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SEPTEMBER

She’s at some boring party hosted by the Alpha Epsilon Pi house when she sees him, all loose long legs and tousled hair.

Having being dragged there by Linda, her fellow sorority sister, and then promptly dumped when Linda went upstairs to do body shots, she’s looking around for some entertainment, or at least someone safe to chat to. A E Pi guys don’t have the best reputation when it comes to genital health, and she can’t get wasted enough to make them interesting if she wants to finish her English Lit assignment tomorrow.

When she gets close enough to see his eyes, she notices what a pretty colour they are. He’s by the bookshelf the brothers stock to keep up appearances, awkwardly looking at the spines with a red cup in his hands. She sidles over, just tipsy enough to be forward but hopefully not enough to embarrass herself.

“Hey,” she says over the third Eminem song they’ve played tonight.

“Uh,” he looks around as if she’s talking to someone else. The action only further endears her to him. “Hi?”

“I’m Iris,” she says, knocking her own cup against his. While hers is mostly empty, his almost sloshes over. She abruptly reconsiders him, wonders whether he’s more drunk than she thought. If he’s stoned, then she wants whatever he’s having if it makes bookcases fun.

“Yeah, I know.” He’s smiling, and it makes his cheekbones positively stick out. He’s hopelessly her type, so much so that she can’t believe she hasn’t seen him around. Maybe before- but she actively pushes Eddie out of her brain, and raises her eyebrows. He bites on his lip. “I mean, uh. Well, you’re editor of the school newspaper. I see your face on a poster every time I go into the English office.”

She pulls a face, having tried to blot out the memory of that particular image. “They caught me on a bad day, I swear.”

One corner of his lips lift up. “I doubt that. If that’s you on a bad day, you must blinding on a good day.” He suddenly seems to realise what he just said, and the smoulder weakening her at the knees is replaced by bashfulness and shuffling feet. “Uh.”

She bites her bottom lip, smiling. She is going to thank Linda with flowers for this party, seriously. Another sip of her cup, filled with a weird mix of daiquiri and Jack Daniels, gives her the courage to ask, with a prod of his arm, “So, you know my name. Do I get to know yours or do I have to guess it?”

“That depends,” his tone turns mock serious. “What would you guess?”

She lets out a huff of laughter, and turns to the bookcase for inspiration. “Hmm. You don’t seem much like a Toni or a Virginia to me.”

He shakes his head. “Nope, sorry, not even close.”

She taps her chin thoughtfully. “Charles?”

“I didn’t actually go to boarding school in New England, so, no.”

She does not allow herself to laugh at that, she does not. “Jack? Francis? Tennessee?”

He leans his shoulder against the bookcase. “There really aren’t any books here not on the Lit 101 reading list, are there?”

She takes a minute step closer, and her stomach goes warm when his eyes flicker to her lips. “You know, that’s the second time you’ve mentioned the English department, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen you around there.”

“Ah, no, science major I’m afraid.” He points to his chest. “Forensics, that’s me.”

“Ooh, I’ve watched CSI.” She tilts her heads. “Test tubes and stuff, right?”

His eyes crinkle with laughter. “Wow, you’re sure you’re an English major?”

“Journalism, actually,” she replies, sticking her tongue out.

“I should’ve guessed that,” he allows. “Chief editor. And I remember you-” he abruptly cuts himself off.

“Remember what?” she asks.

“Uh,” he says. “The, um, protest. Weren’t you involved with the cafeteria protest last year?”

“Oh yeah!” She clicks her fingers at the reminder. “Yeah, I totally wrote the article on it. You read that?”

“They weren’t offering gluten-free options,” he says with a straight face, making her snort with laughter. “Of course I read the article.”

When she brings her gaze back to meet his, they share a look, one that an article on gluten-free meal options does not deserve. She takes another step closer, inserting herself unavoidably into his space. He’s tall, and at this distance she has to crane her neck up to maintain eye contact, just as he has to duck his chin to do the same.

“You know, I’m a Kappa sister,” she says.

“The Kappa house is just across the road, isn’t it?” She nods slowly, and can see the moment he gets it. “ Oh . Oh. Do you-”

She lays a hand gently on his chest, and leans up to softly kiss him on the mouth. His hand reaches up to cup her face so the kiss lasts a little longer than she was intending, but at least she quickly discovers he’s an amazing kisser.

“Do you want to get out of here?” she finishes when they break apart.

He looks a little dazed as he says, “Yeah. Yes, please.”

 

They stumble upstairs to her room, kissing frantically and pawing at each other. Iris manages to pull apart his belt buckle, the clack of the metal loud and obvious in the quiet of the house. Luckily, everyone is still at the party, or safely in their room, so they don’t stop until she finally pushes him up against her bedroom door. She feels his long fingers tangle in her hair, and can’t help but think how useful they’ll be in a minute.

She reaches around him and twists the handle so they fall inside with the door opening. He returns the favour by pushing her up against the wall and kissing down her neck, biting and sucking in an infrequent enough pattern to make her toes curl and her stomach clench. Her head falls back against the door to give him better access as he goes to town on her neck, probably leaving a mark she’ll be thankful to scarves for covering. She flicks open the button of his jeans, and pulls down his zipper, dying to get a hand around what she suspects from the bulge against her thigh is some impressive equipment. When she reaches inside his boxer briefs (which are Superman-themed and just make her bite his jaw with a rush of weird affection) he lets out a gratifying groan.

“Bed?” he hisses against her ear before gently tugging her earlobe between his teeth.

“Yeah, sure,” she says breathlessly, but makes no effort to move, just pulls a little at his cock and kisses away his gasp.

He doesn’t seem to know where to put his hands - not that she’s complaining - and they move from clutching her skull to stroking her back to kneading her ass. (That latter move she’s especially enjoying.) But then he must come up with a game plan, because, manoeuvring around her own arm trapped between them still stroking up and down, he tugs her top out of where it’s tucked into her black mini skirt. She finally has to move her hand when he pushes the fabric up and over her head, chucking it back behind his shoulder somewhere. He leans down to mouth at her breasts - she just mentally thanks her past self for choosing one of her nicer underwear sets, all purple lace that compliments her skin.

She can’t be the only one getting naked, not when she’s felt the muscle of his arms and seen the way the fabric stretches over his chest, so she starts to undo the buttons of his shirt while he leans up to catch her in another searing kiss. She pushes it away, trying to get it over his shoulders while still keeping his lips on hers, but lets out a groan against his mouth when it gets stuck.

He lets out a huff of laughter. “Stupid big shoulders,” she grumbles. She opens her eyes to get a better look at the problem, and then lets out another groan at the cotton undershirt he’s wearing. At the confusion on his face she explains, rather lamely, “Clothes.”

He snorts, and then lets her go to efficiently strip out of his clothes. As soon he’s shirtless, she reaches out and grabs him to pull him back against her, skin on skin. His dick is still out, flushed and pretty and curved, practically waiting for attention. She runs her fingers down his chest, down his abdomen (which is also apparently cut like wood - Iris really hit the jackpot here) and gives another tug of his cock. His forehead falls against her shoulder, and he grabs back onto her ass.

It’s probably a sad indicator of how into him she is that she’d be more than happy to jerk him off right here and now, but she’s far from disappointed when one of his hands curls round and hooks underneath her skirt to rub against the underneath of her panties. His other hand gives her ass one more firm squeeze, and comes round to help pull down her underwear, letting it drop.

His thumb rubs against her clit, while she feels his index finger run down and part her folds. Her thighs start to tremble in anticipation at him finally putting those big hands to what God must have intended them for. He pushes his digit inside her in one movement and she feels as if the breath has been punched out of her. She knows she’s already, ridiculously, close, and when he times the firm rub of his thumb against her clit with another thick finger pushing inside of her, it’s all she can do to grab onto his hair and keep kissing him, tongues pushing against each other. He adds a third finger, pumping fast and messy and loudly, and she’s done for. When he presses the middle one up, she has to break away from his mouth to gasp for air as her orgasm crashes over her.

When she can focus again, he’s looking at her with the tantalising combination of a smug smirk and the desperate minute jerk of his hips every now and then. She reaches behind him and digs into his jean pocket. When she finds his wallet, and the condom inside it, she thinks it must have been intentional that they haven’t completely undressed yet. Totally. She holds it victoriously, tossing the wallet aside and pushing down his jeans while his colourful boxers sadly stay on his firm ass. She gives his dick another firm pump before rolling on the latex.

He gives her another kiss and looks her in the eye. “Yeah?” he says. It must be the orgasm talking, but affection surges in her and she has to kiss him with all the force she can muster. She breaks away and nods her consent. With that, he braces one forearm against the door beside her (how ridiculous is it that they’re still standing?) and uses the other one to guide his dick into her in one slow, steady slide.

She feels stupid as soon as the thought crosses her mind, but it’s a perfect size. Then she can’t really focus on anything as he picks up a rhythm.

It’s good for a moment, but she thinks they both know they could do better. She hikes up her leg and he hooks a hand underneath her thigh to hold it against his waist, but their height difference is suddenly becoming a problem. He lets out a frustrated sigh, and then before she knows it, he’s slipping out of her, grabbing both her thighs and lifting her bodily so she has no choice but to wrap her arms and legs around him. She lets out a partly-surprised, partly-wildly-turned-on exhale of laughter, and feels him smile into the side of her neck.

He gently lays her down, carefully easing back to her, and then getting quickly back up to a breathtaking pace. If she’s honest, this is hitting every fantasy and turn on she didn’t even know she had, so it’s no surprise that she’s already bracing and moaning and curving her back in preparation for her impending second orgasm. She goes for broke, sensing his thrusts get wilder and faster and more uncontrolled, and hooks one of her legs up to rest against his ribcage. He leans forward with it, stretching her open wider and pushing himself closer, the graphic slap of wet skin on skin filling the room. She feels herself teeter on the edge; as he leans down to bite against the hickey he’d been working on earlier, she crashes over, clenching around him and closing her eyes. He thrusts erratically a few more times as he finishes. She thinks it’s a testament to both their skill and compatibility that they achieved the miracle of synchronised orgasms, and almost wants to high five him for it.  

She has to bite back a laugh. He catches her expression and asks, “What?”

She gestures between them. “We didn’t even get all our clothes off.” He smiles, and lays back to her side, tying away the condom and throwing an arm over his face.

She’s watching his chest rise and falls, the endorphins making her brain slow, when she has a sudden thought. She racks her brain, pushing past the haziness of post-orgasm.

“Oh my god,” she says almost to herself.

“What?” he asks, sounding kind of sleepy.

She punches him in the arm - he barely flinches, just letting out a groan and batting her hand away. “You never told me your name.”

She knows he hears her because she can feel his body tense, but he just keeps his arm splayed over his face and ignores her question.

“What is it? Are you embarrassed by it?” She lets out a little mocking gasp. “Are you royalty? Am I going to be whisked off by security to go meet the Queen of Belgium?”

That breaks his careful demeanour, and he laughs, the sound filling the air. “Okay, no, I’m not a prince.” His gaze looks carefully to her, as if judging her reaction. “We, uh, we went to high school together. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you.”

“What? You’re joking.”

He shakes his head ‘no’.  

“You’re just making me feel worse,” she complains. “Not only did I sleep with a stranger, apparently you’re not even a stranger.” She looks at him again. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’m sure.” He rolls his eyes. “Central City High, class of ‘14.”

“Shit, yeah.” She leans up and rests her head on her elbow. She prods his cheek, making him laugh again and push away her hand. “No, seriously, I didn’t go to school with anyone who was hot as you. Did you have plastic surgery?”

“No!” She’s glad he’s grinning; not only because he looks so much more gorgeous with his crinkled eyes and creased cheeks, but at least because he’s relaxed and not fretting anymore. “I just travelled a bit, went to the gym more. I got contacts,” he adds.

She thinks back. Central City High was a large school, but she tries to think of any guys in her year with chestnut hair and glasses. “Did we share any classes?”

“AP Biology,” he says helpfully.

“Wait- shit!” She almost sits up as she realises. “Barry Allen?”

He blushes. “Yeah, I was pretty quiet in school.”

“But-” From what she briefly remembers about Barry Allen, the science whiz with a dead mom and a dad with a brief stint in jail, he was spindly and demure. Bullied occasionally but quiet enough to fade away from attention. In the present, she senses him get self-conscious, and she can’t have that, so she swings on of her legs over his hips and straddles him. Almost automatically, his hands lift up to rest against her hips. “I don’t mean it in a bad way. Don’t be sad.”

“I’m not,” he says, smiling though his eyes still look a bit panicked.

“Sorry I didn’t recognise you,” she breathes, leaning forward and resting her elbows on either side of his head.

“It’s okay,” he says, leaning up to kiss her gently.

“No, I feel bad.” The fabric of her bra brushes up against his pecs - his defined pecs, she might add, so he’s obviously underplaying that gym time - as she grinds her crotch against his. His grip tightens, fingers digging into her flesh. “Can I make it up to you?”

 

She doesn’t really expect to see him much after then. A fun one night stand, for sure. And maybe some solid mental material for future nights alone. But that’s about it. She’s not really looking to date anyone right now; not only is she still smarting from Eddie transferring across the country and telling her ‘long-distance relationships never work, let’s not kid ourselves, Iris’, but she’s also being kept pretty busy between classes, running the newspaper and her job at the local bakery.

She works Thursday and Friday afternoons, along with the occasional odd shift, just enough to cover anything her scholarship doesn’t. She had been so lucky to win the Wolfe journalism scholarship program; her dad might have been saving since she was born, but with Wally coming up to college age as well, she’d been worrying about the financial strain on her single father. A police detective salary could only do so much.

Though sometimes she might help to mix dough or prepare ingredients, she’s not trained to do much in the bakery except serve customers and handle the till. It’s one of the cheaper places that serve sugary goods and coffee, so it’s not exactly uncommon for her to serve a classmate. Linda especially, her best friend and Kappa sister, is a regular patron of the little bakery, and an addict to their donuts (she always gets two coconut ones despite spending at least five minutes deliberating over the selection each time). Hence it’s no surprise one Friday, about a week after the party, that Linda walks in.

What is a surprise is her leaning over the counter to exclaim, “You slept with Barry Allen?”

Iris almost drops the tray of croissants she’s holding in shock. She carefully places them on a nearby counter, and then spins her head around to check for anyone who could overhear. Luckily the bakery is almost empty, and her boss is on a cigarette break.

“Linda!” She hisses.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t know,” she hedges. She doesn’t want to admit that it was too good, too special to laugh with someone as well as have blindingly amazing sex, to gossip about over coffee in the morning. “I just didn’t want it getting round.”

Linda rolls her eyes at that. “It’s obviously got around, since I’ve heard about it.”

Iris winces. That’s true. “Who told you?”

“Jessica heard it from Mike who’s lab partners with Cisco Ramon? Who’s like, Barry’s best friend.”

Iris’ heart sinks. Maybe it was stupid of her, like trying to keep that night in a protected bubble or a time capsule, but she wanted the memory to be private. It was too late now: if Jessica knew, then the entire campus knew. Not that she thought many people would be particularly interested, but still. “Oh,” she says. “Well, it really wasn’t a big deal anyway.”

(Except it was probably the best sex of her life and she’s committed as much of the experience to memory as possible).

“You know, I kissed him at a freshman party once,” Linda says, almost thoughtfully. Iris ignores the pang of jealousy that elicits in her. “Like I’d heard the rumour that he was super into this mystery girl from his high school, but I figured if he’s not with her he’s fair game. And I mean, it was a college party, and a hot girl wants to have sex with him - let’s get on with it, right?”

Iris lets out a laugh at Linda’s typical brazenness. Then she pulls a face. “Wait, you had sex with him then? You never told me that?” She and Linda weren’t particularly bothered when it came to supposed ‘girl rules’, but sharing a boy seemed a bit far.

“That’s the thing!” Linda says conspiratorially. “He said he couldn’t go any further because his ‘heart wouldn’t be in it.’” She even brings out the full finger gestures.

Iris tries not to let the disappointment show on her face; perhaps she wasn’t as done with this guy as she had told herself. “Oh, wow.”

