The blue sky, unusually clear for the year's first November afternoon, made for a beautiful view of Jump City's skyline out the windows of the Ops room.
Jinx was aware that this was because nearly all the heavy damage had taken place further inland and all the repair work was happening too far away to see. But she believed in presenting the best parts of herself, that the cringe-worthy facets of her personality might be overlooked. If the city could pull off the same, more power to it. Certainly more honest than throwing on so many embellishments that it turned into an unbelievable parody of itself.
Which appeared to be Beast Boy's philosophy, if his recounting of the night's events was any indication.
"So she was like pfft, and he was like grr, and she was like oh no you didn't and he was like oh yes I did, then she was like AAAAATATATATATA and he was like mosquito bites; and she was all you are already dead and he exploded into a pile of wood shavings!"
"Really?" said Kid Flash, glancing over his shoulder to give her a half-hearted smile. And not one of his 'I can't believe what you did but I won't say that to your face' smiles, she seen enough of those to recognize them on first glance. "That's...not how anyone else described it. At all."
"I know, dude," Beast Boy replied. "They're all like, plants are gonna kill us. Which is kinda cool since I eat a lot of plants, which makes me kinda cool, but it just isn't as manly."
Jinx rolled her eyes. "Hey," she said to Cyborg in a soft volume barely above a whisper, which was sufficient since he was standing about four feet away. "Does he know he wasn't actually there for the story he's telling?"
"Honestly," Cyborg responded in the same hushed tone, "I think he prefers it that way."
She shook her head in disbelief, enjoying the feeling of her hair moving through the air. The actual effect was probably so miniscule as to make her sensation imaginary, but restoring her hair to its proper devil-horns shape after ten hours of sleep made her feel like it was her head again.
"Jinx!" came Starfire's excited voice, as she flew from the main entryway and alighted a few feet away. "You are awakened!" she beamed.
"...yeah," Jinx responded after a couple seconds. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Cyborg walk off, towards Beast Boy and Kid Flash. Leaving Jinx alone with an excessively cheerful Tamaranean. Maybe she couldn't find any coffee because Starfire drank it all. "Sorry about...you know, leaving you with one of those things."
"You do not need to give me apology," Starfire responded with a slight shake of her head. "It had been a long time since I engaged in a contest with the vicious plant many times my size. Not since Blackfire and I were small, and she filled bladeflower stems with the growth formula and plunged them into a rampaging glorg. Only on Tamaran have I ever seen the sharp, angry bouquet slither so quickly." She sighed wistfully. "Oh, and I did the asking before you did the leaving, which makes you more courteous than my sister was."
"Uh...thanks," Jinx answered, feeling uncertain. She didn't know what else she could say. She didn't even know what a 'glorg' was. At most, she guessed Starfire must've had an incredibly harsh childhood if she was getting nostalgic over fighting those things. She'd have thought she shouldn't have asked, except she didn't actually ask a question. Maybe that'd be less awkward..."So anyway, how was your morning?"
"It was...the disappointing," Starfire said. "I do not think I like the bloody vegetables. They do not have the good smell, and while they have the crunchy texture they are...bland. Perhaps if they were to be fried..."
OK, Starfire talking about eating the things was more awkward, and a little nauseating. Even worse, the only reply she could think of was that frying would probably change the texture, and she didn't want to encourage the chain of thought.
Fortunately Starfire's biggest distraction walked into the room, sparing Jinx from coming up with a better response.
"Titans," Robin was saying as he stopped just inside the door, "We have a lead."
"You found out where those things came from?" Cyborg asked as the Titans all walked or floated over to Robin. Or appeared in a blur, in Kid Flash's case. Jinx slowly walked over herself, and stood between Beast Boy and Starfire, and slightly behind them.
"Kind of," Robin answered. "I just got off the line with Doctor Holland, one of the botanists we sent plant samples to. He recognized some of the background I included on the night's events, and sent back an inquiry with additional details that matched what Cyborg and Jinx told the rest of us."
