The credit for all the "All Quiet on the Western Front" quotes go to Erich Maria Remarque.
"You can be a hero," the S.T.A.R. labs crew offered. "You can save lives."
But their eyes said "Save this one life. Save our crotchety, ornery, old friend."
If Jax is being honest, that was why he did it. It didn't feel like much of choice.
Jax read All Quiet on the Western Front for English class his sophomore year of high school. He was apprehensive about it for three reasons:
1. The print was small.
2. The cover was boring, which was always a bad sign.
3. He was increasingly aware that he didn't have nearly as many opinions about capital-w War as he maybe should, all things considered.
However, there were two promising indicators:
1. Judging from the back of the book, there was bound to be at least a little gore.
2. Also judging from the back of the book, there was very little, if any, romance.
In the end, he got through sixty-five pages, highlighted one passage-
"Kropp on the other hand is a thinker. He proposes that a declaration of war should be a kind of popular festival with entrance-tickets and bands, like a bull fight. Then in the arena the ministers and generals of the two countries, dressed in bathing-drawers and armed with clubs, can have it out amongst themselves. Whoever survives, his country wins. That would be much simpler and more just than this arrangement, where the wrong people do the fighting."
-and relied on Sparknotes for the rest of it. For finals, he bullshitted an essay on what it was like to read about the viewpoint of German soldiers, then remembered too late that the book was about World War I, not World War II, rendering all his references to Nazis nonsensical. He still got a B-, with blue-inked praise in the margins of the pages for tackling "difficult themes" and including "varied syntax".
The dog-eared copy was shoved to the back of his closet, forgotten.
Sara Lance is gracefully violent, bitingly sarcastic, and stealthily kind. She's probably Jax's best friend, and he's probably hers. Jax never mentions this out of tact and superstition, aware that all the people who filled the role before him either died or left her life in a painfully tragic way.
The night after Rip put a bullet in Sara and snapped her neck, she and Jax sat on the floor of the kitchen, each holding a mug of hot chocolate spiked with amaretto. Jax expected to be fussed at for trying to shoot Rip, or maybe subjected to emotional prodding, but quickly realized Sara had no particular discussion in mind. She roamed from one topic to another with her shoulders bunched up tensely. It seemed to him that she simply wanted company. Jax was happy to provide that. He sat across from her with his back against the counter and watched her chest rise and fall.
"I've died twice," Sara declared, one hand pressed to the base of her neck. "But I've also kind of died four times."
"I've never died, but I guess I've been born about….four times," he responded, assuming (incorrectly) that two of her deaths were metaphorical.
"Tell me about them," she urged.
He considered elaborating for a moment, then decided against it. "You have to guess," he challenged, knowing that if she was as tired and tipsy as he was she probably wouldn't bother.
"That's okay," she responded. She paused for a moment to consider something. "I've only been born once, I think. All the other stuff was just lapses."
He flashed a grin at her. "Well, when I die, I think I'll do it just the once."
"Cheers," she said, and held out her mug for him to clink his against.
He was born in 1993. He weighed eight pounds and two ounces when he drew his first breath. His mother, exhausted and overwhelmed, and his father, absent, were both very proud.
When Jax was in the third grade, his spring break lined up with Easter Sunday. His mother loaded him into the car at three in the morning and they drove eight hundred miles to go see his cousins for a long weekend.
His mother and Aunt Clara are polar opposites- his mother tall and lean, and Aunt Clara short and plump. They aren't related by blood, but their eyes creased the same way when they smiled and hugged one another.
Jax squirmed when Aunt Clara took his face in her hands. "Jefferson," she cooed, the same way she always did. "You look more and more like your father every time I see you."
He scrunched his nose. "I'm gonna be taller, I think."
"Let's hope," she joked. "James got picked on all through school for being a little shrimp. Do you get picked on, honey?"
"No, ma'am," Jax replied, thrusting his chin forward.
She nodded. "Good. Go find your cousins- they're excited to see you."
He ran up the carpeted stairs on all fours, his feet clumsy with excitement.
It's a menacing, mad-scientist-rubbing-hands thing to think, but nowadays every time he feels the fusion, every time he flies, Jax is grateful for the particle accelerator explosion.