“Right? I mean, whatever. I went home with that hot varsity baseball player so it’s fine. But still.” Linda twists her lips. "I'm just saying, be careful."

Iris holds up her hands in surrender. "Give me some credit. I barely even knew his name before we, y'know."

Linda rolls her eyes at that, making a comment about Iris being a ‘brazen hussy’, whatever that means, and then orders a donut.

It's fine. Honestly, Iris is just going to put the whole thing from her head. Seriously, she is not looking for some boy - especially one from high school, god - to upend her carefully designed life. She phones her dad on her break like normal, and then works the next few hours until it's almost closing time.

She's about to flip the sign around on the window when the bell rings, signalling someone's just entered and Iris is going to have to sweep the floor again. She plasters a smile on her face and then turns to face the customer. It's a young woman, probably a similar age to Iris, and she looks frantic enough that Iris at least tries to forgive her from coming in a second before closing.

"Are you still open?"

Iris bites back the sarcastic reply, and says, "Sure. What can I get you?"

"Please, just one of your scones.” She clasps her hands together in a mocking prayer. “I'll have it to go, I'll be out of your hair in a second. I'm just famished, and I've been dreaming of scones all day."

“Alright, alright.” Iris has to laugh at the dreamy look that takes over the woman's face. "So how come you didn't get to eat anything all day?" She asks into the silence as she picks up the metal tongs.

The woman lets out a heartfelt groan. "I'm pre-med," she says as if that explains everything. To be honest, it kind of does. Medical students are well known for their crazy workloads and their even crazier methods of learning and revision. Iris wouldn't be surprised if this girl has starved herself as a reward system to learn her procedures or something. "And I have a test tomorrow, and I was borrowing my friend's flashcards on the small intestines."

"Didn't they need them?" Iris asks, picking up the scone and putting it in a small paper bag. She moves to the till to rack up the price. "Three dollars fifty, please."

"That's the thing, my friend is kind of nocturnal by this point, and they've just slept through the day? So the deal was I could only use them until five, and return them to her by five thirty. So I had to make the most of them."

"Wow," Iris says. "And I thought journalists had crazy deadlines."

The girl narrows her eyes at her, as if finally registering Iris is a person who she might have run across on campus. Then her eyes widen almost comically. "Wait, are you Iris West?"

Iris frowns. "You know, there are other journalism students."

"Yeah, but-" She visibly bites off what she was about to say, and thrusts out her hand for Iris to shake. "I'm Caitlin."

Iris takes the hand, kind of hesitantly now. "Um, okay?"

Caitlin looks slightly bashful, handing over the correct change. "I, uh, think you know one of my friends, Barry Allen?"

Iris puts her head in her hands, letting out a groan mostly muffled by her palms. "Seriously, does the whole campus know about that already?"

"I'm his friend, to be fair," Caitlin says apologetically. "He tells me the stuff that happens in his life."

"Come on, it wasn't that big of a deal," she refutes, waiting for a hole to come and swallow her up.

Caitlin gets an unreadable expression on her face. "Oh. Right." This would probably be the moment for Caitlin to make an awkward exit, and Iris can get back on with her life without the apparent curse of gossip that sleeping with Barry Allen brings. But instead, she continues to surprise Iris by saying, "You know, the pre-med students are having a party tomorrow night to celebrate the test being over. You'd be more than welcome to come."

"Are you sure?" Iris asks, because they really don't know each other well enough for party invites. It's not that Iris doesn't like Caitlin, because she seems fun from the brief conversation they've had. But seriously, it’s been pretty brief.

"Yeah, totally!" Caitlin looks way too excited at the prospect. "Here, I'll give you the address." She grabs a napkin, and a pen from a pocket somewhere, and quickly writes down an address not too far from Iris's house in neat, curling handwriting. She levels Iris with a look that feels important. "Seriously, you should come.”

“I don’t want things to be awkward,” admits Iris.

“With Barry? To be honest, I doubt he’ll even be there.” Caitlin shrugs with a small smile, as if she’s thinking of an inside joke or some other subtext. “He doesn’t really like parties.”

“Oh, okay.” Iris tries not to let it show on her face how much she’s relieved by that.  It’s not that she’s avoiding him.

But, well. She’s not actually sure how they left things, considering he was still asleep when she went for her nine AM lecture, and wasn’t there when she got back. She did leave a note ‘there’s OJ in the fridge if you want’ but that wasn’t exactly clarifying anything. She’s still not sure whether she wanted him to still be there anyway - maybe she spent the entire lecture reliving the night before, occasionally having to stop herself from biting her lip or tapping her feet too obnoxiously. But it would have been awkward, she knows it. Her only other one night stand had been like that, with some guy called Paul who said, “Thanks for that then,” and hightailed it out of there. (If Barry had said anything like a thank you, Iris thinks she would’ve had to go to bed for a few days.)

She closes up the bakery quickly, mopping it down and checking all the right machinery is turned off, before making her way home.

The Kappa house is friendlier than most sororities, focused on charity work and networking, and all the things Iris had hoped for. (They also throw the best Halloween parties on campus, but that’s just a bonus.) Her neighbour, Laurel Lance, is just coming out of her room when Iris walks down the corridor. “Hey, Iris,” she greets. “You just coming back from work?”

“Yeah,” Iris pulls a face. “And I still have an assignment to finish.”

“Lame.” Laurel commiserates, well accustomed to hard work with her law major. “I suppose that’s a no to coming out tonight. We were going to hit Vertigo.”

Iris hesitates - Vertigo, the only decent bar in walking distance of the campus, is usually a great night out. But she’s shaking her head even before she realises she’s thinking of the party tomorrow, and that two nights in a row is way too much for her liver to handle these days. “I really need to buckle down, sorry. Maybe another time?”

“Sure.”

As Iris unlocks her door and shoulders her way in, dumping her purse on her desk and caving in to the urge to just flop on her bed, she tries to justify why she’s apparently decided to go to the medics’ party tomorrow. She definitely shouldn’t; this Lit class is kicking her ass anyway, and her tutor’s been leaving increasingly snarky feedback on her essays. But there’s a small voice inside her, the one that pesters about possible articles and investigations, that’s curious about seeing Barry again. Secretly, she realises she wants to see exactly how awkward it would be. Would he ignore her? Or, maybe, maybe she could get him somewhere private again…

Twice with him should settle her, she decides. She doubts he’d be up for anything more. Even in her wildest daydreams, she can’t see Barry Allen, besotted with a mystery girl and shy at the few parties he did go to, would be up for a making it a regular, but casual, thing. But the thought alone gives her motivation to power through her essay. Which is slightly pathetic but she’s not going to dwell on it.

 

She drags Linda with her to the party, which is probably a little unfair considering it’s Linda’s time of the month and she’s having some relationship drama with her on-off-again girlfriend. Iris gives her the excuse of the party being right across campus and she doesn’t want to walk home by herself, which she thinks Linda sees straight through but is graceful enough not to mention it. Iris doesn’t allow herself to obsess over her outfit, because that would definitely be pathetic, especially since he probably isn’t even coming out tonight. Maybe she puts a little more time into her makeup but that’s just because she feels like it. And she only shaved her legs underneath her jeans because she doesn’t like them stubbly.

But if Iris really wanted to delude herself, she shouldn’t have had a friend like Linda. “So, is Barry coming tonight?” she asks slyly, just as Iris takes a sip from her beer bottle. The party’s well on its way when they get there, with some actually decent music playing from the open door. There’s a couple people Iris recognises, but no sight of Caitlin, or any of her friends, yet.

Iris swallows the beer down the wrong way, and starts coughing. “Fuck, Linda.”

Linda is too busy looking smug to show any concern for Iris’ breathing. “Girl, this is sad .”

Iris reaches up to hide her face is shame. “I know ,” she groans, giving up on pretence.

“Was he really that good in bed?” Iris’ silence speaks volumes, and Linda’s eyes light up with the prospect of gossip. She leans closer. “Aha! I knew it.”

“You did not.” Iris rolls her eyes, trying to regain her composure. They’re in the kitchen, a foot away from what looks to be a very competitive game of beer pong. At one point, one of the players starts grinding on the table in a very aggressive and strangely complex victory dance.

“Well.” Linda shrugs. “Okay, I didn’t. Who knew all those limbs could actually be coordinated? But come on, give me the details. Do you want to date him?”

“No!” Iris defends, only realising how much that’s true when she says it. Yes, they had a physical compatibility that’s hard to find, but that doesn’t mean much in an actual relationship. They barely know each other, and everything Iris does know is completely opposite to her. She does Journalism, he’s a scientist. She likes going out, and apparently he doesn’t like parties.

When Iris says all this to Linda, however, Linda only scoffs. “Oh, whatever. Opposites attract. Anyway, you don’t need to marry the guy. What about fuck buddies?”

“He doesn’t seem the type.”

“But you have thought about it?” Linda starts mockingly fanning herself. “That boy must be good. I should have been more persistent, my god.”

Iris can’t help but laugh; she shoves at Linda’s shoulder, and says, “Okay, whatever. Enough about my sex life. Come on, let’s show these med students how to really play beer pong.”

After about an hour of thoroughly destroying the competition, Iris finds herself chatting with some Chemistry major while Linda puts the moves on a hockey jock. In her eyes, she’s only been friendly, but then the guy puts his hand lightly on her elbow, and leans closer. Instinctively, she jerks her arm away, almost spilling her cup. She winces apologetically. “Um.”

“No worries,” he says, already backing off. “You got someone else?”

“Yeah,” she lies. “Sorry if I was giving the wrong impression-” But he’s already lost interest, moving to talk to one of the others in their half-formed group. She examines him while he’s looking away. He’s certainly attractive, with a strong jaw and broad shoulders. But his eyes are a bit too blue, she decides, and his hair is too close to how Eddie styled it. That must be why she doesn’t want him.

She turns to Linda to see her making out with the aforementioned hockey jock against a wall, and lets out a soft sigh. It would be rude to pull Linda away from all that muscle and pert ass, especially after being the one to drag her here in the first place. She’s just looking around, though she’s still yet to see anyone she knows, when she hears her name being called. “Iris!”

She looks for the source, spinning around to see Caitlin herself stumbling down the stairs in tall heels and a rucked up dress. Iris can’t help but grin at her, obviously a shade past too-drunk and high-pitched because of it.

Caitlin trips through one huddle of people and grabs onto Iris’ shoulders to steady herself. “You came!”

“I did.” Iris puts her empty bottle down on the near kitchen counter so she can hold onto Caitlin, slightly afraid they’ll both go down if Caitlin’s ankles finally give up on her. “How are you doing?”

“I’m good,” Caitlin says, elongating the ‘o’ and swaying a little. “I mean, everything’s a little…” She wiggles her hand.

“Uh-huh.” Iris looks around, hoping one of Caitlin’s other friends will emerge before she starts throwing up everywhere, if the sheen of sweat emerging on her temples is anything to go by. “Hey, where are your friends?”

Caitlin giggles. “Oh, are you asking about Barry?” Again, she distorts the vowels, making ‘Barry’ lift in a teasing manner.

Iris sighs, bites the bullet. “Yes, okay, is Barry here?”

Caitlin nods. “Yeah, when he heard-” She clasps her hand over her mouth. For a moment, Iris is horrifyingly sure she’s actually about to spew, but then she removes her hand, vomit-free, and explains, “That’s a secret though. Shush.”

“Fair enough,” Iris says. Surely there must be people here more qualified to help Caitlin; this is probably the longest she’s spoken to the girl. “Do you know where Barry is? Is he upstairs?”

“You’re naughty,” Caitlin says instead of replying, waggling her finger. “You can use my bedroom if you like.”

“Um.” Iris is saved from having to answer that by the glimpse of chestnut brown hair just walking past the doorway. “Barry?” She calls. The combed hair reappears as Barry himself pokes his head around. When he catches sight of them, he starts briefly. She’s not sure how to interpret that, so she gives him a pointed look as she gestures to Caitlin, who is now curling her face into Iris’ neck and complementing her perfume. She manages to pull her towards Barry, who meets them halfway.

“I swear she wasn’t that bad when I left her,” he says apologetically, scratching at the back of his neck. Iris refuses to find it charming.

“Let’s just get her to a toilet,” Iris says, trying to turn Caitlin towards where she thought she saw a bathroom. Unfortunately, such pivoting seems to be the last straw for poor Caitlin, who makes a small ‘eep!’ sound before promptly throwing up all over Barry’s feet.

Iris slaps a hand over her mouth to stop the hysterical laughter bubbling out. Barry blinks, looks down at his ruined shoes. Iris lets out a squeak of repressed giggles when she sees the vomit is coloured ludicrously blue from all the alcopops Caitlin must have been drinking. At the sound, Barry looks at her with a helpless expression. He narrows his eyes and points dead at her. “Don’t. You. Dare.”

But Iris can’t stop the laughter from exploding out when Caitlin, bent over double, lets out a pitiful moan and says, “So blue , oh god.”

 

They manage to shuffle Caitlin into the closest bathroom, despite the long queue of angry people needing to pee, without any further incidents. She’s curled up over the toilet, with her hair brushed away by Iris’ hand. Iris is sitting next to Caitlin, while Barry sits on the edge of the bathtub, having cleaned his shoes to the best of his ability in the sink, washing his feet. He’d offered to take over responsibility of Caitlin, but Iris felt kind of protective over the girl now. Anyway, there wasn’t anyone interesting she knew of in the main party (she’d set her phone on loud so she’d hear if Linda wanted to escape).

“So, what are you doing here?” Barry eventually asks, as Caitlin’s breathing evens out and she seems far less likely to explode again. “I didn’t know you were friends with Caitlin.”

Iris lets out a huff of laughter. “We’re not, really. She just came into the bakery yesterday.”

“You work at a bakery?” Barry frowns. “I thought you worked at the newspaper.”

“They don’t pay me,” she explains. “It’s volunteer work. Plus great experience.”

“Oh,” he replies. “So, you only met Caitlin yesterday? And she invited you to her party?”

Iris smiles down at Caitlin’s mumbling, sleep-slack face. “I take it she doesn’t invite everyone who serves her to her house?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well,” the beer makes Iris loose with her mouth filter. “I think she only invited me because she knew about, you know, us.” Iris gestures between Barry and herself, as if it wasn’t clear.

Barry goes pink. “Uh. That’s embarrassing.”

Iris shrugs. In the two days since the source of such apparent gossip, she’d come to terms with things. Anyway, after this party, there’d be new couples to talk over. “It’s nothing. I guess she just thought it was a bigger deal or something.”

Barry still looks embarrassed, though, and Iris racks her brain for something to change the conversation with. “Um. Didn’t you say you’d been travelling?”

A little laugh escapes him. “Well. Kind of. I went to South America and Europe for a bit.”

“That’s so cool!” Iris says, wistfulness shading her tone. “I always wanted to go to England, you know. Or France.”

He grins. “I didn’t go to any of the romantic places, I’m afraid. I went to Germany. And, uh, Sweden.”

Iris sniggers. “Ooh. Sexy.”

“Yeah, it doesn’t usually come up in front of gorgeous women.” He catches her gaze, and then looks away. “Um. Usually.”

Iris looks down at her lap, as if that can hide the smile blooming across her face. What should have come across as a cheesy line only makes her stomach a little melty, his embarrassment showing how genuine the compliment was meant. She opens her mouth to say something, not exactly sure what, when Caitlin lets out a particularly loud groan. “I think I want to go to bed.”

“Does she live here?” Iris asks Barry, who nods, standing up to help Caitlin get to her feet. Iris picks up his socks and his shoes as the two of them stagger outside.

As they emerge from the toilet, someone shouts, “Oh my god finally!” before running inside.

“There’s another bathroom upstairs, asshole!” Caitlin shouts, rather too aggressively for the situation. Barry frantically shushes her as they make it up the stairs and Iris follows them giggling. Drunk Caitlin is fun - maybe it’s the alcohol in her system but she feels a wave of affection for someone who is basically a stranger, and makes the mental decision to keep hanging out with her. Caitlin staggers into the first bedroom she finds, and slams the door shut behind her, breaking free of Barry’s help.

