The ringing of the school bell woke Jaime up with a jolt. The corner of his mouth was numb with dried saliva.
A class of strangers brushed past him on their way out the door and to their next classes. He sat up slowly, wiping his mouth and blinking the sleep from his eyes.
He had to stop falling asleep in the middle of class. It was going to affect his grades.
His heart was pounding so quickly he felt like he was going to choke on it. He covered up his mouth, glanced around the emptying classroom, and coughed discreetly into his hand a few times. The pounding lost a little of its intensity.
One of these days he was going to dream himself to death, he thought.
He packed up his schoolwork and walked to his next class.
Walked around the couple making out by the water fountain. Side-stepped the kid standing outside the nurse’s office pounding the door with his broken arm. Nodded once to his old lab partner.
He sat down in his next class, recovered his schoolwork, opened up the textbook for the class–
SOMETHING FLEW IN HIS FACE.
His heartbeat raced back up in double time, he leapt a foot from his chair, he grabbed his textbook and slammed it shut around the offending creature.
He held the book shut in his arms, heart pounding. A handful of students around him turned to glare at him for making noise. He dropped the book as though it were on fire; struggled to control his loud, panting breaths; swallowed; sat down. Looked at the book on the floor, because he would need to use it for class, dreading what he might find inside of it now.
When the teacher walked in, his fear of reprimand outweighed his disgust and he grappled for the book. When he put it on his desk and flipped through it, it was rumpled but clean.
One hand fisted in his hair, one clenched over his chest, Jaime fought down his rising heartbeat in shuddering breaths.
He glared at the scratches on the cafeteria table in front of him, trying to focus his thoughts away from his nausea. He still felt on edge, somehow, and whatever he did he couldn’t control his body for long. His fingers trembled and he took another deep breath, trying and failing to keep himself calm.
He could almost hear something, but it must be in his imagination. The cafeteria echoed its uniform sounds of cutlery and porcelain.
Jaime pulled himself out of the bench. He hadn’t bought any food today. He put both hands on the table and balanced himself as he fought down another wave of nausea. His heartbeat hit loud in his chest and his forehead was damp with sweat.
He stared at the table. He didn’t have any food. He was in the cafeteria and he felt sick and he didn’t have any food.
He lurched himself toward the nurse’s office.
The nurse barely glanced at Jaime as he stumbled through the door, leaning his weight in the doorknob. “Is something the matter?” she asked.
Jaime frowned, looked at her strangely as he took another deep breath. His heart raced harder at talking to someone he had never met, and he coughed lightly and clenched his shirt. “Something’s wrong,” he eventually managed to wheeze out.
The nurse glanced at him again, hummingbird-fast, and opened a filing cabinet. “Nothing is wrong,” she intoned generically as she pulled out a file and flipped through it. “Everything’s fine,” she added as she read.
Jaime craned his neck to see when the school had started a patient file on him when he had never reported sick before, but the folder was unlabeled. When he tried to read one of the blue papers peeking out of it, the nurse slammed the file shut and put it away. “Please resume your lessons,” she said and returned to her former position, fiddling with some examination tools.
“It’s lunch period,” Jaime told her weakly, though he wasn’t so confident about it now. Had he taken so long getting to the nurse’s office that lunch had ended? He looked around the small room; there were no clocks on the walls. Four thousand heartbeats later could have been any amount of time.
“Resume your lessons,” the nurse said.
Every second Jaime looked at her he felt worse, and he thought of that kid, that freshman– had Jaime imagined him? He must have. A colourful and unlikely daydream to excite his boring life. The freshman had warned him about… Something. It couldn’t have been important.
“I– I need to talk to someone,” he pleaded to the nurse’s cold eyes. “I don’t feel right, something is wrong, I– I can’t do this alone,” he said, but the nurse didn’t move. “Something’s wrong with me,” he said, his heart hitting his bones over and over and it hurt to be this scared and not know why.
The nurse stepped toward him clinically, eyes narrowing at him as she studied his symptoms. “You’re right,” she said. “Something is very wrong with you. It makes sense that you would be alone.”
Jaime stopped breathing. “Wh– what?” He gasped.
“That is what happens to faulty students who don’t make the most out of their lessons. They sacrifice their scores for fleeting frivolities, and are unequipped to enter society.” She leaned over and looked down at him, face stern and certain. “Leave this room and resume your lessons. Get your head out of the clouds and put your time into your studies.”
