Okay, so… here it is. My baby. I mean not my literal baby, but my baby nonetheless.
I wrote the first draft of this thing back in August, and had ideas for it as early as June. The original draft was about 15,000 words. I recently got the motivation, thanks to Tumblr, to go back and revise it, which I did, practically starting from scratch in many places. And, honestly, I wouldn't have been able to get through it without the surprising support and enthusiasm of everyone on Tumblr and in the GDocs session, so thank you all SO MUCH for being my cheerleaders!
I guess this might be something halfway decent because I'm nervous and fussy as all hell about it, and I am so afraid that it's stupid, or too obscure, or that I didn't make it work right. But honestly? Even if it turns out this thing sucks, I'm proud of myself, because THIS FUCKER IS 25,000 WORDS, YOU GUYS, DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW BIG OF A DEAL THIS IS FOR ME?
Special thanks to Veg, Annica, Lara, Mebby, Katelyn, Nemo, and all the anonymous dorkwads who watched me write the first chunk of this in GDocs. YOU PEOPLE ARE THE REAL MIRACLES.
Okay okay I'm done. (DEEP BREATH) ENJOY!
I claim no ownership to nor affiliation with Young Justice or The Breakfast Club. This is a nonprofit work of fanfiction.
On the wall over the third urinal in the boys' bathroom, somebody has scratched something in disjointed, angular letters with a knife. It says, I'm eating my head.
They've all seen it at least once. None of them gets it.
Saturday, March 24, 2010. Happy Harbor High School, Happy Harbor, Rhode Island.
Dear Mr. Strange,
We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us – in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a class president, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That's the way we saw each other at seven o'clock this morning. We were brainwashed.
But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a class president, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
The Breakfast Club.
There are five of them in the library on Saturday morning by seven o'clock, and the sixth walks in ten minutes late with her hands in her pockets and her scowl hidden behind a pair of reflective aviators.
There are eight tables. The two redheads are at the front on the left, a matching freckled pair, practically siblings. The girl, who has her bangs pulled back by a burgundy headband, has her hands folded on the wood in front of her and is chewing her rosy lower lip. The boy, in a yellow-and-scarlet letter jacket over a hoodie, is slumped back in his chair, thumping his leg rapidly as he surveys the shelves around them with wariness. They'll glance at each other every now and then and smile wryly.
The front table on the right is occupied by a tall kid with dark skin and unnaturally blond hair. His navy jacket is zipped to the neck, and his arms are folded. Either he's sleeping or he's thinking or possibly both, but either way, his solemn expression suits his thick eyebrows and high cheekbones perfectly.
The blonde girl in the aviators and the oversized wool coat takes a seat behind the redheads, leaning back in a chair and kicking her feet onto the table. The buckles on her boots make a sharp clicking noise on the surface, and she lets out a loud, obvious sigh. At the table beside her, the nimble-looking boy in the casual midnight blue blazer looks over at her inquisitively. She jerks her chin at him and he flicks his azure eyes away with pointed disinterest.
In the absolute farthest corner of the back table, a burly boy with black hair draws his leather jacket more tightly around himself, his back turned to the others, glowering at the carpet. His sneakers are practically falling apart on his feet. He grinds the toes together and they squeak.
The boy in the letter jacket glares over his shoulder at him, to no response. The girl next to him nudges him gently, inclining her head, and it seems to quell his annoyance, because he turns back around, crossing his arms.
The class bell rings. (The school leaves it on even over the weekends.) 7:15. The moment it quiets, the library door opens, and the girl in the aviators drops her head back with a tortured groan.
Principal Strange strides in with his arms folded authoritatively. He knows each and every one of the six in the library. He's a thin man, but impossibly imposing, staring analytically at everyone he passes by from behind the lenses of his round glasses, and they've never seen him in anything but a suit. Sometimes he simpers, and it makes everything worse.
He halts in the center of the room, just in front of the tables, and releases his arms, linking them behind his back. He surveys each of them in turn like he's watching a police lineup.
"Good morning," he says, though it almost sounds like it's a question, a request for reciprocation.
None of them answers for a moment. The kid at the back doesn't even turn around.
"Good morning, sir," the boy with the blond hair replies after a time, dipping his head with tentative respect.
Strange's face splits into a small smile.
"I imagine you all know why you're here," he continues without giving any visible reaction to the greeting, gazing around at them. "I'd either be very amused or very insulted if you didn't."
"Um…" The female half of the redheaded duo raises her hand, and Strange nods to her. "I'm – are we all being punished for… similar offenses?"
"Oh, not at all, Miss Morse," Strange replies as though he's greatly enjoying himself. "Not at all. Detention isn't divided by the degree of your offense. That would be far too hectic."
"All the same," she insists softly, "I don't – I don't think I really belong in here."
Strange's smile goes slightly sour, and she balks.
"Nobody really thinks they belong in here, I'm afraid," he tells her with histrionic sadness. She shifts in her seat and he steps away from her, turning his attention to the collective again.
He pulls back the sleeve of his suit jacket and looks thoughtfully at his watch. The artificial smile never leaves.
"So." He sighs briskly and drops the sleeve again. "It's now seven twenty, kids. You have exactly eight hours and forty minutes to consider your transgressions this past week, and I've drawn up an excellent outlet for you to use to that end."
The girl in the sunglasses pushes them onto her forehead and leans back in her chair; after a second, she spits into the air and catches the saliva in her mouth. The boy in the letter jacket grimaces and makes an appalled noise. Strange ignores it.
"Today," he says in a lilting, even tone, "you'll all be writing an essay! No less than one thousand words, please. This essay ought to consist of you telling me who you think you are. Since I spend all of my time being so interested, and definitely wouldn't rather be spending it at home on this fine Saturday."
He strides to each of the polished tables and places three sheets of binder paper and a pencil in front of their respective occupants, never losing his amused little smirk. The girl in the aviators flicks her pencil away when Strange turns his back to return to the front of the room.
"No talking," Strange declares. "No moving from your seats. No sleeping." He shoots a pointed look in the blonde girl's direction. "No loopholes on the essay, and absolutely… no… disturbances. Not a single sound from this room, or you'll all be reunited next Saturday. Is that clear?"
After a strained pause, they all nod in straggling succession, save for the boy at the back, who merely makes a strange grunting noise.
The stoic at the very front clears his throat and stands. Strange eyes him appraisingly, but says nothing, and the boy inhales thoughtfully before speaking.
"Sir," he pronounces carefully, "I would like to make it abundantly clear that I have no intentions of returning, and will do my utmost to fulfill—"
"Sit down, Mr. Durham," Strange interjects calmly.
Durham blinks and mutters out a thank you before taking his seat again.
"Are there any questions?" Strange inquires, leaning forward.
"Yes." Heads turn – the girl with the aviators has her hand raised. She is staring at Strange with an unreadable expression, one dark eyebrow cocked. "If you don't mind my asking."
"Not at all, Miss Crock," Strange ripostes, though his smile starts to look a bit more forced. "You are, after all, a regular, and as such, I'd say you're entitled to your fair share of questions."
"That's very diplomatic of you, sir, really," she bites back, with just enough venom to maybe kill an ox. "So... I just have to know. Are you raiding Barry Manilow's wardrobe behind his back? Because, if so, I'd say that violates the school's honesty code."
The red-haired girl lets out a scandalized gasp. Her companion bites his lip to hold back a laugh, the kid in the blazer chokes incredulously, and Durham glares warningly at the blonde, to which she shrugs lazily.
Strange doesn't respond at first. He merely smiles inexplicably down at her, his hands still poised behind his back, and she wrinkles her nose at him, her chin jutting out rebelliously, her eyebrows raised.
Finally, after a moment, Strange claps his hands, gives the room a concluding bob of the head, and pivots around to stride out without a word. The door closes behind him, sending a great sound through the yawning, empty library.
None of them look at each other. The silence that stretches among them is enormous and taut, but none of them attempts to break it.
Well, for about five minutes, anyway.
"Fuck," the girl with the aviators suddenly exclaims, startling Durham into jumping.
When she doesn't continue, the boy in the blazer asks, "What?"
She stares over at him as though she'd forgotten he was there before sniffing, rubbing the back of her hand against her nose.
"If we have to take a dump, where do we go?" she demands.
The redhead in the letter jacket scoffs audibly. She sneers at him behind his back.
"It's a legitimate question, Sporto," she snarls. "Unless you'd rather I relieved myself in your lunch bag?"
"That's a real intelligent solution, Crock," letter jacket retorts hotly. "My mind is just – totally blown right now."
"That's gratifying to hear."
"Excuse me," Durham inserts delicately. "I do not wish to interrupt, but – perhaps it would be wise if we learned one another's names."
"Forget it; Strange said no talking," blazer hisses, but they all ignore him.
"No, no, I know these," aviators volunteers, rolling her shoulders back before raising one lazy finger to letter jacket. "The Wall-man, right? What exactly is your area of expertise?"
"Guys, Strange is gonna kill us," blazer insists, sending paranoid glances to the library door. "His office is right across the hall—"
"And Grayson," aviators continues, swiveling her attention to him before he can finish. "Resident mathlete and richie, or Dickie, if you're into nicknames. Charmed, I'm sure. Then there's little Miss Megan, cheer squad captain and golden girl, right? Wall-man's special lady."
The girl beside Wally flushes until her freckles disappear. Wally whirls on aviators but she puts up her hands, continuing around the room.
"Then, naturally, our beloved class prez, Kal Durham." She smirks at him. "By night known as Kaldur. And finally…"
She looks over her shoulder to the silent boy in the corner, quirking on eyebrow.
"Strong, silent type over there," she finishes. "Real life of the party."
"His name is Conner," Megan says shyly, glancing away hastily when Wally stares incredulously at her.
"And you," Wally supplies after he's done gaping at Megan, turning all the way around in his chair to face the girl with the aviators. "Artemis Crock, right?"
"Wow, Sporto knows me." She gasps, putting a hand to her chest. "This is definitely one for the memoir."
"You make it pretty hard not to know you, considering every second of trouble around this place is your fault," Wally counters.
"Gosh, I'm so impressed. You've really got your finger on the pulse," Artemis sneers, picking at her teeth with her pinkie finger. "So. Level with me. Your name's really Wally?"
Conner lets out a snort. Wally narrows his eyes threateningly at the back of his head.
"Yes," he barks back to Artemis, turning away from her again and stuffing his hands into his armpits.
"Wow." She sniggers, leaning back and putting her hands behind her head to survey the ceiling. "Your parents must hate you."
"Shut up," Wally mutters. Megan puts her hand on his shoulder and he sinks down lower into his chair sullenly.
"Leave him alone," Megan tells Artemis with a frown.
"What're you gonna do, sweets?" Artemis bandies back, closing her eyes. "Throw a pom-pom at me?"
"Do you have to challenge everyone?" Megan demands, her offended expression deepening.
"Consider it a survival tactic," Artemis retorts with a tilted smirk that shows a few of her teeth. She stretches, and the end of her ponytail hits the floor.
"Then I'm amazed you've lasted this long," Megan says primly, turning away with a sharp degree of finality. Artemis wrinkles her nose and scoffs loudly, but doesn't offer any retaliation.
No one speaks for a good few moments. Artemis sheds her coat and scarf to reveal a pine-green plaid button-down, throwing the thicker garments onto the floor. Dick, in turn, takes off his blazer and tugs down the sleeves of his cadet blue sweater.
Megan follows the trend, draping her suede umber jacket over the back of her chair and smoothing her brown skirt. Wally, on the other hand, stubbornly refuses to conform, pulling the hood of the sweatshirt under his letter jacket up over his head and dropping his chin onto the edge of the table, still thumping his foot.
Kaldur staunchly folds his arms, closing his eyes again, and constricts his mouth into a thin line.
Dick pulls his stack of binder paper closer and twirls the pencil between his dexterous fingers, folding his lips in pensively. He combs a clump of loose hair back into its gelled place, chewing the end of the pencil.
Twenty minutes pass in relative silence. Megan hums a pop tune quietly to herself, but stops when Wally sends her an askance look. The room plunges back into stillness.
Artemis is the one to break it.
"Hey," she says, leaning forward toward Dick, who doesn't react. "Hey. Nimrod."
He blinks and looks up from his essay, raising an eyebrow at her. She reciprocates the expression, albeit much more cynically.
"If you keep chewing on that thing, you're not gonna be hungry for lunch," she chastises him.
"Uh," Dick mumbles, pulling a face. "Thanks for – the warning."
"Don't mention it, geek bait," she dismisses him, waving a hand. She burps, which makes Wally and Megan wince, before swiveling on Conner, who still hasn't moved. "Yo. Conner, or whatever your name is."
He jerks as though he'd been asleep and turns his head barely to indicate that he hears her. She snorts.
"Aren't you gonna get in on some of this thrilling conversation?" she asks, cracking her knuckles idly. "Sounds like cherry over there's just dying to communicate."
"What did you just call her?" Wally barks, whirling around. Artemis throws her hands up in mock terror, laughing.
"Relax, Wall-man; it's just an affectionate nickname," she coos.
"Take it back," he snarls. "Or I'm calling Strange in here."
"Whoa, I'm scared now." Artemis pretends to shudder. "You're a big man, Sporto. Really. I'm rethinking all of my errors here."
"Just shut up and leave her alone," Wally growls. "And stay shut up, will you? I don't want you getting us all in trouble; I've got a track meet next Saturday."
Artemis lets out a loud, histrionic gasp that makes Conner jump. Kaldur opens his eyes, looking annoyed.
"And god forbid you miss a whole track meet!" she moans, clapping her hands onto her face. "I'd just cry!"
Wally splutters out, "Just shut up!" Dick snickers and he vehemently adds, "You too, Dick!"
"Just ignore her," Megan murmurs placatingly, sending Artemis another disappointed-looking frown. Artemis makes a hocking noise in her throat.
"And will you quit acting like such a slob?" Wally adds hotly. "It's unflattering."
Artemis all-out laughs at that one, throwing her head back until her ponytail brushes the floor again.
"Ignore her," Megan repeats softly, grasping Wally's shoulder.
Wally scoffs spitefully and finally turns away from Artemis again, shaking his head.
"As if that's a challenge," he mutters. "Can't imagine what she'd do with herself if people weren't paying attention to her."
"Probably something a little more productive than running around a circle after other guys in tight shorts," Artemis drawls.
"Oh, please, Crock," Wally counters. "Like you'd know anything about being productive. You don't even count. You might as well not even exist at this school."
A harsh expression draws itself across Artemis's features for a brief instant, and she clamps her jaw tightly, eyes shooting to the ceiling.
"Well," she ekes out after a moment, her voice sounding strained. "I guess I'll just dash on out and join the track team. Or shoot for student body president, like Kaldur over here."
Wally stifles a guffaw. Even Megan has to work to keep down a giggle at the prospect. Kaldur makes a strange coughing noise that sounds suspiciously like a chortle.
Artemis glares around at all of them, pushing her sunglasses down onto her nose and drawing her knees up to her chest.
"Don't make me laugh, Wall-man," she snarls. Wally turns his head, green eyes boring warily into hers. She raises her eyebrows over the aviators, her lips curling into a smirk. "You couldn't ignore me if you tried."
Wally's cheeks flush and he turns back around so sharply that it shakes his chair.
"In your dreams," he says nastily. Artemis's shoulders rise and fall passively and she pushes a few wavering strands of blonde behind her ear.
"Well," Kaldur interjects suddenly, tilting forward from his feigned sleep and surveying the other five reproachfully. "Now that we have sorted out that riveting display, can we focus on following the rules we're supposed to?"
"Prez has a point," Artemis declares, throwing a hand in the air. "All in favor of following his glowing advice, say aye."
"Artemis, I think it would be best if you stopped talking now," Megan tells her firmly without turning her head.
"You guys, maybe the best option here is to shut up and write our papers," Dick suggests warningly, still conspiratorially craning his neck at the library doors as though in fear that Strange will come swooping in at any second. "I mean, not that I don't love your company, but I'd really rather not have a reunion as early as next Saturday. Defeats the purpose."
