Ted squeezed his eyes shut, reaching out to steady himself against the edge of the console. He widened his stance, but the world still wheeled around him. He could still hear Booster screaming his name.
Oh, God, Booster. How can I die on him? Again. He sucked in a deep, wet breath and pushed off his broken goggles, letting them fall to the floor. When he opened his eyes, he said as clearly as he could, "I'm going to die."
That wasn't right. He'd thought he was going to die a lot of times, and he'd come pretty damn close a couple of them. Pushing past all limits and then taking the consequences came with the tights. This didn't feel like trying to crawl out from under a burning building or going toe to toe with Doomsday. This was... this was going to the doctor and finding out he'd already had multiple heart attacks and could be dead any second without knowing why.
"I have to die," he said this time, and he knew it was true. He'd seen it was true. Damned if he knew why though. It wasn't that he had low self esteem – he knew he'd made a difference over the years – but what was it about the death of Blue Beetle the Second that saved the world? More importantly, how could he be sure he'd do it again? What if he went back there and gave his life, and Max won anyway? What if he screwed up his own death? Talk about living down to expectations.
He should have asked what happened the first time, but how could he? The grief in Booster's eyes – the desperation at the end – no, Ted couldn't have asked Booster; Black Beetle clearly lied, and no one else had known anyway.
What he needed was time to think, to figure this out, but he didn't have that either. Booster had been vanishing in front of his eyes as time folded in on itself. Even in this rainbow world without time, he had to move fast.
Ted took another slow, deliberate breath, this one steadier than the last, and blinked until the controls came into focus. In a few moments he'd materialise inside Max's castle. After that he'd just have do the best he could and pray to God it worked out.
Outside the shell, splinters of history glimmered through the rainbow. They no longer took the vivid, defined shapes that he'd seen on his previous trips in the sphere. Instead, they twisted and shifted, flickering in and out. He thought he saw Tora lying dead in the snow, but then life flushed into her cheeks again even as her costume morphed around her, and she vanished altogether. There was Superman, looking old and worn with grey hair and sad lines around his eyes, only younger now, then care-worn again, now angry, eyes flashing red, and gone, all in the space of a second.
Then they started to solidify into the outlines of stone walls. "Here we go," he muttered, bracing against the panel and wishing he still had his BB gun. As soon as he materialised, he'd make a run for it, try to go down fighting at least. That must have been what he did last time.
He hoped that some day Booster would forgive him. At least that Jaime kid seemed okay. Dan's legacy would go on.
The machine jerked sharply, decelerating, then rocked. Just as Ted thought it was about to settle into place, the whole world spun away again. The time sphere pitched on its side, throwing Ted into the door. His cheek struck the glass, and he had a moment's pause to see the castle walls abruptly vanish, then he was trying to scrabble for hand holds on the curved ceiling. His fingers dug into the edge of one of the panels, just as gravity shifted completely and Ted found himself dumped back on the floor. He landed at a bad angle, torquing his knee in, and he hissed in pain as he fell into a crouch and tried to anticipate where the thing would throw him next.
Nothing happened. After waiting for three breaths, Ted pushed himself to his feet, careful to avoid putting too much weight on his left leg, while still favouring the bullet holes in his shoulder. The consoles displayed a field of blinking red lights and error messages that he couldn't make out. "Well that's typical." He'd have to fix the damn sphere and then try to get out of here. Wherever the hell here was. "This has not been my day," he muttered and staggered to the window. The castle was gone. The violent, multi-coloured maelstrom from before had settled into gentle pastel waves lapping at edges his time sphere.
Then someone banged on the door. He whirled back to the face the other side of the sphere and blinked when he saw a haggard face pressed against the glass. Recognising it, he keyed the lock and shuffled back to make room. "Rip Hunter!" He exclaimed in disbelief. "Where the hell did you come from?"
"Later," was all Hunter said, as he strode to the main control panel, coming close to shouldering Ted out of the way. "I need to sync the time fields before I lose you again. That was too damn close." Beyond the open door, another time sphere had materialised and attached itself to his own. It looked like the sleek model Booster last had used, only run through the mill for twenty years of hard labour. Half the panels had their covers off and cables running between them to tie in new blocks of equipment. A spider web of cracks ran across the surface of the clear plastic and Ted would swear that was duct tape patching it. A wide-eyed young girl was strapped into the only surviving chair.
As Ted stared, the entire sphere started to fade away, child and all, and Hunter swore, then said, "Give me a hand, will you."
Ted hesitated. He hadn't been doing well with time travellers lately, and he didn't know Hunter well. However, Booster had automatically sought out Hunter when everything had gone wrong, seeming to trust him to be able to fix even the worst mess the found themselves in. Hell, maybe he'd come to tell Ted how he was supposed to die. "What do you need?"
Five minutes later they had both the spheres yoked together and relatively stable in the timefield. Hunter slumped against the wall and rubbed at a week-old beard that looked more like engine grease and dirt than hair. "That'll hold for now. I hope." The time master was probably a few years younger than he'd been last time Ted had run into him, but he seemed older somehow. He clearly hadn't slept in a long time, and from the smell, hadn't changed either.
The girl unbuckled herself and darted over to wrap herself around Hunter's leg. She didn't look as if she were in much better shape. Hunter patted her hair more out of habit than anything. "That's Uncle Ted?" she demanded, staring up at him dubiously.
"The one and only," Hunter answered at the same time as Ted spluttered, "Uncle who?"
The girl didn't seem at all impressed. "I want Mikey!"
"I know you do, Rani." Hunter patted her hair again. "But you're going to have to be brave for me a little longer. Just..." he glanced around, but there clearly wasn't anywhere to send a kid so she wouldn't hear. "I just need a minute to talk to 'Uncle Ted.'"
Ted leaned back against the panel, taking some of the pressure off his bad knee. "What are you doing here?" he asked. "Did you come to tell me how I'm supposed to–" he broke off, glancing the kid, Rani. "I'm not sure what to do when I get there."
Hunter shook his head dismissively. "You did fine: a true hero to the end. Both times."
"I mean it, Beetle, profoundly. You saved the world, twice, but plans have changed."
"But what about the OMAC, and Max, and..."
"Changed," Hunter snapped. "Everything's goddamn changed."
Now that he had a pause to think, the bullet holes in his shoulder were starting to blaze with pain, and Ted didn't think he had time for this either. "You'd better explain that, Hunter."
He thought Hunter might dismiss him again, but the time master nodded shortly. "The Cliff Notes version is that, a couple weeks ago, my time, or a little over a year since you last saw Michael, the Flash managed to shuffle time like a deck of cards."
Ted frowned. "How does that even work?"
"Honestly, I have no idea. All I know is that whole timeline's twisted in on itself. We're not even in a parallel universe. This is the same one, reformed." He sighed, and Ted could see the muscles in his neck and shoulders tensing. "It shouldn't be possible, but it happened, and it's still reshaping itself. All of history is a sea of fluid time."
This was exactly the kind of reason Ted had always done his best to avoid temporal mechanics. It seemed an imprecise science on a good day, and more related to the arcane arts the rest of the time. "What does that have to do with me?"
Hunter paused and looked down at Rani, still clinging sullenly to his leg. When he looked back at Ted, his eyes were soft and tired and very sad. "Every thing you did was for nothing, Kord," he said, and Ted felt the words like a blow to the stomach. "Max Lord isn't the Black King, and he isn't controlling Brother Eye, and you... you, uh, don't even exist. Ted Kord in this timeline died with Dan Garrett on Pago Island and never became the Blue Beetle."
Ted felt his whole world spiralling away like the mists outside the sphere. He had almost managed to reconcile himself with the idea of dying to save the world, but never having been a hero at all? It would still have been his fault that Dan died, but he wouldn't have even been able to atone by carrying on Dan's legacy. If he never became Blue Beetle, everything he'd suffered and fought for over the last ten years would just vanish. He wouldn't have joined the JLI. He would never even have met Booster. "Why are you telling me this?" He tried to keep his voice from shaking, but he didn't know how well he was doing at it.
"Booster Gold needs your help."
There were skulls everywhere. Ted wished he didn't have intimate and precise knowledge of what kind of person decorated with skulls. Also, it was cold and grimy. It took talent to get this much grime on a space ship.
"Booster'd better be grateful, is all I'm saying."
Hunter didn't look impressed. Rani, thank god, wasn't allowed to look at all. "With any luck," he said, in a tone that wasn't doing anything to diminish Ted's desire to punch him in the mouth, "Booster will never know he's got anything to be grateful for. Now take your shirt off."
"Wait, not only are you leaving me alone in an alien brig, you're leaving me alone and half naked in an alien brig?" But he stripped out of his costume anyway. He had to admit that he couldn't think of an easy way to explain why he was dressed as a non-existent superhero. Wrapping his shirt abound his cowl, belt and boots, he pitched the lot at Hunter's head. It missed by six inches, hit the side of the time sphere with a thud, and slid to the floor. "Tell me again why I can't just say, 'Hi, name's Ted Kord. I'm Blue Beetle from another time stream, and I'm here to help'?"
"First, it's the same time stream." Hunter was actually ticking these off on his fingers. "Second, this Booster is alone, slightly paranoid and in way, way over his head. He needs a real friend, not a long lost formerly dead buddy who knows too much about the wrong things." He smiled. Ted didn't feel reassured. "This is better. Trust me."
"Does anyone ever believe you when you say that?"
"Michael used to."
"Low blow," Ted muttered, but let it lie. Booster had trusted Hunter, and the time master did know far more about the situation. Shivering, he rubbed his arms. "Fine, but if he's not here in half an hour, I'm blaming you when I die of hypothermia."
"Mikey'll save you, Uncle Ted," Rani piped up from the far side of the control chair. "It'll be just like in Lady and the Tramp."
Hunter, wisely, didn't comment on that; he just glanced at his watch and said, "It should only be a few minutes. I'll check in in a week. Good luck."
The cell door slammed shut and Ted watched through the bars as the time sphere faded away. Hunter had spent a frantic ten minutes stripping the remains of his own sphere and transferring them to the Black Beetle's. All while he tried to describe too many changes with too few words and not enough time, and Rani had patched up Ted's shoulder. Ted didn't think he liked how well the kid knew her way around twenty-eighth-century medical gadgets, but he was glad to get the bleeding stopped. Then Hunter had ditched his original sphere, dropped Ted here, taken most of his clothes and left.
Apparently here was the mother ship of an alien war leader named Peraxxus. Peraxxus was currently engaged in destroying the earth, as the newly-formed JLI were currently engaged in trying to stop him. There were giant robots involved in there somewhere, but Ted had missed how they fit in.
Ted rubbed his arms again and circled the cell. It took about ten seconds: three walls, a door made of jagged metal bars, a bare bench on one side and some sort of sanitary facilities not designed for humans on the other. Everything seemed about a quarter scale too large for Ted, and the lighting about twenty percent too low. The view through the bars showed a row of cells just like this one, with skulls of alien creatures mounted between the doors.
Ted sighed and tried to decide if he would be colder sitting on the bench or standing barefoot on the floor. The realisation that if he sat down he might not have the energy to get up again tipped him toward leaning against the blank wall next to the door. He was weary through to his bones, and it seemed as though even the smallest decisions carried the weight of the world. He felt that he'd had to make more life-altering choices in the past few days than anyone should fairly have to deal with in a lifetime. He'd never admit it to Hunter, but he was glad he had a few minutes to try to pull himself together.
Measuring time could be a challenge given the shift in periods, but he figured in the last week, he'd lost his business and his house, seen his best friend in the hospital, found out Maxwell Lord wanted to kill all his friends, and almost died. Then he'd been rescued by a future version of said best friend, watched the world burn and most of his friends die because of him, tried to sacrifice himself to save them, and found out everything he'd ever done had been erased from time and he'd have to start over again. And that was leaving out alien scarabs, mind controlling bugs, and Booster's father. Part of his mind was still trying to catch up with the idea that Max – who Ted had known and considered a friend for most of his career – had tried to kill him. Max had always had a morally dubious side, but becoming a super villain and ruling the world with mind-controlled Superman and an army of techno-organic killing machines? Ted had seen it, but he still couldn't quite believe that Max wasn't somehow under outside influence or replaced by an evil clone. Convincing that part of his mind that, if Rip Hunter was to be believed, Max Lord wasn't even relevant any more felt like half the problem right now.
The other half of the problem was of course trying to figure out how the hell his new life was going to work. Hunter had said that time was still plastic, and that changes made now would stay. He'd said that he wanted to put as many things as he could right before the window closed. Ted was pretty sure that saving Ted Kord, Blue Beetle, didn't even make the time master's top twenty, but Booster Gold apparently was quite the priority. Ted had run into Hunter a couple of times over the years, and he knew that Booster and Hunter had known each other for a while, maybe since Booster had been in this time. Maybe Hunter just wanted his friend to be happy. He didn't seem like the kind of guy who had a lot of friends. Somehow though that didn't seem very likely to Ted. It was more likely that there was truth in all the hints he'd heard over the years: Booster had some greater destiny that Ted would likely never know nor aspire to, and Hunter just wasn't telling him what it was. Were that the case, it seemed to require that Booster know Ted. He hoped it wasn't going to need getting shot in the head this time around. He loved Booster more than anyone in the universe, but dying repeatedly for the sake of his personal development seemed a bit much.
Next time Hunter checked in, Ted swore he was going to pin the man down until he got some answers. For now he'd have to watch and wait and try to figure out what was going on in this new world and what his place in it might be.
He rested his head back against the wall and closed his eyes, trying to find centre. Knowing Booster, whatever he was involved in was going to require a lot of running.
A moment later, the wall behind him vibrated. He could just barely detect it, but Ted had become an expert on distant explosions, and he knew one when he felt it. He felt the second vibration more distinctly, and actually heard the third one. A small smile crept onto his face. This was going to be a classic Booster Gold entrance.
The explosions were getting nearer, louder and closer together. Ted looked out of the cell again, but still saw only an expanse of dimly-lit passageway. When, exactly, had Hunter said Booster would be here? At the rate they were going, it had better be soon, or whatever chain reaction he'd set off was going to beat him to it.
He wondered if Hunter would come back and pick him up if he wasn't there for the check-in next week. Who knew if that was even allowed? It could screw up time even more, though at this point Ted wasn't sure if that was possible.
The whole ship lurched back as the next concussion hit, tossing Ted into the opposite wall. "Enough of this." Grabbing the bars, he yarded on and started yelling for help at the top of his lungs. The door didn't move an nanometre, and Ted couldn't see an obvious lock mechanism. Damn Hunter for not leaving him with anything. He didn't have so much as a wrist watch to rewire.
He barely held onto the bars when the next explosion hit. His shoulder burned, but he didn't look to see if it was bleeding again. "Is anyone out there?" he yelled, then swore under his breath. He didn't even hear whatever threw him against the back wall of the cell, or anything after that through the ringing in his ears. A flash of yellow light followed, crumpling the door, and Ted tried to blink away the after image. Blue and gold, he thought dizzily. It'll be the last thing I see.
But when he blinked again, it was still there, Booster standing where the door had been, lean and tall and looking absolutely gorgeous in torn, skin-tight blue and gold. "Hey, you alive?" Booster asked.
Ears still ringing, Ted said the only thing that came to mind, which turned out to be "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?" Booster stared at him blankly, so he just nodded, grabbing the edge of the bench to pull himself up.
Booster wasn't looking anyway, He'd twisted to stare back down the hallway, and when he turned back, his eyes were wide and his mouth set in a thin line. "How fast can you run?" The ship rolled under them, and he had to levitate to stay upright. "Never mind."
"Wha–" Ted started to ask, half standing, still clinging to the bench, but Booster had already scooped him off his feet. Their bodies pressed together for a moment as Booster manoeuvred them through the ruins of the bars. It wasn't the first or even the hundredth time Booster had seen Ted shirtless, but now he blushed at the contact, as though a stranger were touching him.
"Hang on," Booster said, flipped him into a bridal carry and took off flying down the corridor. Ted barely got his arms around Booster's neck before the acceleration of a hard turn nearly wrenched them apart. He almost lost his grip again as Booster stopped abruptly and accelerated in the opposite direction.
"Do you know where you're going?" Ted yelled as the ship pitched and smacked them into a wall. Booster threw up his forcefield to protect them.
"Should be a fighter bay two halls to port."
They banked again, and Booster just about dropped Ted as he extended an arm to blast out the door that appeared in front of them. "I didn't exactly have a ton of time with the schematics. Especially after I saw another human life form on board."
Ted didn't ask what Booster's plan A had been. He knew this look well enough to tell he was at least half way through the alphabet already.
"See. Told you."
Ted pulled his face away from Booster's shoulder and looked around. A huge room arced over their heads, strung through with catwalks and suspended rows of ships. They all had the same block-like lines as Ted had seen in the rest of the ship, and Ted would swear that the smaller fighters were slightly skull-shaped. Past the ships, he could see the curve of bay doors, closed.
Whatever chain reaction was following them aft had just about caught up. Booster powered into the nearest ship, straight through the open rear hatch and into the cockpit. "You need to close the hatch," he said, dropping Ted into the pilot's seat.
Ted didn't recognise the controls at all, and nothing seemed to be labelled let alone labelled in English. "How long do I have?"
"About thirty seconds."
"On it." Three strides took him back to the hatch, and there was were the manual overrides right were any sensible race would put them. He grabbed the largest lever and pulled down as hard as he could. It moved about half an inch, and the hatch creaked. The interior wall of the bay shuddered, then ripped away, knocking the ship above them off its moorings. It teetered for a single long moment, then tore free and dropped towards them. Ted threw his weight back and pulled. The lever hesitated, still stuck, then snapped down, dropping Ted on his butt. He caught a glimpse of fire on the far side of the door, then the hatch folded shut. Knowing they were about to take a hit, Ted tried to find something to grab onto. Nothing but smooth walls in reach, of course, then it was too late, and the little ship pitched sideways.
Ted hit the side of the ship shoulder first, bounced and tumbled into Booster's legs, bringing him down on top of him. The impact drove the air out of both of them. It didn't seem entirely clear which way was up any more, and Ted wrapped an arm around Booster's hips, covered his head with the other one and hoped for the best. The next shock threw them into the pilot's chair and Ted managed to wrap his legs around the base. He didn't see any obvious harness or seatbelts. They'd just have to hang on.
Booster wasn't exactly helping either, beyond lying there like a lump and letting Ted manhandle him. They'd wedged in on top of each other, tightly enough that Ted couldn't wiggle around to see if Booster was conscious without giving up his hold on the seat. "You okay up there?" he asked, but Booster didn't say anything, just patted Ted's shoulder distractedly. Ted half shrugged and pressed his face back into Booster's stomach. The slick surface of his costume felt cold under Ted's cheek, not radiating the faint buzz of power that it usually did. Booster must have pulled all the power in his suit and thrown it into the force field. He was trying to protect their ship.
They rode out a few more lesser shock waves before settling into a slow, zero-g tumble. The hull shuddered every so often as it ricocheted off of other pieces of debris, but Ted couldn't hear anything like the hiss of atmosphere venting. He sighed, and listened to his pounding heart gradually slow. This was exactly the kind of situation his doctor would have warned him about. Had his doctor known his secret identity and been an extremely imaginative science fiction writer.
"Um... thanks," Booster said from above him, "but you can probably let go now, unless you want to get a bit more of a feel in there."
"Right, sorry." Letting go, he gave Booster a second to push away before trying to disentangle himself from the chair. "I usually try to get someone's name before I grab their ass." He held onto the back of the chair with one hand, and extended the other towards where Booster was floating near the ceiling. "Ted Kord."
Booster kicked off a little too hard and had to grab the edge of an overhead console to keep from careening into Ted. "Booster Gold, Justice League International." He was staring at Ted in a way that wasn't at all like one of those old Booster leers that would have made Ted flush and try cover his chest. This looked like it was pure, strategic assessment. It made Ted's skin crawl more than any sexual overtone ever could have.
"I bet you're wondering what I'm doing here," he said.
"That and what happened to your clothes." That sounded a little more like the old Booster.
It made Ted feel even worse about lying to him. God damn Rip Hunter, anyway. This had better work or Ted was going to invent a time machine just to hunt him down and have his hide. "I guess the short version is that I was abducted by aliens, if you'd believe that."
"Ha. I'd believe just about anything at after the week I've had." The narrow suspicious look on Booster's face had relaxed a little, and Ted smiled at him. "What's the long version?"