It was awful, of course. He knows that. The horror and wrongness has worked its way into the folds of his brain in a way only a meta can feel.
Still, some part of him thinks every time his hand rushes toward Stein's, isn't it wonderful? Not the fire, not the power, not the rush of adrenaline. Not the voice in his head. Not when the sky lit up and people died. No, something different, something deeper, something better.
Stein doesn't feel the same way, but Jax's joy prods his memories of Barry Allen. Maybe Jax will ask Barry about it someday, if he can ever find a way to put it into words.
At first, working on the Waverider was terrifying. When Rip took him down into the crawl spaces of the ship and rattled off the names of parts, his hands trembled. He wiped them on his jeans, a nervous tic.
"Come on, man," he said. "I work on cars."
"It isn't that different," Rip lied.
"If I do something wrong, I could kill all of us."
"You've disarmed a nuclear bomb with your bare hands- I think you can handle a flux capacitor."
Jax crossed his arms and glared. "That's from Back to the Future ."
"Correct!" Rip exclaimed, then reached up and unscrewed something. "See? You're not a complete beginner."
"That's not important, is it?" Jax asked, eyeing the object's shiny red coat of paint.
"Were you this jumpy the first time you worked on a car?" Rip asked. "Do you honestly think I'd be taking this off if it was important?"
"Yeah, your track record with keeping us out of danger isn't exactly stellar."
Rip ignored his comment and tossed him the part. "Catch. That's the flux capacitor."
Startled, Jax almost dropped it. "This thing makes the time travel work?"
Rip snorted. "No, Mr. Jackson, that happens via a reactor. This is nothing more than a glorified stabilizer- there are hundreds throughout the ship."
"Why is it called a flux capacitor, then?" Jax asked, craning his head to look at the space where the capacitor attached. He could smell ozone from the opening.
"Some idiot jumped the gun. Now put that back on. I'll show you the part that should have actually been named the flux capacitor."
"What is it called?"
"The kinesilux accelerator. It's a decent name, but still a disappointment when you think of what could have been."
Jax never answered, and Rip stopped asking him questions, instead keeping up a steady stream of one-sided chatter as they wove their way through the mechanisms of the ship. It was several hours before Jax realized his hands had stopped shaking.
He was born the night the particle accelerator exploded. The sky was cast alight with fire. People ran, and screamed, and Jax tried to help the best he could, until he was thrown backward and the world ceased to be. His entire life changed course while he was sleeping.
The Easter service was beautiful in a way Jax can appreciate in retrospect, but at the time he only complained that it was humid and long.
It was thirty seconds longer than it could have been, because Aunt Clara told the pastor they were visiting for the weekend.
"- and let us pray for brother James Jackson," the pastor enunciated. "Though he passed on from this world several years ago, we still honor his service to our country and to his fellow man."
His cousin Kyla stepped on his foot. The shiny plastic scuffed and squeaked. He nudged her to the side. "It was an accident," she hissed.
"May his honor, bravery, and sacrifice be an example to us all. His wife and son stand with us this week, on the ground where he was baptized. May we all take this moment to bless and remember him. In the name of the lord Jesus Christ, amen."
"Amen," Jax said, bowing his head after he noticed his aunt doing it.
"Amen," his cousins coursed.
"Amen," his mother said. Her voice was tight, but any tremor was drowned out by the prayers of the rest of the congregation.
After it was all over, after Snart was dead and Kendra left and Rip's true colors, good and bad, had finally been splayed open for all to see like the tail of a peacock, Jax walked past Sara's room and heard great, heaving sobs.
He listened guiltily for a moment and ran through a list of teammates in his head, then realized, horrified, that he was best equipped to deal with the situation at hand.
He knocked. "Sara?" he called. "Are you okay?"
She fell silent.
"Are you going to stab me if I come in?" he asked.
She didn't speak. Even though she didn't seem like the kind of person who cried, Jax did think she seemed like the kind of person who would have an awful crying voice.
He tried to turn the knob. It was locked.
"Okay," he said. "My door is open if you want to come talk."
She never came by.
