Chapter 1: Chicken Soup for the Soul
It’s weird, Barry thinks, because he figured that he’d be having this conversation a lot sooner.
Don’t get him wrong—it’s not like he really wants to have this conversation or anything—but even he can admit that it probably needs to happen. This week has been great. Wonderful. There isn’t a knife in his collar bone anymore, which is pretty cool, and although Barry hasn’t even entertained the thought of resetting his crooked fingers or twisted knee yet—because as fun as re-breaking his bones sounds, he’ll have to pass on that one, thanks—nobody in the League has tried to press him to do so either. Nobody has told him that he needs to toughen up and try to move on, nobody has tried to persuade him to leave Wayne Manor and get back to protecting Central City, nobody has…well. Nobody has tried to do anything.
That’s kind of the problem.
Because, yeah, okay, his month-long vacation at the Warehouse from Hell wasn’t exactly a fun one, and Barry isn’t even sure how to begin unpacking it all—can't decide whether to start with the big boxes of hey I panic every time I see Diana because all I can imagine is how her lasso feels around my neck or with the little trinkets, like I can’t look at my own smile in the mirror anymore because the Shapeshifter made me realize that I actually look like the Joker, so that’s cool—but at the same time, he can’t just keep ignoring it either.
Well. He can, but he’s pretty sure that’s what one of his middle school counselors would classify as emotional suppression, which—yeah, alright, maybe that worked when he was a kid being passed off from foster home to foster home like some sort of annoying torch, but it definitely isn’t going to work now, provided that every time he sees one of his teammates, Barry can physically feel his heart try to crawl up into his throat in fear.
And his teammates obviously notice it, too. Because while Bruce hovers around in what Barry is ninety-eight percent sure is some misplaced sense of obligation, and Arthur and Victor actively avoid him (which stings in ways that Barry isn’t even sure how to express), Clark and Diana tread lightly around him, backing off at the first sign of discomfort. Which. Okay. Barry understands. Because when he’s terrified, there is nothing more relieving than being left alone (because the Shapeshifter never just left like that, they never left without leaving a mark.) But, at the same time, Barry has no idea how they are ever going to function as a team again if he can’t spend more than two minutes in a room with Superman without wanting to vacate his own body and disappear into the Speed Force. So.
Yeah. He needs to have this conversation.
But it’s weird because it’s already been ten days, and it’s weird because Barry had figured that Diana would be the one to say something first, and it’s definitely weird because Barry never once imagined that he’d be having this conversation all because he had a panic attack over something so stupid.
Alfred Pennyworth has watched over Bruce Wayne for over forty years. In that time, Alfred has seen every side of him—every emotion that Bruce tries to hide under a dark cowl and the pursuit of justice. Alfred has seen Bruce fall apart and come together, has seen him fail and succeed and break and mend.
He has seen Bruce shut himself off from human contact, recoiling away from notions of family and friendship with the death of Jason Todd and the messy independence of Dick Grayson. And, more recently, Alfred has also seen Bruce slowly bring himself to forge those relationships again, finding a new sense of connection in the form of the Justice League.
And, naturally, Alfred has watched Bruce’s relationship with his teammates evolve, too.
He has seen the way that Bruce has gravitated towards Clark and Diana—how Bruce has grown to rely on them even if he would never admit to such a thing. Where others may see gruff resignation, Alfred can see the hidden affection in the way that Bruce remembers that Diana’s favorite breakfast food is pumpkin pancakes or the way that Bruce meets up with Clark every Sunday to eat brunch and gossip about their other teammates. (It is no mystery what has brought upon this sudden interest in brunch, either.)
He has seen the way that Bruce has taken an interest in Victor and Arthur—how Bruce has helped Victor explore his powers and attempted to guide him through the process of becoming a hero and how Bruce has gone out of his way to keep his pantry stocked with nice alcohol for whenever Arthur “decides that my manor is the perfect place to throw his next tantrum.” (Alfred has also seen Bruce and Arthur butt heads in a way that would be comical if it didn’t usually result in broken furniture, but Alfred supposes that he should have expected some fraternal dispute.)
And, perhaps most encouragingly, Alfred has seen the way that Bruce interacts with Barry Allen.
A month after the League first formed, Alfred had begun to lose hope in ever seeing anything other than a sense of friendly professionalism between its members. The team met occasionally, typically to delegate and discuss how to move forward post-apocalypse, but other than that there was nothing. Bruce talked about his teammates, certainly, but Alfred knew he would make no move to fully befriend them on his own, and although Alfred also knew that all Bruce needed was a proper push into the general direction of “friendship,” Alfred had no idea how to supply such a push.
No idea, that is, until Bruce received a call from Barry’s work saying that the young man had collapsed.
There had been nothing “professional,” in the way that Bruce urgently told Alfred to order everything off the menu of the Chinese place down the street, nor was there anything “professional” in the way that Bruce insisted on going to Barry’s work himself regardless of the attention it would garner. And when Bruce came back later with an armful of unconscious speedster, Alfred recognized that this team was destined to become something more.
Because Barry is a charming young man, really. He’s gangly and awkward and can perhaps err on the side of obnoxious, but he is also refreshingly genuine, with a wide-eyed fascination in the world that Alfred is both touched and thoroughly impressed by. Upon the first meeting, Alfred was immediately able to see a youthful spark within Barry that Alfred’s life had been sorely lacking, and when Barry flitted around the pantry with reckless abandon—only after being reassured that it was “absolutely, positively okay" for him to do so—Alfred found himself growing fond.
And, as it turns out, Master Wayne had already grown fond as well.
Alfred has seen the way that Bruce has taken up a paternal role again, hesitant at first but unable to resist the urge once he came to the realization that Barry is poor and hungry and stubborn enough to give Bruce a run for his money. He has seen the way that Bruce has subtly encouraged Barry to spend more time at the manor, enticing him with offers of free meals that Barry originally refused until Bruce started sending food directly to Barry at his work instead, at which point Barry arrived at the door with a takeout container in his hand and a resigned look on his face. In return, Alfred has also seen how Barry has fixed Bruce’s eating habits by encouraging him to order food for himself as well, because “it’s really weird when you’re just, like, staring at me as I eat you out of house and home.”
Alfred has seen Bruce grow closer and closer to his teammates—has seen how the line between team and family blurred and allowed Bruce to find peace in the process.
And then, Alfred witnessed first-hand how that peace was shattered.
Barry went missing. He was captured, actually, stolen away in the middle of a police gala. And Bruce receded into himself, angry and scared and self-destructive. Alfred watched as Bruce blamed himself against all logic, turned to alcohol as the League grew tense and belligerent. Alfred watched as Bruce lost hope, cut his time spent with the team down to nightly search parties that typically culminated in frustration and fear.
(“He’s dead,” Bruce had said, and he had never sounded so defeated.)
And although Barry’s absence bit deep into Alfred as well, Alfred found himself taking up the role of the caretaker, trying to keep Bruce afloat until Barry was finally located 25 days later, tucked away in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Central City.
And Barry was—well. It wasn’t an encouraging sight.
When Arthur set Barry down in the makeshift emergency room at the Hall of Justice, the boy was nothing short of broken. There was a knife sticking out of his collarbone, cuts and bruises and puncture wounds that were still clotted over despite Barry’s elevated healing factor. His fingers and left knee were twisted into unnatural angles, evidence of his previous mistreatment, and his ribs were just starting to become visible beneath mottled skin. Barry’s wheezing breaths spoke of internal trauma, and when he first awoke to Arthur towering over the side of his bed, he responded with a panicked spark that shorted out the lights in the entire manor and did nothing to hide what kind of mental games that the Shapeshifter had forced him to play.
(“I’m sorry,” Barry had said, and everyone could see the way that his hands trembled before he crammed them out of sight. “That was—wow. I’m sorry.”)
And the physical wounds are taken care of, for the most part—something that was easily remedied once the knife was (carefully, painfully) extracted and Barry was provided with a steady source of nourishment—but Alfred knows that the mental wounds are still there, evident in the faraway look that Barry sometimes gets or the way that Barry flinches every time he meets someone’s gaze. And although everyone in the League knows that the only way to heal these wounds is to talk it out, nobody is willing to dredge up Barry’s memories; Clark and Diana flee at the first sign of discomfort, afraid that their extended presence will lead to a relapse in Barry’s recovery, Arthur and Victor avoid the boy entirely, only stopping by when he’s resting as though to make sure that he hasn’t disappeared in their absence, and although Bruce visits Barry in his guest room daily, he does so with a careful detachment that Alfred knows is borne of his guilt but is most certainly not what Barry needs.
No. What young Barry needs is someone to actually engage in a conversation with him—a real, heart-to-heart conversation that revolves around more than ruined dress shirts and types of breakfast food. But, much like Alfred did not know how to push Bruce into accepting friends (and family) back into his life, he is likewise struggling to find a way to push Barry into broaching the topic of his imprisonment in a way that won’t send Barry spiraling back into the dark place in his mind that Alfred knows must be looming.
(Things don’t often go as planned for the Justice League. Alfred should know this by now.)
Alfred brings Barry lunch, because he always brings Barry lunch. Usually, it serves as an opportunity for them to sit and chat—an opportunity for Alfred to swap stories of Bruce when he was a child for stories about the time that Barry drank an entire bottle of Sriracha sauce on a dare—but today, things go just a bit off-kilter.
Alright. A lot off-kilter. (Isn’t that the way it always goes?)
It starts out normally enough: Alfred walks in with the tray—an assortment of dishes from the surprisingly tasteful Italian place that Barry mentioned in a previous conversation—and Barry’s expression bobbles between grateful, guilty and stunned as he takes in the assortment of pasta options before him.
“Full disclosure,” Barry admits, picking up the lemon farfalle, “but I have no idea what any of the different pasta noodles are called. I know there’s like—three hundred types of pasta from this one home ec class I took in high school, but I know maybe, uh, two names? Three if we’re being generous. Which. Obviously you are, because this is. Wow. This is a lot. But—”
And Alfred settles in for Barry’s long winded way to say “thank you,” but Barry’s hand bumps against something then—the cup of tomato soup at the edge of the tray—and when Barry grabs it to pull it back towards the center, his shoulders suddenly stiffen and his eyes go wide and glazed over in a way that puts Alfred immediately on edge.
“Mister Allen?” Alfred shifts closer. He reaches out a hand, gently pulls the cup of soup away of Barry’s fingers as they begin to tremor.
“Mister Allen, are you alright?” Alfred asks.
Barry looks at him. Swallows once, hard.
Then, everything goes straight to hell.
“Please,” Barry begs, curling up over his own arms as he pushes back further into the piece of wall that he appropriated upon scrambling off the bed. “Please.”
And Alfred doesn’t know what happened to cause it, but he knows exactly what this is. After all, Bruce used to get panic attacks, too, back when he was a child and his parents’ death was still something fresh on his mind. Bruce still gets them every once and a while, but now the occasions are far and few between, and he refuses to accept help the way that he did when he was young and more open to showing vulnerability. But Alfred still tries to help regardless, just as he is going to try to help now.
