Title: Chassis (ain’t we got fun) | AO3
Rating: M (but only at the end)
Word Count: 18,717 (for this part)
Character(s): Everyone from the original team, plus Bruce Wayne; mentions of others
Pairing(s): Wally/Artemis, Conner/M’gann, Kaldur/Zatanna, eventual Dick/Zatanna; mentions of Jade/Roy
Summary: Artemis Crock is the gun-toting daughter of a mobster. Wally West is just trying to graduate college by 1927. Their collision is unexpected. (1920s AU!)
Author’s Notes: HISTORICAL NOTES. READ THEM. THIS IS ONLY PART ONE. artemisismyspitfire sucks for prompting that drabble request; this is all her damn fault. DRABBLE MY ASS.
I wanted to post this whole thing as a full oneshot, Sincerely Yours style, originally. But I would’ve had to finish it before New Year’s, and that was impossible, but I wanted my last posted fic of 2012 to count. So this is it. PART TWO IS COMING, I PROMISE, IT’S ALREADY ABOUT HALFWAY DONE.
UH. UH. ENJOY?
“Congratulations, Mr. West,” the professor said with a loose sort of smile, handing back the paper, laden with red circles. “You passed.”
Wally West’s face split into a rampant grin under the semi-round frames of his glasses, his freckles spraying up around the dimples and even teeth, and he took the paper with enthusiasm.
“Thank you, sir,” he replied genuinely, beaming at the solid B- written across the top of the first page. He stepped back, still bright-faced, and nodded a few times. “Have a swell summer; it’s been a pleasure!”
“Same to you,” the professor assured him with a wave, and Wally, sending one last glance over his shoulder at the empty classroom, took a breath and strode the rest of the way out, closing the door quietly behind him.
The June sunshine outside tumbled down onto everything in sight, coloring the trees and paths and brick buildings of Brown University with warmth. Wally walked down the outdoor hall with a spring in his step, still gazing at his successful essay with ecstasy. Seeing no further reason for prudence, he finally let out a loud whoop, sprinting the rest of the way back to his dormitory.
He had packed the last of his bags last night, snapping the leather trunks and suitcases shut, sitting down on the ones that were being stubborn, folding up all of the photographs tacked on his wall and pressing them haphazardly between the pages of his dog-eared books. The new summer had rested in the now-empty corners of his room, and he had slept through the night without blankets or a sheet, and it had been a nice end to the year, all in all.
(Dick had sneaked in a bottle of bathtub gin that he’d whipped up in the Chemistry lab, and it had tasted terrible, but they had all celebrated anyway, slinging it back and half-shouting Cole Porter lyrics and falling asleep in a splayed-out pile.)
“Rich!” he shouted after leaping up the stairs, knocking the door shut behind him with his foot. “I sailed by with a B-minus! Fire up the Coupe, kid; we’re going home!”
“Applause, applause,” his roommate called from the bathroom, and as Wally passed by and picked up his first trunk, he spotted Dick straightening his bow tie and grinning at himself in the mirror. “Truly, you are the champion of champions. But you’re still carrying all the bags yourself.”
Wally let out a groan, accidentally crashing into the wall with the particularly cumbersome piece of luggage and wincing at the chip it leaves in the paint.
“For a guy who’s supposed to be my best friend, you sure do know how to hurt me,” he groused, toeing the door back open. “Say, did you get the chance to read that telegram from Bruce?”
“I certainly did,” Dick replied, walking briskly out into the room again with his arms swinging. The smile on his face was quite nearly evil, as glossy as his combed hair. “He wants us to throw on the gold rags and stop by the Black Bat tonight. Drinks on the house.”
“Of course they’re on the house, idiot; you’re practically co-owner,” Wally exclaimed, lurching under the heavy weight of the trunk. “For the love of—can you at least open the stinkin’ door for me?”
“Gladly, madam,” Dick sniggered, stepping gracefully over Wally’s leaning legs to swing open the door fully. “Ladies first.”
“Wise guy,” Wally muttered, but he was smiling, sidling out through the narrow doorway. “Get your bags, chum; we’ve got a long drive.”
Dick laughed, a high and mischievous giggle, covering his mouth with his fist, and kicked Wally in the rear just before he gets to the stairs.
Wally didn’t trip, not even once. It was a good omen for the summer he was about to step into.
The Buick ran like a dream along the road from Providence to Happy Harbor, and Wally was pleasantly breathless just thinking of good old Happy Harbor, quiet and gold-lit by the streetlamps, every alley and avenue as familiar as the lines on their palms. Home.
The moon was bright on the black water when they crossed the city limits. Dick didn’t even bother driving anywhere but down Main Street once they get there, parking the loaded car in front of the Red Robin Café and hopping out the door before the motor even rolled to a stop. Wally shook his head at him, but kicked his door open and jogged up to the front door beside him.
The Red Robin had once been a divey sort of place, but over the course of the past seven years, it had been renovated and reimagined into a dining establishment nothing short of swanky. Wally supposed that it wasn’t really a surprise, considering who owned it.
Dick threw the front door open (painted black, sleek and unchipped) and strode in with a flourish. Many of the tables, scarlet tablecloths and immaculate porcelain plates, were occupied, their patrons chattering and chewing and oh, crumbs, Wally’s stomach was starting to growl.
“A full house as usual,” he commented under his breath, which made Dick smirk at him over his shoulder.
“True,” he replied. “But what we’re here for is the hut.”
Wally waited as Dick approached the maître d’ with his hands in his back pockets, trying to stifle his smirk at the expression on the guy’s face when he recognized exactly who was talking to him. He gestured toward the hallway to the restrooms in the back, and Dick beckoned for Wally with a satisfied jerk of his head, and Wally loped after him as respectably as he possibly could. He caught a few sidelong glances. He suspected it was the patches on his roomy suit coat.
He, Dick, and the maître d’ walked down the short hallway in silence, coming to a halt at the door to the women’s restroom. The maître d’ knocked once, and when he heard no response, he turned the doorknob and stepped aside to let the two boys in.
“Thanks, we can get there from here,” Dick said politely, and the maître d’ nodded with a smile, released the door, and bustled back the way he had come.
Dick slipped in, and Wally behind him. The bathroom was just as Wally remembered, small but pristine, a tiled floor and a single toilet against the opposite wall and a standing sink with gold spigots. The wallpaper was patterned with thick stripes, alternating between burgundy and crimson, and there wasn’t a single tear or fade in it.
Wally turned to Dick, grinning. Dick winked at him, took his hands out of his pockets, and crossed the room, crouching down beside the metal toilet paper roll. He ran his fingers along it and they came to a stop at one end, where they only halted for a moment before his thumb moved over the silver knob and pressed it at the center.
There was a click, and a creaking noise. Wally turned, and his smile grew wider. The blank wall beside which the sink was erected had split, just barely, along the vertical line of one stripe.
“Care to do the honors?” Dick asked in an easy mutter.
“With pleasure,” Wally replied. He walked to the wall, pried his fingers into the space allotted by the split, and pulled.
The hidden door swung open in silence, revealing a passageway lit by several dusty hanging lamps. Wally stepped aside, bowing.
“Home sweet home,” he quipped, and Dick shoved at his head when he passed, scoffing. “Ingrate.”
He closed the door behind them carefully, snuffing out the bright light from the bathroom.
The tunnel twisted around a corner, held up by wooden supports and rafters. As they began to slowly walk down it, something skittered by.
“If that was a spider, I’m taking the gas pipe, right here and now,” Wally hissed.
“Piker,” Dick jibed, tugging at his elbow. “Pick up the pace, will you? We’re already running late.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Wally groused, matching his footsteps as they both make their way down the passageway. “I always forget how much secret passageways give me the creeps.”
“Again I say it,” Dick chirped. “You are a sorry, lily-livered piker. But at least you have me.”
Wally muttered an obscenity at him and elbowed him, and Dick elbowed him back, which hurt considerably more due to the fact that his joints were naturally sharp.
They came to a fork in the tunnels and both immediately took the right one, and Wally whistled “I’ll See You In My Dreams” until it echoed, and after a minute or so, they came to the end of the path.
A nondescript metal door stood before them. Wally could hear muffled jazz music on the other side.
Dick bent down to survey the hinge lock, flicking open the combination panel with his thumb. He moved a few dials to put in the combination, and there was a click, and Wally had time to draw one more preparatory breath before the last door in their journey had swung open.
He and Dick stepped through it at the same time, their shoes hitting the hardwood floor.
The room was enormous. Several bright golden lamps lined the walls, illuminating the entire space save for a few dark corners. There was a bar to the left, and a dance floor, and a stout bandstand, and a great deal of round tables. A record was playing a room down the hallway beside the entrance to the bar.
Wally breathed it all in through his nose and closed his eyes, his hands going slack in his pockets. The last time he had been here had been on the past New Year’s Day, whooping and singing and drinking only apple cider.
“Hey, wake up,” Dick snickered at him, sounding distant. “Look who’s here.”
Wally opened his eyes again just in time to be tackled in a hug by an unknown assailant. He stumbled one step back, his arms flying up to steady the attacker, and laughed. He recognized the smell of rosy perfume immediately.
“Mags!” he exclaimed, lifting the giggling auburn-haired girl off of her feet until she shrieked. “Yeesh, happy to see you too.”
Maggie Morse, once he set her down again, drew back from him and beamed, her brown eyes practically sparkling with mirth. Her freckles had picked up again since he’d last seen her in the winter, and her smile was as sunny as her goldenrod sailor dress.
“Hi, Wally!” She whirled on Dick next, yanking him into another enthusiastic embrace that made him wheeze. “Hi, Dick!”
“Howdy,” Dick coughed out, patting her on the back. She released him, clasping his hands in hers and bouncing, her dimples bright.
“It feels like it’s been a week short of forever!” she exclaimed, and Wally couldn’t agree more. She looked at the two of them and clasped her cheeks. “Oh my golly, I’m so happy to see you.”
“Who wouldn’t be?” Dick asked rhetorically.
“Me,” came a grumble from behind Maggie. Wally and Dick’s faces both gave way to immediate grins of recognition.
Conner Kent had emerged from the back room, shuffling into place beside Maggie and wrapping his arm around her shoulders. He was as burly as Wally remembered, his dark hair still the same uncombed scruff.
He smiled wryly. “Only kidding.”
“Happy to see you, too, sunshine,” Dick said sarcastically. Conner’s pleasant expression widened a bit and Wally clapped him on the back.
“Where’s Cal?” he asked. “And Raquel?”
“Getting ready for tonight,” Maggie replied excitedly. “Bruce is letting them do a couple numbers. It’s going to be wonderful.”
“I think they can pause their rehearsal for a little bit of tearful reuniting,” Dick quipped. “And where on god’s green earth is Bruce, anyhow?”
“Out,” Maggie answered before he vanished into the back room.
She glanced over at Wally, who smirked.
“I’ll bet you anything he’s looking for Zatanna,” he sniggered.
Conner groaned. “They’re not going to be – being them all summer, are they?”
“I suspect,” Wally said sagely, “that they will be. But it’ll be worse, now that her dad’s letting her stay until September.”
Conner grimaced as though Wally had just mortally wounded him. Zatanna Zatara had first been introduced to them years ago, when her father, a close family friend of Bruce Wayne, had come by for a few weeks in June. Dick hadn’t been able to stop babbling around her, reduced to a giddy blabbermouth without a single trace of his usual cunning wit. Wally had laughed at him for months.
He didn’t really blame Dick, though. Zatanna was an Italian-born beauty who pulled quarters out of people’s ears for fun and lopped her hair off shorter and shorter with every passing season. After a lot of begging, she’d convinced her father to let her travel to Happy Harbor for the summer alone, and stay there for three months. (Wally had read all of this in a letter Dick had left open on his desk, among other words that had turned his ears red.)
He sighed, turning his head to survey the room again. Dick had first shown him this place when they were children, when Bruce had first begun building it. It had felt like a secret only he had the honor of holding, a dark room full of secret passageways and illegal moonshine and dancing, laughing people twice his height at the time.