Some rebellion welled up in Jaime’s throat and he swallowed it down. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I— You’re the nurse and I’m— I’m not feeling well—“ He felt suffocated by the wave of shame and guilt that hit him for getting things so wrong.
“You’re not feeling well because you have an irresponsible lifestyle that is bad for your health,” the nurse said. “Stop daydreaming all the time and be serious about your grades. Stop wasting my time and get back to work.”
She put her hand on his shoulder and he felt it through his body like a hammer.
The teacher wrote some key words on the board.
Jaime copied them down.
Everyone turned to the next page of the textbook.
The teacher wrote dates and years on the board.
Jaime wrote dates and years in his notebook.
The teacher passed out a stack of worksheets.
Jaime accepted the stack from the classmate in front of him.
Jaime took a worksheet for himself.
Jaime passed the stack to the classmate behind him.
Jaime filled the worksheet with key words and dates and years.
When Jaime got home, he cooked himself dinner. He had one cup of rice, a sliced carrot with one lettuce leaf, a chicken wing, and an apple. A square meal.
After he finished eating, he washed and dried his dishes and put them away.
He took a shower and brushed his teeth.
He spent an hour with his notes. Turning the pages, reading the key words and dates and years. Looked at the diagrams, equations, and symbols.
He put his notes away in organized folders.
He was in bed by nine.
The next day, he was ready to fall apart before lunch.
The key words the teacher wrote on the board were swimming in his vision. Jaime couldn’t remember why he was copying them into his notebook. He was copying them wrong. He didn’t know what the class was about, what subject they were studying. When he got another worksheet later in the period, he couldn’t even read any of the words. They didn’t mean anything to him.
He filled the worksheet with the contents of his notes at random. It wouldn’t do to leave the worksheet blank; that’s what slackers did, and if he didn’t take his grades seriously then he would never be able to enter society.
It never got better. It only got worse.
The title of “failure” was starting to weigh into him until he couldn’t remember anything else about himself.
He stood in the lunch line, sweating. The cafeteria lady had asked him what he wanted to eat.
He didn’t know which was the correct answer. Lately he had gotten so bad at giving correct answers.
He had to do it quickly though, because classmates were starting to get angry with him for holding up the line. Only bad students held up the line. Someone like that could never enter society.
“Which one should I get?” he asked the cafeteria lady.
“Get the one you want,” the lady groused.
Jaime didn’t understand what that meant.
When Jaime eventually got to the cash register, his tray was still empty. He paid no money for his no food, and then he sat down at his table, staring at his tray.
It was actually a good idea for him to eat like this. A responsible student doesn’t spend money frivolously, and if he didn’t know what he should eat, it was better to keep that money in his pocket.
He looked at the empty seat across from him and remembered the interesting person he had imagined.
His hands had been cold, Jaime thought. He was so tired but he moved like he knew why he was alive. He smiled like he understood and accepted who he was.
He had also done some very bad things, like disrupting class. If Jaime didn’t stop daydreaming about bad people who cause a nuisance for others, he was no better than a nuisance himself.
But he spoke as though his words meant something. He spoke to Jaime as though he had something important to share with him.
He had known Jaime Reyes’s name.
Jaime Reyes startled. How had that boy known Jaime Reyes’s name? Even Jaime Reyes had trouble with it now, since he was a failure.
Jaime tried to remember the things they said to each other, though it was really hard because imaginary conversations were difficult to remember in detail. He thinks he would remember introducing himself, though. It’s an action that feels different from copying notes, filling worksheets, cooking square meals, and studying.
Now that he’s thinking about it, Jaime remembers introducing himself to some classmates. It felt different, like he was imposing himself on the world around him on purpose. He couldn’t remember having that feeling with that boy.
How had he known Jaime Reyes’s name?
He copied the words that the teacher wrote on the board. He tried to focus, stop himself from daydreaming, but he wasn’t disciplined enough to get the idea out of his head.
He knew that daydreaming would make it harder for him to write the correct answers. It would make him a bad student and a drain on society. He would be an even worse failure than he was right now.
He knew that, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that the daydream was something that actually made sense, unlike any of the schoolwork he was supposed to be doing. Of course, that was because he was daydreaming that there was an imaginary skill with which he would not be a failure, unlike the real skills with which he was a failure.
