LinkExchange FORWARD

Stepping Up
by Frank A. Lauro

    You can call it a lot of things, but swear to God, "showing off" should not be one of them, no matter how it looks. If anything, you should call it… confirmation.

I mean, okay, fine, I admit it -- I made sure to call Dick to the Tower when I knew the rest of the Titans were off on personal stuff or private missions or whatever took them to wherever they went when they weren't making regular meetings. What I wanted was a moment alone with the best friend I ever had who couldn't be linked to me through blood or marriage. I'd already shown Mom and Frances and a select few other folks so they wouldn't freak out too badly when they first saw me in action on the home turf. That was practical. This is personal. I know he missed the first moment, when I made the most important decision of my life, so I want him to see me…and that decision, really -- in complete privacy.

Moreover, I want to see him when he sees me.

'Cause, see, I'm finally feeling like I'm over some of the guilt and the fear and the inadequacy. I'm almost just a little bit starting to feel as though I just might be able to do this. What I've undertaken here is something that none of us -- the kids, the sidekicks, the old gang, the "junior JLA"…has yet been in a position to attempt. What I've become is something that none of the others have had to even really contemplate becoming, at least for the reason I've set out to do what I've done. You ask me, that marks them as lucky. I would have given anything for this to have never happened…for me to have gone on with the word Kid in my name until I was twice as old as too old to have it be appropriate…but that didn't happen. The moment came and I grabbed it and damn it, I was right to do so. If I hadn't done it at that second, if Jay hadn't been right there, I might have never done it at all, but I did, and I'm glad. From the moment I said the those words, a universe away, I've felt a wave of approval smiling down upon me.

All I need now is for my best friend to smile upon me as well. Then I'll be ready.

The Tower's a little cold. That's the sort of thing I wouldn't usually notice, but this is, after all, an unusual day.

I ascend the stairs at just below Mach 1…no need to cause a sonic boom indoors, even though the suprastructure is reinforced to withstand that and more…and take an extra moment at the speed my late uncle made sure I was blessed enough to employ. My best friend sits at the main conference table, poring over paperwork the likes of which would bore me to tears in less time than it would take him to gloss the first word of the first page.

I take a long look at him and almost chicken out and turn right around at the same speed at which I arrived, a luxury for those few of us who can enter and exit a room with as ephemeral a presence as a mild breeze. It's not just his furrowed brow or his sincere concentration on the bills and requisitions and affidavits before himÐ earmarks of the countless responsibilities that he's borne on our behalf for longer than I'd care to rememberÐ it's the whole look of him.

See, a year or so ago, we quit the Titans. Dick and I. Together. At the same time, I mean. We both decided that maybe it was time to put away childish things and become men. He ditched the short pants; I shed the coolest costume any hero ever had; and we both walked. If Dick hadn't said the words, I would never have found my own within me. For once, it wasn't just a case of Wally following the leader; I came to the decision on my own, after a lot of debate. But then he decided the same thing, and that, more than anything, convinced me the call I made that day, like Dick's, was the right one.

Which made things all the more weird when he reversed his decision a month later.

Sure, the yellow cape and elf boots were gone, as was the "Batman and-" but Dick came back to the forefront with a new costume and identity. He slapped on some midnight blue, turned his collar up, fancied up his domino mask, and started calling himself Nightwing. Boom. New hero. Not too much of a Batman influence there, right? Right.

So here he is now, still not able to perceive me at this speed -- Mister Reborn, Mister Grown-Up, the first one of us to really do anything radical with his "sidekick" image… and he makes me nervous. And that makes no sense. I mean, here I am, and I've done it! Dick may have rendered Robin a memory…or at least an identity to be taken up by someone else, a new kid…but I'm the one who's crossed the line we all used to talk about. I'm the one who's "stepped up," as we used to call it. Garth, Roy, Donna, and yeah, even Dick…they all talked about it, hinted at it, bragged about it like any stupid kids would at 13, spandex or no…but I'm standing here now in the uniform of the man who for years called me "sidekick," who always intended for me to take over for him, who died saving the universe decades earlier than he probably expected. Arthur still out-swims sharks. Ollie still bulls-eyes gnats at a hundred yards. Diana still deflects bullets from automatic-fire weapons (not that she has to, since her skin is impervious to anything this side of a low-yield nuke). And Bruce… well, he's still Bruce, scaring the hell out of Roy and sneaking up on me, for Christ's sake.

Of all the legends, even after the severity of this damned "Crisis," only Barry is dead. He was the first to go, which makes me, in turn, the first of us to actually take up the implicit inheritance that we all accepted the moment we first let ourselves be called "Boy" or "Lad" or "Girl" or what have you.

And before I start running through the streets of Central City or Keystone City or hell, any city that knows what that red blur means… I've got to do this. Jay? He not only approves, but matches my mourning in a way that no one else alive truly could. My mom? She's her usual Blue Valley self, but she's come to understand what Barry meant to me, and…maybe for the first time ever…sees this newest step of mine as something I need to do.

That leaves the frowning detective seated before me. All I have to do is slow down enough so he can see me. The rest, I'm thinking, will happen pretty naturally.
I resolve myself to get it over with, and the deep breath I take feels like a full minute. In reality, it probably takes less than a hundredth of a second. Either way, when it ends, I relax into real time. I even manage a smile.

Dick's head snaps around, I swear, before he can actually sense me. He does that sort of thing a lot, which freaks me out. What he doesn't do a lot is look surprised, like he's doing right this second.

"Wally?" he says, rising from his seat, looking me up and down, seeing the all-red costume and knowing instantly what it means. To his credit, he's the first person to notice at first glance that it isn't Barry in here any more.

"Yeah," I say, holding my arms out like a runway model. I even do a full, slow spin, and feel like a showy idiot about 200 degrees of the way through. "What do you think?" I ask, after a self-conscious clearing of my throat.

