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The Firewall

Chapter Text

This morning, Jaime woke up and got out of bed and scratched his back, and something was wrong.

He couldn’t put his finger on it. Like, not literally, but metaphorically; he couldn’t think of what was wrong. It was just something from his gut.

He got dressed and went downstairs for some cereal before heading off to school.

It was the same day as the past hundred (okay, minus weekends). Wake up, dress, cereal, school. Nothing was different. What was wrong? What could be so wrong it made him feel empty down to his bones?

He ducked the big kid in the hall who always lunged at him. He didn’t even look. The big kid probably didn’t either. It was such lazy bullying that both of them could hardly be bothered to do their part. He swerved around the teacher who taught homeroom on the fourth floor and had to leave the teacher’s lounge early to make class on time. He waved to his old lab partner by the lockers and they avoided eye contact because they had to maintain their social reputations.

He took note of the poster for the upcoming prom night on the school corkboard. That hadn’t been there yesterday. Neat.

He couldn’t help peering over his shoulder every few steps, and it was driving him crazy that he felt so disturbed and didn’t know why.

This day was no different than any other monotonous day in his boring, high-school-going life.

The thought rattled in his head, lonely. He shook off the feeling that someone had hung up on him; that wouldn’t make any sense.

.

Bart woke up. He blinked one eye. Then the other.

He looked out the window of his room with his right eye. His left eye was looking at his pillow. He was sideways.

There was a yellow school bus outside his window. It was driving away.

He put his right hand to his right eye and rubbed at it. He pushed on the bed and sat up slightly so he could look at his clock.

It was an analog clock. He squinted at it. He might as well have tried to read a sundial at night.

He pulled out his phone. The time was late. He had ten minutes to walk himself to school.

He sat in the bed. He smacked his lips groggily. There was a teddy bear on the shelf on his wall. One of its eyes was lopsided and it was missing patches of fur.

There was a US History textbook next to it.

Oh. Right. Ten minutes. Maybe less than that, now.

He climbed out of bed and pulled on some clothes.

Something was rotten in the state of Denmark.

.

Jaime doodled into his notebook, trying to keep himself awake. Signing up for Spanish class to raise his GPA was not as good an idea as it should have been. He wanted to blow up the building and fly away, if that would make him any less bored.

He furrowed his brow. That would be a serious crime. It wasn’t even funny as a joke. Shame on him.

A few more things about that thought bothered him, but they slipped from his mind like oil from his fingers. He wanted to wipe his hands; he hated goopy, slimy things.

Something buzzed next to his ear. He swatted it away.

.

Half of first period was gone when Bart walked into class. The teacher furrowed his generous brow at him and hefted a huge sigh without missing a beat in his lecture. Bart walked to a chair near the back of the classroom and sat down. He looked out the window.

He’d seen a book cover once where kids went to school on top of a huge skyscraper. He watched the sophomores running the mile outside. He imagined the same view from a mile above the ground.

He slumped in his chair. Rotten indeed. So rotten there were worms crawling from it. But was this an apple or a corpse?

Some of his classmates were writing into notebooks. The teacher was showing a slideshow. He reached for his bag; he hadn’t brought it to school today. He’d forgotten. Oops.

He put his palms on the desk and leaned his head against the back of the chair. He dragged his palms down the desk, trying to make moisture trails. It was hard because he wasn’t sweating at all.

This probably isn’t an apple.

.

There was a test in World History. Jaime couldn’t remember studying for it, but he paid attention to all the lectures and the subject made sense to him, so he wasn’t worried.

The test came to him and he wrote his name and opened it. There was a terribly photocopied reproduction of an Egyptian tomb painting. He scanned over it and answered the ten multiple choice questions about it.

The next page had Mesopotamian carvings, but there must have been a photocopying error; part of the Egyptian painting was imprinted over it. He rubbed at the paper, but the imprint had already dried. He squinted around it as best he could.

Khepri was on the third page, too. And every one after that. There must have been a printer jam.

.

Bart wasn’t hungry, but everyone was heading to the cafeteria, so he did too.

While he stood in line for food, he scanned the tables for available seats. He caught sight of a junior sitting by himself in the corner. There was something strange in the way he absently scratched at his neck.

Calzones today. Cool. Chocolate milk hadn’t run out yet, double cool.

… Definitely not an apple. Huh? No.

He took his lunch tray over to the junior. “What’s wrong with your neck?” He asked.