But they’d made friends since then, from high school to college, and now, every summer and New Year’s Eve, they would all converge on the speakeasy again and grow a little taller together.
Maggie, a lovely girl whom had made Wally’s heart flop several times as a teenager, had lived in Happy Harbor all her life, along with Conner. They’d been high school sweethearts and essentially inseparable ever since, both attending Ivy University in that very town. Calvin Durham, Cal for short, wasn’t really from around there; he’d never mentioned exactly where his home was, but he had met the lot of them when Bruce had hired him as his first and only bartender the day he had turned 21. He was the big brother sort, always chastising them, and his employment behind the bar was a good enough excuse for some of the patrons for him to be there, and for him to play the saxophone on weekend nights.
Raquel Ervin was from Dakota City, and she didn’t talk about her life there much, but she was a hard-boiled and sharp-tongued girl who had taken to Cal almost immediately, volunteering herself as a singer and waitress during the summers when she could leave home. Bruce had hired her without question.
And then there was Wally, a simple sort of kid from the countryside, Keystone City, a farm with corn and cows. His grandparents still lived there, but he and the rest of his family – his mother, father, aunt, and uncle – had moved to the outskirts of Happy Harbor when he was fifteen. His parents were extraordinarily flexible about letting him spend good chunks of his time in one of the rooms over the Red Robin, especially now that he was older, provided he visited them at least once a week.
That was how he’d met Dick, moving there. Dick had apparently found his way into the town at around the same time, after his adoptive father, Bruce Wayne, had decided to abandon their city of Gotham and erect a business in a less seedy sort of place.
The rest was, essentially, history. The Black Bat was practically their home away from home when they weren’t at college (though Cal and Raquel had to teach themselves, and each other, out of derision and defiance for the segregated schools set up miles away – they were both smart as whips in spite of it all).
“Ladies and gentlemen!” Dick called out, startling Wally back from his reminiscing. “Toss up some applause tonight for the one, the two, the only – Ervin and Durha—!”
“Can someone please pipe him down?” Raquel interrupted, shouldering past Dick’s diminutive form from the hallway from which he’d come parading. The knife pleats on the skirt of her dress swung with her. Cal was behind her, in slacks and suspenders and a red cotton dress shirt, smiling wearily.
Raquel, when she saw Wally, let out a happy shout and grabbed him in a hug, and Cal was patting him on the shoulder and Maggie was laughing, and Wally looked to Dick over the top of Raquel’s head with a grin.
Dick winked at him, nodded, threw his arms out and got in on the group hug. (Conner loitered at the outside of the bundle, looking awkward, his arms akimbo and his mouth in a line. Maggie noticed almost immediately, rolled her eyes, and yanked him in by the wrist; he sort of crashed into Cal’s back and made the whole group of them grumble at him, but it was all in good fun.)
“So,” Dick opened when they had all disengaged. “No Zatanna yet?”
Something in Maggie’s smile gave Wally a very distinct feeling that Zatanna was more present than she was about to let on.
“Doesn’t look that way,” Raquel replied with a sigh just a tad too large. She looked to the ceiling lamentably. “Maybe she ran her car off the road.”
“That is distasteful,” Cal chided her, which only made her snigger.
“I’m only teasing,” she assured them, but Dick looked pale. She nudged him encouragingly. “Lighten up, kid; she’ll be here.”
“She’d better be,” Dick muttered churlishly, practically pouting, but Wally could tell that he was more addressing Zatanna than Raquel.
“When’s opening time?” Wally asked.
“Nine o’clock,” Cal answered immediately, glancing at his watch. “So we have – twenty minutes for catching up, give or take.”
“Hoo,” Wally exhaled, putting his hands on his hips. “Guess we’d better get started, then.”
All right, so they were all drinking alcohol, and so it was illegal, and so Dick’s adoptive father was selling it to begin with, and so he had a prestigious speakeasy right under his equally prestigious café, and so the feds could be barging it at any second.
So what? Outlawing alcohol had been a stupid idea to begin with from Wally’s perspective, and from everyone else’s, too. They weren’t all Protestants, for Pete’s sake, and they were hardly drinkers. Bruce sold alcohol to good people, people who wanted to have fun and create good times, not people who wanted to get plastered and be done. And he gave all of the money he earned from serving it – not selling it to mobsters, never that – to charities. Good charities, for orphans and hard luck folks.
So it wasn’t all bad, really. That was what Wally told himself every day. Harding had been wrong all along. He was a nice enough guy, but he was wrong.
It was Wally’s prime objective in life not necessarily to be good, but to be right. Not correct. Not a winner. Right, and fair, and honest.
And having fun was an honest sort of game to start with.
When Bruce finally arrived, it was five minutes to nine, and he came through the entrance door in the same immaculate suit he always seemed to be wearing. His expression was neutral and Wally instinctively straightened when he approached, taking his hands out of his pockets and attempting to button his jacket.
“Sir, hi,” he flummoxed. “Hello, Mr. Wayne, sir, how are you?”
“Bruceeeeey!” Dick sang, sprinting out from behind the bar where he’d been helping Cal dry champagne glasses. “Missed you like I’d miss a limb!”
Cal blinked at the towel that Dick had thrown onto his head and Raquel and Maggie giggled from their table. Wally had to stifle a snort at the vaguely astonished look on Bruce’s eyes, bowing his head and putting his fist over his mouth.
Dick came to a stop just in front of Bruce, grinning his cheeky grin. Wally almost laughed harder. Their reunions were always amusing, Dick with his enthusiasm and limber hugs and quips, Bruce with his stoic pats on the head (which were no longer necessary, as Dick was now nearly as tall as he was).
“The place looks great,” Dick said airily. “Though I’d suggest a bit of redecorating. Maybe a chandelier? Some roses at each table? Ooh, and Wally wanted me to tell you that he demands showgirls.”
“Stuff it!” Wally barked, his ears reddening. Seven years he’d known Bruce Wayne and he was still in constant fear of being murdered by him for embarrassing himself.
“No showgirls,” Bruce said bluntly. “And we both know who’s really demanding them, Richard.”
Dick’s face fell.
“Richard?” he whined. “Come on, Bruce; it’s not like you’re gonna send me to my room.”
“I’m tempted,” Bruce said with falsely narrowed eyes, and Dick looked offended.
That was when Bruce finally permitted himself a laugh. It was short, and subtle, but genuine enough to make Wally quit acting like such a stiff, and to make Dick’s mouth go into another moon-like grin as he threw his spindly arms out and cuffed Bruce in a hug at the torso.
“Welcome home,” Bruce said, warmly, clapping Dick on the shoulder. “All right, now detach, please – I’m going to have patrons to welcome.”
“What, and I can’t welcome them with you?” Dick gasped, releasing him. “But I’m so charming.”
“Don’t push it,” Bruce snorted, walking by him toward the hallway to the back rooms, among which was his office, which Wally had never been permitted inside (and, apparently, Dick hadn’t, either, but had probably broken into).
Dick clutched his chest as though severely wounded and shook his head.
“Are you going to be milling tonight, Mr. Wayne?” Maggie asked cheerily.
“No,” Bruce replied before she’d even finished, without looking over. “But I’m sure you’ll all function without me.”
“Yes, sir, Mr. Gatsby!” Dick called, saluting, as Bruce disappeared around the corner.
Wally blew out a breath of relief, running a hand over his hair.
“No, Wallace, he still doesn’t hate you,” Dick told him before he’d even opened his mouth. “Stop fussing; we’ve got guests coming.”
“Yeah, and what a host,” Wally muttered dryly, rolling his eyes.
They heard the sound of laughter, far off, muffled by the door, and footsteps shifting in the dirt, and clicking.
“Strike up the band, Cal!” Dick yelled with a flourish.
Cal gave him a withering look and held up a bottle of gin.
“Good enough,” he said just as the metal door opened.
The floor was full-up by eleven. Bruce hadn’t shown his face for even a moment, which Dick had been making jokes about all evening, but Wally wasn’t about to start complaining; it tended to summon him.
The five-man band that Bruce had hired was practically going nonstop, the Black Bottom and the foxtrot and all other manner of dances that inebriated people made absolutely hilarious. Dick was doubled-over laughing when he wasn’t being dragged onto the dance floor by gaudily-dressed, giggling girls.
Wally sat at a table by himself just on the edge of the floor with a glass of apple juice, laughing whenever Dick would make a face at him while tangoing by. He watched Raquel flit between tables, taking down snack orders, passing out bowls of peanuts to the barflies as Cal mixed their drinks with a towel over his shoulder and a perpetual soft smile on his face.
Maggie had been asked to dance by several unsuspecting fellows with combed hair and crisp dress shirts, but she’d only been kicking her heels up with Conner and Dick, her pearls swinging as she laughed. She looked like a million bucks in her dress and her cloche hat and her high heels, pecking Conner on the lips when he wouldn’t be suspecting it.
Conner wasn’t much of a dancer, mostly shuffling from foot to foot, but Maggie’s steps were easy and free and she managed to make even him look energetic.
Raquel materialized at Wally’s shoulder just then, her pad and pen at the ready.
“Snacks?” she asked. “Oh, but I don’t think we can give you our whole inventory. Too bad.”
“Peanuts,” Wally replied dryly, elbowing her in the hip. She snickered.
“So, question, before I get dragged over to some poor owl’s table,” she said, leaning down slightly. “Did you get two left feet since New Year’s, or are you allergic to girls now?”
Wally scoffed with a quirked mouth and shook his head, leaning back in the chair and crossing one leg over the other.
“I don’t know; they seem to have a very specific preference,” he observed, nodding over to Dick, who was presently surrounded by no less than five giggling flapper girls.
“Ooh, poor sap,” Raquel said with a grimace, shaking her head. “I mourn him. Right, I’ll get those peanuts for you.”
She was gone in an instant, forging her way back to the bar. Wally was pretty sure he saw her plant one on Cal when she leaned over the counter to take the prepared drinks from him.
He stood up, walking around the dancing crowd, and reached Dick after gently nudging aside an entwined couple. The girls standing around him were all dressed in various shades of glitter, beaded cloches and silver bangles and bright red lips. They beamed at him when he arrived.
“Sorry, ladies, I’m going to have to cut in,” Wally quipped, clapping Dick on the shoulder and using the grip to steer him away from his new fans.
They all gasped and groaned and one of them stamped her heeled shoe on the floor, but Wally had never seen Dick look more relieved in his life.
“Bless you,” Dick said. “I thought my face was going to wind up covered in secondhand rouge.”
“Yeah, well, you can thank me later,” Wally replied with a smirk. “Rumor has it someone very important is going to be showing up at our table in about, oh, twenty minutes.”
Dick pretended to gasp. “Heavens. Is it Clara Bow?”
“In your dreams,” Wally scoffed. “Just follow me.”
He was suddenly pried away, however, by a hand grabbing him at the elbow and yanking him back. Dick kept going on his own, giggling.
Wally whirled around. Maggie was the culprit, smiling up at him, her cheeks flushed, while Conner stood dutifully behind her.
“Come out and dance!” she implored him. “Raquel and Cal are going to play ‘Ain’t We Got Fun’; it’ll be a smash! Please?”
“Well, how can I say no?” Wally replied as charmingly as he could. Conner visibly rolled his eyes.
Maggie bounced a bit at his acceptance and gently grasped him by the wrist, leading him onto the crowded floor. Conner followed, his hands in his pants’ pockets, looking weary.
They both came to a stop just in front of the bandstand, in time to see the band disembarking to head for the bar, save for the drummer and the pianist. Heels clicked, and Wally’s head turned.
Raquel had untied her apron and set it aside, and she was now stepping up onto the stage with her hands on her hips, still sporting the navy blue dress with the knife pleats, her hair now adorned with a gold chain. Cal followed, his worn saxophone in hand, and pulled up a stool, seating himself on it as though he’d done it a dozen times before.
