Dick has always been just this side of morbid. It’s not a trait normally assigned to him, given how he disguises the impulse with humor and light-hearted quips, but there’s no other word for how he willingly exposes himself to the darkest side of humanity, the one that had killed his parents. Tonight, his morbid thoughts slash through all of his attempts at sleep, a phantom child’s call goading him from the corners of his bedroom. It turns his pillow into a lump of rocks and tangles his sheets with his tossing until images of the Joker in a straightjacket make him frantically push them off his legs to fall in a heap on the floor. It’s funny, the kind of things that will set him off nowadays.
Paired with his honeysuckle-warm sentimentality, it’s not surprising when he fumbles through his bedside drawer until he finds the small leather box that has been residing there in preparation for tomorrow. He sits up, side flaring for a moment with the ache of a well-placed kick. Moonlight splays over his hands and thighs, sapping the peach of his skin and leaving a silvery wash instead.
Its weight is ironically insignificant. Dick strokes the pebbled leather surface once, then opens the box. He slips a finger under the onyx chain and lifts it up in the air. Even in the dark, the yellow opal gleams with an eerie, pulsing glow from within.
If he ever had any wistful fantasy about giving Artemis jewelry, it did not go like this. He isn’t supposed to be sending her into possible death with a necklace and, if he can pull it off without giving himself away, a farewell kiss on the cheek.
He can do this. Tomorrow, he will go out there and he will pretend. He will pretend to watch Kaldur kill Artemis. He will pretend that he has, inadvertently, sent Artemis to her death.
Snow flashes through his vision, ice-cold wind slicing his cheeks as the echoes of a scream get lost in the sizzle of electricity, and Dick chokes. The episode they all have tried to banish replays, more vividly than even in his nightmares, and Dick can’t live with himself. Not when he’s deliberately recreating the train-for-failure exercise that was responsible for breaking their spirit all those years ago.
His lungs are quitting on him, closing off all passages, trapping the air inside him and choking his brain. His stomach joins in, churning on the lowest setting of a blender. He’s not, he can’t—
He remembers that whispered confession, that sickening realization that he could not be the Batman, that he could not, would not, be a hero who would choose the mission over his friends’ lives. He’d made that vow all those years ago, when choices like this were in the far-off future and a semblance of black and white remained.
Now, he feels the inevitability of the choice. Some things are so much more important that his feelings.
No, he needs to— breathe. Unclench his hands. Grip the edge of the bed instead, feel the give of the mattress under his fingernails and the sharp point of the amulet’s tip. He’s—it’s not working. He still can’t breathe, and he can feel sweat beading at the roots of his hair. The ceiling fan is spinning too fast, blurring, or maybe that’s his vision.
He needs to be calm. He needs to be mentally prepared. He needs, above all, to be traught. Because this is what everyone is expecting from him. They need him to lead this final phase without a hitch—they’ve come so far already. All the sacrifices Kaldur has made, Dick can’t throw those away because he’s having doubts.
But the doubts don’t leave him, clawing at his throat, gripping his ankles and wrists until they’re crushed, gnawing gaping bite marks on his shoulders and thighs and he still can’t breathe.
It will be—easy. A piece of— watching her die. It’s all pretend, right? He can do this without flashing back to ice and snow and M’gann’s scream. They’ve rehearsed it. He can watch her fall. And he can— in his mind, he sees her falling, see blood pooling around her abdomen, hear her heartbeat slowing, her breaths shallowing. He sees her heart-shaped face, and her dark, slanted eyes gazing at him. He will be the last thing she will see, and he can feel his hands turning clammy around the charm. He desperately wants to throw up, but the impulse is half-formed, leaving him panting, head down, nowhere near relief, gagging on nothing but fear and acidic doubt.
He can’t do this. He can’t. His fingers scramble for his phone, and all it takes is one button for the line to ring, and it’s late, he knows it is, but she’s probably still awake over there and—
It’s as if someone had ruptured his windpipe, but no, it’s just his lungs collapsing on themselves from lack of air. “I—I can’t do this, ‘Mis—I don’t know if I can pull it off, I can’t—”
“Dick. Dick. Stop. Breathe.”
