in life – stubbornly, bullheadedly, like there was no other way he could do it but this one way.
A tight worry coiled in her stomach.
She couldn’t bail on him again. She had to get her head on straight – she owed him that much.
She didn’t know how long they stayed like that, but it wasn’t long enough before Wally’s comm beeped and reality intruded rudely into their peace. “It’s Dick,” Wally informed, “He says he thinks he’s got something.”
One of these days, Artemis was going to figure out a mystery before Dick, the famous detective, even got close.
Today was not that day.
By the time they arrived back at the Cave, she found everyone gathered there. And by everyone, she meant everyone on her old original team – Dick, M’gann, Aqualad, Superboy. This was the first time they’d all re-gathered inside the mountain in nearly four years, and Artemis traded a look with Wally that signified the same thought was passing through both of their minds because – wow, déjà vu anyone?
“Glad you guys decided to come up for air,” Dick greeted, with a wicked grin.
“Dude, just stop,” Wally moaned.
Artemis hadn’t had much chance to keep in touch with Dick in the last few days, but if Wally’s tone was anything to go by, she suspected that Dick had been giving Wally a hard time. She should have known.
“You got news?” she said, hoping to get them back on track.
Dick’s amusement drained from his face, suddenly all business. “Yeah, I’ve gathered everyone here because I think I’ve found the second Project Cadmas facility, the one that houses the remaining clones and the missing superheroes.”
“What?” Wally exclaimed, straightening. “What are we waiting for, dude? Why haven’t you called in the League?”
“Because,” Dick said, clipped. “They’re mishandling this entire scenario. I don’t have to tell anyone here that keeping Speedy or Barry Allen or those other clones in their cryo-pods was the wrong call. Those people deserve a chance at being free, at life, no matter how they began.”
“Dick’s right,” Connor spoke up, immediately. “And Red Arrow would back me up, if he were here right now. The League proved they can’t be brought in on this. Not yet.”
Dick added, “Not until we take down the second facility and awaken those clones ourselves. That’s why I called only the six of us into this meeting. You guys are the only people I trust with this, the only ones that would get it. Am I wrong?”
No one spoke up, because no one had to. Artemis looked around at the faces of her former teammates and knew without discussion that they were all on the same page. The clones deserved life, whatever the complications it brought. It was the only humane thing to do.
“Right,” Dick called, like it was settled. “Then load up. We leave in ten.”
"Wally," M’gann said, while she steered the bioship to the west coast. "I have a proposition for you."
"I knew this day would come," Wally returned solemnly. "But I never knew it’d happen with both Artemis and Conner sitting right here.”
"What?" M’gann asked, confused.
"I’m sorry, M’gann, it’s not that I don’t think you’re pretty," he continued, beseechingly. "It’s just that the guilt would drive both of us mad. Also, our respective significant others would bury us in a grave a mile beneath the ocean – I’m pretty sure they could get Aqualad to help."
"Shut up, Wally," M’gann laughed, and everybody in the entire ship echoed the mirth. Artemis spun in her chair to whack him across the arm, trying in vain to hide her smile. “I was going to ask for your help in testing a theory,” M’gann continued, “but if you’re going to be ridiculous—”
“When isn’t he ridiculous?” Connor pointed out.
“Hey!” Wally responded, indignant. “I can be serious if I want to be.”
“The only time you’re serious,” Dick said, rolling his eyes, “is when there are people’s lives at stake, or there’s food involved. And not even the former theory holds water all the time.”
“I can’t help it if you people don’t understand the sanctity of food,” Wally chose to defend himself.
“Sanctity?” Connor repeated, flat-toned.
“I’m like a Buddhist when it comes to food,” Wally explained. “Give me one of everything.”
Dick groaned. “Don’t get him started,” he warned quickly. “He once regaled me with an hour long theory on how sugar should have been one of the main four food groups.”
“I was witness to this,” Aqualad added. “He had charts and several diagrams.”
Artemis snickered, earning her a glare from Wally. “E tu, Brute?” he mumbled, looking wounded. “I thought you’d at least understand why food was so important to me!”
“The only thing I understand about your freakish metabolism,” Artemis returned, “is that you get increasingly lame with your puns when you’re low on fuel.”
“That isn’t true!” Wally said. “My puns are awesome!”
“The guy that created the knock-knock joke deserves the “no-bell” prize?” Artemis returned, narrowing her eyes.
“That’s only one lame pun!” Wally admonished.
Dick rolled his eyes. “You christened your Ipod the Titanic, just so you could randomly call out, my Titanic is syncing!”
Connor added, “You do have a shirt that says, when scientists die, make sure to Barium. Even I know that’s lame.”
“That is not lame,” Wally protested. “You just don’t properly appreciate the level of hilarity behind it.”
There was a beat of silence, before Kaldur spoke up, “He once asked me, water doing, Aqualad?”
Everybody in the ship groaned.
Wally threw his hands up in frustration and spun his chair towards the side console, grumbling to himself about the team ganging up on him. Artemis traded amused looks with everyone. The idea of raiding the second Project Cadmas facility was a daunting prospect for everyone involved, and Artemis knew she wasn’t the only one who felt a bit better when she could joke about something as familiar as teasing Wally.
Wally continued to mope for a few more seconds, but she caught the slight telling sign of laughter in his eyes, and she smiled back at him. He offered her a wink in return, and then it was all she could do not to reach across the space between them and ruffle his hair, or kiss him, or anything ranging into more indecent territory. God, she’d missed him – missed this, joking with him and her team. It had been too long.
The humor quickly drained when M’gann announced, “Guys, we’re here.”
The team split up. Artemis and M’gann took the east entrance, and Wally, Kaldur, and Connor took the north side, while Dick hacked into the security feed.
Artemis turned the corner, and the corridor she found herself in led past various storage areas and a few locked rooms, and then on down to a crisp new assembly line at the end. There were only two men guarding it, and M’gann easily waved her hand and knocked their heads together, rendering them unconscious with one simple move. Artemis drew her arrow taut against her bow, ready and alert as they moved down the long corridor.
There was a large sliding door on the right that was heavy, and moved noisily when she hauled it open. It was dark inside, no windows to speak of or lights to guide her, just a sliver of faint light falling in from the corridor. The vents high in the walls at either end filled the room with an ambient noise. She let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Slowly, she made out shapes of the items left unattended to on the conveyer belts. Glinting dully, their form was unmistakable, from their curved shape to the glassy surface. Cryo-pods. Quite a lot of them, too. Enough for a hundred more clones.
Images flashed before her eyes: the Light with an army of clones, because Artemis realized that was what they were creating. God only knew the victims of their plans, but a sudden and vivid film of how the Light could infiltrate and take over various parts of the world flashed before her eyes. Superheroes, politicians, people of influence and power – they could all fall victim to the Light’s plans. Artemis shuddered at the thought, losing count of the number of cryo-pods as she surveyed the endless rows and the cavernous room full of conveyer belts.
It’s… horrifying, M’gann acknowledged, in a frail voice. Then shook her head. But we can’t get distracted. Not now.
Artemis nodded. With a pinch of worry in her stomach, she made her way across the room and proceeded to the service elevator.
There was a dull thud of something gliding across the ground, and a second too late, Artemis recognized the small canister. A flash-grenade. The intensely loudbang that happened next blinded Artemis, forcing her to stumble back in disorientation. She lost balance and fell backwards to the floor, bow falling to the ground, groping blindly about her while bright white lights and spots of colors danced before her vision.
M’gann cried out to her, and Artemis was aware, vaguely, of a fight breaking out. She could only assume M’gann had shielded herself from the flash, because the distorted sounds of footsteps and men shouting filtered in, only distantly, and Artemis knew that M’gann was fighting them off.
Artemis could only react on instincts, blindly. She felt the presence of men approaching and dodged backwards with a handspring. Someone grabbed her, and she threw a cross to the right cheek, blocked a punch with her elbow, and landed a lucky kick to someone’s stomach. Seconds or minutes passed by while Artemis defended herself, chaotically. She felt more hits than landed, but eventually M’gann was able to clear the room and her vision started coming back slowly.
“You all right?” M’gann asked.
Artemis blinked back the spots of color, trying to orient herself. “Yeah, yeah.”
M’gann helped her to her feet, and both of them made it to the elevator. Guys, we’re in. Meet us in the east entrance. The elevator is clear.
Copy that, Wally’s voice filtered in. We’re right behind you.
M’gann and Artemis rode the elevator down. She knew from previous experience that the Light liked to keep their lucrative projects underground, away from prying eyes. This time was no different. Though she should have been prepared for the sight, having already surveyed the primary Project Cadmas facility earlier in the week, when the doors pinged open, Artemis could only stare. Rows upon rows upon rows of clones greeted her. Artemis felt sick to her stomach for reasons that had nothing to do with the flash bomb.
Find Batman and the other superheroes first, Dick’s voice broke into her paralysis. Rescue is priority.
No one needed to tell Artemis twice. She was still hoping Cheshire and her father were being held here – assuming, that was, that Sportsmaster wasn’t a willing participant in his escape from prison. Artemis wasn’t going to rule it out, but she refused to think about the possibility that her sister could also be just as complicit in the escape.
There were several more guards in their way, but Artemis and M’gann handled them easily. Aqaulad announced through the link that they would join the girls on the bottom floor, but everyone stayed separate. They fanned out, taking out the guards left and right, an arrow here, a hit there, M’gann’s telekinesis mixing in with Artemis’ aim. It all worked just like it had always worked. Artemis shouldn’t have been surprised, and she wasn’t – not really. She was startled, though, when M’gann used her powers to render two guards completely inert, staring blankly at a wall like they’d been hypnotized or… or lobotomized, or something. Artemis waved a hand in front of their vacant eyes, and M’gann assured her it was only temporary.
Found Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and—, Dick declared, his voice rising in triumph. Batman! Setting charges now. Brace for impact. We’ll have them released in no time.
What about my sister? Artemis thought. She left off Sportsmaster, but it sorta went without saying.
Not here, Dick replied, solemnly. We’ll have to keep looking.
Artemis braced herself with a deep breath, and moved down to the far corridor. Halfway there, there was the familiar boom of Nightwing’s explosion going off, and a second later the facility’s alarms started blaring. M’gann and Artemis picked up their speed, racing down to cover the last bit of uncovered territory. When Artemis turned the last corridor, she found one door at the very end.
By the time M’gann pried it open, they found smoke inside, eking out from the doorway. Artemis rushed in to find Cheshire and her father had taken advantage of the explosion; they had used it to distract and incapacitate their guards. Jade was lithe and fluid when fighting, while her father was very much not, slamming into a scientist and a guard simultaneously, taking both down. He used his chains to wrap around one guard’s neck, and Artemis cried out, alarmed, knowing her father was going for a kill — and it was only M’gann’s telekinetic intervention that stopped him from breaking bone.
Artemis didn’t even get a chance to offer a greeting before things went from rescue mission to a confrontation. “Had it covered,” her dad snarled at M’gann.
“Gee,” Artemis threw back. “You’re welcome, Dad.”
M’gann’s eyes narrowed as she landed on the ground. “We don’t allow murders. I shouldn’t have to point that out.”
“They were holding us prisoner for days,” Sportsmaster spat out. “What did you expect me to do? Give ‘em flowers?”
“You—” Artemis said, advancing, but it was Jade that cut in.
“Save it,” Jade said, tiredly, then whirled on Sportsmaster. “There’s no conscience in this one. He’d sell his own blood out for the right price, isn’t that right, Dad?”
It didn’t take a genius to figure it out there was a particular meaning behind the spiteful words. By the state of them, it was obvious they’d both been held prisoner for days, but the way Cheshire was facing off against their father, it was obvious they hadn’t used the time to bond. In fact, if it were possible, things never looked worse. Artemis had seen Jade lob insults, throw punches, rail against their father a dozen times over, a hundred times, really, but this was different. The anger on her face was cool and calculating, rather than hot-blooded and impulsive. That was Cheshire at her worst.
“What happened to you two?” Artemis asked.
“Why don’t you ask Dad?” Jade told her, not taking her eyes off him. “He’s got some explaining to do, don’t you?”
To Artemis’ shock, he didn’t respond to her sister’s venom in kind. “It isn’t what you think,” he told Jade. “I never wanted this.”
“Oh, yeah. I bet,” Jade’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “This just happened, like everything else. You make me sick, you know that? I knew you were a bastard, but I never suspected—”
“It isn’t what you think!” Sportsmaster roared. “I had no say in it! They took her as a punishment. How is that not obvious?”
“Who are you talking about?” Artemis asked, bewildered. “Mom?” But the two circled around each other like sharks, readying to kill. “Okay, enough!” Artemis shouted, stepping in between before the two started trading blows. Push came to shove, she’d be on Jade’s side in less than an instant, but she needed answers first. “What’s going on?”
She never got the response. Sportsmaster blindsided her with a backstab to the solar plexus, and his arm went around her neck, as choking as a garrote. “Sorry, baby girl,” he whispered in her ear, dragging her towards the exit; Artemis’ eyes watered and she couldn’t draw in breath worth a damn. “I know I should kill you now. Ain’t real, shouldn’t matter. But there’s infinite possibilities, only one fate. This is fate.”
Just seconds before she was about to pass out from oxygen-deprivation, he released her and escaped through the exit. Artemis landed on her knees, choking as air rushed back to her lungs. M’gann was beside her in an instant, and Artemis was vaguely aware that Jade followed their father in a brief chase before halting in the empty corridor; both sisters knew – once their father was gone, he was gone. It was a trick that all Crocks knew well.
“You all right?” Jade managed, returning, to offer Artemis a hand.
Artemis accepted it, rising unsteadily to her feet. “Are you?” she returned in concern, because her normally unflappable older sister looked like hell. Which wasn’t that surprising, because – hello, prisoner. Still, the dark mane of hair was in clumps and a rather disheveled state, and there was a dusk of blue bruising under her eyes from obvious sleep deprivation. Jade shrugged off the concern, but there was something hiding in her eyes – a stab of worry or pain or shame, something dark – and Artemis only recognized it because it was so rare that Jade showed any of those emotions at all. “Jade, what is it? What happened?”
“Christ,” Jade said, sounding frustrated, but resigned, “there’s something I need to tell you, Artemis.”
“It’s better if you show her,” M’gann suggested. Artemis traded a look back and forth between the two other women, and even Jade looks surprised by M’gann’s input. “I did a telepathic scan already,” M’gann informed Jade. “I know what’s coming.”
Well, that sounded ominous.
“Fine,” Jade declared, clipped.
M’gann looked sympathetic, but resolved. “I’ll go find the others. I think the boys are rounding up the last of the guards.”
“What about—” Artemis began.
“Don’t worry about it,” M’gann said. “I’ll make sure everything is under control. Go. And… I’ll be here when you need to talk.”
Before Artemis could manage a response, Jade had a death-grip on her arm and was leading them both down the hall. Her sister’s path was unwavering, assured – like she knew exactly where she was going even if she were blindfolded. The look on Jade’s face was as calm as the eye of a storm, staring straight ahead, not even bothering to glance at Artemis, forget about an explanation. But the tight way Jade controlled her face was more revealing than any expression; Jade held a similar countenance the night their mother had died. It only boded ill.
Artemis felt something sink into her stomach, a pit that seemed bottomless, and whatever was causing it, Artemis almost didn’t want to know. There was a rancid feeling rising in her throat, like this was it, this was what the last few days had been building towards, a revelation that would be devastating – and she had no idea where that certainty was coming from, but it was there. Waking and vengeful, and it was all Artemis could do to keep up with Jade’s long strides.
Suddenly, she didn’t want to be here at all.
“I’m sorry,” Jade declared, one of the only two apologies that Artemis had ever received from her sister in her entire life.
