The first time his driveway is miraculously cleared in the morning, Barry is too tired to even appreciate it properly; he sighs in relief and goes back to bed, because it’s just one of those days when he’s constantly exhausted.
But it keeps happening.
Every morning he successfully drags himself out of bed, he wants to weep with joy that he doesn’t have to shovel snow when his hands can barely hold a mug of tea most of the time. He really didn’t expect to have this problem; not the shaky hands, because the doctors listed all the wonderful symptoms he could expect, and frankly, looking at that list makes Barry glad that tremors and exhaustion are the only reminders of the lightning strike. No – what he did not expect is the snow. Central rarely gets so much of it, but this January looks like the weather is making up for the last snowless decade in the span of just one month.
Barry kind of regrets being unconscious for the holidays – he hasn’t had a white Christmas since he was eleven, and while he still associates the snow with the year his mother died, with the first time he did not welcome the New Year with either of his parents, Barry can’t help but like the sight of everything sparkling whenever the sun peeks through the clouds. He likes sitting by the window in the kitchen, cradling a mug of hot chocolate or tea in his hands and just watching life go by; that’s how he figures the mystery of his clean driveway, in the end.
It’s almost six in the morning and Barry can’t sleep – maybe it has something to do with the fact that he slept the last two days away, or maybe insomnia is another beautiful effect of being stupid enough to handle iron chains when there was a lightning storm overhead. He’s sitting at the kitchen table, having just made himself a fresh pot of tea, when he sees a dark outline of a figure walk up to his house. He expects a doorbell and moves to the door, because it can sometimes take a while, if his knees start to shake – but there’s no ringing, no knocking, and when Barry pushes back the curtain from the tall, narrow window by the door, he sees that same figure, back turned to the house and hunched over a massive shovel. It hasn’t snowed much overnight – there are maybe four or five fresh inches covering the concrete path to the house, but it would take Barry hours to muster up the strength to get rid of it anyway.
He watches for a couple of minutes until he realizes who it is; he’s only seen the kid around a couple of times before his accident, but he’s pretty sure he remembers the mop of curly hair. The old ladies in the neighborhood gave him hushed warnings about the boy, saying that he was running with all the bad crowds in the city and doing drugs and drinking already, and Mrs. Mackenzie hissed something about armed robbery when she dropped off that casserole last week… but Barry has a hard time believing that the boy slaving away in a stranger’s driveway without even asking for compensation could be so bad.
He finds himself opening the door before he can think twice – the icy air slaps him in the face, but he calls out despite the chattering teeth, hoping he remembers his name correctly.
The boy whips around as if Barry shot at him, eyes huge in his round face, and Barry chuckles a little when the kid flails and drops the shovel. His gaze darts to the road, as if he’s considering bolting, and Barry can’t have that, so he steps away from the door a little and gestures inside.
“Would you like some tea?”
The kid hesitates for the longest time – Barry’s freezing in his sweatpants and hoodie and he very much wants to go inside, but something tells him to wait Len out. In the end, the boy looks somewhere down the road again, then turns his eyes back to Barry and nods, slowly, solemnly, like he’s marching up to a death row instead of walking to a neighbor’s house.
He stops just three feet into Barry’s home, hands stuck in his pockets and looking around like he’s searching for the signs of Barry committing ritual murder on every available surface. It’s kind of adorable, even though Barry has never enjoyed it when kids were scared of him.
“Come in,” he says, and doesn’t mention the clumps of snow that form tiny puddles on the floor in the wake of Len’s steps. The boy plops down on the kitchen chair when Barry motions to the table, eyes still darting around like he’s trying to see everything at once.
“What…?” Len sounds alarmed and Barry raises an eyebrow.
“Do you want sugar in your tea? Honey? I’m out of milk, sorry.”
Len scrunches up his face, apparently not a fan of milky tea, and Barry can agree with that. The kid runs his hand through his damp curls and shrugs.
It’s such a teen move that Barry has to suppress sniggers at the memory of himself at that age – Len can’t be more than sixteen, judging by the gangly, awkward looks of him. Barry adds a spoonful of sugar into the mug on a whim and then carefully picks it up with both hands, slowly carrying it towards Len. He manages not to spill as he sets the mug on the table, but Len’s eyes catch on his shaking hands anyway. The questions are practically written on his forehead, but if Barry remembers being that age correctly, the kid won’t ask on his own.
