When Piper woke up, he felt like shit and he didn't know why. Sure, things had kind of sucked lately, but his life was starting to come back together in a way that was arguably the best it had ever been. He was home again, he was talking to his family (still alive, functioning as leverage maybe, but still alive), he was in a healthy relationship, he…
He was naked in bed with a man who was not his boyfriend.
Oh. Well that's why he felt like shit.
He was laying on his side facing the wall, and James was attached to his back with his arms locked around Piper's waist in a fierce, clinging cuddle, his face nuzzled up to his neck so that Piper could feel his every contented exhalation. It would have been cozy if this were the right boyfriend.
Slowly, carefully, Piper attempted to pry James' hands apart and slip out of the embrace. James let out a breathy little whine and cuddled harder.
Piper froze, hoping he hadn't woken James up. This was going to be awkward…he seriously considered hypnotizing James into a deadened sleep so he could run away.
He didn't though, instead spending the time arguing with himself about the ethics of hypnotism, and James woke up.
"Mmm…Pookie? Everything okay?" James asked groggily.
"James, I am not your Pookie. Will you please let me go?"
The cold tone of voice woke him right up. James shifted away from Piper and sat up, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. "Sorry, sorry. I regressed in my sleep. Thought we were still a happy couple for a few seconds there. It was pretty cool. Um, should I stop talking again?"
Piper determinedly faced the wall and pulled the sheet more firmly around him. Looking at his extremely attractive ex naked and ravished in bed was not going to help the situation any.
James was pretty much the opposite of Michael, all young lean muscle, with his devastatingly handsome smile, mischievously sparkling blue eyes and golden hair (which suited him long just as well as it had short). It's not that Piper wasn't attracted to Michael, but he did realize he'd traded down, and that by rights he shouldn't have been capable of seducing James in the first place (extra true with the twenty or so pounds he'd put on since switching meds while dating a chef).
"Hartley, the morning after doesn't have to be quite this awkward. Can you say something? I mean, I know it's going to take more than one speech and, if I may say so, some damn fine loving to get you to trust me again, but obviously you still feel something for me, so-"
"James, I've got a boyfriend."
"Oh." James' voice faltered, and he grew quiet for a long moment. "Should have expected that, I guess. Um…is he, like, a swinger, or do you guys have an open relationship or…something?"
Piper let out a small sob, then hugged a pillow to his chest and stifled more noises of that kind. "No…no…it was the normal m-monogamous sort. Oh fuck, I'm an asshole! I cheated on him. He loves me, and I lied and said I loved him even though I…and I…I keep seeing him even though I don't love him and he moved all this way for me, and now I'm cheating on him!" He hugged the pillow to his face and let out a good loud sob, then tried to calm down, because having that panic attack while still in bed with James was just not good timing.
"Um…just noticing that, uh, you said 'cheating' not 'cheated'. Does that mean we can do this again sometime?"
James reflected, while he was getting dressed on the sidewalk outside Piper's house, that though he'd confirmed Piper's continued feelings for him, overall he'd probably done more harm than good for his cause.
He needed a new strategy. Perhaps it was time to make use of the info Len had given him.
Piper was still in bed hugging a pillow while having a staring contest with the wall some hours later when he heard the rushing sounds and quick slapping of boots that signified a superspeed approach to his house. Distantly, he thought about getting up and at least putting real clothes on (he was wearing pajama pants), but he was still too depressed and lethargic to do more than stare at the wall, so Wally ran in, did a quick search, and found Piper in his bedroom.
He ran right back out again and knocked on the open door. "Uh…Piper? Can we talk?"
"Now's not the best time."
"Y'know Mason was driving by this morning and he said he saw you tossing a naked blond guy onto the street. This not being a good time have anything to do with that?"
Sighing, Piper sat up and pulled on a t-shirt. "I'm decent, you can come in."
Wally walked in and sat down on the end of the bed. "Dude, you okay? What's up?"
Piper rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand. "Wally, do you actually want me to talk about my private life with you?"
"Well, I mean if it'll make you feel better. It'd be kinda fair. You've had to listen to me go on and on about…about Connie, so, y'know…just don't talk about any of the ickier details and I'll be fine. So who was the blond dude?"
"Oh." Wally looked confused. "I thought you said you were dating a guy named Michael?" Piper's face crumpled, and a light bulb went off in Wally's head. "He…wasn't Michael, was he?"