"What are you babbling about, Grayson?" Artemis barks, and Dick rolls his eyes.
"Nothing you'd listen to anyway," he sighs with mock despondence, picking up his pencil again and scribbling something down on his paper.
Artemis mutters something that sounds similar to "Wow, you are smart," but she lapses into mulish quiet as she pushes her sunglasses further up onto her face and sinks down into her chair, her brow deep in a glower.
"Dick's right," Megan says. "We should get to work. Then we can just get this whole thing over with."
"Yeah," Wally agrees halfheartedly.
Artemis clears her throat and suddenly stands, throwing her ponytail over her shoulder and adjusting her aviators before loping toward the library doors. Dick makes a hissing sound at her, appalled, and Kaldur barks, "Sit down!"
"You heard the princess, boys," Artemis retorts. "Get to work!"
"Don't screw around!" Wally yells warningly. "Hey, Artemis – come on, just sit down; you're gonna mess this all up—"
"Young man, have you finished your paper?" Artemis singsongs back, poking her head around the threshold of the door before backing up and reaching for the mechanism keeping the door open. "Hey, if any of you guys are in a tattletaling mood, just remember snitches get stitches."
"Oh, for the love of..." Wally groans, smacking a palm to his face. Dick seems torn between snickering and dropping his head into his hands.
Artemis rapidly twists out one of the screws and sprints back to her chair, plopping down just as the door slams closed. The sound practically rattles the bookshelves, and Wally lets out a wordless yell of frustration.
"We're screwed," he growls. "That's it. We're done. Thanks a lot, Crock."
"Don't mention it," Artemis grins, stuffing the screw into her pocket.
"Put it back!" Megan shrieks, sounding distressed when she wheels on Artemis with incensed eyes. "Artemis, this isn't funny! We're going to get in so much trouble!"
"I think it's funny," Artemis insists with a comical shrug.
"I would say that your sense of humor is rather warped," Kaldur scolds her, standing cautiously from his seat and creeping toward the door.
"Careful; if Strange catches you near that thing, you're toast, Prez," Artemis calls, clearly enjoying herself.
"I am going to see if I can fix it," Kaldur explains bluntly. Artemis snorts.
"She took out the screw that supports the locking mechanism," Dick supplies. "It's not fixable unless you have the actual screw."
"Spectacular," Kaldur grumbles, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Do you derive some sort of sick pleasure from being punished?"
"You could say that," Artemis sniggers, which makes Wally grimace. "Sit down; I can hear him coming."
Kaldur begrudgingly complies. Just as he's collected himself again, the door swings open, and Strange walks briskly in.
He comes to a halt at the front of the table rows, eyes sweeping the room. Megan fidgets under his gaze, chewing her lip and staring down at her hands, and Wally purposefully avoids looking anywhere but at the circulation desk. Conner makes a foreboding grumbling noise, hunching his shoulders.
"Well?" Strange finally asks after a moment, staring discerningly at them over the rims of his glasses. "Would anyone care to volunteer an explanation for why that door is closed?"
"Maybe it had a screw loose," Artemis deadpans, polishing one of the buckles on her boot with her sleeve.
Strange bristles at the sound of her voice, turning deliberately in her direction with his arms folded across his chest.
"That's a fascinating theory, Miss Crock." He draws the words out slowly. Artemis clears her throat.
"It happens to the best of us, sir," she says with utterly ersatz sadness. "Even doors."
"Give me that screw," Strange orders her crisply, extending his hand and striding toward her table.
"I don't have it," she replies calmly, closing her eyes and shifting in her chair.
"Give it to me, Miss Crock," Strange repeats, his tone growing increasingly cold. Artemis opens one indolent eye. Wally looks over his shoulder and pointedly raises his eyebrows at her, but she just wrinkles her nose.
"I don't have it," she insists, so serenely that she almost sounds credible. "Screws fall out all the time, sir. The world's an imperfect place."
"I'm sure you think you're very amusing," Strange hisses. Artemis shrugs cockily and Strange slams his hands down on the table. Artemis doesn't flinch. "But hear me, Miss Crock. You're the only one who does. You compensate for your gross shortcomings as a human being with this pumped-up flagrance of yours, but you're not fooling anyone. Especially not me. Now give me that screw, or I can promise you that you'll regret it."
"God, I'm so scared I could piss myself," Artemis bites back, her eyes wild with anger. "Is that all you've got, Strange? I'll regret it?"
"Give it to me, or I'll have West shake it out of you," Strange reiterates, dead calm, his glasses glinting in the fluorescent light. Artemis finally jerks her feet off of the table and sits forward, glowering venomously up at Strange, barely a few inches away from him.
"I'd be thrilled to see him try," she retorts.
Wally can't hold it in any longer. "Cut it out!"
Artemis blinks, taken aback, and looks him in the eye over Strange's shoulder.
"Stop," Wally mouths, insistent. Artemis swallows and tears her eyes away, flicking them back onto Strange's.
"I think another Saturday is in order," Strange muses, his face splitting into a smile. "Yes. Yes, I think that's a good solution."
"What can I say?" Artemis snaps. "I'm thrilled."
"Wonderful!" Strange exclaims, leaning forward. "Then I'm sure you'd be glad to commit to the next one as well."
Artemis mirrors the motion, her features contorted with rage.
"Ecstatic," she hisses. "Do you promise you'll be just as much of an asshole as you usually are? I'd hate to miss out."
"Another," Strange murmurs.
"Ooh, might have to check my calendar," Artemis snarls, almost ferally. "You free next month?"
"I certainly am," Strange says, "So you may have another. And another after that. In fact, why not just cement the fact that you'll be sulking in this library like an attention-hungry child for the rest of your high school career, Miss Crock?"
"Piss off, Strange," Artemis growls at the absolute bottom of her voice.
"Sir," Wally suddenly interjects, and both Artemis and Strange jerk their attention to him. He's staring at the two of them with a deeply etched frown, solemn and emphatic. "She didn't do it. The screw just fell out. It just closed, sir."
"Did it?" Strange asks, calculating. He straightens and turns away from Artemis, who glares at Wally, blatantly affronted. "Well, I'm glad you're being honest with me, Mr. West. It is, after all, the best policy."
Wally nods stiffly at him, his grip on the back of his chair tightening. Megan gulps before stuttering out an agreement.
"I-It's true, Mr. Strange," she says. "I don't – We don't really know what happened, but the door just broke."
Strange turns to Kaldur, who, after a moment, nods once. Dick does the same, bowing his head, and Conner jerks his chin down.
"Well then," Strange says pensively. "I suppose I'll have to call the janitor in here when he arrives. As you were, students."
He glances pointedly at Artemis before leaving. The moment the door snaps shut behind him, she rears her head back and roars, "FUCK YOU!"
By nine o'clock, all of them are asleep.
Megan had been the first to succumb, her head dropping from its perch in her palm and thudding onto the table. Wally is sprawled out in his chair, arms dangling at either side. Conner hasn't changed position in the slightest, but his head is lolling and his eyes are closed; and Kaldur is in the same meditative pose that he always takes, but his breathing is considerably slower. Artemis is stretched across three chairs, aviators askew.
Dick glances around at the other five, his chin resting on his arms, and rubs at his eyes. He takes a look at his watch. Five minutes past nine.
None of them are awake to hear him snore.
Strange comes barging in at around ten and wakes them up with promises of bathroom breaks. Artemis spends about twenty minutes in the ladies' room and Strange won't let Megan leave her in there alone, so she has to listen to a bad rendition of Queen's "Under Pressure," impromptu base line and all, while she waits for Artemis to get bored enough to go back into the library.
Once Strange finishes glaring suspiciously at them and leaves again, Artemis kicks her feet up onto the table and yawns loudly, and Conner shuffles over to the theatre section. Megan strays after him, and naturally, Wally follows her; Kaldur and Dick stay put, staring boredly off into space.
"Find anything good back there?" Artemis calls over her shoulder. When nobody answers, she shifts around in the chair until she's straddling it, resting her chin on the back of it.
She hears a ripping sound and a yell of, "Don't do that!" from Megan. With a sigh, she heaves herself out of the chair and walks over to where the three are gathered to find Conner tearing pages out of a book.
"Whoa," she exclaims, grinning. "You live life on the edge, my friend."
"He won't stop," Wally grumbles. Megan looks horrified, covering her mouth with her hands. "Huck Finn is pretty much toast."
"Wow, what a tragedy," Artemis sighs histrionically, clutching her chest. "How could he? It's wrong to destroy literature, right, Wall-man?"
Wally mutters something unintelligible and crams his hands into the pockets of his red hoodie. He'd shed the letter jacket prior to the bathroom escapade.
"I don't think he likes Mo-lay very much," Megan says, sounding concerned.
"Molière," Artemis corrects her lazily. Wally stares at her incredulously and she shrugs. "What? I read."
Wally rolls his eyes and yanks the book out of Conner's hands. Conner sticks his lower lip out and scowls, but doesn't retaliate.
"Hey, Megs," Wally says, tossing the ruined copy of Tartuffe over his shoulder. "Zatanna's having a party tonight. Her dad's out of town. You going?"
"Um," Megan bites her lip. "I don't know. My mom said I was grounded, but – my dad said I could do what I wanted. So... I'm not sure."
"Hey, who do you like better?" Artemis asks abruptly. Megan blinks protuberantly at her, clearly startled.
"I – what?" she squeaks.
"Who do you like better?" Artemis repeats. "Your mom or your dad?"
"W-Well, I..." Megan frowns. "I don't really have a preference, I guess."
"But if you had to pick one," Artemis presses her, "to live with, or whatever. Who would it be?"
Megan considers this, tucking her hair behind her ear.
"Neither," she finally says quietly. "I'd go live with my Uncle John."
"He loaded, too?" Artemis asks, propping herself up on a bookshelf and slinging one leg over the other.
"I... I guess so," Megan answers tentatively. "I mean, he's – I'd be well off. If I stayed with him." She sighs, shrugging and putting her hands on her upper arms. "I don't know. My parents are fine, but I – I don't think they like me very much. I mean, I don't think I'm that important."
Before Artemis or Wally can reply, Conner perks up sharply and lets out a loud, "HA!"
Megan jumps, shying away, and Artemis grins. Conner, seeming satisfied, leans slowly back against the wall again, his hands in his pockets, his head down. Megan makes a small spluttering noise.
"What're you guys doing back here?" Dick, walking up to them with an inquisitive look in his eye, breaks the strained silence. "I thought I just heard a car backfire."
"No, that was Conner," Artemis sniggers, clapping the sulking boy on the shoulder. He narrows his eyes. "Finished your essay yet, Grayson?"
"Nah." Dick wipes his nose with the back of one finger. "Couldn't concentrate. Not with the sounds of modern warfare blazing in the background."
"Such a nerd," Wally mutters under his breath, barely audible. Dick doesn't hear him.
"So," Artemis says, turning to Wally. "What about you, Sporto? Do you get along with your parents?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," Wally replies belligerently. "Lemma guess. That makes me an idiot, right?"
"You're already an idiot," Artemis tells him. "But now you're either a liar or a loser. I'm banking on the first option."
"Just shut up, Crock; you don't know what you're talking about," Wally barks, turning away from her to attempt to focus on the Oscar Wilde section. Artemis laughs derisively, and Wally's shoulders stiffen. "Shut up!"
"Make me," Artemis goads him, the smirk never leaving her face. Wally's ears turn red.
"Whoa, hold up," Dick says, stepping between the two of them with outstretched arms. "Calm down, you guys. Let's try to stay whelmed here."
A beat. Wally slowly turns his head to stare deadpan at Dick, his eyebrows low.
"Let's try," he says flatly, "to stay what?"
"Whelmed," Dick explains, beaming. "Y'know, that happy medium between overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Standard. Healthy. The norm."
"Dude, I don't even know what you're saying," Wally confesses, shaking his head.
"You got any more of those, dweebie?" Artemis asks, sounding immensely entertained.
"Oh, sure." Dick raises his hand to tick the words off on his fingers. "Traught, the opposite of distraught. Aster, the opposite of disaster. Take out the dis and you've got some fine moods at your disposal. And then there's, uh, chalant—"
"Zatanna taught you that one, right?" Megan interjects.
Dick flushes inexplicably.
"Yes," he ekes out. "Yes she did. Anyway, there's also, uh—"
"Okay, I was just asking for examples, not a whole Dick-tionary," Artemis snickers behind her fist. "You've really got this Weird Geek image down, Grayson."
"I try," Dick says breezily, bowing.
"I doubt you even try at all," Wally mutters, flicking through a filing cabinet with various maps in it.
"We should probably get back in there," Megan says, craning her neck over to see into the main room. "Kaldur might be wondering where we are."
"I somehow doubt that, but yeah, I agree with Queenie," Artemis declares, hopping down from her perch with a loud thud. "Let's go keep dear ol' prez company."
Mutters of assent follow and the five of them troop back to the tables, taking their seats again.
"I certainly hope you weren't damaging school property," Kaldur says almost paternally, in a tone that practically screams how little he believes such a hope could come true.
"Oh, not at all," Artemis says earnestly, linking her hands behind her head and stretching. Her shirt rides up with the motion and reveals her midriff. Wally looks away. "We wouldn't dream of it, Kal. Really."
"That is gratifying to hear." Artemis isn't sure if he's being sarcastic or not, so she shrugs apathetically. "I don't know if any of you have been checking the time, but it is almost noon."
"Sweet!" Wally exclaims, pumping his fist. "Lunchtime!"
Megan smiles wryly with a shake of her head, but Wally, in his ecstasy, doesn't notice it. Artemis bites her lip and snorts.
"Hey, man," Wally says suddenly, looking to Kaldur with a genuine grin. "Thanks for looking out for us."
Kaldur dips his head hesitantly, as though he can't tell whether Wally's joking or not, and permits himself a twitch of a smile.
"You're welcome," he replies.
Artemis pretends to play a violin, humming a sappy tune, and Wally glowers at her.
"Do you have to interrupt everything?" he demands hotly.
Artemis raises her shoulders, pulling a face.
"I can't help that I'm the star of my own show," she tells him, batting her eyes. He scoffs.
The library door swings open and Strange comes in, his expression sour. All of them sit at attention except for Conner, who drops his face onto the table and groans audibly.
"Lunch break," Strange announces brusquely. "One hour."
Artemis raises her hand but speaks before Strange can give her permission.
"I don't have anything to drink," she says lightly. "May I propose a trip to the soda machines for fortification?"
"Just because you didn't bring fortification for yourself doesn't mean you have the right to disrupt those who did, Miss Crock," Strange simpers, but Dick interjects.
"Uh, actually, Mr. Strange, I don't have anything to drink, either." He nods to Conner. "And I doubt he does. He's always getting dehydrated."
"I'm thirsty, too," Megan adds, and Wally agrees with her, and Kaldur does, too. Strange pinches the bridge of his nose for patience.
"All right," he grinds out. "Miss Morse. Mister..." He snaps his fingers in Conner's direction, frowning. "Young man, what's your—oh, never mind. You and Miss Morse, go to the soda machine and bring back drinks for everyone."
Megan squeaks. Conner sniffs indifferently. And really, that's how it starts.
Megan walks down the hallway next to Conner with her hands clasped in front of her. He has his crammed into his jacket pockets, staring resolutely ahead without blinking. Their footsteps echo on the empty walls, ringing against the lockers arhythmically.
Megan bites her lip in thought before deciding to break the silence.
"So," she begins, pulling confidence into her voice. "What did you... do to get in here?"
Conner has absolutely no visible reaction. His pace doesn't falter. He doesn't even blink.
Megan's brow furrows and she mutters, "Okay then."
"What'd you do?" Conner asks suddenly. Megan almost gives a start.
"He speaks," she jokes nervously, pulling at her fingers. "How come you're always so quiet, Conner?"
