Disclaimer: All characters from Young Justice are copyright © 2001-2002 DC Comics, and the characters are used without permission for fan-fiction. No copyright infringement is intended. I am not making any profit from their use. Really. I swear. I don’t ever profit from nothin’. Sigh.
Author Notes: Read. Review, if you want. I’ll keep it simple this time around. If the names are wrong, you may lambaste me. I just hope everyone likes it.
The stars stretched out above them, pinpricks of glittering white on a field of endless blue-black, and not for the first time, it occurred to Bart that he never had really paid all that much attention to just looking at them before.
But when you were stretched out on a hillside, with nothing more to do but watch them and think, he considered, you just noticed things about the stars that you didn’t before. Here, in the outskirts of Manchester, where the last few street lights were all you had to light your way and it was just you and the sky, it was different. If you really looked close at them, he thought, just gazed at the spaces between the brighter ones, it seemed like you could make out the dim glint of further stars where you were sure there was nothing but blackness before. It was actually kind of cool.
He stayed there for what felt like a long time, just lying there, watching them and thinking. He’d had a lot on his mind lately, after all, and for Bart Allen, that was a fairly new experience.
“Okay, I give.”
He craned his neck, looking to his side. Cissie lay there on the hillside next to him, her arms resting behind her head, pillowing it— her blonde hair was spread out in the grass, like a blanket, behind her.
He quirked a brow at her. “You give? Give what?”
“I give up.” She looked at him, and although there was only the dim light of the nearest street lamp to light her, his vision had gotten used to the darkness and he could see the way her eyes sought out his. She pulled herself to a sitting position, shook out her hair, leaving bits of grass on her light blue sweatshirt and her faded jeans. Then she crossed her arms over her knees, and cocked her head. “Do you really think that was you?”
Bart shrugged, and after a moment, his eyes went back up to the sky and he nodded. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure.”
“Do you...” she trailed off, rested her chin on her arms, glanced at him again. “Do you really think he traveled back in time just to... you know...?”
“To save you?” He sat up, looking at her in polite confusion, and in a burst of speed brushed the grass from his hair and then from his unbuttoned St. Louis Cardinals jersey and the maroon longsleeve beneath it. “Of course. Why wouldn’t he? I’d do the same thing.”
He paused. “I guess that sort of makes sense, though, if he and me are the same person. Sorry. Thinking of us both as me is a little confusing.”
She waved him off, smiling a bit more now.
“It’s okay. I mean...” She exhaled a sigh, and from the look on her face, it was a happy one. Or at least, he took it as such. “It’s just really kinda different, to think that someone would actually go that far to do something like that for me. It’s kind of nice.”
He smiled at her. “Better than dinner in Italy?”
“It comes close.” She grinned, then inclined her head, looked at the stars again. “Do you mind me asking, what did he say to you?”
“The other me?”
“No, I mean Superboy.” She glanced at him, a few threads of golden-blonde hair dipped down over her face, not hiding the impish expression at all. “Of course I mean the other you, Bart. He whispered to you and your eyes got as big as saucers. What did he say?”
Bart looked at her, the words of the older man that was him leaping right into his head. I’ve given you a second chance, Bart. That’s one thing I never had. So you damned well better not screw it up, or I’ll come back and haunt you in ways even Max never dreamed of.
He cleared his throat, his cheeks heating. He hoped she didn’t notice. “Uhm. He told me to... ahh... take care of you. You know, watch out for you and stuff. And... as long as I did that... my future... uhm, we... we would be cool.”
Cissie arched an eyebrow at him. “Really?”
“Pretty much.” Bart hedged, shrugging. After a moment, he ventured: “Uhm, Cissie?”
She cocked her head cutely at him. “Mm?”
“Uhm, you know how you said before, that I was kinda new at male-female relations and all?” Bart asked, trying to find something to occupy his hands. He ended up plucking up blades of grass and systematically tying them into knots. “Well, I know you’re right. I’m kinda lost sometimes when it comes to it. I don’t want to go too fast or anything, I just want to do it right, because... well, you mean a lot to me. So, can you... I dunno... tell me if I screw up, so I can make it better?”
