Actions

Work Header

The Firebird

Chapter Text

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

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

Well.

Mostly.

---------------------------------

“Barry!” Joe bellows from downstairs.

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

Like, mid-day bright.

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

“You were supposed to leave ten minutes ago!”

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

Barry?!”

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

No. No, he cannot.

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

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

“Thanks,” Barry says. “Good morning!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"She already knows!" Joe calls back.

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

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

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

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

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

As it is, he knows a shortcut.

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

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

“Bartholomew –” Eobard starts ominously.

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

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

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

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

Barry hates his brothers so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry winces.

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

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

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

“No, Sire,” the man squeaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Harrison clears his throat pointedly.

Eobard sinks back down with a scowl.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Text

The exhibition is going to be terrible.

Oh, Barry’s gotten everything set up for the science portion; everyone is excited and prepared and things are moving along on careful calculated schedules to make sure the presentations are actually ready in time. That part is fine.

It’s everything else that’s going to be miserable.

First, Eobard’s managed to invite what feels like every noble with a daughter of marriageable age and the entire town is bursting with gossip about who might be considered “eligible” and if King Harrison, known to be fond of scientific events, would use this opportunity to announce certain engagements. Barry can’t walk three steps in the street without whispers, whistling, or actually being asked what he thinks of Princess So-and-So that he’s never heard of. And there’s no good answer, either: saying “yes, I know of her” implies that they’ve met (and thus may be engaged, regardless of the fact that the meeting took place when they were both five), saying “no, never heard of her” is heard as a guilty denial because saying nothing is clearly suspicious behavior…Eobard actually pulled Barry aside one day and told him, ponderously, that he should stop starting rumors – starting rumors! – by responding in such a provocative manner. Barry’s taken to saying “I have no idea” about everyone, even people he clearly does know, just to make sure his reaction is consistent.

Then there’s Hunter, who’s gotten it into his head that he’s now an explosives expert and that demonstrating as much would be an excellent way to push the army into the science exhibition portions of the event rather than limiting it to the demonstration of arms. Barry, who was nominally in charge of recruitment for the exhibition, had objected on the grounds that military armaments were firstly not particularly “new” or “scientific” and were already well known throughout the country, and secondly even if there was a new type of armament (there wasn’t, he checked), surely they should keep it secret in order to not give away all of their military strategy. The king had listened to both of them and had opted in this case to side with Barry, and now Hunter is in a Mood and is setting little traps for Barry everywhere he goes. Barry now religiously checks every doorway to make sure there isn’t another bucket of water waiting to drop on his head: Hunter is vicious, but not particularly creative, thankfully.

And even his normal refuge in the lower town, where Eobard and Hunter wouldn’t go, is besieged in its own way: Iris opted to take Barry’s advice and set the wedding on the second day of the exhibition so that they could enjoy the opening ceremonies on the first night and have enough leftover food to feed an army on the second night when most of the foreign guests would be exploring the city or visiting the first round of exhibitions, but that meant her wedding was going to be less than three months from when they finally settled on a date and wedding preparations were driving everybody crazy. Iris couldn’t care less about the guest list or the venue, but it’s her wedding and she wants a nice dress and a giant cake, while Eddie’s being hounded by his aristocratic family to make the wedding An Event, as they put it, so that they can attend without feeling ashamed. Why anyone would be ashamed to attend a wedding, Barry doesn’t know, but Eddie’s been walking around with a pinched expression and circles under his eyes and Iris has been stressed out beyond belief. And that’s not even starting with Henry and Joe freaking out about their only daughter getting married.

Even work is going crazy. There’s been a spate of disappearances in the last year, all throughout the land, and while Barry hasn’t heard all the details – nothing has managed to make its way to Central yet, thankfully, but unfortunately that means that all the guardhouse knows is that people, mostly women, have been disappearing in circumstances that would suggest foul play – it’s causing a panic already. They don’t know who or when or where, just that they need to be on high alert, and so they are: double shifts, triple shifts, over-tired people being snappish and irritable just as more people stream into the city for the event, vendors and tourists and guests and scientists alike. Central City always swells in numbers for the summer, but with the exhibition, they’re particularly hard pressed to keep track of all the new people. The guardhouse is certain that the mysterious perpetrator will be coming to Central around the time of the exhibition.

Barry tries to help out, but he’s being pulled in a thousand directions: he needs proper clothing for the feasts and parties, since Eobard has deemed his last set entirely out of fashion and confiscated them; the merchants are panicking about their exhibitions again; the scientists are complaining about the amount of space each person has been assigned; Hunter signed Barry up to participate in a demonstration of equestrianism and insists he practice, which mostly involves him laughing at Barry on Sissy, who is a far better horse than Barry is a rider; King Harrison is holding regular family meetings as the exhibition approaches, growing narrow-eyed and short-tempered as the pressures mount…

Also, on a personal note, Barry has not had any luck tracking down his mysterious savior from the river.

Oh, he’s seen the man again, not more than once every fortnight, usually walking down the street whistling the same tune, which Barry sometimes has uncomfortable dreams about, but Barry’s never been able to catch up with him and no one else seems to know who he means – though perhaps “the tall pretty man” isn’t the most helpful description Barry could give, no matter how accurate it is.

They’ve only actually met once more, when there was a small fire down by the tanners and Barry was helping with the firebreaks and fetching water from the well because no matter how small a fire is, it’s always dangerous if it spreads. Barry was ashy with smoke and covered in dirt and grime, and the man appeared beside him, handing over bucket after bucket while somehow remaining very nearly immaculate. Barry was too busy to speak to him – they locked eyes and stared at each other for a long moment before someone had called Barry back to the work he was doing, but at one point when the man handed him a bucket, his fingers flittered over the back of Barry’s hand, cool and soft even in the hot day and the hotter glare of the flames. Barry wakes up in the middle of the night sometimes thinking about that glancing touch. He doesn’t know if it was a deliberate caress or a mistake, but he gets shivers just thinking about it.

Of course, by the time they’d managed to tame the fire, he turned around and the man was gone, and no one else knew his name or identity.

It’s both deeply disappointing and also somewhat exhilarating, this mysterious stranger with his beautiful eyes and the humorous slant of his mouth, someone who Barry can safely crush on without having to worry about getting ribbed by his brothers. Someone who he is certain he will meet, one day; it’s only a matter of time. With the exhibition coming, the man has to be attending, and Barry will track him down then.

If only he could figure out how the man keeps disappearing!

Barry sighs and buries his face in his hands. Only a few days left till midsummer. Only a few days, and then the whole mess will be here in actuality rather than a stressful anticipation looming on the horizon.

“Barry!” the king thunders behind him and Barry jumps a foot into the air.

“Yes, sir?” he says immediately, spinning to face his father.

“I want an update tomorrow morning on the status of things,” King Harrison orders. Barry knows he means for Barry to go to the tavern and listen to the old men talk about the supernatural, since Barry hasn’t actually managed to make it any time in the last three weeks or so what with everything else that’s going on, but the king is surrounded by his ministers, who also sneer at any hint of supernatural, and so his words are relatively oblique. Barry doesn’t understand why you would surround yourself with people you have to hide your thoughts from, especially when they’re supposed to be your advisors rather than vice versa, but politics has always been Eobard’s forte, not his.

Barry nods. “Will do,” he says. “I’ll be in first thing tomorrow.”

“I’ll expect you before noon, then,” his father says, and sweeps off. Some of the ministers cackle a little bit, only to stop when Barry glares at them. Just because he’s not punctual doesn’t mean he’s not quick – and seriously, people can stop making that joke any time now. It’s not like it wasn’t already old and worn out by the time he was ten. Why people still find it funny is entirely beyond Barry.

Barry checks the light – the sun is already setting, where did the day go? – and heads straight for the largest tavern. It’s the end of the week, so he can probably expect a crowd; in order to keep morale up (and to ensure appropriate supervision of the lower town on the eve of a day of rest), David Singh, head of the city guards, has started a tradition of buying every guard who comes by the old tavern house at week-end one free drink during summer months. Unsurprisingly, attendance is up significantly, and, given that the old tavern house is right in the middle of the entertainment sector of the lower town, it ensures the regular presence of a large crowd of guardsmen in easy summoning distance should there be any fights, thefts, assaults, or other crimes.

By the time Barry gets there – he has to detour to help a girl get her kitten out of a tree so she can get home before dark, and now he’s late again, even if only against his own personally imposed deadline – the tavern house is bustling and full. It’s not as cheerful as Barry would’ve expected, though, most people drinking and talking quietly amongst themselves rather than singing or yelling or cheering.

He sees David in the corner, sitting next to a handful of the older guardsmen and some of the village drunks, and opts to head over there. David smiles when he sees Barry; they’ve always gotten along well, from back before David renounced his knightly duties and opted to serve in the city watch instead on the grounds that he could do more for the kingdom that way. Also, his little jibes about Barry’s lateness are among the only ones that Barry can tolerate because they are entirely about Barry’s complicated relationship with punctuality.

“The castle driving you up the wall, Barry?” he asks, offering Barry a mug.

Barry accepts gratefully, squeezing in next to him. “I’d say you have no idea, but I’m sure you have an even better idea that me, given that you’re helping coordinate security for the next few weeks. I figured I’d come here to unwind, but everyone seems so subdued today. I would’ve thought people would be more excited, what with the exhibition coming up first thing next week.”

Old Gibbons snorts into his drink, which knowing him isn’t his first or even his fifth of the night. “Hard to be excited, with one of them koschei walking the land.”

“A koschei?” Barry says with amusement. Now that’s a scary fireside story he hasn’t heard in years.

“Oh, yes, the fearsome koschei,” Gibbons says grimly. “Someone who sells their heart and soul for magic and power and the ability to evade death; they’re pale and cold and ruthless beyond telling. They say that they were once great sorcerers who grew to fear death more than anything else: their hearts are locked away from them where no person can reach, and they can work no more works but those which cause evil.”

“And you think there’s one around?”

“The signs are clear, aren’t they?” Gibbons says aggressively. “There’s the summer storms, which’ve come far too early; it means an early frost and a dead harvest, a koschei’s curse. The moon rose red in the sky yesterday. And there’s all these kidnappings –”

“Don’t be absurd, Gibbons,” David says sternly. “Last week you were telling us the kidnappings were done by Solovei.”

“Solovei?” Barry says with a grin. “The Nightingale Robber, the one that does magic by whistling?” He knows that one; it was one of his favorite stories growing up. The capricious thief, who lingered in the mountains along treacherous paths, stopping nobles passing by and terrorizing them with his whistles, which sounded just like a nightingale’s call but were as powerful as a blast of wind from a hurricane, until they gave over all their valuables. In the stories, at least, he could only be defeated with his own greed, forcing him on a merry chase where he whistled trees down to the ground and palaces and castles too until he was too exhausted to whistle anymore and could be attacked. Something about the contrast of the sweet nightingale and the gleefully malicious thief always charmed Barry.

Gibbons grunts. “So I was wrong about Solovei,” he says grumpily. “It’s clearly a koschei. Their taste for women is well known; you can find it in any number of tales.”

“And I suppose some poor hero will need to find this koschei’s heart to slay him,” David says dryly. “What is it – the heart is hidden in a jewel, which is in a hare, which is in a duck, which is in a chest, something like that?”

“It’s the only way to stop them,” Gibbons says gloomily. “And even then, sometimes it doesn’t work if they’re clever.”

“How do you know it’s not Baba Yaga, Gibbons?” one of the other guards, a younger man called Anderson, says with a smile. “You’re always blaming her for this and that.”

“Baba Yaga has no interest in girls, you moron,” old Fred, Joe’s partner before he broke his leg and Eddie took his place, says. “She helps ‘em in most of the stories; it’s the young men that she likes to boil in her cooking pot.”

“It’s about even in the stories if Baba Yaga’s a helper or a harridan,” David opines, sipping his drink.

“She’s always an old hag, David, even when she’s helping out; I’ve never heard of the Witch of the Forest being described in any other way than ancient and lurking around in that chicken-leg house of hers,” Fred says. “What about the Vila? Bad weather spirits could be causing the summer storms.”

“They’re ghost-women, Fred; why would they steal brides away?”

“Maybe they want to marry ‘em themselves,” Fred replies, laughing. “I’d watch.”

“Don’t say that too loud in the tavern,” Gibbons lectures. “This much liquor around, you never know if the rusalka’s listening, and she drowns men that mock women.”

“I’ll be good,” Fred promises, still smiling. “Rusalka or no rusalka, my wife’ll drown me if she hears me mocking women.”

“Speaking of rusalka, what about a vodyanoi?” Certo asks curiously.

“Only a few of the disappearances were near water,” David says. “And the vodyanoi are the masters of the riverbed and the seafloor, those old frogmen, so what about all the rest? I’m not saying that they wouldn’t do it, stealing women’s one of their capstones, but there haven’t been any reports of coal-red frog-eyes lurking around any of the kidnappings, plus no dams have been breaking, and that’s usually the first sign of a vodyanoi’s anger.”

Nods all around.

“I’m telling you, all of you, it’s a koschei,” Gibbons insists stubbornly. “Stealing brides on the eve of their wedding days? That’s a koschei or a dragon, and there hasn’t been a dragon in this region since the days of Zmey Gorynych, the three-headed dragon that tried to grow so large it could block out the sun until Dobrynya Nikitich stopped him –”

“Please don’t go on; we’ve all heard it before!”

“– so clearly it’s got to be a koschei!”

“Wait, brides on the eve of their weddings?” Barry says, alarmed. “Is that what’s been happening?”

“Haven’t you heard?” David says, turning to him with a frown that eases after a second. “No, you’ve been too busy at the castle. Yes, we just got word today, at long last; the kidnappings are all brides, all on the night before their weddings. That’s the only thing they’ve got in common, as far as we can tell – that, and they disappear from their bedrooms, even when the doors and windows are locked and guarded.”

“Crap,” Barry says fervently, and finishes his drink in a few long swallows before rising to his feet. “I’ve got to go check back home; Joe’s going to be throwing a fit.”

“That’s right, Iris is getting married next week,” David says, his brow furrowing with distress.

“We’ll all be there, though,” Fred says. “We won’t let anything happen to Joe’s baby girl.”

“Won’t help against a koschei,” Gibbons mutters.

“We’ll be busy with the exhibition most of the day,” David says. “Tell Joe to get me Iris’ schedule, though; I’ll assign a few guys to her if she doesn’t mind staying around the various guarding sectors.”

“I’ll tell him, David, thanks,” Barry says gratefully, and heads back home. He knows King Harrison will be upset with him for not staying and collecting the rest of the stories, but this is far more important. This is Iris.

Sure enough, he can hear yelling from outside the house, Joe’s deep voice and Iris’ high voice, with Henry’s middle timber the only one that still sounds like it’s talking instead of shouting. Probably trying to make peace between his bull-headed spouse and his equally bull-headed step-daughter and failing miserably, if what Barry’s hearing is any indication.

“– we are not postponing the wedding!” Iris is shouting at the top of her lungs. “You’ve never been comfortable with me and Eddie; it’s always this or that or some other thing, and in the end I’ll never get married, that’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Joe bellows. “Eddie’s my partner and I have the highest respect for him –”

“You gave him the cold shoulder for nearly a month when you found out he was courting me! You tried to bench him from guard duties, and you tried to blame me for it, saying you didn’t want me to be upset that he got hurt!”

“– this isn’t about that! We have evidence, direct evidence, that some maniac is targeting women right before their wedding days, and you’re going to get married in the middle of an exhibition that’s going to put the attention of every eye in the land right on Central!”

“So what’s the solution?” Iris bellows back. “We postpone indefinitely? I know you want me to stay your little girl forever or join a goddamn nunnery, but I love Eddie and Eddie loves me, and we’re going to get married and that’s final!”

“It is not final! I’m not saying you can’t get married, Iris, just not now!”

“The only reason we’re having the wedding during the exhibition at all is because you wanted us to start our wedding off on the right foot,” Iris yells. “You were the one coming up with reason after reason to delay, and you came up with the stupid one of us not overspending while still inviting Eddie’s family and the guardhouse like Eddie wants – it’s the only thing about this wedding that he’s asked for, and don’t you forget that he’s paying for all the things that we’ve asked for without the slightest word of complaint – and now that the day’s coming up, you’re still trying to find a reason for it not to happen! There won’t be another great feast like this for us to take advantage of for at least another year or three, and I’m not waiting that long!”

“Do you not realize that your life is in danger here? I’m just trying to protect you!”

“Oh, that’s rich! Trying to protect me! Trying to protect me! That’s your excuse for everything, isn’t it? You’re always ‘just trying to protect’ me! Just like you protected me out of applying to be a guardsman myself! Just like you protected me out of –”

Barry slips in the door and glances at Henry, who’s clearly given up by this point and is sitting at the table with a mug of tea and a tired expression which brightens when he sees Barry. Barry comes to sit next to him. “How long have they been at this?” he asks quietly.

“About an hour now,” Henry says with a sigh, running his hand through his dark brown hair. He looks similar enough to Barry for them to actually be father and son, brown hair and brown eyes and fair skin; the thought that Henry might be his real father was one of Barry’s most cherished (and most private) childhood dreams, though one he’d long since dismissed. “I keep thinking that they’ve gone around in circles long enough, but then they just start right back at the beginning and go through it all again.”

“Ouch,” Barry says with feeling, having been stuck between the rock and the hard place of Iris and Joe’s fights many times before. Iris is rightfully resentful over any number of slights she feels her over-protective father has given her over the years – chasing away boyfriends, being cold and unwelcoming to friends he disapproved of, pressuring her into more appropriate professions – but on the other hand Joe often had a reason, sometime borne out, to do what he did and those instances when he was right have only further convinced him that he’s doing the right thing by keeping an eye out for Iris. There’s no way to resolve it; Barry’s been hoping that once Iris is living with Eddie, Joe will relax his vigilance a little…

“So how’ve you been, slugger? Castle keeping you crazy?”

“Oh, is it ever,” Barry says, smiling at the familiar comfort of his foster father’s presence. “You won’t believe how many meetings I have to attend. Not do anything, not say anything, not contribute anything; I don’t even have to listen, but for some reason my presence is of absolute necessity.”

“At least they think your input is valuable,” Henry says, then smiles. “Or at least that they feel they need a princely stamp of approval before they send anything out. What about that mystery man of yours? Any new sightings?”

“Not today,” Barry says, putting his elbows on the table and his chin on his interwoven hands. “I still don’t understand how no one else has managed to spot him; he’s rather…distinctive.”

“To be fair,” Henry says, not even bothering to hide how his smile grows, “your descriptions haven’t always been the most, ah, descriptive. I remember that little sketch you did of him for me…”

Barry buries his face in his hands. “I can’t draw,” he says mournfully. “You know I can’t draw.”

“My favorite part was when Joe came home and thought it was a horse,” Henry says. “And that it’d been drawn by Wally.”

“Not just by Wally,” Barry says, sighing at the mention of Iris’ little brother, who’d enlisted in the military last year in order to go to the engineering school and who had a touch of wizardry when he drew with a set of pencils, as long as the subject was a bridge or a building. “By Wally when he was eight. In his draw everything ‘upside down’ stage, no less.”

Henry snickers and punches Barry lightly in the shoulder.

Barry turns to regard Joe and Iris, who are still fighting but starting to wind down around back to the beginning of their argument again, and – in a rare moment when they’re both taking a breath – calls out, “David says that if Iris is planning on staying around the guardsmen routes, he’d be happy to assign a few guys to keep an eye out for her.”

“I don’t need bodyguards!” Iris exclaims.

“Of course not,” Barry says soothingly.

“But it would be a good compromise,” Henry says, leaning forward a little. “Joe, if Iris agrees to take the bodyguards with her, will you agree that we go forward with the wedding?”

Joe scowls, but nods. Iris scowls as well, crossing her arms in front of her chest before snorting and saying, “Fine. Under protest. It’s not like I have a lot of plans for the day before, anyway; I was planning on finish up most of my errands tomorrow and the day after so that the day before the wedding will be mostly free. Patty’s planning some last minute bridesmaid stuff, but I’ll talk to her about making sure that we’re within range of a guardsman route at all times; that way the guards can double duty watching me and, you know, actually doing their jobs.”

“You’re a citizen of Central City,” Joe says. “Watching you is part of their jobs.”

“Why don’t you both sit and have dinner?” Henry interrupts, gently derailing both of them before they can rev back up into argument mode, this time with a brand new subject. “Barry, will you be staying?”

Barry thinks miserably about all the things he has to get done at the castle. “I probably shouldn’t,” he starts.

“Oh, c’mon, Bear,” Iris says. “We’ve barely seen you, and it’s already pretty late. Stay the night and head back first thing tomorrow – I promise I’ll wake you up so that you actually make it on time.”

Barry yields with very little convincing on the parts of his foster parents and his sister in all but blood. Iris keeps him up half the night, sharing worries about her upcoming wedding that she doesn’t dare utter around Joe for fear that he’ll seize on her (perfectly ordinary) wedding jitters to stall or bluster or show off that he was right, but Barry doesn’t mind. Especially when she does actually successfully get him out of bed on time in the morning.

He’d prefer it if she could do it without dragging his sheet and him off the bed and starting to walk towards the door, but hey, if it works…

King Harrison arches an eyebrow when he sees Barry hovering around his office door while the sun is still fairly low in the sky. He gestures for Barry to come in, dismissing the petitioners currently surrounding him with another sharp gesture. They scatter and then it’s just Barry and his father.

“What have you heard?” the king asks.

“People are anxious because of the disappearances,” Barry reports. “Apparently, all the women disappearing were brides stolen right before their wedding days – and from behind locked doors. So people are blaming supernatural causes, though there’s some disagreements as to what specifically could be causing it. As it is, however, people are worried that whatever it is, human or creature, will come here for the exhibition.” Barry hesitates. “My – a really good friend of mine, Iris, is going to be getting married on the second day of the exhibition. I was hoping I could be excused from a few of the first day festivities to keep an eye on her–”

“Absolutely not,” King Harrison says sternly. “The exhibition is of utmost importance to this kingdom, and you are my son. I expect you to make a full appearance at all the events, especially on the important days: the opening ceremonies, the series of scientific exhibitions culminating in the presentation of the Star on Midsummer itself, the closing ceremonies. I’m certain the girl’s fiancé and the rest of her family will be keeping a sufficiently close eye on her.”

Barry sighs, but nods.

“Now tell me what type of creatures people believe may be coming here,” the king orders, a gleam of interest – or possibly scientific avarice, it’s hard to tell sometimes with King Harrison – returning to his face.

Barry does the best he can without revealing that he only stuck around for five minutes or so, repeating the various suggestions as if they were a considerably longer debate than they were. He’s mildly curious himself to know what the guardsmen eventually settled on as being the likely culprit, but if he wants to be prepared for the exhibition, he probably won’t have time to visit again. Besides, David will be swamped today; he’s the chief of the city watch, but city-wide security during such an extensive event is in the hands of the military or the knights, so convincing them they don’t actually know better than the people who’ve been on the ground day in and day out all year long will be a headache and a half.

Barry goes to finish the scientific exhibitions and help Iris with her errands instead.

People continue to pour into the city over the next few days: every hotel and guesthouse is booked, anyone who has family from outside Central has them sleeping on their couches and floors, and even a few old livery stables have been converted into temporary accommodations. There’s no doubt that King Harrison’s exhibition will be a success. Barry just hopes that everything works out just as his father’s planned it; King Harrison isn’t one to have his plans be trifled with.

The opening ceremonies, at least, go off without a hitch. Everyone oohs and ahhs at the lavish spectacle: fireworks and flags, performers and dancers, knights and musicians, marching out in parade with a colorful display so gaudy that a crow in search of mating plumage would sneer at it. The citizens of Central and their guests obligingly fill the streets, cheering and hollering as they watch, a spectacle in their own right as they fill the side streets and the buildings lucky enough to be on the parade routes, climbing up on rooftops and balconies for a better view. The parade route twists and turns through the city, finally coming to a stop at the castle itself, which is bedecked in ribbons and candles and banners until it positively glows with festivity. And, of course, for those privileged enough to enter the castle and come to the feast, there are scores of groaning tables weighed down with enough food to feed an army three times the size of Central's. Barry is pleased on Iris' behalf, but also relieved that future feasts will be served to a seated audience - watching the way some of the nobles stuff their faces, he figures the lower town would starve come winter if the castle put out buffets every night for three weeks.

And as evening comes, of course, there’s a ball. A startling number of people have come dressed in night sky blue or bright glowing gold, most with some variation of a star, because heaven forbid if they didn't match the theme. Barry rolls his eyes and snags a few hot meat rolls from one of the rotating waiters. He hates balls with a passion: he’s nimble enough when it comes to sword fighting or even fisticuffs, but damn if he wasn’t born with two left feet. Balls are also prime time for women and girls with an eye towards marrying up to circle around Central’s infamously womanless household: not only are Eobard, Hunter and Barry all of marriageable age yet still unwed, King Harrison himself has been single since the death of his wife Tess, the only Queen of Central that Barry had ever known.

Barry really wishes he was back home in Joe and Henry's house, setting up for tomorrow's celebration and keeping an eye on Iris to make sure she doesn’t do anything rash.

But no, King Harrison had proudly presented them – in much the same tone as he presented his favorite scientists, though with less real affection – to the crowds at the castle at the start of the ball and Barry knows his father well enough to know that he would notice if Barry tried to slip away.

Still, present does not mean participating - Barry fully intends to spend the entire night hiding in the corner, comforting himself with some food, some wine, and a game of "guess the bizarre backstory" with the guests. It's not as much fun as it would've been with Iris present, but it keeps him entertained for the first hour or so as the sun sinks beneath the horizon and the moon rises.

He's about halfway through another meat roll and inventing a story involving mad peacocks and an avaricious uncle for one of the more unfortunately dressed young women – who thinks dressing like a bee is a good idea, ever? – when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder.

“And this,” Eobard’s voice booms, “is my youngest brother Bartholomew. I knew I’d find him lurking about in some corner; he’s very shy.”

Barry turns slowly to regard the people Eobard is introducing him to, forced smile fixed onto his face as if he could will this encounter to be less dreadful. Two richly-dressed women, somewhere in their thirties or forties but smiling like coquettes, and three girls, ranging from early twenties to what looks like twelve. To Barry’s eyes they resemble nothing more than slavering wolves.

Eobard introduces Barry to them individually with names that Barry forgets virtually immediately, his hand tight on Barry’s shoulder, then suggests with a wicked smile, “Why don’t you go dance with one of these fine young women, Bartholomew? I noticed you hadn’t had a chance to get onto the dance floor yet.”

Five sets of eyes light up.

Barry hastily says, “Oh, Eobard, you know how terrible a dancer I am –” He sees the glint in Eobard’s eye that means that he won’t be crossed on this issue, and Barry had better pick one to dance with or Eobard will pick one for him and force him onto the dance floor himself if necessary, so he changes courses and smoothly continues, “– so in the interest of preserving these lovely women’s shoes, I was hoping the lovely Dawn, here, could give me some lessons.” He smiles and offers his hand to the twelve-year-old, who looks positively star-struck. It fits in well with her outfit, with her gold starred hairpins and her pale yellow dress. “What do you say?”

“Sure!” she blurts out, oblivious to the glares from her mother and sisters. “I know plenty of dances!”

Barry hams up his admittedly terrible dancing, making Dawn giggle and try to walk him through the most basic steps, but unfortunately after a few turns around the floor he’s forced to give her up. Eobard sweeps in with some other women he wants Barry to meet, a dizzying array of names and faces concealed by masks which only helps blur them together even more in his mind, and he’s stuck doing that for the next hour or two.

Eventually, Barry carefully dances his way over to where the nobles are mingling and, once Eobard is inevitably drawn into some discussion or another, tries to make a break for it, offering insincere apologies and slipping away to go back to his corner.

He gets about halfway there when he sees Hunter moving purposely through the crowd with his eyes fixed on Barry, nasty smile on his face and trouble undoubtedly on his mind, and at that point Barry decides that utter humiliation would be significantly worse than temporary social discomfort and flees back towards the (relative) safety of Eobard.

Eobard’s eyebrows arch when he sees Barry willingly join a circle of nobles who are discussing – ugh, politics, of course it’s politics. Barry fixes a small smile on his face (Eobard’s always ragging on him about that: his social smile is too broad and stupid-looking, his real smile too sincere, his attempts at a small curve of the lips invariably come across like the grimaces they really are) and slides into the gap next to Eobard.

A quick glance backwards reveals Hunter scowling, but unwilling to face Eobard on his own terms. Then some woman or another asks Hunter to dance and the danger to Barry is temporarily averted. Hunter’s the most romantic of all three brothers, though Iris – who has met Hunter while accompanying Barry to one or another of these sorts of events – has confided in Barry that he gives off what she terms as a “creepy” vibe from being so intense about it. “He’s the sort of person who’ll think it’s romantic to sweep you off your feet by literally kidnapping you,” she said, shuddering. “Listening to him talk, you get the feeling that everything he learned about love comes from one of those terrible stories where everybody commits suicide at the end.”

With an effort, Barry turns his attention back to the nobles in front of him, which Eobard has been busily introducing him to while he wasn’t paying attention. “– and this is Dame Amanda Waller, recently of Starling, and Sir Eiling of our Southern March, and Lord Vandal Savage, from the Scythian lands, come here on his travels by way of St Roch.”

Barry is mildly interested by the last one – Eiling he’s already met and dislikes, an army man to his core, and Waller is a familiar enough sight, but the Scythians are far enough away so as to be practically a myth in these parts. Given the scarcity of people who are even willing to claim that they travelled far enough away to meet a Scythian, Barry has always seen the place as a name invoked primarily by conmen and salespeople hoping to add an exotic flare to their sales pitch. Easy enough to fake a connection there if you don’t have a real one, in Barry’s view, but Eobard seems willing enough to buy it and Lord Savage’s clothing is clearly fine enough for a foreign noble, so Barry’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. And maybe ask a few questions about the Scythians while he’s at it.

“A pleasure to see you again,” Barry offers politely to the two he knows before turning and inclining his head at Savage. “And to meet you, Lord Savage.”

“I don’t recall seeing you marching in the parade,” Eiling booms, incapable as ever of moderating his tone from a parade ground shout to something more appropriate for indoors, particularly after a few drinks. “You’re a knight, same as your brothers, aren’t you?”

Before Barry can say anything – he is a knight, mostly by virtue of being the king’s son, but Hunter represented the family in the knightly procession as he always does – Savage smiles into his glass and says, poisonously, “I don’t believe Prince Bartholomew attended – I believe I noticed him running in at the last minute, very nearly late to his very own opening ceremony, didn’t I?”

Barry flushes red, hating his tendency to do that and not particularly fond of Savage any more, either. “I see you noticed that,” he says as politely as he can manage. “I had some important business to attend to –”

“Oh, I’m sure everyone noticed,” Savage says, laughing. “I must say, Eobard, it must difficult for you to handle such an undisciplined and tardy younger brother – particularly with the reputation your city is so justly known for…”

Eobard laughs. Barry officially hates this guy.

“Though of course your reputed quickness has more to do with your renowned intellect and scientific achievement,” Savage continues, smiling like a snake.

“Indeed, I think we’re all looking forward to seeing the Star exhibition – that’s this week?” Dame Waller asks, snagging another glass of wine from a nearby waiter and shooing the man off before Sir Eiling can grab another one as well.

“Unfortunately not,” Eobard says smoothly. “My father, the king, will be personally presiding over the presentation of the Star at the climax of these celebrations, accompanied by all the fruits thereof – you must have seen the golden apples that we have, of which my family is most proud.”

“I noticed they aren’t being served,” Sir Eiling says.

“Haven’t you ever heard of dramatic timing?” Barry says, annoyed despite himself by Sir Eiling’s rudeness. “The apples will be served at the feast that accompanies the presentation of the Star.”

“What my younger brother means,” Eobard cuts in, “is that the trees still grow heavy with the fruit. In two weeks they will be at their most ripe and ready to be served – Lord Savage, you haven’t had a chance to see our apples, they’re really quite a marvel. They glow gold and are said to bestow extended life and excellent health.”

None of which has ever been scientifically proven, and Eobard knows it.

Savage looks intrigued, though, as do the other nobles. Everyone always gets excited to eat an apple that glows gold.

“I will have to put viewing your orchards at the top of my list,” Savage says. “Though I am interested in the Star itself – I was most disappointed to hear that foreign scientists are not permitted to study it directly and I have been assured that there is no hope of it ever being taken and circulated amongst the great scientific centers of the land. Why is that?”

“Well, for one thing, it’s fixed to the ground,” Barry says, barely keeping from rolling his eyes. “For another, the Star is one of our city’s great landmarks as well as my father’s favorite subject of study. As long as he rules in Central, no one else will get to study it without his direct supervision, I assure you.”

“Regardless, Lord Savage, if you are interested in the Star, I’m certain I can have a talk with my father regarding the possible admittance of one of your land’s scientists to assist my father as he furthers his studies of the Star,” Eobard says, clearly only a second away from forgetting his manners and actually elbowing Barry in the side to make him shut up.

“I myself am something of a scientist,” Savage says, and if Eobard didn’t see that coming Barry will eat his shoe. “I would be very interested in that opportunity, thank you.” Eobard smiles, clearly feeling like he’s gotten Savage in his debt, even though Barry’s sure that Eobard’s invitation was precisely what Savage was angling for anyway.

Time for a change in subject, to Barry’s view. He hates politics.

“Lord Savage,” he says, pasting on his brightest and stupidest smile. “Eobard said you were from Scythia – I’ve always been fascinated by their culture. Tell me, what style of architecture do you prefer? What fashionable modes of clothing do you use that differ from ours?”

Savage looks like his estimation of Barry’s intelligence just went down another five notches, which is fine by Barry. “I must admit,” he drawls. “I do not think on the subject much.”

“But surely you can identify what things in our city that are different from yours, in Scythia?” Barry presses, still beaming like an idiot. Savage is clearly not from Scythia, nor is he even slightly familiar with it or he would have mentioned their uniquely composite bows or their tendency to dress their women in the same quilted trousers as their men or even the strange high-pointed caps that would sometimes drift over to Central via the trading routes. Point, Barry.

Eobard is glaring at Barry for derailing the conversation.

“Of course,” Savage says smoothly. “But I’m sure the observations of an old man like me would bore you – I have a daughter, Cassandra by name…”

Point, Savage. Barry makes his excuses and dashes away before Eobard can promise Savage that Barry will escort Cassandra through town for the next week or something absurd like that.

As he makes his way through the crowd, he hears it, just at the very edge of his hearing. Whistling – and a very familiar jaunty tune, at that.

Barry immediately starts looking around, trying to spot the mysterious man, or at least identify where the sound is coming from. At first it sounds like it’s coming from the crowd at the doors, but when Barry dashes up the stairs to look down at them, he can’t spot him anywhere in the crowd. Then it sounds like it’s coming from the gardens, but there’s nobody there at all.

It takes Barry a good twenty minutes of searching before he finally gives up. He hasn’t heard the tune itself in nearly ten minutes and is just looking out of pure stubbornness at this point, but even he knows when to concede defeat. He can’t see the man anywhere, and in a crowd of this size, it could have been anyone who knew that tune. There’s no way to tell if it was the guy he was looking for.

Sighing, Barry returns to his corner, hoping to eke out another hour or so without anybody noticing; that should make it late enough for him to slip out and go home, surely. By that point most of the guests will be drunk enough to swear he was still here, anyway.

Just as he thinks that, a hand falls on his shoulder again. Barry groans.

“Not happy to see me?” a voice drawls in his ear. “And here I thought you were looking for me.”

Barry spins around, nearly upsetting the table next to him. “You!” he exclaims, staring right into the amused eyes of the man he’s been tracking all these months. Amazingly, he is every bit as attractive as Barry remembered him being. Heedless of how rude it might be, Barry reaches out and grabs the man by the wrists. “I’m not letting you go till you tell me your name,” Barry says firmly.

Surprised, the man laughs. “That’s very forward of you, you know.”

“You’ve been evading me for weeks,” Barry says boldly, encouraged by the faint smile playing around the man’s lips. “And I never got a chance to thank you for saving me at our initial meeting – which I refuse to do without a name. Now, what is it?”

“Leonard Snart,” he says with a smirk. “Len, if you prefer.”

“Which do you prefer?”

“Well, since I’m talking to a man named Bartholomew who regularly goes by Barry –”

Barry laughs. “Point taken,” he says with a grin. “Leonard’s not much better than Bartholomew. And Snart’s legitimately terrible.”

“Better than Thawne,” Len offers.

Barry’s grin widens. “Have you had the misfortune of meeting them today?”

“Any day where you meet a Thawne is a misfortune, from what I hear,” Len drawls, his smirk widening. “But I’ve got a more important question for you – provided you’re willing to let me go, now that I’ve paid my bail.” He shakes his wrists, which Barry’s still holding.

Barry ducks his head in embarrassment and lets him go. “What question is that?”

Len’s smirk widens. “Dance with me?”

Barry gapes a little. Holy crap, the hottest guy he’s ever met wants to dance with him. He’s pretty sure his eyes are as star-struck as little Dawn’s were earlier. “Uh, sure – I mean, I’m a terrible dancer, but – if you want – I mean –”

“You were fine enough earlier,” Len murmurs, his eyes traveling from the top of Barry’s head to his toes and back up again. “C’mon, I gave you my name, and I don’t do that for just anyone. One dance and I’ll let you go.”

“It’s your feet’s funeral,” Barry says, and takes Len’s hand.

It’s exciting the way dancing hasn’t been in years, Len holding him close and moving with an ease and confidence that makes Barry think of his dance instructors. And of other things that require flexibility, coordination, and grace, too, but he has to stop thinking about those because then he’ll blush redder than a tomato and no matter what anyone says, he knows that isn’t attractive.

They do a circle around their corner of the floor, moving through the steps together, perfectly in time. When inevitably Barry gets distracted looking into Len’s eyes and steps on Len’s foot, Len only chuckles and carries on, leaning close enough that Barry can feel the soft air of his breath and whispering, “You know, you could probably weaponize that, if you tried.”

Barry is surprised into a snort of laughter, smiling in pleasure rather than in embarrassment. “You don’t mind?”

“Oh, I love a challenge,” Len says, smirk growing. “Having to dodge your feet as well as remembering the proper steps just forces me to up my game – really, I ought to thank you for it.”

“Don’t you dare,” Barry says with a chuckle of his own. “I might be tempted to make an effort.”

Len’s eyes glow with pleasure. “Try me.”

Len is an amazingly good dancer, nimble and agile so that even when Barry does aim for his feet he’s able to skip out of the way while making the turn seem perfectly natural, a little flourish to the predetermined steps. They lurch around the dance floor elegantly and they laugh together and Len spins Barry out and back in, pulling him chest to chest for an exhilarating moment before stepping back to a more appropriate distance. Barry misses the closeness at once.

“Tell me, Barry,” Len says, purring Barry’s name like it’s something delightful rather than the best way to handle a name as bulky as Bartholomew, “what was it that had you smirking to yourself off in that corner of yours? I know it was something.”

“You noticed that?” Barry says, grinning. “I was just playing a little game I’ve designed for these sorts of parties – I like to design a story for each noble on the floor, based entirely on their mode of dress.”

Len smirks. “Now this I have to hear – what about that one by the punch table, the one who looks like she’s murdered a peacock and stuffed it to make that shawl of hers?”

“Oh, well, it clearly all started when her grandfather was attacked by the Great Peacock of Chin over a dispute regarding what had more eyes, the peacock’s tail or a potato –”

They circle through the room, even as the music changes from one tune to another, talking and chuckling; Len seems to enjoy listening to Barry talk, even when he talks about his work in the labs to help identify crimes, even when he admits his utter disinterest in politics or military battles or even hunting.

“And that’s Lady Larson over there, with the explicit bee theme,” Barry confides in Len at one point. “Her family produces some of the finest honey in the country, but she’s always taken the theme a little too far – look, bee jewelry, bee dress, bee hairpieces – I’d wager that her handkerchief is also bee-related, but I’ve never seen it –”

“Only one way to find out,” Len murmurs, seductively close to Barry’s ear, and then he breaks away, going over to Lady Larson and very nearly bumping into her, excusing himself with a quick apology and returning to Barry. Barry’s spent enough time with the guardhouse to know what that looks like, even if he didn’t see the lift himself.

“You didn’t,” he hisses, delighted despite himself. He knows he should be concerned, but it’s such a harmless little prank, and so clearly done for his benefit…

Len produces a handkerchief which is not only striped yellow and black but is actually embroidered with little dancing bees all over. “I think you’ve won your wager.”

“I think I regret it,” Barry says. “Damn, but that’s ugly.”

“One might even say,” Len says solemnly, “that is beyond bee-lief.”

Barry gapes at him for a moment. “Did you just – I – I can’t believe you just –” He starts laughing, desperately covering his mouth in an attempt not to draw the notice of the entire crowd to them.

Len smirks, then looks down at the handkerchief and wrinkles his nose fastidiously. “You know, I do think I’m going to go give it back. It’s not even worth stealing.”

He does, and then returns to Barry just as the song starts up again. Barry, still smiling, holds out his arms and Len steps forward to sweep him away yet again.

After what feels like forever but probably isn’t more than an hour, Len spins Barry back to his original place in the corner, the same cool little smirk on his face as before. Barry has no way to tell if Len was as moved by that dance as he was, or if he just wanted to take a turn through the dance floor with one of Central’s princes, but he’s hoping for the best. He’s never felt this sort of connection, this understanding, with anyone before.

“Unfortunately, that’s our one dance,” Len says, “and a deal’s a deal. I’ll let you go.” He steps back.

“Wait!” Barry quickly blurts out, trying to think of anything, anything, he can do to prolong the conversation. “How’ve you been doing that disappearing trick of yours?”

Len’s smirk widens. “Trade secret, I’m afraid.”

“Will I see you again?”

“You know,” Len says thoughtfully, “I wouldn’t have thought so, but – yes, strangely enough, I have the oddest feeling you will. But you’ll have to catch me again in that case.” His smirk widens. “Come find me, and I guess we’ll see what happens when it happens.”

Then, as if alerted by some thought or some unheard sound, Len’s smirk suddenly twists into something less pleased, less cheerful – and far more cold. Barry feels a chill go down his back; he doesn’t want to know what made Len suddenly look like that.

“For what it’s worth, Barry,” Len says slowly. “I am sorry.”

With those ominous parting words, he abruptly turns on his heel and walks off into the crowd, taking a quick left at the large doorway into the gardens. Barry can’t help but follow, hoping to catch one last glimpse of him, maybe ask what he meant by that, but when he makes the turn into the wide-open gardens himself, there’s no one there.

Just bushes and trees, cool marble benches shining in the moonlight, moths dancing around the occasional torch, and the sound of nightingales singing and crickets chirping filling the air as the sound of the music from the ballroom drifts out into the night sky.

Barry is left, again, wondering how the hell the man manages to disappear so quickly.

He’s still wondering that when, for the third time that night, a hand grabs his arm.

He turns and it’s David, and he’s pale and stricken.

“What’s wrong?” Barry asks, but he knows what David’s going to say before it comes out of his mouth.

“It’s Iris,” David says. “She’s gone.”

Chapter Text

“What do you mean I can’t go after her?!” Barry cries out, throwing his hands in the air. “You let Eobard go off to his stupid noble hunting party! You let Hunter track halfway across the land in search of a stupid flower to give to his girlfriend – who he then dumped! I’m looking for a kidnapped person; that’s significantly more important!”

King Harrison is unmoved; in fact, he barely looks up from his table where he’s paging through a tome of paper with next week’s schedules on it. “Edward Thawne is, I believe, already planning to go after her himself, is he not?” he says calmly. “And as the girl’s fiancé, and a well-liked and renowned knight, it is perfectly appropriate for him to do so. Unless you have some undeclared feelings for the girl –”

Barry makes a strangled noise.

“I didn’t think so. Permission denied, Barry, and I’ll be putting out orders to make sure I know if you’re seen anywhere near the castle walls, so don’t even think of disobeying me.”

“Father, please,” Barry says. “This is Iris. We grew up together.”

“Sir Thawne is already going,” the king repeats.

“I know he’s already going! I don’t want to get in his way, but I’m not sure if you’ve noticed – the land is wide and broad and we have virtually no leads! Having two people searching in different directions simply makes sense!”

“I was under the impression that you had managed to put together a rather complicated map pin-pointing the location of each kidnapped girl over the last few days and successfully located something of a pattern, or at least a direction for him to start with,” the king says coolly. “Sir Thawne will follow your instructions and, should he fail to find her or her assailant, will backtrack in an attempt to find additional clues. He is a knight, Barry; I’m sure he’ll find her.”

“But he might not find her before something bad happens to her!”

Finally his father looked up. “Barry,” he says with a sigh. “This is not how it works.”

“What do you mean?”

“The girls all kidnapped on the day before their wedding?” King Harrison says. “It’s obviously supernatural in nature, and when the supernatural is involved, it’s not merely a rescue mission, it’s a quest – and when it comes to a quest involving brides, only true love can possibly hope to fulfill it. Anyone else who tries to go is doomed to failure and likely death; I’m not letting you throw away your life on this.”

“But – ”

No, Barry, and that’s final. Unless you can present me with some new evidence that indicates you know where the girls are and what took them, I have no intention of changing my mind. Besides, we have a more pressing issue – your brothers should be waiting outside, please call them in.”

Barry’s fists are clenched so tightly his nails are digging into his palms. He is so unbelievably angry right now, but he knows he can’t defy his father. The guards love Joe and Barry, and they love Iris, but if the king gives the orders he has threatened to give, and he no doubt will, Barry will find himself utterly deserted and without allies. He’d never get anywhere near the city gates, much less with the supplies he’d need for a journey of the magnitude likely necessary to find Iris.

He lets his brothers into the room.

King Harrison looks up at them, folding his hands together on the table. “Our apples are going missing,” he announces.

Apples?” Barry exclaims. “That’s the more pressing issue?”

“Barry, if you can’t keep your temper, I will be forced to have you locked in your room until you can,” the king snaps. “And yes, the apples – the ones we have promised every noble in the land will be served at the presentation of our new scientific discoveries relating to the Star and its properties. It began on the second night of the exhibition. The guards were there as usual, but the supply of apples was clearly depleted come morning and the guards swore they didn’t see a thing. I replaced them with other guards, veterans who should have had no difficulty stopping a thief, but the next night we saw a similar depletion. Yesterday, I doubled the guard watching the orchard, but to no avail – one of the trees has been picked clean, with some inroads made on another one. We calculated that we would have a certain number of apples available to feed our guests with some left to spare; we are rapidly nearing the point where we will not have any to spare.”

Eobard looks concerned, Hunter indifferent, and Barry’s pretty sure he just looks furious.

“Eobard, I’m assigning you the task of guarding the apples tonight,” King Harrison declares. “You may have any resources you require. If you fail, Hunter will guard them tomorrow night; if he fails, the third night is Barry’s. Any longer than that, and we will have to seriously consider harvesting them all prematurely in order to make sure we have enough to feed everyone, and I do not want to do that, is that understood?”

“Yes, sir,” they all mutter, Eobard already frowning in thought and Hunter looking more interested in the face of a challenge.

Barry’s still seething.

King Harrison studies the three of them with a dissatisfied expression. “Let me reemphasize the importance of this: I will not be embarrassed before all of my scientific contemporaries by something as meaningless as a thief. If none of you three can succeed, maybe I really should give the kingdom to whoever can win a contest of scientific merit – which wouldn’t be any of you three, much to my disappointment –”

Maybe you shouldn’t have fostered all of us out so you could work on your experiments undisturbed by children, Barry thinks – uncharitably, perhaps, but not necessarily incorrectly.

“– but I have promised myself to give the three of you the chance to show your own merit to me in your own way, and I suppose this is one way to do it. If you all fail, I will be forced to take the duty myself and I am occupied with the exhibition. Do not fail me.”

With that, the king dismisses them and Eobard immediately goes off, muttering to himself. Barry shakes his head and goes back home.

Joe is beside himself, unsurprisingly, and Henry isn’t much better. Wally’s come home and is trying, desperately, to keep the house together, but what do you even do in a situation like this? No one knows how Iris was taken: like all the other brides, she disappeared from her room, which was locked and watched. Joe was in there himself, chatting with her and keeping her company; she was alone only long enough to duck into the restroom, but she never came back out again. It was impossible.

Worse, their suspicions of supernatural involvement were supported when Eddie, who’d been down the hall, reported having seen frost on the windows – frost! In midsummer!

Barry has no idea what to do with that. Joe is convinced that they’re dealing with either a very powerful sorcerer or a supernatural creature, and either way that means trouble. Barry is doubtful; there are plenty of ways that ice could show up without any magical intervention – iceboxes are a thing, after all – and his foster parents’ superstitions aside, he’s certain it was some clever human perpetrator trying to throw people off track.

But given the seriousness of the situation, Barry keeps his doubts to himself and collects what information he can, no matter how outlandish.

Eddie’s packing up his gear and trying to apologize to David and Joe for having to take time away from his duties with the city guard while they roll their eyes at him and try to pepper him with advice. He looks up when Barry comes in.

“No luck,” Barry says glumly. “He won’t let me go – you’re fine, you can go, no problems there,” he adds hastily at Eddie’s alarmed look. “But I’m officially forbidden from helping out in any way other than monetary.”

“You let me take everything I could possibly use from the royal armory, Barry, that’s more than enough,” Eddie says with what could be, on another day, a faint smile, but is currently too affected by the pain in his eyes to qualify. Barry’s heart hurts for him; this was supposed to be his honeymoon, him and Iris starting out on their married life together, and instead Eddie is arming back up to be the knight he usually pretends he’s not. “Even stuff I didn’t really want or need, to be honest – and the rest of you, stop adding stuff to my bags, it’ll only unbalance them – did he say why you couldn’t go?”

“He said that it’s a quest,” Barry says, crossing his arms in front of him. “So you should be the only one to go, because anyone who goes with you or instead of you is doomed to fail.”

“Well, there’s no problem on the ‘true love’ portion of the equation, so Iris should be back in no time,” David says, pasting on a smile.

“Are you sure you have enough supplies?” Barry asks, worrying his lower lip with his teeth. “I could give you my horse –”

“Firstly, I have a horse,” Eddie interrupts firmly. “More than one, in fact, and I will be taking two with me. Secondly, Barry, no offense, but Sissy isn’t exactly the sort of horse I’d take out of the city.”

“Honestly, the fact that you get that pudgy thing out of the stable at all impresses me,” Joe says, smiling weakly. Henry, sitting beside him, snorts.

“You’re all very cruel; I’m telling Sissy, and then he won’t love any of you anymore – at least until you pay a fine in sugar and apples,” Barry says, shaking his head in amusement that quickly fades. “David, any more word from the other cities and towns about the girls?”

“A few more missives – I’ve left them on your desk upstairs. We’re expecting more tomorrow, and the day after that; I told them to send anything they had, no matter how insignificant, from local stories and legends to eyewitness reports and any unusual signs. I saw your, uh, work board; it was very impressive.”

Barry had dragged a giant board into his room and covered it with maps, stories, drawings, anything that could help get them an idea of where to find Iris or what had taken her. He nods, scowling a little. “I’ll look them over – I don’t know how much more we can find just from that, but I’ll do my best.”

“I’m sure you will,” Henry says quietly. “Eddie as well. Thank you both.”

“You know how much Iris means to me,” Eddie says, the light of the sun catching his golden hair and making him glow a little even as his face fills with sincerity; Barry can see, looking at him, why his father thought that this might very well be a quest for true love. Eddie is everything a hero in a fairytale could hope to be: brave and true, strong and loyal and desperately in love, everything a noble knight is meant to stand for. “I’ll do everything in my power to bring her back, safe and unharmed.”

“And kick the ass of whatever bastard did this,” Joe growls.

Eddie nods and heads out the door, Joe and Henry and David trailing behind him. Barry goes upstairs to keep working; he doesn’t know what he’ll find, if anything, but he’s determined to put in every minute he can. Unlike the opening ceremonies, his attendance isn’t required at the various exhibition goings-on, and, to be frank, he’s rather lost his taste for it.

Not even the thought of maybe meeting Len again could entice him to attend – he desperately wants to meet the man again, as that was the only bright spot of the last week, but Len seemed fairly certain that they wouldn’t meet again that easily, which probably meant that he wasn’t attending the rest of the exhibition. Barry’s heart beats faster at the mere thought of Len, but he has to regretfully put that aside for now: Iris is family, and that’s far more important than a romance that has only just begun. Not that Barry could really enjoy dating Len if Iris wasn’t there to share in every up and down in the relationship, just as he’d stood by her when she was dating Eddie.

Besides, if Barry can track down whoever’s doing these kidnappings, he’ll be good enough at finding people that locating Len should be a snap.

Wally comes in after Barry’s been working for an hour or two, settling down quietly. “Anything I can do to help?” he asks.

Barry and Wally haven’t always gotten along great – Barry had been fostered with Joe and Henry fairly young, and they had taken him in as the son they never had. Henry’s first wife, Nora, had divorced him and moved to live with her family in Starling years before, after the accident that had claimed the life of their unborn son, though they were still good friends; after Joe’s wife Francine had abruptly abandoned him and Iris, Henry had come to fill the gap left behind. It had been just Joe and Henry and Barry and Iris for quite a while; it was only later, when Wally was nearly eight, that Joe discovered that Francine had been pregnant when she had left him. Wally had been resentful at first, particularly of Barry and Iris’ closeness and of their tightly knit family structure, of which he had been deprived until his mother’s untimely death. For his part, Barry had been terrified that he would be replaced in his foster parents’ hearts by their true-born son; he had looked at his own family gatherings and the thought of being abandoned to that distant formality after knowing the love and affection that were possible was horrifying.

Eventually, mostly due to Iris, they managed to get over it. Wally stopped being so bitter and mocking about Barry’s faults; in turn, Barry stopped lashing out. It helped that Joe and Henry seemed to have an endless store of love available; both boys were deeply and secretly relieved to find that there was room enough in the family for both of them.

And now, Iris is gone.

Barry sighs, turning to Wally. “I’m not sure how much good I’m doing right now, to be honest,” he confesses.

“It’s still something,” Wally says. “I’m going stir crazy doing nothing. Dad’ll be fine for a little while, acting just like usual, and then something’ll remind him of her and something just breaks in his face. I know it’s way too early to give up hope, but he’s so scared. Henry’s handling it a bit better, but he’s wrecked too. I just can’t deal with it right now. Give me something to do.”

Barry nods, grimacing. “Okay,” he says. “Can you grab that box of pins and go over by the board? I’m going to read out a list of locations from the missives that came in today and we’re going to mark down where they are. Then we’re going to go through each of them and figure out what makes each location distinct – I’ll explain the color system I’ve been using –”

Wally nods and rises to his feet.

They work late into the night, ignoring the sound of fireworks and laughter from the street below.

The next morning, there’s a pounding on the door to their house. It’s a summons for Barry to come to the castle for breakfast. A literal summons, in the form of an abashed-looking guardsman sent to drag him there, if necessary. Barry, bleary-eyed and under-caffeinated, crawls out of bed when Henry calls for him, feeling deeply bitter about Wally sleeping peacefully in the other bedroom. The guard explains that he has to escort him to the castle to ensure Barry’s timely arrival – he manages to avoid making any punctuality or “quickness” jokes, which Barry appreciates – and while Barry is initially annoyed by it, he ends up welcoming the assistance, because honestly, if he’d tried to make the walk himself at this hour of the morning, they’d have found him next week floating in the river after making a half-dozen wrong turns.

Though the thought of taking a nice, long waterlogged nap sounds more appealing right now than it really ought to. He could be in his warm, comfortable bed right now, but no, the king has something he wants to discuss. Sometimes Barry hates being a prince.

Barry ends up being the first one to arrive, ironically enough. He bids the guard who accompanied him goodbye – the man looks deeply relieved to discharge his duty and makes a hasty exit – and collapses into his chair.

There’s a pointed mew from the ground and Barry blinks down at Snowy, who is reared back up on her hind paws and giving him a look filled with expectation. “Right,” he mutters. “Breakfast.” He reaches down and lifts her up, grabbing a piece of bacon from the center of the table for her to start nibbling on. “How are you so svelte?” he wonders aloud, still yawning, petting her soft fur. “You eat more than the goat.”

Snowy swats at him with her paw, almost as if in answer to his words, and turns back to the more important business of eating.

The door bangs open and Eobard and Hunter come in. Barry wakes up pretty quickly at that point; the entire story is evident just looking at their faces: Eobard’s dark and stormy, Hunter’s filled with malicious mirth.

“The apples still got stolen?” Barry says, astonished. He might not like Eobard, but he doesn’t doubt the man’s genius when it comes to planning. Eobard would have done his utmost best to fulfil this task, no matter how stupid he might have thought it; this thief must really be something else to evade him.

“Yes, they did,” Hunter snickers, grabbing a chair and sitting down into it. “You should’ve seen the look on Eobard here’s face when they counted them up in the morning – you let your guards sleep or something?”

“I most certainly did not,” Eobard snaps. “I assigned a rotating set of guards, arranging for them to come and go in shifts to prevent anyone from falling asleep, and I added in secondary and tertiary sets to watch for alternative entrance points. Not a one of them reports falling asleep or failing to pay attention at any point in time. They should’ve been able to prevent it from happening.”

“But they didn’t,” Hunter says, smirking. “Now it’s my turn.”

“Indeed it is,” King Harrison says, sweeping in. “I assume you have a plan as well?”

Hunter’s smirk widens. “Well, unlike certain other people I might name, I don’t mind actually doing some work myself. I’m going to take a full squad of guards and knights and keep an eye on the orchard myself.”

“Eminently reasonable,” the king says. “With you there, they’ll be presumably less inclined to doze off. You may requisition whatever resources you require. In other business – Barry? Barry!”

“I’m awake!” Barry exclaims, snapping his head back up from where it was drifting down to his shoulders, lulled back towards the welcoming embrace of sleep by the warm heat of Snowy in his lap and her soft fur under his palm.

The king sighs. “Eat your breakfast,” he orders, waving at the three of them to indicate they could start eating. “Now, as I was saying, in regards to the exhibition today, I believe we have…”

Barry zones out of the conversation almost immediately, alternating between feeding bites of meat to a happily purring Snowy and nibbling on it himself. He’s already expressed his feelings on the subject of his continuing to attend the exhibition while Iris is gone to his father, several times and at length, and his father has wisely stopped trying to force his inclusion in various lesser events. Though Barry still can’t escape these stupid planning breakfasts because it would make it look like there’s strife amongst the royal family in front of all of these foreign strangers. Though, to be fair, Barry thinks, seething in his father’s general direction just on principle at this point, they wouldn’t be wrong.

