Chapter 1: Cracks
Important: If you haven’t read Prejudice, this probably won’t make much sense to you. If you’re one of the many who were unable to finish Prejudice because of its sensitive material, you may find the aftermath of the story slightly more bearable to read.
Warning: This story will deal with sensitive topics/themes and may be triggering to some readers.
Numb fingers ran over the cracks in the glass, hardly even feeling it. His whole body was numb. At least, it felt that way to him most of the time. A numb brain makes the body senseless, the world colorless, food tasteless. His eyes were unfocused, hardly even seeing the small numbers beneath the glass his fingers were brushing over.
All he could see was the crack.
Barry let out a heavy sigh as he redid the strap on the watch, securing it firmly to his wrist. He hadn’t taken it off since Joe had given it back to him. He could hardly ever bring himself to look at it, though. Not because it was broken and didn’t function anymore. It wasn’t the broken mechanics of the watch that bothered him.
It was the crack.
Barry slowly turned his head, looking up from his bed to see Joe lingering in his doorway.
“You’re going to be late,” he said gently, “Your meeting starts at—”
“I know what time it is,” Barry said softly, his voice barely more than a whisper.
Joe let out a heavy sigh and drifted over to sit on the edge of the bed.
“I know you don’t want to do this,” he said sadly, “We’ve been trying to give you time, but…it’s been a month, Bar.”
Barry took a deep breath through his nose and nodded, his face remaining flat.
“I could go with you?” Joe suggested hopefully, “If that would make it any easier.”
Barry sighed and shook his head.
“No,” he said softly, “I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Are you sure?” Joe asked in a strained voice.
Barry nodded, his face firm.
“Yeah,” he whispered.
Joe let out a heavy sigh, a disappointed expression on his face. Barry knew why. Joe didn’t like Barry leaving the house alone. He was always desperately encouraging him to get out of the house for a while, but Joe didn’t like him leaving without another person accompanying him. Barry couldn’t take anyone else with him for this, though, even if he wanted to. He didn’t even want to go in the first place. Joe had insisted, though.
Everyone had insisted.
“Did you get some rest?” Joe asked as Barry sat up in bed.
Barry sighed as he got up and slowly started pulling his shoes on.
“I tried,” he mumbled.
Joe gave him a sympathetic look and put his hand on Barry’s shoulder.
“Did you try the pills Caitlin gave you?” he asked gently.
Barry shook his head.
“I don’t like the way they make me feel,” he said quietly, “I gave them a shot, but I don’t like feeling…disconnected. I need things to feel real.”
Joe nodded sadly, his eyebrows furrowed slightly as he tried to understand what Barry meant. Barry couldn’t fault them for it, for not understanding everything he was thinking and feeling. He hardly understood it himself sometimes. He wished they wouldn’t try so hard, though. He was tired of being analyzed. Barry just wanted things to go back to normal.
“You’re going to actually go to it this time, right?” Joe asked him seriously as Barry was pulling on his coat, “Not just leave the house and pretend like you went.”
“Yes, Joe,” Barry sighed, “I’m going.”
“Okay,” Joe whispered, pressing his lips tightly together.
He watched with a thoughtful look on his face as Barry crossed the room to grab his wallet, no doubt taking note of the fact Barry surpassed the mirror without even glancing at it. Barry never looked in the mirror. He hadn’t since the first day he came home. He didn’t want to see the stranger looking back at him. He didn’t want to see his gaunt, hollow cheeks, shaved hair or lifeless eyes. It made him sick just to look at it.
He probably did look better now, he supposed. His hair had definitely grown, not quite to what it was before but getting there. He had gained a good nineteen pounds over the last four weeks. He was 104 pounds when he first got out of the camp, and he still had a long way to go before he’d get back up to the healthy 185 he was at before. Although Barry had more energy now, he still didn’t physically feel like he had gained any weight. He was still severely underweight, and he still felt like a walking skeleton everywhere he went.
It made him stand out.
As Barry left the house and made his way to the bus stop, he pulled his jacket hood up to conceal his face. People could still take one look at him and know instantly that he was a metahuman, though. They didn’t even need to see the barcode on his wrist to see that. His physique said it all. He couldn’t change it, though. There was nothing Barry could do about his weight, but he could at least hide his face. He tugged his jacket hood forward, shielding his face from the prying eyes of the people he passed on the street.
They all knew his face now.
Anywhere Barry went, people recognized him. He was Barry Allen, the “hero of the Metacide.” Just those words made him feel sick to his stomach. Barry had even grown to hate the sound of his own name. He cringed when people called out to him on the sidewalk.
The bus was worse, though. He couldn’t simply walk away when people recognized him. He always had to wait until he reached his stop. He could always have taken a cab, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it, not after all the times cab drivers had refused to drive him because of the barcode on his wrist. Now, they probably would be delighted to drive him, but Barry still couldn’t bring himself to flag down a taxi. He had his own bitterness to thank for that.
As Barry climbed up the bus steps, he kept his face tilted downwards, doing everything he could to avoid being recognized. People still stared. Everyone on the bus stared as the obvious metahuman shuffled down the aisle, trying to get to a back seat. Barry heard a few whispers, but he didn’t look up. He never looked up. It seemed like an eternity before he finally reached the back of the bus. Unfortunately, he couldn’t find sanctuary in one of the seats when he got there. The bus was packed, and a good amount of people were standing. Barry took a deep, steadying breath as he found a place to stand, holding onto the railing for support.
“Here,” a woman said suddenly to him, “Take my seat.”
Barry glanced nervously at her, his eyes instantly flitting to the woman’s engorged stomach. She was pregnant. Barry’s gut wrenched. Did he really look so frail and broken that pregnant women would give up their seats on the bus for him?
“I’m okay,” Barry said softly, looking down again, “Thank you, though.”
The woman nodded, her eyes filling with sympathy as she looked at him. Barry looked away. He was tired of the pitying looks people gave him, and worse: the looks of admiration.
It only took a few people. A few people standing near him got a closer look at his face and their pitying expressions shifted, the usual admiration taking its place. Barry’s stomach started to churn.
They recognized him.
As Barry stood there, waiting impatiently for the bus reach his stop, the whispering started. Barry closed his eyes in anguish. He could hear everyone whispering excitedly to each other, passing the news all the way down the bus.
“Barry Allen is on this bus!”
“We’re on the same bus as the Flash!”
Barry clenched his hands in frustration. They could at least be settle about it. No one was even bothering to hide their stares now. All heads on the bus seemed to be turned towards him, staring openly. Barry looked down at the floor, his face flat and his eyes not making contact with anyone’s. Thankfully, a good portion of people didn’t have the nerve to come up and approach him. They would just stare from afar and whisper to each other.
It only took one person to make that change.
As soon as one person approached him, everyone would. Sure enough, a young boy suddenly appeared in front of him.
“Excuse me, Mr. Flash?”
Barry took a deep, steadying breath and looked down at the boy, trying not to let his frustration show.
“Can I get your autograph?” the boy asked timidly, holding out a pen and paper.
Barry’s face was made of stone as he nodded and took the pen and paper. He hardly paid attention as he scribbled his name down on the page. He never signed as the Flash, using just his normal name for autographs instead. Sometimes he would only sign his first name. Anything to get people to walk away from him faster.
Sure enough, as anticipated, when the young boy scurried away, others quickly approached him. It always happened without fail. Once one person interacted with him, they all would.
“I just wanted to thank you for everything you did.”
“The city owes you so much, Mr. Allen. You’re a hero.”
“Are you going to be the Flash again? Do you have your powers back yet?”
“Can I get my picture with you?! No one is ever going to believe I met you!”
Barry sucked in a strained breath, willing himself to hold back the tears forming in his eyes. No. He wasn’t about to start crying on a public bus. He had more control than that. If he didn’t cry at home, he certainly wasn’t going to do it here.
Barry didn’t look anyone in the eye as they all pressed in around him. He gave the occasional nod of acknowledgment or muttered a small response here and there, but he didn’t actually look at anyone.
He just wanted to reach his stop.
It felt like an eternity to Barry by the time he finally did. As soon as the bus came to a stop outside the community building, Barry pushed his way to the front, now fully ignoring the people pestering him and snapping photos of him with their phones. As soon as Barry made it off the bus, he took a deep, shaky breath, leaning up against a light post for support.
A moment ago, he had been fighting back tears. Now, he was fighting back vomit. It made him sick. The admiration and praise he got from complete strangers made him feel physically ill with shame. If one more person called him a hero, Barry was going to actually be sick. Doing what it took to survive? That made him a hero?!
He should just go home. He wasn’t up for this today. He wasn’t ever going to be up for this. He had promised Joe, though. He had promised him he wouldn’t bail this time. This was Barry’s fourth time being here, and just like all the other times, he couldn’t even enter the building. Last time, he had stood outside the door for a good two hours before deciding to go home.
He wasn’t going to chicken out this time, though. He had to do this. If not for himself, then for his family. He owed it to them to try.
Barry took a deep breath before pulling open the door. As he entered the building, he felt like all the air had been sucked from his lungs. He didn’t stop walking, though. He kept his legs moving, numbly following the signs posted throughout the hallways, telling him which way to go. He reached the room way too quickly. In no time at all, Barry suddenly found himself standing outside the door he had been searching for: Room 113.
Barry didn’t know how long he stood there, staring at the door, his hand inches from the handle. His mind was racing. What if he just went home and lied about it this time? He didn’t have to admit to Joe that he didn’t go. He could just lie about the whole thing, pretend like he had gone for once.
No. He wasn’t a coward. After everything he had been through, he could handle this. It was the last thing in the world he wanted to do, but he could handle it. Taking a deep breath, Barry opened the door.
A moment ago, he had heard people talking inside the room. As soon as he stepped in, though, the voices ceased and the room went dead silent. Barry suddenly had a room full of eyes, staring at him. He saw the exact moment when their eyes widened as they recognized who he was.
“Um, hi,” he said awkwardly, wringing his hands, “Sorry I’m late.”
They all just blinked at him, continuing to stare. Barry felt his face heat up, and he had half a mind to bolt. Before he could, however, a woman suddenly stood up, giving him a warm smile.
“No worries,” she said kindly, “We’re so happy to have you here, Mr. Allen. Please, come introduce yourself and take a seat.”
Barry nodded, his breath catching slightly in his chest as he crossed the room, approaching the circle of chairs. He paused in front of the remaining empty one, the one that had been sitting there for him for the last three weeks, empty. He looked around the circle then, at the curious eyes staring up at him. There were ten or so other people in the room, all of them metahumans aside from the woman who had spoken.
Barry’s heart hammered in his chest. It was the first time he had seen other metahumans since the camp. He had been in his own private hospital room at Keystone Memorial, and he had barely left the house since getting home. He didn’t know how to feel, being around other survivors. What did they think of him? Did they hate him? Did they love and adore him like the rest of the city?
Barry didn’t know which would be worse.
“I…I’m Barry Allen,” he stammered, wringing his hands and looking at the floor, “And…I’m a…a metahuman.”
“A survivor,” the lead counselor corrected gently, giving him an encouraging smile.
Barry glanced at her and nodded slightly, not saying anything.
“Hi, Barry,” everyone said softly as he took his seat.
As he sank down in his chair, Barry hoped the attention would finally deflect away from him, but it didn’t. Everyone was still looking at him.
“Barry, would you like to share anything with the group today?” the counselor, Lori Fischer, asked gently.
Barry looked at her with wide eyes, opening and closing his mouth a few times.
“You don’t have to,” she said quickly, “If you prefer to just listen for now, that’s completely okay. You can share with us whenever you’re ready, and we’ll listen without judgement. We support each other here.”
Barry nodded slightly, his throat dry.
“I…I think I’ll just listen today,” he said quietly.
Lori nodded in understanding, giving him a small smile. Their support meeting resumed then, other people speaking up and finally pulling some of the attention away from him. As other people shared with the group, though, Barry could still feel curious eyes glancing at him periodically. He did his best to ignore them, keeping his eyes trained on whoever was speaking, straining to focus on what they were saying.
“My husband has been so supportive,” one woman shared, “But no matter what we do, we can’t seem to get back to where we were before. He tries to understand, but he just…doesn’t. And there’s no way I can ever explain it to him...”
“…My parents are acting like nothing even happened,” one teenage boy said in anguish, “They’re acting like everything is back to normal and happy again, but it’s not. I know I told them I didn’t want to talk about it, but…I didn’t want to just ignore it either.”
“I would love it if my family did that,” a man responded, “All I want is to move on, but they’ve been forcing me to talk about it and process it. They keep sending me to therapy and these support meetings. I really don’t mind coming to group, though. It’s helped me more than anything…being around people who understand…”
“….I just can’t stop seeing his face,” a man sobbed, “I barely even knew the guy, but I worked alongside him every day in that ditch. When they shot him right in front of me like that…I can’t get it out of my head. Every time I close my eyes, I see it. I hear the gunshot over and over again. It feels like it’s never going to stop…”
“…My sister was in there with me,” a woman whispered, “She was loaded into a different truck when we were taken. I looked for her every day in the zone, but I never found her. I never got to see her before she died in the lab…”
“…I’ll be perfectly fine once I get this fucking chip out of my neck,” a man gritted furiously, “I’ve applied for the surgery seven times now, only to have it denied over and over again. Those bastards keep saying my powers are too dangerous, that I need to be more mentally stable before I can have them back. I don’t care about my powers. I just want this thing out of me!”
“It’s because of the Jorgenson incident,” a woman added angrily, “One stupid metahuman gets his powers back and goes badshit crazy attacking people, and now the rest of us can’t get the surgery?! Who are they to force us into keep this disgusting technology inside of us?!”
Barry stared at the floor, his hands clenched into fists. He agreed wholeheartedly with them. It was so wrong. No one should be forced to have an intrusive device inserted into their body. He’d do anything to get rid of his. That’s why he was here. Hopefully, if he went to a few group support meetings, they’d finally approve him for the surgery. He knew exactly how the others felt. He knew the desperation and frustration that came with being repeatedly turned down. He had applied eleven times, himself, now, and each time, he had been unsuccessful.
He had thought his history of being the Flash would help him, but the Metahuman Support Foundation had seen it differently. He had what the MSF considered “Grade 5” powers, meaning his were rated at the highest risk level. They saw his abilities as potentially dangerous, which meant he had far more hoops to jump through than someone with a lower grade ability would.
It didn’t help that his suffering had been broadcasted to the entire country. Barry knew that the videos broadcasted by the Lucy Resistance had helped save him, but now they were inhibiting his process with the MSF. They claimed he had been through more trauma than most typical metahumans and would therefore require more therapy and psychological evaluation before getting his powers back. They disregarded his history of being a benefactor to the city. They didn’t give him special treatment because he was Barry Allen or the Flash. He had to go through their process like anyone else.
