It was not impossible for Artemis to reconcile her past with her future, the eight years of gap and the knowledge that only she carried, but Artemis knew, without hesitation, that she couldn't let anyone else in on the secret. M'gann had already hinted at knowing a bit, but until Artemis had the time and opportunity to formulate a gameplan, she knew the best way to play it was as if she was still a little out of it.
Not that difficult given she was suddenly Dorothy in Kansas, again.
Around her, the party streamers from her eventful seventeenth surprise birthday bash were still strewn up, mocking her. The more time that passed, the more Artemis remembered of her past. It wasn't that she forgot the future – instead it was like two sets of memories, both equally strong, vying for dominancy. She felt the distant past reclaiming its influential. The nitty-gritty details came back to her in pieces; the way she felt when she first joined the team, the specific instances of fighting crime in Gotham City, Salem, Star City, Secrets, the sewers, the mountains, the desert – Biyalia. The horrors of the Failsafe, You were dead, Artemis. Trying to convince herself that she had earned her place on the team. You tried, baby girl. You can fight Jade. You can fight me. But you can't fight who. You. Are. Wally, going from you have nothing to prove to me, okay? to what you've proved is that you're insecure and selfish in less than twelve hours flat. Familiar adrenaline like a gut punch, the doubt roaring in her heart too loud to ignore; and always, always, always Wally, looking at her when he thought she wasn't looking, but she always noticed because she was always looking back.
The four years she had spent with Wally and the four years after that she'd spent alone – Artemis knew them backwards and forewords and inside and out. But there was the encroaching surge of her past. She struggled to contain her wrought emotions as both sets of memory ran alongside each other, parallel paths.
She closed her eyes and took a breath. She had already slipped the Pharaoh's Quest off her finger, sliding it into her pocket, but even now she felt the weight of it like a load worth ten tons.
She'd figured it out now, how this all had happened: her seventeenth birthday party, and cake, close friends, and her mother's gift on her ring finger when she'd blown out the candles to a disastrous wish. I wish I knew how to avoid losing them all. A seemingly harmless wish for a girl with a shaky foundation of abandonment issues a mile wide. Little had she known about the magical properties of her newest, oldest ring. The Pharaoh's Quest had apparently judged her worthy of pure intentions – Artemis wasn't sure she was flattered so much as burdened with that knowledge. Although maybe that was what was meant by pure intentions in the first place?
Dick appeared out of nowhere from behind, doing that stupid annoying trick he used to love pulling at every opportunity as kids. "So," he said. "What's going on? Red Tornado just called Batman over to check up on you."
Artemis was pretty sure that normally she'd offer up a pithy comment, a quick retort, something; she just tensed, then shrugged forcefully. "No clue."
Dick looked suspicious, but Artemis was overlooking the expression because his face – god, he was only thirteen. Of all of them, it was Dick's appearance that was throwing her the most. The others were more or less the same; Connor and M'gann mostly unchanged; Aqualad showing slight changes only in his physique and muscle mass; in the future Wally had had shorter hair, thicker shoulders, a stronger torso and a multitude of other small differences that Artemis could so easily spot and catalogue because she knew him so well, but even then it wasn't the same jarring sensation as being faced with Robin. Dick was disconcertingly young, not at all like the man that Artemis had come to know.
Something of her scrutiny must've registered on her face, because Dick's eyes narrowed. "What?"
I know who you are, Dick. I know what you look like beneath that mask. I know what you're going to look like when you fly by puberty, and I know that right now you're probably secretly making mooneyes at Zatana, but in a few years there's going to be a running bet between old team members on how long it'll take you to admit you're head over heels in love with Barbara Gordon.
"Hey," Wally said, approaching them. "Anyone want to explain the concept of a party to the resident aliens and androids in the house? Because this party took a nosedive for the depressing and they've already switched into debriefing mode." He stopped, glancing to Red Tornado and M'gann across the room, then shot a look at Artemis that was just a touch too intense for all his supposed casualness. "You feeling better?"
