Chapter 1: Music
The soundtrack of Mount Justice is made of three or four tracks, all of them fairly unique, but still similar enough that they can blend together. No matter the event or occasion, there is always a layer in the rhythm of the headquarters of Robin's tell-tale snicker; of M'gann's gentle voice; of the steady base that is Kaldur'ahm, keeping the team together no matter the situation in which they find themselves. Though the music may alter itself in volume and style, the instruments remain the same, and the constant banter between Wally and Artemis is just another unchanging addition, something that, for the most part, they've all learned to live with.
The last part does exist, however, and there are times that it evolves from banter into argument, times when Wally drives Artemis not up the wall but into a stunned, angry silence; it's then that she's a responsible person, so she shuts her eyes and nods her head and resigns to tell him that she's going to train some. Wally sees his mistake and tries to apologize, and Artemis accepts it, tells him it's fine, but her mood is sour and her fingers are itching for a bow and an arrow so she says she'll see him later and brushes past his shoulders, tense and to herself, and as far as she knows there's no mission tonight so she can go lock herself up and train until late, until Wally leaves or until her fingers bleed.
She supposes, as she notches three arrows and aims for the moving targets, that she can't exactly blame him for not getting along with her as readily as the others or catching the subtleties of her limits like all the others thankfully have, but it still frustrates her that even here, she has to prove herself even farther. Okay, sure, so lately Wally's teasing has gone less from suspicion and more to a desire to annoy her in friendliness, but that's exactly the point: he annoys her, pisses her off, and usually she can handle it and she'll laugh a little afterwards when she's alone, but that's just not the case today. She's really not in the mood to deal with stupid stress; she's got enough of that in all three statuses; as a hero, as a daughter, as a student.
Archery, Artemis finds, is something that awards her a different status all together; so as she pulls back the string and releases the ammunition, knocks out six targets when she's only three arrows, she feels her heart laugh and she allows a smile. Sometimes she's not a student or a hero or a daughter; sometimes she's an archer. Sometimes she's just Artemis.
She's hit with a tidal wave of rushing adrenaline, and suddenly she's on the move, her feet carrying her almost without thought as she notches her arrows and, running, aims for target after target. She can't miss any, won't miss any; once she's on the move she just goes, because the greatest escape is the place where she is now, the state of mind in which she's occupied and concentrated and happy with herself. Arrow after arrow, target after target, Artemis is Artemis and she feels okay, better than okay; she feels good, great, knows who she is and doesn't know at the same time—but that's fine, too.
Artemis is in the perfect state of mind when she stops and steps back and aims at the last target, the elusive troublemaker that's the most difficult of them all, and she pulls back on the string and she lets her shot fly.
There's an echoing snicker and a boy on a grapple flies by and her arrow's path's no longer true, is disrupted and confused, lands three feet away from the intended point. Artemis scowls and looks around furiously for the flying troll wonder that is Robin, but she—of course—can't find him, so she calls out, "Okay, really? That was the first time I've been anywhere near close to getting that one." Her entire mood surely soured once again, she growls and turns her back to the target, removing her now empty quiver and angrily throwing it to the ground.
Robin's laughter echoes again, this time closer, more reserved. A moment later he appears in front of her, the arrow in his hand as he plays with the tip. His smile is sheepish when he speaks, "Sorry, Artemis. Couldn't resist." He twirls the arrow around and offers it to her, but she's evidently in no mood for Robin's antics and she pushes passed him, in the direction of the showers, because she's covered in sweat and it didn't start bothering her until the second downturn in her mood. Robin frowns. "Hey!" he complains, running up to her and walking in pace once he's reached her, "They said you weren't feeling great, so I came here to get you concerted again. Seriously, I'm sorry I messed you up."
"It's fine," says Artemis, and she knows she's being difficult and a little unfair, but she generally finds being cold easier, finds that creating a barrier is the easiest way to prevent the anger she feels in the first place. It's not something she likes to do, and she's been slipping lately, but… it's foolproof. Right?
Robin puts a hand on her shoulder, and she stops. "No, it's not," he says, and when Artemis regards him disbelievingly, even ventures to wonder silently if he can read her mind, he explains, "You know we're not just a team, right? You're our friend."
She… She knows.
"And since you're my friend, you don't have to worry about my trusting you," Robin adds, and he shrugs, no trace of a smirk or laughter on his face when he continues, grimacing, "Though you might have to worry about me getting upset when you are."
That's what finally manages to cut through to her core. Artemis feels a strange sensation in her chest that she can't explain, a comforting warmth that's at the same time embarrassing, and she turns to face the thirteen-year-old properly, unsure if she wants to speak or even if she has something meaningful to say—what is it, she wonders, about Robin that makes him so different, so unexpected? How does he manage to hit nails right on the head even when he can't see them, shouldn't even know they exist?
(It probably has something to do with being a Bat).
She guesses she's supposed to say something now, a 'thank you' or a grunt or something else, but it's hard to say what she's feeling, and he tilts his head to the side quizzically, looks bizarrely cute as he does it, boyish charm prevailing. Artemis has always thought of Robin as… well, Robin, the Boy Wonder; an enigma and a legend in Gotham and sometimes it's easy to forget that he is just a boy, that he is thirteen, especially because he's got the insights and abilities given to him through Batman's tutelage and (evidently) more. It's easy to forget that he's human and superpowerless like she is (unless unyielding charisma can be called a superpower), easy to forget that she even knows him personally—if she can say that—because she remembers days in Gotham where she'd hear about what Batman and Robin accomplished the night before and she'd silently cheer them on, shaking in bed under the paper-thin covers, remembers a time when Robin was unreal to her.
Maybe, she thinks, looking into his mask, there's a part of him that still is.
She sighs, feels her resolve melt around her, and there's this tension in her shoulders that she didn't even notice that disappears.
"Thanks," she mutters, and she looks to the ground (because his mask is intimidating, and she never knows if she's looking into his eyes or not, and she feels a little embarrassed anyway). There's a pause, hanging in the air with the grace of a traffic accident, and she hesitates, but then asks quietly, "How long were you watching me, anyway?"
Robin's frown makes way for thoughtfulness at her inquiry before quickly progressing into a grin. "A while," he admits, shrugging, and he scans the area and the targets, as though he's mentally recounting Artemis's progress, but backwards. He points one of them out. "Wally told me you were upset when I asked where everyone was, so I came to find you and you'd just gotten really into it. So I just watched you for a while." He lets the idea that he saw her sink in, waits for her reaction—which comes in the form of embarrassment she doesn't even know why she's feeling, because she knows she was awesome—before he adds, modestly, "You were amazing, by the way. I've never seen GA with that much raw concentration, passion, or energy. You'd put Roy to shame."
"Is there a reason you're showering me with flattery?" Artemis asks suspiciously. Her thirst begins to catch up to her, and she jerks her head in the direction of the cooler so she can get a drink of water.
He follows her, snickering. "I'm cajoling you."
"…Some of us aren't human dictionaries, Robin."
He shakes his head to himself and his shit-eating grin is ever present, and he rocks back-and-forth on his feet, playing with Artemis's arrow behind his back, like he's about to ask his parents for something, and he's been a good boy and kept up his grades and everything, so can they please, please just get him that new video game for Christmas?, and he goes, "Artemis, can I convince you to make up or make out with Wally already?"
Suddenly Artemis is choking on her water, and Robin stands alert in case of an emergency, like her dying at the very idea of kissing—never mind making out with—Wally. The episode passes with some difficulty but her eyes are wide and she's no longer upset or sad or conflicted, just extremely confused, and she turns to Robin and exclaims, "Where the hell did that come from?"
Robin holds up his hands defensively. "Just saying! You guys have this tension and I bet Wally hasn't noticed it, either. Does the phrase 'can cut it with a knife' mean anything to you?"
Artemis is appalled at the very thought of sharing anything close to a 'tension' with Wally, and stutters out, "W-We do not! Wally's too—too Wally for me to have anything with him!"
Robin laughs and motions for her to calm down, saying, "Alright, relax, if you say you have nothing, I believe you."
Artemis slumps her shoulders. "I doubt that."
"Hey, friends, remember?"
"Friends," Artemis repeats, nodding. Past her choking she gets another cup full of water, and offers Robin the same; he accepts her offer and they wind up sitting on the bench with their drinks, silence the only sound, though whirling thoughts keep them plenty occupied. Artemis can't help but run on a train of thought that starts with Wally and heads into life, to love and to boyfriends, to Gotham City; the silence isn't uncomfortable—they both seem to be thinking—but there's a layer of sadness added onto Artemis's exterior when she realizes they're both Gothamites, and he doesn't—or, at least, shouldn't—know that.
"—Artemis?" Robin breaks into Artemis's stupor, and he's looking at her inquisitively, like he's been trying to catch her attention for some time now. Her head jerks up. "Lost in thought?"
"Sorry," she says, "I was just thinking about what you said."
"About Wally." A moment's hesitation, and then: "…Even if he wasn't obnoxious, I don't think I could date him. I kind of… I've always thought I'd want a boyfriend from G—home." She pauses, wonders if she should continue, wonders why she's telling Robin this, when she could just as easily talk to Zatanna about her thoughts later today. But Robin's a good listener, and it feels good to tell someone something personal for once, and he's her friend, so she trusts him, too. "Like… there's nothing wrong with having a long distance relationship, but I'd really like someone close by. If I did have a boyfriend, and I don't need one, but if I did, I'd just like someone nearby. If I could just… crash with him on a stressful night, or if I could just… know he's there. Even if he is the fastest boy alive, even if he wasn't annoying beyond all reason, Wally's too far away from me."
She stops, immediately regrets speaking, wonders what she even said. She's breaking her own policies now; opening up leads to issues. It's something she's been taught since before she can remember.
Still: "…Does that make any sense?" she asks him.
His expression is unreadable when he goes, slowly, "Someone from Star City, huh?"
It catches her off guard for a moment and she's all confused, because what does Star City have to do with anything, but at the sight of Robin's mask she remembers the existence of her own, and she goes, "Yeah. Home."
Robin grins. She's getting tired of his grins, wary of what comes after them, and Robin heaves himself up with a dramatic sigh and stretches. "You've thought about all this?" he asks, and he looks bewildered, leans in close to her so there's a domino mask all up in her face, examining her up close. Artemis rolls her eyes and pushes him away, but he ends up in a totally unnecessary backflip to regain his balance. Typical.
He chuckles. "So, if I was from Star City," he starts curiously, a stress so obnoxious as to scream I know, "…any chance I'd be a candidate?"
There's a beat.
Then: "What? Am I on a game show or something? Robin, you're too young for me!"
And for the second time that day she regrets saying it the moment it leaves her mouth, because she sees the flash of annoyance, how for a moment the boy looks absolutely put out; it's gone as quick as it comes, however, and the boyish grin returns, with a new light that highlights his youth and—she sees it now, how did she ever even miss it?—the insecurity he holds behind it.
She snorts. "Are you even allowed to date, Birdbrain?"
Robin grimaces. "You know, hasn't actually come up. Not a conversation I'm looking forward to."
That makes Artemis laugh, a true one that fills her with the fluttery beginnings of a good mood.
"Hey," says Robin good-naturedly, spotting the improvement in her state and leaping to capitalize upon it, "Miss M was baking a fresh batch of cookies when I got here." He offers her his hand to bring her to her feet. "You want?"
"Sure," she says, and accepts his hand; he pulls her up and there's an arrow left in her palm when she lets go, and before she can say anything he's running down the way to the kitchen, laughter echoing in his wake.
Chapter 2: Lunch
Gotham Academy, Artemis finds, isn't as bad as she thought it would be. It, as with many other obelisks in her life, comes to welcome her warmly so long as she welcomes it much the same. Though the tall, fancy campus is intimidating at its least—she finds no less than four different gymnasiums, two courtyards, and a cafeteria that looks more like a restaurant—it doesn't seem host to trouble. Where she thought there would be snooty students, she finds none, and the hurtful judging of her being on a scholarship that she expected isn't found, either; it turns out that most kids at Gotham Academy have at least a partial scholarship, up to and including her student liaison.
Artemis is almost afraid to admit it, but she thinks… she thinks she actually likes it here. At first, her plan was to take it in like a mission—to pass with good grades and to please her mother as the goal—but now Artemis finds that she actually enjoys coming to the Academy every morning. Now, don't get her wrong—she could do with hours a little later in the day, but she's not pissed or bored or lonely, and she even finds friendship in Bette Kane and companionship in Spanish Club (which she joins at the encouragement of her maestra, who finds Artemis's skill in the language charming). Artemis thinks that the classes at Gotham Academy are more interesting despite their difficulty (or perhaps because of it), the people are of a higher quality and caliber despite being what she once liked to portray as rich brats, and that the misery that normally accompanied her through the rundown hallways of her old school doesn't rear its head anymore.
And it's nice.
It's, like, really nice. It almost makes her feel normal for a few hours every day—or, at least, as normal as one can feel at an elite private school with a statue of Bruce Wayne that's worth more than the mayor's entire residence in its eastern courtyard.
It's in front of that very statue that Artemis finds herself at present. It's a little strange for there to be something so close to a memorial for a man as young as Bruce Wayne, but she supposes he has donated a ridiculous amount of cash to the board, and they have to honor it somehow. Whatever the case, she's not here to complain about or admire the statue; rather, the reason Artemis is even in the courtyard at all during her lunch period is that Bette is absent today, and in her absence someone else managed to steal the table that Artemis usually sat at for lunch, and, well, Artemis isn't one to bother getting people to move just so she can sit alone.
It's not that there aren't any available seats left in the cafeteria for her; there were plenty, but they were also all at tables near or half-occupied by freshmen, and Artemis, being the genius she is, thought, "Well, why don't I just go outside today?", except that all the benches and picnic tables are taken, because it's a nice day and that's what every upperclassman with the option had taken, as freshmen aren't allowed to leave the cafeteria for the first semester.
And now Artemis is too embarrassed to go back inside, but she's also a little embarrassed out here, and it's uncharacteristic of her to be so embarrassed in front of complete strangers but recently, ever since she's joined her new team, there's been this bursting thing inside of her that's made her want to make a good impression wherever she can. It's another one of those complexes about having an ex-supervillian mother in a wheelchair and a runaway sister and an evil villain father; if Artemis is given the fair tabula rasa, she's going to decorate it with her own colors and not let her family's murky browns and crimson reds have any part in her painting.
So here she is, standing under the shade of Bruce Wayne, and she sighs and she plops down in the grass because, hey, it's better than sitting next to the mathletes, and she pulls out her bagged lunch, something nice her mom packed her, and settles herself comfortably on the ground. As she eats, she mutters to herself about how the day could really be going better than it is—which, well, okay, the weather's nice and the birds are chirping, yadda yadda, but she feels inexplicably moody and she doesn't care to blame it on PMS.
Artemis sighs and finishes her lunch in silence, checks her watch for the time. She's still got thirty minutes or so until her Algebra II class, and she's got a test in it, too, so she figures, hey, it's not a bad idea for her to study with the time she's got left in place of moping about not having anyone worth talking to. She gets up and dusts herself off, crumples up the remains of her lunch and walks over to toss it at the trash can nearby. When she turns back to retrieve her backpack, she nearly jumps at the sudden unexpected appearance of another student standing next to it.
For respect of school rules, he really shouldn't be outside in the courtyard at all, because he's a freshman—or, at least, she guesses he's a freshman because he's shorter than most other boys she's seen over the past few weeks at Gotham Academy, and he's got that bright look on his face that everyone has before apathy begins to settle in as high school stretches on. He's smiling, staring up at the statue of Bruce Wayne with his hands in the pockets of his school uniform, as though he's sharing some sort of private joke with Wayne and it's taking all his concentration not to laugh about it aloud. His hair is gelled back and she thinks she's seen his face before, but in profile she doesn't really recognize it; it's probably just that she's passed him in the hallway once or twice, or maybe he's got some school record by the awards case in the second gym. Whoever he is, Artemis hopes he's not the chatty type, because as she regains herself and swoops in to take up her bag and pull out her textbook, she goes, "Hey, shouldn't you be inside?", hoping to regain her spot by the statue quickly—which doesn't happen because he just smiles and notices her textbook, and there's this twinkling in his blue eyes that she really doesn't like.
"I was just looking at the statue," he speaks easily, and then he tilts his head to the side and looks at her, his eyes a little wide in an expression of surprise. He laughs a little, prim and proper and pretty much the perfect picture of her initial suspicion on what Gotham Academy's students would be like, and he says, "I wanted to get a proper look-see at Bruce's likeness," and there it is again—that secret tucked away in his expression, that hint of an inside joke, and it's a good thing Artemis is good at reading expressions, because otherwise she'd think it's about her.
"…You're Dick Grayson," she says, as he shifts and she can see his face better now, can recognize the face that she's seen in newspapers standing beside Bruce Wayne, can recognize Gotham's famous orphaned acrobat, though she has to admit his eyes are a brighter blue than pictures would suggest. She's heard that he's a student here, but when Bette told her, she didn't particularly care, because she's never bothered to keep up with Gotham's so-called elite and has never seen a reason to, either.
"So I've heard," he says, nodding, and for a moment he looks rather tired, but it shimmers away as quickly as it came, and she has to blink because she swears for a second that she's seen that change somewhere before. Dick turns back to the statue, chirps amusedly, "They got his nose all wrong. Don't tell anyone I told you this, but"—he pauses, looks around to make sure that no one else is listening—"but he gets all upset about it. So whenever he's mad at me, I come over here and get a good laugh." He laughs in demonstration, stifling the giggle with his palm.
He tells her all this like it's a historical tidbit, like they're two friends at a museum and he's the one with all the fun facts that no one really cares about. She feels like it's a personal thing and doesn't know why he'd ever tell her, but she doesn't claim to know Dick Grayson at all, and the fact that it seems so personal doesn't stop her from strumming out sarcastically, "I'm sure your dad appreciates that."
At that he frowns, purses his lips, and knitting his eyebrows together he stares at the statue's nose like there's something written there and if he scrunches up his face just right he'll be able to read it. "Ah," he starts shortly, "just to clarify, he isn't… Bruce isn't my dad. I'm his ward." He shakes himself and turns to face her, shrugs. "People tend to get it mixed up."
Artemis frowns, and there's an apology on her face that isn't in her words: "I didn't realize there was a difference."
Dick's smile is sheepish and worn out, like an old T-shirt that he's washed so often that it's lost the old, vibrant color and is waiting to be thrown out for good. "Well, yeah," he says, and he pulls out his hands from his pockets, brings his index fingers vertically together in front of him and spreads them apart on either side in the outline of a rainbow. "The more you know."
The silence that follows is given absolute opportunity to be awkward. Artemis just kind of stands there with her backpack and her Algebra II book, and Dick returns to staring thoughtfully up at the statue, and really, whatever Bruce Wayne's gotten mad at him about must be something pretty big, because why else would he stare at it so long, and how mature is this kid, anyway? When Artemis is upset at her mom she doesn't doodle all over family pictures; she gets angry, she needs to smash something, and she doesn't really see laughing at a statue with an off nose as being very therapeutic. She's about to say as much—either that or hey, um, can you go away, she's not really sure what was going to come out of her mouth when she opened it—but Dick laughs again and that halts her trainwreck of thoughts because he's got this laugh that grabs people's attentions like nobody's business.
