Chapter 1: i was eighteen when i met you.
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.
Chapter 2: baby, it's just you and me (and that's fine)
And maybe he doesn’t know everything about her, about this smart, infuriating, kinda-hot-but-I’d-never-say-it-out-loud enigma of a woman in front of him, but he knows enough to press his hand to hers and say insistently, “Sleep, Artemis.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Wally, for one of the first times in his life, is actually not enjoying his stack of waffles. By normal standards, this is just a little sad, but by Wally standards, this is nothing short of catastrophic, and it’s not lost on his best friend by any means.
“Dude,” Dick says, “you okay?”
Wally groans and lays his forehead on the keyboard, not knowing (nor caring) about the string of z’s scurrying across the page. Long ago, his eggs went cold and unappetizingly rubbery, and everything appears before his eyes as a convoluted mixture of chemistry and physics. At one point, he hallucinates a girl walking towards him, smirking mouth getting ready to make fun of him, but he’s too tired to do anything about it, even if she is real. It’s been 30 hours and counting since he last slept, and he’s one caffeinated beverage away from fully turning into a teenage mutant ninja turtle.
“ Please remind me why I majored in chemistry and physics when I had a full ride to just run laps,” he moans, finally picking his head up from his laptop. Small red corners and half-squares indent themselves in his forehead. “I’m seeing things, man. It’s either from the stress, o-o-or my optic nerves are detaching from my eyeballs. Not sure which one.”
“Like, ochem. Combined with the trajectory paths of objects traveling towards black holes. Not cool stuff!”
Man. He rubs his eyes hard in an attempt to shock them into concentrating on the task at hand, but it doesn’t work. If Artemis were here, she’d bully him into doing his work––well, bullying isn't the right word, but her methods are just a tad less sensitive than Dick’s. Then again, Dick doesn’t really help Wally do his work so much as sit there and smirk until Wally’s own guilt becomes the activation energy to do things.
A series of short, fast beeps comes from Dick’s wristwatch, and he sighs. “Here’s to my 3-hour CS lab,” he says, scooting his chair back. “Catch ya later.”
“Bye,” Wally says, ready to bury his face into his breakfast again. He almost does.
The walk to Thursday morning physics feels like a waist-deep slog through a muddy swamp. There’s a pounding in his head that signals dehydration and lack of sleep, and the first rays of sun venturing out from the clouds have the audacity to shine directly in his eyes as he walks up the hill to class.
“Good morning , sunshine.”
Wally blinks until the person––Artemis, of course it’s Artemis––comes into focus. She looks amazingly put together for someone who’s up at this hour, her hair pulled into a long blond river spilling over her shoulders. A while ago, she had mentioned something about being a morning person; maybe that was it.
(“It’s like watching the world change dimensions. One minute the sky’s dark blue, and the next it’s all red and purple and you can start seeing the sun come up.”)
He braces himself for her snarkiness, but instead, she pulls out a bottle of Pedialyte from her bag and hands it to him. “You look like you could use it more than me.”
She’s right––it’s like he’s the main character in an RPG who just chugged a health potion. “And you carry around Pedialyte all the time?”
“It’s a good hydrator. Especially after archery practice.”
“You do archery in the middle of the night or something?”
“No, but it’s more like you like to wake up in the afternoon,” Artemis teases. “Oh, and M’gann’s not feeling so hot, so––”
“––can I send her a copy of my notes because I’m the genius of this generation? Why, of course I can. It would be my pleasure.”
Artemis shoves him, but the last notes of laughter linger between them.
Wally files into the physics hall with the rest of the three hundred-odd students, all of them equally addled from stress and lack of sleep. He takes his usual seat and starts unloading the learning essentials from his backpack: a bag of Chicken Whizees––a shameless middle finger to the bright red sign that clearly prohibits eating in the lecture hall––Artemis’s enormous bottle of Pedialyte, and a pencil. The pencil is for twirling and occasionally doing that thing with your arm that makes it look all bendy.
