A few days before Artemis leaves, Paula pulls her aside, sits her down on the couch with a pot of hot tea.
“Artemis,” she begins, and this is how the beginning of every well-meaning but long-winded lecture begins in the Crock household. “In Vietnam, I never went to college.”
The immigrant story is well ingrained in Artemis’s head. It is, after all, not an uncommon combination of elements heard by the ears of first-generation children––a mother, her children, a boat, and the faint but persistent beacon of the American dream. A future with a nice, steady, well-paying job and a nuclear family with the picket fence in the suburbs. The works. The safety of middle class America.
“I know you are a smart, capable woman,” Paula says, and Artemis notices jasmine when she accepts the cup of tea. “I cannot force you to do something you don’t want to do, and I know you will make the right decision. You need to take college seriously.”
The word ‘college’ is daunting. It is both an insurmountable brick wall and a portal, an escape to the upper echelons of American society. For a long time, it was her mother’s guiding principle in life, and by extension, Artemis’s as well.
“You know what life is like when you don’t go to college,” Paula continues. The shadows from the window make her face sharper, more feline, the ghost of a past life that haunts her to this day. “I don’t have to show you that. You know what happened to your sister.”
“I know,” says Artemis, refusing to think about Jade. Jade, who was a wanted criminal in half of the world’s countries and designated kill-on-sight in most of them.
“We are so lucky to have your scholarship,” Paula continues. “I couldn’t send you to college if you hadn’t studied so hard and earned it while you were in high school. Not everybody has the privilege to pay for such a nice school, but you do.This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Artemis. Don’t waste it. I don’t have another to give you.”
Paula wheels over to the suitcases by the door and proudly runs her fingers along the top leather handle. Artemis visualizes the empty nest. There is pressure––pressure to be better, to be the straight-laced black sheep of the family, to turn her back on a legacy of crime for good.
“I’ll visit,” Artemis offers. “I’m only twenty minutes away.”
Paula shakes her head, and for a moment, Artemis feels the muscles in her chest twist uncomfortably. “Focus on your studies.”
Artemis scowls. She moves to pick up the suitcases by the door and rearrange them so her mother’s access to the kitchen is less encumbered, but Paula lays a hand on her shoulder softly before she can do anything.
“I just want to remind you how important it is to do well in college, okay?” Paula opens her arms to Artemis.
Muffled in the softness of Artemis’s hair, she says, “You deserve a better life than what I can give you now.”
On the first night of college, Artemis sticks her head in the grimy toilet of a frat house (seriously, who cleans these things? Does anyone?) and vomits. The bass pounding through the floor matches the pounding in her head, or the other way around––she can’t tell, at this point.
“I didn’t think I needed to remind you,” Zatanna says, tucking an errant strand of hair behind Artemis’s ear. “I thought everyone knew. Beer before liquor, never sicker. Liquor before beer, nothing to fear.”
Another wave of nausea pushes her head back into the bowl. “Guess I forgot.”
A sharp sequence of raps sounds on the door.
“Occupied!” Zatanna shouts.
Zatanna pats Artemis’s back before opening the door to M’gann, who holds two bottles of water and a sandwich. “How are you feeling, Artemis?”
“Urgh,” she groans.
“Have some water. I don’t exactly trust frat sink water. It’s got...a smell. You know?”
Artemis gladly chugs the bottled water in agreement and hangs her head over the toilet, prepared to empty her stomach again, but thank god, it doesn’t come. “Thank you, guys.”
“It’s our duty,” M’gann says proudly.
“Honestly, I should be thanking you,” says Zatanna. “That bro was not a good kisser.”
“Which one?” Artemis takes another gulp of water.
“The one with the gold chains.”
Artemis makes a face. “I didn’t think he was cute. Plus, I thought the guy with the blue eagle looking symbol on his shirt was pretty into you. The one you got introduced to by one of the girls in the sister frat?”
“Who, Bette? Bette Kane?”
“Yeah. What was her friend’s name again? Grayson, or Robin, or something like that. He was cute. And he definitely had the hots for you.”
