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Once Upon a Time…

 

-x-

 

His Majesty the King

hereby requests the assemblage

of every unburdened maiden and bachelor

in attendance of a ball

honoring his sister

Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Keystone

this coming Winter Solstice

to commence at dusk


-x-

 

Barry fingers the thick, engraved invitation morosely. It had arrived not a week ago, from a grand cavalry of horses and trumpets making quite the spectacle in the town center, and he hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

 

A ball, in honor of the fiery and feisty Princess Lisa—the King must be attempting to find her a suitor, one more than capable of keeping up with her quick wit and vivacity. Barry almost pities whoever they find, knowing the Princess is not afraid to speak her mind and lash out, both verbally and physically, when she feels it necessary.

 

He’s not really interested in the Princess, at any rate, far from it—but just one night, a chance to get out, to escape for just a little bit, at a grand ball, no less…

 

He sighs forlornly, looking out the window a moment longer, watching the glass windows of the castle in the distance gleam with the reflective light of the setting sun, before moving to put the invitation carefully back in its place resting atop the mantel above the crackling fire.

 

“Barry! This kitchen floor isn’t going to sweep and mop itself!”

 

Barry jumps back from the fireplace, wide gaze darting to and fro before he realizes that the voice had floated through from the adjacent room. He rubs his hands down over his ratty slacks in a nervous twitch of motion before scurrying toward the kitchen hurriedly, mentally chastising himself for getting lost in his thoughts.

 

Daydreams are nice, but he has work to do.

 

-x-

 

“I’m going to the ball.”

 

Barry feels his eyes widen in disbelief, and he yanks harshly on Cisco’s sleeve, dragging him further down the rickety stairs and away from the main floor of the house. “The ball… the royal ball?”

 

“The royal ball,” Cisco confirms, grinning conspiratorially. “I’m going.”

 

“Cisco… how? I thought your parents weren’t going to let you, because of your brother?”

 

Cisco grimaces at the reminder, but ploughs on nonetheless. “It was Caitlin,” he confides, leaning in close. “Her mother’s one of the royal physicians, you know that. She was able to—well, she smuggled some clothes out of the palace, fancy enough for me to wear.”

 

Barry blinks at him, not quite sure he heard his friend right. “Caitlin helped you? She stole clothes for you?”

 

“She stole clothes for you too,” Cisco says casually, and Barry chokes on an inhale.

 

“For me? No, Cisco, I can’t do that, you know I won’t be able to—”

 

“Already got it figured out,” Cisco interrupts him, waving a hand dismissively.

 

This does nothing to reassure Barry in the slightest. “I’m not going to like this at all, am I?”

 

Cisco only laughs, patting Barry’s arm and furthering his dread. “It’ll go off without a hitch,” he promises. “My parents will think I’m here, helping you with your chores, and your—family—” his nose wrinkles in disgust “—already thinks you’ll be with me, helping with my chores while they’re all out at the ball. It’s foolproof!”

 

“This is not a foolproof plan,” Barry groans.

 

“It’ll be great!” Cisco protests. “Just think, me and you, out on the town, dressed to impress and ready to woo some royals…”

 

Barry puts his head in his hands, digging the heels of his palms into his eye sockets almost painfully, but he can’t help the hopeless laughter. “Fine, Cisco, fine. But just so you know, I’m blaming you entirely when this all goes wrong.”

 

“I appreciate that,” Cisco says with a roll of his eyes.

 

-x-

 

Astoundingly enough, part one of Cisco’s plan goes off without a hitch. Barry leaves his house just as the sun starts to begin its descent toward the horizon, waving his understanding of the shouted “You’re not to be home until the Lady Ramon declares your work satisfactory!” as he shuts the door behind him firmly. He meets up with Cisco at the town center, nerves already making his fingers twitch.

 

“Come on, Barry, lighten up,” Cisco says as they make their way down the cobblestone lane toward the castle. “Tonight is gonna be a great night!”

 

“You know, being there doesn’t mean that the princess is automatically going to fall in love with you,” Barry warns—Cisco’s always been more of a dreamer, and Barry secretly thinks he’d be a perfect match for Princess Lisa’s temperament, but he’s too used to being forced to face reality to give in to any sort of fantasy.