"Don't call me that," he says sharply. "You don't know me."
Megan eschews, frowning.
"Sorry," she mumbles.
"Anyway, I'm quiet because I know people don't actually listen," he tells her, sounding bored. "So I figure why bother, y'know?"
"Oh." Megan's eyebrows knit together. "Well, I'd – I'd listen."
Conner finally glances aside at her, and his perpetual scowl thaws for a moment. He slows before stopping altogether, and Megan halts a few steps in front of him, turning to face him self-consciously.
"Why are you being so nice to me?" he asks, staring quizzically at her. Her cheeks redden.
"I don't know; I just – I try to be nice to everybody," she replies. "It's only fair."
In an instant, his glower is back again. He sighs curtly through his nose and tromps ahead, shouldering past her. She jogs to keep up, falling in to step beside him.
"Only fair," he repeats cynically under his breath. "That's adorable."
Megan's expression hardens. "Well, I'm sorry for trying to have a conversation with you. You haven't said a word all day and the second somebody tries talking to you, you act like it's an inconvenience."
"Maybe it is!" he barks, whirling on her. She stands her ground, brown eyes flashing.
"Then – then maybe you should stop trying to get so much attention!" she retorts sharply, and then she strides by him, tossing her hair decisively over one shoulder.
Conner watches her for a moment without moving to catch up. By the time he finally lets out a groan and runs after her, she's rounding the corner with an armful of Coca-Cola cans and a frigid demeanor he hasn't seen all morning.
"Let's just go back," she says coolly, and Conner, not wanting to further antagonize the girl who could probably beat him to death with her own purse, complies.
When they reach the library doors, he holds it open for her and apologizes. She pauses for a moment, her shoulders loosening slightly, before exhaling something that sounds similar to "it's fine."
"What took you guys so long?" Wally demands when Megan drops a Coke can in front of him. "Strange wouldn't let us eat until you got back."
"He was really losing it," Artemis cackles, gesturing to Wally. "You should've seen it. He looked like he was ready to try cooking Grayson."
Dick throws his hands up defenselessly. "Don't look at me; I'm all joints."
Megan sighs and finishes distributing the sodas before sitting down again, folding her hands in front of her. Wally, grinning like he's just graduated early, reaches under the table and procures a brown paper bag approximately as tall as his torso.
Dick has a Batman lunchbox that he opens carefully, and Artemis, when she notices it, leaps over the back of her chair and hops onto his table, snatching the lunchbox from his hands. He stares up at her, unimpressed.
"What're we having today, Mr. Grayson?" she asks, pawing through the contents. "Apple, PB&J with the crusts cut off, chocolate chip cookies... oh, this is so cute I could puke." She pulls out a Thermos. "What's this, coffee?"
"Soup, actually," Dick corrects her priggishly, yanking the lunchbox from her grasp. "And we are not having anything; I'll be eating alone, thank you."
"You're pretty ballsy for such a tiny guy." Artemis tugs at her fingers until the joints pop. "Don't tell me I'm gonna have to beg you for the stuff."
"I wouldn't dream of causing you such an indignity," Dick says dryly, tossing her the apple, which she catches expertly and takes between her teeth before loping away. "You're welcome, milady."
"What've you got there, Kaldur?" Megan asks, trying to get a view of Kaldur's small red-and-white cooler.
"Looks big enough for a whole fish or something," Artemis cracks, but the apple muffles the words. She plucks it out of the way and continues, "Thought you were a vegetarian."
"I am," Kaldur confirms. "It is a salad."
Sure enough, he pulls out a large plastic container of lettuce and various other vegetables, followed by a bottle of mineral water.
"A pristine lunch for a pristine guy," Artemis drawls, lying down on the table with one leg up. "This is a good apple, Grayson."
"I'm so glad you think so."
"What about you, Sporto? What's on your pl—holy shit," Artemis sits upright again, ramrod straight, and gapes at Wally's arrangement.
From the paper bag, he has taken out three sandwiches, a full bag of potato chips, a banana, an orange, a carton of milk, and a box of Oreos. He blinks at her exclamation, turning around and frowning questioningly at her.
"What?" he asks through a mouthful of chips.
"Are you a meathead or a cow, West?" Artemis practically yells. "How're you supposed to eat all of that?"
Wally looks genuinely taken aback by her reaction.
"Uh, this really isn't that much food," he insists, reaching for a sandwich and unwrapping it. "I'm a runner, genius. I have a serious metabolism."
"Understatement of the century much?" Artemis grimaces as though repulsed before turning her attention to Megan. "Okay, so what've you got, the freaking royal banquet?"
Megan sighs, forcing herself to concentrate on the plate of cake in front of her. Artemis makes an astonished noise.
"I rest my case," she mutters, her eyes wide. "Do they even let you on the cheer squad if you eat anything except celery sticks?"
"I just really like cake," Megan expounds simply, picking up her fork. "I made it."
"Is your goal in life to fulfill the high school princess stereotype, or does it come naturally?"
"Leave me alone, Artemis," Megan tells her emphatically. "Can I please just eat?"
"Be my guest," Artemis replies, taking the last bite of her apple before chucking it over her shoulder. It lands on the staircase leading to the upper floor. "Hey, Conner. What've you got?"
"Nothing," Conner grunts back indifferently. Artemis doesn't press him.
"So, Wally," Artemis says after a good chunk of relative silence punctuated by Wally's loud chewing. "Did your parents pack that for you, or did you just raid the nearest grocery store?"
Wally throws his head back in exasperation, blatantly near the end of his tether.
"My uncle packed it," he answers curtly, taking a large bite out of his second sandwich.
"Oh." Artemis nods pensively, tapping her chin. "Right. Your uncle, Keystone's Olympic champ. I guess he'd know the ropes when it comes to stuffing oneself."
"Huh?" Conner interjects, and when Artemis looks over at him, he's frowning perplexedly at her.
"Oh, you didn't know?" she says airily, pulling her hair out of its ponytail and indolently starting to braid it.
"Didn't know what?"
"That his uncle, Barry Allen?" Dick replies before Artemis can fill in the blank, "He beat records in the 100- and 400-meter dashes. Won the Olympic gold medal three years in a row before he retired."
"Really?" Conner seems impressed. "That's amazing."
"Same with his grandpa," Artemis supplies boredly. "The old dude took the pre-war years by storm."
"Okay, I get it," Wally says suddenly, having long since stopped chewing. All heads turn to him. He's staring intently at a spot on the edge of the table, his fists curled in front of him.
"Isn't your cousin a big deal right now, too?" Artemis plows on, undaunted. "I hear he's already broken records."
"I heard about that, too!" Dick continues. "Bart Allen, right? He's incredible. Practically a prodigy. He's been training with Barry since last y—"
"I get it!" Wally shouts, and Artemis freezes. Megan has her hand raised toward his shoulder in concern, but withdraws it.
"Whoops." Artemis flinches mockingly, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. "Looks like we pressed the wrong buttons."
"Why does it bother you?" Kaldur inquires good-naturedly to Wally. "You've been doing excellent work on our track team; you ought to be proud."
"Yeah, yeah, I oughta be proud," Wally growls, wrinkling the wrapper from one of the sandwiches and tossing it into the bag. "I have a great idea. Let's move on."
"What's got your panties in a knot, West?" Artemis pries, leaning forward with a jeer. "Don't tell me you're jealous."
"Just shut up," Wally snarls. "For once in your life, just shut up."
Artemis throws her head back and laughs, hopping off the table. None of the others are smiling.
"I can't imagine what would give you cause to complain." She draws out each word with something between spite and incredulity, ambling towards him with deliberation. "You're like the freaking golden boy of this stupid school; what're you so upset about?"
"Hey, Artemis, lay off," Dick suddenly interrupts disparagingly, his face more serious than it's been all day.
"It is rude to make assumptions," Kaldur finishes, nodding in agreement. "Sit back down, Artemis. It doesn't concern you."
Artemis halts, turning to them with loose limbs and a stony expression.
"Oh, you think I don't know?" she sneers. "You think it's not stupidly obvious? Okay, fine." She strides up to the front of the room, putting her hands on her hips. "Here's my impression of life at the wonderful Wall-man's house."
Not one of them says a word. Artemis cracks her knuckles in preparation and throws her shoulders back, and a saccharine grin works its way onto her face. She pushes her hair behind one ear and clasps her hands at her chest.
"Oh, Wally!" she coos, twisting her fingers at her cheeks to indicate dimples. "You'll never guess what happened! Your precious little cousin ran around the world and back! Isn't that swell?"
She turns to her left.
"Gee, Mom!" she continues. "That's real swell! You wanna see how fast I can run?"
She pivots back to the right.
"Of course, sweetie!" she gushes, still dimpling. "You know how proud we all are of you!"
"Heck, I'm proud of me!" She runs in place, winking at an unseen crowd. "How about all of us go for a run around the world?"
"That's a top notch idea, Wallster!" She clutches at her cheeks, batting her eyelashes at Wally. "It's the perfect way to show how much we all love each other!"
She takes a step back, dropping the false dimples, but still simpering, and puts her arm around an invisible person, beaming until her nose scrunches.
"Darling, isn't our son super?"
She moves to the other side, her hands on the collar of her shirt.
"Yes, darling. Aren't we all super?" She makes a kissing face. "Ooh, ooh. Everything is super when we love each other."
The cloying demeanor plummets away in an instant, and she violently punches the air in disgust where the other person would be standing, before taking a bow with a flourish.
"Pretty accurate, right?" she sneers, putting one hand on the table and leaning on it with her other fist on her hip. "I'd say I deserve an award or two."
Wally seems to consider something before inclining just slightly toward her, and he lifts his head up to meet her eye. The vindictive look on his face does nothing to faze her.
"Eat," he says slowly, enunciating spitefully, "Shit."
Artemis keeps her stare riveted onto his, and he reciprocates with equal intensity. After a moment, she swallows (a bit dryly) and straightens up, blinking the magnitude out of her gaze and folding her arms.
"I totally would," she replies quietly, "but Grayson didn't seem to pack any."
Megan shoots a glare at Artemis, her normally pleasant face soured by resentment.
"Okay then, Artemis," she prompts coldly, "Why don't you show us what your family is like?"
Artemis puts a hand to her chest, feigning humility.
"I'm so flattered that you asked!" she squeals cheerily. Dick fidgets at her uncharacteristic air, frowning worriedly, but doesn't speak.
Artemis doesn't bother putting on her show at the front of the room this time, instead staying where she is in front of Wally. The simulated smile fades from her face and gives way to a bitter glare, and her limbs seem to tauten as she draws herself up to her full height.
"That wasn't right, little girl," she says in a voice not her own, one that's deep and gravelly and calculating. "You got it all wrong. Do it again."
She drops the overbearing demeanor and switches her position, folding her arms and bowing her head.
"I don't want to do it again." She's back to herself again, but only for a moment.
"Your sister could've done it," she growls in the huskier timbre, the edges of the words starting to taint with imminent fury. "But then again, your sister always was more gifted at these things."
"Maybe you should go out and find her, then."
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? But she's gone, Artemis. So's your pathetic excuse for a mother. It's just you and me."
"I hate you." Her eyes look genuinely damp, red at the rims, and Megan is starting to look repentant, opening and closing her mouth in an attempt to silence her. "I hate you."
"Take the knife and do it again."
"Don't make me tell you twice, little girl."
"Do you want to end up like your mother?" she's bellowing now. "Do you want to end up like your sister?!"
Wally's eyes have widened. Dick's face is blanched, and Kaldur's hands are clenched into shaking fists, and Conner looks horrified.
"No, Dad!" Artemis insists to no one, rigid with indignation. When she switches back to her father, she starts to raise her fist in a violent swing, but Wally suddenly leaps up from the table and grabs her arm, wrenching it down.
"Stop," he tells her, half a shout, almost desperate. She stares at him with wild eyes, breathing heavily, and he releases her roughly as though he'd been stung. Her nostrils are flaring.
"He..." Megan whimpers, aghast. "He hits you?"
Artemis steps away from them wordlessly, gulping something down, and pushes loose hair out of her face with shaking fingers.
"You asked," she tells them, dully, and then she turns away, striding rapidly past the rest of the tables and half-sprinting upstairs. She comes to a halt at the railing and sits there, roughly, dropping her chin onto her knees, wrenching her eyes closed.
"Is she..." Wally runs his hand through his hair, and it stands on end. "Shit."
"She will be all right," Kaldur murmurs. His fists have loosened. "Give her some space."
Startling all of them into jumping, Artemis suddenly lets out a raw scream torn two ways between anguish and rage, slamming her fist against the banister. The sound echoes thunderously against the walls before dwindling into the sharpest silence they've ever heard, and Wally shuffles back to his seat, pulling his hood up and burying his face in his folded arms. Megan swipes at her eyes, sniffing, and Dick runs a hand over his face.
The clock ticks to twelve-thirty. A plane goes by outside, its rumble a bare hum in the quiet.
It takes Artemis half an hour to come back down, but when she does, she disintegrates the stiff atmosphere with what has to be the most dazzling returning line in her repertoire.
"I have weed in my locker," she says.
Megan splutters in astonishment at her, rendered speechless. Wally can't seem to decide if he's amused or affronted.
"I see you're feeling better." Dick grins at her. "Way to start off what looks to be a promising second act to the day."
"Come on, losers; let's get outta here." Artemis creeps toward the front door, beckoning for them to follow her. "It'll be a snap to get it. Strange is probably down in the basement looking at the confidential psych files by now."
"You know, that seems like kind of a paradox," Dick muses, tapping his chin. "Strange used to be school psychiatrist before they hired Lance, so he should have clearance, but now that he's principal, he doesn't. The education system is a strange place."
"Crock, you've lost it," Wally exclaims incredulously. "We're not breaking out of here to get your pot stash."
"Why did we break out of there to get her pot stash?" Wally asks the ceiling as he and the other five traipse down the hallway.
"Quit whining, Wall-man; it's an easy trip," Artemis sniggers. She'd tied her hair into a messy bun before they'd left, and it reveals the nape of her neck; Wally had seen a silver chain there behind the collar of her shirt for a moment, but he hadn't commented on it. "I promise I won't tell your parents."
"This place is weird when there's no one around," Dick says pensively, gazing around with fascinated eyes. "I like it."
Kaldur lets out another tormented sigh, trailing along in their wake. His efforts to keep them contained had been valiant, but, like stir-crazy children, they'd gone stampeding out anyway, and he'd been forced to follow, if just to make sure that they didn't accidentally blow anything up (which, with Artemis in charge, was an entirely viable possibility).
"How much further is it?" Megan inquires, glancing over her shoulder periodically with worry hewn into her features.
"Eh, I dunno." Artemis shrugs. "We'll know when we get there."
"How do you know when he'll be back?" Wally asks her.
She shrugs again. "Well, if we're being honest here... I don't."
Wally's expression is somewhere between enraged and terrified. Artemis bows her head and smirks at him, her eyes partially concealed by her dark lashes.
"Being bad feels pretty good, huh?" she purrs. Wally grimaces and lightly elbows her away, which makes her snort with laughter.
"Artemis, if Strange catches us..." Megan warns her, but Artemis cuts her off with a punctuating laugh.
"Please, Megs," she says haughtily. "I know that man like the back of my hand. He'll be down there for ages trying to figure out new ways to psychologically torture his students."
They round a corner and she brightens, clapping her hands together. "And here we are!"
She stops in front of a bright red locker with various messages scrawled onto it in black Sharpie (most of which threaten gruesome death to any who try to open it) and the rest of them mill around her as she flicks the combination into the lock and unhooks it, pulling the door open.
"Is – Is that school property?" Kaldur asks, pointing to a bow propped against a quiver of arrows clearly labeled HAPPY HARBOR HIGH SCHOOL.
"No, it's an heirloom from my grandma," Artemis deadpans. "Duh it's school property, Kaldur. Where do you think all the archery equipment goes?"
