A gleam of sunlight from the huge arch windows hit the rows of crystal in front of her. She didn’t dare touch the fragile table arrangement, a hand-painted china from centuries ago and the crystal water goblets by some fancy designer that Artemis pretended to know the name of, on the solid oak table in front of her. She hadn’t even known there were designers for archaic dishware. Instead she gripped the back of the matching solid oak dining chairs. Her fingers struggled for purchase along the grooves and crevices of the delicate roses and leaves hand craved into the wood as she listened to Wally and the event coordinator for the Preston Country Club describe menu options for their special day.
To distract her from her rapidly growing ire, Artemis took soft deep breaths and focused her attention on the grounds outside. The sweeping acres of green grass and large trees resembled something of a fairy tale. A rather uncomfortable feeling rushed through her, so she returned her attention to the woman in the black pantsuit and overly pleasing smile.
“If we head back to my office, we can look at the calendar and find a date that works for you both,” the woman whose name Artemis couldn’t remember said.
“That would be great!” Wally beamed. His smile hadn’t left his face since he entered the historic country club.
“Actually, we have a few more places to visit before making a decision,” Artemis argued, fingers still clenched into the dining room chair, so that she didn’t elbow Wally.
The woman’s face flickered for a moment; clearly she wasn’t used to someone turning down the Preston for some other less elegant location, but she recovered easily enough. The woman pulled a business card out of her black portfolio and handed it to Wally.
“Of course! When you’ve made your decision, give me a call.” Her false cheer rang in the room.
It reminded the archer a little too much of an acrobat given to false cheer lately. She stormed out of the room, leaving Wally to say their goodbyes. Pulling her car keys out of her purse while she walked away.
Artemis waited for Wally in the driver’s seat of the car. Her hands found the right key and slid it into the ignition. The passenger side door clicked opened and Wally slid in before she turned the car on. Wally watched her for a second and Artemis ignored him as she backed out of the parking spot.
“So…what was that?”
Involuntarily, Artemis’s grip on the steering wheel tightened. “Give Oliver the money back,” she growled. “I told you I didn’t want him to pay for this.”
Wally’s bright green eyes shifted from concerned to aggressive. “I didn’t take any money from Oliver.”
“Then how the frick where you planning on paying for that? Last I checked we couldn’t afford a place that was a thousand bucks a plate.” She managed not to raise her volume, which was a near thing, but even she could hear how tight her voice was.
“I didn’t take any money from Oliver,” Wally repeated. His tone matching hers.
“That didn’t answer my question,” she barely refrained from screeching the sentence like some shrill hag. A realization dawned on her. “Give Dick the money back.”
Wally rolled his eyes. “I didn’t take any money from Dick either.”
“Then what?” Artemis shouted. “What on earth possessed you to think we could afford the Preston?”
“Bruce paid for it.”
Her pony tail whipped her cheek when she jerked her head to look at her fiancé. “What do you mean Bruce paid for it?”
Wally’s fingers tapped restless along the tan interior of the door. His face stared out the windshield. “Bruce gave me $50,000 for our wedding.”
Forcing her attention back on the road, Artemis asked, “What? Why?”
“Why does Bruce do anything? I swear, Dick only understands him half the time.” Wally didn’t shift his gaze.
“Don’t lie to me,” she hissed.
The speedster’s fingers stilled. “He’s grateful Dick’s alive.” He let out a large sigh that deflated his tense shoulders. “He also suggested that it would be in everyone’s best interest if he were informed regarding any other attempts.”
“You have got to be kidding me?! You took a bribe from Bruce!”
Wally turned in his seat, so he was fully facing her. His normally bright green eyes darkened with anger. “First, you’re mad at me because I didn’t tell Bruce, and now, you’re upset because I agreed to! What do you want from me?”
Artemis glared at him. “I want you to not take bribes to do the right thing.”
“Oh for crying out loud! I had already agreed to – WATCH OUT!”
The blonde archer threw on her breaks and swerved into the emergency lane to avoid colliding with the line of cars that had come to a halt on the freeway. She took a few deep breaths to calm her racing heart and doublechecked that Wally was okay. Wally’s face drained of color and beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
“Hey, you okay?”