Artemis' heart did that weird thing where it both sunk into her chest like a solid lead stone and then jumped back up into her throat. Wally, at seventeen. She knew a little about how Wally felt about her during this time; it was only a few days before New Year's and their inevitable kiss, but they were still locked in this holding pattern of denying feelings and awkward flirting, and Wally was still holding a grudge against her for the disastrous mission against Cheshire a few weeks back.
That was the killing blow to her composure.
Realizing how much they had backtracked, how much she had lost, Artemis felt what little was left of her resolve cave in. It left behind a ragged, gaping hole in its wake and Artemis only wanted the one thing that had always been her constant. God, she wanted Wally - her Wally, the one who knew how to see through her bullshit answer when she told him, "Yeah, I'm fine."
Wally paused, and he may have looked a little suspicious, but he didn't push it. "Brought you some cake," he offered, lamely.
Artemis tried for a smile, aware that it probably came off wobbly. Wally sat down next to her and she imitated some enthusiasm as she took her first bite. Robin and Wally both started up conversations, but it sorta scuttled around Artemis rather than included her, though it wasn't because of a lack of effort on their parts. There were too many things wrong here for Artemis to pick just one to focus on, too many sharp edges and not enough relief. If things were normal, she'd at least have Wally to count on, and she had never not had that except by her own self-exile; now she was stuck in a time before Wally knew for certain how he felt about her, and that he'd always love her, and Artemis wasn't sure how to navigate anything with him because this all totaled up into a recipe for disaster, didn't it? She was courting heartbreak.
"So," Wally said, obviously trying to lighten the atmosphere with inane chitchat. "What are your plans for the rest of winter break?"
Oh, god, she was still in high school.
"I need a drink," Artemis announced, before she realized she was underage.
Fuck. This entire thing sucked.
She was aware that she might've startled both Wally and Dick when she jumped up, dropping the cakeslice off her plate, but Artemis muttered a muffled apology and fled. She passed by Red Tornado and M'gann, and she didn't know what they were up to, or what her bioscans had read, but they'd been running through the data of her readings during those ten minutes Artemis had been unconscious. Only ten minutes, during which she'd lived eight years. Artemis gripped her fork tightly and the plastic snapped it half.
She made it down two corridors and halfway to the zeta-tube exit when, suddenly, there was an announcement.
"Recognized, Batman A01."
She skidded to a halt in front of him as he came through the portal.
For a beat, they just stared at each other. "Red Tornado said that you weren't feeling well," Batman said, at length. "Your bioscans registered unusual activity when you passed out."
"Yeah," Artemis said, swallowing. She rose up to her height, because even though he was still Batman, still an intimidating authority figure, she wasn't a seventeen year old girl anymore and refused, at least in front of him, to act like it. "Something major happened," she said, and yes, now she was getting a foothold on the situation. Batman represented a clear cut separation from her personal life - this was a debriefing, and there were some things – just some – that needed to be sorted out as quickly as possible. Batman was the best avenue for that. "We need to talk."
There was a pause. "Of course."
Artemis was vaguely aware that Wally and Dick had followed her out in the hallway, and a second later Red Tornado and the rest of her team had joined them as well. She had an audience too big for this. "In private," she insisted.
Funny how spelling it out for someone else made Artemis feel even more crazy, not less.
Batman stood silent as she laid it all out, starting with the most pressing information. The upcoming invasion of Vandal Savage and his men on New Year's Eve, culminating in six superheroes going missing for eighteen hours during which the genetic material for Cadmas Clones were collected; the mole being Roy Harper, his hidden programming as a sleeper agent, the horrors of Speedy's captivity, one-armed and held up in stasis. How in the future she'd witness M'gann's sacrifice and Connor's resulting self-destruction; how more superheroes surely would have died had Artemis not collapsed the entirety of that reality bubble. She went on about the Light, detailing as much of their plan as she knew, telling Batman about the ring in her possession and as much as she thought appropriate for him to know.
She didn't mention everything, but she mentioned more than enough. Even as the story unfolded, Artemis saw opportunities to change the future, make it better. The Flash – she could prevent the disaster that would claim Barry Allen's life in six years. She could stop Sportsmaster from a dozen schemes. She could help her sister turn against her current allegiances because Artemis knew now there was good in Jade; it had always been there. And— mom.