“You know,” he says, shifting in his seat to look at Artemis––“Artemis?”
“Oh, is this seat taken?” The person occupying the seat next to him looks over.
We’ve been sitting there all quarter , Wally thinks with a dash of annoyance, but Artemis appears one row beneath him.
“It’s okay,” she says quickly, “if like, you need that seat to see or anything, that’s fine.”
“No, no,” replies the stranger, already moving their bags. “My bad, I didn’t know you were saving the seat.” Wally quickly thanks them and gestures to Artemis, patting the armrest of the newly vacated seat.
“You save spots for us?” Artemis jokes.
“Well, duh,” Wally says, turning away so she can’t see his face. “I walk faster than you and M’gann. And sitting in the aisle is a total fire hazard!” He folds his arms behind his head and happily prepares for his much-anticipated nap––he already read the section of the textbook that the professor was going to go over, and it was easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
The professor dims the lights to start the lecture. Wally, ever perceptive, notices Artemis’s muscles tighten, brow furrowed in concentration when the lecture hasn’t even started yet. It reminds him of himself in English classes––seriously, what is a rhetorical analysis and who cares about it?––except he’s usually asleep during those, too. She’s concentrating so hard, it’s like she’s trying to invoke the powers of Superman and use her eyes to laser through the paper, or maybe the PowerPoint on how time and gravity behave differently around black holes. So Wally leaves her be. She’s smart enough to ask for help when she needs it, he thinks.
An hour passes. He sneaks a glance over at Artemis, who’s concentrating as hard as ever. “Hey,” he whispers, and taps an equation she’s written down. “You’ve got these two switched.”
She groans. “No wonder I was so confused. Thanks.”
“Hey, it’s what I do. Chicken Whizee?”
It’s kind of funny, he thinks, munching on the chicken skins as discreetly as he can without spilling crumbs everywhere or attracting the professor’s attention. His life is so dictated by Murphy’s law; how else would it end up that some know-it-all girl who beat him at arm wrestling (and beer pong, and king’s cup, and, well, that’s off topic at this point) would be in one of his most important classes? And end up tutoring him outside of class, because weirdly enough, none of the other hot girls in Writing 11A replied to his texts.
Are they friends? Well, stupid question, of course they are. Are they close friends? You don’t help your enemies try to keep pace with you in class; Wally certainly doesn’t. The goodness of his heart is pretty huge, but definitely finite. But, Artemis does feed him. That’s definitely a green flag. And even though the dining hall has its questionable moments, it’s been pretty good to the both of them since they started school. It’s seen Wally pass his English quizzes by the hair of his teeth. But maybe they could swing by Dunbar’s later; the combination of a hot blueberry muffin and a cup of coffee might cure even the most left-brained of people, and with Artemis around? Count Wally West as the luckiest guy in the world. For passing 11A, that is. Nothing else.
“He- llo , Wally. Earth to science geek.”
“Class is over, genius.” She hands him his bag. “What’s wrong? You look...weird.”
“Nothing, nothing. Thanks.”
When they’re outside the classroom, Artemis stops, looking at Wally expectantly. He tries to think about what he’s forgotten––uh, laundry, most probably, taking out the trash in his and Dick’s room, oh jeez, the English essay ––“Oh, yeah!” He pulls out his phone and his binder, snapping a few photos in quick succession. “For you. Well, technically, M’gann, and tell her I hope she gets better. So, uh, who am I sending these to? I don’t know if I have her number.”
“Great.” He sends them. “Wait a second. This is a Gotham area code. I thought M’gann was an out of state student?”
“She is,” Artemis says, confused.
“So who did I just text these to?”
“Me? You don’t have my number saved?”
“I just look back at chats until I can figure out who I was talking to. I should probably change that. Anyways, I thought they were for M’gann!”
“Well, you said they were for both of us,” she says.
God, she’s so annoying when she’s right. “Yeah, well, you so owe me.”
“I’ve been paying you in food and tutoring!”
