On the whole, Artemis Crock would say that her life is pretty normal. She’s got a twenty-pound cat named after her missing delinquent sister, her father split when she was ten years old, she’s an inner city kid trapped at a private school for obnoxiously well-groomed richies, and her mom barely lets her leave the apartment without forcing her to write out an extremely precise schedule of what she’s going to be doing and how many times, in every hour and sixteen minutes, she’ll be breathing.
At least she has friends. One of whom is an amateur magician who got suspended last year for breaking into Principal Smith’s private office just because she felt like it; the other of whom she's pretty sure is on the FBI watchlist, and who happens to be the golden boy of aforementioned elite private school’s founder. You know, the founder responsible for tying her down there in the first place with his stupid full-ride scholarships and his stupid generosity.
And it’s not that Artemis is ungrateful, or anything—come on, look at all this blessed normalcy—but even normal people have problems, okay? So these are hers.
A Comprehensive List of Artemis Crock’s Problems, In No Particular Order:
- Her knuckles hurt.
- Water polo MVP Kal Durham is not single.
- She forgot to clean Jade’s litterbox this morning.
- She’s getting a blister on her left ankle from running twelve blocks to school after missing her bus.
- Her World Civics report is due on Friday and the most work she’s gotten done on it is typing “[Untitled]” on a blank page. But Word crashed anyway, so she lost all of it.
- Dick Grayson drew penises all over said report. ...Somehow.
- She’s in the principal’s office, and it smells like Pepto Bismol.
- She didn’t beat Black Ops 2: Zombies last night despite the $200 bet she’d had going with Dick that she would have.
- It’s only Monday.
- The first Monday of the school year.
Welcome to her pretty normal life.
“The fact of the matter is, Miss Crock,” Principal Smith says frankly, “We cannot have our scholarship students becoming discipline cases. It’s paradoxical. Don’t you agree?”
Artemis blows some hair out of her face and slouches further into the chair at the other side of the principal’s desk, feeling, as usual, like she’s lined up in front of a firing squad. Her arms are crossed insurgently at her chest and the sinking motion causes her already askew knees to sag further apart. She chews the inside of her cheek to hold back a retort.
“Please keep your legs together; you know the etiquette policy,” Smith orders.
Artemis’s knees snap closed. She glowers.
“Would you care to explain exactly why you caused the altercation with Mr. Hayes?” Smith prompts her, folding his hands in front of him.
Artemis looks away and sighs, sharp and short and noticeably irritated.
“With all due respect, sir...” she begins as slowly as she can, in a lame attempt to keep her tongue in check—but no. She can’t do it. “No, never mind. I have no respect for Billy Hayes, because he’s a dick.”
“Language,” Smith says, but it’s an aside scolding. Artemis groans. “Miss Crock, as long as you wear that uniform, you will treat everyone else who does as an equal. I do not want to punish you, but you are leaving me little choice.”
Artemis closes her eyes and breathes in deeply through her nose. Zatanna has taught her about how to keep calm in the face of total temper disaster, and when she actually feels like dropping her dignity and pride and trying it, it’s been known to work. Her anger-heated face starts to feel like it’s cooling off.
“Mr. Smith,” she finally says with every bone of calmness in her body (which number very few). “He was antagonizing his sister, and when I told him to back off, he shoved me and kept calling me an ‘it.’ It was basically self-defense and honestly? He should be the one sitting in here; not me.” If she was smart, if she was a fan of surviving, she would stop there, but... “And maybe if I didn’t have to wear this skirt, we wouldn’t have to worry about my knees having to be magnetically drawn together.”
Smith frowns deeply at her and leans back in his chair.
“Plus, my grades are fine, and it’s not like I’m...” Her mouth gets away from her before she can stop it, but she’d known she was done for the second she’d belted out the skirt comment; she might as well take this all the way. “Smoking pot while driving without a license through an orphanage.” She claps her mouth shut and flushes. “Uh. Sir.”
It’s the end. Smith might be the most average-looking man she’s ever seen walking the Earth, with his bald head and brown eyes and gray suit and red tie and monotonous speech, but even she can tell when she’s just managed to tick someone off. Years spent learning when to duck have heightened her awareness to superhuman levels.
At least that’s one talent in her favor. Besides tripping into oncoming traffic and not dying.
“I elect to ignore most of that,” Smith finally declares flatly, “but I’d like to remind you that your scholarship is not to be squandered. Detention, Miss Crock; Friday after school.”
Artemis lets out an indignant noise even though she doesn’t know what she’d been expecting, if not that.
“Detention?! Come on—”
“And I’ll be contacting your mother personally,” Smith talks over her—the nail in her already too-tight coffin. “You should be grateful that that’s all. Out now; you have classes to attend.”
Artemis can’t help rolling her eyes. It’s a better option than cussing out the principal of her school. She grabs her ratty messenger bag from the floor, slinging it over her shoulder until it thumps against her thigh.
She nods with a stiff simper to Smith and stomps out. Her Doc Martens cause a noticeable ruckus that catches the startled attention of the secretary.
As Artemis walks as slowly as possible down the hall, past the indoor lockers (and what is her life now, anyway, an 80s movie?), she decides that she is absolutely not sorry.
Billy Hayes is a first-class creep and no amount of dime-a-dozen platitudes Smith tries to hand her is going to change that. He spends the majority of his time bullying and belittling the underclassmen out of their livelihood and lunch money, and to be honest, Artemis would punch him in the face a thousand more times if it wouldn’t shred her knuckles.
She grinds her teeth and kicks a locker in passing.
“Excuse me, did you just damage school property?” a voice croons from behind her.
“Excuse me, should I damage you next?” she shoots back with acute timing. She drops her head back, stopping in her tracks. “Down, Grayson; I’m on my way from Smith’s and I don’t want this to end with me having to go back for killing a hall monitor.”
At the sound of an annoying cackle, she turns. Dick Grayson, pint-sized and indisputably evil, every gelled black hair combed immaculately into place, every inch of his navy uniform blazer and gray slacks and burgundy tie pressed to perfection, beams toothily back at her.
Here’s the lowdown on this twerp. Dick Grayson: adopted son of the school’s founder and biggest donor, who is also the richest man in the country. Valedictorian in the making, hall monitor, amateur hacker, vice president of the computer club, captain of the mathletes. Classification: total maniac.
“Don’t quote me on this, but I think the kind of detention you’d get for that would be a nice cozy detention facility.” He sounds incredibly mirthful, as is his wont. “You’d look good in orange; it’d really bring out your eyes.”
“Okay, the mood I’m in right now?” Artemis barks. “Not conducive to your survival, so scram.”
“Death threats against a school official,” Dick muses, tapping his chin with one limber finger. “I’m about 80% sure that’s against the rules clearly outlined in the Gotham Academy Student Handbook, sixteenth edition, page two, section eleven.” He grins wickedly at her and she’s surprised his pearly teeth don’t glint. “This does not sound good for you.”
“Ugh, go crawl into a hole!” Artemis shouts, throwing her arms in the air and pivoting around on her heel to stride onwards.
“That was a pretty terrible comeback, even by your standards!” Dick calls after her, and the air tightens with the presence of his smug smirk. “See you at lunch?”
Artemis salutes him over her shoulder, rounds a corner, and silently thanks whatever powers that be that she’s managed to wriggle out of that close brush with insanity.
She can have best friends who she spends half of her time wanting to strangle with her bare hands, right? Yeah, that’s probably fine. Preferable, even. Because then you know that they’re your best friends, because you haven’t strangled them yet. And speaking of strangulation: she’s pretty sure she just missed a first-day quiz on the French Revolution.
Kind of an odd dot to connect, logically speaking. At least now she knows what kind of grade she would’ve gotten on it.
This is going to be a long, long school year.
CROCK, ARTEMIS L — 2011-2012 CLASS SCHEDULE
- HOMEROOM — WAYNE, B — ROOM 2201. (7:30 AM - 7:45 AM)
- ALGEBRA II — ROQUETTE, S — ROOM 2407. (8:00 AM - 8:50 AM)
- WORLD CIVICS — CARR, L — ROOM 1104. (8:55 AM - 9:45 AM)
- CHEMISTRY — JORDAN, H — SCIENCE ANNEX, LAB 2. (9:50 AM - 10:40 AM)
BREAK: 10:40 AM - 10:50 AM
- ENGLISH — KENT, C — ROOM 2109. (10:55 AM - 11:45 AM)
LUNCH: 11:45 AM - 12:20 PM
- FRENCH III — PRINCE, D — ROOM 1205. (12:25 PM - 1:15 PM)
- PHYSICAL ED — THAL, S — GYMNASIUM. (1:20 PM - 2:15 PM)
- INDEPENDENT STUDY — WAYNE, B — ROOM 2201. (2:20 PM - 3:00 PM)
Artemis should probably pause to tell you a little about her school life. It’s boring, and dumb, and her two best friends are her only salvation (half of the time, when the aforementioned strangulation is not being tempted).
She’s a junior now. She’d only transferred to Gotham Academy her sophomore year, after her mother decided that learning to throw rocks at windows at Gotham North wasn’t a very productive activity and called in a few “favors” with her “connections,” which is extremely suspicious if you ask Artemis, since she hasn’t known her mother to do anything social or work-related in her life, but maybe that’s what the connections are for? These are the reasons that her theory that her mother is secretly a spy or assassin or something isn’t really that far-fetched.
The point is, after looking over her transcripts (which weren’t that great anyway), her mom’s old pal Bruce freaking Wayne apparently decided that Artemis was a worthy candidate for his special private school for every loaded trust fund baby in the state, had some kind of synaptic breakdown, and selected the incredibly stingy application she’d been strong-armed by her mom (this expression is not figurative) into sending in, and now here she is, going to Gotham Academy, disappointing poor Bruce Wayne, whom she’s never met, by punching jerks in the face.
After homeroom, which she missed today because her bus had missed her, she has Algebra II first thing in the morning, then World Civics (which she was on her way to when her knuckles conveniently found Billy Hayes's nose), Chemistry (ugh), English, lunch (cue the angel choir), French III, P.E. (which is incredibly stupid in her opinion, because nobody should exercise right after they eat, and she hates having to play badminton against water polo MVP Kal Durham for forty stupid minutes because she always gets distracted by his arms and embarrasses herself), and finally, Independent Study. She and Dick and Zatanna have done actual work in there maybe one time; mostly Zatanna stares at this wiry freshman named Billy Batson—God, this school is infested with Billys—who zips his hoodie all the way up to his neck and plays the harmonica and generally reeks of nerd.
Seriously, don’t ask Artemis. She really doesn’t get it either.
She’s not in any clubs, but Dick has been trying with all his might to recruit her to the Computer Club, like he does to everyone he passes in the hallways, and the mathletes, like he does to every homeless guy he passes on the subway. Artemis doesn’t even know what they do in the Computer Club except hack the school website so it plays the theme from Ghostbusters, or mess with the student handbook so that everyone’s phone number is the sex hotline. Sometimes they play online MMOs, too—Dick is very proud of his level two-bazillion elf knight sorcerer dragon thing; Artemis does not care—and write programs in that neon green text on black screens like spies.
Like, honestly, Artemis wouldn’t trust Dick Grayson as far as she could throw him, which is pretty far because he’s puny. Well, she wouldn’t trust anyone at this school, except maybe Billy Hayes, who she can always trust to be a douchebag—but Dick Grayson is at the top of her list of people who she cannot trust, because one time he put semi-permanent green hair dye in her shampoo bottle.
She definitely missed her quiz. They’re starting experiments in her Chem class next week. She memorizes where the fire exits and the chemical shower are the second she learns this information.
What? So sometimes she accidentally sets things on fire. Everyone does. It’s not like anybody’s died or anything, so... irrelevant.
ENGLISH with Mr. Clark Kent (10:55 AM - 11:45 AM, Rm. 2019)
READING LIST: Fall Semester
- The Old Man and the Sea—Ernest Hemingway
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Mark Twain
- The Catcher in the Rye—J.D. Salinger
- Selections from Dubliners—James Joyce
- Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
It’s raining at lunchtime. Of course. Only one day into the school year and the universe is already weeping for her.
Zatanna is easy to find—she’s seated with her knees primly together at the foot of the left lion statue flanking the staircase to the library, the same place they’ve been eating lunch since last September. Artemis weaves through a chattering crowd of her peers and leaps over a prostrate stoner to reach her goal (and really, the jump is perfect; she wants a medal for that).
Zatanna Zatara: Just about the weirdest name Artemis has ever heard, but Zatanna’s family is Italian or something, so that’s probably why. Drama club secretary who makes petty crime pretty crime—seriously, she’s got the whole fair skin, hair black as ebony thing going; she’s basically Snow White, except she never sleeps. Artemis is almost certain that she owns every conceivable article of designer clothing sold anywhere in the city, or at least she manages to make it look like she does—and she does something just slightly different with her hair every day. Today, it’s pinned in a smooth ballet bun without a single inconsistency, and her black leather boots make even the drab school uniform of a navy blazer and gray pleated skirt and burgundy knee-highs look like the chicest thing on the planet.
If you ask Artemis, the only explanation for how Zatanna looks so perfect all the time is that she has to be a magician or something. Oh, wait, that’s because she is. When she’s not flagrantly defying her curfew or picking locks for fun, she teaches herself how to pull quarters out of cute boys’ ears. Apparently they’re super into that.
Zatanna’s father is old money so Zatanna is filthy stinking rich, basically, but that’s probably the only reason the school hasn’t expelled her yet. Last year she like, broke into Principal Smith’s office for kicks and saw him without his pants on, for some reason, but he had reacted with shocking apathy—like he always does. The most Zatanna had seen in there had been a bunch of Christmas and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa paraphernalia, which had apparently been against the school’s “no-bias” policy, and—Artemis doesn’t really know how the story had ended but Smith hadn’t been fired and Zatanna hadn’t been expelled so she’s 100% sure that Zatanna worked out some kind of mob deal with the guy and now the Zatara family rules the school from underground.
“You’re alive,” Zatanna exclaims when Artemis staggers to a halt after nearly being trampled by a herd of hacky-sackers. There’s an apple clenched between her teeth that muffles her words slightly. “I mean, not that Smith is a danger to society or anything, but when you didn’t come back in time for the quiz I started to think maybe that dungeon Dick says they built in the 1800s is totally real. Swiss roll?”
Artemis huffs because the school hadn’t even existed in the 1800s; it had just been, like, a cow field, so Dick is full of it, surprising no one. She plucks the proffered Swiss roll from Zatanna’s fingers. “Smith was fine. He just monotoned at me and gave me detention; I swear, the guy’s like a robot.”
“Maybe he’s in disguise,” Zatanna says with a completely straight face. “Have you seen Dick?”
“Yeah, he practically arrested me in the hall this morning,” Artemis replies. She slings her messenger bag across the lion’s shoulders before plopping down beside Zatanna with a loud sigh. Their shoulders bump together. “Your boyfriend’s weird.”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” Zatanna sings back automatically. “He’s a boy, and he’s a friend, but he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Yeah, sure, okay. Tell that to the text you sent me last night.” Artemis puts on a higher, derisive voice. “‘Hey, milord; you want to light some illegal fireworks in the junkyard tonight?’”
Zatanna giggles maniacally. “That could’ve been for anyone.”
“But definitely not for me, unless I became royal overnight.” Artemis snorts, pulling open the grubby lunch bag she’d grabbed from her locker. “And a guy. Overnight.”
“You’re just jealous,” Zatanna says airily, smoothing back her hair. She glances down at Artemis’s bag and wrinkles her nose. “What’ve you got in there, nuclear waste? My cousin’ll take it, if you don’t want it. He hasn't even stopped eating since he got off the plane; I swear, he's like a garbage disposal."
Artemis is about to fire back a retort, but then the meaning of the words catches up to her. She looks over at Zatanna with a surprised expression.
“Cousin?” she repeats dumbfoundedly.
Zatanna takes a loud bite out of her apple, rummaging around in her purse for either lipstick or pepper spray; Artemis is never sure. She nods, making an “mmhmm” sound, and beams triumphantly upon finding and holding up a compact.
“What cousin?” Artemis prods her when she doesn’t elaborate.
“Oh,” Zatanna says. She waves her hand around dismissively, chewing on her apple and touching up her lipstick. “My super lame cousin, the one I told you about? The grumpy country kid whose parents decided to ship him out here to get a taste of big city life before he goes to college? The one who can like, milk a cow one-handed and thinks ‘party’ means ‘especially big corn maze?’”
Artemis stares at her.
“Uh,” she grunts back after a second. “I had totally forgotten about him, actually. What’s his name again?”
“Oh my God, please don't make me say it.” Zatanna giggles again, all in her nose, a bubbly sound. “Okay. Okay. Are you ready for this?” She starts to lean in closer with each subsequent word, sounding increasingly tried for composure. “Wallace... Rudolph... West.”
Artemis doesn’t even bother trying to hold in her laughter.
“Don’t tell me,” she starts say, brightening, but Zatanna nods with a pointed grin.
“And yes, ladies and gentlemen, he goes,” she chortles out, gesturing grandly to the sky as though picturing a marquee, “by Wally.”
Artemis loses it.
As it turns out, making fun of Zatanna’s mysterious bumpkin cousin is way more stress-relieving than she would have thought. There’s a part of her that feels a little bad for him—like, she doesn’t even know what he looks like and they’ve never even met or anything and she’s already riffing on him—but the part of her that’s laughing is bigger.
That’s how Dick finds them about ten minutes later, both shrieking with amusement and doubled-over and clutching their stomachs.
“Do I even want to know?” he demands lightly, surveying them with arms akimbo.
Artemis recovers first, as always.
“It’s Zee’s cousin.” She snorts, really loudly, garnering a few shocked stares. “His—his name—”
“I find it pretty ironic that you guys, of all people, are laughing over names,” Dick tells them pointedly. “But okay. I’ll bite. What is it, like, Boris or something?”
Zatanna shakes her head, biting her lips and making stifled noises. She looks over at Artemis. Artemis looks back at her, then to Dick. Her cheeks hurt.
“No,” Artemis replies. “It’s W—haha—Wally West.” She guffaws. “Wally R-Rudolph West.”
Dick, rather than sharing in their (admittedly over-the-top) amusement, looks impressed, nodding slowly.
“Not bad,” he comments before loping fully up to join them, squeezing his spindly butt next to Zatanna, his legs dangling off the edge of the statue base. “So you’re sure that this is a real person and not a character from Archie?”
Zatanna busts out a laugh at that one, much louder than Artemis’s brief chuckle.
“Like, eighty-percent sure,” she says. Her voice is high and breathless from all of the giggling. “Okay... composure time.”
She breathes in deeply and moves an open hand from her forehead down to her chin, and her grin vanishes in favor of a calm and collected stare. Like Artemis said—drama club.
“Seriously though,” Zatanna continues after her miraculous mood change. “Speaking of the clown, he’s trying out for track tomorrow and he won’t shut up unless I go watch him, so you guys are going to have to come and keep me sane or our friendships are void.” She shudders. “God, I’m going to have to watch like twenty skinny guys run around a circle in tight shorts.”
“Wow, torture,” Artemis deadpans, knowing full well how much Zatanna’s going to be inappropriately ogling said skinny guys and their bulge-showing shorts. “Yeah, whatever; I’m in.”
“Sign me up, too,” Dick chimes in. “Like I’d ever miss a chance to watch Coach Garrick scare the pants off a bunch of new recruits.”
Artemis snorts. Coach Garrick is this ancient dude who’s been coaching track since like, basically World War II, when everyone had been running barefoot because rubber was being rationed. He tells stories about it a lot. Zatanna fell asleep during one of them once so he doesn’t really like Zatanna very much.
The school always gives him a standard-issue megaphone for the P.E. classes he teaches, even though he has never needed it, because his voice has all of the strength and power of a particularly angry foghorn. He wears this really dorky red shirt with a yellow lightning bolt on it from Gotham Academy’s Cold War-era days, back when they’d been the Thunderbolts instead of the less cool-sounding Fruitbats (she is not joking; their football team is the Fruitbats) and is only ever nice to people who aren’t on the track team. There’s a popular story about how, one time, he thought aliens were invading, so he wore a tin hat—no, tin foil; she always forgets the foil part—for about six days until Principal Smith (who had looked exactly the same, if the pictures are anything to go by, so maybe he is a robot) staged an intervention.
Artemis doubts the people trying out for the track team would have their pants scared off of them if they knew the tin foil hat story.
“Oh!” Zatanna exclaims, flapping one hand around with alacrity like she has to work to get Artemis’s and Dick’s attention. “And guess what; guess what!”
Dick gasps. “The island is purgatory?”
Zatanna swats him on the shoulder.
“No, you enormous nerd.” She sits up a little straighter, looking proud. “I’m on the Homecoming Committee this year.”
She’s clearly expecting applause or a fanfare or something—but whatever she’s expecting is definitely not what she gets, going by her offended expression after Artemis and Dick open their mouths.
“I’m so sorry,” Artemis says flatly.
“Yeah, rest in peace,” Dick agrees.
Zatanna blows out an annoyed breath and shoves the both of them outwards, vaulting herself off of the statue and landing perfectly on the ground with a flutter of her skirt. She turns to face them, grabs her leather backpack off of the stone rostrum, and purses her lips up at them when she slings it over her shoulders.
“I don’t know if you realize,” she says with a raised eyebrow, “but me being on the Homecoming Committee basically means you are both going to indirectly be in the same position. So you’d better be ready to brainstorm by Thursday.”
“You’re pathological,” Artemis tells her. She’s not even shocked anymore, though.
Zatanna tilts her chin as though Artemis has just dished out something flattering.
“I know,” she says. “Bell’s in five. Toodle-oo, terrible friends!”
“Toodle-oo, reformed criminal!” Dick sings after her as she disappears across the quad with a wave. He turns to Artemis, grinning smugly. “So, now that we’re alone—”
“Bye,” Artemis says.
The rest of the day goes okay, by her standards. They don’t even do anything in P.E. except play the name game, which Artemis does not pay attention to—Zatanna’s there, and Kal Durham’s there, and they’re the only ones who matter.
Oh, wait, Kal!
All right, so don’t tell anyone this, but Artemis’s crush on Kal Durham is at an extremely embarrassing level. Kal is the water polo MVP and has been since freshman year, and he’s a senior now and he doesn’t even need to take P.E. anymore, but he does it for fun so he can stay in shape. Like swimming a hundred laps before sunrise isn’t good exercise, or something.
He’s a head taller than she is, to make matters worse. Combined with the fact that, for a dude who spends the majority of his time in 78-degree water, he’s unfairly hot (his cheekbones, that kind of bemused smile, his shoulders—Artemis has a Thing for shoulders—should be impounded, or something; they are so attractive), he had basically slain her within twenty minutes of transfer orientation.
He’d been one of the student liaisons. Apparently he’s super into “serving the community” and “donating his allowance to protect the whales” and stuff. And he has a great butt.
So anyway, yeah, Artemis doesn’t remember anything about her first P.E. session of the semester except for Kal’s gorgeously apathetic face staring unfailingly at Miss Thal throughout her barking lecture about how nobody gets any special treatment, not even the quarterbacks, except girls sometimes, depending on whether their special treatment needs to be on a monthly schedule or not.
Miss Thal used to be in the Air Force, but then she decided it was too boring. Artemis has no idea how she got out of there but apparently they invite her back at least once a year, so she must have either been really scary or really amazing or both.
Miss Thal might be Artemis’s favorite teacher in the universe.
They don’t have Independent Study, since it’s their first day and Independent Study is taught in the same room and by the same teacher as Homeroom. Artemis’s Homeroom teacher this year, it turns out, happens to be Mr. Wayne. If she had known this, she would have properly followed the self-defenestration protocols immediately, but she hadn’t known because she hadn’t been there and now she’s getting the 411 on exactly how doomed she is this year from Zatanna, as they meander along the blocks toward Artemis’s house together.
(Dick always walks home in the opposite direction of whichever way she and Zatanna walk, for some reason, even though he and Zatanna live in the same neighborhood because hey, rich; nobody actually even knows where he goes. He has Mathletes on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, though. But like, Artemis doesn’t even know why Zatanna walks with her, because Zatanna’s dad will basically pick her up anywhere in the city if she calls him, so she can go wherever she pleases.)
“You can’t be serious,” Artemis is in the middle of hissing, throwing her hands around like it will somehow knock Mr. Wayne out of existence. “Bruce Wayne isn’t a teacher! He’s just some rich guy!”
“Well, nowadays, as long as you’re the second one, you can be the first,” Zatanna tells her, hooking her thumbs loosely into the straps of her backpack. “I don’t know; he seemed kind of... cool, actually. Like he didn’t care what we did as long as we paid attention when he told us to, and as long as we didn’t die when he was supposed to be watching us.”
Artemis is in full-tilt panic. She can’t have to face Bruce Wayne on a daily basis, for Pete’s sake; he’s the reason she’s there. He’s a connection! Wasn’t she just disappointing him this morning?
“Are you okay?” Zatanna nudges her lightly. “Did Jade swallow another sock?”
Artemis shakes her head. “No. She’s been really good lately, actually. I’m just still trying to get over the Bruce Wayne hurdle.”
“Why do you care so much?” Zatanna asks. “Haven’t you only talked to him once, or something? Do you even know what he looks like?”
Yes—terror-inducing authority with a bad haircut. A little like Dick, but way scarier—and it’s Dick.
“I guess not,” Artemis mumbles.
“Look, just stop freaking out; it’s only for homeroom and independent study,” Zatanna tries to soothe her. “Artemis. All he’s going to be doing is literally just reading our names out loud off of a list. And giving us memos when somebody gets pink eye. It’s not the end of the world.” As though it settles the matter, she finishes, “The Cousin has Ms. Prince for homeroom.”
That’s pretty bad. For him, anyway. Ms. Prince teaches Artemis’s French class and she only smiles if you’ve earned it, probably by climbing Mount Everest and then writing a detailed diary of it in Ancient Greek. Artemis’s head is filled with visions of Zatanna’s nondescript cousin disrespecting Ms. Prince and finding himself crammed into the wastebasket. He wouldn’t be the first.
She’s never had Ms. Prince for homeroom, but she’s heard legends. Legends of trying to make them run a mile in the twenty-minute class time allotted, or teaching them knot-tying by binding their hands and refusing to help them free themselves—one time, a senior in Artemis’s Geometry class had his wrists tied behind his back all day and got so stressed out about trying to get loose that he cried a little.
She would honestly prefer that to having Bruce Wayne for a teacher.
She and Zatanna spend the rest of the walk talking about their World Civics syllabus—seven reports throughout the first semester alone, plus having to apparently build a guillotine out of toothpicks? Mr. Carr is a weirdo—and how nice Kal Durham’s butt is. Well, the second contribution is mostly Artemis’s doing, because Zatanna has no taste, so Zatanna counters with something that throws Artemis off-kilter a little.
“I think you’re gonna like Wally,” she says simply as they pass the donut shop.
Artemis almost trips.
“Uh, why?” She raises an eyebrow. “Do I look like somebody who has a special interest in riding shotgun on a tractor?”
Zatanna blurts out a laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Well, yes, of course.” She snickers. “But seriously—I just have a gut feeling you guys are going to have a nice... rapport. You know? I mean, he could keep up with you, because he’s not dumb, or anything; he just doesn’t have any common sense—and he’s so stubborn it gives me a headache just watching him start to get in an argument with someone.” She gives Artemis a deliberate look. “Sound familiar?”
“Are you seriously trying to set me up with your cousin from Kansas?” Artemis exclaims. “I don’t even know what he looks like. The only thing I know about him is that he’s really easy to make fun of, which... isn’t exactly doing him any favors.”
“Hey, don’t be so quick to judge,” Zatanna defends, and Artemis gives her a flat look. “Even though he is really easy to make fun of.”
Artemis snorts, shoving at Zatanna’s shoulder lightly just as they reach her apartment building. Artemis’s, not Zatanna’s. Zatanna has a mansion on the other side of town.
“Well, back to mission control,” Artemis deadpans with her hands on her hips. “See you tomorrow?”
“Barring nuclear armageddon, yes,” Zatanna replies. She gives Artemis a languid salute and strolls away, to make it look like she’s actually going to walk somewhere even though Artemis knows she’s just going to go around the corner and call her dad to come pick her up in his Lamborghini.
(Okay, so Zatanna’s dad drives a black ’65 Studebaker—whatever. If they start out rich, they’ve gotta go all-out, in Artemis’s imagination.)
Artemis’s family isn’t like Zatanna’s or Dick’s, with their sprawling mansions and witty butlers—they’ve has lived in the same apartment for as long as she can remember. It’s not huge or anything, but it’s not exactly cramped, either—it’s a nice balance. Modest. She gets the bedroom to herself now that Jade’s gone.
Jade her sister; not Jade her neurotic, twenty-pound cat. You know—Jade, her sister, who ran away from home when she was sixteen and Artemis was thirteen. Jade, who is terrible.
Artemis has plenty of distinct memories of Jade, but the only one that matters anymore is the one of sitting on her bed and silently, knowingly, watching Jade pack her toothpaste and favorite hoodie into a duffel bag. Every photograph and birthday card had been left behind—Artemis had told her mother that she’d thrown them out, but they’re under her mattress, right next to her secret stash of Butterfingers.
It’s just Artemis and her mom now. Her dad had split about three years before Jade, and they’re probably on opposite sides of the globe by now. Artemis sometimes wonders who’s going to be next—either her mom or her, and she’s not going to put money on herself, since she doesn’t know how well she’d handle being homeless.
She doesn’t care that Jade and her dad are gone. She hates them both. So it’s no problem. She gets a whole closet to herself and she doesn’t have to share the bathroom with anyone. Except Jade, who has her litterbox in there.
Jade the cat. Not Jade the estranged sister.
Artemis takes the stairs up to the third floor, where their apartment is, two at a time, whistling the theme song to that campy 80s show she’d watched at Zatanna’s the night before. Zatanna has a very weird fixation with the 80s. Artemis suspects the tight pants.
She passes Mr. Nigma, this whacky skinny guy with gapped teeth who used to freak her out when she was six because he would always demand to know why a raven was like a writing desk, which Artemis couldn’t help him with because obviously those two things were nothing alike, but then Jade read Alice in Wonderland to her and it all sort of made sense. Except for the fact that Mr. Nigma is completely insane.
Whatever. He’s not as bad as Mr. Mallah, who collects guns and almost turned Artemis into Swiss cheese when she tripped too loudly outside his door one time. He wears a beret a lot and always looks homicidal. Her mom says he used to be an assassin and is only violently paranoid because of his rigorous training in the Bialyan Desert, so leave the poor man alone, please, Artemis. Personal demons to fight, etc., etc.
Artemis thinks he’s just crazy.
She tries to close the door extra softly behind her because whenever she waltzes on in and lets it slam, her mom gets really mad, chastising her for disturbing the neighbors and having no grace. Artemis doesn’t care; it’s just a door. And the noise only lasts for about a second, which is infinitesimal compared to the amount of time the universe has existed.
Her mom does not think that this is a valid argument.
“I’m home,” she calls out, dropping her bag on the floor with a thud and hunkering down to untie her Doc Martens.
“How was your first day?” Artemis freezes—the question is harmless, but there’s something in her mom’s aggressively omniscient tone that, even from across the apartment, makes her blood go cold.
Oh, right. Principal Smith. I am going to call your mother. She had managed to forget.
“It was, uh, good,” she stammers out like there’s still a chance she can clumsily lie her way out of this. She tugs one of her boots off and sets it aside before going to work on the other one, extra slowly, so that when her mom inevitably comes rolling in for the hostile interrogation, she’ll have something to occupy herself with.
Just as predicted, Artemis can hear the movement of her mom’s wheelchair rumbling from the hallway. She keeps her eyes focused staunchly on her neon green laces as, in her peripheral, Paula Nguyen appears.
Artemis's mom is really pretty. She was definitely a looker in her youth and she aged really gracefully—she has high cheekbones and short black hair and very discerning gray eyes and slender wrists. Artemis wishes that she could have dipped her toes in her mom’s end of the gene pool, but—well, suffice to say, Jade had gotten all of the nice things.
Artemis had been dunked unforgivingly in Crock waters, so she has her dad’s angular jaw and blonde hair and big feet and talent for looking extremely angry and threatening just by twitching her face the right way.
Paula had been in a car accident when Artemis was eight and she’s paralyzed from the waist-down now, but she still always looks taller and tougher than anyone else in any given room in Artemis’s eyes. Which is perhaps why, when the situation calls for it, Artemis is absolutely terrified of her mom.
She pulls at her laces more tightly.
“That is not what I heard,” Paula says sternly. “Do you plan on telling me the truth, or should I tell it to you myself?”
Artemis grimaces. Her mom’s light Vietnamese accent can either sound very poised, very comforting, or very threatening.
“Uh...” Artemis finally surrenders on the Doc Marten front and pulls off the shoe, setting it carefully down next to the other one, as opposed to her usual habit of tossing them haphazardly wherever there’s room for them. She’s hoping this kind of consideration might alleviate her sentence. “No, I mean; you can go.”
Paula sighs through her nose and pinches the bridge of it, her thin eyebrows knitting together. Artemis puts on her best innocent grin.
“You are back at school for six and a half hours,” Paula says calmly (but it still sounds deadly), “and already Principal Smith is telephoning me at lunch time to inform me that you have been called into his office. You have disobeyed the agreement we made last night that you would not provoke anymore fights at school—you—” She breaks into a mutinous whisper in her native tongue. “Do you even care what I'm saying?”
“Sorry,” Artemis mutters as placatingly as she can. Her mom is the only person on Earth who can make her lower her voice. And speak Vietnamese, but whatever. She rushes back into English as quickly as she can. “But Mom, what—what do you expect me to do? Let a bunch of creeps push everyone around? I can’t.”
“That is not the issue!” Paula tells her fiercely, raising a finger and pointing it at Artemis’s nose, making her straighten. “You must learn to control yourself, Artemis! You cannot simply solve all of your problems with violence and temper! Certainly not at a school that you are very lucky to be attending for so little money!”
Ugh. Here we go.
“Oh, so I’m lucky to be going to Gotham Academy? I’m lucky to spend every day surrounded by a bunch of snobs who look at me like I’m a stain? I’m lucky to have everybody tell me to start acting passive and let other people get hurt and insulted and made fun of every day just because they’re not cool enough to be treated like human beings?” Artemis stands, furiously, not even caring about the way her heart is hammering at the fact that she’s talking back to her mother. “You’re right, Mom. I should be more grateful for the privileges I have.”
“Stop it,” Paula orders her sharply, but it doesn’t do much more than make Artemis’s blood pressure give a short, noticeable spike. “Don’t you dare use that sarcasm on me.”
Oh, right. What else is she supposed to use? A grenade?
“Sorry, Mom,” she grits out. Paula narrows her eyes up at her.
“Tell me exactly what happened,” she orders. “Every detail. Now.”
“Oh, what, so you can give me more crap for protecting the innocent?” Artemis snarls, and in her mind she’s already twenty steps away from this conversation, from the way her heart is legitimately racing with the adrenaline of blind and frivolous rage. “No thanks, Mom.”
They aren’t always like this. The majority of the time, Artemis’s relationship with her mother is very loving. It’s just, you know, the times when Paula decides she knows how Artemis should be running her own life that Artemis loses a lot of her usual affection and maturity.
“Who taught you to be so disrespectful?” Paula demands sharply, pointing a finger at Artemis’s chest. Artemis straightens, but her glare doesn’t subside. “Certainly not me.”
“Must’ve been Dad, then,” Artemis hisses venomously before she can stop herself. Paula recoils as though she’s been stung. “If I make a blood oath not to do the right thing anymore, can I go to my room? I’ve got homework.”
“No, you cannot,” Paula snaps. “You will sit right here until you’re done telling me what happened.”
“What for?” Artemis throws her hands in the air. “You already heard it from Smith, didn’t you? I promise it’s way more boring the second time around, Mom; please, just—” She huffs, pushing out an angry breath, and drops her arms to her sides again. “Just let it go. Okay? Just this one time.”
“I cannot let it go anymore, Artemis! Don’t you understand?” Paula almost shouts with a strikingly similar series of frustrated gestures. “This has gone on for too long! I am sick of hearing that my daughter is fighting—sick of hearing about her bruises, her bloody noses. That is no way for you to behave.”
“Give me a break!” Artemis groans. “What do I look like, Mom, a duchess? I can behave however I want; I’m an urban teen and this is the twenty-first century! I could become a vigilante and fight crime on Fridays if I felt like it!”
“That’s not funny,” Paula mutters with another pointed finger. “Now is not the time to joke. Go into the living room so we can have a talk.”
“Yeah,” Artemis scoffs, and it takes her about six steps before she realizes she’s halfway down the hallway on her way to her room. “About how much of a letdown I am; great. I think I’m gonna have to take a raincheck.”
“Artemis Lian!” Paula calls out furiously from behind her, but Artemis doesn’t stop, even though she can hear wheels starting after her, even though the combination of her first and middle name usually bodes grimly. “Artemis, wait!”
Artemis does not wait. She strides into her room and slams the door behind her and then she drops her bag to the floor, digs out her Chemistry textbook, and shoves it against the door so that if her mom tries to open it, she’ll have to do so with the inhuman strength required to exert force against any kind of science book.
And then she slumps against the wall and starts working on not crying. And it’s pathetic, because seriously, who cries after winning a fight with her Mom? Who cries after getting the last word? Who cries at the end of a day spent beating up a big beefy jerkazoid who deserved it? Not Artemis Crock.
Except Artemis Crock totally does.
Artemis sniffles noisily and tugs her sleeve up with her fingers, wiping at her eyes with the back of her wrist. It feels stupid and pointless, just the way it always does—her dad used to stare down her watering eyes and sneer and say that crying never got anything done, and crying never made anybody look like anything but a sniveling embarrassment with no guts.
Artemis had only been about three at the time, so she obviously hadn’t known what “snivel” or “embarrassment” meant, and the only guts she’d been aware of were the ones that her stomach was made out of, so she hadn’t really grasped the exact meaning, but the derision in her dad’s voice had hinted at how negative of a sentiment it was.
She gulps down a sob and tries to force herself to be quiet and get a grip—if she listens, she can hear her mom rumbling around in the kitchen, turning on the gas stove, running the tap (probably making tea); and she can hear the steady hum of traffic through her open window, and the loud burbling of the ratty pigeons that like to shuffle around on her fire escape, and somebody taking out their trash, dropping it into the metal can with a loud CLUNK.
She swipes at her running nose and pushes some loose hair out of her face before sighing, deciding that yeah, crying is useless, and lurching to her feet.
She picks up her bag by the strap and flings it onto her single bed against the wall, where it disrupts the immaculately tucked-in sheets—obviously her mom’s been in to make her bed, the same way she is every afternoon. Artemis’s whole room is pretty bare, save for a kung fu movie poster on the wall next to her dresser. Most of the more decorative stuff had been Jade’s, before she’d split—her eyes dart over to the empty space against the right wall where Jade’s bed used to be, before Artemis had taken it apart one afternoon and hauled all of the parts down to the dumpster in the alleyway beside the apartment building.
Okay, so Artemis didn’t have the happiest upbringing in history. Whatever. She’s remarkably well-adjusted, honestly. Emotionally durable, physically capable, morally despic...able. Look, there are ables in there, and that’s what counts. Because getting into fistfights at school and crying alone in your room is what you do when you’re well-adjusted. She took Psych sophomore year; she knows this.
She shoulders off her blazer and half-hops to the bed as she tugs off her knee-highs, tossing everything into the pile of dirty laundry next to her empty hamper. With a final sigh, she topples back onto her bed, face-up, her legs flinging into the air from the impact.
She lies there for a while and works at reminding herself that her life really isn’t that terrible, that her mom is a perfectly nice person who just wants what’s best for her (even if what’s best for her is incredibly lame), that she only has five problems on her Chemistry worksheet, that it’ll start getting colder soon and she can start wearing tights instead of the stupid itchy schoolgirl socks, that they’ll have an archery unit in P.E. in December.
Then, one after the other, she remembers that she has detention on Friday, and Jade jumps up onto the bed and sits on her face.
...Jade the cat; not—never mind.
Artemis scrabbles at the twenty pounds of apathetic black cat currently splayed out over her nose and mouth, cursing and spluttering fur out. Jade is unfazed, grumbling slightly as Artemis hauls her off and drops her onto her pillow.
“Thanks,” Artemis deadpans, scowling.
Jade scowls back, as best a cat can scowl, anyway.
She had been a birthday present from Artemis’s mom two years ago, and Artemis is pretty sure she’s been gaining a pound and a half every week since. She’s nothing like the real Jade, the one Artemis remembers as being limber and quick-witted and hardly ever hungry, and perpetually energetic, but in a really dangerous way; the only quality that the cat shares with Actual Jade is her annoying aloofness. And tendency to aggressively scratch her way through existence (and the only tolerable parts of Artemis’s face).
Jade yowls obnoxiously at her and stretches, flopping down on one side so that she has the same approximate width and volume of the pillow on which she’s sprawled. There’s a single white spot on her chin (one of them, anyway) that is the only place she’ll ever let Artemis pet her without going into berserk battle mode.
“Yeah, well, my day wasn’t much better,” Artemis mutters, reaching up to pull her hair out of its braid. It’s still damp from her shower that morning. “What’re you griping about? I gave you like two bowls of food this morning.”
Jade growls mulishly and hops off of the bed—or, well, she sort of falls, crashing to the floor with a loud thud that Artemis is surprised doesn’t leave a crater—before shuffling, bowlegged, to the closed door.
“I am not catering to your whim right now, Jade; I’m trying to cope with my own problems.”
Artemis shakes out her hair and it barely tickles the top of her quilt. She releases a long, billowing breath before padding over to her dresser and pulling out her most “atrociously ratty” (Zatanna’s words; not hers) pair of sweatpants and tank top. She may as well be self-indulgent, since it’s all she has left now that her mom’s going to disown her.
And okay—to the universe’s credit, the next three hours before dinner pass in total undisrupted silence, especially after Jade recognizes that bugging Artemis is futile and just flakes out on the floor. Artemis sits cross-legged at her cramped, uneven desk with her neon green lava lamp on and chews her pencil until all of the yellow paint is gone, her bare feet stuck into the crooks of her bent knees, her hair piled on top of her head in the sloppiest excuse for a bun she’s ever dared let herself have. She only listens to her music with one earbud in, just in case she needs to hear an air raid siren or, more likely, the dulcet sound of her mom yelling at her to come out for dinner.
She stares, dumbfounded, at her Chemistry homework. She continues to be dumbfounded all through dinner, and all through washing the dishes, and all the way back to her swivel chair.
You know how, when bugs and fish die, they automatically go belly-up? That’s what happens to Artemis’s brain when she looks at Chemistry. Biology? Simple. Physics? Please. Chemistry? Direct her to the nearest sheer precipice.
She hears her mom call, from down the hallway, that she’s going to bed. The alarm clock on her bedside table ticks to 9:00 PM, Artemis groan-sobs and drops her forehead onto the blank paper in defeat, and then their doorbell buzzer goes off.
Artemis sits up so sharply that she bangs her head on the lamp and curses. Somehow, her mom hears it, and scolds her from beyond the closed door not to use such foul language and also to please go see who is at the door and to remember that if they ask for your wallet, just give it to them; do not put up a fight, because they do not carry around guns just to look pretty.
On the way to the front door, just to spite her, Artemis mutters under her breath the most colorful expletives she can think of, nudges an old family photo on the wall so that it’s crooked, jams her thumb onto the TALK button on the faded cream-colored intercom, and greets their potential guests with a courteous salutation of:
“We don’t want any.”
She releases the button and presses the LISTEN one now instead, tapping her foot impatiently. It takes a second for the mystery person to respond.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but is this not the residence of Paula Nguyen-Crock and Artemis Crock?”
Artemis frowns. She’s never heard that voice before. It’s female, and very official-sounding, and surprisingly patient.
Maybe it’s another one of her mom’s connections.
“You’re... not wrong,” Artemis replies, “but it’s kind of nine at night, and I don’t think we know you.”
This woman doesn’t sound like a gun-toting home invader. But this is Gotham City, so Artemis knows better than to assume any stranger is a fine, upstanding citizen. (She knows better than to assume her best friends are fine, upstanding citizens. Gotham life!)
“You may not, Miss Crock, but I assure you that your mother does.” There’s suddenly a scuffling noise, and a hiss of “Don’t do that,” and then a new voice, a male one, sounding both pompous and jolly at the same time, like some kind of ripoff of Robin Hood, pops up.
“Just bring Paula out here!” he exclaims. “We go way back; she’ll know me. Tell her that Oliver’s here!”
Artemis frowns. Oliver.
“Hey, Mom,” she calls over her shoulder with her thumb still on the TALK button. “Oliver Twist is here. He wants some more.”
“Funny,” deadpans the voice on the other end.
Artemis would retort, but she’s too shocked by the terrifying swiftness with which her mother appears in the entrance hall.
“Jeez, Mom,” she exclaims, but Paula has already wheeled forward, shoved Artemis aside, and slammed her first two fingers onto the TALK button.
“Oliver?” she says tentatively, as though it's a rock of a word that she doesn't want to get out. “What do you want?”
