She’d just sent Bart off to take a shower when the doorbell rang. Artemis, hair loose but in still costume (cowl off, no gloves) walked into the living room and immediately spotted a pint of Ben and Jerry’s perched innocently on the coffee table. A yellow post-it was stuck hap-hazardly to the paper container, the condensation already causing it to unstick.
She’d recognise Jade’s chicken scratch anywhere. Her throat felt tight - she thought of Barry’s broken voice, M’gann’s cold but comforting embrace, how her tears had scalded her palms and the sting of the snow at her knees as they hit the ground.
She needed a long, hot shower.
But her feet felt heavy in her boots, and she remained glued to the floor, hand absentmindedly gripping the note in her hand until it crumpled - until the front door swung free on its hinges, letting in a draught that nudged against her bare midriff. The lock dangled uselessly off the doorframe. “Son of a - ”
“D’ya have any towels?”” Bart’s head appeared around the corner to the short hallway that lead to the other rooms, his hair dripping wet. His face turned confused. “Why’s the door open?”
Star City, Aqualad had told them. Roy is still on leave and Green Arrow has requested another team for patrols.
The cool night air was still and the city was dark, save for a bright window or two dotting the cityscape. A dog’s bark echoed in the distance and the air smelt like smoke. Streetlights were dim, glowing weak pools of light that barely illuminated the sidewalks. It was the darker part of town; if any criminal activity was going down, it would be there - thanks Ollie.
“Quiet day for the bad guys, huh? Seems like their day off too. I wonder if they have days when they’re just like ‘nah, I’m gonna chill today, just hang out, crime can wait.” Kid Flash mused, as they perched on the same rooftop for their third round of patrolling that particular quadrant of the city - he sat with his legs dangling over the side of the building while Tigress stood with watchful eyes, scanning the streets. “Maybe they’re all already sleeping.”
Bart stilled. “Wait, I think I see something.” He got to his feet and pulled his goggles over his eyes, switching to infrared.
Tigress’ hand flew to her hip, gripping her crossbow. “What is it?”
“That pawn shop.” He pointed at the corner shop down the building they were facing with a neon sign that glowed Hurst Tradings. “Looks like a robbery.” The tinted windows of the business gave nothing away to betray what was happening inside. They must have broken in through the back.
“Then let’s go.”
By the time they reached the store, the thieves - three of them, dressed in all black - were still hurriedly scooping stolen goods into duffel bags. Most of the display cases were smashed and broken glass littered the floor.
“Cool, standard issue criminal ski masks!” Kid Flash quipped, and the three men gawked at them for a moment before drawing their guns.
“Stop!” Tigress shouted. A bullet whizzed past her and shattered the shopfront glass. She ducked to the side and crouched behind a table.
A yellow blur trailing a breeze shot into the store and in a second, the shooting stopped and three .44 Magnums clattered to the floor beneath her feet. Kid Flash grinned down at her. “Good work, Kid.”
She darted out and advanced on the guy closest to the door. Blocking his punches easily, she knocked him on his back with a swift kick to the sternum. She whipped out her crossbow and shot five precisely-aimed arrows to pin the second guy to the far wall while out of the corner of her eye, she saw the third thief scrambling for the back door. “Kid!” “On it.”
She advanced on the guy pinned to the wall, who was trying to shrug out of his outer clothing, but her attention was more focused on the one trying to escape and a shot of fear ran through her when her eyes caught the ominous spark of a taser. “Kid watch out, he’s got a - !” She barely noticed the flash of a knife, and a sharp pain burst in her forearm before she pressed her elbow against his wrist hard enough so that he dropped the weapon. By the time she turned around, Kid Flash was on the floor.
Tigress growled and punched the thief before her in the face and he stopped struggling, body gone slack. She burst out of the back door after the third thief into the alleyway, where he was hauling the bags of stolen items into the car. “You’re not going to get away with this.”
“Am I?” He revved the engine smugly and started to reverse out of the alley. Tigress jumped onto the hood of the car and quick as lightning, she reached through the open window and yanked on the front of the criminal’s shirt. The car braked suddenly, throwing her forward, and the side mirror knocked into her breastbone so hard she was sure it was going to leave a nasty bruise. The door opened and she leaned back in order to avoid getting smacked in the face. The man dropped onto the ground on all fours and scrambled to his feet, making a run for it. She threw a bola, which wrapped itself neatly around his legs, and the thief came down hard.
“Kid?” She rushed through the door of the pawn shop to find Kid Flash with two groaning would-be burglars at his feet, trussed up like turkeys. “I got mine.” He beamed. Artemis sighed with relief. “Me too.”
