Wow. Jeez. It's been a long time since I've actually finished a fic that hasn't been for the boostlethon which you should all sign up for if you haven't already.
Rating: R for rats (also for language and violence)
Word Count: 7,052
Prompt: #11, You Can't Do That on Television, for the random_30. Table is woefully lacking in fics.
Summary: When the newly-resurrected and reformed Justice League International is called to investigate some mysterious and villainous murders, Booster and Ted are forced to face the things they fear most, including the possibility of losing one another.
Warnings: Possibly spoilery for Blackest Night. Contains discussions of murder, allusions to torture, a shitload of rats, and Booster/Ted. Proceed with caution.
Notes: Takes place after the events of Blackest Night and assumes everybody will come back to life. Thank you to doctorv for the beta.
“There has to be a connection,” Ted mutters as he sifts through the crime scene photographs and police reports scattered over the surface of the coffee table. He sighs and scratches the back of his neck, then picks up a photo again, saying more loudly, “I mean, all these deaths are too weird by themselves to not be coincidental, right?”
Booster pokes his head in from the kitchen. “I don’t know, Ted, maybe they’re just weird.”
“But if they’re just weird, then why would they even bother calling us in? There’s something we’re just not seeing. Stung by bees, squeezed by pythons, buried alive, drowned, and…I’m not sure what even happened with this last one, but it doesn’t look pretty. It all…I don’t know. It just doesn’t make sense.” Ted puts down the photo and watches Booster return to the couch with a couple of beers and a bowl of chips. “Brain food?”
Booster smiles. “You could say that. Here, put on your dumb show, I know you’ll be all twitchy if you don’t watch it.”
“Oh, c’mon, you like CSI: Blüdhaven too. Hell, you’re the one who got me hooked on it,” Ted points out, swigging the beer. “Maybe we’ll get some sort of inspiration. A break in our case.”
Booster shrugs and digs his hand into the bowl of chips. “I think you’re thinking too much about it, buddy.” He glances up at the screen, frowning at the unfamiliar television show. “This isn’t CSI: Blüdhaven.”
“Using our keen powers of observation, I see,” Ted replies. “No, dear Watson, this would be the preceding program.”
“What is it?” Booster asks.
Ted grins. “A television show.”
“I know that, you jackass. What kind of show?”
“Reality game show thing,” he explains as he takes another swig of beer, shifting papers on the coffee table to make room for the can. “Basically, you have to answer stupid trivia questions. I mean, really easy stuff like, ‘What planet does the Martian Manhunter come from?’ The only catch is, you’re answering these questions while you’re facing your worst fear. So, like, if you’re afraid of scorpions, you’re answering these questions while sitting in a bathtub full of scorpions. Whoever answers the most questions right wins, but usually people are too freaked out to speak, let alone tell you whose statue is in the Lincoln Memorial.”
Booster frowns, watching the television carefully. “…So if you’re afraid of being squeezed to death by pythons?”
“They put you in a…a big thing of pythons. Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?” Ted asks, leaning forward on the couch, hands on his knees, watching the television intently. Booster was sitting in the same position. “Is that…that looks like our python lady right there, coming down out of the audience.”
“And there, two rows back, there’s the bee man. Or…I think it’s the bee man. Hard to tell without all the swelling and the bee stings,” Booster points out.
“I bet you the other victims were either in this audience or in other ones too,” Ted says, making a note on one of the folders. “Hey wait, this episode’s a rerun, I remember seeing it before. A guy who was afraid of chickens won the thing.”
Booster wrinkles his nose, caught with a mouthful of beer. “What?”
“No, I know that. But if he won, then the python lady and the bee man…they lost, right? And you don’t get anything but a lap full of pythons if you lose? So why would our villain go after the losers if the winners are the ones who get money?” Booster asks.
Ted drums his fingers on his thigh for a moment or two, thinking hard about Booster’s question. “…Because why exploit the winner’s fear if they’ve already shown they can conquer it? I mean, think about it. If you’re the villain, and you’re using somebody’s phobias to kill them, why go after somebody who can prove they can overcome it? I’d want to go after the people who cry and freak out and could legitimately be scared to death.”
“We’re going to have to go on that show,” Booster says, tone grave.
Ted grimaces and leans back against the couch again, sighs heavily, and looks over at Booster. “I know. It’s probably a really bad idea, but how else are we going to stop this guy? Because clearly he has some connection to this show…my money’s on the host, but I could be wrong and it could be somebody totally out of left field. I just don’t know if I want the world knowing what I’m afraid of.”