“I was struck by lightning,” he explains and takes a seat opposite Len, smiling at the boy. “So thank you for helping me out, with the snow… it was you all this time, wasn’t it?”
The kid glances away, embarrassment darkening his cheeks.
“No big deal.”
“Well, it was very helpful. Thank you,” Barry repeats, refusing to be deterred in his gratitude by teenage brooding. Len really can’t be a bad kid, no matter what the old ladies say.
The boy shrugs and glowers at his mug as if it has personally offended him; Barry wonders if his bad rep originated in his unhappy grimaces.
“I had to repay you,” he says in the end and Barry raises an eyebrow.
“Lisa,” he huffs. “You helped her.”
It takes Barry a couple seconds but he does remember the ten-year-old who showed up on his doorstep in August, a thin trail of blood smeared down her thigh under her ripped shorts, tears in her eyes as she clutched at her stomach and yelped ‘I’m dying’. It was right after Barry moved in and she thought he was Mrs. Fitzpatrick, but Barry couldn’t let her just run away when she was scared and confused, so he invited her in and took care of the problem he was familiar with from his life with Iris as his sister. He gave her Tylenol for the cramps and lent her his craziest superhero boxers to make her smile a little, then went out to get her pads (after calling Iris for consultation, because while he had a good general idea of what was necessary, he really had zero personal experience with different brands and types of female hygiene products).
“She’s your… sister?” Barry tries – she could be a cousin or even a niece, but his guess is correct judging by the way Len’s nodding.
“No need to pay me back,” Barry says with a chuckle. “Forensic science might not be the highest paying job, but I can afford a pack of pads, don’t worry.”
“You’re a cop?”
The tone in which the kid asks doesn’t imply he has a particularly high opinion of law enforcement, and Barry blinks.
“Um… kind of, but not really? I just process evidence.”
The silence is a little awkward and Barry wonders if the kid really had some run-ins with the police due to certain illegal activities. Barry tries to be a good host and pushes the half-eaten box of cookies towards the boy – his inquisitive blue eyes settle on Barry’s shaking hands again.
“Did it hurt?”
“A little,” Barry smiles. He doesn’t want to scare the boy, and in any case, he barely remembers the actual event. “I couldn’t move for a while… and then I lost consciousness. I woke up months later, and apparently I missed Christmas,” he chuckles a bit. He’s expecting an ‘I’m sorry’ at this point, having told the same story to all the friends who have come visit since he woke up, but Len just shrugs.
The simple statement makes Barry laugh. “Yeah. Yeah it does. I’ll have to make up for that next year – go all out with plastic reindeers and little lights on everything. You better hope I don’t get struck by lightning twice, because cleaning up the snow around all the decorations is gonna be hard,” he winks. Len looks a bit offended, like a cat who just realized she’s being laughed at, and Barry finds that incredibly cute. How can anyone think this boy is evil? Not with that face, he isn’t.
“So… you like comic books?” Len shrugs, and Barry almost sighs in relief – he’s not very good at talking to teenagers, he’s horribly out of practice and out of touch with whatever it is teenagers like these days, but comic books apparently never fail. He wouldn’t have guessed that lending an upset girl his superhero underwear would once prove to be a conversation topic.
“Yeah,” he smiles. “Superman’s my absolute favorite. Who’s yours?”
Len frowns. “I don’t read comic books.”
“Why not?” Barry blinks – he can’t imagine his childhood without those (honestly, his life, but he’s twenty-six and he refuses to acknowledge that kind of geekery out loud, except to a few choice people who are even worse than he is, like Cisco).
“Dad says they’re a waste of money,” Len mumbles, and something flashes in his eyes that makes Barry say something he normally wouldn’t.
“Do you want to borrow some?”
His comic book collection is sacred to him, and he doesn’t let just anyone read them, much less borrow them, but he can’t handle the level of wistful annoyance that’s turning Len’s face into a visual representation of misery.
The kid looks around, as if he expects comic books to be lining the kitchen shelves, and Barry smiles, pushing away from the table.
“They’re in the living room. Come with me, and you can pick what you like.”
Len immediately zeroes in on the massive bookshelf, but he strays towards the omnibus and hardcover section, ignoring the single-issues as if he’s more comfortable with something that resembles an actual book. Barry lets him thumb over the spines, and when the kid picks up a heavy Superman collection, Barry can’t help but smile.