 

“Oh, I’m not holding my breath,” Cisco agrees, turning his gaze to Barry’s matter-of-factly. “I know nothing’s going to happen, it’s not going to be like the old classics, two people meeting and instantly falling in love, and then living happily ever after—but if I could dance with her, hold her hand, see her smile at me, just once…” He sighs dreamily. “That’s enough of a happy ending for me, no matter what I have to go back home to.”

 

Barry smiles wistfully, eyes moving back to the castle, growing larger and more imposing as they draw closer and closer, imagining finding an impossible love here, tonight, sneaking into this grandiose event and ending the night with unexpected bliss, snug in a new love’s warm embrace, safe and content and altogether happy...

 

He trips over a loose stone in the road, and it’s only Cisco’s quick reaction that saves Barry from breaking his nose on the dirt.

 

Time to pull your head out of the clouds, Bartholomew, he tells himself firmly. Happy endings only exist in fairytales.

 

But thinking the words doesn’t stop the ludicrous tendril of hope from snaking its way around his chest and lifting his heart.

 

-x-

 

“You look amazing!” Caitlin exclaims in a voice just over a whisper, looking over the two of them appreciatively. “Her Royal Highness is not going to know what hit her.”

 

Cisco preens, smoothing his hair back behind his shoulder. Barry tugs awkwardly at one of his cuffs—never before has he felt more in over his head, and he knows it’s bleeding over into how he’s holding himself, hunched shoulders and bowed back, but he can’t force himself to straighten out.

 

“Barry, stop that,” Caitlin admonishes, bustling over to pull his fingers from his sleeve. “You’re going to wrinkle it if you keep that up—and your cravat, it’s already crooked, how did you manage that?”

 

“I don’t think I can do this,” Barry forces out in a strangled voice as Caitlin flutters around him. “What if I make a fool of myself, what if someone recognizes me—?”

 

“You are not going to make a fool of yourself,” Caitlin argues, smoothing her hands over the shoulders of Barry’s jacket in a soothing gesture. “You look incredible—largely due to the clothes I snagged for you, you’re very welcome for that, by the way—and you are a wonderful man, who is going to catch many eyes tonight, and possibly even Princess Lisa’s.” She ignores the way Cisco sputters at that, eyes boring into Barry’s own sincerely. “Just let go for once, Barry, let yourself relax. Have a night off—you are going to enjoy yourself, immensely.”

 

Barry lets out a gentle exhale at that, closing his eyes briefly before blinking them open again, smiling softly down at Caitlin. He squares his shoulders, posture automatically straightening into one long-forgotten but still familiar, the stance already bringing him some small measure of confidence.

 

He’s already here, he reasons, already going to face the consequences for sneaking out and away from his duties for festivities and frivolity. He might as well try to make the most of it.

 

“Fun,” he agrees, deliberately casual. “I can do that.”

 

The muted pride in Caitlin’s eyes and the boundless joy in Cisco’s at his statement warms him thoroughly and makes him think that, just maybe, tonight could actually be enjoyable.

 

-x-

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Keystone, sister of His Majesty the King and heiress to the throne, Princess Lisa!”

 

Applause immediately breaks forth and echoes between the lavish walls of the grand ballroom, and Barry can admit to being starstruck. The entire palace is decked out in grandiose but tasteful displays: garlands of icicles and holly are twined about marble pillars elegantly; tall candelabrum occupy every corner of the room, speckled with silver and gold and topped with candles that provide a soft light to combat the encroaching darkness; the floor is crowded, wall to wall, with more people than Barry has ever seen in one place, dressed handsomely and done up beautifully, mingling cheerily as they wait for the princess’s entrance.

 

And oh, does she strike a stunning silhouette, her gown exquisitely crafted and hugging her figure snugly, golden jewels adorning her fingers and throat, pearly orbs dangling from her ears amidst a cascade of soft curls. A delicate, diamond-laden tiara rests at a jaunty angle atop her head, matching the sharp quirk of the smirk twisting the glossy sheen of her lips, and Barry thinks that he’s never seen a sight quite so dazzling.

 

Judging by the awestruck look on Cisco’s face and the wonderment in his eyes, Barry would say he’s not the only one.

 

-x-

 

The two of them are standing in front of the long line of tables laden down with food and drink and decorated with multitudes of ice sculptures when a voice says behind them, “And who might you be?”

