Written after reading the (probably fake) episode summary for "Failsafe," which seemed to insist that the next episode occurs at the onslaught of a vicious alien invasion that cripples the League. Also written while listening to Death Cab for Cutie's "Transatlanticism." Listen to it while reading if you like; it helps the atmosphere more than my writing ever could.
Dedicated to Jncera, for always being wonderful.
They are both breathing heavily in the battered darkness of the gutted Gotham building, on their hands and knees, trying to ignore the burns on their elbows and faces and the cuts running along their forearms. There are explosions and screams and the sound of frantic footsteps outside, and the blood is hot and sticky, and they are panting so viciously that their throats are dry and she is hiccuping, and the sounds of the invasion rage mercilessly outside as though no other sound has ever had the courage to exist.
They don't know how they were separated from the rest of the Team. One moment they had all been battling at each other's sides, relentless in their assaults and defenses, but Robin had run off when Batgirl had been hit by one of the red beams; and M'gann had been knocked screaming into the burning playground, and Superboy had tried to run after her, but they—and Kaldur, they hadn't seen Kaldur for nearly an hour, not since he had vanished behind that swelling eruption of smoke and had told them all to run, and to keep fighting, and to not give up, and to not allow themselves to be separated, and—and they had let him down in every way.
Wally can't hold himself up with his arms anymore and pitches forward, nearly prostrating on the cold cement, his goggles gone, his uniform torn, his hair burned and caked with dirt. His knees soon give in, too, and he is suddenly sprawled out on his stomach. His arms shake threateningly when they are relieved of his body weight, but every part of him still feels as though it is trying to support a thousand pounds that will crumble at any moment. Artemis is across from him, curled in on herself, her forehead to the ground, her elbows askew at her sides. Her quiver has five arrows in it. Her bow lies forgotten a few feet away. Gone is the tight hairtie on which she so often relies; gone is the straight-backed spunkiness that defines her; now she is only crumpled and weary, wheezing and crying into the dirt. An eruption is heard just a few hundred feet from their building, and a woman screams before being silenced.
"No," Artemis is saying in between heaving breaths that sound as if they will soon morph into gags. "No, no, no, no, no…"
Wally manages to find the power to prop himself up with one arm and reach the other hand out to touch her palpitating shoulder, trying to ignore the hot saltiness of his tears seeping into the open gash across his face.
"Artemis," he chokes out, and he is disgusted by how weak their voices sound, how helplessly they lie opposite each other. She raises her quivering head to meet his eyes, barely lifting her chin over the ground. They are level now, spread-eagled and trembling, and if Wally can just move a foot closer to her, they can touch foreheads. Her face resembles the caricatures of the performing arts masks from his high school – mouth sagging down with grief, eyebrows curving forlornly toward each other. Weakly, he strokes the side of her face with his fingers (the tips of his gloves have been ripped off). "We can't do this. Not now."
She swallows, and it seems to take a great deal of physical effort, because she winces as though she's in pain.
"Wally, I – I can't."
He never thought he would hear Artemis say the words I can't in her lifetime, but the weight of them hits him so viciously that he can do nothing but stare back at her, because he knows that he can't, either. Neither of them blinks, because maybe they can find an answer or an escape in the other's eyes, these two fragmented, aching remnants of heroism; she finally bows her head slightly and pulls herself forward, the dirt grinding into the fabric of her costume. Wally is indescribably grateful for the closeness, for the feel of her erratic breaths dusting his forehead with uncharacteristic fragility.
"Do you think… do you think that they're all…" she whimpers with exertion, and Wally shakes his head to silence her.
"They're fine," he says, and thinks of Kaldur dissolving into the smoke, crying out as they left him behind. "All of them."
"I want…" she rasps, gritting her teeth as she moves, putting weight on what Wally assumes are broken ribs from when she had been hurled into the corner of a building by an explosion. "There are things I need to… to say."
"Me, too," Wally tells her, pressing his forehead into hers and closing his eyes, trying to even his hitching breathing.
