Ted was not impressed with the new organic grocery store on Sullivan Street. For one thing, it was completely packed, mostly with young mothers picking out overpriced, free-range, locally grown, organically produced “treats” for their little squallers, who Ted was pretty sure would’ve preferred a pack of Gushers. For another, everything was healthy. Ted’s doctor had suggested shopping here to eliminate half the calories and most of the preservatives he consumed right off the bat, but Ted was having a real hard time finding the TV dinners, toaster pastries, and frozen corn dogs that were staples of his diet.
Also, they were playing “Christmas Shoes.” In October.
He was squinting at the nutritional information on a box of whole wheat spaghetti - ugh, he was going to have to learn to cook to make this stuff, wasn't he? - when someone on the other side of the aisle said, “What are we thinking? Carrots or yams?”
Ted froze. He knew that voice.
He tried to peek through the shelf in front of him, but it had a metal backing that firmly resisted Ted's efforts to develop X-ray vision. Creeping down to the end of his aisle, he peered around it, still clutching the spaghetti.
Booster. In a black T-shirt that set off his tan skin and golden hair and gleaming white teeth, and tight jeans that set off his...other assets. He looked as young and bright and matinee-idol gorgeous as he had when Ted had last seen him, and for a heart-stopping moment it was as if the past three years had never happened, as if the concentrated effort Ted had made to excise Booster from his life and his heart had never taken effect, and Ted could walk up to him, throw an arm around his shoulders, and tell him his latest idea for a prank to pull on Guy.
Then he saw the baby.
It was sitting in Booster’s shopping cart, sucking on a pacifier and watching Booster with big round eyes. A boy, judging by the blue T-shirt with a dump truck on it and the short hair, a shade or two lighter than Booster’s. Ted was no good at judging kids’ ages, but he thought this one was maybe about a year old.
At first he thought that Booster was just standing next to the shopping cart with the baby, but there was no one else in the aisle who might claim it, and what would Booster be doing in the baby food aisle without a baby anyway? Besides, he was holding out two jars of baby food, dwarfed in his big hands, like a waiter presenting a tank of live lobsters to a wealthy patron.
“Carrots? I think so too,” Booster said as the baby reached his round little hands out for one of the jars. He put the yams back on the shelf, grabbed a couple more jars of carrots, and added them to the assortment already in his cart. Ted saw formula in there, and some kind of off-brand organic Cheerios, along with the regular food that was presumably for Booster.
Wait. No. Booster with a baby? This didn't make sense. There had to be something Ted was missing.
Curiosity overwhelmed him, and before he made the conscious decision to do so, he was walking properly around the aisle, down towards Booster and Dumptruck Lad. “Booster?”
Booster went pale before he even turned around. Well, that wasn't a good sign.
“Long time no see,” Ted said, knowing his voice wasn't nearly as casual as he'd like it to be. He pointed. “Where’d you steal the baby?”
Booster tensed, a defensive stance Ted knew well from years of fighting alongside him, like he thought maybe Ted might suddenly lunge forward and try to eat the kid. “Rip is my son.”
Ted dropped the spaghetti.
“Your...your son?” he squeaked disbelievingly.
“Yes,” Booster said shortly. “And I'm trying to teach him not to talk to strangers.” He turned and pushed the shopping cart down the aisle.
Ouch. Well, maybe Ted deserved that.
Still, he wasn't about to give up that easily. He trotted after Booster, spaghetti forgotten on the floor. “Booster, wait up. I'm just surprised, I...is he Gladys’s?”
Booster laughed, short and not terribly amused. “Ha! No. Even if we weren’t divorced, that would be a post-menopausal miracle. Though ‘Auntie Gladys’ does like to drop by and spoil him.” He swung the cart around a corner, heading for the produce section. “No, Melissa showed up nine months and one week after our solitary night of passion with a diaper bag and this little guy, informed me that she couldn’t take the crying anymore, and took off. Last I heard she was living in Dubuque.”
“And you didn’t…” Ted trailed off, unsure of how to finish that sentence. Didn’t what? Try to force the baby back on his unwilling mother? Leave him on an orphanage doorstep? Sell him on eBay? “How long ago was this?”
Booster sorted through the bunches of bananas, looking for a good one. Rip watched him intently, devotedly, his gaze flicking to Ted every so often with clear wariness. Somewhere in the back of his mind Ted noted that Rip’s eyes were the same shade of blue as Booster’s. “Rip just turned one.”
A year. Booster had been a father for a year, and Ted hadn’t known.
“Well, uh…happy birthday, Rip,” he said, hunkering down to look Rip in the eye. Rip screwed up his face in alarm and turned away. “Okay, whoa, sorry.” He straightened up, but that little line of concern remained between Rip’s pale eyebrows. “Not much for new people, is he?”
“No,” Booster said shortly. “Look, I’ve got stuff to do, so…”
“Hey, come on, Booster, it’s me,” Ted said, spreading his hands. “You can spare five minutes. We haven’t talked in…” Well, that was a bad conversational tack. Ted knew exactly how long it had been since they’d last spoken, and he had a feeling Booster did too. “You’ve gotta give me time to get used to the idea of Daddy Booster. I mean, you? With a kid? I’m just shocked you haven’t drowned him or poisoned him or something.”
He grinned to show he was joking, but Booster’s eyes flashed with anger. “Yes, Ted, jokes about the death of my infant son are hilarious,” he spat.
Ted’s mouth fell open - he hadn’t meant it that way. “I…I…”
“I have to go,” Booster said, voice clipped and tense. Ted, who had once known him so well, still knew him well enough to know when he was holding back a potentially explosive temper. Booster hoisted Rip out of the shopping cart and swung the diaper bag over his shoulder. “Goodbye, Ted.”
And with that, he stalked off. Rip gave Ted one last concerned, confused look over Booster’s shoulder, then waved a chubby hand in parting.
Instinctively, Ted waved back.
Well. That could have gone better.
“Damn,” he said aloud, scrubbing a hand across his face. He couldn’t just leave it like this. Ignoring the curious looks of a couple of stray shoppers in the aisle, he grabbed a bunch of bananas from the display and pushed Booster’s abandoned cart towards the registers. As he paid for Booster’s groceries, he couldn’t help remembering himself, three years ago, declaring that he never wanted to see Booster again. And now here he was, chasing after him.
Well, how could he have known three years ago that Booster would have a kid?
Once out of the store, he took his phone out of his pocket and made a quick call. “Hey, Barb. Can you find an address for me?”
“Sure, Beeb,” Barbara said. “Who are we looking up?”
“Uh…Booster,” Ted said. “Gotta be somewhere in Metropolis. Might be under Michael Carter.” Saying Booster’s real name to Barbara, who Booster had never gotten along with, felt almost like a betrayal - but, Ted reminded himself, he and Booster weren’t friends anymore.
“Sorry, I must have a bad connection,” Barbara said. “I could’ve sworn you just asked me to track down Booster Gold.”
Ted frowned, though she couldn’t see it. Well - he glanced at the traffic camera on the corner - she probably couldn’t see it. “Since when do you have a bad connection?” he asked. “Could you just check it, please? I bumped into him, and…it’s a long story.”
He could hear typing in the background. “Which you’ll be telling me later?”
“Of course.” He might need a shoulder to cry on, after all.
“Okay, I’ve got something. One Mr. Michael J. Carter, 1986 Shuster Place, Apartment 6B. Hey, isn’t that your neighborhood?”
“The other side of it, yeah.” It stood to reason that Booster would live close by if he was doing his grocery shopping here. Still, it was weird to think of Booster so close for God only knew how long, and Ted never knowing it. “Thanks, Barb. I owe you one.”
“Any time, Beeb.”
Ted hefted the bags and started walking. Booster’s place was only a few blocks away. He could deliver the groceries, apologize, and -
And what? It wasn’t like he and Booster were going to magically be friends again. Booster had made that perfectly clear. Hell, Ted wasn’t even sure that he wanted to be friends with Booster again.
But he had a scientist’s curiosity, and he was curious about the baby. Or, more to the point, about Booster with a baby. The man was too irresponsible to keep a houseplant alive; Ted had no idea how he was managing with a whole human being.
…But that wasn’t quite it either. The truth was that he missed Booster. He’d just about gotten to the point where he’d forgotten to miss him, this past year or so; even seeing one of Booster’s ad campaigns or hearing about of his superheroic exploits in the news didn’t faze him. But seeing Booster in the flesh, talking to him, had brought it all rushing back, and he wasn’t ready to let Booster go just yet. It was the same reason he’d stayed on Max’s stupid team as long as he had.
And that, in the end, was what had killed them. Ted nearly turned back, but his feet were already rounding the corner of Shuster Place, and he was there.
It was a nice building, if less modern and flashy than the apartments Ted typically associated with Booster. The doorman was helping an older woman with some packages and didn’t give Ted a second glance as he walked past the front desk and into the elevator. Once on the sixth floor, Ted made himself walk briskly to Booster’s apartment and ring the bell before he could second guess himself.
“Who is it?”
“It’s me. Ted.”
There was silence, long enough that Ted started to fidget. Then Booster opened the door, Rip on his hip. Ted held up the grocery bags as a peace offering. “You left these.”
Booster stared at him. “How did you…oh. Barbara. Of course.”
Another pang of guilt hit Ted. “You got someplace I can set these down?” he asked, nodding towards the groceries.
“Hang on.” Booster reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of cash, then peeled off a few twenties. Idly, Ted noted how easily he shifted Rip about on his hip, how comfortable he was with a baby in his arms - the man who’d once refused to pose with fans’ babies for fear of dropping them. “Here.”
“You don’t have to - ”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Booster said, and peeled off another bill. “I forgot the tip.”
“Enough, okay?” Ted snapped. “I’m sorry about what I said in the grocery store. Will you let me give you your damn groceries or not?”
Booster sighed and stepped back, letting Ted into the apartment. “Kitchen’s through there. And could you watch your language around the baby, please?”
“Sorry,” Ted said again. He walked through to the kitchen and put the grocery bags on the counter, then turned around to face Carter and Son. Booster was bouncing Rip gently on his hip. Rip was clutching Booster’s shirt and peeking cautiously around it. “So, Rip, huh? Nice to meetcha. I’m…I’m Ted.”
As weird as it was for Booster to have a kid, it was even weirder for Booster to have a kid who didn’t know Ted. He’d never imagined being “Uncle Ted” to Booster’s kids, mostly because he’d never imagined Booster having kids, but he’d always imagined Booster being “Uncle Booster” to his own.
Rip stared at him. He really did have Booster’s eyes. “Not much for conversation, is he?” Ted asked.
“Well, he’s only one,” Booster said, as if that meant anything to Ted. All he knew was that babies learned to talk somewhere between birth and kindergarten. “He says a few words, though, like ‘Dada’ and ‘baba’ and ‘no.’ That’s your favorite word, isn’t it, Rippy? ‘No?’” He leaned in close to Rip as he cooed at him and kissed his cheek. Something squeezed painfully tight in Ted’s chest.
Rip wiggled and tried to grab Booster’s ear, grunting a little. “Hey. Shh,” Booster said, bouncing him gently. “No beating up Daddy.”
Daddy. Ted sought frantically for a safe avenue of conversation. “You’ve…you’ve done a pretty good job keeping him secret,” he said. “I mean, you’re in the media plenty, and I never heard anything about you having a kid.”