“Is Artemis still in the room?” the female voice asks, and Artemis bristles and opens her mouth, but Paula sends her a sharp look over her shoulder.
“Out,” she orders.
“What?!” Artemis exclaims hotly. “No way; they might be—”
“They are not dangerous,” Paula assures her with surprisingly placation. “But you will wait in your room until I call for you.” In a hush, with downcast eyes, she adds, “They are... related to your father.”
Okay. Artemis is definitely not going to hide in her room for this.
She bites her lip and pivots around on one foot, slinking down the hall until she’s out of sight, and stands in front of her bedroom door. She opens it, holds it that way for a few seconds, and closes it again, just so her mom will think she’s in there, before she creeps silently back the way she’d come, flattening herself against the wall and holding her breath.
“I’ve opened the door for you,” Paula says quietly into the intercom. Artemis gapes at nothing. Her mom never lets people come up unless they’re delivering a pizza (or collecting funds for animal shelters).
A minute or so passes, and then Artemis hears the door open. The shuffle of feet. The latch closing again.
“Paula,” the male voice declares, sounding comically choked up. “It’s so wonderful to see you.”
“You look good,” the female one adds. Artemis tries not to snort. Suck-ups.
“Thank you both,” Paula murmurs. “It has been a long time. What is this about?”
“What, is it so unbelievable that we just dropped by for a visit?” the man—Oliver; that’s right—exclaims.
“Yes,” Paula retorts instantly. “Considering your day job, yes.”
“Give it up, Ol—Your Majesty,” the female voice whispers. “We’re not here to beat around the bush.”
“That is a pleasant surprise coming from you, Dinah.”
Oliver. Dinah. Your Majesty. Breathe, Artemis.
“She’s been trying to teach me straightforwardness,” Oliver sighs. “Says it’ll help with the U.N., but I don’t buy it. As if they do anything but sleep during World Summits! Anyway, is there someplace we can sit down?”
“I am quite comfortable already,” Paula quips. Artemis bites her lip to keep from laughing. Burn, Oliver.
“We’re sorry to intrude so late, Paula,” Dinah murmurs sincerely. “But it’s important. It’s about Artemis.”
“If it is about Artemis, then she can come out of the hallway and join us,” Paula replies.
Yeah, Mom; stick it to—Wait.
“Uh,” Artemis says in response. Awkwardly, she peels herself away from the wall and leans around the corner, shuffling into the entrance room with her head sheepishly bowed.
Paula gives her a triumphant look, but Artemis doesn’t take much notice, instead deciding to evaluate the visitors. Her eyebrows almost shoot up.
The man, Oliver, has blond hair and crisp blue eyes and is dressed in a three-piece suit that reeks of expensive, with its brocade pine green vest and his lime-colored tie. The thing that catches her attention the most, though, even more than the silver pocket watch chain looping down from his breast pocket, is his ridiculous facial hair. It’s like Franz Ferdinand and Walter Raleigh decided to have lunch and this Oliver guy’s goatee is what came out of it.
His companion, the more serious-looking one by far—Dinah—has her lighter blonde hair pinned into a bun, and is dressed much more casually, in a pencil skirt and fishnets over tights and a pair of black ankle boots and a... leather jacket? Wow, okay. Hardcore. Artemis likes her already.
Wait a second. She definitely has an earpiece in. And she's wearing sunglasses that she doesn't seem to be in any hurry to take off. Now Artemis’s eyebrows do shoot up.
“Artemis!” Oliver is the first to greet her. “Yeesh, last I saw you, you were only about yea-high.”
He gestures, bending over slightly to align his flattened palm with his knee. Artemis smiles stiffly.“Uh, yeah, I had a growth spurt,” she mutters. “But I don’t remember you.” She glances at Dinah. “Either of you. So, uh, can we make this quick, because I’ve got a bus to catch in the morning and I should really finish my Chem—”
“This won’t take long,” Oliver says cheerfully.
“You may want to sit down,” Dinah tells her, all-business.
“I’m fine,” Artemis replies at the same time Paula tells them exactly the same thing.
Artemis glances over, surprised, but she feels an even bigger lurching feeling when she sees the look on Paula’s face: half-scared, and half-resigned, which, when combined, look worrisomely apologetic. She opens her mouth, concerned, and turns her head back, only to see that Oliver has taken a seat at the kitchen table and Dinah is standing dutifully behind him.
“Yeah, uh...” Artemis shakes her head like it’ll rattle out the unsettled feeling that just keeps growing. “SparkNotes version, then? Of whatever it is? Am I, like, under arrest?”
“Of course not!” Oliver slaps his palm on the table, making Artemis jump. “Take a seat, m’girl; really.”
Artemis narrows her eyes but carefully slides into the chair opposite Oliver’s. He beams.
She looks to Dinah. Already she knows that Dinah is the one to look to for explanations.
“Well, Artemis, what it boils down to is that we are here to tell you who you really are,” Dinah says, in a tone so official it makes Artemis worry that she’s secretly meeting the President, or James Bond, or something.
“A wizard?” Artemis hears herself ask. Nice, idiot. Making lame jokes in front of Might-Be-James-Bond. “Because, I gotta say, you guys are about five years overdue for the acceptance letter—”
“Oh, dash it, Dinah,” Oliver interjects with a wave of his hand. He looks Artemis in the eye and beams so that his moustache and goatee both bristle. “Yes, Artemis; we’re here to tell you who you really are, and—brace yourself, kiddo—that is...”
His voice starts to actually boom, and as he continues, he rises slightly higher and higher from his chair with each word.
“Artemis... Perdita... Lian... Cọp Cái Queen...”
He stands fully, throwing his arms out grandly, and finishes, “Princess... of... Vlatava!”
Right about where sirens start going off in Artemis’s head. Followed by “Ode to Joy.” And then the theme from “Ghostbusters.”
And then she starts shrieking with laughter.
Really stupid laughter. With snorts and everything.
Is this a joke?! This has to be a joke!
“It’s not a joke,” Dinah says firmly. Oh. Whoops. “Artemis, your father, Lawrence, is Oliver’s half-brother. By Vlatavan political standards, because you are his offspring, you are, and have been since birth, princess of the country.” She clears her throat. “And... all that that implies.”
“Meaning you are next in line to inherit the throne!” Oliver interjects with fervored gesticulations and unbridled enthusiasm. “How about that!”
Artemis almost falls out of her chair.
No, she actually does fall out of her chair. She is on the floor. Her butt hurts. It smells like Jade’s pee. Everything is spinning. Her mom’s asking if she’s all right.
“No!” she yells, spread-eagled on the floor and unable to move, staring at the ceiling in complete abject horror. “No, Mom, I’m not all right! Jesus!”
“I understand this is probably a very big shock—” Dinah is saying.
“—But really, it’s a gift!” Oliver interrupts. “Your Highness.”
“Of course, we expect you to treat this information with the utmost discretion and confidentiality...”
“I think I am going to have a glass of wine,” Paula says weakly.
I think I’m going to throw up, Artemis wants to shout, but all that comes out is an embarrassing squeak.
“Oh, mind if I have some of that, Paula?” Oliver asks. “Any for you, Di?”
“No, thanks, I’m on duty,” Dinah replies, and then, aside, to Artemis, “Royal bodyguard. Can’t drink while handling firearms. I’m sure you saw my Smith & Wesson. Beautiful, isn’t she? M&P 45. Here, look—”
And Artemis is not a sissy. Artemis doesn’t faint with shock or pass out from terror or anything like that, because she can freaking control herself.
She just goes to sleep, right there, in a matter of seconds, on her floor.
The tough way.
A Comprehensive (Updated) List of Artemis Crock’s Problems, In No Particular Order:
- She’s a princess now, apparently.
- Water polo MVP Kal Durham is not single.
Artemis is a high school student, and she has class tomorrow morning, so she’s just going to give you the SparkNotes version of what happened after she regained consciousness in the exact same spot on the floor to find her mom kicking Oliver’s royal behind at tiến lên while Dinah cleaned her gun on the couch.
“Ah, you’re awake!” Oliver exclaims when he sees her, beaming. Artemis starts to sit up. “Now then, about you being a princess...”
Artemis lies back down.
“Ollie, you could stand to be a little more tactful,” Dinah hisses, and then she’s standing over Artemis with an extended hand and an apologetic look. “Here, Artemis; let’s just do this one step at a time.”
Artemis doesn’t take her hand, but she gets to her feet, staggering toward the chair at the table opposite Oliver’s, kitty-corner from her mother. Dinah nods as if in approval before going to stand over Oliver’s shoulder, her arms linked behind her back.
Oliver gives her this big grin and tells her to call him Uncle Oliver, at least for now. Artemis is still in the process of getting back into her chair, so at that precise moment, the only thing she wants to call him is something very insulting.
Dinah is his bodyguard, and she does not go by Aunt Dinah or Ms. Lance or Holy-Crap-Is-That-A-Gun; just Dinah. Artemis can tell within five minutes that she’s the brains of the government, probably, since Oliver just looks like he blusters around and does what looks the friendliest (even though dropping into Artemis’s life and telling her she’s a princess is the most HOSTILE THING EVER). She was trained by the Vlatavan Secret Service, starting when she was fifteen.
And wow, okay, Vlatava. Artemis has heard of it once, maybe twice—mostly when she was a kid and the only thing that was ever on the news for two weeks in November was the ten-year-old Queen Perdita’s open-heart surgery, which she... didn’t survive. (Rest in peace.) Now that Artemis thinks of it, Perdita’s death and her dad’s decision to cut and run had only been a month or two apart. And like, apparently right after Perdita died, Vlatava exiled some count, Werner something-or-other, because he’d had something to do with what happened to Perdita, because he was evil—come on, he was a count; what other alignment could he have—but the point is, the whole royal family is a mess.
But seriously: Vlatava. It’s this dinky little principality somewhere between Austria and Hungary, founded in 1763, and it had been taken over by the Soviet Union back during the Cold War before it staged a revolution and broke free, reinstating the (by then) genetically diluted monarchy. Their standing army consists of maybe two hundred soldiers, the place with the most employees is the royal palace, and they’re famous for their Olympic archery team and their chili. (Seriously. Chili. In Eastern Europe. Now do you get why no one cares about this country?)
Like, admittedly, the whole familial treachery and regicide thing was kind of interesting—although Artemis feels kind of bad now, because apparently Perdita was her first cousin once-removed, or something, so she really shouldn’t be calling her murder “interesting,” but when a country is as boring as Vlatava, it should take what it can get, is all she’s saying—but other than that, Vlatava has next to nothing going for it. Except, of course, for the Olympic archery team, which has been winning for the past seven years in a row or something.
As for how innocent, ordinary Artemis Lian Crock fits into all this... okay, hang on.
Oliver wrote it all down for her.
So, yeah, Artemis is descended from King Marius, mostly, who ruled over Vlatava for like sixteen years before the Soviet Union came plowing in and dissolved the monarchy, making everyone a count or countess as some kind of a courtesy—apparently the Bolsheviks were way nicer in Vlatava. Everyone from Bram to Magda was a bunch of counts and countesses already, though, but that was just because they were all descendants of Tobias, who was born out of wedlock and therefore disowned from the royal family and forbidden from ever being able to take the throne, even through his kids and grandkids and crap. But the family felt sorry for them, or something, so when Philippa had Bram, around the time Belinda and Phineas were in charge, everyone on that side of the family was given countship, just so their line wouldn’t be doomed to live in poverty and humiliation for the rest of eternity.
Princess Lara had Lawrence, Artemis’s dad, first, but then her husband, some Duke of Bulgravia who stuck the name “Crock” into the Vlatavan family tree, kicked the can because of typhoid or something, so she remarried this guy named Rory Mott-Queen, a diplomat from Australia, which was apparently quite the scandal at the time because she was marrying around outside of a royal family. Since “Mott” didn’t really seem like a very grandiloquent surname for a few new princes to have, it was crossed off so that Lara and Rory’s kids would have the nice, regal name of... well, Queen. So they had Oliver, who then went on to shoot for the archery team in his youth, until he got testicular cancer (before he thought reproducing might be a good idea; nice job, Oliver) and had to get one of his baby-making sacks taken out, and now he can’t produce an heir, which is obviously lame for Vlatava.
So he tried adopting. He wasn’t married or anything, for some reason; when Artemis asked what the deal with that was, he just kind of cleared his throat and kept going. He took in Roy Harper, the orphaned son of a couple of Vlatavan forest rangers who died in a bear attack, and taught him archery, basically treating him like his own son, and it was all going great, except for one thing: Roy hadn’t known he’d been adopted.
And he took it badly, if the fact that he hightailed it out of the country in the middle of the night by ship is anything to go by. Oliver hasn’t been able to locate him since, so his responsibilities have been lifted, which is totally unfair if you ask Artemis—how is it that this Roy guy is gifted with a Get-Out-of-Ruling-a-Small-Principality-Free card and she’s the one stuck having to wear ballgowns and practice walking with an apple on her head?
HIS NAME LITERALLY MEANS KING QUEEN!!!!!
If anything, though, now Artemis knows why her dad split when he did: After the Cold War ended and the monarchy was reinstated, Princess Lara (well, Queen Lara, for like five minutes) was already dead and stuff, and Oliver was getting sick so the country was all worried that they’d lose their new king, and even if Roy was technically adopted into the royal family, it was unlikely they’d let him rule anyway, and when he disappeared and Perdita died, Oliver had to just give it up and track down Lawrence so he could tell him the situation, and... well, long story short...
“Your father was not a diplomatic man by nature,” Paula murmurs. (Artemis doesn’t know why she can feel tears dribbling down her face; this is embarrassing.) “I’m sure you remember. He was just—not willing to shoulder the duties required of him. He left the country in the first place so that he could try to escape his responsibilities—” Her expression darkens. “Something he was very good at. When Oliver and Dinah first approached him, when you and Jade were young, he simply did it again.”
“I say good riddance,” Oliver declares gruffly. “All he ever did was loosen my saddle during riding lessons so I’d fall off my horse. He could have killed me. And he didn’t like chili, to boot.”
Artemis is full-out sobbing now. As if it wasn’t bad enough that she’d been crying a few hours ago in her room; now she’s doing it in front of the King of Vlatava! Why is this happening to her!!!?! And while she’s at it: What is up with these Vlatavans and jumping ship when the chips are down? Jeez.
Someone taps her shoulder and she glances up, snuffling, wiping at her nose. Dinah is discreetly offering her a handkerchief, not looking at her. Artemis takes it, blows her nose, and then starts crying harder.
Not sad tears. Distinctly, unequivocally angry tears.
Because her mom has been lying to her all her life. Her dad had also been lying to her all her life (much less of a surprise, though, honestly). Jade’s gone; Jade’s been gone, and she probably didn’t even know, and they’re sure as hell not going to track her down—Artemis kind of hopes they don’t, for her sake, because Jade’s probably even less suited to ruling than Artemis is. Everything she’s done, every second she’s lived, has been under the guise of this enormous and unbelievable truth that she hadn’t even been aware of, and why? Did they think she was stupid? Not worth telling, not good enough, not impressive enough? Was it because of her grades, her student disciplinary record, the fact that not even her own dad had thought she was good enough to stick around for? (Not that she cares about his opinion.) Is that why she’s only hearing all this when she’s their last resort? What?
“What’re you guys here for, then?” she barks aggressively at Dinah and Oliver. Oliver blinks at her as though startled—probably by her splotchy, snot-covered face and red eyes. “Or is the occasion just, you know, ruining everything?”
“I should say not!” Oliver says, looking ruffled. Artemis is pretty sure she sees Dinah roll her eyes behind her sunglasses (which she hasn’t taken off since she’d come in). “With you being the only viable heir to the throne now, Artemis, I’ve taken it upon myself to come out to the States for a few months and... well...” He grins. “Teach you how to be a princess!” His eyes start to shine. “You’ll be like my little protegée.”
Artemis chokes on her own spit. As if!
“In more specific terms,” Dinah inserts calmly, “We’re both here to give you daily lessons, after school, to educate you on politics, posture, etiquette, presentation, international crisis management, and any other duties that will be required of you when you take the throne.”
“What?!” Artemis shrieks. “I’m not taking any throne! Keep your stupid throne!”
“If you don’t, Artemis, there’s a good chance that the Vlatavan royal family will die out,” Oliver tells her somberly, in a lower and more subdued voice than she’d have expected. “It’s not as though you don’t have any choice, but... you have very little.”
Artemis can’t breathe. It’s like somebody’s inflating a balloon in the middle of her throat. Her hands are shaking and her arms feel hot and her face hurts and her fingernails are digging into her palms, and she’s still crying.
“Wh—I’m—why didn’t you tell me, Mom?!” she hears herself yell, in this strained and uncontrolled sob that makes her want to punch herself in the face.
Paula actually flinches. Her hand slips away from where it had been resting on Artemis’s and drops into her lap.
“I wanted you to... have a chance at some normalcy,” she replies, sounding on the brink of tears. “I wanted that for both you and Jade. And when your father left, I—I did not want to drop this on both of you; not then. And not since. You did not deserve to have it... hanging over you.”
“Well, apparently I’ve had it hanging over me the whole time whether I deserved it or not; I’ve just been too dumb to notice!” Artemis shouts, pounding her fist on the table and startling Oliver, who has been steadily scooting further and further away the more heated Artemis has gotten. “Is that why you transferred me to Gotham Academy? Is that why you’re constantly giving me all this junk about ‘acting like a lady’ and ‘not picking fights?’ Is that why you don't let me stay out past eight? Why would—” Her voice hitches, and it hurts. “It’s been just you and me for three years, Mom, and you never thought it’d be a good idea to be honest with me?”
Her mom is grimacing as though she’s in mortal pain, and maybe she is. Artemis wouldn’t care, at this point, because, at this point, she feels like she’s the butt of some rude, terrible joke.
“And you!” Artemis whirls on Oliver, pointing a finger at him. His goatee actually droops. “You think you can just come barging into my life and my school night and flip it all over and expect me to be fine with it? I go to school! I have a Chemistry quiz tomorrow that I’m probably going to fail! And I’m not going to give all of it up so you can try to sculpt me into your perfect little successor, okay; I don’t care what chance the royal family has—the same royal family that basically disowned me before popping on back to tell me how it’s been lying to me for years, by the way—and incidentally, I barely know how to walk without breaking something; you seriously want to put me in a palace filled with priceless china? No way! All this stuff you’re talking about, it’s—it’s not me! And it’s never going to be me; do you get that? It’s not! I’m—I’m not anybody; I’m not—whatever that name was that you called me. I’m just Artemis; I’m Artemis Crock! And this is my life! It’s not yours!”
She stands so swiftly that it knocks her chair over backwards. Oliver and her mom are both staring at her with wide eyes (though her mom’s are significantly wetter). Dinah, naturally, looks totally impartial.
Artemis takes a step for the door, and her mom starts to wheel around to stop her, but she breaks into a run and leaps over a prone umbrella and wrenches the door open, bounding out into the hallway and slamming it closed behind her.
Her mom’s shouting for her to come back. Artemis sprints, barefoot, past Mr. Mallah’s apartment, past Mr. Nygma’s, past the elevator, down the stairs, out the front doors, and over the sidewalk, her arms pumping, and she keeps going, even though the concrete is making her feet sting, until she somehow winds up in the upscale district where Zatanna and Dick live and regains her awareness to find her fist slamming repeatedly against the front door of Zatanna’s two-story mansion.
So this is how her first day of school ends: with her pacing around Zatanna’s bedroom, kneading furiously away at a stress ball, splitting an Oreo sundae with her and being totally and completely unable to tell her what’s going on.
“I had a fight with my mom,” she growls as Zatanna pats her shoulder and yawns. “It’s nothing. Just needed some distance.”
“Zat!” a voice that Artemis definitely does not recognize calls from the other side of the door. “I seriously hope you’re not harboring a fugitive from justice in there, because I gotta say, I don’t think that’s very wholesome behavior.” A pause. “And, uh, do I smell Oreos?”
“Go away, Wally!” Zatanna snaps, and Artemis groans and tugs at her hair and realizes right then exactly how much lying sucks.
But what sucks more—and hey, she thinks dully, maybe it’s genetic—is how good she is at it.
It takes Artemis about fifteen minutes after she wakes up the next morning to remember that, oh yeah, her life is in total shambles.
Zatanna swats her shoulder a few times to get her up, chattering about how Wally’s already left because he wanted to go for a run before the tryouts today, and her dad left for work like an hour ago, and she’s been doing Artemis the favor of letting her sleep in as late as possible so she should really be treated to Starbucks, thanks.
Zatanna’s floor is cushioned by this huge purple shag rug (byzantine, Zatanna insists snootily), so it’s way too comfortable to get off of. Artemis groans and rolls over, pulling Zatanna’s spare down comforter over her head and mumbling petulantly.
Zatanna swiftly yanks it off.
“Will you quit moping?” she huffs. “Not that I care about homeroom, but something tells me that Wayne’s not going to like it if you combine altercations and truancy all in the same week.”
Artemis grumbles. She has a point.
“Lucky for you, I just happen to have a spare uniform lying around,” Zatanna says airily, and then something fabric-y hits Artemis in the face, knocking her down. “It might be a little tight, but whatever; your figure could use the flattery. And look—” She holds up a plum-colored knit wool hat. “I even found you a beret!”
“Swell,” Artemis mutters.
It becomes immediately clear after she puts on the skirt that she’s not going to be able to bend over or sit down or do anything but stand perfectly straight if she doesn’t want everyone in the room to get a clear view of her Wonder Woman underwear. The blazer and dress shirt fit fine, though, thank God. Plus, she’s had an old pair of sneakers lying around Zatanna’s room since the summer, so she won’t even have to go shoeless. It’s not a bright side or anything—more like a dull glimmer in an ocean of unfathomable darkness—but whatever. It’s something.
“So,” Zatanna coos as she and Artemis stand side-by-side in front of the mirror, knotting their ties. “What’d you and your mom fight about?”
Artemis bristles just the tiniest bit.
“Uh...” She attempts to pull a shrug, but it just looks like she’s trying to jerk a fly off of her shoulder. “She’s just been, uh... all control-y lately. Trying to get me to be someone I’m not.”
Zatanna hums pensively and doesn’t press her further. Weird.
“Well, we’d better get going,” she eventually sighs, straightening her blazer and primping her now slightly curled hair. “Higher education to sit through, and all.”
“Yeah,” Artemis mutters distantly.
She almost walks into a telephone pole on the way to school. Zatanna doesn’t even ask her what the hell is wrong with her, and see? This is why they’re best friends.
School is a blur. A big, boring, terrible blur.
Homeroom is weird. She finds herself sitting stiffly at her desk for the entire twenty-five minutes, like she’s expecting Bruce Wayne to suddenly approach her and beat her up for being such a disappointment. He’s just the way she remembers from her freshman year orientation: unusually buff for just a billionaire, incredibly severe-looking, allergic to smiles or jokes or humanity in general. He gruffly barks all of their names when he takes roll, tells them to be on their best behavior since it’s the first week of school, warns them not to disrespect his authority, and then dismisses them. It is single-handedly the most terrifying experience of Artemis’s life. And she became a princess yesterday.
Let that sink in.
To her surprise, she does not fail her Chemistry quiz—she gets a D-, which is pretty great, by her standards. She’s bouncing all the way through independent study, even though Bruce Wayne is towering over her calmness for that class, too.
“Will you cut that out?” Zatanna hisses out of the corner of her tight mouth. “I’m trying to concentrate and you’re shaking the table.”
“You’re just jealous you didn’t get a D-,” Artemis replies in a whisper, smirking.
“No, contrary to the champions in the room, Zatanna gets B’s on her Astronomy quizzes,” Dick adds in—Artemis is flanked by both him and Zatanna. “Or, well, that’s my prediction, anyway. She may require some of my expert assistance.”
Artemis doesn’t even know how Zatanna had managed to get into Astronomy. It’s the most popular science class in the whole school, taught by this peppy young genius named Mr. Strange, who has a hilariously over-the-top rivalry with the Physics teacher and Computer Club faculty liaison, Ms. Roquette. They’ve been trying to decide who’s smarter ever since Artemis enrolled.
“We haven’t even had quizzes yet, Richard,” Zatanna mutters, shooting him a cold look. “And what makes you think I need your help?”
“You tend to enjoy it when you get it,” Dick says smugly, and Artemis claps her hands over her ears. No thanks.
“What’s going on back there?” Mr. Wayne grunts from the front of the room. Zatanna and Dick don’t react, but Artemis’s head jerks up.
“N-Nothing!” she squawks, and then busies herself with doodling a cat on her English reading list with increased concentration.
Dick is snickering next to her. She elbows him.
Zatanna nudges her slightly and she glances over to see a slip of paper next to her arm. In the upper left corner, scrawled in purple ink, in immaculate cursive, is: You still up for seeing West’s track tryout today?
Artemis nods discreetly. Not that she’s actually interested in the track-related fate of Zatanna’s mysterious Kansan cousin who had said something mildly funny last night that she would have laughed at if she hadn’t been crying, or anything, but she’ll take any excuse to stay away from home for a little while longer, so track tryouts it will be.
“Artemis,” Dick whispers, passing her a paper-crane. “Can you hand this to party name of Zatara? It’s an apology crane.”
Artemis wrinkles her nose and plucks it out of his fingers, ignores his wolfish grin, and hands it over to Zatanna. Zatanna sets it down without looking at it, but Artemis swears she sees the tiniest smile perk up on her focused face.
She slumps in her chair. They are so gross.
(From his desk, Bruce Wayne looks sharply up, like he can sense his adopted son giving pretty things to pretty girls and that is the most dangerous thing to ever occur at Gotham Academy. Dick leans back, crosses his feet on the desk, and smiles dreamily up at the ceiling.)
It’s cloudy and a little nippy when Artemis, Dick, and Zatanna all straggle up the bleachers at the combination track-and-football-field. Artemis tugs the beret down over her ears and watches her breath cloud up in front of her. Dick is wearing mittens, like the absolute loser he is.
“So I was thinking that the theme this year could be ‘Enchantment Under the Sea,’” Zatanna is babbling with sparkling eyes, gesturing grandly at the air. “We could blow up clear balloons like bubbles, and hang paper mâché fish, and everything could be all tropical colors...”
Dick is sniggering. “I think you and I need to have a movie night before you finalize that idea.”
Zatanna grimaces at him like he’s some kind of circus freak.
“Go on a date with yourself, Grayson; I’m trying to think,” she dismisses, her cheeks flushing infinitesimally pink. “Now, the dance is on October 29 this year, so—ooh!” She leaps in the air, flailing her arms wildly and accidentally smacking Dick in the face. “Why don’t we make it a masquerade! Since it’s so close to Halloween!”
Dick rubs his nose with a pout. “Perfect. I’m definitely gonna need a medico della peste mask to cover up this damage.”
Artemis glances at the astroturf when they pass it on their way to the bleachers. There are about twenty guys scattered over it, stretching and doing jumping-jacks and—well, in one case, anyway—lying spread-eagled on the ground, all of them in mismatched athletic shirts and shorts and running shoes, all of them lean and excitable-looking.
There’s a pint-sized, auburn-haired kid who looks like a freshman running in place and blabbering animatedly at another boy his age, one with dark hair and brown eyes and a nervous expression. A few feet away from them are a lanky brunette with a Batman t-shirt (Artemis recognizes him; he broke his arm trying to skateboard down the library staircase last year) and the smallest of them all, a slightly slouching, freckled, gap-toothed kid in green shorts.
Artemis scans the rest of the crowd, trying to see if she can guess which one is Zatanna’s cousin. She doesn’t get very long, though, because moments after she takes her seat between Zatanna and Dick (why does this always happen), Coach Garrick comes jogging up from the water fountains, looking energized—which is probably bad news for the new recruits.
“All right, listen up, you chumps!” he hollers, cramming his hands onto his hips. His scarlet Thunderbolt shirt, tried and true, looks especially loud in the gray light. The boys all jump and straighten, whirling around to face him. From the crowd, Artemis catches a flash of bright red hair and frowns, intrigued. “Welcome to the 2011-2012 Gotham Academy track and field tryouts! I'm the man who might or might not be your coach, depending on whether or not you survive the afternoon.”
Artemis definitely sees a few of them gulp. Suckers. Her eyes flicker around until they alight upon the orange hair again.
“Check out the ginger,” she mutters, pointing. Zatanna looks up, follows her finger, and lets out a very worrisome giggle.
She doesn’t say anything. That’s even more worrisome.
Coach Garrick divides them all up based on what they want to try out for and yells at them to do stretches while he takes a head count. Artemis looks over at Zatanna and, sure enough, as soon as the guys start bending over and their calves start straining, a diabolical spark appears in her blue eyes.
“You're so gross,” Artemis hisses to her.
“I know,” Zatanna replies, clearly distracted. “But being gross never felt so good.”
Dick scoffs under his breath. It hits the back of his teeth in a hard ‘tt’ sound.
The redhead—he’s too far away for Artemis to distinguish any other features, so that’s what she’s going to call him—is still facing away from the bleachers, and he’s over in the group that's going out for middle-distance running. Coach Garrick hollers out that the sprinters will be trying out first, then the short-distance runners, then the middle, the long-distance, then the hurdlers and jumpers.
“Are we seriously going to have to sit through all of this just to watch your stupid cousin embarrass himself?” Artemis groans aloud.
“Shhh,” Zatanna says, slapping her hand over Artemis’s mouth. “I’m trying to see Marvin White’s junk.”
It’s times like these when Artemis deeply and fiercely wishes that her brain could just go white. Instead, all she can do is sit there for the next however-many hours and suppress her gag reflex, which, by the way, has been especially active since last night. Zatanna continues chattering enthusiastically about her plans for the homecoming dance, which, from the sound of it, is definitely going to be a masquerade now (and okay, if it is, Artemis might go).
She kind of zones out for most of it. Present situation considered, there is nothing she cares about less than Wally Rudolph West’s track and field tryouts (whichever one of the many skinny guys he may be). What kind of excitement is she supposed to derive from watching a bunch of dudes run after each other in a circle when she’s been convinced (in varying degrees) that she’s going to die of a heart attack for the past twenty-four hours?
She’s about halfway through a vision of her reinstating the guillotine in Vlatava just so she can behead Oliver when Zatanna’s hand is suddenly violently jostling her shoulder, at about the same rhythm that Dick’s elbow is colliding repeatedly with her ribs.
If Artemis was more on her toes, she’d fire off a few death threats, but she doesn’t get the chance to think of any before Zatanna is ordering her to pay attention, pointing at the eastern end of the track.
Artemis shoves her over and looks.
There’s a girl walking along the outside of the tarmac with her hands linked behind her. The gaggle of boys is heading toward her—among them is the redhead, so hey, Artemis must have been freaking out about her royal heritage for longer than she thought, and—
“He’s in the lead,” she exclaims, gesturing. “My ginger, the ginger I saw! He’s in the lead!”
“Will you shut up and focus?” Zatanna snaps, swatting her upside the head. “That’s Megan Morse, you rube. Sans bodyguard, in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Artemis blinks. “Megan what-now?”
“Have you learned nothing in your time at our fine institution?” Dick exclaims with an over-the-top sigh. “For shame. Megan Morse just happens to be one of the many daughters of the entrepeneurial and scientific genius who’s in charge of Star Labs’s Mars landing program. As in, one of the richest guys in the country; as in, Megan Morse is worth such a huge amount of ransom cash that she has a twenty-four hour bodyguard, as in… well, we’ll just see how this plays out.”
“Wow, once again, you are a fount of totally useless knowledge,” Artemis deadpans. Dick’s evil joy is not stunted by her sarcasm.
Megan Morse looks pretty unassuming, for apparently being so loaded and valuable. Her russet hair is in a loose braid and her plain burgundy headband looks like something out of the 1970s. She’s a little stooped over, like she’s constantly prepared to duck, and her face is round and freckled. Her backpack is a bright neon green. The boys go thumping rhythmically past her.
Just then, from the hydrangea bushes, a dark-haired, pale man in a black suit and wraparound sunglasses comes leaping nimbly onto the track.
Artemis shrieks in surprise. Megan seems to hear her, gives a start, and whirls around in time to see the Men in Black extra frowning at her in something like disappointment. She squeaks, so loudly that it’s audible even from the bleachers, and then pivots around and runs.
And okay, Artemis has seen her fair share of Indiana Jones movies, but, at the end of the day, what happens after that has to be the wackiest chase scene in history.
Megan goes scrambling away, and the black suit guy—who, by now, Artemis has to guess is probably her bodyguard—surges after her, his tie flying out behind him. He’s lean and fast—probably comes with the territory of being trained to take down assassins and kidnappers—and starts to catch up to her with no problem.
Megan screams at him to go away and keeps going, her backpack thudding against her. The track boys hear this, look over their shoulders, and all yell and scatter, stumbling out of the way to clear a path so they don’t all get bulldozed down by this guy whose open suit jacket just revealed that he’s carrying a gun.
“Oh my God,” Zatanna says, disbelievingly, her hand whacking Artemis’s arm.
And like, for a second, Artemis thought she was just surprised by the ridiculous bodyguard-to-bodyguarded act playing out in front of them, but then she notices that both Zatanna's and Dick’s eyes are on something further ahead of them. She follows their gaze and splutters.
The redhead is still going. He seems to be under the impression that Megan and her bodyguard are both chasing him, if his terrified yelp and increased speed are anything to go by. He goes tearing around the curve, his limber legs slicing through the air, and jets off down the home stretch at a speed that would be pretty impressive if he wasn't being a total loser.
Coach Garrick is yelling stuff at Megan and her bodyguard about how his dead grandma could run faster than they are, of freaking course, but Artemis’s ginger is in top form, flying along the straight line and periodically looking over his shoulder in terror. Artemis’s eyes are drawn to his bright yellow-and-red sneakers, and—oh.
“Dude, your—!” she starts to yell, standing up and pointing, and he blinks, looks up and meets her eye just as he passes (something inside of her thumps), and then steps unceremoniously on his own undone shoelace.
With a shout, he’s flung forward, slamming knees-first onto the tarmac and actually skidding by the elbows, just as Megan’s bodyguard catches up to her and captures her by the backpack strap.
Zatanna and Dick both stand, too, and all three of them gawk in bewilderment as the redhead, with a series of “oof”s and “ow”s, rolls to a stop right over the finish line and splays, spread-eagled, at Coach Garrick’s feet.
Megan’s bodyguard is scolding her in too low of a voice to be heard, and Megan’s eyes are swimming with tears. He puts his arm around her shoulders and steers her down the rest of the track, muttering something to Coach Garrick as they both pass. The other runners are all straggling over to the finish from across the field now that their lives aren't in immediate danger, and Coach Garrick is surveying the redhead with his hands on his hips and his foot tapping impatiently on the ground.
The redhead notices this after a beat and immediately stiffens, but doesn’t get up. Maybe he’s too catatonic. He’s stammering out something, incomprehensibly rapid, and then Coach Garrick puts a hand up, effectively silencing him.
Artemis does not know why she’s holding her breath.
“West,” he declares, “That was the most absurd thing I have ever seen in my life. You pull any of that Laurel and Hardy nonsense at a meet and you’ll be off the team before you can say Sheboygan, but for now—” His face splits into a grin. “Not bad, kid! We could use a guy like you!”
Artemis’s mouth falls open. “Wait, that’s your—?”
“Come on,” Zatanna interrupts, yanking her up by the elbow and dragging her down the bleachers toward the exit. Dick is giggling unstoppably while he follows.
When the three of them reach the track, spilling out onto it from the open metal gate, Coach Garrick is already ordering the other runners to reconvene at the starting line again so that they can do their tryout over again without interruptions like armed bodyguards and wealthy heiresses with questionable fashion sense. Artemis, Zatanna, and Dick all come to a halt—Zatanna in the lead—right at the still-prone redhead’s side.
“The next time you try out for something, sell tickets,” Zatanna immediately says, stifling a laugh behind her fist.
“The next time you come watch me try out for something, bring an ambulance,” the redhead replies in a wobbly voice that just slightly cracks at the end. He pushes himself up by the palms and hisses at the open scrapes on both of his knees. “And, uh, some spare legs.”
He lifts his head to survey the three of them, and something in Artemis’s stomach drops straight down to her feet because oh, no. He’s hot.
(Even with profusely bleeding elbows.)
She stares at him. He’s all loud orange hair and lean muscles, and if Jackson Pollock was ever hired to put freckles on someone, the result would be this guy. His eyes are an impossibly bright green, like, obviously the result of some kind of genetic experiment, possibly extraterrestrial-sourced, and his face is just slightly chiseled at the jawline, and his cut-out tank top reveals a fading farmer's tan.
“Uh, who is this?” he asks, pointing at her. At her.
“Art,” Zatanna declares with a flourish and a bow. “This is the cousin.”
Be cool, Artemis. Be cool.
Say something funny. Now. NOW!!!
“Wally Rudolph, huh?” Artemis says, smirking and cocking her hip just slightly (the way Jade used to when she would talk to boys). “Cute shorts. I’m guessing this is why you aren’t allowed at the reindeer games?”
Wally’s face immediately flushes and his orange eyebrows smash together. Crap, wait.
“Who,” he growls again, glowering up at her, “are you?”
Artemis's face drops into a frown, but she pushes it off in an instant like the pro she is.
“Artemis,” she replies coolly.
“Wally,” he fires back, with noticeable curtness. Like she doesn’t already know! He glares over at Zatanna accusatorially. “Never heard of her.”
“Excuse me, hi, I’m right here,” Artemis snaps, her fists tightening.
He blows his hair out of his face and finally stands, facing purposefully away from Artemis. She can feel her lower lip sticking furiously out. Suddenly Wally West’s surprisingly attractive face is starting to take on the appearance of a bullseye.
“Well!” Dick exclaims with a loud sigh, his arms akimbo. Artemis and Wally shoot him identical glares. Out of the corner of her eye, Artemis can see Zatanna squinting at her and Wally with her lips pursed. “How’s about we celebrate that stunning first impression with some, say... cheap convenience store food?”
“Only if you want to see Wally suddenly transform into a reticulating python,” Zatanna chirps, slinging her arm around Wally’s shoulders and dangling on her tiptoes off of him. “Which is way less glamorous than it sounds.”
“I’m guessing your hilarious friend here will be tagging along?” Wally grunts, jabbing his thumb in Artemis’s direction, and okay, that’s it.
“I’m right,” Artemis snarls, and then breaks into a shout, “here!”
Everyone’s eyes land on her, with varying degrees of astonishment, and she exhales in a huff through her nose. She is sorely disappointed when smoke doesn’t come out.
“And I have a name, champ, one that’s a lot prettier than yours, so you could stand to start using it for a while, unless it’s too many syllables for you,” she plows on, stabbing a finger in the air at him. His face is starting to loosen, but whether it’s from surprise or guilt she does not actually care. “But, hey, you’ll be happy to know that wasting what's left of my lunch money on Twinkies with you is the last thing I want to do.”
She turns sharply to Zatanna. “I’m going home.”
“Whoa, whoa, lighten up, Artemis,” Dick breezes, stepping over to Wally and slapping him, hard, on the back of the shoulder until his knees buckle. “By hilarious friend, he obviously means me.”
“Grayson,” Wally grumbles, scowling at the ground.
“We met just last Thursday,” Dick sighs, wiping an imaginary tear. “He almost bludgeoned me to death with a baseball bat when I accidentally climbed through his window instead of Zatanna’s. Those were the days.”
“Don’t touch me,” Wally hisses.
“You want me to lighten up?!” Artemis screams, making Wally jump. “I’m—!”
She stops herself by clamping her teeth down onto her lip, hard. I’m a princess now, you moron; lightening up isn’t exactly an option when I could be a United Nations representative by December and I don’t even know if I can go home without being disowned, and why should I do it for this West guy anyway if he thinks he’s so spectacularly important to be honest I hope he trips his way into HELL!!!!!
“I’m...” she stammers, and then recollects herself, her shoulders rising like hackles. “Leaving.” She tosses her hair with a sneer. “Good luck entertaining the red-nosed reindeer.”
“Oh, that’s original! Never heard that one before!” Wally yelps, his voice jumping up about three indignant octaves, but by the time Zatanna starts furiously hitting him in the arm, Artemis is already twelve steps away.
Her feet are stomping off of the tarmac and onto the parking lot before she can even notice that she’s still wearing Zatanna’s stupid beret. She tears it off, grinding her teeth and storming past the Lexuses and Benzes, past the Olympic-sized indoor swimming pool with its stupid floor-to-ceiling windows, past the library, and down the sidewalk, gravitating toward the way home without paying attention.
She curses, loudly, just because she feels like it, startling several pigeons into scuttling away from her. She crams the hat into her bag, making extra sure not to treat it with any kind of care, just to spite Zatanna for being related to assholes. Artemis does not care how green his eyes are; nobody gets away with being a dick to her.
Except Dick. Because he can’t help it. Birth certificate, and all.
This would officially qualify as the worst day in history if it hadn’t been preceded by life-altering declarations of nobility (which are worse) and that beautiful D- in Chemistry (which balances it out). And then it all hits her again, like a falling piano: Her stupid dad had to nail her stupid mom and create two stupid royal babies and then lie to them for like a million years, and her stupid self had to be one of those stupid royal babies and there is no way in hell she is going back home.
Without missing a beat, she reaches the corner of the block and pivots around on one foot to march back the way she came. She doesn’t even know where she’s planning on going, except maybe the closest morgue, so she can check herself in. Morgues let you do that, right?
She slaps the crosswalk button at the same intersection she crosses every day, shifting from foot to foot. While she’s waiting, a sleek black motorcycle comes roaring up the right lane (it’s being ridden; don’t worry) and swerves to a smooth halt right in front of her. A bunch of cars honk at it angrily.
She forces her eyes to stay on the other side of the street. It could be like, a motorcycle-riding serial killer, or something, and she needs to look distracted if she’s going to take him by surprise.
“Artemis,” the rider says, and a groan spills out of Artemis before she can stop it. Why does she have to recognize that voice?
She glares over to see the rider (decked out in a black leather jacket and jeans) pull off its helmet to make way for a spill of light blonde hair and a severe expression.
“That’s my name,” Artemis mutters. “Dinah, right?”
“And that’s mine.” Dinah smiles, a little stiffly, and leans onto the handlebars of the motorcycle, her helmet dangling from one fingerless-gloved hand. Some song by the Police is playing, tinny and indistinct, on the small speakers. “Heading home?”
“Yeah,” Artemis snips, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world, which it is. “What do you want?”
“Just want to talk,” Dinah replies plainly. She sets the helmet in her lap. “We didn’t really get the chance to last night before you went on the lam.”
Artemis rolls her eyes. “I don’t know how being on the lam works in Vlatava, but generally, voluntarily going home isn’t part of the process. And don’t tell me how worried my mom’s been, or how you were ready to call the police; I know the whole drill and I’m really not in the mood.”
Dinah sighs quietly, linking her fingers together and ducking her head.
“I’m sorry,” she says after a second, and darts her eyes up to look at Artemis with sincerity.
The crossing sign chirps, but Artemis doesn’t move.
“What for?” she asks. “Besides the obvious.”
“Which would be...?”
“Uh, ruining my life?” Artemis glares at her with every ounce of ferocity she’s got. “Or at least, you know, making it feel like it’s not even mine.”
“Well, I can admit we didn’t drop it on you in the most... ceremonious way,” Dinah chuckles. “Ollie—pardon; His Majesty has never been very good at subtlety.”
She looks to the side with an unreadable smile. Artemis fidgets.
“So, what, are you here to like, escort me home?” she eventually mumbles, kicking at a piece of broken glass. “Because...”
Dinah hums out a short laugh. “No, I’m not, unless you’re lonely. Like I said—I just want to talk.”
“Oh, great. You wanting to talk. Since that ended so great last time,” Artemis deadpans. She tightens her grip on her bag strap. “Whatever. I guess this can’t get any worse. Talk away.”
Dinah chuckles through her nose, dropping her chin onto her crossed arms and giving Artemis a wry smile.
“I’m sure you remember what Oliver said last night,” she begins.
“Unfortunately,” Artemis says under her breath.
“About how he—well, the both of us, really—have come to the country and reached out to you because we intend to give you...” She pulls a face. “What he insists on calling Princess Lessons.”
Artemis stiffens and she’s surprised her ponytail doesn’t puff out like Jade’s fur does whenever she hears a loud noise.
“Uh, yeah, about that: no,” she barks, starting to step forward to cross the street, because she is already done with this conversation. “Nyet. Nein. Absolument non.”
“Nē,” Dinah coos, and Artemis falters. “That’s Vlatavan for no. Lesson number one, since it’s a word I’m sure you’ll be using very frequently.”
“I’d like to get through the crosswalk, if you don’t mind.”
“What’s stopping you?” Dinah asks coolly, smirking with confidence and ease. “But before you finalize that no, you might want to hear the terms of the deal.”
Artemis freezes altogether. A Ferrari honks furiously at her and she bounds backwards, barely missing it, falling in a mess of flailing limbs on her butt on the sidewalk.
She scowls venomously up at Dinah because yeah, that short skirt Zatanna loaned her? Totally failed to protect her posterior from grainy cement. Swell.
“I’m listening,” she manages to grit out through her clamped teeth.
