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The Criminal Keeper, an Origin Story

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***

The Wishing Well Foundation, or W2F, was established in 1983 and is one of several non-profit organizations of its kind. It exists for the sole purpose of granting children with life-threatening conditions “wishes.” There are two separate schools of thought as to why these acts of kindness are so important.

From a psychological standpoint, it has been repeatedly proven that one life-changing moment of happiness can affect the entire course of a child’s illness, and by proxy, their chance of recovery. Many of these illnesses are painful, debilitating, and the treatments required are just as painful, just as terrible. Sometimes that moment of happiness, being able to cling to and fight for that feeling, can equal the difference between life and death.

On the other hand, death is invariably a part of life. A child’s death is a tragedy, and it is horrible in ways that cannot be described. The idea that someone can be taken from this world before they even have the opportunity to experience it – it’s awful. And so, sometimes knowing that a child will be given at least one experience of their choosing before they pass is a small, yet vitally important comfort.

Wishes fall into roughly five categories. There are occasional outliers, but generally speaking most children will start their request with one of the following: “I wish to go,” “I wish to be,” “I wish to meet,” “I wish to have,” or “I wish to give.”

Each type of wish presents its own set of challenges and difficulties. Sometimes the problem stems from being unable to transport a child somewhere due to complications in their illness. Sometimes the issue comes from the expense, and is tied into the amount of time it takes to raise the necessary money. And sometimes – well, sometimes the problem is tracking down the person the child wishes to meet.

It is a fact of life that children idolize celebrities. They watch movies and innocently fall in love with specific actors, or they listen to the radio and innocently fall in love with a song or a singer’s voice. Sometimes children learn about a famous athlete, and they are inspired by their struggles to overcome and succeed. Sending requests to meet these celebrities follows a specific process, but once contacted, there are very few people who will deny a dying child’s wish.

Recently though, children have begun requesting to meet a very different sort of celebrity, utilizing those guileless words: “I wish.” That is to say – vigilantes, metahumans, superheroes.

The trend originated in Central City, in the wake of the explosion of the particle accelerator. The Flash was the first metahuman to be introduced to the public at large, and he became a household name after he was credited with stopping the bizarre wormhole that opened above the heart of Central City. As the nation’s eyes turned toward local media coverage of the aftermath of this event, more costumed vigilantes began to step forward to help with the reconstruction of the city, most notably Vibe, Girder, and the Piper.

Over the last year, the W2F’s local chapter in Central City has been forwarded nearly one hundred requests from across the nation, from children who want to meet these local celebrities. In addition, there have been perhaps twenty requests from eligible children in the nearby area. Most requests involve the Flash, usually in conjunction with a heartfelt plea to be carried at super-speed across their city, but there have been other requests for each of the lesser known vigilantes as well.

There is currently no precedent on how to contact superheroes to fulfill these wishes. In the beginning, W2F’s local chapter took out advertisements in the newspaper, and on one very memorable occasion made a public announcement on the television, aired during the morning news. Recently though, the W2F has begun to reach out to the CCPD in an effort to coordinate resources and requests; though in its infancy, this program already seems to have a higher rate of success for contacting these vigilantes.

Contacting these local metahumans does indeed present a challenge, but it is nothing compared to the difficulty of a request made by a little girl named Anna Thompson.

Because everything in life has two sides: life or death – creamy or crunchy.

Hero... or villain.

The first time it happens, the W2F thinks it’s a joke. But Anna, six years old and dying, isn’t laughing. She’s clutching a soft, handmade plushie in her tiny, little hands, hugging it to her chest as though it can protect her from the incredulous stare of W2F’s representative, an elderly woman by the name of Ms. Palowski.

Anna has wide, dark eyes, and her once-dark skin is pale from sickness and lack of sunlight. She has several IVs running from her arms, and wires that are hooked to sticky nodes on her chest. A particularly thick wire is attached to a clip on her finger, and her monitor beeps and blips and squeaks in response to every breath she takes. The sad truth is, she has spent more of her life in a hospital bed than she has anywhere else.

Her small, stubby fingers clench around the shiny, magic penny she has been given, and Ms. Palowski – certain that she misheard the answer the first time – kindly repeats, “If you could wish for anything in the world, my dear, what would it be?”

“I want to meet Captain Cold,” Anna replies again, decisive, and she tucks the magic penny into the pocket of her plushie’s tiny, felt parka. The doll’s goggles fall off at the movement, and Anna quickly pushes back the hood of the parka and re-fixes them in place.

Anna glances up at Ms. Palowski, at the confused horror on the elderly woman’s face that doesn’t quite seem to add up. She purses her lips thoughtfully, and when she realizes the problem, she grins.

“Sorry,” Anna apologizes, and she rewords herself because words are magic, too. “I wish to meet Captain Cold.”

***

Barry Allen has volunteered his time with the W2F for nearly a decade. In that time, he has helped to organize countless fundraisers, contacted hundreds of celebrities, dressed up in innumerable costumes, played the part of a chauffeur more times than he can count, and brought about the successful granting of approximately five hundred wishes.

So when Ms. Palowski slides a thin, potential candidate file grimly across his desk, Barry tilts his head to stare at it in confusion. In all of his time volunteering, the elderly woman has never given him one of her case files. She has asked for help, certainly, but she has always taken point, and the files have always been stowed away neatly, tucked into a cabinet beside the woman’s desk.

Ms. Palowski says quietly, “I know – I know I’m asking a lot, Barry. But, you work with the police, don’t you?”

Wondering what it is that a child might wish for that involves the police – does a little boy or girl want to be a police officer for a day, perhaps? – Barry nods. “For almost three years now. I’m only a junior forensic analyst, but–”

“I don’t even know where to start,” Ms. Palowski interjects, cutting him off. Barry is a little appalled to see the tears in her eyes. In the same instant, he finds himself oddly gratified, that a woman who has been doing this for nearly two decades still has the empathy needed to cry. “Captain Cold, he’s a– a–”

“A villain?” Barry offers, a small, perplexed frown tugging his lips.

“A killer!” Ms. Palowski explodes. “I remember it from the news last year, that story at the theater? That poor man–” Her voice wobbles unsteadily and she stops. She takes a deep, calming breathe, then adds, “I know he – recently, it’s all about what he can steal and he doesn’t involve civilians anymore–”

Barry nods again, slowly, and tests the waters of this conversation with a metaphorical toe. “So – your potential candidate – they want to...?”

Ms. Palowski shakes her head, disbelief in every line of her face. “I thought she was joking. I asked her if there wasn’t someone else – anyone else – she wants to meet. The Flash, maybe, or that nice young Vibe, but she’s adamant. She’s even got this little doll, one of the nurses made it for her–” The elderly woman sighs, and her shoulders slump forward. “It’s a strange and terrible world, Barry, and I just – I don’t know what to do.”

A little girl wants to meet a supervillain. Huh.

It isn’t as though the usual channels the W2F employs for contacting celebrities – or even superheroes – will work in this particular case. At best, Barry might be able to look through some of the old police reports, get an idea of the sorts of places that Captain Cold hangs out. He might also be able to get a read on the criminal’s known associates; if Cold proves elusive, perhaps one of his buddies might be easier to locate.

Barry picks up the folder from his desk, considers the weight of it in his hand. “I can’t promise anything, Ms. Palowski, but – I’ll do my best.”

