Hey, all. First order of business, many thanks to my beta, mahlia, who is most of the reason this fanfic is good as it is. Second order of business, it looks as though about one update a month is going to be as fast as I can put to paper new chapters, given everything. So apologies for the wait, thanks for the patience, and I'll let you get to reading now.
It seems to them that they float in an endless void. Fragments of memory occasionally pop in, but are gone and forgotten an instant later.
It's really hard to concentrate on any one thing when they seem to be a part of everything. One of them notes that it's going to be hard, describing this to everyone if they get back. Someone else asks what "this" he's referring to. The reply is simply, "Nirvana."
At least they can figure out gender, now. That's an improvement.
After a while they graduate to individuals. For the life of them—heh, that's worth a laugh—they can't figure out who they are, or even what they are, but there is a distinct sense that they are different.
There is an amorphous mass, green and white and every color in between, one moment something, the next another, the only constant a sense of joy and wonder and innocence that emanates from—her. They're fairly sure that she's a her.
There is a symbol next, an abstraction, an inverted trident with the haft removed, leaving only the two prongs pointed down. A spearhead. It is sturdy and strong, unbreakable, its surface polished to a mirror finish.
There is a shield, its surface battered and scratched and blank save for the hint of an outline along its edge. It's a simple, pentagonal thing, painted in blacks and reds, its edge sharpened and hardened.
There is the outline of a pair of wings, skeletal and sketched out. They are beating ceaselessly against an invisible wind, the joints crackling with every sweep. They are otherwise silent.
There is an arrow, the shaft splintered and snapped. The fletching is torn and dirty, but the barbed arrowhead is still keen, the metal spotless and rust-free.
There is a lightning bolt, caged plasma in a bottle, bright and flaring and burning.
Out of these forms resolve two girls, four boys.
And then their minds splinter.
M'gann is nervous. She has a right to be. They're teenagers prosecuting a war, and without the benefit of the League heavy hitters being there to back them up if anything goes wrong, mostly because they're all dead.
But in theory it's simple enough. Go in, take out the enemy ships in a surprise attack, blowing them out of the sky before either of them can react, pry off the cannon and skedaddle. The cloaking on the bio-ship should keep them from being discovered, and their mountain base is a decent enough fortress. Simple. Simple.
Maybe if she keeps telling herself that she'll actually believe it.
It comes as a bit of a surprise when the mission actually goes off as easily as planned. Bang bang, the two ships are down, and though one explodes on impact with the Arctic ice, the other lands and skids, completely disabled but otherwise intact. They're taking no chances, though, and M'gann tears the thing to pieces as soon as they hop out of the bio-ship.
Unfortunately, as they finish integrating the cannon, a third ship soars in, blasting at them. The shot hits the cannon, thankfully not vaporizing any of them, but the explosion hurls them in all directions, stunning those that aren't immediately knocked out by the blast. M'gann takes the worst of it, as the sudden searing heat of the explosion and the mental screech of pain from the bio-ship both shatter her focus, leaving her reeling.
Thankfully—and oh, how it just burns within her for thinking that—the ship dives and fires, not at her, but at Artemis instead, who is forcing herself back to her feet, struggling through the knee-deep snow. At the last moment, a blur slams into the blonde, tackling her to the side, and Wally and Artemis both roll off as the ship strafes at them, death averted for a few more precious seconds.
The ship swoops and dives again as M'gann joins the others in making for the cover of the bio-ship, and this time they're too late to save her. The beam hits her head-on, and her world becomes pain as her skin blisters and crisps in microseconds. She desperately throws up a telekinetic shield, but it collapses, and she drops her disguise as the beam burns through to muscle and then to bone and by the pantheon why does it hurt so much?
The agony goes on and on and on and on and on and on and a part of her mind thinks that it's not real, it can't be real, until the beam torches her nervous system, and she dies.
There is the distinct sensation of someone pulling at the back of their minds, and the pain becomes sharper and sharper.
Kaldur leads the team minus one back in silence.
No one is really blaming Wally, but he can tell from the way that the speedster cradles his head in his hands that he certainly is. Mostly, everyone just seems to be in varying stages of shock, especially Robin, who's gone so far as to not notice that his mask is half-off, his identity revealed for all to see. It's not as though anyone actually cares, though.
Kaldur pushes the guilt aside and focuses on keeping the bio-ship straight and level as they fly back home. He's still their leader, which means he needs to be the pillar of strength here. He needs to set the example that though their friend is dead, they have a greater duty to the people of Earth which must be fulfilled first.
It was the one of the first things they had taught back in basic training. There were your personal feelings, and there was your fealty to Atlantis and your duty to your countrymen. In the event any of them conflicted, the last two took precedence.