Iris frowns, taking in Barry’s perplexed expression. “Was that even her room?”

“Um, no. Hers is down the hall.” He points loosely, before shoving his hands in his pockets. The gesture only accentuates how freaking tall he is, and she smiles fondly. She runs her eyes over him, almost unconsciously, and feels something stir when she remembers what that body could do.

Barry opens his mouth to say something, shifting slightly to go back downstairs, which abruptly seems unacceptable. She says over him, “You know, that probably means her room’s free.”

He tilts his head, face unreadable. “It does.”

She rocks back on her heels. If she knew how to make a good come-hither look, this would probably be the point when she’d implement it. Instead, she just makes up her mind and walks to the door Barry had just pointed at. She twists the doorknob and it opens easily, revealing an empty, darkened room when she pokes her head around. It’s probably bad new-friend etiquette, but Caitlin did give permission, technically. She looks back over her shoulder to see Barry looking slightly like he’s been hit over the head. She tries a smirk and lowers her lashes. She feels stupid, but she sees the way his expression heats. “You coming?”

She ducks her head to hide the smile when he startles and stalks quickly towards her. Before she has a chance to feel too cocky, however, he grabs her wrist and spins her, pressing against her in a hungry kiss. Yes , she thinks before she can stop it, this fits .

They break apart for a second, as Iris reaches to shut and lock the door behind them. They share a look. Iris can’t be imagining the tension between them, the way Barry’s tongue slips slightly out to wet his bottom lip.

She reaches out to him, and in the next second his arms are around her, pulling her tight. This time it’s slower, less frantic. She gets the time to appreciate his kisses, the plush of his lips and the glide of his tongue, and his hands (oh god, his hands ), squeezing and wrapping and touching. When he cups her cheek in his palm, pressing one quick chaste kiss to her lips, before his fingers trail up to tangle in his hair and his mouth becomes more insistent, begins to devour her, she feels weak in the knees. He’s more measured, more careful. More tactical, she thinks, which shouldn’t be as hot as it definitely is.

She gets her own chance to pull him apart, determined to return the favour. She strips him slowly, reveals the same body she had been so surprised at the last time. She gets to appreciate the light spattering of hair above the V of his hips, the way his breath ghosts out of him when she trails her fingers along the side of his ribcage, the dilation of his pupils when she takes off her dress.

“You’re gorgeous,” he murmurs, before his fingers get to work inside of her. The contradiction between his sweet talk and the ferocity of his movements makes her breath come sharp and quick.

“Barry,” she says on an exhale. “Fuck, oh god, Barry.” She notices every time she says his name his kisses press harder- she wishes she’d known his name last time just for that fact alone. He kisses her neck, gently bites at her earlobe. She comes first, hard when he starts to use his tongue as well, trailing kisses down her torso until he reaches her clit. He looks up at her once she’s come down from the rush, with a pleased smile and heated eyes. He crawls back up her, wiping his mouth on her collarbone before kissing her lightly.

She pushes up at him, and the momentary confusion is quickly replaced as she twists them and settles on top of him. His hands settle on the outside of her thighs. “Fuck,” he says, rather eloquently. She grins. She definitely couldn’t have exaggerated this.

 

Later, when he’s fallen asleep with his arms curled around her as she rests on his chest, her phone chimes. She eases herself out of his hold - apparently, Barry’s a heavy sleeper, even considering the thump of party music still going on downstairs - and reaches, still naked, for her discarded purse.

LINDA: where r u???

LINDA: i want to go home darren’s left

LINDA: okay he didn’t leave he made a stupid comment he said han didn’t shoot first!!! So like i ran away and now i’m chilling with this cute girl with purple hair??? But she’s really high, she just said, and i quote here: ‘girl ur bangs are so tight i wanna lick them’

LINDA: I DON’T HAVE BANGS IRIS

YOU: calm down i’m coming wait outside let me get dressed

Iris regrets that as soon as she said it; she wasn’t even thinking as she typed. Sure enough:

LINDA: wtf wtf WTFFFFFF gettting drESSED????????? WHO

LINDA: WAS IT BARRY

LINDA: girrllll

After that is a string of emojis, mostly the finger gestures, water drops, and aubergine.

Iris rolls her eyes, and quickly puts on her clothes, using her phone as a light. She can’t find her panties, which is honestly a little worrying, but luckily her dress is long enough that she doesn’t need to be too paranoid.  She looks back, only intending a glance, but she can’t help her gaze lingering. He looks so blissful, face lax and arm still slung over when she had been sleeping. With the blankets wrapped around him so, he reminds her of a sculpture. She shakes away such romantic thoughts but she still grabs a stray marker pen on the bedside table, and writes a quick message on his open palm. Miraculously, he still doesn’t stir. She leans over to kiss him quickly on the forehead before she can stop herself, feeling guilty for running out on him twice in a row.

She’s almost out the door, wincing at the bright light from the hallway that casts a thick strobe on Barry’s torso, when she hears a snuffle, “Iris?” She looks back, but he’s only rolled over, face smushed into the pillow and mumbling inchoreherently. She breathes a sigh of relief, and makes her way to the front door to find Linda.

As she slips away, texting Linda a quick update as she tries to smooth down her hair and look like she wasn’t just fucked, a familiar face spots her eye from the kitchen.

Patty Spivot. Dirty blonde, bone structure like a model and laughing with a carefree happiness. She’s aged well from high school, and is the only other girl from Iris’s cohort to come to this college. From Barry’s cohort as well, she remembers.

Then, her stomach twists weirdly as this fact, along with Linda’s comments, “he’s super into this mystery girl from his high school,” strikes her in full technicolour.

Patty Spivot is the girl Barry’s in love with.

Stumbling away from the scene, she pushes past a couple making out on the steps and spots Linda, nodding along to something a purple-haired girl is saying while her eyes are looking around desperately. When she spots Iris she runs over to her, grabbing her in a fierce hug. When she’s stopped retelling all the dumb things the girl was saying, her eye turns speculative, just as they’re walking onto the main road through campus. “So,” she inquires knowingly. “Where were you, huh?”

Iris debates not telling her anything. But, God, it’s Linda . Who else is she going to talk to about it? “Barry,” she admits.

“Oh!” Her pleased tone and expression falters when she examine Iris more closely. “Oh. Was it- was it not as good?”

Iris twists her lips. She shouldn’t be feeling this morose over a one- well, a two-night-stand. “I, uh, I figured out who he’s in love with. It’s Patty, from high school. There weren’t any other girls from our class that came with us.”

“Babe,” Linda says, and wraps her arm around Iris’ shoulders.

Iris doesn’t really need such sympathy, because she doesn’t care that much, obviously. But she leans into Linda as they walk anyway. And she refuses to cry on the way home. That would be stupid, because she doesn’t even care about Barry Allen. He’s a good lay, and apparently he looks after his friends and he has a great sense of humour, but other than that, whatever. If she tries to smother a frustrated scream at being second best into her pillow when she’s home, well. Nobody has to know about that but her.

 

OCTOBER

"Once," Iris remembers, with perfect clarity, her freshman roommate declaring, "Is a one night stand. Twice is a repeat, a sequel, usually worse than the second time because of the anticipation. Three times is a pattern. And that, young padawan, is when you need to have a relationship talk."

As Iris lies, panting, in Barry Allen's bed, sweaty and satisfied, she finds herself thinking of Sara, who eventually dropped out to travel the world but gave out no end of advice before she left halfway through spring semester. She rolls over, and prods Barry to check he hasn't fallen asleep. He opens one eye to look at her. "Give me five minutes," he says, chest still rising and falling heavily.

"No, that's not- wait, five minutes?" Stay on track, West, she tells herself firmly. "No, I meant, we should probably talk about this."

‘This’ being the fact that seeing each other at yet another party, just a week after Caitlin’s, led to stumbling back to his house, apparently closest, and another sex session straight out of Iris’ fantasies. ‘This’ being the fact that Iris only went to the party because she knew a load of forensic scientists were going. ‘This’ being the realisation she doesn’t want this to end.

His expression turns wary. "'This?'"

"Well, look, this keeps happening, right? So, like, we should establish what it is. Set boundaries." She rolls over onto her front, and doesn't miss how Barry's eyes track the movement of her breasts.

"Okay," he says, still sounding suspicious.

"Like, if you don't want to-" she hesitates.

"No, no, by all means," he hastens to correct, using one hand to gesture 'go on' while tucking the other underneath his head. She has to concentrate on making sure she doesn't get distracted by the way it makes his biceps bulge.

“I want to be friends with you,” she blurts out. She probably could’ve been a bit more tactful if his post-sex hair wasn’t so potent. “I mean, I know you like someone else in the college, and I don’t want to get in the way of that.”

Iris deliberately doesn’t mention Patty’s name, thinks it will just makes things awkward. A small part of her, that she doesn’t want to acknowledge, is worried her name will break the spell, and he’ll go back to his plan of abstinence he was apparently adopting.

He opens his mouth to speak, still looking kind of confused, but she barrels on, weirdly scared that he’ll just break it off completely. “And I mean I’m still on the rebound, you know, from my last boyfriend. So I guess neither of us is looking for anything serious, right?”

“Um. Right,” he echoes, not sounding convinced.

“So we can be friends. And we’ve got great chemistry, I think you’ll have to admit.” She punches him on the shoulder in a bro way, like she’s hasn’t just had him literally inside of her. “So I’m just saying, you know, maybe we can be friendlier than most friends.”

“So, friends with benefits,” he clarifies, after a pause.

“Yeah!” She says brightly, glad she doesn’t have to elaborate further. God knows how many awkward innuendos she had stored in the back of her brain just in case. (“I know you like travelling so I figured your next destination could be my vagina,” was not her finest moment.)

He looks at her with a weird expression. “Okay,” he says finally. “Yeah, sure.”

“Great.” It’s suddenly awkward in a way it hasn’t been before, but Iris figures that’s typical of relationship talks in any situation. She probably doesn’t help things by patting him on the chest, and then tracing a pattern around his nipple with her fingertip. “So…” she says. “Five minutes, huh?”

They fall into a pattern pretty quickly, really. It doesn’t even take as long as Iris was expecting for them to hook up completely sober - after all, when she left him the note of ‘call me, whatever’, followed by her number, on his hand, she wasn’t really expecting he would.

But sure enough, a week or so into October, she gets a text message just as she’s about to crawl into bed, not really tired but planning to just read for a bit until she is.

UNKNOWN: Can I come over? - Barry

She quickly adds the contact, even goes up to redo her make-up before replying, ‘Sure’, so she doesn’t look too desperate. She’s about to get up and change into some sexier pyjamas (an old Dodgers t-shirt and sweats doesn’t exactly scream ‘capable fuck buddy’) when she hears a knock on her door. She frowns, checks her phone to double check she hasn’t lost time and she really did send the reply only a minute or so ago.

She opens the door, and there’s Barry, in an old sweatshirt and running shorts that reach his knee. He’s flushed and sweaty, and she has the urge to lick him. “Sorry,” he says. “I was on a run, and I was going to go around the block again to play it cool but-”

She hopes the grin on her face isn’t as dopey as it feels when she reels him in and shuts the door behind them.

Now they’ve got each others numbers, Iris doesn’t have to go to parties and hope he shows up. She doesn’t even have to go out! She’s marvelling about all this to Linda, who just rolls her eyes and says, “Dude. You must have heard of booty calls before.”

Linda’s not exactly...unsupportive of Iris and Barry’s new thing, but she’s not exactly supportive either. Iris supposes she sees right through Iris’s bluff about how it is just casual, and how she doesn’t even like him that much anyway, honestly!

But Iris knows herself, and she knows all about how endorphins can make everything a little screwy. In freshman year she thought she genuinely loved a guy, even though he was just amazing at giving head and also agreed with her politics. That’s not love. And she doesn’t even want a serious relationship. It’s been, what, two months since she broke up with Eddie? She’s only just deleted him from Facebook, she’s certainly not ready for a whole other commitment.

And, most importantly, as she keeps reminding Linda (and herself) Barry’s in love with Patty Spivot, who Iris is slowly learning about as time goes on. Not deliberately, of course, but somehow they were both tagged in the same club photo on Instagram, and Iris was a little curious, so sue her. She’s an investigative journalist, for god’s sake, as if she wasn’t going to click on the username. Patty actually has a boyfriend, or so it seems from the most recent pictures, so Iris can at least relax that Barry’s not going to drop everything (and everyone) to go profess his love. Patty also goes to the gym a lot and volunteers at puppy shelters and posts pretty food pictures. Iris had looked guiltily at her takeout boxes in the trash, compared to the vegan superfood salad shown on her screen, and had quickly closed the app before she got any more obsessive.

She’s in the library procrastinating, looking through her text messages and deleting old conversations to make memory room for a new app, when she looks through her and Barry’s messages. They’re depressingly blunt, to be honest, just taking turns to say ‘come over’ or ‘want me to come over?’. At one point, Iris doesn’t even use words, just sends a picture of her empty bed. At the time it had seemed funny, blasé and cute. Now, in the stark daylight of the library, it looks kind of awful.

She doesn’t think it through too much when she texts, trying to diversify their message history a little, ‘what u doing’. She only realises that it sounds like a booty text a moment later, and is confirmed by:

BARRY: at the lab at the moment but I can be at yours in an hour? :-)

His use of punctuation smiley faces, despite the fact she knows he has an iPhone, is stupidly cute. She bites her lip, and texts back, ‘no no i was just wondering’, followed by ‘sorry don’t want to disturb u working!!! just bored at the library’. She waits a tense four minutes before the reply.

BARRY: ohhhh okay. For real? I’m not doing much, waiting for an experiment’s results. Hence waiting for an hour!

YOU: thats cool! what experiment r u doing?

They end up talking for the entirety of the hour, while Iris’ set reading lies forgotten on the table. She gets a dirty look for taking up library desk space when she’s obviously not doing any work, but she keeps telling herself that after this next text, she’ll totally start reading.

Learning about his experiment (which she googles and sends him some wikipedia bullshit to freak him out for a moment) quickly turns into him insulting her texting language (‘Aren’t you supposed to be an English major?’) which somehow turns into an hour later and they’re discussing their favourite movies. Iris is a hardcore Die Hard lover up against Barry’s exultations about Blade Runner .

BARRY: Listen okay, just listen. Blade Runner is the best movie of all time. Not only is it an epic dystopian commentary, but it’s also a psychological thriller!

YOU: i still feel like we’re not giving bruce willis’ tank top enough attention

BARRY: Right. This is unacceptable. At some point I am going to have to sit you down and make you watch this. You can’t escape my commentary I’m afraid, or a follow-up comparison of the Director’s Cut. Bring something to take notes with.

She’s about to type out a teasing reply, before she realises that he’s just offered non-sexual plans. Watching a movie together, Netflix and Chill aside, must be against the rules she’s halfheartedly conjured up in her head. She’s frozen. She doesn’t want to shut down the conversation, because it was nice, getting to know him as a friend, but this is straying into flirting, possibly dating territory that she’s certainly not ready for.

She saved by a small vibration: another text from Barry.

BARRY: Experiment’s done, I’ve got to go.

Pressing her lips together, she sends quickly back,

YOU: cool i need to do some work too. we should meet up again later this week, i need to destress from this essay

She adds a winky face in case the meaning isn’t already clear, and shuts off her phone before she can see whether he’s read it. She’d been meaning to go over to his tonight, but considering how she’d just put off her work for a whole hour just to talk movies to him, she shouldn’t. And if she spends so much time with him, she knows what’ll happen. She’ll get attached, and clingy, and everything that probably encouraged Eddie to move states.

She pushes the thought of all boys, past, present or future, from her mind, and tries to concentrate back on Hemingway.

She’s so determined to focus on The Sun Also Rises that she misses the first two calls on her phone. When she finally looks and sees (3) MISSED CALLS from DAD, she, understandably, panics a little. She calls him back, and when he picks up on the first ring, she doesn’t even get a chance to apologise for whatever she’d apparently done when he says, “Surprise!”