The elderly woman smiles, a small, tight smile that compresses her lips into a thin, curved line. She lays a gnarled hand on Barry’s shoulder and squeezes gently. “Thank you, Barry. I don’t – oh!” She leans forward, and presses a soft, warm kiss to his cheek. Her lips are brittle, and she smells faintly of roses and hand sanitizer. “I don’t know what we’d do without you, son.”

Barry flushes, pleased and embarrassed. He looks down at the file in his hands again, flips it open, and begins to read it in earnest.

Ms. Palowski picks her way slowly across the office, returning to her own desk. Before she reaches it, she exclaims, “Oh!” and turns back to Barry. “You’ll be visiting your father this weekend?”

With a smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes, Barry replies quietly, “I always do, Ms. Palowski.”

The elderly woman nods, her head bobbing up and down as if she is treading water. “Give him my regards,” she says. “I wish Iron Heights wasn’t so strict or I’d send you some chocolate chip cookies, too.”

Barry snorts. “It’s a prison, ma’am. What can you do?” Then, a touch more warmly, he adds, “Thank you.”

***

Barry researches Captain Cold relentlessly. For weeks, he pours over old reports at the CCPD on his lunch break. After he gets done work and heads to the W2F’s office for a few hours, he spends his time on the computer, cross referencing sightings of the man on Facebook and Twitter, marking favored locations on a map he has pinned to the wall.

Ms. Palowski says nothing more on the matter, but she sneaks him a plate of freshly baked goods – cupcakes or cookies or sweet bars – every other day, and Barry imagines that’s probably her way of saying “Good luck!”

After Barry has clocked in an hour or two at the W2F’s office, completing whatever work that requires his attention, he hits the streets. He picks local bars and strip clubs, and sits quietly in the corner for a couple of hours, nursing the same drink and scanning the crowd for any sign of Cold or his known associates.

At the end of the night, he makes his way home to an empty apartment. It’s a hole in the wall, so small it barely counts as residential housing, but it’s belongs to him. He can afford it on his salary, and it’s a place to keep his books and shower and sleep. The one upside is the location; he can walk to both the CCPD and W2F’s office, the bus station is around the corner for easy access to the rest of the city.

With a single bottle of beer in his system, he climbs eight flights of stairs to his single room apartment. Exhausted, he stumbles into his bathroom – which is the size of a closet – and brushes his teeth. He strips his dirty clothes off, tosses them into a basket at the foot of his bed, and falls face first into the queen-sized mattress, which takes up the bulk of the room’s floor space.

When he closes his eyes, he falls asleep almost instantly. He dreams of his mother, dead on the living room floor, her face white and splattered with blood. He dreams of his father, wrists cuffed together, chained and trapped behind the stark stripes of prison bars. He dreams of the lightning, red and yellow, mixed together in perfect harmony, impossible and beautiful and terrible.

(He dreams of a voice – a man’s voice, so familiar – that whispers, where are you? i miss you. come home.)

The alarm clock wails and the light pours in through the single window and tells him that there’s a brand new day waiting for him. Barry rolls out of bed with a groan, stumbles into his closet-bathroom, steps under his corner-shower. The hot water lasts for approximately two minutes, which is all the time he needs to wash his hair and scrub his body clean. He brushes his teeth, dresses quickly, and dashes out the front door, locking it behind him.

He bounds down eight flights of stairs, taking the steps two at a time. He splurges for a cup of coffee on his way to Central City’s Police Department, and only spills half of it as he runs on the busy sidewalk, trying to get there before his shift starts.

Overall? It’s a pretty normal start to a decent day.

***

It takes almost two months. That is to say, seven weeks, five days, and approximately seventeen hours. Barry is acutely aware of every minute as it ticks by, his mental clock a painful squeeze in his chest, right by his heart. Sometimes the pressure moves down, clenching his stomach, angry and afraid. Sometimes it inches up, like a heavy, unforgiving hand wrapped around his throat, and it almost makes him cry.

Because he’s doing this for Anna.

After taking the case, he made it a point to go and spend some time with the little girl. It’s hard, letting a constant stream of amazing children into his heart, because more often than not, their lives are fleetingly brief.

Anna is six years old. She has one of the best smiles Barry has ever been privileged to see, and she loves Disney’s “Frozen” almost as much as she loves Central City’s Captain Cold. She has been fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia for almost three years, but she falls within the small percentage of cases that will likely be fatal. Her leukemia has never responded well to treatments, not even to the aggressive chemotherapy that eradicated her beautiful, tightly-curled afro.

Anna doesn’t go home anymore. She can’t attend school, and she is under constant observation at Saint Andrews Hospital. She is scheduled for another round of chemotherapy in the coming weeks, and Barry hates to bear witness to this treatment. He hates watching a child suffer, weak and shaking, hurt by the very thing that should save them.

Tracking down Captain Cold has taken him almost two months. Two months.

And the hard reality is, Anna might not have another two months to wait.

Right now, Barry’s standing outside of Black Horse Tavern. He has been religiously stalking the Twitter account of someone named “GoldieLocks-n-Loads,” and through his research has discovered that every time this account cites an appearance of Captain Cold, the man has indeed been spotted.

Granted, usually the tweets are coded, but Barry has been playing with ciphers and substitutions since he was old enough to hold a pencil. His hobby had been particularly useful at the orphanage, where he never knew who might snoop through his journal.

Today’s tweet, for example: Kind of chilly at the Black Horse today. Turn up the heat and buy me a beer, jerkface!

Barry rubs his hand together, takes a breath, and pushes open the bar’s door. His eyes scan the crowd, and it only takes him a moment to locate the infamous Captain Cold, perched comfortably on a barstool, nursing a beer. Cold is wearing his signature parka, even in the oppressive, sticky heat of the bar. It should look ridiculous. Somehow, though, the man makes it look – attractive? Menacing?

A little of both, really.

Heart somewhere in his throat, Barry approaches the man. Also, that’s the indomitable Mick “Heatwave” Rory sitting next to him. Oh. Oh geeze. Turn up the heat, he thinks to himself, feeling numb. Maybe he is an idiot, because it was right there in the tweet, and he missed it.

Still, two months. He’s not turning back now.

Swallowing hard, Barry comes to stand beside the pair. Heatwave gives him a once over, expressionless and terrifying. He starts at the top of Barry’s head, taking in the short, unruly hair. He passes over Barry’s face, not lingering on anything in particular, and Barry is acutely aware that the man is undressing him with his eyes – not in any sexual sense, but rather to see if Barry is carrying the telltale bulge of a concealed firearm or some other weapon.

Apparently realizing that Barry is basically as harmless as his bedhead indicates, Heatwave’s attention wanders. Only to be called back abruptly as Barry clears his throat and squeaks, “Mr. – um – Cold?”

Two sets of eyes zero in on him, unerring, unforgiving. Being the focus of that sort of exclusive attention makes Barry incredibly uncomfortable, and he begins to feel like a tiny bug in a really big jar.

“Whadda ya want, kid?” Cold drawls, bored. His icy blue eyes are intense, piercing, but his tone says he has no patience for whatever Barry is selling.

As politely as possible, Barry replies quickly, “My name is Barry Allen. I volunteer my time at W2F – that is, the Wishing Well Foundation. We’re a non-profit that grants wishes to kids who are – sick. Dying. And, well, there’s a little girl who wants to meet you.”