Ted let go of Booster's hand, letting them drift apart again. "Maybe that'd better wait until we figure out what kind of shape this bucket of bolts is in."
"Good plan." Booster looked around sceptically and the hull creaked as though he'd cued it. "How are you at fixing alien space ships?"
"Actually, I'm a genius."
Ted had found a pair of what seemed to be work coveralls in one of the side compartments next to a tool kit he only half understood. They were about twenty sizes too big for him, but they were also warm.
By then he had the main panel pulled apart, and half the walls, mostly out of a need to figure out what led where, rather than an actual attempt to fix something. Today wasn't going to be a push all the buttons until you find one that works day. He'd save that for if and when they got desperate. Right now he had pants, air and tech to play with, and all was well with the world.
Once he had the main controls back together he hooked a leg under the edge of the pilot’s seat to keep himself in place and took stock of what he'd learned. Fortunately, the tech seemed to be on a similar basis as some of the Cluster ships he'd mucked about with years ago. Which meant that this series of buttons... "Gravity's coming on," he said half a second before it dumped Booster on the floor in a clatter of wrenches.
"Nice warning." Booster snapped, but he was already looking less green around the gills. Zero-g never had agreed with him. He came up behind Ted and stood looking down on him, not leaning on the back of the chair like he should have.
"And now the main screen." That was a bit optimistic, and the screens flickered in and out a dozen times before grudgingly coming to life. "Ah," he said, taking in the display. "Are we supposed to be half way to Mars?"
"Farther from Earth the better," Booster said with a small shrug that told Ted to exactly what degree of seat of the pants this plan had been going on.
"What happened to your ship?" he asked, as if he didn't know. "You must have got up here somehow."
"Used it to blow up the ship we were on." A note of defensiveness had crept into Booster's voice. "Look, can this thing get us back to Earth or not? If I have to ask Gardner for a push, so help me..."
"Good news is that I'm pretty sure we have a limited faster than light drive, so it won't take us two months to get home." There'd been a sort of paint pen in the tool box, and Ted started marking off his best guess at the controls in English. The only colour was blood red, which added a macabre touch to the otherwise solid, original Star Trek look of the panels. Obviously this race hadn't wanted to muck around with touch pads and computer interfaces.
"What's the bad news?"
"I'm pretty sure that it would be a bad idea to use it inside a debris field. We'll have to work our way out of this one, then come in well outside the junk yard orbiting the Earth. We're looking at at least a few hours until we're planetside again."
Booster sighed and rested his elbows on the back of the chair. "Well, I guess we'll have time for the long version of your story."
Yours too, Ted thought, though he didn't know how much he'd get out of Booster. "Give me a minute to get us going, then I'll tell you all about it." He stretched, cracking his laced fingers, and booted up the normal space drive. "Engaging forward engines."
The little ship shot backwards; the auto restraints spun out to to enclose Ted and hold him in place, but Booster hit the edge of the chair hard enough to drive the air out of his lungs. Frantically, Ted hit buttons until the engine cut out, and the attitude thrusters halted their backwards momentum. "Okay, that one's reverse. Who knew?" He wiped part of the label off with his thumb and wrote in the correction. "All right, engaging forward engines now... um, you may want to hang on."
"Gotcha." Booster wrapped both arms around the top of the chair, his wrists just brushing Ted's hair. This time, the ship picked up a steady forward acceleration on Ted's command, following the clearest patch out of the debris field.
"Okay. Done." Ted relaxed back into the pilot's chair, and the restraints retracted back into the seat. "Everything's more or less moving away from the epicentre anyway, so I shouldn't have to make too many corrections."
He felt the chair shift as Booster's death grip loosened. "You are pretty good with space ships," Booster admitted.
"Told you: genius." Ted turned to grin up at Booster, and he laughed.
"Hey, eyes on the road! So, Genius, how did you end up in Peraxxus' brig?"
Ted looked back to the display, toggling on the starboard thrusters for a quarter of a second. It bumped them around a chunk of the outer hull and back into clear space. Then he sighed and lied to Booster about how he and Dan Garrett had been out on a caving trip off in the Atlantic. They'd been the only humans in five hundred miles, when suddenly a bright white light had appeared in the sky, blinding them. Next thing Ted, knew, supposedly, was waking up on an alien space ship with a bunch of robots asking him about market research.
Off Booster's increasingly incredulous expression, he said, "My hand to God, they were like the intergalactic shopping network aliens. They were running a study on what we Earthlings would buy, what resources we had to trade, that kind of thing."
"What'd you tell them?"
"Dan and I spent about a year trying to convert them to communism, said it was the international economic system on Earth. Because we were so resource poor and all, it had to be."
"Did they believe you?"
"I don't think they understood." Another nudge of the controls and the ship sailed clear of the wreck of Peraxxus' mothership. "Eventually they got tired of getting called 'Comrade' and shuffled me off to maintaining janitorial robots. After the janitors got sick of me, they traded me to this Peraxxus guy for what I understand was a real bargain. The new guy wanted to know about the Earth too, but I kept up the Brother Communism bit until he gave up and tossed me in a cell. I couldn't really keep track of time down there too well, but I figure you showed up a few days later." That should be provide enough detail to be believable, but not too much to trip him up later. He'd have to put more time into figuring out the particulars, preferably before someone like Amanda Waller got her teeth into him.
"What happened to your friend?"
Particulars like that. "Shot trying to escape," Ted said shortly. "He took a plasma blast meant for me. I... uh... I promised I'd keep going for him, that I'd get home." Even after all these years, Ted didn't have to fake the tightness in his throat when he thought about Dan. He had sworn to him that he'd keep up the legacy of Blue Beetle, and he'd done it for years. At first it had been entirely to make Dan proud, then he'd been in it for fun, and because it was the right thing to do. These last few years, though, since Supper Buddies had folded and his heart had started acting up, playing hero hadn't been as much fun anymore. Still, he hoped Dan would have been proud. If nothing else, that Reyes kid had seemed to be doing a good job of holding up the name. Now, who knew? Maybe this was a chance to start over again.
A hand rested gently on his shoulder. "I'm sorry," Booster said.
Ted coughed and blinked, then checked the distances on the read outs. "Okay. We should be good to jump back to Earth." Booster muttered something about "Backwards," but Ted ignored him, saying, "You'd probably better hang on. Jumping back to high Earth orbit in three, two, one..." The interior of the ship wobbled, blinked out, then wobbled back into existence. Ted pulled up a visual on the shiny blue marble under them, while Booster was quietly sick in a corner. "You're cleaning that up."
"Whatever," Booster muttered, wiping his mouth and coming up to stand beside Ted. "Does this thing have working comms? I can't seem to get through the hull with mine. I should check in with my team before Gardner decides we're Peraxxus back for round two and tries to shoot us down."
"Maybe let them know you're alive, too, huh?"
Booster snorted. "I suppose they'll have to hear the bad news eventually."
"Sounds like this Justice League of yours is quite the team."
"That's one way to put it."
"You'll have to tell me all about it on the way down."
Warm, damp air flooded into the cabin as they opened the back hatch for the fraction of Booster's team still stranded in Peru.
"Thanks for the pick up," Tora said. "Oh, hi. New person. I'm Ice, and this is Fire."
Ted held out a hand and pretended that not hugging her wasn't the hardest thing he'd ever done. As soon as he hit somewhere with an Internet connection, he was going to look up everyone he knew who'd ever died.
"Where'd you find this one?" Bea was looking Ted up and down in a way that she hadn't since, well, ever. He wondered where he rated now that she didn't know him; hopefully better than a five, realistically less than a seven.
"Cell block on the Death Star," Booster said shortly. "How's Ice doing?"
"Well enough to answer questions," Tora answered on her own. She still held an arm tightly against her diaphragm though, and Ted could see that Booster noticed. "Better if you shut the door and stop letting the air conditioning out."
"Where to next, captain?" Ted asked, resealing the little ship and manoeuvring it up through the trees.
Booster hesitated, eyes drifting back to Tora. "Swing by Dallas and grab Rocket Red and Godiva. We can drop everyone off in New York, then do another run for the others. Not a lot of room in here," he added.
Settling against one of the bulkheads, Bea pulled Tora down to lean against her, head resting on Bea's shoulder."Hopefully General Iron and Gardner won't have killed each other by the time we get back to them." Ted felt pretty sure that Bea wasn't hoping that at all, but he was no more going to call her on it than he was on Booster prioritising to get Tora back to the US and a hospital as soon as possible.
"Everyone hang on," he said. "This thing flies a little rough in the atmosphere, and we've already discovered there's no air sickness bags." The displays could be split and arranged differently, so he'd divided them between a map of the terrain, radar, and a couple of exterior views. The green canopy gave way to the blue spread of the Caribbean then to rolling dun hills. Bea and Tora slumped together in companionable silences, while Booster hovered behind Ted's chair, watching as he worked the controls. His skin still seemed a little grey, and Ted didn't think it was entirely from air sickness. "How are you holding up?"
"Mmm?" Booster shook his head, startled. "Fine. Nothing a cold beer and a hot massage won't fix."
"Good to know." Back in the day, Ted would have been included in one or both of those offers. "I mostly want a date with a nice soft–"
The comms beeped in warning before an other familiar voice filled the cabin, "Vixen to shuttle. What's your status, Gold?"
Ted reached out to toggle the comm to transmit, but Booster apparently remembered the controls and knocked his hands away. "We have Fire and Ice and are just on our way to pick up team three. Is everything okay there?"
"Negative. The area is not secure. Scavengers have accessed both the underground lab and the remains of the Signal Man. Batman's still investigating, but I'd feel a lot better with some back up."
"Copy that, Vixen. Stand by."
"We're two minutes out of Dallas," Ted told him, "then another fifteen to New York. It's on the circle route to Zambesi anyway, if you still want to...." He jerked his head towards the back where Tora had fallen asleep.
Booster nodded, then hit the comms again. "Hold tight, Vixen; we'll be there in an hour and twenty." He nudged Ted's shoulder. "Now, budge over; I need a flying lesson."
"I'm pretty sure I can follow what you were doing, but I want to double check before I drop the only pilot."
This wasn't happening. Ted felt the muscles in his hands tighten as his fists tried to clench. "Now hang on, I'm even better with robots than I am with spaceships. I can–"
"Not go into a potential combat zone," Booster finished. He'd squared his shoulders and was levitating slightly, as if he needed the extra height. "I've got too many wild cards in the game already, without adding a civilian. Besides, you're hurt. Sorry."
"When did you turn into such a hard ass?" Ted muttered. Muscles that he couldn't even name had tightened as he sat, and he had to unfold carefully, clutching the armrest for balance before he was able to stand. He realised he was making Booster's point beautifully, but he couldn't seem to move past the pain any more.
"Is there anywhere special I can drop you?" Booster asked as he slid into the pilot's seat; despite looking like he hadn't slept in days, he didn't seem even a little stiff and sore. "I'd let you stay at our base, but some yahoos blew it up."
"No, I..." Ted shook his head. "I don't even know if I have anyone left."
When Ted slid the cover on the peep hole aside and saw Rip Hunter, he almost turned around an pretended not to be home. Sure, the man had saved his life, but he'd also left him in this colossal mess, and Ted wasn't sure he had two civil words to rub together. Gritting his teeth, he threw the bolt anyway, and held the door open wide.
Hunter barely spared Murray Takamoto's spacious apartment a glance before walking straight through to the living area. Ted had to wonder if Hunter had actually visited his old roommate before or if he'd just looked up the blueprints so that he could look like he knew everything at all times. Only after he'd set Rani up with something to draw and had hopped up on one of the barstools next to the breakfast bar did he ask, "How're you making out?"
Ted leaned against the patio doors so he could keep an eye on both of them. He couldn't tell for sure, but he though Rani was taller than the last time he'd seen her; Hunter's hair definitely had more red in it, though he'd shaved and changed into something that didn't smell. "Do you have any idea how much paperwork is involved in being dead for six years?"
Most of them lay in piles over every horizontal surface, the floor included. Hunter's eyes flicked from one stack of forms to the next. "More now than in the '80s, I guess. You should see what it's like in Michael's time. Paperless society my ass." One of the piles slumped over onto the floor, apparently of its own will. Ted left it where it lay. "Are you planning to stay in Chicago long?"
"I'll stay as long as Murray's willing to put up with me. Beats living under a bridge, which is what I'd be doing in New York." Or asking his father for money, he didn't add. He had more than once blessed his luck that Murray was still running S.T.A.R. Labs around here, not consulting in London like he was in Ted's timeline. "I don't know if you noticed but KORD Inc. didn't survive the last recession, so even if the courts did get around to returning my assets some time this century, there's not a lot left to live on."
"What about Booster?"
"What about him?" Ted snapped, trying to cover what a punch to the stomach that was. It wasn't like Booster had usually had a lot more money than he did, or any money at all. But even when they were both at the bottom of the wheel, even when they weren't speaking to each other and hadn't in months, Ted had known he could call. That goofy, gorgeous smile and unending bad jokes would always be there at the other end of the line. If it had really mattered, Booster would have been there. "It's not like he knows me. Hell, as far as he's concerned, I probably still owe him for rescuing me."
"Hmm." Ted wasn't sure he liked the way Hunter pursed his lips in thought. He'd had more than enough of the time master's plans to last the rest of his life. "Well, hang in there, Kord." He slid off the stool, boots thudding against the engineered flooring. Rani looked up and started to fold away her colouring.
It only took three long strides for Ted to cross the living room and stand blocking the hall, arms folded across his chest."Oh no. You are not doing this again." He realised that if he came to a fight, Hunter was armed, and Ted was not, but enough was enough. "You are not just walking out of here, no explanations given. You got me here, and now you can damn well explain to me what's going on."
Hunter kept going, moving in so close that Ted had to tilt his head back to hold eye contact. He only stopped their noses were about five inches apart, then he crossed his arms in a deliberate imitation of Ted's gesture. "I already explained."
"No you didn't."
"Yes, I did."
"Did..." Ted would have sworn that Hunter grew a few inches just to glare further down his nose at him. He decided that Hunter and J'onn should either marry immediately or never meet. "Knowing more than you do could disrupt causality."
Ted lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes. "You already said that causality was good and disrupted as it was. You just don't like anyone else knowing as much as you do."
"He's got you there, Boppy," Rani chimed in, not looking up from the colouring she'd spread back across the glass surface of the coffee table.
He took advantage of the split in Hunter's attention to press his point. "You can't say I'm going to screw up my own timeline because I don't have a timeline, and you know it. That's the whole point. So you either start answering questions, or I'll..." he cast around for something a time master would find intimidating. "I'll move to Kooey Kooey Kooey and open a shave ice stand, and never talk to anyone wearing spandex ever again. See what that does to all your finely-tuned plans."
They stood nose to nose, fists clenched, breathing sharp, If they'd had neck feathers, they would have been puffed out in a display of aggression. Then Hunter sighed, took a deliberate step back and dropped his gaze. "Fine," he said, "But some information is still too sensitive to share, and you can just deal with that."
"We'll see about that," Ted snapped. Then he took a breath and forced himself to relax. Macho posturing had got him here, but damned if he spent the entire conversation yelling at Hunter. No matter how much he deserved it. Instead he picked the topic that seemed least controversial, asking evenly, "Who's the little girl?"
Hunter glanced at Rani, who was now watching curiously, then said in a low voice. "Michael was in the right place at the wrong time – which has to be his super power – and by the time he got out of there she didn't have anyone else left." Ted guessed that that was the short, child-friendly version. "She was playing in the time sphere when the Flash pulled his stunt, and here we all are." He spread his arms to take in Rani, the apartment and the whole damn timestream. "The three of us here are the only thing left of the old world. I thought–" He stopped, then shook his head minutely and didn't say anything else.
When Hunter didn't answer, Rani said, "He thought Mikey would remember, because he's one of us, but he doesn't." She sounded very small and sad, and Ted realised Booster must have been the closest thing she had to a father. The idea of Booster Gold with kids should have scared the bejeezus out of Ted, but now it just felt regret. His best friend had grown up and had a family of sorts, and he hadn't been there to share it.
He opened his mouth to say he was sorry, but then he saw Rip. He was standing very still and looking exactly how Ted felt, only more unsure. Ted remembered how when they'd first met how much he and Booster had looked a like, and how they'd both looked so insanely young, and he had to ask, "What is Booster to you, Hunter?"
That brought Hunter back to himself and he stiffened, expression closing. "He's a man I admire very much and a friend."
"And for all our sakes, that's what I can tell you." He folded his arms, the edge coming back into his voice. "What matters is that Booster needs you."
"You keep saying that, but..."
Hunter was holding up a hand and shaking his head again. "It doesn't matter if he realises it or not; with any luck, he'll never really understand exactly what you mean to him. What matters is that there's a very good chance that he'll never be the hero he needs to be if he doesn't know you."
"Know me or mourn me?"
The question rocked Hunter back on his heels like a slap. "I didn't rescue you just to send you to your death again, Kord," he said. "Even I'm not that much of a manipulative..." he glanced at Rani, "jerk."
"He means 'bastard,'" Rani supplied helpfully. She'd given up on colouring and was watching the conversation like a tennis match. Neither man bothered to correct her.
"Trust me," Rip continued, and there were those words again. "I've spent most of the time since I saw you last ensuring that Max Lord achieved his childhood dream of becoming an investigative reporter."
Ted already knew that. Max had been the second person he'd looked up after he got out of the hospital. The first being himself. Max was currently a freelance reporter based in Paris, and seemed to be making the most out of it. "What did you do with the rest of the time?"
"This and that," Hunter said, shrugging. "Saved Booster from the common cold, set up my lab again. A few other things." They both glanced at Rani, who had an extremely sceptical expression, but for once didn't seem to have anything to add.
It all sounded reasonable enough to Ted, but he wondered what Hunter was leaving out, and when, exactly, it was going to bite them in the ass. The problem was he didn't know the right questions. "So I'm just supposed to..."
Ted raised an eyebrow in way that would have made Leonard Nimoy proud. "Really?"
"Pretty much. Specifically, be yourself near Michael."
"Who's forgotten I exist."
Rani had folded away her art work, and now came to stand by Hunter and said seriously, "We're working on it. Aren't we, Boppy?" It sounded worryingly less worrying when she said it.
Hunter's hand rested protectively on her shoulder, and he cracked the first genuine smile Ted had ever seen. "Yes we are." He started forward again, and this time Ted stepped aside. Looking back from the door, he said, "Hang in there, Kord."
"I promise to give you at least a week's warning before I make the move to Kooey Kooey Kooey."
Half an hour later, Ted got an e-mail from Booster offering him a job.
Booster pushed off his goggles as soon as he let go of Ted's hand. It made his hair even more tousled and devil-may-care than usual. "So," he said, turning on the same grin he used to use to sell surf boards, "Do you want the dime tour?"
They were standing in the foyer of an old office building – one of those blocky '70s monstrosities that had been designed by someone who thought Soviet Five Year Plan architecture was too ostentatious – but Booster made it sound like the Hall of Justice. If the Hall of Justice was in a slightly dodgy industrial area in Queens. They were actually worryingly close to the old Super Buddies headquarters.
"Isn't there an interview process or something?" Ted asked. He half expected Oberon to show up with a clipboard a list of ridiculous questions. He hadn't figured out where Oberon was in this timesteam yet. Hopefully he was okay.
"Nah. You're uniquely qualified." Booster's smile thinned into something a little vicious. "I told Briggs that all applicants for the job had to rewire an alien space ship while it was exploding. Somehow we didn't hear from anyone else after that." He clapped a hand on Ted's shoulder, and waved him through into the ground floor offices. Components for new computer systems had been stacked on top of battered PCs that matched the disco-era faux-wood panelling. Ted wondered if the job included getting this mess up and running. It seemed likely.
"What happened to the last head of R&D?" Ted asked as he followed Booster through.
"That was kind of weird," Booster said, frowning. "We used to have Dr. Jack Soo, a buddy of mine from S.T.A.R. Labs. I thought he was pretty stoked about the job, but then he comes in yesterday and hands in his notice. Says he has a better offer."
Ted had to wonder if that better offer had anything to do with a certain seven-year-old girl's promise. He added it to his list of things to ask Hunter next time he showed up to tell him what to do. He shook his head and tuned back into Booster's spiel.
