A (slightly) old birthday gift for my friend on LiveJournal, jane-wanderlust. Finally posting it here.
I do not love you except because I love you;
I go from loving to not loving you,
From waiting to not waiting for you
My heart moves from cold to fire.
— Pablo Neruda, "I do not love you except because I love you"
The night they all wake up from the exercise is a hazy, indistinct picture. Artemis remembers chunks of it – the sweat between her fingers, the bony lump in her throat, the blindness at the edges of her eyes tinted red. She remembers M'gann crying – she remembers a lot of crying, actually, but most of it had fit the contours of M'gann's raw and sorrowful throat – and she remembers Robin standing utterly still, no smile, no expression. She remembers a wet line down the side of her cheek that she hadn't wiped away.
She doesn't remember the debriefing at all. Her mind gives her this wobbling picture, discolored and dusty, of Kaldur's head being bowed the whole time. There isn't much else except sounds, shallow breaths and shaking bones, Batman telling them to get some rest.
Somehow, she winds up standing alone in the middle of the main room, her heartbeat pounding against the empty walls as her eyes rivet themselves onto the floor. And somehow she hears footsteps, and somehow she knows exactly who they belong to.
"Hey," Wally says behind her. She doesn't look up, doesn't move.
"So," she says, a little numbly. "That happened."
"Except it totally didn't." She finally glances back over her shoulder, and he's standing a good few feet away, his hands in his pockets, staring boredly at the ceiling. "All in our heads, remember?"
"Yeah, sure," she grinds out, and then finishes with, "No offense, but I'm really not in the mood for you right now, so I'm leaving."
She doesn't know why she has to announce the last part because the meaning comes through just fine when she starts to storm forward, toward the zeta tubes. There's a whoosh of air that hits her full in the face, though, and suddenly Wally is standing in front of her.
"Don't," he blurts out, his eyebrows knit emphatically together. He seems to hear himself a second too late, trying to erase the expression and averting his eyes. "I mean, uh, or do. I'm not your boss."
"Huh, you're learning," she mutters, folding her arms. There's no reason for her to stay here. At home is her mother, and at home is her bed and her Alice in Wonderland poster, faded from time and shadows but constant. At the Cave is all manner of turbulent emotions that she's really not in the mood to deal with and probably never will be, and there's also Wally. It really doesn't take much work to properly weigh her options.
"I think it'd be good if you stayed." Wally sniffs and his nose wrinkles for a second. "Who knows if we can trust you with going home when you can't even last an hour in a fake alien invasion?"
Her heart twangs hotly, and her hands curl into fists before she can even consider the motion.
"I can take care of myself," she tells him as coldly as possible. "Even though I don't have eyes in the back of my head like you seem to be so sure I do."
His expression has hardened in an instant. His hands are out of his pockets.
"Obviously you can'ttake care of yourself," he barks. "Since you—the beam…"
His mouth thins and his green eyes dart down, trained somewhere between her feet and his own. Words keep starting to form in the back of Artemis's throat and fizzling out, and maybe there's a little bit of that disintegration beam left in there, searing the sides of her mouth. There's still something burning inside of her, all the way through her bones.
"Get out of my way," Artemis snarls, shouldering past him, but she feels something dart out and tug at her sleeve, fingers closing around the fabric. She stops. The fingers fall away.
"Hey," she hears Wally say, quietly. "Look at me."
She doesn't know why, but she obliges him, pivoting around and glowering at him straight in the eye. He swallows, and she can see the bob of his throat, and he crosses his arms, wrenching his eyes closed.
"Never mind," he mutters, even quieter. She sighs, loudly, a little raggedly, and takes one step forward. Something she used to have that she's pretty sure was called "Better Judgment" is gone by now.
"I mind," she says. "We all mind. Obviously."
He lets out this strange little noise, halfway between a laugh and a choke, and rubs his knuckles against his right eye, a bit harder than he should. Artemis's ribs feel cold at the sound.
"Hey," she whispers, and the noise he's making intensifies, and it gets louder and more wretched and he's shoving both of his palms against his eyes now, muffling it. She takes another two steps forward and grabs both of his wrists, trying to tug them down, but they aren't moving. "Hey. Hey. Come on. What's the problem?"