The junior jumped. His eyes darted up to meet Bart’s, then looked around and slowly relaxed, his brow furrowed. He lowered his hand. “Nothing’s wrong with my neck,” he said. He scooted over in his seat to make room for Bart.

“Oh,” Bart said, scooting in. He leaned back to get a closer glance at the junior’s neck; there was nothing there. “Nevermind,” he said. He dug into his lunch.

The junior was pushing his spaghetti around his plate. They both stared ahead as the sound of moving kids rattled from the cafeteria wall behind them.

“Ever notice that nobody really talks to anyone else here?” the junior said. Bart turned to look at him, and he turned to look back at Bart.

“Isn’t that what people do, in high school?” Bart asked. It wasn’t an idea he would run for president with. But, well, it was an idea.

The junior raised an eyebrow and turned his head back to the rest of the room, the sound of clinking utensils and footsteps. He chewed his lip. “I don’t think so,” he said.

Bart shrugged. There was probably something else he could say about this, but he thought of nothing. “Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark,” he said, and took another calzoney bite. Burnt his teeth a little.

The junior was still chewing his lip, his brow making a squiggly line over his eyes. “By the pricking of my thumbs,” he said in an agreeing tone, but Bart had no idea what he meant.

.

Jaime had eaten his fill at lunch, but somehow he didn’t feel satisfied. Or full.

He pulled his hand away from his neck again. Was this what they meant when they talked about phantom limb syndrome?

Wait, he wasn’t an amputee or anything. What a stupid idea. Maybe he needs to stop studying so much. No, wait. He needs to study harder.

There was a used petri dish on his desk, with mosquitoes flying all over it. He had to ask around to find where to store it; someone must have left it over from biochem. Ew.

He turned over the words the freshman had said at lunch. Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark. Yeah. Something was. He was going crazy from not knowing what it was.

He slapped his arm; he thought he’d felt a mosquito biting his arm, but there was nothing there. Just the buzzing in his skin, slipping away. It made him feel ill. He dove into his notes.

.

Bart frowned down at his bare knees while his gym teacher barked at them. When she stopped, they would need to run the mile.

Bart hated running the mile.

The teacher blew the whistle and his classmates ran off. He put his hands in the shallow pockets of his gym shorts and paced leisurely along the tracks. The teacher yelled at him.

There was a park next to the tracks, on the other side of the school fence. It was shady and pretty, and was nicer to look at than the glaring sunlight reflecting off the track. He looked at the park.

There was a cat sitting next to the fence. Its eyes trailed along the rest of the class lazily, then found and rested on him. He could hear the gym teacher’s voice ringing in his ears. The slits in the cat’s eyes were giving him a stomachache.

His hands fisted in his gym short pockets, and he broke into a jog, then a run. Before he knew it, he was sprinting.

When he completed the mile run, he looked at the teacher’s astonished face, then turned to see that he’d finished before anyone else had even gone halfway. The athletic kids were already puffing red trying to catch up to him.

His pulse was pounding in his ears. There was probably sodium chloride in his eyes. He grinned. He felt like his body was about to crash. It was glorious.

.

Jaime watched the freshman walk into Calculus with great surprise. How long had they shared a class together, and why didn’t he remember?

The freshman wobbled a little as he walked and all but poured into his seat near the window. His relaxed face formed a goofy grin before he flopped onto his desk and turned his head to the window, and Jaime lost sight of his expression. His fingers dangled vaguely over the edge of his desk, and he looked for all the world like all his bones had liquefied.

Jaime frowned, weighing the merit of going over to the kid to say hi. He watched other students file into the classroom, not looking at each other, and the teacher clearing his throat at the front of the room. He ducked his head down, glancing carefully at the freshman one last time.

The kid was probably pretty smart, if he was in Calculus at his age, but he better sit up and pay attention if he wanted to pass the course.

For a second he thought he saw a flash of blue; he jumped in his seat, startled. He looked closer at the freshman, but there was nothing there but a shining beetle crawling along his neck. The window had probably been left slightly open.

A few of his classmates turned to him, glaring at him for causing a commotion. A few shushed him. The freshman turned his head over, and they caught each other’s eye.

.

The junior was in the class. His brow was again a single, crumpled line. Bart pictured himself rubbing at that brow, trying to flatten it and see what the guy’s face really looked like.

Bart tried to lift a hand to wave at him, but it was difficult. Since gym class when he outran everyone, his whole body was disobedient, had a mind of its own. And it ached, oh did it ever. He managed to lift his left hand an inch, and twitch it a little, before it fell. The action made his vision go white.