And then they were both staring at an empty cryo-pod, the lid open, the frigid liquid inside long having been evaporated. They were in an empty special lab of some sort, and it was obvious that the pod had been wheeled in from the collection outside. The occupant was long gone. Artemis stared up to it, and she could have asked Jade to explain, to tell her what was going on, but she recalled M’gann’s words. It’s better if you show her. Artemis reached for the lid so that she could close the pod, and read the label etched out in front.
And the steel plate nametag stared back at her, reading, Artemis Crock.
Unsurprisingly, once he was released and back in his uniform, Batman took control of everything.
Artemis was silent the whole time as orders were followed out like the good little soldiers they were. The Justice League was alerted, and they arrived in small waves to clean up of the second Project Cadmas facility. The clones were being catalogued and inventoried. Artemis hadn’t been witness to it, but she’d heard from Aqualad that Batman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern had already begun the process of convincing the Justice League of the right course of action – the one they had failed to do with the first facility: the clones needed to be awakened. J’onn, M’gann and some of the other league members, the ones with strong psychic abilities, were put on standby to search for hidden Cadmas programming. It was a step in the right direction.
Artemis would’ve been glad, but she was too numb. Her grip on Wally’s hand was so tight she was positive it bordered on painful, but he hadn’t said anything. She was grateful. Artemis knew she wasn’t the only one in this boat. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern and The Flash – they all had clones. Why Artemis had been added to the roster, she couldn’t fathom. Jade had tried to explain something about it being a punishment against Sportsmaster, or something, but Artemis had shut down that line of conversation so fast she’d literally left her sister behind in her wake.
Details were still trickling in. The Artemis clone (god, god, this wasn’t happening) had been released over a week ago, according to the intel. It – she – whatever a person wanted to call the clone – had been tailored with a specific goal in mind, presumably conditioned just like Roy had when he’d first been released into the world. Dick was still trying to find more information from the mainframe; Artemis wasn’t really sure she wanted to know.
One week. That was just before she’d returned to Happy Harbor. That was—
She was fine. She could handle this. She could—
The lights above her head flickered on and off, drawing everyone’s attention in the room. “Been doing that for the last hour,” Wally remarked, frowning. “Maybe some sort of energy surge? Or security measure?”
From across the room, Nightwing shook his head. “No. Security has been disabled and overridden. We’re in control. Energy output seems to be stable too. I don’t know why the lights are flickering like that—”
Artemis left. Just spun about on her heels and stormed out—because she had to get some air, had too much to think about, too many questions in her head to be worried about some stupid power surges. She stalked down the hall and towards the elevator, but M’gann called out for her just from around the corner before Artemis could escape.
“How are you doing?” M’gann asked.
“Fine,” Artemis answered, firmly.
M’gann sighed. “I know you’re going through a lot, but we need to talk. Artemis, there is something you need to know. There’s a lot, actually, and I—”
Artemis held up a hand. “Stop, just—I need air. I need some space.”
She fled before M’gann could stop her.
It was shameful and cowardice, perhaps, but Artemis was filled up on revelations for the day and M’gann was talking like she had a few more bombshells to drop.
Artemis made it out of the elevator, through the lobby and up to the sidewalk, staring at the dark landscape and wooded surroundings. The silence and uncertainty bloomed out until it was thick and heavy, clouding the open space. She looked up at the sky, and this far out from the nearest city, it was amazing how far the horizon stretched out. Stars shimmered and winked at her, and Artemis felt as small as she should standing under them. Her fingers gripped tightly around the bow resting at her side, still clutched possessively like some comforting childhood teddy bear. She ran through the basics in her head.
A firm foundation, a strong stance. Nock the arrow and grip, the target in sight. Eyeline, aim, and focus. Inhale, anchor, and hold. And then the point of no return. The release and follow through.
The internal mantra calmed her, as it always did.
There were too many things wrong here for Artemis to pick just one to focus on, but when she felt Wally’s presence just behind her, having followed her out, she took a breath. “What now?” Artemis found herself asking.
“I don’t know,” Wally admitted, coming up to stand beside her. “But whatever we do, we can handle it together, Artemis.”
She swallowed heavily. If things were normal, if things were real, she'd step closer and cup his face into the rough curve of her palm; her hands were always calloused, rough and worn from her bow and arrow, but he’d spread his fingers out over the thin fabric of her suit, and she’d kiss him and everything would be okay – everything else would just fade to white noise. She could always count on that, Wally blocking out the sensory of everything else. They'd always orbited around each other, two stubborn objects shifting, locked in a loop. She thought of the stars shining up above her and thought of Pluto and its moon, Neptune. Wally used to tell her that was why Pluto had been downgraded to a dwarf planet, because it orbited around its own moon – a real planet demanded obedience from the objects that moved around it, save the sun. But Artemis had always thought it oddly romantic.
There was a noise at the side that drew their attention. Artemis looked over to find a caravan pulling up, and a moment later Roy emerged. A few other people started unloading the trucks, and Artemis could make out the faint outline of cryo-pods.
“They’ll be released soon,” Wally said. “Batman convinced them. Uncle Barry’s clone might be on that truck.”
And because this was a complicated mess for all involved, Artemis reached out to grab Wally’s hand again, squeezing once in reassurance. She watched Roy direct a few pods toward the east entrance of the facility. Roy didn’t seem to be aware of any scrutiny, which was probably why when Jade appeared a second later he was so unabashed about sweeping her up into his arms. Artemis felt a faint smile spread across her lips; despite all the confusion and heartache and uncertainty, the sight of her sister and Roy in their reunion was bright enough to break through the fog.
Roy pulled away when the row of cryo-pods continued to make their exodus from the trucks. The one with Speedy drained any happiness from Roy’s face, but Jade reached out to cup his face and pull him into a kiss, and Artemis wondered about the strange little family she had carved out for herself. As heartwarming as the scene was, Artemis still couldn’t pull her eyes away from the stream of cryo-pods.
“What if I’m like them?” Artemis said, suddenly.
It wasn’t until the words were out of her mouth that she realized the true fear in the pit of her stomach. A voice that nagged and whispered and gnawed with doubt. Was there a clone waltzing around somewhere? Or was it worse? Was she the clone, source material deleted, and then released with some hidden programming ticking inside her brain like a timebomb about to go off? Just like Roy. For the first time, Artemis truly understood Roy’s anger and frustration and nausea over his entire existence. The uncertainty and horror of such an origin – it hit Artemis with a force enough to knock her off her feet.
“Hey,” Wally said, “That’s not true. You’re… you.”
Artemis shook her head. “You don’t know that. No one knows that. Not for sure.”
She swiped angrily at the corner of her eyes, and turned away from Wally. She wasn’t a clone, was she? Artemis would know. Artemis would feel different, wouldn’t she? Her memory would feel faded and unreal, but it didn’t. Her memories were vivid and detailed and often too painful to be anything other than real. She remembered the look in her mother’s eyes as she had passed away; she remembered the last words Wally had spoken to her four years ago when she’d turned down his marriage proposal; she remembered countless nights of crime-fighting where she’d pounded pavement and kicked ass. Those memories were real. Too real.
But she knew, just as certain, that Roy had felt the same.
“Tell me something,” Artemis said, turning back to Wally. “Tell me something I never knew, I couldn’t have known.”
“What?” Wally asked, confused.
“Just something,” she said, not even sure where she was going with it. “I want something that’s new.”
She had no idea how to explain it any better than that, but thankfully Wally seemed to track her thoughts better than she was managing to explain them. “What do you want to know?”
She shook her head, wanting something comforting and indulging, then decided, “Tell me the first moment you ever realized you were in love with me.”
He paused for a beat, then offered her a smile, wholesome and big and bright enough to blind her. She expected something lighthearted and uplifting, a story that would easily make her smile. “Easy,” he declared, instead. “The Exercise.” The reminder sobered her up quick, because even after years, she still sometimes had nightmares about that. The panic in her veins stilled, and Artemis looked back at Wally while he marshaled together his words. “Wasn’t ready for the revelation, of course. When I thought you were dead, all I could think about was that I never got the chance to tell you how I felt – that I didn’t even know how I felt until you were gone. Then when we awoke, all I did was try to retreat into denial. Couldn’t, obviously. That was when I knew I was in real trouble.”
“Gee, Wally,” she scolded, with a fond smile. “Way to make a girl feel special.”
“It sucked,” he informed, stepping closer, “because I couldn’t do anything about it. Didn’t, until a few months later on New Years, anyway. Not that I didn’t come close a few times before.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Come close? When?”
“Your seventeenth birthday party?” he told her, bashfully, “around Christmas? We were all at the Mountain, and I nearly kissed you under the mistletoe.”
Artemis searched her memory, and couldn’t for the life of her pinpoint the moment he was talking about. It must have been something she’d missed entirely, oblivious or unintentionally dense because half the things that happened between them back then had always flown right over her head. Her seventeenth birthday was a bit of a blur; she remembered the party, a combination of a birthday celebration-slash-Christmas bash, but nothing about Wally and mistletoe. She could just imagine it, though – Wally, back then, trying to build up his courage to kiss her. It warmed her, but then a second later made her freeze up as well.
Maybe she had never been that seventeen-year-old birthday girl that Wally had wanted to kiss?
Maybe she was just a copy?
“Wally,” she said, finally, taking a deep breath. “Get me out of here. Just—anywhere. Take me somewhere not here.”
He took her back to his place.
While the League worked tirelessly around the exploits of the Cadmas Project, while clones were being prepped for release, while her former teammates all sought to figure out the Light’s plans – Wally West was busy making sure his girlfriend wasn’t falling apart. Artemis almost felt ashamed of herself, this need for retreat, but she needed time and space to figure everything out, and she couldn’t – not at the facility. Not with Roy a constant reminder of everything Artemis could be, could become; not with Jade another shining example of what Wally had in store ahead of him.
She changed into comfy clothes, and Wally put some tea on the kettle for her. Artemis strung her hair back in a sleek ponytail and wondered around the apartment without anything to do, but the itch to do something. Over her white tanktop, she had on one of Wally’s sweatshirts – the Stanford insignia bright and red across the front – but underneath the tank, she’d slipped her silver chain on again, feeling strangely comforted by the two weighty rings resting against her breastplate.
She’d tried to sleep for a while, even thought about making out with Wally just for something to do, but she’d just laid there beneath the sheets for about half an hour, staring up at the ceiling as dawn approached. Sleep had been a pointless wish, and sex was a distant desire, so she’d given up both notions quickly. Instead, at a quarter passed seven, Artemis found herself staring out the bedroom window while all the normal people got up and about, starting a new day. Wally was doing this weird thing where he almost always kept her within eyesight, following her around like a lost puppy dog, but still somehow managed to give her the illusion of space. It was sorta sweet, when normally she would have found it annoying. Normally, normally, normally.Today was not a normal day.
Of course, Murphy’s Law being what it was, the next thing Artemis knew, she was coming face to face with her doppleganger through the pane glass window.
“Fuck,” Artemis spat out, jolting back in shock.
Her double turned and took off, and Artemis only had a beat to decide, and the next thing she knew, she had flung open the window and was giving chase. The clone was wearing getup suited for blending in with all the other students housed around the area, jeans and red shirt, white sneakers and a matching sweatshirt. Artemis was in bunny slippers. Still, bound and determined, Artemis hopped up the fire escape ladder, scaling the side of the building to reach the rooftop. She caught sight of the clone jump to the next building, and Artemis called out.
Her clone turned, bow and arrow in hand, and Artemis had a second to duck before an arrow let loose with precision accuracy. It struck the pristine brick wall beside Artemis’ head, and Artemis swore. “Oh, yeah,” she snarled, “Is that how you want to play it?”
Artemis took a flying dive over to the next rooftop and tackled her doppleganger in the middle of reloading an arrow. They crashed in a pile on the pebbled floor, scraping skin on the rough rooftop. Her double slammed an elbow into Artemis’ face and tried to reach for an arrow with the other hand. Artemis whirled to grab her double’s arm. Artemis twisted at the wrist, and her double almost dropped her bow with a curse, then sidestepped and crouched, using swift agility to break free. Artemis recognized the move as one of her own. Her double stuck out her foot, snagging Artemis by the ankle but Artemis just rolled into a dive and came back up on her legs.
It wasn’t until she was a full two feet away that Artemis realized her double had a silver chain dangling by one outstretched hand. Artemis looked down, padding her chest to realize the absence; her double had snatched the chain right off Artemis.
“Give that back!” Artemis screamed.
Artemis darted toward her double, quickly enough that the clone gave up on the arrow and brought her bow to use as a shield and weapon; Artemis only spun around her. Dust stirred up around her feet. Artemis’ training kicked in before her brain had; Artemis dodged once, twice, before watching for familiar patterns. After her double’s third try, she really noticed how recognizable the swings were, how intimate that stance was, how the trade-off of blows were too easily matched. Everything transpired with all the assurances of two people trained the same way, to maneuver through high-impact and high velocity, the same skill set.
“Artemis!” Wally screamed, from a distance.
Both women looked up.
Wally was on the next rooftop, watching the fight unfold in horror. Artemis recovered a split second later, while her double was staring wide-eyed at Wally – and snagged her silver chain back. The move brought her doppleganger back to herself, and she landed a hard blow across Artemis’ right cheek. Artemis flinched, coming back with a bleeding lip, but when she looked up, the clone was already diving off the rooftop and into the alleyway down below. She disappeared around the corner in seconds.
“Are you okay?” Wally asked, speeding his way towards Artemis.
Artemis wiped her mouth, breathing heavily, knuckles bruised and bloody. She looked down at the silver chain where one of the rings dangling at the bottom included his engagement ring. The clone had wanted it; she’d wanted Wally’s ring.
“Yeah,” she managed, tightly.
It was an outright lie.
A few hours later Artemis sat in uncomfortable silence back at the second Project Cadmas facility, waiting for Batman to come back so she could do the whole explanation all over again for his benefit. Patience wasn’t one of her virtues. She settled heavily on the edge of a stiff workbench and twined fingers into tight knots at her lap.
Christ, she hated this place.
Connor found her staring blankly at an empty cryo-pod container twenty minutes later. “You all right?”
“Never been better,” she quipped back.
“M’gann was looking for you, earlier.”
“Yeah,” Artemis said, flinching. “I had, uh, things to take care of.”
That was a lie. Despite the colorful day full of unexpected developments, Artemis hadn’t really done much except get into a fight with her double, which, hello, while admittedly fucked up, wasn’t all that time-consuming.
“Wally says you haven’t been talking,” Connor said.
Artemis tensed. She was going to have to remind Wally about the fine print of the boyfriend code later on. “It’s nothing. I’m fine. There’s bigger fish to fry than anyone worrying about me.”
Connor’s mouth thinned, looking like he was holding back a frown. Disappointment and understanding marred his eyes, though he seemed to understand it was the best answer he would get out of her.
Besides, aside from her bow, sarcasm was the best defense mechanism she’d ever picked up.
Connor perched on the worktable beside her, saying nothing. Which was fine, really. She was cool with silence. Because, just – look. She wasn’t looking for a shoulder to cry on, which was half the reason she was avoiding M’gann, because as well meaning as her Martian friend could be at times, Artemis knew she’d be forced to talk about her feelings. Artemis couldn’t even give anyone a token definition of what she was feeling right now. It involved anger – a lot of anger – confusion, sadness, fear, and a bit of panic that she was still beating down, and it was all hobbled together into this tight ball of hot mess; Artemis was trying to imbue this aura of having her shit under control. She didn’t know whether people were buying it, but she liked to think it wasn’t entirely an act.