After breakfast, Barry spends the rest of the morning interviewing the messengers who delivered yesterday’s missives at the front gate to try to find out what they know about the other disappearances. Unfortunately, they mostly have rumor and gossip, but at this point, Barry will take virtually anything. The laundry list of possible causes – ranging from a very clever kidnapper with a taste for well-guarded prospective brides, to a wicked sorcerer who needs to fill a quota for some unknown but certainly nefarious reason, to a dizzying array of supernatural creatures expressing their anger for some perceived slight – grows longer every day. On top of the traditional supernatural challenges, most towns have a local legend or two that they offer to Barry. No matter how absurd the legend – there’s one which Barry is almost entirely certain isn’t a vodyanoi at all but rather an unusually large bullfrog with hopes of obtaining a harem – Barry takes careful notes so that he can add them to his board of theories later. He’s hoping that once he has it all together, he’ll be able to pick out a pattern. He hadn’t had much luck with the locations of the women – it seemed to be fairly random, though it seemed to be happening on something of a circuit: east, then west, then north, then south. But it didn’t seem deliberate, more like whoever it was tended to grab women as they went...

After he finishes with the messengers, the morning is gone and it’s already afternoon. Barry then goes to the guardhouse to pick up some of the material that was delivered from the other towns to take back to his lab in Star Castle. Barry’s major contribution to the guardhouse was always his lab skills and scientific understanding; he puts them to work now, working over every last piece of evidence he’s been able to requisition: testing bedsheets for any residue, examining clothing, and one enterprising town even sent him the door through which the relevant girl had apparently vanished. Barry wishes desperately for a footprint, a fingerprint, something to tell him that this was merely a very clever human, but the weather has been hellishly good this last month or two and no kidnapping has yet happened when it was muddy enough to capture anything. Of course, this only contributes to the suspicion that the kidnapper is supernatural, even though Barry could explain about the effect of the weather on useable prints until he goes hoarse.

King Harrison can’t even complain that Barry’s not being appropriately festive: he keeps the door to his lab open while he’s working and is willing (mostly) to answer questions for interested observers. He’s totally part of the festivities.

So there.

Henry shows up in the evening to take him home. If it had been Joe, Barry would have asked him to bring the latest stack of messages that David received to the castle and just worked until he fell asleep in his lab, but Henry is implacable. For someone who is generally regarded by his children as the “nicer” parent, Henry has a way with smiling and giving advice that finds you doing what he wants regardless of what your original intentions were.

Barry wants that ability.

“Come on, Barry,” he says, guiding Barry away from his desk despite the longing looks Barry is shooting back to it. “It’ll all still be there in the morning.”

“But I could –”

“Come to dinner,” Henry says firmly. “After all, you need to update Joe and me on the work you’ve been doing, don’t you?”

“But there hasn’t been anything –”

“Joe is a guardsman,” Henry says. “He knows that cases aren’t solved in one sudden burst of inspiration. Isn’t that what he’s always saying? It’s all leg work and removing potential avenues of investigation and teamwork, that’s what gets an investigation done. Besides, if we all think about the various things that you’ve found, perhaps one of us can provide you with some sort of insight.”

Barry smiles a little. “You just want to solve the case yourself,” he teases.

Henry smiles back. “You know how many of Joe’s cases I’ve helped him crack over the years? Why there was the one with the stolen bushel of herring –”

“I know, I know, and you had the brilliant idea of where the suspect might be hiding it,” Barry interrupts, chuckling a little. He’s heard the story a million times. “Despite your only connection to the fishing industry being the fish you bring home from the market for dinner.”

“That’s right, slugger. You never know where your next break might come from. Which is why you’re coming home for dinner.”

“How did I know it was going to come back around to that?” Barry complains, smiling a little to make it clear that he’s joking. “You’re a pest, Henry.”

“And you’re a workaholic,” Henry replies. “Just like Joe. It’s amazing the sorts of things that can be taught to impressionable children.”

Personally, Barry has always looked at King Harrison’s equally tireless mania for work, both royal judgments and his private scientific works, and thought that he probably came by the trait of working himself too hard honestly, but he doesn’t say anything. Let Henry believe as he likes; if it was up to Barry, either Joe or Henry would be his real father and he would have learned the trait at Joe’s knee.

Dinner is a tense affair, unsurprisingly; the table was already arranged to seat only four, what with Wally being away at school and only Barry and Iris still at home, but Iris’ absence looms over everything. Barry talks about what he’s been doing – getting the only laugh of the evening when he explains about the door – and Wally talks about things he’s been doing at school, but although Henry tries, Joe isn’t particularly interested in anything they have to say once it comes out that Barry’s no closer to finding Iris than the day before. The overall mood is grim.

Afterwards, when Barry starts to head up to his room, Henry places himself in his path with the sort of smile that precedes the viewer being crushed underfoot.

“…yes?” Barry says cautiously.

“David dropped off today’s set of missives,” Henry says.

“Uh, good? I was assuming that he had; I was just going to go read them.”

“I’ve confiscated them, actually. You’re going to go to bed.”

“But –”

No, Barry. You can look at them with the next set that David said was coming in tomorrow. If you’re going to be of any use to anyone, especially Iris, you need to be well-rested, and that’s final.”

“But Joe –”

“Joe agrees with me on this,” Henry says with the tone of someone who has ensured their spouse’s participation, possibly through torture. “Go to sleep, Barry. You’ll thank me in the morning when you wake up with a clear head.”

When the guard shows up at his door the next morning, Barry’s a little less bleary-eyed and slightly more willing to come with him. Slightly. He picks up Snowy as she beelines for him – he’s the first one again, which makes him suspect that his father has started actually planning meetings around his tardiness, which, ouch – and wonders idly how his father intends to prevent Eobard from going for Hunter’s throat when Hunter strolls in gloating about how he caught the thief.

Actually, Barry’s a little curious to know how the thief did it, anyway. It’s not that easy to get into Star Castle’s precious orchards, especially not with this many people here for the exhibition and so many guards involved – Barry’s initial instinct had been bribery, since there were a lot of very wealthy people just dying for a sneak preview of the apples, but the guards had been replaced several times and it just kept happening. Maybe some sort of sneak thief? But surely the guards would have noticed it by now…

Barry will have to make a point of asking the thief how he did it once he’s been put in custody. Presumably now that Hunter’s captured him, he’ll be given to the guardhouse to be guarded for the remainder of the exhibition; Barry’ll have a chance to question him then – maybe he’ll have an insight on how the kidnappings, equally sneaky, were done…

The door opens.

Hunter’s face is as black as Eobard’s was yesterday.

Barry is surprised into a very unwise laugh. Hunter’s eyes fix on Barry. “Something funny?” he snarls, his eye twitching a little.

“Snowy scratched my funnybone,” Barry lies shamelessly, hiding behind the ten-pound cat. “What happened?”

“The apples were taken,” Eobard says, striding in behind Hunter with a matching scowl. Honestly, Barry’s not sure if he’s more pissed off that the thief has managed to evade them yet again or that he can’t even gloat about Hunter’s failure because it was immediately preceded by his own. Eobard and Hunter’s rivalry makes their bullying of Barry seem fairly tame. “Even though Hunter claims he was on watch the whole night long.”

“My knights and I made regular circuits around and through the orchard,” Hunter snarls. “I had some very fine men with me – ”

“Are you sure you didn’t use the opportunity to engage with your friends and get distracted?” Eobard says archly, crossing his arms in front of him. “And by distracted, feel free to read in drunk and sharing stories about who was the best at this or that –”

“Absolutely not!” Hunter exclaims. “My men are far better prepared for situations of siege and watchfulness than your guards, and they were equally routed, if I may remind you. This thief is clearly far trickier than I had anticipated – perhaps he’s getting in through a tunnel –”

“Oh, a tunnel, a tunnel nobody ever noticed during any of those circuits you mentioned you ran? Oh, that’s bright, I’m sure no one ever thought to look for a tunnel –”

“Enough,” their father says coldly from behind them. Eobard and Hunter immediately step away from each other and slink to their seats, trying to shy away from their father’s glare.

Hunter can’t seem to resist one last jab, though, turning to Barry and saying, “I suppose you’re happy about this.”

“Me?” Barry asks, honestly surprised. “Why would I be happy about it? The apples are still getting stolen, and we haven’t captured the thief yet.”

“Yes,” Eobard says, drawing out his syllables like he’s speaking to the mentally infirm. “But tonight it’s your turn to figure out how to catch the thief.”

“Yes, Barry,” King Harrison says, turning to look at Barry as he takes his seat. “What is your plan?”

“Please give the order to post the normal set of guards at the gates,” Barry says, leaning back in his chair and ignoring both of his brothers’ exclamations of disbelief. “I have an idea which I’ll be working up in the lab today.”

King Harrison looks at Barry suspiciously. “And you’ll be employing this idea of yours later tonight, in the orchard?”

“Absolutely,” Barry says sincerely. “Eobard used organization and numbers, which failed; Hunter used force and surveillance, which also failed, so I’m not going to use the same techniques. This is a science exhibition, after all; I believe that science can answer the problem.”

The king nods, satisfied, despite Eobard and Hunter both rolling their eyes. “Very well. Onto today’s business –”

Barry tunes him out again in order to focus on the fact that he totally forgot that he was going to be guarding the orchard tonight and he has no plan at all. Thank god for years of lessons on how to spout bullshit at the drop of a hat lest Henry or Joe find out about any given caper Iris and Barry had embarked on.

That line of crap he just fed them even sounded half-decent to Barry.

On the bright side, he can probably make sure nobody bothers him in the lab today under the claim of working on this mysterious plan. Probably even get a lot of work done. And as for the actual orchard-watching, there are plenty of old tricks he’s picked up at the guardhouse he could employ – none of them likely to work, of course, but enough to say he’d tried…

Humming thoughtfully, Barry makes a beeline to the lab, where he does in fact enjoy a very peaceful and uninterrupted morning. He manages to get all the tests he wants done, even on the door, though unfortunately nothing turns up anything conclusive.

Later in the afternoon, Barry doubles back home to take a look at the dispatches from yesterday and today. They’re all piled up on his desk at home – usually that sight would make Barry sigh, but these last few days he’s seen it more as an opportunity to wrestle out even the slightest clue, the slightest hint as to where Iris might be, and he goes to work with a fervor.

“Barry?”

“If those are new reports, you can put them on the desk,” Barry says absently, frowning at a handful of pages. These two reports both mentioned a dark spot in the room – possibly related to the appearance of frost…? Something else? Why would there be frost? Plus the dead bushes outside at least three of the earlier reports – he’s not sure if it’s enough to make a comparison…

“Barry!”

Barry looks up, blinking. “Yes, Henry?” he says. It’s rare for Henry to raise his voice.

“Firstly, I gave you the new reports hours ago, along with your dinner, which you haven’t touched.” Henry nods at the now-cold pieces of chicken on the plate that appeared at some point by Barry’s side. “Secondly, aren’t you supposed to be watching the orchard tonight?”

“Oh, crap,” Barry says, realizing how late it’s gotten. King Harrison would forgive failure, but not totally forgetting about it. “I gotta run, thanks, Henry!”

“I made you some chicken to go,” Henry says with a sigh, offering up a bag which Barry grabs as he sprints down the stairs, cursing to himself as he goes, not particularly imaginatively. Mostly just repeating one four-letter word over and over again, really.

His father is going to kill him.

Despite this, he takes the back routes whenever possible, hoping that maybe he can slip over to the orchard without anybody but the guards noticing, and they’d cover for his tardiness. Luckily it’s fairly late at night, so most of the crowds have gone home and he can run unimpeded through the streets. Equally luckily, he’s done this so many times he’s actually developed some decent leg muscles and lung capacity. He keeps his pace to a decent jog rather than a breakneck sprint, figuring that since no one is technically expecting him, he can afford to show up looking like a sane person rather than an out-of-breath wreck like he usually does.

He makes the turn into the orchard right around midnight, smiling and waving at the guards as he approaches.

The smile fades off his face when he realizes they aren’t waving back. “Gustav?” he calls, recognizing them. “Anderson?”

No answer. They stand, frozen and staring blankly – not asleep, not quite, but a similarly unaware state. Barry comes right up to them, frowning. He’s never seen anything quite like it. He pokes at Anderson, who doesn’t react in the slightest.

Barry’s turning towards Gustav to repeat the experiment when he sees a flicker of light from inside the orchard.

He takes two steps towards it, then stops, gaping.

There’s a man there, tall and broad-shouldered, arms and legs thick with muscles, but that’s not what strikes Barry dumb. Falling from his arms and shoulders like a glorious cape made of flame, there are feathers, wings, each glowing with a ruddy reddish light like a crackling fireplace. They sweep down his shoulders and curl around his bare sides, disappearing in the line of his dark tan pants, which are his only apparel. His feet are bare and his eyes glitter gold in the reflection of his own flame-like light. He’s crouching by one of the trees, a bag in one hand, his other hand on the trunk of the tree, and he’s staring straight back at Barry.

Barry is suddenly struck by the sheer eeriness of it all: the strange inhuman man crouched down low, him standing just inside the orchard gates, the moon half-full and shining down on the orchard, which is silent as the grave, with not even the crickets chirping. It’s like a picture out of a story or a stained glass window.

“Fucking damnit,” the man says. “This is why I don’t plan heists without Lenny anymore.”

Barry blinks, thrown out of his daze by the word “heist” which abruptly reminds him what’s going on here. “You’re the asshole that’s stealing our apples!” he exclaims before he can think better of it.

Congrats, Barry. You always applauded yourself for being the guy who listens to all the fairytale stories, every single one of which is very stern on the “be polite to supernatural creatures you meet” life lesson, and the very first thing you do when you meet one in real life is call him an asshole.

The guy looks equally bemused by Barry’s reaction. “Seriously, kid?”

“Well, you are,” Barry’s mouth says without any input from his brain. It’s like someone’s handed him an enchanted shovel and he just can’t stop digging himself in deeper with it.

“It’s for a good cause?” the guy offers, standing up straight.

“I don’t care what cause it’s for –” Barry hesitates, thinking about Iris. “What cause?”

“They’re pretty and I wanted ‘em?”

Barry gapes for a long moment before blurting out, “That’s not a good cause! What the hell!”

The guy – though perhaps Barry shouldn’t be using that word to describe him, because whatever he is, he’s certainly not human – shrugs, his feathers rippling. “Eh, it was worth a shot.”

And then – and Barry cannot believe this guy – he turns back to the tree and plucks another apple.

“Oh, hell no,” Barry says. “You put that goddamn apple down this instant.”

The guy turns back to him and cocks his head to the side in a very bird-like manner, and suddenly that’s when it hits Barry.

“Holy crap, you’re a firebird.”

“No shit,” the firebird says, scowling at him and crossing his thick arms across his bare chest. “You’re just now figuring that out? What gave it away, the fucking feathers?”

Barry feels his face go red.

“And here I thought they said you people here were supposed to be quick,” the firebird jibes, and – seriously? Even the freaking magical creatures are doing it?

Barry sees red. “Now listen here, you – you – you arrogant over-plucked carrot-colored goose –”

The firebird’s jaw drops. “Did you just call me a goose, you miserable little –”

“I’m not going to let you steal our apples! Besides, between yesterday and the day or two before that, you practically stripped three trees bare, how many apples can you possibly want?”

“Maybe I’m hungry!”

“Three whole trees worth of hungry?! What, are you on like the opposite of a diet?” Barry says snidely. “Fattening up for winter, maybe?”

The firebird stares at Barry for a long moment, his face twisted with anger, and then he abruptly bursts out laughing.

Taken aback, Barry blinks and realizes he’s been having a shouting match with a legendary firebird in the middle of an orchard at midnight, and he can’t even think that entire sentence without wondering if he’s lost his mind.

“I can’t believe,” the firebird finally chokes out, “that you just called me fat.”

Barry can’t believe he did it either, come to think of it. Not least because the guy isn’t fat at all, he’s thick with well-defined muscle with a tantalizing hint of softness at the belly. The sort of thing you could cuddle up with very happily.

Actually, now that Barry’s looking, the guy is unbelievably attractive, but that makes a certain amount of sense. Though Barry’s got to admit, when he thought about the legendary beauty of the firebird, he usually imagined more of a, well, bird. On the rare occasions he thought of a bird-human hybrid, he’d always thought the firebird would be more a devastatingly beautiful girl as opposed to an exceedingly attractive man, mostly because…

“Hey, I thought the stories said you were a princess,” Barry says, and the firebird cackles even louder. “That wasn’t meant as an insult!”

“Do you just enjoy the taste of your foot in your mouth, is that it?” the firebird asks. “Legends are wrong. Or at least outdated: most of ‘em are about the knight with the magic horse that helps him capture the firebird princess and avoid dying in a pot of boiling water, right?”

“I mean, there are regional variations, but yeah, that’s about right,” Barry says.

“My grandparents,” the firebird confides, rolling his eyes. “It’s the one everybody hears about. Now what is it that you want?”

“Want?” Barry says, confused. “You mean, other than for this to start making sense?”

The firebird snorts. “Piece of advice, pretty boy: don’t go into orchard-guarding as a career. How’d you get in, anyhow? I thought I froze the whole garden. Right on the stroke of midnight, the whole shebang.”

“…I was late,” Barry admits, realizing to his horror that it was exactly that which had saved him from being frozen just like the other guards.

“Just my luck,” the firebird says. “Now if you don’t mind, I’ll be on my way.”

Without the apples,” Barry adds immediately.

The firebird rolls his eyes. “Yes, yes, without the apples. You’re real touchy, aren’t you? Can I go now?”

Barry’s eyes narrow. “…why aren’t you just leaving? You have wings.”

“Smart,” the firebird says approvingly. “Magical creatures follow rules, as I’m sure you know from your stories. With a magical creature, a deal’s a deal and the rules are the rules, but I’ll do you a good turn – just for the laugh you gave me – and remind you that you ought to be real careful about what you agree to when dealing with one of us. You’ve caught me, fair and square, and now I need to bargain with you for permission to leave.”

“Oh,” Barry says. “Um. That seems unfair?”

The firebird rolls his eyes. “I don’t need that much permission.” He reaches out and plucks a feather from his wings and tossed it to Barry; it floats gently through the air and lands on the ground in front of Barry’s feet. “There, you have a token of mine; that’ll do well enough to pay my bail.”

“Uh,” Barry says, staring down at the mesmerizing feather. He reaches down and picks it up, putting it in his pocket out of lack of anything else to do with it. “Thanks?”

“Seriously? That’s the best you can do? ‘Uh, thanks’?” The firebird looks put out, frowning and crossing his arms over his chest again, which is a rather distracting sight. “I’ll have you know that most people would kill for a token from a magical creature like me, and they’d damn well accept it with a smidgeon more grace than just ‘uh, thanks.’”

“It’s very pretty?” Barry tries.

That statement doesn’t seem to help the firebird’s disposition any. “It’s a magical token,” he says, scowling at Barry. “It grants the recipient magical powers and special abilities – well, sometimes, anyway. It seems to vary for you humans. Can’t say if you’ll get anything, or even what, but there you go. It’s more than just pretty.”

“Oh,” Barry says. He has no idea what to say about that. “Uh. Thank you very much, I guess?”

The firebird sighs. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t mention it.” The firebird pauses. “No, really, don’t mention it to anybody. Firebird feathers can be bad luck if the wrong people find out about them. Play your cards right and it’ll be a nice plus; play ‘em wrong and you’ll find yourself on a goddamn quest.”

With that unnerving statement, the firebird opens its wings. They unfold and brighten at the same time, his arms raising and merging with wings until he seems enveloped in flames. With one great downward sweep, the firebird launches up into the sky, the resulting gust of wind strong enough to knock Barry backwards onto the ground.

Barry’s staring up in the sky where the firebird quickly fades into a point of light when Gustav leans his head in and goes, “Barry? Are you okay? Why are you on the ground?”

“I…think I stopped our thief,” Barry says, still taken aback at what had just happened. He’s not sure what else there is to say.

Apparently, according to everyone else, there’s a lot to say, to judge by the number of questions being peppered at him from the guards, many of whom weren’t even on duty but through a shared sense of professional outrage were hanging out in the nearby tavern. The bag partially filled with apples is brought out and examined – Barry whimpers a little when he sees all of those hands touching pristine evidence, but he seems to be slightly in shock and can’t seem to actually bring himself to complain – and someone gets sent to run the news back up to the King.

In fact, Barry himself gets dragged up to the castle by some eager guards, who tug on his arms and worry loudly that he’s gotten himself enchanted by whatever sorcerer he surprised.

The king is waiting in the front gate, somehow managing to look just as regal and intimidating in his sleeping robe as he did in a full set of royal attire. He looks at the bag and nods. “If the apples are still in place by morning, I think we can count the thief as stopped.”

“There was a great gust of wind, sire,” Anderson offers. “Right before we ran inside and found Barry there, laid out flat on his – er, that is, I mean –”

“He must’ve been knocked over by the wind,” Gustav hastily offers. “S’what we mean.”

“We think he might’ve gotten a bit of a bump to the head,” one of the other guards says, which Barry objects to because he’s pretty sure his head is fine. “Being as he hasn’t said anything since we left the orchard.”

“Barry, are you well?” the king asks, pinning him with his gaze.

“Um. Sure?” Barry says. “I’m just…confused, really.”

“What happened?”

“I just came across the thief,” Barry says, not entirely sure how to describe it. “And told him to stop taking our apples, and he left.”

King Harrison pauses for a long moment. “Right,” he says finally. “Take Barry to his room; he’s clearly in need of some rest. Barry, you can sleep late tomorrow if you like, but I’ll expect some answers come dinnertime.”

Barry nods, or at least he thinks he does. He ends up curled into his overly large bed in the room they keep for him in the castle, the one he rarely uses unless he’s stayed at the labs too long, blinking and wondering if tonight was all a dream caused by over-work, and tomorrow he’ll wake up and find that it’s his turn to watch the orchard or something.

He falls asleep easily.

The next morning brings with it some clarity, especially since he’s pretty sure he slept till it’s already nearly noon. He’d nearly forgotten how much he likes to do that. Mornings are overrated anyhow.

Barry looks up at the familiar ceiling above his bed in the castle and tries to arrange his thoughts.

So, to review the relevant facts: Barry ran up to the orchard late last night, encountered what appeared to be (and indeed confessed to being) a firebird, they had an argument, the firebird left, leaving behind its bag as proof that Barry had, in fact, stopped his thieving at least for the night, and likely for good if the firebird knew what was good for him, and then he got dragged up to the castle and sent to bed.

Factors in favor of this being a true rendition of last night’s events: he’s in his bed in the castle, which he usually avoids.

Factors in favor of Barry’s memory being totally incorrect: every other thing in that rundown.

Maybe he fell asleep in the lab and had a very vivid dream? Or perhaps someone slipped him some chemical that made him see things? Had Hunter mentioned going out hunting for mushrooms anytime recently?

Barry – who hadn’t bothered to change out of yesterday’s clothing before bed, thank you so much yesterday-Barry – groans and climbs out of bed. There’s breakfast on a tray resting in his room; someone must have brought it in while Barry was asleep. He shakes his head at the normality of it and heads over to splash some water on his face in the bathroom sink, hoping he’ll wake up and the dream will fade into something vivid but clearly fictional.

Barry’s wiping his face when it occurs to him that he’d left out something important in his rendition of yesterday’s events, something which could help him determine whether it was a dream or reality.

The firebird gave him a token: a magical feather, one that glowed like a candle.

What did Barry do with it? Did he leave it in the garden? No, he put it in his pocket…

Barry feels up his clothing and pulls something out of his left pocket.

Despite him having slept on it, the feather is as pristine as ever, as long as his hand, slim and pretty. Its core is red like a ripe strawberry, but then it lightens until the tips are pure gold. The entire thing glows softly, even in the midday light, a steady light like a star rather than the flickering of flame.

“Oh, crap,” Barry says, staring at it. He’s really been hoping the whole thing was a dream; that would be so much easier to explain. And the king would be wanting an explanation, of that Barry has no doubt, and Barry doesn’t know how to square his need to explain the events of yesterday to his father without disobeying the firebird’s recommendation that he not show the feather to anybody.

There's a scratching at the door – Barry instinctively shoves the feather back into his pocket, turning to look at the door in alarm – and then Snowy lets herself in, her finely-tune sense of when Barry is around to feed her guiding her straight and true as always.

Barry sighs in relief and smiles at his cat. Well, the castle’s cat, really, but he’s always had a soft spot in his heart for Snowy ever since she showed up at the start of the year, haughty and arrogant as a princess.

The door swings shut behind her and Snowy sits regally, licking one of her paws and giving him a significant look.

“Yeah, yeah, her highness wants breakfast,” Barry says, shaking his head and grinning a little at the normality of it all. At least some things have stayed the same, even if he is going to have to rework his entire perception of the universe to account for the fact that magical creatures are real – not real in the way he’d thought of them, as symbols created to explain away mysterious phenomena, but real in the way his father thinks of them, as something to be expected and planned around. He can still rest assured that the sun still rises and the cat still wants people food.

Barry turns and takes a step towards the table with the tray on it, intending on jogging over to grab her some bacon, and suddenly everything around him blurs sickeningly and he’s across the room before he can blink, bouncing off the wall so hard that he’s pretty sure he’s moved some of the ancient stones. And also his ribs, ow.

He sits up from where he landed on the ground, astonished. Barry’s room isn’t the largest in the castle, but he is a prince – it’s at least twenty feet from the washroom door to the table, and he couldn’t possibly have run across the room so fast. How in the world…?

Barry realizes that his hip is warmer than it ought to be, like he has a warm compress in his pocket, and that it’s emanating from the feather he’s hid there.

“Magical powers and special abilities,” the firebird had off-handedly said last night. A magical token grants magical powers and special abilities.

Barry realizes with dawning horror that he might have accepted more than he’d realized when he’d thanked the firebird for the feather, and that was even after the firebird had been nice enough to warn him to be careful what he accepted.

“Oh, crap,” he says again, this time with feeling.

"You're telling me. What the hell was that?" Snowy says, stopping in the middle of grooming her paw and staring at him.

Barry freezes where he’s sitting and very slowly turns his head to look at her.

“Um,” he says, and reaches up to feel his head to see if he’s concussed himself. No sign of it, and even his ribs don’t catch and pull painfully, the earlier ache from hitting the wall fading as if it had never been.

Maybe he’s still dreaming? But he feels awake. And if he’s not dreaming, magic is indisputably a part of this world, so maybe…

“Snowy,” he says very carefully. “Did you just speak?”

Snowy, who has started to turn back towards the tray, slowly turns back to look at him instead. “Wait, you can understand me?” she asks.

“Uh, yes? Since when can you speak?”

“I’ve always been able to speak,” she says. “But you’ve never understood me before. This is definitely new. What have you done?”

Barry thinks miserably about his stupid acceptance of a firebird’s feather.

He sighs and puts his head in his hands. There’s really only one thing to say about this whole mess.

“Oh, crap.”

Chapter Text

“So, can all cats talk, or is it just you?” Barry asks, following Snowy through the empty hallways. It’s the middle of the day and the exhibition is in full swing; he’s not surprised that everyone who could has cleared out to watch that.

“That depends,” she says, padding along with her tail flickering around behind her. “If you’ve gotten the ability to understand the language of animals, you can probably understand all cats. If it’s more of a general magical awareness, then you might be somewhat more limited.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Well, I’m technically not a cat,” Snowy says.

“Um,” Barry says, glancing at Snowy: four legs, long tail, whiskers, by all appearances a regular housecat.

“Oh, well, yes, I’m a cat, but I’m also not a cat. I’m cursed,” she explains. “So if you understand me but not, oh, Mouser or Spots, then we can definitively establish that you’re able to perceive magically affected creatures like me but not regular creatures like them.”

“So you’re cursed?” Barry says wonderingly. “Isn’t that, like, a problem you want to solve?”

“Well, eventually of course,” she says, turning and hopping into his arms. Barry catches her on instinct. “Keep walking straight; I’ll tell you when to turn. Anyway, as I was saying, I have an evil mother, so I’m waiting for the whole thing to blow over a bit, maybe settle down, before trying to undo the curse and go home to her. In the meantime it’s really quite nice being a cat. It’s a lot less stressful than med school.”

Barry grins. “I’ll bet it is. You were a doctor when you were human, then?”

“Just graduated,” she confirms. “Actually – and I’ve been wracking my brain to try to figure out how to tell you this for the last few days – my name’s Caitlin Snow; I’m on your missing girls’ list?”

“You’re one of the anomalies!” Barry exclaims, recognizing the name. “You were due to be married, but your wedding wasn’t for a month or so, and your placement was out of line with most of the rest of the kidnappings – too far west, too early.”

“That’s because I wasn’t kidnapped, I was cursed,” Snowy – no, Caitlin – says. “Oh, turn down that way, we’re going to the stables.”

“Why are we going to the stables?” Barry asks. “I thought you said we were going to go talk to someone who might be able to answer some of my questions about my, um, issue.”

“We are,” Caitlin replies. “The domovoi’s been hanging out in the stables this last year or two when he’s not about his duties; he says it’s warm and comfortable and this way he doesn’t have to share the space behind the stove with the kikimora.”

“We have a kikimora?” Barry says, fascinated. “Isn’t that a problem?”

“She’s only a problem if the house isn’t kept nice and neat, and your father the king runs this castle tighter than a sea captain’s ship,” Caitlin says. “She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her, especially since the domovoi’s been letting her take some of his offerings of salt. Not so hungry, you know? ”

“So the salt thing’s real?”

“Oh, yes. Everyone’s most pleased by the strict observances that’ve been put into place since your father ascended the throne; there’s enough offerings being made to make everyone very happy.”

“Even the kikimora?” Barry isn’t sure how comfortable he was with having a nightmare-causing hag in his castle, especially one that likes to crawl out at night, sit on your chest and strangle you in your sleep.

“Even her! You really needn’t worry about that, you know. Tina and your father are fairly close: she helped him with his quest all those years back.”

Really?” Barry says. “He never said!”

“The king doesn’t talk about it much, let’s be real,” Caitlin replies dryly. “Keep going straight on, we want the secondary stables, not the knight’s.”

Barry obeys, shaking his head in amazement. “You know, I didn’t really think…well, that any of this was real,” he confesses.

“I didn’t either,” Caitlin says sympathetically. “Well, not until I got turned into a cat by a misplaced curse.”

“Right, your curse. I still can’t believe – a curse, wow.”

“Yeah, I know! It was somewhat exciting at first, figuring out the details of it while learning how to walk on four legs. I’ve worked out some portions of the curse by now; it’s all very complicated. I won’t bore you with the details – though I don’t suppose you can check if Ronnie’s still looking for me?” she says wistfully. “That was my fiancé, Ronnie Raymond. He would’ve come to the exhibition looking for me if he had a chance.”

“I can check with the guest lists that King Harrison’s information people would have gathered up,” Barry offers. “Might as well get some use out of being a prince and having spies.”

“That would be wonderful – oh, here we are. Cisco – that’s the domovoi – in the third stall to the left.”

Third stall to the left, why does that sound familiar? Barry usually comes in from the other side, but…wait.

Barry comes to a screeching halt.

Sissy is the castle’s house-spirit?!” he hisses.

Sissy pokes his muzzle out from his stable. “It’s Cisco, actually,” he says cheerfully. “I kept trying to impress ‘Cisco’ into people’s brains, but somehow they came up with Sissy instead. You will not believe how much my brother Dante likes to tease me about it.”

“You have a brother? I mean, domovoi have brothers?”

“Doesn’t everybody?” Sissy – er, Cisco? – says, tossing his head to shake his mane out of his eyes. “One of the reasons I like you so much, actually; you know all about dealing with asshole brothers.”

Barry’s surprised into a laugh. That much is true. “And you’re not, like, offended that I ride you everywhere?” he asks, then winces. “Oh, wow, that came out wrong.”

Cisco laughs. “No, man, it’s cool! I wouldn’t have picked a horse to mimic if I wasn’t willing to deal; it’s actually pretty interesting going around the town, I haven’t really done much of that. I mostly monitor the science labs and blow up the experiments of anyone who hasn’t been keeping up with their offerings; this horse thing is just for fun and, well, maybe a bit of adventure. We domovoi are house-spirits, so we’re kinda homebodies by nature, you know?”

“No kidding,” Caitlin says, hopping down out of Barry’s arms. “Cisco, Barry’s developed some unusual new powers, including understanding us.”

“Oh, hey, you’re right! That’s really cool!” Cisco chirps, and Barry can’t help but smile at the horse’s (house spirit’s?) enthusiasm. “What happened? There must have been a triggering incident, something where magic brushed by you.”

“Well, yesterday I got –” Barry hesitates. Does the restriction on showing the firebird feather extend to magical creatures? Or cursed ones, in Caitlin’s case? Well, he isn’t going to get any answers if he doesn’t share the information with somebody, and surely the restriction doesn’t apply to the local house-spirit, which is supposed to know everything about his household anyway. “That is, a firebird gave me a feather.”

“A firebird?!” Cisco says, rearing his head back in a very believable horse-like manner. “Oh, man, that’s no good. Firebirds are bad news all around, you know.”

“I didn’t know, actually,” Barry says, slightly puzzled. The firebird hadn’t seemed so bad; a little grumpy, to be sure, but not actively malicious in any way. “Why’s that? I always thought – you know, in the stories, they’re usually something that people seek out, you know?”

“Oh, yes,” Cisco says. “And seeking them out usually gets you a pot of boiling water to jump into, birds trying to peck your eyes out, attempted drowning, being ripped apart by horses…”

“What Cisco means to say,” Caitlin interrupts, for which Barry is quite thankful, “is that firebirds tend to awaken possessive desires in human hearts. That’s why it’s dangerous to let anyone know that you have a feather – oh, not us, I guess, I’m not actually human right now and I don’t think Cisco can be affected at all –”

“Nope,” Cisco says. “Domovoi aren’t exactly the quest-going type. With the exception of my great-uncle, but he’s weird and we don’t talk about him much anymore.”

“You have the weirdest family,” Caitlin tells Cisco.

“Ugh, don’t get me started. You should hear the fuss my parents are kicking up about me living out in the stables instead of behind the stove – it’s all ‘you need to learn your proper place, Cisco’ and ‘you’re not taking the family traditions seriously, Cisco’ and ‘innovation isn’t welcome here, Cisco’…”

Barry snickers. “That sucks, man,” he says, automatically reaching out to pet Cisco’s nose and then realizing what he’s doing about halfway through.

Cisco gives him a dirty look. “If you’re going to stop with the petting, I’ll be much more offended than if you continue,” he warns before shaking his head and huffing. “Anyway, we still need to determine what the inciting incident for the magic was.”

Barry’s eyebrows go up. “What, meeting a firebird isn’t enough?” he asks.

“The firebird’s been stealing apples using a caught-in-a-moment spell,” Cisco replies. “I can’t reach the orchards without piggybacking on someone – remember, domovoi here – but I can feel the magic echoes. There’s no way you should’ve been able to capture a firebird without already having some affinity for magic.”

“Well, I was late to the orchards,” Barry confesses. “That’s why the spell didn’t hit me.”

Cisco and Caitlin crack up. “Oh, man, oh man, are you telling me a firebird got caught because you were too late to get captured in its spell?” Cisco cackles. “That’s absolutely beautiful, man. Practically poetic. I wish I could’ve seen the look on his face.”

Barry can’t help but smile. “It was pretty good,” he says, thinking about it. “There was a bit of cursing involved at first – well, before I called him an over-plucked goose, anyway.”

Caitlin actually falls over onto her side, paws kicking in the air, she’s laughing so hard. “Goose!” she giggles. “A firebird! You called a firebird a goose!”

“I want every single firebird story from now into infinity to include that,” Cisco hooted. “Prince meets firebird of legend, prince calls firebird an over-plucked goose…”

Barry laughs and sits down on a bale of hay. The idea of his encounter with the firebird entering song and story had never occurred to him – it wasn’t exactly what one would call heroic or even especially dignified – but it would probably work pretty well for a humorous bar song. Barry is entirely okay with that being his legacy, aside from his lab investigations for the guardsmen, anyway.

“I don’t think I’ve had any other encounters with magic, though,” he tells both Cisco and Caitlin once they manage to get control over themselves again. “Unless you count the disappearances, which we think might’ve been caused by a sorcerer or maybe a magical creature.” It occurs to him now, too late, that he should’ve asked the firebird for information on the disappearances; he regrets it bitterly.

“No, it would’ve had to be something personal,” Cisco says. “Just investigating magical creatures can’t give you an awareness of magic, or else everybody from here to the old tavern would have some. Which they don’t – magic is dying out in the world, fewer and fewer people believing in it. No, absolutely would’ve had to be some personal encounter.”

“Did you meet anybody recently who might be magical?” Caitlin asks. “Did unusual things, like jump really high or disappear through walls?”

Barry frowns and then his eyes widen. “Holy crap, Len,” he exclaims.

“Who now?”

“Uh, Len, Leonard Snart,” Barry explains in a rush, biting his lip in excitement. “He rescued me from falling into the river a few months back, just grabbed me and pulled me back, and I’ve been trying to track him down ever since, but it’s like every time I ran after him, he disappeared, even though it’s totally impossible for him to have vanished in some cases, like when he walked into a wide street or the gardens and there wasn’t anywhere for him to hide but he wasn’t anywhere. And just last week, we – uh, I mean –” He felt his cheeks heat up.

“Last week you what?” Caitlin asks. “Don’t worry, we won’t judge.”

“Teeeeell uuuuuus,” Cisco whines.

“Well, we bumped into each other at the opening ceremonies,” Barry tells them. “And he said if I gave him one dance, he’d let me go, and when we stopped dancing, he said a deal’s a deal. And he said I’d have to catch him again if I wanted to see him again – and the firebird told me that magical creatures are all about deals and rules and stuff –”

“That’s definitely true,” Cisco says. “You won’t find a lawyer who loves rules more than a magical creature does. That totally sounds like a magical encounter – any idea what he was?”

Barry thinks about chasing Len all those weeks, following the familiar sound of whistling, and how the gardens had been filled with the sound of nightingales, and he grins. “I think he might’ve been Solovei.”

“The Nightingale Robber?” Caitlin says. “Oooh, now there’s a dangerous one. Are you sure?”

“He whistles everywhere he goes and he disappears like magic,” Barry points out.

“I don’t know,” Cisco says. “I’ve heard some pretty nasty things about him; he’s supposed to be mean and vicious. I’m mean, he’s no Zmey Gorynych – that’s probably the worst of the worst as far as magical creatures go – but still...”

“Well, Len definitely isn’t that,” Barry says firmly. “But as I just got my ear lectured off yesterday by a firebird about how legends aren’t always accurate, surely that part could be overstated? I mean, especially if he is a thief –” Barry thinks about how easily Len lifted Lady Larson’s handkerchief. “– and it seems likely that he is, then people wouldn’t have much reason to describe him nicely, would they?”

“I guess,” Caitlin says doubtfully. “I still wouldn’t trust him, if I were you; I’m sure he’s just as fearsome as his reputation. But if he likes you – well, that’s something different, now isn’t it?”

“Plus, the Robber’s as human-form as it gets for a magical being,” Cisco adds. “Some magic is inherent in creatures, like me or the firebird, but some of them are humans that have become magic. Plus, as someone who travels around a lot, he’ll probably be able to answer more of your questions about magic than I can.”

Barry nods, unable to suppress a smile. It would be great to have a reason to track Len down. Then he sobers, remembering why he needs answers about magic.

“Could you take a look at what I’ve managed to gather up so far on the disappearances?” he asks Cisco. “Any insight you could give me would be great; the girls have been disappearing through locked doors and on the eve of their weddings, which sounds, well…”

“A lot like something magic to me,” Caitlin finishes.

“It probably is,” Cisco says regretfully. “Magical creatures are bound by rules, like I told you, and sometimes that manifests in weird ways.”

“I don’t know if you’ve heard,” Barry says, his throat tight. “But Iris was one of the girls that disappeared.”

“Not Iris!” Cisco exclaims. “I like Iris! She always has an apple in her pocket for me!”

“Good to know that you’re as susceptible to bribery as I’ve always said you were,” Barry says dryly. “Will you help?”

“Of course,” Cisco replies. “Anything I can do to help Iris. Grab a saddle and let’s go.”

Barry bounces to his feet and turns to the wall with the saddles, only for that strange blurring effect to happen again and for him to crash straight into the wall.

“And that’s the magical ability he’s manifested,” he hears Caitlin tell Cisco.

“Does the super clumsiness come with the super speed, do you think?” Cisco asks her in return.

“You’re both very sympathetic,” Barry calls from his pile on the ground. “Also, ow.”

“Where’s your token?” Cisco calls back.

“In my pocket,” Barry says.

“You should try holding onto it when you try to run fast,” Cisco recommends. “You’re not a magical creature yourself; you’ve just been blessed – or cursed, depending on how you look at it – by one, that’s all. So you should be able to learn to control it. Try running back this way – and try to stop this time.”

Barry sticks his hand into his pocket, feeling a little foolish, but this time when he runs, something clicks inside his head and the rest of the world slows down instead of him speeding up. Or at least that’s how it feels: he can see Cisco’s mane shaking, moving through the air at the same snail-like pace as if it were through gelatin, as he runs. He comes to a stop and releases the feather and abruptly everything snaps back to normal time.

“Nice!” Cisco exclaims.

Barry grins and tries it again. After a few repetitions, encouraged by suggestions from Caitlin and Cisco, he figures out that he doesn’t have to be touching the feather the entire time he’s running, but that it helps a lot if he’s touching it when he starts running. That helps when he starts trying to do things at super-speed instead of just moving from place to place: carrying something from one place to another, then sweeping the floor, then brushing out Cisco’s mane and tail, then saddling him, all at super-speed.

“This is so cool,” Barry says. “I’ll never be late to anything again!”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” Caitlin says dryly from the perch she’d found to watch him. “Also, you should eat something; from the way you describe it, you’re still moving from your perspective, you’re just faster and you tire less – your blood sugar is probably falling like a rock in a well.”

Now that Barry thinks about it, he is getting rather hungry. “Be right back,” he says with a grin, and runs at full speed to the kitchen, collects a tray full of leftovers, and runs right back. The entire process takes maybe half a minute.

After that, though, he ends up feeling a bit faint and scarfing down everything he grabbed despite his original intentions of sharing his bounty.

“So, super-speed,” Barry says, licking his fingers. “That’s got to be useful – if I ever got allowed out of the city to go look for Iris, I could do it super-quick, right?”

“And then halfway through you’d fall over and die of starvation,” Caitlin says dryly. “No, Barry. Honestly, given how clumsy you can be, I’m going to bet that you’ll get more use out of the super-fast healing.”

Barry blinks in surprise, then realizes that it’s the only way to explain how well he feels despite crashing into the walls hard enough to dent stone and break bones several times today. Still, while somehow the idea of being super-fast in running is perfectly acceptable to his mind, the idea of it working on a cellular level is just a little creepy.

“Well, we don’t know what super-speed will do to you,” he says quickly. “So maybe we should head back home at regular speed, yeah?”

“Thank god,” Caitlin mumbles.

Barry rolls his eyes and lifts her up on the saddle before climbing on himself.

“Oh, good, a trip to the lower town,” Cisco says, wiggling with excitement. “You have no idea how awesome this is.”

They make it to Joe and Henry’s house without any major difficulties – Barry keeps the feather in his pocket, for lack of anything else to do with it, but when he focuses on keeping at a regular pace, he’s fine. He’s also grinning from ear to ear, but hey, you don’t get magical powers every day.

"The information I have is in my room, around back," Barry says when they reach the house. "I'll lead you around there and, um, do you want me to tie your reins to the windowsill?" He has no idea if that’s offensive or not.

"Sure! Don't worry about it," Cisco says breezily. "I'll poke my head in and look that way."

Shaking his head at the sheer weirdness of everything, Barry ties Cisco’s reins to the windowsill and goes inside, Caitlin padding along at his heels. Nobody’s there because it’s the middle of the day: Joe has thrown himself into his work with the guards, Henry is at his clinic, and Wally is off on a mission from Barry trying to harass messengers for more information.

"Okay," Cisco says, nosing in through the window once Barry opens it from the inside. "Now tell me what you've got."

Barry explains the work he's been doing since Iris' disappearance, the tests and the theories and everything he's been able to conclude. Caitlin and Cisco listen avidly, occasionally giving each other significant looks, especially when Barry mentions the frost or the wet spots that he's hypothesized as frost marks that have already melted or the untimely death of some bushes around several of the sites.

When he finishes, he crosses his arms and looks sharply at both of them. "You have something," he says, certain of it. "What is it?"

Cisco huffs and shakes his mane. Barry's not sure how, but he manages to make it seem worried. "It's not good news," he says. "You're not going to like it."

Barry's knees go abruptly weak and he has to sit down. "You mean the girls are dead?" If Iris is gone, Barry doesn’t know what he’s going to do – or Joe, or Henry, or Wally, or Eddie –

"Oh, no!" Cisco says hastily. "Nothing like that! They're probably fine - better than fine, actually -"

"What do you mean, better than fine?" Barry exclaims. "They were kidnapped!"

"Well, fine as far as kidnapping victims go, I guess?" Cisco qualifies. “It could be worse?”

"It's one of the Deathless, isn't it, Cisco?" Caitlin asks quietly before Barry can tell Cisco that he should stop digging himself in deeper. "I'm newer at this than you are, Cisco, and I’m cursed rather than a spirit, but I've heard the rumors that go by the birds that come to talk to you. A Deathless is walking the land again, and where he goes, death stalks in his footsteps. That would explain the frost and dead plants; it’s practically their calling cards."

"A Deathless?" Barry asks. He doesn't care how ominous that sounds; it's a lead, a real lead, the first one they’ve gotten. Barry doesn’t care if he has to figure out how to kill something called “deathless”; if it gets him Iris back, he’s willing to try. "I don't know if I'm familiar with those. What are they? How do you know it's one of them?"

Cisco sighs. "Man, you're really not going to like this. And you know the Deathless! Everybody does!"

"The koschei, Barry," Caitlin clarifies. "Spirits call them the Deathless to try to avoid their notice. The ones that pull out their own hearts in return for power and immortality – well, not quite immortality, more like being very hard to kill unless you find their hearts – you must have heard the stories about them growing up?"

"Sure, the evil sorcerer who can only be defeated when his heart is located wherever it was hidden, that whole deal," Barry says, blinking. Gibbons was right - who'd have thought? Well, you know what they say about stopped clocks… “So the koschei, they're…" He hesitates before he says “real”, because of course if Caitlin and Cisco and the firebird are real, then why not the koschei?

Wait. "Could there be more than one?" he asks, alarmed at the possibility. Sure, he’d heard stories about the koschei, each one defeated in his turn, but just because they’d always appeared on their own in the stories, not as a group, didn’t mean that it wasn’t possible.

"No, no, they're very rare, almost never more than one in every five generations. Normal sorcerers become them by selling their souls, and sorcerers are rare enough," Cisco immediately replies. "But having just one around doesn't help, not really: as Caitlin said, they literally sell their hearts and souls for power. As you might imagine, they are very powerful, and very dangerous. And very, very evil."

"No such thing as a good koschei, huh?"

Barry's joke falls flat as Cisco regards him seriously. "No, Barry," he says solemnly. "It doesn't matter what good intentions the sorcerer might have at the start, a Deathless is and does evil; it's their nature. By giving up their hearts, they lose the ability to distinguish between good and evil, and the ability to sympathize or empathize with their victims. A human who can't love and thinks he's right is the most dangerous thing alive. The rest of us spirits are friendly in comparison."

"And you're telling me that that is what has Iris in its clutches?" Barry says, equally serious. In his time working with the guardsmen, he's seen plenty of crimes and their aftermath; they don’t need to tell him how dangerous humans can be. A heartless (literally!) kidnapper could very easily become a serial killer or go in for terrible tortures – Barry doesn’t even want to think about it.

"Iris is probably fine, actually," Cisco says. "To get back to what I was saying earlier. The Deathless are known to have these palaces where they keep their hostages, Palaces of Delight they’re called, where anything you could ever want is delivered to you at once by the Deathless’ magic. Like...fresh strawberries in January, or a hundred oranges at every meal.”

“So the koschei¬ usually take hostages?” Barry says with a frown, trying to think back to the stories he heard growing up. The stories about the koschei had never been among his favorites; the bad guy was very nearly unbeatable, his defeat at the end of the stories typically seemed to be more about luck than skill, and lots of people usually died terribly in the process. It was nearly as bad as hearing a story about Zmey Gorynych, the three-headed dragon who had lived since the beginning of time and could never be killed, only defeated and sent back to his eternal slumber. At any rate, if Barry was going to listen to stories about a human-form mystical creature, he preferred it to be about Solovei, who was a thief, not a murderer. That thought makes Barry think of Len, and that lifts his heart at least a little. “Is that their thing?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s their thing,” Cisco says doubtfully. “They’re magical, so they’re bound by the same types of rules as anybody else, but they’re still human in origin, you know? They each have different motivations and behaviors. But they’re evil and they make trouble, and they do like taking hostages. I’ve heard of a Deathless stealing a bride or wife that he’s been lusting over, or taking a hated enemy’s son to raise as his own, or even just stealing people from a palace to use to extract tribute from the local king – though I must admit, stealing so many brides seems rather greedy, wouldn’t you say?”

“No, this sounds familiar, actually,” Barry says. “Caitlin, you’ve probably heard the same stories I have – something about a harem?”

“Oh, yes!” she exclaims. “The Deathless in that story was stealing one of each ‘type’ of girl, hair color and eye color and ethnicity and whatnot, all of them local beauties, so that he’d be able to say he had the finest women of every variety. Of course, in the story they were unmolested – at least until the hero arrived –”

“Well, that’s not so surprising,” Cisco says. “That’s why I think Iris’ll be okay until she gets rescued. The Deathless gave away his heart to become what he is, remember? They might remember the concept of lust, but the actual feeling utterly escapes them. They can feel amusement, though; humor lives in the brain, not the heart. It’s probably amusement at other people’s dismay because, as I mentioned, they’re totally evil. If they had some good intentions to start – very unlikely, may I point out, most people who rip their hearts out for power aren’t doing it for a good reason – well, in that case, they might retain some concept of guilt or remorse, but, like, not enough to stop them from doing anything they want.”

Barry bites his lip. Good to know Iris wouldn’t get assaulted, but – “What about physical abuse generally?”

“From what I’ve heard, the Deathless usually put their hostages in their palaces and forget about them,” Caitlin offers. Cisco nods in agreement.

“Let’s hope for the best,” Barry says. Despite the problems inherent with going out to defeat a near-immortal being, he almost hopes that it was a koschei that took Iris. He’d much rather imagine her in a Palace of Delight than hurt or dead. “So is that what’s going on here?”

“I’ve never heard of something like this,” Cisco says. “I mean, look at your board! Plenty of these women look the same, and, um, in the stories where it’s a harem he’s after, well –”

“These women are all very pretty in their own rights,” Caitlin interrupts, shaking her head, “but they’re no world-class beauties and certainly not by conventional standards. Some are older than is considered fashionable, some have acne or bad hair or birthmarks, some are skinny as a pole, others are fat – no man’s tastes are this diverse.”

“But maybe –”

“Not a chance. Especially one that’s forgotten how to feel lust. This is far too indiscriminate – he seems to be taking all soon-to-be-married brides along his path.”

“Why would he do that, if it’s not to show off his excellent taste or something?” Barry asks.

“I don’t know! He’s evil! Maybe he just wants to upset people!”

Caitlin thinks about it for a few more seconds, licking her paw thoughtfully. “No, I don’t have any better explanation than that either.”

Barry sighs and looks back at his board. When he’d been working on it, he’d included references to the supernatural because everyone had been so convinced by it. He’d never dreamed that it would actually be a magical incident.

Still, a good scientist doesn’t let his preconceived notions about the universe get in the way of new data, and a good detective doesn’t turn away information that could be helpful to solving his case.

“Tell me everything you can,” he says, picking up a pen. “Especially on how to track down a koschei. Actually, tell me this, is the bit about the chest with the duck and the hare and the jewel real?”

“I wouldn’t say it’s mandatory,” Cisco says. “But it is traditional…”

It’s nearly sundown when someone sharply raps at his door.

Barry looks up, blinking, at an amused looking Joe and Henry and an apologetic looking guard, mentally giving thanks for the fact that he was writing down something that Cisco had said rather than talking to the cat and the horse. That might be more awkward to explain. “What?”

The guard coughs. “The king would like to remind you that your presence at dinner tonight was required so that you can explain your encounter with the thief last night.”

Barry nods, then looks at all of them as a suspicion raises itself in his mind. “…and how long have you been looking for me to give me that message?”

“Well, you were supposed to be at the castle today –”

Barry groans and puts his head in his hands. “How late am I?”

“We’ve already sent a runner back to the castle,” Joe says, smirking. “We told the king to expect you in an hour and the kitchens to keep everything warm for a belated dinner.”

“I’m pretty sure they do that already when I’m expected,” Barry grumbles. Super-speed, and he still can’t make it to dinner on time! “You told him I’d be an hour?”

“Yes, the streets are quite busy now, as the exhibition events are letting out. Go now and you’ll have time to wash up before dinner.”

“Thanks, Henry,” Barry says gratefully, and scoops up a quietly giggling Caitlin on his way out the door.

Cisco’s happy to take him back to the castle. As they trot along the crowded streets, he whickers at a little girl, making her giggle, before flicking an eye back towards Barry and saying, “What’re you going to tell your father the king about the thief?”

“What do you mean? I thought I’d just tell him…” Barry trails off. “Oh.”

“Yes, oh,” Caitlin says from her perch before him on the saddle. “You mustn’t mention the firebird.”

“Why not?”

“Because then he’ll ask to see the feather, and that would be bad,” Cisco says.

“Firebird feathers are magnets for trouble,” Caitlin adds.

“Like, loads of trouble. They inspire desire, because they’re so beautiful or so rare or so whatever. With desire comes envy and with envy comes obsession and with obsession comes every bad storybook decision ever made. So, you know, don’t show anyone the feather.”

“But –”

“I agree with Cisco, Barry,” Caitlin says, sounding worried. “Don’t show anyone the feather. It’s bad luck.”

“Got it,” Barry says. “But then what do I say?”

“Just try to keep it vague?” Caitlin suggests.

"Vague," Barry says doubtfully, thinking of his scornful big brothers and his calculating father. "Sure. I can do that."

He goes into the castle, into the private dining room, and also into what is promising already to be the most awkward dinner of his life. Eobard and Hunter are both there already, glowering at Barry like he deliberately tried to show them up. Hunter in particular is gripping his fork and knife like he'd like to use them to carve Barry up instead of his dinner.

A guard heads off the second he sees Barry arrive, undoubtedly to inform the king, so Barry only has a minute or two to settle himself into his place down from his hostile brothers before King Harrison is sweeping into the room.

"Barry," the king says, inclining his head and waving at the guards to ensure their privacy. "You'll be pleased to know that we've surveyed the trees and all the apples have been accounted for, including the ones the thief had gotten in the bag."

"Oh, um, that's good," Barry says. Great. They're going straight for the subject that has Eobard and Hunter contemplating fratricide. Thanks, Father, you're so thoughtful.

Not for the first time, Barry wishes King Harrison was a little less the perfect scientist-king and a little more of a father. Oh, he loves his sons in theory, Barry was certain, but King Harrison just doesn’t put in the effort to understand them the way he does for the Star or even magical creatures.

"Which means, of course, that you have succeeded where your brothers have failed in stopping this thief," the king continues, settling down and starting to serve himself. "Share with us how you did it and who it was that was invading our orchards."

"Well –" Barry hadn't used super-speed on the way to dinner in order to buy himself time to think of a good story, but he hadn't really come up with anything great. "It occurred to me after, um, analyzing the behaviors of the guards the last few days –" He carefully doesn't mention his brothers’ involvement. "– that they were inconsistent with the thefts."

"So it was corruption?" the king says, arching an eyebrow.

"Oh, no! On the contrary. It was impossible for it to be corruption: too many good guards, too many sets of eyes. There was no way to get past them and even if someone had, they would've noticed the apples being pulled off the trees one by one. So if there was a thief, a regular thief that is, they should have caught him. So it occurred to me –" Occurred, right. Technically true, if you shift the time frame to about twenty minutes ago. "– that the thief must have done something to the guards to affect their, um, perception."

"Nothing affected my perception," Hunter snarls, sotto voce.

“I haven’t been able to identify exactly what it was,” Barry rushes onwards, “but I believe the thief did something to temporarily freeze the guards standing next to the orchard. So I stayed away from the orchard until after the, um, technology was activated, and then I went in and confronted the thief. Who, um, ran off.”

“Very interesting that you weren’t able to stop this thief,” Eobard says coolly. “Given that you were surrounded by guards.”

“The guards weren’t able to help,” Barry replies.

Eobard shrugs, leaning back in his chair. “I’m just saying that it’s most…unfortunate…that we won’t be able to question this thief as to his technology. Or his accomplices.”

Barry’s jaw drops. “Are you accusing me of helping the thief?”

“Of course not,” Eobard says. “It was just a general statement –”

“A general statement that strongly implies that –”

“I for one would like to know more details about your confrontation,” Hunter puts in, also glaring. “It seems remarkably short on specifics –”

“Enough!” King Harrison snaps, slamming his hands down on the table. “The thief has been stopped; that is what is important. We will keep guards on the orchard tonight and have several rotating patrols from other areas checking in on them at regular intervals in order to avoid whatever this technology might be, in case the thief returns. However, it seems unlikely that the thief will return to where he has been unmasked and so our orchards are safe, which is what is relevant.”

He glares at them until they all mutter “Yes, Father,” in response.

“Thank you,” he says icily. “Barry, anything else to report?”

“Uh, yes, actually,” Barry says, straightening up. “You remember the case with the missing girls?”

“This again?” Eobard says, rolling his eyes with an exaggerated moue of disbelief. Of course he doesn’t care; virtually all the Society marriages have been postponed until fall or next spring in order not to be outdone by the exhibition, so no aristocratic girls from Central have gone missing, and Eobard treats the aristocracy of the other cities with respect but also as competition so he doesn’t care about their girls in the slightest. Hunter, of course, doesn’t care about anything that doesn’t involve his precious military.

“Barry, I’ve already told you –” the king starts.

“I know, I know, I remember what you said, but you did say that if I uncovered any evidence that could direct me towards where the girls were taken, you would reconsider.”

King Harrison nods. “And what have you found?”

“Well, I’ve gathered up all the evidence and we believe right now that a koschei is the responsible party for the disappearances –”

“Oh, you have got to be joking!” Eobard exclaims even as Hunter sniggers. “Now it’s a koschei, really, Barry? We’re going with monsters from bedtime stories now?”

Barry’s back straightens and he clenches his hands into fists. “Initially, I also didn’t think it was plausible,” he says through gritted teeth. “However, I have determined –”

“I think catching the thief’s gone to his head,” Hunter says mockingly. “Barry thinks he’s a hero now, and heroes have to have villains, don’t they?”

Barry bites his lip. “If you’d just let me finish –”

“We have actual business to attend to,” Eobard says. “We can’t waste time with your endless attempts to wiggle out of your responsibilities to this city in order to go try to find your little girlfriend.”