Piper shook his head, then bit his finger and willed himself to calm down. "Nope…wasn't my boyfriend. I…yeah, I don't think I'm going to have a boyfriend for much longer, actually. Shit. I really messed up Wally. I should never have…it's, it's just the thing of it is, I thought I was over James. But once he was here it was…it was different."
"Well that sucks. You're sure Michael's gonna dump you? I mean, you said it was a mistake. Maybe you guys can work through it." Wally didn't even sound like he believed that.
Piper shook his head. "No, even if he doesn't dump me, I think I'd better break it off. It's not fair to keep dating him when I don't feel as strongly for him as he does for me. I don't want to keep hurting him. I…I really don't want to have this conversation with him though."
Wally nodded his agreement. "Yep. That one's gonna blow. You know what though? Connie called and she wants me to head over ASAP for some big talk, and you know how it is with girls. Well, maybe you don't know from firsthand experience, but anyway, when they start out with 'we really need to talk', you know it's not gonna be anything you wanna hear. So you go talk to Michael, and I'll go talk to Connie, and then afterwards we can commiserate together and sit around throwing cards into a hat."
If nothing else, Wally was a wonderful source of distraction from personal woe. "I think I've missed something. Did you say we should sit around throwing cards into a hat?"
"Yeah. That's what you do with your bros when one of them's having relationship issues. You know what, since it's both of us we should probably get two decks. Or an Uno deck. There's more cards in an Uno deck."
"Whatever you say. Yeah, that sounds good. I'll call you after I've talked with Michael."
"Kay. Hey Piper, don't beat yourself up too much," Wally said, looking worried. "You are okay, right?"
No, not in the least. He felt like a selfish asshole, who, thanks to his constant screwing up, was going to get his family killed and was going to hurt a sweet man who'd only ever been kind to him. Still though, Wally did look awfully concerned, so Piper forced up a weak little smile. "I'm alright."
"Kay. See you later."=45rt3e
"Oh, hello Hartley. Well come on in. Bit early for you to be up and about, isn't it?" Michael asked, stepping aside to let Piper in.
"I have been known to wake up before noon on some rare occasions," Piper said. He kicked his shoes off and followed Michael into the living room. They sat down together on the couch, and Michael frowned, noticing Piper's demeanor.
"What's wrong love? It's not that nasty business with the Network again, is it?"
"No, nothing new on that front. I don't think they're going to do anything until they feel they have to," Piper said. He was working on establishing better connections with crooks he knew to be active in the Network, trying to get wind of Blacksmith's projects and plans or even just hear the occasional rumor. So far it sounded like business had returned to normal, which was a relief. He was just going to have to pay closer attention to them from now on.
"So what is it?" Michael asked, taking Piper's hand in his and gazing at him with a mix of concern and affection in his warm brown eyes. Piper cringed.
"I…Michael, I am so, so sorry. My ex-boyfriend came by last night and I, um, I had a moment of weakness and sheer stupidity and-"
"Hartley, will you just say it?" Michael asked in a hushed but commanding voice. He sat up a little straighter, no longer leaning in towards Piper with that relaxed, informal body language he was used to.
Piper swallowed uncomfortably. "I slept with James last night. Michael, I'm really sorry-"
"Don't." He let Piper's hand fall from his, then suddenly stood up and started pacing. "You know what, never mind what I just said. Do, please do. Explain to me why on earth you'd do something like that. I never expected that of you Hartley. Seems like you'd have the decency to ditch the old man before you moved on to someone more your speed. I thought you were a better person than that."
Piper took the harsh words like a slap to the face, because he'd thought he was a better person than that too. He blinked back tears. "I'm sorry I…I thought I was over him Michael, I really did. B-before we met, um, when I'd been living here before w-with James, I…Michael, I thought James was going to be my one, th-that he was going to be with me forever because he promised me that, um," Piper took a deep breath and swallowed. "But I had a mental breakdown and-"
"I know, I've seen you take the pills for it."
"R-right. He left me while I was in the hospital. So we never really broke up. I never had any closure. I never got to talk to him about why he left. I'm not trying to excuse what I did, because it was vile of me, but I want you to know that I wasn't trying to hurt you. I'm just really screwed up and I can't-I really am sorry." Piper dropped his head and took a few shaky breaths. He let out a surprised squeak when Michael walked up to him and gently touched his chin, tilting his face up.