“Hi, folks,” Raquel greeted the room, her hand grasping the silver microphone. “Now I know you’re all thinking about leaving, what with us bein’ on the stage and all – but take a little free piece of advice, huh?” She winked. “Stick around.”
Wally clapped, and Maggie and Conner with him. Their example started a small swell that made Raquel and Cal both smile.
“That’s more like it,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Get your heels hot, ladies and gentlemen; it’s going to be a long night.”
Cal tapped his foot once, twice, three times, and brought the sax to his lips; the drummer started drumming, Raquel’s fingers started snapping, and the rhythm and music flooded out into every corner.
Maggie was grabbing his hand, laughing, and Wally grinned at her, matching her steps without missing a beat. Maggie kicked her heels up and it made her dress swing effortlessly.
“Every mornin’, every evenin’, ain’t we got fun?” Raquel sang into the microphone, her voice as bold and brassy as Wally remembered. “Not much money, oh but honey, ain’t we got fun? The rent’s unpaid, dear, and we haven’t a bus, but smiles were made, dear, for people like us!”
Wally spun Maggie in a circle and swung her until she was breathless. The couples dancing around them were clapping to the rhythm, whistling up at Raquel, beads and shirts and smiles. Cal’s saxophone playing was even smoother than the last time Wally had heard it.
“Hey, Bojangles!” That was Dick’s voice to his left, and Wally turned in its direction. “Room for two more?”
Maggie let out an overjoyed shriek of, “Zatanna!”
Wally whooped at the sight of Dick’s partner, ebony-haired and blue-eyed and dressed in black and silver, her dark eyebrows thick and raised. She swooped forward and grabbed his face at either side, planting a kiss on each of his cheeks (dramatic ones, ones that went “mwah!”, just like always). When she moved onto Maggie, the two girls hugged and jumped and giggled.
“She was sitting there, eating peanuts,” Dick sighed happily. “Like there was nothing unusual. Look at her legs. Actually, don’t. I’ll do that.”
Wally scoffed and grabbed Dick in a headlock, rubbing his knuckles into the top of his head until he managed to squirm free.
“Hi, Zatanna,” Conner was saying with a vaguely pleased smile that blatantly showcased his absolute joy. “Nice dress.”
“Oh, thanks, it was Mom’s,” Zatanna replied breezily. “So, come on, Grayson, before the song finishes!”
“Duty calls,” Dick pretended to lament, striding over to join her, taking one of her hands in his and putting the other on her hip before expertly leading her away as she clicked her heels.
Raquel was reaching the end of the song, her jewelry glittering in the light as she threw her arms out for the finale.
“Thank you, kind sir, I won’t mind, sir—ain’t we got FUN?” she trilled, her eyes closing tightly over the passionate smile that accompanied the last note.
The crowd applauded tumultuously. Raquel’s cheeks were flushed with pride, and Cal reached over and squeezed her hand once, which only made her grin more widely.
“How about a slow one?” she suggested, and everyone clapped enthusiastically. “Slow one it is, then!”
She tapped her foot in three-quarter time, bowing her head in concentration, and the drummer set down his sticks, no longer needed. He and the pianist both slipped off the stage to join the rest of their band at the bar.
Cal played out a sleepy, weepy melody that swayed in the quiet. Conner took Maggie by the hand and gently guided her to his chest, and they oscillated in time together, eyes locked.
Wally glanced over. Zatanna’s head was on Dick’s shoulder and Dick was gazing down at her with tenderness.
“Welp,” Wally sighed, throwing his arms out and making his way off of the dance floor.
“I’ll be loving you always,” Raquel sang, such a softer tone than the audacious one she’d used for the last number. “With a love that’s true, always. When the things you’ve planned need a helping hand, I will understand always…”
Wally let out another breath, surveying the occupants of the room. Most of them were making doe-eyes at each other, swaying in unison with gentle faces; there were a few watching the scene from the bar, but most of them looked about as depressed as he felt or as spifflicated as he didn’t want to be.
Raquel’s voice was lovely, though, and Cal’s playing was impeccable. They made a good duo up there, in tune with each other’s every note and sound. Wally wondered when Raquel had drawn up the gumption to kiss him on the lips, instead of on the cheek as she’d been doing every New Year’s since they were teenagers.
He finally strayed his eyes from the dancing, running them slowly over the panorama, not really expecting anything to hook them. He pushed down the sad little feeling in his chest and turned around to the bar.
He froze mid-step almost immediately. The rest of the room seemed to blur out as though it had been smeared, like wet paint.
There was a girl standing there, facing out at the crowd but resting against the wood on her elbows. And it wasn’t just any girl, because Wally, contrary to whatever Dick may have said, did not stop in his tracks for Just Any Girl.
She was perhaps as tall as he was, but that was in black high heels. Her legs were shapely, and they were long, and he really couldn’t help himself – he ran his eyes up the length of them, past the slit in her straight pine-green skirt, up over the swell of her shoulders, covered by the long sleeves of her dress. There was a certain tilt to her eyes and olive tone to her skin that he had never seen before, anywhere, and her blonde hair was cut in a wavy bob, curled at her cheeks under the black cloche. She was surveying the dancers with disinterest.
He was standing next to her before he could even register moving.
“Well, hello,” he greeted her, his voice popping out of its own accord. “And who are you?”
She didn’t move, but her eyes shifted to the left and her lips pursed a bit.
“Leaving?” she offered promptly, which made his stomach sag.
“Erm,” he replied. She raised an eyebrow, sighed, and turned her attention back to the throng.
Raquel was still singing, slow and romantic.
“Well, I’m Wally,” he offered.
She snorted. “Really?”
He frowned, puzzled. “Yes?”
“Nice name, kid,” she told him, unconvincingly.
He didn’t let it deter him. If there was anything Wally was, it was tenacious. Unless he was told not to be, of course.
“So tell me,” he said, leaning against the mahogany surface of the bar and waggling his eyebrows, “What’s a doll like you doing in a dirty old speak like this?”
She glanced over with a defensive spark in her gray eyes (they were gray, he noticed a bit giddily). Her bob swung a little when she moved, and her folded arms clenched.
“Scoping,” she replied curtly before glaring away again at the tables filled with inebriated patrons. “Not that it’s any of your business, four-eyes.”
Wally scowled at her and immediately yanked his glasses off, stuffing them into the pocket of his roomy slacks and trying to ignore the heat in his cheeks.
“Scoping for who?” he inquired, keeping a watchful eye on Dick and Zatanna to ensure that there was no funny business.
“Oh, you really wanna know?” she bit back a bit hotly.
“Well – yes, I’d love to,” he replied, straightening.
“All right,” she muttered, and her lips curled into what had to be the most dangerous-looking smirk he had ever seen. “Just remember. Curiosity killed the cat.”
“Satisfaction brought it back,” he riposted, and she seemed to consider this before reaching for the hem of her beaded pine-green dress, slowly pulling it up to her hip.
Wally’s eyes went wide, and not at the gams. “That’s a gun.”
“Mm-hmm,” she hummed, dropping the fabric again and turning her head away. The back of her neck was smooth in the gold light from the lamps over the bar. He gulped. “I’m just an extra pair of eyes. You should see the big’un.”
“Big’un?” he repeated weakly, now a bit too bewildered for wit.
“The Browning,” she whispered. “In the back. See?”
She nodded subtly to a young man situated against the opposite wall, fine white-blond hair and blue eyes and a sallow, angular face. Wally’s eyes went protuberant, because even without his glasses, he could see the silhouette of a machine gun in his hands.
“Holy smokes, you’re a gangster,” he squeaked out in one breath, his hand flying instinctively to his forehead.
She laughed, a purring sort of sound, and languidly straightened from the bar.
“I’d advise you duck, sweets,” she murmured to him, and before he could react, before he could even think of ducking anyway, she had reared her head back and smirked and shouted, “Stick ‘em up, Cam.”
Wally wasn’t quite clear on what happened next. He never would be. He heard a few shots fire from the Browning, and heard glass shatter, and several women screamed.
He searched the crowd with frantic eyes and found the others. Raquel was holding the microphone with a bewildered expression. Cal had stood to stand just slightly in front of her. Conner was holding Maggie to him tightly, his visage hardened, and Dick and Zatanna’s hands were clasped together.
All of them were looking at him. He glanced over and nearly jumped. The blonde’s pistol was pointed at his chest
“Everyone keep quiet!” she commanded, so calmly that it made Wally shake. “No trouble, folks; this’ll be no trouble. We’re just looking for an old friend. Now nobody move, or my friend here’s going to be aiming at more than just that nice mirror. Understood?”
A few people nodded. That seemed to satisfy the blonde, but her companion spoke up.
“Understood?” he roared, lifting the gun. A woman fainted. A few screamed. This time, nearly everyone bobbed their heads, cowering.
The boy’s grin was wicked and sharp. “That’s more like it.”
“Easy, trigger-happy,” the blonde ordered. “No messes.” She turned back to the others, all business. “Now. Which of you clever folks can find me a Mr. Richard Grayson?”
Wally’s every rib clenched in on him and he shook his head mutely at her, desperate.
“He’s not here,” he whispered. “Please, just—”
“Pipe down, Freckles, or your brains’ll be wall paint,” the boy sneered, jerking his gun in Wally’s direction.
The blonde shot him a warning look that made him balk. Wally didn’t know whether to be grateful or just slightly less sure that he was about to faint.
“I’m here.” Dick’s voice. Wally closed his eyes and clenched his teeth.
“Atta boy,” the blonde said, pleased. “Don’t just stand there, Dickie; we need your help with something.”
Wally managed to wrench his eyes back open again to see Dick walking slowly toward them with a solemn but calculating expression. It took Zatanna a moment too long to let go of his hand.
“Help’s what I do best,” he answered slowly. “When people aren’t pointing guns at my friends.”
“Situation’s beyond our control,” the blonde said with a false sigh. She finally turned her gun deliberately onto Dick, who put his hands up. Wally’s heart was hammering. “Where’s Malone?”
“I’m not sure who you mean,” Dick said innocently.
“Malone; where is he?” the blonde reiterated with heat that only made Wally feel more sick. “Don’t play dumb, you shit; we know he’s here.”
Dick shrugged silently, shaking his head. “I don’t know any Malones, lady.”
“Take us to him or you’re a dead man, little fish,” the boy hissed, raising the Browning sharply. Dick flinched just slightly. “We’re not fooling around here.”
“Put that down,” Wally shouted before he could stop himself. The barrel of the blonde’s gun was at his throat in an instant.
“I’ll put you down if you don’t keep your mouth shut,” she snarled lowly. “Four-eyes.”
“I have two eyes, thank you,” Wally retorted.
“Shut him up,” the boy – Cam, yes, that was right – yelped furiously. “We don’t have much time.”
“Who are you?!” Wally half-shouted to the blonde. She didn’t reply.
“Listen, I’m afraid someone must have given you bad directions, because there’s no Malone here,” Dick said coolly. “But, if you’d like, I’d be thrilled to buy you a couple of dri—”
Cam swung the gun back to him and fired.
Wally’s heart shuddered to a stop, and Dick fell. He heard Zatanna scream.
“Dick!” he roared, his voice breaking, surging down toward Dick’s splayed-out form, toward the blood pooling on the floor.
He fell beside him on all fours, his arms shaking to hold him up, his eyes wet. Something welling up inside of him dissolved when he saw that Dick was only clutching his arm, his teeth gritted.
“Cameron!” the blonde shrieked in a rage that cut the whole room back into silence. “You idiot, you—I’ll kill you if you fouled this up, you worthless piece of—we need him to tell us where Malone is!”
“He was running his mouth!” Cam barked back. “We don’t need him; let me just—”
“No!” Wally looked up to see that the girl had suddenly placed herself in front of them, her arms spread wide. Protecting them. “Put that god damn gun down before I shoot you myself.”
Wally turned his attention back to Dick, grabbing his head at either side to steady him.
“Dick—” he choked out wetly. “Are you okay, are you okay?”
