A quarter halfway between the sidewalk and the fingers of a man standing next to a parking meter...the glow of a car's turn signal...a boy with a startled expression...a policewoman looking in the direction that an old man is pointing...a single note from a radio...a bird with wings angled towards the ground...the smell of a hamburger..."LUTHOR" and "CANDIDATE" on a newspaper...a mouth opened wide...a fish on a string...
Flash stopped. He was now standing next to a twelve-year-old girl. She wore old sneakers, torn fishnet stockings, a black leather jacket covered with decals of Disney characters, and a thin pink scarf. Her head was shaved on the left side with the remaining hair dyed and brushed into a purple wave. Her eyes (one green, one blue) displayed uncertainty. A dog lay on the sidewalk next to her.
And she had a floating fish on a string.
"Hey, there!" Flash said.
The girl blinked. "Do I know you?"
"Name's Flash." He gave her a little salute.
"Oh." She looked away from him.
"Can I help you with something?"
She reluctantly turned back to Flash. "Why are you bothering me?"
"Well, color me nosy, but when I see a girl with a floating fish on a string, I just have to find out what's what."
The girl examined the yellow fish whose gills casually sucked in air. "It's just a fish," she told Flash.
"I noticed that." He indicated the other people on the city street. "Strangely enough, nobody else has."
"Guy runs around at daytime in red underwear," the dog said, "and he calls us conspicuous."
"And the dog talks. Perfect. That just begs the question."
"What question?" the girl said in annoyance.
Flash leaned forward and grinned. "Are you a good witch...or a bad witch?"
The girl stared at Flash for many seconds.
Then she giggled. With her fingers placed on her lower lip, she said, "Will you...will you play with me?"
"I thought you would never ask."
So, of course, they went to the park. They tossed a frisbee, gave bread to ducks and climbed trees. Flash patiently listened to the girl's rambling observations about socks and clouds. She squealed with delight for his magic tricks. ("Of course," Flash noted, "my hand is quicker than the eye.") The yellow fish just floated.
At one point, Flash lay on the grass while the girl talked to an anthill. Barnabas (the talking dog) sat next to him.
"What do you think of her?" Barnabas asked.
"I think she's kind of a Powerpuff Girl gone punk," Flash replied. "But she's cool."
"Is that why you're here with us?"
"Partly. I'm also here because it's my job."
"I'm a Justice Leaguer. When I see something odd, I'm supposed to look into it."
"We're odd? Aren't you pals with a Martian?"
"Well, maybe not necessarily odd for me. But odd as opposed to the normal world."
"How normal can this world be if you're in it?"
Flash opened his mouth, then closed it. He intertwined his hands behind his head. "You have a point there," he admitted. "I mean, there used to be a normal world. It didn't have flying men and amazons and underwater cities. Then, suddenly, all those things were there, as if they had always existed."
"I know, I know. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that nobody notices a girl with a floating fish. It's just that..."
Flash abruptly sat up. "Ah, this is getting too deep for me. I would just like to know who she is. You know, don't you?"
"I can't tell you. Normally, I could. But not now. She has to tell you. She's supposed to. Unfortunately she has trouble keeping track of the rules."
Barnabas' nose twitched. He started to speak, but then the girl grabbed Flash by the hand. "Race me," she said.
"What? Me race you?"
"Yes, yes, YES!"
"Uh, sweetie, they don't call me the Flash because I wear a trenchcoat."
The girl's wide eyes and trembling lips were too much for Flash. "Ah, why not?" he said.
"Hurrah!" The girl held out the fish to Barnabas. "Watch my fish."
Barnabas reluctantly held the string under his paw. "Look, D, maybe you should..."
"One-two-three-LET'S-GO!" The girl ran off, her arms swinging and her legs clumsily kicking at the air. Grinning, the Flash easily caught up with her. He kept pace with her for a minute, just to watch her, just to enjoy her pure love of running toward nowhere.
Then he decided to go a little faster for the sake of teasing her. However, instead of seeing her squealing behind him, she remained at his side. She didn't seem to consciously match his speed. She just automatically quickened her pace as he got faster.
He increased his speed a little more. Still, she kept up with him.
He took it up to Jesse Owens level. And there she was at his side. Her torso swayed on her uncoordinated legs, but she was out-classing Olympic athletes.
Flash had to admit that he wasn't too surprised. What else could he expect from a girl with a talking dog? On the other hand, he had to learn just how fast this girl could go.
He cranked it up. He could now move across the surface of lakes, confound the eyes of satellites, escape the wind. People blurred like the letters of flipping pages. He had crossed the borders of the city, the state. The Pacific ocean was soon within sight. The only coherent sounds were his heartbeat and his footsteps...
...and the laughter of a young girl.
Flash no longer cared who this girl was, but he still cared about being the fastest person in the world. After all, wasn't this a race? He wasn't about to let himself get outran by anybody, much less some ditzy baby-goth.