He was a soldier, carrying out his duty to the world.
Maybe he can stay sane if he keeps repeating that mantra.
He gets them to concentrate on working out a plan, and it does help them somewhat to focus on the very real facts that they are the last recognizable remnants of the Justice League, and so are not only the last best chance for any armed resistance to succeed, but also a beacon of hope for any other resistance groups around the world. They send their message of solidarity the next day, after they've had a chance to clean up and change into fresh uniforms. They take turns standing before the cameras, their message translated into a hundred different languages, all steely determination and confidence.
Robin is the only one who speaks the thought on everyone's mind later, breaking the silence that he's maintained up until now. "We trying to convince them or ourselves?" he says, before vanishing to who-knows-where.
Despite his best efforts to distract them, the team begins to deteriorate a few days later. Wally is the first to snap, one morning just storming in and screaming at Artemis until she tears up and leaves. Kaldur slams him up against the wall when he makes to follow, and tells him in no uncertain terms that such behavior will not be tolerated. He never again sees Wally laying into Artemis like that, but when she up and vanishes a couple days later, he suspects the redhead was simply doing so out of sight.
After that, things simply fall apart. The first few forays they make out of the mountain are moderately successful in raising morale, but what little cohesion they have starts to crumble on the fourth skirmish and by the eighth they've abandoned all pretense of being a team. Their appearance still raises the same cheers, but they've reverted back to fighting individually with any orders he gives being treated as cursory suggestions at best. Situations they used to laugh at become life-and-death battles simply because it's that much easier for their enemies to isolate and overwhelm them.
The whole matter comes to a head just off the Florida Keys, as they're escorting a group of sailors off to the safe zone they've established. Kid Flash is busy whipping up a waterspout, catching the odd low-flying ship and hurling it aside. Superboy is on the offensive in the bio-ship, firing wildly. Kaldur notes that one of them really does need to learn how to pilot the ship more effectively. He and Robin are at least working together, no matter how silent and withdrawn the boy has become, to lead the column of soldiers away.
A blast nearly hits Kid Flash, but the explosion of steam is either enough to hurl him away or trips him up enough that he skips away over the water, skidding to a stop on the beach. Aqualad runs to help him as the ships retarget and take aim at the bio-ship. None of the shots actually connect, of course; Superboy's inexpert flying actually proves a benefit for once as he dips and dives and soars erratically. It doesn't stop one ship from breaking off and strafing the column and Robin spends one of his last explosive batarangs to bring it down.
The destruction just attracts more ships. Aqualad tries to ignore the screams of the dying and focuses on dragging the half-conscious Kid Flash out of the way.
Then there's the familiar diving screech that indicates that one of the ships is strafing them, and Robin's panicked shout makes him turn. Kaldur has a bare second to act before the disintegrator beam hits them, and he moves on instinct, shoving Kid Flash to the side.
It is curiously painless when he dies, as the ravening beam burns through his skin and muscle and bone, until there is nothing left of Kaldur'ahm in the world.
Their minds shatter, splintering and splintering and splintering, trying to hold together as they are inexorably dragged away, tearing and scraping and burning, identities torn away and subsumed into unconsciousness, memories and perspectives completely alien to them forced into consciousness, threatening to scratch and claw and bite away at what sanity they have left.
Robin becomes the leader by default after Kaldur's death. Conner doesn't exactly care, given that there's three of them and what major pockets of resistance are left—three or four bunkered down in the Alps, a half-dozen Chinese regiments being picked off in the Himalayas, one in the Rocky Mountains, three scattered along the Appalachians, two along the Andes, although they'd lost contact with one of them—have made exactly zero headway. Worse still, their supplies are running out, morale is low, and the alien ships are seemingly endless. They don't have the manpower to make an assault on the mothership, squatting on the remains of Smallville, either.
So, seemingly hopeless.
Conner doesn't really mind, though, which irritates Wally to no end. Half of their arguments now center on how blasé he seems about the whole thing, how he doesn't even seem to care that their friends, his family, are dead. It's a miracle that the two never come to blows.
Robin's out of the cave a lot, which doesn't really bother either of them. They prefer their solitude these days, and Robin is a master of stealth to a frankly ridiculous degree. No one sees or hears him unless he wants to be seen or heard. In fact, the only reason that they realize that he's gone at all is that the bio-ship is missing from the hangar some days.
It makes it a little surreal when the Boy Wonder staggers in one morning after one of his evening walks, babbling excitedly about scanners and zeta radiation.
