All right. For those of you who aren't heavily into FLASH, this one probably deserves some explanation.
Once upon a time, there was a Silver Age supervillain named the Pied Piper, specializing in hypnotic tunes and other musical tricks. As per usual, he spent most of his time trying to rob banks and harass his chosen hero, the Flash. Time passed, however, and there came both a new Flash and a new writer, William Messner-Loebs. Under his good offices Piper reformed, befriended the new Flash, displayed an interest in social work and radical politics, came out of the closet, and just generally became a really cool character. For years now he's been the Flash's friend and ally, and a mainstay of the book's supporting cast. He's also one of the reasons I started reading FLASH in the first place, and I love him dearly.
Fast-forward. The current writer of FLASH, Geoff Johns, is doing a mysterious plot under which Piper has been arrested and jailed for the murder of his parents, which he's on videotape as committing. I have faith that he's been framed, probably by one or more of the supervillains currently lurking around the book, but Piper and Johns are both being frustratingly close-mouthed on the subject. And, well, I find myself inspired (if that's what you call it when half a dozen characters walk into your head and start talking).
At present, Shattered Harmonies consists of three vignettes dealing with this plot, all set between #179 and #180, although I've tried to make them comprehensible if you don't read FLASH. I haven't diverged from canon, yet, but that's coming--I'm not patient enough to wait for Johns to explain what the hell is going on here before I go on. :)
A quick rundown on the characters currently involved:
Hartley Rathaway--The Pied Piper. You can see why he uses a nickname. :)
Wally West--The Flash, the fastest man alive. Piper's best friend, and not at all happy with this turn of events.
Linda Park-West--Wally's wife, also Piper's friend. Formerly a news reporter, she's just quit her job to become a medical student.
James Miller--Piper's ex. (Yes, in case you missed it earlier, Piper is gay. If that's a problem, hit DELETE now.) Couldn't deal with Piper's life and moved out, but he still cares.
Argus--A federal agent undercover with the mob who also moonlights as a nocturnal-type super-hero; he has enhanced strength and various vision-related abilities. He and Wally don't get along, but he's got a thing for Linda (and the two aren't totally unrelated, no ;).
Gregory Wolfe--Warden of the local metahuman prison, Iron Heights. He takes his job very seriously--unfortunately, that's left him ruthless, arrogant, totally unwilling to believe in redemption, and inclined to abuse his prisoners and anyone else who gets in his way.
Oh yes, and none of this is mine--it all belongs to DC Comics and Geoff Johns (and William Messner-Loebs and Mark Waid). My apologies for borrowing; I do it only out of love and fascination with this storyline.
I didn't hear about it immediately. One side-effect of having a giant telepathic gorilla tear up several city blocks, it tends to drown everything else out on the news channels.
But murder, apparently, will still out, at least when it comes to the media. As a result, I didn't even have the dubious grace of hearing about Hart's arrest on the nightly news. Instead my first notice that he was in more trouble than usual came in the form of a reporter with a shark's smile on my doorstep, wanting to know if I had any comment on my ex-boyfriend's arrest.
What I should have done, at that point, was said "No," and shut the door. I know that. The Pied Piper doesn't get the same kind of media spotlight the Flash does, but a supervillain turned social crusader does attract some attention. And spending the best part of a year with him--not to mention some chats with Linda--has taught me a few things about dealing with that attention. Most of which boil down to "say as little as possible." But...
I wanted to know what had happened. What was wrong. I could chalk it up to simple curiosity, but that wouldn't be true, any more than the jump in my heart rate was just surprise. Hartley doesn't get arrested on a regular basis, and I remember the way he looked last time too well...dammit, I *left* him. I'm supposed to be able to not care anymore.
Anyway, I asked the shark what Hart'd been arrested for. Bad move, as it turns out. Because then he told me.
The bottom dropped out of my stomach at "confessed," but what shut down my brain was "murder of Osgood and Rachel Rathaway." I know he kept talking after that, but I didn't really hear it. I was too busy trying to get the world to make sense again. Hart's parents were dead? Hart's rich, sweet, only slightly stuffy parents, who'd made me welcome in their ridiculously large house and had so clearly adored their son? Somebody had killed them? And they thought it was *Hart*?
God only knows what I said at that point; I just hope it wasn't quotable. Fortunately around then I got back the presence of mind to shut the door in his face, before either of us said anything else.
Exposure to Hart and his friends apparently has side-effects; I'm not nearly as fazed by insane crises as I used to be. I only stood there staring at the door for a moment or two before my brain started working well enough to figure what the best thing to do now was.