Booster’s mouth twitched, and Ted realized, too late, that he’d admitted he paid attention to Booster’s appearances in the media. “I haven’t really had to try that hard,” he said. “I mean, Booster Gold is such a public figure that not a lot of people expect me to have a secret identity. And I mostly just stop bank robberies and carjackings. There aren’t a lot of masked lunatics gunning for me specifically. I’m not Batman.”
“Na na na na,” Rip protested, squirming in Booster’s arms. Booster switched him to the other hip.
“Oh,” Ted said. “I haven’t been…I’m retired, so. I’m not doing the spandex thing anymore.” He waited for Booster to roll his eyes or crack a joke about Ted’s umpteenth retirement or even try to talk him out of it, but Booster just nodded. “Yeah,” Ted finished inanely.
Rip squirmed some more and then shrieked, making Ted wince. “Sorry. He’s probably hungry,” Booster said. “I should get his lunch ready. Thanks for bringing over the groceries.”
It was clearly a dismissal. Ted hovered in the doorway of the kitchen for a minute, trying frantically to think of an excuse to stay and coming up short. “Okay. Yeah. I should go, anyway.” He let Booster herd him towards the front door. “It was…it was good seeing you, Booster.”
“Yeah.” Booster opened the front door.
Apparently one wave a day was all Ted was entitled to, because Rip ignored him in favor of yanking on Booster’s shirt and leaning so far backwards Ted was sure he’d fall. “Dada, na na naaaa.”
Booster raised his eyebrows at Ted. “See you around.”
Ted stepped back and let the door close, suppressing the mad urge to stick his foot in like a door-to-door salesman and try to charm his way back in. He felt sick. It wasn’t supposed to be like this with Booster – like bumping into a coworker you’d barely known from a job you’d hated.
But this was what he’d wanted, or at least what he’d said he’d wanted three years ago. If Booster - and Booster’s son - were strangers to him now, he couldn’t pretend he had nothing to do with why.
He glanced back in the direction of the grocery store, then sighed and headed home to order takeout instead. This was why he liked science better than real life. In real life, knowing the reason something had gone wrong often didn’t make you feel any better at all.
Honestly, Ted still didn’t think the fight had been his fault. Well, not all his fault. Hadn’t Booster ever heard of the Boy Who Cried Wolf?
...Actually, maybe he hadn’t. They might not tell that story a thousand years in the future. That was beside the point.
Ted had made it very clear to Max and the rest of the team that he was on the Super Buddies only provisionally, and part-time. He had a company to run, and unlike all of them except Mary a mostly-functional secret identity, and he couldn’t just drop everything because Punch and Jewelee were robbing the Museum of Puppetry again. And for the most part, amazingly enough, his teammates respected that boundary.
Booster called him for backup all the time, heedless of late hours or Ted’s schedule. Ted supposed he should be flattered that Booster was picking him over a stretchy detective or an incandescent spy or a teenager literally imbued with power from the gods, but it was mostly annoying. Especially when his phone rang with the tone he’d set for “superhero stuff” right when he was about to go into a meeting with about a dozen important investors.
“Excuse me,” he’d said to the meeting attendees, and slipped into the hall. “This had better be important,” he hissed into the phone.
“Is crime important?”
“Seriously, get down here, I’m on Fox and Main and I need backup.”
“You couldn’t call the others?” Ted asked as he checked his watch and mentally calculated how quickly he could get the Bug airborne from here.
“Are you gonna argue with me about the phone tree or are you gonna help?”
Ted could hear Booster’s breath coming uneven and the familiar sound of his blasters, distorted through the phone. He sighed. “I’m on my way.” Hanging up, he stuck his head into the meeting room and beckoned to his assistant Patricia. “Something just came up. Emergency. I gotta go.”
Patricia went pale. “What? Ted, no, we’re about to start - ”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. Just, uh, tell them it’s a family emergency,” Ted said, and took off. He pretended he couldn’t hear her calling “But you don’t have any family!” as he bolted down the hall.
It took him less than ten minutes from hanging up the phone to get into his suit, into the Bug, and into the air, but his mind had already had time to run through a thousand ways he could find Booster injured or worse when he arrived on the scene and found...nothing. Well, Booster shaking hands with a cop while a handful of passersby snapped pictures on their cell phones, but other than that, nothing.
Ted slid down on the Bug’s ladder and dropped to the ground. “What happened?” he asked.
“I stopped the muggers,” Booster said, pointing a sunny smile in his direction. “It was very dashing, you should have seen it.”
Ted stared at him. “You called me out of an important meeting for muggers?”
“There were three of them!”
“You have a force field!”
Booster sniffed. “Sometimes it glitches.”
“Gah,” Ted said, and stomped back over to the Bug’s ladder.
“What, you’re not going to offer me a lift?” Booster called.
They’d had it out at Super Buddies headquarters that night, yelling until Mary cried and Max made them to apologize to her, each other, and the other businesses in the strip mall, and Ted was sure he’d made his position clear. Which was why when Booster called with another emergency three days later when Ted was in the middle of a very delicate test down in R&D, he’d dropped everything - which was a dangerous move in the lab - and raced to Booster’s side again…
...only to find Booster totally unharmed and flirting with the woman whose cat he’d just rescued from a tree.
Ted yanked Booster away from the woman. “This is an emergency?” he demanded.
“Uh, yeah. She has a sister,” Booster whispered with a significant glance in Miss Cat Fancy’s direction. “You’re not still with whatsherface, are you?”
Ted made an incoherent noise. The cat hissed at him.
So two days later, when his phone rang as he was about to go into his rescheduled investor meeting, he answered it with a: “No, Booster. Call someone else.”
“I can’t, it’s a science thing and I need you,” Booster said. Something exploded in the background. “Shit! Hurry up, would you?”
“I have a meeting,” Ted said. “One I already rescheduled because of you. If you don’t want to call someone else for backup, deal with it on your own, but I don’t have time for this.”
Ted glanced around hurriedly, but Booster’s voice over the phone apparently hadn’t been loud enough to tip his investors off to his double life. “I don’t have time for this,” he gritted between clenched teeth. “Call Mary or someone, okay? I gotta go.”
He hung up and smiled at Ms. Yakamoto, who was giving him a strange look. “Telemarketer,” he said, and held the meeting room door open for her. “Shall we?”
Booster called again as the meeting was starting. Ted hastily apologized and dismissed the call without answering it. When Booster called a third time, Ted shut the phone off entirely and threw it into a potted plant in the corner. “Those Jehovah’s Witnesses, so pushy, right?” he asked his confused investors.
Despite all that, he managed to get them smiling by the end of the meeting, so he was in a pretty good mood when he strolled back to his private office, only to find Patricia wringing her hands outside of it. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“There were some calls for you on your landline,” she said. “Seven of them. Your cousin Mike was in an accident, they said. He’s in the hospital.”
Ted frowned at her. “I don’t have a cousin Mike.” In fact, the only person he knew named Michael was Booster, not that anyone ever...called him…
“No,” he breathed.
“Yeah, my.” Memories flooded him, unbidden. Booster, unconscious, a bloody stump where his arm had been. Booster, flatlining under his hands. Booster, cold. “My cousin. My - Mike. What hospital? Where?”
Twenty minutes later he was running down the hall at St. Jerome’s, ducking around wheelchairs and gurneys with a nimbleness that Ted Kord, CEO, probably shouldn’t possess, but that didn’t matter because this was Booster, this was Booster in the hospital and it was Ted’s fault, why hadn’t he left the first time Booster had called, the first time his partner had asked him for help -
Booster’s laugh floated out of a nearby room, and Ted came screeching to a halt.
He followed the sound to an open door. Booster was sitting on the bed, fully dressed, with a bruise on his cheekbone and his arm in a sling but otherwise in one piece. Bea was next to him, giggling over whatever it was he’d just said, and Mary and the Dibnys were perched on the visitors’ chairs, Ralph somewhat oddly squished to allow both him and Sue to fit in the same one.
Booster’s bright gaze fell on Ted, and he raised one perfect eyebrow. “Well, look who finally showed up.”
Ted’s mouth was dry, suddenly. He swallowed. “You’re all right.”
“Yeah. Thanks for the assist, by the way.”
Ted took a step into the room. “What happened?”
“Professor Ivo. He’s got some new robot, used it to attack Centennial Park. You know that eternal flame they’ve got for Superman, in front of his statue? Which, I don’t even know why they keep that thing going, Superman’s been back for years, but whatever.” Booster rolled his eyes. “Anyway this robot was attacking joggers and dogwalkers and Ivo is screaming about immortality while I’m trying to figure out how to dismantle this thing. I am not an engineer, by the way. In case you forgot.”
Bea bit her lip and glanced away. Ted took another step. “But you shut it down?”
Booster shrugged, then winced. “Yeah, one of the wires I yanked out at random must’ve done the trick, because the thing exploded. Got my force field up in time, but not before I managed to dislocate my shoulder.”
“You’re okay, though.”
“Uh, no, I dislocated my shoulder,” Booster repeated in a careful voice, like Ted was stupid.
“But you’re - I thought…” Ted clenched his fists in sudden frustration. After all of that. All that fear and panic and Booster was fine, sitting here looking more attractively disheveled than actually wounded and having a grand old time flirting with Bea. Sure, his shoulder would be killing him between doses of painkillers - Ted had been there, he knew - but it would heal. And it wasn’t like it had been Ted’s fault he’d gotten hurt in the first place.
“Fine,” he said. “You’ll be fine. Does this mean you’re going to stop bothering me at work now and handle these things on your own like a big boy? Or at least call one of these other bozos instead?”
“Hey now,” Ralph said.
“Wait, how am I suddenly in trouble for this?” Booster asked. “Ivo’s the one who had a robot set fire to the city’s heirloom Atlantic red cedars, and you’re the one who didn’t even show up.”
“There’s a whole team here! You’re not sniping at any of them! When did it become my job to show up every time?” Ted demanded.
“Like, fifteen years ago!” Booster snapped back. “We were partners, remember? You used to have my back.”
Sue sighed audibly, and Ralph rolled his eyes. “Don’t you hate it when Mom and Dad fight?” he asked her. She stifled a giggle.
“Seriously, would you two relax?” Bea asked. “Hospitals are bad enough without you bringing all this Degrassi into it. Just apologize, Ted, and we can all move on.”
“Apologize?” he spluttered. “I didn’t - why should I - where were you? Where were any of you?” He let his gesture encompass the whole room. “Why is it solely my responsibility to keep him from Boostering things up all the time?”
“He does Booster things up pretty regularly,” Ralph agreed, and everyone nodded, even Mary.
“Hey, I stopped Ivo, didn’t I?” Booster demanded. “And how come everyone’s picking on me all of a sudden? I’m the one in the hospital!”
Ted rolled his eyes. “You’re fine. And if you’re not, I’m sure Bea can kiss it better.”
“Oh, untwist your panties, Kord, we had one dinner together,” Bea snapped.
“You keep out of this!” Ted snapped back.
“Don’t yell at her!” Booster said. “You’re just mad because you know I’m right, again, and you being the irresponsible one doesn’t work with the Serious Grownup thing you want to rub in my face.”
Ted blinked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You’ve had a bug up your butt about me since this team started because I’m not pretending to be mature just like you. I’m not complaining about everything we do, like you. I’m not worrying about my 401K and my fiber like you. Just because you’ve changed and gotten all boring and old you expect me to – ”
“Oh, don’t talk to me about old, Mr. I-Married-a-Hag-for-Money – ”
“Don’t call my wife a hag!”
