Sorry for the long wait on this one, as well as for the slightly more serious tone. Ironically enough, my own finals week delayed me, as well as some plan-changes for the overall structure of the story. I'd only planned to cover first semester but enough people seemed to want to see more that I fiddled around with some stuff, tried to make it work. Hope this chapter satisfies, in any case; thanks to everyone for the kind reviews. I really do appreciate it. :)
Finals week struck with the vengeance of a thousand furies, but they took it down with teamwork.
On Sunday, Artemis couldn't decide what was worse – Wally's constant muttering as he attempted to commit dozens of physics formulas and chemical structures to memory, Megan's hysterical 4 AM breakdowns, or the fact that Dick, who had more finals than any of them, wasn't even studying.
On Monday she decided that none of these things mattered because Fate Had Intervened, and Dick's "grandpa" Alfred had sent each and every one of them a care package, even Roy. Sprawled across her bed in a sea of brownies, textbooks, cookies and loose sheets of notebook paper, Artemis gorged herself on snacks and knowledge until she could take no more of either, then shoved everything onto the floor and went to sleep in her day clothes because why the hell not.
On Tuesday she had her first final exam – Introductory Psychology – which went surprisingly well, or at least better than she'd expected. She'd been able to answer every question completely, if not necessarily correctly, and she was pretty sure she'd aced the multiple choice section. Immediately afterwards, she celebrated with Conner, who was in a different division of the same course and thus had taken the same test. The two of them walked off campus and bought enormous, juicy burgers from the grill in town to mark the occasion, because sometimes cafeteria food just wasn't sufficiently festive.
On Wednesday she buckled down in preparation for her two Thursday finals, Advanced French and Music Theory. Naturally, it was the beginner-level course that was giving her the most trouble. She'd taken Music Theory on the assumption that it would be a relief from the stress of her harder classes like Political Science and French, but apparently the music department was so afraid of not being taken seriously that they made a point of making their intro-level courses nearly impossible to pass. Dick helped her through the worst of it, singing melodies for her to copy down for dictation practice and suggesting tricks for memorizing common chord progressions. By 10 PM she was feeling like she might not fail. Maybe.
That night, she took a study break with Kaldur and Zatanna up at the Summit, the three of them sitting on the edge of the rooftop and watching the moon rise on the other side of campus. Zee was due to leave the next afternoon while Artemis was in her French final, so this was their last chance to hang out for the next month – winter break lasted until mid-January at Beatus Portum. The thought of going that long without seeing her friends made Artemis's stomach twist with discontentment, but she didn't want to close the semester on such a mood-killing note, so she kept her mouth shut about it. Nobody else needed to know how much she was dreading going home.
"So what's up with you and Dick, huh?" she asked Zee instead, nudging her friend's side.
Zatanna flushed and made a face, folding her arms over her chest and rubbing her bare foot against her calf.
Artemis arched an eyebrow.
"Yeah, that's not going to cut it, actually."
Sighing, Zee bit her lip and smiled hesitantly.
"Not totally sure what's going on there, to be honest," she confessed. "He's kind of…well…"
"Weird," Artemis filled in, and they both laughed. From Zatanna's other side, Kaldur smiled knowingly.
"Weird," Zatanna agreed with a nod. "He's a hard guy to keep up with. We'll see. It's nothing serious, at least for now."
"Fair enough," Artemis nodded, uncrossing her legs and letting them dangle off the edge of the rooftop. "Just practice safe sex, kiddies."
"Excuse me?" Zatanna spluttered with an indignant laugh, which Kaldur shared.
"Oh, don't think you're getting off easy either, Ariel," Artemis shot back, dropping Kaldur's Summit codename (they'd had to explain a few too many college things to him, replacing his less informed vocabulary like "thingamabob" and "dinglehopper" with appropriate terms like "rager" and "sexiling").
"I am not sure I understand," said Kaldur, tilting his head in confusion.
"Last weekend," said Artemis. "You and Grumpy. Explain."
"We had sex," said Kaldur plainly. Zee clapped a hand over her mouth, cheeks pinkening all over again.
"Yeah, no, I'm pretty sure everyone knows that," Artemis laughed, rolling her eyes. "But since when? How did this happen? Why didn't you tell us?"
"Since last weekend; I asked; and because I did not realize it was my responsibility to inform you all of such things."
Artemis would have thought he was being snarky, but this was Kaldur, who probably wouldn't know snark if it bit him in the ass.
"Wait, hold up, what do you mean, you 'asked?'" said Zatanna.
"I am not sure I see where your confusion is coming from," Kaldur frowned.
Artemis gave him a look.
"You just straight up asked him if he wanted to bang you?"
"Not in such crude words, no."
