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Slowing Down

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 SLOWING DOWN

 


 

 

THE THING WAS, BARRY HAD ALWAYS been very aware of Hal, physically. It was hard not to be. 

 

This was partially because Hal was a physical person, a shameless flirt who’d been known to get handsy with anyone he considered a friend when he’d put away a few drinks; the way he slung an arm over a shoulder or around a waist seemed as natural as his wheezy laugh. That was Hal Jordan to a tee: confidently casual, with the breeziness of a true Californian that had somehow emerged unscathed from his years in the Air Force. He mingled, and he flashed his dimples, and no one was ever a stranger to him. He excelled at cultivating a false feeling of intimacy – you came away from a conversation with him feeling like you knew him better than you actually did.  

 

Hal was also the best friend that Barry had ever had, so he knew him. He knew what Hal was like with the people he dated. He knew that Hal shied away from vulnerability, that Hal liked his freedom, that Hal left first because he believed, deep down, that he wasn’t worth staying for. Starting anything with Hal would be inviting disaster. 

 

Still, Barry wasn’t immune. With the way he slouched and strutted, leading with his chest and drawing the eye down the slope of his stomach to the narrow jut of his hips, Hal attracted sexual attention like a magnet. The worst thing was that Barry suspected that he didn’t even do it deliberately. It was just the way he was. Oh, Hal took self-assurance to the next level, but there could be surprisingly little vanity in him when he was comfortable with you – it wasn’t uncommon to see him lounging around Barry’s house unshaven and in a pair of ratty sweatpants, scratching himself. Yet even then, at his most relaxed, there was a promise in the arch of his spine, a suggestion that he was available for the taking, if you were brave enough to try. 

 

Barry hadn’t been brave, the first time he’d tried. He’d been embarrassingly weepy and more than a bit drunk. 

 

In those first awful weeks after the divorce had been finalized, Hal had come to keep him company, but he hadn’t seemed to know what to do apart from providing a distraction. He’d dragged Barry out for patrol, for long late-night walks when the insomnia was too much to bear, for breakfast or an early dinner at the Garricks’ place. Barry knew he hadn’t been himself at all, heartsick and wallowing in the humiliation of his failed marriage, but Hal had tried his best. They'd gone bar-crawling one Friday night, and although it was Hal’s idea, he’d looked progressively more alarmed with every drink that vanished down Barry’s gullet. By the time they’d staggered back to the too-empty, too-silent house, the alcohol had overwhelmed even a speedster’s metabolism. Barry had been stinking drunk for the first time since the accident, desperate for someone to touch him, someone to want him. He’d straddled Hal on the sofa, and they’d made out like a pair of teenagers in the back of a movie theater. Then Hal had tucked him into bed and disappeared for a few weeks, returning with a sheepish smile and a bag of takeout, his usual peace offering.  

 

They hadn‘t talked about it.   

 

The second time Barry had tried, they’d slept together. Hal had been off-world for three months, and he’d arrived on the doorstep looking like he’d been put through the wringer, his arm still healing from a bad break. It had been over a year since Iris left, but the loneliness – the feeling of detachment, of being unmoored -- was still as present as ever for Barry. He couldn’t explain how it had transpired, exactly, but he’d missed Hal so much and Hal had seemed so relieved to see him, and at some point they’d fallen into bed.  

 

Sex with Hal had been exciting, less strange than it should have been. He already knew how Hal’s hands felt, how his cheap shampoo smelled, how his face looked cast in lamplight, how his voice could dip low and husky when he teased. It felt so good to be touched by someone who cared for him. Barry tasted the salt on Hal’s skin and saw what he looked like in the throes of orgasm, and he felt something settle inside himself. He’d slept well that night. The next morning, Hal had kissed him apologetically, and Barry knew that it wouldn’t happen again.  

 

It had been easier after that. Life moved on, the years passed, and work and the League kept Barry’s days full and meaningful. Iris, never one to hold a grudge when her nephew’s feelings were at stake, made sure that Barry continued to be a part of Wally’s life. It could never be the way it was, but as time went on, the former Mr. and Mrs. Allen found a way to make peace with each other and pick up the pieces of their friendship. Eventually, Barry even began dating again, cautiously hopeful but determined to take things slow this time.

