It wasn't exactly a gorgeous day. Of course, it was never gorgeous in Gotham, but this day was particularly depressing. The streets outside the brick restaurant were cold and dreary, littered with dots of people in dark windbreaker jackets, carrying darker umbrellas. They moved about in quick bursts of clicking heels and stomping boots, trying to get home before the sky grew any greyer.
Wally had taken Artemis out to dinner that evening, at Ray's, a small, romantic diner near the outskirts of the city. Most of the nicer places were on the outskirts of the city. It was where one could at least pretend that Gotham was a charming place, full of happy, smiling people who held hands in the movies and weren't afraid of serial killers in back-alleys or junkies near the day care.
Ray's was a safe-haven for Wally and Artemis. The restaurant was owned by an elderly Italian nicknamed Vinny, and his 18-year-old nephew, Ray, who served a small number of customers and knew those customers well. Vinny and Ray didn't ask questions when Wally ordered three plates of spaghetti, nor did they ever wonder why Artemis came to dinner with bruised knuckles and a recently scabbed-over slash across her cheekbone. They simply asked the couple how they were, what they wanted, and bid them a pleasant evening.
This night at Ray's was no different. Artemis wore a scarf around her neck, hiding the bruises which slipped across her olive skin in the shape of a man's plump fingers. Wally was livid when she told him a thug tried to strangle her. She dismissed his worry with a wave of her hand, telling him to shut up and eat his pasta. She could handle herself.
They exercised their usual small talk, trying to keep the conversation normal in case any surrounding tables were listening. All they wanted to talk about was the JLA, and the situation with Higgins down at the police station. They wanted to discuss their frustrations with Commissioner Gordon. They wanted to brag about their recent endeavors. They wanted to talk about the night job, to tease each other about playful kisses stolen on rooftops, when the masks and goggles shielded the eyes, but the lips were open to the air, smiling and full.
They wanted to be themselves, but Gotham was an observant detective, and they couldn't let any hint drop from their mouths. The "night job" was precariously delicate, hanging from a thread of protected secrets and specially crafted costumes.
So they kept the conversation to their day jobs, discussing trivial things like the stock market and the weather, what movies they wanted to see and who they wanted to visit in upcoming weeks. But Wally talked through his glinting eyes as he always did, grinning at her with the greens, hovering over the scarf on her neck, trying to pretend he wasn't concerned.
It was a date, but it was a normal date at Ray's. Artemis had tried not to think about the fact that it was both their anniversary and Wally's birthday, although she'd bought him a present and dressed up a little. But she wasn't worried about putting on a big show. Wally was a circus in and of himself, and she didn't need more wild gallivanting after nearly being strangled to death.
But, of course, Artemis rarely got things exactly the way she wanted.
Halfway through their meal, Vinny pushed a small slip of fancy parchment onto the table. "A message for the bella donna," he explained, flashing Artemis a charming wink.
She nodded and picked up the paper, while Wally snorted and repeated, "Bella donna. Of all the flattering, romantic Italian phrases, that's what he decides to call you." He crossed his arms over his chest. "I could do so much better."
"'Sweet cheeks' does not qualify as flattering or romantic, Wally," Artemis replied, not looking at him but instead turning the message over in her hands. "As I remember, that was one of your favorite nicknames for Megan. Sweet cheeks, sugar, Megalicious," she lowered her voice, "hot alien babe—"
"Oh, so you were keeping track of what I called her? A little jealous, perhaps?"
She finally raised her eyes. "In your dreams, sugar."
Wally shook his head and leaned back in his chair, temporarily giving up. He'd grown more mature over the years. Sometimes, now, he let Artemis win the arguments. It was entertaining to see how much satisfaction she got over each and every victory.
Still, he raised an eyebrow and met her gaze with an equally cocky one. He couldn't help himself.
Artemis sighed and glanced back down at the paper, slicing open the seal with her index fingernail. She figured the letter was probably a "Happy Anniversary" message from one of her work friends, a kind token of appreciation, but one with little genuine meaning. It was probably Suzette or Colleen, Artemis thought. They were the kind of girls who would keep track of anniversaries and birthdays and such, if only to look for an excuse to spend more money. The girls lived out of their husband's oversized wallets.