The third button on my speed-dial is the Flash's number. Hartley insisted; if an old enemy--or a new one--came looking, he wanted to make sure I had high-powered help available. I didn't know whether that was sweet or terrifying. Maybe both. I programmed over Hartley's number after the breakup; I thought about wiping Wally's, too, but...well, maybe that hypothetical threat wouldn't care that we'd broken up. Doesn't hurt to be safe. And damn you anyway, Hart, for making me need to think like that...
But tonight it wasn't me I was worried about as I jabbed at the phone. The Flash is one of Hartley's best friends, and he has a class-A reporter for a wife--an entirely different breed from the vampire at my door. And besides, it's his job to handle crazy stuff, and if this wasn't crazy, God knows what is. So surely he had some idea what was happening.
"Yeah?" Wally sounded tired and annoyed, but I barely even noticed.
"What the hell is going on?!" All right, I know I said I was getting better at dealing with insanity; I didn't say I was *good* at it. And besides, this was...my brain shied away from the image of Hartley in jail, and waited impatiently for Wally's response.
There was a pause, and then a long sigh. "James." He didn't sound annoyed anymore, just unhappy. "You heard about Piper, huh?"
"Courtesy of a reporter on my damn doorstep. Why didn't you call me?" And why hadn't *he*? muttered my brain, and I stepped on it firmly. I'd spent the last month trying to get him *not* to call me; he'd hardly think now was the time. If he was thinking anything at all, which he probably wasn't. That wasn't an image I wanted either...
"Look," Wally's voice broke into my brooding, sounding half-defensive and half-annoyed again, "it's been a long, miserable day. I had other things on my mind." I remembered Grodd's attack for the first time, and felt guilty for snapping. No wonder he sounded tired. "Anyway," he went on in echo of my own thoughts, "I thought you didn't want to hear from him anymore."
"That doesn't mean I don't--" Care? What else had I spent a month trying to convince myself of? I changed subjects. "Wally, what's going on? You *know* Hart didn't kill his parents."
The voice on the phone was grim. "Great. Tell him that."
"He didn't say he did it, but he wouldn't say he didn't either. Something's really wrong here, and I don't know what it is."
And underneath the weariness and the anger and the frustration, I heard something in his voice that made me go cold. I don't know Wally as well as Hart does--I actually know Linda better, if only because it's easier to get her to stand still to have a conversation with--but I know him well enough to understand that "scared" isn't a place he goes much. But he was scared now. For Hart.
I took a long, shaky breath, and with only a moment's hesitation, stepped back into a place I'd promised myself I wouldn't go again. "Tell me. Tell me *everything*."
Another pause. "Have you had dinner?"
"Because if you haven't," he went on, "you can come over here and my charming wife will feed you--ow! Jeez, Linda." Almost against my will, I felt myself grin. "Okay, okay, we'll share our takeout dinner with you, and we can talk about...all this."
Which is how I found myself over at the Flash's house, picking at Chinese and listening with growing horror to the events of the day. Piper had not only confessed to the murders, for reasons even he hadn't seemed clear on, he'd been drugged by some passing supervillains and had tried to kill first Wally and then one of the criminals.
"And then they took him to jail?!"
Linda sighed unhappily. "He did confess to a murder, James. They can't just ignore that."
"He's *sick*. Or drugged, or--brainwashed, something, one of those things that happens with this costume stuff." None of this made sense; the only thing I was sure of was that something had to be seriously wrong with Hart.
Wally spread his hands helplessly. "I agree with you. Even before the drug got into his system, he wasn't making sense. And after that--" He winced.
"And you still let them take him?" I couldn't keep the accusation out of my voice.
"I *tried*! I practically begged him to tell me he was innocent, and he wouldn't even look at me." He flung out his arms. "Dammit, what was I supposed to do? Say 'You can't arrest him, he's my friend'? I know something's wrong, but I don't have any *proof*. And I've got to have *something* before I take on the entire police force."
"Wally." Linda put one hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. You did what you had to do."
He slumped. "I dunno. Maybe I should just have grabbed him and run, let J'onn sort it all out. The Martian Manhunter," he added at my puzzled look. "He's a telepath." Oh. Of course...
"Telepathic evidence isn't admissible in court," Linda pointed out.
"No," Wally growled, "but it'd give me some idea where to look for evidence that *is*."
"But then the police wouldn't listen to you about it," I sighed in reluctant surrender. "I know you can't just break the law; I'm sorry. It's just really hard to take all this in."