Dinah props her chin up on one hand, smiling down at her with the kind of smug amusement that only shows up on the faces of people who know they’ve already won. It fades in a second, though, replaced by a look of patience and understanding that Artemis really shouldn’t be calming down for, because all of a sudden, it feels like Dinah Lance is the only person in the whole world who understands her, just with that look.
“You know, Artemis, this is probably going to sound odd to you, but you really remind me of your father,” Dinah says. Understood feeling gone. “No, no, let me finish. You’re strong-willed, and stubborn, and you've got some serious guts, if jay-walking in this city is as dangerous as it looks. But there are parts of your mother in you, too—you’re fair, and selfless, and practical, and you believe in helping other people.”
Artemis snorts. “Really, because running away from all of this responsibility schtick doesn’t feel very selfless. And by the way, my mom gets on my case every day for helping other people; I think you’ve got the wrong lady.”
“No, I’m sure I don’t,” Dinah replies. “And I know it’s probably very obvious to you, being sixteen years old and therefore omniscient, but your mother is only trying to protect you, to make sure you have a good chance in life.”
“Right,” Artemis mutters, picking at a loose thread on her sock. “I mean, being a member of a royal family is really stunting my opportunities.”
Dinah sighs, but it sounds, for some reason, kind of fond.
“And you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, too,” she continues, pointedly ignoring Artemis’s interruption. “You’re smart—” Artemis splutters out a laugh. “You’re tough, and you’re kind, but you know when to be firm. All of these things are pretty good indicators that, in time, you would be a great ruler. The only thing missing is your confidence.”
“Having confidence isn’t going to magically make me want to run a country!” Artemis exclaims, throwing her arms out in exasperation. “Look, did I not make it clear to you guys, or something? I don’t want this; I will never want this! I just want to live my life the way I’ve thought I would for the past like ten years; I just want—”
“You’re scared,” Dinah tells her simply. “Of course you’re scared. Oliver doesn’t see it, because it’s been so long since he was scared about becoming king that he forgot what it felt like, but Artemis, he will understand. No one’s going to say that ruling over Vlatava is an easy job. But things have changed a lot since we seceded from the USSR, and right now, Vlatava just wants to get back on its feet. It’s going to need you for that, sooner or later, but for now, you don’t have to make a decision right away. No one’s pressuring you.”
That’s ironic, since Artemis has felt like she’s the subject of a certain hit Queen song since she woke up this morning.
“And I know it’s hard to think about it,” Dinah murmurs. “Especially because it must seem that we’re asking so much of you before you’re even ready to answer. But please, please hear us out. We’re not here to cause any kind of massive upheaval or undue stress—”
“Do those mean the same thing in Vlatavan as they do around here?” Artemis interjects, crossing her arms. “’Cause from my perspective, that’s exactly what you’ve been causing and it’s only taken you like, less than twenty-four hours?”
Dinah exhales heavily, slumping.
“How about this,” she says after a moment. “The best way for you to get a feeling for what ruling Vlatava will be like is through these lessons we’re here to give you, so... why don’t we use them as a way to test the waters? You wouldn’t even need to worry about ruling until you’re twenty-one; it’s Vlatavan law; aside from which, Oliver will remain king until he... passes—and in the meantime, we could educate you. If you still feel the same way as you do now by your introduction ball in December, then...” She takes a deep breath. “You have my permission to make a run for it.”
Artemis gawks at her. She’s not sure if it’s at the proposal itself or at the whole introduction ball thing.
“And, uh, what exactly is it about me that’s inspiring you to risk high treason?” she finally manages to ask, and despite the snideness in her voice, she still can’t hide her astonishment.
Dinah shrugs. A smile twitches across her face, one that seems way too sentimental for her, and her eyes flick back up to meet Artemis’s.
“Call it faith,” she says. She extends one hand, tilting her head so that her hair spills past her shoulder. “And, uh, a little bit of stupidity. But—I trust we’ll both be seeing you soon?” She winks. “Weekdays, 4 PM sharp, 116 Mountain Drive, the villa with the green flags and the archery range?”
Artemis chews her lip. Gulps down her own spit. Stares, long and hard, at Dinah’s still-hovering hand.
And then, because she is stupid, and because she is delirious, and because she is in an exceptionally vulnerable state from being irritated by Wally West, and because she just is who she is—she shakes it.
ZEAUTIFUL has signed on.
ZEAUTIFUL: way to flee the scene of the crime, you hindenberg of first impressions!!
SMARTEMIS: i just got home and this is how you greet me?
SMARTEMIS: look, it’s not my fault your country bumpkin cousin is about as friendly as a mine field.
ZEAUTIFUL: and why aren’t you answering my texts?!
SMARTEMIS: my phone ran out of juice.
ZEAUTIFUL: fat chance. so. why the hydra vibe today?
SMARTEMIS: what do you mean? i was perfectly nice to him.
ZEAUTIFUL: i don’t mean just that, idiot. gosh. this friendship is so terminated.
SMARTEMIS: what did i do??
ZEAUTIFUL: you’ve just been all uptight today!
SMARTEMIS: have not.
ZEAUTIFUL: you threw a roll of toilet paper at me from over the top of your bathroom stall when i told you that your socks were falling down. what gives?
SMARTEMIS: i just don’t like fighting with my mom; that’s all. jeez.
ZEAUTIFUL: fine. if that’s how it’s gonna be...
ZEAUTIFUL invited WALLYBEST and DISASTROUSDICK to this conversation.
--> WALLYBEST has entered the chat.
--> DISASTROUSDICK has entered the chat.
DISASTROUSDICK: new screenname. whaddya think?
WALLYBEST: why am i here
SMARTEMIS: dick, you are an insult to the human race; get out of my sight.
WALLYBEST: oh look its sunnybrook farm
WALLYBEST has sent you a contact request.
WALLYBEST was added to your contacts.
SMARTEMIS: excuse me?
ZEAUTIFUL: wally is really terrible at insults; ignore him.
WALLYBEST: you can shut the **** up
DISASTROUSDICK: i can override the censor program for you
WALLYBEST: if you come anywhere near my house ill knock your teeth in with a toaster
ZEAUTIFUL: uh, that’s /my/ house, and /my/ $600 toaster.
SMARTEMIS: jeez, west, your whole *threat* is toast now. looks like somebody’s sleeping on the patio tonight.
WALLYBEST: actually ill be sleeping in a bed unlike someone else in here
SMARTEMIS: and where oh where does your fascinating imagination assume i sleep?
WALLYBEST: a dragon nest maybe
WALLYBEST: or like the top of a very deadly cliff
WALLYBEST: so you can push people off
SMARTEMIS: wow. zatanna’s right; your insults *are* terrible.
WALLYBEST: not as terrible as your rudolph jokes blondie
DISASTROUSDICK: lovely weather we’re having
SMARTEMIS: at least i could get a few syllables out of my mouth. is that how you usually try out for stuff? by stammering and tripping?
WALLYBEST: excuse me who got on the team oh thats right someone not named
WALLYBEST: whatever your name is
WALLYBEST: who are you again
SMARTEMIS: oh my god. how can you get mad at me for ribbing you when your entire life is a joke?
WALLYBEST: jesus youre unpleasant
ZEAUTIFUL: i agree, dick; very lovely weather.
DISASTROUSDICK: in fact, it’s so lovely that everyone should be outside in it, frolicking around.
SMARTEMIS: what’s the matter? is your wealth of creative insults failing you? the crowd is shocked.
WALLYBEST: zatanna if you dont boot her from the chat i swear
SMARTEMIS: aw, running away; how cute!
WALLYBEST: i will kill you
SMARTEMIS: sounds delightful; when should i pick you up?
DISASTROUSDICK: sorry, not everyone.
DISASTROUSDICK: these two need to stay inside.
DISASTROUSDICK: in a room.
DISASTROUSDICK: the room that they need to get.
WALLYBEST: no one cares about your blathering grayson
DISASTROUSDICK: i’m not sure i own a blathering grayson. you must be mistaken.
WALLYBEST: nerds im surrounded by nerds im going to bed
SMARTEMIS: z, are you even alive?
ZEAUTIFUL: yes sorry; billy batson just posted a new picture on his facebook of him saving a cat.
DISASTROUSDICK: if it’s pictures that grab your interest, i could hook you up with a few choice ones of the computer club president.
DISASTROUSDICK: sources confirm that he is a stud.
ZEAUTIFUL: no, but seriously, wally and artemis, you guys need to apologize to each other.
SMARTEMIS: what do i have to apologize for? i was perfectly friendly.
WALLYBEST: tell that to the thousands of human souls that died in your presence in that exact moment
SMARTEMIS: souls don’t die, moron; haven’t you seen the iron giant?
ZEAUTIFUL: oh my gosh artemis i wish you could see his face
WALLYBEST: shut up
WALLYBEST: the point is you were definitely not friendly and if you thought you were then youre obviously clinically insane
WALLYBEST: can i pls go i have ap phys to do
ZEAUTIFUL: artemis has been needing help with science!
WALLYBEST: is that so
SMARTEMIS: certifiably, i am actually a science prodigy.
WALLYBEST: is *that* so
ZEAUTIFUL: i will rip your throat out with my floweriest rings, artemis crock.
DISASTROUSDICK: i found a pic of vladimir putin riding a horse shirtless; anyone interested?
SMARTEMIS: i don’t need your help, west.
WALLYBEST: i didnt even offer it goldie so i guess youre set
SMARTEMIS: good, because i don’t want it. or need it!! so don’t flatter yourself.
WALLYBEST: i wasnt tho
SMARTEMIS: the way you’re going, you must have to go through a TON of self-flattery just to get through the day.
WALLYBEST: im leaving zatanna
DISASTROUSDICK: after all these years? say it ain’t so!
SMARTEMIS: zatanna zatara, divorcée at 15. american tragedy.
DISASTROUSDICK: wally please, listen to me, that girl from the folies bergère will quickly tire of you and then you’ll be alone! DON’T DO IT, OLD FRIEND!
WALLYBEST: bunch of freaks
ZEAUTIFUL has invited BASEBALLBATSON to this conversation.
--> BASEBALLBATSON has entered the chat.
BASEBALLBATSON: Hey guys!!
DISASTROUSDICK has left the chat.
WALLYBEST and SMARTEMIS have left the chat.
ZEAUTIFUL: hi billy!
It’s weird, going back home. Not in a bad way, or anything; it’s just...
Her mom actually doesn’t try to kill or disown her, nor does she even get on her case about... anything. Artemis even accidentally lets the door slam, but it’s met with no rebuke.
When she crosses the threshold, bracing herself for projectiles, she only hears a serene and neutral “Welcome home” from Paula’s bedroom, and as she meanders past it, she sees Paula with her red reading glasses on, raptly engrossed in an open copy of The Grapes of Wrath in her lap. And like, Artemis doesn’t really have a right to press the issue, because really, who in their right mind would ask their mom to yell at them, but by the time dinner’s a half hour away and Paula still hasn’t knocked on her door, hasn’t even hollered at her to come in and help, she can’t hold it in anymore.
“Uh, is everything okay?” she finally asks when, as she goes to the fridge to get a can of root beer so she can briefly escape the Chemistry she is still critically unable to do, she spots a pot of bún bò huế– her favorite—on the stove.
Paula wheels herself in from the living room and tsks at the sight of Artemis in her same old battered lounge clothes.
“Of course,” she says crisply, shooing Artemis out of the way and halting in front of the stove. She grasps the ladle in one hand, stirring steadily. “You have had a long couple of days. I wanted to make you something special, as a reward for not shattering psychologically.”
“Th-Thanks, Mom,” Artemis mutters unsurely, prying open the can until it hisses. She slips her hand into the pocket of her pants, sipping the soda with the other. “Listen, um—I’m sorry for... booking it last night; I, uh...”
“Frankly, I would have been concerned if you hadn’t,” Paula interrupts, and she slows her stirring, glancing up at Artemis with a warm, but resigned, expression. “I’m just glad you are safe.”
“Why...” Artemis swallows, because she doesn’t even know why she’s asking this; it’s so stupid. “Why are you acting like nothing happened?”
Paula hums pensively and sets down her spoon. She maneuvers herself around so that she’s facing Artemis and, right away, Artemis hunkers down to eye level on one knee.
Paula reaches forward and grasps Artemis’s hands in hers. Artemis gulps against the hard lump that has apparently decided to form in her throat.
“All I have ever wanted, Artemis,” her mother tells her gently, “is to provide comfort and love for you. Comfort, and love, and understanding. And no matter what happens, no matter who barges into your life, this place, these walls, will always be the same for you. This will always be home and we will always have dinner at six o’clock and you will always have to do the dishes. That clock in the living room will always be ten minutes fast. The television will always be just slightly short of working. And I will always be here to welcome you home after a long day, and I will always remind you to study, and work hard, and get plenty of sleep, and eat your breakfast.”
Wow. Mom, way to go from possibly best mom to definitely best mom. Your preferences about door treatment will never again be condemned or questioned.
Paula’s eyes are glimmering and leaking a little, and now that Artemis actually pays attention to her own face, she notices that it’s pretty damp at the cheeks. Oh great. Why does she never get the memo until after she’s started crying? Thanks, brain.
“I love you,” Paula whispers in Vietnamese, smoothing Artemis’s hair back. “My darling girl. I will be your constant.”
It’s probably the best dinner of Artemis’s life, hands down.
Good enough for her to forget she has detention on Friday. Womp, womp.
And speaking of detention on Friday.
The rest of the week passes with absolutely no concrete or memorable moments, and Artemis just kind of floats half-consciously through it, still bogged down by ugly phrases like “international affairs” and “lineage” and “sole heir” and “princess lessons with an eccentric goateed man.” Like, honestly, as far as first weeks of school go, it’s just as forgettable as every other one, in a sort of post-traumatic amnesia way, but the universe cannot guilt Artemis into regretting this, because she has bigger problems. So many bigger problems.
She doesn’t even notice, really, that starting on Thursday, Wally starts to join her, Zatanna, and Dick for lunch. Apparently he attempts talking to her, but she’s so catatonic that she doesn’t notice or reply, which, Zatanna tells her in a suspiciously annoyed voice, is not helping her chances with him in the slightest, because now he hates her even more.
Yeah, like Artemis really cares about Wally West’s opinion of her when she has oil crises and global warming and the United Nations to worry about. Possibly. She’ll probably just start with posture, now that she thinks about it, instead of, like, the proper ducking technique when being fired at by an AK-47. She really hopes she won’t have to do that thing where they make her walk the length of the library in a straight line while balancing a copy of War and Peace on her head; she will literally die.
It’s not like she was ignoring Wally. Well, okay, she was. That’s exactly what she was doing. But not on purpose. Not that she’d voluntarily have a friendly chat with him, either, but—ugh, he’s just so... obtuse. Maybe if he’d actually lower his guns and give her a chance—no, wait; she doesn’t need a chance! She was super approachable and friendly; he was the one who had to go and be all overly sensitive and judgmental and rude; what is she saying!?
It’s kind of a bummer, though. Because his eyes are really green. (She wonders how far down his freckles go. Ew, no, not like that! Like does he have them on his chest? Get your mind out of the sewer.)
Bruce Wayne isn’t happy with her work ethic, either, from what Dick keeps prattling smugly about—to be fair, though, Artemis would be annoyed with herself, too, if in the middle of roll call she had to go up to her own desk and yell her own name to get any kind of response. From herself. Shut up. It works.
Whatever. Artemis wades through all of it and eats all of her lunch like a good girl and beats her mile time in P.E., but that’s actually just because, apparently, when she zones out, she starts sprinting at like 90 miles per hour.
Wally had been so pissed off when Zatanna had told him the tale of Artemis’s unconscious super speed. Good. Pissing off Wally is a worthy pastime, Artemis is quickly discovering. His ears turn red and he starts speaking too fast to get out his words correctly and when he really loses it, he stress-eats from the stash of Twinkies in his locker.
Let Artemis clarify: by stash of Twinkies, she means literal panel-to-panel Berlin Wall of Twinkies. That somehow never shrinks, no matter how many packets she sees Wally scoop out per day like some kind of long reach excavator.
She hopes that Oliver won’t try to prepare her crude palate for caviar and lobster by refusing to let her eat Twinkies.
Oh, and it also turns out that Wally is in the same Independent Study period as Artemis is (and, by extension, Dick, Zatanna, and the Batson dweeb). He’s missed the first four days because of track tryouts and extra transfer orientation stuff, so Artemis kind of finds this out by accident. And by “by accident,” she means she sits on him.
Look, he was in her chair, okay? The one between Zatanna and Dick? It’s totally natural that her instinctual drive to flop down in it the same way every day would override her... ability to plainly see a red-haired dude sitting there.
Needless to say, Wally doesn’t take it very well—he yells in panic and his arms go flailing out and Artemis leaps back up with such force that she knocks him off-balance, so that he and the chair tip over backwards and clatter to the floor.
Bruce Wayne looks up sharply with death in his eyes, rising to his feet immediately. Artemis quickly wrenches the fallen chair out from under Wally’s possibly dead body and rights it, sitting down with her knees together and scooting deftly up to the edge of the table, all before Wayne comes to a looming halt in front of her, nostrils flaring.
Wally groans and swears from the floor. Out of the corner of her eye, Artemis sees Zatanna and Dick doubled over with matching hands over their eyes and synchronized quaking shoulders.
“West, get up,” Wayne barks.
Wally has sprung into a ramrod straight standing position in a blink.
“Take your assigned seat,” Wayne orders, pointing rigidly to the spot on Dick’s right. Dick perks up, pats the chair, and beams toothily at Wally, who looks like he’s just swallowed a peeled lemon.
It takes him a second to abandon his pride and shuffle mulishly over to where he’s told, but he still does it. Artemis catches his eye and smirks complacently, causing his lips to thin and his jaw to clench.
“Crock,” Wayne snaps to her, making her jump. “Refrain from sitting on your peers. You know that students are to keep at least a finger-to-elbow length away from each other at all times.”
Yeah, so Artemis’s school has a mortal fear that teenagers hugging each other or shaking hands will evolve into wild public sex. Now you know.
“Right,” Artemis croaks, and then clears her throat and sits up straighter. Wayne nods, satisfied, but his eyes are still dangerously narrowed as he backs away, staring them down all the way to his desk.
A few minutes after Wayne’s gotten back to whatever papers he’s grading, Artemis’s motor cortex finally comes back to life. It’s just in time, too, to hear how obviously Dick is sniggering next to her. She snaps her head over to scowl at him so sharply that she’s surprised it doesn’t give her whiplash.
“Something funny?” she snarls under her breath. Dick waves a silencing hand at her, covering his eyes with his other and shaking noiselessly now.
She purses her lips sourly but forces herself to yank her Chemistry notebook out of her bag, slam it onto the table, and flick it open to the page with her homework worksheet. A great way to improve her mood: total intellectual failure!
A while later, just when she’s pretty sure her brain is about to implode, Dick elbows her carefully.
“What?” she hisses without looking up. When he doesn’t respond, her eyes dart over to him. He throws a hand up in surrender and slips her a folded note.
She frowns, glances over at Zatanna—who’s engrossed in her AP Italian homework—and looks back to the note again. If it’s not from her, then it’s probably the Vlatavan Secret Service; that is how likely it is that someone besides Zatanna would pass her notes in class.
She unfolds it. There’s a single sentence, printed in cramped doctor-ish handwriting, in bright red Sharpie:
That’s the last time I wear my Invisibility Cloak to school.
Artemis shoots Wally the deadliest look in her arsenal. He doesn’t notice, engrossed a little too deeply in what looks like Physics.
She glares harder. Still nothing.
She scribbles on the page and jabs Dick’s side to get him to pass it back.
Trust me, invisibility looks good on you. You’re doing everyone a favor.
It comes back just a second later, after an instant of feverish scrawling during which Wally’s tongue is clenched between his teeth and Artemis forgets not to stare.
Maybe I should loan it to you sometime! I’d be a hero for hiding you from innocent civilians for a day.
Did I hurt your knee or your feelings? LEAVE ME ALONE; I’M STUDYING.
Yeah, and going by the tortured look on your face, I can see that’s going swell.
Artemis wrinkles her nose when she reads that one. When she glowers over at Wally, he waggles his eyebrows at her smugly.
She crumples the paper up and tosses it over her shoulder.
“Littering, Miss Crock?” Wayne growls.
“Sir,” she croaks. “Sir, no; I was, uh—“
“It doesn’t matter.” Wayne sighs, waving her into silence. Artemis clamps her mouth shut. “Class is over.” Right on the button, the bell trills. Artemis will never know how he does that. “Those of you needing to serve detention time, stay in your seats; Mr. Kent will be here shortly.”
Oh, score. Mr. Kent is Artemis’s English teacher and she’s pretty sure he never learned how to yell at people, or get angry at people, or even mildly irritated, or even infinitesimally put out. He’s so inhumanly nice and wholesomely Midwestern that he’s been late to classes before because he had to stop on the way to the school and save an abandoned kitten.
Mr. Kent has so many cats and dogs; it’s unreal.
The point is: detention is going to be a breeze.
“Good night and good luck,” Zatanna sighs as she stands and slings her bag on her shoulder. She gives Artemis’s shoulder a good few commiserating pats as the last of the students trickle out (among them Billy Batson, who fixes her with a lovelorn look before walking into the wall next to the doorway). “Text me when you’re out.”
“Oooh, me too, me too!” Dick croons, popping up between them with his leather briefcase-backpack firmly strapped on. Wayne sends them all one last skeptical look before exiting. “I’m absolutely dying to know what’s all the rage in—”
Zatanna purses her lips and, with one hand, shoves Dick’s face away. Artemis bites her lip and Zatanna, seeming satisfied at her paltry amusement, spins around, hair swirling behind her, and flounces out with Dick scurrying in her wake.
Just as it clicks into place in Artemis’s head, she hears Wally sigh beside her, kicking his feet up on the table. She turns, rigidly, in her seat to stare at him, half-horror and half-inconsolable rage, and he blows a bubble with his yellow gum, staring boredly at the ceiling.
“The man said leave,” she grits out, like she still has hope. “So leave.”
Wally ignores her and picks at his teeth.
“You can’t be serious,” she mutters to herself, slumping against the desktop and pinching the bridge of her nose. The classroom is completely empty except for the two of them. “This can’t be happening.”
“Something wrong?” Wally drawls, chewing his gum deliberately and loudly, snaps of teeth and bursts of now-stale banana scent.
Artemis picks aggressively at her fingernails, keeping her eyes riveted on the clock, and doesn’t reply.
Wally’s chewing quiets and lessens. Every tick of the clock feels remarkably similar to a syringe being stuck in Artemis’s eye.
They hear the door open and both turn their heads over their shoulders in unison. Judging by Wally’s scoff, this synchronicity offends him greatly. Good.
Here is what first alerts Artemis to the fact that she’ll be sharing detention with Conner Kent:
Motorcycle boots, scuffing and clanking on the linoleum. Then: a perpetual grumbling sound seeming to come from everywhere at once, a bottle opener keychain jingling against a backpack zipper, and the final clue: Mr. Kent’s voice, placatingly saying, “Now don’t be angry.”
Okay. This is definitely where Artemis’s life is going to come to an unfortunate end, because that is what happens to people who get locked up with Conner Kent and a cup of sharpened pencils for an hour.
Conner Kent: chiseled brooding beefcake with two dads and a deep-seated, constant struggle with his own disgruntled, sometimes pugnacious (SAT vocab!), outlook on life. Artemis had had a crush on him in like the third grade, when they’d both happened to attend the same elementary school and he’d broken a kid’s nose with a tetherball and his own force of will, but he just got scowlier and scowlier as time went on and Artemis moved to Kaldur-er pastures.
(...And transferred to a school on the other side of town after she used a yo-yo in a windbreaker to mercilessly assault some punk who broke her G.I. Joes, but whatever.)
The point is, Conner has every girl in the halls and beyond chasing after him because he’s got that whole tall dark and glowering thing going for him and he always wears a leather jacket, but Artemis is among the few who knows his true nature: very, very annoyed.
He yanks out a chair at the very back table and drops into it like it killed his family and he’s going to get revenge by sitting, and as Mr. Kent (one of his two dads, by the way; Artemis is pretty sure that the other one was a CEO who got busted for putting cannabis in some peach-flavored soda drink) makes his way to the front of the room, Conner folds his arms on the desk, scoots all the way up in one go, and drops facedown onto them, pulling his hood over his head.
Artemis and Wally look at each other at the same time, shrug, and turn away again.
“Okay, you three,” Mr. Kent announces mildly from his desk, straightening a few papers. “You can talk as much as you like, provided it contains no profanity or words in clear violation of the language chapter of the student handbook. It would be preferred if you’d work on your homework or do a little studying, to make the most of this hour, but it’s not necessary.”
He slams his palm down on the desk and all three of them snap to attention.
“There is only one rule,” he says calmly. “No reenactments of any scenes from The Breakfast Club will be tolerated.”
Artemis bites her lip and sniggers. Mr. Kent nods as if satisfied and returns to his papers, flicking through them with concentration.
Wally leans slightly over to Artemis—they’re still a chair apart.
“What’s with Supey over there?” he asks in a whisper.
Artemis pulls a face. “What’s with what did you call him?”
Wally gives her a flat look and nods subtly to Conner. Artemis glances over—he’s sitting up now, slumped back in his chair, and he’s wearing a faded Superman t-shirt.
“His name’s Conner, you nitwit,” she hisses, turning back to Wally, who looks ruffled. “And nothing’s up with him. He’s just quiet.”
“So it’s cool if I talk to him,” Wally whispers. “I mean, theoretically.”
“Do whatever you want,” Artemis tells him tersely. “But I’m warning you, he doesn’t handle crushes very well.”
At Wally’s audible splutter, she lets a smirk crawl from cheek to cheek.
“Th—That’s not what I—” He straightens. “If anyone’s got the crush here, it’s you.”
Artemis scowls at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It’s so obvious,” Wally expounds, grinning with self-satisfaction. “Written all over your face, babe. You’ve got it bad for our favorite cheekboned wonder.”
Artemis rolls her eyes as enormously as she can manage without detaching them from her skull before hunching determinedly over her Chemistry homework again.
Within a few minutes, she can smell Wally’s laundry soap, and she looks over to find him craning his neck over to nose into what she’s doing.
“Whatcha got there?” he asks conversationally.
Artemis remembers Zatanna’s hand-to-face trick and promptly shoves Wally away with her palm. He sputters, flailing back.
“I’m taking AP None of Your Business,” she snarks out. “I’m gonna shoot for a B.A. in college.”
“Har, har,” Wally deadpans. “Seriously; do you need help?” He puts on what she has come to know as his flirtatious Casanova voice. “’Cause help’s my middle name, babe.”
“Next time you call me babe I’ll turn your ass into bacon, West,” Artemis growls.
Mr. Kent looks up sharply. “Miss Crock, I specifically told you not to use any profanity; have you no shame?”
Somehow, cursing in front of Mr. Kent is always treated like... she doesn’t know; murdering a marmot. Marmots are cute, right? Whatever. Something cute. You’re murdering it. That’s how upset he gets when someone swears in his presence.
“Sorry,” she tries to chirp, but it comes out strained.
“Sorry,” Wally echoes in a nasally voice. Artemis wishes that there were no witnesses so she could safely eviscerate him.
“Seriously,” Conner suddenly barks from behind them, and they both jump noticeably. “Will both of you just shut up?”
Artemis flushes red. Like, okay, she’s not crushing hardcore on Conner anymore, but he’s still cute and he still just totally yelled at her. It’s official! Wally West ruins everything!
Wally snickers at her sour expression and tilts his chair back, stretching and linking his hands behind his head, elbows askew.
Artemis slips her foot under one metal leg of his chair and, in one expert uppercut of her toes, flings it backwards.
The string of expletives that explode out of him is enough to make Mr. Kent almost have a stroke. Maybe this day won’t be so bad after all.
Oliver had phoned Artemis’s mom the night before to rattle off the requirements Artemis’s wardrobe would need to meet that afternoon, so Artemis has to spend twenty minutes after detention ends wrestling into some nylons and Mary Janes (which she’d managed to conceal expertly in her backpack all day) and fighting her hair into a sorry attempt at a French braid, all in the confines of a cramped ladies’ room stall.
She bangs her elbow on the toilet paper roll like eleven times. She counts. It takes her about six tries to get her lipstick on in a way that doesn’t make her look like she just drank blood from a bucket and she nearly blinds herself in her endeavor to correctly apply mascara and she just gives up on the whole blush thing, because she almost suffocates from sneezing.
The one good thing about detention, at least, is that she doesn’t have to come up with some elaborate lie about why she’s walking the same way home as Zatanna and Dick—and Wally now, ugh; she keeps forgetting—are. But the universe definitely makes up for it in giving her blisters on the backs of her ankles by the time she’s miraculously managed to reach Mountain Drive without being stopped by a clown car out hunting for prospective employees.
She stops at the summit of the hill, scanning the area. Her eyes alight within seconds upon what absolutely has to be Oliver’s villa: a big stone house with fluttering Vlatavan flags popping out of every conceivable crevice and a half-visible sunroom and a wall of tulips lining the pathway to the gate.
Salvation at last. Sort of.
Artemis blows her hair out of her face and marches up the drive, hobbling slightly because of the unbearable Mary Jane-caused agony. She stomps to a halt at the intercom and security code pad, biting the inside of her cheek before mashing her thumb onto the “TALK” button.
“Yes?” Dinah’s voice crackles over.
“It’s me,” Artemis grumbles.
“Who is me?”
“Artemis,” Artemis replies as sweetly as possible. “Artemis Crock. You know, the girl you strong-armed into being princess of your country?”
A pause. Then: “Oh, of course. That Artemis Crock. For a moment, I had you confused with the girl who had enough inborn dignity and sense of duty to walk half a mile in uncomfortable shoes and nylons to a lesson for something she supposedly despises. Come on in.”
Wow, damn her. A lot!
Artemis bristles just as the wrought iron gate—yeah, seriously—automatically swings open in front of her. Hesitantly, she takes a step forward, and then a few more, before finally throwing caution to the wind and striding in with her arms ramrod straight at her sides.
The walkway leading up to the house is paved in solid red brick, flanked by white wire trim and a more insane number of explosive rosebushes than Artemis has ever seen in her life, and probably ever will see. Her eyes rove up to the house, and upon closer inspection, it’s clear that yes, there are Vlatavan flags protruding from every crack in the stone walls, and that ostentatiousness is obviously one of the founding principles of the Vlatavan government, along with like, duty and honor and blah.
And if the outside sounds completely ridiculous? The inside blows it out of the water. After Artemis steps awkwardly through one of the open French doors and into the bright, spacious sunroom, she has to freeze to mentally run through all possible escape routes because that is how on-edge and out of place her surroundings make her feel. She’s pretty sure that, just by standing within ten feet of so many priceless and breakable items, she’s raising Oliver’s insurance on them by dozens of figures.
The floor is all hardwood, sleek and golden-brown and polished to perfection, and the furniture alternates between white wicker and velvet chaise longues, and there are fancy-looking paintings of apathetic people in medieval clothes, and there are wall-to-wall bookshelves packed with color-assorted spines in at least thirteen different languages, and there’s a Pomeranian on a purple silk cushion chewing on his own leg.
Artemis is about halfway through a double-take when the closed rosewood double-doors in the center of the opposite wall are suddenly flung open. The Pomeranian yips furiously and starts, like, vibrating in terror. Artemis jumps, loses her balance, and collapses back into one of the wicker chairs.
Oliver comes storming in and Artemis is suddenly reminded of the fact that he’s actually a king, because seriously, only kings ever enter rooms the way he does, with his suit coat slightly fluttering and his goatee bristling and the sunlight hitting him full-blast like he’s a more comical version of Louis XIV. Dinah, as put-together as ever and in even higher stilettos than Artemis saw last time, which she hadn’t even thought was possible, bustles in behind him, wearing a black pencil skirt and a white blouse with a ruffle at the neck pinned with an ebony-and-gold brooch, her arms crossed symmetrically at her chest. Her earpiece is still firmly in place, but she’s not wearing sunglasses, so, hey, a revelation!: She has blue eyes.
Oliver’s nostrils flare as he surveys the room closely. His eyes finally fall on Artemis, who’s still sprawled askew in the chair, and his eyebrows shoot up.
“My God,” he croaks. “It’s worse than I thought.”
“Ollie, please,” Dinah says under her breath, and he deflates, looking shamefaced. She turns to Artemis and does that wry, knowing smile of hers. “I can see you’ve already made yourself comfortable.”
Artemis coughs and manages to subtly scramble into a sitting position that’s actually normal, taking extra care to keep her knees together and fold her hands in her lap.
She doesn’t really know what to do beyond that, though, so she just stares at them.
Oliver stares back for exactly three seconds before clapping his hands and booming, “Banter, Artemis! One of the most basic talents a royal should have!”
“Uh,” Artemis says.
“Followed!” Oliver continues. “By charisma, waltzing, archery, calmness under pressure, and wilderness survival.” He pauses, stroking his goatee pensively. “And toilet-cleaning. That will be very useful at the palace. Cut our janitorial budget down by at least forty percent...”
“Anyway,” Dinah cuts in warmly, giving a brisk sigh and putting her hands on her hips, looking Artemis up and down with a raised eyebrow and a half-smirk, “Are you ready to get started?”
“Was Jay Gatsby ready to be shot in his pool?” Artemis deadpans venomously.
Oliver throws his head back and chortles before leaning down and clapping Artemis on the shoulder.
“Arcerbic wit!” he exclaims approvingly. Artemis’s whole arm is numb. Oliver must have taken secret Vlatavan nerve pinch lessons. “Marvelous! Now, then, Dinah—where did we decide to begin?”
Artemis can’t be sure, because it’s quiet, but she swears she hears Dinah snort. Just in case, she glowers.
“I believe we wanted to start out with presentation and appearance,” Dinah replies like she’s relishing every word. “How does that sound, Artemis?”
Artemis lets her knees slacken away from each other again and slumps churlishly.
“Delightful,” she growls.
From the velvet cushion, there’s a sudden intense gurgling/snorting sound, sort of like a growl, but a growl with a sinus infection and too much mouthwash. Artemis’s eyes dart over to find the Pomeranian aggressively chewing on one of the little gold tassels, his eyes wild.
“Arsenal!” Oliver barks. He claps his hands loudly, four times, and Arsenal the Pomeranian yelps in terror, starting to turn around repeatedly on his cushion and still gurgle-growling.
“That is the most neurotic dog I’ve ever seen,” Artemis says before she can stop herself.
Dinah does that near-silent snort again, but Oliver looks insulted.
“Neurotic!” he exclaims. “I’ll have you know that Arsenal is the finest purebred Pomeranian the palace has seen in decades. And he’s a marvelous hunter!”
Arsenal starts going at his leg again and Oliver frowns.
“Though I do wish he’d stop stress-chewing his own limbs; it’s dreadful.” He tugs at his goatee. “And he has such a temper.”
If you want the truth, the poufy little dog looks like even if he had the worst temper in the world he’d be totally harmless, unless people could be incapacitated by being yipped at and having their ankles chewed on. There’s this disconcerting look in Arsenal’s eyes, though. Like he’s seen things. But like, Oliver’s his owner, so that would explain a lot.
Jerking her out of her introspection, Oliver suddenly grabs her hand and yanks it up to closer inspect it. She’s basically lifted half-off the couch, hissing “ow ow ow ow ow” as he practically dislocates her shoulder.
“We’ll have to grow these nails out,” he says crisply, nodding as if agreeing with his assessment. “Yes, yes. Bitten-down nails are an absolute dealbreaker. Shameful. Completely shameful.”
He releases her hand and she drops back down onto the seat, and as Dinah looks on in blatant amusement, he stalks around to the back of the chair and grasps Artemis’s braid, lifting it up and sniffing disdainfully.
“Good grief,” he murmurs in a tortured way, and Artemis knows that if she could turn her head without ripping her scalp off, she’d find him covering his eyes with one hand. “How can you have so much beautiful hair and not have the slightest ability to do anything with it?”
“Hey,” Artemis protests, annoyed.
“And none of this ‘hey’ nonsense,” Oliver chides her, letting go of the braid and spinning on his heel to appropriately start to pace the room. Artemis rubs her head where he’d pulled her hair and pouts at him. He puts one arm behind his back and gesticulates with the other, walking past the floor-to-ceiling windows. “You must speak with grace, poise, eloquence, wit! Power! Authority! Conviction! Diction! Sometimes infliction.” He gets a wicked gleam in his eyes. “Quickly, what is the longest word you know?”
“Uh,” Artemis flummoxes, all deer-in-the-headlights-of-a-monster-truck. “Sesquipedalian, maybe?”
Oliver doesn’t look amused. His loss. That was a great joke.
“There you go,” Dinah says, and when Artemis looks over, she’s smiling with satisfaction. She raises her eyebrows at Oliver. “Eloquence and wit.”
“Preceded by ‘uh,’” Oliver retorts, and then he wags his finger at Artemis—literally wags it; she is not making this up! “Young lady, we have to axe this ‘uh’ and ‘um’ and ‘like’ and ‘well’ poppycock. Amputate filler words immediately!”
It’s official. This guy is totally whacked.
“I thought we were working on presentation,” Artemis mumbles instead of explaining to him that he’s completely off his rocker.
“Speak up!” Oliver orders. Artemis grinds her teeth.
“Your Majesty,” she tries again, fiercely enunciating each syllable with vitriol, “I was under the impression that we would be trying to improve my presentation today.”
“Being well-spoken is a very large part of presentation!” Oliver declares, hooking his thumbs into the pockets of his brocade vest. “Not only should you look, at your worst, presentable; at your best, dazzling, but you should always sound presentable and articulate. They frown upon ‘ums’ and ‘likes’ over at the U.N.; trust me.”
“The U.N. doesn’t even know I exist,” Artemis snaps, “So I don’t think it’s quite fair to let them have a say.”
“They absolutely know you exist,” Dinah interjects. “Every government does. You aren’t an international secret, Artemis; your birth was one of the media events of the decade. It’s just that right now, your location and identity are being concealed to best afford you a normal life.”
Artemis frowns, her lips thinning.
“That’s very considerate,” she hisses.
Dinah shrugs. Oliver is back to being engrossed with Artemis’s hair.
“You’ll have to learn to braid this properly,” he decides. “And comb it more than just the once a day I assume you do. We’ll go through traditional Vlatavan braiding techniques much later, but for now, just start trying to tame this mess, for Pete’s sake.”
Artemis likes having virtually untamable hair. It makes her feel like a fierce jungle cat. She settles for pursing her lips and squinting pettishly up at Oliver, who grimaces.
“What an ugly expression,” he says, waving a hand. “We’ll work on that too.”
Artemis half-gasps and half-scoffs.
“Is there anything about me you do like?” she demands angrily, not that she actually cares; she’s just trying to draw his attention to the fact that he’s being a total dickweed.
Oliver twirls the tip of his goatee and tilts his head, humming pensively.
“You have lovely skin,” Dinah comments when he doesn’t say anything. “And when you actually have the decency to smile, they’re very nice.”
Artemis stares at her.
“Um...” She blinks, feeling her lips twitch just slightly. “Thank you.”
“No ‘ums!’” Oliver cuts in. Aside, he mutters, “Looks like we’ll also have to work on listening abilities...”
“I can hear you just fine,” Artemis snaps. “Sorry for talking like a normal human being.”
“And you should be!” Oliver ripostes, but his expression is much more solemn than it’s been all afternoon. “Artemis, don’t you understand? When you engage in your duties as princess, you no longer have the privilege of being able to act like a normal human being.”
Artemis does not like the sound of that.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the best person to rule over a large group of normal human beings a normal human being?” she asks snidely. “Revolutionary as it sounds, I’d actually like to be able to empathize with my subjects, Oliver.”
Why is she already calling them her subjects. She’s letting them win!!!
Oliver sighs, putting his hands on his hips and surveying her with folded-in lips that make his goatee rise. Dinah watches calculatingly from the background. Arsenal farts.
“Well, I can’t say that’s not an admirable philosophy,” he finally concedes, and he’s suddenly a lot softer than the blustering, flamboyant caricature of an eccentric ruler that she’d thought he was. It kind of throws her off. “But it’s difficult to rule objectively and effectively if you’re trying to please everyone. It never works out. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
Artemis loosens, just a little.
“Well, maybe that’ll change someday,” she mutters, toying with a loose thread in her skirt.
When her eyes drift up again, they see Oliver looking down at her with an air of pleasant surprise in his eyes. Dinah’s expression matches.
The tiniest smile works its way up the right corner of Artemis’s mouth.
“All right, then,” Oliver says, clapping his hands together—wow, he does that a lot—and beaming. “How about some posture lessons! Stand up.”
The smile drops like a penny from the top of the Empire State.
Artemis is going to spare the super specific, blow-by-blow details, but she’ll summarize it this way: her feet feel like they’re about to fall off, and she’s now confident that she could walk in a circle through the sunroom blindfolded. Oh, and also, she’s pretty sure there’s an indentation in her skull now matching the approximate shape of Crime and Punishment.
So, yeah, speaking of crime and unusual punishment: that’s her first day of princess lessons. She drags herself home and flops facedown onto her bed without dinner and her mom just sets her alarm clock and drapes a blanket over her.
Lesson Schedule: September 12 - December 2
WEEK ONE: Presentation & Appearance — September 12 - September 16
WEEK TWO: Posture — September 19 - September 23
WEEK THREE: Formal Dance (Waltz) — September 26 - September 30
WEEK FOUR: Vlatavan History, Country Study — October 3 - October 7
WEEK FIVE: Diction, Elementary Vlatavan — October 10 - October 14
WEEK SIX: Etiquette / Self-Defense — October 17 - October 21
WEEK SEVEN: Cooking & Baking / Papparazzi Avoidance — October 24 - October 28
WEEK EIGHT: Government Studies — November 1 - November 4 (HALLOWEEN HOLIDAY)
WEEK NINE: Crisis Management (National & International) — November 7 - November 11
WEEK TEN: Politics — November 14 - November 18
WEEK ELEVEN: Subject of Princess’s Choice — November 21 - November 25
WEEK TWELVE: Review, prepare for ball — November 28 - December 2
FRIDAY, DECEMBER 2: INTRODUCTION BALL, JAMES GORDON, SR., MEMORIAL BALLROOM, 7:00 - 12:00
Apparently she’s going to have homework in this thing, too. What beef does the universe have with her?
5 UNREAD TEXT MESSAGES
from: ZATANNA (2), GRAYSON, (510) 555-0711, UNKNOWN NUMBER
so i heard conny boy was in detention with you. tell him he still owes me a pair of safety scissors!
yo, what’s the world civ homework? 99% sure my syllabus got lost in wally’s room ugh
where are you??? ANSWER MY TEXTS, GIRL.
from: (510) 555-0711
hey this is wally, z gave me ur number, w/e
from: UNKNOWN NUMBER
watching always watching
→ Add to contacts?
ENTER NEW CONTACT’S NAME: Rudolph
RUDOLPH was added to your contacts.
“Please don’t go,” you’re sobbing out, messy and snotty tears, punctuated by a lot of whimpers and sniffles. “Please; I’ll give you a hundred dollars; I’ll rob a bank and give you a hundred dollars, okay?”
“You can’t pay me to stay, boogerface,” she mutters back, slipping her old green Nhất Nam team hoodie into the black duffle bag. “That’s not how it works.”
It’s late, and you’re tired from crying and sleepy from the dark, so you just sit down on the floor, clutching your teddy bear to your chest and hiccuping and sobbing, your mouth wide open. And it’s embarrassing, because you’re thirteen years old and thirteen-year-olds don’t have teddy bears and they don’t get sleepy at night and they definitely don’t cry.
You gulp down a breath and try to force the tears to stop coming out. Miraculously, it works, and within a few seconds, your bountiful weeping is reduced to a few periodic sniffles and prickling eyes.
She’s filled out in all the right places, but you’re still gangly and prepubescent, awkward joints and a flat chest and stringy hair and braces. You wipe your cheeks with the back of your sleeve. You’re wearing your Princess Leia pajama shirt and your cotton pants with the gingko leaves on them, but she’s ready for the road: a tank top and cargo pants and Doc Martens and a baseball cap, a chunky leather bracelet and a ring of dark dots temporarily tattooed around her right bicep and a small silver piercing in her nose.
“What’re you doing this for, anyway?” you demand, angry, sad, petulant.
“I wish I didn’t share a room with you,” she growls.
“Jade, I’m serious,” you insist, and you know your eyes are glistening. “This—this whole family’s already falling apart and you’re just gonna break it some more?”
“This family,” she bites back, finally turning to face you with her vengeful gray eyes and her sharp sneer, “is a mess anyway. Whether I stay or not isn’t going to make any difference at this point, and you don’t even get it. You don’t want to get it, Artemis. You don’t ever want to know why I’m doing this, but I can give you a hint, and that’s that our lying excuse for a family hasn’t given me much of a choice. I’m not coming back; you got that? I’m not. This is it. So suck it up, you little twerp; I don’t want you getting me caught.”
“I hate you!” you shout, and the tears are back, and you wrench your eyes closed. “Fine; go! In fact, I hope you never come back; I wouldn’t want you to in a million years! If you even try showing up again, I’m not gonna open the door for you! I hate you so much, Jade; I hate you; I hate you; I hate you!”