"Well what the hell kind of words did you use, then?"
"I believe I pointed out that you had all gone to the football game, then asked him, 'would you like to have sex with me?'."
"…you're fucking with me."
"No. I am fucking with Roy."
"Whoa, okay, this conversation is officially over," Zatanna announced, holding up her hands in self-defense.
"Does this mean Conner and Megan can use your room once in a while?" Artemis asked Kaldur hopefully. "Because I'd really love to go a week or so without having to move out on some random Tuesday night."
"I will keep you informed," Kaldur promised.
Their talk wandered back into less sensitive topics, to finals and the upcoming holidays and how everything seemed to have gone so fast thus far. Artemis kept silent on the topic of home travel, feeling that familiar weight settle in her stomach. Everyone else (well, everyone but Conner) seemed so excited to go home, to see their families, and while Artemis loved her family – really, she did – it just wasn't as simple as that for her. And after spending nearly four months here, growing so close to these people, getting accustomed to living under her own direction and making her own decisions, she wasn't sure she could go back to the life she led at home.
No, to the life she led in her parents' home. This washome now.
Thursday arrived with its two finals. Dick turned up in the morning to wish her well on French, equipped with a ukulele and a song:
My friend, her name is Artemis
But they should have called her Smartemis
With massive brains and a giant chest
She'll rock the shit right outta this test
So all you nervous testers, take heartemis:
The curve, it will be set by Artemis.
After convincing her classmates that no, she had no idea who the hell that kid was and was in no, she was in no way affiliated with him, Artemis settled in and took the exam. She was pretty sure she had not, in fact, set the curve, but it could have gone a lot worse.
In the afternoon, Music Theory happened (that was all Artemis was prepared to say about it), and she went in for the final push – Political Science, Friday afternoon. By the time she left the testing room, everyone else would be finished and packed out, with the exception of Wally, whose lab finals would take him all the way through to Friday evening, and Conner, who was apparently staying with Dr. Lance and Dean Queen over the break. While Artemis wasn't sure what person in their right mind would house Conner and Roy in the same small, enclosed space for an extended period of time, she was glad he'd found a place to stay, and eager to hear about the extent of the rage-induced property damage upon her return to campus in January.
The goodbyes came on one by one. On Thursday night, as Artemis and Wally occupied the study lounge to prepare for their respective finals, Megan quietly slipped in and wrapped her arms around her roommate from behind, leaving her suitcase in the entryway.
"I'll miss you," the cheerleader whispered in her ear, as if knowing that Artemis would be embarrassed by too public a display of affection. With a soft smile, Artemis turned around in her chair to return the hug.
"I'll miss you too," she said warmly. "Fly safe."
"Keep in touch," Megan countered, and Artemis gave a wry smile – generally speaking, keeping in touch was not her strong suit, but for some reason she felt sure she would this time. These people were worth it.
Kaldur knocked on her door just before bedtime, his things packed into a duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Without a word, Artemis stepped forward and gave him a close hug, which he returned, both of them letting the embrace last a little longer than it normally would. Over the last four months he'd become like a big brother to her, and as luck would have it, he was the one occupant of the Cave who she was guaranteed to have no contact with over the break – apparently, his hometown was somehow off the grid, so he'd have no phone or computer with which to keep in touch. It was going to be a long 27 days without his quiet laugh and limitless patience.
"Have a good break," she told him, trying not to sound choked up as they pulled apart – she was not going to cry, dammit. "See you in like a month, I guess."
"In a month," he agreed, laying a hand on her shoulder and squeezing it reassuringly. "I am sure it will be over before you realize."
Somehow, Artemis was not convinced.
Friday rolled around. Artemis went to breakfast with Wally, Dick and Conner, which turned out to be a little bit more brodom than she was equipped to handle at 8 AM; the three of them bickered endlessly about things like whether anyone outside Canada cared about hockey and the number of times you were allowed to wear pants before they were officially dirty (apparently, the answer depended on how many pairs of pants you owned in the first place). At the end of the meal, Dick gave each of them a hug and a grin and a wave and headed outside, where "Papa Alfred" was waiting to escort him to his private jet home – goodbye #4.
It didn't seem to get easier.
"You look awful," Wally said bluntly as Artemis crested the stairs, fresh from her Poli Sci final later that afternoon.
"Yeah well, you should see my exam," she replied, too tired to put any real spite into it.
He smiled faintly, balancing his textbooks against his hip so he could shut his door – the room beyond looked strangely empty with so many of Dick's things cleared off the desk and bed.
"Still on for airport carpool tonight?"
"Yeah," she nodded. "8:30, right?
"Yeah," he agreed. "Meet you downstairs then. Conner's driving. All right I'm off to my Astrophysics practical…wish me luck?"
