Iris felt her father's arm against hers as they sat facing forward in a linked together row of chairs. The stage erected before them was empty. Nothing had started yet, so Barry was not technically late.
She eyed the seat saved right beside her. Her little clutch that matched her dress sat against the dark maroon and green patterned chair. She reached for it and flipped it open. She swept her thumb across her phone. She looked at the time and locked it again.
She felt the nudge of an elbow against her waist.
“Would you stop worrying about it?” Joe asked.
“Why aren't you?” Iris countered as she sat up straighter. Her phone was still clutched in her hand, wrist resting against her knee. It was a little cold in the hotel ballroom and she worried the fingertips of her opposite hand against her leg, feeling the little sensation of warmth they generated.
“When in your life have you known Barry Allen to be early for anything?” Joe countered. He petted her slightly between her shoulder blades, picking up a little section of her hair and gently dropping it back into place. Iris turned slightly to watch her dad's face and saw the whimsical, almost teary-eyed way he was looking at the yet vacant stage. She knew why he was going with the best case scenario idea, and she wanted to smack his arm.
“Dad,” she insisted. “You know—”
The 'be quiet' little flash of a glare got Joe's attention on her, and when their eyes met he kept her gaze.
“Iris, I'm sure it's fine,” he said. She didn't know where his intuition about this came from yet, but this wasn't the time or the place to ask.
“If it's something, then I ought to be out there—”
Iris started when she felt a hand grip her shoulder – a warmer, smaller hand than she anticipated.
“Hey!” came a bright, smiling greeting from Caitlin as she let herself down into the seat directly behind Iris. Shuffling in at her right to take a seat beside her was Cisco. Iris turned a little to face them, a knee drawing up in the seat just a little. She remembered the formal clothes she was wearing and corrected it.
“You came,” she said, looking between them both.
“Barry invited us. I... think he was proud,” Caitlin said, and Iris could hear the campaigning tone in her voice. She knew it all too well – both on the giving and receiving end.
“He even said there was free food,” Cisco commented with a sage nod to indicate the importance of the occasion.
“Barry's... still not here,” Iris pointed out with a slight jerk of her head toward the seat she'd saved for him.
“Oh, he will be, I'm sure,” Caitlin assured her, sitting back in her seat with hands folded in her lap.
“Trust me, he's too proud to pass this one up. You getting recognized for your 'newcomer' excellence for stroking his ego? Not gonna happen,” Cisco teased.
“Cisco!” Caitlin scolded, and he got a much harder jab in the ribs than Iris would ever have received from her father. It was enough of a commotion to prompt Joe to turn to glance back at Caitlin and Cisco, then he looked at Iris.
“You're about as subtle as a brick through a window,” he commented drolly.
Iris nodded and rolled her eyes, but when he eyes settled back into a normal position they were glaring toward her dad once more. Her jaw leaned just slightly against her hand.
“I'm serious, Dad, if he's not—”
“Hey you guys,” Barry said, drawling his words out playful and long as he shuffled up the aisle to take his seat beside Iris. She turned her attention to him and gathered her clutch into her lap and focused her little glare up at him. He seemed strained and winded seemingly from not just zipping right into his seat. She still couldn't believe she hadn't noticed the strain it took on him to try and act like he couldn't become nearly impossible to perceive sooner than she had. But she had, in ways, she guessed. She just hadn't known what she was seeing.
“Finally made it, huh?” Joe asked.
“You know I wouldn't miss this for the world,” Barry said, and Iris couldn't have done anything but believed him – that tone, that dopey smile, and those eyes.
“Told you,” Cisco said, but Iris just barely heard him.
It took her a minute to shake her head clear and to laugh, nudging against him to complete the circle.
“You almost did.”
“Well, that could've... been an emergency,” Barry excused himself, but then he nodded toward the stage as some of the lights dimmed. Saved by the bell.
“Welcome to the 32nd Annual Central City Marie Hoskins Awards for Excellence in Journalism,” the announcer said as she stepped up to occupy the podium. Iris sat up a little straighter. She'd been prepared for the fact that she was receiving an award a couple of months in advance, but she still felt just a little like a second grader waiting for the results of the science fair. Only this time, there was no chance Barry was going to beat her.
“To begin this evening's recognitions of the women in our community who make such a great impact in our community's collective information, knowledge, and understanding, I would like to call to the stage Ms. Iris West.”