When you’re done hating her (the only time you ever really do, but you’ll never let yourself become aware of this), when your throat is raw and you’re lying down on the cold hardwood floor and sniffling yourself to sleep, she’s gone, all of her posters pulled down and all of her drawers emptied, and a draft comes in through the half-open window, spreading the tangy scent of her lemon hand oil and rustling her good-bye note, thumbtacked crudely to the foot of your bed.
Artemis wakes up on Saturday morning in a foul mood and she doesn’t know why, which just makes it fouler.
“How radiant you look today,” Paula comments sarcastically from the living room when Artemis comes into the kitchen wrestling a hairbrush through her ponytail. “Was it really all so bad?”
“Was what—oh,” Artemis mutters, yanking down, hard, so that she rips through a knot and whimpers. “The lesson? Uh, no, it was actually only half as torturous as I thought it’d be.”
“What is on your mind, then?” Paula asks. She adjusts her reading glasses and goes back to the newspaper laid out on the coffee table. Artemis grabs the milk carton off of the counter and tosses it back to chug out of it, so she doesn’t see the mischievous smirk crawl up her mom’s face. “A boy?”
Artemis spits out the milk.
“God, Mom; no!” she half-coughs when she’s recovered. “I’m fine; I’m just tired.”
Paula tsks lightly and turns the page.
“With good reason, I suppose,” she says. “So, what will you be doing this weekend? And did you meet Wallace yet?”
“Hold up,” she replies. “How do you know his name, exactly? And that he exists?”
Paula chuckles and takes another sip, her eyes still scanning the page breezily.
“Mr. Zatara and I chatted several weeks ago,” she explains cheerfully. “He explained to me that Zatanna’s cousin was staying here for the year. Simple.”
Great. Even her mom had known about Wally before she had. On what planet is that fair? In what galaxy is it okay that she’s the last one to be warned?
“Whatever. I met him, yeah,” she grunts back after a second. She puts the milk carton back in the fridge and opens the cabinet beside it to dig up some cereal. “As for this weekend… no clue. Sit around and let everyone down?”
That’s basically what she winds up doing.
Since Zatanna’s probably busy promoting Drama Club auditions online and Artemis would rather cut off her own leg than voluntarily hang around Dick, she spends the rest of the day holed up in her room, marathoning bad TV shows on Netflix and eating her weight in kettle corn while Jade snores and rolls around on Artemis’s stomach (which pretty much causes Artemis an early death by suffocation). Normally her mom frowns heartily upon this kind of lackadaisical behavior, but Artemis guesses she’s pardoned for a few days since she’s, you know, set up to be in charge of a country now.
Jade is pretty gassy and cranky, though, so it’s not the best lazy afternoon ever.
On Sunday, she’s even crankier, so Artemis loads up her laptop and hightails it to the library under the guise of studying, which her mom totally buys even though it’s only been a week since school started, so Artemis slinks over to her usual cubicle in the corner, the one with a bean bag instead of a swivel chair, and wastes about three hours messaging Zatanna, Dick, and—unfortunately—Wally. She goes back home at five and helps her mom make dinner and generally feels like the biggest slug on the surface of the planet Earth. Bigger than the one Jade dared her to eat that one time. (The one that she totally ate, because screw you, Jade!)
SMARTEMIS has entered the chat.
ZEAUTIFUL: wilkommen, dahling!!
DISASTROUSDICK: at last, the absent plebeian emerges from the woods of radio silence.
SMARTEMIS: good morning to you, too, wally.
WALLYBEST: youre mocking me arent you
SMARTEMIS: i literally just said a sentence
WALLYBEST: like im not sure how but i can tell youre going for it
ZEAUTIFUL: amazing. they’re only in here for six seconds and they’re already launching.
DISASTROUSDICK: a miracle of nature.
WALLYBEST: whereve you been all weekend anyway, figured youd be loitering over here
SMARTEMIS: why would i *ever* voluntarily *loiter* there?
ZEAUTIFUL: ex/cuse/ me. i’m hurt.
SMARTEMIS: one second, zatanna
DISASTROUSDICK: boom, rejected.
WALLYBEST: i mean, arent you and zatanna best friends or something, isnt that in the blood contract
DISASTROUSDICK: sign a blood contract with me, wally!!
WALLYBEST: next time you throw gumballs at my window at 3 in the morning im calling the cops grayson im not messing around
SMARTEMIS: oooh, scary. and fyi, no, we don’t even *have* a blood contract.
ZEAUTIFUL: yeah, it was a bone marrow contract, actually.
SMARTEMIS: shut up, zatanna!
SMARTEMIS: takes one to know one, huh?
WALLYBEST: shove it
SMARTEMIS: shove what, and whereabouts? i need very clear instructions if i’m going to make sure that you’re satisfied with the results.
ZEAUTIFUL: jesus, artemis, that’s disgusting; get a room.
WALLYBEST: thats what she said lol
SMARTEMIS has left the chat.
ZEAUTIFUL: nice going, mister “can-ranch-dressing-be-used-as-lube”
Artemis wouldn’t know where the question comes from no matter how many times you asked her, or how many times she thought about it. She’s clearing her and her mom’s dishes from the table and, after she sets them down next to the sink, she slackens a little, leaning her hands on the counter and staying there, with her back turned and her eyes focused on the dish towel.
“Did Dad ever actually love us?”
She clamps her mouth closed the second the words spill out, immediately regretting them. Lawrence is kind of an unspoken entity around her mom, because the general consensus in the house is that they’re better off pretending he never existed. (That way, Artemis doesn’t have a dad who abandoned her; she has a mom who stays with her. Everybody wins.)
All Artemis hears in response, at first, is silence. She cringes, but she doesn’t turn around; she just grips the edge of the counter more tightly and prays that she hasn’t just eradicated all hopes of talking to her mom for the rest of the night.
“I mean, because if—” She swallows. “He had to’ve, right? At some point. Or at least he loved you and Jade f-for a while.” (He’d always told Artemis that she was an accident, so that had nixed most of her stupid kid-hopes of being something for him to be proud of, but it doesn’t really matter much anymore.) “I mean, maybe. I’m not, like, trying to excuse him or anything; good riddance, and all, but—I guess I just don’t…” She shrugs, lamely, bowing her head. “I don’t get it, I guess. Getting married and having kids if he hated obligations and responsibility so much.” Having me. “It’s just—weird to try to understand, sometimes. Look—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t’ve said anything; it’s stupid. I shouldn’t even care.”
Hastily, clumsily, she finishes, “I don’t.”
Nice little monologue there, Artemis. Real articulate and meaningful. Keep it up.
More silence. Artemis bites her lip. Turning around and facing her mom again is looking less and less appealing with every second.
“Artemis,” Paula murmurs. “Turn around.”
Artemis grimaces, feeling an unsteady feeling start to rise in her stomach, but does as she’s told. She leans her back against the countertop, bracing herself there with the heels of her palms, and stares fixatedly at her toes.
“Look at me,” Paula says gently. Jeez, Artemis just cannot catch a break here.
She lifts her chin a little stiffly and locks eyes with Paula, sucking the inside of her cheek between her teeth and chewing it. There’s only one lamp over the kitchen table, and it needs a new bulb, so Paula is bathed in pale and dim yellow light that leaves pronounced shadows under her cheekbones and eyebrows, but Artemis can see that her gray eyes are tender and forbearing.
Paula opens her arms. “Come here.”
Artemis shuffles over, slowly, and Paula pats her own knee. Hesitantly, Artemis sits carefully down on it, wrapping her arms around her chest and glancing over at Paula shamefully. Paula lifts a hand and gently circles Artemis’s back with it, encouragingly, understandingly. Artemis feels like a little kid again, one who needs to be told for the hundredth time that no, there aren’t any monsters living in the ceiling, or that no, Daddy’s never coming home, and neither is your sister, but it’s going to be all right. It’s going to be all right.
“I think, at some time,” Paula says softly and with care, and Artemis can tell that she’s plucking up every word painstakingly, “Yes, he did. He was happy. But the man always had a tendency toward… self-sufficience, more than anything else. And I think that soon he grew tired of us, of the commitment—of the probability that he would have to change.”
She raises a finger and points at Artemis. “Do not get me wrong. Very quickly, I learned that he did not have the capacity for very much love at all; merely for… loyalty. He was cold, and he was selfish. But he would defend us, and our honor, to the death if he had to, simply because he believed he owed us that much, and always will. Love was too dangerous for him, you see. Too much of a waste. And when the time came for him to face his heritage, his duty to his country, we merely became excess weight, and he fled without us.” She narrows her eyes. “We are better off. Make no mistake.”
She softens, takes her hand away from Artemis’s spine, and pushes some hair out of Artemis’s face, cupping her cheek and patting it. “But while he may never have loved us, I do think he was grateful for the illusion we gave him, if only for a little while. And now he is happily breaking the law and being a coward about it, somewhere, which is all well and good, if that is what he wants. But you are so different from him, Artemis. I am so proud of you.”
Artemis swipes at her eye and wipes the moisture off on her pants leg. She pulls a face. “Proud? Of me?” She scoffs. “Why?”
“Because you have not run away,” Paula says, her voice swelling with emotion that makes Artemis’s stomach trip over itself. “You never run away, my girl. My wonderful girl. You are so much braver than he was. So much braver than even I am. And I know it gets you into trouble, and I know that I sometimes scold you, but I will always be proud of you for your strength. Always.”
What is up with these past few weeks? How has her body not run out of water via tear ducts? God.
“Jeez,” Artemis hears herself say shakily, and she bows her head and smiles, sheepishly, at her wrung hands. “Thanks, Mom.”
Paula claps her on the back and jostles her gently to disembark. Artemis clambers off and stands, laughing slightly, trying to surreptitiously push off the tears with the back of her wrist and probably just looking like she’s hitting herself in the face.
“Anytime,” Paula assures her. “Now go wash those dishes, you lazy girl. I do not want to see anymore dirty plates lying hither and yon in the living room!”
Artemis rolls her eyes. How quickly things change.
She goes to bed that night and sets her alarm for 7:00 the next morning, and as she pulls the covers up to her chin and rolls over to face the wall where Jade carved her initials with a pocket knife years and years ago, she doesn’t actually feel that freaked out about learning to waltz at all.
“I have a question.”
Artemis tries not to trip from being taken off-guard and glances out of the corner of her eye, to the right, to find Zatanna jogging next to her. Artemis hadn’t even heard her approaching, mostly because her eyes had been focused on Kal Durham’s butt (he’s only, like, six paces in front of her; she has the best seat in the house—no, wait, he does; get it?) and she hadn’t seen fit to pay attention to anything else.
It’s Wednesday, their weekly mile day in P.E., and it’s drizzling just slightly. The sky is an unfaltering shade of pale, dreary gray, making everyone’s bright yellow uniform t-shirts stand out even more than usual.
Zatanna’s black gym shorts say “Femme Fatale” in the white block for the names. And she’d put an iron-on Slytherin patch on the back of her shirt. Her hair is tied back, ultraviolet scrunchie and all, in a bouncy ponytail. Her sneakers are bright pink with lime-green laces. And don’t even get Artemis started on her purple leg warmers. Apparently exercise ignites a need to look like an extra in an 80s jazzercise video.
“Okay,” Artemis replies, panting just a little. “Shoot.”
“Would I seem super-clingy if I asked why you haven’t been texting me the last few days?” Zatanna inquires. They both round the corner together. “Or—wanting to hang out, or calling me, or anything. At all.”
Artemis hates this whole lying thing. She hates it more than anything. Actually, no, wait; the only thing she hates more than lying is lying to her friends. She hopes that she can pass off the strained quality of her voice as owing to the fact that she’s just finished running three-quarters of a mile.
“I’m sorry,” she says, sincerely. “It’s just, uh—my… uncle came to visit. From out of town. He’s been wanting to see me a lot and stuff. So.”
Okay, so it’s only half of a lie. Still.
Zatanna hums a little dubiously, but she seems to accept it, her eyes straying to the track in front of them as they pass the finish line and start their fourth lap.
“How long’s he gonna be around?” She does her best to wave an apathetic hand while mid-run. “I mean, not like I’m lost in a sea of darkness without you, or anything. It’s just rough, you know, not having anyone to always be able to call a fashion disaster.”
Artemis snorts in spite of herself.
“I dunno,” she answers. Some of her hair is starting to stick to her sweaty forehead.
“Just kidding,” Zatanna says, trying to sound breezy, but Artemis, even though she’s barely known her for a year, can still tell that she’s being serious. “I miss you already. Like, a lot. So… your uncle had better finish up his little family reunion, or I’m gonna have to have my father make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
The Zataras literally think that their Godfather jokes are the funniest thing in the nation; it’s so lame. But like, to be fair, Artemis is about 98% sure they have mob connections, so hey, maybe they aren’t entirely jokes after all. She doesn’t know which is more terrifying.
She opens her mouth to promise her best friend that she will try to actually make an effort to spend time with her, that their friendship is not at risk of imploding, that her Uncle Oliver is not that important, and a host of other uncertainties, but just then, a flash of orange sparks in her peripheral vision.
Seeming to have materialized out of nowhere, Wally is presently jogging backwards on her left, all choice areas of his shirt darkened with sweat and all the most annoying areas of his face formed around a smirk.
“Hurry up, ladies; you’re holding up traffic.” He snickers, his arms pumping, but after a second, he cranes his neck and the smirk fades into a goofy, lovelorn smile, his eyes focusing on a point Artemis can’t see. “Or, in special cases… stopping it.”
Artemis can’t help herself. She turns her head over her shoulder. If she’s going to hit him for ogling an innocent girl, she should at least know what the innocent girl looks like, right?
She almost trips. Innocent Girl is Megan Morse, running only a few paces behind them, her long auburn ponytail swinging behind her, her face flushed with effort and concentration. Two white earbuds are planted firmly in her ears, connected to a bright blue iPod fastened to the waistband of her shorts.
“Keep your eyes on the road, Officer,” Artemis sneers, turning swiftly back around. “Didn’t you finish your mile, like, two laps ago?”
“Sure,” Wally replies, looking cocky. “Just felt like getting in a little extra exercise. That’s not a crime, is it?”
“I didn’t say it was,” Artemis grinds out through her clenched teeth. Please, Zatanna; be a buffer.
She hears a familiar cackle out of her right ear and her eyes dart over and well, so much for Zatanna being a buffer; she’s currently running in time with a newly appeared Dick and laughing brightly along with him. Perfect.
“What’s got you in such a sunny mood?” Wally asks snidely. “And what’s with the legs? Lose a fight with a razor?”
Artemis always cuts herself when she shaves her legs, so they’re usually decked out in enough circular little Band-Aids to play connect-the-dots with. It’s not as apparent when she’s wearing her socks, and Wally hasn’t seen her in civvies yet anyway, thank God, so this is new intel for him.
“I’m going to answer both of those with a resounding ‘None of your business,’” Artemis fires back, already losing her patience. “Maybe with an echo of ‘Go away.’”
“Ouch.” Wally snickers again, and even though Artemis doesn’t turn her head, which is significantly harder to keep up now that Kal’s done with his mile and she can’t use his butt as an anchor, she can envision Wally’s face perfectly: scrunched up and amused, with a sharp little smile and a show of uneven teeth. “We’d better give the beast a wide berth, Zat.”
“Hmm?” Zatanna hums back absently, still in the middle of a hushed conversation with Dick, and how is that little shrimp keeping up with them, anyway; his legs are, like, the length and density of a Twizzler! “Oh. Be nice, Artemis.”
“It is law,” Dick chirps mirthfully. Artemis is sorely disappointed that he’s too far away to sock in the ear.
“See? Even Zatanna thinks you’re being a buzzkill,” Wally says triumphantly. “So what’s the deal, moray eel?”
Why, oh why, are all of his insults so terrible?
“Trust me, if I had a deal, you’d be the last to know,” Artemis bites back, and then, unable to stand being sandwiched between her uncooperative best friend and the Boy Who Takes No Hints, she sucks in a sharp breath and surges ahead, sprinting the rest of the way. Either Wally chooses not to try catching up to her, or she actually beats him. She’ll go for the second option.
Her side cramps up. She doesn’t care; it’s worth it. Even though she gets a Charley horse when she’s supposed to be doing high heel walks in Oliver’s study. Whatever. Dinah manages to talk him down from calling the hospital because he thinks it’s a blood clot, and while he’s distracted, Artemis has an opening to steal a fistful of the lemon candies he keeps in the glass jar by his desk, so it’s not all bad.
Screaming in agony was not the way Artemis had expected her Thursday afternoon to go.
Okay, fine, not agony. And maybe the screaming is more like intermittent yelping. Are you seriously going to argue with her about semantics when her ribs are being crushed by whale bone?
“Why,” she wheezes after Oliver yanks especially hard on one of the corset laces. “Why are you doing this to me?”
“If there’s a surefire way to improve posture overnight,” Oliver declares jovially, “It’s to get you into a corset! Hold still.”
He pushes against her mid-back with his foot and tugs the laces against the force, causing Artemis to make a strangled noise that sounds remarkably similar to the noise that comes out of Jade when she gets stuck in her litterbox doorway.
“Why are you letting him do this to me?” Artemis rasps at Dinah, who’s perched on the arm of the dark green leather couch, taking meticulous notes on her PDA.
Dinah shrugs, smirking up at Artemis over her reading glasses.
“Good for morale,” she replies wryly. Artemis gurgles again.
Oliver ties off the laces tightly at the base of Artemis’s back and steps back to admire his handiwork, beaming so that his moustache practically goes diagonal.
“Don’t move,” he whispers, throwing his arms forward. “It’s perfect.”
It totally isn’t, by the way. Do not ever trust Oliver’s analysis of any situation, especially if it involves the female wardrobe or an international crisis of pandemic proportions. Artemis is now pretty sure that she knows what it feels like to have two bowling balls compressing her intestines from either side.
“I’m going to kill you,” she croaks. “It’ll be quick, and it’ll be painful.”
“Work on getting out of the corset first.” Dinah snorts, jotting something down. “Which will not be quick.”
“Speaking from experience?” Oliver asks with a subtle waggle of his eyebrows.
Artemis totally sees it, though. She gags.
That Friday—the next day, actually—Mr. Carr hands out their Country Case Study project assignments in World Civ. Or, well, he passes around his bowler hat, which is filled up with slips of paper that everyone’s supposed to draw at random, but Artemis definitely catches Raquel Ervin, the soccer team captain, looking at about five before she settles on one and passes it along. The stupid thing’s due on October 20, the week before Homecoming, which gives them about a month.
“Oh, goody,” Zatanna exclaims elatedly after she unfolds hers and hands the hat to Artemis. “Markovia!”
“Bialya!” Dick cheers from two seats down.
“What’s yours?” Zatanna inquires, leaning over.
The universe must really get a kick out of screwing around with Artemis. Really. There’s no other explanation.
She stares sourly down at the slip of paper in her hands.
“Vlatava,” she grinds out.
Remind Artemis never to ask Oliver for help with her homework again, especially if it involves Vlatavan history. You’d think that, what with her being the PRINCESS OF THE COUNTRY, HELLO, she’d be able to access his glass case of first-edition Vlatavan historical encyclopaedias and records at her leisure, but noooo. Apparently breaking some vase his grandfather hand-made for him from blown glass takes away her basic human rights.
Totally his fault. Maybe if he hadn’t asked her to try waltzing where there were fragile things perched precariously on precipices, he wouldn’t have to cry himself to sleep. You live and you learn, Oliver. Is this guy seriously her uncle? Are they seriously related by blood, sort of?
“However, this is an excellent opportunity!” Oliver declares, pointing one finger in the air. “We’ll hold off on your self-defense lessons for another two weeks and bump up the history lessons.”
Artemis perks up. “Whoa, what? Self-defense?” Now we’re talking.
Oliver grumbles something under his breath about “Dinah insisted” and “Totally barbaric” and “Could be using this time to teach her how to make chili.” Artemis whirls around to gaze adoringly at Dinah, who’s currently fishing out the first volume of Vlatavan history for her. Dinah instinctively senses Artemis’s eyes on her, and glances subtly over her shoulder to wink.
“Stop encouraging her, Dinah,” Oliver huffs. “She needs to learn to stand on her own two feet!”
“Well, gee, Ol, that sounds just like what self-defense will help her out with,” Dinah retorts crisply, locking the glass case and hefting one dark blue tome in one hand. She pivots around on her stiletto and puts one hand on her jutted out hip, cocking an eyebrow at Oliver. “In the meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to help her with her history report. I thought you were all over getting her educated on the Vlatavan saga. Cut her some slack.”
“Yeah, Uncle Oliver; cut me some slack,” Artemis agrees with a victorious look. Oliver stares wearily at her before slumping in defeat, his goatee drooping.
“Fine, fine,” he concedes begrudgingly. “I’ll have the butler make us some tea.”
A wise choice. He tried to make Artemis brew tea that past Monday and she’d almost killed them all.
He sends the request off to the butler and the three of them all troop off to the sunroom—Oliver doesn’t trust Artemis near the artifacts in his study for more than five ultra-supervised minutes at a time—and when they enter, Artemis is pleasantly surprised to find that it’s pouring rain outside, drenching Oliver’s many roses and brightly colored hydrangeas, every drop of water rattling against the glass.
September’s almost over, so Gotham has pretty much settled into its daily autumn-and-winter routine of raining constantly. Oliver has expressed his disdain for the weather like a hundred times, and Zatanna’s complaints about not being able to maintain a decent hairdo during a thunderstorm have not fallen on deaf ears (they haven’t given ears many other options, actually), but Artemis has always loved Gotham’s grayer months. She doesn’t know why, exactly. But apparently it doesn’t rain much in Vlatava, so that’s a major point docked right there.
Oliver clears his throat. “Artemis, I’ve been meaning to discuss something with you.”
Artemis turns, still standing. He’s taken a seat in one of the wicker chairs, right next to Arsenal, who’s frozen, staring at the opposite wall with bugged-out eyes like maybe if he stands still enough, Oliver won’t notice he’s there. Dinah, as always, never sitting, is poised attentively behind him.
Artemis blinks at the both of them. They look significantly less obnoxious than they had a couple of weeks ago.
“Uh—” She starts to reply, and then gives a start and corrects herself. “Pardon me. Go for it. I mean, discuss. I mean—”
Oliver pinches the bridge of his nose and Dinah folds her lips in to smother a smile.
“I understand that, even in this short time, many of the things we’ve gone over have been a... bit of a bore for you.” Oliver taps his thumbs together, frowning pensively at his lap. “So I wanted to offer to teach you something a little different. Something a little more fun. As you know, two of Vlatava’s deepest-rooted facets of culture lie in our love for gourmet chili, and our love for archery. So…”
He sits up, puffing out his chest.
“I’m prepared to either teach you cooking or archery,” he finishes. “Your choice entirely.”
At the mention of archery—at the thought of grasping a bowstring for the first time since she and Jade learned it at summer camp, at the thought of fletching grazing her face like a blade of grass—something sparks in the caverns of Artemis’s chest, just for a second, and then it’s gone.
It’s enough, though, to brand an unstoppable grin onto her face.
“Dude,” she exclaims, all self-consciousness about verbal poise gone, “Is that even a question?”
Oliver beams. “Cooking, then!”
So Wally texts her at like, 11 at night the next week on Friday, for some reason.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE (sent Sept. 24)
zees worried about you yknow
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
then why doesn’t zee tell me herself? and what’s she worried about?
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
idk, i dont think she wants to bother you. i mean if you wanted to hang out w/ her youd say so right?
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
i dont actually care or anything, its just a pain living here when shes all mopey because she burns food all the time and binge eats my oreos. MY oreos!!!!!!
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
why, wallace, if i didn’t know any better i’d say you had your distant cousin’s best interests at heart.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
just get in touch with her ok, idk if youre always this distant but if you are then stop it, shes all flipped out
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
also do you have a blowtorch?
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
dick and i wanna see what happens when you light a ceiling fan on fire and then turn it on so it spins
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
whoa, wait, what? since when is he dick??
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
are you guys like suddenly best friends now?
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
uh… well… yeah i guess. now that you mention it yeah
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
i thought you hated him!
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
im prone to changing my mind like all the time
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
but dont get your hopes up your worshipfulness, i still hate you
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
oh good, i was so worried.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
seriously tho. will you just call zatanna?
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
please? like right now? PLEASE?
“Hello?” Zatanna answers calmly, and right then and there Artemis knows she’s in trouble, because Zatanna didn’t leap into the conversation without preamble, the way she always does.
“Hey,” Artemis greets her hesitantly. “Wally told me to call. Everything okay?”
“Did he now?” Zatanna’s voice is airy, the way it gets when she’s trying to sound aloof. “Interesting. And I mean, things are basically fine, except for the fact that I wouldn’t know if my best friend was dead or alive if she didn’t show up at school every day.”
“Zee, I’m sorry,” Artemis mumbles lamely after a strained beat too long. “It’s just—my uncle…”
“Yeah, I…” Zatanna’s voice trails off, and much of the coldness leaves it, making way for a sort of resigned dullness. “I know. And I’m not going to hate on you hanging out with your uncle; it totally makes sense. I just miss you a lot, you know? When you’re not around, the only person I can hang out with is Richard, and Wally’s basically a light fixture at this point, I guess, but all I ever hear about from him is you, and no offense? But when he gets started, even my boredom is bored.”
Artemis was almost halfway submerged in mushy feelings about how even though she and Zatanna have only been friends for a year, they still get massive separation anxiety, but she’s dunked into the ice-cold waters of bewilderment instead at the latter part of that little list of woes.
“Oh, come on; don’t act like you’re surprised,” Zatanna huffs. “He’s totally into you.”
Artemis can feel the color draining from her face and the half-digested food rising in her stomach. Why did this conversation have to take a sudden turn for the terrifying?
“Yeah, sure, Zee, and Han Solo’s into Princess Leia,” she retorts. Good one. To be fair, she’s only seen the first Star Wars movie, at Wally’s belligerent behest, and only a week ago, on Netflix, but she can still feign essential pop culture wisdom, right?
Oh, whoa, she does not like the sound of Zatanna’s laugh.
“Watch the other movies,” Zatanna finally says cryptically, as though that settles the matter. “He has all three of them on Blu-Ray. Hint, hint. So this uncle guy of yours, what’s he like? Is he cute?”
“You’re repulsive,” Artemis splutters, her cheeks reddening. “And he’s not like anything, really; he’s actually super lame, but he, uh, has—a thing… this disease thing. So he’s trying to reconnect with his family or something.”
“And is this a relative on your mom’s side or your dad’s?” Zatanna asks. “I mean, I’m just trying to figure out genes here. Genes that could contribute to him being cute.”
“God, Zee, he’s like 40!” Artemis hisses, appalled. “And he has a goatee!”
“You didn’t answer my ques-tionnnn,” Zatanna sings, and Artemis groans.
“Um.” To lie or not to lie? Crap, she said “um.” Stop that, Artemis. No, not saying “um”; stop noticing! To lie. “My mom’s.”
“Funzo,” Zatanna says. She’s all chipper again, making gross implications and conjuring up words. “By the dubs, can you help decorate the gym with me on the 28th of October? Dick’ll be there too, and some other people.” Wickedly, she corrects herself: “Natural slaves.”
Artemis shakes her head and decides to change the subject. “Y’know, Wally really loves you a lot.”
“You are the one saying these words to me?” Zatanna scoffs. “What a world.”
“Zee, I’m serious,” Artemis insists, and she doesn’t know why she’s putting in good words for Wally, or why the thought of hearing Wally loves you a lot, Artemis, is making her skin not crawl but start to get warm. “He wouldn’t let me off the hook until I called you. He wanted to make sure you were okay. So, uh, give him extra spaghetti tonight, or something.”
“Dad’s out of town, so we’re having Taco Bell,” Zatanna chirps, but when she speaks again, her voice is softer. “Thanks for the memo, Art.”
Artemis smiles just slightly to herself before noticing, out of the corner of her eye, that it’s already 11:30.
“Hey, it’s late, so I think I’m gonna turn in,” she says with a sigh. “But… still friends?”
“Are you joking?” Zatanna snorts. “Like you’d ever get out of this friendship that easily. Night.”
“Night,” Artemis replies, and hangs up.
She stares at her phone screen for a while and thumbs through all of the numbers. It’s old, so there are a few names that make her stomach stumble a little—Cameron, her friend from Gotham North who she never talks to anymore; Jade, her junior high cell phone number, now deactivated; Dad, at his work number.
Artemis bites her lip and frowns hesitantly at the contact labeled Dad. After a while—after hovering her thumb over the screen for what feels like forever—she taps the little trash can icon before she can second-guess herself and clicks the screen off.
If it had to be anyone—anyone, anyone at all—why, why, why, why, why him? AND WHY ON A MONDAY?!
“Artemis?” Dick exclaims like the cat that’s just swallowed maybe a dozen canaries and plans on eating a few more. He’s poised on his tiptoes on the street corner, right beside her, grinning widely with one hand on his backpack strap and the other perched on his hip. “What are you doing on this posh side of town? And without Zatanna?”
Artemis has inherited a lot of helpful traits—a propensity for violence, for example—but lying is not and never will be one of them.
“I’m, uh,” she flummoxes, “Here to see... my cousin. She’s in the state spelling bee. Over here. She’s having a party. At her mansion. For the spelling bee.”
She does not know why it had taken her this long to notice that Wayne Manor is about three properties down the street from Oliver’s villa. Good work, girl genius Artemis Crock. No wonder you’re not in the Computer Club.
Dick springs back and forth on the balls of his feet, never dropping the sharklike grin. Artemis quickly goes through potential last requests.
“C-O-O-L,” he croons, waggling his eyebrows. “Hope you have lots of... F-U-N.”
“T-H-A-N-K-S,” Artemis growls, practically threatens, shouldering past him.
“So who’s your cousin?” he chirps, twirling around to face her retreating back. “Everybody knows everybody around here. Maybe, I dunno, I've accidentally hacked their security cameras before."
An organ starts playing in Artemis’s head. It sounds like a funeral march.
“Uhhhh...” She scratches her head, stuttering. “They, uh, just... moved here! Yeah! So you probably don’t know them. They don’t really get out much, uh, very shy and stuff.”
“Aha,” Dick breathes with a slow nod. “Clearly not genetic.”
Artemis bristles. “Can I go now?”
“Oh, right, of course. It must be stressful for someone so meek and unassuming to be trapped without you.” Dick giggles. “A bientôt! Oh, and feel free to drop by the Manor on your way back from your wild party; we’re having salmon for dinner.”
“Thank you. I will keep that in mind,” Artemis grinds out, and briskly walks as far away from Dick as possible.
“Good lord,” Oliver exclaims with high eyebrows when Artemis comes stomping into the dining room for her banquet behavior lesson. “Did someone try to rob you?”
“Certainly not,” Dinah says crisply, licking her thumb and turning a page in her true crime novel. “If they had, she’d have their blood on her boots.”
“No,” Artemis grumbles back, shedding her bookbag and blazer. “But I think I’m gonna have to be a little tighter about maintaining cover; my friend just caught me walking over here outside.”
Oliver rises from the table, his eyes intent.
“How much does he know?” he demands. “Dinah, write up an assassination form; that’s an order.”
All Artemis is saying is, Dick’s damn lucky that all of Vlatava’s best assassins are preoccupied with corrupt Bialya politicians right now; otherwise he would be in sooooo much trouble.
A little-known fact is that Vlatavan history alternates between being really terrible and really hilarious. It makes sense that it’s so little-known, because no one in their right mind would care about Vlatava, the country that famously had an internal war over asparagus fields in the 1850s and whose national bird is the Wood-Pigeon, but Artemis seriously pities anyone who doesn’t know some of this stuff.
Oliver tells her that King Ulf had an estranged brother, Dietrich, who was convinced that his destiny in life was to seek out a magical field where potatoes grew year-round in excess. But then Dietrich’s children died of measles, so he got kind of bummed out and became a priest or something. And then there’s Queen Sybill’s kids, Josef, Anton, and Ilsa; Ilsa was the only one who ever got anything done, but when she was a kid she and Josef used to lock their dad, King Amadeus, who was from Germany, in the dungeons and stuff, because they thought it was funny. Ilsa literally locked everyone in the dungeons, though—one time, she locked her horse down there for bucking too much.
And then, then, there was this flood in 1892 when Belinda was in charge that screwed up all of Vlatava’s roads big time, so they used all of the town baker’s day-old breads and the local farmers’ dud pumpkins to sort-of pave the roads until they could get enough rocks for it? And then Brünhilde, like, cut off Anton’s hand because she was convinced the royal family had somehow murdered her twin brother Tomas even though he died of dysentery, but Anton took it like a champ and got a fake hand made out of silver; how cool is that? Whatever, Brünhilde.
The archery fad was started in 1771 when Queen Camilla, Ulf’s wife (some, like, barmaid he found in Austria), carted along her bow and arrow and targets from her farm after they got married and she moved into the palace. She used to practice on the servants who didn’t make her foot bath water warm enough. With soft arrow tips; don’t worry! Ever since then, though, the Vlatavan people have been critically unable to grow out of their giant history-boner for Camilla, so archery has actually become their national sport; like, if you are a teenager in Vlatava and you don’t do archery, it’s basically the equivalent of being Billy Batson here. Yeah.
Despite how ridiculous all of it is, though, Artemis remembers it all pretty well—well enough for her to build up a super solid Country Case Study—with a posterboard and everything; one that folds out into three panels—and get a passing grade on the quiz Oliver surprises her with on Thursday the seventh.
Quiz | October 7, 2011
1. Who was King of Vlatava during World War I? For what was he famous?
King Marius. He famously slept through the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
2. What ought one do when asked to dance at a formal ball by a representative from one of Vlatava’s allied countries?
Accept graciously. Dance a perfect Vlatavan waltz. Do not embarrass the Vlatavan royal family under any circumstances. Curtsy when you are done.
3. Define Machiavellianism.
The policy of gaining and maintaining political power, particularly the princely kind, by being a lying, manipulative pakaļu.
4. Translate the following sentence into Vlatavan: “On Wednesdays, I must attend meetings with the president of Czechoslovakia.”
The question is flawed. It’s called the Czech Republic and has been since the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993. God, Oliver.
Fine. Trešdienās, man ir jāapmeklē tikšanās ar prezidentu Čehoslovākijā.
5. Name three of Vlatava’s largest exports.
Chili powder, oakwood thumb rings, goat milk.
6. On what date was the Vlatavan monarchy reinstated?
February 29, 1992.
7. Describe the proper etiquette to be used when taken hostage by a hostile party.
Ask for water when necessary. Do not aggravate or nag kidnappers. Do what they say, tactfully mention favorable facts about Vlatava, and find a way out of your bonds so that you can strangle them with your bare hands in time for pâté at the palace.
8. Define contingent sovereignty.
The modern philosophy of refusing the policy of non-intervention in international affairs.
9. Which war was eventually resolved by Princess Ilsa’s purchase of sixty mules?
The Great Asparagus War of 1851.
10. List all Vlatavan national holidays and their dates.
Christmas Eve (December 24), Christmas Day (December 25), Easter Sunday (varies), Easter Monday (varies), Ash Wednesday (varies), Asparagus Day (April 9), Good Friday (varies), Jāņi (June 22), National Wine Day, Restoration of Independence Day (February 29), Ulf Day (October 17), Feline Celebration Day/New Year’s Day (January 1), Overlooked Day (May 25), Mourning Day (November 11), and, depending on the year, the entire week of the Olympics.
11. Explain the history behind Asparagus Day, Restoration of Independence Day, Ulf Day, Feline Celebration Day, Overlooked Day, and Mourning Day.
Wow, Ollie, way to give away like six of the answers. You’re lucky these are on the second page.
- Asparagus Day: created in 1851 to celebrate the end of the Great Asparagus War
- Restoration of Independence Day: falls on the date of Vlatava’s independence from the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War
- Ulf Day: created in 1972 to honor Vlatava’s first king and founder
- Feline Celebration Day: instated by Queen Lara some months before her death in a fit of senility; falls on the date of birth of Schrödinger, the royal cat (Queen Lara was such a weirdo). Also New Year’s Day, which is kind of confusing
- Overlooked Day: created sometime in the 19th century by either Belinda, Johanna, or Vita, one of whom felt like creating a national holiday and decided that May 25th needed some recognition or something
- Mourning Day: the date of Queen Perdita’s death; all Vlatavans get the day off work and volley shots are fired at sunset by the Royal Guard
12. What type of government does Vlatava have?
Parliamentary monarchy. You might say they even have an… Ollie-garchy.
If you don’t give me extra credit for that amazing joke, I swear.
13. Under what circumstances should a member of the royal family run away from his or her duties?
Any circumstances they want.
14. How do you say “Quiet, please” in Vlatavan?
15. What kind of gambling is legal in Vlatava?
None, because Vlatava’s boring.
16. Answer with your full royal name and title. Follow with the full royal name and title of the current king of Vlatava.
Her Royal Highness Princess Artemis Perdita Lian Something of Vlatava, the Ferocious and Unwilling, Watcher of the Asparagus Fields, Archer of Sybill, Revered Discipline Case, the Conquerer.
His Revered Majesty King Oliver, the Embarrassing, who sucks.
She thought she did okay on that quiz, but apparently she accidentally wrote the Vlatavan phrase for “Fall down, please,” instead of “Quiet, please,” and the Great Asparagus War happened in 1854, not 1851, and Oliver didn’t appreciate her full royal name and title answers or her amazing pun or her colorful Vlatavan insult stuck into the answer about Machiavellianism (which he also marked her down for), and strangling your kidnappers is apparently frowned upon by Vlatavan etiquette standards?
This is the dumbest country in history; Artemis would take Chemistry homework over Ollie’s stupid quizzes any day.
Haha, no, that’s a lie.
NOTE TO SELF: Gauche caviar isn’t caviar made by peasants. It’s a pejorative French term for hypocritical socialists. Also, Dinah wants a list of top 10 admirable women by Tuesday, 10/11
If Artemis’s Friends & Acquaintances had Royal Names & Titles:
- Her Fashionable Highness Zatanna Sindella Zorina Zatara, Defeater of the Pantsless Principal, Wielder of Card Tricks and Go-Go Boots, the Chic and Marvelous, Manipulator of the Law, the Magician
- His Malevolent Highness Richard John Grayson, the Cackling Wunderkind of Bram, Count of the Orfordian Potato Fields, the Felonious
- His Stupid Hotness—Highness—whatever Wallace Rudolph West, the Freckled, Runner of Phineas, Consumer of Cheeseburgers, the Alchemist, the Fleet-Footed, the Annoying
- His Serene Majesty Kal Durham, the High-Cheekboned, the Pensive, Explorer of the Adriatic, the Shouldered One
- Conner, the Murderous Peasant
- ADDED OCTOBER 27: Her Merciful Majesty Megan Morse, the Meek, Protector of the People, Keeper of the Oreos, Braider of Hair
Artemis Crock’s List of Top 10 Admirable Women (In No Particular Order)
Composed October 9
- Lucy Liu. Next to the dictionary definition of a “baller,” you will not, as Wally insists, find a picture of Han Solo—you will find a picture of Lucy Liu.
- Princess Grace. Otherwise known as the one person on the planet Artemis has heard of who could deal with just becoming a princess. She ran a small principality. She always played cool femme fatales when she did movies. She had great hair. Artemis doesn’t even know why she bothered officially becoming a princess because she was basically one to begin with. And she solved the Monaco Succession Crisis. She was pretty cool. If Artemis does have to roll with this princess thing, at least she has a slight chance of being like Grace Kelly. Except for the fact that her family had to pay dowry; that was lame. Artemis is not joking when she says she would marry Grace Kelly for free.
- Dinah Lance. And she’s not just doing this to suck up, either. Dinah could murder someone in high heels without spilling her champagne or messing up her hair and that is amazing.
- Marii Hasegawa. Not that Artemis was alive during the Vietnam War, or anything, but she’s one hundred and ten percent sure it sucked and was stupid, and Marii Hasegawa had the same idea and she did a bunch of awesome stuff for the WILPF.
- Hermione Granger. Ron’s right. He and Harry would not have ever lasted two days without Hermione, or probably two hours. It’s been a while since Artemis read the books but she definitely remembers Hermione doing all the work and it taking way too long for Ron to realize how totally awesome she was.
- Princess Leia. Oh, did you want to put Princess Leia in a skimpy outfit? Allow her to brutally strangle you while wearing that. Wally’s a moron—Princess Leia is the true baller of Star Wars.
- Eleanor Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher are tied. Does she even need a reason?
- Her mom, probably. Even though she’s crazy overbearing sometimes, she could shut up anybody on the planet with a single glare if she wanted to, and that takes talent. Artemis hopes it’s genetic.
- Alice from Alice in Wonderland. She’s pretty level-headed for all the crap she has to go through, and she outsmarts the Queen of Hearts, and she makes friends with a psycho teleporting cat, and she goes back home after all of it and doesn’t even care how different she is. Alice is Artemis’s hero.
- Kate Bishop. Come on, she’s awesome. Teenage non-superpowered archer who’s on a team of meta-humans? Coped with being assaulted by rising above the spineless jerks who did it and taking up combat training and saving the world, because who gives a crap? Gives her mentor what-for on a daily basis and is always right? Best. Lady. Ever.
“A good list,” Dinah proclaims sagely, and Artemis feels a deep sense of pride and fulfillment.
“Who the blazes is Hermione Granger?” Oliver demands, and Artemis feels a deep sense of shame and horror.
The rest of the lesson basically consists of Artemis having to extensively expand on every single choice for Ollie’s benefit while Dinah downs cheese hors d’œuvres like they’re tic-tacs, and when the grandfather clock rings out five o’clock, Artemis is already halfway off the couch.
She’s just about to cross the street and head down the sidewalk back toward home, but she halts in her tracks and glances to the right, at the Zatara house down the block, with a single light on downstairs, splashing rich gold onto the window panes.
Something pangs against her chest that pushes her feet into turning in a different direction, and as night starts to creep up the edges of the sky, she heads for Zatanna’s.
“She's not here,” Wally says, standing in the doorway, looking all offended. Like it’s Artemis’s fault that he had to come answer the door without a good reason, or something.
Well, so much for that plan.
“Uh, I can see that, genius,” Artemis bites back. “You’d never go out of your way to let somebody in unless there was no alternative.”
“Well, y’see, I don’t exactly have that duty, since this isn’t my house.” Wally smiles stiffly. His face changes, though, into a skeptical frown after a second. “So, uh, why are you still wearing your uniform two hours after school ended, exactly?”
A siren starts wailing in Artemis’s head. Lie! Lie! Lie!
“Is there a problem with... uh, with thinking that the skirt shows off my legs? In a casual after-school way?” You are the worst at this, Artemis Crock. Go jump in front of a manure truck. “Why are you wearing Millenium Falcon pajama pants?”
Wally glances down and lifts his leg slightly, as if he hadn’t even noticed what he’d been wearing. Artemis bites her cheek to keep back a smile.
“Is there a problem with... uh, with thinking that the Millenium Falcon shows off my legs?” he ripostes in a nasally, fake-raspy voice. Artemis wrinkles her nose.
“Ignoring that,” she grumbles, “How do you even get away with not wearing like, top hat white tie around here?” She knows that’s more in the Wayne Manor vein of things (since she’s pretty sure even Dick’s goldfish has to wear little spats on his fins because Bruce Wayne is an anal freak and told their butler, Alfred, not to let her in once because of her Doc Martens), especially because she came over once and Zatanna was literally just naked, not that she wishes this would happen with Wally, or anything, but that’s a thing for the Zataras, apparently, except for Mr. Zatara, who always wears an Italian tailored suit, so okay, just Zatanna, but the point is, you can get away with wearing nothing in the Zatara house, which of course means you can get away with wearing anything, which would explain some of Wally’s wardrobe choices; naked Wally—focus.
“Kinda keeps me grounded,” he replies honestly. “This place has a décor receipt that’d knock your eye out, so I try to slack around once in a while to balance it out.”
“Is that why answering the door is like going to Mordor for you?” Artemis sneers. “I mean, slacking off sounds like it needs a tight schedule.”
“Nah,” Wally says with a shrug, staring down at the rug. “It’s just... not my house. Door-answering isn’t on my list of contribution chores. Plus it’s huge, and the navigation is so not worth it. I’m used to… you know. Nice single-story two-bedroom places. With barns.”
As he’d gone on, his voice had gotten significantly less bristled. Artemis stares at him. She hadn’t really thought about that, but now that he mentions it, it makes sense—of course Wally would be intimidated by Zatanna’s stupidly enormous mansion, considering the fact that he’s a normal person. She knows that feeling. The first few times she’d been invited over to Zatanna’s, she’d brought a ball of yarn to string behind her just in case.
“Well, uh,” she tells him in a voice that’s a little more stammery than her usual fare, and she really doesn’t know why these words are coming out of her mouth, “If, y’know, basking in the presence of such grandeur ever gets too… overwhelming, or whatever… my place is pretty low-key. And there’s a take-out place like right next door.”
Why did she say that. Oh, God.
He gives her a funny look—sort of halfway between being pleasantly surprised and dangerously close to a stroke. She knows she got him with the take-out bait, though.
“You had me at take-out place.” He grins, wide and genuine, making his freckles spray up, and Artemis’s stomach does something worrisomely close to somersaulting. “Uh, you... you wanna come in?”