Len turns a few pages, and Barry can see the interest in his eyes, but he sets the book back on the shelf after a couple of minutes.
“You can take it home,” Barry says – and he doesn’t know why he feels like insisting on this, why he wants to make the kid smile, even if it would be in the privacy of his room without Barry there to see it. But comic books have a way of transporting him into another world, of making him forget his problems, and Barry feels like Len might need just that. “How about we make a deal, huh? You help me with the snow for a little bit longer, and you can come here anytime and pick whatever book you like.”
Len gives him a calculating stare, as if he’s expecting more conditions to follow, but when Barry keeps smiling and doesn’t say anything more, the kid slowly nods and picks up the Superman collection again.
Inexplicably, Barry feels all warm and happy inside when he watches the boy leave, the comic book hidden underneath his jacket to protect it from the snowflakes floating in the air.
“I got hot chocolate,” Barry calls out of the door on a Saturday morning. It’s still dark and it’s snowing, tiny frozen bits that sting when they attack exposed skin. Len turns around and hesitates.
“I got tea too, if you don’t like it,” Barry asks, even though he wonders if he should start praying for the soul of a kid who doesn’t enjoy a cup of steaming hot chocolate.
Len shakes his head and mutters something under his breath.
“What? Can’t hear you.”
“I said that Lisa loves it,” Len mumbles a little louder, shuffling his feet like he’s worried Barry will slam the door in his face.
“Well, why don’t you bring her over? There’s plenty for all of us,” Barry smiles, and the expression Len gives him melts his heart more efficiently than any hot beverage.
The doorbell rings twenty minutes later, and it looks very much like Len pulled Lisa out of bed. Barry’s not surprised, considering it’s barely seven AM on a Saturday, but he still chuckles when he sees her tangled hair and sleepy, narrow eyes.
“I’m sorry about your shorts,” is the first thing out of her mouth, and Barry laughs.
“It’s okay. I got more, don’t worry about it. You two haven’t had breakfast yet, have you?”
It’s one of the less shaky days, so he whips out his secret recipe for French toast (that’s really less of a secret and more of a happy googling accident, but Iris swears by them so Barry thinks the kids won’t mind, even if they might go into a shock from all the sugar).
Barry didn’t even realize how much he missed weekend family breakfasts ever since he moved out of Joe’s place, but watching Lisa drown her toast in syrup and Len meticulously cut his to same-sized pieces makes Barry’s chest expand with all the feelings bubbling up inside.
They all watch cartoons afterwards, huge mugs of hot chocolate in their hands, squeezed together on Barry’s sofa, and Len acts like he’s too old for that kind of crap but when Barry’s the first to burst into giggles, Len seems to relax and Barry catches him smiling soon enough.
Watching Len shovel snow out of his driveway and then having breakfast together becomes a bit of a morning ritual for Barry. Most of the time, Lisa comes over too, and there are days when Barry’s hands shake too much so Len is the one to prove his worth in the kitchen. Somehow, Lisa and Barry take up the task of critiquing Len’s scrambled eggs and toasts in snotty accents and Len scowls at them, but Barry can’t be fooled when his Instagram is full of artsy plates of eggs and every one of them is appreciated by ‘cpt.cold’. When Barry asks, Len blushes and admits it’s his nickname in an online game, where he plays a cryomancer character.
Two weeks later, Barry is level thirty and Len keeps complaining that it’s not fair because Barry’s still on sick leave and thus can game all day – but he helps Barry with all the raids and only makes fun of him a little when Barry’s character dies a horrible, painful death because he ran into a dragon boss without any kind of strategy.
Early February melts the snow and Barry is kind of sad to see it go, but Len keeps turning up for breakfast at least a couple times a week anyway. Barry learns that Lisa and he are living in a foster home, and that it’s better than living with their abusive asshole of a father (Len doesn’t use that many words, but what he doesn’t say paints a rather vivid picture in Barry’s mind). There are three other kids and it gets noisy, and when Len hints that Lisa’s been having a bit of trouble at school because she can never concentrate, Barry offers that they can both come to his place to study. He’s having less and less shaky days, so he goes back to work, and when he gives Len the key to the front door, in case he’s working late and the kids need a place, he pretends not to notice how damp Len’s eyes get.