After the person next to him had finished speaking, all eyes turned to Barry. It was his turn to speak.
“Pass,” Barry whispered.
Thankfully, they didn’t press him. Lori simply nodded, giving him a sad smile before turning to the next person. Curious eyes continued to glance at him, though, watching his facial expressions. Barry kept his face smooth as he stared at the floor, listening to the next person talk.
As Barry sat and listened to the stories and the thoughts of his fellow metahumans, he felt a typhoon of conflicting emotions swirl in his gut. He didn’t want to hear about it. Hearing about other people’s experiences made him think about his own, something he had been actively trying not to do. At the same time, it made him feel less alone. Until now, Barry had felt alone in his grief, but now he suddenly found himself sitting with a group of people who were feeling the exact same things he had been.
It wasn’t exactly the same, though.
These people had been through hell. There was no refuting that. They had suffered tremendously at the hands of Clinton Price, just like Barry did. There was a huge difference between them and him, though.
They weren’t Barry Allen, the hero of the Metacide. They weren’t famous for their part in the modern-day genocide. Their faces weren’t plastered all over the city and on the evening news. They didn’t have the entire city watching them, expecting them to come forward and make some big public statement, expecting them to play a part in Clinton Price’s trial, speculating when they’d get their powers back and protect the city again. They were free. All they had to focus on now was their recovery. On getting their chips removed. Reconnecting with their families. Moving on.
Barry would never be free.
The others would all recover and move on, but the Central City Metacide would follow Barry for the rest of his life. He would never be free of it. He was the face of it. He was the walking mascot of the Lucy Resistance, the washed up hero of Central City, who wasn’t even sure if he was ever going to don his suit again. At least there was one good thing about him not having his chip removed yet. The public couldn’t pressure him. He didn’t have his powers right now, so no one could pressure him to be the Flash again.
At least, not for now.
People were protesting, though. He had seen it on the evening news. People in Central City had started a movement to get Barry Allen approved for surgery: to get the Flash back. Barry wished they wouldn’t. He wanted the chip out more than anyone, but now that the city was on his side, trying to get him approved for his surgery, he would owe it to them to put the suit back on. He would have no choice but to become the Flash again. He wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted, though.
He wanted to run.
God, he wanted to run. He wanted to feel the wind brushing past his face again, feel the lightning coursing through his veins. It had been nearly half a year now since he had lost his speed, and he was starting to forget what it even felt like. He didn’t know what he was going to do once he got it back, though. Was he going to run to protect the city again?
Or was he going to run from the city and never look back?
When Lori suddenly called the meeting to a close, Barry was jerked away from his thoughts, just realizing now that he hadn’t been paying attention to the last few members who had been sharing. He was alert now, though, shooting up from his chair as if he had just been electrocuted. Barry managed a small smile at the group leader before turning where he stood, crossing the room as fast as he could to get to the door now that the meeting was over. He yanked the door open and exited the room immediately, taking long strides down the hallway to exit the building as fast as possible.
“Hey, Barry!” someone called out from behind him.
Barry closed his eyes in frustration as he came to a stop in his tracks, reluctantly spinning around to face the person who had addressed him. The man hurried to catch up to him in the hallway, giving him an uneasy smile as he joined him.
“Wow, you’re still fast even without your powers,” the man joked with a breathy laugh.
Barry’s lips twitched slightly, but he didn’t find much humor in it. Not fast enough, apparently.
“I’m Dale,” the man introduced, holding out his hand.
Barry stared at it for a moment before slowly reaching out to take it.
“Barry,” he sighed, shaking the man’s hand.
Dale smiled warmly at him.
“I just wanted to say we’re all happy to have you in our group,” he said kindly, “I hope we’ll see you here again next week?”
Barry gave him an uneasy smile, his eyes flitting to the floor.
“Yeah,” he said quietly, “Yeah, maybe.”
Dale’s smile faltered slightly then.
“You don’t really want to be here, do you?” he asked sadly.
Barry let out a heavy sigh and shook his head.
“I don’t know what I want,” he said quietly, “Honestly, I only came because my family wanted me to and I thought it might help me get my chip removed faster.”
Dale nodded and gave him a small smile.
“I was the same way,” he admitted, “But trust me, if you stick to it, you’ll come to look forward to these group meetings. They really do help…especially if you participate.”
Barry looked down, fiddling with the strap on his watch as he considered what the man was saying. He stared at the cracked glass, his mind feeling numb and exhausted from his whole public outing for the day. He just wanted to go home. He wanted to go home and never leave the house again. The words that escaped his mouth said otherwise, though.
“Okay,” he said softly, “I’ll see you next week.”
He was dreading it already.
Chapter 2: Hollow
“Thanks for the ride, Iris,” Barry mumbled.
Iris smiled warmly at him.
“Thank you,” she replied, “For letting me come with you this time.”
When Barry didn’t say anything, Iris tore her eyes from the road to glance at him. He was staring out the window, a dull look on his face. She had grown used to the look. The wall. It was his way of detaching himself from everything. Iris knew it was all an act, though. Barry wasn’t nearly as numb and detached as he seemed. His face was expressionless, but one look at his hands, and Iris could see the emotions there.
His hands were clenched into fists.
“Are you nervous?” she asked gently, her eyes returning to the road.
“No,” Barry muttered without looking at her, “Just…impatient.”
Iris nodded thoughtfully. She knew what he meant. She was growing impatient herself with the Metahuman Support Foundation. For an organization that was created to support metahumans, they sure did have a way of instilling the opposite effect. Sometimes, it seemed as if the MSF was founded more for the public’s wellbeing than for metahuman survivors.
“This might be the time, though,” Iris said hopefully, “You’ve gained four more pounds, and you’ve been to two group support meetings now. You’ve made both physical and emotional progress. Not to mention the protestors…”
“I wish the protestors would stop,” Barry sighed, “I don’t want their help getting approved for surgery. I just want to go through the process like everyone else.”
“You are going through the process,” Iris said, “The protestors are just trying to help it all go faster. What’s the harm in getting a little help?”
“You know why I don’t want their help,” Barry muttered.
Iris sighed and nodded slightly. She did know.
“You don’t owe them anything, Barry,” she said firmly, “You don’t have to put the suit on for them or anyone else. You don’t owe this city a damn thing.”
Barry didn’t say anything. He just continued looking out the passenger window, his thumb absently brushing over the face of the watch on his wrist. A few minutes passed then, during which neither of them said anything. They rode in silence, the music from the radio the only source of sound in the vehicle. Barry didn’t move or say anything. He was still as stone in his seat, his eyes vacant as he stared unseeingly out the window.
And then the song ended.
When the next song, Somewhere Only We Know, started to play, Barry suddenly shifted, his still form coming to life. His entire body suddenly stiffened, and within a couple seconds his hand shot out to turn the radio off.
Iris didn’t say anything. She never did. Barry often did things like this, things that didn’t seem to make any sense to her. She never understood the reasons behind them, and she knew better than to ask. She side-glanced at Barry again, but like always, his face didn’t tell her anything. His expression was blank, emotionless, as they drove in complete silence.
Moments like these were the worst. The times when she had no idea what to say to Barry. She never really knew what to say, what to talk about. It was clear he didn’t want to talk about the trauma he had been through, and any mention of the MSF only made him angry, which was understandable. He didn’t want to talk about anything to do with the Metacide, and she couldn’t blame him for that.
That didn’t leave much, though. All that left was small talk. Trivial things. That was all she could ever talk about with Barry now, and even that seemed forced. It felt counterproductive to talk about the weather or the new Breaking Bad episode they had just watched when there were so many more important things that needed to be said between them. So, they didn’t talk.
They rode in silence.
When they pulled up to the MSF building, Barry still didn’t say anything. With a heavy sigh, he climbed out of the car, waiting stone-faced for her to join him. Iris felt a little out of place as they crossed the parking lot and entered the building. She felt like she didn’t really belong here. This was a place for metahumans, for survivors of the Metacide. The only other people in the waiting room were two metahumans: a man and a woman. Both wore the same blank expressions as Barry as they waited for their meetings to start.
It seemed to take forever. They sat in the waiting room for a good half hour, waiting for Barry’s name to be called. Barry stared down at the floor the entire time, rarely ever glancing up. Iris tried not to look at him too much, knowing he was well aware of how much she and the rest of the family always stared at him, how much they analyzed him. She knew it made Barry uncomfortable, the looks they gave him, but it was hard not to do it. It was hard not to worry and to watch for cracks in his calm façade. It seemed like she was always watching him.
Waiting for him to break.
To keep herself from staring at Barry, Iris looked around the small waiting room, her eyes scanning over the other two metahumans waiting there. She was careful not to outright stare at them, knowing they probably got enough of that from strangers already without her adding to it. The glances she managed to take, though, made a brick settle in the pit of her stomach.
The man and the woman in the room couldn’t have been more opposite. He was older; she was young. He had dark skin and hair; she had fair skin and blue eyes. That wasn’t what Iris saw when she looked at them, though.
All she saw were the similarities.
It wasn’t just their emaciated appearances that made them similar. It wasn’t the barcodes on their wrists, the shaved heads, or the scars on the backs of their necks.
It was their eyes.
Their eyes were empty. They both wore the same blank expression on their face as they waited for their names to be called. Their eyes were hollow. Dull. Faded.
The man and the woman were so different, yet they were the same.
Barry was the same.
He wore the same blank expression. His eyes held the same hollow emptiness. He was the same as these people, yet they were all so different. They had all suffered together, yes, but each of them was their own person. They were individuals, each leading their own lives, trying to recover the best they could to get back the lives they had had before. Iris wondered sadly when Barry would be able to resume his, when he would truly start to live again, when he would remember what made him different from all the other metahuman survivors in Central City.
What made him a person and not just a number.
It was hard not to glance at Barry as they sat in the waiting room. It was hard not to wonder what was running through his head. It seemed to be all Iris thought about. How Barry was processing everything. It was hard to determine what he was feeling. Anger? Sadness? Loss? Relief? Guilt? Barry’s face betrayed nothing. His eyes were empty voids. Emotionless.
Instead of looking at Barry, Iris continued to stare about the room, looking at nothing in particular. Her eyes quickly flitted to the other side of the room when a woman and a teenage boy suddenly exited one of the offices, making their way to the exit. They didn’t leave, though.
As they were nearing the door, one of them, the woman, suddenly glanced up, looking directly into Iris’s eyes. Iris flushed, looking down in embarrassment at having been caught staring. When she tentatively looked back up, though, it was too see that the woman’s eyes had shifted away from hers and had settled on the person next to her.
Iris stiffened when the woman and her son froze in their tracks, staring at Barry.
She watched nervously as the two strangers started whispering to each other, their eyes continuing to flit towards Barry. Thankfully, Barry hadn’t noticed. He was still staring at the floor. Iris was relieved for that. But then the woman and her son changed directions, walking away from the door to reenter the waiting room, beelining for Barry. Iris shook her head at them, begging them with her eyes not to approach them. Barry hated being approached in public. They ignored her, though, not breaking their strides until they were standing right in front of them.
“Barry Allen?” the woman asked.
Iris could only watch nervously as Barry took in a deep breath and looked up at the woman, his face set in resignation to the unwanted interaction.
“My name is Cassandra Baker,” the woman introduced herself, “This is my son, Justin.”
Her son was clearly the metahuman between the two of them. It wasn’t just his weight that gave him away. It was the way he averted his eyes, staring at the floor as he nervously twisted his hands, letting his mother do the talking. Iris had seen Barry act the same way. He hardly ever looked anyone in the eye since they got him back. She wondered if it had to do with the MRA officers and how they had treated him.
It was like he was afraid of eye contact now.
“I just wanted to thank you,” Cassandra continued when Barry didn’t say anything, “You saved my son’s life.”
Barry’s jaw clenched slightly as he shook his head.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said in a strained voice, “I just did what I had to to survive. I didn’t—”
“You saved him from the mobs,” Cassandra said, tears filling her eyes, “You risked your own safety to pull him out of the frenzy. You stopped him from being trampled to death.”
Iris’s eyebrows furrowed as she took in this information. She looked to Barry in time to see him turn his gaze away from the mother, his eyes landing on the son. Something changed in Barry’s face then, something Iris couldn’t quite describe. A hint of recognition flitted across Barry’s face, but it was more than that. His eyes suddenly looked less dull, less empty, as he stared at the boy in front of him.
“I remember,” he whispered, “I…I’m glad to see you made it.”
The teenage boy smiled nervously at him.
“I did what you said,” he said timidly, “I tried to be smart.”
Barry’s lips twitched. Before he could say anything, the mother let out a small sob and flung her arms around him, taking him by surprise. Iris saw Barry stiffen with the unexpected contact.
“Thank you so much!” the woman cried, squeezing him tightly, “He wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
There was something in Barry’s eyes as the woman hugged him, something Iris had only gotten glimpses of over the past few weeks. Barry looked like he was fighting back tears. His mask of control had fallen, and for just a brief moment, Iris saw the haunted grief in his eyes.
She saw emotion.
It only lasted for a few seconds, though. By the time the woman pulled out of the abrupt hug, Barry had composed himself. His mask was up again, and his face was smooth.
“Good luck with your meeting,” Cassandra said warmly to him, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.
“Thank you,” Barry whispered.
The boy, Justin, then stepped forward and shook Barry’s hand.
“Thank you for saving my life,” he said quietly.
Barry nodded and managed a small twitch of his lips. As soon as the woman and her son walked away, Barry let out a large breath.
“Are you okay?” Iris asked, peering into his face.
Barry nodded and looked away, not saying another word. He didn’t talk about the unexpected interaction, and Iris didn’t press him. Barry just sat there, the same as before, as if nothing had just happened, as if he hadn’t just been approached by a person whose life he had saved.
Iris didn’t know how Barry, her sweet Barry Allen, could pretend to be so unaffected. So composed.
It never failed to upset her, how numb Barry always seemed now. She didn’t ever confront him about it, though. She knew it was the only way he could cope right now. She couldn’t even imagine all of the feelings he must be suppressing right now. Going numb was easier than dealing with it. If Barry didn’t numb himself, all those emotions would overwhelm him, which was why they didn’t press him to talk about any of it. They let him cope with everything at his own pace.
Barry shot up from his seat in an instant. He motioned for Iris to join him as he crossed the waiting room, anxious to get this meeting over with. The secretary led them to a small office. The nameplate on the door read “Neal Davidson,” a name Iris had heard many times before, when Barry was complaining about the MSF. The secretary opened the door for them, and the two of them stepped inside the small office.
“Barry,” a man greeted cheerfully, standing up from his desk to shake Barry’s hand, “How are you?”
