"Recognized, Artemis. B07."
The interior of Mount Justice looked exactly the way she left it. She wasn't sure what she’d been expecting: chaos and ruins, or upgrades and a shinier entrance – but the mountain remained just as unchanged as a mountain should be, even if this one in particular had been used as a hub of operations for superhero business for well over three decades now. Artemis blinked as she did the math. Was it really that long? By the time she had joined the Team down here, the Justice League had long since abandoned the Cave as their primary headquarters; but then the team had made it their own.
That had been well over eight years ago, and while she may have first entered this place as a young girl with a checkered past, Artemis felt like she was seeing the place for the first time all over again as someone far older and arguably wiser. Twenty-three was all that old, though, except that when Artemis wandered the halls, her gaze unfocused and fleeting as she took in the surroundings, she suddenly felt old.
The place was decommissioned. More than that, it was derelict. In her youth, it had felt intimidatingly large, like a yawning cavern that housed more surprises than Christmas morning. Now, it was… hollow, too cold and… empty. Distantly, the strangeness of that revelation made Artemis’ skin itch uncomfortably. It was like being an intruder in a place that had once been her home. It looked the same, she supposed, but Artemis no longer felt secure here anymore. What was the saying? You can’t go home again. For a beat, Artemis almost wished Aqualad had chosen some other point of rendezvous, but it was a good place to talk privately. No one would suspect, and of course, she hadn’t declined him because – well, he was Aqualad. Despite the deviating paths their lives had taken, Artemis couldn’t cut off ties from her past teammates.
Not all of them, anyway.
Which begged the question, where was he? Given that Aqualad had sent an urgent message, she’d expected him to greet her at the entrance. With a frown, she started the search; she wandered down the hallway, past the main living quarters, peeked into the hanger, cut across the training area, and then finally returned to the galley. The kitchen was empty and cavernous now, no longer fully stocked. The echoes of countless days watching Wally raid the refrigerator briefly flittered through her mind.
“God, Wally, could you be anymore of a pig? How can you eat that much meat?”
“Hey, I didn't fight my way to the top of the food chain just to be a vegetarian.”
Artemis locked down on the memory, and turned away. “Aqualad, are you here?” she hollered out, a little concerned and trying desperately to cover it up with an impatient tone. Her voice echoed through the Cave. “Aqaulad, c’mon! You can’t drag me all the way back to Rhode Island and then disappear. I didn’t even take the Zeta-beam. I drove.”
On a motorcycle that she’d taken (borrowed, of course, without permission) from Cheshire; it might prove to be an opening salvo to another sibling spat, but Artemis was used to that anyway. Besides, she could always blame it on Roy.
“Hey!” she screamed, pivoting around. “Anyone home? I’m starting to take this personally—”
“Don’t get your panties in a bunch, babe,” a voice came from behind, and that voice, Artemis recognized it instantly, and she froze. “We’re back here.”
For a long second afterwards, Artemis remained rigid and unmoving. She hadn't seen Wally in years, and even then, their last few meetings had been nothing but brief and perfunctory, jabbed with awkward silence that would explode into a vicious fight with no warning at all. She braced herself with a slow inhale, and then turned around as she exhaled. Wally was halted at the foot of some secret entrance that must have been installed since the last time she’d been here; his head was tilted to one side, hands jammed in his pockets, goggles shoved up and perched across the tuff of his red hair. She took in his appearance in a microsecond, and he wore loosely fitted washed jeans and a red long-sleeved shirt under a short-sleeved yellow one; the sight of him lodged all words in her throat. She hadn’t been expecting him.
“Hey, Arty,” he greeted with a biting smile – and like a fingersnap, the spell was broken; she hated when he called her that, which was exactly why he did it. “Long time, no see. You’re looking gooood. Been working out—”
“Where’s Aqualad?” Artemis cut in, determined not to take the bait.
He tipped an eyebrow up, feigning hurt. “Nice to see you, too. Aqualad had some things to do.”