Mom, who was still alive. Mom, who was probably waiting for Artemis back home. Mom, who wasn't going to die four years from now, no way, not if Artemis had anything to say about it.
By the time she was finished, Artemis' throat felt hoarse.
Batman had files in his hands – her bioscans depicting MRIs and EKGs and whatever other three-letter-acronym tests that Red Tornado had run on her during those ten minutes she'd been out – and she knew what was coming: more tests and more debriefings. J'onn or perhaps even Doctor Fate testing her out psychically; Black Canery and more of her therapy sessions; Ollie dropping by to give her a talk even though she'd only legitimately been his protégé for a few days and he hardly owed her anything; Red Tornado and Captain Marvel doing their own unique and vastly different methods of the mother-hen routine, and the team – god, the team. The covert looks she was going to get from now on, some of concern, others of confusion, and the worst – the worst, suspicion, because Artemis was going to have to lie now – lie like she'd never lied before, and she hated doing that with her team, especially Wally. But what choice did she have? None. You couldn't go up to a seventeen-year-old boy who had barely confronted the fact that he had a crush on her with the news of,hey, babe, I'm your one true love.
"Understood," Batman had said, simply, when all was said and done. For a second, there was nothing but stinging silence before he led Artemis to the corner sink and poured out a glass of water. The sight reminded Artemis that she was thirsty, her throat parched dry, but she only blinked numbly at the glass like it was an unknown foreign object when Batman held it up to her. "Drink, Artemis," he said, not unkindly. Which just threw Artemis even more because Batman was never kind; understanding, yes. Willing to listen, of course. Less than actively aggressive, on a good day. But never kind. "Artemis."
She took the glass and drained it in three gulps.
"What now?" she asked.
"Now," Batman said. "You get some rest. The other League members and I will look into the… details that you've mentioned. We'll—"
"Red Arrow isn't responsible for what he's done," she cut in, desperately. "He's being used. He's not in control."
Batman nodded. "We'll take that into consideration, and if everything you're saying is true—"
"—then we'll handle it," Batman continued as if she'd never interrupted. "It's a League matter."
"With all due respect," Artemis responded, firmly. "League member or not, I am a part of it. I need to be involved with how this all goes down."
For a beat, Batman was silent. Then he said, "All right, I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime, take the rest of the day off and regroup. We aren't going to act without thinking all of this through very carefully."
Artemis stared for a long beat, then nodded. "Fair enough."
M'gann was waiting for her outside, and Connor stood just at her side – because of course where there was one, the other wouldn't be too far off. Artemis wondered how she was going to handle the knowledge that she'd seen both of them die. Especially Connor. How could she possibly look Connor in the eye knowing how dead those same eyes could seem in the aftermath of M'gann's demise?
M'gann looked to Connor and, probably though a psychic link, asked for some privacy. Connor nodded, tossed a brief, concerned look towards Artemis, then left.
"Are you all right?" M'gann asked, before slapping her forehead. "Hello, Megan, of course you're not. What a stupid thing to ask. But you don't have to say anything. I've already talked to the others and they won't ask questions. We're not going to press. We've agreed."
Artemis was unsure how M'gann had managed that miraculous feat; the members of her team as individuals were the most curious, sometimes obnoxious people she had ever met, but united as a group they were ten times worse. But then the next second, Artemis found herself hugging M'gann, tightly, desperately, not giving a damn about anything else in that moment except for the fact that M'gann was alive.
"It's okay," M'gann said, soothingly. "I'm not sure exactly what happened, but I know that it was traumatic for you. Like the time we got caught up in the failsafe simulation?"
"Worse," Artemis managed, tightly. "But I can't talk about it, not entirely. Not even if I wanted to."
"Oh, Artemis. It's going to be okay. You'll figure it, okay? You'll figure it out," M'gann said, and Artemis tried, with all her heart, to believe it.