He disappeared into the stairwell, leaving Artemis to realize with a vague sense of surprise that they'd just had a perfectly civil conversation, not one barb exchanged, unless you counted his opener, which had sounded more concerned than antagonistic.
…what was getting into them?
Packing up her things took less time than she'd expected. Maybe she just didn't have as much stuff as Megan, or maybe she was just subconsciously hoping this trip home wouldn't last long and packing light, but she had a suitcase packed by 6 PM and not much else to do, so she stepped out into the hall, and looked around. Instinct told her to go knock on Dick or Kaldur's door, to see if there were shenanigans to be had. Reality punched Instinct in the face and left Artemis feeling vaguely like she wanted to cry.
She ate dinner by herself – Conner was in his Lit final, Wally still at his lab practical – and spent it looking through the photos stored on her phone from the past semester. She'd have to print some of those out over break, just to have something to laugh at while she was away. Jade had left that tackboard behind. She could put them up there…
At 8:30 she let Conner carry her suitcase downstairs, more because she knew it was his way of trying to be sentimental about their impending goodbye than because it was heavy. Wally was waiting, leaning up against a wall and flipping frantically through his astronomy book to double-check some equation he was worried he'd flubbed, until Artemis snatched it away from him, looked him in the eye and told him to stop being a nerd. Then the three of them headed out, Conner driving Roy's borrowed car (Artemis realized with surprising regret that she hadn't managed to say goodbye to the RA, but they had flights to catch – time was up).
The drive to the airport was mostly quiet, Conner navigating through traffic while Wally and Artemis stared out their respective windows. When they arrived, Conner insisting on unloading their suitcases, then awkwardly hugged them both and mumbled something that might have been affectionate but could just as easily have been a death threat, for all he enunciated. Artemis chose to assume the nicer option and returned the hug, warning him that if he was too busy Skyping with Megan to talk to the rest of them, she would disown him. He promised he wouldn't be.
And then there were two – Artemis and Wally, awkwardly paused at the juncture between Terminals C and D, where their paths inevitably had to diverge, neither one apparently willing to speak first.
"So," Artemis said at last, slipping her hands into the kangaroo pocket of her Beatus Portum hoodie. "Don't stuff your face too much over the holidays, yeah?"
"Nah," said Wally, rocking back and forth on his heels. "Got cross-country records to break next semester. Watching my girlish figure and whatnot."
"Watch it, West," said Artemis, rolling her eyes, though despite herself she couldn't help but smile.
"I just said I was, didn't I?"
"Ugh," she groaned, trying not to laugh. "I need more than a month away from you."
"What, to come up with better comebacks?"
"Do you really want our last interaction for a month to be me punching you in the face?"
"You wouldn't wreck beauty like this."
"You're right. Who could tell the difference if I di – "
"Shut up and hug me, Artemis."
"Who has lame comebacks, now?" she asked. But even as she said it she was stepping forward, letting him pull her into a firm embrace that lasted a little longer than it should have – after a few seconds she started to pull away, only to have him tighten his grip, his chin pressing into the back of her shoulder.
"Nuh uh," he said petulantly. "Not done with this hug yet."
"You're insufferable," she muttered, but didn't pull away until finally he let her go, the two stepping apart just as the intercom announced first boarding call for Artemis's flight.
"Well, you can suffer me in a month," he shrugged, sliding his hands into the pockets of his jeans and offering her a surprisingly bittersweet smile.
They stood there awkwardly for a moment, the only two stationary objects in a sea of people all hurrying to catch their flights. Then on some random impulse no doubt born from the stress of saying goodbye to all these people and taking final exams and worrying about going home (that's all it was, Artemis swore), she stepped forward and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek, pulling away and grabbing her suitcase before it could get any weirder.
"Later, loser," she muttered, then turned quickly and walked away without another word.
She didn't look back, but as she pulled her suitcase along, she could picture him standing there in that tattered red hoodie and those scuffed-up sneakers with his messy red hair and his stupid freckles that big dopey grin that was always a little bit too wide for his face…
Dammit, Crock, she thought, internally slapping herself. Watch yourself.
Winter vacation, day one.
Artemis arrived home to a warm embrace from her mother, whom she couldn't deny she had missed just a little, and home-cooked meals, which she didn't even try to deny she'd missed. She spent most of the day unpacking and sleeping, exhausted after the trauma of final exams, and her mother seemed to understand completely.
Her mother grew less understanding when on day five, Artemis was still spending most of every day asleep, taking naps less than three hours after waking up and using her infrequent waking time to lounge around the house, eat Christmas cookies a watch all the TV she'd loaded onto her laptop before coming home and Skyping with Zee when she could. No one else seemed to be on when she was.
