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The Firebird

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In the great city-state located in the very center of the land, there was a king who had three sons. In his great wisdom, the king decided to foster each of his sons to a different class to learn all the aspects of his land: the eldest was sent to the nobility, where he learned of his own importance and how to guide men to do his will so smoothly that they believed his ideas to be their own; the middle son to the army, where he learned of the joys of destruction and the words that coax men to follow others into folly; and the youngest to the peasantry, where he learned to work hard and to help others.

These sons were known for being the brightest and quickest princes in the land.

Well.

Mostly.

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“Barry!” Joe bellows from downstairs.

Barry’s eyes shoot open from where he is very comfortably snuggled into his nice, warm bed. He frantically twists around in the sheets and blankets that had somehow managed to get tangled into a giant knot around him to try to get a good look at the window, because surely it isn’t that late – oh, wow, it is really bright outside.

Like, mid-day bright.

Barry winces. “I’m almost ready!” he calls down, lying through his teeth.

“You were supposed to leave ten minutes ago!”

Barry curses and scrambles out of bed, only to catch his foot in the sheets and trip headlong into the wall.

Barry?!”

“I’m okay!” Barry yells back, only slightly woozy. He pats the wall – he’s shocked it doesn’t have a dent in it from all the times he’s run into it in just that manner – and then makes a beeline to the bathroom to wash his face and scrub his teeth. Maybe he can get dressed at the same time and save a few minutes that way?

No. No, he cannot.

Barry sighs, finishes brushing his teeth, and exchanges his shirt for something that doesn’t have soap running down the front. He dashes downstairs and into the kitchen to search for his boots – they’re not under the table, not kicked off by the door…

His foster father points to where they’re located in the little nook designated for boots, right where they’re supposed to be. Well no wonder Barry couldn’t find them.

“Thanks,” Barry says. “Good morning!”

“It’s practically afternoon,” Joe says, crossing his arms in front of him. Barry’s never going to get used to the fact that he’s now a few inches taller than his foster-father, the giant of his childhood: Joe is a tall and broad-shouldered black man, his close-cut still-black hair only just starting to recede, a matching beard neatly trimmed, and the only sign of age in the wrinkles appearing around his eyes when he smiles. He’s still wearing his guard uniform – he’s one of the city watchmen and, like all watchmen, has to take his turn doing nightguard duty on the walls two nights a month, and yesterday was his night. Joe’s family has been guarding the West Gate about as long as Barry’s family has been ruling the country, if not longer. And if he’s back from guard duty, that does mean it’s getting pretty late in the morning. “And you’re going to be late to lunch with your family. Again.”

Barry makes a face. He’s not looking forward to it in the slightest. His brothers and his father have a way of making him feel like the slowest man alive.

“You know, if you lived in the castle proper, you'd probably make it to more events on time,” Joe says, then pauses to consider. “Maybe. You never made it on time even when you were going to that local school three blocks away, so…”

“I know, I know!” Barry says hastily. “No need to go into my utter inability to make it to things on time, our national shame, I know all about it.”

Joe guffaws. “It's not your fault that Central has a worldwide reputation for having the ‘quickest’ princes,” he says, grinning broadly as Barry tries to snatch the bread that’s toasting over the fire too quickly and nearly burns his hand. “Besides, you're quick – to get into trouble!”

“And to talk myself out of it!” Barry offers his traditional rejoinder with a matching smile. “Quickest spouter of bullshit in all the land, that's me.”

“Know your strengths and play to them,” Joe says, not exactly disagreeing. “Now get your ass in gear and to the castle before your father decides to blame me for it. Even though you're the one who refuses to move uptown to live in the castle."

“What, and live closer to my brothers?” Barry says, shoving the toast between his teeth and tossing on his jacket. “Never!”

Joe's still rolling his eyes when Barry runs out the door. "Tell Iris I'm at the castle if she wants to look me up later!" Barry calls over his shoulder.

"She already knows!" Joe calls back.

Barry can’t see him shaking his head, but he can imagine it.