"You are!" he barks. He jerks his hands out of her grasp and throws his arms around her shoulders, yanking her roughly forward, and her breath leaves her (either from surprise or the fact that her face just smashed into his chest).
Her fingers curl around some part of his shirt; she doesn't know which. She bites her lip as hard as she can and closes her eyes tightly and tries to ignore the sounds he's making, the way his hands are shaking. And she gets it. She does. It's not a game anymore, what they do. It's not the thing he'd always wanted it to be.
She doesn't know how long they stay like that, but the folds of his shirt are pressed into her cheek in red lines when she finally pulls away. He wipes the back of his nose with his hand and looks up at her, and she looks back, and something hangs between them for just a second; she doesn't know what it is.
"I'm going home," she hears herself say, and her limbs carry her to the zeta tube. She doesn't look back.
All right. Observation number one. There's blood.
Aqualad is shouting something in the corner of her skull and M'gann's distress is swelling against the insides of her temples and it hurts. The pain throbs behind her eyes and she drops her bow. It hits the dirt with a clatter.
Oh. Oh. The blood is hers.
She looks down and lifts her hand away from her side, and there is scarlet in every line on her palm, glistening in the half-moon. Wow. Sometimes she forgets she even has the stuff inside of her.
She's trying to backtrack to how she got here, but suddenly she's on the ground because her knees have given out and it's too hard to concentrate with pebbles and stones pressing between her shoulder blades. Her head hits the dirt and it scratches at her scalp and she lets out the most undignified yelp ever.
She can sort of understand what Aqualad's saying now. It sounds like her name, but it's a lot more high-pitched and terrified than her name has ever sounded, so it can't be. He's yelling something about coordinates and backup and abandoning position, but hello, Aqualad, her position has already kind of been abandoned, seeing as how she's bleeding out like an idiot.
"Kal…" she croaks, and she doesn't know why she says it; no real names allowed on missions, especially not when Mallah and a bunch of Kobra Venom-enhanced apes are thundering around them. It's quieter than she remembers, though. Less thundering, and all. Less machine gun fire. So maybe it's safe to drop the dorky Atlantean aliases for a second?
There's a blast of wind from behind her that makes her bow skitter away. And she can hear somebody breathing heavily and her hand pathetically scrabbles for the weapon, even though she knows it's out of her reach. She's making some kind of bubbling, groaning noise that she hadn't thought herself capable of, even in whatever condition she's in right now.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa," a voice rasps out, breathless, terrified. "Nice goin', Artemis."
"Shut up." That comes out fine. A little wetter than she'd expected, but she's not going to nitpick.
She hears two feet hit the ground, two sets of them walking rapidly toward her. She rolls her head to the side to try to get a better look. The stealth mode on the suits makes it more than a little hard to distinguish the figures standing over her, but based on the small stature of one of them and the shock of orange on the other, she figures it's Wally and Robin.
"Can you guys hurry up?" she mumbles. "I'm kinda dying here, or something."
"Or something, she says," Robin mutters. "Even in half-death, so nonchalant."
"Quit joking around," Wally demands, and she feels a pair of hands on either side of her head. She'd closed her eyes a few seconds ago because they'd been stinging. "Where's the bioship?"
"M'gann's sending it," Robin replies, and something bright and blue-tinted splashes across Artemis's eyelids, probably his holographic computer. "It's about a quarter of a mile away and getting closer."
"Guys…" Artemis tries to push herself up, but her arms buckle beneath her and she hisses through her teeth. She should say something. Just in case. Not that she's super sentimental about being finagled into Celebrity Hockey marathons or anything, but these two are—not special, exactly; she doesn't know what she's trying to get at, but she wants to say something. "Uh."
"Quiet," Robin hushes her.
"You're gonna be fine." Wally ekes the words out through clenched teeth and they're a vague degree more serious than they should be, but she doesn't really have the energy to dwell on it, so she passes out.
M'gann makes her a lot of soup. The med bay has an almost definitely endless supply of Jell-O, but the blankets on the cots smell like nacho cheese, and she really doesn't want to have to try to figure out why.
She has a scar. It's badass. When Wally visits, he throws a pillow at her and by the time she manages to get it off of her face, he's gone.
