Dick didn't consider himself an overly excitable person. Indeed, he liked to think that his training (both kinds) and most of his life spent regularly contending with death-defying situations (of both sorts) left him able to keep a cool head in a crisis.
Some crises, it turned out, were a bit more affecting than others.
"Bruce!" he yelled as he hurried down the winding stone stairs into the Batcave. "We have a major, code red, emergency situation!"
Bruce sat at the Cray, in costume, but with cowl down. He was clearly in Batman-mode as he made careful alterations to a sprawling diagram of mob activity and connections in Gotham. He waited until Dick ran up just behind him before acknowledging him.
"Calm down," he ordered without turning around. "What's the problem?"
Dick bristled, but took a deep breath. Nearly walking directly into one of his teammates in the middle of his school wasn't a situation conducive to calm. Keeping The Secret was of paramount importance to Bruce and, thus, writ large in Dick's mind. He spent a torturous seven hours paying very little attention to his classes, stalking through the halls, and bursting to tell Bruce about this so that it could be dealt with. Then he could return to his life without wondering whether he was going to ruin everything any second because he… stood by the wrong locker for too long.
"Artemis is going to Gotham Academy," he said, once he was confident that it would come out evenly enough. "I almost ran into her this morning."
Bruce added a note to the segment of the chart marked "Bertinelli" before answering.
"I know," he replied.
"What?" Dick paused, turning over the possible explanations for this situation and this reaction in his mind. "…Wait, what?"
"She's on a Wayne Foundation scholarship."
"Why would you- Wait, does she know?" Everything shifted from surprising to utterly surreal. Not to mention more than a little annoying. Conspiring with Green Arrow on that obviously bogus "niece" story was one thing. Dick assumed that Bruce had a reason; he always had a reason. If he trusted Artemis enough to be on the team, then so did Dick. But to know. About them? The truth?
Dick had known Wally for years and Bruce had known the Flash for even longer. Dick was still sure that if Bruce ever found out Wally knew their identities and Dick knew about it, he'd kill them both. But suddenly, a complete newbie out of nowhere gets invited into the club? Not on.
"No, she doesn't," Bruce said and Dick was glad to let that particular load of umbrage drain away. "And she's not going to find out. She's two years older than you and you're in different grades. She's not in any of your classes and if you can't sporadically pass her in the halls without drawing attention to yourself then I've failed as a teacher. Robin and Artemis are teammates. Dick Grayson and Artemis Crock have no reason to associate."
Simple. Logical. It was exactly the sort of reassurance — the sort of dealing with it — that Dick had been waiting for all day. Except. It wasn't Artemis he'd been trying to talk to that morning in the hallway.
"…Right," Dick managed, but it didn't come out firm. His voice had lately taken to cracking at the most inopportune moments possible.
And, of course, then, Bruce finally looked at him.
"Something wrong?" He made his mildly-concerned-without-looking-concerned face and for a moment — just a moment — Dick considered attempting to explain. But it was all muddled and confusing enough in his head already. He had a sudden vision of Batman (because, obviously, he'd suit up for it) trying to give him The Talk. Dick might just have preferred throwing himself off of a building without a jumpline to bringing that down on his head for no reason.
"Nope, nothing," he replied and set to considering his options.
There was a difference, he told himself the next afternoon, between stalking and doing reconnaissance. At least, he really hoped there was or else hiding in the perfectly manicured bushes on the east lawn of Gotham Academy and watching Barbara Gordon read was way weirder than he really wanted to be.
Objectively speaking, it was important that he do his best to find out exactly how much time Babs was likely to be spending with Artemis and plan from there (Plan what, he wasn't exactly sure, but it seemed very important that he make a plan.)
Thus far, however, his observations mostly consisted of the fact that Babs had taken her hair down from its ponytail somewhere between final bell and perching on a bench outside. She'd also lost her crosstie and undone the first few buttons of her crisp Oxford shirt. And, of utmost importance certainly, the ends of her hair curled around her shoulders and near her collarbones.
Dick had been engaging in physical combat with some of the world's most dangerous criminals since he was nine, but he was pretty sure he'd never felt uncomfortable in so many — highly varied — ways at once before.
He watched her bangs fall over the edge of her glasses as she leaned closer to her book, and then another layer of discomfort suddenly made itself known.
"Don't you usually hide in shadows… not shrubbery?" came a familiar voice from his left.
Years of carefully honed reflexes and the element of surprise allowed him to execute a perfect sweep and one-armed takedown — covered by the bushes — before his target had a chance to speak again. Which, all things considered, was saying a lot.
"Wally, what are you doing here?" Dick asked as forcefully as he could while maintaining a whisper.
His best friend looked up at him, incredulity and plain surprise warring in his expression.