Bart’s face slackened as he caught sight of where the thief nicked her. “You’re bleeding.”
The pain snapped back into focus, her other hand flew up to clutch her wound. A few prods revealed that it wasn't serious, and would be fixed up with a painkiller and some gauze. Dry cleaning bills were more painful. She shrugged. “It’s fine. Just a scratch.” Bart raised his eyebrows dryly. “If you say so.”
Her hands flew to her hips. “What? It is.”
He laughed and held up his hands defensively. “Okay, okay, I believe you.”
She opened her mouth to argue further, but was cut off by the wail of police sirens. “Cops are here. Time to go.”
They got back to Palo Alto in no time, thanks to the zeta tube being moved closer to their fourplex since she became active again.
“Wow, I’m beat. I’m gonna hit the showers. Dibs!”
“Oh no you don’t.” Artemis ran halfway up the stairs, feigning a race despite her aching limbs, and laughed when Bart easily sped past her. “Gotta catch me first, old lady!”
The term stopped her in her tracks and she gasped indignantly. “I am not old!” His laughter trailed behind him into the apartment, where a familiar face was lounging casually on the living room sofa. Brucely was nowhere to be seen.
“Hey Jade. Thanks for not breaking down the door this time.” Artemis took off her mask with a sigh and settled down on the sofa next to her sister.
“You’re very welcome, baby sister.” Her dark eyes flickered to the door, where the brand new lock gleamed silver against the tarnished bronze of the door knob. “I hear double-cylinder deadbolts are notoriously tiresome to replace.”
“Why are you here.”
“I need someone to watch Lian for a few days.”
“Isn’t the point of retirement so that you can take care of her yourself?” Artemis’ head dropped back against the sofa and she closed her eyes, trying to fight the forming headache. “You’re lucky spring break starts tomorrow.”
“Oh, I knew that. God forbid I drop off your favourite niece when you’ve got an essay due. Mr. Park definitely wouldn't understand.”
Artemis shot up at the mention of her Philosophy in Modern Society lecturer and the essay that she had handed in that very morning. “Have you been keeping tabs on me? I’m not a child anymore, Jade.”
“Chill, sis. It’s just to coordinate babysitting times. I wouldn't be able to live with myself if your grades suffered because of me.”
Artemis groaned. Her headache was getting worse, concentrating over her left eye; she didn't have the energy to come up with a witty remark to counter her sister’s ever present condescending tone.
“She’s sleeping in your bed.” Artemis felt a nudge at her shin. “All her stuff’s in the bag. You know what to do.” She whined stubbornly, eyes shut tight. Jade knew she wouldn't refuse her. Lian was the most well-behaved two-year-old she knew. Not that she knew many, but her point was that Lian was an angel.
Her sister’s weight lifted off the couch. “Oh yeah, and give mom a call. She said she hasn’t talked to you in a while.” She paused. “You should get a bandage on that.” Then all was silent, and Artemis opened her eyes. Jade was, predictably, gone, with no evidence of ever having been there except for the black duffel at her feet, and the warmth lingering in the sofa cushions.
“Hey, there’s a baby in your bed!”
Bart bet that when Artemis envisioned her spring break, she didn't expect to be in charge of supervising three children, all aged two and under. Two of which had just finished what seemed like a screaming match between them. Who knew what babies were thinking.
“Wow, Dad, you and Aunt Dawn sure have some strong lungs.” Bart whispered as he set the now-sleeping baby in the crib Iris brought over that morning.
“We’re lucky they can’t walk yet.” Artemis appeared in the doorway to her bedroom, carrying Lian against her shoulder. “Yeah, at least Lian doesn't have superspeed.” Bart chuckled, fingers brushing lightly against Dawn’s tiny toes. “Can you imagine? The twins just speeding around, like - like mini tornadoes!”
Artemis laughed softly. She adjusted a wiggling Lian in her arms, who had suddenly tried to launch herself out of her arms, little hands reaching out for the twins. “Yeah, that wouldn't be fun. Fun for the kids, probably, but not for us. Or Iris.” She winced, probably imagining what a handful that would be.
“Need me to hold her for a while?” He asked Artemis. “Just put her down. She should walk around a bit.” She held the toddler so that her feet touched the ground and put her hand into Bart’s. Lian looked up at Bart with her large, dark eyes. Artemis moved behind him to check on the babies and adjust their bedsheets, while Lian led Bart, tottering out into the living room.