“Peachy,” Dick replied in a ragged voice, wincing with each syllable. “Won’t be – pitching any curveballs for a while, though.”
The blonde suddenly appeared opposite Wally, hunkered down with her pistol still in hand, surveying the wound on Dick’s arm with something that closely resembled guilt.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, just barely, so that Wally wasn’t even sure that he’d heard her. Her voice was back to its normal abrasive volume in a heartbeat. “Kid. Where is Malone?”
“He is in the back room,” Cal called out abruptly, in tight tones that sounded on the brink of a much greater emotion.
The blonde girl and Cam looked to him in unison, and Wally did, too. He was standing on the bandstand, his fists at his sides, his gaze practically pulsing with rage.
“Do not hurt anyone else,” he murmured. “Please. Do us this kindness.”
“Funny!” Cam cackled. “But, I guess you just did us a kindness. So it’s only fair.”
“Get up,” the blonde said under her breath to Dick, hooking her hand under his arm until he groaned. Again, in a bare little whisper, “I am so sorry. Get up. Take us to him.”
“A girl like you, sorry?” Dick jibed weakly, his smirk uneven. “I don’t buy it.”
Wally and the blonde both grasped his arms at the same time before carefully hoisting him to his feet. Wally started to offer his shoulders as support, but Dick shoved him away, clutching the open wound on his left arm with one bloodied hand.
“Right this way, lady and gent,” he said in a low and bitter voice that chilled the very air.
He stepped forward and Wally started to follow, just on instinct, but the blonde halted him, pushing him back with one hand and looking him dangerously in the eye.
“Stay here,” she growled, pointing her gun at all of them once more before striding after Dick, pushing him forward.
Cam stayed behind, his machine gun aimed at the crowd. Zatanna was crying and Raquel’s hyperventilating was halfway audible due to the microphone.
Wally kept his hands at either side of his head, his face twisted with hatred as he locked eyes with Cam. Cam’s sneer was venomous, but it did nothing to quell the broiling in Wally’s blood.
Barely sixty seconds passed, and then they heard a gunshot.
Wally felt sick.
“No,” Maggie whispered, brokenly.
Just then, the blonde came striding rapidly back from the hallway. Dick was not with her. Without looking at any of them, without even looking at Cam, she ran for the door and Cam followed her, his back to her as he kept the gun trained on the crowd, and just like that, they were gone, the door slamming closed behind them. No one dared move.
He sprinted clumsily down the hall, past the instruments and the framed photographs and the impeccable wallpaper, his hands slamming against the walls when he would stumble. He lurched to a stop at the last doorway, the one to Bruce’s office. It was pitch-black inside. He felt bile rising in his throat.
“Di—” His voice cracked before he could finish, but it was only coming out as a useless rasp anyway. “Di… Di…”
“I’m all right.” Dick’s voice came out of the darkness. “So’s Bruce.”
A grunt of affirmation. Bruce.
“Oh—” Wally coughed out, doubling over. “Oh… Christ—”
He threw up, right there, his stomach spasming. He felt a hand patting his shoulder, no doubt Dick’s, and he heard Bruce mutter something about the carpet, but he vomited once more through his tears and his shaking, his hands on his knees.
“How?” he managed to get out after he caught his breath and his stomach calmed. He raised his head to see Bruce striking a match and lighting a candle on the desk. “How… did you…?”
It illuminated the room just enough for him to see that one of the lights had been shattered, and there was glass all over the floor.
Dick breathed out shakily.
“She shot the lamp,” he explained. “I thought Bruce was a goner, but at the last second she just lifted her arm and… oh, applesauce.”
He swayed, slumping against the doorway, and Wally managed to catch him by his good arm, steadying him. Dick’s face was drawn and pale and the hand trying to stem the blood flow was utterly useless.
“Get a doctor,” Wally blurted out, but Bruce was already picking up the phone. “Dick, Dick, it’s fine; you’re going to be fine. You’re going to be just fine.”
It was an order, not a promise.
“I’d be a lot finer if you’d quit yammering,” Dick muttered. He was unconscious by the time the doctor arrived, and there was an ambulance and a stretcher and a lot of girls crying.
Wally just blacked it out after a while.
Dick was in the hospital for a week and Wally visited him every day. Zatanna was usually there before him, seated primly in the same chair in the same spot, right next to his bed. Dick would always make some smart remark, like, “Scram; I only want the pretty one,” or, “You’re a lot shorter than the last doctor who came in, but I guess you’ll do.”
Wally learned to laugh at them once his glasses stopped perpetually fogging up every time he saw him.
The last day before Dick was released to head home again, back to his attic room over the Red Robin, Wally figured it was time he asked the question that had been sitting in the back of his mouth ever since That Night.
“So,” he said after Dick beat him for the sixth time at gin rummy. “Who’s Malone?”
Dick’s shoulders sagged straight away. He used the arm that wasn’t currently in a sling to set the deck of cards aside.
“Matches Malone,” he answered after a time. “That’s what Bruce calls himself down there. Or called himself. He doesn’t use it much anymore because – well, because no one really even knows he’s around, since he stays holed up in that stupid office all the time.”
Wally all-out guffawed.
“Matches Malone,” he reiterated disbelievingly. “Where’d he come up with that?”
“Why, a matchbook, obviously,” Dick said dryly, which made Wally snort. “But—I guess they wanted to bump him off, whoever they were.” He muttered something under his breath that Wally didn’t quite catch but it sounded suspiciously like “hoods.”
“What the heck would they want to bump him off for?” Wally asked, mostly rhetorical. “He’s so pleasant.”
“Probably mad that he’s getting a bunch of business and he’s not letting any mobs in on it,” he replied. “Seems doubtful that any two-bit mobster in his right mind would approve of a guy getting more cash than him and giving it all away.”
“But they didn’t kill him,” Wally mused. “You said she shot out the light.”
“Don’t look at me; I’m no detective,” he said. “If you’re so curious, figure it out yourself.”
“Just happy you’re alive,” Wally muttered, taking the cards and shuffling them.
“Yeah, imagine where you’d be without me,” Dick exclaimed dramatically. “Alone and sad and lonely.”
“Alone and lonely. Nice combo.”
“Deal the stinkin’ cards.”
“All right,” Wally said through a mouthful of ham sandwich, raising a finger for emphasis. “I know we’re not detectives, but we all need to detect.”
Maggie glanced up from her salad with a worried crinkle between her eyebrows.
“Detect what?” she asked.
“Hopefully where the other half of my sandwich went,” Conner grumbled, and Wally purposefully averted his eye.
The seven of them were gathered at a round table outside a sandwich joint downtown, celebrating Dick’s walk to freedom from the hospital (it had been Wally’s idea to eat, but not his idea to pay, but Dick considered it even due to the fact that Wally had lost so much at cribbage).
“Get to the point,” Zatanna ordered, tossing her cloth napkin at Wally’s head. He barely avoided it, shooting her a glare.
“I am,” he said, sounding insulted. “So. The point. Yes. Query: If those two were sent in to knock off Bruce, why didn’t they?”
The others all stared at him. Dick set down his sandwich and put his hand over his mouth, shoulders shaking with silent laughter.
“Really!” Wally barked, scowling at him. “It is a legitimate question and I’d like to know.”
Zatanna quirked an eyebrow at him.
“Bad aim?” she suggested.
“Really bad aim?” Conner offered a moment after.
“Well…” Maggie frowned, biting her lip. “That girl – she went in to get Mr. Wayne alone. The boy stayed outside with us, and he – he certainly seemed like the more, um, violent of the two.”
“Yes,” Cal agreed pensively, setting down his fork. “He would no doubt have shot Mr. Wayne where he stood. But the girl showed hesitation several times throughout the ordeal.”
“So…” Wally suggested. “Maybe she didn’t want to plug him after all!”
“But that’s crazy,” Raquel argued with high eyebrows. “Why would they go to all that trouble if they didn’t want him dead?”
“I didn’t say they,” Wally corrected her triumphantly. “I said she.”
“Have you lost your mind?” Conner interjected, looking somber. “He shot Dick.”
“And she got mad,” Wally reminded him. “Real mad.”
“So…” Maggie said, sitting forward as though something was beginning to dawn on her. “Maybe she made sure that she was the one who went in, alone – and maybe the reason she made a point to try not to hurt anyone – was because she wanted to make sure Mr. Wayne was all right! Maybe she didn’t want to have any part of it at all.”
“See, now you’re on the trolley!” Wally commended her, slapping one hand on the table for emphasis. “She could’ve been coerced. Or, I dunno, maybe they had the wrong Malone and she figured it out.”
“They had the right Malone,” Dick assured him solemnly.
“Why are you defending her?” Conner asked, perplexed. “She and her pal almost killed Dick and – and they broke the mirror. And that lamp.”
“I don’t know, it’s a feeling,” Wally answered, toying with the corner of his napkin. “Something funny was going on. Something was off.”
“Yeah, I think it was my arm,” Dick quipped.
“Oh, dry up, Dick; you’re not an amputee yet.” Wally rolled his eyes and Dick clutched his chest as though injured by the words.
“Dry up, he says,” Dick lamented to the sky. “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
“Not that arm, I’d wager,” Raquel said, and that was enough to get a laugh out of all of them except Dick, who merely sat up straighter with vexation.
“Oh, don’t whine,” Zatanna said with a roll of her eyes. “It’s undignified.”
“Yes, Zatanna has taught me all about dignity,” Dick snarked out, which resulted in Zatanna snatching up a napkin to throw at him.
She bumped her elbow into the salt shaker by mistake and it tipped over, spilling salt all over the table. None of them particularly reacted except for Conner, who gasped and scooped it up, tossing it immediately over his shoulder.
“Whew, that was a close one,” Dick deadpanned.
“You’ll thank me one of these days,” Conner muttered churlishly. “Someday a piano’s going to fall out a window and kill you and it’ll be because you didn’t throw spilled salt over your shoulder.”
“I’d better stay away from windows and grand pianos, then,” Dick said wryly. Wally sniggered.
“All right, but back to this girl,” Zatanna rerouted them, folding her hands crisply in front of her. The sunlight caught the brim of her hat and made it shine for an instant. “So she’s, what, a moll, maybe? Or a gangster herself?”
“Could’ve been on the hobbyhorse with the Browning fellow,” Dick suggested. “But nah, she doesn’t seem the type.”
“I don’t think she liked him very much anyway,” Maggie inserted.
“She yelled at him a lot,” Conner agreed. “More than she yelled at us.”
“Ironic, considering he was the one with the bigger gun.” Raquel shrugged. “But, okay – where does this leave us?”
“Bored,” Conner answered bluntly.
“Hot,” Zatanna said, fanning herself with one gloved hand.
“Done,” Dick finished, raising his good arm. “Check, please!”
Wally sighed and threw his napkin down.
Bruce didn’t open the Black Bat for several nights after what happened. He told them that it was out of the question – the mirror needed to be replaced, as did his favorite office lamp, and the bullet holes in the walls needed to be papered over, oh, and also, Dick had nearly gotten his arm shot off, so there was lots to repair before they could open their doors again.
In retaliation, Dick made a point of doing as many tasks as he could using both arms, wrestling the injured one out of the sling and lifting heavy things when no one was looking. He had to go back in to get it re-stitched twice.
“I’m going to kill you if you don’t do it to yourself first,” Wally scolded him, which only made him laugh.
“You have no idea how much I’d love to see you try.”
It was when Dick was occupied with being chided by Kaldur for attempting to move tables that Wally was able to slip into the hallway to Bruce’s office. He hadn’t been anywhere near the place or the man since That Night, but he supposed, in retrospect, that if anyone was going to be privy to who wanted Bruce Wayne dead, it was Bruce Wayne.
He knocked on the ajar door.
“Come in,” Bruce answered a bit gruffly.
Wally nudged the door open and stepped sheepishly in, straightening his suit jacket nervously. Bruce glanced up from what looked to be a letter he was writing, his expression unreadable.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“Uh,” Wally spluttered, one hand flying up to scratch his head. “Uh. So. Those hoods who shot your lamp. Did you know them? That is, of them.”