It probably says something that the people in his neighborhood just step aside, laughing, when they see him dashing down the street towards the giant fortress where his father, the king, lives. Star Castle isn’t shaped like a star, as Barry had thought when he was a little kid (he’d been kind of gullible, and his brothers loved to mess with him); it’s the much more traditional circular structure, with both an inside ring and an outside ring around it to forestall invaders. Not that they’ve had invaders for quite a long time, of course. There’s even a moat, albeit one which hasn’t been filled in at least a generation or two. Barry’s father is very interested in modernizing the castle, but some traditions can’t be eradicated.

For example, the castle is still at the top of a goddamn hill.

Barry feels personally victimized by the internal logic of siege warfare.

He finally arrives, panting and wheezing, at his destination, and gets waved inside the portcullis by grinning guardsmen (he’d be upset by the knowing smirks, but he can’t deny that this is his usual method of arrival). Then it’s just navigating the labyrinthine halls to get to the third dining room, which is the one the family typically uses when they dine together without guests. They all call it the “informal” dining room, even though they all still have to sit at fancy dinner places and get served by servants and use “proper” manners involving at least three types of spoon. And that’s the third dining room, of which they have an utterly unnecessary number. If Barry hadn’t visited here regularly while he was growing up, he would’ve been hopelessly lost.

As it is, he knows a shortcut.

Eobard, Barry’s eldest brother, scowls at him from where he’s sitting near the top of the family table, looking down at Barry disdainfully. Eobard’s dark blond hair is slicked back and carefully styled as always, and he manages to fit the long limbs they’re all cursed with into a perfect seated posture in a way Barry has never managed to do. He always takes the seat to the right of the king’s place, the spot traditionally given to the guest of honor, whenever possible. This is probably because Eobard constantly thinks of himself as the guest of honor in any given situation, even at nominally informal family lunches like this.

Barry does his best not to flip Eobard off. The noble Thawne family that Eobard was fostered with has a lot to answer for, to Barry’s mind, just for letting his brother turn out the way he did. Man, if Eobard ever becomes king of Central, heaven help all of them. Barry is moving out.

“Bartholomew –” Eobard starts ominously.

“I know, I know, I’m late,” Barry says with a sigh. “And please, for the millionth time, call me Barry. Please?”

“I refuse to call you by such an infantile diminutive,” Eobard sniffs. “Even if you won’t be minded to uphold your dignity and, by extension, the dignity of our family, I will.”

Barry rolls his eyes as he walks into the room. Is it just him, or is Eobard actually getting more pretentious by the month? “Oh yeah? I’m ‘minded’ to uphold your –”

Hunter leaps at Barry from where he was lingering unseen behind the door, shoving Barry’s back and sending him sprawling on the floor, bursting out into laughter the second Barry hits the ground.

Barry hates his brothers so much.

Maybe it’s not having spent all that much time together while they were growing up. Certainly Barry and his foster-sister Iris like to mess with each other and they never got too mad about it (well, not since they aged out of adolescence anyway), but somehow when Iris played pranks on him, it never seemed to have that edge of actual malice that his brothers’ “jokes” always do. Hunter in particular always seems to be fondest of pranks that utterly humiliate their target.

Barry isn’t one to question his father’s wisdom, but sometimes it feels like his father valued their insights about the different portions of the kingdom over, say, the peace of the kingdom the second someone other than him inherits the throne.

Times like this Barry wishes that Henry of the Allens and Joe of the West Gate were his real parents.

“Hi, Hunter,” he says through gritted teeth as he picks himself up from the floor. “So good to see you.”

Hunter just keeps laughing at him. The middle child, he’s the tallest of the family, with dark blond hair like Eobard’s but cut in a more military style, and he’s got a sword strapped to his side, even though they’re indoors, at lunch, and surrounded by all the castle guards. He probably has more weapons than that, for that matter. Barry’s not sure if it’s paranoia or just Hunter’s unbearable tendency to show off at any given moment.

It’s nearly as annoying as Hunter’s tendency to look, no matter what the circumstances, like he’s just stepped off of the training yards – and smell like it, too.