The months that he and Stein trained in Pittsburgh were hard. Becoming F.I.R.E.S.T.O.R.M. was difficult for both of them, more mentally than physically. Their psychic link was confusing, and Jax had a hard time shutting it out to fall asleep.
"Try reading," Stein finally suggested. "Ronald was often...overwhelming to say the least. Especially at first." It was the first piece of advice Stein offered him that seemed at least partially well-intentioned rather than domineering.
There were two duffel bags from back home under the his bunk- one for clothes and the other full of a pile of junk he had scooped out of closet. To his mother's dismay, he had left his packing until the last moment. He shuffled around in the second duffel bag, grasping for anything that seemed remotely book-shaped, and pulled out his battered copy of All Quiet on the Western Front, the cover newly stained with...deodorant, probably.
Stein scoffed- it came through the link as vibration and condescension. Jax got a fourth of the way through the book before their connection smoothed out into something like a stream of consciousness.
Okay, he thought to himself. If this is what it's supposed to be like, I can deal with it. He fell asleep ten pages later and slept through the night.
Stein had seen the black-and-white movie, so they both dreamt of a butterfly on a gun, and Ronnie's body falling from the sky. (That never happened of course. Ronnie Raymond has an empty grave.) When Jax picked the book back up the following evening, he was surprised by the ending, or at least how it was structured- with an epilogue of sorts, a switch from first person to third. There was no mention of a name, simply:
"He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so quiet and still on the whole front, that the army report confined itself to a the single sentence: All quiet on the Western Front.
He had fallen forward and lay on the earth as though sleeping. Turning him over one saw that he could not have suffered long; his face had an expression of calm, as though almost glad the end had come."
He couldn't shake it from his thoughts during training the next day. "You don't strike me as a morbid person, Jefferson," Martin complained.
"Occupational hazard," Jax snapped back, and shot a fireball toward the ground.
His father was real. Solid. Flesh and blood. He stood before Jax and talked and smiled. There are little snippets of audio that play through Jax's head, an echolalia, things that in the moment he promised himself he would hold and remember forever.
"I'm proud of you."
"Your mother-" (with a crack in his tone, clearly realizing on the spot he would soon leave his wife a widow).
"War is different now. People die less, and if they die, they die quicker."
Jax knows they talked about football, and about his grandmother's cooking.
"She mailed me a peach pie when I was in basic, but by the time it reached me it was a just crumbs and a sticky mess."
He thinks he made made a bad joke about cobbler in response, but isn't sure. He has no idea what impression his father may have drawn from him, or if it is anything close to the way he thinks of himself. How accurate of an impression could he have gotten from a couple of hours?
Ray offered him a stilted version of support, after they dropped off Anna, a hand on his shoulder and a sad smile that was probably supposed to be empathic.
"I'm sorry," he said. "This was hard for me, too."
Jax apologized in return, sincerely, but didn't continue the conversation. The situations were too different- he honestly didn't know who had it better (or worse).
He tried to save his father. It didn't work. It's not so much that failed attempt that bothers him. Instead, it's that promise to himself that he breaks more and more every day. Over time, the things his father really said have blended together with all the imagined conversations Jax has carried out solo over the years, while driving or in the shower. The conversation about peach pie was definitely real, but he is no longer sure about the rest of it.
He should have written it down, and berates himself for it, wishing for time-travel, before remembering that he has access to time travel ("Come on, man, that's like, the whole thing!") and that in this case, it is useless.
The trip home was quiet. Jax glanced up from his drawing every once in awhile to stare at his mother's pressed-together lips in the rearview mirror. Finally, when the road markers indicated that they were only thirty-two miles from Central City, she turned off the radio and said his name.
"Yeah?" he asked.
"If you're uncomfortable when your cousins talk about your daddy, you can ask them to change the subject."
"We don't really talk about it that much," he said, truthfully. It was only the adults who went on and on, and he was certain he wasn't allowed to ask them to stop talking. Just the idea of it made him nervous.
"Your daddy was a good man." Her eyes were on the road. She never glanced back at him.
"I know," Jax insisted.
"He wasn't-" she fell silent. His eyes slid slowly back to his drawing, picking at the wood of the orange colored pencil in lieu of a sharpener.