Bruce blinked at him once, twice, and set down his fountain pen. Were he not in present company, Wally probably would have punched himself in the face.
“You could say that,” Bruce replied after a moment.
“Oh.” Wally cleared his throat, admittedly surprised. “Wow. Well, that was easy; thank you.”
“Is that all?” Bruce half-sighed.
“Well, no,” Wally said sheepishly, rubbing the back of his neck. “Actually, uh, I was wondering if you could… tell me. The things you know. Of them.”
“What on earth for?” Bruce asked with a furrowed brow. “Don’t tell me Dick’s planning on going after them.”
“Oh no, no no no,” Wally replied hastily. “Well, I mean, I guess I can’t actually know for sure, but I’m pretty sure I know for sure, since we’re – since he tells me, or would tell me, if he planned on going after someone, but—”
“West,” Bruce interjected, pinching the bridge of his nose. “The point.”
“Point. Right.” Wally attempted to clear his throat again, but he only sort of squeaked. “You – wouldn’t happen to be able to name names, would you, Mr. Wayne, sir?”
“I’ll be happy to tell you,” Bruce told him, “if you drop the sir.”
“Oh.” Wally blinked. “Yes, sir. I mean—!”
“Close enough,” Bruce sighed, leaning back in his chair. “The gunman was the only familiar one. He’s been mixed up with some shady business here and there.” He scowled up at Wally, who stiffened. “I’m not giving you specifics, at the risk of Dick losing his other arm.”
“He didn’t even lose this one; don’t be so dramatic,” Wally groaned before he could stop himself. “Uh, sir! Or not-sir! Thank you, for the information, sir. Not—applesauce. I’ll be going.”
He turned swiftly around on his heel and strode out, nearly bumping into the opposite wall. When he emerged into the main room again, he found Dick immediately – he was seated at a table with a glass of milk, his arms folded, his lower lip protruding.
Wally raised his eyebrows. “What’s with the cow?”
“Courtesy of Calvin Dur-mom,” Dick half-yelled over his shoulder at the bar, where Cal was wiping glasses clean. He shook his head and turned back to Wally. “So, what’ve you got?”
“Well,” Wally said hesitantly. “Now – listen, I’m not saying we need to break into his office, but—”
“But we need to break into his office.” Unexpectedly (in a manner what Wally should have expected), Dick’s face split into an impish grin. “Now you’re talkin’, pal.”
“Simple question,” Wally hissed, leaning over Dick’s shoulder as the latter picked the lock to Bruce’s office later that night after Bruce had gone. “What if he comes back?”
“Simple answer,” Dick replied cheerfully. “We’re dead. Hand me another bobby pin.”
Wally spluttered, but did as he was told. Dick snatched what felt like the tenth of the pins they’d pilfered from Zatanna’s handbag and tilted it delicately into the keyhole.
“You know, when I said keep watch, I meant of the hallway, not me,” Dick said after a moment.
“Yeah, well, gotta make sure you don’t pull your stitches for the hundredth time since this morning,” Wally grumbled. “You almost done?”
“Don’t get your knickers in a twist,” Dick ordered him dismissively. “And pipe down; this is delicate work and I need total silence.”
“Baloney,” Wally snapped, but forced himself to fall quiet anyway.
After another pause, he heard a click, and Dick let out a triumphant giggle.
“We’re in the moneeey,” he sang under his breath before straightening to his feet, handing Wally back the bobby pins. “Hold these.”
“Oh, yes ma’am,” Wally bit back. Dick gently pushed the door ajar and slipped inside, and Wally followed, but not quite as gracefully; he stubbed his toe against the corner of the doorway and hissed.
“Dear Santa, for Christmas, I’d like a new assistant,” Dick said to the ceiling.
Wally cuffed him in the back of the head, and said, after a moment, “All right, gumshoe; what’re we looking for?”
Dick switched on the desk lamp, which splashed the room in gold light, and inspected the drawers behind the desk, humming pensively to himself.
“What are we looking for?” Wally demanded again through gritted teeth.
Dick put up one hand to silence him.
“Bobby pin,” he ordered. Wally huffed and handed it brusquely to him, tapping his foot as Dick toyed with the lock on one of the desk drawers. There was a pop after just a few seconds and Dick flicked the bobby pin back at him; it hit him square in the face.
“Thank you,” Wally said as sarcastically as he possibly could.
“Indispensable,” Dick muttered.
“Not you; me,” Dick said breezily. “And my dazzling intellect. Now get over here; it’s snoop-o’clock.”
“I appreciate the notice,” Wally groused, shuffling over to stand beside him.
Dick pulled open the bottom drawer and Wally’s eyes went round. It was stuffed full of folders, filed neatly beside each other in a line that went all the way to the back.
“Jeez Louise,” Wally breathed as Dick knelt down to inspect it.
“Told you Bruce is a thorough sort of fellow,” Dick said, sounding smug. “Now let’s see. Cam… Cam… ah, here it is!”
He plucked a folder out from the mass and Wally’s eyes caught the label – Mahkent, Cameron. He and Dick simultaneously grinned at each other as Dick opened the file on the pristine surface of the desk.
“That’s him,” Wally said confidently, and sure enough, the worn sepia photograph clipped to the inside of the folder was a portrait of the narrow-faced young man who had so expertly wielded the Browning.
“Well, he’s no beauty queen, but at least he has good aim,” Dick quipped. “Hmm… works for Crusher. Interesting. Did some time here and there, nothing huge, bank robberies – member of the Crock gang since ’21…”
“Hold the horses,” Wally interjected. “Who’s Crusher? And what’s the – the what’d-you-say. The Crock gang?”
“Patience, Wallace; all will be revealed in due time,” Dick practically giggled. “Well, now that we’ve got that little thread, let’s see…” He hunkered down beside the drawer again. “If it leads to any needles, shall we?”
He flicked to a spot near the front of the drawer and breathed, “Struck gold, m’boy,” producing three thick files that were grouped together. He slapped them onto the desk, where they landed with a thump.
The label of the first one read: Crock, Lawrence. The second was Crock, Artemis, and the third was Nguyen, Jade.
“Nn-goo-yen?” Wally squinted at it. “What the heck kind of a name is that?”
“An odd one; let’s leave it at that.” Dick sniffed, flipping open the first file, the thickest of the bunch. “Now, to answer your first question… this is Crusher. By night known as Lawrence Crock.”
“Matches Malone, Crusher Crock…” Wally shook his head. “You guys ought to start a circus with names like that.”
Dick’s eyes ducked. Wally didn’t notice.
“Anyway,” Dick continued after clearing his throat. “He’s probably Happy Harbor’s biggest-known hood. Orchestrates nearly all the crime around this place. And he’s a mean one, too. Bootlegger. Murderer. Arsonit. Jaywalker. It’s all here.”
“Dickens,” Wally exclaimed.
The photograph showcased a man even more muscle-bound than the barrel-chested Conner, but not in the same soft-around-the-edges sort of manner. His eyes were small, but sharp, and his chiseled jaw was fearsome, even under the fedora perched snugly on his head.
“So you think he ordered the hit on Bruce?” he asked.
“Without a doubt,” Dick affirmed. “And he may be a kingpin, but he’s not our needle.”
He flipped Lawrence Crock’s file shut, pushed it aside, and brought out the second one labeled Artemis. When he opened it, Wally’s eyes fell on the photograph immediately.
His stomach jerked. He wasn’t sure if it was unpleasant or not.
“Cripes, that’s her,” he said. “Bet my bottom dollar.”
“No need; it is.” Dick’s frown was thoughtful. “The portrait’s from 1921. She doesn’t look much different.”
Wally disagreed. The photograph of her showed longer hair, an angrier expression, more gangly limbs. The glare with which she was fixating the camera packed nearly as much of a punch as her father’s.
“Well, I don’t know, she seems to have grown a little,” he observed. “In – certain areas.”
Dick scoffed, shoving at Wally’s head.
“Focus and read.” He cleared his throat. “Looks like she’s Crusher’s daughter. I had a sneaking suspicion. Apparently he’s had her under his thumb from the time she was a kid, but she’s always been giving him trouble, unlike her sister. No one knows what happened to the mother. She’s risen to prominence over the past couple years, it seems. Practically their mascot now. Ironic, considering her sister’s reputation as being much more efficient. I guess Crusher likes showing her off.” He whistled, his eyes scanning the pages. “Yeesh, this girl’s a regular bearcat.”
“Yeah, but with a gun,” Wally said, a bit distantly.
“Crack shot, too,” Dick muttered, his eyebrows pinching together. “Word is she can hit anything. No wonder she hit the lightbulb so square.”
Wally scratched behind his ear in thought. “So if she’s got such a cold sister, what makes her so special?”
“Probably the fact that she’s going against him in the first place,” Dick suggested. “He wants to fix her.”
“So she’s – not all bad, then?” Wally asked.
Dick glanced aside at him, smirking.
“Remains to be seen,” he snickered. “Let’s take a look at the sister.”
He set aside Artemis’s file and Wally’s eyes followed it until they were ensnared by the flopping open of the last folder.
Jade Nguyen, in the photograph, had the same tilt-of-mouth and narrow-ended eyes as her sister, but her hair was a solid black and her entire demeanor was smokier. She was not glaring at the camera, but sizing it up.
“She’s a looker,” Wally said.
Dick smacked him upside the head.
“So she’s the sister,” Dick muttered. “By all accounts, she should be the star pupil of Crusher. Yeesh, she’s knocked off more people than Mad Dog Coll.”
“Swell,” Wally said, mouth dry. “What a family. Can you imagine what Christmas dinner must be like?”
“One-track mind as always,” Dick sighed, snapping the file closed. “I’ll put these back. Keep watch.”
Wally did not keep watch. He stared contemplatively at a speck of dust on the desk, his mind a creaking mass, until Dick whacked his shoulder to get his attention again.
“Job’s done, partner,” Dick said sarcastically. “Try not to get too paranoid; it can ruin a man.”
“Let’s get outta here,” Wally mumbled, closing the drawer with his foot.
“What’s got you all serious?” Dick asked after Wally closed the door behind them.
“Well… think about it,” Wally told him, his hand at his chin in musing. “She’s been causing a stink for her dad all her life, practically. She apologized to you twice after you got shot; she sounded like she was ready to tear that Mahkent’s head off, and then when it came down to pulling the hit on Bruce, she didn’t even try to take the shot. Mahkent probably thinks he’s dead.”
“Yeah, but that’s a darn silly way to pretend you killed someone,” Dick said. “Mahkent could see Bruce walking along the sidewalk anytime. Heck, so could Crusher. Soon as the cat’s outta the bag, she’s going to be in big trouble for not bumping him off like she was told.”
Wally’s stomach dropped. “Yeah. She is.”
They both fell into silence as they closed up the speak for the night, strolling down the tunnel back upstairs without much direction.
Dick turned to him at one point, smiling wearily.
“Sandwich?” he offered.
“Richard, you read my mind.”
Dick stretched his arms over his head, sighing contentedly.
“Y’know,” he said, “I think I could get used to this detective business.”
Wally honestly wasn’t expecting finding her to be as simple as it was. He was expecting months and months of trails gone cold, leads, questions, dwindling attentions. He wasn’t even expecting success, in the end.
But, in retrospect, he realized that Dick had probably arranged for it to happen the way it did on purpose. He was that way with everything.
Despite how it all started to come together, the two weeks leading up to it had been quiet. Dick’s arm still had its sling, but it was mostly to assuage Bruce, because Wally couldn’t think off the top of his head of any occasions on which Dick had actually used it.
The Black Bat opened again on a Saturday after Cal expertly refurbished it (with a great deal of assistance from Raquel, her arms, as usual, surprisingly steely). Somehow, all seven of them would drift back to their usual table next to the bar every night, swapping glasses of gin and laughing about a wide array of stupid things.