Robin has a much more terrifying, but less violent, visitation record. She wakes up from a nap one afternoon to see him dangling from a rafter above her bed like some sort of devilish monkey.
"You were talking in your sleep," he giggles, and then throws his arm out. "'Look out! The vegetables are half-price!'" Another cackle. "'Which of you vagrants stole my shoes?!'"
She tries to throw a pillow at him with the best amount of force she can muster after being shot in the side, but then she remembers that gravity is a thing that exists. She really hadn't expected to take two pillows to the face in the span of a week, but there's a first time for everything, she guesses.
New Year's happens. It happens the same way everything does; the way the exercise had, and the way losing her memory in the middle of the desert had, and the way having her sister's sai thrown at her feet had: it hits her in the face like a Wally West-themed car, and then it's gone.
They're too busy debriefing, debriefing, debriefing for the first week of January. They're all too busy cranking the soreness out of their joints, tending to the bruises on their limbs and faces. Black Canary has a nasty black eye from Hawkwoman's mace, and putting Red Tornado back together takes several days, and Batman can't seem to decide whether he's pleased with them or ready to feed them all to Wolf. She isn't really sure why, since they totally saved the day and he didn't help at all, which is a pretty big deal for somebody like Batman, but she doesn't push it.
School starts up again and she's even more pressed for time, and really, she barely even sees Wally except for when they're fighting bad guys until they're ready to fall over. He breaks another bone come February, his wrist, and she laughs at him about it and he has to get his cast changed at least once a week because of the missions, so he loses her signature on the first one.
On the bright side, Robin never really gets tired of whipping out every hue of Sharpie he carries in his utility belt and scrawling all over the plaster with a maniacal grin. So at least Wally'll never get bored.
There's a point to this. They don't talk about the kiss. It's not that they're denying it, exactly. It's just that there's not really enough time to talk about romantic stupidity when they're too busy studying for tests and (in Wally's case) scraping the snow out of the driveway and fighting crime and totally and completely forgetting about Valentine's Day.
She goes to the Cave on February 14th after school in a foul mood, because failing her first Biology exam of the semester hadn't been on her list of New Year's resolutions. When the zeta tube drops her in the main room and she stalks into the kitchen, she's grinding her teeth and clenching her fists and looking forward to unleashing her frustration on the punching bags in the training room.
But something drops down in front of her halfway into the TV room. Something Robin-shaped. She jumps, to her embarrassment.
"Move," she snarls. Robin's hands are on his hips and he's smirking at her. He pushes his sunglasses up onto his nose with one finger.
"Happy Not-Happy Day," he sings, making jazz hands. "Somebody's in a sunny mood."
"Robin," she grinds out, "if you don't move, I'm going to break you in half. I could do it."
"Not that I wouldn't love to see you try," he sighs, sounding almost disappointed, "but don't you have better things to be doing this afternoon? Like reminding Wally what day it is?"
Artemis doesn't dignify that with a response, grasping his shoulder in one hand and propelling him to the side, stomping past. He sniggers behind her but, to his credit, doesn't follow.
She's halfway through pulverizing one of the punching bags when she remembers. February 14th. It's that one day she hates, but probably shouldn't hate anymore now that she's got a kind-of sort-of kiss-induced Thing That Happened with Wally West.
She steadies the swinging punching bag and huffs, wiping the sweat from her forehead with her forearm. Great. She really has no idea how to proceed from here.
What is it that M'gann and Conner always do (on every day that isn't Valentine's Day)? Act all cute and lovey-dovey and ew, no, she's not going to keep going with that idea. She sticks out her tongue involuntarily.
There has to be something she can do. Judging by Robin's earlier comments, Wally doesn't remember what day it is, either. But she doesn't want to give him the satisfaction of making the same mistake.
She quickly unwraps her hands and sprints out of the training room.
She gets a lot of weird looks when she shows up at Safeway barefoot and in a tank top and gym shorts, mostly out of breath, but she ignores them. She grabs three boxes of Mallomars and some Swiss Rolls and expertly avoids eye contact with the various floating heart-shaped balloons, because puking in the middle of Safeway would be really embarrassing.
It's not exactly Valentine's Day material, but it's something. When she gets back to the Cave, she sees him passionately playing Super Smash Brothers Brawl with Robin, and she just doesn't have the heart to throw him off his game, so she drops the Safeway bag in front of his room with a traffic-cone orange Post-It note attached to it.
