Dick clenched his fists and took a deep breath, unable to bring himself to knock on the door to the apartment in Palo Alto.
It was not supposed to end in death; he had promised Wally that everything would follow his plan, and had only been able to convince him to let Artemis go after assuring him that she would never leave a team member's sight. Kaldur had even demonstrated the exact technique he would use to fake her death during one of their secret rendezvous, and did it multiple times to prove that he would not slip. Then Artemis discreetly mentioned to Dick that she would continue to convince Wally later that night and Dick had smiled, content in the knowledge that his best friend was easily appeased by the archer he fell in love with. He had been about to leave when Wally took him aside. "Listen," he had started, "if this was anyone else's idea, I wouldn't be on board. But you've been trained by the Batman, and as your best friend I know you don't go into anything half-cocked. But…" He took a deep breath, and Dick remembered thinking that he had a brief look of doubt on his face. "Just don't let anything happen to her. Keep her safe, Dick."
Dick had smiled, not knowing that his act of reassurance would be his undoing later. "I promise I will. Don't look so distraught."
They each departed from that place: Nightwing back to Mount Justice, Kaldur to his father, and Wally and Artemis to Palo Alto.
The mission happened, and all was going well. Kaldur had surfaced; Artemis and Nightwing engaged him in battle. The former had been about to carry out the final piece in their covert plan and give them the means to fake Artemis's death. And then everything was wrong.
A previously unnoticed soldier, inconsequential and insignificant down to his nondescript black armor, thought he had a line of sight to Artemis. Kaldur rushed in, and the soldier fired. Nightwing didn't hear the shot being fired. He didn't hear Artemis cry out, or Kaldur turn and order his man to stand down. All he could hear in that moment was a faded memory of Wally whispering, "Keep her safe, Dick."
He had failed. Not just the mission, not just all the undercover work that Kaldur had done. He had failed his best friend. All the years they spent joking and laughing and supporting each other through difficult times died with Artemis, and now it was Dick's duty to let Wally in on the loss of their friendship through the loss of his love.
Dick knocked once, twice, three times. "Come in!" he heard Wally shout. He eased the door open, and quietly stepped inside. There was no pretense to be had, no secret hope that he could work the conversation so it did not come like a knife to the chest. Wally was too perceptive for that. "You're still in costume," he noted evenly.
"Yeah," Dick answered; it was the only thing he felt confident saying.
Wally stood. "And we're not in Blüdhaven."
There was a moment when Wally's eyes narrowed and Dick knew that he had figured everything out. All that was left was to hear it. "Where is she, Dick?"
Dick put up his hands, pleading. "Wally, you have to understand—"
"Where is she?" Wally shouted.
Dick's eyes widened behind the mask and his mouth hung open slightly, but he recovered in an instant. "There was…an unforeseen development. None of us could have stopped it. Kaldur went in for the final attack, and then…there was a Manta soldier…he…" Dick shook his head. "I'm sorry, Wally. I didn't know it could happen."
He could have stopped the punch. Wally may have been one of the fastest men on the planet, but Dick was trained to react on instinct. The execution was sloppy and slow, and would have only taken a raised arm followed by a right hook to counter. But that was not the reaction called for. Wally had earned the right to strike him as hard as he could, and Dick took it square in the jaw. He hit the wall, breaking a trophy case that held archery awards won by Artemis. "YOU PROMISED THAT NOTHING WOULD HAPPEN TO HER!" Wally shouted, grabbing Dick by the collar and shoving him against the broken glass. There were tears lining his lower lids and his teeth were gritted, his jaw set. His nostrils flared. "THIS IS YOUR FAULT! I NEVER SHOULD HAVE TRUSTED YOU!" Another balled fist connected with Dick's jaw, and some blood from Wally's knuckles mixed with his own.
Dick breathed in heavily, and sputtered, "I know…know it's my fault…Wally…" He swallowed once. There was copper intertwined with the taste of saliva. "You don't think…I…I hate myself…for this? She…was my friend…"
Wally loosened his grip on Dick's costume. His eyes were still wide, but they were no longer angry. They just looked…empty. "Get out of here, Dick," he whispered, wiping the tears away.
Cautiously, Dick placed a hand on Wally's shoulder. "I'm sorry."
"Don't," Wally warned. "Just…don't. Not now. It's not going to bring her back."
He frowned, but honored Wally's wishes and removed his hand from his friend's shoulder. "I'll make them pay for it," he said. "Black Manta, The Light, everyone that caused this war will be brought to justice and will answer for Artemis's death."
Wally turned and sat on the couch, cradling his head in his hands. He sighed. "I don't want you to keep making promises that you can't keep, Dick. I can't take it anymore."
Dick thought of saying more, of doing his best to salvage their friendship but couldn't think of any words or sentiments that would be a magical salve, so thought better of saying anything at all. He made for the door, and just as he reached for the doorknob he heard Wally say, "And Dick? Let's not pretend that Artemis's death was their fault."