“You call her a hag!”
“Yes, but you’re not allowed to!” Booster sniffed. “You’re just jealous.”
Ted felt his cheeks heat up. “Jealous? I’m not – I’m – jealous?”
“Yeah.” Booster gave Ted his smuggest smile. “Because I have someone other than my right hand to come home to at night. Well, my right hand and an IM client.”
“Hey!” Ted snapped. “Barbara and I did that once!” He glanced up, at Bea’s leer, the Dibnys’ delighted expressions, and Mary’s concerned, perplexed expression. “Mary, please forget you heard that last bit.”
Booster laughed. “That’s it, isn’t it?” he asked. “That’s why you’ve been picking on me this whole time! You’re lonely and miserable and it kills you, it just kills you that I’m not as lonely and miserable as you.”
It hit close enough to home that Ted saw red, and suddenly all he wanted was to hurt Booster, too. “For someone who’s not lonely you sure can’t seem to stop calling me,” he pointed out. “But sure, fine, the janitor has found the key to domestic bliss. Tell me, Booster, what is it that brings you such satisfaction? The respect of your peers? The deep understanding you share with your beloved wife? Or just the fact that your life has finally achieved thematic unity?”
He’d struck a nerve, or several – Booster looked furious. “And what, pray tell, do you mean by that?”
“Ted, I don’t think – ” Sue started to say, but Ted wasn’t about to stop now.
“Well, you were always a corporate whore…” He let the sentence trail off. Mary gasped.
Booster stood, and for a minute Ted really thought Booster was about to hit him, dislocated shoulder and all. “You know what?” Booster said, voice tight. “That’s it. That’s it, I’m done.”
“Good idea,” Ralph said. “Sue and I drove here, we’ll take you home to cool off.”
Booster shook his head. “No. I mean, I’m done. I’m tired of being everyone’s punching bag. And I can’t take another minute with this jackass.”
“Booster, it’s just teasing…” Bea started.
“Maybe it is with you, but not with him,” Booster said, jerking his head towards Ted like he was something nasty the cat had left on the rug. “Congratulations, Ted. You’ve been telling me we’re not friends anymore for months, and now I finally believe you.”
He stormed out before Ted could figure out if he even wanted to say anything in response to that, pushing past Max, who’d just arrived. Max stared down the hallway at him, then looked around at his subdued team. “Okay, what did I miss?”
Ralph glanced at Sue. “Uh…I think Booster just quit.”
Max had been of the mind that Booster would cool off in a couple of days, or quicker with an apology from Ted, but Ted was in no mood to apologize. He’d been through this before with Booster and the Conglomerate, and he had no desire to wait for Booster to get tired of his latest fit of pique and come back with his hat in his hands.
Besides, unlike their League days, Ted actually had a life outside of the team now. It was about time he got back to it.
The morning after the hospital, Ted gave Max his resignation. Max pinched the bridge of his nose and poured himself a glass of scotch, even though it wasn’t even ten o’clock yet. “You sure I can’t change your mind?”
Ted shook his head. “Maybe if you still had your psychic powers, but as is…no.”
Max poured another glass for Ted and slid it across the desk. Despite his better judgment, Ted took it. “Well, we’ll miss you, Ted,” Max said. “The truth is, I’m not sure how long the team’ll last without the Blue and Gold.”
Max’s prediction turned out to be accurate, because a few weeks later Ted heard through the superhero grapevine – otherwise known as “Sue calling him and telling him” – that the Super Buddies had disbanded. Nate had refused to come back, Karen had refused to join, Bea had refused to stay if Guy officially joined, and there hadn’t seemed to be much point in a superhero team of only three. Ted felt a little bad, but not bad enough to come back – and certainly not bad enough to try to patch things up with Booster.
Besides, Booster would probably call in a week or two with some stupid story or wild scheme, and that would be that. Booster didn’t stay mad long. He had a temper, sure, but once he’d yelled or punched something he was all sunny smiles again. It had been annoying in the past, how Booster would try to charm his way back into Ted’s good graces when Ted wasn’t ready to stop being angry.
Except the weeks had turned into months, and the months had turned into years, and the phone call Ted was always half-expecting never came. And now Booster had moved on without him, with a life and a baby and God only knew what else, and Ted was stuck in the same place he’d been three years ago – alone, and not entirely sure why.
One thing he was sure of, though, was that Booster definitely had no interest in rekindling their friendship. The best thing Ted could do now was forget they’d even seen each other again. Booster had moved on. So should he.
“What are you doing here?” Booster asked when he opened his front door to find Ted standing in the hall.
If Ted had hoped to be met with a warmer reception on his second visit, those hopes were dashed now. Still, he persevered. “I have a present for Rip. It’s the holiday season and all, right?”
Ted tried not to shuffle his feet. “Yeah, well, I saw it in the store and thought of him. Can I come in?”
Booster gave him a long look, then sighed and let Ted in, shutting the door behind him. “Where is Rip?” Ted asked, looking around.
“Playpen,” Booster said, pointing to the brightly colored mesh square in the living room. “I’m trying to straighten up and I needed him out of the way. Remember Ted, Rip? Can you say hi?”
“Hiya, Rip,” Ted said, waving. Rip stared at Ted and jammed four fingers in his mouth.
“Anyway, I’m kind of in the middle of cleaning…” Booster said, gesturing to what looked to Ted like a spotless apartment. “What’s the present?”
“Oh! Legos!” Ted showed Booster the box. “See, it’s some kind of dinosaur set. I loved Legos when I was a kid, and now they have all these cool themed sets, and kids like dinosaurs, right? Anyway, I thought he might like them.”
Booster looked like he was seconds away from rolling his eyes. “Ted, what does it say right here?” he asked, pointing to the front of the box.
Ted squinted. “For…ages four and up. Oh.” Somehow he felt unreasonably disappointed. He’d been sure this present would be a hit. “So I guess this won’t work for Rip, huh?”
He must have looked totally pitiful, because Booster relented, ever so slightly. “Not now, but I can put them away for him and he can play with them when he’s a bit older. We’ve got a whole box of stuff for him to grow into. Ralph and Sue sent over some T-shirts that are practically too big on me.”
Ralph and Sue had known about Rip and they hadn’t told Ted? Ted felt a pang of betrayal, followed by a stab of guilt – he hadn’t actually talked to anyone in the spandex set but Barbara in…a while, really. “Oh. Okay.”
Booster sighed and yielded a little further. “For kids Rip’s age you need Duplo. It’s like a baby line that Lego puts out. And yeah, Rip really loves playing with his blocks.”
“Bah!” Rip said, startling Ted. He pushed himself up into a rather precarious standing position and reached up. “Bah, bah!”
“You want to play blocks, Rippy?” Booster asked, over-enunciating carefully. Rip smiled and bounced his diapered butt up and down. He was wearing, Ted noted, a perfectly-matched little ensemble of blue and yellow plaid pants and a yellow shirt with a bluebird on it. “Okay, hang on.” Booster took the small box of Legos from Ted. “Be right back.”
Booster walked down the hall and into one of the bedrooms, leaving Ted alone with Rip. They stared at each other.
“So…how ’bout them Goliaths, huh?” Ted asked.
Rip just stared more. Ted fought the panicky urge to call for Booster, just in case Rip started crying or pooping or exploding or something.
“You know, you look just like your dad,” he said instead. “I bet you get that all the time.”
Rip put a finger up his nose.
“Okay, I have to admit I’ve never seen him do that.”
Booster came back then, and Ted tried not to look too visibly relieved. “Here we are!” Booster said, showing Rip the small plastic tub in his hands.
Rip did his little happy-butt-bounce dance again. “Bah! Bah bah bah.”
Booster pried the top off the tub, revealing a collection of oversized Lego-style bricks with rounded-off corners, and put the tub in the playpen. “There you go, kiddo. Knock yourself out.”
Rip looked at the Legos, then at Booster. “Dada bah?”
Booster shook his head. “Daddy has to do the dishes.”
Rip’s face crumpled. “Dada baaaaah.”
Booster sighed. “Oh boy, here we go.”
“I’ll play with him,” Ted said.
Booster raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Ted, frankly, was just as surprised as Booster. “Uh…I said, I’ll play with him. You go do your dishes.”
Booster hesitated. “I don’t…”
“Go ahead, it’ll be fine,” Ted assured him, lying through his teeth. What was he doing? He didn’t know how to play with a baby!
“Well…okay. If it’ll prevent a tantrum,” Booster said. He picked up the Lego bin and put it on the floor outside of the playpen, then picked Rip up and set him down next to the bin. “I’ll be right in the kitchen – just holler if you need me.”
Booster walked into the kitchen. Rip watched him go, then looked at Ted. Ted pointed to the Legos. “Go for it.”
Rip looked towards the kitchen again, then tipped over the Lego bin, scattering its contents on the floor. He grinned and looked up at Ted, flashing Booster’s perfect dimples at him. “Gee.”
“Gee indeed, my good man,” Ted said. “Now what?”
Rip settled into a wobbly crouch, then picked up a green rectangle and placed it, prong-side up, in front of him. He sorted through the pile of Legos on the floor until he found another green one, then placed it on top of the first one. He didn’t quite have the hand strength to snap them together, so it wound up perched kind of precariously.
Then he looked at Ted. “Bah!”
“My turn?” Ted asked. He picked up a blue rectangle. “Well, I like blue, so…”
“NO NO NO,” Rip shouted.
“What are you doing to my kid, Kord?” Booster called over the sound of running water.
“Apparently offending his aesthetic sensibilities,” Ted called back. He found a green piece. “How’s this?”
“Oobah,” Rip said, which apparently meant yes, because he made no objection when Ted put it on top of the other two, pushing down firmly to lock all three together.
They continued in turns, stacking the green bricks. When the tower grew too tall for Rip to reach the top, he handed Ted the bricks and let him stack them.
The green done, Rip started a separate tower for red, and kicked up another stink when Ted tried to incorporate a different color. “This is one neurotic kid you’ve got, Booster,” he called.
“I know,” Booster said, closer than Ted had expected, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned around. Booster was leaning against the entrance to the kitchen with a dishtowel looped over one arm, watching them. “He needs to have everything just so or he freaks out. The doctor says it’s a phase kids go through, but I think his mom taking off didn’t help, even if he can’t really remember her.”
“Tahgoo!” Rip said impatiently, waving a Lego brick at Ted.
“My turn?” Ted asked.
“Zoobah. Got it.” Ted took the brick from Rip and stacked it on top of the red tower. “What do we do when we’ve stacked them all, huh?”
Rip smiled winningly, then pushed the green tower over. It hit the hardwood floor with a satisfying crash and broke into several pieces. Rip giggled and clapped his hands.
Ted couldn’t help laughing. “Yeah, that was always my favorite part, too,” he said. “And now we let Daddy clean it up, right?”
He glanced up at Booster and paused. There was something in Booster’s expression, something Ted couldn’t read but that made his breath catch in his throat nonetheless. “Hey. You okay?”
Booster nodded. “Yeah. Uh.” He paused, as if wrestling with himself, then said, “Do you want to stay for lunch?”
It wasn’t total forgiveness, not even close, but it was a start. Ted kept his tone as nonchalant as possible. “I don’t know. Do I have to eat mashed carrots?”