"...only the receiving equipment and some of the processors went up with the Hall of Justice," Booster was saying. "Jack said he'd get all that set up here before he takes off for Arizona, so you don't have to worry about that. In the meantime, we'll have to rely on my own systems." The stacks of equipment took up so much of the room that they had to turn sideways to slide out the back door into the service halls. "There's more offices and a big conference room upstairs, and Briggs is getting the top two floors turned into living quarters. Nothing's finished yet, but I can show what it'll look like. But mostly, I need you to look at..." he paused to punch an access code into an incongruously modern door, "this."
"Wow." The space behind the door was cavernous, at least three stories high, with layers of catwalks around the edges, and warehouse loading doors on the far side. It was also full of alien tech, including the space ship he and Booster had escaped in, what looked like fragments of giant robots, and a multitude of odds and ends that Ted couldn't begin to identify without three weeks and a universal translator. He closed his mouth and looked back at Booster, who had his hands on his hips and a smug little grin. "Is this all from Peraxxus?"
"Pretty much." He pointed to haphazard pile of equipment in the shadow of a twenty-foot robot leg. "Vixen and Batman found that in the Signal Man lair in Zambesi. Whoever was so hot to get their hands on alien robots also left in a hurry. It's not anything I recognise, but you're the tech expert. I thought maybe you could track back the transistors or whatever and tell me who done it and what they were after."
"Okay." Ted stared around the old warehouse again. There was a lot of alien junk in here. He wondered how Booster had been able to wrangle it for the JLI instead S.T.A.R. Labs jumping on it like they usually did. Part of him wanted to take off his jacket start prying things apart and just disappear into happy tech land forever. The rest didn't want to let Booster go. It felt so strange to be standing here with him in his costume and Ted in an Interview Suit he'd bought off the rack, pretending not to know his best friend. "Um... anything else on your to do list? Do I need to sign up for the health plan or anything?"
Booster patted his shoulder again. "Oh, trust me, there's stack of paperwork tall as Batman. I wanted to show you the incentives before I buried you in it."
"I take it the hours are long and the pay is terrible?" Some things about the JLI remained constant, no matter what the universe.
"You got it. And even if you're support staff, crazy people will try to kill you pretty much all the time." There was that grin again, the one that would make most women and some men involuntarily start to spread their legs and used cars salesmen start to weep. "But don't worry, I'll protect you."
Ted wondered when this Booster would learn not to make promises like that.
The problem with this new time stream, one of the problems with it anyway, was that the tech was different. Not that Ted couldn't handle new tech, it didn't take an hour to figure out what everything did and how, but tracking down who made what was turning out to be a bit of a challenge. He recognised bits and pieces, the way things were wired seemed familiar, but with people like Ollie Queen making completely different things than they were before, nailing down specifics was turning out to be tricky. Plus the general level of advancement was about two years ahead of what he remembered from his Earth.
He knew that he could pass his ignorance off under the "abducted by aliens five years ago" excuse, but that wouldn't do him any good if he wanted to prove that he was necessary to the team. It was the first thing Booster had asked him to do, and by God he was going to figure this out. Booster and the UN had hit him with so many forms that he'd already gotten a late start on it.
Rubbing his hand across his face, he closed his eyes then refocused. He had the wiring pulled apart and spread across the bench, and the software scrolling across an isolated monitor. He'd given up on identifying the build, which looked home built rather than black market anyway, and was looking at individual components. If he could figure out who supplied these people, it would be a start. He couldn't shake the feeling that he was missing something basic. There was a familiarity to the work that he just wasn't picking up on. Ted sighed and hit the reset key, starting the code again. Maybe there would be something there. A lot of programmers left a signature, whether they meant to or not.
Something moved behind him, and Ted started, knocking his chair over as he fell into a crouch. It was Booster, of course; who else would be in the JLI lab at this time of night? He'd changed into tailored blue jeans and an untucked black silk button down, and looked like a million bucks. He also looked like he couldn't decide if he wanted to laugh or yell for help.
"Sorry," Ted muttered, straightening. "I'm still a little jumpy. Do you, uh... do you need something?"
Booster relaxed into a smile. "You bet. It's a Friday night, and I desperately need a beer. I was wondering if you wanted to come with."
Ted glanced back at the monitor, then at the pile of circuits. "I don't know. I mean, I would, but I really need–"
"To have a beer with me," Booster finished for him. "Come on. I'm the boss, and the boss says it's Miller time."
"But..." Ted found himself grabbed by the elbow and pulled away from his work station. He stretched back and hit the shut down key before Booster dragged him out of reach. "Okay, fine. You win."
"Great," Booster said cheerfully. "I love winning. Come on. I found this little place you'll love. It's like two blocks."
The little place turned out to be the Dark Side, the (hopefully) former super villain bar run by Dick Hertz and (thankfully) not Guy Gardner. Booster installed them in a booth in the back corner and stood for the first two rounds. "I'm still trying to figure out how to expense beer," he said. "Maybe I can call it a team building exercise."
"You'd need to have the team here for that," Ted said, not looking up from the menu. He hadn't eaten since airport food at breakfast, but the features here all seemed to be grease fried in more grease with a side of grease. Damn, he used to love this kind of food, but the beer was probably bad enough.
Booster slide a little closer so he could bump his shoulder against Ted's. "Hey, you're on the team now. There's an idea, maybe this could be part of your interview."
"I thought that was the exploding space ship thing."
"Oh, sure, call it a review then." He wiggled his eyebrows. "So, Mr. Kord, how's your performance?"
Ted snorted. "Wouldn't you like to know." He took a long swallow of his lager and added seriously, "I'm not sure where I'm getting with that equipment Batman found. The build seems familiar, but I haven't got anywhere on tracking down the source. Too long out of the loop, I guess. Sorry."
"Well, do you know what it was used for at least?" Booster asked.
"It's just a diagnostic system." Sighing, Ted leaned back against the cracked plastic cushions. "I think it's set up to map circuits, maybe to find specific sections of hardware to salvage. From what they dug out of that giant robot head you brought back, I'd say they were looking for communication systems, but I need to run more tests. One thing I do know: whoever your scavengers were, they knew what they were doing. This is a specific custom-built system, not the kind of thing that falls off the back of a truck."
Booster was leaning forward, watching him seriously, and Ted realised he hadn't been completely factitious about this being a review. "That's more than we had before. Good work."
"Thanks. I'll know more tomorrow." He hoped. Ted stretched, arching his back to pull the kinks out. He feet brushed into Boosters under the table. "Sorry. Been a long day." And two beers on an empty stomach was going straight to his head.
Booster finished his second pint, throat rippling. "Sure thing. I should pack it in too. Are you flying back to Chicago tonight, or...?"
"No, I, uh, cancelled my ticket when you said I got the job." Which had been via Greyhound, but Booster didn't need to know. "I thought I'd just crash in the lab until I figure out a place to stay." Or got his first pay cheque, at least. The money Murray had loaned him wasn't going to stretch to extended hotel stays, and he was too damn old for hostels. He was probably also too old for cots in labs, but at least it would be quiet there.
"Broke, huh?" Booster said, his smile sympathetic. "I'm guessing everything you own is in that one suitcase."
Ted took another pull of his beer so that he didn't have to meet his eyes. "Pretty much."
"I've been there." A warm hand rested gently on his wrist. Despite spending most of his time either fighting or working out, Booster's skin still felt smooth and soft. Ted wondered if he'd been shilling for hand cream recently. When he glanced over at Booster, he had one of those looks that had only ever meant trouble. "Hey, you know what you should do?"
Dinner be damned, this was going to need another drink. He waved the waitress over. "No, what should I do?"
"Sell your memoirs."
"No, seriously. You'd make a bundle. Super heroes are almost old hat by now, but everyone still loves aliens. Especially when the film rights come through and Ben Afflick plays you."
"Ben Affleck? Are you crazy? He's not even a redhead!" Ted protested, then skipped back to the more salient details. "And I can't write."
"Your CV says you have an English degree."
"English Literature, not creative writing. That means I know bad writing when I see it, and I am therefore authentically certified to say that I have terrible prose."
Booster waved that away. "So hire a ghost writer! That's what most celebrities do. I know a guy who can hook you up with the guy who wrote the book about that guy who spent two years in the tree in Sierre Leon."
"What? No..." Ted rubbed his eyes, and when he opened then, there was more beer and a new basket of pretzels. He took another drink. "If that's such a good idea, why haven't you done it?"
"Too early in the game," Booster said, shrugging. "I told you, superheroes are old news. You have to do more than wear tights and save Metropolis a couple of times to win fame and fortune these days."
"Something like leading the Justice League?" Ted asked. He could see that gleam in Booster's eyes and his apprehension grew. This was Booster Gold with a plan, and that never seemed to end well.
"Sure, something like."
"Even Justice League Queens?"
"Sure the Hall of Justice got blown up on our first day, and our budget isn't providing the best replacement in the whole world ever. We don't have a single first stringer, except for Batman, and Batman's not supposed to be on the team," he was actually ticking off on his fingers. Ted hoped he didn't run out of hands before he got to the end of the list of things that had gone wrong with the first mission. "And maybe the team's about a nanometre away from eating each other in front of the international press corps, and no one thinks that I can lead, and Briggs only picked me because he thinks I'm a pushover. And okay, that last mission could have run more smoothly. But," he spread his hands flat and mimed sweeping the table clear. Only reflexes honed by years of super heroic exploits preserved Ted's beer. "We saved the whole damn planet. Us, Justice League International: We saved the Earth. The team came through okay, only a few minor injuries. We're new, and no one knows us yet, but a few more successful missions – and we will keep winning – a bit of good press, and we'll hit our stride. In a couple years, we'll have embassies all over the world, and Superman will be begging to join."
"And you'll make a killing on endorsements for sports cars?"
Booster wrinkled his nose. "No endorsements so long as I'm leading the team: UN rules. After, when I've graciously stepped aside to allow my hand-picked successor to take over? Sure. I'll hire that ghost writer, too, maybe go on a speaking tour."
It wasn't just his smile now, Booster's whole body radiated enthusiasm, and Ted tried to remember the last time he'd seen his friend look like that, when he hadn't just been pasting a smile on top of another dismal situation, but he'd really believed that he was going places. When was the last time either of them had had faith that it would work out in the end? Maybe this Booster had simply learned to be a better salesman.
"It's nice to know that you're so dedicated to the true ideals of heroism," he found himself saying. He wondered where the second pint had gone, and when, exactly, he'd turned into a cynical drunk, but Booster waved him off, unabashed.
"Everyone has an agenda, even Wonder Woman. At least I'm up front about mine."
Ted winced and decided that two beers wasn't going to begin to cover the week he was having.
Ted woke up fully dressed in a strange hotel room with only a faint recollection of how he'd gotten there. He remembered Melody, in there somewhere, bending over to kiss her while still trying to keep an eye on the road. Wait, no, that had been a dream, a replay of one of their nights on the town when they were both still in college. He hadn't even had that car for years.
The real story as it came back to him had involved g force, rain hitting his face, and both arms wrapped tightly around Booster's waist. He loved flying with Booster, that familiar arm wrapped around his ribs, their hips pressing together. When he was younger, he'd regretted that this was the closest they'd ever get. Years of shared secrets and grief later, he'd realised that there was more than one kind of intimacy, and that was okay too. It took Ted a moment more to remember that this wasn't his Booster, or even his world. Then he let his head sink back into the pillow until the worst of the spinning passed. When the room settled, he started to lever himself up incrementally, until after a few minutes he could swing his legs out of bed and lean on his knees.
Watery daylight streamed past the curtains, revealing the room in all its monotonous glory. It could be any mid-priced hotel room anywhere in the world, save for his one suitcase standing in a corner. He had to blink repeatedly and rub his eyes to make sense out of the alarm clock, but it looked something like mid morning. Saturday, thank God.
A piece of note paper stuck out from under the edge of the clock, with familiar loopy handwriting reading: Thanks for the good time —B. PS: The room's on the UN. Details of the night were starting to filter back, and he sifted through the two bars, the all-night diner, and a surprising lack of public nudity, but couldn't find anything too compromising. Hell, he'd had fun too. He and Booster hadn't just hung out for beers in a long time. Even if this wasn't exactly his best friend, and he didn't have all of the same memories, he still felt like the same man. Close enough to go drinking with, anyway.
"You're pathetic, Kord," Ted muttered to himself, and pried himself off the bed and stumbled toward the shower. When he was feeling sixty percent human again, he headed back to the JLI offices. It wasn't like he had anywhere else to go.
Ted hadn't been in the lab for five minutes when Tora knocked smartly on the robot carapace leaning next to the diagnostic system. "Can I come in?" She was in civvies, albeit white slacks and a pale blue sweater, and had a tray in one hand.
"What? Oh, sure. Hi." Seeing alive-amnesiac Tora was even stranger than new-amnesiac Booster. He didn't quite know what to say, so he held out a hand. "Ted Kord, Chief Cook and Button Pusher as of yesterday."
"I know. We met on the plane in Peru." She held out her hand anyway, and Ted took it in both of his. Warm and alive, thank god. "My name's Ice, if you don't remember that either. That's my superhero name, anyway. You can call me Tora if you like."
"Sure, nice to meet you, Tora." Ted made himself let go of her hand, and looked down at the tray. It had a bright purple sports drink, an extra-large Sundollar coffee, a plate of orange slices and a bottle of pain killers. "Is that for me? You're a goddess."
She grinned at him. "I am, actually." Balancing the try between two monitors, she pulled up a lab stool. "You looked even rougher than Mr. Gold did, and besides, it's an excuse to meet you properly. It's nice to have a new face around. We haven't had a mission since we last saw you and everyone's going stir crazy."
Ted tossed back a couple of pills and chased it with half the sports drink. "I appreciate... wait, Booster's here? Like before noon on a weekend?"
"Sure, he's usually the first one in every day." She stole an orange slice and started to peel back the skin, being careful not to get juice on her hands. "You two sure hit it off," she observed. "Do you know him from before or something?"
"I uh..." Ted couldn't think of what to say. Lying to Booster was one thing – half way to a tradition actually, though usually not about stuff that really mattered – but lying to Tora? "I just assumed he was a friendly kind of guy."
"Not with us, he's not. Unless it's about the team, our fearless leader is positively standoffish, and not just when Godiva's around. Want to know what I think?" The legs of the stool grated against the cement as she rocked it closer. He voice dropped to a whisper, and Ted leaned in. "I think he's got a secret identity."
Ted barely stopped himself from saying No shit! "Aren't superheroes supposed to have..."
Tora shook her head solemnly. "Not us. UN rules: everyone on the team has to have public identity. Code names like mine are fine, but no secrets. You should have seen how mad they got about Batman, and even Godiva got in trouble for changing her given name to Dora."
This was too good to pass up on. "You've got a point there. I mean, who names their kid 'Booster Gold.' You know what I think?" He dropped his own voice to a whisper, and Tora leaned in even closer. "His real name is probably something like Bart Wigenfelter; he lives in his parents' basement, and has never, ever had a girlfriend."
"What about all the women he's with in the papers? The actresses and supermodels." Tora asked, eyes gleaming.
"All PR. They're just in it for their careers." That part was probably somewhat true, which made it an even better story. "That's why he keeps to himself. He's terrified that you'll find out his dirty secret."
Tora's brow wrinkled, and she pouted a little. "But he's not afraid of you?"
"I'm tech support." Ted straightened and spread his arms to encompass the warehouse full of computers and partly-disassembled robots. "Nerds know no shame, especially penniless ones."
"Penniless but not friendless," she said and slid off the the stool. "Thanks for the gossip. It's way better than Bea's theory about a secret criminal past." Then with a smile and a pat on Ted's arm, she skipped out to the warehouse, brushing past Booster on her way out.
"She's never brought me breakfast," Booster whined as he took the empty seat and stole a couple of Ted's orange slices. He was in costume again, but still had his goggles pushed back. Ted snuck a look at his butt as his legs flexed to stay balanced. Same old Booster there, at least. Some of the juice had dripped onto his gloves, and he licked it off before looking up at Ted through fine blond eyelashes. "Should I be jealous?"
"Not unless you want the position of JLI mascot." Moving the plate only made Booster scoot closer and lift them from right in front of him. He wasn't going to get any at this rate. "I think I've been adopted."
"Maybe I can get Godiva to 'adopt' you too," Booster said, laughing, then leaned in even closer than Tora had, and said, "Actually, dropped by to talk to you about last night."
He sounded so serious that Ted had to run another review of events as he remembered them. He still couldn't think of anything too compromising, but then he was running on Old Booster standards. "What about it?" he asked cautiously.
"Nothing I just..." Booster pinched the bridge of his nose, and as Ted studied his face, he decided that Tora had to be wrong. There was no way that he looked more wrung out than Booster did. "I don't know why I said half the stuff I did, and the rumour mill's bad enough around here as it is, if you could..."
"Sure thing, buddy. What happens in the Dark Side stays in the Dark Side." He didn't mention that he'd already been making up gossip, but Booster would undoubtedly catch that one soon enough.
"Thanks." Booster nodded awkwardly and started to get up, but Ted caught his wrist.
"Listen, Booster, if you ever need to talk, I..." He met Booster's clear blue eyes and held them. "Well, I'm not exactly Mr. Sensitive, but I'm always willing to lend an ear if you need one."
"Especially if I'm buying the beer?" Booster asked, but some of the stiffness had left his shoulders and his smile looked warm and appreciative. When Ted didn't laugh, he added, "No, seriously, I'm grateful. You know, it's weird, I don't usually take to new people this fast. Somehow I just feel like I've known you for years."
Ted felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, and he had to let go of Booster's wrist so he wouldn't notice him shiver. He swallowed a couple times, then said, "Yeah. Me too. Weird, huh?"
Skeets' voice broke in on whatever Booster might have said next. "Sir, alleged meta humans are attacking S.T.A.R. Labs in Chicago. The branch head is requesting all available assistance."
Booster was halfway to the ceiling before Ted had time to get out of his chair. His force field shimmered around him, and Ted could see the fluctuations as it cycled up into battle readiness. "Skeets, how long..." Then he stopped in place with a jerk that had to be ten Gs, and swore. "Never mind. Booster Gold to all JLI members. Level three alert. Anyone not in the shuttle in five minutes gets left behind."
"Forgot you had a team, huh?" Ted asked as Booster drifted back to the floor. Booster glared, but Ted just shrugged, smiled and started packing tools. Glare proving ineffective, Booster pulled up a couple of digital display panes. Those were new. Ted made planes to steal Booster’s suit and take it apart.
"Okay, Skeets, I guess you can catch me up now instead of on the way." Images started to appear on the panes, and Ted edged around his bench for a better look. The first showed an aerial view of the exterior of S.T.A.R. Labs, apparently undisturbed; the second, a street view of the main entrance, had a little more activity. Or rather, less activity; the normally hectic street was cordoned off and still. Two Chicago PD squad cars sat motionless in the foreground. Booster waved to the next image, internal security footage of five masked figures bursting into the lobby. They moved with oiled grace in tight coordination, the first over the receptionist counter before security even drew on them, the next two moving in and snapping the guards' necks. They had the whole lobby contained in seconds, without a shot fired or an alarm sounded. The remain assailants moved out of the picture, which turned to static a moment later. The monitors returned to the exterior views. Ted felt his mouth go dry, and forced himself to turn back to his tool kit.
"As you can see, sir," Skeets was saying, voice as calm and clinical as ever. Ted knew that he was Booster's friend, maybe Booster's only friend in this timeline, but there were times when he really wanted to hit that sanctimonious little toaster. "The strength displayed by the attackers indicates a meta human nature. At the moment it is assumed that they're holding the building hostage, but no demands have been made."
"What about Murray?"
"Who?" Booster's head whipped around to face Ted, the display panes blinking out; apparently he'd forgotten that Ted was there at all.
"Murray Takamoto," Ted replied, trying to sound completely reasonable. "Branch head in Chicago."
Booster still looked unsure, or maybe just not sure of Ted, and it was Skeets who explained, "Mr. Takamoto made the initial call from inside the building, and sent on the security footage I've just shown you. Unfortunately, the call cut off after only forty-two seconds. Since then, there have been no communications in or out of the building."
The door to the warehouse lab burst open, and Ice hopped in, still pulling on one of her boots, with Fire right behind her. Rocket Red and General Iron followed half a minute later, almost getting jammed in the doorway as they tried to come in at once. "Godiva and Vixen are right behind us," Ice said, finally getting her boot straight and freezing the floor enough to skate for the shuttle, "And Guy says he'll fly himself."