“Iris is not –”

“Barry,” King Harrison says firmly. The three princes quiet down and look at him. Barry’s stomach sinks at the look on his face: patient and paternal and condescending. “You know how important the exhibition is to me and this city, and your participation as a prince of this city is –”

“You believe in the koschei!” Barry exclaims. “At least let me lay out the evidence I’ve collected!”

“Of course I believe in such creatures,” King Harrison says coolly. “I am, first and foremost, a scientist; I refuse to disregard any potentiality, particularly one as widely accepted as the supernatural. However, these disappearances are of soon-to-be-wedded brides and no one else is getting married with the exhibition in full swing; as a result, I see no reason to turn to this matter until after the exhibition has finished and the Star’s power has been presented to our guests.”

“But what about the girls that are already gone?!”

“They can wait,” the king says without even the slightest trace of remorse. “Permission to leave the city to search for these girls denied, Barry.”

Barry’s cheeks are flushed in anger, he can feel it. He’s discussed his worst fears with his father: that the girls were being hurt or killed or any number of horrific things that could happen, and his father thought his stupid scientific presentation party was more important. Turn to the matter in time! Palace of Delight or no Palace of Delight, the girls are gone and their families and loved ones are all suffering, and King Harrison is concerned about scientific achievement!

Barry shoves his hands into his pockets to keep from actually hitting the table.

His hand brushes the feather still sitting there and he thinks angrily, If I wanted to go on a quest to find you the goddamn firebird, you would let me leave the castle in a heartbeat

Barry pauses.

The firebird is his father’s favorite legend, just as Solovei has always been Barry’s; Barry remembers King Harrison talking at length and with great excitement about how beautiful the feathers were said to be, the possibilities of flame held within a creature’s biology, the supposed magical powers of the creature, the scientific potential of studying the bird –

Don’t show anyone the feather! , Cisco and Caitlin’s voices echo in his head. Even the firebird himself had told Barry not to mention the feather to anyone.

“Now,” the king says coolly, turning back to his dinner as if he hasn’t just tossed two dozen girls to whatever fate they could hope to face. “Is there anything else you wanted to discuss?”

“Actually, yes, there was,” Barry says. “Hunter’s right; I did leave out a few details about my encounter with the thief in the orchard. I wanted, um, I wanted for it to be a surprise, yes, but I feel I should mention it now. The thief wasn’t just a thief, Father. It was a firebird.”

Even as Eobard starts rolling his eyes and Hunter starts scoffing, Barry pulls the feather out of his pocket and holds it in front of him.

In the dimmer light, the feather – as pristine as the moment Barry picked it up, no broken spines or crooked parts – shines brightly as a torch, the light it emits flickering orange as if Barry was holding a flame in his hand.

Eobard and Hunter go silent and slack-jawed. King Harrison leans forward, his eyes fixed on it and glittering with reflected light. “A firebird feather,” he says, awed. “How…?”

“When I caught him in our orchard, he gave me a magical token before he left,” Barry says, licking his lips at his father’s avid expression.

“Does it do anything?” Eobard says, crossing his arms before him in a thoroughly unsuccessful attempt to look unimpressed. “Other than look pretty, that is.”

“Sure,” Barry says casually. “Watch.” He focuses on the feather and hops out of his chair, running to the other side of the room as the world slows down around him.

His father and brother abruptly sit up straight in their chairs, looking around for him. “Over here!” Barry calls, waving, and runs back to his seat.

“Amazing!” his father exclaims.

“How often can you do that?” Hunter asks, leaning forward, his own eyes glittering. “Are there any limitations? Does the feather have a certain number of uses?”

“It’s mostly short bursts so far,” Barry says, surprised by Hunter’s interest. Hunter rarely cares about things outside his own preoccupations, usually military- or violence-related, but he seems interested by this. And even Eobard has given up on his pretended indifference and looks openly intrigued.

King Harrison looks fascinated.

“Anyway,” Barry says, deciding to move on to the next stage of his plan. “The firebird got away, but I have an idea as to where it might be headed next…” He trails off meaningfully, hoping that no one will call him out on this blatant lie or, worse, ask for details. He has no idea where to find a firebird, but he does have some very good tips from Cisco and Caitlin on how to track down a koschei. Cisco even mentioned that someone he knew might have a method of finding the koschei’s palace. And if Barry accidentally happens across the koschei’s palace with all of its hostages while on the road to find the firebird, well, what can you do; he couldn’t in good conscience ignore a hostage situation right before his eyes.

“Yes, absolutely,” King Harrison says, still staring at the feather that Barry’s holding. “No, you must absolutely go after the firebird and see if you can bring it back here for study.”

“Oh, I don’t want to raise your hopes or anything,” Barry says, trying to sound regretful. “The lead is mostly a direction, you understand, and by the time the exhibition is over, the trail will almost certainly be cold…”

“What?” King Harrison says, blinking. “No, don’t be absurd. You must go at once. I’ll make your excuses to our guests at the exhibition. A firebird…yes, that’s far more important. I’ll give the order that you’re to have whatever you wish for your journey. We mustn’t let the trail go cold. You should leave right away. Tomorrow, first thing in the morning.” He pauses, uncharacteristically. “But first, Barry – do you mind if I take a closer look at that feather?”

“The feather? Uh, sure,” Barry says, beaming like a loon and unable to hide it. He starts to extend the hand holding the feather to his father, who hisses and draws back.

“Barry!” King Harrison exclaims, glaring at him. “This is a magical token – a real magical token – given to you and only you. If I take it from you, it might explode or turn to dust or something like that, and then we wouldn’t have any feather at all.”

“Oh,” Barry says. He hadn’t known that. “Right. I’ll just come over to you then.”

He gets up and walks (at regular speed) to his father. Eobard and Hunter practically leap out of their chairs to crowd around for a better look themselves.

Barry smiles triumphantly. He has permission to go out of the city right away; he’ll be out on the road searching for Iris tomorrow. If he can catch up with Eddie, they’ll go together; if not, they’ll cover twice as much ground. This is perfect.

Then his smile fades a little as a thought occurs to him.

Caitlin and Cisco are going to kill me!

Chapter Text

“So you’re telling me that you – by virtue of being late, of all things – managed to meet a magical creature, a firebird, and it gave you a magical token and told you not to show it to anyone, and then you met Star Castle’s domovoi and a woman under a magic curse and they also told you not to show it to anyone, and you went and showed it to your entire family – is that what you’re telling me?” Joe concludes with an expression like he hopes that this is all one big joke.

Somehow, the way he says it makes it sound like a much less clever idea than it did at the time it was happening.

“Maybe?” Barry tries, looking from one foster parent to another somewhat miserably. He came straight home to pack his things up to leave in the morning and then Henry and Joe wandered in and asked him what he was doing home so early, and somehow the whole story came tumbling out of him. “It seemed like a good idea at the time?”

Joe’s expression is thoroughly pained. Henry has put his head in his hands and his shoulders have been shaking with suppressed mirth for the last ten minutes.

Neither of these reactions is particularly complimentary.

“But the important thing is that I can go after Iris,” Barry argues.

“Yes, by all means, let us add lying to your father, who, let me remind you, is the king, to your list of accomplishments for the last twenty-four hours,” Joe says. “It’s not like that’s officially a treasonous act.”

This is when Henry loses what composure he has left and starts laughing, a deep, rolling belly laugh.

Both Joe and Barry look at him.

“I’m sorry,” he says, wiping his eyes. “It’s just such a Barry story. Just like when he was a kid – you remember the stepping stone game and Mistress Cabrisi’s flower garden, how everything kept escalating?”

“This is on a considerably larger scale than that!” Joe exclaims.

“And yet, fundamentally Barry,” Henry replies. “C’mon, Joe. He met a firebird. Princes who meet firebirds are not meant for quiet lives. So he got a little quicker start on it than most fairytales. After the amount of ribbing he’s put up with about his inability to be anywhere on time, can you blame him for being in a bit of a rush?”

Joe sighs and glares at Barry, who does his best to look sheepish and repenting, while also conveying that he’s not even slightly sorry about doing it and would do it again in a heartbeat. Joe recognizes that look and shakes his head. “Someone as brilliant as you are, Barry,” he sighs, “and yet sometimes I’d swear you don’t have the common sense nature gave a rabid squirrel.”

Barry smiles helplessly. He could just imagine it, too. “Well, this rabid squirrel’s going to find Iris,” he says. “You’ll write to Eddie and tell him about the koschei?”

“We will,” Joe says, his attempt at sounding grumpy entirely undercut by the hand he puts on Barry’s shoulder. “You be careful out there.”

“Oh, and you’ll take care of Caitlin? It must be frustrating to her that no one knows she’s, well, human, and she loves human food, which makes sense, and –”

“We’ll take care of her,” Henry promises, then smirks. “You may not feel so generous after she’s clawed your face off.”

“…I apparently heal quicker with the feather,” Barry says, patting his chest. Earlier, he found an old chain and ran it through a hole he’d drilled in the thick base of the feather with a needle, figuring that it being in his pocket was a sure-fire way for him to lose it. “Also, I think she and Cisco got it out of their systems yelling at me on the way back here.”

Both of his foster parents give him deeply skeptical looks.

“Right,” Barry says, and sighs. “The king says I can leave tomorrow morning, but I’ll probably head out early from the castle and won’t have a chance to see you, so I guess this is goodbye.”

Joe pulls him in for a long hug. “Thanks, Barry,” he says quietly. “For everything you’re doing for Iris.”

“She’s my sister,” Barry reminds Joe gently, hugging him back. “I couldn’t do any less.”

Henry pulls him in for a hug as well. “Be careful out there, slugger,” he says. “I want you back in one piece, you hear me?”

“Got it,” Barry says with a crooked smile.

Outside the house, Cisco is still sulking very pointedly at Barry, but permits him to climb on his back anyway – which is good, Barry wasn’t sure he would.

“I’m sorry,” Barry says immediately once he’s on. “I should’ve listened to you. But I needed to get permission to go after Iris.”

“You have no ideas what consequences might happen because of what you did,” Cisco says resentfully, but Barry can tell his anger is already fading. “You are taking a horse, though, I trust? Not planning on running the whole way?”

“No, Caitlin gave me an earful on the subject of blood sugar and starvation,” Barry says.

“You’ll come back all right, though, right?” Cisco says plaintively. “You’re my favorite prince.”

“Thanks, Cisco,” Barry says, touched. “I’ll do my best.”

“Let me know what horse you’ll be taking,” Cisco says. “I’ll have a chat with him – he’ll be the sweetest, most biddable horse you can imagine.”

Barry laughs. “Second only to you, I’m sure.”

“Oh, I’d come if I could!” Cisco says earnestly. “But, you know –”

“Don’t worry about it,” Barry says soothingly. “Domovoi don’t leave their households, even I know that much.”

“Very true. When we get back to the castle, though, you should take three hairs from my tail and make a bracelet out of them.”

Barry’s eyebrows shoot up towards his hairline. He’s heard that story – it’s from the original firebird legend, actually, where the prince’s magic horse helps him through all sorts of trouble using the magic from the horse’s tail. “You can do that?”

“Oh, no, nothing like in the stories,” Cisco says hastily. “Sorry, didn’t mean to get your hopes up. I’m a domovoi – I’m very powerful in my domain, the household, but not so much outside of it; nothing like a nature spirit or a trickster spirit like in those stories. My power diminishes the further away from the household it gets. Maybe you’ll find someone in need of good luck in housework or something, though, and then it’ll be super useful.”

Cisco doesn’t sound like he believes that will ever happen, and honestly Barry doubts it as well, but he reaches forward and pats Cisco’s neck. “Thanks for the thought,” he says firmly. “Every little bit counts – and you never know when something might come in useful on this sort of journey.”

“Quest.”

“I refuse to call it a quest. I’m not going off to rescue my true love, after all.”

“Not even that thief of yours?” Cisco says mischievously.

“Len didn’t seem in need of rescuing,” Barry says in his best haughty tones before breaking character and laughing. “But I’ll admit that I wouldn’t object if he needed maybe just a little bit of heroic help.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t!”

Barry shakes his head, amused. “So, where should I head first?” he asks.

“You should go visit the alchemist,” Cisco says. “He lives in a tower north-west of here, some distance. Two crow’s days if you go straight, which should be less on horseback but you might encounter some obstacles – I don’t know how long it is by human paths, unfortunately.”

“An alchemist, huh?” Barry says. “And he’s not going to try to harvest my organs for an experiment or something, right?”

“What in the world are they saying about alchemists these days?” Cisco exclaims. “No! Certainly not! He’s great; you’ll like him. He’s not – well, okay, he is very into his experiments and, yes, he’s sometimes a little oblivious to social norms, and maybe he’s a little, uh, over-inclusive with some of his projects –”

“I can’t wait to meet this guy already,” Barry says dryly.

“This is coming out all wrong,” Cisco says despairingly. “But, really. Ray’s great.”

“The alchemist is named Ray?”

“Raymond Palmer,” Cisco confirms. “He used to be the heir of a very old, very wealthy aristocratic family off in, uh, Starling, I think it was, but anyway he ran off some years back to be a hermit and do his alchemy. He’s very clever; he’ll probably be able to scry you a location for the koschei’s palace.”

“Raymond Palmer,” Barry repeats. “Okay. It’s worth a shot.”

He spends the rest of the evening ensuring that his gear gets packed up for the morning. Caitlin forgives him enough to come with him to the kitchens to give some advice on what food is most nutritious and calorie-efficient, suggesting some ingredients that could be mixed into easily packaged bars; Barry is certain that he will be obliged to use the feather’s power at some points during his travels, and he needs to make sure that he won’t collapse after running a few miles. It quickly becomes clear that he wouldn’t have been able to run around looking for Iris anyway; he needs the horse to carry all of his food, and the horse wouldn’t be able to keep up.

Better to keep the feather’s powers hidden, at any rate. Barry really doesn’t like how Eobard and Hunter keep watching him, their eyes glittering, and how they pop out of nowhere to pepper him with questions about the feather. King Harrison is, if anything, worse; he wants Barry to go and get the firebird right away but while Barry’s around he kept calling him in and asking to look at the feather through a microscope or things like that.

Barry still thinks he was right to use the feather to get himself a way out to find Iris, but he’s starting to think he may be in bigger trouble than he had previously suspected. He’s not sure what his father will do or say if Barry comes back and says he couldn’t find the firebird.

He casually mentions to his father that he doesn’t know for sure if he’ll be able to find him, but his father brushes away his cautiously worded comments and acts as though Barry finding the firebird is a sure thing.

“You found it once, after all,” King Harrison says, smiling. “You can find it again.”

Barry wants to say something – at the very least correct the “it” to a “him” – but he also doesn’t want to say too much for fear the king will change his mind about Barry leaving. Still, if he can save Iris, it’ll be worth it…

All in all, it’s almost a relief to head out in the morning.

Cisco was only able to give vague directions, even with the aid of a map; as a domovoi, he’s never actually been out of Central and gets most of his gossip from birds, which acted as a sort of conduit between domovoi. Caitlin does understand how human travel works, but she’s never quite figured out how to convert bird flight to road time. Still, Barry calculates that this “Ray” guy couldn’t live that far away: two or three days travel at a moderate pace, maybe a little more, especially if he goes off-road and just passes along the way the crow flies.

He figures that if he runs into any major obstacles, he can just go around them until he finds some human-made road to pass through.

For the first day, this seems like a pretty valid assumption: he cuts off the road once it’s no longer leading him where he wants to go, and there’s plenty of forested lands kept pristine either by local superstitions or ecological preservation programs installed by his father. Those are fairly easy to pick his way through. He even finds a nice little cabin meant for housing woodcutters, with proprietors who are happy to lodge him and his horse for the night; it’s a nice surprise.

On the second day, the forest starts getting thicker – larger trees, growing wild, as Barry begins to leave the more well-established areas. Central is technically, as the name implies, in the center of the land, but the lands to the south and the east are the most fertile, long rolling plains that were easy to grow crops or raise livestock on, while Barry seems to be heading straight up into the mountain lands that lie off the main roads between Central City and Starling City, most of which have thus far remained less populated by disinterest rather than design.

Still, he’s living in hope that he’ll find another set of woodcutters or maybe a farmer to house him tonight as well; this area isn’t that deserted. At least his horse is a good sport – Barry’s not sure what Cisco did or said to it, but the horse is all but tying its own reins to the tree whenever they stop for a rest in its efforts to be helpful.

It’s late afternoon on the second day when he comes to the river.

The giant, swollen, all-but-flooding river, to be specific.

It’s not that Barry didn’t know the river was here, to be fair; he’s been crossing this river on a regular basis all his life. Just, you know, mostly on bridges.

“Fuck,” Barry says, climbing off his horse and staring at the water. This is what you get when you run out of your home on a quest like your ass is on fire, he thinks to himself. You remember to bring maps just in case but you forget to check them for where the nearest bridge is.

“The rain’s heavy in the mountains this year,” a female voice drawls and Barry very nearly jumps a foot in the air, spinning around. There’s a woman sitting on a rock not far away; she’s about his age and blonde, and she’s wearing white and a vastly amused expression. She’s beautiful, sitting there with her bare feet kicking at the water. “So we’ve got some summer floods. Not what you expected, huh?”

“No kidding,” Barry says with a relieved grin. He drops his reins – the horse obediently goes to stand by a nearby tree to graze, seriously, what did Cisco say to him? – and walks over to her. “I’m kind of a city guy, personally, and I didn’t exactly think this whole trip through. I’m Barry, by the way.”

“And I’m Sara,” she says, returning his smile. “You headed out from your home abruptly, then? With enough food to feed an army, I see.”

“Oh, man, that would take way too long to explain,” he replies, shaking his head. “But yeah, I sort of had a narrow window of opportunity to get out before my father changed his mind about letting me leave.”

Sara pats the rock next to her invitingly and Barry sits down. “I’m really happy to see you,” he tells her. “I was worried I’d have to delay for a long time to try to find where there’s a bridge, and I really want to be on my way.”

“What’s the rush?” she asks, laughing and putting her hand on his shoulder, running her fingers down his arm. “It’s midsummer; don’t you know it’s time to slow down and enjoy nature?”

“Can’t, I’m afraid. I’m actually trying to investigate – well, let me start from the beginning, actually. Have you heard of all the women disappearing?”

Sara’s eyes narrow. “The brides, you mean?”

“Yeah,” Barry says, sighing. “All the brides disappearing on the eve of their weddings – I’ve, um, this might sound strange, but I’ve got a lead on it that I’m trying to check out.”

“What lead?” Sara says, scooting closer.

“This might sound bizarre, but I think it’s a koschei,” Barry tells her. Sara nods, looking interested. Relieved that she doesn’t think he’s crazy, Barry babbles onwards, “There’s been frost and dead plants around some of the kidnapping sites, and the domovoi back at Star Castle says that he’s heard rumors of a koschei walking the lands –”

“Wow, really?” Sara says, her eyes wide and head tilted alluringly to the side. “And you’re after your bride, I assume?”

“What? Oh, no! My sister – uh, well, I consider her a sister? I was fostered with her parents; her name’s Iris and she was going to marry a guy named Eddie. He’s great; he’s also off looking for her, you know, it’s not like he isn’t but, you know, it’s my sister.”

Sara sighs and sits back up straight. Barry hadn’t noticed how close she’d come or how much she was leaning into his space until abruptly she wasn’t. “Yeah,” she says, shaking her head. “I know about sisters. My sister disappeared, too; she was one of the first. Her name’s Laurel, Laurel Lance, of the Lances of Starling City; our father’s the head of the knights there. Nearly a year ago, she was going to marry the prince of Starling, name of Oliver, do you know him?”

“The Queen’s son?” Barry says. “Uh, no, not really; he’s older than I am…mostly by reputation, to be honest…” Realizing how that sounded, particularly since he has heard about the Starling prince’s reputation for partying and infidelity and all those other things, he clears his throat, adding, “Uh, I mean, I didn’t – when I say reputation, I mean –”

Sara starts laughing. “No, no,” she says, giggling. “I know exactly what you mean, don’t lie.”

“He’s more my oldest brother’s age,” Barry says with a grin. “And they can’t stand each other – I think it’s a rule, only one narcissistic over-dramatic egotist per room…”

Sara laughs harder. She was beautiful before, in a strangely compelling way, but she looks better now, to Barry’s eyes: less seductively beautiful, perhaps, but prettier. It’s strange and Barry can’t quite describe the change, but the laughter seems to lighten her face up a lot. “Oh, so you have met Oliver!”

“I’m sure he’s nicer than he comes across!”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sara says, rolling her eyes. “You’re cute, you know that?”

“Um,” Barry says, abruptly realizing that she’d been hitting on him earlier.

“No, don’t worry, I’m not planning on seducing you anymore.”

“Oh thank god,” Barry says, then his eyes go wide. “I mean, not that you’re not great, I’m sure, but I really do want to find my sister, plus there’s this guy, although he might possibly be a legend, it’s kind of unclear –”

“Have you ever met Felicity Smoak?” Sara asks curiously. “She’s an aristocrat from Starling; I think you’d get along great.”

“I have met her,” Barry says, shaking his head. “And don’t think I don’t know what you’re saying; I’ve heard her reputation for babbling! But she’s one of the disappeared women, too.”

“She is?” Sara says, alarmed. “Who was she going to marry?”

Barry thinks back to his notes, going through them and – oh. Well, that’s awkward.

He coughs. “Oliver, prince of Starling, as it happens. Possibly on the rebound, I don’t know; she was one of the more recent disappearances, so it has been nearly a year, as you said.”

“Somehow I’m not as surprised as I feel I should be,” Sara says dryly. “And you said a koschei took them both?”

“Yeah, but that means they’d be in some sort of Palace of Delight –” Barry pauses. “Presumably together in the Palace of Delight.”

Sara cackles. “That’ll serve Oliver right,” she says, pleased. “I only wish I could help.”

“Well, if you want to help with the search –” Barry starts, but Sara’s already shaking her head.

“No can do, I’m afraid,” she says with a sigh. “I’m kind of stuck here.”

Barry frowns. “But if your sister was going to marry Oliver and your father was head of the knights there, you must have been from Starling, or at least visited it…”

“Oh, yeah, but that was then,” Sara says, grimacing. “And seriously, Barry, you’re a sweetheart, but also you’re also kind of an idiot. Hasn’t anyone told you not to talk to strange women standing by rivers?”

“Well, yeah,” Barry says, shrugging. “I heard the same stories growing up as everyone else. No talking to strange women near rivers or lakes because you never know, it could be a rusalka, come to drown unworthy men in revenge. What’s that got to do with it?”

Sara’s giving him a look like he’s an idiot.

Barry thinks about how she was just sitting there, calm and barefoot and miles away from the last sign of civilization in a wild forest next to a flooded river, how easily he left his horse behind and came to talk to her when he was in a hurry, how she slid up close to him and –

“You were going to drown me?” he exclaims, a little hurt. She’d seemed so nice.

“Well, I’m not going to drown you now,” the rusalka says crossly. “You’re looking for your sister and you’re not being all macho about who she’s dating, that’s at least two points in your favor.”

“Of course I’m not going to be macho about Eddie,” Barry retorts, crossing his arms in front of him and scooting away from her. “Eddie’s great, and Iris is a grown woman; she can pick whoever she likes to marry. Besides, he’ll let her start that writing career she’s always wanted, which I think is great. Is your name really Sara?”

“Yes, and it’s Sara Lance, too,” she replies, leaning back with a sigh. “Rusalka are drowned women returned to life, remember? I drowned out by the sea near Starling.”

“Aren’t rusalka drowned women who returned to life after being wronged by some man?” Barry asks, remembering the old stories. “That’s why you’re all, um –”

“Crazy homicidal against the male gender?” Sara drawls with a smirk. “As it happens, I was drowned while on a trip with a man – with Oliver, actually.”

Barry turns and gives Sara an incredulous look.

“It was a mistake!” she yelps. “I was pissed at Laurel; they were still courting back then – it’s complicated, okay?”

“Seriously, who is this guy?” Barry says, shaking his head. “If I knew someone who had had three women disappearing after dating him, I’d start suspecting him of being a serial killer.”

Sara snorts. “He probably is, though not in the way you think,” she says, rolling her eyes. “The birds tell me after I drowned, Oliver got all broody and serious and shit and set himself up as the judge, jury and executioner of Starling to ensure justice was done.”

“Isn’t Starling an oligarchy?” Barry says, frowning. “It’s ruled by its nobles, not its prince; it’s not an absolute monarchy or anything. He can’t just do that.”

“He didn’t really ask permission,” Sara says. “Anyway, his personal reinvention came right in time to help stop that earthquake curse a while back –”

“The dark magician who didn’t get invited to the Queen’s daughter’s birthday and cursed the city to come down on her eighteenth birthday? I heard.”

“I know! It’s so fairytale-esque; I’m almost jealous!”

“You’re a rusalka,” Barry feels the need to point out. “You are literally living a fairytale.”

“Oh, shut up,” Sara says, punching his arm. It’s clearly a light, friendly tap to her, but Barry clutches at his arm, fairly certain that he’s going to develop a bruise. He has zero doubt which one of them would win if she decided she was going to drown him anyway; good thing she’s changed her mind about it. “That’s the problem, though, you see – I drowned in the sea, and that’s the vodyanoi’s territory, you know.”

Barry shakes his head. “Seriously, this is getting to be too much,” he sighs. “First a koschei and then the domovoi, now a rusalka and a vodyanoi – seriously, this firebird feather is so much more trouble than it’s worth – ”

“You have a firebird feather?” Sara says. “Seriously? That’s kickass.”

“Thanks,” Barry replies. “I think that’s why I can see magical creatures now?”

“Oh, you’d be able to see me regardless, I’m meant to be seen, that’s how I do my business,” Sara says cheerfully, as if she isn’t talking about drowning people. “But it’s probably why you didn’t fall under my spell right away; the firebird feather’s already got you under its protection.”

“That’s…good?” Barry says cautiously. “Very good. I wouldn’t want to be under a rusalka’s spell. Uh, no offense meant.”

“None taken, it’s a bad place to be,” she says. “Now c’mon, make me a deal and I’ll get you and your horse across the river myself.”

“A deal?” Sara looked at Barry expectantly. “Oh, right, a deal! Magical creatures, rules, right, right. Sorry, I’m pretty new to this whole ‘believing you guys really exist’ business, much less to how to act when I meet you. Um…I will…um…”

“Trade you a trip across the river for a kiss,” she says, smirking and tossing her hair.

Barry narrows his eyes at her. “First, I’m sort of in love with someone already. Second, aren’t rusalka kisses deadly?”

“Only because they’re usually followed by strangulation and drowning!”

“Could you stop sounding so cheerful about that?!”

“Hey, it’s my job!” she says, crossing her arms. “I drowned in the sea, so I serve the vodyanoi now, and Ra’s Al Ghul is a bitter old frogman that’s lived for hundreds of years, reviving himself and his servants in his pits and sending us out to kill people for him.”

“Do you enjoy doing it?” Barry asks, curious.

Sara makes a face. “Well, no, not really, but by this point I’m in love with the vodyanoi’s daughter, so I figure I might as well make the best of it. At least until the vodyanoi tries to marry her off to someone.” She sighs. “Probably to Oliver, as the prince of the city nearest by his domain, and wouldn’t that just be ironic?”

“That would be terrible.”

“Still,” Sara says wistfully, “if I could only leave this river where he bound me, I’d go off to try to find Laurel, and that would be worth everything.”

“I wish I could help,” Barry says. He thinks about it. “Oh! Would a domovoi’s power help?”

“A domovoi?”

“Yeah, before I left, Cisco gave me this.” Barry holds up his wrist with the braided horse-hairs. One of the housemaids had helped him with it, which was good because Barry couldn’t braid to save his life. “He said it wouldn’t be able to help much, since he’s more powerful near households, but…”

Sara gapes at him. “Are you crazy?” she demands. “You’re on a quest! You got a quest item! You’re, like, what, a day in and you’re already going to give it away?”

“I just thought that it might help!”

“Oh for the love of – fine, fine, let me take a look.”

Barry offers her his wrist and Sara examines it with a little frown. “Actually,” she says slowly. “This might actually work. A domovoi is mostly powerful at the seat of his power, that’s true, but where one domovoi bestows favor, others might as well. If I can get close enough to a house, and there’s plenty of those not far from the river, I could use their power to escape the vodyanoi’s grasp before he even realizes what’s going on. But Barry, if I take this, you won’t be able to rely on it later in your quest, you realize, and you’re trading it away for what? Crossing a river that you could find a bridge for anyway?”

“Well, keep in mind that my ‘quest’ here is to find my sister and the other missing girls,” Barry points out. “And you said that if you could escape the vodyanoi, you’d go look for your sister, who’s one of the missing girls, and I’m willing to take any help I can get. So how about the deal is, I’ll give you my bracelet so that you can escape the vodyanoi and, in return, you’ll help me find the missing girls by whatever means you can, including helping me cross this river and going off to find them on your own?”

Sara’s face splits with a broad smile, human and honest and entirely unlike what she was using earlier when she was trying to reel him in. “That’s a good one, I like it!” she says, nodding. “Best of all, if the vodyanoi or his daughter come after me and get me in a corner, I can say that I was compelled by a magical contract, and everyone knows how fundamental those are. Let’s call it a deal.”

“Deal,” Barry says, smiling. Sara really is very nice, even if she is a murderous rusalka. He pulls the bracelet off and hands it to her.

She slips it onto her wrist and grins. “Now go get on your horse and come to the water,” Sara orders, hopping into the river herself. She stands there, easy as anything, as if the flooding waters aren’t violently rushing down from the mountains at a speed that would knock a horse on its side.

Barry shakes his head and goes to get on his horse. He gently nudges it forward towards the water.

Sara reaches forward and grabs the reins, pulling the horse with her through the river, and everywhere they walk the water is as quiet as a still pond and shallow enough that Barry’s feet are only barely brushing the water, even when they pass by the very center of the river.

Barry waits until they get to the other side, not wanting to disturb Sara’s concentration, but once they’re there, he turns to her with a grin and tells her, “That was so cool!”

Sara looks up at him and shakes her head. “It didn’t even occur to you for a second that I’d double-cross you and drown you anyway, did it?” she says, then laughs. “You’re something special, Barry. Good luck on your quest!”

With that, she dives into the river and is abruptly gone – Barry can’t even see a shape under the water, just the water itself.

Magic is the coolest thing ever. He just met a rusalka!

Whistling to himself – Len’s jaunty little tune, which Barry has gotten thoroughly stuck in his head by this point even if he still doesn’t know the words – he urges his horse onwards.

The path is easier after that: he’s still picking through wild forest, but as he goes up and down the hills he starts to see signs of human occupation again, a bit of chimney smoke here and there, a half-cut woodpile or some markings on the trees, which is frankly a relief after the depths of the forest.

He does end up sleeping outside that night, but it’s warm and dry and pleasant. Barry’s been on overland trips before; he knows it’s not always going to be this pleasant, particularly since he’s on horseback and alone, but he figures he’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

The next morning he studies his maps and heads in the direction he thinks the alchemist’s tower should be. Barry has to admit he’s curious about meeting an alchemist. Unlike magical creatures, alchemists are purely human.

They’re just…weird.

After all, you have to be a bit weird to devote your life to studying arcane subjects like magic and transmutation. As a rule, so-called “proper” scientists like King Harrison can’t stand them, so Barry has never met one. They certainly weren’t invited to the Star exhibition at Central, though Barry has no doubt that a handful of dabblers in alchemy would be coming by anyway. Real alchemists, though, are supposed to be devoted to their craft and wouldn’t take time off to go look at a scientific exhibition.

Cisco assured Barry that Ray would be there, anyway.

Barry sees the tower over the crest of the next hill. He’s pretty sure it’s the right one for two main reasons:

First, it looks like an alchemist’s tower: made of stone and steel, a single tower rising up from the ground without a surrounding castle or house, smoke spewing from the top and what appears to be some sort of mechanical device at the very top. It almost looks like a watchtower, except for the fact that the river is likely the closest body of water to it.

Second, it has PALMER written in large letters at the very top of it, as if someone were uncertain if they would find it again without a proper labeling system.

Barry shakes his head. He really hopes this Ray Palmer person is as friendly as Cisco claimed he was.

He urges the horse forward, eager to make some progress. He finds a dirt road not far out of his way and trots along that for a while, keeping his eyes on the tower as his guide.

Barry’s still about twenty minutes out from the steadily growing tower – it’s really large – when he sees scuffed footprints on the ground and hears a low voice cursing somewhere not that far away.

Barry pauses, looks longingly towards the tower – it’s so close! – but turns his horse towards the voice. Whoever it is sounds upset, and the footprints seem to indicate that there was some sort of fight or disturbance before they left the path. They might be in trouble and need help.

The horse picks its way through the trees and the voice gets louder, and then Barry makes his way around a large oak and he’s in a clearing.

There’s a trap at the other edge of the clearing, a big net with five points pinning it down after it fell down from the trees; the line is weighted and the net itself glistens with the shine of steel. It’s a good trap, large enough to catch a horse. It has not, however, caught a horse.

It’s caught the firebird.

Barry gapes at it for a long moment, totally set back on his heels in utter disbelief. What the hell is it even doing here? What are the chances that of all the things to be caught in the first trap Barry comes across, it’s the firebird he’s nominally searching for?

Barry hops nimbly off his horse and ties it to the oak tree before walking out into the clearing.

The firebird – and it’s the same one that he encountered in the orchard, no doubt about it; Barry’s not going to forget those arms any time soon – takes one look at Barry and goes, “What the hell are you even doing here?”

“I was just thinking that about you,” Barry says, scowling at him. “You’ve just very effectively messed up all of my plans, you know.”

I messed up your plans by – what, getting trapped by this stupid fucking net?” the firebird asks, astonished. “You have got to be kidding me. How did I mess up your plans? What plans did you have that involved me anyway?”

“Technically, I’m looking for you,” Barry says with a sigh. “My father ordered me to find you.”

“Your father ordered – oh, crap, kid, you told your dad about me? What are you, twelve?”

Barry crosses his arms. “I needed to get out of the city for something important, and he wouldn’t let me go because he wanted me to stay for the stupid exhibition. But when I told him about you and showed him the feather, he let me go on a quest to find you. The plan was to go do the other thing then come back and say I couldn’t find you, except now I’ve found you.”

The firebird glares at him through the netting. “Okay, A,” he holds up a finger, “it is not my fault that you make bad life choices, and B,” he holds up a second finger, “have you ever considered, oh, I don’t know, lying?”

Barry makes a face. “I’m a terrible liar,” he says glumly. “Especially where my father is concerned.”

“Uh-huh,” the firebird says, voice dripping with skepticism. “Really.”

“Yes, really. You know King Harrison of the Deep Wells?”

“Guy in charge of Central, yeah.”

He’s my father.”

The firebird blinks, looking almost owlish as his anger fades away for a moment. “Wow, that is bad luck,” he says, then scowls again. “Wait, are you telling me you showed a firebird feather to the scientist-king of Central? What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“It got me out of the city!”

“It’s gonna get me dissected, you fucking idiot!”

“I’m not going to let you get dissected, don’t be absurd,” Barry says, though now that the firebird mentions it, it does seem like a thing his father would do. Also Eobard, and possibly Hunter as well…and all those scientists that had come by for the exhibition…“Listen, do you want help getting out of that net or not?”

“Not in exchange for delivering myself to your father, I don’t! I’ll do without the help of some dimwitted little –”

“Is it a magical ability of yours to go deaf every time I talk?” Barry snaps, starting to lose his temper. He normally prides himself on being pretty calm, but the firebird’s constant stream of insults is not helping. “I just said I’m not going to turn you over to my father!”

The firebird goes quiet. “What, really?” he says skeptically.

Barry, who had honestly thought he would if he could but couldn’t see himself handing any person – magical creature or not – over to the sort of experiments his father was cackling over before he left, groans and sits down. “Well, not if he’s going to try to dissect you,” he mutters. “Maybe I can just let you go and say you got away?”

“You should definitely do that,” the firebird says encouragingly. “Go on now, let me out of here.”

Barry glares. “That wasn’t a deal offer, and even if it was, I revoke the offer.”

“You’ve gotten better at this,” the firebird observes.

“Yeah, well, your feather apparently comes with the ability to bump into magical creatures every five minutes,” Barry tells him.

The firebird smirks.

“You knew that would happen!” Barry exclaims. “You jackass!”

“It’s been known to happen,” the firebird allows. “Now will you make a deal to let me out of here or not? I want to get out of this net before the alchemist finds out I’m here.”

Barry frowns. “Will that be bad?”

“Very bad,” the firebird says darkly. “I don’t particularly want to be in his clutches, either.”

Well, there goes the plan of “just tell the alchemist the firebird is here and hope he keeps him around for a while.”

Barry sighs. He can’t in good conscience let the firebird get captured and tormented for scientific reasons.

“Okay,” he says, shaking his head. “Let’s make a deal, I guess. You need to be let out of the trap and I’ll be happy to do it, but in return…um…”

The firebird crosses his arms and gives him a look.

“Give me a minute, I’m thinking!”

“I’m at the mercy of a blithering idiot,” the firebird moans. “Someone who can’t even keep his mouth shut about a firebird feather despite explicitly being told not to mention it around.”

“Yeah, yeah, you and the domovoi,” Barry says, rolling his eyes. “I’ve gotten this lecture already a few times now.”

“Wait, you got told by me and a domovoi not to do a thing and then you did it anyway? What sort of moron are you?”

“I said, I already got the lecture, okay!” Barry says, glaring at the firebird. “I don’t need it from you, especially since you still need my help right now. Got it?”

The firebird rolls his eyes, which now appear to be brown, not gold. “I will bet money that you’re single.”

“I’ll have you know that I have a perfectly nice – well, perfect, anyway – I have a great guy back home that I would probably be dating right now if –”

“Hah! Probably! You know almost only counts in horseshoes, right?”

Barry scowls at him.

“What was so important that you needed to get out of Central for, anyway?” the firebird asks.

“I’m hunting down the koschei who’s been stealing brides right before their weddings,” Barry says. “He took my sister in all but blood, and I couldn’t just stick around at a stupid party while she might be in trouble. How about that for a deal? I’ll let you go if you help me out with that.” It worked with the rusalka, after all, and it seems fair enough, plus it’ll keep the firebird with him so that he can at least pretend to his father that he tried to get him back to Central. Maybe they could stage some sort of escape attempt near the walls if his father looks to be a bit too scientific-minded about studying the firebird…

“Fuck no,” the firebird says. “Not a chance in hell.”

“What?” Barry exclaims. “Why not? I’ll let you go after we finish the quest; you won’t get turned over to anyone.”

“Don’t care.”

“You know, I’m pretty sure this isn’t how getting mystical favors for rescuing magical creatures works.”

“I don’t care. I’m not going anywhere near the koschei’s palace until I’m properly equipped to do it,” the firebird says haughtily.

Barry frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I’ve got to complete some quests of my own before I can approach the koschei’s palace,” the firebird says grimly. “You can’t take one of them on just like that, you know! These palaces are like roach traps: you go in, you don’t come out.”

“You’re planning on taking on the koschei?” Barry asks, fascinated. The stories never mentioned that magical creatures also sometimes went on quests, and certainly not alone. As a companion, maybe. “You’re planning on breaking into the koschei’s palace?”

The firebird scowls. “There’s something there I want,” he says stiffly.

“Something or someone?”

“Well, it’s certainly none of your business,” the firebird says, which Barry interprets to mean that he was right and it’s definitely someone who’s been taken. A lady firebird, perhaps? Maybe a beautiful maiden? That doesn’t seem to jibe with the stolen girls all being unmarried brides, but who knows, maybe the firebird had been planning on getting married, or maybe it was a more platonic affection, like Barry’s for Iris.

“Okay,” Barry says. “In that case I’ll let you go.”

“In exchange for what?” the firebird says suspiciously.

“You keep going with your quests to face the koschei and I’ll go on mine,” Barry says. “I want the girls who have been kidnapped and held in the koschei’s palace to be rescued; I don’t care who does it.”

“That isn’t a favor! I was gonna to do that anyway.”

“Listen, do you want me to let you out of this net or not?!”

“Fine,” the firebird says, sulking. “I’ll keep going on my quests in exchange for you letting me out, which may be the stupidest deal I’ve ever made.”

Barry rolls his eyes and gets up. The firebird has got to be the least magical of all the things he’s encountered, for all that it has the reputation of being the most magical of magical creatures.

Barry examines the net. It’s large and tough, but there has to be a way to undo it; he’s been studying it for the last few minutes and he thinks he sees it. There are five points on the net – if they’re all released at once, the entire trap should unravel, releasing the firebird. Of course, if they’re not released at once, the net will only get more tangled.

Though, to be specific, they don’t actually have to be released at once. They just have to be released close enough in time to be virtually the same as being at once.

Barry grins and focuses on the feather hanging on his chest.

The world slows down and he darts forward, unhooking each portion of the net as he goes by it, the previously unhooked portions frozen where he leaves them, moving so slowly through the air it’s as if they’re standing still.

He comes to a halt in front of the firebird just as the entire net collapses.

The firebird unravels itself and stands to his full height, which is about the same as Barry’s, actually. “You got super-speed?” he says, sounding interested. “Now that’s a useful one.”

“Huh, so you really don’t know what people get?” Barry asks, pulling out one of the energy bars Caitlin had instructed the kitchen to make for him and which he’d shoved in his pocket earlier. He’s hungry already.

“No, I don’t. It depends on the human, really.”

“So me getting super-speed is literally the universe’s way of joking about how late I am to everything,” Barry says, shaking his head. “Somehow I’m unsurprised; that does seem to be my life.”

The firebird shrugs. “Could be about how quick you are,” he offers, looking at Barry contemplatively. Barry’s surprised he hasn’t made a break for it yet.

“I don’t suppose you could tell me where the koschei’s palace is?” Barry asks, figuring that he might as well see if he can get something from the firebird before he leaves. “If you still wanted to repay me for the help, that’d be good enough for me.”

“No,” the firebird says. “I think I’ve got a better idea. You want to save the girlies, right? That’s why you’re looking for the palace?”

“Yeah,” Barry says cautiously. “What about it?”

“Well, what use is finding the palace if you can’t get yourself in or them out?” the firebird says, suddenly smiling toothily. It’s slightly intimidating. “How about this – you come with me on my quests and help me out, three of them, and in return I’ll give you a hand breaking into the palace, how’s that?”

“I can’t delay by going on a bunch of quests –”

“With your speed, they won’t take all that long,” the firebird says. “And you don’t know shit on how to stop or even distract a koschei. I, however, do.”

Barry bites his lip, thinking about it. He really doesn’t have enough information: the old stories never seemed to have the koschei get defeated through normal means. Usually it was a magic gift, which Barry doesn’t have, or some lucky reason the koschei had to go away, leaving an opening for the brave hero to steal his lover back. And Cisco, however helpful, didn’t know of any way to defeat a koschei either; he could only share stories of their fearsome power. “Have you been there?” he asks. “Are the girls safe?”

“Yeah, I’ve cased the place a couple of times,” the firebird says. “They’re fine. A bit pissy – one of ‘em tried to scale the walls to try to get out while I was there and of course the wards wouldn’t let her, but it was a decent attempt.”

Barry snickers. That sounds like something Iris would do. “You swear you’re telling the truth?”

“I swear. The girls are fine, other than them being stuck in the palace. Now can we get on with it?” the firebird says impatiently.

“Okay,” Barry says, nodding. “I agree to work with you on your quests and then you’ll help me break into the koschei’s palace, but –” The firebird scowls. “– only after I get confirmation that they’re okay.”

“Fine,” the firebird says and holds out a hand. “Deal.”

Barry shakes it. He’s surprised by how warm it is, how pleasant, though perhaps he shouldn’t be when he’s dealing with a man bedecked with feathers that flicker like flame. The wings aren’t in full evidence now: he seems more man-like, his skin patterned with feathers up and down his shoulders, back and chest like some beautiful design that’s been seared onto his flesh. Every once in a while his shoulders ripple and actual feathers seem to rise up out of his skin for a moment, the design becoming real. He’s still barefoot, still shirtless, but the beautiful cape of glowing feathers is hidden away somehow.

“My name’s Barry,” Barry offers, releasing the firebird’s hand.

“Good for you,” the firebird says.

It did not occur to Barry until this moment that he might’ve signed up to go questing with the world’s most annoying misanthrope.

“What’s your name?” he asks patiently. “I can’t just keep thinking of you as ‘the firebird’; it gets too unwieldly even in my head.”

The firebird grunts, then shakes his head. “Mick,” he finally says.

Barry blinks. “I’m sorry?”

“My name,” the firebird says, scowling at him. “Mick. It’s my name.”

“…the mysterious and mystical firebird is named Mick?”

“Trust me, it’s better than what it’s short for,” the firebird – Mick, apparently – says grimly.

Barry thinks about that and shrugs. He can sympathize with that. “Can’t fault you for that. My full name’s Bartholomew, and only my oldest brother calls me that, and he only does it to piss me off.”

“Everyone I know has a terrible name,” Mick says. “You should’ve heard my old partner’s, his was awful.”

Barry’s about to ask about it, pleased that they seem to have found a shared subject to discuss without rancor, but a second after he speaks, a pained expression flickers across Mick’s face. Barry’s seen that expression on his father’s face when he mentions their mother, or on Joe’s these days when he speaks of Iris. Someone Mick loved who’s gone, then, and near enough that it’s still a sensitive subject.

“So, what’s our plan regarding the koschei?” Barry asks instead, and pretends not to see the relief on Mick’s face.

“Well, you want confirmation that the girls are safe before we go questing, right?” Mick says. Barry nods. “We should probably go ask Palmer for that.”

“Palmer?” Barry asks, frowning. “Ray Palmer? The alchemist? I thought you were afraid of him?”

“I’m not afraid of him,” Mick says, shooting Barry a quick glare. “I just prefer to be free and clear when I meet him so that I can exit when he starts – well, you’ll see. He does this thing.”

“A thing?”

Mick nods, unhelpfully not adding anything else.

“Right,” Barry says, shaking his head. The great and mystical firebird, ladies and gentlemen. Whatever illusions of grandeur Barry might’ve had have been very thoroughly popped.

Luckily his favorite fairy tale figure more than exceeded his legend.

Barry can’t help a smile at the thought of Len. Maybe Mick will agree to help him find Len after they’re done, or at least give him some tips.

“Oi, speedy!” Mick calls, already standing by Barry’s horse. “You coming or not?”

“Yes, yes, I’m coming!”

Barry jogs over and climbs on his horse. Mick looks at the horse with a dissatisfied eye.

“I can go slowly if you like?” Barry offers.

“Nah, I’ll ride with you,” Mick says. “The tower’s close enough.”

Barry’s eyebrows shoot up at the thought of the big man climbing onto and then promptly squashing his poor horse. “Uh, I don’t think that’s such a good idea…”

Mick hops up on the horse behind Barry without any apparent difficulties.

“…or maybe it’ll be no problem at all,” Barry concludes, blinking. “I didn’t realize this horse could take that much weight.”

“I’m half bird,” Mick says, rolling his eyes. “I can be more bird or less whenever I want, and right now I want me some hollow bone structure.”

“That is so cool,” Barry says. “Tell me, how does it work?”

“I have no idea.”

“You must have some idea…how does it feel like when your bones shift weight and mass?”

“Heavy.”

Ugh, why are you this frustrating?”

“Practice?”

Barry grumbles the rest of the way to the tower. There are gates, though they’re open. Barry rides right through, figuring that an alchemist who owns such a tower would surely have defenses or some sort of security measures.

It’s not until after they arrive at the door that Mick starts snickering.

“What?” Barry asks.

“Breaking and entering, not bad,” Mick says with amusement.

“I didn’t – wait – the gates were open!”

“Which is why it’s only ‘not bad’ rather than good.”

Barry rolls his eyes. “I’m clearly going to have to keep an eye on my wallet around you.”

Mick looks disturbingly flattered.

Barry ties the horse to the door and they head inside the open doorway to the tower; Mick walks ahead as if he knows the layout of this place. Barry wonders if Mick’s tried to rob it. For a mystical creature, he seems to have quite a criminal bent.

A dizzying number of turns and frankly unnecessary doors – even Mick is rolling his eyes – later, they end up in a large, circular room with a tall man bent over a microscope, muttering something to himself. He looks like he’s as tall as Barry and broader, but not nearly as broad as Mick. Barry’s pleased, if somewhat disappointed, to see that he’s wearing the same sort of pants and shirt and vest that you could find on any minor noble or moderately well-off merchant. He’d kind of been hoping for grand, magical-looking robes.

He glances at Mick’s still slightly feathered shoulders and wonders if he’s becoming jaded.

Barry’s also wondering how you introduce yourself to a clearly preoccupied alchemist when Mick walks into the room and announces, “You’ve got too many fucking doors.”

Barry sighs.

Travelling with the firebird is not going to be anything remotely fairytale-like, he can tell already. God, what a pest.

Palmer looks up and blinks owlishly at the two of them, then beams. “Oh, Mick! It’s so good to see you! How’ve you been? You’re not injured again, are you? No, I can see you aren’t…can I get you something to eat? Maybe something to drink? Oh, and you’ve brought a friend, how great!” He leaps out of his chair, rushes over, grabs Barry’s hand and pumps it a few times. “So nice to meet you. I’m Ray Palmer – please, call me Ray. Any friend of Mick’s is a friend of mine – let me grab you some coffee, oh, and I think I have some biscuits left over from earlier…” He smiles distractedly at the two of them, then makes a beeline to one of the many cabinets lining the room.

Barry turns, very pointedly, and stares at Mick, who doesn’t even have the decency to look ashamed. “That’s the guy you didn’t want to be in the clutches of?”

“Yes!” Mick hisses back vehemently. “He’s doing the thing.”

“What thing? Being nice?”

“Yes!”

“You’re kidding me,” Barry says, but Mick looks honestly disturbed.

At that point, Ray returns with a plate with some various types of pastries and a pot of coffee, which Barry certainly isn’t going to complain about. “Sorry if I’m a bit hyper,” Ray says apologetically. “It’s just that I had this absolutely wonderful idea last night on what to do with the new alloy I found, and –”

“You couldn’t put it down and you’ve been mainlining coffee again,” Mick concludes. “You’re getting predictable, Haircut.”

Barry’s already got a cheese-and-berry pastry halfway in his mouth, but he does glance surreptitiously up at Ray at Mick’s comment.

Huh. Ray does have a weird haircut. It’s very…stylized.

Barry self-consciously runs his fingers through his own hair.

“– and I just get really into things, you know that,” Ray is saying dismissively, still smiling broadly. “Now, introduce me to your friend.”

Mick crosses his arms. “We’re not friends.”

“Don’t worry,” Ray stage-whispers to Barry. “That’s what he says about me, too.”

Barry eyes Mick, who looks like he’s contemplating homicide, thinks about Mick’s behavior up until this point, and decides he likes Ray. Ray seems like a perfectly nice, if somewhat exuberant, guy, and also Mick is a jerk. Barry accordingly grins back and says, “Oh, yeah, that’s our Mick, all right, always covering up his real feelings.”

Mick gapes at him. “Covering up –”

“Oh?” Ray says interestedly. “You think so?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Barry says with every ounce of sincerity he can muster. “You know how he is, he can’t admit that he cares about anyone, no matter how close they really are. He has issues related to his childhood, you know.”

Mick is spluttering in fury and Ray looks delighted. “You know, I always thought so,” he confides in Barry. “He’s so closed off sometimes, you know?”

“Oh, I get you entirely,” Barry says, clapping Ray on the shoulder amiably. “Take it from someone who knows: you just need to be persistent. Love and kindness, that’s the ticket; the more the better. He just needs someone to show him he’s loved, no matter how much he likes to complain about it.”

Mick is actually sparking flames off his bare shoulders at this point, opening and closing his mouth. Mute with rage. Barry’s smile broadens.

Take that, asshole.

“That’s so good to hear,” Ray replies. “Have you been friends long?”

“Oh, I’ve known him a while now – say, do you have any more of these pastries?” Barry asks, since he’s finished three already. “They’re delicious.”

“Oh, sure, plenty!” Ray says, beaming. “I’ll go grab some from the kitchen.”

Ray dashes out of the room and Mick turns to Barry, hands spread in disbelief or possibly contemplated strangulation. One of his eyes is twitching.

“Want some coffee?” Barry says sweetly.

“You’re a dick. What the hell was that? I thought I made it clear that I hate that touchy feely shit.”

“Well, you’ve been so incredibly nice to me so far,” Barry replies with a shrug and a smirk. “I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t want to be as helpful as possible.”

“So, what, you’re just going to try to piss me off at every turn because I was a little rude?”

“A little rude?” Barry hisses, straightening in his chair abruptly in offense. “You’ve been an unredeemable jackass at every possible turn. Now, unless you want me to tell Ray here about how your mother didn’t hug you enough as a kid and he should really start taking up the slack, I’d promise to be nicer in the future if I were you. You make me believe it and I’ll think about forgetting to mention it.”

Mick snarls at him. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“I have two older brothers who I thoroughly dislike,” Barry says dryly. “You don’t really want to get into a contest with me as to who can be the more annoying because, trust me, I’ll win.”

A strange expression goes over Mick’s face and he shakes his head, starting to calm down. “My old partner would’ve loved you.”

Barry’s eyebrows shoot up. “What, he actually liked hugs?”

Mick looks deeply taken aback for a second, then bursts out laughing until he’s nearly curled up on himself. “No,” he gasps. “Not really.”

Barry can’t help but smile at Mick’s amusement, which is so heartfelt as to be automatically contagious. “Then what?”

Mick sits up, wiping his eyes. “He would’ve appreciated you threatening me with sheer awkwardness. Very outside the box, yet very effective. Well played, slick, well played. Fuck, I haven’t laughed that hard in ages.”

Barry grins. “So, truce?”

“You got yourself a deal, slick. Also, if you ever try to hug me, I will burn you alive.”

“So noted,” Barry says, suppressing a smile. He’s starting to get the feeling that Mick was all talk in his violent, cynical misanthropy. Maybe Ray doesn’t have the wrong idea after all.

Ray returns with a tray with a giant heaping pile of pastries, which Barry approves of entirely. Ray is clearly good people.

Even if he is a little oblivious of social cues.

“Here you go,” Ray announces, setting the tray down. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I caught your name…?”

“Barry,” Barry supplies, holding his hand out to shake again, which Ray obliges. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. Mick tells me you’re an alchemist.”

“That’s right,” Ray says enthusiastically. “I started out as a scientist, really, but I’m interested in the sort of transmutational effects that can only be developed after a thorough study of the alchemical properties of matter.”

“Oh?” Barry asks, mildly curious and eager to discuss virtually any subject other than his entirely fictional long-standing friendship with Mick. Luckily, he knows how to deal with scientists. “Tell me, what project are you currently focusing on?”

It’s like magic.

Ray talks for a good five minutes straight about a particular brand of alchemy that he’s interested in, something to do with changing a person’s size or matter reinterpretation or something like that. After the first minute, Mick’s shoulders start to droop in evident boredom. After the fourth minute, he finally snatches a pastry from where Barry is putting a sizeable dent in the pile and sullenly starts gnawing on it.

Barry congratulates himself on effectively discovering whether firebirds eat people food.

“…but I’m probably boring you,” Ray concludes, a good few minutes too late. “Anyway, you didn’t come here to talk about my research! How can I help you guys out?”

“Slick here wants to look at the palace,” Mick says, jerking his thumb at Barry. “Then he’s gonna help me out on my quests.”

Ray blinks and turns a somewhat insultingly incredulous stare at Barry.

“What?” Barry asks, shifting slightly in his chair. People usually look at him like that when he’s made a bad decision.

“You must be very good friends with Mick,” Ray says, sounding impressed. “I mean, I offered to go with him on principle – he said no – but not only did he agree to take you, you actually agreed.”

Barry hesitates and glances at Mick, who is studying the blank stone ceiling intently and avoiding Barry’s gaze.

Crap.

“What exactly did I just sign myself up for?” he asks, starting to get a little alarmed. “Mick said he’d help me break into the koschei’s palace if I could help him get the things he needs to defeat the koschei.”

“And I’ll do it, too,” Mick says. “None of that was a lie.”

“Yes,” Ray says gently. “But did you tell Barry what your quests were?”

Mick looks very near to squirming. He crosses his arms over his chest defensively. “Didn’t see why it was relevant.”

“Mick,” Barry says warningly, eyes starting to narrow, and feeling unaccountably hurt that Mick tricked him into something instead of just asking him up front.

Mick actually flinches, which surprises Barry. Apparently, contrary to all appearances, he knows what guilt is. “The quests aren’t the most straightforward is all,” he says, staring at the ground, now. “We’ve got to get a set of goggles from the workshop of the Sun, a coat from the Walrus Collective down in its underwater caverns, and, um, the Ice Queen’s scepter. That’s all.”

“That’s all?!” Barry cries out, jumping to his feet. “Are you insane?”

“That’s what I said,” Ray says. “I can’t figure out why he needs them, either.”

“There’s only one way to stop a koschei for good,” Mick says. “I need these three items to do it, okay? Otherwise they’ll just keep going. They’re called the Deathless for a reason.” He turns and glares at Barry. “Even if you do succeed in rescuing all your girls – and that sister of yours – you can’t tell me a goody two-shoes like you’ll be okay with him just keeping on with it as long as it’s not your country’s women involved!”

Barry deflates at that. Of course he wouldn’t be okay with other people suffering like that. He scowls at Mick, who – damn him – has a good point. “How plausible are these quests?” Barry asks Mick, slumping back down into his seat. “Do you actually think we can do it?”

Mick grins somewhat wolfishly. “Well, now that I have you with me, it’s much more likely to work.”

“But – the workshop of the Sun?” Barry says skeptically. “Is that even a real place?”

“Sure it is,” Mick says. “That’s why I’m going on this quest myself instead of waiting for some poor human schmuck to get recruited by fate to do it; I know where all the places are and I know how to get them. It’s getting the items that’s going to be the problem. I hate pulling heists on my own.”

“Wait, heists?”

Chapter Text

“I cannot believe you.”

“You met me while I was robbing you!” Mick exclaims, keeping his voice hushed in deference to Ray, who is politely attempting to pretend he can’t hear them. “Why the hell do you keep thinking the best of me?”

Barry throws his hands up in frustration. “I don’t know, every once in a while you seem to be something other than a total shit, but apparently that’s just me deluding myself!”

“Why is this the thing you’re getting all up in arms about?” Mick hisses back. “So we need to lift some items, so what?”

“I wasn’t expecting to join a criminal enterprise, damnit! You called it a quest!”

“It is a quest – my quest! And I’m a thief! A criminal! I take things that don’t belong to me! Get it through your goddamn head!”

“Well, I’m not!”

“Well, I don’t care,” Mick says. “You made a deal with me and you’re stuck with it whether you like it or not.”

“Humans aren’t bound by deals the same way magical creatures are,” Barry points out, still steaming.

Mick’s eyes flicker from muddy brown back to bright gold. “No, humans aren’t bound by deals,” he says pleasantly, leaning forward. “But if you break a deal with me, I will rip open your belly and eat your fucking heart, you got me?”