"You are wasting your vacation, Artemis," said her mother sternly on the sixth day, wheeling herself into the living room where Artemis had just opened her computer. "Don't you want to see any of your high school friends while you're home?"
"High school friends?" Artemis repeated dubiously. "Were you paying attention during any of my high school years?"
Her mother listed off a few names, all of which belonged to people Artemis had no real desire to see again. High school had been spent dodging all of the awkward non-friendships that had lingered from the days when her dad had dictated her social life, back in elementary and middle school. Reliving any of that was about the last thing she wanted to do over break.
"Then tell me about your new friends," her mother pleaded. "Your friends from college. Just don't lie there all day wasting your life."
"They're unexplainable," Artemis deflected.
"Try," said Paula. "For me."
Artemis set her computer aside with a huffed breath, swinging her legs over the edge of the couch to fix her mother with a spiteful look.
"Megan is sweet, Conner is brooding, Kaldur is responsible, Dick is eccentric, Zee is stylish and Wally is a – a tool," she said, stumbling slightly over that last one.
"Language, Artemis," her mother scolded, brows knitting together.
"I'm eighteen," Artemis groaned. "I can say what I want. And trust me, if you met him, you'd say the same."
"I'm sure he is a perfectly nice boy."
"I'm sure he is too," said Artemis, folding her arms over her chest. "In an alternate universe."
"All this down time is making you irritable," Paula chastised. "You need to get out of the house. I don't want to see you back before dinner. And no more internet!"
"Mother!" Artemis gasped, affronted. "You can't – "
" – I absolutely can, and I am," Paula said firmly. She reached over and shut Artemis's laptop, picking it up and setting it down on her own lap. "You can have it back tomorrow. But today, you are going outside."
"Your coat and boots are wherever you left them."
"Mom, seriously, you can't send me out there," Artemis begged. "I'll die of boredom if I don't die of hypothermia first."
"Your friend Richard lives in Gotham, right?" said Paula. "You could visit him if you're so worried about the cold."
"Are you kidding?" said Artemis. "Mother, that's Dick Grayson you're talking about. As in the Dick Grayson, the one who shows up on the front page of the local news sometimes next to Bruce Wayne? Trust me, he's got way cooler things to do than hang out with me."
"Then call someone else," said Paula, wheeling herself out of the room. "But I want you out of the house in five minutes. Dinner is at six. Call if you decide you're having too much fun and you want to stay out longer."
Artemis groaned, heading for her room to dig her winter clothes out of the mountain of laundry on her bedroom floor. She glanced at her corkboard as she stepped inside, where some choice pictures from the last semester were tacked up haphazardly – Megan and Zee painting Dick's fingernails at a sub-sober weekend sleepover, Wally fleeing from Roy with the older student's hat in hand, Conner obliviously asleep with his head on Kaldur's shoulder at the end of a long movie night.
Artemis let out a sigh. She really did miss them. And maybe…maybe Dick would have an hour free sometime.
exiled from la casa, she texted as she pulled her coat on. how's being a child of the upper echelon?
She wasn't really expecting a response, so when her phone vibrated only a few feet out the door, she was pleasantly surprised. The feeling only grew when she read Dick's reply:
SOS received. deploying Waynemobile. eta 16.3 minutes. rendezvous at coordinates 47 N, 82 W.
Unable to wipe the grin from her face, Artemis peeled off a mitten to text back:
you're a dork and i have no idea where that is.
The reply came in as she was winding her scarf around her neck, trying to escape the chill wind that was Gotham's wintertime trademark.
coffeeshop at the corner of 6th and amos, four blocks south and two east of your location. I may have made those coordinates up.
Artemis frowned as she walked.
how the hell do you know my location?
Less than a minute later she had her answer:
She'd been standing in front of the coffeeshop for all of two minutes when a sleek black sedan pulled up in front and a familiar figure hopped out, bundled up in several layers and sporting a pair of unseasonable black sunglasses. He practically pranced up to her, a ridiculous grin stretched ear to ear.
"Do I get a hug?" Dick asked, opening his arms wide.
"Only because I'm freezing to death," Artemis told him, but she couldn't keep the smile off her face as she stepped forward and pulled him right off the ground, using her (very slightly) superior height to her advantage.
"Oof," Dick uttered as she let him down. "Missed you too. Now get in, we're going adventuring."
And adventure they did – apparently Dick's family (that is to say Bruce Wayne, and it took Artemis all day to get used to the fact that Dick just called him 'Bruce' without the 'Wayne' part) had a membership in Gotham's super swanky city center rec club, which included access to the super swanky city center ice skating rink. Artemis had never been ice skating before so it took most of the afternoon for her to get the hang of it, by which time her legs were numb and her elbows were bruised and her lips were blue and Dick was nearly dead of schadenfreudian laughter.