His eyes rolled closed. The teacher spoke to the class. Yesterday he was three steps ahead, but today he was four steps behind. The world was running off without him…

He drifted off to the sound of functions and the slight glow of the junior’s blue hoodie in the afternoon sunlight. Something in him hummed in contentment.

.

Jaime kicked his shoes down the hall when he came home, and sat against the door for an hour, thoughts rattling and echoing through his vacant head.

There was still that unsettling feeling that he was being stood up, or rejected outright. He glanced around the living room of his empty house and found himself waiting; for one of the doors to open, or the doorbell, or the sound of the stove turning on. There was nothing.

Outside, inside, Jaime was alone.

He sighed and dragged himself to the kitchen. He had some rice and cheese left over from yesterday. He was not in the mood to cook tonight.

.

Bart opened his hand, twisted his fingers. He closed his hand. Opened it.

His feet hurt. His legs burned. There were cracks in his bedroom ceiling…

He tried to set the alarm on the clock earlier. An exercise in futility. He and his body would need to be on better terms in the morning.

‘Ever notice that nobody really talks to anyone else here?’ the junior had said.

There was something to that. He was so tired; he couldn’t get up the momentum to puzzle out why it mattered.

Bart put his left hand to his face. He covered both of his eyes, sliding them closed.

This was rotten like a corpse. Any minute he’ll wake up spitting ash.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Jaime woke up cold, and he threw his notebooks at the wall.

His strange feeling from yesterday hadn’t gone away; if anything, it had worsened. He clawed his fingers through his hair and curled into a fetal position, but nothing helped.

He got out of bed and walked through every room in his empty house, though he didn’t know what he expected to find. He circled all the rooms like a hyena. He couldn’t stop scowling.

Even though he ate a lot of food last night and wasn’t hungry, he went to the kitchen and cooked four breakfasts. Halfway through eating the second plate of eggs, he wanted to throw up, but he still felt empty.

.

Today Bart missed first period entirely. He walked from his first class to his second with a growl in his throat, his feet still aching slightly though the rest of him was better.

The teacher glared at him as he walked through the door, and Bart wanted to throw his hands into the air. You’d think he had never been late to class before.

As he settled in his seat, once again sans any school materials, he frowned. He did have a vague recollection of winning prizes for attendance in the past. Teachers used to put happy faces on his exams and smile at his often-raised hand.

How the hell had he ever managed to do that? He tried to sit up straight in his chair, but the effort immediately exhausted him and he slumped back. He’d ditched the backpack today on purpose, because he didn’t think he could lug that heavy thing around all day. But two days ago he was in this seat furiously taking detailed notes. He’d even brought a textbook. The very idea of bringing a textbook to class made him want to cry himself to exhausted sleep.

He’d carried bigger things before, too. He used to carry babies, if he recalled correctly. He could carry two babies and run them down three flights if stairs and out of a burning building—

Wait, no, when did he ever do that? He had an award from the fifth grade science fair. Someone like him wouldn’t have time to do anything like that.

Besides, the very idea was absurd.

.

Jaime pulled his head up from his desk. He was dangerously close to sleeping; what was the teacher talking about?

rotten in the state

He slapped himself quietly to help stay awake; there was drool on his desk.

rotten

something rotten

He leaned over to the classmate sitting beside him and gave her a small smile and wave. He got a glare back, then she put her arms around her notebook like she was armoring against plagiarism.

He turned his head the other way and leaned toward another classmate. “What subject are we on right now?” he whispered.

The classmate leaned away from him, disgusted, and said nothing.

“I’m Jaime Reyes, nice to meet you,” he offered.

“Listen to the teacher,” the classmate hissed.

He didn’t know anyone’s name, he realized.

Nobody would look at him.

.

This was ridiculous. No, no way, no.

Bart knew, in his head, that as the kind of person who won science fairs he had personally dissected many things, sometimes even outside of school.

But he also knew that, right now, that preservative smell made him want to hurl, the scalpel was terrifying, and for some reason looking at organs was making painful, horrifying images flash before his eyes.

This was ridiculous. His brain-facts were having a showdown with real life and he wasn’t sure which one he was supposed to be rooting for. Any minute he would get vertigo and fall to his death, and nobody would ever think twice because it would be just another Reach disas—

“Now make a longitudinal cut along the center of the abdomen, where you will see the liver and intestines,” the teacher said, her voice cutting through Bart’s thoughts. He startled in his seat in a dizzy jolt, and he could hear his brain sift like sand in his head.

He’d been thinking about something, something, something important. He was too tired and nauseated to recall what it was.