Iris got to her feet. There was a fitful, premature, scattered applause that cut off as the announcer continued speaking.
“Ms. West has made a name for herself in recent months and years without the help of the establishment.”
Iris glanced around and behind herself and slightly down. She was trying to avoid any remote possibility of one of those nightmare situations where her dress caught on something in just the wrong way and disaster struck. She caught Caitlin's eyes and widened her own just a little. She wondered if she was supposed to wave like she was in a beauty pageant. So far, her recognition had come in the form of hit counters and like buttons.
“Months before receiving her Masters in Journalism, she began not only collating rumors but gathering facts about 'the Streak' – now known as 'the Flash' owing almost entirely to Ms. West's writing—”
As Iris turned to slide past Barry, she thought she heard the faintest whisper of him snickering and she made sure to let the heel of her shoe catch with mild and playful threat at the edge of his foot just beneath his shoe. She knew how precious his feet were to him.
“What has become a fixture in our strange and ever-changing lives here in Central City has been both news and the brainchild of Iris West,” the woman continued as Iris made her way to the short steps and heard the slight reverberation in the somewhat less than perfectly tuned microphone as her feet touched the carpet. “In this new age of social and greatly volunteer media, this young woman stands out among many both as a lifelong resident of Central City and a promising, gifted writer.”
Laying it on thick just as Iris turned around and nodded and smiled for the gathered audience – mostly elderly people with a decent standard of living who still took the print newspapers and a few others of various means and connection – the speech suddenly stopped.
“And recently, she's gotten in some work at the Central City Register, too,” the woman said as though it were a lot funnier than it was. “Presented with the Marie Hoskins Forward Endeavor Award, Iris West.”
Iris stepped up to the podium when it was vacated. Her hands pressed palms to the side a little and her fingertips grasped slightly at the wood. She was in freshman year required speech class all over again. Then she breathed, and she was smiling and over it.
“Hi,” she said. “Thank you for having me tonight and recognizing me with this award.”
Iris indicated the little plaque with golden writing scrawled artfully, predictably across it.
“And secondly, I'd like to tell you—”
She hesitated for a moment, looking at the small TV camera set up down in front of her. She laughed it off gently, the deer in headlights moment that quickly passed.
“I guess I'm not a TV journalist yet,” she joked.
To her shock and slight amazement, much of the audience laughed. Her smile hung on just a little more easily after that.
“What I was going to say was, I didn't even want to go into journalism,” she continued, hands moving from the podium's sides to gesture back at herself. She shook her head, and her full hair moved.
“But... something happened,” she said, and her eyes were inevitably drawn to Barry's. She kept them, but not too hard, reminding herself to glance around. She did it in silence for the slightest, noticeable moment – look at Barry, then look away, then look at Barry. “Something extraordinary... impossible happened, and I found out that I had a lot to say about things that... feel like hope.”
Finally she managed to break her gaze away and look more freely among her audience. She had to manage before everyone noticed.
“That might sound like I'm not choosing my words carefully – and I'm not, I'm winging it – I'm a blogger first – chronologically, that's what we do...” she said. Another strangely easy tinkle of laughter padded her words.
“It might not sound like it, but to say that it 'feels like hope' is the most important thing.” She shook her head a little in preparation for how her statement continued. “Since the Streak showed up, as a city we've undergone a lot of changes and a lot of really surprisingly difficult things. When people go through the things we've been through, together and individually, we change and we're scared and we're lost and sometimes we're angry that we feel so powerless...”
She could feel it building to a crescendo, and for just a moment she suddenly regretted not preparing this speech word for word. Maybe one day she'd learn that – sometimes it just felt better to go with it, so far. For now, she just had to hope it wouldn't come out too cringe-worthy.
“... And what we need in times like that is a lightning rod.”
Her gaze fell on Barry's again. He didn't completely lose hers, but his head leaned back and she could tell her was eating it up. He thought it was hilarious. A further glance revealed that it was probably a good thing she'd left a vacant seat between her dad and Barry. Her smile amped up another few watts.