"Um," says Artemis, because he doesn't expand immediately, but then he motions with his head to the entrance to the courtyard and Artemis follows the trail. There's this red-headed girl standing there, clearly looking for something and clearly upset, and Dick grins and Artemis really, really hopes that that isn't his girlfriend and he isn't laughing because she's clingy because Artemis really, really isn't in the mood to be caught up with some freshman's romantic drama, she's really starting to dislike this kid—and then the girl spots them and marches up to Dick, crosses her arms, purses her lips.
"Dick, I've been looking everywhere for you," the girl speaks, frowning. "You said you'd be right back."
He smiles apologetically, finally turns his back to Bruce Wayne. "Sorry, Barbara. I got caught up looking at the excellent craftsmanship of this statue's nose." He winks at Artemis, lets her know that what he told her is, apparently, a secret between them.
Barbara snorts, rolls her eyes. "Of course you did."
His grin only widens, and he shrugs. "It happens to the best of us."
Barbara arches her eyebrows, taps her feet impatiently; it's obvious that though she and Dick are friends, she's used to his being irritating. "And I'm sure the best of us didn't just play hooky because they wanted to avoid the meeting with the middle school mathletes today."
Dick tries his best at looking positively astonished. Neither Artemis nor Barbara is fooled. "Was that today?" he ventures innocently, running a hand through his hair.
"It was today," Barbara says, "because tomorrow is the meeting for the dance, and the whole mathletes thing starts the week after that. So we didn't have a choice except today, and you knew that, Dick." She sighs, massages her temples.
Dick relaxes again, or perhaps relaxes more than he already was; he puts his thumbs in his pockets and watches Barbara stress out, leans over to Artemis and mutters, "She could handle it by herself, anyway." He clears his throat and magically pulls out some chocolate, snaps it in two unequal pieces and offers Artemis the smaller one. She narrows her eyes, but she won't say no to chocolate, so she accepts it and he snaps the other piece in half, too, offering the last morsel to Barbara. "Calm down, Babs. Won't you join us for a relaxing picnic under Bruce Wayne's shadow?"
"I don't see much of a picnic," Artemis remarks, and Barbara, who's also decided to accept Dick's chocolate, is inclined to agree.
"Use your imagination," Dick advises, and he settles down on the grass, pats the ground next to him. Artemis and Barbara share a look, then Barbara shrugs and joins Dick, and Artemis follows, stashes her math book back into her bag, and, yeah, she'll admit it, Dick and Barbara aren't bad, and they're preferable to a lunch period alone with a textbook. Dick stretches and smiles and he leads most of the conversation that follows—they talk about superheroes, mostly about Superman and the Green Lantern, because—as Barbara explains to her snidely—they're Dick's latest obsessions, and the conversation doesn't reach the San Francisco Bay Area, so it's not too close to her pretend home. Artemis actually enjoys herself; the two of them are refreshing company and she can see herself being good friends with Barbara even if they don't have any classes together, and it doesn't seem all that off when the other girl asks, "Hey, are you going to the dance next week?"
And Artemis remembers the last dance she was invited to, does her best not to scowl at the memory. "Um… don't think so," she says, and thinks a moment before adding: "I don't really have a date."
"I know the feeling," Barbara says, and she elbows Dick as he starts to snicker, and Artemis decides not to ask. "But you don't need a date. You can just go with friends."
Artemis knows it's true, but she doesn't really know a group of friends at Gotham Academy just yet. "I'll think about it," she says, but her lie comes out a little weak, and it looks like Barbara has something to say about that but the bell rings just as she's about to be chastised.
"Oh, shoot," Barbara says, and she scrambles to get her stuff together and stands, and she's got this panicked look in her eyes when she says, "I've gotta get to class on time today, see you guys later!" And she scrambles off in a hurry and her backpack's still open so a sheet of paper falls out the back and she doesn't even notice, is halfway across the courtyard by the time it hits the ground.
Dick is Barbara's complete opposite; he stands up at a leisurely pace, dusts himself off, and reached for the sheet Barbara dropped. He glances at it once, nods. "Babs's class is on the other side of the school. I'll give this back to her in English." He makes to offer Artemis a hand up, but she's already standing. Algebra II, unlike Barbara's class, however, is only a minute's walk away, so she can afford to kill some time.
"What about you?" Artemis asks.
"Same way as you," he supplies, pointing in the direction of the math classes. He tilts his head toward the textbook that's in her arms again—if Artemis holds it for the five minutes between classes, she'll at least feel like she prepared a little more. "Algebra II, right?"
She nods, and they walk together in silence for a few steps, and this time it really isn't empty or strange. Artemis thinks back on the last hour, decides that it's been largely productive. Dick may be a dork—mathletes, really?—but he's friendly and genuinely amusing, and Barbara's bright and bold and just the kind of girl that Artemis likes having around. Actually, Barbara reminds her a bit of Zatanna—she's got the type of personality that's fitting of a strong, independent superheroine; another girl that Artemis could totally see herself going out for a motorcycle ride with.
She's back to thinking about her team and her friends when Dick suddenly stops, says, "Hey, Artemis."
And she stops, too, and she's finally in a good mood, but when she looks back at him, she finds his expression is muted, that she can't make much of it, and she knits her eyebrows. "Yeah?"
He looks like he's struggling with himself for a moment, and the twinkle in his eyes has disappeared when he asks, "Any chance you'd want to go to the dance with me?"
And suddenly there's a crushing weight on her chest and her shoulders and Artemis doesn't know if she should feel angry or if she should feel really, really guilty or maybe an even combination of both. She tries not to choke on her words when she stumbles out, "I… I think I'm busy, Dick," and I don't really know you, anyway, and then she feels like she's going to be sick because she's known him for maybe forty-five minutes and he asked her out already, what the hell and she refused him, too. "...Sorry."
The aftermath of rejection on Dick's face is visible for only a moment before it's swiped away again, but the twinkle in his eyes doesn't return with his dorky smile. "Ah, okay," he says, "It's... um, it's cool." And they're still walking together and they still have to, because Artemis's classroom is literally the one right in front of them and she can't exactly take a different route.
They reach the door and Dick stops in front of it when she's about to walk in, pulls her to the side. "Hey, um, Artemis," he says hurriedly, and she's worried he's about to say something related to the dance again, but he continues, "The whole… 'ward—son' thing? Knowing that is… kind of what distinguishes people that know me from my friends."
She has to take a moment to register that. Then: "…I'm your friend?"
"Well," he says, biting his lip, "Sure. You just had lunch with me and I sit behind you in Algebra II, so, you know."
And her mouth is left open as he grins again, like, yeah, I've known you this whole time, and she may not get used to Dick Grayson—he's one of those kids, the lump in her throat can attest to it—but she needs a life away from superheroes friends and family villains, anyway, so, yeah, she could get used to his friendship.
Chapter 3: Math
Sleep is a treasure that Artemis hunts for only when she has the time, and by her habits she seems to have no time at all. Between the team and the steadily rising pile of schoolwork, Artemis is swamped, and it's not even like she can sacrifice a grade for an extra training simulation, because on one shoulder she's got Batman and the league and on the other she's got Bruce Wayne and the scholarship, and the only balance to be found in maintaining both of her lifestyles without disappointing her mom or herself is the balance obtained by the avoidance of sleep.
It sounds worse on paper than it is in practice; she studies into the night and does her homework with the minimum amount of effort needed to maintain her average, and if she's ever too tired because she's stayed up too late she makes up for lost hours by sleeping in class.
And it works.
It works for her, because even if she can't sleep in Spanish or take a nap in the grouchy old woman's English class, Algebra II and US History and Health stack up nicely one after the other, and that's enough time for her to rest, for her to function on a daily basis without there being a problem, without her behavior being disrupted.
Until she befriends Dick Grayson.
Dick Grayson, the boy with the seemingly endless supply of hair gel and an even greater supply of things to say, from the moment Artemis sits next to Barbara at the lunch table to the moment they go separate ways after math. Dick Grayson, with his witty commentary at the expense of their instructor and his obstinate, opinionated arguments when debates arise between him and Barbara. Dick Grayson, the boy presently known as Artemis's speed, because as invisible he was before, he's just as ubiquitous, if not more, now. He manages to outcompete the need for sleep, manages to outdo the narcotic that is sophomore math, manages to leap into her life as though he's always been there and Artemis doesn't mind much, the awkward invitation to the dance aside.
Her mind seems to mind, though.
They sneak outside for lunch under the statue again one day ("Sneak? You practically own this school," Artemis points out when Dick proposes the idea), and by some miraculous occurrence there's a lull in their conversation, and in the gentle breeze of the day Artemis finds herself struggling to keep her eyes open. It's that zombie like sleep that quickly becomes a fight to stay awake: she knows if she conks out now she won't wake up until a solid seven hours has been completed, but she can't let it take over, swears to herself that she'll take a nap once she gets home. Barbara notices her drowsiness and points it out aloud.
"I-It's nothing," Artemis says quickly, "I was just working on a project late last night." A project like a covert mission in Africa, but a project never-the-less.
Dick's curious eyebrows shoot up. "What project?" he asks, grinning wickedly.
She bites her lips. "A… personal project. Like… for myself."
"That is what 'personal' means, yes," Dick says, but he drops it, as it's obvious that Artemis isn't about to talk on the subject any longer, and she's once again managed to skirt by her involvement with the team. The number of close calls she's had with Dick and Barbara so far is uncanny; thankfully, Dick and Barbara aren't suspicious of her involvement in a martial art groups outside of the school, and, hey, it's not even a total lie. Bonus points.
By Algebra they're already on some wayward subject about a movie that came out the other day—Dick mentioned that he and Barbara went out to see it together ("It was totally a date, too," he added slyly, to which Barbara rolled her eyes and said, "Keep dreaming, Grayson,") and Artemis had gone to the New York premiere with Zatanna—and it's an interesting subject, sure, if only because Dick's reactions to the scenes Artemis thought were funny arehilarious, but she's still struggling to keep her eyes open, and the second she's in her seat in the classroom and the teacher announces the Smart Board is down and they'll have to use the projector, Artemis knows she's doomed.
It's in some sort of hazy state between being awake and being asleep that Dick pokes her on the shoulder and she jolts up. He smiles gently, and that's how she knows for certain that she looks absolutely awful, and he speaks, "Hey, Artemis, I know you're tired, and Imma let you finish, but the teach just announced a project and we're supposed to work in pairs."
She looks at him dumbly for a moment, her brain sluggish and uncomprehending.
"Um," he says, biting his lips, "so, do you want to work together?"
"Oh," she says. "Yeah, sure. Just"—a yawn, as she stretches in her chair—"what's the project, exactly?"
He snickers. "I don't think you'll even remember if I tell you now." He doesn't have time, anyway—the bell rings and he salutes her farewell and dashes out of the classroom, and Artemis pulls herself out of the chair and leaves for US History.
And, finally, it's like a dream come true, and she's in her room and there's her bed and she flings her backpack across the room, sets her alarm—Green Arrow, midnight—and collapses on her bed for a well deserved rest.
And she sleeps through it.
It's Saturday morning when she clambers into the cave, ready for the mission they were briefed on a few days ago, and she's actually pretty excited—it's just supposed to be her and Robin and Miss Martian, no Kid Mouth or Superboy to distract her, though she does feel kind of bad that Aqualad can't make it. She's grinning despite her blunder (she apologized to Green Arrow, and he'd said it was fine, understandable, and it was a boring, crimeless night anyway), she's got her quiver filled up with fresh arrows, and she's running up to meet the gang when she spots Batman and his look and slows down.
"Hey," she says, when she sees the other two's faces, and, yeah, it's not just Batman's perpetual frown, is it? "Why are you all—?"
"Artemis," says Batman, and Artemis does her best to not look extremely intimidated. It's strange; she remembers days in Gotham playgrounds when all the kids would say that Batman wasn't that scary, that he was like the city's guardian, cleaning up after villains and keeping them safe, but Artemis can't help it—she's always felt scared of him, because he's the opposite of what she was supposed to grow up to be. Even now, though she's warmed up to him as much as anyone can—except for Robin, of course, who Artemis can swear plays hide-and-seek with the guy—it's still one of the worst things she can imagine, just her and her uncertainty and Batman staring down at her.
"Um," she says, "am I in trouble?"
Batman narrows his eyes, like, yeah, duh, shouldn't you know this already? "Green Arrow informed me of your absence on his watch. Your teammates and I are concerned for your well-being. How many hours of sleep are you getting?"
She looks to her friends, and M'gann guiltily looks away and Robin's staring at the floor, and, wow, hey, she feels pretty insulted. Her blood's boiling, her heart's pounding, her hands are balling into fists.
"Enough," she snaps, and she's looking straight into Batman's eyeslits. "More than you, probably."
Robin's head snaps up and M'gann gasps and Batman's not impressed.
He nods. "I'm taking you off this mission," he says, "and until you can figure out your priorities and learn to take care of yourself, the team."
And, yeah, for her insubordination, she probably should've expected that.
But her eyes flare and she yells "Fine!" and she turns around and she's stomping away, and she only faintly catches the sound of Robin's exclaiming, "Batman, wait!" before she's back in the Zeta Tube and she's heading for Manhattan. There's already a nauseating amount of guilt building up in her stomach but she closes her eyes and focuses on the New York City skyline instead, walks out of the telephone booth and does her best to try and remember where Zatanna lives, because if there's one thing she needs right now it's a night with her new best friend, where they'll kick some ass and check out the town, and, yeah, if it's necessary, maybe they'll even talk about it.
She manages to pick out Zatanna's address from the memos on her phone (they don't have each other's numbers, not yet, because the team's internet phone isn't set up yet and if she gives out her current number everyone'll know she's from Gotham), even manages to find her house, but the lights are out and no one answers the door when she rings the bell. She sighs and sits on the steps and doesn't know what to do with herself, so she pulls out her phone again and plays around with the settings and the games, goes through her contacts and her photos and wonders why she has that picture of Robin and Wally falling asleep on each other still saved, anyway. She doesn't know how long she's been there when she stands up and pockets her phone and she's about to leave when she feels the vibration—a text alert.
Artemis doesn't have many people who text her: sometimes her mom will tell her to pick up the milk on the way back from school, sometimes she'll get a message from an unknown source that she can only assume is Batman, and on rare occasions she'll get something like HAPPY NEW YEAR'S! from her best friend when she was twelve who just sent a message to everyone; she's not sure what she's expecting when she fishes out her cell, but it's not what she gets.
She recognizes the area code immediately; it's from Gotham, but the sender isn't saved in her phone so she has no idea who it is when she reads the text's contents:
Hey. What's up?
And she responds, naturally: Who the hell is this?
To which comes: Oh, sorry. It's Dick. Grayson. In case you know any other Dicks.
And Artemis stares at the text quizzically, blinks a few times, thinks what to say over. Then: How the hell did you get my number?
She has to wait a few minutes before the response comes this time, and she almost thinks it's not coming at all. There's a few times when she checks the screen almost obsessively, but there's nothing there, until finally, ten minutes later, she gets her response.
You gave it to me, remember? For the project. You really must've been asleep if you can't even remember that. Sorry I took a while to respond, Bruce dragged me to some dinner and I don't think he wants anyone to see me look uninterested. She's barely finished reading this one when another follows: I am, though. Entertain me?
I'm not really in the mood, she sends back. And as an afterthought: …Sorry.
Another long wait, and Artemis is up and walking around Manhattan now to subdue her boredom, the conversation they've already had circulating in her head. What she really wants to do is remember when she gave the kid her number, but the memory of the class is blurry at best, and as she's furrowing her brow and closing her eyes in the McDonald's in Times Square, just as she thinks she might remember, Dick responds.
Oh, yeah? How do I solve for that?
Chapter 4: Break
Though it's true that she's fairly caught up to sleep by the time Artemis wakes up at 2:20pm on Sunday, she's also grumpy and guilty for her actions, along with kind of bored out of her mind. The searing anger at others' deciding what was and wasn't best for her mostly subsides, and leaves in its wake some numbness and bewilderment at her own stupidity, but she's not a wreck today because she spent a good amount of time last night texting Dick, and it's seemingly impossible to be upset with his foolhardy grin lurking in every message he sends.
Presently, Artemis checks her phone and finds that she crashed in the middle of typing a response, the words incomprehensible from how she slept on her device the entire night (one advantage of the not so fancy models? they're sturdy like nothing else). Dick sent her a final text after her lack of a response; it reads, Heh. Sweet dreams. and is time-stamped three hours after she failed to reply.
Somehow she feels she owes it to him to apologize, so she quickly keys in an apology and an explanation, then asks if he'd like to inform her of the contents of their math project. Then she sets her phone aside and gets up and stretches, thinks maybe she'll go get some chocolate at the local gas store, because her stash ran out a few days ago and she's sure she needs to do some groceries anyway. Artemis dresses herself and pulls on a coat, grabs her house keys and her wallet, stuffs them in her pockets. Her hand hovers over her phone for a moment before she picks it up (—nothing, no messages from anyone, what was she expecting, anyway?—) and pockets it, too.
"'Milk, eggs, syrup,'" Artemis recites as she enters the living room, where the TV's running but Paula's reading the newspaper. "Is that all?"
"Good morning, Artemis," her mom says good-naturedly, and Artemis goes to give her mom a hug – because she's there, because they're still together, and if that doesn't warrant a hug, what does? They hold each other for a moment longer than she expected to but she doesn't mind, and when they're apart she's kneeling in front of her mother and she's smiling, but her mom is not. "You looked upset last night," the woman speaks, and she's not asking for an answer but her expression betrays her unconstrained concern.
"It's nothing," Artemis insists, and as she starts her hand moves to her pocket again, but she's not sure if she does that in anxious wait or from the memories of last night—The Cave, her anger, New York, Dick. Paula doesn't prod further, just tells Artemis to make sure she's taking care of herself, and Artemis sort of half-smiles because, yeah, she's been getting that a lot lately, hasn't she? But Paula is her mom and her mom is allowed to worry about her—sometimes Artemis wonders if that's the only thing she does.
"Be back in a bit!"
And Artemis laughs.
It's strange, really, how happy she is right now; she's got reason enough to be upset and she should probably be thinking about what she's going to say to the team later—she's going back next weekend, she can't not, because they're her family and she was being stupid yesterday, she knows it. But she finds that her attempts to think about what to say are thwarted by memories of Dick from throughout the night, echoes of her reading his texts ringing inside her head. She doesn't even know what they talked about, now that she thinks about it: just that they did, and, hey, Dick's not bad company in a place of misery—he's not bad company at all.
On the way down the stairs of the complex she finds she's humming a song she doesn't remember listening to, but the cheery tune suggests that it's something she might've heard M'gann singing, or maybe something she caught while passing through the music hall at school. She can't recall the words, but that's okay, and she's still looping the same thirty second snip of it in her head when she reaches the mini-mart two blocks down, even with the drizzle and the cold wind. She's got out her canvas bag and she goes through the grocery list easily, but when it comes time to stop at the chocolate aisle she has to stop and seriously consider what she's in the mood for.