 

Barry turns quickly, mouth dropping open at the person standing before them, and Cisco jumps and turns around with a small yelp, flailing when he realizes that the princess herself has just addressed them. “Your—Your Royal Highness!” he squeaks out, then turns a remarkable shade of red.

 

Princess Lisa tuts at him, eyes sparkling with amusement. “None of that, please—it’s simply much too formal. Princess Lisa will do.” She winks lasciviously at them, mouth twisted with an impish grin.

 

“Of course, Princess,” Cisco stammers, head and chest bobbing forward in an aborted attempt at a bow. He closes his eyes for a moment, takes a deep breath, and Barry bites his lip, trying not to laugh at his friend in front of the crown princess. “I’m already embarrassing myself, aren’t I.”

 

“Nonsense,” the princess laughs, shaking her head fondly, and the mischievous facade drops from her face as easily as anything, leaving behind something a little more real. “You’re already faring much better than the idiots who swooned over me and told me what a good wife I’d make them, if only I’d let them show me.” Her lip curls up in a delicate sneer, disgust plain in her features.

 

“Is that what happened earlier,” Barry murmurs, almost to himself—there had been a loud commotion, right after the dancing had commenced, and Barry hadn’t been sure what had started it, but it had ended with three very intimidating guards very forcefully removing two red-faced and yelling men from the ballroom while the King and his sister looked on dispassionately. The silence after the scene had been absolute, ringing through the air severely, before the King coughed once, raising an eyebrow threateningly, and the soiree continued on.

 

Princess Lisa turns to Barry with a wicked look in her eye and playful trouble coloring her smirk. “They’re lucky Lenny wouldn’t let me deal with them,” she says, a hint of dark promise in her voice—the tone would terrify Barry, but he’s suddenly too busy trying not to think of the fact that the princess had just referred to her brother, the King, as Lenny. In public.

 

“I would have paid to see that,” Cisco remarks, and Barry can actually see the princess bristle, then soften when she takes in the obvious esteem in his voice.

 

“Next time, you can watch for free,” she promises, winking again, and before Cisco can do more than begin to process her words with a shocked blink, she holds her hand out daintily. “May I have this dance?”

 

Cisco stares for a moment or two longer, visibly shakes his head, then flicks his eyes toward Barry quickly, darting them back to the princess’s amused ones as Barry just grins encouragingly at him. “It would be my honor,” Cisco finally replies, taking her small hand in his own and bringing it up to his lips for a soft kiss.

 

The princess smiles sweetly at him, seemingly enchanted, and Barry can’t help but be impressed with his oldest friend when he sweeps into a low bow at her curtsy, then scoops up her hand and starts twirling her around the floor expertly, mindless of the jealous glares aimed at his back.

 

-x-

 

It’s been several hours, and Barry is honestly enjoying himself, glad he let Cisco and Caitlin talk him into this. Cisco is dancing with the princess again—only for the fifth time, as she’s promised dances to almost everyone in attendance, but still four more than anyone else has received. It’s clear the couple are completely enamored with each other, and Barry can admit, if only to himself, that perhaps he had been wrong. He follows the dancing pair with his eyes, smiling in delight—it seems as if Cisco has found his happy ending, at least for tonight.

 

“They do make a charming couple, don’t they?”

 

Barry hums in agreement, unwilling to look away from the sight. “They really do,” he replies in an undertone. “Though you’d think it’d be a bit more awkward, her being half a head taller but still letting him lead.” He takes a sip from his goblet, tilting his head consideringly.

 

A loud bark of laughter pulls his gaze away from the gaily spinning twosome at last, and he chokes, coughing and spluttering on the mouthful of wine he’d just attempted to swallow, when he realizes it’s the King, of all people, who is standing beside him.

 

“Your Majesty!” he gasps out before a round of coughing wracks his body. He pounds on his chest, trying to alleviate the tension, then takes in a huge gulp of air when his throat finally clears. “Your Majesty,” he repeats, for lack of anything else to say, and he dips into a low bow, ducking his head in an attempt to hide the burning in his cheeks.

 

“That is my title,” King Leonard agrees, and when Barry chances a look back up at him, he’s struck by the familiarity he can clearly see between the man and his sister—they share the same smirk, the same amused look in their eyes.

 

“I’m sorry, I—you took me by surprise,” Barry says lamely, gesturing at nothing with his now-empty goblet.