“Hey,” she says suddenly. “Isn’t your birthday this Saturday? That’s rough, having a birthday in week 7.”
He splutters. “How did you know that?”
“Because,” she says breezily, beckoning him to start walking, “your best friend definitely has the hots for mine, and I heard them talking about it when he came over to our room to study. What do they even study about, anyways? Dick’s a CS major, and Zatanna studies linguistics with an emphasis in French.”
“That’s definitely it, then.”
“Seriously? Dick Grayson studies French?”
Wally snickers. “Yeah, French kissing .”
“So you noticed it too!”
“No duh I have. Every time we pass Frat Row, people start whispering.” He pitches his voice to a falsetto, and then a baritone to indicate a switch in speakers. “‘I wish he was single!’ ‘He’s in one of my classes and I don’t think so, but I wish he was too!’ It never ends.”
“Well, yeah. He’s always been pretty good with the ladies. Not as good as me, though. He wishes he could be me.”
“I’m sure he does.”
“ Anyways ,” Wally says, “it is next week. And by the way, I would never tell anyone this, but my wishlist is pinned to the corkboard behind my desk, and it’s got the new PS5 on it. Pretty cool, huh?”
“I’m not coughing up half a grand for your birthday, pal.”
“I didn’t say it had to be just you. Obviously, Dick’s been cc’ed on this update.”
“Okay, fine, maybe a PS5 is a little much...and I could always just play at Dick’s house. I’m thinking just like a small get-together or something at my place, assuming it doesn’t snow. Or somewhere else, I dunno. Surprise me. Again, Dick’s been cc’ed on this update.”
“So I shouldn’t need to tell him that you beg like a dog when you want a surprise birthday party?”
“Hey, if anyone’s the dog between the two of us, it’s gotta be him,” Wally protests. “He went through three girlfriends in senior year of high school.”
“You know, that’s pretty impressive for a CS major.” Artemis waves a white plastic card in front of the locked door. “I’m off to study.”
Whoa, already? He hadn’t meant to walk with her any farther than the dining hall, and somehow, he ended up in front of her dorm. It was a whole extra ten minutes––Artemis always grumbled about having to walk literally halfway across the campus to get to physics. They were just talking after class ended, and then he wound up here, like teleportation.
“...unless you have to go?”
“I said, Dick’s probably up there with Zatanna already,” Artemis says, smirking. “If you don’t have class, might as well join us, right?”
“Oh, uh, yeah! Yeah, sure.”
Artemis blissfully only lives on the second floor, so there’s no need to take the elevator to her room, where, as she predicted, Dick is sitting upright in bed with Zatanna’s head (and not his computer) in his lap. They look so content and sappy and disgusting, and yet Wally feels some kind of tingle deep in his chest––and it’s not heartburn. Actually, it might be heartburn.
“Look what the cat dragged in.” Dick grins and offers a fist bump to Wally.
“I would say the same about yourself,” replies Wally, taking the bump. “Hey, Zatanna. You know he has his own dorm, right? I mean, I know you’re just being nice and all, but he doesn’t have to live in your room 24/7.”
Zatanna laughs. “I don’t mind,” she says, and Dick smirks. Wally shoots him a look that says, We are sooooo talking about this later!
Fortunately, Artemis beans him in the head with a bag of chips to dispel his jealousy. “Don’t you have an essay to write?”
He groans. She is so annoying when she’s right.
English has never been Wally’s favorite subject.
Even when he was in high school, he had never cared much for literature or comparing it––who would? None of the characters exist, and most of the authors have been dead for the last century or two or three, so what does any of it matter for? He asked Artemis about this one day while they were drinking coffee and fighting over the last piece of scone.
She waxed poetic (no pun intended) about how people of different languages and cultures were able to express such similar but deeply nuanced feelings without ever having met each other. How a single syllable in one language changes the entire tone of a work written two countries over. The way that language is not just an auditory sense, but a visual one as well when you read.