Kaldur massages his temples and starts muttering under his breath about theft and inventory and enormous stress on the physical ed faculty, which seems to amuse Artemis all the more.
"Okay, so where's this crap we came all this way for?" Wally demands, thumping his foot.
Artemis blinks innocently at him.
"What crap?" she asks.
"The crap!" Wally retorts. "Come on, Artemis; don't play games; just get it so we can get out of here before Strange shows up."
"Oh," Artemis says sweetly. "You mean my marijuana?"
Wally scowls. "No, your bath salts. What else?"
"I don't have any," Artemis tells him plainly.
An immense silence stretches among all of them, dragging on until it's practically tangible, before Wally throws both of his arms in the air and yells, "WHAT?!"
Artemis links her hands behind her head and closes her eyes, shrugging complacently.
"I don't have any," she repeats. "I just figured we could all use some exercise. You guys were seriously bringing down the mood in there."
"We were bringing down the mood?!" Wally yelps. "You were the one who went haywire with the – the family impersonations!"
"Point is, Wall-man, I don't have any doobage," Artemis says, though a bit more harshly than she'd been speaking a moment ago. "I didn't know it was so important to you."
"Hey, I'm not objecting," Dick cuts in cheerfully, drowning out Wally's garbled denials. "I'm always up for an adventure."
"I do have some energy drinks, though," Artemis says, gesturing to the upper shelf of the locker with a flourish. "If you guys are parched."
"Forget it," Wally snaps. "We don't need any of that junk."
"Uh, speak for yourself!" Dick cries, standing on his tiptoes to snag a can. "They never let me have this at home; I've always wanted to try it."
"None for me, thank you," Megan says politely, looking slightly nauseous. Kaldur shakes his head silently.
"I cannot believe you risked further disciplinary action just so that we could wander the halls like fools," he says somberly. Artemis snorts loudly.
"Right, because if I'd actually had pot in here, that would've been so much less risky," she snarks. "You want one, Conner?"
Conner doesn't respond, so she shrugs and moves to close the locker, but Wally intercepts her in time to take a can of his own, purposefully avoiding her eyes. She laughs, and his ears redden.
"Atta boy, West," she congratulates him, clapping him on the shoulder. "All right, kids, let's head on back to hell."
Wally stays at the back of the procession this time, and Dick walks beside him, glancing periodically over at him. Megan and Artemis are chattering at the front – or, well, Artemis is regaling something that's making Megan quite flustered – and Conner is straggling in the middle next to Kaldur.
"So..." Dick says cautiously after clearing his throat. He puts his hands in the pockets of his gray pants and kicks at nothing on the floor. "How come you stopped talking to me?"
Wally blinks, startled, and looks over as though just noticing that the other boy was there.
"Huh?" he replies, taken aback.
"I mean..." Dick waves his hand dismissively. "It's just that, y'know, when we first started going here... and in eighth grade, and stuff—"
"Oh," Wally mutters, his heart dropping somewhere into his stomach. "Oh, uh... I don't – I don't know, I guess. I just met other people."
Dick rubs the back of his neck pensively, his eyelids lowering.
"Sorry," he finally says. "I guess I never thought that best friends really... met other people that much."
Wally swallows, running his thumb over the aluminum can in his hand, and stares down at it, turning it sideways.
"Sorry," he mumbles, because he can't think of anything else to say.
"Oh," Dick replies, and there's a niggling little edge of bitterness in the words that makes Wally's gut twist. "Good to know."
He strides a bit more quickly until he's ahead of him again, falling into step beside Conner. Wally stays at the back, trying to rid his throat of the uncomfortable dryness that's suddenly overcome it.
"Shit!" Artemis suddenly hisses, jerking to a stop and throwing her arms out to halt the rest of them. Conner bumps into Megan, who squeaks. "Shit, shit, shit; it's Strange!"
She reels around and shoves Megan and Conner in the other direction, whispering for them to run, and Wally and Dick get the memo, too, along with Kaldur, and within moments, the six of them are sprinting back the way they'd come in a harum-scarum scramble.
"Left!" Artemis orders them, and they obey her, swinging hectically around the corner toward the cafeteria. "We'll cut through the cafeteria!"
"No, no," Wally argues vehemently. "The activities hall! It's quicker!"
"West, shut up; you don't know what you're talking abou—DETOUR!" Artemis shrieks, sliding to a halt and flailing back the other way. "He's at the end of the hall getting water! Go, go, go!"
"No, stop!" Wally grabs her sleeve and yanks her to a halt. "Activities hall, Artemis! Trust me; I know this school!"
"Well, I know detention, genius, so unless you're—"
"Guys!" Dick squawks, waving his arms frantically in the air.
"I'm going through the activities hall; follow if you want," Wally snaps, sprinting off down the hall.
"I'm going with Wally," Megan stammers before following him. Dick makes a strange shrieking noise and goes along, limber legs carrying him in leaps over the floor, and Kaldur walks briskly behind them, but Conner stays, staring desperately at Artemis.
"Come on," he tells her insistently. She growls in frustration, but acquiesces, running beside him after the others.
They catch up to the rest within moments, and Artemis forges her way to the front, just behind Wally. When they turn the corner to the activities hall, they all practically screech to a halt, mouths agape.
There is a metal grate across the double doors. Artemis kicks it furiously, wheeling on Wally.
"Great directions, dumbass!" she barks. "Are you trying to get us re-detentioned?!"
"Sorry!" Wally yells back, rattling the grate and gritting his teeth before slamming his forehead onto the metal. "Crap. That's it. We're screwed."
Artemis opens her mouth to confirm this, but clamps it closed at the sound of approaching footsteps in the distance.
Megan inhales sharply, wringing her hands.
"What do we do?" she croaks.
Artemis looks around wildly before her eyes fall on a nearby janitorial closet. She snaps her fingers and turns to the others.
"We're not screwed. Go hide in that closet there," she tells them. Megan, Conner, and Dick obey her without complaint, and Kaldur, seemingly too drained to even counter anyone anymore, does the same. Wally squints at her for a moment, but backs away in line with the others, finally turning fully around to walk behind them.
Artemis, however, stays put.
Dick, Conner, Kaldur, and Megan all manage to slip inside. Strange's footsteps are getting closer. Wally halts at the threshold of the closet door when he notices Artemis isn't following, jerking his head up to stare at her with an incredulous expression.
"Get inside, Sporto," she says quietly, waving her hand at him. "I'm almost there."
He shifts from one foot to the other before stepping inside, and just as the door closes, Artemis takes off running.
"HEEE-LLLOOO MEGAN!" she sings at the top of her lungs, practically shouting as she leaps around a corner. "THE GIRL FOR ME, THE GIRL FOR YOU! EVENTUALLY SHE'LL GET A CLUE!"
She manages to make it into the gymnasium and snatch a bow and quiver from the supply closet, shooting them off at the framed photos of the most valued athletes, before Strange finally tracks her down.
"THE CROWD GOES WILD!" she bellows as she misses a target (Wally's photo) entirely. "ARTEMIS CROCK, PEOPLE'S CHAMPION!"
"Miss Crock!" Strange shouts sharply from behind her, his voice banging against the walls. "What in God's name are you doing?"
"My duty as the people's champion, obviously," Artemis drawls, nocking another arrow and whirling on Strange, aiming it at the spot between his eyes.
"Lower the weapon," Strange orders her. "Now."
Artemis drops the bow and arrow and puts her hands in the air, smiling lazily at her handiwork. Seven or so arrows are protruding from the photographs.
"I'm thinking of trying out for a scholarship." She grins, all teeth, and she's never seen Strange look so furious in her life.
"Do you think she's okay?" Megan asks for what must be the hundredth time, chewing on her nails.
"Unless Strange equipped the halls with man-traps, I think she'll pull through," Dick assures her, clearly amused.
Wally's foot has been thudding incessantly against the floor since they'd all sneaked back into the library, much more feverishly than earlier that morning. He glances at the clock again.
"It's been fifteen minutes," he mutters, sounding agitated.
"She will be fine," Kaldur attempts to placate him. "Strange has probably found her by n—"
Cutting him off, one of the library's double doors is flung open, and Artemis comes stalking in with Strange close behind. She doesn't look at any of them, storming to her chair and picking up her coat, scarf, and sunglasses in silence.
"Artemis?" Wally calls out, frowning. She doesn't respond.
"I regret to inform all of you," Strange tells them all evenly, "that you'll be deprived of Miss Crock's company for the remainder of the day."
"What for?" Conner demands out of nowhere, straightening angrily.
"For instigation, insolence, and general rule-breaking," Strange replies shortly. "She'll be spending the rest of the afternoon elsewhere, and I'm sure the separation will help the rest of you focus on your essays."
"I know that you completely can do that," Dick says coldly, "but I'm going to go for it anyway. You can't do that."
"Very amusing, Mr. Grayson." Strange simpers as Artemis finishes gathering her things and shoulders past him to wait by the doors. "Well, as you were, students."
He turns on his heel and walks briskly out of the library, and Artemis gives the other five one churlish look before following him. Dick waves at her as she leaves. Conner sinks sullenly into his seat, his arms folded tightly over his chest.
"He can't do that," Conner mumbles tightly.
Wally pounds his fist on the table, startling Megan into jumping with a yelp.
"Well," Kaldur sighs resignedly. "I suppose... now is the time to begin our essays."
They all nod, but none of them make any movements toward the papers.
"I could hack the motion sens—" Dick starts to say, but Wally cuts him off with an emphatic, "No."
Strange takes Artemis to the storage closet at the end of the hallway near the cafeteria, opening the door for her to step inside. It's dusty and smells like spilled ink, and it's drafty. Artemis slumps down onto the floor, draping her coat over her knees, and deliberately keeps her eyes trained on the wall instead of Strange.
"Well, Miss Crock, I'm sure you're bringing great pride to the family legacy," Strange says with relish. Artemis's fists tighten and her lips curl in, but she doesn't look up. "You should be ecstatic. Every day, you're closer and closer to turning into the same immoral, virtually worthless thug they've raised you to be."
Artemis bites her lip until it starts to blanch, her hands shaking.
"What a disappointment you must be to your poor mother," Strange muses serenely. "She comes out of jail a paraplegic and all you can do to assist her is spend your weekends in detention. How is she coping, all alone, with a degenerate for a last remaining daughter? Splendidly, I'm sure. I certainly hope that brawl you got into on Wednesday was worth the trouble."
He steps inside and crouches in front of Artemis, lacing his fingers together as he scrutinizes her. She infinitesimally draws away, curling in on herself, forcibly avoiding his eye.
"You're so like your sister," he says, with relish. "Arrogant. Selfish. Terribly insecure, but masking it with this laughably feeble façade of toughness. I wonder if your new friends in there are even aware of how small you are under all of that? I wonder if they'd even give you half the second glances they are now if they knew the things your family has done?"
Artemis shoves her palm against the corner of one of her eyes, and something wet smears over it. Strange looks immensely proud of himself.
"You're doing your father proud, Artemis," he assures her, patting her shoulder. She balks. "Very, very proud."
Seeming satisfied, he draws himself up to a standing position again, brushes his hands off on his pants, and leaves. He closes the door behind him and Artemis hears a click from the lock. When his footsteps have receded, and she's managed to even her breathing, she lets her face contort and drops it onto her knees, her shoulders heaving erratically.
Not for the first time, she's glad that the walls of the school are soundproof.
"Have you ever kissed a girl?" Conner asks Wally, out of the blue, at one-forty-five.
Wally stares at him dazedly, having just woken up from another half-sleep.
"Uh..." he mumbles incoherently, rubbing at his eyes. "Dude. Sorry. Repeat that."
"Never mind," Conner mutters at the same time that Dick says, "He wants to know if you've ever kissed a girl."
That certainly alerts Wally again. He stiffens, ears reddening involuntarily until they clash with his hair.
"D-Duh," he flummoxes. "I mean, come on. Duh."
"Wally has a wealth of intelligent responses to these kinds of questions," Dick sniggers behind one hand.
"Who have you kissed?" Megan inquires with genuine curiosity, her eyes wide.
"Was it nice?" Conner adds, his expression comically blank.
"What the—where the heck is all this coming from?" Wally demands, throwing his hands up. "Okay, back up here. What about you guys?" He gestures to Kaldur, Conner, and Dick.
Conner shakes his head mutely. Dick shrugs, which Wally takes as a no, but Kaldur doesn't initially reply. His eyes are focused on the table with an unusual degree of intensity.
"Kal?" Megan prods softly.
"I am sorry," Kaldur murmurs in unusually quiet tones. "But I would rather not..."
"Come on, man, it's just one question," Wally presses him. "You can't go all muy misterioso about it and then not tell us."
"Excellent Spanish there," Dick says dryly, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair. "Now he'll have to crack."
"Was it someone who goes to this school?" Wally asks doggedly.
Kaldur, after a moment, shakes his head.
"Is it someone who lives in Happy Harbor?" Megan chimes in.
Kaldur shakes his head again.
"Was she pretty?" Conner inquires conversationally.
Kaldur nods at that, and then sighs.
"Just answer the question," Wally repeats.
"I..." Kaldur finally sits forward slightly, resting his elbows on the edge of the table and putting his chin in one hand. "Her name was Tula."
"Huh," Wally muses. "Tula. That's not a name you hear very often."
"I'm sorry, but..." Megan's brow knits together worriedly. "Was?"
Kaldur seems to swallow something down, dropping his eyes closed, before shortly answering, "Yes. Was."
The room plunges into silence. Conner opens and closes his mouth a few times, looking guilty, but Kaldur seems to recover fairly quickly.
"And yes, Conner," he says tenderly. "She was... she was beautiful. I had wanted to kiss her for... a very long time. We had been close from the time we were small children. She, myself, and my best friend, Garth."
The others listen attentively to him, unmoving.
"We were inseparable," Kaldur continues, his voice so quiet that it is barely audible over the hum of the heater. "And for many years, Tula was the only girl that I ever truly saw as... as wonderful. I had many other friends who were females that I admired, but – well, simply put, I loved Tula very much."
Megan nods encouragingly when his voice hitches.
"And yes, I did kiss her," he murmurs, curling and uncurling his fingers. The words sound raw. "Not so long ago. Before I came here on my travel scholarship. And it was – I cannot think of words to describe it. It was like the sea." He smiles sadly. "It was like home."
Dick shifts pensively in his seat as Kaldur's anecdote dwindles.
"Which... begs the question," he says cautiously. "What happened? To her, I mean. Or... to both of you."
Something works its way across Kaldur's face, something grief-stricken and dark and incomprehensible, and he opens his mouth after a long moment to reply.
"She—" he starts to explain, but, drowning him out, an enormous crash and a feminine cry of "OH, SHIT!" explodes from the back of the library.
"What the—" Wally splutters, scrambling to his feet and jogging toward the source of the sound. Dick isn't far behind, followed by Megan.
They all come to a halt to see an enormous pile of plaster and scattered books beneath a gaping hole in the ceiling, and sitting in the center of it with a bored-looking expression is none other than—
"Artemis!" Megan exclaims with a grin.
"Nice entrance, Blondie," Wally says dryly, offering his hand to hoist her up. She swats it away, lurching to her feet.
"Yeah, a little rough on the landing, though," she replies breezily. "I forgot my pencil. Did you miss me?"
"No," Wally says.
"It was so strange not having you here!" Megan declares simultaneously. "We were just talking to Kaldur about..." Her smile falls. "Oh."
"It is all right," Kaldur says from behind them. Artemis salutes him lazily, and he nods to her in greeting. "Hopefully Strange didn't hear you."
"I'm surprised she didn't leave a crater," Wally quips before loping away, his hands in the back pockets of his jeans (Artemis stares at the spot for a beat too long). "We were discussing our love lives; no big."
"Breaking news!" Dick announces, standing on his chair with his arms spread wide. "Conner has never kissed a lady. He has never experienced the taste of cherry chapstick."