A fly landed on his assignment, and he stumbled out of the classroom, face green.

.

Jaime’s staring contest with his pizza was interrupted by the freshman walking carefully to his table and panting into his ear, “Food gives people energy, right?”

“Uh, yes?” he said, though being asked something so obvious made him uncertain of the answer.

The freshman’s fingers trembled where they were gripping the table for support, and he pointed at Jaime’s pizza. “You gonna eat that?”

Jaime pursed his lips and shook his head. “Go ahead,” he said, pushing the plate toward him. The freshman scrambled into the bench gratefully and wolfed the slice down. He had about half of it in his mouth when he suddenly gagged, and Jaime was treated to an immodest view of partially chewed pizza.

“Hermano,” Jaime breathed, halfway caught between disgust and panic, “slow down. You’ll choke yourself.”

The freshman shook his head frantically, then stopped when that made the gagging worse. He held up one finger and covered his mouth and took deep breaths.

When he managed to swallow the food and took his hand away from his face, Jaime noticed what he hadn’t earlier: the freshman’s complexion was pale, a little grey in some places. His forehead was dotted with sweat.

“Sorry about that, nah, I’m fine,” the freshman said. “I barfed earlier, so, little of that might’ve been left. I just really had to eat, I was about to drop.”

“What? Are you okay?” Before he really thought about it, he’d grabbed the freshman’s wrists. The skin was cold. “Did you get sick or something?”

“I dun— no, I’m— I’m okay,” the freshman said. Jaime frowned in disbelief at such an obvious lie, and the freshman offered a little smile in return. “It was just anatomy day at the lab, like, gross, right?”

“I guess.”

Jaime was still holding the guy’s wrists. It didn’t look like he noticed, or minded, but it was weird; Jaime dropped them gently back onto the table. They plopped limply where he left them, jostling the pizza plate a little.

“What’s a ‘her-mano’?” the freshman asked suddenly, gratuitously mispronouncing the word.

Jaime frowned. “Hermano. The H is silent.”

“There’s an H in her-mano?”

Jaime scratched his head, then gave up and shrugged. “Yes. It means ‘bro.’” Now that he thought about it, he wasn’t sure why he said it.

The freshman had a long, ponderous stare at the rest of the pizza, then he picked it up and ate it hungrily; there was colour returning to his cheeks. “That’s c- cr- cool. That’s cool. You’re my her-mano too.” And he gave Jaime a gross yet strangely charming pizza smile.

“Hermano,” Jaime corrected, a desperate warmth filling up the echoing hollow of his chest.

“No habra une pocko espannol,” the freshman pronounced.

Jaime broke down into a fit of giggles, and the freshman didn’t make fun of him even a little bit, not even when he started shaking. He just laid a slightly cold hand against Jaime’s shoulder, and Jaime clung to that hand, wishing he knew how to make it warm.

.

The gym teacher glared at him when he stumbled into class. Bart grinned and took his seat on the concrete for his daily screaming.

Some of his classmates were watching him. Especially some of the star athletes.

ever notice that…?

Bart sighed and put his face in his hands. Lunch had helped, a little, but he was still swimming through the day in a daze. Maybe he’d refilled his gas but needed to check his oil. There wouldn’t be another mile-running trick today.

because it would just be another Reach…

Another what? That thought had been going somewhere, but why had he thought it to begin with?

His whole body was humming, buzzing to the tips of his fingers and toes, and he looked around him as the teacher yelled and his classmates fiddled with pebbles.

There were more cats on the fence. The sight pulled his eyes wide in instinctual shock, but he calmed himself; these were ordinary cats, like the last one, and there was nothing fearsome about them.

One of them turned to look at him, and his heart fluttered like the beating wings of a hummingbird. His body buzzed to its tips and he needed to move, somewhere, anywhere—

because it would just be another Reach disaster, was how he was thinking; and he could feel those words echoing in his head now, making ripples through his consciousness where they hit. Because it would be just another Reach disaster, just another one as it had been all his life; mentally composing eulogies in his head whenever a friend vanished for more than thirty-two hours and praying them in his mind because there would never be anything like a funeral, no time no resources no freedom to risk causing that much attention; the joy and relief of finding a pair of goggles for the first time and not having to blink ashes out of his eyes while he ran, and boy did he run, streaking through the streets and blazing a path of melted snow in his wake, and how he suffered for it later and learned to run faster, run over the snow and ice, not even leaving footprints where he stepped.