 

Hal’s on-and-off relationship with Carol had finally settled on ‘off’, so he was in space more frequently. When he was planetside, he was no less present in Barry’s life, dropping by to watch the game with him and Wally, guarding his back in a fight, grinning at him over the rim of a beer bottle. It was easy and simple, and Barry privately nurtured a small sense of pride that his friendship with Hal didn’t run tempestuously hot-and-cold like Ollie’s. They were steady, stable. They were always friends, always. Nothing could shake that foundation of love and respect, and if Barry ever thought about that night, and the taste of Hal’s skin, it was with a sort of gratitude that Hal had been there when he needed him most.  

 

And now here Barry was: single, forty-two years old, and lying in bed next to his very naked best friend.  

 

Yesterday had been Hal’s birthday. Oliver had thrown an extravagant party at the Queen estate, inviting everyone they knew and swearing that the celebration would go into the wee hours of the morning, just like the old days. Once his socializing quota had been exceeded, Barry found a secluded corner to eat three big slices of cake and watch the birthday boy make his rounds; Hal had arrived without a date, but he was laughing and chatting and flirting up a storm, a champagne-flush high on his cheekbones. Around midnight, Barry slipped away, but Hal waylaid him and asked if he could come along and crash at Barry’s for the night. He’d agreed, of course. Hal had kissed Dinah and a very drunk Ollie goodbye and let Barry speed them both back to Central City.  

 

Barry had made himself some tea and a late-night snack, and Hal had sat with him at the kitchen island while he ate. They’d talked. They’d reminisced a bit, remembering past birthdays in their younger and wilder years. Hal had stolen a slice of Barry’s toast. Barry had gone to fetch some blankets to make up the sofa, and somehow. . . .  

 

Well

 

Barry turned his flushed cheek into the pillow, caught somewhere between panic and a stirring of arousal as his eyes were drawn inescapably to the way the sheet was puddled around Hal’s thighs. He was sprawled on his back and deeply asleep. In the morning light, the bluish smudges on the thin skin below his eyes and the furrow in his brow were plain to see. 

 

Hal looked darn good for a freshly minted forty, though the touch of gray taking root at his temples bothered him. (He didn’t seem to mind the encroachment of crow’s feet around his eyes or the laugh lines, but the gray hair chafed his pride -- especially since his older brother Jack still had a full head of dark hair. Privately, Barry thought the silver streaks made Hal look distinguished.) Still, he did look tired. He always looked tired, if Barry was being honest; the rigors and demands of life in the Green Lantern Corps took their toll, and Hal had been a Lantern for over sixteen years. 

 

Not that this lifestyle was easy on any of them. Plenty of the old guard were feeling the cumulative effects of active duty, and those who had been fortunate enough to survive were beginning to hand over the reins to their chosen successors. Lately, Jay had been hinting that Barry might consider letting Wally run point in the Gem Cities, now that he was an established hero in his own right. 

 

Barry had felt somewhat hurt at first, as though Jay’s gentle suggestion reflected poorly on his own performance, but he acknowledged that Jay had a point. Wally was a grown man now, a husband and expectant father, and Barry couldn’t be prouder of him. He had more than enough experience to be Central City’s primary Flash. It made sense for Barry to cede his place. Besides, it wasn’t as though he could never don the red pajamas again. Leaguers never really retired -- there was always some crisis that drew them back in, a call for help that their natures demanded they answer. 

 

Hal’s nose twitched, a frown tugging at his lips, and Barry found himself reaching out before he could think better of it. Hal’s eyelids fluttered as he came awake in an instant, brown eyes snapping into focus. For a moment, he seemed slightly confused. That, more than anything else, stopped Barry from jerking away the way he wanted to. He let his hand stay where it was, and Hal leaned into his palm with a hoarse sigh. 

 

Barry swallowed past the thickness in his throat, focusing on the abrasion of Hal’s stubble against the pads of his fingers instead of the anxiety coalescing in the pit of his stomach. “Good morning.” 

 

“Hey.” Hal turned onto his side, stretching, and then lifted the rumpled sheet around Barry’s waist to peer underneath it. Barry reddened, snatching it back. 

 

Hal was more solid and less lithe than he’d been as a young man, but his vanity demanded that he keep himself in good shape. Barry’s accelerated metabolism, meanwhile, was starting to lag behind his eating habits. He’d noticed the subtle softening around his own waist with some displeasure – not enough to stop eating the pastries in the CCPD lounge, but enough to make him a little self-conscious. 

