Absurd delay is absurd. Let's say I was trying to simulate the authentic YJ experience with a hiatus. But seriously, though, I'm sorry broskis.
On went the semester, and Artemis fell into routine once more.
The Birds of Prey were going strong at 5-1, much to Doctor Lance's pleasure – apparently they hadn't had such a good record since she'd been on the team herself. Raquel had become a reasonably frequent guest in the Cave, gregarious and easygoing enough to wedge herself into the bizarre social fabric of their group, and for a while, she'd seemed to have her eye on Kaldur (who could blame her?). When Megan had gently informed her of his relationship (?) with Roy, her eyes had widened and she'd simply turned to Artemis and asked if they were taking "applications for a third party" because "that is way too much fineass man DNA to fall by the genetic wayside."
"I'll let you know if anything opens up," Artemis had promised, laughing.
Zee, though never as effusive as she had been through most of first semester, seemed to have gotten her feet back on the ground. She was working with the school administration, Dean Queen and Bruce Wayne as her advocates, to work out a permanent housing situation on or near campus, as she had opted to sell her father's house back home. There were still nights when she ended up sleeping on the hall, whether in Artemis's bed or up at the Summit with a few others if it was warm enough, but on the whole it seemed clear now: she was going to be all right.
As for Wally, he and Artemis had given up on the whole subtlety thing at one point, as there was no point in keeping anything from Dick "Oh Was That a Secret?" Grayson. Megan and Conner still seemed to be the official couple of the Cave, though, and there was no chance in hell that Artemis and Wally were ever going to absorb their sweet-as-sugar relationship dynamic. If anything, their bickering had intensified with dating, and Artemis wouldn't have had it any other way.
"What were you thinking of doing for spring break?" Artemis yawned one afternoon in late February, leaning back against the wall behind her bed. Megan had just come back from class and was in the process of unloading her backpack. It was a lazy Thursday, and with only one class on Friday, Artemis was taking a nice long respite from studying.
"I hadn't actually thought about it yet," Megan replied pensively. "I've never had a spring break before, but I've see them on TV. But…I'm not sure that's the kind of spring break I want to have."
"What, Girls Gone Wild isn't your thing?" Artemis teased. "I never would have guessed."
Blushing, Megan straightened out and hung her now-empty backpack on her bedpost.
"Why do you ask?" she said, changing the subject rather conspicuously. "Do you have plans?"
"Not yet," she said. "If no one's made any, I was thinking we could try to do something all together. You know, go on a road trip or go camping or something. Just get off campus for a little bit."
"Camping sounds fun," said Megan. "I've never done it before."
"You might have to give up looking cute for a few days," said Artemis, trying to imagine Megan in the wilderness and encountering a bit of mental dissonance. "That going to be a problem?"
"What do you mean?"
"Like, there might not be showers, and you'll probably want to wear clunky hiking boots and a nice thick coat. Function over flair, that kind of thing."
"I can be unbathed and wear boots and still look cute," Megan objected.
"All right, all right," Artemis laughed. "Knowing you and Zee I'm sure you'll prove me wrong. Camping it is, then, if we can talk the others into it."
"Talk us into what?" asked Wally, popping his head in the door.
"Spending four long, hot nights sleeping in a cramped tent pressed up against me for warmth," Artemis replied smoothly.
"Convinced," Wally reported.
Megan's face turned beet red. Artemis smirked.
"Thought you might be."
Persuading everyone else turned out to be a bit more work, though not a ton – Dick was game, of course, as were Zee and Kaldur (the latter of whom immediately began working out the logistics of such a trip), but Roy and Conner were harder sells. Conner simply didn't see the appeal of abandoning their normal hangouts to cook terrible food in the wilderness, and Roy maintained for a solid four days that he had upperclassman friends to spend the break with, despite all evidence to the contrary.
"Your ex-girlfriend does not count," Artemis told him firmly on day five, and as he bitterly deflated, she knew she'd won.
When it became apparent that the rest of the gang was going, Conner at last gave in, presumably to avoid spending the better part of a week alone in his room, playing Solitaire or watching static on the TV. And so it was official. Those who didn't have sleeping bags rented them from Beatus Portum's Outdoor Education Center, from which they also got four tents, two coolers and a portable gas stove. Megan and Kaldur put themselves in charge of the shopping, though Dick and Wally submitted a long list of must-haves, and Roy continued to pretend that he was waiting to hear back from his mythological upperclassman friends up until the day before the trip, when he grumbled something about "plans falling through" and surrendered his car to be loaded up with gear.
On the morning of, Artemis woke up extra early to take a nice long shower, knowing the facilities at the campground were liable to be suspect (and to cost money). Enjoying the dulcet tones of Dick and Wally bickering over the remaining shower stall, she washed her hair, soaped herself thoroughly, and let herself get excited. After all, her experience of "camping" had been limited to her dad forcing her and her sister out of the house and into the nearby forest to "build character," an experience that had both toughened them up and driven them apart. She was eager to replace those less-than-fond memories with some better ones, and this seemed the perfect way to do it.
"That's the last one," Conner reported as he hefted their third cooler (the one just for booze) into the cramped back seat of Megan's van. It was amazing how much space camping supplies took up, and they'd been forced to use all three vehicles available to them (though that may also have had something to do with the sheer amount of S'mores fixings Wally had insisted they pack).
"Everyone remembered a pillow, right?" Megan checked, at which Roy swore and bolted for the stairs. The others milled about, double-checking supplies.
"Did anyone pack the marshmallow skewers?"
"Yeah, they didn't fit in the grocery bag so I put them in with the tent poles."
"Whose condoms are these?"
"Whose do you think?"
"Arty, do we really need this much coffee?"
"Right, sorry I asked."
"Okay, so this is the route we're taking," Dick announced, handing a sheet of paper to each of the other drivers as Roy returned, pillow under one arm. "The cliffs are a bit of a detour but it'll be a great place to have lunch and get rid of Wally if he's become unbearable."
