After the welcome party in the Cave, and after everyone had talked and joked and laughed themselves out, and after the mountain had emptied - people gone home who had homes, and everyone else retired to their rooms in the Cave - Wally and Artemis were left alone. Lounging on the same couch Artemis had spent most of the evening on, they had a clear view of the now-spotless kitchen on the far end of the open-ended room. As per Cave rules - you dirty it, you clean it - the party had adopted a Twelve Dwarves-like attitude after every last speck of food had been consumed (mostly by Wally and his distant future cousin, Bart). There had been so many stories told, so much catching-up done, and more than a few tears shed by the overemotional Martian. Wally was introduced to all the new members, and Artemis had greeted the ones she'd already met: Wally thoroughly embarrassed the new Robin by ruffling his hair and calling him "cute"; Wonder Girl had gushed uncontrollably about how brave Artemis was to have spent two months under deep cover, underwater, no less; Beast Boy had cheated shamelessly and with great gusto when the Cave split into teams to play charades; and La'gaan had spent the evening wrapped jealously around M'gann while bombarding the visiting retirees with pompous anecdotes.
After such a full night, Wally and Artemis were content to relax, occasionally lending attention to the black and white film someone had left playing on the plasma screen, but mostly just enjoying being together again. After seven weeks apart, the only thing either one wanted was not to be separated.
Six years ago, when the team had formed from separate League sidekicks, the newly commissioned Cave had been outfitted with state-of-the-art, high-luxury furniture and equipment, including wide, deep-seated plush sofas. Wide enough to lay on side by side in perfect comfort. Exhausted, Artemis' head was cushioned on Wally's shoulder and, one hand behind his head, he used the other to play with the ends of the long golden ponytail reaching halfway down his girlfriend's back.
"You need a shower," he said, inspecting a flaxen lock that was just starting to show signs of grease.
"Gee, thanks," she responded drily. "You smell great, too."
Wally sniffed the crook of her neck. "It's not your smell, babe. Your hair is getting dirty."
She sighed. "It's late. Do we have to do it now? Let's just wait until morning."
"When the place is crawling with horny teenagers? No, we'll go now, when the showers are empty."
Artemis groaned. "You're a horny teenager."
"Horny and proud. Now let's get you clean."
The extent and severity of Artemis' injuries sustained during the mission meant that she needed help doing a lot of things: getting around, getting dressed, going to the bathroom, and bathing. And after five years of being together and living together for two, there wasn't a lot they hadn't seen each other do. So the necessity of Wally's assistance was not at all damaging, other than to Artemis' pride and independence. But it did make everything take much longer; which is why, in the week since she'd returned to being Artemis Crock, the ex-archer had only properly bathed twice, and her long and thick hair washed once. The nurses at Gotham General had suggested she cut it, for convenience's sake, but both Artemis and Wally had firmly rejected the idea.
The shower rooms of the Cave - there were two, a men's and a women's - were largely in case of extreme filth or augmentation of the team, because each of the original residence wing's bedrooms included fully equipped bathrooms. And although one such of these original dorms had been set aside for Wally and Artemis in case they should ever choose to return, it was easiest, in Artemis' condition, to bathe sitting in a chair.
So to the locker room-like showers it was.
Naked in a lawn chair, with a bag tied around the black cast encasing her left tibia, Wally was using a pink bath sponge to scrub Artemis' tanned and still very athletic body, sometimes spraying lightly with a detachable shower head, meticulously avoiding the stiff white bandages wrapped around her left shoulder.
"If this weren't so time-consuming and demeaning," Artemis began, eyeing Wally's T shirt in the places it had gotten wet and clung to his body, "it would be kind of sexy."
Wally shook his head. "Don't even say that. I was trying really hard not to think about it, and you just ruined everything."
Artemis grinned mischievously. "Come on, what would a little fooling around hurt?"
"No," Wally said forcefully, studiously avoiding looking at her bare breasts. It was a feat to be applauded. "Doctors said no physical exertion for another three weeks, or your ribs could crack again under the pressure. Exertion includes sex."
"Well, you're no fun," Artemis huffed, looking away. "I would've though you'd jump at the chance for some action after two whole months."
Wally chucked around the lump forming in his throat as he sponged her arms, front and back. "I definitely will jump you. In three weeks, when we can have all the action we want without having to worry about rushing you to the ER."
She pouted. "I'll bet Zatanna is having all the rough sex she can get right about now."
"Zatanna? Who's she seeing? Last you told me, she was still single."
"She is. She's just been using Dicky for his body," Artemis informed with a dramatic waggle of her eyebrows, relishing the juicy gossip.
Wally laughed. "Dick and Zatanna again? I thought that was over a long time ago."
"She says it is. She claims they have some kind of 'friends with benefits' arrangement. And then she called me a homemaker."
He laughed harder. "Well, my little homemaker," he crooned mockingly while helping Artemis climb out of the chair and into his cozy and oversized red bathrobe. "How about a kiss for your adoring husband-figure?"