Shaky hands carded through red hair. “Yeah, yeah, I’m okay. I’m just gonna run from here. I need to stop at campus for some lab work anyway.”
Before she could reply, he was gone. Artemis dropped her head onto the steering wheel. That could have gone better.
Laying across the foot of their queen bed with her feet hanging off the bed, Artemis had one hand tangled in Brucely’s fur as he slept in the center of the bed and another held the cell phone to her ear. She had called her mother to complain about her ridiculous fiancé.
“But why does it bother you so much?” Her mom asked for at least the third time.
Artemis had avoided the question precisely because she didn’t know how to express her feelings into concise neatly wrapped words.
“It just does.”
She made an indiscernible noise as she flipped onto her stomach and kicked her feet into the air. Brucely didn’t even twitch.
“Ollie’s not my uncle,” she offered in explanation.
Her mother made a tut sound on the other end of the phone. “Believe it or not, I know who you’re related to.”
“He wasn’t even my mentor, not really.” Artemis sighed. “I mean I already knew how to fight and shoot a bow.”
“Your father taught you.”
Artemis groaned. She flipped over again and slid onto her feet. She started to pace. “Can we not make everything about dad?”
“When you stop rejecting every father figure, I’ll stop bringing up your father.”
“Okay fine,” her mother acquiesced. “You don’t want Oliver’s money because he wasn’t your mentor. Is that why you don’t want Bruce’s?”
“I don’t even understand why he offered. It’s not like he just hands out money.”
Paula Crock chuckled softly. “He’s on record as a significant financial supporter of the Justice League, and how many charities does the man run or give to?”
“Mom,” Artemis dragged out the word in that petulant way she hadn’t done since she was a teenager. “Not the point.”
“I don’t understand why you are so surprised. He paid for you to attend Gotham Academy, and he offered a full tuition scholarship to Stanford.”
“Which I didn’t take.”
“Artemis, has it ever occurred to you that it’s how Bruce says thank you? From what you’ve told me, it sounds like you and Wally are a large part of the reason his son is still alive. If it were the other way around, I would want to repay that.”
The blonde ran a hand down her face.
Her mother tried again. “Artemis, why do you help people? Why did you choose to be a hero?”
“What do you mean?”
“You were raised with villains.” Anticipating her daughter’s objection, she quickly defended, “Don’t argue with me. I know who I was. But you chose to be a hero. Why?”
Artemis’s brow furrowed. There were so many reasons. A tangled knot of emotions squirmed in her stomach. She didn’t want to be her dad. She owned the world a debt because of her dad. She liked not being her dad. It was fun. Aloud, she gave the safe answer, “I like helping people.”
“And do you think Bruce Wayne enjoys using his resources to help others?”
Deflated, she leaned against the wall, crossing her left ankle over her right. “It’s not fair when you’re so logical.”
She could hear the smile in her mom’s voice. “I never intended to play fair.”
“But Mom,” Artemis complained and ignored how whiny her voice sounded. “I don’t want to get married at the Preston.”
Her mother laughed. “That is a completely separate issue.”
“I’ll think about what you said,” Artemis conceded.
“You do that.”
After exchanging good-byes, the blonde college student, decided that she should make some a big pot of pho before delving into her homework. No matter how annoyed Artemis was with Wally, she still made enough for a speedster’s metabolism – she did still love the idiot.
Pouring a standard amount of condensed milk into two glasses, Artemis filled the Vietnamese coffee filters with Trung Nguyen before pouring the hot water over the filters. The aroma of strong, rich caffeine permeated the room.
“Mmm, that smells delicious,” Barbara chimed, her eyes closed and inhaling the scent deeply.
Artemis set the kettle down while they waited for the coffee to drip through the filter. She joined her friend at the kitchen table, careful to avoid the head off the table where too much pressure would cause the whole thing to wobble.
“That’s because you’ve been guzzling black tar,” Artemis fired back.
Barbara shrugged. “It gets the job done.”
“And how is the job going?”
“Honestly? I can’t wait for Kaldur to get back.”
Gray eyes widened in surprise. “I thought you enjoyed bossing people around.”