"I want you to know that your daddy was a good man," his mother said, seven miles later. "I just don't want you to think he was a good man because he was in the army. He was kind, brave, and one of the funniest people I've ever met. He was all of those things before he decided to be a soldier."
"When did he decide?" Jax asked. In his mind, his father had never been anything else.
"He was in school to work on computers. Back then they were much bigger and more complicated, and not as many people knew how to use them. He was only in the army for a couple of months."
"Oh," Jax said, still not sure why his mother was being so serious. She told stories about his dad all the time without getting weird. "Why did he change his mind?"
"He-...We-...There was a war, baby, and they needed people. He wanted to help."
It didn't sound like a lie, and it wasn't. Not completely.
The evening after Nate and Ray accidentally set the kitchen on fire (to Mick's delight and Gideon's panic), he, Sara, and Amaya stole the "secret" bottle of scotch Nate kept stashed in the library and gradually worked their way through it.
"Have another sip," Sara urged him, after she and Amaya's features had already started to blur.
"This is revenge. There can't be justice unless we finish the bottle."
They introduced Amaya to "Never Have I Ever," which Sara lost spectacularly, and tried to unsuccessfully include Gideon in the game as they grew steadily drunker.
"We should go to bed," Amaya finally suggested. "It's getting late.
"Or we could bake," Sara offered. "Laurel and I used to get drink wine and make cinnamon rolls when our parents weren't home."
"I've never had those," Amaya admitted. "I've never had a lot of the food that you all eat."
"Have you had chocolate chip cookies?" Jax asked.
She laughed, which he had never heard before. "Yes."
"There's a story there," Sara commented.
Amaya shook her head, grinning. "No, there isn't."
Sara stood, and offered them each a hand. "My cinnamon rolls against Jax's chocolate chip cookies. We'll get that story out of you while we're baking."
Jax grabbed her fingers, never doubting for a moment that she was strong enough to haul him up. "I never said that I know how to bake."
"Do you?" Amaya asked.
"No!" he exclaimed.
Sara beamed, and Jax looked away from it, instead staring at the birthmark on her arm. "All the more reason for a competition."
His third birth was a lot like his second. It happened on the same football field, two years later. He and Stein fused together in a burst of light and heat. That birth came with instinctual urges- love for Clarissa and anxiety for Caitlin. He mulled them over in his mind, understanding feelings in a way he never had before, through the lense of another person.
No matter how hard he concentrated, he was never sure which impulses came from Stein and which came from the ghost of Ronnie.
Jax is used to time travel by now. He thinks in circles. He understands how the few minutes Sara was dead lasted years, but the six months he and Stein spent in the middle ages passed in the blink of an eye. They always take care to visit home in chronological order. It makes things easier, but it makes his mother sad. She always asks how much time has passed since she last saw him.
"It's not like that," Jax told her the last time he was home, after the Dominators. "I can stay through Christmas if you want.
She patted him on the cheek, hard enough to sting a little. "You're always welcome to stay, but that's not why I'm bothered. You look older. Older than I expected."
"I'm twenty-one, for sure." he offered. "But I don't know when I'll be twenty-two."
She shook her head. "The flame-throwing, I can take. I just don't like not knowing how old you are."
It had never bothered him before then, but once he was back on the ship, something occurred to him.
"How old am I, Gideon?" he asked the ceiling. "For real."
"Twenty-one years, thirty-four weeks, and two days," she replied promptly, for once without comment.
He did the mental math and sighed as his worry was confirmed- he was several months older than his dad had ever been.
He looked around. No one else was within earshot. He could never be sure with Ray or Sara, but he figured he had as much privacy as he was ever going to get.
"Gideon, did my dad think of me before he died?"
There was unspoken question tacked on. If his father thought of him, toward the end, did he think of Jax as the baby wrapped in a blanket through a hospital window, or as the grown adult he had hugged?
Gideon didn't have an answer. Jax hadn't really expected one.
Jax finally figured it out when he graduated from high school. He walked across the stage with the aid of a crutch.