Her smile grew a fraction wider and her hand skimmed across the grass to find his and hold it steady. “I think I’d be okay with that, Bart.”
He looked at her hand, on his, then at her, and smiled shyly. “I mean, this is all sort of new ground, and you’re really special to me, just like you were to the other me. So you don't have to feel bad if you have to tell me, 'Bart, you're supposed to walk here' or 'Bart, this is when you give me a hug' or 'Bart, don't eat the roses' or whatever. I'd just rather learn from you than anyone else."
“Cause, I mean, I may not always be the best learner, but I really want to— ”
She leaned over to him and pressed a finger to his lips. “Bart.”
His eyes widened. Oh, tell me that wasn’t a screw-up already. I would— I mean, that other me would— I mean I would kill me!
“I promise. I’ll help you.” She said. But her smile never faded, instead, it merely curled up a millimeter more as she let her finger fall and just gazed at him, long and hard. He could see the blue eyes glimmer in the dim light of the faraway street lamps.
“Hey...” She said softly, after another long, drawn-out moment.
A softer smile. “This is when you kiss your girlfriend.”
“Oh.” Bart said, and then realization of what she said kicked in, a microsecond later. His eyes widened. “Oh!”
With no further words, he did. And for once, the shortest attention span alive was more than content to let the moment draw out as long as it wanted to.
Overhead, the stars glimmered and winked and kept their own silent vigil.
* * *
It had taken some wheedling, a pinch of persuasion, a little bit of pleading. It had also taken a lot of glares, insults and two hours filled with enough pacifying diplomacy to make Gandhi throw down his glasses in disgust and take a few good swings.
But in the end, with Hunter playing mediator, everything had worked out as well as he could have reasonably expected it to. The older Bart Allen had given up the Linear Men’s weapons, communications gear and tech, and— after the Linear Authority arrived to cut them out of the conference room— had been confined to the temporal brig, where it was generally expected he would remain until he was brought to trial.
So the Linear Men were rescued from their plight, if one could call it that. Hunter himself balked at using the word ‘plight’ for being sealed into a room, bereft of chronal equipment. It just reeked of sensationalism. But from the moment Allen had been taken away, both alternates of Matthew Ryder wouldn’t leave it alone. Hunter supposed he asked for it, on some counts. As the Linear Men made their way back to the main monitoring room to check on the progress of the temporal spike, he’d made the mental lapse of asking what they thought would happen to Allen.
That had touched off the fuse to the powder keg, all right.
“...don’t know why you worry, but as far as I’m concerned, if the Authority lock him in a chronal cage and drop it into the entropy at the end of time, it might just balance the scales.” Waverider was saying as the lift arrived; it was just the latest in a string of vehement comments from the flame-haired variant.
“I might note the time of his trial, just so I can keep visiting it at the exact moment the judge passes his sentence,” Matthew growled. Ryder rarely got this incensed, but when he did, it wasn’t usually in half-measures.
Hunter was hard-pressed not to roll his eyes. He managed to look at Waverider without doing so, however. “So why didn’t you just skip back in time a few hours? Maybe drug him in the guest chambers?”
“If I could have, I would have. Possibly injected the bastard with cyanide.” Waverider scowled.
Hunter couldn’t quite hold back from rolling his eyes this time. “Of course you would.”
Liri looked at him. “Hunter, we’re outside of time, here, remember? With the exception of the monitor room, which is sort of a ‘bridge’ to real-time, there’s no such thing as ‘a couple hours’. Waverider might not have to use outside technology to traverse the timestream, but doing it here is another matter entirely. There’s only one singular place, one singular time.”
“So he’d be traveling from point A to point A whether he wanted to or not.” Hunter hummed. “Well, that’s certainly interesting.”
“Contriving, is more like it.” Ryder muttered. “And worse than that, it was lethal. Especially in this case. While you were busy playing ambassador and bending over backwards to his demands—”
Hunter raised an eyebrow. “I had no idea he demanded to be jailed and fitted for a trial from the Linear Authority.”
“While you were mollycoddling him, then.”