After they get him to calm down, he explains. He'd been scanning around the ruins of the Hall of Justice for salvageable electronics, and found the distinct signature of zeta radiation, bleeding off of bits of the rubble nowhere near the zeta tube. He'd double-checked his hunch on a few blown-up tanks and on an alien ship he'd baited down and everything had checked out. All they needed was to salvage another disintegrator cannon and take it apart to confirm the hunch—a point he makes rather strenuously when Wally wants to run off and mount a rescue mission immediately—and if possible develop a defense against the beams. Wally only relents when Robin points out that they need a definitive answer as to where the prisoners are being transported to before they can mount a rescue mission.
Conner thinks he sees a strain in Robin's wide grin, but dismisses it.
They spend a week actually planning their little raid before executing it. Given their track record, it's surprising they are as successful as they are. The enemy ships go down, Superboy drags one under cover and they dismantle it and attach the cannon to the bio-ship, then cloak and disappear into the night. They fill the spaces in the ship with whatever other tech they can tear from the ship. There's so much salvage that it actually slows the ship down a little.
Conner relegates himself to keeping up the raids and raising morale in the various ragtag resistance movements around the world. His appearance raises the usual cheers and brings the usual hope. Truth be told, he rather likes the attention. And throughout the days and weeks, as Robin and Wally slave feverishly over the alien tech, there is one thought that sustains him. His family is out there, and they will be coming for them.
When Wally walks in one day and declares that everyone they've ever known and loved is irrevocably gone, he doesn't quite know what to do with himself, as the façade Robin's been keeping up collapses. He ends up pulling a Wally and runs. After all, someone needs to keep up the good fight, and neither of them seem capable of acting, given the way they mope around for the week after Wally's pronouncement.
In retrospect, he probably should've brought them along, if only for the backup.
He drops the bio-ship into a clumsy dive, then pulls up a bare millisecond before he smashes into the ground. The alien craft on his tail follows effortlessly and he curses as a shot nearly catches him. Yeah, Robin's piloting prowess would really be appreciated right now, as well as an explanation as to when and how the blasted ships on his tail got so damn agile.
It's a real shame that he's here to demonstrate his presence, otherwise he could be cloaked and much, much safer right now.
One of the bio-ship's wings clips a streetlamp and he tumbles through the decaying ruins of a skyscraper before straightening out and pulling up. He doesn't manage to pull up high enough or fast enough, as he promptly smashes through another and another. Superboy curses the tightly-packed high-rises of Metropolis as he dodges a third and shoots down another alien ship that goes spiraling down, smashing and rolling in the streets before an internal detonation tears it to pieces.
Superboy grins, just as a particularly large fragment of the downed ship comes whizzing and whirling up, tearing a chunk out of the bio-ship—to put it lightly, rendering it aerodynamically infeasible. He's the one to spiral down now, barely managing to avoid hitting a small group of civilians taking cover behind a vandalized shop front.
He grunts as the bio-ship crashes into another building, burying it under rubble. A piece of rebar rams its way through the roof, bending against his skin, and the entire thing groans under the weight. Conner scrambles out before he's entombed completely. He really doesn't care to test the limits of his strength right now.
Another alien ship, then another and another scream past him, orbiting the crash location. A fourth and a fifth join in, then a sixth, then a seventh. It's only a matter of time before they begin bombarding the place until everything in the block is atomized.
Superboy leaps out and dies.
Oh god oh god the pain and pain and pain and pain and pain and pain and pain and pain and pain and pain why won't it stop the pain make it stop stop stopstop stopstopstopstopstopstopstop.
The pressure on their minds lessens slightly, and they withdraw into themselves, clutching to who they are, what they are, just in time for the intrusion to return, yanking and pulling and dragging at them.
Reality shatters around them.
If there is any one thing that Richard "Dick" Grayson can be said to be a master of, it is deception. He's learned the art of modulating his voice so that he sounds like he's right next to you, or over that-a-way, or everywhere at once. He can disappear into the shadows and reappear anywhere so quickly most people think capable of teleporting. He's become so adept at leading his double life over the years, he can switch between the talkative, absolutely brilliant with most computers and technology and the complete troll that is Robin and the more reserved, more dignified, good-with-math-but-rubbish-at-coding, still-a-bit-of-a-troll, no-one's-perfect civilian—at a moment's notice.
The key to the best deceptions, he theorizes, is to let the target come up with as many of the fine details as possible. Just vaguely provide the broad sweeps of what you want them to believe and let their overactive imagination come up with the image of what they want to believe.
What he told Wally wasn't precisely a lie—he really had detected trace amounts of zeta radiation and the mildly radioactive byproducts exposure to great intensities of said radiation tended to produce—but he sincerely doubted this would amount to anything. But he had to do something to bring up morale; the two of them were looking to spiral down into self-destructive behavior already, and the situation was already looking completely and utterly hopeless. The look of utter joy on Wally's face when he mentions the zeta radiation seals the deal. This was his brother-in-arms—he couldn't crush his hopes like that, even if it was only until they'd fully deconstructed how the alien tech worked.