Booster raises an eyebrow. “Yodeling?”
“Ha, no.” Ted stops paying attention to the television, fiddling with his can of beer and looking cagey. “I…it’s dumb, really. You’d think that having died once, I wouldn’t be so afraid to do it again but…I don’t want to die again. Or be forced into becoming one of those zombie Green Lantern things again. I’m still really sorry about that, by the way.”
“It wasn’t really you, Ted, it’s okay,” Booster replies, reaching across the divide of couch cushions and pulling Ted close. Ted settles into Booster’s side, warm and just a little buzzed on beer. Booster ruffles Ted’s hair gently. “You’ve filled up your death quota for now, can’t die again until you’re old and crunchy, it’s the rule. Besides, I finally have someone to laugh at my bad jokes again.”
“I didn’t laugh at your bad jokes before,” Ted replies, wrinkling his nose.
Booster shoves his arm, taking another swig of beer. “Point is, you’re not dying. We’ll make J’onn be our hapless victim. He can convince the host he’s afraid of marshmallow bunnies.”
“What if it doesn’t work?”
“It’ll work,” Booster insists, kissing the top of Ted’s head. “Trust me, I have made plenty of strategical plans while you have been out of the picture, and they have all been highly successful, thank you very much.”
Ted snorts. “That’s a load of bullshit if I ever heard one.”
Booster laughs and shifts Ted closer, arm around his waist. “You just don’t appreciate my genius.” He yawns, hand stroking Ted’s stomach. “Love you, y’know.”
“Oh, is that why your hand’s down my pants?” Ted asks, leaning back, eyes half closed. He sighs, shifting under Booster’s touch. “Mm, what happens if they call you down, Boost? What’ll they say you’re afraid of?”
Booster shrugs, still idly fondling Ted. “Your show’s starting.”
“Not going to be able to pay attention if you keep doing that,” Ted murmurs, shifting under his touch. “Told you what I was afraid of.”
“I’ll tell you later. Next commercial break.”
The first commercial break comes and goes, but Booster doesn’t say.
They all sit together in one row, wearing civvies, looking every bit as normal as the people in the rows in front of and behind them. Guy’s in space, working to rebuild Oa from the shrapnel floating through the cosmos, and Ted can’t help but feel a little grateful that he’s not here for this mission. Bea and Tora, a little too noticeable with their unusual hair colors, have been sent backstage to do some investigating. Booster, Ted, Dinah, J’onn (in another one of his nondescript human disguises) and Dmitri are left to sit uncomfortably and watch as the soundstage prepares for the start of the show.
“So how does this work?” Dinah asks, yawning.
Ted leans over to look at her. “The host claims to be some kind of psychic, that he can look you in the eye and tell you exactly what you’re afraid of. So he calls somebody down out of the audience, gives you that bug-eyed weirdo mind-reader look that pretty much guarantees he’s a villain, and then says something bullshitty like ‘Dinah, the spirits tell me you are afraid of ham sandwiches!’ And everybody all wonders how he knows.”
“Everybody knows the plan, right? We all think about J’onn?” Booster asks.
Dmitri grins. “Do not worry, friend Booster, I will think of marshmallow bunnies for J’onn to be very afraid of. They are very fierce, yes? With their cute little sugar faces?”
The show gets underway moments later as the host, a tanned and athletic young Greek man, steps in front of the cameras to give his opening monologue. “Welcome to Phobia! I am your host, Deimos Bellona, and tonight…”
Ted tunes most of it out, having heard it several times already, and puts all of his concentration on getting the man to pick J’onn as a contestant. It’s not long before his mind starts drifting away from J’onn and towards Booster, how he never mentioned what he was truly afraid of, and whether his fears were the same ones Ted still harbored. Nobody knows if Max was part of the mass resurrection that brought him and his fallen JLI compatriots back to life after the defeat of the Black Lanterns, and Ted isn’t eager to find that out any time soon. Not especially considering he came back to life with a goose egg and an eggplant-colored bruise on the spot where the bullet had passed through his skull.
“I will now call upon the first contestant to face their phobias for a chance at a quarter of a million dollars!” Deimos announces. Everyone tenses in their chairs. Ted can hear Dmitri muttering about marshmallow bunnies. “The fates have decided upon…Michael Carter!”
“Michael Carter?” Booster asks. “That’s not J’onn.”