“Seriously, Wally, what the hell? Kaldur calls me up out of the blue for an emergency, and then isn’t even here. What’s going on?”
“Jeeze, Artemis. He’ll be back in the morning, and figured I could be with the welcome wagon.” He gestured wide, a mockery of a bow. “You’ll excuse me if I didn’t bake cookies in celebration.”
Annoyance surged up her spine, but Artemis couldn’t help it. The mood was beyond her control, and he may have done nothing (yet) more egregious than greet her with that insufferable smirk, but seeing him had thrown her. Aqualad hadn’t mentioned Wally; everybody knew that they weren’t on speaking terms since their breakup. His sudden appearance put her on the defensive, and if there was one thing Artemis had learned from a young age, it was to come out swinging when she was on the defensive.
But then Wally derailed all thoughts in a single breath. “It’s M'gann,” he said, and they dropped all passive aggressive bullshit because he suddenly looked like he didn’t have any fight left in him. His shoulders sagged, his tone took on a somber lit, and his green eyes darkened. “She’s... she’s dying.”
The secret passageway was completely unfamiliar, but Artemis followed Wally through the long stretch of hallway without comment. In fact, in a rare moment not often seen of them, they were both completely silent. Artemis was having problems digesting the news of M’gann’s condition, and though she hoped it wasn’t obvious, she was using the few precious seconds walking to prepare herself for what lay ahead. According to Wally, M'gann was sick and the League suspected there was some form of Martian toxin that was wrecking havoc with her mind. The thought tumbled inelegantly as Artemis tried to absorb it. M’gann was poisoned. All of her steadying breaths and efforts for mental composure were for nothing, though. As soon as Wally pushed open the final door, nothing in the world could have prepared her for the sight that greeted her.
M’gann was floating at least a foot above her bed, head tossed back, eyes closed, completely oblivious to the waking world. Artemis had seen her Martian friend like this only a few times, only in moments where M’gann had retreated so far into her psychic connection that she had lost touch with the physical realm. Her cape wafted in the air beneath her, some unfelt or psychic current running alongside it so that it billowed around her in an eerie sort of way. The entire room was hushed, and it took a second for Artemis to take in anything other than the Martian form. Then she noticed the figure braced against the far wall; Connor with his arms folded over his chest. His eyes were fixed on M’gann with this fierce look of concentration, so focused that Artemis wasn’t entirely sure he was aware of Wally and Artemis’ presence.
“Connor,” she called out, hesitantly, and Superboy looked up.
Superboy was no longer a boy, though. When he glanced up, Artemis was struck by the changes she saw in him, more stark than the ones she’d seen in Wally. He was as broad-shouldered as Superman, just as tall and just as muscular. His impressive physical stature was hindered by the look on his face, though, like it took a full second for the cobwebs to clear and for him to realize Artemis was standing in front of him.
“Artemis,” Connor finally managed, sounding hollowed out and surprised all at once.
Artemis closed the gap between them and pulled Connor into a hug. He froze against the embrace, and then collapsed a little, arms snaking around her waist with enough force for her to realize he was out of it because it was just a touch too tight, too strong. When he released her, Artemis tried to hide the wince on her face.
“Who did this?” she asked, turning back to M’gann.
“The League of Shadows,” Connor answered, and there – there was that familiar fury in his voice. He’d gotten better over the years at controlling his base reaction of anger to – well, to pretty much anything. But Artemis knew the grief of M’gann’s condition would test him like no other.
“We need your help,” Wally offered, from behind. Artemis turned back to face him; he looked contrite, like he wasn’t looking forward to her reaction to what he said next, and Wally looking apologetic before he even opened his mouth was never a good sign. “We need your… your connections.”
Artemis stared, uncomprehending for a second because she didn’t have any connections to the League of Shadows except for – oh. Oh, no. And suddenly, Artemis knew why it was so urgent that’d she come, because it wasn’t for moral support or for a reunion over M’gann’s beside. No. With startling clarity, it was suddenly so obvious.