“Got plans for Saturday?” Len asks, after Barry’s character gets killed again. They’re sprawled on Barry’s couch because his internet is faster and thus Len doesn’t lag as much as when he plays from home, even if he has to borrow Barry’s old laptop because there’s only a desktop computer at the foster home and Len can’t really bring that over.
Saturday’s February 14th and Barry looks over at the kid, snickering.
“Yeah, but I’ll be here so don’t bring girls over just because you got a key,” he teases. Len shoots him an offended, irritated look.
“I wouldn’t do that,” he grumbles, and Barry chuckles.
“Do that when I’m at work and please pretend I never said that,” Barry adds, because he remembers being a teenager and not having a place to go (that one time he had a date), and it sucked. He’s not particularly fond of the idea of teenagers getting hot and heavy on his couch, but hey, he’s willing to be a cool adult and pretend he doesn’t know about it.
“I wouldn’t,” Len repeats, and viciously slams his fingers against the keyboard, slaughtering two orcs in one go. Barry feels like he stepped into a minefield all of a sudden, so he shuts up and focuses on the game when his character respawns. They play in silence for a while, but it’s tense instead of companionable and Barry misses the easy atmosphere from before, especially when he doesn’t understand why Len is so upset.
The kid is the one to break the silence in the end.
“So… you got plans with your girlfriend?”
He probably could’ve thought of cooler things to say, but hey, he’s still Barry Allen, and even the lightning bolt did not manage to strike out the heaps of awkward nesting in his brain.
Len raises an eyebrow at him like Barry’s stupid.
“The woman who comes here all the time?”
Barry blinks again, and then it clicks in his head (and he also wonders how come Len knows, because Iris never came over when the kids were here so far).
“Oh,” he says, and then laughs, shaking his head. “No. I mean, yeah, she’s coming over, but she’s not my girlfriend, she’s my sister. We’re having a ‘Valentine’s Day Sucks’ party, we’re gonna be watching movies and eating our feelings. If you got nothing better to do, you can drop by?”
He doesn’t know why he just invited a seventeen-year-old to his Iris-time, but the strangest thing is that he doesn’t mind. Considering how often Len’s been hanging out at his place, it’s probably high time he and Iris met, anyway.
“Maybe I will,” Len mutters, in that non-committal, nothing-touches-me tone specific to teenage boys.
Barry finds himself grinning at his game. He’s not sure why Len lets him have the loot, but he needs that dragon-skin armor, so he doesn’t ask.
Iris slaps the back of her hand into his arm so hard it stings for a couple of seconds.
“Ow,” Barry hisses and gives her a dirty look. “What was that for?!”
“How about encouraging young boys’ crushes?!” she hisses back and Barry’s brain refuses to process that sentence for about five seconds. Len’s just excused himself to use the bathroom so it’s only the two of them sprawled on the sofa, Barry in the middle between Iris and Len, and his sister is acting like she knows something Barry doesn’t.
Not that that’s a new development, she does that fairly often, but right now, Barry really doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
“What…?” he asks coherently, and Iris slaps him again. “Ow! Stop that!”
“Barry Allen, don’t you dare tell me you didn’t realize that boy has a crush the size of this planet on you!”
“What?” he repeats as his eyes widen. “No he doesn’t! He’s a friend – I helped his sister once, so he helped me out with the snow, and now we game together from time to time-“
“Like every other day-“
“Yeah, well, it’s a good game-“
“-and he brought you chocolates.”
“They were on sale! He felt bad that he and Lisa eat at my place all the time!”
“Oh my god, Barry, were you never seventeen?! Of course that’s what he told you, but have you seriously ever brought someone a heart-shaped box of chocolates because you were grateful?!”
Barry stares at the box of chocolates, lying on the table, already opened and half-eaten because Barry declared they were all adults (or almost-adults) and if they wanted to have chocolate for dinner, they should.
Now that he thinks about Iris’ words, it does make a bit more sense why Len didn’t look so happy about it when Barry opened the chocolates and offered them up as general snacks. Barry just assumed Len was hungry and wanted to eat something normal instead.
“He doesn’t-“ he starts weakly, but Iris cuts him off with a snort.
“Of course he does. I saw how he looks at you, Barry, and if he’s not already in love with you, he’s well on his way, so you better let him down gently.”
