fleur_de_liz: (Default)
[personal profile] fleur_de_liz
Title: Merciless
Author: [personal profile] fleur_de_liz
Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Language, violence, discussions of character death.
Summary: Booster feels as though he's caught between two worlds.
Notes: Takes place following issue #5 of JLI. All my love to [personal profile] poisonivory. Any mistakes are my own.



Merciless


Booster didn’t think he’d ever felt this badly after a fight. His wrists and ankles felt sore and swollen, shoulders tight like he’d been stretched out. Breathing was a chore. Though his mouth was dry and tasted of ash, his nose felt like it would never stop running. His head swam. Worst of all, he had to sit through Briggs chewing him out for their miserable battle with Peraxxus and the Signal Men.

“…a laughingstock! The UN is going to pull our charter faster than you can say…”

His mind wandered in and out of the conversation. He kept feeling the sensation of something tightening around his wrists, his throat. Godiva was in the infirmary having her hand examined, so it couldn’t have been her overly friendly hair. Booster hoped it was just a residual feeling of those mud men attacking him.

“…listening, Booster?”

He nodded. “We’ll do better next time, Briggs. I’ll work with the team.”

“You better. And I want Batman gone. He does nothing for our image.”

Booster nodded again and slumped into his chair. He should have stayed in the infirmary. They didn’t even really have an infirmary, not with the Hall of Justice a pile of smoldering slag. They were operating out of an office building owned by one of Esposito’s cousins or something like that. Justice League International had just barely survived their first fight. No one walked away unscathed, not even Fang and his armored skin. They were weak, wounded, and totally unprepared if the world was threatened again.

Worst of all, more painful than any of the physical wounds, were the hallucinations. Booster often had dreams, more like nightmares, of lives that were and were not his own. They felt every bit as real as this life and he often woke not knowing where he was or what life he was living. Ever since the fight with Peraxxus, though, the visions came to him in the waking world. Lives overlapped and intersected, whispering with voices both familiar and strange.

“Booster, you’re looking kind of green. Do you need to lie down?” Briggs asked.

”There! You guys, I found him!”

Booster blinked. He could see Briggs and the conference room, but at the same time, he was looking at what appeared to be a warehouse or a parking garage, something cold and concrete. He started shaking, violently and uncontrollably.

“Booster? Esposito, get a medic down here. I don’t know what’s wrong with Booster, but it’s not good.”

”Oh God, cut him down. Cut him down, get him out of there!”

”I can’t just cut him down; he’s attached to that thing. We have to make it let him go.”

Booster felt fear and pain rolling through his skin, but it didn’t all feel like his own. He could still see Briggs holding him as he shook and moaned. He could also see people standing below him, as if he were suspended somewhere above them. They looked so small and afraid.

“Dammit, Esposito, where’s that medical team? I think he’s having a seizure!”

”It’s a plant, isn’t it? I’m no Poison Ivy, but I’m pretty sure plants don’t like to be set on fire.”

Booster felt the tightness around his wrists, his ankles, his throat, clench even tighter. He could smell smoke and saw tongues of green flame crackling in the periphery of his vision. When had Fire come into the room? Or was it the other room he saw? The two worlds were collapsing in on themselves and Booster could no longer distinguish what was real.

“Goddamn, Booster, stay with me, stay with me…”

”It’s working! It’s working, that thing’s letting go!”

There was an inhuman scream, something that couldn’t have come from Briggs’ mouth, and it rattled Booster’s very marrow.

He felt himself falling out of the chair in the conference room, down from wherever he’d been suspended. The constriction was no longer there but the pain remained. Someone was holding him. Briggs. Guy Gardner. Where had Gardner come from?

“Jesus Christ, he weighs nothing. That thing’s fucking wrecked him. Gold, you alive? C’mon, gimme some kind of sign that you ain’t brain dead in there.”

Booster blinked, trying to focus on one world. The ground was getting closer. Gardner was still holding him. He smelled like ozone and beer and Old Bay seasoning and cheap cologne. Booster’s stomach lurched, but he didn’t think there was anything in there for him to vomit up.

“Tora, don’t let that thing get away!”

Cold air sliced past Booster’s cheek. “That should hold it. STAR Labs will want to look at it, I’m sure.”

“He’s in fucking awful shape. We need to get him to a hospital, now.”

Booster didn’t think he could speak, but he wanted to agree wholeheartedly. He wondered if this was what dying felt like. He didn’t really want to die lying in Guy Gardner’s arms. He blinked again, and suddenly his vision was filled with blue. Bright, angelic blue. A hand caressed his forehead gently, as if trying to soothe away the throbbing pain that pressed against his skull.

“We’ve got him, J’onn. Requesting emergency teleport to the nearest hospital. Five to beam up, Mr. J’onzz.”

“Only you would crack jokes at a time like this, Beetle,” Guy muttered.

Beetle. Booster didn’t think that sounded like Jaime’s voice. Did he know a Jaime? How could he not know Jaime? His memories felt fragmented, a thousand shattered shards of thought that prickled his aching brain. His skin crackled and there was a humming sound from somewhere all around him.

“It’s okay, Booster. It’s all over. It’s all over now,” that half-familiar voice murmured over the humming sound as it grew progressively louder. He knew that voice. The last time he’d heard that voice it had come out of a corpse’s rotted mouth. But he didn’t exist anymore. But he had to exist if he was here now. But he’d been dead for three years.

Booster knew that voice like he knew his own name. He was with Ted. He was safe. It was okay to surrender to the blackness that swallowed up his broken thoughts.

+

When he woke, Booster found himself strapped down, tangled up, tubes in his nose and mouth and arm. For a moment he thought he was back in that warehouse, or wherever it had been, wrapped up in the coils of the thing they’d pulled him from. He jerked, body screaming in protest, and moaned around the breathing tube taped to his lips.

“Shh, shh. It’s okay, Booster. You’re okay,” a soft voice murmured.

Booster slumped, body stilling as a cool, pale hand touched him. “Hhh?”

“Don’t try to talk right now; you’ve got a breathing tube in.” Booster recognized Tora’s gentle voice. “We’re at the hospital.”

Booster couldn’t remember which hospital. Was Briggs going to come in and yell at him for passing out in the middle of being reprimanded? Or was he somewhere else? His head hurt. Everything hurt. He blinked slowly, letting out a little mewl of pain.

“Ted will be in soon, okay? He’s just talking to the doctors. He’s been very worried about you, Booster. We all have,” Tora said.

The door clicked open across the room. Tora straightened, disappearing from Booster’s field of vision. Then she was back again, leaning in to press a tender, cool kiss just above his eyebrow. “I’ll be back to see you soon.”

Booster heard her footsteps as she left the room, quiet little clicks from the slight heel in her boots. He heard the steps of the newcomer as well, a man’s stride, heavier but no less graceful. He hoped it wasn’t Briggs.

It wasn’t Briggs.

“The good news is you’re alive,” Ted said softly, his face uncharacteristically grave. “The bad news is you’re just barely alive, so you’re not getting out of the hospital any time soon. Sorry, buddy.”

Booster let out a soft sound. “Nnn.”

“I know. I…I can’t even pretend things are okay right now, Booster. Guy said…” Ted sighed, turning away for a minute, his hand pressed to his mouth. “…Guy said that if we’d waited five minutes more, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

Booster felt Ted’s hand wrap around his own, warm and strong and careful. “Hhh?”

“I know, it’s kind of a lopsided conversation. I’m just glad we’re having it. We’ve got everybody looking at that thing. Us, the other League, STAR Labs, the Corps. Whatever it did to you, Booster, it’s not normal. I mean, nothing we do is, but this is even beyond our definition of normal.” He let out a soft, sad little laugh. “I don’t know how you ever managed, all those times you had to sit here with me in that bed. I hate being here. I hate looking at you like that. I hate knowing that I almost lost you.”

Booster closed his eyes, trying to make sense of everything. He’d almost died, that much was certain. He was in the hospital; that was also obvious. He knew who he was, in the sense that he knew his name and birthday and favorite color. But as far as who he was in this world, who his friends were, why Ted was alive, and why his memories were so fractured, that much was still a mystery.

“I’m keeping you up. Go back to sleep, Booster. Get some rest. You’ve got a long way to go to get better,” Ted said softly. He leaned over and pressed a kiss in the same spot Tora had previously kissed. Booster didn’t understand that at all, but his mind was such a mess that he couldn’t dwell on it for too long. “I’ll be here when you wake up.”

Booster blinked, blinked again, and slipped back into the darkness. The kiss on his brow burned like a bright beacon against the pain that throbbed through his body.

+

Ted wasn’t there when Booster woke up. Instead, Guy Gardner was sitting there, flipping through a copy of Penthouse. His bed had been propped up and the breathing tube had been removed. His mouth felt raw and dry, and the rest of him just felt weak.

“Where’s Ted?” he rasped.

Guy looked up from his magazine. “Eh, he went to get a shower and a cup o’ coffee. He’ll be back.”

“He said he’d be here when I woke up,” Booster said softly.

“Yeah, and you’ve been out cold for two days. He’d still be sitting here if I hadn’t kicked his fat ass out and made him go home.” He went back to his magazine, whistling softly. “Wouldja get a load of her?”

Booster swallowed, though it did nothing to help his dry throat. “Where’s Briggs?”

“Who?” Guy asked, not looking up.

“Our boss? Andre Briggs? Head of the UN Intelligence Department?” Booster clarified. His head was spinning again.