But, even if it was fake, he couldn’t help but cling guiltily to the idea, like a drowning man scrambling for anything to grab onto to keep his head above the water. It gave his mind something to DO, something he could understand and which appeared to have meaning.
It gave him a person in the world who might matter. Jaime was certain, at this point, that Jaime didn’t matter.
When he finished with his classes for the day, he stared down the street that would take him home, and then took a different street.
Normally only bad students did anything after school except go straight home and work on their studies, but Jaime reasoned that he was taking a walk, getting some exercise for his health. That was an acceptable reason to diverge.
He kept to the business districts, because it would be safer to stay in public areas and inappropriate to linger around strange neighborhoods. He kept his eyes on signs, because a responsible student should always stay aware of their surroundings.
At some point he spotted a sign indicating a hospital, and he followed it. Medicine was a respectable subject for a good student to take an interest in, after all.
It was only when he stepped foot into the hospital itself that he had his doubts. What business would a high school student have at a hospital? He didn’t belong here. He wasn’t a doctor or a patient— the only thing wrong with him is that he is a failure, and his grades will improve if he tries harder.
He approached the front desk and tried to ask the neat woman there for help, but the moment he opened his mouth he froze in a bone-deep terror.
He shouldn’t waste this busy woman’s time with his whimsical daydreams. What was he even doing here? He should be at home studying his notes. He was already so far behind on his grades.
Thankfully the woman hadn’t noticed him there yet and he quickly backed from the desk and found a corner to hide in, where he could focus and remember how he got here. There was a waiting-room chair in the corner, so he sat on it.
He was at a hospital. He had walked there instead of walking home after his classes ended, because he needed to get some exercise. He had needed some exercise after the exhausting and unsuccessful day he had at school, where he had a hard time focusing because he couldn’t stop daydreaming about a sick freshman boy that he had never introduced himself to but had still called him Jaime Reyes.
Since the boy always seemed so sick, and it was sick of Jaime to be daydreaming about him in the first place, it was only appropriate to go to a hospital. Hospitals had a strong affinity with sickness.
He looked around the room for any clues to where he could go next. He thought of the symptoms he could remember that boy showing— pale face, labored breathing, tremors… panic, dilating pupils, bloodied saliva…
Glowing fingertips, red and golden eyes?
Jaime rubbed a hand on his forehead. His imagination was getting out of control. If he were a better student, maybe he would know real symptoms to real diseases, instead of making up fantastic impossibilities.
There was a signboard on the wall that pointed out each department of the hospital; for lack of anything else to try, he walked over to see if anything stuck.
Once he got to the signboard, he saw a cat sitting down one of the halls.
That was weird. Jaime was certain that animals weren’t allowed in hospitals— right? Or had he been wrong about that his whole life? Since he was such a bad student, anything was possible.
He checked the signboard; the hallway the cat was sitting in led to the Neurology department.
Bloodied saliva… The boy had been speaking at rapid fire speed, the muscles at his mouth had been twitching at random, he’d probably bitten his tongue. The dilating pupils. Could he have had a seizure? Was that what a seizure was?
If nothing else, no other department had a cat sitting in the hallway, and it was as good a place to start as any. Jaime went to the Neurology department, and the cat walked on ahead of him as though it were leading the way.
The further he walked down the hall, the more alive his skin felt. He could feel butterflies in his stomach. His heart fluttered.
He ran across a few nurses rushing from one ward to another, and he avoided eye contact with them. When he went through the door, someone behind a desk asked him for his appointment without looking up.
“Uh,” Jaime said, his throat closing up again. He found himself looking at the cat, who hadn’t stopped walking, but had slowed a little when Jaime stopped. The cat looked at him, and its eyes were… wrong, somehow, though he couldn’t put his finger on…
“I’ve been seeing things,” he improvised, “I saw something impossible and my doctor sent me here for treatment.”
“Ward C,” the clerk said. “To the right, three doors.”
“Thanks,” Jaime breathed, and the cat was already on its way; he hurried to follow it. Maybe he really was seeing things. He was already such a bad student, such a failure, that maybe he had gotten sick, too. He could vaguely remember learning that mental illnesses were similar to physical disabilities, something people couldn’t contract and weren’t contagious, but he could remember even more clearly that physical disabilities made people into angels and that mental illnesses did the opposite.