Cold’s eyebrows lift incrementally as Barry speaks, though Heatwave apparently lost interest somewhere after the third word because he’s gone back to nursing his beer, eyes scanning the bar’s crowd.

Not to be deterred, Barry soldiers on. “I know there isn’t really a precedent for this sort of thing – but I was hoping we could try to work something out? Obviously I wouldn’t inform the Flash or the police of when the meeting will take place, but–”

Cold snorts, a hard sound, and his shoulders shake. Horrified, Barry realizes the villain is laughing.

“Yeah, sure,” Cold says dismissively. He reaches for his beer, takes a sip. Seeing that Barry hasn’t left – is, in fact, rooted to the spot, his face flushed red with shame – Cold adds, “Good joke. Now scram, kid.”

In his mind, Barry sees Anna’s face. Sees the biggest, widest smile that stretches from one ear to the other. He sees her little fingers reach out, clinging to her Captain Cold plushie as though it is a lifeline. He sees the sweat on her brow, her chest stuttering with the massive effort of drawing just one more painful breath.

He sees red.

Some of this must reflect in his expression, because Heatwave’s attention snaps back to him. Cold notices the tension in his partner, because he straightens up, opens his mouth as if to ask what’s wrong–

Barry draws himself up to his full, lanky height. His feet are shoulder-width apart, knees bent slightly, and he squares his stance and roots himself to the ground. He’s not a brawler, but any kid who has spent time in an orphanage has been in their share of fights, and he draws on every ounce of his admittedly limited knowledge. His hands are by his side, and he feels them ball into fists. He scowls, grits his teeth, sucks in a lungful of air through his nose.

Then he looks Captain Cold dead in the eye and he spits, “Screw you.”

Cold’s face is – perplexed. Heatwave’s mouth stretches into the parody of a grin, shit-eating, all teeth.

Cold looks as though he is about to respond, but Barry doesn’t give him the opportunity. Barry snaps, “No. No. Shut up.” He shakes his head. “There is a little girl in a hospital right now who idolizes you. She’s six years old and she’s probably not going to make it seven, and for some reason – for some reason you help to get her through the day.”

Barry can feel the angry tears gathering in his eyes, but he will absolutely not let them fall. With every word he speaks he feels himself getting louder and more upset. The rest of the bar is silent now, all attention focused solely on him, but he can’t stop. He thinks of Anna’s face and he just can’t.

“She’s got this little stuffed toy of you–” Barry snorts, disbelief coloring his anger. “One of the nurses made it for her, has your goggles and your parka and everything – and she hugs this thing every time she has to go in for chemo, says it makes her feel like she can keep going, keep moving forward.” A pause, to let that sink in, then he adds, “Because if a guy with no super powers can beat the Flash than a little girl with no super powers can beat cancer.”

“So – so – if you think that little girl is some – some kind of joke– if you think her pain and her suffering is something to laugh at–”

Barry is shaking. He is so enraged that he can barely form the words, but he stares at Captain Cold and he hisses, “–then screw you.”

There is a moment of cartoonish silence, and Barry thinks he can hear a cricket chirping in the background. His rage drains out of him as abruptly as it came on, and he realizes that he’s just scolded a known killer in a bar full of witnesses.

Calmly, without a word, Cold knocks back the rest of his beer, draining the bottle in about ten seconds flat. Because these are the last few minutes of his life, Barry finds himself intently focused in a way he has never felt before.

(Or maybe he has. In the dreams he can never quite remember, the voice asks him, where are you? where are you? i miss you. There is a certain focus in those dream, like now. Where he seems to drop outside of reality as he knows it, where the world around him slows down and crawls.)

Barry watches Cold’s Adam’s apple bob as he swallows. He notes the single bead of sweat that drips down the side of the villain’s face, streaking his neck before disappearing into the folds of his shirt collar, visible beneath the front of his unzipped parka.

He is also acutely aware of Heatwave, as the man stands and steps away from his barstool. A curious, hysterical corner of Barry’s mind points out that he and Mick Rory are actually the same height – they stand eye to eye. But Heatwave’s shoulders are so much broader, and the muscles in his arms seem to bulge without the man even flexing, and Barry feels small and trapped and cornered. A tiny bug in a big, glass jar.

Heatwave’s fist tangles in the front of Barry’s shirt, and Barry’s hand comes up to grip at the man’s wrist. The villain’s skin is almost boiling hot, and it feels like it should be slick with sweat, but the burns don’t allow for it. The bumps and ridges of Heatwave’s skin feel like plastic, but the man’s arm is as solid as steel, unforgiving, unyielding.

Cold stands next, setting his empty beer bottle on the counter, and he pulls out his wallet and drops a crisp twenty for the bartender. Then he strides out the front door of the bar, in controlled, even steps. Heatwave trails after him without a word, and Barry is trapped and can do nothing but stumble in tow. The big man walks, and Barry has the choice to follow or be dragged, which is no choice at all.

The patrons of the bar say nothing at this exchange. Not one of them meets Barry’s eyes. Barry offers a silent prayer, that someone will find his body and tell his father that he is dead. He doesn’t – he can’t imagine a life where his dad doesn’t get that much closure.

The air outside of the bar is crisp, chilly. The switch in atmosphere is so unexpectedly profound that it makes him shiver. Heatwave’s fist tightens in his shirt, relentless, and Barry tries to keep pace. He finds himself watching Cold’s back, the casual slope of the man’s shoulders as he makes his way to the back alley behind the bar.

This is it. Oh, God, this is how he’s going to die. Murdered in a seedy alleyway because he can’t control his temper.

I’m sorry, dad, Barry thinks, dazed. I love you, dad.

Without warning, Cold stops dead in his tracks. He spins on his heel so that he’s facing Barry and Heatwave. His hands are in his pockets. He’s – he’s got a gun, Barry guesses. Shot to death. Oh, God, why can’t he die in his sleep, surrounded by fat cats in funny hats?

Heatwave releases his hold on Barry’s shirt, and Barry staggers. He manages to catch himself in time, and he’s grateful for that. He might be dying tonight, but he’s going to do it with as much dignity as possible. He’s going to die on his feet, not his knees, and he’s not going to cry–

Actually, he probably is going to cry, because he’s thinking about his dad, trapped in Iron Heights Prison. There is only one name on Henry Allen’s list of visitors, and Barry has signed that stupid log every weekend for the last fifteen years without fail.

His dad, alone and lonely. Barry won’t cry for himself, but for his dad? Yeah, there may be tears.

He isn’t going to beg, though. He won’t give these two jerks that satisfaction.

Barry swallows hard, eyes tracking Cold’s hands, still buried in the pockets of his parka. He tenses, waiting for the gun to appear. He can’t outrun a bullet, but every one of his instincts is screaming at him to try.

(where are you? come home, barry. run and run and never look back.)

“I’m sorry,” Cold says. Clears his throat, once, uncomfortably.

“You’re – um. What?” Barry blinks, startled.

“Sorry,” Cold repeats, and rolls his eyes. The gesture is so juvenile, so unexpected, and Barry boggles. Off to the side, he hears Heatwave snort. Cold continues, “I made an assumption about you, and I was wrong. I may be a bad guy, but I’m not going to spit on a little kid’s dreams–”

“No matter how stupid they are,” Heatwave adds helpfully, and Cold glares at him. Heatwave snickers in response. “C’mon, buddy. Kid wants to meet you? The fuck.”