In the hallway, M'gann was gliding towards the kitchen for some late-night - or early-morning? - tea. She was stopped outside the ladies' shower room by the muffled sound of laughter and, wondering who could be up so late - or so early? - she stopped and peered through the small mesh window on the door, ready to break up any teen shenanigans and send the offenders off to bed.
The laughter inside wasn't coming Batgirl or Wonder Girl like she suspected, but from Artemis and Wally, still awake, even at this hour. M'gann, embarrassed to catch her two friends together even though they hadn't seen her, was about to continue on her way, but something made her pause; to avoid detection, she shifted her molecules to camouflage, and pressed closer to the glass.
She had not often seen Wally and Artemis together since their years on the team; after they quit the hero business and moved to California to attend Stanford University, their contact had become limited. Working covert ops - even with expansion of the team - didn't leave much time for off-the-job socialization.
So M'gann was surprised to see how easy and free they were with each other, completely uninhibited, even in the face of nakedness and evident mortality - it was so different from the yelling, bickering, tackling courtship they'd danced through as awkward teenagers. Wally was reeling a laughing Artemis in towards him with her good arm, compensating for her precarious balance on the cast with a hand inside the open bathrobe on her waist, a big goofy grin on his face as he planted a firm kiss on her laughing mouth. M'gann watched, unnoticed, as Artemis pressed herself closer to Wally, pulling him down the final few inches to her level, arm looped around his neck. As as Wally came up for air, running a hand through his orange hair and tightly cinching the belt of the crimson robe, M'gann was about to hurry on before someone else was exposed and she saw something she would regret, when the two in the showers began to display a new kind of tenderness.
Gently, Wally lowered Artemis back into the chair and pulled the elastic out of her long golden ponytail before taking the shower head and pressing it softly to the crown of her head, letting the water trickle into the roots and flow down the long golden strands. He ran it carefully down the length of her hair, making sure to catch all the dry spots, and emptied a palmful of creamy white shampoo into his hands. He worked the shampoo from the tips on up, until all the yellow was concealed under a foamy white lather. Artemis was leaning back, eyes closed, a deep, satisfied smile widening and softening the hard lines of her face, and sighed when it came time to rinse. Even this Wally did thoroughly, each motion full of love and care.
The meaning M'gann gleaned from watching it all was momentous. She hadn't bothered to peek into their minds - she didn't need to. Wally's devotion to Artemis, and Artemis' complete trust in him, was evident and overwhelming. M'gann was hardly surprised to discover tears dripping down her pale green cheeks.
Before she turned to go, she saw Wally towel-dry the hair he'd so tenderly washed, run a comb through it all, and part it down the middle and begin twisting it into two even French braids. Artemis, all the while, the hard lines of her face completely relaxed, was humming - softly but audibly - a lullaby M'gann couldn't recognize.
Floating away, M'gann wracked her brain to try to remember when - if ever - she had felt completely safe and comfortable and free with someone, like she had witnessed in the showers. After several minutes' hard concentrated reflection, she came up with one memory.
Years ago, over a lazy and mission-less weekend, she and Connor had hiked to the top of Mount Justice, just for the fun of it, and to enjoy the harbor bursting into early bloom around them. The sun was warm and cheerful on their faces - so different from the angry and blistering sun she knew from Mars. When they had reached the top, M'gann had cracked open the book of poetry she'd levitated with them and began reading aloud, letting the words wash over them, almost musical. Connor had set about gathering flowers - simple wild daisies - and when he had acquired a pile, he sat twining them around M'gann's thin fingers.
She hadn't noticed when her mind began to wander and her constant concentration began to slip. Only when she glanced out over the ocean, glistening pink and green and gold in the brilliance of the setting sun, did she notice that she had ceased to speak aloud, and was instead sharing the lyrical poetry with Connor telepathically. She would have smiled at her forgetfulness, but found as she tried that she no longer had the facial muscles necessary to smile.
Somewhat alarmed at the extent of her absentmindedness, she looked down at the hand holding her book, and was appalled to see that it had grown long, bony, and snow-white, and had lost two fingers. With a horrified start, she reared back, feeling that her spine had elongated and curved, her carefully formed legs had lost their shape and become grasshopper-like.
The consciousness touching hers - Superboy's, Connor's - felt her alarm and fear, and responded with tender reassurance. Wordlessly, he showed her his calm confidence, his loving acceptance, and warmth towards her, effectively letting the force of his love wash over her.
When she had gathered enough courage, M'gann glanced down from her full white Martian height of twelve and a half human feet to behold Connor Kent - half-Kryptonian, half-human clone - smiling up into her lipless face, small fleshy fingers resting motionlessly on her long bony ones. With a stubby pinkie, he tapped the last and thinnest digit of her third finger.
It was on this last digit - just before the final joint - that his woven string of daisies had run out.
M'gann, in her adopted human form, sat at the foot of her bed, thick tears coursing down her cheeks. She stared down at her delicate five-fingered hands, glaring at the pearly green fingernails, each perfectly shaped and identical in length.
When she climbed under the covers, her gaze fell upon a silver-framed photograph of her and Lagoon Boy on the bedside table, making smooching faces for the camera. Sickened, she flipped the frame over face-down before closing her eyes and dreaming of poetry and daisies and piercing blue eyes.