The words lurch in Barry’s stomach and he’s startled to realize how much he doesn’t want to have that conversation with Len. Every rational bone in his body is screaming that he should. Heck, he’s nine years older and that’s a hell of a difference when one of them is seventeen… and he shouldn’t even be thinking about that as the only reason for letting Len down, gently or otherwise, because he never really thought about Len as anything but a friend, but now that Iris brought up all those little things he took for granted… Barry’s confused.
The sound of Len’s steps grows ice around Barry’s heart and he’s trying not to appear stiff and uncomfortable when the kid plops down right next to him on the sofa, but he’s hyper-aware of everything at the moment and when Len sprawls and his knee brushes against Barry’s leg, Barry has to fight the urge to pull away and yell in horror because apparently, he went and started dating a seventeen-year-old without realizing it.
Iris un-pauses the movie and Barry’s grateful for the distraction, even though it does shit to calm him down.
“I need a beer,” he declares after about five minutes of trying to focus on the film, with no success whatsoever. “Want one?” he glances at Iris, and she nods.
“Can I have one too?” Len asks, big hopeful eyes in his innocent face and Barry feels his stomach jump unpleasantly.
“No, Jesus, you’re seventeen,” he snaps and escapes to the kitchen before he can see Len’s face crumple. Barry never talked to him like that before and he kinda hates himself for doing it now, even if it was a knee-jerk reaction to things that have nothing to do with underage drinking.
He splashes some cold water onto his face in the kitchen and dries himself off with a paper towel, but it doesn’t actually wash away the stupid thoughts in his head. He has to talk to Len, has to tell him this is a bad idea, has to start pulling away somehow so that Len can have an age-appropriate life, find someone at school or wherever- Barry can’t do this.
Barry should be glad for small mercies that it’s Iris and not Len, standing in the doorway, but he’s not sure he’s that happy about it. After all, before she brought it up, he was living in blissful ignorance – then again, that thought is horribly unfair to Len whose feelings didn’t just magically appear because Iris pointed them out: they were there for weeks, Barry was just stupid enough not to see it.
“What do I do?” he groans and rubs his hands down his damp face. Iris gives him a sympathetic (or pitying) look.
“Talk to him. Not tonight, though. We’ll go back there, we’ll watch the movie, then we’ll argue about what to watch next, and you’re gonna stop freaking out, okay?”
It’s silly, and it shouldn’t work, being told to stop freaking out when he is freaking out… but Iris’ voice is calm and Barry takes a deep breath after a while, chuckling.
“And you’re gonna drop the buzzkill act, I’m sure this won’t be the kid’s first drink,” she rolls her eyes and retrieves three bottles of beer from his fridge. Barry sighs, but doesn’t argue the point.
“Oh my god, you should’ve mentioned that you were such a lightweight, kid,” Iris sniggers, and Barry kind of wants to strangle her, because it was her idea to give Len beer.
“’m not a kid,” Len slurs, and to prove his point, tries to walk in a straight line. And nearly crashes into a table. Barry has to catch him so he doesn’t break his face.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Barry sighs, and the happy, uninhibited smile Len shines at him should be illegal. Well. He’s illegal, so that kinda counts.
“I have a guest room,” Barry adds pointedly and Len’s expression crumbles a bit – how come it took Barry eight weeks to figure out this kid had a crush on him?!
He drags Len to the back of the house, to the guest room that is furnished sparingly considering that Barry doesn’t really use it, and Len drops onto the bed face down like a sack of potatoes. Very, very drunk potatoes. How does someone get so drunk from two beers?!
“Shoes,” Barry says, but Len doesn’t move, so Barry pulls his sneakers and socks off and drags the comforter over the boy’s body. He’s long and lean and nearly as tall as Barry, and Barry feels like his brain is trying to make excuses. For unspeakable, horrible things.
Len mumbles sleepily and curls his hand into the pillow, and he looks so young and innocent and adorable that it breaks Barry’s heart to know what he’ll have to say, and soon. But he has to do it… he can’t allow this boy’s heart to grow any fonder, because it would only hurt Len more, in the long run.
He turns the lights off and resists brushing the messy curls out of Len’s forehead.