"Just kidding, bro. You know I love you."
"What time do we expect we will arrive at the campsite?" asked Kaldur, studying the directions over Megan's shoulder.
"Dinnerish," shrugged Dick. "I don't know. As long as we can set up camp before dark it's not really a big deal."
"And you have the reservations?"
"Yup," Dick nodded, patting the breast pocket of his jacket. "Got it covered. We good to go?"
The others exchanged looks and nods, and spring break officially began.
"Fuck, Marry, Kill: Professor Hol, Professor Themyscira, Dr. Lance," Artemis prompted, leaning forward between the two front seats as far as her seatbelt would allow. She was wedged between sets of sleeping bags in the back of Roy's car, and they'd been on the road for nearly two hours.
"I'm still not playing this game," said Roy, eyes flicking to the mirror.
The quarterback just grunted.
"Come on, don't act like you've never thought about it."
Artemis rolled her eyes, shifting in her seat.
"Sure you haven't. Okay, Roy, who was your first kiss?"
"So's your mom."
"My mom is handicapped, asshole."
"Conner," Artemis said, turning towards him. "First crush."
"There's no way you had your first crush in college."
"Megan," Conner repeated stubbornly.
"Ugh, you're hopeless," Artemis groaned. "Fine. Roy, ever had sex in a public bathroom?"
"What the hell?"
"Dorm bathrooms count."
"Thought so. Conner, same question."
Conner stared out the window at the passing highway like he hadn't even heard her.
"Gross, I'm never using our shower again," said Artemis, wrinkling her nose. "How about at the Summit?"
"Leave me alone."
"Hey, if you guys didn't like the cars, you should have said something earlier."
"We don't like the cars," said Roy and Conner as one.
"Well too bad, 'cause you're stuck with me. Now Roy, on the Kinsey scale, would you say you're more like a two or a four, or…?"
Ten miles down the road, they pulled into a rest stop to orchestrate the swap Roy had negotiated with Megan's car, which was to trade Artemis for Kaldur.
"You guys are no fun anyway," she told them as she shut the door and crossed the gravel towards the minivan, where Megan and Zee were waiting. "You're like what would happen if someone found a way to clone anger itself."
As Roy started the car and pulled off back towards the highway, Artemis met Kaldur's amused gaze through the back window and winked.
It was about five o'clock when they arrived at the campgrounds, and five thirty by the time they finally made it to their campsite. True to the advertisements, the grounds were spacious, and well-shielded by trees, with a large fire pit in the clearing and several picnic tables to be shared with the surrounding sites (though in a pleasant turn of events, those sites were actually empty but for a single tent and a Jeep – they would have few neighbors to bother).
With the sun setting in the west, they got to work setting up camp. Conner and Wally went to go make a fire in the fire pit ("Science!") while Zee and Kaldur set up their little stove and began cooking. Roy, Artemis and Dick got out the tents and set about pitching them, with occasional help from Megan, who flitted back and forth between everyone, helping the chefs chop vegetables and making sure Wally didn't burn down the whole forest.
"Dibs on the tent closest to the bathrooms," Artemis said as they finished, envisioning a chilly midnight walk to the facilities.
"You enjoy that eight feet of advantage," said Roy as he tossed aside the rock he'd been using to drive in the tent stakes.
"I will, thanks."
"If we were going real camping, there wouldn't be bathrooms," Dick grumbled.
"You can piss in the bushes all you want, Wonder Boy," replied Artemis. "Some of us are citizens of the 21st century."
"Guys, dinner's basically ready, you can come start getting rice," Zatanna called from the picnic tables, waving with a paring knife.
The gang filed over, and soon they were seated around the fire, ladling the fruits of Zee and Kaldur's efforts into their bowls as Dick passed around a bottle opener for their various beverages. By then it was quite dark, and a chill was settling into the air, but with warm curry to eat and the crackling heat of the fire on their faces, no one complained.
After dinner, they spent a little while catching up – it had been a while since they'd all seen each other, as the semester had picked up and they all had their own activities and passions to be pursuing. Conner had rugby, Megan volunteered, Zee played cello in the orchestra, Artemis was always off with the derby team, Wally had track and lab research, Kaldur swam and worked in the library, and Dick did Mock Trial and whatever the hell else Dick did. A cappella, maybe? You never knew with him.
(Roy wasn't busy. He just avoided them on principle, apparently.)
The night wore on, and as the fire died down they wound up lying around it, looking to the sky as Megan and Conner pointed out constellations and even a planet – Mars was bright that night. The couple had been taking Astronomy together, and despite all her natural instincts Artemis couldn't help but appreciate how sweet they were together, sitting side by side, pointing up to the sky and sharing what they'd learned with everyone else.
Only when she looked over and happened to see the tears in Zee's eyes did she realize that something wasn't right.
"You okay?" she whispered, reaching out to nudge her friend in the side.
At the sound of her voice, Dick looked over and sat up, scooting closer to Zatanna as he frowned in concern.
"It's fine," Zee whispered back, her voice trembling, but already the others were sitting up and glancing over; Megan and Conner had stopped the astronomy lesson, looking worried. "I'm fine."
"It's only us out here," said Artemis. "You don't have to pretend."
Zatanna took a deep breath and sat up just a little, leaning back against the log bench on which she'd sat during dinner.
"It's fine," she repeated, wiping her eyes. "My…my dad used to take me out stargazing, back when I was little. That's all."
She trailed off, voice choked. As Artemis shifted over to wrap an arm around her shoulders, she turned into the touch gratefully while the others looked on.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled. "I didn't mean to ruin the moment. I know it's been a while. I…I should be over this by now."
"No, you shouldn't," said Dick, firmly but gently. He hesitated a moment before continuing. "When my parents died, it was a long time before I could even go a day without reliving the whole thing, much less without being sad about it. It's not that easy. But we're here for you no matter what kind of day you're having, okay?"