Next they got hot chocolate, got back in the car and went to go see a movie, sneaking in through the back alley entrance (that Artemis had done). As it turned out, WayneCorp owned the theater in the first place, so Dick would have waltzed in for free and been handed popcorn to boot had he chosen not to be a little shit, but since Dick was on general principle always a little shit, Artemis wasn't surprised by any of it. At a quarter to eight Artemis called her mother to say she wasn't coming home for dinner (much to her mother's feigned surprise, as dinner had been over for a while by then). Then they retreated to Dick's house, which was about the size of Mountain Hall (home to 200 students), and Papa Alfred provided them with and joined them for a fabulous feast of a supper.
Artemis arrived home around midnight, at which point only the porch light was on; her mother had apparently gone to bed.
The house, however, was not quite as quiet as it should have been.
"Hey, sis," said a familiar voice as Artemis stepped into her bedroom and flicked on the light. There sat Jade, cross-legged on her old bed surrounded by Artemis's college photos, that familiar Cheshire-cat grin on her face.
"What are you doing here?" Artemis snapped instantly, hiding how relieved she was to see her sister alive and (apparently) healthy.
"Good to see you too, Miss Arty," Jade laughed, using her sister's old nickname (Arty-miss flipped to become Miss Arty). "Just thought I'd pop in and check on my baby sister, see how things are going off at the big fancy university."
"Fine," growled Artemis, marching across the room to reach for her photos, but Jade caught her wrist.
"I was looking at those," the older girl reprimanded. She picked one up, a shot from early in the year of Roy berating the mud-covered duo of Wally and Dick, and tapped a manicured finger against the RA's face. "This one's cute, what's his name?"
"None of your business," said Artemis, snatching it away.
"Touchy, touchy," Jade smirked. "I'm doing well, by the way, thanks for asking."
"Tell Mom," Artemis said, flopping down onto the bed and starting to gather the photos towards herself. This time, Jade didn't stop her. "She's the one worried sick about you."
"Heart-wrenching," Jade deadpanned.
"I'm serious," Artemis frowned. "As a Christmas gift or something. Just call her and tell her you're okay."
"That's a little sentimental for this family, don't you think?"
"I'll give you his phone number," Artemis bargained, holding up another photo of Roy, this time from Halloween, in his bloodied Abraham Lincoln costume.
Jade plucked the photo from Artemis's hands, staring at it contemplatively for a moment.
"Deal," she said at last. "But I'm not calling until Christmas."
"Fine," Artemis agreed, extending her pinky and entwining it with her sister's to seal the deal, before she reached for her phone to retrieve Roy's number. As untrustworthy as Jade had turned out to be, pinky promises were one thing sacred to their sisterhood – Artemis knew she'd keep to their arrangement. As for Roy, well…he could handle her.
Christmas came and went. Jade called, as promised, making their mother much happier than any physical gift could have, though Artemis did try – she got her a warm, cozy Beatus Portum sweatshirt, a snazzy new pair of wheelchair gloves so she could "roll like a baller," and a certificate for five grouch-free days (which coming from Artemis, was a present indeed). In return, she received a three-cup French press (coffee had turned out to be a college essential), a pack of tickets to the nearest movie theater, and inexplicably, a pair of roller blades (thanks, Mom).
Four other gifts arrived around Christmas – first, a heartfelt letter from Megan detailing the many ways she respected, admired and loved Artemis, which Artemis definitely didn't cry over, definitely didn't slip into the locked drawer under her bed where she kept the things she wanted to keep forever, especially because she was pretty sure Megan had written one to everyone on the hall. Second was a beautifully handcrafted hair clip from Kaldur, wrapped in brown paper and shipped from a post office she was pretty sure was nowhere near his house, because his community didn't get mail; she guessed it was some kind of traditional craft from his hometown. Third was an unmarked package from her father that burned a delightful yellow in the fireplace as it withered into ash, and fourth was a thick envelope from Dick:
Your mission, should you choose to accept it… the accompanying letter began, and encased was thirty dollars.
Artemis chose to accept it.
The days slid into one another. Dick came by every other day or so and the two of them would gallivant around the city or Skype the others, usually Wally or Zatanna, or when it finally snowed, they would build grotesque snowmen straight out of Calvin and Hobbes on the stately grounds of Wayne Manor until Papa Alfred demanded they come inside and drink hot chocolate. On the days when Dick had society business (or other friends – Artemis did reluctantly recognize that unlike her, he had them), Artemis helped out her mother around the house or puttered around the internet or brainstormed adventures to have when the whole gang was back together again, at school.