“No, that’s you!” Ted hisses.
Booster goes visibly pale, even as the spotlight swings down on him. “Me?! I don’t want to go down there! This wasn’t part of the plan!”
“They’re going to make you, so just do it,” Dinah says, shoving at him.
Grudgingly, Booster heads down out of the audience as the rest of the spectators cheer and clap for him. J’onn looks either annoyed or pained, massaging one temple with a long-fingered hand. Ted grimaces. This isn’t going well at all.
“Ted, I am wondering,” Dmitri murmurs, leaning over his armrest. “If host is psychic, as you are saying, and does not know what Booster is afraid of, how is he getting bees or snakes or very large swimming pool?”
“That’s what J’onn sent Bea and Tora backstage to look for,” he replies. “Nobody just keeps a hundred pythons hanging around at all times.”
Dinah leans close now, frowning and looking more down at Booster than at Ted. “…What’s he afraid of, anyway?”
“…I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? I thought you two were…” Dinah pauses, giving Ted a look that clearly translates as ‘sleeping together,’ but she refrains from actually saying the phrase. Ted assumes this is more to keep J’onn from groaning and making pained faces, like he usually does when anyone (namely Guy) brings up Ted and Booster’s relationship.
“I asked him, and he wouldn’t tell me! I mean, I know what he was afraid of back when we were in the League the first time, but y’know, I’ve been dead for five years and a soulless zombie for at least one of those years, things change! He’s not the same Booster I left for Maxwell Lord’s Gun Show Fun Show. I don’t know if he---“
“---afraid of wharf rats!” Deimos announces, having been talking to Booster this whole time.
Ted deflates a little. “Or he could still be afraid of the same thing he’s always been afraid of.”
J’onn looks up at them and murmurs, “Fire and Ice were discovered. They are no longer in the building.”
“They got caught?” Ted asks, voice edging towards high and hysterical. “How the hell does Bea get caught? She’s a spy for Checkmate, for God’s sake!”
Dinah pats Ted’s shoulder, wishing Oracle hadn’t disbanded the Birds of Prey. As nice as it is being back with the JLI, she’d forgotten how twitchy Ted could get. “Relax, breathe. We’re on television, this guy wouldn’t try to murder Booster on TV, with a whole audience of witnesses plus everyone watching at home.”
“Oh God, I didn’t even think of him trying to off Booster here,” Ted groans, covering his face with his hands.
“They are bringing out the rats,” Dmitri points out as a large Plexiglas box, not unlike a fish tank, is wheeled out onto the soundstage. Hundreds of huge rats scurry and scatter and move like a brownish-grayish wave inside the box, trying to gnaw through the Plexiglas with their wicked yellow teeth. “Booster is looking like he has the heebie-jeebies, yes?”
On stage, Booster has gone pale to the point of being slightly green. They’ve outfitted him with a pair of goggles, but nothing else that could protect him from five hundred writhing wharf rats. Ted wants to call this whole thing off, pull the fire alarm and make everyone evacuate, anything to stop Booster’s terrified glances up at him. Ted wraps his arms around his waist and leans over, slightly nauseous with worry.
“Are you ready to face your phobia?” Deimos asks. The audience cheers. Booster doesn’t say much of anything.
“He’s scared,” Dinah says.
J’onn shakes his head. “More than that. Booster is all but paralyzed with fear.”
“I don’t understand. Why’s he so scared of rats? I mean, they’re pretty gross, but…” Dinah trails off, watching them bring out a ladder so Booster can climb into the cage.
“He’s never told me why,” Ted mumbles. “I can only guess. I mean, he had a really rough childhood, his family was beyond dirt poor, so maybe…I don’t know. He’s just always hated the things.” He sighs, stomach still aching and churning. “…What if this Deimos guy found out more than just the rats?”
“He’s very powerful,” J’onn says gravely. “I did my best to shield Booster’s mind from his telepathy, but it was a struggle to keep him out.”
“That’s not good.”
“No, no it isn’t good at all.”
Booster descends into the tank of rats and they immediately swarm over his body, scampering and scurrying. He goes stiller than still, hands clenched into fists, breaths coming fast and shaky. Ted watches as Booster looks right at him, eyes wide and pleading behind the plastic goggles, a rat perched on his shoulder, trying to gnaw on the ends of his hair.
Deimos is asking him questions, but Ted’s pretty sure that he could be talking in Swahili for all Booster cares right now. There are people in the audience shouting the answers, but Booster can’t hear them over the sound of his heart beating loudly in his ears.