Artemis tried to keep her head from jerking in surprise as he spoke – she'd had no idea Dick had even known his real parents, much less that he'd been present at their deaths. It seemed to be a silent rule in the Cave that you didn't talk about life before college, which suited Artemis just fine, but the result was that she knew very little about her friends' backstories, nor they about hers, and it suddenly occurred to her that there was probably a lot she didn't know. Looking around, she got the feeling that just about everyone was as shocked as her, with the exception of Wally, who was meeting Dick's eyes with that magical roommate gaze that meant they were having a conversation no one else could hear.
Then, to everyone's even greater surprise, Roy spoke up.
"I basically dropped out of life for a year when my dad died," he shrugged, the usual hard edge gone from his voice. "Well, my second dad. Don't really remember my real dad. Point is…you have a right to be messed up about it."
Megan (who was closest) laid a hand on his shoulder, which he neither acknowledged nor shrugged off.
"Thank you," said Zee tearfully after a moment, looking him in the eye. "I'm…sorry about your dads. Yours too, Dick, and your mom."
"It's fine," said Dick, giving her a small, reassuring smile. "It'll get easier eventually, I promise."
Roy nodded in agreement.
Artemis's eyes wandered around the circle, simultaneously wondering how much more there was that she didn't know about these people and hoping this didn't turn into some sobtastic sharefest, because as touching as her friends' stories were, there was no way in hell she was sharing hers. She had left all that behind for a reason.
"I never knew my biological parents," Megan offered mildly. The group turned to look at her, Zee sitting up a little straighter to show she was paying attention, so the cheerleader continued. She looked very self-conscious with her arms wrapped around her knees, staring at the ground, the fire, anywhere but at the others. "My 'sisters' are really my cousins. I've been raised as one of them for as long as I can remember, but…"
She trailed off, the crackling of the fire filling the silence.
"But what?" Zatanna prompted gently.
"Even though I never knew my parents, and always thought of myself as part of my uncle's family," Megan began, "a lot of people still treated me differently because they know who my mother and father really were. Apparently they were bad people. Violent people. I got picked on at school by kids whose parents told them I was like that, too, so…high school was pretty lonely for me. I changed schools a lot."
Wrapping her arm more comfortably around Zee's shoulder, Artemis wondered how she'd never known this about her roommate. In all honesty, she had always thought of Megan as sweet and smart but kind of sensitive, even weak – this confession shattered all that.
"But you never even met your parents," Wally pointed out incredulously. "And you're like, the nicest person ever. That's ridiculous."
Megan shrugged and looked away.
"Parents are parents, I guess," she murmured.
"But biology is not destiny," Kaldur put in, his quiet voice cutting in from where he sat a ways back from the fire. "We choose our own paths, not necessarily the ones our families would have us walk."
Artemis looked away at his words, trying not to look as uncomfortable as she felt. This was getting way too close to home.
"While we're on the topic of personal disclosure, do you mind if I ask you something, Kaldur?" Wally asked, turning away from the fire to face him.
The sophomore nodded.
"Why'd you transfer? And why BeaPor?"
(Artemis inwardly flinched at the shortening of their school's name, but this seemed a bad conversation to pick on something as trivial as that.)
"That is not an uncomplicated story," said Kaldur thoughtfully, shifting in his seat. "But to make it as short as possible…I was not brought up with the expectation that I would attend university. It was assumed I would enter the military when I came of age, and so I attended primary and secondary schools that prepared their students for that life."
Aha. That explained the early mornings and the extreme discipline.
"As graduation approached, however, my instructors put in a strong word that my abilities were better suited to academic pursuits than to military ones, and I was admitted to my prior university in Atlanta, where I studied until there was an…incident, and I transferred here."
"An incident?" asked Conner, raising an eyebrow. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"There was a threat on the life of our Head of School," he said. "I and another student – Garth, the one in the photo on my desk – intervened, and were subsequently given the option to transfer to a university with a broader educational scope and a more diverse student body. He declined. I accepted."
"Wait, I read about something like this on Reddit when I was looking at schools," Wally suddenly cut in, eyes widening. "Some crazy guy with a gun and some serious beef with the school president of this rural college in Georgia came on campus looking for trouble, but these two freshmen just up and handed his ass to him instead. That was you?"
Kaldur looked uncomfortable.
"That is essentially what happened, yes."
"Kaldur!" Zee exclaimed. "Why didn't you tell us you were a badass?"
"Some of us had already figured it out," whistled Dick as Roy settled back, looking smug.
Artemis shook her head in bemusement. Before that night, she would have had a hard time imagining her soft-spoken friend to lay a hand on anyone, but in the context of defending others (particularly those he cared about) suddenly she could picture it very well.
"Who's next?" she half-joked, looking around at those who had yet to share something about their past.
"Don't look at me," said Conner as the group's eyes settled on him. He folded his arms over his chest. "As far as I'm concerned, my life began when I got here."
"There must be something you miss from home," Zee pressed.
"I don't have a home," Conner snapped, then caught sight of Zee's stricken expression and softened his own, adding in a mumble, "well I didn't have one until I got here and…and met you guys."
"I know the feeling," said Roy as the group collectively smiled and Megan reached for Conner's hand. "Well, not the sappy bit about meeting all of you. You actually kind of make my life miserable. But…life starting with college, that I get. Sometimes I think back on all these memories I have from before I got here, and it's like they're not even mine. I was a different person back then."
"If only," Artemis muttered, contemplating her own life.
"What?" asked Zee.
"How about you, Wally?" Megan asked, saving Artemis from Zatanna's inevitable follow-up.
The runner shrugged, stretching and bracing his hands behind his head.
"Not much, really," he said, almost a little sheepish. "I've been lucky. Only child, two great parents, aunt and uncle who may as well be a second pair, and…yeah that's basically it. I've had it pretty easy."
"I think that just shows that great people come from all kinds of circumstances," said Megan kindly.