"Dude, what the hell? You weren't at HQ for Left 4 Dead on the 50-inch flat screen so I took the tube and ran over to see what was taking so long! Not exactly a concussion offense." Wally rubbed the back of his head exaggeratedly.
"You're fine," Dick said. "Now you have to go! I'll be there later, but you can't be here."
As was often the case, Wally didn't chose to heed Dick's commands.
"Why? Is Batdad coming to pick you up from school in the Batminivan or something?"
"No! And lower your voice."
Babs was still alone, but if she noticed them then there was no guarantee that Dick would be able to get away before Artemis showed up — if she showed up. A little voice in the back of his mind (the one that often sounded suspiciously like Batman) was interested in the distinction between "get away" and "pull himself away" but Dick ignored it.
"What are you looking at?" Wally asked, sitting up and moving close enough to peer through the one slightly thin spot in the hedges in front of which Dick was crouching. He had Alfred giving him the eye about grass stains on his khakis to look forward to later.
Over on the bench, Babs tucked her hair behind her ear, her expression one of total concentration, even in profile, and crossed her legs as she leaned back again.
"Oh," Wally said and let out a low whistle. "I know this school is majorly expensive, but those skirts have got to be worth it."
"Dude," Dick warned, and was torn between wanting Wally to look away immediately and not wanting Wally to see the color rising to his face.
"So, what's the story on Red Delicious?" Wally asked, grinning.
"It's not what you think," Dick protested. Except, Wally mostly only ever thought one thing, and from certain angles — most angles — it was kind of that. Not for the first time, Dick wondered exactly what it was he was doing. Sometimes, he felt like his body was making decisions without him. And not in the awesome "just dodged a bullet with a back handspring to whip to layout full that he'd barely had time to think of" way. More in the terrible "left with a pressing need to wake up before Alfred so that he could launder his own sheets in private" way. (Which, of course, rarely worked out because Alfred apparently never freaking slept ever.)
"Do you want to ask her out?" Wally pressed, and then melodramatically wiped away an imaginary tear. "I'm so proud. Little Dickie-Bird's growing up! But pro-tip: actually talking to girls drastically increases the chances of success." He paused to look back through the bushes again. "Though, she's way out of your league, so maybe-"
Dick clapped his hand over Wally's mouth just in time to muffle the exclamation as Babs put her book down and Artemis, smiling, walked up to her.
"I told you it wasn't what you think," Dick said and let it drip with smugness.
"What's she doing here?" Wally asked, finally in a whisper, once Dick released him.
"Going to school."
Wally's easily apparent panic was so close to the level of Dick's own initial reaction that he actually felt a bit touched by the concern.
"Have you told You Know Who about this? It's not exactly good for the whole secret identity thing."
Dick sighed, both in frustration at the situation and relief at an ally in indignation.
"He already knows!"
The relief, at least, was fleeting.
"Oh, well then," Wally said, cycling down through surprise and straight to acceptance in about two seconds flat. "Besides her potentially getting to annoy you in both lives what's the big deal?"
"The big deal is that he's okay with it entirely because we're in different grades and classes and everything, so he thinks if she's never around Dick Grayson she won't have a chance to figure it out."
Wally's acceptance receded, but was suddenly replaced with an edge of suspicion that Dick wasn't even ready to try to start sussing out.
"Sounds fine to me," he said a bit too forcefully. "Do you, like, want to hang around her or something?"
Still mostly facing Wally, Dick could only just see the girls in his peripheral vision: plaid and blonde and that bright, vibrant splotch of red at the corner. Wally stared him down, and Dick tried his best not to turn his head or let his eyes flicker that way. His body betrayed him again.
His eyes landed on Babs as Artemis set her backpack down beside the other girl and jogged back towards the school, evidently having forgotten something. He swallowed thickly, throat spontaneously dry.
Wally followed his gaze, and it was like the last weird ninety seconds never happened.
"Oh, I get it," he said, childlike delight in his voice. "The problem isn't Artemis. You just don't want to be cut off from her new bff, Red Delicious."
Having it laid out that way made the whole thing feel both petty and incredibly overwhelming. Maybe that was fitting. He could never decide on one or the other. Dick was taught how to think rationally, incisively — to deconstruct and understand. He had a crush; he could admit that. Maybe not to anyone else, but to himself. Yes, he had a stupid thirteen year old crush on a pretty (brilliant, funny, perfect) girl. He just couldn't convince himself to feel like that was all it was. If he ever felt like talking to anyone about it — which he usually didn't — they'd probably say that was because he was thirteen too.
"And you said it wasn't what I thought," Wally gloated, voice sly.
"Shut up," Dick replied and punched him in the arm. Across the way, Artemis had already returned. She and Babs were laughing.
Amazingly, Wally quieted. Dick didn't want to think that everything was that obviously written on his face, so he decided that he had succeeded exceptionally well at Command Voice instead.
