When Jaime groaned and dragged a hazy hand over his brow, Superboy wasn't ready to catch him this time. He was vaguely aware of hitting the dirt—there was this bizarre stretching feeling, like his body was elastic and he couldn't keep it in normal space, or something.
"Blue!" There was a scuffling over gravel and snow, and then somebody had draped him over his lap. "What happened?"
"Sonic wavelength from that... Appellaxian amalgam thing. Disrupted... something... vibrational frequency?"
"Hang on. I'll get you to Dr. Palmer," said Superboy, hauling Jaime into his arms and standing. An impressive feat, considering Jaime weighed over a ton at the moment.
"Not his field," said Jaime, shaking his head.
"What about you? Anything at your house? I know you ended up with some of Ted's—"
"No!" said Jaime, sharper than he intended. "I'll be fine in a minute."
"How do you know?"
"Scarab's recalibrating... n-space connection? I think it's where the armor goes when I'm not using it. The interface on my skin is... I don't know the translation for that. Put me down, would you?"
The worst of it had passed, so he managed to keep his legs under him. It took a few seconds of doing his best to not sway before he could look around again. He caught Superboy's grim eyes straying to the still-pinned-and-drooling Bruno and Whisper, providing a focus for Jaime's scattered thoughts.
"You know what did this?" he asked.
"Okay, but you totally have a suspicion."
"Not a suspicion," said Superboy. "More of a... fear."
Jaime shifted from one foot to the other.
"You want me to text La'gaan and see if M'gann's been with him the whole time?" he asked. Superboy gave him a sharp look, and he lifted his hands. "Hey, she hasn't exactly been subtle about the vegetable-ization thing. That interrogation video's there for anyone to see, and the scarab runs these threat assessments that tap into, like, everything...."
"Do it," said Superboy, eyes unhappy but jaw set.
"Okay," said Jaime. A few seconds later, he'd composed something disarmingly flippant through the armor. "Sent."
As they waited for a reply, silence settled over the clearing in the rattle of the branches and the creak of... bigger branches. Shadows raced under the trees, ever-shifting in the screened moonlight. Jaime shifted feet again and switched to infrared vision, trying not to be creeped out by the possibility of whatever did this to them coming back. Having his brain broken just didn't sound like fun, and the scarab was running through possibilities of what could cause so much psychic or neural damage as to reduce someone to... that.
A text message popped up on the HUD, displaying La'gaan's response. Already wound up, he jumped, and Superboy's orange-yellow face arranged into an odd look.
"She hasn't left," said Jaime. Both of them let out a breath: the idea of a rogue Martian was horrifying to Jaime, particularly if she was their teammate this whole time. If her uncle was in on it, they would have probably been doomed. For the sake of appearances, he sent La'gaan a reply, but didn't receive another in return.
"We'll figure it out later," asked Superboy. "You feeling better?"
"Better," said Jaime. "But not good."
Pressing the heel of his hand to his forehead, he slumped a shoulder against a tree. The guy just had to call attention to it—that nasty twisting sensation, like he didn't belong in his own skin. To make it worse, he shivered at the dark, snowy clearing—the creeping tree-shadows and the uncomfortable feeling that infrared wasn't going to help if there was some kind of cold-blooded snow monster or evil ice elemental or something.
"You're sure you're all right?" said Superboy. He had his eyebrows furrowed and mouth set, like he wasn't sure whether to disbelieve him or not.
"I should be able to fix it in a few hours. But..." this clearing is freaking creepy now. "Can we call this in and get out of here?"
"Yeah," said Superboy, a tiny shudder moving through him. Jaime and the scarab simultaneously noticed he'd been avoiding looking at the bodies since his initial inspection; the scarab followed it up with a few suggestions on how to exploit squeamishness. It took real effort not to respond beyond screwing up his face in disgust.
Jaime hauled himself away from the tree and somehow ended up leaning on Superboy as they wandered toward Wolf, who was waiting in the Supercycle with his ears pricked and forepaws perched over the front edge of the seat. A pleasantly greenish aura denoted warmth around the Supercycle, clinging to Wolf's slightly brighter fur.
"Anything I can do to help?" asked Superboy as he deposited Jaime in the back seat.
"No," Jaime started, then frowned. "Wait, hang on. This could go faster if I got... uh, some kind of biological accelerator into my system? Sugar... is too simple—caffeine? Seriously?"
Climbing into his seat, Superboy absently punched in what was probably a preliminary report and the coordinates of the two zombie supervillains.
"Coffee," he said after a second. "Can your scarab do its thing without the armor on?"
