I wrote this quite a while ago – November, I think – for a friend's birthday, but I figured I'd post it here since it's one of my personal favorite pieces that I've written. Which is saying something, since I hate basically everything I write.
First member of the audience to guess which Death Cab for Cutie song inspired this gets an Oreo.
December 25, 2011 2:48 AM
my mom got me a new bed.
This is the first form of contact Wally's received from Artemis in the four weeks since she'd broken up with him.
He stares at it for a good five minutes, frowning dubiously at the illuminated screen as though expecting to find some secret code between the words that will somehow explain why she hasn't spoken to him since Thanksgiving. His bedroom is dark and his eyes are bleary because it's almost three and the sun isn't up, and even for Christmas morning, that's pushing it.
He groans and rubs at one eye until things start to look less blurry before tapping at the tiny keyboard.
December 25, 2011 2:56 AM
uh, merry christmas?
He sighs heavily through his nose and stuffs the phone under his pillow, flopping facedown onto the blue fabric and making lamentable, muffled noises. His phone buzzes again almost immediately.
December 25, 2011 2:56 AM
i really think we should talk.
He scoffs at the screen, fumbling out a reply.
December 25, 2011 2:57 AM
your new bed relates to this how exactly?
December 25, 2011 2:57 AM
look, if you want to come over you can. i really, really think we should talk.
December 25, 2011 3:00 AM
scratch that. i really think you should listen.
He doesn't know why he gets up. He doesn't know why he pulls on his old brown parka and trips into his snow boots and he especially doesn't know how he manages to not wake up his parents when he collapses into a pile of books that thunders to the floor.
He drops his phone into his pocket and zips up his jacket and is just barely able to get down the stairs and out the door without alerting anyone in the house, not even a snoring Uncle Barry on the couch. He closes it behind him as quietly as he can and bows his head against the falling snow, crunching along the two blocks to the zeta tube, and he really, honestly doesn't know why.
Artemis's new bed is a twin. It's got a brass frame and one pillow and her purple comforter looks haphazard on it. She's sitting in the middle with crossed legs and he's standing there like an idiot; she'd let him in and he'd followed her down the hall and they hadn't said a word to each other, and this is weird, because he hasn't seen her since M'gann's disaster of a Thanksgiving party.
The disaster was more owing to the fact that Artemis had broken up with him before he'd finished his pie and then proceeded to leave, but whatever.
"So hi," he finally says stiffly. His legs are freezing. In retrospect, wearing pajamas in the snow probably wasn't one of his brightest ideas. "Nice bed."
Artemis stares calculatingly at him. It makes his insides churn a little.
"Thanks," she replies. "And hi."
He'd gone into the bathroom and cried, just for a second. Dick had picked the lock and come in. He doesn't remember it very well. He just remembers going home by himself without a jacket because he'd loaned his to Artemis earlier that night and she hadn't given it back.
It's on the back of her desk chair right now, withered brown leather. She doesn't look at it.
"You wanted me to listen to something?" he mumbles, keeping his eyes trained on the floor because he doesn't have the guts to hold them up to hers anymore.
Artemis nods to the wall behind him. He turns his head after a moment and blinks, frowning.
"Something is definitely missing," he says.
"Jade's bed," Artemis explains a little tersely. "Ours used to match. I wanted to get rid of it. I hadn't really, uh, thought about how much space it took up."
"It does look kinda empty in here," Wally muses. "Where'd it go?"
"Mom had me put them in the alley outside," she mutters. "Stuck a free sign on them. Either somebody'll take them or somebody'll pee on them; I guess it doesn't matter. Christmas presents either way."
"I fail to see what this has to do with me," Wally tells her bluntly, finally reeling his gaze back to hers. She frowns neutrally up at him, but he can see her chewed-down fingernails dig into her sweatpants for a brief second.
"I never told you why I broke up with you," she says.
"Just noticing that crucial oversight now, huh?" he mumbles, fighting to keep the bitterness out of his voice.
"Can you shut up for a second and listen?" she barks suddenly, her eyes widening at the edges the way they do when she's being emphatic, or when she's about to kick someone in the face.
"I am shutting up!" he protests. "You keep pausing and stuff! I assume you're done!"
