If Artemis was honest with herself — and, as a general rule, she tried to be — she fully expected to end up sitting in the administrative office at Gotham Academy sooner or later.
She just wouldn't have predicted that it would happen before she'd had a chance to attend a single class. Artemis had no illusions that her matriculation at Gotham Academy would ever be fun, but she wanted to hope for at least "not unbearable."
Her mother had done her best with the note, but apparently missing orientation just wasn't done for transfer students, nebulous (imaginary) medical emergencies notwithstanding. And it wasn't as if Artemis could explain that she'd been on a covert superhero mission with the junior Justice League that went long. So, she had no real choice but to bear up under the dubious looks and lectures, delivered with dutiful, fake smiles, but not remotely softened by them.
First, there had been the principal Dr. Warren who might as well have just outright stated that she didn't think Artemis was a fit for this school — or this side of town — since it would have saved them both a lot of time. Instead, there was the thirty minute explanation of What Was Expected of a prestigious and elite student of the prestigious and elite Gotham Academy. For the most part it was all in the student handbook, which Artemis had actually read, thank you very much.
The talk with the guidance counselor didn't last as long, but might very well have been twice as annoying. Mrs. Demanchyuk's exhortations for Artemis to embrace the experience and believe in herself and her ability to succeed in this environment because she was just so accomplished would have been a lot more helpful if they were, number one, not laced with "for your background" in every pause, and, number two, directed towards someone who actually doubted their ability.
As she often found to be the case, the problem wasn't Artemis; it was everyone else.
However, even Mrs. Demanchyuk's cloying and condescending encouragement might have been preferable to sitting out the entirety of second period in the office. Waiting. Being scolded in roundabout ways for things outside of her control wasn't exactly fun, but at least perfecting her ability to make clear that she didn't give a fuck about what was being said to her without actually doing anything that warranted a reprimand was something to do.
Staring at the walls in the administrative office while the staff stared at her — and really what school needed three administrative assistants? — was just boring. Artemis didn't think she would ever see the need for whatever obnoxious, overachieving, tightly-wound, trust fund baby they'd picked out to be her "student mentor" (other than making them feel a bit better by keeping the charity case reigned in), but she was willing to be the kid's best friend for life if they would just show up and get her the hell out of there.
Artemis shifted in her seat and tugged at her skirt again — she'd been kitted out in brightly colored lycra and body armor, amongst other things, and somehow a plaid skirt and crosstie still felt like the most embarrassing thing she'd ever worn — and looked up just in time to see Secretary #2 looking away.
"Yes, ma'am?" Artemis asked loudly and with overripe sweetness. Secretary #2 studied her, her expression flitting between sheepish and irritated.
The bell ringing, at long last, saved them both from a response. A steady, if not overwhelming stream of kids began pouring in seconds later. They picked up notes and medication, registered late slips (or attempted to wheedle their way out of them), and a few were clearly just trying to avoid their next class for as long as possible.
Artemis stared at the entryway and willed her ticket out of that particular hell to appear. In under two minutes, it did just that in the form a bespectacled redhead who took one sweeping look around the office and made a beeline straight for Artemis.
"Artemis, right?" she asked, though it didn't really seem like a question. She shifted a pile of books that evidently couldn't fit in her overstuffed backpack under one arm.
"Barbara Gordon," she introduced herself perfunctorily. "I'm your student mentor."
Artemis blinked. "Did they give you a dossier with a picture?"
"No. You just manage to look the least like you want to be here. Not to imply that it's a rare condition, but everyone else is a little bit more used to it already."
Artemis couldn't really argue with that.
"Good eye," she said as she stood. Barbara Gordon turned on her heel and weaved expertly through the crowd, leaving Artemis no choice but to follow.
The halls were crowded as well, and Barbara was waiting a few feet to the left of the office entryway. Standing out from the noise, Artemis heard overly deliberate footsteps approaching from her right before a sudden stop and retreat. She turned just in time to see a dark head disappear around a corner.