She frowns. “What?” She whispers, gathering up her stuff so she can take the call outside, away from the judgemental looks of her desk neighbours.

“We’re here, on campus!” He sounds delighted.

“We?” She asks hesitantly. Obviously she’s so excited to see her dad. She loves him to pieces, and always misses him when she’s away at college. But, if what she suspects is true, then they cannot go into the Kappa house without her supervision.

“Yeah, me and Wally.” She’s just frantically hoping he’s not- “I’m outside your sorority house, honey. Kappa, right?”  Fuck.

Iris packs her stuff up even faster, creasing papers and bending her book almost in half in her haste. She silently pulls a screaming face at the phone, before injecting cheer in her voice to reply, “Dad! That’s awesome! Stay outside, yeah? I’m just at the library-”

“Oh, we were thinking about just going inside. We’re on the porch now, and-” She hears muffled chatter, and then, “Yeah, Wally just rang the doorbell. We’ll meet you in your room, that alright? How long are you going to be at the library?”

“I’m just coming now!” Iris says, perhaps a tad shrilly. She bolts out of the library, thrusting her library card at the scanners and impatiently waiting for the old turnstiles to move around. She can make it back to the house in five minutes if she runs. Maybe no-one will answer the door-

“Oh, hi! Mr West!” She hears Laurel’s voice and silently curses the entire Lance family. “Sure, come in, come in. Iris’ room is just upstairs.”

Maybe Wally will trip on the stairs, Iris thinks. He’s been to the ER enough times, he could just twist his ankle a little… She tries to control herself when she realises she’s plotting for her brother to fall down the stairs rather than them go in her room.

It’s not that she’s got dirty underwear all over the floor- or, well, she does have dirty underwear everywhere, but that’s not going to phase them, since Iris was definitely the slob of the family. She rounds the street corner, her dad having hung up on her. She pauses, out of breath, and texts Laurel, ‘TAKE THEM ON A TOUR OF KITCHEN’. She follows it with a ‘PLZ’ and a plate emoji, a well-known bartering tool in the house considering how much they all hated doing the dishes. Laurel replies confused but affirmative, so Iris slows her pace to a brisk walk. She’s only a few minutes from home so hopefully the crisis has been averted.

She makes it inside and sees them just about disappearing up the stairs, turning right towards her room. Laurel emerges from the kitchen with a ‘what can you do?’ shrug. Iris definitely isn’t washing up her crusty pasta bake with that kind of attitude.

“Dad! Wally!” Her dad doesn’t hear her, and carries on. Wally turns around and sees her obviously panicking. And like all little brothers, sticks out his tongue and follows their dad, clearly hoping she’s about to get in major trouble.

She races after them, and they all stop in the hall. “Iris!” Her dad beams, having finally noticed her, and wraps her in a big hug. “It’s so good to see you.”

“Yeah, you too. Let’s go to a coffee shop, shall we?” Iris says, quickly hugging Wally in greeting and then trying to pull him back in the direction of downstairs.

Because, while Laurel Lance lives opposite her, Felicity Smoak lives in the room next to Iris. And the whole reason Iris was even studying at the library rather than her room was because-

“Oh god, Oliver! Yes! Yes!

Because Felicity’s boyfriend, Oliver, was visiting.

The Wests stare at each other, silent in the hallway as the bed squeaks pick up their rhythm.

“Just like that! Yes!”

“You know,” her dad says with an admirably straight face, having to raise his voice to drown out hers. “I could go for some coffee.”

Iris hides her head in her hands and Wally has to hold his sides, he’s laughing so much.

 

When they walk into the little coffee shop, a few minutes from the Kappa house and a hotspot for students wanting to treat themselves with various cream and syrups, Iris thinks at first she’s just imagining him. But there’s no denying it: Barry Allen, sitting in a small table a few feet from the bar. She realises this is also the coffee shop nearest the science buildings, and feels her cheeks heat. She’s not sure what the protocol is for this, as they catch eyes across the tables. He must be working, on his laptop while Caitlin seems up to her eyeballs in flashcards opposite him. His eyes dart nervously to her dad, clearly freaking out. She’s about to shake her head minutely to reassure him that no, he doesn’t not have to greet her dad, but then Joe himself says, rather loudly, “Isn’t that Barry Allen?”

She freezes, and spins. “What?”

“It sure looks like him,” Wally contributes. He sees Iris glare at him and he just wiggles his eyebrows. She hates him. His birthday present is being burned as soon as she gets home.

“Yeah, it is, isn’t it?” Her dad actually, to Iris’ eternal mortification, waves.

In retrospect, it feels pretty embarrassing that her dad recognises him immediately, whereas it took her until after sleeping with the guy to see the resemblance. She remembers that her dad had been the one to find the evidence freeing his dad from prison, but she was still in middle school when that happened.

“I think he’s studying-” Iris tries, as Barry waves uncertainly back.

But there’s no stopping Joe West if he wants to extend some Mississippi courtesy, which she should know that by now. He says innocently, “I’m just going to go say hi,” and walks ahead.

“Me too,” says Wally, obviously pleased with Iris’ discomfort even if he doesn’t know exactly why.

“You’re the worst,” she hisses. “You don’t even know him, you weren’t in our year at school.”

Wally frowns. “We were in engineering club together, actually.” He follows up the retort by sticking his tongue out at her. She has to remind herself that he’s seventeen, not seven.

“Oh,” says Iris. He doesn’t move, and Iris feels warm inside when she realises he is actually asking for her permission, that his teasing would never pass over the line into cruelty. She rolls her eyes. “Fine, whatever, go say hi. Try to stop Dad being too embarrassing.” Wally breaks out into a grin, fist bumps her, and then walks over.

She sees her dad and Barry are actually hugging , which is a thing she does not want to process ever , so she turns back to the serving station. The barista is just serving their orders, and she struggles to keep the fancy drinks steady on the tray as she makes her way over. She dumps them on a table a little way away from Caitlin and Barry, hoping this will hint that her dad and Wally can leave her secret fuck buddy alone now, thanks.

But her dad just gestures, and calls, loudly and obtusely, “Iris, bring them over! Barry said we should sit with him.”

“Dad, Caitlin’s working-” she tries to protest, but Caitlin just pointedly folds away her flashcards.

“I could use a break,” she says, so sweetly that Iris can’t tell whether she actually does need a break or she’s in on the joke to make Iris and Barry as uncomfortable as possible. Either way, Iris decides maybe she misjudged Ms Snow.

They all sit down, and Joe’s in the midst of telling a story about Barry to Wally. “Kid, I swear, I never saw another science project like it. What was it?”

Barry groans, sinking back in his chair, but Iris can see the smile. “It was supposed to be a cardboard replica of the water cycle.”

She realises she’s always underestimated how important her dad must have been to Barry - she briefly remembers him coming to stay with them for a few months until his grandma turned up, and Joe was always saying stuff like ‘I’m going over to see Barry’ afterwards, only slowing his visits after Henry Allen was released from prison. It was just an accepted part of life, like the sky is blue, cats meow, and Dad looks after Barry Allen when he gets a spare moment.

Then something occurs to her. “Hang on, in third grade?”

Joe chortles. “Oh, she does remember then.”

“Yeah,” Barry says, lifting one corner of his mouth, “The project you ruined, Iris.”

Caitlin and Wally start laughing, while Iris hotly protests, “I was trying to help!”

That takes the smirk off Barry’s face. “What?”

“I didn’t know cardboard would dissolve in water! I was young,” she explains, trying to defend why exactly she had decided to pour her bottle of water all over his project, just before the judges came round the hall. “And you had tinfoil, and paint! I thought it would be waterproof. And I thought it would be cool if you actually had some water. I don’t know,” she trails off, slightly self-conscious now the others have fallen silent. “I mean, I’m so sorry. But I just thought you hadn’t had any spare water or something to complete it.”

Barry’s staring at her.

“What?” She asks, defensively.

“I always thought you deliberately ruined it,” Barry admits. “All your friends were laughing, so.”

Iris has the horrible mental image of a recently-bereaved and small, Barry, heartbroken over a dissolving project and thinking that she could ever be so cruel. She takes a sip of her mocha, fighting the urge to hug him tightly and apologise for all the shitty things the world gave him. “Yeah, well,” she says into the slightly awkward silence. “I didn’t. I thought it was cool.”

The conversation diverts to something else, something about Wally’s car engine at age thirteen that almost set the school on fire. But when she looks back at him, she sees him watching her, like he’s working something out. Her cheeks heat and she looks away, laughing just a beat too late at something Wally says.

“Yeah, I just came from the lab actually,” says Barry. He looks at Iris as he says this; she realises he’s worried she might think he was lying about where he was. “I just finished a piece of coursework and Caitlin dragged me out for coffee.”

“You were starting to look like a zombie,” she refutes. “I thought daylight and human interaction would help.”

Actually, Iris privately thinks, he looks as gorgeous as ever, especially in the warm light of the cafe and the plaid overshirt that matches his eyes. She notices he’s looking at something on her throat. She self-consciously raises her hand to the side of her neck and feels the ghost of  a hickey, only a day or so old so almost definitely visible. She flips her hair forward and starts patting at it nervously. She looks around, and sees her unsubtle cover-up has caught the attention of Wally, who only cocks his head in a way that expresses they are definitely going to have to talk about this later. Sure enough, after they’ve said their goodbye and Iris is back on her way home, she receives a text from her brother.

WALLY: wtf is going on between u and allen?

YOU: nothing!!!

WALLY: i wont tell dad

YOU: seriously nothing

WALLY: yeah right. I could do without seeing him eyefucking my sister thx. U dating or what

YOU: no

WALLY: slept together then

She takes too long to reply, because her phone lights up, ‘INCOMING CALL: WALLY’. She sighs, because he’s never going to let this go unless he gives him a satisfactory answer, and answers. “Look, it’s only happened a couple of times.”

He makes a squawking sound, and then adopts a dreamy voice. “My sister, the slut. I’m so proud.”

She has to laugh at that. “Shut up, oh my god. Don’t tell Dad, he’d make it into a whole... thing .” It deserves the emphasis; if Joe West ever thought for a second Barry and Iris could date, he might just throw a wedding party there and then.

“I won’t,” he promises. “So, does that mean it isn’t a thing? I thought you were just covering your ass when you texted.”

“It’s not like that,” she explains honestly. But then she adds the lie that she’s only beginning to realise: “I don’t like him like that anyway.”

 

NOVEMBER

She’s playing with her phone when she gets the text, twirling it around in her fingers and staring at her wall. She and Barry had arranged yesterday, by way of a quick message in between discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cultural impact, to meet tonight, around ten. It’s nine thirty now, and Iris is going out of her mind, dressed in some special lingerie she’d bought on impulse, all red and lacy.

BARRY: sorry but I can’t come round tonight. Stuck at the lab, probably going to be here all night.

Iris has to stare at the screen for a second in disbelief and horror.

YOU: seriously? Ughhhhhh

As a reply, Barry sends back a picture of the empty physics lab, his handwritten notes recognisable in the foreground.

BARRY: :-(

She lets out a weird growl and chucks the phone away, letting it bounce harmlessly off her bed. Maybe he’s just using the lab as an excuse. Maybe he’s just bored of her. The thought severely dampens her mood, and she abruptly feels ridiculous in the lacy lingerie. She strips out of the underwear set, hiding it back in her drawers and swapping it for some of her old panties and bra, not even looking at what colour or pattern they are.

She’s about to wipe off her make-up when she gets a sudden idea; she almost pushes it away as definitely too risky and way too… femme fatale for Iris. But before she can chicken out, she grabs her coat, long enough to cover up to her knees, and shoves it on over her underwear. If she even stops to put on the fancy lingerie, it’ll be too much, too like out of a dumb porno. She reaches for her white sneakers and shoves them on as well, ignoring her stiletto heels which will look ridiculous with whatever underwear she’s wearing.

She lets out a little incredulous scoff as she leaves her room and  makes her way to the physics building. Is she actually going to do this? Yet when she reaches it, she feels herself about to bail out on the idea. She grabs a coffee and protein bar from the vending machine inside reception, so she can pretend she was just bringing supplies for him if she does get too nervous. But then she starts panicking that the gesture of bringing food is too clingy. Is that what a friend would do? She decides to hide the protein bar in her coat, and just bring the coffee. If he’s not pleased to see her, she can just say the coffee’s for her anyway, and she was just dropping by. Totally casual.  

It takes her a while to find the right lab - there’s quite a few in the building, even when she finds the 24 hour ones for undergrads. She’s glad her plan didn’t involve throwing open the door and exposing herself when the third room she visits is sans-Barry.

Eventually she opens the right one. Her heart feels strangely melty when she sees him, slouched over some papers in the corner. He rubs at the back of his head, hair stressed and messy and- oh god . She just about dies a little bit when he looks up and she sees he’s wearing glasses. Seriously hardcore nerd glass, with black, square frames and the overall effect of sharpening his cheekbones to the point of ridiculousness and satisfying the weird geek fetish she’s been apparently cultivating since she started fucking him.

(Maybe it’s not a geek thing at all. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a Barry thing.)

He looks up with surprise. “Iris?” He actually reaches up to adjust his glasses, which is what gives Iris the rush of adrenaline to disregard the coffee cup on the nearest surface. She briefly checks the room is empty, and switches the little sign on the outside of the door that says ‘do not disturb - experiment in progress’. She makes a mental apology to the physics staff for abusing their system, but she’s sure they’d understand if they saw how delectable Barry Allen looks like in rolled up plaid sleeves and glasses. “What are you doing here?”

He definitely doesn’t seem displeased to see her, so she struts up to him and leans against the desk next to him. Instead of replying, she kicks away her trainers. She hears his breath catch as he begins to get an inkling of where this is going, and she pulls off her coat, dumping it on the linoleum floor, before she can psych herself out. She crosses her legs at the ankles and tries to look seductive, rather than nervous.

His gaze is intense and speechless. She didn’t think she’d feel so...hot, like this, with him still fully clothed while she’s almost naked. He’s staring at her underwear, she sees.

They’re space-themed, she abruptly realises, which makes her feel a little small. Star Trek themed, even, as she notices the Starfleet logo in between the cups of her bra. She’s about to fold her arms over them, feeling embarrassed, when she looks at Barry’s expression. His eyes are diluted to the point of appearing black, exaggerated behind his glasses, and he makes a little aborted gesture towards her panties. “ Fuck ,” he breathes.

Right, she remembers. Nerd.

He surges up and kisses her in a way that leaves her breathless, pushing her against the desk and grasping at her, twisting a finger in the side of her panties so the fabrics pulls tight. She lets out a gasp, can’t help it in the face of such intensity, but he doesn’t stop, just kisses and bites along her jaw, down her neck, across her chest. He leaves a hickey on the bulge of her breast, just above the lip of her bra. She falls back against the desk and he follows her down. It’s a little bit of an awkward angle, though she’ll be damned if she’s going to stop, until he grabs her around her thighs and pulls her back against him, crotch flush against his and legs spread around his waist.

He pulls back and reaches for his glasses, crooked on his face and kind of steaming up. He’s about to pull them off, Iris realises, and she stops him in an aborted movement before she can think properly. “No, um.” She gently rearranges them so they’re straight on his face. “I mean, if it’s not too much bother, you could, uh, keep them on.”

He just stares at her for a beat, and she wonders whether she’s messed up, But he just leans down and graces her with a soft, too-tender kiss. Something in her aches at the gentleness, and she feels too vulnerable, exposed in a way that being half-naked in a public space didn’t.

Barry looks dazed behind his glasses. “You should know,” he says, breathing heavily and swallowing, “This is like every fantasy I’ve ever had abou-”

He stops himself, kisses her instead, and Iris feels cold. Was he about to say ‘about Patty?’ Sourness creeps in her belly. She thinks about shoving him off, leaving all of this for someone who thinks she’s first place, not second, but his hands are already kneading her ass, and she resolves to blow whatever fantasy he had about Patty out of the fucking water.