“What is the name of Booster Gold’s best superhero friend?” Deimos asks.
Ted bites the webbing between his thumb and forefinger. He has a feeling Booster’s too scared to even answer this question, watching him as he tries not to collapse into a miserable, sobbing wreck on national television, even if that’s exactly what he wants to do.
“…the Blue Beetle…” Booster gasps out, a rat trying to climb up his chin.
“Hey! He is getting one right!” Dmitri cheers.
Time is up before Ted realizes what’s happening, and they’re bringing stagehands to help Booster out of the box of rats. It takes Ted a few minutes to realize that he hasn’t been watching Deimos or anyone else but Booster, even though J’onn had specifically told them to observe the cast and crew. It’s kind of hard to be involved in a stakeout, though, when the man you love is hyperventilating in a Plexiglas box of rats the size of volleyballs.
“Let’s go,” J’onn says quietly, everyone slipping out of their seats as the show pauses for a commercial break.
Backstage, Booster is sitting in a chair with a towel around his neck and a bottle of water. He’s hunched over, elbows on his knees, breathing hard. When Ted puts a hand on his shoulder, he jerks like he’s been scalded, and Ted realizes the towel is slightly damp.
“Hey, hey buddy,” Ted murmurs.
Booster gives him a look and takes a swig of water, shaking his head.
Dmitri offers Booster his shoulder to lean on. “If they are being done with you, we can be going now. Bea and Tora are probably waiting with the Starbucks across the street. Come, I will help you, friend Booster.”
They all but manhandle Booster out into the open air and let him lean against the studio wall, his face still ashen. Bea and Tora, true to Dmitri’s suggestion, are standing outside a Starbucks across the street, and come running over when they see the rest of their teammates emerge.
“Sorry, J’onn, we turned a corner and they were standing right there. There was no way we could’ve stayed,” Tora apologizes, sipping her iced latte.
“But still, there was no sign of any rats or anything else when we looked. I don’t know where they keep all their horrible creatures,” Bea adds. “How’s Booster?”
Ted strokes Booster’s hair gently, sitting against the wall with him. “Not talking because he’s afraid he’s going to puke on his shoes. I’m taking him home as soon as I’m sure he’s not going to throw up on people as we’re flying down the road.”
“So what do we think? Is this guy responsible for our murders?” Dinah asks, hands on her hips.
Booster nods emphatically, then groans and bends over double, holding his head. “He…nngh…I could feel him in my head. Like something…urk…oozing.”
“Well, that settles it, sounds like we’ve found our fearmonger,” Ted says, rubbing Booster’s back. “I’m heading home with our Brave Little Toaster, call me when you’re planning on bagging the bastard, I want to take a few shots at him myself.”
J’onn nods and gives them a look that Ted assumes means that Booster’s talking to him in his head, but he doesn’t press. He eases Booster to his feet, takes the flight ring off his finger and slides it onto his own, then holds him close and takes off into the air. Ted is, admittedly, not nearly as good at flying than Booster, but Booster’s not well enough to fly on his own.
“Well, Boost, look on the bright side,” Ted says as they bounce off the side of an office building and arc towards their apartment, flying haphazardly. He knows his horrible flying isn’t doing Booster’s stomach any favors. “At least we don’t have to go out on patrol tonight.”
Booster’s curled up on the couch with a blanket and a glass of ginger ale several hours later, watching something mindless and certainly not Phobia on television. Ted shuffles in from the kitchen with a beer in one hand and a sandwich in the other, muttering to himself about stupid game shows and mysterious psychic hosts and their googly-eyed creepy stares. He flops down on the couch next to Booster, eating his sandwich with some degree of indifference, watching television with just as much indifference.
“Hey—“ he starts to say, before Booster cuts him off.
“If you’re going to make fun of me, don’t.”
“I’m not going to make fun of you!” Ted protests.
Booster snorts. “You are too.”
“Am not! I wanted to know how you’re feeling!” he insists, moving away from Booster and gnawing at his sandwich sulkily.
“Like a wuss,” Booster replies.
Ted rolls his eyes. “You’re not a wuss.”
“I’m a wuss! I freaked out and puked over a bunch of rats,” Booster insists, hunching over, the blanket around his shoulders bunching up like some sort of fuzzy fleece carapace.