"Okay, look; you…" She folds her lips in firmly and lets out a tight breath of air, her eyebrows pinching at her forehead. She puts one hand on the comforter and curls her fist into it. There's a dark stain at the edge that's either coffee or blood or maybe both? Wally tilts his head, but it doesn't help him figure it out.
"You… remember what you said?" she murmurs, her voice uncharacteristically feeble. Her eyes are downcast, no longer the adamant steel driving into him. "On Thanksgiving. At the party."
"Yep," Wally grinds out. He remembers every gesture and syllable, basically, but he's not about to admit that out loud.
Her floor heater lets out a startling rattle that makes him jump. She has the audacity to look amused in the miniscule instant between, but it falls away almost instantaneously when he glares affrontedly back at her.
"You sure?" She narrows her eyes. "It hasn't gotten all convoluted from your… idiot speedster brain?"
"Not that I can't handle your half-witted insults, but I'm kind of on temporary leave from them right now, so could you hold back a little?" he snaps. "I remember."
"I will say one thing in Supey's favor," Wally announced through the slice of bread presently clenched between his teeth, "He sure knows how to hang some streamers."
"That was my handiwork, actually," Kaldur interjected with a satisfied smile. "I find it to be quite calming."
"You should plan weddings, Kaldur," Artemis joked, leaning naturally into Wally as he slung his free arm around her shoulders.
"Perhaps," Kaldur mused. "It may be a worthwhile pursuit should I ever require a civilian identity."
"I was only half-serious," Artemis laughed, pushing her hair behind one ear. "Hey, Kid Garbage Disposal, do I get a piece of that or not?"
"You can have a piece of this anytime, babe," Wally replied, waggling his eyebrows. Artemis rolled her eyes and shoved at his chest, causing him to lose his balance and topple over the back of the couch. "I'm still 90% alive!"
"That's a relief," Dick giggled, waltzing in from the kitchen. "We'd hate to lose our MVP. Megs says dinner'll be done in twenty, by the way."
"Finally," Raquel exclaimed, throwing her arms in the air and making Zatanna snort audibly. "I'm so hungry I could eat Wolf."
Wolf lifted his head up from his crossed paws and sent her a vexed look.
"You're lucky Conner's not in here; he'd probably cry just thinking about it," Wally quipped, swinging his legs up and leaping off the couch. "Speaking of crying, I think I'm about to, since my girlfriend just tried to kill me."
"If that's the price you have to pay for bad pick-up lines, maybe you'll learn something," Artemis sniggered.
"Yeah, since when do you need pick-up lines?" Zatanna smirked. "Haven't you been like, carrying her in one hand for almost a year?"
"I've been carrying him," Artemis countered, sounding insulted. Wally nodded sagely.
"I have weak ankles."
"Dinner's ready!" M'gann trilled from the kitchen. Raquel had sprinted out of the room before the sentence was even finished.
"She's giving you a run for your money," Robin cackled. "Get it? Run?"
"Hilarious," Wally deadpanned as the others groaned (except for Kaldur, who looked perplexed as to why they thought it was a bad joke). "Can we eat now before I have to resort to cannibalism?"
"It's tough to be Wally West," Zatanna lamented sarcastically, patting Wally on the head as she passed him and fell into step beside Robin.
"It is!" Wally insisted to her, Robin, and Kaldur's retreating forms. Artemis was still laughing behind her fist, starting to follow them.
"Come on, Wall-man; let's get you fed," she coaxed him, grasping onto his hand and leading him toward the kitchen.
"Hang on," he said, digging his heels against the floor until he'd halted them both. "Before that. There's something I wanna tell you."
She blinked perplexedly at him, turning to face him in the now-empty room. Wolf snored quietly in the corner and his snout twitched.
"Okay, what?" she prompted him, sounding amused. The corners of her mouth were turned slightly up and they made the edges of her eyes crinkle, and sometimes if he looked hard enough he could discern a dimple on her left cheek. "Come on, you usually talk at like ten miles an hour; what? I'm hungry."