 

“Apologies,” the king replies with a sardonic lifting of his brows.

 

Barry grins embarrassedly. “I’d say you dazzled me with your magnificence, Your Majesty, but the truth is I’m just very clumsy.” He snaps his mouth shut just a moment too late, eyes widening, belatedly realizing that maybe he shouldn’t be speaking with such impertinence to the king.

 

King Leonard lets loose another volley of laughter, seemingly pleased with Barry’s cavalier response. “Clearly, I haven’t been resplendent enough in my brilliance,” he answers, and Barry’s shoulders sag in relief as he joins in the king’s laughter.

 

“I think your brilliance is plenty enough on its own, Your Majesty,” he dares to say, fascinated with this man’s lenience despite himself.

 

The king only grins. “It’s certainly been quite a while since any have said so directly to my face,” he imparts easily. “Might I know the name of the one unafraid to speak so plainly?”

 

Barry hastily dips his head in another intimation at a bow. “Barry—Bartholomew, Your Majesty,” he says, grimacing slightly, and the king’s nose wrinkles in response.

 

“That’s worse than Leonard,” he complains, and Barry nods out a hesitant agreement. “May I call you Barry?”

 

That stuns him for a long moment, and he stares as he struggles to close his gaping mouth. “It is Your Majesty’s prerogative,” he eventually says.

 

The king sighs in response. “Enough of that,” he says impatiently. “If I can treat you so simply as to call you Barry, then surely you must do the same and call me Len.”

 

Len.” Barry blinks, lets out a disbelieving little laugh, at a loss on how to handle the sudden, easy familiarity between them. King Leonard—Len—just raises an imperious eyebrow at him, one corner of his mouth lifting in a faint expression of smugness. Barry capitulates, laughing again, letting his own smile take over his lips. “Fine, as you wish. It is a pleasure to meet you, Len.”

 

“Believe me, the pleasure is all mine, Barry,” the king purrs back in a low rumble. He extends one large hand out to Barry, fingers curled up enticingly as his small smile grows into a cocky-looking grin. “Would you care to dance?”

 

-x-

 

King Leonard is not necessarily what one might call a benevolent king—though, if one were to compare him to his predecessor, Lewis the Terrible, so named for the cruel indifference displayed for the people in his kingdom and the terrors he inflicted on his own kin, one would praise Leonard for being the most compassionate of them all.

 

King Leonard rules strictly but fairly, giving everyone equal chance to be heard while still being the sole voice of reason. He rules not with an iron fist, but with an open palm, though still expects unwavering loyalty, and it is granted to him freely. He doles out punishment and reward equally, and is never unjust or too cruel, though neither is he ever overly kind or affectionate. King Leonard is a wise king, a fair king, fully deserving of his title of Leonard the Just.

 

Barry knows all this, has lived through most of it, remembers the tyrannical reign of King Lewis and the uproar that rippled through the kingdom when his son uprooted him, the weeks of unrest, the uncertainty toward this new leader, the many riots, the deaths that came about because of the panic before the young king put a firm foot down and worked so hard to bring about a new peace.

 

But he isn’t thinking of any of that now.

 

The only things Barry can focus on are the king’s—Len’s—eyes, captivatingly blue and with hidden depths to them, his hand resting on the small of Barry’s back, big and broad and the heat of it burning through the layers of Barry’s clothing and warming his skin, the way he effortlessly leads Barry across the floor and through the throng of other couples dancing, so in tune with every minute movement Barry makes it’s hard to believe they haven’t been doing this for years.

 

He’s dizzy, but not from the dance—the warmth in those icy eyes, directed solely at him, the sly grin, crooked up higher on one side than the other, present because of something Barry had said without thinking, the way his hand keeps tightening ever-so-slightly on Barry’s back, pulling him infinitesimally closer and closer until they are but a hair’s breadth from each other—it all adds together and makes Barry’s head spin, his breath come quicker, his heart thud solidly in his chest.

 

Dancing with Len is exhilarating, and he never wants it to end, not for everything in the world.

 

-x-

 

They eventually make their way out onto the large balcony, and the cool air feels like gossamer wings on Barry’s overheated cheeks. He sighs contentedly, admiring the tiny twinkling lights of the town below them, and shivers when Len steps up beside him, arm brushing his own lightly.