Ted takes a swig of beer and swallows before he answers. “You’re not a wuss, and at least you puked at home and not on the rats. On TV. Look, you did really good considering. I would’ve puked. Or pissed myself. On television. In front of everyone. Guy would’ve been calling from space just to laugh at me.”
“Still…” Booster replies moodily.
Ted finishes his sandwich and neglects the rest of the beer in favor of curling close to Booster again, resting his head on Booster’s blanket-covered shoulder. “You’re allowed to be scared of something, Boost. Only psychopaths aren’t scared of anything and even psychopaths are scared of something, otherwise Batman would have a lot more free time on his hands. Right?”
“I hate when you try to logic me into feeling better.”
Ted huffs softly and pats Booster’s thigh. “I know. You want anything?”
“Meh. I still feel kind of gross and jangly,” Booster mumbles, leaning against Ted as much as Ted’s leaning against him. “I’m going to have nightmares for weeks now, I know it.”
“Not if I have anything to say about that. You always end up kicking me when you have nightmares,” Ted replies. He smoothes a hand over Booster’s knee, sliding it up his thigh. “Besides, I bet I can make you feel better.”
Booster glances at him, eyes a little red, expression a little dour. “Ted, not tonight. I was covered in wharf rats earlier, I really don’t think a good hot dicking is going to cure me.”
“…A what?” Ted lets out a sound that’s sort of a wet sputter. He’s grateful he wasn’t drinking his beer. “You’re not allowed to watch things on YouTube anymore ever. Seriously. C’mon, we probably should hit the hay anyways, I’ve got a presentation in the morning if superheroing doesn’t derail that and you’ve got monitor duty tomorrow night.”
“If I don’t get murdered by rats.”
“You won’t get murdered by rats. I’m not going to let that happen.” Ted hauls Booster to his feet and wraps his arms around Booster’s waist, the blanket half-shrouding him. “C’mere. It’s okay. Hey, it could be worse, right?”
“We could be in Bialya?” Booster asks quietly, hands running down Ted’s back.
Ted nods. “Bialya, Kooey-Cubed, an incinerator in Switzerland, Rip Hunter’s time-traveling Popemobile, the headquarters of Justice League Antarctica…”
“Whatever happened to those guys?”
“I don’t know, I don’t want to know, let’s just go to bed,” Ted replies, hustling Booster down the hall. He’s tired, drained physically and emotionally, and he knows Booster’s just as gone as he is. They tumble into bed, tangled up in blankets and Booster’s long legs and Ted’s laptop cord, and Ted can’t help but curl as close as humanly possible to Booster.
“Nngh, you’re too warm,” Booster complains, shoving at him.
Ted whines. “I’m cold! Besides, you’re still all cranky and if you go to sleep cranky you’re definitely going to have nightmares. C’mon, Booster.” He nuzzles Booster’s cheek, trying to get him to loosen up. He know Booster’s still reeling from the rats of earlier, which is part of the reason he’s being so insistent. He wasn’t able to help Booster earlier, and now he’s desperate to chase away the lingering fears.
He kisses the corner of Booster’s mouth, hand sliding over one shoulder, down his arm, curling his fingers around Booster’s hand. “I won’t push, I know, you don’t want to. I just…I don’t know how to make things right. You had the crap scared out of you, and there’s really nothing I can do to fix it.”
Booster relents and kisses Ted back. “Thanks for trying, buddy. G’night.”
“Good night, Boost. I love you, rats and all,” Ted murmurs, fumbling to shut off the light on the bedside table. “Maybe if you’re good I’ll come visit you during monitor duty.”
Sighing softly, Booster ruffles Ted’s hair with the hand curled around his shoulders. “Aw Ted, you know J’onn forbids monitor duty blowjobs. It scars him.”
“Everything we do scars J’onn.”
They fall asleep trading sleepy kisses and touches, Ted murmuring reassurances and affections until he’s convinced himself Booster isn’t afraid anymore. He wakes in the middle of the night with a start, jolting out of a sound sleep, thinking he hears a door slam. Rubbing his eyes, he tries to make sense of the noise, brain sleep-addled.
“Boost? Did you hear that?” he asks, though he knows Booster’s as asleep as he used to be.
There’s no response, but it’s not the sort of quiet that Ted expected. The soft sound of Booster breathing, his snuffly little almost-snores and shuddery sighs aren’t there at all. He rolls over, and Booster’s not in the bed. The mattress is cool to the touch. Heartbeat racing, Ted gets out of bed and hopes Booster just couldn’t sleep and got up for a drink or to sit on the couch for a little while.
