21 Chapter One
21 Chapter One
Author's Notes: This fic is part of a continuing series. I mostly follow canon, so it is possible to jump on, but if you'd like to read the previous installments those consist of White Light, Pavement Cracks, and Late Morning Lullabye. This fic picks up right after Crisis on Infinite Earths.
Hartley realized he was still wearing the medical bracelet from the hospital during the cab ride back to his apartment. He made a mental note to cut it off as soon as he got home.
He wasn't quite sure what to expect when he got there. He'd been in the hospital for almost six months, and his boyfriend/roommate had stopped visiting him after two of those months. Which was worrying. James was almost dependently devoted to Hartley, but then Hartley had also been in rough shape. He could see how James might not want to be around much. It had to have been difficult for him. Which hurt, but he could understand that.
Hartley went upstairs, unlocked the door, and blinked a few times to make sure he was seeing things right. Then he took a few deep breaths, went into the bathroom, and threw up.
"Stop shaking," Hartley snapped at himself. Much to his annoyance, his hands and knees disobeyed him. "Dammit." He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, then staggered to the sink to rinse it out. 'Just because…it looks like it did when Earl got grabbed by the mob, it doesn't mean…'*
Oh hell. They had different styles, but when it came down to basics James really wasn't that much more stable than Earl. He was impulsive enough to get into serious trouble.
And it looked like someone had attacked the apartment. All kinds of furnishings and knick knacks were missing, and there were clothes and things strewn about everywhere (which was very much not like James, who was a bit of a neat freak). What furniture was left in the place had been shifted around and knocked over. It wasn't quite as bad as when Earl had pissed off the mob, but someone had clearly left the place in a hurry.
Hartley went into the kitchen, dug around in the junk drawer until he found something pointy (he really needed the friggin' medical bracelet off his wrist), and then found his phone book. He'd forgotten some important little things, like phone numbers, as a result of his medication. It was all kinds of frustrating to feel the details itching at the edge of his memory, but still not be able to dispel the lingering fuzziness that would let him remember everything. As soon as he felt more stable he was so weaning himself off the damn happy pills.
His hands were still shaking a bit when he made his phone call.
"Yeah, what is it?"
"Len? It's P-Ha…uh, Hartley. Hi. Sorry, the doctors think it'd be best if I used my real name for awhile."
"Oh hey kid. They finally let you out of the loony bin?" Len asked.
"Yep. I'm officially sane. You know, as long as I stay on my meds and check in for regular therapy."
"Good for you. You, uh…giving up crime? It's just, uh, running around with us would probably be considered falling off the wagon, and y'know, you should probably listen to the docs until you're actually feeling better. But after that, we'd love to have you back. You wouldn't believe the shit I've been putting up with since-"
"I'm sorry Len, but I have something a little pressing to ask you about."
"Um…did something ha-happen to James? It's just…he stopped visiting me at the hospital, and I just got back to our apartment and it looks…" Like a crime scene. "It looks like something bad happened." Len was silent for a little too long to be okay. "Len? Please answer me. I, I'm still not handling stress as well as I could be-"
"Last I heard from Jesse he was out in California. He…didn't tell you, huh?"
"N-no. He's okay though?"
"Yeah. Yeah, heard he went legit and got a job with a movie studio or something."
"Oh. Well that's nice." Hartley hung up the phone in the middle of some well intentioned comforting drabble Len was saying. He sat down at the kitchen table with his head in his hands and took a few deep breaths.
All of the missing things were James'. He'd noticed the chaotic mess, but the significant details hadn't really penetrated. Then he saw the envelope next to his elbow. Frantically, he ripped it open and pulled out the letter.
So what I'm doing here is a very cowardly thing, and I fully acknowledge that. But I've never once tried to trick you into thinking I was a good person. I like to think I've always been pretty up front about it, actually. You're the angel, not me.