The exchange is so surreal that Barry finds himself pinching his own arm.

Ow. Okay. Not dreaming.

“You got a pen, Mick?” Cold asks, and Heatwave reaches into his pocket and produces a small, worn notebook and a cheap plastic pen. The big man tosses them to Cold, who pulls his – shockingly empty – hands out of his pockets and catches both items.

Cold looks at Barry expectantly, and Barry blinks, feeling stupid.

“Give me the girl’s info,” Cold prompts after a moment of silence. “I can’t tell you when – security and all that shit – but I’ll stop by and visit her sometime this month, alright?”

“That’s–” Barry blinks. “You’re going to visit Anna? And you’re not going to kill me?” Then, belatedly, “I – thank you.”

Heatwave snorts again. “Order of importance,” he comments idly, talking to Cold. “Pretty telling, buddy.”

Cold flushes at the odd statement. “Shut up,” he replies, and his cheeks are a little pink. Barry doesn’t know what to make of the exchange. Then the villain looks at where Barry is standing and prompts a second time, asking, “Her info?”

Feeling a whole lot more hopeful about a future he didn’t think he had a minute ago, Barry rattles off Anna’s info, her full name, the hospital’s name, her room number. Cold copies the information into the notepad, then reads it back to make sure it’s correct.

After a moment of consideration, Cold flips to a new page and scribbles something into the pad. He tears the paper out, and then he’s stepping forward, closing the distance between them. Barry has all of two seconds to process this development, and in that time his only slightly hysterical, mostly coherent thought is, Holy cow, I’m taller than Captain Cold!

Cold shoves the crumpled sheet of paper into Barry’s numb fingers, and Barry glances down to see a short string of numbers, interrupted by two dashes. A phone number.

Confused, Barry looks up to see Cold staring at him. “A burner phone,” Cold explains. “But – if any of those kids ask for a visit from me or Mick, call it.”

Recognizing the gift for what it is, Barry gapes. “Oh, geeze,” he stutters. “Um. Thanks?”

“Don’t mention it, kid.” Cold’s lips purse into a strange expression. A mix of – appreciation? Exasperation? The man spins on his heels and stalks out of the alleyway without another word.

Heatwave moves to follow him, but the big man pauses. He turns, stares at Barry, and says, “Seriously, don’t mention it. Ever.” The threat in his voice is enough that Barry’s knees knock together, a full body shiver shooting down his spine. Satisfied with the reaction, Heatwave nods once, then disappears after Cold.

(not today, the voice whispers mournfully, and the world returns to regular speeds.)

Alone in the alley, Barry’s legs give out from underneath him. He slumps bonelessly to the ground, uncaring of the dirt and trash and broken glass. His fingers spasm, convulsive around the scrap of paper crumpled in his hands. He trembles, feeling helpless, and his chest is tight.

He thinks about his dad, about Anna. He thinks about Cold, about Heatwave.

“Oh, God,” Barry mumbles, and he wraps his arms around himself, rocking back and forth in a stilted motion, meant to comfort. It fails him, but he keeps trying.

He thinks about the fact that he could have died. He thinks about the reality, that he’s still alive.

“Oh, God,” he repeats, and as he bows his head, he doesn’t cry.

***

A week later, Barry stops by Saint Andrews Hospital. Anna is grinning, that big, beautiful smile that makes him feel like he can take on the world. Her entire room has been redecorated, every wall plastered with oversized surveillance photos. Barry recognizes most of them from his research at the precinct, all of them featuring Captain Cold and Heatwave in a variety of nefarious acts, mostly stealing from museums and battling the Flash.

Barry bites back the hysterical laughter that threatens to choke him, because every picture that contains the Flash has been defaced with black marker. The man in red sports funny mustaches and scribbled out eyes, devil horns and pointy tails. The lightning bolt on his chest has been religiously replaced by a giant “L.” There are arrows pointing this way and that way in the photos as well, coupled with scrawled phrases like, “Too slow, Red!” and “Missed me again, Cap’n Tightpants!”

The centerpiece of this bizarre collection is a professional quality photograph that has been enlarged to poster-size. It features both Captain Cold and Heatwave, standing back to back and staring smugly at the camera. Cold wears his signature parka and shiny, blue-gray goggles, and he points his coldgun up in the air. Heatwave is wearing a white undershirt that shows off the bulging muscles in his arms, and a pair of fire-retardant overalls. He’s got his goggles on as well, and he’s point his flamegun directly at the camera. The background has been edited to depict a classic Central City skyline.

Between the composition and the subject matter, it’s actually a pretty amazing photo. If Barry’s being honest – not that he will admit this aloud ever – he kind of wants one to hang in his own apartment.

Anna giggles when she sees Barry, hugging her Captain Cold plushie as tightly as ever. She says, “Mr. Barry! Mr. Barry! Do you want to see my treasure?”

“Of course, snowflake,” Barry replies easily, struggling not to gape at the photographs on the wall. He’s beyond surprised when he realizes that Cold has also strung up a banner of blue and silver snowflakes, the sort one might buy for a Christmas party. The banner is pinned to the top of each wall, where wall and ceiling meet, and it circles the entire room.

Anna pulls out a single Polaroid from beneath her pillow and holds it up proudly. It’s a picture of the villain himself, sitting side by side with Anna on the very hospital bed she’s currently laying on. Cold is smirking at the camera, though his eyes aren’t visible because he’s wearing his signature goggles. Anna’s smile is immortalized in that moment, and she looks happier than Barry has ever seen. The photo is signed at the bottom, big, black, bold letters that read: COLD.

“Heatwave took the picture,” Anna whispers as though confessing some great and terrible secret. She giggles and tucks the photo back beneath her pillow. “Captain Cold talked about you. He said you were real brave, Mr. Barry. That you went into the villain’s den and told him I was real sick – and – and–”

Anna almost blinds him with her smile, her joy is so great. “Thank you, Mr. Barry. It was the best day ever!”

A few days later, Barry notices that Ms. Palowski is watching him intently. She doesn’t say anything to him, just slides another plate of warm chocolate chip cookies onto his desk, but he catches her glancing at him out of the corner of his eye every time he stops by to volunteer his time. There is something like wonder in her expression.

***

A month later, Ms. Palowski slides a file onto his desk and walks away without a word. Justin is nine years old. His greatest wish is to meet Mark Mardon, the Weather Wizard.

Barry closes his eyes and thinks about the alley behind the bar, where he was convinced he was going to die. He thinks about Anna’s smile, and how she’s actually started to respond to her most recently round of chemotherapy.

He pulls out his phone, cross references “recent sightings” and “weather wizard” on Facebook and Twitter, and gets to work.

***

As it turns out, finding the Weather Wizard is the most difficult part of this job. Apparently Captain Cold must have spread the word about visiting his “biggest little fan” in the hospital, because when Barry tracks down Mardon at a Chinese restaurant in the bad part of town and introduces himself, the villain grins like it’s Christmas come early.

“Kid wants to meet me?” Mardon says, gesturing for Barry to join him at the table. “Seriously?”