(“Every word has...a shape,” she says. “I’m not really sure how to explain it. But that’s why typos are so easy for me to notice, because the entire shape of the word is just so different and wrong when it’s misspelled. I know the shapes of English words well enough, but reading Vietnamese is like seeing a new spectrum of colors. You get that, right? Physics major and all?”
“No! Humans can only see a tiny fraction of the light spectrum. That’s like asking if I can see radio waves. I can’t!”)
She immediately rolled her eyes after that, but he didn’t really care. He likes listening to Artemis, present tense. Likes the way her voice is a little deeper, a little raspier than most girls that he’s been into––not that he’s into her, they’re just friends––and the way each cadence is so subtle but changes her tone entirely.
“You okay?” Artemis-in-real-time peers over at him. “You look like you’re thinking really hard.”
“Don’t let him do that,” warns Dick. “He’ll hurt himself.”
“Hey!” Yeah, they’ve been best friends for like, forever, but that’s just low and thus deserving of the pillow that Wally hurls at Dick’s head.
Artemis rolls her eyes. “Are you done? I’ll proofread yours.”
“Done? I’m on my second piece of evidence,” he moans. “How many pieces do you have?”
“ Seven ?!”
“I would’ve done eight but I hit the word limit,” she says. Without any warning, she reaches over and grabs his laptop. “You could go deeper into the analysis here. Why is the ending of Crime and Punishment so important? That it takes place in Siberia of all places?”
“I don’t know,” he moans. “I was hoping you would tell me that.”
“Not a chance.”
Dick laughs, and Wally throws him a look instead of a pillow. “Hey,” Dick says, “she’s not enabling you. That’s a good thing.”
“Hey, a little enabling never hurt anyone.”
Dick makes a conspicuous show of checking his watch. “Well, gotta go. That code won’t write itself.”
Zatanna pulls her head from Dick’s lap. She looks like she sleeps there every night instead of on a bed––and yet they both insist they aren’t dating each other. Unbelievable. “I’ll walk you back,” she says quickly.
Wally looks at Artemis.
Disgusting , they think simultaneously.
“Bye, Casanova,” Wally calls after Dick, who has his arm loosely draped around Zatanna’s shoulder.
Initially, there’s no response, but Dick runs back to stick his head in the door and reply, “Catch you later, Romeo ...and Juliet.”
DISGUSTING, they think simultaneously again, this time scooting away from each other on the bed.
Wally always forgets that Dick’s two years younger than him...until he acts like it. Like, they grew up together, except Dick skipped a couple grades to be with Wally. The guy has no concept of subtlety whatsoever!
Artemis is the first to break the awkward silence. “So,” she says, in between her coughing fit, “any progress? On the, uh, essay?”
“Uh, nope.” Why would she ask that? She knows he’s not gotten anything done yet.
She stifles a yawn. “O-okay.”
“You should take a nap,” he suggests. He feels a little guilty––she looks tired, the gray crescents beneath her eyes a little puffier than usual. He’s Wally West, he can handle an English essay.
“I’m okay,” she says. Her voice cracks on the last syllable.
She looks at him. There is something written in the way she holds her gaze steady with him, so fierce and determined that he has half a mind to just forget about it. And yet, there’s also something written in the rest of her body language, the way her hand shakes infinitesimally when she lifts it to point out a grammatical error in his paper, the way it falls back to her side. She moves with the muscles of someone who’s been playing tough a little too long.
It’s hard to say how he knows. He just does. And maybe he doesn’t know everything about her, about this smart, infuriating, kinda-hot-but-I’d-never-say-it-out-loud enigma of a woman in front of him, but he knows enough to press his hand to hers and say insistently, “Sleep, Artemis.”
She holds her stare with him for just a second longer before the muscles he has his hand on start to relax. “Wake me up when you’re done,” she says, and pulls the comforter up to her shoulders.
He gets through the essay in record time, actually, and it’s not that shabby. By his standards, at least. But sheesh ––writing always renders his brain into a smooth mush by the end of it, so he elects to just close his laptop and rest. He lies down carefully next to Artemis, trying his best to not invade her personal space, sleep on his arm, or roll off the tiny twin bed. Eventually, he rests his head on his elbow, his fingers just a few inches away from Artemis’s.