“Fine,” Barry clipped, shaking the man’s hand before taking a seat across from the desk.
Iris didn’t know what she had been expecting, but this certainly wasn’t it. Barry had painted Neil out to be some sort of villain—a “pompous jackass,” as Barry had put it. That wasn’t the vibe Iris was getting from the older man in front of them, though. Neil seemed…friendly. He was pleasant and welcoming, not cold and hard, like she had been imagining.
“How has your recovery been going?” Neil asked pleasantly, “Feeling better?”
“I’d feel better if I had this chip out of my neck,” Barry replied coldly, crossing his arms.
Neil let out a heavy sigh.
“Straight to business then, I see,” he sighed, pulling out Barry’s file, “This is what? Your tenth application, Mr. Allen?”
“Twelfth,” Barry gritted.
Neil nodded slowly as he slid on a pair of glasses and started perusing Barry’s file.
“Hm,” he said absently as he read.
Iris looked over and saw Barry’s hands clenching into fists as he glared at the other man, watching him read through the file.
“Up four pounds from last time, I see,” Neil said happily, “You’re making good progress.”
“My doctor says I’m healthy enough for surgery,” Barry said seriously.
Neil gave Barry an uneasy smile.
“Yes, well,” he said softly, “I’m glad your making progress in your physical recovery. It’s terrific news. Unfortunately, though, being physically healthy is only half of it.”
“You’re rejecting my application,” Barry said flatly, not really a question.
Neil took in a deep breath and removed his glasses to rub his eyes.
“What is it this time?” Barry demanded, his voice shaking slightly, “What qualification haven’t I met?”
Iris could tell Barry was trying extremely hard not to succumb to his anger. She knew it took everything he had not to start screaming furiously right now. He couldn’t do that. He couldn’t lose control. He needed to prove to these people that he was mentally stable, that he wasn’t violent. And tearing apart this tiny office in an uncontrollable rage wasn’t going to help with that.
“You’re making tremendous progress, Mr. Allen,” Neil assured him, “You’ve got your weight up, and you’ve been going to the group meetings. I’m extremely happy to see that.”
“But?” Barry snapped.
“But there are still some things that are concerning to me,” Neil said gently.
“Like what?” Barry demanded, his hands starting to shake from containing his rage.
“Your therapy,” Neil sighed, “I see you switched therapists again.”
“So what?” Barry seethed, “The other one wasn’t working out for me, so I decided to switch.”
“Mr. Allen,” Neil sighed, rubbing his eyes, “We know what you’re doing here.”
“And what is that?” Barry demanded, leaning forward in his seat.
“You see each therapist just long enough to answer the easy questions,” Neil said gently, “And then you switch as soon as the two of you start delving into the deeper issues.”
“A good therapist doesn’t pressure a patient before they’re ready to talk,” Barry fumed, “And a half-decent therapist doesn’t go and report everything a patient says back to their MSF agent.”
“Barry, that’s what the therapy is for,” Neil said in exasperation, “We collaborate with the therapists and physicians to determine if a metahuman is healthy and mentally stable enough for the surgery. Now, I do understand where you’re coming from. You’re not the first metahuman to have this problem. You don’t trust the MSF. Many metahumans have had trust issues after everything they’ve been through, and it’s completely understandable, but the MSF is here to help you.”
“No, you’re here to control me,” Barry corrected, “Honestly, you guys call yourself a ‘support foundation,’ but you’re more like the MRA than anything else.”
“We are not the MRA, Barry,” Neil snapped, his eyes flashing dangerously, his pleasant demeanor dropping in an instant, “Do not ever compare us to that horrid organization. The MSF is a group of people devoted to helping the survivors of everything the MRA did. We have metahumans’ best interests at heart, and we’re here to ensure that no one gets hurt when their powers are returned to them. We make sure each person is ready to take that step.
“You’re a unique case, Mr. Allen. You’ve been through an unspeakable amount of trauma, not just in the Metacide, but also in your life. You need to show us that you’re actually coping with your past traumas. I know you’ve done great things for this city, but being the Flash doesn’t entitle you to special treatment, no matter how many people you have protesting for you. You’ll get approved for surgery when you’re actually ready for surgery.”
For a prolonged moment, Barry and Neil simply glared at each other, both their jaws clenched in anger. Iris saw what Barry meant now. Neil really was a pompous jackass. More than anything, Iris wanted to speak up. She wanted to rage and scream at the other man in the way Barry couldn’t. Barry couldn’t lose control, but she could.
She had promised Barry she wouldn’t do that, though. He had made her promise to remain silent for this conversation. Now, all she could do was watch as the two men glared at each other. Barry was the one to finally break the silence.
“Thank you for your time,” he said stiffly, standing up from his seat, “Come on, Iris.”
Iris furrowed her eyebrows at him.
“He’s not going to budge,” Barry said flatly, “It’s time for us to go.”
Iris took a deep breath and nodded, standing up from her seat to take Barry’s hand.
“Maybe next time, Mr. Allen,” Neil said pleasantly as they were leaving.
“Go suck a dick,” Barry muttered as they walked out of the office.
“Barry…” Iris said gently, as they made their way through the parking lot, her struggling to keep up with his long strides, “Barry.”
When Barry reached her car, a loud growl escaped his lips as he kicked her tire.
“Barry, please,” Iris urged, “Calm down.”
“I can’t!” Barry yelled, spinning on her, “I can’t calm down, Iris! I can hardly breathe with this thing in my body! And that son-of-a-bitch has the nerve to just sit there and smile at me as he feeds me bull-shit excuses for why I can’t get it removed! I’m just so…”
“I know you’re angry,” Iris said gently, putting a hand on his arm, “I know you’re upset and you have every right to be. I’m angry, too, Barry.”
Barry shook his head, fighting back the tears in his eyes. He took several deep breaths, trying regain control of his emotions, like always. It took him a moment, but Barry with another deep breath, Barry managed to pull up his usual mask of control. His anger disappeared, the numb expression taking its place.
“Let’s go home,” he sighed tiredly.
Iris nodded sadly, her eyes having filled with tears as she watched him struggle to push his emotions back down again. She wished for once he wouldn’t suppress them. She wished he could display more than anger when he let his walls down, but for now, she’d settle for any emotion from him.
“Okay,” she said gently, “Okay, Barry.”
As they got into the car, Barry didn’t say anything. He slammed the door and stared out the window again as Iris pulled out of the lot. Iris didn’t know what to say to him. She was angry, too. Barry deserved so much more than this. He deserved to finally be free of the chip the MRA had forced into his body. So few metahumans were being approved for surgery now, though. All of the type two metahumans had had them removed, but it was a long, grueling process for type ones like Barry.
A few weeks ago, one metahuman, Davis Jorgensen, had been approved for surgery. He had gone through the process, told the psychologists everything they wanted to hear, convinced them he was mentally stable enough to have his powers back.
But he wasn’t.
As soon as his chip was removed, Jorgensen went on a rampage throughout the city, attacking humans with his ability to control water. As it turned out, he was the water-controlling metahuman Barry had fought all those months ago, the man who had been acting out in retaliation to early anti-metahuman behavior. It had hit Barry hard, hearing about the incident. After everything they had been through, everything they had survived, the man hadn’t learned anything from it. He had gone right back to his bitter vendetta against humans.
He wasn’t the only metahuman who was bitter.
There was still a rift between humans and metahumans. It was unavoidable. The surviving metahumans were angry, and understandably so. Iris wished she could say Barry was different, but she had seen it in him, too. Barry had this bitterness about him that scared her to see. She knew Barry would never openly display his anger towards humans, but she knew a part of him harbored resentment for them, for everything they had done to him.
It wasn’t just Price. All of Central City was to blame for this. They had allowed this to happen. No matter how much Barry blamed himself for Price’s rise to power, Iris knew a part of him blamed society as a whole. Barry had at least tried to stop it. He had done everything he could to keep the peace, had desperately tried to stop all of it from escalating, while Central City had sat back and just watched it happen. Even after knowing what was really going on in those slums, the majority of people hadn’t lifted a finger to help. They hadn’t stepped up until their own lives were at stake with the threat of Price’s virus.
Iris knew that if she saw it that way, then Barry definitely had to see that, too.
And it angered him.
For two years, Barry protected this city. He had been its hero. He had led by example, hoping to inspire the same heroism in others. But it hadn’t worked. When their hero was the one who needed saving, the majority of people hadn’t stepped up. They had turned their backs on him.
And now they wanted him back.
Now, people were pushing to get their beloved Flash back. They expected him to just forgive and forget everything, to put his suit back on and protect them again, to act like none of it ever happened. It made Iris sick to think about it. She could only imagine how Barry felt about it.
She couldn’t bring herself to be upset with him for his silence now. His lack of communication with them was more than understandable. She didn’t even know what she expected him to say.
At this point, she’d settle for anything.
“Can you give me a ride later?” Barry suddenly asked, taking her by surprise, “I really don’t want to take the bus.”
“Of course, Barry,” Iris said instantly, “Where do you need to go?”
Not only was it Saturday, but Barry rarely wanted to go anywhere these days. Two public outings in one day was a bit strange for him now.
“I just need to stop into work,” he muttered.
Iris felt her hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“Work,” she scoffed, “If that’s what you want to call it.”
“So will you give me a ride?” Barry sighed, ignoring her comment.
Iris took a deep breath through her nose.
“Fine,” she clipped, “I can give you a ride to ‘work.’”
“Thank you,” Barry whispered.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this to yourself, Barry,” Iris persisted, “Why you’re allowing yourself to—”
“I don’t want to talk about this right now,” Barry sighed tiredly.
“No, I guess not,” Iris muttered, “You don’t want to talk about anything.”
Barry sucked in a shaky breath and looked out the window again. Iris instantly felt guilty. She removed one of her hands from the steering wheel to slide it into Barry’s.
“Hey,” she said softly, “I’m sorry.”
For a moment, Barry’s hand remained slack in hers, but eventually he curled his fingers around her hand, holding it back.
“I’m sorry, too,” he whispered, “I…I’m trying, Iris.”
“I know you are,” she said softly, giving his hand a small squeeze, “I’m sorry for pressuring you. You can talk when you’re ready.”
As they continued the drive home, Iris couldn’t help but hope that time would be now, but it wasn’t. Barry didn’t say anything.
They drove in silence.
Chapter 3: "Work"
Warning: Mentions of suicide.
Joe let out a tired sigh and ran a hand through his hair as he drove home. It had been a long day. The police department was still getting back on its feet after all the Metacide chaos. Singh had finally been officially reinstated as the captain again, and many of the officers who had quit out of spite had now returned. Things were slowly getting back to normal again.
They were still short one CSI, though.
Barry hadn’t returned to the CCPD yet, and it just wasn’t the same without him there. Joe wasn’t going to pressure him to return, though. He had asked Singh to do the same. Singh had stopped by the house to see Barry a couple times, not to pressure him to return to the CCPD but just to see him after everything that had happened. Singh hadn’t seen Barry since he had been undercover in the MRA. Joe wasn’t entirely sure what had transpired between the two of them while they were in the camp, but he could tell Singh was desperate to see Barry after everything that had happened during the Metacide.
Barry wasn’t taking visitors, though.
It wasn’t so much that Barry didn’t want to see anyone. If anything, it was the opposite. He didn’t want them to see him. Joe was trying to understand, but in the end, he just had to accept it and go along with whatever Barry wanted. If Barry didn’t want to see anyone right now, they certainly weren’t going to force him. Singh was more than understanding. Joe still felt the need to constantly reassure him that it wasn’t personal, though. Barry was grateful to him for his part in taking down the MRA.
Joe wasn’t in the best mood as he drove home. He had just read Iris’s text as he was leaving the precinct:
He got denied again. Don’t mention it when you come home.
Joe gripped the steering wheel in anger as he drove. He was so fed up with this damn Metahuman “Support” Foundation. What the hell was wrong with them?! If anyone deserved to have their chip removed, it was Barry! He had done so much for this city and played such a huge role in ending the Metacide. So he wasn’t handling therapy the greatest. Barry had never responded well to therapy. He was doing everything else right though! He was more than ready for the surgery!
Joe’s mood worsened ten-fold when he pulled into the driveway and spotted a familiar van parked outside the house. He let out an angry sigh and turned his car off, climbing out of the vehicle and slamming the door with more force than necessary. Without hesitation, Joe stormed up to the vehicle parked on the curb.
The man sitting in the driver seat nervously rolled down his window as Joe approached.
“M-mr. West,” he stammered, forcing a nervous smile, “Now, please just hear me out this time. Let me explain.”
“Clear out,” Joe clipped, his voice shaking with rage, “Pack up your shit and get the hell off my street.”
“Please, detective,” the man persisted, “We’re not even here for an interview. We’ll settle for a p-picture.”
“I said clear out!” Joe shouted, “Don’t make me call the police again! You’re not getting any damn pictures of my son! Can’t you see he doesn’t want anything to do with you people?! What you’re doing is sick! He recovering! Why can’t you just let him do that in peace?!”
“We’re not trying to harass Mr. Allen,” the man assured him, “We just—”
“When or if Barry decides to talk to the media, he’ll do it when he’s ready,” Joe fumed, “I highly doubt he’ll ever want to do that, though, after all the lies you people reported during the Metacide.”
“I understand your anger,” the man said quickly, “But that was out of our control. Price corrupted our editor with his abilities. He was controlling the media during that time. The rest of us were just doing our job, following orders.”
“Many MRA officers say the same thing,” Joe said in disgust, “I don’t think ‘following orders’ justifies them murdering and experimenting on innocent people. Do you?”
“N-no,” the man stammered, “No, of course not. But the CCPN—”
“Is just as guilty for their part in this as anyone,” Joe spat, “Now get the hell off my street. If I catch you here again, I won’t call the police. I’ll deal with you myself.”
The man paled with these words.
“Y-yes, sir. Of c-course, sir,” the man stuttered.
In an instant, the reporter slammed the car into drive and peeled away from the curb, disappearing down the street.
Joe let out an angry sigh after the man had left. They would be back. Joe knew it. And he would continue to chase them off as long as it took. As long as it took for them to finally leave Barry alone. Joe was still fuming as he stomped up the steps and opened the front door to enter the house.
With a heavy sigh, he removed his jacket and hung it up in the closet before making his way to the kitchen, hoping he’d find Barry there and not hiding in his room like usual. He entered the room to find Wally sitting at the kitchen counter while Iris moved about the kitchen, preparing dinner. No Barry.
“How’s he taking it?” Joe asked them sadly.
Iris sighed and shook her head.