She pushes at his shoulder until he moves away, slightly surprised and possibly hurt? But she just clambers off the desk and gets on her knees in front of him.

She knows she’s sexy, most of the time at least, but right now, in tatty Star Trek underwear, and Barry looking at her like she hung the moon, she feels like gold. She smirks at him, thinks that Patty won’t be able to step a damn foot in this physics building without Barry thinking of Iris .

She trails her hands along his thigh, curling along the inseams. He lets out a groan, and his head slumps back against the chair’s back. She bites her lip, partly for seduction purposes and partly because she’s going to start grinning at the effect she has on him. Casual , West , she thinks to herself, you’re totally casual. You give blowjobs on campus property all the time. Whatever.

She undoes his fly and reaches into his underwear, pulling out his rigid cock. She leans forward and licks gently at the bead of pre-come , feels heady at the stifled groan he lets out. He’s gratifyingly hard, and she pulls him all the way out of his boxer-briefs. He shifts so she can pull his trousers down, and then she gets to work. She licks along the shaft before pressing a tongued kiss to the head. She opens her mouth, about to take as much as she can fit (the dude is tall , there’s only so much a girl can do) when he says, on the tail-end of a gasp, “Do, you, uh, have a condom?”

She withdraws. “Um. No. Do you?”

He shakes his head. Though it’s completely impractical, she’s kind of pleased that he’s not walking around carrying a roll of condoms.

She can’t help herself from touching, despite the serious conversation, so she wraps her hand around him and starts gently stroking, curling her hand slightly towards the head. She can see his thigh muscles tense and relax, and she licks her lips. “Do you...have, uh, anything I should know about?” She asks, because, as her dad (and Linda) have drummed into her over and over again, safe sex is the best kind of sex.

He shakes his head quickly. “No, no. Definitely not.”

She absolutely should not take his word at that. She’s already lived through and dealt with high school chlamydia, she always carries a condom in her purse when she goes on a night out, and she’s walked away from prospective one night stands when they say they don’t have any protection with them. But why, she justifies to herself, would he ask about it? And, maybe it’s stupid as hell, but she trusts him. “Me neither,” she says, and she can see it in his eyes that he believes her too, trusts her without a doubt.

So instead of saying anything else, she just leans forward and does what she’s been planning to since she walked in, just opens her mouth wide and swallows him down.

He lets out a gasp, and sinks down when she applies the pressure of her tongue along the shaft. “Iris, fuck, Iris ,” he chants in a way that makes her squirm, look for friction against her ankles tucked underneath her.

She bobs her head up and down, reveling in the wet, graphic sounds that seem obtrusively loud in the silent laboratory, moving her hand in sync along the part of his cock she can’t reach. His breathing gets heaving, and hips start making tiny thrusts, like he can’t stop them from moving. As much as she loves the idea of him going loose, fucking into her mouth while still wearing those damn glasses, this angle isn’t right for him, so she uses her other hand to clutch at the crease between thigh and pelvis and the firm muscle there to hold him steady.

She looks up when she takes him as far down as she can manage, and sees him gazing down with an expression she can’t decipher. Turned on beyond belief, but something else, something a little reverent. She lowers her eyes - obviously the boy didn’t get many blowjobs before he turned into the sex god he is now, that’s all. If she gets warm feelings from every guy who likes his dick sucked, she’d be a puddle of melted goo by now.

He starts saying her name again, more insistently now, “Iris, fuck, oh, fuck .” He never usually swears, and the thought gives her power. His hand reaches down and she pulls at it so his fingers tangle in her hair, just like when he loses himself kissing her. His fingers clench against her scalp but never hurt, never yank or try to manoeuvre her. “Iris, I’m going to-”

He curls over her as he comes. She knows she had plenty of time to move away, but there’s something satisfying about finishing him to the end. She wipes at her mouth and sits back on her ankles, lets herself appreciate the sight of Barry, dishevelled with only his cock visible from his clothes, his glasses skewed and his hair a mess. He sees her staring, and pulls at her arms, manhandling her onto his lap. He kisses her, doesn’t seem to mind the taste of himself in her mouth like other guys she’s been with.

“You’re so- you’re amazing,” he says, and no matter how much she tells herself it’s just post-orgasm talk, looking into those bright eyes she finds herself wanting to believe him.

 

Iris doesn’t bother knocking when she goes into Barry’s room, several days or so after the lab incident, too busy imagining how pleased he’ll be that she managed to get tickets for the TED science talk on campus. She hadn’t even heard of the scientist, to be honest, but she recognised the name from Barry’s minimal collection of books, and figured he’d enjoy it. And obviously she benefits from what is sure to be a boring lecture because Barry tends to get a little...dirtier after a good day doing science, or a little rougher when he has a breakthrough with his work. She’ll be the first to admit she now has a Pavlovian reaction to lab coats.

“Barry, I- uh.” She stops suddenly, realises Barry isn’t alone in the room. A Latino guy with dark hair down to his shoulders stares back at her. He and Barry are examining something on Barry’s desktop, a dumb youtube video or something. “Oh. Hi.”

The mystery guy stands quickly, causing, for some reason, Barry to put his head in his hands and let out a groan. “Cisco, don’t.”

“Who’s this then?” Cisco, apparently, says, in a play-acting way. Iris feels very much like she’s taking a surprise test, and she’s failing. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“Um, I’m Iris?” She replies, though it comes out like a question as Cisco actually starts circling her. “You’re Cisco, yeah? I think Caitlin mentioned you once.”

He makes a noncommittal noise, and stops in front of her. He holds out his hand for her to shake. She’s weirdly nervous, and accidentally uses the hand still holding the printed off tickets. She quickly retracts as soon as she realises her mistake and offers out her other hand. But as she finally succeeds in shaking Cisco’s hand, Barry asks, “What’s that?”

“Oh,” she’s going for casual but not exactly sure it’s working. “I got these tickets for the TED talk on campus and just thought you and I could go.” Under Cisco’s scrutiny, she’s painfully aware that it sounds like she’s asking Barry out, which opens a box she’s not prepared to look into, so she adds in a rush, “As friends, obviously. I just, you know, got the tickets from the newspaper and you’re the only person I know doing science stuff, so. Um.”

She thrusts the tickets at him awkwardly, trying to ignore Cisco’s careful watch since she’s pretty sure this is part of the same test. She absolutely did not get them free from the newspaper, she queued for them online like everyone else, but it sounds stupid if she says that out loud.

Barry’s examining the tickets with wide eyes, and she finds herself wanting to smile, glad he’s pleased. She suddenly notices Cisco considering her, and panics.“If you two want to go-” she offers, gesturing between them.

“No,” Barry and Cisco say together, and then share a look.

“I, uh, don’t like that scientist.” Cisco says, after a strange pause. “But you two have fun. I think I’m playing D&D with Ronnie that night anyway.”

“Cool,” Iris says, hoping she doesn’t sound nearly as relieved as she sounds. “Well, I should probably go then, I was just-”

“Do you want to come bowling with us?” Cisco asks, apropos of nothing. Barry stares at him, but Iris can’t decipher their weird language of eyebrow wiggling that follows.

“Now?” Iris thinks about her schedule; she’s supposed to be meeting Wally for coffee in a bit, but he’s flexible. “Can I bring my brother along?”

“Yeah, totally. Caitlin’s coming as well.” That sells it for Iris, since she’s hardly seen Caitlin due to their busy schedules that rarely overlap. “Um, but then that’s odd numbers.”

“I could bring my friend as well?” Iris offers. “I’m pretty sure she’s free, and she loves bowling. Or baseball, I can never remember.”

It turns out that it’s baseball that Linda’s crazy over, but she’s still game to come along. She and Wally meet them at the bowling alley, and despite a brief awkward few moments when introductions were made, they’re soon all teasing and trash-talking each other like old friends. Cisco demands Wally to be on his team as soon as he learns he’s interested in engineering, Cisco’s own chosen major, despite Iris’ half-hearted protests about the broken ‘West dream team’. He also declares Barry to be on his team due to his apparent role as reigning champion, which Iris kind of wishes she knew beforehand.

Linda just shrugs at this, before elbowing Iris and whispering in her ear just as she’s picking up her ball, “You know, I’m not surprised that Barry’s great at bowling.”

“And why’s that?” Iris asks, already knowing she’s not going to like the answer.

She waggles her eyebrows and says, casually, “He must know his way around the holes with those long fingers.”

Iris promptly drops the ball. Her cheeks flush red, and ignores the confused looks from the others and Linda’s braying, delighted laughter.

“Shut up,” she hisses, before throwing her first ball. It goes straight in the gutter, adding to Iris’ humiliation and Linda’s hysterics, which don’t quieten even when Iris points out, a tad desperately, “We’re on the same team, Linda!” To make matters worse, on the lane next to them, Barry rolls his ball and knocks down eight in one go. The smug little smirk he sends Iris only infuriates her further.

A few turns later, Barry declares he’s going to get a couple of pitchers - Wally goes to help him, which makes Iris a little nervous but she decides not to stress. If Wally wants to embarrass her, he’ll find a way no matter what she does. (She doesn’t want to admit how much she’s hoping they get along.)

She notices, out of the corner of her eye, that Caitlin and Cisco are huddled together in deep discussion. She doesn’t think anything of it - obviously the two are close friends - but then Caitlin says, rather unsubtly, “Linda, come to the toilet with me.”

“Um.” Linda says. “Sure.” As she walks towards Caitlin, she spins briefly to give Iris a ‘what the fuck’ expression that Iris can only shrug at. She has a suspicion, though, confirmed when Cisco climbs over the chairs in between them (later, she’ll consider it an intimidation tactic) and stands in front of her. She’s not sure whether she should stand as well, because he’s giving her a really intense vibe.

“Are you trying to hurt him?” he suddenly demands.

Iris is a little confused. “Um. Hurt who?”

“Barry!”

She balks. “What are you talking about?” Her first thought is that he’s asking about some kind of BDSM thing, which a) is definitely over sharing and b) not something she and Barry have ever discussed.

He narrows his eyes at her and looks her over. “Look. I’m going to be honest. You seem fun and nice and apparently you have some solid opinions on action movies. But if you hurt Barry, I’m going to hurt you.”

She’d like to claim that he’s not at all menacing in his Boogie Nights vintage t-shirt, but the way his eyes stare, she honestly believes he could bury her in a ditch and no-one would know.

“I wouldn’t-” she admits, more honest than she was intending. She clears her throat. “I mean, I couldn’t , even if-. It’s not like that. He can’t get hurt by me .”

He watches her silently, and she tries to keep her expression friendly and innocent, rather than kind of freaked out. Caitlin emerges from the toilets, followed closely by Linda. Cisco says when she reaches them,  cryptically, “I don’t think she actually does have any idea, Caitlin.”

“I told you,” she hisses in reply to him out of the side of her mouth, then looking guiltily away from Iris’ confusion.

She feels kind of sick as she realises what they’re getting at. “I know he’s in love with Patty, okay?” she says, and it comes out sharper than she means. She ignores the sympathetic look from Linda as she sits beside her. “I’m not trying to get in the way of that, or whatever. It’s just casual, I swear.”

Cisco looks at her with what seems like disbelief: maybe he doesn’t believe that she’s casual about it, which, Iris is struggling to believe this days as well. Iris is saved from any further discussion by the return of Wally and Barry bearing huge pitchers of beer.

The rest of the game, thankfully, passes without much event. Although there is one moment where Caitlin goes into some crazy rage mode when she misses her last strike, at least no-one is interrogating Iris about her relationship with Barry anymore.

Barry and Iris are the first to go change their shoes back, and Iris nudges him as they wait in the queue. "This was nice," she says. "Hanging with your friends. They're cool."

"Yeah." He smiles down at her, their height difference accentuated when she's only in her socks, holding the rented pair of shoes in her hand. "They're my best friends, I knew you'd get on with them."

There's no other way to interpret that other than Barry obviously wants all his friends to get along with each other, even apparently the ones he's sleeping with, which is terribly sweet of him,. But then for some reason that makes her worry he's sleeping with some of his other friends - she's not sure how his schedule would work if he meets with them with the same frequency he's with Iris, but that doesn't stop her mind whirling.

She's lost in this train of thought when Barry starts clicking his fingers in front of her face. "Iris? You in there?"

"Sorry, I spaced out for a second." He's still only smiling fondly down at her, so hopefully he's not thinking she's a completely stupid. "What were you saying?"

"Just that I liked your friends, too. Linda's really fun."

She's still wrapped up in thinking of Barry sleeping with other people - after all, they never said anything about exclusivity, which Iris is definitely regretting now - which is why she just blurts out, "Do you want her number? She's single at the moment, I think."

Barry seems to freeze. Oh god , she thinks, oh god please don't say yes .

"I don't." He clears his throat, looks actively repulsed by the idea, which Iris will be offended about on behalf of his friend just as soon as relief stops coursing through her body. "No, I'm not- I don't want to ask Linda out."

She remembers Patty, but figured that if he was sleeping with Iris, he probably wasn't sticking to purity and monogamy. Because she also apparently hates herself, she adds, "Okay, no worries. That would be weird because she's my friend anyway. But, you know, it's cool if you want to see other people." She makes a gesture that hopefully expresses how chill and cool and totally not clingy she is. “Obviously.”

"Right," he says, sounding suddenly very tense. " Obviously. "

Silence fills between them, and Iris has the sense she's said something very wrong. Barry barely looks at her as they collect their shoes, and she doesn't know how to fix this. Was she annoying him by bringing up something he thought was clear? She's not sorry she said it, confirmed it verbally so at least she could stop any unwelcome surprises.

So when the group is breaking up, Wally going back to his car to go home and Linda going to her work at a nearby smoothie bar, Iris tugs on Barry's hand to stop him from starting to walk back with Cisco and Caitlin. "You want to come back to mine?" She asks, dipping her voice down low. He searches her face for a long moment, leaving more than enough time for her to start fretting he was going to say no (in all their time together, neither of them had ever said 'no' to meeting or fucking, only 'can't right now but later?' or 'give me ten minutes' or something similar).

“Sure,” he says, finally, breaking into that small smile that makes his whole face crinkle.

(She only notices they don’t let go of each other’s hands when she has to fumble in her bag for her keys to get into the Kappa house.)

They're on their way to go straight upstairs, but there's still some weird tension from earlier, so Iris asks, "Do you want a drink or something? I have some leftover pizza in the fridge if you want that."

"No, I'm-" Barry starts, before his stomach ruins whatever denial he was about to make with a loud, obnoxious growl.

Iris lets out a little laugh, and says, "Yeah, I'll get it for you. Do you want it heated or cold?"

"Heated, I guess, if that's okay." She waves for him to go upstairs and wait in her room (partly because he looks awkward in the house built for sorority girls, not six-foot-over lanky boys, and partly because she doesn't want him to run into Felicity for fear of losing him to a two hour conversation about video games). As the microwave spins, Iris checks her emails on her phone absent-mindedly.

FROM: Mason Assistant Editor

SUBJECT: IRIS THE SPORTS AND WHATS ON SECTIONS FOR TOMORROWS DEADLINE DELETED

She begins to panic, reading through the rest of Masons email. Apparently someone had been using the newsroom office to download illegal copies of Game of Thrones , and had deleted the final copy of the sports pages and the ‘what’s on in Central City’ section. The microwave beeps and Iris barely looks at the plate as she carries it upstairs, heart beating fast. The deadline's the day after tomorrow, and the original documents of the articles have been saved, but it all needs proof-reading and placing. Mason's recovering the pictures now, but no-one else is in the office, and as chief editor this kind of crisis is exactly her problem.

As she opens the door to her room, she's momentarily distracted from her impending stress migraine by the pleasant sight of Barry's bent over ass. He straightens when he hears her come in, unfortunately, holding a book in his hands when he spins around. "You read HG Wells?"

"Of course!" she grins, momentarily forgetting her dilemma as she hands him his pizza. "Dude, War of the Worlds is my favourite."

"I was always more of a Time Machine fan," he muses, taking the first bite of the margherita slice and turning her dog-eared copy over in his other hand.

