July 26, 18:37 EST
It was a bona fide paradox.
A genuine, gravity-defying, proved-the-existence-of-magic paradox and Wally West's budding, 16-year-old scientific mind couldn't even begin to explain it. He stood in the shade cast by the shadow of Mount Justice, his feet buried ankle-deep in the sand of Happy Harbor beach, looking on while Artemis Crock and her…friend – who was a boy – flirted incessantly.
He was scowling because, no matter how times he replayed the scenario in his head, he couldn't make sense of it. He should have been jealous. He should have been furious. He should have been filled with a nigh insatiable lust for vengeance, but instead he found himself to be happy – chock-full with an alarming sense of contentment, like he had just conquered a particularly challenging physics problem. Like all the forces of entropy had stopped momentarily to observe a phenomenon so pure and so right that it was beyond destruction. Like this was the way it was meant to be.
It was positively maddening.
Wally liked Artemis. He like-liked Artemis and he was pretty sure there was at least some mutual attraction. She kissed him after all. Well, she had kissed him back on New Year's after that fiasco with the double agent (Roy Harper, who knew?), and kisses meant something, he was sure of that. So he could not, for the life of him, figure out why he wasn't more disappointed. Sure, January was seven months ago. And sure, he hadn't exactly been very forthcoming about his feelings. But he had evidence of probable reciprocity, recent evidence. Two days ago, he had been in the Cave's kitchen scarfing down M'gann's second batch of frosted sugar cookies – she was getting pretty good at baking – when Artemis walked in. Their eyes met and she burst into a fit of giggles.
"What?" Wally demanded. His face was already turning a light shade of pink.
"Nothing," she said in a sing-song voice after her laughter subsided. Then she made a beeline for him. Wally took a step back and bumped into the counter behind him. He braced himself and even cringed slightly as Artemis snaked her hand around his waist. When he could see her hand again, he discovered that she had merely grabbed a cookie from the tray behind him and a napkin for herself.
"A little jumpy today?" She said after taking a small bite. Wally's flush deepened. Apparently he had forgotten how to flirt, couldn't manage even one exchange of banter. Artemis shrugged and turned to leave but not before she reached up and wiped a smudge of frosting from the side of his mouth. "Bite, chew, and swallow, Wally. Not everything's a race." She smiled again and Wally was convinced his pallor matched the color of his hair. Any further effort at a reply withered in his throat.
"Bye," she said, and with a flutter of slender fingers, and a flick of her extra-long ponytail, she was gone.
The swell of a breeze from the Atlantic Ocean brought Wally back to the present. He realized his right hand was unconsciously rubbing the spot where Artemis had brushed her napkin. His gaze landed again on Artemis and her impossibly handsome friend. He tackled her and the two playfully wrestled along the shoreline. Wally couldn't even pretend to be upset. It was an unfathomable logical inconsistency – an indecipherable enigma. He dropped the hand back to his side and burrowed his feet deeper into the sand.
July 26, 09:13 EST
"Come on. There's gotta be something to do around here," Wally said.
"You do know that we're in one of the smallest cities in the smallest state, right?" Dick said as he ambled into the lounge area of the Cave with a bowl of cereal in his hands. He flopped down onto one of the couches in the middle of the room and spooned some of the cereal into his mouth. He watched as Wally began to zigzag across the room, at hyperspeed, in an attempt to amuse himself. After several seconds, he appeared to grow bored with that idea and launched himself toward the couch adjacent to Dick.
"We cannot waste this opportunity, dude. For us, getting a day off is like, like…"
Dick raised an eyebrow after Wally's pause spanned more than a few moments. "Like what?"
Wally groaned loudly and dug the heels of his palms into his eyes. "I don't know! Something rare! You see this? I'm already losing my mind from all this boredom. "
"So, what are we going to do?"
"You can start by dropping a few decibels," Artemis chimed as she strolled into the room still clad in her pajamas, a camisole and matching sleeping shorts. "All of his," she pointed at Wally, "complaining woke me up."
She swung her index finger around until it aimed at the bowl in Dick's hand, "Any of that left?"
"Wait a minu—"
"Yep," Dick said. "Plenty of milk too." Artemis spun on her toes and walked to the kitchen.