That was probably Wally’s favorite part about summer – the laughing.
During the day, he would mostly just read, or go places with Dick or Zatanna (never the both of them, bless it), or help out at his aunt and uncle’s general store. He liked to think he charmed customers into buying, but his uncle Barry dryly told him that they were only doing it to get him to stop yammering.
Either way, Wally rationalized, he was doing everyone a service.
It was the last day of June. The month had soared by before Wally had even thought to blink at it. The heat was swelling, humid and pushy, and he’d spent most of the day indoors with Dick’s dog-eared copy of Fitzgerald’s new book that he’d been insisting Wally read all year. There were a lot of words that made him yawn.
Night had fallen outside, and he and Dick had gone strolling down the avenue to the same old Red Robin, nonchalantly slipped into the ladies’ room and opened the passage, walked with briskness down the tunnel, flung open the metal door with pizzazz. It was an old routine, but never a tired one.
The Black Bat’s reopening had brought in a larger chunk of customers than usual, even in spite of the fact that Bruce had changed the passcode on the lock. Wally watched them all dancing and chattering from his barstool, tapping his foot to the rhythm of the band. Dick had disappeared with Zatanna ages ago and Maggie was obliviously making more boys fall for her while Conner watched with something suspiciously close to a pout.
Raquel was waiting the tables, as usual, but Cal was up with the band, playing his saxophone in his suspenders and pinstripe pants, looking slick as always. Wally raised his glass of apple juice to him in cheers when he glanced over and winked.
Wally took a swig of the juice and let his eyes wander, and then he promptly choked.
She was there. She was standing right there, in the corner near the edge of the dance floor, keeping her head down. He’d recognize the legs anywhere, though, but he didn’t see the same bulge on the thigh from her pistol.
He coughed violently into his fist, slamming his glass down. He must have been going crazy. She wouldn’t just waltz back into the place after she’d nearly shot its owner and indirectly shot said owner’s heir.
He looked back up again, expecting her to be gone, but she hadn’t moved. Her arms were still folded, and her expression was still loose and distant and just a little bit yearning. She was wearing something much more opulent than her last ensemble, evergreen colors and gold beads and a string of pearls.
Wally gulped, abandoned his glass, and abruptly noticed that he was walking toward her.
He tried to stop himself. And he managed it, too, once he was standing right in front of her.
She caught his eye immediately, looking, for a moment, terrified. She seemed to consider escaping, but, after a moment, apparently chose to stand her ground. It felt stupid to think it, but her eyes shot right through him, just like the bullets he expected would come out of that gun of hers.
They said nothing. She didn’t blink, her gaze fierce, like a challenge. He managed to shove his hands in his pockets in an attempt to look composed, but the way her attention was riveted onto him was making his palms start to sweat.
After what felt like an extraordinarily long time (or perhaps the sound of the jazz was only traveling at a muffled, honey-slow pace because of the way she was looking at him), she spoke first.
“Don’t make a scene,” she said.
“Me? A scene?” he yelled, turning a couple of heads. “Never!”
She clapped a hand to her forehead and he winced, forcing his voice to quiet.
“Sorry,” he muttered. Then: “You know, if Dick knew you were here, he’d be the one making a scene.”
“How’s about we not let the cat out of the bag, huh?” she suggested, her voice taut. “I’m not here to cause any trouble. I just wanted…” She looked away. “It doesn’t matter. Scram.”
“I’ve been reading about you,” Wally blurted out, and flushed when she fired an askance look at him. “That is, I’ve been researching you thoroughly. Or, well, Dick has; I’ve just been handing him the bobby pins.”
She was staring at him with an increasing level of dubiousness, leaning slightly away. Wally would have slapped himself across the face if no one had been watching.
“No, but—” He somehow managed to get ahold of himself, his expression going serious. “I need to talk to you.”
“You’re doing a marvelous job of that, I assure you.” She smirked, turning her head away.
“Listen,” he hissed. “I don’t care what you’re here for. But you and that two-bit hood nearly shot my best friend’s arm off, all just so you could break W—Malone’s lamp. Why?”
She swung her head back to him with a falsely astonished expression.
“What, you mean I missed?” she gasped.
“I’m not fooling around,” Wally told her adamantly. It seemed to quell her sarcasm, if only for a moment. “We can help you, Artemis.”
Her eyes widened in the first genuine show of fear he’d seen.
“How do you know my name?” she demanded lowly.
“I know enough.” He glanced down, at his feet. “It’s obvious you didn’t want to plug him. That’s why you made your mook stick outside with us. And you didn’t want anyone to get hurt, either; you stopped him from going at Dick again, and I’m – grateful.” He cleared his throat, trying to push the rising heat out of his cheeks. “Like I said – I’ve been learning about you. You don’t like where you are, do you?”
“That’s none of your damn business,” she snarled, and his head jerked up at the way her voice was shaking. Her shoulders were stiff, and her eyes were hard. “Didn’t your mama ever teach you not to stick your nose where it doesn’t belong?”
“She taught me a lot of things,” Wally retorted. “Like how it’s the right thing to help people who need it.”
She scoffed, rather bitterly, and finally unfolded her arms, gazing out at the laughing patrons with something Wally couldn’t quite decipher.
“You can’t help me,” she said frankly, then paused. “Let me guess – you’re not a big city kid, are you?”
“Well – uh, no, I guess not,” he replied. “I mean, I grew up in Keystone City. On a farm. In the country, y’know.”
Artemis laughed a little, quiet and just a pitch short of derisive.
“Well, let me give you some big city advice, then, country boy,” she retorted, sighing out through her nose. “Don’t get mixed up in other people’s problems if you don’t have to. Much easier to survive that way.”
“Y’know, you’re awfully morbid,” Wally observed. “You can’t be much older than I am.”
She cocked an eyebrow, her eyes shifting to look at him aside.
“Is that an inquiry?” she asked slyly.
“I’m just wondering.”
“I’m twenty,” she said crisply. He was surprised she’d even answered.
“So am I,” he mumbled, sounding taken aback even to himself. “But you’re so – uh, jaded.”
“I can’t imagine why; can you?” she said suddenly, turning to face him with her hands on her hips.
He straightened under her gaze. She looked, for all intents and purposes, like she was about to unleash hell directly onto him, with a glint in her glowering eyes that frankly made him quite nervous. He braced himself, frowning at her, curling his hands into fists in case she decided to try strangling him. Just because he couldn’t see the gun didn’t mean it wasn’t there.
But just then, just as the saxophone hit a high note and everyone cheered, stomping along to the rhythm of the next dance, something behind her eyes changed, and the glint dwindled. Her shoulders went a little looser, and her glare went a little more unsteady, and as she let her arms slide down to her sides again, she gazed at him with a quiet consideration that caught him off-guard.
He looked at her for the first time, really looked. Her face seemed perpetually hardened by shadowy, unspeakable things, and sometimes the gray in her eyes was so dark that it was nearly black. Her hair had, clearly, once been very long, because twice when she’d been nervous he’d see her put a hand up and run her fingers through it and look surprised when they ran out of strands so soon.
She was wary, and cynical, and he still hadn’t seen her smile. Then again, the context hadn’t exactly demanded dimples at their last encounter.
“We can help you,” he said quietly. “I can help you. Your father – Crusher Crock is your father, right? – he won’t be in the dark about Malone being alive forever. We can help.”
“How?” she asked after a moment, sounding more derisive than curious.
Wally blew out a breath. This was the part he hadn’t exactly worked out, but Dick had taught him a little tactic called bluffing.
“Malone practically owns this town,” he explained carefully. “He’s on the police’s good side, even.”
“That’s impossible,” Artemis retorted. “He owns a damn speak; how can he be on their good side?”
“Well, they, uh…” Wally shifted. “They – don’t know that particular tidbit.”
Artemis’s eyebrows went up.
“So then how can you expect to take down a mobster without getting dragged down with him?” She scoffed. “You’re a brilliant strategist, country boy; really.”
“Don’t call me that,” he snapped. “But listen – the Black Bat’s the safest place in town. That restaurant upstairs, y’know, the cover story? Practically untouchable. Owned by one of the richest men in the country. Top notch security.”
“Oh, clearly,” Artemis said with dripping sarcasm. “Was that top notch security of yours off-duty the other night, then? Because Cam and I didn’t see them anywhere.”
Wally grimaced, unable to come up with any excuse for that particular oversight. Honestly, he and Dick had been racking their brains trying to figure out how Artemis and Cameron had even gotten in, since getting to the speakeasy was practically a journey to the center of the earth, but they hadn’t conjured up much. Dick had chalked it up to just a product of the grapevine, but it had seemed too easy.
“Don’t sweat it, kid; I believe you,” Artemis said with a snort (and Wally started to bristle at being spoken to so condescendingly when they were precisely the same age, but she kept talking over him). “That wasn’t your fault. We only got in because we had an inside source.”
At that, Wally’s eyes went wide and his stomach turned sour.
“A what?” he stuttered. “An inside…?”
Artemis was smirking.
“My sister has a fella,” she explained coolly. “Apparently he used to be big on the scene in this dump, but, you know, time went on… and now he just lets slip a few details here and there after a nookie.”
Wally blushed at the slang, scrubbing a hand over his face to try to hide it, to no avail.
“It’s Roy, isn’t it,” he said through a tight throat. “Oh, cripes. We haven’t heard from him in two years.”
“Well, he’s alive and ginchy.” She smirked, and Wally spluttered. “Don’t worry; I doubt he knew my father wanted Malone dead. He just likes small talk with Jade, I reckon.”
“I don’t need details,” Wally barked, which made her snicker, covering her mouth with one hand. Her bracelets caught the light. “Do – so then he knows they changed the passcode?”
“Nah,” she replied easily. “I just slipped in with a crowd of flapper girls; it wasn’t hard. I haven’t the faintest idea what the new code is.”
Wally let out a breath he hadn’t noticed he’d been holding. Both he and Artemis, as the conversation ebbed, turned their heads to watch the rest of the room.
Wally gulped. “Would you like t—?”
“No,” she said.
Artemis’s face softened. “Actually, I—”
Before she could finish, Maggie had come bounding over to them out of the throng with Conner in tow, calling Wally’s name. Artemis immediately stiffened and ducked her head, pulling her short curtain of hair down over her forehead as best she could.
“There you are!” Maggie exclaimed, smiling. “They’re about to strike up the Charleston, Wally, come and dance!” She rolled her eyes. “Conner doesn’t like the Charleston.”
“I just like my legs more, that’s all,” Conner grumbled, his arms crossed. “That dance is dangerous.”
Maggie whacked him fondly on the arm before turning to Wally again. Her pearls shimmered in the light.
“Who’s your friend?” she asked, beaming at Artemis and extending her hand. “Hi, there! I’m Margaret; call me Maggie! Do you want to dance with us?”
Wally resisted every temptation to pinch the bridge of his nose. This was the one time Maggie’s perpetual sunniness was unwelcome.
Artemis stayed silent for a moment, tugging at her fingers, before tentatively taking Maggie’s hand and lifting her head, looking ashamed.
“Hello,” she mumbled, her handshake limp.
Maggie blinked at her once, twice, and then the recognition snapped on. Wally sucked in a breath, expecting the worst, but instead, Maggie’s smile grew even brighter, and, shockingly, she grabbed Artemis in a loose, quick hug, as though she was greeting an old friend.
Artemis looked utterly petrified.
“You’re here!” Maggie exclaimed cheerfully, drawing back again. “I know you; you’re the one who didn’t shoot Mr. Wayne! Thank you so much for not shooting him; it was so sweet. Would you like to dance with us?”
“I,” Artemis said, but Maggie was already leading her out onto the dance floor by the wrist, chattering at her in a friendlier fashion than Wally had ever heard.
Wally couldn’t do much but stand there and watch them go in bewilderment, but then Conner shoved him after them and he caught up.