Booster smiled a little. “No, but you might have to clean some of them up.”
Ted smiled back. “I’ll take it.”
It wasn’t a routine they settled into so much as a truce. Booster never invited Ted over, never called him, never said he hoped he’d come back. Every time he opened the door to find Ted standing there, in fact, he looked wary, like Ted would suddenly reveal his sinister plan and poof away with an evil cackle. It was jarring, this standoffishness from his golden retriever of a former best friend, who’d always been more interested in trying to get people to like him than in putting up walls.
Rip must have inherited Booster’s newfound guardedness somehow, because he always greeted Ted with an expression of profound mistrust. He’d thaw eventually, but then Ted would say or do something wrong - he never really understood what - and suddenly Rip was hiding his face in Booster’s shirt or screaming bloody murder.
Overall, it was not a welcoming reception.
And yet Ted kept going back. Not every day, but at least once almost every week - sometimes twice, as the days grew colder and October faded into November. He lived right in the neighborhood, after all. And there was something about Booster with a baby that nagged at him like an experiment that wasn’t working quite right in the lab, the ones that had him up at three a.m. running test after test. His mind wouldn’t stop trying to solve this new and unexpected puzzle: Booster Gold, responsible father.
One day he showed up in front of Booster’s building just as Booster emerged pushing a stroller loaded down with supplies. Rip was strapped in securely, wearing a dapper little jacket and a pair of tiny aviator sunglasses.
Ted quirked an eyebrow at Booster. “How much did you spend on his shades?”
Booster’s expression was haughty behind a matching pair of lenses. “So I want to protect my child’s eyes from the harsh rays of the sun. Sue me.”
Ted shoved his hands in his pockets. “I was just stopping by to say hey. You guys heading out?”
“Just to the park. Young Master Ripford here needs his afternoon constitutional, does he not?” Booster asked, leaning over the stroller.
“Fwee,” Rip said seriously.
“Well put,” Ted said. “Mind if I tag along?”
Booster’s hesitation was so brief Ted might not have noticed it if he didn’t know Booster as well as he did. “Sure,” he said, and they headed down the street.
The park wasn’t far and it was brisk out, but not cold enough to be unpleasant, at least not while they were walking. “His name’s not really Ripford, is it?” Ted asked as they passed through the arch of trees leading into the park, leaves flaring red and gold above them.
Booster shook his head. “No, just Rip. Don’t ask me what Melissa was thinking. I could’ve changed it, but...he’s had enough change in his life already.”
“That makes sense.” Ted leaned towards the stroller. “There goes your chance to be named after your Uncle Ted, little man.” The minute it was out of his mouth he regretted it. He’d lost the chance to be Booster’s kid’s namesake three years ago.
One glance at Booster showed that he felt as awkward about the comment as Ted did. Ted bit his lip and fell silent.
They found a clear stretch of what was left of the lawn with no college kids sneaking joints on it or big dogs to startle Rip. Booster unbuckled Rip and set him free, and they watched as he toddled over the browning grass at his wobbly top speed, occasionally squatting down to inspect an interesting weed or try to put something weird in his mouth.
“No playground?” Ted asked.
“Nah, Rip’s still too little for most of the equipment and he doesn’t like the sandbox. Texture issues, I think,” Booster said, rubbing his fingers together to demonstrate. “Plus the big kids intimidate him. Sometimes we do the baby swings, but mostly I just find a patch of grass without too much dog crap on it and let him tear around for a bit.”
“He’s kind of a delicate flower, huh?” Ted asked. “Were you like that as a kid?” He couldn’t picture it. Booster could be finicky, sure - eating out with him was an exercise in hearing the waiter recite every single ingredient in every single dish on the menu - but Ted had never known him to be shy, or so particular about color or texture.
“No, but Rip can afford to be,” Booster said. “That is - I mean, Shel and I had to grow up fast. I don’t want that for him. Life’s tough enough even when you’re a kid, especially when one of your parents...well.” He shrugged. “If there’s anything I can do to make it easier…”
Ted looked up at Booster. Close up to his profile like this, he could see delicate crow’s feet fanning out from the corners of Booster’s eyes, a smile line being slowly carved down his cheek. He’d never tell Booster how visible the signs of aging were becoming, but he wore them well. They lended a gravitas to what had been a boyish handsomeness long after Booster had stopped being a boy.
“You’re a good dad, Booster,” he said.
He couldn’t read Booster’s expression. He used to be so good at that, even with sunglasses on. “...Thanks,” Booster said finally.
“Of course, my dad sucks, so I could be talking out of my ass here.”
Booster laughed, that bright sound Ted hadn’t realized he missed so much. “Yeah, mine too. I just try to think of what he would do and do the opposite.”
Rip wobbled back over and crashed into Ted’s knee. “Whoa, learn to steer there, kid,” Ted said, reaching out a steadying hand, but Rip managed to catch his balance on his own. He looked up and then reached towards Ted’s face with a pair of chubby hands.
Ted blinked and looked over at Booster, who looked as startled as Ted felt. “Uh, you got the wrong guy, Rip. Daddy’s the beauty. I’m the brains.”
Rip frowned and reached harder, grunting a little in his efforts. “Up! Up up uuuuuup.”
Ted gave Booster another helpless look. Booster shrugged. “You heard the man. He wants up.”
“O...kay.” Ted bent down and picked Rip up with his hands tucked into Rip’s armpits, then settled him on his hip the way he’d seen Booster do it. He was surprisingly heavy, and Ted could deadlift two hundred pounds. “Happy now?” Rip’s response was to laugh and grab a fistful of Ted’s hair. “Ow! Christ, you’ve got a grip.”
“Oh, he’s so adorable,” said a woman’s voice. Ted and Booster pivoted as one to see a pretty jogger smiling at them. “I love that blond hair.”
Booster preened. “Thanks.”
Ted elbowed him. “She means the kid, Casanova.” And god, it felt like old times. Slipping back into their old habits, tandem flirting until one of them - usually Booster - got her number, the old Abbott and Costello shtick but hopefully cuter. Except Ted had never been holding a toddler before.
“What adoption agency did you two use, if you don’t mind my asking?” the woman said. “My sister and her partner are starting to research the process, but there’s so many to choose from.”
Ted frowned, baffled at the non sequitur, but Booster just smiled and reached over to ruffle Rip’s hair. “Oh, no, this little guy’s all mine. Well, fifty percent mine. My Y chromosome.”
The penny dropped, and Ted’s face flamed. “Oh! Yeah, we’re not - I’m not - we’re just, uh, friends.” Former friends, maybe. Current friends? He wasn’t sure, but Booster didn’t correct him, so he let it lie.
He also wasn’t sure why he was suddenly so mortified. People had assumed that he and Booster were sleeping together for nearly two decades now - hell, the team had teased them about it endlessly, back when there was a team. It had never bothered him before, occasional furtive non-platonic thoughts about Booster notwithstanding.
But again - Ted had never been holding a toddler before. Booster’s toddler.
“Oh,” the woman said, and then smiled the smile all single women with a modicum of interest in men eventually gave Booster. Her gaze flickered down to his ringless fingers and back up to his face. “I’m Sharon.”
Ted cleared his throat. “Hey, Rippy, wanna go see if we can spot a squirrel in that tree over there?”
“Beezo,” Rip agreed, and Ted wandered over to the nearest tree and pointed up into the branches. He didn’t see any squirrels, but Rip seemed entertained enough by Ted trying to remember the Latin names for the plants and animals he could identify. Biology had never been his strongest subject, but it was never too early to give kids a solid grounding in science.
“...And that one there is a, um, Redbirdicus flapwingula,” he said, pointing at a cardinal.
“Quit lying to my kid, Kord,” Booster said, so close to Ted’s ear that Ted jumped.
He half turned, as far as he could go with Booster leaning over his shoulder like that. Booster had pushed his glasses up onto his forehead in the shade of the tree, messing up his hair, and Sharon the jogger was nowhere in sight. “You get her number?” Ted asked.
Booster blinked. “What? Oh - oh, no, no. I’m not really dating these days. No time.” He held his hands out - not quite taking Rip from Ted, but offering. “If you want to hand him off so you can chase her down…”
Ted looked at Booster, then down at Rip. This close, he could see the spray of tiny freckles across the bridge of Booster’s nose. Rip already had one just like it.
“Nah,” he said. “I’m good.”
It was on an ordinary Sunday evening at the beginning of December that the world nearly ended.
Ted had shown up around lunchtime, and trespassed on Booster’s hospitality until after dinner - a messy affair that had involved Rip dribbling peas all down his front and giggling about it. Ted offered to wash the dishes, even though he hated doing dishes, while Booster got Rip cleaned up.
He’d just gotten the last of the non-dishwasher-safe items wiped dry, and Booster had just emerged with Rip in a clean pair of pajamas, when the whole apartment building shook. The power flickered off, then slowly came back on with a low hum, the lights greenish and sickly, and a tension in the air that made Ted’s molars ache. Rip started to fuss - not quite crying, but close.
Ted glanced at Booster. “Something’s happening,” he said.
Booster nodded. “Call Oracle.”
Ted pulled out his phone and dialed, drifting towards Booster’s big picture windows as he did. “Uh...Booster? You might want to take a look at this.”
Booster joined him at the window. Rip was still fussing, pawing at his ears like they hurt him, but even he stopped when he saw the flicker of blue flames from the downtown area of Metropolis, miles away but still bright enough to see.
“I better suit up,” Booster said, putting Rip in the playpen.
Barbara came on the line. “This about the Thing, Beeb? Can’t really talk right now if it isn’t.”
“The Thing being downtown Metropolis engulfed in blue flames?’
“That’s the one.”
“Hang on, I’m with Booster, I’m putting you on speaker. What happened?”
Barbara’s voice was tinny through the phone’s speakers, and frazzled. “No one’s really sure yet. Zatanna says something with Neron, something to do with mystic portals, maybe? I don’t really have my head around it yet, but it’s definitely an all-hands-on-deck situation. I’ve got a dozen heroes on the scene and more on the way. You - you’re not thinking of going down there, are you?”
Ted glanced at Booster, who quirked his eyebrows questioningly at him. He didn’t want to leave his adoptive hometown in danger - or old friends on the frontlines without him - but an end-of-the-world scenario when the Bug had been in mothballs for years and he wasn’t even sure if his suit still fit, let alone whether or not he could move in it, would just put the people he was trying to help at risk. If he’d been the only one around who might be able to help, he would have done it, but as it was…
“No,” he said, and couldn’t tell if the feeling in his chest was guilt or relief. “I’d just be in the way.”
“I can help,” Booster said. “What should I do?”
“Thanks, Booster. We need flyers,” she said. “Head for downtown. J’onn’s coordinating the attack; I’ll let him know you’re on your way and he’ll ping you telepathically when you get in range. Good luck.”
“Let me know if there’s anything I can do on the tech side,” Ted said.
“It’s magic. I don’t think there’s much either of us can do,” she said, sounding frustrated. “But I’ll let you know.”
Ted hung up. Booster started for his bedroom, then stopped short. “Shit!” he said. Ted didn’t have the heart to tease him about swearing in front of the baby. “Rip. There’s no...I’m never gonna get one of my regular babysitters here in time. Even Sue’s probably helping with the relief efforts.”
“I’ll watch him,” Ted offered.