"Am I invisible?" Wally nearly shouted. He half-expected another interruption.
Dick smirked. "Wouldn't make much difference" he said.
Wally's face pinched in confusion. "What does that mean?"
"She'd still find a way to be annoyed by you."
"Yeah, well she didn't seem too annoyed during the Napkin Incident."
"And, remind me, how many words did you manage to squeak out then?" Wally was silent. "Uh-huh. What about coherent noises? Maybe a few grunts or some heavy breathing?"
"Not cool, Dick."
"My assessment exactly. Dude, how hard can it be? Most of the time you can't shut up."
"You don't understand," Wally said.
"What's there not to understand? You ever see me at a loss for words with Zatana."
"That's different. You know she likes you back. And sometimes Artemis wears these very distracting outfits..."
"What are you guys talking about anyway?" Artemis asked as she re-entered the lounge. She chose a spot in between the two, on the couch Dick occupied, and folded her legs beneath her torso. Dick continued to stare at Wally so that's where Artemis directed her attention as well.
"Yeah, what are we talking about?" Dick began, "Let's really undress this conversation."
Wally's cheeks inflamed. "Rob, stop. Now."
"I mean, we just need to peel off all these layers…"
"Not funny, man."
Artemis leaned forward and said, "I'd prefer an answer sometime today."
"…and get down to the naked tru—"
"OK!" Wally shot off the couch and immediately moved to stand between his friends. "We're trying to organize a team hangout," he said, miraculously keeping his eyes level with Artemis' face.
"That idea sounds like it has some real potential," she said. Wally bobbed his head.
"I think so too, but bird boy," Wally used his thumb to indicate Dick, "and I haven't been able to come up with any decent plans."
"How about spending a day at the beach? We sort of live right on the coast, so we might as well make use of it."
Wally mulled over the suggestion for a moment."I'm a little embarrassed we didn't think of that first."
Artemis smiled. "Maybe you're not as smart as you think," she winked.
Wally opened his mouth to reply but Dick cut him off. "The beach, huh? So that means you'll be wearing a biki—"
Wally turned around, clamped a hand over Dick's mouth and lifted him up from the couch. "The beach sounds great," he said, awkwardly waving goodbye with the digits still plastered over Dick's lips. "Let the others know, will you? Rob and I just need to take care of something...personal first."
"Sure, but is it OK if I bring someone? Someone not from the League, I mean. Just a school friend, he's cool."
Wally shrugged and then hurriedly tightened his grip on the wiry 13-year-old thrashing about in his arms. "Why not? The more the merrier, right?"
"Terrific. We could start maybe around 1:30?"
"Sounds good to me," Wally said over his shoulder as he dragged Dick from the lounge and into an adjoining hallway. After they were out of sight, Artemis called out.
"Oh, and Wally, I will be wearing a bikini."
July 26, 12:51 EST
Dick sighed and pulled a hand down the length of his face. He watched as Wally tried on yet another swimsuit, ogled himself in the mirror, shook his head, disrobed, and then started the process all over again. Dick had seen the routine five times now – once involving a speedo – and it had exhausted his patience.
Fifteen minutes before the speedo incident, Dick punched in the passcode to Wally's private room. The hatch glided open as Dick palmed his phone and waved it in the air. "What's this 'DEFCON ONE' business all about?" he said, in reference to Wally's most recent text message. "No one's seen or heard from you in two hours."
"We've got a crisis on our hands, Rob," Wally said as soon as Dick crossed the threshold. The door slid shut with a pneumatic hiss and Dick took the opportunity to survey his surroundings.
"You can say that again."
All the drawers from Wally's dresser had been removed and their contents dumped onto the floor. The room looked like it had sustained an explosion from an IED crammed with t-shirts, pants, and underwear. Clothes were strewn about carelessly and hanging from every visible object. Wally stood squarely in the middle of it all – wearing nothing but his freckles and the tightest pair of spandex Dick had ever seen.
"Please tell me there's an explanation for this."
Wally anxiously ran his hands through his hair. "I don't know what to wear!" he said.
After a brief pause, Dick clutched his sides, doubled over, and cackled. Wally folded his arms and glowered. Dick looked up. "You're serious?" he said.
"Experiencing pleasure from another person's pain is called sadism, Dick."