"It's smart." That's what his peers said about those among them who were joining the military after graduation (five guys, two from his team, and three girls, one who was going through the naval academy first). "No student debt."
One of the guys already had a kid. Another had twins on the way.
He thought about telling his mom that it didn't matter to him, but that wasn't quite true. He was angry, not at her, not at his dad, but at the entire world. He had been since his injury, and this new realization only made it worse.
He kept getting letters, spam most of his classmates also received. "$5,000 for summer work," it read in big letters across the top. "In beautiful Alaska," it continued, under a picture of a bright blue boat.
"No, don't mess with crab fishing," one of the guidance counselors warned him when discussed his options with her. "It's got the highest mortality rate of any career, something like nineteen times higher than anything else. That's why they target you kids- they know you need the money."
"Yeah," he said, and almost burst forward with all of his frustration on the spot. "My dad might be alive if we hadn't needed the money, " he almost said. "My dad is dead because of me."
"I can't do the military with my leg, can I?" he asked instead.
"Probably not, but I'm sure a recruiter would know better than me. Do you want to set up an appointment?" she offered.
"No, that's okay."
It wasn't, not really.
After he almost shot Rip, Jax read All Quiet on the Western Front again. And again. Long stretches of text were devoted the logistics of World War I rations, details he was sure Nate would be fascinated with, but that he started skipping.
Stein banged on his door after he began his third re-reading in as many days. "You've got to be kidding!" he exclaimed. "Let me in!"
Jax opened the door, but blocked Stein from entering. "I put up with all your manic physics episodes, you can put up with this."
"This is some sort of breakdown," Stein insisted. "If you'd like, I can provide you with other literature recommendations- I'm sure our teammates will help if you don't like my tastes."
Jax thrust the book against Stein's chest. "You read it. I'm sure you can knock it out in an hour, tops. Figure out what's bugging me."
Stein shoved it back against his chest. "I'm taking a nap. Please stop dwelling on the gorier passages. The level of description is wholly unnecessary."
He was born for the fourth and final time in 1863. Jax knew it had rained before his feet even hit the ground, because of the smell. There is a word for it- petrichor- but that never explained to him why the earth felt different depending on the place. Even with nearly one hundred and fifty years of separation, there was a specificity to something he recognized. The smell didn't bring him to the back porch of he and his mother's duplex. No, instead the heaviness in the air and the way the birds sang immediately brought the sensation of bark beneath his hand. Stein caught it through the link, and out of the corner of his eye Jax saw him glance down at his palms, confused.
He closed his eyes for an instant and thought of his baby three cousins in their pastel Easter dresses. He thought of April 2001. It rained all through church and lunch afterward. Finally, when the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, he and the other kids were freed from stilted conversations with distant relatives and allowed to run outside and play. They ran through itchy wet weeds, past the cropping of apple trees, to a cluster of tulip poplars.
He inhaled, deeply, the smell of the American south after the rain, and when he opened his eyes, he was born again.
This is my team, he thought. It was true beforehand, but now he was certain. This was what he wanted, and he would make that decision, choose time, choose them , over and over again. Even Nate and Amaya, if that was what they wanted. Even Mick.
His feet hit the sated ground, and he felt more solid than he ever had.
When he boarded the ship again, the smell of zombie guts and freshly tilled earth lingering, he was unsteady, shaken, but still clinging to that momentary peace.
The night after Rip really and truly returned, Jax sat on the bean bag in the corner of Stein's room and read All Quiet on the Western Front for the last time.
"Finally," Stein said, once he had finished, sensing his resolve. "Did you find what you were looking for?"
"Not what I was looking for," he admitted. "They're just so powerless. I don't feel that way. Not anymore."
Stein was silent for once, stunned.
"I'm done, though, I promise," Jax assured.
Jax bit his lip. "Caitlin deserves to know that Ronnie died quickly, and that he didn't suffer. I think I'll tell her next time we're in Central City, if that's okay with you."
He didn't wait for an answer. Instead, he plucked a highlighter off of Stein's desk and walked into the hallway.
As he approached Sara's room, he flipped toward the front of the paperback, to the forward.
"This book is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war."
He tore out the page and marked the first sentence, then slid it under the crack of her door.
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