“About the same as last time,” she said, “He doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Joe nodded slowly, not surprised with this information. Barry had been denied for surgery twelve times now. This wasn’t a new occurrence for them. Barry reacted the same way every time. He’d hide from them and hole himself up in his room while he processed it. Joe knew why. Barry was always furious when he returned from his MSF meetings, and he didn’t ever want them to see it. He seemed to always feel the need to hide his anger from them, like he did every other emotion. He never let them see him when he broke down.
“I’m going to go talk to him,” Joe decided, moving toward the stairs.
“Dad,” Iris said, holding a hand out to stop him, “You know that’s not a good idea.”
“It’s not good for him to sit in his room and dwell on it,” Joe said in a strained voice, “He spends too much of his time alone.”
“I think we should give him space,” Wally said, “He doesn’t want to talk about it with us.”
“Wally’s right, dad,” Iris agreed, “I know it’s hard not to want to be there for him, but smothering him isn’t the answer.”
“I’m not going to smother him,” Joe reasoned, “I just want to make sure he’s okay.”
He took a few steps up the stairs, but he was stopped when Iris called out to him.
“Barry isn’t there.”
Joe stopped and spun around to look at her. Iris had a nervous expression on her face, anxiously twisting her hands as she averted her eyes from her father’s questioning gaze.
“Where is he?” Joe demanded, an apprehensive feeling settling in his gut.
Iris looked down at the floor before exchanging a nervous look with Wally. Joe knew then.
“He went to ‘work’ again, didn’t he?” Joe asked quietly.
Iris let out a heavy sigh and nodded.
“I dropped him off thirty minutes ago,” she said in a small voice.
Joe took a slow, deep breath through his nose and shook his head, his mouth a thin line.
“Why would you do that?” he growled, his voice dangerously low.
“Because he would have gone anyways,” Iris reasoned, “If I hadn’t driven him, he still would have gone, and you know how much Barry hates public transportation now. It’s not good for him to be around all those strangers.”
“Neither is going to that horrible place!” Joe shouted, “It isn’t healthy, Iris, what he’s subjecting himself to!”
“You think I don’t know that?!” Iris yelled back, “You think I don’t know how messed up this is?! Of course, I don’t agree with it!”
“But you’re enabling it,” Joe accused.
“Dad,” Wally spoke up, “He would have gone anyways.”
“Then you two should have stopped him!” Joe countered furiously, “We should be doing everything in our power to stop him from going!”
“Yeah, because that’s so much better,” Iris said angrily, “Controlling him and telling him what to do with his life is so much better for him. Don’t you think Barry deserves the freedom to make his own choices after having all of his freedoms stripped away from him?”
“Of course I do,” Joe fumed, “But not when those choices are hurting him. This new job of his isn’t healthy. It’s not good for his mental health, and that has to be our main concern right now.”
“I know it’s not healthy,” Iris sighed, “Don’t you think I tried to talk him out of it?”
“Talking to him isn’t getting us anywhere,” Joe said in anguish, “I want Barry to make his own choices, too, but sometimes it might be necessary for us to step in and make choices for him, until he’s mentally stable enough to decide for himself.”
“Barry’s doing the best he can right now,” Wally said angrily, “It isn’t his fault that he is the way he is.”
“I never said it was,” Joe sighed, “Of course I know it isn’t his fault. None of this is. I don’t blame Barry for being mentally scarred by what he’s been through, but the choices he’s been making scare me to death.”
The other two stared at him, neither of them knowing what to say.
“Listen,” Joe sighed, running a hand over his face, “Barry is in an extremely fragile state right now. We need to be careful about how we handle this. I…I’ve seen how bad things can get. I’ve seen other metahumans…”
When Joe didn’t finish his sentence, the other two stared at him in confusion.
“You’ve seen them what, dad?” Iris asked quietly.
Joe shook his head, taking a deep breath before speaking again.
“Suicide rates are three times as high for Metacide survivors like Barry,” he said darkly.
The other two paled.
“Barry would never do that,” Iris said in anguish, “He would never even consider that.”
“I know,” Joe sighed, “I know Barry wouldn’t, but I don’t ever want him to get to a place where that’s even a possibility. I want to do everything in my power to make sure things only get better for him, not worse. My greatest fear is that Barry is going to relapse in his recovery and reach an even lower point than he’s already in.”
“He’s getting better,” Iris assured him, “Barry would hardly speak when he first came home. He was afraid to sleep because of the nightmares.”
“Which he still has every night,” Joe sighed, “You’re right that he’s gotten better, and it’s amazing how well he’s been handling everything, but even as he gets better, it’s going to take its toll on him. It’s exhausting for him, dealing with the constant anxiety and depression. If it’s not one, it’s the other, and I’m worried Barry’s going to become so overwhelmed by it, he’ll decide to stop trying. He can only handle so much right now, which is why I don’t want him going to Mercury Labs anymore.”
“I know,” Iris sighed, “I don’t want him to go either. I don’t see how we’re going to stop him, though.”
Joe let out a heavy sigh and shook his head. He knew she was right. When Barry’s mind was set, very little could be done to change it.
Caitlin didn’t say anything at first when Barry got into her car. She gave him a small smile as he put on his seat belt, but she didn’t say a word as she pulled out of the lot. She took note of how pale Barry looked. He was always pale when he left Mercury Labs, and she could always see a slight tremor in his hands.
Glancing at his arms, Caitlin saw the numerous bandages covering them. Just the sight made her stomach churn.
“How much blood did they take this time?” she asked softly.
Barry shifted uncomfortably in his seat and pulled his sleeves down to cover his arms.
“Not that much,” he muttered.
Caitlin let out a heavy sigh as she drove.
“Did they take anything else from you?” she asked, trying to keep the anger out of her voice.
Barry never responded well to her anger.
“No,” Barry sighed, “It’s always just the blood samples, I promise.”
Caitlin nodded, a sour taste in her mouth as she kept her eyes on the road.
“I don’t suppose you’ll let me look you over?” she asked quietly.
“No,” Barry whispered, “That’s not necessary. It was just a few blood samples.”
Caitlin didn’t say anything for a moment, her eyes narrowing slightly as she looked out at the road. She never knew whether to believe him or not. Barry was scary good at lying now.
“Why did they want you to come in on a Saturday?” she asked then, her eyebrows furrowing.
“Just needed a fresh sample,” Barry muttered, “They started working with Ebola now.”
Caitlin nodded, her mouth a thin line.
“Got tired of the Marburg testing, did they?” she asked bitterly.
“We,” Barry said irritably, “have all but cured the Marburg virus now. As well as Polio, HIV, and Smallpox.”
“They already have vaccines for that, Barry,” Caitlin sighed.
“Well, now we have a cure for it,” Barry said defensively, “Not every country can afford to vaccinate everyone. We need ways to actually treat these diseases. We’re saving lives, Caitlin.”
“Yeah, but at what cost to you?” she asked in a small voice, “You’re letting yourself be used as a guiney pig. You really think that’s good for your mental health right now? You were experimented on, Barry! Those MRA monsters experimented on you, and now that you’re free, you’re allowing Mercury Labs to do the same. I just don’t understand it. None of us do.”
“I’m working with them,” Barry snapped, “I’m not just a lab rat there, Caitlin. I’m not just giving them samples. I’m part of the research, too. I process all the samples. I’m a scientist.”
“Yeah, because I’m sure Mercury Labs hired you for your scientific expertise,” she scoffed.
Barry didn’t say anything. When he didn’t retort to her comment, Caitlin glanced over at him. He was looking out the window, a hurt look on his face. Caitlin instantly felt guilty.
“Look, Barry,” she sighed, “I know you just want to do good. You want to help people. But offering yourself up as a test subject isn’t the right way to do it.”
“Then what is?” Barry snapped, looking at her again, “By being the Flash? Even if I wanted to be the Flash again, that isn’t exactly an option for me right now with this chip in my neck. Not that you’re willing to help me with that.”
Caitlin’s hands tightened around the steering wheel with these words.
“You’re still mad at me,” she sighed, not really a question.
“I’m not mad,” Barry muttered, “I understand why you won’t do it.”
“It’s just not worth the risk, Barry,” she said anyways, “It’s not worth the risk to try it ourselves when there are surgical teams in place who specialize in this exact thing.”
“Surgical teams consisting of MRA doctors,” Barry spat.
“Yet you’re willing to work with Mercury Labs,” she countered, “Who, I may remind you, are responsible for creating the metahuman detection devices used by the MRA.”
“They’re not the ones who experimented on me,” Barry snapped, “The MRA did. And now here I am, busting my ass, trying to get approved for surgery, all so that the same doctors can cut into me again. All because you won’t do it for me.”
“They know what they’re doing, Barry,” Caitlin said in a small voice, “They know exactly what to do to remove the chips. I don’t. I’ve done my research, but I’m not confident that I’ll be able to do it by myself, especially without a full surgical team. It’s not a risk I’m willing to take, not when all you have to do is get approved to have it removed the right way.”
“Yeah, well this morning I was denied for the twelfth time,” Barry fumed, “I’m stuck with this thing in me until they say so. I forgave you for not trying to remove it after I tried to remove it myself all those months ago, but now…”
“Now, you don’t have the threat of the MRA hanging over your head,” Caitlin sighed, “When you first tried to remove it, I understood your decision, Barry. You were scared. You were about to be taken away. That isn’t the case now, though. I understand your desperation to be rid of it, but it’s not reason enough to risk your life by trying to remove it myself. I know you’re mad at me for it, but I won’t take the risk. Not when it’s not necessary.”
“It’s necessary to me,” Barry snapped, “You might think it’s not necessary, but to me, it is.”
“I know,” she whispered, “I know, Barry. But I can’t do it. It’s too dangerous. The surgery is dangerous, even when it’s done the right way. Even with the MRA doctors performing the surgery, thirteen metahumans have died while having it removed. Is that what you want? After everything you’ve been through, everything you’ve survived, you want me to risk your life just to have your chip removed?”
“I’m not afraid to die,” Barry muttered.
Caitlin’s head snapped to look at him with these words, but Barry was staring out the window again, most of his face turned from her view. His words left an unsettling feeling in her gut, though.
“What do you mean, Barry?” she asked quietly, “You don’t…want…?”
“Of course I don’t want to die,” Barry said in irritation, “That would just be stupid. I just mean that I’ve already faced my death, and it doesn’t scare me anymore. Nothing scares me now.”
Caitlin let out a heavy sigh as she drove. She knew that wasn’t true. Barry was afraid. He was afraid of a lot of things. Death wasn’t one of them, though. No, it was life that scared him more that anything now. Barry wasn’t afraid to die.
He was afraid to live.
“That’s no reason to be careless with your life, Barry,” Caitlin said gently, “I know you don’t want to die, but you’re being careless. You keep asking me to do this surgery for you, when you know the risk isn’t worth it, and now, this thing with Mercury Labs…”
“I’m doing it to help people,” Barry snapped, “You’re right. Maybe I am a mess. Maybe I don’t know what to do with my life now, but I survived for a reason. My blood holds the answers to so many medical questions, and if my body can be used to save people, then it would all have been worth it.”
“That’s what this is about?” Caitlin asked gently, “Survivor’s guilt? You feel like you…owe something to everyone…because you survived?”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Barry whispered, “Of all the people that were in that camp, I survived. Of all people, me. If I’m not supposed to be helping people then what else should I be doing right now? Tell me, what am I supposed to do?”
“Live,” she answered sadly, “Live, Barry. That’s what you should do. Live your life.”
Barry looked down at his lap, his expression unreadable, as he spoke in a barely audible whisper.
“I don’t know how to do that anymore.”
Chapter 4: Tactics
Barry stared off into space, hardly seeing the cups in front of him as Wally stacked them, trying to beat his best time. He tried his best to pay attention to the game, but he often found himself spacing out during these family game nights. He knew what they all were doing.
They were trying to make everything seem normal.
Barry did his best to humor them. He participated in the games as much as he could, but he felt no desire to actually try. Winning a silly game didn’t really matter to him now. It all seemed so trivial in the grand scheme of things.
He supposed it could be worse. They could be trying to talk to him right now, pressing him to open up and talk about the camp. They could be berating him again about his job at Mercury labs or about the fact that he had missed yet another therapy appointment that morning.
But no. They had opted for the normalcy tactic tonight. Barry was grateful for that.
“Barry,” Joe said, pulling Barry out of his stupor, “It’s your turn.”
He pushed the cups toward him, giving him a wide smile.
Barry’s lips twitched as he leaned forward on his knees, in front of the coffee table. They all smiled encouragingly at him as Iris started the timer. Barry swallowed and started to stack the cups. A year ago, he would have dominated in this game with his speed and fast reflexes. Now, he struggled just to stack one cup on top of the other with his shaky hands.
His hands almost always shook now, mostly from the nerve damage the chip in his neck had caused, but the frostbite he had had on his hands also contributed to it. The others definitely noticed it, but they pretended not to, continuing to smile encouragingly at him as he stacked the cups.
They were always so falsely pleasant during these game nights now. When they weren’t treating him like a kicked puppy, they were forcing smiles and acting like everything was just fine and dandy. Barry knew they often switched tactics because they were still trying to figure out which way worked best with him, but he wished they wouldn’t. Not only was it giving him whiplash, but both tactics left him feeling frustrated and uncomfortable. It all felt so fabricated.
He just wanted them to be themselves. He didn’t want them to baby him, and he didn’t want them to pretend everything was normal. He wanted things to actually be normal. Not so forced.
“Good job, Barry,” Iris grinned at him when he finally finished.
Barry’s lips twitched, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He had done horribly, but she was acting like she was about to give him a gold star. She was always talking to him like he was a little kid now, and it never failed to make his stomach twist. He wasn’t as fragile as she seemed to think. He wasn’t made of glass.
He wished she knew that it was okay to acknowledge that he wasn’t as physically coordinated as he used to be. They didn’t have to tiptoe around it. In fact, if they acknowledged it—hell, if they even teased him about it—it would all feel so much more normal than these falsely cheery game nights.
“I think it’s time for a different game,” Joe said slowly, eyeing Barry out of the corner of his eye, “This one’s getting old.”
“You’re just saying that because you can’t beat my score,” Wally teased.
His eyes flitted from Joe to Barry then, giving Barry a small smile. Barry couldn’t help but smile back at him, his lips twitching slightly. At least Wally wasn’t afraid to be competitive and talk smack during these game nights. It was exactly what Barry needed. It was the real normalcy he had been craving, even if Wally was only doing it for his own benefit.
Strangely, Wally sometimes had a way of knowing exactly what Barry was thinking. He still didn’t talk to Barry much, seeing as they still didn’t know each other very well, but in some ways, Wally made Barry feel more normal than the others did. He didn’t treat Barry differently.