She's desperate to sink into the image in front of her: Barry, with warm pizza, on her bed, discussing literature. If he could eat her out afterwards, she thinks she'd die happy. But she's reminded of her code red situation when another email pops up from Mason, simply titled 'HELP'.

"Listen, I'm really sorry," she says. "But something just came up with the newspaper and I have to get all the copies done by the day after tomorrow. Do you mind if I start work on it now? You're welcome to chill here and finish your pizza!" she adds quickly, when he looks like he's about to hurry away.

He relaxes back against her bed, stretches his legs along the mattress. He waves the book at her. "Do you mind if I just stay here for a bit? I haven't read this in ages, and I think my neighbour's having some kind of LAN party. I can smell the Mountain Dew through my wall."

She laughs. "Okay, that's fair."

She sits down at her desk, and to her credit, only procrastinates from even starting up the laptop for a few moments, caught in the sight of Barry's brow furrowing at the pages of one of her favourite books. It must be a book-lover thing, the way that Barry turning the pages makes her squirm slightly in her desk chair.

She manages to focus on her laptop eventually, and starts going through the pages. She vaguely remembers stuff she'd changed from the first time she edited them, but it’s still a long task ahead of her.

It’s almost three hours later when she feels a hand on her shoulder, jolting her back into the present. “Shit, I’m so sorry,” she says, thinking he’s saying his goodbye, obviously bored with a fuck buddy too busy on her laptop.

“Come on,” he says, quietly and by the side of her face. She’s frowning so hard at the screen she’s probably etching wrinkles into her skin, and she’s gnawing on a pen she’s not even sure is hers. “The article will still be there in the morning.”

“No, I need to-” His nose gently brushes against her cheek and his arms start rubbing into the sore spots of her shoulder she hadn’t even noticed. She lets out a groan as his thumb presses into a hard knot of her muscles. “I- oh right there -  have to finish this.”

“Come to bed,” he breathes. “All of it will be there in the morning, I promise.” It’s not even particularly seductive but when his hand trails down to clasp gently around her wrist and tug her up out of her chair, she follows willingly, only just realising how tired she really is. She immediately presses into him as he shuts off the laptop, and she lets him unzip her dress and let it pool down to her feet while she just presses her face into his throat. His big hands rub up and down her back, and he reaches for one of his own large t-shirts left behind after so many nights for her to slip into. She stifles a yawn against his collarbone. “Maybe bed would be nice,” she allows softly, and she can feel the exhale of laughter leave his chest.

They clamber in under the sheets together, after Barry shucks his jeans, t-shirt and socks, and he molds himself around her. She’s always found spooning weird with previous boyfriends; Eddie had snored, and she has a tendency to get cold feet. But Barry feels like curling up in front of a coal fire in winter, just warm enough to be comfortable. She’s asleep before she even knows it.

 

She wakes with her arm thrown over his chest, using his bicep as a surprisingly comfortable pillow. She snuffles into his collarbone for a moment, and hears the soft exhale of laughter. She blinks her eyes open blearily and sees him watching her with a fond smile. Forcing herself not to panic about the easy intimacy of last night, she presses a kiss just about his nipple, and then leans up to kiss his mouth, close-lipped against morning breath.

“Let me just grab a toothbrush,” she whispers, unwilling to break the comfortable spell of early morning light and soft sheets twisting around them.

“I mean, I wasn’t gonna say anything…” he teases, and she smacks his stomach, trying to hold back her laughter. “Don’t suppose you have a spare?”

She chucks him one still in its packaging from her closet, and he follows her to the bathroom. He stands behind her facing the mirror, and wordlessly holds out his brush for her to put the paste on. There's a brief squabble about whether one should wet the brush before the paste or vice versa, which ends with them both brushing their teeth just a beat off sync and Barry waggling his eyebrows at their reflection. Iris hip checks him, trying to wordlessly tell him to stop it before she starts laughing with a foam-filled mouth, to which he responds by elbowing her and causing her to spit all over the mirror. He quickly spits into the sink so he can laugh at her properly as she tries to clean the mirror with toilet paper, telling him to shut it while fighting her own smile.

It's never been this easy before. Eddie was never cruel, nor were many other of her ex-flames, but she was so often awkward, afraid to meet them without make-up or eat anything spicier than their serving. She supposes there's never been that pressure of dating with Barry. Even if they were dating, she muses as he pulls her into a kiss, backing her across the hallway and into her bedroom again, she thinks it would be easy. She thinks it would involve dorky movies and chilli eating contests and staying-in-bed-all-weekend. He gently pushes her onto the bed and she reaches up for him. She's just getting confused by the domesticity, she decides, realising she's still wearing his massive high school Mathletes t-shirt. He follows her gaze, and his smile ticks up at the edges.

"I can't believe you were actually part of the Mathletes," she says to break the silence.

He makes a self-deprecating huff. "Yeah, guess I was kind of asking to get beat up."

It sort of breaks Iris' heart when he says stuff like that so casually. She remembers school as a fun place, full of new possibilities and friendships and relationships. She hates that for Barry it's something else entirely. She reaches up to kiss him, more gentle than she usually is. He lowers himself over her, not quite heavy enough to crush her but close enough to make her feel wrapped up in him. She feels like she's falling, and it's awful, because she has to reconcile this tenderness with the image of Patty always stored in the back of her mind.

He starts kissing gently down her stomach, pushing up the t-shirt to reveal bare skin and bracketing her rib cage with his forearms. "Iris?" he asks her belly button, somewhat hesitantly, at odds with his previous teasing demeanour.

"Yeah?" The way he hovers just above her, so careful not to smother her, makes her feel abhorrently tender.

"Don't-" His voice breaks a little, presumably from having just woken, and he clears his throat. "I know you don't want to be exclusive or anything, but, maybe we should tell each other when we're sleeping with other people."

Iris feels her good mood fragment. The truth is that she'd like nothing more than to be exclusive, something she only realises in that instant. But she keeps her tone aloof, "Oh yeah?" She expects the worse, that this is when Barry will come clean about the harem of women he has on the side. Logically she knows she's being ridiculous, and that Barry is far too kind and honest for that. But she'd thought she was safe with Eddie as well, and look how that turned out.

She’s been struggling for a while with how to discreetly suggest to Barry that she understands when he finally gets his chance with Patty (eventually that girl's going to realise what she's missing out on), she doesn’t want him to owe her anything. Maybe something to let her know he won’t be coming round anymore, but she doesn’t think she could stand it if he treated it like a break-up. This idea of telling each other their other partners might be a way to enable that kind of brief honesty, so she thinks she could go for it.

"Yeah." He's staring up at her with these eyes that make her wonder whether she maybe should just blurt it out, to hell with it, that she doesn't want him seeing anyone else.

Before she does, his jaw sets with determination and he leans down.

"You see," he whispers, the air suddenly charged with something else entirely. He kisses the skin just underneath her ribcage, a peck at first that dissolves into a sucking, messy action that makes her writhe. “When I leave a mark on you-” When he lets go of her skin, he moves less than an inch away so his warm breath ghosts over the sensitive skin. “-I want to know it’s my mark.” Her neck arches, pushing her scalp into the pillow, as she lets out a low groan.

“Well,” she says, breathlessly, aiming for casual but ending in a whimper when his fingers move to her folds. “How can I argue with that logic?”

 

DECEMBER

LAUREL: I just saw your boyfriend on campus and he legitimately almost busted his face on a street light.

YOU: is he okay???

YOU: also, not my boyfriend

LAUREL: Yes you goof. He just kind of realised at the last second and twirled around it, but seriously? How are you so infatuated with him? Dude's like a giraffe learning to walk

YOU: giraffes are cute???

She’s smiling down at her phone when she walks into the news office. She waves at Mason, who looks to be struggling with the front page formatting if his screen is to be believed, and walks over to her own desk. She’s looking at her things to do for today, and sees a post-it stuck to her computer screen: ‘meeting w/ volunteer clean-up crew, 10:00’.

She frowns at it for a second, written in the messy scrawl of Thea, the newspaper secretary, before translating it to refer to the meeting she has scheduled in with the head of the Volunteering Committee, something about writing an article to encourage recruitment for the ‘Central City Clean-Up’ going on in a few months. Iris keeps meaning to commit herself to helping, but she has a couple of deadlines due the next day, and isn’t particularly that keen on walking round and picking up litter.

Checking the time, she sees that she only has a few moments until the meeting, so she quickly gets her notepad ready and pulls over a spare chair. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a pop-up notification on IM from Linda, something that starts with ‘!!!! INCOMING...’, but she ignores it in favour of walking over to the vending machine to get a cup of coffee.

As the hot water runs down into her mug, (‘World’s Worst Sister’ above a picture of her and Wally at the zoo when they were kids, him screaming while she tries to feed him to some ostriches) she hears a strangely familiar voice. “Iris?” She turns, and tries to keep her expression calm even as her stomach turns to lead. She should’ve guessed this, really.

Standing in front of her, clearly the Head of the Volunteering Committee, is Patty Spivot. At this point, Iris wouldn’t be surprised if Patty just straight up vomited world peace and rode around on a unicorn made of happiness.

“Hey, Patty,” Iris says, and offers her hand for a handshake that gets ignored when Patty pulls her into a hug. Of course .

“Iris, oh my gosh! I can’t believe we haven’t seen each other since high school, how mad is that?” She stands back and then awkwardly, yet charmingly, says, “Sorry if I’m blabbering on, people say I can get a bit overfriendly sometimes.”

“It’s fine,” Iris says, stilted compared to the effervescence of Patty. “So, you’re here for the volunteering article?”

They wander back to Iris’ desk and Patty, enthusiastically, starts talking about how all the changes the Volunteering Committee have made. “I mean,” she says, self-deprecating, “I only joined at first for my resume, like I’m sure most people do. I want to be in the police force, you know?”

“Oh?” Iris asks, glad for something to add to this conversation. “My dad’s a detective, you know, I’m sure if you wanted some work experience I could talk to him.”

“Seriously?” Patty looks at Iris like she’s just dropped the cure to cancer on her lap. “That would be amazing!”

Iris smiles. Patty does seem genuine, and as much as she has her own personal, petty reasons for disliking her, reasons she barely wants to admit out loud, Iris finds herself warming to her. “Sure. What field are you interested in?”

Then Patty says, “Forensic science, really,” and Iris abruptly feels that dark resentment seep back into her veins.

“Really?” Iris says, trying to sound disinterested. “You know, I think Barry Allen’s interested in that as well. Have you seen him lately?”

Patty frowns. “Barry…Allen?” Then her face clears. “Oh, from high school? I mean, he’s in some of my lectures, but I haven’t really talked to him since we were AP Chemistry partners.” She digresses into a story that sounds funny in a ‘you had to be there’ kind of way, something about how she and Barry had the bright idea of using methane and ended up turning the school laboratory into a stink bomb. Iris is about to change the subject, feeling as if she’s done her ‘good friend’ part by even bringing Barry up to the love of his life, when Patty adds, “Do you still talk to him, then?”

“Oh, kind of,” Iris replies airily. “I see him about now and then.”

“You know, that reminds me, I saw him on Facebook the other day. He’s kind of cute now,” Patty says, and then looks flustered, even embarrassed. Iris feels like she’s watching a volcano explode from a nearby town. “I mean, he definitely looks good.”

“Yeah,” Iris says, tonelessly.

Patty clearly takes Iris’ behaviour in a different way than she means, and hurriedly adds, “I don’t even know him though! I’m not a creeper, I swear. And I’ve only just broken up with my boyfriend, it would probably be too soon to look for someone else, right?”

“Right,” Iris agrees, even though her brain is stuck on a loop of, ‘broken up with my boyfriend’. Mental ability has clearly left her, which is the only explanation for why she says, “I think he’s single, you know. I mean, if you were interested.”

The way Patty’s eyes light up haunts Iris for days.

 

It has become rare that either Iris or Barry will text the other just for a booty call these days, which Iris hasn't even realised consciously until she receives a text from Barry that simply reads: 'I'm coming over.'

She doesn't like the way her stomach twists at that, like she wasn't sending him similar messages a month or so ago. But even disregarding the bluntness of the message, it's completely unlike Barry to not be asking rather than demanding, or at least check she's up for it as well.

But whatever, maybe she's just misreading the message. And she's just out of the shower, newly shaven and feeling fresh. She's kind of tired, but she's not going to say no to a free orgasm, even if it feels a little rushed. She slips into some leggings and a loose t-shirt, not bothering with underwear since she's expecting something quick and desperate from his text. She sends back, 'okay i'm in my room' and there's a knock on her door just five or ten minutes later.

When she opens the door, she's immediately grabbed into a fierce kiss. She makes a small noise of surprise into his lips before putting her hands on his shoulders, trying to slow him down. He's not sweaty or excitable like he is after a run, and usually he'll tell her about the experiment before coming over to celebrate its success. She pulls back a little from him, and actually tugs a little at his scalp when he buries his face in her neck, not even kissing the skin there.

"Barry?" She asks, quietly. "What's going on?"

She's certainly not expecting to hear a quiet sob, muffled by her shoulder. Her heart seems to actually tighten, and she immediately starts stroking the back of his neck, making little soothing noises instinctively.

"Barry?" She asks again. "Bear?"

His shoulder shake minutely underneath her arm, and she squeezes him tightly.

"Come on," she breathes and eases him towards her bed. She sits him down on the bed and climbs onto his lap, curling her legs and arms around him. She hopes this is helping him, not crushing or smothering him, but she's encouraged by the way he sinks into her, shaking beneath her hold.

“Sorry,” he mumbles into her neck, but she just shushes him, tells him it’s fine. “I shouldn’t have- I wasn’t thinking straight. I would never use you like that, Iris. Never.”

“I know,” she says, and she does, she truly does. She understands now that’s what threw her off so much about the text message and that kiss. In all their time together, Barry has never just taken from her, never taken without giving. “Barry, please tell me what’s going on.”

“It’s, uh.” He pulls away from her slightly though his arms remain wrapped around her back, and she moves her hands to soothe at his shoulders. “My mom.”

“Oh.” She suddenly gets it. The anniversary of his mother’s death: she vaguely remembers around this time last year her dad going to visit the Allens. She squeezes his upper arms. “Oh god, Barry.”

“I was on my way to the grave, and I just-” He thunks his head back against her collarbone, like he can’t even hope for eye contact when so vulnerable. “I don’t know, it all just got on top of me and I just wanted to get out of my own head. I just wanted to ignore it. But I can’t.”

“No, you can’t,” Iris admits quietly. Thanks to the world’s injustice, dead mothers is something she and Barry have in common. She’s sometimes thought about whether it would be worse or better losing her own mother later, similar to when Barry lost his - she was too young to even remember the funeral, but she thinks she’d like some memories of her alive, apart from the faint voice in her dreams or the photo she has on her desktop with her mother, pregnant with Wally and clutching Iris so tightly, beaming at the camera.  She has a thought, and voices it before she can think better: "Do you want me to come with you?"

His chin jolts up, eyes flitting over her face. "You'd do that?"

"Of course," she replies, too honest to mask her tone but too cowardly to voice the other part of that sentence, the part where there's not much she wouldn't do for Barry Allen anymore. "I can drive. Where is she?"

"Central cemetery," he says after a pause, where he must find whatever he was looking for in her expression.

"Okay then." She follows her instinct and gives him a quick, chaste kiss on his forehead, holding his jaw carefully. "Let's go. Do you want to get some flowers for her on the way?"

He shakes his head. "I already have some."

She carefully climbs off him and takes his hands to help him up as well; he can undoubtedly stand by himself, but she's hesitant to let go of him. They make it to where her car is parked, a second-hand little piece of machinery that breaks down as often as it runs smoothly. She prays to whatever god is listening that it doesn't fail them on the way to the cemetery.

"This was the first year he was going to come as well," he quietly admits to his lap as she drives. At her confused quiet, he explains, "My dad. He- he finds today difficult in other ways."

