Barry Allen was exhausted. Exhausted didn’t feel like a strong enough word for how undeniably drained and worn-out he felt. He was no stranger to days without sleep or pushing his body past its physical limits but being the father of newborn twins was a different type of exhaustion. At least fighting crime provided adrenaline. The twins zapped his energy. Every time he found the time to collapse onto his couch or his bed, one of them would start crying again. It just didn’t make sense. He was at least a billion times faster than them, but he just couldn’t keep up.
Not to mention that Iris couldn’t produce enough milk for the twin terrors. The two were eating like a pair of speedsters, which was highly concerning. Don and Dawn hadn’t shown any signs of moving quickly, but Barry wondered if their time in the speed force fundamentally changed their DNA. Iris and Barry had been spending a small fortune on baby formula, which they didn’t have. Iris’s job provided the necessary time off required by law for maternity leave but refused to pay her for that time. Barry had taken all his vacation time and was grateful to be paid for it, but the time in the hospital and the baby expenses added up. Well, that was until the hospital bill had mysteriously been paid, and an envelope with $20,000 appeared in his mailbox.
He had no doubts about who was responsible for that. Bruce did not often shower his friends with extra money. Mainly because most of the Justice League was too proud to accept help – but Barry couldn’t find the energy to be indignant about it. He was too grateful. Batman had solved one of his problems, and Barry’s gratitude ran deep because if the twins were not enough, then there was Bart.
His time-traveling grandson did not take being benched well. Bart manifested a ton of anger and resentment at Barry, and when Barry told his grandson that he wanted him to talk to Dinah about the future and to process the friends he had lost by choosing to come back in time, the time-traveler lost it. Barry and Wally had their issues, but it had never been this extreme. Barry had a lot more sympathy for Bruce and his fights with Dick.
Speaking of, where were Batman and the others? Flash turned around in the JL meeting room, confused. He thought he was late for the founder’s meeting. They were gathering to discuss President Katz’s new plan to prevent minors from being superheroes. Barry wasn’t sure what would come of it. Angela Katz wasn’t up for reelection, and neither of the 2016 presidential candidates had commented on it, undoubtedly waiting to see which side the voters favored. Did President Katz have enough time left in office to follow through with her plans? Barry doubted it. Changed moved slowly. Way too slowly.
While Barry understood President Katz argument, he wasn’t sure he agreed. Courage didn’t have an age requirement. He had met grown men and women who couldn’t handle the things Wally had handled at 12. Besides what else was a young meta-human with powers supposed to do? Fighting crime and being a part of a team gave focus and a purpose for a kid’s developing powers. How did you ask anyone who was able to stop a terrible crime from happening to stand on the sidelines?
“Did hell freeze over? And why wasn’t I invited to that party?” Hal asked, breaking into Barry’s thoughts. When did he get here?
Barry scrunched his eyes in confusion. Sometimes Hal’s jokes didn’t always make sense. “What?”
Hal shook his head as he stared at Barry. “You’re a good fifteen minutes early.”
“I thought I was late.”
Hal rolled his eyes and took the seat furthest from the door, where he could see everyone as they entered. “Of course, you did. You look like hell. I thought Wally was filling in.”
“He is.” Barry let out a deep sigh. That was another thing he felt stressed about. Wally didn’t want to be a superhero, but Barry just couldn’t spare the time. It was only going to be temporary.
“Then why do you look like a breeze could knock you down?”
Collapsing into the chair next to his friend, Barry replied, “Being a dad is horrible.”
Hal chortled. “Don’t let Iris here you say that.”
“I know. I know, and I love them so much it physically aches, but I think they’re trying to kill me.”
“I thought they were only a month old.” Hal’s face scrunched in confusion.
Barry’s face fell in his hands. “They are,” he mumbled.
“Well, is Bart helping out?”
Slouching further, Barry murmured, “No, he hates me.”
“I’m sure that’s not true.”