He could see the hesitation on Booster’s face. “No, you’re not - I can’t ask you to - ”
“Booster, it’s fine,” Ted said. “Barbara said all hands on deck. This will give me something to do besides sit around going crazy worrying. Besides, Rip and I are old friends now, right, Rippy?” He turned around to smile at Rip at the end of that last sentence, but Rip just gave them both a worried look - a little old man frown incongruous on his small face. “Seriously, Booster, go. I got this.”
Booster gave him a frown so like Rip’s it made something in Ted’s chest hurt, then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah. Thanks. I’ll just - ” He nodded again, then disappeared into his bedroom.
Ted turned back to the window, where distant explosions were now flickering orange over the unearthly blue glow. He shook his head. “I don’t know what kind of world you found yourself in, Rip,” he said. “The older I get, the less sense it makes to me.”
A minute later Booster emerged in his suit. He looked as trim and dashing in the unforgiving future-fabric as ever, and part of Ted wanted to yell, “Wait!” and call up the Bug, scramble for his old costume and hope it all came back to him somewhere between now and his fist colliding with Neron’s jaw. If...Neron had a jaw. Ted wasn’t sure.
But there was Rip to think about, and Ted had made a promise.
“Still as ready for your closeup as ever, I see,” Ted said, trying on a smile.
But Booster didn’t preen. He just picked Rip up and held him close for a minute, face pressed into Rip’s gossamer-fine hair. Rip patted at him, hands trying to latch on to the gleaming material of his suit and finding no purchase.
“Daddy has to go out now, Rippy,” Booster said, pulling back enough to look Rip in the eye. “I have to go, but I’m going to come back, okay? I promise I’m going to come back.” Rip’s frown crumpled further. “Ted’s gonna stay with you. It’ll be fine! I’ll tell you all about fighting the literal devil when I get back. And, uh, when you’ve aged at least a decade or so.”
He handed Rip off to Ted. “No!” Rip shrieked, lunging for Booster and nearly toppling out of Ted’s arms. Ted quickly juggled him into a more balanced position, but he’d been around Rip enough at this point to know when the waterworks were brewing.
“Go,” he told Booster. “I’ll calm him down. We’ll be fine. Go be a hero.”
Booster hesitated, and Ted didn’t blame him - aside from Rip’s sniffles, the moment felt unfinished, like there was something they’d forgotten to do. Ted wasn’t used to watching Booster walk out the door to fight evil instead of being right beside him. Just saying “Goodbye” didn’t feel right.
Honestly, he kind of wanted to kiss Booster, but he’d kind of wanted to kiss Booster a lot over the years. He’d gotten good at ignoring the feeling.
Finally Booster reached out and squeezed his shoulder lightly. “Bye,” he said. “I’ll...I’ll see you when it’s over.”
Ted swallowed down the memory of Booster going to fight the Overmaster and coming back to him in pieces. “Be careful,” he said.
From the sad flicker of a smile over Booster’s face, Ted knew he remembered that moment too. “Thanks.”
And he was out the door.
Rip erupted. “NO NO NO NO NO!” he shrieked, right in Ted’s ear. “DADA NOOOOOO. DADA DADAAAAAAAA!”
“Hey! Hey, Rippy, it’s okay, Daddy’s coming back,” Ted said, trying to bounce Rip on his hip like he’d seen Booster do when Rip was fussing.
Ted had heard Rip cry before - and knew from Booster that they went through this every time Booster left him with a sitter, even if it was just for an hour - but he’d never anticipated that someone so small could achieve so much volume. “Shhh, come on, buddy. It’s okay. Uncle Ted’s here. Daddy’s coming back. It’s gonna be okay.”
Rip flung himself backwards, nearly taking a header out of Ted’s arms, and Ted gasped and clutched him closer. Immediately Rip started swatting at Ted’s chest - not hard enough to really hurt, but then one flailing hand caught Ted’s jaw and Ted bit the inside of his cheek. “Okay, ouch. No hitting, Rip, I’m sure that’s a rule. You want me to put you down?”
He tried to lower Rip into the playpen, but Rip immediately switched to clinging to Ted like Ted was trying to drop him into the mouth of a volcano, still screaming his head off. Ted sighed and hoisted him back up. “Fine, but no hitting. That’s the deal. You hit me, I put you down.”
Rip stretched a chubby hand towards the door, still wailing. His face was bright red and covered with snot and tears. “I know, I know, but he’ll be back. You gotta calm down, Rip, or at least inhale at some point.”
It turned out that the very reasonable tone Ted used on shareholders didn’t have much effect on a one-year-old. Rip continued to wail no matter what Ted said or did. Ted got very adept at holding onto him with one arm as he found Booster’s aspirin and swallowed two dry, as he purloined a beer from Booster’s fridge and managed to knock the cap off against the countertop, and as he Googled “how to calm down a crying toddler.”
Since Rip wasn’t hungry or wet, though, the internet didn’t have any more helpful tips for him than “walk him around and try to calm him down,” so that was what Ted did. For hours. Eventually Rip’s shrieks subsided into sobs and his sobs subsided into sniffles, but every time Ted tried to put him down or even come to a stop, he’d screw his face up again and crank up the volume.
So they walked. And walked. And walked. Ted had taught himself six martial arts disciplines that had exhausted him less than a night of babysitting. He couldn’t even turn on the TV to follow what was going on downtown; violent news footage would probably set Rip off again, and Ted couldn’t really blame him.
Finally Rip drifted off into something like sleep. Ted was afraid to let him go and risk another meltdown, so instead he drifted gratefully to the couch and tried to breathe through his pounding headache. He’d give Rip a half hour or so to make sure this wasn’t just a catnap, and then he’d put him in his crib. Just a half hour…
Someone was trying to take the baby.
Ted jerked awake to find himself sprawled on his back on Booster’s couch, Rip asleep on his chest and making tiny baby wheezes. Booster was standing over them, his hands on Rip’s ribcage.
“Hey,” he whispered. “I’m just gonna put him to bed.”
Ted blinked the fog out of his eyes. “Oh,” he whispered back. His tongue felt thick and fuzzy in his mouth. “What time is it?”
“Almost four.” Booster waited, then patted Ted’s hand. “Can I?”
“Oh, right, right.” Ted released his hold on the baby and Booster scooped him up. Rip made a snuffling noise and curled closer to Booster’s chest, but otherwise didn’t stir.
As Booster disappeared down the hall, Ted pushed himself to a seated position, and then to his feet. Wincing, he rolled his head around on his neck to work out the kink in it. He was too old to be napping on couches anymore.
Booster emerged from Rip’s bedroom and shut the door silently behind him, pulling his cowl down around his neck with his free hand. There were streaks of soot across the gold fabric, hard to see in the dim light, but he wasn’t moving like anything hurt.
He was okay. Ted felt his locked vertebrae unknot themselves in a great rush of relief.
“What happened?” he asked, keeping his voice low.
Booster scrubbed a hand through his hair. Ted had always loved seeing it in disarray, when Booster was always so put-together in front of the public. Booster like this - tired, sweaty, unkempt - was like being let in on a secret.
“Neron tried to take over this dimension,” he said. “At least, I think that’s what he was doing. A lot of the yelling was in Latin.” He rubbed his eye with his knuckles, a little boy gesture that reminded Ted of Rip. “But yeah, unholy flames everywhere, demons running amok, civilians in peril, you know how it goes. Eventually Doctor Fate and Zatanna and that Traci Thirteen kid did an incantation in some creepy language I’ve never heard before and they all disappeared - the three of them, the demons, Neron. We did a search for wounded civilians and did a few trips to the hospital, and…” He spread his hands to indicate that here he was. “I hope Zee gets back soon, she owes me twenty bucks.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine. Going to Hell is like a normal Wednesday for her,” Ted said.
“Yeah.” Booster glanced away, and Ted wondered if he was remembering their own trip to Hell three years ago. Ted didn’t like to think about it. “Anyway. How was Rip?”
“Not great,” Ted said ruefully. “He pretty much shrieked until he passed out. I have a new appreciation for parents. But you especially.”
He tried a smile, but it didn’t come out right in the dark - not with them standing so close and talking so softly. It was a long time before Booster answered.
“Thanks,” he said. “For that, and for staying with him. He doesn’t...he’s not great with new people. He likes you.”
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Really? Because he always looks at me like he thinks I’m about to hit him up for money.”
Booster laughed softly, more air than noise. “That’s just Rip. Trust me, he...he definitely likes you.”
“Well.” It was stupid to be so pleased by a one-year-old’s secondhand endorsement, and yet. “He’s the first kid I’ve actually wanted to spend time with since I hit puberty, so…” He wasn’t sure how to end that sentence, but it didn’t matter, because he suddenly cut himself off on a huge yawn.
“Oh grife, I’m sorry,” Booster said, and he must have been tired too if he was using future swears. “You must be exhausted, I should let you get home.”
“Yeah, yeah, I should go,” Ted said. He scratched his jaw, where five o’clock had long since come and gone, and yawned again. “It would be silly to take a cab ten blocks, right? Even if I could get one at this hour.”
“Hey, what’s the point of being a big time CEO if you don’t treat yourself to an unnecessary cab once in a while?” Booster asked. “Or...uh.”
“You could stay here.”
Ted glanced at the couch and sighed. “Thanks, but that thing already did a number on my back. I probably shouldn’t give it a chance to finish the job. I’ll make it home somehow, don’t worry.” He turned towards the door.
“Bed’s big enough for two.”
Ted stopped and turned to face Booster, who looked as startled by what he’d said as Ted felt. “Um.”
Booster slid his palms down the front of his thighs like he was trying to shove his hands in his pockets and had forgotten he was wearing tights. “If you’re totally beat, I mean. It’s right there. And I splurged on the king, so, you know. There’s room.” He bit his lip. “Come on, I made you hold my crying kid until four in the morning. It’s the least I can do.”
Ted felt the back of his neck grow warm. It was a weird offer, probably only made out of guilt. He wasn’t even sure they were friends again, not really. Not like they had been. He should say no.
“Okay,” he said instead. “Thanks.”
In the bedroom Booster handed Ted a faded Metropolis Meteors shirt and disappeared into the bathroom to wash the soot and sweat off his face. Ted shucked his clothes and pulled on the shirt as fast as he could. Booster had seen him in boxers and bathing suits and half a Bialyan prison uniform before, but that was three years ago, when he still did situps every day and didn’t have a five-inch scar down his sternum from the doctors opening up his ribcage. Not that it mattered. Still.
But that just left him standing uncertainly in Booster’s darkened bedroom in boxers and a borrowed shirt, clutching his clothes to his chest. He felt like an idiot, but he couldn’t just make himself at home in Booster’s bed when Booster wasn’t even in the room. Maybe a decade ago, but not now.
Booster slipped back into the bedroom with his face bright and scrubbed, stripped down to a pair of tiny black briefs that made Ted’s chest ache with familiarity even as he flushed and glanced away. How many headquarters and bases had he seen Booster sporting briefs like that in? Sprawled on the couch or leaning against the counter waiting for the coffee to brew, winking when Guy or Nate or Bea hollered at him to put on some damn pants already…
“You okay with the left side?” Booster asked. His voice was still soft, in deference to sleeping Rip or the tension of the moment Ted wasn’t sure. He had a sudden urge to shout, to pop the bubble and break the spell. The quiet weighed on him like three years of loneliness had.
But the baby was sleeping.
“Yeah,” he said, and they got into bed.