“Oh, I wasn’t planning on breaking the deal,” Barry snaps, too angry to be intimidated. “Just pointing out that for humans, you wouldn’t be stuck with a deal that you got me into under false pretenses.”

“Well, humans have never had the most fulsome understanding of contract magic anyway,” Mick says dismissively.

“Can’t we just ask for the items? We’re trying to defeat a koschei and even other magical creatures seem to think a koschei is bad news, surely they would be reasonable –”

No, princeling! If we could just ask, we’d just ask, but no one’ll give us the stuff we need just for asking, I can guarantee you that.”

“What about these – what’s the first thing you listed, goggles? Seriously? No one will lend us goggles from a workshop? They’ve got to have tons of spares!”

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Mick jeers. “Except for the fact that they’re magically enhanced artefacts and it takes forever to make new ones, so the only time they give them up is if you’re willing to swear yourself to a minimum one year of service to the workshop. You wanna do that, kid?”

“Well – no, I don’t –”

“Yeah, I don’t want to do the work, either.”

“Because I’m trying to rescue people, you jackass!”

“Yeah, that, too,” Mick says, leaning back in his chair. “You’re staying in, then? Heists and all?”

“Yeah, I’m in,” Barry says grumpily. “We still have the same goals, even if you’re an unmitigated asshole.”

“Good, so we’re settled. You done fluffing your feathers at me? Can we get on with it?”

"Well, I'm still not going on any quest with you till I get confirmation that Iris is okay," Barry says stubbornly.

"Oh, I can help with that!" Ray chirps, abandoning any pretense that he wasn't listening and looking deeply relieved. "I developed a farseeing device that transmits images from one place to another, provided that devices are set up on both ends. It's one of the reasons I'm out here this far, actually."

"To test it?"

"Er, no, actually. To get away from my younger brother Sydney; he wanted to sell it to armies. I'd developed a rather successful merchant business selling my inventions to regular people, you see, and he was keen to move it into, ah, he called it…"

"A more respectable sector?" Barry says, shaking his head.

"That's exactly what he said, yes! How did you know?"

"I have a brother in the army as well," Barry tells him and they share a smile. "So how do we get the other end of the device to the koschei's palace?"

"We don't need to – Mick's done it already," Ray replies. "Put it right on one of the trees. He's having me watch it to make sure none of the girls get hurt."

Barry's eyebrows rise a little involuntarily. He glances over at Mick, who crosses his arms in front of him.

“That wasn’t the reason, Haircut,” he says testily. “Just wanted to see if anything changed is all.”

“What could possibly change?” Ray asks, frowning. “It’s a Palace of Delight. Anyway, when you asked me to keep an eye on them, you explicitly said –”

“I know what I said! You don’t have to repeat it for everyone to hear!”

Barry shakes his head. Mick keeps confusing him - one minute he's an uncaring bastard, tricking Barry into things he’d never have signed up for if he’d heard it all out, but the next one he's trying to hide the fact that he was worried about the girls and set up measures for their protection. Barry shoots another glance over to where Mick is sulking. Huh. "So I can take a look?"

"Sure, I'll set it up."

Barry trails after Ray as he starts fussing around with some equipment. "So who's running your business if you're here? You can't have left it to your brother…"

"No, I gave the business to a…" Ray colors a little. "Very dear friend of mine. She's been running it ever since my untimely demise."

"Your…?"

"Oh, everyone at home thinks I'm dead. Total accident, but very convenient."

Apparently Barry should count his blessings with his family – they drive him nuts, sure, but he's never been inclined to fake his own death to escape them.

"Ah, here it goes!"

Sure enough, an image was forming on the low circular unit. A beautiful park, with flowering trees and bushes and marble benches, filled with women dressed in gorgeous dresses of gold and silver and vivid colors of every sort, draped in gems beyond description. And one of those women is Iris!

"Can I talk to her?" Barry asks, transfixed. Iris is talking avidly to a pale brunette dressed all in rich black, who is nodding and waving her hands excitedly.

"No, unfortunately, it’s just visuals - is that Felicity?!" Ray exclaims, leaning forward and pointing to a perky looking blonde sitting next to them in a chair. "Why didn't anyone tell me she was gone?!"

"Felicity Smoak? Yes, she disappeared not that long ago -"

"I should do something!"

"No, you should stay put," Mick says, having come up behind them. "You won't get any further against the koschei than any of those other heroes. Look, she's fine, see?"

"Yes, but -" Ray starts, looking distraught.

"No, Haircut. Just leave it to me, okay?"

"We'll take care of it," Barry says, putting a hand on Ray's shoulder. "Don't worry, okay? You just keep an eye on the girls."

"If you're sure…"

"We've got it covered," Barry assures him with more confidence than he feels. He knows exactly what Ray is going through - he wants nothing more than to rush over to the palace now to find Iris - but as much as he hates to admit it, Mick is right. They need to deal with the koschei first.

Huh. Maybe that’s why Mick was so eager to trick Barry into making the deal with him. Traditionally, princes in the fairytales aren’t all that good at being patient when their goal is right in front of them. Maybe Mick doesn’t have that much experience with people being willing to help him because it’s the right thing to do, rather than because they have to.

It would explain his mania for making deals.

It occurs to Barry that in all the stories he’s heard, the firebird is usually the object of the quest or sometimes the companion and later object of the quest, constantly desired but rarely consulted. Mick must have had to deal with plenty of princes deciding that they could win fame and fortune with his desirable feathers. A life like that could very well lead to the sort of cynicism Mick seems to exhibit all the time.

Well, it’s up to people like Ray and Barry to show him that not everybody is going to screw him over the second they can.

“C’mon, Mick,” Barry says, shoulders relaxing and giving Mick a smile, which seems to freak Mick out more than anything he’s done so far. “Let’s go on our way.”

He pauses.

“Uh, which way are we going?”

It turns out the workshop of the Sun isn’t at the ends of the earth or east of the Moon or something bizarre like that. It’s in the mountains right behind Ray’s tower.

“Are you kidding me?” Barry asks even as Ray’s jaw drops. “The Sun can’t be based in these mountains! They’re – they’re in the middle of the country!”

“Technically, Central is the middle of the country –” Ray starts.

“This is the nearest mountain range to Central, then! Starling is on the other side of the mountains, and it’s not like the sun rises in the west for them.”

“Of course not,” Mick says, rolling his eyes. “The sun rises in the east. That ain’t news. Have I been overestimating your intelligence, speedy?”

Barry suppresses the urge to slap either Mick or himself in the head. It’s somewhat comforting to see that Ray is similarly suppressing the urge to strange Mick; when someone as cheerful as Ray gets annoyed, it’s clearly Mick that’s the problem, not Barry. Though Mick’s expression is strangely annoyed as well, as if he’s trying to explain something that’s obvious and it’s they who are missing the point.

“Okay,” Barry says, aiming for patience instead. Mick’s a contrary bastard, that much is already clear, but he is a magical firebird. Maybe he just doesn’t know how to answer a question straightforwardly. “Then how is the sun located in the mountains?”

“It isn’t,” Mick says, looking nearly as frustrated as Barry. “It’s just the workshop. It’s just there, you know?”

“The sun isn’t there, but the workshop is?” Ray says, clearly as bemused as Barry. “How does that work? Also, I’ve been all over every inch of those mountains; I feel like I would’ve seen it.”

“No, you wouldn’t have; not unless you know the right path,” Mick says. “You gotta find the right way for it. It’s the same with every mountain the sun rises from.”

“Wait, every mountain has the same path?” Barry says, surprised. “How many workshops are there?”

“Just one,” Mick replies, looking puzzled.

“Then how does every mountain lead up to it?”

“When you look east, the sun rises from the mountains; when you look west, the sun sets in ‘em,” Mick says. “The workshop of the sun is in the mountains no matter which way you look. The specific mountain is unimportant.” He scratches the back of his neck, picking off a tuft of flame-colored fluff that had escaped his skin. “I dunno, it just works that way. It’s not in a place humans can find most of the time. I hear in the prairie lands it can be a hill or a tree.”

Barry contemplates this for a reason. “So the sun’s workshop is located…wherever the sun rises from the horizon? Or sets? Whatever the biggest landmark that blocks you from seeing where the sun comes up from?”

“Yeah!” Mick says, brightening. “There you go; I knew you were smart.”

“But once you’re on the mountain, doesn’t the sun just rise from a different horizon? Because, um, as far as we know, it’s not actually on earth at any point?”

“There’s the sun and there’s the Sun,” Mick says. “It’s magic. Just go with it.”

“This is why I became an alchemist,” Ray says. “I hate it when people say that. There has to be a logical explanation for it.”

“Don’t look at me,” Mick says. “I turn into a bird sometimes, and we’ve got limited brainpower.”

Barry shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “You’re plenty smart and you know it, given that you’ve only screwed me over something like ten times already. Can we go today?”

Mick is giving him a strange look, like he’s not sure what Barry means. “Yeah,” he says slowly. “Still plenty of time before sundown. ”

Barry nods and turns to Ray. “Thank you so much for your help,” he says sincerely. Ray’s pretty cool; Barry likes him. “Please, keep watching the palace for us and let us know if anything happens? I promise, it’s very important.”

“If you’re sure I can’t do more…”

“Trust me, I work with the guardhouse in Central,” Barry says firmly. “You aren’t contributing any less just because what you do is surveillance. No job is wasted in this sort of project, okay? Knowing what’s happening is one of the biggest advantages we can have, and you’re getting it for us.”

Ray looks somewhat cheered up by that.

Mick rolls his eyes. “If you’re going to get touchy-feely, I’m going to go get the horse ready,” he grunts, walking over to the window and hopping right out of it.

Barry twitches instinctively and futilely in Mick’s direction, as if he could stop the man from jumping off a several story tower after he’d already done it.

“Yeah, that bothers me too,” Ray says sympathetically. “Remember, he has wings.”

“They weren’t extended,” Barry says, scowling at the window and also at the reminder of how many stairs he’ll need to walk down to get back to his horse.

Ray puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m happy you’re with him,” he says sincerely, and Barry feels kind of like a jerk for having played that trick earlier, even if the real target was Mick. “After – well, you know. He’d said he’d never work with a partner ever again, but it’s obvious to anyone with eyes that he’s not happy being on his own. I tried to help him out, but it didn’t work out. So, um, what I’m trying to say is…”

“Be nice or else,” Barry says, nodding and filing away that interesting tidbit. He doesn’t actually know what Ray is referring to, but he can’t admit to that now. He has a fairly good guess as to what it must be, though. He’d already gathered that something must have happened to Mick’s former partner, and it had clearly struck Mick quite deeply. He wishes he could ask Ray what had happened, but he’s supposed to be a good friend of Mick’s and Ray clearly assumes he already knows as a result. Probably be weird to ask at this point. “Nice threatening talk, must do it again sometime.”

Ray laughs and presses some extra pastries on him before he leaves.

By the time Barry makes it downstairs, Mick has gotten the horse ready to go and is tapping his foot impatiently next to it.

Barry shakes his head at Mick’s obvious impatience. “You want to ride with me?” he asks.

Mick nods and hops on the horse behind Barry, warm and solid against Barry’s back. “You did pretty good, handling Palmer,” he says after a few seconds. “He looks like a drowned rat when he’s sad, and that’s just pathetic.”

By which Barry interprets that Mick would prefer Ray not be sad. He can’t help but smile. “No problem.”

“You done being all morally righteous about the thieving, then?” Mick says suspiciously. “I don’t want you getting cold feet at the last minute.”

“Actually, that guy I mentioned back home might be a bit of a thief himself –”

“Hypocrite.”

“-but I’m not and I would’ve liked to know what I was getting into, is all.”

“Like you and your girlie.”

“First, it’s my sister, and second, her name is Iris –”

“Did I say I wanted to learn the names of your family, friends, and pet dog? No, no I did not.”

“Fine, see if I tell you anything about anything,” Barry sniffs.

Mick harrumphs. He stays quiet for most of the ride up into the mountains, limiting his comments to grunts about which way to go.

They've been riding in peace for a good few hours when Barry finally squints doubtfully up at the increasingly steep mountain path and asks, "So, how do we know when we've got there?"

“Running into the vilas is a pretty good sign," Mick says, voice deep and right in Barry's ear. “We need to snag one to show us the way to the workshop, so be nice when we meet whichever one first comes across our path.”

Barry shivers a little - he's always liked low voices, and Mick's is growly in all the right ways - and then he thinks about what Mick just said and twists to look Mick straight in the eye, trusting the horse to follow the path without him. "Wait, vilas? The wailing women? The storm-cloud spirits?"

Barry barely manages to bite his tongue before he adds “They’re real?”, as that seems like a stupid question to ask a firebird. Even if Mick is probably the least mystical of all the strange things he’s met on his journeys; he seems very practical, if anything.

Mick nods.

"Cool!"

"Cool?" Mick echoes incredulously, but he looks amused. "Well, they are pretty cool, aren't they? Except for when they're full of hot air, anyhow."

Barry snickers. "Nice one," he says approvingly, but suddenly Mick's scowling and looking away like he's done something wrong by telling a joke. His shoulder feathers are rippling out of his skin at an accelerated pace; Barry's going to guess that signifies distress in a firebird. Barry's smile softens. "Let me guess. Your old partner was a regular barrel of laughs, huh?"

Mick snorts. "More like a barrel of groans," he agrees, his eyes going nostalgic and his shoulders relaxing, the feathers back settling down into their scorched design. "Man never met a pun he didn't like – the worse the better."

"I've met people like that.” Barry smiles. “The guy I mentioned to you had a fondness for them himself; one of the reasons I warmed up to him so quick, I think. Absurd and sometimes infantile?"

"Oh, he was funny enough." Mick's lips quirk involuntarily, and all of a sudden Barry is struck by how handsome Mick is, and also how sad. "No one found him funnier than he did himself, though. In a good way, you know? Lock him in a room by himself and he'd be making the same godawful puns – watch the road!"

Barry twists back forward, grabbing the reins and yanking back on instinct, and he just barely manages to stop the horse from walking placidly off the ledge onto a deceptively solid-looking piece of cloud drifting right by the side of the cliff. It's still distinctly cloud-like, though, and the pebbles knocked aside by the horse’s legs skitter straight through and plummet down.

"Good eye," a nasal voice says from above them. "Nearly got you with that one."

Barry looks up. There's a man there, middling height with dark hair and eyes, dressed casually enough in a somewhat old-fashioned jacket and trousers, but unlike any normal man, he's leaning against the cliff wall a good fifteen feet above the ground.

"Barry, meet one of the vila," Mick says, looking annoyed. "Now remember to be polite. As difficult as it may be.” He bares his teeth at the floating man, who sneers back, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

Barry can’t help it, he’s staring a bit at the… he hesitates to describe the man as a vila. Sure, the guy’s floating in midair; that seems like a thing a storm-cloud spirit would do, and he’s playing tricks with clouds and stuff, but, well, vila were also known as “wailing women” for a reason.

"You're a vila?" Barry finds his mouth saying almost without his permission. "Aren't the vila supposed to be the wailing wo-"

He gets a sharp punch in the side from Mick.

"I just mean, you don’t seem to be that loud," he hastily corrects, shooting Mick a slightly guilty look.

Mick nods approvingly.

"I'm a storm-runner," the guy says haughtily. "Mark of Mardon Valley."

"Never heard of you," Mick grunts. This time Barry elbows him.

The guy looks annoyed. "What brings you here?"

Barry's expecting Mick to say something, but he stays silent. "I'm on a quest to save my sister," he offers when it becomes apparent that Mick’s in too much of a snit to engage the vila himself. "Also a bunch of other people. From a koschei."

"Your sister got taken by a koschei?" Mark frowns. "That's bad luck." He hops down to the ground. "Still, I'm not much for quests. My brother – back when I was alive and human, you understand, rather than a sentient collection of cloud – was blown away by a guard in Central City back when that King of theirs was on his quest."

"That's terrible," Barry says, feeling nausea roil his stomach at the thought of something happening to Iris.

"I'm going to get revenge one day," Mark says. "I'll see him dead."

"The guard?" Barry says with a frown. "But…it must have been nearly thirty years ago, if it happened when the King was questing. The guard's probably dead already, or old."

"He was a young man then – but really, thirty years?" Mark scowls. "That seems like a lot."

"Trust me, thirty years." Barry says. "I'm from Central myself -" He wasn't going to mention his relationship with the king, there is no reason to keep punching Barry’s ribs, Mick! "- and we hear a lot about it. Would you like me to do something for you instead?"

"Do something for me?" Mark echoes. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know," Barry says, shrugging. "Something to honor your brother - get his name in one of the songs, maybe, or kick the king in the shin -"

Mark bursts out laughing. "I'd like that!" he says with a grin. "Kick him a good one and say it's for Clyde."

"And in return you'll help get us to where we want to go," Mick puts in. "We're headed for the Sun’s workshop."

Mark scowls again, emotions changing back to angry and upset. Barry feels the hairs on his arms rise up like there’s a thunderstorm approaching. “I don’t do quests,” he says. “I hate heroes.”

“Luckily, we’re going to go steal something instead,” Barry says, still a bit bitter about it himself.

Surprisingly enough, that gets Mark to bark out another laugh, the feeling of imminent storm passing and a cool, pleasant breeze taking its place instead as he smiles. “You’re going to go rob the place? Really? You got some nerve, both of you.”

“The heist won’t be an issue,” Mick says, and Barry barely keeps himself from punching him in the ribs. “Unfortunately, we need to get there in order to do it, if you get my drift. No idea where the place is, myself. We’re totally helpless.”

“Oh, I know where is,” Mark says with a smug look. The blatant nature of Mick’s appeal to his vanity seems not to lessen its effectiveness at all. “It’s not far, actually – here, follow me.”

He turns, starting to float again, and starts moving purposefully up the trail, whistling as he goes.

“The vila are as changeable as the clouds that make ‘em up,” Mick says, leaning forward and whispering in Barry’s ear. “We need to stay on this Mark guy’s good side – only the vila have access to the path to the workshop. So maybe don’t mention the wailing women business."

"The male ones aren't very well known, I take it?" Barry says, shaking his head. You learn a new thing every day…

But Mick is shaking his head. “It’s not that. Vila aren’t like me, born this way; they’re made. There’s a good number of people that still believe in the old ways, and the old ways still work. To get assured rain, you want to have an in with the storms, and the easiest way to have an in with the storms is to have one of your family become a vila.”

“But how…?”

“A vila is made when a dead body, preferably one dead of natural causes, is left out overnight in a grove as a sacrifice to the storms," Mick murmurs. "Then they take you in and bury you or burn you or whatever, but by that point the body’s spirit has risen up and joined the storm-clouds. It's a sacrifice usually only applied - purely by tradition - to women, which is why they're virtually all girls. The magic that makes the vila is storm magic; it doesn't care what's between your legs, but humans have their weird categorization things."

"So the magic works on any gender, but traditionally humans only sacrifice women, so why was - ah. His parents were weird about recognizing him as a man?"

"As close as I figure. Mardon Valley is a smuggler town, and I actually do think I’ve heard about a Clyde of Mardon Valley, leader of a whole gang from thereabouts some decades back. Had a villainous sort of brother, former leader of the same gang, that supposedly died of… pneumonia, I think.”

“That’s got to suck,” Barry says, shaking his head. “Live your whole life as a man and get buried as a woman because people don’t respect your choices… you know, my mother’s great-great-grandfather was brought up a woman originally. Family legend has him getting bored with courtly manners and cooking and whatnot; one day he announced to his parents that he was a man and promptly headed out on a quest, ended up winning the kingdom and the princess’ hand through magic and merit, as one had a tendency to do in those days –”

“Humans,” Mick says, rolling his eyes.

“Anyway, he ended up living in a very happy arrangement with his princess and her pre-existing lover, had a handful of kids with them, which is where my mom comes from. He put some very strict rules about respecting whatever gender people felt like being regardless of what their body might be into place in Central – and this was something like centuries back when they still believed in torture as a part of the justice system; you don't even want to know the penalty was – it involved mice –"

"I don't want to know," Mick says, but he sounds just as ghoulishly intrigued as most non-Central-born twelve-year-old boys get whenever Barry breaks out this particular family legend over the campfire.

"Yeah, it was weird. He turned out to be this insanely talented conqueror, you know, post-quest, so a lot of our neighbors have similar - if less harsh - rules put in place after he either conquered them or in an attempt to keep him from doing so. We’ve reformed the justice system, of course, so no more mice, but we’ve kept the laws…"

"Human history is bizarre," Mick says. "Tell me more."

"Well, there's one king – not my family, thank god – who supposedly… whoa. Where did those doors come from?"

Barry feels like the term “doors” might not be adequate to define the structures in front of him. Sure, they look like a set of double doors, each swung tightly shut without a doorknob or indeed any other differentiation in their smooth faces. But it's not quite adequate as a description.

Barry climbs off his horse and takes a few steps forward just to look at them, Mick following suit.

They're massive, for one thing – they seem to stretch up and up and up the mountain face, a giant's door, easily ten times Barry's height. It's dizzying just looking at it - to see the top, Barry has to crane his neck up until he can't see the bottom. Barry's brain desperately wants him to step backwards until he can encompass the whole thing, but that would undoubtedly be a several hours’ ride.

His head hurts just thinking about the size of what enters through those doors, though intellectually he knows that it can't be the sun itself, which is larger in size than the earth itself. He'd thought Mick was being metaphorical.

"The Sun goes through those?" he asks hesitantly. He was willing to rewrite his beliefs on magic, but this is a principle of science. Even thinking about the Sun trying to squeeze down into the atmosphere… "The giant star?"

"Eh, a magical representation of it," Mick says dismissively. "Not the thing that hangs out in space and we rotate around it. That's science, not magic."

"Right," Barry says. "I hope you realize that your answer is extremely frustrating on many levels?"

"Haircut's mentioned it a few times," Mick allows, smirking evilly.

Barry shakes his head, amused despite himself. "So how do we get in? Wait till it opens?"

"No, we'd die if we did that. The Sun is very bright and very hot, even in its magical representation, and even for a creature like me, born in fire; that's why all the people who work here need protective gear." He pauses and grins. "Protective gear and -"

"A worker's entrance," Barry finishes with a matching grin, nodding. Maybe this wasn’t as hopeless as he’d originally thought.

Mark floats down beside the two of them. “I want a share of your take,” he says abruptly. “Since I helped and all.”

Mick twists to gawk at him. “Are you kidding me?” he says, outraged. “You’re a piece of sentient cloud! What the hell do you even want with a take?”

Mark scowls at him and the wind begins to blow ominously, starting to whistle through the valley. “I want my fair share’s all,” he says, eyes narrowing. “I used to be a highwayman, I know how crime goes. You’re part of the heist, you get part of the take – unless you were lying about it being a heist –”

“We’re only stealing one item and it can’t be split up, you meandering little raincloud –”

“How about some vandalism?” Barry cuts in brightly. He’s developed a theory on the way up the mountainside, what with the vila’s changeable emotions and his easy agreement to Barry’s earlier proposal; looks like the theory will get exercised a little sooner than expected.

They both turn to look at him.

“Mark here’s a criminal, right?” Barry points out. “We should cut him in on our criminal enterprise. He’s right about that. But Mick, you’re also right that the thing we’re stealing can’t be split up. So how about we work out some vandalism while we’re there? Trash the place or something.”

“That’d work,” Mark says, brightening again. “I always loved raids.”

“This was supposed to be a sneak job,” Mick hisses. “What the hell are you doing?”

“Mark, since you’re part of our enterprise,” Barry says, ignoring Mick with a force of will, “could you keep an eye out to make sure nobody – or, um, the Sun – shows up to stop us? Since you’re a vila, it should be easy enough for you.”

“I can do that,” Mark says thoughtfully.

“Deal, then,” Barry says, sticking out his hand.

Mark’s hand in his is positively bizarre – there’s a feeling of wet and mist, not unlike putting one’s hand into a spray of water, and when Barry tries to close his hand around Mark’s he ends up going straight through. Mark is entirely incorporeal; he hadn’t realized that.

“Deal,” Mark says, and disappears.

Perhaps “disperses” is a better word.

Literal cloud people. Barry’s life is so cool.

“Not bad,” Mick says, sounding grudgingly impressed. “Got us a lookout for the price of knocking over a few things.”

“I’ve found that habitual criminals, particularly ones that run in gangs, actually end up valuing the comradery aspects of crime as much as the actual take,” Barry explains. “It’s one of the reasons for the high rate of recidivism among a certain type of criminal, and Mark seemed to fit that archetype to a tee. He just wants to be involved.”

Mick snorts. “That would be a vila’s reasoning,” he says disparagingly. “Their brains are as fluffy and vacant as a cloud.”

“Stop insulting our new comrade, Mick,” Barry says, shaking his head. Mick looks deeply skeptical until Barry adds, “At least until we know for sure that he’s not in the area.”

Mick purses his lips and nods, acknowledging Barry’s point, though he does mutter, “I bet he forgets we’re even doing this by the time we make it out.”

Barry opts to ignore him. “So, what’s your plan from here on out?”

“Follow me,” Mick says. “I know where the worker’s entrance is.”

Mick leads them straight up to the cliff face right beside the mammoth doors.

Figuring they won’t want to take the horse inside, Barry leads the animal to a nearby copse of trees, tying his reins there and petting the horse’s nose a bit before returning to Mick's side.

When Barry arrives, Mick points at the wall. “I cased the joint a few weeks back,” he says confidently. “Different vila as a guide, though. The door’s hidden, so it takes a bit of effort to find it, but once you know where it is…”

Mick’s hands trace the edges of a smaller door there, cleverly constructed to fade into the wall; Mick presses in on it and the door slides open silently, revealing a hallway much like any other. The walls are tiled with stone blocks, not cliff rock, and the ground is covered with a dirty carpet, clearly meant to catch the dirt off the feet of those coming in.

Next to the giant doors, it's a little underwhelming, but then again, Barry supposes that that's the point of a worker's entrance. He's still a little disappointed.

"Don't make too much noise when we hit the turn," Mick murmurs to him, leading him inside.

Barry wonders what he means right up until they get to the end of the hallway and turn left.

Then he doesn't wonder anymore, because what he sees is beyond imagination. The floor is lined in marble and the walls are of frosted glass or possibly quartz, cut through with veins of shining gold. There are pillars, also marble, images of the sun on the floor and on every wall made of gold, and gold-threaded tapestries that hang on the walls and glitter in the light. The hallway opens up into a recognizable foyer, with a number of doors leading out of it, and one big gap in the far off wall that shows a room vast beyond belief, with anvils and work desks and strange machines of all sorts in it. Barry can distantly see that that room is full of people of every race that he knows of, and probably a handful that he's not familiar with. They're grouped around the kilns and anvils and machines, working on projects that send up sparks. The giant foyer itself is empty, though it is still lit up by the golden lamps that line the sides and the shimmering light that comes down from the ceiling, though Barry can't tell the source.

Between the lamps and the pillars and the walls, there's enough treasure here to make a thousand men rich beyond belief.

"Shut your mouth," Mick grumbles. "It's all fake."

"Fake?!" Barry hisses, barely remembering to keep his voice down.

"Well, not fake, but might as well be," Mick says. "It's the Sun's getting; you take it out of the light of the sun and it'll fade away."

Barry nods, because sure, why not. There's a workshop for the Sun. Why not fairy gold?

He really needs to stop applying logic to these magic things.

"What are we looking for again?"

"Goggles," Mick replies shortly. "Sun-gear can block any glare or temperature; they’re worth more than gold." He makes a face. "Unfortunately, they know it, too. They make enough for their workers and no more, charge a year of servitude for the use of them, and they guard them tight up - it's this way, Barry, they don’t keep them in the goddamn workshop," he adds.

Barry guiltily stops his automatic drifting in the direction of the workshop; he's never seen some of those machines before, and he's insatiably curious about how some of them work.

He reminds himself that he is also breaking and entering at the moment, so it’s probably a good idea to follow Mick’s lead.

They creep down the hallway, edging around the workshop where people are busily flitting from one worksite to another. Barry has no idea what they’re doing, but luckily they’re all very busy doing it; with only a bit of care, no one spots them as they go.

Barry recalls that it’s nearly sunset and wonders if they’re going to get to see the Sun.

“There it is,” Mick murmurs, turning a corner.

There’s a gate made of gold covering the entrance to the room, bars shimmering in the light and an intimidating looking keyhole, and beyond that are a pile of boxes in the middle of a room, surrounded by a gently glowing field of yellow light that looks so thick you could almost touch it.

“What’s that?” he asks Mick in an undertone.

“That’s daytime,” Mick says, scowling at it. “The reason there aren’t any guards here, just a gate with a key. You walk into that thing, time slows down for you. Five minutes in there is a full day, dawn to dusk, out here, and you won’t even notice. By the time you get out with your prize, the guards are waiting around to arrest you.”

“That happened to you?”

“No,” Mick says, scowl deepening. “Nearly did, years and years back, but someone caught me and warned me about it.”

“How do we get around something like that?” Barry asks, frowning as well. With protection like that, he could see why they didn’t bother to post a guard.

Mick’s broad hand falls on Barry’s shoulder. “See, that’s the thing,” he says, the scowl in his voice changing to satisfaction. “My – a buddy of mine once theorized that the only way to deal with the daytime trap is to introduce its opposite. That can either mean using moon-magic – and the sort of creatures that use moon-magic are either evil or just plain weird – or…” he trails off, grinning at Barry.

Barry blinks, then gets it. “The trap slows down your time,” he says, nodding and starting to feel excitement bubble up through his veins. “So you need someone who can speed up.”

“Exactly,” Mick says, pleased. “That’s why I dragged you into this.”

“At least you’re admitting that there was dragging.”

“Whatever. You needed to learn not to make bad deals with magical creatures somehow.”

Barry’s going to retort, but he heard the sound of approaching footsteps. “Mick!” he hisses.

“Side room, now,” Mick hisses back, pushing Barry in the general direction of a room across the way. Barry panics for a second – there’s no way they’ll make it there before the people approaching turn the corner – then remembers that they were literally just talking about his super-speed.

He focuses on the feather, which still sits on his chest under his shirt, and when he looks up the world has slowed down. He turns to grab Mick – whose face is trapped in an expression of concern that Barry is certain he would have been promptly hidden in another second – and speeds them both into the side room, closing the door most of the way and ducking down to look out the crack in the door before releasing his focus on the feather.

Time speeds back up and Mick grunts in surprise at finding himself there already, his body automatically continuing his movements for an extra second before his brain can send the order that they’re not necessary.

“Good job, slick,” he whispers, turning and crouching next to Barry.

The approaching people make the turn. There are six of them, four relatively short and two tall; Barry can’t tell the details because they are covered in protective gear. They all wear thick white gloves that go up to the middle of the forearm like a blacksmith’s, heavy boots made of the same strangely quilted material; that much is common for all of them. The rest is dizzyingly different: two wear thick, heavy aprons with hoods, made of the same material as the gloves and boots, and full-face masks that have dark glass for eyes but no nose or mouth, giving them a creepy effect. Three are dressed in red, thick padding on their torsos but little coverage elsewhere, thin shirts and pants covering their arms and legs. They have visors, dark red glass glittering over half their face, with the lower half of their faces open. The last one is wearing blue, with minimal padding on the body but thick around the arms, wearing a thin set of goggles with dark blue lenses, strapped around the back of their head.

“Smiths, mechanics, and specialist,” Mick murmurs. “Each type’s different.”

“Are we aiming for one in particular?”

“Specialist. The others are too bulky; wouldn’t be able to move around easy, get the full range of vision.”

Barry watches as the men (women? it’s hard to tell under all the layers) unlock the gate and troop in, daylight trap expanding until it takes over the entire room before shrinking back down to size, clearly having recognized them somehow. They strip off their gear and put it in the boxes; now Barry can see them properly. The two organizing the others are dark skinned women, like Iris or Joe but darker; one is a smith and the other the specialist. The other smith and two of the mechanics are from one of the Eastern kingdoms, one man and two women with straight black hair and almond eyes. The last mechanic is a gangly redheaded man who looks like he came straight off a caravan from the fertile southwest. The ones who finish first wait for the remainder before locking the gate once more and heading out, chattering amongst themselves.

It’s the usual chatter you can find at any workplace – who just started dating who, someone stole someone else’s lunch, that sort of thing. It’s so familiar that Barry can’t help but grin.

Human nature never changes.

“So what’s the plan?” he asks.

Mick grimaces. “That’s not my specialty,” he says. “I was thinking we’d just do a smash and grab, honestly. Well, that you would, anyway.”

“What about the gate?” Barry asks. “Can you pick the lock?”

“Probably, but there’s no time to do it now and anyway I have a better way. That was probably the first of a whole bunch of groups coming in for shift change – follow me, I know where we can hide out.”

Barry follows Mick out of the room, creeping along the wall until Mick notices and snaps, “Stop that, you look suspicious. Just walk natural and easy and with luck no one’ll pay attention.”

Barry rolls his eyes. “Maybe I’m just not good at crime, have you considered that?”

“Don’t care if you are or ain’t; you’re a speedster and that’s what I need right now,” Mick says harshly. “Now come on.”

Barry sighs and wishes, abruptly, that he’d somehow ended up with Len on this stupid quest instead of Mick. Mick sometimes seems to like him, sometimes not, and Barry is constantly left up in the air about it. He wants to be Mick’s friend, if only because he’s apparently gotten himself stuck with him for at least two more insane quests, but Mick doesn’t seem to be having any of it and it’s starting to drive Barry a bit up the wall. Though he can’t help liking the firebird’s grounded attitude; it’s remarkably reassuring when Barry’s view of the world keeps having to change.

Mick ends up leading them through the tunnels to a hallway filled with doors, some open, some closed. The open doors each show a little two-bedroom pod, clearly designed as dormitories for the workers. Mick picks one, as far as Barry can tell at random, and goes inside, shutting the door behind him before dropping into one of the beds with a sigh.

“So we’ll hide here until night?” Barry asks, going to sit on the other bed.

“Yep.”

“Aren’t you worried that whoever lives in here will come in?”

Almost as if in answer to Barry’s question, the door slides open and a young black man walks in, saying, “Goddamnit, Grey, of course it’ll explode if you don’t start listening to… me…” He stares at Barry for a second, then glances at Mick. “Goddamnit.”

Barry starts rising to his feet, wondering if he should try to speed them out of there, but Mick looks unperturbed.

The young man turns and pulls an older man, white hair and glasses, into the room with him, shutting the door behind him.

“Jefferson, there’s no need to be violent – oh!” the man exclaims, looking at the two of them. “I hadn’t realize – Mick, is that you? How good to see you!”

Barry turns and stares at Mick, who’s grinning now. “Told ya I cased the joint before,” he says smugly to Barry before turning and facing the two men. “Professor, Jax, good to see you both.”

“Did you manage to deal with the –” the older man starts, and Mick’s face falls.

No,” he snarls. “I’m working on it.”

“Grey didn’t mean anything by it,” the younger man says quickly, holding up his hands and stepping between the two of them. “Mick, you know he’s a dumbass, let it go. And as for you – hi! My name’s Jax. Jefferson Jaxsson, technically.”

“I’m Barry,” Barry says, reaching out and shaking the hand he’s offered. “Jaxsson? That sounds, uh, Northern.”

“It is,” Jax replies, grinning. “My dad got himself picked up by a dragon-boat crew bound for either treasure or Valhalla and managed to get himself a spot in their company by being the best damn navigator they’d ever seen. Eventually came home to my mom, resulting in yours truly, but he liked the naming traditions and passed it down to me before heading back out again.”

“That’s so cool!” Barry says with a grin. “I’m from Central; we never get to see Northerners.”

“They’re allergic to going that far inland, I think. This here’s Professor Martin Stein; we work together out on the Workshop floor.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Barry,” the older man says warmly. “You don’t seem quite as villainous as Mick’s usual choice in friends.”

“Do you want me to punch you?” Mick says plaintively. “I don’t wanna, but you know, if you keep going like you do…”

Stein snorts in amusement. “Yes, yes. I assume you’re here on that incredibly stupid plan of yours?”

“If you mean boosting the eyepieces, then yeah,” Mick says, his face gone closed off again. “Don’t ask too many questions, White-top, and you’ll be less worried about it.”

Stein shakes his head, but doesn’t argue. “I assume you need a place to stay until the timing of your, ah, ‘heist’ is right?”

“You know about it?” Barry says curiously.

“Yeah, Mick here helped us out of a jam a few years back,” Jax says. “Figure helping him out’s the least we can do to pay him back.”

“It’s not the only thing you can do,” Mick says meaningfully.

Stein sighs and pulls out a shining golden key, tossing it to Mick, who snatches it out of the air with predatory accuracy. “Toss it somewhere when you’re done with it,” he says. “I’ll tell them I’ve lost it again.”

“Getting forgetful in your old age,” Jax teases and Stein puffs up, looking a little offended but not really. “You know we’d get you what you needed if we could,” he adds, looking at Mick apologetically. “But if we stole from the Workshop, they’d probably kick us out, and we’d rather not, all things considered.”

Barry nods and grins at Jax. “So what is it that you do at the Workshop?” he asks, curious. “I mean, how did you even come here?”

“It’s a scientist’s wet dream,” Jax says, shaking his head. “But you have to be pretty crazy or lucky before you find it. Stein here invented a transformative matrix, changing elements from one to another, and I was interested in alchemy as well as science, so I signed up to learn about it from him. We were travelling from one place to another, ended up caught in the middle of a vila storm, and, well, long story short, we found our way here, and who in their right mind would want to give up the opportunity to work with some of the best minds in the world on the Sun?”

“What work do you do on the Sun?”

“Oh, all sorts! It’s the magical version thereof, so sometimes it comes in as a chariot, other times as a ship, and it always needs repairs – plus coming up with new technology based on the various reactions inside the Sun –”

So cool,” Barry says.

“I know, right?”

“I’m surrounded by nerds,” Mick says mournfully.

Barry grabs a pillow and smacks him soundly in the face before he can think about what he’s doing.

It’s almost certainly undignified on both of their parts, but Mick’s expression is worth it.

Both Jax and Stein are blatantly sniggering, but when Mick starts reaching for his own pillow, Stein stepped forward, holding his hands up for peace. "As amusing as this will undoubtedly be," he says, "Jefferson and I really must get some sleep if we're going to continue working on the transmutational reactions inside the Sun's core next shift. It's not work to be done without due care."

Mick snarls at Barry, who smirks back. He's totally over being intimidated by the larger man, who at any rate needs a speedster to help him with the next step in his heist.

"We'll sit on the floor," Barry offers with a grin. "You won't even notice we're here."

Mick mutters something about strangulation, but obediently moves to the floor by the door when Barry gestures for him to. Jax and Stein both smile gratefully at Barry and prepare for bed, chatting with each other in low voices about reactivity and solar flares and other things Barry can't listen too closely to or else he'll be tempted to stay forever and join their scientific band.

And he can't do that because -

Iris.

Barry flinches, cheerful mood dropping away. He shouldn't be having fun learning about magic and magical creatures while she's missing, sneak peek into the koschei's palace or not. No matter if she's physically safe, she's been taken away from everything she knows and loves, and if only Barry hadn't suggested the stupid exhibition as the day for her marriage, she would've been safely wed before the koschei's pattern ever reached Central…

A warm hand falls on his shoulder.

Barry blinks and looks at Mick, who has slid over to sit next to Barry.

"We'll get your sister back," Mick says quietly but forcefully. "Like you told Haircut, there ain't no wasted task, right? We're making progress."

Barry's throat feels strangely tight. Not trusting his voice, he nods.

Mick doesn't say anything else, but he leaves his hand on Barry's shoulder for the next few hours and somehow its warmth, far above a regular human's, makes Barry feel better.

He's not sure how much time passes. He sleeps for a while, he knows that, waking with his head on Mick’s shoulder when Jax and Stein get up for their next work day, a little bit before dawn, wishing them both luck in whispers as they pass. He looks at Mick, who shakes his head. “We don’t want to deal with the night crew coming in,” he says firmly. “Wait until they’re all about their business – early morning, but after sunrise is fully over and everyone’s gone back to their other projects. Go back to sleep.” Barry nods and closes his eyes.

Sometime after that, Mick stirs and shakes Barry lightly, whispering, "Let's go."

Barry nods, yawning a little, and rises to his feet. He feels refreshed and alert, which is probably good; he hasn’t had that good a night’s sleep in a while – certainly not since Iris was taken.

He follows Mick out of the bedroom and down the quiet hallway. The lanterns are still lit and the ceiling is bright as ever; Barry gets the feeling that the working hours here are bounded by shifts to prevent people from working around the clock, because a quick glimpse into the vast workshop space reveals that it's just as busy as when they first came in.

Mick leads the way to the hallway with the storage room. "Okay, kid," he says, nodding at the gate and holding up Stein's key. "Get to it."

Barry takes the key, but frowns, a thought occurring to him. "Mick, you said there were no guards because of the daytime trap, right?"

"Yeah, so?"

"So how do the guards know to go wait for you when you make it out? There must be an alarm."

"So what? You'll be in and out before it triggers."

"We don't know how long the guards wait to come," Barry says reasonably. “The alarm probably triggers right away and they come and wait you out. Could you go keep an eye on the way in, and if you see guards coming, start a distraction somewhere and meet me back at the entrance?”

Mick makes a face. “If they find us, they’ll catch us,” he warns. “This is the Sun’s workshop; they can see anything the Sun can when they search.”

“Then we’ll just have to outrun them,” Barry says firmly, with more confidence than he really feels and trying to think of any underground caves he saw on the way up the mountain. Maybe he could run all the way back to Ray’s tower, though he doesn’t know what the effort would cost him. “I still think we need a distraction; we won’t be able to fight our way out through a whole bunch of guards.”

He’s expecting Mick to argue back some more, makes some alternative suggestions, but Mick just nods and says, “Sure, boss. Give me five minutes to get in position near the front, then we’ll meet there when you’re done?”

“Sounds good,” Barry says, feeling a little more weak-kneed and unsure now that they’ve agreed to go with his plan. God, this is going to be a disaster; he’s going to ruin all of Mick’s plans and his own. Watching Mick slink off – significantly faster than he’s been travelling with Barry, Barry notes ruefully, and significantly quieter, too – doesn’t really help.

He’s not sure when it became important to him not to disappoint Mick, but the thought of Mick’s face if Barry got himself captured is like a stab in the gut. He wouldn’t even be surprised, Barry thinks grimly, just disappointed and confirmed in his cynicism.

Mick may not be Barry’s friend, but Barry’s going to damn well try to be Mick’s.

Barry turns to the gate and swallows, starting to count off five sets of sixty.

When he hits zero, he puts his hand on his chest and focuses, quietly begging the feather to work really well this time. When he opens his eyes, everything seems to almost be crackling around him, everything totally frozen instead of the slow molasses-like movement he normally sees, and he darts for gate, using his key to unlock the door and sprinting into the room, aiming towards the boxes.

He feels the minute the trap springs on him, feels the world start to speed up around him, a strange feeling not unlike being trapped in some slow-moving substance, trying to pull him back to normal speeds or beyond, to slower than normal. It feels – vile, really, is the only way to describe it. Like a thousand hands grabbing him all over and pulling him backwards as he tries to go forward, like the strongest headwind he’s ever run into, a greasy feeling that he doesn’t quite know what it is. Like trying to run your hand through soup gelatin, made of liquefied bones.

Now is not the time to think about liquefied bones.

He bites his lip and tears open the first box, scanning it and confirming that it’s all gloves in an instant before turning to the next box. He finds them in the fourth box, blue goggles with reflective lenses and a thick, sturdy strap, and he pulls them out and shoves them into his pocket before turning and running out the gate door.

The second he’s out of the daytime trap, everything abruptly goes still again around him and he feels lighter than air. He dashes forward with a whoop of success – holy crap, he did it! He can’t believe he did it! – and runs all the way to the foyer at the worker’s entrance before slowing down to try to find Mick, panting as he does.

The second everything clicks back into normal speed, he’s abruptly hit with a tidal wave of dizziness and his stomach abruptly feels like there’s a vice screwing it tight. It’s agonizing; it almost feels like it’s gnawing on itself. Barry groans and wraps his hands around his midsection.

“Barry!” he hears Mick bark and he feels Mick’s hands on his shoulders. “What happened?”

“Went fine,” Barry says, gritting his teeth and riding it out; the pain fades after a few moments, though his stomach still feels shrunken and clenched – he suspects, with the clarity that comes after the initial pain fades to an ache, that he may be starving. So that’s why you don’t over-use super-speed; Caitlin was right that trying to search the land with it would result in him collapsing as a skeleton. “Got the goggles.”

“Took your time on it,” Mick grumbles, but despite his words he’s looking Barry up and down worriedly. “It’s been nearly half an hour.”

“Half an – that was seconds!”

“Daytime trap,” Mick says. “You were right about the alarm; the guards started heading for you in less than ten minutes.”

Barry straightens in alarm. “Then where –”

“I set part of the workshop on fire,” Mick says breezily. “They’re all putting that out now; no sweat. Can you walk out of here?”

“Yeah, but I probably shouldn’t be using super-speed any time soon,” Barry says. Mick nods and helps him towards the entrance, hustling Barry along at a speed that belies his casual comment. “I can’t believe you set the workshop on fire.”

Part of the workshop,” Mick corrects, then smirks. “If they didn’t want fire, they shouldn’t be playing with combustible elements.”

“We’re going to blow up the Sun and doom the world to an era of darkness by accident,” Barry marvels.

Mick snickers. “Relax, they’ve got fire extinguishers like you can’t believe. C’mon, can you manage a bit faster?”

“I’m trying,” Barry says, looking ahead to where the door to the workshop stands ajar, the bright light of day shining in. It was a good thing they’d stayed the night in Stein and Jax’s room, waiting until after sunrise to do the job; it would have been even creepier trying to do all of this without light.

Mick cranes his head to look back. “Shouting’s stopped,” he says, the humor leaching out of his voice. “They’re going to try to hunt us down now.”

“Great,” Barry says. “What’s the penalty for theft here?”

“Don’t ask,” Mick advises. “There’s the entrance, we’re almost there; come on…”

Now Barry can hear the sounds of angry voices and running feet behind them. He tries to pick up the pace, careful not to go into super speed mode, and they stumble outside the door just as someone starts shouting back in the foyer.

“Barry, we can’t let them see us! Bad enough they’ll be using the Sun to look for anyone in the vicinity – everything the Sun can see, remember – but if they see our faces they’ll hunt us anywhere we go!”

Barry grimaces and turns to wrap his arms around Mick, pulling the larger man close to him and focusing on the feather trapped between their chests. Mick looks at him in bemusement, instinctively cradling Barry in return, and then the speed clicks into place and Barry rushes them out to the copse of trees where they left their horse.

He pulls them to a stop and abruptly splutters as he gets a face full of water along with the now expected wave of dizziness. “What in the world…?”

It’s raining in the copse of trees, which is bizarre, because Barry would’ve sworn that it was sunny outside. He distinctly remembers seeing sunlight.

“Why’s it raining?” Mick says, clearly just as confused as Barry, their arms still wrapped up with each other.

“Figured you could use a cover,” a nasal voice drawls. Mark literally coalesces in front of them, pieces of rainy air coming together to form a grinning man. “The Sun can’t see through my rainclouds.”

Barry starts laughing incredulously while Mick gapes. “Is that true?” he asks Mick, grinning through the rain.

“Yeah, it is,” Mick says, shaking his head in bemusement. “Good call on the getaway driver, kid.”

Even as Barry glows from the praise, a second wave of dizziness hits him, worse than the last, and black dots start appearing in the corner of his vision –

Chapter Text

“I can’t believe you fainted,” Mick says, not for the first time. “From hunger, no less.”

Barry doesn’t bother scowling at him, given that Mick has been sitting at his side, patiently feeding him soup for the last half hour as Mark and his vila kin dash around starting storms every which way to confuse the guards from the Workshop as to their location. “I’m sorry for scaring you,” he says instead.

Mick rears his head back in offense. “You didn’t scare me!” he exclaims. “I’ll have you know, I wasn’t even worried.”

“So the tree that I was standing next to caught fire all on its own,” Barry says skeptically. “In the middle of a rainstorm.”

Mick sniffs. “Well, it’s good to know my fire’s stronger than a vila’s rain, anyway,” he mutters. “Now open your goddamn mouth and have more soup.”

“I’ve already had five bowls,” Barry whines. It’s pretty good soup, actually, thick and hearty, which is weird, because he doesn’t remember bringing soup with him. “Where’d you get it, anyway? Did Mark bring it?”

“I got him to get a bucket to cook it in and used some of the ingredients you were carrying, meat and dried vegetables and bread and stuff,” Mick says dismissively. “Liquids are better on the stomach than hard foods, and you needed to intake the calories without throwing up. Plus, at the start, we were mostly trying to get water into you to make sure you didn’t die of abrupt dehydration. Also in the middle of a rainstorm.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Barry says, but he winces a bit as he shifts. “Definitely not over-using my powers again. Ugh.”

“It’s only because of the daytime trap making you feel like you ran at super-speed for the full half-hour,” Mick points out, scooping up another spoonful and offering it to Barry. “You can easily use it for shorter spans than that without overdoing it.”

“Stop applying logic to my whining, Mick. And stay away from me with that soup!”

Mick looks at Barry critically. “I’ll leave off with the soup if you eat one of those bar things, with the nuts and the dried meat,” he bargains.

“I think I’d rather have the soup,” Barry says. “Listen, I’m feeling much better, okay? Can I get up now?”

“One more bowl,” Mick says firmly.

Barry groans. “Can I at least feed myself this time?”

“Can you hold the bowl without dropping it this time?”

Yes, I can.”

Mick watches him with a skeptical eye, but Barry – who is feeling much better than before – is able to hold the bowl just fine and scoops up delicious mouthful after delicious mouthful. He’s not quite full yet – he probably will end up having one or two of the bars Caitlin made the kitchens make for him – but strangely enough, complaining seems to calm Mick down much faster than actual reassurances.

Though perhaps it’s not that strange: the same was always true for Joe, who started panicking whenever any of his kids were actually polite to him, given what terrible patients they normally were. Politeness on a sick Iris’ part meant that she was convinced she was going to die, that’s for sure.

Whoever Mick last cared for must have been the same.

“Your soup is very good,” Barry says, slurping the rest of it down. “I wouldn’t have thought as much. What do firebirds usually eat, anyway? Other than golden apples stolen from my family’s orchards, that is?”

“Those were tasty,” Mick says. “But they were more in the nature of a present to someone else. We eat just about anything, really, but not like humans that need things cooked and whatnot. Though cooking’s pretty fun, which I wouldn’t have thought when I started teaching myself how to do it.”

“What spurred your interest?”

“My goddamn partner has the worst diet known to man; and he’d probably die of lack of nutrients in the middle of a feast hall,” Mick replies, rolling his eyes exaggeratedly in what is clearly a well-rehearsed speech. “I swear, if I didn’t feed him, he’d –”

He abruptly realizes what he’s saying and goes silent.

“You must have been very close,” Barry says gently.

“Yeah,” Mick says, looking pained. “Real close. I saved his life, once upon a time, and he insisted on following me around until he could pay me back for it. Except he was a useless sonofabitch to start off with, so by the time he got good enough to start saving my ass, he was so deep in debt that he said he might as well expect to stick around for the long haul, since it’d take so long to get out of it.”

“What happened to him?” Barry asks.

Mick’s face twists with bitterness. “The koschei.”

Barry’s eyebrows go up in surprise, but he doesn’t say anything. That explains why Mick is hunting these items so avidly; of course he wants to take the koschei down.

“Did the koschei…?”

“I need to beat the koschei,” Mick says, not answering the question, his eyes distant. “It’s the only way to make things right again.”

Barry nods, understanding. It’s a personal mission for Mick, too; just like Barry. But Mick looks so desperate, so hurt; it pains Barry to see him look like that. Like Joe, when he thought Iris was gone beyond hope. “Look on the bright side,” he offers, trying to give Mick something to hold on to. “We’re already a step closer to defeating the koschei: I got the goggles!”

Mick practically snatches the goggles out of Barry’s hand to examine them closely.

“Will they work?” Barry asks. Because damnit, if he got the wrong ones, he is not going back in there.

“Yeah,” Mick says after a moment’s pause. “They’ll work. They’re perfect.” And then he smiles, big and broad and happy for the first time since Barry’s met him, not cynical or smirking or any of that stuff, just – happy.

Barry’s heart gives a little twinge.

Absolutely not, Barry lectures himself. This is not the time or the place to develop a crush. Especially not on a guy who is self admittedly a bird some of the time, no matter how hot he is while he's a man, no pun intended. For one thing, he’s a total sourpuss about 90% of the time, mean and cynical and well actually that part’s kind of endearing, but anyway you’ve got Len to hunt down, remember.

As if the mere thought conjures him up, Len's sharp eyes and equally sharp smile dance in front of Barry's face, and even though Mick is plenty attractive in his own way, Len is still the most gorgeous man Barry's ever met.

Also, Len actually likes me. If I’m going to have an unattainable crush on a potentially mystical figure, better that it be the guy who’s into me in return.

"Hey, slick, you falling asleep on me?" Mick asks, reaching over and prodding Barry's shoulder roughly before Barry can stop him. "Need more soup?"

"No more soup!" Barry exclaims, throwing his hands up in self-defense. "I was just thinking, yeesh."

“Oh? ‘bout what?” Mick smirks. “That guy of yours?”

“Maybe,” Barry says haughtily.

“How’d you meet him, anyhow?”

Barry brightens at the thought of being able to talk about Len. “Um, well, I was about to fall into the river and he saved me –”

“Please tell me you’re kidding.”

“It was an accident!”

Mick puts his head in his hands and groans theatrically. “I changed my mind, I don’t wanna hear about damsels in distress –”

“Hey!”

“– so pick another topic, or I’m getting you another bowl.”

Barry thinks fast. "Our next quest - you said it was something about, uh, walruses?"

"Yeah, grabbing a coat from the Walrus Collective."

"Any chance we can just, I don't know, ask to borrow one this time? Good cause and all?"

Mick pats him condescendingly on the head. "Cute, kid; real cute."

"Stop calling me kid. How old are you, anyway?"

"No clue, but firebirds live for centuries," Mick says cheerfully. "Get used to it."

Honestly, Barry doesn’t mind Mick's nicknames, said as they are with a rough form of affection, but still. Mick looks hardly older than Barry, and don’t think Barry hasn’t noticed Mick slipping away from giving an actual answer to that question.

"Fine. So why don’t you explain to the magically inexperienced of us," he says dryly, "why we can't just borrow a coat from them?"

"For people like you and me, it's just a coat. But for the Walrus Collective, it's what gives them their shape-turning."

"Wait, the walruses are shape-shifters?"

Barry had figured there had to be something more to the walruses than just, well, walruses, but shape-shifting walruses? Really?

"They're cousins to the selkies," Mick says, naming the seal-skinned shifters of legend. "And they're of much the same breed."

Barry sits ups straight in dismay, all the stories he'd ever heard about selkies running through his head. “Mick, from what I understand about selkies, if you take away their coat, they’re trapped in human shape and miserable,” he says, staring at Mick and willing him not to mean what Barry thinks he means. “We can’t do that.”

Mick looks a little uncomfortable for a minute, then his expression changes to stubborn. “If it was necessary, we’d do it,” he says gruffly. “We’re working on serious business with the koschei and all. That’s more important.”

“But – ”

As it happens, though, we don’t got to do that. Walruses are a lot fatter and lazier than seals – they’ve got a way to make spare coats for when they forget one at home, and sometimes they put on two during mating season to show off how fat and rich they are. We’ll grab one of the spares.”

“But if they have extras, then why can’t we –”

“Would you give it up with the asking?” Mick complains, sitting back on his haunches with a scowl. “They won’t hand it over, okay? These coats are their pride and joy. Remember what I said about them being lazy – and also what I said about them using the extras during mating season?”

“So whoever we steal it from –”

“The worst that’ll happen to them is that they might not get as many girlfriends or boyfriends as they might’ve hoped for, okay? Happy now?!”

“Yeah, I’m good,” Barry says, unable to keep from smiling at Mick’s put out expression. “You know, you’re not as bad as you keep trying to pretend you are.”

“I literally just set fire to the workshop of the Sun,” Mick exclaims. “What is wrong with you?”

“Yeah, good question,” Mark chirps, coalescing above the two of them. “But that was a good raid, even if you did only grab one item.”

Barry smiles up at Mark. “Thanks for covering us with that storm,” he says. “We wouldn’t have gotten away without your help.”

Mark puffs himself up – literally, in this instance, growing several times larger than he was before – and smirks. “Let me know if you have any more criminal deeds that need help,” he says eagerly. “The other vila aren’t all as into it as I am, you know.”

“We’ll let you know if we’ve got anything we can use you for,” Mick says curtly. “Next job on our list is down by the sea, though.”

Urgh,” Mark says. “No thanks. I’m mountain bred; I don’t want to deal with the freaking jurakans that live out on the open sea, no way. You’re on your own there.”

“Thanks for offering,” Barry says, because unlike Mick he knows what manners are.

Mark shrugs it off. “Our storms are heading inland, anyway. Maybe I’ll catch you both later, see if you’re doing anything fun.”

With that pronouncement, he dissipates into mist and a strong breeze kicks up, blowing the mist away.

Barry watches it with glee. Magic. It’s only been a few days since he even started believing it, and it remains intensely awesome. A guy literally turned to mist and rode away on the wind – how is that not incredible?

After the mist is entirely gone, Barry turns back to Mick. “So, how’re we going to get to the sea?” he asks. “Please tell me we’re not riding there the whole way; that’s at least a week or two travel time, and we don’t have enough to feed the horse. Or me, after the amount of soup you stuffed down my throat.”

“Nah,” Mick says. “I was thinking this time we’d leave the horse with Palmer.”

“Okay, but how do we actually get to the sea?”

“Why don’t we drop off the horse first? Wouldn’t want you to get nervous or anything.”

“I wasn’t nervous until you said that!”

Mick pulls Barry to his feet and trots over to the horse, smirking the whole while.

“You’re such a dick,” Barry tells him, amused, and hops on.

“You seem fine with it,” Mick observes.

“You should’ve seen the stupid shit I got put through back in Central,” Barry says with a sigh.

“That boy of yours?”

Man, not boy. But seriously, I swear he was just fucking with me for a while there – first he did this thing where I’d see him and he wouldn’t see me, or I thought he didn’t see me, anyway, and then he’d walk off and I’d chase after him to try to thank him for the saving-my-life-and-dignity business – except then he’d be gone – and it turns out he did it on purpose…”

“I could get to like this guy,” Mick says.

“You would. Anyway, then he took me dancing and made me promise to find him after –”

“Oh, dancing.”

“You don’t need to say it like it’s a bug on the heel of your shoe!”

“A, I don’t wear shoes, and B, a bug on the heel of my foot I could at least eat.”

Ugh, that’s disgusting.”

“Better than your mice,” Mick says, but he’s grinning.