It was probably because they hadn’t grown up together. Wally didn’t share as many memories with Barry as Joe and Iris did, so there wasn’t a past between them to compare the present to. Barry didn’t notice all the little changes between them like he did with Joe and Iris. He didn’t have to dwell on the way things used to be with Wally.
Granted, things were different with Wally. Before everything that happened with the MRA, Wally hadn’t known about Barry’s powers. He and Barry had barely known each other, and there had been more than a little tension between them. There was still tension between them now, but it wasn’t the same kind of tension. It wasn’t a sibling rivalry. It was the same tension Barry had with everyone now, the tension the MRA had put there.
Before they could decide on which game they would play next, Joe suddenly shot up from his seat, a serious expression on his face.
“Dad?” Iris said in confusion, “What—?”
“Shh!” Joe hissed.
The room fell silent as Joe stood there, straining his ears. They all heard it too then. The sound of a car engine. Joe rushed over to the window, a furious look on his face as he peered through the blinds.
“Those sons of bitches,” he growled.
He rushed over to the closet then, grabbing something before making his way to the front door.
“Dad,” Iris sighed tiredly, “I don’t think a baseball bat is necessary.”
“They’re lucky I’m not grabbing my gun,” Joe gritted, stomping his way to the door.
He threw it open with a bang.
“Hey!” he boomed, storming out the front door.
The rest of them stayed seated in the living room in silence. Barry could feel Iris’s eyes on him, but he was staring at the floor. He didn’t have to look outside to know who Joe was shouting at. This happened multiple times a week. Joe would look out the window, see a van sitting there, and rush outside to tell them off.
Barry was surprised the media vans even kept coming back. If he had someone like Joe coming at him with a baseball bat, he would probably flee the country and change his name. The reporters kept coming, though. Barry had to hand it to them. They were nothing if not persistent.
It didn’t take Joe long to scare them off this time. He reentered the house within a few minutes, breathing heavily through his rage as he threw the baseball bat back into the closet.
“Fucking vultures!” he fumed.
“No, I’ve had it with this!” he seethed, “We’ve done everything! We made a press statement, asking to be left in peace. We’ve called the police. We’ve asked them nicely, and we’ve threatened them. And they still keep coming back!”
“They’re going to keep coming,” Iris said calmly, “An interview with Barry would be a career-altering story for any reporter to score. Every station in the country wants an interview. It’s why I refuse to go back to the CCPN. That and because of all the false news they spread during the Metacide.”
“It’s disgusting,” Joe spat, “They shit all over the Flash in the media when Price was in power, and now that the dust has settled, they all want to be Barry’s best friend?! They can go to hell!”
“Guys,” Barry said quietly.
Their heads all spun to look at him, as if just realizing he was still sitting here.
“That’s enough,” Barry sighed, “It doesn’t pay to get angry. Just let it go.”
They all stared at him. Barry couldn’t look at them, though. He didn’t know how to feel about all of this. He agreed with them. He was angry with the media, too, but he mostly felt guilty. Guilty that they were all being affected by the media storm constantly surrounding their house. Guilty that Iris had quit her job for him and was now unemployed. Guilty that the world was waiting to hear something from him, anything, and he had been silent.
Angry and silent.
“I’m sorry,” Joe said, taking a deep breath to calm himself, “I’m sorry, Barry. I know you don’t like it when I get so worked up about this. I’m just sick of them constantly trying to harass you.”
“They’re not,” Barry lied, “I hardly even notice them most of the time. If they want to waste their time, sitting in front of the house all day, then let them. It doesn’t bother me.”
It wasn’t at all true. Even if Barry rarely left the house, their presence there was always nagging at the back of his mind. Not only did it make him feel like he was being watched, it made him feel like a prisoner in his own home. It was a huge reason why he still didn’t feel like he was truly free, not like he used to be. What bothered him more, however, was how much it affected his family. They had spent so long fighting for him and his freedom. Now that he was finally home and safe, he didn’t want them to have to fight for him anymore. He didn’t want them to be burdened by him. The strain it put on his family bothered him more than anything.
“Let’s just continue our game night,” Barry sighed, “We don’t have to let this spoil everything.”
Joe stared thoughtfully at him for a moment, a sad expression on his face. Finally, he cleared his throat and sat back down on the couch, reluctantly relinquishing his anger for Barry’s sake.
“Okay, Bar,” he sighed, forcing a small smile that looked more sad than it did happy, “If that’s what you want.”
“It is,” he said firmly.
It wasn’t. What he really wanted was to just escape to the refuge of his room for the night. He fought the urge, though. He knew that would be counterproductive. If he was ever going to get better, he had to spend time with his family. He wanted to spend time with his family. This, though, this forced family game night, wasn’t really helping matters. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel real.
“Okay, what other games do we have?” Iris asked pleasantly, resuming her falsely cheery demeanor.
A smile planted on her face, Iris made her way to the closet where they kept their board games. She came back with a stack of boxes, setting them on the table.
“Ooh, battleship,” Wally grinned, picking up the game.
“That’s a two-player game, Wal,” Joe pointed out.
“We can play in teams,” Wally shrugged.
“I vote no,” Iris laughed, “That game’s for ten-year-olds.”
“Pictionary?” Joe suggested.
“I’m not the best drawer now,” Barry said with a small chuckle, holding up his shaky hands, “It wouldn’t be fair to my partner.”
The others didn’t laugh with him, though. They all managed uneasy smiles before Iris quickly made another suggestion, quickly moving past the sensitive subject. That irked Barry more than anything, the way they tiptoed around his afflictions. It would have been better if they had just laughed with him.
“How about Monopoly?” she suggested, “We can play that with four people.”
“That game takes forever,” Wally groaned.
“Plus there’s very little strategy,” Joe added, “It’s mostly luck.”
“Okay,” Iris sighed, shifting through the game boards, “Well, what else do we have? Clue, Trouble, Sorry, Checkers…”
She continued listing off games, but Barry didn’t hear her. His eyes had locked onto one of the game boards she had set aside.
Just like that, Barry’s mind went blank. He stared at the box, his eyes glazing over, his mind reverting to the hours he had spent, sitting in a small, dark room, staring at bottle caps. A fresh wave of unexpected grief washed over him, enveloping his heart. Barry felt like he had been submerged in cold water as the feeling overtook him. His brain went numb, consumed with only one single thought as he stared at the game board:
He never taught her how to play.
He had promised he would teach her. He had gotten the game pieces together, but he had been too busy collecting supplies and scouring for firewood to actually start teaching her. It would have taken maybe an hour of his time, to play a simple game with the young girl, but now it was too late. He hadn’t been there for her.
Just like he hadn’t been there in time to save her.
And now here he was, sitting on the bedroom floor, not doing anything. He wasn’t collecting supplies. He wasn’t working on repairing the radio. Before, he had been so busy, he couldn’t find time to teach her a simple board game. Now that she was dead, though, he had nothing but time. Time to sit here, staring at the bottle caps he had thrown across the room in a fit of rage and grief. He was beyond anger now, though. He couldn’t feel anything.
All he felt was emptiness.
Barry looked up. Joe was no longer sitting on the couch on the other side of the room. His face was now only a few feet away from his. Iris wasn’t talking anymore. She and Wally were both staring at him, worried expressions occupying their faces. When had they all stopped talking?
Barry swallowed back the lump that had formed in his throat.
Joe gave Barry a sad look. All three of them were suddenly looking at him like they wanted to wrap him up in a soft blanket and coddle him.
“You checked out for a minute there,” Joe said gently, “You shut down again.”
Barry swallowed and ran a hand over his face. He realized then, that his eyes were wet. He quickly blinked back his tears, brushing them quickly from his face. When had he started crying?
“Oh,” he whispered.
“What is it, Bar?” Joe asked sadly, “What happened? What triggered it?”
The other two were completely silent, all three pairs of eyes staring down at him.
“N-nothing,” Barry muttered, “I’m sorry. I just got lost in my own head for a second.”
From the looks on their faces, Barry could tell it had been more than a second. He had blacked out again, checked out of reality for more than just a few seconds. He wondered how long he had been lost in his thoughts, unaware of his surroundings. It seemed like just a second ago, they had been discussing what game to play. Now, they were all standing there, looking at him in worry. He could see the sadness saturating all of their faces, but there was also a hint of frustration there. Barry knew why. He never told them what triggered his black outs. He never explained to them what caused him to space out sometimes.
How was he supposed to? How was he supposed explain to them why just the sight of a stupid checker board caused him to shut down on them?
He knew it wasn’t fair of him. They were just trying to help him, and he never explained his triggers to them, but that was mostly because he didn’t understand them himself. One minute he was fine, and the next, something would cause him to just shut down. A song on the radio, a stupid board game, the smell of bleach.
He didn’t understand it. It always happened unexpectedly. He never knew what was going to affect him and what wasn’t. He could handle getting blood drawn at Mercury Labs, but he couldn’t handle the sight of a checker board. The cold didn’t bother him or trigger him, but any loud sound had him flinching, thinking he was about to be shot by an MRA officer. Some things simply affected him more than others, and Barry couldn’t explain it to them any more than he could explain it to himself.
“Barry, talk to us,” Joe pleaded, “What did we do wrong?”
“Nothing,” Barry insisted, shaking his head, “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me. I just lost touch with everything for a second.”
“But why?” Iris asked in anguish, “We understand that it’s normal, that PTSD victims get flashbacks sometimes. It’s not something you can help, and we get that. We just want to know what we can do to help prevent it. We can’t help you if we don’t know what’s triggering you, Barry, so please. Help us understand. What was the trigger?”
Barry sucked in a shaky breath and shook his head.
“I don’t know,” he lied, looking at the floor, “I appreciate you trying to help me, but I don’t know why it happened. I’m sorry. Can we please not make a big deal about it this time? Can we please just continue our game night?”
They all stared sadly at him, not knowing what to say. Barry didn’t want them to say anything. He just wanted things to go back to how they were a moment ago. He’d take the falsely happy game night over this, over having them all staring worriedly down at him, asking him what was wrong, asking him to explain how he got choked up at the sight of a checker board because it reminded him of the little girl he had lost. The little girl whom he had considered like a daughter. He could explain it to them. He could tell them all the details of everything that had happened and how it made him feel. But he couldn’t ever get them to understand. Not fully.
So why? Why talk about it? Why bring those memories out? Why think about it?
Any of it?
“Okay, Bar,” Joe sighed, tiredly running a hand over his eyes, “What do you want to play?”
And with that, the cheerful family game night continued.
Chapter 5: Perception
Henry hated these days more than anything. At the same time, he looked forward to them. While he hated the circumstances, he looked forward to the days he got to see Barry.
The days he came in for his checkups.
Barry always beelined for the med bay when he came into STAR Labs. He never lingered in the cortex, never entered any of the other rooms, and he most definitely never glanced over to the Flash suit that was on display there. He could never get through the cortex quick enough, anxious to get to the med bay, where he wasn’t haunted by the happier days he had spent in this building.
“Hey, Slugger,” Henry greeted softly, “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” Barry mumbled, sitting down on the medical bed.
Henry couldn’t stop his eyes from raking over his son. Like every time, just the sight of him made Henry’s stomach twist. Was he gaining any weight?! It seemed impossible that Barry could have put a whole twenty pounds on. To Henry, he still looked just as skeletal and emaciated as ever. It was a punch to the gut every time he saw him, and Barry was still fully clothed, wearing several thick layers to cover his thin frame. Henry almost didn’t even want to ask him to remove them. He had to, though.
“Could you remove your shirt, Barry?” he asked gently.
Barry gave a nervous glance toward the window to the med bay, an uncomfortable look on his face. Henry understood immediately and quickly moved to close the blinds. He was the only one Barry ever let see him shirtless. Even then, Barry was always quick to redress, to hide the jutting bones from his father’s eyes.
Henry always did his best to maintain a professional demeanor. He tried not to let his emotions show. Barry didn’t respond well when Henry got choked up at the sight of him. He preferred these checkups stay clinical.
So Henry didn’t stare. As Barry pulled his shirt over his head, Henry didn’t stare at his jutting ribs. He didn’t stare at his son’s protruding spine or the scars that raked over his entire body. Henry swallowed back the lump in his throat and asked Barry to lay back on the examination table. Barry did as he was told, his entire body shaking terribly. He always hating laying back on the table, though he never said why. Henry assumed it could only be because of the time Barry had spent in that MRA lab, strapped down to an experimentation table.
For this reason, Henry was quick with his abdominal assessment, pressing gently on Barry’s stomach for only a few seconds before telling him he could sit up again. A relieved sigh escaped Barry’s lips as he resumed his sitting position.
“How has your sleep been?” Henry asked gently as he pulled out his stethoscope, “Any better?”
Barry shook his head as Henry pressed the stethoscope to his chest, listening carefully to his heart. Henry was sure to keep his face smooth as he listened, taking note of the irregularities. Barry’s heart had suffered the most damage during his time under the MRA’s reign. It was gradually getting stronger, but it was far from the heart a twenty-six-year-old should have.
“Have you tried the lorazepam?” Henry asked gently, “It should help with the nightmares.”
Barry shook his head again.
“It doesn’t,” he whispered, “It just makes it harder for me to wake up from them.”
Henry let out a small sigh and nodded, giving Barry a sympathetic look.
“How’s my heart?” Barry asked quietly, changing the subject.
“Still irregular,” Henry sighed, hanging his stethoscope around his neck, “You’re still taking the Amiodarone, right?”
“Yeah, I’m taking it,” he said softly, “It’s not helping, though, is it?”
Henry shook his head.
“It’s helping a little,” he assured his son, “But not as much as I would have hoped. I think I might switch you over to Flecainide. Maybe that will have more of an effect. I’ll discuss it with Dr. Snow.”
Henry didn’t fail to notice the way Barry’s eyes turned down at the mention of the other doctor. He looked down at his knees, an unreadable expression on his face. His head snapped up, though, when there was a light knock on the newly added door to the med bay. As the door opened, Barry seemed to curl into himself slightly, trying to make himself smaller to avoid the gaze of whoever was entering. He was still undressed, after all.
It was only Caitlin, though. She had seen Barry undressed countless times, and she had helped with his cares when he had first been freed from the camp. She had seen the worst of it, and she was a doctor. She could remain professional in a medical setting.
Yet, Barry’s discomfort was almost palpable as she entered the room. He looked down at the floor again, not meeting her eyes.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she apologized softly, no doubt sensing Barry’s discomfort, “I just came to let you know I sent your prescriptions to the pharmacy. Joe can pick them up any time this week.”
“Thanks,” Barry whispered, still staring down at the floor.
Caitlin let out a small sigh, a somber expression occupying her face.
“You’re welcome,” she replied softly.