I win, it says. Don't let me forget to collect my victory spoils. —Artemis
He doesn't. He never lets her get away with anything, but she's learned to stop minding.
The day she graduates from high school is sunny, even for Gotham. She has a surprisingly nice graduation, all in all – lots of loud and obnoxious (wonderful) cheering from the Team when her name is called and she takes her diploma; congratulatory pats on the back from Kaldur and hand-holding from her mom, the combination of which makes her feel so proud of herself she could burst; and after everyone throws their mortar boards in the air and it's all over and the crowd is allowed onto the football field, Wally sprints out and grabs her and spins her around like a loser, and she can't think of a single thing to complain about.
Except for one small, niggling issue. They have a mission that night. Sportsmaster and Cheshire are involved, naturally, because this is Artemis's life and nothing can ever be completely perfect, or even completely enjoyable.
Cheshire had fallen off the grid for a good few months after New Year's, and Sportsmaster had been in League custody for a decent amount of time, but naturally Cheshire had shown up and broken him out, so… so much for that.
She should preface this by saying that it's not her fault that she forgets to say things sometimes. Most of the words she fails to recall go without saying, or at least, she likes to think they do. She doesn't tell her mother that she loves her every night before she goes to bed; she doesn't say "I'll see you in the morning." There's always the promise that she just will. Her mother understands that.
Wally doesn't. Not at first. But he adapts.
"I hear you graduated today, little girl," Sportsmaster says as she swings her fist at him and he ducks under it, trying to uppercut her – she dodges. "I'm soproud."
She tells him to go to hell, her default response to anything he'll ever say to her, and her hand darts for his face. He leans back, and the bottom of her fist bumps against the mask, and how had they gotten caught, again? Simple reconnaissance missions have never exactly been their thing, but really.
It had probably had something to do with the fact that she and Wally had been in the middle of arguing about something on semi-stealth mode, that is, not stealthy at all, especially when he'd scoffed a little too loudly in the middle of a particularly noisy chew, and, well, trying to figure out exactly what Cheshire and Sportsmaster were up to had instantly become unattainable. Way to go, Kid Stealth.
He's running a gold-and-red circle around Cheshire now as the others fight against a few other Shadow assassins, and Artemis can't fathom what they're all doing together unless the Shadows have taken to having weekend meetings, or something—but she doesn't really have the time to concentrate, because Sportsmaster's javelin has just collided with her chin, bowling her backwards.Super.
"Nice shot, Dad," she spits, wiping the blood from her lip, eyeing him carefully. "Cheap, but nice."
"I wouldn't have it any other way," he says, and she can sense the smirk on his face even behind the mask. He raises his javelin and stabs it downward, but she's already rolled out of the way; she's already swept her leg against the backs of his knees and knocked him over.
"Myturn," she snarls, and when she slams her boot into his face, it knocks his mask off. The metal clatters off of the edge of the catwalk they've been fighting on, landing on the warehouse floor below with a noise that bangs against the wide walls.
"Artemis!" M'gann shouts to her. Artemis wipes the dust from her hands, smiling triumphantly at the unconscious form of Sportsmaster, and turns her attention to the rest of the fight.
The smile shudders into nothing. Wally's on the floor, and Cheshire's gone, along with all of the other Shadows. M'gann is hovering over him, her protuberant eyes blinking up at Artemis in bewilderment. Without pausing, without even breathing, Artemis sprints for the stairs.
By the time she's down there, they're already loading him onto the bioship. M'gann is telekinetically moving him, and he looks uncanny, floating with limp arms into the ship as M'gann soars in after him, her eyes glowing white (the blaze does nothing to conceal their wet, red edges). The rest of the Team follows, and Kaldur lowly murmurs something about Sportsmaster being gone, but nobody cares—Artemis's breath hitches in her chest when she sees little crimson beads drifting, spherical and erratically spaced, in a wavering line behind Wally before dropping to the ground, tiny splatters on the bioship floor.
"What happened?" she demands roughly, turning wild eyes to Kaldur.
"Cheshire," he explains bluntly, tightly.