Ted snapped the tool box shut. "I'm driving," he told Booster.
"What? No you are not! I can fly it just fine."
Ignoring him, Ted picked up the tool box, and strode towards the shuttle. He stepped around Booster without pausing. "Not if you're not in it. What if you need a different pick up point, or a fast getaway, or, God forbid, the building blows up?"
Booster hovered then flared ahead to keep pace. "I'll just slave it to my suit controls like I did the last jet."
"Oh, right. Remember how when you hired me you said, 'Teddy, old boy, what I really need you to do is build an interface between my fantastically-advanced fibreweave-circuitry costume and my new, fantastically-advanced alien spaceship, so make that your first priority'?"
"I never said that."
"Exactly." Ted dashed up the ramp, ducked around General Iron, jumped over Bea's legs and made the pilot's seat before Booster caught up. "And since this ship was made by a race of paranoid alien warlords who thought the Cylons were out to get them, and not a friendly – if over-caffeinated – tech company from Star City, your suit can't just hack in. This thing's got so much security that you can't even use the comms remotely, remember?" The chair still was still made for someone a lot bigger than him, and he had to stretch to reach the farthest controls. It made him look less nonchalant and more rushed than he wanted, but whatever worked. The little ship whirred to life around them.
"Fine, whatever." Booster landed beside him, bracing one hand against the back of the chair and the other on the starboard bulkhead. "But first thing after we get back, you're setting up a remote control on this sucker. And if you try do anything besides hold the mules, I'm firing you."
"If you're making a list," Bea yelled from somewhere in the back, "I want chairs."
"With seatbelts," Tora added.
"And I would like pony," Rocket Red chipped in.
Booster let his head fall against the bulkhead. "Can we go now?"
"Oy, hold on a tick, not without us." Godiva and Vixen burst in, which caused a general reshuffling in the back as everyone tried not to sit next to someone they didn't like. Thank God Guy was flying on his own.
"Now we can go." The loading doors started to roll aside, and Ted punched in the sequence for take off, and the little ship launched into the grey December skies.
It only took ten minutes to get to Chicago, and most of that was acceleration and deceleration. It took twice that time again for Booster to get his team of cats herded into something resembling a plan of action. Fire and Rocket Red wanted to go and go now, and were keyed up and snappish. Booster still didn't seem completely clear on his team's powers, though he was trying to hide it by asking for volunteers for specific jobs. They still had no idea what, exactly, they were up against. Guy wanted to just blow the roof of the building go in shooting. The August General in Iron was laughing at them, silently of course, but Ted knew it to be true.
"What are you grinning about?" Booster snapped.
"What?" Ted hadn't realised he was. He tried to stop and couldn't. "I guess I'm just happy not to be filling out forms." Happy to have his family back and whole and alive. It didn't matter if they didn't know him, they were here. This was the second – or third, or sixtieth – chance that he never thought he'd get.
Booster snorted. "Now that you mention it, me too." He leaned in to activate the comms. "You ready, G.L.?"
"Been ready since I got here, pretty boy."
"Open the hatch."
Even hovering ten feet behind the ship, Guy was only just visible through the clouds. Ted turned to watch as Tora took Bea's hand for a moment then stepped out onto a glowing green fur-lined sleigh. "Give me five minutes," she said, then faded into the cloud.
Ted closed the hatch again, and upped the internal heat a few degrees. He flipped through displays; the low-hanging clouds they were hiding in wiped out a lot of the passive scanners, and he didn't want to risk pinging the building and warning everyone inside. Anything that fed pure data was in a language he didn't understand. He could still patch in the street-level views, but there wasn't anything happening there. A lot more cops had arrived, including S.W.A.T., but they were all pretty much milling. No one had seen any movement from the building since the initial attack. He flicked to another screen, then set the monitors to cycle through different views.
Booster was leaning in to watch, so close that Ted could feel his breath on the back of his neck. "There," Booster said, tapping a monitor. "It's started." A few flakes of snow were lazily drifting across the screen. By the time the view returned to that camera, two dozen more flakes had joined it. The next cycle showed a complete white out on all cameras. He straightened and turned to the back. "Okay, team two, you're up."
Freezing air and snow blasted into the cabin, and Fire, Rocket Red and Vixen jumped out into the blizzard.
"Christ, that's cold," Godiva complained, wrapping her hair around herself.
"Good thing too," Booster said. "They'd never buy a freak blizzard in July."
A tendril of hair snaked past Ted to creep up Booster's leg. "Feel like huddling together for warmth?"
The little ship didn't have enough room to back away, but Booster tried it anyway, hovering out of the hair's reach. "Ah, no. My suit's insulated, thanks."
"There's Fire," Ted said, pulling up a police camera and expanding it. The snow had almost completely obscured the view, but he could still make out a green figure disappearing into the S.W.A.T. mobile command unit. "The locals should be in on the plan now." Whether they liked it or not. Booster hadn't exactly consulted them.
"Can you see where the others are?"
"Nope. Hopefully no one else can, either." The comms panel beeped twice, Rocket Red's signal. "Shouldn't be long now."
"Right. Yeah." Every muscle in Booster's body was strung so tight Ted could almost see them vibrating through the suit. He was still hovering slightly above the deck, arms folded across his chest, face deliberately blank.
Ted smiled sympathetically. "I don't like waiting, either."
"A good–" General Iron started to say.
"August General, if you quote Sunzi at me one more time, I will not be–" Booster stopped and took a breath. "Sorry."
The General laughed, an odd creaking sound that set Ted's teeth on edge. "I am just remembering the first time I led men into battle," he said. "I was so nervous that I think I turned green."
"Oh, sorry." He landed and turned back to the monitors. "Kord, can you see–"
"I'll let you know."
Silence closed in around them again, so close Ted could almost taste it. He wanted to break the tension, but he was drawing a total blank on anything that didn't start with "Knock, knock." He wanted to lighten the mood, not start a race to see which superhero would clobber him first.
Everyone one jumped when the comm beeped again.
"Did everyone get that?" Booster asked.
He turned abruptly. It only took him three long strides to get to the back. "Open her up. Your lucky day, Godiva: you and the General are with me until we hit the roof." The last thing he said before he stepped out into the snow was, "Remember, Kord, do anything besides hold the mules, and you're fired."
Then Ted was left alone in an empty ship. He sighed and turned back to the control panels. If he couldn't go along, then maybe he could get some more info out of the scanners. Or rewire the ship into a full-service bar, grill and black hole generator. Or something to kill time.
This was why Ted hated being the science guy and button pusher: all his friends rushed off into danger, leaving him behind to twiddle his thumbs and fret. More so in this case than usual, given the communications blackout inside the building. He couldn't even follow the action.
He knew the plan, hell, he'd helped make it, and he could picture everything as it happened: Tora creating a snow storm; Rocket Red hacking past the security and locks on the roof; Vixen – armed with override chips and manifesting a chameleon to avoid cameras and infra-red scanners – taking over security on the top few floors. Then everyone had gone in, save Bea on front door watch duty, and Ted stuck up here. They were supposed follow Vixen down, as far as the controlled labs in the sub basements if need be, and take care of the mystery assailants as they went. Supposed to, with no comms, no idea who or what they were up against, and a long history of JLI missions never, ever going to plan.
Not like Ted was limiting himself to worrying about the team or the plan, either. Why the hell did Murray Takamoto have to be such a goddamn workaholic? Why couldn't he take Saturday off and sleep in like a normal Earth human? They could have picked up him on the way in and got a proper run down of blueprints and valuable projects, not just out-dated City Hall copies and the bits and pieces Ted could remember. Instead Ted didn't know if he was alive or dead, if any of them were.
He checked his readouts again: with Tora inside, the snow had lightened up, but he still couldn't see a thing. On the ground, the cops were clearing drifts away from their equipment, but the building was as still and silent as a brick.
Man, when he got his hands on whatever they were using to wipe out every transmission inside the building, he was... well he wasn't sure what yet, but it was probably going to involve four hours, an acetylene torch and a modern art installation. Or, now that he thought of it, he could mesh it with the other impenetrable jamming system he'd run into this week.
His watch said only fifteen minutes since Booster had left.
Keeping a corner of his eye on the screens, he started pulling the front panel apart. He wanted to test a theory.
"Booster, this is Bee... the shuttle, do you copy?" Ted held his breath, as if that small sound would make a difference when he had the volume cranked as high as he did.
But Booster's voice came through clear as a bell, and only a little winded. "Five by five, shuttle. Good to hear your voice. I thought the building was jammed."
Ted slumped back into the pilot's seat, letting the splicer fall into the tool box. "It was; I fixed it. Short version is we found the missing bits of robot head. How's it going down there?"
"Um..." Booster hesitated, sounding chagrined. "Kind of hard to tell. I think they know we're here, but they seem to be avoiding us. Vixen, you see anything?"
"I ran into one in the second security room, but it threw me into a wall and ran away. Whatever they are, they're fast and pack quite a punch."
"Where are you now?"
"Main access point to the sub levels. I need Gavril to get the door open."
"Okay." Another pause. "General Iron, Gardner, I want you on secondary exits. Everyone else, meet up with Vixen. We'll move in together."
The transmission broke down into static, then a grunt and an animal snarl. Ted snapped upright, reaching for the controls before he realised he couldn't do a damn thing.
"Vixen, status?" Silence. "Vixen! Dammit, who's closest?"
"Vixen here. All five just blew past me, heading for the upper. Two of them were carrying a large crate between them."
"Did they have hostages?"
"Not that I saw."
Then a crash, a squeal of feedback and Russian profanity. "They got by me too. I hit leader with hardest shot. No damage."
"Godiva, General Iron, heads up. They're–" Booster's signal gave out.
Ted could feel his pulse pounding and every muscle tensing, ready for a fight. Hell with going into action, just sitting here was going to give him a heart attack.
More silence, then the General's hollow voice, "We are fighting robots. My staff is able to damage them, but barely."
"Try to confuse their sensors," Ted yelled at the comm. "Energy discharges, vibrations, anything, then hit them when they're disorientated."
"Yeah, that didn't work," Guy snarled. "Got any other bright ideas, genius?"
Damn, that was usually pretty reliable. "I'll get back to you."
"I tried icing one to a wall, but it broke the wall."
"Blimey, they can fly!"
"Kord, they're out of the building and headed up. Fire, intercept!"
The console was flashing purple at him, which Ted didn't think was good. "Weapons. Weapons." His fingers ran over the switches, trying to remember the power distribution system. "No weapons. I'll put it on the list after a pony."
One of the hijacked cop cameras showed the five small black figures in tight formation bursting out of the building; two carried a box between them. A green flame shot after them, but they ignored her, barely even shuddering under her plasma blasts. A second later, Guy, Booster and Rocket Red shot through the broken window. Then street view blinked out, replaced with a muddy radar image and a purple blotch headed right for where the shuttle was hidden in the clouds.
"Come on, come on..." No weapons. But the ship did have a laser of sorts. From the power it pulled, Ted figured it might just do the trick. "Guy, I have another idea, but I need to get close, can you net them or something?"
"I got it," Booster said.
According to the radar, the blotch was almost on top of him, but Ted saw the flash of yellow before the black shapes. Biting his lip, he manoeuvred the ship right up to the edge of Booster's force field.
"Better hurry," Booster snapped. "These guys are siphoning power. I don't know how long the force field will hold."
"Hang on, buddy." There, almost lined up. "Drop shield in three, two, now!"
The golden shell vanished. Ted nosed the ship forward the last two yards, then hit the laser cutters on full power. All the screens dimmed, then flared green, then cut out. He felt his stomach hit the roof of his mouth as the ship dropped. Then navigation blinked back to life again, and the ship righted itself. Only then did the restraints snap into place. Ted added it to the list.
"Shuttle, this is Booster. You okay in there, Ted?"
"Everything's fine," he said, then remembered to check the screens to make sure that was actually true. "Still flight worthy, anyway." Mostly. "Did it work?"
Booster laughed, the sound crackling over the speakers. "You could say that."
The sensors were starting to come back, though the ones on the forward sections seemed to have been knocked out entirely. "What the hell was that?"
"Gardner and Fire hit the first robot at the same time you did, must have ruptured its power core and set off a chain reaction because–"
"Robots make big explosion," Rocket Red cut in cheerfully. "Probably picking up pieces in Russia."
Wow. Okay, that had been a little more than Ted had been going for. "All of them?" He asked. "Is everyone okay?" He could see four little blips on the screens, at least.
"Everyone's fine," Booster said.
Bea snorted. "Booster got a bit singed."
Yeah, Ted thought, I'll bet you are. The wind was starting to pick up, making the shuttle pitch in ways that it really shouldn't. "If you guys don't mind, I'm going to put down on the roof." He hoped the circled "H" in the middle indicated it was rated for small spaceships as well as large helicopters. The snow muffled some of the impact in what wasn't his best landing, but he didn't go through the roof. God bless S.T.A.R. Labs construction. Ted had only been wearing coveralls over shorts and a light shirt when he left, and he shivered as he stepped out into the full blast of Chicago winter. Bea was just landing and he folded his arms against the cold and shuffled closer to her.
A moment later, Booster landed lightly on the roof, hair blackened, suit charrd through to the circuitry across his back and arms, but setting down the stolen chest and grinning like an idiot. Ted could have kissed him. "Justice League International wins again!" he crowed.
"Whatever's in there, it'd better be good." Bea said.
Guy stepped forward, brandishing a giant can opener. "If it's gold, I want a cut."
"I wouldn't," Another voice called from across the roof. "I think we've had enough explosions for one day."
Ted spun, slipped in the snow, let Bea catch his arm, and skidded towards the roof access. "Murray! Hey. Are you okay?" He looked okay, paler, but about the usual level of rumpled. The rest of the team was standing behind him in the elevator. Ted felt like his birthday had come early.
Murray approached the box cautiously, eyes widening as he saw Booster's suit. "Did you..." he choked, then fell to his knees in the snow, intimately examining the box. "Did you blow up a crate full of Promethium?"
"That's Promethium?" Ted had a sudden urge to throw up. "Oh. God."
Booster to took a step back, eyes narrowing. "I have no idea what that is," he said, a little defensively. "But we did not blow it up. We blew up the killer robots, while carefully shielding the box of whatsit." As in Booster had thrown his personal forcefield around the crate, and got caught in the explosion. Ted, however, had fired high-powered cutting lasers near the thing. He rubbed a hand over his face and tried not to think about it.
"Which is why the building's still standing," Murray was saying, still protectively holding the box, though he'd already gone over the seals twice. "We're trying to tap into it as a source of perpetual energy by getting it to bond with something more stable; in its raw form it's highly reactive."
"As in extremely reactive." Ted added. "And unstable. Did we mention unstable?"
Murray frowned at him, but didn't say anything as he shakily got to his feet. "The sooner we get it back in a controlled environment, the happier I'll be."
"Sure, fine. It's freezing out here anyway." This time, Booster handled the box a lot more gingerly. "You can fill us in on the way down."
Ted took Murray's elbow, steadying him as the headed back inside. "How do you know about Promethium?" Murray asked, keeping his voice low enough that the others wouldn't hear it over the wind. "We hadn't even discovered it before you disappeared."
Oops."Something I ran into with the Cluster."
"Really, and they called..." Murray's cell buzzed, and Ted let go of his arm, ducking away to stand next to Bea again. With Rocket Red and the General, the elevator was only rated for half the team at once. Ted let the others go first.
"Nice flying," Bea said, deliberately increasing her flame. The snow melted around them and soaked through Ted's shoes.
"Thanks. You too."
Ice backed away a few steps. "Do you think Mr. Gold will fire you?"
"I hope not; I'm just starting to get the hang of this job." Though if he wanted to keep it, he was going to have to start being more careful about remembering what he was supposed to know.
Murray didn't catch up with him until the end of the day, when he had the nose of the shuttle pulled apart and was too deep in blown circuits to see him coming.
"Hey, Roomie," Murray called out from six inches behind him, and he started, slamming his head on the hatch.
"Hey! That– Wait, is that coffee?" Wrapping his hands around the steel travel mug, he decided, "I forgive you for everything you've ever done."
"Even the time with..."
"Everything!" Murray had put in more cream and sugar than coffee, just the way Ted had taken it in college. He sipped for a few minutes, letting Murray drool over the ship's innards. His friend has always been more of an administrator than an engineer in his own right, but he'd worked around enough advanced technology to appreciate a captured spaceship.
"Quite the job you've got here." Ted felt himself tense at the forced casualness in Murray's voice. Was he still worried about the Promethium, or was this something new?
"My first day certainly has been interesting," he said, trying to sound neutral. Unconsciously stepping aside so he wasn't backed into the ship and had space to take a swing probably counted against anything in his tone though.
Murray spread his hands appealingly, his own mug trailing tea across the ground. "Hey, ease up. I'm still your best friend, right?" Which Ted realised was true for this timeline, though from his perspective he'd lost track of Murray years ago. Now he wondered how he'd let that happen. He hadn't let the Atlantic get in the way of other friendships. "Even if you have been avoiding me all afternoon."
"I'm actually more trying to keep out of reach of that S.W.A.T. captain who keeps yelling at everyone. Plus I need to make sure that this tub is in decent enough shape to make it back to New York, and..." Murray was watching him steadily. "And I'm maybe avoiding you a little bit. Sorry, it's just... " He looked at the sensors, now patched as best as he could manage here, then at the otherwise empty roof. "Look, why don't I show you the inside of the ship. I'm freezing my ass off out here anyway." That was true enough; he'd borrowed a parka and gloves, but the wind still cut through it. Murray silently helped him reseal the sensors, then pack up his tools. Only when they were both inside with hatch closed and the heat turned up did Ted finish. "I've got a lot going on right now, and it's hard enough to keep it all straight in my head without..." He couldn't think of any way to finish that that wasn't straight up insulting.
"Without lying to your friends?" Murray suggested. He was sitting in the pilot's seat, posture held deliberately open and non-threatening, and looking for all the world like the feeling of hostility physically embodied.
Ted had felt better about himself when he's found out he'd nearly vaporised the city block. Staring at the floor didn't seem to be helping, so he met Murray's eyes, and admitted."Yeah, without that." He crouched so he wasn't looming over the chair. "There's stuff going on since I got back that I can't tell you or anyone else about, important, fate of the universe stuff. If it makes you feel any better, I promise it's nothing that will involve you or your lab, but I can't... what?"
Murray's expression had softened from annoyed to almost pitying. "It's too late for that."
"Oh, god." Ted tried to think of what he'd done since he got back. He couldn't remember anything that would have hurt his friend, but then he couldn't account for what Rip Hunter might have done. "What happened?"
"Those robots or whatever they were weren't just here for the Promethium, Ted," Murray told him. "I spent a lot of time alone with them – taking more time than I needed to make it ready for transport, trying to keep them away from my people. And here's something I haven't even told the cops yet: one of them kept asking where you were. They knew we were connected, and they wanted you. Not that it matters what I told them now, but I said I didn't know, that you'd left." He his hands steady in his lap, but his right thumb ran steadily back and forth over his left knuckles. Ted doubted that he realised he was doing it. "Then that call I got, right when you ducked out on me, that was the police letting me know someone had broken into my apartment same time the lab was hit. Security footage showed two superhumanly-fast masked figures in black. And you know what the police thought was odd?" He didn't wait for Ted to answer, but pressed on relentlessly. "They didn't take anything or even toss the place. They just broke in, looked around and left. Like they were looking for something big, say a person, and not a USB drive full of files."
Ted had sunk all the way to the floor so that his knees were pulled up in front of him. "I don't... I'm so sorry, Murray." Pulling himself together, he said honestly, "I don't know what's going on. I'm not even supposed to be alive!" In this timeline or in any other. "How can someone be after me already?"
Murry leaned forward, bracing his forearms on his knees. "That's what I came here to find out. From where I'm sitting, killer robots are looking for you and a top a secret project you're not supposed to know about, and I have a trashed lab and two people in the morgue."
Ted considered just laying it all out, but somehow he didn't think that I come from a reshuffled timeline was going to convince Murry of anything. Instead he fell back on the kind of limited truth that he'd been spinning since he landed in Peraxxus' brig. "I swear I don't know anything about the attack, and I don't know who's looking for me or why." But he sure planned to find out and soon. "I did know that you had Promethium, or did a few years back, but I didn't tell anyone, and there's no way in the world anyone else could have found out the same way I did."