Bart clutched his head, breathing heavily into his chest and legs curling up. His classmates were still looking at him, and his teacher’s face was murderous. He put his hand to his mouth and clutched at his stomach. He curled so hard into himself that his knees knocked against his forehead; his head felt like a giant bell that had been mercilessly struck, a warning signal, a last resort, to let everyone know when to beat a hasty retreat— his head throbbed again and he heaved into his hand, just managing to keep his lunch down.

No, don’t stop. It hurts but you can’t forget. Warning bell. Breathe in the ashes. YOU CANNOT FORGET.

He peered blearily at the fence again. All the cats had vanished, if they had ever been there at all. His heart fluttered lightly in contrast with his head, beating out a rhythm faster than the speed of sound.

.

When Jaime walked into Calculus, the freshman was already there. Jaime barely had time to glance at his other classmates and notice that they refused to make eye contact with him before the freshman slammed into him and clutched at his clothing, hair wild and eyes widened to positively feral levels.

“Her-mano! You’re— yes, I— I know you, and— You! You’re real! You have to get us out of this!” the freshman was talking so fast he was talking over himself. Some small muscles around his mouth were twitching, apparently without his knowledge.

Jaime shook his head and stared. “Uh, wait, uh… sorry, what?”

“Sorry I can’t really talk any slower than this, every time I stop thinking at the speed of lightning it gets me and I forget everything and I have to figure out the whole thing all over— ANYWAY, YOU— YOU’RE, like, you know you’re real, not like everyone else here—” Bart made a hurried gesture that encompassed all the other people in the classroom “—they’re constructs of the firewall and they’re made to keep forcing your head back under the water and the like, how do I explain it, it’s like if you’re stuffed into a grey room and every face you see looks the same—”

Jaime shook his head and pushed gently at the freshman’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, I’m not following you, you’re not making any sense!”

The freshman’s eyes widened further and he muttered something unintelligible under his breath before he renewed his ramble, even more frantic than before. “We were doing a patrol through space in a craft and we ran into that— that thing, and we sent you to investigate it and when you touched it you disappeared in a flash of light and I managed to dive in after you just before it closed which was no easy feat let me tell you, and it’s trying to drive you away from the scarab but you have to resist it, you have to fight their fake reality and— you have to fight theirfakerealityandrememberthatYOU’RENOTALONEANDYOUARENEVER—”

The freshman winced and hissed, teeth grit; Jaime could see blood coming through his teeth. The freshman shook his head and muttered to himself some more, then met Jaime’s eyes again. “You have to remember us,” he said, his lips shaking and eyes dilating and contracting like a camera lens. He reached out a shaking hand toward Jaime’s cheek.

Jaime reached up to grab the freshman’s hand, but the boy suddenly collapsed against him with a loud groan, and Jaime struggled to grab him before he fell to the ground.

“Wh— Somebody, help!” he cried, glancing around the classroom; their classmates had turned to look at them, none of them meeting his eyes still, and not moving. A shiver went down Jaime’s spine.

The teacher was walking in at the front of the classroom, but he immediately dropped everything in his arms and rushed to the two of them, stern-faced and hands grabbing at the freshman’s shaking body.

Other adults rushed into the classroom, who knew from where. They pulled at the freshman and they pulled at Jaime; for some reason Jaime was having trouble letting go. When they finally wrenched the freshman away from him, his hands were claws of sinew and the freshman’s eyes were wide open, bloodied saliva dribbling down his chin.

“Wait— what are you doing to him?” Jaime asked, chasing after what he’d belatedly realized was probably his only friend in the entire school, possibly the entire world, disappearing into a crowd of stern faces he hardly recognized. “S… stop! Stop taking him!”

He clawed at the adults standing between him and the freshman, and his actions appeared to have a strange effect on the freshman’s body; the trembling shrank in intensity until the freshman’s limbs were nearly still, and his fingertips appeared to glow; possibly from a sheen of sweat. The freshman’s eyes were still wide open, but now they focused on Jaime, staring hard at him, and— Jaime drew in a breath of shock— they had turned red, with faintly glowing golden irises that pierced through Jaime’s consciousness like a bullet.

Jaime could faintly hear the freshman say “Jaime… Reyes…” before the crowd closed in and the freshman vanished in a flurry of excitement and worry and legal talk and medical terms.

Then he was alone in the classroom, with twenty classmates who quietly returned to their assignments without any fuss.

He slumped to his knees.

He put his hands to his mouth.

He focused on breathing, and not biting himself.

Chapter Text

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 waited.

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.