So many plans, and so much anguish and grief to channel into them. Regardless, I do not accept what happened today and I am going to write myself out of this mess if it's the last thing I do.
To the well organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.
— J.K. Rowling
Wally's cell phone is deactivated a week after he's gone, and though Artemis has spent every one of those seven days sore with grief, it doesn't really hit her until then, when she calls it and the shrill error message cuts through her ear. (Instead of his voice – "Yo, you've reached the Wall-man, leave it at the beep and I'll get back to you in a flash. Shut up, Artemis; I'm hilarious!")
The number you dialed is not a working number. Please check the number and dial again. El número que ha marcado no es un número de trabajo. Por favor, compruebe el número y vuelva a marcar. Le numéro que vous avez composé n'est pas un numéro valide. S'il vous plaît vérifier le—
Something cold settles in her stomach, a stone, clammy with certainty. She'd managed to get in one call before the service had gone offline, and it had been four in the morning and he'd been gone for sixteen hours, nearly 58,000 absent ticks in the emptiness of their apartment, and the Watchtower, and asunder remnants of the Cave.
"Hey, it's me," she'd said, but the shake in her voice had betrayed her, and Brucely had lifted his head from his paws and blinked at her. "Listen, we're out of eggs; can you pick some up, if you ever actually decide to come home? Call me back, stupid. You're the only one who actually has a key to this place."
(When she'd come home from the arctic, alone, heavy, she'd had to use the spare stored under the doormat. When she'd come home from the summit, he'd carried her over the threshold and held her for the few hours they had, nothing more than that, nothing more than knowing she was there.)
And still the world turns, no matter how petulantly she digs her heels against the spin. It is a mad ball, tumult and turbulence, sucking the air out of her. Even as she haphazardly folds up her shabby green costume and stuffs it into the bottom drawer where Wally keeps the clothes he doesn't like, even as she stands between Mary and Rudolph West on summer-scented grass in front of a slab of white stone that had once been hewn for her, even as she wonders if Dick's laugh had ever really been real, it does not stop turning at all.
Kaldur is the one who holds her the most, which is saying something, considering Bart will not let go of her for hours after the snow has left her skin; Kaldur rubs circles onto her back and tells her that he understands and her pain doubles, breaks in half at the center of her chest, like splintered wood. She pulls brambles onto herself and bites her tongue and tastes metal in her heart, and on her teeth, and she forces herself to do all of her crying in six days so she can finish it, finish the rawness in her eyes and the swollen corners and the listlessness in her limbs. She doesn't sleep.
She moves out of the apartment. It's too large for her, and its warmth is now stale and colorless. Two of the boxes break when she tries to haul them out to the car, and a framed photograph of him tumbles out of one of them and shatters on the concrete. She leaves it there.
Her new place in Gotham smells dank and has dark walls with cobwebs on them and it feels more like home than she could bear to let the hardwood floors of Palo Alto feel like anymore. She's only two blocks away from her mother, six blocks away from the diner with the greasy red booths where Wally had tried time and again to help her with her Chemistry homework, twelve blocks and three subway stops away from Wayne Manor. The summer is muggy in her weary city, gray and overcast and tasteless, and it rains some nights, dampening the heat. She can't see the stars no matter how hard she looks and, in a way, it's a comfort, because Gotham and its jagged skyline are the inverse of every sunny string that Wally had tied to her fingers, and if it blinds her to the parts of the world that he'd shown her, maybe it will start to dull the yellow nausea souring her bones.
Her costume is orange now. It's a way to cope, she supposes, encasing herself in the bitter black lies she'd laced herself in on that mission, the absolute eradication of any emotion, any admission of homesickness that can't be alleviated just by breaking mirrors with her knuckles until they bleed. It's the color of rust and secrecy and maybe if she resigns herself to those things, every taunting whisper she's been running from, everything will start to make sense again.
Watching Dick leave, though – watching Zatanna watch him; watching Garfield inquire with a cracking voice if maybe, just maybe, Dick's faking this one, too; watching Conner sleep in closets for three nights and never explain it to anyone; watching M'gann cry into her cake batter, a recipe untouched for years now that she's grown so much older and cake is for children, for celebrations of birth – convinces her very easily that expecting sense is nothing more than the dream of a little girl who had watched her sister leave her behind.
Artemis sets down her bow and picks up a crossbow and leaves the windows open at night, and the sirens are a lullaby.
They don't find the proof Kaldur's asking them for – just a lot of gunfire and shouting. Lex Luthor's charity in helping to save the world has, apparently, finally managed to ingratiate tighter security to him. Karen says that if they wait another week, another month, maybe, they'll have better luck, and Artemis resigns herself to agreement.