(It’s so hard, though, when Barry is looking at him like this: eyes nearly feral with panic and pain even as they pierce right through him, breaths gargled and erratically spaced as though Barry is drowning on them.)
“Mister Allen,” Alfred starts, then stops as the name makes Barry whine and choke back a sob.
“Barry,” Alfred amends. “I’m going to come over to you now. Is that alright?”
Barry doesn’t respond, but he doesn’t move as Alfred makes his way over to him either, just continues struggling to pull air in between rattled coughs.
“Please,” Barry pleads again, once he is able, and Alfred doesn’t know what Barry is asking for, but he would gladly give it to him if it would take away his hurt and fear. But Alfred knows that this is something that he cannot control.
“Barry,” Alfred begins again, and he doesn’t know if Barry can actually hear him, but he continues anyway, “you’re safe here. Nobody is trying to hurt you.”
Again, Barry doesn’t respond, but Alfred didn’t expect him to in the first place.
“You’re okay,” Alfred says. He leans against the wall, cautiously and slowly slides down it until he’s seated at Barry’s side like he used to do when Bruce would shut himself off like this. Barry doesn’t look at him, just curls up tighter as his shoulders shake and his chest heaves, and Alfred has never understood Bruce’s anger more than at this moment, when Barry finally lets go and cries in earnest, burying his sobs into his arms.
(When Bruce found Barry, he had been relieved but devastated. As Barry rested in the makeshift infirmary, Bruce trashed his own office, ripping it apart as Alfred watched on in silence.
“She got away,” Bruce explained afterwards, when his anger had grown stale and turned into regret. “She’s out there somewhere, and he’s—God. He’s not okay, Alfred.”
Alfred knew. He saw. But Bruce wasn’t looking for comfort.
“The Batman doesn’t kill,” Bruce had said, jaw clenched and eyes bright with fury and pain. “But I want to.”)
But anger will not fix what has been broken, and the last thing that Barry needs is aggression where there should only be kindness. So Alfred tucks that anger away for later, focuses on what he can do now, and with a newfound sense of resolution, he speaks.
“The bowtie pasta are called farfalle,” Alfred says over the sound of Barry breaking. “And the corkscrews are called fusilli. While fettucine and linguine look similar, fettuccine is made of flour and eggs while linguine is made of flour and water, and fettucine is wider and much easier to make at home. That’s probably why Master Wayne prefers linguine—because God forbid he make my job any easier.”
Barry still doesn’t talk, but his sobs quiet down, reduced to soft hiccups that are fathomlessly better than the struggled wheezes from before. Encouraged, Alfred carries on.
“I personally prefer conchiglie—the shell-shaped pasta. Master Wayne’s mother rather enjoyed stuffed shells and, until he grew older and decided that it was ‘too juveline,’ Master Wayne had a weakness for macaroni and cheese…”
It goes on like this for a few minutes, until Alfred is getting into some of the more obscure facts that he can recall from his stint at culinary academy, and just as Alfred is getting into anelli and anellini, Barry shifts a bit closer to him, leaning over just enough so that their shoulders brush.
“Mister Allen?” Alfred asks, reverting back to the title off habit alone.
“Barry,” Barry corrects, and there’s a new, pleading edge to it that has never been there before. “Just Barry, please.”
“Barry,” Alfred concedes, “are you with us again?”
Barry sighs, the sound shuddered and raw. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m—I’m present.”
Alfred nods, adjusts his shoulder so that Barry can lean into it more comfortably.
“Alfred,” Barry says then, and Alfred tilts his head to indicate that he’s listening. “You’re like. The most important person in the Justice League. You’re aware of that, right?”
“Starkly,” Alfred replies, and Barry’s watery laughter is perhaps one of the most gratifying responses that Alfred has ever received.
“Thank you,” Barry bites out through the snorts. “Just—thank you.”
Alfred doesn’t reply. Not verbally. Instead, he moves his shoulder away from Barry and lifts his arm up in invitation, smiling as Barry takes the offering and properly folds himself into Alfred’s side.
Alfred helps Barry up again, once the boy has regained his bearings and begins to complain about how uncomfortable the floor is. Secretly, Alfred agrees, but he does not say so as he helps the young man hobble over the bed, just as he does not say anything afterwards, either, waiting for Barry to make the first move if any move is to be made at all. Blessedly, Barry receives the message, and with only the barest instant of hesitation, the conversation begins.
“So, uh,” Barry starts, scratching at an arm. “You’re probably wondering what that was.”
“Not what,” Alfred amends. “But perhaps why?”
Barry lets his gaze fall down to his lap, and Alfred quickly works to correct the situation before the boy can get buried too deeply in thought.
“Don’t feel pressured to share anything,” Alfred says. “These things take time. It will do no good to rush them. If you don’t wish to talk about it, then don’t. Nobody here will force you.”
“Yeah,” Barry says, voice soft. “I—I know. It’s just. Ugh. It was the soup.”
Alfred pauses, lips pursed in consideration. “What?”
“Alfred,” Barry responds, bordering on upset, “it was the soup. I just had a panic attack because—oh my God. I just had a panic attack because of a bowl of soup.”
Alfred isn’t exactly following, but he doesn’t have any time to ask for clarification before Barry is laughing again, this time in a way that is somehow both genuinely amused and yet painfully self-deprecating. “She beat me using their faces, and somehow, it’s the bowl of soup that makes me cry.”
Barry shakes his head, and when he catches Alfred’s confused glance, he finally goes to explain himself.
“The Shapeshifter almost drowned me in a bowl of tomato soup, which is honestly one of the worst things I think she could have done.” Barry frowns. “I used to love tomato soup.”
Alfred tries to wrap his mind around the emotional dichotomy that he is witnessing. Barry’s words are sad, but his expression is exhausted, as though he wrung himself dry during his panic attack and has no emotions left to spare.
“But yeah,” Barry concludes. “I saw the cup on the tray and I kind of just—wow. I really freaked out there, didn’t I? I’m—I’m sorry.”
And there it is—the first sign of remorse as Barry lets the situation sink in. The young man bites his lip and leans back against the headboard, refusing to meet Alfred’s eyes. And obviously, that won’t do.
“You have nothing to apologize for,” Alfred reassures him. But Barry’s grabs hold of the blanket, twists it between crooked fingers as his frown deepens.
“Alfred, this is—I overreacted. You shouldn’t have to deal with this,” he says.
“Helping you in a time of distress is never an inconvenience to me,” Alfred hotly replies, “and you did not overreact. You saw a stimulus that reminded you of a hostile environment, and you reacted accordingly.”
“But it’s—it’s stupid!” Barry protests, finally peering up to look at Alfred in desperation. “I—I—ugh. I don’t even know what to say. I’ve had a lot of panic attacks over stupid things, but this—this is embarrassing. Oh my God. Please don’t tell the team about this? Please?”
And Barry looks so vulnerable then—hair in a disarray, eyes still red from crying, wide-eyed expression making something knot up inside Alfred’s chest—but he is wrong. He is so, so wrong, and Alfred isn’t sure how to correct him, but like hell if he will not try.
“Barry Allen,” Alfred says, and maybe it’s the use of the full name or the strict tone with which Alfred says it, but Barry snaps to attention. “I don’t care what it is—a rubber duck, a feather duster, a bowl of soup, anything—if it makes you react this way, then it is not stupid.”
Barry opens his mouth to argue, shuts it again as Alfred sends him a warning glare.
“Your emotions are not something that require justification,” Alfred explains—and how is it that this is a lesson that he has had to teach so many times? “And so long as you are in my care, I do not want to hear you apologizing about them to me again. Do you understand?”
Barry hesitates, and Alfred debates defaulting to the lecture tone that he typically reserves for Bruce whenever he is being particularly obstinate, but Barry ultimately nods his assent, back still straight and lips pressed into a tight line.
“Okay,” Barry surrenders, voice high and weak before it drops down into something controlled. “Okay. Yeah. Alright. God, Alfred. You could weaponize—well—whatever that was. I, uh, I don’t know what made that so intimidating. The tone? The composure?”
“The accent,” Alfred teases, but he’s completely serious when he tacks on, “and I don’t want to intimidate you into accepting the message I’m trying to send. Truly, your recovery is my top priority. I would simply hate for you to feel like I am anything but wholly and happily committed to helping you get back on your feet. Does that make sense?”
“I—” Alfred can see the gears turning in Barry’s head, and for the briefest instant, he wishes that there were a way for him to hear the thoughts there as well. But Barry doesn’t leave much time for pondering. (He rarely does).
“I understand,” Barry says. “I just. It’s hard. I’m not—if I had a panic attack over something like this, then I just—I…”
Barry shakes his head again, rubs his eyes in frustration.
“Alfred,” Barry asks, drained, “how am I ever going to work with the League again if a bowl of soup can set me back so far? How am I ever supposed to move past this?”
He gestures to himself as though his pain were an unsolvable puzzle—as though it were something so confounding that he could not possibly understand why anyone would waste their time trying to figure it out. But Alfred knows Barry, and he knows the League, and the answer is simple, really.
“As long as you are here, you will not have to face this alone,” Alfred says. "You’ll get through this as a team."
And if Barry doubts him, he certainly doesn’t say so.
(The bright smile that lights up his face as Alfred opens his arms up wide certainly doesn’t say so either.)
It’s weird, Barry thinks, because he never thought that it would go down like this.
He never thought that it would start with a bowl of soup. He never thought that it would culminate in a panic attack remedied only by Alfred’s encyclopedic knowledge of different types of pasta. And he most certainly never thought that it would end like this: being lectured in the most authoritative tone that he has ever heard before being tucked into perhaps one of the warmest hugs that he has ever received.
Barry can’t complain.
"I can't believe the Batman used to eat mac and cheese. Like. That visual is blowing my mind right now, Alfred. I've literally never seen Bruce touch anything that costs less than at least five of my own meals combined."
"As 'juvenile' as Master Wayne may say it is, he still partakes in a bowl every once in a while."
"Oh my God. Wait. Are we talking some bougie noodles imported straight from Italy and mixed with the finest cheeses from France, or..."
"Kraft. But you didn't hear it from me."
"Oh my God."
Chapter 2: Angel From My Nightmare
Barry doesn't know how to even begin talking through everything with his teammates. But his trauma never exactly asked for a gameplan.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The thing about Alfred, Barry thinks, is that it’s easy to talk to him.
Oh. At first, that may sound like some sort of dig on the rest of the League. And it isn’t intended to be, honest. Everyone else is great to talk to, too. They’re nice, and they never seriously insult Barry straight to his face, and he would die for any one of them at this point, truthfully, so it isn’t as though he thinks they’re horrible conversationalists or anything. But, the thing is, they don’t push him to talk. Like. Ever.
Which, again. Barry understands. After all, Barry knows that he’s kind of a mess right now. Because sometimes, when he looks at Clark, he can feel phantom pain in his ribs from where fake-Superman kneed him in the chest so hard that Barry almost choked to death on his own blood. And sometimes, when Barry catches Diana out of the corner of his eye, he’ll flinch back into the bedsheets because he can remember (with a sickeningly fascinating sort of clarity) exactly how the crunch of his kneecaps sounded when fake-Wonder Woman stomped down on them. And oh, yeah. Right. A few days ago Barry had a straight up panic attack over a bowl of soup. Can’t forget about that.