Barry nods as he slips into the chair opposite the villain. He bites his lips and quietly volunteers, “I know – I mean, he’s read about your powers in the news and he thinks you’re pretty amazing, but–”

Mardon blinks, shoving a forkful of lo-mein into his mouth. He chews with his mouth open and asks messily, “But what?”

Barry is hard-pressed to not smile, because who knew these villain were so – so human? He’s used to seeing them on the news, fighting in spectacular battles with the heroes of the city. He’s used to over-the-top theatrics and bad puns, property damage and inadvertent civilian casualties.

Mardon reaches for his water, oblivious to Barry’s musings, and swallows another bite of lo-mein before slurping his drink through a plastic straw.

“Your brother,” Barry says quietly, and Mardon freezes. Barry steels himself, looking directly into the villain’s dark, angry eyes. “Justin’s illness, it’s hereditary,” he explains. “He’s fighting the same thing that killed his little brother last year – and I guess he figures that if you can survive after you lost your brother... well, so can he.”

“That’s–” Mardon bites his lip, looks away. His voice is rough, like sandpaper, and he says, “Fuck. How the hell do I live up to that?”

Barry shrugs. “I couldn’t tell you. But I guess it helps, knowing that you’re not alone? You – if you don’t want to talk about it with him, you don’t have to. He just wants to meet you, Mr. Mardon.”

“Mark,” the villain corrects. He grabs a napkin, scribbles a phone number on it with a pen that was probably left on the table to sign for the check, passes it to Barry without fanfare. “You call me with the time and the place, kid. I’ll be there.”

“Mark,” Barry replies quietly. “Thank you.” And if Mardon’s eyes are suspiciously wet as Barry stands to leave, well – no one mentions it.

***

Seeing Anna’s joy second-hand through a Polaroid-selfie is good, but Barry will admit that being there for the actual event would have been better. With this in mind, he makes it a point to escort Mark Mardon to Justin’s hospital room. He takes a page from Cold’s book and brings a Polaroid camera as well, because having that memory immortalized and autographed is a pretty great idea.

Honestly, seeing Justin’s face when the Weather Wizard walks through his door is possibly one of the most satisfying experiences of Barry’s life. It isn’t as though he’s never contacted a celebrity on behalf of a child before, but there is something strangely – horrifyingly – satisfying about the danger of contacting known criminals. Or maybe it’s just the thrill of success, that no one else has ever done this before.

“You’re here,” the kid whispers. “You’re really, really here.”

“Hey,” Mardon says – even in Barry’s own mind, it’s just too strange to refer to the villain by his given name. “Your name’s Justin, huh?”

The boy in the hospital bed nods, eyes wide with wonder.

“I heard–” Mardon pauses, cocks his head to the side in consideration. “I heard you wanted to meet me. And y’know, when I heard that... I realized that I wanted to meet you, too.”

Justin’s mouth falls open, and Mardon pulls up a chair next to the boy’s bedside. Not wanting to intrude on the moment, Barry quietly places the Polaroid camera on a nearby counter. He slowly backs out of the room and shuts the door behind him.

One of the nurses smiles at him, familiar with the years he has spent volunteering his time in these halls, visiting sick children, struggling to grant their wishes. Barry glances around, noting that it’s a typical day. There isn’t usually a lot of foot traffic in the terminal care ward for children, but sometimes there are arranged events involving magicians and other performers.

Right now, though, it’s just the nurses and orderlies, the occasional doctor. They all know Barry, and offer him a politely respectful nod or greeting as they pass.

Inexplicable, Barry stiffens.

The fine hairs on his arm stand up straight, goosebumps, and he shivers. It’s like that saying, that someone has just walked over his grave, only it feels more like someone is dancing on it. It’s like – heaviness. Static. It’s in the hall, in the air.

It’s familiar.

(he wants to race you, the voice whispers, and the urge to run is so very strong. his face, priceless, he’ll lose for sure!)

The papers on the nurse’s station rustle, but that can’t be right. This is the inside of a hospital, why would there be a breeze?

There is a man in red standing in the hallway who wasn’t there before.

Barry doesn’t shriek. He doesn’t.

The Flash smirks at him, his dark eyes glowing with tiny starbursts of yellow lightning. His teeth are bold, white against his brown skin, and he says, “Hey, hey! Heard that the Weather Wizard was here to stir up trouble. You seen him?”

Barry blinks, straightening to his full height as he bodily blocks to the door to Justin’s room. “Yes, as a matter of fact, I have–”

The Flash interrupts, “Great! Where is he? Because he’s a mean one, and the sooner I can drag him out of this hospital, the better.”

“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Barry replies, frowning.

The hero’s smile falters. “What do you – are you working with him?” And then, in an instant, Barry is pinned. His back hits the door with a thump, and the Flash is pressing a forearm to his throat. It’s sudden and unexpected and it hurts, but in that moment all Barry can think is that he hopes Mardon and Justin don’t think someone is knocking.

Don’t open the door, Barry prays silently. Please, please, don’t open the door.

(so mean, the voice pouts. where are you? i miss you. come home.)

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!?” one of the nurses shouts. She runs over and smacks the Flash with her stethoscope. The round metal end dings off of the hero’s head. “Let him go, you big bully!”

“Ma’am,” the Flash says, and his voice is frantic as he tries to explain, “I know this must look bad, but this man is working with a vicious criminal–”

“What are you talking about?” the nurse says, and smacks the hero with her stethoscope a second time. She uses so much force that the round metal piece shoots out of its plastic casing like a bullet when it comes into contact with the Flash’s head, and it skitters across the floor and disappears under a nearby gurney. “That’s Barry Allen! He’s here every week, helping the children! Vicious criminal, my ass, you let him go RIGHT NOW!”

The Flash drops his arm so quickly, it’s as if someone burned him. Barry staggers, coughing and swallowing as he rubs his neck. A movement out of the corner of his eye startles him, and he jerks back, bumping against the door in his surprise.

Oh, shoot, he thinks. Please, don’t open the door.

“Oh, honey,” the nurse says kindly, and she reaches toward him, her movements slow and exaggerated so as not to spook him again. Her fingers are gentle on his throat, probing the area to either side of his Adam’s apple. “You’re going to have a little bit of bruising there, I think. Probably some soreness for the next day or two. I’m going to get you some water–” She glares at the Flash. “–and you are going to apologize. Then you’re going to ask your questions civilly, and without bodily injury to a man who has done for the children of this hospital what you have done for this city. Do I make myself clear?”

Subdued, the Flash nods, “Crystal.”

The woman stalks away, head high, shoulder back, Queen of the Hallway and no one will convince Barry otherwise. The Flash touches his finger to his ear, frowning. He’s – listening to someone? A miniature two-way radio device, by Barry’s estimation. It’s been speculated that the Flash doesn’t work alone, but it’s interesting to see hard evidence of that.

Barry coughs again, and the Flash glances at him, guilt written in the curved slump of his shoulders. “Um. Sorry about that, dude. My sis – I mean, friend. My friend is always telling me I need to look before I leap.”

“It’s – fine.” Barry bites his lip and resists the urge to rub his throat again. “I’ll be fine.”

Hesitantly, the hero prompts, “So, um – about the Weather Wizard...?”