As usual, the redhead ignored the barb. “The team’s great.” A small sigh. “I’m not as nice as Dick or Kaldur.”
Barbara’s face scrunched. “I don’t like interruptions.”
Artemis barked a loud laugh, and Babs glared at her.
“Don’t look at me like that,” the blonde argued; grin still plastered on her face. “It’s just for all the complaints I’ve heard about team leadership, not liking interruptions is just –”
“Stupid?” Barbara filled in, her voice small and eyes focused on the table.
“Hey, it isn’t stupid.” Amusement faded quickly in the face of the normally confident woman’s hesitation. Artemis reached out and grabbed her friend’s hand. “What’s the problem?”
“It’s just every time I think I’m getting somewhere with this chemist case, some problem comes up with the team.” The blonde didn’t offer any reply, and Barbara continued, “It’s frustrating because I’m good at it. I can handle the team. I can lead them effectively. I just don’t like doing it. I’d rather be in my work room researching.” She released her grip on the other woman’s and dropped her face into her hands. “Oh my God, I’m Bruce.”
“You are not Bruce.”
Barbara pushed back from the table with her hands on the edge, unconsciously tipping the chair onto two legs. “I just admitted that I find other heroes a nuisance and would rather spend my time alone in my cave.” She dropped her chair onto the floor and brought her elbows onto the table. “Dear Lord, I even adopted an orphan.”
Well, Artemis couldn’t exactly argue with that. Instead, she tried to reassure her friend, “Just because you’re similar, doesn’t mean you are Bruce.” That sounded like an echo of something she heard somewhere.
A memory of her mom and fifteen-year-old Artemis flashed through her mind. She was seated on her bed and her mom had rolled up in front of her and took her hands. “Just because you are similar to your father, does not mean you are your father, Artemis.”
Standing up, Artemis shook off the memory and moved to finish their coffees, stirring her cup with a toothpick soaked in fish sauce to give the drink a smoother taste. Artemis finished the beverages by dropping several ice cubes in the glasses. Each cube splashing and plinking as it hit the glass and the liquid. She offered a drink to her friend who took it with a distracted word of gratitude.
“What’s going on in that big brain of yours?”
Barbara gave a tight smile. “A lot. I need to think about this more.”
In other words, Babs wouldn’t discuss the issue further until she had reached her own conclusions. Well, that was fine with Artemis. She had other things that she wanted to discuss.
“Does Bruce just give you money?”
The other woman raised one sharp eyebrow. “You mean other than the fact that he paid my high school tuition, is paying my college tuition, and funds all of my nightwork?”
“What’s this about?”
“Bruce wants to pay for our wedding.”
“And that’s terrible because?”
Artemis twisted her lips to one side of her face as she thought about how to respond. “I don’t want to take his money.”
Barbara laughed. “You already have. We all have. He funded 75% of Mount Justice and the Watch Tower.”
“I know. It’s just –” Just what? She had no idea how to put her hesitations into words.
“Look,” Barbara tried to explain. “Bruce doesn’t know how to communicate, so he gives money as a sign of gratitude or an apology.” A small pause. “Or if he just thinks you need it. The man has no concept of how most people live.”
“So we should keep it?”
“The other option is donating it. You won’t be able to give it back. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
Artemis sighed again. Either way, she still didn’t want to get married at the Preston. The whole place reeked of apathetic rich people. It wasn’t who she was.
“Alright, well, one more question.” The archer took a breath. Suddenly nervous with sweaty palms, which was ridiculous. Barbara would say yes. “Would you be my maid of honor?”
“You’re not asking your sister?”
“I love Jade, but I’d like my wedding to not end in explosions.”
A devious looked passed on the redhead’s face. “I don’t know. That could be fun.”
Babs shrugged good-naturedly. “I’d be honored.”
A warm smile burst onto Artemis’s face. “Thanks.”
Adjusting the wig again, Artemis sighed as she looked at the light brown curls she was wearing and tried not to hate it. This whole thing had been her idea, and she would live with it. It was just she hadn’t wanted to go back uncover so soon, even if it were for only a few hours. But she wanted, no needed answers.