He was crying too. "So I take it you are done with me this time?"
"Oh Michael, I like you so much. But I'm not in love with you."
Michael nodded. "I'd thought that might be the case. Well then." He sat down heavily, keeping some distance from Piper and staring straight ahead. "I don't think I'll be staying in Central City then."
"Will you please stop apologizing? It's not bloody helping."
"R-right. I'm gonna go. Um…bye."
"Hartley, wait!" Michael got up and grabbed Piper's arm, turning him so that they were looking at each other. "Give this a few days and then call me. I don't want you out of my life entirely. You…you're worth it. Alright?"
Piper nodded, though personally he thought the less they saw of each other the better off they'd both be. Still, Michael seemed satisfied with the nod, so he was able to slip away.
"She left me for Chunk!"
Piper stared uncomprehendingly at his friend for a few minutes before silently stepping aside to let Wally in. To be fair, Wally looked as dazed as he did.
They both plopped down on Piper's couch. The coffee table was set up with a derby hat and a fresh deck of cards, and Piper had just placed an order for pizza before Wally showed up.
Wally opened the deck, handed half the cards to Piper, and then started flicking them into the hat.
"Yep. Chunk. She said he understands her and listens to her and apparently I don't." Wally scowled, then turned to face Piper. "That's actually it, right? It can't be physical, right? Piper, this is the only time I'm ever gonna ask you to check me out, but please, tell me I'm better looking than Chunk!"
"Wally I promise you, you're much better looking than Chunk."
That seemed to calm him down some. "Kay. So how'd things go with Michael?"
"Not well. I'd rather not talk about it."
They kept flicking cards into the hat in silence for awhile, and though he couldn't figure out why, for some reason Piper was starting to feel better. It was kind of nice to have someone to wallow with.
After about five minutes or so of card flicking, Wally finally spoke again. "So if you've still got sparks with your ex, and you're done with Michael, does that mean you're gonna try to get back together with the other guy? What'd you say his name was?"
"James. And no. He…wasn't good for me." Well, they'd been fantastic together, but Piper couldn't let James back in. There was no way he could ever trust James with his heart like that again.
Wally scowled. "Least you've got the option of having somebody. I can't believe Chunk stole my girlfriend! Urgh, and you know what? My Mom's getting remarried. My freaking Mom is better at dating than I am, at her freaking age! Do you know how depressing that is?"
"Well tell her I said congratulations."
"Tell her yourself. She invited you to the wedding."
"Oh." For some reason, Piper felt touched that Mrs. West had thought of him.
Wally snorted. "She invited Chunk too. I told her to uninvite his treacherous ass, but she flat out refused. Says that she's friends with him too, and it's my own damn fault for not taking better care of Connie. Which is rich coming from her, cause she hated Connie. I think she just likes it when I'm miserable."
"Well, she is a mother."
They were interrupted by the arrival of the pizza. Piper managed to eat two slices before Wally finished off the rest of it. He reflected that if he spent more time with Wally he'd probably have a better short of staying on track with his diet.
Less than a year ago, a breakup had thrown Piper's life into complete and utter disarray. While he sat on his living room floor munching on a pizza crust while Wally channel surfed, Piper reflected on how much difference one good friend made.
The wedding was awkward all around. Piper didn't see much of Wally, since he seemed to be flitting from disaster to disaster trying to keep things running smoothly. From the looks of it, Piper was in for some good stories later.
Michael came with Piper as his date. He'd have preferred to bring Jerrie, but since Michael was flying home the next morning this was pretty much their last chance to talk things out. Piper had said pretty much everything he planned on saying already, but he owed Michael as much closure as he needed. Piper knew from experience how much it hurt not to get your say out in a breakup.
So they smiled, and pretended everything was fine, and spoke to each other in quiet snatches here and there. Thankfully, most of the guests were distracted by the various other dramatic conflicts that seemed to be cropping up left and right (Piper did a double take when he saw Wally's 'dead' father escorting what looked like a gorgeous meta human prostitute), and most people were inclined to give the homosexuals a wide berth of space anyway.
"Huh. Can't believe Chunk had the nerve to show up with Connie," Piper muttered, mostly to himself.
"Come again?" Michael asked.