"Well, okay, um…" He gulped, trying to wrestle the words bumbling around in his head into something half-coherent. "I was, uh – Rob reminded me a second ago that we – that is, you and I – it's almost been a year, and stuff, and I haven't told you yet that I'm…"
"Afraid of clowns?" Artemis whispered conspiratorially. "Because I totally knew that. That's why Robin wouldn't let you come to Haly's."
"What? No! I mean, yes, but that's not—" He huffed. "Freakish clowns notwithstanding, I just realized that there's something I want to say that I haven't yet and I want to get it out because I should've a long time ago, and, um…"
"You have a knack for doing things later than you should," Artemis teased him, leaning forward and pecking his cheek, just barely, almost fondly. If skin could shiver, his would be. When she drew back, she was still smirking at him. "You have ten seconds to tell me before I leave this room and get some turkey."
"I just want you to know," Wally said without even thinking on it, "that I love you."
In an instant, her expression went blank. Her eyebrows looked as though they were torn between furrowing and rising, and if he didn't know Artemis better he'd say the color was draining from her face, but he did know her better, because he knew nothing ever made Artemis panic, but there was a wave of utter terror that was starting to roil in her eyes and he really had no idea why.
"That's all," he finished quietly, frowning down at her and trying to ignore the clenching feeling in his stomach. "Hey, babe, what's the problem?"
"Let's go get food," she blurted out, whirling around on her heel and striding briskly through the kitchen. Wally had to jog to keep up with her. He had to jog. To keep up with her.
"Artemis!" he exclaimed, falling into swift step beside her and staring in bewilderment at her. She kept her eyes trained straight ahead, kept her fists clenched and swinging at her sides. "What'd I say?"
"I'm just hungry," she told him brusquely. "Just hungry. It's nothing."
Wally opened his mouth to prod her further but they rounded a corner and they were in the dining room, and Robin was gesticulating enthusiastically to the empty seat beside him and Wally numbly took it and Artemis sat beside M'gann and Red Tornado stood bemusedly at the head of the table and there was a turkey being put in front of him, and he convinced himself that it wasn't something to worry about.
He was fine by the time M'gann brought out the pies. She'd made him an entire pumpkin one, just for him, and he only had one slice left and it was delicious and okay, so Artemis hadn't looked him in the eye since dinner started despite his valiant efforts to fix that, but there was a whole pie in front of him and he didn't have the best multi-track mind in the universe.
"Wally," she said suddenly, but he didn't hear her at first. "Wally."
He looked up from his forkful and beamed at her. "Hey, beautiful; feeling bette—"
"I can't see you anymore." The words came spewing out with more volume than was necessary, and the whole room went quiet, but it didn't daunt her. She didn't take her eyes off of his. "This isn't working. I know it sucks, but it isn't working; I don't want to see—we can't talk for a while, okay? I'm sorry. You're great. I'm sorry."
He didn't know why she'd thrown in that last part. She stood roughly from the table and her chair shrieked on the floor, making Red Tornado wince to the best of his android abilities.
"I have to go," she told everyone abruptly, averting her eyes from M'gann's in particular. "Nice dinner, M'gann. Happy Thanksgiving."
Wally sort of lost track of what was happening between that moment and finding himself in the bathroom with his forehead on his knees. Maybe he'd run in there and he hadn't even noticed.
"Yeah, that was the gist of it," Artemis mumbles, fiddling with one string of her hoodie.
Wally gulps something down, something dry and raw and entirely unwelcome, because it's just Artemis and the thought of losing her shouldn't still be making his throat burn until it's hard to breathe.
"So… what?" he asks as calmly as he can. The snow from his boots is starting to melt onto her hardwood floor. "Did you want to discuss it?"
"Yeah," she answers, her voice shuddering with uncertainty. "Yeah, I did. I do."
"Then discuss," he tells her, throwing his arms out. "By all means."
"Robin told me it made you cry," she says hesitantly, wringing her hands without looking at him. "Um, I'm sorry about that."
"Wow, I'm glad Robin sent you the memo." Wally finally bends down to take off the boots, because the snow is starting to soak into his socks. "Especially since I completely forgot to ask him to send it in the first place."
"Listen, Wally, I didn't – I didn't actually want things to… stop," Artemis says clumsily, and he can tell even without looking at her that she's biting her lip.