Megan's cheeks go inexplicably red.
"Poor guy," Artemis laments dramatically. "Are we starting a donation fund, or something? I can offer a dollar and a pack of bubble gu—"
"Strange is coming," Conner warns them all abruptly. "I can hear him in the hallway."
"Fuck," Artemis mumbles before shooting down under the front table.
The others manage to scramble into their seats just as Strange opens the doors and enters.
"I heard," Strange plucks the words out delicately, "a ruckus."
"A ruckus?" Wally repeats innocently. "Oh, no. I'm sorry about that, sir."
"A ruckus," Strange confirms tersely. "Just now, I heard it. I was attempting to use the lavatory and I heard a ruckus."
"That must have been very frustrating," Dick says with sympathy. "Could you describe the ruckus, sir?"
Strange bristles and jabs a warning finger in Dick's direction.
"Watch yourself, young man," he admonishes him. Dick grins cheekily, raising his shoulders in a helpless gesture.
"Well, sir," Wally begins helpfully, "maybe it would be best if y—" He abruptly freezes mid-sentence, his mouth agape, his eyes wide. Megan stares at him, perturbed, and surreptitiously elbows him in the side, but he doesn't respond.
"Yes, Mr. West?" Strange prods him, stepping forward.
Wally closes his mouth and his fists tighten and when he attempts to speak again, all that comes out is a high squeaking noise that makes Dick slam his face violently onto the table to keep himself from laughing. Megan gasps, and her eyes dart furtively under the table for the briefest of instants – she clamps her mouth shut and reddens deeply, averting her gaze.
"Maybe it would be best if you let us know if you hear it again," Conner tells Strange purposefully, successfully diverting his attention from the peculiar scene that Wally was making. "So that... we can help you figure out what made it."
Strange grinds his teeth and runs a hand over his head before narrowing his eyes at the five of them.
"Once Mr. West manages to exit his present state of catatonia," he ekes out, "we can discuss this further."
He pivots around and storms swiftly out, slamming the door behind him. Dick lets out a high-pitched cackle that spreads to the others, all save for Megan, who looks like she's witnessed either a murder or a haunting or both.
Artemis crawls out from under the table laughing without restraint, and Wally grabs his letter jacket off of the back of his chair and stuffs it over his lap, blushing furiously as he curls in on himself.
"What did you do?" Conner asks incredulously.
Artemis gets to her feet and shakes her hair out, glancing over her shoulder to see Wally awkwardly crossing his legs.
"Just explored a little," she answers airily. "It was dark down there. Tough to see. It wasn't my fault."
Dick throws his head back laughing and the force topples his chair over backwards. The crash of wood and limbs is tumultuous.
"Sir, we've identified the source of the ruckus," Artemis speaks into an imaginary communicator, pressing down on her ear. That's enough to make the rest of them lose it – Megan, dissolving into a fit of girlish giggles; and Kaldur, who stifles the smile behind his hand – all except for Conner, who frowns at them as though he's watching them spiral into madness; and Wally, who crosses and uncrosses his legs at regular intervals for the next fifteen minutes, pounding his forehead erratically against the wood.
It takes Artemis about five minutes to conclude that giving energy drinks to Dick Grayson and Wally West may possible have been the worst mistake of her high school career.
Wally goes running to the upper level, sheds his hoodie, and starts doing cartwheels and shadow boxing, providing his own sound effects with enthusiasm ("POW! WHAM!"). He tosses the sweatshirt over the railing and it lands somewhere near the Natural Sciences section, and Artemis whoops encouragingly at him for the first few minutes before it becomes clear that his energy is essentially boundless and she has to start chasing him around to make sure he doesn't jump out a window.
Dick, on the other hand, grows even more giggly than usual, swinging from the high rafters and hopping across the bookshelves with an agility that astounds the rest of them. At one point, he stands at the summit of the staircase, throws his arms out, and passionately announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, THE FLYING GRAYSONS!"
"Geek bait's officially lost it," Artemis quips as she runs another lap around the library after Wally, who whistles and applauds Dick once he starts oscillating back down to the first floor.
"You never saw the Flying Graysons when you were a kid?" Wally asks her, sounding astonished, as she grabs onto the back of his shirt and forces him to a halt. "They were like, my favorites. Totally."
"I have no idea what you're talking about, Wall-man," she retorts, winded. "Now come on; back to running the energy off."
Wally beams and bolts.
Kaldur, Conner, and Megan had all converged on one of the lounge couches at the back, near the encyclopedias, in the midst of all the chaos. Kaldur is presently engrossed in a copy of Lord of the Flies, leaving Conner and Megan to sit awkwardly side-by-side, their eyes straying to one another at simultaneous intervals.
"Hey, Conner?" Megan finally asks meekly.
"Yeah?" he responds, blinking at her. She looks away shyly, tucking her hair behind her ear, the same habitual motion.
"Why were you asking about kissing earlier?" She glances away, fiddling with her waves bashfully. "I-I mean... have you really never kissed a girl before?"
Conner shifts, tapping his thumbs together thoughtfully.
"I was just wondering, I guess," he mumbles back. "Because, no, I've never kissed a girl. I never really met anyone who..."
He shrugs wordlessly, hoping she understands. She nods.
"I'm sorry if I'm intruding," she adds hastily. "It's just – I can't imagine why a girl wouldn't want to..." Her cheeks go redder and she glances away, concealing her face behind a curtain of auburn. "Wow, ignore that. Hello, Megan. Sorry."
Conner watches her carefully for a moment, his eyes roving over the shape of her arms and her hair. Finally, he lifts his hand and tentatively places it on hers, and when she turns her head at the contact, her hair spills down over her other shoulder.
Her brown eyes flick up and meet his, and he doesn't break the gaze. Her mouth falls slightly open, but she doesn't speak, and neither does he. After a swelling moment of pause, he slowly slips his hand away, and she smiles shyly at him, and they go back to sitting beside each other as though nothing had happened, watching Artemis trying to keep up with Wally's hurtling sprint.
Kaldur glances over the top of his book, raises his gaze momentarily to the ceiling, and smiles to himself with a shake of his head before going back to reading.
When Wally and Dick finally settle down and Artemis regains her privilege to actually sit still, much less in a chair, it's just after two-thirty. Artemis groans as she stretches out her legs, and Kaldur glances up from his book at the sound. Wally and Dick high-five each other as they return to their seats.
"Well," Artemis grinds out through gritted teeth. "That was all the exercise I'll need for the rest of my natural-born life."
"Maybe it'll help burn off your bad attitude," Wally snarks. Artemis rolls up a piece of binder paper and chucks it at his head.
"Okay," she continues after a moment, "I don't know about you guys, but essay-writing still has yet to sound appealing. So why don't we gather in a circle and have an honesty session?"
Wally frowns at her. "A what-now?"
"An honesty session," Artemis repeats, slowly, as though she's speaking to a toddler. Wally scowls. "Y'know, have to answer any question totally honestly? No maybes, no sortas? Don't tell me you've never tried it."
"I've tried it plenty of times," Wally grumbles. "It usually only ends in tears."
"Well, that just sounds like a lark," Dick declares, perking up. "I like the way you think, Artemis. Last one in the circle's a—"
"Save it, dweeb," Artemis orders him with a laugh before beginning to push the tables around in a circular arrangement.
Conner gets up to help her. Soon enough, the tables have been arranged in a corral, and everyone is seated in a formation conforming to its shape – Artemis on the far left, followed clockwise by Wally, Dick, Megan, Conner, and Kaldur.
"Sweet." Artemis claps her hands together. "Who wants to go first?"
"Hold up," Wally says, sitting up straighter. "How're we doing this again?"
"We'll take turns," Artemis explains, gesticulating. "Everybody gets asked a question they have to answer honestly."
"What will the nature of these questions be?" Kaldur demands, the words fraught with hesitation.
"What if we lie?" Conner asks.
Artemis blinks at the two of them and throws her hand in the air in exasperation.
"Then you'll, uh, die a horrible death sometime in the future," she replies dismissively. "And they won't be anything incriminating, Kaldur. Cross my heart. Okay, so, I vote we start with—"
"I'll go," Megan volunteers, looking determined.
Artemis raises one impressed eyebrow as she shoulders off her button-down to reveal a white v-neck tee shirt. She tosses the discarded garment over onto a nearby chair and stretches until her back cracks.
"Okay," she says after a moment's contemplation. "Million dollar question. Are you a virgin?"
Megan lets out a quiet "oh" and twiddles her fingers in the hem of her blouse, biting her lip in thought.
"Why would you open with something like that?" Wally snaps. "That's her business."
"That's rich coming from you," Artemis retorts belligerently, her eyes flashing in his direction, "since you spent the better half of the last two years wanting to get into her pants."
Wally lets out an indignant spluttering noise, sitting ramrod straight, and Artemis cocks a triumphant eyebrow at him. Conner's demeanor is suddenly surly, but Megan appears nothing short of bewildered. Dick giggles behind his hand. Kaldur just looks unimpressed.
Wally scrubs his hands over his face, trying to wrestle away the heat crawling up his cheeks as everyone stares at him.
"Oops," Artemis says with relish. "Did I let the cat out of the bag?"
"Wally?" Megan prompts him, astonished.
Wally closes his eyes tightly and pounds a fist onto his knee before letting his breath out in a concise sigh, his shoulders loosening in defeat.
"Okay, yeah," he admits hurriedly, folding his arms and clenching a piece of his waffle-knit shirt in one hand. "Okay. I may or may not have – really, really liked you. Freshman year. But that's it." He glowers pointedly at Artemis.
"Emphasis on the really," Dick interjects, crossing one outstretched leg over the other. Wally's head whirls in his direction indignantly and he shrugs. "What? I was there."
"I'm..." Megan's cheeks have gone pink, nearly making her freckles vanish. Wally glances sheepishly back to her, bowing his head. She considers her words for a moment before continuing. "Wally, that's really sweet, but I—"
"It's fine," Wally cuts her off. His lips twitch up slightly with genuineness. "Seriously, don't worry about it. It was just freshman year."
Megan nods, smiling diffidently, and Artemis, after looking between the two of them for a moment with a vaguely bitter frown, claps her hands together in singular applause.
"Well, that was heartwarming," she says sarcastically. Wally shoots her a dirty look that she ignores. "But you still didn't answer my question."
Megan's smile vanishes in an instant, replaced by an expression of discomfort. Kaldur clears his throat and sits slightly forward.
"I do not think that your question is entirely appropri—"
"Let the lady talk, Kaldur," Artemis drawls, raising a hand to silence him. "Inquiring minds want to know."
Megan looks over at Conner with clear mortification in her face, opening and closing her mouth wordlessly.
"Answer the question," Wally prods her gently. "Just get it over with so she'll shut up."
"You heard the man, Megs," Artemis declares. "Answer the question."
Conner nods encouragingly to Megan, his blue eyes earnest, and she takes a deep breath before wiping swiftly at her nose.
"Yes," she mumbles. "I'm a virgin."
Artemis, rather than looking satisfied, furrows her brow.
"Wait," she says after a beat. "Really?"
Megan nods and drops her forehead onto her knees. Conner pats her shoulder awkwardly before frowning up at Artemis.
"Why?" he demands. "Are you virgin?"
Artemis, for the first time all day, has the decency to look discomfited.
"Well—yeah," she replies stiffly.
"Then what's the problem?" Wally asks her with a quirked eyebrow.
"Perhaps Artemis may have previously been embarrassed about her... status," Kaldur explains carefully, watching Artemis for confirmation. "Because she had presumed that Megan was already ahead of her. So to speak."
"Seriously?" Dick exclaims. "I never thought it mattered that much."
"My friends don't know," Megan says suddenly. "That I'm a virgin, I mean. I think they've all assumed that... well, being me, I've already..." She blushes furiously and ducks her head until her bangs obscure her face.
"Would you, though?" Dick asks curiously, tilting his head. "I mean, would you ride the proverbial hobby horse?"
Megan makes an odd squeaking noise as though she can't fathom how she got to the point at which her sex life was the center of conversation. Artemis, rather than goading her, has been staring pensively at the floor for the past few moments.
"Well..." Megan seems to deeply ponder her answer before blurting out, "Sure. I mean, I'll – I'll do it someday. I think it's... fine."
"Me too," Conner says suddenly, causing all heads to turn to him. He fidgets and his eyes dart furtively to Megan for an instant. "If you love someone, it's okay."
Megan lifts her head and stares at him with wide brown eyes. He offers her a bashful, quietly meaningful flicker of a smile, and after a breath, all of her features soften, and she returns it.
"So can we all just agree that everyone in this room is a virgin?" Wally inquires in an attempt to break the silence.
Everyone pauses for a moment before slowly nodding their assent. Wally lets out a sigh of relief and bobs his own head.
"Cool," he murmurs. Artemis's eyes stray in his direction, but then she averts them again, her unreadable expression never faltering.
"Wow," Dick finally muses, shaking his head. "People make a huge deal out of admitting something like that?" He sniffs. "How bizarre."
"What's bizarre about it?" Conner grunts.
"Yeah," Wally says quietly. "I mean, we're all pretty bizarre, when you get down to it. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."
Megan lets out a noise sounding suspiciously similar to a scoff.
"How are you bizarre?" she asks dryly.
Wally blinks and frowns deeply, withdrawing slightly.
"He thinks he's not good enough," Dick answers abruptly for him. Wally stiffens.
"That's bullshit," Artemis starts to snark out, finally speaking again. "He's the biggest athletic star this campus has had since—"
"No," Wally mutters, and Artemis falls silent. "He's right."
Everyone stares at him, and he blows out a breath he'd been holding, rubbing at his eyes.
"Do you guys... wanna know what I did to get in here?" His eyes flick up.
The other five nod in unison. Artemis hasn't looked away from him since he'd spoken, her expression uncharacteristically intent.
Wally inhales once more for composure before dropping his hands into his lap and starting to speak.
"So…" He inhales and exhales. "You guys know the school's trophy case? By the gym?"
"Yeah," Conner affirms for them all.
"It was broken into on Monday," Kaldur tells them, never once taking his eyes off of Wally. "And vandalized. Nearly beyond repair."
Megan gasps and whips her head around to gape at Wally. Even Dick and Conner look surprised, but Artemis's expression hasn't changed.
Wally nods once, shamefaced.
"That was me."
Megan starts to ask him why, but he keeps talking before she can finish.
"Every day I go past that thing," he mumbles, eyes unfocused. "Every day I get to see all these newspaper clippings, bunch of trophies and certificates and memorabilia. And it's all for Barry. Bart now, too, since he started going here this year." He sighs slowly, his breath shuddering. "Every day it's like everybody needs to remind me how great they are, and I can't get away from it. Y'know, I walk past the trophy case and I see all the gold and the frames and the headlines and it's Barry, and Bart, and I don't even count." He sniffs loudly, no phlegm, and runs a hand over his face before dropping it to his side again. "Sounds petty. I should be proud." He scoffs. "I should be proud."
He adjusts his position, sitting forward a bit more, curling his left hand into a loose fist.
"I love my mom and dad," he continues. "They're always – supportive. They're proud of me. But I know they wonder why I'm not as fast as Barry. I should be, right? I should be the next link in the legacy chain, or whatever. And yeah, I win races on the track team. I can sprint. But I'm nothing compared to Barry. Even more of a nothing compared to Bart. I've barely done anything since I got here.
"Yeah, I... I was fast, for a while. Fastest on campus. Made a lot of friends, started to feel pretty good about myself, but... whenever I'd go out to practice with Barry, he'd always lap me. And it wasn't like I could ask him to stop, because he wasn't even breaking a sweat; he'd run backwards and say, 'Come on, kid, I know you can do better than that,' but—" His voice breaks and he swallows roughly, pushing something out of his eye. "Maybe I can't, Barry. Leave me alone."
He takes another breath.