“He literally craved I hate you into my front lawn with superspeed. I had to dig a pit through the words before the neighbors asked any questions.” And before Iris saw it. Barry had no doubts where Bart had gotten his temper, and he wouldn’t be able to handle it if the pair blew up together.
Hal’s face looked like he had eaten a lemon. “That’s – I mean I’m sure- Bart can’t hate you.”
Barry sighed. “No, he just hates me acting like a parent.” It didn’t matter that Bart needed a parent. The kid had spent too long on his own in some futuristic hell. Trying to get him to heal from that was as difficult as getting Wally to admit that being trapped in the speedforce had affected him at all.
Hal’s reply was cut off by the entrance of the rest of the League founders. Everyone took their usual seats, although the tension between Batman and Superman was thick. Barry was too tired to care about whatever that was.
Batman took his customary position in a seat and began the briefing. “As you all know, President Katz has recently argued for legislation…”
Barry tried to pay attention, but the office chair he was sitting in was so comfortable, and his body was so tired. His limbs felt so heavy, and the chair was so soft. He blinked his eyes opened. He would stay awake. The meeting was only an hour. He could stay awake for that long…
Something shook him. Barry jolted upright. “What?” He blinked. Batman was no longer in the room. Diana and J’onn were talking as they exited the room, and Dinah and Clark were discussing something in the opposite corner. “What happened?”
Hal snorted at him. “You fell asleep. And Bats growled at me to let you sleep when I tried to wake you.”
“What?” Barry repeated. That didn’t make any sense.
“My thoughts exactly,” Hal offered. “Want to tell me what you did to get on his good side? Hell, I didn’t even know he had a good side.”
“I,” Barry stumbled over his words as he thought of the recent financial blessings he received. “I have no idea.” Sure, Bruce wasn’t greedy or mean, but he expected people to follow their commitments. He didn’t cut anyone slack. He swallowed. This couldn’t be good.
The Green Lantern clearly didn’t believe him. “When you feel like sharing with the rest of the class, let me know.”
“I have no idea, Hal.” Barry groaned. “I’m going to pay for that later.”
Hal laughed long and hard.
“What did I miss?”
“Hell froze over.”
Barry stared at his friend. “Did I travel back in time again? I thought we had this conversation.”
“We did,” Hal agreed. “But this time I’m sure Hell froze over. You were early, and Bats and I agreed on something.”
A faint pain began in the back of Barry’s head. Sleeping through the meeting was a bad idea. “I thought you disagreed with him out of principle.”
“I did. I do.” Hal shrugged. “He’s the one who took my side.”
His headache was getting stronger. “Can you please just explain what happened?” Barry ignored the whiny quality to his voice.
Hal gave him a pitying look, which Barry did not need. “Diana and J’onn disagree firmly with President Katz’s bill. Bruce and I supported it. Dinah’s on the fence, but I think she’s leaning towards supporting it. Clark didn’t offer his opinion either way.”
If he weren’t so tired, Barry knew that sentence would make more sense. “Batman agrees with the bill?” That couldn’t be right. Batman was the one who brought the first child sidekick into the game. “That doesn’t make any sense.”
Hal gave him a look Barry couldn’t decipher. “As I said, hell froze over.”
Before Barry could wrap his weary mind over that development, Superman interrupted their conversation.
“Flash, a word please,” Superman asked, approaching the pair. Dinah had left the room. Hal shook his head and followed Dinah out. “I appreciate that Batman has only recently discovered how much he owes your nephew, but try not to use League time to catch up on sleep.”
“I’m sorry. What?”
Clark looked surprised. “You don’t know?” Clark released a breath. “Never mind. Just don’t sleep through another meeting.”
With that, Superman was gone, leaving a confused Flash that had a growing suspicion regarding his former partner that needed to be addressed.
After refueling and making a few phone calls, Barry Allen zipped towards the west coast. He needed to have a word or perhaps several words with his darling nephew. He knocked on the door of Wally and Artemis’s apartment and waited. And waited.