“Oh, come on, Ryder.” Hunter laughed. “You mean to say—”
“Don’t ‘come on, Ryder’ me!” Matthew interrupted hotly. “You all but took his side in the matter. You let him play you and stall for time, you acted like a guidance counselor rather than an officer of temporal law. You even asked him on more than one occasion how he was feeling! You treated him like a guest, not like a terrorist!”
“No, I mean, people still use the word mollycoddle? Do you have any idea how much you sound like a 19th-century grandfather when you say it?” Hunter smirked. “Don’t you dare mollycoddle that kid, Edith. Let him get a nice job in the sweatshop, like he wants.”
“Is this some sort of joke to you?” Waverider glared as he made his way to his station.
“If it is, I’m not laughing.” Liri reported from hers. She called the image on her screen up on the main monitors. Ryder and Hunter both flicked a gaze up there, as a single, flowing timeline now, not two overlapping ones. No spike. No indirect flow of history. All evidence of the old history had been replaced with that of the new timeline.
“Damn it.” Ryder hissed. “We’re too late. The new timeline’s in place.”
“I notice Earth didn’t blow up.” Hunter commented, aside.
Ryder glared at him, pointed at the main screen. “This is your fault, Hunter. I’d wipe that smarmy grin off your face as of right now, if I were you. A variant timeline has superseded the way everything’s supposed to be because of your interference and his. You’re going to be lucky if you’re a Linear Man any longer than it takes to set this all right!”
Hunter sighed. “Fine, then. First off. We have the temporal and spatial coordinates of where history went awry, right?”
“And we still have the original timeline’s data on file, since we’re immune to changes in the temporal environment here.”
Hunter raised an eyebrow. “Have we investigated the changes from this timeline to that one?”
“Already gathering that data,” Liri noted, and looked over at Waverider, who nodded in agreement. She looked at her screens as the data began to assimilate, her eyes narrowing. “It’s fairly hard to make out. There are too many variances looking from the end of time back. I can start at the point where history changes and compare.”
“That sounds reasonable.” Waverider concurred.
Hunter spoke up from his own station. “Better still... start with his own timelines. The most notable changes would seem to come from there, wouldn’t they?”
Liri looked at Hunter, then Matthew.
“Do it.” Ryder said tightly, his face still blotched with anger.
“Compiling that data now.” Liri reported.
Hunter looked at his own screen, with a small frown. “Nothing has changed up to him helping to form Young Justice. Check later. Does he, for instance, still cure the outbreak of the Leimann Virus in 2032?”
“No. 2028.” Liri Lee spoke up, still looking at her screen. Her brows furrowed in consternation. “Four years earlier than before. I’m still searching for the reason for that change.”
“I see.” Hunter said neutrally. He glanced at Liri, asking her without words for more information.
“The timeline’s stabilized, but the data on the new timeline is still gathering; it’s making the information upload a lot slower.” She paused. “Yes. Got it. In 2028, after the first major outbreak of the biochemical virus that attacks the central nervous system, he was instrumental in creating a means of hyper-metabolizing human antibodies through the Speed Force to fight off infection. Newsvids of the time estimated that half the population of the Earth might have succumbed within ten years of first outbreak, but his work saved easily several million, maybe even several hundred million, lives. Apparently he and...”
She trailed off, momentarily, and her eyes grew wide. She found her voice again, with effort. “He and his wife, a metabiologist, formulated the cure together, according to the vids. That wasn’t there before, either...”
“His wife.” Hunter said; again his voice was neutral, but there was a ghost of a smile touching his mouth, as well.
Liri looked back at the screen and then met Hunter’s eyes. “His... wife. Dr. Cecilia Jones-Allen.”
“So...” Hunter let the single word hang in the silence for a moment, compellingly. “In essence, Liri, you’re saying that if we stabilize the old timeline, as you’ve all suggested... if we stop this ‘temporal anomaly’ from changing his future and, we can only assume, saving his future wife... we will in effect be completely obliterating several million— perhaps several hundred million— people from the pages of history. Am I following that correctly?”
Liri looked back at the screen, despondently. Her silence was more than enough answer.
“Well.” Hunter looked at each of them in turn. “Seems we have no choice in the matter, from what you’ve all told me. After all, the rightful timeline has to persevere, right? The history and the future both are in our hands and ours alone. So who wants to be the first to stop this horrible time-wrecker and at the same time throw the switch to wipe out several million people with a virulent bio-plague? Liri?”