Two days before New Year's, an engraved invitation arrived in the mail, cordially requesting the presence of both Artemis and her mother at the annual Wayne Estate Charity Ball. Scrawled at the bottom was a note from Dick:
"Misery loves company."
And that was how she ended up wheeling her mother up the ramp to the exorbitantly ritzy yet tastefully decorated ballroom of the Wayne Mansion on New Year's Eve, both dressed in elegant gowns Mr. Wayne himself had provided for the evening (formal dress wasn't something the Crocks did particularly well). Alfred greeted them, looking austere and impeccably groomed as ever, and it only took seven minutes of dodging aggressive hors d'oeuvres caterers for Artemis to locate Dick.
"'Scuse me," he told his audience of obviously smitten middle-aged ladies, ducking between two to take Artemis's arm and sweep away from the crowd.
"Graceful," she told him.
"As always," he grinned, then looked her up and down. "You look…female."
"Thanks," she said, rolling her eyes. "I try."
"Glad you're here," he said, snagging a glass of champagne off a passing tray and placing it in her hands. "The next three hours should suck a little less now."
"It's barely past eight," Artemis pointed out. She took an experimental sip of the champagne; the stuff actually tasted pretty good when it didn't come at three dollars a bottle. "Hate to break it to you, but we have a solid four hours until New Year's."
"Yeah, but Bruce'll let us duck out at eleven thirty if I put in the prerequisite face time now," said Dick, adjusting his tie. "Come help me make the rounds."
"Talking to the media and all of Bruce's dumb corporate society buddies," Dick explained as they descended the steps back towards the main ballroom. "Just smile, look pretty and say lots of ambiguous things about my sexuality. Keep 'em guessing, it's their favorite game."
"You're the boss," said Artemis with a raised eyebrow, and followed him into the wolves' den.
Watching Dick talk to the press was a little like watching a sadistic older sibling play keep-away with a younger one – as they peppered him with questions and provocations, trying to wheedle a publishable reaction out of him, he simply basked in the attention and danced his way around the traps they laid, talking teasingly close to certain topics (whether or not he would someday assume control of WayneCorp, if he had a special someone he intended to approach at midnight, tidbits about Bruce's love life), before entirely changing the topic. For her part, Artemis managed to navigate the few queries they threw at her ("I'm a school friend of Dick's," "yes, he's been adjusting just fine," "no, I have no idea why he's like that, and neither does anyone else at Beatus Portum").
Probably the most intimidating part of her evening was the moment when Bruce Wayne himself swept in to rescue her from an older businessman who had been chatting her up and eyeing her cleavage. Wayne was a tall man, impressively built, with a square jaw and a stern gaze, though there was a hint of Dick's twinkle in his eyes, hinting that this socialite identity was just one of many masks he wore.
"Artemis, I assume," he said, flagging down a champagne-bearer to top off her glass. Somehow, Artemis got the feeling he wasn't "assuming" anything, that he knew exactly who she was, and probably a whole lot more.
"Er," she mumbled, a little starstruck. "Yes."
"I hope you're not too bored," he said, briefly slipping an arm around her shoulder to pose for a passing photographer. "Your mother seems to be enjoying herself, at least."
Artemis followed his gaze to where her mother sat at the edge of the ballroom floor, chatting and laughing in a circle of women around her age.
"Yeah," Artemis nodded. "Yeah, she does. Um…thanks for…you know. This. And…college."
Great, Crock. Make yourself a stammering idiot in front of the most powerful man in Gotham.
"Don't mention it," he told her. "Dick tells me you're making the most of it."
"I uh, I try," said Artemis, wondering exactly what Dick had told him.
"You must be missing all your friends," said Bruce sympathetically, pulling far more than his weight in the conversation.
"A little, yeah," Artemis replied. Understatement of the year.
"Well," he said, clapping her on the back. "I'm sure you'll see them sooner than you think."
And with a wink that she had not expected from a man that serious, he was gone, slipped into the crowd to continue his meet-and-greet.
The evening wore on – Artemis wandered the room, sampling the many delectable appetizers on offer and downing more champagne, made small talk with society ladies and businessmen and Dick's high school friend Barbara, who turned out to be pretty damn awesome (they exchanged numbers and agreed to get coffee sometime). Finally, at 11:30, Artemis tracked down Dick, who was busy charming the pants off of a group of hot moms by making balloon animals for their young children.
"Sometimes I wonder if you were secretly raised in a circus," she told him, and was surprised when he responded with no quip, just an oddly pained smile.
"Don't worry about it," he told her when she asked, and handed off the last animal to a little boy in mismatched dress socks. "Come on, let's blow this popsicle stand."