"Your strategy for that is… really unconventional," he retorts, tugging one boot off and setting it down carefully beside him before moving onto the other one. "But hey, I'm not one to question new research methods."
"Can I ask you something?"
He glances up from his half-untied laces to find her staring resolutely down at him. The sight of her eyes practically socks him in the gut.
"Um," he mumbles, and then manages to collect himself again. "I guess."
"When you…" She swallows. "When you say you love somebody, what do you mean, exactly?"
Wally's eyebrows furrow down and he opens and closes his mouth wordlessly, his hands lingering at either side of his ankle with the laces still between them.
"What?" he says intelligently.
Artemis sighs impatiently and drops her head back.
"When you say you love somebody," she repeats, "what do you mean?"
"Me?" He finally manages to focus long enough to take the boot off, dropping it aimlessly to his left, where it hits the wood with a thud that cuts into the suddenly thick silence. Artemis nods once at him, and it makes a few strands of blonde fall into her face. "Your hair's down."
"Yeah," she affirms, closing her eyes as if meditating for patience. "Yeah, my hair is down. Are you going to answer my question? Because if not, then—"
"No, no, I'll answer it," he assures her, standing swiftly and putting his hands back in his pockets. The floor heater has been doing nothing to take the chill out of her thin apartment walls. "I just…" His voice trails off, and he considers her question again, before continuing. "No. Wait. You first."
"What?" She frowns.
"You first," he says again. "What do you mean when you say you love somebody?"
"I don't say it," she retorts.
"Yes, you do," he argues. "Just not out loud."
"What's that supposed to mean?" she practically snarls, her eyes narrowing dangerously.
Wally exhales and scrubs his hands over his face in exasperation.
"You know what it means," he says lamely. "You just – you show it; you don't say it. Whatever. But what does it mean for you?"
"I asked you first." She folds her arms.
"Okay, is this fifth grade or trying to salvage our messed-up relationship?" Wally exclaims. "Just answer the question."
Artemis's mouth thins and she has the decency to look pensive, her gaze dropping abruptly to the floor. The snow falling outside her window leaves drifting gray shadows in the light coming in from the streetlamp.
"I'm… not sure," she finally says, sounding drastically tried for patience. "I don't really think about it that much."
"Okay," Wally sighs, running one numb hand through his hair until it sticks out awkwardly. "Fair enough."
"Your turn," Artemis tells him, blatantly relieved at having dodged the question.
Wally finally has the resolve to look at her. Her legs are still crossed, her bare feet tucked into the spaces between her bent knees, and her hair is just barely tickling the comforter, and there are bags under her eyes. He doesn't really know why he'd been expecting her to look so different after a month with less-than-stellar contact; he doesn't know why he'd been expecting to see longer hair, or wearier joints, or a more hollowed-out face.
She looks just the same as the Artemis he's used to, the one whose punches to his shoulder had gotten lighter as the months had worn on, the one who'd made him some obscure Vietnamese dish at two in the morning one night when he was home alone and didn't know how to work the stove, the one whose warm mouth would taste like cinnamon on his; and she looks just as exasperated, just as impatient with him as she always has.
"What I mean is, um…" He plucks the words cautiously from the amalgamation of sentiments in the back of his brain. "What I mean when I say I… love somebody is that I… might kind of like them, and definitely respect them, and totally admire them, and maybe want to spend every night with them, and sort of want to wake up next to them if it's, like, a good day for that sorta thing – and I mean that I like the way they laugh even when they're laughing at me, and I like the food they make and the movies they watch and the way they always fall asleep before the good parts—"
He knows he's saying too much. He's always been so good at saying too much, but if just saying that he loved her was too much, then he doesn't see the point in holding back anymore.
"And I like how they always use up all the hot water in the communal showers because they've got a freakin' jungle of hair – and I like the way they smell. And I like that – look they… I like that look she gets whenever she's just beat up a bad guy, like it's the best thing that's ever happened to her; and I like how she's scared of spiders and likes puppies but will threaten whoever notices either of those with castration, and I-I like talking to her because I don't feel like an idiot, or maybe I do, but for once I just don't mind."