"What about your alien friends?"
"Possible, but not very likely. Booster blew Peraxxus up, and this has had far too little melodrama to be Manga Khan."
"Okay." Murray sighed and slumped back in the chair, hands falling loosely on his knees.
"Okay." Murray confirmed. He stood and reached down to pull Ted to his feet. "How long have we known each other, Roomie? It's got to be ten years now, even if you've been gone for half of them. If you swear you don't know who did this, I believe you." His grip tightened. "But you've got to promise me one more thing, Ted: you take down whoever's behind this, and, when you do, you let me know."
Ted nodded, squeezing back. "I promise I'll do my best."
"Thank you. I..." He paused, trying to figure out how to say how much he meant that. He'd never been all that good with words. "This means the world to me. You're a good friend, and I'm not just saying that because I owe you money."
The last of the tension eased from the cabin as Murray laughed. "And don't think I'll forget it. Now, show me this ship of yours."
Neither Max nor J'onn, and certainly never Bruce, had ever done much to encourage unit cohesion. Most likely, they decided that if everyone got through the day without killing each other, they should call it a win. Consequently, the team had been left to form friendships, and enmities, on their own time, and any trust building exercises were done while fighting Khunds or Para-Demons.
Booster, however, declared it Victory Over the Dark Side Night, and insisted they all go out and bond. Out of costume. Using real names. Ted could only assume this was because he was new.
Predictably, Guy laughed in his face and called him a loser; Bea said she had better things to do on a Saturday night; Tora went with Bea, and Fang claimed that he didn't drink. Ted tried to say that he was technically support staff and thus didn't need to bond, and besides he had work to do, but Booster gave him one of the most woebegone puppy dog looks he'd ever seen, and he'd folded like a bad hand.
Which was how Ted ended up jammed in the corner of a both absolutely not meant for five people, in a bar he'd never much cared for in any incarnation in any timeline. For the second night in a row. Gavril and Mari sat on either side of him, clutching drinks and giving each other the blank stare of two people who'd had to spend all day together, might not actually even like each other, and absolutely couldn't think of anything else to say. A hockey game was playing full blast on all screens, drowning out most attempts at conversation anyway. Across the booth, Dorcus – Dora, Ted reminded himself – was edging further and further into Booster's space, and if Booster shifted over another quarter of an inch, he was going to fall off the edge of the bench. Ted finished his sangria and considered ordering a pitcher.
"As much fun as this is, I need to..." Ted gestured vaguely at the back of the bar.
"Ah, yes," Gavril said, sliding out of the booth so that Ted could get up. "The room for small boys." As he twisted to get between tables packed with men in jerseys, Ted heard him yell to Mari, "I think I will soon pack in the night." And Mari say she thought that was the best idea she'd heard all night.
The men's room had a trough instead of urinals, which Ted could only hope was meant to be ironic not historic, and only one of the stalls still had a door. Ted would have locked himself in it for the rest of the night, but he didn't think he'd be able to take the smell. Peraxxus' brig had had better facilities, and it hadn't even been meant for humans. Ted was willing to concede that this bar wasn't either. Nonetheless, he took his time washing his hands and mending his shredded nerves. Booster was so wrapped up in Dora, literally as well as figuratively, that he probably wouldn't even notice if Ted slipped back to the lab. He had a shoe box of surviving robot bits that he needed to look at if he was going to keep his promises.
A couple of young bucks pushed past him on the way out, the taller one laughing so hard that kept collapsing against his friend's shoulder. Ted shook his head, remembering how he and Booster used to crawl worse bars than this when they'd first joined the league. Hell, last night he'd been too smashed to care what the toilets looked like. All a matter of perspective, he supposed. Maybe he should get that pitcher after all.
Looking across the bar, Ted saw that hockey fans had taken over the booth. He could see Dora at the bar, but none of the others. They must have taken Red's suggestion and gone home. He shook his head and started towards the door, deciding to go back to his hotel and get an early start tomorrow.
On the big screen, puck connected with net, and the whole bar roared in triumph. Someone behind Ted threw up her arms, toppling him forwards and straight into Booster.
"Hey, sorry," Ted said, grabbing Booster's shoulders for balance.
"Are you leaving too?" Booster was frowning at him, and Ted started feeling guilty all over again.
"Long day." He had to yell it twice to make himself heard over the noise of the game. "Sorry."
"I'll give you a ride."
Ted wasn't completely sure where his hotel was from here, so he wasn't going to turn that one down. The rush of wind in his face undid most of the wine's good work, but he didn't mind. He'd missed this.
"That went well," Booster grumbled after he set them down on the tiny balcony. "I think they hate each other more now."
"The team'll come together," Ted told him, squeezing his shoulder before he stepped away. "I think you kind of just have to let it happen on its own."
"You're not the one who ended up telling Godiva he was gay."
"It seemed like the only way to get her off me. I told her I thought Red and General Iron were together too, so hopefully she'll set her cap for Guy next."
"But..." Ted couldn't actually think which part of of that he thought was the worst idea, so he just shoved the sliding door open and waved Booster inside. Some conversations he absolutely wasn't having on a minuscule hotel room deck in the middle of a windy night in December. "But you're not gay. You can't just say you’re gay if you're not. It's like misrepresenting minorities or something."
Booster shrugged, pushing the door closed so he could lean against it. "Who says I'm not?"
"But you're not." Ted wasn't going to let that point go. "I mean, what about..." he had to struggle to think up an example that he was supposed to know about. "What about all those women with you in the magazines?"
"Those were mostly models and actresses in it for the PR." Ted mentally high-fived Tora. "My first manager told me there wasn't a lot of good press to be made by dating other guys, not if I wanted to get national product endorsements. Then again, that was the guy who turned into a supervillain and stole all my money, so maybe I shouldn't have taken his advice so seriously. It doesn't matter right now anyway, and it does look good for the team's diversity." When Ted didn't respond, he added, "Okay fine, technically I'm bi or pan or whatever, not gay, but Godiva doesn't need to know that. Give that woman an inch, she'll take a foot, and pretty soon I won't have a leg to stand on."
"This really is a brave new world," was all Ted could think to say. All those nights on the town. All that tom catting, surely...
Booster folded his arms. "You're not a 'phobe or something, are you?"
"No, no, of course, not," Ted protested hastily. "I'm just... surprised." I've known you half my life and you never told me, he wanted to say. But then, I never told you either. That, at least, he could change. "I am too. Bi, I mean. I'm bi too."
"Ha!" Booster crowed, grinning that brilliant, victorious grin again. "I knew it."
"You did?" Aside from the conspiring parties in a few college flings, and maybe Murray Takamoto, no one knew. He hadn't even told Barbara Gordon, and he'd told her pretty much everything, whether it was overshare or not. And, of course, he'd never said a word to his best friend, and old Booster, his Booster, had certainly had shown no sign of knowing.
"Kinda/sorta. I hoped you swung my way." Booster shrugged as if he saw no difference between a finely-tuned working gaydar and one powered by positive thinking. "I mean, I've already seen you without a shirt, and you look pretty good, and you're scary smart and good in a fight, and I think you like me. At least, you haven't told me to fuck off and leave you alone, though possibly that's in my near future."
Ted felt like the Red Queen's slower brother, running as fast as he could and still two steps behind. "Wait, hang on. You brought me to a hotel room to try and seduce me?"
"Um... sort of?" Booster muttered, looking at the floor. Colour had started to rise in his neck and cheeks. "Only if you want me to."
Ted gaped. Then he pointed at Booster, snapped, "You. Stay right there!" turned on his heel and locked himself in the bathroom.
Bracing on the edge of the basin, Ted stared into the mirror. He didn't think he looked a lot different than he had ten days ago, or whenever this mess had started. A little leaner, a little paler, maybe, but the same guy. And if that guy, the old him from the other timeline, had been propositioned by Booster Gold be wouldn't have said anything besides, "Yes, please!" and taken his pants off. If he hadn't been so sure Booster had been one-hundred-percent completely and utterly straight, he would have made the move himself.
Only it seemed that hadn't been the case, or maybe it wasn't the case anymore (seriously, what the hell did "pan" even mean?). So either his old Booster had kept that secret for years – the same one that Ted himself had he had to admit – or somehow he wasn't the same person. Surely people's sexualities didn't get reshuffled with timelines, did they? This Booster was the same as his own Booster in almost ever other way. Different costume, slightly different history, and of course he didn't know Ted. Ted considered for a moment that his superpower might be making people straight. Which was ridiculous, obviously, but so was his life.
He really didn't know why this particular event had pushed beyond ridiculous into completely ludicrous. The facts were not complicated. Even back when they barely knew each other, Ted would have slept with old Booster in a heartbeat. The reason he hadn't was that he didn't think Booster was interested. This Booster was more or less the same as his Booster. This Booster wanted to seduce him in a hotel room. Ergo... Therefore... Logically...
Splashing cold water on his face didn't seem to make any of it more clear.
Logically, there was was also the lying his ass off to Booster. Which, despite what Rip Fucking Hunter said, wasn't firm footing for anything. That and killer robots of unknown origin were trying to hunt him down, and his life was a total mess, and everything in the world had changed and this was just too damn much. This could be the step that tipped his life into the Gordian Knots of mare's nests and he'd never swim free, and wow, that metaphor had gotten out of hand.
On the other hand, when it came down to it, he trusted Booster, and no matter that he was lying about a few minor details, like his entire life history, Booster could always trust Ted to have his back. Blue and Gold forever. Besides, when were killer robots of unknown origins not trying to kill him?
On the third hand – and why not? having three hands was less outrageous than the power to make people straight – this could endanger the most important relationship in his life. Which was, on a forth hand, a completely ridiculous excuse given that his life was apparently made up of time travellers, killer robots and lies. When would he have time to screw anything up? He'd be too busy fighting robots.
He drew the line at five hands.
Ted dried his face, sucked in his gut, and reached for the door. Logically nothing. He had a gorgeous, willing superhero standing in his bedroom. Life didn't get a lot simpler than that.
Booster had clearly been pacing around the room, and stopped, frozen in mid stride beside the TV when he heard the latch click. He watched Ted with wide, confused eyes.
"Sorry about that," Ted told him, closing the door behind him and going to stand by the bed. "I've had kind of a strange week; just needed a minute to catch up. I'd love to..." Take you up on your offer sounded to financial, and have you spend the night was outright pathetic. "Do whatever you'd like," he finished awkwardly, then immediately decided that the first two had been better.
As though someone had flipped a switch, Booster melted from fight or flight to on the prowl. "Is 'I was just abducted by aliens' going to be your excuse for everything?" he asked, sauntering over. "Because I think it's starting to get old. But since," he looped his arms around Ted's neck, "you'll let me do whatever I'd like, I'll let it go. This time." He said the last right into Ted's ear, the hiss of the 's' making him shiver in anticipation.
All the things he'd seen surfing porn on the Internet flashed through Ted's mind. He tried to remember if he'd seen Booster bookmark any alarming ones. His physical porn collection had always been pretty tame, and entirely heterosexual. "What, uh..." he swallowed. "What do you have in mind?"
One of Booster's hands kept a light grip on the back of Ted's neck, the other smoothed down his shirt until his fingers could slide under his belt to trace his hip bone. "Why don't I get you out of those clothes and see where it goes from there?" And then he kissed him.
It started almost tentative, just a brush of the lips on the corner of Ted's mouth, like Booster still wasn't completely sure what was going on, or if Ted was okay with it. When Ted opened his mouth instead of protesting, or pulling away, Booster moved in again, a little more confidently this time.
Ted's hands had been plucking at Booster's jacket, but as their lips touched, he clenched a double handful of leather and yanked Booster against him. He pushed up, deepening and intensifying what had been an exploratory kiss. Moaning, Ted bit at Booster's lower lip, then swiped his tongue along it. That wasn't close enough so he tilted his head so they could open their mouths against each other. Their tongues touched, and he pushed forward again, pressing their bodies together. He felt as though someone had lit a fire under him; this was everything he'd ever wanted, and he didn't care what happened, he just wanted more now.
He felt Booster's hands everywhere, tugging his shirt out of his pants, running open palmed across the planes of his back, dipping under his belt, sliding lower to grab his ass, then up to run though his hair again. They couldn't get closer, but they both kept pushing. Booster fell back a step, then another, until he stumbled and thudded into the wall. Their teeth collided, drew blood, and Ted only paused long enough to lick his lips, then he pushed forward again. He nipped at Booster's jaw, then at his pulse point. The leather bomber jacket got in the way of anything further down, and he pushed at it impatiently, exposing a flash of shoulder. He kissed the tanned skin, then sucked enough to make a mark. Booster moaned into Ted's hair, clutching at his shoulders, pushing down.
They didn't need to say anything. They didn't even need to get to the part of the plan where Booster stripped Ted's clothes. Booster pushed, and Ted sank to his knees. He rubbed his cheek against Booster's erection as it pressed against his jeans, and hummed as Booster tried to stifle a cry. For once he didn't fumble with buckles or buttons or zippers, and the jeans came open just like he wanted them to. Booster, of course, wasn't wearing any underwear.
Only then did Ted pause. He looked up, savouring Booster above him, still fully dressed, but flushed, eyes wide and dark, and mouth open and gasping. "Don't st–" Booster started to say but then Ted grabbed his ass with one hand and the base of his cock with the other. His head snapped back, striking the wall, and he gasped. "Fuck, please don't stop." His fingers dug into Ted's shoulders. "Don't ever stop."
"Don't let me," Ted said recklessly. He took Booster's right hand and moved it to the back of his head. Then he squeezed Booster's cock again and licked. Hips snapped forward, both hands holding his head in place, but he had his mouth wide and ready. He took in as much as he could, then ran into his own hand. Loosening his hold made Booster ease up, and he pulled away a little, sucking hard as he did. He could feel Booster's whole body shudder, and he shook with it. Ted didn't know if he'd ever been this turned on, and Booster had hardly touched him yet. This was going to be the one thing that he could have that wasn't fucking complicated. More. Now.
Another push, and he relaxed into it, tilting his head to swallow even more this time. His lips folded in to cover his teeth, the tip of his tongue tracing zig zags, and he growled deep in his throat. Booster made fists in his hair, trying to push and pull at the same time. His hips jerked spasmodically now, having lost all control. It only took a tiny graze of teeth to make him yelp, stiffen, and fill Ted's mouth.
Ted meant to swallow but it had been a long time since he'd done this, and it didn't quite work out. He ended up coughing and and spluttering, falling to all fours. Booster, who'd been using him for balance, tumbled after. Booster's shoulder hit Ted squarely in the kidney, and then breathing wasn't happening at all. The room faded a moment, and he squeezed his eyes shut, tears leaking out of the corners.
When started breathing again and could open eyes, Booster was kneeling over him, holding a glass of water. "Sorry," Ted croaked. He pushed himself up the wall enough to let Booster feed him a sip. "Been a while."
"Are you joking? That was the hottest goddamn thing I've ever seen. Up until the part where you fell over and almost died, that is." He held the glass solicitously until Ted could take it on his own.
Ted took a few larger sips, swirling the taste of semen out of his mouth. "Thanks." He let his head fall back against the wall. "I think my boner's dead."
Booster took the glass and set it next to the TV. His smile was full of teeth and promises. "Don't worry, I can fix that."
Later, much later – after Booster had got Ted's clothes off, and his own, and the boner had lived again, and again, after they'd changed the sheets and showered and used all the towels drying each other and mopping the water off the bathroom floor – they stretched out in bed together.
Booster sprawled bonelessly on his back, somehow taking up most of the queen-sized bed. Not that Ted minded, it made an excuse to lie half on top of him, legs intertwined, ear pressed to Booster's chest. He sighed and wriggled until they fit together just right, then relaxed to the regular thud of Booster's heartbeat as it settled back to normal.
"I guess it's been a while for you, huh?" Booster said, lazily tracing his name in cursive on Ted's back.
"You have no idea." True on every level.
"Did you leave anyone behind, when they took you?"
Ted went still, trying to read Booster's tone, it seemed warm, just casually interested. "Do you usually wait 'til after you've blown a guy to ask about his exes?"
"I just want to know more about you." Booster protested. "Which is not something I usually do."
That brought back the guilt again, and the longing to be just plain old Ted Kord. Secret identities could turn into such a pain in the ass. He told the truth again, but this time it felt less true. "I was pretty serious about a girl, one of my lab techs, actually." He smiled, lips curving against Booster's skin. This Booster didn't wax his chest. "I guess what goes around comes around. Anyway, when I got back, I found out she'd moved on, married another guy." That phone call had only felt slightly less awkward than the one to his dad, though they'd both been pretty similar in content.
"I'm sorry." Booster stroked down Ted's side to his hip, where it rested, warm and reassuring.
"Nah, it's okay. It was actually kind of a relief. I don't think it would have worked out; I'm not the same person as I was back then." It was possible he'd never been the same person as Melody fell in love with. Was he the person Booster seemed to be falling for now?
As if he could read his mind, Booster asked, "Oh, yeah, who are you then?"
How to sum up your life, leaving out the secrets but keeping the important bits, in a hundred words or less? "Ted Kord. Do not call me Theodore. Genius engineer, inventor and chemist, and sometimes adventurer. Experience in alien abductions, fighting robots and running for my life has fostered an adrenaline addiction and a sense of humour that has been called inappropriate. I am, therefore, not ideally suited for a conventional relationship and should probably exclusively date tall blond superheroes."
"You mean date a tall blond superhero exclusively, right?"
"I don't know; I may leave you for Ms. Marvel."
Booster smacked his butt, which normally would have got him going again, but he was just too damn tired. "You know she's fictional, right?"
"Keep harping on details, and I won't invite you for a threesome."
His hair ruffled, tickling, as Booster snorted. "You know, you do sound like my kind of guy."
"You have no idea," Ted murmured again. Then he let the rhythm of Booster's hands as they absently glided up and down his arm and that steady, dependable heartbeat lull him into sleep.
He woke twice in the night: Once when Booster claimed his arm was falling asleep and nudged him off, and once to a nightmare. In it, he was back on Pago Island with Dan Garrett and Uncle Jarvis, but watching himself from the outside. Jarvis laughed and ordered his nephew's execution; Dan transformed and fought valiantly while Ted did very little, same as last time. He didn't want to watch this happen again, but in the dream he had no choice. Then it changed; more robots arrived and pressed Dan back by weight of numbers, swarming over him. Young Ted tried to circle round to Jarvis and the control panels, but before he made it two steps, a robot he hadn't seen grabbed his arms and held on relentlessly. Something at the base of the dog pile exploded, throwing the robots back, and, oh, god, Ted didn't want to look, but the dream still focused relentlessly on the carnage. Dan had died for him, again, only this time, Ted wasn't there to promise that it wouldn't be for nothing. This time Jarvis took one last moment to gloat, and when young Ted, through his tears, told him to rot in hell, Jarvis gave the robot holding him a final order. Now Watching Ted and Young Ted were one and the same, and he saw through his own eyes as the metal arm swung down and blackness surged up around him. Four final words flashed in his mind, clear and absolutely certain: That's it. I'm dead.
His eyes snapped open, body clenched in a spasm of panic. It took a full minute to see past the darkness to the city lights edging around the curtains and the red glow of the alarm clock. Only then did the street noise and the gentle breathing in bed beside him filter in. Ted sat up slowly, pressing two fingers to his neck to monitor his racing pulse. Getting up and making tea would probably calm him down faster, but that would wake Booster, and he couldn't begin to explain this nightmare to him. Instead, he sat perfectly still, taking slow, deliberate breaths until he settled enough to lie back down.
The sheets felt clammy and clung to his legs as he rolled to curl up on his side. It was an old, familiar nightmare, one that had played in unending variation ever since Dan's death. They usually came out to play when grief or a guilty conscience were already plaguing him. Sometimes the dreams just replayed what had actually happened, Dan dying to save him, sometimes they both died together; in particularly gruesome variations, he himself was the robot and killed Dan with his own hand. That one was close enough to the truth to keep him awake for days, but somehow this one had felt worse. He couldn't remember ever having a dream that seemed that real. If anything, it had felt more like the time Amanda Waller had hypnotised him to get at his suppressed memories of Queen Bee's brainwashing sessions.