“Dick Grayson.” Zatanna sighs, a wistful pout. “I knew I should’ve gone for him instead.” She hands Artemis a napkin to clean herself up with before saying, “Ready to go back? You’re pretty drunk, Artemis.”
Artemis grunts out something that is taken as an affirmative, because M’gann presses the sandwich she was holding earlier into her hand, and Zatanna slings one of Artemis’s arms over her own before the three of them hobble out of the bathroom together. There are just too many people in the frat house to wade through, all of them smelling like Bud Light, sweat, and cheap scent.
Fortunately, when Artemis’s hazy, drunk vision clears, she is smothered in blankets, more water bottles next to her, phone charging next to her pillow. “Thanks,” she says. “Do you wanna stay for a little bit? Zatanna would let you.” Bless Zatanna, Artemis thinks, for being such a good roommate. But M’gann shakes her head. Something about a hot date with a guy named Conner. Okay, not a ‘hot’ date, because M’gann is not so vulgar, but Artemis is, and any date M’gann goes on should be labeled a hot date.
“Kent,” says M’gann. “Like Clark Kent, the news reporter?”
Artemis slurs her laughter. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were like, related or something. God, that’d be funny.” It’s quite fortunate that Artemis chooses to roll over to the other side of the bed, giggling quietly to herself and not noticing M’gann’s face.
After saying goodbye to M’gann, Zatanna pulls the blankets up to her chin, scrolling through her phone. “Oh,” she says, “by the way. We were going to get introduced to one of Dick’s friends, but then I lost him and didn’t see him after that. I only got his last name. West, I think.”
“Hmm,” Artemis says sleepily. “That’s fine. Maybe some other time, you know?”
“Sure,” says Zatanna. “Dick said they were best friends. We’ll probably see him again.”
The first day of class is swelteringly hot. By the time Artemis gets to her 11 o’clock class (Intro to Comp Lit), which is only a six minute walk from her dorm, a thin sheen of sweat glistens on her forehead, and she decides to grab an iced coffee from the stand in front of the lecture hall/auditorium. Ever since she and her mom flew back to Vietnam, American coffee just seems so subpar with its burnt beans and lack of condensed milk.
She pulls out her laptop and starts the voice recording as soon as the professor starts getting into the syllabus. For the most part, it’s introductions and an overview of what the weights in class will be: 30% of the grade will be the midterm, 20% will be online discussions, and 50% will be the final. Nothing she can’t handle.
Someone at the front of the class, with a shock of flaming red hair, pipes up, “What about extra credit?” A couple people from different tiers of the auditorium snicker.
“If you study well, you won’t need the extra credit,” the professor says. “Is this an indication of what I should expect from you this quarter?” The words from his mouth are stern, but Artemis can tell that there’s a laugh that’s being bitten back.
“No, Professor,” the asker mumbles sheepishly.
“Great. We’ll have no problems then.”
The kid’s kinda funny, Artemis thinks.
Being syllabus week, nobody really has assigned readings or homework yet, so the same night, Zatanna drags her to a mixer on the beach.
“Bette’s gonna be there,” she wheedles. “You’ll know her too. Plus, she’s bringing her friend, Babs. I asked M’gann if she wanted to come, but one of her crazy professors already assigned her to do a lab. Seriously, who does labs in week 0?”
“You’re in it to see Grayson again,” Artemis teases.
“He is pretty, that’s for sure.”
Artemis changes into her swimsuit and pulls on some shorts and a t-shirt before packing a mini duffel bag with the essentials: a towel, her wallet, and a six-pack of hard lemonade. Zatanna magics the ingredients for s’mores from under her bed (where does she get these from? Artemis doesn’t complain, but it’s a curiosity) and stuffs them in the bag, too.
Bette comes to pick them up in a sleek black sedan at seven. “Hey,” she says warmly. “It’s Artemis, right?”
“I’m Bette,” she continues. “I forgot if I introduced myself to you last night or not. This is Barbara.” She gestures to the girl in the shotgun seat. Barbara turns around and Artemis catches a quick whiff of citrus scented conditioner in her auburn hair when she offers her hand out.