Dick takes a step closer to me, seemingly ignoring the costume for a moment. "I haven't seen you since we all got back from…" He stops in mid-sentence, frowns, bites his lip, and shakes his head. "Jesus, I'm so sorry about Barry. He was one of the reasons we all decided to do what we do, Wally. No one will ever forget him. We owe him our very existence."

At Barry's service, Jay gave an eight-minute eulogy. I wanted to bawl from the first word, but I managed to hold it in the whole time. Dick's four sentences make my vision blurry with moisture faster than I…of all people…am able to sense or control.
And Nightwing, formerly Robin the first, a decidedly non-superhuman individual, has me in a full embrace before I, the newly-designated fastest man alive, so much as see him move.

I lose it for a minute, the way I had wanted to at the service, the way I would have if Iris had lived to stand there with me and mourn the man who'd meant everything to us, just the two of us, as he did to no other. And Richard M. Grayson hugs me tight and lets me cry on the shoulder of his snazzy no-longer-red-and-green uniform, and he doesn't shush me or rock me or rush me or try to tell me that everything will be all right.
Best friends are like that, you see.

I chill eventually, and ease away from him; he senses this and lets me go gently. He then takes a step back, and I see that he actually looks a little wet in the face himself. Nonetheless, he sniffs it away with a jerk of his head and says, "I just hope you're not wearing Barry's underwear, too."

And then we laugh like when we were kids and Roy would make a fart joke while Donna was in the bathroom. It's an amazing feeling, coming as it does on the heels of what just happened, and a sure sign that I'm in the presence of the man who knows me like no one else in the world does or could.

"I have no comment," I finally get out, the laughter subsiding, "on the nature…or even presence…of my undergarments, Batboy."

Dick's guffaws shrink to snickers as well, even after my last comment. "Well, it's not like I really wanted to know or anything, Flash in the Pan."

At that, I stand a little straighter, my voice a bit more serious. "Flash for real now, brother," I say. "I'm doing it. I'm going back to Central and I'm telling them I'm ready."

Dick cocks his head a degree. "Are you?"

A few years ago, I would have gotten tres pissed at that, jumped to the conclusion that he was shooting me down, and hauled ass out of the Tower. Probably might have even wound up running to Frances for comfort, and we all know where that would lead. But I'm not quite that much the hothead anymore. I know what he's doing. He's not doubting. He's making me say it out loud, affirm it myself.

"Yeah," I say. "I'm ready, Dick."

What I don't say is, And I need to hear that you agree with me before I dare to show my face in this mask to Captain Cold and Mirror Master and Kadabra and Boomerang and the rest of those bozos; before I say the words to that first newscaster who notices that I'm shorter than the Flash we all knew and loved; before that first time Superman stops over in Central City to see how things are going. I don't say a word of that, even though I figured that that's the reason I came here today at all.

I say nothing further, because my best friend sees to it that I don't have to. He simply extends a hand, as formal as can be, not a hint of condescension or playfulness on his face. "I wish that you hadn't had to come into it this way, Wally," he says, "but you're as ready for this as any of us would have been had things gone differently."
I take his hand, and he shakes it. He holds on a little longer than he might have were we not alone in the Tower.

"You're the Flash," he says, the words cementing the idea in my mind just as I knew they would. "It's what Barry would have wanted, and wherever he is, I know that he…and Iris…are proud of you. And they're the only people I can think of who could be more proud of you than I am at this moment."
    I won't cry again, even though he mentioned Iris. I'm actually too busy feeling good about myself to be anything but warmed by the image of Barry reunited with Iris, looking down on me, maybe even with the pride that Dick suggests…and showers me with at this very moment.

"So," he says, snapping to in an almost military fashion. "Can we still count on you as a Titan, or will you be leaping right into the arms of the Justice League?" His tone is only half serious, but it's a question I'd barely had time to consider these past couple of weeks.

"Well, I don't know," I say. "But I wouldn't worry. I don't really see me as League material. Do you?"

Dick raises an eyebrow. "Don't you?"

I laugh out loud, but he doesn't. "Hell, I dunno, man. Let's see if I can do this in yellow boots instead of the red ones first, okay? One thing at a time." I nod to the backlit four-foot painting of me -- in the yellow threads -- adorning the wall between similar representations of Changeling and Starfire. "Might wanna ask Joe if he can re-do the colors on the costume up there."

"And cover up the red hair," Dick says.

"Exactly. Don't want our Titans looking out of date, now, do we?"

"We certainly don't," Dick says, clearly satisfied with my roundabout answer to his question.

Neither of us says anything for a moment. I smirk and shuffle my feet a bit.

"Well," I say, "Time to get back home."

"Oh, well, yeah," Dick says. "Wouldn't want that to take more than a pico-second, right?"

"Never happen, bro." I can tell him about my speed later. "Call me for the next regular meeting, okay? I'll be here."

Dick nods, then barely catches me with a shout of my name before I dash off.
"snext3Wally," he says again, more quietly now that he has my attention. He takes a breath, opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again. "I'm glad you were first."
I    I let him see the smile spread across my face, but there's nothing I can say to that without feeling like I ruined the moment, the very one I came here for today.

And when I screech to a halt in Central City 101.45373 minutes later…had to pull a kid out of an eddy in the Illinois River…I'm still smiling.

I'm finally the Flash.

My best friend says so.

Copyright 1998 by Frank Andrew Lauro. All Rights reserved. Nightwing, Flash, Robin, Kid Flash, Titans, Mirror Master, Captain Cold, Abra Kadabra, Captain Boomerang, Superman, Justice League, Changeling, and Starfire are all owned by DC Comics, a subsidiary of Time-Warner, Incorporated.