And it sucks, because Barry knows that he’s safe. He knows that this is his team—knows that they would never hurt him—and every time Barry recoils under Clark’s gaze or ducks out of the way to avoid Diana’s hand when she goes to cup his face, Barry can see as their expressions visibly drop into some mixture of pity, remorse, and something that Barry hesitates to call sorrow that doesn’t belong there. And Barry wants nothing more than to apologize until his voice is raw and just sink into the molten core of the earth to escape it all, because it’s bad enough that Barry is making the team waste their time trying to fix his shattered psyche, but he’s actively driving them away with his caginess, too, begging them to come close one moment and then unconsciously asking them to leave him alone the next. And whenever Barry feels the telltale pull of panic coming on, the team retreats.
Well. Most of the team. But not Alfred.
That’s why Alfred is easy to talk to. Because, on one hand, Alfred wasn’t a face that the Shapeshifter ever used to torture Barry—she probably didn’t even know that he existed (which is a massive oversight on her part because, as Barry has said before, Alfred is inarguably the most important member of the League)—but above and beyond that, Alfred stood witness to one of the biggest breakdowns that Barry has had upon being rescued, and he didn’t back down. He stayed in the room as Barry sobbed and shuddered and broke, edged closer even as Barry’s panic ramped to a level that would have sent the others running, and when all was said and done, Alfred pressed Barry into a conversation in a manner that was gentle enough to prevent a secondary relapse but firm enough to ensure that Barry actually had to talk about what was bothering him for a change. (That, and Alfred spilled so much blackmail material on Bruce that Barry is quite frankly surprised that he hasn’t been taken out by some sort of hitman by this point. But that is neither here nor there.)
And Barry knows that the circumstances are different—because, again. The Shapeshifter never used Alfred’s face, so he never seems to carry the same sort of guilty weight that the rest of the League carries—but sometimes, Barry doesn’t even need to properly freak out for his teammates to back off. Sometimes, all it takes is a single hitched breath or a single nervous glance and they’re scrambling to make room for him. And maybe Barry appreciated it the first few days, when everything was raw and new and he spent half of the time wondering if his rescue had been some sort of fever dream and another eighth of the time vividly hallucinating that he was still back in the Warehouse, but now it’s just making Barry feel guilty and helpless, like he’ll never be able to work with the League again and it’s his own fault for being such an anxious wreck.
Barry wants to get better. He needs to get better. But before that happens—Clark, Diana, Arthur, Victor (Bruce, even, although Barry’s more comfortable around him than most)—Barry needs to talk to them. He just wishes he knew how to start when, every time he’s around them for too long, his body instinctively shifts into fight-or-flight.
(It figures that Barry would get his wish in the most turbulent and uncomfortable way possible for everyone involved.
Honestly, what did he expect?)
When Clark Kent came back to the world, he came back changed.
It seems subtle and, in many ways, it is. After all, he’s still Clark. He still wants to do what is right, still wants to protect the earth because he believes that it is worth protecting. It’s just, when he first took up the mantle of Superman, Clark strove to be a symbol for hope—a source of good in a world torn asunder by grief and war. And doing so necessitated a certain level of faith in humanity that Clark had been willing to express without hesitation. But ever since his resurrection, Clark’s perception of Earth has been painted over with a coat of wariness and betrayal that Ma would tell him is reasonable given his circumstances but still makes Clark feel as though he is somehow failing the universe regardless. Because for someone that adorns the symbol of hope on his chest in order to fight the good fight on a nightly basis, Clark has been feeling pretty hopeless himself as of late.
It’s like his death opened his eyes to something that he has always known was there but has never wanted to acknowledge. It has made Clark re-evaluate how to approach others, has made him put up fences where there should be open fields and falter where he would have previously been able to charge forth with confidence.
And it has made it difficult to for him to trust in humanity the way that he did before.
He did not trust his fellow League members, at first.
Any of them could tell you that. After all, upon waking up, the first thing that Clark did was attack them. Viciously. With a sense of raw anger and desperation that he has only fought with on one other occasion. (It is a disorienting experience, after all, being risen from the dead.)
And yet, even though Clark has offered his apologies for his behavior immediately post-resurrection—apologies that each member of the team have accepted with varying levels of understanding—Clark has not told them that the distrust carried on for a bit longer than the duration of their first fight.
Because, although Clark has always seen the good in others, his death has made him begin looking for the potential threat in them as well, and there is no denying that the Justice League is dangerous. Diana is a goddess whose raw strength Clark knows would rival his own if she were to go for the attack with intent to kill. (After seeing her in action against other foes, Clark has come to the realization that she was mercifully holding back the first time they met.) Arthur is powerful, with a vicious temper and a tendency to lash out with the same ferocity of the ocean waves that he can control. Victor is ever changing and unpredictable (to others and to himself), Barry was already as fast as Clark upon their first encounter and only getting faster, and Bruce—
Bruce has already shown what he is capable of.
So even as the League took down Steppenwolf, trading quips and bonding over the recognition of their own mortalities, Clark tried to keep himself at a distance, stand back so that he could assess the team before he got a chance to grow too attached. Because regardless of what Bruce may say, they are his team. And Bruce and Clark neither parted nor met again on the best of terms.
Though, in retrospect, Clark realizes that he was fighting a losing battle.
Because Bruce has extended multiple olive branches, in the form of clumsy attempts to say that he missed Clark and ostentatious gifts that Clark can never hope to repay him for. (A bank is not an impulse buy. Clark knows this, and he knows that Bruce knows it, too.) Diana has proven herself to be every bit as charismatic and warm as the media portrays her as, and not even Clark has been able to resist her charm. Arthur, for all that he is aggressive and crude, has shown himself to be reliable, too, with a protective streak geared towards the youngest members of the League that Clark both understands and admires. And the youngest members of the League—well.
Victor is ever changing and unpredictable, yes. But he also has a dry wit that resonates well with Clark’s own blunt sense of humor, and the manner with which Victor seeks guidance from Diana and Bruce serves as a constant reminder that he was never created to be a weapon. And Barry is the definition of disarming, with an awkward-yet-amiable countenance that can defuse most tense situations, a work ethic that nearly landed him in the hospital during the month that Superman took off post-Steppenwolf to deal with the press, and a sincere enthusiasm for life that makes him easy to like and even easier to trust.
Clark Kent was always—always—going to fall in love with this team. It was an inevitability.
(Maybe that is the reason everything was able to fall apart so easily.)
The team could only watch the interaction as it occurred, retroactively huddled around Victor as he pulled up the footage that Bruce asked for: footage of Barry forcing himself to mingle at some police function that Bruce had mentioned the last time Clark met him for brunch, Barry being lured out into an abandoned hallway by a woman with a sharp smile and red dress, Barry drinking the champagne and buckling, expression so young and confused and vulnerable that Arthur’s posture stiffened and Clark’s breath caught in his throat.
Footage of Barry being taken.
And although the situation had been tense, it hadn’t been hopeless yet. The League began the hunt immediately, focusing their efforts on Central City and ripping through the abandoned warehouses with a brutal efficiency that would have been exhilarating if the mission objective were not so dire. For five nights, it was a smooth operation—the League was worried, but not distracted; stressed, but not desperate—and although Barry’s absence was stark enough to manifest itself as a physical ache, the passion with which the team came together made everything seem as though it would work out fine.
But then, on the sixth night, they received the photographs, and everything went sideways.
The League members each had their own way of dealing. Arthur opted to let his wild temper flare, concentrating on destroying every piece of furniture in the Hall. Diana went quiet and helpless, two traits that Clark had never seen her express before and hopes he will never see her express again. Victor began an analysis on each photo, expression blank and controlled, and although Clark had felt the tendrils of rage begin digging into his own chest, the sudden spike in Bruce’s blood pressure as he stared at the photo in Diana’s hands made Clark place his own fear and anger on the backburner so that he could run damage control.
(Losing Barry was already enough. They could not lose Bruce, too.)
“We’ll find him,” Clark had promised, even though the words tasted stale. “Bruce, we’ll find him.”
But it was the beginning of the end.
The photos kept coming, and the League broke to pieces, growing bitter and restless with each passing night. Although Clark scanned through countless buildings, powers at full disposal, he was unable to catch sight nor sound of their missing teammate, and every time he returned to the Hall empty handed, he was only able to watch as Bruce shut himself off, Arthur lashed out, and Diana and Victor stood back and let it happen. And Clark would like to say that he managed the situation better, but the truth is that he sometimes caught his own reflection in the buildings that passed him by, and each time he saw the symbol of hope emblazoned across his chest, it only served as a stark reminder of how little hope Clark had left.
Because Bruce snapped, hospitalizing two criminals with his fists alone, and when Victor came to the League the following night with newspaper articles detailing just how sloppy they had gotten, the rest of the team snapped, too, turning on each other with the same fervor that they had previously used to search for Barry. Even when their squabbling was broken apart—forced into a stalemate as Bruce reminded them that Barry was still out there, hurt and alone—the arrival of a bloody tie at the Hall of Justice a few days later marked the moment that none of them could pretend everything was going to be fine anymore.
Bruce started drinking. Diana acted carefully, as though consciously forcing herself not to mourn. Arthur mourned forthright. Victor put his head down and worked, never seeming more like a machine. And Clark—
Clark didn’t know what to do. He wanted to help Bruce. Wanted to find his teammate. Wanted to go back to the way things were before he died and was brought back to life in a world that felt so foreign and untrustworthy and wrong. But he didn’t know where to start.
So he didn’t do anything at all.
They found Barry, trapped in some warehouse on the outskirts of Central City, and although the relief was intense and immediate, the hopelessness didn’t abate. Because Barry, much like Clark, came back changed.
It’s still Barry—still awkward, charming Barry, with his long-winded speeches and endearing smiles—but he’s scared and shaken, hurt in a way that Clark has no idea how to help. Because while Clark knows that Barry has always been jumpy, he has never seen Barry this terrified before. Clark can see how Barry’s heartrate kicks up upon the mere sight of him, can see how Barry’s eyes dart through the room as though to assess the best escape route before Clark can even say hello. And Barry has gone through so much—has the crooked fingers and limp to prove it—so even though Clark wants nothing more than to stay close to Barry and ensure that no more harm can come to him, he distances himself instead.
Clark wants to talk to Barry. Wants to tell him about how Lois is worried about him and how Ma has a new pie recipe waiting for him back in Kansas. But Clark refuses to be the reason that Barry cannot recover, so instead of pushing him into a conversation, Clark dedicates his time to keeping Central City safe for Barry instead. And usually, that is enough.
Except tonight, something goes wrong.
Clark is flying back towards Wayne Manor when he hears it.
The sound is soft and broken, edged with a raw sort of desperation that makes Clark pause in midair and tilt his head to try and better locate where it has come from. When he focuses hard enough, Clark can hear it more clearly: quiet whimpering, punctuated with the occasional unintelligible yell and short, yelped cry of pain. And this would not be outside of what Clark deals with on a nightly basis, but after a particularly wounded sob and a terrified “help,” Clark feels his blood freeze in his veins as he comes to a realization:
The voice belongs to Barry.
