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. “A Moment
Too Late, Chapter Five” contains the daily recommended allowances of iron, potassium,
and protein, as well as enriched wheat flour, partially hydrogenated soybean
oil, dextrose, citric acid, artificial colors, dyes and flavors, and monosodium
Author Notes: Put a CD on. Draw up a chair. Sit. Read and hopefully enjoy; review if you’re up to it. As for me, I’m hoping the ending makes it all worth it for all of you who have wanted to choke the life out of me for not finishing this fast enough. Apologies in advance for any translations into French that don’t come out right; I had to resort to Babelfish on Alta Vista, which is usually hit or miss. Speaking of... hopefully, everything makes sense in the end. If it doesn’t, public floggings are allowed every Monday through Friday from 3 pm to 6 pm CST.
FIVE – Redemption
Barcelona blurred past, its colors and sights distorting like a bleeding painting, as he burned through the main bypasses and switched onto the rural routes with only instinct to guide him. Soon the cityway gave way to the water of a large sea— the Mediterranean, he thought— but he never stopped. He kept pumping, one foot in front of the other, racing over the surface like a skipping stone.
Bart wasn’t even sure how long he’d been running anymore. He remembered being in the Watchtower, and he remembered kneeling in front of the stasis tube that held the icy form of the warmest woman he knew. And he vaguely remembered talking to Secret. And then, the idea had struck him like a lightning bolt, and everything else suddenly raced out of his mind. He wasn’t even sure how he managed to find the teleport stations and get himself back down to Earth. It must have been instinctual, because right now, he couldn’t focus his mind on anything else but his plan.
And the memories.
“Bart,” she said, smiling over her plate of pasta primavera— or at least he thought it was pasta primavera. He wasn’t at all sure how to pronounce half the stuff on the menu; he’d had to point and smile and hope that the waiter (he forgot, was he called a signor?) knew what he was talking about, because he didn’t hear many people speaking English.
She fiddled with her fork. “This is really... uhm, nice.”
Then she paused, mouthed the words again and groaned softly.
Bart blinked a couple times, watching as her cheeks went all red momentarily and her eyelids dropped back down to her plate, as if in utter embarrassment.
“I thought it was, too.” He said. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s just...” A small smile. “It’s just that it sounds so... cliché, I guess... when I say it like that. Like you’ve taken me to a burger place instead of... well, halfway across the world. Do you do this on all your first dates?”
“I couldn’t tell you. I don’t go on many.” He shuffled his feet under the table. Sitting still and just eating at normal speed was taking a toll, but he was determined not to show it. “Uhm, Cissie? Is this a first date?”
She looked up at him, the cheeks again coloring like perfect ripe apples. A smile peeked from beneath her nose, and she reached for her glass of water. “Well, I guess so. I mean, we’ve been to a dance before, but nothing like this... by ourselves. Why do you ask?”
“Well...” He looked down at his own plate; he’d only taken a few bites of the veal medallion and the pasta, himself. “Uhm. Does this mean you’re my girlfriend?”
Timing was another concept Bart hadn’t quite gotten the knack of. In this case, it coincided perfectly with her taking a sip of water. He began to think it was a bad time to ask only when her eyes bugged, and she gasped, choked, and started coughing until her face turned pink. Or at least, more pink.
Bart dropped his napkin and was pounding her on the back before it ever touched the floor. “Geez, Cissie, are you all right?”
“Bart... Slow... down,” she croaked.
Bart clapped her back more slowly. “Like this?”
“No,” she said hoarsely, then shook her head, wiped tears from her eyes and cleared her throat. She looked at him as he saw that she was okay and made his way back around the table to his seat
After a moment, she pushed her plate aside and looked at him with those luminous blue eyes. “I mean, slow down... Oh, heck. You’re not really familiar with this, are you, Bart?”
“No,” he admitted, and found his foot tapping at superspeed. He cringed and focused back on her. “I mean, the menu’s in Italian, and this is my first time really visiting, and... oh, grife, what if they don’t take American money here? Never mind that, though; I’ll just— ”
She hushed him with a glance. “I mean male-female relations.”
“Oh, that.” He looked at the small candle-lamp, his plate, anywhere but her face, and slowly, his arm came up so he could scratch the back of his head. “Uhm. Sorta.”
“Hey. Look at me.” When he did, he was surprised to find understanding there, not disapproval or distress. “It’s nothing to be ashamed about. You probably haven’t had much chance to learn, right?”
“Not really.” Bart admitted.
“Well, let me tell you something about girls you may not want to hear. But it’s really true, most of the time, and it applies to everything, Bart.” She folded her hands. “Slow and steady wins the race.”
“Max put you up to this, didn’t he?” Bart asked, raising an eyebrow.
She giggled at that. “No. Not at all. Think about it, though. A girl likes to think she’s special. At least, I know I do. If you take time with her, don’t rush calling her a girlfriend or anything else, show her that she’s worth the time and effort you spend on her, that helps to make her feel that much more special.”
Bart slowly nodded, then his brow quirked curiously. “How do you mean that applies to everything?”
She touched her chin. “Have you ever heard of the saying, ‘If something’s worth doing, it’s worth being done right?’”
“Max lives by that one, I think.” He scowled slightly. “That’s why some nights I end up doing my homework three or four times.”
“But if you’d taken your time with it, not rushed it?” She asked, pointedly.
Bart glanced at her and grinned. “Max would wonder who I was and when the aliens made off with me.”
She smirked. “So would a lot of us, actually. But it would help you, in the long run.”
Bart looked at his plate for a moment, thinking. Slow down? Max was always talking like that, and as much as Bart admitted Max was usually right about a lot of stuff in the end, it just always felt wrong. He tried to force himself to slow down on occasion, but it was like his body and mind were so geared toward superspeed that to do anything else just left it champing at the bit to go faster.
Maybe that was what caused him to get into trouble so often, he thought. Maybe Cissie was right, slowing down was the answer to a lot of problems. And if he needed to slow down with her, he could practice by applying it to other things, and—
He stared down at his leg.
His feet had stopped tapping.
He blinked and made an instant decision.
“I’ll try.” He said, with quiet forcefulness. “For you.”
“For me?” She echoed, her blue eyes wide. The blush was back anew.
“Yeah,” he said, very matter-of-factly. “If it makes you feel special, then it’s a good thing.”