Artemis isn't really picky when it comes to chocolate. Sure, she doesn't go all out and buy the super fancy stuff, but peanuts? Caramel? Raspberry filling? It's all the same to her, another layer of deliciousness on an already amazing deal. That's why, when she's presented with a choice, she has to think about it, consider her options and her cravings and her mood. She's standing there and surveying the aisle when the TV suspended from the ceiling blurts out some obnoxious tune and catches her attention, and, yeah, she snorts out in laughter, because there, caught by some rogue cameraman for Gotham News, is Robin. He's in full costume and looks kind of embarrassed, which Artemis is left to assume is because he's been caught while trying to sneak past them. The lady's asking him all sorts of dumb, intrusive questions: So, Robin, any words for your fans? Would you sign my son's plush of you, he's a big fan? Any lady making Gotham's favorite little bird sing?
Robin grins through it all, his charisma guiding him smoothly—Artemis would be impressed, if she wasn't already acquainted with the kid's amazing people skills—and he even throws in a "Nope, still single, I'm available, ladies!", which Artemis's certain he got from Wally. Halfway through one of his answers to the woman's questions he makes a weird face and tells her to hold on a second, he's getting a message, and he pulls out some crazy red-and-yellow contraption that Artemis knows isn't his real phone, but he checks it and almost comically shouts out, "Uh oh, gotta fly! Batman's gonna ground me for sure!" And he's off in the storm, and Artemis is left remembering that Robin may act like he's always acted, may giggle and play with toys and pretend that he's still nine, but he's thirteen now.
He's a teenager.
It's not something that totally hit her before. Gotham's little songbird, as the news woman put it, brought light to the Dark Knight four years go. But the boy is becoming a young man now – soon his voice might even start cracking like Wally's still did when she first joined the team. It seems all too easy for Gothamites to forget that Robin isn't just a pop culture icon – he's a person, too, and he grows out of his old tights just like everyone else does.
She shakes her head to clear her thoughts—why is she even thinking about this?—and decides on her chocolate. Just as she does, her phone begins to vibrate.
Morning, Sunday Sunshine~!
As if on cue, the thunder claps loud and some lightning flashes, and Artemis shakes her head, smirking. She drafts the response in head immediately, but doesn't want to make it seem like she's been waiting for his response all day or something, so she pays for the groceries and pulls up her hood before standing to the side of the exit and replying: Good day for Algebra, mathlete?
And his response, when she puts down her bag and checks the rain-splattered screen a block from home:
Her alarm is loud and obnoxious, a sound that she's grown used to over the past few years, but it does its job and jogs Artemis from her dreams. She yawns and does her best to avoid the temptation to rest her eyes again, distracts herself by staring up at the ceiling and trying to recount her dream. It's a useless attempt; she knows she was in Gotham and she knows Zatanna was there, but other than that the details are lost forever, like they've been wiped from her mind and there's only scattered bits of eraser shavings left. She grumbles to herself—she's never been very good at recalling her dreams, but it's a talent she wished she had—and turns on her side so she's not facing the poster on the wall. By the time she's given up on remembering, she's properly awake, and it's been ten minutes and the school is a city bus ride away, so Artemis forces herself out of the comfort of her bed and gets ready for school. Clothes, phone, keys, check; she does a quick sweep of the contents of her desk and dumps them in her backpack, swings it over her shoulders, and she's out the door.
The rain from yesterday leaves angry flooding all through the city, so the buses are more crowded than is normal, and the ride to school seems all around longer, too. She almost nods off halfway there, almost misses her stop, but she catches herself and dismounts the bus right in front of Gotham Academy, and if she's too early, that's okay, because it gives her more to time to sleep, or to do, you know, the homework assignment due next period. It sounds like a plan, Artemis decides; so she heads to the library and settles in a chair, searches through her backpack to pull out her book, and… it's not there.
Her eyes widen. Panic erupts, her blood's in a frenzy—no, no, this can't be happening, she can't lose another book, can't pay another fine—Artemis grabs her backpack and dumps all its contents all over a table, shifts and searches through it. She checks all the little pockets and all of her folders, maybe the book got stuck in one of them, it's small after all, but it's fruitless, and as she puts stuff back in her bag, piece by piece, she tries to remember where she last saw her book. The classroom? Mount Justice? Maybe her—dread settles in, but a wave of relief follows after when she knows for sure the book's not lost—bedroom.
Okay. She breathes. She can easily picture the book on her desk, right in the corner next to The Looking Glass Wars, and it's not a big deal. Sure, she needs it for class, but she can easily borrow another one just for the day—in fact, she stands, swings her backpack over her shoulder and heads to the computer lab, where she knows her English teacher spends her mornings, helping nervous juniors with their sample SAT essays.
She's not surprised by the amount of students she encounters on the way there: it's apparently a private school thing to show up everywhere obnoxiously early, maybe have some fancy breakfast at the school cafeteria. Senior students especially seem to arrive early with their big, intimidating textbooks, crouching over them in the back of the libraries because they have tests that day and they can't be bothered to study at home, and Gotham Academy doesn't have a school bus, so plenty of students are dropped off an hour early because their parents are off to work. With all the excuses and justifications for their being there, Artemis shouldn't really be as surprised as she is when she turns the corner and finds Dick and Barbara at the latter's locker. Dick's talking in hushed, excited whispers, which would be audible if not for Barbara's rustling through her locker. Stray words of the conversation play in the air; Artemis catches "please", "dance", and "come on!" in Dick's whine.
"You ask every hot girl you see to the dance, Grayson?" Artemis chimes as she gets closer, and she's smirking because it's a joke, but Dick's caught halfway between saying something and he looks like Conner caught complimenting a monkey.
"—Artemis! Hey, what're you doing here so early?"
Artemis raises an eyebrow. "I'm always here early," she says, as though it's obvious, and she looks pointedly at the two of them, as though examining their faces will reveal the reasons behind their suspiciousness. Though Dick's schooled his expression into a winning smile, Barbara looks exasperated, even when she shuts the locker and zips her backpack, turns to Artemis with a smile. "Hi, Artemis."
"… Did Dick skip another mathlete meeting or something?" asks Artemis.
"Always," chirps Dick, and he's pulled out his cell phone to check the time. "We actually have to be getting to an emergency one right now." And he's pulling at Barbara's arm, like, hey, we're going to be late, aren't you the one that's always complaining about me?
"What? No we d—"
And though she's resisting, Barbara's easily dragged away and Dick smiles and waves as they turn the corner, crying, "Sorry about this, Artemis! See you at lunch!"
So she's ditched and she feels alarmingly sore about it—(hey, no, stop that, Artemis, what does it even matter, Dick's been weird from the beginning)—because she realizes she meant to thank him for keeping her company the other night, even though she was keeping him company, too. And she realizes that she doesn't want it to be just Dick-and-Barbara-those-two-mathletes-that-I-hang-out-with-at-school; she wants it to be Dick and Barbara and Artemis, that trio of friends that sits together at lunch and has fights over which Saturday morning cartoon from their childhood was the best.
And she realizes that, yeah, okay, maybe she does mind that he was talking to Barbara about the dance that she rejected him for. Even though she has no right to mind… right?
It's all too frustrating and she's not in the mood to think about it or read the book for class or do that homework due next period, so she glares at the spot where the two of them disappeared, crosses her arms, and heads to her first period.
Artemis arrives at the cafeteria before Dick and Barbara, and she's brought her own lunch again anyway, so she sits at a different table than their usual, expecting for them to leave her alone. She's barely sitting for a minute before Dick joins her, however, and she looks up and glares at him and says, without hesitation, "I know when I'm not wanted around, Dick."
Dick frowns. "We had a meeting," he says firmly, and he waves Barbara over from the other table, where she's standing nonplussed at the absence of her friends. "I swear on Bruce's statue."
Artemis takes an angry sip of her juice to let him know she isn't convinced.
"Artemis, Artemis, Artemis," Dick sighs, shakes his head forlornly, and offers Artemis a French fry, which she rejects. "Do you honestly hope to compete with my affections for derivatives?"
"Not everyone is in love with you, Dick," Barbara says as she takes her seat next to him, sliding her tray on the table. She turns to Artemis and smiles again, and, okay, there's a warmth about Barbara that makes it impossible for Artemis to be mad at her. "What are we talking about, other than Grayson's hard-on for math?"
"She thinks I made up the emergency meeting to get away from her cooties or something," Dick says. "A little support, Babs? She'll believe you."
"It's true," assures Barbara, and she offers Artemis a fry, which the other girl accepts. Dick looks absolutely hurt, and Artemis makes a face at him. "Dick did not make up the emergency mathlete meeting." She gestures at Artemis's phone. "The advisor sent out a mass text and I hadn't seen it yet."
Artemis feels the tension in her shoulders lessen and mentally scolds herself for getting worked up about the ordeal at all, though she knows that she's got reason enough to be upset when people leave her out of things. With the team, it's because Roy thinks she's a potential mole. At her old school, it was because everyone knew who her parents were. Here… well, it's always good to keep up your guard.
"Um," says Dick, "Sorry, again."
"All is forgiven," grins Artemis, and the other two grin, too, and just as Artemis goes, "Hey, listen—" , Dick tries to say, "By the way", and they cut themselves off and stare at each other while Barbara watches on in bewilderment for a second before Artemis cocks her head to the side, says, "You first."
"I just wanted to let you know that you totally saved my life on Saturday... Sunday, whatever it was," Dick tells her. "I was just about dying from boredom before I'd thought to text you." His features seem to soften and Artemis knows he's being genuine; in fact, when he sees her eyes widen in curiosity, he almost turns red from the embarrassment of admitting it, and he snaps his attention to his food. "Um, what were you going to say?"
"The same thing, actually," says Artemis, and it's like a tiny warmth in her heart to realize she wasn't being dumb and annoying to someone that night, and, yeah, she's saved lives literally before, but hearing it like that is something different. "Thanks, and you're welcome."
"Aww," says Barbara, "aren't you two cute? Late night texting and everything."
"We're not…" starts Artemis, and she's startled that it's Barbara of all people to suggest it, but Dick shakes his head, snickering.
"She's just jealous that she can't get with either of us."
"Sure," says Barbara. "That's totally it."
And their conversation goes on as it normally does, and somewhere in her head Artemis hears the chime that means their friendship has progressed farther, that maybe it actually is Barbara and Dick and Artemis, and not Dick-and-Barbara-plus-Artemis like she thought.
When the bell rings and they're heading to class and it's just Dick and Artemis, just as they're about to enter the classroom, he pulls her aside again, and for a moment Artemis is worried that he's going to ask again (and what frightens her is she doesn't know if she'd actually refuse him this time, at least as friends), but he doesn't; instead, he says, "Hey, so Babs and I are planning to check out that fair that's supposed to start up today a few blocks down—we weren't going to go before since it's usually crowded, but the rain cleared out most of the people for us—any chance you'd like to come with us after school?"
Chapter 5: Art
The annual autumn fair is common knowledge throughout the city, and it goes on for something like a week, so the rain's attack has dampened only the crowd for a single day. According to Dick, at least a quarter of the attractions will be down today, but in exchange for smaller lines and less crowds, the three of them agree that it's a fair deal. He tells her to meet him and Barbara at the front of the school after dismissal, and then they'll walk the distance together—he says it'll be an 'adventure.' Artemis thinks it's cute that he thinks of such a small distance as so grand an escapade.
When the last bell rings, Artemis finds herself almost nervously excited, but she manages to control herself before she reaches the school entrance—and, wow, she hasn't been out in a while, has she? The team has been out for pizza once or twice, sure, but then there's six of them, not three, and Artemis has a confidence around Robin and Kid Flash and the rest that she doesn't always take care to keep up elsewhere.
Whatever the case, she reaches the school entrance a little later than she expected, because she ended up staying late last period. For a moment, Artemis thinks she's the first one out; it perplexes her, and she's about to text Dick asking where he is (she wonders why she doesn't have Barbara's number yet, makes a mental note to ask her), but just as she's about to hit send she spots the two of them by the parking lot, talking to an older gentleman standing in front of a limousine—well, the man seems to be talking, but Dick and Barbara are arguing.
Artemis makes her way over.
"Anyone ever tell you you're impossible to work with?" Dick's saying, and through her pleased expression it becomes clear that Barbara's officially won. She smiles her yes, and Dick adds, "Good. Because you're impossible to work with."
"I try," Barbara replies, and that's when Artemis reaches and greets them with a, "What's up?"
"Nothing," they say simultaneously, but Dick's is miserable and Barbara's sing-songy, and Artemis looks from one to the other, very confused.
"Babs is doing me a favor," Dick sighs, and he glares up at the suited man, like, this is all your fault, and the man's try at a poker face is clearly hiding his amusement.
"At your leave, Master Richard."
"You don't do anything at my leave, Alfred," sulks Dick, and the man nods his agreement before stepping into the car and driving away.
"Shall we get going?" asks Barbara. "I only have an hour and a half—Dad wants me home for dinner."
They fall into step on the sidewalk and Dick talks almost the entire way there; Artemis thinks that it's just that he's fond of his voice, but it reaches an extreme where no fall of silence is allowed to persist for too long. Most of what Dick goes on about is silly and Artemis barely pays attention, an action that Barbara mimics when the sidewalk gets too narrow for three and Dick walks before them, effectively isolating him from the girls' own conversation.
"I hope they have the rides running today," Barbara says. "It's a day wasted if we don't go top speed on the tea cups." Artemis agrees, and they're not out of luck when they reach the huge lot where the fair's set up. Artemis spots it first and pokes at Barbara, points out the tiny line to the sought after attraction, and the three share looks, grins, and then they're running toward it fast enough that it looks like they're racing. The man running the ride is more than surprised when the three teenagers reach the line and without hesitation hop the queue's borders, and rush into the nearest empty tea cup with eager faces, first Barbara then Artemis and then finally Dick, scooting in next to her so she's squished between them.
"Um," says the ride's manager, looking at them and their enthusiastic grins wearily, "Are you three, uh, ready?"
"If either of you stop spinning this thing," Barbara whispers when she grabs hold of the center wheel and nods at the manager, "I'll kick your ass."
"Let's do this," says Artemis, and for the expression in her voice she might have been ordering them around on a mission with the team.
The machine starts up, a five-year-old giggles in the cup next to them, and three pairs of hands have the wheel in death grips. When the floor starts to spin, Barbara becomes their general, barking out commands and insults like "Faster, Dick! You spin like a boy!", and "Don't let go, Artemis!", and Artemis's getting a headache for how fast the world spins by. The wheel is merciless in its struggle against them, but it's certain that they're the fastest on the ride and everything's a blur of wind and faces and hands and laughter. More than once Artemis is distinctly aware of how close they're sitting – touching, really, because the force pushes Dick into Artemis and Artemis into Barbara – and there's a moment when they're spinning the wheel that their hands touch, and she'll try not to admit that her heart skips a beat at the realization, but the emotion takes a back seat to the ride.
It ends all too early but their arms are all tiring, so when the machine stops they all slump over in the cup and it takes them a moment to recollect themselves and clamber out, still fighting off the vertigo.
Artemis declares solemnly, "That was a satisfactory experience."
"Indeed," says Barbara, nodding.
"Could've been faster," contributes Dick. "Wasn't even dizzy."
"You were falling against me the whole time," Artemis points out, rolling her eyes. Dick doesn't acknowledge her, stuck in his fantasy of prideful tea cup non-dizziness.
Barbara shakes her head, checks the time on her phone. "Hmm," she says, "I've got maybe thirty minutes left—what d'you wanna do next?" She turns first to Artemis, who shrugs, then to Dick, who says, in a manner similar to a sage suggesting herbal tea, "Moon bounce."
"…Moon what?" asks Artemis, who's never heard of such a thing.
Dick's gasp is a lot more theatrical than necessary. "Artemis!" he cries, astonished, "You've never been on a moon bounce before?"
The apparent scandal doesn't bother her, because her childhood never leant itself to what most people considered 'normal', and she's gotten more than used to it. "No?"
Dick puts a hand to his heart, acts like it physically pains him to have to hear about her misfortune and lack of experience with a moon bounce, doubles over and falls to his knees and everything, and Barbara has to poke him for fear that he'll collapse on the floor and garner too much attention. He snickers when he's over the emotional turmoil, and the twinkle in his eye is back when he stands and points out the big, inflatable castle a little distance away. "Well," he speaks, "We'll just have to fix that, won't we?"
"Do I want that fixed?" Artemis looks to Barbara for her answer.
"You never trust me," complains Dick. They ignore him, so he resorts to looking pleadingly at Barbara, his pout a plain, clear, come on, Babs, moon bounce!
"Sure you do," advises Barbara, and Dick jumps up in a cheer and half leads, half drags the two girls to the red-blue-and-yellow castle in the distance. As they get closer Artemis sees the line of kids waiting to get on—there's maybe fifteen of them, and they're all younger than twelve, probably haven't even hit puberty yet, but, hey, Dick's already dragged them in line and Barbara seems cool with it, so all her mortification will have to sit aside for this one. There's apparently a limit of five kids at a time inside the castle, so they have to wait three-and-a-half cycles before the three of them are let on alone (there's a weight limit, too), and, you know what?
Hey, she thinks, when Dick yells out, "Tag!" and bounces away, she's gotta make up for her pathetic childhood somewhere. If it's the three of them bouncing around like five-year-olds in giant, inflatable bouncy castle until the guy running them has to force them to leave, so be it.
"New age limit!" the man shouts in their wake when Artemis, Barbara, and Dick are shuffling away, their lungs sore with laughter. "You must be twelve years of age or younger to be allowed on the moon bounce!" Artemis and Barbara make faces at the guy's back and he turns to glare at them just as they do, but by then they're gone, hiding behind another tent and cackling like a trio of hyenas.
"Okay," says Artemis, nodding once they're done with their fits, "I think I have to start trusting Dick's judgment."
"Yes," he agrees, "you do."
Barbara checks her phone for the time, frowns at the screen, but nods and replaces the device in her skirt's pocket. "Looks like my time's up," she announces. "I'll see you two at school tomorrow."
"Want us to walk you?"
"Nah," she says, winking at them, "I'm a big, strong girl. I think I can handle a walk to a car by myself, no matter what my dad seems to think." She jogs away, waving at them when she's gone a few yards, and she calls back, "Bye! You two have fun on your date!"
And, okay, so there's really no point in denying it when she's already out of earshot, and, you know what, fine, she'd be okay going on a date with Dick, anyway, so, sure. She will. And he doesn't deny it either (but, really, would he?), so she guesses that he will, too.
"This isn't a date, is it?"
"This is definitely not a date."
"…So," starts Dick, when neither of them talks until Barbara's disappeared, "Any other exciting carnival-esque experiences you were deprived of as a child, Miss Crock?"
All of them, she nearly answers, but she revises her thoughts because he's bring good-natured and she's not as bitter about it as she'd like to think she is, and what comes out is, "Well, Circus Boy, compared to you I'm sure I've missed everything." At that he beams, but there's a sadness about it and a quietness about him, the same kind of quiet that she had when he mentioned her childhood. Quiet, and then Artemis suggests, "Well, we went straight to the attractions when we got here. How about a walk through the stalls?"
"Feeling lucky, Artemis?"
"Calculate my odds for me, won't you, mathlete?"
With the return to regular quips, the atmosphere settles down and it's easier to walk beside him, and she wonders briefly if Dick'll hold her hand—she thinks she might even let him if he does. Together they walk through the attractions and stations, and as the day stretches into sunset the crowds are getting bigger and thicker, full with children and their parents, twisted balloons tied to wrists and faces decorated with paint. They pass several artists' book with caricatures and some games where people try to guess your weight, and they make light conversation the entire way, not really stopping at anything. It isn't until they reach a place to get some drinks and Dick buys them both root beer that Artemis stops and blinks at the prizes, a sly smirk snaking its way onto her features: suspended from the ceiling of a booth nearby are several tiny, stuffed Batmen and tinier, stuffed Robins, and seeing them makes Artemis laugh, which makes Dick stop and look, nonplussed.