 

“Won’t everyone wonder where you’ve gone off to?” Barry murmurs eventually, loathe to break the peaceful silence between them.

 

“This is Lisa’s gala, not mine,” Len replies, “all eyes are on her tonight. Besides—” he turns to face Barry more fully, eyes sparkling in the faint moonlight, “I’m the King, I can do whatever I please, and no one can tell me differently.”

 

Barry guffaws loudly, and Len’s sharp grin fades into a softer-looking smile. Barry lets his laugh trail off into the crisp night air, admiring the curve of Len’s lips and the way the stars shine in his eyes.

 

“Thank you, Barry,” Len murmurs a moment later, and Barry tilts his head perplexedly.

 

“For what?”

 

“For granting me the pleasure of your company.” Len’s gaze turns serious, considering, and he brings up one hand to cup Barry’s face gently. Barry tries not to let his eyes flutter shut at the sensation of Len’s slightly roughened palm against his skin, thumb stroking the apple of his cheek tenderly, but it’s a losing battle. “It is… lonely, being a king, especially one so young still, and with a baby sister to look out for. Being with you here, tonight, has been… refreshing, in a multitude of ways, and I cannot think of any earthly way to express my gratitude unto you.”

 

Barry blinks his eyes open, struck speechless by the sincerity in his voice, the quiet earnestness of his gaze, the soft smile hovering at the edges of Len’s plush-looking lips—

 

“I don’t know what to say,” he whispers demurely, appreciating the long drag of Len’s thick eyelashes against his cheek as he blinks slowly. “Surely, you should not be the one to thank me.”

 

“But I am,” Len disagrees, shaking his head slightly. He pauses for a moment, cants his head to the side consideringly. “I wonder—would you allow me the chance to bestow a simple token upon you?”

 

“As if I could deny my king his wish to grant me a trinket,” Barry teases, slightly breathless—and then he loses the ability to speak, to breathe, to think, as Len ducks in to press his lips chastely against Barry’s.

 

Being kissed by Len is both everything and nothing like Barry thought it would be—his lips are soft, but dry and cracked, most likely from the cold, harsh winds they’ve had this winter season. But his mouth begins to move against Barry’s almost instantly, just briefly hesitating before pressing in once more, and the slide of his lips over Barry’s is sweeter than anything else Barry can imagine.

 

He takes a calculated risk and angles his head just so, pressing forward the tiniest bit more, deepening the kiss, and Len responds as easily as if they were still dancing, tilting his head and locking his lips more securely onto Barry’s own. His arms wind around Barry’s back, holding him closely, and Barry finds that his own arms have somehow latched around Len’s shoulders, clutching tightly, afraid to let go lest this all be but a dream.

 

Len shivers in response, groans, and opens his mouth to deepen the kiss further—

 

—and a loud chime peals through the air, startling a flock of nesting birds from a nearby tree, and Barry rips himself away from Len, panting harshly, as another series of chimes joins in the first.

 

“It’s midnight,” he gasps out in dismay.

 

Len heaves in a huge gulp of air, brow slightly furrowed. “The end of yesterday, the beginning of tomorrow,” he agrees stiltedly. “What of it?”

 

Barry looks at him, takes in the sight of him, handsomely disheveled, lips plumped luxuriously, and tries to ignore the burning tug to fall into his arms again, heart sinking. “I… I have to go,” he whispers, and he tears his eyes away, can’t bear to look at the devastation crawling its way onto those beautiful features.

 

“Why?” Len asks, taking a step closer, frown deepening when Barry hurriedly takes an answering step back, shaking his head frantically. “What’s wrong?” He takes another step closer, then two more in rapid succession when Barry continues to back away from him. He grabs Barry’s upper arms firmly, ducks his head down in an attempt to catch Barry’s eye. “Barry.”

 

“I can’t,” Barry says, squeezing his eyes shut tight. “I can’t, I just—I have to go, now.”

 

“No, you don’t,” Len says firmly, hands tightening on Barry’s arms, fingers flexing agitatedly against the muscle there. “Sit, explain to me what the problem is, and I can fix it. We can fix it. Please.”

 

It’s the please that gets Barry, the lost quality to Len’s voice coupled with the frustrated defeat in his eyes, and Barry’s shoulders slump as he lets himself drop to the ground, uncaring of the finery Caitlin had so carefully swathed him in. Len follows him down instantly, no hesitation whatsoever, ignoring the cloud of dust already settling into his fine garments. He cups Barry’s face between his hands, thumbs stroking at his cheeks, and Barry finds he can’t refuse the quiet pleading in his gaze.