Eobard rolls his eyes at what he would no doubt term their “antics” and turns back to the pages he’s got in front of him.

Barry’s just made his way to his usual seat by the stove, his favorite cat, Snowy, immediately veering off from her comfortable position by the window to twine through his legs and purr a demand to be petted, when his father, the king, sweeps in, followed by his usual entourage of fluttering ministers and petitioners. It’s not unlike watching a flock of starlings beg for a bite of bread and Barry mentally notes to himself that it’s been a while since Iris and he have had some quality time feeding the kitchen’s blackened cast-offs to the various birds up on the ramparts of the castle. Definitely time to do that again.

The king – Barry can’t bring himself to think of King Harrison, Conqueror of the Deep Wells, the great hero of Central, as “Dad” the way he quietly thinks of Henry and Joe, though he does respect him immensely – raises his hand in a quelling gesture. “Good, I see Barry’s made his way here at last, so we can get started,” he says briskly.

Barry winces.

Quickest princes in the land, yep, that reputation’s never come to bite him in the ass. Not more than at least five times a day, anyway.

Some unwise royal advisor – he must be new – speaks up, saying, “Your Majesty, this petition from the Kingdom of Starling is of utmost –”

King Harrison turns to the man and pins him with his nastiest glare. The guy goes dead silent as the ministers around him edge away from him. “I am going to speak with my family now,” the king says, his voice calm and deep and a little raspy. It’s times like this, when he’s challenged, that the twenty-five years since his heroic quest and ascension to the throne of Central fall away, that you forget that he wears glasses now or that he spends most of his days contemplating matters of state or of science or that he hasn’t wielded a sword in actual war in well over a decade and a half, and you remember that King Harrison is an extremely scary person. “I trust that isn’t going to be a problem.”

“No, Sire,” the man squeaks.

“Good. Now be off with the lot of you; I’ll summon you should I require your services.”

They scatter faster than a flock of pigeons when charged head-on by an excited dog. The king glares after them as if he can pick them apart with his eyes.

King Harrison isn’t the most paternal man – he regularly threatens to disinherit all three of his sons and run a science competition to see who best deserves to inherit the kingdom, throwing the fate of the country open to magic, merit and fate, the way it used to be and still sometimes was when there was no heir – but he’s very impressive and his sons respect him unreservedly.

Barry ducks down and picks Snowy up to put her in his lap. She’d bite him on the ankle if he didn’t put her in prime lunch-stealing position, the dainty little minx. It’s as good as any a way to avoid catching the king’s attention until he’s calmed down all the way: Eobard slumps down, eyes fixed onto his paperwork, and Hunter stops moving entirely, even breathing, as if not moving will mean that the king – like an owl – will not be able to see him.

Barry’s really got to stop it with these bird metaphors. He blames the fact that he can smell the chicken they’re going to have for lunch.

Just at that moment, his stomach decides to growl loudly. Barry closes his eyes for a moment and hates everything.

Luckily, this effectively snaps King Harrison out of his moment of rage, and he turns to the three of them, smirking. “Let’s start lunch, shall we? Otherwise we might lose Barry to starvation.”

“What a pity,” Eobard drawls. Hunter snickers.

And Joe wants me to move here for more of this, Barry thinks to himself, shaking his head. Honestly.

As usual, Barry gets served last – even informal lunches are served in strict hierarchy – but his food is the hottest and his cuts of meat the most tender but for the king’s portions. One of the first things he’d learned at Henry and Joe’s house, when he was first fostered there as a child: you want good food, get in good with the cook.

Eobard and Hunter still haven’t figured out how Barry managed to bribe the wait staff into it; it’s a matter of regular dispute between them. King Harrison mostly rolls his eyes and stays above it all, as he typically does when his children begin to bicker. It helps that being the scariest and most important person in the realm means that he gets the best cuts anyway.

They eat quietly for a while – if there’s one thing that convinces Barry that they are actually family, aside from their gangling height, long legs, or the fact that he’s the only one who favors their father’s brown hair as opposed to their mother’s dark blonde, it’s their deep appreciation for good food – until King Harrison pushes his plate back in a subtle but well-rehearsed call for attention.