Liri did not look at him.
“Waverider? You were vocal before. Cyanide him and toss him into the entropy at the end of time, if I recall. How would you like to do that on a much grander scale? Would you like to be the one to have your name linked with consigning several million people to the status of never-were?” Hunter’s eyes made their way slowly across the room.
Waverider touched his lips, not bothering to look up, or answer.
“Ah.” Hunter said quietly. “Matthew? You think this probably falls within the acceptable loss parameters? I mean, we still have that one-point-two percent margin for error, right? The important thing is that the Earth itself survives. The people aren’t all that important, you think?”
“Of course not.” Ryder’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Hunter. Hunter knew Matthew could hear his own words being thrust back at him. “You bastard. You knew all along.”
Hunter shrugged, his hands folded serenely in front of him. “I didn’t know, Matthew. And I’ll be the first to admit it. I cheated. I took the time while you were all fluxing in and out, gathering data, and plucked our little time traveler out of the timestream by finding the point where history changed, and working from there.”
“And then all I did was talk to him. It didn’t take long for him to show me he wasn’t some sort of temporal tyrant. He was a desperate man, making a desperate act to try to save someone he loved. That’s not evil.”
“It’s misguided.” Waverider said, after a long silence.
“So is losing your humanity by following a strict set of guidelines and not thinking about the people involved.” Hunter returned.
“We police the timelines, Hunter—” He started, his black eyes starting to flare again.
But Hunter interrupted, stabbing a finger at him. “Listen up, Waverider. All of you. People make the timelines. People make the history. If we forget that, we might as well not worry about doing a damned thing but sitting her monitoring. Because if not for the people, there wouldn’t be a history to police in the first place. I hope like hell working together hasn’t made any of you forget that. Wasn’t it you that said ‘someone should make a difference’? Or am I remembering that wrong?”
Waverider blinked, and then slowly turned his face away, chagrinned. “No. You’re remembering it right.”
There was quiet for a long moment in the monitor room as those words slowly suffused among the Linear Men.
“In other words, you played a hunch that everything would work out for the best in the end.” Matthew said quietly.
Hunter shrugged. “That’s all any of us can do sometimes. Even with all we know about time, sometimes, following instincts and rolling the dice is the best option.”
“You do realize that by allowing this one temporal anomaly, you’ve introduced several million new instances into the timestream, correct?” Waverider said crossly.
“Maybe several hundred million,” Liri interposed. “Not counting any offspring...”
Waverider groaned. “Do you realize how long it will take just to catalogue them? Just to see what impact they have on the fluidity of history? We’ll have to study just to find out if any of them have a major impact on the timestream, Hunter.”
Hunter leaned back into his chair and smiled thinly. “Then there’s no reason we shouldn’t get on it, right?”
He looked past them, to the screens beyond, their data still assimilating in the past and rippling into existence in the now, and then he spread his hands as if to encompass the entire lab.
“After all, we’re here, at Vanishing Point. So we can truthfully say that we have all the time in the world.”
* * *
The cell was nothing like Bart envisioned.
Of course, all things considered, he wasn’t really sure what exactly he envisioned, but something about the word cell just didn’t lend to the idea of a sanitary room. Part of him seemed to get the idea of a dirty B-movie chamber of horrors with hay on the floor and rats all around, the other part thought of some dank holding cell with a barred door with a mail-slot window, one toilet and maybe a sink.
The small room he’d been shuttled into was nothing like that. The walls were a mute white, and there was a self-cleaning stall and a fairly comfortable cot inside. One whole wall was missing, leaving the front of the room open, but Bart knew from touching the seemingly empty air that some sort of protective forcefield was in place to keep him inside. Not that he really minded: if anything, the cell wasn’t too dirty or rat-infested; it was almost sterile. At worst, it bored him silly, just staring at the same three walls, so he’d gotten used to closing his eyes and playing VR games over and over in his head.