He paused, and smiled. “Because you really are special, Cissie.”
“You really are special, Cissie,” he murmured, blinking salt spray and tears from his eyes.
And then, very suddenly, his stomach was on fire.
Bart nearly gagged, his hands quickly switching from their pumping motion to pressing hard into his midsection as his eyes watered from the feeling. The water splashed below his speed-blurred feet, eager to lap him up and swallow him whole at his first misstep. But even through the pain, he didn’t quit running, kept rushing over the Mediterranean Sea like a low-flying cruise missile, never slowing, never altering his course. He clenched his teeth and forced the pain aside.
It was about then that he began to feel the first stings of pain in his arms, as well, like a dull dagger was pricking at points and embedding into his skin and twisting in others. He grunted in pain and clamped his jaw so tightly shut he thought his teeth would break. But he kept running, never slowing.
Two more small islands and a cruise ship blurred by. The colors of the sandbars and the ship’s flags were beginning to blueshift in his vision. Keep going, keep going. He cursed himself. I’m coming, Cissie.
The muscles in his legs began to cramp and needle. It took a supreme force of will to continue pressing on, but somehow he did, spurred onward by a vision of a blonde bowgirl frozen solid in a stasis cylinder, the memories he had with her, and the future they’d never have together.
The stabbing fingers in his abdomen tightened their grip. He growled through clenched teeth, forced himself not to let the agony show, as if that would spur the stabbing feelings on.
It didn’t matter, though, he thought to himself; whatever was hurting him couldn’t be any worse than the pain of reliving the memories he and Cissie had shared such a short time ago.
The pain might twist his stomach, cramp his legs. But that was physical. The memories clutched at his heart and held it tight, and it was infinitely worse.
* * *
“You’re kidding.” Kon said, his eyes wide.
“About which part? The time or the travel?” Wally deadpanned over the loudspeakers in the monitor room of the Justice League Watchtower. The background sounds of traffic and cityscapes had given way to new sounds— the warped Doppler effect of waves being left far behind, the steady tread of the Flash’s feet.
Cassie looked up at the monitor and saw the blinking icon that represented him dropping down from France into the Mediterranean Sea, on an intercept course with the glowing red line that marked Impulse’s path. She wondered, offhandedly, how they could hear him so well considering he was moving faster than the speed of sound, and decided it must have to do with the protective aura Bart talked about.
“I don’t know if he’s thinking he has no reason to stay here now and is trying to bounce back into the thirtieth century,” Wally continued, over the speakers, “or if he’s trying to step back a few hours or days and change the past.”
“Either way,” Superman said. “Is that possible for him?”
“Possibly the first.” Wally said curtly. “Max Mercury’s skipped into the future by skirting the edge of the Speed Force, but in his case he heard the calling and blinked. I don’t know what Bart’s mindset is like. That might not happen if he does manage to gain the speed. He may enter the Speed Force, instead.”
Cassie’s eyes went wide. She’d heard Bart talk about how Johnny Quick entered the Speed Force. A friendly euphemism for going beyond. Dying.
Robin spoke up. “Could he go back in time?”
“He doesn’t have that kind of speed.” Flash said. “Traveling backward through time would require traveling faster than light. As fast as he can move, that’s still beyond him.”
“Faster than light. Like a tachyon,” Superman said, thoughtfully. “And he can’t travel faster than light without becoming energy himself. Right?”
“Right.” Flash replied. “I managed it once, but only because I yanked myself into the Speed Force and merged with it. And even if I mainline the Force, that’s not a trip I’m anxious to make again. No offense.”
Superman nodded sagely.
“Ah, there we go.” Wally said after a couple moments of quiet. “I have visual contact. It’s definitely Impulse. Catching up with him now.”
There was a moment of silence— or at least, vocal silence, as there was still noise. The channel was literally awash with the sound of the wind rushing past and the steady splash of feet, and a sound like a roar that came closer and closer, as the Flash apparently neared Impulse. The roar was slowly replaced by a scream. A human scream.
And then Wally’s voice came over the speakers again, but in a soft, stunned tone.
“Holy God,” he whispered.
* * *
Bart Allen was not necessarily predisposed toward believing in God. In fact, seeing Cissie hit by her own arrow and pronounced dead would have done little toward making him believe in any sort of all-powerful benevolent power. But if He actually were out there, Bart would have given his right hand for Him to stop the pain that lanced through him.
His legs were feeling like someone else’s: the muscles felt tight and heavy, and shot daggers up his waist with his every step. His lungs were starting to feel like he couldn’t get enough air into them, his breaths were starting to become ragged. His spine and his arms and his head— and even his face— hurt as if hot needles had been jammed throughout his body.
But he kept running nonetheless, even forcing himself to pick up speed, forcing himself to focus on running and going faster every moment to forget the pain.
“Slow down,” she said, through the haze of memory.
No! He shook his head, cleared the thought. Faster! Faster!
Flickers of electricity began to coruscate around him, charging the surface of his frictionless aura. The seawater began to part before him moments before his feet displaced it. The air behind him broiled in his windburn. And as if the speed was like a fan to their fire, the stabbing pains began to flare more and more.
The image of Cissie in the cryo-tube blurred before his vision, and so did the world, but his feet kept pumping and his jaw stayed clenched tightly shut— so tightly he could taste blood. He couldn’t help but think that this all felt familiar, somehow.
The dagger in his stomach twisted again, harder, and the thought was gone, like dry grass in a roaring brush fire. Bart Allen screamed in anguish, nearly bending double as he grasped his stomach.
“Bart... Slow... down.” The memory said, in Cissie’s voice.
Bart shook his head, twisting his neck this way and that. His legs kept pace, running as if it was all they could do. Can’t slow down! CAN’T stop! You need me!
And that was when he heard the explosion of the sound barrier bursting beside him, and he opened his eyes to look into the astonished face of Wally West.
* * *
Nothing surprised the Fastest Man Alive anymore.
There were reasons for that, of course, and joining the Justice League had a lot to do with it. A Rogue’s Gallery consisting of crooks who used rubber chickens, mirrors and scientific tech to knock over banks and jewelry stores just tends to look commonplace when, say, you’ve beaten your first giant killer starfish or held off a couple invasions by White Martians.
