The ground rocked with an explosion. Dust billowed, clogging the air; tree-splinters flecked her skin like needles. Her teammates' thoughts buzzed in her ears like tinnitus.
"It didn't work." Robin's confusion brushed like feathers.
Artemis kept low to the ground, fleeing the danger of the treeline. "Joining the formation," she thought, broadcasting an imagined map of their positions in the clearing, apropos of football.
A nudge from Aqualad altered the image; Miss Martian's symbol covered Artemis' predicted entrance. High in the air, well clear of the treetops, M'gann turned, communicating her shift in attention. Her dark cloak flared behind her. The midday sun shone through the fabric, illuminating a much lighter blue.
"Then we'll do this up close. Robin, Kid; prepare maneuver three," ordered Aqualad. "Everyone else, interference."
With a loosely nocked arrow between her fingers and her bow aimed at the ground, Artemis breached the clearing, secure under M'gann's watch. She eyed her friend's former assignment without prompting: aerial support for the boys. Wally and Robin crouched together. Superboy stood guard over them, as tense as a tuning fork. The Kryptonian's corner of her brain seemed conspicuous for it's intense lack of thought. Concentration on his senses engulfed all else. Aqualad stood a strategic distance away with glowing water-weapons at bear. Close enough for support, far enough away to perform any number of maneuvers.
A glint of metal in the trees beyond. Artemis raised her bow, letting the motion draw the string for her, and released—faster than thought, as accurate as could be. Pride blushed from both herself and someone else. M'gann. She crushed two enemies at Artemis' six. Watching each other's backs.
How's that for teamwork, Wally? She huffed a breath, in parts angry and smug.
"We can hear you," reminded M'gann, at the same moment Wally thought with a sharp sting of ire: "That totally wasn't what that was about, and you know it."
Anger and embarrassment flushed through her, and she just knew it leaked to everyone. Anger because Wally was an asshole; embarrassment because she should control her thoughts. She was better than that.
"Team! Focus. Now." Aqualad interrupted.
Robin slipped in the link. "Go."
Artemis didn't even have time to register confusion. A yellow and red streak flashed from Wally's position (former position—Kid Flash usually wasn't fast enough for after-images like that) and toward the far-off cliff, where the enemy awaited at the edge. Maneuver three.
A terrible CRACK rent the air.
The mind-link came to life.
"What?" thought Artemis, a flare of uncertainty; Robin's fear-alarm rang: "That wasn't me. It wasn't my bomb."; His sudden dread palpable, Kaldur exclaimed, "Kid, return!"; Wally's was merely a sensation. His stomach dropping out, the bomb in his hands, the momentum dragging him against his will; M'gann's horrified "I can't fly that fast, I can't reach," accompanied by a mental image from above. A subtle line growing across the cliff, and Kid Flash approaching it too fast, too fast; Superboy's thoughts drowned with unrefined helplessness, with frustration, and a sensory memory. That lightening-loud crack—and Artemis realized how different things sounded to him. Through his ears, that sound felt deep.
Her fingers closed around an arrow. A thin head and shaft. No fletching—yet.
The cliff began crumbling like so many puzzle pieces, enormous chunks falling into the ocean. The enemy fell, screaming, beyond her line of sight. Little enemy-bots plonked to the ground. Fear spiked the mind-link; M'gann flew as fast as she could. "I have to get in range. If I could only reach—" Her telekinesis.
Artemis attached a special end to the arrow.
"No, no no no, don't fall, don't fall, don't fall," whispered Robin's thoughts, soft and incessant, like a crazy person rocking in a corner. Someone's mental math—Superboy?—judged the radius of M'gann's telekinesis, her speed, Kid Flash's speed. Graphs sketched before her mind's eye. "Not good enough."
She nocked it back, drawing hard.
Blind terror frosted the mind-link. Wally. The ground dropped away beneath him. He shot out into open air, pinwheeling. The bomb tucked against his side, in the crook of his elbow.
Artemis released. "Head's up, Baywatch."
The image of the arrow escaping her grip seared into the mind-link. Her extended arm, the slap of the string on the guard—she'd been in a hurry, okay—the projectile's long, thin tail screaming from a spool in her back pouch, dangerously close to her bare waist. At that speed, it'd rip off skin if it touched her.
Relief-hope like a tidal wave drenched her, a sort of communal emotion.
Fierce approval radiated from Kaldur. "Excellent job, Artemis."
Something small jumped for joy in her chest, but she'd bask later—and rub this in Wally's face. (She'd like to see him call her a traitor after she saved his damn life. Ha!) Kid wasn't in the clear yet, and Artemis couldn't touch the cord at all, let alone pull him up. She couldn't even move for fear of upsetting the reeling zipline.
"Supey, help me!" she thought, trying to be loud.
The clone caught her gaze, then started toward her.
Coherency shot through the baggage-mess of Robin. "KF, drop that bomb!"
"I GOT IT!" Wally's thoughts positively bellowed, the accompanying surge of terror-success-adrenaline-I'mgonnadie-waitnotgonnadie wracking down her frame. Artemis hadn't realized that he'd been having trouble even grabbing the line.