Iris leaves around midnight, and Barry wonders if he should wake Len up and tell him to go home, but he couldn’t have slept the alcohol off in an hour, and Barry’s not cruel enough to get him in trouble with his foster parents, so he texts the foster dad that Len fell asleep watching a movie and he’ll be home tomorrow morning. He got the number from Lisa after the first time she kinda forgot to tell their foster mom that she was going to Barry’s place to work on her science project, because Barry could provide stuff way cooler than soda volcanoes, courtesy of his work. Barry feels like he’s teetering on the edge between rebellious youth and respectable adulthood, because he is letting the parents know that their kid is okay, but at the same time, he’s covering for a drunk teenager, so the scales are pretty evenly weighed.
With multiple sighs that don’t do anything to relieve the uncomfortable pressure in his chest, he brushes his teeth and changes into his pajamas – but when he crawls into his bed, he hears a noise, and then another, and another. His heart picks up speed as he throws his covers off and stalks towards the door; for a split second, his stomach jumps at the thought that the noises are actually moans.
His hand hovers over the door handle and he wonders if he should just try to ignore it – but then another noise comes from the room just across the hallway, and it definitely does not sound like that kind of a moan.
Barry crosses the hallway in one long step (it is kinda tiny) and he pushes the guestroom door open as quietly as he can.
“Len?” he whispers, squinting in the darkness.
Barry swallows, his heart going out to the kid who’s apparently having a nightmare. He gets to the bed and reaches out in the dark, his hand finding Len’s arm.
“Don’t… Lisa… no….”
“Len, wake up- OW.”
The kid’s arm flails up and his knuckles catch Barry across the face. He sees stars for a second and then sits down on the edge of the bed, groaning and shaking Len’s shoulder a little, trying to be careful about any more flying hands.
“Don’t hurt her!” he screams and sits up, eyes visibly widened even in the relative darkness of the room, and Barry grasps both of his shoulders, gently but firmly.
“Len. It was just a dream. You’re okay. You’re safe. Lisa’s safe, too. Everything’s okay.”
He repeats the same phrases over and over until Len’s chest stops heaving like he just ran a marathon. The boy’s eyes seek him out in the dark and he swallows, his throat bobbing with the motion.
“Shit,” he sighs and rubs at his eyes. “’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. You’re okay now… do you want to go home? I can take you.”
It’s a two-minute walk, five houses down the street, but Barry refuses to let Len walk it alone, not when he’s still a little bit drunk and visibly upset from his nightmare. The boy shakes his head, though, and then sort of collapses, his forehead thumping against Barry’s collarbone.
“Shit,” he repeats, and Barry moves his hand to rub circles over his back.
“It’s okay. You’re okay.”
“Guess not handling drinks well runs in the family,” Len snorts, voice muffled as the words break against the fabric of Barry’s shirt.
Barry remembers all the things that were left unsaid, and what could have caused kids to live in a foster family while having nightmares about someone hurting them. He runs his hand over Len’s hair, because there’s no appropriate way to say ‘I’m sorry your dad was an asshole’.
“I don’t even like beer,” Len confesses quietly. That makes Barry sigh and shake his head, just a little.
“Why did you ask for it, then?”
“Wanted…” Len mumbles, then sighs, then tries again. “Wanted you to stop seeing me as a kid. I’m not, you know.”
“You are,” Barry says quietly. “But that’s not a bad thing.”
Len pulls away and his arms cross over his chest, as defensive as he can get while his feet are still tangled in a comforter. “It is. Don’t wanna to be your little brother, you know?”
Barry licks his lips – he really isn’t ready for this conversation now, but there’s no way to back out, none that he can see, at least.
He tries, anyway, with a weak “We can talk in the morning, Len-“ but he gets interrupted by a strong grip on his forearm when he tries to get up and leave (flee, really, he’s not afraid of a good tactical retreat).
“No. You’ll send me away in the morning and we’ll never talk and you’ll pretend you’re not home and then you’ll change your locks and I’ll never get to say this.”
He sounds a bit breathless, a little panicked, and Barry can’t say that the shameful option of avoiding the problem until it goes away hasn’t crossed his mind.
But Len’s not a ‘problem’ – he’s a kid, no, a human being, a person, a funny, smart, sarcastic person and Barry’s in danger of doing something stupid because he can’t remember the last time he felt this comfortable with anyone, but it’s not fair to ask a seventeen-year-old to handle all of his issues and hangups and general baggage.
“I like you.”