Of course: Henry Allen didn't just watch his wife be killed on this day, he also went to prison for it, in one of the greatest pieces of unfairness Iris has ever encountered. She hasn't really seen Henry since one barbecue just before she left for college. She remembers him quiet and withdrawn, a little haggard and his laughter a little too sharp. The Mr Allen she remembers from before the incident was happy, always willing to teach her new things or make her a glass of soda when she was thirsty. Again she finds herself wishing she was more present in Barry's life before whatever they have now, less immature and more perceptive of his suffering.

It's about an hour's drive from campus; they barely talk and Iris doesn't push Barry for any conversation. They arrive and Iris parks across the street. She sees Barry nervously wipe his hands on his thighs.

"Do you want me to wait in the car?" she asks, not wanting to intrude.

"I don't know," he says honestly. "I've gone by myself before, but usually Joe will come say hi to her. He used to know her, so." He stops awkwardly, and she's just as unsure as he is.

"My dad usually comes with you?"

"Yeah," he fidgets uncomfortably, as if he's worried she'll be cross. How could she? Her dad has plenty of love to share around - she's glad he was there for Barry. "He had to work tonight, though."

"Well," she says, carefully, after a pause. "Maybe you could introduce me to her? And then I could leave you guys alone to chat."  

"Yeah," he says, and then stronger, "Yeah, okay."

They find Nora Allen a few minutes along the main path, nestled between a large angel sculpture and another similarly simple headstone. Even her message is brief ("Mother, daughter, friend. Loved by all.") and Iris feels kind of sick when she realises the 'wife' part is missing, presumably because the stone was etched when Henry was still being charged.

"Hey, mom," Barry says, crouching down in front of the stone, and gently placing down the bouquet of peonies. "It's been another year, and-" He pauses. Iris is still standing behind him, so it takes him wiping at his eyes to realise he's crying. She wishes her dad were here; he'd know what to do.

But she follows her instincts again, thinks of how she'd comfort anyone she loved, and kneels down beside him. The recent rain makes the mud seep through her jeans, but she can't find it in her to care. "Hi, Mrs Allen," she says, reaching over to grasp Barry's hand and hold it on her thigh tightly. She reaches out her free hand and touches the side of the stone with the light press of her fingertips. He squeezes their linked fingers, and she continues. "I'm Iris West. I believe you know my dad? It's a pleasure to see you again."

Later, Iris leaves him to wander around. Usually she’d play some game, like make up stories for names and characters, but it all feels a little morbid when Barry’s mother is one of those people, not only buried but killed in a fantastical way that detective stories only dream of. She eventually just leans back against an old oak tree, close enough to see Barry and watch his body language but far enough that she doesn’t hear what he’s saying. At one point he turns, mouth still moving, to catch Iris’s eye. She assumes he’s trying to get her attention and she pushes off the trunk, but he just turns back to the gravestone, and she realises with a start that he’s talking about her.

She just hopes he’s not revealing too much about their relationship.

He eventually walks up to her, and leans on the tree beside her. Wordlessly, she reaches out to take his hand, letting her thumb stroke the patch of skin it can reach. “Thanks for coming,” he says eventually.

It’s dark, now, and getting kind of creepy because of it. He takes a deep breath and lets it out, and she knows he’s probably about to suggest they go back. She doesn’t want that, not yet, doesn’t want to split off from him when he’s like this, vulnerable and exposed and pained. So she tugs at his hand gently and suggests, “Want to get a milkshake or something? I know a great place nearby.”

The so-called ‘great place’ is actually shut, which makes Iris curse their name and shake her fist at their opening hours sign as they drive past, which makes Barry laugh, so. Not a total loss. They have to drive around for at least twenty minutes trying to find a place that is both open until at least 10pm and acceptable (“Iris, just because they don’t serve peanut butter flavour does not make them ‘the devil incarnate.”) They eventually settle on a little fast-food joint just off the highway, and they squeeze into a booth while a bored teenager, chewing gum, gives them their menus.

Iris is wary of staying too far away from Barry, since physical touch is the main way she feels capable in giving comfort in, but she also doesn’t want to smother him. He must notice her fidgeting, because, managing to roll his eyes without tuning his face away from examining the menu, he says, “Come here,” and lifts his arm. She only realises the ramifications after she fits neatly to his side, but she tells herself that it’s just friendly contact. She determinedly does not think he smells good, because that is not friendly contact. Clear boundaries are what got them this far.

They both order chocolate cookie shakes when their waitress comes back around, and Iris adds on, “And some blueberry pancakes, thanks. To share.” When Barry gives her an odd look, she pokes him (the closest space is his chest) and declares, “Carbs. Sugar. You need them.”

“You two are cute,” the middle-aged woman says, though she doesn’t sound like she means it, and whisks away before Iris can even try to correct her. How could she even correct her? They’re cuddling in a milkshake booth. She doesn’t think she had a boyfriend in high school who didn’t take her to a similar place.

But, like she said: clear boundaries. So she shifts away when their food comes, in case her hand gets a mind of its own and tries to feed Barry chunks of syrupy pancake, and she doesn’t even threaten to try and steal some of his milkshake.

He’s quieter than usual, but he definitely doesn’t look as haunted as he did when he first came into her room, so Iris congratulates herself for that. He begins, “Seriously, Iris, thank you-”

“It’s fine,” she says, shushing him. “Come on, you’d do the same for me.”

“Of course,” he says, without even a beat of hesitation or touch of a tremor in his voice.

It hits her, all of a sudden, that he would. Not just because they’re undeniably close friends by now, but because he’s just that kind of person. The type who remembers her breaking his school project but would never question forgiving her for it. The type who reads science fiction novels and trips over air sometimes and has the definition of an athlete but never seems bothered by it. The type who smiles with his whole damn body sometimes. The type she-

Oh, fuck .

She stares down at her empty glass while Barry excuses himself to go the bathroom, quietly freaking the fuck out. She wants to date Barry Allen. She wants to go on dumb milkshake dates and she wants to be there for the next anniversary of his mom’s death and she wants him all to herself.

Her head thunks back against the firm leather cushioning of the booth and, with the power of hindsight, wonders how she didn’t see this coming. How she thought she could possibly keep sex and feelings separate with anyone, never mind with someone who could honestly either blow himself up or earn a Nobel prize in the school labs, someone who reads her newspaper and tells her what he thought was a particularly good article this week, someone who manages to make her come three times and then laugh until her sides hurt.

She feels like an idiot. But even as her stomach feels like lead and her own mind berates herself, she can’t help the way adrenaline shoots through her when Barry comes back from the bathroom, or stop the little bubble of hope that emerges when he smiles at her.

Fuck , she thinks again.

When she gets home, luckily saved from having to keep her mind on conversation by Barry’s own silence, she decides to make a list.

Whenever life throws Iris a curveball, she’ll find herself writing it all down. She’s always been the type to need to put pen to paper: an apology to her dad for staying out past curfew came in the form of writing a letter and slipping it under his bedroom door; revising for exams was always done with notecards and notebooks; and if she’s struggling with editing an essay or an article, she’ll print it off and jot down edits or suggestions on a physical copy.

So she gets out a fresh page of college-ruled A4 and writes, at the top of the page, ‘Pros/Cons of Dating Barry’.

PROS:

 -We already have amazing sex? But if we dated, he would only be having amazing sex with me!

-Continued point: less risk of STIs with exclusivity. More sex!

- He’s proven to be a good cuddler

-We talk all the time anyway

-Could set our friends up and go on double dates

CONS:

 -Dad would be so annoying

-What if he didn’t get on with Wally? What if they got on TOO well?

-Sometimes his hair looks dumb

-Could break up with me

 She stares at that last point for a while, before screwing up the piece of paper and stuffing it into her jacket, undressing for bed.

 

Of course, this is naturally when everything blows up in her face.

She decides to carefully and safely deposit the whole ‘I like Barry so much I kind of want to hold his hands in public and look at his dumb face all the time’ to one side. It’s not that she’s scared (though she is), it’s more that she doesn’t want to disturb the amazing thing they’ve already got going. There just doesn’t seem to be much pressure for anything to change.

It’s her own fault, she’ll think later. She’s duped herself into relaxing into this unlabelled thing between them, this thing where she can always message him and see him and kiss him. She should have realised it couldn’t last. She should’ve remembered that Patty is recently single.

She’s on her way to campus for a lecture, still high on the memory of the night before last, falling asleep with Barry after a particularly fun round of sex to the background noise of a classic John Carpenter movie in the background. She’s walking past the coffee shop when she sees them.

She has to stop, across the street from them, staring into the window. Everything feels like it’s going too quickly around her. Someone bumps into her but she can’t find it in her to care about the sniping remark the collision causes.

Barry is sitting at a table just inside, next to the wall-length window so there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. Opposite him, across from the two coffee cups between them, sits Patty.

Patty’s smiling, leaning forward with her elbows on the table and her chiselled chin in her hands. She’s laughing at something Barry’s saying, all long limbs and big hand gestures. Patty’s accidentally knocks her cup of tea and it spills, and they both jump a little bit, laughing. It’s the perfect meet-cute, an awkward but memorable date for Barry. Because it is a date, that much is definitely clear.

A date that she and Barry have never been on.

Iris aches . No matter how much she tells herself it was expected, that she’d been preparing herself for this, she feels like she’s been punched.

Her limbs feel too heavy, and she spins quickly when she sees Barry start to turn his head. It’s a busy street, and he’s probably just looking at something in the shop, but god, her feelings are undoubtedly written all over her fucking face. She makes her way onto her lecture as originally, though, how on earth she’s supposed to be able to concentrate on the historiography of literature is beyond her. She can’t get it out of her head, the way Barry had smiled when Patty split that drink. She’s seen that smile so many time before, but never directed at someone other than herself.

She hugs her binder closer to her chest, like a shield. She feels adrift, as if her plans have been ruined. Except, she scoffs at herself, what plans is she referring to? She had no plan. She didn’t even mean to start a fuck-buddy-relationship, never mind plan to make it something more. If she’s honest, Iris is completely at a loss here.

So she’s going to do exactly what she’s been doing for the past month: ignore any complications Barry Allen brings into her life. She’s not going to get her heart broken again. She stuffs a hand into her jacket and realises the screwed up PROS/CONS list is still there; as she walks past a trashcan on campus, she throws it in.

She somehow makes it through the day, keeping herself busy with school and a shift at work. Her boss asks her if she’s feeling okay after barely saying a word for the entire five hours, but Iris plasters a smile on and shakes her head, blaming a bad night’s sleep. It’s almost a disappointment when she makes it home, with nothing else to distract her. She texts Linda a brief, ‘u up for going out tonight?’ only to get a reply fifteen minutes later, ‘sorry got to power through an essay at the library’.

For once, Iris actually curses her ability to get everything finished way before the deadlines. She’s read all the books on her shelves and she’s too wired to sleep. Nothing good is on TV, or Netflix, and she doesn’t particularly feel like hanging out with any of her sorority sisters. She’s resigned herself to attempting yoga using youtube videos, when her phone buzzes with an incoming text.

Her heart sinks when she reads the screen.

BARRY: want to come over?

This is it, then. The inevitable ‘we shouldn’t do this anymore’ talk. At least he’s doing it in person, because obviously he’s still kind, and must have an idea by now of how gone she is over him.

But she’s a little surprised that he’s decided to make her come to him, which is why she replies, bluntly, ‘at home doing yoga.’

BARRY: now there’s a mental image.

She finds herself smiling, before remembering the situation, and abruptly wanting to throw her phone at the wall along with all of Barry’s mixed messages.Why on earth is he flirting with her when he’s got the girlfriend of his dreams now? She decides to just not reply to him and directs her attention to watching cute dog videos on Youtube until she feels sleepy. She also decides to treat herself and order takeaway, a large pizza with extra hot sauce on it. It’s not like she needs to watch her figure for anyone anymore. It’s only a matter of time now before Barry officially calls this whole thing off, confusing texts or not.  

So when a knock comes from her door, she's certainly surprised to see not the usual pizza delivery girl, but Barry. She almost whimpers when she sees he's wearing a navy cardigan over a t-shirt, as if he chose today's outfit to deliberately disarm her. He grins at her and she has little time to react before he's leaning forward and taking her lips in a sparking kiss. 

“What are you doing here?” she asks, though she only gets as far as ‘doing-’ before he kisses her again, moving them back into her bedroom a little.

Then he seems to register what she’s saying and he pulls back, confused. “Wait,” he says. “Is- Was that- Did I misread that text?”

“What text?”

“The one where you implied you were stretching in yoga pants!” he replies, a tad desperately. He slowly slides his hands away from her jaw, backing away. “Fuck. I’m sorry, I’ll go. I didn’t mean-”

She knows she should stay strong and allow him to go. It’ll be easier in the long run. But he’s already here, she thinks to herself as she reaches out to haul him back in, and it’ll be one last fix. Something to remember him for.

Obviously, he and Patty aren’t exclusive yet. Maybe he wants to play hard to get, even show up with a hickey to make Patty jealous. But Iris pushes away that thought as soon as it crosses her mind - Barry wouldn’t do that. He’s the master of mixed messages but she’s almost sure it’s unintentional, that he has no idea the effect he has on women.

Her hands reach around his back, already pulling at his t-shirt so she can see him as naked as possible, as quickly as possible, when another knock comes from the door. He pulls away from her. “How many men did you tell about your yoga?”

She rolls her eyes. “That’s the pizza, idiot. I’m afraid you’re the only one to come running at the idea of me in the downward dog.”

She thinks she hears him mutter, “I sincerely doubt it,” but she ignores him in favour of paying the delivery boy and collecting her pizza.

She realises how pig-like she probably looks with such a large portion, and she starts to lie, “It was on offer, and I was going to save some for-”

“Is that from Bellagio’s?” he exclaims, already reaching out to open the lid. He takes a deep inhale. “Oh man, their thin crust is so good. What topping did you get?”

“Buffalo, with extra hot sauce,” she says, offering the cardboard box towards him. “You want some?”

“Ah, I’m not great with spice,” he says.

“Oh,” she says, feeling embarrassed. She had a boyfriend in middle school who used to imply it was weird for her to like such spicy things, and made them eat at his place so he wouldn’t be awkward around her dad’s amazing cooking. “Well, never mind, I don’t even like it that much-”

“No, hang on, I am starving, I’m just warning you if I go into shock,” he grins, daintily stealing a piece and raising it to his lips. He takes a bite, and she waits. Even she finds the extra hot sauce a little much with Bellagio’s infamous buffalo servings, so she’s surprised when he says, quite calmly, “Oh, it’s not too bad. A bit of tingling- Oh god.”

She can’t help laughing, bent over and loud, as he throws the slice back in the box and runs across the hall to the bathroom, ducking his head under the tap and letting the stream of water pour into his mouth.

“Shall I get some milk?” she asks, trying for a straight face and innocent tone even as giggles threatens to bubble out.

His reply is garbled around the tap water, and she has to run down to the kitchen to get the promised milk before she falls over in her laughter.

After he’s guzzled down almost two pints of water, and she’s given him a quick kiss to make him feel better, they sit on her bed, side by side, Barry still fanning at his mouth (though she has a suspicion it’s just to make her laugh).

“I can’t believe you can eat that stuff,” he says. “Who knew? Iris West, tongue of steel.”

“Well,” she says, never one to turn down a cheesy line when she can help it, and climbs over his legs to straddle his lap. “That’s not the only thing this tongue is good for.”

“Oh yeah?” He’s grinning, and outright laughs when she sticks the aforementioned tongue out between her teeth. He reaches up to gently cradle her jawline in his hands, achingly tender in the worst way, and she leans down to kiss him like it’s second nature. It’s comfortable, and barely sexual, and easy. Kissing Barry like this is like coming home, she thinks, or like climbing into a warm bed.

He moves his hands to her waist, then the cheeks of her ass, and she almost accidentally pushes her crotch down, rubbing sinuously against him. He lets out a little huff of a gasp against her mouth, despite the layers of jeans separating them, and the kiss turns more heated. She can’t get enough of him, and it’s starting to feel a little like she’ll never be able to get one last fix.