There’s a particular tone he’s been conditioned to respond to, and he didn’t know it could come out of anyone’s mouth other than Batman’s. His body jolts, knife-sharp air whistling past the constricted muscles of his throat, and she repeats the command, coaxing him until his lungs creak in and out in a semblance of normalcy, much too fast, but at least his vision isn’t blurry anymore. The arm supporting him gives out, sending him falling backwards on his bed. He curls on his side, phone tucked against his ear, necklace still thrumming warmly —warningly— in his hand as he pants. The rasp of her voice coos gentle encouragement until his breaths even out and he closes his eyes against the vertigo that sends the beam of moonlight washing into his Bludhaven apartment into freefall.
“I’m in over my head,” he says weakly.
“No. You can do this,” she says, and he can see the concern in her eyes hidden behind the rhythm of her voice.
“I have to pretend that you’re dead, I’ll have to answer questions of how it happened, and I’ll have to mourn you and can’t you see that I’m putting M’gann and Conner through the train-for-failure debacle all over again?” The rush of words leaves him breathless and dizzy again.
Artemis’s voice hardens, and her eyes always flash steely gray for a split second when she does that. “It has to be done.”
Dick shakes his head, nothing more than a feeble wobble against the sheets. “No, no. I told myself I wouldn’t cross that line, I said I wouldn’t.”
Dick curls into himself, bringing an arm up over his head protectively, burying his nose against the palm of the hand holding the phone. He whispers, “You weren’t there. I sent Wally to his death. I made him follow me, and I knew everyone would die, but for the mission, I sacrificed them. I did what Batman would do.”
He hears the sharp intake of breath over the line, and he knows Artemis understands. She, more than anyone, knows what it’s like to try to not be someone you’re afraid you’re destined to be.
“And you’re not Batman,” she finishes softly. “But Dick, you trust me. Right?”
“I do,” he whispers. He wouldn’t have called anyone else for this. It’s not just her history and familiarity with the mentality of their enemies. It’s her drive, her skills, the steel that runs in her veins.
“Then trust that I’ll be okay. Kaldur and I will make it back to you.”
Dick grips the phone so tightly his knuckles pop, and when he hears Artemis curse, his pulse spikes. “What? What happened?”
Artemis laughs, and he hears a clatter from the other end. “Sorry, sorry, it’s nothing. I just burnt the casserole. Again.”
Dick uncurls his fists, wincing slightly, but he smiles despite himself. Babs noticed once, how much he smiles around Artemis. The smile falls completely when he realizes this will be one of the last times she’ll ever make him laugh, maybe for— he cuts himself off and forces himself to say, “Will you ever learn how to make anything edible?”
He knows his voice is too hoarse to be convincing, but Artemis obliges him and laughs. “Probably not.” There’s another noise, and he recognizes the slam of an oven closing. “But seriously, Dick… I can take care of myself.”
“So could Tula. So could Jason. And look where it got them.”
Artemis is silent for a moment, and Dick isn’t sure whether it’s because he gave her food for thought or she’s angry at the comparison.
“They’ll say it’s my fault,” he continues. “I sent you to your death, you were trying to get away from this life and I dragged you back.” She makes a sound of protest and he clenches his teeth and growls, “Don’t deny it. You’re doing so well at Stanford, and you and Wally are happy, and I can’t—I can’t take you away from all that. Artemis… I don’t want to take you away from that.”
“Well, I want it,” she snaps. “You can’t stop me, Dick. I want to do this, and even if you say I can’t, it’s not your choice anymore.”
Her words are harsh, but she’s never been a very good liar. At least not to him. He knows she’s doing this to be kind, to make it easier for him by taking the responsibility away from him. He’s torn between being pathetically grateful and being indignantly angry because what if he ordered her to stay?
“You got that?” she asks softly.
He shudders. Breathes in. Out. Repeats. “I don’t have a choice anymore, do I?” He’s only playing along, but maybe at some he’ll begin to believe it. He’s terrified of the same thing happening when he’s playing along with her death instead of simply his choice. But they’re one and the same, aren’t they?
“Nope. No choice.”
“I’ll miss you,” he blurts, and it sounds almost platonic.
She grins. He can hear it in her voice. “I’ll be back.”
The stone lodged in his throat makes it hard to answer, “You will.”
There’s the click of something—a door. The sound of crickets floods his ears, and for a long time there’s nothing else. Just the sound of Artemis’s breaths, and he matches his own to hers in an attempt to keep his stomach still. The amulet’s shape must be imprinted in his palm, deceivingly innocent in its warmth.
He wonders if she’s leaning against her porch, looking at the same moon he can see through his window. He sometimes wants to voice these silly thoughts of his, but she’s never been much of a romantic. She’d probably just laugh at him. Despite the queasiness, he feels his body finally relaxing into the haze that usually precedes sleep and his eyes slip shut when she suddenly says, “Dick, this time you’ve got to get traught. For me, for Kaldur, for Wally.”