Guy emerged from his magazine again, looking perplexed. “Booster, we’ve had the same boss for the last like ten friggin’ years. Well, y’know; I mean, you’ve never worked for the Blue Bastards. But yeah. No. I don’t know who the fuck Andre Briggs is, but we don’t work for him.”

“Who do we work for then?” Booster asked.

“Shit. Do you have friggin’ amnesia? You’re worse than Ted, swear to fucking God. We work for Max Lord, numbnuts.”

Booster felt his stomach lurch. Part of his mind insisted that he didn’t know a Max Lord, but that part was a lot quieter than a second part of his mind. That part was screaming now, screaming that Maxwell Lord was a murderer. Maxwell Lord killed his best friend. Maxwell Lord had destroyed everything he loved. He could feel the color leaving his face and his head spun violently.

“Booster? You okay?”

His heart monitor started beeping wildly and the door to his room clicked open, a nurse speed-walking to his side. Now that he was sitting up slightly, Booster could see who was coming through the door. Ted followed the nurse in, looking tired but clean, a large to-go cup of coffee in his hand.

“All right, Mr. Gold, relax. Your heart rate’s gotten a little too high. I need you to calm down, all right?” the nurse said in soothing tones. She sounded a bit like Tora.

Ted shot Guy a look that, had Ted the same eye-lasers more commonly found in Kryptonians, would’ve set Guy’s head ablaze. “What did you do to him?”

“Nothing! He asked me who we worked for, and I told him Max, and he fucking freaked out!” Guy rolled up his magazine, stuck it in his back pocket, and started walking towards the door. “I’m heading back to the lab, see what those nerds have come up with. Mari said she’d take next shift.”

Booster ignored the nurse fussing over him and watched Ted sink into the chair Guy had previously occupied. “We work for Max?”

“Yeah, we’ve been working for him for years now. This is news to you?” Ted asked.

“…I don’t know.”

Ted took a sip of his coffee. The nurse reset the heart monitor and quietly exited the room. “What year is this?”

“2012.”

“Your sister’s name?”

“Michelle Marie Carter.”

Ted took another sip of his coffee, a clear pause in his line of questioning. He didn’t want to ask this one, Booster thought. “…Booster, when’s our anniversary?”

Booster wasn’t sure what dropped out first: his heart, or his stomach. “Our what?”

“Shit.” Ted put aside his coffee and scooted the chair closer. “Two out of three on the Blue and Gold Standard Amnesia Test. Better than expected, but…shit, Booster. You really don’t remember? Please, please for the love of God smile and tell me that you’re just messing with me.”

“I…” Booster swallowed. His mouth still tasted dry and stale. “I don’t…you died. Max killed you. He shot you. Ted, you died. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t save you, my God, I couldn’t…I tried, and then there were the zombies, and everyone kept dying. All our friends. I couldn’t…nothing I could do…but then…then everything changed and I…I don’t know who I am anymore.”

Ted’s hands balled into fists in his lap and his face crumpled. Booster couldn’t be sure if it was an angry expression or an incredibly sad one. “…What’s the last thing you remember?”

Booster thought hard, tried to push back all the splinters to find something real and solid and concrete that he could cling to. “Super Buddies.”

Ted laughed, a short bark of a laugh that sliced across Booster’s heart. “I don’t think anyone could forget that mess. And then after that?”

“It all goes to hell.”

Booster watched Ted. He was exhausted, physically and mentally, and he wanted to just sink back into the oblivion of sleep. But he couldn’t, not while Ted was sitting there telling him that everything in his head was a lie. He watched Ted twist a ring on his finger. He looked down at his own left hand and only found his flight ring.

“You wear it on your right,” Ted murmured, low and sad. “If that’s what you’re looking for. You tried switching your flight ring to your other hand, but for whatever reason, it made you fly like you were drunk. It was pretty damn funny.”

Booster closed his eyes. “I wish I could remember.”

“I wish you could too.”

+

The next few days bled into one another. Booster slept mostly, watched over by various members of a team he didn’t remember being on. Usually, it was Ted in the chair at his side. Bea came for a few hours. Tora returned with a basket of knitting and a small care package of sparkling lemonade and home-baked treats “that came from Sue.” Mari was by at least once, as was Gavril. Booster nearly spat out his lemonade when Scott and Barda came through the door to relieve Ted at dinnertime. He pretended to be asleep when Max came and talked to Ted.

He’d spent almost a whole week in the hospital before J’onn came, gliding across the tiled floor and standing next to Ted. Ted had spent the last week treading lightly. He preferred to talk with Booster about the things he did remember, their days in the League the first time around. At first Booster still felt uncertain that any of it happened, but as the week progressed those memories grew stronger, more distinct.

“Hello, Booster,” J’onn said quietly. Booster could feel his presence brushing against the corners of his mind. “I do not have to read your thoughts to know that they are troubled. Beetle tells me you doubt your own memories.”

Booster nodded slightly. “I…nothing seems right, but I don’t know why. I can’t remember…I remember things, but I don’t think they’re the right things.”

“One of the first things he said to me when he woke up was that Max killed me,” Ted said softly.

“What else do you remember of that event, Booster?” J’onn asked.

Booster ducked his head, shaking it. “No, no, I don’t want to remember.”

“Buddy, please,” Ted replied. “It’ll help us. We can’t fix this if we don’t know what we’re dealing with.”

“I…it started with Sue dying.” Booster began to tell them everything, everything he remembered of the last three years. The death of Sue Dibny at the hands of her former friend Jean Loring. Maxwell Lord’s treachery and descent into madness. Ted’s death. Crisis after crisis. The death and rebirth of the Multiverse. Time travel with Rip Hunter. The loss of Dmitri, of Ralph, of Scott and Barda. Tora’s return. His sister’s return. Meeting Jaime. The Blackest Night. The Brightest Day. Barry Allen’s return and the destruction of time as Booster knew it. Struggling with the memories of this timeline while remembering another life entirely, one where he’d never met Guy Gardner or Beatriz da Costa. Andre Briggs. Peraxxus and the Signal Men. Waking up here.

When he’d run out of words, J’onn steepled his long green fingers and pressed the tips to his mouth. “It seems that your memories are constructed out of events that have happened, but in your mind, they did not occur as they truly did.”

“Which makes sense considering what Guy and the research team’s discovered,” Ted pointed out.

“What? What do you mean?” Booster asked.

Ted shifted in his chair. “You spent three days feeding a hybrid strain of the Black Mercy plant. Guy and the Corps think that the Black Mercies Mongul bred cross-pollinated with another alien plant and created a new, horrible critter. Guy wants to call it the Red Merciless. Basically, the plant finds a victim, ensnares it, makes it dream incredibly lucid and mostly horrible dreams, and pretty much sucks the life out of it.”

“Three days? I was there for three days?!” Booster shouted. “I can’t remember three years of my life!”

Ted looked taken aback, as if Booster’s sudden outburst had caught him off guard. “I…we tried to find you sooner,” he said weakly.

“Why can’t I remember anything? What’s wrong with me?” Booster asked, still hot with anger.

The corners of J’onn’s mouth twitched. “That is what we are trying to determine. In our past experiences with the Black Mercy, the dream worlds faded once the plant was removed from its host. They did not cause this sort of psychic damage, either. I believe that this is part of the new breed’s survival mechanism. If the host escapes, it will remain disoriented by its thoughts and therefore easier to recapture. I believe that, in time, your memories will be restored.”

“Three days,” Booster repeated.

“And in those three days, the Red Merciless managed to very nearly kill you,” J’onn replied.

Ted twisted the ring on his finger. “Black Mercies have a symbiotic relationship with their hosts. They don’t actively try to kill them. At least, not the normal kinds. The ones Mongul messed with, all bets are obviously off.”

Booster looked down at his hands, staring at the places where the IV tubes disappeared under his skin. “I lost three years of my life in three days. Why was I there so long?”

“We couldn’t find you,” Ted said softly. “Your communicator was offline; we think the plant broke it or messed with it somehow. Since you were hallucinating, J’onn couldn’t find you mentally. We scoured the city for you, Booster, we really did. I didn’t sleep at all.”

Booster didn’t think he’d ever seen Ted look so miserable in his life. He probably didn’t sleep. He’d probably pushed himself to his physical limits trying to find him. He could almost imagine Ted exhausted and slumped over the monitor room console, but still searching for him.

J’onn reached out and squeezed Booster’s shoulder gently. “I must return to the embassy. Your memories will return, Booster. You simply need time.”

He nodded and watched as J’onn ghosted out of the hospital room, leaving him alone with Ted. Ted was fiddling with his ring again, making him feel incredibly guilty. He hated watching Ted twist that damn ring, especially knowing he put that band there and couldn’t remember doing it.

“The house did blow up,” Ted said.

“What?”

“You said Max blew up my house. The house in Highland Park? It really did blow up. But Max didn’t do it. Max didn’t do any of that. It was all Lex Luthor. He hacked the Bat-Computer and the Bat-Satellite and the Bat-Everything-Else to, what else, destroy Superman and the League. He decided to give Brother Eye a test run and just happened to put in the coordinates of my house. You got hurt pretty bad. In fact, I think that was the last time I had to sit at your bedside in a hospital. Hated it just as much then as I do now,” Ted replied. He twisted the ring again. “That was when I told you I loved you. Twice, actually. First time I said it, you were still unconscious.”

Booster bit his lip. “What about...y’know, the rings?”