Beast Boy scratched his head. "So what'd this dude say?"
"He knew of some myths originating from Europe, around where Denmark is today. Stories about a tribe of men led by half-porcupine bears, bent on turning the world into a paradise for plants through bloodletting. Said he knew some historical experts he'd check with, but warned me that the timeframe was around the fifth century AD, so we shouldn't expect to get a complete history."
"Matches the runes in the Tower," Raven commented. Jinx had almost forgotten she was here, Raven had been pretty subdued ever since she stumbled into the Ops room when Cyborg was in the middle of fixing up the Tower transmitter. Being immobilized inside a wooden puppet, in the dark, for hours would put anyone in a bad mood. Or maybe Raven was always this reclusive and withdrawn, she wasn't an expert on the girl's habits.
"What he thought was more interesting, was that a probable connection surfaced in Belize a few years ago. A Mayan-era mural with a corresponding message, like the one Jinx mentioned, that had gone undiscovered until law enforcement stumbled across it while searching for a trespasser in a historic site...a girl with gray skin and pink hair."
Jinx swallowed as she felt five pairs of eyes turn in her direction, wordlessly questioning her. Just before realizing that the conspicuously missing eye belonged to someone who wouldn't need to question her. But she wouldn't have expected him to keep it to himself, either.
She turned to face Cyborg, which involved leaning back a bit. "You didn't tell them?" she asked, putting just a hint of annoyance in her voice.
Now he looked at her with his eye. While everyone else in the room was looking at him. "I don't know what you're talkin' about," he claimed dismissively. Too dismissively to be believable.
Jinx sighed in disgust. If she'd known he was covering for her..."Look, it was almost three years ago, I didn't take anything, and the only thing I broke was the boulder blocking access to the mural."
Silence reigned for a couple seconds, and everyone looked at her before Robin responded. "That would explain why there weren't any further attempts to find or identify you, if they didn't think it was worth an arrest for trespassing alone."
She took a deep breath, acting relieved and hiding the annoyance at the back of her mind. She fled the country when they weren't even looking for her? It was almost insulting. "So I take it Belize isn't trying to extradite me?"
"Never even filed charges. I'm not sure how comfortable I am with all this, but if the authorities don't care, there's no reason for us to be concerned. 'No harm done' is a lot better than I can say about some of the things you've done."
She narrowed an eyebrow. She was pretty sure that was a lead-in to a specific 'thing'.
"I can't overlook what happened to the Puppet King," he said.
Jinx started tapping her finger against her wrist.
"While I appreciate the efforts you put in last night, and we probably owe you and Cyborg our lives; the Titans' most important rule is that we don't kill, unless there is absolutely no other—"
"Robin," Raven cut him off. "The Puppet King is a wooden doll, animated by magic. It's the magic that gives him life. Destroying the doll is no different than turning off the electrical outlet a lamp is plugged into; plug it into another outlet and it turns back on. She didn't 'kill' anyone."
Jinx tried to look relaxed. Don't look smug, don't look smug...
"Oh," Robin said sheepishly. "Well...then...good work!"
"Same thing with the bears," Jinx added. "The leader talked about being cast onto the world, and recasting a different one to ask it what happened. I can't say for sure whether their physical forms were the same thing."
"I think so," Cyborg chimed in. "Those things had no infrared signature, even cold-blooded animals like reptiles emit some heat. And I can't imagine any living thing could withstand having half its body literally blown open. So unless we're considering pumpkins now—"
"Oh no you don't!" Beast Boy protested. "I think we both know that once pumpkins are out, you'll go after my tofu next!"
"...I don't think either of us 'knows' that," Cyborg countered, visibly air-quoting.
Robin cleared his throat, loudly. "While the two of you are discussing that, I'm going to see what our options are for securing that mural and any others that might be found." He turned to leave, and the rest of the Titans started meandering off towards the corners of the room. "If we stop anyone from bringing them back, we won't have to deal with them again."