“You can call me Barb,” she says, “or Babs, both of them are childhood nicknames. Just not Barbie.”
“Not Barbie, got it,” laughs Artemis.
“No one’s called her Barbie and lived to tell the tale,” Bette says.
“One of the frat boys tried it,” Babs elaborates, winding a strand of hair around her finger. “I said if he could beat me at beer pong, he could call me Barbie. He lost both times.”
“Sounds like you’re developing a reputation,” Zatanna says, half teasing and half admiring.
“I better be!”
“We’ll see,” Bette says, neatly sliding into a parking space. The scent of salty air, sand, and barbecue start drifting closer to the car. “Oh! And Artemis and Zatanna, I wanted to introduce you to an old friend of mine. Remember Dick Grayson? It’s his best friend.”
On cue, Dick walks towards them and waves, a towel hung around his neck. He has the same blue bird motif on his swim trunks as he did on his shirt.
“Our guests of honor,” he quips, touching two fingers to his temple and mock saluting Bette and Babs. He must be an old friend of theirs, judging by how they interact, but Artemis has pretty much no recollection of ever noticing Dick in middle school, even though Bette insists that he was there. Interestingly enough, he opens his arms to Zatanna and gives her a quick squeeze.
Bette, Artemis, and Babs all look at each other knowingly.
“I don’t think we’ve met,” he says, finally letting go of Zatanna. “Dick Grayson.”
Artemis takes the hand he offers her. “Artemis. I think I saw you at the party last night, but I don’t really remember.”
“That makes one of us,” he says. “At least you remember something.”
Just then, a tremendous racket comes from the parking lot, and everyone turns their heads to look. It’s not even the racket of a simple accident, like the dropping of glass or beach party stuff, but the racket of someone who is absolutely determined to make noise, like their life depends on it.
Someone with sunblock smeared messily on his nose is running towards them (well, Dick, more specifically) holding all manner of beachgoing paraphernalia: umbrella, beach ball, flip flops, stereo blaring EDM, folding chairs, a half-eaten peanut butter jelly sandwich.
“The Wall-man,” he announces, so loud the rest of the planet must be able to hear him, “is in the h––”
Artemis thinks he’s going to say ‘the house’, but she’s not really sure, because he immediately proceeds to trip over the raised part of the sidewalk, drop everything in his arms, and land face first into the sand. At least it wasn’t the concrete.
“Jesus Christ, KF,” Dick says, pulling the boy to his feet. “You might be called a superhero on the track, but this isn’t the track anymore.”
All of a sudden, the images in Artemis’s brain click together. “I’ve seen you on the news before!” she exclaims. “You’re Kid Flash. Barry Allen’s nephew.”
He rolls his eyes. “I’ve got a name, too.”
“Oh yeah?” Artemis smirks. “Prince of Eating Shit?”
“Well, now I’m not going to tell you!”
“Play nice,” Dick grumbles, rolling his eyes. “Mr. Beauty and Grace here is my best friend, Wally West.”
Wally snickers. “Like the goddess of virgins?”
“Exactly, which means that you’re under her jurisdiction, Baywatch.” Zatanna gives her a covert fist bump.
“Damn,” Dick says, clapping Wally on the back, the latter of whom has turned as bright red as his hair. “She got you pretty good.”
“ I’m going to make some drinks ,” Wally says through gritted teeth, stomping away with his fallen stuff.
“Is he always like this?” Artemis asks Dick.
“He’s...an acquired taste,” Dick says. She notices how close Zatanna walks to him, how comfortable.
“That’s what people say about anchovies, but I’ve never grown to like them.”
“And some people never grow to like Wally.” Dick smirks. “When you’ve known him as long as I have though, you get used to him.”
“Not gonna hold my breath on that one.”
“I’m so tempted to make you the nastiest mixed drink I can think of,” Wally says when Artemis leans against the folding table that functions as his makeshift bartop. A collection of liquor sits behind him in a cooler of crushed ice.
“Bartending school dropout?”
“Straight A physics major,” he brags.