He starts to step aside a little to give her room. She can’t tell if he sounds pained or not. Maybe just unsure. For some reason.
“N...o, thanks, actually,” she says after a second. “If Zee’s not here I should probably, you know, do my homework somewhere.”
“Like here,” he says simply.
She has to physically force her jaw not to drop open. Wally West? Asking her if she wants to spend time in his company? Without it being a precursor to some kind of long and involved sarcastic joke? She’s surprised she doesn’t keel over right there on the doorstep.
“Like at a library,” she wants to retort, but instead, she hears a lighter version of her voice flutter back a simple, “Uh, ’kay.”
Something twitches across his face that closely resembles happiness and he shuffles out of the way, bowing with a flourish and an extended arm. Artemis snorts and strides past him.
“Y’know, actually,” he says about a second after she’s stepped inside, “Take-out might complement brain-straining perfectly. Whaddya say? You, me, cheap potstickers?”
He moves to lean against the wall, but he’s too far away from it, so he sort of loses his balance and stumbles.
Do not ever tell anyone this, ever, but for some reason the noise that comes out of Artemis’s nose is a giggle. Even Wally has the decency to look dumbfounded. She tries to push it out of focus by shrugging nonchalantly and tilting her mouth, looking skyward.
“Sounds about the same as cutting my retina,” she says airily, “but sure. That’s still better than Chemistry.”
Wally looks puzzled, but amused. “You still having trouble with Chem?”
“I don’t think not having trouble with Chem is exactly in my future.”
“Maybe you need a dash of the Wall-man’s expert help,” Wally drawls, rocking on the balls of his feet and grinning and oh, man, he has been spending way too much time around Dick.
“Like I need a lobotomy,” Artemis retorts without missing a beat. Wally winces.
“Well, uh, tutoring would probably be way more affordable,” he quips. “You didn’t RSVP to my invitation.”
“What invitation?” Artemis asks, narrowing her eyes.
“Just now,” he says with an easy shrug. “For take-out. And watching you embarrass yourself trying to decode the periodic table. C’mon, seriously; if you buy me lunch I’ll help you with your homework and give you an hour’s pleasure of my company. Pretty sweet deal, since normally my rates are a month’s worth of groceries.”
Artemis blinks at him, feeling her brow furrow. For all his constantly put-on insouciance (SAT vocab!), he kind of looks... hopeful. Like if she says no he’ll dare to lose the light in his eyes, or something.
No, come on; that’s stupid. This is Wally. The only thing that would rob the light from his eyes would be if she miraculously survived a bear attack.
“I feel like if I leave you in this place much longer, you might stumble onto their secret torture dungeon, so it’s probably best you leave before you start catching on,” she finally tells him wryly. She drops the jocular front, pointing a finger at him. “But trust me, I know how much food you can consume on a good day, so one lunch’ll count for two Chem help sessions; capice?”
Wally rolls his eyes, already picking his slumped backpack up off of the floor in the hallway.
“You sure drive a hard bargain,” he sighs, but he’s smiling, and it is the least okay smile in the history of diabolically cute redheads with slightly uneven teeth and too many freckles, and it is really unfair that he’s as annoying as he is because he is really cute, god, she hates this.
Well, it’s official. Wally is never going to come over again, because Mr. Mallah almost gunned him down.
WALLYBEST: that was the single most terrifying experience of my life
SMARTEMIS: dude, he’s completely harmless. you’re not *dying*, are you?
WALLYBEST: no but im reeling in trauma and thats pretty bad too
SMARTEMIS: you are such a baby.
WALLYBEST: so hey barring the homicidal maniac who lives three doors down from you
WALLYBEST: why have you been acting so weird lately
WALLYBEST: you heard me
WALLYBEST: read me
WALLYBEST: the point is you understand
SMARTEMIS: i’m not acting weird. everything’s perfectly fine.
WALLYBEST: perfectly fine huh
WALLYBEST: i get that ive only known you for about two months but it is really obvious when somethings bothering you so hey if you wanna talk
WALLYBEST: hire a shrink
SMARTEMIS: har, har.
SMARTEMIS is typing...
SMARTEMIS: nvm. i gotta go.
SMARTEMIS: sorry you almost got shot!!
[SMARTEMIS went offline]
WALLYBEST: no i had a good--ok bye
During Artemis’s oral quiz that Thursday (she guesses it’s oral because Oliver wants to test her diction), Oliver goes from asking her about religious oligarchies to asking her what would be the appropriate response to having a guy profess his love to her.
She has to laugh for about five minutes and she can tell by the way Oliver’s goatee bristles that he’s docking points for her lack of composure under duress.
“‘Thank you,’” she answers primly. “‘You are very kind.’”
Dinah snorts so loudly that it startles Arsenal.
“Good grief, no,” Oliver exclaims, but Artemis can tell he’s trying not to chuckle. Victory. “Have you ever actually pulled that on anyone?”
Artemis laughs some more.
“Yeah, one time a guy actually saw me as something besides a threat to his survival and things escalated,” she snarks back. “Duh, no, Uncle Ollie; I’ve never had a guy profess his undying love to me.”
“You’re missing out,” Dinah says with a pointed look at Oliver.
“We ought to fix this straight away!” Oliver booms, slapping his palm onto the table and rattling the china tea set. Arsenal starts stress-gnawing his leg. “Dinah, what’s our status on suitors?”
Dinah opens her mouth to answer, but Artemis has already said, “No.”
Then, louder, “No!”
“For your homework,” Oliver declares with a determined look, “I want you to research international bachelors—”
“Hold that thought,” Dinah interjects, patting Oliver on the shoulder before looking back to Artemis. “How about this: You make a list of your... five most ideal consorts.”
“How about this,” Artemis retorts snidely. “We change the stupidly outdated rules of the Vlatavan government so that anyone can rule without being married.”
Because, yeah, that’s a thing—queens can be in charge around Vlatava, but they have to be married. They can only be queen if there are no other married males in the family (which, okay, that’s fair; at least kings don’t get any extra privileges, but really, required marriage is dumb anyway), and that’s pretty unfair in Artemis’s opinion, because the Vlatavan royal family could have a totally capable queen who never got her chance to shine because her politically inept younger brother got married first. That’s why there’s so much pressure on Oliver—because he’s the first unmarried king, and he’s kind of starting to outstay his legroom.
“We can discuss that at a later date,” Dinah says. “For now, that’s your homework; bring it in tomorrow.”
Artemis falls back on the chaise longue and groans loudly so that Arsenal starts quivering and looking around wildly, crouching down onto the Persian rug and growling at a dust bunny.
Artemis Crock’s List of Top 5 Ideal Consorts (In No Particular Order)
Composed October 13
- Water polo MVP Kal Durham. Not that she’d ever want to take him away from Tula, or anything, because they’re majorly in love and as long as Kal’s happy, she’s happy. But he would look really great in a crown, ooh, and she could show him off at balls and stuff—he’d also probably notice her existence; that would be a plus.
- James Bond. No, Artemis doesn’t care if he’s not real—that’s just what the British Secret Service wants you to think. And can you imagine? She’d be a princess and a secret agent on the side? Not that her chances of survival would be great, being involved with James Bond, but screw that; Artemis is sick of all the hot ladies dying in James Bond’s world, so she’ll just be the first one to survive. Besides that redhead in Diamonds Are Forever.
- Dick Grayson. He could probably hack something so she wouldn’t have to be a princess. That is the only reason he’s on here.
- Tommy Shepherd AKA Speed. He’d at least be able to make things interesting, and he’d probably offend so many people that she and he would be ostracized from the royal family and then he could scoop her up and speed her off somewhere far, far away from all of her problems. (She stopped reading Young Avengers after Tommy left—what’s the point? Okay, that’s a lie; she still reads it because hello, K-A-T-E.)
- She can’t think of any more, so whatever, Wally West can have the honor of being on here, even though she would never, ever want to have him as a consort, or have him anywhere near her, or run a country with him. She wouldn’t be able to pay attention to anything government-related. Not because he’s like, nice-looking, or anything, but because he’d never leave her alone, because he’s annoying. And a jerk. She hates Wally so much. She rescinds his position on this list and replaces him with
- Luke Skywalker.
(Okay... this isn’t going on the list, so Oliver won’t see it, but—
Having Wally for a consort probably wouldn’t be so bad. He has all those freckles on his nose and shoulders and toes (she totally saw them on his toes, at Zatanna’s, when she'd gone over to swim after school on Friday, and she almost died), and he’s smart, and he makes her laugh. And she’d need that in the stuffy world of Vlatavan political dinners. Plus, she doesn’t think Wally would make fun of her for wearing some froufy dress—okay, he probably would—but since he’s Wally, and he’s wholesome, he’d probably at least tell her she looked nice, and she’d rather be told she looks nice than beautiful or gorgeous or anything, because “nice” is about as good as it’s ever gonna get for her while still being sincere. And as far as sincerity goes, Wally West should have a gold medal.
The point is: This is majorly weird, but... Yeah, Wally might be okay.)
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found my star wars dvds u down for a marathon tonight? so i can prove han solo is the best character i mean. and so i wont have to go through the pain of having to watch u act like an expert when u only saw ep iv
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ur place? make out?
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fuck!!! take out! autocorrect
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this isn’t a date, is it? it sounds suspiciously like a date; i don’t know if i can trust you.
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it could not be further than a date tbh gross
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unless you want it to be a date
Artemis has gotten a lot of weird texts. Come on, both Zatanna Zatara and Dick Grayson have her number, and then there’s that weird blocked number that always texts her things like “hello” and “don’t look behind you.” She can count on one hand the number of times she’s gotten one that’s actually tripped up her razor-sharp, off-the-cuff wit. She can count on one finger the number of times she’s gotten one that she has been totally unable to respond to.
That last one from Wally? That’s the finger.
It doesn’t change the fact that, on Friday night, she finds herself in Wally’s room while Zatanna practices The Importance of Being Earnest lines in the kitchen, splitting an M&M pizza with him and dissing Han Solo just to piss him off like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and suddenly, this is happening—she and Wally are sharing bowls of popcorn and laughing at the same things and there’s not a single thing about it that feels weird.
But like, that’s the thing about Wally. Everything in her life is such a total tempest of confusion and uncertainty right now, except for him, even though she’s barely known him a month and a half. Miraculously, even though he’s the fastest-moving person she knows, he’s the only one who can make everything around her stand still.
And get her to try M&M pizza, but whatever. That’s a thing for him, apparently. It’s so much better than it sounds.
“So, Artemis,” her mother says slyly, no doubt hiding her evil smirk behind her primly held cup of tea. “I have noticed that you have been spending a great deal of time with... what is it. Wally West?”
Artemis chokes violently on her muffin. Her head almost explodes with a burst of colorful expletives that her mom would probably disown her just for knowing, but all that manages to come out of her mouth is:
“Who? What? Why? Wally? No. Ew. Wally—I hate Wally.” Sometimes. “He’s a jerk.” A jerk with nice shoulders. “Why do you care? What have you even seen? Has Zatanna been telling you lies? Because that’s what they are! They’re lies! I just—no. That’s gross.” Because it’s true. “I’m gonna miss my bus. It’s raining. Did you know the Vlatavan economy is finally on the up and up? Crazy. Love you! Bye!”
She yanks her bag up and sprints for the door and the worst part is that her mom doesn’t call for her to come back or slow down or anything, which can only mean she’s sitting there smiling diabolically and getting all the wrong ideas.
This is bad. This is very, very bad.
Artemis hasn’t really been giving you detailed looks into her life lately, and she’s sorry about that, but princess lessons wear her out and the semester is sprinting past her and sticking its tongue out and suddenly, it’s Homecoming Week.
Her D’s in Chemistry have been going down—or, well, up—since she started studying at Zatanna’s house on the weekends, mostly because Wally is freakishly smart; did you know? He could do all of her homework in his sleep with amnesia if he wanted to; no wonder he’s in AP Physics. Roquette must love him. (Artemis has never been so lucky.)
The point is, she’s been getting C-pluses and even B-minuses, thanks to Wally’s Mojo Jojo brain and mnemonic devices and weird cravings that are surprisingly conducive to a good memory. Artemis won’t be able to look at macaroni-and-grilled-cheese sandwiches ever again without thinking of stoichiometry.
Her mom’s totally thrilled about it. Like it’s a big deal for Artemis to be getting good grades on something! Please! She’s been acing French tests since the seventh grade.
In English, they finish Of Mice and Men, and when they all discuss the ending, Conner Kent leaves the classroom and doesn’t come back. Artemis catches Megan Morse glancing periodically at the door with a worried crinkle between her eyebrows about every two minutes until the bell rings.
It’s weird, you know? Having high school continue so normally when she’s spending two hours every weekday learning about what to do if her country has a drought, or if a terrorist coalition takes her hostage, or if she has to set a table for a royal banquet and can’t remember which spoon goes where, or if Arsenal starts having one of his Pomeranian rage fits and she has to protect as many velvet cushions as possible. And what’s especially weird is that nobody really knows about how Vlatavan tailors are working on fitting the coronation pelisse to exactly her size, or how she now has almost every step to a Vlatavan waltz down. But maybe that’s more nice than it is weird—than it is surreal—because they’re still treating her like she’s normal, and for that she’s grateful, even though “normal” means Billy Hayes scrawls FREAK onto her locker in black Sharpie.
Like, thank God. She still has the capacity to be a freak. And between you and her, she’d rather be a freak than a monarch.
Now that the school year’s in full swing and teachers have stopped going easy on everyone, homework-wise, Artemis has been spending every weekend and almost every spare evening studying at Zatanna’s. Wally helps her with Chemistry, she helps him with French, Zatanna helps Dick with World Civ, and no one helps Zatanna with anything (except for Stats, which she and Wally have together, so they compare notes a lot, and when Artemis says “compare notes,” she means the real way, not the way that Dick means when he says “let’s compare notes,” a.k.a., “let me look at your notes and steal all of them”). Paula’s really cool about the time suck, so long as Artemis promises her about seven times a night that she’s not pushing herself too hard. Kal Durham’s butt, cheekbones, and shoulders are all still perfect. And to top it all off…
To top it all off…
Her lessons actually get kind of… fun. Even though Oliver’s super embarrassing most of the time, and even though he can get a little too Vlatavan Pride on her, he’s really easy to get along with, and he kind of… gets her. Not in the same way Dinah does, where she feels like she could talk to him about anything, but in the sense that she feels like he’s actually teaching her things the ways he knows will work for her, and in the sense that he sees a little of himself in her and wants to help make sure she’s the best she can be. He really is like a mentor. In the sense that she can make fun of him 24/7 and still feel like earning a warm “Good job” from him is one of the most amazing things she can accomplish.
You should see the way he does archery. Wow. He’s… mind-blowing. You’d think that being retired from the sport after the whole cancer thing would sort of chip away at his talent, but every tug and release of the bowstring is smooth as butter and even though Artemis almost always hits her target (“Natural skill,” Oliver tells her proudly), she doesn’t do it nearly as flawlessly as he does. Still, though, Wednesdays are her favorite days for lessons, especially as it gets rainier and she has to aim properly through downpours and she and Oliver go traipsing back into the villa with chattering teeth and excitable babbling about each other’s technique and Dinah gives them both sipping chocolate.
They start their Cooking and Baking lessons the week of October 24, and Artemis gets flour everywhere and burns basically everything and the tip of Oliver’s goatee catches on fire, but he still booms out a jovial laugh and claps her on the back and tells her it’s the most fun he’s had in years. And in the meantime, self-defense lessons with Dinah are hardcore; Artemis totally knows how to kick people in the face now! While wearing high heels! Which, by the way, she never thought would make her feel as fierce and unstoppable as they do. It’s amazing.
“It’s perfectly possible to be in touch with your daintiness and femininity while still retaining the ability to crush your oppressors,” Dinah tells her with a gleam in her eye as they do a practice-headlock on a dummy. “Sorry. Opponents. Attackers. Enemies.”
Artemis has a feeling that Dinah had been forced to deal with one too many pompous assholes in combat-training schools, assholes who were dumb enough to say things like “You fight like a girl” and “I’m not gonna get beaten by a blonde” and “Sure, sweets, blow me away.” Not that she’s complaining. Dinah may be terrifying, but now she’s teaching Artemis how to be terrifying, so it all works out!
Seriously, though – these lessons aren’t nearly as bad as she’d thought they’d be. Don’t tell anybody this, but… lately, she’s been walking just a little bit faster to Oliver’s villa every day after school. She even jay-walked.
It’s kind of easy to forget about her friends when she’s having this much of her free time siphoned away from her, but Zatanna doesn’t let her slack off for long. The four of them—Artemis, Zatanna, Dick, and Wally—all wind up spending more nights at her house than they ever plan to, and whenever Artemis starts to pass her twenty-four hour grace period of no texts or calls, Zatanna starts IMing her incessantly and leaving her goofy voicemails until she caves and responds.
It’s nice, though—knowing that Zatanna cares. Knowing that Zatanna still wants her around even though she’s been a total flummoxing flake since September. Knowing that Oliver’s proud of her progress. Knowing that Dinah’s proud of her left hook. Knowing that Wally wants to watch Star Wars with her. Knowing that—oh, wait. That’s right. Star Wars.
So apparently Han Solo and Princess Leia end up together. That’s a thing. That’s why Zatanna had laughed so evilly on the phone. Whatever. Artemis and Wally are no Leia and Han—even though he fits the exact bill of what she assumes a “nerf-herder” is. Even though she convinced Oliver to let her try cinnabuns during their mini-lesson on hair management.
Even though she fell asleep during the credits of Return of the Jedi with her head in Wally’s lap, and even though he didn’t try to wake her up until after Dick had gotten a picture.
She’s supposed to be concentrating on lifting her barbell right now—it’s weight room day, Thursday, in P.E.—but her mind’s pretty much elsewhere, mostly on the visual of Oliver trying to teach her a prim princess walk the evening before by showing her how it was done himself.
“What’re you grinning about?” Wally asks from above her. She scowls. He’s her partner and spotter for the day. Thanks, Miss Thal. He grins complacently and flexes. “Must be the view.”
In his dreams! Even though his jawline looks way, way nice from down there, and she can sort of see up his shirt, and he has abs, and freckles around his belly button, and what looks like an orange happy trail that she definitely shouldn’t be noticing.
“I don’t know where you get your delusions, laser-brain,” she huffs out, pushing the weight up and slackening it back again. Seven. They each need to do fifteen before Miss Thal blows the rotation whistle.
He snickers. She has a sudden vision of him leaning down far enough that she can kiss his throat and quickly dispels it with her memorized image of Kal Durham’s pectorals (thank you, water polo meet she accidentally walked in on while looking for the girls’ locker room last year).
“Hey, Artemis,” Wally says.
Artemis makes a short grunting noise as she finishes her ninth. “Yeah?”
“Do you dance as well as you lift?” he asks. Artemis pushes up: ten. “Because even if you do… I wouldn’t mind having a date to homecoming.”
Artemis drops the weight.
Seconds before it’s about to hit her right in the jugular and probably kill her, Wally curses and surges down and manages to stop it. Straining, he grits his teeth and lifts it and sets it back onto the stand over Artemis’s chest with a clang.
When Artemis’s heart has miraculously started beating again, and when everyone in the class has stopped staring over at them and gone back to torturing themselves physically, she rears her head back and gapes upside-down at Wally, who gazes back down at her owlishly.
“What?!” she chokes out, clutching her chest.
He looks like he’s physically fighting his instinct to deflate.
“You,” he replies, swinging his arms back and forth—his ears are turning red. “Me. Dance. I just thought we could, uh… well, yeah. I just thought.” He nods, as though the matter is settled. “I thought. And now here we are.”
Artemis flounders. He gulps, and his Adam’s apple bobs, and he shakes his head like he’s trying to shoo off an annoying bug before plastering on his patented Wall-man Lady-Killing Smirk, self-named.
“Opportunity of a lifetime, babe.”
She liked him better when his ears had been red.
She closes her mouth and sets her jaw, reaching for the barbell again. Wally lifts a hand hesitantly, hovering over it, but she shoots him a glare because how dare he assume she needs his help and he drops it again.
She lifts, her arms burning. Eleven.
“Did Megan turn you down, or something?” she asks snidely. “Along with every other girl within a two-state radius?” Because that is the only explanation for why Wally West would ever ask her to a high school dance. A night of mocking her unawareness of the Star Wars franchise is one thing. A night of wearing a suit and slow-dancing with her in a dimly lit place is another.
Twelve. One, two. Thirteen. One, two.
Wally is silent for too long for her to be comfortable—after she finishes her fourteenth, she braces the barbell over her chest and cranes her neck to regard him. In the split second before he notices that she’s looking at him, the expression on his face sends a jolt of something unidentifiable but definitely painful through her heart and straight down her ribs, ricocheting off of every part of her that hurts. His eyes are half-lidded, and his mouth is downturned in dejection, and his jaw is tight, and his shoulders are loose.
Fourteen. One, two.
It’s not the kind of look she’d ever expected to see on Wally’s face, which she’s come to recognize as carefree and predictable and goofy and excited and flexible enough to accommodate triple-decker cheeseburgers. It’s gone in an instant, though, and she starts to wonder if she’d been temporarily delusional in thinking she’d just seen everything inside of him go dull at her evasive jab, but then he’s rolling his eyes and blowing his hair out of his face.
“Jeeeeez, sorry for bestowing you with the biggest honor in Gotham City,” he drawls, stretching. He links his arms behind his head and stares apathetically at the ceiling, but his lower lip is protruding just slightly. “Forget it. I was just messing with you.”
Artemis groans. “Wally, if you’re going to ask me, can you just do it for real instead of trying to make it into some big show?”
To punctuate her point, she heaves the weight up one last time, holding it in the air for a moment longer than she should. She keeps her eyes trained on the metal bar.
“So, Artemis,” she hears him say in his ordinary voice, the one she’s only ever really heard him use around her, when it’s just them and Obi-Wan and a tub of Moose Tracks and a rainstorm outside—and when did this happen, and how did this happen; how did she wind up knowing him so well, knowing what every infuriating inflection means? “D’you wanna go to homecoming with me?”
She slackens again, and exhales.
“Yes,” she says, and when her eyes dart back to meet his, she’s smiling. Quickly, to save herself, she adds, “I’m in a commiserating mood anyway.”
“Y’know what?” Wally replies, taking the weight out of her hands and setting it on the rack. He leans forward, his back curving, until his face is only a few inches above hers, his hands braced on the bar. Artemis opens and closes her mouth wordlessly, her eyes catching on two dark freckles just at the corner of his right eye. “That’s good enough for me, babe.”
“Ass, bacon,” she reminds him, but her voice comes out much feebler than she’d planned.
“’Course,” he breathes back, tilting his head and smirking. His breath has barely finished skirting over her forehead before he’s sprung back on his feet and Miss Thal has blown the whistle.
Artemis’s knees are definitely not wobbling when she stands up. After class ends, and Wally and Dick go straggling off to the boys’ locker room, Zatanna appears out of nowhere and yanks Artemis by the shirtsleeve to the outer side of the building, pinning her to the wall in a matter of seconds.
“What,” she demands, grinning with fiendish glee, “The hell… was that, girl?”
“I, uh,” Artemis replies dazedly, her eyes fixed without focus on some point over Zatanna’s shoulder, “I think I just got a date to homecoming?” And smelled your cousin’s breath mints? “Can you tell me how dances work, please?”
Zatanna squeals and bounces up and down, clasping Artemis’s wrists and distracting the tennis players enough that they all get hit in the face with tennis balls at roughly the same time.
Zatanna, still gripping Artemis’s wrist, lifts it into the air in some kind of victory pump and screams, at the top of her lungs, “SHE’S GOT A DATE TO HOMECOMING! MY HUMAN TRAGEDY OF A BEST FRIEND GOT A DATE! YOU HEAR THAT, GOTHAM ACADEMY? NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE!”
Note to self. Never tell Zatanna anything ever again.
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i’m so proud of you!!! i might literally be crying!!
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what year is it
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there can be miracles when you believe
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
from: UNKNOWN NUMBER
i can see you but you can’t see me
EDIT CONTACT: RUDOLPH
Change contact’s name? → YES
Enter new contact’s name: WALLY_
WALLY OK? → YES
Contact name successfully changed.
“He what?!” Oliver exclaims.
Nice job, Artemis. You and your big mouth.
“Asked her to a dance, Ollie,” Dinah replies for Artemis, which is good, considering she’s still kind of catatonic. “Weren’t you listening?”
“I’ve never heard this fellow’s name before,” Oliver grumbles, stroking his goatee. “I need a file, Dinah. Get me a file!”
“I don’t think we have one, Your Majesty,” Dinah says flatly.
“Then write one!” Oliver commands, slapping his knee. Arsenal puffs up and jumps. “We need to make sure he’s not some… undercover agent, or a—” He snaps his fingers. “A felon!”
“He’s from Kansas,” Artemis deadpans.
Oliver frowns, looking bewildered, but then says, with a tone of comprehension, “Oh.”
Dinah rolls her eyes and shakes her head, half-exasperation and half-fond-resignation. “I think it’s terrific news, Artemis.”
“Is it?” Artemis says weakly.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Oliver interjects, narrowing his eyes. “West… West… wasn’t he on your list of consorts?”
Artemis had not previously known it was possible for the human body to enter a state of rigor mortis while still alive. And so quickly, too.
“No,” she barks back. “But yes. But no; I replaced him with Luke Skywalker!”
Oliver and Dinah exchange one of their Covert Looks. Artemis hates Covert Looks. Especially coming from them.
“Well,” Dinah says, all briskly, before Artemis can suspiciously inquire about the meaning of the CL. “We were going to do Papparazzi Management today, right? Let’s do that.”
“Yes, let’s,” Artemis grinds back, glowering.
“The trick,” Dinah explains, standing and setting down her PDA, “Is in the gestures.”
Smoothly, classily, she swings up her right hand and flicks up her middle finger. Oliver looks simultaneously scandalized and… weirdly adoring. Artemis shudders.
“They can’t publish any photos if you’re doing this in them,” Dinah continues, lowering her hand. “It goes against their censorship laws. So when in doubt…” She winks. “All it takes is a single finger.”
Now these are the kinds of lessons Artemis doesn’t mind learning. She literally gets to practice her middle finger form for, like, forty-five minutes! This is the life.
The sun comes up on Tuesday and illuminates the rain-slicked sidewalks with white. Artemis actually manages to catch her bus on time and doesn’t get stuck sitting next to Billy Batson; she—get this—scores a window seat, NEXT TO KAL DURHAM!!!!
And Kal Durham is crying.
Artemis punches her jaw closed before it can drop fully open. Her brain starts scrambling around in a panic—say something, say something—
“Are you, um,” she hears her voice inquire at an octave too high, “Is everything… hunky-dory? Okay, I mean. Are you okay?”
Artemis Crock, there was no reason for you to ever be born.
Kal gives a little bit of a start, probably because he hadn’t noticed she’d been sitting there before he’d lowered himself onto the leather gum-stained seat, and looks over with an astonished look on his face. She smiles stupidly at him, even though his eyes are all red and there are bags under them.
“Are you?” she asks again, much gentler this time, thank God, even though she knows it’s totally none of her business, and she’d always pictured her first conversation with Kal Durham to involve a little less stammering and crying and a little more date-acquiring.
He blinks at her, looking torn. And suddenly, Artemis doesn’t really have much of a desire to make out with him or stare at choice areas of his posterior—she just wants to do everything she can to get that tragic look out of his eyes.
“I…” He shakes his head and looks at his hands in his lap, tracing the lines on his palm. “I do not think so.”
Artemis doesn’t press him, but she keeps her eyes on him to show that she’s still listening if he needs her to. He sighs, his shoulders slumping, and leans back against the back of the bus seat.
“I believe that the love of my life has just…” He shrugs. “Broken up with me.”
God. Sure put the nail in that coffin.
“Her loss,” Artemis says before she can stop herself. Kal’s eyes dart up in surprise and Artemis flushes against her will, waving a hand and looking out the window to try to save some dignity.
“Thank you,” Kal murmurs after a while, like he wishes he had something more substantial to tell her. Artemis lifts her shoulders as nonchalantly as she can, but she can see her wide smile reflected in the glass of the window.
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frankly, i’m astonished i managed to go all day without projectile vomiting. constantly having to see you and wally go all quiet and smile at each other, i mean.
Artemis is halfway through typing a sardonic and dismissive and denying reply as she marches down the sidewalk after school ends when she crashes headlong into someone.
Someone who squeaks.
Literally headlong, by the way. Artemis’s forehead cracks right into another one, yanking a foul expletive out of her at just a few decibels too high of a volume. She leaps back, one hand flying to the spot where she’s sure her skull just split in half, and wrenches one eye open to survey the damage.
Megan Morse is standing opposite her, in exactly the same pose, her teeth gritted.
“Oh, uh,” Artemis flummoxes, and then mentally kicks herself for the “uh.” “Sorry; I wasn’t—I wasn’t paying attention. Are you okay?”
Megan prods unsurely at her forehead and winces, but when her eyes meet Artemis’s, she gives her a wobbly and forgiving smile.
“I’m fine,” she replies politely. “Are you okay?”
“Sure; just some residual brain damage,” Artemis ripostes facetiously.
Megan blinks protuberantly at her, starting to look increasingly worried, and starts to open her mouth apologetically. Artemis, catching on, rapidly shakes her head and waves a hand.
“No, no, I’m joking!” she assures her hastily. “Joke. That was a joke. I’m fine.”
Megan loosens in obvious relief and blows out a sigh, smiling happily back up at Artemis again in no time.
“Don’t I have P.E. and English with you?” she asks, perking up. “You’re the one who’s always arguing with Wally, right?”
It’s like a piano falling onto Artemis from twenty stories up: All at once, she remembers that this is the girl who Wally regularly calls “Megalicious” and “Sweet Cheeks” and “Sugar,” and who he regularly stares at for long periods of time with a disgustingly sappy look in his eyes. (Or, well, used to. He’s kind of been cutting back on it since Artemis agreed to watch Star Wars with him. Megan probably beat him up. She hopes so.)
“Yeah,” Artemis affirms rigidly.
“You two are funny.” Her voice is bubbly and warm, like… carbonated hot chocolate? Something. Something less gross. Trust Artemis; Megan’s voice is adorable. “And he’s sweet. A little weird sometimes, but sweet.”
Sometimes. Artemis snorts.
“Yeah, he’s a ladykiller, all right,” she mutters, unable to keep the acrid tone out of her voice, but Megan doesn’t seem to notice. “Anyway, I should probably go—”
“Oh, you’re going the same way as I am,” Megan says cheerfully. “My bodyguard’s waiting for me at the corner. We can walk together!”
Artemis blinks at her, feeling a prod of something in her chest that’s sort of like pity and sort of like understanding. Megan’s beaming at her with such rampant hopefulness in her brown eyes, like she’d give anything just to have someone to talk to—someone to be friends with.
Artemis has learned from Dick and Zatanna that Megan doesn’t have many friends. She and Kal hang out a lot, but that makes sense, because Kal famously hangs out with the underdogs, but despite Megan’s friendly disposition and acute fashion sense and incredibly pretty face and natural sociability, the fact that she has a bodyguard who follows her to school and had spent most of her life being shut away by her parents before moving to Gotham to live with her uncle has kind of closed her off to the social interaction scene, especially at a school as stuck-up and elitist as Gotham Academy can be.
So Artemis smiles at her, and nods, and Megan does this little bounce like Artemis just promised she’d buy her Paris for Christmas and falls into step beside her as the both of them head down the rest of the sidewalk.
“So what part of town are you from?” Megan asks excitedly. “What’s your favorite movie? Your hair is so pretty; I’ll bet it’s so much fun to play around with! I’m super jealous. What TV shows do you watch? Where do you want to go to college? Do you like wolves? I like wolves! Who do you have for Homeroom?”
“Whoa, whoa, slow down!” Artemis exclaims, but there’s something both kind of endearing and kind of sad about Megan’s extremely blatant joy at having someone to have something as simple as a conversation with. “We’ve still got another five yards; we can take this one question at a time.”
“Sorry.” Megan grimaces, tucking some hair behind her ear. “It’s just… nice to have someone to talk to. I don’t know many people, you see. I only just moved here.”
“I know,” Artemis says before she can stop herself, and Megan looks up, surprised. “I mean, y’know; news travels more far than fast around here.”
“Of course,” Megan says with a tiny laugh. She links her hands behind her arms. “So…” Her face suddenly turns pink, and she ducks her head so that her bangs hide her eyes. “You know Conner Kent, right?”
Artemis almost trips. She knows that kind of tone. That’s the tone that she herself had used on Zatanna the year previously, except in reference to Kal Durham and his amazing shoulders.
“Kind of,” she manages to reply. “I mean, not really. I’ve had detention with him a couple of times. Why?”
Megan slows her walk—Artemis looks ahead to find that they’re coming to the end of the sidewalk, where they’ll round the corner and Megan’s bodyguard will no doubt be standing dutifully to whisk her off into a limo with tinted plexiglass windows.
“Just curious!” she squeaks a little too quickly.
“Curious about whether he keeps his shirt on during mile days?” Artemis smirks and Megan makes a keening noise. Conner isn’t in their P.E. class; he has it sixth period, but Artemis has gone by the track once or twice on her way to the bathroom and she definitely knows the answer to that question. “Because I can tell you that no. He doesn’t.”
When she looks over at Megan, she has to bite back a laugh—the girl’s lightly freckled face is a bright shade of scarlet.
“Relax, Megan,” Artemis teases her. “Winter uniform weather isn’t gonna last forever.”
Megan gives a start, her head whipping around.
“You—” Her face splits into a smile. “You know my name?”
“Yeah,” Artemis replies. “I promise I’m not, like, a total stalker; it’s just—”
But the warm, almost teary smile on Megan’s face assures her that she has nothing to worry about. They round the corner in tandem, and Artemis is about to make a crack about what Zatanna calls Conner’s resting face, which is this creepy look he gets when he’s zoning out that makes him look like he’s scanning a room for people to murder, but then she looks up at the street ahead of them and the sentence dies in her throat.
And it’s not at the sight of the man she recognizes as Megan’s bodyguard, either, and it’s not at the fact that he has a gun on his belt, and it’s not at the fact that he’s standing next to a black limousine: it’s the fact that he’s idly chatting about what sounds like the best method to tear gas someone with—
“Dinah?!” Artemis squawks.
Dinah blinks as though mildly surprised and turns to face her. She’s dressed in her motorcycle-riding outfit: dark jeans and laced-up shin-high boots and her black leather jacket, her hair falling casually past her shoulders, her eyes concealed behind reflective aviators.
She flicks the sunglasses up onto her forehead and inclines her head in greeting.
“Hello, Artemis,” she says coolly. “I was just catching up with an old friend.”
“Hi, Barsoom,” Megan monotones glumly, and her bodyguard nods back.
“You—” Artemis splutters, pointing between the two of them. “Is there some kind of secret bodyguard society that I don’t know about?!”
“We’ve talked about pointing, Artemis,” Dinah chides her, swatting her hand down. “And don’t gape.” Artemis shuts her mouth. “And don’t shout in public. Yes, Barsoom and I have met several times.” She glances over at Barsoom with a smile. “’98 Bialyan Bowie knife show, wasn’t it?”
“I believe it was the 2001 Balisong Show in Batangas,” Barsoom replies in a deep and tranquil voice. “But I could be mistaken.”
“Well, either way; there were some great knives in there somewhere,” Dinah says with a grin before turning back to Artemis, bracing her hands on her hips. “You want a ride, kiddo?”
“Don’t call me kiddo,” Artemis hisses, trying to keep out of earshot as Megan walks over to Barsoom and starts telling him about her day. “What, do you think I was born yesterday? Why are you really here?”
Dinah opens her mouth, probably to lie some more, but is cut off when Megan pokes her head between the two of them meekly. Artemis glances over and Megan gives her a half-hearted little wave good-bye.
“I have to go home,” she says miserably. She brightens infinitesimally, though, in an instant. “Do you think I could, um, maybe have your number?”
Artemis blinks away her suspicion of Dinah and forces on a smile, nodding as enthusiastically as she can manage, which is not every enthusiastically at all.
“Yeah, sure,” she agrees.
Megan types it into her phone with delight when Artemis tells it to her, and then she tells Artemis hers and Artemis hopes Dinah was listening because she totally doesn’t pay attention, and when she gets into the limo and Barsoom pulls out of the parking space and merges into the traffic of the busy street, she rolls down her window so she can wave good-bye to Artemis one more time.
“I think you just made a friend,” Dinah comments, sounding proud.
“Don’t change the subject,” Artemis snarls, whirling on her and pointing an upside-down finger at her. She narrows her eyes. “You seriously expect me to buy that you just happened to be here today? I told you and Ollie a million times; try to bodyguard me and I will end you—”
“It wasn’t my idea,” Dinah sighs, cutting Artemis off. Artemis sticks her lower jaw out and folds her arms, tapping her foot impatiently. Dinah rolls her eyes. “When you went to the bathroom the other day, he… well… I don’t really know why he did it. Overprotectiveness, I suppose. I told him not to.”
“What did he do?” Artemis growls.
Dinah throws her hands in the air and mutters something that Artemis is 90% sure is a Vlatavan profanity.
“He took a look at your cell phone,” she says rapidly, all in one breath, “And we both noticed that you had a number of vaguely threatening messages from an unknown party.”
Something hot and white and unstoppable starts firing through Artemis’s veins—rage.
“He wanted me to keep an eye on you today,” Dinah continues in a defeated tone, dropping one arm to her side. “In case they were… in case you were in danger from this anonymous—”
“You—You think you can just paw through my private business?!” Artemis shrieks, her hands balling into fists so tight that she can feel her fingernails breaking the skin of her palms. “What, does every little scrap of normalcy in my life have to be on your radar? How—” She spits out the words: “How dare you!”
Dinah’s face hardens.
“I understand that you don’t appreciate us invading your privacy,” she says stonily, “But it’s a necessary evil sometimes, Your Highness. And quite frankly, how do you know this person isn’t a threat to your well-being? How do you know your identity isn’t on the brink of being revealed to the public before we can do it properly? How do you—”
“I don’t, Dinah, okay?” Artemis shouts, throwing her arms out. “But would it kill you just trust me?! I’ve been getting these things for years; it’s probably just some freak from my old school who wants to mess with me; I swear, it’s nothing, and it’s none of your business!”
“It is our business, Artemis,” Dinah snaps back, and this is the most heated Artemis has ever seen her. “You are the last hope our country has of retaining its royal family; you are our responsibility, don’t you understand? We’re not just here to teach you how to dance and tell you what side of the plate the salad fork goes on; we’re here to prepare you, and when it comes down to things like this, we’re here to protect you.”
Artemis’s face starts to twist. “Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, if it hadn’t been for the two of you and your stupid country, I wouldn’t need protection, or preparation, or any of that crap! I can take care of myself, and if you don’t mind, I’d like to at least try retaining a little bit of the luxuries provided by my old life, like, say, freedom from interference?”
As her tirade had gone on, Dinah’s face had gradually started to use some of its reprimanding frigidness, and now she’s staring down at Artemis with this semi-shocked expression, like Artemis has suddenly changed into a different person.
“I can handle myself,” Artemis continues, still sort of yelling, enunciating every word for maximum comprehensibleness (and vitriol). “I can take care of myself, I can protect myself, and I know myself, and nobody has any right to decide what I want and what I need except me; that’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it’s always going to be; I don’t care how many Bulgravian hitmen try to amputate me into doing what they want, or how many U.N. jags think they can tell me what to do just because I’m a quarter their age, or how much you think you get to stick your nose wherever you want just because you psychobabbled me into starting these stupid lessons in the first place! So if you ever want to know if I might have a serial killer texting me at three in the morning? ASK ME!”
That last explosive bit earns her a few skeptical stares, mostly from cheerleaders on their way to their dads’ Lamborghinis, but when she dares to open her wrenched-shut eyes and scowl, panting, up at Dinah, she’s taken aback to find that Dinah looks like she couldn’t be prouder.
“All right,” she says, simply, cocking an eyebrow and surveying Artemis with a slow, acknowledging nod that may as well be a salute. “That sounds fair.”
Artemis’s glare dissolves and she loosens like a cat lowering its hackles.
“That’s…” She blinks, straightening. “That’s it?”
“You make a very convincing argument,” Dinah replies, chuckling. “As any sovereign should.”
And okay—Artemis can beat up Billy Hayes blindfolded, and score a date to Homecoming with Wally West, and have a normal conversation with Kal Durham, and survive a year of friendship with Dick Grayson, and make Zatanna Zatara laugh, and get her mom to smile, and not get murdered by Conner Kent, and befriend a wealthy heiress just by crashing into her; but somehow? Getting Dinah Lance to look at her like that, like she’s something to be proud of, like she’s grown, like she’s impressive, like she’s actually done something right, might just be one of the biggest accomplishments she’s ever had.
“So, Ollie, can I ask you something?” Artemis inquires, the cap to her pen clenched between her teeth as she looks over a sample Parliament proposal for errors and inconsistencies.
Oliver glances up from his Vlatavan newspaper. His gold pince-nez are perched on his nose. He sniffs, going back to it in a second. Dinah’s upstairs, and, judging by the periodic thunking noises Artemis can hear, is probably practicing her knife-throwing.
“Go for it,” he declares, turning a page.
“Homecoming’s on Friday night,” Artemis explains, treading carefully. “And I was kind of hoping I could get all the after-school time to myself. So I can get ready, and stuff.”
Oliver starts chortling, that kind of rolling laugh she’s come to know so well, and folds the newspaper in half, scanning the middle of the page.
“Of course,” he answers. “What do I look like, a tyrant?”
“You really want me to answer that?” Artemis bites back, passing him the proposal.
“Jolly joker,” he mutters with a shake of his head, plucking the paper out of her hands and looking over it. He nods and hrrms and nods some more before setting it on the lamp table. “Well done. You only missed two errors.”
Artemis groans. He never tells her what mistakes she makes, either, because he wants her to learn from instinct, not from getting told the right answer.
The clock over the fireplace chimes five o’clock. Artemis stands, curtsies, and hefts her bag onto her shoulder.
“See you tomorrow,” she says over her shoulder, and just as she gets to the double doors, one of them opens and Dinah walks in. “Bye, Dinah.”
Dinah nods to her and walks over to Oliver. As the door swings close behind Artemis, it snags just slightly on the shoulder of her blazer, which slows its movement enough that the latch doesn’t close completely.
Artemis pauses, glancing back. She can hear the rustle of paper, and Oliver sighing, and one of the chairs squeaking as Dinah sits down.
She doesn’t keep walking.
“What’s wrong?” Dinah asks quietly, just slightly muffled.
Oliver sighs again. It’s heavy and long and tired.
“I don’t know,” he murmurs back. “I just don’t know if she’s ready for all this.”
“She’s been exceeding our expectations in every respect,” Dinah whispers, sounding a little exasperated. “You were just saying the other night how proud you are of her.”
“I know, I know,” Oliver says wearily. “And I am. She’s… She’s something else, that girl. But I suppose I just…”
He exhales. A log in the hearth crackles.
“I’m just worried we’ll have another Jade on our hands,” he finishes, barely audible—but Artemis hears it.
Her heart starts rattling.
“Did a draft blow the door open again?” Dinah mutters, and as Artemis hears footsteps, she strides hastily down the hall and around the corner.
She’s breathing fast the whole way home, but Paula’s already gone to bed when she gets there—she has one of her autumn colds—so she doesn’t think to tell her anything, and when she’s awakened by the insistent beeping of her alarm clock the next morning, she doesn’t even remember what had freaked her out at all.
Wayne lets them use their Independent Study period to decorate the gym, since the dance is the next night, and Artemis almost loses the use of her legs when she walks in. And it’s not because of the giant spider-web hung from the ceiling, or the freaky masks on the walls, either.
It’s because Kal Durham is standing on a ladder on the opposite side of the gym, hanging streamers. Streamers he is taking directly from a box contained in the arms of Conner Kent.
“What,” she hisses, swatting Zatanna repeatedly in the arm when she walks by with a smoke machine, “Is this?”
“Well, sweetie, this is a gym, and people have dances and basketball games in them,” Zatanna coos soothingly. “Sometimes, you can even lose your virginity here. It’s very multi-purpose.”
“Shut the hell up,” Artemis snaps. “I mean what are they doing here?”
She points to Conner and Kal. Conner has a large pink streamer spilled on his face and Kal is apologizing profusely, climbing down from the ladder.
“Oh.” Zatanna shrugs. “Dick knows Conner, who knows Kal, who knows me, so they came to help.”
Incredible. For once, Dick Grayson is actually useful.
“Where’s Wally?” Artemis asks, jogging to catch up with Zatanna after she starts striding over to the stage.
Zatanna smirks. “Why do you care? Kal is right over there.”
Artemis glowers. Zatanna sighs.
“He has a track meet. I think Megan went.”
Artemis deflates a little. “Oh.”
“Quit moping and go dig out the plastic fedoras, ’kay?” Zatanna huffs. “Put them all in the pumpkin bowl by the entrance door. Make yourself handy.”
“My friend,” Artemis hears Kal say. “That shade of pink is actually quite flattering on you.”