Ted stopped fiddling with his ring. “Oh. Well, um. We hadn’t really talked about it, y’know, we were just kind of happy doing our thing. But when New York legalized gay marriage we figured, what the hell, why not? We already lived there, we had nothing better to do, and we figured it would freak the hell out of Guy. And you know how much fun it is to torment him. So we…um…we just kind of went down to the courthouse and got the quickest wedding we could. We got real nice rings, but since they took like two weeks to size, we pretty much put on crackerjack rings when we got back to the embassy to mess with Gardner.”

“Did his eyes bug out of his head?” Booster asked.

“Gavril thought he was speaking in tongues,” Ted replied.

Booster laughed. It felt like it was the first time he’d laughed in a while, and it hurt to do it. “I bet. Um, this is kind of a dumb question, but…who’s on our team?”

“It’s not a dumb question. At least, not while your brain’s still scrambled. After that, all bets are off. So it’s you, me, Guy, Bea, Tora, J’onn, Scott and Barda, Gavril, Mari, and Fang. And Max, I guess. Oh, and Ralph and Sue have reserve status, which is more like Ralph really wants to come hang out and punch thugs with us, but Sue won’t let him. Not while they’ve got a three-year-old and another kid on the way,” Ted replied.

Booster stared. “…Ralph and Sue have a kid? And they’re having another one?”

“You don’t remember that either?”

“Sue died in my memories.”

Ted winced. “She almost died for real. If Ollie hadn’t shown up when he did…well…um, anyway, yeah. She and Ralph had Nora, and now they’re having a boy. Ralph has been trying for every terrible detective name he can. Hercule. Sherlock. Mycroft. Nancy.”

“You don’t think he’d really name his son Nancy, do you?” Booster asked, trying to arch an eyebrow and finding it hurt too much.

“He thought about naming his daughter Ralphina, didn’t he?” Ted pointed out. “When he thought Sue was pregnant while we were all in Super Buddies?”

Booster smiled. “True. Any idea when I can go home?”

“Soon,” Ted assured him. His hand curled around Booster’s, like it had every time Ted had come to see him. It made Booster’s heart ache, knowing that he didn’t remember the relationship they’d shared for the past three years. “You were just so dehydrated, Boost. It was bad. I was scared you’d crumble to dust if I touched you.”

He rubbed the back of Booster’s hand with his thumb, gentle little strokes that made Booster’s skin prickle and his heart ache even more. “I’m sorry, Ted.”

“For what?”

“Not remembering anything. If I were you, I’d be freaking out. Or at least making fun of me.”

Ted gave his hand a small squeeze. “Don’t worry, that’ll come later. Right now, I just don’t have it in me. Not after seeing you wrung out like a towel and clinging to life. As for freaking out, I wait until I get home to do that. It’s not going to do you any good watching me melt down. You know who you are and you know who I am. We can work out the details later.”

“You’ve considerably mellowed in the three years that I don’t remember,” Booster said, smiling slightly.

Ted bit his lip, clearly trying to hide a grin. “It’s all that maturity.”

“Don’t you start with that again. I do remember that.”

They didn’t talk much after that. Booster lay there, looking at Ted, watching him as he watched Booster, still stroking the back of his hand with his thumb. Even with three years of misplaced memories, Booster knew that he didn’t have to say anything. Neither of them did. He still knew Ted like he knew his own shadow. He recognized the worry lines around Ted’s mouth, in his brow, and he hated knowing he put them there.

Ted couldn’t sit quiet for long and ended up putting on a movie, the two of them laughing as they watched it together. Ted’s hand never left Booster’s for long. Booster was sure this was something they did often. They were about halfway through the film when the door opened. Max stood in the doorway, looking unsure of himself. Booster could smell the cigar smoke from where he lay. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prick up, but Ted didn’t seem concerned at all by the intrusion.

“You kicking me out too?” he asked.

Max smiled sympathetically. “Go take a lunch break, Ted. I can babysit for a few hours.”

“It’s fine, Max. I’m fine with staying. Don’t worry about it,” Ted insisted.

“Go take a lunch break, Ted,” Max repeated. “Or I’ll get Barda down here to carry you out. Booster’s not going anywhere. Go have some lunch, pick up your dry cleaning, whatever you need to do. I will make sure that Booster eats his hospital gruel and gets a nap while you’re gone.”

Booster didn’t want Ted to go. He didn’t want to be left alone with Max. Ted bit his lip, looking from one to the other. With an apologetic shrug, he grabbed his coat and keys and shuffled towards the door, glancing back at Booster the whole time. He nearly walked into the door frame doing that.

Max sighed, shrugged off his boiled wool coat, and sank down into the chair next to Booster’s bed. “You look slightly less terrible than everybody’s claiming you do.”

“Thanks,” Booster said dryly. There was no pretending to be asleep this time.

“…Ted told me about your memories,” Max said.

Booster eyed him warily. “Did he?”

“You remember me as a megalomaniacal murderer who tried to take over the world with an army of cyborgs and a mind-controlled Superman,” he said bluntly. Booster couldn’t look at him. “I can assure you, Booster, that I have never done any of that. And, in spite of his best efforts to make me think otherwise, I would never kill Ted.”

Booster winced. “How do I know that?”

“Because Ted told me I had my mental powers in your memories. I haven’t been able to nudge minds in years, Booster. And before you ask how I know, I’ve been trying to nudge you to touch your nose with your right index finger for the past five minutes and it’s not doing.”

“…J’onn said some of my memories are true things. How much is true, Max?” Booster asked.

“The army of cyborgs and Batman’s rogue satellite are true, but as I believe Ted has already explained, that was Lex Luthor’s doing. And what he said about my beliefs about metahumans is true as well. I think metahumans are dangerous, and I think they pose a threat to humanity.” Max tried smoothing out a crease in his slacks, but it stubbornly refused to budge. “You want to know what my grand scheme was for dealing with metahumans, Booster?”

“What?”

“Asking the UN for a new charter and reforming Justice League International.”

Booster stared. Max looked calm and collected, every bit the Maxwell Lord he remembered from his early days with the League. There was a streak of ruthlessness in him, but there was also a genuine sense of compassion and care. This was the Max he’d known, the one he’d been horrified to think would ever hurt someone as close to him as Ted.

“Society is distrusting of metahumans right now, Booster. There have been a lot of crises in the past few years. But I convinced the United Nations into letting me bring you all back because I knew you could be trusted. Think about it. J’onn is the only one on the team with a true secret identity. Transparency and accountability. That’s what the people want.”

“You actually managed to convince Ted he doesn’t have a secret identity?” Booster asked warily.

Max laughed. “Ted couldn’t keep his identity a secret if his life depended on it. He’s worse than Green Arrow when it comes to secret identities.”

Booster managed a small smile. “I’m surprised you don’t have Ollie on the roster, then.”

“Are you kidding? Do you really want Oliver Queen and Guy Gardner in the same room as one another for more than five minutes?”

By the time Ted came back from lunch, Booster’s memory of Max-as-murderer wasn’t quite as sharp. It still prickled at his mind, but the edges were a little duller having sat and talked with Max for that hour. They discussed the League and the proposal to move the embassy to the Hall of Justice in Washington. Max was waiting to hear back from the UN on that one, and apparently everyone had mixed feelings about leaving the brownstone they’d lived and worked in for so many years. Booster didn’t remember what his opinion was, but he didn’t think it really mattered that much so long as Ted came with him.

“I come bearing gifts and good news,” he said, carrying over an overnight bag. “First, the good news: the warden’s letting you out early on good behavior. He said that at this point, the best healing you’re going to do is at home. You’ll have to stay until you finish that IV and so they can run a couple more tests, but they said we should be out of here by dinnertime.”

Booster smiled even as his stomach wobbled a little. Ted was taking him home, presumably to a home they shared. A home he didn’t remember sharing with his best friend, whom he didn’t remember marrying.

“And as for the gifts, I’ve got a change of clothes in here and a small sampling from your extensive collection of health and beauty products. I’m not going through your whole hair care routine for you, but we can at least get you cleaned up and shaved. You’re starting to look like Aquaman during his beardy phase,” Ted said. “What do you think? Go freshen up?”

“Please,” Booster replied.

Max got up from his chair, smoothing out his clothes. “Well, that’s my cue to go. Ted, team meeting tomorrow if you can spare the time. Booster, you’re obviously exempt.”

“I’ll pencil you in and then promptly forget all about it, Max. I await your angry phone call,” Ted replied, grinning wickedly.

Shaking his head, Max let himself out of the room, carefully shutting the door behind him. Ted put the overnight bag on the chair and unzipped it, digging around for supplies. Booster watched him take out a smaller bag, presumably containing his toiletries.

“Lemme just call the nurse so she can disconnect you from the Matrix, and then you and I have a date with a sexy sponge bath,” Ted said, waggling his eyebrows.

Booster chewed on his lip. “…Hot.”

Ted’s expression changed, becoming more concerned. “Max didn’t shake any memories loose?”

“Sorry,” he mumbled, ducking his head.

“Well, then I guess the handjob will just have to wait,” Ted replied. Booster felt his face heat up. “At least you and I have a sponge bath precedent. Think of all those times I had to mop you down back in the Robocop days.”