"Or that there's lots of ways to get real fucked up," said Dick with a grin; Wally stuck his tongue out and made a face in reply. "Love you too, man."
And then, as if on cue, the whole group turned to look at Artemis.
For one split second, the thought was tempting – tell everyone the truth, let them in on all the dirty little secrets that compromised the past she had come to college to escape, and be done with the secrecy once and for all. Then she went as far as to picture their reactions and instantly reconsidered. Best case scenario, they'd pity her, and the mere thought of pity from Megan, Kaldur, Wally – it made her want to put her fist through a wall.
Dad would be proud of that reaction, she thought grimly as an expectant silence fell over the group.
Mind racing, Artemis glanced to Wally and spoke up, wishing she were a better liar:
"Yeah uh, me too," she shrugged, trying to pull off blasé. "Not much to say. Mom, Dad, one sister, we fought like anyone else, but. You know."
If only that were even close to the truth.
To her right, Artemis could feel Zee's questioning look; over the course of their friendship she'd dropped enough hints about her relationship with her father for the other girl to know that what she had just said was a lie of some kind. But to her credit, she didn't speak up, just handed Wally the stick that was serving as their stoker so he could prod the fire back to attention, and the moment passed.
"I don't know why we never talk about this stuff," said Roy, getting up to refill his mug from the minikeg they had agreed not to open until tomorrow. "We as a, y'know, general society."
"It typically costs me an arm and a leg to persuade you to discuss personal matters," said Kaldur, unamused. "Had I known all it took was cheap beer and a campfire, I would have made kindling of your desk long ago."
"Maybe some people want to live in the moment," Artemis suggested as Roy took a feeble swipe at his…whatever Kaldur was to him (no one could ever agree, and Kaldur never blabbed). "You know, not think about all the baggage they're carrying. I don't see anything wrong with that."
"No," said Zee, giving her a look. "But I don't think it's good to keep everything bottled up, either. That's what friends are for, to help carry that baggage."
"We're about to start singing Lean on Me, aren't we?" asked Dick.
"You left your guitar in the car."
"Vocal harmony is underrated."
"We drove all day. I'm way too tired to contemplate a heartfelt campfire singalong," Conner interrupted, standing up and cracking his back. "Let's save the Kum Ba Yahing for tomorrow night, yeah?"
The group murmured their assent, and as Kaldur moved to douse the embers with water he'd procured from seemingly nowhere, they headed for the tents. Artemis deliberately avoided Zatanna, sensing an interrogation was inevitable if she didn't. This was her spring break. She wasn't going to spend it thinking about all the things she was finally learning to forget.
Ten minutes later, pajama-clad and teeth brushed, Artemis unzipped her tent and crawled in beside an already-dozing Wally, who sleepily rolled over to drape an arm over her.
"Cool your jets," she muttered, fumbling in the dark to put her toothbrush back into her bag, and to zip the tent shut – it was cold outside, and they needed the insulation. Finally she settled back down, slipping into her sleeping bag and snuggling a little closer (for warmth, she told herself).
"You never talk about your family," Wally mumbled sleepily, his arm wrapping more snugly around her. He was always most affectionate when he was drunk or sleepy. "I wanna meet 'em someday."
Artemis snorted out a derisive laugh and rolled over so that her back was to him.
"Yeah," she said, grateful for the dark that hid her face. "Sure. Someday."
Someday, as cruel fate decreed, was to be the very next day.
Everything started off innocuously enough. Wally and Dick cooked breakfast for the gang (which was to say Wally set the eggs on fire, Dick wrote naughty words in blueberry Braille in the pancakes and Megan evicted them both from the cooking area), and they all agreed to go on a hike, as it was looking to be a nice day and the surrounding area was quite scenic. Water bottles in tow and a picnic lunch packed into the cooler Kaldur and Conner were carrying between them, they headed out for the trailhead in the late morning in high spirits.
And then they encountered her.
Jade was retying her shoe at a bend in the trail when they rounded it, black hair swept up into a high ponytail and a visor shading her eyes from the sun. At their approach she looked up, and when she met Artemis's eyes, saw the indignant rage in her expression, she just smirked.
"Hey there," she greeted easily, eyes flicking through the group. "You guys must be my new neighbors back at the campsite. Heard you come in last night."
"Oh no – were we too loud?" Megan half-gasped, hand over her mouth.
Jade laughed, the sound effortless and utterly fake, though Artemis had a feeling she was the only one who could tell.
"Not at all," Jade smiled, getting to her feet and tossing her hair over her shoulder. "It's creepy at night when it's too quiet anyway. How long are you all staying?"
"Rest of the week, more or less," said Wally. "You?"
"About the same."
"Are you here by yourself?" asked Kaldur, his brow furrowing in concern. And god, if the thought of Kaldur being concerned about Jadedidn't make Artemis want to break something…
"It's not so bad," Jade smiled, shrugging. "I like travelling alone. It's more interesting, and you get to meet such fascinating new people."
On the word 'new,' her eyes flicked to Artemis, and a smirk crossed her face.
"Well, we were headed up for the cliff trail," said Zatanna, shouldering her knapsack. "If you're not walking with anyone, do you want to come with us? We'll be neighbors all week, after all. We may as well get to know each other."
"Oh, I'd love that," said Jade, and the subtle gleam of triumph in her eyes made Artemis want to rip her own hair out. But if Jade hadn't revealed their relation yet, maybe she didn't intend to at all, and after last night, telling everyone that this was her sister would only make them more eager to get to know her. The best that Artemis could do was wait, and hope that the poisonous underside of her sister's personality surfaced in time for the others to choose to keep their distance all by themselves.
Biding time, though, proved to be a supreme test of Artemis's patience.