“I’ll repeat,” Barry says, and unbidden, his hands ball into fists. “You’re not taking him anywhere.” He pauses, wondering how to explain. Finally, he settles on: “My name is Barry Allen. I volunteer with the Wishing Well Foundation – nonprofit, we grant wishes to children who are really, really sick. You know my organization, you have to, because there have been a few kids who wished they could meet you.

The Flash rubs the back of his head awkwardly. “Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. What does that have to do with the Wizard, though?”

Barry’s lips compress to a thin, unforgiving line. “Mark Mardon,” he says, taking special care to stress his use of the villain’s given name, “is here because a little boy desperately wanted to meet him. Mr. Mardon agreed to spend his day with Justin, and the two of them are hanging out and talking. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Well, yeah,” the Flash says, taking a step toward Barry – and by default, the door to Justin’s room.

Barry plants himself firmly in front of the door, crosses his arms, juts out his chin. He is stubbornness personified.

“No,” Barry says. “No, you do not get to go in there and ruin a little boy’s wish. Mr. Mardon isn’t doing a damned thing wrong. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to do something great, and I won’t let you or anyone else ruin that.”

“You’re serious?” The Flash cocks his head to the side, dark, brown eyes narrowed in confusion. “You’re going to – what – stand between me and that door until the Weather Wizard is done?”

Barry nods. “And then, I’m going to escort Mr. Mardon out of this hospital, and I will stand between him and every single attack you throw his way. I gave him my word, Mr. – um – Flash. He’s not here to hurt anyone. Can’t that be enough for you?”

The Flash laughs, a high pitched, hysterical sound. “That’s some shit right there,” he says. “Okay, Mr. Allen. You win, I’ll leave. But if there is even a single report of violence in this hospital because of the Weather Wizard, I am holding you personally responsible.”

“If there is a single report of violence because of my actions – or lack thereof – today, tomorrow, or any other,” Barry agrees, instantly and meaning every word, “then I will turn myself into police custody without protest, and accept any punishment a judge deems fit to give me.”

“You know,” the Flash says, sounding surprised, “I believe you.”

And as suddenly as the man appeared, he is gone. The hallway is empty, except for a handful of kids who are peeking out of their rooms, staring at where Barry stands, giggling and whispering to one another. The nurse who saved him earlier is no where in sight.

Barry’s legs feel like melted Jell-O, and they give out from underneath him. He sinks to the floor, trying not to hyperventilate. How weird is it, that the Flash hurt him more than Captain Cold, Heatwave, and the Weather Wizard combined.

Then he thinks about the four names he’s just dropped in that statement, and he wonders – how is this his life?

Behind him, he hears the door click open, and he looks up to find Mark Mardon staring down at him. The man’s expression is a cross between stunned stupid and furiously enraged. It’s an impressive dichotomy, to be honest.

“You crazy bastard,” Mardon says reverently. “The pair on you, you fucking shit.”

Justin peeks out from behind Mardon’s leg, and Barry scolds the villain, “Language.”

Mardon snorts, shaking his head and reaching down to grip Barry’s hand and haul him to his feet.

“That was way cool, Mr. Barry!” Justin exclaims, apparently thrilled by this real-life confrontation. “We heard it all through the door. Are you a supervillain, too? What’s your codename?”

Barry laughs, a shaky sound, and runs his fingers through his hair. “I’m not – I’m just a guy, Justin. A really stupid guy who sometimes gets really, really lucky.”

Barry’s attention is focused solely on the little boy, and on making sure the Flash’s unexpected visit hadn’t ruined his wish. Had Barry been paying any attention to Mark Mardon in that moment, he would have seen a very curious look on the villain’s face: amazement, laced with a heavy dose of thoughtful consideration.

***

A few days later, Ms. Palowski slides a plate of lemon curd bars onto Barry’s desk. Underneath the plate is Jacqueline’s file. She is five years old and she wants to meet the villain known as Peek-a-boo. Though not a terminal case, Jaquie lost both of her legs in an accident, severed from the knee down. Jaquie’s favorite colors are white and silver and black, like smoke and mirrors, and for her, the coolest thing in the whole wide world is moving from one place to another in the blink of an eye, because legs are overrated.

Two weeks later, when Shawna Baez leaves a smiling Jacqueline’s hospital room, telescope tucked neatly under one arm, she slips a piece of paper into Barry’s hand. It contains a phone number. Barry hides it away in the folds of his wallet and says nothing.

***

So, the phone numbers? The phone numbers are dangerous.

Barry knows this, and he knows that if the information he has been so freely gifted ever falls into the wrong hands – well, he’s not entirely sure whose hands are right and whose hands are wrong in this scenario, but he does know that he can’t leave this information lying around. He buys a small, black book and meticulously copies the numbers into it, using a complicated cipher combined with a pictographic code. The original slips of paper, he burns to ashes.

Unofficially, he has been liaising with villains for nearly six months, and he’s actually to the point where he has the contact information for pretty much every costumed criminal that lives and operates in Central City – not to mention a couple that are located in Starling, as well. Weeks spent stalking these men and women are a thing of the past. Now, he flips open his little black book and just calls them up.

Working closely with the medical staff in consideration for the children’s treatments, he arranges times and places, sometimes even tacks on a special event. The nerf-gun war with the younger Trickster gives him nightmares to this day.

To be honest, it’s all pretty surreal.

Having left the W2F’s office a bit early, Barry is sitting cross-legged in the middle of his bed, staring at the chipped paint on the walls of his tiny apartment. As he’s contemplating his phone, wondering if he can afford to order a pizza for dinner, his screen lights up with an “UNKNOWN CALLER” and the device vibrates furiously.

Barry doesn’t have any friends who are older than ten, and none of them have his cellphone number. His father is in prison, and both the CCPD and the W2F come up in his contact information, clearly labeled. He’s honestly a bit stumped on who could be calling him. So he answers, curious, expecting someone to tell him that they’ve dialed the wrong number. “Hello?”

“Hello, Barry,” says the voice on the other end of the line, and that’s. Well, that’s a hell of a coincidence, if this is a wrong number. Barry knows that voice, has contacted the man a handful of times in the last six months on behalf of children across the nation.

“...Cold?” Barry asks, feeling faint.

“Mm,” the villain agrees. “I think we’re familiar enough with each other that you can probably call me Len.”

Len?” Barry squeaks. His voice breaks and he coughs once to clear his throat. Maybe the man is changing burner phones and wants to update his contact information? Maybe he’s planning on taking over Central City in an icy hailstorm of frozen bullets and he wants to give Barry a heads up? Honestly, Barry has no idea why the villain is calling him, there is no precedent for this and he’s sort of working blind here. Hesitantly, he repeats, “Len. Um. Is everything... okay?”

Cold sounds like he’s smiling as he replies, “Everything’s dandy. Do you like Thai food, Barry?”

“... yes?”

“Mick and I will see you in five minutes, then,” Cold says, and he hangs up the phone.

Barry stares blankly at his phone, then shrugs and goes to put on some clothes. He’s got five minutes, apparently, and whatever happens, he’s damn well going to be wearing pants for it.

Five minutes later, there is a knock on his door. He opens it to find Captain Cold and Heatwave standing on the other side, holding several heavy bags of takeout. Barry blinks and stares. Cold – Len – and Heatwave – Mick – stare back at him.