 

“My—my family,” he whispers hesitantly, voice shaking. “I wasn’t supposed to be here tonight—I snuck out, when I should have been doing the housework. If I’m not there by the time they get back—” He stops, swallowing nervously, and finds that his hands have come up to clutch at Len’s arms desperately, quite without his consent.

 

The furrow between Len’s brows deepens marginally, though his thumbs continue their gentle soothing motion. “Your family,” he repeats flatly, and Barry almost cringes at the look in his eye.

 

“They’re the only family I’ve got,” Barry says. “They’re not perfect—of course they’re not, no one is—but they took me in after my parents died, even though what happened to them was my fault.”

 

Len’s eyes flash dangerously. “What have they done to you,” he growls out threateningly, and Barry releases his grip on Len’s arms to raise his hands placatingly.

 

“They’ve never hurt me,” he says intently, and the pull he feels to smooth over the groove in Len’s brow with a kiss is entirely too distracting. “At least, not intentionally. But they are strict, and they depend upon me, and to throw that at their feet, to let them discover I had disobeyed them so severely—it is the highest disservice to everything they have done for me.”

 

Len lets himself be placated after several long moments of skepticism, though his glower does not diminish in the slightest and his hands remain locked on either side of Barry’s face. “And what if I simply whisked you away?” he asks in a low rumble, scooting in closer to him, the fabrics covering their chests brushing together softly. “Would they so refuse their king?”

 

Barry laughs, though he’s quick to clamp down on the sound when it comes out in a hysterical racket. “I’m certain they would try,” he says shakily. His ears are ringing, blood roaring in his veins, and the swift pounding of his heart is only tempered slightly by the genuine determination settling over Len’s face like a calm wind.

 

His voice is no more than a whisper when he speaks next, barely audible though his lips are mere inches from Barry’s. “Would you so deny me this wish, Barry? Deny yourself?”

 

“I…” Barry swallows past the heart lodged in his throat, every nerve in his body alight and singing with unbridled tension as he stares into beseeching opalescent eyes. “I don’t know that I could, even if I desired to do so.”

 

“Is that a yes?” Only the smallest breath of air is between their lips now, noses brushing lightly, and Barry chokes back another bout of hysterics when it hits him that this is his king.

 

“It’s not a no,” he allows, and Len’s tiny exhalation of relief shouldn’t send a shiver down Barry’s spine, except that it does. “I—I need to think.”

 

“Take what time you need,” Len promises, “for I am acquiescent to giving you all of mine.” He places a short but sweet kiss upon Barry’s brow with that declaration, running his hands down Barry’s arms and squeezing his hands gently. “Find me when you have decided, and I will respect whatever decision you choose to make,” he requests, and he smiles at Barry, a small, sadly hopeful look, before standing fluidly. He brushes himself off with a cursory motion of his hands and moves to rejoin the congregation of bodies in the ballroom, leaving Barry alone with his churning thoughts.

 

-x-

 

Barry doesn’t go back to the ballroom immediately—he can’t, not with the maelstrom of hope and fear and confusion racing through his mind. He simply sits there on the balcony, ignoring the decreasing temperature bringing a hint of frost to the breath at his lips, trying to make sense of the cacophonous whirlwind tearing at his heart.

 

When he finally convinces his legs to stand upright, he’s surprised to find the moon already high in the sky, nearly full and illuminating the heavens brightly. His fingers refuse to move for almost a full minute, frozen and aching brutally when he attempts to smooth them down his front in a cheap imitation of brushing away the dust clinging there.

 

He makes his way to the elaborate double doors separating the balcony from the ballroom, taking a moment to gather his bearings before pushing one open a fraction. He slips inside, hoping fervently that no one looks his way, as he’s not quite keen on explaining the state of his trousers, nor the circumstances leading to their condition.

 

Barry’s eyes roam the magnificent hall hesitantly, but he breathes out a sigh of relief, or possibly disappointment, when the king is nowhere to be found. He knows Len said he would give him time, as much as he needs, but seeing him so soon, without any clue as to what he’ll do, would have been too much.