"And when Bart showed up to live with us..." He pauses, frowning. "He idolized Uncle Barry. And Grandpa Jay. He wouldn't shut up about how he'd always wanted to meet them, and how they were his heroes... and then there was me. 'Oh. You're Wally West. My first cousin once removed.'" He laughs quietly, a bit emptily. "He and Barry really hit it off, though. I'd never seen Barry so happy. They'd go out for runs in the mornings – really early – without waking me up, and... I guess they really bonded, or something."
He closes his eyes.
"And then Sunday..." He gulps, and his Adam's apple bobs. Artemis's eyes follow it. "They invited me to go on a run with 'em. And it'd been a while since I'd done it with Barry, since it didn't exactly do wonders for my confidence. But. I went. We went to the track on campus, and there was nobody there; it was so early. Anyway, we lined up, and we took off."
The school bell, punctuating the moment, rings – three o'clock. It makes Megan jump.
"And for a second..." Wally swipes at his eyes again, but it doesn't take the sudden shine out of them. "It was the way it was when I was a kid, when it was just me and Barry and we'd just go, because we didn't know anything better than running. But then Bart sprinted ahead, and Barry did, too." His face hardens, and his voice grows taut. "And they lapped me."
Artemis ducks her head abruptly. Wally doesn't seem to notice, but the fist he'd made earlier has tightened and is starting to shake.
"I was going so fast that I couldn't even breathe," he croaks, "and they lapped me. Twice. When I finished... it was like my lungs were about to give. And Bart just clapped me on the shoulder and said, 'Tough break, cuz! Guess you don't have the Allen family legs!' And Barry smiled at him, like he was really funny. Really charming.
"And on Monday morning..." The attentive quiet grows several degrees colder, and Artemis breathes out through her nose. Wally's voice has gone strangled and tight, and his eyebrows are wrestling against each other. "I went past the trophy case. And there was this new photo in there, of Barry and Bart. And there was a placard under it that said 'The Next Generation of Happy Harbor Champions.'
"I don't really remember what went through my head. After school... I went back, and I put my jacket around my hand, and I broke through the glass. I was pulling the frames out and smashing them, and throwing the trophies onto the floor, and I didn't even know what I was doing; I was just breaking everything, and I guess I was sort of crying—"
His voice hitches and he sighs roughly, pushing the heel of his hand against his eyes until the lids start to look red.
"It didn't take long for Strange to show," he rasps on. "When he did, I made a break for it – I ran so hard. But he caught up to me. Fucking Strange caught up to me. And I went home and I explained to my parents what happened, and they looked... surprised. Like they never thought a guy like me would—"
He's not even trying to conceal the moisture in the edges of his eyes now, and his nose is running a little. Artemis looks like she's in pain.
"'Why would you do that, Wally?'" Wally yells, his voice raw. "'We thought you were proud. We thought you were a good kid. We know you're not as fast as Barry, or Jay, or Bart, but at least you're trying!'" He quiets. "'At least you're trying. Why would you be jealous? They've been nothing but—' Fuck. Fuck, I get it; I get that I'm not the family's pride and joy anymore, okay; I get it that I'm never going to be as good as they are, and that fucking trophy case was laughing at me."
Dick's hand is covering his face, and Kaldur has bowed his head. Megan looks close to tears.
"You're not fast enough," Wally murmurs to himself. "You're not fast enough."
The silence that follows is thunderous. Wally, sniffling at erratic intervals, draws his knees up and rests his elbows on them, entangling his fingers in his hair. A siren is barely audible outside, streets away, and it fades after a moment.
Artemis takes a deep breath, and, gradually, the omnipresent churlish look on her face recedes. Only when it's completely gone does she open her mouth.
"You were doing fine," she mutters, watching him cautiously. "Last I saw."
He raises his head, infinitesimally, to frown at her.
"You've never seen me run," he mumbles.
Artemis shrugs, finally turning her head away. Her cheeks look slightly pinker.
"Well, maybe I have," she tells him. "Once or twice. In passing." She flushes altogether, and hastily appends, "I hang out under the bleachers after school. 's not my fault they're right by the track."
Wally stares at her. She inches back and glowers defensively at him, letting out a huff.
"Forget it," she snaps. "Point is, Wall-man, you're a champ anyway. And that trophy case was an eyesore, so we should really be thanking you."
"I can't believe that was you," Megan exclaims quietly, blinking with surprise. "I was wondering where you were on Monday."
Wally nods wearily to her, chancing several more honestly astonished glances Artemis's way. Finally, he gives a cathartic sigh and pushes his hair back, causing it to stand on end.
"So." His face splits into a lopsided grin. "Who's next?"
No one answers for a moment, but steadily, Megan's features toughen with resolve.
She lifts her chin, eyes glittering. "I am."
Wally throws his hands up with a comically innocent expression.
"I swear I was kidding!"
Megan gulps before seeming to dredge up the courage to speak again. Her grasp on her skirt has grown much tighter, and her knuckles are white.
"The reason I'm here," she tells them, "is—I cheated on an essay. I plagiarized."
Artemis snorts, and Kaldur shoots her a silencing glare. Megan isn't perturbed by the reaction, keeping her eyelids low as she continues.
"It was for an academic contest," she explains. "The winner would be awarded a full-ride scholarship to be used after graduation on a college of their choice."
"Oh, I entered that," Dick pipes up, sounding immensely pleased with himself. "It's pretty intense."
Megan nods in agreement. "Anyway, I... was caught using plagiarized source material. I didn't write any of it myself. I don't even really remember what it was. But – I needed that scholarship. I wanted it so badly. I knew that, with the money, I could... go live with my Uncle John, and do something good with myself. Something my family would never care about helping me with."
Conner frowns at her. "Why wouldn't they help you?"
Megan sniffles, wiping her nose with one knuckle, and doesn't say anything at first. When she does, her voice is fraught with imminent tears.
"They hate me," she chokes out. "I... I come from a really big family. I have eight sisters, all older than I am. But I don't quite... lookalike they do. I think I may even be my mother's child through... someone else."
Dick's cheery reaction to the mention of the essay contest has dwindled, and he watches Megan with rapt attention, his normally mischievous face utterly serious.
"They hate me," Megan repeats, pushing a loose tear off of her cheek. "I try so hard to do well in school, and I try so hard to look nice, because I want to be special. My Uncle John is the only one who really understands, but he's always away on business trips, and I never have anyone to talk to. In a house of ten other people, I'm all alone. I want to get away; I want to go somewhere new, where I can be whoever I want to be, where I can start over. And the essay was..." She gulps, and two tears spill out, twisting down her cheeks. "It was the best way. Maybe the only way. But I knew that I wouldn't win on my own, so I... I had to do what was necessary. But they caught me, and I was disqualified."
"I'm sorry," Conner whispers, reaching a tentative hand over and lightly curling his fingers around hers. Megan hiccups. Her mascara is starting to run.
"Now I'll never have a chance," she chokes out. "I'm going to be trapped here with them. I don't know why I did it; I was just – I was so desperate that I couldn't... I didn't..."
She finally unleashes a sob that consumes her and curls forward, burying her head in her knees. Conner, throwing trepidation to the winds, scoots over and slings his arm around her shaking shoulders.
"Megs," Wally murmurs disbelievingly. "You never told me any of that."
"I didn't want to," Megan explains in a whimper. "I know that I have no right to be complaining, because they've never hurt me, really, and I can ignore them if I try to, but—I just wanted to start over somewhere. With Uncle John. For me, and not for anybody else. I'm so scared of being stuck here."
"Well, on the bright side," Artemis drawls, staring at the ceiling, "if you are stuck here, you can share the dumpster I'll be sleeping in after graduation."
Megan blinks blankly at her for a moment, but then, suddenly, she lets out a laugh that fills the entire room, curling forward as the sound shakes through her. Her nose scrunches up and her dimples deepen and the tittering comes out in peals, and Artemis looks, of all things, proud of herself.
"Maybe I'll take you up on that," she finally manages to gasp, wiping new but different tears away.
"There will be other chances, Megan," Kaldur assures her with conviction. "Have you confided in your uncle about your fears?"
Megan shakes her head, the smile slightly fading.
"I don't want to bother him," she admits sadly. "I know he'd think I was being silly."
"I doubt that," Kaldur replies, his tone empathetic. "If he truly cares for you as you say he does – and I am sure that you are not wrong – then he will help you."
"Jeez," Artemis sighs out, not unkindly. "Who would've thought that loving families were so overrated?"
Wally shifts thoughtfully, scratching at a spot behind his ear.
"So..." he asks her, with blatant caution. "What's... your family like?"
Artemis's head whips in his direction as though she's offended that he's still there. He eschews, bowing his head and shrugging innocently.
"Different question," Dick suggests with an edge of firmness. Artemis wheels on him, her eyes narrowed.
"Fine," she barks, but the way her limbs slightly loosen indicates her relief. "Let's go with... Kaldur."
All heads turn to Kaldur, who blinks impassively at them as though he'd forgotten they were there.
"Me?" he repeats prudently, eyes narrowing slightly.
"Yeah, you," Artemis affirms, scooting down onto the floor until she's stretched out and propped up by her elbow, eyeing him expectantly. "You've been class president since, what, our freshman year? Squeaky clean disciplinary record and perfect grades and an allergy to having fun? So what's a guy like you doing in detention?"
Kaldur considers her, his bare arms crossed as always (he had taken off his jacket to reveal a deep red tank top and minimalistic black tattoos).
"Well," he explains calmly, his voice never wavering, "My offense was not a particularly grievous one. I presume you're all familiar with the brick walls by the swimming pool?"
Wally snaps his fingers. "Oh, yeah. It's got graffiti on it now; somebody—" He blinks. "Oh. Wait. Not somebody. You."
Kaldur nods. "Yes."
Megan sits forward raptly, a gentle frown on her face.
"You painted that girl?" she murmurs.
Kaldur nods wordlessly.
Megan folds her lips in and asks, "Was that – was that Tula?"
Kaldur seems to sag at the sound of the name. Artemis looks up from picking under her fingernail to glance aside at Megan.
"Tula?" She looks to Kaldur. "Who's Tula?"
The question hangs heavy in the air, looming over Kaldur's vaguely curled form like an imminent tempest. Megan prods him by speaking his name with utmost softness, reaching over Conner's lap and placing her hand on Kaldur's knee, and it seems to give him the courage, or at least the rationalization, to end his silence.
"I was not born in this city," he begins, his inflections as even and rhythmic as a tide. "I did not grow up here. I was awarded an academic travel scholarship by the Arthur Curry Foundation, which promotes finer education for students hand-picked by the founder, Mr. Curry, and his wife, Mera. No other had been granted the privilege I had, to be sent to a modern high school in the center of the East Coast. I was very proud, and very lucky."
He runs a hand up his arm, eyes straying as he continues speaking.
"When I was a child, my two closest friends were Garth and... Tula. We grew up together, as I told you all earlier – no, Artemis; you were not here; that's why I am saying it again – and I developed feelings for Tula from the time I was very young. I thought that she was beautiful and strong and gifted, and I admired and respected her as much as I… as I loved her."
He breathes in deeply through his nose and inclines his head, his eyelids lowering.
"I pursued her romantically, and I did kiss her. She told me that she returned my affections, but we did not divulge the state of our relationship to anyone because, shortly after it began, it was announced that I had been awarded the scholarship, and would be leaving within the next two weeks. It was all so hectic that I – I did not tell anyone of me and Tula. Not even Garth, my best friend.
"It came time for me to come here, to Happy Harbor, and I said good-bye to my parents and my friends. It was difficult, but I knew that I would learn new things here and meet new people, and I was prepared to challenge myself. I did not go back home for a year. When I returned, I… I discovered that Tula had given her heart to Garth in my absence."
Wally sucks in a breath, wincing with empathy. Even Artemis seems to look pained on Kaldur's behalf.
"I told myself that I was happy for them. That I respected Tula's decision, and that I was glad that she was at least with someone I loved and trusted, rather than a stranger. I told myself that trying to figure out why I was not good enough was a waste of my time and happiness, but it took me a great deal of time to finally believe it. Maybe Tula was the love of my life. I will never know.
"I came back to Happy Harbor at the summer's end. I visited again at the end of the school year, and Garth and Tula were very happy together, so happy that it nearly caused me pain if I thought about it too much. But I eventually came to see that Tula cared deeply for him, and was content with him, and that was enough for me to come to let it pass... benignly. As long as she was happy, I could be happy.
"And then..." For the first time, he seems to gulp, and his voice, for a bare instant, cracks. "While I was away here... last year... Tula died."
Artemis, being the only one who hadn't heard the story before, gasps quietly, seeming instantly mortified by the slip in apathy. Kaldur nods to no one, maybe for resolve.
"I do not wish to disclose the circumstances," he chokes out. "But she is gone now. Garth was devastated, and I could not allow myself to show the full scope of the devastation that I felt. She died, and I was not even there; I didn't get to see her, one last time, before she passed.
"I did not want to forget her," he murmurs. "I did not want anyone to forget Tula, or her beauty, or her warmth. I wanted the world to see her as I do, and so I... I painted her portrait on that brick wall. I did not expect the water polo coach to discover me as I was finishing it, and I was set to be punished with detention, but I did not care."
"The portrait is beautiful," Megan tells him, sounding close to tears again. "They... they painted over it..."
Kaldur nods, raising his shoulders in defeat.
"I knew that they would," he says, "but I had wanted her to be there, for a moment. I was not home when she was being remembered, or memorialized, and so I wanted to do something... of my own. For her. I am finished now, with mourning Tula as I have for the past year. She would be ashamed to see me so... spiritless."
"I saw it, too," Wally pipes up. "The painting. It was... it was amazing."
"You're really good," Conner agrees plainly without smiling.
Kaldur bows his head in gratitude, his eyes glistening just slightly in the light.
"I have been class president since my sophomore year," he says disbelievingly, "and still I did not know any of you."
"You know Roy Temper-Tantrum Harper, and I'd say that's more than enough," Artemis quips, offering Kaldur a smile that still looks altogether similar to a smirk, but slightly less smug than usual.
Kaldur permits himself a small laugh, nodding in agreement.
"Maybe it is," he concedes before looking around at the five others. "Thank you. For letting me... speak to you about this. I had not taken it up with anyone before."
"Hey, what are people you meet in detention on a Saturday morning for?" Dick bandies back, stretching his arms behind his head and beaming.
His contribution draws Artemis's attention. She turns her head to him.
"Okay, Grayson; your turn." She folds her arms, looking engrossed. Dick blinks innocently at her and she prompts him further: "What's your reason? Perfect little mathlete like you in here with the deadbeats?" She brushes a faint hand against her forehead in histrionic dizziness. "Whatever did you tell your parents?"
Wally makes a noise in the back of his throat and sits abruptly forward, eyes darting to Dick. Dick's face goes blank, save for some faint trace of a smile that's almost nostalgic.
"I ditched class," he answers, his voice barely above a whisper.
"Not bad, not bad," Artemis commends him, clearly not picking up on his change in demeanor, or maybe just choosing to ignore it. "Scandalous enough for the math prince, I guess. I give it a seven out of ten."
"What were you doing?" Conner asks Dick bluntly.
Dick laughs a little through his nose, a quiet little hum, before rubbing his upper arm with one spindly hand.
"The circus was in town," he replies. "Couldn't miss that."
"Oh – yeah, I heard about that," Megan chimes in. "Haly's Circus, right?"
Dick nods once.
"Why did you want to go to the circus so badly that you would risk detention?" Kaldur asks softly.
Dick sniffs and his nose wrinkles around it. The vestiges of the smile have fallen, and his blue eyes look dull.
"Let's just say it had a... significant impact on my childhood," he expounds vaguely. "I go every year. Normally it's on a weekend, but – I guess the scheduling got changed around because of the weather, or something. Anyway, I skipped school on Wednesday to go. Totally worth it."
"Dick," Wally says, hushed. Dick blinks as though startled and meets his eye. Wally is staring at him with a clearly torn expression, shaking his head slightly.