He’s glad he said something about going to sleep. She looks peaceful. Happy. The worry lines that wreath her mouth have been blurred into nonexistence, and the slope of her cheek is softer, fuller. Crazy what a proper nap can do for a body, and for a soul.
Artemis’s eyelids flutter open gently. “Hey,” she says. “You finished that paper.”
“Uh huh,” he mumbles, voice thick with drowsiness. “I even remembered to cite my sources.”
“You are definitely gonna fall like that.” Artemis moves to the side, so her back is flat against the wall.
It’s true. His butt’s been dangling off the edge of the bed for who knows how long. “Thanks.”
She gives a little murmur of acknowledgment before shifting into a more comfortable sleeping position. A thousand innuendos (all of them having to deal with sleeping with him in a manner very different from how they are now) pile up at the tip of his tongue, but he says none of them, only curving his body to fit the space that Artemis leaves.
Before he can fully comprehend just how bad he’s got it, he falls asleep.
The growling of a stomach awakens him. Whether it’s his or Artemis’s is still being questioned.
“Sleeping beauty awakens,” she quips, her long legs draped over the side of the desk chair. Wally sits up. She looks so much...better. In general. And he feels so much better, like he was actually in a magical slumber.
“Wow,” he mumbles, “what time is it?”
Thank God, he’s not late to his next class. It feels like he slept for an eternity. He’s grateful that, when he turns around, Zatanna’s not there, because she totally would have gotten the wrong idea about him sleeping in Artemis’s bed. Maybe. Well, he thinks that he and Zatanna are cool, but regardless, it never helps your case of ‘Artemis and I are just friends’ when you’re caught sleeping in her bed. At least Dick wasn’t around to see him. Wally would never hear the end of that one.
“You looked like you needed that nap as much as I did.”
“Honestly.” Wait a second. “How long have you been awake for?”
Artemis smirks, and Wally’s stomach turns a somersault. “Long enough to know how bad you snore. And sleeptalk.”
He checks the pillow hurriedly on both sides, only to discover that it’s perfectly dry, much to his relief. “Very funny.”
She snickers. “Too bad you woke up so soon. I really wanted to know who you were begging kisses from in your dream.”
“Probably myself,” he brags, flexing one bicep and trying desperately to keep down the red blush crawling up his neck. “Self-love is such a great thing. But uh, I gotta run now. Thanks for letting me crash.”
“Bye.” He’s about to leave, but turns around in the entryway.
Artemis looks up, brushing a strand of hair off her nose. Wally’s chest tightens for just the briefest of moments when she says, her voice low and soft, “Forget something?”
“Nothing,” he says. “Just...it’s okay to take naps, you know? I mean, I do it all the time. You’re good at school. You shouldn’t work yourself so tired all the time.”
She doesn’t look up from the book she’s reading, but Wally thinks he sees the shadow of a smile behind the page.
Maybe it’s a start. And hey––maybe it’s enough.
The rest of the week is a forgettable blur of class. The real fun begins on Saturday morning, when Dick slam dunks a pillow on his face.
“ Dude ,” he says, “happy birthday!”
Wally mumbles something about ‘thanks’, ‘ouch’, and ‘the hell was that for’.
He bolts straight up and laughs. Nineteen!
Dick, as if reading his mind, smirks and says, “Happy nasty nineteen, as the sorority girls say it.”
Wally grabs his phone and observes the time––a very cold and lightly snowy 9 AM on a Saturday. And, yeah, it’s the Saturday before his weekly chemistry quiz, but it’s not like he needs to study for it or anything. Today, he thinks, snuggling back into his pillows and excitedly reading his birthday texts, is a day to be lazy and absorb attention.
miss megan ❤️💕💝💜
happy birthday, Wally! Hope you have lots of cake and cookies today :)
and Conner wants to wish you a happy birthday too
happy birthday! hope it’s as magical as you dreamed.
boy toy named roy 🎯
Happy bday WALLMAN
mom 💛 , dad 💛 , aunt iris 🗞 , uncle barry ⚡️
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WALLY!!! 🎉🥳🎊
Happy birthday to my favorite nephew ❤️
^And to our favorite son!