Since he’d hooked up with the Magnificent Seven, plus or minus a few, Wally West had helped to stop Kobra’s worldwide takeovers. He’d helped save Manhattan from becoming the Queen of Fables’ fairy-tale world. He’d traveled through time and connected himself with the Speed-Force more times than he could count. He’d even helped stave off Earth’s extermination by Mageddon, a creature that bred mindless war and apparently had whacked a few gods along the way to the Sol system.
Comparatively speaking, Bart losing it and causing small-scale earthquakes by running at top speed around the globe was a slight step worse than an afternoon off for the Flash.
He didn’t like to think of it that lightly, however, he decided as he blew through low-country France, the roads becoming flanked by blurring farms and vineyards and the southern border looming a hundred miles or so ahead. He liked Bart. Sure, the kid was obstinate, acted without thinking, too curious for his own good; he sometimes tended to be generally irresponsible and just didn’t understand what ‘normal speed’ meant. But overall, he wasn’t a bad kid, normally. He had a lot of good points. He was honest, nice to most people, quick to stick up for his friends.
The fact that Impulse was generally a good kid was what caused Wally to worry most. Wally wasn’t completely stupid, despite what Linda said once in a while, and little things were starting to add up in his head. Take one, Bart had asked him about girls, specifically how he knew he was in love... and one, Arrowette had been frozen solid, and was now, at worst, inert... and one, Bart was now running roughshod across the globe, maybe trying to travel back in time... Even to a butthead speedster like him, one plus one plus one still equaled three.
He was pretty certain the young speedster had some fairly strong feelings for the young archer. And even if he’d learned a bit about death, there was a whole world of difference between knowing about it on a conceptual level and dealing with it when it took someone you cared deeply about. He just hoped he reached Bart before the boy did anything rash in his grief.
“You’re kidding,” said a stunned voice in his wing-radio. Wally recognized it as Superboy.
“About which part? The time or the travel?” He said. The beaches of southern France stretched out in front of him, a line of white-yellow sand that grew closer, thick and wide with each passing step, a barrier between him and the calm blue-green of the Mediterranean. He sighed to himself. Crap. Sand is always such a pain in the butt. Loose footing, hard to turn... have to be careful. Wrong step and I’m skipping off the water all the way into Algeria.
“I don’t know if he’s thinking he has no reason to stay here now and is trying to bounce back into the thirtieth century or if he’s trying to step back a few hours or days and change the past.” Wally reported. It wasn’t exactly a lie, but Wally had a pretty good idea what Bart was doing, and he doubted the thirtieth century had anything to do with it.
Superman asked if it was possible, however, and Wally grated out a brusque response as the hard-packed street gave way in the next second to the rougher, sandy roads leading to the public beaches. You just didn’t lie to the Big Guy. Or Batman, for that matter, but that was different: you trusted one, and feared the other. He answered the questions and comments after that as succinctly as possible, focusing on his footing and the throngs of people in the beachside resort areas.
Tourist season on the Mediterranean. Figures.
It cost Wally a whole ten seconds to find a good line from the beach edge to the sea, and he cursed just about every hundredth of a second he didn’t see one. But finally, through the lines of swimsuit-togged sunbathers, tourists, surfers, in-line skaters and vendors, he saw a line of bare sand and veered for it unerringly, already pouring on the speed. White sand speed-fused into glass in his footprints before it was swallowed by the spray of his wake. The water’s edge was less than a hundred yards ahead.
And then right in front of him, springing up from the water less than thirty feet out was a man with a thick mustache, a pudgy face and far too much pot belly for the black Speedo he was wearing. He rubbed the water from his closed eyes, smiling deliriously and pointing to his head, where an ill-fitting toupee clung on tenaciously. He whooped: “Ha ha! M'avez-vous vu, Jill? Et mes cheveux sont restés attachés!”
And then he opened his eyes and saw a streak of scarlet heading right for him. The pot-bellied man barely had time to inhale a gasp.
“Jeez!” Wally yelled, and with no time to react, he did the only thing he could, and leapt, the trailing edge of his boot just barely clearing the man’s head. It was a near thing. Wally almost lost his balance, but hung on and continued running, the water spray parting around him like a miniature mockup of Moses and the Red Sea.
“Excusez-moi!” Wally twisted and yelled back, only vaguely hearing the man’s cries of “Ce qui au nom de l'enfer? Merde! Merde! Merde!” as he made a dive for his toupee, after the burst of wind from Wally’s slipstream sent it fluttering from his head and out to sea.
Wally shook his head wryly and turned back toward the horizon, altering his course eastward. It only took him a couple moments after he did so to see the familiar blur of white and red, like a mirror image of him kicking up a spray of water as he ran across the Mediterranean’s surface.
“Ah, there we go,” Wally said, kicking himself into still another higher gear to pull closer to the young speedster. “I have visual contact. It’s definitely Impulse. Catching up with him now.”
He looked closer. Something was off about Bart, and it wasn’t just the fact he was running in his Impulse uniform with the mask off. He was running fast, but his running style was... awkward... clumsy. Wally knew what a runner, especially a speedster, tended to look like when they ran, and Bart just didn’t look like he had his usual, flowing movements.
Wally drew closer, almost alongside, and then he saw. His arms weren’t moving, pumping, like a runner. Instead, they were clenched to his stomach and Bart was running as though he was cramping up or holding his insides in.
Wally’s eyes narrowed. To keep continuing at this speed, if he was cramping up this bad, he must have been running almost on willpower alone. Oh, God, poor kid.
He reached out a hand to Bart and put on even more speed, ready to steady the kid, ready to help, ready to say whatever it would take to slow him down.
He wasn’t at all ready to see Bart suddenly scream raggedly, and bend far lower than a runner ever would, almost like he was about to violently heave. How he kept his footing at all was beyond Wally. But somehow he did, and shook his head wildly from side to side as the scream slowly gave way.
And then his pain-twisted face came into view, the eyes and teeth clenched tightly shut. And even as Bart’s eyes opened, Wally’s widened still further as he looked at Impulse.
“Holy God,” he breathed, forgetting he was still connected to the Watchtower.