She’d been avoiding Jade for similar reasons, because her sister had a well-known history of tough love and seeing through Artemis’ bullshit; she’d likely view Artemis’ pity-parade in less than charitable terms. Possibly even violent terms. And Artemis especially didn’t want to talk to Roy, because his history with such topics of so-I-might-be-a-clone-and-I’m-learning-to-accept-myselfwas hardly ever copasetic; she had enough screwed up issues on her own, thank you very much.
All in all, she wasn’t looking to talk to anybody, which was why she probably wasn’t all that annoyed with Connor’s presence. Superboy wasn’t exactly known for being chatty-Cathy.
Silence reigned for a few moments.
“What if Wally doesn’t pick me?” she spat out, to her horror.
“What?” Connor said in confusion.
And then it was like she couldn’t stop, like a dam had been broken and there was no stopping the word-vomit.
“I mean,” she continued, aware her voice had taken on a distinctly high-pitched tone; there was nothing to be done about it. “What if I’m—I’m the clone? What if I’m not the real Artemis that he fell in love with? Then that means he’ll pick her, right? And I’ll have to watch – and, god, I don’t think I can do that. I cannot do that. This is my life. I only got it back recently, just now – and I know I don’t have the right to own Wally because he’s not like a puppy I picked up at the pound, but, oh god, he is mine. He is mine, damnit. This is my life, and I am Artemis Crock. I have her memories, I have her DNA, I have her life. I am Artemis Crock.”
“Okay,” Connor said, simply.
There was a beat, and apparently Artemis wasn’t finished yet. “But there’s this woman out there that looks like me, fights like me, and I’m fairly sure she has my memories, too. I know she has my feelings because I saw her looking at Wally – and it was… there was recognition. She wanted my ring. I know what that means. I know what she’s thinking about. I would be thinking the same thing, too.”
“Okay,” Connor said, in that same frustratingly sedate voice.
“I’m the real Artemis,” she felt the need to repeat, to point it out again. “I am.”
Connor tilted his head, before he said, in the softest voice she’d ever heard him use, “You both are real, Artemis.”
Artemis looked away, because coming from Connor, there was no way to deny it. Even though she hated it, even if a part of her froze with terror at all the innumerable possibilities… hadn’t she been telling Roy the same thing all these years? Clone or no clone, he was real. He was Roy Harper.
That woman out there – she was Artemis Crock, too.
“He’s only ever loved me, y’know,” Artemis said, softly, more to herself than to Connor. “Wally told me that just the other day. Four years apart, and he still only loved me.”
“I can believe that,” Connor told her.
She offered a small, rueful smile. “I guess it’s weird that I might still lose him to someone, then?”
“This doesn’t have to mean the ending to anything.”
Artemis shook her head. “Everything ends. It’s the one universal constant.”
Dick intercepted her just after she finished debriefing Batman, and the three of them returned to the mainframe room where one portion of the wall was largely made up of a screen big enough to dwarf a small house. Artemis took a seat in the corner as few others came in; Wally, Roy, Jade, and Connor – apparently Dick had called some sort of small informational debriefing, which really only meant one thing. He’d found something in the Cadmas mainframe, maybe the clone’s hidden programming details, or the specifics of the Artemis clone’s mission, or hell – maybe even a clue about what had the Light so combative lately. God knew Artemis still had no idea how all the dots connected, only that they did and it painted a particularly scary picture.
“What is Cheshire doing here?” Connor asked Artemis.
Jade overheard, and offered him a smirk. “Oh, don’t get your superhero tights in a bunch. We’re all on the same side, right now.”
“Right,” Connor said, in deadpan voice.
Jade rolled her eyes. “Word of advice? Good girls are just bad girls that never get caught. I’m just more upfront about who I am. No crime in that.”
“No,” Wally mumbled under his breath. “The crime would be your history with robbery, assault, and that time you put a guy into a coma using only your pinkie.”
“Guys,” Roy cut in, before Artemis had to. “I’ll vouch for her on this. She’s on our side.”
“No need to defend me,” Jade told him. “I can handle the Boy Wonders just fine on my own.”
Wally’s face grew a little red. “How many times do I have to tell you? Boy Wonder is Robin.”
Jade looked over to Dick. “Oh, you mean him?”
“No,” Wally answered. “He’s now Nightwing.”
Jade rolled her eyes. “Honestly, if you keep changing the monikers, how’s a girl supposed to keep track?”
“If we’re done,” Batman announced, from behind, reminding everyone of his presence. It was amazing how after all these years, he could still make them all feel like schoolchildren being scolded. Even Cheshire shut up. “Good. Nightwing, begin the debrief anytime you’re ready.”
Wally came to stand beside Artemis, and his actions were so predictable when he pulled a dramatic face, one that said, whoops, busted, that she had to roll her eyes. God, he was such a dork. They exchanged a smile and Artemis looked briefly around the room. She was hoping to finally track down M’gann, aware that she couldn’t avoid a conversation forever, but apparently Miss Martian wasn’t going to be attending the meeting; she was probably still helping her uncle J’onn with deprogramming the clones. It was a big task.
Dick cut to the chase immediately. “I know one thing the Light is after. The Pharaoh’s Quest.”
Across from her, Wally blinked. “Why does that sound familiar?”
“I mentioned it to you guys a week back after the Museum Gala fiasco,” Dick returned. “Ra’s Al Ghul’s man had a chip with information on it. The Pharaoh’s Quest is an ancient Egyptian artifact, and papyrus scrolls from the museum had critical information about the lore behind it. The current whereabouts of the artifact are unknown, although it’s possible that Lex Luther might have it.”
“What does it do?” Artemis asked. “I’m guessing it’s not just something gold and shinny?”
Dick answered, “If myth is true, this artifact might be one of the most powerful objects we’ve ever seen. Legend tells that it can foretell the future, and help prevent the wearer from suffering their worst fate.”
“A fortune-telling artifact?” Wally said, incredulous. “That’s what the big hubbub is all about? Man, how disappointing.”
“This isn’t something trivial,” a grave voice spoke up behind her, and Artemis turned to find Doctor Fate entering the room. “If this is indeed about the Pharaoh’s Quest, than we face a serious problem. I had long thought the object a rumor.”
Batman turned to Doctor Fate. “What do you know of it?”
“If it exists, it is older than I,” Fate answered. “And far more powerful. By wearing it, the chosen one not only has the ability to see his future, but he will live it – experience it in an alternate reality bubble that bends the very fabric of time and space around him. By living it, the wearer will learn from his future mistakes and be in the position to alter his own fate. This is a power that I do not wield.”
Artemis traded a look with Wally, and even though she knew he didn’t believe in this magic-stuff, the look on his face was plainly intimidated. Despite how she liked to tease him about it, she didn’t blame him in the slightest for the hypocritical stance. Not this time. Artemis wasn’t the biggest fan of ancient-y magic stuff, either. In her lifetime, she’d come across a few things in the superhero business that had just plain blown her mind. Doctor Fate’s helmet was, by itself, one of those things. And this Pharaoh’s artifact was stronger?
“So the Light is tearing itself apart,” Connor surmised, “looking for an artifact that will show the wearer how to avoid his biggest mistakes? I guess that makes sense. If there can only be one person in possession, then it’s not something that can be shared among the Light members.”
“What is it, precisely?” Roy asked. “What does the artifact look like?”
“That’s just it,” Dick answered. “No one really knows. No one, except Sportsmaster.”
Artemis wasn’t the only one that straightened, because she heard her sister’s voice echo her own, “What?”
“Sportsmaster apparently had possession of the artifact at one point,” Dick informed everyone, and clicked on the wall-screen to reveal the data he had gleamed off the Cadmas’ mainframe. “That was why he was targeted by the Light, and why he was kidnapped.”
Jade snorted. “He was kidnapped because he had something they wanted – I just didn’t realize it was some treasure. I thought it was a weapon.”
“The artifact is a weapon,” Doctor Fate corrected. “Make no mistake of that.”
“Right,” Jade said, staring at Fate like he was a freak. She turned her gaze back towards Nightwing. “I guess that’s why I’m here? You want me – or Artemis – to shed some light on where our father could have hidden it? Well, let me save us all some time. We don’t know. Dad was never much of a sharer.”
Batman stepped forward. “Sportsmaster never told anyone of the whereabouts. That much is obvious, otherwise the Light would have killed him long ago. However, one of you may inadvertently know of the whereabouts, anyway.”
Artemis shook her head. “You told me that before, and I’m with my sister on this. Sportsmaster never gave us anything. He never told us anything. And, honestly, I kinda doubt he ever had possession of this thing anyway. Being able to see the future and prevent your mistakes? Does that sound like something Sporstmaster had in his arsenal? I’m not the guy’s biggest fan, but I think we can all agree here that his life was riddled with mistakes and failures. If he had that artifact, why didn’t he just use it?”
He would have used it to save mom, a treacherous voice in Artemis’ head pointed out, before she shut it down cold.
“You have to have pure intention to wield the artifact,” Fate informed.
Artemis froze. Pure intention? With a wave of déjà vu, Artemis remembered being sixteen-years-old again, having a girl’s night out with Zatana which had ended with them confronting a lunatic that had killed his own seven-year-old sister. All in a pursuit to obtain a pure heart, just so he could wield some special sword. The mere reminder made her stomach churn.
“There’s more,” Dick said. “I’ve been digging into the mainframe of the Cadmas Project files. The Artemis Clone was released a week ago, and I’m fairly sure she was given a parameter to find the Pharaoh’s Quest at all costs. She’s programmed to figure out what the artifact is, hunt it down and then give it to the Light.”
The room fell so silent, Artemis could’ve heard a pin drop. She was aware the others were looking toward her, sneaking glances here and there, and Wally was outright frowning, but Artemis held still as a statue, betraying no emotion.
“Anyway,” Dick continued awkwardly, after a beat. “The papyrus scrolls only identified the artifact by a particular phrase. Infinite possibilities, only one fate. It—”
“Son of a bitch,” Jade swore, while Artemis felt her face drain of any color.
The phrase was a familiar one to them both. Their father used to say it all the time. In fact, it was inscribed on the Crock family heirloom that their mother had given Artemis on her seventeenth birthday; the same one nestled securely under Artemis’ clothes on a silver chain.
She wasn't sure how much time had passed— seconds, minutes, whatever, Artemis just knew her mind was awhirl with questions and there was only one person that could give her answers. She had no idea where such assurance was coming from, but it was clear and strong when everything else felt like quicksand beneath her feet. M’gann. M’gann would know; Artemis remembered all the various conversations she’d had with M’gann over the last few days, the subtle hints, the closeted looks of concern, the way she had obviously been hiding something.
Outside, Artemis heard several trucks approaching. There were the sounds of doors opening, and voices, although she couldn't make out much other than the grate of more equipment being off-loaded. For the cryo-pods. God, the preparations seemed never-ending and Artemis knew she’d find M’gann in the thick of it. Her breath made clouds as she made her way across the chilly wooded area, and ran into M’gann near the back acre behind the facility.
“We need to talk,” Artemis announced, breathless.
She was aware of the state she was in – panting, as if she’d just run a few miles, face red from exertion if not the cold, and perhaps even a wild look in her eyes. M’gann recognized it, staring for just a beat before she quietly excused the others unloading all around her. Artemis watched as a few of the younger sidekicks tossed a wary look towards the two women, and then steadily cleared out of the area.
“Is that her?” one of them muttered under his breath, though Artemis didn’t recognize who.
Artemis knew of all of them by reputation, though she hadn’t been formally introduced to half the newest recruits. The new Robin, Beast Boy, Blue Beetle, La’gaan, Wonder Girl, and Artemis’ old friend from Gotham Academy, Barbara Gorden, hidden behind her Batgirl costume. Artemis exchanged a quick glance with the latter, a sting of regret about the quick dismissal, but she needed to talk to M’gann in private.
When they were alone, M’gann drew herself to her full height with a deep breath, as if she were bracing herself for something painful. “You know,” she acknowledged.
“Know what?” Artemis returned, a little helplessly. “M’gann, help me out here. I have all these pieces, but none of this is making sense.”
“Yes, it is,” she replied, not unkindly. “You just don’t like what it says.”
Artemis had been wrong before when she’d thought M’gann had been hiding some secret about herself; it wasn’t about M’gann at all, but Artemis. And now they both knew, with sinking finality, that the answers had always been there. M’gann had just been keeping them from her.
Artemis took out her silver chain from under her shirt, pulling the rings up and off her. She drew aside the one her mother had given her. It was plain gold, with hieroglyphic symbols etched into the interior.
Infinite possibilities, only one fate.
“Is this the Pharaoh’s Quest?” Artemis asked.
The lampposts surrounding the area all flickered on and off, sporadic and temperamental. Artemis threw a concerned look about, but M’gann kept her focus steady, right on Artemis. “Is that you?” Artemis asked M’gann. “With the lights?”
Artemis drew in another lengthy breath. “What is it, then? It's been happening for a while.”
“Artemis,” M’gann said carefully. “You have to understand. Everything around you is in this delicate limbo. I couldn’t tell you before because you weren’t ready, and this won't work if you're not ready. I’m not sure you are now, but you’ve figured out more than enough on your own.”
“I haven’t figured out anything!” Artemis snapped.
But that was a lie, and she should have known better than to lie to a psychic.
Deep down, Artemis knew she’d figured out more than enough; she just didn’t want to entertain the idea. It was too… much, even for her. The Pharaoh’s Quest had been in Artemis’ possession since the very young age of seventeen. All that time, sitting dormant and idle, waiting for those that would seek it for their own gains.
… or maybe not.
“The flickering lights are all you, Artemis,” M’gann said. “It's responding to your distress. This reality is all you, a warped version of the future set out at your feet.”
“No,” Artemis denied, shaking her head. “What? That’s insane. That’s not possible!”
“Trust me, I had enough trouble swallowing the truth,” M’gann returned, then broke her gaze and looked away, eyes welling in her tears. “I didn’t want to believe it myself. You have to understand, this is all real. I’m real, the others – we’re all very much alive and cognizant, separate entities from you. It’s just… this is the wrong reality, one which should be aborted. A pocket or a bubble of reality that will soon burst, whether either one of us likes it or not. If it doesn't, we're talking a catastrophe on a galaxy scale.”
Artemis stared, uncomprehending. She tried to find the words. "I—this has to be real," she said, remembering Wally’s face, the rich sound of his laughter when they’d rolled across the bed just the other day after making love. "How can it not be real?”
“It is real,” M’gann told her, sadly. “It’s just not right.”
The years had changed her friend. She was still M’gann, still wide-eyed and herself in all the ways that had ever mattered, but she was sharper, too, trimmed down and more certain in her movements. There were sketches of wisdom in her eyes that had not been there in their youth; faint indentations of knowledge that had settled heavily on her shoulders. Artemis had missed it before.
“You used the ring unknowingly,” M’gann explained, while Artemis just stood there, frozen. “A week ago, you awoke in this reality but the truth is you’re seventeen years old, Artemis. You just celebrated your birthday, and your mother had given you a gift. She didn’t know – no one but perhaps your father could have known – what would happen next. You leapt forward in time, unwittingly, right into the body of your future self. One week ago. Only you didn't realize what had happened.”
“You’re not making any sense.”
“I’m speaking truth,” M’gann countered. “A truth that sent me into a psychic coma for nearly four days. This reality distortion was created when you leapt forward in time, and it was so jarring to a person with my sensibilities that I couldn’t handle it. I went into a coma, and I only came out when I realized what I had to do. What I’ve been helping you do, whether you’ve known it or not, this entire time.”
“Which is what?” Artemis demanded, suddenly furious.
“Guys,” a voice called out from behind. Artemis and M’gann whirled to find Wally standing off to the side, a fierce look of worry etched across his face. “Everything all right?”
Neither of the women answered.