Before he can think it through, Clark is barreling back towards the Manor. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wonders if it would be better to leave this to Bruce, who Barry is the most comfortable with, but every other part of Clark can only remember the way that Barry looked when they first rescued him—frail and bruised and so, so scared—and the fact that the Shapeshifter was never caught makes something like panic flood Clark’s enhanced senses as he wonders what could be making Barry call out now.
Within minutes, Clark is approaching the Manor, and before common sense has a chance to catch up to him, the frantic energy in his bones compels him to fly straight towards the window to the room that he knows Barry is being kept in instead. Barry lets out another audible cry, and without any further preamble, Clark bursts straight through the glass, eyes burning red and furious.
It takes him no time at all to realize that he has made a mistake.
Barry sits up straight, jolted awake from the throes of his nightmare, and when his gaze snaps over to Clark—Clark, who Barry has not seen in the Superman suit since before the Warehouse—Clark is able to pinpoint the exact moment that Barry’s sleepy confusion turns into dread.
“Barry—” Clark tries, voice strained, and he never wanted to be a reason that Barry Allen breaks.
But tonight, he becomes one anyway.
Alfred comes bursting into the room, taking a single look Clark, the wreckage, and the shaking, sobbing Barry before piecing together what has happened. He ushers Clark out—tells him to wait in the living room down the hall, sir, he will take it from here—and although Clark wonders if it may be in everyone’s best interest to leave, he reckons that he owes it to Bruce to wait around long enough to explain why he decided to decimate one of the Manor’s windows once Bruce gets back from his night patrol.
But twenty minutes pass, and before Bruce has returned, Alfred comes back into the living room instead, posture straight and professional even though the lines on his face suggest that he is weary in a way that Clark can resonate with on a personal level.
“How is he?” Clark asks, up on his feet before Alfred is even all the way through the doorway, because he needs to know how badly he has set his teammate back.
“Tired,” Alfred replies, "and hungry. But that is hardly anything new.”
Clark shuts his eyes, drawing in a measured breath.
“Alfred,” Clark starts again, leveling a stare Alfred’s way. “How is he?”
“Young Barry is confused,” Alfred admits, “and a tad dazed.” He glances at the hallway before turning his attention back to Clark. “You gave him a good scare, but it was not something he could not come back from.”
“I’m sorry,” Clark says, because he is. He never wanted this. “I should—I should go, shouldn’t I?”
He doesn’t want to, but it only makes sense. Barry doesn’t need him here. Especially not now.
But “I would not recommend leaving quite yet, Mister Kent,” Alfred replies, and Clark falters.
“If this is about the window, you can tell Bruce I’ll fix it later,” he offers. “And could you—could you tell Barry I’m sorry, too?”
“I could,” Alfred hums, “but I will not.”
“This was hardly your fault,” Alfred cuts him off. “What has happened, it—it is messy, and complicated, and terrible. But it is not your fault.”
“Yeah, well.” Clark lets his gaze fall to his hands. “I doubt Barry sees it that way.”
“I suppose you can ask him yourself then,” Alfred says, and the protest on Clark’s lips dies as Alfred shoots him a look, expression unreadable.
“Young Barry wants to talk to you, after all.”
And if Clark had expected anything at all, it certainly wasn’t that.
Alfred leads Clark to a new room, waving off Clark’s apologies about the window and reassuring him that broken furniture is something Bruce is “regretfully adept at dealing with” before leaving him at the bedroom door. Clark hesitates for an instant, guilt and worry sitting like a stone in his stomach, but finally resigns himself to whatever is coming and knocks.
“Come in,” Barry calls, and Clark tries to plan out what he’s going to say as he opens the door—how he’s going to break the ice when Barry’s breakdown rests so freshly on his mind.
But Clark almost forgot. This is Barry.
“Hey Supes,” Barry says, and even though Clark can see how his heartrate kicks up, the shaky grin is as disarming as always. “How’s your night going?”
(Barry is good at navigating uncomfortable conversations. It’s kind of his forte.
Of course he’d be ready to take on this one.)
“I’m kind of, uh, bad at the whole… serious conversation thing,” Barry starts, fidgeting once Clark has stood around silently staring at him for too long. “But I wanted to offer an apology? I’m not—I don’t exactly know how to, umm...well. I’m sorry.”
It takes a moment for the words to register, but once they do, Clark can only continue to stare, confounded. “You’re…sorry?”
“Yeah. I’m,” Barry’s face twists into an array of expressions before landing on one that falls somewhere on the crossroad of uncertain and ashamed. “I was—you flew all the way here to help me, and I kind of…freaked out? Which. Not only is that, like, extremely rude and insulting, but it’s…”
The expression shifts to solidly ashamed, and with that, Clark finally decides that it’s time to intervene.
“You don’t need to apologize for that,” Clark begins, and the conviction in his words is something that he’s been missing for as long as he can remember. But Barry just shakes his head, eyes flickering to Clark’s cape in a cautious way that makes Clark remember what brought this on in the first place. “In fact, I should be apologizing to you.”
Barry frowns. “What? Why?”
And the guilt comes back full force as Clark remembers the look on Barry’s face—the helplessness and terror as Clark came crashing through his bedroom window—the way that Barry’s heart continues to pound even now. This must be torture for him. But he’s doing it all for Clark regardless.
“You are uneasy around me,” Clark says, simply. “I frighten you.”
“That’s not,” Barry starts, and Clark can hear the word ‘true’ hovering in the air before Barry aborts the lie.
“That’s not your fault,” Barry says instead, gaze falling to his own hands as they knot themselves up in the sheets.
“It’s not yours either,” Clark offers, but Barry’s frown deepens.
“You—you would never hurt me,” he says, and when he finally looks into Clark’s eyes, just for an instant, Clark can see the pain that Barry’s been trying to hide. “But I—I keep hurting you. The team. Everyone. And I don’t,” he shudders through another sigh, “I don’t, uh, know how to fix it.”
Clark wants to offer some words of comfort, or at the very least reach out to Barry to reassure him that it’s alright, and that no one blames him for being wary. He wants to apologize again—for failing to find Barry before it got to this point, for continuing to terrify him even after he has been rescued. But Barry doesn’t leave the time for such sentiments.
He has, after all, never been one to do things slowly.
“The Shapeshifter,” Barry says, desperate. “I knew they weren’t you. I knew. Because they-they couldn’t laugh like Diana, and they didn’t know how Victor talks, and they couldn’t get your eyes right, because you have, like, this spot of brown in your left eye—did you know that? Because I noticed it a long time ago. Not that I spend a bunch of time looking at your face or anything, it’s just something that caught my attention—but the Shapeshifter apparently didn’t know about it at all, because they only ever had blue eyes when they-when they…”
Barry swallows, shuts his eyes tight and pauses before opening them again. “But they had your voice and, and your body? And sometimes my stupid brain doesn’t know how to look at the real, actual you and separate it from them. And I want to talk to you. I want—I want to be a team again. But I don’t know how when I…”
Barry slumps back against the headboard of his bed, burying his face in his hands.
“God, I’m a mess,” he moans. “I’m a mess, and now I’m spilling it all over you, and I’m sorry about that, too, by the way, because—”
“What else was different?”
Barry breaks off mid-sentence, spreading his fingers just wide enough so that he can peer at Clark through them.
“What?” Barry asks, voice muffled through his palms.
“What else was different?” Clark repeats. “Between us and the Shapeshifter. What else did they get wrong?”
Barry lets his hands fall to into his lap as he ponders the question.
“Uhh, they didn’t punch me nearly as hard as you could? You almost broke my entire skull with one punch during the whole Pet Sematary thing and they could barely shatter a few ribs while putting their whole body into it.”
Clark doesn’t know what face he makes at that, but it must betray how tender the topic is for him right now, because Barry backtracks immediately.
“Sorry! Sorry, I thought that would—I don’t know why I thought that would be funny. It—yeah. Uh,” his mouth presses into a straight line. “I don’t know? They kept switching up Arthur’s tattoos, and they didn’t know that Bruce is actually, you know, capable of human emotion. And—”
“Did they know I’m from Kansas?”
Barry freezes, eyes wide.
“I didn’t tell them anything about your whole secret identity thing if that’s what you’re asking.” His voice takes on a wounded edge. “Do you really think I’d tell them?”
“No,” Clark says, holding his hands up in placation. “Nothing like that. Just. What if that’s the answer?”
Barry raises a finger. Pauses. Lets it fall. “I’m not following.”
“When I was nine years old, I fell into the creek near my house and tracked mud all over the living room,” Clark says. “Ma threatened to put me over her knee if I did it again.”
“Okay, I love that story. Really, I do,” Barry says, lips quirking up into the beginning of a smile. “But I’m, uh, still not following.”
Clark responds with a wry smile of his own.
“I had a mullet for a while.”
“No,” Barry gasps, and the smile splits into a full grin. “No. No way. Superman did not have a mullet.”
“Superman did,” Clark admits. “And Superman also learned how to parallel park a tractor before he learned how to ride a bike.”
Barry laughs, the sound bright and delighted, and Clark feels the knot in his chest unwind as he realizes that his plan is working.
“I don’t understand what’s going on,” Barry confesses, wiping at an eye with the back of his hand, “but I love it.”
“What’s going on,” Clark finally explains, “is that we are having a conversation, and your heart isn’t racing.”
Barry opens his mouth as though to reply, but no words come out. He looks down at his own chest, raises a hand to it as though to corroborate Clark’s claim.
“You’re right?” he mutters. “You’re…you’re right. We’re—we’re having a conversation. We’re conversing!”
Barry grins again, this time with such an intensity that Clark finds himself grinning, too, but it only lasts for a few seconds before Barry’s face is falling again.
“But you—you shouldn’t have to do this for me,” Barry says, shaking his head. “I love having this kind of information. Honest. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to tell me personal details about your life just because my brain is all messed up. I can deal with some discomfort. I’m, uhh, really good at being uncomfortable. Been training for it my whole life, actually.”
But Clark just tilts his head, swallowing back something fond as he decides what needs to be said.
“The first few weeks after the League was formed, I was wary and jaded and hopeless,” Clark says, and Barry’s head immediately snaps up at the sudden change in tone. “But you were so genuine and open with me—with everyone—that it helped me adjust in ways that I don’t even know how to express. This team...this team saved me."
"Please," Clark says. "Let me return that favor now.”
“I—” Barry blinks. For a moment, it looks like he's going to protest, but when he sees the earnest determination in Clark's expression, he relaxes against the headboard instead, nodding. “Alright. If you’re actually, you know, okay with that. Fair warning, I can’t keep a secret to save my life. Well. I can, but only important secrets, like secret identities, or-or the special ingredient to your mom's stir fry. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep the fact that Superman had the whole ‘business-in-the-front, party-in-the-back’ aesthetic going on for him to myself.”
“I’m aware,” Clark concedes, “and that is a sacrifice I am willing to make.”