Lian was a curious kid, toddling everywhere and touching everything she could get her hands on - they had both made sure to keep their hair out of her reach, after one too many times she got too grabby. She walked over to where the TV was currently playing a cartoon about some child pirates - which admittedly, he thought was pretty cool, if a little unrealistic - and promptly stuck the remote control into her mouth. “Oh, whoa, whoa.” Bart cringed as he pried the remote off of Lian, which came back covered in drool. “Eugh.” He zipped into the kitchen to get the baby wafers/crackers/whatever they were that came in the bag Artemis’ scary sister dropped off. In the two milliseconds it took for him to run to the kitchen and back with the baby food, she had already found something else to chew on, and that something just happened to be the corner of one of the couch cushions. “Whoa, hey!”
“Here.” He hurriedly stuffed the crackers into her hands, hoping that that would occupy her mouth. His prayers were answered as she immediately started gnawing on the food. He smiled and stroked her head fondly, sifting her fine, orange hair through his fingers.
The wailing started up again. Brucely whined and covered his eyes with his front paws from his position on the sofa. “Bart, bottles please!” Artemis called from the bedroom. He lifted Lian up onto the sofa next to the dog and grabbed the two baby bottles on the coffee table, still half full from their last attempted feeding. Artemis was holding Don in her arms and took one of the bottles from him. He tentatively picked Aunt Dawn up and raised the teat to her tiny mouth. She started suckling immediately. He watched the baby’s mouth work; it was so small. Lian was different, she could walk, talk - well, kind of - but Don and Dawn were…fragile. Breakable.
He fed Dawn until she pushed the bottle away with flailing arms. Carrying her into the living room, he gently set her on the rug on the living room floor in a sitting position. Grandma Iris - or, Aunt Iris, as she insisted he call her - had mentioned that the twins should be able to sit up on their own by now. Dawn’s large green eyes stared at Bart, unblinking. He awkwardly smiled back.
Artemis padded out from around the corner with a sated Don and placed him next to his sister on the floor. The two babies looked up at them silently, their eyes strikingly green.
“Weird.” Artemis finally said. “Definitely.”
Barry zipped by the next day to get the twins, and to drop off another box of Flash brand protein bars for Bart. Roy dropped by to pick Lian up a day later. “Dada.” Liam toddled over to her father and held out her chubby arms. Roy bent down and picked her up, his blue eyes softer than Bart had ever seen.
“You’ve, uh, got some - ” Bart pointed out the faint streak of yellow on Roy’s cheek. “Oh, we were painting the new apartment. Thanks for watching Lian while we got the new place sorted out.” So that’s what they had been doing, Artemis thought. Jade was never exactly…forthright with details (understatement of the century).
“How’s the new place?”
“Better than my old one. This apartment actually has working heating, and no mice in the walls.” Lian’s tiny hands fisted in his shirt. “Dada. Home!” She kicked her legs, socking Roy in the ribs and he grunted. “Okay, okay, I’m going. See you guys around.” With a wave of his hand, he was gone.
As soon as the door closed behind him, Artemis collapsed onto the couch with a heavy sigh. Bart didn't blame her, they’d both had a rough couple of days - Lian had somehow found her way into the butter and by the time they noticed, it was everywhere, herself included. They’d had to clean her up and put her to bed and then begin cleaning butter off every visible surface - by the time they’d gotten to bed it had been well after midnight.
He checked the time - 11:38a.m. He was supposed to meet the boys for lunch at noon at some new vegan place Garfield wanted to try. In Gotham City.
The sturdy shoes it was.
Grabbing his cell phone, he dashed out of his bedroom. “See you for dinner, Arty! I’m - ” She was sound asleep on the couch, her left hand resting on Brucely, seemingly mid-stroke. The dog perked up at the sight of him, but settled down after Bart put a finger to his lips. He spotted the blanket draped over the arm of the sofa and covered her as best as he could, trying not to laugh out loud at her slightly open mouth. If he leaned in close, he could hear her snoring softly.
Satisfied with his handiwork, he prepared to run off, but paused. Snickering, he snapped a photo of her; it was the likes of what Tim would call prime blackmail material. He laughed to himself all the way to Gotham.
What she didn't know wouldn’t kill her. Or him.
Bart woke up to bone-aching hunger. He tried to swallow it down, to ignore it, but it only came back stronger. After tossing and turning for a few moments, he eventually threw the covers off and softly cracked open his door, padding as quietly as he could to the kitchen. The apartment was dark, the orange light of the refrigerator the only illumination he had.
Unfortunately, as careful as he tried to be, being who he was, he was bound to make some noise, so he wasn't all that surprised when the pan he was trying to yank out of the overhead cabinet clattered loudly to the ground, speedster reflexes be damned.