 

Not that not seeing him is helping any, Barry thinks frustratedly. He doesn’t know what to do, what he should do. He knows what he wants, knows it like a fierce throb between the ribs in his chest, but has no idea if it’s the right thing, what the right thing even is.

 

Cisco. He needs Cisco. His friend has always been good at setting him straight, bringing him out of the plight of overthinking everything and going straight for the heart of the matter.

 

He casts his gaze about the room again, desperately seeking any sign of his friend, or even of the radiant form of the princess he’s been near all evening, but after the third pass of his eyes, Barry has to admit that neither of them are present.

 

He grumbles in frustration—of course, the one moment he needs his friend’s advice more than anything, he’s nowhere to be found. Still, Barry supposes he can’t begrudge Cisco his happiness, recalling the ferocious adoration in his friend’s eye as he waltzed gracefully around the floor with the princess of his dreams in his arms.

 

He pauses at the edge of the room for a short minute, watching the gathered public enjoy themselves, talking and eating, drinking and laughing, dancing the night away gaily, and hurries toward the open doorway at the other side of the ballroom, hoping against hope that perhaps Cisco isn’t with the princess, that perchance he had taken to looking for Barry just as Barry is now looking for him.

 

He dashes across the opulent foyer, shimmering with the sparkling light of half a dozen grand chandeliers, and after careful deliberation, makes for the stately entrance doors as opposed to the lazily spiralling staircase opposite them. Barry is almost certain a lavish garden is set just outside, perfect for him to contemplate his choices, and if he can’t find Cisco…

 

Well, at least out here, it’ll be easier to escape in the direction of home.

 

Barry tries not to think of how his perception of home may have shifted in the few short hours since he left—the thought is altogether terrifying, and he’s not sure he’s ready to be thinking it.

 

-x-

 

He doesn’t find Cisco, and he’s no closer to finding an answer for himself. But the solitude is nice, the gardens beautiful and serenely peaceful in the dead of night, and Barry is in no rush to face the world.

 

-x-

 

Caitlin finds him a short time later, deep in the gardens, staring up at a beautiful ice sculpture depicting a figure who can only be Princess Lisa, twirling elegantly with a joyous grin on her face. “You must be freezing,” she murmurs, tucking a thick woollen blanket around Barry’s shaking shoulders.

 

“It’s not so bad,” Barry says, though he pulls the blanket tighter around himself, shuddering when his body starts reacting to the change in temperature. “Thank you.”

 

“You are most welcome,” Caitlin replies softly, and she takes a seat next to Barry, crowding in close and freely offering what little body heat she has. Barry rearranges the blanket, wrapping an arm around the narrow set of her shoulders, and they shiver together in the quiet of the late, late night.

 

“Tell me about him,” Caitlin invites quietly, and Barry snorts out a small, humorless laugh.

 

“There is nothing I could say about the king that you do not already know,” Barry evades, and Caitlin tuts at him in fond exasperation, not fooled even remotely.

 

“I’m sure that’s not true,” she counters, eyes meeting Barry’s squarely. “The way he looked at you—I’ve never seen him look that way for anyone before.”

 

Barry sighs dejectedly, turning his gaze from Caitlin’s and tightening his arm around her as a particularly frigid gale slices through the air around them. “He wants me to stay,” he whispers—and now the words are out, plainly stated, and there is no turning back from the momentous decision looming in Barry’s future.

 

“I could guess as much. But Barry—isn’t this what you dreamed of? Someone lovely, ready and willing to love you, dashing in to whisk you away to a better life?”

 

Barry nods hesitantly against Caitlin’s soft hair, closing his eyes. “I’m… I’m afraid,” he admits, a faint whisper on the wind.

 

“I know you are,” Caitlin consoles him, and the quiet calm in her voice soothes the ragged edges of Barry’s frayed thoughts. “But don’t let fear be the thing to hold you back from something you so desperately want—and I know you want this, Barry, don’t you even try to deny it. I know you better than that.”

 

Barry says nothing, the quandary between his head and his heart weighing heavily on him. “I don’t know what to do,” he confesses, and Caitlin’s soft sigh floats off into the night.

 

“I think you do,” she contradicts. “You know what your heart wants, but you’re too afraid of the consequences of upsetting the current state of affairs, too afraid of your dream being snatched away from you before you can really start to appreciate it.” She extracts herself from Barry’s embrace gently, shivering at the sudden rush of cool air but smiling kindly down at him. “But sometimes, Barry, you just need to take that leap of faith. Are you willing to do that?”