"You're not alone there," Wally said grimly, and Linda nodded silent assent.
At that moment something jangled, and Wally swore. "JLA. Have to go--"
"Your ankle--" Linda said sharply. I understood the concern; Wally had been limping all night, courtesy of a wound he'd received earlier in the day.
But he waved her off. "It's fine. Sorry, hon--James--be back when I can." And he vanished in a flash of lightning and a blur of red.
Linda looked after him, mouth tight. "He's going to regret that tomorrow. And I'm the one who'll have to keep him sitting down and listen to him moan--" But I could hear the worry underneath the griping.
"Linda--" I had to ask. "How do you live with it?"
"One day at a time," she sighed, then looked at me and smiled, a little ruefully. "That wasn't very helpful, was it? It's just--" she shrugged--"the price you pay. Wally wouldn't be Wally if he didn't do what he does. And I'll be damned if I'll let anyone or anything push me away from him."
"You really love him," I said quietly.
"Oh yeah. Sun, moon, and stars, the whole deal." The soft look in her dark eyes belied the flippant words, and something inside me hurt. "That's just as scary, sometimes," she added, "but I wouldn't change it, either."
"I would. At least, I tried." I looked at her helplessly. "I just--I loved him, Linda. But it was just too much. And I thought it was over. And now there's all this and I--I just want to take him out of there and hold him. God, Linda, his *parents*, do you know how much he loved them? How much he's got to be hurting right now?" I hugged myself, tight, and told myself that I wasn't going to cry.
"James." Linda's eyes were compassionate. "It's going to be okay. *He's* going to be okay. Wally doesn't abandon his friends, and neither do I." She smiled a little. "And neither do you."
Laughing hurt. "But I did, didn't I?"
She shook her head. "You've got a right to your life, James. All that matters is that you're here now."
And yeah, I guess I am. Even if it's stupid, even if it hurts--I'm here. And I'll be here, for as long as he needs me.
Not just my body, although that pain is as inescapable as the rest--the cracked bones, the blackened eye, the pulped flesh-- (I remember the guards' clubs coming down, and there's a flash of anger before I lose it in the pain and darkness.) They actually gave me drugs for a while--I remember whimpering at the feel of the needle sliding into my flesh, and everything beginning to blur. I suppose I should be grateful, but I've had enough of drugs. And it's so hard to think already...
But the drugs have worn off, now, and they haven't given me any more. I think the cold-voiced Warden might have had something to do with that--wouldn't want to undo his work, now would he? (Anger again, bitter and hot, but it fades. There's nothing I can do about it--and really, who's to say I didn't have it coming? Not me.) So now it all hurts again. I try to concentrate on the aches, the physical pains.
Because the rest hurts so much more...
I try not to sob. They taped my cracked rib, but breathing too deep still makes stabs of agony run through me. Part of me thinks I deserve that, but I still can't bring myself to invite it.
*Coward,* whispers a voice in my head. *Do you think your parents didn't suffer worse than this?*
It doesn't stop, of course. It hasn't stopped since--since--I'm not even sure. The memories just keep running, a videotape on instant replay. Even when I was drugged, I could feel them, just below the surface.
I don't remember killing my parents. No matter how hard I try, I can't remember that. Part of me is desperately grateful, but I can't stop myself from trying, all the same. How can I understand if I don't remember?
Wally would say that I don't remember because I didn't do it. I want to believe that. But...
I remember the blood; that's always first. I stood there in the living room, looking at the rug that's been there since before I was born, and wondering what was spilled on it, dark and sticky and spreading. Mrs. Conroy would never have allowed anything to get so stained--
And then I saw them, sprawled on the floor in positions no live bodies could ever take, glass driven into them in dozens of places, and I knew. My mother and father were dead, there on the living room floor.
...living room. Almost funny, if I felt like laughing ever again...
The room was a disaster. Everything I could see was toppled, shattered, torn--the place looked like it had been hit by a tornado...
...or by a sonic assault. I could've done it, everything I saw. I know just the notes it would have needed, the precise tones I would have played to drive through glass and wood and flesh...
But there was no sound, then, which only made it worse. Sound is life, music and heartbeats and voices. Silence belongs to the grave. My nightmares are always silent...
I tried to speak, or maybe just scream--I think I had some dim notion that if I broke that awful hush, it would all stop, and I would wake up. But my voice wouldn't work.
Instead I looked down...and saw that I was drenched in red. Covered in my parents' blood...
How could it not have been me?