Ted tried to wrap his mind around how many layers of fucked he was if he was brainwashed on top of everything else, then gave up. He was too tired and wound up and freaked out to figure anything out right now. Not that sleeping seemed like it was going to be an option either. Irritably, he flipped onto his other side, yanking at the bedspread to get an edge of it away from Booster, then stared into the dark some more.
Behind him, Booster grunted and tugged at the covers, then, when Ted held on fiercely, rolled over to wrap himself around the lot. A long leg snuck between Ted's and an arm pulled them together until Booster was half spooned against him and half sprawled on top of him. His breath felt warm against the back of Ted's neck, and he could feel the rise and fall of Booster's chest. "Okay?" Booster asked sleepily.
"Yeah, I'm good, buddy." Ted interlaced his fingers with Booster's and shifted to lean against him a little. Thus entrapped in a warm, friendly octopus embrace, he barely heard Booster's satisfied grunt before he fell asleep again.
Booster was singing in the shower. Ted flopped onto his back, absently trying to pick out the tune, but Booster had either mangled it beyond recognition or it was something from his own time. He smiled and relaxed back into the warmth of the bed. The previous night's dreams still tugged at this mind, but it was nine in the morning on a Sunday. The biggest decision he wanted to make right now was whether to order room service before or after he interrupted Booster's shower. He left the choice too long, and the water cut off, now he had about twenty minutes while Booster fussed with his hair, then he'd probably insist on going to work. Which is what Ted should be doing. He'd just lie here and enjoy this for another ten minutes, then get in gear.
An insistent rap on the door woke him up from a light doze. "Did you order breakfast?" he yelled at the bathroom.
"No. But I'll get it."
Ted rolled over hoping to get in a good leer at Booster in a towel, but he'd already dressed. He couldn't quite see the door from this side of the bed.
"Can I help..." Booster's voice trailed off in confusion. Then he heard another voice, too soft to make out, and Booster called back into the room. "There's a little kid here looking for her 'Uncle Ted.'"
"Rani?" Had to be. "Tell her to hang on one minute." He rolled out of bed next to his pile of clothes, throwing them on so fast he got his sweater on inside out. Swearing under his breath, he left it like that, and ran for the door.
Booster was still standing holding it half open, and Rani hunched on the other side of the threshold, stolidly not looking at Booster. This time she had on a crisp denim skirt and white blouse, with a little leather messenger bag over one shoulder. It would have made her look like any polished little second grader on her first day at school except for the mini combat boots and a pixie cut implemented by someone who absolutely did not know his way around a pair of scissors. Ted gave Rip a few points for trying, but none for actual implementation. "Hi, Uncle Ted," Rani said in an even smaller voice than before.
"Hey." Ted struggled for something to say, or rather for which thing to say first, he settled on, "Why don't you come in?"
"I thought you didn't have any family," Booster said, stepping aside and closing the door behind her.
"He's not my real uncle," Rani told him, eyes still fixed on the carpet. "I just call him that."
"Oh," Booster said, sounding unenlightened.
"She's the daughter of a friend." Which was probably why she wasn't looking at Booster. Here she was talking to her adopted father for the first time in God knew how long, and he didn't even remember her. Ted could empathise. "What are you doing here, sweetie?"
Rani circled around Booster as widely as she could, putting Ted between them. "Boppy said I needed you to look after me this morning."
Of course he had. Hunter was probably planning to vanish off into another dimension to battle intergalactic whatever the hells, and decided to dump his kid on Ted with zero notice. As if Ted knew anything about kids. "I've got a pretty busy day today, Rani," he said, though he knew he was fighting a losing battle. What was he going to do? Kick a seven-year-old out to fend for herself? In this neighbourhood?
"I can come to work with you." Her voice was growing in confidence. "I used to live in Boppy's lab, and I won't get in the way at all."
Ted cast Booster a helpless look, and Booster frowned and shook his head. "I don't think that would be very safe." Rani tried the wide-eyed lip quivering thing, aimed at Ted but Booster was the one who succumbed. "Why don't you take the morning off, Ted?" Booster was backing for the door like the coward he was. "I'm going to swing by my place and get changed, so I won't be in for a while anyway." He didn't quite run out, but it came close.
Rani sniffed loudly, and made to wipe her nose on her sleeve. Ted tossed a box of tissues at her before she could.
"And when is 'Boppy' going to come pick you up?"
She shrugged. "He said time was solidifying, and he'd come get me after."
"Did he say anything else?" Like that wasn't enough. He remember the buzzing, swirling feeling from when Old Booster had tried to save him. That had ended with the universe in tatters and most of his friends dead. He hoped that wouldn't be how it worked this time; if all of time changed at once, everything should just stay the same, shouldn't it? The whole thing made his head hurt.
"Not really." She looked around the room, taking in the rumpled sheets, pile of towels on the bathroom floor and clothes spilling out of Ted's suitcase. "So you and Michael are having sex now, huh?"
Ted had nothing sensible to say to that and asked, "Why isn't Rip here?"
Rani shrugged. "He needs to stay outside of time, or else he might mess things up and make himself not be born."
That certainly sounded like a problem one should worry about. "And that doesn't matter for you?"
Another shrug. "No, you and me are already dead."
"But..." Ted broke off, shaking his head and deciding to quit while he was ahead. He was dead in the past, Rani was dead God knows when, and none of it made very much sense to him. He glanced around the room for something less morbid to talk about. It really did look pretty sordid. Ethically speaking, he should remove the young child from the situation. He never had got that room service, either. Next time Hunter assigned him to minion sit, he had better send along coffee. "Hey Rani, have you ever had banana pancakes?"
Apparently she had, as that got Ted far more enthusiasm than he'd ever seen out of her, but on the elevator down to the lobby she said, "I don't like the dreams."
"What dreams, sweetie?" Ted asked, putting more attention into trying to remember the nearest dinner. Maybe he should just cab it to somewhere nicer.
"Sometimes I dream about the other me, the one who died."
It took Ted a second to switch tracks and catch up with what she was saying. "What?" he asked, but in his gut he already knew.
"Boppy says they'll stop after time solidifies."
The elevator doors opened with a ping. "Did you dream about dying last night?" A terrible question to ask a child, but Ted needed to know.
Rani looked out into the empty lobby, then back at Ted. The doors started to close, and Ted put his hand in the way, not budging. "Yes," Rani admitted.
"Fuck." Ted said it with enough feeling, clarity and volume to earn him a disapproving frown from the clean-cut young man behind the reception desk. Stepping out of the elevator, Ted took Rani with one hand and rummaged though his pockets for his JLI-issue cell phone with the other. It rang before he could start dialling.
He opened the phone to the hiss and crackle of wind hitting a mic, then Booster's voice urgently saying, "Something big's come up. Be on the street in a minute and a half. I'll pick you up."
"What about Rani?" Ted asked, already half way to the door, Rani keeping pace beside him.
"I'll pick her up too. We don't have time for anything else."
Ted spent his remaining sixty seconds simplifying a chemical formula to text and sending it to Murray Takamoto with the question, Present in scraps? Right on schedule, Booster descended in a streak of blue and gold with Skeets beside him. He barely touched the pavement long enough to scoop up Rani and balance her on one hip, and slide an arm around Ted's waist and pull him to the other. Ted had to close his eyes against the snow as Booster rocketed towards the JLI offices. None of them could say anything over the wind, and Booster didn't bother to try filling them in. Ted barely had time to drop Rani off in an empty office before he found himself whisked up to the conference room on the second floor. The rest of the team, plus Briggs and a woman Ted hadn't met yet, were already there.
"Fifteen minutes ago," Briggs said, taking over the meeting with Skeets providing the graphics, "We lost communication with much of central Washington DC. What information we've been able to get has been incomplete and conflicting, but it seems as though there has been a co-ordinated attack on several key political and military figures. We have confirmation that they are in the White House, but we do not know the status of the President or his family." The screen showed shaky cell phone footage of a black figure moving through a hallway, before the camera bounced off the floor and stopped recording. "Similar attacks are taking place in Beijing, London, Moscow, Paris, Jerusalem, New Delhi and Islamabad. We've attempted to contact Pyongyang, but officials from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea have yet to reply. Given that there have been attacks made on the leaders of every other nuclear state, we can only assume the worst."
Skeets pulled up and expanded the fleeting image of the White House assailant. Despite the poor resolution, Ted could tell that everyone recognised it. "As you can see," Briggs continued, "These are likely to be the robots JLI engaged yesterday in Chicago. Local police and military forces are moving in, and I've already sent them what information we have. Given the potential hostage situation and the lack of communications, they weren't too happy to hear about near-invulnerable robots."
Booster was staring at the world map, with it's nine red dots over world capitols, lips pressed into a tight line of concentration. He looked as if he expected the map to produce a solution, if he only searched hard enough. "We don't have enough people to begin to cover this," he said.
"What about the Justice League?" Tora asked. "Has anyone tried to contact them?"
The General in Iron cut Briggs off, metallic voice filling the room. "In the face of a great threat to mutual interests, it is foolish not to work with other invested groups, setting aside dissimilar methods or ambitions."
"Bats already called me on the way over," Booster interjected. "He says they're working on Washington, but he needs to know more about what Ted did yesterday."
Ted still had his cell clenched in his hand; any moment he would know if he was right or wrong. "If they haven't radically changed the dampers since yesterday, I should still be able to hack them, but we'd need to get the shuttle pretty close. They're using tech pillaged from the Signal Men, and I don't know if even Batman would have time to replicate it." He calculated the work he'd need to put into eight copies of the ship's comms, even with the original robot parts to work with. None of his estimates came up with an answer that sounded like fast enough. "I have some other ideas, but nothing concrete right now."
That started a brief debate about where to prioritise, with Red and Godiva each advocating their own country. Beside Ted, Vixen slumped further into her chair muttering, "This is why people hate the UN."
Ted could sympathise. He looked at Booster, who was still considering the map. He was supposed to be leading this, wasn't he? J'onn would have stepped in ages ago.
His phone beeped at the same time that Booster stood and set off a flare of light bright enough silence the room. "We're not looking at this right," Booster declared. "We shouldn't be trying to cover all the targets at once. We'll only spread ourselves too thin, and I don't think any of us has enough individual fire power to take those things down. Going after them one at a time only risks the civilians at the other locations."
"Then what's your plan?" Bea asked. She, like everyone else in the room, was looking at Booster like she genuinely expected him to have one.
"We should be hitting the dot that's not on the map," he explained, gesturing to the empty spaces. "We need to find the source of these attacks and take that out."
Red was shaking his broadly enough for his armour to transmit the motion. "One problem: where is source."
Ted closed his phone. Yes. Murray had sent a single word, but it was enough to tell Ted what he needed to know. It could be enough to ruin the life he'd set up here, to expose all his lies to Booster and the team. He couldn't imagine they'd think that much of him after that. He remembered how furious he'd been at Captain Atom for playing a double game. Only back then, he'd known Nate far better than Booster knew him now, and had had a lot more reasons to like him.
However, the world was in danger, and if these last few weeks had proved nothing else, it was that Ted could counted on to reliably sacrifice his life for the cause. "I think I know where it is." Everyone turned to stare at him. Ted hunched in his chair and avoided looking at them, turning to the little gold security droid instead. "Skeets, stick another pin on Pago Island."
"Where?" Booster asked, with Briggs and Godiva echoing him.
"It's a about five miles of rock and scrub in the mid-Atlantic." Ted explained, watching as Skeets projected a rotating three-dimensional map of the island, with satellite images running along side. "I think Portugal or someone technically owns it, but it's never been inhabited, or used for anything since they stopped using sailing ships to cross the Atlantic. What very few living people know is that there's an underground lab complex carved into that peak. The high natural metal content in the rock makes it close to undetectable, not that many people have bothered looking. I'm close to certain that we'll find the man responsible for the attacks there."
"It does seem like an ideal base of operations," the General mused.
"Right," Godiva added. "Where else would a mad scientist live but under an island volcano?"
"Is not volcano," Red corrected. "Look at rock: is metamorphic, not igneous."
"What I want to know," Guy said, speaking up for the first time. He'd tipped his chair back on two legs so he could rest his boots on the corner of the table, and was sitting with his arms folded, smirking at the rest of the room. "Is how sparky here knows about this place. Especially since he spent the last few years getting probed by space monkeys."
"I wasn't probed!" Despite the speculation in the press to the contrary. Ted made himself take a breath and turn to look at Booster. "This is from before I ever met the Cluster. I know about the island because I kind of accidentally helped to invent the robots, and Godiva's mad scientist is probably my uncle."
After a painful moment of silence, Rocket Red started to laugh. The crackly guffaws continued until he realised that no one else was going to join in. "Sorry." He touched his gloved fingers to his faceplate. "I think was funny joke."
Ted sighed. "No more than the rest of my life is."
Booster was staring at him, mouth open. "That..." he started, then hand to pull himself together and try again. "Never mind. The clock's ticking, and this is far and away our best lead. I want everyone in the shuttle in two minutes. You, too, Gardner." As everyone filed out, he leaned down and told Ted, "And while we're on our way, you can explain how you managed to leave this little gem off of your cover letter."
"I swear I thought he was dead," Ted promised for the third – or possibly the forth – time in his still-edited recap of his early adventures, with the addition of Murray's testimony from the day before. He was sitting in the back of the ship, wedged between Tora and the door, with Booster opposite him and Rocket Red in the pilot's seat. Skeets floated next to Red's helmet, offering unsolicited piloting advice. "I checked the news reports when I got back. The search party that went looking for me and Dan found the whole side of the island was a fresh avalanche slope." Which, considering that his uncle had faked his death before, Ted really ought to have held as suspect. Maybe he'd been too weirded out by reading his own obituary. "And he'd never been a patient man. I thought if he were going to try to take over the world, he would have done it ages ago." And he'd remembered Jarvis dying, but of course that hadn't happened this time around.
"He's making a pretty good go of it now," Booster said. Ted hated how cold his voice sounded. It had been just a few hours ago that they'd been lying in bed together, wrapped in each other's arms. That, Ted suspected, wasn't going to happen again any time soon, if ever. "You seemed to know him pretty well," he continued, tone implying that that was to be held against Ted, "What are his weaknesses?"
Ted considered it. There was a risk that Jarvis here had a different personality than Jarvis there, in which case he'd be feeding Booster faulty information. However, his dream memories made them to look like very similar men. "His ego, probably," he concluded. "He loves to gloat, to show off how he's better than everyone." He'd been almost happy to have Ted and Dan burst in on him, just so he could monologue them to death. "He's paranoid. He's not a brilliant engineer, especially with software, but he is he's a perfectionist and will pour elbow grease on a project until he makes it work. He also tends to over plan, and can panic when things go off script."
Booster nodded to himself and glanced at the General. "I can work with that."
"Listen, Booster." Ted reached across the space between them and grabbed Booster's knee, shaking it lightly. "You have to be careful. He's a technical genius, a very good liar, and if he thinks he's cornered, he'll burn the world before he loses. And he has an army of near-invulnerable killer robots."
"And they might all blow up, kill the hostages and/or cause a nuclear holocaust." He bounced his knee, dislodging Ted's hand. "I'm familiar with the 'Don't screw up, Booster' speech. I've got it from Briggs and Batman, and that's just in the last thirty minutes."
"I didn't mean it like that." It probably came out more snappish than it should have, but they didn't have time for Booster's insecurities. They didn't have time for Ted's either, but the team was kind of stuck with them right now. Absolutely nothing would prevent the amazing yelling match in his future, though he could try to put it off a bit longer. "Dealing with Uncle Jarvis puts me on edge. It's never ended..." He struggled, trying to find the end of that sentence. He could feel something inside him vibrating, like he was sitting on a train track and a hundred thousand tonnes of locomotive was just around the corner. "Ended–"
Tora's voice, far away: "Are you okay, Ted?"
In a Checkmate castle, bound, beaten and on his knees: "Join me or die time, is that it?" "That's it exactly." "Rot in hell, Max." The explosion of an automatic fired at close range. A split second to know that he's actually going to die, and he hadn't even said goodbye to.... He doesn't feel the bullet enter his skull.
In an underground lab, grieving, and trapped in an inviolable steel grip: "So this 'you die by your own hand' take two?" "You always were a smart boy." "Rot in hell." "Sadly, not smart enough. Ah well. Android: Smash his skull in." A split second to see the arm swing down, and know that he's utterly failed Dan, his father, the whole... He feels the first impact, but nothing after that.
In a stolen time sphere, lost, bleeding, just barely propping himself up, Rip Hunter not looking much better: "Give me a hand, will you." A pause, a hesitation. "What do you need?" They go to work. Later: "Booster Gold needs your help." This time, he doesn't hesitate.
They poured into him thick and fast afterwards, the memories of two, sometimes three, lives merging like two rivers coming together just in time to tumble over Niagara Falls. He couldn't move; he couldn't see, and this sucked about five hundred times worse than the time with Black Beetle. He thought he he heard himself screaming, but it could have just been a memory of that short-lived fight with Doomsday, or of Booster dying, both of which he seemed to be reliving at once.
Then it stopped.
All his lives settled in his head, distinct but not alien, and that, it seemed, was the end of it. Except he couldn't seem to see anything other than the colour blue.
He blinked over dry, scratchy eyes, and realised that was because of his head resting in Tora's lap and Booster kneeling in front of him.
"I'm okay." He thought his voice sounded pretty good, considering.
Skeets, who was hovering next to Booster's shoulder said, "All vital signs seem to have returned to a normal range, though his heart rate is still elevated."
"What the hell was that?" Booster demanded. "You stopped breathing for a minute there."
Ted tried to think of a plausible explanation, failed, decided fuck it, and said, "Localised disturbance in the space-time continuum. Won't happen again. I promise I'll explain later." Gingerly, he rolled off of Tora's legs and into a sitting position.
He was starting to think that Hunter's whole mission was based on some perverse enjoyment in screwing with Ted's mind. Like this morning... "Oh my god, Rani," he said just as the comms beeped, and Briggs called into to say that the little girl Ted had left with him was curled in a ball on his office floor chanting, "Save me, Mikey," over and over.
Poor little thing, Ted thought. The experience had scared the pants off of him; he couldn't imagine trying to deal with it when he was seven. He had been supposed to look after her, too. "Tell him..." Ted licked his lips. Fuck it was just going to have to be his motto. He'd sort it out later. "Tell him she'll be fine. Someone named 'Rip Hunter' will probably be there to pick her up pretty soon. He's her guardian." Or as close to it as mattered. He wasn't about to confuse a bureaucrat like Briggs with details.
"What the hell, Kord?" He couldn't even tell what Booster was thinking anymore. The main components of his expression looked to be anger and incredulity, but Ted was sure betrayal and disgust would settle in soon enough. If there was one thing in the world Booster couldn't bear in a friendship, it was being lied to. Too many people had dicked him around over the years, and his trust was too slight.
"Yes, I know Rip Hunter," he snapped before Booster could figure out what to accuse him of. "I really will explain when we get out of this." Though he honestly couldn't imagine how. Even the truth seemed to be getting more convoluted by the minute. He should probably feel amazed at how quickly absolutely everything could fall apart, right when neither Rip Hunter nor God himself could step in and help anymore, but then, he'd seen this happen before, hadn't he? The first time, he'd thrown up his hands, said he didn't give a damn and walked away from his father and the ruins of his life. Then again in a collapsed league, no home and a pile of pizza boxes hidden under his bed. Finally, it seemed, he'd hunted down Max until it killed him, even as Max had pulled his life down around him. Now, he didn't even know what the bargain was supposed to be. Everything was moving too fast. He rocked forward to kneel right in front of Booster. Looking his friend and team leader right in the eye, he tried to put every ounce of sincerity into his voice when he said, "I know I haven't been completely honest about my past, and you have every reason not to trust me, but I'm on your side, Booster. I always have been, and I always will be."
Booster's fists clenched, his body tensing like he wanted to take a swing. Ted could almost feel his stare burning into him, judging him. He held his breath and only let it out when Booster nodded tightly, saying, "We'll see."
"We have other problem," Rocket Red announced. "Time to island five minutes."
Booster took the time to bang his head against the bulkhead a couple times, then said, "You know what? Fuck it. Red, drop us under the water and hold position. Gardner, get me Hal Jordan on that ring of yours; I'm going to need a favour. Now," he said, steepling his hands, a manic gleam in his eyes, "Here's the plan."