"As usual," Robin supplies, wringing his hands together. The material of his gloves makes a straining sound as they're tugged at. And she can't even remember the sunlight on the football field; she can't remember the sound of her name as she'd taken the diploma into her hands; she can't remember any of it.
She lingers next to her seat as M'gann forms some sort of Martian cot in the back, and as Kaldur and Conner situate Wally on it. They're in the air eventually, but Kaldur and Conner haven't come out, and Robin's eyes are closed just a little too tightly as he clenches his fists in his lap.
"What happened?" Artemis asks again, not expecting an answer this time. She doesn't get one.
"M'gann," Kaldur says from the back, and there's something in his tone that makes Artemis's stomach drop. "Faster."
M'gann gulps loudly and Artemis sees her fingers press down more firmly on the steering orbs. The ship surges forward, practically lurches, and Artemis almost loses her balance. She clutches the back of her seat to stay on her feet, and her hand starts to cramp up. There are scrapes on her knuckles that she doesn't remember being there.
The ship moves so fast, almost clumsily, that the slowly lightening sky blurs around it. They land at Mount Justice at some point, and Conner tugs at Artemis's elbow to let her know that they're disembarking, and Wally's carted off to the med bay, and she can't bring herself to say a thing. Her hands are fisted so tightly that even the ragged stumps of her chewed fingernails are digging into the skin of her palms. Her knuckles had blanched a long time ago.
Three Valentine's Days he'd forgotten. She'd forgotten one, too, but she can't remember which. Wally prefers Swiss on his grilled cheese sandwiches and he doesn't like wearing shoes, but he always has to because he never knows when he'll have to run. It's all coursing through her head in a disjointed amalgamation of blurring data and Batman steps out of the door leading into the med bay. It slides shut behind him. When it closes, her brain goes blank.
"He's stable," he tells them gruffly – Artemis glances around her. M'gann and Conner are in the corner, hands clasped. Kaldur is leaning against the wall with his arms folded. Robin is rubbing his eyes as though he'd been asleep.
She tries to remember why Zatanna hadn't come with them on the mission. Oh, right. Flu. She's in her room, unaware.
Artemis lets out a breath she hadn't noticed she'd been holding, and it blows against the back of her teeth until they feel stale. Batman nods brusquely at her and strides out, cape sweeping behind him, saying something about no visitors for at least twenty-four hours and luckily his metabolism helped flush out the poison and get some rest. Get some rest. She's heard those words before.
Someone's hand is on her back, pushing her toward the door.
"Go ahead," Conner mutters. "Screw Batman."
The door slides aside in front of her, and she walks inside; it leaves a square of white-ish light on the tiled floor that vanishes when it closes again.
The med bay is darker than she remembers, but the machines along the wall illuminate certain corners eerily, blues and reds and a few greens. Her eyes dart to the left, seeing more clearly than they have all night, and they fall on the only occupied bed, on the dissonant strings of light trapped in the crevices of the sheets.
Wally's chest is rising and falling, bare except for the bandages around his torso. The EKG lets out rhythmic blips of sound, a little slow, but not alarmingly so, and there's an IV in his arm.
She silently walks to the bed and sits on the edge of it, frowning down at him. It feels like there's air in her lungs again, but it's bitter, and she feels nauseous.
"Wally," she says, but it doesn't come out on the first try. She swallows and tries again. "Wally."
He mumbles and frowns and shifts a bit, and damn it; she's holding her breath again. He only opens his eyes about halfway, eyebrows furrowed like he's not entirely sure where he is but is mostly just confused because there's no food, and her shoulders loosen.
"Ow." It's like he's proclaiming it as law. "Seriously, ow. What happened?"
"I don't know," she replies, dully, her eyes wandering away from his. "I remember, uh, Cheshire, dart, poison. Something. I wasn't there."
There's silence for a moment. Then—
"Whoa, back up," he says, sounding sleepy but pleased. She feels him punch her arm lightly. "Happy graduation, hot stuff. Totally forgot to tell you out loud."
"Um." She gulps again, but it doesn't do anything to make her throat any less dry. "Th-Thanks."
"Everything hurts," he grumbles, shifting again – Artemis's head whips around to see him trying to prop himself up by the elbows.