It occurred to Barry that he had no idea what time it was. Maybe he should have looked at a clock before dashing off to confront his nephew. Eventually, Artemis in an oversized school sweatshirt and black shorts opened the door. Her eyes widened slightly in surprise.
“Barry?” She asked, eyes flicking into the hallway. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” he told her as he pushed into the apartment. “Is my nephew around?”
Artemis was looking at him with the same eyes Iris used when he thought he was acting strange. Well, she was used to the craziness that came with loving a speedster.
“He’s patrolling Central. Like you asked him to do.” The blonde’s words were slow, careful and pronounced.
It was clear she thought Barry was crazy or had been infected by something. “Okay, I’ll wait.”
“What’s going on?”
“I need to talk to Wally.”
“Yes, I got that. About what?”
Barry looked at the young woman, who was going to become his niece. The truth was he loved Artemis. He thought her cool head and practical thinking were good counter balances to Wally’s… Wally-ness. He trusted Artemis. He did, but Dick’s suicide attempt wasn’t his to share as he pleased with others.
“He lied to me about something he shouldn’t have,” he said instead.
Artemis shook her head. “Okay, I’m not getting involved. Do you want something to eat?”
“I’m not hungry.”
The woman arched her eyebrow. Right, she lived with a speedster.
“I ate before I came,” he corrected.
“At least, sit down.” She sighed. “You look terrible.”
Barry gladly followed her into the living room where he sank into the couch. Artemis picked up her computer and returned to her own spot on the couch. She began typing away. The soft sounds reminded him of Iris typing up a new story and almost lulled him to sleep.
“You’re a cop, right?” Artemis jolted Barry out of his doze.
“Forensic scientist for the police department,” he clarified.
“Okay, what do you think of the current criminal justice system?”
Well, that was a conversation that he couldn’t half participate in. He blinked himself awake and forced himself to turn his head to the woman sitting on the other side of the couch.
“That’s a complicated question,” he replied, unsure of what she was looking for.
“Do you feel confident that we can guarantee someone’s innocence or guilt with the current justice system?”
Barry sighed. “No, there are few guarantees. We do the best we can and hope the system doesn’t mess up too badly.”
Nodding as if she expected the answer, Artemis asked, “And do you think prison is an effective deterrent for criminal behavior?”
“I don’t know.” She was probing into his own doubts about the system, and this wasn’t a conversation he particularly wanted to have when he was this exhausted. “What brought this on?”
She was cut off as a whoosh of air filled the living room and knocked the soda cans over, the books on the coffee table flipped open. Artemis clutched her mug of tea. The wind blew into Barry’s face. That was truly annoying.
“Babe! I’m home.” Wally zipped over to give Artemis a kiss but pulled back and stumbled when he saw Barry. “Uncle Barry!” He cried, unsuccessfully trying to stop his momentum before he crashed onto the floor.
Barry let out a fond chuckle. “Kid, you never change.”
Wally stood up and leaned on the arm of the couch next to Artemis. “Not that I don’t always love to see you, but did I forget plans or something?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m here because of an interesting conversation I had with Superman today.” Barry pitched his voice low and stern. He needed his nephew to know that he wasn’t fooling around.
“Okaaaayy,” Wally stretched the word out. He looked confused, although there was a nervousness in his green eyes that told Barry he knew he was in trouble.
“Yes,” Barry began slowly. “He told me that Batman had only recently become aware of how much he owed my nephew.”
Wally gulped, and Barry’s suspicions cemented. His nephew was the perfect picture of guilt. Barry dragged out his next comment, watching the expressions of fear, resignation, and guilt play out across his nephew’s face. There was no torture greater for a speedster’s than being forced to wait.
“Wally!” Artemis interrupted Barry’s planned reprimand. She whacked him in the side, hard enough for him to take a step back. “You told me you told Bruce.”
“No, I said I would tell Bruce,” Wally argued. “And I did.”
Artemis looked at him disbelievingly. It appeared she already knew, so Barry didn’t need to watch his words.
“When?” Barry asked.