Happy birthday, Wally. I hope all is well. May your nineteenth birthday be full of love and joy.
Wally grins in satisfaction, already thinking about his mom’s triple threat chocolate cake. The one that had been requested every single birthday since...well, since he could eat birthday cake. The chocolate, the peanut butter, the cookie dough...
Happy birthday, sweetie ❤️❤️❤️ Remember to come home for dinner sometime this weekend! I’m baking your favorite cake.
I’ll be home tonight
Dick’s throwing me the coolest surprise party ;)
I hope you’re attending English class…maybe ask your professor what ‘surprise’ means. That’s from your dad.
His phone chimes once more, and Wally swipes away from the texts his mom sent.
goddess of congeniality 🙄
a little bird told me that dunbar’s accidentally baked too many muffins this morning
and since you’re a regular…
way way WAY ahead of you
“So,” Dick says, “what’s the plan, birthday man? It’s not snowing too hard, so Alfred should be fine if we go to my house and play video games.”
“Dude,” he says. “You had me at video games. Wait! Artemis told me that Dunbar’s made too many muffins this morning.”
Dick tosses his keychain into the air and catches it with one hand, just to show off. “Gotcha covered.”
The snow is light and delightfully crunchy under his shoes as he makes his way across the lawn and to the third level of the parking garage that Dick’s coupe sits in. “So,” Wally says, not even bothering to hide the smirk on his face, “when did you and Zatanna start going out?”
“Hmm, same day you and Artemis started going out,” Dick rejoins.
Wally makes an indignant tch! sound in the back of his throat. “Dude, we study together. I’m good at physics, and she’s good at English. That’s all there is. At least when we study, there’s an arm’s length between us. What kinda computer science involves having a girl sleep in your lap?”
“My kinda computer science.”
Wally rolls his eyes, ignoring the grin on his best friend’s face. “Yeah, of course it is. Just keep your shenanigans to your side of the room.”
“Nobody said we were up to shenanigans.”
“Nobody needed to say it, we’ve all got working eyes here.”
Dick punches him lightly in the shoulder as he swings into the parking lot of the diner. Wally rushes in to pick up the goods as fast as he can without slipping on the clear ice patches (which is sadly not that fast) and gets back in the car in time to inhale the mouthwatering fragrance of blueberries and their famous cinnamon crumble. It’s bliss.
When Dick parks the car in the massive garage of the manor, he waves Wally in with one hand. “I gotta check the tire pressure,” he says. “This’ll only take a second. Go set up what you wanna play.”
“Sure, if you don’t mind losing for the millionth time in a row.”
“Please! If your driving in Mario Kart is anything like how you drive in real life, I’m gonna Peach Beach your ass.”
Dick flips him off. Wally does the same.
When he pushes the door open, the interior of the manor is completely dark. “Interesting,” he drawls, dragging his words out. “It’s almost like––”
“And before you say ‘aw guys, you shouldn’t have’, we know how much you wanted a surprise party,” says Artemis, leaning on the wall by the light switch. The whole gang’s here––Kaldur and his boyfriend Wyynde; Roy, who had come all the way from Star City; Megan and Conner; Zatanna; Artemis; even Uncle Barry.
The side door to the kitchen bursts open, and Dick comes walking through with a massive sheet cake that almost obscures the entirety of his face. “Happy birthday to you…”
The entire room joins in rowdily, the song getting progressively louder and more off key, before someone pops a confetti gun and sends sparkles raining down all over Wally.
“Okay,” he admits, picking a streamer out of his hair, “I did want a surprise party. Just a little.”