“Good. Glad to see we’re on the same page.” Barry scratches at the back of his neck. “And, uh, for the record? I’m still sorry about the whole, umm, panicky thing. I know you told me not to apologize, but I feel like I should. I trust you, you know?”
“I’ll accept your apology if you accept mine,” Clark compromises. “I never wanted to be the reason that one of my own teammates felt unsafe, and I know the circumstances are…complicated, but I feel like I should apologize, too.”
“Apology accepted,” Barry chirps. Then, because he never knows when to shut up, “and now that my blood pressure is within normal human range around you, can we hug it out?”
Clark's face twists up in confusion and Barry reacts immediately, stuttering out a redaction once his mind has caught up to his mouth.
“Pretend I didn’t say that. That’s desperate, even for my own standards, and I probably smell like sweat and salt anyway, because of the whole, uh, panic attack situation, and—”
And Barry would have kept going forever, Clark knows. But he doesn’t have a chance to before he is wrapped tightly in Clark’s arms, cheek pressed up against the emblem printed on Clark’s chest.
(It stands for hope. And Clark wasn’t certain that he deserved it, because he has been feeling pretty hopeless as of late.
But when Barry responds to the hug, wrapping his own arms around Clark’s back and pressing himself as deeply into the embrace as he can with a muted "thanks, Clark", Clark thinks that maybe this situation isn’t as hopeless as he originally thought.)
Barry would like to say that it’s as easy to talk to Clark as it is to talk to Alfred now, but that would be a lie. Because Barry’s still afraid sometimes, still gets the phantom pains in his chest and random flashes of memories that he would rather forget. But Clark has been patient with him—has made it clear that he is in it for the long haul. Clark doesn’t shy away like he did before, but rather has handed the reigns of Barry’s recovery over to Barry himself, letting Barry set the parameters for what he is comfortable with and what he would rather avoid. And whenever Barry asks, Clark is always willing to share an anecdote or two of his time back in Kansas, whether it’s to reassure Barry that he is with the real, genuine Superman or just to make Barry smile when he is having a rough day.
It has taken effort and compromise. Both Barry and Clark have had to work for it.
(Conversation with Alfred had never been so strenuous.)
But as Clark confesses that he has consciously stopped himself from using “y’all’d’ve” in a sentence before, sheepishly smiling when Barry starts to cackle, Barry is full-heartedly able to say that it’s been worth it.
“Wow. If I had known that all I needed to do to get blackmail material on this team was be kidnapped, I would have done it ages ago.”
“Sorry! Sorry. I’m just joking. You know. The whole millennial death humor, and all...”
“…Wait. Blackmail material on the team?”
“Oh! Right, that reminds me! So. I, uhh, learned something pretty interesting about Bruce the other day…”
I said that one day I would learn how to write short chapters. As you can see, today was not that day. ((Sorry))
((Also I have never written Clark Kent in my LIFE so sorry bout that, too, folks.))
Chapter 3: Double Lariat
Barry Allen has some doubts. A couple doubts. A few—
Okay. Many doubts.
It was only a matter of time until it all came crashing down.
i have... no excuses. sorry i vanished for eight months. here's 9,000 words of ABSOLUTE NONSENSE and SENSELESS RAMBLING. pls enjoy.
(real talk: i got distracted and lost all writing motivation, but barry allen owns my heart, soul, and ass, so i will finish these fics if it kills me. ALSO. i don't remember how to write. sorry.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s kind of stupid, Barry thinks, because he should really be used to things moving too slowly by now.
Barry’s never been a particularly patient person. When he was a kid, he would pull his mother along at the grocery store, tugging on her jacket sleeves as he shot off rapid-fire questions about when they’d be leaving, when they’d make dinner, when dad would get home from work. Throughout middle and high school—college even, although his childhood counselors had always posited that he’d grow out of the habit—Barry would drum his fingers on desks, tap his foot against linoleum floors as he watched the hands on the clock creep from number to number, counting down the hours-minutes-seconds until his next passing period. And Barry honestly couldn’t tell you the number of times that he has burned off the roof of his mouth by trying to eat something right as he pulls it out of the microwave.
It’s just. Things have always felt like they drag on and on, and when Barry stays in one place for too long, all of the stimuli in the area kind of converge, like he’s standing in a room filled with hundreds of radios all tuned to different stations while he’s trying to focus on one song in particular. And then the accident happened, and the hundreds of radios turned into thousands, and the hours-minutes-seconds actually, literally began to drag on, which—
It threw his impatience into maximum overdrive, making every interaction nearly excruciating. But Barry hasn’t been able to do anything about it, has just had to suck it up and try his best to pass as a semi-functioning human being even though he knows that he’ll never be normal.
And then he met the League, and things weren’t perfect—he isn’t sure he can call his teammates his “friends” yet, really, because Diana’s nice to everyone she meets and Barry isn’t even sure if Arthur likes him—but at least they understood Barry, to some degree.
Because they’re all “different,” too (albeit in much cooler, less obnoxious ways), and although Barry doesn’t know if they keep him around for Barry Allen or for the Flash, at least every member of the League has been willing to humor his inherent need to move-run-go. And, yeah: sometimes Bruce grumbles and Arthur threatens and Victor looks at Barry like he might be one of the dumbest human beings on earth. But Bruce also gently bullies Barry into eating more, and Arthur ruffles his hair like he might actually be growing fond, and Victor patiently listens to him talk about his Star Wars theories for hours on end, and Barry thinks that maybe they actually are his friends. Maybe. Or at least they could become his friends, if he plays this right.
But then Barry got taken, and now he’s not so sure.
Because he was already the weakest member of the League. Barry knows this. He knows it deeply, viscerally, and it bothers him, but not for, like, some dumb macho masculine pride reason or anything. No. It bothers him because it means that he’s slowing this team down. And he’s always hated going slow.
And now that he’s been effectively adult-napped (because he was too dumb to protect his secret identity, too eager to impress some random associate at a work function, too weak to break himself free), he’s slowing the team down even further.
Because, yeah, Barry can talk to Clark without having a heart attack. And, sure, Alfred finally gave Barry a cane so that he can hobble around the mansion when he’s feeling particularly restless, which is progress. But then there are the constant nightmares. And the panic attacks. And the random urge to just cry—to just curl up in the blankets and sob–because he’s so stupid, and now the team has to clean up his mess and everyone at work probably thinks he’s dead.
There’s the fact that he’s not getting better fast enough.
And it’s weird, because things have always gone too slowly for Barry Allen, so the fact that his recovery is dragging on like this should come as no surprise to him at all. But he hates it. God, he hates it, because—
(Because, if all that Barry has ever been good for was going fast, what’s keeping the team from leaving him now?)
Barry has had good days since he was rescued. Many good days, actually.
Today is not one of them.
Diana Prince has always been a believer.
She believes in truth. In justice. She has learned that men can be cruel and nasty and evil, even—but they can also be kind and courageous and so, so good. And she believes in this side of mankind. She believes in love.
But lately, this belief has been getting harder to hold onto.
It isn’t that she doubts the strength of love. Far from it, actually. Because through all of the years that she has spent on earth—through the loss and the pain and the death that she has encountered and endured—love has been the singular constant in all of the chaos. She has seen how love remains, unflinching and unwavering even as all else falls apart, and she has seen, too, how love can mend the deepest of wounds, smooth out the sharpest edges and move the most obstinate of men.
She used to believe that love could save the world.
But love is…
Diana has come to learn that it is more complicated than that. Because for all the good that love can do—all that it can fix and heal and help—it can also burn and hurt and destroy. It can mend the deepest of wounds, yes, but it can also rip deeper into them as well, digging in until it becomes a relentless, concentrated agony.
(One hundred years later, the name “Steve Trevor” still stings as though it were a physical blow.)
She has learned that love can be dangerous. And that makes it so, so hard to believe in it sometimes.
But someone has to, don’t they?
Diana goes to Bruce because she sees the signal, and although she has spent over one hundred years hiding in the shadows, she can and will not sit idly by as the end of the world draws near.
It is simple to find him, really, and simpler still to dismantle his alarm system in order to speak to him directly. It’s been a while, she thinks, as Bruce leans over the railing on his newest project and dryly mentions how much money he spent on what she has managed to destroy in mere minutes. But his tone is not unkind, perhaps even bordering on fond, and although Diana can see that Bruce is hurting in the same way that she hurt when she lost Steve, he still seems happy to see her.
This is something that Diana admires about Bruce: how he can pretend to function even as he is fraying at the seams, and how he can push through his own grief to do what is right.
(Of course, it will come back to haunt her later, when his grief turns into anger and his desire to fix what he has broken makes him lash out, wielding Diana’s love for Steve against her like a blade. But this is something that love can do, too—drive men to cruelty—so Diana understands, and she forgives.)
Regardless, Bruce creates a team to combat the apocalypse, and they are simultaneously the strangest and most wonderful people that Diana has ever met.
Arthur Curry errs on the side of arrogant, and he carries himself with the exaggerated confidence of someone who has gone through much more than they wish to admit. He boasts and threatens and snarls half-insults with ease, but he also throws himself into battle without hesitation when the time calls for it, every bit as diligent and dutiful as the warriors on Themyscira that Diana grew up with and respects. And although Arthur rivals Bruce with his ability to hide any fear or uncertainty that he may harbor behind a mask of iron, Diana’s Lasso reveals that he is just as lost and determined and thoughtful as anyone else.
Victor Stone is withdrawn and immovable, and when Diana first meets him, his words come across as cold. But Diana knows that he is simply hurting, shutting himself off the same way that she had for over a century because he does not know how to fathom what he has lost, and the fact that he has agreed to meet with her tells her that he wants to reach out just as badly as she wants him to. So she gives him the time he needs and he does not disappoint, appearing on the rooftop with the same resolve that Diana feels coursing through her own veins. And in the process of saving the world, Diana learns that Victor is sarcastic, with a dry wit that rivals that of the soldiers that she used to know, but he is also vulnerable and driven and stronger than he believes.
Then, there’s Barry Allen.
Barry Allen is… completely unexpected, in a manner of speaking. The first time Diana meets him face-to-face, Barry stumbles over his own words as Bruce shoots Diana a long-suffering look that only hints at how much he has endured in the last few hours of travel. Diana is charmed immediately, of course—anyone that can make Bruce Wayne express emotion is a person of interest in her books—and within the first five minutes of meeting him, Diana is able to conclude that Barry is a complete sweetheart, albeit someone that she would hesitate to bring into a fight.
Because, the thing is, Barry Allen is innocent. He’s wide-eyed enthusiasm, with a heart of gold and a mouth capable of shooting off hundreds of words per minute. Diana sees him, sees his dark hair and genuine smile, and her heart melts in an instant, only to clench painfully in her chest when she realizes that this is a war and he does not belong here.
And a part of her wants to confront Bruce—wants to demand an explanation for why he has brought a child onto the battlefield. But as the hours pass and she is able to observe Barry further, Diana sees the way that he gravitates towards their team leader, remembers the files that she pulled up on her computer, the list of foster homes and the address to a prison in Central City, and she is struck at once with the sudden realization that Barry has lost more than anyone could ever imagine.