My hands are shaking. This isn't right, isn't real, isn't *possible*. I love my parents. We disagree (*disagreed*, whispers that voice in my head) on a lot of things, but they've always been there for me, even back when I was a supervillain and the rational thing to do about me would have been to change all the locks and call out the dogs. But they loved me anyway. They *trusted* me--
Maybe it's not my rib at all. Maybe that sharp ache in the middle of my chest is really my heart...
Oh, god, please. Let this be a dream. Let my parents be okay; let me walk into that house and smell Mom's perfume and hear Dad laugh as he asks if I've overthrown the government today.
Let me not have to live knowing that somehow I'm responsible for the death of the people I love most in the world.
It's at least the millionth time I've begged the fates to change things, and for the millionth time, it doesn't work. My parents are dead, and I'm lost in a darkness I don't understand.
Wally tried to pull me out, but I couldn't let him, couldn't touch him. His hands are clean. And mine are dripping red...
Sorry, Wally. But you can't save me. Not from this.
Maybe he knows that, now. I haven't seen him since I got here. I thought...
But yeah, maybe he's figured it out, what everybody else knows--that the Pied Piper is bad news.
The cops know--echo-perfect fragments of their contemptuous voices flicker through my head. James knows; that's why he left. (And I'm glad that he did, before--before. A corner of my brain keeps seeing him on that carpet...) My parents never would admit it...and look where it got them. Even the bad guys know; Boomerang's friend--I don't even know his name--didn't try to kill *me*, oh no. Instead he shot me up with his wannabe-Joker drug--and *that* memory is enough to make broken bones seem almost pleasant. Everything...twisted; it was like feeling my head turn into one of those wavy funhouse mirrors. Inside I cried and I screamed and I tried so hard to stop, and all that happened outside was that I laughed and laughed... And I tried to kill Wally--
I'm shaking again. I could have done it. Wally and Linda both, standing right there--they were worrying about the others, they never thought to guard against me--if they'd been a little less lucky...
I'd've killed my friends like I killed my parents, and laughed doing it, because somebody felt like screwing with my head.
So when the mirror finally gave way and let me through, the real me, and I saw Wally bleeding on the floor with Boomerang standing over him...yes, I wanted to kill the guy. I *would* have killed him, I'm pretty sure, and while I'd like to say it was in defense of Wally's life, or because of the drug--I know better. Finally I had somebody I could blame, somebody I could take it all out on, everything I'd done and almost done, everything I'd had to stand and watch--it's scary, how good it felt. My hands were on his neck and I squeezed harder and harder, crying and ranting; I barely heard Wally asking me to stop over Boomerang's gasps--
After that first shock of impact, I wasn't even surprised that he hit me. It seemed in place with the rest of the day--and I know perfectly well that he pulled his punch, though it didn't feel like it at the time. But worse than that--much worse--was hearing him try to excuse me, to say it wasn't my fault. Because then I had to tell him otherwise. That I'd tried to commit murder right in front of him, that I wasn't innocent of--anything. I kept my head down the whole time; I didn't want to see the look on his face.
So I can't exactly blame him if he doesn't feel like spending time on me. I should be thrilled, really, that he's finally gotten it through his head.
But all I can do is lean my head against the wall, and cry as if I've lost my last friend...
Linda Park very carefully did not gasp, jump, or screech at the sudden bass voice behind her. She had a firm policy never to do anything that made her look like a dimwitted blonde in a horror movie. If her heartbeat was going faster than it really needed to--well, that was her own business. Besides, she recognized the voice.
She turned, favoring Keystone's *other* super-hero with her best repressive look (it got a lot of use around Wally). He didn't look particularly abashed, but then he never did. If there was anything Argus was short on, it wasn't arrogance.
"You could knock," she suggested. "It's considered polite."
"I think I might be a little bit conspicuous on your doorstep dressed like this."
*No doubt,* Linda thought, repressing a chuckle. She assumed--or at least, she hoped--that Argus' particular arrangement of metal and leathers served as body armor, but it did look suspiciously as if he'd swiped it from an S&M club. Still, it wasn't as though strangely-dressed people at the Flash's door were any real rarity, and she said so.
"What, and let people think that the gloryhound and I have anything to do with each other?" he retorted. "I have some pride, thank you. Besides--" his tone darkened--"some of the police force would *love* to take me in, and that's looking unhealthy right now."
Linda's eyes narrowed. Given that Argus was a mobster in his civilian identity--something she was pretty sure was a front of some variety, even if she didn't know the details--it made sense that he'd want to stay away from the cops, but that last sounded like something...more. "Care to expand on that?"