"Actually, I have to take it off," said Jaime. Some of the dizziness subsided when he let the plates and base-layer goo retract off his body, replaced by clothes made out of dead skin and other waste; he grunted as the scarab shrank and clawed its way back into his spine. Disgusting. "Ugh. It's something about the interface, I think? Anyway, it says there's a coffee place 4.6 miles that way."
He pointed somewhat more vaguely than he would have liked, since he needed a few more seconds to re-adjust his eyes to the visual spectrum. The tan-ish blur that was Superboy had glanced back at his pained noise; now he nodded and took off toward what turned out to be less of a town and more of a glorified truck stop.
The gas station store and restaurant were both closed, but there was a light on in a tiny adjoining coffee shop with a neon sign reading '24 Hours.' Two or three tiny, dark buildings of indefinable purpose huddled a little farther away from the road. No cars were stopped anywhere nearby.
It wasn't hard to land in the woods a little bit away and hop out, but Jaime discovered that he'd massively underestimated Arlington in February. The second he left the climate-controlled bubble, he missed the armor more than he could possibly articulate. Cold hit him like a giant wave of suckage, wrapping around him and sucking the breath from his lungs. He pretty much hated Superboy for not noticing anything; all he did was press a button on his belt buckle, making the red logo fade into the black of his shirt.
"Electrically activated pigments," said Superboy by way of explanation, though the scarab had already analyzed the chemical properties of the compound used. Jaime tried to ignore it as it informed him that overloading the trace electrics 4700% would cause the shirt to catch fire, which would cause distraction if not outright harm.
"Aren't you cold?" said Jaime. Their breath was freezing in the air like freaking smoke.
"Not really," said Superboy. "Half Kryptonian, remember?"
"Yeah, but...." started Jaime. Wrapping his arms around himself, he looked down at the frozen white stuff that came halfway to his knee. He was pretty certain he was actually going to die before they could walk to the shop. Luckily for him, the scarab made a disgusted sort of noise and informed him that it was going to meddle with his metabolism to make him 'less thermally fragile.'
"Be my guest," he muttered, and he didn't even care about Superboy's weird glance, because warmth suffused him, spreading out from his heart right down to the tips of his toes. It was awesome.
He must not have been paying full attention, though, because the Supercycle revved its engine and turned around, zooming out of the woods in a straight line.
"Should you be letting them take off?" asked Jaime. "That's our ride."
"The cold's not good for the Supercycle, so I'm calling your bluff," said Superboy, making for the coffee place. "If you can't get us home, I'll have to call in transportation."
"Yeah, but I'll have to carry you," said Jaime, jogging a few steps to catch up.
"Wouldn't be the first time somebody's done that," he said. "You're gonna have to get used to it anyway. There's not always enough vehicles around." He stepped over the snow berm into the parking lot, squinting at the shop. "You sure they're open?"
"Reading two humans inside," said Jaime.
It was hard to blame Superboy for his doubt: the place had a definite (and creepy) aura of deadness to it. However, Superboy only shrugged and pushed the door open to the clang of a bell.
A startled barista nearly fell off her stool at the noise; she hastily kicked it under the counter like she wasn't supposed to be have it there. Scrambling to stow her book, she ran her eyes over them, then squinted beyond them at the night.
"Sorry, didn't hear you pull up," she said, smoothing down her bright blue apron.
"Parked on the other side," said Superboy, jerking his thumb in the general direction of the gas station. Apparently roused by the sound of voices, another barista came up from the back, rubbing at an eye under the glare of the first one.
While Superboy ordered a black coffee, Jaime listened to the scarab hijack a cell tower with a pirate signal to hack the internet and look up everything on the menu and approximate caffeine content. Unfortunately, it was not distracted enough to fail to notice when Superboy paid with a credit card, picking up the name Conner Kent and immediately running searches on who Superman might be. Well, it didn't look like Superboy was trying to hide the card, so maybe that was okay. Ish.
"And for you?" the barista said to Jaime just as the scarab sent him a set of instructions.
"Are you serious?" he grumbled as he moved forward. Superboy shot him another look, but didn't say anything. To the barista, Jaime said, "Can I get an extra-large Americano with... nine double shots?"
"Nine?" said the barista, drawing her eyebrows together and snapping her gum, felt-tip pen poised over the cup. On his nod, she lifted her eyebrows and wrote it down, shaking her head slightly. "Anything else?"
"2.7 ounces of caramel sauce," said Jaime. The barista seemed to give up on him and looked to Superboy for help. Or possibly to check him out; the other one was staring at him with a slightly glazed expression and had to have a pen thrown at her to get her to start on Superboy's order.
"That's three pumps," Superboy clarified.