Regardless of where the rest of them are in their meals, all three of them turn and look towards him.

“I believe we’ve made a breakthrough with the Star,” King Harrison announces.

Barry sits up straighter in his chair. He loves science, really loves it, and the Star is his father’s white whale. A breakthrough would be extremely exciting: the potential discoveries, the advances that could be made, the further development of their understanding of the world – and here he was thinking this would just be the announcement of a joust or some sort of fancy party –

“A real one, this time?” Eobard says coolly, ever inclined to demonstrate his independence from his father’s influence, even though Barry knows he’s as excited as Barry by the announcement.

The king inclines his head. “Sufficiently real that I’ve decided to showcase it,” he says. “As you all know, your great-great-grandfather centered Star Castle around the remains of a fallen star which he claimed lent its protection to this city, and, as you also know, I’ve been working for years to try to pry out some of its secrets. I believe I’ve succeeded in part and intend to issue a summons throughout the land, inviting interested individuals to come to Central to witness the display of a scientific marvel.”

It is another fancy party. Barry slumps a bit in his chair, petting Snowy. At least this one will have a science theme, rather than the usual unstated-but-everyone-knows-it’s-there theme of “how shall we marry off the princes” – Barry’s least favorite theme.

“So it’s a bunch of scientists,” Hunters says, visibly losing interest even as Eobard perks up at the thought of all the unnecessary politics this is going to stir up.

“We’ll be holding a series of events at midsummer, in three months’ time: three weeks of feasts, balls, scientific displays, demonstrations of arms –” Hunter suddenly tunes in again. “– all of which will be themed around the Star.”

Barry has to wonder how they’re going to do that: the Star is a major portion of his childhood, sure, given that King Harrison spent a good portion of his time studying it even then, but the giant hunk of rock in its own special chamber in the very center of Star Castle mostly just sits there, glowing gold. It’s said to have special properties that protect the city of Central from invasion, where supposedly the gates glow gold when closed in times of war, shielding themselves from invaders by becoming a thousand times more durable than the mere steel they’re made of, but given that there hasn’t been an invasion so much as threatened since at least Barry’s grandfather’s time, no one living knows for sure and even King Harrison’s obsession with unlocking the secrets of the Star hadn’t led him to invite an invasion just to test it out. Yet. The other well-known mystical aspects of the Star include the great watchtower, which uses mirrors to reflect the light of the Star outwards in times of need, also virtually never used, and the apple orchard, which is planted in the original pit where the Star first hit the earth (because mystical signs are all well and good but siege warfare is siege warfare) and whose apples glow a dull gold.

The apples have been tested sixteen hundred ways over, and all that anyone can determine about them is that they’re apples. Glowing golden apples, sure, but perfectly normal apples in every other respect. Nobody who eats them ever gets special powers or long life or immortality or any of the things that had gotten people really excited over them in the first place.

Pretty tasty, though, which is a good thing because Barry foresees a lot of golden apple-themed entrees at the aforementioned feasts.

The next half-hour is spent in logistics: not that the princes will be overly involved in the planning of the event, because their father is a control freak who will want to oversee every last aspect himself, but in terms of their duties. Eobard immediately volunteers to shepherd the dignitaries around and act as their guide to Central, insofar as they have any desire to leave Star Castle. Hunter, unsurprisingly, volunteers to take care of the demonstrations of arms and promises, with a toothy grin, to have their guards and knights in tip-top shape by midsummer. Barry quickly volunteers to help set up the scientific exhibitions, already thinking about which merchants and scientific enthusiasts he could convince to give a presentation on their work. Their father is pleased with all three of them, for once.

“We should begin immediately, if the presentation will be only three months hence,” Eobard says, scowling a little in thought and starting to rise from his chair.

King Harrison clears his throat pointedly.

Eobard sinks back down with a scowl.

King Harrison arches an eyebrow at him. “You haven’t thanked the domovoi for our meal, Eobard,” he admonishes, reaching out to sprinkle a little bit of salt on the table. Eobard snatches the salt shaker next and tosses a perfunctory sprinkle on the table before rising to his feet and excusing himself.