Artemis, unfortunately, had no such luxury. Wally was still working as a Chemistry intern at some up-and-coming lab, filing reports and running experiments for men whose hands were too fat and greedy to hold the test tubes they chattered about, lest the glass shatter between their fingers. And who knew what road the internshipwould lead Wally down? He was and always had been flighty, hard for Artemis to control, and he did exactly what he wanted. If someone attempted to fix him with any sort of collar, he kicked and screamed in defiance, like a three-year-old at a shopping mall.
"What's in the envelope?" he asked, as she unfolded the piece of paper and read the message, delicately scrawled in thin, black script.
Happy anniversary, dear. If I know you as well as I think I do, you bought him a set of test tubes and a new pair of goggles. Upgraded with some Wayne technology, if you were feeling generous when you bought them. You did good; he'll like that. But I have something even better.
When you get home, don't let Wally into the bedroom. You go first. I have a little present for you lying on your mattress. Nothing big, just something to spruce up the evening. Enjoy!
Artemis blinked at the signature for a couple moments, letting it sink in, before promptly refolding the piece of paper and slipping it into her silver handbag. She lifted her head to look back at Wally, smiled and said, "I'm sorry?"
He frowned. "You were reading a message…? Who's it from? What'd it say?"
She stumbled for an excuse. "Oh, just a note saying happy anniversary. From, uh…Conner. And Megan."
"I thought Megan already sent us a huge bouquet of flowers," he pointed out. "You had to put them in the office because you're allergic to daisies?"
"Uh, yeah. They sent another message. Conner felt bad about the flowers."
Wally had known his wife long enough to tell when she was lying. She would always bite the inside of her cheek and try too hard to look deadly serious, as if her excuse was of the upmost importance to all of society.
"Artemis," he replied, "I don't think Conner even knows that a person can be allergic to daisies. So you can quit lying to me now." He paused, then added, "You're downright awful at it."
Her eyes narrowed. She hated the way Wally could read her every move, predict her words and interpret her lies. It made her feel so incredibly naked around him. Sometimes, that was good. Tonight, it was bad.
"Seriously, Wally. It's nothing. Just a note. From a work friend."
And, really, that wasn't such a lie. Zatanna was certainly a work friend—she had been one of their greatest allies for a long time now, and hero reconnaissance missions could easily be identified as "work." It wasn't the whole truth, but it wasn't a white lie, so Artemis felt a little better. She didn't like lying to Wally, or lying in general. Lies felt bitter on her tongue, hypocritical and superstitious. Lies had put her mother in a wheelchair, her sister in prison, and her father in Alcoholics Anonymous. Before he went and became a criminal superpower.
Wally threw his hands up, giving a dramatic display of faux exasperation. "Okay, whatever. Don't tell me." He leaned in closer to the table, spreading a white napkin over his lap. "Considering it's my birthday, I thought you might be a little more generous."
"Don't push it, buddy. You're lucky I even showed up tonight."
"Ouch." He pressed a hand across his left lapel, over his heart. "Am I really that annoying?"
"Worse," she replied, and bit on the edge of her fork to keep from grinning.
Artemis decided to ignore Zatanna's message for the time being, hoping that the magician's "little present" was champagne and caviar. Or something. She pushed away the thought that Zatanna was a spark of a young woman, and champagne and caviar was likely too traditional in her eyes. Regardless, it didn't matter right now. She would worry about it when the time came.
They spent the rest of their dinner talking, badgering one another about pointless matters and having far too much fun doing it. Artemis, for one of the few times during the course of her day, let herself enjoy the moment. The ambiance of the restaurant was one thing. She loved Ray's—its dimmed lighting, the maroon tablecloths on dark cherry tables, the tiny candles flickering in crystal glasses. Duke Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady" played from the speakers, all of which were hidden behind potted plants, dispersed throughout the room. Vinny loved his Italian music, of course, but he kept a few jazz classics on his playlist to spice up the mood. And it always worked. It worked in a way even "Bella Notte" couldn't.