"Right, I knew that," said Jaime as the barista took it down.
"You have no idea how to order coffee," said Superboy.
"Uhh, no," said Jaime. "Not much into the whole 'triple mocha frappiato' scene, thank you."
"You should have breakfast with...." began Superboy, but had to stop himself; he couldn't use codenames around civilians, and Jaime didn't know everyone's secret identities. He was forced to end somewhat lamely, "some friends of mine."
"That's $12.42," said the barista.
"Uhh..." said Jaime. He had no pockets—nowhere to put ID or money. And of course he'd suggested this stimulant run without actually having any way of backing it up.
"I got it," said Superboy, his credit card clicking onto the counter again. Jaime thanked his stars that he didn't make a deal out of it. "Are you gonna be wired after this?"
"Thanks," said Jaime. "And probably not. The uh... my condition uses up most of the caffeine." He cringed—that wasn't accurate at all, but vaguely public-friendly. "If anything keeps me up tonight, it'll be the other thing."
Stuffing the proffered receipt and card into his front pocket, Superboy shook his head at Jaime's ungraceful dodging. Just as he was about to get defensive, the barista held out Superboy's coffee; he took it with the customary smile. Leaning on the bar to wait for his, Jaime subsided into silence. It didn't take long for his eyes to slip closed. The sounds of coffee-preparing were weirdly soothing to the funky feeling inside him. He was definitely going to have to watch out for vibrational attacks in the future.
A few minutes later, someone was poking him in the chest. His eyes snapped open.
"What?" he said, focusing on Superboy. A cup was held out toward him; it took a second to process it as his own, given Superboy was holding another in his other hand. "Right."
"Come on, let's get you out of here," said Superboy, herding him toward the door. Jaime wanted to object on the grounds of how disgustingly cold it was outside, but they couldn't hang around without starting to look suspicious. The news would get ahold of the power plant situation eventually, and it wouldn't be that hard to put two and two together, especially with a credit card transaction to consult.
"Thanks," Jaime waved back at the baristas. The first one was already perched on her stool again, reading, but the second one returned it lazily.
"Have a nice night," she said.
"You, too," said Superboy before the door clanged shut again. Feet crunching on the snow, they wandered toward where the Supercycle had been, and after a few seconds, Superboy snorted.
"Nothing," he said. "The baristas were arguing about us."
"Well, you know what they say about eavesdroppers," said Jaime.
"Wait, what do they say about eavesdroppers? They never prosper? No, that's cheaters."
"Like it's my fault I have super hearing," said Superboy. A car chose that moment to drive by, and they both frowned. "What do you think, up there?"
He nodded at the shelter over the gas pumps. It looked like the facade extended high enough above the rooftop to shelter them from prying eyes. As long as they were quiet, they'd be reasonably concealed.
"Yeah, sure," said Jaime. The scarab started rattling off suggestions for getting them up there, and Jaime hissed, "No, I am not putting the suit back on just to jump a one-story building."
Before the argument with the scarab could escalate, strong hands slid under his arms. In the next instant, Superboy had launched them off the pavement, and they were landing with controlled power on the rooftop.
"Whoa," said Jaime. Somewhat pathetically, he sagged backward with dizziness. Superboy picked him up again by the armpits, which was uncomfortable as he squeezed for leverage, and turned him around to set him against the facade. Leaning back, Jaime closed his eyes to wait for the world to stop spinning.
"Sorry," said Superboy. "I forgot that could be... disorienting."
"Nah, it's cool," said Jaime. Superboy exhaled a little as he sat down next to him. "What were you gonna say earlier?"
"Your friends with the coffee orders."
"Oh," said Superboy. "Nightwing, Artemis, Kid Flash, and... Aqualad. They're fluent in whatever language coffee shops invented. The new Robin, too."
"Robin?" said Jaime, frowning. After a second, though, it made total sense: he could picture him rattling off some super complicated drink with a completely serious face. "Yeah, okay, I can see that."
Peeling his head away from the facade, Jaime opened his eyes with a grimace, inspecting the drink in his hand. From the baristas' expressions, he'd deduced that this was not going to be awesome. It was, in fact, going to be anti-awesome. As a delaying tactic, he popped off the cap to let it cool, so he wouldn't have to also burn his mouth.
"So why didn't you want to go home?" Superboy asked. He had both hands curled around the steaming paper cup between his bent knees. Before Jaime could respond, something seemed to dawn on him in horror. "I mean, you don't have to tell me if it's, uh...."
"What?" he said. "No, no way. I love my family. They just... if my mom finds out I got sick on a mission, she's going to baby me for a week. I have enough trouble with missing school as it is."