She'd been sloppy on the mission to begin with, anyway. Seeing Bart in the suit is only bad if she's looking at him from behind, because though he is shorter and smaller than the swaggering freckle-faced clown she'd met at fifteen, it takes her a few blinks from that angle to remind herself that they are not the same. It is not a helpful contribution when she's been assigned to covering him from the back, but Mal doesn't call her out on her blank-outs, nor does Karen, but Bart hugs her around the midsection and his skinny arms try to assure her of blamelessness. She pats his head with a hesitant hand and forces her eyes away from the red goggles and he releases her with reluctance.
"So we've got nothing?" she barks to them, her hands curling into involuntary fists. They're walking back to the SuperCycle in a straggling group, and Bart is limping slightly. The Kansas night is deep and silent despite its dry heat. The sound of the cicadas is too familiar to be welcome.
"'Cept a few bruises," Karen mutters dryly, prodding at her elbow. "We'll get them next time. We just need to reformulate our plan of attack."
"Tchyeah," Artemis scoffs out under her breath. "Because attack worked so well this time."
"You got something to say, Artemis?" Mal asks when they reach the Cycle, though not unkindly. He turns to her, his eyes serious behind the golden Guardian mask.
Artemis looks him sharply in the eye and opens her mouth, but Bart's hand is at her elbow and she quiets, looking down at him. His face is imploring but set.
"Next time," he tells her quietly.
She wrenches her vision away from him. He's five inches and a mop of red hair from being a memorial hologram that she can't bring herself to talk to, only stare at.
"Yeah," she mutters, shouldering him off and clambering into her seat. Karen and Mal trade private glances that she doesn't miss, and Bart zips into place beside her, folding his hands in his lap. He's been itching at the suit all night, pulling at it in certain places, fiddling with it and picking at it like a scab.
The ride back to the Smallville zeta tube is short, but the silence draws it out like glue off a finger. They land behind the general store and Sphere curls herself back into a ball, rolling tentatively into the zeta tube, the first to teleport back to the Watchtower. Mal and Karen follow, one after the other, and Bart is the last, though he lingers as though waiting for her to precede him. She can see a purpling shiner forming on his left eyelid that swells one blue-green eye shut. Poor kid.
Kaldur doesn't look at her with disappointment during the short debriefing, bless him, but his hand clasps her shoulder when Mal finishes recounting their empty-handed escapade and her eyes dart up to meet his. She gulps something down at the understanding in his eyes, and she knows that he's releasing her, so she steps back from the line, carefully pulling her mask off.
She wonders where Dick is. She doesn't dare think Bruges.
Her bones creak with aching and exhaustion, though she's barely used them at all tonight. She can still smell the wheat and corn on her costume from Smallville, and part of her can still hear the crickets, still see the sparse cars rolling down the dirt roads with their lights turned off. She tries to swallow the summer down as she steps into the zeta tube.
"Recognized. Tigress. B07."
She sighs as the machine whirs to life, rolling her shoulders and neck back until they pop. Brucely's going to be hounding her for food when she gets home; no pun intended, in retrospect, damn it, this isn't the time to be funny. She stands still when the light brightens, breathing in and out through her nose.
For a second, just a second, as it is every time, she feels weightless and fizzing and without bounds. She is particles of light and sound, scattering across space, stationary but infinite. Her feet are tingling and her breath is no longer coming and she wonders what it would be like to stay here, stay matterless, for longer than just an instant.
She realizes almost immediately that, somehow, the instant has lasted just a beat longer than it normally does. Before she can worry, before she can register anything more, she hears it.
It starts out quiet and far-off and then it swells into a muffled thump at her ear, at her skin, and then it darts into the distance again, an echo a hundred miles or more away. It is clear and urgent and close and she can touch it, taste it, and she knows it.
Solid ground slams into place beneath her heels and she comes out of the Gotham City zeta tube gasping for balance. She stumbles forward, bracing herself at the phone booth wall with one hand, staring with wide eyes at the grimy concrete of the alleyway.
She tries to even herself, tries to steady the lurching world. Because for an instant, for a burning, blazing breath of an instant, she had heard Wally. Wally had been in there with her.
She whirls around immediately and slams her code into the recognizer pad and the computer states her name, and her palms sweat and she shivers as the tech roars to life again.
She closes her eyes and passes through the zeta beam, and comes back into cohesion at the Watchtower again, and she hears nothing in between. Karen, Mal, Bart, and Kaldur all turn at the same time to frown at her, and Bart is the first to open his mouth, but Artemis has scrambled around already, punching the same Gotham City code into the keypad.
She screws her eyes shut so tightly that it feels like her head may burst open, and she keeps herself stock-still and holds her breath, and the journey lasts its normal duration, half of a heartbeat, in silence, before the Gotham smells struggle up her nose once more.
Her eyelids come apart and she slumps against the phone booth wall, her hair matting into the grime on the window. A car alarm starts to howl in the distance like an animal and she can hear someone cursing, but it is all dampened to her ears.
She takes out her cell phone with shaking hands and dials Dick's number.
It only lasts one ring before she comes to her senses and hangs up, but her heart does not stop throbbing frenetically against her chest.
She types in the recognition code again and wonders how quickly fingers can blister.