“—and we’ve been talking about you ever since, and Wally’s so sure that you’re not a bad egg, aren’t you, Wally? And we’d love to help you out, but it was all Wally’s idea, really!” Maggie was finishing effervescently. “Did I mention you can call me Maggie?”
Artemis was floundering wordlessly, her cheeks flushed. Wally opened his mouth to try to divert Maggie’s attention, but Artemis surprised him.
“Artemis,” she said, sounding surprised even at herself. She looked up at Maggie, and smiled wanly, her face just a little bit brighter. “My name’s Artemis.”
“Artemis, huh?” Maggie gasped. “What a funny name! But so pretty! Here, here, Wally dances a mean Charleston; I’m sure you two will have fun!” She gripped both Wally and Artemis at the shoulder and shoved them together; Wally had just enough reflexes to catch Artemis’s hands to keep her from crashing into him. “I can convince Conner to dance with me if I try! Have fun, okay, please? And then we can have drinks and peanuts! Yay!”
She breezed off before either Wally or Artemis could respond, leaving behind a puff of her perfume in the air. The two of them stared at each other, unmoving, until the sound of the drums banging managed to lurch them both into movement again.
“Flush the floor, ladies and gentlemen!” the band leader cried into the microphone. “And a one, and a two, and a—”
Right on cue, the music started, a fast-paced rendition of the Charleston. Wally knew the tune like the back of his hand and, apparently, so did Artemis, because before he could even register what was happening, their knees were bumping and he was spinning her, and neither of them had even missed a breath.
It was all so unfalteringly natural, like butter.
She came to a stop and dropped her hand on his shoulder. He led them to the left, turning.
“I wasn’t lying when I said we wanted to help you!” he yelled over the music, swinging her out.
“I know!” she replied, twisting back. He dipped her, and dragged her up again. “But that doesn’t change how stupid you are!”
“You didn’t want to kill Malone,” he shouted. “That’s enough for me. This place is safe. It has connections! Plus your dad’s a crook; how long can it be before he’s in the slammer?”
“Too long,” Artemis said, practically growled. “You’re not so bad at this!”
“I’ve had a lot of practice,” he told her, unable to hold back a wink. “Hey, let go.”
“Let go!” he repeated, louder. “Let go and just dance; you look like you could use it!”
Artemis blinked skeptically at him, but did as he suggested, releasing his hands. Though they were no longer attached, their feet still stomped in unison, but Artemis, now that she was free, seemed to move much more passionately, her entire body twisting as she spun herself around.
Wally laughed at the strangeness of it all. Here he was, dancing the Charleston with the girl who’d held up this very establishment not three weeks ago. And, something in the absolute back of his mind whispered as she laughed and swung her arms, she was lovely.
Maggie and Conner went stampeding by at one point, Maggie yelling indistinctly about what an amazing pair they made, Conner looking as though he was ready to throw himself out a window. Most of the people around them were a blur.
Wally wondered how long it had been since Artemis had last danced. He supposed she didn’t have much time for it, wherever she spent her days and nights, except when she locked her door and played her records and told herself that there was no one there to ruin the moment.
He hardly knew her, he realized as she twirled on one foot, the beads on her dress flying out in horizontal strands with the movement. He hardly knew her at all.
She came back to him, grasped his hands, laughing like she was having the time of her life. He marveled at how effortlessly she moved, sinewy and flexible, her knees bending and swinging back out again with seamless instinct. There was a flush to her cheeks now, and her smile was loose and raw and genuine.
It was a mark of unfettered trust, Wally knew. And it was astonishing.
The song was almost over, so he pulled her closer against his better judgment, and she landed flush against his chest. She stared up at him, clearly torn between comfort and offense, her eyebrows furrowing, and he gave her his best winning smile, but it came out as more of a grimace. The lenses of his glasses were starting to fog up from her proximity.
“Very fancy footwork, Miss Crock,” he breathed, his throat unexpectedly dry.
He could feel her heartbeat on his. Her hands were braced at his shoulders and her eyes were just slightly wide, flickering between his as though searching for something.
Her lips twitched, and then they squirmed, and she was smirking that same sultry smirk, but much softer. She reached up with both hands and lifted his glasses away from his eyes, propping them up on his forehead. It made his hair muss.
“I like you better without the cheaters,” she said quietly. “You look much smarter.”
“Thank you,” he replied, not knowing what else to say.
Her hands drifted back away again, landing not on his shoulders, but at her sides. He released her hips immediately.
“So…” she murmured, tilting her head just slightly and squinting at him. “Let me – get on the level here. You… You want me to cut and run from the family, throw away everything I was raised for – and come hide underground with you and your bunch of owly chums?”
“That is the general idea, yes,” he answered frankly. His throat felt as though an apple was growing in the back of it. “Why? Does it – not sound appealing?”
Artemis considered the question for what seemed like quite a while, but there was conviction in her eyes from the time he finished the question. She folded her lips in to spread her lipstick out more.
“It does,” she admitted, sounding ashamed. “Very much so.” She paused and bit her lip. “I’d be a kind of an Alice, though, wouldn’t I.”
“Pardon?” Wally blinked.
“An Alice,” Artemis repeated. “Falling down the rabbit hole, no direction, no knowing up from down. Just landing in a new place, all on my own. I’m not sure if I’d be as cool in the head as she was.”
“Oh,” Wally said, catching on. “Oh, you mean that girl from the Wonderland book!”
“Yes,” Artemis muttered, her eyes wandering. “That Wonderland book.”
When she didn’t say much else for another moment, he heard words spilling out from him before he could tell himself to hold them back. But he’d always been a marvelous talker, chattering to fill the space, absolutely piss-poor (to use Raquel’s vernacular) at filtering out the things he wasn’t sure he even wanted to reveal.
“I’ve got a feeling about you,” he blurted out, the words hasty. “I don’t know what it is. I thought I’d hate you until my dying day after you and that Cam fellow came busting in here, but – I just haven’t been able to shake it. I feel like – you belong with us. Here.” With me.
And he didn’t know where they were coming from, precisely. He’d met this girl once, seen her angry photo in a file, read her entire life story as presented to him by a bum typewriter that dropped its e’s. But his impulse had just explained it more concisely than his mind ever could, so he supposed there was a sort of undeniable truth to it.
He couldn’t even really know for sure that she wouldn’t shoot him where he stood. But she’d come in unarmed, and she hadn’t decked him yet. And Dick’s arm was out of its sling, poised on Zatanna’s hip, as the band played “Stardust.” Some things were easy to forgive.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled, his cheeks flushing. “That sounded much better in my head.”
She considered him, folding her arms loosely. After a moment, the corners of her mouth started to twitch, and the smile that came under them was soft, and grateful, and just a little bit surprised.
“That’s very—” She paused, her eyes drifting down. “Sweet.”
She cleared her throat, looking him in the eye again.
“And it sounded all right,” she finished. “Out loud, that is.”
“Oh.” Wally grinned. “Good.”
Just then, he felt a finger tap his shoulder, heard a telltale, familiar cackle. He turned his head to see Dick hovering behind him, his grin sharklike.
“Well, if it isn’t the sneaky minx herself!” Dick exclaimed in good fun, extending his sling-absentee hand to Artemis’s. “How do you do?”
Artemis flummoxed, accepting his hand. He grandiosely kissed it, bowing with a flourish.
“I was so sad when you didn’t come and see me in the hospital,” he snickered. “You would’ve been better company than Wally.”
“I’m—” Artemis started to say, frowning, but Wally shoved at Dick’s shoulder with a roll of his eyes.
“Ignore him; he’s incorrigible,” he told her.
“Them’s fighting words!” Dick shouted, pointing a finger in the air. He dropped the jocular front after a moment, looking back to Artemis with a good-natured smile. “No, but really. It’s very nice to have you here. Sorry for all that business with the guns and such.”
“No—I’m sorry,” Artemis riposted sincerely. “I didn’t think Cam was going to knock your arm off; I really read him the riot act on the drive back to the harbor—”
“The harbor, eh?” Dick interjected with a wink. “That where the family mansion is?”
“Um…” she sputtered, but Dick waved a hand.
“Don’t worry; I won’t send any flowers,” he said. “Anyway. Just wanted to drop by and introduce myself without a gun pointed at me. But let me say it’s a pleasure, and that you’re welcome here anytime, without the trigger-happy beanpole.” Wally thought he heard Zatanna laughing in a corner, which prompted Dick to take his leave. “Excuse me.”
“Well, he’s—” Artemis observed stoutly. “Uh, interesting.”
“He can be all right,” Wally said dryly. “When the moon is full.”
Artemis frowned distantly, chewed her lip, and then abruptly turned to him, her beaded headband swinging. Her expression was more resolute than he’d ever seen it.
“Look,” she said, starting to fiddle with the pearls. “By all accounts, I don’t want any of you to help me, if just because there’s a very good chance that you could all get killed. Don’t interrupt.” She held up a hand when he opened his mouth. “And I don’t want to be responsible for something like that. I’ve been responsible for enough.”
She inhaled deeply, and it shook. “But it’s – it seems kinda too good to be true, doesn’t it? All of this. You don’t even know me; I’m practically a stranger. One who was sent in to kill the owner of this place. You shouldn’t trust me at all.”
“But we do,” Wally insisted. “And even if you do try to kill us, well – we can take care of ourselves. We make a good team.”
Artemis laughed, more of a release than a response, her hand flying to her forehead.
“This is nuts,” she stammered, fingers going down to hover in disbelief at her mouth. “Holy smokes. You’re off your nut a mile and a half.” She chuckled again, a bit bewilderedly, but then the smile faded. “I can’t stay here any longer. Dad’ll be wondering where I am. Jade, too. I need to go home.”
“Where’s home?” Wally asked impulsively.
She blinked at him, wide-eyed.
“You don’t wanna know that,” she murmured.
“I do,” he insisted quietly.
She stared, pensive, her face wrestling with a wide array of emotions, but eventually, she settled on blankness.
“You heard me say it.” She bowed her head, frowning gently. “My father’s going to be out on a job tonight. Don’t you dare come.”
Before she turned and started walking away, her heels clicking, she looked him in the eye just once more, and it practically knocked the wind out of him. Without even thinking on it, he leaned forward, a bit hastily, and pressed his lips against hers, just barely, as though they weren’t there at all. She didn’t move, but she didn’t move away, either. His hands never left his pockets.
As the song dwindled to a close, she slowly drew back, her eyelids low.
“Thank you,” she whispered sincerely.
“Yeah,” he replied. Brilliant.
She was gone, then, slipping away like the water in the harbor outside, the light caught on her beads fading as the rest of the crowd swallowed her up. Wally stood and watched her go and his whole mouth shivered.
Dick, seemingly out of nowhere, was at his shoulder again, the smug smile absent.
“Did you require an address, sir?” he asked blithely.
Wally nodded. Once.
The harbor was warm and dark and the stars glittered over it. Wally heard the tugboats far out at sea, foghorns crooning; the sea lions further down the beach sounded distant. Wally encountered no trouble. It was empty, and shadowy, and rife with yellow spots of light.
There was an apartment building just at the end, small but sturdy. Dick had described it to him. Crusher Crock owned the whole place, used it to house most of his gang members. Artemis had a room on the fourth floor. There was no lock on the front door, just an elevator, its black gate like a cage. It shook on the way up, and the whole building was quiet, and Wally’s heart felt like it was two steps short of jumping into his throat.
He didn’t know what he wanted or expected or considered when he knocked on the door with the number 416 on it. He didn’t know what he was doing, or why he was there. It was all blurring by at a speed that left him breathless, but he felt at home in it, this thoughtlessness, this sprinting.
When the door cracked open, it was one mascara-sharpened gray eye that peered out at him from behind it.
“Hi,” he said, sounding inexplicably winded.
An astonished frown worked it way over the eyebrow that he could see, and he heard a soft intake of air, and then the door opened fully. Artemis didn’t say a word as she stepped aside, and he didn’t prompt her, crossing the threshold immediately.