Jinx sighed in relief. That'd be nice.
"How do you know?" she asked Robin as the door opened.
He froze in place, and she could almost feel the temperature in the room drop a couple degrees.
Robin turned on his heel and walked right up to her. "Cyborg said the Tower went back to normal and the Puppet King was the only one left," Robin answered. He figured it out pretty fast, she thought.
"Yeah, because the bear sucked in all that stuff and disappeared after Cyborg smashed the Great Pumpkin. I think it took its ball and went home, or somewhere else."
Robin narrowed his eyes, which Jinx thought was a pretty neat trick with the mask. "Why didn't you mention this before?"
Jinx growled. "You didn't ask what happened to the bear, and after being awake for twenty freakin' hours and dodging children and pumpkins and bears, oh my, I was a little too out of it to remember to question everything Cyborg might have told you!"
She never claimed that hiding her less-desirable aspects was easy. But she could win a staring contest, as Robin was discovering. It only took a couple seconds before he gave up, exhaling sharply.
"Fair enough," he said. Then he looked at Cyborg, who'd inched closer along with the rest of the core Titans. "Is there some signature we can use to track down this bear?"
"Don't think so," Cyborg replied. "They disappeared completely when we beat 'em, so I don't even know what kind of scans they'd show up on. All I know is they don't show up on infrared, which tells us how not to find them."
Robin turned to look the other way. "Raven?"
"Same thing Cyborg said," Raven answered in her gravelly voice. "I found the traces of magical energy collecting in this room, but the source doesn't exist here anymore. There's nothing left to find, much less follow."
A yellow and red blur appearing beside them resolved itself into Kid Flash, who placed a hand on both her shoulder and Robin's. "Hey, we're all friends here." he said. "Besides, how long did it take the bear guy to come up with his first attack?"
Jinx took a deep breath through her nose. They were all his friends, sure. But she wasn't stupid. Starfire's respectful distance was in fact rather cold for her, Robin had challenged her validity three times in two minutes, and Beast Boy had been studiously ignoring her. "Friends" was a stretch at least as big as the pumpkin that had been sitting on the obstacle course.
Of course, saying they weren't friends would jeopardize the "acquaintances with uneasy working relationships" thing that did exist. So she answered his question instead. "Somewhere between two months, when Control Freak's radio-jamming pumpkin was taken to be turned into the Great Pumpkin thing...and three years, assuming it started plotting as soon as the mural was exposed."
"That averages a year and seven months! See, we've got time to worry about it."
Jinx rolled her eyes. She imagined a lot of speedsters could have problems taking time seriously, but that didn't make him any less annoying. It gave her an idea on how to change the subject, though.
"Speaking of time, that reminds me," she began. "You knew I was here in town, and I was expecting the party to end well before midnight. So why, exactly, did you not show up until Cyborg called you hours later? Was the lack of response from my communicator ambiguous, or did you not even bother to try?"
"Sorry," Kid Flash apologized, putting his hands back at his sides. "I got distracted."
"There's a shock," Jinx muttered. "By what?" she added at normal volume.
"Speedster devils in Tasmania." The rest of the room stared at him, and the Titans that hadn't gotten close to the conversation walked over now. "Honest!" Kid Flash added when he saw all the skepticism. "I was going by Australia—where it turns I'd missed Halloween, did you know they're twenty hours ahead of us?—and some giant fireball went off over the ocean. I ran into Toni, who was already heading to Tasmania to see what was going on, so I lent her a hand."
"Who's Toni?" Beast Boy asked.
"Oh, Argent, sorry."
"Argent," Jinx repeated. She didn't know Kid Flash was on a first-name basis with her. Then again, she didn't know much about Argent at all. Maybe the two of them went way back. And even if not, and they'd grown closer over the past evening...she imagined the same was true of Cyborg and herself. And she certainly didn't have any notion to damage her relationship with Kid Flash.