"Tie it around yourself," thought Kaldur, urgent.
A burst of incredulity. Artemis felt the cord tight in both hands (the bomb fell below, what was the blast radius?), felt himself hurdling through the air, and realized something that complicated was impossible—no. She stood on solid ground, her bow in her hands, a lifeline whipping from her hip. That was Wally.
"I don't care if it's impossible. Do it anyway!" Aqualad snapped. "Hurry, Miss Martian, he'll need a lift."
Superboy arrived a step ahead of her, tall and solid and radiating warmth. He reached for the cord without having to be told. The touch of his invulnerable skin against the speeding poly-nylon-whatever caused a sharp whine like a dentist drill to pierce the air. A curl of smoke rose from his bare palms.
All Artemis could do was stand still.
At the other end of her line, made small by the long distance, Kid Flash clung for dear life. The cord slowed under Superboy's grip. Without that high velocity, Wally stopped flying out. A sharp tug on Artemis' zipline, taught in Superboy's iron grip, signaled his halt. He fell beyond her line of sight.
M'gann hadn't slowed a bit. Her long cloak had vanished at some point, probably to reduce drag. A flash of pure fear came from her, and emotional leakage from the telepath was always the worst. "He's going to hit the cliff-side. He's going too fast—he'll fall!" A soft, soft echo followed the message, etched with grief, and felt like an accident: "Wally's going to die."
"He will not." Aqualad's force of will seemed to make it so. "Are you secure, Kid?"
"No, no no I am not!" An image of a craggy stone wall zooming in fast, Wally couldn't control it, this was gonna be bad—
Superboy braced his feet and adjusted his grip, the muscles in his arms tensing. Artemis could see clearly what he was about to do. She opened her mouth, heart in her throat.
An echo of pain in male hands, Wally's hands; not her's. More transference than normal, but they were all tangled up.
Artemis fell to her knees, her bow clattering before her.
Singed trees framed the scene. The crystal blue sky above the cliff's edge—much closer than it had once been—provided a light backdrop to the dark zipline arching through the air. It wove sinuously. Light. Loose. Without weight bearing it down.
The end of the cord shot into the sky, the arrow flapping in the breeze.
That second seemed endless—the shock of failure, the brick wall of denial, the burn of loss and grief—but then time always seemed slow, compared to the speed of thought.
Just one second.
"Helicopter!" Robin screeched in their heads, out of nowhere.
Artemis blinked at the clear sky. Where—?
He hadn't died yet. A long fall to dash against the rocks. How horrible. Would they experience his death telepathically?
"Try harder! Use the shockwave—" A small, black box with one button, held in Robin's gauntlets, appeared in her mind. "—two, one, now."
The ground shuddered with a second explosion. Light flared from below the cliff. Blinding. The bright sky, the sandy rock clearing, everything seemed dark by comparison.
"M'gann, fetch!" ordered Robin.
Artemis dared to hope. (Or was that someone else?)
M'gann mustered a burst of speed. Desperation fueled her. Self-loathing hot like a sunburn. She had slowed down—stupid, stupid, stupid—clogged by emotions, messed everyone else up, look what she made Superboy do. No control over her powers. So irresponsible—had to save Wally, had to—
"We can hear you," reminded Artemis gently, because no one else was. "Focus. You got this."
That little pep talk seemed woefully inadequate, and there were many reasons she would never be leader, but it seemed to do well enough.
Artemis dug her nails into the grit by her knees. The light of the bomb faded. She could hardly see past the impossibly dark blotch imprinted upon her vision. And she thought she saw, there, just at the edge of the cliff—she averted her gaze, trying to see out of her uninhibited peripheral vision—but no, that had to have been her despairing imagination, her wild expectation (if "helicopter" meant what she thought it did)—because there was nothing, when she blinked. Nothing.
But Wally still lived. In her head, in the link, his voice, his thundering spirit. His fear. He hated heights.
M'gann's small figure dove beyond their line of sight.
Artemis closed her eyes. Palms flat on the ground, pricks of rocks grounding. Superboy loomed statue-still beside her. Whatever came next, she would need to brace herself. (This was, perhaps, the messiest mind-link she'd ever experienced.)
An image burned into Artemis' mind's eye: Wally below, but not too far, his arms blurred as he wobbled atop twin tornadoes. Dropping ten feet with every lurch. Blood on his back, his chin scraped pink.
Hands grabbed him under the arms. M'gann's face, freckled cheeks pinched up from smiling, her wafting, mid-length hair reddened in the sun, haloed gold. Wally laughed. His arms burned from keeping up the wind tunnels. He couldn't stop vibrating. His back, his palms, his whole body stung—when he lost the adrenaline they would suck—
M'gann pulled him into a hug and soared up, up like her emotions.
Artemis opened her eyes.
The pair floated to the ground, rotating slowly. No jokes from Wally, no snide comments from Robin, no embarrassment from any side. They just squeezed each other, M'gann under his arms and Wally over her shoulders. The second they alighted, Kaldur scooped them both to his chest.