Wally stood up suddenly, tossing his napkin onto the chair and stretching out his arms in a display that was apparently supposed to be attractive. He glanced over at her wryly, then slowly lowered his hand until it faced her, palm up, awaiting her touch.
She stared at the hand, then back up at his mischievous gaze. "Wally. No."
He shrugged and readjusted his tie, still standing like a fool in the middle of the room. She attempted to pull him back down, but before she could, he grabbed her arm. In a surprisingly strong death-grip too. He brought her to her feet, allowing the long tresses of her green dress to settle over her body, draping her ankles.
Against her consent, he placed his right hand against her hip and held her fingers in his left. Leaning in close to her ear, he said, "I'm sorry, dear, but whose birthday is it? Oh, yes, mine. And who is paying for this meal? Yep, last time I checked it's me. And who would really, really like to dance with his wife of one year? Ding dong, me again."
She had to bite her tongue to keep from spitting a curse at him. "Wally, we're in Ray's. There's no dance floor. Everyone is staring."
She leaned back to stare at him, surprised by his pleasant tone. Normally, Wally cared more about what others thought of him. Especially women, but he'd been like that from the start. Now, he was showing a genuine nonchalance for the norm, and Artemis couldn't say she didn't like it.
His hand slipped to the small of her back. He brought her closer.
"I hate you, Wally," she muttered, but her lips were curved upward and her hand held tightly to his.
"Hate you more," he replied, and together they danced to Duke Ellington in an Italian restaurant, because their life was one big oxymoron. And that was perfectly fine by them.
When Artemis opened the door to their apartment, later that evening, she had almost managed to forget about Zatanna's letter. Wally was pleased, happily fiddling about with his new pair of goggles—which, in fact, had been upgraded with Wayne technology. But they could also shift into the guise of sunglasses at the touch of a button, so Artemis took some pride in the find.
As they walked up the stairs towards room 391, a cold sort of dread whisked away Artemis' calm. Everyone knew Zatanna was crafty. Very crafty. She was also not afraid to stir things up or stick her nose in the business of others. In fact, she did that quite well.
Which meant Artemis could only imagine what might be waiting for her in the bedroom.
Wally unlocked the door to their apartment and slid back, allowing Artemis to walk through first. She dropped her bag on the kitchen counter and paused, resting against the granite and pursing her lips.
"You want some coffee?" Wally asked, as he waltzed by her and opened up the cabinet to her right.
"Maybe in a bit."
"Okay. Something the matter?" He had caught her sideways glance towards the oak door which concealed their bedroom.
"Huh? Oh, no, I'm fine. I'm just gonna go get changed out of this dress. You can head down to the lab or whatever."
He shrugged. "Kay. Don't keep me waiting," he added, and shot her a smirk so entirely juvenile that she had to squeeze the edge of the table to keep from smacking him.
Once she had escaped the kitchen and was turning the knob of the bedroom door, the steady worry intensified. Zatanna's gift could be really wonderful—a new set of boxing gloves for her and Wally to practice with, perhaps—or really, really awful—a magical set of fireworks that went off during random times of the night, as Zee had once given Kaldur. Zatanna was unpredictable and completely thorough with every aspect of every one of her plans. Those plans could be wonderful or they could be awful. Or some odd mix between the two.
When Artemis closed the door, pressed in the lock, and turned around, her eyes settling finally upon the cream-colored bed, she figured it was definitely some odd mix between the two.
The gift was laid out neatly upon the quilted mattress, not an explosion of confetti or disastrous material like Artemis had worried. Instead, nothing in the room was changed, besides the three matching sets of clothing that now graced the end of the bed. They were feminine clothes, fresh out of the wash, cleaned and folded atop the bed like any normal group of laundry.
Except that these particular articles were lingerie. And they were covered in swoops of lace, pink doilies, and all matter of criss-crossing patterns that were apparently alluring to the opposite sex. Lying next to these pieces was a long, spotless white lab coat and a pair of Pyramex safety goggles. Freshly bought, it seemed, as they were sitting next to an opened UPS package, signed to Zatanna's address.