"Yeah. White skin, spiky black hair that makes Robin's look smooth, black clothes, red skirt, scarlet letter...well maybe it was scarlet—"
"I know who she is," Jinx said while gritting her teeth. Accidentally naming a classic novel centered around adultery was not doing him any favors.
"Sorry, thought you were asking. Anyway, there were like six of these brown cyclones running all over the place, chasing this shapeshifter I'd never heard of before. Megan something. Hey Beast Boy, do you have any green-skinned cousins?"
"Megan?!" Jinx growled. What were the odds he just happened to stumble upon a girl while he was with a girl besides herself? For the seventh time in seven months? "Funny" how he never mentioned any guys he statistically should have rescued by now...
"I don't have any green-skinned relatives, dude," Beast Boy was saying. "Where did you say she lives again?"
"What is it with you and all the superhero girls?" she demanded.
"What? Well what about you and all those boys you hung out with?" Kid Flash countered. "That Billy and all his cousins."
"And that Deborah throwing the fire was a villain, so there!"
She was sure he thought he was being funny. Fortunately she didn't need to figure out how to express how wrong he was; Cyborg flicked his forefinger against the back of Kid Flash's head.
"Ow!" Kid Flash exclaimed in exaggeration as he looked behind him. "I turned down Megan's cookies, what more do you want?!"
She took a deep breath, actively choosing not to ponder whether that was a euphemism. "Thank you," she said with slight annoyance over the entire exchange.
Kid Flash turned back to look at her. "Me or him?"
"Yes," she hissed in response.
The room was silent for a few awkward seconds.
"I'm...going to excuse myself," Robin said as he turned around and headed out the door. "If the leader is out there, I need to start the search as soon as possible."
After the door closed, Beast Boy headed towards the center of the room. "Dude, you forgot to tell me where this Megan girl lives," he was saying.
"Well she said she stayed in the Outback most of the time, reminded her of home," Kid Flash said as he followed Beast Boy. Starfire floated after the two of them.
Raven, meanwhile, was wordlessly floating towards the opposite side of the room.
"Raven?" Jinx said, to get her attention.
She didn't turn around, keeping her blue cloak between the two of them. She did, however, stop moving forward. "What," she replied curtly.
"What you said about the Puppet King. Was any of that even true?" The inclusion of the lamp analogy had struck Jinx as a little...odd.
"Yes," she droned. "Probably a lot of it. It got him off your back, so who cares?" Then she resumed floating away.
"You're adopted?" Jinx overhead Kid Flash asking.
"Yeah dude," Beast Boy answered. "You didn't know?"
"Uh...Jinx?" Cyborg said, still standing near her. "Can we talk for a minute?"
She glanced at Kid Flash and Beast Boy, who were gesticulating at each other while Starfire was trying to follow their hand motions. "Sure," she said.
He walked a short ways along the wall, in the opposite direction from Raven, and she followed.
He took a deep breath. "I should've said this before, but...I'm sorry," he said in a hushed tone. "About the whole Stone thing. Didn't want to lie to you like that. Maybe if things were different—"
She cut him off by exhaling loudly. Did he really just...
But she could tell, from the startled look in his eye, that he didn't know what he just did.
She forced the frown off her face. "That's not fair."
A yellow-and-red shape appeared next to her. "What's not fair?"
Jinx rolled her eyes. Now she had to be oblique about it too...She looked Cyborg in the eye. "Look, you didn't know what was going to happen out there. Neither did I. But it's not your fault, and it's not mine either. Would things have been different if we'd known in advance? Of course. But how could we? There were better ways for things to turn out, there always are; but none of them were realistic. There's no blame to be had."
"I know it looks bad out there," Kid Flash said, "but I saw what you guys went up against. You did great!"
Jinx tried not to smile as she slowly shook her head. Oblivious and accurate at the same time, that was Kid Flash.
"Oh," he continued, "almost forgot; gotta go, meeting Toni for lunch."
He disappeared in a blur, but before the frown could make it back to her face, he reappeared in the same blur.
"If...that's OK with you?" he asked, smiling.