Dick licks his dry lips and leans against the leg of the table behind him, drawing his knees up to his chin and wrapping his arms around them.
"Hey, it's honesty time," he muses shakily, trying to give an indifferent shrug. "Might as well get in on the fun."
He breathes in deeply, but the sound trembles. The others don't speak.
"You asked what I told my parents, Artemis," he finally starts, grasping his knees. "I didn't tell them anything. They died when I was nine."
"Oh my god," Artemis croaks, looking staggeringly repentant. "No, wait; you really don't—"
"They were the Flying Graysons," Dick carries on over her. "Them and me. We were a smash. I never felt more at home than I did on that trapeze with them. I grew up in that circus, and I was part of the act for as long as I can remember. It was... where the heart was, y'know? All aster, no dis."
Another siren outside. It ebbs in the pause.
"But – one day... the wires broke," he says. Megan gasps, covering her mouth with one hand, and Wally closes his eyes tightly but doesn't move. "It was an accident. Faulty maintenance, or bad tying, but—it was during the act. The crowd was huge. I was standing on my platform waiting for Mom and Dad to swing back and grab me, so I could do my backflip, because everybody always liked the backflip, but..." He gulps. "They never came."
Artemis puts her face in one hand and runs her palm over her forehead. Even Conner looks shell-shocked, his eyebrows pushing together as he watches Dick.
"Anyway, I got adopted after that," Dick says, stretching slightly. "By Bruce Wayne."
Artemis loses the desolate air instantly, her head jerking up stiffly.
"Bruce Wayne?!" she yells. "The Bruce Wayne? I didn't even know he'd adopted a kid!"
"Weeeelll, it doesn't pay to advertise when you're attending a public high school," Dick cracks, grinning with amusement. "But I've been with Bruce since the accident. He can get a little emotionally uptight, and he's not exactly a dad-type or anything, but – he has his own charm. And Alfred's a bonus, too. The butler. Makes great cookies and has an amazing talent for reprimanding."
"The butler," Artemis repeats, dumbstruck. "The fucking butler. And here I thought you were..." Her voice trails off, and her features soften apologetically. Dick hasn't lost his hazy smile, gazing at a stain on the carpet. "Hey, look, if I'd known, I wouldn't've—"
"Nobody knows," Dick cuts in. "I mean... Wally knew. But otherwise – I haven't told anyone else. Nobody on campus is even aware. Bruce fixed up my files so – so even the faculty doesn't know."
"Wait," Conner interjects, frowning at the scrawnier boy. "How did Wally know?"
Wally opens his mouth hesitantly, his face ambivalent, but closes it again and swallows something down, pushing his fist pensively to his chin. Dick watches him for a moment, and Wally nods, and Dick's smile broadens.
"We were pretty tight in middle school," he explains, with no shortage of fondness. "And freshman year, too. But he joined the track team, I joined the mathletes, and, well, such was the end of that best friendship."
"Dude, it wasn't like that," Wally blurts out, causing Dick's eyes to briefly widen with surprise. Wally runs a hand through his hair until it bristles. "I was just – I dunno. I guess I changed and I didn't want to – make you change with me."
Dick blinks. "Wallace, you've lost me."
Wally huffs and scratches his head thoughtfully.
"I mean, I just felt like I was getting eaten up by the whole pressure to be cool enough for the team, or whatever – I don't know. But I didn't want people to think I was a loser, and—"
"And hanging out with somebody like me would give that impression?" Dick finishes snidely. Wally shakes his head.
"No, no! Let me finish." He takes a deep breath and lets it out. "I couldn't be some – dweeby goofball if I wanted to make my place on the track team. I couldn't be me. And I hated it, yeah, but I didn't know what else to do, and I was worried that if I hung around you, I'd start acting like an asshole, and then you'd change, too, but I wanted one of us to make it out right, y'know? And it might as well've been you." He ducks his eyes. "Because you never needed to change. And I guess... I guess I was ashamed that I did."
All eyes shift to Dick, whose head is bowed and whose expression is obscured. He doesn't speak.
"Answer him, geekbait," Artemis implores him quietly, her brows knit.
Dick breathes in slowly, purposefully, and Wally suddenly looks nothing short of exhausted. When Dick finally lifts his chin, and everyone seems to hold their breath, he's smiling the same mischievous smile he always is, all teeth and genuity and rampant amusement, as though he's the only one in on the jokes playing out before his eyes.
"I'm sure you've heard this plenty of times in my absence, but," he snickers, "are you aware that you're an idiot?"
Wally, rather than reacting with indignation, blinks at him for a moment before adopting a loose smile of his own.
"I may have been reminded once or twice," he drawls back. "But my self-objectivity has been having a serious deficiency in being questioned since I dumped my idiot best pal."
"Objectivity-questioning?" Dick puts on a comical front of enthusiasm. "Hey, I'm a best pal. That's my specialty."
Wally extends his fist. Dick leans forward and bumps his own knuckles against it.
"Listen," Wally tells him earnestly. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I'm just—"
"An idiot," Dick finishes. "But I can probably find it in my heart to pardon you."
"Uh, hate you interrupt your latest romantic moment," Artemis butts in dryly, "but... I have a question for the whole group here. Totally allowed."
"All right," Kaldur agrees.
"Shoot," Wally says, crossing one lanky leg over the other.
"So let's say, hypothetically, we all come to school on Monday," she suggests. "And let's say, hypothetically, we happen to pass each other in the hall. Will we say hi, or are we going to pretend today never happened?"
The uneasy silence that follows practically answers her question on its own, and her visage twists into a glare that is directed for one instant longer at Wally.
"Cute," she comments.
"Well – I would," Conner stutters out. "I'd say hi to you. I'd hang out with you guys."
"Your friends wouldn't think it was weird?" Megan asks with ill-concealed surprise.
Conner shrugs. "I don't have any friends."
Megan seems to wither. "Oh."
"If I did, though," Conner appends, "I don't think they'd be the kind of friends who would care about that stuff."
"What about you, Pom-Poms?" Artemis demands of Megan. "Say Dickie walks up to you at lunch and asks if he can sit with you and Karen and Wendy. Hell, with Bette. Do you let him sit down?"
"I..." Megan gawks wordlessly, looking torn. "I don't... I don't think so. Karen and Wendy would be okay, but – I don't think Bette would like it very much." She hangs her head, ashamed. "She would laugh. So... no. No, I wouldn't let him." She glances up at Dick. "I'm sorry."
Dick shrugs easily, but his apathy seems forced.
"If it makes you feel any better, I was probably just setting myself up for disappointment," he assures her blandly.
"So you'd really deny this kid—" Artemis spits, "This guy you spent nine hours with, this guy who told you his entire fucking life story—you wouldn't let him sit with you because Bette wouldn't like it?"
Megan appears to be on the brink of tears, but she shakes her head.
"Then you," Artemis tells her coolly, "are a bitch."
"Shut up, Artemis!" Wally counters her vehemently, his green eyes flashing sharply in her direction. She meets them with her stormy gray ones and doesn't blink. "What would you do if Megan swung by the bleachers to sit with you and Mahkent? Just invite her right on in?"
"I would," Artemis barks. "That's the difference between you and me, Wall-man. Not that you have any right to be talking about my friends, because you've never condescended to even speak to them, but contrary to what you might think, I'm a pretty decent person."
"So I'm not decent?" he demands. "Megan's not decent?"
"Maybe not," she snarls. "You really think your track buddies would be rooting for you if you and I were walking down the hall together? They'd laugh their skinny asses off."
"You don't know that," Wally argues feebly, his ears reddening. "You wouldn't—"
"Oh, that's right," Artemis hisses venomously. "I wouldn't even count. I may as well not even exist at this school, as I recall."
In an instant, Wally's belligerent demeanor crumbles, giving way to an expression of utter shock.
"What?" Artemis mutters under her breath. "Forgot you said that? Well, I haven't."
The others are all watching them with riveted attention, utterly silent, practically unmoving, as though they're afraid that the slightest twitch will cause Wally and Artemis to combust.
"I..." Wally flummoxes. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Cute." Artemis finally tears her eyes away from him to address the rest. "I wouldn't do that. I'm all for hanging out regularly if you guys have the guts for it, which I doubt. So much for bonding with the only people who ever—" Her voice suddenly quiets, goes softer. "Who ever... got it."
"'Mis," Dick murmurs, testing out the nickname with prudence. "Barbara and I don't take up much space on the quad bench. There's room for one more."
Artemis stares at him, her eyes inscrutable.
"There is also space at the table I sit at during lunchtime," Kaldur adds. "It is only me, Roy, and Raquel Ervin."
"The soccer team captain?" Wally exclaims. "I didn't know you knew her."
Kaldur smiles a bit wearily.
"She has not given me many other options, truth be told," he jokes.
"Why do you guys care so much what your friends think?" Conner asks, sounding genuinely bewildered. "I mean... why would you hang out with friends who didn't let you make new ones? Shouldn't you be able to pick who you spend time with?"
Megan nods a bit more emphatically than she should, biting her lip to hold something back.
"It's different for us, Conner," she whispers. "I... I don't want to be... shunned."
"But you wouldn't be," Conner insists. "You'd have us."
He glances down at the floor, his cheeks starting to look slightly warmer.
"You'd have me," he finishes, so indistinctly that she's the only one who hears it.
Her face gradually, tenderly brightens into the sunniest smile he's ever seen, and it makes her freckles seem to shimmer.
"We can get all... 'second family' on each other," Artemis suggests cautiously, sounding almost embarrassed to be talking so sensitively. "Since, y'know, just one isn't good enough for some of us."
"My family's fine," Wally mutters. It's the extended one that's the problem.
"As is mine," Kaldur contributes. "My parents have done nothing but raise me with dedication and pride."
"Mine's pretty heavy on the aster, too, if you know what I mean," Dick adds. "But that might have more to do with the mansion and less to do with the emotional constipation."
Artemis's frown has deepened. Out of all of them, Wally is the first to notice, leaning slightly forward to survey her better. She doesn't take notice until he speaks.
"So... if it's cool to ask... what's the story with your family?" he asks her carefully, practically tiptoeing the words out.
Artemis glowers rancorously at him, her gray eyes harshly narrowed until there are lines hewn into her forehead.
"What, my little performance this morning wasn't good enough for you?"
Wally falls silent, not knowing what to say. Artemis, after a moment, lets out a frustrated huff and throws her hands in the air in exasperation.
"It's not that complicated," she says as bluntly as she can. "It's just me and my mom. She had an accident when I was like, nine, so she's in a wheelchair."
"Oh," Megan murmurs, "Artemis, I'm sorry—"
"My dad left last year," Artemis continues as though she hadn't heard the other girl. Her eyes are unfocused. "My sister was out of the picture by the time I was ten. No clue where she is, or my dad, but it doesn't matter, because we never got along. My dad may or may not have a pretty thick criminal record that he's trying to add me into, maybe for a nice epilogue; I don't know. My sister's is smaller, but it's not tiny or anything. Nothing you'd wanna carry around in a backpack."
She barely takes any breaths between her sentences, forcing them all out until she has no choice but to inhale, speaking with such rapidity that the syllables start to bleed into one another, but they all understand every intonation.
"Dad didn't exactly raise me to be an angel, or anything," she sneers. "Not like Megs over there. But I'm trying to change my act. For mom, and for me. I got sick of Dad hanging over every little thing I did, so I decided to start doing things that were... better. That's why I'm in here today. I got into a fight on Thursday, telling some asshole to leave his sister alone. Greta, I think her name was, or something. He was beating her up; I don't know why. But I just lost it.
"I won, duh, but Strange still thought it was me carrying on the family legacy, or whatever, so he tossed me in here. Just like he does every weekend. Gets cozy after a while, but I'm all Mom has, and I don't want her to think I'm—" She swallows the word. "Anymore. I don't want to feel like that anymore. So I think, screw it. This is my life. Next step is not fucking it up again."
"So your dad's gone?" Wally asks without giving her time to let the monologue dwindle. She shoots a somewhat wide-eyed glance over at him.
"Yeah," she confirms skeptically. "Long gone."
Wally's face darkens.
"Good," he murmurs, and nothing more, pulling the ends of his sleeves down over his hands and putting them on his raised knees.
Artemis watches him for a moment longer than she has all day, her face inexplicably grateful-looking, though she doesn't say a word. She adopts an elfin, bare little smile that he doesn't see.
"I am proud of you, Artemis," Kaldur breaks in with genuineness that catches Artemis off-guard. He looks her in the eye and smiles warmly, understandingly. "For doing what you did. You are very brave."
"Um," Artemis flushes, nervously pushing her hair behind her ear, back into the loose bun. Wally marvels at her. "Not exactly the word I'd use. But... thanks."
The word is said to all of them.
"I just have one question." Wally again, surveying her with calculation that either suggests fear or fascination. "What's that necklace you're wearing?"
Artemis's hand flies to her neck before she can stop herself, her fingers splayed protectively over the silver chain mostly hidden beneath her shirt.
"The blood of her enemies," Dick jokes gleefully. Wally elbows him.
"It's, uh..." Artemis takes a deep breath before reaching up and taking the chain in her hand, pulling it over the neckline of her shirt. "It's a family... thing."
At the end of the chain is a single silver charm of a widely smiling cat. It catches the light with a flicker that reflects onto the ceiling for an instant.
"Is that...?" Dick starts to say, squinting.
"It's the Cheshire Cat," Artemis explains as brusquely as she can, but her voice gives away a nostalgia that aches. "My sister used to read me Alice in Wonderland. When our parents would fight. I guess she hoped it'd distract me, and – it did. But she always liked the Cheshire cat, and this was hers. It was the only thing she didn't take with her. She left it for me." She twiddles the charm between her fingernails, eyes softening. "I haven't taken it off since – uh, since then."
"Gross," Dick comments. "But... sweet."
"Thanks, Grayson," Artemis bites back, dropping the necklace back, and in an instant everything is back to the way it was.
"I hope we wind up happy," Wally says inexplicably. Everyone looks at him as though expecting more, but he doesn't provide any – the words, however, bring on another silence that all but submerges them, bittersweet and heavy and frightening.
Conner finally lifts his blue eyes from the floor, fidgeting with his hands.
"Do you..." He clears his throat. "Do you guys wanna know what I did to get in here?"
After a beat, everyone nods, and Conner, faced with their approval, proceeds to do something that shocks them.
It starts out slow, and faint, but then it broadens, and he looks almost proud of himself. They wonder at it, but Megan's admiration is brighter than all the rest put together.
"Nothing," he admits, the grin widening. "I didn't have anything better to do."
There is barely a breath's time for pausing before, instantaneously, the six unravel into laughter. It's scattered at first, and hesitant, but then it grows and swells and spreads, and soon Dick is rolling on the floor and Kaldur is doubled over with his arms at last unfolded and Artemis is almost in tears, and Wally is so loud that the sound bounces up into the very corners of the library, and Megan is gasping and hiccupping and can't stop, and they don't even care anymore where Strange is – they can barely even bring themselves to breathe.
Somehow, Wally finds an old record of 80s number one hits in the audio room upstairs. He puts the record in the player and opens the door wide and turns the speakers up to full volume, and "Footloose" blasts unabashedly through the room, echoing and pounding. Artemis cheers when he sprints downstairs, and within seconds, they're all dancing.
Shoes are discarded and bare toes go skirting across the carpet; sleeves are rolled up. They're all over the place, from the tops of tables to the stairs leading to the second floor, and Dick does a cartwheel at one point.
Megan is the most skilled out of all of them, all smooth leg movements and slides and snapping fingers. Conner moves his torso from side to side and raises his fists stiffly, but he still seems to be enjoying himself. Dick is a limber tangle of something that could vaguely be considered tap-dancing, and Kaldur's feet are moving in a pattern none of them have ever seen before, and Wally is quickly revealing himself to be an expert in the art of swinging his hips. Even so, Artemis is a force to be reckoned with.