The utter, crushing despair that overtakes him when they find there is no possibility of rescuing anyone at all makes him regret it for a moment.
Wally is little better than a puppet after that, and even more so after Conner disappears. Robin orders him to help home in on the bio-ship's transponder, and he obeys. Robin then orders him to help construct a scaffolding to hold up the rubble so that they can get the bio-ship out without having to worry about merely burying themselves further, and he obeys. Robin also orders him to pack the essentials so they can go on their cross-country road-trip, this crazy last-minute, last-ditch scheme to build up support for a crazy last-minute, last-ditch assault on the mothership squatting on the remains of Smallville, and he obeys.
Robin tries, again and again, to get his friend to cheer up, because frankly, every time he looks at Wally, staring quietly off into the distance, speaking only when spoken to, moving only when asked to do something, he finds it harder and harder to put on a brave face for everyone.
Wally, for his part, does start acting a little more normally as the weeks go by, although his gloom has been replaced with a suicidal determination to end every last alien ship they come across. Robin never lets him pilot, of course, but even in the gunner's chair he has a tendency to shoot first and consider the consequences of drawing every last alien ship in the vicinity to their position later.
Needless to say, Robin is the one to handle the diplomatic interactions between them and the rapidly dwindling, ragtag military outfits still capable of aiding them. There are only a few; most of the others have been annihilated, but their potential to contribute is enormous. Robin tries not to remember that their role, except for a few elite, is mostly going to be along the lines of cannon fodder. This plan is shot to hell when they swing back to visit the groups in the Appalachians, and find they've been eliminated to the man.
Time and time again, Robin tries to discern a rhyme or reason to the alien attack. They had targeted the United States first and Russia second. The superheroes of the Justice League, most operating primarily in the American theater, had been the first target, then the Cheyenne mountain complex and NORAD. They'd bombarded the Midwest and every last nuclear missile silo to so much glass and dust, then proceeded to do the same with the Russians. China had managed to launch a handful of nukes at the mothership as soon as it landed, but had every major population center hit in response—not levelled, mind, but just attacked—and its own silos destroyed. Europe hadn't fared much better, with every major industrial center and agricultural region destroyed inside of the second week.
So the invaders had a working knowledge of Earth infrastructure and relative military strength. Their forces were relatively low in number, based off of the number of fronts they had advanced on during the initial attack. Whatever their armor was made of, it was vulnerable only to weapons on the higher end of the destructive scale, stuff like LexCorp's experimental particle cannons or a direct hit from a SAM. They didn't have any EMP hardening, seeing as two or three of the Chinese nukes had gone off in the upper atmosphere, shutting down virtually every attacking ship in North America, the mothership surviving presumably only because of its grounded hull acting as a Faraday cage. The mothership itself had been able to shoot down the remaining nukes before they hit, but only after they entered the lower atmosphere, so at least they had a maximum range to work with there. Oddly enough, the alien invaders don't seem to have any orbital assets, but Robin doesn't question that small blessing.
So as far as he can figure, the situation is virtually hopeless. He can only guess at the aliens' objectives, but assuming that they include the destruction of humanity, they are well on their way to victory. Every last scrap of infrastructure is destroyed. The major food-producing centers of the world have been burned away. Famine and plague are rampaging unchecked through the world. Every military in the world has been scattered and their most effective weapons have been either spent or destroyed. The one option available to them that might, the operative term being "might", ensure humanity's survival is to mount a one-way trip into the mothership, which was already a suicide mission even with military aid, and likely impossible without them.
Robin isn't so willing to throw away their lives just yet, so they keep leapfrogging around, trying to enforce a semblance of organization among their allies, until it all goes horribly wrong.
Robin hears through the usual channels that the commander of the group they've—well, he's—termed Sierra 7, based out of the Denver suburbs, was killed recently. Support from them was extremely tenuous, given only because the commander and a few of her top officers insisted on aiding them over the grumblings of her soldiers. Now that she's dead, Robin needs to intervene before the entire thing collapses. Sierra 7, after all, is the remains of a tank battalion, and therefore one of the few groups that can actually function as more than a set of targets on a shooting range.
They land a few kilometers away from Sierra 7's last known location, just in case they were tailed. It won't stop a foe determined to hunt them down, and their alien enemy is nothing if not determined, but at worst it gives them a few minutes to get away.
The two trek through the wasteland, ducking between copses and the creaking, rotting remains of townhouses. In retrospect, Robin thinks, their usual sneaky approach may have been a mistake.
