A/N: Hey guys. I'm really sorry it's taken me so long to post anything to this story. I know there are a lot of people following it, and that you've been a wonderful, loyal, supportive audience. I've been trying to get this chapter written pretty much since the previous chapter went up, but I'm incredibly blocked on this fic lately (not writing in general though, which is just odd for me). I've been updating it regularly for over a year now, and I think that might be part of the problem. I've tried taking some time away from it in the hopes that when I picked it back up again, the story would flow just like it always has, but trying to write the new chapter's been like pulling teeth, and that's not how I like to write. That's not what this story has been, and I don't want to give you guys a passionless project just to get a new chapter up. However, I do appreciate how much you guys have been enjoying the story, and I know that some of you guys worry about me when I'm silent for too long, so I wanted to touch base. I don't consider this a finished chapter, as it only has a few scenes and doesn't really advance the story much, but it's been almost two months and I thought you deserved an update (even a sucky one). I'll keep pushing, and hopefully be back to work on this story soon. Again, sorry-sorry-sorry!

Chapter 31

Irey woke well before the rest of her family on Christmas morning, something she'd conditioned herself to do as a little girl. Rather than run around the house waking everyone up for presents, she sat in bed and watched the snow flurries outside. The tree next to her window looked beautiful with its light dusting of white.

Since her family was usually disgruntled about being roused before six am (even on Christmas!) she decided to take a quick run through the snow. Out of habit, she generated an Impulse costume with the speed force, caught her reflection in the mirror hanging on her bedroom door, and changed it to the Kid Flash costume. For a long minute Irey critically studied her reflection.

There was no escaping it. With her short hair and her face partially obscured by the half-cowl, she looked like her father as a teenager. She was tall and gangly, and any softness or femininity of feature was hidden under glaringly yellow fabric. She thought of the cute little purple skirt Lian wore, and the midriff revealing jersey Wonder Girl wore with her low slung red pants, and wished there were more girls in her family's tradition so that she could wear a feminine costume. She was never going to attract a Lightning Rod with crazy orange clown hair and a masculine costume.

With that on her mind, Irey raced out into the streets of Keystone to admire the snowscapes. Her thoughts kept returning to love and romance, even though she'd rather have mused about anything else. Unfortunately, when she ran she had to be mindful of her speed, as she hadn't found her Lightning Rod, and that made her brood about her seemingly perpetual state of being single even more.

Irey's connection to the Speed Force was unusually powerful. Mr. Garrick assumed it was because her connection had initially been divided between her and Jai, up until Professor Zoom had attacked them as children. Whatever the reason, she went from fast to Terminal Velocity, the point at which speedsters lost physical form and were absorbed into the Speed Force, more easily than any of the others. Everyone else avoided that rapturous death by finding their Lightning Rod: that one person they loved so deeply and completely that they could still find them even when the speedster started losing their own identity to the thunder and lightning.

Wally had Linda. Barry had Iris. Jay had Joan. Bart had Rose.

And Irey sucked at dating. She couldn't flirt without making an idiot of herself. Hell, she couldn't even make friends without Lian or Jai's help. The pressure, of course, didn't help. Someday her life might depend upon her ability to attract a partner, and with that on her mind it was hard to loosen up and talk to a boy.

Really, it was hard not to be jealous of her best friend under such circumstances. Lian had effortlessly secured Damian's attention when she was in kindergarten (not that Irey was particularly jealous on that front; Damian wasn't her type, and besides that, he'd dated her brother and that would just be gross), she already had Billy's interest, and even though she was only a freshman at Keystone High, she'd been asked out by half the kids in Irey's grade. Angie, a friendly lesbian whose locker was next to Irey's, kept asking her if she was sure her pretty little friend was straight.

If Lian ever developed superspeed, she'd have her pick of potential Lightning Rods. So far all Irey had managed were a handful of unrealistic unrequited crushes and confused feelings for a budding supervillain.

She was running through the park by the river when she caught a spot of orange out of the corner of her eye. Irey doubled back, and saw the villain she'd been thinking of sitting on a garden bench under a clump of trees.