He paged the nurse with the little bedside button and disappeared into the bathroom, presumably to get things set up. Booster lay in his bed, unable to do anything else, and tried hard to remember living with Ted. He couldn’t remember where they lived, or what color their comforter was (though he got the impression it was either blue or yellow), or what kind of car they drove. The only thing rattling around in his head was a pair of broken, bloodied goggles. He closed his eyes and tried to think of their last anniversary, but all he could remember was standing graveside, feeling lost and empty.

The nurse came in just as Ted was coming out of the bathroom, and the two of them chatted briefly about Booster’s condition and how well his recovery was going. She carefully peeled off the pads for the heart monitor and disconnected various other machines whose purpose Booster never really understood, other than to take up space and beep.

“All right, Boost, ready to get your sea legs back?” Ted asked, gently easing him to his feet.

Booster felt his knees wobble traitorously and he clung to the IV cart for support. “Oh God.”

“Yeah, I know. That plant really took the wind out of your sails. C’mon, buddy. I’ve got you. Go slow.”

With Ted’s hands steadying him, Booster was able to shuffle across the cold linoleum floor into the bathroom. The lights were harsh and yellow-white, buzzing too brightly overhead. Booster was too busy staring at his toes to notice the mirror at first, but when he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, he looked up. A gasp rattled out of his mouth.

The man in the mirror was gaunt and pale. His eyes were sunken and ringed like a raccoon’s, his hollow cheeks covered with a week’s worth of beard. His hair was limp and greasy, lacking its usual sheen and bounce. There was a dark, thick bruise around his neck, and if he looked at them, his wrists and ankles as well. His whole body seemed to curve in on itself. He looked terrible, like all the life had been sucked out of him. By all accounts, it had.

“Don’t worry,” Ted murmured, making him jump. “We’ll make you pretty again in no time.”

“Are you sure that thing only had me for three days?” Booster asked.

Ted nodded. “Like I said, it was very aggressive. They really didn’t want to release you this soon, but I might’ve thrown my weight around a little. I want you to come home, Booster. I don’t like seeing you in the hospital, and I don’t like not being able to take care of you.”

“Is Max really going to make you go to a meeting tomorrow?”

Booster held still while Ted carefully eased the hospital gown off his shoulders. It got hung up on the IV line. “I seriously doubt he’s going to give me shit if I skip out. Mari said he’s calling in reserves while you’re recovering and I’m taking care of you. I think Ralph’s coming in for a while, and they’re either going to get Mary or Jaime to cover.”

“Jaime exists?” Booster asked.

“Of course Jaime exists, why wouldn’t…oh, right,” Ted replied, easing Booster into the bath. It was one of those tubs with the little door for walk-ins. Booster sat on a chair in the empty bathtub, cold and embarrassed. “To make a long and probably very confusing story short, after Lex Luthor blew up my house, my scarab went missing and ended up in Jaime. You found him, and we all kind of took him under our wing. Good kid. Smart kid. Nice family.”

The showerhead was the detachable kind on a length of hose and Ted leaned in to pull it down. He turned on the water and held his hand under it for a few minutes. Booster tipped his head back so Ted could wash his hair, groaning softly as the bruises on his neck started throbbing.

“You okay?” Ted asked.

“Yeah, just sore, I guess. You promise me you didn’t bring Pert Plus, right?” Booster replied.

Ted started working shampoo into his hair. “You remember what kind of shampoo I use?”

“Well, no, but it’s what you used to have in the showers when we were in the League, and I’m guessing it hasn’t changed.”

Ted laughed. “Okay, you got me there.”

Booster tried to relax, tried to remember that there was no reason to be embarrassed. He couldn’t keep calm, though, not when his memories insisted he never told Ted how he felt. He didn’t want Ted looking at him while he resembled the Crypt Keeper’s slightly more attractive nephew. At least Ted wasn’t making fun of him, gently passing a soapy washcloth over his battered body. He held very still while Ted shaved him, especially since Ted’s hand seemed to be shaking a little. He didn’t mention it to Ted.

“And we’re done. Let me grab you a towel. Careful, don’t get up,” Ted said, reaching for a towel.

Booster tried not to wince; the towel was scratchy and thin. Ted supported him as he shakily got out of the bathtub. In spite of Ted’s care, he didn’t feel all that clean; just sort of damp and cold. Ted helped him back into his hospital gown and kept a hand on the small of his back as they walked back towards Booster’s bed.

“Hey,” Booster said as he climbed back into bed, moving slowly. “Can you…will you tell me about…how we got together?”

Ted smiled and tucked the blankets around him. “You were in the hospital then too. When the house blew, you got the worst of the injuries. God, I thought you’d died. And I realized…I mean, you were sitting in a sterile bubble in a burn ward…I realized that if I didn’t tell you, I might not get another chance. We’ve had plenty of close calls in our lives but, God, Booster. What if you’d died? I’d have to live with the knowledge that I never got to tell you I…Booster, are you okay?”

It took a few seconds for Booster to realize he was crying. He’d felt the tightness in his throat and the burning in his eyes, but he hadn’t noticed the tears until they were dripping off his jaw. “…I didn’t get that chance.”

Ted was out of the chair and leaning over the bed railing in a heartbeat, wrapping him up in a hug. Ted smelled like shampoo and shaving cream, ink and motor oil and coffee, warm and familiar smells. Booster tucked his head into the crook of Ted’s neck, breathing in the scent of his skin. He could feel his tears dampening Ted’s throat, sliding into the collar of his shirt.

“You did, Booster. You did. Those memories aren’t real. They’re not real, Booster,” he whispered.

Booster sniffled miserably. “How do I know? What if this is the dream, and the real world is the one I left behind?”

“Do you honestly think that I would do something as dumb as die and leave you alone?” Ted asked, petting his damp hair. “I’ve done some stupid shit, some of it to you, but I would never, never leave you like that.”

“But you did,” Booster said softly. “You died.”

“Booster, it didn’t happen. I don’t know what I can do to make you believe me, but those memories aren’t real,” Ted insisted.

Booster closed his eyes, trying to find the right memories. He wished there was a way to pull them up from the depths of his mind, tether them to the warmth in Ted’s hands and haul them home.

He worried that he’d remain adrift, lost on a fog-shrouded sea.

+

It was dark by the time Booster was given the all-clear to go home. They pulled out his IV, checked his temperature and blood pressure and pulmonary functions one more time, gave Ted a list of outpatient care requirements, and finally left so Ted could help him dress. His clothes felt like they were hanging off his frame. Ted assured him that they’d fit fine once he regained his strength.

Ted hired a cab to take them home. Booster spent the ride with his eyes shut and his head resting on Ted’s shoulder. He’d always had trouble with motion sickness and the lurch of the cab wasn’t helping his currently delicate constitution. Ted stroked his hair and his forehead, humming something tuneless and soft. Booster wondered if this was something they did often, if Ted held him close like this when he got sick.

“We’ve got a room at the embassy as well, but I figured you would want to recover somewhere quiet,” Ted said softly, fingertips brushing his ear. “You don’t really need Guy banging around yelling while you don’t feel good.”

Booster nodded. He was more than grateful when the cab finally came to a stop, idling in front of a beautiful brownstone a few blocks away from the headquarters of Justice League International. Ted helped him out of the cab and up the front steps, then up the main stairwell. He showed Booster to their door and unlocked it, guiding Booster inside and turning on lights as they went.

The apartment was spacious, with big windows that looked like they let in plenty of daylight. It was casually cluttered, little piles of mail and magazines and what had to be Ted’s latest projects scattered around, but not anywhere near the mess Booster remembered Ted’s homes being. Maybe he was a good influence on him. The furnishings didn’t look like anything either of them picked out. Booster walked around slowly, unsteadily, examining the apples in the glass bowl on the counter and the calendar on the refrigerator, hoping it would unlock his memories. He followed the framed photographs across the wall, bright and happy pictures of two men who looked like they couldn’t love each other more if they tried. There were other people in the pictures, Jaime or Guy or Barda, but most of them were just Ted and Booster together.

“Shel…” Booster murmured, finding a picture of his sister, the sunlight in the picture picking up the strawberry highlights in her hair. “Ted, is she…”

Ted shook his head. “I tried getting in touch with her, but she’s probably bouncing around the time stream. You…oh, you won’t remember. See, a couple of years ago Rip Hunter showed up and declared that the space-time continuum had gone all…noodly. He wanted to recruit you, but I persuaded him to reconsider. With my fists.”

“You didn’t.”

“…Okay, maybe not with my fists. But I wasn’t about to let him take you gallivanting across time and space. So he decided that the best person to go messing around with time was somebody whose timeline had, effectively, ended. And I’ll tell you, Shel loves it. She has more fun running around like hot lady Doctor Who. Her and Skeets and Rip Hunter, riding around in their time-traveling Popemobile,” Ted explained fondly. He pointed to another picture. “She managed to pick up a little girl by accident on a mission too. That’s Rani, that’s her right there. Your sister makes one hell of a mom.”

Booster smiled. He remembered Rani from the other timeline, the wrong memories. “Yeah, Shel was always good at taking care of people. She was the one who kept the house neat and me in line when Ma started getting sick.”

Ted made Booster comfortable on the couch, wrapping him in a cocoon of blankets and bringing him things to eat that were on the outpatient list of approved food items. Booster shifted, made room for Ted on the couch. He didn’t remember the relationship part of their relationship, but he’d never been afraid of being close to him. Ted, true to everything Booster did remember, had no concept of personal space. He curled up close, radiating heat like a kiln, arm wrapped around Booster’s waist.

“We didn’t pick out this furniture, did we?” Booster asked.