For the first time in her life, Artemis thought she may have found something that she actually wanted to do that wasn’t hero work, but at the same time, the task ahead of her was daunting. Just because she could recognize the massive problems with the criminal justice system, it did not mean that she knew how to solve these problems. Today wouldn’t even give her answers for the massive question of how, but rather it would answer the question if she were on the right track. Unfortunately, it also meant a brief uncover visit to Belle Reve while the Flash gave his don’t-do-drugs-and-stay-in-school speech.
While Wally tried to encourage those in prison to turn their lives around, Artemis, dressed in a black blazer with a press pass, would be interviewing the criminal population about their desires to change and if jail had increased their desires to be a productive member of society. The possibility of prison or extended jailtime didn’t seem an effective deterrent to Artemis, and she selfishly wanted a world where her sister wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in hiding because of past crimes. If Jason Todd could get a pardon for brutally murdering 8 people, why couldn’t Jade?
Wally, dressed as he Flash, appeared in the doorway, arms crossed and leaning against the side of it. “Ready to go?”
“Yeah. You finish your speech?”
Artemis raised an unimpressed eyebrow. For the last week and a half, she had listened to her fiancé complain and bemoan this totally unfair assignment from Barry. Wally may be a science genius but a wordsmith he was not.
His shoulders deflated. “After he finished laughing at me, Dick helped me with it.”
Artemis didn’t drop her eyebrow. Dick was hardly the most reliable when it came to the English language. He had frustrated more than one English teacher at Gotham Academy, and Bruce had been often called in for meetings about Dick’s butchering use of language. The original Boy Wonder, however, was close to Clark, whose job depended on his ability to use words.
“How much did you copy from Superman’s old speeches?”
Wally gasped in mock outrage. “Are you insinuating that we would stoop so low as to plagiarize from a fellow hero?”
“So all of it?”
Shrugging, he replied, “Yeah, the man’s good with words.”
Artemis laughed at him. Wally scooped her up and carried them both to the prison.
After clearing security and removing anything that could easily be used as a weapon, Artemis was led into a prison room with a solid gray table and two folded chairs. The only decoration on the solid grey concrete walls was a one-way mirror where a correction officer would be monitoring her conversations. She’d be allowed to interview a limited number of prisoners – not enough to draw any hard conclusions, but enough for Artemis to decide if she would pursue law school.
The first to enter the room was a small but toned, baldheaded white man. His arms were heavily tattooed with skulls, guns, and women. Artemis didn’t look too closely. He grinned wolfishly at her.
“My, my, my, they didn’t tell me I’d be interviewed by a looker.” The man whistled appreciatively.
It took everything in Artemis to not react. A mild-mannered reporter did not roll their eyes or wound men who were annoying.
“What da ya say? Let’s skip the talking, and I’ll give you a little ride instead,” the man leered.
“I’m sure it would be little,” Artemis replied, unable to take any more of this man’s idiocy.
The man’s whole head ripened like a tomato as he sputtered indignantly at her and called her names she would be sure not to repeat back to Wally.
“If we could continue, I’d like to ask a few questions,” she stated above the noise of the man’s outrage.
“I ain’t gotta put up with this shit. Stupid ho gonna talk to me like that.” The man stood up and banged on the door. “Hey! I ain’t gotta talk to this ho. Probably overcharge you and forget to deliver.”
Artemis curled her hands into tiny fists and reminded herself that she could not incapacitate this man for being a scumbag. He was already in jail. Let him talk.
The guards removed the vile-tempered man and replaced him with a tall dark-skinned African American, who looked like he could rip the thin table in two.
“I see you met I-ain’t-gotta Joe.” He offered a smile that showed perfect white teeth. “My name is Carl. I’d offer to shake your hand, but.” He raised his hands that had handcuffs chained to shackles on his feet.
“Amy Lucas,” she responded. Artemis wasn’t new enough to criminals to believe that a polite smile meant innocence. Too many criminals were capable of civil conversation. “I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
He nodded once.
“How long have you been in Belle Reve?”
“3 years, 6 months, 22 days.”
“That’s awfully specific.”