Jinx took a deep breath. Try to be reasonable..."Did you tell her we're together?"
He shrugged. "She knows."
"Did. You. Tell. Her?" It'd hardly be the first time he assumed incorrectly what someone else knew.
"Look, she asked if we were still going out!"
"And why are you meeting her for lunch?"
"When I said I ran into her yesterday, I kinda meant literally, and...she ended up wearing her meal. Only seems fair to make up for it, you know?"
Jinx smirked. "Tell Argent I said 'hi'."
His smile turned into a full-sized grin. He softly, and quickly, kissed her on the cheek. "You're the best!" he declared as he zoomed out of the room again.
Jinx smiled as she watched his motion trail fade. And don't you forget it.
Then she turned her head and frowned at Cyborg. "You can't talk to me about hypotheticals when I'm in a relationship, OK?" she hissed in a low tone. "Why don't you just ask me to think about cheating on him?"
He was taken aback so far that he literally took a step back. "I didn't mean..." Then he sighed and slumped his shoulders. "Hadn't thought about it that way. Sorry. Again."
She shrugged. "Well I forgive you again, so don't worry about it."
He smiled softly, but then his face turned serious again. "Do you really think he'd cheat on you?"
"Of course not, I'd drop him like a rock if I did. But I've been wrong before. And consciously or not, he plays the part of ladies' man better than I should be comfortable with."
"So doesn't it seem a little odd that Argent wanted to meet him for lunch if she knew you guys were together?"
She snorted. "Did you hear him say it 'only seems fair'?"
"...Present-tense, not past. She doesn't have any idea, does she?"
"I'd say she didn't; I'm sure he's found her by now."
They both noticed Raven's blue shape approaching them.
"Yes, Raven?" Jinx said with mock cheerfulness.
Raven landed on the ground and pulled back her hood, revealing her face...and the black-and-blue tints of a bruise in the middle of it. "Was hitting me in the face that hard necessary?"
"Would you prefer if I shot you next time?" Cyborg asked sarcastically.
Raven glanced at him. "There better not be a next time," she said, before turning solid black and sinking into the floor.
Jinx sighed. The monster had been around for at least fifteen centuries, active for the last three years, and nearly subjugated the city in a matter of hours. It was convinced that it would win eventually, and talked like winning was the only purpose it had. And from the sounds of it, there was no way for any of them to find it until it struck again.
"Good luck with that."
The young woman stared out the window of the beige bus, at the legion of huge trees going by on the other side.
"So why do we always visit the redwood forest now?" she asked her husband, who was sitting in the seat next to her.
"We always go by once a year," he answered. "Ever since our senior year—"
"I mean, why November?" she clarified, turning to look at him. "Wouldn't it be warmer or more vibrant during the summer?"
He scratched his chin. "Maybe, but..." He made an exaggerated gesture of looking around the interior of the vehicle, empty except for the two of them and the driver. "Would we have our own private bus? Besides, it's still beautiful out there."
"Yes, it is," she agreed. "And I think the bears agree, they've been more active than usual this year."
"What do you mean?"
"You didn't see the big tree with all the fresh claw marks on it? I know bears claw trees, but I don't remember ever seeing that many on one tree. Or two claw marks in different directions on the same spot, or with different numbers of claws showing. Do you think maybe they're leaving messages for other bears?"
"I've heard they mark their territory with their claws, so...maybe? I'm not a bear-ologist, honey."
She giggled at the silly word. "These trips never seem to last long enough, do they? I can't wait for next year."
"Don't worry, I'm sure we'll be doing this again soon enough."
The sound of the driver clearing his throat drew their attention...and they realized the engine was off and the bus was stopped.
"Sorry to disturb you folks," the driver said, "but the park is closing and I need to buy dinner for my family." He motioned towards the door with his head. "Get off my bus."
(Author's Note: And that's the end! I completed the story only...four years and nine days after I originally planned to have it done. I think it's safe to say I write a lot better than I set deadlines...Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!)