“Comp lit and political science,” she returns, and to her surprise, he nods almost respectfully. As respectfully as you can nod for someone who just insulted you a few minutes ago, really. “Can I get a mojito?”
“Sure,” he says, and she’s momentarily taken aback by how nice he’s being in light of recent events, until he stretches out his arm and says, “cough up.”
“How about arm wrestling?” Artemis says. “Best two out of three, otherwise I’ll make all your drinks for the rest of the night.”
It’s more than Artemis bargained for, having Zatanna and a few more people gather around to watch the competition. Dick starts a betting pool––3-1 in favor of Artemis––and loyally puts in five bucks for his best friend. She and Wally are both just tall enough to arm wrestle while having one knee in the sand for stability.
“Ready,” Babs says, “set...go!”
“Go again!” Wally says, flustered. Artemis smirks.
“Best three out of five?”
“How about five out of seven?”
“Okay, okay. Last one.”
Artemis stands up and flexes her right bicep. “Looks like drinks are on me tonight. That’ll be five of those mojitos, actually. And by the way, you should probably think twice before you arm wrestle an archer.”
“I should have made it a hundred meter sprint instead,” Wally groans.
“Yeah, no kidding,” Dick says, opening his wallet.
On Thursday, Artemis meets M’gann at the dining hall for breakfast before their 9:30 class. At least it isn’t an 8 AM.
“How was the party last night?” M’gann asks, eating a bowl of fruit. “I heard you were the reigning champ at arm wrestling.”
“I was,” Artemis says. “How was your lab?”
“It was nice, actually,” she says. “My TA’s great, and Conner’s my lab partner, actually, so that makes things really easy for me.”
“Dick has some weird taste in friends,” says Artemis, draining her glass of soy milk. “Ready to go?”
They leave their dishes in the dish drop (which really needs to be cleaned out, dear lord, because there’s definitely some kind of sewage brewing and fermenting in the pipes) and walk to their introductory physics class. Apparently, they were two of a handful who were able to score it as a general education class, since it was usually limited to only physics majors. Artemis didn’t necessarily hate physics, but her forte was in literary analysis and policy. M’gann didn’t love it either, but she did need a physics class for her biochem degree.
The lecture hall for this class is even bigger than the last one she had, easily seating four hundred people, and the line pouring through the door doesn’t seem to be thinning. They pick two seats in the middle, towards the front but not too far, because that’s where all the suck ups sit, and Artemis is anything but a suck up.
On M’gann’s side, Wally West stares at her.
“I didn’t think you’d be able to show your face in public after that crushing defeat last night,” Artemis teases.
“I’m Wally,” he says, grateful for the distraction and opportunity to not respond to Artemis. “And, uh, do you have a name, or can I just call you gorgeous?” He makes a grand show of taking M’gann’s hand and kissing it, also managing to glare at Artemis in the process.
“It’s M’gann,” she says, stifling her laughter, “but you can call me Megan.”
“Which one do you prefer?”
“Either one, really.”
“How does ‘babe’ work out?
Artemis pretends to retch into her backpack when the professor walks in. Saved by the bell.
“Can I see your notes?” Artemis whispers to M’gann, who obliges as discreetly as she can.
“Oh, don’t thank me. They’re Wally’s.”
Wally winks at her and mouths something. You owe me.
In your dreams, she mouths back.
Friday, her schedule is open, so she takes the closest bus back to see her mom. On the way, she gets two Thai teas from the local boba shop. Sometimes, rarely, when Artemis mentioned getting good grades, her mom would buy some from the grocery store as a treat, along with a reminder to keep it up. It was always a little lukewarm and diluted from the melted ice by the time she got off the bus, but the sweetness was still there.
She knocks just to let her mom know of her presence and lets herself in, announcing herself. Paula wheels out from the kitchen and smiles.
“Hi, Mom,” Artemis says. “I got you something.” She pulls the tea from behind her back and hands it to her.
Paula makes a little tsk noise. “You spend so much money,” she says, and Artemis bristles a little. It’s a three dollar cup of tea. And it’s a gift. “How are you doing in school?”