"I guess you don't exactly have a mentor to do the heavy lifting," said Superboy.
"Nightwing's pretty cool about training," said Jaime, shrugging. "And that Guy Gardner Lantern guy gave me a bunch of Ted Kord's notes on strategy and stuff. I never knew him, but it almost seems like he's with me, you know? In spirit, almost."
He ruined the moment by finally getting his act together and taking a sip of whatever he'd ordered. Eyebrows shooting up, he nearly spat it back out.
"GAH!" he said, curling over his legs. Superboy patted his back in what Jaime suspected was more amusement than sympathy, and he could swear the scarab was laughing at him.
"I remember the first time the Team gave the non-humans coffee," said Superboy. "I didn't understand the point of it. Said something about it not being a substitute for willpower, but M'gann loved it, and Kaldur...."
Superboy stared up at the full moon, obviously seeing something else. He let out a soft puff of frozen steam, and Jaime lowered his eyes toward the woods on the other side of the rooftop. The next sip of the coffee wasn't so bad; he was pretty sure the scarab was dulling his taste buds for the sake of expediency, and he'd be hearing about his 'weakness' later.
"You miss them," Jaime finally said. "Your original team."
"Yeah," said Superboy. "Best days of my life. Uh, no offense to present company."
"None taken, ese," said Jaime, waving it off. "I'm still not even really sure I fit in around here. I have a good thing going in El Paso, too, you know? I don't want to abandon that—the one time I'm gone on a mission, an army of zombies attack, or something."
"I wouldn't worry," said Superboy with a straight face. "That almost never happens."
"Ha ha, very funny," said Jaime.
"Besides, aren't you dating that magician girl? Couldn't she cover in case of zombies?"
"Traci Thirteen? Man, who even knows these days. The long-distance thing is really tough, especially on top of the superhero thing. Last week, I find out she's been involved with this neo-Soviet vampire guy, only now I hear it's mind control? And now she can't see me tomorrow—well, today now, I guess—because she has to go 'slay' him. What do you even say to that?"
"Dunno," said Superboy. "I never really had the normal high school experience."
"Oh, man, sorry," said Jaime. "I forgot. You seem so normal most of the time."
He cringed and was about to apologize again when Superboy shook his head.
"It's fine," he said. "I never was much for normal."
"Sooo..." said Jaime, groping for a safe topic. Weather... Superman... okay, all boring. "What's up with you and Cassie?"
"What?" said Superboy.
"There were definitely some sparks."
"Dude, did you not notice the way she was all over you? With the swinging hips and the 'accidental' lasso toss last training session."
"What are you talking about?"
"Seriously? I thought I was rusty. She's into you, hermano."
"She's seventeen and therefore underage," said Superboy, narrowing his eyes.
"And how old are you?" said Jaime with a mock-speculative sip. "Two?"
"Six in exactly one month," grumbled Superboy. "Or 22 in July."
"I'm just saying. There's no way for it to be normal, regardless."
Superboy glowered at him, but gradually relaxed off Jaime's grin.
"Thanks," he said, voice a little gruff as he glanced away.
"I think you're the only person not trying to get me and M'gann back together. Even La'gaan seems to think it's inevitable."
"So that's what those PDAs are about," said Jaime, nodding. "Hey, man, it didn't work out. It doesn't demean the experience or anything if you move on."
"You sound like you're talking from experience."
"I dated my best friend for awhile," said Jaime, shrugging casually.
"Yeah? How'd that work out for you?"
"We broke up after six days."
Superboy snorted. "What happened?"
"We figured out we weren't compatible romantically, even if we were good friends," said Jaime. "Of course, we were eleven at the time, and I'm pretty sure we were sabotaged by Paco when he stole her water pistol and blamed me."
Superboy surprised Jaime by laughing—a big, full-throated thing that echoed off the woods and actually alarmed him a little. He'd heard low chuckles and amused grunts before, but never this. After a second, Jaime managed a smile around a gulp of coffee.
"I—I'm not sure that's a—a good parallel..." said Superboy. Rubbing at his eyes, he pulled himself together. "….For a Martian and a half-Kryptonian clone on a covert superhero team."
"Hey, you keep trying to dress it up as what you are," said Jaime. "But it all boils down to basic interactions that could apply to anybody."
Eyes on the sky, Superboy's smile became brittle, expression distant and tinged with some emotion Jaime couldn't identify, but wasn't dumb enough to challenge. Even if he thought that M'gann's questionable use of her powers could pretty easily seen as the simple result of competing value systems, same as everybody else dealing with the same problem (if sans psychic powers). But hey, who was he to be giving opinions on this kind of thing, anyway? Three months ago, his biggest worry was whether Brenda was going to get his parents freaking out about college before he even finished sophomore year.