Conner grunts. “You think?” He shifts. “Hey, Zatanna, do you have any wolf decorations?”
Artemis frowns. Wolves...
“Hey!” Zatanna calls to Artemis across the gymnasium. “You’re still up for dress-shopping tonight, right? Six o’clock, my house? Megan’s coming!”
Ugh. Right. Shopping. (Also, Zatanna and Megan are apparently friends now, somehow? Artemis is always the last to hear about this stuff.)
Oliver’s at some dinner with the Secretary General until Friday night, so it’s just Dinah and Artemis for Thursday’s lesson. Which would normally be totally awesome, except for the fact that Artemis has remembered what she’d overheard the day before, and she can’t focus on how best to break a papparazzo’s nose when all she can remember is Oliver and Dinah say her sister’s name like they knew it.
“Hey… Dinah?” she finally screws up the courage to ask.
“Hm?” Dinah’s in the middle of cleaning her gun.
“Jade was—is—Jade’s a princess, too, right?” Artemis stutters, keeping her eyes focused on the opposite wall as she shadow-boxes.
The pause is just a heartbeat too long.
“Yes,” Dinah replies, and nothing more.
“So, I mean…” Artemis swiftly punches the air and draws back. “Theoretically, when she was sixteen, you and Oliver would’ve come to see her about ruling, too, right?”
Dinah doesn’t say anything. Artemis can’t work up the motivation to press her.
The clock chimes 4:30.
“Tell you what,” Dinah mutters. “You can leave early today.”
Artemis stops shadow-boxing and starts to whirl around. “But—”
“Go on,” Dinah says encouragingly, but there’s an undercurrent of cold insistence that Artemis wishes she didn’t recognize.
“Thanks,” Artemis whispers. It comes out chilly.
Zatanna’s so excited about Artemis showing up an hour and a half early that she apparently doesn’t even think to ask why she’s all sweaty, but Artemis isn’t going to complain. Still, though, even when Barsoom shows up to drive them to the mall in Megan’s uncle’s limo, and even though there’s a mini-fridge inside that has miniature cans of Coca-Cola, are you kidding; why doesn’t the Princess of Vlatava get a limo like this—Artemis’s throat won’t stop feeling like there’s a golf ball stuck in it.
“This is ridiculous,” Artemis growls an hour later in the dressing room of Suburban Outfitters. “Can I die?”
“Please don’t,” Zatanna replies wryly from the other side of the painted white door.
“It’s not ridiculous,” Megan argues cheerfully, tossing another of the dresses over the top of the door. You know, one of the dresses that Artemis had like, passively glanced at. “Ooh, you have good taste!”
“I—what?” Artemis barks. “I am not wearing white, Megan. We’re not getting married.”
Zatanna lets out a loud, false cough that sounds suspiciously like, “Yet.”
Most of the dress choices are Megan’s, since Artemis wouldn’t know a nice-looking dance dress if it bit her on the nose—bright blue, red, pink, white. The styles are tolerable, but the colors are inexcusable.
“These are all way too expensive,” Artemis says quietly, embarrassingly self-conscious about it, even though, according to Oliver, Vlatava is one of the richest countries in the world. “Can’t we just go to GoodWill or something?”
“Oh, didn’t Meg tell you?” Zatanna chirps as Megan flounces around. “Her uncle will be treating us to anything purchased in this mall.”
“He’s really excited that I have friends,” Megan provides, sounding sheepish.
Oh, no. Guilt. Crushing guilt. Crushing guilt!!!
“Can you zip me up?” Artemis grumbles instead of tearing up because that is the nicest and saddest thing ever.
“I’ll do it!” Megan volunteers with a touch too much alacrity, flinging the door open and slipping in, practically bouncing. Artemis stares at herself in the mirror after Megan does up the zipper and straightens the skirt.
It doesn’t look bad. It’s a rich pine-green color, and it’s satin; there are no annoying shoulders or sleeves and the skirt stops a few inches over her knees, flattering without being too form-fitting, hanging like an especially well-hung curtain. It fits a little like a cocktail dress, but it’s strapless, and there’s an open triangle in the fabric covering her back.
Artemis turns to the right, surveying herself analytically in profile.
“This one doesn’t suck,” she says begrudgingly.
Outside, Zatanna claps her hands and calls to the saleswoman, “We’ll take it!”
It’s almost 9:30 when Artemis hears a knock at her bedroom door.
She looks up over her shoulder sharply. She’s sitting cross-legged in her desk chair, working diligently on her French homework, and the new dress – $57, the cheapest out of the three that she and the girls had walked out of there with—is hanging in her closet, right next to Jade’s old parka. Jade yowls grumpily, standing up and stretching.
And okay, color Artemis confused. Her mom usually never knocks, preferring instead to just yell for her to open the door, so…
Of course. Dinah. Is nothing sacred?
“Come in,” Artemis grumbles, before hunching back over to wrap up conjugating accueillir in subjonctif.
The door creaks when it opens and Jade growls dubiously. Artemis doesn’t turn around until she’s finished scribbling down the last conjugation.
“Look, Dinah; I thought we decided that you weren’t allowed to come within fifty feet of this buildAAH!” She jumps back, knocking over her pencil cup and startling Jade into bolting for the closet.
The people downstairs probably think she just dropped a bowling ball on the floor.
“You’re not Dinah,” Artemis ekes out, completely rigid. “Okay.”
Wally stares down at her like she’s sprouted a second face.
“No, I am not Dinah,” he confirms, sounding tentative. “Uh, whoever that is.”
“No one!” Artemis blurts out. “A friend. My aunt. No one.”
“Wow, uh…” Wally scratches his head, surveying her with something vaguely resembling concern. “Do you always scare this easy?”
“No,” Artemis retorts sharply. “I mean, I don’t scare ever, actually. You just took me off-guard.” She shakes her head and slaps a hand onto her ankle to refrain from kicking herself in the face. Get a grip. “Sorry; it’s… been a long day.” She frowns up at him. “Which reminds me, what are you doing in my bedroom, exactly?”
“I… wanted to come and visit,” Wally tells her, slipping his hands into his pockets and swaying rhythmically on his feet. “Make sure you weren’t turning innocent men to stone, and whatnot.”
“Well, as you can see, I’m rock-free in here,” Artemis snips, gesturing to the room.
Wally eyes the AC/DC poster over her desk. “You certainly are.”
“Hilarious,” Artemis deadpans. She turns back to her desk, trying to make it look like she still has work to do, mostly just because her brain is still catching up to the fact that Wally West is in her room, Wally West has now seen her wearing her Gryffindor pajamas; why and how is this her life. “You don’t seriously expect me to buy that ‘visiting’ schtick, do you? Did Dick dare you, or something?”
“I just… uh,” Wally mumbles. “You’ve seemed kinda—kinda stressed out. Lately, I mean. I guess I just wanted to see if everything was okay. Figure it’s my duty, being your date to the dance and all.”
Artemis’s hand freezes over the paper. Something very worrisomely warm and pleasant just unfolded in her chest.
“Yeah,” she tells him softly, shifting slowly in her seat so that she can face him again. She rests her elbow on the back of the chair. “Everything’s fine.”
It’s such a total lie, by the way. Worse than the lie about Dinah being her no one friend aunt.
Judging by the exasperated look on Wally’s face, he totally spots it, too.
“Shouldn’t you be saving your concern for some of your real friends?” Artemis appends sarcastically in a sorry attempt to save herself. Because let’s face it: a couple viewings of Star Wars and a nap in his lap in the wake of constant belligerent arguments do not a friendship make.
Wally lets out this big sigh, but it’s audibly one of those sighs that comes when the sigher can’t believe what he or she just heard. Artemis looks at his chest instead of his face because it’s easier.
“Look…” he says, but then he folds his lips in and his eyes dart around and he takes a deep breath before straightening, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand and gesticulating nonsensically with the other as he continues. “Okay. Bear with me, because this could wind up being one of those things that sounds way better in my head than out loud, but…”
He tilts his head down slightly to get her attention, and when she glances up against her better judgment to look him in the eye, something in her lungs jumps and hitches right in her throat like a fishing hook—he’s smiling at her, earnestly, steadily, and it might be the nicest smile she’s ever seen.
“You are one of my real friends,” he tells her. “Maybe even… maybe even more real than Zat, or Conner.” (Yeah, he and Conner had met through Dick, and Conner freaking loves him.) “Listen… I know I can act like a jerk. We both can. Personally, I chalk it up to bad first impressions. But as hard as it might be for you to grasp, I really care about you—” He flushes. “I mean, uh, in a friendly, a friendly caring way. The way friends care. Maybe even more than the average friend?”
Will someone in the audience please remind Artemis how breathing works? Thank you.
“The point is…” Wally looks at the floor, his eyes half-lidded, his smile easy and wry, like he’s just understood a joke he’d played on himself. “The point is, I know how you can get about trying to look tough, and that’s fine—kinda cute, even, and I’m saying that in a friendly way! Friends!—because you feel like if you don’t, people are gonna walk all over you, but… I’m not like that. None of us are, but especially not me. You don’t have anything to prove, Artemis.”
His eyes shift up again, meeting hers, settling into place perfectly.
“Not to me, anyway,” he adds. “And I just want you to know that if you’re ever desperate for someone to tell your deepest and darkest secrets to… I’m, uh, usually free on weekdays after 5 PM. Okay?”
Artemis feels her suddenly weightless head move up and down in a nod. She thinks that her lips have quirked up in a subtle smile, but she can’t be sure.
“Okay,” she breathes. She feels the grin twitch open, just a little bigger. “Yeah. Okay.”
And how weird is this? Here’s Wally West, who has, in the past month alone, gone from bane of her existence to tentative ally to movie-watching buddy to homecoming date to… to whatever he’s being right now, which she arguably likes the best out of all of them. He has freckles on his toes and sometimes he snorts when he guffaws and he gets this concentrated look on his face when he’s working on Chemistry with her and he always smells like clean laundry, and he killed a spider for her once and only made fun of how high her scream had been for a couple of hours, and sometimes when she watches him run during track meets, she wonders what it’d be like if he just sprinted over and scooped her up in his arms and took her with him, wherever he always looks like he’s trying to go.
And there are so many things that she could tell him right then—so many things that she almost does. Things about how she still misses her sister on rainy nights, things about how there’ll always be the tiniest part of her that wishes she was good enough to make her dad stick around, things about how she feels like she’s disappointing everyone half the time, things about how she’s the sole heir to a centuries-old Eastern European royal family and can’t tell anyone and will probably have to rule it when she’s 21 and feels like she just lost the opportunity to live her life the way she wants to and is never sure if she’s good enough and also wouldn’t mind kissing him.
But the words that come out of her mouth are different.
“I really am okay,,” she says in a voice that doesn’t feel like it’s hers. “I have a pretty big shortage of deep, dark secrets. Unless not seeing Star Wars until two weeks ago counts.”
“That totally counts,” Wally declares with a solemn nod.
“If there was, though,” Artemis continues, “I’d… I’d tell you.”
Which is also a lie.
Wally’s face splits into a bashful grin. He sighs briskly, his hands going for his pockets again, and starts to step back.
“Well, uh… if everything’s cool, then I’ll—let you get back to writing up your plans for destroying mankind. I assume that’s what you do when you’re not sucking at Chemistry.”
“Ha, ha,” Artemis sneers,. Wally nods a couple of times, and Artemis won’t let her mind think that he’s stalling, before turning fully away and reaching for the doorknob.
Something catches in Artemis’s throat. “Wally?”
He stops and glances over his shoulder, his eyes fraught with worry like he’s afraid she’s going to tell him that his whole monologue actually wasn’t the nicest thing she’d heard in her entire life, but when he notices that she’s still smiling at him, he loosens.
“It…” She swallows and waves her hand, somehow managing a scoff, tearing her eyes away sheepishly. “It sounded... fine, out loud.”
The look of utter happiness on his stupid face is worth the mushy words.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
pick you up at 8 tomorrow? unless youre gonna stand me up, in which case… i give you an hour to change your mind so 9
SENT TEXT MESSAGE
8’s fine, laser-brain.
There’s this thing about Artemis’s life, though—this thing she should have learned a long time ago. And that’s that nothing good ever really happens to her. Nothing good ever really stays.
She wishes she hadn’t forgotten.
“If you come home and the zipper on that dress is even the slightest bit off center,” Paula threatens with a murderous look in her eyes, “I will personally make it my mission to starve you. You will be home by one o’clock. You will call me every two hours. And if I catch you with your lipstick smudged...” She smiles serenely, settling. “Well… let us hope it does not become necessary to investigate that possibility.”
Artemis gulps. She’s standing in the middle of the living room in her dress and opaque black stockings and a pair of Jade’s old high-heels, with an obsidian lace harlequin mask (courtesy of Dinah) in one hand and a clutch in the other. Feeling like she’s about to face the apocalypse.
There had been a kind of unreal, suspended quality to the school day, and it had felt weird not to go to Oliver’s directly after Independent Study ended, and Zatanna’s been texting her about every seven seconds to update her on how nervous Wally apparently is, as well as all kinds of super unsavory things about how she can use Dick’s tie to her advantage (they’re going together—shock of the century), and Megan sent her a picture of her in her dress—a frothy cream-colored thing with a periwinkle sash—and Artemis is pretty sure that her head now consists of approximately 40% hairspray, and Wally’s going to be there in twenty minutes.
And okay—Artemis has never been to a dance of any kind before, and she’s starting to regret her uninformed decision to go to one, with a date, especially one planned by Zatanna. Had she been high?
“Don’t look so terrified!” Paula exclaims, throwing her hands up. “You will have a wonderful time.” She gets a sly look on her face. “And I will be able to chat with this Wally again. He was so charming when he came to visit a few days ago—”
Artemis rolls her eyes as hugely as she possibly can. “Please don’t remind me.”
Her phone buzzes in her clutch and she shoots her mom another wry smirk before turning slightly away and tugging it out.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
now he’s practicing offering his arm to you on dick. he accidentally asked dad to dance a few minutes ago.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
i do hope you’ll go easy on him tonight. he’s kinda… [emoji of a crazy person]
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
we’re leaving in 5!
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
crap are you wearing dark green or light green
Artemis smiles privately to herself and is about to type back a reply to Wally when her screen lights up with an incoming call.
Okay, stay calm, Artemis. He probably just wants to say something embarrassing.
At… 7:43 PM. On a Friday night.
She doesn’t have much of a choice. She taps the “accept” button.
“This’d better be good,” she says jokingly, and when her mom gives her an inquisitive look, she mouths, Ollie.
There’s a pause that lasts just a beat long enough to make Artemis stiffen on instinct.
“Artemis, I’m sorry, but you need to get to the villa right away.” Oliver’s voice comes out in a rush, sounding strained and panicked and a host of other things that make Artemis’s stomach swiftly plummet and hit her heels. “It’s urgent. Incredibly urgent.”
Artemis opens and closes her mouth wordlessly a few times, and Paula must have noticed the conflicted look on her face, because she wheels closer slowly, reaching up to clasp Artemis’s wrist.
“Vlatava urgent?” Artemis finally breathes tensely, bracing herself.
“I’m afraid so,” Oliver affirms gravely.
“Ollie, I—” Artemis shakes her head even though she knows he can’t see it. “I can’t; I have a date. A very important date.”
“Well, it’s—” His tone is wrought with pained exhaustion. “It’s your choice, Artemis. It will always be your choice. If you think that your commitment to West should take precedence, then I won’t try to change your mind.”
He sighs feebly and finishes with, “It’s your decision, Your Highness.”
Dinah calls her that all the time, yeah, and so does Oliver, but it still doesn’t stop the title from making Artemis’s bones go cold. She bites her lip and closes her eyes and…
Well, she does what a princess would do.
“They’re in the study,” Dinah mutters, ushering Artemis hurriedly through the main hallway and past the portrait gallery to the appropriate pair of mahogany doors.
“They?” Artemis croaks. Her hair is windswept and her eyes are dry—the ride on Dinah’s motorcycle, which had already been waiting outside her apartment building, had been fast and harum-scarum and now she’s pretty sure she looks like some kind of rabid raccoon.
She doesn’t know why her voice is so hoarse. Probably because, when she’d been an idiot and turned her head to look back at her street after Dinah had taken off, she’d done it just in time to see Wally pull up in Zatanna’s dad’s Studebaker.
Dinah shoves the doors open and practically scoops Artemis into the room, her arm curved snugly around the base of Artemis’s back, and Artemis understands, in an instant, what she means.
Oliver is seated in his trusty leather armchair, one elbow braced on the armrest and attached to the hand currently covering his face. Standing opposite him, over a fallen baseball cap, is a tall, muscular young man with a shock of red hair that sticks up over his forehead and a ferocious-looking face, dressed in a scarlet-and-black motorcycle jacket and jeans.
Artemis balks instinctively. He looks furious.
“Just let me leave, Ol!” he’s in the middle of shouting. His fists are clenched at his sides. “You think you can just drag me into your little castle the second you and your goons track me down? I told you years ago; I’m done with you! Done with Vlatava! So why don’t you just piss off?!”
“Artemis,” Dinah says coolly, her hand now braced on Artemis’s shoulder. “This is your cousin Roy.”
At the sound of his name, Roy jerks his head slightly, his eyes darting over to Artemis like a pair of arrows.
“Cousin?” He sneers, hooking his thumbs into the belt loops of his jeans. “I don’t have any cousins.”
“She’s my niece, Roy,” Oliver rasps, sounding enervated. He drops his hand away from his face and slackens back in the chair. “Lawrence’s daughter.”
“Lawrence had a—?” Roy shifts fully to face Artemis, who can’t do anything but stand there, feeling exposed and fragile in her stupid dress and her stupid done-up hair, her mind still six paces behind, waiting on the street corner for Wally. “I can see it. The resemblance, I mean.” He tilts his head, examining Artemis closely, all the while with a disparaging curl to his lips. “This is your new little monarch? Can she even use a bow?”
“Yes,” Artemis bites back. “She can.”
Roy snorts. “So what do you need me for, then, if you’ve got her?”
Artemis finally has the good sense to glare at him, jutting her chin out.
“I don’t know what he needs,” she snaps, gesturing tightly to Oliver, “But personally, I’d love an explanation for what the hell is going on.”
Roy nods pensively, as though she’s brought up a good point. He turns back to Oliver, eyes unchanging.
“Well, Ol,” he snarls. “You heard the lady.”
Oliver looks, instead, to Dinah. Artemis and Roy follow his gaze in unison. Dinah nods silently to him, her expression resigned, and Oliver sighs, heaving himself up from the chair and pacing over to stand between Artemis and Roy, who go back to glaring each other down.
“Roy was the first potential heir we lost,” he explains in a tired, gravelly voice. “As we told you, Artemis, after he discovered he was… adopted…”
Bitterness spasms across Roy’s face.
“...He just… ran off,” Oliver continues. “I wanted so badly just to have him home, so we could talk, so I could explain to him that he was better than any blood son I could ever have, that I hired some of Vlatava’s finest private investigators to hunt him down.”
“Explains why it took so long,” Roy interjects snidely.
Oliver grimaces, but ignores him.
“We only just found him; he was—” He shakes his head, gazing with glassy eyes at the floor. “He was only a few cities over. Just living in this… simple apartment, working a day job at the local archery range.”
“What, did you expect me to be embroiled in globetrotting espionage?” Roy scoffs. “Give me a break, Oliver. A normal life was all I ever wanted. Even though that’s hardly what I got with J—”
“That’s not the point,” Oliver cuts him off swiftly—a little too swiftly. He turns back to Artemis. She’s never seen him look so tired. “The point is that we found him because we thought that he could take over the throne. He was always our first choice. Always.”
“Because he’s a guy?” Artemis asks sharply.
“No,” Oliver answers immediately. “Because he’s my son.” He shakes his head. “Lawrence may have been a coward, and a pig, but he only ever wanted the most ordinary life for you and your sister. I used to think that he was being selfish, but… maybe that was the best thing he could have ever given you.”
“Wait,” Artemis cuts in, feeling her stomach start to knot itself and her heart start to quicken into a patter. “If you found him, then—then does that mean he’ll take the throne instead of me?” An inexorable smile starts to burst onto her face before she can dampen it. “Does that mean I don’t have to?”
“Sorry to let you down, Your Highness, but I wouldn’t accept that throne if you paid me,” Roy snarls. “Seeing this man try to give me anything without my being his own flesh and blood is pathetic, and I don’t want anything more to do with him anyway. Not exactly endearing to have someone lie to you your whole life.” He curls his lip. “But I doubt you know what that feels like.”
It’s remarkably similar to a sucker punch to the face. Artemis would have stumbled if there wasn’t newfound outrage coursing through her, holding her up.
“Oh, you doubt it, huh?” she says in a low and dangerous growl. “You know what I did when I found out that I’d been lied to? After my dad walked out on me and my sister took the quickest escape route through the window and this idiot—” She points to Oliver, who makes an indignant noise. “Came stomping into my life like he owned it? I sucked it up and did what was asked of me. Because yeah, it may not have been something I ever thought would happen to me, and it may not have been something I was prepared for, and I may not have even really heard of Vlatava before it had to become part of my daily vocabulary, but at least I’ve got enough of a functioning heart and brain to know that you always do what’s right, whether you’re a royal or not! And leaving this lame excuse for a country to be absorbed by Austria, leaving said idiot without a single hope of having anything even remotely resembling a family left, deciding not to put my life on hold for the sake of the freaking masses, is not the right thing to do!” She hadn’t even noticed she’d been advancing on Roy, but she is, pointing at his chin, and he’s actually starting to take a step back with every one she takes forward. “And I didn’t decide to do it because I had to, or because they guilted me into it; I did it because I wanted to; I wanted to do the right thing for once in my freaking life, and I wanted to actually take responsibility for something for a change, and I wanted to prove that I could be better than just Lawrence Crock’s deadbeat daughter! And I can respect you, Roy, for making your own decision, but in case you hadn’t figured this out by now, that decision was stupid, and you’re a coward, and maybe Vlatava’s a lot better off without you.”
She whirls on Dinah, who’s beaming at her elatedly.
“Dinah,” she says primly. “Let’s go eat some Bialyan jerky.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” Dinah says with a bow and a flourish, and as Artemis’s brain finally catches up to her and her knees start to shake, and as she stalks toward the kitchens ahead of Dinah, Dinah turns her head over her shoulder and raises her eyebrows at Roy and winks at Oliver, and Oliver sits weakly back down in his chair.
Roy blinks at the wall. “What the hell just happened?”
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
where are you? we waited 20 minutes and then went on without you. please call me. i’m worried.
(1) MISSED CALL FROM MOM
(16) MISSED CALLS FROM WALLY
(1) VOICEMAIL FROM WALLY
“Hey. It’s me. ...Wally. I’ve tried you a few times and you’re not picking up, so… I guess I’m just gonna assume that you did change your mind. And I mean, that’s fine. I just wish that you’d… explain why. Just so I can know what I did wrong, for posterity. Anyway, whatever you’re doing, I hope it’s more fun than you thought going to a dance with me would be. Bye.”
Artemis can’t think of anything she can say or text or conceive that could possibly give Wally a good reason for why she bailed on him, so she just settles for not calling or texting him at all.
She calls Zatanna, though, at about three in the morning, after she’s hoarsely explained everything that’s happened to her mom. She passes it off as a sudden stomach bug, that she’d been too sick to even pick up a phone, that she’s so so sorry, and Zatanna clearly doesn’t believe it but accepts it, murmuring that it’s okay, even though Wally didn’t dance with anyone and drove to Artemis's apartment building halfway through the dance to check on her; and she Dick had to get a ride home from Kal.
“He’s having a Halloween party tomorrow,” Zatanna says. “Kal, I mean. He invited us all last night. You, too, if you’re up for it.”
“Um,” Artemis croaks, wiping her swollen eyes with the sleeve of her Alice in Wonderland sweater. “Maybe.”
It turns out her mom did get to meet Wally again, but she tells Artemis that he only came up for a few minutes and looked around dejectedly and then left, but that he was very polite the whole time and she thought he was quite charming.
“I hope you enjoyed him while you could,” Artemis mumbles miserably, “Because he’s never gonna talk to me again.”
She deserves this, though. She knows she does. She deserves this for not trusting her friends, no matter what Oliver told he about confidentiality and international secrets – not so much didn’t trust them to keep it a secret, but didn’t trust them to keep associating with her after they found out. Because Artemis is used to losing people, and it hasn’t magically gotten enjoyable, so sometimes she does stupid things and overthinks because she’ll do anything, probably, to keep them around.
“You realize you’re making it ten times worse every hour you don’t talk to him, right?” Zatanna asks gently.
Artemis sniffles. Because the truth is, lying to Wally about anything at this point, even about how much money she has in her wallet, even about the fact that she secretly likes Han Solo better than Princess Leia, after what he’d said to her in her room, seems like the cruelest thing she could possibly do.
Way, way crueler than standing him up and not telling him why.
Roy agrees to stay at the villa with Oliver until Artemis’s introduction ball, so he’s going to be around for her lessons. Artemis couldn’t care less. He doesn’t deserve the time of day from her, honestly. Selfish prick.
Whatever. Maybe the proximity will give Dinah the opportunity to shoot his toes off if he doesn’t agree to take the throne.
Zatanna manages to convince Artemis to go to Kal’s Halloween party, and Artemis wears her stupid vampire costume from the year before, sulking in corners with a cup of melon punch and her cloak pulled tightly around her. Zatanna’s a witch, looking adorable in her wide-brimmed pointy hat and little witch ankle booties. Dick is Neo from The Matrix. Freak.
Wally is the wolf from Teen Wolf. The movie, not the show. She can barely distinguish him under his werewolf ears and fake beard and fangs, but she knows it’s him, because he spends the entire party flirting with Megan (a zombie bride) more doggedly than she’s seen him do in weeks. Like, thankfully, Megan thinks it’s cute, so it kind of reduces the creep factor and just makes it a pathetic factor, because she spends the entire party following Conner the mummy around wherever he goes—and he doesn’t mind, if his simple smiles are anything to go by.
“You really need to talk to him,” Zatanna murmurs, coming to stand beside Artemis and munch on her handful of popcorn. She and Artemis look in unison at Wally, who’s chattering animatedly to the auburn-haired kid from track (a pirate) and Kal (a 1920s gangster, pinstriped suit and fedora and all).
“Is that Raquel Ervin?” Artemis asks instead, nodding subtly to Raquel, who’s dressed as the girl from Flashdance and is gazing longingly at Kal.
“Yeah, you didn’t know?” Zatanna replies, making a face. “She and Kal are, like, a thing now. They hung out at the dance and now they… might be going out? I don’t know. He’s kind of been weird about it. But he’s definitely into her. Speaking of being into people… you should talk to Wally.”
“I, uh…” Artemis straightens, tensing up slightly at the sight of Wally starting to approach her and Zatanna. “I think he’s gonna have that covered.”
“Artemis,” Wally exclaims in mock surprise when he halts in front of them. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Artemis keeps her eyes trained on the punch bowl against the opposite wall and doesn’t say a word. Her mind is rapidly starting to black out.
“So…” He clears his throat, and the undercurrent of bitterness that had been in his voice a second ago has ebbed into something Artemis doesn’t even want to think about. “I was wondering—”
“I gotta go home,” Artemis cuts in, and she hands Zatanna her cup and leaves.
Nice one, Princess.
Everything sucks and is terrible.
Of course, Artemis knew that, eventually, Wally would stop being hurt and start being angry, and that’s the stage they’re at now, to the point where he won’t look her in the eye during class and refuses to speak to her during lunch and generally makes everything painful and awkward.
Zatanna and Dick take it like champs, though. It probably helps that Megan and Conner and Kal have started eating lunch with all of them, now that they’ve all magically bonded with everyone while Artemis has been tied down by princessly duties, so they’re sort of a buffer, sort of, but they can only do so much.
Slowly, slowly, the days after Homecoming start to come and go with the rhythm of a usual week. Halloween ends, and the streets get grayer and the wind stronger with the onset of November, and after a few repeated occurrences, Oliver stops getting on her case for showing up drenched to lessons. Can’t be helped, Dinah says, but Oliver swears that her coronation gift is going to be an umbrella.
She starts to get to know Roy a little better, too—he apparently has a girlfriend that he lives with in Star City, which is about a two-hour drive from Gotham. He’s incredible at archery, he can probably eat twice his body weight in chili (which, by the way, Oliver has been making for her constantly since she told him about the fact that her fragile friendship with Wally has been completely shattered; chili is like the Vlatavan version of ice cream), he likes watching Spanish soap operas and talking over them with his own dialogue (and, okay, maybe Artemis does it with him a couple of times, maybe), he’s the only one who Arsenal actually likes enough not to bite or attack, and he knows how to make spaghetti from scratch.
Still a selfish prick, though.
The one useful thing that Artemis manages to do in the following week, though, is get Conner and Megan to start going out.
Right?! She’s amazing! She pilfers each of their phones at lunch one day because she is literally sick of seeing them spend half of their waking hours making doe-eyes at each other and then blushing and looking away and smiling and standing a little closer to each other every day and ugh, so she texts a single message to Conner with Megan’s phone and Megan with Conner’s: Do you like wolves?
They’re totally sucking face the next morning; it’s awesome. Zatanna isn’t quite as thrilled about it as Artemis is, because she’s usually the one third-wheeling for them now that Dick’s been spending his lunch periods in with the Computer Club to prep them for some competition in January, but whatever—Artemis actually feels like a decent friend for the first time in weeks, and no one’s going to take that away from her.
And then the inevitable comes.
Zatanna passes her a note in Independent Study on Friday, November 7.
Wally’s birthday is on Tuesday. We’re having a party at my place. Don’t tell him, but you’re totally invited.
Artemis isn’t sure that that’s how parties work. She also isn’t sure that she should even go, but when she looks surreptitiously over her shoulder at where Wally’s sitting, hunched over a copy of The Heart of Darkness with that pensive frown and his tongue between his teeth and a pencil behind his ear and his lips pink from the cold, she suddenly can’t fathom why she ever wouldn’t.
ZEAUTIFUL has invited you to a private chat.
ZEAUTIFUL has added WALLYBEST to the chat.
ZEAUTIFUL has left the chat.
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing...
WALLYBEST has left the chat.
SMARTEMIS has left the chat.
A Comprehensive List of Artemis Crock’s Problems, In No Particular Order:
- Wally hates her.
- She hates him too, actually. He’s being ridiculous.
- She really, seriously, unquestionably, inconsolably wants to kiss him.
- She doesn't know why.
Dinah takes her shopping that weekend. Apparently it’s some kind of covert apology for the whole Roy Thing.
They find this little black dress with a Queen Anne neckline that fits Artemis like a tube, conforming to her every curve and bone and stopping halfway to her knees. It’s more than a little different than her Homecoming dress, but if she’s going to get Wally to actually slip up and look at her, she might as well do it right.
Afterwards, they go back to the villa to find that Oliver and Roy are out on the archery range, laughing and chatting with much more ease than Artemis can tell they have in a long, long time. Dinah steers her into the study pretty suddenly, and Artemis only thinks to ask her what they’re doing after Dinah has shoved her down to sit on the green leather couch and taken a seat opposite her in the matching green chair.
“We need to have a talk,” Dinah tells her simply.
Artemis blinks at her. “About…?”
“About revealing your identity to the public,” Dinah expounds, leaning back and crossing one leg over the other.
“We’re—doing that at the ball, though,” Artemis says, frowning. “Aren’t… we?”
Dinah nods and shrugs, the words coming out taut with hesitation, like she’s afraid that the wrong syllable will send Artemis into an apoplectic fit. “That’s the plan, yes. But I’ve been talking to Oliver and I think it might garner more favorable attention to Vlatava and a higher attendance rate if, maybe, we go public a little sooner than we’d planned.”
Artemis physically feels the color drain from her face.
“No,” she blurts out. “No. No. Absolutely not; no, no, no, no—”
“I can understand your nervousness, but Artemis, we’re going to have to go personally public with this sooner or later,” Dinah tells her gently. “Preferably sooner than later. You can’t just stay in the shadows anymore. The world is going to know, one way or another. And the only way to keep it from being a media debacle is for you to break the news yourself, in the most articulate way that you can. I just thought we could consider the option.”
Artemis scoffs and folds her arms more tightly, and sinks down into the chair, and she knows Dinah must be being very sympathetic right now because she doesn’t even start ranting about posture.
“Yeah, sure,” Artemis mutters. “Of course. I’ll just go stand up on a rooftop somewhere and yell it down at everyone. Can you imagine what Wally would do with that?”
As soon as she says the words, she knows that they’re way, way too much. But you know, she can easily imagine what Wally would do with that: laugh at her. Hate her for keeping a secret from him. Start avoiding her. Forget the fact that she’d ditched him for Homecoming; forget the fact that she hadn’t been able to get up the guts to offer him an explanation. He’ll just be even more hurt that she didn’t tell him the truth earlier. Having a weird backstory is nowhere near as cool as comic books make it seem, although she’s pretty sure Bruce Banner wouldn’t have gotten rejected if he’d turned into a princess instead of a green rage monster, but then again, Wally would probably take Bruce Banner over her any day.
“Interesting,” Dinah muses, but she sounds so annoyingly satisfied. “So the person you’re most worried about—out of an entire planet, out of an entire plethora of government officials and reporters and possible assassins—is Wally.”
Artemis gulps and looks up, feeling her eyes start to sting.
“Yeah,” she whispers. “Yeah, I guess so. You got me. Hilarious, right? There are people who are gonna be closing in on me with machine guns, and all I want is for him to—” She gulps, again. “To talk to me.” Her voice quiets to a mumble, probably because she hadn’t intended to let the next sentence go any further than the back of her brain: “For a really, really long time.”
She looks Dinah in the eye, biting her lip.
“Dinah,” she mumbles, hating how her voice starts shaking, “I don’t know what to do anymore. I don’t know if I ever did. I’m such a failure. I messed everything up. I don’t even know what I’m doing, or what I’m going to do, or how I’m going to manage anything—And I’m—I feel like I’m letting everyone down. You’d think after a few tries it’d stop sucking as much, but... honestly?” She hiccups, her voice breaking. “It’s still the worst feeling in the world.”
“Artemis,” Dinah murmurs. “Sweetheart. You’re not letting anyone down. We couldn’t possibly be more proud of you.”
“What for?” Artemis demands, throwing her hand in the air. “What have I even done? I broke a few priceless vases and learned how to do a jump-kick in high heels and I can probably recite the entire Vlatavan family tree from memory, but I haven’t stopped any wars or diffused any sensitive situations or—or anything even remotely useful.”
“You realize it’s only been two months since you started, right?” Dinah asks flatly. “And making the kind of progress you have in two months is pretty impressive, if you ask me.” Under her breath, she adds, “I’ve never seen someone pick up boxing so quickly…”
“I don’t care,” Artemis groans, scrubbing a hand over her face.
“And incidentally, you still have another month left to go,” Dinah continues, raising an eyebrow at Artemis’s petulant remark. “So you may surprise yourself.”
“Okay, but can we save the surprises until the reveal date we originally agreed on?” Artemis whimpers. “Just...” She rubs her eyes. “Just… let me have… what I have now. Just for a little longer. Just let me still be able to know what it feels like to have a semi-normal life until December. Please.”
Dinah’s silent for a few minutes, but when Artemis looks up through swimming eyes, she blinks slowly and folds her hands and nods once.
“All right,” Dinah says softly. “As you wish, Your Highness.”
“Don’t call me that,” Artemis mutters, shaking her head. “I don’t—ugh. I don’t deserve it.”
“I’ve seen a lot of royal offspring in my time, Artemis,” Dinah tells her with a wry smile. “And trust me when I tell you that you most definitely do.”
“You’re going to look great,” Dinah assures her on Tuesday evening, pinning the front of Artemis’s hair back and tying it together in a twisted loop around the rest of it, which cascades down to her back. “He’s going to regret not taking you to that dance.”
“Are we forgetting who bailed on who here, Dinah?” Artemis mutters, and Dinah sighs, pats her shoulder, and says nothing more.
“At least wear a sweater,” Oliver says gruffly when Dinah ushers her out to the motorcycle.
“Yes, Mom,” Artemis and Roy sing in harmony.
Frankly, Artemis doesn’t really know how she got here. It had started with Wally picking the wrong time to answer the door to Zatanna’s house and it had lulled with a party full of people Artemis is pretty sure neither she nor Wally know, and it had ended, as most horror stories do, with the glass neck of an empty bottle, pointing resolutely from Wally to her, while Zatanna and Dick’s melodiously evil laughs rocketed up to the ceiling in unison.
The inside of Zatanna’s closet reeks of flowery perfume and mothballs, and Artemis is pretty sure that the dress she just bumped into just rained glitter down on her face. She splutters, swiping at her nose as Wally closes the door behind them.
And okay—it’s a walk-in closet, so at least it’s mildly spacious, but everything is frilly and every skirt is short and she’s in the leather corner and it’s rapidly becoming apparent that Wally smells kind of nice.
“Aaaaand we’re in the dark,” she deadpans, slumping against the wall. “Perfect.”
“Well, yeah; most closets tend to be dark,” Wally snips back. She hears him rustling around a few inches away. “Ow. I think my ankle just hit a horizontal stiletto.”
“Sounds serious; you want me to call 911?” Artemis sneers. She hits the back of her head against the wall three rhythmic times. Why is this her life.
“I think I’ll survive.” Wally sounds exceptionally snide, but to be fair, she isn’t exactly the picture of pleasantry either, she guesses. Kind of hard to be perky when she’s been fighting off his unwavering hatred for the past two weeks.
Silence starts to swell up in the cramped space between them, except for the distant thumping of Zatanna’s music. Artemis chews her lip, hard, and tries to keep her eyes on the sparkliest dress in her line of visibility. It’s very purple.
“Happy birthday,” she mumbles, barely even comprehensible.
Wally clears his throat quietly, scratching his cheek.
“Not my happiest,” he says after a second. “But thanks anyway.”
She gives him a flat look. “What don’t you have to be happy about? Zatanna invited the entire school to your stupid party and you’ve got a stack of gifts the approximate height and density of Mount Kilimanjaro, there’s about two tables decked out in a smorgasbord of every kind of junk food imaginable, and Megan’s skirt is pretty short, by her standards.” She scoffs. “Sounds like an ideal Wally West birthday to me.”
“That’s funny, considering you don’t even know me,” he snaps. Artemis has to resist the instinct to physically wince. Ouch.
“Well, I’ve been making an effort, in case you hadn’t noticed,” she bites back instead. Even in the dark, she can see his nose wrinkle into a sneer.
“I hadn’t, actually.”
“Maybe you could stand to look harder!” she barks, throwing her arm out. It crashes into a fascinator. She doesn’t even care. “Look, I’m sorry I missed the stupid dance, okay, because as difficult as it might be for you to grasp, I did actually want to go—and with you, as a matter of fact!—but—”
“But what?” he demands. “You never got around to divulging that little bit of info.”
Artemis blinks and her mouth snaps closed because, oh yeah, she can’t divulge that little bit of info, and her life is a wreck.
“But something else came up,” she sputters out while she deflates, her raised shoulders slackening. Her voice softens against her will and she’s practically hanging her head. “I’m sorry, all right? How many times do you need to hear it?” Because I’ll say it as many times as you want; that is literally how much I care about whether or not you like me, jerkoff.
The song outside ends and changes to something slower. Artemis’s eyes, now adjusted to the darkness, stay fixated on Wally’s flushed face (at least, she thinks it’s flushed; it’s dim, and he has freckles, and her heart is beating really fast so she has bigger things to worry about).
“That’s not what I need to hear,” he mutters, crossing his arms. He leans against the wall and sinks down to sit on the floor, before shifting around so that he’s facing away from her.
“Do you seriously have to be so—so—” She gesticulates wildly, angrily. “Cryptic all the time? I’m not one of the Hardy Boys, Wally; throw me a bone!”
He doesn’t say anything. She huffs enormously and drops her arms to her sides. After a second, she’s down on the floor with him, turned away from his back with her knees raised.
“I can’t stand you,” she whispers.
“Sorry,” he replies quietly.
Before she even notices what she’s doing, she’s kind of tilted back until her back meets his. He doesn’t stiffen or draw away or break her nose with his elbow, which she guesses is kind of a good sign?
She closes her eyes. He’s really warm. His breathing is slow and even, and she can feel the muscles in his shoulders moving against hers. Cautiously, she rests the back of her head against the nape of his neck.
“Look, I—” She bites the inside of her cheek, her eyebrows wrestling against each other. “I’ll explain eventually, okay? If you could just stand to be patient for five seconds in your life.” She inclines her head slightly toward him. “I promise.”
He lets out a quiet “hm” and shrugs, slowly, before sinking again, his weight melding with hers instead of bearing down on her.
“How much longer do we have?” he asks after a while, and it hums against her.
She sighs through her nose. “Too long.”
“I dunno; you seem comfortable.”
“Please don’t be gross; we’re having a moment.”
His head rotates slightly. “Are we?”
After a beat, she mirrors him. Her cheek bumps lightly against his and sends a jolt of something weird down her spine.
“Kind of,” she murmurs.
The ambient song outside reaches a muffled crescendo and suddenly the closet seems much smaller. Wally seems much closer, and much less unlikeable, and her hands feel a lot more unsteady.
Wait. That’s because Wally is much closer.
He’s turned tightly against her, so that she has a full view of his face (which happens to be exuding a lot of comfortable warmth, by the way), and his body is at a really weird angle and his left palm is flat on the floor next to her butt and suddenly she’s turning, too.
There’s a perplexed frown flickering in and out on his face, and his mouth is just barely open, like he’s about to say something but keeps forgetting what it is. His eyes slide, gradually, down to her chin.
“Do I have something on my face?” she says, all brilliantly, like this is one of those horrible movies Megan made her watch on Thursday.
“Yeah,” Wally mutters back in a low voice that pinches her stomach. “Matter of fact, it’s your whole face that’s the problem.”
“That’s ironic,” she rasps, and then clears her throat sharply to restore some freaking dignity to her voice. “Coming from the biggest face wreck of all time.”
“You really know how to dish out a compliment,” he says, but the corner of his mouth is turned up and she can hear a low chuckle in the back of his throat.
“I try to make them count.” She has to physically fight the hoarseness out of her voice. Were she not in present company, she’d be punching herself repeatedly in the face.
His eyelids lower. “So.”
“So,” she replies in a whisper. Her insides won’t stop wavering around.
She’s pretty sure they’re practically breathing against each other’s teeth now, and her eyes are doing this funny thing where they keep trying to close. Wally gulps, and it makes his Adam’s apple bob, and up close, she can smell his deodorant, and he smells like clean laundry and barbecue smoke and boy, and it really shouldn’t be such a nice smell, you know?
The closet is remarkably warm all of a sudden. His nose just grazed hers. Her fingers kind of nudge into his of their own accord. He wets his lips, fleetingly, with a red tongue, and Artemis's gut jerks up at the sight.
“Here we are,” he murmurs, and his blink is slow. “In this closet. On this lovely Friday evening.”
“It’s a nice closet,” she hears someone say in her voice; it cannot be her at this point because she’s almost positive that she lost all motor function the moment she felt his breath on her mouth. “Very, um.”
“Different,” he supplies, sounding distracted. He won’t stop looking at her chin; why is he looking at her chin? “I wasn’t really getting good vibes from it at first, but... y’know, after further exposure, I think I could get used to it. This closet, I mean.”
“I thought it was a cool closet from the start, personally,” Artemis whispers. “Until it decided that it couldn’t stand me, for some reason.”
“You’re losing the metaphor.” His voice is so quiet; she’s surprised she can even hear him anymore.
“I know,” she breathes. His fingers ghost over her wrist, and then up to her elbow, and his hand clasps around it, and he closes his eyes and tilts his head and Artemis’s heart jumps up onto her tongue and her mouth opens just barely and Wally’s shaky sigh hits her lips and then someone knocks on the door.
“Seven minutes are up, idiots,” Zatanna chirps from the other side. “You have ten seconds to get out before I arrest you for indecency in front of my go-go boots.”
Artemis only hears about half of that, because as soon as the sharp sound had hit the wood of the door, Wally had let out a yelp of surprise and jumped, accidentally slamming his forehead into her nose.
She collapses back, limbs flung, cursing. The stars currently dancing around on her eyelids must be censoring her.
“Artemis!” he exclaims, surging forward until he’s, for some reason, on all fours over her.
He swiftly reaches for the light switch and clicks the overhead lamp on, and once robins stop fluttering around her head, Artemis can kind of distinguish him staring down at her with unabashed concern, prodding at her very painfully throbbing nose and gently holding her chin, turning her head slightly from side to side.
No, wait, the robins are definitely still there. And she thinks there are two Wallys in there with her now? Jackpot.
“Your Majesty,” she giggles for no reason. He looks horrified.
“Your nose is bleeding,” he splutters. “I made your nose bleed. You have a nosebleed from my head; I am so sorry; I am so sorry! Here, come on—”
“You are pardoned.” She snickers as he slings her arm around his shoulders and hoists her to her feet. “Nnnn. Ollie’s gonna kill me.”
“Who?” Wally grunts distractedly, attempting to maneuver the two of them to the door through the curtains of unfettered razzle-dazzle and chicness.