That's the spirit, Ted thought.
Ted had always loved flying with Booster, the contact of bodies pressed together, the wind in his face, the trust he needed to have in someone to let them carry him while travelling at a hundred and forty miles an hour while almost skimming the surface of jagged rocks. They dipped and twisted, following the contour of an overhang. They picked up altitude with every turn, steadily climbing the mountain side, hopefully under the radar until the last minute. An outcrop came up in their path and Booster pulled a hard left to swerve around it. Ted felt his hold on the sleek material of Booster's costume slipping, but the iron grip around his side never wavered. It didn't matter how pissed at him Booster was right now, Ted could trust him in this.
"Almost there," Booster said into his ear. "Ready?"
"You bet." He looked ahead, but wind made his eyes water so badly he had to turn back to the blur of grey passing beneath them. Even over the rush of wind in his eyes, he could hear the distant explosions created by Guy and Red gleefully following the command to do as much damage as they could.
The view twisted again, and when it stopped spinning, they had come to hover next to another blocky outcropping, almost at the peak. Of course, their target still had guards on it, two silent black figures standing right in the open on either side of the only section of the lab not protected by rock. That was cocky of Jarvis, but Ted figured he was probably feeling pretty confident right now, and justifiably so.
"Remember the plan." Twenty yards from the target, Booster dropped him and dove for the the robots, firing hard. At first they didn't even move, programmed to ignore anything that didn't actually threaten them. Then, when Booster dropped two tonnes of mountainside on the nearest, they snapped into action. Their heads swinging in eerie unison, they lifted off and flew straight at Booster. His shield flared in a blaze of light that would have blinded Ted if he hadn't known it was coming, then Booster wasn't there. The robots circled, searching, then started to settle back to their posts. Another chunk of granite collided with them, hitting one with enough force to careen it into the other. They spun, located Booster above them, and sped off.
Ted kept to the crouch he'd landed in, scrambling across the mountainside. The rock under his fingers trembled, transmitting another of Guy's explosions. Ted held on a little harder, hoping the rest of the team didn't bring the whole Island down. He didn't so much as glance at the precipice below him; he knew from the flight up it had to be a thousand-foot drop to the next ledge. He only had a few seconds if he wanted to pull this off, no time at all for choking.
The access panel came off surprisingly easily, exposing bundles of cables leading from the lab buried deep in the mountain to the compact communications array at the top of the outcrop. Working fast to keep from disrupting the signals long enough to trigger anything, he spliced his own equipment into the circuitry. The trick would be to intercept communication without anyone knowing he was doing it. It wouldn't work for long, but it wouldn't have to.
A wire sparked, burning a finger already scraped raw from rock climbing. "You know," he muttered, "Rocket Red would be a lot more useful right now."
"Like I was going to let you out of my sight," Booster said behind him. Ted didn't turn around. He knew that tone; it was Banter in the Face of Apparent Defeat, and he'd heard it far too much over the years. He took his last half second to fuse in a final component, then put his hands behind his back so the robot didn't wrench his shoulders out when it restrained him. One metal hand extended to circle both his wrists, while the other arm wrapped around his chest, immobilising his body by pulling him against it. When it turned him so they could both face the down slope, Ted saw that Booster was likewise restrained.
Okay, Skeets, it's over to you, Ted thought. I hope you're as good as Booster thinks you are. Aloud he said, "That didn't take very long."
"Next time I'll splice circuits and you can hold off the indestructible robots. See how you do."
"Hey, which one of us blew them up last time?"
"Team effort," Booster said dismissively. "You couldn't have done it without my force field."
Without Booster's force field, Ted would have lit off the Promethium and blown them all to hell. He changed the subject. "Notice how these guys haven't said 'the prisoners will be silent!' yet?"
"I guess we're not annoying enough. Maybe we should try harder."
"Or that they won't do anything without direct orders." He studied the machine holding Booster, its black carapace barely scuffed for all his firepower and hurled boulders. It stood absolutely motionless, as it probably could until its power supply ran out. "They must have some autonomy though, or they wouldn't be able to run the complicated operations they do, or at least not nine of them at the same time."
"I wonder if your uncle's read Asimov," Booster said speculatively. "If not, we could try trying to logic it to death." Ted raised an eyebrow. "Hey, if it's good enough for James T. Kirk, it's good enough for Booster Gold."
"I think they're trying to bore us to death right now." He tried leaning back against the robot holding him, but that only increased the pressure on his wrists. "Hey, do you hear that?"
Ted jerked his head towards the peak. "It's gotten all quiet over there."
"It has." Booster frowned. "I hope–"
Both robots took off without warning, flying straight up like they had in Chicago. Ted thought his wrists would snap from the pressure, and tried to twist sideways a bit to ease them. That pressed his full weight against the band of metal across his chest, but he'd be able to use his hands again.
Below them, a fresh pair of guards had taken up duty over the communications array, while a third examined Ted's alterations. They'd probably have it all put back the way it had been in five minutes. He hoped that would be long enough for the security droid to do its thing. Their captors executed a perfect right angle turn when they came parallel with shoulder of the mountain, then another directly above the main entrance on the far side, dumping Ted upside down, more or less suspended by his wrists. He grunted in pain and hoped Booster thought his streaming eyes were caused by the wind.
The double doors that Jarvis had so cleverly hidden in the scree now stood exposed, but undamaged. Blotches of scorched granite, melted to glass in some places, increased in density as they got closer, and a team of robots was clearing rubble from around the entrance. Of Guy and Rocket Red, Ted could see no sign. He glanced at Booster who shook his head.
One half of the double doors swung open as they approached, leading to a tunnel behind. Jarvis had expanded it all to the scale of an industrial loading bay, and the corridor dwarfed the human-sized robots and their prisoners. Ted pictured thousands of the robots swarming out of the passageway like bees, ready to strike anywhere in the world, and shuddered. They passed through another set of doors, then into a corridor small enough that they had to fly in single file. Most of the walls here were carved out of living rock and unfinished save for the floors. Ted didn't remember this area. Either it hadn't been on the megalomaniacal tour of doom last time, or Jarvis had added the extension in the last six years or so. The pressure of flying sideways was really making his ribs ache, but at least it had eased up on his arms.
They came to a halt inside a round room about half the size of Ted's warehouse lab. Banks of screens hugged the side, all active and displaying robot's eye views of the world. Many showed Pago Island from various angles, a rotation of security footage, but the majority of the screens displayed images of world capitols from the inside, scared people on their knees or pinned the same way Ted and Booster were. A location tag ran along the top left of each screen, reading things like "London: No. 10 Downing Street" and "Jerusalem: General Stern's Residence." Ted's eyes flicked over the images until he found one labelled "Washington: White House," and his gut clenched at what he saw. Ted had never been much for rah rah patriotism, but this was the President.
Jarvis Kord stood in the centre of it all like a conductor. He hadn't changed since Ted had last seen him, still an unassuming stocky little man with buzzcut white hair and a lab coat. Someone who, until the moment that he'd snapped and shown his hand, had always seemed to Ted like the epitome of an absent-minded professor puttering away on his pet projects. Even now, he was mumbling to himself and vaguely waving his hands at the screens. Only as the robots brought them closer, Ted realised that he must actually be sub-vocalising commands to one squad or another. More robots emerged from alcoves around the edges of the room, moving in to stand between Jarvis and the prisoners. Only when they were in place did the robots holding Ted and Booster set down, and not until a few minutes after that did Jarvis acknowledge that they were there. He turned and stepped around his bodyguards so he could walk right up to Ted.
"Hiya, Unk." Ted pasted an extremely happy and equally fake smile. "Howzit going?"
Ignoring this, Jarvis circled Ted, examining him minutely. He reached up to run a hand along Ted's face, not with the old, false affection but clinically testing his skin. Dropping his hand, he finally demanded, "Who the hell are you?"
That had not been what Ted was expecting. "Theodore Stephen Kord." When that didn't get so much as a blink, he added. "My father's Thomas Matthew Kord, your brother."
Jarvis' head jerked side to side in small almost mechanical motions. "No. You're not." His hand came up again, wrapped around something sharp and gleaming.
Ted saw the blow coming but couldn't do anything to move out of the way. He tried not to cry out as the blade sliced across his cheek and came away bloody, but a hiss of pain still escaped. Jarvis probably hadn't even heard it under the ruckus Booster was causing. Ted couldn't help but feel warmed that Booster would still threaten violence and misquote the Geneva Convention for him.
"Silence, prisoner!" Jarvis snapped, but Booster only quieted when he stepped away and passed the bloody penknife to one of his robots. "Android: Compare this to existing samples, and check for copy degradation in the DNA that might indicate cloning."
"You won't find any," Ted told him. He hoped. He didn't remember being cloned anyway, but this was the JLI, and he'd learned not to dismiss such possibilities out of hand. "I'm the real Ted Kord."
"Impossible. I killed my nephew six years ago."
"You what?" Booster demanded. "No you didn't."
"Of course I did. I just exhumed the body to make sure."
"He actually did have one of his robots bash my skull in," Ted confirmed, hoping to cut off this line of conversation before Jarvis decided to produce his desiccated corpse as proof. He didn't feel even a little bit curious about what that would be like. "But I got better."
"Shit, Kord, was anything you told me true?"
Ted wanted to tell him that everything he'd said while they were in bed together had been absolutely true, but he did not want to have that conversation in front of his uncle. "The important things were."
"Important to who?"
"Silence," Jarvis ordered, but almost absently this time, his attention focused behind Ted and Booster. He walked out of Ted's field of vision to return carrying a handful of components from Ted's attempts to hijack the communications array. "It seems I over-estimated you," he told Ted. "When I heard 'Ted Kord' had returned from the dead, I was so intriegued that I sent some of my super-androids to collect him along with that renewed source of Promethium. Then, when I learned that my supposed nephew was involved with a team of metahumans, well, I was almost..." he paused to luxuriate in the deliberation over which word would convey the appropriate level of contempt, "concerned."
"Does he practice in front of the mirror?" Booster whispered.
"I've always thought he must."
Jarvis, however, wasn't about to let them interrupt his flow. "I've come full circle, in a way. All those years ago, it was you and your fool friend's interference that caused me to rethink my plans for conquest. I realised the wisdom of building and improving my army of super-androids until I felt I was ready to strike. Now, my concern caused me to move my schedule forward by a few months, not before I was ready, but it pushed me past my caution." His lips twitched up in what Ted supposed he meant to be a self-deprecating smile. "And then I saw this pathetic attempt to override my link to my faithful army." He turned the largest device over in his hands, barely bothering to examine it, then dropped it and ground it under his heel. "I'm sad to say your DNA proves you are who you say you are. I was hoping you were an impostor, and I wasn't related to someone who would produce such a sad effort."
"Well that makes two of us, Uncle." Really, Ted didn't want to be related to most of his family. It didn't take much to understand why he didn't have much of a life outside the league half the time.
"And as for your precious team," Jarvis continued, turning to Booster. "Five minutes against my super-androids, and they were beaten: two dead, the rest fleeing with their tails between their legs, and their glorious leader captured."
Ted snuck a sideways glance at Booster, who was staring straight ahead, face a mask. This is the plan, Ted wanted to tell him, The boys are just being dramatic. Sure, "Two dead" hadn't been in the plan. They were just supposed to make it look good and then let the robots drive them back, but when had "retreat" ever been in Guy Gardner's vocabulary? It had two syllables and everything. It didn't help that Ted and Booster hadn't seen what had happened, that they couldn't risk checking in lest Jarvis also detect the tiny stream of data leaking from inside his lab. He had to think his island was impermeable, and therefore Booster had to go on not knowing if his team had survived. Ted had lived with the JLI coming out of impossible situations for years, but Booster was still new to the idea of looking after people, and didn't seem to know Scott Free in this universe. Ted missed Scott. If he got out of this, he was going to track him down.
"That hurts, doesn't it? Maybe, you're not quite the self-serving opportunist the press thinks you are. You care that your team trusted their leader to get them out alive, don't you?" Jarvis always had been one for twisting the knife, and he'd gotten better at it. Ted found his lip curling back in a snarl. "I was going to just execute you once I determined your plan, but I think I'll keep you around just long enough." He gestured to the screens. "Just long enough to watch the world fall before me. Android: get me the UN."
"Hey," Ted tried to shift a little closer to Booster, but couldn't move. "Are you..." He didn't really know what to ask. "Hang in there, okay." Booster nodded, eyes still fixed on the far monitors where images of the front entrance showed no sign of life at all.
Briggs' face popped up on the largest screen. "Andre Briggs, UN Intelligence," he said shortly, then went on to prove that he'd never use one word when three long ones would do. "The United Nations has received your demand for unconditional international surrender pending the universal launch of weapons of mass destruction, however, as the general assembly is still in an emergency session, I would like to request a twelve-hour extension on your deadline."
"Unacceptable!" Jarvis snapped. "Do you want me to make an example of someone? Senegal, perhaps?"
"Mr. Kord, I assure you–"
Seemingly unruffled, Briggs backtracked and corrected to, "Emperor Kord, I assure you..."
As Briggs and Jarvis engaged in three rounds of wannabe evil dictator versus international bureaucracy, Ted whispered to Booster, "He's good. You should hire him."
"You only say that because he's not aiming that double speak at you."
Eventually, however, Jarvis' patience came to an end. "Enough! My deadline stands. Any nation that does not surrender to me by midnight universal time shall suffer the consequences! Android: end communication." Briggs' image disappeared, replaced by two robots attempting to interrogate the French President.
"You know he's stalling, right?" Booster commented.
"Of course I know he's..." Jarvis frowned, turning to Booster. "I know that, of course, but why do you think so?"
Show time, Ted thought. Make it good, Buddy. I don't want to have to fall back on Plan B. Especially since, in this case, Plan B involved him dying. Actually, he wasn't entirely sure that wasn't also in the books for Plan A. They needed to get inside the base to stall Jarvis and feed information to Skeets, but he didn't remember hearing how they were supposed to get out of the base.
"Oh come on," Booster was saying. "You have to know that the international community is never going to negotiate with terrorists. The UN's just assigned a stooge like Briggs to cover for them, make it look like they’re getting along when really everyone's busy deactivating nukes."
Jarvis' face flushed with anger. "Lies. I'm watching everything. If they went near the missile sites I'd know. Then they would taste my retribution."
Booster shrugged, apparently unperturbed. "I don't know about the North Koreans, but everyone else has protocol for this. When I left, they were planning to just cut off all of the automated launch mechanisms. How did that work again, Ted?"
Ted had no idea – and he doubted Booster had the faintest notion either since he was making the lot of it up – but it was an easy bit of conjecture. "They stick a loop in the system so it reads normal and responsive when really you're just talking to a modified chess program in Kansas City. It's pretty basic technology."
Jarvis glared at him, then at Booster for good measure, before spinning to face the screens. "Android: Launch Russian missile against Tbilisi, Georgia."
Please, please, please, please, Ted prayed, though he wasn't sure to whom. Maybe the little gold security droid in the sky. Maybe even to Booster's plan.
"There, see," Jarvis proclaimed. "My commands are effective."
"Are they really?" Booster was trying to keep up the I Win, You Lose, Nyah Nyah front, but Ted could hear the strain in his voice. "Check the satellite."
Twin images appeared: one tagged "Russia: Missile Silo 37" showed no activity of any kind, and a wider view of a grey, snow-covered city was likewise free of mushroom clouds.
"Thank you," Ted whispered.
"But the hostages!" Jarvis protested, his voice raising in pitch volume with every word. "I have the world's leaders at my feet. I have the lives of their children in my grip. My super-androids control the hearts of the great nations of the Earth."
"I can't say for sure, but last I heard, they were considered expendable for the sake of world security." Booster was coasting on a level of smugness that made Ted want to hit him, so he wasn't surprised when Jarvis backhanded him across the face. From the way Booster took the punch, he'd been expecting it too.
"And you? You're expendable as well?" Jarvis demanded.
Booster shrugged again. "Pretty much."
"I've had enough of your lies." To the robot holding Booster, he ordered, "Android–" An explosion rocked the complex, followed by another three in quick succession. "What is this? Show me what's going on."
The monitors all changed to images of the mountainside surrounding the front door. A figure in red and blue was tearing the doors off its hinges, iconic cape billowing behind him. A dark-haired Green Lantern drilled into the rock around the other door, while a cyborg fended off a relentless hoard of robots with well-placed laser blasts. Off to the side, an Amazon princess was slicing the heads off of robots left and right, with a man in a swirling dark cape guarding her back. Tentacles of something dark and, to Ted's eyes, very much like a kraken crept up from the sea. Ted couldn't see the Flash, but then one usually couldn't.
"That would be the Justice League." Ted hadn't thought Booster could sound any more self satisfied, but somehow he managed it. "I called up my buddy Hal Jordan just before we dropped in, gave him all the details and said we'd soften up the place for him so his boys could take it apart."
Jarvis had gone from flushed to red to nearly purple with rage. He whirled from screen to screen, watching as all his plans crumbled. "No. No. I won't let this happen. You won't defeat me!" He strode to the control hub in the centre of the room, flipped off his controls and and punched an actual physical big red button. "I will not fall alone. Even if the world rebuilds from the blood and ashes of their capitols, they will never forget the name of Jarvis Kord. Androids, come, my obedient ones: self destruct. Blow this world apart."
Ted pictured the command for destruction, processed into a data package, shooting up the cables to the transmitter on the peak, then flying out across the Atlantic, either directly or relayed though hijacked satellites. It touched every one of the sleek black robots, and every one responded by immolating itself and everything around it. He sent another quick prayer to the golden robot in the sky, and focused on more immediate concerns.
Even before the impending overload in the robot holding him became audible, Ted could feel it in his fingertips. This time it wouldn't even leave a body, which would undoubtedly solve some existential paradox somewhere in space time. "Any last words?" He asked Booster. The script had been running along neatly so far, but Ted remembered this part getting a little vague.
"Yeah, actually." Booster said, and ducked out of the robot's hold on him. "Super powers are awesome." He had to duck and twist to the side as the thing swiped at him, but the power overload slowed its reactions. He didn't have any trouble getting out of its reach, nor in throwing his forcefield around Ted and the robot holding him, and towed them after him as he flew for the door. "Skeets, how's it going there, buddy?" Ted couldn't hear the reply, but from Booster's expression, the answer had been to the effect of, "Pretty darn good, Sir."
"What about my uncle?" Ted had to yell to be heard over the wind and scream of feedback.
"No time. Sorry."
As Jarvis' screams echoed behind them, Ted tried to find sorry in his heart. He couldn't do it. The only regret he felt was that he couldn't wrap an International Criminal Court conviction in a bow and drop it on Murray's desk. Jarvis' madness would again cost him his life, and he'd never see real justice for Dan Garrett or the other lives he'd destroyed. "Never mind," he shouted back, and hoped Booster understood.
Behind the amber glow of the shield, the rough-hewn walls flashed past, first the twisting narrow passageway, then the industrial corridor to the main entrance. "Better evacuate," Booster yelled as they blew though the shattered doors. "Mountain go boom now."
Hal Jordan swooped in to scoop up Wonder Woman, while Cyborg levitated Batman, and the rest followed, Aquaman shooting up in a rainbow of salt spray, spreading his fiery wings triumphantly. Half a mile from the island, the robot whirred softly and lost its hold on Ted. He shoved it off as best he could, letting Booster grab hold of his leg while the robot fell away. It exploded before it hit the water.
Booster flipped Ted in the air to hold him in a bridal carry, and turned back towards the island. Nothing happened at first, but then the entire surface seemed to shiver, and slowly, almost ponderously, Pago Island's single granite peak folded in on itself. They heard the deafening roar a second later. If Ted had been asked to describe what the end of the world sounded like, that would be it.
"This is kind of where we started out, isn't it?" Booster mused as they floated above the Atlantic, watching the dust and building-sized boulders settle. He still cradled Ted in his arms, any other attempted position proving too much for his aching ribs.
"You mean with the running and the explosions?" Ted asked. "Yeah, I guess it is."
"Listen, Ted, I–" Booster started only to be overridden by Hal complaining that nothing was happening, so why couldn't they just go home? Also, if he missed his football game, Booster was going to regret it in a way that didn't sound entirely anatomically plausible.
Batman requested to be carried by someone else. When Hal told him to shut it or get dropped, he replied in a beautifully crisp English accent, "Have some respect, you blighter; I'm goddamn Batman."