Eobard’s disdain for all things supernatural is infamous; he loves science the way Barry and King Harrison do, but he takes the additional step of declaring that science is all there is, with all magic and supernatural creatures being dismissed as fairy tales designed to comfort the peasantry for their lot in life.

King Harrison is typically at the forefront of scientific cynicism and doubt, but his belief in the existence of the supernatural is unshakeable. He’s never explained why, which hasn't helped his sons to entirely understand that belief, but Barry personally suspects that it has something to do with the grand quest that took Harrison from his humble beginnings to winning the hand of the Princess of Central and conquering the Deep Wells, where no one had previously dared to venture. Barry has always wanted to know more about that story from his father, rather than second or third hand from some bards' songs, but King Harrison has consistently refused to discuss it, saying only that he is a poor storyteller and that the bards did it more justice. He wouldn't even confirm which version of the songs celebrating him is the most accurate!

Regardless of how it came to be, King Harrison pays the greatest respect to the many supernatural creatures said to be in his kingdom - at least when he isn't trying to research them for science, anyway, which Barry suspects is his real motivation for keeping them appeased. Barry is the only one of his sons who enjoys hearing the tales about them: the domovoi, the house spirit that would throw pots and pans around if you displeased it; the bannik, who guarded the bathhouse and possibly also the piping; the kikimora, the nightmare hag who comes out from behind the stove to sit on your chest and freeze you in your sleep; or their father’s personal favorite, the firebird, the magnificent creature of legend said to have feathers that burnt like the light of the sun…

Hunter shakes out his own bit of salt and grunts, departing after Eobard and peeling off in the direction of the armory; he rarely cares one way or the other about superstition, seeing it, if anything, as another thing to destroy. Barry puts Snowy down on the ground and reaches for the salt himself, only to pause when he sees his father looking at him contemplatively.

"Something you wanted to add?" he asks his distant father.

"You go sometimes to the city watch's gatehouse with your foster fathers, don't you?" King Harrison says thoughtfully. It's phrased as a question, but like most questions the king poses, he clearly already knows the answer.

"Yes, I do," Barry replies cautiously, not sure where this is going. Is he going to be banned from going in order to preserve his “dignity,” as Eobard would have him do? "I like to help them with their cases, sometimes; I apply scientific principles and analysis to their investigations. Our lab here in the castle is the best in the land, far better than anything they have access to, so I use our resources to help solve their crimes: figure out who's responsible, the motive, the way it was done. That way the risk of a miscarriage of justice is lessened." And I’m not going to stop, he doesn’t add, but he likes to think it comes across clearly anyway.

“Do they take you with them to the old tavern house?” his father asks, clearly concerned with other things.

Barry blinks, a little off-balance with his defensiveness apparently totally misplaced, but he nods. “Yeah, they do,” he replies, puzzled. “Ever since I started helping out, they said I’m one of them, so I get to go drinking with them.” Even when he doesn’t want to. Especially when he doesn’t want to. “Why do you care about a bunch of city watchmen doing shots?”

“They tell stories, at the old tavern house,” his father says. “The old men who sit there – the city watch, the merchants, the drunkards – they know the stories. The old legends. I don’t know how they do it, but the old men in town know the way the supernatural moves better than any of my intelligence agents. I want to know what they say is going on so that I can take adequate precautions.”

“You…want me to go listen to stories told by drunk old men at the bar and report back?” Barry asks, trying to clarify, because there’s believing in magical creatures and then there’s actively trying to plan around them.

Barry sort of believes in the creatures from the old stories – Henry would tell him how his first wife, Nora, was once nearly killed by a will-o-wisp, Joe sometimes growls about the red caps that tried to lure new guardsmen off the gates, and he grew up fascinated by it, though more in the nature of the subject of stories than as something he ever thought to encounter in real life – but he thinks of them as a method that people use to explain as yet unexplained natural phenomena, like ball lightning or the effects of dehydration on corpses and such, not as real things. And even his own personal theory was still considered somewhat superstitious; enough time with Eobard and Hunter and so-called “respectable” company has made him shy of mentioning it.