"Stop," she hisses, shoving him back down a little too hard. He yelps at the force, grimacing, and she instantly withdraws as though he'd stung her.
"Wouldn't kill you to say 'please,'" he quips dryly. "But, I guess taking it easy was kind of a lost luxury once you died, y'know, that one time."
Her eyebrows furrow warningly at him.
"Wally," she says, quietly, hoarsely, "You never bring that up."
"Uh-oh." He rolls his eyes (one of them is bruising) and waves a sarcastic hand. "I'm deviating."
"You realize you could've died this time, right?" she snaps hotly. Her blood is pounding in her ears. "This isn't a joke, you—you stupid—"
"Oh good." He deadpans, not unkindly. "You've fulfilled your 'call me stupid' quotient."
She knows he's being facetious; she does. By now, she should really be used to it, but this has been the longest night of her life and she's in this weird limbo between being a kid and being an adult and some of Wally's blood had wound up on her suit, tainting the green, and she's finishedwith everything, ready to throw herself out a window.
She tries to solve it the way she solves everything: by standing abruptly up and starting to walk away.
"Artemis!" Wally shouts, startling her into halting. She forces herself not to turn her head. His EKG is going a little faster now, missing a few beats by milliseconds. His breathing sounds a little more strained and she can tell that he's probably sitting up, because he's an idiot.
"I really don't know if I can do this right now," she whispers, and every ounce of honesty in her body is there, throttling the words by their throats until they quaver in her mouth.
"You don't have to," he says, hastily, desperately. "You totally don't have to; you can leave and I totally won't hold it against you, because I know that leaving helps, or whatever, with your feelings and stuff; that's why you like it so much when Ileave whenever you're—"
She whirls on him, half-fury and half-anguish, and strides back to the bed, towering over him, her fists shaking at her sides. Some small vestiges of words are rattling in her head, raw and unstable, but they're not coming out; they never do.
Leaving, contrary to what he seems to think, is actually not one of her favorite things. Not unless she's doing it, or telling someone to do it, because when she can control something as typicallyuncontrollable as leaving, it's not as bad. It doesn't make her feel sick to her stomach; it doesn't make her feel like a lonely nine-year-old holding a teddy bear too tightly to her chest in a dark room, terrified of the monsters she's sure will come out now that she's all by herself.
And Wally had almost left her today. She knowshe had, even from all the stupid vague scraps that Batman and Kaldur had been tossing haphazardly out since she'd seen Wally curled up on the warehouse floor not five hours ago.
His expression of obliviousness unravels after only a moment of looking at her, his wide and excitable eyes looking a little dimmer.
"C'mere," he mutters, patting the space beside him.
Artemis doesn't move.
"C'mere," he says again, just insistently enough to convince her. She sits down gingerly beside him, refusing to take her eyes off of his, and there's something like panic roiling around in her stomach at the prospect of Wally not knowing her the way she'd thought he had, the way she'd presented herself for almost three years.
"Hey." His tone is a lot softer than she's used to, and his thumb hooks under her chin. He looks exhausted. "Don't tell me you're mad at me."
"No," she mutters churlishly after a time. "I'm just – of course I don't like it when people leave, Wally. Me, or – or anybody else."
"Yeah, that was poor word choice," he admits apologetically. "Just – what're you so freaked out about?"
She stares incredulously at him.
"Are you serious?" she almost yells. "You almost died! Did you forget?!"
He blinks at her, and his hand drifts away from her face.
"Uhm," he says slowly and carefully. "Duh, no. I just… didn't figure it'd… freak you out. This much."
"You—" she splutters. "You didn't… think… it would FREAK ME OUT?!"
He winces, but she pays the expression no heed, gaping indignantly at him.
"Well, I mean, you're not exactly a super emotional gal, or anything," he expounds, sounding like he's not sure if he should be repentant or not. "Plus, you know I'm sturdy. So."
"I can't believe you," she scoffs, all hope of any response completely gone. "I can't… Wally."
Her voice breaks on his name without her permission. It hurts a part of her throat like a needle. Her cheeks feel a little more damp than she'd prefer.