"What's up?" he asks, and she points out the toys. Robin and Batman aren't the only plush toys up for grabs; there're a few bouncy balls and some giant, rounded animals, giraffes and pandas and lions and elephants. The game is, incidentally, archery; the object is to rack up as many points as possible in one minute, and depending on the number of points received, the player receives a prize of their choosing.
"I've got a friend who would love those," Artemis says, pointing out the Robins.
"Yeah?" says Dick. "Me, too."
She gestures toward the game like, hey, I'm gonna try, you wanna join me, and he shrugs and they walk over. While the woman running the place is busy with other patrons, Dick plays with the Batman toy, seemingly interested in its utility belt, and Artemis pokes at the Robin, checking out its cape and wondering at all its inaccuracies.
"Gonna try to win it for her?" asks Dick, when the people leave and the woman approaches them.
"Him," says Artemis, and she notches an arrow.
"He's a bit of a Robin enthusiast," she explains, as she readies the shot. "Has his own makeshift costume and everything."
"That's dedication," Dick responds, stroking his chin in thought and appreciation.
Artemis gets three shots at the prize; the first one is worth the least and the last one is worth the most, so it's okay if she doesn't show off her skill, and anyway, it isn't all that much of a challenge. She expressly misses the first target completely ("Bull's eye!" Dick exclaims) and earns 0 points; she misses the center by an inch or so in the second ("Missed a spot…") for three points; on the third, however, she's careful and steady and she closes her eyes and she shoots… straight. Five points. Dick and the woman clap appreciatively and she chooses her prize.
"Nuh-uh, young lady," the woman says, shaking her head. "Those up there need at least thirteen points. Feel free to choose from all the others."
Artemis knows she could've had the full fifteen points, and it would've been awesome if someone decided to tell her that before she started. The price to play is hefty by her standards, though, and she doesn't really want to argue, either, so she grumbles about it a little but sighs and looks at the other collection of prizes. Her eye was on the Robin and she'd envisioned his reaction when she got it for him, so now she has to scan the selection and think about it.
"Does your friend like Kid Flash?" asks Dick curiously. "He's kind of like a giraffe, so."
Artemis blinks. "…What?"
Dick shrugs, cocks his head to the side. "You don't think so?"
"Not… really," says Artemis, and she shakes her head, looks back at the stuffed animals and wonders which one to get and for who, because isn't it kind of weird to get Robin a random stuffed animal if originally she planned on getting him a doll of himself? She sighs. "Well, I won something, and I don't want any of them. What do you like, Dick?"
Dick purses his lips and puts his hands in his pockets, carefully scans the collection of prizes. Then he stops, wonders aloud, "Isn't winning a stuffed animal something that guys usually do for girls on dates?"
"Get in the twenty-first century, Grayson."
Dick shrugs. "Fine. Elephant."
Artemis turns to the woman. "You heard the man. The elephant, please." And a big, fluffy grey elephant is handed over to Artemis, who promptly pushes it into a bewildered Dick's hands, and it's so big the kid nearly topples over. Artemis smirks; it's strangely satisfying to see him get off balance, figuratively or literally.
"Huh," says Dick, once he's done struggling with it and figures out how he's supposed to walk while holding the thing. He looks at it with fondness, a smile sweet and private, and she'll notice the rest of the night that he'll take special care for not getting it dirty, and there Artemis thinks that this wasn't a bad idea. "I… Thanks, Artemis. She'll make an excellent addition to my stuffed animal army."
"I can never tell if I'm surprised with you anymore."
A giggle. "Just as planned."
It's getting significantly darker by then, sunset giving rise to evening, and as the fluorescent lights start to flicker on, the two of them maneuver themselves out of the crowds and toward the front of the set-up, where there's a bus stop where the two of them can go their separate ways. She realizes on the way back that nothing's actually shutting down yet; rather, it's Dick that either has some sort of curfew or just needs to be home, because some of the stalls have rather big lines and there's a table with a popcorn maker that's getting refilled.
"Heh, let's avoid that one," Dick says when they're about to approach aforementioned table, and he skirts around a couple and their daughter so he's a fair distance away. Artemis follows him quizzically, but where his movements through the crowd are graceful even with his elephant, Artemis manages to trip over something and fall face first into a table that's set up for face paint; there's a giant splash! and some shouting and Dick yelling out her name, and then when she's up again her face is dripping and someone's going on about how they're lucky she didn't get it in her mouth or her eyes, but, damn, does she look orange.
"Whoa, Artemis, spray tans do not suit you." Dick's face appears in her vision again and she's so confused, needs a mirror, and dammit, the stuff's in her hair and her face and god, is Dick taking out a camera, that little—
The painters look her over, their faces in grimaces, though she's not sure if it's because of her face or because of her faux pas, but it's her no matter what, so she apologizes and they ssh her and one of the older ones gives her a once over, nods to himself thoughtfully. "I can work with this," he announces, in an accent that she can't quite place, and the next thing she knows she's sitting in a plastic chair with two face painters hovering over her, murmuring things to each other about brush strokes and needing more black paint. Dick appears at some point and she thinks that maybe he'll save her from strange, abducting face painters who should really be asking her to pay a fine and then leaving her alone, but instead he shows her how his face is all yellow now, and he wants to see what they'll do with that, and then he's disappeared again. It seems like forever before they're done, before they stop sshing her when she tries to speak, and even then they simply hand her a mirror and show her what they've done with her face.
She lets out an undignified squeak.
"Neat," comes a familiar voice and she twirls around to see Dick, whose face, like hers, needed a lot more black paint, and has become a crudely done rendition of the Bat Signal.
"You look like a flashlight," Artemis remarks.
"Really? I thought it was more like The Night."
They pay the face painters, who bow at them and grin at their artistic achievement, and then they walk away, solemn. Once they're a safe distance away, they burst into laughter at each other's faces and how ridiculous they look, Dick swiftly pulls out a camera, and snaps a buttload of shots (and he assures her, a buttload is a number, mathlete's honor). It's only when they leave the area and reach the bus stop that they realize that this is one of those things that never leaves the company; and together they rush to the water fountains and splash each other with water, furiously rubbing off the face paint before their respective buses arrive. Dick takes even more photos: of blurry faces, of half-painted faces, of Artemis splashing him with water, of the elephant alone on the bench so that she won't get wet. When her bus arrives, Artemis's uniform is completely soaked and her stomach is sore from the laughter of the day, and it's one of those moments: Right here, right now, this could be forever.
She's been home at later hours, and she's a big girl now, anyway, so she's not nervous when her mom asks where she's been all day. Anyway, Paula isn't upset; she's just concerned, like mothers are, and apparently she was hopeful that Artemis had gone back to the Cave.
"I went out to the fair with some friends from school," Artemis tells her, and Paula, who was frowning before, smiles at the thought, her face lighting up at the word friends.
"Artemis, that's wonderful!" she exclaims, and she stretches out her arms to invite her daughter in for a hug, and Artemis accepts it, the guilt brought up just by the word Cave thoroughly swallowed by her excitement from the day. Paula expresses her happiness for Artemis's having made friends but doesn't ask who they are or what she did, which Artemis is grateful for, if only because she doesn't really want to share Dick with her mom just yet.
Paula points out an envelope that's sitting on the table. "That came for you, by the way. Not by the normal mail." Artemis nods and picks it up, finds that there's nothing written on it save for her name. She nods at her mother and thanks her and wishes her good night, gives her another hug because, hey, she deserves it, and then she's off to her room. There, she opens the envelope and finds inside nothing except for a single, tiny SIM card.
She slides it into her phone.
Once she's replaced the battery and the phone's system boots up again, the Bat logo appears on the screen and prompts her for a password; she keys in the PIN she was assigned as part of the team, and sure enough it goes through. Though mostly left unchanged, she finds her phone has a new option now, a second contact list and once she's inputted her PIN a second time, she sees the names of her team members, Zatanna, Zatara, Black Canary, Green Arrow, and Batman.
Their secure phone system is up and now she can call her new family without worrying about her secrets.
She calls Zatanna to try it. It's answered on the second ring.
"Artemis!" Zatanna's always excited to talk to her. Artemis really likes that. "Hey, is this cool, or what?"
"It's pretty amazing," Artemis says, and hey, if Zatanna's on the contact list…. "Is your dad letting you on the team soon?"
Zatanna hesitates. "Well, I… uh, kind of got caught trying to sneak it out last night. Haven't quite perfected the duplication spell yet, so… Yeah. It didn't go so well. What's up with you? School get you down yet? Anything going on in your exciting, non-superhero life?"
"Actually," she starts, "I did go to a fair today. Went on the moon bounce and everything."
"No," Artemis replies, and there's a split-second debate inside of her on whether she wants to let it slip or not, and her mouth decides before she does—"I went with this guy from school. Dick."
"Ooh," says Zatanna. "Dick."
"It's totally not like that—"
"Sure?" She doesn't leave a pause, and Artemis can practically hear her thoughts running fast. "I mean, sorry, if you say it wasn't a date or whatever, it totally wasn't."
"Okay, maybe it was."
"It was Dick!" Artemis exclaims, and though her confusion's evident so is her excitement and Zatanna's giggling on the other end of the line at her flustered friend. "You can never tell with him. He's really weird and just kind of… Dick. So I don't actually… know."
There's a chime then that interrupts the call and Artemis pulls the phone away from her ear to see she's got two messages. When she can hear Zatanna again she's saying how she has to leave because she's not actually supposed to be on the phone, but she'll call Artemis again as soon as she's convinced her dad that he should be proud of her practicing her spells despite the fact that she's abusing them.
"Hey, listen," Zatanna adds in a lower tone, "I heard you had an, um, argument with Batman… If you ever need to talk or blow off some steam…"
Artemis smiles. "Sure. I'll see you soon, Zee."
And the call is ended and Artemis collapses in bed, where she checks her two new messages before conking out.
There's one new picture message and it's from Dick, and at first she doesn't know what she's looking at but then she can make out the elephant flanked by two bright blue pillows. I will name her Zitka and she will be mine! Thanks for coming with me tonight, Artemis. I had a lot of fun.
She did, too.
The other message is just a text, but it asks for her PIN, because it's from Robin. Hey. I talked to Batman. Come back tomorrow? We all miss you.
You know what? She thinks she will.
Someone drew fanart of this chapter! :D
Chapter 6: Geography
Zeta Beams, Robin once explained to her, are a massive leap in technology that the Justice League has been using for quite some time, and the rest of the universe for even longer. The League's system runs through the entire Earth, he told her, with platforms in all major cities and an assortment of minor ones—it's theoretically possible for any League member to visit most of the world's capitals in under an hour.
"It's kind of nice," she remembers him adding with a small quirk of the lips. "There's something comfortable about knowing that you could be anywhere at any time, but where you are now is where you're choosing to be. Don't you think?"
The way he phrased it, Artemis didn't think so—she was stuck between a father and a hard place, she had a mother to take care of, an education to finish. But as she drinks her hot latte and looks out at the murky Gotham clouds, her feet dangling above the phone booth below, she wonders at it. She really can be anywhere right now: she can be in Paris or Barcelona or London or Hanoi, and it's all just a phone booth away. She'd be there in a second, and all she'd have to do is say her name, just like she did when she soared from Happy Harbor to Manhattan. She could be anywhere, she could even become anyone, and the thought is comforting. It is nice.
What isn't nice right now is that her latte is finished and she's slurping at nothing, that what warmth was left in the cup is quickly escaping into the cold Gotham night, where the temperature's quickly falling. She probably should've brought a coat, huh—well, whatever, it's not like she'll be out here for much longer, because when Artemis brings out her phone to read her latest text message—Hey, busy tonight?—it's almost eight and that's when she's supposed to be at Mount Justice.
Yeah, sorry, she sends. We can hang out tomorrow?
His answer follows mere seconds after: S'no problem. I'll see you soon~!
She pockets her phone, stands, stretches, and almost in response a wave of brisk wind bites at her, and she shivers, finding within her the desperate hopes that this won't evolve into a cold. It's probably best that she leave now, swallow up her pride, and, okay, so she's only been gone for a few days—really, they don't officially meet for weeks sometimes, this isn't that big of a deal, right—but she's still not sure what to expect, still wants to sit here and think about it some more, but she doesn't think she can withstand the weather much longer. She tosses her cup away, readies herself to jump, and that's when the laughter of a fun-sized caped crusader echoes down the alleyway and she curses to herself, quickly recedes into hiding and waits to hear the tell-tale noises that mean Robin's gone to Happy Harbor.
She hears him shuffling around and it really was dumb to wait here, huh, but she supposes all of Gotham belongs to Batman and to Robin and not suiting up here at all is what she'll ultimately have to do if she wants to avoid him. But, hey—a girl's gotta take her risks, and Gotham's worth it, no matter how smelly or trashy or dark it is, because even if it's tainted with memories, it's painted with some, too, and she loves her city. In the end, it doesn't belong to anyone at all, and yet it belongs to all of them, all of the crazy dumbasses like her and Batman and Robin that think, hey, it's not the safest place in the world, but it's home.
(Gotham is Dick's home, too, and she finds herself wondering idly if Robin's ever been to the fair, or even if he was there yesterday. She thinks about it every now and then—she could be passing Robin anywhere or everywhere and she'd know nothing of it, though she likes to think that if she ever sees Robin without his glasses she'll recognize him).
Having to hide from the guy sure is annoying, though, she thinks as she leaps out and onto the ground once she's sure he's gone.
Artemis wasn't going to respond to Robin's message the night before, but it almost made her feel too mean, so a quick I'll be there was dispatched before she crashed into bed, exhausted from her maybe-date. Robin replied, too, and his assurance that M'gann and Conner and Kaldur and even Wally were all going to be delighted to hear the news sent butterflies to flight in her stomach even though he wasn't there to see her stupid smile at the cell phone's screen. She heads for the abandoned phone booth now and braces herself for what's coming on the other side, the quips from her teammates and M'gann's sweet hug and Conner's grunt, the expected and adored quirks of her favorite family.
She allows herself a smile and steps into the booth, waits for the scan, and—
In retrospect, hearing his movement should have alerted her to something suspicious.
"Robin," she gets out through grit teeth, and she turns and there he is, grinning his stupid grin from a low rooftop and this is going to be just as painful, if not more than, from the last time this happened, isn't it? She really needs to come up with a decent list of excuses for this kind of situation, because spelling bee, really, how likely is it that Robin hasn't figured out she lives here yet? He's a detective; is it possible at all that he gave her the benefit of the doubt?
"How strange," he says, bowing, "that we meet here once again!" He snickers, gets up on his toes and theatrically looks from side to side before settling back on Artemis. "You're out visiting yourcousin, I assume?"
Ouch. She feels the biting sarcasm and it's worse than the cold, and okay, that's way too lame an excuse to own up to twice, so she shakes her head, narrows her eyes. "You assume false," she speaks confidently, but of course she hasn't actually thought through her brand-new, totally full-proof excuse, so she's got to think fast, and the last time she thought fast she thought bad—"I was here to visit my—"
She falters when he raises an eyebrow and the thought springs in her head but she refuses it, she can't say that, it's too dumb and too easy to exploit and god dammit her mouth is moving faster than her mind, and stop it, Artemis, you'll end up saying something stupid like Wally would—
…Dammit. Too late.
Robin's reaction is quicker than should be allowed: before her stomach fully sinks in panic, his grin appears and it threatens to break his face. "Really?"
Artemis grits her teeth. "Yes," she says. "I have, um, a boyfriend now. Here. In Gotham." She bites her lips and knows it doesn't sound convincing at all, but she has to roll with it, and he's going to be prod some more just to push her buttons, she knows he is, so she's got to be ready—
Robin giggles, and it makes Artemis squirm a little and she wants to shout at him, wants to wipe the dumb grin off his face, wants to just move on and go in the damn phone booth and have another fight with Batman so she can move on with her life. Close calls with Robin aren't the worst things that can happen, you know, they're just uncomfortable because Robin always has the upper hand, and Artemis doesn't like it when she's on the losing side of things, okay? Okay.
"A boyfriend in Gotham!" He leaps down beside her, his cape flowing in the wind behind him. She wonders if it's heated; he wraps it around him like a child would wrap a blanket and it looks cozy enough. "How exciting! What's this boyfriend's name, do you feel comfortable admitting? There's a chance I know him, you know? I do live here, in Gotham."
Robin nods. "He has one of those, right? It's what you call someone, usually a proper noun, first letter capitalized when you write it down and all that?"
"Of course he has a name," she says, ignoring his explanation. "It's, um"—think fast—"Dick."
Robin's eyebrows skyrocket and he snorts. "Dick? What kind of name is that?"
Artemis crosses her arms, scowls, and, okay, yeah maybe she's a little offended that Robin's this immature about it. "Yeah, Birdbrain, Dick. Nickname for Richard? Like the previous Vice President of the United States?"
Robin shrugs. "Sounds like a real dweeb."
He is, and he's a mathlete to boot, and he's got stupid gelled back hair and this dumb laugh and he texts completely grammatically correct, doesn't ever send emoticons, but his emotions come through clear as day anyway, and all around he's ridiculously fun to be around in person and in text, in the late hours of the night or under the table when she's about to fall asleep in class. But she doesn't say that of course, because that was a total not-date and Dick isn't her boyfriend, she doesn't have a boyfriend, she's lying to Robin and it's painfully obvious that she's digging herself into a hole, though now that she thinks about it she really does talk to Dick a lot more than she thought she did.
(And she thinks she's totally loving it).
"He is," Artemis says. "But he's my dweeb."
And she's surprised to see that that shuts Robin up.
It turns out that Artemis's stress about Batman was for the moment, unnecessary; the mission isn't even briefed to them by a League member. Rather, Robin explains that it's a simple tracking in Gotham, because Batman's got some League business to deal with elsewhere. It'll just be Robin, Artemis, Miss Martian, and Superboy (who, hopefully, will be spending the time in the Bioship while the other three are out on the streets).
"We'll be in civvies," Robin tells her when they're preparing themselves. When she looks at him quizzically, he explains that they'll be trailing the guy, but they'll probably have to pretend that they're some of his customers to do it, so it's best that they go this one capeless—their costumes will be in the Bioship if the time comes for major action. Makes enough sense to Artemis, so she switches into her civvies and packs her costume, and the four of them are off. When they spot their target they split into their groups, with Miss Martian and Conner keeping watch from above while Artemis and Robin act from below; it's an easy enough task and the guy is apparently a complete newbie to the villain business, because they don't even have to pretend to be customers to track him down. Robin and Artemis even have enough leeway in their tracking to talk; he makes the mistake of asking if she's been sleeping well.
"Why?" she asks, glowering at him in the alleyway where they're staked out. "Does Batman want to know?"
Robin looks hurt, and she almost feels bad. Almost. "Artemis, that's not fair."
"Yeah?" She's not really interested in what he has to say about this; it's done, she was wrong, yeah, but there's still some bitterness and she thinks she's entitled to keep it.