A crackle of machine-gun fire stiches holes through the car he's huddled behind, and Robin ducks and vanishes back into the parking structure they'd been in just a second ago. Wally is leaning against a support column, knees to his chest, quiet as usual. Robin all but hauls him out as they make their way to a more secure position. He thinks better of it a moment later, and orders Wally to run out and scout ahead briefly. Wally stands and vanishes in a burst of speed.
Robin makes his way back out to the car, digging around in his pockets for something to use as a flag of surrender. Wally zips back a moment later, crouching next to him.
Before he can make his report, he glances aside, eyes widening. He snatches Robin upby the collar and pulls, but there's a whistle and a booming crack, then a concussive blast that hurls them aside. Robin's head rings, and his thoughts run slowly. He's vaguely aware of the sudden cold, and the feel of wetness trailing down his right leg, and of the yellow and red of Wally's costume fading into grey.
Then he's aware of nothing more.
They curl up into themselves further and further, remembering what they know of themselves and of the others, ramming hastily-made mental barricades in place only to have them shatter. The intruding sense of unreality closes in on them, imposing itself upon them, forcing them to believe what they know isn't true, can't be true, the contradiction cracking at their sanity again and again.
Whoever is attacking them psychically thinks to invoke their fears, trying to weaken their resolve, but the six of them huddle closer against the onslaught. The attacker strikes them with storms and fires, lightning and earthquakes and floods, buries them alive and hurls them into the shivering void of space, but they dismiss the feeble attempts. Subtler tactics are tried, flashes of previous lives rendered meaningless by their deaths, of friends and family and regrets, but those are brushed off as well.
The attacker retreats again, this time seemingly for good. They relax after a wait, allowing their minds to drift away into the ether.
The final blow comes suddenly and sharply, and before they can shield themselves they find themselves at the bottom of an ocean, the crushing weight of kilometers upon kilometers of water smashing down on them, forcing its way into their lungs. They kick out and up in a blind panic, their surroundings pitch-black, until the faintest glimmer of sunlight above them draws them near.
Their heads break the surface.
Artemis is very good at surviving. She's had to be, what with her dear old asshole of a dad dumping her out in some random wilderness twice a year every year for six years to drag herself back home. She knows how to hunt all types of game, with bow and arrow and lacking that nothing more than what she can fashion with her bare hands from twigs and twine. She knows how to set a broken bone and splint it so that she maintains maximum mobility, how to keep a laceration from going gangrenous, how to survive even when half-crippled. She knows the makes and models of a hundred different firearms, and how to keep them functional even under the worst conditions. She knows how to navigate by sun and star and the positions of the moon.
So, when she slips out from Mount Justice early one morning and heads due southeast, she's probably the one person on the team who could've thrived in the chaos the world presently dissolves into.
And oh, what a chaos. The entire Eastern seaboard is in a mass panic, burning and looting and worse tempered only by the alien ships casually targeting people on the street. The rest of the United States is hardly in any better shape. She hears rumors that Europe and Asia are faring better—at least the governments are still intact—but that's none of her concern when alien ships are sinking anything larger than a dinghy and blowing every last aircraft out of the sky.
Her first and only mission, as far as she's concerned, is to not die. Anything else is accessory.
To this end, she hides away from society, disappearing deep into the forests. On the rare occasions she comes across someone else, usually hunters who got the same idea as she did, she simply vanishes and moves on, never leaving behind a trace to be followed. Some of them inevitably die, and she pilfers their supplies before moving on.
She zigzags like this, touching only the very edges of human civilization, swimming the Mississippi and trekking over endless miles of what used to be verdant farmland. She loses count of the days somewhere along the way, not that they really matter anymore. No more schedules to keep, no more deadlines to meet, it's just her and wherever she deigns to go.
It's not that she doesn't appreciate the occasional human contact, though.
She discovers the first of the hidden human settlements as she treks south along the foothills of the Rockies, trying to remember exactly where that mountain pass was. They're not exactly a welcoming bunch, but she doesn't blame them. Who would be, given that she's had to beat down no fewer than three groups of bandits over the past week, who thought that the poor, frail little blonde girl, travelling all alone in the "big scawwy world" would be an easy mark.
She's willing to bet that they've been terrorizing these people, too, given the way they react to the sight of the cloak and dagger she's taken from one of the jerks who attacked her. After a lot of fast talking, she manages to convince them that no, she wasn't with the bandits, who yes, had been coming in and taking whatever food and clean water they had for the past few weeks, and could they put the guns down now please and thank you?
They're not stupid, of course, and they allow her to shelter with them—and not be perforated by bullets on the spot—only if she agrees to help defend them for a time. And of course, the clever jerks take the one thing of value she has as collateral.