Ted’s nose wrinkled. “Not a chance. We had Sue decorate for us. You honestly think the two of us could’ve come up with this kind of interior design?”

“I bet I could’ve.”

Ted laughed and turned his head, angling to kiss Booster’s cheek or jaw. Booster froze, and Ted did too, his blue eyes wide. “I...um…sorry. Sorry. I…I forgot.”

“Yeah, so did I. That’s the problem,” Booster said, tired but wry.

They stayed on the couch until both of them started nodding off, the television mumbling quietly in front of them. Ted poked Booster in the shoulder until he woke, then steered him down the hallway towards their bedroom. Booster stopped and stared at the bed, big enough for two grown men, especially one who was six-and-a-half feet tall. Cuddling on the couch was one thing, but going to bed with Ted was something else entirely.

“I…I can sleep in one of the spare rooms or on the couch if you want,” Ted said, though the catch in his voice gave Booster the impression he wasn’t entirely okay with the suggestion.

He shook his head. “You died, Ted. Maybe it was all in my head, but it doesn’t change the fact that you were dead to me, and I missed out on the opportunity that you got. I…” Booster ducked his head, not wanting to meet Ted’s eyes. He felt rough fingers brush his bruised wrist. “I fell in love with you when I was twenty and I watched you walk through those double doors with the rest of the League.”

“I thought you were the most handsome boy with the most terrible haircut. I’m so glad you grew it back out,” Ted replied.

Booster smiled and caught Ted’s hand with his own, giving it a small squeeze. “I thought it was the style. Help me?”

“Of course, Wobbly Knees McGee,” he replied.

Ted helped him into pajamas and pointed him towards the bathroom. Booster brushed his teeth and tidied himself up, his reflection still showing somebody tired and weak, but at least now he didn’t look quite as haggard. Ted took the bathroom while he crawled into bed. He might not remember the bed, but he immediately figured out whose side was whose. There was a comfortable Booster-shaped dip in the mattress that hugged his body just right.

“You don’t know how glad I am to see you there,” Ted said softly, hitting the lights as he crossed from the bathroom to the bed. “I have the worst time sleeping when you’re not in the bed with me.”


The mattress dipped and shifted as Ted climbed in, and Booster felt like something inside him shifted slightly. It wasn’t a whole memory, but it was a feeling that he was home, he belonged here. Ted slipped closer, bleeding warmth across the sheets, still no concept of personal space. Booster didn’t mind at all.

“Let me know if you need anything, okay? You can wake me up if you need to,” Ted mumbled.

Booster raked a heavy hand through Ted’s hair, letting his auburn curls tangle around his fingers. “Shut up and go to sleep. Don’t worry about me. You’ve done enough of that lately. If I need something, I’ll go find it myself. Gotta get my memories back somehow, right?”

“Right. Good night, Booster. Love you.”

Booster’s breath caught in his throat and he felt Ted stiffen up beside him, as if he realized he’d said the wrong thing. “Ted…”

“Sorry, I shouldn’t have…I know you don’t…”

“Doesn’t mean I don’t feel it.” He pressed a kiss to some part of Ted’s face, or maybe his shoulder, he couldn’t tell in the dark. “Get some sleep, Ted.”

When sleep finally claimed Booster, it wasn’t the satisfying, deep sort of sleep one needs when they’re in the process of recovering from injury or illness. Rather, it was a lot of tossing and turning, waking up spontaneously to look at the clock, and nightmares. He distinctly remembered being awake at one point and hoping he wasn’t disturbing Ted with the frequency of his spasms. Every dream brought a sharp gasp and a sudden return to wakefulness, followed by a soft groan and a glance at the glowing red numbers of the alarm clock at his elbow.

His dreams were a tangle of mismatched memories, thoughts of Briggs and Esposito and the Signal Men intertwined with memories of his friends dying, of the madness in Max’s eyes, of the feelings of loneliness and helplessness that gnawed at him. Cutting under all that was a third set of memories trying very hard to push their way upwards, like seeds trying to send up shoots. There were flashes of happiness, shoving cake in Ted’s grinning face and holding Ralph’s new daughter for the first time, barbecues with Jaime’s family and team vacations. He wished he could remember them better, could drag them up and push the bad thoughts away.

Booster woke to find the bed empty and panicked, thinking he’d been right all along. The kind world, the one where Ted still lived and loved him painfully, it was the dream world after all. He sat up, waiting for the grief to come pouring back in when he saw Ted, pacing the floor across the room, fingers pressed to one ear. He looked up from his quiet conversation and smiled at Booster, though the smile was short-lived.

“…Okay, okay. I’ll see you soon.”

Booster scrubbed his eyes with his fingertips. “What’s going on?”

“You remember that team meeting Max told me about?” Ted asked, coming back over and climbing onto the bed. He was kneeling over Booster, and it was a little unnerving to have Ted be the tall one.

“The one you said you probably wouldn’t have to go to,” Booster said.

Ted’s face scrunched. “I have to go.”

“Why?”

“Because the meeting’s about the thing that hurt you,” he explained, running a hand through his sleep-tousled hair. It looked like Ted’s hair was getting long; it always started getting curly when he went too long without a haircut.

Booster struggled out of the tangle of blankets. “I want to go too, then.”

“No, you stay here and rest. I’ll make you a pot of tea and get you comfy and I promise I won’t be long,” Ted replied, pushing gently at his shoulders.

“Ted, that thing nearly killed me. There’s a whole chunk of my life missing because of it. I don’t want this to happen to anybody else. What if there are more out there? What if it hurts you? We can’t both go wandering around with amnesia, it’d be awful. You’d call me Spanking Boy again,” he said, trying to ignore the dizzy, fuzzy feeling in his head.

“I was hoping you’d forgotten about Spanking Boy.”

Booster smiled. “Nothing will make me forget that. I want to go, Ted.”

“It’s a good thing you’re cute,” Ted sighed. He scooted across the bed and helped Booster to his feet, holding onto him as Booster swayed slightly. “Shower?”

“Are you coming in too? I don’t think I can stand for too long on my own.”

Ted looked unsure. “Do you want me to?”

“More than anything,” Booster replied, smiling.

Ted held his hand as they shuffled towards the bathroom together. It took some wiggling and some weak-armed pushing to get them both through the door, since Ted insisted on trying to walk through shoulder-to-shoulder. Booster pretended he wasn’t nervous about seeing Ted naked, only half watching as he pulled a ratty slate-colored t-shirt over his head.

“Holy shit,” Booster murmured.

“I’ll thank you to not make any disparaging comments about my physique,” Ted replied, shimmying out of boxers emblazoned with the marshmallow shapes from a box of Lucky Charms.

Booster pulled off his own shirt, muscles protesting actually having to make an effort. “I was going for an awed ‘holy shit,’ actually. You’re beautiful. If Guy’s still giving you crap about your weight, then I will seriously mess him up.”

“You don’t let me get away with anything,” Ted said. He leaned in and turned on the water. “The days of Twinkies for dinner are long gone. I can’t even tell you the last time I had a cheesesteak.”

“I bet you can’t. Probably don’t want me to know. Come to think of it, I thought I smelled Cheese Whiz on you yesterday,” Booster teased. He had to sit on the toilet lid to get his underwear off, but Ted didn’t make fun of him for it. He wasn’t even looking, piling towels on the floor so they were close at hand.

Ted kissed his cheek and eased him into the shower. Booster sighed as the hot water pounded away the aches. The line of shampoos, conditioners, and rinses on the shelf looked familiar and comforting; so did the green bottle of Pert Plus sticking out like a sore thumb. He stepped out of the way so Ted could wet his head, consciously thinking about not slipping in the shower. Then again, maybe a concussion was just what he needed to shake out the bad memories.

Booster worked his way down the row of bottles, moisturizing and conditioning and ignoring the way Ted grinned and snickered at him as he went through the familiar routine. Ted had always teased him about it, and knowing that nothing had changed put him at ease.

“Hey, c’mere, you’ve got bubbles,” Ted said, his voice echoing in the small space of the shower.

Booster leaned in, trying to compensate for their height difference. Ted hooked a hand around the back of his neck and kissed him, slowly and tenderly and so lovingly it made Booster’s heart ache. “Ted…”

“Your outpatient care sheet says to give you lots of love. I’m just following doctor’s orders.”

“You’re such a liar,” Booster replied. His knees wobbled a little. He wasn’t sure if he should brace himself against the shower or against Ted before he completely fell over.

“I’ll show you the paper later.” Ted kissed him again, walking him backwards until he was pressed up against the shower wall. That helped his weak knees considerably. Ted tasted like coffee, sharp on his tongue as he licked his way into Booster’s mouth.

Booster’s head spun, memories spilling and crashing like waves on the shore. For a moment, he remembered this. He remembered this home, this life, kissing Ted in this shower until the water ran cold. Then the fear and the grief closed over his head again and his thoughts told him you can’t have this, this isn’t yours, everything you love dies.

“Breathe, buddy,” Ted murmured in his ear. “Stay with me.”

“Why can’t I get rid of the crap in my head? It just…I had it, Ted, I remembered and then…”

“It’ll come back, Booster, it’s okay,” Ted said, stroking his wet hair. “Come on, we should get going. Max knows when we’re late because we were fooling around and it gets him all twitchy.”