Through that hike, Jade managed to ingratiate herself to just about everyone, with the sort-of exception of Conner, who was grudgingly polite but seemed irritated that an outsider had dared breach their ranks. With Megan, she cooed over recipes, promised to help her make dinner that night, which the cheerleader began planning immediately. With Dick, she complimented the many gadgets on his belt, got him talking about his stupid tech toys. With Zee and Kaldur, she didn't even have to try; their natural faith and interest in other people had them tangled up in the web of lies she'd spun about her life instantly.
The sight of Jade charming the hell out of her friends made Artemis's skin crawl, but never more than when they rounded a bend to a higher elevation and Roy's phone abruptly went off. They'd popped into a reception zone, it seemed, and he had eight text messages waiting for him from the past 30 hours, all from Jade, ranging from mildly flirtatious to downright explicit, texts which he read out loud to the group, much to her well-concealed amusement.
"It's this crazy bitch who wants to jump my bones," he explained as she laughed.
"I don't blame her though," she told him with a coy smile. "I mean, you're a good-looking man. She probably just wants some of that."
And damn Roy if he didn't just smirk and take it. At the back of the pack, Artemis seethed.
They reached camp in the late afternoon, at which point Artemis was pretty sure that if Jade took one more long, suggestive drink from her water bottle, she was going to hurl it off the next cliff they found.
"You okay?" Wally asked as she dumped her backpack less-than-gently onto the ground near their tent. "You've been acting weird all day. Dick's weirdass pancakes giving you trouble or what?"
"Don't worry about it," she snapped, and stomped off towards the showers before he could follow up.
Dinner was delicious, which somehow put Artemis in a worse mood. It was bad enough that Jade had infiltrated her new life. But to have the others fawning over her cooking, her style, how cool it was that she was out here by herself…it was tempting just to tell them all the reason Jade knew all this crap, that she'd been trained from a young age to lie, to win favor, to fend for herself, all in preparation for a life spent doing the dirty work of the country's underbelly, a life Artemis had rejected in coming to college to learn how to make an honest living. But of course, revealing that would mean revealing a host of other things that her friends really didn't need to know. So she bit her tongue, sulked at the greatest distance she could manage without drawing attention, and wondered if deliberately breaking her own ankle would be enough to cut the trip short.
Dinnertime turned into campfire time, with Dick and Roy retrieving their respective guitars from their respective cars (why they needed two guitars was beyond Artemis, but apparently it was a manly pride thing). Some fared better than others with the singing. Zatanna wasn't afraid to harmonize and Dick had a voice like a teen heartthrob pop star, but neither Conner nor Artemis could hold a tune in a bucket, nor could Artemis remember the words to even the most basic of songs. More than once, Wally turned around to give her an amused look, forcing her to wonder how easy it would be to talk Dick into switching tents that night. It wasn't her fault her dad had been too busy teaching her to pick locks or break wrists to play her a record or two.
Jade, damn her, sounded lovely.
"How long have you been playing?" the older girl asked Roy after they'd finished with a dishearteningly sincere rendition of 'With a Little Help From My Friends.' Over the course of the evening, she'd maneuvered herself until she was sitting just beside him on the log bench, her hand tracing patterns on the wood beside his thigh.
"Uh, I don't know, since I was like thirteen?" Roy replied, idly plucking out a pleasant arpeggiation. Artemis would have thought he was oblivious but for the way his eyes kept flicking towards Jade. The stupid bastard was just playing it cool. "Foster dad had me start when I came to live with him, said it would 'help me adjust' or whatever. I just wanted to pick up chicks."
"Yeah?" laughed Jade, edging yet closer. "And how'd that work out for you, Romeo?"
"It's really late," Artemis interrupted loudly, standing up. "I think we should go to bed. We've got a long day tomorrow."
The guitar-playing died away.
"We do?" blinked Zatanna.
"We hadn't planned out tomorrow yet," Wally pointed out.
"Well I don't know about you all but I was planning to make the most of it," said Artemis, folding her arms over her chest. "Which I can't do if I'm tired and cranky."
"You're already cranky," Conner pointed out.
"You're one to talk."
"It is getting pretty late," Megan conceded, smoothing her skirt as she stood up. "Maybe everyone who wants to can stay up and talk, but quietly, so people who want to sleep can do that?"
"Sounds fair," Wally shrugged. "What are we doing tomorrow, though? I'm curious."
"I know of a great swimming spot," Jade offered. "I could walk you there."
"That sounds great," said Zee excitedly.
"Isn't it a little cold for swimming?" Artemis objected. No way was Jade taking over her spring break two days in a row.
Roy gave her a look.
"Don't be such a wuss. It's plenty warm during the day."
"Maybe you could show us like, on a map," Artemis said to Jade, her eyes flashing in what she hoped was a clear threat. "So you don't have to waste a day chaperoning all of us."
"Oh, it's really no trouble," said Jade, the corners of her lips curling up in a damnably pleased smirk."I insist."
And that, fates be damned, sealed the deal. Brushing her teeth with considerable vengeance some fifteen minutes later, Artemis silently wondered what she had done in a past life to deserve this. College was supposed to have been a fresh start. A place where she didn't have to be her father's daughter, her sister's sister. And here was Jade, ruining everything.
"Someone's not happy," a familiar voice drawled as she left the little shack of a bathroom.
Without thinking, Artemis kicked out at her sister, who simply laughed and danced aside, further into the shadows.
"Missed you too, little sister," she said, eyes gleaming. "Oh, don't worry, all your little friends are still at the campfire. I thought we could have a little chat."
"Let's start with you explaining why you're here," Artemis snapped.
"Because I wanted to see you," her sister responded, voice sickly sweet. "I wanted to see how fabulous your new life is, how awesome your college friends are, how amazing a time you're having. And of course, I thought it was only polite to introduce myself in person after all those text messages I sent your RA…and that he sent me back."
"I could tell him," Artemis threatened. "I could tell all of them who you really are."
"You could," Jade agreed, shrugging. "But you won't. You don't want them knowing that any more than I do."
"Maybe I'm done keeping this family's secrets," said Artemis.