“You kinda took off without warning,” he continued, awkwardly, speaking to Artemis. “Batman is still waiting for you to finish the debrief.”
Artemis choked back a sickly noise, halfway between a laugh and something else, because she realized disappointing Batman was so far down on her list of priorities, it was absurd. She tried and failed miserably at covering up her emotions. M’gann walked forward and gave Wally a tight nod, and maybe something passed between them, some psychic communication that Artemis wasn’t privy to, but a second later Wally nodded as well, still looking confused and concerned, and M’gann left.
“Artemis?” he said, a whole host of questions packed into her name.
She brushed a long strand of blonde hair out of her eyes and turned away, because she wasn’t sure how to answer a single question in that moment. Not a single one. She stopped trembling when she felt his arms wrap around her from behind. Whatever confusion he felt, he didn’t let it show, just pulled her back against his chest and she tucked herself into him; he was murmuring quick words of comfort into her hair, and she knew she felt warm to the touch, like a fever had broken out across her body.
“What’s wrong, Arty?”
Instead of answering, she kept quiet for a long while and he didn't push her. Just his presence managed to calm her, and it was something that hadn't escaped her notice.
“It’s a little sickening how much I love you, you know that, right?”
He dropped his chin onto her shoulder. “Yeah? Well, I could always stand to hear it more often.”
“Please,” she tried, playing it off with the exasperated tone expected of her, aware it sounded strained. “Your ego doesn’t need the constant reminder.”
Even as she felt the reassuring warmth of his skin under her fingers, her gaze was drawn past them into the far reaches of the nearest truck, to the equipment awaiting release. The equipment meant to help liberate the clones from their cryo-pods. The lamppost above them flickered on and off, and with a sickly start, Artemis wondered if M’gann was right; the electricity seemed oddly in tune with Artemis’ mood, like some flicker of awareness that seemed to transpire whenever Artemis was confronted with a cold truth about reality.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Forget everything else – Wally was real, he was real; there was no other way they fit except like this. She thought about the concept of going back, becoming seventeen again, and it was too bizarre because she was so much older and wiser, and the idea of retracing her steps for all those years, especially with Wally, was enough to make her feel ill. It was insane. A near-dozen years wasn't so many over the course of a lifetime, but it could be enough to alter what a person knew, that which felt familiar. Wally was in love with her; she was in love with him. As teenagers, maybe they had started to fall for one another, but that was like comparing a lake to an ocean. At seventeen, they were just kids.
She decided she didn’t buy it – M’gann’s insane little theory. It was too… insane. Too outlandish, and besides, the only proof was apparently some magical ring. What the hell was this? Lord of the Rings? Artemis snorted.
Yeah. She resolutely, categorically did not buy it.
Still, a desperate, irrational impulse overtook her. The next thing Artemis knew, she was tugging Wally by the hand, marching them back into the facility. The doors closed behind them, and Artemis wove through the corridors with a specific destination in mind.
Wally tried to slow them down. “Babe, where are we going?”
Artemis never once broke stride. As they trudged across the facility, she sought out somewhere private. She found an empty storage closet, mid-sized, filled with office furniture, at the far end of the facility. She got the door closed behind them, and then without a word, pushed Wally against the door. She broke, crushing her mouth to his. She swept her tongue around his mouth like she could soak up the taste of him, every inch, and her hands were everywhere.
“Whoa, whoa, Artemis,” Wally choked out, pulling back. “Not that I’m complaining, but what—”
“Shut up, Wally. Just – go with it.”
She spotted a chair against the back, and dragged him back with a fistful of his Flash uniform, pushed him down into the chair. She climbed on top of him, straddling him across his lap, and it was like Artemis couldn’t stop herself, her breath coming heavy and her hips soon grinding a sinful staccato beat into his crotch; despite his initial hesitation, when she drew off her shirt with one quick rapid movement, Wally stared at her revealing flesh and skin-tone bra, swallowing thickly.
“You sure?” he managed, heavily, sounding a bit scandalized. “Here?”
His eyes were already dilated, cheeks flushed with the familiar tell of arousal – not that she needed the hint with the evidence of his hardening press against her thigh. Instead of answering, she just kissed him again and Wally didn’t need to be told twice. He hooked an arm around her waist to keep her supported, returning her demanding kisses but she kept control. For the last few days, Artemis had been hoarding this – every touch, every kiss, every smile, every last moment. She realized, deep down, she'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop, doubting herself and this second chance. Now, she realized why.
The intercom came on. “Artemis, Wally,” M’gann’s voice registered. “Report to the mainframe room immediately. We, uh, have a visitor that wants to talk to you.”
Wally groaned. “Seriously, now?”
“Yes, now,” M’gann said over the intercom, and Wally and Artemis traded a sharp look. M’gann had just hinted at the fact she might have been aware of exactly what was transpiring between the two of them. “…Sorry about that,” M’gann acknowledged.
Wally went red in the face, but Artemis simply sat back in his lap, frowning. She refused to be embarrassed about her state of attire, or what they had just been caught doing red-handed, and simply asked, trying to contain her annoyance, “Who’s the visitor?”
“It’s your…” M’gann began, delicately, “well, your doppelganger.”
Artemis and Wally got redressed and hightailed it to the main floor where Jade and M’gann were waiting for them. Artemis endured a knowing smirk from Jade across the room regarding her obvious disheveled state, but Artemis was only half paying attention to it anyway.
There was a flash of blonde hair near the fringes of the room — long, upswept in a ponytail — and then an oddly familiar derisive snort that Artemis had heard in a handful of home videos; she looked across the room, where sitting in a heap, handcuffed and looking worn thin, was the other Artemis wearing civilian clothes. A pair of black combat pants, steel-toed Magnum boots and a dark T-shirt, over which she wore a black vest covered in pockets and zippers. Artemis hoped someone had searched her for weapons. She was sitting between Cheshire and M’gann, and both of them were talking about something, but it hardly seemed like her double was interested. The moment Artemis had entered the room, her double’s gaze had honed in like a hawk, and the two held a stare with each other across the expansive room for a very long beat.
The tension was obvious. Artemis didn’t know what to make of it, but somehow it wasn’t all that surprising that Artemis instantly disliked her clone on sight. Telling, but not very surprising. She wasn’t even sure if the strife was entirely due to their violent introduction to one another on that rooftop. What were you supposed to say to a person that could potentially uproot your entire life? Hi, nice to meet you?
“She hasn’t said much,” M’gann informed, approaching Artemis with long strides.
Artemis hid a flinch, not even sure if the cause was her clone or her friend. Now that she had a few minutes to think about it, Artemis could feel righteous indignation swelling up. M’gann had been keeping secrets, and it didn’t matter that Artemis wasn’t even sure she bought her story. That wasn’t the point. Who was M’gann to think she could choose to tell what bits of information Artemis could handle? That wasn’t M’gann’s call.
“I’m sorry,” M’gann said, misinterpreting the look on Artemis’ face, or perhaps just the source. “I didn’t know I was interrupting earlier, with you and Wally.”
“It’s fine—” Wally began, in the same second that Artemis threw down an aloof, “Don’t worry about it. Not the first time you’ve invaded my privacy, anyway.”
There was a flick of acid in her voice, just a little—just enough to let M’gann know that she was not happy. Apparently, it was thick enough to register with Wally, who turned to stare at Artemis with an uplifted eyebrow.
A pinched expression of worry flashed across M’gann’s face. “Right," she returned, awkward. "We can set you up in one of the empty labs.”
As M’gann walked away to escort the clone into the next room, Wally shuffled up beside Artemis. “What was that all about?”
Artemis shook her head, and made to move. “Nothing.”
“Hey,” Wally stopped her with a hand on her forearm. “Don’t give me that. You’re fighting with M’gann, and though I love the friskiness, that thing back there in the storage closet isn’t your normal Artemis behavior. C’mon, babe, what’s going on?”
For a beat, Artemis almost wanted to spill everything – but what could she say? Even if she managed to explain M’gann’s crazy theory with half the eloquence that M’gann had, Artemis still wasn’t sure she wouldn’t come off sounding crazy.
At length, Artemis only said, “Ask me that when this thing with my clone is over.”
It was a way of deflecting any questions and reminding Wally that they both had their plates full with problems. It was also only half her concern. Artemis hoped her only two options in life wasn’t to be either a clone or some time traveling seventeen-year-old gypsy in her own future body. There was no way the universe had that twisted a sense of humor.
Wally sighed. “Look, I know it sucked the way you two met on the rooftop,” he began, obviously trying to thaw the chilly atmosphere, “but it might help to let that go. It didn’t have to go down like that.”
“Actually,” Artemis responded, with a wry sort of shrug. “Two of me? No other way for it to go down but with fighting, if you think about it.”
Wally paused, pointedly. “Well, if I had been involved, I could think of another way it could have gone down. Far more pleasant and entertaining.”
His tone and the glazed look in his eyes belied the shamelessness of his suggestion. “Wally!” Artemis hissed, smacking him in the arm. “This is serious. Get your perverted brain out of the gutter.”
“Oh, c’mon,” he mumbled, rubbing his arm, “Any guy would go there when faced with two versions of his girlfriend. I dare you to find a guy that wouldn’t.”
Artemis glared. “Need I remind you that she’s probably programmed to kill you?”
Wally shrugged. “You were raised by a ninja dad that wanted his ninja daughter to probably kill her ninja boyfriend, remember? You turned out fine.”
“That’s not the same.”
“Yeah, well,” Wally said, sincere and probing. “If she’s anything like you, my money’s on her overcoming any programming. You have to remember that, babe. She’s you. Stubborn and arrogant, and the only woman I know that started crime-fighting as a kid because one of her parents had trained her to be an assassin, but she was too good for that. The rest of us? We had tragedy. We had experiments that went wrong. We had supportive parents or trust funds and vendettas. You? Well, Arty, you took the meaning of teenage rebellion to a whole new art form. I’m thinking mental re-programming and conditioning should be a cakewalk by comparison.”
She snorted a laugh. A beat of silence ticked out, and she didn’t know what to say. Wally had this strange talent of being a complete goofball and the most supportive boyfriend ever, all wrapped up in one.
“Hey, c’mon, beautiful,” he said, fingers latching onto her waist, tugging her forward so that she faced him. “Give me one smile. Just one. Even though it seems like it, this isn’t the end of the world.”
“Yeah?” she said, and okay, maybe her lips were tugging upwards a little. “You promise?”
“I promise,” he vowed, solemnly. “Besides, if you think I’d let the world end before we completed that thing we started in the storage closet? Then you’re insane.”
Artemis rolled her eyes, but she reached up and kissed him briefly. “You’re lucky you’re such a good kisser,” she murmured teasingly. “’Cause otherwise I don’t know why I would keep you around.”
Wally looked pleased with himself. “So you’ll go easy on your clone?”
“I never said that,” Artemis pointed out. “And, besides, she might not be the one that’s a clone.”
“Hey,” Wally admonished. “Stop thinking like that.”
Artemis sighed heavily and pulled back, knowing she needed to keep her head on straight. Wally was right. Until proven otherwise, Artemis just had to operate under the assumption that the other woman was the clone; Artemis felt her sanity might depend on it. She straightened, resolving to exchange a few calm, entirely rational words with her double, but then Wally was following hot on her heels.
She raised an eyebrow at him, and Wally returned, “What? You two need a chaperone.”
“Wally,” Artemis returned, and tried not to grit her teeth. She didn’t want to endure an audience for this, and jeeze, did he really trust her so little? It wasn’t like she was going to walk in there and put an arrow through her double. “I have to do this myself. It’s just… it’s just something I have to do.”
After a beat, Wally sighed. “Fine. But, just, try not to pummel your own face in, okay? Play nice!”
“Only if she does,” Artemis warned.
“Hey,” her sister called, from afar.
Artemis turned back to Jade. Her sister opened her mouth, probably to deliver some scathing or sarcastic remark, but after a beat she just closed her mouth. She nodded once, a lone gesture of solidarity, and Artemis knew exactly what she meant. Stay sharp. Keep cool. Stay safe. It was a sentiment that neither Crock girl would ever verbalize aloud, but that didn’t mean it didn’t go without saying.
She left, but a second before she entered the side laboratory that M’gann had deposited her clone into, Artemis drew the silver chain off her shoulders and slipped both rings inside her pocket. She tucked it safely away out of sight. M’gann passed Artemis on her way out, and the two women exchanged a look, but Artemis tried not to read too much into it. Didn’t want to, in fact. Artemis entered the lab and the door closed behind her.
Artemis was left staring at her double sitting in front, handcuffed and slouching.
“So,” her double began, wryly. “How are we going to play this?”
Artemis’ instinct was to lobby back a cutting remark, but she remembered Wally’s plea and took a deep breath. She needed to be levelheaded about this. “How about we play this honestly? Seems a little pointless to lie.”
“Why’s that? Not like there’s much reason for trust between us.”
Her double was clearly going to go for a hostile approach; Artemis really couldn’t find fault. If the situation was reversed, where she herself was the one in handcuffs and under suspicion, Artemis knew for a fact that there was no way she’d take the high road.
Artemis shrugged. “Just ‘cause there’s no reason for trust doesn’t mean we can’t spot each other’s lies. For instance, your handcuffs.”
“What about them?”
“I’ve known how to pick those since I was fourteen-years-old,” Artemis pointed out. “Which means you do, too. So how about we give up the ruse?”
There was a very long stretch of silence, and then her double smiled a bit lazily and shrugged. A second later, the handcuffs came loose, dangling on one arm. Artemis gave her clone a tight nod, then grabbed a chair and wheeled it across the linoleum floor so that they could face each other. Pregnant silence fell again. There was this strange thrill that Artemis could not describe in words, but it was surreal to be sitting opposite of herself. A person only faced their reflection in snatches – mirrors, photographs, videos – but here, it was living and breathing, an exact copy. Artemis wasn’t sure how to respond to that.
“You and Wally,” her clone started, looking away. “You guys together again?”
Awkwardly, Artemis breathed out, “yeah.”
“When did that happen?”
“Recently. Last week or so.”
Her clone nodded, tightly. If there was any question as to whether this other Artemis had all the same memories, it was put to rest with that one telling gesture. The contained thrum of anger and jealousy was only too obvious to a trained eye; Artemis had always been shitty at covering her tells, or so Wally had always teased. She didn’t like to think about the vulgarity or ridiculousness of being jealous of yourself, because apparently this was just a facet of reality that Artemis had to accept now. Like telepathy and time-traveling magical rings.
Artemis shifted under the uncomfortable reminder, feeling the weight of the two rings in her pocket like they were lead stones.
“Why are you here?” Artemis asked.
“I’m a clone,” she bit out, tersely. “I need deprogramming.”
A gust of air escaped Artemis’ lungs. It was an acknowledgement, a ratification. Artemis had been holding tight to the hope she wasn’t herself the clone, but now there was outside confirmation. “You know that?” Artemis asked. “For a fact? I—I mean, the, uh, deprogramming. You know you need deprogramming?”
“I nearly took your head off trying to get Mom’s ring,” her double spat out. “So, yeah, apparently something is ingrained in my head. Where is it, anyway? The ring? Not-not that you should tell me," she quickly stammered out, desperately, a bit wide-eyed. "Just, like, tell me you didn’t do something stupid like hide it in your pocket or something.”
“What? No! Of course not!” Artemis hoped the red on her face wasn’t too telling. “Don’t worry, you’re not going to get your hands on it.”
Her clone sighed, slumping back in her chair with obvious relief. “Good. I don’t—the Light can’t get it. They can’t their hands on it.”
"They won't," Artemis assured.
"There's things I can tell you," the clone continued. "Details in their plans that I know about. I awoke in this facility a week ago, but my knowledge and familiarity of it... it's not to be underestimated. I can show you things about this place that you wouldn't find otherwise."