Ted leaned in and kissed him again, another gentle, loving little kiss before he shut off the water. He reached for the towels, handing one to Booster, and scrubbed his through his hair quickly. Booster dried off and slowly made his way out of the bath to finish his routine, trying to put things right in his head by going through familiar motions.

Once his hair was perfect, teeth brushed, deodorant rolled on and cologne spritzed, he headed back into the bedroom. Ted was already halfway into his costume and had laid Booster’s out on the bed. It was his own familiar suit, gleaming gold and deep, crisp navy. Ted ducked back into the bathroom, the top half of his costume folded over his arm.

Booster dressed slowly, shoulders and back still dully throbbing. He had to remember to grab some aspirin before they left. The suit fit funny, just a little too loose on his frame. It had to be from the dehydration. He was still underweight, muscles slightly atrophied from the Red Merciless pulling vital nutrients from his body.

“Ready to go?”

Booster looked up from pulling on his left boot. Ted was standing in the doorway, fully costumed except for his cowl. He felt his heart jump, catch in his throat. Ted was strong and whole and three years older than the Ted in his memories. He felt the unshakable urge to feel along Ted’s cowl, make sure that it was reinforced, could withstand a bullet or several bullets or Darkseid’s fist.

“Booster? You okay?” Ted asked.

He nodded. “Yeah, just…you look good.”

“Just good, huh? Not devastatingly handsome? I’m hurt, Booster, really I am,” Ted replied, though he was grinning the entire time. “Come on, we’ll go pack you up something to eat during the meeting. Keep you hydrated and all that. Think your stomach’s okay to take the Bug? I know you’ll hurl if we transport.”

“I still can’t handle them, huh?” Booster asked, rubbing the back of his neck.

Ted smiled. “Nope, still have the delicate stomach of a colicky baby.”

They threw some snacks and a couple of juice boxes into an insulated lunchbox for Booster, then Ted pulled on his cowl. He led Booster to one of the windows and opened it, leading him out the window and onto the fire escape. The Bug was parked on the roof over their apartment, bright and gleaming in the morning sun. It looked like Ted had made serious improvements on it since last he remembered; it was sleeker, probably more technologically advanced on the inside too.

“Can you believe Bruce tried to copy her and make a…I don’t know, a Bat-Bug? He’s got a plane, he doesn’t need to rip me off,” Ted said as they made their way inside.

Booster sank into his seat and buckled in, waiting for Ted to get her into the air. He could almost see the embassy landing pad from here, so at least it was a short flight. He had a feeling he usually just flew over on his own power, but he liked letting Ted shuttle him. The Bug’s engines hummed quietly as they took off, gliding over rooftops.

“Do the neighbors mind? Having superheroes around?” Booster asked.

Ted glanced over at him and smiled. “Nobody’s complained so far. But then again, we’ve got an anti-supervillain defense grid set up in the area. It doesn’t prevent petty crimes, stuff cops can easily handle, but it keeps the really bad monster fights out of the area. Gorilla Grodd or Weather Wizard comes anywhere near here, it automatically teleports them to an uninhabited zone so we can kick their asses without incurring serious property damage. You don’t know how happy it makes Max that he doesn’t get those insurance claims anymore.”

Booster laughed. “That’s incredible. Did you come up with that one?”

“Partly. Scott helped a lot. We based some of the design on your force-field, actually. Prepare for landing, buddy. Tray table up, seat back in the full, upright position. Thank you for flying Bug Airlines, enjoy your stay in beautiful Kooey--“

“Absolutely not.”

Ted landed the Bug on the pad smoothly and expertly, without so much as a bump. Booster loved watching him at the controls, at ease and so very clever. Ted handed Booster his lunchbox and together they exited the Bug, heading down off the roof and into the headquarters of Justice League International. Ted pointed out rooms as they walked by, things that had changed from their first stint in the JLI that Booster might not remember.

They stopped short in the foyer, finding a small girl sprawled across the floor. She had crayons and pieces of paper strewn everywhere and her little legs kicked at the air as she lay on her stomach, coloring a picture. She paused and popped up at the sound of movement, and Booster immediately knew who she was. She was the spitting image of Sue Dibny, right down to the dark hair cut stylishly. The only difference was that her hair was clipped back with sparkly barrettes.

“Unca Ted! Unca Boos!” she cheered, scrambling to her feet.

Booster felt little arms hook around his knees and a cheek press against his thigh.

Ted leaned in and ruffled her hair gently, and her knee-high hug switched legs. “Hi Nora. You helping out today?”

She nodded vigorously. “Mommy’s watching the TVs!”

“Monitor duty. Nora, do you know where Daddy is? Is he in the big circle table room?” Ted asked.

“Yup! Daddy said we can get cuppycakes when he’s all done! I’m making him pictures. See?” She held up one of her masterpieces, an explosion of color lovingly rendered in crayon.

Booster smiled. “Beautiful. We’ll see you later, okay?”

“Kay!”

Ted led the way around the corner towards the conference room. Booster nearly tripped over him, too busy looking at the framed photographs on the wall. There were pictures of them from the first team, grinning with Captain Marvel and Dr. Light, waving at the camera with Dmitri and Oberon, making faces behind Batman. There were pictures from the new team, though the faces looked pretty much the same. Booster paused at a picture of Dmitri and Gavril standing together.

“Hey, Ted? If Gavril’s on the team…”

“Dmitri got really badly hurt when Lex Luthor’s OMACs attacked, so he decided to call it a career. He’s training Rocket Reds in Moscow now. Hand-picked Gavril to join the team,” Ted replied. “Here, let me go in first and we’ll give you a proper introduction like the society lady you are.”

Booster waited just outside the door as Ted headed into the conference room. The rest of the team had already assembled and was sitting around the table.

“You’re late, Beetle,” Booster heard Max say.

“Yeah, well, I had good reason,” Ted replied. Booster took this as his cue to enter. “Somebody didn’t want to be left behind.”

Booster tried not to be nervous as he walked into the conference room. Max and J’onn were standing, the rest of the team crammed around the perimeter of the big circular table. His mind tried valiantly to remember being in this company, sitting next to Vixen or August General in Iron. Bea and Tora were on their feet and rushing over to him immediately, and Mary Marvel gave him a cheery little wave. Ralph stretched his head and hand over, offering him assurances that he looked good. Guy stayed where he was, leaning in his chair, feet up on the table.

“Are you feeling better?” J’onn asked.

Booster smiled. “Not really, but I felt like I needed to be here.”

They found seats at the table, squeezing in between Jaime and Mary. Jaime smiled and slid a folded piece of pink construction paper over the tabletop to Booster. It was a very colorful card with the words GET WELL SOON written in all caps, in the childish scrawl of someone whose handwriting was still a work in progress.

“Milagro wanted me to give you that,” he whispered.

Booster nodded. “Tell her I said thanks.”

“All right, let’s get started. Guy, what’s the latest from STAR Labs?” Max asked.

Guy manifested a glowing green image of a plant, something that resembled a Black Mercy. Thorny and tentacled, hovering a few inches above the center of the table, it made Booster’s skin crawl. “They’ve got the Red Merciless in a secure chamber, like they use to keep octopuses in since those fuckers can climb out of anything. And they’re saying that the little shit is giving off some kind of low level frequency they can’t figure out. Like humming or something like that. Nobody knows what the fuck it’s talking to.”

Booster swallowed. “Um, can I just…can I ask something? I…how is it that I’m the only one that got attacked by this thing? I nearly died, and nobody else got touched? I don’t…I don’t get it.”

Everybody kind of looked at one another with guilty, uncomfortable looks that didn’t give Booster any sort of reassurance. He felt Ted’s hand on his knee, squeezing it gently.

“It was a rough day for us,” he said, trying an apologetic smile.

“We were stretched pretty thin,” Max said. “An earthquake in Bolivia, wildfires in Tanzania, giant monster attack in Osaka, Gorilla Grodd in Cincinnati, Granny Goodness here…and that was just what happened before lunch. We sent you to El Paso to help Jaime, and you were to rendezvous back here as soon as you were able.”

“I had dinosaur-riding cyborg Nazis,” Jaime explained. “A lot of them.”

Max tapped the table and a glowing blue hologram of the city layout appeared, springing up around Guy’s plant. “You were on your way back here when we got word that something had crash landed just outside our borough. We sent you to check it out, and Gardner was supposed to meet you there, but…”

“But you completely disappeared by the time I got there,” Guy said. “The wreck site was empty, the ring wasn’t getting a reading, your comms were offline, and ol’ Greenjeans couldn’t get you psychically. Fucking disappeared on us, Gold.”

“From what we gather, the Red Merciless attached itself to you and guided you to a safe place for it to feed,” J’onn said. He pointed to a spot on the map and it expanded to show a parking garage. Then the images appeared, pictures of a huge, red, tentacled thing filling the space of the empty garage. In the middle of the thorny tangle, practically crucified, dangled something shiny and gold.

“Oh God.”

“That’s what I walked into when we finally found you,” Ted murmured. His grip on Booster’s knee became an iron vise. “You were right under our noses the entire time and it took us three days to find you. I...”

Booster plucked Ted’s hand from his knee and laced their fingers together. “You found me.”

“How do we know the one plant in STAR Labs is the only one?” Vixen asked, tracing circles on the table with her fingertip. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more out there, eating people as we speak.”

“Oh, that’s a horrible thought!” Mary gasped.

Guy frowned. “She’s got a point. Ain’t never just one Mercy.”

“What if low-level frequency is plant communicating with children?” Gavril asked. “Is capable of messing with head, could have the psychic abilities, yes?”