“Fine,” she says. “It’s not even week one.”
“But you should be getting a head start.”
“On what? I don’t even have my assignments yet.”
“Go to the library and read ahead,” Paula says. She breaks the thin plastic layer over the tea with her straw and takes a tiny sip. “Have you been going to parties?”
It’s a trick question.
“No,” says Artemis.
Paula’s eyes narrow, but she only says, “Good. Focus on studying.”
She seems to relax more at this. “You have friends at school?”
Artemis tells her about rooming with Zatanna, whom she had met at a football game with the rival high school a couple years ago, and Bette and Babs and Dick. She almost opens her mouth to talk about Wally, but shuts it at the last second.
“That’s good,” Paula says. “As long as you are doing good in school.”
“I’m a lot happier in college,” Artemis mutters pointedly, but Paula just shrugs.
When Artemis leaves, she gives Paula a hug, but it feels more perfunctory than anything. It’s accompanied by the usual reminders to be safe and not do anything stupid while she’s gone, and yes, yes, I know .
Before she leaves, she notices that the cup of tea is still full.
wanna come over and study for the physics test next week? i’ll bring snacks, whatever you want
nothing spicy tho. i can’t handle it
“I’m going to drop this class,” Artemis moans, two hours later.
“We-ell,” M’gann says, “we could text Wally. It is his major, and he’s a whiz at it.”
“I’d rather fail than ask him.”
“You’re actually doing pretty well,” Zatanna jumps in. She shuffles the three practice quizzes Artemis has taken since she started studying. “You’re averaging a high B on all of these, which is not even close to failing. So don’t worry.”
A chime. Zatanna picks up her phone. “Dick says that Wally’s got a track meet and do we wanna go?”
Artemis scoffs. “For Wally? What, go so I can watch him trip over his own feet? I got better things to do.”
“Like studying on a Friday afternoon?” Zatanna teases.
“Can Conner come too?” M’gann asks.
Some typing, and then another chime. “Dick said ‘of course’,” says Zatanna. “He also said, quote, ‘the more people you bring, the better. Wally runs on Red Bull and attention.’”
Artemis throws her hands up.
It actually feels eerily like high school, being packed into bleachers like this. It’s a little less crowded, mostly because no professors are handing out extra credit for showing school spirit, which Artemis thought was pointless anyways. Dick waves them over.
“Good to see you all again,” he says, and he gives Zatanna the same almost-lingering hug as the other day.
Wally trots up the bleachers––which is weird, because Artemis literally just saw him stretching down by the track––and slings his arm around M’gann. “He-llo, Megan,” he says, trying his very best to be suave.
She laughs and deftly extricates herself from him, and Artemis tries not to burst into laughter at his downcast face. “Hi, Wally. Oh!” She turns around and grabs someone’s wrist, gently nudging him into the loose circle they’ve formed in the bleachers. “This is Conner.”
“Nice to meet you,” Wally says, and while he’s not insincere about being pleased to meet the new guy, Wally isn’t stupid enough to not put two and two together. He does willfully ignore that the answer is four, though.
When she and Conner sit down, Artemis elbows Wally in the ribs.
“What?” he asks, annoyed.
“Get the picture, lover boy?” She nods at M’gann and Conner almost-holding hands.
He looks, then drops his head in his hands. “Aw, man .”
Someone on the track whistles. “West! Get down here.”
“Duty calls,” he says miserably, then perks up. “Heh. Duty.” And with that, he zips down the stairs, so fast Artemis expects him to fall again, but he doesn’t.
The same person who blew the whistle earlier raises his arm. “Ready... and go!” He shoots a flare into the sky, and the race begins.
“So that’s why they call him the Kid Flash, huh,” Artemis says. Wally’s running ahead a full meter ahead of everyone, and he doesn’t even look like he’s breaking a sweat.
“After his Uncle Barry,” Dick says. “Whole family’s full of legendary runners. Even his little cousin, Bart, runs around the house so fast it’s hard for even the grown up speedsters to catch him.”