Artemis studied her, trying to keep the suspicion off her face. "Well, that would be nice."
"Have you guys started deprogramming the clones yet?"
Artemis paused, unsure of how much to answer.
Frustration marred her double's eyes. "Look, I'm trying to help here, but I gotta know if M'gann can deprogram me. I need— you have to give me something. I can't live like this. I won't."
The words were desperate. Plainly so.
“I’m—” Artemis said, struggling. “You’re really trying, aren’t you? To fight your programming?”
The clone met her eyes, and Artemis found herself noting the familiar shade and color, the stark look of resolve and stubbornness.
With a start, in one split-second, Artemis knew. She realized that Wally had been right. Her clone was trying to fight the conditioning. She had no idea why that was so surprising, maybe it was her instinct to assume the worst about herself, but Artemis settled back in her chair, reevaluating everything. She took a breath, licking her lips, and suddenly she wished for more solid footing. It would have been easier if her double had been a threat; Artemis would have known how to react to that. But now... now it was suddenly more complicated.
Hostility and resentment drained out of Artemis, replaced instead by a sharp stab of sympathy. “I’m sorry,” Artemis found herself saying. “If what you're saying is true, then I'm sorry. About this. All of this.”
Her clone smiled, looking rough around the edges. For the first time, Artemis noticed the dusky bruising under the eyes, the faint tinge of blue that meant far too little sleep and far too much stress. Her clone, she imagined, must’ve been through hell the last week coming to terms with her existence. Artemis couldn’t imagine facing the revelation of such an origin – but then again, she didn’t have to, did she? If what M’gann was saying held even a morsel of truth to it, Artemis faced a thorny identity crisis as much as any clone.
“You remember what Mom said to us the day after we graduated high school?” her double said, breaking the silence. “When we were having celebratory waffles at home?”
“Yeah. I-uh, she said—”
“She said," the clone cut in, sounding far off, lost in a memory that wasn't her own, "be good. Be strong. No matter what, Artemis, it’s important you be your own woman. Be the type that could save the world. Apparently I can’t be my own woman, but I sure as hell can do the rest.”
There was a lengthy pause where Artemis tried to figure out what to say. It strangely felt like she’d walked in there with the intent of proving herself the better woman, but now she was sitting there feeling like the lesser of the two. Her clone was managing her existential crisis with a lot more aplomb than Artemis thought herself capable of. Of course, she’d also had a few days to wrap her head around the idea. Still…
“M’gann should be able to deprogram you,” Artemis eventually said. “Hold on, I’ll just go ask her—”
“Just link with her,” her clone cut in, tiredly. “I’ll sit and wait.”
The idea of psychically connecting to M’gann at that moment, with everything between them, wasn’t heartening, but Artemis set it aside. M’gann? she tried, mentally reaching out.
Yeah? M’gann’s voice drifted back, sounding hesitant.
Artemis decided to stick to business. Could you deprogram her? She says she wants it.
Of course, M’gann returned. It’ll take a few days, but it’ll probably be more successful than the other trials Uncle J’onn and I have attempted with the comatose clones. It’s easier to reverse the mental conditioning when the subject is awake. With all the clones still in the cryo-pods, their… their minds are too dark. It’s difficult to manage much with them.
But it shouldn’t be a problem with her? Artemis questioned. With… the other Artemis?
No, M’gann answered with finality. But Artemis, you know what I’m going to say, don’t you? None of this will matter, in the end. Not if you return to your life at seventeen—
“Stop!” Artemis snapped, a bit desperately. A second later, when her clone was giving her a mix of a stink-eye and a look of bewilderment, Artemis realized she’d said the reprimand out loud. Artemis reined in her emotions. Just— we’ll talk about that later. Right now, let’s focus on one problem at a time.
Artemis didn’t wait for a response from M’gann. “She can do it,” she told her clone. “M’gann can take the conditioning out.”
“Good,” her double replied, though she was still looking at Artemis with a sense of wariness. “Look, if it’s all the same to you, I think I’d prefer to speak with Jade or M’gann from now on. Or—or, Wally, if he wants to. It’s just… too weird. With you.”
“Yeah,” Artemis said, swallowing. “I get that.”
“Babe, hurry up! We gotta leave in five minutes!”
“Wallace West,” Artemis growled back, “If you tell me to hurry one more time, I’m going to switch all the bags of sugar in this house with salt when you least expect it.”
He made a face. “You wouldn’t.”
Funnily enough, Wally never joked about food. Ever.
“Try me,” she warned.
He obediently raised a hand in surrender and backtracked out of the room so that she could get ready in peace. Artemis sighed, going back to restocking her quiver.
She had studiously kept busy the last two days and now the sunlight was quickly fading into the late evening. She knew she had to hurry, but Artemis couldn’t build up the motivation to move any quicker. It had been surprisingly easy to avoid her clone for the last forty-eight hours, and for the most part the Cadmas facility in its entirety. Trips sprang up here and there, but Artemis had found easy excuses to avoid it.
Artemis sighed. She sat down on the mattress and took a moment. She had cooled off significantly from the initial brunt of anger and confusion, especially at M’gann. Still, there were… issues. Bits of resentment and, if she was being honest with herself, fear. Fear that as outrageous at it seemed, what M’gann was claiming was true. Artemis had enough problems to deal with, thank you very much. Being a time-traveling version of her seventeen-year-old self? It was like something out of The Twilight Zone, and though she had resolved to handle everything with a level head and an open mind, Artemis was still at a point where the news that Wally had been spending bits of his free time with her clone was nevertheless worrying. She hated to cop to it, but Artemis felt insecure enough in this new re-burgeoning romance with Wally. Her clone wasn’t helping matters. A girl could only handle so much on her plate, y’know?
She’d spent the last few days in what she had artfully coined as combat therapy. Mainly, getting back into the swing of patrolling, using her spare time to pound the pavement and get some good old-fashioned work done. Despite the constant vigilance maintained in the last few weeks because of the heightened Light activity, when Artemis saved a random pedestrian from a mugging, she realized just how long it’d been since she’d done any of the standard heroics. It felt good. Better than good.
Now, it was back to facing a reality with the same oncoming intimidation as freight train.
She pulled the quiver bag over her head and called out to Wally. “All right, I’m ready. You?”
He sped into the room. “Born that way, of course.”
She rolled her eyes, and then noticed his goggles were haphazardly thrown back over his hair and the end result made him look adorably bed-tousled. It wasn’t fair that Wally could look that good without effort.
“What?” he asked, suspiciously, misinterpreting her scrutiny.
She walked up and fixed his goggles so that it jetted out at a less ridiculous angle. With an amused pucker to her lips, she ran a hand through his hair and, when he tugged her forward by the waist, settled her hands on his shoulders. To her surprise, she found hard stiffness in his muscles, tight and unyielding. His broad shoulders were a nice attraction, but God, he was so tense. Even though he could span the width of her back with one stretch of his hand, a thing that often made Artemis feel oddly secure and safe, tonight the weight on him hung too heavily.
“How’re you doing?” she asked him, softly.
“Isn’t that supposed to be my line? I feel like it’s become my line lately.”
“Yeah, well, today’s different.”
Wally kept silent, but then again, Artemis had always read him like an open book.
Barry Allen’s clone was finally being awakened. She knew Wally was handling the prospect with equal parts anticipation and dread. Despite the colorful lessons she’d been getting the last few days in hey-this-is-your-life-with-a-clone, she couldn’t imagine what this was like for Wally. Barry Allen had always been more than just an uncle or a mentor. To Wally, there were times when Barry had been closer to Wally than even his own dad. Not that Rudy West wasn’t a great dad; compared to Sportsmaster, he was clearly running in the Olympic league for Best Father Figure. But Barry had always understood Wally in a way that few others had. She remembered the funeral, the few brief words at the service that Wally had managed to choke out at the podium. The entire audience had been filled with the secret identities of over two-dozen costumed superheroes, but to hear Wally that day, it was like there had only ever been one true hero his entire life.
To lose that, and then years later find himself getting a second chance with a clone version of his uncle? Not to mention the unbearable complications of Wally’s little two-year-old cousins, Don and Dawn Allen, who had never even met their own father. God, no one had even built up the courage to tell Iris yet. Artemis suspected that revelation was probably going to wait until Barry’s clone could decide for himself how to handle it. Artemis almost winched just thinking about it.
Artemis smoothed a hand over what must have been a very tired brow of his. “Hey,” she breathed out, softly. “It’s okay to freak out a little, y’know?”
“Define freak out,” he returned, lightly. “How much do you think I could get away with? Like, could you possibly be talked into pent-up frenzied sex, if I played my cards right?
She shrugged. “If we weren’t running ridiculously late, you might’ve had a chance.”
“We’re not that late,” said the boy that had been harping at her to hurry for the last hour. “We could totally be a little longer—”
“Wally,” she cut in, with a somber voice. “You don’t have to make a joke about everything, y’know? It’s okay to just…” she trailed off.
“Freak out?” he repeated, this time without any of the false lightness. “Can’t, Arty. I go down that road and it’ll be… too much momentum behind it.”
Not for the first time, Artemis thought about how taxing the last few days must have been for a guy that never bothered to burden others with his own serious complaints and misgivings. Wally was handling everything thrown at them the way he handled everything, with sarcasm and a carefree tone, but in snatches of moments like this, she could see everything on the surface. Wally West was a man who felt things very, very deeply.
She tipped her forehead against his, eyes closed, breathing steady, and she couldn’t say how long they stayed like that, or who was comforting whom, really, but she knew that Wally must have needed the physical contact as much as her because soon he wrapped her up in an embrace that was a smidge too tight. She didn’t complain. He rested his chin on her shoulder, and she pressed her nose into the crock of his neck. He smelled like pine aftershave and that hint of a scent that only went by the name of Wally West.
“God, it’s ridiculous how much I love you,” she murmured in exasperation.
“That’s four,” he whispered back, and she smiled.
He’d taken to counting the number of times she said something to the effect of how nauseating her love for him was. Apparently she’d said it a lot in the last forty-eight hours.
She pulled back and then sighed. “Now I really have to get ready before my boyfriend gets his skin-tight uniform in a bunch. He’s freakishly punctual.”
“It’s aerodynamic!” he screeched in familiar protest. “And I’m not freakishly anything.”
“You break the sound barrier, dude,” she pointed out, archly. “And hey, I’m not complaining about the uniform. Whatever keeps you showing off those muscles. It’s all good.”
His ears tinged a little red. “Says the girl in a mid-riff. Have you ever met a full length shirt that you’ve ever liked?”
“I like wearing some of yours,” she purred into his ear.
He groaned, and she could tell she was getting to him. “Now who’s trying to make us late?”
“Who? Me?” she questioned, doe-eyed, voice low and husky as she pressed into him. “I don’t have a clue what you’re—”
“Ah!” he pulled back, putting some distance between them. “Enough of that! I know your ways, you vixen. We’re not going to be any later than we already are.”
She flashed a pout. “See? Freakishly punctual.”
All right, so maybe she had been trying to distract Wally a little, but as they drove down the highway to the Cadmas facility in silence, she reasoned she had every right to interject as much lightheartedness into their day as possible considering what awaited them.
It wasn’t just Barry Allen or her clone, either. Artemis was aware that Speedy had finally been released, too, and was in the first stages of rehabilitative therapy as he adapted to a waking world entirely changed from what he remembered when he went to sleep at fifteen. She hadn’t heard from Roy, but Cheshire had sent her a few profane texts in the middle of the previous night that made Artemis think Roy was handling the transition quite possibly worse than the original Roy.
The rest of the Cadmas facility was a work in progress, too. A slow one, at that. She knew from others that M’gann and J’onn had their hands full with deprogramming, and it was a lot more difficult and taxing than first imagined. Aside from the impending release of Barry Allen’s clone, both Green Arrow and Batman’s clones had been already been deprogrammed and awakened. Artemis had no word on how well that had gone over. Lips were sealed pretty tight about a lot of things, and all the liberated clones were being moved to other secure locations.
All, except Artemis’ clone, who had insisted on staying at the Cadmas facility to help. Apparently, her clone had been very helpful indeed, aiding the League through roadblocks in the building’s security and she had even pointed out a few hidden features. Most others seemed to get that the thorny issues were best left treated with kid gloves, and her sister and M’gann seemed to be handling her clone well enough; though applying the term of art of “kid gloves” to Jade was probably a stretch of imagination the likes of which would largely sprain a person’s brain, but Artemis knew M’gann would counterpoint.
… speaking of people she was trying to avoid.
Artemis sighed. She could already feel her body clenching tight with worry, and she hadn’t even reached the facility yet. She drew down the window and stared out at the scenery, bathed in the brief intermittent blinking lights that played off against the shadows as the highway raced passed her. She played absentmindedly with her silver chain, tugging the rings at the end back and forth with her thumb and forefinger without even realizing it – until, that was, she noticed Wally out of the corner of the eye. He was watching her, had been for some time, fixated on the way her fingers played over his old engagement ring.
Wally said, in an overly-cautious tone, “You know, when this is all over... how about we go for a vacation? Just you and me?”
Artemis paused, then offered him a small, hopeful smile. “I’d like that.”
It sounded like perhaps they were talking about something more serious than a simple vacation.
She was about to comment to Wally that they could always try South America or – oh, Brazil, she’d always wanted to see Brazil – when she noticed a dark cloud of smoke on the horizon. It wafted into the air, looming and ominous, right over the area where the facility was located. She brought it to Wally's attention by leaning forward in her seat, gripping him by the forearm, and Wally followed her gaze. Then Artemis was gripping tightly enough to leave a bruise because he took the next sharp turn, getting off at the nearest exit with enough force to jolt her against the seatbelt.
Normally, she was the one to drive. Mainly because Wally was an impatient sort of fellow when it came to ordinary transportation and she had always been better at piloting vehicles than him – airplanes, boats, cars, sentient alien spacecrafts – whatever. But he drove the car swiftly through the streets and Artemis had to abstain from cracking any jokes about his driving skills because despite the fact that she could count on one hand the number of times that his foot went anywhere near the brake, Artemis doubted they’d arrive with a single scratch to the polish of the car.
The smoke looked bad, even from a distance. She had to contain her anxiety, but the panic on Wally’s face made it difficult for Artemis to control her own fears. When they arrived, Wally brought the car to a skidding stop only a few feet from the main double-door entrance. The facility was comprised of three interconnected buildings, and the eastern one was entirely engulfed in flames. Artemis could see a splatter of bullet-holes all along the middle building, and while the largest of the buildings was set ablaze in a giant inferno, the other, the last one on the west side, the one that housed the clones - Artemis could make out it was being sieged by ninjas. Ra’s Al Ghul’s men.
The facility was under attack by the Light.
They met up with M’gann, Nightwing and Aqualad on the main floor of the west building, and a distant explosion rocked the entire floor, shaking everything beneath their feet with the blast. Artemis pitched forward and stumbled into Wally, and somewhere three levels down from them, Connor was reporting over the radio that a room had burst into flames. Artemis recovered to her feet, exchanging looks with everyone.
“They must be after the clones,” Aqualad said. “M’gann, Artemis, cover the east entrance. Wally, you can help Nightwing and me.”
Nightwing nodded. "Maintain radio silence from now on," he declared, and vanished down the hallway.
Wally was about to take off just as abruptly, but Artemis stopped him. “Hey!” she called out, and he turned to her. She walked up, grabbed a fistful of his uniform by the front and dragged him towards her and basically shoved her tongue down his mouth. The shock of her lips crashing down on his threw him for a second, but then his hands were framing her face, returning the gusto of her kiss with his own not-unimpressive brand of enthusiasm.
When they pulled back, Wally was grinning. “Let me guess,” he said. “Five?”