In the end, Barry bites back his fear and trepidation to aid where he is needed, comforts the terrified hostages with a steady voice that was shaking only minutes prior, and Diana understands that this is where he is meant to be.
And he is clumsy, yes, hindered by his inexperience. But that doesn’t stop him from joining the fight, and when Bruce unveils the missing piece to their team, Barry pushes through his terror once more to assist, all pin-point accuracy and deadly precision as he charges up and brings who used to be Superman back to life.
(The person they bring back is not Kal-El. Not at first. But he will be.)
So this is her team: a brooding billionaire, an angry Atlantean, a cyborg with trust issues and a will of steel. A boy with a dark history and a bright smile, and a Kryptonian who is a little more than a little broken.
They are a disaster, truthfully, but they save the world.
And Diana Prince falls in love all over again.
Bruce calls the League in for brunch, tells them that Barry has been taken, and the price of this love makes itself known when the weight of Bruce’s words manifests itself as a pressure against Diana’s ribcage.
Barry is there in the video, dressed in a sharp suit and carrying himself with the careful casualty of someone that isn’t used to being in such a professional setting. Although it’s obvious to Diana that Barry is uncomfortable at first, he handles the situation with a maturity that he usually reserves for serious missions, and as time goes on, he begins to unwind, stiff posture and measured expressions giving way to his normal enthusiastic motions and megawatt grins. A woman nearby takes note, comes forth to approach him, and when Arthur lets out a low whistle, Diana elbows him in the side even as she feels her own pride bloom.
But then the woman leads Barry away. Then she hands him the glass of champagne. Then, Barry’s face twists into something confused and vulnerable and scared as he stumbles back towards the party only to collapse onto the marble floor.
Then, the love in Diana’s chest turns into protective rage, and she burns.
The League unites, and although there is something disjointed and wrong—a stark emptiness where there is normally vibrant life—they are still ruthlessly efficient. They tear through the greater part of Central City, searching through building after building without rest until five days have gone by and they are still no closer to finding their residential Speedster. But still, there is hope. There is drive. There is determination, fueled by love.
Then, the sixth day comes, bearing with it a box full of photos, and there is only pain.
Somewhere in the peripherals of Diana’s vision, she can see Arthur trash the room, can hear him curse and rage and destroy. She can see Bruce freeze in place, can see Clark come to his aid to talk him down from whatever precipice that he is walking towards. But Diana can’t do a thing, can’t speak, can’t help, can’t move, because in her direct field of sight, there is a picture, and in that picture, there is Barry.
In the photo, he’s slumped against the wall, hands bound by a pair of shackles and shirt open to reveal pale skin mottled with cuts and bruises. He’s unconscious, too, with blood dripping down the side of his head from an injury hidden somewhere within his matted hair, and when she looks closer, Diana can see that there is a knife rooted in his collarbone.
“Why would anyone do this?” Diana chokes out. Her fingers shake, because she doesn’t understand. She has seen war and death and carnage and yet she still doesn’t understand. “Why would anyone—“
There will be no answer.
The search continues, and with each passing night, the cracks in the team’s foundation grow more pronounced. Although Arthur had always been aggressive, it’s amplified to a new high as he begins to snap at the other members of the League, grief etched into each harsh reprimand and biting insult. Victor throws himself into his work, effectively shutting the team off again, Clark grows withdrawn, exhaustion written into every angle of his posture, and Bruce—
Bruce breaks, beating two criminals so savagely that they wind up in the hospital and he winds up on the second page of city newspaper.
And Diana talks him down that night, leads him back to the Hall of Justice with a soft touch and softer voice, but she can’t do anything more.
(“When it’s your fault, they’re all Steve Trevor,” she had said what seemed so long ago, and she had meant it.
But it hurts more than she thought it would.)
They find Barry eventually, because after all that they have done, the universe decides that they deserve a break. And although his bones are broken and the knife has run him through, he’s healed within a week, crooked fingers and twisted knee serving as the only physical reminders of his trauma.
And he still smiles and jokes and laughs, but it is obvious that he is struggling all the same. Because he flinches into the bedsheets when Clark steps into the doorway, tenses up when Victor reaches out to hand him a cup of water, ducks away from Diana’s palm when she tries to cup his cheek. He peppers the word “sorry” into his conversation as though he is trying to fill the spaces between each spoken word with his regret, and although he assures the team that he’s fine—“Great. Fantastic, even.”—they can all see the shadows under his eyes and the trembling in his hands.
(“He isn’t sleeping,” Bruce says one day, hair in a disarray and expression haunted. Diana would call him out on his hypocrisy, but he’s been so listless as of late that she can’t bring herself to scold him.)
And Diana wants to hold Barry close—wants to card fingers through soft hair and tell him stories about Themyscira until all of his horror has been replaced with awe—but when Barry catches her gaze, he recoils, and Diana’s heart breaks as she is forced to retreat.
She won’t hurt him anymore. She doesn’t want to hurt him anymore. So she keeps her distance.
She doesn’t realize that she’s hurting him all the same.
Diana is at Wayne Manor, walking to the kitchen with the intent to retrieve the belongings she left there that morning, when she hears a commotion occurring down one of the many hallways connected to the main living room.
At first, she considers just leaving it be. Bruce has buckled down on the security in his mansion, so he would have alerted her by now if there was any chance of it being the shapeshifter, and the last time someone (Clark) thought there was an emergency, they only ended up elevating the situation when they tried to intervene. Yet, the constant knocking and urgent voice ultimately compel Diana to abandon her original objective and veer off to see if she can find the source of all the noise.
It turns out to be Alfred, which shouldn’t come as a shock, (because Alfred checks on Barry every day, brings him lunch and swaps stories and keeps him company while the rest of the team hides away.) But there’s a frantic edge to his tone that makes a chill creep up Diana’s spine, and when she moves in closer, it quickly becomes obvious that something is wrong.
“Barry, please,” Alfred begs, insistently rapping his knuckles against the bathroom door, but the only answer he receives is a series of rough sobs. “Please, let me in.”
“Alfred, what is going on?” Diana asks. She moves forward, raising a hand up as though to intercede, but when Alfred shoots her a warning look in reply, she clenches her jaw and steps back instead.
“Barry,” Alfred tries again, but there’s a sudden crash, then—the sound of shattering glass and a hitched, broken cry—and when Alfred turns to Diana, the worry in his eyes pierces straight through her.
“Stand back,” she commands, already pushing him to the side as she places herself firmly in front of the door. And maybe she should try to find Bruce, or maybe she should trust Alfred to handle this, but she’s tired of doing nothing. She’s done nothing for too long now.
“Barry,” she calls out. “It’s Diana. I’m coming in.”
Then, she gives the door a rough shove, and she freezes in place as she takes in the scene before her.
The mirror is shattered, pieces of glass strewn over the bathroom counter and scattered in shards across the floor. Blood dots the marble, too, streaks it in little smears and forms a path leading right to the bathtub, where Barry is curled over his arms, knees pulled up to his chest.
But this isn’t what makes the emotion catch in Diana’s throat, isn’t what makes the fear and sorrow flood her lungs until it becomes hard to breathe.
What really gets her—what makes her falter and makes Alfred bite out a soft curse—is the lasso loosely looped around Barry’s neck.
“I’m sorry,” Barry sobs. The Lasso of Hestia glows, bright and gold, as if to verify his anguish. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
(Diana was prepared for many things. This was not one of them.)
“I’m scared of you.”
The words are quiet, spoken with a quiet resignation that makes a hollow ache bubble up in Diana’s stomach and sink down to her knees. For a moment, she wonders if she should leave, cut her losses and go before she pushes Barry past the point of no return. But when her eyes flick over to the doorway, Barry’s voice cuts through the silence once again.
“Please, don’t leave. I don’t want you to leave.”
And Diana is at an impasse.
Barry is, for a lack of better words, a mess. There’s blood speckled across the front of his graphic tee and dark lines etched under his eyes. His face is pale and withdrawn, and his dark hair is in a disarray, twisted up and tangled from where Diana has no doubt he had been clutching it in his hands. Although the tears have stopped, it is obvious that Barry is exhausted and devastated and terrified. By all accounts, Barry should want Diana gone.
But he isn’t lying to her. He can’t be.
“I’m scared,” Barry says, when Diana has hesitated just a moment too long. “But I don’t want to be. I’m tired of being scared. Don’t leave. Please.”
Diana glances over to Alfred, who meets her with a concerned look of his own before tilting his head towards Barry with a tight shrug even as he backs towards the doorway himself.
“Okay,” Diana says. Her voice is small, but the single word weighs heavily all the same. “Okay.”
She turns her full attention back towards Barry, tamps down the surge of fear as the door closes somewhere behind her and Barry meets her gaze, pulling the Lasso a little tighter to himself in response.
She hopes this won’t be the biggest mistake that she’s ever made. Her hopes are not high.
Still. She stays.
“I wasn’t trying to hurt myself, if that’s what you were wondering.”
A few tense, suffocating minutes have passed since anyone last spoke, so when Barry suddenly offers some insight to what has been going on inside of his head, Diana is startled. After all, she has posed no commands for Barry to speak while he is in contact with the Lasso—refuses to take advantage of him when he is so vulnerable and confused—so the fact that he has extended this truth to her means that he actually, honestly wanted to do so.
It’s comforting in a way that Diana never could have anticipated.
“I just,” Barry continues, when it becomes obvious that she isn’t going to respond. “I just kept thinking about her. You. Uhh, the Shapeshifter. The—the Lasso.” His eyes fall to his hands, to where bloody fingers are curled around shining gold. “She would choke me with the Lasso sometimes. Or maybe more than sometimes.” One side of his lip quirks up into a bitter smirk. “In retrospect, it was probably some sort of messed up kink or something.”
Diana flinches and Barry shudders, smirk dropping. “Sorry. That’s, uh. That’s not very funny, is it?”
Diana instinctually reaches out to touch Barry’s shoulder before she catches herself in the act and lets her hand fall to her side instead. Barry doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps on plowing through the single-sided conversation with a tone that’s far too drained.
“I kept thinking about it, and I kept thinking about my—about my old therapist, for some reason? I mean, I—she always wanted me to confront my fears head on, or something, which I never really understood. Because, like, I’m afraid of spiders, you know? How is picking up a giant spider supposed to make me less afraid of spiders? And it’s stupid, but I was so tired of thinking about the Shapeshifter, and the Lasso, and Carol that I, I just decided to try it. Just, uhh. Rip off the Band-Aid. Put on the Lasso. I wasn’t—I wasn’t trying to deliberately hurt myself or anything. I don’t do that anymore.”
Barry’s face blanches as he catches his mistake, and although the icy flash of panic down Diana’s spine compels her to press the issue—‘anymore’, what does he mean, ‘anymore’?— Barry stiffens in a way that simultaneously compels her to drop the subject completely. At least, for now.
That isn’t what this conversation is about, after all. That’s something for her to follow up on later.
“Is it working?” Diana asks instead. She wonders if she should feel guilty for finally placing forth a request with the Lasso, but she’s immediately rewarded when Barry’s expression shifts from completely devastated to transparently relieved instead.