Artemis supposed he was actually tall for his age, but Robin was still thirteen and small. He ran to them and ducked under everyone's arms, wriggling into the group hug.
Waves of calm and relief and shhh-we're-okay spread from Kaldur, soothing gnarls Artemis hadn't even known were there. Like a balm on her brain, easing a headache. Her shoulders relaxed. She cradled her bow in both hands, then collapsed it and stowed it under her quiver. Joy prickled like something soft and fuzzy, like a blush, like warmth in her bones and her stomach. A smiled spread widely over her face; she didn't think she could have stopped it if she'd tried.
Fairly glowing from group-happiness, Artemis turned to beam up at Superboy.
He looked devastated.
"Whoa, hey." Her voice rasped. Bracing her hands above her knees, Artemis stood, swaying slightly. She felt loose-limbed and, all at once, very sleepy. "What's up?"
Superboy looked at her. He'd never been huge on facial expressions—smiles from him were always startling—but his whole face was slack, his mouth parted, and his wide eyes glistened wetly.
"I almost killed him," he whispered.
Artemis looked away, giving him an illusion of privacy. (Did he even know about the boys-don't-cry thing?) Irritation reared its unwelcome head. Supey was young, and superheroes had notorious guilt-complexes. She should be nice.
She wasn't good at nice. What would M'gann do?
"C'mon." Artemis stepped into his personal bubble and wrapped an arm around his waist. Heck, everyone else was hugging. She doubted M'gann would mind. "Let's join the others."
He stiffened and leaned away. Artemis tugged, but he wouldn't budge. She could force him if she knocked him off balance, but he hated that.
"Ugh!" Artemis glared at the team, too close to comfortably look at Supey's face. "Look. There are so many more people to blame beside yourself. The bad guys for putting us in that situation. Robin made the bomb that collapsed the cliff. Wa— Kid couldn't control his powers; the Flash wouldn't have been in any danger at all. Kaldur gave the orders. M'gann screwed up the mind link."
Superboy yanked out of her hug, visibly offended.
"Frankly, I think I'm the only one who didn't endanger Kid's life today." Artemis planted her hands on her hips, putting all of her confidence behind her words. (She'd been mad at Wally. Screwed the team dynamic. If she'd had his back, this never would have happened.) "So, as the only guiltless party here, I think it's pretty arrogant of you to blame yourself. Everyone screws up. Even me. Even you. KF's fine—" She pointed at the team, still all glomped together. "—so suck it up and go awkwardly endure a group-family-hug-thing like the emotionally healthy people we pretend to be."
Perfectly stoic (an improvement, certainly), Superboy raised one arm for a hug. "Fine."
Artemis nodded in approval. Stepping into his side, she squeezed him around the middle. His arm draped over her shoulders, hand limp by her arm. They set off for the team.
It wasn't that weird. Could've been worse.
"Besides," said Artemis thoughtfully, "I bet Kid would've fallen when he hit the cliff anyway."
"Doubt it," he responded without missing a beat.
"I think you're overestimating his strength here. You ever hit a wall at high speeds? Don't answer that," she said quickly, when his expression turned incredulous in her peripheral vision, because duh. "My zipline broke once, when I was training." 'Broke' meaning 'cut with malicious intent.' By Dad, not Green Arrow, which was why no one caught her. "I smacked into this brick wall, and my whole body just spasmed. I couldn't even control it. There was no way to hang on."
Superboy hummed. It reverberated in his chest. "Maybe I think Wally's tougher than you."
When they approached, Kaldur cupped the back of Superboy's neck and pulled him roughly down. He crushed Robin momentarily, who squawked. Rather than actively squish anyone to herself—hugs longer than two seconds always seemed a little weird to Artemis—she leaned against M'gann's and Wally's backs, closing her eyes and resting her head.
The bright, tangled glow in the back of her mind receded (it had been gently disengaging for a while, she realized), leaving Artemis with her own thoughts. Her brain felt more spacious, like a balloon that didn't quite regain its old shape upon deflating.
"Everyone off-line?" asked M'gann gently.
As if on cue, the team stepped back from the group hug. Wally kept his arm slung around Robin's shoulders. They all stared at each other for a moment, but couldn't hear anyone else's thoughts.
"It would seem so," said Kaldur.
Artemis slapped Wally on the stomach. "You're so much trouble, Baywatch. Oh my gosh."
This came to me when I imagined Superboy accidentally killing Kid Flash, and everyone involved being absolutely devastated with guilt...but I love these characters, so I had to figure out a happy ending.
Playing with the mind-link was lots of fun.
Who was the enemy you were fighting, you ask? Eh. Beats me. Some sort of robot hive-mind, I guess. It wasn't that important.
This takes place in my A Crisis of Fate universe, a mult-chaptered fic I've yet to finish writing, let alone post online, so for now accept this as a one-shot. I'll probably take this fic down when I post ACoF, but that depends on how much I change this scene when inserting it into an actual plot with an actual villain.
Hope you enjoyed it!