They all dance with each other more than once, and they have no restraint, no shame. When the record fizzles out into silence, they all collapse into a disjointed pile and laugh again, breathless and sweaty and shaking.
The clock hits four-thirty. They have half an hour left.
After they've all regained their motor skills post-dance-session, Artemis decides it's probably time to head back to the storage closet for the sake of cover. They all say good-bye to her, even though they know they'll see her again by five o'clock, and she goes crawling off through the ceiling ventilation again.
Before she leaves, though, Megan makes a proposal.
"I think we should all write the essay together," she declares, every ounce of her tone indicating that she's already decided. "Just one essay to represent all six of us."
"Sweet; where do I sign?" Artemis deadpans. Megan nudges her lightly.
"Dick, you're good at writing, right?" she asks the younger boy. "I mean, you're the smartest."
"Probably," he ripostes. "Some contest."
"I do it out of love. Okay, but really, I think Megan's onto something." Dick beams. "I can do the bulk of the prose-writing."
"Awesome." Wally grins and it mirrors Dick's in enthusiasm. "Let's do it."
And they do. Dick's fine cursive fills nearly a full sheet of binder paper, and toward the end the handwriting changes as each of them writes out their part, and they all sign it at the bottom.
"Beautiful," Dick says gleefully. "Let's get it framed."
"Love to get on that, but the storage closet's probably broken-hearted without me there to keep it company," Artemis snarks. And that's that.
Now, Kaldur is napping with his head laid on his folded arms on the surface of his table. Dick is doodling on his spare sheet of paper, humming something that sounds suspiciously like pop. His gelled hair has started to loosen.
Conner and Megan have moved to the back of the library, on a couch between English poetry and classic novels. Conner has finally removed his jacket, revealing the black long-sleeved shirt under it. Megan's bare feet are tucked underneath her, her painted green toenails wriggling periodically.
"Conner," she says softly, "you never told us about your family."
Conner stiffens slightly and she looks immediately apologetic, tapping the heel of her palm against her head.
"You don't have to!" she amends hastily, waving a hand. "I just thought that maybe if you wanted to talk about it, we could..."
The sentence dwindles into nothing and she shrugs helplessly before ducking her head in embarrassment, her freckled cheeks a deep red. Conner doesn't respond at first, keeping his eyes focused on the opposite wall, his fists clenched in the fabric of his pants, but after a while, he releases them, and his hard gaze abates.
Megan takes it as a sign to interrogate him further, her gentle voice heedful.
"Do you like your parents?" she asks.
After a moment, Conner nods once without looking at her.
"Do they... like you?" she continues.
Something twitches onto Conner's face that looks frighteningly similar to sadness. He shakes his head.
"Do they..." Megan tugs at her hair, her eyes flicking away. "I mean, is it... bad?"
"Conner," Megan murmurs, putting her hand on his knee. "What do they do to you?"
Conner's Adam's apple bobs and he finally turns his head, meeting her eye, and she is taken aback by the sorrow in them, the confusion, that crumbles in the wake of his usual enigma.
"He ignores me," he tells her brokenly, and Megan, without even thinking on it, reaches out and pulls him into an embrace, her arms wrapped around his shoulders. He rests his chin in the crook of her neck immediately, closing his eyes for composure.
"I don't know my mom," he whispers. "I never have. I don't think my dad knew I... existed. I live with him, but – he doesn't talk to me. He doesn't say hi when I come home, he doesn't ask me how my day was. He hates me. His girlfriend Lois is nice, but he..."
Conner's voice hitches and he can't finish the sentence. Megan holds him more tightly, pressing her cheek to his.
"I'm not worth anything to him," he mumbles. "I just want to be worth something to somebody. I want somebody to be proud of me."
"I'm proud of you," Megan blurts out, the words coming out in a rush of air. "I think you're amazing, Conner, and I'm sorry for getting mad at you this morning; I was being nice to you because I've liked you since freshman year, when you wore that Superman t-shirt to orientation; it was really cute, and you were really cute, and I've been trying to get up the guts to talk to you and I tried to make you cookies once but I burned them and—oh, shoot. I'm babbling. Please ignore me."
Conner draws away from her gently, surveying her face with an unreadable flicker in his eyes. She bites her lip nervously, her cheeks still pink and warm, and keeps her hands linked at the nape of his neck.
"I couldn't ignore you," he tells her softly. "I picked you flowers once. But then they died because I forgot to put them in water."
Her eyes are wide and doe-like, and she lets a smile rise onto her face without shame. Conner returns it.
"You look so different," she giggles. "When you smile. It makes your whole face look—"
Conner leans forward and catches her lips in his, and the last of her breath dissolves into his. Her eyes flutter closed.
The kiss is short, and tender, like a question. When Conner pulls away, he's bouncing just slightly, his smile endearingly, subtly ecstatic. Megan chews her lip again, carefully, as though she can brand his taste onto it.
"You have a nice smile, too," Conner says earnestly. "I like your smile."
Megan rests her head on his shoulder and closes her eyes. They doze off like that, heartbeats slowing until they palpitate in unison.
Back in the main room, Wally stands abruptly and announces he's getting a drink of water, striding without reserve through the doors.
"Ah, Wally West," Dick muses after he leaves, drawing a spider on his binder paper. "So overt he's covert."
The storage closet is colder than she remembers. She can smell rain through the barely ajar window, and the wind coming in rustles the papers atop the boxes in the corners.
She hears something rattling at the doorknob, and it startles her. After a moment, the knob turns and the door opens slightly, and in slips Wally, wearing a smile that is both sheepish and certain.
"You lost?" Artemis asks him, stuffing down a grin of her own.
Wally shrugs, never losing the smile, leaning back against the wall opposite her with his hands in his pockets. His scarlet hoodie is back on, but it's unzipped and loose around his torso, and the sleeves are rolled up over his shirt.
"I'm looking for the most infuriating girl at Happy Harbor High School," he tells her. "She live around here?"
"Mmm, I'd suggest checking the nearest trash can," Artemis bandies back. "Maybe you'll fall in."
"Yeah, you'd like that," Wally chuckles.
"I won't confirm nor deny."
Wally laughs with her for a moment before the smile ebbs into something more profound, so earnest it makes her ribs constrict a little.
"Hey," he murmurs gently. "So... this might be one of those things that sounds better in my head than out loud, but I didn't mean what I said this morning. When I told you that you might as well not even exist. I was being an asshole, and you do count. You count more than anybody I've ever met. I haven't quite figured out why yet, but – you do. God. You do."
Artemis watches him, giving nothing away.
"Actually I'm really glad," he says, "that you exist. Here. I'm glad that I've barely really known you nine hours and you haven't let me get away with anything. I'm glad that you stopped trying to – to prove yourself in there. Because you don't need to. Not to me."
He meets her eye with his head slightly bowed, and she's sure that no one has ever looked at her with such firm and lucid conviction, such green-eyed disbelief and admiration and faith.
"Okay?" he whispers, and the simple word carries all the hope dangling at the end of the bits of his heart he's just laid at her feet.
She swallows, forcing the shudder threatening to rip through her voice back down into her chest.
"Okay," she agrees, nodding without even thinking. Her ponytail bounces a little with the motion. She's smiling again, damn it. "That didn't sound half-bad out loud, you know."
Wally puffs up, beaming. "Yeah, well, maybe it's a gift."
The two of them go quiet. They can hear the lawnmower outside, but it's muffled by the walls. Thunder sounds in the distance, growing closer, and as Wally steps forward and crouches in front of her, Artemis doesn't dare to blink.
He reaches one careful, almost questioning hand up and brushes his curled fingers against her cheek, her ear, her jawline. She doesn't move, never breaking his gaze, never even breathing, really. If she does, the scent of him will fill her, all tarmac and laundry detergent and last night's firewood.
He runs his fingers through her hair and moves his head down until his nose is flush with her neck, and he presses his lips there, warm and chapped. Artemis draws in a shaky breath in spite of herself, willing her eyes not to close.
"Why'd you do that?" she murmurs distantly when he draws back up to look at her again.
He smiles cockily, as though it's obvious.
"Because I knew you wouldn't," he says.
"Well..." she breathes. "You should've done it a long time ago."
"Yeah," he agrees hazily. "No kidding."
Artemis lifts her hand and grasps the back of his neck, pulling him down, until their mouths meet. The contact spreads to her fingertips and makes them shiver.
They move slowly at first, delicate and careful, but then, all at once, Wally leans deeply into her and his tongue skims her upper lip and she obliges him without missing a breath.
He moans quietly against her teeth and she can't explain how long she's wondered what that would sound like. She fists her hands into his waffle-knit shirt until the texture is branded onto her palms, and he takes her cheeks between his calloused hands and holds her steady, and miraculously, the closet doesn't feel so cold anymore.
The bell rings at five o'clock and Strange walks into the library to find the five students he'd left there seated at their respective tables, just as they'd been nine hours ago. Artemis comes in behind him, freed from the storage closet, and flops down in her chair, kicking her feet onto the table. Wally watches her with an unabashed smile.
"Well," he says crisply, his hands linked behind his back. "Such is the end of your Saturday detention. You are all free to go. I trust you have essays prepared?"
"We have an essay prepared," Artemis corrects him harshly, standing and shouldering on her coat again, placing her aviators on her head. The others rustle around as they put their layers on again, Wally tugging his letter jacket over the hoodie, Megan zipping up her bolero, Dick buttoning his blazer, Conner and Kaldur leaving their jackets open.
"I'd tip you for babysitting," Artemis sneers to Strange as she walks to the doors with the others behind her, all in a line, all glaring at Strange, "but somehow, I just can't bring myself to like your work ethic."
"That's a very quaint one, Miss Crock," Strange says, but the doors have already closed before he can finish, and the library is empty.
The torn pages of Molière are scattered in one corner. The record player upstairs repeats a staticky rhythm, there is an apple core on the floor, and at the front left table, a single sheet of binder paper is laid out, dead center, precise and tidy.
Strange takes it in one hand and reads it. For a passing instant, no longer than a heartbeat, he wonders when he became so bitter.
It passes. Rain has begun to fall outside, rattling against the windows.
"Okay, so maybe if I just take my phone out in class every day this week, Lance'll throw me in detention again," Wally suggests, gesticulating.
"Oh, please," Dick scoffs airily. "You have no talent for taking risks. I'm going to try... arson."
"Dude, that's just gonna get you arrested."
"Excuse me; I have personal connections to Bruce Wayne. Arrested doesn't even exist in my vocabulary."
"What're you gonna do, Megan?" Artemis asks the other girl with amusement wrought in her tone.
Megan giggles, her hand linked with Conner's.
"Foul language, maybe?" she proposes. She rears her head back and shouts, "FUCK!" It startles two pigeons into taking flight, and she eschews, looking bashful.
Artemis snorts with laughter before nodding to Megan and Conner's interlocked hands. "At the rate you're going, you might be able to shoot for overt display of affection."
Megan flushes, ducking her eyes, and even Conner's cheeks start to go red, much to Artemis's delight.
Wally takes a step forward and slings his arm across Artemis's shoulders. She smirks wryly at him, and he waggles his eyebrows, and Megan looks at Conner and conspiratorially coos, "Oooh."
"Perhaps I will make an attempt at..." Kaldur ponders. "Littering."
Artemis all-out guffaws at that one, doubling forward slightly without breaking her stride.
"Fight the power," she sniggers, pumping her fist. Kaldur makes a noise in the back of his throat that sounds suspiciously similar to laughter.
"As for me," Artemis declares, leaning slightly into Wally, "I've already got the next six Saturdays filled up. I don't even have to try."
They come to the end of the stone stairs and round the corner to the parking lot. The rain is coming down hard, and they all stay under the awning, looking out at the parked cars.
"Oh, there's Elfie," Dick giggles, nodding to the limo. A distinguished-looking gentleman in a tuxedo standing at the passenger door raises a hand to him in greeting.
"My mom's here, too," Wally says, pointing to a brown sedan behind the limo.
"As is my ride." Kaldur's eyes indicate a blue car in the distance. Artemis squints and starts to ask why it looks like Roy's, but Kaldur proceeds to abruptly start talking about the weather patterns.
"Is your dad here, Conner?" Megan asks, and Conner starts to shake his head (he had walked twelve blocks from his house that morning), but his eyes suddenly fall on a red Volkswagen Beetle a few spaces behind Wally's mother. Behind the wheel is a chiseled man whose resemblance to Conner is astounding.
"I," he murmurs disbelievingly. "I guess he is."
He smiles, very small, and the man in the car stiffly returns it. It's enough.
"I have my own car," Megan explains, gesturing vaguely to a blue Gremlin parked near the oak tree in the middle of the lot.
"I'm walkin'," Artemis drawls.
They all offer her rides at approximately the same time, but she shakes her head, though not without gratitude.
"Sit inside a car in some prime rainy weather?" she exclaims, pretending to be appalled. "Perish the thought."
The six of them laugh together, a bit nervously, and lapse into silence. Eyes dart to each other and feet shift and a peal of thunder sounds, closer than ever before.
"So..." Artemis breaks the quiet, quirking her lips hopefully. "See you next Saturday?"
"I propose we take up the library as our secondary living space," Dick pipes up, raising a finger. "It can be like... a cave."
That's enough of an answer for all of them. With one last meaningful, collective stare, they all turn away and straggle to their respective cars, ducking their heads against the rain. Dick runs across the concrete and the puddles splash water up onto his pants, but he doesn't care, beaming at Alfred and chattering. Kaldur makes his way to Roy's car, doing nothing to conceal the warm smile on his lips.
Megan and Conner walk together, and when Conner comes to a stop beside his father's car, Megan stands on her tiptoes to kiss him. He shields them from the rain and from view with his jacket, and they touch their foreheads together, and Megan whispers, "You're special."
Conner strokes the side of her face with his free hand before pecking her once on the nose, and, with a reluctant wave, he opens the passenger door and climbs into the car. His father smiles at her with a polite nod, and she watches the car drive away with her hand raised in farewell. The rain makes her hair sodden, and it traces her face in rivulets, but the grin never leaves her.
Artemis follows Wally to his mother's car and they both halt just in front of it, turning in unison to look at each other.
"So," Artemis says conversationally. "That happened."
"I'm sincerely hoping it's not just going to be some one-time thing to not talk about in yearbooks," Wally quips, his hands in his pockets.
Artemis tilts her head confidently.
"Please." For the first time, her smile is nowhere near a smirk; it glows and burns like lightning beneath her eyes. "I never just do things once. Where's the fun in that?"
Wally cups her jawline in one hand and kisses her feverishly, and the rain torrents down between their mouths when they open against one another's, warm breaths fogging up in the cold air. Wally's hold on her is relentless and her nails dig just slightly into his shoulders, and water dribbles onto her forehead from his sopping hair.
She sighs against him and uses her free hand to swiftly tear a patch from the sleeve of his letter jacket. She holds it in the air triumphantly and bites her lip and his eyelids lower, and he leans for her again, but she bobs just barely back and slips around him.
"Thought you said you weren't fast," she says dryly, and he shrugs helplessly.
"Hey, with a little incentive, I can do anything."
Artemis laughs without self-consciousness, and her nose crinkles up. Wally marvels at her, at the way her sound fills up the rain-pelted air, and she pushes a clump of hair off of her forehead.
"Next time," she promises him, and finally, she turns and leaves, trudging toward the football field with her hands stuffed into her pockets. Wally watches her go and doesn't even think to consider how he's going to explain making out with a stranger practically on the hood of his mom's car.
Artemis makes her way across the football field toward home and the rain resounds around her without repent. She runs her fingers over the dampened patch in her hands – West, it says, in scarlet letters – and rears her head to the sky and throws one fist into the air.
Saturday turns to Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, and Friday. Saturday turns to the twilight hours and bonfires on the beach. Saturday turns to graduation, and Saturday turns to summer and snow, and Saturday turns to laughing and crying and shouting and all the bare instants in between.
Saturday, in the end, turns to them.