He blinks and mumbles, “Yeah.”
“You’ll take care of him?”
Dick chuckles sleepily. “As much as he’ll let me.”
“…Thanks.” There’s the gust of an exhale, then, “Get some sleep, you sound exhausted.”
“Yeah… yeah, I will.” He won’t say ‘see you tomorrow’, but he can say, “Thanks, ‘Mis.”
He imagines her smile, the small one that shines brighter the darker it is around her, as she whispers, “…Night.”
He didn’t realize how much the lines between reality and pretend could blur. The first few times he told the story to the team, to the League—it was just following the plan. Making sure all the pieces fit and their cover story was sold. But when Conner pounds the table, forming a crack along its middle, and growls, “How could Kaldur do this?” Dick has no response that will not demonize Kaldur or go against their cover. This is no longer by the book, this is no longer a plan that he has memorized by rote. It feels as if he’s permanently wearing a mask of sorrow and it weighs him down more than he’d imagined, sapping the life from the muscles of his face until smiling is a chore instead of a natural reflex. No one understands, though. They just pat his back sympathetically and murmur, “She was a good person,” and Dick wants to scream, “She is!”
It’s the little things. It’s Cassie asking, “But how could she not dodge that?”
He fumbles for a bit before saying, “It’s. She isn’t— wasn’t —invulnerable.”
No one comments on the slip between present and past – he’s not the only one who’s been doing it. But the more he remembers to say ‘Artemis was a wonderful teammate, and one of my closest friends’ or ‘She used to call me to complain about Wally’s eating habits’, the more the words sink into his skin, until he feels a layer of ice coating his bones and making him shiver occasionally.
Wally was right— now that they have successfully completed their ruse, the hardest part awaits, and now, now is when fears about death are actually valid. The constant acknowledgements of Artemis’s mortality only fuel a nausea that won’t leave him day in day out. She wasn’t (isn’t) invulnerable, she wasn’t (isn’t) a meta, it was (it is) only a matter of time. Fear seeps into his body, first through his fingertips, then locks his shoulders and neck, making it hard for him to do more than stare at the computer screen when he’s supposed to be working. Mal removes him from monitor duty for a few days, and he, like everyone else, assumes it’s grief over the past instead of fear of the future.
Then there are the whispers. She was retired—her life in order—she had no powers. Nightwing had no right— bringing a non-meta back into this life— he overestimated her abilities— led her to get killed. It’s his fault. We didn’t need another dead teammate. Jason. Tula.
It wasn’t hard to scream her name out when she fell. It wasn’t hard to fool Conner and M’gann, because he saw it. It was the train-for-failure exercise all over again, except now he understands the depths of his feelings for Artemis and the fear, the grief, was all the more overwhelming for it. There was an ache, sharp enough to sob, when he pressed his lips against hers and for a brief, blinding moment, a series of what-ifs flew through his mind. What-ifs he had no right to even consider, and the twist of his features at the longing was enough to complete the act.
It was painful, but it wasn’t hard.
The hard part is when Gar comes up to him, eyes puffy, just out from comforting M’gann, and asks with all the innocence of someone who just needs to know. “What did she say before she died? What did she look like?”
It feels like being pushed into a lake at night. His vision blacks out on all sides and his mind is blank, absorbing the shock, trying to orient him towards the surface because he can’t breatheseehear underwater.
A touch on his arm breaks him through the surface and he gasps and realizes he’s sagging against the kitchen counter. He looks beside him and sees Tim’s wide eyes, his hand wrapped around Dick’s arm to keep him from tipping sideways. In front of him, Gar makes a strangled noise and begins to apologize, and Dick can’t find enough breath to reassure him. There are waves lapping at his throat and he’s struggling to stay afloat under the images of bloodsandgoldenhairrocket’sglare—
She looked beautiful, he wants to say. She didn’t say anything. She just looked at me.
Tim won’t let go of him, probably spooked by his reaction, but Dick can’t focus on him right now. He helps Dick sit on one of the stools, and Dick stares at his hands and can’t get the (fake) blood out of his head, watches it drop from his fingers and onto her pale face, and—
“She said goodbye,” Dick hears himself say, and he can almost imagine her lips, cool and dry against his, mouthing the word.
The hardest part is when the lines between reality and pretend begin to blur.