"A bold threat, but an empty one," said Jade. "And besides…I took out some insurance just in case you did decide to grow up and tell them the truth."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means Dad is in this part of the country right now, and if you ruin my fun, I will call him and tell him exactly where you and your friends are."
Artemis's eyes narrowed.
"Wouldn't I, though?" said Jade. "You're welcome to find out but…I think we'd both prefer you didn't. Good night, sister dearest. Give my regards to your cute little boyfriend. The scrawny ginger is your boyfriend, right?"
"Yes," Artemis snapped, ignoring the 'scrawny' comment – Wally was actually not so scrawny when you got his shirt off. "And the other ginger is someone else's. So back off."
"Funny, I don't hear him saying that," smirked Jade, and disappeared into the shadows for good.
Swimming was not a total loss. Despite Jade's obnoxiously sexy green one-piece and Wally's incessant interrogation about her recent bad mood, Artemis couldn't deny that it was a gorgeous day, and that the lake to which Jade had brought them was stunning, all clear blues and perfect solitude. Moreover, the picnic lunch Conner and Zee had packed was delicious, and there was nothing in the universe like watching Kaldur swim. His obvious ease was captivating, and more than once she found herself staring in a totally not creepy, 100% platonic sort of way, wondering where the hell in Georgia they raised kids like that.
Once again Jade joined them for dinner, and once again Artemis was forced to hold her tongue as her sister shamelessly flirted her way through the meal, even going so far as to grab Roy's ass while threatening to "put some meat on his bones" (with her cooking, naturally). Kaldur remained silent and seemingly neutral through it all, leaving Artemis confused – was he too polite to say anything, or did he honestly not mind? (Alternately, as Wally suggested that night, was he hoping for a threesome? – Artemis had decked him for that.)
Day Four of spring break began with Dick and Wally serenading Artemis awake with an infuriating imitation of her own tuneless, wordless attempt at The Circle of Life from two nights prior. It ended with Zee falling asleep on Artemis's shoulder at the campfire, despite the very loud crunching of Wally's 14th S'more. In between was an odd combination of hiking, exploring, listening to Conner identify every goddamn plant in the forest, and deliberately avoiding Jade, who by now seemed to have become part of the gang. At one point in her life it would have been a dream come true – finally getting along with her sister, sharing friends and memories – but this was different. Jade had forced her way in, and the harmony was all pretend.
And of course, unforgivably, she'd brought Dad into it.
"I don't see why you don't like her," Wally was saying on Thursday morning as he tied his sneakers. They were about to venture out for more firewood, as their supply was finally running low. "She seems cool, and she's been really friendly to us so far."
"Too friendly," Artemis put in, frowning deeply. "I don't want to talk about it, okay?"
"That's not fair," Wally objected, straightening out. "She's just a flirt. So am I, and I don't see you protesting every time our plans end up including me."
"I didn't like you when we first met either."
"Yeah you did," Wally teased, leaning over to press a kiss to her cheek, which she pretended to find distasteful. "I'm impossible not to like."
"I find it quite easy, actually," remarked Dick as he strolled by.
"You're a man of many talents, Grayson," said Artemis.
"In any case, I think you should give her a chance," said Wally, once Dick had wandered back to wherever Dick was going. "You just met her. If you'd judged all of us as quickly as you're judging her, where would you be now?"
"Actually, I pretty much had you all pegged from day one. So I'd be right here."
That was a lie, but she didn't want to have this conversation.
"Okay, fine. I don't know what your deal is, but I wish you'd actually talk to me about it," he said, turning away. "Let's go."
Had Artemis known how the trip was going to end beforehand, she would have done one of several things to prepare for it, not the least of which was determining how much Dick actually knew about all of them.
Apparently the answer was "everything."
Things came to a head on Friday night, when after a long night of fireside chatting, Jade casually brought up that her tent wasn't very well insulated, that it had a rip (one Artemis distinctly did not remember from the day before), that she "could barely sleep" with the chill at night.
A silence descended on the group as they exchanged looks – that was that say that Artemis could feel the others doing so; she herself was staring at her sister in disbelief, wondering if she was getting at what it looked like she was getting at. And then finally, Kaldur spoke:
"I do not mind the cold," he said. "If it would be of help…you could take my place. A second body does more for warmth than any blanket or tent."
Before anyone could respond, Artemis was on her feet.
"Okay that's enough," she said. Instantly, all eyes were on her.
"Enough of what?" Jade asked innocently, though her eyes were flashing a warning, as though reminding Artemis of her threat.
"No, Jade. I'm done with your games."
"Arty!" Zee whispered. "Don't be rude!"
"I'm not being rude," said Artemis, shaking her head. "Not now, at least. I was rude to you all before when I was dishonest with you about my family. I'm sorry. I lied."
"Your family?" repeated Wally, brows knitting in confusion. "What does that have to do with anything?"
"I told you my family was like anyone else's," said Artemis as Jade slowly rose from her seat, hand slipping towards her pocket. "That's not true. My family…well, it sucks, let's put it that way."
"Harsh, sister dearest."
"Yeah," said Artemis, taking a deep breath and looking around the circle at the shocked expressions. "Sorry, everyone. This is Jade, my sister. She's a liar, a thief, a backstabber, and everything else our dad taught us to be."
"Your dad taught you to – "
"Just let me finish, Conner," Artemis cut him off. "Look. My dad is not a good guy, to put it lightly. He's wanted in about six states for all the stunts he's pulled, not the least of which is threatening to kill me and my mom if we ever ratted him out. I've had a restraining order against him for the last three years, and Campus Security will arrest him on sight if he ever comes to find me at college, but that's not much good to us out here."
She stuffed her hands in her pockets, shoulders hunched defensively as the group stared at her.
"This is a joke, right?" Roy asked, sounding incredulous. "That's not a family. That's a fucking soap opera."
"She's telling the truth," said Dick, surprising everyone.
"Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but how the hell do you know?" asked Artemis, turning to him.
"I know everything."