Of course, there really wasn't much else to see. Babs and Artemis chatted amicably, snatches of conversation about plans for later filtering over to the bushes.
Dick still didn't have a plan of his own and the more he thought about it, the more it felt like he wasn't really going to come up with one. The solution was obvious, if unpleasant, and the fact that the nebulous knot of feelings in his chest — distracting him and annoying him and upsetting him (and enlivening him) — were deciding to be jerks about it didn't really change anything.
"We should go," he said to Wally after a few moments. Then, without further discussion, he sprinted down the line of hedges until they had curved away and out of view of the girls. Wally was waiting for him at the other end.
"So," Wally asked as they set off away from school grounds. "What are you going to do?"
"I'm not going to do anything," Dick replied, doing his best to make it sound like that was obvious and any other option was ridiculous.
"You're just going to let Artemis steal your girlfriend, then?"
"She's not- she's not my girlfriend. She's just a girl who goes to my school," Dick said, hoping he would have more luck convincing Wally than he ever had convincing himself.
"Uh huh," Wally replied.
"I mean, yeah she's-" Brilliant. Funny. Perfect. "hot and everything, but whatever-"
"Okay, I got it," Wally said, saving them both from Dick's continued fumbling.
Sometimes, he really wished he could just skip to around age twenty-one. It would be perfect. He'd be bigger, stronger, with years more experience and training, no one would dismiss him for being a kid, and, best of all, the mere thought of Barbara Gordon wouldn't send him into an out-of-control mental and physical flail spiral.
"You can't tell Artemis," Wally continued, "so why don't you tell Red Delicious your secret id? It's perfect! What better way to impress a babe than by not only being a superhero, but trusting her with your most intimate secrets."
"Because that worked so well for you with Megan."
"Low blow, dude," Wally replied. "Okay, how about this: you get Artemis to introduce you as Robin!"
"Yeah, I'm so sure Artemis would go along with that."
"You could convince Artemis that Dick Grayson is your fake secret identity that's just a red herring distracting from your actual really, really secret identity?"
"That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard," Dick said, smiling in spite of himself.
"Hey, I don't see you bringing anything to the table." Most of Wally's irritation was pretty obviously faked.
"Pretty sure even no plan is better than one of yours," Dick countered. "So, same as usual really."
Wally made an undignified snorting sound, which Dick just took as proof of his lack of comeback.
The Gotham Zeta Tube was a decent walk from Gotham Academy (at normal speed), but not so far that it was at all reasonable to get Alfred to drive all the way from the manor to pick him up and take him there. Dick was pretty certain that Artemis had no plans on a trip to Mount Justice today, but when they got within a few blocks he stuffed his blazer in backpack, pulled on a hoodie, and put on his sunglasses anyway.
Wally spent the rest of the trip rattling off terrible ideas for how to wrangle secret identity problems while dating. Though, after a while, Dick was pretty sure it had little to do with him and had become more of a mental exercise for Wally's own edification.
By the time they arrived at the Zeta Tube, they were both just recovering from a laughing fit at one plan that involved attempting to convince Artemis that Robin was actually Superman through a labyrinthine magical explanation that Wally didn't find believable, but ardently swore made as much sense as anything else with alleged magic involved.
When Dick went to activate the Tube, however, Wally stood in his way.
"All right, since discussion of Dick Grayson's Problems are gonna be off limits for the rest of the night…" Wally began, then stopped, a considered look on his face.
"Look, are you okay? Like… emotionally or whatever? You know, no… new feelings you want to talk about or anything?"
Dick didn't know if he could answer that — he didn't know if he wanted to — but, still, it didn't hurt to be asked.
"Dude, don't be gross," Dick said and shoved Wally out of the way of the controls, but not hard enough to move him if he didn't want to be moved. Obligingly, Wally stepped aside.
"Look, don't blame me because you're all pubescent and can't control your loooooove for your girlfriend," Wally said as they stepped into the light.
"Shut up," Dick said, then more softly: "I'll figure it out."
The sound was mostly swallowed during the stomach dropping swoosh of teleportation, but he figured Wally got the message.
Author's Note: Because FFN doesn't have any good way to mark from the start how many parts any given fic is intended to have, I'll say here that this was only a duet/two-shot/pas de deux/whatever you want to call it. So, this particular story is over now! That said, two things:
1) Someone asked me if Babs is Batgirl yet and the answer is no. However, I'm working on a much longer fic that follows this one that is, in fact, about her becoming Batgirl and features lots of Babs, Artemis, and Dick. I'll probably start posting it in a few weeks.
2) There's a distinct possibility that I'll write other one-shots regarding Gotham Academy and its attendees and add them onto this. So while I've marked it as "complete" it's more paused while I work on the aforementioned longer Batgirl fic and other shorter Young Justice fic. (Some M'gann/Superboy, if you're curious.)
Thanks for reading, everyone!