Ted rolled onto his side, curled up away from Booster. Booster was right that it was a big bed - there was a good two feet of space between them, and the mattress was the chichi kind that didn’t dip on one side when someone lay down on the other. If he could shut out the sound of Booster’s breathing, he could almost imagine he was alone.
Years ago he would have wondered if this meant that it was finally here: the moment where it turned out that all the jokes had truth underneath them, the moment Ted stopped being too chickenshit to find out if there was a chance the prettiest person he’d ever met felt like slumming it with him. Early on he’d thought about it a lot, after everything with Melody had crashed and burned and all Ted really wanted was to fuck away the memory of her, of his failed company, of letting Dan’s memory down. He hadn’t fucked it away, not quite, but the way he’d thrown himself into the League and all its grandstanding heroics and secret pettiness, the way he’d lost himself a bit in get-rich-quick schemes and practical jokes and Booster, always Booster - well, it came pretty close.
Later on, when Booster had meant more, he’d let himself think about it less. It was like the harder it was to imagine a life without Booster, the scarier it was to contemplate a different kind of life with him, too.
He couldn’t pretend there was nothing physical about this; that his body hadn't taken note of Booster in those little briefs; that Booster wasn’t as beautiful as ever. But it was more than that, now, with the years behind them and Booster home safe from the fight and Rip asleep in the next room. It was infinitely more intimate, and infinitely more frightening.
Booster let out a long exhale that Ted could swear he felt on his skin. “Night, Ted,” he said.
Ted licked his lips and stared into the darkness. “...Night.”
Ted woke to find himself on his back in the middle of the bed and unable to move one of his arms. It took him a minute to figure out that that was because Booster was lying on it, his face mashed into Ted’s chest. It was not unlike the way Rip had fallen asleep the night before, except that Booster could only fit his head and one broad shoulder on Ted’s torso, and not his entire body. Maybe it was genetic.
Before Tee could start to feel mortified or start to panic over how he was going to extricate himself, he realized that the sound that had woken him was still going on.
“Dadada. Dada? Dadaaaaa.”
Rip, calling for Booster through the speaker of the baby monitor on the nightstand. It was a patient, sing-song-y kind of babble, nothing like the hysterics of last night. Still, it would wake Booster in a minute.
Ted carefully eased himself out from under Booster and reached to turn the monitor off. He had to bite back a groan as he stood. He was exhausted, bone deep and achy with it. Last night’s fight must've really taken it out of Booster if he’d managed to sleep through Rip’s prattle when Ted couldn’t. Booster had always been the lighter sleeper of the two of them.
Well, Ted could let him sleep.
He slipped out of the master bedroom and slowly opened the door to the nursery, pulling on the clothes he’d discarded last night as he went. This might be a bad idea - seeing Ted first thing in the morning instead of Booster might set Rip off again. Worst case scenario, though, was that Booster woke up sooner rather than later. Ted was willing to risk it.
“Morning, Rippy,” he said, keeping his voice low and gentle.
Rip was standing in his crib holding on to the slats like a tiny jailbird. He frowned when he saw Ted. “Dada.”
“Yeah, Daddy's here, he’s just still sleeping,” Ted told him.
Rip’s frown deepened. “Dada!”
“Shhh, he’s asleep,” Ted said again. “Come on, I’ll show you. Up?”
He approached the crib slowly, hands out. Rip gave him a wary look, but didn’t shriek when Ted picked him up, so Ted was counting it as a win.
He crossed the hall and opened the master bedroom door to point to Booster, who had kicked off the blankets and stolen Ted’s pillow. “See?” he whispered, pointing at - at Booster’s general form, and not the pert rear end saying a friendly hello just above the tangle of sheets.
Rip clapped his hands. Luckily, his motor skills weren’t developed enough for it to have much volume. “Dada!”
“Shhh,” Ted whispered, holding a finger to his lips in an exaggerated gesture. “He’s sleeping.”
“Teep,” Rip whispered back, and put his fist to his mouth.
“Close enough. Come on, let’s let him rest.” Ted closed the door. “You think your daddy has any coffee in this place, or is it all herbal tea and protein shakes? Oh wait, do you need a fresh diaper? You’ve been wearing this one for ages.” He hooked a finger in the waistband of Rip’s diaper and pulled it away from his belly, then sniffed. The distinct scent of urine hit his nose. “Yep, diaper time.”
Rip was remarkably patient as Ted stumbled his way through the diapering process, babbling contentedly to himself as Ted used about twenty wipes and a veritable blizzard of baby powder, adjusting and readjusting the sticky tabs on the clean diaper until he was reasonably sure it wouldn’t immediately fall off. That done, Ted hoisted him up and carted him into the kitchen.
“You probably want a bottle, don’t you?” Ted asked. He’d spotted a couple in there the night before; he’d tried to give one to Rip, but Rip had been too busy shrieking to accept the peace offering.
“Bababa,” Rip agreed.
Ted took a bottle out of the fridge. “Yikes, this is cold. Am I supposed to do that thing where I boil it? Can I nuke this?”
“Beevo,” Rip said unhelpfully.
Ted frowned at the bottle, then at Rip. “I’m just gonna let this sit out for a minute to knock the chill off it. Can you hold out that long?” Rip stuck three fingers in his mouth and blinked up at him. “I’ll take that as a yes. And now: coffee, coffee, coffee.”
“Toff toff toff.”
Ted flipped through Booster’s cabinets, ignoring canisters of protein powder and wheat germ in search of - “A French press, of course. You’re so bougie, Gold.”
He managed to find the grounds, add them to the press, and put the kettle on to boil with one hand. Halfway through, Rip got bored and started patting his face. “Pa pa pa pa pa.”
“Pa pa? What does that mean?” Ted asked, picking up the bottle to see if it was any less frigid. It wasn’t, really, but Rip reached for it, so Ted handed it over. “There you go, drink up.”
“Pa pa pa.” Rip jammed the bottle into his mouth.
“Papa? And yet you’ve never even attempted to say ‘Uncle Ted,’” Ted said in mock-indignation. “Should I try to get you to call me ‘Papa Ted?’ Would that be easier?”
Ted turned to see Booster standing behind him, wearing sweatpants and looking...Ted wasn’t sure what to call his expression. Not a happy one, definitely. “Morning,” Ted said. “Sorry if he’s not supposed to have a bottle this early, I wasn’t sure and I wanted to let you sleep in…” He held Rip out to Booster.
“It’s fine.” Booster took Rip and gave him a little squeeze. “Sorry I had to leave last night, bud. But I came back, right?” Rip sucked contentedly on his bottle, apparently satisfied that his world was in order again now that Booster was back. “Okay. Can you hang out in the playpen for a little bit?”
He walked out of the kitchen and deposited Rip in the playpen, then stood there facing away from Ted for a long moment. Finally, he took a deep breath.
“I don’t think you should come around here anymore,” he said without turning around.
Ted blinked. “What?”
Booster turned, then, but he didn’t meet Ted’s eyes. “The visits. The…” He waved a hand, indicating...something, Ted didn’t know what. “I appreciate you being here last night, but I think this should be the end of it. Make a clean break of things, you know?”
Ted frowned, baffled. He’d thought they were getting along better - that Booster was forgiving him, that they were building something new. “A clean break of what? Our friendship?”
“We’re not friends, Ted!” Booster snapped, loud enough that Rip startled and looked up at him. “We’re not...this isn’t…” He made a frustrated noise. “We can’t go back to the way things were, Ted. That’ll never happen again. I’m not that person anymore.”
“I know!” Ted said. “Honestly, Booster, it’s amazing. I can’t believe how much more mature you are now that - ”
“Are you shitting me?” Booster snapped, heedless of Rip sitting wide-eyed behind him. “How did this turn into a referendum on how maybe I’m finally good enough for you?”
“What? Booster, no, that’s not what I - ”
“I didn’t have a child to prove anything to you. This isn’t about acting like a grownup. It’s about being one.”
“I didn’t mean - ”
“That’s why you gotta go, Ted.” Something twitched in Booster’s jaw. “You gotta - I can’t do this. I can’t do this to Rip. You gotta go.”
“And that’s it?” Ted said, moving past bafflement into indignation. “No explanation? I spend weeks trying to be your friend again and you just, what, decide you’re tired of me and that’s that?”
“I don’t want to be your friend!” Booster spat.
“Why the hell not?”
“Because I don’t have time for you to break my heart again!” Booster shouted. “It was one thing when I was nineteen, or even twenty-nine, but I have a kid now and I need to think about what he needs instead of pining after you like an idiot!”
Ted stared at him. That was...but...Booster couldn’t mean… “I broke your heart?” he said. It came out a whisper. “When?”
“So many times,” Booster said, quiet. The fight seemed to have gone out of him suddenly; he just seemed tired now, tired and older. “Every damn day, towards the end, when I was still so in love with you and you wanted nothing to do with me.”
“I didn’t - ” How could Ted say that wasn’t true, after the way he’d treated Booster when they were on the Super Buddies? When Booster was - was in love with him.
Was Booster still in love with him?
“I didn’t know,” Ted said instead. “Booster, I didn’t know.”
“Yeah, well, you were the only one.” Booster looked away. “I don’t want to fight about it. I can’t - I don’t have the energy to fight about it. But I didn’t see you for years and then Max put the team together and then I didn’t see you for years again after that...I can’t take that again, Ted. And Rip - he likes you, and he’s learning to trust you, and I’m not gonna let him get used to someone who might walk out the door because, because you get distracted with work, or we have a stupid fight, or Barbara Gordon comes calling…”
“We never - that was never anything serious,” Ted said. “Barbara and I, we weren’t...we weren’t like…” He trailed off, unsure where he was going with that. Like what?
“It’s not really about Barbara,” Booster said. Ted had rarely seen him look so sad. “It’s never been about her.”
“I know,” Ted said, because he did, didn’t he? It wasn’t about Barbara. It was about him.
Booster pressed his lips together for a minute, like he was holding something back. Like there was anything left to hold back. “If it was just me…” he started, and then sighed. “I have to think about Rip, Ted. I have to give him something permanent.”
There had been a time that nothing seemed more permanent about Ted’s life than Booster. But that was a long time ago. “Yeah,” he said. “I understand.”
Booster swallowed. “I really do appreciate last night. I just…” He let out a breath. “Take care of yourself, Ted.”
Ted nodded. He felt like he was watching this all from somewhere far outside his body; nothing about it felt quite real. Nothing about it made sense. Booster loved him. Had loved him?
“I’ll see you around,” he said, even though it wasn’t true. He leaned past Booster to wave to Rip. “Bye, Rippy. Be good.”
Rip had dropped his bottle and was watching the proceedings with a worried expression. He waved back, his little brow creased and confused.
Ted looked back at Booster, and then away again. “Bye, Booster,” he said.
And Ted walked out the door.
He didn’t go home.
He walked for a long time, not really caring about direction or destination. Just putting one foot in front of the other.
Eventually he hit the promenade that curved around the bay. The wind coming up off the water was sharp and Ted’s coat was still hanging in Booster’s front hall closet, but he just shoved his hands in his pockets, hunched into the collar of his sweater, and stared out at the water. The reflection of the icicle lights draped along the railing for the holidays danced along the choppy surface, cold instead of festive.
Booster loved him.
Booster never wanted to see him again.
Ted didn’t know which one was leaving him more at sea.