It wasn’t just the running style that appeared ungainly and wrong. It was Bart himself. The kid had always been slightly tall for his supposed age, but now he was beyond even that; he may have been a good head taller than six foot, although as bent over as he was it was hard for Wally to be sure. But he had filled out, somehow, too. His legs no longer had the lean, slender build of a child’s, they were defined: the muscles were far more obvious now, standing out sharply with each movement of his legs. His arms bulged with muscle and sinew, and his chest had become broad— the red and white Impulse suit strained against his larger frame.
Bart’s face was more chiseled now. The jawline was stronger, more square; and a thin patch of stubble was noticeable on what had once been down-soft cheeks. His hair might even have been a touch longer, as it whipped behind him, but Bart’s hair was always long and unruly. Wally gawked at Bart as though he was a complete stranger, because in all those respects, he was.
Finally he managed, in a stunned voice: “Bart?”
“What?” Came the grunted reply. Not just a grunt, but a voice that had matured and aged, a voice that had lost some of its falsetto and gained some baritone. A voice, in other words, that had bypassed the squeakiness and shakiness of puberty and had thrust its way full-bore into manhood.
Just like Bart Allen himself had somehow done.
* * *
“How?” Waverider finally managed, after the initial shock slipped from his face. He gazed at the new arrival with an intense black-eyed glare. “How did you enter this facility? This place is restricted! How did you get past our defenses?”
The brown-haired man’s lips split into a wry grin. “Warm reception. Especially for a first time visitor. You were right, Hunter; he’s not very cool with the whole idea. If you have credits here in the outside of time, I owe you ten. But we’re not here to talk about pocket change.”
Matthew stood up, and leveled his arm at the visitor, until he realized he wasn’t wearing any of his temporal gear. He extended a finger in a pointing motion instead. “Waverider has a perfect right to ask. This is a secured area, and Vanishing Point is off-limits to visitors. Who are you and how did you get in here?”
The man raised his gaze to Hunter, across the table, and rubbed at his scruffy chin. “Jeez, they really don’t know, do they?”
Hunter shrugged, as if to say, I haven’t told. Liri Lee watched him closely, her brow furrowing, and then her gaze swung back over to the stranger.
“Well.” The man tugged at the front of his grey jumpsuit and his eyes took in each of the Linear Men in turn. “I don’t want to keep you in suspense, then. I appeared here in this big flash of bright white light. I really thought I had died, but that was okay, because I knew starting out that I was going to die, anyway, so it was no big deal.”
“Flash of light.” Ryder echoed, sarcastically. “And I suppose the voice of God came after that.”
“No,” Hunter said after a moment. “Actually it was the voice of me.”
All three heads whipped around to Hunter. The man on the opposite end of the table grinned again.
“See, he pulled me out into the guest room down the hall and gave me this suit, because my own clothes were kind of ripped up really bad and mostly not there. Then he asked me if I knew where I was, and I told him I just knew it didn’t feel like heaven or hell, either one. And if it didn’t feel like hell, it couldn’t be Manchester.
“And he asked me to explain what happened to me. The whole story, everything. And I did. Everything.”
Hunter nodded, folding his hands in front of him.
The man smirked. “And he told me a little about himself and who he worked for. And then he told something else to me. Tempus Fugit. He said that, and told me to wait there, in the guest quarters, while he looked into the information I gave him— I guess to make sure it was correct.”
“Tempus Fugit. ‘One who flees time’.” Waverider said in a low voice.
“Actually,” the man said, cocking his head. “I had a chance to study up on that after he left me in the guest room. You have a computer information system that’s not too hard to get the hang of. Primo stuff. So I looked it up, because I had no clue what it meant. It can mean one who flees time... or just that time flies.
“But I found something else out, too. It’s Latin. So if you guys know Latin, you probably have a system of laws and stuff, too, right?”
“That goes without saying,” Ryder shot back. “But what do you mean, you just looked into our information systems? Those systems are all passcoded, and...”
He trailed off when he heard the soft thrum noise coming from the man’s end of the table. At first he stood, thinking it was a weapon, but then he saw the man tapping his fingers on the table. Not just an ordinary impatient tap, but taps that were faster than the beat of a hummingbird’s wings. The fingers were a blur. The thrum was the sound of a thousand taps a second with no space in between for the noise to start or stop.
Liri Lee’s eyes began to widen in slow understanding. “You’re... you’re...”
“As for the who, that’s a little tougher.” The man interrupted her, gazing around the table with stolid amber eyes. “See, I’m a representative from the timeline you’re trying to protect and maintain. I’m sort of what you’d consider your very own citizen.”
His eyebrows lowered. “And as a representative of that timeline, I’m here, on its behalf, to both defend my actions and take whatever legal action is necessary to let it die.”
Ryder slammed both hands on the table. “Legal action?! Are you mad? There’s no such thing as a legal action that can justify the erasure of a historical timeline!”
He began to tap a code into the computer screen in front of him. “When the Linear Authorities get here, and we stop what you’ve done...”
He never finished. There was a burst of wind that filled the room, and suddenly Matthew was tapping on the table. He glanced up, saw Waverider and Liri’s computer screens had both disappeared, as well. The main monitor kept happily showing the temporal spike, kept spitting out data on it, but there was no way to access it without the remote computers. He slowly glanced to the end of the table, and saw the man sitting there with an apologetic look on his face and a large pile of hardware on the floor next to him that included all the remotes, three pairs of wrist communicators, their temporal inducers, and Matthew’s sidearm.
The latter had apparently been used to spot-weld the doors, as Liri found when they wouldn’t open.
The man looked at them all and folded his hands, sanguinely, as if he was happy to sit there all day, and as far as he was concerned, so would they. “Well, I’m hoping we can find some sort of legal action, people. Because I’d really hate to resort to illegal action.”
Hunter draped his hand over his face and groaned softly.
* * *
Land came upon them quickly, and the sea gave way to the mainland, as they blasted from the Mediterranean onto the beaches of Italy. Lightning flashed all around the two, rippling off their auras and sparking through their slipstreams.
“Don’t you see?” Bart growled, in that shockingly older voice. “I can’t let her die!”
“Bart...” Wally said, slowly recovering from the shock of seeing the young man as much less ‘young’ and much more ‘man’. He’d switched off his Justice League communicator after quickly saying that he’d call back and report as soon as he had more information. “You have to see, yourself. She’s already gone. There’s nothing you can do about that.”