She has to remind herself to stop the reflexive jerk of her hand towards her pocket. A photo used to be there, one of the entire team, happy and smiling with the exception of her and Wally. The redhead had been in a headlock, with her doing her best to strangle him and him shouting angrily back up at her.
She shoves the memories aside. Daydreaming is just going to get her killed when she's trying to spot the arrival of a band of raiders who like to dress all in black, attack on overcast to moonless nights—like this one—and who occasionally like to take captives of roughly her age and gender.
Her hand tightens around the hilt of her knife. Something moves in the darkness.
She closes her eyes, pitching her head from side to side as the sound of rustling grass hits her ears. There it is again, a second later, and again. At least five of them, approaching in a loose arrowhead formation, she guesses, armament unknown, capabilities unknown. This could be a death-trap for all she knows.
She vanishes silently into the night.
The point man is big and bulky and probably really tough. She never does find out, since two shots from her crossbow puts two bolts through his kneecaps, and another two disable his hands. She scurries away to another position as the men immediately form up around their fallen comrade. The crossbow goes click-click again, and two more bolts—these ones blunt-tipped—hit their target. One takes out the man's eye, the other hitting him in the forehead and dropping him, knocked clean out.
Now there are three.
The men begin firing wildly in all directions, forcing Artemis to her belly as shots soar centimeters overhead. Two of the remaining men keep up the barrage while the third checks on the others. Soon enough, he's figured out roughly where the shots are coming from, and the bullets start getting uncomfortably close.
Artemis throws caution to the wind and unloads her entire clip of bolts in their general direction. At least one hits, judging from the cry of pain that rings out into the night, and she takes advantage of the momentary cessation in gunfire to move, diving into the cover of the nearby forest.
From there, it's a few short moments of hand-to-hand combat. The men are stupid enough to trail after the noise of her crashing through the brush and dumber still to open fire once or twice, hitting nothing but air. Their muzzle flash gives them away, and all she has to do is sneak up and slice open a few select tendon groups.
Of course the assholes who took her photo also have to be jerks enough to not help her drag the men back into their settlement. They want her to stay for another few days, of course, but she's had enough of this crap, and she waits only long enough for her to take back her property and a few articles of clothing off of the raiders.
Regardless of how dickish they were, though, she remembers just how good it felt to be actually doing some good again.
She runs into a few more settlements along the way, all with their own host of problems. One is nothing more than a den of thieves and murderers, and she clears it out pretty decently and delivers some of their, ahem, property to another nearby settlement that had been suffering raids recently. Another has a water shortage, and she helps them construct a well. Yet another is barely functioning, more a bunch of loosely affiliated families that constantly war for the best scraps they can salvage.
That one she abandons. She isn't exactly versed well enough in functioning systems of governance to help there.
But everywhere else she goes, she does her best to help.
And then she meets Wally.
He's merely another face in the crowd at first, some jerk taking one of the few possessions that an old man has, an old, battered Army-issue canteen. All she catches sight of is a flash of red hair, bright even under the grime, but then he turns and she nearly trips over herself from the shock. The lines of his face are deeper, his cheeks sallow, his eyes dim, the freckles gone, taller and broader, but that is unmistakably him.
She rushes to catch up, and her mind sparks with something she hasn't felt for a while. It takes her a moment to pin down, but she manages to put a name to it.
After her initial euphoria of having found one of her friends alive and well as worn off, her pragmatic side kicks in, demanding that she take stock of the situation. Item one: Wally stole from an innocent, and so needs to be punished and the property returned. Item two: she needs to tie down Wally for long enough for her to convince him to help her save the world.
Items one and two are checked off as Artemis finishes the last knot securing a thoroughly concussed Wally to a tree.
Item three: she actually needs a plan for them to save the world.
She manages to cobble the framework together from a dozen old daydreams. Expectedly, Wally, tells her that it, and by extension, she, is stupid. This escalates into a shouting match ending only when she smacks him around and reminds him of exactly why he became a hero, i.e. the whole "defend-those-who-cannot-defend-themselves" shtick. It helps that halfway through their argument she ends up using her shiny repossessed combat knife for emphasis.
Of course, the next day, as they're trekking over to where Wally said he'd left the bio-ship, he reminds her about how they don't have a single shred of actual data on the mothership she plans on attacking.
To his credit, it's actually a pretty good point.
They eventually decide to do a quick, Mach 3 flyby of the mothership to pick up what intel they can. It goes off without a hitch, although shaking the roughly every damn ship that comes after them is a little bit more of an issue. It's agreed that though both of them absolutely suck at making up plans in general, Wally's, by dint of not being Artemis's, are less suicidal.