He thought back over all of their years of friendship, trying to identify the moments that revealed Booster’s alleged secret yearning. He couldn’t think of any. Oh, sure, Booster had sulked whenever Ted ditched him for a date, and had never really liked any woman Ted had been even semi-romantically linked to, but that was just Booster. He was possessive and clingy and wilted like an unwatered plant without sufficient attention.
...Of course, he’d never cared about anyone else’s love life. Just Ted’s.
But that was because they were best friends! Of course Booster wanted to spend time with Ted. Of course he was invested in Ted’s life. Of course there had been stretches of time, years that flashed by in an instant, where they’d lived out of each other’s pockets, scrabbling for money and respect, balancing on a knife’s edge, too stupid to know how stupid they were but too happy to care. There had been setbacks and tragedies, more tragedies than Ted wanted to think about, but when he remembered those years he mostly remembered laughing. Laughing, and the way Booster shone when he made Ted laugh, and...and…
Ted felt a spark of startled joy that was almost immediately drowned out by anger. Why had Booster never said anything? They’d known each other for nearly twenty years - surely the best time to confess his feelings wasn’t when he was kicking Ted out the door for good. Why wait until now?
The rational voice in the back of his mind, the one that sounded like Barbara or J’onn by turns, spoke up. Maybe Booster had been afraid Ted didn’t feel the same way.
Did Ted feel the same way?
He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and kicked at the railing separating him from the gray water below. He was attracted to Booster, he knew that much. That was nothing new, and hadn’t abated - Booster had been a beautiful boy, but he’d grown into his handsomeness the way Ted always knew he would. While Ted was going potbellied and sprouting ear hair, Booster wore his additional years with dignity, like a really good suit. Ted wasn’t immune.
And yeah, obviously he loved Booster as a friend, or - or he had, and was coming to again, or had never really stopped, maybe. But caring about someone and being attracted to them wasn’t the same as being in love.
Ted had been in love before - with Tracey, right after college, and with Melody, before he’d joined the Justice League. He’d even proposed to Melody, over and over again despite her refusals - which maybe said something about how serious Ted was, that he kept proposing to a woman he knew would say no.
He could barely remember how it felt, now. He’d loved other people, and then there had been the League, and Booster, and Ted hadn’t had room for anything else in his life.
But that was a long time ago. Booster had been a kid, really, and Ted hadn’t been much older. Ted remembered feeling like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders, but truthfully, once his father had taken the company away from him, he’d had nothing better to do than dick around playing superhero with Booster. Now there was no one to step in if Ted screwed up, and Booster -
Loving Booster now wouldn’t be like it could have been years ago. Loving Booster now would mean loving Rip, too. Taking him to the park and the pediatrician and his first day at school. Changing diapers and wiping snotty noses. Getting up in the middle of the night when he cried so that Booster could sleep. Watching Booster raise him, teach him, put him to bed.
Suddenly Ted wanted it all so much he could hardly breathe.
He wanted to crawl into bed with Booster at the end of the day. He wanted to hear Rip’s first real sentence and teach him science. He’d thought, maybe, that he’d hung around Booster so much these past few weeks because he wanted to get their old life together back. He didn’t. He wanted to build a new one.
For a split second Ted felt the heady rush of triumph that came with a breakthrough in the lab, or the moment when a supervillain he was fighting hit the dirt. An instant later it was gone again.
It didn’t matter what Ted wanted. Booster had made his decision.
Ted turned his collar up and headed for home.
The next few days passed in less of a blur than a monotonous trudge, each one blending into the next. Ted got up. He went to work. He went home. He went to bed. Nothing made any day significantly different from the ones before, or the ones after.
How long had he been doing that, since he’d hung up his cowl for good and before he’d seen Booster again? Running through his routine, telling himself he was happy. Playing the role of a good, serious grownup, when all he was really doing was taking the path of least resistance.
Just putting one foot in front of the other.
Almost a week after Booster had told him to leave, he found himself heading down to the lab late, after pretty much everyone had gone home. R&D had reported that their latest prototype wasn’t testing as expected, and they couldn’t figure out why. The company was losing money every day that they couldn’t move ahead with this, so Ted had to take a personal look and see if he could figure it out. He didn’t actually feel any urgency over it - or over anything - but he might as well stop by the lab tonight rather than tomorrow morning. It wasn’t like there was anything for him at home.
When he got downstairs, he was surprised to find someone else there.
“Burning the midnight oil?” Ted asked.
The other man jumped, clearly startled, then laughed as he glanced at the clock. “I guess so. Sorry, Dr. Kord. I didn’t realize how late it had gotten.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Ted said, racking his brain to try and remember this guy’s name. He was younger than Ted, probably around twenty-five, with hair that couldn’t seem to make up its mind whether it was blond or brown, and the carefully-maintained stubble that was so popular these days and that would leave Ted looking like he’d been lost in the forest for a week. “What are you working on...uh. Sorry, one too many lab accidents.” He tapped his knuckles against his forehead. One too many concussions, more like. “Remind me, your name is…?”
“That’s okay, Dr. Kord, there’s so many of us here I can barely keep my own team straight. It’s Hunter,” the other man said. He didn’t specify whether that was a first or last name, apparently assuming the one word would ring a sufficiently loud bell for Ted, and Ted felt too guilty about forgetting it in the first place to ask him to clarify. “It’s sort of a personal project, actually. I hope that’s okay.”
“Sure, that’s fine.” Kord, Inc. had a very progressive policy on permitting R&D to work on their own projects in the lab, provided they met all company metrics - and with Kord, Inc. retaining partial ownership of any patents filed based on that work. Ted knew full well how inspiration could hit on one idea when you were supposed to be working on another, and he wasn’t about to miss out on any potential profit or goodwill that generated. Besides, the facilities at the office were better than any employee’s home setup could hope to be. “Any joy?”
“Mm, we’ll see. I’m running a test right now, actually. I’m optimistic, though.”
Ted really should’ve wished him luck and gone to look at the prototype, but Hunter was at least a mild distraction from the new monotony of his days. “What are you working with?”
“Tachyons,” Hunter said promptly. “Well, attempting to. So far it’s a bust.”
Ted’s eyebrows went up. “Tachyons? Really?”
Hunter shrugged a little sheepishly. “Yeah, I mean...that was actually why I wanted to come work for you. I mean, for Kord, Inc. When I was in school I read the paper you wrote on how they could be harnessed for real, physical time travel within our lifetimes, and it just…” He shook his head, a wondering half-smile on his face. There was something vaguely familiar about the expression. “I was terrified that you’d figure it out before I was old enough to...I mean, before I could get hired here. You know.”
It was both adorable and made Ted feel like he had one foot in the grave. He wasn’t that old.
Admittedly, though, he’d written that paper about ten years ago. It turned out being best friends with someone who wouldn’t be born for another five hundred years made him think a lot about time travel. Everything he’d written had been entirely theoretical, though. He’d made a few desultory attempts at replicating - or creating, or whatever - the process that had brought Booster to him, but none of them had ever gone anywhere.
Maybe he should have taken it more seriously. Maybe he should have taken Booster more seriously.
“You didn’t have to be worried,” he said. “That paper was all theory. I was nowhere close to building anything practical.”
“Well, yeah, so you said in the paper,” Hunter said. “But that’s what you said about your application of solar power a few years before that, and suddenly Kord Inc. was leading American technology in the field and changing the global conversation about clean energy. The same with nuclear power - you talked about theoretically making it safer in one interview, and two years later every power plant in the country has enacted the Kord Protocols.”
Ted scratched the back of his neck. “Ah, yeah...well, sometimes it’s hard to predict where a spark will catch, you know?” The truth was, he’d made his breakthroughs on solar power when he was building the Bug, and he’d learned more than he ever wanted to know about nuclear fallout being on a team with Captain Atom, but he couldn’t tell this kid either of those things.
“Yeah, you’ve said that too. A lot, actually,” Hunter said. Ted couldn’t remember having written that in a paper, but he probably had - Hunter was clearly a bit of a fanboy and would remember. He was used to the occasional fanboying at this point, but he must have had an indulgent expression on his face, because Hunter suddenly looked a bit embarrassed. “Sorry, I just...you’re kind of my hero, you know? Well, one of them.”
Ted laughed. “I’m not much of a hero.”
“Sure you are,” Hunter protested. “You’re a genius, and you use that genius to build things to make the world a better place, and you never give up.”
Ted could feel his smile turning wry. “I give up plenty, trust me.”
“No offense, Dr. Kord, but I don’t believe you,” Hunter said. “I mean, here you are right now, after hours, when everyone else has gone home, working in the lab because it needs to get done.”
Ted shrugged a shoulder. “Well, I mean…”
“A lot of people would call it a day,” Hunter said. “You know how it is - by three p.m. they’re already thinking about dinner, going home to their families, holiday shopping online, totally checked out. But not you. You’re here.” He smiled guilelessly, revealing two perfect dimples. “You never give up on what’s really important.”
Ted felt sick.
For a split second he wanted to rage at Hunter, to grab him by the shoulders and shake him and yell, “Don’t you get it? I’m not here because it’s important. I’m here because I have nowhere better to be!”
Rush home to dinner? To his family? His dinner was a microwavable meal from that damn health food store, and his family was a father he no longer spoke to and a handful of distant cousins. And he’d given up on everything: on his business, time and time again; on being a superhero; on making Dan proud. He’d even let Booster talk him into walking away without giving himself five minutes to think about what Booster had said, and now where was he? In a cold basement after hours because there was no one waiting for him to come home, listening to some idiot kid who thought that was somehow laudable.
He’d given up on the most important thing, and without even really trying.
“Dr. Kord?” Hunter asked, smile fading. Ted wasn’t sure what his expression looked like, but he wasn’t angry at Hunter anymore. No, he was angry at himself. It wasn’t Hunter’s fault that Ted hadn’t tried to talk Booster around. That was Ted’s own cowardice. Yes, Booster had said he didn’t want to see Ted anymore, but he was saying that to a Ted who he thought just wanted to be friends. Maybe he wouldn’t feel any differently if Ted said he wanted to be more, but Ted used to leap out of an airship to fight criminals. He shouldn’t be too scared to give Booster the chance to say no to him with no secrets between them.
“I have to go,” he said abruptly.
“Oh.” Hunter looked taken aback. “I’m sorry, did I say something out of line?”
Ted shook his head, already backing away. “No. No, you’re fine, you didn’t...it’s not...I just have to go. I have to talk to someone. Good luck with your experiment!”
He caught a glimpse of that naggingly familiar dimpled smile again before he turned. “Thanks, but I don’t think I’ll need it,” Hunter said, but Ted was already out the door.
He hadn’t figured out what he was going to say by the time he reached Booster’s, but that was okay. Ted was used to winging it.
The doorman was busy hanging a wreath over his station, but he let Ted through with a wave, familiar after all of Ted’s visits to Booster’s building over the past couple of months. He rang the doorbell and stood there fidgeting in the hall as he heard Booster’s footsteps draw closer and then stop as he checked the peephole. A minute stretched on, then two, and finally he thought he heard Booster sigh, and the door opened.
“Please don’t do this,” Booster said. He looked so tired. Tired and sad, and god, Ted wanted to go back to being the person who made him smile.
“Whatever it is you’ve come here to do.”
“I just...I need to say something to you,” Ted said. “Can I just...please? Just that one thing, and then if you still want me to leave, I will. And I won’t come back.”
