Dick wished he still had the ability to be surprised by things. For a normal person, being thrown back nearly thirty years in the timeline would be jarring, upsetting. There would be panic and crying, if not a complete meltdown.
Dick just pauses for a second, takes stock of the altered skyline around him, and heads toward the library.
After all, they have protocol for these situations. After the second time, Bruce had decided there should be a set of guidelines to follow to make sure one didn’t:
- a) Compromise the timeline
- b) Create world-ending paradoxes
- c) Die
From what Wally had said, Batman had passed the guidelines to everyone in the Justice League as well, but only Batman’s team had bothered to read it. Wally had gotten a twenty-minute lecture from Bruce the last time he’d returned from a jaunt to the past where he had interfered with the timestream.
The library, assuming you can find one, is the perfect place to get one’s bearing. It’s free, usually centrally located, and has records of the entire world history. If you’re in the wrong timeline, you can figure it out quickly. If you’re in your own past, you have somewhere to research ways to get home. As long as you can steal a jacket or sweatshirt to cover up your costume, you probably won’t even be the strangest person there.
Dick had opened his eyes in downtown Gotham, just where he’d been before he’d been blasted by Mr. Time’s new weapon, on the corner of Beeker and Third. It had been obvious from the start that he was in the wrong time, if the new villain’s moniker hadn’t spoiled the result. Wayne Tower was gone, and the original Starr Labs facility still hulked to the south.
Luckily, Gotham Library is still in its usual spot, though the marble is still the original—after an alien battle two years ago in Dick’s time, the façade had been destroyed and had been rebuilt with stone from another quarry.
Wearing a touristy Gotham sweatshirt he had lifted from a shop down the street (his currency only included bills dated from the future, so it was better not to try to pay), Dick slips through the front doors and into the cavernous entrance. It’s midday, quiet except for a handful of students and parents with small children.
There is a stack of the day’s newspapers on a table nearby, including the Gotham Gazette and the Daily Planet. Dick plucks up one of each, and then checks the date at the top. April 7, 1988. A clean forty-year jump, then.
Not as bad as it could be. Once Wally got sent back to the dinosaurs, which while awesome in theory, had apparently involved a lot of running for his life.
Dick heads immediately toward the computer center…only to find the section is currently filled with bookshelves. Right. The 80s.
Instead, he takes his newspapers to a table and starts reading the first page.
He reads for a half-hour before he feels reasonably sure that he’s in his own timeline’s past. Despite Bruce’s attempts to the contrary, Dick still isn’t an expert on the events of every single year of human history, but the big stuff seems right. There’s some articles about the seeming weakening of the Soviet Union, and a buzzy new show on Broadway called Phantom of the Opera.
It’s the latter one that convinces Dick, who had that bit of trivia stored from Bab’s brief Broadway phase.
He’s moving from the Planet to the local paper when a voice from a nearby aisle makes him freeze.
“You love the library, Master Bruce,” says a crisp, British voice. To a stranger, it might have sounded dry, but to Dick’s ears, the tone is practically wheedling. He’s heard it before, but only on the rare occasions the Wayne family butler was at the end of his rope.
Immediately, Dick drops his newspaper and slips over to the bookshelf nearest to him to peek through it. Sure enough, a much younger Alfred is standing there with an even younger Bruce. He’s younger than Damian. 1988. He would only be seven years old, but he looks even younger, pale and withdrawn.
“I want to go home,” Bruce said, quiet and serious. He’s…adorable. It’s what Damian would have looked like if he had been given a normal childhood rather than assassin training. There’s a pout on his lips, even though he’s holding himself stiffly and trying to seem authoritative.
How did Alfred not laugh in his face? He’s weathering being bossed around by the kid like Bruce has any real authority between them with his usual grace. Does he ever still see this Bruce when Batman is in his worst moods?
Alfred sighs. “You haven’t been out and about outside of school in a month, Master Bruce.”
- Bruce’s parents died this year.
Bruce is stonily silent, and Alfred sighs again. “Pick out something, and we’ll take it back to the manor,” he concedes.
When Bruce slips away, Dick follows. The Bruce in his head is yelling at him for the decision. He should be sitting quietly, researching and staying quiet so he doesn’t disturb the timestream. But baby Bruce!
Dick is a strong man, but not strong enough to resist this.
He’s careful, using every skill the older Bruce ever taught him about being inconspicuous. Even in the 80s, when kids rode bikes all night without parental supervision, people will notice if an adult man in lurking in the footsteps of a child.
(Most of Dick’s understanding of this era comes from watching old 80s movies and Stranger Things.)