Just then, the crowd erupts in ‘ooh’s’ of pain, and they turn their attention to the track. One of the runners is lying down on the track, and Artemis has to look away, queasy. Feet aren’t supposed to point in that direction, she’s sure of it.
“Wait,” Dick says, shaking her shoulder. While most of the runners keep going towards the finish line, Wally bolts in the opposite direction and pulls the fallen runner’s arm over his shoulder. Step by step, they both make it to the finish line, and as soon as his foot’s over the line, Wally gently sets down the runner’s head on his lap. He leans down, presumably to ask if they’re okay, before looking back up to the stands.
“Doctor!” he yells. “Or, like, someone pursuing pre-med, I guess.”
A crew takes the runner away on a stretcher, and Dick claps Wally on the back. “Look at you, all noble.”
“Well, I couldn’t just leave them,” Wally says, but there’s a grin on his face nonetheless.
“Hey, hey! A quote for the GU Times?” A flock of students with cameras and outstretched phones with voice recordings activated push towards Wally. He starts backing away––Artemis thought he loved attention.
“Um,” he says, a little awkwardly, “like I said, I couldn’t leave them there, that’s just scummy.”
“You came in last!”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s only the second race of the season,” Wally says. “I have all quarter to blow the rest of these punks out of the water.”
“How do you think this will affect your standing later?”
“Is this the precedent you’ll be setting for the rest of the season?”
“Any words from your uncle, the legendary Flash? How does he think you’ll do? Is he here with us tonight?”
“Enough!” Dick says. He puts himself between the journalism group and Wally.
“Yeah,” Wally says, no longer smiling. “I already gave you my quote. You guys can leave. Now.” They scatter, and Wally walks back to the umbrella where the athletes stashed their bags.
He sighs and squirts himself in the face with his water bottle. “Jeez,” he says to Artemis. “Even in college, people are so weird.”
She holds out her hand for a high five. He obliges, but then curves his thumb to touch the knuckle of Artemis’s index finger. She looks at him.
“It’s a thing my dad taught me,” he says hastily. “Some people aren’t used to it, but it’s how they did it where he grew up, so whenever he gives me one, that’s how he does it.”
Artemis smiles, and curves her thumb to match. “That was really nice of you,” she says.
“Seriously,” he huffs, and Artemis is almost sad when he takes his hand away to gesticulate to the air, “why is everyone so surprised by that? I’m a veritable superhero!”
She snickers. “Powers: tripping over sidewalks and being superhumanly bad at arm wrestling.”
“That was one time!”
She holds her thumb to the base of his finger. He reciprocates. And it’s nice.
The thing about the quarter system is that it has a habit of being dreadfully slow until midterms begin (although, in poor M’gann’s case, her midterms begin in week 2), and then, bam! Weeks 4-10 come barrelling through like a high speed train. On the one hand, it’s easy to map out study time over a neat period of ten weeks, but it’s hard to squeeze in classes, discussions and time to cram in between all of that, not to mention balance good eating habits and good sleeping habits with a social life.
Dick comes over more and more often to study with Zatanna, although Artemis really can’t figure out what a CS major has to study for with a linguistics major, but it feels like every time Artemis comes in, he’s there, too. Either way, he brings with him both sustenance and knowledge, so Artemis is okay with him there. Zatanna is more than okay.
Wally, for the most part, has given up his puppy crush on M’gann. (“She looks happy with Conner,” he says, “and my mom didn’t raise a homewrecker.”) He trades Artemis tutoring in physics for swipes at the dining hall, of which she has an unlimited supply, so he goes whenever they study and a couple times after. More than that.
And then, midterms.
Lucky for her, they’re all spread out through the week, and none of them are back-to-back, unlike Wally and M’gann’s, the latter of who has three finals beginning at 8 AM and not ending until 3 PM. And since most of the tests are online now, Artemis only has to wait a few days for the TAs to grade her papers.
“How’d it all go?” Wally asks. The bags under his eyes are deep and heavy, and he looks paler than usual, so his freckles jump out like paint splatters across his cheeks. “Seriously, who gives multiple midterms? There’s only one midpoint in this ten week segment! It’s mathematical B.S.!”