She thought that wasn’t nearly enough times to have said I-love-you to him in the last forty-eight hours, but it was a start. She looked forward to number six. She liked the number six; it was always her favorite. “Stay safe,” she told him.
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” he saluted, still wearing that shit-eating grin.
She watched the two men disappear down the long corridor, and turned to M’gann just as another blast somewhere in the facility rocked the floor beneath them. She steadied herself, then faced the uncertainty on M’gann’s face because there was still a whole host of unresolved issues hanging between them.
“C’mon,” Artemis declared, shelving everything else. “We’ve got a job to do.”
M’gann nodded, and they worked quickly. A quick survey of the security cameras revealed the source of the attack. “It’s not just Ra’s Al Ghul,” M’gann declared. “I can sense Lex Luther.”
Artemis flinched. “I knew hoping the Light members would just wipe each other out was being too hopeful.”
On the feed, she could see Ra's Al Ghul step up to command some men. ”Find Sportsmaster’s youngest,” he ordered. “She’ll have the artifact. Do not kill her. Bring her to me alive.”
The reality Artemis had been avoiding crashed over her so hard she could swear she heard water breaking; the Pharaoh’s Quest, her mother’s ring. She hadn’t told anyone about it; had hoped, desperately, that it was all false, every last bit of it. Of course she’d kept it safe and secure, but it’d been because of paranoia and due diligence rather than any firm belief in the lore. The artifact was still dangling from the silver chain around her neck, but if the Light was really after it, had set aside their differences after spending weeks at each other’s throats – then that meant M’gann’s outrageous little theory might not have been so outrageous.
The lights flickered, and with a start Artemis wondered if it her again, messing with the electricity because of her strange relationship with reality, but a second later M’gann had overruled the thought. “I think they’re trying to take out the power supply.”
Artemis looked over in confusion, and then dawning realization. The various bomb blasts throughout the building could disrupt the power maintaining the cryo-pods, and Artemis could hazard a guess at the intent.
“I’m not done with the deprogramming,” M’gann confirmed her suspicions, staring at Artemis with horror. “If the pods go offline, the clones will awaken – with whatever Cadmas brainwashing still in effect.”
Artemis was about to ask for more details when M’gann put her hand up flat. Someone is watching us, M’gann informed through the psychic bond. Lifting her gaze, Artemis caught the tiniest movement out of the corner of her eye, aware that soldiers on her right were trying to sneak around them. When the attack came, both women were ready. Artemis fended off a hit by using her bow as a shield, catapulting a soldier into an involuntary somersault through the air. M’gann used her telekinesis to take care of the two others, and within seconds all three assailants were groaning on the floor or unconscious.
"We have to get to the power source," M’gann declared. "Make sure the Light doesn’t disable the electricity."
Artemis nodded, and they worked quickly as a unit after that. Falling back into pattern easily. Despite the urgency of the situation, as they made their way across the facility, Artemis couldn’t help herself. They’re after my ring, aren't they?
M’gann did not slow down. Yes. I’m sorry. It’s all true.
Artemis couldn’t claim she hadn’t been warned. She nevertheless had difficulty believing M’gann about the time-traveling bit; that she was really only seventeen-years-old and hadn’t realized it. That was still hard to swallow. But Artemis wasn’t so blinded by her fear that she could ignore the obvious. She still needed to protect the ring at all costs. Anything the Light wanted this badly needed to stay out of their hands.
What did you mean, before? Artemis asked through the bond. When we were talking the other day, you said you had been helping me do something this entire time. What?
Realize the truth, M’gann answered. See your mistakes. Find out the pitfalls of the future so that you can go back and fix them. Prevent them. Artemis, believe it or not, this is a gift.
Artemis didn’t respond. Finding out that there was a possibility the last eight years of her life was all just some mindtrip was hardly something to treasure. But there was also a guilty ache in the pit of her chest, like she knew these protestations weren’t entirely accurate. This entire time, this whole time since returning to the fold of her old team, hadn’t Artemis been lamenting over her old mistakes? Hadn’t she harbored the hidden urge to go back and undo all the damage she had done? Wally, and the four years they’d spent apart; the decision she’d made to leave the team and abandon any pursuit of becoming a Justice League member; her relationships with all her former teammates and friends.
Wasn’t that what Dick had said was the purpose of the Pharaoh’s Quest? To show a person their fate, their greatest mistake? Artemis’ greatest mistake was always a predictable flaw: she ran.
Halfway to the power room, the lights all suddenly went out and the secondary generator must have been cut. Patches of hallway light winked out, one by one, catching up to the square of corridor that housed Artemis and M’gann. Shadows sunk around them.
The pods, M’gann breathed in horror, eyes glowing a fearsome white.
As soon as the words had registered, Artemis could hear a distant hiss and screech of the pods opening. They raced down one corridor to come upon one of the industrial rooms that housed the pods, and the endless rows were all deactivated now, the warm glow of electricity gone. Liquid nitrogen and mist escaped the opening containers, leaking out onto the ground in slow curls at their feet. A second later, people started falling out of their pods. Not just people. G-Goblin, G-Dwarves, G-Elves, G-Gnomes, G-Sprites, G-Trolls. All of the Project Cadmas creatures were being released.
One troll stumbled out of the pod, groaning and disoriented, at eight feet high. Artemis watched as it blinked and moaned, then agitated, pinned a glare on the two women. It let out a roar, obviously upset, and then started to rush them before Artemis had the sense to dive out of the way. Thankfully, M’gann knocked Artemis to the side so that the troll charged right past them into a wall. It knocked itself unconscious. Not the smartest of creatures, then.
Thanks, Artemis said.
No problem, M’gann returned, then her eyes widened. Uh, oh.
Artemis froze. M’gann was staring at something behind her back, rather intently and with a bit of fear. What is it?
Not what, M’gann answered. Who.
Artemis turned around, and found the Wonder Woman clone stumbling out of a pod, wearing a thin white body suit made of some acrylic material. The clone of Diana of Themyscira was beautiful and intimidating, even as she awoke groggily from a lifelong slumber. Her dark hair fell into perfect loose curls down her back, and she blinked once, then twice, and a hard expression settled onto her face. There was no emotion, no confusion – only a blank stare that scared Artemis.
Out of instinct, Artemis started inching back towards M’gann, thinking, Did you deprogram her?
M’gann answered, Unfortunately—
And then they were being rushed by Wonder Woman, who took flight, headed straight in their direction with all the expediency of an oncoming train. Artemis back-flipped out of the way and M’gann managed to phase out as Wonder Woman attempted to shove one of her exceptionally strong fists through her.
Let’s get out of here! Artemis thought, frenzied, aware that the other pods with superheroes were nearby. If they were all still programmed with Cadmas brain-washing… Now, please.
M’gann nodded, but then cried out, a sharp staccato that rang out through the factory. Artemis watched in horror as, out of nowhere, the Superman clone had come up behind M’gann; he’d joined the Wonder Woman’s clone, intercepting M’gann in a blink of an eye. Artemis’ human vision wasn’t quick enough to see what had happened, but M’gann’s anguished scream resonated through their bond so loudly that Artemis felt the thrum of anguish and shock and fear hit her with a wave heavy enough to force Artemis to fall to her knees. The pain was so intense that Artemis clasped her hands around her ears and doubled over.
M’gann, Artemis whimpered out.
Then there was dead silence, the bond cut.
Artemis looked around, blearily, gauging her environment. The two superhero clones stood over M’gann’s fallen body. Artemis took one steadying breath, and looked beyond them to the nearby tanks filled with various gases. She didn’t know what was in them, but she didn’t have a choice. Artemis moved forward, drew her bow and arrow, and fired out a shot. The tank ruptured, spreading a cloud of gas everywhere. It wouldn’t do a thing to stop two aliens like Superman and Wonder Woman, but it created a fog and Artemis dove in, using stealth against two superheroes that had never needed to learn that particular skill set; she snagged M’gann by the waist before escaping. The fog of gas served well as a mask until she made it out of the room.
It was only pure adrenaline that allowed Artemis to make it all the way down the hall, around the corner, before she collapsed with M’gann in her arms. She peeked around the corner, found that the clones of Wonder Woman and Superman had turned their attention towards something else, and released a frenzied breath that she hadn’t even realized she’d been holding in.
Artemis, M’gann’s voice, even over the bond, sounded frail.
She looked down, and the sentence of M’gann’s condition was clear from the blood sullying her uniform. M’gann’s face looked pale, her eyes drooping.
Stay with me, M’gann! Artemis ordered, panicked.
You have the ability to go back and prevent— M’gann fluttered a few digits on her hand weakly, trying to gesture around them, all this. You have the ability to save lives and—
How? Artemis asked, feeling tears prickle her eyes. She hadn’t bought M’gann’s theory, but all Artemis could think while staring at her friend’s broken body was that she would do anything to help M'gann. I am not seventeen years old, and I don’t know how to get back to—
“You have to—” M’gann gasped, aloud.
And then everything went unnaturally still.
M’gann’s eyes stared blankly at some point in the air and her head lulled against Artemis’s lap, suddenly limp. A beat later, M’gann’s body slowly started to transform, and it was something Artemis could barely comprehend. Her legs elongating into lithe limbs, her eyes shading from dark honey to something black. The cape and uniform disappeared, receding as lanky arms and a hunchback replaced them. M’gann’s white Martian form stretched out heavy over Artemis’ lap, and Artemis went feverishly cold. Every second of stillness stretched out like eternity.
It seemed in death, M’gann had returned to her natural form.
In the distance, double doors flung open against a wall. Artemis could hear the heavy footfalls of dozens of clones staggering out into the hallway. Goblins, trolls, dwarves – their inhuman snarls echoed through the white-washed corridors to reach her ears. Some part of Artemis, the part that was still engaged in self-preservation, screamed to get out, to flee, to hide. The numbers were too many. But the noise reached Artemis while tears were tracking down her cheeks, and Artemis knew she would not run. Not today.
All emotions dried up. Fear, doubt, pain – it all disappeared in a blink of an eye, save for one emotion, the only one that could properly motivate Artemis through her grief. Guilt. Pure, unadulterated guilt. It rose up inside Artemis like a rising tide, because her friend was dead. M’gann was dead.
Artemis climbed steadily to her feet. The sounds of a stampeding wave of clones approached from just around the corner, sounding like the building thunder in a storm. She reached back, grabbed the first of many arrows, and crooked it across her bow. Her breathing was even. Her hands were steady. Rage had a way of washing away all other emotions. She stepped out from behind the bend, and there, oncoming like a siege, were over two – maybe three – dozen cloned creatures, all growling, all ugly. Artemis felt the cold sting of grief bite into her, and it found more than enough targets.
“Come and get me," she called out.
She loosed a netted arrow first, trapping a large bulk of creatures under its trap. Next she fired off a smoke arrow, bolting it to the east wall, watching the fire spark like bright firecrackers before the explosion punched through the corridor. The walls came crumbling down, bricks of plaster and debris caving in on the horde. It wasn’t enough to stop them all. The growling siege of creatures ate up the distance between them in seconds. Artemis fired off bow after bow, twisting and then vaulting off the side-wall to escape attacks. Artemis knew her chance of survival was slim. There were more creatures than the number of her arrows, and even hand-to-hand, she wasn’t likely to take more than three or four heavy hits before something as large as those trolls would do her in.
Artemis still fought, because what else could she do?
There was a sudden, unexpected crash.
Artemis threw up a hand to shield her face, but when the smoke and dust cleared, the whole lot of creatures were either trapped under the caved hallway or entombed behind it.
Artemis reached for another arrow, but then she turned and ran straight into the chest of her savior, and it felt like she’d hit a wall – Superboy had his feet planted firmly on the ground. He wasn’t looking at Artemis, though, or at the horde of creatures he’d taken out with one well-aimed blow at the surrounding structure.
Instead, she found his gaze fixed on M’gann’s body.
Suddenly, Artemis was having trouble dragging air into her lungs. She wanted to run away, or let him have a moment to himself, or just – say something, anything. Grief froze her. For a long beat, Connor stood unmoving. He had always been a contained sort of individual, his two default settings either anger or indifference. Neither could apply to him now. He looked broken, the grief already registering in his eyes, the hunched way his shoulders drooped.
“Connor,” she choked out, unsure of what to say.
She never had the chance to figure it out. A tremor alerted Artemis to something behind the caved-in wall. The tremors grew heavier, and with a start, Artemis realized the tremors weren’t tremors at all. It was something punching its way through the ton of fallen debris.
“It’s the clone of Superman and Wonder Woman,” Connor informed, distantly, sounding hollow. “They’re coming after us.”
Artemis’ eyes widened. “We have to get out of here,” she exhaled on a shaky breath. Connor never took his eyes off M’gann’s body, as if the impending threat of two aliens stronger than himself was a trivial or insignificant threat. “Connor,” she pressed, and grabbed him by the arm. She couldn’t even make him turn around to face her. “We have to get out of here.”
“Go,” he told her, flatly. “I’m not leaving.”
“No, no, no,” she said, panicking. “Connor, you can’t take on Superman and Wonder Woman! There’s no way— you can’t!”
Even one on one, Connor barely stood a chance. But both of them?
“I’m not leaving her,” Connor said.
“M’gann wouldn’t want you to do this.”
“M’gann is dead,” he said, and there – there was that anger she recognized in him, the one always simmering beneath the surface, but it was different now. Mutated. Sharper, more in focus. Unleashed. “Artemis,” Connor said, and he finally turned to face her. For the first time in her entire life, Artemis found herself fearful of him, of the dead look in his eyes. “Get out of here.”
She dropped her hand and stepped back. After a beat, in which the clone of Superman finally punched through the wall, Artemis said, “You’ll die if you stay.”
Connor stared, unmoving. “Then make sure it’s worth it.”
There was nothing Artemis could think to say to that. Nothing she could say. She backpeddled a few steps, eyes locked on Connor, before Superman took flight and Artemis had to run. In a blink, Connor slammed into the clone of his father, his own clone in a way, but Artemis did not stop to watch. She turned on her heels and fled, feeling tears streaming down her face. Wonder Woman gave a scream and dove into the fight against Connor. Artemis ran. Her breath choked as it caught in her throat, adrenaline and grief mixing to create a toxic cocktail.
Yes, Artemis decided in that moment, with the thought of two fallen friends.
She’d make all of this worth it.
Numbness washed over her, and then certainty. A strange sort of certainty that she could not describe in words. No, not certainty. Conviction. The label didn’t matter, she supposed. Artemis didn’t need words. The time when words mattered had long passed.
She found Wally exactly where she knew she would, trying to save the clones. Surprisingly – or unsurprisingly when she stopped to actually think about it – Artemis also found her own clone fighting alongside him. Artemis stood, just watching. She had never seen it before, the specter of Wally West and Artemis Crock fighting side-by-side. Her clone didn’t have a bow and arrow, but they were both fighting hand-to-hand and there was something hypnotic about it, almost graceful, the way they anticipated each other’s moves. Artemis had always fallen into easy stride with Wally at her back. They communicated on some level that was almost telepathic, if not for the fact that she knew exactly what telepathy felt like and it was hardly the same thing. Watching it unfold in front of her was different, though. She found there was no jealousy in witnessing her clone and Wally together.
“Artemis!” Wally shouted, spotting her across some wreckage. He sped across in a blink of an eye. “You okay?”
She didn’t bother with a lie. “We have to leave. Have you seen the others? We have to evacuate.”
“Yeah, I saw Nightwing and Aqaulad two floors down from here a while ago. Don’t know where M’gann and Connor are, though. Telepathic communication cut off about ten minutes back. But apparently Brain is here with the other Light members, so I'm not surprised M'gann isn't using it.”
