Author's note:man, but was this chapter long overdue. Sorry for the delay, folks, if people are still reading this :D (Real Life interfered something nasty, and it's been a while since I wrote something consistent... Anyway.)
So, here is what in retrospect is perhaps my favourite (or one of, anyway) chapter - because I got to use Wally (who is my personal favourite in JL(U), big surprise there :P) and the Trickster, whose DCAU incarnation is one awesome puppy of sweetness and cute from Cloud Cuckooland. You decide if I got his voice down :o)
Disclaimer: I wish I owned Trickster's Jew harp. And his yo-yo (the one that doesn't explode). But that's it :o]
Everybody Comes To Harry's
WALKING ON THE MOON
It was a beautiful, sunny day in Central City, Missouri. A warm spring wind was blowing through the streets, clouds were drifting lazily in the sky looking like cotton shreds, and James Jesse was sitting on the top of the Schwartz Mall Tower, swinging his legs over the edge and whistling softly.
Now Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor
He'd never rob a mother or a child
There never was a man with the law in his hand
That could take Jesse James when alive …
Fun little song. It had been running constantly in his head for the past five minutes. James wished he had a Jew's harp – it just seemed like the perfect moment in a perfect day to play it.
Instead he idly played with his yo-yo – his favourite one, the one that didn't explode – and passed in review every step of the way, from the moment he'd had the idea for the shoes up to now. It was a long way, and lots of steps, so he'd been sitting there for some time now, looking up at the bright blue sky and grinning at the clouds.
It didn't help that he often got distracted by a passing thought or a pigeon who flew by a little too close to him for comfort. Oh sure, he could scare them off if he used stuff from his bag of tricks, but he hadn't come all the way up to here to shoot pepper powder pellets at birds. It wasn't something the Trickster did, anyway.
Being the Trickster wasn't something James Jesse did – it was something he was.
James had been called many names since he was a kid. He'd answered to 'Giovanni Giuseppe' – the name his parents gave him – he had not answered to those who'd called him 'wop', or 'carnie' – in the end, he had twisted his birth name into something that looked good on posters. Advertisement and Wanted ones.
'James Jesse' looked good on both. It was a good, strong name, and one he'd made for himself at that.
But the Trickster wasn't just a name. It meant something. It meant he had certain obligations, like annoying the heck out of the Flash, razzle-dazzling the rest out of the Central City Police, and maybe keeping the balance of the universe between absolute order and absolute chaos too.
Okay, he wasn't certain about that last part, though, but the first two kept him so busy and were so darn fun anyway that it didn't matter much.
It was on a Saturday night and the moon was shining bright
They robbed the Glendale train …
He'd been working on those shoes for months – scratch that, years.
They had to work.
And people they did say o'er many miles away …
"Hey, James! Thought that was you up there. Whatcha doin'?"
The voice was cheerful and friendly enough, with just that little bit of wariness that told a good listener the guy knew who he was dealing with. James turned his head and greeted the Flash with a grin.
"Enjoying a day off. It's a really beautiful day, so I'm making it my day off – you know, to relax and chill and stuff. Well, 'chill' is more Len's kinda thing, but … you know what I mean."
Flash's body language matched his voice perfectly as he stood alongside James, admiring the view, but keeping a careful eye on him all the same.
"Yeah. I gotta say, it looks even more beautiful from here. 'That why you're sitting on the edge of one of the tallest buildings in Central?"
There was the tiniest hint of a tension in his voice that made James look up, blinking.
"Just wanted to work on experimental stuff. What did you think I was here for?"
Not-quite-blank lenses met his gaze, and Flash made a funny sort of face.
"I, uh … Well, I sorta heard you weren't feeling that great lately, and … I guess I just …" He made a show of scratching the back of his neck and gave a sheepish smile. "Okay. I wanted to check on you. Make sure you didn't … do something you'd regret."
James raised an eyebrow under his mask, rather taken aback. This was … unexpected, albeit rather logical when you knew the guy for as long as he did.
"'Check on me'? What the heck for?"
Flash squirmed a bit, looking uncomfortable, and James had to grin again at that. Watching someone squirm at super-speed was a whole lot of fun.
"Told ya, heard you weren't – really well these days. So when I saw you sitting there on that really really high rooftop, I … got a little nervous, yeah." He stopped squirming and sat down next to James. "Anyway. Got any dastardly deed planned for today, Trickster?"
James put his yo-yo back into a pocket in his cloak and frowned at the too-innocent blue eyes he could make out behind the lenses.
"You know, that hurt. What, I can't have a day off like a regular guy?"
"You're not exactly a regular guy, James."
"Okay, then. I can't have a day off like a regular super-villain?"