Josh Jackam was severely under dressed for the weather. He was wearing a ripped and stained orange jumpsuit, and his chin-length hair was a nest of tangles around his handsome, but worryingly gaunt face. He didn't look uncomfortable though. As Irey got closer, she saw the occasional erratic spark of lightning flicker from his eyes, and she noticed that the snow melted before it touched him. He was using his weather manipulation to make the bench around him feel like it was facing a warm spring sun.

"Hello Impulse," Josh greeted.

"H-hi," she mumbled. "Um…it's Kid Flash now."

"I liked Impulse better."

"Josh, what are you doing? You're supposed to be in a youth facility." She hoped she sounded like a stern superhero type. Based on Josh's distant grin she didn't pull it off.

"Are you going to drag me back?"

Irey chewed her lip. She definitely should…but she'd be lying if she said she hadn't been aching to talk to the kid since he'd had his uncharacteristic freak out in the pedestrian mall. Putting innocents in danger like that just wasn't him.

"Josh, what happened? Why'd you go berserk and zap me? That really hurt, y'know." The effects had been temporary thanks to speed healing, but it had still sucked.

Josh shrugged. "I was having a bad day. You probably wouldn't behave rationally if you found out the guys you trusted murdered your father. I thought they wanted to help me, that they were going to be like a replacement family. But the Rogues were only ever interested in my powers. Even Mick."

"Heatwave's usually pretty nice to me when I have to fight him," Irey said, sure she sounded like an idiot. "But um…yeah, the Rogues aren't a great support system. That's why all the decent ones break away and reform. Like my Uncle Piper, and the first Trickster. It might have been neat to be part of it when those guys were still Rogues though. Back then things were a lot less dire and a lot more silly."

Josh smiled. "Back when they held conventions and threw parties when one of them got out of jail. Back when my dad was still alive." His smile faded, and his eyes turned downcast.

Irey's mom had been the one to find Mark Mardon's body. It happened a little less than a year before Josh returned from the hell realm. Linda had been poking around an abandoned warehouse trying to sniff out a lead for a case Bart was working on, and she'd tripped over the Weather Wizard's corpse. It hadn't been entirely dissimilar from when she'd found Golden Glider after Chillblaine had turned on her, and at Iris' insistence Linda spent some time with a therapist talking over her gruesome discoveries.

"I'm sorry, Josh."

"You really are, aren't you? We're supposed to be enemies, you know. You're not going to last very long as a superhero with all that compassion."

"Sure I will," Irey returned, finally confident about something in the conversation. She wanted to be just like Bart when it was her turn to run in red, and he was the most compassionate person she'd ever met. "I've already been doing this longer than you've been in costume, haven't I?"

"In costume? Don't you mean since I've been a supervillain?" Josh asked with a harsh smirk. A flicker of lightning passed through his eyes.

"C'mon Josh, you're not really a bad guy," Irey insisted. She sat down next to him on the bench, but her confidence gave out and she wound up staring at her booted feet while she kicked them back and forth over the dry dirt at her feet.

"I lost my temper and let a hurricane loose in a public area. I blasted you in the chest at close range, and then when I was locked up for everyone's safety, I broke out at the first available opportunity. Sweetheart, I'm a lousy scumbag."

Still staring at her swinging feet, Irey mumbled about how she didn't think that was true. Then Josh tilted her face up and tenderly kissed her.

It was the third time he'd done it, and she still didn't know if she should push him away. But she liked being kissed by him. She liked the way he brushed her hair back, and how nice and warm his lips were, and how he always made a little humming sound just before he broke the kiss.

"You're such a good person, Impulse," Josh said, a touch of wonder in his tone. "Really, you're lucky you fight the Rogues. Other supervillains would take advantage of how good you are."

Irey frowned at him. "The Zooms weren't exactly a picnic you know. And Abra Kadabra's nuts, and clearly you've never met Gorilla Grodd."

Josh laughed. "Well, you're lucky to have Snart and the others for regular opponents. I'm glad that at least most of the time the villains you fight don't want you dead."

"Uncle B-um…one of the Flashes didn't believe Uncle Piper at first when he said that the Rogues didn't want to kill us. Because, y'know, they always made 'death traps' and stuff." Irey felt her cheeks get warm, and figured her face was bright red. She really should get going. Her family was probably ready for presents by now, and besides, talking to Josh was getting risky. They were so familiar with each other that it was tempting to tell him more than she should.