“You liked the one about the mice, let me tell you the one about the cheese –”

The way back to Ray’s tower is uneventful. Barry tells Mick a few stories from human history – the king with the cheese, the famous case of the confused assassins and the identical twins, that peculiar period in history where wearing the wrong color on the wrong day could accidentally start a war, that sort of thing – and Mick finds them uproariously hilarious. It’s kind of nice to have a totally unprepared audience; everyone in Central knows each and every one of these stories by the time they’re ten.

Ray himself reports that nothing major has happened while they were gone – the girls continue to congregate and possibly scheme, and also they have really fantastic picnics at a Palace of Delight, did you know that, Mick? So much food! – and confirms that he’s more than happy to take their horse while they go on their next quest.

“Is there another daytime trap in the Walrus Collective that needs a speedster?” Barry asks as he leads the horse into the stable Ray directed him to, Mick following behind.

“No, no traps,” Mick says distractedly, clearing thinking of something else. “The first one was the only one that really needed a speedster, but I figure it can’t hurt to have one for the others, you know?”

Such a dick,” Barry sighs. “I’m amazed at your abilities, really, Mick.”

Mick sniggers.

“You still haven’t answered how we’re getting there.”

“I don’t want to worry you.”

“I’m going to punch you in the face.”

Mick has the nerve to laugh at that.

“C’mon, tell me,” Barry whines, following Mick out the door as Mick scoops up the pack that the horse had been carrying onto his own back. Mick heads out into the clearing, away from the tower, and Barry follows, continuing to nag in his best, most irritating voice, one tried and tested on his brothers and perfect for driving people mad. “Is it magic? Do I know what it is already? Have you given me any hints? Am I going to hate it? Why am I going to hate it? Why won’t you tell me?”

“You really are a world-class whiner,” Mick says, almost admiringly, then turns and draws Barry into his arms. Barry chokes a little in surprise, staring right into Mick’s eyes, which are scrunched up a little with the shit-eating grin he’s wearing.

Barry’s heart gives the same little twinge.

And then suddenly there’s heat, abrupt and sudden like walking into a kitchen with all the ovens with their flames roaring full blast, and Barry instinctively flinches away as much as he can with Mick’s strong arms wrapped tightly around him.

When he opens them, he sees Mick, wreathed in the golden glow of his feathers. His face is still mostly human, his eyes having taken on the strange roundness that you see in falcon eyes, the usual hazel brightening into shining gold, but the by now familiar features have otherwise stayed by and large the same. The feather-marks which are usually burnt into his skin are fully out, feathers lying across his broad shoulders, crawling up his neck and down his arms, but they’re almost muted in comparison to the fierce light of the wings that beat behind his back, framed in the sky –

Sky.

Sky?!

Barry twists his head and sees ground. To be more accurate, he sees ground very far away. He shrieks and wraps his arms and legs around Mick in an attempt to keep a solid grip on the only thing keeping him from falling to his death.

Mick is laughing.

“Oh my god, you fucking bastard, we’re flying, holy crap, you could have warned me, we’re flying –” Barry’s eyes go wide as it suddenly enters his head how freaking cool this is. “We’re flying! Holy crap, we’re actually flying!”

“Really,” Mick says, still chuckling. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Drop me – even pretend to try to drop me – and I will come back from the dead and haunt you forever,” Barry threatens, winding his arms and legs into a more comfortable position around Mick – legs around the waist, arms around the neck, and thank god Mick’s tall as a man or else Barry would never fit – and settling into place. “I’ll howl up a storm every time you try to steal something, I swear it.”

“I’m not going to drop you,” Mick says with amusement. “Relax already; even flying, it’ll take us some time to get there.”

“I’ll relax when I’m on solid ground again, thanks,” Barry says, craning his head to get a good look at the swiftly passing ground. “This is awesome. Terrifying, yet awesome.”

Mick grunts, shaking his head, but he looks amused.

Barry contents himself with looking at the ground, gleefully mapping out various natural landmarks: that snake-like bit of blue and brown is a river, the waves of solid green are a closely growing forest, and the various bits of farmland are laid out like a patchwork quilt, which he’s always seen on maps but it’s somehow infinitely more impressive seeing it from a very literal bird’s eye view. At one point they fly by a town, and he nearly shrieks when he sees the roads all curving together, each inclining towards the town like sunflowers with the sun, and coming together in the central nexus.

It’s a cartographer’s fantasy come true. Barry isn’t one, but he can appreciate it regardless.

He is going to have to find one after this quest is over just to brag.

"How has no one seen you, anyway?" Barry eventually asks, watching the tiny little towns go by. "You must have something like a thirty foot wingspan or something, plus you glow."

"Humans don't look up," Mick replies tersely.

"You're kidding!"

"Not really - only time I was ever spotted by a non-magical human was when I flew over an observatory and some damn fool thought I was a comet -"

Barry snickers.

"Now shut up already," Mick adds, grunting a little with his efforts. "This flying with passengers business isn't as easy as it looks."

Barry makes the mistake of glancing at Mick's face - red and sweating with exertion, eyes intent and focused, his broad shoulders flexing - and then hastily looks away, reminding himself that they are literally cuddling in mid-air and now would be a really bad time to get turned on.

That thought doesn't help.

No being in love with two different people, Barry! he scolds himself. That never ends well for any quest!

"You’ve flown with passengers before?" Barry blurts out, desperate for any conversational distraction before remembering that Mick told him to be quiet and also that Mick might've flown with that partner of his that he lost, unless that partner was another firebird, and he wouldn't be happy at the reminder.

But Mick just chuckles. "You two would've gotten along great," he rasps. "He always liked unreasonably stubborn assholes."

"Hey!" Barry says instinctively, but his stupid, traitorous heart is glowing just a little bit. He smiles a bit. “Tell me about him, sometime?”

Mick’s face goes a bit pained and Barry decides maybe it actually is time to shut up.

Barry decides to distract himself with daydreams of Len instead. He doesn't know Len that well, but he remembers the man's coolness no matter what the issue, his amusement at everything; he thinks Len would like Mick, too.

He wonders idly if Joe, Henry and Iris would like either of them, and then devotes a healthy bit of time to imagining increasingly absurd scenarios in which he introduces one, the other or both to his foster family and then, even more hilariously, to his birth family. Eobard's face would be something to remember.

"Okay, we're going to land soon," Mick says, his voice strained from the effort. "And you're gonna tell me why you've been snickering for the past two hours."

"No way," Barry says immediately, but Mick ignores him, keeping his wings out and steady and descending in a smooth, steady glide.

Then he drops Barry on the ground from about five feet up, because he's a contrary jerk like that.

He drops him into a pile of soft down, though, so Barry's more amused than offended.

Mick lands himself and folds up his giant wings. They shrink as they fold until they seem to disappear into his body. His shoulders ripple as the glowing feathers fade away into his skin, leaving only that tell-tale burnt pattern on his flesh instead.

Then he collapses under a tree.

"Mick!" Barry exclaims, scrambling to his feet.

“M’fine,” the firebird slurs, curling up under the tree. “Forgot how much extra effort to carry someone for a long distance like that. Just need a nap, s’all. S’been a long day…”

Barry looks up at the sky, finding, much to his surprise, that the sun is well on its way to setting. He noticed it, of course, more by observing the colors the sky turned when you were so high up, but he didn’t really notice it.

It occurs to him that it really has been a long day: they slept over in the Workshop’s dormitories, robbed the Workshop in mid-morning, Barry’s collapse took them until noon, a few hours back to Ray’s tower, and then the entire afternoon and early evening was spent in flight. No wonder Mick’s tired; Barry’s tired just thinking about it, and he’s been coasting easy the last few hours.

He coaxes Mick to turn over so he can get the pack Mick had slung over his shoulders earlier off of him, and digs out a blanket, which he lays over an already snoozing Mick, who doesn’t so much as stir this time.

Barry yawns himself, just looking at his sleeping companion, but he props his back up against the tree, intent on keeping watch. He pulls out a few of the energy bars Caitlin made for him, mentally sending her his best wishes. For a cat, she was a wonder; he could only imagine how desperate her fiancé had to be to find her if she was anything as awesome as a human – and he imagines she’s probably significantly more awesome when she has a pair of opposable thumbs at her beck and call –

He wakes up with a start at the sounds of birdcalls the next morning.

“Great job, Barry,” he mutters, shaking his head at his own foolishness. Luckily, it looks like their pack is undisturbed and no one has murdered either of them in the night; it’s a lucky break, since neither of them put up any precautions to guard against, well, anything. They didn’t even have a horse to make noise if someone approached.

At least Mick has slept through Barry’s epic failure at keeping watch.

Sighing, Barry gets up and starts packing away the few things he pulled out of his pack, though not the blanket that Mick is still happily snoozing under. He drinks deeply from their water, though he wonders if there’s a river nearby where he can refill it – he had filled it at Ray’s tower the first time they’d stopped there, but he hadn’t had time or thought to do it yesterday –

“I say, Gideon, that’s quite enough; stop there for a second – oh, hello!” a voice says and Barry jumps a little in surprise, looking up to see a pale, dirty blond man tugging in annoyance at a horse’s reins. “Passing through?”

“Yeah,” Barry says, glancing sidelong at Mick to make sure that he isn’t showing feathers before turning to the stranger with a pleasant smile. “Yourself?”

“Yes, I come this way often,” the man says. “My name’s Rip, Rip Hunter. I work for one of the nearby estates.”

Barry relaxes at that. Sure, they might be yelled at for trespass, but a murderous highwayman was unlikely to introduce himself. Unless he was something like Mark, anyway. Still, the last name “Hunter” implies a newly rich family of peasants trying to ape the habits of the upper class in adopting a last name and having nothing but their profession to call upon. “I’m Barry,” Barry offers, thinking once again that it’s strange that the nobility had last names, but neither the peasantry nor royalty do. “Of Central City.”

“That’s quite a ways out,” Rip says. “Are you in caravan?”

“Yes,” Barry lies without a second’s thought. Just because the man appears amiable doesn’t mean he’ll admit to them being alone. “We’re scouting ahead. I hope we haven’t trespassed…?”

“Oh, no, not at all; this is free and clear, here, though you’re starting to edge fairly close. Where is it that you’re going? I can give you directions.”

“We’re headed to the sea,” Barry tells Rip. “Which way is it?”

“That’s some distance,” Rip says. “You’ll have to go that way –” He nods to the east. “– for some time before going through the mountains a bit. But I’m sure you’ll find the way.” The man’s eyes drift down to the water Barry is still holding loosely in his hands. “Do you have enough water for your journey? It’s going to be hot as hell today, what with midsummer approaching quick.”

Barry thinks guiltily of the Star exhibition he’s almost certainly going to miss now. “I’d appreciate a refill,” he says, smiling up at the man. “Where’s the nearest stream or well?”

“Not far at all,” Rip replies, smiling back. “Less than five minutes away – here, I’ll show you.” He hops nimbly off his horse and ties the reins to a branch. “I’ll leave Gideon here to keep an eye out on your friend, and as assurances of my good faith, of course.”

Barry makes the polite reassurances that it isn’t necessary, he of course has no suspicions, etc., though in reality he’s pleased by the gesture. No man, no matter how rich, would leave a valuable horse unguarded with another man’s companion unless he was in good faith. He’d follow Rip, refill the water, and be back before Mick woke up.

Still, he feels a bit bad at leaving Mick alone like that.

Rip is already waiting by the edge of the clearing and Barry doesn’t want to keep him waiting any longer, especially since he’s going out of his way to do Barry a favor, but he goes over to Mick anyway to tuck the blanket in a little tighter.

“Come along, please,” Rip calls. “I have to get back to my duties…”

“One second!” Barry calls back, turning back to his task.

Mick stirs when Barry moves the blanket around him, shifting restlessly and eventually cracking over his eyes a little. “Boss?” he mutters, still half asleep.

“Just Barry,” Barry tells him in an undertone. “I’m going to go get some water; I’ll be right back.”

“Water…?”

“Shh. Go to sleep.”

Barry rises to his feet and Mick turns to go back to sleep, but he’s only halfway across the clearing to Rip when Mick abruptly starts and sits up. “Water? Barry, stop!”

Barry freezes.

Mick hops to his feet, growling angrily, and his shoulders are glowing an angry red, though the feathers haven’t come out yet. “You,” he says, storming over.

Barry’s about to protest that he hadn’t done anything, but Mick storms right over to him and glares at Rip. “Keep away from us,” the firebird snarls at Rip. “We don’t want any of your fucking help.”

“Wait, you know him?” Barry exclaims, looking at Rip with new eyes. “You know him and you don’t like him?”

“Oh, sure,” Mick sneers. “I know him, the fucking bastard.”

Rip scowls at him in return. “You can’t possibly still be upset about last time,” he says impatiently. “Now stop interfering; I got him fair and square.”

“He hadn’t left with you yet,” Mick snaps back.

“He was going to!”

“Well, he didn’t!”

“Wait, wait,” Barry says, looking between the two of them. “What would’ve happened if I went with him?”

“You wouldn’t have made it back,” Mick says, still glaring. “Not the same way you went, anyway, nor at the same time. There’s always something standing in the way of you completing even the simplest goals, isn’t there, Rip, huh? Some obstacle in your path, some minor side mission you need to take, some impediment –”

Rip crosses his arms, his scowl deepening. “I’m good at my job.”

Mick snorts and the sound is ugly. “Yeah, real good,” he says. “Except you aim your trade at other people’s companions, more often than not, just because you can, and that makes you a spiteful piece of shit. This one’s not coming with you.”

“Definitely not,” Barry puts in. He’s still not sure what’s going on, but if Mick is so upset, he’s not going to go with Rip.

Rip scowls bitterly at both of them and turns on his heel, storming off into the forest and crooking his fingers. His horse tosses its head, the reins unwinding from the tree as it does, and follows.

“What the hell was that?” Barry asks, watching as they disappear into the brush.

“That, Barry, was a leshyi,” Mick says, still looking angry. “A fucking prick of a leshyi. They lead travelers astray, usually by playing on your good intentions, but then they distract you with any number of simple tasks: oh, this well is empty, but don’t worry, there’s another one not far away; oh, is that the sound of a man crying for help, we should go help him; oh, there’s no one here, it was only a bird call, but don’t worry, we’re still near the well; oh, dear, we seem to be lost – and next thing you know, a year and a day’s gone by and you’ve got nothing to show for it.”

“Shit,” Barry says, taken aback. He’s heard of the leshyi, of course he has; them being woodland spirits that preyed on lonely travelers and Central being surrounded by woods, the stories in which they featured were among the most popular stories to tell around the campfire. “I didn’t realize – he looks totally human –”

“Yeah, Rip’s good at that,” Mick says, shaking his head. “He got his hooks into my partner once; manipulated the two of us into thinking the other one was turning on him and got us into a huge fight so that he could get my buddy all to himself. Didn’t figure on us not wanting to stay away from each other even when we were angry, though, and me being able to track him down through any magic by that point, so we made up and ditched him, and he’s been bitter ever since.”

“He said he worked for a nearby estate,” Barry says, feeling small and stupid and lost. There went any attempt to show Mick that he was self-sufficient or even of much help, first with his inability to keep basic watch and then nearly getting trapped by a leshyi. “I never even thought…”

“Not your fault,” Mick says, shaking his head in disgust, eyes still fixed on the forest where Rip has disappeared. “They’re tricky ones. And he does work for a nearby estate, if you count the Masters of the Forest as an estate. I hadn’t realized the Hunt had extended its reach this far west, or I would’ve picked a different landing spot. C’mon, we should keep going.”

“Are you sure you’re up for flying again?”

“I don’t want to be here any longer than I have to be,” Mick says. “If this spot is coveted by the Masters of the Forest, Rip’s only the first agent they’ll send our way – next they send the Wild Hunt, which they can still do as long as it’s on their own turf. You can avoid them, but it’s trouble and a half to do it. And if we’ve really pissed them off, they might send the Pilgrim, and that’s bad even for magical creatures like me.”

“Right,” Barry says, shaking his head. He’s heard of the Wild Hunt, of course, but he’s never heard of any legendary creature called the Pilgrim. It sounds ominous, though. “Let’s go, then. But we’ll stop for a break mid-day!”

“Bossy,” Mick says, but he doesn’t sound all that disapproving. “Mid-day break it is. Gimme the pack and climb on.”

“You sure I can’t fly piggy-back on you instead of, uh, the way we were yesterday?” Not that being curled around your back will be any better for my libido than curled around your front…

“Easier this way,” Mick says with a shrug. “I use my back muscles for flying, remember. You’re not skilled enough to stay on without my help.”

Barry sighs, gives into his fate, and goes to wrap his arms around Mick’s neck. Mick smiles at him, a tiny little curl of the lips, and Barry feels warm even before Mick lets out his wings and goes into the air.

Then he shrieks bloody murder again, because Mick’s ascent is really fast. Mick was right not to let him know what was happening the first time they did it.

Barry also wraps his legs around Mick’s waist again, both because he’d like the extra stability and assurance that he’s not going to fall and also because, well, it’s a very nice waist to wrap your legs around.

“So, what were you giggling about yesterday?” Mick asks, wings beating as they go up far enough to enter a glide. “Must’ve been something funny.”

“Just thinking about how my family would react if I brought certain people home,” Barry says.

“I ain’t ever meeting your dad,” Mick says flatly.

“I didn’t mean that family! And who says I meant you?”

“Did you?”

“Well, partially,” Barry admits. “But I was mostly about my sister’s reaction if I brought home a firebird. ‘I leave you alone for five minutes, Barry, and now everything’s on fire again…’”

Mick snickers, even though he’s never met Iris long enough to judge if Barry’s impression of her was good or not. “You light things on fire a lot, slick?” he says, voice warm and approving.

Barry rolls his eyes. Of course the firebird would be stuck on the part with the fire. “Only a few times,” he says. “I do experiments and sometimes I’m, uh, not as careful with the chemicals as I could have been. Though I’m going to state for the record, there was no way I could have predicted a lighting strike hitting my workshop that one time…”

Mick barks a laugh. “No lightning rod?”

“It wasn’t exactly a permitted workshop…”

“So it was your fault.”

“Do you know the odds of a lightning strike?!”

“Depends on what spirits are involved,” Mick says with a smirk.

“I didn’t even know magic was a thing at that point! No vilas involved!”

“How do you know?” Mick asks, smirk widening. “They have terrible senses of humor, as you saw with Mark, and they love irony. How’d you avoid getting electrocuted?”

“I was late to a council meeting that afternoon, and the king kept me back late to yell at me,” Barry says with a sigh, remembering that particular afternoon. “And then by the time I made it to the workshop, it was, well…”

“On fire?”

“Yeah, that. Totally destroyed, and half the guardhouse out there making sure the fire didn’t spread or anything, even though it was still raining. And then my foster father yelled at me for creating a fire hazard. Terrible day all around, really.”

“You seem to have remarkably good luck with being late,” Mick observes.

“Yeah, well,” Barry says, “I don’t want to go down in history and legend as ‘the guy who was late to everything’, no matter how useful it might’ve been.”

“Too late,” Mick says with a smirk. “I can think of all the stupid songs now. ‘There once was a man that was late’ –”

Barry starts laughing. “If you make a dirty limerick about me and make it go down in history, I will kick you as soon as we get close enough to the ground for me to risk it,” he threatens, still laughing. “Oh, man, now I’m thinking about how that could go…”

“There once was a man not on time, who thought that was a good pick-up line –”

“Finish that and I will kick you anyway, mid-air or not!”

Mick is laughing sincerely at this point, big belly laughs that shake his entire frame even as his hands stay sturdy and firm on Barry’s back where he holds him close. “Not as bad as the king you told me about yesterday, with the weird thing with the cheese.”

“That’s a very low bar, Mick; very low bar.”

“I’ll try to think of a nice nickname for you,” Mick says, still chuckling. “Something that has nothing to do with punctuality, yeah?”

“No nickname at all is fine,” Barry replies, still grinning broadly himself. “Not all of us have the luck to just be called ‘the firebird’ – or the Nightingale Robber –”

Mick snorts at that. “Now that’s a name for the ages,” he says, shaking his head.

“Do you know him?” Barry asks, brightening. If Mick knows Len, then maybe he can help Barry track him down. “The guy I like whistles just like him…”

“I knew the last one,” Mick says, smile fading. “The current one – well, it’s a bit complicated.”

“Oh? How so?”

Mick shakes his head. “Not my story to tell, kid. Another time, maybe.”

“Another time,” Barry echoes, disappointed. “Well, tell me about the walruses – you called them the Walrus Collective? Why is that?”

“Well, they’re an organized system of walrus-shifters, but they’re not a monarchy – none of them have any power over the others, really, but they answer requests together like they’re a unified country, so they decided to call themselves the Collective.”

“Is it anything like what they have in Starling City? That’s an oligarchy – they have a royal family, but the Queen and her children are really just the first among equals as opposed to having actual domination over her nobility.”

“Sort of, except there’s no peasants underneath; every Walrus is a member of the Collective and has an equal vote.”

“You know, I still can’t believe we’re going to go steal from walruses.”

“Don’t underestimate them,” Mick warns. “They’re big, fat, lumbering buggers, to be sure, but they’re terrifyingly fast in the water and there’s a reason no one wants to go to war against the Collective. They’re fierce and incredibly powerful, each and every one of them.”

“But still, walruses! I’m going to go home and the local bardic guild is going to leap at me to force me to tell them all about my epic quest, and I’m going to have to tell them about walruses.”

“We broke into the workshop of the Sun; isn’t that something?”

Barry makes a face. “I’ve worked with the guardhouse long enough to know that bragging about your criminal exploits is a really bad idea, okay?”

“Heists have a perfectly legitimate history in quests. Every other prince in the stories is knocking over this or that joint, sneaking into gardens, whatnot.”

“Oh god, we human princes are the bad guys of the magical world,” Barry announces, torn between amusement and some actual horror at the thought. “We show up, raid places for our own quest purposes –”

“You usually screw something up, too,” Mick adds gleefully. “Upturn stable empires, take food from hungry roc who just want to feed some tender human younglings to their babies –”

“I’m not going to apologize for that.”

“– or release terrible monsters that were previously locked away… you know the story of Zmey Gorynych?”

“The three headed dragon?” Barry asks. “One of the most vile and malicious beasts of legend? Constantly plotting to destroy the world and only ever defeated by the slightest of margins? An immortal creature that can only be defeated, not destroyed? Tried to grow large enough to block out and/or eat the sun? Only barely sent back to his slumbers by the efforts of Dobrynya Nikitich?” He pauses. “No, I’ve never heard of him.”

Mick laughs again. “Well, we’re going to pass over his nest in a minute,” he says. “It’s the big mountain up ahead; if you look down, sometimes you can see him breathing. Try not to reach down and wake him up, yeah?”

Barry twisted a little to try to look ahead, which is difficult in his position. Eventually, though, he turns and sees the mountain – tall, but not too tall; no snow at the top, just a crater –

“Wait, the Hathset volcano is where Zmey Gorynych lies sleeping?” Barry exclaims.

“That’s the one,” Mick confirms.

“No wonder St Roch has such problems with volcanic activity. Also, may I just say that I’m impressed at your flying speeds? It’d take me over a week to get to St Roch by horseback, and that’s not counting any delays in the mountains.”

“Big wings move fast,” Mick says smugly. “Look down, we’re about to fly over the crater. It’s all black, dried lava in there, but you can see the red glowing underneath it in pulses – that’s Zmey snoring, or the legends say. Here, lemme flip you so you can get a better view.”

“Noooo, I’m fine as I am, let me just twist around a bit – support my shoulders, will you?” Barry says, leaving his legs as they are and releasing his grip around Mick’s neck, turning at the waist to look down. Mick holds onto his shoulders easily; there’s no feeling like he’s about to fall.

Mick swoops closer to the volcano and Barry peers eagerly down, but all he sees is the empty crater with the black lava, no red at all. “It must not be active right now,” he says regretfully. “Too bad.”

“What do you mean, it’s not – oh, shit,” Mick says, staring down himself. “That’s not a good sign.”

“What isn’t?”

“That volcano’s always active,” Mick says. “If it’s not, that means Zmey’s woken up and gone abroad.”

Shit,” Barry says, because he can’t even imagine what that might mean. “Should we go check it out?”

“No, not now,” Mick says. “Zmey’s a nasty piece of work, well above either of our pay grades. If he is awake – and there’s no guarantee that he’s out instead of just burrowing in deeper – he probably left some traps there for anyone who comes too close to make sure no one reports his absence; there are guards that come for perennial visits to make sure, but no one pays much attention because it’s been decades or even longer since he’s slithered out. I’ll pass on the message to the first magical being we see; they’ll raise the alarm and if he’s out, we’ll get him locked back in before he can cause trouble, don’t worry.”

“Are you sure? I mean, Zmey Gorynych – that’s the big bad of fairy tales, right alongside the koschei.”

“It’s fine,” Mick says firmly. “Zmey being out doesn’t always equal roaming the earth and causing damage; sometimes he sleepwalks, with only one head awake and no memory of who he is, and he just needs to be taken back. Relax, slick; it’s probably a false alarm anyway. You can only sometimes see the snoring from here. Besides, there’s a storm by the coast that we’re heading to; I’ll tell the vila about it and they’ll spread the word.”

“If you’re sure,” Barry says doubtfully.

“I’m sure,” Mick replies, then shakes his head. “You know, I don’t like how many magical creatures we’ve encountered. It’s too many for a quest – me by myself, plus a few cursed creatures or a vila or two, that’s enough for anyone. But you said you encountered a domovoi, and now we’ve had to deal with a leshyi as well –”

“And a rusalka,” Barry adds, thinking of Sara.

“I don’t know why they’re all active,” Mick says, frowning. “Something’s got them all bouncing and – no offense, slick – I don’t think it’s you. Rescue mission’s a pretty standard order quest.”

“Maybe they’re reacting to the koschei’s presence?”

“Could be,” Mick says. “Could be. I don’t know. This isn’t my forte. Let’s just keep on with our quest; fate’s probably already picked some stupid idiot to go figure out the problem with this.”

“I wouldn’t want to be him,” Barry agrees, but he’s still worried. He remains worried when Mick opts to focus on his flying, straining his wings to go faster, instead of continuing to banter. They head straight to the coastline, where even Barry can see there’s a storm brewing: dark clouds slowly gathering, visible and ominous even from far away.

Mick’s powerful wings bring them ever closer. When Barry starts to feel the first raindrops, he asks, “Is this going to be a problem for your wings?”

“I hate the wet,” Mick says grumpily. “Doesn’t mean a few drops have any effect.”

Barry looks at the rapidly blackening clouds. “Uh huh. And what about a downpour?”

“I hate water, okay?” Mick says, sounding even grumpier. “I can fly in some rain, but being surrounded by water on all sides is…unpleasant.”

He says “unpleasant” the way a claustrophobe would say “small tight enclosed space with the walls closing in all around me.”

Barry’s lips twitch. “So you’re basically a giant glowing cat is what you’re saying.”

“You take that back, you little – oh, hey, there’s one. Hey, you!” Mick bellows in the general direction of a stormcloud. Barry cranes his neck, but he can’t see anybody there. “You there! Vila!”

“What do you want?” someone calls back. A woman, by the sound of it; her upper body coalesces in the clouds, not firm enough to actually appear human like Mark had, but simply cloud in the shape of a woman, electric sparks still visible in her torso.

“Got news! Zmey’s mountain’s empty!”

“Yeah, we know!” she calls back. “The Masters of the Forest say they’ve got it handled.”

“I hate those guys,” Mick replies, scowling.

“Me, too, but they’re powerful enough to lead even Zmey back where he belongs,” the woman says. “Now get on the ground before you run smack into a bolt of lightning, pretty firebird. I’ll give you ten minutes’ head start before my sisters and I start really singing.”

Mick looks murderous, but he banks his wings and heads down for the coastline itself.

Barry waits until they’re nearer to the ground – a small copse of trees, not far from the rocky shores – before saying, as neutrally as he can, “Pretty firebird?”

“Don’t you start,” Mick warns. “It’s just a thing people say.”

“Well, you’re certainly very pretty,” Barry says, straight face starting to break up, his lips twitching furiously as he fights back laughter. “First thing I thought about you, really, how pretty, how fragile, how delicate –”

“You called me an over-plucked goose,” Mick says. “I don’t think that’s necessarily better.”

Despite knowing it’s a terrible idea, Barry can’t resist cooing, “Awww, don’t worry, pretty little Mickey.”

Mick abruptly pulls in his wings and goes into a steep dive. Barry shrieks and scrambles to hold on for dear life.

Mick pulls out of the dive, landing easily on his feet, Barry clutching to his waist and neck and shaking like a leaf. “Awww, it’s okay,” he says, voice poisonously sweet and deliberately mimicking Barry’s tone. “You don’t have to be scared. There’s only the entire flight back to consider.”

“I take it all back: you’re positively hideous,” Barry says firmly. “Scarring to both mind and eye. The mere sight of your ghastly visage has made children cry and women scream.”

Mick starts laughing and Barry, pleased, untangles himself, walking off from Mick with shaky legs for a moment before sitting down, hard, and waiting until he gets his balance back. “At least we don’t have to worry about Zmey, right?” he offers.

“That’s one good thing,” Mick agrees. “The Masters of the Forest are irritating, but at least they are powerful. If they’ve got it in hand, we can move on back to our quest.”

“It’s so much less impressive when you realize that we’ve traded in the legendary Zmey Gorynych in favor of stealing from walruses,” Barry says in amusement, standing up and brushing off his knees. He looks up at the sky, which is growing increasingly dark and even a little green. “It’s going to come down any second,” he observes. “Pass my raincoat from the pack, will you?”

“Which one is it?”

“The waxed cotton cape; it’s at the bottom.”

Mick digs it out and hands it to Barry, who swings it around his shoulders and pulls up the hood. “Do you need something?” he asks Mick, who blinks at him. “You’re, well…” Barry’s not sure how to finish that sentence other than “attractively shirtless.”

“I’m fine,” Mick says. “Firebird, remember?”

“Still, if you want to borrow something – keep you from getting cold, at least…”

Mick accepts an overlarge grey shirt, which he pulls on with a grimace. It somehow manages to make him even more handsome, which Barry is honestly amazed by. You can hardly tell he’s a firebird with his feather-shaped burn-marks covered and his gold eyes faded back to their muddling brown; he looks like a human. Like a very attractive human, anyway.

Barry notices a few drops of rain on his coat. “We should try to find shelter,” he says. “This is going to be a bad one. Not something we can wait out under the trees; I may be from the middle of the country, but even I know a green sky means nothing good.”

“There are the caves themselves,” Mick says reluctantly. “But they belong to the Collective; I hadn’t planned to go in there until we’d come up with a better plan than grab and go.”

Barry shrugs. “It worked for us last time,” he points out.

Mick looks uncertain, but he shrugs. “Let’s go in, then. I’ve cased the basic layout; it’s pretty straight-forward – a bunch of linked underground caverns that lead out further into the water. The coats are inside the one in the middle, neither too far out to sea nor too far inland.”

“Let’s go in before the storm starts, then,” Barry says. “The faster we can get the coat and get out, the better off we’ll be.”

“Agreed.” Mick turns and begins to walk in the direction of the shore, Barry tagging along.

A thought occurs to Barry. “The coat we take won’t turn the wearer into a walrus, will it?

Mick snickers. “Worried about developing tusks? No, don’t worry, it only does that for the Walruses themselves.”

“So what does it do?”

“Not sure what you mean.”

“Well, you specified we needed one of their coats,” Barry says. “What does it do for non-Walruses?”

“It’s a coat,” Mick says. “It keeps you warm. Not wet. Usual coat-like things.”

“Why’d it have to be one of their coats, then?”

“It’s like the Sun gear,” Mick says. “Sure, there’s other gear that’ll block brightness and temperature, but nothing’ll do it like the Sun. There’s nothing like a Walrus coat for keeping warm.”

“And it’s worth all this trouble?”

“It is,” Mick says firmly. “I need to have the best, and nothing else will do.”

Barry sighs, but hey, what does he know? Magical quests are not his forte. The stories do always seem to have any number of absurd requirements for whatever it is that the people want to do…

“So, how do you propose we get in?” he asks.

“Just walk in, I’d say,” Mick replies. “With this storm, they won’t be that surprised. But we have to be very careful not to ask for their hospitality in advance or thank them for it, or even eat something – if we accept their hospitality and then steal from them, there’ll be consequences. But if we say nothing and they let us in anyway…”

“What, if we don’t say anything, they won’t be angry about theft?” Barry says skeptically.

“Oh, they’ll be angry,” Mick says with a shrug. “But they won’t have any magical standing to call down vengeance upon us for crossing the guest laws.”

“Right, so we need to get in. What do we say?”

“Dunno. Think of something.”

“Why me?”

“It’s not my job,” Mick says shortly. “Makes yourself useful, will you?”

Barry mutters to himself angrily for a moment, feeling thoroughly unappreciated, and then an idea hits him. He grins. “Oh, I got one. Play along with me, will you?” He straightens up and strides forward in the direction of the cave, which even he can see by now.

The rain has started to fall in earnest now, though it hasn’t quite yet unleashed the fury of the storm that approaches – Barry can see it across the water, though, a billowing wall of dark clouds sweeping towards them at impossible speed – and he speeds up, Mick making faces as the rain hits him.

“This weather is positively absurd; I cannot seem to get an accurate measurement on a single one of my instruments,” Barry exclaims as they near the entrance, calling on every memory of every finicky scientist he’s ever had the displeasure of meeting. “Can you believe it? It’s simply unacceptable, I tell you.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” Mick says, shooting Barry a confused look. “A storm at this time of year.”

“Midsummer! Midsummer, I tell you! We’re hardly ten days out from the day itself, and who’s ever heard of thunderstorms on midsummer’s day?”

“Well, summer thunderstorms…” Mick starts to say, but Barry throws up his hands.

“Don’t be absurd, of course there are summer thunderstorms,” he lectures. “But midsummer itself is meant to be hot – don’t you understand how storm systems work? Hot and cold air, the way they mix; it’s all very important. Honestly, you’re positively useless as a scientific assistant; it’s a good thing you can carry all of the equipment. Now, where was I?”

“The weather,” Mick offers, looking entirely mystified.

Barry leads them straight up to the doors, where there’s a massive man standing by the cave and clearly guarding the entrance. He’s obviously not human, being well over seven feet tall and as broad as Mick and Barry put together side by side, his thick belly protruding proudly over solid, trunk-like legs and his face largely obscured by a long beard braided into two trailing braids in a manner that would have reminded Barry of a walrus’ tusks even if he hadn’t known they were heading for caves belonging to shape-shifting walruses, his thick hands looking meaty enough to rip Barry’s head off by force alone. He’s wearing a big, thick coat that goes down to his thighs, the edges covered in whiskery-looking fur and with a broad, fluffy ruff along the hood that frames his face, and thick leathery boots with a matching ruff. Fat and lazy, Barry reminds himself, understanding entirely just looking at the man why no one wanted to war against the Collective. The man is indeed fat, layers of blubber covering layers of muscle, but he’s also terrifying; Barry hopes he is as lazy as Mick suggested. His plan relies on it.

Barry’s been talking non-stop as they approach the door, nonsense about storm systems that he picked up and probably all wrong, and he continues now, “– and therefore, as you can see, it is entirely unseasonable for a storm of this magnitude. And worse, for it to come along right now, when I had put aside an entire day for experiment work, why, it’s preposterous. True scientific work should not have to stand aside for these frivolities –”

“I’ll be sure to mention that to nature,” Mick says dryly, clearly still not following but enjoying Barry’s absurd carping.

“Yes, you do that – there really should be someone a man can write to in order to deal with these inconveniences – someone in authority, certainly; I don’t see why I shouldn’t be reimbursed for my efforts, as it’s certainly no fault of mine that my instruments – I say, step aside, good man, we’re coming in and you’re in the way,” Barry says, abruptly addressing the walrus-man, who has been looking equally amused. As soon as he’s said it, he turns back to Mick, “And after the expense that I took to come here, with delicate equipment, no less! The cost of the transport, of course, plus a reimbursement for my time –” He spins back to the walrus-man. “I say, are you deaf? Did you not hear me? Step aside. We have delicate scientific equipment in our packs, we must come inside at once.”

He turns back to Mick again, continuing to complain in his best nasal tone about the difficulty of obtaining funding and how unfair it is that kingdoms reaped such benefits from scientific advancement while forcing good, upstanding scientists to pay for it themselves – he’s heard this speech from the nobility-born scientists at home so often, he can recite it word for word; he’d never before realized he could get some mileage out of that skill – but, as he’d hoped, the walrus-man shakes himself all over and steps aside, shooting Mick a sympathetic look that Mick returns with a very convincing “he’s a crazy self-absorbed asshole, please forgive him for his assholery” look instead of demanding anything from them or even speaking to them.

Barry can’t blame him, silent nodding and a quick escape is how he usually deals with scientists who have cornered him to complain, as if Barry had any input in how the kingdom’s funding worked and could actually have any effect on any of the things they were complaining about.

He marches inside, still stridently complaining, and only cuts off when they’re down the hallway and have made some turns to go further inside.

Mick’s shoulders have been shaking suspiciously ever since they passed the guard and when they finally get far enough for Barry to feel comfortable to stop talking, he starts laughing.

“Good job, slick,” he says in between laughs. “Well done! I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Walrus look that freaked out before. He would’ve paid you money not to talk to him.”

“He thought we were oblivious humans,” Barry says confidently. “No point in asking humans to keep a deal, right? We’re not bound?”

“That’s right,” Mick says, nodding. “Drives magical creatures nuts how you break your deals with each other left and right. You can’t bind yourselves to a magical creature, either, unless you knowingly enter into that deal – and even then, the consequences of breaking it aren’t that bad, mostly pissing off the creature. Guest laws are universal, though, so breaking them gets even humans into real trouble.”

“Most humans don’t obey the guest laws anymore; at least not the ones in the big cities,” Barry points out. “Certainly not the nobility. You’d have to explain what it was, first, and that would involve getting it through their skulls…”

Mick snorts. “And that would’ve involved a conversation lasting at least an hour, with you screeching at him in that horrible voice the entire time. I see why he avoided it.”

“I wish I could’ve,” Barry says, shaking his head. “A good half of that was a verbatim quote.”

Mick grunts, putting a warm hand on Barry’s shoulder in quiet sympathy.

“Either way, we’re in and past the guard,” Barry says, smiling back at Mick. “Now where is it? We can grab it and run back out, assuming you don’t mind flying in a storm.”

“I’ll manage,” Mick says, sounding a little dubious. “Still, better to get in and out before we do trip up the guest laws in some way.”

“How come that wasn’t a problem at the Workshop?”

“People might stay there, but it’s a workshop, not a home and certainly not a lair,” Mick says. “No guest laws apply. Whereas this is private property of a certain clan, and they’ve been very good at keeping up marking it as theirs and theirs alone – so you come in as a guest by invite, you’re bound by the strictest rules. You come in by trespass and they have the right to attack right off. But you come in like we did, by their license but not by their invitation, and no one owes duties to anyone until something happens to change the calculus one way or the other.”

Barry nods. “Then let’s get in and out as quick as we can,” he says, raising a hand and tapping his chest, where Mick’s feather is concealed. “Should be a snap after what we dealt with in the workshop. Let’s go look at it – or, uh, case it out, I guess you’d say? We need to know how to get in and out and what the layout is so that we can plan it out. We’ll have an exit route laid out, then once we know what that is, you’ll set up a distraction, I’ll move in at super-speed and we’ll meet out front; same as we did before.”

“Sounds good, boss,” Mick says with a smirk. “Follow me – it’s this way.”

Chapter Text

“Well, could be better, could be worse,” Barry says to Mick in an undertone.

It isn’t as straightforward a path between the target and the exit as it had been in the Workshop: the caverns are deep and wide and sometimes winding, the way things are in nature with no hand to shape them, and there are deep pools that lead to the outside sea in each cavern through which real walruses – or possibly Walruses in their animal guise – regularly slip in and out, barking and snorting and snuffling. The Walruses themselves sit everywhere on the rocks, massive men and women dressed in warm-looking oilskin coats with fur ruffs, talking and snorting and grunting in much the same tenor as their animal namesakes. They drink from tankards so large that Barry could use them as buckets to bail out a sinking ship, rip into raw fish with their teeth, eating clams and mussels and oysters by the dozen from massive heaps on the side of the various caverns. Most of the foodstuff seems wet and cold, but every once in a while they will come across a cavern with a fire pit, roasting the giant carcass of a bearded seal, the Walruses ripping giant kebabs of the greasy meat off of iron skewers the size of swords.

Barry notices that Mick is eying the roasting seal longingly and pulls him out of the room. So far, the Walruses haven’t paid them much mind; everyone seems to assume they belong to someone else and the Walruses seem especially disinterested in anything beyond their belongings and things that could become their belongings.

They mostly talk of mating: of the long hunger of the breeding season in the winter and early spring, of the new calves that have been born in the spring migration, of filling up so that they can be strong again come next January. Their words are very frank.

Barry thinks this is all incredibly fascinating and wishes he wasn’t here to steal from them.

The Cavern of the Coats, as Barry has started thinking of it, is, as Mick told him, neither too far into the waterline nor too far inland. Like all the others, it is half rocky ground, half deep pool leading to the outside; the coats are piled messily everywhere in stacks as high as the eye can see. The coats themselves are of all shapes and sizes and colors and thicknesses; Barry can entirely see why Mick might think that the Walruses would not mind one going missing. The cavern itself is among a series of what Barry assumes are caverns designated for storage, filled with goods of all sorts, many with human markings and signs of having been underwater; these caverns are thankfully not as filled with Walruses as the caverns designed for sitting and eating are, or their mission would be over before it began.

“You got a plan?” Mick asks, and Barry nods, looking both ways before pulling Mick into a handy nook with him.

“I’ll be the corridor down from the Cavern of the Coats to start with,” he tells Mick, keeping his voice down. “You go to the other end and start a fire, then come back my way. I’ll toss you the coat, and then I’ll run us both all the way out. Then, if I collapse – which I shouldn’t, given that I’m not going to be running for thirty minutes this time – you’ll grab me and we’ll fly off before they can get to us. Sound good?”

“Sounds good. How long do you need?”

“I’ll count five minutes down and then run in; you should start heading back already by that point. Anything I should know about the coat I'm going to get or will any one of them do?"

"Make it blue," Mick advises, then heads out.

Barry looks after him, wondering again why Mick insists that Barry be the one in charge of planning heists when Mick clearly has more experience, but that isn't important now. They go in, they get the coat, they get out.

Nice, clean, simple.

Naturally, everything starts going wrong immediately.

Barry counts down the time in his head, readying his feet, and then promptly misses his cue when a Walrus wanders by. Barry pastes on a sickly smile and waits for them to pass, hoping that he can still get to the coats in time.

It takes what feels like forever, but is likely less than a minute, for the Walrus to walk out of the room. The second he’s out of sight, Barry dashes out in the other direction, aiming for the coats.

The room's floor is muddier than the others, coating his shoes and calves with the stuff; he didn’t notice that when they were casing the room before and nearly loses his balance, but he manages to stay upright. He digs into a pile and pulls out a blue-and-white coat, turning away from the pile and sliding back into normal speed just in time to see Mick sprinting into the coat room from further seaward, the sounds of angry whistling and shrieking behind him.

Barry tosses Mick the coat, shouting, "This work?"

Mick looks down on it and his eyes light up; he shouts a wordless affirmation in return, continuing to run. Barry follows.

Tries to follow.

He can't move his legs.

It's worse than the greasy feeling of the daytime trap, a hundred times worse; his legs are stiff and unresponsive, filled with an awful pins-and-needles feeling like they had fallen asleep. Worse, when he looks down, he realizes he’s somehow sunk into the muddy floor; his feet are almost entirely covered and the mud, which is somehow now splattered up to Barry’s knees, is inching up his ankles.

“It’s a trap,” Barry breathes, horrified. He hadn’t seen it, so he hadn’t thought about it, but of course the Walruses would protect their valuables. “Mick! Mick!

“Get a move on, slick!” Mick shouts, not slowing.

“It’s a trap!” Barry shouts. “Mick! I can’t get out!”

Mick slows and stops, turning back to Barry with an annoyed expression, but Barry sees the moment that he realizes that Barry's stuck in the mud and can't follow.

Barry also sees the moment after that, where it hits both of them simultaneously that Mick has the coat they were after and a clear line to the exit if he just keeps going. He has the goggles, too; they're shoved into his pocket.

Barry recalls with horror that Mick told him he didn't need a speedster for the remaining tasks, just that first one, and that he'd just thrown in the whole set on a whim. Mick could turn and go and leave Barry behind; it would distract the Walruses better than anything else he could do.

It's almost logical to leave, really; there's no way to guarantee that they could get Barry out of the mud in time to keep on with their plan of grabbing the coat and running. Judging from the sound of angry barking, which is growing steadily louder, if Mick doesn't leave soon, they'll both be caught, and what would be the point in that? Better to cut your losses, as either Eobard or Hunter would say.

And what’s Barry to Mick, anyway, other than a surprise companion who could help with Mick’s already made plans, a tag-along prince on his own stupid quest; and Barry already knows that Mick trusts no one and likes even fewer, excepting only his lost beloved partner.

Barry can see the expression on Mick's face perfectly as he comes to the same conclusion, his eyes dropping to the coat in his hands, then to Barry, then to the coat again.

It's like time is moving slow again, but this time there's no need to use the feather.

Barry has all but resigned himself to being thrown into whatever the Walruses consider to be a jail when Mick abruptly says, "Fuck it" and throws the coat back onto one of the giant piles in the room.

"What are you doing?" Barry exclaims, aghast. He'd gotten stuck in magic mud for that coat!

But then Mick is running again, but he’s running towards Barry, his shoulders starting to glow gold under his shirt. Barry has less than a moment to think he’s not leaving me before Mick jumps straight over the mud, tackling Barry right in the midsection, the force of the impact throwing Barry backwards with the sheer weight of the man - Mick is clearly not lightening his bones right now, oof - and jerking his feet free of the mud in one solid effort.

Barry lands on his back, hard, and Mick rolls off of him and into a crouch, eyes darting from side to side as he evaluates his options.

"Take a deep breath," he snarls at Barry, who has only enough time to obey, inhaling deep into his lungs, when Mick grabs him around the waist and throws them both into the deep pool beside the coats, beating his way down towards the exit to the sea that Barry can see in the swirling darkness below, lit up with dully glowing sea cucumbers laid out like a guiding light.

Mick gets them most of the way there in three solid kicks of his feet, Barry in tow, when he abruptly stops, gliding along on inertia alone, his hands clenching down on Barry. Barry can't see Mick's face, but he knows immediately that Mick’s abruptly realized that he’s surrounded by water, that he is in fact underwater, and has started panicking. Barry slithers his hands around Mick’s body, one under his arms and one over, and starts kicking his own legs, trying to pull along the body of his companion, who is now frozen in terror. It’s hard work – Mick is heavy, human-heavy, though less heavy than he’d been when he’d tackled Barry – but once Barry gets them through the sea gate, Mick sees the glimmer of light from the surface and goes crazy trying to reach it, kicking his legs and moving through the water as if propelled by far more than that.

The beating of invisible wings underwater works very much like the movement of a giant fin, and they break the surface of the water just as Barry’s lungs are starting to burn with the need for air.

Mick is still thrashing, his eyes white all around with panic, and doesn’t seem to realize he’s hit the surface, trying desperately to get up higher and being pulled down into the water by his efforts. Barry, still wrapped around him, shouts, “Stop! Mick! We can breathe!”

“It’s wet,” Mick bellows, unappeased. “Get me out of here!”

“Probably a good idea,” Barry shouts back over the lashing rain and cracks of thunder as the storm rages around them. Everything around them is black and the water is choppy; every other minute a wave smacks him in the face and chokes him. They’ll never survive being out in the water in this weather. “We need to get to shore before we drown!”

It occurs to Barry immediately after he says it that using the word “drown” isn’t the best idea, but Mick screeches, an inhuman sound not unlike a diving eagle, and they abruptly shoot out of the water and into the downpour, Mick’s wings fully extended and glowing like a lighthouse even as the rain dampens their flames into a dull, sickly pale yellow. Barry clings to Mick, knowing that if he falls, Mick won’t notice and won’t be able to come back for him, that he’ll be swept away in the waves before he can even blink and no one will ever find his body unless it by chance washes up on a distant shore.

They collapse on the shore in a sodden pile. Barry rolls out of Mick’s grasp and pulls him to his feet. Mick is shaking, his eyes still wild, and he seems not to know where he is; Barry leans forward and yells over the sounds of the storm, “We need to get inland!” before starting to pull an unresisting Mick forward. He tries to use his speed to get them there faster, but the magic mud is still coating his legs even after their dip in the ocean and the feather doesn’t respond to his efforts. Barry grits his teeth and half-carries Mick away from the shore the old fashioned way.

It’s not until they get back to the safety of the trees and collapse again, breathing hard, Mick curled up into a glowing ball that’s more wet feathers than man, that Barry can actually think about what happened.

Mick came back for him.

Mick threw back the coat and came back for him.

Mick went into the sea to save Barry, despite his terror of water.

Barry puts his hand on his chest, but the squeezing inside of it is nothing like panic, and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He turns and looks at Mick in his misery, and he feels –

This man did that for me.

For Barry, not the prince of Central, not even anyone useful anymore, and he still chose Barry over completing the mission that would help him avenge his old partner.

Barry’s heart feels like a burning ember in his chest, filled with warmth and longing and affection and overwhelming want.

Well, that’s going to be a complication, Barry thinks miserably to himself. I loved Len first, and Mick’s probably not interested, and this is terrible, terrible, terrible – but damn it, he’s beautiful even when he’s wet and part-bird and I don’t know what I’m going to do without him when this quest ends and he goes away.

Maybe he can convince Mick to stay. They’ve been pretty decent partners up until now, haven’t they? And his father’s scientific desires have always been curtailed by the rules of politeness, and there’s plenty of precedent (albeit centuries old) for bringing home a magical creature as a bride…

You’re getting ahead of yourself, Barry; he’s still in mourning over that partner of his, Barry tells himself sternly. And you don’t know what you’re going to do if you meet Len again, and this is such a bad idea, and –

No matter what Barry tells himself, though, Barry’s traitorous heart keeps singing Mick’s name.

“We should find shelter,” he eventually says, because the trees are better than being out on the shore and the shore is in turn better than being in the water, but Barry’s starting to shake with cold and wet even though the rain is pretty warm, comparatively. The joy of summer thunderstorms.

Plus, the idea of being hit by lightning? Really doesn’t appeal. It’d be just his luck, too.

Mick mumbles something that sounds a lot like “go to hell”, but Barry ignores Mick and goes over to him to pull him up. Mick’s more bird than human right now: his face is still mostly human, beady golden eagle eyes in a familiar face that has feathers creeping up the sides of his jaw and forehead, but his body is sleek and aerodynamic, his wings broad and encompassing most of his frame, and Barry’s not sure where Mick’s arms are right now. It’s not unlike a goose writ on a giant scale, actually, making his initial reaction all the more amusing.

“C’mon, Mick,” he says coaxingly. “Go back to human. Your feathers won’t get wet that way. Skin is more waterproof than feathers. C’mon. You can do it.”

Mick grumbles but complies, folding his wings back – and Barry was right, his arms were hidden into his wings, and wow, that shirt is a total loss, it’s mostly rags hanging by the barest threads all over Mick’s body at this point – and finally Mick stands up, his face twisted into what must be the world’s best bitch face.

“Thanks for coming to get me,” Barry tells him, voice almost drowned out by the raging of the storm above them, cutting off whatever complaint Mick was about to voice. “You – I know you didn’t have to. You could have left me there.”

Mick snorts and shakes his head. “And you could’ve left me underwater to drown,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to move. Fuck, I hate water.”

“I couldn’t have left you there,” Barry exclaims. “You would’ve died.”

“Yeah,” Mick says. “Exactly. Now where did you say we were going to get out of this mess?”

“Inland,” Barry decides, letting Mick change the subject. “Thicker trees, taller trees; more shelter from the rain and the lightning.” He turns to lead the way, reaching out to take Mick’s arm to gently tug him along. Mick follows, still complaining about the wet sotto voce. Barry lets him do that for a while before interrupting, saying, “We’re never going to get back in there the straightforward way, are we?”

“No,” Mick says, successfully derailed from his complaining. “We’ll have to figure out something else, I guess. Either way, they’ll still be pissed – I figure that mud shit only activates when someone is thinking of stealing.”

Barry nods, having figured the same thing; it hadn’t activated the first few times they toured the room, but they hadn’t been “in the act” at that point.

Then something catches his eye and he tugs on Mick’s arm. “Look, there are tracks!” he says, pointing. “Footprints!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mick says flatly.

“For them not to have gotten wet enough to wash away means that they’re recent, and they’re headed that way,” Barry explains. “If we follow them, we’ll be able to find whatever they used as shelter. You’re not one for tracking, I take it?”

“I’m a bird part of the time,” Mick replies, rolling his eyes. “If I want to know which way someone went, I just fly high and see them.”

Barry snickers, but keeps following the tracks. It’s not necessary to keep his hand on Mick’s arm any more – Mick’s following in earnest now, not dazed like he was before – but it’s the easiest thing in the world to let his hand slip down Mick’s arm until Mick turns his palm and weaves their fingers together in return, and Barry’s not going to object to walking through a forest holding hands if Mick isn’t.

He feels warm and happy, even though he’s also simultaneously soaked to the bone and starting to shake a bit. He really needs to get out of this wet clothing. Any longer and he’ll get sick, he knows it.

They follow the tracks deeper into the forest, hurrying a little now to make sure they can follow them before they get washed away by the rain, and then they make a certain turn and distantly, between the trees, Barry can see a little cabin.

“Oh, man, finally,” he says, squeezing Mick’s hand. “Look, Mick – a cabin! We should be able to change clothing and dry off there; if whoever made these tracks are still there, they’ve probably already heated the place. We’ve lost all our pack, haven’t we?”

“Probably in the sea somewhere,” Mick confirms. “Or in the caverns; I don’t remember when I tossed it off, but it was weighing me down.”

“Well, maybe we can borrow something,” Barry says optimistically. He leads them closer to the clearing where the cabin is located and they’re just about to pass through the last set of trees when Mick comes to an abrupt stop.

“We can’t go there,” he hisses, staring at the cabin.

“Why not?” Barry asks, confused. Is this like the leshyi again? he wonders despairingly. We need to get shelter soon or we’ll die of fever, or at least I will.

“Look at the base of the house!” Mick exclaims, still keeping his voice down. Barry looks. It’s a raised house, which makes sense this close to the sea, sturdy floor a few feet off the ground anchored at the four cornered with raising platforms stylized to look like chickens’ feet, or possibly hawk’s feet, Barry can’t tell.

“So they have weird choice in décor,” Barry says. “They probably have a fire, Mick.”

Mick looks tempted for a long moment – Barry knows by now how the firebird feels about fire, so that was a bit of a cheap blow – but he shakes his head. “Barry, hawk legs at the base of a house means that this house isn’t just a house. It’s Baba Yaga’s house. She eats people.”

Oh.

Barry’s heard of Baba Yaga, of course; the crone of the forest, the fearsome witch with iron teeth, said to be four thousand years old. She’s just as famous in legend as the koschei or Zmey Gorynych, but with one key difference: the others are always villains, but she is sometimes willing to help individuals who are willing to help her in turn.

Admittedly, the rest of the time she eats them.

It’s really a coin flip as to what role she plays in any given story.

“Sometimes she’s good,” Barry says helplessly.

“She. Eats. People,” Mick enunciates clearly, as if Barry has gone deaf. “People like you, all tender young flesh and whatnot, and people like me, too. She’ll take one look at me and think that I’ll taste like chicken.”

“Listen, we’re half drowned and the Walruses are almost certainly hunting us down,” Barry says, shuddering at the thought of the huge men and women and animals they left behind them on the warpath. “You said they were quick in water – as soon as they see the mud and our pack, they’ll figure out what’s going on. I can’t run quickly because this stupid mud isn’t coming off, and this storm looks like it’s going to go on for a while yet. We need to find shelter, we need help, and right now, this is the only place around. We’re going in. Got it?”

Mick scowls back, but nods and says, “Fine, I got it. If we have to fly out of there quickly, though, I’m blaming you.”

Barry smiles – when they started, Mick would have just threatened to leave him behind or possibly to burn him – and squeezes Mick’s hand again. “C’mon,” he says. “Usually she makes you sign up to do some impossible tasks first, right? We can stall as long as it takes to get dry, or, worse case scenario, if she starts being malicious, we just don’t go in and take our chances in the forest, okay?”

“Worst case scenario is that she has her big pot out and tips us both straight in,” Mick grumbles, but he squeezes Barry’s hand in return and lets Barry lead him straight up to the door.

Barry knocks.

The person who opens the door is… not what he was expecting.

A slim woman in her mid-twenties blinks at Barry: she’s dark skinned with brown hair intercut with pale yellow streaks, big dark eyes and a generous mouth, and a little sprinkle of freckles over her cheeks. She’s wearing an elaborate leather corset of intercut tan and black, with matching sleeves that go from wrist to shoulder, and on top of it, rather incongruously, she’s wearing a soft-looking pale pink sweater with white buttons down the side hanging open in front of her.

“Um,” she says.

“Um,” Barry says.

“We’re very wet and it’s raining and awful and fucking hell, you have a fire going, let us in,” Mick says in one big rush.

“Right,” the woman says, blinking a little, then her face relaxes into a smile and she steps aside, motioning for them to enter.

Mick makes a beeline for the giant hearth, plopping himself down and curling up towards it, fixing his intent gaze on it and all but putting up a giant sign saying “Not moving, don’t disturb, you do the talking, Barry” over his head.

Barry sighs and rubs his face. “I’m sorry,” he tells the woman. “He’s… um…”

Barry has no idea how to say “he’s rude, misanthropic, possibly a pyromaniac and he’s also very dear to me for reasons I know not.”

“He’s wet,” the woman suggests. “And not happy about it.”

“That’s about right,” Barry says gratefully. “I’ve met cats who like water more.”

“Well, he is a firebird,” the woman points out. “They’re not exactly meant to be aquatic. What brings a firebird out this close to the shore in the middle of a storm, anyway?”

“It’s a long story,” Barry temporizes. “Um, outside, Mick was saying that your house looked a lot like… I mean, with the chicken-or-possibly-hawk-feet platforms…”

“Oh!” she exclaims. “Yes, I’m Baba Yaga, if you’re wondering. Is he really named Mick? That’s a terrible name for a firebird.”

“It’s better than what it’s short for, according to him,” Barry says, blinking at what he had assumed was Baba Yaga’s granddaughter or something. “Wait, you’re the four thousand year old witch? Um. I mean. No offense meant or anything…you look very good for your age…”

Mick at this point has twists in his seat by the fire to give Barry an incredulous look. “Seriously?”

But Baba Yaga is laughing. “Oh, man,” she says. “Oh, man. I haven’t been asked that question so bluntly in decades. You’re not very polite, are you?”