He doubled his speed when they reached the ocean. He still couldn't outrun her. She remained at his side, laughing as the water sprayed in a great arc from underneath her sneakers.
He went faster. No good. Flash wondered just how fast did he have to go before...
Maybe it was time to cross the barrier.
Not the sound barrier, but that line which secretly frightened the Flash, Superman, Green Lantern, every sane person with powers beyond the ordinary. Could they reach a point where their powers exceeded their control? Was there a speed too fast for the Flash? How much would he dare just for a race?
Then the girl clasped his hand.
It stopped being about the race.
It now was about running.
It wasn't about his limits.
It was about accepting joy.
Then, somewhere in Russia, he crossed the line with her.
The world vanished, but it was still there. People still worked and played and slept and gradually moved from one point to another. They were aware of an odd noise which kept buzzing in their ears. They looked around themselves, wondering if they were being pestered by insects.
They were listening to the sound of laughter.
Flash could see everything. He could see nothing. The whiteness of snows was immediately followed by the red of volcanoes. Vast cities rose from the ground, then diminshed into weeds. Humanity blurred into one person who was all races and all ages. Superman and Lex Luthor were the same. Batman and the Joker were the same. Saddam Hussein occupied the White House, and George Bush cowered in a hole. None of them could touch Flash. No victim could bother him with pleas of help. He left behind all his concerns for the thrill of being intangible. He had no more cares than a breath of air. He had all the freedom in the world. He was the only living person in the world.
He was alive.
He was alone.
Flash finally stopped in Argentina. He stood on a sidewalk, receiving the stares of people who wondered about this gasping customed man. Several minutes would pass before his legs stopped trembling.
Then he headed back to America, to the city, to the park. He found the girl sitting on the grass. Her arms were wrapped around her legs, and her knees were pressed against her forehead. She clutched the string of the hovering fish with her hand. Barnabas carefully watched her and the Flash.
"What happened?" Flash asked with a cracked voice. "One second you were running with me, the next you were just..."
The girl looked up. Her eyes were now both green, and her face as solemn as a mountainside.
"I win," she muttered before vanishing.
Flash stood quietly for a few seconds, then yelled, "WOULD SOMEBODY PLEASE EXPLAIN WHAT'S BEEN GOING ON?"
"You, my friend," Barnabas said, "have just met an anthropomorphic entity."
"The literal, walking-talking-shopping embodiment of a human emotion. In this case, Delirium."
Flash blinked. "Oh. Well...okay, I can accept that. But that still doesn't explain why she ran with me all over the world."
"How did it make you feel?"
"I felt..." Flash slowly grinned. "Ooooh, I get it. She made me feel..."
Barnabas looked away from Flash and scratched behind his ear.
"Uh, it is cool right?"
Barnabas sighed, then looked at Flash with apologetic eyes. "She's a good kid. Really. It's just that she doesn't always think before doing something."
"What do you mean? Do what?"
"She should have explained to you that this was a test. You had to resist her manipulations. You had to avoid feeling delirium. But you didn't."
"Look, I'm going to tie a can to your tail if you don't explain..."
"Delirium comes from a family called The Endless. Each member of the Justice League is going to be tested by a separate member of the Endless."
"And the Endless are all, what, anthro...antro..."
"Anthropomorphic entities. They each represent some aspect of the human condition."
"Why are they testing us?"
"I don't know. I do know that you failed your test."
Flash felt his stomach become heavy. "What does that mean?"
"It means that the score stands at Endless One, Justice League Zero. There are six more tests to go. If your side loses on points, then..."
Barnabas ran a tongue over his lips. "Let me say again that I'm really sorry for not telling you everything. But that was Delirium's job. And like I said, she doesn't..."
"The Justice League dies if we lose, right?"
"Figures." The Flash rubbed his hands across his face. "I don't suppose there's any way I can have a do-over on this one. You know, considering that I really didn't understand what was going on."
"Not in Delirium's case. You can't always expect her to keep track of the rules. So her omission didn't count." Barnabas raised an eyebrow. "Besides, you really should have been more careful. You were spending your afternoon with a girl who has a floating fish and a talking dog for friends. Weren't you afraid that something bad might happen?"
Flash had no answer.
"Anyhow...you better warn your friends what's coming. I know which Endless is up next, and that one likes to find a loophole in the rules."
"Wish I could do more for you than that, but...you know...I may be a talking dog, but I'm just a dog."
"And I'm just the fastest man alive, which doesn't count for anything right now." Flash had to smile. "So this is what normal feels like."
"Sucks, don't it?"
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Fandom: Justice League, Sandman
Author: David Hearne [email]
Details: Standalone | PG | 10k | 04/18/04
Summary: "You were spending your afternoon with a girl who has a floating fish and a talking dog for friends. Weren't you afraid that something bad might happen?"
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