“It actually went pretty well,” Artemis admits. “You?”
“I have four this week alone,” he moans. “Four!”
“Better get studying,” she says. “Good luck.”
She claps him on the back before getting on the bus to go home. This time, she doesn’t stop at the boba shop.
“Home again, Artemis?” Paula wheels herself into the living room and pours a glass of water for her daughter. Artemis leans on the doorframe, toying with the plastic handle of a bag and the bags within the first one.
She is only half joking when she says, “What, you don’t want me here anymore?”
“Isn’t it time for your midterm exams?”
Paula raises an eyebrow.
“All A’s,” Artemis says, before amending, “and an eighty-seven. But I still have an A in the class overall.”
Her mother purses her lips. Artemis picks up on the minute motion and slams her water glass into its coaster on the counter so hard, the potted plant next to it shudders.
“You are the only person I know who would be disappointed that her kid’s getting a 4.0 GPA at one of the most prestigious universities in the country,” she snarls, “and on a scholarship!”
Paula’s eyes narrow. “Artemis––”
“In case you didn’t know, it’s pretty hard to get grades like this. And guess what! I’m doing it and I’m having fun. What’s the problem? I can do it all and then some.”
“The problem is that you’re distracted,” Paula chides. “All this partying, all this ‘hangout’ and ‘kickback’––your mind is not fully on your studies.”
“So?” scoffs Artemis. “My grades are still good. And it’s not even finals season yet.”
“You need to focus,” Paula says sharply.
“I am focused,” growls Artemis, “and everything is fine. An eighty-seven? That’s not even close to failing!”
“Is that your baseline? Failure?”
“Maybe it is!” She glares. “I’m getting by with flying colors and you’re complaining? Do you even hear yourself? Do you hear me ? ‘Cause right now, I don’t think it’s either.”
She throws the door open, so hard that there’s a sickening crack when it makes contact with the wall behind it. A few splinters fall out, but Artemis doesn’t care enough to pick them up. “Guess I’m going back to school to study,” she says coldly. The door slams behind her.
Paula closes her eyes, presses two fingers to either side of her head. In the fridge, two Thai iced teas sit on the shelf. Neither have been opened.
can i PLS have a swipe
pretty please with a cherry on top!
i would have said yes after the first time
you’re speaking my language now
When Wally meets her outside the dining hall, the first thing he does is make fun of her, because that’s what their weird friendship has evolved into now. First from genuine annoyance and now to a somewhat grudgingly developed camaraderie, veiled by the excuses of “well, he helps me do physics” and “she helps me write my essays”. The mutual academic trade-off easily covers up for their long hours spent slaving away in the library, the crunching of shared fast food, the way Wally insists on walking Artemis back to her dorm even though she easily outclasses him at martial arts--after all, it’s pretty hard to learn literary analysis from fictional characters, right?
“Who peed in your cornflakes today?”
“Excuse me?” Americans have the weirdest sayings in the world.
Wally’s face turns mildly pink. “You look, uh, stressed,” he offers. “Something wrong?”
Artemis hands her ID to the cashier to swipe, gesturing to Wally to indicate a second swipe is to be for him, and says, “I’ll tell you after I have some food in my stomach.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Wally offers to get food for the both of them because apparently, she walks too slow, so she picks a place to sit and watches over their bags. Unfortunately, it’s the middle of the dinner rush, and all the tables with proper chairs have been taken, so Artemis resorts to marking her territory on a couch with her and Wally’s bags. She dusts off the crumbs on the coffee table in front of them.
In just a minute, he zooms back with two armfuls of food––tacos al pastor (her favorite; she wonders if he remembers, but quickly dismisses the thought), spaghetti with spinach and spicy shrimp, a double or possibly triple decker cheeseburger loaded with pickles, a bowl of bacon clam chowder, and tabbouleh from the salad bar. “Be back in a flash,” he says, setting down the absurd quantity of food and coming back with two glasses of water for each of them.
“Wow,” she manages. “Uh, thanks. How’d you fit so much stuff on your arms?”