She nodded sadly to Henry before leaving the room, making sure to close the door tightly behind her. Henry let out a small sigh and ran a hand over his face before turning back to Barry, who was now pulling his shirt back on, his eyes cast down to the floor.
“How long are you going to keep this up?” Henry asked tiredly.
Barry looked up at him then, a blank expression on his face. He didn’t ask what Henry meant. He already knew.
“Until she does the surgery,” he said simply.
“Barry,” Henry sighed, “You know why she can’t do it. I understand how frustrated you are, but you can’t blame her for it. She’s just doing what she thinks is best for you.”
“Shouldn’t it be my decision?” Barry whispered, his eyes boring into his father’s with the question.
“You’re not a doctor,” Henry replied seriously, “Of course you should have some say in your medical decisions, but you don’t understand, son. I’ve seen videos of this procedure. It’s risky, Barry. Caitlin and I have gone over it countless times, and we both agree it’s too risky to do it ourselves. We both refuse to do it, yet she’s the one you’re mad at. I don’t understand why you’re placing all the blame on just her.”
“You’re my father,” Barry said, as if it were obvious, “Of course you wouldn’t want to take the risk. No father would. Caitlin, though…she’s different. She’s been my doctor for two years. She’s knows what I’m capable of, what my limits are. She should be able to see that I can handle this.”
“This isn’t about your physical capabilities, Barry,” Henry refuted, shaking his head, “This is about our capabilities, as doctors. Neither of us are confident that we’d be able to pull off a surgery this complex without a full surgical team.”
“I trust you,” Barry whispered, his voice shaking slightly in anguish, “I know you can do this. You just need to try.”
“It’s not that simple, Barry,” Henry sighed, his frustration starting to leak into his voice, “It’s not like we can just try and see if it works out. If we try, and we fail, you could die. Do you understand that?”
Barry looked down at his lap again, a frustrated sigh escaping his lips. Henry reached out toward him, his hand hesitating slightly before resting on his son’s shoulder.
“I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you,” he said gently, “But you need to be patient, Barry. You need to keep making progress, keep recovering. You’ll be approved for the surgery in no time if you just keep doing what you’re doing.”
Barry didn’t say anything. He just continued to stare at the floor. Henry let out a small sigh as he gave his son’s shoulder a small squeeze.
“And you need to stop punishing Caitlin for this,” he said gently, “You need your friends right now, son. You need your family. You can’t keep pushing us away.”
“I’m not,” Barry whispered, his eyes still glued to the floor.
Henry let out a small, shaky sigh.
“Yes, you are, son,” he persisted, his voice gentle, “Even if you don’t realize it, that’s what you’ve been doing. You’ve been keeping all of us at arm’s length.”
Barry sniffed and shook his head, still looking down to avoid his father’s gaze.
“That’s not what I’m trying to do,” he whispered, “I’m trying, dad. I…”
“You’re trying to pretend like things are back to normal,” Henry said sadly, “I know you’ve been trying to put this all behind you, Barry, and that’s good, but you also need to face it eventually. You need to process it, talk about it. You need to let us in.”
“I am,” Barry insisted, finally looking up meet his father’s eyes, “I am letting you in.”
“You’re letting me do a checkup,” Henry said gently, “You’re letting me be your doctor, not your father.”
“You’re not just my doctor,” Barry refuted, shaking his head, “You’re my dad. I’ve been—”
“Coming over to my apartment for dinner once a week isn’t enough, Barry,” Henry said sadly, “Yes, you’ve been spending time with me, you’ve been spending time with all of us, but you’re not letting us in. You’re not truly letting us help you.”
Barry’s eyes suddenly darkened with these words, his somber expression morphing into anger, taking Henry by surprise.
“How are you going to do that?” he snapped, his voice quickly raising into a shout, “How are you going to help me?! How is talking about it going to help anything?! It’s only going to make me feel worse! I don’t want to talk about it! Why can’t you all see that?! Why can’t you guys just accept that and let me work through this in my own way?! At my own pace?!”
Henry took a step back from Barry, staring at his son with wide eyes. It had been a while since he had heard Barry shout, since he had seen his son display any sort of emotion. Barry’s sudden outburst, his anger, caught Henry off guard. He hadn’t been expecting it. Henry knew then. He knew he had pushed Barry too far. He had pressed him just a little too much.
“I’m sorry,” he said instantly, his stomach twisting terribly, “I’m sorry, son. I…I’m not trying to pressure you. I just…”
Barry let out a shaky sigh, running a hand over his face.
“You’re just trying to help me,” he whispered, “I know.”
Henry sucked in a shaky breath and let it out slowly.
“We just don’t know what to do, Barry,” he whispered sadly, “We don’t know what to do to make things better.”
“You’re already doing it,” Barry insisted, “You help me just by being here for me. You help me by being you. I don’t need doctors. I don’t need therapists. I need you. All of you.”
“I’m right here, son,” Henry said desperately, “I’m here for you. All of us, we’re all here for you.”
Barry let out a shaky sigh and shook his head.
“It doesn’t feel that way,” he whispered, “You’re here but…you’re not the same. For five months, all I wanted was to come home, to have things go back to the way they were before. But they haven’t. You’re not the same. All of you…you’ve been acting differently, treating me differently. You don’t see me anymore. All you see is…”
Barry shook his head and looked down at the floor.
“Hey, look at me,” Henry said softly, putting a hand on his son’s shoulder.
Barry looked up slowly, his eyes glistening. Henry waited until Barry’s eyes made contact with his before speaking.
“We see you,” he said firmly, giving his son’s shoulder a small squeeze, “You hear me? We see you, Barry. You’re the same Barry we’ve always known. You’re not just a metahuman. You’re not just…a number. You’re Barry. Nothing will ever change the way we see you.”
“But I am different,” Barry whispered, “I’m not the same person I was before. The Metacide…it messed me up. I know that, and I’m trying to deal with it. I’m trying to get back to the way I was before. I just need time.”
“And we’re prepared to give you all the time you need, son,” Henry assured him, “But you can’t blame us for wanting to be there for you. We’re trying to support you. You need to let us support you through this.”
“What I need,” Barry said, “Is for everyone to stop tiptoeing around me. To stop treating me like I’m broken. It’s not helping me. It just makes me feel more broken, seeing the pity in everyone’s eyes.”
Henry closed his eyes and let out a small sigh.
“You’ve been through so much, Barry,” he choked, his eyes filling with tears, “What you’ve been through…what you’ve survived…yes, it has changed you. We see that and accept it. We accept you for who you are. We don’t see you as broken, Bar. We all know you’re not going to be the same person you were before, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The MRA…they hurt you, deeply, but they didn’t break you. You didn’t let them break you. You’re not the same person you were before. You’re stronger. That’s what we see.”
Barry sniffed and shook his head.
“I don’t feel strong,” he whispered, hanging his head, “I had to be strong, when I was there…because that was my only choice. But now…now I don’t feel strong. I just feel…tired.”
“And that’s okay,” Henry assured, rubbing his shoulder, “It’s okay to feel that way. It’s okay to let yourself be sad, Barry. It’s a part of the healing process.”
“I don’t want to do it, though,” Barry sighed, “I just want to move on.”
“That will come with time,” Henry said softly, “But right now…you need to let yourself process it, Barry. You need to let yourself grieve. You need to talk to us, let us support you. It’s okay if you don’t feel strong right now. Let us be strong for you. Let us help you carry the burden.”
Barry let out a heavy sigh and shook his head.
“I’m not ready,” he choked, “I’m not ready to talk about it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“Start small,” Henry advised, “The little things, Barry. I know it’s hard to talk about the traumas you went through, but you don’t need to jump into everything right away. You can start small. Open up about the little things.”
Barry shook his head.
“Like why you refuse to let anyone else see you undressed,” Henry said gently, “I can understand why it’d make you uncomfortable, but you won’t even let Dr. Snow see you. We all took care of you when you were recovered from the camp. We already saw the damage, son, so why are you so adamant about hiding it now?”
“Is it really that strange that I wouldn’t want to display my scars and grotesque ribs to everyone?” Barry asked bitterly, “I’m disgusting, dad. Of course I wouldn’t want people to see it.”
“You’re not disgusting, Barry,” Henry said sadly, “You’re recovering. Your scars, they’re your—”
“Don’t say they’re a badge of honor,” Barry snapped, “There’s nothing honorable about what I did. I did what I had to to survive. There’s nothing heroic about that. I’m not proud of what I did.”
Henry frowned at him.
“Why?” he asked, “Why, Barry? Why are you so opposed to being called a hero? Why are you so quick to dismiss—?”
“Because I wasn’t a hero!” Barry shouted, “I did terrible things, dad! When I say I did what it took to survive, I’m not just talking about my part in ending the Metacide! I’m talking about the lengths I had to go to, the lines I had to cross, to keep myself alive. The zone brought out parts of me I never even knew I had. I did things I never would have thought myself capable of. Things I’m far from proud of. And now everyone’s calling me a hero!”
Barry sucked in several deep breaths, his eyes watering as air struggled to enter his lungs.
“Son,” Henry said in a strained voice, putting a hand on Barry’s shoulder, “It’s okay. Just breathe.”
Barry gripped his arm, steadying himself with his father’s touch as he tried to control his breathing. When he finally had his breathing under control, Barry looked up at him, his eyes swimming.
“I did terrible things, dad,” he choked, “I…I let them bring out the darkest parts of me. I’m not a martyr. I’m not innocent. Some of the things I did…”
Barry sucked in a shaky breath.
“I became just as bad as the MRA,” he whispered.
“That’s not true, son,” Henry said firmly, “That could never be true.”
“I let people die!” Barry cried in anguish, “People who trusted me, who relied on me! I failed them! I let them die, and in the end, I survived!”
“You and I both know you did everything you could, Barry,” Henry said softly.
Barry swallowed and shook his head.
“But I didn’t,” he choked, “I was selfish. I…I walked past starving children every day. Children. I walked past them like they weren’t even there. All I could think about was saving my food for my own unit. For myself. I fought over food scraps, resorting to violence to keep myself fed. I stood by and watched people be shot by officers, only thinking how thankful I was it wasn’t me. I hesitated to help a man who came to my doorstep, looking for safety from the officers. I failed to help him because I was too concerned about my own safety. I stood there and watched him get shot right in front of me. I took things off of bodies, even used the bodies to hide from food raiders. I helped dig a mass grave and then I helped fill it. I numbed myself to it, hardly even thinking twice about it as I threw bodies into that ditch. And now everyone thinks I’m a hero for hacking into the MRA’s database, but when I did that I…”
A small sob escaped Barry’s lips as he shook his head.
“I did terrible things,” he choked, “Unforgivable things.”
“Barry,” Henry said, squeezing his son’s shoulder, “Everything you did, you did because you had to to survive. You only did things that the MRA made you do.”
“And the same thing can be said about half the MRA officers,” Barry snapped, “That doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t make them any less responsible for their actions, just like I’m still responsible for mine. Fighting for my survival doesn’t justify sacrificing other peoples’ lives.”
“You didn’t sacrifice anyone, Barry,” Henry said sadly, “You aren’t responsible for their deaths, Price is. You are innocent. You’re a victim in this just as much as anyone else. The fact that you were one of the few who survived doesn’t change that.”
“You’re wrong,” Barry whispered, “I’m not innocent. I…I do have blood on my hands.”
Barry sucked in a shaky breath and let it out slowly.
“Dad…I have to tell you something…”
Just then, they were interrupted by a shrill ringing sound. Barry opened and closed his mouth a couple times, a strained look on his face, before sighing and reaching into his pocket to pull out his phone.
“Hello?” he answered tiredly.
Henry couldn’t hear what the other person was saying, but he didn’t care to. Whoever they were, they had interrupted an important moment between him and his son. Henry had to fight hard to reign in his frustration. Barry was finally opening up to him. He was finally starting to talk about his traumas, and then his phone had to ring.
“Okay,” Barry sighed into the phone, “That’s fine. Today works for me.”
Henry’s attention was pulled back into the moment, his eyes darkening as he listened to Barry speak.
“I’ll be there in a bit,” he said softly, “Thank you.”
As Barry hung up the phone, he couldn’t meet his father’s eyes. His eyes shifted to the floor as he returned the phone to his pocket.
“Was that Mercury Labs?” Henry asked darkly.
“No,” Barry sighed, “It was the rehab center. My usual physical therapist is out on sick leave, and they wanted to move my appointments to Thursdays, with a different therapist.”
Although Henry was relieved to know it wasn’t Mercury Labs pestering his son for more samples, he wasn’t completely without irritation.
“That’s not right,” Henry said in a hard voice, “Don’t they know how important consistency is for someone recovering from—”
“It’s fine, dad,” Barry sighed, “I don’t care who the therapist is. Physical therapy isn’t really a big deal. It’s nowhere near as bad as the other types of therapy I have to go to.”
Henry nodded slightly in understanding, a small sigh escaping his lips.
“What were you going to tell me?” he asked gently then.
Barry shifted uncomfortably in his seat, his eyes returning to the floor.
“I…should actually get going,” he mumbled, “My appointment is in fifteen minutes.”
“You have time,” Henry assured him quickly, trying to keep the desperation out of his voice, “You have time to tell me whatever you were just going to say.”
“I’m sorry,” Barry whispered, shaking his head, “I should really get going though.”
“Barry, please don’t do that,” Henry begged as Barry stood up from the medical bed, “Please don’t shut me out again. It’s okay. You can talk to me.”
“I will,” Barry assured him, looking awkwardly down at the floor as he pulled his coat on, “I’ll talk to you next time. I’m sorry, but I have to go now. Bye, dad.”
“Barry,” Henry pleaded as his son moved toward the door, “Barry.”
Barry didn’t stop though. He ducked out the door before Henry could reason with him. Henry let out a heavy sigh after he left.
There was always next week.
“It’s okay, just try to relax your hand,” the woman soothed, giving him a small pat on the shoulder.
Barry couldn’t help but lean away from the touch, causing the physical therapist to retract her hand.
“Sorry,” she said quickly, “I wasn’t thinking. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s fine,” Barry assured her, “You didn’t scare me. I promise I’m fine. It’s just a reflex.”
“I don’t usually work with metahumans,” the woman, Karen, admitted, “My colleague, Gary, originally took on all the Metacide victims, but now he’s out with pneumonia and I’m taking on his usual patients. You’re actually my first meta.”
Barry nodded, his stomach twisting slightly at her use of the word “victims” and even worse at the word “meta.” She didn’t even seem to take note of what she had just said, but it told Barry all that he needed to know about the woman and where she stood as far as the whole Metacide situation went. He couldn’t help but wonder if she would be even here right now if the “Right to Refuse Care” laws hadn’t been lifted.