He's looking straight at her, but he isn't even seeing her, because there's a strange sheen over his eyes that's distorting and darkening everything; his hands have curled into fists in his pockets and he can't quite feel his knuckles.
"And I guess it means that I have these – these stupid thoughts about, like, getting an apartment together someday and maybe a dog because she likes puppies and I don't care if she tries to kill me with her bare hands for noticing, and it means that I think she's worth basically everything, kinda, if she's being really nice—and it means I don't want to lose her. Ever. Unless she wants to lose me, in which case, I guess I could deal, because she'd be happy, and she deserves that. I guess."
He blinks once, hard, until the blur goes away. Artemis is staring up at him with protuberant eyes, and her shoulders look like they're just barely shaking. He wipes his nose with the back of his hand.
"It means I like her new bed," he mumbles, "and I think she's beautiful." He gulps. "But, uh, that's just kind of a few random, totally unrelated examples that absolutely one… hundred percent have nothing to do with – with you."
The silence that swells at the end of it all his thunderous. He forces himself to keep his focus on the puddle of water on the floor from his boots and forces himself to breathe evenly, in and out, without letting her figure out that he probably doesn't want to anymore because he just embarrassed himself beyond all hope of recovery.
Her floor heater rattles again. The metal bangs are like blades slicing into the quiet, and the space left by Jade's missing bed makes them echo. A car alarm goes off in the distance, wavering in and out of audibility, panicked and relentless.
"We don't say that we love people in my family," Artemis finally says. Her voice, which is normally a little hoarse anyway, sounds as though it's been driven into a bed of hot coals. "It's—my parents never, uh, saw the point. So I never knew how it felt, to – to hear it."
She breathes in deeply, quietly.
"I broke up with you," she continues with blatant effort, "because… when you said that, I knew I totally didn't deserve it. Everything you just said, that's not for me. It's not supposed to be. I'm me. I'm not the kind of person who gets that stuff and I'm not the kind of person who should, and I don't even know if I can give it back because just the thought of trusting somebody that much freaks me out."
He hears a rustling sound and assumes she's tangling her fingers in the hair just at her scalp, the way she does when she's thinking hard or when she's trying to force a sentence out. Every sentence is practically quivering now, somewhere between sobbing and shouting.
"If love means – appreciating somebody for not getting on my case when I fall asleep before movies are over, and if it means, like, not really wanting to go to the trouble of castrating somebody for knowing I hate spiders, and if it means puppies and liking each other's beds then—okay, okay, maybe I feel that, I guess, maybe." She sighs, practically wheezes. "But I really don't deserve it, Wally; I'm really not worth all the trouble."
"Shouldn't that be for me to decide?" he blurts out, before scrambling to recover. "I mean, uh, the royal Me, the me acting as the placeholder for the mystery person who will probably fall in love with you without noticing but not want to say anything about it because he's scared stiff of those feelings, too—I mean, hypothetically. Hypothetically."
"Hypothetically," she repeats with a weak laugh. It's that sound alone that gives him the courage to finally look up from that darkened floor and watch her, watch the way she drops her head into one hand and lets her shoulders jerk with what she's trying to disguise as amusement. "Well… hypothetically, yeah, I guess that'd be up to the royal You."
"I am the king," he murmurs a little too hopefully.
"You are," she agrees wearily.
He gets it, then. He understands nearly every convoluted facet of her; he understands that she never heard anyone tell her that they loved her and therefore assumed that no one ever did; he understands that a lifetime of hardening herself against the potential drawback of trusting someone had left her drastically unprepared for a tell-all idiot like him; and he understands, most of all, that Artemis has seen love as either a lie or a liability, and that by not asking her to explain herself sooner, he might have made it worse. He also understands that maybe it's high time he tried making it better, just for once, instead of messing things up.
"If we're still talking hypothetically here," he finally says, rubbing the back of his neck. "Would the guy who hypothetically still loves you and hypothetically thinks you're totally worth way more than he had previously believed… be able to come and, uh, sit down? On that fancy new bed?"
Artemis blinks at him, and he wants to punch himself in the face, but then she gives him a wan trace of a smile and pats the space beside her.
"Hypothetically," she replies, "I might be able to allow that."
Wally shuffles forward and sits next to her, and her knee brushes against his leg, but she doesn't draw it away.