He reached the third door, but the cat had ignored it, so he did too, realizing at this point that he was definitely following an impossible cat in a hospital he did not have permission to be in. The humming under his skin kept getting stronger and he was both afraid of and exhilarated by it.
By the time the cat stopped, every nerve in his body was lit up and he knew for no real reason that he was in the right place. He threw open the door.
The boy was there. He was sitting in one of the beds, his arms and legs strapped down to the table and an IV beside him— though on closer look it wasn’t connected to him at all, the shredded tip lying abandoned on the ground. His eyes shot open when Jaime came in.
It was just like Jaime remembered. His eyes were red and gold. He also seemed to be vibrating softly where he lay, enough so that he seemed to blur on the edges. He was even grayer than before and far from unruffled, but he still smiled like he understood something that mattered.
“Jaime Reyes!” the boy cheered. He spasmed; it looked like he had tried to sit up, and the restraints had stopped him.
Jaime didn’t know what to think. The boy’s voice had changed as much as his eyes. It had a slight buzz to it, like there was a second or third voice speaking alongside him. It was hard for Jaime to remember what was possible and what wasn’t anymore. “What happened to you?” he asked, a little scared, a little pained.
“Do not worry about us, Jaime Reyes,” the boy said, and his use of the word “us” put Jaime even more on edge. “We have combined our powers in order to help you escape The Firewall.”
The world seemed to spin around Jaime and he took a few more steps toward the boy, gripped the railing of the bed to steady himself. “Powers? Firewall?”
“The Bart Allen’s power of super speed, while dampened physically by The Firewall, was still active in our brain. So long as we were able to build up the mental momentum, and then maintain it, we could regain some of our superpowers, and thus break part of The Firewall’s hold on us that altered our identity and memory.”
Jaime found, despite all laws of reason, that this made a world more sense than any class he could remember sitting through.
“With this small leak in The Firewall, the beetle was able to break out of our stasis and connect directly with the world,” the boy continued, and Jaime’s head swelled with the new concepts. “The beetle had previously made attempts to re-establish our connection with you, Jaime Reyes, but The Firewall was deliberately created to sever such connections and thus all attempts were feeble, and unsuccessful.”
The beetle? The Firewall? (The Bart Allen?) Jaime’s grip on the bed railing tightened; somehow he thought of Khepri on his test, the mosquitoes on his desk, the bug on the boy’s neck… the bug that had vanished from his textbook…
“We trusted that you could fight your way here in time,” the boy continued. His left arm darkened slowly from the wrist, turned hard and blue, and steamed; the boy grit his teeth and let out a small grunt of pain, and the restraint fell off, sizzling. He reached out his newly-freed arm toward Jaime, palm open. “Of course we were right, Jaime Reyes. Nothing, no matter how powerful, could ever stand a chance against your heart.”
The organ in question was running like a motor now, and Jaime found himself reaching for the boy’s arm. His hand was cold, as Jaime remembered; it was also tough and hard, like armor.
“It is only by magic that we could combine this way,” the boy said wistfully, “and regretfully it seems a touch is not enough to re-establish connections through the spell.”
“Magic can get you in, but only breaking the magic can get you out,” said another voice somewhere, faintly. Jaime darted his eyes wildly around the room, but the only likely suspect was the impossible cat, still standing in front of the door, seeming to hang back and keep watch at the same time.
The boy squeezed Jaime’s hand and Jaime looked into the boy’s red and gold eyes. The boy smiled. “What do you think, Her-mano? Could you CPR the magic out of us?”
It was possibly the worst time for Jaime’s heart to stop and stars to shine all over his head. The worst time, or the best time.
He leaned over the bed and kissed the boy’s lips, their hands still clasped at an awkward angle between their bodies.
The effect was immediate. The hard shell withdrew from the boy’s fingertips and seemed to crawl in a wave down his hand, up his arm, up his neck, to his mouth, and to Jaime’s mouth. The buzzing under Jaime’s skin thickened and shivered from his lips down to his toes in a great pulse, and a white-hot flower opened in his back between his shoulder blades and reached behind him as the world seemed to swirl and fall away—
No, it didn’t seem to. Jaime opened his eyes, and it was like viewing the world through a computerized lens, categorizing and explaining the world around him, so splendid and wonderful and familiar, and it showed him the world falling apart around him, the boy holding onto Jaime for dear life while the bed under him dissolved; as his other restraints vanished he wrapped both arms and legs around Jaime in a desperate and wonderful and warm hug, and they fell together into nothing.