"Hey," Wally greeted, and then proceeded to spit out in one impressive breath, "So everybody agrees you shouldn't go home alone and even though I don't know where you live and I realize that's the point of a secret identity, I'm gonna have to insist that I walk you home; now, wait, I know you're gonna hate that idea, 'cause, yeah, you're not a wilting flower, you don't need me acting like a Neanderthal buffoon, I can still kick your ass three ways from Sunday, Wally, but I'm willing to endure any colorful insults and painful injuries you have in store for me because I really, really don't think you should be going home alone right now."
Artemis paused, and her shoulders dropped. "I'd like that."
Wally's eyes bugged out. "Man, you really are out of it."
She flinched. "You know what? Forget it. I'll just—"
"No, no! No takebacks now. We're going. I just – I just wasn't expecting it to be that easy."
It was telling, how much he thought she was going to resist his company, when really, all Artemis wanted was more of it. She sighed and stepped into line with Wally, walking towards the zeta-tube. A few seconds later, after inputting her destination, they landed in the back alley of a rundown street, and the broken payphone was suddenly tight with space because Artemis hadn't thought about the logistics of two people exiting at the same time. Instead, rather abruptly, she found herself in a closed-box with Wally, pressed up chest-to-chest and practically breathing the same air.
He looked to her, and she met his direct gaze, very unhinged, and from one moment to the next, something changed. She couldn't have named it, beyond a collection of gestures: his breathing quickened, the dilation of his eyes expanded, the way his lips quirked a little like he wanted to lick his lips in anticipation of something. They were mostly inconsequential details that could have meant nothing, except that he capped it all off with darting his eyes down to her lips like he wanted to kiss her. The air between them suddenly went electric. He was leaning towards her before she even realized it, but then there was a crash, loud and jarring, as a homeless cat landed on the tin-metal of a garbage can nearby, and the moment shattered.
"Oh, I'll just—yeah, okay," he stammered, red-faced, "I'll try to squeeze out first, unless you want? No, I'll just—"
He squeezed out and fell face flat onto the asphalt in his rush.
Artemis held back a laugh, but only barely. God, had he always been this obvious about his crush on her? Had she really been that oblivious to it?
"Smooth, there, Wall-man," she teased, though she pitied him a bit; her not commenting would have seemed too out of character, though.
Wally was so red in the face that it was bright enough to match his hair, and she thought – well, that was adorable. She could have a little fun with how easy he was going to be about all this, especially since she hadn't even given consideration to some of the scandalous things she had done in her past – future, whatever – that had turned Wally as red as a beet. There were drawbacks to starting over, but then again, Artemis could think of a thing or two that were benefits. The thought was bittersweet, in the way that Artemis was just beginning to realize that as bad as things were, they could get worse, and she literally had the opportunity of a lifetime to get things right this time.
She could get a lot of satisfaction out of preventing tragedies; she could help friends and families find their footings a bit easier in their upcoming journeys; she could even get a lot of amusement out of trolling Dick now that she knew who he was – god, he'd made her feel like an idiot when she finally found out – but it was getting a second chance with Wally, maybe a chance to do this the right way, that made her feel like maybe this would all be worth it ten times over.
"Huh," Wally said, looking around, obviously trying to draw attention away from his-less-then-graceful-exit. "Gotham City?"
Artemis shrugged. "Yep."
He was going to learn her true identity in a few days; or at least that was how it went down, originally. Artemis wasn't sure exactly what to change and what to keep. It was all a never-ending labyrinth of questions to sort out. He cleared his throat, and Artemis stepped out to join him on the street. They walked entirely in silence for a long time, which was just as well. With the reassuring weight of her bow and arrow at her back, Artemis found herself trying to find footing in familiarity and if Wally didn't blabber too much, she could almost convince herself that this was one of a hundred times where he'd walked her home after a mission. Artemis felt a slight pang at the thought of what she had lost, but she would have to make do with reliving it, and that – that wasn't so bad, was it?
It was a gorgeous night for once and though a bit nippy, it was the end of December and Artemis was used to the frigid winters of Gotham City. The moonlight filtering down through broken clouds was soothing, though. Artemis wove her way through the familiar backstreets before she reached her apartment complex.