"Oh, Connie was Wally's girlfriend up until a couple days ago. Now she's dating one of his buddies instead. Kind of a bitchy move on her part…er…I'm going to shut up now."
Michael sighed. "We're not going to be able to remain friends, are we?"
"I'd like to." He didn't have many friends. He'd even lost touch with that socially awkward architect he used to be neighbors with, James something-or-other. Piper had tried looking James up when he'd moved back to Keystone, but the guy had moved while he was in New York, and since he couldn't even remember his last name he had no hopes of finding him again.
"I'll give it some time and give you a call."
"Do you really have to move back to England?" Piper asked, feeling a stab of guilt. "I thought you liked it here."
"I used to. But I've been getting more and more homesick the longer I'm here, and my mother's health has been getting poor." Michael frowned. "No, I think I'd be best off at home for awhile."
"Kay." At least Michael wasn't moving just because of him.
Sometime after the double-ceremony (Mason and his girlfriend decided on an impromptu marriage as well), Wally caught Piper's eye and shot a confused look towards Michael. Sighing, Piper dragged his ex over for an introduction. Thankfully, Wally didn't say anything awkward, and rushed away to talk to his dad before Michael said anything bitter.
"Well, cake's been cut and they've played some cheesy music. I think things are winding down," Piper commented.
"Mm." Michael was gazing at the crowd with a wistful expression. "Sorry, what was that? I was a bit dazed for a moment there."
"I said I think things are winding down. I'm going to leave."
"Oh. Hartley…do you ever think about what it would be like to be, well, normal?"
Piper frowned. "Normal? What do you mean?"
Michael waved an arm at the guests, dancing the electric slide and stuffing their faces with cake, making awkward small talk with people they hardly knew but felt obligated to mix with. "Like them. Weddings, family obligations, things like that. Or are you actually content being a superhero?"
Ah. This was something he'd skillfully avoided talking about with Michael during their entire relationship. Michael was in his mid thirties. He wanted to settle down, buy a house together and have a commitment ceremony. He'd mentioned on their third date that he did ultimately want to move back to England, and if things got serious he wanted Piper to consider going with him. Things had gotten serious, but Piper had never once intended to do any of that.
He shouldn't have slept with James, but it was definitely a good thing they were breaking up.
"I like my life Michael. Good luck finding a partner that suits your plans."
"Likewise. Goodbye Piper."
Piper started for the exit, and on his way out he caught sight of Wally sitting with that pretty reporter the boy sometimes complained about. Well that was promising.
Piper drove around aimlessly for awhile, wondering if this is what closure felt like, and if it was, why did he still feel so numb and achy inside? Maybe there just wasn't a good way to break up with someone after all. Still though, it could have been a lot worse. He'd lost control of his emotions and had them careen out of control. Just feeling a little down was plenty preferable to that. He'd go home, pick out a flute or a pipe, and play something sad and wistful until he felt better.
Those plans were derailed entirely when he pulled into the driveway and saw James sitting on his front stoop. Piper was tempted to reverse and drive right back to the wedding, but those were airwalker boots on James' feet, so there wasn't much point. He'd just follow him anyway.
Piper got out and walked up to his ex. "What are you doing here?"
"Changing tactics," James answered bluntly. "Can we talk?"
"Does it honestly matter what I say? If I say 'go away', you're just going to ignore me again."
"No, Piper, I'm not. I haven't been acting very respectful about your feelings, and I'm sorry." James stood up and hung his head remorsefully. "I shouldn't have interrupted you when you were with your sister, and I probably should have realized sleeping with you was only going to get you more pissy in the morning. Sorry."
Piper chewed his lip. "James, I don't want to date again. Even if there weren't all kinds of issues between us at the moment, I'm just not in a good place for it."
"I know. I'm gonna stop trying to seduce you. Can we be friends though?" There was something remarkably sincere about James' hopeful expression. It reminded Piper strongly of when they'd first started hanging out, back when he'd been dating Earl. The déjà vu was eerie.
"I have a feeling I'm going to regret this, but yes. I'd like to be friends. I…I do miss you."
James smiled. "I miss you too, obviously. Okay, so you are totally not going to regret this. So phase one of our newly rekindled friendship states that we should probably only hang out in large groups for now. One on one time's probably going to be awkward."
Piper nodded his agreement.
"So I was thinking, either you can start coming around to Rogues poker nights again-"
"That's not an option."