- - - -
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“He cut it pretty close though. Could you see the state he was in? A few more hours inside that thing and he would have wasted away to nothing.”
“It doesn’t matter now. What’s important is that he’s alive and mostly intact. For that we can’t thank you enough.”
Jaime opened his eyes. He was lying on the floor of a spacecraft.
Bart laid on the floor beside him, pale and weary and unconscious, but still smiling. Their hands were still clasped together.
As Jaime took in the spacecraft, the humming under his skin, the words that occasionally flew into his vision, the voices — Nightwing and… was that Klarion? — he slowly remembered.
Being a member of the Young Justice. Going in a small team to a mission in space, because the beetle made him one of the most important member in any space mission, and running across some suspicious Reach technology.
He had commed into the League for advice, and they had all agreed he was the best-equipped to handle Reach technology. He’d flown out of the shuttle to retrieve it, and the moment he touched it everything seemed wrong… He’d had a split second to say “What—“
“—happened?” Bart muttered, jolting awake in full panic, eyes darting around the room, hand squeezing tight in Jaime’s. “Did we make it? Are we dead?”
“Hey,” Jaime said, and Bart turned to meet his eye. This time Jaime smiled for Bart. “Welcome back.”
Bart pulled him into another hug, this time without the panic of imminent death. “Her-mano! We did it!! We’re all back!!”
Jaime squeezed him back just as much. “What was it? How did you—?” He didn’t know how to ask.
“I was listening to your comm with the League, and it sounded like something was going wrong. I had to think really fast, and all I could do was grab the first magic-user I ran into, to fight Reach tech, and get them to teleport me to you before anything happened. It closed around us immediately after we arrived.”
“You trapped yourself in there with me?” Jaime asked, with a little panic.
“Remember some of the information the League got from other Reach parts? In the event that the beetles they sent out to seed Reach invasions malfunctioned or started to misbehave in some way from its programming, the Reach had cleaning technology to remove the beetles from their hosts, reprogram the beetles, and send them out again. It was one in maybe a hundred different kinds of technology the Reach sent everywhere, but it could have hurt you, and it kind of sounded like it was.”
Jaime took a deep breath in, thinking of all that had happened in the blink of an eye. “I… almost died,” he realized.
“You didn’t,” Bart said firmly. “You didn’t. You didn’t.”
“I didn’t,” Jaime agreed desperately through his tears.
You are alive, Jaime Reyes.
At the sound of conversation in the deck, Nightwing tactfully guided a smirking Klarion into a different room. Give the kids some privacy.
“Kah! Teenagers. Nauseating,” Klarion sneered, and his cat flicked its tail in agreement beside him.
Nightwing shrugged. “Their happiness is a direct result of your help. Take it as a compliment.”
“I don’t want it! Throw it back! I want a redo where I can watch them shrivel away in misery.” Klarion nodded and gave a theatrical cackle. “Ooh, that would have been great! If only!”
“Not to look a gift horse in the mouth… or a gift cat in the eyes?” Nightwing allowed himself a small smile before he sent a hard look to his old adversary. “But the League will want to know what you get out of doing this for us. I’d like to say it’s paranoid, but…”
“Paranoid? It’s smart, BlueDay.” Klarion’s cackle turned predatory as he looked at Nightwing. “‘Why was he already in the League headquarters,’ I bet you’re thinking? Or maybe, ‘How did Kid-Flash-The-Living find ol’ Klarion before Magic Girl or any other presto-bangos in the League who actually belong there’? Don’t second-guess yourself. Those are good questions to be asking.”
Nightwing steadied his jaw and humored Klarion with a smile. “Might have crossed my mind.”
“How dare you! I have some altruism in my spleen somewhere, or whatever place it is people get all squishy,” Klarion exclaimed.
Nightwing held his masked stare.
Klarion put a finger to his smile. “Besides, The Light could make some great use out of this Firewall technology, don’t you think?” he added, flashing a piece of brilliantly shining light in his palm.
By the time Nightwing moved a muscle to react, the witch-boy and cat were both gone with an echo of a laugh ringing through the ship.