Artemis wasn't sure whether to laugh, or punch the nearest item that wouldn't break her knuckles.
This was what Zatanna wanted. Of all the anniversary/birthday gifts a friend could give another friend, this was what Zatanna had decided would be the most "fun." A hot dinner date, and now lacy lingerie and a science suit. It was just so overwhelmingly Zee.
Artemis reached forward and picked up one bra, an explosion of mauve satin that bore a remarkable resemblance to vomit. It was also partially see-through and skimpier than Starfire's honeymoon suit.
She rolled her eyes and tossed the thing aside. She'd find a good use for it eventually—meaning she'd put it in Dick's gym bag, as a practical joke—but it was most certainly not going on her body.
Artemis leaned against the oversized bedroom door—the one with the noisy hinges Wally refused to oil—and slid to the ground.
Her knees rose up in front of her, bare and bruised, dotted with little scrapes of black and blue. She traced her fingertip along the edges of these leftover battle wounds, knowing she couldn't just sit here all night. Zatanna had given her a challenge. Artemis loved a good challenge.
She raised her eyes to stare at the lab coat, and the bright red bra that sat slightly to the left.
This is absolutely ridiculous.
This is absolutely Zee.
This is absolutely one of those things I'm going to regret in the morning.
Oh, who was she kidding? She would do it.
Twenty minutes later, Wally was throwing an entire box of used matches into a trash can. A scattering of tubes and bottles laid across his work table, coupled with Bunsen burners, beakers, and coffee-stained papers that probably sat a little too close to the flames.
He rested his head against the wall and sighed in frustration, wishing he didn't have to work on a scientific formula on the night of his birthday. And anniversary.
It was ludicrous, the amount of work the internship was making him put in. They had required he build a makeshift lab station in his own shabby apartment. He had to buy all the equipment, plus make all the arrangements for gathering and disposing of chemicals. Some days he had to discover and create algorithms, others he was assigned to transport and direct tubes of unstable ingredients. Ones that looked, in his opinion, entirely too much like tap water.
He was tired of being nothing but a lowly intern to the Big Wigs at the Big Lab. He was tired of getting no recognition for all the remarkable things he did. After all, he not only worked at the most prestigious lab this side of the country, but he also was a newly-inducted member of the JLA, the successor of the Flash costume, a graduate with a 3.8 GPA (he might have slacked off in English a bit, but who cares about Beowulf anyway?), and a husband who might well be having children in the next few years.
He was tired of being Wally West, that one red-head chemist guy. He missed being Wally West, founding member of Young Justice, best friend of Dick Grayson, partner to the Flash, flirtation extraordinaire, a wonder in red and yellow. It was so much more fun back then.
He bent over and scooped up a diagram which had floated to the ground, smoothing it out and placing it in a tiny free space on the bench. It wasn't rocket science, but it sure looked like it. And it was due tomorrow, which was the only reason Wally was working on it now.
He gently smacked his forehead against the countertop, groaning to himself, and, in doing so, missed the sound of the door opening.
A few seconds later, Artemis' voice broke the silence.
He lifted his head, startled by her sudden, silent appearance. He turned to look at her, figuring she'd come down to check on him, and nearly choked on his own intake of breath.
Artemis was sitting against the edge of his workbench, her legs crossed at the ankles. She was wearing absolutely nothing, other than a lipstick-red bra and matching underwear, covered by a long-sleeved lab coat that fell down past her knees. A pair of safety goggles—same brand as his own—rested above her forehead, and her hair was released from its usual ponytail, resting down her shoulders and back in soft, wheat-blonde waves.
It took him a moment to gather himself; to realize that, yes, speech was still something he was capable of and, no, he had not slipped into the Speed Force by accident.
Still, he couldn't shake the thought that this woman could not possibly be his wife.
He stuttered. "…Artemis?"
"Need some help, doctor?" she asked, with an oddly feminine lift to her tone, one that was obviously uncomfortable for Artemis to use, since it came out sounding strained and deliberate.
He couldn't keep the grin from touching his lips, nor could he restrain his signature eyebrow raise. "Uh, well…" His hand gravitated to the back of his neck, scratching as he looked her over. "Wow. What kind of help did you have in mind?"