When it comes to survival, he runs down smaller game and delivers them to her for the actual slaughtering and dressing—he still gets queasy at the sight of blood, the pansy. It makes hunting the larger stuff thatWally actually needs to not starve to death, like elk and the occasional grizzly that wanders into camp, slightly more difficult, but she soon finds that just having him run her up to them so she can put them down with a shot to the head works. When he inevitably wears through his shoes, she stitches up a set of moccasins for him.
Weeks go by like this, with her spending what spare time they have making sure that he picks up everything she knows about how to survive in the wilderness. And then she's off, infiltrating one of the great underground empires in the South.
She finds herself missing his company more than she cares to admit, as she steadily rises up the ranks by dint of her combat skills and ruthlessness. It's a dozen little things that she puts down to habit, like not having to prepare enough food to feed a small platoon on a regular basis, or the feel of the wind in her hair, but they all add up. More than once she finds his name on the tip of her tongue, and she's never been more relieved to see him than when he picks her up at the end of three weeks, ammunition and weaponry galore in her possession.
It's after the second such raid that she finds that he's becoming a little softer towards her. It's small things at first, the tone of his voice becoming less and less gruff during one of their arguments, his admitting for once that he was wrong after they wind up somewhere over northern Canada rather than in Iceland like they were planning. She swears that he starts eating less, leaving more for her, and on their watches he lets her sleep in a little more.
She can't exactly speak for him, although she doubts he'd have anything to do with her if they weren't the last. For her part, she knows she's doomed when she finds herself giggling at one of his absolutely absurd jokes, something about Captain Boomerang and the Trickster and a bar. It's not that she hasn't been trying, reminding herself constantly about how well it turned out the last time she let herself become infatuated with him. She still hasn't quite managed to get rid of the pang she felt every time he flirted with M'gann.
She reflects some months later, as snow is blanketing the bio-ship, Wally's arm warm around her waist, that maybe it isn't so bad a fantasy to have.
She dies convinced.
The six of them draw breath and wake. Memories slot back into place—their mutual agreement to undergo the training exercise, the knowledge that, yes, the Martian Manhunter and the Batman were standing before them, alive, Mount Justice whole and intact around them. M'gann is the first to sit up, patting herself down, making sure that she's still in one piece, that life still pulses through her. Robin follows suit, although his movements are controlled, a hand moving to touch his thigh before he pushes himself upright. Conner rolls himself off of the low beds they've been lying down on and drops to hands and knees, unsteadily attempting to stand. Kaldur merely opens his eyes and stays where he is. Artemis stumbles upright, attempting a few steps before collapsing against the Batman. Wally gasps, once, and twice, and a third time, before levering himself upright, bile rising in his throat.
One look at Artemis, alive and breathing and whole and alive, and he can't hold it back anymore. He sprints to the restrooms, then to the top of Mount Justice. He can't stand the sight of them right now.
Artemis is the one to approach him later, as the stars slowly start flickering in the sky. He almost turns to face her as the smell of hot herbal tea and cooked meat of some description hits his nose.
"Hey, Wally," she says, her voice low and husky and so damn familiar that he can tell just from the lilt she puts in his name that she's worried about him and trying to hide it. "You've been up here for hours."
She pauses briefly, waiting for the inevitable dry sarcasm, along the lines of "Oh gee, it's been pitch-black up here for a while now, I hadn't noticed," but he doesn't say anything.
"They're all worried about you, Wally," she says, sitting down next to him. The plate she's holding gets nudged in front of him. "Your uncle's down there, he's almost ready to come up here himself."
"Then let him," Wally says. "Thanks for the food."
"No problem." She takes a sip from her mug as Wally pokes half-heartedly at the reheated remains of what looked to be a slab of ribs slathered in some unidentifiable sauce. It was probably the ones they'd bought the other day after M'gann had attempted to cook a pot roast and forgotten to set a timer. "Manhunter says that we were all so convinced of the reality of our deaths that he couldn't pull us out. He tried, multiple times when we were in the sim, but there was too much of a risk of driving us insane."
Wally is silent. She sips from her mug.
"So he had to wait until all of us were dead, or thought we were dead," she continues, "before he could try it. Problem was, we were all in comas, so the closer we got to waking up, the more we resisted, so in the end he just went for it and yanked us out by brute force. Luckily for all of us, it worked."
Wally is silent. She sips from her mug.
"Now what's bothering you?"
"What's bothering you?" he retorts quietly.
"You." She takes another sip.
"Oh, so very mature of you, Arty," Wally drawls.
