It was still a little early for lunch, and Evey was too jittery to eat properly, but the little Italian place he'd brought her to was charming enough that she relaxed despite herself.
"We've known Wally for years, but he's never brought a young lady by to meet us." The fifty-something restaurant owner sported grey hair and a thickening figure. Her eyes were still shrewd, however, and she did little to hide her critical appraisal of the situation. "How old are you, sweetie?"
"Ninet – er… Twenty?" She asked, uncertainly. Her birthday wasn't officially until Monday, but since they were celebrating it early, should she go ahead and count herself older? What was the protocol in a situation like this? All she knew was she sounded like a moron.
Luckily, the woman's husband – a skinny older man with kindly eyes – guffawed loudly and for some reason clapped Wally on the back. He said nothing, only offering a broad wink that made the speedster turn scarlet.
The stout Italian woman was harder to win over, however, and she frowned slightly.
"Twenty is a bit on the young side, isn't it, Wally? Shouldn't you be trying to find someone you can settle down with?"
"Marie!" Wally yelped, scandalized. The woman remained stubbornly unabashed, though her features were softer now that she was more focused on him.
"I'm sorry, dear. You know how we worry about you ever since you moved into that apartment by yourself. You're hardly in here often enough for me to make sure you're eating properly, and you haven't mentioned dating anyone in almost a year!"
Instead of answering, Wally turned to his date with an expression of utmost embarrassment.
"I'm so sorry, Evey… We can eat someplace else if you want."
For her part, Evey felt herself get a little defensive for once. She could understand why this woman would feel so protective of the speedster. Maybe he really SHOULD be focusing his time and energy on someone older and ready to settle down. That didn't stop her from feeling unfairly belittled, however.
She spoke quickly, willing herself to finish before she lost her nerve.
"Ma'am…? If you don't know the circumstances, you shouldn't say I'm not serious about him. I l-l-like Wally a lot." Red as a tomato, Evey spoke the words to her shoes, halfway hoping no one heard her.
The silence was absolute but for the gentle sound of scraping silverware in the background.
"Give her a break, Marie. If you start chasing off every girl Wally brings by, you're not doing him any favors." The old man berated his wife good-naturedly, speaking up for the first time.
"Let's get you two seated… I've got a hot loaf of garlic bread fresh out of the oven for you to sample, Wally." He wrapped a wiry arm around the young couple, steering them past his scowling wife toward a table near the kitchens. Not about to let him get away, she hurried after them.
"If you're going to help the poor boy, you should skip the garlic bread, Bill…!" Marie did not see the sly grin her husband gave the young redhead as they sat down. She turned and bustled off to the kitchen, clearly intent on putting together an entirely garlic-free meal.
When Evey finally dragged her gaze up from the floor, she saw that Bill was regarding her with open amusement.
"You're little lady looks like she might need a fainting couch pretty soon, Wally. Didn't think they made real shrinking violets anymore," he teased, though not unkindly.
"C'mon, Bill. Lay off her, all right? You guys are making me regret bringing her here. The food's good, I swear," he added as an aside to Evey, as though this made up for everything. In his eyes, it probably did.
The old man backed off, laughing.
"All right, all right. What can I get you love-birds to drink?" They both settled on unsweetened tea, and watched as Bill made himself scarce.
"They seem to care about you a lot," Evey observed neutrally. Wally shrugged a little, looking sheepish.
"They're friends of my parents so I've known them practically my whole life. My mom and Marie were classmates back in college, so she's been around since before I was born." A server came by and set down two glasses of iced tea. Wally reached for the sugar dispenser before continuing.
"Ever since my parents moved to Star City, those two have been quietly keeping tabs on me. They're good people; Marie's just a tad… over-protective," he explained, taking a large gulp of his drink just as the bread arrived.
"That's so nice…" Evey replied, just barely keeping an envious sigh out of her voice. "You're very lucky to have people in your life looking out for you like that."
"You don't have that?" Wally asked, honest disbelief coloring his question. He knew she lived alone and didn't have a telephone or computer, but surely she had family or friends SOMEWHERE that cared for her. He watched as she bit her lip a moment in thought.
"The closest thing I have would probably be my landlord and his wife, but even that relationship is nothing like what you have with Bill and Marie."
"What about your mom and dad?"