"Listen," Robin tries, "I know Batman. He's cold and calculating, but when it comes down to it, he has a reason for everything. What he said was right, but—"
"Whatever, Robin, it's done. I'll deal with him later." Frankly, she's a little disappointed; she knows that Robin is Batman's partner and probably the closest thing the man has for a friend, but she still expected Robin to know better than that where it concerned her, because where Batman is a man with a creepy obsession, Robin is light hearted and sweet and he's a boy, close to her age and empathetic. Robin doesn't say anything, just stares at her with his mouth open slightly, like he's seeing something new in her, something he doesn't like.
She scowls. "Wow, real"—she starts, but she's cut off in a blur when he moves into her, slams her against the dirty brick wall and his hands are pinning her shoulders down and her legs are knocked together and his lips are on hers and he's kissing her.
It all smells gross, trash and dumpster scents and his lips are rough and dry for the cold and so are hers, but despite his groan of displeasure and how they stick together he doesn't relent, appliesmore pressure, and her eyes are wide and what, what is he doing? She tries to push him away, but he won't budge, and he's close, too close, but he's warm against the cold and his breath smells like cotton candy and it's weird, not something she expected from him—none of this is what she expected from him—and his glasses are pressed against her face and it's uncomfortable and strange and not entirely unwelcome but it doesn't end, he just keeps going, harder, stronger, forcing himself on her and she's surprised at how strong he is because she can't get him off, and she's trying desperately to get room to speak, to say his name, "Robin," what the hell—
He bites her lip and she wrestles with him a little until she can knee him where it hurts; he winces and there's the token sound of a wounded animal, and finally he's off of her and she's got some space again. "What the—" but before she can finish there's a hand covering her mouth and she tries to communicate her confusion and anger with her eyes but when she looks at him he's motioning for her to listen.
So she does.
"—just a couple'a dumb kids without a room," one of the grunts voices carries over, and the footsteps and a shadow recede.
Then Robin's voice is in her head: Targets spotted. Coming your way, Miss Martian. All on you and Superboy now. ETA: thirty seconds.
Understood, comes the response, and it's just as clear, just as loud as Robin's was, like she could be standing just as close. We'll handle things from here and pick you up once we're done.
Robin nods. Meet you at the rendezvous in ten.
Then the voices are done and the psychic link settles into a comfortable presence in the back of her head, and as things fit together Artemis feels her cheeks flushing and she needs to say something, but her eyes are still pretty wide when Robin draws away. So maybe now she's shivering, and maybe his hand was nice and warm, but she looks ridiculous, confused and understanding but also enamored—there's something different, something in Robin now that she didn't see before, and he's not looking at her, has turned his back, but there's something about him…
"Sorry," he says, kicking at the ground. "It was the only thing I could think of. We were arguing, couldn't exactly, you know, disappear."
"It's, um… okay?"
He faces her now, looks sad. "No," he says quietly, and then more firmly: "No, it's not. I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you."
She frowns, wants to convince to him that really, it's okay, she should've caught on and honestly she didn't mind that much when she thinks about it, and—and—and all at once she remembers she kicked him in the groin. Uh… oops?
"Robin," she says, "No, Robin, I'm sorry I kicked you, I should've caught on, right? And I should've been using the mental link anyway—"
"That one's on both of us," he offers.
"Right, yeah, we both screwed up, and we're fine. So you don't have to apologize, or we both have to apologize to each other, okay?" She puts a hand on his shoulder to reassure him, and he's still uncertain, but then he nods, and he's upbeat and smiling again. "Okay."
"But we're going out to eat, alright? My treat."
She laughs. "Did you just kiss me, apologize, then ask me on a date?"
"I have a thing for backformations," he says, shrugging.
"That was a terrible lie, by the way."
She flushes under the warm Parisian sun. "What was?"
Robin shakes his head, smiling. "A boyfriend all the way in Gotham, Artemis?" He pauses to take a bite of his crepe, and nice and gentlemanlike, waits until he's swallowed to continue. "We both know a long distance thing really isn't your style."
She rolls her eyes. "Neither are you, Boy Wonder, and yet here we are, doing lunch in a bistro in Paris. One might think your intentions here are romantic." She takes a careful, reserved sip at the wine, as prim and proper and stuck up as she can, and it's painfully obvious that she doesn't do this much when it spills all over the table. He snorts. She smiles and sets the glass down, narrows her eyes suspiciously. "How are you paying for this, anyway?"
A shrug. "I'll hide it in the batarang budget."
"It's a lot heftier than you'd think," he answers simply.
They're quiet for a bit, finishing off the food and enjoying for a moment the chatter around them. It's not just a little insane that they're here in Paris, because, honestly, when he said But we're going out to eat later, my treat, she'd been expecting something like pizza at the place a block from the Cave, but this is definitely something new and exciting and different, and she supposes she can't say that Robin ever does anything halfway. In any case, it's been an educational experience for both of them: she learned that Robin knows at least five different languages and that they can converse with each other in French and some Vietnamese (she's surprised that he knows that one at all, because Chinese and Japanese and Korean all seem more practical for a vigilante—but hey, she's not complaining), and he learned that she loves exploring cuisine, as evidenced by her inability to choose where and what to eat when he offered, quite simply, 'anywhere in the world, but it's lunchtime in Europe.'
Robin decides to ruin it. "Artemis," he starts for the tenth time, and she sighs before he even gets it out, "I really am sorry about the kiss. I didn't mean—"
Artemis is getting tired of this. "Robin, I already told you—"
"No, come on." He pushes his plate with its half-eaten meal away, his appetite swiftly diminished. "You went for my junk, whatever, but I kissed you, got all up in your face and it's not like it was a peck on the cheek, Artemis, it was the full blown deal and we were both all gross and it was nasty and an invasion of your personal space."
"Well, Rob," she says, motioning to the table and the view of the city and the food he's already paid for, "You've already made it up to me." She smiles warmly, pushes her own finished plate into the table and stands, stretches.
He follows suit, fixes his sunglasses. "Glad you enjoyed it."
"Ready to Zeta back?"
"I'm really sorry."
She sighs, shakes her head. Comes over, gives him a peck on the cheek.
"Let's do it again sometime, okay?"
And she puts her hand in his and guides him to their exit.
Chapter 7: Sociology
So she has a boyfriend now.
Or… she thinks she does? It's a little difficult to tell what she has, but she has something, and it's not exactly platonic, involves a lot of touching and time and just the two of them, Artemis and Robin as a sort-of-item that no one knows about.
It starts the night after her lunch with him, when they're back in the cave and he's telling her, rapid and animated, about some other nice places he thinks she'd like. Evidentially, he's been everywhere from China to Norway to Botswana, tried Belgian chocolate and Morocco's authentic falafel, and she gets a laugh imagining him in his costume, requesting local foods in funny accents. She snorts especially when he mentions the tiny teashop in Hong Kong, and that's when Artemis asks, "You go all these places with Batman or your family, or what?", because, honestly, she's imagining the caped crusader completely suited up and standing in a tiny neon store with a plastic cup, an electric pink straw, and smiling strawberries advertising mango bubble tea.
At her questioning, Robin frowns. She's afraid that she's said something wrong at that, but he shrugs after a moment, speaks, "Un mélange des deux," a mix of the two, and it would probably seem kind of cold if it weren't for the French thrown in, because they were teasing each other in it earlier, so there's a lightheartedness they're associating with the language that quietly blankets the tension in Robin's words. He notices her being uncomfortable anyway and quickly tacks on, "Batman only eats when he really has to, but I like trying new things. So he has to deal with it."
"Ah." And that's that. Artemis feels her stomach churn, the subject is dropped, and their conversation continues in a different direction like the lapse never happened. M'gann and Conner are apparently out on a date somewhere, so Robin and Artemis are alone save for Red Tornado, and they talk and it's nice and, you know, it's strange how much she doesn't know about him despite considering him a good friend. Maybe she's been so concerned with keeping her secrets hidden that she didn't realize that she knows as little about the others as they do about her.
She spends a good amount of time with him that evening and by the time Robin's being called back into the city for patrol she's reluctant to part, but she should probably meet up with Green Arrow in Star City, too, anyway, so they laugh and tell each other how nice it was to hang out a little like normal teenagers.
"A bistro in Paris isn't exactly normal, Rob," she points out.
He holds up his palms defensively, says, "Hey, we've gotta make some sacrifices."
And she shakes her head, smiles. "Bye."
"'Night," he says, and it's off to the Zeta Tubes.
It's when she's just about to step in that he stops her. His tone has changed entirely when he takes hold of her arm from behind and says her name, a slow and pronounced, "Artemis," and she turns to him inquisitively, and he's frowning, just looks really sad, really… lost. He's got something to tell her; it's plain to see that there are words dancing at his lips—(and they're tiny and pink and cute lips, huh, she didn't notice that before, she—Stop!)—and he struggles with them for a bit, tries to come up with the best way to say what he's got to say—but then he shakes himself and he sighs and he says, "Sorry, never mind. I'll see you later," and she's left in the dust as he runs off and away.
She stares at her arm then, and she stares at it again once she gets to Star City while she's waiting for Green Arrow in their usual meeting place, as though the answers to all her questions are encoded where his grip was. It's a fact that when Robin's not calm and collected and with the upper hand that something's gone awry; it's not something that can be denied, because he's Robin, and it leaves her with a nagging little thought in the back of her head that keeps begging the question: What was he going to say? She considers calling him about it (because she can do that now!), but that's a little forward, isn't it, if it's that important he'll tell her sooner or later, right, so she sighs and she finds a comfortable spot on the roof and pulls out her phone to distract herself while she waits.
She doesn't expect an answer to appear as suddenly as it does, but she's fortunate tonight: as she's going through the pictures she's saved on her phone (a bunch with Dick from when he stole her phone the other day, a few from an awful (and hilarious) presentation someone made in her Spanish class the other day, some from around the Cave), there's a text alert. And it wants her PIN.
The first two times she puts it in she gets errors because her fingers are fumbling at the speed she tries to type; the third time, she breathes and tries to calm herself and types it in slowly, and then it's there, one sentence on the screen and she doesn't read it, just stares:
What if my intentions *were* romantic?
...And then she reads it. And then she reads it again.
What if your intenti—
She stares it, stares at it longer, as though the text'll fade away and something else will appear in its place, because this has to be a joke, it can't—he can't possibly—and it makes sense, when she entertains the thought, but—but—
She needs time, she needs to analyze this, break down the six word combination and figure out what it means, because Robin, really, you just—and it's so plain, perfect grammar, no emoji (because Robin, unlike Dick, sends those, sends the weirdass Japanese emoticons with the weirdass eyes and the kanji for faces), no anything, just six words that she knows he sweated over and stop that, heart, you need to keep beating at some sort of normal pace, okay, you—
"Artemis?" Green Arrow's voice cuts into her thoughts and jolts her back into the present time and place. "You're here early."
Talk about terrible timing.
"Oh, hi," she says, crossing her arms so the phone's still-glowing screen is hidden. "Yeah, uh, I just needed some space to think about something."
He cocks his head to the side, examines her carefully. "You sure you're still up for it tonight?" he asks, concerned. Artemis is nonplussed. "You look a little off-color."
"I'm fine," she insists, supplying a half-hearted smile. "I've been getting the right amount of sleep and everything."
He seems to buy that—her lies are either improving or Green Arrow just isn't as perceptive of them as Batman and Robin—and says that it's going to be a pretty easy night, but if at any point she's feeling under the weather she can leave. She nods though she's sure she won't, and they head off. She's only dimly aware of whom they're after and what they're doing; her arms and legs move mechanically, and the entire time she can only think about the message, can feel the weight of the phone she should've left somewhere else in her pocket, can hear the echo of the words in her head as though she heard Robin say them aloud. And she can imagine him saying them; she can imagine him saying them to her face right before she Zeta Beamed away, can imagine the sudden stillness in the room and what comes after that is a blank in her imagination's eye because that's where she's stuck right now in reality, too. The entire time she's with Green Arrow she's thinking about Robin, thinking about how she needs to send him a response as soon as she can because there's a feature on their phones that lets the sender know when their message has been received, and, wow, okay, Robin's message has definitely received, and he's probably waiting, he's…
Artemis thinks about Robin, thinks about what he is and what he isn't. He's Robin: he's Batman's partner, the first sidekick to ever exist, the kid who made the legend of the Dark Knight brighter and louder. He's Robin: he wears a mask and a cape on his bright red costume and he sticks out like a sore thumb but he's a ninja anyway, and in his civvies he wears sunglasses because no one's supposed to know who he is. He's Robin: he's a little shit who runs around trolling people and he giggles a lot, and you probably won't see him when he drops down from the ceiling and brings down his own Robin-like brand of terror. He's Robin, he's her friend, and he's the youngest and smallest member of her new family, clocking in at a mere thirteen years old. He's Robin and he speaks French and he's actually really cute even if you can't see his eyes and he likes her, and somewhere that night in Star City, Artemis's thoughts go from 'he's thirteen' to 'I can see us.'
"I can see us," she says to herself barely above a whisper, and it surprises her. She can see herself with Robin, dating him and kissing him for real and just hanging out and being more than just friends. Her heart and head start to play tricks with her, feel a little lighter and happier for the rest of the night after her realization, that it's okay if he likes her and she won't have to hurt him, and this could work; they just need to talk about it a little first because they've got secret identities to consider and other things to settle. But it could work.
By the end of the night she's eager to respond to Robin's message and she's already got most of it scripted out in her head, thinks she'll actually call him. When she and Green Arrow part, the first thing she does is pull out her phone so that she doesn't keep him waiting any longer and—
She's got a message.
Whatever Babs said I did, it's not true, DON'T LISTEN TO HER ARTEMIS SHE'S LYING.
Her heart sinks down from her throat to where it's meant to be and then even lower, lower, even lower, because she's so dumb, she completely forgot about her lie, completely forgot that she said she had a boyfriend, said his name was Dick, and here she is about to go tell Robin that he doesn't have to be nervous, that it's totally okay if his intentions were romantic—but it's not okay. That's probably why he was so wary in the first place, stupid, stupid, Artemis. It's amazingly good timing on Dick's part that he sent the message at all, because even though Barbara didn't say anything (Artemis still doesn't have her number), Artemis was about to say something she'd end up regretting, and her tongue being twisted in front of Robin isn't something she enjoys (twisted tongues sound kind of good, actually, she wonders if Robin ca—ugh, no!).
She can say that she was lying, or say that they broke up recently; she thinks on it, thinks about the details of a fake break-up to a fake relationship and how it would work, how she'll have to phrase it in order for it to sound convincing. She can come up with a few scenarios, it's not that hard; but there's something about making up these things about Dick that leaves a bad taste in her mouth, and she realizes she doesn't want to do it. Even if it doesn't concern Dick at all, even if he won't have the slightest clue that she ever lied like this to anyone, Artemis doesn't want to lie about this, about Dick. It just doesn't seem fair to him, and… there's this small part of her—and she kind of wants to scold it—that keeps thinking, Where are you and Dick? Was the boyfriend thing even a lie? Because, yeah, it's time to admit it, that was totally a date and the way they've been hanging out now and talking to each other lately and he makes her feel different…
She can see herself with Dick, too. She can see the two of them wreaking havoc all over Gotham and having armies of plush toys and texting each other deep into the night (as though they don't do that already) and, you know, as weird as Dick is, compared to Robin, he's normal, and having a boyfriend like him means there's something out there to anchor her to the civilian life, because everything else is either vigilante or villain.
Artemis groans and stares at her phone. It's been an hour since Dick's message and hours since Robin's, and it's time she answered at least one of them. The clear answer she thought up disappears like dust into the desert and she sighs, knows that the answer here is simple: she thinks she has something with Dick and she told Robin she has something with Dick, but she doesn't have anything concrete with Robin and she hasn't told anyone she has something with Robin, so…
In any case, this isn't really something to discuss through text messaging.
She opens up his message again, reads it a few times over as though it might've changed in length or in content.
What if my intentions *were* romantic?
Then she sends her response: then we have things to talk about. but can we do it in person? i'm near the z at star. it's not really s/t i wanna discuss over texts.
There isn't an immediate response; she stares at what she sent for a few minutes and wonders if she should've said something differently, and a minute later, adds as an afterthought: that batman can probably read.
Almost immediately after that one, there's a snort from behind her and she jumps. Robin's perched on a milk crate left abandoned on the roof and he's got a phone in his hands, her message glowing on its screen and illuminating his face. "I hacked it for our privacy," he admits in form of greeting. "But okay." There's space next to him on another crate where she can sit, but she kind of wants to pace—doesn't want to look him in the eye because she can't see his eyes—but he tilts his head at her curiously and looks to his side, so she relents.
"So," she starts after a pause, because, wow, how do you even start this conversation? "You like me."
"So." He almost looks like he wants to apologize. Hunched up with his legs crossed and his back arched, like he's shielding himself from her. "I like you."
She puts a hand on his shoulder, and he relaxes a bit. "You know I wasn't… lying, when I said I have a boyfriend, right?" It pains her physically to say it aloud.
He laughs. "Yeah."
"Then… we have a problem."
"I know," he says. A moment of silence as Artemis tries to think of what to say—then he whips around so quickly she nearly falls over. "Okay, listen," he says, and he's looking from side to side like he's afraid someone will see him because he's out of bed past his bedtime or something. "I just need to know this: Would you be okay with it, though?" He looks down at himself demonstratively, bites his lips. "Like… would you be okay with…" He frowns, points to himself. "…Me?"
Of course she would, he can't think that—oh, crap, she did say that, didn't she? Has he really liked her that long? "Robin, I—"
"Because I know the other day you said I was, like, thirteen, but, just—" He cuts himself off, shakes his head, for once doesn't know what to say. "Would you?"
"Okay, yes," she says, and his mouth opens a little and melts into a tiny little sad smile, and the guilt just churns in her stomach more because this is a lot harder than she thought it'd be. "I admit it," she goes on, "I'd be okay with you. But I can't be right now, because… boyfriend."
There's something in his expression now that's unreadable, and it almost looks like… calculation? Maybe… excitement?
"Robin," she puts in, thoroughly confused, "I'm really sorry."
"That's… that's the thing, though," he pipes up slowly, and he looks her up and down. "I don't… it doesn't… need to be official." He shifts his position so it's like he's crawling, and his face is up near hers and she thinks he's going to kiss her, but he's still unsure. "I just…"
"Robin?" He looks up, startled, and she brings his chin up, kisses him, and this one's on her, and his lips aren't chapped tonight—it almost makes her laugh—so they glide over hers, and—and—she can… at least give him this, right? Just once? She can—
A rooftop in Star City is better than a back alley in Gotham, and it's a little more exciting being miles away from home, and now they're just really, really, close, and, okay, it feels right, but this is just mean of her now, she can't continue this if she doesn't plan on having an actual relationship, so she stops and their foreheads are together and she murmurs, "Boyfriend," and he frowns.
"Just for second"—a quicker kiss from him—"imagine I'm this Dick of yours, alright?"
And she does, and he's not this Dick of hers, but he's Robin and she's kissing him and he's real; so maybe she won't call Robin her boyfriend, but she think she can call him hers, because it keeps going, her hands fisting his cape. Even if they let go then and say it's done and she apologizes a lot and he apologizes a lot and they go their separate ways, it happens again the next time they're alone; and again; and he smiles and he's fine with it and he's ridiculously giddy and she's liking it, too, so it goes on.