"I'm sorry," she whispers, and Wally would give anything, anything to be hearing these words under different circumstances. "I'm sorry for the way I… treated you, and—"
"Don't." He tilts his head and presses his breathless lips to hers, closing his eyes to hold back his tears, and she accepts him with a tenderness, an earnesty, that he would never have thought possible. In the darkness and the dust, his hand finds hers, and they tangle their fingers together desperately, wanting to cling to the other until their bodies find unity in the terrifying chaos brewing in the atmosphere. Wally wants so much to tell her things, things he hadn't even considered or known to be real until this moment, but they are all languishing in the back of his throbbing heart until they disappear. He doesn't know how long he kisses her in the suffocating darkness, but eventually it ends as all things must, and her head is on its side as her eyes glisten in his direction.
"Wally… if we never…"
"That won't happen. It won't." He isn't sure if he's trying to convince himself or her.
"You can't promise that," she croaks. He tightens his hold on her hand.
"I can try my damnedest. That's usually enough." He notices the way that her expression seems briefly to lighten and lets his eyelids lower with sentiment.
"Hey," he murmurs. She blinks questioningly at him. "Smile for me, beautiful."
She obliges him, and suddenly he is sure that he can die tonight and not regret it. He caresses her wild hair with his free hand, and his cheeks turn up gratefully.
"That's my girl," he whispers, and the hand stops on her cheek, where she loosens into it.
A few more moments pass in silence and closed eyes, and Wally wishes that those moments could continue for eternity, but Artemis is squeezing his fingers; he forces his eyes to open themselves and gazes at her. Her mouth is infinitesimally open, showing her teeth, and her hair twists out onto the gray floor, as though sunlight is streaming from her head.
He knows what she's about to ask him, and he knows his answer.
He nods, barely, but she sees it, and, with a final groan, she pushes herself to her feet, not letting go of his hand as he follows her up, knees quaking.
"I was wrong about you," she says as though it is something she has known for longer than she has been alive. He pauses, drinking in the way she looks at him with unbelievable sadness and emotion and understanding. He wants to sweep her up into his arms the way he had in Bialya seven months ago and run toward the edge of the earth with her until the soles of his feet are bleeding. But he can't do that anymore. They can't run away. He is running for the existence of humanity now, and it is heavier than she ever was.
"I was about you, too," he admits, and the thankfulness in her eyes is apparent even in the cold dimness of their shelter. She bends over to pick up her bow and collapses it, clutching it tightly. She bows her head and bites her lip and then, without warning, tilts forward until her head meets his chest and wraps her arms around his torso in an embrace. He would ordinarily have marveled at this degree of contact from his most hated nemesis, but none of that seems to matter anymore – he enfolds her and she seems so small, so diminutive; he clutches her against him and kisses the top of her head, closing his eyes to take in the scent of pines that she always seems to carry with her up there. She exhales and it warms the surface of his chest.
"I guess it's time," she says quietly, and he doesn't want it to be, but he knows she's right. He nods into her hair and steps back, intertwining their fingers once more. She gazes up at him, waiting, though for what, he isn't sure.
Without a word to each other, they walk in tandem to the hole in the wall from which they had come, gazing out at the tumultuous storming of Gotham outside, red-tinted and deafening. They are heroes now, and this is what heroes do: they protect. They never hide.
They don't know where M'gann is, or Superboy, or Kaldur, or Robin, or Batgirl or Zatanna, who had managed to stay hidden in the bishop until the point when they could no longer turn back. They don't know what has become of their families or their homes or their favourite places or the harbour or their mentors, but their touching hands tell them that they know about each other, and this knowledge is an anchor in the raging sea before them.
"Wally, I…" Artemis starts to say, but the rest of her sentence is lost to the din. She looks as if she wants to cry but has forgotten how.
"Together," he tells her tenderly, and he kisses her knuckles, and with one last locked gaze they turn and run from the building, toward the darkening horizon, and suddenly the turmoil around them seems but an afterthought, a whispering vestige bleeding out into the night, and even in the chaos, his fingers do not release hers, not even once.