“That’s nnnt— ” he grunted again, teeth clenched tightly, blood starting to trickle down into the stubble that had sprouted from his chin. His fist trembled as he pressed it to his stomach; he vainly tried to continue pumping his arms. “That’s not true. She’s still alive, just not now.”
Wally chose to ignore that for the time, but he couldn’t help but think that the idea was a very un-Bart like one. Thinking in four dimensions? What’s next? “What I’m worried about right now is you. What the hell is happening to you? You look like you’re about to fall over!”
“Don’t... unnnh...” Bart exhaled a groan, and pulled his arm away from his midsection, looking at it. “Don’t know. Lot of pain... Body feels like it’s on fire. Like...”
The amber eyes focused on him and slowly flickered with recognition and memory. “Like the first time... first time I ran with you. When you made me run to open myself... unnnh!... with the Speed Force.”
“But you’re already attuned to it, Bart!” Wally said, grasping at straws. He remembered that, when Bart had first arrived along with Iris. He’d been aging uncontrollably, his super-speed literally eating his life away. Wally had helped stabilize his speed and metabolism, connecting him with the Speed Force by forcing him to run as fast as he possibly could, until he felt like he was going to give out, then go even faster. To use the runner’s term, it was forcing him to hit the wall and gain a second wind. He shook his head, grated to Impulse: “If you’re in pain, then for God’s sake, stop! Or at least slow down! You look ragged!”
Bart shook his head, his face settling in resolve. “If I slow down or stop... she dies. Have to go back.”
Back to that again. “You can’t just go back in time! You’ve got to slow down, Bart! Look what’s happened already, since you’ve been trying to! You’re running at blueshift speed, for heaven’s sake! You’re going so fast that you’re causing tremors... when you go through Rome, you might cause who-knows-how-much damage... and that’s not even going into what this is doing to you! You’re in obvious pain. Your muscles are expanding and... hell, Bart, you look eighteen instead of fifteen...”
He glanced again and trailed off. Eighteen? No, twenty. Mental klaxons blared to him as he considered the way Bart looked, the way he was talking, the sense of self-possession he was seeming to gain, little by little. Oh, God, that’s it— he’s aging. Just like he was before he attuned to the Speed Force.
Wally thought that through. Was it possible? Ever since Bart Allen had been born, he’d been a speedster. But in the thirtieth century, he’d been fitted into virtual reality to try to tone down his speed, not realizing that his metabolism was still operating at lightspeed. He’d aged incredibly fast, and likely would have sped himself right into a pile of withered bones had Aunt Iris not brought him back to the twentieth century and had Wally show him how to stabilize his metabolism.
Could that somehow be undone? Could he be trying to run so fast that the locks and guards that held his metabolism in check could be bypassed? Could he have come so close to hitting the wall again that it had dislodged his body’s hold on its fail-safes? Could it have affected his mind, having neurons suddenly able to jump twice the synapses they could before? He didn’t know. But it was looking a hell of a lot like it.
“Bart, this is aging you again.” He said, quietly urgent. “It’s killing you.”
“So what if it does?” Bart responded, tears starting to roll down his cheeks— from loss, pain or grit, Wally couldn’t tell. “Wally, I have to do this. Don’t you understand? Now there’s... no other choice. It’s like before... when you made me run faster... than I ever had, to internalize the speed.”
“But I’ve broke that barrier... I’m running faster now.” Bart managed to smile, a flash of white that peered out from above the unshaved chin. It still looked like a rictus as it twisted through the obvious ache and the tears apparent on his twenty-five year-old face. “So I have to... what’d you call it... hit the wall... again. And the next step...”
He couldn’t continue to talk. His breathing was becoming too worn.
Wally looked ahead of him, caught the whipping by of a mileage sign, read it at hyper-speed. Rome was less than two minutes away; probably less, at the speeds they were running. What sort of tremor would they cause going through? A one-point-oh? A two? What about when they rounded the Earth again?
“Light speed.” The Flash said tightly, finishing for him.
Bart nodded. “And beyond.”
“You can’t do that, Bart.” Wally growled. “You don’t have that kind of speed. And even if you could, listen to me. You can’t go back and change time just to make her come back. That’s what Hal did and— ”
Bart swung at him. It was a flailing punch, and even had Bart been in his best shape it probably would have come nowhere near connecting; let alone now, when he was so wracked with pain that running at all was becoming a chore. He was just lashing out, throwing a punch borne of hurt and anger and frustration.
But it took Wally by surprise. He’d never seen Bart look as angry as he did when the young man— young being a temporary state, it seemed— glared at him. It was as if he was trying to burn Wally alive with the heat of his stare.
“Bullshit!” Bart yelled at the Flash, his voice strained. “I don’t care about Hal Jordan and what he did and what happened because of it! I’m telling you I have to save her! I love her!”
“I don’t doubt that, Bart,” Wally said exasperatedly. “But messing with the past— ”
“You look at me!” Impulse screamed, lightning burning in his amber eyes. “Don’t give me that holier-than-thou crap about the timelines and what we can and can’t do, Wally! Don’t sit there and spout JLA rhetoric when we both know better! Goddammit, you look me in the eyes and tell me if it was Linda you wouldn’t be doing the exact same damned thing!”
* * *
Wally West’s eyes narrowed after Bart had lashed out at him. And as the young man watched, for a moment too small to realize, all the pain was gone from his slowly aging frame as he thought maybe, just maybe, Wally saw his point. But as the Flash slowly dipped his head in acknowledgement and then began to shake it, the moment was over before it began.
“Bart... you just can’t do it.” Wally said softly, the words like a death knell.
Something gave way in Bart then. He’d never be able to outrun Wally, never be able to get to light speed and beyond if he had a fight on his hands, not at the way he was aging. All the anger and irritation had already boiled up within him, and now it began to evaporate all at once, replaced by the pain of his body, the grief he’d kept tightly bottled in his heart. Tears rushed to his eyes, blurred his vision. I’m really sorry, Cissie. I’m going to fail. God, I’m so sorry.
He managed to look over at the Flash, and in a choked voice, murmured, “fucking hypocrite.”
To Bart’s surprise, Wally didn’t act surprised, angered or hurt; he just smiled softly at him. “Nice language, kid. Guess you’re old enough to use it now. But I think you’re misunderstanding me. I mean you yourself can’t do it...”