Wally noted that Evelyn wasn't quite skilled enough at covering her emotions to hide the subtle look of pain that crossed her face at his question. She made an admirable effort to smile slightly before she answered.
"Dad died back when I was three or four. He was a firefighter, so I guess it wasn't too much of a shock when he passed, but my mom…" she paused. Suddenly her throat felt too dry to speak. Evey took a long sip of tea before she felt she could continue. "Mom wasn't the same after that. I don't know for sure since we didn't talk about it, but I think Dad's death really crushed her. She never dated anyone that I knew of, or remarried. When I graduated high school, she told me to move out and she hasn't been in touch since."
Wally felt he had walked right into a field of landmines. Even stepping carefully might not get him safely through this conversation, and he sensed that Evey had spoken as much on the subject as she was willing to. Even though he suspected he might be missing a huge chunk of the story here, he decided not to push.
"Sounds like you had it pretty rough even back then," he remarked instead, dropping his gaze to carefully dip his bread in the olive oil. When he glanced back up, he caught the immense look of relief on her face. She followed his lead and ripped off a big chunk of bread for herself.
"It felt that way sometimes," she admitted quietly. "But things turned out all right, I think. If… If I hadn't left home when I did, I might never have met you."
That got his full attention. He smiled hugely at the faint blush that painted her cheeks, and he opened his mouth to voice his agreement when the arrival of their main course interrupted him.
"Whoa, isn't this a little heavy for brunch, Bill?"
"Not the way you eat, son." Evey giggled, and the sound was music to Wally's ears. Bill shot her a little wink and served her up a much smaller portion of the steaming shrimp tortellini. Marie bustled up behind him with fresh glasses of iced tea.
Evey noted with some delight that hers had an extra lemon wedge seated on the rim. Was it a peace offering maybe?
"Thank you, ma'am."
"Hmph. Marie is fine, sweetie." She turned quickly and swept back into the kitchen, no doubt to escape her husband's booming laughter.
If it was possible, Wally was grinning even wider when she met his eyes again.
"I think you have their approval."
Suddenly – even though she'd just spoken of her complicated home life for the first time in nearly four years – Evey felt happier than she ever thought possible. She watched as Wally shoveled pasta into his mouth at a speed that bordered on impolite, and she felt the heavy warmth of pure affection creep over her chest.
She hoped the day would never end.
"What'd you think of the movie, Evey?"
"It was really good. I liked the part where the Justice Guild had to fight side-by-side with their villains to keep the evil god from destroying the world."
Actually, if she was being completely honest, she'd been too distracted by his nearness to pay close attention to the whole movie. At one point, he'd stretched himself out to take up the entire armrest between them, casually touching her shoulder with his. As the film went on, she found herself drifting closer and closer to his warmth without even realizing it, until the lights came on at the end and she realized she had somehow managed to loop her arm through his without noticing. Her head was even resting on him!
She blushed furiously, fearful he would say something to tease her. Instead he only smiled and held her hand to help her down the steps of the theater in the dark. She was pleasantly surprised when he gave no sign of letting her go until they reached the main lobby of the building.
Wally was on his best behavior. He had planned the day out to focus on two things: helping Evey have some fun, and getting her more comfortable with the idea of a relationship with him. After his talk with Bats, he'd realized that if he wanted this to work out, he had to be smart and take things slower than he normally would. It was a challenge, but fun in a way that he hadn't expected, especially since she seemed to be responding well to all the various stimuli he'd thrown at her so far.
Introducing her to Bill and Marie had given her a chance to get to know him a little better as a regular person, and had the added bonus of getting her to open up about her own childhood.
Even though it was a little cliché, he'd decided on taking her to a movie to take advantage of the dark, intimate, yet unthreatening atmosphere. It was perfect for pressing the boundaries of casual touching that they'd established so far.
Now it was time for stage three of his master plan: one good, old-fashioned surprise birthday cake and the giving of his present. If he did this right, he hoped they would help Evey realize how special he found her and prepare her for moving their relationship to the next level.
"Hey, d'you think you could wait here a minute while I use the little boy's room?"
"Of course," she nodded.
"Maybe you could check out the game room while you wait? I'll be back in a flash." He made a show of winking hugely at her, and Evey barely restrained a hearty laugh.
Once he'd left, she made her way curiously toward the flashing lights and computerized sounds of the game room. The movie theater they had gone to was in the same building as a bowling alley, restaurant, and arcade, making it a busy place even now in the early evening.