Argus hesitated visibly. "Have you heard anything from your friend the Piper in the last few days?"
All thoughts of verbal fencing vanished from Linda's brain, and a days-old knot in her stomach tightened even further. As much trouble as Piper was already in, the look on Argus' face told her it had just gotten worse.
"Nothing since he was taken to Iron Heights," she answered flatly. "Wally's been trying to get in, but Warden Wolfe says he's under quarantine in the infirmary until they make sure there aren't any effects from the Joker virus."
"And Wolfe is the one who says when that is?"
"Wolfe says pretty much everything when it comes to Iron Heights." Linda's mouth tightened. "I don't trust him, and neither does Wally. He saw some things he didn't like last time he was in there..."
Argus nodded. "I'd say your instincts are on-target--and your husband's, too, amazingly enough." He produced a folder from somewhere and handed it over. "Don't ask how I got these, but they're genuine."
Linda looked at the folder warily. "What is this?"
Argus looked as if he wished she hadn't asked. "Medical records."
*Oh shit.* Without further hesitation she flipped the folder open and began to read.
Perhaps understandably, there were no pictures inside, unless you counted the X-rays. The newswoman in her regretted that--these papers were weapons, and any reporter worth her salt knew the power of visual ammunition--but the woman was grateful to be spared. The written catalogue of injuries, however, was both clear and precise, and Linda was--or at least, had been--a top-rated reporter, not to mention the wife of a very active super-hero. She knew what those dry listings of damage translated to in flesh and blood, and her mental picture of what had been done to her friend was only too vivid.
When she finally looked up, Argus started to say something; she flung up a silencing hand. He closed his mouth and waited while Linda fought down her own reactions. *Lock it down, woman, lock it down. You can't help him by going to pieces...* After a moment, she felt the images recede, and her familiar investigative clarity settle--if a bit shakily--into place. "Okay," she said shortly. "I'm dealing. You were going to say?"
Argus accepted her words without questioning--it was one of the things she appreciated about him, he never underrated her. "I was going to say he'll be okay. He got beat to hell, yeah, and he'll definitely be hurting for a while, but none of it's permanent. I'm guessing they weren't supposed to do even that much damage; he's going to be pretty conspicuous in the courtroom if he goes to trial before the bruises fade."
"So you don't believe this happened during an escape attempt." She didn't bother to make it a question.
Argus's smile was cold and completely without humor. "Funny thing; no guards reported injuries that night. If they had to hit him that often to take him down, you'd figure at least one of them would've gotten hit back, huh?"
"Must've been their lucky day."
"Must've been. Anyway," he added, "that arm fracture--it's angled wrong for a fight. Looks more like someone hit him while his arms were pulled up and behind him." Linda's fingernails bit into her palms, and Argus winced. "Sorry."
*God. God.* She could *see* Piper, trying helplessly to twist away from the descending blows--the >crack< of snapping bone, the convulsive screams of pain... She shut her eyes for a moment; when she opened them again, they were cold with rage. "I am going to fucking *break* them. There isn't going to be a hole deep enough for them to hide in..."
"Good," Argus approved; she heard the almost-snarl in the word and realized that he was almost as angry as she was.
Curiosity edged out the rage for a moment. "Why are you involved in this? You don't even know Piper."
"No," he admitted, "but you do. And--" the smile was real this time, and faintly rueful--"as you've taken pains to tell me, you aren't friends with bad guys. He's got a good rep, too, in some of the lower-rent parts of Keystone."
Linda nodded. "Patron saint of the needy, that's our Piper."
"What it sounded like." Argus shook his head. "I'm good with patterns, and the pieces here don't fit. Somebody's cooked your friend up a nice custom-made frame. And anyway--" his voice hardened--"it doesn't matter. Can't say I'm much of a bleeding heart, but anyone who does this to a chained-up prisoner, just for the fun of it...they oughtta be tossed into their own damn cells, 'cause they aren't any better than the rest of the street scum. And they deserve all the punishment a nasty reporter like you can dish out."
*Reporter.* The word clicked in her brain, and recent memory finally overrode the reflexes of years. *Oh. Right.*
"No." Argus looked at her as if she'd lost her mind, and she waved one hand helplessly. "I mean, not me. I can pass it on, I still have plenty of contacts...but I quit. I'm not a reporter anymore."
He just looked at her, and shook his head. "You read through those papers again, and see if you can still say that."
On that note he left her, and she sat, thinking, for a long time afterwards.