“Modesty doesn’t suit you,” Artemis says. A thick slice of cake on a paper plate is extended towards him.
Between mouthfuls of cake (which is actually like, really good even though it’s not his mom’s), he asks her, “So, who’s the mastermind behind it all? Dick?”
“Not true,” Dick says. He’s perched himself on the side of the couch, fork stuck perpendicular in a slice of cake. “I put Artemis in charge of the guest list and party prep. And your birthday registry that’s five miles long.”
Artemis snickers. “Just because you know that Zatanna’s dad invented toaster strudel doesn’t mean he’ll give you a lifetime supply. And why do you want an inflatable T-rex costume, anyway?”
“Geek,” she says.
“Boring,” Wally retorts.
“Can you even do anything in that?”
Wally twists around in his seat, a grin lighting up his face. “I’m glad you asked! A T-rex’s average speed is about 17 miles an hour. When I’m on the track, I average around 20. So, give or take a few m-p-h to account for friction and the overall bulkiness of the suit, I would be an excellent T-rex.”
Wally waves his fork in the air dismissively. “Just you wait.”
“Wait for what?” Uncle Barry walks over and holds his hand out for a fist bump, which Wally obliges him with. “Happy birthday, kid.”
Beside him, Artemis looks like she’s going to burst with excitement. Actually, the only thing she’s doing is smiling, but knowing her, that’s probably a sign that she’s holding in all her feelings. “Wow,” she whispers.
“Uncle Barry, this is Artemis,” he says, figuring that if she doesn’t say anything, Uncle Barry’s never going to figure out that he’s got a fan. “Artemis, well, you already know him, I guess.”
“Hi,” she gasps out, “I’m Artemis. I mean, you knew that, but...wow.”
Uncle Barry chuckles as he shakes Artemis’s hand. “Nice to meet you, Artemis. So you’re the famous archer that I’m always hearing stories about when I go have dinner with Iris’s side of the family.”
Artemis looks at Wally.
Wally looks at his plate.
“Uh, yeah, I think,” Artemis says, and if Wally didn’t know that this wasn’t part of the human ability, he’d say Artemis was glaring at him with one eye and looking at Flash with the other. “I’m on GU’s archery team.”
“Oh, so you know Ollie, huh? Oliver Queen?”
“He’s my coach,” Artemis says, somehow even more awestruck. “You know each other?”
“Sure, we’re old friends,” Flash says. His watch starts beeping. “Sorry, gotta take this. Nice to meet you, Artemis.”
“You look like the Cheshire Cat,” Wally says, after Flash leaves. “Seriously, it’s weird how fascinated people are with Uncle Barry. For the fastest man in the world, he’s late to everything, not to mention he forgets to tie his shoes on the way to work.”
“It’s just neat meeting a celebrity,” Artemis says, “and he knows Ollie.”
There’s silence for a moment as they eat and take in the party. Dick and Zatanna slink away somewhere, and Wally reminds himself to never use the guest bedrooms at the manor ever again. “Hey, thanks for this,” he says, gesturing.
“Um, yeah. No problem. It was fun. My parents weren’t really big on throwing birthday parties, so it’s kind of fun to plan them for other people.”
“Yeah. My parents split when I was younger, and my dad got custody of my sister. And Mom’s not much of a party person. We mostly just get takeout instead of canned vegetables for dinner on our birthdays.”
“Well,” Wally says, “for someone who didn’t have birthday parties as a kid, this is the best surprise party I’ve had. And I’ve had a few.”
Artemis grins. “Anything to shut you up about having one.”
“Oh, come on! I didn’t go on that long.”
“I was on the receiving end,” Artemis says. “You definitely did.”
“Fine,” he concedes. “But seriously. I did not.”
“Can you just go back to when you said this is the best surprise party you’ve had?”
“Fine.” Wally pauses. “But, really, thanks. It’s nice to actually have the attention on me for once.”
“I’m serious!” Wally pouts, and Artemis’ face softens (as the intended effect). “The paps always find Uncle Barry. You’d think after they realized it was my birthday that they’d leave, but no-o-o-pe.”