"I don't think I've ever heard that expression, but I'm assuming it means we get to leave," said Artemis hopefully. She was itching to get out of her heels.
"Correctamundo," Dick grinned, and led her off into a side corridor, where he flipped open a panel in the wall, glanced around to make sure no one else was watching, and pressed his palm onto some kind of scanner. With a beep, a panel in the wall slid out and revealed a bare passageway, fluorescent lights flickering to life to light their way.
"I can't decide if this is awesome or incredibly sketchy," Artemis remarked, removing her shoes and following Dick into the gently-sloping hallway. The wall slid shut behind them, making her jump slightly, but Dick seemed to think it was all perfectly normal, so she let him lead the way. "Where are we going?"
"Basement rec suite," said Dick. "Got a New Year's surprise for you."
"You're not going to get all weird and try to kiss me, right?" Artemis asked, wrinkling her nose.
"Wasn't planning on it," said Dick, reaching a door and pressing his palm onto another scanner panel. "Can't promise anything about the rest of them, though."
"Them?" Artemis had just asked, when suddenly the door swung open and several very familiar voices drifted into the passageway, making her heart leap with disbelieving excitement.
"You little fucker!"
"Oh sorry, were you using that life?"
"I was going easy on you, West, don't get any– "
"Oh just shut up and play, both of you."
"I believe we have company, my friends."
By the time Artemis stepped into the room, she was already being mobbed – Megan and Zatanna had practically thrown themselves upon her, with Kaldur and (unexpectedly) Conner not far behind, practically crushing her in a tight hug that she never wanted to end. Behind them, Roy and Wally hung back, their video game paused for the occasion.
"What, no love for me?" Dick pouted.
"You let us in, Trust Fund," Zee pointed out, before she stepped over and kissed him on the cheek anyway. "But you clean up nice."
As Megan, Conner and Kaldur finally pulled back, Wally stepped forward to grab a handful out of popcorn out of the bowl on the counter and looked Artemis up and down.
"What the hell happened to you?" he asked, taking in the dress and the hair and the makeup.
"You look very lovely," Kaldur cut in, giving Wally a stern look.
"Yeah well I'd kill for a sweatshirt and jeans right now," Artemis said, suddenly self-conscious – except for her and Dick, everyone else was wearing what they always did.
"Your mom packed you a change of clothes," said Dick, flopping down onto the couch and stealing Wally's Gamecube controller. "Since we're all staying over and all. If you want to change now, you could."
"Of course she did," Artemis mused, suddenly processing the whole thing – they were all there, even Roy. There was Zee, sharp-tongued and glamorous, there was Kaldur, calm and cool-eyed and watching them all affectionately, there was Roy, trying his best to look grouchy but failing, there were Megan and Conner, inseparable as ever, there was Wally, goofy-grinned and obnoxious, and there was Dick, who'd brought them all here, brought them all together. The gang was back, and just in time for New Year's. Artemis was suddenly so happy, she felt like she could kiss someone.
Instead, she settled for grabbing the popcorn bowl off the counter.
"So we have twenty minutes to midnight," she said, looking around at all of them. "You all had better explain to me how you managed to plan this little soiree behind my back before then."
"Negatory," Dick grinned. "I think we have a very important gift exchange to execute before then, don't you think?"
"Of course," Zatanna agreed with a grin, and Artemis was confused just long enough to notice that Roy also seemed not to know what was going on, at which point it clicked – Dick's Christmas mission.
"I didn't bring – " she began, but Dick cut her off.
"Your mom brought it," he said, pointing to the counter, where a paper bag stood.
"I don't know how I feel about you talking to my mother behind my back," said Artemis, at which Dick just waggled his eyebrows.
"Okay, what's going on here?" Roy asked, looking highly suspicious as the others all got up and retrieved packages from various corners of the room. "No one told me we were doing presents."
"That's because they're all for you," Zatanna said with a grin.
"You've just been such a wonderful RA," Dick cooed, looking (if possible) trollier than ever as he withdrew a box from a compartment in the couch footrest. "We all wanted to show our gratitude somehow."
"I don't like this," said Roy, eyes darting back and forth as they advanced on him. "Cut it out, guys, or I'll get maintenance to cut your electricity."
"We're all on the same circuit breaker," said Wally. "But nice try."
"Merry Christmas, Grumpy," Artemis grinned, passing over her wrapped package. "You can start with mine."
He narrowed his eyes at her but finally peeled back the wrapping paper as the other stood around, watching with expectant smiles. It was a hat, a rainbow-partitioned beanie with a little helicopter on the top.
"No problem," Artemis smirked, enjoying his confusion.
"Mine next," Megan urged, handing him her gift.