There is something small and afraid and fierce in his gut that tightens at the sight of the two men standing side by side in his doorway. But there is also a delightful smell coming from one of the bags, and with a fleeting thought to his rapidly departing sanity, Barry takes a step back into his apartment, sweeping his arm in a gesture of invitation.

As Len and Mick step inside, Barry comments, “I’m not going to ask how you got in the front door of my apartment building, because I think you’re perfectly capable of charming one of the ladies who lives on the bottom floor to let you in. Or, failing that, you could probably pick the lock–”

The two men basically take up every spare inch of Barry’s tiny apartment. Granted, that isn’t particularly difficult, seeing as how Barry’s apartment consists of a single room that holds a queen-sized bed, a dresser, and a clothes hamper at the foot of the bed. There are some shelves of course, but none of them are standing, they all protrude from the walls. Barry keeps his books there, and a couple of knickknacks that survived his unstable childhood.

The only other feature of note is a rickety door in the corner of the room which leads to the bathroom. The bathroom is a closet, five feet by five feet, and contains a toilet and a sink. Both floor and walls are tiled, and there is a showerhead that juts out of one corner to create a standing-shower. That is to say, when he takes a shower, both his sink and his toilet get soaked in the process.

Meh, whatever. It’s not like either villain is planning on taking a shower here. Barry has two minutes of hot water in the mornings, and he’s grateful for it.

“But I am curious,” Barry continues. “Because there is no elevator in this building, and we are on the eighth floor. How did you get up here so quick? Alternately, how are you not out of breath?”

Len frowns at Barry’s room as though it has personally offended him. “You don’t have a kitchen.”

“I–” Barry blinks, caught off guard. “I don’t have a lot of things.”

Len doesn’t have anything to say to that, apparently. Mick sits on the corner of Barry’s bed without asking permission and begins to unpack the takeout bag with more care than Barry believed him capable of. He hands Barry a plastic fork and a container that smells like coconuts and heaven.

Barry’s stomach grumbles, and he remembers that he hasn’t eaten anything today except for the raspberry thumbprint cookies Ms. Palowski brought into the office.

“Thanks,” Barry says, and he carefully sits on the edge of the bed so as not to disturb the rest of the food. He peels back the lid of the container, sticks his fork in, takes a bite. He isn’t able to fully stifle his groan of complete bliss. After he swallows, he glances over at Mick to see him eating from a similar container – peanuts and heaven, maybe? And he wonders if Mick will share.

Len is still standing next to the bed, frowning at everything all at once. “This apartment is awful,” the man says snidely. “I've lived in jail cells that were nicer than this.”

Mick passes Barry a container of sticky rice, but not before topping it with a generous helping of peanuts and heaven. Barry accepts with a grin and says, “This is why you’re my favorite.”

Len scowls, making a tiny huff as he sits down cross-legged on the floor. Mick – much to Barry’s surprise and for lack of a better word – preens.

Free food in bed with two supervillains. How is this his life?

Barry finds himself asking this question a lot. Mostly because it starts to happen a couple of times a week.

***

“ALLEN!” Captain Singh roars, voice cutting through the din of the police station like a hot knife through butter. Barry blinks, taken by surprise at the vehemence the older man manages to inject into his name. “My office, now,” Singh continues, and Barry can only nod, confused, and follow.

The door shuts behind him with an ominous thud.

***

Later that night, Barry finds himself sprawled out on his bed, face first in a mostly empty box of pizza. To his left, the infamous Captain Cold, picking nonexistent lint off of Barry’s comforter, making a litany of snide remarks about Barry’s crappy apartment. To his right, the indomitable Heatwave, noshing on a piece of pizza like the cheese and sauce are going out of style.

Free food in bed with two giant dweebs, Barry thinks, somewhat fondly. How is this his life? Then again, it’s been almost two months since they showed up on his doorstep with Thai food, and somehow it almost feels like they never left.

“Captain Singh called me into his office today,” Barry says idly to the pair of them, and he sits up so that he can take a bite of his pizza.

“Oh?” Len says, and Mick grunts, the picture of disinterest.

“Yeah,” Barry continues. “See, apparently there’s some sort of misunderstanding going around where I’m concerned. I’m – I don’t know – getting mentioned as a part of your gang or something? They’re calling me the Criminal Keeper.” Mick snorts, and Barry eyes him suspiciously as he asks, “You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

Len’s smile is like the Cheshire Cat, stretching from one ear to the other. “To be fair,” Len says innocently, “the other names Mardon came up with were terrible.”

“Mardon?” Barry blinks. “Mark Mardon? What does the Weather Wizard have to do with this?”

Mick shrugs. “You stood up to the Flash, and you won. Mardon wanted to give you a supervillain name for it.”

“He was spectacularly drunk at the time,” Len adds helpfully, as if that makes any of this better.

“I dunno’,” Mick mumbles. “I kind of liked some of those names.” And he stuffs an entire pizza crust into his mouth, cheeks bulging out obnoxiously, an oversized chipmunk hoarder.

You were spectacularly drunk at the time, too,” Len sniffs.

Mick shrugs, broad shoulders lifting and falling, a wordless, What can ya do?

“The rest of the names really were awful,” Len continues. “It started with the ‘Guardian of Gangsters’ and went downhill from there. What else was there–” A pause, then, “Oh, right. ‘Fraternizer of Felons.’ ‘Warden of Wrongdoers.’ Personally, I did rather like ‘the Rogue Wrangler.’”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Barry says, holding up his hands as if he can physically block the crazy. “You mean to tell me that Mark Mardon gave me a supervillain name months ago – and that you guys have been using it. Specifically to refer to me. And now enough people are using it that my boss, the Captain of Central City’s Police Department, called me into his office to stage an intervention because he thinks I’m on a dark path!?”

Mick chokes on his pizza crust and Len snorts, “Did he really?”

“Yes! Yes, he did!” Barry buries his face into his hands, then flops back onto the bed and punches at the ceiling. “Oh, God, how is this my life. My cop boss is trying to save me from the darkside, and I’m in my apartment–”

“–your shitty apartment–” Len grumbles under his breath.

“–my shitty apartment eating pizza with my two supervillain buddies–”

“–boyfriends–” Mick mutters hoarsely, having finally dislodged the piece of crust from his throat. He licks the sauce off his fingers.

“–with my two supervillain boyfriends discussing my apparent supervillain name that I’ve had for months and didn’t know about–” Barry pauses. Backtracks. Replays. Sits up abruptly.

“... boyfriends?” he whispers, and isn’t that a punch to the gut?

Len glares at Mick, who shrugs again, and says, “Been months. You said food would work. Where the fuck are my cuddles?”

“Smooth,” Len sighs. “Okay, so let’s backtrack a minute, shall we, kid?”

Barry blinks. He nods once, not fully trusting his voice.

“You’re one in a million. You know this.” At Barry’s blank stare, Len sighs again, shakes his head. “Seriously, not rocket science, kid. You have to know this.” A pause, then, “You have the contact information of every criminal in this city, and you know what you use them for?”

“... for the kids?” Barry replies, not entirely sure where this conversation is going.

“For the kids,” Mick confirms.

“You don’t turn us in. Hell, when the Flash shows up, you protect us, sometimes at the cost of your own well-being.” Len reaches forward slowly, carefully strokes his finger along Barry’s throat in an approximation of where the Flash bruised him all those months ago. The touch makes Barry shiver, and Len’s eyes go half-lidded and dark, but the villain continues, “You make enough money with your job at the CCPD to afford a better apartment than this, but you donate almost every cent to the Wishing Well Foundation.”

