Barry disappeared a month before the Crisis hit.
It was the longest Piper ever remembered him being gone for. Of course he was nervous, but then, the guy was prone to temporal displacement. It was in the nature of his powers. In fact, they'd already discussed it more than once. Piper pleasantly recalled sitting across the table from Barry in the man's apartment, eating breakfast and chatting about alternate earths and timelines between bites of toast.
Piper didn't actually know if a month was long or not, though it seemed it to him (he couldn't remember ever being rid of his nemesis for this long a period back when he'd been a villain, at any rate). He damn well knew he was going to ask his boyfriend as soon as he returned. Well, after he jumped him, stuck his tongue down his throat, and then slapped him soundly across the face.
Piper was a little jumpy that month, and eventually someone noticed.
"You okay, dude?" James Jesse asked. They were meeting up for coffee at a place down the street from one of the Trickster's hideouts. The garish criminal had thankfully had the sense to put on proper civilian attire before meeting up with Piper, for which he was grateful. He'd had to explain more than once that a fake mustache that didn't match his roots just wasn't enough, especially when you wore the same color scheme as your costume.
The whole thing was awkward as ass though. James had no idea how to talk to Piper now that he was trying to be a reasonably productive member of society, and Piper worried that their flimsy almost-friendship would disappear entirely if James ever realized he was dating the Scarlet Speedster.
Though Piper had to wonder if he was still dating the guy when no one had seen him in a god damned month.
"Piper," James repeated, this time snapping his fingers next to his ear. Piper twitched and had to quell the urge to smack him. That would have been annoying even without super-science enhanced hearing. Not that he'd told James about the robot ears, but still.
"I'm fine," Piper snapped.
James gave him a look and he relented.
"I'm…having issues with my boyfriend. I didn't think you'd want me talking about my 'icky gay stuff.'"
James took a slow sip of his coffee before answering. "Just don't talk about anal sex and I'll behave. I didn't realize you were seeing anyone. So who is it? That dorky cop?"
"Forensic scientist," Piper said defensively. "And yes. It's not a big deal. He's just been kind of distant lately." Which seemed to be a safe enough substitute for the truth.
"Ah. Sorry, that kind of sucks. But you know Piper, not everyone's as insta-intimacy as you."
"What the hell does that mean?"
James shrugged. "It means you're an open book, but not everyone's like you. Seriously, within the first five minutes of talking to you I knew you were gay, that you hated your parents, that you fantasized about overthrowing the government, and that you wished you'd lived during the age of revolution so you could commit regicide and free the masses from tyrants."
Piper could feel his face flushing. He irritably tapped his fingers against the tabletop. "I was also nineteen and fucking stupid."
James quirked an eyebrow, perfect smirk in place. "You're twenty two and you haven't changed that much in three years. Well, okay, Len smacked you into having some semblance of a poker face, but my point's the same. Once you feel safe opening up to someone, you open up. And not everyone else is like that. Some people guard their issues. Most people do when they're starting a new relationship, actually. Y'know, so they don't scare their alluring and frisky young redhead away by talking about their dysfunctional family, or embarrassing taste in music, or whatever the fuck else normal people are ashamed of. If the guy's being a little distant you should probably be patient with him."
That was unexpectedly good advice, and something he could have used during his actual fight with Barry. James was right. Piper had been silent for so long that he never bit his tongue unless he absolutely had to. Not since finding his voice, anyway. He did expect the same kind of brutal honesty from others, and it had gotten him in trouble not only with Barry but with his previous boyfriends and the Rogues.
God damn he wished he could talk to James about his real problem. It seemed there was a chance the man would actually have something comforting to say.
Wally sure as hell hadn't. He'd given a shrug, an apathetic "yeah, but he always comes back," and then launched into a lengthy recitation of his own problems. Apparently the kid was a bit self-centered. Piper liked hanging out with him, but whenever he did he inevitably had to listen to the kid bitch, and then try to mentor him a little.
As much as Barry seemed to genuinely care about Wally, he seemed to leave him on his own about a lot of things the poor kid was practically screaming for guidance over. He was having a terrible time trying to balance superheroics with any kind of satisfying civilian life. Not only that, but his powers had started hurting him. He'd decided to take some time off, but now he was being plagued with guilt. If Kid Flash wasn't out helping people, then was it his fault when people he could have saved got hurt? Piper didn't have any answers for him, but he was pretty sure Barry would have known just what to say. Hell, he'd at least have an idea of how to fix the weird problem Wally was having with his superspeed.