To his credit, he didn't press the "Uncle B-" slip-up. They laughed a little about how seriously the elder Flash had taken some of the Rogues' more ridiculous schemes (more than half of their plots in the old days had been pranks on the resident superhero), Josh kissed her a few more times while Irey tried to remind herself that he was an inappropriate crush, and ultimately she left him sitting on the bench without telling anyone she'd found the recent escapee.

She didn't feel like much of a superhero when she got home.

To Lian's immense relief, the Arrow Family kept most of their crazy in during Christmas. Billy noticed some of their almost-charming quirks and eccentricities, but he wasn't made uncomfortable the way Damian had been during his visit.

Roy tried to keep the façade of an intimidating and overprotective father going. He glared at Billy for so much as looking at Lian and told anecdotes designed to make Red Arrow sound terrifying. He was definitely overdoing it, and Lian started to get embarrassed on his behalf. Then one morning Lian came down for breakfast and found Roy and Billy in deep conversation. To her surprise, they both burst into laughter, something she'd yet to see the stoic teen do, and her father clapped a friendly hand on Billy's shoulder. Lian was overjoyed to see them bonding…until she realized they were bonding over how much they disliked Damian.

All in all, Billy was making an excellent impression on her family. He was polite, well-spoken, cultured, and shared a lot of common interests with the liberal-leaning archers. Lian watched him engage Connor in an impromptu dharma talk after Christmas dinner and, though tempted to join in, instead reflected on how different Billy was from Damian.

There were some similarities, sure. They both had forceful personalities. They were both intimidatingly intelligent. They were stubborn, proud, and incredibly good looking.

But where Billy was smiling charmingly and swapping anecdotes with her uncle, Damian would have been lecturing him on whatever mistakes still lingered in his understanding of Buddhism. Damian was harsh, grating, and sometimes making the effort to understand where he was coming from could get exhausting. Billy had had an unusual upbringing as well, but it manifested so differently.

And this was his reaction to grief, on top of it all.

Roy sat down next to Lian, startling her slightly, and handed her a plate of dessert. "Everything alright, Peanut? You looked like you were in another world there." Lian blushed and he smiled knowingly. "Would it help or hurt if I told you I liked this one?"

"Neither. Now stop prying. I definitely don't want to talk about boys with my dad. Ick."

"Alright, then pretend I was talking about the pies. By the way, avoid the green tinged custardy looking one out there. Ollie tried to make something healthy and vegetarian for Connor to score some understanding father points and, well…I don't know why he thought asparagus belonged in a dessert, but…yech."

Lian giggled. "Thanks for the heads up. I'll have to warn Billy when he's done talking to Uncle Connor. By the way…I thought his girlfriend was supposed to come to dinner?"

Roy shrugged. "Me too. No one said anything though, so I figured it was best to keep my mouth shut. Don't want to accidentally set Ollie off and make the poor guy feel bad about whatever happened."

Lian nodded her agreement. "Still though. It'd be weird if Christmas went off perfectly. We usually have at least one instance of drama when we all get together like this. I warned Billy about it before Cassie dropped us off."

"Hey guys." Mia walked over to where Roy and Lian were sitting and offered them a hesitant smile. She was attempting to hide some more recent weight loss with a bulky Christmas sweater, but the sweater couldn't cover her prominent cheekbones or skeletally thin hands.

Lian worked a smile onto her face, though it bothered her to see her favorite ex-babysitter looking so frail. "Hi Mia. Merry Christmas."

"I was thinking that, um, given certain hyper-solitary leanings, you guys'd probably be more likely to run into a member of the Bat Family than I am, and maybe one of them could pass this along to Tim for me?" She held out a red envelope sealed shut with a Christmas tree sticker.

"Of course." Lian took the card and put it in her purse. "We think Uncle Dick's going to be in Gotham with the other Bats for a few weeks, but I'll see Damian at the next Titans meeting and I can pass it along then."

Mia smiled gratefully, glanced uneasily at Roy, who didn't quite meet her eyes, then turned and went to sit down with Ollie and Hal.

Lian elbowed her dad in the side. As usual, she was sitting on the wrong side for him to return it. "I thought you said you talked to Mia."