"Hey, you alone, little girl?"
Evey didn't react until she felt a heavy hand grasp her shoulder. Startled, she turned to the speaker. A group of three guys, tough-looking and college-age, had singled her out as the only unattached female present.
It was so unusual for her to be noticed by men other than Wally that her only response was to gape at them, somewhat stupidly. She wasn't sure why, but she suddenly felt very exposed and uncomfortable in her new clothes.
At her continued silence, one of the more athletic-looking men leaned over to the speaker and stage-whispered, "I think you broke her, Donnie."
Donnie was shorter than his friends, with black hair, a scruffy beard that covered half his face and neck, and unkind eyes that seemed to leer and laugh at her without him saying anything.
When he met her gaze, Evey instinctively looked down. It had always been her way to avoid confrontation with others by making herself seem as small and insignificant as possible. This time, however, it didn't work.
"It's rude to ignore people who're talking to you, little girl," Donnie pointed out, his voice just shy of outright mocking. His friends sniggered. "I think you owe us an apology."
"I'm sorry," she said quietly. Where was Wally? Surely he'd be back soon.
"I couldn't quite catch that, sweetie. What'd you say?" Donnie leaned in so close, Evey took a hasty and unintentional step backward, nearly falling on top of a skee-ball machine. The other two young men burst into laughter at this, moving up to stand on either side of their friend.
Evey felt them close in around her and she began to feel the first stirrings of panic.
"Dang, Donnie! She thinks you're so ugly, she's trippin' all over herself to get away from you!"
"Shut the hell up, Sean. This bitch just thinks she's too good for us, that's all." Donnie's eyes took on a hard, mean-spirited edge, though he was still laughing and smiling along with his friends.
"I-I-I don't…" Evey tried, though her throat had clenched up in fear. The three of them were blocking her from view. Even if Wally showed up right that moment, he wouldn't be able to see her unless she called out. Her heart was hammering in her chest.
"You're gonna have to speak louder than that if you want him to accept your apology, little girl," the one called Sean said.
She opened her mouth to try again and also point out that she was waiting for someone. Then Donnie came forward and grabbed her roughly around the waist, and all powers of speech left her as fear took over.
Evey cringed into herself, shrinking away from his grip, but he firmly placed her on her feet despite her resistance. To any passersby, it simply looked like he had helped her up. Then, however, he began to aggressively brush non-existent dust from her coat.
"You're all dirty from falling, sweetie. Let me help you out." His voice was syrupy and sarcastic.
"Please stop." The tears were beginning to come now, and Evey's state of mind was too scattered to stop them.
Sean, now noticing her genuine distress, stopped laughing and quirked an uneasy smile at his friend.
"Hey, Donnie, let's go grab a beer and check out the ladies at the bar. This chick's not interested…"
"In a minute, Sean. Don't be a douchebag. I'm just helping her clean herself off is all."
By this time, Donnie had reached around and was brushing imaginary dirt off the part of her coat that covered Evey's behind.
Then he squeezed.
Letting out a short shriek of surprise, Evey's defensive instincts finally kicked in and she shoved him in the chest as hard as she could. Unprepared for the violence of her reaction, Donnie fell back against the third young man.
The muscles in his arms flexed as he glared at her.
"What's your problem, bitch?!"
"Dude, watch your language, or we're gonna have a serious problem here," the Flash threatened casually from where he had appeared, leaning against a crane game.
Evey gasped, as her knees literally went weak with relief. He had come back. In full costume, no less.
Indeed, the Flash was there in all his scarlet-clad glory; cowl in place, though his customary grin was absent. He did not look at her, and had his gaze fixed solely on the three young men, who turned to glare at him with a mixture of apprehension and defiance.
"We didn't do anything to her, dude. She fell down and went ballistic when I tried to help her up," Donnie said defensively.
"You – He… grabbed me. My behind. He grabbed it," Evey heard herself say, ashamed and mortified that Wally had to hear it.
Flash's eyes narrowed dangerously at that, and though his friends swallowed nervously, Donnie held his ground. He even had the audacity to smirk.
"Well, if she hadn't been flirting with me, I wouldn't've tried it, man. I mean, look at her. She's cute, but it's not like she's worth getting in trouble for."