Piper couldn't wait for him to come back from wherever the hell he'd gone.
James tried to make some more small talk, but Piper's attention kept drifting. There wasn't a lot he could really chat about, and his mind seemed determined to nag him over his boyfriend, rather than take the out of being distracted by a colorful and interesting friend. Eventually they gave up and parted ways. James sweetly wished Piper luck working things out with his dork, which he appreciated. The guy was a much better friend when they weren't wearing costumes.
Once he got to the privacy of his bedroom, Piper took out his wallet and fished out the one picture he'd wheedled Barry into taking with him. Still wary of being outed before he was ready, and being fired as a consequence, Barry didn't want to leave behind photographic evidence of their relationship. Piper was nothing if not persistent though, and he'd begged and pleaded and teased and nagged until finally Barry had given in and let him snap one.
And damn was he thankful he hadn't given up on that, because the small snapshot was a ridiculous comfort while he was so nervous over his lover's unknown fate.
Piper had taken it himself with a disposable camera, and he suspected that Barry had either developed it himself or run the camera to some remote convenience store in a foreign country, such was his twitchy paranoia over being found out. Piper had finally gotten the okay on one of those blessedly rare Saturday mornings they sometimes spent together, when Barry Allen didn't have work and the Rogues were too hung over to have any grandiose plans for the Flash to need to go out and spoil. Immediately after getting Barry to murmur a reluctant yes, their lips still pressed together in a lazy kiss, Piper had bounded out of bed, ran to his dresser, and snagged the camera. He'd then draped himself over Barry's chest, held the camera out at an angle he hoped captured them both without chopping off their heads, and taken the picture.
Piper had ridiculous bedhead in the shot, and Barry looked a bit dazed, but his arms were wrapped around Piper and they were both smiling. Piper was beaming for the camera, actually, while Barry's fond expression was fixed on him and him alone.
He let out a wistful sigh and returned the picture to his wallet. "He'll come home soon," he whispered. Not because he believed it, or even had any way of knowing, but because the house was just too damn quiet.
Barry still hadn't returned once the Crisis began, leaving Central City noticeably fucked. Piper tried to pick up some of the slack, but he had to use and abuse his hypnotic abilities in a way he wasn't really comfortable with to quell the rioting that the panic of red skies, time anomalies, and unpredictable weather brought out in the populace.
Thinking that Mardon could at least help out with the weather, Piper tried tracking down his old friends in the Rogues. But when he got to their last known hideout he only found Rainbow Raider dejectedly grumbling to himself.
Roy was slouched in a chair by the abandoned poker table, his arms crossed over his chest. The guy looked surly. Piper hoped to god the man didn't have a buzz on. Rainbow Raider was nearly impossible to deal with when he was drunk.
"Where is everyone?"
"Off on a space mission with Lex Luthor and Brainiac. I see they didn't invite you either. Typical."
Piper blinked a few times. "The guys are working with Luthor and Brainiac? That doesn't seem…well, at all wise, actually. Those manipulative bastards will throw the Rogues under the bus at the first chance of being overwhelmed by the self-righteous in spandex. Was Len thinking this through?"
Roy glanced out a hole in the wall that had formerly been a window and shrugged. "Doubt it. Everyone thinks the world's about to end, so I don't know that clear thinking's even an option. I mean, if they were they probably wouldn't have left us behind, right? I mean, being left behind doesn't necessarily mean everyone thinks you're worthless. There was probably just too much confusion for them to, to realize they needed to go and get me. That must have been it."
"Er…right. I'm sure that's it." Piper let out a weary sigh, accepting that he wasn't going to get the help he needed, and left Roy stewing in bitterness, and possibly a touch of delusion, in the abandoned hideout.
The next couple of days passed in an exhausting blur of nearly constant battles, fears for loved ones that were impossible to allay, and more than a little fear for his own wellbeing. Piper was reasonably helpful in calming and dispersing panicking crowds, but when the Anti-Monitor's minions started preying on the populace he was completely out of his league. Nothing seemed to work on those shadowy fuckers.