So she thinks she has a boyfriend, or a not-boyfriend; it's pretty complicated, what with the boyfriend-who-isn't-a-boyfriend and the boyfriend-who-she-can't-call-a-boyfriend-in-front-of-her-boyfriend, but there's something and honestly, it doesn't really matter what they're called. It's just that there's something and when Robin and Artemis are alone, they're together, and when there are other people around, they aren't. They don't really… talk about it, they just have it, and it means she spends nights patrolling with him in Gotham sometimes and he spends nights patrolling with her in Star City sometimes, and they play rooftop tag sometimes, and they train together sometimes. And they talk sometimes, and they hold hands sometimes, and, so, yeah, they kiss sometimes.
Okay, fine, so they kiss more than sometimes.
Robin is… pretty passionate. It's always different with him, too: sometimes he holds her and sometimes she holds him; sometimes she's just taken a shower and they're both still wet and fresh; sometimes he drops in upside down and captures her lips from above. His hold on her is always strong, and he's always pulling her intensely, desperately close, like he's afraid he'll lose her the second he lets go, and it's… kind of inticing.
They're hot and they're strange and they're new, they're exciting and they're expected-unexpected, and it's all very Robin, she finds herself thinking—all very him to come up from behind and laugh and kiss her, to fly in the sky one second and turn her around in a circle the next.
And he's really, really, happy about it all. His mask is on so she can't see his eyes but he radiates this joy, solid and visible and god, he really likes her; he's thirteen and he's physical and he wants to hold her and be held by her and he doesn't want her to go and it's a wonder he kept it a secret for as long as he did.
Still, just because he's revealed it to her doesn't mean he's revealed it to everyone—in fact, the moment someone else sees them, he's two feet away before she realizes what's going on. Whether it's Wally or M'gann or Zatanna, he lets her go and doesn't say a word, and she respects that because she's supposed to be with Dick, anyway, and she realizes that she doesn't really want anyone to know about the two of them either. Robin and Artemis, him and her—they're a secret, they're their secret, and it's amazing. She loves it, loves his grip and his hold on her and the way he laughs genuine laughter, bubbling in his throat when it isn't a snicker at someone else's expense. She doesn't even mind, she finds, that she can't see his eyes—she starts to see the little thirteen-year-old as her far-too-attractive-for-thirteen-years-old, and the mask stays, both on his face and in front of others with their supposed singleness.
And it's like a whirlwind, and it's real.
Dick is real, too. Sometimes she stares at him during lunch and wonders what he'll think if she tells him that Robin-yes-like-Batman-and-Robin thinks that they're dating. He'd probably just laugh it off; he grins more and asks her out a lot lately, and they see movies and play video games and generally screw around, and, yeah, it's not a total lie what she said to Robin, because the only thing that's not boyfriend-y about Dick is that there's no physical aspect between the two of them.
Huh. Between Dick and Robin, she's got two halves of a whole boyfriend.
She might as well change her Facebook status.
She looks up. Presently she's at the lunch table with Dick, Barbara, and Bette; the three of them were talking about something that happened at Gotham Prep a few years ago, so Artemis zoning out was completely acceptable, but evidentially the topic of discussion has returned to something that Artemis can participate it.
"Sorry," she says, "Zoned out. What're we talking about?"
"Our last kisses," Dick supplies, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. "Bette's was that slimy Wilkes kid." He makes a face and Bette swats at him with her now-empty food tray, but his grin returns fast enough. "Want to share?"
"You say that like you're giving me an option," she says.
"We don't judge," Dick assures her. "I swear on Bruce's nose."
"Whatever." It's time to think fast and lie again: she remembers her last kiss perfectly well because it was yesterday, him upside down and both of them engrossed and sweaty, right after she made the last, difficult target and Robin flew down from the bars above, held onto her desperately and—
"Some dork named Wally," she blurts out, and Dick bursts out laughing, to which she turns red. "What's so funny, Grayson?"
"Nothing," says Dick, "His name was really Wally?"
"Like you're one to talk," cuts in Barbara. "You're obnoxiously giddy today, Grayson; who was your last kiss?"
"Artemis," he answers matter-of-factly, and when the other three look at him like he's grown two heads, he grins cheekily, leans over, and plants one on her cheek. Barbara and Bette look at each other before shrugging, and Artemis looks at him like he's nuts. Helpfully enough, that's when the bell rings, sending them off their separate ways, and Artemis is free to ask Dick what the hell that was about.
"Nothing," Dick lies, winking, and he holds out his hand to help her off the chair when she rolls her eyes. "By the way, there's a dance coming up this weekend. Care to be my date?"
She laughs. "You know, Grayson? I'll take that offer."
I've written a commentary on this chapter and its events over at my tumblr. Put simply? Robin now believes that Artemis knows he and Dick are one in the same. Spoilers: She doesn't.
Thanks for reading~
Chapter 8: Theatrics
"Hey!" exclaims Zatanna, "What about this one?"
Artemis looks up from the rack of clearance items she's been scavenging through to see what Zatanna's picked out this time. The dress the sorceress is holding out is simple, almost elegant; it's a fine shade of emerald green not unlike Artemis's costume's, decorated in a teasing piping of silver, and Artemis can imagine herself in it, no problem—but Zatanna's picked it from the more expensive side of the store. Artemis doesn't care if her best friend wants to pay for her dress—she won't stand for anything that steep, and looks away before she can start getting too attached to it.
"Too Slytherin," she says, smirking, and Zatanna sighs melodramatically about Artemis's fastidiousness, and honestly, Artemis, there's nothing wrong with a little magic in your life every now and then, whether the spells are written backwards or come from a fantasy book series.
Artemis laughs at Zatanna's grumbling, resumes her search through the cheaper rack. She's determined to find something here today; it's getting dark out now and it's Tuesday, so she's only got two more days to find herself an outfit. She doesn't need anything fancy; it just has to be something nice and easy to wear, and it has to abide by two different school dress codes because it's going to two different dances two nights in a row: on Friday she and M'gann are headed to Zatanna's Catholic school's dance, and the day after it's Artemis's got her own dance to attend.
On Sunday afternoon Artemis got a phone call from an overzealous Zatanna who successfully convinced her father to end her punishment early, and before she knew it Artemis was promising the girl on the other side of the line that she and M'gann would most definitely be in New York City on Friday – why would they say no? Zatanna's beaming was almost audible through the receiver, and a date and time was quickly settled for the two of them to go dress shopping. Zatanna believed this the perfect opportunity for a new addition to her wardrobe, and Artemis needed something for the dance with Dick, anyway.
That's where she is now, and so far the two of them have successfully managed to track down no less than four dresses for Zatanna to pick from and no more than none for Artemis to try. Zatanna's completely refused to buy anything until they have something for Artemis, and they've been searching for the perfect ensemble for the better part of an hour now. Artemis is certain that at this pace, they'll be headed to the Catholic school's gym naked.
The problem isn't so much that there's nothing in Artemis's price range as it is that she doesn't like the way things look on her. So, okay, it's only logical that what's on the lower racks isn't going to be as nice as what's on the higher ones, but there's always some things, and she'll bump up her budget if there's anything that catches her eye elsewhere, it'll just be nice if she can save some money for something more important.
"There has to be something here you'll like," Zatanna insists as she furiously combs through dress after dress. Her hair is starting to fall loose in her frustration, but her tongue's sticking out of the corner of her mouth in proof of her concentration, so Artemis decides she'll wait a little longer before she suggests they call it a day. She can always look herself in Gotham tomorrow, or if all else fails, she's sure she'll find something in Jade or Paula's closet.
The extra time proves largely fruitless, and the two of them end up at the register with a single dress for Zatanna after the three hours they spent in the store. The clerk eyes them because of their small purchase after the incredible mess they've left in their wake, but she waves them good-bye with a smile when Zatanna penitently accepts her bag while Artemis leads the way into the street, feeling like she's just been on an unsuccessful episode of What Not to Wear.
"Are you sure you don't want to go anywhere else?" Zatanna's still frowning when Artemis shakes her head. "I feel bad. We spent hours all over the place today and you didn't get anything."
Artemis shrugs it off. "I had fun with you. I'll just look for something at home." Her assurances don't appease Zatanna. "Oh, fine," she says, "if you're so opt to have me spend money, I'll get some food or something." And Artemis takes Zatanna's arm and drags her into the nearest café. It's a small shop crammed in between two office buildings; being in Manhattan, it's naturally filled with people getting a pick-me-up for their walk home, but the smell of coffee and fresh bread even at so late an hour holds Artemis in place until she orders for the two of them. Zatanna tries to protest to the sandwich and the soup, but Artemis won't have it, and soon enough they find themselves outside with their to-go bags at an old, recently unoccupied table with crumbs all over it. Seeing it reminds Artemis of Wally and she can't help but laugh at the memory of a photo she snapped the other day.
"What are you laughing about?"
In response, Artemis brings out her phone and after some struggling (she just got her upgrade a day or two ago and has passed off the old concrete device for a new, shinier one) goes through her pictures. "This," she says when she finds the one she's looking for, and she passes the device to Zatanna with a smirk. Zatanna, who just took a bite of her sandwich, nearly chokes. The picture is of Wally, shouting at the camera with a mouthful of food; Artemis snapped the photo to keep as blackmail against him sometime, because it happens to be the only actual proof that Wally scarfed down M'gann's latest dessert experiment instead of Wolf, and it's not M'gann's wrath he's afraid of — it's Conner's. Wally looks just a little more than ridiculous; his expression is almost unnatural, something that could be found in a CGI film but not in live-action.
Zatanna asks if she can go through some of Artemis's other photos, and Artemis shrugs her permission (there's nothing to be afraid of in terms of Gotham or anything embarrassing—Artemis took care of that when she was transferring her data from the old device). She has a lot of candids of the team; though there are none from missions (all serious business there), she's got a bunch from training and a bunch from hanging out in and outside of the Cave. She's even got a few from M'gann's cheerleading events at school, which Zatanna comments on, because it's really cute how excited M'gann looks and how lost Conner is standing beside her.
"You could fill an entire album with these, Artemis," Zatanna says, and she nearly chokes again when she reaches the first picture Artemis ever took of the team: Robin and Wally asleep on each other on the couch after a long day.
"Those two," Zatanna says fondly. "Honestly, you'd think they were separated at birth."
"The amount of bromance that wreaks off them is astounding," Artemis agrees. Her phone vibrates in Zatanna's hands. It's a text message; Zatanna passes the phone to Artemis and it's something silly from Robin, so she shrugs and decides she'll answer it later, passes the phone back to Zatanna so she can finish looking through the pictures.
"Who's this?" Zatanna turns the phone to Artemis after a minute or so, and who else is grinning at Artemis from the lunch table at Gotham Academy but Dick Grayson?
"Dick," she says, and outstretches her hand for the phone back. "I think the rest of them are from school."
Zatanna inspects the picture carefully, taking in every detail of the guy Artemis told her about the other day. Somehow, it makes Artemis feel like she's naked. And not the fun kind. "His hair's kinda slimy," Zatanna decrees after some time, "But he's pretty cute." With that she goes to slide the phone back across the table, but right before she does, it buzzes with a text again and she blinks at it, and the human mind can read before it registers, and Artemis's new phone shows previews for every alert.
"Um," says Zatanna, eyes widening. "I… don't think I was supposed to read that."
"What?" Artemis hurriedly retrieves the device and looks at the screen, and there's a new message from Robin, and there's a preview, and so it's… not the best one for Zatanna to have accidentally read.
By the way, as honored as I am by it, I still can't get over "you're an AMAZING kisser, Batboy!" You, too, Green Arrowess. You're a regular ~goddess~. (〃⌒∇⌒)ゞえへへっ♪
There can be no doubt that the silence that follows is awkward. Artemis curses her phone and looks at Zatanna with a miserable guilt building up in her stomach and on her face.
"We… obviously have more catching up to do than I thought."
Zatanna's room, Artemis decides, is best described as cuddly. The girl has an absolute fondness for stuffed animals that flank both sides of her desk, and the comforter is appropriately made of the most comfortable fabric that exists, a fabric that Artemis now plays with to keep her hands busy as Zatanna locks the door and seats herself at the desk's swivel chair. Zatanna is not one to prod into people's lives; Artemis loves that about her, as it's the sorceress's lack of nosiness that makes her the perfect confidant. Zatanna made it clear that Artemis didn't have to say anything, but some light on the situation would obviously be mountains more than welcome.
Zatanna, Artemis can attest to after nights out and in with her, is her best friend.
"So," Zatanna starts carefully, "...He's your boyfriend?"
Artemis is still struggling with this question herself, though she's not proud of it and only just beginning to realize it, she tends to go with whatever status benefits her at the time. The answer that she's probably supposed to give is no, Robin is not my boyfriend, Dick is, but Dick doesn't know that, either, but with such an answer she's got a lot of explaining to do and… okay, whatever she does, she's got plenty of webs to unravel, doesn't she? "Not exactly."
"What do you mean?"
"Um... Robin is... No..." Artemis shakes her head, as if the movement will get her blood moving and clear her thoughts, make it easier to put them into words. She tries to form the answer once, twice; shakes her head again because it's not working, there's just something that won't click and won't let her explain it out loud. "No, no… how do I even start—?"
She's moved on from staring at Zatanna's comforter to just her hands, where Dick has pulled her to class and to the side and to places after school, where she and Robin have clasped onto each other on rooftops in Star City and Gotham. She doesn't remember ever being so confused about this before now; there was just Dick and there was Robin and no one knew and there was nothing wrong, because it was okay to kiss Robin because she wasn't actually cheating on anyone, and it was okay to hold Dick's hand because Robin knew and was okay with it. So neither was her boyfriend to her, right, there was no commitment involved and so it was okay. Right?
Her thoughts are interrupted by Zatanna's concern. "Artemis? Are you okay in there?"
Though she hears her, Artemis doesn't seem to, because she doesn't act on it. Her eyes are still absorbed in staring at the lines of her hands and her brow's knitted as she murmurs to herself, trying to sort her thoughts through. Zatanna scoots closer on the swivel chair and pokes her gently; this shakes Artemis out of her stupor, and she has only the capacity to mumble, "Dick."
Zatanna doesn't hear her. "What did you say?"
Artemis doesn't want to say it again. "There's still, well, Dick."
It's easy to see now that the impression Zatanna had up until now was simply that Artemis's little crush on Dick subsided, and the resulting relationship with Robin was just a secret. Artemis's reluctance to speak and the intensity of the guilt on her face didn't quite click—until now. The sinking sense of dread that Artemis is becoming far too familiar with now tackles Zatanna; she grimaces as she starts to get a feel for the depth of the situation. "You're… still into him, then?"
"I'm pretty sure we're going to the dance as a couple, Zee," Artemis responds miserably. She entertains briefly the idea that they're going as just friends, but can she excuse it like that? No. The phone in her pocket answers her question when it vibrates again because she still hasn't marked the message as read. No, you can't. Artemis sighs and falls back onto Zatanna's bed. Her head almost slams against the backboard. "But it's just for Saturday, I don't think we're actually boyfriend and girlfriend…"
"… and neither are you and Robin?"
She sits up again, finally meets Zatanna's eyes with a nod. "Yeah. And he was okay with that."
Zatanna leans back into her chair and sighs as the mess slowly starts to reveal its nature to the both of them. "It sounds like a lot of 'I think's, Artemis."
The thing is… it didn't feel like a mess before now, it still doesn't feel out of place or like she's cheating at all, because it's been going so smoothly with both of them. Robin and Dick fit in her life together effortlessly, neither of them interfering with the other, and despite the way she's presented it to Zatanna and herself, there's just something about it that doesn't seem… all that wrong. She moans, rubs her temples, and hopes that it isn't her genetics that are making her feel this way.
"Zee, I don't think I'm actually... I'm not actually cheating, right?" Zatanna doesn't look like she wants to answer that, or she just doesn't know how. "Because, like..." Artemis tails off, doesn't know where she's going with this, or at least doesn't know how to get there. She sighs again, licks her lips, then swallows. "You know what, Zee? I think... I think I can handle this." She's bewildered at herself as the words come out, but they're all true. She's Artemis and she can handle this. She stands, fixes her hair with her hands, and she can handle this.
Zatanna stands up, too. "I know you'll do whatever's best. I'm all ears if you need someone to talk it out at, okay?"
Artemis nods. "I'll see you on Friday, okay? Unless you drop by the cave on Thursday? M'gann's insisted she get a preview of my dress."
Zatanna smiles. "No way. After tonight's lack of success, you have to surprise me."
She's lucky enough in that she does find a dress hidden in the back of Jade's closet, something old that she thinks Jade never ended up actually wearing, but it's there and it's a little suspicious but Artemis, not in the mood to go out to the mall alone, takes it. She tries it on and shows her mom and spins around and feels all together very silly, but Paula's smile is so genuine and sweet that it's contagious, and yeah, Artemis thinks when she looks in the mirror, she looks pretty hot.
On Thursday night, she brings the outfit to Mount Justice as promised, and M'gann squeals when she sees it and immediately demands Artemis put it on. She shrugs and heads into an empty room to change while M'gann waits by the TV with Conner, where she's morphing herself different outfits and asking for his opinion (he seems to think they're all the same: that is, she looks amazing in all of them). By the time Artemis deems her outfit ready, believes her hair is set in a presentable manner, and comes out to show M'gann and Conner, Wally's been added to the party and he whistles when he sees her because, um, wow.
"Whoa, Artemis, who're you going undercover with?"
She smirks. "I'm going to a dance, Wall-man. Got a date and everything."
Wally laughs, teasing her. "You got a boyfriend?"
Artemis rolls her eyes. "Yes, unbelievable though it may be, you-who-whistled, me." She pauses. "But he's not my boyfriend, I'm just going to the dance with him." Wally shrugs. She turns to M'gann and presents herself. "Well, what do you think?"
"Stunning," comes a new voice, except it's not a new voice, it's a familiar voice that tends to be accompanied with a smile or a grin and a snicker, but today is allied only with genuineness. Artemis freezes for the warmth that's bursting in her chest at his words, and Robin appears from behind her. "You look great, Artemis."
"Watch out, Rob." Wally elbows Robin with a grin. "She's got a boyfriend."
Robin grins, cocks an eyebrow. She feels like now would be the perfect time to sink into the floor, because she knows it's coming, he's going to troll the ever loving crap out of her in front of everyone and she's going to be the only one who knows. "He better appreciate you, Artemis; sounds like Wally's a little jealous."
"I'm not dressing up just for him, you know," says Artemis, because she's dressing up for herself, too, not to mention Zatanna and M'gann and maybe even her mom, though she's not complaining about the attention. She hesitates before appending: "...Do hope Dick likes it, though."
The moment she mentions Dick's name the mood in the room changes, an unexpected chill coming over the two uninvited boys.
"I'm sure he will," Robin speaks gently, but she knows for a fact that he just winced. What's weirder than Robin's reaction is Wally's: his eyes flare up and his brow furrows, and he looks at Robin in silence and confusion, but he doesn't say anything, just walks away without a word. For his part, Robin doesn't look back at his best friend's receding form, but he's tense and he breathes through his teeth a little before he closes his eyes and tries to relax himself.
A moment, and then Conner's the one who breaks the silence. "What was that about?"
"Who knows?" says Robin, shrugging.
"Uh," tries Artemis, "You?"