The king arches an eyebrow. “I trust that won’t be a problem?”

“No, no! It’s fine,” Barry replies, and smiles. “I’ll be happy to go.” He means it; he loves going to the tavern house and he loves listening to the old men. They told him all the old tales, the interesting ones, the scary ones, growing up: Baba Yaga, the fearsome ancient witch who lives in a house perched on chicken legs; Zmey Gorynych, the three-headed dragon of great evil and malice; the rusalka, the river spirits of wronged women who lures men to their doom; the leshyi, the woodland spirits that lead travelers astray…unlike the house spirit or the bathhouse spirit or even the mora, there’s nothing to be done to appease these dreadful figures; they could only be avoided or, if one is sufficiently heroic, defeated.

“Good,” the king says. “Make a habit of going there until the exhibition; I want to hear anything new they have to say beyond the usual old stories.”

With that, King Harrison rises to his feet, eyes already distant as he contemplates the next piece of business he has to attend to. Recognizing the dismissal for what it is, Barry pours out his salt and skitters out of there, Snowy at his heels.

Barry initially thinks about going to his room in the castle to draft letters to the merchant guilds and aristocrats, the only ones likely to have scientific achievements worth demonstrating, but it’s a beautiful day out and he’s full of energy, so he figures he’ll grab his horse from the stables – one of his favorite places in the castle growing up, always dark and cool and unlikely to contain either of his brothers – and go visit the merchant guilds personally.

Barry’s horse answers to the improbable name of Sissy, even though he’s officially named Rascal, but he’s extremely loveable, with a long shaggy black mane that he keeps having to toss out of his face with a whicker of annoyance, and he’s never thrown Barry off, not once, which Barry really appreciates in a horse. He’s not great with horses.

The first few merchant guilds he visits – the dyemakers and the seamstresses – are extremely excited, both by the prospect of a party which will likely inspire orders for piles and piles of new clothing, and also to be asked to exhibit at the castle. The dyemakers’ representative is a little nervous, wondering if demonstrating the new technique they developed to make indigo clothing without the plant is worthwhile to exhibit, but Barry assures him that it is. The seamstresses’ representative is not nearly as shy, declaring cheerfully that she’s certain that women and men alike will be vying to see the best hand-crafted gowns and suits her best designers can come up with, with all the new techniques they’ve developed; she’s practically licking her lips at the thought of all the orders they’ll be able to wring out of the foreign nobility.

Barry’s about two-thirds of the way through his rounds when he hears someone calling his name with a very familiar heaping of abuse.

“Bear! Bear, you oblivious idiot! Look over here!”

Barry turns and scans the crowd for his dark-skinned foster sister Iris, Joe’s daughter, who was the only one who used that particular epithet for him. She’s standing right ahead of him, with her hands on her hips and a basket by her side and a wide grin. Barry beams and waves, clucking at Sissy and heading over to her. “About time, you dolt,” she says fondly when he arrives. “Now c’mon, I’ve finished my shopping, you can give me a ride home.”

“I have a few more merchant guilds to stop by, but if you don’t mind the detour, sure, hop on.”

Sissy reaches out to nuzzle Iris happily, as if in counterpoint to Barry’s words. It’s probably because she’s got a reliable pocketful of sugar and a soft spot for Sissy, but Barry likes to think he was also extending the invitation.

“Merchant guilds, huh? For the science exhibition?” Iris asks, handing him her basket and swinging onto Sissy’s back with a nimble leap, wrapping her hands around Barry’s waist.

“How do you manage to learn about this stuff before I do?” Barry complains, pinning the basket to his saddle and kicking Sissy lightly to spur him forward. “I swear to god, Iris, if you just turned all the rumors that you hear in a day into a daily circular, you’d make a gold mine.”

“Maybe I will,” she shoots back, then laughs. “After I’m married, anyway; that way I can direct anyone who questions a woman getting into publishing to talk to my husband.”