By the time you get this (if you're ever clear enough to read again. Frankly I don't think much of the damn hospital you're locked away at) you'll notice I'm gone. I'm sorry, but I just wasn't strong enough to watch you fall apart like that. I tried. I swear I tried. I wanted to support you so bad, but you needed way more of me than I could give.
Hope you feel better soon.
Oh. So James hadn't just stopped visiting. He'd dumped Hartley while he was too drugged up to know the difference.
Hartley slowly walked around his messy apartment, lazily glancing from empty surface to empty surface, where he was used to seeing clutter in the form of yo-yos, picture frames and sets of cartoons. He sat down on the couch and took a few more deep breaths, which were getting increasingly shallow, until finally he was a sobbing mess.
There was no damn point in getting sane and leaving the hospital without James. Hartley still didn't have a family, his reputation as a criminal had been ruined, he had no skills, no friends, no life, really. Even if he did become a criminal again, according to the news his arch nemesis was dead. What the hell was the point?
Then his front door was kicked open. Hartley jumped to his feet and wildly looked around the room for some kind of weapon (he hadn't had a pipe on him in months), but suddenly firm hands were shaking his shoulders and he found himself staring into concerned blue eyes.
"Piper, you okay? C'mon, say something."
"Losing your marbles didn't make you suicidal, right? You're okay, right?"
"M-Mick?" Hartley blinked a few times, and then lightly shifted out of Mick's grasp. Mark was standing just behind him, and they both looked worried. They were mostly in street clothes, but Mick was wearing the pants of his flame retardant suit with the goggles around his neck, and Mark had on the baggy Weather Wizard shirt. It was a good guess they'd left in a hurry.
Hartley swallowed. "What are you guys doing here?"
"Len called and told us to check up on you. He made it sound like you were, uh…gonna hurt yourself," Mick explained.
"Because of Trickster," Mark added. Mick winced.
"You alright Hartley?"
Hartley attempted a reassuring smile. "I've been dumped before. I'm not going to kill myself."
"Yeah, but you just got out of the hospital," Mark pointed out.
"I swear, I'm o-"
"Len told us not to leave you alone."
Hartley closed his eyes and counted to three. "I was released from the hospital partly because the doctors decided I was no longer a danger to myself or society."
"Yeah, well from what Digger and Sam said, those doctors were twits," Mark snapped. "And you're the Pied Piper. You're plenty dangerous to society."
"C'mon Hartley, you don't wanna hang around your trashed apartment all by yourself your first night outta the nut house. Come by the hideout with us and play cards or something. We can ditch out on our heist until next week. The security won't change that much."
"I'm supposed to avoid costumes for awhile, actually. Doctors orders," Hartley said, feeling a touch uncomfortable. He'd actually been advised against associating with any of the Rogues, which he hadn't anticipated being a problem (well, other than his boyfriend), because he hadn't realized the other men thought of him as a friend. They always bitched about his interests, called him a nag…he'd kind of assumed they just wanted him to help watch their backs during heists.
"I suppose that makes sense. Alright Piper, so what if none of us wear our costumes? Could that still trigger a relapse?" Mark asked.
Hartley started, not expecting the concern. "I, um, I guess that would be okay."
"Good. So you can come with us, and then Len can calm down when he sees no one is slitting their wrists tonight. I'll head back to the hideout and tell the guys to put on civilian clothes. Meet you guys there?"
"Yeah Mark. See you later," Mick said with a nod. "So Hartley, you want a little help cleaning this place up before we leave?" It probably would be nice to have company so he wouldn't brood too much over James.
"I guess. Um." He waited for Mark to leave, which took a few minutes what with the door having been kicked in. It was a little awkward shutting it. "Did something…happen while I was in the hospital? It's just…you guys are acting awfully concerned."
"Did anyone tell you Sam died?"
"He…no. I'd heard about Flash, but…Sam?"