“I’m going to let you take a little break,” Karen said awkwardly, when Barry didn’t say anything, “Take a few minutes to rest. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Without another word, Karen crossed the physical therapy room and disappeared through the doorway. Barry couldn’t help but roll his eyes as he watched her leave. It was painfully obvious that he wasn’t the one who needed a break. After she left the room, Barry let out a small sigh and went right back to his finger exercises, concentrating on touching each finger to his thumb individually, one painful finger at a time. He didn’t know why he was still even bothering to come to physical therapy. He could do these exercises just fine at home by himself. He didn’t need some coach there to cheer him on, especially if said coach was obviously harboring her own personal prejudices toward him the entire time.
As Barry worked to regain control of his frostbite-damaged hands, he couldn’t help but think of his earlier conversation with his father. He was surprised by how much he had revealed to him, how much he had opened up. In a strange way, he felt better after unleashing some of the thoughts he had been keeping to himself, but at the same time, he felt as if he had said too much. A part of him was relieved he hadn’t said more, but it also meant he had to carry his secret alone. He didn’t know how to talk about it. He could hardly bear to think about it.
He had killed a man.
Barry knew his family would understand. He knew they wouldn’t judge him for it. They would tell him it wasn’t his fault, that he had done it out of self-defense. He had killed an MRA officer while fighting for his life. He didn’t want to be comforted though. The thought of them comforting him and telling him it was okay made him sick to his stomach. Barry knew he couldn’t tell them. He couldn’t bear to see the looks on their faces. They would never look at him the same way again. Not telling them didn’t make him feel better though. It didn’t matter if they knew the truth or not.
Barry quickly stopped his thoughts in their tracks. He couldn’t think about this right now. He couldn’t afford to get stuck in his head again. He was here to work on his physical recovery. Despite the silence giving him time to get lost in his own dark thoughts, Barry couldn’t help but hope the physical therapist wouldn’t come back. He really didn’t want or need her help with this.
Only two short minutes passed, however, before he heard the door open again. He groaned internally, wishing she could just let him do his exercises in peace. When he looked up, however, he realized it wasn’t Karen reentering the room.
“S-sorry,” a middle-aged man said, awkwardly lingering in the doorway, supported by a pair of crutches, “I was just going to…I didn’t realize…”
The man looked down at the floor.
“I’ll just come back another time,” he mumbled, turning in the doorway to leave.
“It’s okay,” Barry said quickly, “You can stay and do whatever you need to do. I’m not sure if you’re going to be getting much help from Karen today, though.”
Barry gave the man a small smile with these words, but the man wasn’t looking at him. He mumbled something about solo exercises and hobbled his way over to the row of beams on the other side of the room, meant to assist patients as they regained their ability to walk. Barry could tell from the man’s large stature that he wasn’t a metahuman. He didn’t have the same emaciated look Barry and other Metacide victims had. Just a regular patient then.
For a moment, neither of the two men spoke. The other man set down his crutches, letting the beams support him instead as he walked down the row. Barry went back to his own exercises, growing bored as he did the same motion over and over again with his shaky fingers. He didn’t know why, but he was tempted to break the silence again. Maybe he was growing tired of avoiding human contact, or maybe it was just out of boredom, but Barry found himself wanting to know more about the man who would barely even look him in the eye. He bit his tongue, though, sensing the man didn’t want to be bothered while doing his physical therapy.
Which was why Barry was surprised when the man spoke first.
“I didn’t think there was supposed to be anyone else scheduled here today.”
Barry looked up in the man in surprise, but it was to see that he still wasn’t looking at him. He was looking in front of him as he walked.
“I wasn’t,” Barry sighed, looking back down at his hand again, “My usual therapist is out sick, so they moved my PT times to Thursday afternoons.”
“Hm,” the man grunted.
Barry stole a quick glance at him, noticing the less than pleased look on his face upon hearing this information. Barry instantly felt a swirl of anger in his gut upon seeing the man’s reaction, his defenses going up immediately. Was there anyone here who didn’t have a thing against metahumans?
“If that makes you uncomfortable, I could always request to come in a different day,” Barry said bitterly.
The other man finally looked at him, a shocked expression on his face.
“N-no,” he stammered, “It doesn’t…I’m not…I don’t have a problem with you being here.”
Despite his words, the man’s eyes almost immediately flitted down to the floor. Then off to the side again. Anywhere but Barry’s face. Barry couldn’t help but wonder if this was how everyone else felt when he refused to look them in the eye. He, however, at least had a valid reason for being uncomfortable with eye contact.
“If that’s the case, why can’t you look at me?” Barry challenged, knowing he should probably just let it go, “I don’t have any Medusa-like powers, okay? You’re not going to turn to stone or anything if you look me in the eye.”
Barry knew he was being overly-defensive. He knew he was taking his frustrations out on this complete stranger, but he didn’t care. He was so tired of this political bullshit. Tired of people’s fear. It was almost worse than their admiration. He was quickly learning that the only thing that bothered him more than people gawking and staring at him was them refusing to so much as look at him because of his metahuman status.
“I’m…” the man stammered, still looking at the floor, “I’m sorry. I’m…not afraid of you or anything. I just…”
The man sucked in a strained breath before looking up again, his eyes finally meeting Barry’s.
“I just haven’t talked to a lot of people since my…accident,” he said quietly.
Barry instantly deflated, his anger quickly being replaced by guilt. He felt like a total ass. Was he really so paranoid he went around accusing people of being prejudice toward him? Was he really so self-centered that he didn’t realize he wasn’t the only one going through a hard time right now?
“I’m sorry,” Barry said quickly, “I’m so sorry. I…I didn’t mean to take my personal problems out on you. I guess I’m just a little defensive.”
“You have good reason to be,” the man mumbled, “You’ve been through a lot.”
“Still though,” Barry said, “I really am sorry. You’ve clearly been through your own share of trauma and don’t need some bitter metahuman harassing you while you’re trying to recover.”
The man didn’t say anything to that. He looked down at the floor again, his expression unreadable as he silently resumed his walking. Barry knew it would be better to let that be the end of the conversation, to let the other man do his exercises in peace and mind his own business. He couldn’t help it, though. He was curious about the man.
“Can I ask what happened?”
The man stopped in his tracks but didn’t look up at him. He stood there a prolonged moment, a somber look on his face as he stared at the floor.
“Military injury,” he finally muttered.
Barry nodded silently, giving the man a sympathetic look even though he wasn’t looking at him to see it.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “I don’t mean to be nosy. I haven’t talked to many people since my own…accident. I guess I was just curious. It’s rare to find someone who understands.”
The man didn’t say anything. He took a few more steps alongside the beams, an unreadable expression on his face. It was clear he didn’t take much comfort from Barry’s words.
“Anyways,” Barry sighed, looking back down at his hands, “I’ll let you do your exercises now. Thank you for your service.”
That made the man stop in his tracks again. Barry couldn’t help but look up at him again, but the man didn’t speak. He opened and closed his mouth a couple times, a strange expression on his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, after what seemed like an eternity, “I’m so sorry for everything you had to go through.”
“It’s not your fault,” Barry said simply, “It’s over now. Now all I can really do is move on. I’m sure you know what that’s like.”
The man nodded, a dark, knowing expression on his face as he stared at the ground. A moment passed before he started walking again. Neither of them said anything, letting a few minutes go by in complete silence before Barry spoke again, unable to stop himself.
“Can I ask what your name is?” he blurted.
The man took a moment to answer, and when he did it was so quiet, Barry almost didn’t catch it.
“Nice to meet you, Charlie,” he said politely, “I’m Barry.”
“Barry Allen,” the man whispered, “I know. You’re the Flash.”
Barry let out a small sigh as he returned his gaze to his hands. He didn’t know why he was surprised to learn that the man knew who he was. It seemed everyone in Central City did these days.
“I used to be,” he whispered.
Barry looked up again, a confused expression on his face. After avoiding his gaze for the better part of their conversation, Charlie was now suddenly staring at him, his dark eyes boring into him, taking him by surprise.
“No,” he said again, his voice firm, “You are the Flash. You always will be. Whether you put the suit on again or not is up to you. It’s your decision to make and no one can make it for you. But no matter what, you’ll always be the Flash, Barry.”
Barry stared back at him, taken off guard by the firmness of the man’s words. He didn’t know how to respond to that. He opened and closed his mouth a couple times, but no words came out. When he didn’t say anything, Charlie continued.
“Don’t let what those…bastards did to you ever make you question it,” he gritted, his voice shaking in anger, “You are the Flash, and that’s something they can never take away from you.”
Barry simply sat there, frozen in his seat as he stared back at the man. Charlie didn’t even really know him, but he sounded so sure of his words. Before Barry could think of anything to say, Charlie reached the end of the row and grabbed his crutches.
“It was nice to meet you,” he mumbled, abruptly exiting the room before Barry could say anything.
Barry stared at the door long after Charlie left, mulling over his words.
He didn’t know why, but hearing them from a complete stranger was so different from how hearing it from his family would have been. Charlie made it sound so simple.
He was the Flash. Whether he put the suit on again or not, he was the Flash.
“Charlie,” the physical therapist greeted pleasantly when she ran into him in the hallway, “Leaving so soon?”
“Not feeling well,” Charlie muttered awkwardly, “I’ll have to reschedule my appointment…preferably to a different weekday if that’s possible.”
The smile slid from Karen’s face in an instant, and he could tell from her expression that she understood.
“Oh God,” she said in anguish, her eyes flitting to the door of the PT room, “Oh God, I’m so sorry! I should have warned you! Gary is out sick, so all his meta patients have been given to me. I should have known better than to schedule one of them during your—”
“It’s fine,” he said quietly, cutting her off, “I understand, and it’s okay. They need care too, much more than I do. And they definitely deserve it a lot more than I do.”
“Don’t you ever say that,” Karen scolded, “You deserve to be here just as much as they do. You’ve done so much to serve our country.”
“If you consider mass-murdering innocent people serving our country, you need some serious help,” Charlie spat, “Have a nice day, Karen.”
Karen goggled at him in shock as he brushed past her and made his way down the hallway. He didn’t pay her ignorance another thought, though, instead letting his mind drift back to the man he had just met. Although he hoped he would never cross paths with Barry Allen again, Charlie couldn’t regret having met the man in person. It was the first time he was forced to look into the eyes of one of the innocent people he had helped destroy, but upon meeting Barry, upon seeing the light that still resided in his eyes, Charlie realized something.
The MRA had far from destroyed Barry Allen.
Chapter 6: Run
Barry didn’t look at Joe as he slid on his shoes, sitting at the bottom of the stairs to tie up the laces.
“Bar, it’s dark out right now.”
“That’s the point,” Barry mumbled.
“Barry, this really isn’t necessary,” Iris sighed, “You should go in the morning, when it’s light outside.”
“So my picture can end up in the paper again?” Barry muttered.
“I know you want your privacy, Bar,” Joe reasoned, “But I really hate the thought of you running alone at night. Your heart is still unstable and—”
“My dad and Caitlin said I was healthy enough to run,” Barry sighed, “Please, don’t make me go through this whole conversation again, Joe. Running will help strengthen my heart.”
“If done in moderation,” Joe countered seriously, “The run you went for yesterday was way longer than you said it was going to be.”
“And I apologized for that,” Barry sighed, “I promise, just one loop around the block this time.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Wally muttered.
“Do you guys really want me to stop running?!” Barry snapped, “You were the ones encouraging me to run in the first place.”
“Of course we don’t want you to stop running, Barry,” Joe said, “I can see the difference it’s been making for you. I love that you’re running again. I think it’s been really good for you. I’m just worried about the physical aspects of it. You’re not following your doctors’ advice. You’re pushing yourself too much.”
“At least let me go with you,” Iris suggested.
“No,” Barry mumbled, looking down as he tied his shoe laces, “I’d rather go alone.”
“Come on, it’ll be fun,” Iris urged, “It’ll be just like old times, when we used to run together before you got your…”
Iris trailed off awkwardly, and Barry had to fight the urge to sigh. Yes, his powers—or lack thereof—were still a touchy subject for him, but she could have just finished her sentence. It wasn’t like he didn’t know what she was going to say.
“I’m sorry, but I really need to go alone,” Barry sighed, “Running…it’s my time to think.”
“But maybe having someone else go with you would be good for you,” Joe said gently, “You need to stop getting stuck in your own head, Bar.”
“And really it’s just safer if I go with,” Iris added, “If you were to pass out or something...”
“I’m not going to pass out,” Barry clipped.
“Okay, well what about all the weirdos out there?” Iris persisted, “For all you know there’s some creepy stalker fan of yours just waiting for you to go for a run tonight so he can jump you or something.”
“And what?” Barry scoffed, “You’re going to protect me from him?”
Iris shrugged and exchanged a look with her father.
“Oh my god,” Barry huffed, “You’re actually serious, aren’t you? I know I’m not really at fighting weight right now, but I can still take care of myself.”
“Barry, people know you’re the Flash now,” Joe said gently, “You do realize that includes your enemies, right?”
“They were all returned to Iron Heights after the Metacide,” Barry countered, standing up from the stairs.
“Barry, hold on,” Iris pleaded as he moved toward the back door.
Barry didn’t falter in his steps, nor did he say anything as he exited through the back door, closing it behind him, putting an end to the conversation. As soon as he was outside, he sucked in a deep breath of the cool night air. This was exactly what he needed: fresh air and silence. Barry quickly crossed through the back yard and hopped the neighbor’s fence, determined to avoid the media van parked in front of their house. After crossing through their neighbor’s yard, he finally made it to the sidewalk and took off in a light jog.
He felt instant relief. When he had first taken up running again, he had thought he would hate it. He had thought it would be frustrating without his powers. It had certainly been that way when he was in the metazone. This was different, though. This was running without a purpose, purely for pleasure. He wasn’t running to get his food box back to his house before it could get taken by raiders. He was simply running.
He found the activity much more enjoyable at night, and now he was wondering why he didn’t do this before. He didn’t have to worry about people seeing him. He didn’t have cars slowing down to drive alongside him while he ran, taking pictures of him to publish in some stupid tabloid magazine.
Barry Allen Spotted Running Down Jackson Street: Does this Mean the Return of the Flash?
Barry rolled his eyes as he ran. He couldn’t even go for a run around the block without people getting excited, thinking it meant the Flash was returning. He supposed he couldn’t blame them for making hopeful assumptions. Of all the things the public could see him doing, running was probably one of the most gossip worthy. Of course it would get people excited.
Barry gave himself a small shake as he ran. He didn’t want to think about this. Every time he thought about being the Flash again, he would quickly try to think about something else. He didn’t like the sickening swirl in his gut he got when he thought about it, a mixture of nerves, fear, and maybe just a little bit of nostalgia. He missed it. As much as he didn’t want to be the Flash again, he couldn’t deny, even to himself, that he missed it sometimes. He missed saving people.