“And that's what I've tried to give Central City in my early work,” she said, and suddenly the tension in her chest gave way to something a little more recognizably professional. Her fingers laced themselves together in an unconscious but somehow fitting gesture. “Not the lightning rod but a way to see that it's been struck – that all of us are filled with an energy not just to face what's right in front of us but what's coming in the future. So... thank you, again, for honoring me with this award that anticipates my future as a journalist in Central City. I look forward to the years to come, and I'll do my best not to let you down,” Iris promised. She gently set the award aside for an instant while she prepared to do her next job as an announcer.
“Without further ado, I'd like to move on to our next award, the—” Iris said, and she scanned her eyes along the program for the evening to make sure she got the next mouthful name right.
Her eyes kept scanning. She blinked.
And that was when the lights went out.
- - -
Iris's set of priorities when things like this happened became much narrower. The noise in her mind died down considerably after years of having a life like this. Her heart dropped down into her stomach, but as the lights went from pitch black and off to flickering, she looked up and then around.
She may have been here to receive an award for journalistic prowess, but her first set of priorities was entirely and simply human.
Barry.(But there's a near absolute faith now that he can take care of himself.)
Then her list of professional priorities began.
Center of the action.
Is the Flash involved?
Where is he?
Iris knew that each and every condition and set of concerns on both outlines was ticked off without even trying as her feet moved to get to lower, more stable ground. Her eyes were alert, and she watched as Cisco, Caitlin, her father, all moved to do things that they'd learned to do. Her dad was a cop, but she'd never really noticed before – maybe because they were almost always behind the scenes – what a well-oiled machine they'd become. As discreet as they were (to her eyes, not very, but hers were informed) they moved quickly and efficiently to find a way to be Barry's remote eyes, ears, medical staff, and research team. They weren't even afraid.
Why would they be?
The Flash wasn't just coming. Iris didn't just believe in him. The Flash was here.
Iris wondered if in the middle of avoiding (entirely potential, unrealized) grave bodily harm feeling a burst of air in her chest and a smile bursting across her face at the sight of a telltale flickering streak of red light was a symptom of insanity.
- - -
Barry's hand clamped over the lightning bolt on one side of his head and he nodded.
“We're clear?” he clarified again as Iris steadied a hand on the wall, clearing dust from her lungs with a little cough. It smelled of old peace lilies. “Awesome,” he said. Iris shook her head and was still shaking it when he turned back around to face her, decked out in full red attire.
She saw a twinkle of something in his eye.
“Wai—” she warned, but the air was pushed back out of her a little as the world moved by too quickly for her to perceive.
When he feet touched the ground again, she was standing on a rooftop. Central City and the river twinkled below them against a night backdrop, and a little ways off in the distance she noticed Star Labs, looming and mostly dark. She looked back up at Barry through the slight shielding of his mask. He didn't bother to try and hide the features of his face from her. They were past that now, though apparently not standing up on rooftops.
“Well this was completely unnecessary,” she commented to him drolly.
“Hey, why not?” Barry complained, rhetorically. “I was wondering if we could... talk,” he requested, just a bit more seriously.
“'Talk,'” Iris repeated, gauging whether or not she should be nervous.
“Yeah, I just mean talk. I—well, first of all, I'm sorry I interrupted the Marie Hoskins Journalism Awards.”
“32nd,” Iris sighed whimsically. Then she shook her head, realizing she should clarify. “Hey, I got my award,” she said with mock selfishness. “... Somewhere. And I'm... sure they'll adapt. Regroup, reschedule. This whole town is getting used to cleaning up after you.”
Barry looked down at the tannish rooftop. Iris reached out for his forearm and found that her fingertips didn't get good purchase on the suit.
“Hey,” she chided him gently, anyway, “it's not your fault, Bear.”
“Someone might here you,” Barry said, smirk returning as he lifted his chin back up.
“Oh, I'm the not-subtle one?”
“That's what I wanted to talk to you about. Your speech – before everything happened – it seemed just a little...”
“About you,” Iris supplied, not quite a question.
“It was,” Iris agreed.
“B—” Barry said, and she could anticipate that he was about to protest a little.
“But it isn't about you,” she assured him, and she loved him for the fact that he wanted to be assured. “It's—” And there were a lot of things she could have said, but instead she beamed and just said: “I got my story.”
Barry paused, mulled it over for a moment as he shifted a little from side to side. She could tell he was antsy. He seemed just a little lighter on his feet than usual.