The door closed softly behind him. He stared at the room, nothing more than a dresser and a vanity and a bed, a short standing armoire, faded taupe wallpaper, a crevice of a bathroom that he couldn’t see the interior of. The dress she’d been wearing at the Black Bat was hung across the back of a chair along with her stockings.
She was standing in front of him now, sizing him up, a good few feet away beside the bed. He tried to look as sure of himself as he wanted to feel.
“You came,” she finally whispered, her expression softer than he had ever seen it.
The candles fluttering on her dresser traced waxy mountains onto the wood and pushed dark shadows into the curves of her face, lighting the walls with flickering gold. Wally stood there, his arms hanging at his sides, and gazed at her silently, forcing his eyes away from the transparent fabric of her gilded robe, because he could see everything if he looked closely enough. (The tassels began at her hips and swayed across her skin when she started to cross the tiny room to meet him.)
“I came,” he affirmed needlessly, shivering from the chill in the walls.
Her perfume smelled like roses and it crawled up his nose when her bare feet slid to a stop just in front of him. She folded in her swollen lips with caution and cupped his cheek in one hand. His eyelids hooded.
“Idiot,” she muttered. His heart capsized at the sound of it.
Her eyebrows twitched against one another and her gaze, ever-moving and brewing, switched down to his mouth. With care he couldn’t imagine a gun-toting mobster girl to possess, she slowly ran her thumb across his lower lip, and her jaw slipped agog.
“If my father catches you here,” she whispered, her dimples quirking, “you’ll be fish food.”
“Oh, they won’t like me, I’m all gristle and bones,” he laughed out weakly. “Plus, of course I came. It’s rude to ignore a lady’s request.”
“You’re saying I’m a lady,” she mumbled skeptically, chuckling and touching her forehead to his. “You’re even stupider than I thought.”
“Well, with those gams, I don’t see how you could be anything but,” he quipped, raising his eyebrows against hers and involuntarily swaying when she bumped her nose into his. She followed him, and he took her hand in his, holding it to his heartbeat.
“How tasteful,” she said with a roll of her eyes. The beads on her robe rustled and shimmered in the shallow light. “Why are you really here, country boy?”
“Because I promised I’d help you,” he answered in a murmur, still keeping the contact between their foreheads and gazing into her eyes without blinking. “You told me not to, which, of course, means that I have to. I came to help you because you drive me up the wall, and you almost shot my best friend last night, so I figure, maybe I can help you sidle on into a mob-free life, if you’ll let me.”
“Everything’s so simple to you, isn’t it?” She laughed, curtly, all tenderness gone. “It’s doubtful I’d ever get out. Daddy doesn’t like runaways, you know?”
“Miss Crock, you’re the toughest bearcat I’ve ever met; I’m sure you can handle a little bit of laying low when the chips are down.”
She scoffed, and it hit his mouth in a breath like a slap.
“You really want to help me, country boy?” she asked him, dead-on, like an arrow to the chest.
He nodded against her forehead, squeezing her hand once. “Even if it means sticking with that ridiculous nickname for the rest of my life.”
Something shifted in the air between them the moment he moves his head in affirmation, and then, before he could open his eyes again, Artemis had pressed herself flush against him. Her breath skirted across his mouth and her knee brushed between his legs, her hand slipping out of his and snaking up to rest at the nape of his neck.
He couldn’t bring himself to blink, looking at her. Her eyelids, low and sleepy and still covered with eyeshadow, hung over her gray eyes, which were fixed on his mouth for an instant that made his insides heat.
She lifted her gaze up, locking with his, and his eyes ran along each strand of short blonde hair, each eyelash, each hue of painted red on her bow lips.
“Then kiss me,” she told him, closing her eyes. “Kiss me and touch me or so help me, I’ll shoot your eye out. That simple enough for you?”
“Well, when you put it that way…” Wally started to joke, half-grinning.
Artemis, seemingly impatient with him, tilted his head down and slanted her mouth over his, the swell of her lips fitting between his with ease, tasting of vermouth and mint, pushing scarlet color onto his skin.
His hands fell to her waist and he tugged her forward until her hips bumped against him, and his heart was hammering at the feel of her robe slipping open now that she wasn’t holding it closed anymore.
She was combing her fingers through his hair as though digging for something, making noises that stuck to the inside of his throat.
“Me?” he whispered, sort of choked, after several glorious ticking moments and holding her breasts in his hands, soft skin and nipples that pressed into his palms like pebbles. “Really me?”
“Really you,” she confirmed, clearly having trouble believing it herself. By that time, she was guiding him to the bed, and when she kissed him again, he couldn’t pay attention to his balance anymore; the springs sagged beneath them when they toppled. She pulled his dizzy form over her and he banged into something.
“Ouch,” he hissed. “I think I just whacked my knee on your bedside table.”
“You’ve never done this before, have you?” she laughed, a high and crackling sound so unlike the purring chuckles he heard when she had a pistol in her gloved hands.
“What gave me away?” he asked sheepishly, on all fours over her, marveling at her collarbone and the dip between her breasts, the way her hands toyed with his necktie.
She smiled, tiltingly, and shrugged; it made the cotton sheets rumple.
“Everything’s Jake, kid,” she whispered, her eyes darting down. “I haven’t, either.”
“Oh,” he breathed out as her hands started unwinding his tie, plucking apart the buttons on his shirt, straying to the zipper of his slacks. He couldn’t help gulping when she dragged the open shirt and undone tie over his head and down his arms. She was biting down a smile that may as well have dazzled him.
“Well, then, uh.” He blushed, like an idiot. “Ahem.”
The shirt and tie were tossed aside. He could see the vague shape of her in the candlelight, could watch something igniting in the very back of her eyes when her fingers ghosted over his bare chest. They lingered there. She roved over his body with intent and calculation and it made his stomach squirm.
“No farmer’s tan,” she observed after a moment.
“Hard to get one in libraries,” he replied through his (very, very) thick distraction.
He leaned down, kissed her, felt her legs slide up and start to pull him toward her by the hips. There was contact, the brush of him against her inner thigh. He broke off with a gasp.
“You’re in an awful hurry, aren’t you?” he asked shakily, half in a daze.
“Well, what can I say?” She cocked her head, smirking, one scintillating eyebrow raised. “I got myself quite a catch. I like to get cookin’ straightaway or else it gets cold.”
“Oh,” he said again intelligently. “That’s – quite the extended metaphor.”
“Are you always this chatty?” she asked dryly, to which he shrugged.
“It, uh, helps give me time to, um, figure out what to do – when I’m supposed to be – uh, that is, when I am in bed, with a beautiful lady I want to impress, so it’s – it’s nifty.” He gulped, wincing at his own incoherency. “Please don’t throw me out.”
“Oh, pipe down, West; I’m not going to throw you out,” she huffed with a roll of her eyes.
Her fingers ran, feather-light, down his ribs, turned at his hipbone, and swiftly moved down and grasped him in one hand. It was enough to tug a whimper from him before he could compose himself, his head dropping to bump against hers.
She beamed, and he could feel it press against the thickness in the air. “See? Easy as pie.”
“Oh,” he half-moaned as she stroked him. She bit her lower lip, breathing out quiet little laughs through her nose.
“All right, and now it’s your turn, country boy,” she told him, loosening her grip enough for him to think halfway straight. “They have books for this at that fancy college of yours?”
“Not that I’ve – well, uh, that is—no,” Wally stuttered. “But I’ll… keep my eyes peeled.”
Artemis’s expression shifted to something softer. Her eyes slid closed and she pulled him down to kiss her again, sighing, her limbs drifting and ensnaring him.
His hands found the fabric of that beaded green robe and brushed it open and apart, sweeping it off of her raised arms and slipping it out from under her shoulders. She was naked beneath him, warm skin and two scars that he couldn’t bring himself to ask about. She kissed him harder, holding and stroking his cheek with one hand, murmuring occasional things to him in a language he didn’t know.
His fingers moved down her stomach and found her. She arched, her ribs between his, and he rested his face in her collarbone when she reared her head back.
Next door, someone was playing a record, sleepy scratches and saxophones. Wally didn’t really know what he was doing, precisely, but he kept moving his thumb against her and listened to her gasps as though they were beats of a heart.
(Her eyes went wide and, to quiet herself so as not to intrigue the neighbors, she grabbed his face and smashed a kiss on him, twisting, bucking, muffled.)
He missed her on the first try. They had a bad angle the second one, and she was biting her lip and wincing and it took him a good ten minutes to be reassured into trying it again.
They were laughing, noses bumping, embarrassed and fumbling and hopelessly amused. The third time, he steadied her, and looked her in the eye, and moved into her, inside of her, slowly, until she was no longer grimacing and holding her breath.
“All right?” he managed to gasp out, utterly still, his hands braced on her hips.
She inhaled and nodded, smiling (wanly, but genuinely). Something in his heart surged, and that was that; he moved in and out with fascination and bewilderment and stammered out her name when he came, and it belonged in his mouth so perfectly, the smallest weight on the tip of his tongue.
She held him, practically ensnared him, when he laid down beside her. She curled against his chest and clung to him and he kept her in place, arms shaking, breath uneven.
“You can’t help me,” she whispered against the freckles on his neck.
“I can darn well try,” he said, his lips moving over the top of her head, the soapy aftertaste in her hair. “You’re worth every ounce of trouble.”
“I am every ounce of trouble,” she laughed, her nose crinkling.
“Yeah,” he murmured, tilting her chin up with his finger and kissing her softly. She traced a finger up his spine and it made him shiver.
“You can’t stay here tonight,” she said, sounding pained and furious and guilty. “My – my father could get back here any minute. Or my sister. Or – horseshit – Cameron.”
“I know,” he told her. “Do you want me to go?”
“No,” she sighed, pressing her palm to his bicep. “Of course not. But I’m not so good at getting what I want. Go home, Wally.”
“I don’t think you’ve ever actually called me that before,” he observed feebly, his insides withering as she pushed herself just slightly away from him, curling up at her pillow and gazing distantly at her mattress.
“Don’t fall in love with me,” she warned him, and it took him aback. “You’ll be making a huge mistake.”
“Hysterical,” he scoffed. “You make love to me and then you try to shove me off. Well, nice try, but I’m sticking to you like glue. In a figurative sense.”
He reached tentatively over and brushed her hair aside, his fingers skirting over her forehead. She smiled and it wavered. His stomach tugged at itself.
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” she murmured. “I know gumption when I see it, but that’s not much against a few machine guns and cement shoes.”
“Well, gumption’s gotten me this far, and I did the Charleston with a mob kingpin’s daughter, so I’d say I’m on the right track.” He grinned at her, encouragingly, inviting her to trusting him. He grazed her ribs and rested his hand at her hip.
“Just run,” he implored her, open and vulnerable and beseeching. “You can hide under my bed. We’re like a family over there; we really are. A nutty one, and but a good one. You’ve already charmed everyone, even Bruce.”
And it was a lie, and Bruce was unaware, and he had just told her Malone’s real name, but he didn’t care.
Artemis breathed in through her nose and closed her eyes and said, as though it pained her, “Go home.”
Wally wanted to say that he didn’t understand, but he just laid there, propped up by one arm, and stared at her. She didn’t open her eyes again, didn’t look at him. His chest was beginning to sour.
Wordlessly, he stood, gathering his clothes off of the floor and pulling them back on again, hasty and rumpled and careless. He missed a button on his shirt but stuffed it under the band his slacks as it was, yanked his suspenders up, threw on his suit jacket.
“Good night,” he said in a voice lower than his own, without looking back at her.
He did not slam the door behind him. He did not look back. When he got to the street, he sprinted back for the Red Robin, his limbs pumping, trying to outrun the doubt and the terror, the sheer comprehension of precisely what he’d set in motion, precisely what he was sure, now, would never leave him.
His chest was burning by the time he got there, and a car went spluttering by, its round headlights nearly blinding him. Rather than going inside, he slumped against the front door, and wheezed, and sank down to sit and catch his breath.
Honestly, even by the time the summer was over, it never really felt like he did.