Barry groans and puts his head in his hands. “I’m normally better than this,” he whines. “I really am, I swear…”

She pats him on the shoulder. “I’ll give you both some warm clothing to change into,” she says kindly. “I’m clearly not getting anything like sense out of either of you until you’re warm and dry again, which I can’t blame you for – the vila are dancing their little hearts out and the jurakan have come to play early this year, and the mix of the two of them is just plain awful no matter who or what you are. What’s your name, boy?”

“Barry. Sorry about imposing like this. And for being so tactless.”

“It’s fine, it’s fine. In answer to your question, by the by, I reincarnate. I live until I’m old and grey, and then I shake off my years and start again as a young woman. You caught me just at the start of a cycle, by chance – you’re just a little while too late to catch me in my full Baba Yaga grandmother of the forest get-up.”

“Being late is basically my personal motto at this point,” Barry sighs. “So I’m not surprised.”

“I feel like there’s a story behind that.”

“Oh, you have no idea…er, should I just call you Baba Yaga?”

“You can call me Kendra,” she says, turning and digging through a closet and pulling out some blankets and fresh clothing. “It’s the name my parents gave me, this time around.”

“Parents?” Barry says curiously. “So you start over as a baby?”

“I usually make myself a baby out of clay and leaves and then I give it to some couple, usually infertile, with the promise that if they raise my baby, they will soon after have one of their own as well. If they treat both of them kindly, I tend to be in a good mood that lifetime; if they prefer their own, I’m far nastier. So you’re in luck!”

“Three cheers for good parenting,” Barry says, blinking. “So, wait, if you make the baby and drop it off, how are you also the baby?”

“I’m both at the same time,” Kendra explains. “And both are me. But the baby isn’t Baba Yaga until I cast off my crone shape and incarnate in my new body, usually when it reaches adulthood.” She smiles broadly. “My parents this time around are still alive, actually, and they still want me to visit, isn’t that nice? That almost never happens. I really lucked out. How about you? Do you like your parents?”

“My foster parents are fantastic,” Barry replies automatically, then blushes. “Um, not that my father – my birth father, that is, my mother’s dead – I mean, he’s good, too, most of the time – I have no real complaints –”

Kendra snickers. “Well, I’m certainly not going to say that foster parents aren’t as important as birth parents, given my particular method of raising myself. I’m glad you have parents that love you – what about you, firebird? Mick, was it?”

Mick, who at this point has filched a blanket and wrapped it around his shoulders, glares at both of them for interrupting his communing time with the fire.

“Well?” Kendra says, a little steel coming into her voice.

“Both of ‘em are dead,” he finally says. “Long gone. Liked ‘em fine when they were around, but now they’re not, and I don’t like to talk about it.”

Kendra promptly relaxes, the steel disappearing like it’s never been there. “That’s too bad,” she says. “Let me go get you both something hot to drink; that’ll give you an opportunity to change. Just hang your wet things by the fire, will you? And take a blanket; I always have a million extra, so you can have whichever one you want.”

Barry watches her putter off towards the door which she had used as a closet, but which now seems to lead towards a small pantry.

Pulling off his wet clothing is an incredible relief, and so is the clothing Kendra provided: well-woven pants and shirt in a warm reddish hue for Barry and an appropriate tan-color for Mick to swap out his pants for. Barry coaxes Mick into putting on a shirt again as well, arguing that it will warm by the fire, and Mick begrudgingly complies, though he wraps the blanket he’s chosen – a dark green one – around his shoulders again the second he’s done.

Honestly, that’s not such a bad idea; Barry grabs a blanket of his own – an absurdly bright yellow one that appeals to his sense of fun – and drops it in his lap.

Kendra comes in right about then, holding tea bags, and smiles at both of them. “Good choices,” she says, going to the fire and starting to set up a kettle.

“Choices?” Barry asks, puzzled.

“The blankets,” she says with a laugh. “I tend to leave them out as a test, particularly in nasty weather; you can tell a lot about a person by what blanket he or she picks. You’re possessed of a good sense of humor, and Mick here is grounded and practical, and both of you went for blankets that would keep you warm and dry instead of the richer ones.” She gestured at some blankets that are woven tapestries or are shot through with gold and silver threads.

Honestly, Barry didn’t even notice those; the yellow one was funny looking and near to hand, and that was good enough, but hey, if Kendra wants to take it as some symbol of good character, he’s happy to let her.

Also, he really hopes she doesn’t eat people.

“Do you eat people?” Barry asks. Then he smacks himself in the face. “Oh my god…”

Kendra giggles. “Only when they deserve it. Don’t worry; I think it’s cute how you have absolutely no filter.”

“I’m glad one of us does.”

“Make that two,” Mick adds, snuggling under his blanket. “It’s hilarious.”

“I will smack you with another pillow, Mick, just watch me.”

Kendra turns back from the fire and claps her hands together. “Anyway! Let me pour us all some tea and you can tell me all about your quest – you are on a quest, aren’t you?”

Barry starts from the top. Mick doesn’t really contribute much, other than to offer color once he enters in the picture – Kendra laughs for three minutes solid about the “goose” comment – and to try to play down his occasional acts of empathy. Barry wasn’t entirely sure how to mention the actual stealing element of what they were doing, but as he’s trying to paper over exactly why they went to the Workshop of the Sun, Mick rolls his eyes and says, “We went there on a heist, Barry. It’s not that hard.”

“Heists?” Kendra says, clapping her hands together again. “So cool!”

“Does anyone in the magical world follow the law?” Barry asks.

“Nah,” Kendra says. “You keep to the deals you’ve made and you obey the basic universal rules, guest rules and host rules and such, but by and large ‘law’ is a human concept. With magical creatures, the only question as to if you can take something is whether you can take something.”

“That explains so much about everybody’s reactions thus far.”

“Tell me more; what happened next?”

By the end of it, Barry feels like Kendra has a good grasp on what happened. She went quiet around the time Barry described their flight over the volcano and remained quiet through the story with the walruses, not even cracking a smile at Barry’s explanation of how they got in, so after he concludes, Barry asks, “Is everything all right?”

“Zmey Gorynych might be walking the land,” she says darkly. “And that’s never good.”

“You know him?” Mick asks curiously. “In person, I mean?”

“Unfortunately,” she says, making a face. “He keeps murdering my lovers, one right after the other; he’s terribly jealous even though I’ve never shown him the slightest bit of interest. I’ve got a very nice young man in a fisherman’s village not far from here, Carter of the Far Hall, and I don’t intend to see another one dead at Zmey’s hands.”

“Well, the vila said that the Masters of the Forest were getting him back to his nest,” Barry says encouragingly.

“I’d prefer to get my hands on him myself,” Kendra says, fingers tightening on her mug of tea, eyes glittering and making clear that Zmey wouldn’t leave such an encounter peacefully. “He’s got an appointment with my pestle.” She nods towards a long, stout stick with a rounded golden edge, which looks more like a mace than a pestle to Barry’s eyes. It has spikes. Yikes.

“Well, I think the Masters of the Forest have got it covered, but I guess if we see him first, we could try to send you some sort of message?” Barry offers.

Mick turns and gives him an incredulous look.

“What? He kills her lovers! I can’t stand men who think women belong to them and act accordingly, regardless of what the woman thinks. Vengeance is clearly the right answer here.”

“That isn’t the point! Have you ever thought of not offering to make a deal with a magical creature?” Mick asks. “Kendra, I take it back; his lack of filter is not cute at all.”

“I still like it,” she says firmly, smile tugging at her lips. “But really, Barry, you should be more cautious. You never know what’ll happen.”

“Trusting in people’s innate goodness has worked out pretty well for me thus far,” Barry says, crossing his arms. “And it’s not like I’m going to offer Zmey or the koschei a deal or anything.”

“No, but Zmey will likely try to offer you one,” Kendra says with a sigh. “I think I will take you up on that offer, though; you’ve encountered a positively absurd number of creatures on your travels so far, even for a quest –”

“I know, right?” Mick says.

“– so you might run into the Masters and Zmey at some point; who knows? Take that mug you’re holding with you when you go; it’s one of mine. If you break it, I will be there.”

Barry looks down at the mug, which is carved in the shape of a hawk-like mask, two eyes and a pointed nose in the front and two wings sweeping up the sides to merge into the top of the handle. “Uh, okay,” he says, and very carefully puts it down. “You mean like, break-break, right? Not like accidental chipping? Because as the cook back in my city can tell you, I’m actually kind of clumsy…”

Kendra snickers. “Smash it to pieces as a summons,” she clarifies. “I’ll ignore minor acts of crockery damage.”

“Can you help us get back into the Walrus caverns?” Mick asks eagerly. “In return, I mean.”

“I can do that,” she decides. “That seems a fair trade for keeping my Carter alive – you have no idea how frustrating it is, finally finding a good man and then he gets killed before I get more than a few years’ use out of him.”

“It doesn’t really matter if we get back into the caverns, though,” Barry objects. “We don’t have a plan to get the coats, I don’t have my super speed, and – actually, Kendra, could you maybe do something about this mud?” Barry gestures at his feet. The new pants cover most of the mud, but his boots appear to be a total loss and his feet are still covered in the sticky stuff. “I’ve been going at it with a towel, but I can’t seem to make it come off.”

“Let me take a look – ooh, yes, I see the problem. That’s a strong spell, moon-magic; you can only get it off if you’re wearing a Walrus’ coat.”

Great.”

“I’d get it off if I could,” Kendra says apologetically. “But the more specific an enchantment is, the harder it is to get off. I might end up turning you into a seal or something by accident trying to get around it.”

“No, thanks,” Barry says hastily. “I mean, if we get back into the caverns and successfully steal a coat, it wouldn’t be a problem, but to reiterate: no plan.”

“Actually,” Kendra says thoughtfully, tapping her lips with a finger that Barry just now notices has a long and sharply pointed fingernail, almost as sharp as a bird’s talon. “Your plan wasn’t all that bad. You go in, you grab the coat – Barry, if you put one on, the mud should go away quick, and you’ll have your speed back – and then you run out while Mick creates a distraction. The only gloss is that you shouldn’t slow back down to normal time to meet back up with Mick: just keep running until you’re both out of there. If the Walruses see who you are, they’ll hunt you down to try to get their skin back; they’re lazy, but they’re also possessive, and they hold grudges like nobody’s business.”

“That’s a good idea,” Barry says, nodding. “But I can only run for so long, especially carrying someone – even if Mick lightens himself up – so they’ll probably catch sight of us on the shore or something.”

“Actually, I think I have something you can use to help avoid notice as you escape,” Kendra says, jumping to her feet with a grin. She goes to one of the shelves and pulls out a comb. “This is one of my favorite tricks; I’m sure you’ve heard about it in other stories about me,” she says. “You toss it over your shoulder when you’re being chased, and a forest grows from the tines.”

“I have heard stories about that!” Barry exclaims excitedly. At last, a magical creature doing what their stories suggested! “Oh, man, that would be awesome.”

“I can’t give it away for free, of course…”

“No deal,” Mick says immediately.

“You don’t even know what I was going to suggest!”

“Don’t mind Mick, he has trust issues,” Barry interjects quickly. “Why don’t you tell us what you were thinking and then we’ll decide if we want to do it or not, huh? See, Mick, I can be cautious and polite at the same time.”

Mick grumbles and wraps his blanket tighter around him.

Kendra shakes her head. “So untrusting,” she scolds lightly, but she’s smiling. It’s very difficult to be angry at a large man wrapped up in a thick blanket until only his face is visible, and the effect is only heightened by the soft, warm, contented glow Mick has started emitting. “Hmm. You’re a firebird, aren’t you? Can you help me re-gild my pestle?”

Mick blinks owlishly. “What, that? Sure, I can do that,” he says. “Just let me warm up a bit more first.”

Kendra smiles, pleased. “There’s nothing for it,” she says to Barry in an aside. “My pestle is as magic as they come, and the gold on the rounded section can only be melted by dragonfire or firebird flame, and it’s not easy to get either of those. I have a very nice bracelet I’ve been meaning to melt down for a century or so; it’ll do quite nicely.”

Barry reaches out and pokes Mick. “See?” he says, grinning a little. “No problem, right?”

Mick sniffs. “You got lucky that it’s something I can do, s’all.”

“Or maybe not everybody’s out to get you.”

“Luck,” Mick says firmly.

“In fairness, I do eat people sometimes,” Kendra volunteers.

Barry points at her. “I’m choosing to ignore that in favor of attempting to convince Mick the world doesn’t hate him personally.”

“One word, slick,” Mick says. “Pretty.”

Barry can’t help but laugh at the face Mick is making.

He also can’t help smiling stupidly at Mick for a few moments, because there’s nothing as hilarious as Mick in an over-dramatic snit, and that lasts right up until he notices Kendra giving him a long, knowing look.

Barry coughs a little.

“I’ll give the comb in exchange for Mick’s help with my pestle and disguises in exchange for Barry keeping me alerted as to Zmey’s presence,” she says, kindly not revealing the depths of Barry’s crush to the world (and, more relevantly, Mick). “But while I have you here, can I get you something to eat?”

“Yes!” they both chorus with great enthusiasm.

The enthusiasm fades a little when it turns out that Kendra can’t cook to save her life – she makes them scones that taste exactly like rocks and a soup that Barry can’t seem to actually dig his spoon into because it’s so solid – but Mick eventually gathers himself up and marches over to the kitchen to “do it right” and Mick can cook even better when he has access to a fully stocked kitchen.

Though he has slightly strange tastes, Barry thinks, eying the birdseed biscuits lying right next to the bloody meat chunks that compose about 90% of Mick’s version of stew, which is only slightly wet. Either way, it’s delicious.

After they eat, they’ve both warmed up enough that Mick goes to help Kendra with her pestle. She takes a golden bracelet out in tongs and holds it above the hearth, and Mick reaches out with his hand towards it.

A fire springs up from his palm, bright and flickering, and the bracelet begins to glow red within minutes.

Barry’s eyes go wide. “Um,” he says. “I didn’t know you could do that.”

“Well, I am a firebird,” Mick says, looking amused. “And I told you I’d burn you if you fucked me over, didn’t I?”

“I assumed you meant with a fire or something, not, uh, with a fire.”

“That made no sense.”

Barry gestures weakly at the flame from Mick’s hand, which has already caused the bracelet to start to bubble and melt. Barry’s not a smith, but he grew up in a scientist’s household: he knows the melting point of gold, and the fact that Mick can casually summon up that level of heat to hold in his hand

“Shh!” Kendra says, eyes focused on the bracelet as it melts into a stone pot. Once it’s all gone, she puts aside the tongs and reaches for her pestle. “Mick, pour it over as I turn?”

Mick obligingly picks up the stone pot in his bare hands, pouring it over the pestle as Kendra carefully rotates it, the gold spreading over the tines like a molasses. When it seems fully covered – Barry doesn’t know how they got that much gold out of a bracelet, but maybe magic is involved – Kendra puts the pestle head down into a bucket of water and steam hisses and roils out of it.

“Perfect!” she exclaims, grinning at both of them. She pulls the comb out of her pocket and offers it to Barry, who accepts. Kendra then smiles at the two of them and says, with a mischievous glint in her eyes, “I only have one bed, but the two of you are welcome to sleep by the fire and head out tomorrow.”

Barry doesn’t understand the mischief initially. Kendra directs them to set up a bed for themselves: they lay half a dozen blankets on the floor for softness – Kendra wasn’t kidding when she said she had a lot – and then some spare pillows and an extra blanket on top. Mick insists on being closer to the fire and Barry doesn’t object, since Mick can probably handle catching fire easier than Barry can and the other alternative would likely be Mick rolling over Barry to get closer to the heat unleashed by the embers, so they lay themselves down and Kendra drapes a blanket over them.

“Sleep well,” she says, eyes still dancing, and turns on her heel.

Mick turns to Barry and throws a causal arm over his chest and drapes a leg over him as well. “Can’t believe we’re in Baba Yaga’s house,” he grumbles right in a frozen Barry’s ear. “You’re a lucky one, slick.” He yawns and curls his head in closer.

Barry stares up at the ceiling, about half his body covered in warm, happily glowing firebird, and spends a good few minutes debating if he should be thanking Kendra or wishing that her bed falls in on top of her.

But Mick is large and warm and surprisingly soft, his feathers arching up from his skin to form an impromptu bed of down, and he doesn’t so much snore as he does make soft little snuffling sounds of contentment, and Barry finds himself falling asleep almost immediately.

When he wakes up the next morning, he’s alone in the bed by the fire, and Mick and Kendra are bitching at each other pleasantly over breakfast. Mick appears to be attempting to teach Kendra to cook pancakes and she appears to be failing entirely.

“– did you just add salt? Why would you add a half-cup of salt?!”

“I thought it was sugar!”

“It’s labelled as salt!”

“Can’t I just add some extra sugar to compensate for it?”

“No!”

Barry snickers and stretches himself out along the floor. This is much nicer than sleeping in the Workshop of the Sun, though that was also on the floor. He sits up, covering a yawn with his hand, and eels out of the blankets. “Good morning,” he greets them both. “Has the storm passed?”

“Rainbows everywhere,” Kendra confirms. “You should be good to go back to the Walrus Collective today.”

“They won’t expect us to try again so soon,” Mick adds, looking pleased. “They’ll probably still be beating their chests about their victory repelling us, and that’ll help.”

“How are we going to hide the mud on my feet, though?” Barry asks, scowling down at his legs.

“I thought of that!” Kendra says, grinning broadly. “I’ve decided to make you disguises based on people you’ve met in your journeys – Mick, you’re going as that vila you met; no one is going to ask a vila to do anything right after a big storm like that, much less obey guest-law. Barry, you’re going as that rusalka; no one will question your feet being muddy in that case.”

“Wait,” Barry says. “I’m going as Sara? Won’t that be an issue with the whole works-for-the-scary-vodyanoi-and-may-have-possibly-betrayed-him thing?”

“Assuming anyone has heard about it, that just gives them another reason not to want to extend any actual host duties to you,” Kendra says, smiling broadly. “Now come on, try the hats I made for you.”

Mick scowls at the hat that she offers him, but he takes it and gingerly puts it on his head. Even as Barry watches, his appearance seems to flicker for a moment, before abruptly Mark is standing there in front of them instead of Mick.

“That is so cool,” Barry enthuses, snatching his own hat from Kendra’s hand and plopping it on his head. He looks down at himself, hoping to see Sara, but he only sees himself.

Mick makes a dismissive sound, though, and says, “She’s not nearly as pretty as you said she was. Not bad, I mean, but the way you made her out was something special.”

“I was technically enchanted at the time,” Barry reminds him. “But great, it works! Oh – but we’re still wearing your clothing, Kendra –”

“Keep it,” she says, laughing. “I’ll throw out your old stuff, which I’m pretty sure is unsalvageable. Though Barry, you should take that waxed cotton cape of yours – waxed cotton is really good at repelling liquids, after all.” She winks.

Barry blinks at her, but he takes the cape, which is mostly clean, and swings it over his shoulders. “You said it wasn’t raining any more, though..?”

“Mud, Barry,” Kendra says, shaking her head in amusement. “Waxed cotton repels mud.”

“Oh!” Barry exclaims, enlightenment dawning. “Thanks for the advice, Kendra.” He turns to Mick. “Okay, Mick,” he says, then frowns. “Mark, I mean. Okay, Mark, let’s get going.”

“Have fun storming the Collective,” Kendra says, waving goodbye from her porch as they head towards the beach.

“So, same plan as last time?” Barry asks as they walk.

"Same one as last time, just without the mud," Mick confirms. "Use that mud-repelling cape of yours to cross to the coats, and we use the comb to escape."

"Kendra was really nice, wasn't she?"

"She must've had real nice parents this time around," Mick says, shaking his head. "What goes around comes around, I guess. Good news for us - except for the bit where you promised us to go look for Zmey, anyway."

"Hey, I said we'd keep an eye out, not that we'd go looking."

"Sure, but do you want to risk Baba Yaga being pissed at you 'cause you didn't at least try to look?"

"…oh."

Every time I think I'm doing something right, Barry thinks sadly, it just blows up in my face. Ugh, I’m never going to impress Mick with anything at this rate

Mick chuckles instead of rubbing Barry's face in his mistake like Barry half-expects him to, shaking his head and saying, "Still, these disguises are pretty damn good. Worthwhile trade, I'd say."

Barry brightens.

Getting into the caverns is even easier this time; the guard takes one look at Barry - or rather, at Sara - and goes out of his way to avoid inviting them in.

"Your rusalka must've escaped her bondage to the vodyanoi, and he’s pissed," Mick observes in a low voice.

"Good for her," Barry says firmly.

They split up again and Barry goes to the coat room. Knowing what to expect is a huge help, even if he is limited to human speed - if anything, it actually helps to be slow; Barry can see the mud forming and throws his coat over it, hopping on top and reaching for the coats. He grabs the first one he finds, a lightweight red one shot through with yellow seams, and tosses it onto his own shoulders.

He feels the mud melt from where it has hardened and cracked, the wet sludge sliding down his legs right away. This time, when he concentrates on the feather, the world slows down the way he's already grown accustomed to and has been sorely missing. It’s easy to get used to having powers; it’s hard to get used to lacking them.

With the feather’s power active, it takes mere seconds to dig through and find a blue coat for Mick: this one's a nice dark blue, with a fur-lined hood, and it's thick enough to keep anybody warm. Barry spins on his heel and heads out, finding Mick frozen mid-run and snatching him up into his arms instead of slowing down, just as Kendra suggested.

He gets them as far as the entrance before he tosses the comb over his shoulder, then speeds off to the tree line before slowing down.

He doesn't collapse this time, the expenditure of energy coming off as a feeling of hunger, and he whoops in excitement and triumph.

Mick, who was picked up while running, gets halfway across the clearing before realizing there’s no more need. "Damnit, slick, it's weird as hell when you do that," he complains, rubbing his arms, then he grins. "Did it work?"

Barry turns back to peer at the shore through the trees and laughs. "See for yourself!"

Just as Kendra promised, a forest had sprung up - half of the trees are in the water, half on the shore, and Barry can hear the confused and plaintive barking from where he was standing.

"We did it," Barry says proudly, offering Mick the coat as he comes to stand by Barry and laugh at the deeply confused Walruses. "We did it!"

"I'll make a decent criminal out of you yet," Mick says.

“I’m not a criminal, Mick, I’m a prince on a quest.”

“Same difference, really.”

“Put on the coat,” Barry urges, smiling at Mick. His own Walrus-coat fits perfectly, somehow: it’s more of a lightweight jacket, really, and in the sun it’s a brighter, cheerier red than he thought originally, sleeves falling perfectly to his wrists and jacket falling right to his hips. There is yellow piping in jagged lines over his sides and down his arms to his elbows: it has a rather pleasant lightning-like visual effect. The jacket feels light as air, but when Barry runs his fingers over it, he can feel the toughness of it. He could probably dive into the water and not get wet with this jacket. There is even a set of matching red gloves in the pocket!

He can’t wait to see Mick wear his, although he wouldn’t have thought blue was his color.

But Mick is shaking his head. “You carry it for now,” he says. “I’ve got the goggles, after all, and I’m gonna need to fly us to our next destination anyhow.”

Remembering what happened to Barry’s spare shirt earlier, Barry makes a face and agrees. “Want me to carry the shirt you’re wearing now?” he asks. “Kendra would probably appreciate us not destroying it immediately if we don’t have to.”

Mick obligingly strips it off and hands it to Barry, which wasn’t Barry’s intention but he appreciates it whole-heartedly anyway. He folds the shirt up and shoves it into the pocket of the blue coat, which has vast pockets and a set of black gloves that look nearly skin-tight tucked away already, then folds the blue coat up and stares at the small pack Kendra gave him. There’s no way the coat will fit in there without crushing the mug, and he does not want an angry Baba Yaga on his ass for breaking her mug for no reason.

He carefully extracts the mug and puts the coat into the pack instead, sticking the mug into the pocket of his walrus-coat. Barry isn’t actually expecting the mug to fit, but it does somehow. He shrugs. He’ll move it to the pack later on.

“Okay,” he says to Mick, putting the pack back on. “So how long will it take us to fly to the Ice Queen’s territory?”

“Not long at all,” Mick says grimly. “Given that she lives with her husband, Winter, she’ll be easy to find.”

Barry frowns. “But Mick,” he says. “It’s midsummer. How are we going to find winter in midsummer?”

Mick grins. “Leave that to me.”

“I really hate it when you say things like that.”

Chapter Text

“Winter lives in a glacier,” Barry says skeptically. “I have trouble believing that.”

“Top of a mountain works pretty well, too,” Mick offers, eying a nearby peak with interest. “Technically, it’s an ancient glacier that’s far away and buried deep in the ice of one of the poles, I’m given to understand, but magic being what it is, we should be able to get to Winter’s realm through any one of his eternal strongholds – that being any place that never melts and sees no green.”

“Okay,” Barry says, nodding. Then – “No, not okay. That doesn’t make any sense. Where does Spring live, in that case?”

Mick grins. “Evergreens.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Spring’s supposedly got a little garden just outside of Moscow, supposedly the birthplace of all life.”

“Now you’re just screwing with me.”

“Quite possibly,” Mick says gleefully. “I’ve never actually had reason to go into Spring’s domain, so I’ve got no idea what it looks like. But you do enter through evergreens, I know that much.”

“That makes no sense!”

“It’s magic, just go with it.”

“But what about –”

“I’ve never looked into Fall and Summer, so you can stop where you are.”

Barry throws his hands in the air. “So we go to Winter’s realm through a mountaintop, okay, fine. That’s weird, but probably not the weirdest thing thus far – though it’s up there – and then… what? We steal – what was it? The Ice Queen’s something-or-another?”

“Her scepter,” Mick says, and looks shifty all of a sudden. “And to be specific, we don’t exactly steal it.”

“Uh, huh,” Barry says skeptically. “So, what, maybe we’re just going to go up to her and ask, huh? Just like I’ve been suggesting with the last two?”

“Yep.”

“…wait, really?”

“You can’t steal from the Ice Queen, Barry,” Mick says. He looks disappointed by this fact. “She’s too powerful; next time a cold breeze blows by or you go anywhere cold, you’d find yourself with an icicle through your brainstem. No way around it; we’ve got to ask.”

“Okay,” Barry says, smiling. “That – I’m good with that! We can totally ask! She’ll understand, I’m sure.”

“You do remember we’re talking about the Ice Queen here, right?” Mick says dryly. “She’s not exactly warm-hearted and friendly.”

“And yet you’re willing to throw yourself on her mercy.”

“I don’t have much of a choice!”

“But you think it’s possible she’ll grant it.”

“She appreciates people willing to make the effort,” Mick says with a shrug. “Most people’ve got to climb all the way up a mountain to see her. Luckily for us, I fly.”

Barry laughs and happily steps over to Mick, wrapping his arms around the firebird and letting Mick wrap his arms around Barry in return. With an abrupt pump of Mick’s wings, they’re airborne again, heading higher and higher and higher.

“Close your eyes,” Mick says in Barry’s ear. “The air’ll be pretty damn thin up here, so it’s better if you just relax and let me do everything. Close your eyes and trust me.”

Barry does.

It doesn’t keep him from noticing when they’ve abruptly gone into a steep dive, but he grits his teeth and grips onto Mick and trusts

“We’re here,” Mick says, and Barry opens his eyes.

They’re not on top of a mountain. They’re not anywhere that Barry recognizes.

They’re in great chamber, not unlike the one in the Workshop of the Sun, but the walls are transparent ice, with strange creatures frozen inside, blurry and unrecognizable; the floor is thick-packed snow, and the room is so vast that Barry can scarcely see the other sides. It’s cold, but he’s not freezing – the Walrus-coat is protecting him, he suspects – and he can look around.

There’s no entrance behind them, that’s the first thing he notices. He has no idea where they came in.

The second thing he notices, however, takes all of his attention.

In the center of the great room of ice, there is a throne.

In that throne...

Barry had, perhaps foolishly, assumed that the Ice Queen would look like a modified human the way Mick and Mark and Sara and even Kendra had: some whited-out version of Sara, perhaps, or some other beautiful woman: pale skin and blue eyes and blue lips, perhaps, with long white hair and as many angles as curves.

He was wrong.

The creature on the throne is unmistakably the Ice Queen, but there is nothing human there. Ice rises in spires to form a crown, but there is no face, no eyes, no nose, no mouth, merely a blank expanse where there ought to be a face. Spiky wings rise up to frame the body, insofar as that jagged lump of ice could be called a body, and long slithering arms sit on the sides of the throne, dozens of them, each ending in two sharp points like a claw made of two knives . There are no legs, only a long, curling tail.

She is regal and magnificent and utterly, totally terrifying.

"You enter my chamber," She says, though Barry does not know from where, and her voice is shrieking like the coldest mountain winds. "Tell me why."

Barry opens his mouth to speak, but for the first time, Mick stirs and steps forward himself. "We seek your scepter," he says, almost too calmly, too steadily, without any of his usual grumpiness. He’s terrified too. "To fulfill a quest."

"A quest," the Queen says. "It has been long since I have been called upon by those chosen by fate and fortitude to quest."

Barry can't tell if she sounds positive or negative about it.

"It's very important, your majesty," Mick says.

"Important," She says, and Barry shudders at that dread voice speaking in tones of irony. "I will be the judge of that. Tell me why you have come on this quest - and make the reason true, or I will bury your bones in my floor and your quest will go no farther." She pauses. "The boy, first."

Barry swallows. He really hopes he's not confused about his motives for going on this trip - he doesn't think so, but he's pretty sure even an accidental misstatement would sink him. "I'm on this quest to rescue my sister," he says. "My foster-sister, that is; and the other girls."

She's still staring at him, waiting for him to keep going.

Barry bites his lip and tries to continue. "I - I want to help her. I want to help them. I don't know," he says, growing frustrated. "I just want to do good."

The Queen - laughs. It's not unlike the feeling of being hammered with ice chips.

"To do good," She repeats. "Not many people can claim to wish to do good, Barry of Central City, beloved son of Henry of the Allens and Joe of the West Gate." Barry twitches a little at that; he never said anything about any of that! "Most men, when they say they wish to 'do good', mean that they want fame, or love, or glory, or honor, or even mere vanity. For most men are liars in their souls."

Barry gulps. Which one of those was he?

"You are not most men, Barry of Central City," She says. "You wish to do good. I accept this. You shall leave here alive and with what you request - though perhaps not all you seek."

Barry gave a long exhale.

"And you, firebird," the Queen says, her shrieking voice implacable. "Tell me why you come."

Mick hesitates a long moment, long enough that Barry looks at him curiously. Is he analyzing his own motives the way Barry was? Surely it should be clear why he's doing this, or at least a good guess?

Abruptly, Mick lets out a harsh huff of air and straightens his shoulders, looking the Queen directly in what ought to be her face.

"True love," he says.

Barry blinks. What?

"True love?" the Queen asks, her many arms stirring restlessly.

"True love," Mick confirms, still staring straight at her. "I go on this quest for the sake of my lover."

Barry's heart seizes in his chest. A lover? Mick never mentioned a lover - Mick means his old partner, surely, the one that is gone? Not – he would have said

"How for his sake?" the Queen's voice lashes out, harsh, relentless.

"I'm going on the quest for my lover," Mick says, not looking at Barry. "It’s a gift for him, and I’m going to present him with the results when I’m done, and I’m hoping then he’ll be mine again."

The Ice Queen shifts in her seat, the ice cracking loudly as she does.

Barry's heart feels much the same. All of this - this is a gift? For Mick's lover, an existing lover, one Mick has never mentioned? Mick tricked him to start, Barry knows that, but he thought they'd moved past that point – he thought Mick trusted him, telling him about his partner, his motives, why he was doing this – he thought –

Well. Apparently, he hadn't thought anything that really matters.

Stupid heart.

"You too speak the truth," the Queen says. "Though you have gained more on the journey than you had wished for. I will grant you what you seek, and wish you the luck of it."

She lifts her many arms and takes one of them, clasping in between many others and, before Barry realizes what she's doing, a large crack of breaking ice fills the room.

The Queen throws the broken off limb at their feet.

Even as Barry watches, horrified, the limb thrashes before them and melts. What's left after it melts is a thing of metal, a bulky scepter as long as a man's forearm and twice as thick, whose tip glows white and blue, the rest of it steel grey, with a cushioned handle at the end. It looks as though it would need two hands to heft it, yet when Barry crouches down and raises it up, it's surprisingly light.

"Take it to my favored son," the Ice Queen says. "I do not know if he has gone too far into my domain to be saved, but you may try and I will not stand before you."

Her tone is clearly dismissive and both Barry and Mick automatically bow (Barry properly, Mick mostly jerking his head awkwardly in an attempted gesture of respect) and turn to leave as quickly as they can without running. There’s an exit, now, where they first came in – a cavern leading to light and air and outside that there is no way that Barry just missed, so it must not have been there originally.

Barry is still holding the scepter.

They make their way outside, Barry squinting in the bright sun and then blinking to find himself at the very base of a mountain. If he cranes his head upwards, he can just see the snow peaks looming above.

Barry is still holding the scepter.

"We did it," Mick says, sounding almost like he can't believe what he's saying. "We did it. We - fucking sky, we did it! Barry, we did it! We got everything!"

He leaps into the air, his feathers sparking and glowing with joy unlike anything Barry’s ever seen from him, that beautiful smile from when they found the goggles reappearing on his face, crinkling his eyes and showing his teeth. Beautiful.

But none of that is for Barry.

"Yeah," Barry says, trying on a fake smile, turning and pulling off his pack, sticking the scepter in there before slinging it back on. "We did it."

Mick stops throwing his hands in the air and turns to Barry with a frown, so something of how Barry is feeling right now must have slipped through. "What's wrong, slick?" he asks. "You look like death warmed over all of a sudden - did she do something to you?"

Mick looks honestly alarmed, like he really cares about it.

Barry starts to shake his head, but Mick's already spreading his wings, saying, "I'll have her head for this if she doesn't undo it - see how much she likes being on fire -"

"She didn't do anything, Mick!" Barry cuts in. "Just leave it. It's nothing."

"You look awful, so it clearly isn't nothing," Mick objects, crossing his arms and scowling.

Barry's heart gives a little pained cry at the familiarity of it. And that makes Barry angry.

"C'mon, slick, tell me what's wrong -"

"You lied to me," he snaps. "That's what's wrong."

"Lie?" Mick looks almost comically taken aback. "What do you mean?"

"You told me - or perhaps you'd prefer to phrase it, you let me believe - that you were on this quest to avenge your partner's death at the koschei's hands."

Mick looks stricken. He knows what Barry’s saying is true; Barry can read his face well enough by now. "I -" he starts, then stops. "From a certain perspective that's not a lie."

"I told you about my sister, I told you about -" Len. "Everything you wanted to know about me, I told you and happily. And you never told me anything!"

"That's not true, damnit!" Mick exclaims.

"Isn't it? Your partner - he's the one you're doing this for, aren't you? He's not dead?"

"No," Mick admits, yielding under Barry's glare. "No - it's more complicated than you know, but - no, he's not dead."

"You let me think that he was, Mick. You knew I thought he was dead and you let me think it anyway."

Mick raises his hands to his face and scrubs his eyes. "It was easier than explaining."

"Oh, I'm sure," Barry says savagely, his voice raw as his heart. "I'm sure it's a lot easier."

"What do you care so much, anyway?" Mick snaps back. "You've got that mystery guy, don't you? The one who took you dancing and made you promise to find him? So what's my motives to you? I'm sorry I lied, yes, but it's not like it's important!"

With that, the winds are abruptly taken out of Barry's sails and he's left feeling hollow inside. Mick's right: he made Barry no promises, overt or even implied, and all the while Barry had been talking about Len…

"You're right," he says tiredly. "It's not important, and I guess I do have someone waiting for me at home, at least if I go looking for him. I guess I just thought…nevermind."

Mick sighs, long and low. "You're not wrong," he says, quieter than Barry's ever heard him. "You're not wrong about what you thought. What you were starting to think, I was… I was starting to think so, too. But I can't give up now. You'd understand if you knew him; he's the sort of man that you lose your mind over, and he's my partner. He's been the only person in the whole world I could call mine in so long, I can't just give up on him now. No matter how… attractive… I might find other options. He came first, you understand?" And by now Mick's face is twisted in real pain, his hands wringing, and even his shoulders are painfully muted, no light at all. "He came first."

Barry might be angry about Mick leading him on a little, but he can't bear to see Mick in this pain. "I understand," he says quietly.

"No, you don’t!" Mick exclaims. "It's not better or worse, it's nothing like that. It's - he's in trouble, my partner is. He's in terrible trouble. If I don't help him, no one on earth will, and he'll be all alone until the day he dies, hating himself to the last minute, I just know he will. I need to save him, and even if I fail like everybody's been telling me I will, at least I'll have given it my best try. I owe him that much for all the time we've been together. "

Barry thinks, unwillingly, of how surprised Ray was when Barry had said he was travelling with Mick; how skeptical Professor Stein looked; how gently Jax treated Mick. They were willing to support Mick, but they didn't believe in him, it was plainly clear to anyone who looked.

Barry knows the feeling. If it hadn't been for his fostering, no one would have ever believed in him, either.

This is Mick's last, desperate attempt to help when no one thought he could. Just like Barry and Iris.

Barry softens despite himself. "Okay," he says. "I'll give you a chance to explain."

"Explain?"

"Explain." Barry says firmly. "Everything you didn't tell me, everything that was too 'complicated' to tell me before - tell me now. If there was that something that you and I both got to thinking about, any of it, if that was really something, then you owe me at least that much. Tell me the truth and let me judge for myself."

Mick swallows, his look of agony changing to a look of hope, then fading into pure misery. "You sure about that?" he says slowly. "I kept it quiet for a good reason, you know. You won't be happy with me after you hear it."

"I'm sure."

"Okay, uh -" he swallows again. "It's the koschei."

"Yes, that's what you told me," Barry says, puzzled. "Your original story was that the koschei had killed - well, had done something to your partner, anyway."

"No," Mick says. "That isn’t right. My partner is the koschei."

"What?!"

"S'why it was sorta true, you know," Mick rushes on. "Misleading, yeah, probably lying, but -"

"You said you would help me defeat him!" Barry exclaims, stuck with hurt all over again.

"And I mean it!" Mick cries. "I mean it, Barry, I do. But there's only one way to actually defeat a Deathless, you know, I told you. You know all the stories where you have to, you know, with the chest and the duck and the hare and the jewel and stuff?"

"Where you get a koschei's heart," Barry says with a nod. "And in doing so destroy him."

"Not destroy him, control him," Mick corrects. "You can't kill one of the Deathless, it's in the name. But if you get their hearts, you can order them to do whatever you like. You can make them a slave or, if you want, you can order them to die. If you tell them to die, they - freeze. Not die. As far as whoever’s doing the ordering cares, they’re dead, but for them, they’re still Deathless. A living death, awake and aware inside a slowly rotting corpse for the rest of eternity. Punishment for daring to trespass on the realm of Death."

"That's - that's terrible," Barry says, aghast at the very thought of someone frozen, trapped within a hulk of flesh, unable to speak, to eat, to drink, unable to move, unable even to hope for help… He's not sure he can do that to anyone, not even the man who stole Iris. Maybe if Iris is hurt or something he could, maybe. Maybe. Probably not; he can’t see himself condemning anyone to such a grisly fate. But if Iris is fine like the images said she was - no. To another thinking being? To someone Mick loves? No. Never. "I think I’m starting to see why you never mentioned it."

"Yeah, no kidding," Mick says bitterly. "Everyone knows a koschei is evil, and they're not wrong about it - my partner would never have gone around stealing brides. I don't know why he’s doing that. I don’t know. I just know that - he needed me, he called for me, but we were having a fight and I didn't come. I thought it was nothing, you know? That he just wanted to do a heist he needed me for or something, and I wanted him to feel bad about how bad he'd pissed me off or something stupid like that. Next I know, he's given away his heart to become koschei. He had a reason, Barry; I don't know what, but it wasn't nothing. He wanted another way, he called to me for help, but he did it anyway in the end because I didn’t come to help him."

Barry nods slowly.

"So after that, I went around and I found out how a koschei can be defeated," Mick says. "Really defeated, not frozen dead. And that's why all of this questing stuff."

"And you need these items to defeat your partner?" Barry asks, frowning. "I thought you wanted to save him."

"They're one and the same," Mick says, looking relieved at Barry's understanding. "The only way to defeat a koschei is to bring them back their heart. Not physically hand it to them or anything, you see, but actually bring it back. A koschei feels nothing, everybody knows that, but if you have their heart and you give them love, and it sparks some love in return in the heart, there's a chance to reunite the two pieces back into one - and then they're not a koschei anymore. They got back to being what they were before. Human soul and all."

"So these items…”

Mick looks abashed. "They're not for fighting," he says. "They're for courting."

"Goggles from the Sun, a coat from the Walruses, and an ice wand? As courting gifts?"

"My partner's one of the best thieves there is," Mick says with a fond smile that makes Barry's heart ache despite himself. "Had to be something impressive, you know? He was bitching once about how useful ice powers would be - cracking safes, icing getaways, closing doors - said that way we could be fire and ice, make our own legends instead of constantly being in other people's shadows. Never did anything with it, but he liked the thought. So when I needed to get him something, something big, something to remind him of everything we were to each other, I thought - what about an ice wand?"

"And the other items?"

"Well, for all his talk and skill, my partner's still mostly human. He can't wield the Ice Queen's scepter for long without freezing up or going blind from the glare. So-"

"The Walrus coat and gloves will keep him warm," Barry says, enlightenment dawning. "And the goggles - if they can keep off the sun's light, then ice should be no problem."

"Exactly!" Mick says. "But the other two are easier to get - less chance of outright and immediate death, y'know - so I figured I'd get them first. Show the Queen I meant it."

Barry nods slowly, considering the whole story.

"You understand?" Mick asks cautiously.

"I understand," Barry says ruefully. No, the more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense - and the more he sees why Mick didn't mention it at first. Thinking back (was it only a week?), he wouldn't have taken kindly to someone trying to rescue the creature that had wreaked havoc on so many lives. He wouldn't have known how far Mick's well-hidden compassion went, how deep his affection could be; he wouldn't have known how much Mick's partner meant to him. He wouldn't have agreed to help.

He's still angry that Mick never willingly confessed even after they were working together, but he understands.

"Okay," he says, putting aside his still-sore heart. "Let's go rescue – well, everybody!"

Mick abruptly sweeps Barry into a hug. It takes a minute for Barry to realize they're not flying, that it's just a hug, but he holds on just as tight in return.

He tries not to think of what-might-have-beens.

After a moment, Mick releases Barry, looking somewhat abashed at the impromptu display of emotions. “We should probably go,” he says gruffly.

“Yes, we should,” Barry says, then pauses. “You know, if we’re going to try to get your old partner’s heart back, does that mean we need to find it?”

“Find it?” Mick says with a frown.

Barry coughs. “You know. Find it. The heart is hidden in a jewel, which is inside a hare, which is inside a duck –”

“It had better not be,” Mick says, looking vaguely horrified at the thought. “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of; he wouldn’t do that!”

“It’s apparently traditional.”

“Well, even if that’s the case, we shouldn’t have a problem,” Mick says with a shrug, still shaking his head in disbelief. “I can fly and catch any duck, no problem, and you’re fast enough to get any hare alive. Piece of cake.”

“I’m pretty sure just saying that is bad luck,” Barry says, lips twitching despite himself.

“It could be a hard cake,” Mick protests. “Like – overbaked. Kendra’s cakes.”

Barry is still snickering when Mick gathers him up gently into his arms once more to fly.

Flying wrapped around Mick ought to be awkward, but ends up just being comfortable. Barry already knows when this quest is over, he'll miss flying with Mick - even if the little seed of hope in his chest was never destined to go anywhere, he still likes Mick.

Also, flying. Flying is awesome.

Why couldn't he have gotten flying as a magical ability?

When asked, Mick snorts. "Slick, there isn't anything bird like about you, and take it from someone who knows."

"You keep saying you're bird-like, but I never see any evidence of it. C'mon, Mick. Do something bird-ish. Like, oh, I don't know… " he deliberately trails off.

Mick looks at Barry suspiciously.

"Say 'Polly wanna cracker,'" Barry finishes and is treated to an up close view of Mick's face contort as his sense of humor wars with his sense of dignity, which is hilarious.

"I'm going to drop you," Mick threatens, but his lips are twitching. "You little jerk."

"Psst, that's why you love me," Barry says dismissively, only to be brought up short by Mick's abruptly miserable expression. "…oh. Um. Too soon?"

"Slick," Mick says solemnly, pushing the misery off his face with a force of effort. "You're the type of person who makes jokes at a funeral, aren't you?"

"Oh, was that why everyone was so upset?" Barry asks innocently, and Mick laughs. Barry falls silent after that, letting Mick focus on flying and letting himself bask a little in that slip of the tongue - Mick had said he'd started feeling something never-named, but it's surprisingly encouraging to know for sure that they'd been on the same road. Even if other factors meant it would never work - bad timing, other people - Barry has the satisfaction of knowing that he was someone Mick thought well enough of to fall in love with, even a little.

Barry spots the koschei's Palace of Delights a good hour or so before they arrive, and before Mick has to point it out to him. It's rather hard to miss.

"That doesn't even make sense!" Barry exclaims, somehow deeply offended by this travesty of palace-building. He wasn’t aware that he had opinions on how palaces ought to be built, but apparently he does, and apparently they're quite strong. "It's… it's in the middle of nowhere! Where the hell does its plumbing go? Where does it get the materials needed to keep it in shape? Plus, it's absolutely defenseless! There isn't even a river to justify it! There aren't even any roads!"

Mick is snickering. "It has walls," he offers. "Nice, big, high walls."

"It's in the middle of a field," Barry wails. "You can literally see where it got placed - no, not placed, plopped right there in the middle of it all! It’s not even all one field - there’s two totally different types of crops on either side. There is no conceivable reason to have a palace here. Any army that went anywhere in a hundred miles of this place would attack it just because."

"Barry," Mick says, voice choked with suppressed laughter. "It doesn't need to defend itself with placement. It's a koschei's palace. The only defense it needs it has, since it has a koschei."

"Still," Barry says, watching it grow larger as they approach. "It feels like someone literally pointed at a random field and said 'put a palace there.'"

Mick doesn't say anything.

"That's not what happened, is it?"

"From what I'm given to understand, that's more or less how it works, yes. The food and water and defenses are all magically maintained, so there's not really any need to think about, uh, details."

Barry rolls his eyes exaggeratedly. “Magic, ugh,” he says. “What use is magic if you don’t think about these things?”

"Whine, whine, that’s all you do. I'm coming in for a landing," Mick warns, and tilts the two of them into a nice glide towards the ground.

When they land, Barry has to admit that the palace is not quite as defenseless as he's been saying; the walls are easily three times his height, big and broad and totally seamless in a way human hands could never create.

"So, what's the plan?" he asks Mick, who makes a face. "I'm not making one this time! He's your partner!"

"I don't know!" Mick exclaims. "He always made the plans, okay? It's not my specialty. S'why I stopped here - once we go in, we won't be able to get out unless the koschei lets us. Which he won't, by the way."

"Right," Barry says, and looks at the walls. "World's largest mouse trap, got it."

They stand there in silence for a long moment, the light of the setting sun making everything glow. It's warm and hot and a bit muggy; midsummer weather. It wouldn't be too bad to sleep outside tonight, if they had to, but it wouldn't necessarily be the most pleasant.

Barry wracks his brain for an idea, but he's coming up with nothing. For all of his research, he hadn't really thought about what to do about a magical palace-trap: he'd mostly imagined, when he'd bothered to think about the details, just going in and hustling all the girls out sometime when the koschei was otherwise occupied, leading them home and letting the army go and take care of the koschei himself. Obviously that wasn't a plausible plan.

Eventually Mick grumbles, "Let's just start with breaking in, all right? It's nearly evening, so it's a good time to be undetected."

"Plus the koschei's likely out stealing another bride," Barry comments. Mick gives him a look. "What? It's true." Barry squints at the giant walls. "And by breaking in you mean we're flying over the walls, right? Because I'm not seeing many other ways in."

"Oh, yeah, absolutely," Mick says, and doesn't move.

Barry looks askance at him.

"No, just wondering how your army was gonna get in. Since the place is so indefensible and all."

"Oh, shut up."

Mick sniggers and gathers Barry up, beating his wings and scaling the wall easily, landing soundlessly on the other side.

Somehow, of all the things Barry has seen so far - excepting only the Ice Queen - this is easily one of the weirdest.

For one thing, it’s no longer midsummer. The air is clean and crisp and just a little chilly: early spring, or maybe late fall. They are in an orchard, it looks like, but no orchard in the world grows a riotous array of apples, oranges, pears, plums, and all sorts of other fruits like this one. There are strawberry bushes in full bloom, heavy with the ready to eat fruit, right next to a ripe orange tree which in turn is right beside a tree filled with ripe plums. There are even golden apples of the type that Barry would have sworn only grew in the gardens of Star Castle. It is an impossible garden in every possible way: flora that require different temperatures, different seasons, or different conditions all grow contentedly side by side, all blooming and healthy and ripe, totally disregarding any sensible conversion of nutrients or space.

It’s a garden filled with the sounds of birds and crickets, too, but even that is wrong: nightingales and larks sing in harmony, owls fluff their feathers and hoot at the desert raptors that sit beside them as flamingos yawningly peck in the pools that dot the landscape, all without the slightest appearance of dismay at the wrong time of day, or month, or environment.

It’s every amateur gardener's dream come true, all at once. And there are more material riches in evidence as well: marble benches so white and beautiful that they eclipse the walls of the Workshop of the Sun, picnic baskets made of pure gold tossed idly aside, picnic blankets made of cotton so fine that it resembles a cloud, literal piles of shining jewels just resting beneath the trees.

"Wow," Barry breathes, looking around.

"Palace of Delight," Mick says with a shrug. "The weather is always fine, except for when it's raining a nice, pleasant shower that falls on non-existent tin roofs in a never-varying patter and for when you want to go on a nice little rain-walk."

"So what you're saying is that it's perfect," Barry says. "Then why am I getting a terrible case of the creeps?"

"Because humans aren't accustomed to this much perfect," Mick says. "Just wait till you see the inside of this place."

"I'm actually really curious about the decor choices now," Barry confesses. "Like, the perfect garden is one thing, but how do you pick the most ‘delightful’ furniture aesthetic? Modern? Antique? Eastern? Western? Southern? Northern?"

"Slick," Mick says, and he sounds pained. "Look around you and the answer is obvious: it's all of them."

"…that would be horrific."

"Oh yeah."

"So aesthetic sensibility lives in the heart, is that what you're telling me?"

Mick's lips abruptly twitch up. "No such luck. This display of bad taste is my partner all the way through. He liked stealing things for the challenge, but he never quite understood what people did with all the stuff afterwards… " He shakes his head. "C'mon, the palace itself is this way."

Barry nods and follows him as they slowly come up on the frankly gigantic palace, taking care to keep to the trees to avoid being easily spotted. “How are we going to get in?” he asks, frowning a little. “Obviously, we should try to avoid being noticed until we have a plan.”

“Yes, I agree –” Mick starts, but is interrupted by a loud squeal.

A familiar squeal.

“Barry!” Iris’ familiar voice calls out. Barry’s head jerks up and he turns it one way, then the other, looking to see where she is – and if it’s really her, or perhaps some magic trick or trap – “Barry! I’m right in front of you! Damnit, Barry, you blind demented mole-creature, straight ahead of you!”

No, that is definitely Iris. She is in fact standing dead ahead of them, right by a grandiose door to the palace, speckled with thousands of pearls, waving frantically at them.

“Mick, is this a trap?” Barry asks, staring at her and barely refraining from running. The world keeps trying to slow down around him as the feather lying at his chest heats up in response to his thoughts; she’s right there, she’s so close…

“Unlikely,” Mick says, voice unbearably fond. “Not inside the palace. Go on over to her already; her hollering is more likely to get us spotted than anything else.”

Mick scarcely finishes before Barry is off like a shot, the feather burning so hot that the world doesn’t so much slow down as it feels like he’s one place one moment and in another the next, forcing himself to slow down so that he can gather her into his arms, crying out, “Iris-Iris-Iris!”

“Barry!” she cries out in return, leaping up and wrapping both arms and legs around him, unbalancing him until he falls backwards onto his ass. “Barry – how did you do that – you’re herewhy are you here –”

“For you, of course, don’t be silly,” Barry says, burying his nose into her hair and swallowing repeatedly to make the lump in his throat go away. She’s wearing some absurdly soft dress, pure white silk woven tight with embroidered red roses scattering the hemline; nothing she could afford at home. “How are you? Are you okay? What are you even wearing?”

Iris pulls away from him with a shaky laugh, her eyes shining as bright as he’s sure his own are. “Well, I couldn’t stay in my nightgown all day,” she says, shaking her head. “And there’s always plenty to choose from to wear, here. But seriously, Bear, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to rescue you, of course,” Barry replies, ignoring Mick’s strangled “Bear?” and blinking when Iris bites her lip, looking worried.

“Once you come into the palace, you can’t leave,” she says. “And the, ah, person in charge doesn’t have much patience for heroes trying to challenge him…”

“I know about the mouse trap,” Barry assures her. “And about the koschei. Don’t worry, we have a plan.”

“We? Oh! Who’s your friend? I’m sorry, I’ve been terribly rude…” Iris scrambles off of Barry and offers her hand to Mick.

“You were busy being kidnapped,” Mick says with an uncomfortable shrug, crossing his arms in front of him to avoid having to shake her hand. “Makes sense you’d want to say hi to Barry first.”

“Mick’s not very sociable,” Barry explains, catching Iris’ still outstretched hand in hers. “He’s also on a rescue mission; we’re here to help everybody.”

“And you already know about the koschei?” she asks anxiously. “We’ve had a handful of would-be heroes come by, and they always think we’re being stupid and girlish and exaggerating, and well –”

“Stupid and girlish?” Mick exclaims. “Who the hell says that to someone trying to give them intel?”

“Heroes,” Iris says dryly. “You’d be amazed at how many we get that don’t have Central City’s sensibilities – or fear of mice –”

“I already told Mick the mice story,” Barry says triumphantly. “But seriously, anyone who’s that stupid deserves what they get – er, they didn’t die or anything, did they?”

“No, the koschei just throws them into a different part of the garden, it’s walled off and there’s a glowing circle that they’re all trapped in – they don’t move except for five minutes a day –”

“Daytime trap,” Barry says, nodding. “Five minutes for them is a day on the outside.”

“A recurring daytime trap is a good way to keep heroes from bothering anyone,” Mick says, also nodding. “Can’t do much to cause trouble if you’re working on a different timescale.”

“You are well-informed,” Iris says, looking impressed. “C’mon, you’d better come inside – I can introduce you to the other girls; they’re great. We’re all working together to try to figure out how to get out of here, though we haven’t quite figured it out yet. They’ll help keep you from the koschei.”

“We appreciate that,” Barry says and hugs her again. “I’m so happy you’re okay, Iris. We’ve all been so worried…”

“I’m okay,” she says, hugging him back. “More pissed off than anything else, really. The koschei grabs girls, drops them off here, and just leaves – he doesn’t do anything other than collect us, really –”

“We should go inside,” Mick says, eying the darkening sky. It’s getting colder, now that Barry thinks of it – a cold wind has started to wind through the garden, reaching him even through his Walrus coat.

“Shit,” Iris says, pulling away from Barry. “The cold – that means the koschei is approaching. You need to hide, now. He’s early today; he shouldn’t be here for hours – I don’t know why he’s here, but we need to hide both of you.”

“Where should we hide?” Barry asks.

“There’s a closet in the main hall.”

“Got it,” he says with a nod. “Don’t worry about us, okay? You keep safe.”

He presses his hand to his heart and thinks of how he felt when he was running to Iris; as the world slows, he grabs Mick and hoists the larger man – already lighter in anticipation of Barry’s acts – before tearing over to the closet. It takes a minute to find where it’s buried into the wall, surrounded by a positive fusillade of gorgeous but hideously mismatched furniture, but he gets them in there and closes the door most of the way before slowing down.

“Well done, slick,” Mick murmurs into his ear, and they both turn their faces to the crack in the door.

The cold creeps up, making Barry shiver a little. “How is it so cold?” he hisses at Mick, who looks fine and also a bit like he wants to wrap Barry up in his arms to warm him up and is resisting only because of how painful it would be for both of them. “We went to the Ice Queen’s lair, and it wasn’t this cold.”

“The walrus-coat you’re wearing will block out all natural chill; it’s made to withstand the freezing depths of the ocean deep,” Mick replies in a hushed voice. “But this isn’t natural – this is the koschei. The frost and chill that follow him isn’t actually frost, per se; it’s what frost represents. It’s Death, stalking in the koschei’s footsteps.”

Even with the koschei approaching, with Death dogging his heels, Iris is standing by the door, her arms on her hips and an annoyed look on her face. Barry grins. Even the koschei should have learned to fear that expression by now.

The cold wind starts to whistle through the trees, faster and faster, rising to a howl before it abruptly cuts off. Iris is unmoved, still glaring. “You’re early today,” she snaps. “What brings you by, koschei?”

“I wasn’t aware I had a curfew,” a voice drawls, and something inside Barry freezes colder even than the chill of Death that accompanied the koschei. “Your rules are so strict, Miss West-Gate.”

Len steps forward into the doorway with Iris. His face, his gait, his body – Barry chased him so long, it’s all unmistakable. He’s smirking in amusement at Iris, his body as loose and relaxed as it was in Central.

Iris is still glaring at him.

No, some small voice in Barry’s brain cries out. No, no, no, not him…

“You could always let us go and you wouldn’t have to deal with us,” Iris points out.

Len shakes his head. “Mind letting me in? I need to tour the grounds to see why one of my alarms went off, and I’ve had rather a long day, so I was hoping to take a nap before heading out again.”

“Heading out to steal another girl, no doubt.”

“No, just plain old theft tonight,” he says with a smile. “There’s a convoy going from Hub with a diamond.”

“You can literally create diamonds, koschei,” Iris says exasperatedly. “There’s a pile of them, right there, more beautiful than any one in human lands. Why do you need to steal one?”

Len shrugs. “Habit, I guess. If you don’t mind?”

Iris steps aside, still glaring.

Len starts whistling as he passes her, and Barry knows that tune so well that it hurts.

“That’s Len,” Barry says hollowly as Len walks down the hallway, walking away from them. “That’s Len.”

“Yeah,” Mick says. “That’s Len – wait, you know him?”

“Mick, that’s Len,” Barry says desperately, keeping his voice hushed, unable to tear his eyes away from Len’s retreating back. “That’s my Len – the one I told you about –”

“You told me your guy was like Solovei,” Mick hisses. “Not a koschei!”

“I thought he was! He – he’s a thief, he does that whistling thing –”

“Len’s the grandson of the last Solovei,” Mick says. “He’s not Solovei himself, though; that title’s passed to another – wait, Len’s the guy you fell for? The one that told you to come find him?”

“Yeah! That’s my Len!”

“That can’t be right,” Mick says, his voice rising until Barry elbows him. Then he hisses, “That can’t be your Len, that’s my Len. My Lenny, my old partner!”