"I'm being serious," she says. "Wally, look, none of it was real. I'm alive, you're alive, the rest of the team is alive, all our mentors are alive, there's no alien invasion going on, we're all fine, the world's all hunky-dory."
The only response she gets is the whistling of the wind as it blows past them.
She sighs and resorts to drastic measures.
"Ow!" Wally exclaims as she jabs him in the side.
"Eat," she orders. "I'm not having you malnourished, Wally."
"I'm not hungry, Artemis," he says. "Ow! Will you—ow!—cut that out?"
"Not until you eat."
"Fine," he says, proceeding to devour the entire plate somewhat messily in less than a minute. "Happy now?"
"Almost," she says. She pries him from his fetal position and curls up into him, her back against his chest. The top of her head bumps into his chin. "I'd forgotten how short you were," she says. She takes a sip from her cooling mug.
He twitches as a dozen memories of them in this exact same position, bundled up against the cold, flash through his mind.
Eventually the mug is emptied except for a few stray fragments of whatever vegetable matter Artemis used to brew the stuff, and set aside. The two lapse into a comfortable silence, watching the moon crawl along the sky.
There is a loud buzzing, and Artemis fumbles her phone from her pocket.
"Hi, Mom," she says. "No, I didn't know what time it was. Yeah, I'll probably be heading back tonight. Mom, I've walked that way a hundred times, I'll be fine. Yes, Mom. Yes, Mom. Okay, bye, Mom, I love you too. Bye Mom."
Artemis sighs and snaps her phone shut before getting up, groaning a little as stiffened muscles complain from the effort.
"You're going home?" Wally asks, gathering up the dishes.
"Yup. I'll be back here tomorrow, though," she says.
"Let me walk you back," he says.
"You don't need to, I'm a big girl and all," she almost says, but she catches sight of the look on his face and the protest dies in her throat. The edges of her smirk soften.
The walk to her apartment is as quiet as a night in the Gotham slums ever is, the shouts and occasional bursts of drunken laughter and the wailing of sirens muted by fog. Wally whistles lowly when he sees the complex.
"So this is home sweet home," he remarks. Artemis punches him in the shoulder.
"Better than a lot of places where I've been," she says.
"Because of the company or the surroundings?"
"Both." She untangles her hand from the death-grip he has on it. "Will you be there tomorrow?"
"We'll see," he says. "Probably, I spend most days there anyways, no need to alarm my folks."
"They're itchy enough about my normal extracurriculars." He shrugs slightly. "Can you imagine how'd they react to this whole mess?"
"Fair point." She kisses him lightly on the lips and makes to leave, but his hand is grasping hers before she can blink.
"How can you be so, so normal about this?" he asks, after Artemis looks rather pointedly at him. "The world burned, and we died, and you're acting like none of it happened at all."
She's quiet for a moment before she responds.
"But the world isn't burned, and we," she says, squeezing his hand gently, "are alive. So we gotta act the part, yeah?"
She smiles at him and tugs gently. He lets her go.
"Night, Arty," he says.
He watches her until she disappears into her room, clambering up the fire escape and slipping in through her bedroom window, then turns and walks off with a deliberate, step-by-step slowness that makes his every instinct scream at him. It's only until he's eight blocks away that he's able to run again, run all the way home faster than the eye can see.
And then he's on his front porch. He bites his lip and forces down the rush of memories that threaten to overwhelm him.
Central City had been one of the first to be razed, oddly enough. It hadn't been the most populous, or the largest geographically speaking, or particularly strategically located. Hell, after Zatara and Flash had been killed, Wally doubted that there was a single person capable of threatening the alien ships left in the state. And yet they'd chosen Central City, not Gotham, not Metropolis or New York—
—if it hadn't been for the smoking craters in the ground, he wouldn't have even known that there had been so much as a sod house here at one point—
—no, damn it, stop—
—and the bodies, the bodies and the fragments of bodies half-buried under the ash—
"Stop!" he screams, not realizing that he's done so until the front door slams open, and his mother and his father are there, wide-eyed and armed.
"Wally?" Mary West asks, handing off her cast-iron skillet to her husband. "Are you all right, dear?"
Wally pastes a smile on his face and bounds forwards and clings onto his mother before she can realize just how fake the expression is. "I'm fine, Mom," he says. "Just a little tired, they really pushed us in training today."
He tries not to break down until his mother has finished cooing over him and bustles him off to bed. But as he lies in bed, the feel of the sheets beneath him alien after so many nights spent sleeping against trees or the smooth, hard, ever-so-slightly warm surfaces of the bio-ship—no, none of that was ever real, none of it happened, damn it, remember that, remember that it wasn't real—he finds that he can't.
He spends most of the rest of his night trying to convince himself that he won't wake to find the world still burning.