"Yeah, during the Crisis. And Flash being dead has everyone a little off center too." Mick shrugged. "So yeah, when Len called us he did say you were probably fine, but we didn't want to take any chances. So what I'm about to say, I want you to know I mean this. If you need help, don't hesitate, just tell us. No more Rogues are gonna die. You got that?"
"Mick, I'm not sure if I can be a Rogue anymore-"
"There's no Flash anymore Hartley. There might not be any Rogues anymore period, but that's not the point. We were always a little more social than the guys in the other cities. We watched each other's backs, broke each other outta jail when we needed to. I don't think we should stop looking out for each other just because we're not robbing banks together anymore. And neither does Len."
Of course not. The Rogues were really all Len had. Well, the Rogues and a mentally unbalanced sister. Hm. A subject change might break some tension.
"Speaking of Len, how's his sister taking Flash's death?"
Mick smirked. "She's been vandalizing the Flash museum twice a week since it happened. Destroyed three memorial statues and scared the ever living shit out of every candle light vigil attendant she could."
"So she's keeping busy? That's nice."
Mick laughed. He looked up when he realized Hartley had stopped stuffing garbage into a trash bag. "Hartley? You okay?"
"Just…thinking. I hadn't realized any of you were actually concerned about me."
"Digger and Sam tried to bust you outta the hospital but you wouldn't go with them."
"Huh. I came back here thinking James would be…and then I was alone." Hartley started cleaning again with his head down. "Thank you."
"Don't mention it. Like I said, Len thinks the Rogues should try to stick together."
"Mm. Sounds like a plan."
It was brighter than James would have liked. He rolled over and pulled a pillow over his head, but he couldn't fall back asleep. There was some uneasy feeling crawling over his skin, almost like he was being watched. He tossed the pillow aside, opening his eyes, and let out a yelp when he saw the wide brown eyes staring back at him.
"Ah!" Yelped Billy, jumping backwards and landing loudly on the floor.
"Holy cow kid!" James gasped. He'd trained himself to stop swearing in front of the preschooler after some encouragement whacks from the kid's mom. "What was that about?"
"I didn't mean to scare you Mr. Jesse," Billy mumbled apologetically. "I was just making sure you were still there. M-mom said you'd be leaving soon, so I thought I'd check that it was still you sleeping on the couch."
"Yeah, it's me." James sat up and stretched. "I'm moving to my own place next week, so I'll still be on the couch for a few more days."
"Oh. Okay. Why are you leaving? I liked having you here." Billy climbed onto the couch and sat next to James, folding his hands in his lap and swinging his feet off the couch.
James smiled. "I like being here," Which was true. Living with Mindy and her super intelligent, ridiculously polite, handsome little guy was wonderful. He had to wonder what idiot of an ex-boyfriend Mindy had had, to get her pregnant with a perfect little super baby and walk away from that. But Mindy hadn't said anything about Billy's father, and James figured it would be in poor taste to pry it out of her when he was a guest.
"If you like being here then why are you leaving? My mom likes you. You could stay."
"Billy, I was only ever planning on being here for a little while anyway. And I'm not moving far. It's just time for me to get my own place."
"Oh. Can I come and visit when you do?"
"Course you can. I'll see if I can steal you for a sleepover, and I'll show you all the video games I've got in storage, and we can make a fort in the living room and have all the really sugary food your mom won't let me buy. Sound good?"
Billy nodded eagerly. "You need to hurry up and move out so we can do that. That sounds like fun!" He jumped up and gave James a hug. "I've gotta go across the street to Mrs. Seger's house so she can drive me to preschool. Bye Mr. Jesse."
"Bye Billy." James yawned, then pulled the blankets back up and closed his eyes.
"Oh don't even try it."
"Try what? I don't have any idea what you're talking about. I've been here sleeping like a baby all morning."