Flickers of energy coruscated over their running frames. Wally reached a hand out toward him, lightning ablaze on his fingertips. The Speed Force arced around him, leaping from Wally’s fingers to wrap itself around Bart’s invisible aura.
Wally smirked and finished: “...not without some help.”
And then, very suddenly, the pain was a distant memory, as the energy washed around him, and Bart realized that Wally had lent him speed. He looked at the energy coursing off his body with wide eyes, and then glanced at Wally.
The Flash began to lag behind, smiling all the while. “Don’t thank me! Just go!”
Bart felt a new upper limit calling him, a velocity that had been thus far untouchable to him. With wide amber eyes, limbs that felt lighter and faster than ever before, and a new sense of awe filling him, he embraced it, let the speed take hold of him.
And then he was gone.
As objects seemed to stretch and skew in his vision, Bart realized that all this time, all his years, he thought he knew what speed was. He had no idea. It was as if he had suddenly discovered he had been redlining and just then realized there was an all-new gear he could shift into to give himself more throttle. The moisture in the air behind him evaporated; the hydrogen burst into flame. His every footstep carbonized the ground. The colors of the world became bright and transcendental, shifting in hue until everything began to form into a singular white. And then the white itself brightened further until it was nothing more than light and energy, and the world was left behind, the light and energy all joining together in the extra-dimensional Valhalla called the Speed Force. Its energies flickered around him, urging him onward.
The speed of light beckoned, and he blew through it like a runaway truck through a rice-paper barricade, his body transfiguring itself into pure Speed Force energy. He raced alongside tachyons, watched time stop and then reverse itself, first by seconds, then minutes and hours. And all the while his thoughts kept pace with his velocity.
But two occupied him the most.
I’m coming, Cissie.
And My name is Bart Allen. I’m the Fastest Man Alive.
* * *
Volcano looked as though he’d barely tossed Kon. He didn’t over-extend, the way Cissie had hoped he might have, but he did follow through, and for a moment, at least, he was exposed. It wasn’t the shot she would have wanted. But it was likely the only shot she was going to get.
And so Cissie King-Jones— the heroine known as Arrowette— released the most fateful shaft of her entire young life. The bowstring sang like a chorus, and the arrow sped, straight and true, for Volcano’s midsection. The blue liquid snugly captured in the fragile cylindrical arrowhead seemed to wash forward, as if sensing its freedom.
And then the arrow stopped, a scant inch from its target, plucked from midair by a meaty hand.
Cissie’s eyes widened.
Volcano’s follow-through had not left him open after all; instead, he had merely tossed Kon and then brought his hand back, with a speed that defied belief and caught the arrow by the shaft, half an instant before the arrowhead impacted.
The large red man looked at the arrow as though he was studying its construction, and then, his red eyes flicked up to its owner. He never once said a word as he released it back to its sender.
She did, however. Two, in fact. “Aww, crud.”
* * *
Secret felt it first, the way the air felt thick and heavy and just... charged somehow. It distracted her momentarily, as did something on the edge of her hearing: a low-pitched noise, like a distant hum or a very low buzzing.
It worried her. They were here in a lab with who-only-knew-what equipment, so she figured the last thing anyone wanted to hear was a buzz or a hum or something godawful like that. And worse, it seemed like it was building.
Or getting closer.
Her face appeared in the smokiness that was mostly obscuring Volcano from view.
“Robin, do you hear that?” She asked, worriedly.
Robin crouched, dodging one of the laser-like heat blasts. He touched a stud and telescoped his rod. “Hear what?”
“That hum!” Secret said, her head and neck extending from the smoke. “You can’t hear— ”
It was then that she saw Volcano hurl the arrow back at Cissie, and just like that, the hum of whatever-it-was faded instantly from her mind. “Oh, no...”
* * *
“Superboy!” Cassie exclaimed as she flashed around Volcano, her fists held high. “Put him down, you— ”
She never got the next word out, because at that moment Volcano hurled the thrashing Kon-El at her, so fast that Wonder Girl had no chance to catch him.
She might have been able to avoid him, but she dimly realized that something was... different in the air. Like it was heavier, thicker, like the humidity was climbing or something. The realization didn’t occupy her for more than a split instant, but that fraction of a moment was more than enough.
Kon smacked right into her, and the two crashed into the heavy wall of the lab with a sickening thud. After what felt like an eternity, they slowly found their way to the floor, sliding down in an awkward tumble of arms and legs.
Cassie shook her head, dazedly checking her wig. It was still on, may all the gods bless it. She was definitely going to look into a new uniform, and soon.
“Hera,” she mumbled, feeling aches in places she didn’t know she had body parts.
Kon lifted his head muzzily, rubbed at his face. “I don’t get it. See what?”
Cassie looked at him, her eyebrows furrowing. “What do you mean?”
He looked at her and tasted blood on his split lip. “What’d you say ‘see’ for? See what? What’d I do?”
“You’re punch-drunk. I didn’t say ‘see’.” She helped him to his feet.
Kon blinked. “Wait, there it is again. S’not you, and it’s not saying ‘see’. I can barely hear it. It’s...”
“Later!” Wonder Girl interrupted, and then she turned back to Volcano, only to see him in follow-through, Arrowette’s liquid-nitrogen arrow already thrown, straight and true, at her best friend. Her eyes went wide. “Hera, no!”
Kon clambered to his feet, stunned into immobility by the sight. But he knew right then what the sound on the edge of his enhanced hearing seemed to be saying, because Cassandra Sandsmark was echoing that very same word.
* * *
As Volcano threw it, the arrow hung in mid-air, as if it would stay there, forever.
It just. Hung. There.
Instinctively, Bart knew it was moving. It had to be. And just as instinctively, he knew he would never be able to catch it, even as he pulled himself from the ground. He knew it was going to hit her. It was going to hit Cissie.
Cissie, who couldn’t vibrate her molecules or change herself to a vapor form to allow it to pass through harmlessly.
Cissie, who wasn’t super-strong like Kon or Cassie, who didn’t have any sort of invulnerability to cold.
Cissie, who was backed up against the wall and couldn’t get away, who didn’t have speed-of-light reflexes to catch the arrow the way Volcano did.