His next gulp of coffee took the cup down to three quarters empty. Caffeine and sugar buzzed inside his skin like a million tiny, hyper bumblebees... but somewhere underneath that was a slow, dragging fatigue that dulled the edge of what would probably have otherwise been an uncomfortable silence.
Another drink, and the bumblebees drowned out the fatigue more completely. At least the scarab seemed to have been telling the truth about the caffeine; it was definitely getting drained away in the service of something. The weird stretched feeling was starting to go away, too.
"We need to work on your teamwork," said Superboy, breaking the quiet.
"Oh, man, not this again," said Jaime, letting his head fall back against the facade. "Why are people always dogging on me for my teamwork? I've worked with Batman, Black Canary, Green Arrow—"
"You know," said Superboy, "name-dropping doesn't actually earn you more respect."
"I'm not name-dropping," said Jaime. "I'm just saying, none of them seemed to object to my group combat cooperation skills."
"Or they were too polite to point out your problems, because you're not their student."
"Okay, fine. What exactly are my problems?"
"You don't listen," said Superboy. "I told you not to use a sonic attack, and you did it anyway."
Jaime opened his mouth to protest, but closed it again after a second. It wasn't so much that he'd ignored Superboy as that he couldn't quite stop the scarab after it started the firing sequence. He didn't know what Ted Kord was thinking, making this brutal AI monster—or maybe it was meant for somebody with better control than him.
He never wanted to say it outright, though. It felt like speaking ill of the dead, telling everyone their friend might not have been the nice guy they thought. And they already kind of thought Jaime was crazy, so people like Superboy, who knew Kord and liked him, probably wouldn't believe that he made his swansong in the 'psycho, mass-murdering' variety anyway.
"Sorry," he said. "Guess I wasn't thinking."
"Which is why we need to work on it," said Superboy. "We can't afford that kind of reaction with one of the bigger crises. We should have been able to stop the Appellaxian before it reached the power plant, if you'd used something else."
Shoulders prickling, Jaime studied the rooftop between his feet. He didn't want to say he was sticking to sonic-variety energy attacks because all the other options tended to be things like small-yield nukes and n-space ruptures. That thing was alive, and it got killed because he couldn't make the scarab give him better options.
"I guess," he said, keeping his tone neutral.
"I'll see what you're cleared for and send you some files on League history, too," said Superboy, finishing off his coffee.
"Maan, more homework?" said Jaime. He was already doing a ton of research... looking for Ted Kord's dirty laundry, but research nonetheless.
"Chances are, we're going to run into the same supervillains," said Superboy with a stern glare he must have picked up from Batman. "You need to be prepared. It's not a judgment on you. We know ignorance isn't stupidity."
"Forewarned is forearmed," grumbled Jaime. It was all over the serious parts of Kord's notes, even if his actual supervillain files tended to be full of things like 'talks like a B-movie villain' and 'dresses like space janitor' instead of actual useful information.
"Right," said Superboy. "You ready to go?"
Jaime pulled a face as he downed the syrupy remnants of his drink. All the ooky feelings had gone away, though he was pretty sure there was still enough caffeine in his system to power a smartcar. Superboy's logo appeared again, and he stood up.
"Yeah," said Jaime, accepting the hand up and letting the scarab slither out to cover his body with armor. After a second's diagnostic, he was informed that all systems were go. "So how do you want to do this?"
Thankfully, Superboy wasn't awkward about it, because that would have made Jaime's awkwardness approximately a million times worse. He simply turned around and talked over his shoulder.
"Stick your hands under my arms," he said. "And don't worry too much. I'm practically indestructible. But, uh... still, don't drop me.
While Jaime lifted off a little to put his hands under Superboy's armpits, the scarab chittered away with calculations about thrust and weight and how to best snap a half-Kryptonian neck at close range. Ignoring that last part, Jaime settled on supporting each of Superboy's shoulders with a forearm, anchored with his hands holding onto the shoulders above them. They lifted into the air under the flow of ions from his semi-transparent wings until Jaime caught something the scarab muttered.
"Wait, I have a jetpack?"
"What?" said Superboy. They exchanged a glance. "Blue Beetle, I order you to use the jetpack."
"Aye aye, Cap'n." There was a slight jerk as they fell briefly before the apparatus on his back changed. "Next stop, Happy Harbor."
"To infinity and beyond!" said Superboy with a perfectly straight face.
"Dios mio, you're a dork."
"What? Disney movies are awesome."
"Whatever you say, hermano...."