In fact, he was so intent on the second to last level of Hydrafoil-7 that he wasn’t even really aware he’d gotten a visitor until he heard the familiar voice talking to his guard, saying he needed to talk with the prisoner. And even then, he thought he might have been dreaming until the white-haired man entered his cell after holding up his card, and then crouched down close to the floor and looked at him.
“Satisfied?” Hunter asked, softly.
“Not really.” Bart responded, smiling without humor. “I mean, I hear we’re outside of time. So if I don’t even know when days pass, how am I supposed to carve hash-marks into my wall?”
“So why are you here? I figured the way Firestorm was glaring at you, this would be the last place you’d want to be.”
“Firestorm?” Hunter asked, confusedly.
“Takion, Firestorm. Guy with fire for hair. I didn’t know which.” Bart shrugged.
“Oh. Waverider. Well, he’ll get over it, I think.” He looked at the young man with two days of scruffiness settled in around his lips and cheeks. “I thought I ought to get here pretty quick, just in case. But it doesn’t look like you’re aging or anything. I half-expected to find a pile of bones.”
Bart looked at his arms, almost as if they weren’t his own. They still only barely felt like his. The small mirror above the sink constantly made him double-take. His voice didn’t even sound like his. But he was starting to get used to it; it seemed like his grasp of concepts, his pensiveness, his state of mind had become more stable, too. Like his mind had begun to catch up with his body. “I think I’m stable. The first time, I stabilized when I went faster than I ever had before. This time, well, I guess breaking light speed and touching the Speed Force sort of tends to do that to you. Wally’d be thrilled to know it worked.”
“Wally?” Another blank stare.
“West. The Flash.” Bart supplied.
“Oh, him. I should’ve known.” Hunter grinned. “He time-travels, what, monthly?”
Bart found himself smiling. “Something like that. He is the Fastest Man Alive.”
The smile faded. “In his time, I mean.”
Hunter let the silence fall for a moment. “Well, I’m here for a few reasons. But there’s one I’m sure you’re interested in, if you didn’t already know it. She’s okay.”
He could literally feel his amber eyes brighten, happy tears springing to them, even though he knew he’d saved her once. “Cissie?”
“I assume that would be her. Cecilia. Everything turned out fine, from what I’ve been able to piece together.” He made a smaller smile. “Three kids and a dog, house in the suburbs, saved the world from a bio-plague and various other world menaces, both in and out of tights.”
Bart blinked, confused, but the smile never left his face. “I’ll take your word for it. I really made a difference?”
“More than you might know.” Hunter said with a heavy exhalation.
Bart glanced at him, the smile fading. Something about the way he said that garnered attention. “What do you mean?”
Hunter held up a hand and shook his head. “Nothing, really. Just that sticking my neck out for you nearly cost me. I took the chance that the historical effects of you saving your Cissie would be minimal. And that wasn’t quite the case.”
Bart cocked his head. “Historical effects? I don’t follow.”
Hunter stood up, and paced the perimeter of the cell, which wasn’t much at all. “Let me give you an analogy. Think of history as a winding stream.”
Bart sighed. “Do all white-haired men like to talk in weird idioms like that?”
Hunter stopped, looked at him, confusion brimming on his face. “Excuse me?”
“Never mind.” Bart waved him off.
“Well, okay. Anyway, history is a stream. Occasionally, there will be someone that tries to dam it up, tries to vastly alter the course of history. And that’s what the Linear Men are here for. To stop exactly that sort of thing.”
“But much more often, there are people that— for lack of a better term— make small splashes. Like dropping a pebble into the stream. People that travel back and forth into time and make very subtle changes that aren’t nearly as violent or as noticeable. Take the Flash, for instance. He takes a jaunt into the 19th century, save a couple kids that fell into a mine or somesuch, who in turn have no major impact on the historical circumstances. Neither of them become world leaders or invent anything notable. That’s a pebble.”
“Okay.” Bart said, gamely. “A pebble. Got it.”
“All right. You’re following.” Hunter smiled and nodded. “You, sir, are a boulder.”
Bart winced. “I feel a headache coming on.”