"You're in no position to be name-calling, trust me," Dick said between laughs. "Besides, I think the polyurethane is cutting off your circulation. How old is that underwear anyway?"
Wally's cheeks and neck turned red and he self-consciously tugged on the spandex. "I don't know, man. Old," Wally said while he absently moved around some of the clothing pooled beneath his legs with the toes on his left foot. "I'm freaking out a little bit here."
"Just a little," Dick nodded. "What's up? And if you say you've decided to color coordinate your wardrobe, I'm gone."
Wally managed a faint smile. "It's slightly bigger than that."
"Did you lose your favorite shirt?"
"She said 'he.'"
"Artemis. About her friend, the one she wanted to bring today. She said 'he's cool.' I didn't realize it until after you squirmed out of that grapple. I was too busy trying to censor you."
Dick narrowed his eyes. He wagged a finger at Wally. "That reminds me. You better not let that happen again – ever."
"Sorry. I tend to get a little impulsive in matters of public humiliation, especially in front of girls I like. Thanks for that, by the way. Really keeps me grounded."
"You're welcome. So why are you so worked up over a gender pronoun?"
"I don't need to be a genius to read the signs here, Rob," Wally turned away before continuing, "She likes someone else."
"Think about it. She thinks he's 'cool' and she's inviting him over to meet all her friends. And it's not like I've given her a whole lot of options."
Dick ran his tongue across his bottom teeth and rested his hands on his hips. "Listen," he said as he stepped around piles of clothes and approached Wally, "You're a scientist, right? You can't form theories based on opinion. You tailor your theories to the evidence. So here's what you're going to do." He bent down to pick up a tank top and flung it at Wally. "You're going to get dressed, we're going to walk down to the beach, and you're going to meet this guy. After we've spent a couple of hours with him, we should be able to determine whether or not you're right, which, let's face it, isn't all that often. So stop moping and get moving. We're already going to be late."
"I still don't know what to wear," Wally mumbled.
"Board shorts and that tank top are a safe bet. If this situation is as bad as you think it is, choosing an outfit should be the least of your concerns."
"What should I be concerned about?"
"Your albino-white skin and your usually-charmless disposition. Oh, and puberty. Definitely puberty."
Wally began to rub his chin thoughtfully. "You know, I could probably synthesize a melanin compound from some hair and tissue sampl—" Dick swatted the back of his head. "OW! What was that for?"
"Trying to ditch our friends. Put some clothes on. Artemis can't go out with you if she never sees you, and she'll never want to if you show up looking like that."
"Never want to go out with me?"
Wally paused and rubbed his thumb against the waistband of his underwear. "Do you have a batarang handy?"
"Because I think I have to cut my way out of this."
July 26, 13:43 EST
With each passing step, Wally hoped the sand would swallow him whole and spare him from the agony of exchanging phony pleasantries with Artemis' friend. "I can't do this, man," he whispered to Dick. His voice strained as he eyed his friends up ahead. It was this exact moment when Artemis turned around, spotted the duo, and beckoned them over to join the group.
"Too late now," Dick said. "If you turn back, you're either a disappointment or a coward."
Wally scratched his cheek. "I could live with that." Dick looked at him flatly.
"Or you could cover for me," Wally said as he grabbed his friend's elbow and halted his gait. "Make something up."
Wally saw the back of a head he didn't recognize. "What if he's handsome or funny or smart? Oh my God, what if he's all three?" he tightened his grip.
Dick wrenched his arm free. "Then at least he doesn't have super powers." He started jogging towards the group and cast a sidelong glance over his shoulder. "Remember what we talked about. Just collect some data."
Wally clenched his hands into fists three times and gazed longingly back at Mount Justice before running after Dick. He kept his eyes downcast and he silently prayed for a thunderstorm or a small tornado or a tsunami – anything – to give him a reason to turn back around. But he looked up and found himself to be only a few yards away from the group. He noticed Raquel first. A thick white headband held her spiky black hair off her forehead and a yellow bikini top paired with some white Bermuda shorts contrasted brightly against her cocoa-colored skin. She leaned her weight on one leg and rested her left hand on a cocked hip. M'gann and Zatanna stood on either side of her.