“I think so,” he answers. His cheeks are stained with old tears, and he sounds as though he’s been gargling with charcoal for the last few days, but his response is sincere. “I was pretty terrified at first, but—but it’s nice to have some sense of control. The Shapeshifter never let me have any sort of control. Comes with the whole ‘super villain’ act, I think.”
“That seems to be the trend,” Diana supplies, trying to keep her voice even. It’s hard, though, when all she wants to do is break down and pull Barry in close.
Barry hums his assent, but he doesn’t look up from his own bloodstained hands.
“Everything seems so clear when I’m holding onto the Lasso,” Barry admits. His face twists up into a new expression, something contemplative and sardonic at once. “Don’t get me wrong, my mind is a disaster on the best of the days, and it’s still, uh, not great at the moment. But it’s almost like the main, important thoughts are screaming out at me or something now. Is that supposed to happen?”
Diana weighs her options before ultimately deciding to step forward. Glass audibly crunches beneath her feet, but a trill of triumph rises up in her chest when Barry does nothing more than lift his eyes to track her with a tired gaze. Her fingers curl around another part of the Lasso, and she takes a few seconds to reflect before settling on her reply.
“The Lasso of Hestia compels all to reveal the truth,” she murmurs, gently winding a segment of it around her hand. “Under my command, it can make one answer any question that I pose forth.”
“Scary,” Barry mutters, with no real sense of discomfort. “But mad cool, too. Like. Proper, superhero cool.” He tilts his head. “And outside of your command? What’s it do then?”
“Outside of my command,” Diana echoes, slowly edging forward until she’s seated on the edge of the tub, “it helps one clarify their own truth. It allows them to re-evaluate and figure out what they need to prioritize.”
“Depressing,” Barry replies, lips twitching into a small smile. “My priorities are garbage. I’ve had the Seinfeld theme song running on autopilot in the back of my mind this entire time.”
Despite herself, Diana laughs. “Seinfeld? That’s the show you’ve been forcing Alfred to watch, isn’t it?”
“Absolutely. And it’s the show I’ll be forcing everyone to watch if I get my way soon enough.”
For a moment, Barry seems vibrant, all soft edges and cheeky grins and ruffled hair. But the gravity of the situation can only be ignored for so long, and once the mirth has worn off, it only makes circumstances seem all the more bleak in its absence.
Diana misses the reprieve instantly. She can only imagine how Barry feels.
“I, uh,” Barry mutters, once the spell has broken. “I’ve wanted to talk to you for a while.”
“To me?” Diana asks. She goes for neutral, but her tone is surprised all the same.
“Well, yeah.” Barry shrugs. “You. Arthur. Victor. The entire League, actually.”
Diana almost asks why—why he would do that to himself, why he wants to talk when his wounds are still so raw—but the golden light makes her bite her tongue instead. Barry catches her gaze, follows it down to the Lasso wrapped around his neck, and his eyebrows furrow in determination.
“Ask me whatever you want,” Barry requests. Pleads, almost. His voice warbles, but his eyes are flinty and resolute. “This is the basically the clearest I’ve ever been able to think, and I want you to exploit that. Stop holding back off of some… what? Some misplaced sense of pity?”
“Not pity,” Diana responds firmly. “I don’t pity you. I worry about you, Barry. I care about you.”
Barry visibly starts at the claim, eyes widening in wonder and disbelief, and for an instant, Diana feels an intense surge of indignation and outrage—because who has treated Barry in such a way that he could doubt how Diana feels about him after all this time?
But Diana funnels this fury into something more productive, finally reaches out to place one hand on Barry’s shoulder as she pulls her portion of the Lasso closer to her own chest with the other. She lets the anger and frustration and terror of the last month go, just for a moment, and focuses on the feeling of fire in her veins instead.
In the end, her love is everything that she knew love to be: burning, painful, dangerous. And maybe it won’t be enough save the world. Maybe it won’t even be enough save Barry Allen. But that doesn’t mean that Diana isn’t going to try.
“A compromise, then,” Diana says. Barry frowns, but before he can interject, Diana makes sure to clarify. “Three questions. That’s it. I will ask you three questions, and then the Lasso comes off.”
Barry’s frown doesn’t abate, but he doesn’t protest either. Diana considers it a small, albeit important, victory.
“And if I touch on a topic you’d rather keep away from, you throw off the Lasso at once,” Diana adds. Her grip on Barry’s shoulder tightens minutely. “I know that you are not fragile. I know. But you’ve been through something terrible. If you don’t want to talk, then don’t. Do not let me add onto your pain.”
At this, Barry’s posture finally relaxes.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says, averting his eyes. Slightly drawing up a shoulder. “I’m scared of you, yeah, but I also trust you. I wouldn’t ask you to do this if I didn’t.”
Barry says it with such ease, but his blatant display of faith in Diana makes something undeniably fond well up beneath stagnant layers of regret.
I don’t understand you, Barry Allen, she wants to say. Or maybe just thank you.
“Three questions,” she says instead.
Barry nods. “Three. About anything. Just, please. Please. Talk to me.”
“Why do you push yourself so hard, even when you know that it will inevitably hurt you?”
The first question comes easily enough all things considered. After all, there are a number of things that Diana could have asked about: how Barry honestly feels. What kind of things the Shapeshifter did to him. What Barry meant when he said that he doesn’t hurt himself anymore.
But, in the end, this is what undeniably intrigues Diana: how Barry, much like Bruce, can compartmentalize his own trauma so easily; how he can seal it away and pretend that nothing is wrong even when it is clear to everyone else that he is far from okay.
(Maybe, on some deeper level, it is also something that Diana wishes she could learn how to do for herself. Bruce Wayne is certainly not the epitome of mental health, but there is no denying that his methods for handling grief are much more productive than Diana’s own.)
Yet, much to Diana’s surprise, Barry just laughs.
“It’s not like any of you were going to push me,” he says, shrugging. “Honestly. Two weeks in, and I could count the number of actual conversations we’ve had on one hand.”
Diana searches for a proper response, but Barry cuts her off, shaking his head.
“I understand where you were coming from,” Barry concedes, lazily tugging at the Lasso in his hands. “Really, I do. You didn’t want to freak me out, and I didn’t say anything to stop you from bailing. On some level, I actually wanted you to go away until everything just worked itself out or something. I, I’m not exactly, uhh, the poster child for proper coping mechanisms, or anything. Like every childhood counselor I ever had could tell you that.” He bites his bottom lip. Stares at a fixed point on the bathroom wall. “But…but avoidance isn’t exactly working. And evil isn’t going to wait for me to just. Get better or something, so. Talking it out is kind of the best option, isn’t it?”
Diana takes a measured breath, truthfully surprised by the logic behind Barry’s answer. Barry responds with a measured breath of his own.
“Besides. I, uhm. I missed you,” he admits.
He tacks it on as though it were an afterthought, but the way that he refuses to meet Diana’s eyes tells her both exactly how much he expects the sentiment to be one-sided and how much that such an expectation truly affects him.
“I’ve missed you, too,” Diana fiercely reassures him, leaving no room for argument. “All of us have. Truthfully, we were inconsolable in your absence.”
Barry turns to her then, expression skeptical, and again, Diana finds herself carefully regulating her reaction, trying her best not to overwhelm Barry with her own emotions.
“You are part of the team,” she stresses, clenching her jaw in frustration when Barry drops his gaze in clear disbelief at the sentiment. “We need you.”
The second question follows naturally.
“Did you ever doubt that we would come for you?” Diana asks.
“No. I always knew you would come,” Barry replies without hesitation. Diana’s relief, although refreshing, is short-lived. “But I, I figured you’d come for the Flash more-so than. Well. Barry Allen.”
Diana’s neutral mask slips, and although she isn’t sure which emotion seeps through, it makes Barry fumble, hands fidgeting against golden twine as he rushes to explain.
“I mean, people usually want me to be the Flash. The Flash is—he’s useful, sometimes. And—and he’s professional. Or. Uh. As professional as I’m really able to get, which isn’t very professional, granted, but still better than. Umm. Well.”
Barry gestures to himself, mouth pulling into what Diana assumes is meant to be a grin, but comes out as more of self-depreciating grimace. And she opens her own mouth to tell him exactly how wrong he is—about how Barry Allen is perfectly imperfect and how she will personally engage in single combat with anyone who says otherwise—but Barry barrels on, eyes taking on a glassy quality that makes Diana falter.
“And I get it! It’s—well. It, uh, hurts sometimes, yeah, and I’m not always okay with it. But it’s perfectly understandable, because. I mean. Come on. When I’m just Barry, I’m—I’ve been told that I come across as, uhh, annoying? Which is fair. I talk too much. I eat everything. I have zero impulse control, and I get on people’s nerves, and sometimes, I genuinely check out mid-conversation because the person I’m talking to accidentally said some keyword that set my brain off on a complete tangent. Like, one time, Bruce pointed out a ‘Road Work Ahead’ sign when we were driving back from a mission, and my entire mind was just a vine compilation album—a series of short videos, basically—for the next forty-five minutes.”
Barry swallows hard, turns away from Diana when he tries to laugh only for the sound to come out strangled and distorted. He pulls his knees up closer to his chest, backs up against the spout of the tub, and Diana wants to tell him to stop—wants to cut him off and fully pull him into a hug like she’s been waiting to do for over a month—but at the same time, she can’t find it in herself to do anything at all.
A mistake, she realizes, as Barry continues.
“The Flash is a hero,” he says, and he isn’t crying, but it’s a near thing: expression drawn and raw and wounded as his voice wavers. “Uhh. Kind of. He isn’t—he isn’t as cool as Wonder Woman, or, or the rest of the League, but—but people respect the Flash. And I like being the Flash! It’s just, I like being Barry Allen, too. But it’s hard, because people usually, uhhm. It’s like. Well. I kind of figured…”
Barry draws in a careful breath. Shudders.
“The Flash is worth something, you know?” he says. “Barry Allen is... Barry Allen is nothing.”
And that’s it. That’s it.
Something fractures then, bends and breaks and shatters across the ground. Because Barry says it like it’s a scientific fact: like it’s something universally acknowledged, written in stone. He says it, and he means it, and Diana is, at once, furious and heartbroken, shaken as though the very fault lines have shifted beneath her feet. She’s confused, and she’s exhausted, and she has one hundred years of pain and isolation informing her that there is nothing she can say that would ever make Barry’s grief any easier for him to bear. But she loves him. She loves him, and it will be enough.
She will make it be enough.
“Barry Allen,” Diana says, name catching in her throat. She drops her segment of the Lasso, reaches out so that both hands are on Barry’s shoulders. She forces him to look her in the eyes, because this is important. This is so important, and she needs him to know this. “Barry Allen is everything.”
“Oh,” Barry says. He blinks, and the first tear falls, and his shoulders begin to tremble beneath Diana’s grasp.
And “Oh,” he repeats, weaker this time. “Nobody’s ever said that before.”
Then, Barry Allen falls apart.
Diana gathers him in her arms, hefts his upper body up and out of the tub so she can properly crush him against her chest, and she is instantly rewarded as Barry drops the Lasso, letting it fall like a necklace so that he can wind his own arms around her lower back. She can feel shaggy hair tickling the side of her neck, and she can feel the tears soaking into the fabric near her collarbone, but when Barry lets out a muffled apology, Diana just pulls him closer, shushing him so that she can keep speaking over his hitched breathing and choked off whimpers.