He was crouching in the rubble of a second hand bookstore he'd been rather fond of, trying to get his breath back and figure out what to do next, when, as suddenly as they'd appeared the demons were sucked away by a glowing green light. Piper struggled through the debris and climbed on top of a car to watch as the dark figures disappeared into the sky, letting out a wretched noise as they went.
Piper had legitimately lost track of time running from battle to battle. He wasn't sure how many times the sun had set in the alternatingly red, blank, or blackened sky, but he'd known he'd slept and ate far too little for however many days it had been. He hadn't seen a single speedster in that time. To the best of his knowledge, he'd fought for the citizens of Central and Keystone without any costumed assistance.
His exhaustion caught up with him, and Piper passed out.
"Hmm…?" Piper let out a groan and tried to sit up, but there was a hand holding him back against an army cot. He forced his eyes open, and for a delusional moment he thought it was Barry hovering over him. In that moment he was flooded with warmth and relief, but then he realized the concerned blue eyes and messy blond hair belonged to James Jesse, not his lover.
"Hey. Sit back, Hart. Let me get someone to take a look at you."
"James, wait. What happened? Where'm…where am I?" He was still trying to sit up, but James kept his hand firmly in place until Piper gave up on his weak little flails.
Sighing, James returned to the crouch he'd been taking at Piper's side. He was wearing street clothes, and it appeared he may have dressed in a hurry as his jeans and t-shirt didn't clash. Piper had never seen him look so somber or, well, normal. It seemed even his immature and exuberant friend responded to the Crisis with grief and fatigue. Which was just unsettling, come to think of it. The world had gotten really fucked up if it rendered James Jesse bland and serious.
"Oh man, Piper. Why the fuck were you out there playing hero? You could have gotten yourself killed. The Anti-Monitor's fucking grunts grabbed you more than once, you know."
"Never enough to kill me." Piper licked his dry lips, trying not to think of those he'd been unable to help. He'd seen far too many civilians dissolved in front of his eyes by the Anti-Monitor's shadow creatures before he could get to them.
James pulled back the blanket that had been covering Piper, and he finally noticed that the majority of his torso and at least half his left arm were covered in bandages and medical tape. "Huh." He hadn't felt any of that until he'd seen the bandages. Of course, now that he was aware of how soundly he'd had his ass handed to him, every ache and pain was singing for him.
"Scudder's dead." James' voice was nearly toneless, aside from a slight tremble hinting at the grief and pain hiding under the surface. "Half the guys are banged up like you would not believe, and…and, well, you subbing in for your boyfriend nearly took you out. I suppose it's a romantic enough gesture, but really Piper-"
"Wait, what?" Piper yelped. He tried to sit up on his elbows but fell weakly back against the cot.
"Shit. Shit, I'm getting someone. I'm-"
Piper used his last reserves of strength to snatch James' wrist. "How did you know that? James, what happened to him? Where's the Flash?"
James peeled Piper's hand off of him, actions rough but expression surprisingly gentle. "Hart…I'm sorry. I'm going to go tell the nurse that you woke up, and then I've got to give Kid Flash a call. He told me to call him as soon as you woke up."
"James, where's my boyfriend? H-he's not…"
James didn't answer, but then, he really didn't have to. Piper was too exhausted to move, so he had to cover his face with his hands to get even the illusion of privacy for his tears. James gave his shoulder a gentle pat, then left to find a doctor.
It took Piper a little while to piece together what had happened between him passing out and him waking to learn his boyfriend was dead.
After he'd passed out on top of the car, a family he'd saved from the shadow creatures had found him and carried him to an emergency shelter that had been set up in an elementary school. His injuries had been tended to like any of the other myriad wounded from the Crisis, and at some point while he'd been unconscious, Wally West had gone to the Anti-Matter Universe and found Barry's ring and costume. Piper still had no idea when the man had actually died.
The authorities were doing the best they could to rebuild the city and restore order. Piper suspected that somewhere, Rathaway Publishing was donating a sizeable monetary contribution to the rebuilding, but he'd eat his polka dotted tunic if Osgood or Rachel Rathaway ever rolled up their sleeves and gave a personal contribution.