“If that’s the case, we need to find these other plants and destroy them, pronto,” Max said.

Tora scrunched up her face. “They could be anywhere, though. How would we even begin to know where to look?”

Ralph’s eyes narrowed and he pulled up a map of the city with a few flicks of his rubbery fingertips. His nose twitched. “This is what I’m thinking. The crash site was here, and when we investigated it, there was no sign of those plants at all. And here is the garage we found Booster in. Even though it was huge, there was only the one Merciless. And we know that the plant can’t move great distances on its own; it needs a host to carry it. My guess would be that while Booster was under the influence of the main Merciless, he acted as her own personal Johnny Appleseed and dropped her little babies off as he traveled.”

“So the other plants are somewhere between the crash site and where we found Booster,” Bea said.

Ted made a small sound next to Booster, and suddenly his fist was smacking the tabletop. “That’s it!”

“What’s it?” Booster asked.

“Black Mercies feed off emotions, but not off actual people. They keep their host alive but in a stasis. The Merciless had just dropped a bunch of spores, so she needed the extra nutrients from Booster’s body. She probably intended to have Booster as a quick snack and then get another victim to feed off long-term. But we caught her and put her in solitary, and her kids need to be fed, and since she didn’t ki…didn’t kill Booster, she’s got a food source readily available. That’s what that low-level noise is, that’s why your memories are still messed up. She’s still psychically feeding from Booster and sending it to the kids!” he said, hands moving wildly for emphasis.

Booster watched as everyone processed this, the wheels very clearly turning in their heads. He’d understood what Ted was suggesting, but that was only because he knew the way Ted’s mind worked better than anyone else. He looked over at Ted, who seemed very pleased with himself for fitting all those puzzle pieces together.

“…Am I going to keep losing my memories?” he asked.

“Not if we go find those fuckers and kill ‘em first,” Guy replied, slamming his fist down on the table, ring sparking little emerald firecrackers.

J’onn blew up the map, highlighting the trail between the crash site and the parking garage and extrapolating outward. “This is the search area to focus on. I want everyone to split into teams and keep in contact. Be careful. We’ve seen what kind of damage these creatures can inflict.”

“Sue and I will be watching on the monitors,” Max said. “Be safe, team. Now get the hell out of here.”

There were a few moments of hesitation, people trying to pair themselves off. Booster looked at Ted.

“Ready?”

“Ready? Ready for what? Ready for you to go home and lie down on the couch and watch Lady and the Tramp? Yes, I am,” Ted replied.

Booster folded his arms across his chest. “I’m going out with you. I want to find these things. I want my memories back. Ted, I don’t want anybody else to suffer like that. Let me go with you.”

“It nearly killed you, Booster! It nearly killed you. I can’t let that happen again,” Ted argued.

Ted had that stubborn, slightly scared look in his eye. He wasn’t going to back down from this fight. Booster wasn’t either; he had no intention of going back home. The image of his body strung up by thorny vines, dehydrated and near death, had been burned into his mind. He wasn’t going to let that happen to a civilian.

“Let me just search with you, Ted. I’ll sit in the Bug and help you scan. I’ll stay out of the fight. At least let me do that much. I don’t want to let those things win. I don’t want them to take any more of my memories from me, and I really don’t want them to take memories from anyone else. Deal?”

Ted scowled. “I hate when you negotiate.”

They headed back up to the Bug, passing Sue in the hallway. She stopped them long enough to give Booster a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and to wish them both happy hunting. Then they were up the stairs to the roof, climbing into the Bug and settling in. Ted made Booster drink one of the juice boxes and have a couple of crackers.

“How are we going to find these things?” Booster asked around slurps of juice. “It took you guys three days the last time.”

“We didn’t know what we were looking for the last time,” Ted replied. “I do now.”

Ted tapped something into the console in front of him, pulling up some sort of scrolling feed across the bottom of the Bug’s viewport. He got her up into the air, and soon they were cruising over the city, sailing around skyscrapers as they followed the signal from the baby plants.

“I think I’ve got a lock on something,” Ted said, steering the Bug in the direction of the readouts.

Booster bit into another cracker. “How many?”

“I’m not sure. This makes it look like they’re all together. Maybe it’s easier to pick up Mom’s signal if they’re all tapping in collectively.” He flipped on the onboard comm. “Hey guys, I think I found them. I’m sending you my coordinates. Be ready for anything. I don’t know yet if they’ve got any civilian hosts. Beetle out.”

“What are you guys going to do when you find them?” Booster asked. He had a few ideas about what he’d like to do to the little Merciless, but he had a feeling that would break whatever intergalactic Geneva Convention laws existed. He didn’t think Max would appreciate it if they started some sort of space diplomatic crisis.

Ted shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m sure there’s some sort of rule for dealing with evil space plants. I really just want to blow them all up.”

“You and me both, pal,” Booster replied.

Something popped up on the screen and started beeping. Ted pushed a couple of buttons, then set the Bug to hover. “That’s my cue. Stay here and I’ll be back soon, promise.”

“What if you’re not back soon?”

Ted adjusted his goggles and opened the hatch in the back. “Then you call Sue and Max. Oh, and don’t touch anything. All the buttons are in a different place than you last remember, and the last time you tried looking for the radio, you nearly set the engines on fire.” He leaned over and kissed the corner of Booster’s mouth. “I love you. Stay here.”

Booster watched him unspool a length of skywire and drop out of the hatch, a daredevil grin plastered on his handsome face. He watched as his teammates converged on whatever building below that Ted had locked onto, Jaime grinning and waving as he passed the Bug’s viewports. Booster paced the length of the ship a few times, wondering how soon “back soon” actually meant.

A minute became two, became five. Booster’s head started to throb. It felt like his head was starting to swell, like a balloon being inflated too much. Memories pressed and crowded and fought for his attention. He didn’t know what was happening, but he didn’t like it one bit.

“Sorry, Ted, but you know I’m bad about following orders,” he muttered, staggering towards the still open hatch.

Sucking in a deep breath, Booster jumped. It was hard to concentrate on working the flight ring while his head spun and pounded, but he managed to get himself to the ground safely. It sounded like the fight was coming from an abandoned warehouse in front of him. Booster didn’t understand why every warehouse they investigated tended to be abandoned, but he’d have to save that mystery for another time. There was a Barda-sized hole in one of the metal doors. Booster checked his blasters, flipped on his forcefield, and flew right into the melee.

The plants were everywhere, hundreds of tangling red tentacles slicing at the air with their thorns, throwing themselves at the League. Booster was surprised at how quickly and aggressively the little creatures moved. His head hurt so badly it was hard to see.

“I thought Ted told you to stay put!” Bea yelled, pushing back a dozen or so of the plants.

Booster grinned and shot at a few of his own. “Yeah, well, you know me. I can never stay away from a fight. What’s the plan?”

“I don’t know! I don’t think we have one!”

“Watch your ass, Fire!” Guy hollered, swatting away a few plants as they tried to blitz Bea.

Mary drop-kicked another plant as it bounced off the ceiling. “How come they’re so feisty? The one you guys rescued Booster from didn’t seem to be doing very much.”

“They’re probably hungry,” Mari said, growling and slashing with tiger claws.

“And we look like an all-you-can-eat buffet,” Ralph added as he stretched past them, shoving aside plants left and right.

Booster tried to focus on the fight, on the tentacles coming right at him. It was difficult; he was seeing double and a cold sweat dampened his cowl. He tried to push through it, keep fighting and firing at the thorns that scraped at the edges of his forcefield, even as his throat tightened with nausea. He couldn’t see the Red Merciless anymore, not when the dark thoughts were threatening to overtake him again. Ted was dead, he was never coming back. His friends were gone. Nobody remembered the years of camaraderie they shared.

“Booster!”

He sucked in a sharp breath, realizing he hadn’t been breathing. Barda was towering over him, pulling plants off the surface of his forcefield. Barda was here. If Barda was here, she existed, she wasn’t dead. His teammates were alive and safe, at least for now. He clenched his fists and felt the ring on his right hand shift against his glove.

“I’ve got an idea!” he shouted, pushing aside the waking nightmares. “Round them all up! Get them all together in one spot!”

Booster turned his forcefield inside out, using it to ensnare rather than to protect. He scooped up plants, dragging them towards the pile Guy was scooping up with a glowing green bulldozer. Ralph used his body as a net, while Jaime pushed at them with some sort of blue repulsor ray. With such a large team, gathering the Red Merciless together took surprisingly little time. Guy kept all of them held down under a huge green dome. The plants squealed and flung themselves at their prison.

“All right, so now that we’ve got them, what do you plan on doing with them?” Bea asked, hovering just over Booster’s shoulder.

Booster opened his mouth to answer and nearly vomited. He doubled over, a huge spike of pain stabbing him in the head. Tora wrapped her arms around his shoulders, steadying him. He swallowed, swallowed again, trying to dislodge the lump in his throat. “…Boom tube…”

“A boom tube? Booster, that’s brilliant!” Scott said, consulting his mother box.

“Send ‘em straight into the sun, Scotty-boy,” Guy suggested, a bead of sweat trickling down his temple.

Fang shook his great armored head. “We cannot destroy an entire species.”

Barda pointed her mega-rod at a spot just over the dome. “We will send them to a planet with no intelligent life forms. There they can feed in peace. Gardner, prepare to release them.”