Her brain-to-mouth filter isn’t working (she blames his hands and mouth for that), so as he moves to kissing her neck and she’s trying to keep herself afloat, keep herself from falling into the easy pit of caring so much for him, she asks, “So, how was your date with Patty?” breathless from his kisses. He pauses in pulling her shirt over her head and she suddenly realises how stupid and needy she probably sounds.

“You want to hear about my date with Patty?” He asks, hands still fisted in the fabric by her ribs. Her hands are raised in anticipation for the nakedness, and she realises how ridiculous they both look frozen like this.

“Um,” she says. “I mean, whatever, if you want to talk about it.”

“Not really,” he says, giving her a look like she’s grown another head.

She flexes her fingers and smacks her lips slightly. “Alright then.”

“Are you okay?” he asks. “Why do you care if I went on a date with Patty?”

“I don’t,” she says, automatically, probably too quickly, but it seems to appease him after he searches her face, and she lets herself get lost in kissing him again, in his touch and his care. She laughs against his mouth and explains, “You taste like milk.” when he leans back in question.

He snorts, leaning forward to rest against her shoulder as she giggles. He leans back up to kiss her again, and it all hits her at once, that this man eats pizza he probably won’t like, that he's never made fun of her or made her feel small, that he’s so kind and funny and clever. She opens her mouth and doesn’t even think before she says, “Barry, I lo-”

-but he's looking at her in that way he does sometimes, like she's everything to him, and she can't deal with this, can't understand how he can look like that and go be with the love of his life elsewhere. She just can't do this to herself. Even she apparently has her limits.

"You should probably go." She clambers off him like she's been burned, flinching away when he reaches out to her.

God, she's the most stupid girl in the world, thinking she could get away with this, thinking she could be happy with this. She can’t believe what she was about to say, like he would have replied anything other than awkwardly letting her down, reminding her that his true love is still Patty fucking Spivot. It's all her own fault but that doesn't stop her eyes burning as she looks anywhere else but him.

"Iris?" He sounds confused. She can't even look at him. On top of being an idiot, she's apparently also a coward.

"I don't think we should do this anymore," she says, buttoning up her shirt. “It’s not working for me.”

“I-” His voice is quiet, fragile. He’s probably feeling guilty, probably realises why she’s reacting like this, and the thought makes her eyes fill. She blinks back the hot tears, and turns to herself, forcing a smile on her face.

She knows the only way he’s going to leave is if he thinks she’s okay - they’re definitely friends by this point (and god, doesn’t the thought of losing that friendship as well make her want to hit something?) and she knows he would never leave his friend in distress. So she lifts one shoulder in as casual of a shrug as she can muster. “Listen, we’re both meeting new people now. You’ve got Patty, I’ve got someone. We always knew this was going to end.”

“We did?” he asks, sounding unsure.

She tries to tame her ruffled hair, something for her hands to do while they shake. Her heart’s beating so fast. “Yeah. I mean, just something to fill the time until we dated people properly.”

He ducks his head and is silent for a moment. When he looks up, his expression is hard, stone eyes and firm jaw. She’s never seen that look directed at her, and she has to avert her gaze to the floor, crossing her arms. “Right,” he says, voice heavy. “Just something to fill the time.”

He leaves and she sinks down onto the floor, in the middle of her room, and wraps her legs up against her chest. She presses her face into her knees and breathes deeply, but his deodorant clings to her skin in the worst kind of betrayal and she can’t help the tears from falling.

 

JANUARY

Christmas comes and goes. It’s fun to go home to her dad and get a break from university life. She ends up deleting Instagram after she sees a post from Patty, ‘saw this dude out on a run today!’ underneath a picture of her and Barry smiling with a perfect blue sky behind them. He looks happy, which, whatever. She guesses she’s happy for him, on one level. She can’t find it in herself to be too mad at him rather than herself, not when she knew from the start, not when everyone warned her from the very beginning.

She listens to a lot of Adele and Whitney Houston. She’s not proud of it.

Her dad only asks once about Barry, but when she shrugs, trying to hide but being pretty obvious in how miserable she is, he lets it go, and must warn Wally because he doesn’t bring Barry up either, even when he starts talking about the amazing engineering stuff he’s been talking to Cisco about.

She dreads going back to college, even when Linda promises her loads of nights out to meet new guys, and lots of Tequila Tuesdays.

Barry’s texted her three times, tried to call her twice. She imagines he was probably looking for a Talk, or even maybe he wanted to check she was alright, but she’s definitely not up for that conversation. So all messages have been deleted (though she knows they’re all secretly saved on her cloud if she’s ever feeling particularly self-indulgent and destructive) and all his calls go to voicemail.

She can’t quite bring herself to delete his number, though Linda’s sent her endless Cosmopolitan and Seventeen articles with various titles like ‘How to Get Over Him’ and ‘Healing a Broken Heart’ that all agree she should. Linda has also sent her links to dating websites and apps, and even tried to make her watch Erin Brockovich as a feminist anthem, except Iris has seen that movie and knows Julia Roberts still gets the guy at the end, no matter how many corporations she brings down in the process.

Linda’s actually waiting for her when she gets back to the Kappa house, standing outside her door like some kind of BFF patrol guard. “I’m okay,” Iris tries, her suitcase pulled behind her as she unlocks her door.

Linda just makes a scoffing noise at that, which, rude .

“Okay,” Iris allows. “I’m not doing wonderfully. But whatever, I need to get over it.”

“You need to get your head out of your ass!” Linda explodes, and Iris sighs. She’d been waiting for this all Christmas, having texted Linda the news because she knew Linda would consider a scolding over the phone a sub-par effort. She walks into her room, letting Linda come in behind her, and dumps her bag on the bed. She sits down next to it, as Linda stands in front of her. “Iris, why aren’t you more angry? Why on earth did you break things up with him in the first place?”

“He’s dating Patty,” Iris says, because that much is obvious at least. “He’s in love with her. Am I supposed to stand in the way of that?”

“Um, if you’re dating a guy, yes , you stand in the way of him getting with another girl!”

Iris groans and drops her head into her hands. “We weren’t dating, Linda, come on.”

"Oh my god, Iris!" Linda snaps, gesticulating and frustrated. "Even you cannot be this oblivious!"

Iris finds herself recoiling, hurt by her friend. "I don't-"

"Iris, I love you, okay, but since Eddie broke up with you you've lost all your confidence. So I'm just going to say it, and be kind of mean for a second." She leans and puts her hands on Iris's shoulders, forcing eye contact. "You were dating Barry."

Iris has to look away at that, feels cold. "Fuck off, you know we're weren’t."

"You hung out all the time! Not even having sex," she adds quickly when Iris looks about to protest.

"Because we're friends," Iris refutes, her tone miserable. "That's what friends do."

"But then you have sex, and meet all his friends, and go on dates. Iris," Linda tries finally, desperately, "Iris, he's met your father. How is this not an actual relationship?"

"The part where we were never exclusive," Iris says, beginning to get annoyed. "The part when we don't go on dates. And, most importantly, the part where he's in love with someone else, who he's just gone on a date with . "

Linda seems to deflate at that. "But I know he felt something for you, Iris. I saw you two together, it wasn’t like what you think it is."

"I know he cared for me," she replies, and she does. Because if Barry could fake can half of all the shared looks and cut off thoughts, he's not the person she thinks he is. "But we were friends that were fucking. He was bound to be confused. And anyway, how can I compare with Patty?"

She means it as just the name of the person Barry's been in love with since high school, but she finds herself thinking of a Patty who climbs mountains and volunteers at dog shelters. Someone like that deserves Barry. All she has is sex and Star Wars . That's nothing in the grand scheme of things.

“You’re so much better than her,” Linda says, loyally.

And maybe Iris is, in some ways.  But Patty is adorably awkward, like Barry, and Iris knows they’d fit. She could write a list, can picture the words forming in her mind easily, of all their similarities.

“Are they dating yet?” Iris finds herself asking. Linda’s usually pretty knowledgeable about the school gossip, so Iris is hoping for a quick, blunt truth, although she’s dreading the answer.

“Not that I’ve heard.” Linda says quietly. She comes to sit down next to Iris on the bed, and she takes hold of her hand. “But I saw them on campus walking together.”

Iris licks her lips, trying to stave off the hurt that stabs through her. She tells herself again that she saw this coming. Somehow, that fact isn’t making anything better.

She throws herself into work. She takes on extra shifts at the bakery, and tends not to go out as much. She refuses to become some kind of gothic cliché recluse, so she goes out with Linda and her sorority sisters, but house parties have to be carefully vetted for pre-meds, forensic scientists, and engineers. Iris actually, at one point, bails on a New Year’s Eve party Felicity invites her to, because it’s science-themed and Iris suspects Felicity will have invited Barry as well.

It’s such a night where most of the other girls in the house have gone out, leaving Iris at home, this time to the swim team’s place for a swimsuit-themed party. Apparently they’ve promised space heaters, but, come on, it’s January . She’ll save her bikini for summer, thanks.

There's a knock on her door and she strongly considers not opening it. The knocking comes again, though, more insistently this time, and, grumbling quietly to herself, she unfurls herself from her nest of blankets and opens it.

It's Barry.

By this point, she's been ignoring his texts and calls for about a month. She's refused to allow herself to look at the various photos she has on her phone of him, and she hasn't checked either of his two social media accounts (Facebook and a Twitter that, from what she can gather, he mainly uses to retweet Bill Nye, NASA, and an account called OMGscience. It’s unbearably adorable.) She’s avoided Cisco and Caitlin despite their contact attempts, ranging from kind (CAITLIN: How are you? We should talk xx) to rude (CISCO: i miss having a friend who studies a humanities subject) to kind of painful (CISCO: it’s not that i’m taking sides, but you’re not giving us anything to defend!!!). She’s kept her gaze straight ahead or on the floor at campus, because she know not ready to see Patty and Barry together, not ready for the final nail in the coffin that will bring.

So she's completely unprepared for the sight of him, tall and gangly and gorgeous in his rolled up plaid, looking determined at her doorway.

"You haven't been replying to my texts," he opens with, leaning one arm against the doorway.

"Um," she says, taking a step back. He takes that as a sign to move forward, and she feels like prey to a predator as he shuts her door behind him. "I didn't think there was much to say."

"You just ran out on me," he accused. "No explanation or anything."

"I didn't think I owed one," she replies, perhaps more sharp than she means.

He lets out a small frustrated sound, and runs his hand through his hair. "God, Iris. I thought-"

"You thought what?" She folds her arms, but she wants the answer so much she aches with it. She wants an explanation behind all the times he held her like he cared, all the times he asked her how her day was, all the times he looked at her like she mattered.

"I don't understand," he says. "Why'd you leave?"

She shrugs, cold and so clearly not indifferent. "Because I don't want to do this anymore."

"And what is 'this'?" he demands. "You don't want to sleep together? You don't even want to be friends anymore?"

“I could be friends,” she says tentatively, though she’s not sure how much she wants to commit to the idea. Yes, she loves Barry’s company, and she did consider them close friends, but what happens when he wants her to spend time with Patty? What if he wants advice, or even mentions Patty’s name in front of her?

“Really?” He looks sceptical. “Because friends go with each other to the TED talk that one friend got tickets for.”

She tries to keep her face impassive. Yes, of course she’d received the email reminding her that the talk she’d booked tickets for the two of them was tonight. She’d just assumed he would take Patty, and had deleted the email before she focused too much on the idea. But she thinks she’d honestly rather be left in the bottom of a well with Patty herself than go with Barry tonight, a cruel reminder of everything she was so close to having.

“Oh,” she finally decides on. “Um, sorry, I have a lot of work to do tonight, and-”

He looks pointedly over her shoulder at her computer screen, which is paused in the middle of a Buzzfeed quiz. She averts her gaze and he looks back to her with knowing, sad eyes. “You don’t want to be friends, Iris.”

"No," she says quietly. "I don't."

“Can I ask why?”

They’re getting close to a truth she’d done very well so far at not speaking aloud. “It would just be...weird.”

“Weird?” he repeats. “Why would it be weird? You were the one to be so insistent on us being friends throughout this entire thing.”

“I know!” she exclaims. “I know. I’m sorry, okay, I really am. But- I’m allowed to ask for space. I can end this if I want to, alright?”

“Of course you can,” he frowns as if anything else would be absurd. He deflates. "I’m not- if you want us to go our separate ways, that’s fine. But if we’re not friends anymore, then can’t we just lay all our cards on the table?”

“I suppose,” she says, though she sees where this is going and she’s afraid.

His chin is tucked down, but he squares his shoulders, once again striking her with his pure goodness and bravery, and stares her down. “I’d like to know why you broke things off. If we’re moving on, then that would help me.”

She wets her lips trying to come up with the right words, trying to understand why he even needs to move on in the first place. "I just- I figured it was easier than waiting around for you to cut me off." She shrugs, looks at the ground. "Sorry."

"Yeah, no, I'm still struggling here." He steps forward and she forces herself not to flinch back. His touch is too familiar, the ghost of it too painful. In looking down at her feet she finds herself examining her slipper socks, fluffy and decorated with kitten faces. "Iris, why did you think I was going to end this?"

"Don't be stupid," she rolls her eyes. "You know why."

He makes an impatient gesture with his hands. “Um, no, that’s why I’m asking!”

“Because you’re with Patty now! And I’m trying , okay, but god, how am I supposed to be your friend when she’s there? How am I supposed to pretend-” she cuts herself off as her voice embarrassingly cracks. She swallows thickly, and looks up at him, trying to will some of that West no-bullshit attitude she’s supposed to have inherited from her father. “Cards on the table, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t even pretend to be happy for you two, and that’s what friends would do.” She shakes her head, averting her gaze to the side. “I can’t watch you be in love with Patty when I’m in love with you.”

“Iris-”

“So, yeah,” she speaks over him, because if she doesn’t get it all out off her chest now, she never will. “I don’t want to be friends with you. I wish I was a better person, but, there we go. I’m sorry.”

“Iris,” his voice is so soft, “Iris, how did you think I was in love with Patty?”

She rolls her eyes. It’s unbelievable that he’s making her go through with this, making her relive all her idiocy. “Linda told me you were in love with someone from your high school who goes to this college. It doesn’t take an investigative journalist to figure it out.”

“But you never asked me .”

“I didn’t need to!” More truthfully, she didn’t want to.

“Iris.” His fingertip tugs underneath her chin, forcing him to look at her. The hand curls around her jaw to gently cup her face. “ Iris ,” he says again, like she’s the world. But she doesn’t allow his kindness to tempt her.

“Barry, don’t-” She doesn’t think she can take the outright rejection, even when he’s trying to sheathe it in kindness. She doesn’t think she can hear it from him, the admission that she was the one to suggest friends with benefits and yet she’s the idiot who can’t control her feelings.

“Iris, please listen to me.” There’s something she wasn’t expecting his voice, something that doesn’t sound like rejection, so she makes the mistake of looking up. “I’m not in love with Patty.”

“Yes, you are,” she says, her tone frustrated. “I saw you two on a date!”

He lets out a short, harsh laugh. “No, I’m not . It wasn’t- Cisco set us up that one time , and we’re on the same course, but- She's not the only one from high school here." His fingers twitch on her skin, and his voice lowers, turns reverent, hopeful. “God, Iris. How could I even look at another girl when I’ve loved you since before I even knew what love was.”

Her heart stops, as does the world around her, all at once. She searches his face, finally recognising his smile, his crinkling eyes, the flush high on his cheeks. She swallows. “I don’t- what?”

He’s grinning. “I love you, Iris West. I think I have since we first played on the swings at elementary school. You’re the girl I’m in love with from high school, and I would’ve thought the entirety of Central City knows that by now. So, no, I don’t want to be friends either.”

She licks her bottom lip, and her hands reach out for him, faltering slightly in her shock. She’s still not sure she’s processing things correctly, and she thinks if she can touch him, it might all feel a bit more real. “You- you’re sure?” she asks. “You really want to date me ?”

“Yes, you.” He leans forward and kisses her, and, god, she feels it, feels it in the press of his mouth and the curve of his smile and the care of his hands, feels him thinking as well that yeah, this fits.