"Whoa, whoa," Wally exclaims, sounding astonished and lost and generally paralyzed. "Hey – hey, hey, hey, babe; come here…"
He's rolled over and snaked his arm around her torso, tugging her downwards, and she goes with it without even hesitating, stretching out on the bed beside him, facing him. He's staring at her in bewilderment, his eyes flicking between hers, gaping a little, but he at least has the sense to lift his thumb and wipe the wetness from the corners of her eyes.
"I'm fine," he tells her, like he can't believe he even has to say it. She wrenches her eyes closed and inclines her head until their foreheads are touching; she practically pushes hers against his, and he notices, and he doesn't budge.
"Wally," she hears herself say, in place of all the words she should be unleashing but still can't. "Ican'tlose you. Stupid."
She punches him, lightly, wearily, on the shoulder, and she kisses him until she's almost sure his taste will never leave her, and hopes it's as good as I love you.
The night before she fakes her own death, the night before she packs one duffel bag and leaves their Palo Alto apartment before the sun has come up, Wally doesn't say much to her. Not in a bad way, exactly. She doesn't say much, either. The silence that hangs between their teeth is what they need.
He asks her not to leave, murmurs the uncharacteristic plea into the crook of her neck when it's dark, and she avoids responding by kissing him. She thinks he understands, because his lips stop moving against hers, but she pretends that they're still going, still there. She doesn't sleep.
The time comes to say good-bye to him in some musty warehouse on the edge of Blüdhaven, where the stench of the stagnant harbor creeps through the thin walls.
"What could go wrong?" she says, jokingly, but the words are rattling and uncertain, teetering on the brink of something she doesn't want to look at. Her fingers rest around the edge of his ear and she can see every muted vein in the whites of his eyes, every white sun-spot on his face where a freckle used to be, and God, maybe she can't do this; maybe she really can't—
He laughs a little, and the sound startles her. The fact that it has that effect on her is enough to make her throat close up, because laughter used to be all she'd hear from him back in the day, when "a hard mission" meant one that he couldn't get a souvenir for.
"Don't saythat," he tells her, as convincingly as he can, like she's jinxing it. She lets out a noise that she supposes could be a laugh of her own, but it's bare, and she hardly hears it.
He lifts his hand and runs the backs of his fingers down her cheek, and they linger there longer than she can bear, and she should say it now; she should say it, because he deserves that much, and this is the moment; this might be her last chance; this is—
But no, she thinks. No. She's not going to replace good-bye with I love you, because that's not what I love youshould be. If she says it, then it's the end. She knows it is. That's how it works in movies and books and all the things she'd told herself to never confuse with what's real.
So she swallows it down, silently, before he can even realize that it was almost there, resting against his mouth after she pressed it there with her own. Nightwing puts a hand on his shoulder and Wally steps back, silent, the smile gone.
Artemis turns away from him and doesn't look back. It's always been such a marvelous talent of hers, never having the guts to look behind her. The smell of the mold and the salt leaves her when she enters the sub and the glamour charm is heavy around her neck, like a garrote wire, but she breathes in and out until she can do it evenly again.
Nothing can go wrong. If it does, then not saying I love youwill be a mistake.
Artemis Crock is through with mistakes.
They have not kissed yet. New Year's Day is still two months away, and Wally has been sixteen for twenty-five hours and fifteen minutes.
Everyone is asleep by now, and Artemis doesn't know why she's back at the Cave playing the same old Super Smash Brothers Brawl with the not-birthday boy, who still has bandages all over him from catapulting through a glass door at super-speed, but who had seen no reason to stay in a hospital all the way in Seattle, away from his friends.
Artemis has just finished apologizing for telling him about Conner and M'gann. He has just finished lightly nudging her and telling her not to worry about it, that he appreciates it, that she should take up ruining birthdays if the superhero thing doesn't work out.
In retaliation, she utilizes Samus Aran to blast his Sonic out of the ring.
"PLAYER ONE, DEFEATED," the game booms. Wally groans, but he's grinning.
"You know something," he says, leaning against the back of the couch and turning his head to look at her, still beaming a little goofily (she blames the NSAIDs). "If I didn't hate you so much sometimes, Artemis, I'd say I love you."
Artemis laughs. Sets down her controller, cracks her knuckles, stretches and flops against the back of the couch beside him.
"I love you too, Wally," she replies, genuinely, like they're the easiest words she's ever said. She doesn't even think to be worried.