Robin tries a grin, but it's painful to look at. "I suppose it is my duty to find out what's wrong with him, huh?" The others look at him like he's grown an extra head. He nods once and turns on his heel with a flourish of his cape, walking down the way that Wally just went down. The three left in the room share confused looks; they've never seen a rift appear between Robin and Wally before, though they've seen their cold sides directed at different people.
"Okay, what was that about?" says Conner this time, but before either M'gann or Artemis can answer, Robin's head peaks out from the exit.
"Psst, Artemis," he stage-whispers, and honestly, with Conner and M'gann around, she wonders why he doesn't just shout, "Whatever happens, save me a slow dance when you're in Gotham, alright?" And before she can even begin to formulate a response, he's gone.
...And what is that supposed to mean?
Chapter 9: Psychology
gummyfoxes over at tumblr drew art for Dick and Artemis at the fair a few chapters back! It's great and I'm honored, so do check it out. :)
Anyway, please do suspend your doubts for the beginning of the chapter, and try not to kill me by the end of it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Artemis dances with Robin.
Dick is late and she's walking out to the courtyard to call and make sure he's okay when she sees him standing underneath Bruce Wayne's statue and gazing up at it knowingly. Robin turns to waggle his eyebrows at her when he notices she's there, and he's decked out in full costume and she's in her dress and it's cold outside, the bitter autumn wind nipping at her bare skin and sending chills up her spine. When she shivers, Robin shakes his head at her and chuckles, and the next thing she knows he's unfastening his cape, then draping it around her shoulders like a jacket (it's heated after all, and as she tugs it tighter around her gratefully, it feels like a warm embrace).
"What the hell are you doing here?" she asks then, and in response he backs up and proffers his hand, says only, "You owe me a slow dance, remember?"
She does remember, but she didn't think he was serious, because honestly, what, but he looks serious enough and Dick's not here yet and no one can see them outside, anyway, and the music that's leaking out through the windows of the gymnasium is just changing into a slow dance, so why not? She tentatively puts her hand in his and he moves her, and she swears she's heard this tune somewhere before, but she can't quite place where it's from, even though it feels like it's important that she knows.
She's not sure how long they go on—it could be a few minutes, it could be a few hours—but they don't stop until someone taps her on the shoulder and Robin slinks away into the shadows, and Artemis turns around expecting to see his domino mask—instead, she meets a pair of blue eyes that can only belong to Dick, and they're hurt and he's upset and he has nothing to say to her. He just turns around and walks away and she's alone in the courtyard when, curse every traditional trope out there, it starts to rain.
At first it isn't that big a deal – yeah, okay, it's raining and it's all very dramatic, but it's not a heavy downpour and a little water's never hurt anyone—but then it goes for the worst and suddenly it's heavy and a lot of water has hurt her before, and she doesn't plan on drowning today, so she runs as fast as she can in her heels against wind that's suddenly appeared and is it just her or is the gymnasium farther away than she remembers? Artemis runs, runs against the wind and the water and she trips over her own feet, somehow manages to kick off the heels and tumble into a roll through the sloppy mud but she's okay when she finally makes it inside the now-empty gymnasium, wet and a mess all over the floor. Artemis gets back onto her feet and looks down at her ruined dress; it's a good thing Jade's never going to notice it's gone, because now it's never coming back.
Thunder crashes and lightning strikes behind her, and as the rain falls hard against the school roof, Artemis looks up into the darkness of the abandoned gym and wonders where everyone's gone. The dress isn't important right now; she's completely, utterly alone in an abandoned building with no lights in an unexpected hurricane. Not even Robin is left; it's just her and the darkness and the storm.
…Well, at least no one's chasing her.
—A spotlight snaps on.
"Artemis," the voice from behind her sounds genuinely disappointed in her, "You forgot your glasses again."
Artemis turns around. There, in a circle of light with no logical source is a giraffe she quickly recognizes as Wally; after all, hasn't he always been a giraffe?
"I don't wear glasses," she says, because she's not sure what else there is to say or how to say it.
Wally-the-giraffe shakes his head. "You forgot them," he repeats firmly, and he licks his lips with his long, purple tongue in a way that she's sure would be ten times more menacing if he was a snake or something. "You forgot them, and now you're trying to trick me."
"Why would I trick you about that, Wally?"
The giraffe shakes his head and refuses to listen to her, backs up so he's near the window, and with his hind legs Wally kicks at the glass, shattering it to pieces against the hurricane, and then he laughs, a horrible sound in the back of his throat as the rain rushes through and begins to flood and she's drowning, drowning, unless she can swim away fast enough—but the water's climbing high and she can't see anything or anywhere. You've done worse than this, she tells herself as it flows in and carries her as it pleases, you've done worse than this, but it's no use, she can't make it, maybe today is finally the day she's reached her limit, maybe—
When something wraps around Artemis's middle and she's hoisted up and away from the flood, Artemis doesn't struggle. In the states between unconsciousness and consciousness, of sleep and of dreams, the vague outline of her savior seems all too ridiculous to be real, but when Dick's the one smiling down at her on a beach as she comes to…
He breaks out into a grin, nodding and backing away a little to give her some space to sit. Artemis is suddenly very aware of how hot she is with the heat of the sun and the sand and a blanket; as she sits up, she shifts the material and is surprised at its texture, looks down to see that it's Robin's cape.
She blinks as she moves it aside, turns to the boy and his elephant. "…Dick?"
He isn't smiling or looking at her anymore; instead, he's hunched over with his side to her, playing with a stick in the sand, though whether he's sketching or shaping things aimlessly isn't clear. "M'Sure you've got a bunch of questions," he mutters, stroking Zitka affectionately. He starts to go on with a conjunction, but the sound that comes out of his mouth isn't his voice or words—it's a shrill ringing that pierces her ears and resonates for a few seconds, then stops. Dick doesn't seem to notice.
"Um," says Artemis, "Say that again?"
Dick knits his eyebrows. "I said," he begins, and there's that shrill ringing around, and it resounds through the world and echoes in every crevice of her mind, and Artemis wakes up.
Opening her eyes against the weight of the dream is a struggle as sleep angrily tries to pull her back in its clutches, but she strives to escape, to shut off her alarm and wake up for school. As she slams down her palm to silence the clock, Artemis dares to call her dream powerful; even as the water-colored remnants scatter into the recesses of her mind, she's dizzy with the adventure and the aftereffects of her brain firing in every direction. As the rush dissipates, frustration starts to build up, and she realizes that she's never wanted to remember the contents of a dream so badly as she does right now, because she can't help but feel that it was about something important.
She squeezes her eyes shut tightly and tries to remember, but her efforts are largely fruitless, because all she's getting is that she thinks she fell asleep thinking about Robin and Dick and dancing (and maybe something Wally said, too?). She groans as those memories flood back to her and she sits up and shakes her head, the problem of the previous night returning to her, and wouldn't it have been miraculous if sometime between her falling asleep and her waking up some sort of answer appeared? The only conclusion she's reached after lying in bed thinking for so long last night is that 'sleeping on things' yields no results.
The mattress lets out a whimper of displeasure as she gets out of bed, but she doesn't bother mourning the comfort of her bed today, because her mind is busy enough with her restless thoughts.
…So she can't help it if Dick and Robin are both on her mind a lot lately, but she's definitely got a choice in the actions she takes and the decisions she makes—so what is she doing? As with the night prior she's split into two people, two sides of her having arguments with each other and she slips on her uniform once and it's backwards, twice and it's backwards, three times and she can't find her right sleeve. She huffs, stops in disgruntlement to massage her temples, to calm herself down; the effect is the opposite and the arguing voices take the opportunity to grow louder. Artemis throws up her hands in despair and continues getting ready while the voices berate each other.
It isn't a problem, one half of her is steadfast in support of her actions.
You're dating two guys!
What do you mean, 'not really'? counters the other half of her vindictively, and it's the part of her that deals with logic and reason as opposed to emotion and instinct. You're going to the dance with Dick tomorrow and you locked lips with Robin yesterday, what part of that is 'not really'?
The stubborn part of her falters, and Artemis, who's washing her face in the bathroom, looks up to glare at her reflection in the mirror. There are dark circles under her tired eyes, evidence that if she did sleep, her body didn't get the rest it desires, and it won't until she settles the nagging that's echoing in her head.
...So what? pipes up the stubborn voice, and it's small, tiny, like a candle flame about to dwindle.
The logical part of her heaves a sigh heavy enough to blow the fire away, but instead of answering with the obvious, it tries, "What about Robin?"
She blinks at the sound of her voice—the whole thing has her spinning in circles, and she doesn't—okay, has she been talking to herself this entire time, or was it just this once?
He doesn't care, comes the whisper of a response, and there's a pang in her heart when she realizes it's true and her eyes widen and Artemis squeezes them shut, shakes her head frantically, because wait, that doesn't—but—
And, says the logical part of her, the part that she tries to silence in vain, does that seem like Robin at all?
She stuffs her books in her backpack and walks out the door with neither a bite of breakfast nor a good-bye to her mother.
At school she finds an empty spot along the usual wall they've begun to meet at, so she sets down her bag and slides down to the floor in as comfortable a position as she thinks she'll get outside of a chair. She wonders if she'll fall asleep if she closes her eyes for a little while, but it doesn't seem likely that it'll happen with her stomach twisting and turning and cramping for want of food.
"Shut up," she snaps in response to one of its louder pleas, because, hey, she gets it, it's her own stupid fault that she forgot to get breakfast in her frustration. She just has to bear this until lunch; it's not like she hasn't gone for a day or so without food before, and if it gets too loud or too impossible to live with, there are vending machines by her locker and some spare change in her wallet, so she can get some chips or something before homeroom.
A grumble from her stomach.
Or, she supposes, she can get some chips now. Artemis pulls her bag closer to her and starts rummaging through it for her wallet, a task of which the difficulty is multiplied because of how erratically her books and other school supplies are shoved in. Turning the thing inside out and emptying its contents on the floor starts looking like an expedient option, but Artemis takes a moment to huff and glare at it and maybe even pout a little first, and it's a good thing she does, because right as she's about to seize the bag and shake everything out of it, a cookie appears in front of her face.
She blinks at it. It's decently sized and it's got chocolate chips and raisins and it doesn't disappear, so maybe she isn't hallucinating, and, hey, there's an arm attached to the cookie and she follows it and looks up and—
"Morning," Dick simpers down at her, and he's got another cookie and a pint of milk in his other hand as he slides down to sit next to her and takes a bite.
"Hey," says Artemis, and is Dick magic or—? Well, she can muse over that later; right now she gratefully accepts the cookie and forces herself not to wolf it down. "Thanks."
"You don't have to admit that I'm awesome," Dick says casually, "but I'm totally awesome."
"You're awesome," she agrees, and then again: "Thanks."
"Anything for you, Miss Crock," he replies affectedly before snickering at his own joke, and there's something about the way he says it that leaves a lump in Artemis's throat as she swallows the last of the cookie, because there's that feeling again, the feeling that she's completely betraying him and his friendliness.
"Oh, hey," he says then, "did you get my text last night?"
Artemis hasn't checked her phone all morning and she has to feel at her pockets to make sure she's even got it with her. She tells him as much and that she'll check her texts right now, and he shrugs his okay and downs his cookie with the milk, then notices Barbara standing across the hallway, so he's distracted flagging her over while Artemis pulls out her phone.
There aren't any texts from Dick, but there are two from Robin. No one's reading over her shoulder, so she keys in her password and reads:
So just to put your mind at ease, Wally's upset because I didn't tell him about my being your boyfriend, and he totally had a crush on me. Alas.
…You're, ah, fine with me calling you my girlfriend, right?
Artemis clutches her stomach as the nausea sweeps over her fresh and new and old and gross all at the same time—and when Dick looks over, concerned, it's not just the usual churning; it's this sudden coldness in her throat and a panicked chill in her heart and it's getting difficult to breathe, and she's not normally like this, what's going on with her, god dammit Robin, god dammit Dick, god dammit—
"Artemis?" That's Dick, and his voice is one that she doesn't want to hear right now. "You okay? You look kind of—"
"Cramps," she squeaks immediately, and okay, she didn't mean to actually squeak, but her period is guaranteed to get him to not ask, right, and it's a free ticket to the bathroom, too, so she shoots up and she puts a hand to her mouth and she runs, almost crashing into Barbara on the way there. She looks and feels like a huge dumbass in such a rush so early in the morning, and she's cursing herself the entire way to the girl's restroom down the hallway.
She's lucky in that no one's there when she arrives, and she's also lucky in that she doesn't actually have to throw up once she's there. Instead she just needs to breathe, needs to pace and needs to think, so she checks the stalls just to make sure she's totally alone, and then she locks the door. It's only when she decides she needs to reread Robin's texts that she realizes her phone is still in her fist, covered in sweat and ready to call a random string of numbers. She stares at its screen and she bites her lip and she moans, and then she stops herself and stares in the mirror and, yeah, she starts talking to herself.
"Okay, Artemis," she says, and her voice sounds so different, like there's a layer that's usually in her intonation that's just gone and disappeared. "You need to relax and think this through." She stares intently into her own foreign eyes, searching herself before deciding, "You need to call Zatanna."
So she does. It takes a few rings for Zatanna to pick up, and Artemis is so anxious about the entire thing that she almost hangs up because how is she even supposed to start with this?
"Artemis?" is Zatanna's way of saying hello, "Are you aware that some of us are in the Eastern time zone? Shouldn't you be, I dunno, asleep?"
Artemis isn't really listening. "You were right, Zee," she says brokenly, "I can't do this."
"Whoa," says Zatanna, "Back up. I never said you couldn't do anything. What's wrong?"
So Artemis tells her everything. She tells her how she goes to this private school and there's this kid named Dick, and how he asks her out to dates and has a hard-on for math and he has amazing timing with his texts and his puns and his cookies. She tells her how there's this guy who calls himself Robin, and he's got this crush on her and he has a wonderful laugh and he likes to kiss her upside down and joke around with her and she loves the way he pronounces her name and when she's with him she feels amazing. She tells her how Robin thinks Dick's her boyfriend but he doesn't care for the title himself; she tells her how Dick's her date for a dance and he has no idea what she's hiding from him. She tells her about Robin's question and her voice breaks like she's about to cry, she tells her how sick she feels and how she couldn't sleep last night, she tells her how her head's spinning and she's locked herself in a bathroom to cry to her best friend because she's got nowhere else to go, and then Artemis shakes her head and stares in the mirror and she says, "God, Zatanna, I have to break up with him, don't I? Both of them."
Zatanna doesn't respond right away, but when she does, her voice is gentle. "Is that what your gut's telling you, Artemis?"
Yeah, she guesses, because are there any other interpretations for her feeling like absolute shit?
"My gut is telling me I'm going to throw up," she says. "I'm sorry, Zee, you probably have to get to class. I'll see you tonight." And Zatanna tells her she loves her and she knows Artemis will do what's right, and they hang up.
Artemis washes her face in the sink and with a resolution in her heart she thinks she looks better than she did this morning, so she swallows and summons her confidence and she unlocks the door.
Back outside, she sees Dick and Barbara standing next to her backpack, and when she approaches them ready to ask Dick aside he looks at her with so much genuine concern that she falters for a second, and it's a second wasted, because Dick takes the opportunity to speak.
"You look so much better now," he says smiling softly, and then he frowns. "Look, I'm sorry, I gotta go, but I'll see you at lunch, okay?" And before she has a chance to speak he pulls her close and kisses her quickly, and then he leaves with a wave and she just stares at a space on the wall, wishing that she was part of it.
What have I gotten myself into?
Dick smells really nice.
By lunchtime, Artemis has had enough time to sort through her thoughts more and make up her mind more, and Zatanna texts her under the table all day so that helps, too. With her confidence built up a second time she walks into the cafeteria late and she pulls Dick aside, and he tilts his head to the side and looks positively adorable when he goes, "What's up?"
Artemis closes her eyes. It helps when she can't look into his. "I have to tell you something."
"Shoot," he says, his brow furrowed.
"Dick," she starts, and stops. "Dick," she starts again, and the emphasis is enough to push her forward, speaking fast. "Okay-so-we-haven't-been-very-clear-about-our-relationship-have-we."
Dick's prompt is a quirk of his eyebrow.
Artemis sighs, exasperated.
"Look," she says, and this time she just goes normally. "I'm cheating on you, okay? I'm sorry, I can't—it's just that whenever I'm with you I start thinking about him and I'm really, really sorry."
And she walks away and she skips Algebra II and he looks thoroughly heartbroken.
There. She said it.
(She promised Zatanna that she'd go to the dance, so she does; the dress doesn't look nearly as nice as it did before, and while she does lose herself in some music long enough to forget about Dick, when the lyrics go forth to disaster she starts thinking about Robin instead, and how she'll have to tell him tomorrow that she's not comfortable with this anymore.
And so she thinks about Dick Grayson's shattered face the rest of the night).
I've been getting questions about this one already, so if you're curious I'm archiving all my answers over here.
Chapter 10: Crastination
Procrastination has never been a subject she's been too good at – laziness isn't really something she does, because her learned way of life is to get things done and get them done fast. Sure, okay, there are tests that she'll cram for at the last minute and little assignments she just doesn't plan on doing at all, but if there's an essay or an errand that's Artemis's responsibility, it's done swiftly or on something resembling a decent schedule.
But when she stares at her phone, stares at the name glaring up at her and the glowing green send button, she doesn't want to call Robin, doesn't want to hear his voice or read any words that may have come from him, and procrastination sounds like a pretty good option. She knows she has to come out of the fort of pillows and blankets that her bed's become sooner or later, but for now she's perfectly content to ignore Zatanna's advice from last night—don't get yourself worked up about this any more than you already have, Artemis, you made the decision you thought was right—and bum around on her laptop for a bit. Of course, the universe was designed against her and the internet's decided that of all times to be spectacularly humorless, this week, this day, this hour is perfect; so Artemis resorts to updating her music library or something, and when the software for her phone politely suggests she download the latest version, she decides that she's miserable enough anyway, so she accepts. It takes two hours, wipes out half of her music, and refuses to sync with her photo library or her contacts, so she spends the rest of the afternoon going through every single bit of memory that's going to sync to her phone.
There are a lot of pictures, that's for sure. She didn't realize how often she uses her camera.
So there isn't anything from last night because she wasn't in the mood for existing, but out of the two hundred or so images she has to sort through, most of them are from days with the team. A good number of them include Zatanna and M'gann, and there are some from when she first tried on her Halloween costume (she looked good, so even if she didn't get to rock it, she's totally keeping the pictures), but, okay, let's not play around here—a lot of them involve Robin and Dick, both of whom have really dumb habits of stealing her phone and taking dumb pictures, or of photobombing, or doing something with her that makes her think yeah, this is something I want to remember, or in Rob's case, just being adorable enough when he's not looking for her to snap some secretly. Her stomach does that stupid pitfall thing just when she thinks their names but she smiles despite herself, and she's not as miserable as she flips through.
When she's done going through the ones on her phone and she re-syncs the software she remembers that there's an unread email from Dick in her inbox with WARNING: SHARE THESE WITH ANYONE AND YOU WILL SPONTANEOUSLY EXPLODE as the subject and image files as an attachment. The subject is sketchy and she laughs—(and there's this weight against her smile that reminds her she's supposed to be upset)—but she knows that they're from the day she spent with him at the fair; she just hasn't opened them yet because she was saving it for a rainy day.
Well, hey, it was raining in her dream yesterday night, so...