Startled, Barry stutters, “How did you–”

Len waves his hand. “We’re criminals, kid. You think I didn’t do a full background check on you the minute I gave you my phone number that first time?”

Mick snorts. “Gave him a fucking heart attack when he found out you worked with the police.”

“Point is,” Len says, skipping right over Mick’s fondly reminiscent statement, “You could live better than this. You don’t. You work for the police as a forensic analyst, solving crimes. You volunteer your nights at a nonprofit because you want to grant these kids their heart’s desire. Hell, that first night, when you came at Mick and me...”

“I was terrified,” Barry admits quietly.

“Didn’t stop you,” Mick remarks, voice tinged with something like admiration. “Didn’t fucking slow you down.”

“Because you were doing it for Anna,” Len adds, a half-smile on his lips. “You stood up to someone you thought would kill you in a heartbeat, and you did it to make a little girl happy.”

Barry swallows hard, and his eyes shift away from the open honesty in Len’s expression. He’s used to sass and snark and snide comments. He isn’t used to Len looking at him like he hung the moon and the stars in the sky. Mick wears an identical expression to Barry’s right.

“So yeah,” Len says casually, “Me and Mick, we’ve been a thing since juvie–”

“I knew that,” Barry whispers. “I mean, I know that.”

“Didn’t know we’ve been trying to date you since we brought you Thai,” Mick grouches.

“No,” Barry admits. “That, I didn’t know. That was – it’s been weeks. It’s been months.”

“I can be patient,” Mick mutters petulantly, and his pout startles a tiny, honest laugh out of Barry's mouth. And it’s that expression, right there, that sells him. Because these two men are gorgeous in ways that Barry has always appreciated, between the delicate features of Len’s face and the bulging muscles of Mick’s arms, but that's not why he let them through his front door all those weeks ago.

It wasn’t even about the food, if he’s being fully honest, although that certainly didn’t hurt.

It’s about the trust these two gave him, the first to press a phone number into his hands with the certainty that he wouldn’t abuse it. It’s about the way they went overboard, decorating Anna’s room with those ridiculous photos just to make her smile. It’s about showing up at his door on the eighth floor and bitching about the size of the apartment, making it clear exactly how much it is hated – and then coming back the next day to do it again.

Slowly, more terrified now than in that moment so many months ago when he thought he was going to be shot, Barry reaches out and pulls Len forward, lips parting into a kiss that curls his toes and twists his stomach into knots. He can feel the bed shift behind him, and the heat of Mick’s body as it presses up against him. He pulls back from Len, hesitantly, carefully, and turns his head to kiss Mick. The result of which leaves him breathless, and every inch of his skin burns like the sun.

And when he thinks that his brain might be short-circuiting, that the entire situation can’t get any more intense, he finds his eyes widening as Len and Mick kiss – devour each others mouths, more like – familiar and passionate, and both of their hands are on him and it’s – it’s–

“Oh,” Barry says, dazed.

“Something like that,” Len replies, tone smug with satisfaction.

“Shut up,” Mick grumbles, and tugs them both back onto the bed, pushing the pizza boxes aside to make room. “I want my fucking cuddles.”

***

Barry spends his weekdays at his desk at the CCPD, scouring evidence and searching for the truth. He puts in his forty hours without complaint, and if Captain Singh and Detective West occasionally eyeball him, twin expressions of curiosity and concern on their faces, well – that’s okay. He can live with that.

When five o’clock rolls around, Barry treats himself to a cup of coffee on his way to the W2F’s office. Sometimes, when he needs the energy, he buys himself a highly caffeinated “Flash.” On especially hot days, though, he splurges on a “Captain Cold” iced coffee, and it tastes so good that he refuses to run and spill it.

By foot, he reaches the W2F’s office around five-thirty, and Ms. Palowski plies him with homemade goodies. Barry restrains himself and only consumes one, no matter how tasty they may be; the rest he carefully packs away, saving them to bring home to his shitty, tiny apartment.

He’ll flip through whatever files cross his desk, happy to volunteer his time for the kids, but it’s kind of amazing because these days – well, these days, villains are all the rage. Requests come in from across the nation, and mostly Barry just has to make phone calls and arrange transportation. It’s easier wish-granting than what he’s used to, but it’s just as satisfying, though he knows it won’t last forever.

At the end of the night, he says his good-byes to the elderly Ms. Palowski and makes his way home to an empty apartment. He climbs eight flights of stairs and fumbles with the key to his door. He puts his plate of baked goods on the top of the dresser where they cannot be missed, arranges them neatly, and resists the urge for a midnight snack. He brushes his teeth, strips of his clothing, and falls into his soft, queen-sized bed.

He’s usually asleep before his head hits the pillow.

He dreams of his mother, tucking him in and kissing his forehead. He dreams of his father, holding him close and telling him how very, very proud he is. He dreams of lightning, of fire, of ice, and just because he’s asleep doesn’t mean he isn’t peripherally aware of the door to his apartment opening sometime in the night, and two, warm, muscular bodies sliding into bed along either side of him.

Lightning and fire and ice, mixed together in perfect harmony, impossible and beautiful and terrible.

(He dreams of a voice – his own voice – whispering softly, where are you? i miss you. i’ll see you soon. It’s a promise. He was the first, though he doesn’t remember, but the speedforce never forgets.)

The alarm clock wails, and beside him, Mick grumbles and slams his fist down onto the poor machine. It’s the fourth clock the big man has broken this week alone, and it’s only Wednesday. Sunlight pours in through the single window, and Len makes a cute little whine and buries his face beneath the covers, hissing, “Close the fucking curtains, you monster,” as he hides.

Barry rolls out of bed with a groan, climbing over a warm body no matter which way he chooses to go, and he stumbles into his closet-bathroom and steps beneath his corner-shower. The hot water lasts for approximately two minutes, which is all the time he needs to wash his hair and scrub his body clean. He brushes his teeth and dresses quickly. Before dashing through his front door, he takes a moment to look at the two men in his bed.

The infamous Captain Cold. The indomitable Heatwave. Both of them half-asleep, mostly naked, and how is this his life? Really, he’s so lucky, it kind of hurts.

Barry leans over and presses a chaste kiss to each of his boyfriends’ lips, smiling when two pairs of hands make a grab for him and try to pull him back into bed. The kids at the hospital used to call him “Mr. Barry.” Nowadays, they call him “The Criminal Keeper,” and, well – they’re not wrong. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to these two, amazing men on the weekdays.

“Go back to bed,” Barry tells his boyfriends, and they grumble a token protest, but they do. He bounds down eight flights of stairs, taking the steps two at a time. He splurges for a cup of coffee on his way to Central City’s Police Department, and only spills half of it as he runs on the busy sidewalk, trying to get there before his shift starts.

Overall? It’s an amazing start to an even better day.

He’s a busy guy with a busy schedule, and really, he doesn’t have a whole lot of time to devote to Len and Mick on the weekdays.

The weekends, though? That’s a different story entirely.

Barry grins, a wicked twist of his lips. Today is Wednesday, and Friday can’t come soon enough.

***

fin