Artemis promptly chokes on her own spit. “N-No one! Haha, no one; sorry.”
Wally huffs and nudges the door handle down with his elbow, toeing it all the way open. He guides Artemis out of Zatanna’s room and down the hall into the bathroom, with its black marble sink top and white marble toilet seat cover. The Zataras have a thing for marble, apparently.
He pulls the cover down with his foot and sits her down on it, making a hand motion at her forearms like he’s afraid she’ll topple over, before leaping for the medicine cabinet, flinging open the mirrored door and rummaging around.
Artemis blinks at herself. Her nose is bleeding. Some of it got in her hair. Thank God Dinah insisted she wear black. She puts a self-conscious hand over it in an admittedly lame attempt at stemming the flow, tilting her head back.
“Nononodon’tdothat!” Wally yells, bounding toward her.
She flings her hands apart and raises them stiffly at either side of her head, staring owlishly at him. He lets out a breath, loosening, before returning to the cabinet.
“You’re not supposed to lean back,” he explains in that Scientist voice of his. “You might ingest some of your own blood and then it’ll irritate your trachea and probably cause vomiting, so, uh, cease and desist.”
“What am I supposed to do, then?” she snaps.
“Damn it, Jim; I’m a doctor; not a—” He groans and throws some tissues at her. “Sit forward and pinch your nose at the sinuses and try not to make this place look like a crime scene, okay? Just relax.”
Artemis stuffs a wad of the tissues over her nose and does as she’s told. So this is what Seven Minutes in Hell feels like. Noted.
Wally loiters by the sink, half-hovering over her and half-trying to look like he doesn’t care, rubbing the back of his neck. The music in the main room is back to sounding like somebody in combat boots is kicking the wall, but with pillows in the way. It’s a complicated analogy, but seriously, Artemis just got a nosebleed instead of a kiss; how’s she supposed to be on the ball here?
“I’m fine,” she eventually insists, sniffing slightly. “Go back to the party; I’m sure Megan’s beside herself without you.”
He shifts from one foot to the other uncertainly, folding his lips in.
“Doubt she noticed,” he says. When he glances back up at her, though, his eyes are uncertain. “You sure?”
“Yeah,” she assures him with a wave of her hand. “It’s your party, idiot; you’re ruining it by not being out there.”
“I don’t feel like I should—”
“Level with me, Wally,” Artemis says flatly. “Would you rather go out and celebrate your sixteenth birthday with a bunch of popular people you don’t know, among them your one true love Megan, or be caught in here when Zatanna notices the blood all over her very expensive bath rug?”
“Point taken,” he replies immediately, swinging his arms back and forth.
He reaches toward her shoulder. She shoots him a look. He withdraws, grimaces, and lightly—no, stiffly – punches her in the arm.
“Thanks for the tip,” he tells her awkwardly. “Pal.”
“No problem,” she retorts, a little more coldly than she’d planned. “Amigo.”
He makes a face and steps backwards, groping around for the doorknob for a good fifteen seconds before he realizes the door’s already open.
Artemis kind of gets this funny sinking feeling in her tottery stomach, watching him turn away and vanish around the corner. It starts to well up, higher and higher, through her chest and up her throat, until it’s pressing against the back of her prickling eyes. She ducks her head swiftly and pinches her nose more tightly. No way is she going to give in to this cra—
She looks up sharply.
Oh. He's back. His shoulders and head are sticking around the edge of the door frame, and his fingers are splayed against the wall. She swallows and it sounds like the loudest and most obvious thing in the world.
“Yeah?” She perks up way too quickly and seriously considers ritual suicide.
Wally’s eyes dart to the floor. To her bare feet. They linger on her ankles.
“Do I get an ETA for... this whole revelation thing?” he asks, sounding uncharacteristically imploring. “Because I—I dunno how much longer I can deal with feeling like a chump, y’know?”
Artemis opens and closes her mouth wordlessly. He blinks down at her, and the longer she goes without being able to conjure up any response, the more stung he starts to look.
“Fine,” he mutters, recoiling.
“You—” she blurts out, and he pauses, glancing back at her.
Artemis’s heart and tongue and wit are all floundering at the way his eyes survey every inch of her, at the way the green looks like a pair of headlights flooding everything inside of her with clarity. She still doesn’t know whether or not she hates it.
“You’re not a chump,” she settles on saying, hoping it’ll be enough.
Wally holds her gaze for a beat long enough to make her fingers start to curl, and then he blows out a breath, pivots slowly around, and walks away.
Artemis kicks the metal toilet paper holder and stuffs her face into her hands. She doesn’t really know how much longer she stays in there, but she assumes that it’s a while, because about ten people come by to knock on the door, and when she finally wipes her nose and uses Zatanna’s cold cream to take off her make-up and sheds her heels and wanders out to the living room again, everyone but Zatanna is gone, and Wally’s gone to Dick’s for the night.
Artemis walks home barefoot, all by herself.
She can hear voices beyond the apartment door when she gets there, which distracts her pretty efficiently from the fact that she had to run two blocks to avoid getting her leg chewed off by a stray dog. She’s about to put her key in and open it, but she recognizes a couple of the tones as Dinah’s and Oliver’s, and the third as her mom’s, so she lowers her hand and presses her ear to the wood.
“You’re telling me…” her mom is choking out, but she sounds more elated than grief-stricken. “You’re telling me that they—that they just found each other? She’s—My girl is in Star City?”
“Apparently Roy was on his way home from a bar one night and stopped her from robbing a bank,” Dinah murmurs. “They’ve been living together for a little over a year. Roy only just told us.”
“Uncanny, isn’t it?” Oliver says. “Jade runs off in the middle of the night and she just happens to wind up in Star City… three blocks away from Roy Harper.”
Artemis jams her key in and wrenches the door open.
“What?” she shouts, not caring if she wakes up Mr. Nigma, not caring if she wakes up Mr. Mallah, not caring if a plane crashes through the window and kills them all. Louder, more shrilly, more brokenly, she screams, “WHAT?!”
“Artemis,” Paula exclaims, wide-eyed.
Oliver’s eyes flick to Dinah, to Paula, to Artemis, to Dinah again, then finally come to rest on Artemis. He shrugs, a little helplessly.
“Surprise,” he says.
NEW TEXT MESSAGE
from: UNKNOWN NUMBER
twas brillig, and the slivy toves. and the gyre and gimble in the wabe.
→ Add to contacts?
ENTER NEW CONTACT’S NAME: Jade
JADE was added to your contacts.
Jade’s coming to the ball.
Jade is going to be at the ball in December.
Artemis is going to see Jade.
Jade’s coming to the ball.
All of these sentences and a few creative variations run, nonstop, through Artemis’s head over the next few days, and suddenly, the fact that Wally looks at her with dolefulness instead of spite now is the absolute last of her priorities.
You know the story, just the same as she does. There’s no miracle, no chase, no sudden reveal, no tears. Jade is just alive, and Jade is just fine, and Jade is just the person who’s been sending her those creepy texts all these years, and Jade is just Roy’s girlfriend, and Jade is just coming to the royal ball on December 2.
And Artemis is just seconds away from a stroke, which is totally not conducive to her academic productivity, but her teachers have been pretty forgiving, except for Miss Thal, who threatened her with a left hook if she didn’t shape up on her jumping jacks.
“Artemis,” Mr. Kent calls from the front of the classroom—they’re reading Heart of Darkness aloud for analysis. “Will you read the next passage, please?”
Artemis clears her throat. She’s basically on autopilot at this point; probably explains why she accidentally dumped her Jell-O cup on a freshman’s head yesterday instead of eating it.
“And I saw that something restraining, one of those human secrets that baffle probability, had come into play there. I looked at them with a swift quickening of interest—not because it occurred to me I might be eaten by them before very long, though I own to you that just then I perceived—in a new light, as it were—how unwholesome the pilgrims looked, and I hoped, yes, I positively hoped, that my aspect was not so—what shall I say?—so—unappetizing: a touch of fantastic vanity which fitted well with the dream-sensation that pervaded all my days at that time. Perhaps I had a little fever too. One can't live with one's finger everlastingly on one’s pulse.”
“Thank you,” Mr. Kent says briskly. “Next? Mr. West?”
Wally reads through the next paragraph with his usual rapidity, stumbling over the occasional word and making every syllable sound like a running footstep, but Artemis sits there and stares in wonder at the open page in front of her, and the tiniest smile starting to dawn on her face.
One can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse.
“Bibbo’s Diner; how can I help you?”
“Hi,” Artemis says, cradling the home phone between her shoulder and ear. “I’d like to order a pizza for special delivery?”
“You betcha. Where is that to?”
“132 Mountain Drive.”
“Name of the recipient?”
“All right, miss; and what kind of pizza is it that you’d like?”
“M&M Special; you got it. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Can you make a message with the M&Ms?”
“Sure thing. What message would you like?”
Artemis sucks in a breath. “‘Sorry.’”
She’s in the middle of one of her favorite dreams—the one where she and Zatanna feed Dick to a pack of weasels—and she’s just about to get to the good part when the sound of rhythmic tapping against the glass of her window jerks her awake.
She hums churlishly, blinking eyes rocky with sleepiness, and squints at the clock on her bedside table. It’s almost three in the morning.
Jade is still snoring, curled against Artemis’s stomach. Fatass.
Artemis groans and rolls over so that she’s spread-eagled on her back, swiping her finger over her eyes and flicking the crust in the corners off onto the floor. If that’s a freaking pigeon again—or, worse, Dick—she’s going to break something in half. Probably the pigeon or, if it’s Dick, Dick’s legs.
She clambers out of bed and stumbles blindly over to the window with closed eyes and a tetchy frown, lurching to a halt a few inches in front of it.
She opens her eyes.
She has to clap a hand over her mouth so hard that it hurts to keep herself from screaming, but tears still well up instantly in her eyes, just out of shock.
Jade, perched on the platform of the fire escape, in a hoodie and camo capris and black high-tops and a slouchy gray beanie, smirks and tilts her head.
“Hello,” she says, muffled through the glass. “I believe I have a reservation.”
Jade, her estranged sister. Not Jade the cat.
Artemis fumbles for the window latch without taking her eyes off of her sister’s, because she’s about eighty-five percent sure that if she does, this’ll turn out to be a dream significantly more painful than seeing Dick be carried off by weasels, and that’s the last thing she needs.
Jade’s black hair is still bushy and unfettered, shagging out under the beanie and grazing her thin, dark eyebrows. Her face is a little older, a little harder, but her eyes are still the same steely, stormy gray, and cheeks still conform to a smug smile with unnatural ease.
Artemis’s clumsy fingers finally clasp the latch and she undoes it, yanking the lower pane up.
“Why, thank you,” Jade coos, dipping her head and somersaulting in, landing perfectly on the floor. She straightens with a brisk inhale through her nose, surveying the room with calculating eyes. “I like what you’ve done with the place. Very homey.”
Her eyes fall on Jade the cat’s still-snoozing lump of a form.
“Precious,” she comments, and she still hasn’t turned around to look at Artemis, but, to be fair, Artemis still hasn’t moved away from the window, her gaze fixated on the rainy sky outside. “What’s his name?”
“Her,” Artemis corrects her weakly. “Her name is—is Jade.”
There’s a beat, but then Jade starts chuckling, and when Artemis’s body sways into functionality and she pivots around to face Jade, she sees that Jade’s head is thrown back and her mouth is wide-open in an unbridled grin.
Jade finishes her laugh and drops her chin, leering at Artemis over her shoulder.
“You miss me, boogerface?” she drawls.
“No,” Artemis lies.
Jade hums and shrugs languidly, ambling over to the foot of the bed. She plops down on it and Jade the cat still doesn’t wake up, even though the impact jostles her significantly.
“Mom asleep?” Jade asks quietly.
“What do you think?” Artemis bites back.
Jade nods. “I thought so. How is she?”
“Better,” Artemis says tersely. “Now that she knows you’re actually alive.”
Jade fakes a wince. “Ow. Really gonna play the guilt card, sis? I’m crushed.”
“Good to know you know how it feels,” Artemis hisses, her voice icy. She’s wide-awake now, every pore electrified, every joint stony. “Why are you here?”
Jade lifts her shoulders again, her mouth tilting. She looks as deviously apathetic as she always does, but older, with a hickey on the side of her neck and a long white scar on the back of her left hand.
“Wanted to check up on my baby sis,” she answers, stretching langorously like a cat waking up from a nap. “Now that my secret’s out. Now that her secret’s out. Is that a crime?”
“The secret about you living a couple hours away from us for the past three years?” Artemis snaps. “Or the one about you doing the nasty with the Prince of Vlatava?”
“Who said anything about us doing the nasty?” Jade exclaims in mock scandalized horror, her hand flying to her chest. “Even though it’s absolutely true. Don’t tell me you think it’s wrong. He’s not related to anyone in the royal family by blood, and it’s not like we grew up together thanks to Dad’s little get-out-of-Vlatava-free move, so technically there’s nothing gross about it.” She grins slyly. “Actually, you don’t know how un-gross it is.”
“Spare me the details,” Artemis barks, folding her arms tightly. She pauses, and Jade’s words start to catch up to her. “Wait, so—so you knew about this… this whole Vlatava thing? Seriously?!”
Jade snorts. “Of course I did, dumbass. Why do you think I made a run for it? I may have all the inhuman good looks of a monarch, but a life of responsibility and rules is so not up my alley.”
“And you think it’s up mine?” Artemis exclaims, throwing her arms out. “Thanks for dumping it all on me, Jade! I really appreciate it! Super commendable of you!”
Jade rolls her eyes enormously and waves a hand at Artemis.
“I see you haven’t gotten any quieter,” she deadpans, and yawns. “I don’t see you shirking your royal duties, though, so maybe it’s a bit more up your alley than you’d like to think.” She leers. “You always were the little goody two-shoes.”
“Was not!” Artemis protests, her cheeks puffing out indignantly. “I… broke a car window once! And I stole a roll of Lifesavers!”
“Ah.” Jade nods sarcastically. “Life on the edge.”
“Are you seriously doing this?” Artemis snarls incredulously. “Just… showing up outside my window after ditching me and mom and talking to me like nothing’s changed?”
Jade shrugs innocently. “Have things changed?”
“Uh, yeah, Jade, just a little!” Artemis has to work pretty hard to keep from screaming; she should get a medal. “I don’t know if you got the memo, but thanks to you and your stupid boyfriend being a couple of cowards, I’m going to inherit the Vlatavan throne in five years.” She gesticulates furiously at nothing. “That qualify as a change?”
“Gosh,” Jade croons. “Excuse me for wanting to catch up. Do you still have that Butterfinger stash under your mattress…?”
Before Artemis can retort properly, Jade has lifted up the corner of the mattress and stuck her hand under it, rummaging around.
“Jade, don’t—” Artemis starts to protest, but Jade’s eyes have already lit up with triumph, but when her hand emerges again, it’s not holding a candy bar – it’s holding the bundle of old photographs that Artemis never looks at.
“Oh boy, sis, are there naked boys in here?” Jade sniggers, holding them up so that she can examine them properly in the light from the streetlamps outside. After a few seconds, after she flips through five or six of them, her contemptuous smirk starts to fade, and her face to soften.
“These are all of us,” she mutters unreadably. “I thought you’d’ve thrown these away.”
Artemis looks away. The images flit through her mind: Jade hugging her from behind at the park on her, Artemis’s, tenth birthday; Jade and Artemis beaming with muddy faces and hands, holding up frogs; Jade skateboarding down the sidewalk in front of the apartment building with her hand forming the sign of the horns and her tongue stuck out rebelliously.
“Just because you threw me away doesn’t mean I had to return the favor,” Artemis mumbles.
Jade sighs through her nose and doesn’t speak again until she’s scrutinized every photo in the bundle, which number about thirty, and when she’s finished, she wraps them back up in their rubber band and puts them under the mattress again before standing.
“It’s cool that you came, and all,” Artemis continues in a dull hush, “But I don’t even know what to say to you. And I have class in the morning, and bigger problems than catching you up on all the emotional havoc you caused, so…” She steps aside, opening a clear path to the window. “It’d be great if you could just—go away. Congrats on getting a better life for yourself without us. Go live it.”
She closes her eyes, her mouth stretched into a grim line. After a few moments, she hears Jade’s sneakers squeak on the floor closer to her, and she feels Jade’s shoulder brush hers as she approaches the window, and she dares to open her eyes just in time to see Jade’s feet.
“I hope they don’t make me wear a dress to your ball,” Jade sighs quietly. “But even if they do… I’ll still come. So I guess I’ll see you then, Your Grace.”
Artemis doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe, doesn’t lower her shoulders, until she hears the window close behind her and counts sixteen clangs against the rungs of the fire escape, growing further and further away each by each.
Artemis sprints down the block to the school, halting every few seconds to try tying the laces of her left Doc Marten. Her hair flies out wildly behind her and her tights have a run in them and some of Jade’s fur is still matted on her blazer and she still smells a little bit like Oliver’s lime air freshener from the villa, and she kind of wishes that she could do that prim princess walk right now, but she’s late for school thanks to Jade’s stupid drop-in last night and princesses shouldn’t be late for school and oh crap she thinks she forgot her World Civ homework.
She flies around the corner without looking where she’s going, and she almost smashes into Zatanna and Wally, who, apparently, are also indulging in tardiness (not much of a surprise on Zatanna’s end, but a big one on Wally’s). Or, well, okay, she avoids hitting Zatanna but in redirecting herself, she manages to plow straight into Wally.
Zatanna’s already chortle-snorting when they both hit the pavement, and Artemis is saved from being thrown forward and probably breaking her neck by Wally managing to brace her at the shoulders. Her half-open backpack is not as kind, spewing her pens and stapler out over the concrete.
“Nice turn, Swan Queen,” Zatanna cackles. “See, Wally, she’s here; can we please go to homeroom before this gets put on our permanent records?”
Wally’s breath smells like M&Ms when he jerks his eyes away from Artemis’s and splutters out, “Yes, right, okay,” and gingerly pushes Artemis off of him.
“Why aren’t you guys in class?” Artemis asks a bit abrasively, wincing at her skinned knee and rapidly scooping all of her school supplies back into her bag. Oliver’s going to kill her for blemishing her princess-joints.
“Because I didn’t feel like going, naturally, and Mr. Wholesome Upbringing here spent so long getting on my case that he wound up losing time, too,” Zatanna replies immediately, grabbing her at the wrist and hoisting her up. “Real genius, this one. All I’m saying is, he definitely didn’t get that neurotic stuff from my side of the family.”
Artemis flushes, glancing at Wally’s rumpled blazer and tie and general disheveled appearance thanks to their collision—so unfair—and, after a beat too long, she forces herself to snap her attention back to Zatanna.
“Do we seriously have to walk with him?” she hisses.
Zatanna shrugs flippantly, smoothing back her immaculate French braid.
“Yes, Your Highness,” she snips back, which makes Artemis bristle.
“Okay, can we go now?” Wally calls, already ten paces ahead of them. Zatanna and Artemis groan in unison before jogging to catch up to him.
“Wally, we’re already late; we can’t get any later,” Zatanna sighs.
Wally gives her an incredulous look.
“Oh, sure, of course we can’t; if you just disregard THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF SPACE AND TIME!” he yells.
“Wally, can you please pretend that you have a life for just one moment?” Zatanna deadpans.
“No.” Wally sticks his nose in the air.
“Wow, okay, if you are gonna get all Frothing Science Nerd on me, I am so out of here,” Zatanna exclaims, putting her hands up. “Artemis, good luck. Wally, you’re an embarrassment to the family. See you guys in English.”
If this had happened maybe two days before, Artemis would have gone into full-tilt panic. But seeing as how it’s happening now, and seeing as how one can’t live with one’s finger everlastingly on one’s pulse, she’s never been more grateful for Wally’s Frothing Science Nerd side.
So she grabs him by the sleeve, yanks him to a halt, locks eyes with him, and barks, “Cut class with me.”
Wally stares right back, and says, "Okay."
So, yeah, Bruce Wayne is probably never going to forgive her for this; it’s probably going to totally ruin his life, and she’ll be the biggest letdown to ever roam the halls of Gotham Academy, but the thing is, she’s pretty sure—maybe about 56% sure—that this is going to be worth it, and Bruce Wayne doesn’t even know how hard she’s been working to keep up appearances for his stupid school, so she has earned this moment of truancy, thank you very much.
They walk four blocks in total, absolute silence. Wally unknots his tie halfway there and takes his blazer off so that he’s carrying it over his shoulder with one hooked finger, and he keeps his eyes on the sidewalk. When they reach a viable burger joint, Artemis swats his arm and jerks her head toward it and he shrugs apathetically, but he still holds the door open for her, which she guesses is a pretty good sign.
They eat their entire meals in total silence, too. Wally finishes his cheesburger in record time, and Artemis can only really eat half of hers before she loses her appetite, and then they both just sit there, pointedly staring around at everything except each other.
“So, uh…” Wally clears his throat, and Artemis knows her time is up. “What’s the deal here?”
“Deal?” Artemis replies flippantly. “What deal?”
“Why did you kidnap me and buy me lunch?” Wally expounds, giving her a flat look. He doesn’t append it with any kind of cocky comment about how she clearly can’t resist him, which kind of makes her ribs tighten unpleasantly.
Artemis shifts in her seat.
“Well, uh, I wanted to… explain… what happened,” she manages to eke out. “When…” She closes her eyes. “When I stood you up for Homecoming.”
Wally doesn’t say anything, but there’s something in his silence that’s unrepentantly hopeful and wholly expectant, and Artemis takes a single, deep breath.
“The truth is,” she starts to blurt out, but then she remembers that they are in a public place and this is top-secret intel and blowing her cover would mean like a million years in the Vlatava castle dungeons and the waitress could be an undercover assassin from Rhelasia. “The truth is, I need a pen.”
Wally blinks at her. “Your bag is, uh, right there.”
Artemis blinks back, lifts her elbow, and looks at her bookbag, which is resting against her leg. Crap. He’s right.
“Right,” she says a little too tightly. She rummages around the front pocket and yanks out a ballpoint pen, sliding her napkin over.
She takes a deep breath, like it’ll somehow keep her heart from backflipping up her throat, and, before she can change her mind, scribbles down the words she’s been rehearsing for days but still sound more insane than they had when she’d first heard them.
The truth is, I’m a princess.
She pushes the napkin over to him. He surreptitiously slips it under the corner of his plate and glances down at it.
He stares at it for what feels like an hour and a half, his expression totally neutral. The cash register dings, the clock over the bar prods little ticks into the white noise of the restaurant, and thunder rolls through the sky outside, muffled by the windows, and Artemis thumps her heel rhythmically against the floor.
Wally extends his hand to her, and she frowns dubiously at it. Does he want her to… hold it? She starts to lift her own and he pulls a face, recoiling.
He points to the pen in her fingers.
Artemis feels her face plunge into hellish heat. Of course. Of course! Go get trampled by a herd of wild horses, Artemis. It’ll be so much less painful.
She passes it stiffly and he takes it. He scrawls onto the napkin silently, and Artemis tries to ignore the sweat on the back of her neck, and then he slides the napkin back over with his first and middle fingers.
Artemis glances at it and her face drops into a glower.
Yeah, and I’m Speedy Gonzales.
“I’m serious!” she hisses, stung. The hurt look on Wally’s face, though, is making her worried.
“You don’t have to lie to me to get out of going to some stupid dance with me, Artemis,” he tells her coldly. “Honestly? If the real explanation is just that you didn’t want to, I’d prefer that.”
She rips the pen from his hand and almost tears the napkin paper in her haste to write back.
You are such an idiot, you know that? I don’t know why I even told you. It’s supposed to stay a total secret until December 2, but I got so sick of keeping secrets from everyone—from you!!!—that I just BROKE MY OATH OF SECRECY WITH THE KING OF VLATAVA, and you have the gall to call me a liar!? My name is Artemis Lian C ọ p Cái Queen, currently the only viable heir to the throne of Vlatava; the uncle who’s been visiting is the KING, and he’s been giving me lessons every day so that’s why I haven’t been around! And I couldn’t come to Homecoming because Uncle Oliver found my cousin Roy—THE ONLY OTHER POSSIBLE HEIR RIGHT NOW, since my older sister RAN AWAY, which, hey, I’ve only just found out the reason for—
She flips the napkin over and notices something hot and wet drop from her face onto the paper. Wally’s gawking at her like she’s aflame.
—And it came down to choosing between my commitment to you for a HIGH SCHOOL DANCE and my duty to my country to TRY TO FIND IT A MONARCH, so excuse me for trying to keep all of this under my hat because I got ordered to by a KING, but I’m telling you right now, before ANYONE ELSE, before the PRESS, before the UNITED NATIONS, before MY BEST FRIEND, because I TRUST YOU, Wally; don’t you get it? And do you know why? Because you’re
She runs out of room on the napkin. Out of breath for no apparent reason, she picks it up and flings it across the table at him before folding her arms and sinking angrily down into the booth seat. She’s shaking, so she grips her upper arms as tightly as she can to try to quell herself, but it doesn’t really do much.
Wally’s eyes scan the front side of the napkin, then the back, then the front again, then the back again. A wide array of reactions flicker across his face, most of them lasting too fleetingly for Artemis to decipher them, but she definitely catches a spark of dawning comprehension, a crash of guilt, a bare stitch of a rising smile that falls into a dumbstruck gape.
“That’s why…” he finally starts to say, and when he looks up, his eyes are wide, and his voice is hushed and unsteady.
“Yeah,” Artemis replies, but it comes out as more of an exhale than a spoken word. “Oliver told me that if it got out to the media before we could do it formally, it’d totally trash my reputation, plus Vlatava’s, plus his. The only other person who knows besides you now is my mom. And Oliver and Dinah. And Roy, I guess. And me, but—”
She cuts herself off, jerking her gesticulating hands down and focusing her eyes on a ketchup stain on the table, because locking gazes with him is the absolute last thing she wants to do with her life right now.
“I dunno, I would’ve told you sooner,” she mumbles, “But besides the whole sworn-to-secrecy thing, I guess I thought it’d…” She shakes her head. The words aren’t coming. “I guess things started getting… kind of okay. With us, I mean. And I figured that dropping that bomb on you would’ve ruined it. I mean, who would I have been kidding—you barely know me. You barely know anything about me. And having me tell you, ‘Oh, hey, by the way, I’m heir to the throne of Vlatava; what’s the English homework?’ Let’s face it. You would’ve either laughed at me or just used it as another excuse to get on my case. And it just felt nice, being normal. Everything kept happening so fast and getting worse, but you—you made me feel normal.” She sighs, biting her lip back. “So maybe it wasn’t just feeling normal that was good for me. Maybe it was… feeling normal with you. So, I mean, even if you’re never gonna talk to me again, and I totally get it if you don’t, after all of the screwing up I’ve done, I guess I might as well say thanks.”
Wally doesn’t say anything for what feels like a long, long time. Artemis doesn’t dare look up at him, doesn’t dare even move.
“I think I’m the one who should be saying thanks,” he finally tells her. Her eyes dart up. He’s smiling at her, flushed cheeks and mischievous green eyes and a spray of freckles on his nose that turn her heart into a kick-drum.
“What for?” She snorts.
“Well, isn’t it obvious, Your Worshipfulness?” Wally grins complacently, leaning back and linking his hands at the back of his head, looking more like Han Solo than she had thought him capable of. “For the pizza.”
His smile broadens, and he winks at her, and it’s then, right then, as peals of thunder bruise the skies outside, that Artemis knows she’s forgiven.
“You’re a what?!” Zatanna shrieks.
“Princess of Vlatava,” Artemis replies, wincing. She can hear her mom chuckling from down the hall.
“Okay,” Zatanna says weakly, “I am sure that in a few weeks there’s gonna be some tabloid somewhere saying that you birthed a two-headed baby with my cousin, but the biggest scandal there will ever be is the fact that you didn’t tell me!” She squeals, jumping up and down. “This is amazing!”
“Why’re you so nonchalant, Grayson?” Artemis demands of Dick, who’s been taking in all of the information with the same serene smile.
“I knew,” he says simply.
Artemis narrows her eyes at him, but sighs.
“Of course you did.”
Mr. Carr gives them back their Country Case Studies on Monday, November 21, and Artemis got an A-.
SUCK IT, WACKY AND ANACHRONISTIC VLATAVAN HISTORY BOOKS! Apparently he would have given her an A+, but he didn’t like her color coordination on the poster board—whatever, Mr. Carr. At least she didn’t make the “fake Asia” pun. (She’s pretty sure that’s why Marvin White got a C.)
It suddenly dawns on her, though, as she walks to Oliver’s with Zatanna and Dick and Wally—she can do that now, because they know, except Oliver doesn’t know they know, but hey, Artemis kept this whole princess thing a secret for two months; she can keep the awareness of her friends a secret for a week—that this is her second to last week of lessons. The schedule had said that this is the week that she gets to choose her subject, so she’s racking her brain for ideas and only half-listening to Dick and Wally babble animatedly about how they’re going to rig Bruce Wayne’s office door to drop a bucket of water on him—“Classic!” Wally guffaws—while Zatanna punctuates the plans with perfectly executed scoffs.
“Come hang out after,” Zatanna calls over her shoulder when they all pass Oliver’s villa and Artemis branches off.
“Yes, Artemis,” Dick agrees with a leer, nudging Wally pointedly. “Come hang out after.”
“Shut up,” Wally hisses, but he looks back when the three of them walk away, and smiles.
“Labdien,” Artemis greets Dinah and Oliver with a curtsey when she walks into the study, but there’s an apple clenched between her teeth that she’d grabbed from the kitchen, so it comes out kind of incomprehensible. “Kā jums klājas?”
“Paldies, labi,” Dinah replies, but Oliver shakes his head disappointedly without looking up from his daily newspaper.
“Nice try,” he says. “Lose the apple and do it again.”
“Oh, cut her some slack, Ol,” Dinah sighs, and then turns back to Artemis. “You did fine, Artemis. Sit down.”
Oliver snaps his newspaper closed and drops it into his lap, giving Dinah a sour look.
“Dash it all, Dinah; the ball’s in two weeks; she needs to be on her toes!” he exclaims, slapping his knee for emphasis. “Do it again, Artemis.”
Artemis does do it again. And again. And again. And about five more times. And then she almost strangles Oliver right there in front of at least one witness, but Dinah holds her back and insults Oliver in Vlatavan and Artemis has to accept that for catharsis.
“So,” Oliver segués after Artemis has been shoved, fuming, into a chair by Dinah. “What would you like to learn this week, Artemis?”
Artemis blinks, her eyes darting to Dinah, then back to Oliver, then to Dinah again.
“How’d you guys meet?” she settles on asking first, smirking.
And oh my God, Dinah’s cheeks actually turn pink.
Oliver looks just as flustered as Dinah does, his face ruddy beneath the goatee. He clears his throat, covering his mouth with his fist, and glances furtively at Dinah, who, Artemis sees out of the corner of her eye, nods to him.
“Well, we, ah…” he blusters out, his hand flying to the back of his neck. “It was a long time ago; I hardly remember!”
“1988,” Dinah interjects. “I was fifteen; you were seventeen. It was in Markovia. For your birthday party.”
Oliver blinks at her, and so does Artemis. After a second, he blows out a sigh and slackens slightly, fixing her with a tender smile.
“Right,” he murmurs.
“You’d think his memory would work a little better,” Dinah says primly. “Considering I saved his life.”
“My life would have been perfectly safe without your help!” Oliver exclaims. Dinah looks up sharply, her eyes thinning.
“I’d like to see you tell that to the AK-47 that was aimed right between your eyes,” she snaps. “The one that I took down with my bare hands, incidentally, from that assassin buddy of yours. What was his name?”
“Needham,” Oliver grinds out. “Eric Needham, and my staff could have gotten me out of harm’s way with plenty of time to spare! I lost my cake because of you!”
“Better that than your life, I’ve always said, but you have an incredible talent for making me reconsider that verdict,” Dinah retorts. Aside to Artemis, but still audibly, she adds, “He was so embarrassed that a pretty commoner had done a better job of saving his neck than his army of goons that he refused to acknowledge that I’d done anything, and he still hasn’t gotten over it; typical petty teenage behavior—” She shoots Oliver an icy look. “But the government put me into the Secret Service right away, because at least someone in that little circle had a scrap of brains, and as soon as the monarchy was reinstated, his parents hired me to be his personal bodyguard. Haven’t been allowed by law to even let him go to the bathroom unsupervised since.”
“Wow,” Artemis chirps with relish, grinning brightly up at Oliver. “That’s a great story, Uncle Oliver.”
Oliver grumbles and strokes his goatee with extreme fervor. Artemis has deduced recently that it’s therapeutic for him, kind of like Arsenal’s habit of licking himself so relentlessly that his fur comes out.
“I’ve been walking the palace halls and sitting through international flights with this numbskull since I was nineteen,” Dinah elaborates with a shake of her head. She smirks over at Artemis. “And he’s only kissed me four times.”
“Dinah!” Oliver barks, sputtering.
“So, wait.” Artemis leans back in the couch, folding her arms and glancing triumphantly between the two of them. “Why are you guys not married, exactly?”
Dinah hums pensively, turning a coquettish stare to Oliver.
“Gee,” she drawls. “That’s a great question. Isn’t it, Oliver? We should discuss that sometime.”
Oliver bristles enormously, his lips working against each other so that his moustache puffs up over his lip, before visibly deflating and hanging his head.
“Artemis,” he ekes out. “Why don’t you go make us some tea?”
And like, yeah, every attempt that Artemis has made to brew any kind of Vlatavan beverages has ended in either a fire or a terrible smell, but she figures that the fact that Oliver is using such a flimsy excuse to get her out of the room is probably important, so she does as she’s told.
She hears a lot of weird noises coming from the other side of the door when she walks back with the tray of china, so she uses her street smarts to her advantage and just leaves the tray on a table, grabs her bag out of the hallway, and bolts.
Definitely the wise, diplomatic choice.
“So this ball thing,” Zatanna drops on her during the passing period after English, “Are you allowed to, like, invite the peasantfolk? Because I can totally rock the peasant look, hard as it may be to believe. And I can definitely make Richard look acceptable.”
She always makes this extra effort to put a snooty emphasis on “Richard,” like it’ll somehow mask the fact that she always laughs the hardest when she’s around him and stares at his eyes the longest when she’s trying to empirically decide whether his or Billy Batson’s are bluer.
“Oliver told me I could invite up to four guests,” Artemis sighs, a little frazzled because she’s pretty sure she has a French quiz that she didn’t study for. “Who are each required to bring an escort. So interpret that as you will.”
“Oh, I can totally manage that,” Zatanna chirps, flouncing down the hall with newfound energy that makes her wavy hair bounce behind her. Her head whips over in a second, though, to fix Artemis with a serious look. “I mean, assuming I’m invited.”
“Of course you’re invited,” Artemis groans with a fond roll of her eyes. “Like I’m really gonna sit through some stuffy political event without a defense plan.”
Zatanna giggles. “I assume your defense plan includes asking Wally?”
It’s absolutely incredible how quickly Artemis’s palms can start to sweat. Really. So uncanny.
“Uh,” she replies, all brilliantly, because yeah, she and Wally might be cool now, and she might be catching him gazing across the classroom at her with increasing frequency, and she might have found a bag of M&Ms in her locker yesterday, and he might have let her beat him during mile day last week, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of revealing any kind of voluntary desire to spend an evening with him not under the guise of roundabout jokes and insults is still REALLY TERRIFYING, OKAY; LEAVE HER ALONE.
“I mean, it’s not like he’s expecting it, or anything,” Zatanna continues breezily, but there’s something notably deliberate about her words that gives away just how un-flippant they are. “And it’s not like I don’t mind seeing him go all Lovelorn Idiot whenever you pop up on IM. And it’s not like it isn’t mildly entertaining to watch him sweat when you bend over to pick up a pencil in Independent Study. But Dick and Megan and Kal and Conner and I have discussed the situation, and even Raquel provided some input, and we’ve all decided that—”
Her voice breaks into a yell. “YOU BOTH NEED TO HOOK UP RIGHT NOW!”
Artemis claps her hands over her ears, scowling.
“If you want him to go with me so much, then you can ask him to do it!” she snaps, her cheeks heating up. Zatanna is cackling with mirth. “You seriously think I’m going to risk dropping a bomb on him, like, five seconds after he decided to talk to me again? As if.”
Zatanna lets out one of her patented over-the-top moans of “frustrasperation” (her word, not Artemis’s) and flings her arms straight up in the air.
“You… are such… a loser!” she shouts. She drops her arms swiftly and doubles over like she’s in pain. “Why do I hang out with you?!”
“Must be my good looks,” Artemis retorts sarcastically, batting her eyelashes and poising a horizontal hand at her chin.
Zatanna snorts. “Wow. Okay, Wally.”
But the problem is, despite the fact that Zatanna is the worst friend in the world, she totally has a point—Dinah’s been getting on Artemis’s case relentlessly for the past week and a half, all, “You still don’t have an acceptable date? For shame,” and, “You don’t want to die an old maid, do you, Artemis?” Like, jeez, Dinah, maybe she does; maybe she wants to be the oldest maid in the history of old maids if it means she’s able to get out of asking Wally to go to a ball with her! And by the way, Miss Dinah “I-Can’t-Make-A-Legit-Move-On-My-King” Lance, you’re hardly an authority on guys—even less of an authority than Zatanna, who regularly uses Billy Batson’s mondo crush on her to her advantage and makes him, like, sharpen her pencils and carry her books.
The point is: Artemis is not going to ask Wally West to this ball if her life depends on it. There are going to be news crews, and dukes, and dauphines, and countesses, and ambassadors, and—and—and she’s going to have to talk to all of them! And make a speech! And by the way, she still has to announce to the world whether or not she’s going to accept the throne! That is still a decision she needs to make!
Wally West and his freckled right earlobe and his crooked smile and the way his nose scrunches up when he laughs are so on the backburner.
So that metaphorical stove gets completely flipped around on Friday. And do you want to know why? Because Zatanna Zatara is an absolutely terrible friend. Like, we’re talking straight-up Brutus here. Artemis is not going to let her within fifty miles of the royal palace if she’s going to pull betrayals of this caliber.
ZEAUTIFUL has invited you to the group chat.
MORSECODE: Hi, Artemis!
DISASTROUSDICK: what a pleasant surprise.
KDURHAM: Good evening, Artemis.
SMARTEMIS: jeez, the gang’s all here.
ZEAUTIFUL: anyway, as i was saying, i think it would be pragmatic for all of us to use kal’s van to get to the ball. kal, what say you?
KDURHAM: I will have to ask my father first.
ZEAUTIFUL: perfect; kal’s van it is!
MORSECODE: What’s this ball for, anyway? How did you get us admission, Artemis?
KDURHAM: But Zatanna
SMARTEMIS: i uh
SMARTEMIS: i might know a guy
ZEAUTIFUL: seriously, art, just tell them.
SMARTEMIS: well, it just so happens that my cousin is the niece of this guy who’s the first cousin once-removed of the sister-in-law of the king of vlatava! crazy, huh?
DISASTROUSDICK: your cousin sure gets around.
KDURHAM: I was under the impression that the King of Vlatava did not have any in-laws.
MORSECODE: Yeah, Artemis, when you presented your Country Case, you said that the only member of the royal family was King Oliver, right? He doesn’t have any siblings.
SMARTEMIS: DON’T ASK STUPID QUESTIONS, MEGS
CONNERKENT: is something wrong artemis
ZEAUTIFUL: yes, artemis. is something wrong?
DISASTROUSDICK: yes, artemis. is something wrong?
SMARTEMIS: i’m sorry, you guys; i’m just kind of stressed out right now.
KDURHAM: Why? Can we help in any way?
MORSECODE: You can talk to us, Artemis. We’re your friends!
ZEAUTIFUL: just let it all out, artemis. we’re here for you.
CONNERKENT: i made a face
MORSECODE: That’s great, Conner!
SMARTEMIS: i guess it’s just
ZEAUTIFUL has invited WALLYBEST to the chat.
SMARTEMIS: it’s just that i don’t have a date yet, and i don’t know how to ask wally because we’re barely even talking again now so figuring out a starting point is kind of challenging
SMARTEMIS: waIT SHIT
ZEAUTIFUL: see? that wasn’t so hard.
ZEAUTIFUL has booted DISASTROUSDICK, KDURHAM, CONNERKENT, and MORSECODE from the group chat.
ZEAUTIFUL: have fun, kids!
ZEAUTIFUL has left the chat.
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST: is this why youve been avoiding me like i have bubonic plague or is it just that youre so overwhelmed by my dashing good looks
SMARTEMIS: oh, they’re dashing, all right. dashing away.
WALLYBEST: man i even like you when youre not funny
SMARTEMIS: i beg your unbelievable pardon?
WALLYBEST: anyway, zats been saying you wanna talk to me about something so
SMARTEMIS: i left my gun at the villa; otherwise i would.
WALLYBEST: aaaa ha ha *ha*
WALLYBEST: artemis seriously what is it
SMARTEMIS: maybe i want to talk about the weather. or the political situation in qurac. have you heard about how noor harjavti’s narrowly avoided like seven assassins in the last month? crazy.
SMARTEMIS: or maybe i want to talk about how you suck at black ops zombies, because that’s definitely a topic that can go on for a while.
WALLYBEST: i thought we got past the whole lying to me thing
SMARTEMIS: are you implying that i’m not being 100% forthcoming with you?
WALLYBEST: does it count as an implication when its so obviously true
SMARTEMIS: how good is your vlatavan two-step?
SMARTEMIS: can you even get into a suit correctly? i feel like that’d be too much of a challenge for you. cufflinks and everything. way beyond your comprehension level.
SMARTEMIS: i mean, i’ve seen how much trouble you have with keeping your fly closed, so who knows, right?
SMARTEMIS: tell me about your family, wally.
SMARTEMIS: i’m waiting.
SMARTEMIS: you’d have to comb your hair, obviously. if you can handle that. don’t be afraid to let me know if that sounds too intimidating.
WALLYBEST: ok wow, i cant believe i actually have to ask this but are you presently high on cocaine
SMARTEMIS: screw you, wally!
WALLYBEST: screw ME?? youre the one acting all weird!
SMARTEMIS: i must have caught it from you.
WALLYBEST: ive been nothing if not perfectly normal
SMARTEMIS: yeah, about as normal as an alien abduction.
WALLYBEST: what are you getting at here
WALLYBEST: besides the fact that you seem to think i cant do cufflinks but whatever thats a bone to pick another day
WALLYBEST: just spit it out artemis i kinda have stuff to do that doesnt involve watching you have a mental breakdown in chat form
SMARTEMIS: gOD I’M JUST TRYING TO ASK YOU TO A BALL YOU’RE SUCH AN IDIOT
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST is typing…
WALLYBEST: if thats how you ask people to balls id like to see you ask someone to marry you
SMARTEMIS: is that a yes or a no?
WALLYBEST: i dunno i need to weigh my options here, maybe over dinner
SMARTEMIS: you’re such a dick
WALLYBEST: no he left
WALLYBEST: if you can ask me to the ball without insulting me, then yes, ill go
(She could kill him.)
SMARTEMIS: would you
SMARTEMIS: accept the massive honor
SMARTEMIS: of being my escort
SMARTEMIS: to the ball to celebrate the introduction of the vlatavan royal princess to the international public
SMARTEMIS: on december 2nd at the james gordon, sr. memorial ballroom from 7:00 PM to 12:00 AM
WALLYBEST: sorry i had to see if you were gonna slip up and call me stupid bc i know thats your cushion
WALLYBEST: twould be my pleasure, your worshipfulness
SMARTEMIS: no angle?
WALLYBEST: no angle
WALLYBEST: just remember one thing though
WALLYBEST: i aint in this for your revolution, and im not in it for you, princess
WALLYBEST: i expect to be well paid
SMARTEMIS: gosh, you’re quite the mercenary. i wonder if you really care about anything. or anybody.
DISASTROUSDICK has entered the chat.
DISASTROUSDICK: i care!
SMARTEMIS: OH YMMY GO D
DISASTROUSDICK: actually, i go by dick, but i can understand the confusion.
SMARTEMIS and WALLYBEST have left the chat.
(...That happened! That happened!! THAT TOTALLY JUST HAPPENED!)
You should see the dress that Oliver brings out for Artemis to wear to the ball. He tells her it’s an early Christmas present.
It’s… a doozy.
Not in the sense that it’s, like, ugly or ridiculous or anything, because it’s actually the exact opposite, but Artemis would lose a lot of dignity if she started calling dresses things like “gorgeous,” so she has to just act like she objectively approves and save the squealing for when she’s in Zatanna’s company and Zatanna’s company alone.
It’s pretty obvious that Artemis didn’t pick it herself, because it’s neither dark green nor black; it’s cream-colored, which makes it look about twenty times more princess-y (probably the point) than any other color conceivably could except maybe pink, but at least Oliver knows her well enough to be aware that she’d rather curl up and die than wear pink because it looks horrible on her; like, it always makes her resemble an Artemis-shaped piece of cotton candy.
Artemis is basically atrocious at describing anything fashion-related, so she dug up the final sketch of the thing by its Vlatavan designer and texted a picture of it to Zatanna to spare herself the effort.