He winced as he heard rustling coming from Artemis’ room. And then a muffled, “Wally?”. His stomach dropped to the floor.
How many times had she woken up to his first cousin once removed - emphasis on removed - rummaging around in the kitchen in the dead of night? Especially since Wally had had to eat a lot more than he did. How many times had she woken up to the empty side of the bed, but a warm body in the kitchen?
He called back, apologetic but trying his best to seem upbeat, “Sorry Arty, just grabbing a bite to eat.”. The rustling stopped. Pushing his guilt down, he busied himself with making his grilled cheese. The light blinked on and a hand appeared beside him, pressing the button on the electric kettle to get the water boiling. He glanced behind him and Artemis, her fascinatingly thick hair loose and messy, was placing a tea bag in her mug, eyes still heavy and squinting with the memory of sleep.
“Want one?” Bart gestured to the sandwich sizzling in the pan. She shook her head.
The apartment used a gas stove (so retro). As the cheese heated up and became all melty - grilled cheese sandwiches were definitely one of the better things he had discovered from the past - he crouched down to watch the blue-orange flames licking the bottom of the pan.
“How’s school going?” Artemis asked over the steam of her tea.
Quickly chewing up and swallowing the food in his mouth - the memory of her chastising him to not talk with his mouth full fresh in his mind - he answered her. “Pretty good. Professor Carr says I’m really coming along in History. But - ” He cringed. “I might have accidentally told them another spoiler the other day, but!” His hands flew up sheepishly as Artemis’ eyes narrowed. “It was - probably - pretty much inconsequential.”
“It better be. We don't want to mess up the timeline as much as we already have.”
“Yeah.” Bart said quietly.
Artemis bit her lip. “Sun’ll be up soon. We can walk Brucely. Then for breakfast I’ll make pancakes?”
He beamed, a gust of wind, and Brucely’s leash was already in his hand. “Sounds crash.”
The day she graduated, the sun was shining. An aura of surreality buoyed her down the short flight of steps out of the grand hall where the ceremony had been held into the sunlight.
They took pictures, lots of them. She clutched the bouquet of baby’s breath Kaldur had handed her and smiled through all of it - real smiles - basking in the warmth of being surrounded by people who loved her. Most of The Team were there, with a few exceptions - villains never slept, no surprise there - but she didn't really mind; she’d see all of them that night at the Wayne Manor for her party that Grayson insisted on throwing (with the promise of ice cream after, which softened her annoyance over having to dress up - her eyeliner that morning had already been enough of a challenge) and by the time she took the final picture, the gentle breeze that blew by every now and then did nothing to alleviate the fact that she was already almost sweating through her gown.
“Bart.” The russet-haired boy bounded over from where he was talking animatedly to Jaime, his sunflower yellow dress shirt sleeves rolled up his forearms.
“Congra-tulations, Arty!” He shouted jubilantly, as he flung his arms up towards the sky. “Don’t call me that!” She admonished, but she was laughing. More than a few heads turned; most of her friends and acquaintances from college already knew of the energetic kid with a penchant for fingerless gloves who resembled her absent boyfriend, and she’d had to field enough inquisitive glances and sympathetic faces over the last year to last a lifetime.
She placed her graduation cap on his head and spun him around, draping her arms over his shoulders, squeezing him extra hard. “Say cheese, or whatever.” Connor muttered. Click.
She found him in his bedroom staring at the suit laid out on his bed, colours even brighter against the navy of the quilt. Her steady presence drifted in to stand quietly beside him. He’d been cleaning out his closet, just for something to do, but as always, the vibrant yellow and red was the only thing that made him feel heavy, like he had to slow down.
Her hand settled on his shoulder, the touch gentle but firm and like magic, it sucked some of the heaviness out of him, like he was surfacing from being underwater. (Maybe it went into her instead; he didn't like to think that - Artemis already had enough weight on her own shoulders.). He felt like he could breathe again, past the guilt and the pity and the constant feeling like he was replacing him.
Their eyes met, her grey ones soft, but if you looked long enough, always held a touch of sadness.
Family, the thought rose in his mind.
The word sat like a stone in his head. He hadn't had a family in a while. Not even in 2056, or at least the 2056 he knew, which held only falling ash and desperation. Now, in the past - in his past - he had a family, a home. A first cousin once removed to make proud and a legacy to continue.
In the stillness of his bedroom, so quiet he thought he could hear his own heartbeat, quick and unwavering, he picked up the suit.