“Oh, yeah?” he asked, apparently settling into the answer. “Where are your notes?” he teased.
“Right in here,” Iris said, tapping her temple and nodding, playing along with the full range of the cheesiness.
“'Winging it,'” he quoted back to her.
“A talent I learned from watching you first hand,” she said. “But no, I've got an eyewitness account – another one. Sooner or later, people are going to wonder where I get these.”
“I think they probably already do,” Barry admitted with a slight crinkle in his nose. That was something to worry about another time – something Iris did worry about all the time – but as she looked at him and breathed the air between them, she thought maybe there was something a little more pressing tonight. It felt like it'd been coming for a long time but that maybe it hadn't. Maybe it had always been coming, and it'd just taken her a little time to notice. Maybe Barry had always been a little faster than her in some ways.
She'd known for so long, it was hard to remember what life had been like not knowing. Not that he was the Flash – how he felt about her.
She'd wondered if he'd stop – while her life happened and while his happened to him. But he was still standing there, playing along with her every whim and stopping only just before it became suspicious and obnoxious. He'd brought her up here to 'talk.' She couldn't tell if it'd been with any agenda, and as it occurred to her, she didn't care.
“Barry?” she asked, and she heard some ambient traffic noise filter up from more than fifty feet below.
Suddenly, it was Barry's turn to widen his eyes, his turn to look like a deer stuck in headlights, to look like he'd been placed in front of a video camera with an awkward, urgent question.
“Yes?” he asked. She could tell he thought he was in trouble for a minute there.
She didn't want to over-complicate it, so she started to move in and up, to catch his still bared lips with hers before she lost the moment or the nerve, but...
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” Barry said.
Iris's stomach plummeted. Maybe he had...
“Is what I think is about to happen about to happen?” Barry asked, and it replaced her fear with confusion. “As in, you're gonna... we're gonna – you're gonna kiss me?”
She didn't know how, but he was acting like it was the first time in both their lives. And between them, it was. She wouldn't have thought of it that way, but just looking at him made her do it.
“Well, I was thinking about it,” she said in a dubious tone. “Maybe I should just change my mind,” she said, and again it wasn't a question. She was bewildered.
But not for long.
“No, wait. Give me just a sec—” Barry bargained. Then he was gone. A full two seconds passed.
When he returned at the end of those two seconds, Barry was standing before Iris in the suit he'd worn for the awards ceremony. It was unwrinkled and untarnished, at least to the extent that Iris's was, and she'd be able to wear the dress again.
“... You... changed,” Iris commented, and it was new territory so she didn't manage the most particularly attractive tone in the world. She was still too busy being confused.
“I just... always had... ideas about how this might happen. And – I'm not being a creep, I promise, I didn't... plan all of this but – I thought you were worth dressing up for.”
Iris nearly commented, but instead she just shook her head with lips upturned so much that it was hard to get them to find purchase against his lips when she tried.
Barry made up for it, his lips pressing in against hers when given the first opportunity. His were serious and soft, head tilting opposite hers as his mouth moved to conform.
Iris's arms lifted higher, and her forearms came to rest against the shoulder pads in Barry's suit jacket. The fingers of one hand latched around her opposite wrist behind his head. She let the warmth of her mouth and the warmth of his relax her against any uncomfortable cool sensation a wisp of night air moving between them caused. She let it draw her body just a little closer to his.
Barry's hands – now free of weird, frictionless red material – moved to trace equal lines along either side of the small of her back. It helped to shape their bodies together – silent, musicless dancing that waited a merciful little while before any of the positioning got awkward.
When Iris moved to straighten her spine just a little, causing a new angle and force of pressure to say more things months and weeks and words couldn't, that was when she felt a quiver.
Barry's entire body rattled against what she thought might have been cold, but it immediately occurred to her that it might be something else. She pulled away and looked up at him.
“No, d—” Barry mewled, but he interrupted himself.
“What's wrong?” Iris asked, hand moving to cup his jaw in a way only slightly different than she might have before.
“I'm fine,” he promised. He sounded a little drunk.
“You're shaking,” she pointed out, however intermittent it seemed.
“Mm,” he hummed, and she thought it was agreement.
“Have you eaten, Barry?”