Wally’s eyes flicked over to Barry. “What?”
“When did you tell Bruce?”
And that look was the epitome of guilt. “When I came back from the speedforce…”
“Wally!” Artemis cried again. “You promised!”
“Yeah well, Dick begged me not to,” Wally defended.
“And if he begged you to kill him, would you?”
“Of course not! What is your problem?”
“My problem is that you risked my friend’s life.”
Wally’s face, always so expressive, shifted from anger to guilt. “Babe, I –“
“Forget it.” Artemis scoffed and left the room. There was a soft bang from a slammed door.
Wally’s face quickly moved back towards anger. “Thank you for that.” Then he saw the look on his uncle’s face and his anger disappeared in favor of the look Wally adopted when he knew he was in deep trouble with his mentor. Wally rubbed the back of his neck fast enough to leave a burn. “I mean. How much trouble am I in?”
Barry had had plenty of time to develop a suitable punishment. Whenever Wally and Dick had gotten in trouble, which was more often than not, Bruce favored straight grounding. Barry preferred more creative punishments.
“You’re babysitting the twins the next three Saturdays,” he stated. Barry liked to think that he’d take his wife out to dinner, but he knew they’d both just sleep.
“Okay,” Wally quickly agreed, but he looked suspicious. Barry never did let him off that easy.
“On my way over, I called Central City Penitentiary. The warden will be expecting a visit from the Flash to give an inspirational speech about the possibility of turning one’s life around.”
“Oh, come on!” His nephew cried.
“The point being,” Barry continued as if Wally hadn’t interrupted. “That when you agree to do something, you follow through. Part of the Flash’s commitment to justice is encouraging people to leave lives of crime and showing them alternative options.”
“And if I refuse?” Wally challenged. His chest out in challenge.
“Then you deal with your Aunt Iris.”
His nephew deflated instantly. “Fine,” he said through clenched teeth.
“Lastly, you are going to talk about what happened in the speedforce.”
“Nothing happened,” he hissed.
Barry shook his head. He loved his partner and nephew so much, but his tendency towards denial was a major weakness of his. That’s probably why he never told Bruce about Dick’s attempt. Wally preferred to live in denial, but it had to stop.
“When I found you the first time, you were clutching Artemis’s corpse. The second time, you were watching Dick jump –”
“Yes, I know. I saw everyone I care about die, but it didn’t happen. Everyone is fine,” Wally argued, but Barry knew his nephew well enough to notice the widening of his eyes. Wally was still bothered by all that he saw. He just didn’t want to admit it.
“You lived that for a month, Kid.”
“I’m fine,” Wally gritted out. Were all his partners this obtuse? Barry was fairly certain that he could recognize when he pushed passed his limits. Why couldn’t any of his proteges?
“Look, you can talk to me or you can talk to Iris. I don’t even care if you want to talk to Dinah, but you can’t just ignore this, Walls,” Barry said, unconsciously falling into the voice he used for scared victims of crime.
Green eyes scanned the hallway. “Fine, but no one tells Artemis.”
Barry’s mind sounded a klaxon at the request. “That’s not a good idea.”
Wally’s eyes were fierce. “Noted.”
“Okay,” he agreed reluctantly. It was not his responsibility to fix communication issues between the couple. He hoped after his nephew processed some of the events, he’d realize how ridiculous his request was. “I need to get back to Iris and the twins.”
Barry didn’t wait to hear Wally’s dismissal. He only hoped he hadn’t messed this up too badly. He needed a nap. A long nap.
He returned home to fine his wife with bags under her eyes, red hair sticking every which way, shirt stained with various bodily fluids, changing Dawn’s diaper. Barry zipped over to her and diapered Dawn quickly. He then gave Iris a kiss.
She smiled at him. “What was that for?”
“Nothing. You’re just so breathtakingly beautiful.”
Iris gave him a look of fond exasperation. He held Dawn in one hand and had his other arm was wrapped around his wife. They stood there peacefully for all of twenty seconds, and then Don started crying from his crib.