The Flash grinned and shook his head, not answering the rhetorical question. But something he'd said earlier caught up with James. "And, uh, whaddaya mean, you 'heard'? Heard what from who?"
Cue more super-speed squirming. Not for the first time, James reflected that the guy would be interesting to play poker against. Even half-covered as it was, his face was an open book.
Too bad James didn't have a clue how to play poker, really.
"Well – you haven't been hanging out with the Rogues much these days, have you?"
James gave an emphatic shrug. "Nah, not much. There's this project I've been working on that's takin' a lot of time. Why?"
"Piper was … he worries a bit about you."
"Piper's always worried."
"Not without reason."
That actually was a pretty good point, but darn it if James was going to concede it. Besides, this begged for another question.
"Wait. You went and talked to him?"
James decided that Flash had the most infuriating grin in the known universe. Which was really annoying, seeing that he was supposed to have reached that particular record. Infuriating people was his life goal, darnit.
"Ran into him the other day outside that pub you guys hang around in –"
"That's gotta hurt."
"Not what I meant."
Hah! One-upped him.
"… And he said – well, it wasn't so much what he actually said than how he said it. Told me you had these mood swings – like, one second you're bouncing all over the place and the next you look like your puppy's been brutally murdered and sent to you piece by piece."
James screwed up his face, wincing. "Hel-lo to the imagery. Very nice, Flash."
"Sorry. Piper's idea, my words." Flash glanced up at the sky, then back at James, then at his feet dangling over the very, very high drop, then at the buildings and the clouds in front of him – all of this so fast it was hard to keep track. "And it's … you know … not just Piper."
James almost dropped the yo-yo he had picked back up from his pocket to keep his hands busy. "Oh?"
"So who else didja 'run into', then?"
Oh man, the guy needed to stop squirming. You can only have fun with it for so long, after all.
"Well," Flash drawled, "I didn't exactly run into 'em so much as … handed them to the cops the other day."
"That 'other day' of yours sure sounds busy."
"James … Anyway, Heatwave might have mentioned something … Mirror Master, too …"
James goggled at Flash. He wouldn't have been surprised if his eyes just popped out of his mask, Tex Avery-style.
"Mick and Sam asked after me? They're concerned?"
"You'd be surprised. I mean, even Captain Cold dropped a word when the cops weren't listening."
"Yeah. Weird, huh?"
And Flash looked serious. That was probably the most unsettling part. The Flash always made a point of never being really serious. Oh, he probably worked on the banter and the one-liners as much as the Trickster did, but that was what made going against him so entertaining. When people asked him why on earth he stayed in Central City when the Flash clearly had the upper hand in every mischief he planned, James pointed out that the jokes and the repartee would be lost on folks like the Big Boy Scout in Metropolis or Big Old Bad Gloom 'n Doom in Gotham. Being the Trickster in Central City was all about fun, and Flash delivered that in spades.
The other guys acted like they didn't get that, as though they really were in it just for the money and not for the fun, but James knew better. You didn't see the Central City Rogues pulling a heist in LA or Denver or Phoenix – they stayed, too. And it wasn't for the waters.
Now, if only they'd admit to it … Maybe it wouldn't make James feel so much like the wacky outsider all the time. He was an integral part of the Rogues, darnit, and he'd been for some time now! And he'd been wearing the stripped pants and the bright colours and the grin way before the – James shuddered – Joker – had made the whole thing all fashionable, after all.
So, yeah, it did make him feel a bit fuzzy and warm in the region of the stomach that the guys had actually taken the trouble to drop a word to the Flash, of all people, in concern over him. Even if that was totally unnecessary.
He was fine. And he was not crazy.
… And he realised just now that he'd kept silent for what may seem like an uncanny long period to someone like the Flash. Who glanced at him from the corner of his eye.
"So … wanna thumb-wrestle?"
"I won't use super-speed, promise."
"… Sure, okay."
James put away his yo-yo again and they locked hands.
The absurdity of the situation never occurred to him once.
"What were you working on that took so much time, anyway, James?"
"Air-walker shoes. You know, to walk on air. Wild, huh?"
"Yup, sounds so. How'd you get the idea?"
"Well, you know my folks were aerialists, right?"
"Right. Hah – got your thumb."
"You're on. So – aerialists."
They locked hands again, James still talking while paying extra attention this time. "So, yeah. I remember getting really scared of heights as a kid, so I thought up some kinda device that'd help me get … not scared. Got over that fear a while ago, but the shoe idea stayed." He grinned as he pinned Flash's red-clad thumb under his. "Heh. Decider?"
"Okay. So it's like a hobby? Every now and then, you just get them out and work on 'em?"