Apparently rounding up criminals and making arrests were a part of restoring order. Piper learned this when a couple of cops reluctantly walked into the shelter to arrest him. He was still doing rather poorly, having suffered more near misses from the Anti-matter creatures than anyone else in the Cities, and was in no shape to give the cops any kind of fight. Wondering if he could count on his parents to help him out of just one last legal scrape, Piper heaved a sigh and resigned himself to finishing his recovery in a jail cell.
Then he was ringed by at least twenty of the civilians he'd nearly killed himself protecting.
"The heroes forgot us," a college student snapped, eyes blazing with anger. "They were out in space, or other universes, or God knows where, and Kid Flash was in New York or something, and I don't even know where the fuck Elongated Man was. But the Pied Piper stayed, and he saved more lives than any of you, and now you want to throw him in jail? That's not going to happen."
A low murmur passed around the gymnasium. The cops traded a disgruntled look and made a renewed effort to approach Piper's cot, but no one moved an inch.
"Wasn't there a law passed about reformed supervillains?" a woman in a tattered skirt-suit asked.
"Well, yes, but there's a burden on the villains to demonstrate a sincere change towards upholding the laws of society," one of the police officers said, looking incredibly reluctant to admit it. The Reform Act was highly convenient for the authorities during an emergency, but they all tried to pretend it didn't exist the rest of the time.
The woman narrowed her eyes. "Everyone present who had their life saved by the Pied Piper during the Crisis raise their hand."
At least half the ragged looking civilians crowding the elementary school's gymnasium did so. The cop looked flabbergasted.
"He'll get his day in court, people. We're doing our end of the job!"
"Plus a hero's got to vouch for him," the other officer said. "Otherwise every villain would claim a sudden change of heart when they got caught, and they'd get away with it. I knew the Reform Act was going to be a pain in my ass."
"I'll vouch for him."
The arguing ceased so suddenly and thoroughly that even those without superhearing could have heard a pin drop. Every head turned towards the doorway, where the Flash had suddenly appeared.
Piper let out a gasp and tried to run towards him, but he promptly fell over. He didn't hit the ground though, supported by a yellow glove under his elbow that carefully guided onto a nearby cot. But that grip on his arm…it didn't feel right. The voice hadn't been quite right either…
Piper's eyes welled with tears, obscuring the familiar yet wrong green eyes gazing at him with concern and sympathy from behind the distinctive red cowl. Piper dropped his head, and Wally rubbed his back while he struggled to regain his composure. The kid might as well have torn out his heart and done a merry jig on it.
"Officers, I think you've done your duty here," a woman snapped. "Can you leave the hero in peace?"
The first cop shrugged. "To tell you the truth, I wasn't all that crazy about bringing the guy in to begin with."
"Yeah. If Kid Flash has him, that's good enough for me." The police officers warily nodded at the intimidatingly stoic crowd of civilians, then left the emergency shelter as quick as they were able to while still maintaining their dignity.
Meanwhile, Piper was struggling for each shaky breath he got and feeling like he was going to suffocate under the weight of his grief. Wally pulled his cowl down, ran a nervous hand through his hair, and smirked when he saw Piper's shocked expression.
"Oh, yeah, cat's out of the bag. I don't have a secret identity anymore, and everyone knows about Uncle Barry. Um…how are your injuries? If I run you out of here, will you be okay? You look like you could use some privacy."
"I'll be fine," Piper whispered. He squeezed his eyes shut, and next thing he knew he was resting on a couch in the living room of an unfamiliar apartment. Wally propped him up with pillows, threw a blanket over him, and procured a to-go cup of tea from somewhere. Then he sat down opposite with a fast food bag and started eating a greasy burger.
"Don't mind me. Gotta take in some replacement calories."
"Did your superspeed stop hurting you then?" Piper asked.
"I'm a little slower than before, and I'm having nutritional issues, but it's not killing me. So that's an improvement."
Piper's eyes widened. "It was killing you? You never said that."
Wally let out some nervous laughter. "I didn't want to think about it. So…yeah. I, um, I decided to take on the mantle and keep Barry's legacy going. I'm, um, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to get your hopes up."
Piper set the tea aside. It was a cute gesture, but he wasn't really sick. The tea wasn't going to help him recover from his injuries any faster. "I'd been told already. But…a part of me keeps hoping he'll come back. He's cheated death so many times before, and he always came back then. I still can't believe he's gone."