When they arrived, Artemis tipped her head aside and said, "That's me."
Wally started to nod, but then something alerted Artemis, some noise or some weird sixth sense, because she suddenly tensed and turned around slowly. Her mother was sitting by the window, staring out a snow-crusted glass-pane. Artemis felt the air rush out of her lungs. Paula Nguyen-Crock was beautiful and whole and alive, but for a moment Artemis refused to believe it. Unable to trust her voice, Artemis slowly moved into the apartment. A part of her was convinced her mother was a mirage, or maybe this was all just some dream from the very first moment she'd woken up as seventeen. It wasn't out of the realm of possibility.
So, it was very faintly that Artemis called out, "Mom?"
Paula appeared around the corner, wheeling her chair across the rough carpet. "Artemis, who is that boy you brought along?"
Artemis swallowed thickly, aware that Wally had entered in a bit sheepishly after her. For an inconsolable second, Artemis stood sharply straight, held up rigidly by disbelief and grief. Then, in the very next, she probably startled the hell out of both her mother and Wally as she rushed across the room. She threw her arms around her mother, feeling a solid mass, confirmation that her mother was real; despite what must have been an alarming greeting, her mother responded, slowly, trying to quiet Artemis' grief-filled sobs even as she consoled her.
"What happened?" her mother asked to Wally.
Wally just stood halfway in the entrance of her apartment, stunned. "No one knows."
Her mother held Artemis' trembling body, soothing her with some mindless words of comfort, but Artemis was crying too hard to hear any of it. "Artemis," her mother said, softly. "What happened?"
She pulled back, wiping tears of happiness away from her eyes. "It doesn't matter, Mom. Not anymore."
Nothing mattered but the present.
Like a fingersnap, things changed.
It was a little ridiculous how Artemis shot from one end of the spectrum of emotion to the other. Her whole life had always been this exercise in rebuilding, in picking up the wreckage that was always left by someone leaving—she had spent so long thinking of her mother's murder as the final blow to any sense of firm foundation that Artemis had ever known, but now – now, Artemis realized, she didn't have to fear being alone. She had a second chance, and instead of viewing it in the limelight of all that she had lost to get here, all Artemis could think now was that she had so much more to gain this second time around.
With her mother, with Wally, with every one of her friends and family. It suddenly, all of it, made a beautiful sort of sense.
"You sure you're all right?" her mother asked, for the third time.
"Yeah, Mom, I'm fine. I just—I just had a bad day. But I swear I'm fine!"
"Don't lie to me, Artemis. I've never seen you so upset. And you brought home one of your teammates, even. That isn't like you."
Artemis nearly snorted. Wally was currently lounging in the other room, helping himself to a bowl of popcorn. Hardly a threat.
"It's fine," Artemis dismissed. "It's no big deal."
Though, god, she hated that anyone had witnessed her crying, but if it had to be anyone, she was glad it was Wally and her mom.
By the time Artemis had managed to pull herself completely together, she was still reluctant to let her mother out of sight, but Wally had been more than patient enough. She came back out to find him having already moved on to a slice of her mother's homemade birthday cake. Artemis just stood there, watching him as he shoveled cake into his mouth, feet planted up on her coffee table. He'd already made himself at home.
After they had started dating, in that original timeline, her mother had quickly accepted Wally's presence in their daily lives with aplomb. This time, it seemed to be happening even faster. But then again that was Wally, always moving faster than you expected him to.
"Hey," she called out, and her voice sounded normal – in high spirits, even.
He whipped his head around, and gave her a cautious smile. "Hey. You feeling better?"
"Loads," she answered. "Sorry about earlier. I just—"
"Yeah, no," Wally cut in, quickly. "Whatever. As long as you're feeling better now. You are, aren't you?"
She smiled, stepping further into the room. He stood to face her, and Artemis didn't say anything, the silence blooming out between them until it was thick and heavy, clouding the room. She suddenly felt every bit the seventeen-year-old girl, which was a little ridiculous but just as well.