Zee wore a thin white tank top over a black two-piece swimsuit. She had piled her raven-black hair into a messy bun atop her head. Wally watched as Dick meandered up to her and planted a kiss on her cheek, which she returned, before shifting his gaze. M'gann flaunted a magenta bikini top and wore a matching cover-up cinched around her waist that swooped to mid-thigh. Her shoulder-length red hair was tied back in a casual ponytail. Conner stood next to her in a pair of dark blue trunks. His muscular arms were folded across his bare chest and he acknowledged his freckled teammate with a curt nod. Then Wally saw the stranger.
He was tall, with dark brown hair and an angular face, amber eyes, and a tan complexion. He had a strong athletic build accentuated by broad shoulders and powerful legs. He wore a fitted t-shirt and cargo shorts that accentuated his sinewy arms and calves, and, when he smiled, Wally saw two neat rows of pearl-white teeth. Handsome? Check. Wally tried to calculate how fast he would need to vibrate so he could generate enough friction and spontaneously combust. But the arithmetic stopped abruptly when he got a closer look at Artemis.
She was dressed in a practically sheer V-neck t-shirt and short dark-wash jean shorts. Wally could just make out an emerald bathing suit top beneath her shirt. She had brown gladiator sandals on her feet and a baseball cap on her head. Her lengthy ponytail poked out through the hole above the plastic adjuster on the back of the hat and her blonde hair shimmered in the sunlight. She turned her head and locked eyes with Wally. A small smile tugged at the corners of her lips and she gestured for him to come closer. His legs seemed to have a mind of their own because they carried him to her side against his will. He gulped and lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the sun. His stomach roiled and he was filled with a sense of great anticipation and then paralyzing dread. He contemplated running away one last time when suddenly—
"What happened to 1:30?" she asked.
"What happened to the bikini?" Wally said before he could stop himself. Someone inhaled sharply and the air seemed suddenly thick and charged. Wally quickly looked down and scratched his left arm. He heard Dick hiss, Idiot, but Artemis merely raised an eyebrow and soldiered on.
"Anyway, Wally, this is my friend Ben Mercer." She looked at Ben then continued, "Ben, this is Wally West."
Wally was frozen and embarrassed but automatically extended his hand, and Ben stepped forward to squeeze the proffered limb. "I've heard good things about you," he said. "You're the science guy, right?"
Wally finally snapped out of his daze and tried to regain his bearings. He shook loose some of the mental cobwebs and replayed the outsider's words in his head. Then he cleared his throat and squeezed back. "Yeah, I'm a regular Bill Nye," he said.
"I know meeting new people can be awkward so was going to make a joke about sodium and hydrogen but—"
"Nah," Wally finished instinctively. The two boys made eye contact and started laughing. "I haven't heard that joke since the sixth grade."
Ben pulled back his hand and slid it into the front pocket of his shorts. "Yeah, my dad's a professional scientist so I've been around periodic table jokes my whole life. I'm a geek but I'm proud of it."
Wally took a step back and silently appraised the newcomer. Maybe - maybe - he wasn't so bad after all.
July 26, 14:24 EST
"So, how do you know Artemis?" Wally asked Ben as they watched some of the others set up boundaries on the beach for the game Ben suggested they play.
"We both attend Gotham Academy," he said. "We've had a few classes together."
"Yeah, but I'm not good friends with everyone I've had class with."
"Right," Ben nodded, "but we've been lab partners in AP biology for months." He cupped his hands around his mouth and called out, "Let's make the field a little wider, OK?"
Dick turned around and gave Ben the thumbs up before making the changes to the boundaries.
"Did you drive all the way out here from Gotham?"
"No, I just live there during the school year. My dad's research lab is near Providence so we spend the summer in Massachusetts. The drive over here took a little more than an hour."
Wally raised an eyebrow. "You live in Gotham by yourself?"
"Mostly. My parents come and visit occasionally but we're pretty set financially, so I've got a comfortable life."
"Does it ever get—"
"Lonely? Sometimes, but Artemis and I spend a fair bit of time together so I never feel neglected or anything," Ben said. He waved at Artemis and Wally saw her stick out her tongue in return, then she turned back to help the others. "I think she needs the friendship more than I do."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Wally said.