He opened it obediently. It was another hat, hand-knitted with obvious care, the letters "RA" in red wool against black, and the whole thing a little lopsided. Once again, Roy's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Is this some kind of joke?"
"We never joke," said Wally gravely, passing along his box, which was wrapped in printed webcomics (of course). "But you might, after you open this."
It was a jester's cap. At that point, Roy attempted to flat-out refuse to open any more packages, but Zatanna managed to force one into his hands, and almost out of spite he ripped it open to find a stylish fedora, a sleek silk band around its diameter. He seemed not to know Zatanna quite well enough to be as rude to her as he was to everyone else, so he grudgingly consented to put it on, at which point Conner tossed him the next package.
"Football team helped me find this one."
With a scathing look, Roy opened the box – a beer cap, cupholders for earflaps.
"You're all so clever," he drawled, chucking it aside and holding out his hand to Dick expectantly. "Let's get this over with."
Dick grinned and passed over his box, which contained a Mad Hatter cap, which Artemis couldn't help thinking was particularly appropriate – sometimes she felt like Alice, fallen down the rabbit-hole into the Wonderland of college life, and Dick was the madman leading her hither and thither through all the chaos.
"Well now that that's done," Roy began, but he was cut off by a tap on his shoulder as Kaldur passed him a box, smaller than all the others, and more carefully wrapped. Artemis thought she saw Dick throw Kaldur a wink, but she couldn't be sure; sometimes Dick was just twitchy like that. Roy, for his part, twisted around on the couch to give Kaldur (standing behind him) a look.
"Et tu, Kaldur?" he entreated. "Et tu?"
"Just man up and open it," Artemis laughed, leaning against the wall.
It was a tiara, glittery and silver, and set with rhinestones. Artemis was instantly forced to reconsider all of her assumptions about Kaldur and snark as Roy turned around, face purpling with rage while the younger man just stood there, expression perfectly neutral.
"Is there a problem, my friend?"
"Look at that, one minute to midnight!" Dick interrupted jovially, clapping his hands together. "Someone turn on the TV and we'll all count down together!"
Megan hurried to obey as Roy threw down the tiara in a fit of pique and vaulted over the back of the couch to tear off after Kaldur, who had managed to get a split-second jump on the upperclassman. Serene as ever, Dick strolled over to the counter and poured out six glasses of champagne, distributing them around the rest of them, who proceeded to count down with the Times Square crowd on the TV.
Conner slipped an arm around Megan's waist, pulling her close against him as they watched the screen together.
Dick waggled his eyebrows across the room at Zatanna, who rolled her eyes affectionately and moved to stand by him, lightly bumping her hips sideways against his and linking her arm with his.
Artemis pretended not to notice as Wally walked up behind her oh-so-casually, keeping her eyes riveted on the screen as the ball dropped lower and lower…
"Happy New Year!" Dick crowed, raising his glass.
"Happy New Year," the rest of them echoed, and suddenly Artemis found herself between two kissing couples, though Megan and Conner seemed much more serious about it than Dick and Zatanna, who mostly seemed to be along for the ride.
"Hey," said Wally, cocking an eyebrow at her as he downed his champagne in one go and set the glass aside. "We're gonna say I'm really drunk right now, okay?"
"You're not really drunk," she pointed out.
"Yeah, but we're gonna say I am."
And before she could open her mouth to retort again, he'd placed a hand on the small of her back, pulled her close and kissed her with surprising tenderness, his fingertips carding through her hair as his mouth moved softly against hers. After a moment, she gave in to it and shut her eyes, hands slipping around his neck. It wasn't perfect: she was still holding her champagne glass, and his lips were inexplicably trembling against hers like he was nervous, but for a science dweeb with a penchant for isotope-related pick-up lines, he was actually quite a good kisser. She'd had worse, to be sure.
They parted a moment later, and Artemis was surprised (or perhaps not surprised at all) to realize she was disappointed when they did. Behind them, Dick and Zee had already gone back to laughing and joking, while Conner and Megan were having some kind of whispered conversation; neither pair seemed to be paying Wally and Artemis the slightest bit of attention, or was at least courteous enough to pretend they weren't.
"So," said Artemis, sipping at her glass; Wally looked like he was regretting having finished his. "How would you like to say you were really drunk for all of New Year's?"
He looked up, that familiar crafty smirk beginning to tug at his lips again.
"I think it'd be plausible, with my track record," he said. "You know. Kid Flask and all."
"Great," she nodded, grabbing his hand and dragging him off down the nearest corridor, and snagging an unopened bottle of champagne on the way out. Hey, it wasn't like Wayne Manor was short on them. "Let's go break some resolutions."
He grinned, following after her without complaint.
"I can think of worse ways to ring in the New Year."