Pretty awesome, right? Actually, Artemis wouldn’t know a chic gown if it smothered her in her sleep, so she probably doesn’t have the most trustworthy verdict, but she thinks it is beyond acceptable (even though the skirt is way bigger than it looks in the sketch, and even though it takes Dinah like an hour to get Artemis into it and lace it up and make sure it’s positioned over her boobs exactly the way Oliver wants it to be).
Artemis tries to badger Dinah and Oliver into letting her wear her Doc Martens instead of the dancing shoes with the one-and-a-half-inch heels, because come on, they could at least grant her this one kindness after all of the pop quizzes and posture work they’ve forced onto her in the past three months, but Oliver adamantly refuses, citing Artemis’s “perpetual need to negate everything they taught her” as one of her most fatal flaws and a disgrace to her country and heritage.
Whatever, Oliver. Artemis is pretty sure that he just pulls the “disgrace to your country and heritage” card when he’s scrambling to make a statement viable, because one time, when Artemis came into the villa with one shoe untied, he bellowed out the exact same thing in this super scandalized voice like she’d just personally insulted him.
Generally, though, if both Oliver and Dinah agree on something, then it’s best to let it go, because Dinah can kill a grown man with a tube of lipstick. So. Listen to Dinah, always.
In the days leading up to the ball, Oliver goes into approximately seven to thirteen tizzies per hour, fretting audibly about the catering and the dance floor and the microphone system and whether Artemis should sit at a table or stand at a podium for her formal announcement and whether the napkins should be eggshell or ecru (they are literally the exact same color; Artemis is not joking) and how many bodyguards they’ll need with Noor Harjavti being there and… ugh, Artemis just starts tuning it out after the first couple of times; the more she hears about this ball thing, the closer she feels to ralphing.
“This is your first ball, isn’t it?” Roy asks her wryly on Wednesday afternoon, as she blankly watches Oliver pace the sunroom crying about the fact that they’re short one cheese fondue pot.
“Uh, yeah, Roy; that’s kind of the point,” Artemis bites back. At this point, snark and circumstance are her only escape routes, and she might as well go into overdrive with them since they’re probably frowned upon by the prime minister of Rhelasia.
Oliver blathers out something about needing to drive to the fondue store uptown (yeah, Gotham has a fondue store) and goes bolting out.
“Well, this one’s going to lead all the rest, so you’d better get used to it,” Roy explains after he’s gone, stretching his arms over his head. “Ollie always gets pre-ball jitters and they’re pretty contagious, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
“Just a little,” Artemis hisses, glaring up at him with narrowed eyes and a pronounced pout. He snorts.
“Relax, Your Highness,” he tells her, sounding only half-invested in what he’s saying. “You’re going to do fine so long as you don’t spill your stroganoff on some duke’s lap.”
“I never cared for stroganoff,” Artemis says in an airy voice. Judging by the perplexed look on Roy’s face, he didn’t have a childhood.
Loser. Jade continues to have weird taste, surprising no one.
Roy takes a seat beside her on the small couch—which is a pretty huge feat, since Artemis’s skirt takes up about two-thirds of it—and they both face the window in silence, their arms folded across their chests, their mouths set in the same tight line. It’s snowing—the first one had come in mid-November, and the second on Thanksgiving, and now it’s starting to pile up with regularity, dusting everything in Gotham with increasingly thick white. And even though it probably snows, like, all the time in Kansas, Wally’s been going nuts, building snow-forts with Dick in the quad and hurling snowballs at anyone who passes by.
Yeah, including Principal Smith. That was… a memorable lunch period.
She slumps fully against the couch at the exact same time Roy does.
“So,” Roy says conversationally. “Made up your mind yet?”
Artemis knows exactly what he’s asking about; it’s the unspoken question that’s been hanging in the air for two weeks, the one that’s been bearing down on her like a finger on an irritated bruise. She chews her lip until it hurts.
“Don’t be coy,” Roy grunts, elbowing her. She yelps and swats his arm. “It’s unbecoming.”
Artemis sticks her tongue out at him and he chuckles, shaking his head.
“Speaking of unbecoming,” he snarks. Artemis hits his arm again.
“What do you know?” she snaps. “I somehow feel like getting a free ride out of all royal duties doesn’t exactly give you an expert’s perspective.”
Roy sighs. “You’re never gonna let that go, are you?”
Artemis rolls her eyes and jerks her forearms up exasperatedly (since, you know, if she threw her whole arms out, she’d probably break Roy’s neck).
“No, idiot; I’m not,” she bites back. “Because in case you hadn’t noticed, you left me and Jade to clean up your mess, and then Jade left me to clean up two messes, and I don’t exactly have any backups in my corner, so I’m stuck doing all of the stuff that you were supposed to!” She shoots him a venomous simper. “Thanks for that, by the way, cuz.”
Rather than responding to her with a dismissive sneer or an off-the-cuff retort as he usually does, Roy slackens just slightly and sighs quietly through his nose. His eyes wander to his lap, half-lidded and distant, and he runs his thumb over each of his knuckles in turn, slow and pensive.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t want any of it,” he finally mutters, and Artemis almost perks up because whoa, this is happening. “Honestly, I—Ollie was more of a father to me than a king, than a rescuer. Sometimes I felt like—he made me feel like—I was made to rule. Not even just that I’d been born to do it; that I’d been… created to do it. Like that was why I was here. I don’t remember anything about my real parents, or… or maybe I do, and I just got so attached to Ollie that I convinced myself he was my real family. I didn’t run away because I was opposed to the idea of inheriting the throne, or… or any of that. I ran because I knew it wasn’t mine. Not rightfully; not really. It was always supposed to be someone else’s.” He glances over at her and exhales shortly through his nose in a noise of vague amusement. “Someone like you.”
“Yeah, but Roy, blood doesn’t matter with this kind of stuff anymore,” Artemis tells him, frowning. “And even if it did, you’ve already given more of yourself to this stupid country than either Jade or I ever did, and probably ever will. My—our dad didn’t want anything to do with Vlatava; he didn’t… he didn’t belong there the way you did. And if you grew up thinking that you were meant to rule Vlatava, then that’s probably what you’re meant to do, and yeah, maybe Ollie lied to you, but did you ever think that it was because he knew you’d think you weren’t good enough? That he knew you the way, oh, I don’t know, a father knows his kid? Maybe the reason he keeps chasing after you isn’t even because he wants you to succeed to the throne, okay; maybe…”
She shrugs, tossing her hands in the air and grimacing.
“Maybe he loves you,” she finishes. “Maybe he knows that you’re better suited to being a ruler than either me or my low-life sister; maybe he’s proud of you and believes in you and knows it doesn’t matter where you came from, as long as you know what you want to do with your life. I mean, I…” She slows, sighing, gazing distantly at the open room. “I thought… I was gonna grow up and be like my dad. I thought I was going to spend my whole life letting people down and losing sight of the things that matter and—and running away. But, like… ever since Ollie and Dinah showed up, and ever since I started… going to Gotham Academy, and making friends, for once in my life, I’ve—it’s kind of felt like I have somewhere to go. And I know where I want to go now. I mean, probably.” She sinks down into the couch, her skirt practically swallowing her. “I still doubt I’m sovereignty material. Maybe someday I will be? Right now, yeah, I can admit that I just want my life back, but… I think it’s because, for the first time, I’m actually... happy with it. With me.”
She glances furtively over at him, tapping her thumbs together. “Does that make sense?”
Roy considers her for a moment, his eyes flicking over her—and she must look like a real idiot right now, pouting on the leather couch and ensconced in a tulle skirt that’s about three times her body mass—before snorting as if in surrender and half-smiling at her, congratulatory, admiring.
“Yeah, kid,” he replies. “Perfect sense.”
Artemis elects to excuse being referred to in such a diminutive manner. Getting Roy Harper to actually smile is worth it, in her book.
The James Gordon, Sr. Memorial Ballroom was built about seventy years ago in honor of some police guy who stopped a bunch of bank robbers once, and it’s in the ritziest area of downtown Gotham City, right between the opera house and the conservatory of dance. Artemis has only been there once, on a field trip in fourth grade, and at the time, it had staggered her with its gilded, dome-vaulted ceiling and glittering crystal chandelier and stone pillars and wide, seemingly infinite marble dance floor (seriously, marble; how much money do these people have?), and the whole experience had left her a little snide, because people who got to spend their Friday nights in a place like that instead of making sure the sink didn’t leak for the hundredth time that week kind of deserved her snideness anyway.
She, Dinah, and Oliver go down there on Saturday morning the day of the ball because Dinah wants Artemis to be able to scope it out, which is pretty cool of her. It’s a lot smaller than Artemis remembers, a lot less intimidating, but the downtown area is still so thickly inundated with pompous people that it throws off her game anyway. Like, she gets that she’s supposed to be “on their level” now, and all; if she got invited to a rich-person dinner, she’d definitely impress; but that doesn’t change the fact that they’ve been looking down on people like her all her life, does it? She’d rather tarnish Vlatava’s reputation than be like some of Gotham’s Finest any day. Sorry, Vlatava, but it’s true.
Still, though—it really is a nice building. There’s a huge dining room that’s sequestered off on the left side of the building, and that’s apparently where Artemis is going to have some big banquet with a bunch of world leaders before the ball commences and the “guests” are allowed in; but the rest of it is just the circular floor and the small bandstand against the north wall, and hopefully some bathrooms? Preferably the ones with free tampons and bowls of breath mints.
She stands in the center of the empty ballroom, feeling like even her breath is echoing. Behind her, she hears the sharp reverberations of approaching heels, but she doesn’t turn around, because she recognizes that sound—it’s got the kind of clarity that can only come from Dinah’s stilettos.
“Excited?” Dinah asks perkily, coming to stop beside Artemis with her elbows crossed at her chest. She surveys the room with a wry look, and Artemis suddenly gets the impression that she’s seen a hundred other rooms like it, but only ever from a stagnant point on the outskirts of the dance floor.
Must be nice.
“Oh, thrilled,” Artemis deadpans back. Dinah chuckles at her blatant sarcasm and shakes her head ruefully.
“You’re going to be just fine,” she assures her. She turns her head over her shoulder. “Isn’t she, Ol?”
“You’re darn tootin’!” Oliver agrees, and Artemis jumps because jeez, for such a windbag, he can be sneaky when it suits him. She glances sharply over to see that Oliver has come to stand on her other side, so that she’s flanked by both him and Dinah. “Because if she isn’t, I see dungeons and gruel in her future.”
“You sure know how to get a girl all fired up, Ollie,” Artemis snarks, and Oliver chortles, wrapping one arm around her shoulders and jostling her jovially.
“Humor in the face of uncertainty!” he booms, and, slowly, his smile fades into a deeply worried expression, and his grip on Artemis slackens. “W-Wise.”
“Oh, perk up, you two,” Dinah scoffs, waving her hands in the air dismissively before mirroring Oliver, her palm clapping Artemis’s opposite shoulder. “It’s one ball.” Out of the corner of her mouth, she pointedly adds, “The first of many.”
“Thank you,” Artemis says flatly.
The three of them fall into a contentedly uncertain silence, all craning their necks back to examine the chandelier high above them. Dinah’s and Oliver’s arms don’t leave her shoulders, and occasionally, Dinah will rub her upper arm, or Oliver will pat her back.
“Well,” Artemis finally mutters, breathing in and out bracingly. “Let’s hope all those crushed toes of your pay off tonight, Ollie.”
“I’m still fairly certain that you broke more of them than the doctor told me,” Oliver grumbles, but then, warmly, he finishes, “But I’m sure they will.”
Artemis’s eyes drift down, and she folds her lips in, but it doesn’t do much to withhold her diffident smile.
“You think?” she whispers.
“We know,” Oliver and Dinah say in unison.
Artemis looks at each of them in turn, her mind leaping shambolically between the now-tangled memories of an Oliver who, in the smallest of doses, made her consider self-defenestration; and an Oliver whose face was a relief to see at the end of a rainy day after being caged inside a classroom for hours; a Dinah who had been pegged, incorrectly, as a stoic professional who knew how to smile about as well as she knew how to stop looking over her shoulder; and a Dinah who, with the simplest of gazes, could create feelings of worth and confidence as though they were innate and everlasting.
She looks down at her feet, then, at her Doc Martens with their loose lime-green laces, at the Scooby-Doo Band-Aid on her knee, under her stockings, from only a few afternoons ago. Oliver had insisted on personally putting it on the second she got to the villa, even though it had already started to scab; “No niece of mine,” he had said, “Walks through a whole day with an unrepaired boo-boo.”
She stops wondering, now, why Oliver never got around to having children of his own, because she’s come to understand that Roy is more bonded to him than any blood son could ever be, and even she herself has come to be regarded as among the closest family members he has. Once, she would have thought it kind of embarrassing, but now it seems like an honor. She’s not just a part of the royal family; she’s a part of the royal family. You know?
She doesn’t really know what she’s trying to get at here. Maybe it’s as simple as this: She kinda loves them, by accident, the way she always comes to love everybody, and maybe a future spent wandering palatial halls won’t be so bad, as long as they’re around. Them, and her friends.
It hits her all at once, just how different everything’s become in only three months. Yeah, she has friends now, and not just Zatanna and Dick, but Kal, and Megan, and Conner… and Wally. Billy Batson, even, because although his harmonica-playing makes it super hard to concentrate on World Civ, and even though his turtle shell backpack is an absolute joke, and even though he tried to ask Zatanna to prom once using only quotes from comic books, he loans her a pencil every time she asks for one, and he’s told her that she’s cool. And then there’s Oliver and Dinah—basically a new family—plus her mom, who, along with Artemis, have become a better and unbroken version of an old family; and there’s Roy, with his archery and his Spanish soap operas, and now there’s Jade, appearing outside her window to trawl up the past kicking and screaming.
Like. Who cares about a crappy dad, and who cares about Billy Hayes, when you’ve got stuff like that?
“Young lady, if you don’t start holding still right now, I’m going to tie you down myself. With chains.”
Artemis unleashes the loudest and longest and most pained groan she can muster, probably as like, one final middle finger to the world before she sits back and does what she’s told. Dinah tsks audibly and, in the mirror, Artemis can see her eyes rotating subtly from her armchair.
Oliver is presently working away at getting Artemis’s hair sleekly wrapped into a chignon, which, judging by the fact that he’s been trying it for half an hour with limited success, is not going to be easy. But seriously, if Artemis feels one more bobby pin stabbing into the back of her neck, she’s going AWOL, Roy style. This has to be against the Geneva Convention.
“I see that getting dolled up isn’t your ideal way to pass an evening,” Dinah quips, nonchalantly turning a page in her crime thriller (which she’s been snorting derisively at for the past hour but still won’t put down).
“Not when it could viably show up on my autopsy as C.O.D.,” Artemis retorts without missing a beat.
“Calm down,” Oliver scolds her, giving her hair a sharp tug for emphasis. “It’s not the end of the world.”
Funny, Oliver, since that’s exactly what it feels like. Honestly, Artemis would rather face down an alien invasion with only, like… sixteen seconds to stop it than sit here for one more second while Oliver slowly and methodically removes her scalp.
Her make-up is already done, thank god; or, well, thank Zatanna, actually, who had used a wide arsenal of eyeliner pencils and mascara brushes with dexterity, as well as a pretty impressive selection of vile words to keep Wally from coming into the bathroom no matter how badly he apparently had to pee (no matter how loudly he threatened to just do it right in the hallway, on the carpet). As she scowls at herself in the mirror, she can’t help admiring Zatanna’s handiwork, because even her angry face doesn’t look all that angry. All those months of being used as Zatanna’s guinea pig for cosmetics experimentation have paid off, apparently. (Even the bad ones.)
Dinah’s Bluetooth beeps.
“The Markovs will be here within the hour,” she says. “Harjavti’s already off the freeway.”
“Good grief,” Oliver laments under his breath. Artemis yelps as he pulls at a clump of her hair again, wrenching her eyes closed and biting down on her tongue to try to distract her from the thousands of pinpricks of pain on every inch of her head.
“Looks good,” Dinah comments genuinely.
Artemis’s eyes dare to open to examine herself in the mirror. Oliver steps back and evaluates his work with arms akimbo, nodding approvingly.
“Indeed it does!” he agrees, puffing his chest out.
“I’m amazed I’m still alive,” Artemis sneers, but it’s in jest, and honestly, Dinah’s right—it does look good. Which is pretty surprising, considering that it’s, hello, a chignon, also known as a hairstyle reserved for graceful queens and high-society Victorian ladies and all kinds of other species of ladies who do not fit Artemis’s description.
She stands. The heels add a certain poise to her demeanor, and her back is naturally straight and her shoulders have thrown themselves back on instinct. She looks like a Cinderella reject. In the best possible way.
She fingers the green velvet choker around her neck pensively. Dinah had insisted she wear it—“It was mine, once, but now I’m more for black”—and it makes her neck look a lot longer, but not like, giraffe longer; just… gracefully elongated.
Out of the corner of her eye, she spots Oliver when he steps closer to Dinah and slips his hand into hers. They smile warmly at each other, holding it for a few seconds, before turning their synchronized attention to Artemis with equal delight.
Oh man she had so better not screw this up.
She doesn’t! She totally doesn’t screw it up. Noor Harjavti thinks that the way she holds her fork is totally hilarious, for some reason, but Artemis guesses that when you’re Noor Harjavti and people are constantly trying to kill you, you have to find laughs wherever you can; and the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s wife approves heartily of the fact that she knows how to use chopsticks, which is probably a plus, right? They’re all pretty nice, for the most part; they ask her about her academics and what she wants to study in college and how up-to-date she is on the messy politics in Qurac, and she answers them all with only a couple of “uh”s and, like, one stutter.
She doesn’t spill a scrap of food, which makes Oliver look like he’s about to straight-up cry from pride and happiness in front of all these important people, but thankfully, the butler (yeah, seriously) announces that dinner is over and it’s time to file out into the ballroom to meet their guests and start dancing, which is all fine until Artemis sees the podium and remembers exactly what she has to do.
And then she starts hyperventilating. Dinah either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, ushering her up to stand at the wall behind it while Oliver strides in front of them and takes the microphone first.
She doesn’t even hear his whole opening speech over the muffled ringing in her ears. She kind of wishes she had, later on, because Dinah tells her that he’d said a lot of really sentimental things about her and had needed to cut himself short before he started blubbering. But in the moment, he’s suddenly turned expectantly to her, one hand extended graciously to the podium, and everyone is watching her with attentive eyes, and oh, man, she’s going to die; this is it; goodbye Mom, goodbye Zatanna, goodbye Wally West who she still hasn’t kissed.
Her hands grasp the edges of the podium and she folds her lips in subtly, spreading her freshly-applied lipstick over them, which doesn’t really do that much good for how dry they suddenly feel, but at least they probably look… redder.
She lifts her eyes to stare out at the crowd. It’s small, but still manages to almost fill up the whole room, and she can see news cameramen at the very back, and a few photographers, the flashes on their cameras white sparks in the dim corners. Noor Harjavti catches her eye from the middle of the crowd and waves slightly, smiling encouragingly.
Artemis’s gaze continues to wander until it finally falls on the right people. She sees her mom first—at the very front, her hands folded in her lap, her eyes glimmering with incoming tears. Beside her is Kal, in his tux, whose eyes do not stray from Artemis, and next to him are Conner and Megan, their hands linked, Conner dressed the same way as Kal and Megan looking ethereal in a powder blue evening gown, who is beaming up at Artemis with encouragement and confidence.
Beside her is Dick, looking dapper with his usual slicked-back hair and expensive-looking tailored tuxedo, with Zatanna leaning her arm on his shoulder, aglow in her navy blue silk strapless number, and she gives Artemis a thumbs-up and a wink, and next to her, with his hands in his pockets and his bowtie slightly crooked, is Wally.
He locks eyes with her and mouths, “You’re fine.” He winks, gives a silent and slow nod, and Artemis’s brain lurches into motion.
“Hi, everyone. Or, well—good evening.” She gulps, forcing herself to slow down and not stammer them to death. “My… My name is Artemis. But… you knew that. I know that most of you here know me by a slightly different name, and that’s fine. But I thought maybe we should start this off with something simple, because… that’s kind of how I’ve always thought of myself. Simple.
“Three months ago, two strangers showed up and knocked on my mom’s door in the middle of the night. I know it’s only three months, but sometimes when I think back on it, I kind of see myself as being just a kid. Because, honestly, that’s what I was. I didn’t want… things to change, or be new, because I just wanted my life to be mine. And don’t worry; Oliver—I mean, the King has purged me of that, for the most part. I’ve learned a lot from him since September, and… this is the culmination of it all, I guess.”
She draws back slightly from the microphone so that they won’t hear her breath shake when she inhales. She tries to scan the crowd as evenly as she can while she’s talking, but her eyes keep wandering back to her friends, to her mother, which is probably good, because she feels a lot farther away from unconsciousness when she zeroes in on them.
“You know, some days I wake up and I think that I’m not ready for Vlatava,” she continues, and her voice is a little stronger now. “I’m not ready for responsibility, or standing up straight, or having to defend myself without mercy against every tabloid photographer that follows me to the 7-11.” She glances, pointedly, at the papparazzi in the back. “I know how to do that, by the way.”
Oliver clears his throat behind her. Okay, time to dial it back, Artemis.
“What I mean is—a lot of the time, I don’t think I’m ready for any of it,” she says, over the sound of a few skeptical coughs. “I’m barely ready to take a Chemistry test or make friends; how could I be ready to rule a country?” Her voice quiets, and her eyes stray slightly down. “But… I have a feeling that that’s going to change. Someday. Not today. I still have a little bit left to do, to make sure that I’m good enough for Vlatava. As good as my uncle is.”
Oliver sniffles noisily.
“And when I’m ready for Vlatava,” Artemis tells the sea of important faces, “And when Vlatava’s ready for me, I think I’m going to stay with it for good. Because that’s what princesses do. They look out for you. For everyone. Or, well, they should. They should always do the right thing, and I’m pretty confident that I’ve got that down pat by now. So… when I’m older, when I’m… wiser, I guess; when I’m—good enough—” She smiles, and a surge of camera flashes go off, and when she looks down at her mom, she sees a woman with wet cheeks beaming back at her; and when she looks at Zatanna, she sees her best friend, nodding with approval; and when she looks at Wally, he lifts up both of his hands and gives her the most genuine two thumbs up she’s ever seen, like, she may as well be a Disney movie.
“When I’m all of those things,” she finishes, turning her eyes back to the crowd, “And, hey, even when I’m not—I want you to know that you can count on me. You can always count on me. Thank you.”
She hadn’t really been expecting them to applaud. It’s only for a few seconds, and it’s not like it’s loud or anything, but Dick starts cat-calling and Wally sticks two fingers in his mouth and whistles shrilly and Zatanna whoops. That’s probably why everyone stops. Artemis does not think that that is acceptable ball behavior.
After Oliver and Dinah follow her off of the platform, the quintet marches up and settles, their conductor sniffing periodically as he makes sure his tails are in optimum position for dramatic fluttering.
“The King starts off the first dance,” Oliver whispers to Artemis, “Then the princess. So get your feet ready.”
Artemis’s feet are so ready. Oliver had pounded so much of the Vlatavan waltzes into her that she’s surprised she doesn’t know them better than walking by now.
The band starts up a waltz that Artemis vaguely recognizes as Strauss—“Emperor Waltz,” maybe? They all sound the same to her, honestly—and Oliver bows to Dinah with a flourish, offering his hand. And can Artemis just say that Dinah looks totally amazing? Because she does. Her dress is black velvet and off-the-shoulder and it has an open back with gold ribbon laces, and her hair is wrapped into a perfect bun (which is basically a sock bun, but Oliver refuses to call it that).
She takes Oliver’s proffered hand with an almost imperceptible wink and they stride out onto the empty dance floor together like they’ve done it a thousand times, and plan to do it a thousand more. Once again, Artemis is mildly stunned by how good Dinah is at this stuff, how gracefully and effortlessly she moves, even though her preferred environment is a gunfight.
Artemis watches with a grin on her face as they start sweeping in time across the marble, never missing a step or a beat, their eyes riveted unfalteringly onto each other’s. Everyone watches them with the same knowing expression, and Artemis realizes, all of a sudden, that she’s not the only one who thinks that Oliver’s queen has been standing next to him the whole time and he’s just too dumb to notice.
After a minute or so, Oliver glances subtly at Artemis. Her throat closes up immediately. Oh, that’s right; she forgot—she has to do this, too.
Her head jerks up, prepared to start looking wildly around for Wally, but instead, the first thing she sees is a lifted, bent arm at her side. She follows it up to find it attached to Wally, who’s got this look on his face like he’s just offering her his arm because he feels like it; it doesn’t mean anything; he hadn’t even noticed she was there, actually!
“Are you sure you know how to do this?” she whispers to him, and he snorts.
“My parents made me take a ballroom dancing class when I was twelve,” he whispers back. “The pants were too short, but other than that, I only broke one girl’s foot.”
“So not reassuring,” Artemis hisses, but she takes his arm determinedly and marches forward with him.
They come to a halt in the middle of the floor as Dinah and Oliver continue to revolve around them, and Wally sticks up his left hand, waggling his eyebrows. She takes it, sets her other on his shoulder, and his right comes to rest on her side. She raises her eyebrows, impressed, and he shrugs, complacent, and then it just… well, they’re off, she guesses.
And what the hell is up with Wally West and having so many hidden talents? Total brainiac and pretty decent ballroom dancer? What’s his deal?
“So,” she murmurs after a moment, never taking her eyes off of his, never missing a single step in the twirling, carousel rhythm. “You never actually did tell me about your family.”
“I figured I’d give you extra time to tell me about yours,” he replies with a toothy grin. “Since it sounds way more involved than you let on half the time.”
“I’m trying to picture it,” she continues, tilting her head. “Little Wally, I mean. Roaming the corn fields of Kansas in a pair of overalls, never coming home when his mom told him to.”
“Are you kidding? My mom’s word is law.” Wally snickers, making a face. “And we had cow fields. They’re very different.”
“You’re such a liar,” Artemis laughs. “Zatanna told me about this pumpkin patch by your house with a corn maze that’s what, like—”
“Thirty-seven acres,” Wally finishes for her primly. “And it’s amazing. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.”
“Maybe I will sometime,” Artemis suggests with a coy raise of her chin, and Wally’s eyes illuminate.
“I’ll call ahead and warn the town to evacuate,” he quips. “But we can probably swing it.”
“I’m going to ignore that,” Artemis declares, and out of the corner of her eye, she sees everyone else milling onto the dance floor and joining the dance. Weird. It feels like she only started a second ago. “So… your mom’s a tyrant, huh?”
“As if.” Wally scoffs. “Nah, she’s just one of those ladies who’s so nice that it’d be bad karma to disobey her, y’know? And then there’s my dad, who’s basically the same, except he’s all bummed ‘cause he wanted to teach me to drive this year. He wanted me to get into Little League—classic, right?—but I just wound up doing, as you heard, ballroom dancing and track. I’ve won trophies this year, by the way, but you haven’t even been around to see.”
“Well, in case you hadn’t heard, I’ve been a little busy.” Artemis simpers, and Wally rolls his eyes, pulling a snooty face.
“I’ve been a little busy,” he repeats in a low, mocking voice. If Artemis wasn’t in front of a camera crew and half the royalty of Europe and the Middle East, she’d hit him upside the head. “Whatever. I expect full attendance in the spring.”
“I’ll have to ask my royal secretary,” Artemis snips dryly. “Anyone else missing from the Reindeer Family Tree?”
“Dead horse,” Wally grunts, and Artemis giggles. “Well, there’s my Uncle Barry, who used to be a track guy, too. And he’s married to my Aunt Iris, who does the local news. I’ve been told—” He beams brightly. “That there’s a resemblance.”
“Oh, no wonder you’re so pretty,” Artemis croons.
“Look who’s talking,” Wally replies.
Artemis flounders for just a second, but her brain manages to come up to the net and save her: “So there’s… no mini-Wallys running around?”
Wally shakes his head. “Nope. I’m one of a kind.” He pauses, and leans slightly in. “Just like someone else here.”
Artemis’s face starts to heat up just as he halts and dips her. She hangs in his arms for just a moment, and then he guides her up again, and her head is definitely only spinning from all of the waltzing; seriously, that’s all. They move off again, their feet aligning without fail, and even though Artemis is pretty sure she can see Dick trying to Charleston with Zatanna a few yards away, there doesn’t seem to be anything in the room worth looking at other than Wally’s eyes.
“You’re just laying it on as thick as you can tonight, huh,” Artemis finally manages to snark out. “Trying to sneak into my good graces so you can steal some of the royal fortune? I’ve got my eye on you.”
“Oh, please, don’t hesitate to keep it there,” Wally says with a wink, and Artemis huffs, rolling her eyes.
“I’m forgiven, right?” she asks after a moment.
“For…” Artemis gulps. “Everything.”
Wally considers her for a second before straightening slightly, putting on his best snobbish voice.
“You are pardoned and exonerated, my subject,” he coos. It’s not all that funny, but Artemis still laughs, throws her head back and laughs.
“You should do that more often, beautiful,” Wally murmurs, in that low voice of his that she’s only ever heard him use around her, the one that’s a quiet undercurrent of the comical and self-assured Wally she knows, the one that she wouldn’t mind hearing in her ear late at night in the dark.
“You’re gonna have to work for it,” she tells him when she recovers, and she hates how pink her cheeks feel; he is such a threat to national security and she hopes he gets arrested.
“Anything for you, Your Worship,” he ripostes without a second’s thought, and just then, the waltz ends.
She and Wally step into stillness at the same time. She stays in place, staring up at him, and she doesn’t really know what she’s waiting for, but she knows that it’s something, and she’s not going to move until she gets it. Wally doesn’t seem intent on parting, either, his hand slipping down to the small of her back and toying with the tied laces there.
“You are such a scoundrel,” she whispers.
Wally’s eyes flicker and his hand slowly, gradually lifts off of her spine, and when she feels his palm again, in all its warmth and certainty, it’s grazing her cheek. His eyelids lower and he brushes some of her hair behind her ear with two of his fingers.
“Babe, you’re feeding me these on a silver platter,” he mutters, his lips quirking. He tilts his head slightly closer to hers, and she doesn’t move away, feeling her eyes start to hood. “You like me because I’m a scoundrel.”
Come on, West; do it. If you don’t do it, I will kill you.
“I don’t like you at all,” Artemis breathes, and Wally chuckles, softly, and it splashes against her slightly parted lips, warm, a little bit of cinnamon Altoids. Another waltz starts up, but neither of them has any intention of following it. Artemis’s hands snake up to link at his back, and she pulls him slightly closer, closing her eyes.
“Careful, sis; you’re on candid camera,” a smug voice pops up between the two of them. They both leap apart with identical yelps of surprise to find Jade standing beside them, snickering behind her fist.
Rather than being annoyed, rather than being totally furious because damn it, Jade, Artemis gawks unabashedly at her—she’s in a dark green ao dai, with her mane combed down and falling in waves past her shoulders, her eyelids dusted in black. She’s holding a martini in one hand and smirking.
“Uh,” Wally says. “Uh.”
“Jade,” Jade introduces herself, extending a hand. “I’m the black sheep of the family.” She grins, catlike, her canines flashing. “What are you supposed to be, the prince of Ireland? How do you do.”
“Actually, Northern Ireland is just a province of—” Dick chimes in as he and Zatanna go twirling by, but they’re gone before he can finish.
Wally takes Jade’s hand after a second and shakes it feebly.
“Uh,” he says again, and then looks to Artemis. “Black sheep?”
“Sister,” Artemis expounds flatly.
Wally recoils, releasing Jade’s hand immediately.
Jade giggles maliciously, eyeing Wally with a little bit too much interest for Artemis’s liking, but just in time, Roy appears from the colorful throng, holding a martini of his own. He’s in a tuxedo just like all the other men there, looking very James Bond-ian with his slick hair and clean-shaven face and disgruntled expression.
“I liked what you said up there, sis,” Jade croons, taking a sip of her martini and never losing the wry grin, or eye contact with Artemis. “Very moving.”
“Ignore her,” Roy grumbles, and then, genuinely, he assures Artemis, “You did great.”
“Thanks; I wouldn’t know, since I blacked out for most of it,” Artemis chirps back, refusing to take her narrowed eyes off Jade. “So why’re you guys here? You gonna get drunk and do Free Bird?”
“Much as that sounds like Red’s ideal evening,” Jade drawls back as Roy flushes, “No.”
She smiles at Artemis, swaying slightly, resting her elbow against her cocked hip.
“Thought we’d scope out the gathering,” she continues languidly. “See who we might want to start a war with.”
Artemis frowns. “I don’t—”
“It’s all still up in the air,” Roy sighs pointedly, but he puts his arm around Jade’s shoulders and she eases into it, toying with his bowtie and humming contentedly. He looks Artemis in the eye and nods slightly. “But, uh… We’re scheduled to have a chat with Ollie later.”
“How much later?” Artemis asks dryly. “Because I’m pretty sure that he’s seconds away from putting on a lampshade hat.”
The four of them all turn in unison to look at Oliver, who’s presently doing a drunken Irish jig with a few French diplomats while Dinah looks on with amusement.
“Uh-huh,” Roy mutters. “Much later, then.”
Artemis doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The ball continues to go off without a hitch, long into the night—Wally dances with Paula, spinning her chair and clasping her hands to swing her arms back and forth, and she laughs until she’s out of breath before he moves on to Zatanna, with whom he performs a perfect and energetic Lindy Hop. Dick and Zatanna get the Japanese President’s daughters to do the jitterbug with them, and Conner and Megan only do the slow-dances, and Artemis is pretty sure that she only sees Kal and Raquel (dashing, in her hot pink dress and close-cropped hair and thousand-watt smile) dance maybe once, when Conner and Megan do, and Raquel leans up to peck Kal on the cheek. Oliver’s totally sloshed by the end of it, but judging by the jovial laughter of all his U.N. pals, this is not an uncommon or harmful occurrence; when everyone finally starts to trickle out (all of them coming to shake Artemis’s hand and express their pleasure at meeting her first, of course), Dinah slings Oliver’s arm around her shoulder and guides him out to the car while he passionately sings the Vlatavan national anthem.
“I’m getting a lift home with them; do not worry about me,” Paula assures Artemis, clasping her hands and giving her a watery, unfettered smile. “You were absolutely magnificent. I am so proud of you.”
Artemis kisses her on the forehead and hugs her, whispering in Vietnamese, “I love you.” The change feels a lot more natural and right than it has in a long time—like it's hers.
Conner, Megan, Kal, and Raquel all leave in Kal’s car, departing with assorted words of approval and excitement.
“Sweet party,” Raquel comments with a thumbs-up. “Better than some of the college ones I’ve been to.”
Which, of course, is totally huge.
When Paula has been seen off, and after Artemis has promised Dinah that yes, she can get a ride home from someone else; just take Oliver somewhere secluded before he streaks down Main Street, it’s only her, Zatanna, Dick, and Wally. Wally had insisted on coming by Zatanna’s dad’s Studebaker, because limousines make him nervous, apparently, so, according to him, it’s parked a block away, by the opera house.
The band’s already gone, but Artemis grasps Wally’s hand and leads him out to the floor anyway. They dance without any music, and they laugh a lot, bumping foreheads, until Zatanna and Dick, clearly unable to stand it anymore, cup their hands around their mouths and scream, in unison, “GET A ROOM!”
It echoes sharply in the vastness of the ballroom. Artemis gets to ride shotgun in the car on the drive back to Zatanna’s, and she falls asleep ten minutes after they leave, and when she wakes up the next morning, it’s to Zatanna’s fingers incessantly nudging her side.
“If you stay in Wally’s bed any longer, it’s going to lose its slightly unwashed scent,” she quips. “He totally carried you in last night, by the way. All bridal style and junk. So gross.”
Nobody gets on her case for eating breakfast in nothing but one of Wally’s Han Solo t-shirts and a pair of Zatanna’s Hello Kitty pajama shorts.
“You shoulda worn that last night,” Wally snickers through a mouthful of blueberry pancake.
The news is playing on the TV in the living room, and Artemis hears her own voice, giving a speech to a room full of people. The echoes sound just right. Under the table, Wally’s fingers find hers and clasp them, and she squeezes them back.
Everything gets kind of miraculously easy again after that, as December had winds down and finals week begins and ends. When Artemis isn’t studying, she’s sandwiched between Dick and Wally on Zatanna’s living room couch with a video game controller in her hand, screaming things that make them both inch as far away from her as possible—“SON OF A LIGHTNING-FACE ZAP-WEASEL!” “Zombies in the bus, zombies on top of the bus… this bus kinda suuuuucks!” “HOOOOLD STILL SO I CAN SHOOT YOU IN THE BRAINS!” “OH, NO, I’M OUT OF BULLETS! IF ONLY A BIG, SMELLY IDIOT WOULD PROTECT ME!”
The big, smelly idiot is Wally, by the way. In case that wasn’t clear.
Artemis gets through all of her finals without committing any sort of homicide, or suicide, or any-cide, which is quite frankly an achievement worthy of a free ride scholarship to Stanford, is all she’s saying, so get on that, Stanford.
The fall semester ends, and Christmas comes and goes, and Jade starts showing up on Artemis’s windowsill with food now, instead of just a smug grin.
And then it’s Dick’s New Year’s party.
He has one every year; it’s common knowledge. It’s the only time Wayne will let him have friends over (except for Wally, who is a recent exception; apparently Dick taught him how to bypass the security systems so Wayne hadn’t been able to do much anyway), and it’s huge—the mansion has its own gymnasium, and Wayne has the whole thing cleared out and equipped with catered food tables and a disco ball and a giant stereo and then jets off to take refuge in New York for the night and try to deceive himself into thinking that nothing fragile is being broken and no hormonal teenagers are making out on his bearskin rugs.
Oliver and Dinah go back to Vlatava on December 30th, and Artemis and Roy see them off at the airport. They’ll be back by February, they assure Artemis, and then, Dinah says with a pointed look at the photojournalists gathered with flashing cameras behind the divider between them and the Vlatavan royal family, Artemis can really learn some self-defense. Artemis puts on airs like she couldn’t be happier to see them go, and yeah, a part of her is a little relieved, because Dinah and Oliver in excess is something she’s swiftly finding is kind of unbearable, but there’s another part of her, maybe even a bigger one, that wilts a little every time she goes by the villa in the rain on her way to Zatanna’s and doesn’t see a light on in Oliver’s study.
They promise they’ll write, though.
Artemis goes to Dick’s party in jeans and a peacoat and a green v-neck and a pair of Chuck Taylors, masterfully avoiding all swinging limbs and leaping bodies, and as soon as she walks into the dance room, the first person to approach her after she hangs up her coat is, of course, Wally.
“Hi,” he says to her, grinning. He’s holding two sandwich rolls in his hand and there’s the tiniest stain of mayonnaise in the corner of his lip.
“Hi,” she replies. She gestures vaguely to her mouth. “You’ve got a…”
“Oh.” Wally cottons on immediately and swipes a hand across his lips. “Gone?”
Artemis nods, making a circle with her index finger and her thumb. “Like Obi-Wan.”
They both look out at the dancing crowd at about the same time—pretty different from waltzing people, honestly—and Artemis isn’t sure where Wally’s eyes go—probably to one of the snack tables, if we’re going with statistical likelihood here—but hers fall immediately on Zatanna and Dick, or, actually, the fact that Zatanna’s hand just swatted Dick’s butt and he didn’t seem to be in any hurry to draw away.
“Survive the news crews?” Wally asks casually, sipping his Coke.
“Oh, sure.” Artemis tosses her hair over her shoulder and flashes him a smile. “Like a pro.”
“Yeah, because pros totally flip off the cameramen.” Wally sniggers. “I saw the pictures on the Internet. Dick found the link.”
“Whatever,” Artemis mutters with a shrug. “As long as my face isn’t plastered all over the National Enquirer, I consider that a small piece of collateral damage.”
Wally laughs for a moment, and then softens.
“Hey, uh…” he starts to say.
Artemis turns to look at him expectantly and, even though it’s kind of dark except for the pink-and-purple lamps overhead, and the light chips from the disco ball (illuminating the green of his eyes like marbles), she thinks she sees him turning red.
“I just,” he says, sounding nervous, “I... never actually told you that I’m really—”
That’s when a song starts—a fast, upbeat electronic number with earnest female vocals and pumping drums that slam life into the whole Wayne Manor gymnasium—and the last of Wally’s words are lost to the volume.
Artemis assumes later that she must have had an aneurysm. In the moment, though, without forethought, her hand darts out and grasps his (incredibly warm) wrist and leads him, as she half-bounces to the beat, out into the small (but loud and lively) crowd of their gyrating friends.
He stares at her, halfway between shock and wonder, as she yells something at him that even she doesn’t hear, and that crooked smile she’s only seen a few times starts to spark in his cheeks, and then they’re dancing, him doing a lot of incredibly dorky moves that she hasn’t witnessed outside of the stupid 80s movies Zatanna makes her watch, her just jumping and stomping around however she chooses. The song is saying something about being driven wild and it is way, way too appropriate.
He spins around on the ball of his foot at one point and his open button-down flies out around his hips, and the hem of his t-shirt flutters up just slightly, and his green (green) eyes are bright with concentration on his fancy footwork that he’s no doubt learned from all those Michael Jackson music videos Dick says he watches to make himself feel cool, and he bites his quirked lips and then he grins at her, his sweat-dampened red hair flopping over his forehead, and Artemis has never, ever seen someone look more attractive than he does right then.
And it’s Wally Rudolph West.
She could kiss him. She seriously could. And she’s an assertive person who likes confrontation and making messes but there’s something infinitely more terrifying about grabbing Wally West’s freckled face at either cheek and planting a big one on him than fistfighting dudes twice her size and weight. Especially when he looks so happy. Especially when he’s the only boy who’s ever seen her cry. Especially when there is a slight risk of bringing him into the royal family and therefore destroying all of Vlatava forever, because come on, Wally, associated with international affairs? Disaster.
He’s saying something to her and she has absolutely no interest in what it is. She can see his slightly crooked teeth through his smile-curled lips and he’s pointing at her, then to himself, then to the clock, then to his mouth. She shrugs at him amidst her dancing and pivots away. He wants to force himself to vomit at midnight? He wants her to help? Weirdo.
Yeah, this is definitely an aneurysm. She should be calling 911, instead of dancing with him. She’s too young to die. Too young to let Wally West kill her with his sunburned nose and dimples. This is dangerous. Where’s her freaking bodyguard? Wally needs to be arrested, right now, for attempted assassination of a Vlatavan royal. She’d rather him have to trade contraband cigarettes for extra Internet time than make her heart feel like this: like it’s about to spin right out of her chest and into his hands.
“Hey!” a voice hollers in her ear. Artemis whirls around, her hair sticking to her face, to beam at Zatanna, who’s unsurprisingly dazzling in her purple minidress and new layered bangs. Zatanna beams right back. Dick is on her arm, looking pleasantly lost. “Ten seconds to midnight, losers!”
Artemis turns back to Wally, who’s stopped dancing and is currently staring at her, slightly out of breath, combing his hair back out of his eyes. The crowd is already shouting out the “eight” in the countdown, and everyone’s heads turn to the huge clock over the main doorway, but Artemis can’t imagine anywhere better to look at than Wally’s flushed face.
“Six!” everyone yells, clapping their hands to the beat of each second. “Five! Four! Three! Two!—”
Everything after that, Artemis will remember for the rest of her life, is completely silent. All of the sound, all of the tension and the cheering and the collective singing of “Auld Lang Syne,” ripples out of audibility and into distant quiet.
Wally’s face is closer to hers than it had been a second ago—so close that she can see a loose auburn eyelash stuck to his cheek. He’s smiling, meekly, bashfully, and his fingers are slipping around her wrist, his thumb tracing circles into the veins over her pulse.
He’s so different from the guy who had tripped on his own shoelaces and skinned his knee in front of her back in September. The way his eyes settle on her now, certain and content and a little bit bemused, is different from the snapping glares he’d given her in the early autumn rain. His freckles have pictures in them now, instead of messes.
His mouth is at her ear and his breath feels unusually hot when he whispers, in a voice so low and earnest that it almost makes her ribs clunk into each other, “I shoulda done this a long time ago.”
She doesn’t give him the satisfaction of closing the deal himself; no way—she turns her head sharply and tilts her chin and kisses him, a lot more lightly than she’d imagined, and it’s not so much that her lips go to his as they... find them. By chance. In the process of her head turning. Something warm moves up her spine and makes her shudder a little.
It’s not perfect... but it kind of is. His teeth kind of clack against hers and it’s a little wet and awkward at first and she isn’t sure what to do with her tongue—like, does she open her mouth against his all the way like Zatanna’s favorites, Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson, do?—and she’s kind of half-bashful about it, which is gross, but then Wally’s rough hands are framing her face and she’s standing flush against him and she can feel his heartbeat through his shirt and everybody’s cheering and it feels like the celebration is for her, finally planting a lip stamp on Wally West.
His fingers curl into her hair and he deepens the kiss with fervor, and his mouth is warm and tastes like the Coke he’d been drinking a few minutes ago and Artemis thinks, right then, with the new and the possible raging around her, that maybe her Stanford dream has room for one more person.
Coronate that, Vlatava.