"Well, it's your birthday…" She shifted her weight to the opposite hip, letting her chin rest against her palm. Her gaze became suddenly and intensely sultry. "I thought I'd leave that up to you."
He cleared his throat, taking off his plastic gloves and throwing them onto the work table. "That leaves me with quite a few options." He put his hands on his hips, pretending to scrutinize her. "I mean, where did a hot babe like you even come from?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Not Mars, I can tell you that much."
It took a moment for him to realize she was making a joke, an allusion to their earlier conversation about M'gann. He beamed. Oh, thank God he married this woman, and not Conner's green-skinned darling.
"No, no. Mars doesn't manufacture women of this caliber," he agreed. "I was only suggesting—"
Artemis turned her eyes away from him, as she slowly lifted her bare leg. She let the foot rest against the opposite wall, revealing the bright red of a newly-bought stiletto.
Wally found himself unable to continue his sentence.
"You were saying?" she asked.
He bit his tongue, willing the tiny spark of pain to restart his speaking abilities. He was disappointed in himself—he should have been shooting snarky remarks back and forth like an old pro. Instead, he was left stunned and slightly intimidated by a woman he'd known for twelve years.
He opened his mouth to try and crack an old joke Dick had told him, and then closed it abruptly.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of something bright and yellow. Working in a Chemistry lab for the majority of his career, Wally knew this was either a very good thing or a very bad thing.
It took all of a second for him to realize Artemis had knocked the Bunsen burner over while she leaned against the work bench. Now, said burner was erupting its lovely flames over all matter of twisted papers, snaking its way towards a set of unpackaged chemicals.
Part of him wanted to shake a fist at the sky. Things had just started to get interesting.
The unpackaged chemicals were also unlabeled. And considering Wally and Artemis lived on Earth-16 and "accidental experiments" had led to crazies like Beast Boy and Giganta, Wally wasn't going to take any chances.
He threw himself on top of Artemis, pushing her out of the way and knocking the wind out of her lungs. They hit the concrete hard, as the flames skimmed the bottom of the test tubes and Wally grabbed the fire blanket. He waited.
Three. Two. One.
The work bench went "boom," the smoke alarm started its ridiculous taunting, and the overhead sprinklers decided to take action. Within the course of three seconds, the entire room was drenched in ice-cold water that smelled like sulfur and sewage.
Artemis and Wally remained frozen on the floor. Artemis held a stiletto in one hand, ready to use it as a weapon, seeing as she was half-naked and thus missing her bow. Wally remained curled on top of her until he was completely sure the chemicals had not turned his wife and himself into monkeys. After a moment, he pulled the fire blanket away and gazed out at the wreckage.
"Well, look at that," he commented, squinting his eyes against the pelting sprinkler rain. "I guess we survived another near-death experience. It isn't exactly unusual, but I suppose it calls for some champagne." He looked back down at Artemis and grinned.
An hour later, both of them sat in the kitchen. Artemis wore her soaked hair in a towel, and she'd exchanged the lingerie and lab coat for one of Wally's oversized t-shirts and a pair of boxer shorts.
A fake candle rested between them, its bulb flickering with artificial light. Wally peered over it at his wife, who was fervently refusing to look at him.
"Well." He attempted to break the awful silence. "That was interesting."
Artemis stabbed her fork into a piece of strawberry cheesecake and didn't reply.
"Don't you agree? It's not every day you blow up your basement."
She twisted the fork and it slipped through her fingers, clattering against the plate loudly. She sat back in her chair, exasperated.
"What?" she snapped, finally looking up at him.
He gritted his teeth, debating his next few words. "That was…hot, Artemis. The lab coat and lingerie thing? That was really, really, really hot."
"No, it wasn't," she replied, standing up and taking her half-eaten plate over to the sink. Wally rushed over and stopped her, sliding the plate out of her grasp and stealing her fork.
"No sense wasting brilliant, expensive dessert," he explained, slipping a bite into his mouth. "And yes it was."
"No, it wasn't. I ruined your work bench, blew up your chemicals, and completely destroyed your project."