“And Eddie will just look at them like they’re nuts,” Barry says with satisfaction. He was suspicious at first about their relationship, being as Eddie Thawne was a scion of the same family that had so thoroughly ruined Eobard in Barry’s mind, but it turned out Eddie was the black sheep of the family: good and kind and attentive and helpful to others, and not even a little concerned with social climbing. It helps that he works even more regularly than Barry does with the city watch, teaming up with Joe and others to walk patrols and take guard shifts; it helps even more that a blind man could see the absolute, if helplessly befuddled, adoration on his face every time he looks at Iris. Barry, who’d had a bit of a crush on Iris himself growing up even if he knew their social stations would never permit such a match, finally accepted Eddie whole-heartedly after he observed him accidentally walking into a wall because he’d been so busy marveling that Iris had accepted his suit. Most noblemen wouldn’t have offered suit at all and tried to take Iris as their mistress (shortly before she kicked them in the balls, anyway), much less treated her acceptance with the wonder and appreciation it deserved instead of assuming that they would be her best offer.

No, Eddie is definitely one of the good guys, even if he was a Thawne. By this point, he works a full shift with the guards and they trust him like one of their own; he takes the work as seriously as if his livelihood depended on it, regardless of the fact that he has enough money to live comfortably without twitching a finger for the rest of his days.

Barry also deeply appreciates how much Eddie’s very existence drives Eobard up the wall.

“When are you getting married?” Barry asks curiously. “Last I checked, you hadn’t set a date, but shouldn’t you be getting around to that?”

Iris makes a face. “Eddie wants to invite the entire guardhouse,” she confides, “and to the actual wedding, too, not just meeting them at the tavern for them to buy him drinks after like anybody else. It’s a rich man thing, inviting everyone you know, and it’s apparently deeply scandalous and insulting not to be invited –” Barry sighs and nods, remembering a giant hubbub that happened a year or two back in Starling City, where supposedly they’d failed to invite the local dark magician to the celebration of the birth of the Queen’s second child, a daughter, nearly two decades back and he’d cursed them with an earthquake on her eighteenth birthday, which was only partially averted by the family’s efforts and which destroyed a large portion of their city. “– but Dad’s being super stubborn about Eddie paying for it all out of his family’s money; he says it’s bad luck to start a marriage out by overspending. You know how he is: ‘you start a marriage the way you mean to continue it,’ blah, blah, blah. I don’t care, mind you, but it means so much to both of them; I don’t know how to resolve it. And because we won’t know where it’ll be until we know how much we’re paying, we can’t pick the place or set the date.”

“Well, if you haven’t set a date yet, why not set it for right around midsummer?” Barry suggests. “We’ll be having all the other parties for the exhibition, and you know how the castle kitchen always has loads and loads of leftovers that they don’t know what to do with. They sell it for pennies out the back way, whole chickens and geese and great big slabs of meat that get left behind; if you don’t mind it being reheated and partially nibbled on, Eddie could probably feed the entire guardhouse for the price of inviting just close friends and family.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Iris enthuses. “Dad can’t argue because it demonstrates frugality and resourcefulness, and Eddie won’t care about it being reheated as long as the guardhouse won’t be offended by it –”

“And the guardhouse hasn’t been offended by the offer of free food since the concept was originally invented, sometime around the introduction of stable agriculture,” Barry finishes, laughing. “Especially if it’s meat!”

Iris raises herself up by her knees and kisses him soundly on the cheek. She’s a much better horseman than Barry will ever be – though that actually gives Barry an idea. “Hey, if we swing by your house to drop off your basket, can you take Sissy back to the castle?” he asks. “I’m thinking I might like to walk to the rest of the merchant houses.”

“What brought on this newfangled yen for exercising?” Iris asks suspiciously.

“Well, with the science exhibition being planned, the palace guards and knights are all in training and Eobard’s almost certainly called a conclave of aristocrats to plan out their strategy…”

“And that means one way or another poor Eddie’s probably stuck there, bored out of his mind,” Iris finishes, catching on and shaking her head. “You’re right; I need to go rescue him, or I’ll find myself short a fiancé after he throws himself out the window.”