"I'm sorry," she says quietly, just barely audible enough to pass for a whisper. "I'm sorry I'm such a—"
Wally had never used kisses to quiet her, because that had always been her duty. But now seems like a nice time, because Artemis has done enough self-deprecating for one night, and really, if he doesn't warm his lips up he might get frostbite because Gotham City is freezing, so it all works out, mostly.
He holds the side of her face in one hand and closes his eyes and the cinnamon is still there, just as it's probably always been. She wraps her arms around his torso and shifts closer and he dearly hopes that they won't have to talk in hypotheses anymore, because as much as he loves theorizing, when he comes to conclusions, they are concluded.
"Are we still broken up?" he asks softly when she breaks away. "Because, uh, if so, I don't know if this is technically okay or not, and I'd like to keep my limbs—"
Artemis silences him by bowing her head and touching her forehead to his. She closes her eyes and lets out a wispy sigh through her lips that makes him want to kiss her again just to feel that breath against his teeth in the cold.
"No," she mutters. "No, we're not still broken up. If you're game to try again."
"I'm always game," he bandies back with a rampant grin. Artemis laughs a little, sounding just short of enervated, and Wally hooks his finger under her chin and lifts it until she's looking him in the eye. "Babe. For you, always."
Artemis all-out chortles at that one, her nose wrinkling and her lips curling back over her teeth, and it feels like he hasn't heard it in years.
"Has anyone ever had the decency to tell you how much of a cheeseball you are?" she gasps out between laughs, wiping at her wet eyes (she's taking the laughter as an excuse for the tears).
"Once or twice," he replies. "I practice in front of the mirror a lot."
Artemis snorts in an entirely undignified way and shifts until she's stretched out on one side of the bed. She tugs at his sleeve and he follows her, flopping down and facing her, raising one eyebrow.
"And I thought I moved fast," he jokes.
She punches him in the arm and he knows he's fixed everything.
"Okay," she mutters, closing her eyes sleepily. "So as an apology for that one time you and Robin switched my shampoo with green hair dye, you can keep me warm tonight, since that heater's a piece of crap."
"Yes, ma'am," Wally agrees, wrapping one arm around her torso. "Well, jeez, this was easy. Only about ten minutes of totally grueling soul-bearing, and we're back to normal."
"And you dared to call me high maintenance." He sees her smirk through his half-lidded eyes and can't help the dazed smile that comes onto his face. "Merry Christmas, Wally. This is my present."
"Getting back together with me?" he says, and she hums in confirmation. "Remind me to leave Santa extra cookies."
Artemis falls asleep with her head tucked under his chin. He watches the walls until the sun comes up, and he kisses her forehead once before slipping out of the bed, pulling his boots on, and heading home before his parents get it into their heads that he's been kidnapped.
M'gann's Christmas party is the next day. Kaldur hangs mistletoe everywhere, even over the toilets. Wally doesn't quite know how it all works, but he definitely doesn't complain when Artemis grabs him by the collar and kisses him in the kitchen just as everyone comes in to get cookies.
"And a happy Hanukkah to you, too," Raquel quips dryly as she takes a snickerdoodle and saunters out.
"Uh," Wally grins a little helplessly, his hands on Artemis's hips. "Surprise?"
M'gann squeals and hugs them both. Conner looks dramatically torn between apathy and vague approval. Zatanna hands Raquel a ten-dollar bill, Kaldur rolls his eyes and goes to hang an Aquaman ornament on the tree, Robin claps them both on the back, and Red Tornado observes the proceedings with his usual impartial attention.
"Human customs still elude me," he muses.
Artemis hadn't told him out loud at any time before Thanksgiving, and she doesn't say it again until Christmas night when they're all falling asleep in the living room at the Cave and she thinks he isn't listening, but he'd heard it, just once.
It had been after a mission. He'd gotten banged up as only he could, a black eye and a stab wound and a lot of blood and very little consciousness, but the mind link had stayed up.
He assumes she'd let it out by accident, somewhere in a tiny little corner of her brain where it had slipped out from behind the chains and the locks, but it had fallen into his mind like water and it had never really left.
Sometimes he still hears it when he's sleeping.