Mindy sat down on the couch, which also had her sitting on James' legs. "I heard that exchange with my son, and whereas I think it's great that you've bonded so well-"
"I'm as surprised as anyone." James snuggled into the pillow, and wriggled his legs a little, trying to shake Mindy off of his 'bed'. "I don't normally get along that well with kids. And yes, I do see the irony, where I'm an overgrown one myself-"
"If you take Billy for visits, and mind you that's a pretty big if right there, I want you to respect my rules. So that sugar him up and play video games until you completely ruin his eyesight plan…?"
"C'mon, acting like a kid from time to time isn't gonna kill him," James pouted.
Mindy frowned. "He…carries a burden you wouldn't understand. I know I have a lot of special rules for him, but it's with reason. Can you please respect that?"
James sat up on his elbow and eyed Mindy suspiciously. "Min, is there something I should know about Billy?"
"Well…" She chewed her lip, looking like she was about to cave. It wasn't the first time he'd seen that expression since he'd started crashing on his ex's couch.
"Is he a meta?" James guessed, since Mindy didn't seem any closer to telling him anything of substance on her own. "With some scary power he's gotta keep a leash on?"
Mindy nodded. "Yep. Tha-that's it James. He's…he's a meta. He's a magician and a channel. I don't think…I don't think he quite grasps the full significance of it yet though. I'm trying to…I want him to have as normal a childhood as he can."
"Okay, that's cool. Min, that's all you needed to tell me. I can't help you out if you don't keep me in the loop though, okay?" James shook her shoulder and laughed. "C'mon, you're too pretty to be frowning like that. Smile for me?"
She smiled exaggeratedly, let out a nervous laugh, and then started swinging her feet much like her son had been doing earlier. "How's that?"
"Much better. Look, I gotta be up for work soon and I was hoping to catch a little more sleep. I could skip the sleep and take you out for breakfast instead though…"
"I actually was leaving for work myself, so I'm going to have decline that particularly tempting offer."
"Well if it's such a tempting offer we can make it dinner instead. You could find a sitter for Billy, and maybe we could catch a movie or go to one of those sophisticated places I used to like to rob…"
"Sorry James, still not interested in dating you again."
"Oh c'mon! Give me one good reason-"
"I've already given you several hundred, not the least of which being that you're still on the rebound from a girl you fled the state for and won't tell me a thing about."
James sighed. "Blunt as ever. Sometimes I wonder what it is I see in you."
"I'm beautiful, smart and low maintenance?"
"Yeah, that'd be the stuff right there."
She leaned over and kissed his cheek, then got off the couch and started for the door. "James, if you'd just grow up a bit I might consider it. I am a mom now you know."
"I grew up exactly as much as I needed to to function."
Mindy rolled her eyes. "Goodbye Jamie."
"Bye. Have fun at work."
"So wait, did you all know I was dating James the whole time?" Hartley asked.
"Just about. You guys sucked at hiding it," Mick answered.
"You wore each other's clothes." Digger added.
"And always left everywhere together," Mick said. "I mean geeze Hartley…"
He laughed. "I guess we were kind of obvious. He didn't want to tell anyone though. We were fighting about it kind of a lot."
Mark flopped backwards onto the couch and snagged a bag of chips off the orange crate coffee table. "So you're better off single. I guess there isn't much difference between gays and normal guys after all. Relationships suck either way."
"That's rather pessimistic. Granted, I do tend to spectacularly fail at romantic endeavors, but I'd like to think it's going to get better someday." Hartley sighed. "If I hadn't had that breakdown James and I would probably still be in a state of bliss."
"Yeah, but how good was it really if he ran off when things started getting hard?" Mick asked, scowling. "He's an interesting guy to have around, but at his core James really was kind of a douche. I mean seriously, how many times did he 'trick' one of us into dropping our loot so he could make off with it while we were getting pounded by the Flash?"
"All the friggin' time!" Digger yelled. "Oily, manipulative shit, that one. Never should have believed a damn thing he said."
"Guys, lay off," Mark hissed. The group collectively winced, taking in Hartley's dejected form. He was hugging himself with one arm, head down.