“Sportsmaster,” she breathed out, eyes hardening.
Her dear old dad was a former member of the League of Shadows and the personal enforcer for The Light. Her father would have been disappointed in the way Artemis froze at the mere mention of him, to see her like this, like some insipid little girl taken over by anxiety. Never show weakness, baby girl. But then Artemis reminded herself that Sportsmaster had long since been locked in a cell of his own doing, and his opinion no longer carried any weight with her.
Artemis slid her gaze away. Of course, even after years, even after all this time, her father’s sordid history still had a way of upsetting her life.
“Okay,” she tried, recovering. “Start from the beginning, and don’t leave anything out.”
It was worse than she imagined, which was saying something.
Apparently the League of Shadows had been making merry sport of targeting all the members of her former team; Aqualad had barely escaped a personal beating by Ra’s Al Ghul last week, and the Riddler had been repeatedly hounding Dick – who now went by Nightwing after he retired from being Batman’s sidekick two years ago. Wally and Superboy had both suffered attacks, but it was M’gann who’d taken the most insidious assault – by poison, they suspected. No one knew how she’d been infected, and J'onn was still on route back from Mars so they didn't have solid answers yet.
“Everyone on the team has been targeted,” Connor said. “Zatanna, Rocket – everyone.”
Not everyone, Artemis realized.
No one had attacked Artemis, but then again, Artemis had left the team over four years ago.
She shook her head and faced Connor. “You want my sister, not my father. Cheshire is the one with the best former connections to the League of Shadows, and at least she’s willing to play nicely.” Barely. After a few years of fighting and another handful of reluctant reform. Cheshire’s volatile nature would take some delicate handling, but Artemis was sure she could get her sister to come in on this. “I can call her and see—”
“It has to be your father,” Connor cut in. “I was contacted by Lex. He dangled a ransom for M’gann’s cure, and apparently the price is your father’s execution.”
“What?” she exclaimed, whirling on him.
“He wants me to…” Connor began, and he looked to Wally for help.
“Sportsmaster must know something valuable,” Wally answered, vaguely, looking disgusted. The brunt impact of what they were implying hit Artemis with its full force. They wanted Superboy to kill her father. And Wally must’ve sensed her impending freak-out because he reached forward for her hand; Artemis was so overwhelmed that she forgot about the fact that physical contact with Wally usually led to complicated things, which led to bad things, and she allowed the hold to linger for a long beat. Then she remembered herself, and straightened. Wally dropped his hand as if he’d been burned. “It’s our running theory, anyway,” Wally recovered, sourly, folding his hands defensively against his chest. “We need you to find out why he’s so important that the League of Shadows wants him dead.”
“And why they’re asking me to do it,” Connor added, pointedly.
“And what?” Artemis replied, turning to Wally because he'd understand better than anyone the ridiculousness of the request. “You expect me to talk to my dad and get the reason. Because I’m still Daddy’s Little Girl? I got him arrested, Wally! I got him sentenced to life in prison. The last thing he’d want to do is to tell me anything except to fuck off.”
“You have to try,” Connor cut in. “For M’gann. There’s a cure somewhere out there, and the League of Shadows has a weakness. Your father might be the only one to know it.”
The simple declaration brought Artemis to a halt. Yes, he was right. For M’gann, Artemis had to try, no matter how futile it seemed. M’gann would do the impossible if the situation had been reversed. M’gann would never give up; she’d never let her own anxiety and past hang-ups keep her from doing what needed to be done in order to save a teammate. Former teammate – whatever.
“Fine,” she said. “But you better come up with a Plan B for when this one turns out to be a crapshoot. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned, my dad’s a stubborn asshole and you can’t argue with him. He’ll drag you down to his level of douchbaggery, and then beat you with experience.”
She didn’t care if the others were against it. The first thing she did was call up her sister. Unfortunately, her sister wasn’t receptive to the idea either. “My opinions may have changed,” Cheshire said, warily, “but not the fact that I’m right. Me and your little band of misfits in tights do not get along.”