“Wait, your old partner?” Barry hisses back, but even as he does, it all clicks together: Mick’s partner, the thief, the trickster, the man who became a koschei; Barry had been tracking his movements as he wound his way around the country and he had been coming to Central City for weeks before the exhibition, stealing people in the area –

He abruptly remembers the last night, the night they danced, the night they spent, that Barry spent, falling in love. He’d always focused on Len’s words at the end: “Come find me, and I guess we’ll see what happens when it happens.” But those hadn’t been Len’s last words of the evening.

Len’s last words had been, “For what it’s worth, Barry, I am sorry.”

Len wasn’t Solovei.

Len was the koschei.

Len had stolen Iris.

“He took Iris,” Barry says through numb lips. “He danced with me, he said sorry, and then he took Iris…”

“He’s a koschei,” Mick says, his voice strangely muted as well. “He’s stealing girls left and right. I don’t know why he’s doing it or if he has a choice about it. But he doesn’t say sorry for much, not my Lenny, so he must’ve meant it. Especially now.”

My Lenny, Mick said, and suddenly Barry is struck all over yet again with realization.

“Your Lenny,” he says dumbly. “So the Len that I fell for is the same guy as your old partner, your lover, the one you’ve come to rescue? They’re the same person?”

Mick nods.

Barry starts laughing, low and perhaps a little hysterical. “Oh, damn,” he says, raising his hands to his mouth. “Oh damn, isn’t that just my luck – the guy I fall in love with on the spot turns out to be a koschei and the one I grow to love over the course of an adventure turns out to be in love with someone else, and it turns out they’re already in love with each other, damnit, that’s my life in a nutshell, isn’t it? I’m always too late…”

“It is just your luck,” Mick says, and his voice is strange. “But Barry, your luck is good. Being late’s always worked out well for you.”

“How does it work out well now, huh?” Barry says, twisting to see Mick’s eyes glowing steadily in the darkness of the closet, fixed right on him. “How does it work out for me now? You’re taken, he’s taken, he’s evil…”

Mick reaches for Barry, putting his hands on Barry’s shoulders. His hands are glowing as well, over-warm as always, the heat radiating into Barry’s arms and warming him up from the inside involuntarily. “Barry,” he says. “Barry…”

“Well?” Barry challenges him. “Tell me, how is this good?”

Mick leans forward and kisses him.

His lips are warm against Barry’s, his hands strong and sure and Barry can’t help but melt into it, kissing back with everything he has, with all the little daydreams he’s pretended he wasn’t having, all the dreams he’d let himself have for a little bit before Mick had broken his heart.

Barry pulls away after a second, breathing hard. “Mick…” he says, unbearably happy but also unbearably confused. “I thought you said…?”

“Len has to come first,” Mick says, smiling broadly at Barry. “I owe him that much. But he doesn’t have to come only. You and me, and me and him, and you and him – seems like we’ve already worked out the basics of it, haven’t we?”

“I – are you serious?”

“Why not? You’ve told me all about him and you, and it sure sounds like he likes you with every last bit of heart that he’s got left to him. He told you to find him, Barry.”

“Yes, but – but he’s yours,” Barry says, but the hope is rising hot and fast in his chest, burning like the feather did when he was running. “You really think…?”

“I brought courting gifts,” Mick says. “And we got them all together, you and I. They’re impressive enough for two suitors, don’t you think?”

Barry chokes off a laugh and reaches for Mick himself, pulling him in for another kiss, long and slow and hot and –

A throat clears behind them.

Barry and Mick break apart immediately and turn to look at an extremely amused looking Iris. “I thought you were here to rescue me,” she says mischievously. “But maybe I should’ve looked into a potential dangerous-public-location fetish instead…”

Iris!” Barry exclaims.

She starts laughing, shoulders shaking and eyes crinkling, leaning against the side of the door. “Don’t want to get teased, don’t make out in a closet in the middle of a rescue mission,” she giggles, and even Barry has to start laughing, her amusement infectious. Mick’s face is red and he’s scowling, but even his lips twitch a little. “Seriously, Barry, your priorities sometimes…”

“Wait till I tell you about how Mick and I met,” Barry says with a grin. “It involves me being late.”

“Barry, you’re always late,” Iris says, grinning. “Now come on and let me introduce you to the girls.”

Iris leads them through a maze of rooms of all sorts: parlors and pool rooms and dining rooms and playrooms, scattered throughout the palace as if at random. As they walk, Barry reaches out and grabs Mick’s hand in his, and Mick lets him, his head dipping into a little nod.

Finally they get to a giant ballroom. The ballroom is massive, meant for a whole host of people, with a beautifully green-and-blue patterned floor and elaborate tapestries on every wall. The theme is clearly nature, with false trees made of glittering gems and chandeliers made to look like a little sun and stars, and there’s even a real stream diverted from the wide balcony doors to curl around the wall before coming out another side. It’s not empty the way most ballrooms are, though, having been filled with all sorts of couches that have clearly been dragged in from all over the palace, and more than that, it’s filled with girls.

There’s every girl that Barry’s ever had described to him, every sketched picture, every story; every girl that’s been stolen by the koschei, and more besides that were either never reported or stolen after Barry started his quest. And just as Caitlin pointed out, so long ago and yet not long ago at all, they’re of all ages, sizes, shapes, every hair color, every skin color, everything. There are dozens of them.

One of the girls in the middle of the room rises to her feet. She’s wearing black velvet trousers and a matching waistcoat over a shimmering grey blouse; her skin is pale and her hair tumbles around her face in loose waves of golden brown. “Iris, who are these?” she says, her voice commanding, her stance relaxed in a way that even Barry can recognize from his occasional visits to the fighting yards as a split second away from being dangerous.

“Laurel, this is my foster brother, Barry; I’ve told you about him,” Iris says, waving her hands at Laurel until Laurel relaxes for real. “And this is his boyfriend, Mick.”

Barry blinks and darts a glance at Mick, who looks equally surprised.

“Barry,” Iris says, poking him in the shoulder. “This is Laurel.”

“Laurel Lance,” Barry says, recognizing the name, although not the woman herself.

“I don’t think we’ve ever met,” Laurel says, frowning a little.

“Well, no. I’ve met your sister, Sara.”

Laurel’s eyes narrow. “My sister is dead.”

“Um,” Barry says. “Technically true, actually. She drowned at sea, though, which makes her a rusalka.”

“You met her as a rusalka?” Laurel exclaims, looking entirely taken aback. “Really?”

“Yep,” Barry says, nodding. “She was forced to work for the vodyanoi, but she escaped to come look for you –”

“I knew I’d seen her!” the woman sitting next to Laurel exclaims. Her hair is straight and very blonde, curling a little at the very bottom when it falls past her shoulders; she’s as pale as Laurel, her face obscured by a pair of thick glasses, but she has a friendly smile where Laurel is still wary. She’s in a wheelchair, which she pushes forward with a practiced effort. “Laurel, I told you I’d seen Sara hanging around. I’m Felicity, by the way,” she says, turning towards Barry and Mick and beaming at them. “I’m the brains – not that everyone else around here isn’t smart, just that I tend to be pretty brainy – which is to say –”

“I’ve heard of you, too,” Barry says, unable to help a smile. “Ray Palmer?”

Felicity’s eyes light up. “Oh, Ray!” she says, clapping her hands. “How’s he doing?”

“Very good; he was worried about you, but I got him to stay home.”

“I’m glad you did,” she says briskly. “I wouldn’t want Ray stuck in that time trap, and he wouldn’t be able to resist challenging the koschei. Come in, come in! You should meet everybody, or, well, not everybody, there’s rather a lot of us and we’ve already gotten pretty tired of going around in a circle and saying our names, even though that really is the most logically efficient way to –”

“Hi, Mick,” the woman sitting to Laurel’s other side says, cutting through Felicity’s babble and silencing it immediately. She’s a brunette, her lips red and her skin even paler than the other two beside her. She’s wearing black as well, rich colors cut through with gold; unlike the other women, she’s wearing jewelry, gold earrings and bracelets and a necklace. Her eyes are a very striking pale blue. “How’ve you been?”

“Lisa,” Mick says, his voice thick. He drops Barry’s hand and moves towards her, reaching out his hands, which she takes in hers with a smile. Barry watches with amazement: he hadn’t realized that Mick would know any of the women. Mick squeezes her hands tightly. “I’d hoped you’d be here,” he says, eyes fixed on her face.

“Where else would I be?” she asks dryly, smiling at him and rising up to her feet to pull him into a brief hug before stepping back. “Mickey, baby, are you okay? I know Lenny disappearing on you must’ve been terrible.”

“He called me and I didn’t come,” Mick confesses. “I don’t know what he wanted, but I should’ve come; maybe he wouldn’t have had to do what he did –”

“Don’t think like that,” Lisa scolds. “It’s not your fault that my brother is an idiot, okay? He would’ve done it anyway. There… there wasn’t much other choice, at the time.”

“Your brother?” Barry asks, wondering if she meant Len.

Mick nods, not looking back at Barry. “Lisa’s Lenny’s baby sister,” he says. “The thing he cares for most in this world.”

“Not even that, at the moment,” Lisa says, her very lips twisting wryly. “A koschei has no heart, remember? He knows intellectually that he loves me, but he doesn’t really understand what that means.” Her mouth curves up. “Though he does get me plenty of company to make sure I don’t get lonely.”

“He brought all of the women so you wouldn’t be lonely?” Barry exclaims, gaping at her.

Lisa laughs. “It’s a bit more complicated than that,” she says. “Why don’t you sit down? If Lenny makes his way here, we’ll hide you – and I can always tell when he’s coming, anyway.”

“The cold?” Barry asks.

“The whistling,” Laurel says, rolling her eyes.

“It’s a family trait,” Lisa says with a shrug. “Our grandfather whistled all the time, and Lenny and I picked up from him.”

“Her grandfather was Solovei!” Felicity chirps, leaning forward to Barry. “The real one, from all the legends! Well, one of them; apparently the name’s an inherited title, you know? But the Nightingale Thief, the whistling bandit – that’s them, that’s their family. The Snarts.”

“That’s really cool,” Barry says sincerely, taking a seat on one of the couches. Mick sits where Laurel had been sitting, next to Lisa, still holding one of her hands in both of his; Laurel opts for another seat instead. “I’d thought – well, I got a little confused; I thought Len was Solovei at first.”

“He’d be a better one than the current one,” Lisa says with a scowl. “Our father isn’t what I’d call charming or dashing; he’s just mean.”

“Lewis is Solovei?” Mick says with a frown. “I thought your grandfather left the title to you, Lisa, for when you came of age, not him.”

“He did,” Lisa says, nodding. “That’s where this all started, actually – about a year and a half ago, now, since I technically came of age this spring.”

“How so?” Barry asks, sliding over to let Iris sit next to him. He reaches for her hand, and she takes his in turn, squeezing it with a smile. “What happened to Len? And why does he kidnap brides the way he does?”

“Wouldn’t mind knowing that myself,” Mick adds. “It’s not his style.”

“You’re both right on target, actually,” Lisa says, shaking her head. “My grandfather, when he died, left the title of Solovei to me, skipping our father and Len both – Len probably encouraged him to do it, too; he’s never wanted to be bound to a single legend, you know? He always wanted to make his own. Of course, now he’s a koschei, and that’s as bound as you can be…”

“Story, Lisa,” Laurel says, reaching out and putting a hand on Lisa’s shoulders.

“Right, right,” Lisa says, blinking rapidly for a second before regaining her composure. “Well, the title was to come to me, but I was still a short way off from coming of age, so my father decided to marry me off before I could inherit.”

“Why would that have any impact?” Barry asks with a frown.

“Legends work by different rules,” Iris says from beside him. “Solovei can’t be wedded, at least not before taking on the title: the whole legend is about a wild thief, unfettered by society.”

“It’s not quite that strict,” Lisa says. “It would make it harder for me to take up the title, not impossible, but our dad found a sorcerer that specialized in manipulation and illusions; he cast on me until my head spun and I didn’t know up from down or wrong from right. I told you my dad was mean,” she adds, nodding at the horrified expressions on both Mick and Barry’s faces; the other girls merely look resigned, clearly having heard this story before. “He was going to marry me off to this guy and wait until I came of age; between the marriage and the enchantment, I wouldn’t have been able to accept the title, and it would revert back to my father as the eldest living member of the Snart line.” Her lips tightened. “I didn’t even care that much about the goddamn title; I cared about it only because it was my grandfather’s gift. But marrying that man – never!”

“And Lenny found out,” Mick says, voice rough. “And he called for me.”

“You wouldn’t have been able to help, Mickey,” Lisa says. “Len might’ve called you, but this sorcerer was strong as anything; he fed on other sorcerers and absorbed their powers, and he’d been doing it for many years. He was old and ugly and incredibly powerful. Even with your help, Len would never have been able to beat his enchantment. And my dad was moving quickly to make sure Len wouldn’t be able to interfere – Lenny only found out about it the day before my wedding day.”

“And he gave away his heart for the power to save you,” Barry breathes, understanding. His heart squeezes in his chest. He knew Len wasn’t evil; he’d known it from the start. No matter what people said about koschei and their power-hungry ways: Len had done it for the best of motives.

“And that’s why he’s been going after all the brides,” Mick says abruptly. “The last thing he remembers is that he needed to rescue you from a bad marriage –”

“– but he’s lost the ability to tell when a marriage is good or bad,” Lisa finishes, nodding. “Exactly.” Then she smiles, and it’s not a kind smile. “The sorcerer I was going to marry could defeat any sorcerer on this earth, he told me. But as a koschei, Len chewed him up and spit him out, and when even I was tired of his screams, Len let me kill the bastard.”

“Lisa’s not the only one here who was in a bad marriage,” Laurel says. “Some of the girls here – I hadn’t realized how bad it is in some parts of the country, even parts that are technically under Starling or Central control. When we get out of here, they’re not going back; not if I have anything to say about it.”

“But for every girl in a bad marriage, there’s someone like me,” Iris puts in. “I was happy to marry Eddie, and I’d very much like to do it when we get out of here.”

Barry straightens. “You didn’t ask about Eddie,” he says slowly. “Which means…”

“He’s in the time trap,” Iris says with a sigh. “At least I know he’s okay.”

“He was one of the better ones,” Felicity says. “He listened to us and let us hide him, and he helped us make several escape attempts. Unfortunately, the koschei figured him out and shoved him right in our hole.” Her face freezes. “The hole, I mean. The trap. I mean – you all know what I mean. I’m going to stop talking now.”

“Why are you here, then?” Barry asks Lisa, giving Felicity a quick smile.

“He wants to keep me safe,” Lisa says, rolling his eyes. “Brothers, you know? He was always overprotective, but he was much better at respecting my ability to make my own decisions before he lost his heart.”

“Where does Len keep his heart, anyway?” Mick asks Lisa. “We need it, if we’re going to fix all of this.”

“His heart?” Lisa says, frowning.

“Yes, his heart,” Mick says. “He’s a koschei, right? He must have stored his heart somewhere, in a jewel, probably around here. You know the story, with the jewel in duck and the rabbit or whatever; whoever controls the jewel controls the koschei. Where’d he put it?”

But Lisa is shaking her head. “Mick,” she says. “Mick – his heart isn’t here.”

“What do you mean?” Mick says, frowning. “What do you mean it isn’t here?”

“It’s gone, Mickey,” Lisa says. “It’s been stolen.”

“Stolen!” Barry and Mick exclaim together.

“What do you mean it’s been stolen?” Mick demands. “Someone took it?”

“Yes,” Len says from the doorway. “That’s generally what stolen means.”

Chapter Text

Everybody cries out in surprise, twisting in their seats to stare at Len - and it is Len, unmistakably Len, the same man Barry chased, the same man Barry danced with.

The koschei.

He stands casually at the entrance to the ballroom, body relaxed and head tilted to the side in what Barry can now recognize as an unconscious reflection of Mick's own idiosyncratic bird-like gestures. But his face is – wrong, somehow. There's something empty in his face, some lack of spirit, as he surveys the whole room of women. He seems neither surprised by Barry and Mick, nor concerned by everyone's shock, nor even angry. He just seems empty. Perhaps mildly amused.

Even though Barry never met Len before his time as the koschei, he can’t help but think that this seems wrong for the Len he knew. He's emptier than before, off somehow, more inhumanly wrong than he was when he was smiling and laughing with Barry. Barry has struggled to reconcile the Len he knew with the koschei, even after Iris confronted him in his own parlor and Barry watched, but this man – this man he could easily believe was the koschei.

"Len," Mick says, and his voice is full of pain and longing.

"Lenny," Lisa says, getting up from her seat. "I didn't feel you coming." She smiles coquettishly. "Aren't you koschei types normally preceded by a chill wind?"

Len blinks, unnaturally slow, and looks straight at her. "It's polite to let someone know that you're coming," he says, and his voice is perfectly even. "You said so yourself, didn't you?"

"Well, yes -"

"I can walk without the cold, if I make an effort," Len says. "But if you don't know that, you feel more in control of your surroundings, which I'm given to understand is important for children."

"Except for the bit where I'm not a child," Lisa snaps, her mild and pleasant facade disappearing in favor of fierce disapproval, mixed with a good bit of sadness. "You tricked me on purpose, you jerk."

"Yes," Len says, entirely unmoved and entirely unashamed.

"Len," Mick says again, standing up.

Len turns those terrible, beautiful, empty eyes on Mick. "Hello, Mick," he says pleasantly. "I've been waiting for you. Won't you walk in the gardens with me?"

Mick takes a step forward, despite all the girls crying out immediate negation. Barry scrambles forward out of his chair and catches Mick's arm. Mick glances at Barry, his face twisted in pain and confusion; Barry understands at once. This isn't an enchantment luring Mick forward, the way Laurel and Felicity and Iris are saying in a chorus accusing voices. This is Mick, with his guilt and his love and his loyalty.

“You leave him alone,” Laurel is saying loudly, her voice rising up over the rest of the crowd. “Don’t you dare; you leave them alone –”

“Or what?” Len says coolly. “Perhaps you’ll stab me again, Miss Lance? Or perhaps beat me over the head or try to set me on fire, you’ve tried those as well, to no avail. I am Deathless, you do recall?”

“I’ll figure out something,” she says darkly. “Just you wait, you little –”

Barry turns to Len and steps forward himself. He's spoken for Mick so many times the last week, it feels natural to do so now. It feels right. "We'll both come walking with you," he offers. "If you promise we won't be harmed or frozen or anything like that."

Len turns his gaze on Barry and for half a second he seems almost confused, almost human. "Barry?" he says, sounding just a little lost. "What are you doing here?"

"You told me to come find you, remember?" Barry says gently, ignoring Iris’ exclamation of dismay. There is something there, underneath, some portion of the Len he met so briefly, he’s sure of it. But he has to remember that right now he’s dealing with the koschei, not Len, and he needs to be very, very careful. "That’s not important right now. Do you want Mick and me to come with you?"

"Yes," Len says slowly. "I do."

"Then you won't hurt us or do us harm, by our definition?"

Please, please, please…

Len contemplates this for a second. "Very well," he allows, and steps aside, inclining his head towards to the door.

"Okay," Barry says, swallowing and hoping he hasn’t made a terrible mistake. Mick seems frozen where he stands, not responding to their conversation, so Barry lightly tugs on Mick's arm, urging him forward.

"You can't go with him!" Iris exclaims. "He doesn't know what harm is, Barry; he'll lock you in his time trap - or worse – and he’ll say you weren’t harmed, not really. You can’t trust him!"

"Magical beings love deals," Barry says with more confidence than he feels. "He won't harm us by our definition of the word. Isn't that right?"

"The Lenny I knew would honor his word if given," Mick says, still unable to tear his eyes away from his partner. "Perhaps only the exact parameters, but he wouldn't break it outright."

"He's not just Lenny," Lisa says. "He's koschei, too. He'll keep his word to the letter, once given. But he’ll try to find a way around it if he can. But Len, Lenny, brother dearest, let me just reiterate: if you hurt these two in any way, I will be very upset, okay?"

"Well, we wouldn't want that," Len drawls, but his gaze when he looks at her is full of some secret confusion.

Barry licks his lips - Len's gaze returns to him - and he tugs Mick forward again.

They follow Len out into the hallway, the door sliding shut behind them on the faces of the women in the ballroom, a dizzying swirl of worried-angry-afraid-murderous-upset. Barry half expects them to run out after them, but he has the feeling that they won't be able to because Len doesn't want them.

Len leads them wordlessly through another set of doors, then another, and suddenly they're in the gardens again, despite Barry being entirely certain that they had been in the other direction.

They're in the orchard again, a wild collection of fruits that includes not just familiar items like apples and peaches but also dragonfruit, rambutans, chokecherry, and even prickly pear cactuses. As before, the riches of nature are surrounded by the riches of man; exquisitely cast statues of every type of metal, this time, animals and men and plants, alongside chests overflowing with coins and jewelry so delicately made that Barry would have believed magic was involved in their creation even if he hadn't known about the koschei's powers.

Len turns to face them, face impassive. "Do you like my garden?" he asks.

"Doesn't quite seem your style," Mick says, having mostly regained his composure. His eyes are suspiciously bright, though, and his voice cracks just a little on the last word. "All that gold lying around."

"Lisa likes gold," Len replies, shrugging.

"How does it work, exactly?" Barry asks, unable to help himself. "You have no heart, right? So what do you care what Lisa likes?"

"Just because I don't have a heart now doesn't mean I never had one," Len replies. "The memories of my time with it have by and large faded; all but what I knew in my last hour as a man."

"That explains why most koschei are such pricks," Mick says.

"And why you're stealing brides," Barry adds.

Len frowns at the two of them. "I have to protect Lisa," he says. "I know that much. Lisa would be sad if she were alone; she needs company. Women who are about to be married are suffering; that, too, is a thing that I know. And so I take them and I bring them here."

"Not all women getting married suffer, Len," Barry says, but he can see from the fading interest in Len's eyes that this is not the way to reach him. "How did you know we were here?" he asks instead, changing the subject.

"I had an alarm set."

"For intruders?"

"No," Len says. "For Mick."

Mick starts at that. "For me?" he says, surprised. "What for?"

"I don't remember much from before," Len says. "But three things I know: first, that Lisa must be protected; second, that women should be rescued from marriage; and third - Mick is coming."

Len turns his gaze at Mick, who looks like he's just been stabbed, his hands rising as if to protect himself. "Of course I was coming, Lenny," Mick says, his voice thick and pained and Barry can’t help but put a hand on his shoulder in a futile attempt to comfort him. "I was always coming back for you, always. I'm just late, s'all."

"And now you're here," Len says peaceably. "I finally got everything the way it should be, then. Do you like the gardens? I can change them for you; make them any way you like."

"I don't care about the gardens," Mick snaps, and Len frowns, clearly not understanding. "Damnit, Len, what I want is you."

Len is frowning, but Barry notices that lost look in his eyes again, and he thinks he might know what it is: the heartless koschei, on the verge of feeling something. At the very start of his quest, Cisco had told him that koschei that do what they do for decent reasons are capable of more emotions than the typical evil-minded ones. And Len – even Len's evil is born from the desire to do good. Surely there has to be something of him left in there.

"I'll fix the gardens so that you like them more," Len is saying to an increasingly upset Mick. "You like fire; I remember that much. Would more fire help?"

"Lenny –” Mick starts, frustrated. The two of them stare at each other, one heartsick and the other heartless, and neither can seem to cross the abyss between them.

"What about me, Len?" Barry says, stepping up. The Len he’d originally met was a koschei as well: there has to be some reason for the difference between this Len and that one. "Do you remember me? I hadn't met you, before you lost your heart."

"No, you hadn’t," Len says slowly, clearly calling up the memory with some effort. "No, you – I remember you. You were funny."

"Funny!" Barry exclaims, because, well, that hadn't been his impression of their meeting at all.

Len nods. "You were going to fall into a river," Len reminds him. "And I thought – that would be a shame. I saw you; you were happy and content and laughing with your sister, and I – missed that. There's not enough of that. I can't laugh with Lisa anymore, and if you fell, your sister wouldn't be able to laugh with you anymore, either, so I pulled you back. I didn't think anything of it until you started to chase me."

"I'm pretty stubborn," Barry admits.

Len smiles – not much of one, a little quirk of the lips, but there's something more in his eyes than there was before, some spark of life. "It was funny! I've been a thief all my life, and the person who followed me the most didn't even want something. You just wanted – I don't know. To talk again."

"Okay, maybe that is a little funny."

"You somehow left out your bout of stalking when you mentioned Len, you know," Mick says, voice a little dry, but his eyes fixed on that little smile on Len's face with an expression like a man in the desert who has caught sight of water.

"It wasn't stalking!" Barry protests, though now that he thinks about it…

"Maybe a little," Len says. “But it was cute.”

"I thought I was just missing you, that you weren't seeing me when you went by," Barry says, making a face. "I didn't think - if I'd thought you were avoiding me, I would have stopped, honest."

"I knew that," Len says. "But you were so busy, and it seemed like hunting me was the only thing that made you smile."

Barry shrugs; Len's not wrong there. He’d been halfway up the wall with preparations for the stupid presentation at that point; it’d been his one way to work off stress.

Len is frowning again, now, though. "I didn't want you to stop smiling," he says slowly. "I didn't - you were funny, and you were happy, and I -"

His gaze flickers from Barry to Mick and back, looking a little desperate. "I want you to be happy," he says, sounding increasingly confused by his own words. The sense of chill from earlier is returning in full force, a sickly cold that hits Barry even through his walrus-coat. The trees around them shudder from the cold as well. "I want you to be happy," Len says, speaking this time to Mick. "Not the way it is with Lisa. I want to make you happy, me, personally; I want to be there, I want to make you happy. I want – both of you?" He frowns. "Is it – does that make this awkward? I think I remember that this should be awkward, two of you."

"No, Lenny," Mick says, stepping forward and putting a hand on Len's shoulder. Len shudders when he does, and the entire garden shakes with him. It's cold. It's so cold. "It's only awkward if we're not okay with it."

"I don't understand."

"We both like you, too," Barry says, wrapping his arms around himself. Mick has brought out his feathers; they're blazing hot in an effort to keep away the chill.

Len shakes his head. “That doesn’t make sense,” he says, backing away from them both as the garden literally freezes around them. His eyes are wide, the white showing all around the iris; Barry would say he looks scared, but his face is all wrong for that, his lips unmoving and expressionless; dismayed, confused, disoriented – his face is twisted up, but it’s more human than it was before when he was calm. “That doesn’t – I need to go.”

No, Len –”

“We’ve got presents for you,” Mick says quickly, stepping forward, hands reaching out. “Don’t you want to see them?”

“Presents?” Len says, something glimmering in his eyes. “You got me presents, Mick?”

“Both of us did,” Mick says. “Since we both love you and all that.”

Mick glances sidelong at Barry to see if Barry will object to his statement. To be honest, Barry’s never been sure if what he feels for Len is truly love or merely infatuation, but damnit, he loves Len enough; he loves the potentiality of him-and-Len, and now of him-and-Len-and-Mick, the bursting possibilities of the future that they could have, and so he doesn’t object. He nods, and smiles, and Mick smiles in return.

Len, in contrast, twitches at Mick’s words, a full-body shudder that looks involuntary and almost painful in its intensity. “I don’t know,” he says slowly, still backing away, still cold as Death. “I don’t –”

“Don’t you want to see what we got you?” Barry says coaxingly, following Mick’s lead and taking a step forward. “We got you presents we think you’ll like, something special.”

“Yeah,” Mick echoes. “Something real special, Lenny. You’ll love ‘em. Don’t you want to see?”

Len looks uncertain, but intrigued. “I think,” he starts, “I think –” and then he stops, his head jerking upwards in an abrupt motion. His eyes go sharp again, not foggy like before; the little hints of expression abruptly flee. “There’s an intruder.”

“What?” Barry says, shoulders slumping as he watches Len depart and the koschei return.

“Someone has come into my palace,” Len says, his voice crisp and cool, the chill in the garden reducing until it’s only frigid, not freezing. “Someone of power, of magic.”

“We should go see who that is,” Mick says, eyes still focused on Len. “Right, boss?”

“Boss?” Len echoes, a slight frown wrinkling his brow.

“You’re the boss,” Mick says with an exaggerated shrug. “Someone’s come onto your turf, I’ll back you up.”

“I’m a koschei,” Len points out. “I cannot die, and I can defend myself.”

“Just because you can take care of yourself doesn’t mean I won’t watch your back,” Mick says patiently. “Both of us will. I’ve got my flames; Barry here’s got speed; we’re not useless.”

“We love you,” Barry says. “Wherever you go, we’ll be at your side.”

Some emotion flickers over Len’s face, but he shakes his head a little and it vanishes. “Very well,” he says. “You may both do as you like. Follow me.”

They go back into the palace, following Len. He strides forward, certain and calm, and Barry can't help but reach out to Mick as they go. Mick catches his hand and squeezes it lightly before letting go again.

Barry takes a deep breath as they approach the same set of doors they had left before, the ones that lead to the grand ballroom. He doesn't know what sort of magical creature would invade a koschei's palace, or why, barring Mick, of course. He hopes they won't have to fight it, whatever it is, whatever words Mick had been bandying about being at Len's back. Barry might have the firebird feather and his speed, but he's already learned all about its disadvantages in any sustained manner, and it’s not like whatever creature a koschei considers a potential threat won’t be fairly fearsome. More importantly, he doesn't know if the invader actually has any ill intentions…

The doors open at a gesture from Len. The first thing Barry sees is the kidnapped women, all huddled in the back towards the diverted stream. He spots Iris at once, next to Felicity in her chair and Laurel - Laurel is on her knees by the stream, arms wrapped around a woman in the stream, the water up to her waist despite Barry having been sure that the stream didn’t extend so deep. A blonde woman.

"Sara!" Barry exclaims.

"Barry!" Sara calls back, pulling away slightly from her sister, both of their eyes rimmed in red, to wave at Barry. "So you made it, after all! Good on you!"

"You know the intruder?" Len says in that inhumanly even voice. If it had been his father or brother speaking, or even his foster parents, a sentence like that would have been filled with irony. With Len as he is now, it merely lies flat.

"Oh, yes, we've met. Her name is Sara - she's Laurel's sister -"

"It is a rusalka," Len observes. "They are dangerous creatures, and I will not permit harm to come to any within my walls."

"You can't hurt her!" Barry exclaims, abruptly concerned.

"Of course I can," Len says, sounding slightly puzzled. "A rusalka is powerful, sure, but I'm stronger."

"Well, please don't, then," Barry says. "Rusalka are only dangerous to men, aren't they? Or, I guess, anyone who wrongs them, but by and large that usually means men, and in Sara’s case, it definitely does. So you don't need to worry about her going after any of your brides and you can defeat her yourself, so no problem, right? She’s no risk, so you don’t have to do anything about her."

"She can't affect me and she likes Barry," Mick points out. "The only other people here are the women and you, so that makes her practically toothless."

"Hey! I heard that!"

"I will reserve judgment on her fate," Len concedes, drawing closer to the knot of women by the stream. As Len comes by, many of them draw back, shivering a little at Len's chill, but Barry notes that they do not look afraid of Len. They must have already learned that he means them no harm beyond their captivity.

"Hi, Sara," Barry says, smiling at her. "I see you got away from the vodyanoi and found your sister – good job!"

"I see you got yourself stuck in the koschei's palace," she retorts with a smirk. "Not so good."

"Hey, we have a plan," Barry defends himself lightly. "Well, we had one, but we were kind of hoping to find Len here's heart and it seems to have been stolen."

"Stolen?" Sara says, turning to face Len dead on. "That's awful careless of you, koschei."

Len shrugs. "I have more important matters to focus on."

"Do you even know where it is?" she challenges him. "Whoever holds a koschei's heart can direct his actions, after all."

"No," Len says. "Merely that it is to the east." He shrugs again. "No demands yet been made, other than to start focusing my efforts on Central instead of moving around. That is easy enough."

“No doubt someone trying to cover their tracks,” Felicity observes, tapping her lips with her fingers. “I wonder what they’re trying to hide? And who is it, anyway?”

“Very good question,” Barry says, nodding. “Sara?”

Sara ignores him, focusing on Len. "Well, as it happens,” she drawls, leaning back in a show of casualness that is clearly feigned. “I do know where your heart is, koschei. Will you free my sister for the knowledge?"

"I'm not going anywhere until everyone else can get out, Sara!" Laurel squawks in protest. "Don't you dare!"

"At any rate, the answer is no," Len says. "I don't care about my heart and she pleases my sister, so she must stay."

"Koschei," Sara says disgustedly. "I’d forgotten how impossible it is to deal with you lot - you've forgotten how to want things."

"I want his heart," Mick cuts in. "And I am willing to deal. What do you want for the location?"

"Does everything have to be a deal?" Barry asks, aware he’s whining a bit. "Sara, c’mon already. Besides, you have a deal with me. This deal will help Mick and I –” He glances sidelong at Len. “Uh, it'll support the deal you and I made. Could you tell me the location of Len's heart?"

Sara looks at Barry and her face goes through a strange series of emotions - embarrassment, guilt, pity, discomfort - before she clears it with a visible effort. "Yeah, I'll tell you, Barry," she says, clearing her throat. "I've also got some other news for you."

"Oh?" Barry asks, frowning. "What?"

"First the heart," Mick cuts in, crossing his arms over his chest. "I know you rusalka and your loopholes."

"No loophole this time," Sara says. "Just bad news. Barry, it's…it's Central."

"The koschei's heart is in Central City?!" Barry exclaims. "How?"

"Well, as to that, it was stolen by the current Solovei -"

"Lewis," Lisa snarls. "Of course. With my rightful powers, he could steal even from a koschei. Damnit, Len - of course you can't bring yourself to care about your own heart, you jerk -"

"Solovei doesn't have it, though," Sara says. "He's sold it to Zmey Gorynych for power and wealth."

The room goes quiet in shock.

"Zmey Gorynych is real?" Iris blurts out, then covers her face in embarrassment. "Of course he is; look who I'm asking…"

"I thought the Masters of the Forest were taking care of Zmey?" Barry says, still thinking about poor Len's heart being held by an infamous monster – no wonder he’s so disconnected and unthinkingly cruel now! When Len met him earlier, his heart must have still been in his own possession, or with his sister; once it was taken further away, he lost even that last vestige of humanity.

"I thought so, too," Mick says, concern threading through his voice.

"But Barry," Iris says, reaching out and grabbing his sleeve. "Barry, why is Zmey in Central?"

Barry thinks, calculating the days since he left Central (has it really been so few? It feels like a lifetime has gone by) and bites his lip. "I mean, the final Star presentation is planned for tomorrow - he must be attending for that; I can’t think of any other reason. A lot of people came to Central for that. But - I mean, I don't know why Zmey would care about whatever it is that my father discovered about the Star. It’s just a science presentation!"

"Your father has discovered a way to activate its powers," Sara says. "He was planning a harmless display - some sparks, that sort of thing - but the same technology that can be used to override the Star's natural protections for the sake of a few sparks can be used for a lot more than that. The Star is a very powerful magical artefact, and it contains power so great that if it were to release all of it at once, it would probably wipe Central City off the map." She hesitates. "With the rules of magical transference, it might also affect the other cities of Man as well, and Zmey has always hated Man more than anything else.”

Barry stares at her, dumbfounded. Wipe Central City off the map, at the height of the presentation? He can’t even conceive of it – the amount of people that would die – the population of Central alone would be horrific, but the number of people within Central’s walls had doubled, tripled –

“From what I understand,” Felicity says while everyone else is still processing that revelation. “Magical transference is when you have a representation of one thing and whatever you do to that one thing affects all the other things. So if Central City is held to be the model of a human city and it blows up, does that mean all the other cities will blow up as well?”

“Not blow up per se,” Sara hedges. “But the Star’s magic would spread across the whole land, and every city it hit would be affected in some way. Blowing up would be more, uh, metaphorical; it could be anything: human riots break out, the plants gain sentience and attack, the houses start eating people, diseases that affect the human mind are unleashed, the dead rise…”

“Feel free to stop anytime,” Felicity says, wincing.

“But my father would never permit Zmey – or anyone, for that matter – to come near his experiment,” Barry objects, shaking his head in an effort to dislodge the horror of the suggestion. God, Central City gone in one explosion, and all other human cities falling to any number of terrible things – he feels sick to his stomach at the thought. “My father may not be the best father, but he’s a good king, and an even better scientist, and like any other scientist, he guards his work like a bear defending her cubs. No way he’d let anything go wrong with the presentation. Hell, as long as he reigns in Central, no one else will even get to go near the Star without his direct supervision.”

Barry’s comment strikes a chord in his memory. He remembers saying that very thing to someone in Central during the ball, before Len appeared, someone who wanted to know about the Star…

“Actually, Barry, that’s what I wanted to tell you,” Sara says, that expression of discomfort on her face once more. “He doesn’t.”

“He doesn’t what?” Barry says blankly, not understanding.

“He doesn’t reign in Central,” she says.

Barry blinks. “That doesn’t make sense,” he says slowly, mind starting to scream in alarm. “He’s the king, he can’t just –” He swallows, his chest tightening with dread as if a vice has suddenly been placed over it. “Are you telling me he’s dead?”

“No!” she exclaims. “No, not dead, not dead, as far as I know – I got word from Central’s domovoi who got word from the kikimora; he’s not dead.”

Barry starts to breathe again. “Then what did you mean?” he demands angrily, pissed that she’d scared him so badly. “How can the King of Central not reign in Central as long as he lives?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, Barry,” Sara says, wringing her hands a little. “He’s alive, yes, but he’s not the King. Well, he is, technically, but he’s not in charge of the city. Zmey is.”

What?!”

“Zmey recruited the two remaining princes of Central and they have helped him imprison the King,” Sara says apologetically. “They’re pretending that everything is fine, but they can’t hide what they’ve done from the domovoi.”

“Cisco wouldn’t lie,” Barry says through numb lips. “But I don’t understand – Eobard and Hunter threw my father in prison? I don’t…why in the world would they do that? They’re not traitors; they’ve never shown even the slightest tendency towards anything like this before! Why would they do it?”

“Zmey Gorynych is a master of making deals,” Mick says, his own face twisted in concern. “He must have offered them something they wanted – did the domovoi say what?”

“Um,” Sara says.

“He did,” Barry says. “What is it? What did he offer them? Or did he enchant them?”

He can’t even think of anything that would compel them to do this. He might not like Eobard or Hunter all that much, but he can’t conceive of anything that would so turn them against their father like this. The idea that they would permit their father, their King, to be imprisoned, while a legendary monster rules their city is just unthinkable.

“No, it was a deal,” Sara says, averting her eyes. “But, Barry, just fair warning, you’re not going to want to hear this.”

“What in the world could it possibly be that I don’t want to hear about it?” Barry asks, alarmed. “They’re not doing anything to the populace, are they?” Iris grabs his arm again, her face frozen in horror. “What about my foster parents? Are they okay?”

“Everybody’s fine,” Sara says soothingly. “No one knows yet what’s happened, only that your father hasn’t made many appearances recently.”

“I’ve only been gone a week or so,” Barry exclaims. “What in the world happened? Please, Sara, tell me.”

“They bargained for speed,” she says, reluctance clear in every line in her body.

Barry freezes where he stands.

“Speed?” Laurel says. “I know Central’s princes are known for the quickness, but that seems a cheap price.”

“Super-speed has many uses,” Sara says with a shrug. “And they coveted it.”

“Are you telling me,” Barry says very slowly, keeping his voice even by sheer force of will when every inch of him wants to scream and throw things and possibly hit something, “that they did this because of me?”

“I’m not saying that…” Sara starts, but he can tell from the expression on her face that she knows what she’s saying is merely meant to placate him.

“It is because of me,” Barry says, horror mounting. “It’s because I showed them the firebird feather and what I could do with it. They saw it and they wanted it and they were willing to make a trade with Zmey Gorynych and risk the end of the world for it?”

“According to legend, firebird feathers tend to inspire the worst in the people who see them that aren’t supposed to see them,” Felicity puts in. “Though you couldn’t have known how far they’d go.”

“No, but I showed it to them anyway,” Barry says. “Mick told me not to, and Cisco told me not to, and Caitlin told me not to, but I did it anyway, and now my father’s in prison and my city’s about to be blown up, so it is my fault that all of this is happening.”

Mick reaches for Barry, then pulls away. “Technically, slick,” he says, “if you want to blame someone, you could blame me. No one made me go to your gardens in the first place, and if you didn’t have a feather, you couldn’t have shown it to anyone.”

“It’s not your fault,” Barry says automatically. “You told me not to show it to anyone, and the second I told you I had, you knew immediately how much of a bad idea it was to have done that, didn’t you?”

Mick averts his eyes.

“It’s not your fault, Barry,” Iris says, recovering her voice and wrapping her arms around him. “It’s not, okay? Even if you showed the feather to them, it’s still not your fault. They decided to make the deal, okay? Not you. They weren’t enchanted, they were just covetous, and they could have tried to do it some other way than making a magical deal and turning against the city. They didn’t.”

“But –”

“And more than that, Barry, it’s not helping anyone to talk about who’s to blame,” she continues firmly, and the other women nod. “We need to move forward from what happened and talk about how to stop this, instead.”

“That’s right,” Laurel says. “Sara, is there any way to stop Zmey’s plans?”

“It’d be tough,” she says, frowning in thought. “I think he’s planning on exploding the Star tomorrow evening, at the ceremony designed to show off the Star’s new powers. We’d have to get there, figure out what he’s doing, and stop it, while somehow fighting off the one of most powerful creatures of legend and whatever lackeys he’s gathered, including two princes with super-speed. I’m definitely not strong enough to do that on my own. Though…”

“What?” Barry says eagerly.

Sara licks her lips. “Zmey’s powerful, this is true,” she says. “But there are those who say a koschei is more powerful still.”

Barry turns to Len so fast he would have lost his balance if Iris hadn’t still been holding him. “Len?” he says. “What do you think?”

Len has been silent and impassive the entire conversation, listening without a show of interest one way or another. He stirs now, the chill that surrounds him deepening slightly. “If Zmey has my heart, I will not be able to act against him in such a manner,” he points out.

“But if we got your heart away from him,” Barry says urgently. “Could you do it?”

Len contemplates this for a long moment. “It has not been tested,” he says slowly. “Zmey Gorynych is the three-headed dragon, after all; he’s one being split among three, and he has a lot of power to draw on. I can likely defeat one head, but I’m not sure about the rest. He’s powerful; he might be able to destroy even a koschei. And that is Zmey alone, not counting what forces he’s gathered to him.”

“We can gather our own forces,” Barry says, thinking about Mark’s offer to join in any future criminal endeavor. Ray would help too, however he could, he’s sure; maybe they could send word to Jax and Stein as well, though he doesn’t know what they would do…

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” Len says. “I’m not letting any of you leave.”

What?” Barry cries out.

“I’m not letting any of you face something I can’t defeat,” Len says as if it’s obvious. “You’d die, and then you wouldn’t be here, and you should be here.” He shrugs, as if to indicate that’s the end of the matter. “There’s nothing there that I want.”

“What about your heart?” Barry demands.

“I don’t care,” Len says. “The risk is too great.”

“Well, but what if you could defeat Zmey?” Mick says.

Len turns his empty gaze on him. “What do you mean?”

“I’ll explain,” Mick says, then turns to the rest of the room. “Excuse us, girls; Barry and I need to talk to Lenny here.”

“Good luck with that,” Laurel mutters, only to have both Felicity and Sara elbow her.

Iris gnaws on her lower lip, but, at a nod from Barry, releases his arm and steps back towards the other women. “Okay,” she says to them. “I know Central – let me draw a map and then we can talk…”

Len and Barry both trail after Mick to one of the nearby recesses in the grand ballroom. The second they walk in, there’s a flash of cold and the noise from the ballroom itself disappears.

“They can’t hear us?” Mick asks.

Len inclines his head.

“Good. Listen, Lenny, remember how we said we got you presents?”

“Yes,” Len says, stirring from his apathy to sound a little wary.

“Well, we got you really good presents,” Mick says. “Between them and your koschei powers, you should be able to defeat even Zmey Gorynych.”

Len crosses his arms in front of him, a defensive gesture. “That's a lot of power to give to someone."

"Well, we do love you," Barry says, catching Len's gaze. He looks torn between interest and fear at the emotions that the two of them are invoking in him.

"We're willing to trust you," Mick adds and Len shudders, just a bit. "Don't you want to at least see what they are?"

Len hesitates, then his eyes glimmer in just the slightest bit of greed and - just maybe - actual want. "Yes," he says decisively. "Show me my presents."

"Well, to start with, we broke into the Workshop of the Sun and lifted you goggles of their make," Mick says, pulling out the lenses from Barry's bag, offering them to Len. "They're the best, you told me so yourself."

"Ain't nothing better," Len says, eyes glittering a little. He takes the goggles and hangs them around his neck. "You can see through dark, through rain, through flame with eyepieces of Sun-make. You stole them?" His lips quirk a little and he looks more alive, more present, than he did a moment before. A little more like the Len Barry first met.

Barry starts to really think that this will work.

"Do I look like the type that likes hard work?" Mick scoffs lightly. "Of course we stole them - me and Barry, together."

"We did it for you," Barry says.

"For me," Len repeats, almost thoughtfully.

Not wanting to lose the momentum, Barry slings down his pack and pulls out the coat: dark blue and furred and sturdy. "We got you another present, Len," he says. "We got you a Walrus-coat, from the very caverns of the Walrus Collective."

Len's eyes sparkle in amusement. "My poor Barry, amongst the Walruses," he says. "You must've been half out of your mind in surprise."

"Not as much as Mick was, flying in that hurricane to get us out of there," Barry says, and, as he'd hoped, Len turns to Mick in surprise and just the slightest flutter of concern.

"You got wet?" he asks Mick.

"For you," Mick says, nodding.

Len takes the coat from Barry's arms and looks at it for a long moment.

"Put it on," Barry urges. "It'll keep you warm."

Len blinks, but he swings it on, pulling his arms through the sleeves and pulling up the furred hood for a moment before pushing it back. He finds the gloves in the pockets and exclaims, a wordless sound of pleasure, and pulls them on. They fit to his skin perfectly: black and gleaming.

Barry has to swallow a little - Len's nimble fingers in glistening leather is giving him distracting thoughts, and he can tell from a glance at Mick's slightly glazed over gaze that his thoughts are heading down a similar path.

"It's warm," Len says, sounding a little puzzled.

It sounds like it's been a long time since Len has been warm.

"Do you like it?" Mick asks.

Len reaches up and smooths his hands down the front of the coat. "Warm’s not quite my element," he says, still that hint of a smile in his voice.

"Well, I can always take it back -" Mick starts, a smile of his own flickering onto his face.

"I'll snap your hand off at the wrist," Len immediately shoots back, fingers curling around the edges of the coat. "It's mine now; you gave it to me. Both of you." He pauses. "Being warm won't stop Zmey, though; does that mean there's more?" Len sounds almost gleeful.

Mick's a genius, Barry thinks with a smile. If only the heart hadn't been stolen

"One more," he says aloud. "And this one's a bit more your element, I think."

Barry reaches into his pack and pulls out the Ice Queen's scepter. He's about to explain what it is, except Len's sudden inhale says without words that he already knows.

He reaches for it and hefts it in his hands. "You got me this," he says, marveling, and for a moment he seems entirely human.

"Yeah, we did," Mick says gruffly.

Len turns and points the scepter at a tree. A blinding white glare shoots out and hits the tree; the light is so bright that Barry has to blink a few times before he sees what's happened: the tree has iced over entirely, turned a clear crystal from its stout trunk to each delicate leaf, already starting to melt in the mild temperatures of the garden. It’s beautiful.

It’s a little terrifying.

"Mick! You let me keep that in my pack?" Barry blurts out, staring at the tree.

Len abruptly laughs.

Barry and Mick both turn to look at Len, who looks as surprised as they both feel. "It was funny," he says defensively, cradling the scepter to his chest. "Don't look at me like that."

He looks just like the Len Barry recognizes from their night together.

"We'll get your heart back," Barry promises, and means it with all his heart. "Just like we got you these, okay? You'll like it."

"My heart," Len says. "In Central City, with Zmey Gorynych. Barry…" His tone turns regretful.

Barry doesn't like the sound of that. "What?”

"It's too dangerous," Len says. "You can't go. You might get hurt."

"You can defeat Zmey with that scepter, can't you?" Barry shoots back, starting to get upset. "So it'll be okay."

"Only if he hasn't gathered additional power, Barry," Len says. "You might get hurt, Barry. You might die. You can't go. I can keep you safe, here, and anyone else you might want."

"No, Len," Barry says, touched by Len's earnestness, but shaking his head. "It's my father there, my brothers; it's my fault Zmey got to them and that he's in a position where he can do so much damage. I have to go."

"But…"

"I can escape any cage, even yours, you know," Mick reminds Len, who turns to him with wide eyes. "Slick's gotta go, that much is obvious." He hesitates, looking at Barry. "You're going to need help."

Barry can see how distressed Mick is, though he's trying not to show it. "You should stay with Len, Mick," he says, realizing that Mick is torn between helping Barry as he has been these last few days and staying with Len and helping him take those further steps towards remembering himself. "Look how close we've gotten; he only needs a little more, and his heart. He's first, remember?"

"But you're important, too," Mick says, his fists clenching. "I thought I made that clear."

"It is clear!" Barry says quickly, his heart warming at Mick's words. “It’s just… I have to go, and someone should stay. Look at him, Mick; he’s so close to himself, even without his heart. You can’t leave now.”

"You're both supposed to be here with me," Len says, sounding bewildered. "You're supposed to be happy here, with me."

"I have to go, Len," Barry says, swallowing the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry. I want to stay and fix you, and if I can find your heart I will, but…it's my city, my family. My responsibility. I have to go."

"I can't let you go alone," Mick says abruptly.

"But -"

"No, Barry, I can't," Mick says. "I want to stay with Lenny, I do, but you're going to need help. I can help." His eyes flicker to Len. "Lenny…" He clenches his fists. "I'm sorry, Lenny. I want to stay with you, more than anything, but I have to go, too."

"I want you to be happy," Len says. "I want you both to be happy."

"I'm sorry, Len," Barry says again, and starts to turn away.

Len shakes his head. "I'll go with you, and fight Zmey Gorynych for you," he says.

Barry turns back, surprised. "You will?"

Mick looks equally surprised, staring at Len. "Why? Zmey Gorynych is so powerful, Lenny; he might destroy you, too. He might destroy both of us, and everything, and there’s nothing there that you want."

"I want you two to be happy," Len says, and his voice is thick. "Even if means I won't be."

His eyes abruptly go wide and he drops the scepter.

It's suddenly very cold and very bright. Barry throws his hands to his eyes in a futile attempt to protect himself, but it's so bright, it feels like the light is boring holes through his tightly shut eyes. And the cold - it's the cold of the stormy sea, draining heat and life in equal measure, the cold of the Ice Queen, numbing and chilling and killing, it's the cold of the grave, Barry suddenly knows that, knows it deep in his bones, it's Death brushing by him in all his dread majesty.

The light fades, and he opens his eyes.

Len is kneeling on the ground, clutching his chest, hands folded together.

"Len!" he cries out, the same moment that Mick cries out, "Lenny!"

They both rush forward, dropping to their knees before him and reaching for him, both of them abruptly terrified. Barry doesn't know what happened - what could do this to a koschei? Was it the scepter? Did something go wrong?

"Mick," Len chokes out, his voice thick with – tears? His eyes are glistening. "Barry. You came for me, both of you, you came for me."

"Lenny, are you okay?" Mick says urgently. "What happened?"

Len unfolds his hands.

There's a gem there, a ruby, about half the size of a man's fist. It's beautiful, glistening red and purple and glittering in the light, but it’s just a jewel, like any of the others scattered around the garden.

Mick inhales sharply. Barry looks at him, then at Len. "What's happened?" he asks. "What is it?"

"I kept my heart in this," Len says. "It used to glow like Mick's feathers when he's in a temper, like a storm inside of the jewel." He smiles shakily. "My heart's not in there anymore."

Barry stares at him. "Len?" he says, wonderingly. He couldn't mean – did he mean that –

"You're back," Mick breathes. "You're back, you fucking bastard, you're back!" He pulls Len into a fierce embrace, his feathers rippling out of his shoulders and starting to glow like Barry’s never seen them before: not agitated, not content, but delighted. He’s glowing like a fire in a fireplace. Actually, now that Barry looked closer, the glow wasn’t just light – there are actual flames on his shoulders.

“Mick, you’re on fire,” Barry says, amazed. He hadn’t known Mick could do that, for all of Mick’s threats of burning people.

“Well,” Len says, clinging back to Mick, tears starting to stream down his face. “He is very hot.”

“Seriously?” Barry says.

“I told you he was awful,” Mick says. “Now get the hell over here already.”

Barry comes closer and Len’s hand snakes out to pull him in, Mick reaching out to wrap him into the hug.

“Glad you came to find me, Barry,” Len says, smiling at him.

Barry’s got to say, Len is every bit as beautiful as Barry thought he was back in Central. Even more now, which is totally unfair, because Barry can feel his own eyes starting to well with sympathetic tears and he’s not going to be able to do the poetic “tears gently rolling over your cheeks” thing that Len’s got going on. Barry’s more of the “uncontrollable sobbing, eyes going red and checks blotchy while also snotting over everyone in the vicinity” type of crier. Even when the tears are happy-tears, like now.

Mick keeps saying things along the lines of “you stupid idiot” and “fluff for brains” and Barry can’t help but laugh, knowing how fondly he means them, and Len is smiling so brightly that Barry can’t help but lean forward and kiss him like he’s been wanting to since he met Len.

Len manages to wiggle a hand out of Mick’s octopus-like grasp and cups Barry’s cheek, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss. He’s softer than Mick, but just as sure, and when they break away after a minute, Barry’s eyes open – did he close them? – and he thinks he may have actually said, “Wow.”

Len is looking straight into Barry’s eyes (his eyes are so blue right now that it hurts) and his lips curl up a little. “Wow, indeed.”

Mick looks very smug, as if this was all his idea and he ought to be thanked.

Barry can’t help but lean over and give him a kiss, too. They only break apart when Len tugs lightly at Mick’s arm and says, “Hey, it’s my turn.”

Watching Len and Mick kiss is – well. If Barry had any concerns about jealousy being an issue, they are very firmly put to rest.

Inspiring might be a better word for it.

Watching Mick’s hand slide down Len’s shoulders, Len’s lips on Mick’s neck in a way that makes him shiver, the way they know each other’s tells, the way Mick leans Len back a bit, like he’s seriously thinking about pushing him onto his back to kiss him harder –

Yeah. Inspiring is definitely the word for it.

After a bit, as if by some unspoken cue, they both break apart and turn hungrily towards Barry, who gulps a little in very pleasant anticipation.

“We should probably go back inside,” Len says regretfully, letting the moment pass. “I need to go let Lisa punch me in the face a few times, and then we need to go rescue Barry’s city.”

Barry nods, having somehow totally forgotten about Central City’s peril in the last few minutes, which he wouldn’t have thought was possible but, honestly, who could blame him? Look at them.

"Okay," he says, aiming for firm and coming out squeaky. He clears his throat, ignoring Mick and Len's smirks. "Okay. Let's go back inside. If I know Iris, she's already planned out a plan of attack."

"Iris isn't as bad as Laurel Lance," Len remarks. "Even as a koschei I thought her attempts to murder me were excessive."

"And we left them alone together to plot," Barry reminds him. Len makes a face.

They head inside, each one unable to keep from brushing against each other with their sides and hands and hiding giddy little smiles each time they did.

By the time they get inside, Barry is unsurprised to find that Iris has drawn a rough map of Central City and Star Castle and is engaged in an avid debate regarding the benefits of overt and covert attacks with Lisa, Laurel, Sara, and Felicity.

"So, do we have a plan to conquer yet?" Barry asks, unable to keep from smiling at Iris. He's so happy she's okay.

"Barry, there you are!" she says. "I'm happy the koschei didn't freeze you. More importantly: attack in force or sneak in through the crowds?"

"Have you considered both?" Len inquires. "I find an attacking army is an excellent distraction."

Lisa takes one look at Len and jumps to her feet, shrieking incoherently, and tackles him.

"Okay," Laurel says. "That's new."

"We got him his heart back," Mick says.

"I thought it was stolen?" Felicity asks.

"Magic," Mick says with a shrug.

"You actually true-love-kissed a koschei out of it?" Sara marvels. "Not bad, firebird."

"Actually, the kissing didn't come till later," Barry puts in, because Len being able to throw off his own self-inflicted curse (with a bit of help) is an achievement that ought to be recognized.

"Barry, you dog," Sara says admiringly. "Did you snag two of the strangest magical creatures for your very own?"

"I totally did," Barry says, because, well, he did, and it is awesome.

Iris gives him two thumbs up before wrapping a friendly arm around him and squeezing him. Barry has no doubt that she’ll interrogate him later.

"The koschei has his heart back?" Laurel asks. "Good. I want a word."

"Kill my brother and I kill you," Lisa says, finally climbing off a complaining Len who nevertheless seems incapable of letting go of her - despite her having punched him several times already. "Just saying."

"I'm not going to kill him - provided he's decided to stop acting as our jailor?"

"Yeah, I'm done," Len says. "I can return whoever wants to go home, too. Though now that I can tell the difference, there were a good number of you that didn't seem all that unhappy about the kidnapping…"

"About that," Laurel says. "Will your palace disappear now that you've gotten your heart back?"

"I don't think so," Len says. "Most of the jewels and stuff, yeah, and some of the crazier fruit trees, but the stuff that was here originally should stick around."

"Wait, someone willingly built a palace here?" Barry asks, horrified. "What the hell?"

"It was abandoned," Len says with a shrug. "Probably because that forest off to the west is too magical for modern tastes - the leylines are pretty decent here; it's not as badly defended as you might think, provided you're willing to consider sorcery as part of your defense strategy."

"Good," Laurel says briskly. "I'm going to keep it on behalf of the unhappy women and set it up as a shelter for anyone else who's being forced into marriages they don't want. We'll go steal them away and blame you if anyone asks questions."

"Feel free," Len says, blinking. "Might as well. Have fun with that. You realize that means you can't leave this place undefended while we deal with Zmey, right? If we fail, this may be one of the few places that remains standing."

"Will the library disappear?" Felicity asks anxiously. "I liked the library."

"Actually I stole all of those fair and square," Len admits. "Lisa asked for real copies."

"Magicked-up books are universally bland," Lisa says. "Laurel, you stay and man the gates, set the place up."

"But!"

"Laurel, if you want to take responsibility for the women, you have to take responsibility starting now, and that means staying. I, however, am going." Her eyes glitter as cold as Len's without his heart. "I have a few scores to settle."

"I'm going too," Iris says stubbornly. "Me and Eddie; once Eddie's out of the time trap."

"You're right, I need to let people out of that," Len says, sighing. "It seemed like a good idea at the time, since I didn't really feel strongly about killing them."