They stared at each other a bit, both at a loss for words, before Artemis tipped her head aside. "C'mon, I'll walk you to the door." It wasn't much of a walk. All too soon, he was standing at the doorway and both of them were lingering, and Artemis tried to find a reason to prolong the visitation. "So," she said.
"Yeah," he returned, a little red-faced; Artemis wondered what he was thinking. "So... Happy birthday?"
Artemis barked a laugh. "Yeah, thanks. It's a memorable one, at least."
"Y'know, I swore to M'gann I wouldn't ask any questions, and I'm totally not – but if you want to, uh, like talk about it? I'm here. If you want."
She smiled, softly. "Maybe one day, yeah. I might take you up on that."
Wally nodded, uncertain. He looked so adorably lost and a part of her went out to him because it couldn't have been easy for him, trying to find his footing with her today. The moment was broken by the loud rumbling of his stomach, and Wally cringed. "Sorry, I haven't really had that much to eat today."
Abruptly, a thought struck Artemis like lightning. "Hang on," she said, then grabbed his hand. "Mom," she called out, "I'll be back in a few!"
She rushed out the door without waiting for much of a response, dragging Wally after her. She left the building, turned the corner down the nearest street, and led them blindly to the old familiar late-night diner that she always crossed on her way to school. It was a little worn down, but home-y. The owner was an elderly man named Billie in his late sixties that had always given Artemis free pie whenever she swung by, ever since she'd stopped an armed-thug from robbing the shop blind last fall. The diner was decked out in the standard Christmas decorations, and it wasn't until Artemis was near the diner windows that she spotted what she was looking for.
"They have the best pies here," Artemis told Wally, though that wasn't entirely the reason for dragging him here.
"Cool," Wally responded predictably, but he sounded distracted and it wasn't until Artemis looked back that she realized he was fixated on her grip. She hadn't let go of his hand. She slowly pulled them to a stop just at the threshold.
Inside, the old man behind the counter and the lone waitress were obviously closing up shop. "Sorry, Artemis," Billie called out. "We're closing for the night."
"Oh," Artemis said, but she couldn't take her eyes off Wally. "Thanks, anyway, Billie."
She waited for Wally to notice the obvious, but it was little frustrating how Wally wasn't looking at the one place she wanted him to look. In fact, he was too busy staring at her, which was nice and all but, well. Above their heads, dangling from the ceiling, was mistletoe. Wally, the future Wally, had only recently told her of the nostalgic memory of her seventeenth birthday, and his half-aborted desire to kiss her under mistletoe.
Wally finally looked up, then froze. It was another one of those endless moments when their eyes met, and Artemis smiled. He was supposed to kiss her for the first time on New Years. He was supposed to do a lot of things, but Artemis had already spoken to Batman, aware he'd take measures to make sure Vandal Savage didn't invade the Justice League; that meant the opportunity for Wally to kiss her post-mission haze might never arise.
So, Artemis had to adapt.
"So," Wally said, slowly grinning.
It was heartening to know he wasn't as thickheaded as she feared, but she still had to laugh and tell him, "Oh, just shut up and kiss me, Wally."
"I should have done this a long time ago."
"No kidding," she teased, thinking at the same time, you did.
But that was all right, because the next second he was picking her up to kiss her. She felt like a feather in his arms, and then carefully at first, lips pressed against lips. She was too aware of everything between them, her past, his future, their present, all mixing together to create a fierce upsurge of emotion. But then she lifted her hand to his face, and the careful kiss became deep and long. It lingered, obviously longer than mistletoe custom deemed, and something inside Artemis unclenched, a part that she hadn't even known was knotted up inside. The fear that this was all the ending to something finally slackened its grip on Artemis.
He pulled back, and then blinked. "Whoa."
"What?" she asked.
"Nothing, just-" he stopped. "Did that feel like déjà vu to you?"
She paused, thrown, then barked a laugh. She didn't know what that meant, precisely, but it gave her an odd sort of hope and she realized this wasn't the ending to anything. Her father's clever lesson of the one universal constant could go screw itself. Everything ended, yes, but…
This was just the beginning, she knew.