"Just that she's dealing with a tough situation at home – with her paraplegic mom – and at school. Plenty of the students at GA are narcissistic trust-fund babies who despise people like Artemis just because she's not."
"Oh," Wally took the edge off his voice. "Then I guess it's good she's got you around to look out for her."
"I guess. I think it's more important for you guys to do stuff like this all the time. You know, just getting a group together and spending the day enjoying each other's company. I haven't known any of you for very long but I can tell you're all pretty tight-knit."
"Yeah, we're…" What were they? Wally thought. "Friends" was too simple and "teammates" was too vague. "We're close," he finished.
"Good. You're about to get a lot closer," Ben said.
The game was called Dutch and it was a combination of soccer and team handball. Players without the ball could run freely but, once someone gained possession, he or she could take only three steps and had three seconds to redistribute the ball to a teammate. Interceptions weren't allowed but a dropped pass resulted in a turnover, and goals could only be scored with a ricochet off the head or foot of a player. Ben told the group that he learned the game during preseason conditioning for his soccer team. He assured them that it was easy and incredibly fun.
Raquel insisted that they pit boys against girls for a good old-fashioned battle of the sexes and only M'gann protested. Ben dropped down to a knee to exclude himself from being the first to play goalie. Wally and Dick quickly followed suit while Conner stood by, motionless. After several chuckles and some light prodding from his Martian girlfriend, he threw up his hands in resignation and lumbered back towards the goal.
The game was a rousing success for a little more than an hour with both teams scoring intermittently. Then, after a breakaway run, Raquel blocked a shot attempt from Dick and threw an outlet pass to M'gann, who promptly launched a two-handed overhead throw up the field. Zatanna was streaking up one of the sidelines and she leaped up over Ben's outstretched arms and swatted the ball down towards Artemis' right foot. At the same time, Wally sprang out of the goal to intercept the pass and knocked the ball off its intended trajectory, in a full-extension dive, preventing a goal. Unfortunately, Artemis' momentum was irreversible and her leg sliced through the air to connect with his exposed stomach.
Wally rolled away and immediately rose up onto his hands and knees. He tried to draw deep breaths but that left him painfully dry heaving. Artemis dropped to his side and urged him onto his back as she grew exponentially more flustered. He reluctantly complied. She laid one hand on his chest and another on his shoulder to stabilize him. His breath was coming in shallow gasps now and his eyes popped open a moment before the air rushed into his lungs and his body was wracked by a coughing fit. He sat up and shook off Artemis' hands with one arm but fell back down after the sudden rush of blood left him lightheaded. She tentatively reached out again to steady him once he had calmed some.
"What's your problem?" she said.
Wally drew a few steadying breaths. "These conversations usually start with 'I'm sorry,'" he coughed.
"You should be," she said. "My leg's gonna be throbbing for a week." Her face softened and belied the admonition in her words. Then she closed her eyes and exhaled, and a single, silent tear slid down her face. "I'm sorry," she whispered, and she cupped his cheek and forced his eyes to meet hers. "Are you all right?"
Wally propped himself up on his elbows with some effort. "Yeah, or I will be anyway. If I had known you cared this much, I would've gotten the wind knocked out of me an hour ago."
Artemis pulled back her hand and wrinkled her forehead in confusion. "What do you mean? I care—"
"Let me have a look at him. I've taken some EMT courses in my spare time," Ben said as he knelt down on the opposite side of Wally.
"Of course you have," Wally said, his eyes screwed shut.
Artemis stood up and backed away from the two boys. Zatanna, M'gann, and Raquel rushed to her side and asked her if she was all right. She hummed and nodded distractedly while she maintained eye contact with Wally from a distance. She couldn't read the emotion in his stare and she almost called out, but then he severed the connection by turning to Ben to answer questions about his health. She was deaf to their conversation and she tuned out the other girls' voices as well. She was left with a numb feeling throughout her entire body. Her consciousness became limited to the sound of the waves lapping at the shore and the dull ache emanating from her shin.
July 26, 18:37 EST
Wally's ruminations about his emotional paradox diffused when Dick padded over to his side and elbowed him in the ribs. "So, what do you think?" he said.
Wally shook his head. "Well, at least he doesn't have super powers."