She opens the email, downloads the files, and is met with the dumb grinning faces of Dick Grayson and Artemis Crock, barely recognizable through their face paint. She forgot about that. She forgot about Dick swerving past the popcorn, about her being knocked into a table, about orange paint flying at her and getting all over her face. About how instead of being upset like she was, the painters at the table thought that they'd seize the opportunity and turn the mistake into an art piece.
She smirks. A tiger, huh? It's the things like this that make her swear the universe is conspiring against her.
But then shakes her head, scowls, decides she doesn't want to think about it. Her mother's past that stage of her life, Artemis doesn't plan on that stage of her life, and face paint at a fair doesn't mean anything. She shifts her focus from her own face and looks at Dick's half of the picture instead: He's predictably got that grin of his behind the bright yellow of the sloppy bat signal, the same grin he's always got that suggests a love for life that's almost too naïve, and he just looks so silly, they both do. She can't believe how much older they both seem from a few weeks ago, and Artemis dares to think about her growth, about how symbolic the shadow of a tiger on her face can be, and she snorts, thinks how ironic it'd be if it was Robin beside her instead of Dick, laughing in the shadow of Batman in the same picture as—
No way no way no way.
Her heart skips a beat before tachycardia takes over and Artemis is squinting at her laptop screen and her head is spinning and no way, Artemis, you're crazy, but suddenly things start to piece together and she swallows and she takes her hand and she covers half of Dick's face so she can only see his grin and there it is.
There it is. There's the grin, the same stupid grin that hangs over her all day and all night, the same one from the Cave, the same one from school. It's the grin and the laugh and the eyebrows and the voice that replays in her head on command, how didn't she see it before, how did this only just occur to her, and something clicks and something else breaks and she's left in her pile of pillows with wide eyes and thoughts on a traffic circle, doesn't know what she's feeling, doesn't know how she's supposed to feel, except that there's anger for sure because oh my god.
But, no, seriously, oh my god, how could that be true? She thinks it over and runs through scenarios, remembers all the nights that Robin caught her on the way to Zeta, remembers all those times that Dick engaged in conversations about superheroes, and it makes sense, but how can she be totally, one hundred percent sure? She needs to confirm it, she needs a way to find out she's not being a total dumbass about this—hah, no, okay, she's going to be some sort of dumbass no matter what the outcome, but honestly—and the snicker resounds in her head again, mocking her a little and egging her on a little more.
His voice. His voice will do it. Artemis nods to herself, pockets her phone and her wallet (making sure she's got some change) and her keys and she's out the door, her head held high against the cold and yeah, she probably should've brought a hat or a coat or something, but whatever, who cares? She pushes into the phone booth that's right across the street and she puts in some change, dials the number that she's got saved for Dick, and zooms in on a picture of him with his gelled back hair and his grin as she waits with baited breath.
She can't believe this.
This is crazy—
Dick Grayson is—
""Y'ello?" says the voice, and the beating of her heart is only louder in her ears, her eyes are only wider, and her hand begins to tremble so she uses the other one to support her grip. And she forgets a phone conversation generally has two participants, so the voice repeats, a little more forced this time, "Anyone there?"
And she—she can hear it in there, hear that something that's distinctly Dick, but then there's that something that's distinctly Robin, too, and it's the same thing, isn't it? It's always been the same thing, and she can't with this, she—ugh, it's that smoothness in his voice and the pleasantness about it, how soft it is despite its disgruntlement at the empty line.
"Hell-lo," Dick—oh, great, what does she call him in her internal monologue now, anyway?—says again. This time she clears her throat and gathers her nerves and her thoughts and tries to change her voice. "Good afternoon, sir! You've been selected to receive—"
"I'm not interested," says Robin before he hangs up, and Artemis stands there as the puzzle places itself, as her dumbassery is given definition and depth, as it comes together for the very first time that Dick Grayson and Robin are, after all, the same headache.
Her hands form fists, she steps out of the booth, and Artemis heads for the Cave.
Conner's the only one around to glare at when she stalks in, and when she furiously demands to know if Robin's around, he shrugs and points in the direction of the training rooms. She mutters her thanks and he stares at her but doesn't ask, just tells her that "Robin wasn't, uh, feeling the aster much when he came over last night", and she registers his words vaguely but doesn't acknowledge them, just stomps over in the right direction. The door is shut but it isn't locked; she opens it slowly and creeps inside.
There's something about seeing Robin in the air that's enchanting, like watching a hummingbird fly or a bee buzz from flower to flower or a spider spin her web. It's watching someone do what they were born to do, something so innate and so vibrant that you can't look away and you don't really think about anything as you watch, except maybe how amazing it is that they exist and they can do this and that's just the way things are and always will be. Like a natural is something that's thrown around far too easily; born to do this is given away like pennies; you were awesome has lost its awe over time—but Robin is all of that as he flips and swings and flies around yards above the ground.
He's dressed in his costume but he hasn't got his cape on, and it reminds her of a day when she was alone and she thought he was dying, and with a start she remembers that was the day that she first met Dick Grayson, even though it wasn't really the first day she met him, after all. She almost forgets how angry she is at him because she's so consumed with watching him practice while he thinks he's all alone, but there's subtle moments when he's clearly out of it, where he almost trips and she almost gasps, and those are the moments when it's obvious that he's only training now because he's got a lot on his mind.
It's when he's frustrated about a flip that he can't get just right that he falters and he falls, but he backflips so he lands on his feet and he punches the wall and there's a huge dent, and Artemis finally speaks bitterly, "You seem distraught."
He jumps and then he's completely still, but his back's to her and after a moment he seems to decide to completely ignore her, gets up and gets going again like she's not even there.
"Wow," says Artemis, walking toward the center of the room, "Okay, who's the one that should be pissed here?"
"I'm not pissed," he answers this time, and his voice is a little broken, like he hasn't used it in a while. "But," he continues, swinging forward to grab another pole, "the girl I'm head-over-heels for and was dating admitted she cheated on me. So excuse me if I'm not completely tracted."
"Really, Dick?" She expected him to flinch at the name or something, but he doesn't. "Because I'm pissed."
He drops down next to her, and for the first time she gets a good look at his face. He's sweating and tired and sleepless, but he's scowling as he turns away from her to snatch up a bottle of water. "And I suppose you expect me to ask why that would be."
Artemis crosses her arms and brings them to her chest. "I'll pretend you just did."
"Please," he says, the word dripping with malice, "Enlighten me." He takes an unnecessary long drink of the water and settles down on the bench facing the opposite direction.
She smiles tight-lipped and walks around so she's up in his face, and she's been this close before, he's been this close before, but the air is so tense with their ire and resentment that it feels like she's looking at an entirely different person, and maybe she is. She stares into his mask, unblinking, and she doesn't know if he does the same, but she doesn't wait to find out—she pulls it off.
His eyes are tired and blue and that settles that; she smiles and backs away with a satisfied smirk.
Dick blinks at her, nonplussed. "Yes?"
"Oh, I don't know," she shrugs dramatically, spreading out her hands with open palms, and she's being loud, she knows she is, but damn it all, who cares? "Maybe you could've told me that you two were the same person?"
There's a beat as Robin fixes her with a long, hard stare.
Then he bursts out laughing.
"Oh my—oh my god," he gets out between breaths, and it's not his usual giggling or a snicker or a chortle, it's cold, cruel laughter, and it pisses her off because what the hell, Robin, what's so funny? Playing with her head and messing with her mind and throwing her off for months, spinning her in circles and churning her stomach and—and—he's laughing about it.
"What the hell are you laughing about?"
"I see what's going on here," he says, "You thought that—oh my god, holy Batman, Artemis, I can't believe you—"
"Dick!" she demands, because if this goes on any longer she'll be stamping her feet and throwing a full out tantrum, "Answer me!"
"I thought you knew!" he shouts, and slowly, the ball drops.
He thought she—what?
"Why," says Artemis, "would I know that? You didn't exactly tell me."
He frowns and stands so she's not looking down at him, and there's no trace of laughter left in his expression or intonation. "I thought you figured it out that night in Star City."
Unlike him, Artemis still hasn't cooled down, because forget feeling like a dumbass herself—she can't believe this kid, can't believe that he made so many stupid assumptions and tricked her up and down and sideways. "Why would I?!" she exclaims, "We're not all detectives here!"
"Because you kissed me," he replies, like, uh, duh, "and you kept on kissing me, right after I told you to imagine I'm him, and what sort of screwed up morality would—" He stops, cuts himself off, watches wearily as Artemis narrows her eyes. "Oh, okay, fine. I'm sorry."
"No," she snaps, her hands balling into fists again, and she turns to storm away from him. "You're right."
Robin leaps up and reaches out a hand to touch her shoulder and stop her, his anger mostly subsided. "Artemis—"
She slaps his hand away. "Don't touch me. I'm still mad at you." She doesn't want to hear anything he has to say, doesn't want his mistakes to be justified, doesn't want all of this drama to end up as some sort of joke on the both of them (but mostly her). What she does want is to be alone in here, to have her targets set up and to have her bow in her hands, but Robin isn't leaving, he probably wants the same thing—and he was here first.
She sighs and seats herself on a chair, her head in her hands as her headache can't decide whether it wants to increase tenfold or disappear completely. "This is ridiculous," she mutters, and when Robin sits beside her, she glares at him sideways, says, "I liked Dick better than you."
He snickers at that. Mostly they sit in silence now, a dull grayness spread about the air, and, okay, so Artemis keeps looking back at the boy sitting next to her because it's Dick, but it's Robin, but it's not Dick in a Robin costume, they're actually the same and this should make everything in her life so much less complicated, so why doesn't she let it? She thinks about what this means: it means that Artemis goes to school with Robin and that he knows she's from Gotham, there's something surprising; it means that they have a project together in Algebra II that's due in two days; it means that she went on a date with Robin without even knowing it; it means that—her heart does a little spin—Robin's got a stuffed elephant in his room back in his room that she gave him; it means that Robin's room is in Wayne Manor; it means that a couple of days ago Artemis lied and told Robin that the last person she kissed was Wally West.
Her face heats up and she almost has another panic attack again, but Dick's luckily been in his own world and he chooses that moment to look up from his folded hands, say, "Um, Artemis?"
He bites the inside of his cheek, doesn't look her in the eye. "Um… so… you weren't cheating on me, then?"
Hah. She shakes her head. "Damn your super unattractive alter ego."
He smiles a little at that, but it doesn't last long, and finally his gaze meets hers. "So, then… uh…" She quirks her eyebrow, because come on, really, just spit it out already, and then: "So then… where does this leave us?"
It's a good question. She doesn't know the answer.
She sighs. "I'll let you know, Birdbrain, but I have to sort all of this out first."
"Oh," he says, and he swallows. "Well—" He pulls out a pen seemingly from nowhere and he seems to argue with himself internally for a moment, shifts his eyes up and to the right and to the left until finally he nods to himself and gestures toward her hand, like, hey, do you mind if—?
She bristles, pulls her hand back to herself to shield it. "What're you—?"
"I don't have any paper on me," he says apologetically, "But can I give you an address? You can just meet me there whenever you want, and everywhere else we won't talk about this. We can just be, you know, friends."
She has a cellphone and he has a cellphone and he has a wrist computer and they could just get paper from somewhere else but there's something in her that says, yeah, whatever, let him, and so she gives him her hand and he scribbles something down and it tickles. When he's done, his eyes are considerably brighter and she appraises the back of her hand and at the same handwriting that's scribbled all over her math notes, and she nods.
Only one more to go now. c;
Chapter 11: Traughtism
She stops getting texts from Dick. She stops sending them, too, and it's this weird sort of absence in her life that she didn't realize was ever even a presence. It's like one second she's walking down the street and the next she sees something that she wants to tell him about, so she whips out her phone and she's halfway through sending the message when okay, friends, hits her and, sure, friends text each other all the time, but it's just not something that they're doing anymore.
She misses it. She misses him. But it's like there's this wall there and it's got a door that she can walk through but she's not sure the key quite fits, and she's too afraid to try it. She still talks to him when they see each other in person; she still talks to Dick in math class and she feels like it's forced but he's all natural, she still talks to Robin and he's still a troll and he's still Robin, but they're just not quite as open, their jokes at each other's expense are almost painful, and there's this lingering feeling of so now what that prevails, and she knows he's waiting for her to text him just once and say I'll see you there tonight, because the address is still inked on her hand and she thinks about it twice every minute.
Hah. That was probably his plan when he wrote it.
She keeps asking herself why she doesn't go there, why she doesn't at least type in the address on Google and write down the directions for whenever she finally comes to her decision. The answer is simple enough: she doesn't really know what her decision will be and what form it will take, doesn't really know how to sort through her thoughts. Day after day she tries to settle down and come up with what to say to him about this, about them, but she's always distracted by something else and she just goes on living in limbo, acts like she never had a boyfriend (or two) and never had a crush (or two).
But she did have a crush, and she does have a crush, and it's in the way her heart does little flips when Robin does little flips, it's in the way it does little jitters when she first hears Dick's voice when he joins the girls at the lunch table. It's in the way she knows that no matter what she decides—whether she'll date neither or she'll date one or she'll date both—she'll still having feelings for him and there'll still be a spark in her head whenever she hears either name.
It's when she's studying for a test in Algebra II when it happens.
She's going through her notes because she can't remember anything about parabolic equations for the life of her (because, hey, they covered that section a month or so ago, how is she expected to remember something like that now?), and she's sketching out a graph again to see if she gets it when she turns a page for the answer and sees pen where there should be pencil. She blinks at it and squints at the writing and then she remembers what it's from, because who else would scribble hi artemis! 8D in the margins of her math notebook but Dick Grayson? She smiles, remembers her struggling with her classwork and him being done with his, remembers him trying to distract her just because he likes seeing her riled up, remembers her drawing unoriginal doodles in his notebook as revenge.
She remembers that day and she wants him to remember, too, and that's when Artemis stares at the back of her hand, pushes away her study materials, and pulls up Google.
Somehow she should've known this is where she'd end up when she read Gotham Heights, but when she's standing outside of the black gates, she's still trying to deal with the idea that she's been invited here. That she's actually going to go inside. That Robin lives here. When she called him—texting, she thought, wasn't going to work this time around—he sounded all too anxious, but Artemis swallowed and asked if he was home and he sort of paused because it took a moment for him to register her question and believe that she actually asked it, and then he said, "Yeah."
And then there was hesitation because she wasn't sure if she was supposed to continue or if he wanted to say something else. She started to talk at the same time as he did, then he started to talk at the same time as she did, and then they both stopped and cleared their throats and Artemis said, "You first."
"Okay," said Dick, "Do you want to come over for lunch?"
And so here she is, standing in front of the gates of Wayne Manor, a building that's definitely more than twice the size of the entire building where her apartment is, and all she has to do is ring the bell and this entire ordeal will be over; she'll talk to Dick and he'll talk to her and there won't be any more awkwardness or confusion or miscommunication, just the two of them and their honest thoughts about each other and what they're going to do about them.
Artemis breathes and rings the bell. She's hoping that Dick'll come to let her inside and not some sort of doorman or something, because she doesn't really know how to talk to those kind of people, but she's not lucky and Dick doesn't show up; instead, when the gates creek open and she takes a few cautious steps into the property, she's met with the familiar face of the man from the limousine the other day.
"Hey," she says, "I know you!"
The man nods, and if she remembers right he had this awesome British accent—"Master Dick is waiting for you inside, Miss Crock, if you'll follow me."
"Just 'Artemis'," she corrects, because whoa, does that sound weird coming from this guy, and he nods his of course and she follows him inside, all the while taking in the front of the manor, the gardens and the bricks and the fountain, the driveway and the door and the windows and the everything else. She spots what she thinks is a church and a graveyard somewhere off to the left, and the permanency of the estate hits her, the idea that Wayne has been on this side of the world, in this city, for so much longer than Nguyen hits her; and the idea that Dick is Grayson, Dick is Bruce's ward, hits her, too.
That's kind of what separates people that know me from my friends, a voice echoes in her head, and she smiles.
"I can't tell if it's weirder that I'm having lunch with Bruce Wayne or I'm having lunch with Batman," Artemis murmurs, and Bruce chuckles. It's kind of… unnerving to have lunch with him, especially after all the disrespect she threw at the Batman, and she wasn't even expecting him to be there anyway; she assumed it would just be her and Dick. She looks for help to Dick, who shrugs and is, of course, no help at all.
"Dick tells me you had some trouble figuring it all out," says Bruce in good humor (weird), and wow, okay, she glares at Dick because hey, not only do you refuse to help me out in this situation, but you talk about me to Batman?
"And after all that yelling, too, Masters," says Alfred matter-of-factly, refilling her glass with water and picking up the now empty platter of pasta to return to the kitchen. Artemis takes a sip of the water, which proves to be a bad mistake when she starts choking at Alfred's next words—"I was afraid you wouldn't speak for months"— and she glares at Dick again because hey, wait, you yelled about me with Batman?
Dick snickers. "He's right, though. I mean, I was dumb, too, but I was totally obvious about it. Are you sure you haven't contracted split-brain?" he asks, turning to her. "Your corpus callosum is intact, right?"
Artemis predictably has no idea what he's talking about, and pushing her empty plate to the center of the table, says, "…Corpus what? Split-what?"
Bruce shakes his head at Dick's question and sighs, setting down his own drink. "Split-brain doesn't work like that, Dick."
Dick grins. "I know. Just checking." He wolfs down the rest of his food, downs it all with his water, and wipes it away with his sleeve before sliding his chair back and jumping down. "Okay, Artemis! Now that you're acquainted with the family"—he looks pointedly at Bruce, who raises his eyebrow questioningly, and Alfred, who nods, composed—"won't you join me for the grand tour?"
Artemis jumps down beside him. "Sure?" she asks, because she doesn't really think she has an option. Dick beams and beckons her to follow him out of the dining room and back into the entrance hall, and he starts up the stairs and that's when his constant, consistent, and kind of creepy smiles dwindle down a little and his pace slows down so they're in step.
Here it comes—
"So…" starts Dick, "Did you, um…"
And there it is. And… she's ready.
"Look," she says, and they stop and they look at each other and she swallows. "Just… be clear from now on alright?" He cocks his head to the side and she smiles. "I would say no more games, but you're no fun without them."
And his eyes widen a little and his face brightens a little and he tries to hide his excitement and he largely fails. "You mean—"
"Yeah," she says, shrugging. "I thought about it. And you. And us. And, yeah, you kind of make me feel, like..."
"Asterous?" he offers, hopeful.
"Asterous," she confirms.
And he grins.
"I swear on Bruce's nose I won't cheat on you with my super attractive alter ego," he says. And then he thinks, adds: "Or Wally."
"You swear on my what?" comes a voice from below, and the two of them aren't really surprised to see Bruce standing there, because hey, he's Bruce, but they weren't exactly expecting him, either.
"Nothing!" Dick cries, and he takes her by the hand, their laughter echoing as he leads her up the stairs.
to GREEN ARROWESS
/Split-Brain Syndrome./ The result of the severance of the corpus callosum; an interference between the communication of the two sides of the brain. Patients may see their boyfriend in their left visual field, but not recognize him; alternatively, they may see him in the right visual field, but be unable to speak to him logically. Exceptionally rare, Split-Brain Syndrome cannot be contracted, but it may seemingly manifest when one fails to notice extremely important details about their significant other. (SEE ALSO: Bubble Tea tonight? Batman's treat~!)