"How come she got to be Batman, anyway?" Superman asked in one female voice, then added in another, "Yeah, we wanted to be Batman."
Booster rested his forehead against Ted's for a moment, then said, "Okay, you can stop projecting now, Red. This is seriously starting to creep me out."
"Da," Cyborg said, and the Justice League flickered and vanished, only to be replaced by Booster's own team. Hovering against the blue skies of the mid Atlantic, they looked battered, grubby, and absolutely glorious.
"Someday," Booster promised, "Someday, they're going to run when they see us coming."
"Very much too bad," Rocket Red was complaining. "Major Iron better in little flag shorts."
Ted shook his head regretfully and told Booster, "I wouldn't count on it."
Slaving their still nameless ship to Booster's suit never had made it to the top of Ted's priority list, so Rocket Red had to go diving to bring it up for them. Guy finally had dropped Godiva and gone home, and Booster ended up balancing her, Ted and the General until the ship surfaced.
"So how'd you get away from that last robot?" Ted asked as they clambered into the dripping interior. He added some kind of airlock to the list.
Booster looked indignant. "Today I... we have saved the world by entering the very lair of a mad scientist, lying our assess off while we used his own data – and the amazing powers of my 25th-century code-breaking friend here," he lightly fist bumped Skeets' ventral stabiliser, "to take over his global communication network, thereby seizing control of all of his remote robots and..." he frowned. "Er, Skeets, what did you do with the army of indestructible evil robots?"
"I ordered them to fly into the stratosphere and then allowed them to self destruct," Skeets replied. Maybe he had evolved some kind of emotion, because Ted would swear he sounded almost smug. If he hadn't just been instrumental to saving all their butts, Ted would have voted to leave him under water longer. "Not bad for a 'modified chess program in Kansas City,' if I may say so, sir."
"Not bad at all," Booster agreed. "Thereby seizing control of all of his remote robots and destroying them, and then talking him into blowing himself up, and you want to know how I took down one lousy robot?"
"Sure," Ted said, looming over Red until he gave up the pilot's seat. "And I was there when we thought that up, and I did better than half the programming. The bit about how we were supposed to get away after we'd made all the robots explode was the one part of the plan that you left kind of fuzzy."
"I wanted to leave room for improvisation," Booster said, blithely pretending he hadn't been flying by the seat of his pants most of the time. He had come forward and was leaning over Ted's shoulder again. "Anyway, I used a combination of super strength and a miniaturised forcefield to gradually separate my wrists. I guess they were programmed not to inadvertently dismember people, it loosened its grip a millimetre at a time. After about ten minutes, I had enough wiggle room to slip out, and here we all are."
"You left out the bit where me and Red died heroically for the cause." That was Bea, and Ted didn't have turn around to know she had a jubilant, devil-may-care grin plastered across her face.
"Da. Was good. Big explosion. Much drama."
"Much grey hair for team leader," Booster countered, but not reproachingly. He seemed to be learning the JLI axiom of any plan you walk away from is a good one.
In that spirit, Ted did not ask what Booster would have done had Jarvis not left such an idiotic gap in his programming. Instead, he remembered something Booster had started to say about being back where they started. "Look, Booster," he said in a voice low enough to fall under the team's chatter. "I want–"
The comm beeped, and Briggs' voice filled the ship, demanding to know what their status was, and when they'd be back in New York to debrief, and how the Justice League was tied up in all of this. He didn't seem to believe Booster when he claimed that the only thing he'd Hal to to do was not get visibly involved.
"I am thinking we not have more Victorious Dark Side Night today," Red commented, and Vixen muttered something under her breath that Ted was glad he didn't catch.
As Booster alternately fielded and dodged questions, Ted let himself become immersed in flying the ship. In a crisis of this level, Booster would probably spend the next three days telling the same story to different people over and over again. If Ted turned out to be luckier than he had been thus far, he wouldn't get sucked too deeply in. In any case, he couldn't see either of them finding a chance for private conversations any time soon. All promised explanations would have to wait. He could only hope that Booster didn't take the intervening time to work a good mad up.
Ted kept up the abducted by aliens story, now with the new and exciting Evil Uncle Expansion Pack, in the face of Briggs and his interminable questions. Claiming exhaustion got him sprung around midnight, and even earned him a ride in a shiny UN car. He hadn't been lying about the tired part at least, and he drifted in and out of sleep as the black sedan wound its way back to Queens. Mostly, he tried not to think too much about the looks Booster kept giving him as he dug himself deeper. He still hadn't had a chance to explain, and his chances of getting one seemed to be dropping by the minute.
"I'll deal with it in the morning," he decided as he trudged down the hotel corridor, knowing that he was talking to himself and really not caring. He almost dropped the card key trying to get it right way around in the lock. "Tonight I just want to... Oh, fuck, Rip Hunter."
The time master was sitting next to Rani in the middle of the floor, apparently drawing an orange pony on hotel stationary. "You left your balcony door unlatched," he said, as though that explained everything.
"No I didn't." Hunter just shrugged. Breaking and entering, it seemed, was beneath his concern. Ted kicked off his shoes and sank onto the edge of the bed, slumping forward to brace his forearms on his thighs. "Fine. Do whatever you want. You do anyway."
Hunter abandoned his colouring and pried himself off the floor; he moved with, Ted was pleased to note, the same level of stiff exhaustion that he and the rest of the team did. Hooking the room's single chair with his foot, he pulled it over to sit in front of Ted. "We actually just came by to thank you for all your work, and to say goodbye."
"Goodbye?" Ted asked, sitting up a little more alertly. "So that's it, you just show up, pluck me out of space-time, spend a week screwing up my life and then abandon me to the mess?"
"I did not 'screw up your life.'"
"Oh yeah? Then why does my best friend hate me?"
"Christ." Hunter pressed the heels of both hands against his eyes. "If ever two people deserved each other." Looking up, he said, "Michael does not hate you. He's had his feathers ruffled; he'll get over it. You of all people know what he's like."
Ted had to concede that that might be true. Booster could hold a grudge like no other non-supervillain Ted had ever met, but faced with repeated proof of good faith, such as saving the world, he'd eventually let go. Usually. "I just don't see why..."
"Look, would it help if you knew that if you hadn't joined the team when you did, Michael would have died stopping an ICBM headed for New York? Or that five entire cities and seven heads of state died before the Justice League found your uncle and took him down?"
"Um..." Ted turned that one over in his head, trying to picture what would have happened if the attacks had taken the world completely unawares. "Yeah. I guess it would."
Hunter got up and Ted's shoulder. "I put you in exactly the right place, at exactly the right time to make all the difference in the world. I can't say that a few lies and some minor emotional fallout are breaking my heart."
With Hunter standing, Ted had to lean back to look him in the eye. "So that whole spiel about Booster needing to know me to achieve his true destiny was total BS?"
"About sixty-six percent BS," Hunter admitted. "I went with what you'd believe and took the least amount of time to explain."
Not feeling like getting lied to again tonight, Ted didn't ask about the other thirty-four percent. "You really are kind of a bastard, aren't you?"
Unexpectedly, Hunter laughed. "You have no idea how true that is."
"Whatever," Ted grumbled and flopped backwards onto the bed.
"Yes, Rani?" He propped himself up on one elbow and peered over the edge of the bed at her. She was holding out a piece of paper with a rough crayon drawing of a blue butterfly sitting on a big yellow flower. "Did you make that for me?"
"Uh huh. It's a picture of you."
"I..." Ted stared at the drawing and thought about being in the right place at the right time. "You're a smart kid, you know that?"
"Yup." Rani grinned up at him. He thought about her curled up on the floor, begging for help that could never come now, and decided it was good to see her smile.
"You gonna be okay, sweetie?" he asked, pausing to ruffle her hair as he took the picture. It made her look even more like Raggedy Anne than usual; Hunter really needed to get her to a proper stylist.
She looked at Hunter, standing by the window and watching her with that soft, kind of sad expression, then back at the butterfly drawing. "Yeah," she said. "I think so." Standing on her toes, she reached up and kissed Ted on the cheek. "Bye, Uncle Ted."
"Goodbye, Rani. Good luck. Hunter, thanks for saving my life; I hope I never see you again." He closed his eyes, then threw an arm over them because he didn't have the energy to get up and turn the lights off.
The door to the deck creaked as it slid open. "Ready?" Hunter asked, then in quite a different tone, "Hello, Michael. Here to see Ted?"
"Rip Hunter." Booster didn't sound a lot happier to be saying that name then Ted usually was. "So you are involved in this!" The door closed before Ted could hear Rip's reply. He pushed himself half way to sitting, but couldn't see more than shadows though the translucent white curtain covering the door.
The door slid open again before he could get up, and Booster stood on the threshold. His costume reflected the lights from inside, casting him in even greater contrast to the winter night behind him. Big, wet snowflakes clung to his hair and shoulders, and Ted watched in fascination as one drifted past his googles to land just on the corner of his mouth. Then Booster stepped into the room, and the slam of the door behind him broke the moment.
"I guess I'm the only one who uses the actual door," Ted commented, even though he could still feel his heart in his throat. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood to take whatever came like a man. "I thought Briggs and company would have you until next Wednesday at least." Okay, like a bug. He couldn't quite bring himself to ask what he really wanted to know: what Booster was doing here, why, if not at the UN, he wasn't back home sleeping.
"Briggs wanted me coherent for the press conference tomorrow." Booster didn't stop advancing until he was just inches from Ted, so close Ted had to tilt his head back a little to look him in the eye.
"Booster, I–" Ted started to say, but Booster shook his head.
"Save it," he ordered. "I get to go first." Ted shut his mouth. "I've been thinking about this a lot. I mean, fuck, I can't seem to get it to stop running in circles around the inside of my skull. Who you are, what's true, what you made up, how much of it was a lie." He shoved his hand back through his hair, and the melting snowflakes held it slicked back, the way he'd used to wear it. "And, as Rip was just kind enough to remind me, it's not like I have any firm moral ground to stand on when it comes to being completely honest about my past. There's like four people in this time who even know my real name, plus Skeets, and maybe Batman, because he seems to know everything. Plus it's not like half the other heroes don't lie as a way of life. I just..." he cut off his own ramble, and took a breath. His hands were clenched so tightly at his sides that Ted could see his arm muscles quivering even thought the suit. "Look," Booster said, starting again. "What I really want to know is last night: were you just fucking me over as part of your con?"
Ted found he needed to fall back half a step to catch his balance. He's been bracing for that, but it still would have been easier if Booster had just up and socked him one. Worse still was the look on Boosters face, under the crude bravado, he looked like a man who'd lost so many times that he was starting to expect nothing else. "Oh, Michael, no." The words left his lips before he even knew what he was saying, Booster's given name used automatically to soften a hard blow. "I've lied about a lot of things in this week, but that was never one of them. I slept with you because I wanted to. I've wanted to for years."
Booster studied his expression, eyes narrowed with intensity, and Ted found himself holding his breath and hoping that Booster would be able to see right through to his soul. After a moment he nodded to himself and held out his hand. "Let's try this again: Booster Gold, Justice League International."
No hesitation this time either. Ted took his hand and held on as hard as he could. "Ted Kord. In this exact timeline, I was murdered by my mad scientist uncle. In another version of this timeline, I escaped my uncle and became the Blue Beetle and a founding member of the JLI."
"Really?" Curiosity overtook the intensity of the moment. "Wow. What happened to your armour?"
Ted sighed. Here we go again. "I never had powers. Other then the Power of Science of course, and above average good looks and charm. Plus I could dress like a bug while keeping a straight face."
"And you know another version of me?"
This was so easy. Booster would ask a question and all he had to do was tell the truth, and another weight lifted off of him. He didn't even feel tired anymore. "Yes, for years and years. You were the best friend I ever had."
Booster let go of his hand, folding his arms. "But other than this damned itchy feeling like somehow I should know you, I don't remember any of this other timeline?"
"I guess not. I think only Rani, Rip Hunter and I do."
"And you and other me, we were...?"
"I thought you were straight."
"It was a different time."
"Right." Booster paused, clearly hunting for another relevant question. Finally, he burst out, "Why the hell didn't you just say all this in the first place?"
Ted couldn't help it; he laughed in Booster's face. When he eventually stopped, he gasped, "You have no idea how many times I've asked myself that in the last week. For what it's worth, I'm really sorry, and Rip Hunter says it saved the world." Or Booster's life anyway, which felt pretty close to the world to Ted right now.
"Okay then," Booster said dubiously. "Accepting apology, blaming Rip, and moving on." He didn't seem to have anywhere to move on to though, and just stood there in front of Ted, arms still folded, shifting his weighted uneasily from foot to foot.
Waiting didn't seem to get the conversation anywhere, so Ted eventually manned up enough to ask, "So we okay?"
Booster nodded. "Sure. I guess at some point we'll have to figure out what you want to tell the team, though I've got to agree that lying to Briggs is always a good life choice."
"Good," Booster said. He didn't move. Ted didn't either.
After another minute, Ted gave up. Obviously they were going to be stuck in awkward land for the next couple of weeks, which is what came of having wild monkey sex with your team leader, let alone with your best friend who doesn't remember you. They important thing was that Booster forgave him; everything else was just details. "Well, then I guess I should say goodni–"
If nothing else, that seemed to nudge Booster into motion. "Fuck that." Then he grabbed Ted's shoulders, pulled him forward and kissed him square on the mouth.
Startled, Ted froze. He could feel Booster's lips on his, soft and a little dry from flying in the wind, and his hands digging into his upper arms. He hadn't expected to do this again, and it took his brain a moment to get with the programme. But when the press of his mouth against Ted's got no response, Booster's grip softened, and he let out a small growl ofr disappointment. Ted realised that this could be his absolute final chance, and he'd had far more than any man deserved. He relaxed into the touch, parting his lips in a contented sigh. The blue and gold costume didn't really have any traction to it, nor any real feeling of the person under the sleek fibres, but Ted ran his hands down Booster's sides to rest on his hips, hoping he got the idea.
He seemed like he did, and and smiled against Ted's mouth as he deepened the kiss. He took his time with it, cradling Ted's face in his gloved hands to hold his head absolutely still as his lips and tongue explored him. Ted let his eyes drift shut, immersing himself in the sensation of skin against skin, the slight tug of Booster's stubble as he kissed the corner of Ted's mouth. He couldn't help letting out a little gasp as Booster pulled away. When he opened his eyes again, Booster was looking at him seriously from behind his goggles. "Keep your eyes open," he said. "I want you to watch what I do to you."
His voice had a kind of growling edge to it that made Ted just say, "Yes," no questions asked.
"Good boy," Booster said, and his grin dared Ted to make something out of it.
Ted wasn't about to. He tried to press forward to kiss Booster again, but he couldn't move against the hands holding his head steady. Fucking strength-enhancing suit. Booster didn't move or let him move until he relaxed back into place. Then Booster started where he'd been, kissing the corner of his mouth and then the edge of his jaw next. When Ted tried to tilt his head back to expose his neck, he found he still couldn't move. "Oh, come on," he moaned.
"What's the magic word?" The commanding growl again, the one that turned Ted on too much to argue, and he said, "Please," instead of "Fuck off," which was what he'd intended.
The hands left his face and started massaging Ted's chest. He arced into the touch, and Booster sucked lightly at his throat. When Ted groaned, he could feel his larynx vibrating against Booster's lips. He barely noticed Booster tugging on his shirt until it was already untucked and pushed half way up his chest. His fingers scrabbled at Booster's costume but he couldn't find the seam on the new design. Instead he raised his arms and let Booster peel him out his shirt and undershirt. Their kiss only broke for the moment it took for the fabric to pass in front of his face.
Booster's gloves had some kind of gripping material built into the palms and fingers, and it caught a little as they swept back over Ted's chest. When he gasped into Booster's mouth as they snagged in his chest hair, he couldn't tell if it was in pain or something else. When Booster grabbed his ass and pulled their hips together, squeezing just a little too hard, he decided it was both pain and everything else.
He broke away from the kiss to bury his face against Booster's neck and whimpered as Booster gripped the point where his skull met his spine and pulled him closer. The other hand dragged down Ted's back, perspiration only cutting the friction a little.
"I've gotcha," Booster whispered, breath hot in his ear, and Ted clutched desperately at his back. His hands still couldn't find any purchase.
His belt quickly joined his shirts on the floor, and Booster eased him back down onto the bed, stripping pants, underwear and socks in one smooth movement. Rising up, Booster let his body slide the whole length of Ted's, cool fibreweave-circuitry rubbing against his flushed skin. He thought he'd come from just that, without Booster laying a hand on him, or if not then certainly when Booster pinned his hands above his head and grinned down at him, saying, "So, I hear you have a thing for tall blond superheroes."
"If I didn't before, I sure as hell do now."
Booster looked even more pleased with himself and kissed him teasingly, just letting his lips brush Ted's before he pulled away out of reach. His hips likewise just barely brushed against Ted's erection as he tried to arc and strain into more contact. Ted closed his eyes and tried to remember how to count to two hundred in Arabic, but couldn't think though the haze of lust and the sound of his own pounding heart. "Hey," Booster reminded him sharply. "I want you to look at me, remember?"
Ted opened his eyes and looked. He looked at all six foot four inches of perfectly-toned superhero hovering over him, only his lower face and hair exposed while Ted wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. He looked at his best friend in the world, confident and happy, and miraculously totally into him. "Please, Booster," he begged, "You're killing me here."
"Oh, well," Booster said, "And I promised to protect you, too." He pressed Ted's wrists together, gently so as not to put too much pressure on the fresh bruises, and kissed him sensuously. It only took wrapping his gloved fingers around Ted's cock and squeezing lightly to finish him. Ted swore against Booster's mouth, and pushed up with his whole body. Booster's kisses became fierce as their bodies pressed together for a long breathless moment, until Ted sank limply into the covers.
"Fuck," he said again, without feeling, as Booster proceeded to make a show of licking his glove clean. "This is like a whole armada of kinks I've never previously admitted to."
"Mm-hmm," Booster mumbled, busy fellating two of his own fingers.
"How uh..." His eyes ran down the length of Booster's body to focus on his groin. "How are you doing?" He couldn't tell through the suit's protective layering.
The fingers left Boosters mouth with an absolutely obscene popping noise. "Oh, you know, could probably use a hand." He licked his thumb deliberately. "Or something else."
Ted, who just been thinking that he'd feel perfectly content if he never moved again, felt a flicker of interest. "You'll have to get out of that suit first. I couldn't figure it out earlier."
Booster rose to his knees and reached behind him to trigger some kind of fastening, not incidentally showing off a gorgeous expanse of flexing pecs and abdominals. "I thought you were supposed to be some kind of genius."
"Come back down here, and I'll show you genius," Ted promised, and reached up to help Booster wiggle out of his top. It took additional shimmying, some yarding and a good deal more energy then Ted wanted to spend to peel Booster out of the rest of his costume. Finally he lay on his back, naked, long legs indolently spread so Ted could kneel between them.
Someday, he wanted to take his time with this, to suck and lick and caress until Booster was the one begging for his life. He wanted to hear every whimper and moan and profanity his mouth and his hands could wring out of him. However, Booster was already so hard that all Ted had to do was enclose his cock in his lips and bob down as far as he could go then up again, slowly, sucking hard. Booster choked back a sob, and his hips bucked, but Ted held him steady. He spread his hands across the the top of Booster's thighs and moved with him until the cock between his lips felt soft and tender. He swallowed this time, and let Booster pet his hair as he rested his head on Booster's stomach.
"You're the best," Booster murmured sleepily.
"You got it, buddy," Ted told him. He didn't want to move, but he knew he probably smelled like a cyborg yeti that had been dredged out of the East River. Reluctantly he slid off the bed. "Why don't you try get in the bed before you pass out. I'll be back in a minute."
When Ted came back, now grime-free and smelling of generic hotel soap, Booster lay curled on his side under the covers, dead to the world. He didn't stir as the bed dipped under Ted's weight, and only made an indistinct grunt when Ted draped an arm over his waist and slid up next to him.
As he drifted off, Ted thought about how much he loved the man beside him, what he would risk for him. The answer was everything, of course, it had been since the early days. He knew this would be another wild ride, as the Justice League International always was, and maybe someday he'd have to give everything up again. That would be another day. For now, Blue and Gold were together again, and whatever the universe threw at them, together was how they'd handle it.