“I did,” Barry insisted. “But there was supposed to be free food,” he reminded her with a weak, slightly miserable chuckle. He took a deep breath, and he looked a little less weary beneath the eyes. She wondered if the way she'd felt his heart racing while she'd felt his chest against her body had anything to do with this and not just the way he fought whatever good fights turned up on a near weekly basis.
“Well, I'm afraid the buffet table got overturned,” Iris said with a pantomime wince when he didn't seem to be in immediate, emergency danger.
“And it was a tragedy,” Barry agreed with a sigh and another intake of breath.
“We've gotta get you something to eat,” Iris announced. “... We could go to Jitters. Get you the rest of tonight's supply of cronuts.”
Another playful threat, though Barry would eat anything these days.
“No, no,” Barry frowned.
“I'm just kidding. We'll get you whatever you want,” Iris assured him.
“No,” Barry repeated, batting at nothing off to the side of them like a sleepy child as the hypoglycemia wavered and threatened. He'd gotten better at managing it, but he wasn't perfect. “No, I meant... you're too dressed up – look too nice – to go to work.”
“Oh,” Iris said, syllable drawing out a little into something not quite fawning. She laughed a little and wrapped her arm around him, shuffling to his side in case he needed someone to lean on. “Waffles?” she suggested, thinking of a diner that had always reminded her of a movie.
“Pancakes,” Barry countered, and she saw the tired hint of a smile. He was capable of holding himself up, but he was irritable and fast getting too tired.
“Whatever you say, mister.”
“Hey, what about your dad?”
“Oh. Yeah,” Iris said, and she hadn't meant to sound so distracted. She led them toward the door that would take them to the stairwell down from the roof.
“No, wait, I'll carry you,” Barry offered.
“Uh-uh,” Iris refused with a shake of her head at him. “You're too weak and not wearing red. I think we're walking.”
“Call your dad – ask him if he's okay.”
Iris called her dad, then she called Cisco and Caitlin once each as they made the slightly arduous trek down the stairs until they found a door that gave them access to an elevator.
On the way out of the building, Iris used some loose change to buy Barry a pack of crackers from a vending machine.
- - -
The little bell above the door jingled with a standard but never-ending enthusiasm as Iris pushed open the door with a somewhat revived Barry. She pulled him up the single step just for good measure – she pulled him up by the hand.
Even when they were little kids, they'd held hands, but they hadn't done it like this in years.
Iris felt giddy and just a little bit like a show-off when she strode toward the booth and two opposite bar stools occupied by her father and Caitlin and Cisco respectively.
Caitlin had a sheepish smile tightened onto her face, then it turned just a little notch down as she tilted her head at Iris. She'd glanced at Iris's locked hands with Barry, but it seemed of secondary importance for the moment – like it was normal, and Iris thought that maybe it should be.
“I'm so sorry about the mess,” she said, indicating what had happened back at the ceremony.
“You're sorry?” Iris asked playfully. “What about him?” she asked, nodding back toward Barry. Then she ushered him into the booth across from her dad and shooed him a little until he was close enough tot he window for her to have a seat.
Barry chuckled a little and shook his head, palm planting down on one of the place-mat menus and dragging it front and center to his seat.
“I'm going to have one of everything,” he announced, both hands going up to nurse at apparently aching temples. He kept a smile, but it didn't ease the little tug on Iris's heartstrings that would have been no less whether she'd been kissing him twenty minutes ago or not. His hand jabbed down into his jacket pocket toward the window.
Iris didn't know what he was doing at first, but then she heard the soft, pitiful impact as the silver glint of a credit card clicked against the speckled cream and mica tabletop. With that, Barry was earning sympathetic laughter as easily as she had at the awards ceremony, and she understood... something, a lot of things, quiet things.
“You okay?” Joe asked.
Iris glanced to see which one of them he was talking to. Barry, this time.
“Yeah, I just—” Then Barry's eyes were wider, more alert. He looked at Iris, then glanced across at Joe, and his hands were slowly lowering from his temple.
Taking it as time – the only and the best time and 'why not' time – Iris reached over and clasped Barry's hand in hers, tugging it into the space between them and not minding to hold them briefly in midair.
Joe raised his eyebrows and her with a little nod she could tell Barry was trying not to see. They didn't have to speak for them both to know the question and that it was meant entirely for her.
'You sure?' the wordless question asked simply.
And without a single doubt, unequivocally, Iris nodded.