“No!” Bart screamed. The air in the room seemed to get heavier, like the feeling of the charged sky before a storm, but Bart didn’t notice as he leapt to his feet in a space of time that made electrons look sluggish. His heart hammered as his legs started to pump, his fingers nearly brushing the fletchings of the arrow in the first moment.
He never once saw the foot of Volcano. It was hard to say whether the large man meant to trip him or not.
Bart’s flailing fingertips came so near the fletchings that he could literally feel the air molecules being displaced by the arrow’s wake. They came that near, and still fell short. Bart Allen sprawled to the floor, not even protecting himself from the fall. His chin cracked hard into the tile, and he tasted blood.
“Nuh—!” he yelled, a yell abruptly cut short.
By the time he could pick himself up again, he’d missed damned near everything.
* * *
Cissie saw the arrow coming for her, and had already started to move, but even as she did, she knew she’d never get out of the way in time. It was Harm all over again, she thought, only this time, there was no such thing as a flesh wound. She knew her arrows; the liquid nitrogen arrows were different than her cryo-arrows— which were fairly harmless, in their own way. These would coat an area in enough liquid nitrogen to crystallize a Cadillac.
Time seemed to slow down; everything came into sudden and crystal-clear focus around her, and it was at that moment that Cissie King-Jones realized she wasn’t going to escape. This was it. The end. The last chapter.
In the split second she had to catalogue her short life, she heard Cassie shrieking her name, Robin’s inhaled gasp, and Bart screaming “No!” in a voice that sounded like a badly warped tape. She felt the air seem to grow thick, as he made a stab for the arrow, his fingers falling breathtakingly short before he tripped and slammed to the floor.
Figures. Everyone else has a knight in shining armor. My hero trips over his feet on the way to my rescue. Where the hell’s the justice in that?
The fragile arrowhead loomed in her vision; she could feel the hardness of the wall behind her, and a last, tiny warm surge in her heart for the speedster that sprawled to the ground in slow motion. She heard a noise on the edge of her hearing, a buzz that increased in pitch and volume to a whine.
A static charge seemed to fill the room, and even as time seemed to slow to a halt around her, the whine became a voice, and the crackle of electricity filled the air and the voice became clear to her ears.
Too stunned to think of anything else, Cissie King-Jones’ last thought on Earth became, What the hell, does anyone else want to give away my secret identity before I kick off?
And then something exploded through the wall next to her with the boom of a thunderclap— a body, phasing through the wood, steel and plaster harmlessly, as though it were made of air— before turning on a dime and ripping back past her with a speed that would have left lightning with an inferiority complex.
Time started. The liquid-nitrogen arrow tore through the scant remaining foot of air and its fragile head shattered, its contents spraying outward and flash-freezing the wall, leaving a ten-foot wide area of it as little more than ice.
Absent from the wall was Arrowette, who managed to finally inhale the gulp of air she’d been subconsciously holding back gasping. Now she gasped for a different reason however; not only was she noticeably still alive, but from one moment to the next she found herself away from the wall and across the room, safe and snug in the well-muscled arms of a rakishly handsome long-haired man in a shredded red and white uniform that revealed more than it covered. The man’s amber eyes sparkled through an electric haze, and a wry grin touched his lips, revealing an even white row of teeth through the darkness of his unshaved face. The energy that sparked in his eyes wafted around them both like a storm of heat lightning, flickering around his limbs and yet not at all hurting her. But even with all the extra age, the more firm build, the ripped clothing, and the odd energy, there was something more than just familiar about him. She knew that even before he spoke.
“Still want to take it slow?” He asked.
“Uhm?” Cissie mumbled, blinking several times at him, and gazing at him with wide blue eyes.
His expression became a little more concerned. “Are you all right?”
“Ah...?” Cissie mumbled, blinking several times, and once even rubbing them, then continuing to gaze at him with wide blue eyes.
His brows furrowed at her. “You can say something besides ‘Uhm’ and ‘Ahh’, right?”
“Uhh...” Cissie mumbled, and then after a long moment, she found a smaller, slightly higher voice, if that was at all possible. “Bart?”
He smiled and slowly set her down, hesitantly, as if he didn’t want to. His hands left her with agonizing slowness. “Stay here.”
The man seemed to flicker for a few moments, but Cissie had been around speedsters long enough to realize that he had left and returned before his after images had quit strobing. The main reason she knew that was because when he returned, he wasn’t facing her. She couldn’t see his arms, but from his stance, she assumed they were crossed in front of his chest. (And yikes, she thought, what a chest!) He was facing the thief that a moment ago she had been sure was going to be her killer.
His eyes were apparently fixed on Volcano, who looked surprised by this latest turn of events, but seemed content enough with quiet that he didn’t feel the need to say so.
“Big strong guy, to pick on kids.” The man said, and Cissie had to admit it even sounded like Bart, just with a deeper, more sure voice than she’d ever heard Impulse use. “Wanna try a grown-up?”
Young Justice seemed stunned into inaction, just watching the standoff like spectators of a high noon gunfight. Even Robin was speechless. Cissie saw Bart pick himself up slowly, look to the frozen wall and then to her and her savior, and gawk.
The older him— if it was indeed him— paid them no notice. He merely smirked, and then he wound up and grunted, hurling a heavy object that he’d apparently kept hidden with his arms at Volcano. The overhead lights glinted red off the metal cylinder.
“Don’t!” She cried, before she could stop herself. “He’ll just— ”
Again Volcano’s thick hand reached out and snared the projectile before it could touch him. He held it firmly in his hand and then merely shook his head slowly from side to side as if bemoaning the futility of such an attack. Then his red eyes focused back on the new arrival and narrowed.
“—catch it.” Cissie finished, groaning.
The older Bart never lost his smirk. “Nice reflexes. Idiot.”
Something in the tone caused Volcano’s brow to furrow, and looked more closely at the metal cylinder. His red eyes slowly widened as he saw what it was: a fire extinguisher. A Halon fire extinguisher.
It was at that point that the casing of the extinguisher, held for a few moments too long in Volcano’s superheated grasp, buckled and ruptured, and with the muffled sound of a tightly-wrapped explosion, a huge cloud of white gas completely filled the entire corner of the room. There was a roar of pain from within, and as the cloud slowly dissipated, Volcano still stood there, but he was pale and shaking, looking like a victim of oxygen deprivation. His red eyes bulged, but they were a darker red now, missing their glow. He was choking, trying to draw breath. And the heat aura around him was gone.