He shrugged. "The way I see it, I just tell the Big Wigs it was a failed experiment. Now I don't have to follow through with the whole thing. So, in reality, you just saved me a ton of time."
She groaned, sitting back down and glaring at her glass of champagne.
Slowly, Wally sat down across from her. He was going to have to take this gently. She was embarrassed and humiliated, and when Artemis was embarrassed and humiliated she snapped into a prickly shell like a porcupine. A trap ready to spring.
"Artemis, seriously," he told her. "I don't think I've ever been so turned on in my life. I'm genuinely moved."
She snorted in spite of herself. Wally was still a fifteen-year-old at heart. Most people were moved by Presidential speeches and tearful testimonies. Wally was moved by an awkward woman in crimson lace.
"But…" He reached over and took her hand, attempting to be charming. "I think you were trying too hard. You don't have to dress up like a science experiment to make me enjoy my birthday. Of all people, you've known me long enough to know that."
"But it was so stupid. It completely ruined the evening."
"No, it didn't. It was sweet. And freaking hilarious, if you don't mind me saying so. And, uh…" He chuckled. "Well, let's just say I would have absolutely no objection to you doing it again."
She didn't laugh or smile, but the sharp anger in her eyes faded to a dim irritability.
Encouraged, he continued. "Your attention to me today has been uncharacteristically kind. But, for tonight…let's keep it simple, okay?"
She closed her eyes and rubbed her temples, thoroughly exhausted. Her neck ached, her skin was covered in goosebumps and she still smelled like sulfur.
"What do you mean, simple?" she asked wearily. "When is our relationship ever simple, Wally? How do we even do simple?"
He sat up carefully, moving his glass of champagne to the windowsill. Then he inched his way towards her, leaning across the cheap square table from WalMart. His fingers grazed the edge of her jaw, as his lips molded against hers.
The girl with the arrows closed her eyes without resistance. This wasn't what she expected, but she didn't care. She wanted a distraction, wanted something luscious and pure and uncomplicated.
Wally stood up and lifted her marriage-style, supporting her thighs with the strength of his left arm. He carried her across the kitchen, nearly bumped into the counter, and pushed open the bedroom door with his hip.
Artemis let herself be carried.
Contrary to popular belief, she tried for Wally. She tried so hard. She tried to keep their relationship alive and healthy more than she tried for anything else. She wanted him, and she wanted him happy. It just so happened that she wasn't always sure where happiness came from. She understood sarcasm, she understood laughter, she understood punching a sand-filled bag until knuckles were cracked and breaths came in pants. She understood passion and desperation, anger and sadness. But when happiness sparked in her life, it always came as a surprise. Like a present in the mail. Not unpleasant, but unexpected.
Wally carried Artemis with gentle speed, working her hair out of the towel, letting the still-damp strands fall. He sat on top of the bed, let her wrap her legs around his waist, kissed the edge of her lip, her cheeks, her nose. Sweet release. Simple.
She moved with him, as if this was the first time, and lifted her chin as his fingers touched the sides of her neck. The bruises were dark against the shadow of the room, but Wally knew they were there and he outlined each one, his breath hot against her skin.
She pressed her palms against his chest. His hands slid down to her waist, cupping her sides and holding her firmly. It was strangely both soothing and exciting, and she leaned into him, so that their lips met again and she could wrap herself tighter around him.
He smiled between kisses.
"What?" she whispered, her forehead against his.
"Oh, I'm just imagining…"
He laughed softly. "Well, if this is our anniversary…I can only imagine what Valentine's Day's gonna be like."
Wally was fifteen, Artemis decided. Wally was an immature fifteen-year-old and he was going to stay fifteen forever.
She threw back her head and laughed. She realized, then, that she didn't care. Fifteen was the age of promise and ease, the age of sparkling new hopes and exaggerated emotions, emotions that cut like a knife and got you high without cocaine or marijuana. It was ecstasy in its purest, most confused and rampant form. And that was Wally to Artemis, the bow to the arrow. Shoot me straight to the moon.
Her smile flashed in the dark.
"You'll just have to wait and see."