"Nah. Finished them last week." Flash seemed to raise an eyebrow under his cowl, and James' grin grew wider as he broke the thumb wrestling and used his hands to emphasize his point. "I tested them yesterday at my place, and they worked. But I haven't tested them over a good scary height yet."
"'That why you're here?"
This simple question left James oddly deflated after the soaring excitement of finding the shoes actually worked that he had been carrying with him since the day before.
"Yeah, I, uh … Guess I was working up the guts to take a leap of faith, as it were."
It was a beautiful day, after all, and crashing against the pavement with some big wet and pink noise some seventy stores below would really ruin it. That would be a shame.
The Flash peeked at the shoes he was wearing.
"Y'know, I don't know anything about flying gadgets, but they look like the normal kind to me."
"That's the whole point! That way, next time I rob a train or a jewellery store or something, you won't be able to follow me, 'cause I'll be running on air with my normal-looking shoes and I'll be laughing at ya!"
"Yeah, that sounds great," Flash deadpanned. Then he cut the snark and appeared thoughtful. "You know what? I think you should try. If they don't work, I promise I'll be down there to catch you before you –"
"– Go splat?"
James tapped his index against his chin thoughtfully, assessing the guy's sincerity. But that was something about the Flash that you quickly came to realise if you worked with – or against – him: he was fairly straightforward. He didn't do things with reservations or ulterior motives – he just did it. If he said he would catch you, unless something dire happened to him, he would.
It's a funny feeling when you're a villain, realising you could depend on a hero.
Even if it was your day off.
James made up his mind.
"Okay, then, let's do that." He stood up, his heart beating in his chest louder and faster than he would have liked it, and looked for the Flash's eyes behind the lenses. "You probably won't need to, but you sure you can be down there and catch me if …?"
The guy grinned his cheerful, warm grin. "In a flash."
The hammering in James' chest subsided a tiny bit. "Okay." He took a deep breath, opened his eyes wide, and put his left foot forward.
"A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop a-lop-ban-boom …"
He put his foot down on nothing.
And realised the very millisecond he felt for the button he had to press in order to activate the compressed-air system that those were the wrong shoes and how could he have mixed those up and oh my God I am going to die.
In the space of a second, he opened his mouth wide to scream, the wind filled it and closed his throat, and out of an old, now futile habit his whole body went limp in anticipation of the impact. It lasted one second and it lasted an eternity.
And then he was Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Or rather, her house.
Somewhere in his terror-crazed brain, a little voice tilted its (metaphorical) head to the side and asked where the tornado came from.
His feet gently touched the ground. His knees buckled, and he would have fallen –
– falling and falling and falling and gone splat –
– face first on the pavement if a pair of arms hadn't caught him and kept him upright.
"James? James, you okay? Can you hear me?"
James still had his eyes wide open, but only now was he starting to get image to match sound. And the sound was bad, like his parents' old radio on the breadbox in the trailer.
"Oh my G – wha' the – oh my – oh God – oh God – oh God – "
The wrong shoes. He had put on the wrong shoes. How could that happen? He had been so sure he had the right shoes on earlier!
If the Flash hadn't stopped to chat … Oh boy, if he'd tried the shoes just five minutes earlier … He shuddered violently, still babbling, his head spinning.
"James, look at me – I mean it, look at me. You still in there, man?"
"Yeah," James eventually replied, gradually coming down to Earth – God there was something profoundly wrong with that metaphor – and gazing up into a worried face and a pair of wide blue eyes. "Yeah, I'm … Yeah. Uh … wrong shoes. Sorry."
Flash stared at him for thirty-two whole seconds – James had the time to register his heart thumping painfully and possibly cracking a rib or two, and the cold sweat running all over him – and finally gave a weak chuckle.
"You – you got the shoes wrong?"
"A–apparently I did."
They both fell silent, and James began noticing the city sounds starting again, as though from an old scratched vinyl record. The smells of car exhaust, fresh tar and the almost unnoticeable sharp hint of spring came through, too.
Copper in his mouth. He had bitten slightly on his tongue. That started to hurt a bit as well.
Flash was still supporting him, with one arm thrown over his shoulder.
"Hey … aren't we near that place? You know, the pub?"
James raised a head that weighed five tons and inspected their surroundings.
"Yeah, I'd say we are. Why, wanted a drink?"
"I think we both do, don't you?"
James could only agree, which was probably why the two of them sat a few minutes later at the counter in front of an astonished Harry, the only remaining person in the pub due to a lot of patrons running out in a panic when the Flash walked in. Nevertheless, Harry stoically poured the two drinks – a Shirley Temple and a Coke – and edged away discreetly.
James gulped down gloomily some of his grenadine-lemonade, staring down at the counter and watching his hands fail to stop shaking.
"Can't believe I put on the wrong shoes."