Everybody backed off as Barda opened the tube. There was the loud boom for which it was named, and then it began to suck up anything that wasn’t nailed down, including the Red Merciless that Guy funneled right into the tube. The plants screeched and flailed as they were pulled into the gaping maw of the boom tube and sent through space.

Booster collapsed to the ground, head threatening to explode. The mother plant was furious, screaming her rage as the connection between her and her babies was severed. He clutched his head, shaking violently, and gritted his teeth until he thought they were going to crack.

“Get. Out. Of. My. HEAD.

He pushed back at the Red Merciless, shoved every happy memory he could scrape together in her metaphorical face. Booster hit her with the hour he’d sat and laughed with Max in the hospital, the way Nora had hugged him around the knees. He fought with every smile Ted had ever given him, every beer he’d shared with Gardner. The harder he fought, the stronger his memories became. Setting off Fourth of July fireworks in Jaime’s backyard. Tora trying to teach everyone how to knit. The look on Guy’s face when he and Ted walked into the embassy with rings on their fingers and a marriage license in their hands. The first time he woke up beside Ted. Waking up in the burn ward and hearing Ted say he loved him.

“Booster! Booster, are you okay? Come on, man, you just got out of the hospital!” Jaime was saying somewhere far away.

Booster dry heaved again, feeling the last thorns pull out of his mind. He wiped his nose and mouth with the back of one gloved hand, then sat up slowly. “I’m okay. I’m…just give me a minute, kid, I’m seeing three of you right now.”

“You were making us be very worried,” Gavril said, pulling off his helmet and tucking it under one arm. “You went white as snows in Siberia.”

Mari and Scott helped Booster to his feet. He looked around the warehouse. Other than a mess of debris, there were no signs of the Red Merciless plants anywhere. His teammates were crowded around him, concern on their faces. Booster offered them a weak smile.

“I think I’m back, guys. Ted, what…” He stopped, shoving away from Scott and Mari. “Where’s Ted?”

“What do you mean where’s Ted? He’s right…” Bea looked around. “He was just here, I swear.”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen him since we all charged on the warehouse,” Mary said, frowning. “I mean, he must’ve been here.”

Guy tapped his ear. “Hey Bugbutt, where the fuck are you?”

“Shit, what if he got back in the Bug? He could be anywhere by now,” Booster said, stumbling forward. He got into the air and shot out of the warehouse like a rocket. The Bug was still hovering just overhead. The rest of the team was pouring out into the loading bay now, a riot of color and capes.

“He can’t have gotten too far, spread out and find him,” Barda ordered.

Jaime’s translucent blue wings fluttered. “No need to spread out and all that, I think Scarab and I found him. He’s not too far away, either.”

They followed Jaime through a maze of side-streets and over a chain-link fence until they found Ted shuffling through an empty playground. He moved like a zombie, propelled by the plant tangled around his neck and chest. Booster wondered why nobody in the area seemed concerned by the superhero wandering around aimlessly with a sentient parasitic plant grafted to him. Then again, considering how many odd things happened in the city on a regular basis, it really wasn’t that surprising.

“Get that thing off of him!” Booster said, wincing as his voice cracked.

“Hang on, hang on, we can’t just rip it off,” Ralph replied, wrapping Ted up in his coils like some kind of white and lavender constrictor. “Who wants to do the honors?”

Tora stepped forward, cautiously touching the plant with a frosty hand. The Merciless let out a high-pitched squeal and shrank away from the cold, dropping off Ted’s body. Ted slumped against Ralph.

“Somebody catch it before it gets away!” Mary yelped.

Booster aimed and fired one shot from his blasters. The plant exploded, leaving a sticky red puddle on the blacktop. Everyone stared at him with wide, disbelieving eyes. Booster scowled right back at them.

“You hurt my husband, you don’t get to walk away,” he said.

Gavril sighed. “I am guessing you have your memory back now, yes?”

Booster nodded and took Ted from Ralph, touching under his chin to get his cowl off. “Ted? C’mon, buddy, wake up. I don’t want to go back to the hospital any more than you do. Come on, Ted, open your eyes for me.”

Ted sucked in a huge breath, gasping like he’d been underwater for too long. His eyes were unfocused, moving rapidly. Then he blinked, looking up at Booster dazedly. “What…oh God…oh God, you’re alive. Oh my God, you’re…you’re alive.”

He threw his arms around Booster, burying his face in the crook of his neck as he shook with sobs. Booster held him tight, rubbing his back gently. “Hey, it’s all right. It was all a bad dream. Do I need to do a Standard Blue and Gold Amnesia Test, or do you know what’s going on?”

Ted shook his head. “We sent you to help Jaime and you didn’t come home. We couldn’t…I tried to find you and then…then you were…you were gone. I didn’t even get to say…do you know how many different caskets I had to choose from? Booster, I couldn’t…I couldn’t…”

“Buddy, what’s today’s date?” Booster asked gently. When Ted told him, he shook his head. “You’re a bit more than a week off, Ted. It’s okay, though. I’ll explain everything. We’re okay.”

It took him a few minutes to realize they weren’t alone, that the rest of Justice League International was standing around them, watching as Booster comforted Ted. He smiled at them sheepishly and then helped Ted to his feet. Ted swayed unsteadily, his face pale and sweaty.

“Jaime, any chance Ted could’ve dropped off baby plants on the way here?” Booster asked.

He shook his head. “Nope. I’m not getting any readings suggesting there are any more Red Merciless anywhere near here. I’m not even sure the one at STAR Labs is still alive,” he replied. “I think whatever we did back there jacked it up good.”

Booster nodded. “Well, if that’s the case, I think Ted and I have had more than enough fun for one day. If Max wants to yell at us, he knows where he can find us. Come along, Theodore, juice boxes and a nap await.”

“You sure know how to show a guy a good time,” Ted murmured weakly.

Grinning, Booster scooped him up into his arms and flew them back up to the Bug, getting Ted comfortable in a chair before closing the exit hatch. He dug around in the cooler bag for a couple of juice boxes and tossed one at Ted, who fumbled the catch. Booster offered him a sympathetic smile and sank into his chair, putting his feet up on the dash.

“Get ‘em off,” Ted mumbled.

Booster smiled and did just that, then leaned over and pushed a few buttons, setting the Bug’s autopilot to take them home. It was like the whole last week had just been a bad dream, and now everything he’d missed was here and waiting. He pulled off his right glove and twisted the ring on his finger.

“Do you want me to start explaining stuff now, or do you want to wait until we get home?” Booster asked.

Ted let out a pathetic little whine. “Home.”

It was for the best that Booster waited, since they weren’t far from home to begin with. He helped Ted down into their apartment first, then darted back up to put the Bug away properly. He knew Ted would be annoyed if he came back out and found his baby covered in pigeon poop or pollen. Once she was secured, he headed inside and stripped out of his costume, putting on a pair of slate-colored yoga pants and the first clean white t-shirt he could get his hands on. He found Ted curled up in a ball on the couch, wearing the ratty sweats Booster swore he’d thrown away.

For a moment, Booster just stood there, overwhelmed by the fact that he remembered everything. The other life was still in his head, but at least now he could safely say that it wasn’t real, like the lingering memory of a nightmare.

“So here’s what happened,” he said, sitting down next to Ted and poking him in the hip until he uncurled and made enough room on the couch for the both of them to snuggle.

By the time he finished explaining everything, Ted’s memory of the past week had started to return. “So you’re okay now? You remember?”

“Well, I don’t know about okay, but I remember, yeah,” Booster replied, tracing circles on the small of Ted’s back. “Let’s forget the last week never happened.”

Ted sighed and buried his face in the crook of his neck. “I am totally fine with making last week disappear. And you can forget getting a pet houseplant any time soon. I don’t even want to look at salad for a while.”

“Yeah, I think that’s probably for the best.” He sighed softly. “Hey, Ted? I love you.”

Ted nuzzled his neck. There was still a lot of day left, and yet Ted’s cheek was already scratchy with stubble. “I know, buddy. We’re gonna be done with hospitals for a while now. I decree it. No hospitals for a while, and no amnesia, and no making me worry any more than I already do.”

“Yeah, I can’t say this was one of our better adventures.”

There was a moment of stillness, a moment so long that Booster thought Ted had fallen asleep on him. He hoped Ted was still awake; the couch really wasn’t meant for two grown men to sleep on, even if they were pressed together as close as they could get. “…At least you only forgot three years. Can you imagine what it would’ve been like if you’d forgotten everything?”

Booster frowned. “In one of those nightmare worlds, I did. To me, you never existed.”

“A world without me? You should’ve known that was a nightmare,” Ted replied. Booster could feel him smiling against his throat.

“I don’t know, a world without you would be a lot quieter. Nobody snoring in my ear at night. Nobody leaving their dishes on the coffee table.” Ted looked up at him, scowling. Booster leaned in and kissed him gently. “That’s no world I want to live in.”

They stayed there, safe in each other’s arms, for the rest of the day. The memories of other worlds, other lives faded, until all that was left was the faint and lingering traces of a bad dream.

Date: 2012-07-18 06:40 pm (UTC)
muccamukk: Jaime's family laughing and hugging him. (DC: Family hugs!)
From: [personal profile] muccamukk
Great story. The Mercies were very effectively creepy, and a great plot device for vanishing years of canon.

I really liked how you played out Booster's messed up memories, and how they filtered in with what happened in your canon. The scene where he was freaking out about Max was very well done.

Great characterisation all around.

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