 

Barry gives her question all the due consideration it’s deserved, carefully deliberating his fear of retribution from his family, the gaping uncertainty of the unknown, against the carefree weightlessness in his heart when he’s with Len, the tender look in his eyes, the way his lips are still tingling from that kiss.

 

Really, there’s only one conclusion, and Barry’s known it from the start.

 

He looks up at the gracious understanding in his friend’s gaze, her ardently sincere expectation, and chuckles quietly in amusement, breaking the tension. “Shouldn’t you be giving Cisco this speech?” he asks. If he knows his friend at all, and if he’s read the emotion between him and the princess correctly, Cisco should be going through the same sort of personal crisis right now.

 

Caitlin snorts gracelessly, aiming a raised eyebrow at Barry. “He already had his meltdown,” she says, lips twisted in a roguish smirk. “I had this talk with him an hour ago.”

 

Barry laughs loudly into the night, and Caitlin’s accompanying laughter tinkles along like small bells chiming.

 

-x-

 

The last of the partygoers are trickling their way from the ballroom, the king and the princess bowing and curtsying gracefully as they relay their gratitude for their guests’ patronage. Barry can see Cisco waiting off to the side, half-hidden behind a pillar with a goofy grin on his face, and he smiles at the obvious joy lighting his friend’s features.

 

He’s still smiling when he realizes the ballroom has become eerily quiet, before Princess Lisa breaks it with a jubilant little giggle.

 

“What,” the king says flatly, though there’s a sparkle in his eye when he turns to his sister.

 

“You somehow failed to mention the excitement in your night, brother dearest,” the princess says in a faux-haughty tone, eyes full of mischief.

 

When her brother merely frowns at her, not understanding, she sighs dramatically, waving an airy hand in Barry’s direction. “The cutie in the red cravat? I know he’s not here for me, Lenny.”

 

Len’s head snaps around so quickly Barry’s surprised it doesn’t fracture completely from his neck, and his light eyes widen in shock at seeing Barry—almost as if he hadn’t expected Barry to show, and Barry’s heart twinges in pain at the thought.

 

He crosses over to Barry’s little corner in a handful of long, graceful strides, but when he reaches Barry he stops hesitantly, hand floating in the distance between them as if unsure of its welcome.

 

“You came back,” he breathes in wonderment, eyes roving over every inch of Barry’s face fervently.

 

“I came back,” he agrees quietly, and he closes the space between their bodies, carefully pressing a palm to Len’s face. Len tilts his head into the contact almost imperceptibly, breathing in sharply through his nose as his eyes close for a brief second.

 

They snap back open almost immediately, and Barry shivers at the intense longing in his gaze. “I need to know,” he says, almost desperately. “Are you—do you wish to stay? Will you stay? With me? Let me court you, properly, here?”

 

Barry takes in a deep breath, sees Cisco and Princess Lisa over Len’s shoulder, not even attempting to not eavesdrop, hands clutched together between their bodies. He huffs out a small laugh, shaking his head, before bringing his eyes back to the apprehensive face in front of his.

 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, after today,” he starts haltingly, and Len’s features fall a little more. “But—but I don’t want to keep having to think of all the what ifs, what I may end up missing if I don’t actually try.”

 

He watches closely as Len parses out his meaning, the resulting beaming smile more stunning than anything Barry’s ever seen.

 

“Truly?” he whispers, cautious hope warring with the incredulous joy in his eyes.

 

Barry nods, resolve firming and doubt evaporating at the indescribable look taking over Len’s features. Len laughs loudly, exuberantly, pressing a sound kiss to Barry’s lips, and Barry laughs into Len’s mouth when he hears Princess Lisa catcalling her brother before Cisco shushes her. He moves closer into the cradle of Len’s strong arms, allowing himself this kiss, this moment of euphoria, blissfully happy and eager to discover the next chapter of his life, so unknown but the prospect of it exciting nonetheless.

 

-x-

 

Seven months later, as he and his new husband seal their vow with a lasting kiss as what appears to be the entire kingdom cheers on delightedly, Barry thinks that perhaps happy endings do exist outside of fairytales after all.

 

-x-

 

The End