Booster studied him for a minute, then sighed again. “Fine.”
“Can I come in?”
Booster stepped back and let Ted in. Rip was in the playpen; he beamed at Ted when he saw him, and stretched his arms up to be held. “Up up pa pa pa!”
“Hi, Rippy,” Ted said, but he didn’t pick him up. He turned to face Booster, who looked wary, like this was a hostage situation that could go south at any moment.
And he bunted.
“When you asked me to leave...why then?” he asked. “Why that morning? What did I do?”
Booster gave him the kind of look he used to when Ted would suggest an outrageous prank or a get-rich-quick scheme, like he couldn’t believe he was putting up with Ted’s nonsense. That was probably fair. “It wasn’t...you didn’t do anything. Anything wrong, I mean,” he said. “You did me a favor, taking care of Rip, and I appreciated that. I do appreciate that. But I just...I saw how attached Rip was getting, and I didn’t want him to get hurt.”
“How attached Rip was getting?” Ted asked quietly.
Booster threw his hands up. “Fine!” he snapped. “Fine, okay, yes, I was getting attached too! Is that what you wanted to hear? I was getting used to you being around again, and that’s not good for either of us. Rip or me.”
Ted shook his head. “You say that like I was constantly walking out on you. You quit the League and started the Conglomerate, Booster. You quit the Super Buddies. I know we drifted apart before Max put the team back together, but before that...before that we were together for a really long time.”
“Ted…” Booster gave him another one of those sad looks. “We can’t go back to that. Believe me. I know better than anyone. You can’t relive the past.”
“I know. I don’t want to,” Ted said. He took a deep breath. “I want to be something else. I want to be more.”
Booster stared at him, his blue eyes perfectly round. Then he swallowed and shook his head. “No. Ted, no. Don’t do this.”
“Booster - ”
“This isn’t a game, Ted! This isn’t one of those things where one of us has a bad idea and bugs the other one until he agrees to do it too. You think I didn’t make my peace with you not feeling the same way years ago?”
“Why?” Ted snapped. He was angry now too, or maybe just nervous enough that it was easier to hide in the anger. “Why did you make your peace with it? Why didn’t you ever say anything? Why am I apparently the only person on the planet you’ve ever been attracted to who you didn’t make a move on? You know I never know when a girl’s hitting on me. Maybe if you’d said something I would’ve figured out I was in love with you fifteen years ago!”
Booster jerked like he’d been hit. “Ted, stop.”
Ted shook his head. He felt breathless, like leaping out of the Bug mid-flight. He was flooded with adrenaline. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it after you told me, and then I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been, because I was. All that time, I was. I am. I do.” His laugh was tiny and strange in the suddenly vast and echoing space that was Booster’s living room. “I love you.”
He didn’t know how to name the expression on Booster’s face. His eyes were so blue. Rip was silent, staring back and forth between them like it was a tennis match.
“What if it’s too late?” Booster asked, but his defiant tone was wearing thin.
“Then I’ll leave,” Ted said. “Is it?”
Booster didn’t say anything.
“I know I hurt you,” Ted said. “I acted like an ass, and then I wasted three years because I was too stubborn to admit it. And before that...we’ve been friends a long time, Booster. We’ve hurt each other plenty. But I always wanted to make up, because nothing ever made me happier than being with you. Whatever we were, whatever we could be, I just wanted to be around you.”
Booster ducked his head. Ted kept talking. He was afraid to stop.
“I’m not saying we can be like that again,” he said. “I know you have to think about Rip. I don’t...this isn’t a compromise for me. It’s not a sacrifice. I want to be in Rip’s life. If you want me there, I’m there.” He took a tentative step forward. “You said you needed to give him something permanent. I want to be permanent. For both of you.”
He stumbled into silence, finally. Rip was still watching them, eyes wide and expectant. Booster still wouldn’t meet his eyes. And he wasn’t saying anything.
“...All right,” Ted said after a long moment, his heart heavy in his chest. “I told you I’d leave after I said what I came to say, so...I’ll leave now. Thanks for hearing me out.”
He turned to go.
Ted turned back around. Booster looked like he was trying not to either smile or cry. Maybe both.
“That’s it?” he said. “You’re not even gonna kiss me? Just talk it to death and bail? This is a lousy seduction, Ted.”
Ted’s heart lurched back to life. “Excuse me for keeping it PG in front of the kid,” he said. “Besides, I came all the way over here to make a heartfelt speech. It’s your turn to make a move. You should kiss me.” He took a step towards Booster.
Booster stopped fighting his smile. “I confessed first. That was the first move. This is still part and parcel of your move.” He took a step forward, too. They were close enough to touch, now.
“Yeah, well, you...you still owe me money for those groceries,” Ted said. “So...you owe me a move. Basically.”
“You still owe me money for the two weeks you lived in my apartment when the League kicked you out, so you owe me like twenty moves.”
“Yeah, well you still owe me - ”
Booster’s fingers brushed Ted’s cheekbone. “Hey, Ted?”
Ted wasn’t sure who actually won the standoff, because it felt pretty much like they leaned in at the same time. It was odd, kissing someone taller than him, but as Booster’s thumb stroked along his jawline he thought that he could get used to it pretty quickly. Immersion therapy, that was the trick.
“Dada up up up!”
Booster laughing against Ted’s mouth was also something Ted thought he could get used to pretty quickly. “Sounds like someone’s feeling neglected.”
Ted wasn’t sure he would ever stop smiling. “Go ahead.”
Booster kissed him again, then scooped Rip up and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “Is that it? Everyone else was getting affection and you wanted some?”
“Doogah,” Rip agreed, and tried to stick a finger up Booster’s nose.
“He makes a good point,” Ted said.
“Of course he does,” Booster said. “My boy’s a genius.” Rip dimpled at them, and Ted felt a flicker of recognition -
“Hey,” Booster said, and his voice and smile were soft. “You feel like staying for dinner?”
Ted grinned. He knew they still had a lot to talk about, and he’d known Booster for too long not to expect that talking to include a lot of fighting.
But Booster was letting him stay. They’d figure the rest out later.
“Sure,” he said. “I could eat.”
“Gabba beefo dooga da...poofah. Dada? Dada up? Dada ba?”
“Maybe it’s not gibberish,” Ted said as they lay in bed and listened to Rip prattle happily away to himself on the baby monitor. “Maybe it’s an alien language. Have you been letting him hang out with Guy?”
Booster snorted, the sound half muffled by the fact that his face was still pressed into Ted’s shoulder. “I wouldn’t trust Gardner with a houseplant, let alone my kid.” He scrunched up his face, eyes still closed. “Is it even dawn yet?”
Ted glanced at the window. “Well, it’s not not dawn. Technically speaking.”
“Ugh.” Booster started to sit up, but Ted squirmed out from beneath him and pressed him gently back down.
“No, you sleep. I got this one.”
Booster sank back down. He still hadn’t opened his eyes. “I’m not looking forward to the novelty of changing diapers wearing off on you, but I’m going to enjoy this while it lasts.”
He smiled when Ted kissed his forehead, then stole Ted’s pillow. Ted patted his flank through the blankets, then levered himself up and out of bed towards Rip’s room, where the apartment’s unquestioned dictator’s demands were getting a little more querulous.
“Morning, Rippy. Merry Christmas.”
“Papa,” Rip crowed, and bounced his diapered butt up and down. “Papapapapapa.”
Ted chuckled. “Still not really sure where you picked that up, but I’ll take it.”
He got Rip into a clean diaper and festive elf onesie - the kid had more clothes than Ted did, and an outfit for every occasion - with a minimum of fuss, Rip babbling happily all the while. It had only been three weeks since he and Booster had started...this, but he’d gotten in plenty of practice in that time, even with Booster taking the lion’s share of the work. Babies, it turned out, went through a lot of diapers.
He’d also spent a lot of time at Booster’s in general. He hadn’t planned it that way. They’d talked long after Rip had gone to sleep that night, agreeing that they needed to take things slow and make sure this was what they both wanted. Booster had never really been in a serious relationship - his actual marriage notwithstanding - and Ted hadn’t so much as kissed another man since college, and they’d been apart for years. Plus, of course, there was the baby to consider.
Ted had slept over for the next five nights in a row. So much for taking it slow.
In the kitchen, he put on the kettle to boil water for the French press and Booster’s tea, and managed to fill a sippy cup with juice with Rip still balanced on his hip. “Hey, Ripparoo, if I give you Cheerios, are you gonna eat them or just throw them on the floor?”
Rip gave him a guileless smile. “Teerio.”
“Yeah, Cheerios, good job.” He peeked into the fridge. “You think your daddy would kill me if I just gave you a bottle of eggnog? ’Tis the season and all that jazz.”
“I am pretty sure there is no eggnog in that refrigerator, but if you want to try introducing it to his delicate digestive tract, you’re definitely changing those diapers,” Booster said from the doorway.
“You’re right,” Ted said. “Skip the eggnog, we’ll just give him the rum straight.”
“Now you’re talking.”
They buckled Rip into his high chair in the living room, scattered a handful of Cheerios on the plastic tray, and let him practice his fine motor skills while they sipped their respective morning beverages on the couch.
“Here, wait, watch this,” Booster said, leaning over and switching on the lights of the tiny Christmas tree he’d placed on a tall end table, where little hands couldn’t reach it.
The lights were set to a blinking pattern, shifting red and green and white by turns. A Cheerio fell out of Rip’s open mouth as he stared in wonder. Ted cracked up.
“He loves it,” Booster said. “It totally hypnotizes him. I wish I’d known about this the time he had colic for like a month straight.”
“Do you think he knows you’re spoiling him rotten?” Ted asked, nodding towards the presents piled up next to the tree. Rip would’ve been a newborn the previous Christmas, and Ted wasn’t sure if he’d gotten a lot of presents for his recent birthday or connected the idea of wrapped gifts with new toys.
“Well, he was kind of my present last year, so I figure he’s earned it,” Booster said, his expression soft. “Besides, there’s one for you in there. Even though you’re kinda Jewish.”
“That’s culturally Jewish agnostic to you, Mr. Atheist,” Ted retorted. He’d snuck a present for each of the Carters under the tree, too, but didn’t bother to mention it. His horrible wrapping job stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no way Booster hadn’t noticed. “You think you’ll get something good this year?”
Ted raised his eyebrows expectantly. Booster laughed. “No, it’s too cheesy, I’m not saying it,” he said, but he did wrap his arm around Ted’s neck and haul him close enough to kiss his temple. “I will admit that the past two Christmases have been good to me. Atheism and all.”
“God bless us, every one.” Ted sipped his coffee. Rip went back to shoving Cheerios in his mouth one by one. “So what are we doing today?”
Ted had had no plans to cancel in order to spend Christmas with Booster and Rip. Booster was a bit more in the loop with the superhero community than Ted was these days, but mostly for the purposes of punching giant robots rather than socializing. Still, there might be a party somewhere, and neither of them had ever been inclined to miss a holiday party before.
Booster was quiet for a minute, tea cradled in his lap, twisting one of the short curls at the nape of Ted’s neck around his finger and watching Rip go to town on his Cheerios.
“This works for me,” he said finally.
Rip looked up and met Ted’s eyes, then threw a Cheerio on the floor and laughed gaily at his own cleverness. Ted let out an amused huff and leaned back against Booster’s arm.
“Yeah,” he said. “Me too.”