“C’mon, Cheshire. Stop suffering from your inflated ego and just—”
“I don’t suffer from it,” he sister cut in, smugly. “I happen to enjoy every second.”
“I could really use your help with Dad,” Artemis’ voice took on a desperate tone.
There was a long pause, rather pregnant. They’d reconciled years ago, but while bygones were bygones, neither one of them had been able to forget their particular thorny history. Cheshire was still trying to make up for it, in subtle ways – but it was the effort that counted most with Artemis.
“This is going to be a mistake,” Cheshire declared, with a long suffering sigh.
Artemis rolled her eyes, though her sister couldn’t see it. “Yeah, you still say that every time you hook up with Roy.”
“Yeah, well, some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.”
“Cheshire,” she tried to keep them on track. "Can you come?"
There was a long beat, and then an aggravated noise. “Fine. I’ll be there by morning. You can’t exactly visit Blackgate Penitentiary at night anyway, unless you plan on breaking in to prison to pay dear old dad a visit.”
Artemis paused. “No, I guess not."
M’gann’s condition was expected to hold for another three or four days.
“Good. Now just make it through the night without doing anything insufferably stupid like hooking up with your former boytoy, and I’ll see you in the morning. How is Kid Quickie, anyway? Still batting those baby blue eyes at you?”
“They’re green,” Artemis cut in, before she could stop herself. Then grew flustered and annoyed, especially when she heard Cheshire’s knowing chuckle on the other end. “Look, I don’t wanna talk about Wally, because there is nothing to talk about. It’s done. It’s over.”
The condescension dripped off her voice, “Sure, little sis.”
“I’m serious!” Artemis barked. “I’ll hook back up with Wally when pigs fly.”
“You know, with sufficient thrust, pigs can fly just fine.”
“I’m hanging up now.”
"Hey," Artemis said, caught off guard.
She hadn’t expected Wally to be standing at the back entrance that faced the ocean. With a start, she realized she hadn’t been out here since that day where she’d broken up– since Wally had asked– the first time since. It was a dark night, the sky half-obscured by clouds and the moonlight more suggestive than forceful. The ocean lapped with a distant lullaby, and for a full beat, they just stared at each other.
“So,” Wally tried, giving an awkward half-chuckle. “Good weather, eh?”
Talking about weather was just as inane as expected, but Artemis recognized the strain to reach for something that wouldn’t set them both off, and god knew that those subjects were few and far between. It was a peace offering, an olive branch. Artemis decided she could respond in kind. “Yeah. It’s… nice and cool.”
Awkward silence fell. She had no idea why it had be this awful. Actually, scratch that – she knew exactly why. She just wished it was different. But with two stubborn people like them? There was no way that they weren’t going to suffer the fallout when things ended badly. And things always ended badly. Wally believed in universal constants like the speed of light or gravity or Pi, but Artemis knew better. The only real constant in the universe was that everything ended. Everything. It was a life lesson she had learned, over and over again.
He scrubbed a hand across the back of his neck, a small gesture of anxiety, and Artemis hated herself for noticing that his arms had filled out just as nicely as the rest of him. She could already tell the years of training and superhero shenanigans had been kind to him. He’d gained some muscle since she last saw him, broader in the shoulders and chest. Gone was the teenage boy that was lanky but toned. He wasn’t nearly as bulky as Connor, but Artemis preferred Wally’s build anyway.
It sucked that even after all these years, Wally could affect her like this.
She resented it.
“I’m gonna go back in,” Artemis said, abandoning any pretense that she could deal with this. Wally made a gesture as if he was going to say something, but she didn’t wait for a response. In a quick move that would’ve made Dick proud, she pivoted on her heels and disappeared back into the cave.