 

“Woah, okay. Chill.” Hal yawned, flashing his palms in a gesture of surrender. “Just wanted to confirm that I wasn’t the only naked one here.”  

 

Barry tucked the sheet securely under his armpits and rolled onto his back. His pulse was jackrabbiting, and he was so fixated on keeping his breathing under control and not vibrating straight through the bed that he startled when Hal touched his arm. 

 

Hal sat up. Barry had an endless second to fear that he was going to get up and leave before the bulk of a naked body pressed against him, Hal’s arms worming their way around his waist and pulling him close. Barry hugged him back instinctively.

 

“You’re thinking too hard,” Hal murmured sleepily, hot breath washing over Barry’s clavicle. “You’re starting to go blurry on me, Roadrunner.” 

 

Barry closed his eyes, resting his chin against the softness of Hal’s hair. He focused on pulling himself back, anchoring himself to the rhythmic stroking of calloused hands against his spine. The buzz of frenetic energy under his skin began to recede.

 

“There you are,” Hal hummed.  

 

They lay there for a few minutes longer before Barry sat up, taking in his dimly-lit bedroom with a frown. Yesterday’s clothes were strewn all over the floor. He got up to put them in the hamper where they belonged, speedily slipping on a pair of boxers and a t-shirt as he went. He could feel Hal’s eyes on him like a physical touch, and when he turned around, Hal’s smile was soft. 

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing,” Hal said. “Toss me my underwear, would you?”

 

Barry felt himself flush. When he located Hal’s underwear -- flung on top of the potted plant hanging by the window, somehow -- it didn’t help his composure, because Hal had attended his fortieth birthday party wearing a lime-green thong under his jeans and jacket. 

 

“Gag gift from Guy and Kyle,” Hal explained, grinning at Barry’s reaction. “They think they’re funny. It’s kind of uncomfortable, actually, but I haven’t done laundry in three weeks and it was the only clean pair left.” 

 

“A likely story,” Barry managed, turning his back to fuss with the alarm clock so he wouldn’t be tempted to watch Hal put it on. 

 

Which was stupid, he supposed, considering that they’d slept together. It was just that it felt rude, ogling Hal like that, even though Hal never seemed to mind being ogled. Hal snapped the skimpy band around his hips and sat back against the headboard. “That was some party.”

 

Barry was of the opinion that it had been a celebration of excess and further proof of Oliver Queen’s self-righteous hypocrisy, but he kept that thought to himself. The cake had been delicious. “You seemed like you were having a nice time.” 

 

“It was good to see everybody.” Hal paused for a beat and then admitted, “I never thought I’d live this long.”

 

Barry eyed him from across the expanse of the bed. “You’ve certainly done your best to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy.”  

 

Hal brayed out a laugh, propping his elbows on his updrawn knees. He was still wearing his new wristwatch, a birthday present from Ollie and Dinah. Barry was forced to admit that Ollie had chosen something that suited Hal – practical, with a brown leather band and brass casing – but he had the pettiest impulse to take it off him and throw it in the toilet.  

 

It was childish and entirely beneath him. He had no right to be possessive, no right to stake some sort of claim over Hal’s attention, like Hal wasn’t his own person. 

 

“Barry.”

 

Barry glanced up, and from the expression on Hal’s face, he surmised that he’d been zoning out for longer than just a few seconds. The last thing they needed was him slipping into relative time; the morning had been awkward enough. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Are you okay?” For the first time since they’d woken up, Hal seemed tense. 

 

It took Barry a moment to decide what he wanted to say. “I am if you are.”

 

“That’s a cop-out.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“Prove it.”

 

Barry raised his eyebrows, but Hal just gave him a look -- the look of a truculent kid on the playground who’d just thrown down a double-dog-dare. 

 

“Prove it,” Hal repeated. He held out a hand, palm-up, and wiggled his fingers. “Come here.” 

 

A dozen different responses leapt into Barry’s mind. He weighed each one of them, following the action to its inevitable conclusion as he tried to find the one that would preserve their friendship and allow him to leave this room with his dignity intact. It was impossible, however, because Hal’s own responses were a vast unknown variable and no data could be wholly extrapolated without them. Hal was unpredictable. It was part of his charm, and likely part of the reason that Barry found him so interesting, but at times like this, he wished desperately that his friend was less of a wild card. 

 

Before he could think himself out of it, Barry took his hand and let Hal pull him back onto the bed. He sat next to him against the headboard, their shoulders bumping. “So, last night,” Hal drawled. 