“Barry Allen is charming and funny and one of the kindest, most inspiring people that I have ever met,” Diana asserts, resting her chin on top of Barry’s head. “He knows the best ice cream places, and he stops to pet every dog that we encounter when we go on walks together, and even though he has seen the absolute worst aspects of humanity, he still strives to see the good in it, too. He is a fantastic teammate, and an even better person.”
“I can’t even talk to you without feeling like I’m going into cardiac arrest,” Barry sniffles into Diana’s blouse. Diana huffs, softly jabbing at one of his sides in reprimand.
“We are talking now, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, and I’m terrified. What does that say about me?”
“It says,” Diana argues, “that you have gone through something traumatic, and you are now doing your best to readjust.” She gently cradles the base of his neck. “It says that you’re unbelievably strong and much more mature than we give you credit for.”
“Mature?!” Barry cries out, incredulous, but he cuts off with a small yelp when Diana pinches his side again.
“Barry,” she deadpans, “in the wake of being removed from an emotionally and physically traumatic setting, you chose to ‘talk it out’ with someone you trust. In similar situations, Victor and I both opted for isolation, and Bruce’s immediate instinct for dealing with grief was to take up vigilante justice as his primary pastime. Save for your skewed sense of self-worth, you may be the most emotionally well-adjusted member of this team. Surely you recognize how incredible that is. How incredible you are.”
“I’m not—” Barry starts. Diana doesn’t let him finish.
“You are,” she insists. She shuts her eyes, folds over so that she’s shielding as much of Barry as she can with her body. “You are, Barry. You are incredible, and loyal, and brave. And yes, maybe you’re a bit more focused when you have the mask on, but that doesn’t matter. Barry Allen is the Flash, and the Flash is Barry Allen. The humor, the heroism, the sincerity. It’s all you.”
“I don’t,” Barry stutters through another heavy sob. He curls further into Diana’s embrace, and she registers the warmth of the Lasso at the same time that she registers the shaking in Barry’s frame. “I’m not who you think I am. I just—I know that I have good qualities. I know.” He pauses to take another shuddering breath. “I’m friendly, and I’m, uhh, good at science, and, and I have, like, an encyclopedic knowledge of the first five generations of Pokemon, which sounds useless but was absolutely invaluable in college. But I’m not—I’m not incredible, or extraordinary, or brave. I’m scared of bugs, and drowning, and—and soup now, apparently. I’m scared, and I don’t know how to stop being scared, and I can’t even begin to comprehend why a team full of actual, literal superheroes are wasting their time on me when it’s so obvious that I’m not getting any better.”
Somewhere in his tirade, the tears taper off, giving way to a tired, resigned tone of voice that somehow cuts just as deep.
“I don’t—I don’t understand what’s keeping you all from giving up on me,” Barry says.
And at once, Diana understands what the problem is.
“Barry,” she starts. Stops. Hopes that Barry cannot sense her absolute awe and shock, because he doesn’t know. How doesn’t he know?
“We aren’t giving up on you because you are important to us,” Diana explains. Slowly, because evidently that is what Barry requires. “You are our friend.”
“…oh,” Barry responds. Diana can feel how his posture stiffens at the realization. “Oh.”
She takes her ‘emotionally well-adjusted’ comment back. Barry Allen is a disaster.
“Well,” Barry admits. He sounds stunned. “This is embarrassing.”
Question three comes without warning.
“Did you truly think that your affections to this team were one-sided?!”
To her merit, Diana manages to keep most of the incredulity out of her voice. Still, Barry pulls away from her embrace to flop back into the bathtub, arms flailing in an exaggerated show of defensiveness, and Diana is allotted a single moment to regret the brashness of her question before Barry is stammering through a retort.
“I’m, I—sorry? I just,” Barry flounders. He crosses his arms, but the red tinting his cheeks tells Diana that he’s more mortified than anything else. “I’m not—how was I supposed to know that they weren’t?!”
“Barry, I just spent fifteen minutes laying out every quality that you possess that makes me admire you.”
“Yeah, and before that, you spent two weeks avoiding me. What’s your point?” Barry snipes back. The comment stings—rightfully so—but Diana must not be able to school her expression in time, because Barry disarms at once, guilt transparent as he props himself up against the bathroom wall.
“I’m sorry,” he apologizes. The Lasso’s golden glow is reflected in his dark eyes. “That was uncalled for.”
“No, it wasn’t.” Diana sighs, swinging her legs over so that she’s sitting on the edge of the tub and fully facing her teammate. “We didn’t handle your absence well, nor have we properly handled your return. You have every right to be upset.”
But Barry just shakes his head.
“No,” he denies, vehemently. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know that you weren’t trying to hurt me on purpose. I knew that you were just trying to help. Well, for the most part.”
“I knew that you and Clark were just trying to help,” he amends. His voice goes soft. “I’m, uhh. I’m still not entirely sure about Victor or, or Arthur.”
“They care about you, too,” Diana reassures him, lightly nudging his leg with her foot. “They are just not the most… in touch with their emotions.”
Barry looks like he wants to argue, but at Diana’s unwavering stare, he concedes.
“You could say that again,” he snorts instead, and when Diana fails to completely stifle her startled laughter, Barry’s lips quirk into a small smile.
(Diana has missed it terribly.)
“Welp,” Barry declares, stretching his back with a series of pops. “To actually answer your question: I have, in the words of my coworkers, ‘the social awareness of a blueberry muffin.’ I—I thought you guys were just tolerating me until you found a better match or something.” Barry scratches at his jaw, clearly self-conscious. “Like I said. I’m, uh. Well. I’m a lot to deal with, sometimes. Uhm. Most of the time. So when people actually want to stick around, it—well. I usually assume that it isn’t for long.”
Diana opens her mouth to protest, but Barry shakes his head. Wipes at his eyes with the back of his wrist.
“I know. I was wrong. You, uhm. You made that pretty clear. Anyway, deal’s a deal.” He goes to pull the Lasso up over his head, but pauses midway. “Unless, uhh, unless you have anything else you wanted to ask?”
Diana hesitates, because there are a number of things that she could ask about; she still doesn’t know the entirety of what the Shapeshifter did to Barry, and the word ‘anymore’ sits heavily in the back of her mind, after all. But one look at her teammate—at his messy hair and bleeding fingers—and Diana decisively shakes her head.
Barry, for all that he pressed for this conversation, seems relieved.
“Probably for the best. If I have even one more emotional outburst, I might just combust.” He carefully drapes the Lasso over Diana’s legs. “Sorry you had to watch me cry, like, three times.”
“Only twice,” Diana corrects him playfully. Barry ducks his head, hiding his smile behind a raised hand. Though, as Diana begins to wind up the Lasso, Barry uncovers his face to speak up once more.
“Thank you,” he says abruptly, earnestly, words overflowing with gratitude that Diana is not certain that she deserves. Barry, though, for all that he is oblivious to his own self-image, recognizes her doubt instantly.
“Seriously,” he stresses, “thank you. I, uh. I needed this. Needed to—to get some things off my chest. Needed to hear that I was actually cared for. Needed to say it back. I love you guys, you know? In case the, uhm, emotional breakdown didn’t give that away.”
“It wasn’t the emotional breakdown that gave it away,” Diana jokes again. Or attempts to, at least. She is finding it incredibly difficult to come across as nonchalant when her chest is suddenly filled with so much sentiment. “And it wasn’t a problem. It will never be a problem.”
Diana rests the Lasso of Hestia over her shoulder, rubbing at the back of her neck with her free hand.
“We love you, too, Barry,” she says. “I just wish we had done a better job showing it.”
“Nah. That’s on me.” Barry slumps into the tub, sliding down until his back is to the floor and his legs dangle over the side. “You’ve always been pretty much the nicest person on earth, and everyone else has shown that they care in their own ways. I just.” He hesitates. “I just never really expected someone like me to be loved or anything. And not—not even in the 2000s emo-grunge ‘no one will ever love me’ sort of way, but in the—in the ‘I’m very awkward and annoying and painfully aware of it every moment of every day, sorry, but I will never change’ sort of way.”
Diana takes a moment to process this—to try and reconcile the idea of a boy like Barry Allen being undeserving of love—but in the end, she recognizes that such a notion is ridiculous. Because Barry is compassionate. He’s determined. He’s loud and weird and absolutely wonderful. He can take the dangerous, most painful parts of love and turn them into something beautiful.
(Sometimes, it’s hard to believe in love. But Barry Allen makes it seem so easy.)
“What can I say? You are a lovable person, Barry Allen,” Diana teases, pushing off the edge of the tub until she’s standing at Barry’s side. She tries and fails to keep a straight face when Barry flushes and covers his face at the comment, peering out at her through the gaps between his fingers.
“I take it back. You’re the worst,” he moans. Still, when Diana extends a hand out in his direction, he takes her up on the offer, allowing her to pull him to his feet.
“Come on,” Diana says, shifting so that she can fully support Barry’s weight. “We’re going to the kitchen for some ice cream.”
Barry’s blinding grin is answer enough for her.
So it’s kind of strange, Barry thinks, because even after the absolute spectacle that he has made of himself today, his teammates still treat him as though he is worthy of their care. Which, by all accounts, makes absolutely no sense.
After all, Barry has made very little progress today. Maybe even negative progress, if he’s being completely candid. He’s gone through at least three mood swings in the last hour alone, stolen Diana’s personal property just to get his own blood all over it and, to top things off, he’s completely wrecked one of the guest bathrooms at Bruce’s home.
But when he cried, Diana comforted and reassured him. And when Diana led him out of the restroom, Alfred was waiting in the hallway with a first aid kit and Barry’s cane. And when Barry attempted to apologize for the shattered mirror—attempted to explain that his brain is all messed up and offer to pay for a replacement with money that he doesn’t have quite yet, but will soon, he promises—Alfred waved off his concerns with a flippant “hardly the first time something’s been broken in this household. You have met Master Curry, haven’t you? Charming gentleman, really.”
When Barry sat on the living room couch one gallon of ice cream later, weighing the pros and cons of just asking for what he wanted, Diana somehow knew without a word, wrapping him in the first proper hug since his meltdown.
And maybe it’s stupid, because Barry has been worried about things moving too slowly for so long now. He’s stressed himself out, worked himself up, completely convinced himself that to slow down means to be left behind, because evil won’t wait and neither will the Justice League.
But here, with Diana—his friend’s—fingers carding through his hair and Alfred’s commentary overlapping the episode of Seinfeld playing in the background, Barry feels like he has all the time in the world.
“Did you have any questions for me, Barry?”
“With the Lasso: You answered my questions. Did you have any of your own?”
“Oh. Uh… yeah, actually. I can think of one.”
“So. Uhh. I don’t know what Clark’s told you, but I’ve been collecting—well, I wouldn’t exactly call it blackmail material, but—”
“What?! You asked!”
diana: have you ever considered...that you are a good person, and that people like you?
barry: sounds fake but okay