It was stupid. It was cowardly. Artemis didn’t care. When she’d returned to Happy Harbor today, it hadn’t been the expectations that she’d be faced with her ex-boyfriend. Aqualad hadn’t mentioned one word about Wally being part of the picture; had, in fact, left any and all details annoyingly vague. Her former leader was lucky he wasn’t within earshot of her because, right then, Artemis really wanted to give Aqualad a piece of her mind about springing all of this on her without warning. Not that—not that she wouldn’t have come, if she’d known. She’d have come for M’gann. It was just— a heads-up would have been nice, y’know?
Artemis tried not to let it get to her. She needed to burn off some energy, maybe work out. She hadn’t even given Wally the opportunity to do anything to piss her off, but she was sure it wouldn’t have taken much. They’d spent their formative years wrapped up in a relationship that had ping-ponged between bickering and making out; Wally West had been many firsts in her life: her first real boyfriend, the first guy she’d ever loved, the first guy to take her to bed. He’d also been the first guy to break her heart; the only one, if she were being honest with herself, because god knew after Wally, Artemis hadn’t been the type to let many guys affect her, even if she had dated a spattering of guys here and there.
She grabbed her gear and then took to the exercise room, the one place in the Mountain where she’d always been able to clear her mind. The bow in her grip was a comfort. She stood at one end of the expansive room, planted her feet firmly, nocked her arrow and drew it back across the bow. She took a calming breath, slim shoulders shifting under the cotton of her shirt. Then, eyes focusing, she took in another deeper breath and released the arrow as she exhaled. The target hit dead center, of course. Repeating the process, soon the target range across from her was riddled with bulls-eye hits, one after another. Some clustered almost atop each other. After the first round, Artemis plucked her arrows and restocked her quiver. An hour passed without interruption. Artemis lost herself to the exhaustive practice – so lost, in fact, that she didn’t notice she had gained an audience at some point.
“Still haven’t lost the touch, have you?” a feminine voice announced, with a whistle.
Artemis turned around in surprise – this time, a pleasant one. Zatanna was dressed as if she’d just come back from patrol, which for most other superheroes meant spandex or leather. But Zatanna had always adopted a look modeled after her father: a white shirt, bow tie and gloves, black blazer, and black stockings and boots to match. Artemis was always a little envious of how classy the other girl could look with, literally, a snap of her fingers.
They embraced in a quick hug, a warm rush of reunion that wasn’t, for once, overshadowed by grief or awkwardness. “How long have you been back in town?” Zatanna asked.
“A few hours,” Artemis answered, setting her bow against the wall. “What are you doing here?”
“Same thing you are, more or less. This place may be officially abandoned, but since Connor decided to house M’gann here, I wanted to swing by and put up some magical wards.”
They talked excitedly as they exited into the hall, where the lights had all come on and Artemis made her way towards the kitchen without thinking. It was suddenly like she’d been transported back in time, making her way towards the common area after practice with one of her teammates – the déjà vu was almost unsettling if it weren’t so damn comforting. She suddenly missed M’gann even more.
“Dick told me you might show up,” Zatanna was saying. “I didn’t think Aqualad would follow through on calling you, though.”
Artemis looked away. “Yeah, well, there’s really no one else that can talk to my dad. As much as I’d love for anyone else to volunteer.”
“Yeah,” Zatanna said, softly. “I get that.”
The distant tone alerted Artemis to something awkward, and then a second later as realization hit, she felt like a fool. Of course, Zatanna would get the awkwardness of talking to an estranged father figure. Who else was behind Doctor Fate’s mask? It wasn’t the same thing as Sportsmaster, but god – it certainly qualified as an equivalent headtrip. Not for the first time, Artemis lamented over how screwed up their lives were, having grown up with their unique childhoods full of superheroes and supervillains. Most people their age were just getting out of college. Instead, Artemis was dealing with enough emotional baggage as any sane person three times her age, and she knew she wasn’t by any means the only one.
She wanted to change the subject, both for Zatanna’s sake and, quite frankly, because she didn’t want to talk about Sportsmaster anymore than she wanted a root canal performed by a team of specially trained monkeys. “So, how’re things in the League? Adjusting well?”