"Right, of course. How could I forget?"
"Look, this is all very sweet, but as I seem to have overstayed my welcome, I'll be going now," said Jade, holding up her phone. "It was lovely meeting you all. Give my regards to Dad, Miss Arty. He should be here in a few hours, if he obeys all the speed limits…you know how he loves playing by the rules."
And she slipped her thumb onto the "send" button on her phone.
A tiny beep was all it took to ruin everything, or so Artemis thought.
As it turned out, her friends were about a thousand times cooler than that.
"So I take it your dad is on his way here?" asked Wally as Jade disappeared back to her campsite; no one tried to stop her, though Roy was staring at his phone in horror like he'd just realized what an ass he'd made of himself all week. "And that this is very bad news for us?"
"Yeah," Artemis sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't want to ruin the trip but I just…I couldn't stand her lying anymore. I couldn't stand me lying anymore."
"Why did you?" asked Conner. "Lie, I mean."
Somehow his question just sounded curious, not accusatory.
"Because…shit, I don't know, if you had that kind of family history, would you want to share it?" Artemis asked, frowning deeply. "No one wants friends with that kind of baggage."
"Were you listening the other night?" asked Dick, raising an eyebrow. "We've all got baggage. Maybe yours is a little more…ongoing than some of ours, but give us a little credit. We're no strangers to daddy issues."
"Well my daddy issue is about to become your daddy issue real fast," Artemis pointed out. "We can argue this all out later, but right now we need to get out of here before he shows up."
"Why?" asked Wally. "What's the worst that could happen?"
"Are you stupid?" Artemis asked as she looked around at all her friends, sitting around the fire like there was nothing to worry about. "Were you listening to what I just said? My dad doesn't fuck around. He's mad that I escaped off to real school because with a degree, I won't have to resort to the family business, and if he finds me out here he'll do anything he has to to make me come with him. Including hurting all of you."
"Fleeing seems a short-sighted solution," Kaldur remarked. "Perhaps it would be better if you showed him that you are committed to the path you have chosen. That he holds no sway over you."
"That's a cute thought but I'm not talking about arm wrestling here," Artemis pressed. "If he finds us here, he's going to do damage. Serious damage. And I'm not letting that happen to any of you."
"Kaldur has a point," said Dick, a look in his eye that Artemis recognized all too well. He was plotting something. God, her dad was coming to get her, and Dick Grayson was plotting something. "You say your dad is wanted in six states. If you don't mind my asking…which states?"
And so it began.
The sleeping bags were rolled, the coolers repacked, the tents unpitched and shoved haphazardly into trunks and backseats. Conner, Kaldur and Roy were standing by the open hatchback of Megan's van trying to fit the last of the gang's gear in when the faint rumble of an engine announced the approach of a new vehicle – an oversized pickup truck, wheels splattered with mud, bed covered with a tarp.
Typical, Artemis thought to herself as she watched from her hiding spot. Her dad had always been old-fashioned like that. She tried not to freeze up as the truck rolled to a halt and her father hopped down from the cabin, approaching her three friends.
"You boys seen a girl around here, blonde hair, athletic, 'bout five foot seven inches?" Lawrence asked, spitting into the dirt.
The three exchanged looks.
"No," said Conner flatly. "Can't help you there."
Lawrence cocked an eyebrow.
"Really?" he asked, his tone of voice making it clear he already knew the answer. "Goes by Artemis? Artemis Crock?"
"Haven't heard of her," said Roy, turning away to shove his pillow into the jumbled mess of Megan's trunk.
Without warning, a large hand shot out to grab his shoulder and spin him around.
"Why do I feel like you're lying to me?" Lawrence had begun to growl when Kaldur's own hand descended on his wrist, pushing it firmly away from Roy's shoulder.
"There is no need for violence," the swimmer said calmly. "Nor for baseless accusations."
Lawrence's hand slipped towards his pocket, and Artemis recognized her cue when she saw it. Grabbing the walkie-talkie on her belt, she lifted it to her lips and spoke:
Right on time, two figures approached from the dirt path to the restrooms. The green of Artemis's favorite hoodie blended in well with the trees, but not well enough – at their approach, Lawrence's head jerked, prompting the other three to turn too, and the girls had been spotted.
"Run!" Kaldur ordered with a low shout, and they did, turning tail to bolt back into the forest. Lawrence took off after them, the boys gave pursuit, and in moments, the campsite was deserted.
"Good luck," Artemis murmured, biting her lip and trying not to worry too much about Zee and in particular about Megan, who had donned her sweatshirt for their ruse. The cheerleader had always had a way with disguises, and with the hood up, a single glance would lead you to believe she really was Artemis. As she turned her attention to the now-deserted campsite, Artemis lifted the walkie-talkie to her lips once more. "Okay, guys, you're clear."
She could have sworn she heard Dick cackle as she made for the tree that was to be her hideout for the rest of their plot, but maybe it was just her imagination. Jumping up to catch the first branch, she swung herself up to the next, then from there it was easy enough, rather like the climb up to the Summit if you felt like taking the dangerous route.
Within minutes she was at the top, where she had a few of the surroundings; a flash of color through the trees below alerted her to the chase. Megan and Zee had just reached the tripwire they had set up earlier. Not for the first time, Artemis found herself wishing she were the one down there, taking the risks, but the others had insisted – under no circumstances was she going to make direct contact with her father. So instead, she simply got to watch as the two girls hopped the wire and continued on towards the lake, while her father hit it at full speed and went sprawling with a shout of rage she could hear even at her distance.
"How's it going?" she asked into Channel 2, which connected to Dick and Wally's walkie-talkie – she couldn't see them, but the hood of the pickup truck was up, which was a good sign.
"Swimmingly," Wally's voice crackled out of the speakers. He sounded obnoxiously cheery. "How's the tree?"
"Tree-like," reported Artemis.
"Are you pining for us?"
"Dear God, Grayson, if we all survive this, I swear I will kill you."