For only the second time, he spoke, in a voice that sounded far less like a monster and more like a befuddled child. “Wha... wha—?”
The older Bart had turned away; now he glanced back over his shoulder at Volcano.
“Halon 1301. Firefighting chemical of choice. Low toxicity and boiling point, useful for the suppression of chemical and electrical fires by sealing off the oxygen from the flames. No oxygen, no fuel. No fuel, no fire.” His lips quirked upward, fractionally, and his amber eyes glinted. “Flash Fact.”
Volcano might have grunted more, but at that point, he was tapped on the shoulder and swiveled around to find Superboy and Wonder Girl both raising their fists at him, looking hurt, a bit bloody and— moreover— very, very disgruntled.
Any response the would-be tech thief might have had to his science lesson was lost shortly after he was punched through the wall into the next lab.
* * *
“You’re... you’re me?” Bart said in a low, wondering voice, as he looked up into the face of the older man that had saved Cissie. The rest of the team had gone into the next lab to restrain and shackle up Volcano, and Robin had gone upstairs to the roof and the Super-Cycle to alert the authorities and inform Red Tornado. That had left Impulse and Arrowette with the man that Cissie said for all intents and purposes looked just like an older version of Bart.
Bart wasn’t sure. He could see a passing resemblance in the amber color of the eyes, the unruly brown hair, the quick smile. But there was something far different, beyond just the age, the musculature and the scruffy look. (Especially the scruffy look. Bart had tried to grow a beard once; really, he had. But after concentrating on his face until all the blood rushed to his head and he nearly passed out, he’d decided it just couldn’t be done.)
There was something about him that just set him apart. A sense of maturity seemed to ooze from the man, a sense of composure. Maybe it had come with age.
He finished, lamely. “But you’re... you’re... old.”
“And you’re still a master of vocabulary.” The older man grinned at him and then crouched down, bringing himself to eye-level. “I’m you. Sort of. In a manner that would be really hard to explain.”
“So what are you doing here?” Cissie asked as she made her way over to stand next to them, as well. Bart watched her blue eyes move from him to the older him, and he was surprised by a kneejerk twinge of jealousy that grasped at him.
The older him raised an eyebrow in response to Cissie.
“I mean, not that I’m not ecstatic you are,” she added hastily. “Because finishing my costumed career as an Arrowette-cicle is not on my top ten list of ways to go or anything.”
“I came back because...” For a moment that composure seemed to crack slightly. He stood up, looked down at the two teens for a long moment, and tried again. “Because something very important was taken away from me. And so I could give myself a chance to realize how important it is without having to lose it again. Does that make sense?”
Bart nodded slowly, thinking of the lifetime that had flashed in front of him when he tripped and knew he’d never be able to catch Cissie’s arrow. But the older him was looking at Arrowette when he said it, and he saw Cissie’s cheeks go bright red and her lips curl upward for a moment before her eyes suddenly widened.
“Bart! You’re fading away!”
Bart looked down at himself. He didn’t feel like he was fading. “I am?”
“Not you you, Bart! The older you Bart!” Cissie exclaimed.
Impulse looked up and saw that she was right. The older version of him was slowly becoming transparent. He merely looked at the back of his hand and smiled softly, however. “It’s... it’s okay. I kind of expected this, anyway. The timeline changed, so my world doesn’t really exist anymore. I sort of wiped it out by changing its history.”
Cissie looked half a step from an aneurism. Her eyes nearly went as wide as Bart’s goggles. “Holy crap! You wiped out an entire world to come back here?!”
The older Bart held out his hand, now nearly transparent, in a placating gesture. “No, no. Just... trust me. Everyone’s still there. It’s just the future I come from isn’t. It’s a little hard to explain without bringing temporal theory into it.”
He looked at Cissie for a long, drawn out moment, and said to her, quietly, “Just... whatever you do, be safe, okay?”
She nodded, her eyes glimmering.
And then he glanced at his younger self and leaned forward and whispered something into his ear. And as Bart’s eyes went every bit as wide as Cissie’s had just a moment before, there was a soft flare of white light surrounding the older him, and with a sound like the wind through the grass, he was gone.
The two stood there for a moment in thoughtful silence.
Robin came back through the door of the lab. “Okay, STAR Labs Special Security’s on their way with a transportable holding pen, and Red Tornado said— ” he stopped short, looked at the space where the older Bart had been a couple moments before. “Okay, where is he?”
“He...” Bart shifted uncomfortably. “He had to... uhm... sort of... go.”
“He... had to go?” Robin asked, skeptically. “Go where?”
“Away.” Cissie stated.
“Away.” Bart affirmed.
“He had to go... away.” Robin echoed, touching his jaw. “I don’t suppose that he told you who he was or what made him decide to show up here, or anything like that?”
He raised an eyebrow at the two.
“Uhm...” Bart hedged. “Not really.”
Cissie shook her head emphatically. “Not at all.”
“I... see.” Robin glowered, crossing his arms. “So, let me see if I have this straight. This ‘mystery man’ shows up here out of the blue, knows Cissie’s real name, looks a hell of a lot like Bart, saves Cissie from her own arrow by moving at super-speed, takes out Volcano as if he knows exactly what would do the trick, and then just— I don’t know—blows off, without telling either of you anything at all whatsoever, except for ‘I have to go away’?”
Cissie glanced at Bart.
Bart glanced at Cissie.
They both looked at Robin.
“In a nutshell.” Bart said, nodding.
“That’s about the size of it.” Cissie said, nodding.
“I swear, for every step we take forward, it’s like we take two steps back,” Robin sighed and dropped his head, pinching at the bridge of his nose through his mask. “I for one will be extremely glad when everyone on this team actually gets to the point that we can start trusting one another.”
“Right you are, oh Secretive Identity Leader, sir.” Cissie saluted and gave her most innocent smile.
“I’ll work on my trust issues, Mister Batman Junior, sir,” Bart said, mirroring her salute and cherubic expression.
Robin looked at the two of them for a long, dark-eyed moment, and then turned and stalked through the hole in the wall, toward the next lab.
“Secretive Identity Leader,” he muttered sourly. “I’ll bet the JLA never has to deal with this sort of thing.”