"I did."

"Why does she still look scared of you?"

"Sweetheart, it takes more than one conversation to fix the fuck ups I made."

Lian took another look at her old friend, noting how drawn and pale she looked, and then leveled a determined look at her father. "You'd better try harder, Daddy. I…don't know how much time we're going to have."

Christmas night found Lian sitting in her room trying to figure out how to pack all of her presents into a duffle bag and backpack. As usual, her grandpa had gone overboard on gifts, and she simply had more books, makeup, new clothes, and pet accessories than she could fit into her bags. Maybe she'd ask him for luggage next year.

The most entertaining present of the night by far had been the matching baby name books Ollie had given Roy and Connor. Roy had chucked his right back at Ollie's head while Hal laughed, and then he'd followed it up with a creative threat about what would happen if Ollie mentioned the damn thing to Dick. Connor had handled the rather rude present much more gracefully, surprising no one, though he'd seemed a little withdrawn afterwards as a result.

"Nothing for it. I'm going to have to leave some stuff here." At least she had her own bedroom for storage. Lian started sorting her new belongings into two piles; one to pack, and one to arrange decoratively in her Coast City bedroom.

Then there was a light rapping on the door. "Come in."

Billy walked into the room and, upon receiving a friendly greeting, shut the door and took a seat in her desk chair. He was holding a small gift bag. "Your father just told me that you're heading back to Keystone tomorrow morning, so I thought I'd best give this to you now."

"Billy! You didn't have to get me a Christmas present. I didn't get you anything," Lian exclaimed, feeling embarrassed.

"Your kindness has been a present, and a much needed one at that. The…the cost of joining the Titans was much higher than I wanted to pay. I don't think I could have stomached my duty in light of everything if I still thought I didn't have a friend on the team."

"Billy…of course you have a friend on the team! We all really like you, just so you know. We just need to get to know you better." She ran over and hugged him without even looking at the present. Like Damian, he didn't seem to know how to respond to a hug, but after a few seconds he tentatively returned it.

Out of mercy for his awkwardness she made it a quick hug, though there had been a certain niceness in their brief physical contact. She was going to have to have a long talk with Irey later, because these new feelings were conflicting with some long cherished ones and she wasn't sure how she felt about it.

Cheeks still warm, Billy held out the present and Lian took it. She extracted an ivory colored ceramic statue of a beautiful Asian woman from the bag. If she had to guess, Lian would have to say it was Buddhist, though she didn't remember seeing anything like it among her grandfather or her uncle's things. "Oh wow. This is beautiful. Thank you, Billy."

"Do you want me to tell you about it and why I selected it for you?"


Billy set the bag aside and leaned towards her a little. "This is a statue of the bodhisattva Quan-Yin, or Kwannon, or Avalokitesvara, and probably a million other names besides. It's an important figure in Mahayanist forms of Buddhism."

"Bodhisattvas are the people who've attained enlightenment, but they stay in the cycle of death and rebirth to help other people, right?" Lian asked.

Billy smiled and nodded. "I couldn't have said it better myself. So you mediate and you study Buddhism?"

Lian blushed. "Just a little. I still get confused about a lot of it, but I like what I've read so far. And everything Uncle Connor's taught me has been really cool."

"Well, Quan-Yin is specifically the bodhisattva of compassion. And as I'm pretty sure you're the most compassionate person I've ever met, it seemed fitting that you own at least one Quan-Yin statue."

Her face must have been bright red. Lian was terrible at accepting compliments. "Billy…I'm, I'm not like…"

"Yes you are." He placed one of his hands over hers. His whole face was lit up with affection and appreciation. "I'm grateful for what you've done for me, and I'm accustomed to show appreciation when it's deserved. Thank you."

"Y-you're welcome. Thank you for my statue. It's beautiful."

He was still holding her hand. For a minute, she thought he might kiss her. He only smiled though, then stood and took his leave.

Lian sat on her bed for a few minutes, shifting the cool porcelain statue from hand to hand, lost in thought. She wrapped it up in tissue paper and then again in a long sleeved t-shirt before carefully packing it away in her backpack, all the while wondering if she'd really wanted Billy to kiss her.