Flash kept silent, playing with the lemon slice in his Coke.
"You know the worst part? I totally remember puttin' them on when I left my place. It's like – it's there in my brain." He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, to no avail. "I think … I think there's something wrong with it."
Flash still said nothing, but kept his eyes on James. He wasn't blinking behind those lenses.
"With my brain, I mean. Or my mind. Or – well, me. Generally."
James gave his drink a stir, and the swirling pink and yellow looked for a second like his own tangled mop of hair when he looked in the mirror in the morning.
"That's what the fellas meant, right? Why they're worried?"
The lump in his throat just would not budge.
"But I'm not crazy! I know I – I'm not! I'm not like … not like him …"
The thought felt ice cold and white hot at the same time, and although the feeling did have not unpleasant associations – a certain rough, reluctantly friendly association – it went through him like a sudden bad fever, leaving him shuddering slightly. He screwed up his eyes against the image.
"You know people keep getting confused? After all this time? They say, 'Oh yeah, that guy, Gotham's got one just like that' or they … sometimes people take me for him, you know? 'I thought that nutjob was Batman's lookout, what's he doing here in Central – kill and torture some other people?' But …"
His eyes were stinging, and he knew the look he was giving Flash was pleading and desperate, but right now he couldn't care less.
"I don't wanna be the Joker, Flash! I don't want to be insane and kill and maim and torture and laugh –"
"James," Flash cut him quietly with a hand on his arm, "you're not. Yes, you need help, and I swear you're getting it the second you ask – but just because you're not well doesn't mean you're becoming a psychopath. Remember, when you wanted to steal that big blue diamond at the museum, and you set those pepper and itching powder bombs to distract everyone?"
James nodded bleakly. The memory was fun, but he just couldn't bring himself to smile.
"Okay, those people were really annoyed, and – well, yeah, in the end you didn't go very far with that diamond – but nobody was really hurt. Now, the Joker? He would've used his usual gas that disfigures people and probably would have killed them afterwards just for the hell of it."
The thought made James shiver again, and he felt Flash's hand on his arm give a slight squeeze.
"James, I know you … You've been a super-villain –"
"A Rogue," James corrected in a low voice, out of habit. Flash smiled a little bit.
"Sorry – a Rogue – for a long time, and if there's something I know about you for sure –"
"I really like blue and yellow stripes?"
The smile widened, and the Trickster in James cheered. Quietly, from a bit of a distance.
"– It's that you do not kill. You don't hurt innocent people. You're a good g – well, okay, maybe not a 'good guy', but you're a not a bad man. I'd rather have you here than any wacky villain I come up against with the League. Any day."
James' eyes didn't sting anymore, but that was only because they were brimming with tears that threatened to fall any minute, and hadn't already done so just because he had been holding on so tightly till now.
Flash didn't notice. Or possibly pretended to, James wasn't sure. He didn't make any comment, and let him finish his drink in his own time.
Then they talked some more, about doctors and hospitals and medicines. About a possible appointment James could make tomorrow. Promises were made about possible hospital visits – barring grounding injuries or apocalypses to prevent – and this touched James a great deal, because when they'd talked about hospitals, even without saying a single word about it, Flash had sounded and looked like he hated setting foot in those places. But he'd promised, and James knew he would make good on that promise if needed be.
As he left Harry's – knowing that Flash was probably still keeping an eye on him, and while that thought should have made him feel antsy and ill-at-ease, deep down he was oddly glad of that – James realised he had another song running in his head.
Some may say
I'm wishing my days away no way
And if it's the price I pay, some say
Tomorrow's another day, you'll stay
I may as well play…
And James wondered if he could pop over Piper's to borrow the record tomorrow after his appointment with the doc.
I always wondered how James came to realise there's something wrong with him - the way I see it, it's like a sort of depression, the one you have to treat medically but once you do, you can be okay - and accepts it. Halfway through writing this, I thought, "Hey - this guy dresses in bright colours, makes it a point of honour to come up with harmless-looking dangerous gadgets (acid snot gun and whatnot) ... He's afraid that, if he's crazy, then he becomes the Joker." Part of this wild idea came from Mark Hamill's performance in Flash and Substance AND his being the Joker in the DCAU for something like ten years (funnily enough, up until a year ago or so I had no idea that Hamill was the Joker :D) The other part came from a conversation with some friends of mine, where I attempted to explain the Trickster to them, and came up pathetically short (it didn't help that his "Nobody gets me" line kept running through my head :D) and almost ended up saying, "Like the Joker, but without the crazy murderous rampage." I should have started with the general, Bugs Bunny concept of the trickster :o)
Next up: Piper's chapter. But I've only got two pages down, so no sneak peek yet :o/