Wally knew he was about two seconds away from knocking this guy out cold. Had this ever happened to him before? Had he ever wanted to beat the crap out of someone over a girl? He couldn't think straight enough to remember, he was so pissed.
It was such a bald-faced lie too. He knew Evey. She barely had it in her to TALK to men, let alone flirt. But the way Donnie told it, if he hadn't known the woman in question, he might have been convinced that there were two sides to the story.
He couldn't pound this guy, though, no matter how much he deserved it. Not as the Flash, and not as Wally either, or risk having to explain to Batman why he needed to borrow some cash to bail himself out of jail. Instead, he let his face twist into the most frightening expression of rage he could, and jerked a thumb toward the exit.
"Why should we have to leave?" Donnie protested. "It's our word against hers and you know you're just taking her side 'cause she's a girl—"
"You guys don't have your listening ears on, do you? Let's see if you can hear this: Get lost, or next thing you know, you'll be defending yourself against criminal sexual assault charges. There ARE security cameras in here, you know."
"Is that the Flash?!"
"Debbie, quick, get a picture!"
"I'm totally tweeting this!"
They were beginning to draw a crowd. Not just from the Flash's presence – which would have been enough – but from his rather loud voice in describing the incident.
Donnie looked from the crowd to Flash, and finally down at Evey, who had collapsed to the ground under the weight of all excitement around her, and looked every bit the innocent victim she was. With a belligerent "fine," he allowed himself to be steered out the exit by his friends.
"Are you all right? – Evey?" he said her name in a half-aside whisper so that the clamoring group of people behind them couldn't hear.
A few more tears slid out; tears of relief, but also tears of some unnamed hurt that she just couldn't put to voice in front of all these people.
"Yes. Can you take me home now, please?"
Wally's shoulders slumped. It was ruined. The perfect birthday he'd had planned for her was completely ruined.
"Sure." With no other words between them, he lifted her into his arms and took off, jostling the crowd only slightly as he bumped past.
Evey lay quietly in the Flash's arms. Her face was turned in toward his chest, cheek resting against it the way she had all those months ago the first time he'd rescued her. So much had changed since then, and yet, she realized now that some things never would.
Donnie's words echoed in her head.
"Look at her… She's not worth getting in trouble over."
The last few months had made her forget how painfully plain and unremarkable she was. What a joke. Even in her new clothes and makeup, she was nothing special after all…
She cried as silently as she could. If Wally asked what was wrong, she wouldn't be able to tell him. If she did, he might come to see her inadequacies just as vividly… and then he would realize he'd made a horrible mistake in wasting so much time on her.
They soon arrived on her doorstep, and Evey twisted herself gently out of his arms in a way that had Wally's heart throbbing painfully. Had this incident pushed them back to square one?
He could see that she was still upset. Though whether she was scared, humiliated, shocked, or – worst of all – angry with him for not being there, he couldn't tell.
She hesitated. Then she looked up at him, and he could see everything in her eyes. Her pain, loneliness, bewildered hurt, and doubt. Most of all, her doubt.
His heart broke for her, and his only recourse was to put his arms back around her, this time in a hard embrace. He realized that he'd left her birthday cake behind. It was probably even now sitting on the table he'd reserved for them, waiting for a celebration that wouldn't come. What a horrible way to end the night…
She was shuddering in his arms, her head tucked snugly against his shoulder. His hands began to move up and down her back soothingly, and he concentrated on making soft shushing sounds against her hair, which seemed to calm her.
It was a long time before she responded, but when her own arms came up to return his hug, Wally felt a tide of affection so overwhelming that he did the only thing that made sense.
He swept the cowl off his face and kissed her.
Author's note: Looooong update for you guys in exchange for the looooong wait. A quick PSA, for those of you who don't mind reading one…
One in every three women will be raped in her lifetime. Sexual assault is even more prevalent, especially among those of us young adults in college or in the military.
Don't ever let a man – or another woman! – slut-shame you. No matter what you wore or what you drank, it is never your fault. Please be aware of the danger to your physical and mental health, and take this issue seriously. Be aware of this issue and protect yourself by keeping people around you that you trust.
Thanks for your attention. And thank you very much to those of you who took the time to leave a review! The response to last chapter was very warm, hope you all enjoyed this one as well, though it IS a little more controversial. I can't wait to hear your thoughts! See you next time!