 

Well, apparently they were talking about it this time. Barry didn’t know whether to be relieved or unnerved, so he settled for a mixture of both and held his tongue. He waited, and Hal waited, and just as the silence was starting to become alarming, Hal butted his head against Barry’s shoulder. 

 

“Was it good for you?” 

 

Typical

 

“It was okay,” Barry said, and he felt Hal’s body shake, his laughter puffing against Barry’s neck. 

 

“Smartass.”

 

Hal nuzzled under Barry’s chin, his lips dry and gentle. A flush of heat sped southward as Barry’s brain helpfully supplied him with an array of lurid memories involving what exactly those lips were capable of. Hal pulled back, nudging their noses together until their mouths met.

 

Barry reared back. “I didn’t brush my teeth last night.”

 

“I don’t care if you don’t.”

 

“My breath is horrible,” Barry protested, and it was only Hal’s grip on his arm that prevented him from zipping into the bathroom in search of mouthwash. 

 

The look in Hal’s eyes was pure mischief. “So is mine, considering that the last thing I swallowed was your-----”

 

“Okay,” Barry interrupted, mortified. “Can we not----Fine, kiss me.” 

 

Hal did. Toothpaste definitely would have been nice, but Hal’s tongue was wet and clever and knew its way around, and Barry liked to think that he was no slouch in the kissing department either. At least no one had ever had any complaints. Before he knew it, Hal was sitting on his lap, and Barry was reminded of the fact that Hal was wearing skimpy green underwear and nothing else. The sudden abundance of bare skin momentarily stalled him -- he couldn’t decide where to put his hands, and it occurred to him that if things progressed much further, they were going to have sex again. 

 

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to have sex again, because he definitely did. But sleeping with Hal all those years ago had been an acceptable anomaly in their friendship -- it had happened once, in a moment of shared vulnerability, and their usual interactions hadn’t been altered by it afterwards. It hadn’t been a one-night stand, because Barry didn’t do those as a matter of principle, but it hadn’t been the precursor to something more either. He liked having his terms defined. Maybe it was laughable to call it an act of friendship, but that night had been an isolated incident, and so it was allowed. 

 

This was different. Once was an anomaly. Twice could be dismissed as coincidence. But three times? That was a clear pattern.

 

Barry knew who he was. He took comfort in his routines, in his values and his habits, and he depended on that sense of self to keep him grounded. He was a scientist, he was the Flash, and he was a faithful friend and a committed partner. Maybe it made him old-fashioned, but he didn’t do hook-ups. He didn’t sleep with people he wasn’t in love with. 

 

The thing was, it hadn’t been long after they first met before he began to suspect, in a vaguely-formed way, that it would be easy to fall in love with Hal. He hadn’t, of course, because he’d already set his heart on Iris. But if things had been different, if he’d met Hal sooner, if he hadn’t been raised in a community that still talked around the words ‘gay’ or ‘bisexual’ like they were an embarrassing secret. . . . if, if, if. There had been potential there. If Barry was being honest with himself, there still was. 

 

But Hal? There was the chasm of the unknown, the unpredictability. Barry could speculate all he liked, but he didn’t know what Hal wanted. Hal would have to tell him. And Hal had never been very good at that.

 

Hal’s weight was suddenly gone from his lap. His hand was on Barry’s shoulder, and there was a worried wrinkle between his eyebrows. 

 

Barry hadn’t felt himself slipping, but . . . . “Did I go blurry again?”

 

“No,” Hal said. He dropped his hand away. “Bar, if I bullied you into----”

 

“No,” Barry said quickly. “No, that wasn’t it. I wanted to kiss you.” It came to him, then, and he knew exactly what to say, what to do. He had a hypothesis to test. “Come back?”

 

Hal did, sliding onto Barry’s lap but hovering slightly above it, his knees taking the bulk of his weight. Barry put his hands on Hal’s thighs to help him balance, enjoying the rough texture of hair over warm skin. He kissed Hal with all the feeling he could muster, and when they broke apart to breathe, Hal’s eyes had gone dark. 

 

“Last night was good for me,” Barry said firmly. “I like being close to you. I’d like to do this again.” There was a part of him that was steeling itself in preparation, knowing that Hal could choose to leave, to walk away from whatever this was before it had a chance to start. But Hal, for all his faults, was an honest man, and he was strong enough to hear the truth. “You’re my friend and I love you, but you know me. We’re either in this together, or we’re not.” 