“I used to be the star server at the diner I worked at in high school,” says Wally, sliding a fork across the low coffee table to her. “I could balance hot plates like nobody’s business.”
Artemis spoons salsa verde over her tacos and takes a bite. They’re spicy, fresh, tender––everything the perfect taco should be, and she inhales the whole plateful. Wally follows suit with his multistory burger, and there’s silence for a moment while they both eat. It’s one of those days where every station of the dining hall has something amazing to eat. For the most part, the food is generally pretty good (much better than neighboring schools, and that she’s grateful for) but sometimes, like the disaster of the beef stroganoff that had been accidentally steamed while being kept warm, it just misses the mark. Today is not one of those days.
“So,” Wally begins, stacking the empty plates into a neat pile, with all the utensils on top. “Well, you don’t have to say it, but is everything––like, are you––uh, okay?”
She gives a deep sigh. Wally’s face is like it’s straight out of one of the older American comic books she used to find at the school library: warm and earnest, and just angular enough to indicate maturity but softened by the gentle points of his cheekbones, which are splashed with red freckles. A face that she used to exclusively expect insults from, but has recently surprised her with a tenderness, a kindness that is not only new to him specifically but to her life as well.
“I went home earlier today to visit my mom,” Artemis starts, but the rest of the story feels dammed up in the back of her throat, like phlegm that won’t come out.
Fortunately, Wally nods, so sagely she’s tempted to think, blink twice if you can read my mind , but he just sits there and says nothing. “Must’ve been rough for you.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Yeah. It was. She told me I needed to try harder at school.”
“I thought you had straight A’s. And you aced all your midterms.”
“All of them except one,” she corrects. “But...everything else is true.”
Artemis shrugs, takes a sip of water, and suddenly, the rest of the story comes out. “I’m the first in my family to go to college, so I guess the expectations are pretty high. I just didn’t think they’d be...that high. And for a while now, it’s just been my mom and me. My dad and my older sister left the picture when I was in elementary school. I try and visit when I can, but I guess I’m just wasting time that I could have been using to study.” She laughs. “At least I don’t have to cook my own food here. Anyways, we, uh, we don’t have to talk about this. Do you want dessert? They have mango pudding. And mini pecan tarts.” The last part rushes out of her mouth in a hasty attempt to change the subject, anything before Wally can ask questions about her past, her pedigree.
“Way ahead of you,” he says, and Artemis notices with a start that he’s already up and halfway over to the dessert station. Seriously, it’s like he’s got superpowers or something. “A-a-and that’s a wrap.” One of each dessert sits in front of Artemis, along with a bowl of vanilla ice cream. “It’s pretty much a crime to eat pie without ice cream.”
They eat. Artemis wonders what’s going on in Wally’s head, wonders if he’s thinking about what she just told him or about getting seconds of dessert––honestly, it’s fifty-fifty. The thought of him knowing the information she just told him is not unsettling per se, but it’s quite a departure from her usual course of action when things bother her. She concentrates on eating. So does he.
When they pick up their bags to leave, Wally stops at the doors and turns just so she can see him.
“Um,” he says, his hands jammed in the pockets of his chinos. He looks down and then up again, occasionally chewing on his bottom lip. “This might come out the wrong way, but...my mom’s a great cook.”
“Well, what I mean is like, if you feel like you need to get away from Gotham and your life at home, you could just come have dinner with me––us. We don’t live too far away.”
Artemis looks at him. She’s searching for the beginnings of a sneer, the casual way his lips might be upturned as if he had just told her a joke, but there’s nothing there: nothing, nothing at all except for a pair of round, green eyes amidst the freckled skin. She wonders how he ever manages to protect his heart if it’s always on his sleeve like that.
“You don’t have to,” Wally says quickly, the beginnings of a blush blooming over his cheeks. “But–-”
“That would be great, actually,” Artemis says, and it’s harder to see beneath her tanned skin, but her cheeks match his as well. “Thanks, Wally.”
Grinning, he raises his hand up for a high-five, and Artemis is the first to touch her thumb to the side of his.