For a moment, Artemis couldn’t find her voice. “Yeah,” she finally managed, tightly. “Get Nightwing and Aqualad. Meet me at the eastern entrance—”
“You wanna separate? No way!”
“Wally, think about it. Who’s the guy that can round up everybody the fastest? Go! I’ll catch up with my… her.” The her in question was undoubtedly her clone, who looked to be holding back and giving Artemis and Wally a wide breadth. “Go!”
“All right,” Wally grumbled, and kissed her hard. “Just stay safe!”
He sped away before she could respond, and Artemis watched him go with something tight caught in her throat.
Her clone finally strode over. “What’s the plan?” she asked, no-nonsense.
Artemis looked to her. “You’re fighting on our side?”
Her clone tensed. “Of course I am. Jesus, what do I have to do to prove I’m trying to fight the programming?”
“That’s just the thing. Did M’gann finish deprogramming you?”
There was a smoldering look of resentment in her clone’s gaze, before her shoulders dropped and she let her eyes fall shut in resignation. “Not… entirely,” she admitted, painfully. “She had to focus on the other clones, too. It's a long process.”
Artemis nodded. “I figured.” She took a beat to figure out her gameplan, and then with equal parts resignation and conviction, lifted the strap of her quiver up and over her head and set it aside. She propped up her bow against it, taking a steadying breath. "Give me a moment."
"For what?" her clone asked, confused.
Artemis didn't respond. Instead, she concentrated on things she needed. Things she needed to remember. Somewhere out there, in the facility, Artemis was aware that her sister must have been fighting off some bad guys. She knew that Jade would be taking on a dozen men on her own, two dozen, probably. All by herself. Former allegiances broken to those same men, and Artemis’ heart swelled with that knowledge. With pride.
Somewhere nearby Jade, Artemis was just as positive, would be Roy. She had no way of knowing if Speedy was also fighting, wasn’t privy enough to his medical status to comment on his ability, but if she had learned anything about Roy Harper over the years, and Artemis liked to think she had, then she knew the original version of him wouldn’t let a pesky thing like a missing arm and an existential crisis prevent him from fighting where he was needed.
Yes, Artemis decided, both Red Arrow and Speedy would be fighting alongside her sister.
Barry Allen had never awoken from his sleep. She realized with a sinking heart that somewhere far off in Central City, a widow would sit with her twin toddlers, blissfully unaware to how close she came to having some version of her husband back in their lives. How close, and yet, look. How far.
Aqualad and Nightwing, she had no idea where they were. Fighting, no doubt. Though it was a futile effort to fight for this facility, especially since all three buildings had caught on fire and the clones were, both literally and figuratively, adding gas to the flames, Artemis knew they’d fight until the end or until victory.
And then there was Wally West.
For him, Artemis would do anything.
Her clone was watching every flicker of emotion on Artemis' face, intently. "What's going on?"
Artemis yanked off her silver chain, showing her clone the old ring. “This is the Pharaoh’s Quest. And the only way you’re going to get it is over my dead body.”
Her clone went rigid and expressionless. Artemis saw her programming kick in, the same way that Jade had once described of Red Arrow’s conditioning. Blank, determined, almost like a robot. But as mechanical as it was, her clone still had the same DNA as Artemis and immediately rolled into a dive to recover the bow and arrow resting at their sides. Her clone had expected some sort of defense, but Artemis didn’t move. Artemis didn’t even flinch. Bow in hand, her clone transformed into a being light as air and as silent as falling snow; she nocked the arrow and sprang back up from her dive, releasing it. Artemis felt the arrow hit, felt the tip burry in her chest, dead-center. Then it was like slow motion, Artemis watching from outside, unfeeling, as her knees fell, arms limp like ropes.
Artemis collapsed to the ground, and in that last blinding, dizzying second, she thought strangely of the number six. I love you, Wally.
Then everything went black.
Chapter 11: Epilogue
Artemis awoke to an electrified headache running up and down her optic nerve, slamming into the region behind her left eye. With a groan, she attempted to push herself upright, but a feminine voice gasped something in shock and then Artemis was gently being pushed back down. “You shouldn’t move!” M’gann chided, sounding relieved and frenzied all in one. “Oh my god, Artemis, thank god you’re all right!”
“She’s awake?!” Wally’s voice drifted in, sounding far off and yet carried a familiar flavor of worry. There was a rush of air that alerted Artemis to the quick movement of Wally to her bedside. “Jeeze, Artemis, way to freak everyone out—”
She cracked one eye open and saw Wally and M’gann peering down at her — like Artemis was some fascinating goldfish in a bowl. M’gann had anxious eyes, and Wally was frowning, but Artemis’ vision blurred out again. She was sprawled out on some gurney and Artemis attempted to move, but just groaned instead, weakly letting her head fall back. Her eyes slid shut in exhaustion. Confusion took a backseat to her nausea, and other voices drift in from afar –Aqualad, Red Tornado.
Wait. What was Red Tornado doing—
Artemis groaned, headache spiking. “What happened? Did they get the facility?”
There was a pregnant pause. “Uh, Artemis,” Wally said, sounding confused. “What facility?”
Artemis didn’t understand. She forced her eyes open again and this time the blurry vision slowly came into focus; she noted Wally’s youthful face, the fringes of his red hair spikey and frayed; she noticed M’gann’s hair, the length passed her shoulders in a way Artemis hadn’t seen in years. The less-than-casual assessment in M’gann’s gaze was the easiest to focus on, because the next second she could hear M’gann’s voice in her head. Relax, you’re fine now. Gave us all a scare, but you’re fine. I think… I think I know what happened, Artemis. But don’t tell the others. Not yet.
Artemis didn’t comment, her gaze drawn to the surroundings, taking in the familiar backdrop of the living room back at Mount Justice; there were streamers and balloons dotting the room, mixed in with a clash of Christmas decorations; Aqualad and Zatanna were standing in the back, near the wall, wearing identical looks of concern; Red Tornado stood in front of a large computer monitor that displayed her bioreadings; Connor – god, Connor stood silent, unmoving, the sight of him as jarring and uplifting as M’gann’s!
They were alive, and unharmed – all of them!
“Artemis,” Wally said. “You all right? You still look pale.”
“Dude, of course she’s pale,” Dick said, appearing behind her, and Jesus, he was thirteen again, and wearing his old Robin uniform. “She fainted, Wally. What do you expect her to look like?”
“Fainted?” Artemis repeated, numbly.
“Ah, don’t be embarrassed,” Wally returned, his voice trying for smugness and coming out strained. “You were only out for, like, ten minutes or so. M’gann was freaking out.”
Dick snorted. “Don’t let his nonchalant attitude fool you. The guy was totally chalant when you passed out.”
“Hey," Wally protested, "all girls generally wanna faint at the sight of me at some point in their lives. I therefore felt a responsibility to make sure Artemis was all right. It was just the gentlemanly thing to do.”
There was a collective groan from the men in the room, but M’gann was somber as she studied Artemis. “It was probably,” M’gann said faintly, looking troubled as she lied, “exertion or heat stroke.”
Dick looked unconvinced. “Right.”
Artemis blinked, having trouble breathing. Everything was moving too fast, not making enough sense. But then again… it all made perfect sense, didn’t it? This was—she glanced down, at the old ring on her finger, then aside to the coffee table where there was a dark chocolate cake that sat untouched, a spattering of candles and a message scrawled out in white frosting.
The cake read, Happy 17th Birthday, Artemis.
It was not impossible for Artemis to reconcile her past with her future, the eight years of gap and the knowledge that only she carried, but Artemis knew, without hesitation, that she couldn’t let anyone else in on the secret. M’gann had already hinted at knowing a bit, but until Artemis had the time and opportunity to formulate a gameplan, she knew the best way to play it was as if she was still a little out of it.
Not that difficult given she was suddenly Dorothy in Kansas, again.
Around her, the party streamers from her eventful seventeenth surprise birthday bash were still strewn up, mocking her. The more time that passed, the more Artemis remembered of her past. It wasn’t that she forgot the future – instead it was like two sets of memories, both equally strong, vying for dominancy. She felt the distant past reclaiming its influential. The nitty-gritty details came back to her in pieces; the way she felt when she first joined the team, the specific instances of fighting crime in Gotham City, Salem, Star City, Secrets, the sewers, the mountains, the desert – Biyalia. The horrors of the Failsafe, You were dead, Artemis. Trying to convince herself that she had earned her place on the team. You tried, baby girl. You can fight Jade. You can fight me. But you can’t fight who. You. Are. Wally, going from you have nothing to prove to me, okay? to what you've proved is that you're insecure and selfish in less than twelve hours flat. Familiar adrenaline like a gut punch, the doubt roaring in her heart too loud to ignore; and always, always, always Wally, looking at her when he thought she wasn’t looking, but she always noticed because she was always looking back.
The four years she had spent with Wally and the four years after that she’d spent alone – Artemis knew them backwards and forewords and inside and out. But there was the encroaching surge of her past. She struggled to contain her wrought emotions as both sets of memory ran alongside each other, parallel paths.
She closed her eyes and took a breath. She had already slipped the Pharaoh’s Quest off her finger, sliding it into her pocket, but even now she felt the weight of it like a load worth ten tons.
She’d figured it out now, how this all had happened: her seventeenth birthday party, and cake, close friends, and her mother’s gift on her ring finger when she’d blown out the candles to a disastrous wish. I wish I knew how to avoid losing them all. A seemingly harmless wish for a girl with a shaky foundation of abandonment issues a mile wide. Little had she known about the magical properties of her newest, oldest ring. The Pharaoh’s Quest had apparently judged her worthy of pure intentions – Artemis wasn’t sure she was flattered so much as burdened with that knowledge. Although maybe that was what was meant by pure intentions in the first place?
Dick appeared out of nowhere from behind, doing that stupid annoying trick he used to love pulling at every opportunity as kids. “So,” he said. “What’s going on? Red Tornado just called Batman over to check up on you.”
Artemis was pretty sure that normally she’d offer up a pithy comment, a quick retort, something ; she just tensed, then shrugged forcefully. “No clue.”
Dick looked suspicious, but Artemis was overlooking the expression because his face – god, he was only thirteen. Of all of them, it was Dick’s appearance that was throwing her the most. The others were more or less the same; Connor and M’gann mostly unchanged; Aqualad showing slight changes only in his physique and muscle mass; in the future Wally had had shorter hair, thicker shoulders, a stronger torso and a multitude of other small differences that Artemis could so easily spot and catalogue because she knew him so well, but even then it wasn’t the same jarring sensation as being faced with Robin. Dick was disconcertingly young, not at all like the man that Artemis had come to know.
Something of her scrutiny must’ve registered on her face, because Dick’s eyes narrowed. “What?”
I know who you are, Dick. I know what you look like beneath that mask. I know what you’re going to look like when you fly by puberty, and I know that right now you’re probably secretly making mooneyes at Zatana, but in a few years there’s going to be a running bet between old team members on how long it’ll take you to admit you’re head over heels in love with Barbara Gordon.
“Hey,” Wally said, approaching them. “Anyone want to explain the concept of a party to the resident aliens and androids in the house? Because this party took a nosedive for the depressing and they’ve already switched into debriefing mode.” He stopped, glancing to Red Tornado and M’gann across the room, then shot a look at Artemis that was just a touch too intense for all his supposed casualness. “You feeling better?”
Artemis’ heart did that weird thing where it both sunk into her chest like a solid lead stone and then jumped back up into her throat. Wally, at seventeen. She knew a little about how Wally felt about her during this time; it was only a few days before New Year’s and their inevitable kiss, but they were still locked in this holding pattern of denying feelings and awkward flirting, and Wally was still holding a grudge against her for the disastrous mission against Cheshire a few weeks back.
That was the killing blow to her composure.
Realizing how much they had backtracked, how much she had lost, Artemis felt what little was left of her resolve cave in. It left behind a ragged, gaping hole in its wake and Artemis only wanted the one thing that had always been her constant. God, she wanted Wally - her Wally, the one who knew how to see through her bullshit answer when she told him, “Yeah, I’m fine.”
Wally paused, and he may have looked a little suspicious, but he didn’t push it. “Brought you some cake,” he offered, lamely.
Artemis tried for a smile, aware that it probably came off wobbly. Wally sat down next to her and she imitated some enthusiasm as she took her first bite. Robin and Wally both started up conversations, but it sorta scuttled around Artemis rather than included her, though it wasn’t because of a lack of effort on their parts. There were too many things wrong here for Artemis to pick just one to focus on, too many sharp edges and not enough relief. If things were normal, she’d at least have Wally to count on, and she had never not had that except by her own self-exile; now she was stuck in a time before Wally knew for certain how he felt about her, and that he’d always love her, and Artemis wasn’t sure how to navigate anything with him because this all totaled up into a recipe for disaster, didn’t it? She was courting heartbreak.
“So,” Wally said, obviously trying to lighten the atmosphere with inane chitchat. “What are your plans for the rest of winter break?”
Oh, god, she was still in high school.
“I need a drink,” Artemis announced, before she realized she was underage.
Fuck. This entire thing sucked.
She was aware that she might’ve startled both Wally and Dick when she jumped up, dropping the cakeslice off her plate, but Artemis muttered a muffled apology and fled. She passed by Red Tornado and M’gann, and she didn’t know what they were up to, or what her bioscans had read, but they’d been running through the data of her readings during those ten minutes Artemis had been unconscious. Only ten minutes, during which she’d lived eight years. Artemis gripped her fork tightly and the plastic snapped it half.
She made it down two corridors and halfway to the zeta-tube exit when, suddenly, there was an announcement.
“Recognized, Batman A02.”
She skidded to a halt in front of him as he came through the portal.
For a beat, they just stared at each other. “Red Tornado said that you weren’t feeling well,” Batman said, at length. “Your bioscans registered unusual activity when you passed out.”
“Yeah,” Artemis said, swallowing. She rose up to her height, because even though he was still Batman, still an intimidating authority figure, she wasn’t a seventeen year old girl anymore and refused, at least in front of him, to act like it. “Something major happened,” she said, and yes, now she was getting a foothold on the situation. Batman represented a clear cut separation from her personal life -- this was a debriefing, and there were some things – just some – that needed to be sorted out as quickly as possible. Batman was the best avenue for that. “We need to talk.”
There was a pause. “Of course.”
Artemis was vaguely aware that Wally and Dick had followed her out in the hallway, and a second later Red Tornado and the rest of her team had joined them as well. She had an audience too big for this. “In private,” she insisted.
Funny how spelling it out for someone else made Artemis feel even more crazy, not less.
Batman stood silent as she laid it all out, starting with the most pressing information. The upcoming invasion of Vandal Savage and his men on New Year’s Eve, culminating in six superheroes going missing for eighteen hours during which the genetic material for Cadmas Clones were collected; the mole being Roy Harper, his hidden programming as a sleeper agent, the horrors of Speedy’s captivity, one-armed and held up in stasis. How in the future she’d witness M’gann’s sacrifice and Connor’s resulting self-destruction; how more superheroes surely would have died had Artemis not collapsed the entirety of that reality bubble. She went on about the Light, detailing as much of their plan as she knew, telling Batman about the ring in her possession and as much as she thought appropriate for him to know.
She didn’t mention everything, but she mentioned more than enough. Even as the story unfolded, Artemis saw opportunities to change the future, make it better. The Flash – she could prevent the disaster that would claim Barry Allen’s life in six years. She could stop Sportsmaster from a dozen schemes. She could help her sister turn against her current allegiances because Artemis knew now there was good in Jade; it had always been there. And— mom.
Mom, who was still alive. Mom, who was probably waiting for Artemis back home. Mom, who wasn’t going to die four years from now, no way, not if Artemis had anything to say about it.
By the time she was finished, Artemis’ throat felt hoarse.