"Not if we leaf you behind," Wally quipped.
"West, I will – "
"Or put her in the trunk."
Groaning, Artemis gave up and turned her attention back to the others. Her dad was back up, but the boys had passed him by now, and were far enough ahead to ensure their safety but not so far that they risked losing him, which was the point.
"This is Alpha Squad," Zee's voice crackled out of Artemis's walkie-talkie abruptly – the other girl was a little out of breath, and Artemis had lost sight of them, but she didn't sound panicked. "We're at the pits."
"Good," Artemis nodded, peering through the trees to try and figure out where they were. "Con, Kal and Roy aren't too far behind you."
"Excellent. Everything ready on the other side?"
"Hard to tell with those two but I'd say it's coming along," said Artemis, casting another glance over at the cars. Dick had clambered into the cabin and was fiddling with something on the dashboard. "We should be good within a minute or so."
"Good. Okay, I hear them coming," said Zee. "We're getting in position. This is going to work, Arty, just wait and see."
Chewing on her lip, Artemis lifted her binoculars, adjusting the focus until she could make out the faraway shapes of Megan and Zee, their backs turned as they "caught their breath" on a small hill off the trail. Her father was rounding a corner, still in hot pursuit.
"Roy, you idiot, get up, get up," Artemis hissed as the upperclassman headed straight for the mudpit at the end of the path, but he veered right at the last second, running up into the wooded area instead, then moving around to stand with Conner and Kaldur. She breathed again. Everything was in place.
Her dad rounded the last curve in the trail, came into sight of her friends, when abruptly, instead of his feet striking hard trail, they hit soft mud.
Very soft mud.
Before he had a chance to register what was going on, three pairs of hands were grasping his jacket, pulling him more firmly into the muck – he threw a punch at Kaldur, but Conner's hand smacked his arm away, and through Zee's walkie-talkie Artemis heard something that sounded like "don't mess with my roomie, bitch."
Within moments, Lawrence was thoroughly entrenched, thigh-deep in the oozing mud that was the bane of that area. Close to the lake, the pits were a bitch. It had taken three of them twenty minutes to extract Zee when she'd accidentally gotten stuck on the day they'd gone swimming – it would be a good several hours before he could hope to free himself. Artemis felt her heart lurch in excitement. Had they actually pulled this off?
"Alpha and beta, reporting in," Zee's voice sounded out of the walkie-talkie. "Everything look good to you, fearless leader?"
From the top of the tree, Artemis couldn't hide her smile.
"Better than good," she said. "It's beautiful."
"You wanna see something really beautiful?" came Wally's voice. "Wait 'till you see what Dick did with your dad's truck."
What Dick had done with her dad's truck was indeed beautiful, though the "Just Thwarted" sign on the back and the leftover bean cans he'd tied to the trailer hitch might have been a bit much. As the eight of them regrouped, though, Artemis was too full of gratitude to consider anything else. All that time defending her secrets, and they'd been more than ready for them all this time. How had she gotten so lucky? Where did people like this even come from?
"So," she said as Conner fit the last of their supplies into Roy's trunk and rejoined the little circle they'd formed. "I…that was…I don't really know what to say."
"You could start with 'thank you,'" Roy suggested.
"Thank you," said Artemis, for once not arguing. He looked startled.
"Park rangers are on their way, right?" Zee checked.
"They received an anonymous tip about a wanted criminal who was spotted on the lake trail," he said, winking at his roommate. "Good to know some people still do their civic duty these days, eh?"
"Such a relief," Wally grinned.
"Anyway, are we ready to head out?" Megan asked. She was still wearing Artemis's hoodie, but somehow that just felt right, so she didn't ask for it back. "I can't wait to have a real shower. It's been great but…I miss the Cave."
"Me too," Zee admitted. "This trip was really great, though. I feel like I know everyone a little bit better than I did before."
"It is a start," Kaldur agreed with a rare smile. "Shall we head out?"
The others nodded, breaking up and heading for the vehicles. Wally cast a glance at Dick.
Artemis didn't even have time to look at Roy and Conner before they'd responded, as one,
"Why do you have my sister's visor?"
"She left it behind."
"What was I supposed to do, leave it there?"
"That would seem reasonable, yeah."
"Well I didn't. It's not a big deal, now shut up and let me drive."
"See that car up there? The one we're about to catch up with?"
"That's Jade's car. When we pass her, you're going to stop and give her the hat back, all right?"
"Jesus Christ. Really?"
They pulled into the right shoulder lane and up beside the Jeep, matching its pace for a moment.
"Hey!" Artemis yelled, rolling down the window and leaning out. "You left something."
"I thought I left you," said Jade thoughtfully, rolling down her own window. "But it seems I underestimated your little team."
Team. Artemis liked the sound of that.
"Here," said Roy, taking the visor from Artemis and tossing across the space between the two cars – it sailed through the window to land neatly in the passenger seat of the Jeep.
"You're good at that," Jade smirked. "You throw hats a lot, or what?"
"You could say it's a hobby."
"Dad's going to get picked up by the cops," Artemis called. "You don't have to do what he wants you to do, Jade. You can do something else with your life."
"I know," said Jade, shrugging as she drove. "I just can't imagine anything else being as…stimulating. But who knows. Maybe I'll find my own group of misfits and form some kind of weird friendship cult. Seems to have worked for you."
"Yeah, it kinda did."
There was a pause, just the rush of the road and the trees surrounding it. In the distance, the road narrowed; before long they would have to travel single-file again, and inevitably part ways.
"Artemis," said Jade, her eyes flicking to the mirror so she could look at her sister as they cruised along.
"I like your friends."
Roy dropped back, nosing into place behind the Jeep; meanwhile, Dick's sedan gunned behind them and veered into the wrong lane to pass, while Megan's van hung back, cautious and law-abiding as ever.
"Yeah," Artemis murmured, settling back into the back seat. "Yeah, me too."