"Let me see your schedule," Barbara demanded once Artemis turned to face her again. Artemis narrowed her eyes, but decided, just this once, that it wasn't worth it. She offered the piece of paper, and Barbara only scanned it for a second before handing it back.
"Algebra II with Davis is on the other side of the school. Where's your locker?"
"1196," Artemis said. She mapped it before school. Before she knew she would be spending half of the morning sitting in the office twiddling her thumbs.
"Good, that's on the way. Let's go."
"So, no welcome speech?" Artemis asked as they started down the hall. "I'm pretty sure there has to be a pamphlet somewhere with a pre-prepared one."
"Oh there is," Barbara assured her. "Just didn't seem like you wanted one."
"Fair enough." Artemis wasn't really going to complain if her student mentor was just as uninterested in the whole affair as she was. But.
"You do seem like the type with freestyle wisdom to offer, though." It came out only about seventy-five percent mocking.
In the two minutes of their acquaintance thus far, it'd become apparent that Barbara Gordon liked to stay on task. As a general rule, Artemis didn't mind brusque, but after a certain point it was hard not to take it personally. She didn't expect them to be fast friends or anything, but undisguised apathy wasn't what she'd expected either.
"Well, that depends on if you're staying around," Barbara said evenly. "It's not exactly hard to get thrown out. Especially for scholarship kids."
Artemis frowned. Tightly-wound overachiever was pretty much confirmed by her painfully perfect ponytail and the shine on her Mary Janes. Not to mention the knee socks. Artemis would have preferred the obnoxious, trust fund baby part to stay similarly implicit.
"Yeah. I can find it myself," Artemis said, not bothering to spare another glance.
Barbara grabbed her arm as she sped up, and Artemis was caught off guard mostly due to the fact that she'd actually needed to pause to try wrench away from a surprisingly strong grip.
"I didn't mean it like that," Barbara said.
Artemis was weighing the relative merits of staying and listening or making the very poor decision to cement her rep early by shoving Barbara Gordon into something, when a male voice called out.
"Who's your friend, Babsy? Introduce us!"
"Die in a fire, loser!" Barbara yelled without hesitation in the general direction of a group of guys. Nothing special that Artemis could see, but they carried themselves with the gait of people who thought they were extremely important. She imagined there was a lot of that going around here. They chuckled amongst themselves as they continued down the hall, nearly barreling over a far smaller boy who danced agilely out of the way just in time. There was no response and Barbara trained her gaze back on Artemis.
"Seriously, it came out wrong," she insisted, as if there had been no interruption.
"How should it have come out?" Artemis asked, crossing her arms as she finally extricated herself from Barbara's grip. One chance. That was what she would offer. She promised her mom that she would give this all a chance.
"A Wayne Foundation scholarship is a pretty huge deal," Barbara explained. "Huge enough that not looking even a little bit excited means that it probably wasn't your idea. At all. And unless your parents' name is on a plaque or building around here somewhere, this isn't a place you stay in if you want to be here that little."
It was a more reasonable explanation than Artemis expected. To be fair, she expected a half-assed non-apology of the sort people give when they did mean exactly what they said and still believed it, but had figured out that you weren't going to let them get away with it. So it wasn't hard to overshoot. Not that she planned to admit it. She did, however, start walking again.
"So, since we've already established that you didn't get a dossier, do they announce scholarships over the P.A. or something?"
At this, Barbara smiled. "No. Mrs. Demanchyuk is in charge of student mentoring. She sees me as the model scholarship kid so she always assigns me to the new ones. I think she thinks I'm… aspirational."
"You're on scholarship?" Well, at least she was still pretty sure about the tightly-wound, overachiever part. The jury was out on obnoxious.
The smile hadn't faded. "Partial. My dad's a cop. A pretty important cop, but nowhere near enough to swing this place on his salary."
Barbara had opened her mouth to say something else when a few pieces suddenly clicked into place for Artemis.