They fell into a silence, finding unexpected comfort in their shared pain. But stillness suited Wally about as well as silence suited Piper, and after a few minutes the kid started fidgeting. He finished his fast food, tossed out the trash, and then downed Piper's tea for good measure.
"So, um, I heard you were defending Central during the Crisis. Last time we talked you said you were going to sell instruments or something. You really thinking of suiting up?"
"Yes and no. Barry wanted me to, but I didn't think the heroic community would ever accept me as one of their own. I don't think I have much chance without him to vouch for me. I suppose I don't need the Justice League's approval, though I'm sure it would make things easier."
"Dude, don't worry about it." Wally was smiling, and the expression looked almost completely sincere. You had to get to his eyes to see how heavy his heart was. "The people you're looking to protect trust you already, right? I mean, it's not like you're talking about setting up shop in Gotham or something. You don't need the Justice League's permission to help people."
Piper looked down at his wringing hands, feeling heavy hearted and so very tired. He needed a break from the wearing few weeks he'd had. "I don't know, Wally. I think I'd be a spectacular disappointment of a hero. Barry's legacy is in your hands."
"And that is scaring the ever loving shit out of me."
He looked up at that, surprised by the vulnerability Wally was showing, coupled with more nervous laughter.
"Look at me, Piper. I'm a kid. I think my heart's in the right place, but I don't really know. I'm kind of dumb sometimes, and I panic, and I make mistakes and some of them are pretty serious. That innate sense of justice, that way he just knew what was right and how to act on it and how heroics were just intrinsic to Barry's being? I don't have that. I needed my mentor, but he just started being a hero as soon as he got his powers. I'm still learning, Piper, and I can't do it alone. You were helping Barry broaden his mind and look at aspects of crime he'd never considered. I'll teach you what I know about the epic scale battles, and you can help me learn about poverty and homelessness and how that feeds into the big stuff. We'll help each other. And…and we'll keep his memory alive."
He looked so hopeful, with a tinge of desperation underneath it. Piper felt that Wally was selling himself a bit short, but he was certainly right about one thing: the boy wasn't ready for the burdens that came with being the Flash. He did have a lot to learn, but frankly, so did Piper.
Wally held out his hand, and Piper shook it.
"Alright. I'll work with you, Wally."
Wally grinned. "Cool. The Flash and Pied Piper are going to be partners. Uh, but not in the gay way you were with my uncle."
Piper laughed, but groaned inwardly. The kid meant well, but that mild homophobia was going to get grating really quickly. "Y'know, somehow I figured out for myself what you meant. I do appreciate the fact that you're not making me your sidekick though."
Wally sat down on the arm of his couch, turning fidgety once more. "Yeah, because I'm totally the type of guy who should have a sidekick," he said, rolling his eyes. "Besides, you're older than me. If anything, you'd be my tech-guy."
"I could do that, I suppose."
"But I'd rather you not be subordinate in any way. Thus, partners. Again, I don't know what I'm doing here. Need help. All that jazz."
Piper smirked. "I'm not sure this is the most propitious beginning for a partnership, but all the same…I have to confess myself touched. Thank you, Wally."
"For what?" he asked, looking adorably puzzled.
Piper reached over and patted his arm. "For thinking of me. I'm used to being forgotten."
"Oh. Well yeah, no problem. I mean, not only are you a cool guy that I love hanging with, but…you're like the only person I could think of who has a chance of understanding what it means to lose Barry. Um…you really don't think it's weird or presumptuous that I'm taking over for him?"
"On the contrary, Wally. I find it incredibly appropriate."
Wally grinned. "Cool."
Piper settled himself more comfortably on the couch and took what felt like his first relaxed breath in weeks. "So…have you made any plans for yourself in your new role?"
"Actually, yeah. I might have a mission already and everything."
"Oh." Well that was quick. Piper perked up a little to listen. "Do you need help? What's the mission?"
Then Wally told him about how he was charging a hospital to run a human heart to a transplant patient on the opposite coast that desperately needed it. The kid was lucky Piper was still weak as hell, otherwise he'd have slapped the shit out of him.
Right, so he was still going to be mentoring his puppy then.