 

Hal gazed at him for a torturously long minute, unreadable. “It’s not just because you were there,” he said finally. “You do know that, don’t you? It wasn’t about convenience.” 

 

Barry looked up at him in surprise. Oddly enough, he never had thought that, although that might have been the easiest conclusion to draw, given Hal’s past history. “I know,” he assured him. He wondered if he’d pushed too far, too fast. “I’m not trying to pressure you.” 

 

Hal smiled. “Now that’s bullshit, and you know it.” But he leaned forward to peck Barry’s lips lightly. Barry impulsively kissed him back, on the slope of his cheek where freckles peeked through his tan. Hal’s eyes crinkled fondly, and Barry couldn’t resist smoothing back the silver strands above his ear. Lord, he really was gorgeous. 

 

“You want to know something funny? I think I’m slowing down.”

 

“From where I’m standing, you’re already slow.”

 

Hal groaned. “You’re such a cornball. Sometimes I wonder why ---” He cut himself off, bunting their heads together gently. “Look, Bar, here’s the deal: I’m going to ring-sling until I die, okay? It’s not like the Guardians have a pension package. I’ve got to fly. It’s what I do, and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t. But I’ve been thinking that there are six Lanterns in this sector now, and Earth is a magnet for weird crap. It wouldn’t hurt to have one of us stick closer to home.” 

 

“That would be nice,” Barry said carefully. 

 

Hal looked frustrated, like he wasn’t sure he’d been understood. “I’m not asking you to wait around for me. I know my reputation isn’t great. I deserve most of it. I did a lot of stupid things when I was young.” He laughed, running a hand through his hair. “Hell, I did a lot of stupid things this week. But when I’m here, I’ll stay as long as you want me. I don’t fuck around if I’m serious with someone. You’re so important to me, Barry. You have no idea. If you wanted to throw your lot in with me, I’d be there in a heartbeat. If you’d like to try --- if you’d like ----”

 

“I’d like,” Barry said immediately. Hal looked surprised, like he hadn’t actually expected a yes, and Barry’s heart twinged in his chest. He urged Hal closer, and Hal laughed, tucking his face into the crook of Barry’s neck. Barry let himself bask in relief and excitement and burgeoning hope, and then his stomach rumbled with a growl that was so loud and prolonged that they both looked down in alarm. 

 

“Sorry.”

 

“Food first, then sex. I’ll cook a breakfast fit for a speedster.” Hal heaved himself out of Barry’s lap and stood, stretching until his back popped. Barry redirected his gaze out of habit, but Hal caught him looking and smirked. “You want waffles too? I’ll make you waffles.” He shimmied his hips. “Bet you’ve never had a sexy space cop in a thong make you waffles.”

 

“No,” Barry said, his cheeks a little hot, “and I’m not going to, because that’s a safety hazard.” 

 

Hal rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. Live a little.” 

 

“Nope. House rule: Nobody uses any kitchen appliances without pants on.” 

 

“Puritan,” Hal complained, but he was grinning as he pulled on his jeans. Barry could admit to being sorry to lose the view, but there were much better ways to while away their day than sitting in the emergency room because Hal had spilled bacon grease on his crotch. 

 

They dressed in comfortable silence. Before they went downstairs, Hal took Barry’s hand. “We’ll be okay, right?” he asked.

 

There were things that they’d need to talk about, things that they’d still have to negotiate. If all went well, they’d eventually have to discuss living arrangements, schedules, and what they were going to tell their friends. Hal hadn’t made a secret of the fact that gender (and species, frankly) was irrelevant to him, but Barry’s past relationships had all been with women. He wasn’t sure how he felt about exposing this side of himself to the League. The fact that it was Hal would raise a lot of eyebrows too. Oliver would blow a gasket when he found out, and Barry could only imagine what Bruce and Darryl would think. Wally was a potential complication, as he’d known Hal most of his life and considered him to be another uncle. Would he find the idea too bizarre? There was Barry’s professional life to consider too, because there were circles in the CCPD that were less than tolerant.

 

They would have to figure things out together, but now wasn’t the time for planning or Barry thinking himself out of this before they’d even given it a chance. Now was the time for breakfast and a lazy day in bed. He would just have to borrow a leaf from Hal’s book and take a leap of faith. 

 

Barry squeezed Hal’s hand, smiling. “We’ll be just fine.”