Carl shrugged and offered no further explanation.
“What happened?” She tried instead.
“Same old, same old. Black man at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Are you saying you didn’t commit a crime?”
Carl leaned back in his chair and stared at Artemis for a long minute. “I’m saying it doesn’t matter. I was convicted because I was a black man.”
“I doubt that’s true,” Artemis countered.
Carl laughed. The sound bellowed in the room. “You’re here to write an article, right?” A nod. “Well, perhaps you should start by researching the overwhelming convictions of Blacks and Latinos.”
“Okay,” she agreed because she was vaguely aware of statistics that agreed with the man’s statement. She could delve into that later. “Well, has being in prison made you want to give up crime?”
The man laughed long and hard for a full minute. He wiped tears from eyes. “I thought you had to be educated to be a reporter.” Artemis stiffened in response. “You can’t get a job after prison. You’re forever marked as a delinquent. Most people get out, come right back in.”
It was as Artemis suspected. Once you had a felony, how could you get a job. Although, she wasn’t sure she believed that Blacks and Latinos were criminalized more often. Most of the supervillains she knew were white, although…how often did the likes of Lex Luthor receive punishment for their crimes?
“Time’s up!” A prison guard ordered, throwing the door opened.
“Well, this has certainly been fun,” Carl informed her and walked out of the room.
The rest of Artemis’s interviews fell somewhere in between complete disaster and to a small degree informative, but all those who had been willing to have at least somewhat of a civil conversation with her confirmed Carl’s theory that there was little opportunity to turn one’s life around after being convicted of a crime. There was nothing that encouraged long term sustainable change, and Artemis wanted to fix that.
It appeared she finally had a college major.
A light fog and an early autumn chill rolled through the streets of Gotham as Tigress cased the Narrows. Gotham nights had been eerily quiet since the Joker died. Whispers on the streets claimed that Bats would kill now. Those rumors had always existed but the celebrations of the Joker’s death brought a truth to them that many feared, although there would always be those who clung to the underbelly of life heedless of the consequences. It was those criminals, Artemis had mopped up during her brief stint as Gotham’s Guardian. But the longer Tigress prowled the streets, the more the rumors changed with the wind.
People were beginning to wonder if perhaps the Batman had died with the Joker, or perhaps he had left now that his greatest foe had been vanquished. Tigress didn’t concern herself with the rumors. She knew enough about Batman to understand that he would use the gossip to his advantage and unveil himself in the most dramatic fashion possible.
Perched on a rooftop, she searched for criminals, but she also planned how she might explain to Wally why she didn’t want to get married at the Preston or any other fancy country club or yacht club. She had hoped to talk with him after their visit to Belle Reve, but unfortunately, they had both been too emotionally upset to have a civil conversation.
Instead, they had moved their furniture out of their living room and had a friendly sparring match that eventually deteriorated into kissing…as all of their sparring matches did. Artemis couldn’t help it. Wally’s lips were just so kissable. She grinned fondly at the memory.
Flipping over to the next rooftop, she found a couple of dudes, who looked ready to break into a small electronic store. She prepared an arrow to fire a warning shot.
“Tigress,” Batman spoke over her comm. “Harley Quinn just broke out of Arkham Asylum.”
Artemis cursed. Joker’s crazy girlfriend couldn’t have waited another week before breaking out when Gotham was no longer her problem. She fired three warning shots at the men below and waited for them to scatter before acknowledging Batman.
“What information can you give me?”
“I’m pulling up the security footage now,” Batgirl responded.
“Harley Quinn is extremely dangerous. Do not engage,” Batman ordered at the same time.
Behind her mask, Tigress rolled her eyes. Did Batman ever think anyone was beyond his protection? She wondered if the man told Superman to be careful.
The three idiots below returned to the electronic store. Annoyed, Tigress loaded a rubber tipped arrow and took aim. Something whacked into the side of her head and knocked her off her perch and onto the flat rooftop. Her vision swam, and she tried to stand, but her body wasn’t listening.
Harley Quinn stood over her, gigantic mallet in hand. “Don’t bother getting up, Sweetums.”
The crazy costumed villain hit Tigress again, and she knew no more.