Dick laughed and followed his friend's gaze over to where it rested on Artemis and Ben. "Might as well though. He's smart, athletic, CPR certified."
"Right, but that's not the biggest problem I have with him."
Wally noticed that Artemis and Ben had stopped rolling around. They now sat next to each other facing the ocean. Ben leaned back on his hands and Artemis wrapped her arms around her legs and rested her chin on the top of one of her knees. She leaned into Ben an instant before Wally averted his eyes. "It'd be a lot easier to hate him if I didn't like him so much," he said.
Dick laid a reassuring hand on his friend's back and said, "Then it's on you."
"Ball's in your court."
"I got it, Rob. Lay off."
Dick shrugged and wandered back over to mingle with the rest of their friends.
After Ben received a phone call, he announced that it was time for him to leave and he made his goodbyes. He got a few hugs and some polite invitations to future get-togethers, and then he stood face-to-face with Wally.
"Real sorry about your stomach, man," he said.
Wally ran a hand over his abdomen. "Looked worse than it felt, trust me. And I've always been a quick healer."
"So I've heard. It's too bad we didn't get to talk much. I was hoping to pick your brain about, you know, science stuff."
Wally forced a laugh. "Maybe some other time." His expression dropped and he craned his neck towards Artemis. "She's lucky to have you and I mean that. You're really a stand-up guy," he said.
"That's funny," Ben smirked. "She said the same thing about you. About being glad she had you, I mean. And I gotta tell you, I'm inclined to agree with her. She invited me along today in hopes that you would network a job out of the introduction."
"Oh yeah?" Wally said. "You know a guy?"
"I should hope so, my dad's Elon Mercer."
Wally blanched. "The CEO of Grey Matter Technologies?" Ben nodded. "I can't believe I didn't make the last name connection sooner. If I was a jerk at all to you today, I apologize. I'd love to work with those guys."
Ben laughed. He waved off Wally's words. "Just promise me that if I get you an interview, you won't make me look bad."
Wally reached out and shook Ben's hand. "Deal."
Ben turned to leave and Wally called out to him one last time. "Hey, you guys got a west coast office, right?"
"Because I'm pretty seriously considering Stanford for college."
Ben smiled and waved and continued to wind his way up the beach. "Artemis always said she liked you better in red."
She sat alone, looking out over the Atlantic. Her knees were tucked up to her chest and her arms were wrapped around her legs as she watched the sunset. Wally slowed his gait as he approached her and gradually meandered to her side. But she didn't turn to acknowledge him.
"You know what makes the sky red like that?"
Artemis bit her lip. "I bet you're gonna tell me."
"Pollution," he said. "Sulfuric acid aerosols, actually. It's beautiful though, isn't it?"
"The contradiction, I mean. That something so breathtaking is caused by something so ugly." Wally sat down beside her but she still refused to look at him.
"What do you want, Wally?"
"You're not gonna kick me again?"
A smile tugged at her lips but vanished as quickly as it appeared."Depends what you have to say."
"I want to kiss you," he said.
She snapped her eyes over to his in less than a second. "Why?"
"To thank you. For what you did with Ben."
She silently appraised his words. Her steel-grey eyes searched his face.
"And because I've thought about kissing you for seven months now. Well, kissing you again I guess. I've tried to remember how it felt and imagined what it'd be like to do it all over again. Dreamt about it, really."
Her eyes grew wide. "Not like that! I just mean—"
Artemis leaned over and pressed her lips against his."I like you too," she said.
A grin spread across Wally's face and he shook his head. "Here's to contradictions," he whispered. Then he hooked his arm around the back of her neck and kissed her another time. "I should've done that again a long time ago," he said and Artemis agreed.
And so he did, over and over, until they were both tired and covered in sand. And again, four times, as they walked in solitude back to the Cave and to her private room. Then twice, before and after she peeled off her t-shirt and shorts, and they crawled into her bed together.
Wally drifted awake to the sound of muffled humming and the hiss of pressurized water on porcelain. His hand sought purchase on her skin but skimmed only bed covers and her absence drew him fully conscious. The color of her walls, the arrangement of her furniture, the spasm of pain from his stomach muscles when he sat up were all foreign to him. But, he thought drowsily, as he rolled over and wrapped the duvet tighter around his torso, he could get used it.