Batman had files in his hands – her bioscans depicting MRIs and EKGs and whatever other three-letter-acronym tests that Red Tornado had run on her during those ten minutes she’d been out – and she knew what was coming: more tests and more debriefings. J’onn or perhaps even Doctor Fate testing her out psychically; Black Canery and more of her therapy sessions; Ollie dropping by to give her a talk even though she’d only legitimately been his protégé for a few days and he hardly owed her anything; Red Tornado and Captain Marvel doing their own unique and vastly different methods of the mother-hen routine, and the team – god, the team. The covert looks she was going to get from now on, some of concern, others of confusion, and the worst – the worst, suspicion, because Artemis was going to have to lie now – lie like she’d never lied before, and she hated doing that with her team, especially Wally. But what choice did she have? None. You couldn’t go up to a seventeen-year-old boy who had barely confronted the fact that he had a crush on her with the news of, hey, babe, I’m your one true love.
“Understood,” Batman had said, simply, when all was said and done. For a second, there was nothing but stinging silence before he led Artemis to the corner sink and poured out a glass of water. The sight reminded Artemis that she was thirsty, her throat parched dry, but she only blinked numbly at the glass like it was an unknown foreign object when Batman held it up to her. “Drink, Artemis,” he said, not unkindly. Which just threw Artemis even more because Batman was never kind; understanding, yes. Willing to listen, of course. Less than actively aggressive, on a good day. But never kind. “Artemis.”
She took the glass and drained it in three gulps.
“What now?” she asked.
“Now,” Batman said. “You get some rest. The other League members and I will look into the… details that you’ve mentioned. We’ll—”
“Red Arrow isn’t responsible for what he’s done,” she cut in, desperately. “He’s being used. He’s not in control.”
Batman nodded. “We’ll take that into consideration, and if everything you’re saying is true—”
“It is. ”
“—then we’ll handle it,” Batman continued as if she’d never interrupted. “It’s a League matter.”
“With all due respect,” Artemis responded, firmly. “League member or not, I am a part of it. I need to be involved with how this all goes down.”
For a beat, Batman was silent. Then he said, “All right, I’ll keep that in mind. In the meantime, take the rest of the day off and regroup. We aren’t going to act without thinking all of this through very carefully.”
Artemis stared for a long beat, then nodded. “Fair enough.”
M’gann was waiting for her outside, and Connor stood just at her side – because of course where there was one, the other wouldn’t be too far off. Artemis wondered how she was going to handle the knowledge that she’d seen both of them die. Especially Connor. How could she possibly look Connor in the eye knowing how dead those same eyes could seem in the aftermath of M’gann’s demise?
M’gann looked to Connor and, probably though a psychic link, asked for some privacy. Connor nodded, tossed a brief, concerned look towards Artemis, then left.
“Are you all right?” M’gann asked, before slapping her forehead. “Hello, Megan, of course you’re not. What a stupid thing to ask. But you don’t have to say anything. I’ve already talked to the others and they won’t ask questions. We’re not going to press. We’ve agreed.”
Artemis was unsure how M’gann had managed that miraculous feat; the members of her team as individuals were the most curious, sometimes obnoxious people she had ever met, but united as a group they were ten times worse. But then the next second, Artemis found herself hugging M’gann, tightly, desperately, not giving a damn about anything else in that moment except for the fact that M’gann was alive .
“It’s okay,” M’gann said, soothingly. “I’m not sure exactly what happened, but I know that it was traumatic for you. Like the time we got caught up in the failsafe simulation?”
“Worse,” Artemis managed, tightly. “But I can’t talk about it, not entirely. Not even if I wanted to.”
"Oh, Artemis. It’s going to be okay. You’ll figure it, okay? You’ll figure it out," M’gann said, and Artemis tried, with all her heart, to believe it.
“Hey,” Wally greeted, and then proceeded to spit out in one impressive breath, “So everybody agrees you shouldn’t go home alone and even though I don’t know where you live and I realize that’s the point of a secret identity, I’m gonna have to insist that I walk you home; now, wait, I know you’re gonna hate that idea, ‘cause, yeah, you’re not a wilting flower, you don’t need me acting like a Neanderthal buffoon, I can still kick your ass three ways from Sunday, Wally, but I’m willing to endure any colorful insults and painful injuries you have in store for me because I really, really don’t think you should be going home alone right now.”
Artemis paused, and her shoulders dropped. “I’d like that.”
Wally’s eyes bugged out. “Man, you really are out of it.”
She flinched. “You know what? Forget it. I’ll just—”
“No, no! No takebacks now. We’re going. I just – I just wasn’t expecting it to be that easy.”
It was telling, how much he thought she was going to resist his company, when really, all Artemis wanted was more of it. She sighed and stepped into line with Wally, walking towards the zeta-tube. A few seconds later, after inputting her destination, they landed in the back alley of a rundown street, and the broken payphone was suddenly tight with space because Artemis hadn’t thought about the logistics of two people exiting at the same time. Instead, rather abruptly, she found herself in a closed-box with Wally, pressed up chest-to-chest and practically breathing the same air.
He looked to her, and she met his direct gaze, very unhinged, and from one moment to the next, something changed. She couldn’t have named it, beyond a collection of gestures: his breathing quickened, the dilation of his eyes expanded, the way his lips quirked a little like he wanted to lick his lips in anticipation of something. They were mostly inconsequential details that could have meant nothing, except that he capped it all off with darting his eyes down to her lips like he wanted to kiss her. The air between them suddenly went electric. He was leaning towards her before she even realized it, but then there was a crash, loud and jarring, as a homeless cat landed on the tin-metal of a garbage can nearby, and the moment shattered.
“Oh, I’ll just—yeah, okay,” he stammered, red-faced, “I’ll try to squeeze out first, unless you want? No, I’ll just—”
He squeezed out and fell face flat onto the asphalt in his rush.
Artemis held back a laugh, but only barely. God, had he always been this obvious about his crush on her? Had she really been that oblivious to it?
“Smooth, there, Wall-man,” she teased, though she pitied him a bit; her not commenting would have seemed too out of character, though.
Wally was so red in the face that it was bright enough to match his hair, and she thought – well, that was adorable. She could have a little fun with how easy he was going to be about all this, especially since she hadn’t even given consideration to some of the scandalous things she had done in her past – future, whatever – that had turned Wally as red as a beet. There were drawbacks to starting over, but then again, Artemis could think of a thing or two that were benefits. The thought was bittersweet, in the way that Artemis was just beginning to realize that as bad as things were, they could get worse, and she literally had the opportunity of a lifetime to get things right this time.
She could get a lot of satisfaction out of preventing tragedies; she could help friends and families find their footings a bit easier in their upcoming journeys; she could even get a lot of amusement out of trolling Dick now that she knew who he was – god, he’d made her feel like an idiot when she finally found out – but it was getting a second chance with Wally, maybe a chance to do this the right way, that made her feel like maybe this would all be worth it ten times over.
“Huh,” Wally said, looking around, obviously trying to draw attention away from his-less-then-graceful-exit. “Gotham City?”
Artemis shrugged. “Yep.”
He was going to learn her true identity in a few days; or at least that was how it went down, originally. Artemis wasn’t sure exactly what to change and what to keep. It was all a never-ending labyrinth of questions to sort out. He cleared his throat, and Artemis stepped out to join him on the street. They walked entirely in silence for a long time, which was just as well. With the reassuring weight of her bow and arrow at her back, Artemis found herself trying to find footing in familiarity and if Wally didn’t blabber too much, she could almost convince herself that this was one of a hundred times where he’d walked her home after a mission. Artemis felt a slight pang at the thought of what she had lost, but she would have to make do with reliving it, and that – that wasn’t so bad, was it?
It was a gorgeous night for once and though a bit nippy, it was the end of December and Artemis was used to the frigid winters of Gotham City. The moonlight filtering down through broken clouds was soothing, though. Artemis wove her way through the familiar backstreets before she reached her apartment complex.
When they arrived, Artemis tipped her head aside and said, “That’s me.”
Wally started to nod, but then something alerted Artemis, some noise or some weird sixth sense, because she suddenly tensed and turned around slowly. Her mother was sitting by the window, staring out a snow-crusted glass-pane. Artemis felt the air rush out of her lungs. Paula Nguyen-Crock was beautiful and whole and alive, but for a moment Artemis refused to believe it. Unable to trust her voice, Artemis slowly moved into the apartment. A part of her was convinced her mother was a mirage, or maybe this was all just some dream from the very first moment she’d woken up as seventeen. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
So, it was very faintly that Artemis called out, “Mom?”
Paula appeared around the corner, wheeling her chair across the rough carpet. “Artemis, who is that boy you brought along?”
Artemis swallowed thickly, aware that Wally had entered in a bit sheepishly after her. For an inconsolable second, Artemis stood sharply straight, held up rigidly by disbelief and grief. Then, in the very next, she probably startled the hell out of both her mother and Wally as she rushed across the room. She threw her arms around her mother, feeling a solid mass, confirmation that her mother was real; despite what must have been an alarming greeting, her mother responded, slowly, trying to quiet Artemis’ grief-filled sobs even as she consoled her.
“What happened?” her mother asked to Wally.
Wally just stood halfway in the entrance of her apartment, stunned. “No one knows.”
Her mother held Artemis’ trembling body, soothing her with some mindless words of comfort, but Artemis was crying too hard to hear any of it. “Artemis,” her mother said, softly. “What happened?”
She pulled back, wiping tears of happiness away from her eyes. “It doesn’t matter, Mom. Not anymore.”
Nothing mattered but the present.
Like a fingersnap, things changed.
It was a little ridiculous how Artemis shot from one end of the spectrum of emotion to the other. Her whole life had always been this exercise in rebuilding, in picking up the wreckage that was always left by someone leaving—she had spent so long thinking of her mother’s murder as the final blow to any sense of firm foundation that Artemis had ever known, but now – now, Artemis realized, she didn’t have to fear being alone. She had a second chance, and instead of viewing it in the limelight of all that she had lost to get here, all Artemis could think now was that she had so much more to gain this second time around.
With her mother, with Wally, with every one of her friends and family. It suddenly, all of it, made a beautiful sort of sense.
“You sure you’re all right?” her mother asked, for the third time.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. I just—I just had a bad day. But I swear I’m fine!”
“Don’t lie to me, Artemis. I’ve never seen you so upset. And you brought home one of your teammates, even. That isn’t like you.”
Artemis nearly snorted. Wally was currently lounging in the other room, helping himself to a bowl of popcorn. Hardly a threat.
“It’s fine,” Artemis dismissed. “It’s no big deal.”
Though, god, she hated that anyone had witnessed her crying, but if it had to be anyone, she was glad it was Wally and her mom.
By the time Artemis had managed to pull herself completely together, she was still reluctant to let her mother out of sight, but Wally had been more than patient enough. She came back out to find him having already moved on to a slice of her mother’s homemade birthday cake. Artemis just stood there, watching him as he shoveled cake into his mouth, feet planted up on her coffee table. He’d already made himself at home.
After they had started dating, in that original timeline, her mother had quickly accepted Wally’s presence in their daily lives with aplomb. This time, it seemed to be happening even faster. But then again that was Wally, always moving faster than you expected him to.
“Hey,” she called out, and her voice sounded normal – in high spirits, even.
He whipped his head around, and gave her a cautious smile. “Hey. You feeling better?”
“Loads,” she answered. “Sorry about earlier. I just—”
“Yeah, no,” Wally cut in, quickly. “Whatever. As long as you’re feeling better now. You are, aren’t you?”
She smiled, stepping further into the room. He stood to face her, and Artemis didn't say anything, the silence blooming out between them until it was thick and heavy, clouding the room. She suddenly felt every bit the seventeen-year-old girl, which was a little ridiculous but just as well.
They stared at each other a bit, both at a loss for words, before Artemis tipped her head aside. “C’mon, I’ll walk you to the door.” It wasn’t much of a walk. All too soon, he was standing at the doorway and both of them were lingering, and Artemis tried to find a reason to prolong the visitation. “So,” she said.
“Yeah,” he returned, a little red-faced; Artemis wondered what he was thinking. “So... Happy birthday?”
Artemis barked a laugh. “Yeah, thanks. It's a memorable one, at least.”
“Y’know, I swore to M’gann I wouldn’t ask any questions, and I’m totally not – but if you want to, uh, like talk about it? I’m here. If you want.”
She smiled, softly. “Maybe one day, yeah. I might take you up on that.”
Wally nodded, uncertain. He looked so adorably lost and a part of her went out to him because it couldn’t have been easy for him, trying to find his footing with her today. The moment was broken by the loud rumbling of his stomach, and Wally cringed. “Sorry, I haven’t really had that much to eat today.”
Abruptly, a thought struck Artemis like lightning. “Hang on,” she said, then grabbed his hand. “Mom,” she called out, “I’ll be back in a few!”
She rushed out the door without waiting for much of a response, dragging Wally after her. She left the building, turned the corner down the nearest street, and led them blindly to the old familiar late-night diner that she always crossed on her way to school. It was a little worn down, but home-y. The owner was an elderly man named Billie in his late sixties that had always given Artemis free pie whenever she swung by, ever since she'd stopped an armed-thug from robbing the shop blind last fall. The diner was decked out in the standard Christmas decorations, and it wasn’t until Artemis was near the diner windows that she spotted what she was looking for.
“They have the best pies here,” Artemis told Wally, though that wasn't entirely the reason for dragging him here.
“Cool,” Wally responded predictably, but he sounded distracted and it wasn’t until Artemis looked back that she realized he was fixated on her grip. She hadn't let go of his hand. She slowly pulled them to a stop just at the threshold.
Inside, the old man behind the counter and the lone waitress were obviously closing up shop. “Sorry, Artemis,” Billie called out. “We’re closing for the night.”
“Oh,” Artemis said, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Wally. “Thanks, anyway, Billie.”
She waited for Wally to notice the obvious, but it was little frustrating how Wally wasn't looking at the one place she wanted him to look. In fact, he was too busy staring at her, which was nice and all but, well. Above their heads, dangling from the ceiling, was mistletoe. Wally, the future Wally, had only recently told her of the nostalgic memory of her seventeenth birthday, and his half-aborted desire to kiss her under mistletoe.
Wally finally looked up, then froze. It was another one of those endless moments when their eyes met, and Artemis smiled. He was supposed to kiss her for the first time on New Years. He was supposed to do a lot of things, but Artemis had already spoken to Batman, aware he’d take measures to make sure Vandal Savage didn’t invade the Justice League; that meant the opportunity for Wally to kiss her post-mission haze might never arise.
So, Artemis had to adapt.
“So,” Wally said, slowly grinning.
It was heartening to know he wasn’t as thickheaded as she feared, but she still had to laugh and tell him, “Oh, just shut up and kiss me, Wally.”
“I should have done this a long time ago.”
“No kidding,” she teased, thinking at the same time, you did.
But that was all right, because the next second he was picking her up to kiss her. She felt like a feather in his arms, and then carefully at first, lips pressed against lips. She was too aware of everything between them, her past, his future, their present, all mixing together to create a fierce upsurge of emotion. But then she lifted her hand to his face, and the careful kiss became deep and long. It lingered, obviously longer than mistletoe custom deemed, and something inside Artemis unclenched, a part that she hadn’t even known was knotted up inside. The fear that this was all the ending to something finally slackened its grip on Artemis.
He pulled back, and then blinked. "Whoa."
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing, just--" he stopped. "Did that feel like déjà vu to you?"
She paused, thrown, then barked a laugh. She didn't know what that meant, precisely, but it gave her an odd sort of hope and she realized this wasn’t the ending to anything. Her father’s clever lesson of the one universal constant could go screw itself. Everything ended, yes, but…
This was just the beginning, she knew.