James paused, eyeing Piper with some curiosity. He was just a beat too long with it, though (Piper had dated James long enough to know his habits, and he could tell when he was acting unnaturally, IE trying to hide something). Did he know about Blacksmith…?
"Kay, so if you're not gonna hang with me and the guys…" James said slowly. "I suppose the other option is for me to start hanging with you and Flashypants jr."
"He's the Flash now James, not Flash jr."
James snorted. "That kid is always going to be Flash jr. to me."
"You know I'd thought so too, but he's actually doing rather well as Flash."
"I find that very hard to believe. But if y'wanna go grab some food at a nice crowded public place with me, I'll give you a chance to make your case with as many anecdotes as you'd like," James offered.
"Sure, sounds good. I'll start with the Comforter. That was the first crook Wally and I took down together…"
It had been almost a year since Piper had been released from Breedmore Mental Hospital. In that time he'd lost an arch nemesis, gained a best friend, switched sides, reconciled with his family, learned the extent of his feelings for them by having them threatened, done something he'd never expected himself to do in a moment of weakness, and learned that he was strong enough to forgive himself and move on.
As he sat with James in a sub shop, listening to stories of his adventures out in California, he thought about how funny it was that all those months ago the only thing he'd wanted was to be with this man. And now that he had James back in a sense, as a friend, he really could take him or leave him.
'Oh who am I kidding?' Piper thought, gazing into those crystal blue eyes and laughing at a joke that wasn't even funny. Just like old times.
It was nice to have friends.
A/N: Next fic in the series will be called It's Only Me.
The historian in me has been freaking out for some time, and I'm finally going to let it run wild. Obviously as this is fanfiction, I implicitly acknowledge that I don't own the characters and am making reference to the creative works of others. However, I've been making actually a lot of reference to very specific Flash comics, even using the dialogue for some of them (I'm a history major, I kind of approach all of my writing projects like research papers, which means using evidence to support your claims). So I'm going to cite the issues I use from hereon out…and maybe if I ever have a lot of free time I'll go back and cite for the stuff I've already posted. Here's the lot of them:
Chapter One: The drama surrounding Piper's mental breakdown comes from Flash numbers 333-338 of the first series, by Cary Bates and Carmine Infantino.
Chapter Three: Wally actually did want compensation for delivering a heart transplant, and that happened in the first issue of the second series, Flash #1 by Mike Baron, Jackson Guice and Larry Mahlstedt. Sister Mary-Liz and her homeless shelter appeared in Flash #20 by William Messner-Loebs, Greg LaRocque and Larry Mahlstedt.
Chapter Four: Piper seeing Wally begging for bread also came from #20. Trickster was a semi-regular character in the Blue Devil series of the 80s (Dan Mishkin and Gary Cohn). Julie Jackam shows up in Flash: Blood Will Run by Geoff Johns.
Chapter Five: Blacksmith and her Network are features of Flash: Crossfire by Geoff Johns.
Chapter 6: This chapter is an expansion off of Flash #32: Welcome to Keystone City by William Messner-Loebs, Greg LaRoque and Larry Mahlstedt.
Chapter eight: Grodd and his thing with the animals came from Flash #46: Day of the Beast and Flash #47 Old Dogs, New Teeth by William Messner Loebs, Greg LaRocque and Jose Marzan Jr. Wally's adventure with the IRS happened in Flash #52: Death & Taxes by William Messner-Loebs, Greg LaRocque and Jose Marzan Jr. And that awkward conversation where Wally realizes Piper is gay came from Flash #53: Fast Friends by the same creative team.
Chapter nine: Piper helping Wally and Superman save Jimmy Olsen happened at the end of Flash #53.
Chapter ten: Wally's Mom got married in Flash #61: The Old Wedding Dodge, by William Messner-Loebs (his last issue of Flash, which is why I thought it'd make a good final chapter), Rod Whigham and Frank McLaughlin. This issue also has Michael's one canonical appearance. James-the-architect is from the Mark Waid run.
And yes, everything I alluded to happening at or around the wedding happened in issue 61. The flicking cards into a hat thing came from my brother. Apparently that's what he and his guy friends do when they're having problems with their girlfriends.
Thanks again to everyone who's been reading and commenting. Can't tell you how much I appreciate the interest people are showing in my take on this corner of the DC universe. I look forward to hearing from you guys in the next installment!