He missed running.
Thinking about it was confusing, though. Thinking about it was painful. So Barry didn’t. He didn’t think about the Flash. He didn’t really think about anything. He simply focused on the ground beneath his feet, the light breeze playing at his face.
Barry started to slow as he made it to the end of Scott Avenue, his pace slowing to a light jog. He couldn’t help but feel frustrated as he grew more winded. He couldn’t even get down the street without needing to slow down to catch his breath. Just that little bit of running already had his heartrate elevated, his pulse pounding loudly in his ears. Like always, Barry felt a slight tingling in his neck, where the device was suppressing his powers, as if it could sense how desperately his body was trying to access them.
He knew he should slow down when the tingling started. When he had told his father and Caitlin about it, they had both agreed it was probably an indication that the device was doing damage to his body, particularly to his heart. Caitlin had said it was likely that the tingling sensation occurred because his body was trying to access the speed force while he ran, so the microchip went into overdrive to suppress his powers, something that couldn’t be good for his health.
Barry didn’t maintain his slowed pace, however. Instead, he pushed his stride from a light jog to a run again. He didn’t want to acknowledge the effect the chip was having on him. He didn’t want to think about it. He wanted to run. He wanted to run from it.
Barry was sweating by the time he made it to Jackson Street, grateful when he didn’t see any cars on the deserted road. The street was busy during the day, but now that it was eleven o’clock in the evening, there wasn’t a soul in sight. Barry could hear cars in the distance, driving down busier streets in the area. His street, however, was empty. Silent.
And then a car backfired.
Barry had heard the sound before, many times. His neighbor, Mr. Jansen, was a stubborn man who refused to rid himself of his old 1978 Pontiac. The thing barely worked, but the man, in his old age, refused to waste his hard-earned retirement money on a new one. He often could be heard struggling to start the old car, revving the engine up an unnecessary amount of times, letting it backfire over and over again with a loud pop that could be heard throughout the entire neighborhood. It was a familiar sound to everyone who lived on Barry’s block, a sound Barry had come to know well.
But this time was different.
This time, when Barry heard the loud bang of the engine trying to start up, he froze in his tracks, stumbling to a stop on the sidewalk. His already bounding heart seemed to double its pace as his blood ran cold.
The second bang seemed to rennervate through his entire body, echoing loudly in his ears as Barry froze where he stood, fear flooding his veins as he was consumed by one single thought:
He had to get back.
It was dark outside. It was past curfew.
Oh God, they had seen him. He had been spotted by them, and it was past curfew. He had to move.
Barry took off down the street, his eyes burning with tears as his feet pushed painfully off the ground. He could hear more shots going off behind him, their bullets whistling past him as fled for his life. He had to get off this street. He had to go where they couldn’t see him.
As Barry rounded a corner, turning onto a different street, his ankle gave out from under him. The ground came up to meet him then, white hot pain exploding in his knees and palms as they tried to cushion the fall. Barry hardly paid the pain any mind, though. With a small sob, he pushed himself up from the ground as another gunshot went off in the distance. Barry got off the sidewalk then. He ran into the nearest yard he saw, desperate to get out of their line of fire. He had to lose them. He had to lose them before getting back to safety.
He couldn’t lead them back to his unit.
Barry stuck to the yards then, hopping fences and bushes that appeared in his path, spurred on by his adrenaline. The muscles in his legs burned with the effort, but Barry pushed through it, ignoring the tingling sensation of the device in his neck, preventing him from speeding to safety.
Barry didn’t know how long he ran. All he knew was that the longer he kept running, the more distant the gunshots became. Every time he started to feel even an ounce of relieve though, an MRA truck would pass close by and he would be instantly consumed by fear again. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know what street he was on or where his unit was. Barry ran blindly through the neighborhood yards, his heart pounding painfully in his chest as blood ran down his scraped legs. He had no idea how long he had been running, but it didn’t matter. He just kept going, driven by panic and terror.
When a familiar house came in sight, Barry let out a small sob of relief. The relief was short-lived, however, when out of the corner of his eye, Barry saw the bright flashes of the officers’ flashlights coming from behind him. They had found him again. They had followed him back to his unit. It was too late to run away, though. If Barry didn’t get inside, he would be shot dead on the spot, the same way the other man had just the night before.
“Help!” Barry screamed, pounding on the front door, “Help! Guys, it’s me! It’s Barry! Open the door! They’re here! They’re going to shoot me! Please! Open the door!”
To Barry’s unbearable relief, the front door flew open.
“He’s been gone too long,” Joe choked, pacing back and forth, “He said he was just going around the block.”
“I think it’s safe to say we all knew he was lying when he said that,” Wally pointed out, “He probably went down Jackson again.”
“He would have been back by now,” Joe persisted, “He wasn’t gone this long last time. It’s been almost an hour.”
“So he took a different route,” Wally shrugged.
“No, dad is right, Wally,” Iris refuted, “He knew we would worry if he stayed gone this long. He wouldn’t have gone for an hour-long run, not after we were just begging him not to go. Barry’s more considerate than that.”
“Something isn’t right,” Joe fretted, rubbing his chest, “I can feel it.”
He went over to the closet then to grab his coat.
“I’m going to go look for him,” he decided, keys in hand as he moved towards the door.
Iris moved to follow. Wally, however, spoke out to stop them.
“You really think that’s going to go down well with him?” he said loudly, “You really think Barry’s going to react well to you pulling up alongside him while he’s running?”
“I’m worried about him, Wal,” Joe said seriously.
“I get that,” Wally said irritably, “But what’s Barry going to think when you show up? He’s going to think he can’t even go for a simple run without you guys sending out a search party for him when he’s gone a little too long.”
“We’re just making sure he’s okay,” Iris snapped.
“You’re babying him,” Wally countered, “God, guys, I’m not saying anything of this out of jealousy, okay? I care about Barry, too, but more importantly I respect him. You guys keep treating him like a child, but he’s not. He’s a full grown adult who can take care of himself. He survived a fucking genocide, and now you guys act like he can’t even tie his shoe laces on his own. You should really have more respect for him than that.”
“We know Barry’s strong, Wally,” Joe insisted, “I get what you’re saying, and yes, maybe we’ve been coddling him a bit too much, but this isn’t about us not respecting him. Barry has heart problems. He’s still severely underweight. He’s not healthy enough to be going for excessively long runs. We have valid reasons for being conc—”
Just then Joe was cut off by a loud pounding sound. They all turned their eyes towards the front door. Someone was banging on it so hard, they must have been trying to break it down. And then they heard a familiar voice.
“Help!” the voice came from the other side of the door, “Help! Guys, it’s me! It’s Barry! Open the door! They’re here! They’re going to shoot me! Please! Open the door!”
They all closed the distance to the door in an instant, Iris scrambling to unlock it and swing it open.
“Barry?” Iris sputtered, “What…?”
They only had a moment to take in the look of sheer terror on Barry’s face, a moment to see the tears running down his face, to acknowledge the flashing of cameras going off behind him as reporters excitedly exited their parked vans and rushed out onto the lawn, filming and snapping pictures of their long-awaited subject of interest. They had a moment to take all this in before Barry roughly pushed his way through the threshold, entering the house and slamming the door behind him. He spun around and locked the door with shaky fingers, his breathing ragged and strained as he did so.
“Barry, what are you—?”
“I’m sorry!” Barry cried, “I’m so sorry! I led them back here! We have to secure the house!”
Before anyone could say anything or process what was happening, Barry rushed into the living room, scrambling to lock every single window.
“Barry, you’re bleeding!” Iris gasped, now noticing the blood running down his legs.
“I’m so sorry!” Barry sobbed, completely ignoring her comment as he looked frantically out the living room windows, “I’m so sorry! I led them right to us!”
“Who?” Wally asked.
“The MRA!” Barry shouted in a panic, “The officers spotted me! I thought I had lost them, but they followed me back! I led them back to our unit!”
They all understood then. Barry wasn’t home right now. He was in the metazone. He was having another episode, his worst one yet. Barry had had PTSD flashbacks before, but it had never been to this degree.
“Barry,” Joe said in a calming voice, taking a careful step forward, “Everything’s okay. You’re safe.”
“No, we’re not!” Barry yelled in a panic, “We need to secure the windows!”
He started grabbing furniture then, pushing it across the room to barricade the windows.
“Barry, you’re hurt,” Iris said, gently placing a hand on his shoulder, “Everything is okay now. You made it home. You need to let us—”
“I’m fine, Liz!” Barry snapped, slapping her hand away, “I need to make sure the house is secure!”
“Barry,” Joe said, stepping forward to stop him.
He hesitated though when there was a knock on the front door. He looked at Barry, who was stacking their end tables up against the window, and then back towards the door.
“Watch him,” Joe said to Wally and Iris, “Don’t try to intervene, though. Just make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”
His other two children nodded tearfully, and Joe turned to answer the door, his blood already starting to boil as he opened it. He already knew who it would be.
“Mr. West,” a familiar reporter said excitedly, pointing a camera in Joe’s face, “Care to comment on—”
Without a single word, Joe tore the camera from the man’s hands and chucked out onto the concrete where it shattered to pieces. Dozens of other reporters occupied their lawn, their cameras flashing wildly as Joe glared down the man in front of him.
“Get the fuck off my property,” Joe growled, “All of you. You don’t want to test me tonight.”
The other man didn’t say anything. He was like a deer in the headlights, his eyes wide in sheer terror as he swallowed and nodded. Without another word, Joe turned and went back into the house, slamming the door hard enough to make the windows rattle.
His anger dissipated almost immediately though when he reentered the living room to find the most heartbreaking sight.
Barry was sitting on the floor, rocking and shaking as Iris held him, running her fingers through his short hair.
“It’s okay,” she murmured, “It’s okay, Barry. You’re safe.”
“I’m so sorry,” Barry choked, tears running down his face, “Liz, I’m so sorry.”
“Shh,” Iris soothed, hugging him closer, “It’s alright, Barry. You don’t have to be sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re safe. We’re all safe.”
“They’re going to get in,” Barry sobbed, “They’re going to get in, and it will be all my fault. I just killed us all.”
“No, Barry,” Iris assured, squeezing his shoulders, “It’s okay. They left now. No one is trying to get in.”
Joe looked over to the window, wanting to check if the reporters were, in fact, clearing out, but Barry had made that rather difficult. Their entire living room was now pushed over to the windows, blocking them from view. Joe didn’t even know how Barry had managed to move all that heavy furniture in such a short amount of time.
“I helped him,” Wally muttered quietly, answering his father’s unspoken question, “I didn’t know what else to do. He wasn’t going to calm down.”
Joe simply nodded and turned his attention back to Barry.
“Bar,” he said softly, stooping down next to him, “You’re bleeding. You need to let us clean you up.”
Barry pulled his face away from Iris’s shoulder to look down then, taking in the blood on his palms and legs.
“They shot me,” he said in shock, “They must have hit me.”
“No, Bar,” Iris said sadly, “No, Bar. You weren’t shot.”
Barry didn’t listen, though. He pulled the hem of his shirt up and looked down at his stomach, fingers flying to the small scar that was near his right hip. Joe felt his stomach churn when his eyes slid past Barry’s jutting ribs and landed on the scar that was there, an ugly reminder that while everything happening tonight was in Barry’s head, it had all been very real. This night had actually happened to him.
As Barry looked down at his stomach, fingers brushing over the scar, his expression slowly changed. He stared at it for a prolonged moment, then looked at the scraped palms of his hands before his eyes flitted up to Joe. He blinked up at him, a strange expression on his face. Joe could see it then. He could see Barry’s eyes clearing.
“Barry?” he asked softly, reaching out to put a hand on his shoulder, “Barry, are you with us now?”
Barry didn’t say anything. He simply stared at Joe, his lip trembling as his eyes quickly filled with fresh tears. He then let out a broken sob as he buried his face in his arms, his body shaking continuously, wracked by sobs.
“Barry…” Iris choked.
“I’m sorry,” Barry cried, his voice no longer panicked and fearful.
He now just sounded tired.
“Barry,” Joe said, giving his shoulder a small squeeze, “Barry, look at me.”
Barry let out a small sob and lifted his head slightly, his watery eyes still cast down to the floor.
“Look at me, Barry,” Joe choked, “In the eye.”
Barry’s lip trembled slightly as he took a deep breath and lifted his eyes, bright hazel irises finally meeting Joe’s.
“You don’t ever have to apologize for this,” Joe said firmly, “Ever. We’re going to help you through this, Bar. Everything is going to be okay. We’re going to get you cleaned up and ready for bed, alright? We don’t have to talk about it tonight if you don’t want to, okay?”
Barry nodded and wiped his face.
“Thanks, Joe,” he whispered.
Without another word from anyone, they helped Barry up from the floor and led him up the stairs.
The next day, Barry hardly left his room until the late afternoon. Everyone else in the house was gone. Wally had gone to class, Iris had gone to a job interview, and Barry suspected Joe had gone to see Mr. Jansen after their talk that morning, even though Barry had asked him not to. As Barry walked through the living room, he saw that all the furniture had been returned to its rightful place. There was no visible evidence that last night had even happened, no indication that anything was wrong. With a sigh, Barry exited the house, taking note of the cop car parked outside their home.
There wasn’t a single reporter in sight.
“Hi, Barry,” Officer Dilloshaw said softly when Barry passed his car.
Barry nodded to him, whispering a quiet ‘thank you’ to him as he passed. It seemed Singh had finally succeeded in getting a guard detail approved for their house. He must have seen the paper this morning.
Barry Allen has Nervous Breakdown: Discouraging Setback in the Flash’s Recovery
Barry’s mind was numb as he made the grueling bus trip through the city, blatantly ignoring anyone who attempted to interact with him. Most stared as usual, most likely surprised to see him out and about after last night’s events. Others tried to offer him words of comfort and encouragement. Some just wanted an autograph.
Barry ignored them all.
When he reached his stop, Barry exited the bus with a blank look on his face. He didn’t hesitate like he usually did when he entered the clinic. He didn’t break his stride as he walked through the building, making his way to his most recent therapist’s office. When he entered, she looked up at him in surprise.
“You’re early,” she said in shock, looking at her watch, “Your appointment wasn’t supposed to start for another—”
“I’m ready to talk to you,” Barry said, cutting her off, “Really talk.”
Dr. Burbank’s mouth closed then. She stared at him for a moment, taking in his determined expression. Her lips turned up into a sad smile then as she nodded.
“Come in, Barry,” she said softly, “If you’re ready to talk, I’m here to listen.”
Barry took a deep breath as he closed the door to her office.
Clearly, she had seen the paper that morning too.