Instead of heading toward the kids section, like Dick expects, Bruce meanders sullenly for a bit before ending up in the crime fiction shelves. He skims over the shelves as though familiar with their contents. Dick has seen some old copies of battered old pulp crime novels in the library at the manor before, but he’s always assumed those were inherited from some other Wayne.
Could it be that Bruce was the one who bought the entire fifteen-book series called Mrs. Cleveland’s Murder Mysteries?
Dick spends a few minutes just appreciating how damn small Bruce is before he catches the boy’s shoulders shudder. It’s a shaky, jerky motion, fierce as an earthquake under his small, tailored jacket.
You can’t interfere with the past, future-Bruce says inside his head.
Bruce would probably walk away. So would Tim or Damian. They know the rules. They listen.
There are things that Dick can’t do, though, and leaving a young Bruce Wayne to cry in the Gotham Public Library is one of them.
“Hey. Do you need help?” Dick asks softly, moving closer.
Bruce stiffens and turns away, brushing at his eyes fiercely. “I just can’t find a good book,” he says, snarling like a puppy. “I don’t need help.” His eyes are red-rimmed. Unlike Damian, who backs up his defensive yipping with knives and training, Bruce is just a kid too sad to keep it together in public.
“I know that feeling,” Dick said. “It’s really frustrating, right? You just want to escape, but nothing can keep your attention. You know what I mean?”
Bruce looks at him suspiciously, and then nods. “I just need to find one,” he says, like he knows it should be easy but finds it an impossible task. “Then I can leave.”
Dick scans the shelves quickly. Finally, he spots a familiar spine. “What about this one?” he asks, plucking out the first book in the Mrs. Cleveland’s Murder Mysteries. The cover shows a cottage on the beach, and a finely-dressed woman in a lavish hat. “This one is good. Have you read it?”
Shaking his head, Bruce takes the book from him and reads the back. Even at this age, he can read faster than Dick can. “I haven’t. Is it good?”
“I’ve heard it’s great,” Dick says.
Bruce nods and holds it close. “Thanks. I should get going.”
“Of course,” Dick says. Bruce just still looks so defeated. It’s torture to hold back to urge to hug him. “Hey, you know what goes great with a good book? You should ask Al—a parent if they’ll make you some hot chocolate when you get home.”
“So? Cocoa doesn’t have a season.”
Bruce nods again, thoughtful this time. “Maybe we can sit by the fan.”
“That’s the spirit!” Dick says. Dick feels a strange tug at his chest, like the pang of loss. It’s similar enough to the sensation of the blast that sent him back that he figures he’s about to experience another time-jump. “I have to go. Enjoy the book, and don’t let Alfred talk you out of that hot chocolate. You deserve it.”
Bruce frowns at him. “How do you…”
Dick feels another tug, more insistent. “See you around, kid!” He doesn’t wait for a response. He can’t disappear in front of this Bruce, not without traumatizing him and destroying the timeline.
He speed-walks out of the aisle and manages to slip into the next before he’s pulled all the way back into the present.
Bruce—his Bruce—is standing in front of him. He has Mr. Time’s weapon in his hands, though it’s been jury-rigged with two batarangs and an external hard drive.
“It worked!” Tim says, half in awe. He and Damian are off to the side. They’re in the Cave, harshly lit by the overhead fluorescents.
“Of course it did,” Damian huffs, but he’s looking Dick over as though searching for injuries. Dick gives him a thumbs-up, and his shoulders relax.
“Where were you?” Bruce asks.
“Gotham,” Dick says with a shrug.
“When were you?” Bruce corrects, not quite sighing.
“Not very far back,” Dick says.
Bruce narrows his eyes, clearly suspicious. “You followed protocol, didn’t you?”
Dick grins at him. “Of course I did, B,” he assures him. “I went straight to the library and stayed there.”
Bruce’s suspicions don’t seem to ease, but Dick feels reasonably confident that he’s back in an unchanged timestream. The Cave looks the same, and his siblings are where they should be. A little kindness never hurt anyone. Dick wishes he could have gotten a picture of little Bruce—his siblings would have loved something higher quality than the old polaroids and portraits Alfred keeps around the house.
“Come on,” he tells his brothers. “It’s been a weird day. I want some hot chocolate.”
“It’s April,” Damian says.
“We’ll sit in front of a fan,” Dick says. He shoots a quick glance back at Bruce, whose frown has deepened, and ushers his brothers upstairs. “You should come too, B. It’s never the wrong season for hot chocolate.”
Still frowning, Bruce follows. His scowl hasn’t changed much over the years.
Dick’s grin doesn’t fade until after the four of them have settled by a standing fan, drinking Alfred’s famous cocoa.