Zatanna immediately grinned. “That’s one way of putting it. I like to think of it as a work in progress.”
The Justice League. Artemis stifled the pang of longing. Zatanna had gained membership over a year ago, one of the last of her former teammates to gain membership. Zatanna had taken some time off to do college and other “normal” things; at least she had a college degree to show for the lapsed time. Artemis had done nothing in the past few years except putter around from state to state, adopting a gypsy lifestyle, taking out baddies where she saw fit and, on occasion, bugging her sister and Red Arrow into helping her take down a few bigger baddies.
Once upon a time, Artemis would’ve given anything to be a part of the Justice League, but she’d given up that dream years ago. Still, that didn’t mean that once in a while, Artemis didn’t stop and wonder about what ifs: what if she hadn’t dropped out of the team? What if she hadn’t cut ties and fled the moment Wally had started talking about marriage? What if... what if her mother hadn’t been murdered?
Artemis busied herself by pouring a glass of water, only half paying attention to Zatanna as she talked about her life as a League member. If Zatanna noticed Artemis’s distraction, she didn’t mention it.
“Have you seen Wally?”
Artemis snapped her gaze up. The sudden change in topic was jarring, but Zatanna only looked softly sympathetic and… yep, there was that damn knowing look in her eyes, too. Like Zatanna was silently thinking the same thing Cheshire had been saying – damn it, why was everyone bringing up Wally? It seemed like every turn she took in this place, she was confronted with her past.
“Yes,” Artemis offered, wryly. “It’s kind of hard to miss a big red-yellow blur, even if he does break the sound barrier.”
“I take it that it didn’t go well?”
Artemis shrugged, like it didn’t really matter. “We haven’t really talked much.”
Zatanna raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Really? Because last time I checked, talking wasn’t one of the things you guys had trouble doing. It was getting you guys to shut up that was the problem.”
“Oh, ha, ha,” Artemis said, and threw a half-hearted glare. She was long used to the teasing; such were the benefits when you dated one of the biggest dorks in all the League for nearly four years. “It’s better this way. Avoidance will curtail that pesky thing we do.”
“You mean,” Zatanna said, offhandedly, “hooking up?”
“Fighting,” Artemis corrected.
Zatanna muttered something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like foreplay, but she let the conversation drop without further comment. Artemis was grateful, because unlike her sister, Zatanna seemed to know when it was good to tease and when it wasn’t.
Nothing like M’gann, though. M’gann always knew exactly what to say, even when Artemis wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it.
Another pang of grief kicked in, and suddenly Artemis was bone-tired. With a start, she realized that it was nearly four in the morning, and if she wanted to make it to Gotham City in the morning at a reasonable hour, she might as well catch a few hours of sleep. She bid Zatanna goodnight, and automatically made her way towards her former quarters. She thought about checking up on M’gann and Connor again, but the thought felt too draining.
She froze, then whirled about, spooked. The corridor was empty, but for a second she thought— no, never mind. It had been her imagination.
She resumed her pace towards the living quarters, then slowed when she reached the end of the corridor. To the left were her old quarters; to the right was Wally’s. She had a moment to wonder about the collective wisdom of the Justice League when it thought that housing hormonal teenage boys and girls in such close proximity, with only a random chaperone on base, was ever anything less than an exceptionally risky idea. Artemis had lost count of the times that Wally had snuck into her room, or she his. Misspent youth, indeed.
She wavered. Was Wally in his room?
And so what if he was? What was she going to do about it? Surely, nothing as stupid as poke her head in. She’d spoken the god’s honest truth to Zatanna when she’d said that avoidance was the best course of action. Because any interaction with Wally usually ended in one of two ways, and both were explosive. Add that to the dynamic of available empty bedrooms, and – yeah. It was best to avoid going down that road.
With a determined gait, she marched to her room and never risked a glance back across the hall. She shut the door behind her and collapsed against the frame. With a slow exhale, she had the abrupt thought that even though it was already halfway over, it was going to be a long night.
Correction. It was going to be a long mission.