"Wait," Artemis said. "A cop? Your name's Gordon. As in Captain Jim Gordon?"
Barbara's good humor took an immediately perceivable nosedive.
"Yes," she sighed. "And before you ask, no, I don't know the Batman, and I can't tell you anything about him that you can't read in the paper, nor can I get you an autograph or a piece of his cape or a lock of Robin's hair or anything else."
Artemis turned a snort of laughter into clearing her throat a second before it would have been too late.
"I wasn't asking," she said, straight-faced.
Barbara looked only slightly chagrined.
"Sorry. I get that a lot. A while ago some wanna be Lois Lane even thought that maybe they could skirt the GCPD's unilateral 'no comment' by going through me. Dad was not happy." Her brown furrowed in a way that made clear they were heading towards an even more well-worn and sore subject. "Not that it matters. He never tells me about that stuff anyway."
I was hard for Artemis to sympathize. She spent a large portion of her life trying to keep away from the "family business." She wasn't one for self-pity, but there were times she certainly wouldn't have minded her dad having any interest at all in keeping her even just a little bit out of it.
"He probably just wants to protect you," she offered.
Barbara was visibly unimpressed. "That's his story."
They continued on in silence for a few moments. The halls were starting to clear as time ticked down to the bell for next period, though there were still stragglers. Years of training (much of it unwanted) left Artemis unable to shake the feeling of eyes on her back. Sometimes, she felt like she'd been taught paranoia before she was potty-trained.
She didn't speak again until they made it to her locker and Barbara had had ample chance to seethe over and bury whatever control freak, father-daughter issues she had roiling around inside.
"I'm not going anywhere," Artemis announced without preamble as she stuffed her English and Biology books into her locker. She was sure to have a great time explaining why she missed both of those classes tomorrow morning. Neither Dr. Warren or Mrs. Demanchyuk had offered her a note, and she certainly wasn't going to beg for one.
"I promised my mom. It's really important to her." The last bit felt like too much as soon as she said it — true as it was — but Barbara didn't press further.
"Okay," she replied.
"So?" Artemis said, voice bone dry. "I'm still waiting on my wisdom, mentor."
Barbara waited until Artemis closed her locker, then looked at her very seriously for a long moment.
"If you're smart enough to get a Wayne Foundation scholarship, the work's not going to be a problem," Barbara said. "I mean, I can give you more on that, but it's exactly what you'd expect. The most important thing to know is that people are going to think you don't belong here. Not just students, but teachers-"
"And principals and guidance counselors and administrative assistants." Artemis didn't blink.
Neither did Barbara. "Yeah," she agreed. "And some people are never going to stop thinking it-"
"Yeah, I know. I don't care," Artemis interjected, effectively ending the lesson before its conclusion. She'd stopped trying to prove things to people a long time ago.
Barbara didn't look bothered by it. The intensity had dropped from her face and she smiled again.
"You are smart. It took me about two years to work that one out."
"It's a pretty old lesson for me," Artemis offered. When your mom was a wheelchair-bound Vietnamese immigrant, your dad was a criminal, and you spent most of your life firmly on the wrong side of the proverbial tracks, existing in general taught you a lot of things that girls from Central Gotham with police captain, hero dads had to wait a little while longer to learn if they were lucky.
Barbara nodded, but didn't say anything else as they started walking again. The warning bell went off as they turned the corner.
"Can I ask you another question?" Artemis asked as the last strains of the bell faded, no longer covering the extremely faint sound of shuffling dress shoes in the distance.
"Sure." Barbara's look was curious.
Artemis considered lowering her voice, but then decided against it.
"Who's the freak that's been following us since we left the office?"
When Barbara turned it was quick, but apparently not quick enough.
"Where?" she asked.
Artemis looked back as well. There were just a few students at their lockers, none particularly interested in the two girls. The creeper seemed to have retreated.
"He was short, perfectly pressed blazer — even for here — black hair all slicked back-"
"Very, very blue eyes?" Barbara interjected.
