It's different. She comes back and it's different; he painted the apartment. This isn't his fault, not truly, because Artemis was gone for nearly a year and she figures he's allowed to do that. Wally is allowed to move the spice rack from the drawer to the lazy suzan beside the dishwasher. He's allowed to let the dog move into their, no his, it would be his, bedroom permanently. It is more than fine that there's new furniture (not ragged and worn and stained with their blood from missions or food from meals together) and a rug that looks entirely too clean. She can't fault him for it.
He wants so hard to make it how it used to be. But Wally can't remember where the coffee table was when she left and he migrated to the middle of the bed at some point and it's all twisted now. He's a trier. Wally tries harder at everything than anyone else. Unfortunately as he grows older (and bitterer) he realizes part of trying more, is failing more. There's a kid from another time who doesn't mean to outshine him glowing and streaking through fields, saving a world that isn't even his yet. His girl isn't his anymore; not entirely.
She's Artemis, yes, but some foreign strain of Artemis that he doesn't know. Her laugh is slower, she doesn't rise to his arguments as easily ('you're probably right,' she says one night and his heart breaks a little) and she keeps herself from him. It's automatic and fine; the way she holds herself stiff and upright now, arms at side or across her chest. But he misses it, the way her legs used to flow across the couch onto his lap or her head collapsing onto his shoulder during a movie marathon. It isn't her fault though.
It's wrong. She is back and looks in the mirror and is startled. Her skin is too tight; stretched across bones that aren't hers. Wally comments on how she is losing too much weight, the gaunt in her cheeks, the shadows beneath her eyes evidence of that. It isn't that she doesn't eat enough, she simply doesn't sleep as much anymore. There's no comfort for her; her nerves are shaky and her instinct is still to hold herself steady. Artemis catches it in his eyes sometimes, the way it hurts him to see her like this. But, she wants so badly to say that there is no 'this.’ She is this now; fearful and feared, wrapped in one.
He wishes for his Artemis back. This Artemis wears thin sweaters and dress socks in lieu of his sweatshirts and fluffy socks from Zatanna. It's stupid, Wally thinks, to care so much about these little things (she hates cereal now for some unknown reason) but one night he comes to the realization that these are the big things as much as the small.
The night in particular is one in which they are on a mission. Instead of relaying her position to the rest of the team, Artemis sounds off by beating a thug down. It's some normal guy, probably only in the gig for the money. Instead of knocking him down and leaving him, Artemis pounds a fist into the poor man until Wally pulls her away. (Leave him, you don't have to kill him, Wally wants so badly to pull these words back in when Artemis's face flickers from fear to neutral and he's unsure which is worse) He's never seen her like this but it reminds him of her sister. But Jade's different now; a mother and a wife and Wally's ate dinner with her (she cooked fish). Part of him wonders if the universe flipped the coin of the two of them and it was Jade's turn for a good life, but the rest of him uses science and logic to fight that idea.
It's right. She packs her things and leaves on a sunshiny Tuesday. He fights for her, more than he should.
Artemis thinks this a bit dumb, this unshakable belief in her and them. Moreover, she wonders how he can consider himself a man of science when he has more blind faith than the Pope. Zatanna helps her move into a shoddy apartment with a water-stained ceiling, but it's clear where her magician friend sides on the split.
It breaks Artemis's heart, how little any of it actually breaks her heart. Her life of only a year ago is splitting apart and falling away from her but she's perfectly fine. Somehow, M'gann comes over with coffee and they become something of friends again. Maybe because M'gann understands what it is to look in a mirror and see someone else or maybe because Artemis knows that M'gann will never ask for too much of her.
He keeps moving. The uniform gets hung up, but he patrols with Dick on occasion. Of course, prior to this he reconciles with Dick, which fills some of the hole in his life. A pretty girl asks for his notes in class and he leaves his number in the top corner. The world keeps moving and Wally moves with it. It's all normal and terrible. His heart breaks somewhere along the line, at the picture of them in the cave, at the old voicemail on his phone, at her jumping at the chance for a mission.
He finds himself growing closer to Zatanna and Dick somehow and it's off-kilter at first; the memory of her a phantom limb to their friendship. But slowly they figure it out.
It's hard. She's someone different now and no one understands (not even M'gann--not really). They haven't been to that place; where life is worth a promised favor and a hero's life is worth a laugh. It made her strong, sometimes admittedly bloodthirsty. Artemis still isn't sure who is in the mirror but it doesn't matter. She knows who is beneath her boot as she stomps down; a killer, or a would-be killer.
He tries to save her. But there's something about saving that requires effort from both parties. Wally thinks Artemis is broken, some deep part of her ruined, and he hates himself and Dick and her for it.
It's Jade. In the end, it's Jade that saves her. Her sister shows up on a mission and no one knows which side she's on (Her own, Roy summarizes with something of a proud smile). Artemis is hard to pin, but Jade manages to do it. She breaks Artemis's cold looks with halting Vietnamese and something that looks a lot like near tears. It's not a lot, but Artemis blinks up at the woman she fears and loves and something stirs. Because she remembers when Jade was thirteen and learned to stitch up her cheek after a fight but this isn't that Jade. This Jade smiles without mocking and loves and still kicks Artemis's ass.
He sees it, the way Artemis starts to mend. Her smile returns to her eyes and milk dribbles down her chin in the cave's kitchen as she eats Froot Loops. Part of him loves her still, but more of him remembers the way she seemed to examine his movements when she returned; searching for frailties. He's certain she found some.
It's better. Being alone, Artemis thinks even when she has truly come back. It's better to be alone.