“Good. I didn’t want to be the only one.” Hunter said. “You see, in saving your someday-to-be wife, you altered history. But the two of you, together, had some profound historical after-effects. To put it succinctly, the two of you saved roughly a hundred ninety-four million people from dying of the bio-engineered plague I was telling you about. Even if you assume that only half of them had children afterward, you have, what... ninety-seven million new variables in the flow of history... all of which were unaccounted for before. And that increases exponentially as time goes on, because their existence by itself alters the flow of history.”
“A bunch of people want my head, don’t they?” Bart said after a couple moments of thought.
“Well, the Linear Authority was not pleased.” Hunter said with a small smile as he crouched again. “But thankfully, they can see what I told the others. Even they’re not bloodthirsty enough to summarily wipe out a whole cross-section of the population just for the sake of keeping an old timeline straight. They’ve even made the files for the whole incident confidential, viewable only by the highest authorities.”
“So she’s safe. They’re safe.” Bart exhaled a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding. He looked at Hunter. “What about me?”
Hunter folded his hands in front of him. “That’s up to you, really.”
“Me? What do you mean?”
“Well, you really aren’t affected by the flow of history, Mister Allen. You’re what we call a hypertime variant. When you traveled back in time and changed history, your own timeline effectively ceased to exist as real-time. Since you were outside of time, it didn’t affect you, or you likely would have been consigned to oblivion. However, because of that, we can’t very well plop you back into the timestream, because you don’t belong to the new timeline. And besides, with the way speedsters play fast and loose with time-travel...”
“I might somehow end up meeting myself. Again.” Bart finished for him.
Hunter nodded approvingly. “You catch on fast. At any rate, although the charges were officially dropped, you represent a problem. So I’m here to give you what are basically the two options left open for you.”
“Stay here in the cell, for one.” Bart guessed.
Hunter nodded. “Not here. But imprisonment, yes.”
“Doesn’t sound like much of an option.” Bart’s lips pursed. “What’s the other?”
Bart stared. “What, picking up trash in the fly-zones?”
“Not exactly.” Hunter stood again. “See, like I said, there are roughly a hundred ninety-four million changed instances and several million more new ones that have been introduced into the timestream, all thanks to you... each with their own new histories, possibly new offspring, and completely new divergent timelines from the ones we have catalogued. The Earth of the thirty-fifth century alone has a remarkably different appearance from the one we have on file. And that’s sure to be the case the further along in history we progress.
“People can take this one of two ways. They can moan about all those changes in the timeline, or they can treat it as an opportunity to learn about several billion new people whose files had never been created because their ancestors died of a plague your other self stopped four years early. I’m choosing the second.”
He paused for a moment, looking at him. “Based on your ability to speed-learn, and thanks to a recommendation put in by the Linear Men, I’ve got the okay to allow to you to be able to, too.”
“Be able to what?”
“To be an information collector. A historian. Someone who sees the course history’s taken, to find out what you really did when you broke the time barrier and saved that one person.” He reached into a pouch on his belt, pulled out a card, and tossed it to him.
Bart caught it, looked. It was a small metal card, smaller than his library card. Raised holographic lettering showed the image of an hourglass and the words Linear Authority in Interlac. He raised his eyes at Hunter and smiled softly. “You really mean this?”
“No, I offer cards to people in jail all the time just so I can get their hopes up and then laugh when I quash them.” Hunter smirked. “Yes, I mean it.”
“It sounds good.” Bart flicked the card between his fingers. “But won’t this mean I still might run into myself, though?”
“Under Ryder’s command? You’ll be lucky if you get within ten centuries of yourself.” He stood up, chuckling, and notified the guard to open the cell. “And you’ll be probationary. For a while, you may not even get anywhere near temporal equipment. But it’s an opportunity. And when you go out there, among all those people that you brought about, I can almost tell you one thing for sure.”
Bart looked at the card again and slowly followed Hunter to the door as the forcefield dissipated. Bart Allen, Linear Man. It had a nice ring to it. “What’s that?”
“Every second you’re out there learning about them, you’ll learn about yourself, as well.” Hunter said, his smile fading. “I know I have.”
Bart looked at the older man, the smile on his face tracing its way up to his amber eyes as they stepped into the moving causeway that led back to Vanishing Point.
“Hunter, I ever tell you that you remind me of someone named Max?”