Artemis raised an eyebrow. She wouldn't have described them like that exactly, but…
Barbara ran one hand through her bangs and looked far more amused than Artemis would be.
"That was just Dick Grayson," she said. When Artemis gave her an uncomprehending look, she continued. "He's Bruce Wayne's — yeah, that Bruce Wayne — adopted son."
Small world. Guy sent her to school and his weirdo offspring skulked at her from the shadows. She really hoped it was just a coincidence.
"Isn't he like his illegitimate kid or something?"
Barbara shrugged. "No idea. He's never said so."
She still seemed remarkably at ease.
"I take it he normally stalks you through the halls?"
Barbara laughed. "No. I don't know what he was doing today, probably trying to surprise me or something. He's weird sometimes."
"What, are you two-"
"No," Barbara answered immediately. "Nonono. When he first came here, he was in a Math Club study group I did with advanced math students. After that, he asked me to help with him with mathlete prep. He also shows up at the Computer Science Club sometimes — I'm the president — mostly to show off."
"So, he's not your boyfriend then?" Artemis was mostly joking, but Barbara actually seemed to consider it seriously, carefully choosing her words like it was something she had no small amount of practice explaining, though Artemis wasn't exactly sure to whom.
"He's… sweet," she allowed. "He walks me to class sometimes because it's 'on his way' even though it's not, and I still haven't figured out how he's getting all the way to the other side of the school that fast. There were also no fewer than half a dozen really bad sonnets stuffed into my locker last year. But, no, he is not my boyfriend."
"Sounds like he wants to be your boyfriend."
"You mean, sounds like he's a hormonal thirteen year old," Barbara corrected.
Artemis shrugged. "Hey, we just met. I don't know what you're into."
"Ew! Shut up," Barbara exclaimed. Artemis might have been inclined to take offense if both of them weren't laughing so hard.
"Anyway," Barbara managed, and it had the tone of a definitive topic change. "How are you on extracurriculars? Do you prefer athletics or academics?"
"I've done my share of both," Artemis answered.
"Well, I can help you out, especially if you're interested in any of mine," Barbara said and began ticking items off on her fingers as she listed them. "You have to have been at Gotham Academy for at least a year before you can do peer tutoring or mentoring, but I doubt you're interested. I mentioned Computer Science Club and Math Club, but I also run track. I used to be on the school gymnastics team, but I quit two years ago to focus more on JO. I could still put in a word for you if that's your speed. Sometimes, I hang out around the aikido and tae kwon do clubs, but there's an outside dojo that I actually train at. And I also do community service working in the library, which is a pretty easy, and quiet, way to-"
"Slow down, I'm not a college recruiter," Artemis said and hoped it sounded as good-natured as she meant it.
"Sorry, reflex," Barbara said and it really did seem so. Definitely, definitely wound too tight.
"You study martial arts?" Artemis asked.
"I started a few years back with self-defense stuff, but I really liked it and my dad figured living in Gotham there really can't be too many to protect yourself. Why? Do you have any training?"
"Here and there."
Barbara's grin in response was wolfish. "We should spar sometime."
Artemis had jumped with much gusto on her fair share of terrible ideas, but she was actually starting to like Barbara Gordon. Sending her crying to her cop dad and possibly to the school staff because Artemis's teachers had never been very interested in the concept of pulling punches wasn't an attractive prospect for numerous reasons.
"By 'here and there'," Artemis said as casually as she could manage. "I mean, 'for my entire life.'"
Barbara's eyes gleamed in a pretty disconcerting manner, though at the very least, it made Artemis seriously reconsider the likelihood of her crying to anyone about anything.
"Even better," Barbara said before launching into the tale of the great lengths she'd gone to in her quest to get her dad's police academy instructor pal to teach her Krav Maga.
They were still talking when the bell rang. Artemis wouldn't say that she felt good about Gotham Academy as Barbara promised to meet up at lunch before dashing down the hallway. But "not unbearable" didn't seem quite so distant a dream anymore.