It comes out rushed and mangled, like it’s just one heartbeat translated into words, and Barry’s own heart stops at the sound of it.
“I like you,” Len repeats, louder and clearer, as if his resolve is growing with every time he says the words that doom Barry’s sanity.
“I know I’m younger than you, okay? But I’ll be eighteen in a month, and I officially won’t be a kid then.”
This is exactly why it’s a horrible idea, the fact that Len is young enough to think that there’s such a thing as a magical barrier date that will push him over the threshold of adulthood as if it’s just a single step he needs to take. Barry feels horribly under-equipped to deal with this – adulthood is such an elusive concept that Barry himself doesn’t feel like an actual real-life adult too often, and he’s not sure how to explain that without getting Len’s hopes up. Len makes him feel ancient and too young at the same time, and Barry knows it’s a horrible idea and that he’s doing the worst thing he could do, that he should be letting Len down as gently as possible… but no other words want to make it out of his throat when he swallows and opens his mouth.
“How about we talk about it then?”
That should give him enough time to come up with all the reasons why they shouldn’t, why he shouldn’t, and maybe, if he tries extra hard, he’ll even persuade himself.
“Fine,” Len huffs, and falls back into the pillows, grumbling. “It’s the eleventh of March. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t,” Barry promises, and wonders if he’ll be able to think about anything else.
Barry expects things to be awkward between them, but the few subtle changes that do happen aren’t exactly bothersome. Len stops letting him win in the games they play, and Barry discovers that he’s actually a formidable opponent, not just adequate like he’s been pretending. Len gets snarkier, more ironic at some points, but Barry enjoys their back-and-forth more than is healthy, and he’s none the wiser as to what he should say, come March 11th.
The problem solves itself when his doorbell rings six days before the ‘deadline’ and Len is standing on his doorstep. He’s so pale that Barry’s first thought is that something happened to Lisa and he can feel blood drain out of his face in response, but then he notices the envelope being currently wrecked by Len’s shaky hands.
Barry knows what it is – he still remembers the mix of dread and hope upon seeing similar envelopes, eight years ago. He pulls Len in without a word, and the boy looks up at him with terrified eyes.
“I… I wanted to open it here. Is that okay?” he asks, as if Barry could ever say no.
“Come, sit down, I’ll make you some te-“
“No,” Len shakes his head and rips into the envelope. “Need to get this over with.”
Barry’s stomach is twisting and curling like he ate bad seafood in that minute it takes Len to scan the contents of the envelope. Barry’s pretty sure that the kid got in, because there’s a lot of paper stuffed in there, but he knows that Len probably won’t be able to afford school if it’s just simple acceptance. He’s terrifyingly smart, though, and Barry toys with the idea of helping Len pay for his education if there’s no offer of a-
“I got it,” Len whispers and Barry’s thoughts come to an abrupt end. The boy glances up and the papers flutter to the ground, and suddenly Barry’s got an armful of gangly teenager, scream-laughing in his ear.
“I got it! I got the full scholarship to CCU! I’m gonna be a fucking engineer!”
Barry laughs with him and his arms twist around Len’s waist: he doesn’t try to lift or spin him around, because he’s still recovering from the lightning strike, but the thought is there. Len’s curls tickle his cheek as they just stand there and laugh crazily together, and Barry knows for a fact that in six days, he’s not going to be able to come up with a valid reason for why he shouldn’t keep this boy in his arms for as long as Len will have him.
Len pulls back just a fraction and his eyes honest-to-god sparkle, overflowing with joy.
“You’re gonna be dating a college boy,” he smirks, cheeky and content, and Barry can’t help but laugh.
“Really,” Len whispers and one of his hands tangles in Barry’s shirt so he can pull him closer for a kiss. At the back of his mind, Barry’s sure he should resist, but Len’s mouth is hot, like all the laughing, all the relief and happiness have warmed his lips up. Barry sighs, but doesn’t let go. He has no idea when his brain stopped coming up with reasons why not and started mass-producing advertising for the yes option, but he’s not complaining, at all.
“Wait,” he mumbles, and the word slips between their lips. “We should-“
“Oh for fuck’s sake, my birthday’s next week and I’m not gonna drop my pants right now, relax,” Len snaps and buries his fingers in Barry’s hair, and Barry sinks into the next kiss, thinking that maybe he can ignore adulthood for a little while longer.