Artemis angles herself towards him. “I’m sorry. That’s pretty annoying.”
“Right? And then they interview me, since I’m supposed to be like, next in line to his weird throne of sprint records and relay races. And honestly? I don’t care about all that. I just want to get my PhD in physics and do research so I can make a billion dollars and ban all paparazzi from being within a 10-mile radius of me.”
“Looks like you’re on a pretty good path to that.”
“You’d think they pay more attention to the fact that like, I invented nanorobotics that can literally patch holes in your heart when I was in high school, but no!” Wally rolls his eyes. “It’s always Kid Flash this, Kid Flash that.”
“Doctor West does have a nice ring to it.” Artemis’s features have arranged themselves in a manner much softer than her usual appearance, her eyes round and her lips in a sympathetic smile. “I like it more than Kid Flash.”
“It just sounds right, doesn’t it?”
Wally clears his throat. “So...is that big box in the corner my new PS5?”
“Am I my archery coach’s niece?”
“Aww, dang it!”
Ah, his birthday. The calm before the storm––literally. An apocalyptically cold blizzard hits Gotham just a few days later, and Wally takes it as a sign from above to get studying, considering that snow plows have to clear paths around the school every half hour. The cold is not good for Wally, anyway; it blanches his already pale skin into the color of milk and it takes him forever to warm up after the cold.
Fortunately though, he and Dick have barricaded themselves in their dorm with a supply of instant noodles (the good spicy Shin Ramyun kind) and trail mix, which is really all that’s needed to sustain him. Wally sets up a tiny Christmas tree on top of their microwave and plays Ariana Grande’s Christmas EP on repeat, despite Dick’s protests that it’s not even Thanksgiving yet.
( “Who cares?” Wally asks. “At least all of my homework-related stress can be peppermint flavored now.”
“You skipped pumpkin!”
“Yeah, but peppermint is better.” )
Wally is in the middle of a derivatives bonus question for his calculus class when he sees Dick standing on his tiptoes by the door. “What are you doing?”
“You forgot the mistletoe this year,” Dick says, tearing a piece of duct tape with his teeth. “It can’t be that you’re not fishing for kisses anymore.”
“I don’t need to,” stammers Wally. “They all come to me without asking.”
“Didn’t hear Artemis say that.”
Wally pelts a whiteboard marker at him, and, infuriatingly , Dick catches it, grinning. “Just say you’re trying to be gross with Zatanna in front of me and go. Sheesh.”
“Denial is not just a river in Egypt.”
“Aw, shut up.”
“You already asked her to have dinner with you and your parents,” Dick points out. He’s also very annoying when he’s right.
“Yeah, and I always ask you and Kaldur and Roy and Megan too.”
“So what’s the difference between that and asking her to have dinner with just you at the nice French place two blocks down from here?”
“My wallet,” he says ruefully.
“I would gladly give you two hundred bucks if it meant that you stopped beating around the bush and asked Artemis out.”
Wally sighs. “I don’t want to make it weird. We’re friends and she’s my tutor and I’m hers. Not like, hers hers, but you know what I mean.”
“Wally,” Dick says firmly. “I know you’re not failing English. You have a ninety-three and you still insist on reserving the private study rooms in the library for you and Artemis twice a week.”
Wally’s cheeks flush crimson. Well. There’s no getting out of that one.
“Allow me to explain,” Dick says. “You’re an object on a path. Do you take the long, twisty one with the holes along the way? Or do you take the one that’s a straight shot?”
“The one that’s a straight shot.”
“Ergo…” Dick motions for Wally to continue the sentence.
“Okay!” he cries. “I will...consider.”
“You could start by admitting you think she’s hot.”
“Can I at least do that after finals?”
we love an unreliable narrator around here, especially when it's everyone's favorite ginger speedster ;) thank you for reading!! please leave a comment and/or a kudos if you enjoyed :) and come say hi to me on tumblr @anakkin