"It was definitely preferable to killing them," Barry assures him.

"The girls can help point out which would-be heroes should be recruited and which ones shouldn't, right?" Mick says. Laurel and Felicity both nod with rather frightening smiles appearing on their faces. Barry feels sorry for whatever heroes are going to be on the wrong side of those smiles.

"We're still going to need more help than we've got," Len points out. "If the bulk of the women are here or at home, that leaves us with a covert team, and if Zmey runs the city, he'll have both guards and minions watching out for everything for him."

"Actually," Barry says. "I have a few ideas on that, though I don't know how practicable it is to have them here by tomorrow. Sara's here, for one. We know Ray has that monitoring device; can't we ask Ray to help?"

"Ray will definitely help," Felicity says. "Ray is great."

"Plus if we could get word back to the Workshop of the Sun, we might be able to ask Stein and Jax and maybe even Mark for help," Barry continues. "Mick, didn't you say the Workshop was accessible anywhere there was a sunset or a sunrise?"

"It is," Mick confirms. "And that vila did say he wanted to know about any more criminal endeavors we'd be embarking on…"

"I'd hardly say that rescuing a city and possibly the world is criminal," Laurel objects.

"It's all in how you sell it," Len says. "One man's rescue mission is another man's raiding party."

"Besides, Zmey is the current king of Central, practically speaking," Barry says. "And Mark did say he wanted to get revenge on a king of Central."

"Eddie and I can take care of the guards," Iris says abruptly.

"How's that?" Len asks.

"My father's a guardsman, and I all but grew up with them," Iris says. "Barry here can tell you all about it, but if I came back from being kidnapped to bring them a warning, most of them would listen. And listen, think about it. If Zmey finds out he has an in to take over Central and thus command, indirectly through Eobard or Hunter, all the guardsmen in Central, then why would he bother bringing in his own? If Eddie and I can get them to stand down, then that's most of your problem solved right there, and you just need to worry about whatever magical help Zmey has recruited."

"That's a great point," Barry says, thinking back to all the preparations he was involved with. "The knights are loyal to Hunter, of course, with the army, but the army is mostly dispersed to watch the borders or on leave to enjoy the festivities, and almost all the knights would be attending the presentation instead of on active duty. And I know you can convince David and Joe."

"No guards," Len says thoughtfully. "If Zmey is counting on them, then we'd be able to get all the way into the castle before we have to deal with his magical allies. He'd post them closer to the Star, to make sure his plan goes off right. Plus, if I recall correctly, Palmer's a scientist-turned-alchemist and Stein and Jax are engineers who know enough science to work at the Workshop of the Sun - they might be able to figure out how Central's king has gotten the mechanics to work and how Zmey screwed with it, stopping the explosion. Ideally, Zmey doesn’t find out what we’ve done until it’s too late to re-start the explosion."

"I can collect 'em in time," Mick says. "No problem."

"I think this is going to work," Barry says.

Chapter Text

"This is not going to work and we're all going to die."

“Barry, stop being such a downer,” Iris says, linking arms with Eddie, who smiles at her like she’s more dazzling than all the strange magical creatures he’s found himself surrounded by. This is the reason that Barry likes Eddie; he wouldn’t trust his sister to anyone who thought anything less than that. Iris is awesome. “You’re only saying that because the lives of thousands of people depend on a group of eight people, once Eddie and I go our own way, and at least three of them not-so-subtly want to murder each other.”

“I’m worried Lisa might actually go through with it with Ray,” Barry mutters, leaning in to give Iris a quick hug. “You two will be all right?”

“Don’t worry, the second any guardsman sees us, they’ll go absolutely nuts and call everybody,” Iris says confidently. Barry can’t say she’s wrong, either.

“Still, be careful,” he says.

“You be careful yourself! You’re the one going to take on the epic, world-destroying monster!”

“Yes, but I’m going to have Len and Mick and everybody with me,” Barry says. “You and Eddie are vulnerable to anything. Zmey could have someone watching -”

“You worry too much.”

“Iris, you got kidnapped!”

“And Dad’s probably going to hold it over my head for the rest of my life, yes, Barry, I know,” Iris says, poking at him. “Don’t you start, too.”

“I’ll take care of her,” Eddie offers.

Iris pats him on the shoulder. “Yes, you will,” she says. “And I will brutally murder anything that tries to attack you.”

“That seems more likely,” Eddie agrees, smiling dumbly and totally ignoring the fact that he was a trained guard and knight and Iris isn’t, which, to be fair, Barry would, too. “Assuming the world doesn’t end, we’re still getting married, right?”

“I’m marrying you even if the world ends,” Iris tells him, and that’s when Barry decides to beat a hasty retreat. He loves Iris and all, but if there’s going to be people being sappy, he’d like to be doing it with his boyfriends as well, and they’re busy trying to keep Mark and Stein from fighting and Lisa from cutting off any portion of Ray’s anatomy.

Maybe Barry should intervene.

“I will freeze you into an ice cube if you don’t stop it,” Len tells Lisa.

“Is that better or worse than locking me in a Palace of Delights?” she shoots back.

Nope, not touching that one with a ten foot pole.

“So, the world is ending!” he announces loudly, causing everyone to turn to look at him. “Everyone here remembers that, right?”

Murmurs and grumbles of agreement.

“Okay. So if we intend to stop this unfortunate process from occurring, the plan calls for us to get into Central City, sneak into Star Castle, and get Jax, Stein, and Ray here to the laboratory where the Star is located, and then the rest of us either fight off the minions or, if necessary, go and distract Zmey. Everyone agrees with that plan, right? No last minute edits?”

Nods all around.

“And the plan called for us to get in with the last stream of latecomers at the gate, right?”

Nods again.

“Well, I see the line starting already, and unless we want to spend the end of the world waiting for a pass into the city, we should go line up now.”

“I feel like the world ending because the heroes are stuck in line would be very appropriate for some sort of satire,” Ray remarks.

“Maybe some time when we’re not living it,” Jax says.

Somehow, Barry manages to get them all in line, mostly because Mick decides that noise now bothers him and starts sparking flames every time anyone opens their mouth. He has to stop when they get close to the city in order to put on a shirt and pretend to be a human, albeit a firmly and unapologetically barefooted one, but by that point everyone seems to be more focused.

A firebird, an ex-koschei with an ice scepter, a rusalka, a vila, two scientists from the Workshop of the Sun, an alchemist, the rightful heir of Solovei – and Barry, who has super speed.

Well, if they do succeed, it will make for the world’s longest ballad intro, at least.

Barry waves goodbye to Eddie and Iris, who slip away in the direction of the West Gate and familiar faces, and directs the rest of them towards Star Castle. All those years of experience running through the least crowded streets possible to try to make it home before he was too late for whatever meeting he was due for turn out to be remarkably helpful, even though the streets are positively thronging with excited people talking about the exhibition.

"There's a lot of people over there," Ray observes as they near the castle.

Barry looks where Ray is gesturing and winces. There are a lot of people there and, worse, there are a lot of guards. Iris and Eddie will be able to keep them from supporting Zmey, but they need time to operate, and in the meantime, Barry’s group still needs to make it into the castle. "Yeah, that's the main entrance," he says. "It's probably slammed. We're going to try one of the back entrances."

The first one they pass is surprisingly well guarded, which makes Barry start to worry. No one's used the entrance he was thinking of, the old boarded-up one under the shoe-maker's storage room, in ages - surely no one had thought of it now?

Sure enough, that corner of the Castle is comparatively less crowded.

Less helpfully, the door is locked. "Seriously?" Barry says to the door, utterly confounded. Someone has found the door that nobody used and locked it. This part is definitely not making it into the ballads. (Or, alternatively, it might make up the entire last stanza – something that rhymes with “made it too late” and “stymied by a door”…)

"A locked door is not a problem," Lisa says reassuringly, cracking her knuckles meaningfully. But even as she reaches for the door, there's a creaking sound and the door is pulled open from the inside.

They all freeze, Len’s hand dropping to the scepter which he has tied onto his belt.

A brunette woman Barry's never seen before blinks out at them. She’s wearing an eminently sensible dress made out of rich fabric, her hair falling to just beneath her shoulders, and she looks anxious. "There you are!" she hisses. "Come on in already."

"Um," Ray says, blinking at her.

"Cisco told me you were coming," she continues briskly. "He's watching over Star Chamber itself, he says he can catch you guys up on what’s happened, but he can't do anything about whatever shenanigans are going on - I trust you're here to do something about that?"

"Um," Jax says.

"Good," the woman says. "Well, are you going to hover and be conspicuous or are you coming inside?"

They go inside. Once they're all safely inside, Barry turns to the woman. "Thanks," he says gratefully. "Um - you said Cisco sent you? Do I know you?"

"Oh!" she exclaims, then hushes herself. "Yes, yes, of course - I'm Caitlin. Caitlin Snow? Um, Snowy?"

"The cat?" Ray asks, bemused. He didn’t exactly get the whole story before they left for Central. Jax and Stein look equally confused; they didn’t get very much of a story at all.

"You're human!" Barry exclaims, mentally noting that he should really take a stab at explaining everything from the start to them at some point. "Congratulations!"

"Yeah, my fiancé Ronnie broke the curse," she says with a shrug. "Turned out to be something about togetherness or something like that, commitment issues, that sort of thing. Kind of a long story."

"Is it just me or are there a lot of hero quests all happening at the same time?" Sara remarks.

"That's what I said," Mick grumbles.

"Anyway," Caitlin says. "You're going to deal with the whole Savage thing, right? Whatever it is that he's up to?"

"Savage?" Barry asks, utterly blindsided. "You mean Vandal Savage, the asshole from Scythia? Wait, what's he doing?"

"He took over the castle! What are you here about?"

"Zmey Gorynych wants to destroy the world," Mick says helpfully.

"My intel was that Zmey was the one running the castle," Sara says, frowning.

"Well, shucks, I think we've figured out Zmey's human alias," Len says, voice dry as dust. "Though - Barry, if you knew him, does that mean he was at the party that we met at? That far back?"

"Yeah," Barry says. "He was asking stupid questions about the Star - why couldn't it be taken out, stuff like that - he wanted to get a closer look." Barry remembers his words and groans. "I may or may not have told him to his face that the only way anyone would get unsupervised access to the Star is if my father no longer reigned in Central. Wow. Go me."

"In fairness, he probably only contacted my father to steal my heart and put me into his grip after he saw me dancing with you," Len says. "I didn't spot him either."

"You weren't paying much attention to anything but Barry, let's be real," Caitlin says with a fond smile which promptly freezes on her face. "Wait, your heart? How can someone steal someone's - are you saying you're the Deathless?"

"I'm in a recovery program," Len says.

"How do you recover from being Deathless?!"

"Copious threesomes, I hope."

Barry elbows Len in the side, blushing. "Anyway - Savage is Zmey. Okay. We can deal with this. It doesn't change the plan."

"I need to get back to the party before anyone notices I'm gone," Caitlin says anxiously. "You guys have this covered, right? He’s not actually going to destroy the world, right?"

“We’ve totally got it covered,” Lisa says, managing to sound quite confident. Barry envies her either her ability to fake it or her optimism. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Which way should we go, slick?” Mick asks, nudging Barry.

“You guys just follow me,” Barry instructs. “Most people will be in the main chambers, and we want to avoid them – actually, I think the best way to get there will be to cut through the third ballroom –”

“Third ballroom?” Len asks, looking amused. “How’d it get assigned to be third?”

“Better question,” Mick grumbles. “Who needs three?”

“Actually, we only have two,” Barry says with a sigh. “But there’s a plaque on the door that calls it the third ballroom that can’t seem to be removed by any technology we currently possess, so we just call it the third one…”

“Your castle is weird,” Ray says admiringly.

“Besides, Lenny, I have seen what you think palaces look like,” Lisa says. “You have officially lost the right to comment. I think you used literally every blueprint you’ve ever seen to make that place.”

“No comment,” Len says as Sara and Jax both break out into snickers.

“I don’t think you guys should be making all of these jokes,” Caitlin says. “You have heard that the presentation’s been moved up, right?”

“What?” Barry says, stopping abruptly. “What do you mean, moved up? The presentation was supposed to be at ten this evening, when it’s fully dark and the moon is starting to rise.”

“Yeah, well, now it’s at sundown,” she says. “Eobard and Hunter’s orders – or rather, Savage’s, through them.”

“Sundown is in an hour!”

“I know,” she says. “You’ll be able to stop him anyway, right?”

“Yeah,” Lisa says, but she doesn’t sound quite as sure as she did before. “We’ll – do that.”

“Good luck,” Caitlin says, smiling a little tremulously at all of them before she slips away. “I’ll try to see if I can track down Savage in the main ballroom and distract him for you.”

“And we’ll do the rest,” Barry says. “Thanks, Caitlin. See you when it’s all over.”

She nods and leaves.

Ray starts ostentatiously sneaking down the hall and Barry catches his arm. “Just walk normally,” he advises him. “I’m the prince; it’s totally normal for me to be walking through these halls, and you’re all with me. With any luck, anyone will think that we just fit right in.”

He pretends he doesn’t see Mick beaming at him and elbowing Len.

They stroll down the hallway, though everything in Barry wants to run forward at top super-speed. They discussed that, though, and decided it wouldn’t work for two reasons: firstly, Barry couldn’t fix the Star on his own without Ray and Stein and Jax anyway, and there’s no way he could carry all three of them, and secondly, if it’s true that Savage granted Eobard and Hunter super speed, there’s no way he trusts them not to have protections up against it. Barry doesn’t want another experience like the mud, and he has the distinct feeling that whatever trap Zmey Gorynych sets up would be far crueler than just a bit of stickiness.

A few people pass them, scurrying on their tasks; a few glance up idly at them as they pass. Only one seems to actually look at them, a page with a box full of messages, studying Barry for a long moment, then shrugging and going on his way. Len frowns after him thoughtfully, pausing for a moment until Barry tugs lightly on his sleeve.

The third ballroom is, as always, preceded by the giant, immovable plaque over the doorway labelling it. There’s a reason this ballroom is never used – it’s smaller, for one, and there’s rarely call for a ballroom that fits two hundred people when there’s an opportunity to fit in five hundred, but really the reason is because no one wants to endure the hours of endless, tedious small talk about the name.

Barry may be babbling in his own thoughts.

He’s a little nervous.

Mick nudges him a little. “Don’t worry,” he whispers.

“Yeah,” Barry says, as much to shore up his own confidence as anyone else’s. “We’ll go and get it done, no problem.”

They go into the ballroom which is, thankfully, empty, but they only get about halfway through when all the hairs on the back of Barry’s neck abruptly stand on end, as if there’s lightning all around –

Something hits him, hard, from behind, causing him to stumble onto the ground. When he looks up, the others are also on the floor, some having landed more gracefully than others.

"Welcome back, Barry."

Barry looks up and ahead. Eobard and Hunter are standing there, decked out in some of their finest clothing for the presentation, but there’s something about them – Barry can’t seem to see them right. Their faces are just a little blurry, Eobard's voice strangely echoing… Barry abruptly realizes that there's nothing wrong with his eyes. They're not blurry, they're blurring, micro-movements done so fast that the eye can barely acknowledge that they are in fact moving.

Super-speed.

"You shouldn't over-use it like that," Barry says, climbing to his feet. "You'll run out of calories."

Eobard laughs. He's wearing gold, his preferred color for these sorts of formal events because it reminds everyone how rich and powerful he is, and he's moving so fast that Barry can virtually see the crackling electricity dance over his shoulders as he moves. Hunter's in his preferred black, which he always wears despite its association with mourning, and the same electricity crackles when he echoes Eobard's derisive laughter with his own manic version.

"I had my page bring word that you were here as soon as he saw you, Barry," Eobard says. "And once we heard that you were here, well, we simply had to come see you. We would have come with guards, but they seem to be missing in action for some reason."

"Yeah, well, I was planning on swinging by to see you two, too, you assholes," Barry snaps back. "Turns out I have better things to be doing. But before I go try to fix the mess you've helped get us into, I have to ask, what the hell were you thinking, making a magic deal like that?!"

"Savage brings greater technology than you know," Eobard says, because of course, of course he still doesn't believe in magic, "though I'm certain it seems like magic to the eye of the ignorant. That's always been your problem, though, hasn't it, Barry? You spent so long with the peasants that you think like them."

"Better than thinking like you," Barry shoots back, because he’s always wanted to say it. "You threw our father in jail and let a stranger take over our city! How could speed possibly be worth that?"

"You have no idea, Barry," Eobard says as Hunter just laughs again, harsh and high and just a little bit crazy. "With this sort of speed, you could learn your enemies' secrets, you could have access to their most precious possessions, you could threaten them despite their most rigorous guard…"

"You could slay armies," Hunter adds. "You could kill who you liked, when you liked, and all would have no choice but to bow to your might."

"You never appreciated the benefit of what you got," Eobard says disdainfully. "Our father didn't, either; he refused to see the benefits of an alliance with Savage, so he had to be removed. At any rate, Savage is only governing the day to day of the city until we adjust to our new powers and settle the small question of succession."

"Savage is doing a hell of a lot more than that!" Barry exclaims, unable to believe that they're concerned with issues of succession right now. "And for all your ideas, you're both too blind to see it."

"We don't have time for this, Barry," Len says quietly. "Only fifty-one minutes left, assuming Caitlin was right."

Barry nods. "I have to go stop him," he tells his brothers. "Let us pass."

"No, Barry, you don't understand -" Eobard says.

"- we've been waiting for you," Hunter finishes. "Eobard has one idea of how to rule, you see, and I have another. We've decided the fastest one should rule here, and the loser go elsewhere - but then we realized that we don't know how fast you are, so to avoid a challenge further down the line, we had to wait for you to come back."

"You want to race?" Barry says disbelievingly. "Are you kidding me?”

"Speed is power," Eobard says. "The fastest mover can take the most advantage."

"Speed is all that matters," Hunter says, nodding. "Speed, in this case, is strength, and strength is what’s important."

"This isn't the time to argue about philosophical differences as to whether politics or power is better! Damnit, the world is about to end, I don't have time for this!" Barry exclaims. "I'm not going to race you, either of you!"

"You don't have a choice," Eobard says.

Sara puts her hand on Barry's arm. "You go ahead, Barry," she says. "I'll take this one." She turns and smiles at him, drifting leftward away from the main group as she does. "Hey, cutie."

Eobard sneers at her, turning to regard this new threat. “Cutie, really?” he says scornfully. “I’ve been playing political games since I was born, the cut and thrust of royal and noble affairs; I’ve manipulated enemy kings to do my bidding – and you think a stupid honeypot will work on me? I’m not nearly that dumb.”

“Oh, baby,” Sara says with a sigh, moving closer to him so gracefully it almost looks like she’s floating gently down a river. She seems like she’s drifting aimlessly, but somehow she’s crossed the distance between them, and she puts her hand on his shoulder. “Baby, baby, for all your little political tussles, you’ve never met anyone like me.”

Eobard stares at her, blinking as if he’s got something stuck in his eyes. He looks confused, the way Len had when he was fighting the koschei’s curse, and abruptly Barry realizes that he must be in the thrall of the rusalka.

Sara’s so nice; it’s very easy to forget that she is quite literally a magical creature primarily designed to lure and kill men.

“Won’t you talk with me?” she croons. “C’mon, Eobard, baby. Tell me all those plans of yours, all the great and terrible things you want to do. It’s the least you can do before you defeat us all and take your rightful throne, wouldn’t you say?”

“I – yes –” he says, sounding dazed. She draws him to the side, taking a moment to glance at Barry pointedly.

Barry nods and starts heading towards the direction of the laboratories, ushering all the rest of the group with him, sincerely hoping that Sara doesn’t actually find a way to drown Eobard in the middle of a ballroom. If only because Barry isn’t done yelling at him yet.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Hunter says, appearing in Barry’s path.

“To save the world, Hunter,” Barry says, irritated. “You can’t rule a city if it’s destroyed, okay? So let me pass.”

“What do I care if it’s destroyed?” Hunter says, his eyes gleaming. “Destruction is good – it frees up space for the strong to rebuild the world in our image. Eobard’s weak: he likes the comfort of the city, of politics, of all of that crap; I know better. I know the truth. The only thing that matters in the world is power – and once I show that I’m faster than you, Barry, no one will have more power than me.”

“I agree,” Mark says unexpectedly. He’d been fairly quiet most of the journey, chatting idly with Ray and having Lisa call his name every time he starts drifting away in a fit of distraction – people made of clouds tend to be a bit drifty, just like Mick said – but he’s fully focused now, standing flat on the ground, smiling at Hunter. “Strength is all that matters. Brute strength – power against power. Anyone who stands against you who can be destroyed, should be destroyed, because they’ve revealed how weak they really are.”

“Yes, exactly,” Hunter says, grinning savagely.

“I hope you realize that you, master of armies, are conceding that you have the same goddamn philosophy of life as highwayman,” Lisa mutters.

“Are you really surprised?” Len says ironically. “Barry – forty-eight minutes.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Hunter says.

“Fight me, would-be King of Central,” Mark says, his smile broadening. “Fight me, strength against strength. Then you can worry about dealing with your brother.”

“Why should I fight you?” Hunter sneers.

“Because I had a brother, too,” Mark says. “And we shared succession between us both, instead of fighting over it like infant dogs trying to get to their mother’s teat first, and just for that, I’m gonna kick your ass up and down this ballroom.”

Hunter laughs. “Don’t be absurd,” he says, focusing his gaze on Mark.

Mick reaches out and puts a hand on Barry’s arm. Barry tears his gaze away from his brother and nods, following the rest of the group as they creep around the fight in the direction of the doors.

“What’s absurd about it?” Mark asks.

“I have super speed,” Hunter says. “You can’t possibly hope to best me.”

“Can’t I?” Mark says thoughtfully. Barry can, somewhere under the crackling feeling of static electricity that emanates from Hunter, start to smell ozone, the feeling of rising wind and coming storm, and he starts to speed up in the direction of the door out. “Do you know who I am? What I am?”

“No,” Hunter says. “Why would I care?”

“I’m a vila,” Mark says. “I’m a storm-runner. I am a vila, and that means I am the wind. I am the rain. I am thunder and lighting, hail and snow, cousin of the dancing jurakans, master of all that fills the skies. I am Mark of Mardon Valley and I am the living incarnation of the storm.” He bares his teeth. “You want to face strength? Fight me.”

Barry quickly exits the room and Mick slams it shut behind them.

“C’mon,” Barry says, starting to run human-speed so that the others could catch up. “We’ve already lost time – it’s this way –”

They make it to the corridor nearest to the labs, next to the internal garden where the horticulturists practice the wilder elements of their craft, and suddenly there’s a whistling sound that somehow shakes the ground under their feet. Mick catches Barry before he falls, this time, but the others aren’t so lucky.

The whistling continues, but it’s not jaunty or cheerful the way Len’s is, and it fades into a nasty laugh. “Who thinks to trespass where I have been set to guard?” the laughing voice taunts. “I am the best of all thieves, and I’ll take your life from you before you do.”

Lisa leaps up to her feet. “Lewis,” she says, her eyes narrow with fury, and Len beside her flinches. “He’s mine. You all keep going.”

Before Len can say anything, she bounds off in the direction of the voice. Len looks like he wants to go after her, but Mick releases Barry and catches him before he does.

“We need to go,” Jax says, helping Stein up. “Even if this Cisco guy can give us the basic layout of the machine, we still need time to figure out how the engineering works.”

“He’s right,” Ray says.

“The lab’s straight ahead,” Barry says. “Just one more chamber – changing room, for decontamination – and then you’re there; you’ll have a little over a half-hour. Will that be enough?”

“It’ll have to be,” Ray says, even his usual cheerful optimism somewhat faded by the intensity of the moment. Jax and Stein nod.

But there’s someone waiting for them there, in the room, and it’s not at all who Barry would have expected.

It’s Rip Hunter, the man from the forest, standing the door way, his eyes and hands glowing dully with what Barry has already learned is the feeling of magic.

“What the hell?” Barry says, staring at him.

“I’m sorry that you made it all this way,” Rip says, crossing his arms. “But I’m afraid I can let you go no further.”

“You little fucker,” Mick says, starting towards Rip Hunter and only both Len and Barry latching onto his arms keeps him from actually attacking the leshyi. “You misleading little twerp. Everybody thinks the Masters of the Forest were leading Zmey back to his slumber, but you guys were helping him all along, weren’t you?”

Rip shrugs, conceding the point. And Barry curses himself for not realizing – the entire purpose of a leshyi is to lead travelers astray, because of course it was, and the Masters of the Forests were sending out their leshyis to do their work and muddy up their tracks. No wonder the vila by the sea had thought that Zmey was under control; no wonder Mick and Barry so easily believed it, with a leshyi’s power to mislead behind the story.

“We don’t have time for another delay,” Stein says urgently.

“Why do the Masters of the Forest want to help Zmey destroy the world, anyway?” Barry asks Rip desperately. “They’re wild things, aren’t they, in all the stories – they don’t hate humans, at least not the ones that don’t cross them in their places of power, not like Zmey does. Why would they work with him?”

“It’s not Zmey,” Rip says disdainfully. “My Masters have no interest in his plans. It’s the Star that’s important.”

“The Star?” Jax says. “The thing that Zmey’s gonna use to destroy the world, that’s what’s important?

“It won’t destroy the world,” Rip says. “Just human cities, really.”

“But why?” Stein says. “The Masters of the Forest are beneficent to humans that honor them properly.”

“You must have noticed that there’s been a lot of magic all around you,” Rip says, crossing his arms. “Quests and curses, heroes and magical creatures – far more than there have been in centuries. Magic has been dying, slowly dripping out of the world as humans turn in large part to technology and science instead – you, especially, alchemist, you must have noticed?”

“I’ve noticed,” Ray says. “But there’s been a reversal the last few years.”

“The experiments on the Star have been tapping into its potential,” Rip explains. “The sparks that they let off have been bringing magic back, one surge at a time, empowering the magic in this world. My Masters learned this, and they learned of Zmey’s plan; an explosion of the magnitude he proposes would destroy human cities, yes, but it would bring magic back into the world in full force. My Masters would not be locked into their places of power any longer; they would be able to ride free in the Wild Hunt once more.”

“But human civilization would be destroyed,” Barry exclaims.

Rip shrugs. “An unfortunate piece of collateral damage.”

“Collateral – why you little –” Barry takes a step towards him, only for Len to grab his arm, now.

“We can’t fight the Masters of the Forest,” Len says to Barry in an undertone, and Mick nods grimly beside him. “There’s too many of them, and they’re too powerful, even here.”

“But we don’t need to,” Ray says, and everyone in the room turns to look at him incredulously, even Rip. “What? We don’t! You want an explosion, right, Mr., uh…”

“Hunter,” Rip says. “Rip Hunter.”

“Right, Rip. Can I call you Rip? Your Masters want the Star to go boom, right, and magic to come back. But there’s no reason an explosion like that has to be destructive. We could – Jax and Stein, here, I mean, plus me – we could totally make a controlled explosion, make it all go up and out. The shockwaves of magic would still spread out, but the actual boom wouldn’t, um, boom quite so much.”

“We could do that,” Jax says. “Right, Grey?”

“It would be easier than trying to stop an explosion that may have already been triggered,” Stein says, nodding. “It would take far less time to rearrange the circuitry to process the explosion upwards rather than outwards.”

“That would be acceptable, but I can’t trust you,” Rip says haughtily.

“Trust me, then,” a voice says from behind him, from inside the chamber. Cisco steps out through the closed door, shaking his mane as he moves through the wall. “The binding word of a domovoi still means something to the Masters of the Forest, I assume?”

“That horse just walked through a wall,” Jax hisses at Stein, who shushes him.

“If you give your word and break it, you lose your home,” Rip says thoughtfully, head tilted a little as if he’s listening to someone speak. “Very well. We agree; we will remove our protections on the Star, and you will permit the explosion to proceed in a controlled fashion. It’s a deal.”

With that, Rip steps back from the door, turning and walking away into the shadows in the corner of the door, walking far beyond where the wall actually is until he fades from view.

“Good one, Ray,” Barry says, watching Rip go. “Finally something gets done by just talking it out.”

Ice Queen,” Mick says.

“…finally, a second something is done by just talking it out.”

“I don’t even want to know why you guy were talking with the Ice Queen,” Cisco says. “Now c’mon, we’ve gotta stop this thing.”

“Yeah, I really hope we can do it,” Ray says.

Cisco glares at him. “Ya think?!”

“Sorry, um –”

“Cisco,” Cisco offers, tossing his head a little to get the mane out of his eyes. “I’m the domovoi – here, let me shift to something more human for the moment, hands are useful –” Even as he spoke, his form ripples and he becomes a short man, with long black hair that hung around his face in just the same way his mane had as a horse. “Now, let’s go fix this thing.”

“So we did it,” Barry says, releasing a sigh. “We did it.”

“You’re not done yet,” Cisco says grimly even as he ushers the three scientists into the chamber behind him. “Someone’s got to go deal with Zmey.”

“Wait, what?” Barry says. “I mean, our goal was to go distract him, if need be, but –”

“When the explosion doesn’t happen the way he wants, he’ll be enraged,” Cisco says. “And the guy has the ability to turn into a literal giant three-headed dragon. He’ll just start eating people straight off if his plan for mass murder the easy way doesn’t work. Also, stomping. All the stomping. Think, like, grapes during wine-making season –”

“Excellent use of imagery,” Len says as Mick and Barry make identical faces of disgust. “Full points.”

“So you totally need to stop him, that’s what I’m saying,” Cisco concludes. “He’s up at the top of the tower, watching the crowds.”

“Okay,” Barry says, biting his lip. “Okay. We need to actually stop Zmey. Um. Can we?”

“I can stop one head, especially with the scepter,” Len says. “And Mick can take one, too, right?”

“I look forward to it,” Mick rumbles, flames starting to growing on his shoulders and arms. “Barry, you just stall the middle head till we defeat the other two, then Lenny and I’ll kick Zmey’s ass all the way back to his volcano.”

“Okay,” Barry says. Stalling. Stalling’s a reasonable task. Stalling he can do. He is good at stalling. “You said he was in the tower?”

“Good luck,” Cisco says, and turns back to the where the three scientists are hovering over some sort of contraption that’s been built around the Star. It looks like a somewhat more advanced version of the accelerator King Harrison has been fiddling with for years, but Barry knows when he’s in over his scientific head.

“Follow me,” he says to Len and Mick, the only ones left. “Let’s go fight a monster.”

Mick snickers, catching Barry and pulling him in for a quick kiss. “Relax, slick,” he says. “We’re monsters too, don’t you forget.”

Barry is surprised into a quick laugh. “I wouldn’t say you’re a monster,” he objects.

“I’m a koschei,” Len says, arching an eyebrow. “What role do the koschei play in stories again?”

“…okay, point taken,” Barry concedes. “Now let’s go find him before everything down here goes – to use Ray’s so-descriptive term – boom.”

“Haircut’s better with tech than he is with words,” Mick says, making a face. “Really. I promise.”

Barry leans over and gives Len a quick kiss as well, not wanting to go into battle without a token from each of his hopefully-soon-to-be lovers, and leads them over to the many stairs that lead to the tower. No guards block his path, despite Barry’s certainty that Zmey would have stationed some there – Eddie and Iris must have succeeded in their part.

Mick looks at the stairs, then cranes his neck up. “How many stairs?” he asks.

“I never counted,” Barry says, looking at it with a wince. “I could run up and be at the top in time, but I don’t know what to do about you two…”

“Save your speed,” Len says. “Me and Mick never take the stairs.”

Barry turns to ask how and then Mick unfolds his wings. “Time to travel in style, wouldn’t you say?” he says, smirking.

Barry grins and steps closer, wrapping his arms around Mick. Len, in turn, hooks himself onto Mick’s back, the more precarious position, but one he’s clearly familiar with.

Barry snickers at the thought.

“Not the time to be thinking dirty thoughts, slick,” Mick says, his smirk widening. “Save that for after Zmey.”

With a great beat of his wings, Mick sends the three of them shooting into the sky, each successive beat taking them up another story. They rise up, up, up, until they’re higher than the tower itself, and they can see that there is one solitary figure there, looking out at the vast crowds of people partying in the streets and the collection of guests in the courtyard outside of the equally crowded ballroom below.

Mick goes into a dive and brings them in to the tower, Len swinging gracefully off his back and Barry stumbling somewhat less gracefully out of his arms so that all three of them are now facing the man.

Vandal Savage, the man they believe to be Zmey Gorynych.

Man, Barry hopes they’re right, because otherwise this is going to be embarrassing.

Savage turns from looking out at the crowds to regard the three of them.

“Well, well,” he says, and a smile splits his face, growing far wider than any normal man’s mouth could possibly go, the edges of extending very nearly up to his ears, revealing hundreds of needle-sharp teeth. “Look who we have here.”

Okay, so he’s definitely Zmey Gorynych. Doubt removed.

“A firebird, a koschei, and the prince that went looking for each of them,” Savage says, taking a step forward. “I see you’ve attained your goals, Prince Bartholomew.”

“It’s been going pretty well,” Barry says. “All things considered. Um. And how’s your day been going?”

Savage stops the murder-stalk he was doing and gives Barry a weird look.

Mick cracks up.

Even Len is sniggering.

Barry closes his eyes for a moment. “Please forget I said that.”

“Your attempts to distract me will not work,” Savage says after a long pause, clearly being possessed of no sense of humor and assuming Barry is much trickier than he is in real life. “I see that you have somehow managed to take the koschei’s heart from my possession; I applaud you for that. But it will not help you.”

“I don’t know about that, it seems like it’d be fairly useful to me,” Barry says. “Wait, are we bantering? We’re actually in the bantering stage of the boss fight. This is awesome.”

Mick makes an audible cawing sound; he’s laughing so hard.

“We’re definitely in the bantering stage,” Len says, smirking. “I approve entirely. Just let me know when you two are ready to call it quips and we’ll start fighting.”

“Did you actually just go there?” Barry says. “That was awful. Hilarious, I mean, but awful.”

“Your antics are amusing,” Savage says, clearly not amused. “But you are too late to stop me.”

“Actually,” Barry says thoughtfully, hearing the sound of crackling and feeling the tower start to shake under his feet. “You know, for what may be the first time in my life, I think I’m right on time.”

A giant beam of light bursts out of the laboratory, shooting straight up into the sky, a dazzling whirlwind of yellow and orange and gold and white, the shockwave blasting everyone – both in the tower and down in the streets of Central City – down to their feet as it goes up higher and higher before exploding outward like the world’s greatest firework, its ghostly circles expanding harmlessly in the far sky before drifting down in a shower of sparks.

The stunned crowd begins to cheer, raggedly at first, then louder and louder, until there is nothing but the sound of human joy.

“No,” Savage snarls, and his face is increasingly twisted and bestial, his iris slitted and his jawline cracking as if to accommodate a long, curved snout. “No!”

He spins to stare at Barry and Mick and Len, who are picking themselves and each other off the ground. “You modified my weapon,” he says. “You?”

“Amazing what you can do with a little help from your friends,” Barry says. “And let’s get one thing straight – it is not your weapon, it is my city’s Star.”

Savage shudders, his shoulders jerking, and abruptly he reaches up and crosses his arms in front of him to grab his own elbows, and then hetears himself apart.

Barry yelps and jumps back, avoiding the scattering of blood and viscera, which is good because it starts hissing and eating away at the stone rooftop of the tower like acid.

There are now three of them, three versions of Savage, each with an over-large mouth and needle-sharp teeth.

The three heads of the three-headed dragon.

Barry’s just happy he’s still mostly in human form. He does not want to fight a full-sized dragon.

“I’m going to kill you,” the three heads say in unison, their voices gone deep and hissing and utterly inhuman, scratchy like a vibrating string on the verge of snapping. “I’m going to rip you apart, and then, with your last breath, you’ll get to see me take this city of yours and chew it between my teeth.”

“Shit,” Barry says, and scrambles backwards.

The sparks from the explosion drift down on them, landing harmlessly on all of them. The three Savages pause and inhale when they’re touched by the Star’s sparks, and somehow they seem to grow larger. Literally larger: each one grows a full head taller, easily breaking six feet and starting to near seven, and they grow broader, too. Claws rip through the human fingernails on each of six hands, revealing black scale beneath the scraps of human flesh.

“Occurs to me that the whole reinvigorating magic business might also mean powering up the bad guy,” Len observes.

“That’s bad,” Barry says.

“I think we’re stronger, too,” Mick says, and the flames dancing on his shoulders do seem stronger, glowing even stronger than before, the flames reaching higher.

“That’s good,” Barry says. “Oh crap.”

Savage attacks, each one of the three charging in a different direction.

Barry’s hand shoots to his heart, the feather already warming in anticipation, and he dashes past the one that’s reaching for him, the middle one, going around him and skidding to a halt on the other side of the tower, forcing Savage to turn around and snarl at him, starting to stalk forward again.

Len’s taken on the left-most head, his goggles strapped down over his eyes and wielding the ice scepter like he was born to it, the white glare of the light icing over Savage’s feet as the dragon shrieks in rage.

Mick has taken to the air, the right-most head leaping up, wings ripping out of his back, to follow, but Mick’s wings are flame, now, not merely feather, and he’s as fast as a flickering flame, too. He banks and turns, diving back to tackle a still-rising Savage back down to the tower with a horrible crunch.

Barry tears his eyes back to the Savage which stalks him. “You pathetic human being,” Savage snarls, voice utterly inhuman. “You cannot escape me.”

Barry slows time again, the feather heating under his hand, and he tries to dash around Savage again, but this time Savage’s hand shoots out and Barry runs straight into it, the claws gripping him and throwing him back against the barrier that surrounds the tower. Barry hits it with a thud, all the breath knocked out of him, and he falls to the stone roof. At least he didn’t go over the side.

“You worthless little maggot,” Savage says. “Super-speed is one of the weakest of gifts, a mere pittance; it’s so useless that even I can give it away.”

He darts forward and Barry barely manages to roll away, even with his speed.

“Maybe you think wearing that coat will help you,” Savage says mockingly, stalking forward. “Walrus-skin is roomy and spacious, but it can’t help you against the might of a real dragon.”

Walrus-skin is roomy and spacious, now that Savage mentions it. Hadn’t Barry put something in his pocket, days ago? Something he’d forgotten all about, what with the Ice Queen and the revelations about Mick and Len?

Barry starts digging around frantically in his pockets. It’s not in this one, no; nor in this one – please let him not have taken it out and put it into his pack instead – who even needs this many pockets in a single coat anyway –

“Do you think you can keep me away until your friends will help you?” Savage says, reaching out and wrapping his clawed hand around Barry’s collar, hoisting him up easily. “Is that what you’re trying for, boy?”

Barry scrabbles at Savage’s hands, trying to get air, and Savage throws him back against the wall again, laughing scornfully.

Barry puts his hands in his pockets once again. Please, please, please let him have been forgetful, please let him have been messy, unorganized, late, just this one time –

His hands close on something wooden.

“Your friends can’t help you,” Savage gloats. “Your powers can’t help you. You’re all alone, Bartholomew of Central City, and you have nothing.”

“Actually,” Barry says, smiling up at Savage despite the split lip he can feel dripping blood down his chin. “I have a gift.”

“The super speed?” Savage sneers. “I thought I’d already made clear –”

“No, not that,” Barry says. “That was a deal. This is a gift – and it’s for you.”

He pulls out the mug, Kendra’s mug, shaped like a mask of a hawk.

“What is that?” Savage says, but his tone makes it clear that he already knows, that he already fears the stupid little thing Barry has in his hands.

“As far as I can tell, it’s mostly the result of people being nice to each other,” Barry says. “You wouldn't know what I'm talking about. Say hi to Kendra for me, will you?”

No!” Savage bellows, and leaps forward, as quickly as he can.

The feather heats on Barry’s chest, the way it did when he first saw Iris, the way it did when he saw Len, or Mick, and he moves faster than Savage does this time, smashing the mug on the stone roof.

Savage stops his charge, staring down at the shards of the mug in horror.

“Zmey,” a voice sings from the shadows. “Zmey Gorynych.”

“No,” he snarls. “No!”

“Zmey, my love,” the voice says. “Don’t you remember me?”

With a terrible creaking sound, out of the shadow cast by the setting sun, Kendra appears, but it’s not Kendra. Kendra did not have those wide wings, like those of a hawk, with the edges blackened and burned. Kendra did not have limbs that ended in talons. Kendra did not have eyes that burned like coals, nor teeth made of iron, nor was she so terribly thin, the victim of endless, never-ending hunger for the flesh of the living.

She did, however, have that shining gold mace.

“Baba Yaga,” Savage gasps. “Forest witch!”

“You owe me the lives of my lovers, Zmey,” Baba Yaga says, and smiles a terrible smile. “I will take their lives from you, one at a time. And I will enjoy every minute of it.”

She takes a step forward, then another. Savage retreats before her, but there’s nowhere he can go.

Mick rolls off of his Savage and runs full-tilt towards Len, shouting Barry’s name. Barry shakes off his paralysis and activates his feather, running as fast as he can towards Len as well, slowing down just in time for Mick to grab both of them in his arms and throw the three of them off the tower.

Behind them, the tower explodes once more, but unlike the Star’s explosion, this one is black as night, black as Zmey’s scales, the black of hardened obsidian, the dead remnants of a volcanic explosion, and instead of an explosion, the only sound is an inhuman shriek of rage and terror.

“Now that’s one fight I am very happy to leave to the pros,” Len says.

"That was really Kendra?" Barry says, clutching at Mick as they glide gently down towards the gardens, which may be the only place possible to land without accidentally smashing into a bunch of shouting people. "But she was so nice!"

"She’s Baba Yaga, slick," Mick says. "The ancient man-eating crone of the forest. Of course she's scary as fuck."

"You think she'll be okay?"

"Barry, given how Zmey Gorynych was acting, I'm thinking he didn't see his chances as all that hot," Len says, pulling his goggles down to hang around his neck and relying entirely on Mick to keep him from falling, which impresses the living daylights out of Barry. "I'm sure she's doing just fine."

They land on the ground, Mick banking his wings and landing all of them on their feet. Barry doesn't move away, enjoying having both of them wrapped around him.

Len, in contrast, immediately starts untangling himself from the two of them.

"Len?" Barry asks.

"Lisa went after Lewis on her own," Len says, pulling away. "I gotta check on her."

"It's cool, big brother," Lisa calls out, striding into the garden herself. She's wearing a cape of feathers, a bit like Mick's arms when his feathers are out, but her feathers are a misty grey and black. Nightingale feathers. Her hair falls in perfect waves around her face, like she's been relaxing at the spa all afternoon, and her face is shining like the light of the still-unrisen moon is reflected in it. She has a bag that Barry doesn't recognize tied to her belt, and in her hand she has an old-style whistle. "I'm fine."

"Lisa," Len says, beaming at her.

"Solovei," Mick corrects him. He grins at her. "Claimed your birthright, I see."

Lisa smiles, glorious and victorious. "Yes, thank you, Mick."

"And Lewis?" Len asks.

Lisa's smile goes vicious, but no less victorious. "He won't be causing anyone any trouble any more. Turns out even the most pathetic beggar still has something you can steal."

She doesn't elaborate, but Len nods, satisfied.

“How about the others?” Barry asks, turning back towards the castle. “We should check to make sure everyone’s okay.”

“I need to stretch my wings a bit,” Mick says, rolling his shoulders and shooting Barry a wicked smile. “Any chance I could convince you to join me?”

Barry points at him. “Don’t tempt me,” he warns, smiling. “Take Len for a joyride instead, and Lisa –” By the time he’s turned to look at Lisa, though, she’s gone. “…I’m going to guess that it’s a waste of breath to have told her not to steal anything.”

“Very likely,” Len says, smirking. “Go do your thing; we’ll find you in a few hours or so.” His eyes glitter. “And then we’re going to take you away and not give you back for at least a few hours more.”

Barry licks dry lips. “I’m okay with that,” he allows, laughing a little at their avaricious expressions, and turns back to the castle.

Sara meets him at the door to the third ballroom, smiling. “Shucks, boys, you just couldn’t save the world without a little drama, could you?”

“Please tell me you didn’t drown my brother,” Barry replies, crossing his arms and arching an eyebrow.

“Not that the windbag didn’t deserve it, but no,” she says. “He passed out when Zmey pulled back the power he’d been given. Your other brother, too – though he might be a little more, um, crispy. I’m pretty sure he’s okay, though; the super-healing kicked in before it got pulled.”

“And Mark?”

“After the princes passed out he got distracted and floated away,” Sara says, rolling her eyes. “Vila, I swear. He’ll be back eventually, or at the very least with the next storm.”

They find Ray, Stein, Cisco and Jax chattering like magpies next to the Star, brainstorming potential uses and drawing up rough engineering plans.

Barry coughs a little to get their attention. Stein looks up and says, “Ah, Barry, there you are. I trust it went well with the explosion and with Zmey?”

“Went fine.”

“Good, good.” Stein turns back to the conversation, only to turn back. “Can we get the King out of prison sometime? We have a few technical questions we’d love to pose to him.”

“Yeah, especially with the design elements –” Ray starts.

“Plus the potential applications of –”

“Would you guys like to help with rescuing the king, or would you prefer to stay here with your new infatuation?” Barry asks, unable to keep from grinning. “If you come help rescue him, he may even let you keep working with it.”

Oddly enough, they all elect to come with him, but they’re all very grumpy about it. Scientists are all the same.

Star Castle doesn’t actually have much in the way of prison cells, so it takes a few tries to figure out where Eobard and Hunter have stashed King Harrison, but eventually Barry tracks him down to a small suite of rooms up in the easternmost ridge of the castle.

Barry gnaws a little on his lip before knocking on the door. He has absolutely no idea how he’s going to explain this one.

A woman opens the door, blinking at them.

Barry blinks back.

The woman is tall and middle-aged, although still strikingly beautiful. Her blond hair is cut short, going no further than her neck, and her blue eyes are sharp and keen.

“Harrison,” she says, still staring at Barry. “I do think one of your sons is here.”

“Which one, the asshole or the prick?” Barry hears his father say, sounding irritated.

“The missing one,” she says, standing aside to let Barry in. “I do believe it’s your rescue party.”

King Harrison turns to look at Barry. Barry looks back.

Barry has absolutely nothing to say. He probably should have rehearsed something – an apology for having shown the feather in the first place, an explanation of what happened with the Star and with Zmey, something like that – but it turns out nothing is in fact the best strategy, because Ray Palmer, master of failing at any sort of social grace, proceeds to walk straight into the room and exclaim, “You’re the one who made the Star accelerator, right? That was amazing. We had a few questions.”

Barry can actually see King Harrison’s expression shift from “awkward fatherhood” to “enthused scientist.” He shakes his head a little, amused; he should have remembered that he always did like his father better as a fellow scientist and as a king than he did as an actual father.

“No, no, no,” his father is saying enthusiastically to Ray and Jax and Stein, with Sara listening in as a bemused but fascinated observer. “I thought that as well, but then I realized – and I know this is counter-intuitive – that the best way to connect the gears is –”

“Good job with Zmey, dear,” the woman at the door says to Barry.

“Thanks,” he says, then blinks. “Wait, you knew it was Zmey?”

“We’re far-kin,” she says with a shrug. “I have the ability to identify him, but I cannot reveal him until someone else unmasks him – the advantages and disadvantages of blood.”

“Wait,” Barry says, “does that mean you’re…?”

“My name’s Tina,” the kikimora says, offering a hand.

Barry shakes her hand. “It’s nice to meet you,” he says politely. “Cisco said you knew my father.”

She smiles. “Cisco always had a bit of a fondness for gossip,” she says warmly. “Don’t worry; your father and I have been on good terms ever since he married Tessie and became king.”

“You knew my mother?” Barry asks, intrigued. No one had ever called his mother anything but Tess.

“Certainly,” Tina says. “We’ll have to discuss it sometime. Will we be seeing more of you in the future?”

“More of me?” Barry says, frowning a bit. “Why?”

“Well, with your brothers having behaved quite so abominably, that does leave you as the only reasonable successor…”

“Oh hell no,” Barry interrupts, horrified. “Can’t he just hold a science fair and pick a successor that way, like he’s always said he would? I would be terrible at statecraft.”

“I did tell him you’d say that,” Tina says, smiling. “Isn’t that right, Harrison?”

“You did mention as much,” King Harrison replies, looking at them both sharply. He’s clearly been listening to them talk, though Barry didn’t realize as much. “Barry, are you quite serious? If I pick another successor, it will be rather difficult to undo.”

“I’m totally serious,” Barry says fervently. “If you’re wondering if I’ll change my mind down the line – don’t. The only thing I could imagine worse than having to go to all of the council meetings I currently go to is having to be on time for all of them.”

Tina snickers and even King Harrison smiles faintly. “Even if I do take on another successor, you’ll still be a prince of Central, Barry,” he says. “Nice try, though.”

“Is it too late to commit treason?” Barry asks.

“Sorry, Barry, you missed the boat on that one,” King Harrison says. “But I do like your new friends. They can stay.”

“Unfortunately, we can’t,” Stein says with a sigh. “We took a brief leave of absence and we might be able to stretch it out for a few months, but we really must return to our work on the Sun.”

“When you say the Sun…” King Harrison says, his eyes gleaming thoughtfully.

“You still have a job to do, Harrison,” Tina says firmly. “Consider the Workshop a retirement goal.”

“How’s everyone else?” Ray asks, so late with the question that it’s almost comical. “Everyone’s okay? How’s Mick? On fire, I hope?”

“Flaming away,” Barry assures him.

“You found the firebird?” King Harrison asks, eyes lighting up.

“Yes, and I’m dating him,” Barry says. “No dissection.”

“I wouldn’t have dissected him,” King Harrison says, though not without a note of regret. “I thought you were chasing that blue-eyed thief from the opening ceremonies?”

“You noticed that?” Barry squeaks. “Um. I mean. I’m dating him, too.”

King Harrison raises his eyebrows. “Well,” he says. “It’s not like there isn’t precedent for that in the family – do you know that your great-great-grandfather…”

“I’ve already told everyone the story with the mice,” Barry says.

“I don’t think I heard it,” Ray says.

Later, Ray.”

“Indeed,” King Harrison says, rising from his desk. “As enjoyable as this is, I do have a gigantic crowd to attend to. We will have to reconvene this later – you’ll have to tell us the whole story, from beginning to end, Barry.”

“Yeah,” Barry says faintly, trying to imagine how long it will take to tell the whole thing, and also imagining explaining his willing participation in several “heists”, as Mick called them. Worse, King Harrison will probably invite Henry and Joe and Eddie and Iris, and he’ll have to explain it all of them, too. “I’ll…do that. Sure.”

Sara sniggers at him.

Tina turns to look at Sara. “And how did a rusalka like yourself end up so far away from the streams?” she asks. “Barry’s fault, I imagine?”

“Entirely,” Sara says with a grin. “Oh, King Harrison, we need to talk about you recognizing a small independent city-state, not far from here, consisting of all the kidnapped women of the koschei.”

“Barry, did you have anything to do with this?” King Harrison asks.

“You know, I’m going to go outside and see if Len and Mick are back,” Barry says hastily.

He does not use super-speed to go out to the garden, whatever Sara yells behind him. It doesn’t help, anyway; everyone just follows him out.

Len and Mick are back, though, and talking with a cheerful and bouncy-looking Kendra, who’s gone back to wearing the pale pink sweater again, without so much of a hint of the menacing old woman of the forest about her.

“Who’s the lady?” Ray asks Barry as they go in that direction. “She’s gorgeous.”

“For your own good, Ray, don’t go there,” Barry advises.

When they see him, Len and Mick turn as one to grin at Barry: Mick with a whole-hearted grin, Len with a more restrained little smile that Barry suspects means just as much. Barry goes straight to them, ignoring everybody else, even his father, and they open their arms and pull him in.

Len gets to him first this time, leaning him back against Mick’s strong chest and kissing him, one hand looped gently behind Barry’s head and the other running down Barry’s side. He takes a break only long enough to pass him to Mick, who kisses him just as soundly, breaking away with a mischievous grin to pass him back to Len once more. Barry kisses them both, unable to believe his luck. He doesn’t even care that he’s dating a firebird and a koschei; he’s somehow managed to win himself Len and Mick, and that means so much more.

Not bad for the least punctual prince of Central.

“You know we’re going to steal you away, right?” Len murmurs in Barry’s ear as Mick lavishes Barry’s jawline with kisses.

“Any chance you could do that before I have to explain everything?” Barry asks back, just as quietly.

“And miss a chance to horrify the in-laws?” Mick says. “Never.”

“I’ve already told my father to find another heir,” Barry says breathlessly. “Though I still want to help solve crimes with the guardhouse; I’m not giving that up.”

“Everyone needs a hobby,” Len says agreeably.

“Ours is stealing,” Mick adds. “But you’ve gotten pretty decent at it; you can join us.”

“Yeah,” Barry says. “Let’s leave that part out of the re-telling.”

Chapter Text

"Barry, wake up! We're going to be late!"

Barry sits straight up in his bed, frantically rubbing his eyes; he's in his room in the castle, the big four-poster bed, and he's late, that's no surprise, but, wait, it's Iris calling his name, how did that…?

A broad arm reaches up from the bed behind and wraps firmly around Barry's waist, anchoring him to the bed.

Oh, right.

Barry smiles down at the two sleeping bodies beside him: Mick, feathers fluffed out and properly preened like he really likes but pretends he's above most of the time, lying face down in the pillow and grumbling sleepily, and Len, lying on Barry's other side, wrapped in what must be every blanket in the room and possibly some from the next room over until he looks like nothing so much as a big fat inchworm, still dead to the world and trusting that Mick, the lightest sleeper of the three of them, would wake him if there was any real threat of something attacking or Barry leaving.

There's also a positive cascade of glittering necklaces and golden coins everywhere on the bed.

Oops.

"Getting ready, Iris!" Barry shouts back desperately, but it's too late.

Iris is already opening the door, saying, "Honestly, Barry, you know how important covering this event is going to be to my newspaper -"

She pauses once the door is fully open, gazing at Barry, who's still partially draped in a necklace dripping with pearls and not much else. At least he’s got a bit of blanket over his legs.

"Um," he says.

"Barry," she says, voice flat. "Did you rob a dragon's hoard without telling me first again?"

"Just a little one?" Barry tries. "The dragon wasn't even there!"

"That isn't the point, Barry," Iris says, rolling her eyes. "Now I'm going to have to run an article about your latest antics in the same newssheet as my story on Caitlin's wedding - which we are going to be late to, if you don't start getting ready."

"I thought your newspaper only covered magic-related events?" Barry asks, carefully extracting himself from Mick's grip. "Why are you covering a wedding, anyway? I thought you said the whole point of running a newspaper was to avoid being forced onto the stupid society pages…"

"It’s because Caitlin is inviting some of the people from her quest, of course," Iris says. "The domovoi, naturally, though people are practically used to Cisco by now; but also the local Queen of Cats, the Great Owl…"

"Right, that's why the wedding is happening just before dawn," Barry remembers. "Ugh. How long do I have?"

"I left you five minutes."

Barry groans and puts his hand on his otherwise bare chest, touching the feather which always hangs there.

Three minutes later, he blurs to a stop in front of Iris, dressed, brushed, and halfway through eating a creamy pastry roll. "I'm ready," he says. "Who's coming? Anyone I know?"

"Well, your father is presiding as the local monarch," Iris replies, voice dry. "Plus Jessie, of course, as the Heir Apparent."

"Did you know that the people are calling her Jessie Quick?" Barry asks, deeply delighted by this fact. "Despite the fact that she's absolutely no relation to any of the rest of us?"

"No, Barry, I run the most popular newspaper in the city and I had no idea," Iris says indulgently. "Of course I know. No reason to give up a perfectly good city stereotype for anything as minor as blood relation. Though, according to that horrid gossip rag that I can’t seem to obliterate, you're bitterly planning her demise due to her insulting you last Friday."

"I like Jessie," Barry says complacently. "That was a very good insult. Mick laughed for, like, ten minutes. Plus, she's a very good sport about interrupting her and King Harrison's squealing-over-science sessions for Council meetings; she'll be an excellent Queen."

"Yeah, well, Dad's still pissed that you got Wally a job at the Workshop of the Sun," Iris says. "And he's invited, too."

"Henry will talk Joe around," Barry replies, opening the door for Iris. "He always does. And I just got him the interview, which he asked for; it’s not my fault they require a one year commitment up front and he’s been too busy to come home. Is Laurel sending a delegation from Sanctuary?"

"Felicity says she might swing by; I think she and Oliver are on the outs again this month."

"Let me guess: she caught him in another lie?"

"Gee, how'd you know?" Iris rolls her eyes. "I swear, in an era of magical resurgence like we have, you'd think he'd have learned about the danger of lying to anyone, much less Felicity, unparalleled hacker of ley lines."

"Some people never learn. What about Sara?"

"She and Lisa are doing 'something', the lack of specificity of which bothers me intensely. It could be having breakfast or breaking into the vodyanoi’s domain to visit his daughter or robbing an entire field of its wheat to see if they can - and who ends up with the leftover wheat once Sanctuary has taken all it can use? Huh? Me, that's who."

“Awww, poor Iris,” Barry teases. “You and your new husband run one successful food collection and redistribution drive for people whose houses were damaged by the Star Explosion instead of going on your honeymoon like a normal couple and suddenly everyone thinks you know what to do with great heaping piles of food and money.”

Iris swats him. “Yeah, yeah. How long are you guys going to be around this time, anyway, before flying off into the sunset again? How’s that search for real estate going?”

“Mick’s started talking pretty seriously about finding a place to nest,” Barry says with a shrug. “And Len thinks another lair would be pretty cool, so we’re keeping our options open. But when you’ve got one guy that lights on fire every time he gets pissy and one guy that starts frosting over his surroundings when he’s not paying attention…”

Iris sniggers. “Awww, poor Barry,” she mocks. “Two blindingly beautiful magical creatures, both madly in love with you, what will you do?”

“I don’t know,” Barry says with a grin. “According to all the ballads, this is the point where we live happily ever after.”

“Barry, Barry, Barry,” Iris says, shaking her head. “Let me be the first to tell you: if any of your father figures find out that you’ve been raiding dragon hoards again, your happily ever after will be incredibly short lived.”

“A man can dream!”

“Speaking of dreaming and of ballads, though, I think I’ve heard one of the Bardic College’s new efforts to make a song out of your quest.”

“Oh?”

“Oh, yeah, you’re gonna love this one.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Barry says. As he’d suspected, the Bardic College is having trouble fitting in all of the different people he’d met over his travels, and it doesn’t help that they were still very much around, either; magical creatures from quests usually stayed in their quests and didn’t “pop around” for a quick visit (Sara), steal dinner before anyone gets to eat it (Lisa), accidentally turn someone into a duck (Ray), inadvertently cause a traffic jam in the middle of Central (Rip)…

“Yeah,” Iris says, smiling beatifically. “It starts, ‘There once was a prince from Central City, whose lovers were so very pretty’ –”

“Tell me you’re joking,” Barry says. “Iris. Iris? Iris, tell me you’re joking!”