"He said such sweet things to me. I guess I should have known it wasn't real. You're right Digger. James was a liar and a manipulator."
"Hartley, listen to yourself. You just said Digger was right about something," Mark pointed out. Digger whacked him so he whacked him back. "Look, Len said James really cared about you so he must have."
"Right, because Len said." Hartley rolled his eyes. After a pause in conversation he let out an exasperated sigh. "Is he lurking behind me?"
"Hello Hartley. Didja actually want to talk about this anymore?" Len asked, sitting down across from him.
"Um…not really, no."
"Thank God. I used up what little sensitivity I had just now," Mark said with exaggerated relief.
"That was painfully obvious," Mick said.
They stopped talking about 'feelings' and played cards for awhile, but Hartley had never really liked poker anyway, so he quickly excused himself and found a seat by the TV. He took out a flute and played just for the joy of it, something he hadn't done in quite a while.
Mark joined him after a few hands, obviously tipsy and probably broke, but in good spirits from the looks of it. "So ya think this is the end a'the Rogues Hartley?"
Hartley shrugged. "Maybe. Most of us were in this more for hassling Flash than financial gain."
"Was all about hassling Flash. M'gonna go to a new city, start over. That's my plan."
"You're really just going to move on to a new nemesis?" Piper smirked. "Who did you have in mind for a rebound?"
"No, I don' wanna a, um, new nemesis. Just a change. I need a change. Gonna go to New York. The capes there, the Teen Titans, man they don't even notice normal crime. If it isn't an alien or a super crazy cult or a conspiracy, they don' touch it. They jes want high profile cases so they c'n impress the Justice League. In New York you can still make a livin' robbing banks. It'll be great."
Hartley rolled his flute between his palms, thinking. A change of scenery would be nice…at the least he needed to get out of that damn apartment he and James had furnished together…it looked so empty without his things. "Need a roommate?"
"…Yer not coming onta me, are you? Cuz I don't go that way…not even for pity sex."
"I'm not hitting on you Mark."
"Okay. Yeah, roommate would be great. Can we put the utilities in your name?"
"Oh yeah, my name's legit now, isn't it?" Hartley said, realizing the full implications of his release from the mental hospital. He was on probation now, not in violation of it.
He really could start over.
"Yeah, we can keep everything in my name."
"Cool. Uh…can you do first, last, and security? Cuz I just lost it to Digger. I think he's cheating, but Len just said I suck at cards. He's cheating though."
"I can handle that, yeah. Do you actually have a place yet?"
"I'll start looking tomorrow."
"Thanks Piper. That sounds cool. Oh, sorry, Hartley. Hey, did you need rebound sex? Cuz I can ask around and see if I know any gay guys. I mean any other gay guys. Y'know, I know you already."
It was a momentous effort to keep from laughing in Mark's well-intentioned face, but Hartley kept control of himself. "If I really wanted to, I have a neighbor that's been desperate to bang me for months. I'm all set."
"Okay. Cool, cuz, y'know, that's more involvement than I really wanna have with my roommate's business."
"Mark, I think you should lay down for awhile and sober up."
"Yeah, I think I should do that. Tell Digger not to do anything stupid with my money. M'gonna nap." He kicked off his shoes and stretched out on the couch. Hartley got up and walked back to the card table.
"Mark thinks you're cheating, Digger."
"Mark should know by now that when he starts to get buzzed he loses any semblance of a poker face," Len grunted. "By the by Hartley, James did love you. Speaking of bad poker faces, Rory, you really oughta fold."
"Fuck you Snart, I'm in."
Taken somewhat aback, Hartley went outside, sat on the steps and thought.
The next day Hartley had two newspapers spread out before him. He'd circled apartment listings in both and now he sat between the two with his phone in his lap.
"Alright. I'm making a fresh start. Now am I going to do it in New York or California?"
* Earl Povich, Hartley's ex, got in some trouble with Handsome Jack Giacomo and his boys in my fic Pavement Cracks.