Barry finishes the last few guilds – luckily not far from his house – on foot, then detours by the riverfront to watch them set up the building of the new bridge that Central’s going to have across the river while he thinks about how he’s going to draft his letter to the scientists. The merchants were all delighted to come, thinking about the free advertising and the exposure, but scientists – usually professionals or nobility of various ranks, because no one else has the spare time or the money for the hobby – are a twitchier bunch. The professionals and dedicated inventors are fairly easy; accustomed to clubs and joint membership, they’d all show up just for the chance to mingle, but the nobility who do it for “fun” are all vying to be the first one to make any given discovery and nine times out of ten they were loath to give anyone else a boost…perhaps if Barry sells the exhibition as the chance to establish themselves as the “expert” in their fields and let other people fawn on them…

Barry is so absorbed in his thoughts that he misses the crane pulling loose and swinging towards him at speed, only looking up and seeing it coming when he hears the cries of distress as people reach for him, but they’re going to be too late to stop –

He’s pulled out of harm’s way at the last possible second, a pair of hands on his shoulders.

“You should be more careful,” a voice drawls in his ear.

Barry turns to regard his savior, smiling gratefully. “Thank you, I wasn’t…”

His voice trails off when he sees the man behind him: nearly as tall as Barry but broader in the shoulders, with high cheekbones and a strong jawline, pink lips quirked up in a mischievous little smile and eyes that glitter blue and green and gold in some bizarre but fascinating combination. The man’s hair is dark and clipped close, his complexion unblemished and middling fair, and he is beautiful.

It isn’t that Barry hasn’t had boyfriends before (Tony, he’ll be first to admit, was a mistake), but he’s never had that instantaneous feeling before, the feeling of looking at someone and having your stomach fill with butterflies immediately, that feeling of – you. Oh, it’s you. I didn’t know it, but I’ve been waiting for you.

Barry has no idea how long he spends staring into the man’s eyes, the man intensely regarding him in return, but eventually the noise around them penetrates their little circle as the workman I charge of the crane runs up, calling Barry’s name and apologizing profusely for nearly letting Barry get injured. Barry quickly demurs, waving off any apologies and trying to apologize himself, saying that it wasn’t the man’s fault at all, it was his, after all –

“He wasn’t looking where he was going,” the beautiful stranger drawls, smirking. “You shouldn’t keep your head in the clouds like that – Barry, was it? – you never know what you might run into here on earth.”

Barry blushes a little bit, which is stupid because it’s hardly the first time someone’s expressed a similar sentiment to him, but admittedly it’s never been put in such a poetic manner, nor has it been said in such a low, intimate tone.

The man’s hands are still on his shoulders, but he pulls them away now. Barry feels a bit bereft.

“You should be more careful,” the man repeats. “I won’t always be around to pull you out of trouble, will I, and if you get yourself killed, all the thoughts that are clearly buzzing around your head will never have a chance to make it out into the world. I’m sure that would be a terrible shame.”

With that, the man pulls away and walks off whistling a jaunty tune, high and clear, while Barry is still being accosted by the apologetic workman.

“Wait!” Barry calls after him, but the man doesn’t slow. “Wait! At least tell me your name, so that I can thank you!”

The man turns back to him and winks before turning the corner.

Barry mutters something apologetic and dismissive to the workman, pushing past him and running after the man, but by the time he turns the corner, the man is gone. Barry’s not sure where – there’s only a handful of streets and they’re some distance down the main street, so the man should still be there, but the evidence is unmistakable that he is definitely not. It’s like he’s disappeared.

Barry sighs. He must have misjudged the distance. He hopes he’ll manage to run into the man again, maybe get a name this time.

But it’s already starting to creep into the late afternoon and if he wants to fulfill his father’s orders to go visit the tavern, Barry had better get moving or he’ll only get there when they’re all too drunk to tell stories properly, and that would miss the purpose entirely.

Honestly, out of all the orders his father has ever given him, this one is by far his favorite.

Maybe the exhibition isn’t going to be so bad after all.