“Booster? Hey, Boost?”
Ted moves through the apartment like he’s crazed, turning on lights. The living room is in a state of disarray that wasn’t at all how they left it when they went to bed. Their television is crackling, a huge hole punched right through the screen. “Aw no, not the TV!”
The kitchen, the bathroom, all of it is trashed to hell, and Ted doesn’t know how he could’ve slept through the noise of it. He runs back to the bedroom and whips open the closet door, going for his costume. “J’onn! J’onn!”
The reply comes in his head, sleepy and annoyed. Do you have any idea what time it is?
“I wouldn’t be awake if I didn’t have a damn good reason to be. Wake the rest of the League, Booster’s been taken and our apartment’s been trashed to hell. I don’t even know how I slept through all of it, J’onn, but I didn’t hear a damned thing,” Ted replies, hopping on one foot to get a leg into his pants.
I will try to reach Booster and see if he is all right, J’onn says.
There’s a pause, or what feels like a pause in Ted’s head, and then suddenly he’s hit with a wall of psychic energy, feedback from J’onn’s head dumping into his own. He feels Booster’s emotions enter his mind, fear and pain and confusion and more pain, and Ted collapses to his knees with the force of it. He feels sharp needles of agony all over his body and hollers, clutching at his head. The pain is gone in a moment, but he still feels sick with the echo of it.
I know where he is. How soon can you have the Bug in the air, Ted?
“As soon as I change my pants,” Ted jokes weakly, wiping saliva foam from his lips and finishing his change from Ted to Blue Beetle. “Oh God, Booster, hang on.”
It’s not surprising at all that the coordinates J’onn managed to pry from either Booster’s mind or their villain’s that their current location is the props warehouse for Phobia. The space is huge, absurdly big for such a low-budget reality television series, though Ted assumes it’s because they need space to hold all the tanks and rooms and set pieces they put together for the contestants. There are shelves and boxes and Rubbermaid containers set up in long rows like the aisles in a big box supermarket, but it’s too dark in the warehouse to see what the contents are.
“We can’t go rushing in there,” J’onn says once he’s ripped the door from its hinges and tossed it aside like a crumpled tissue. “We need a plan. This man is a very powerful psychic and…”
A bloodcurdling scream rips through the air, echoing from deep in the warehouse.
“Booster,” Ted says, the name almost a thrown expletive, and he takes off running. “Booster!”
“So much for a plan,” Bea sighs. “Come on, let’s go before we have to scrape him off the wall.”
Everything Ted learned about tactics and stealth and not charging in like an idiot, everything he swore he’d do this time so he wouldn’t end up dead again, it all leaves his head as he runs through the warehouse, weaving through aisles, trying to find Booster. The screams of pain make his bones ache, his molars ring with the sound of Booster’s agony, and it’s overriding all of his common superheroic sense.
His head starts to spin a little, sudden dizziness making everything lurch behind Ted’s vision, and he starts to wonder if Deimos is part of some sort of crime syndicate, if Count Vertigo is going to pop up and start monologuing, but he has the sinking feeling that the lurching feeling in his brain is from someone trying to invade it. He turns a corner, boot soles skidding and squealing as he takes it at a sharp angle, and there’s Booster. He’s in another Plexiglas tank, like the one from the television show, only this time his wrists are bound and there are no goggles to protect his eyes. When they’d gone to bed, Booster had only been wearing boxer shorts, skin pressed warm against Ted’s. Now it’s covered in blood, in rat bites. The wharf rats aren’t just angry; they’re hungry.
“Oh God. Hang on, just hang on, I’ll get you out of there!” Ted shouts, fumbling through his utility belt for something that will cut through Plexiglas. “Blowtorch, blowtorch, where the fuck did I put the…augh!”
He’s thrown back by a blast of psychic energy, body connecting with the tank. Deimos steps out into the light, having been lying in wait just out of sight in one of the aisles. He’s wearing some standard stupid villain suit, black, or maybe dark blue, Ted’s not really paying too much attention to the fashion sense of the guy trying to bash his head against a wall. He reaches for the BB Gun and fires a blast of compressed air, knocking Deimos back.
“Let him out of there, now,” Ted demands. He races forward and throws a punch, but Deimos dodges and twists his arm behind his back, shoving him away. “What do you want with him anyway?”
“I’m Deimos! I’m the embodiment of fear!” he replies, voice booming through the warehouse, over Booster’s screams of pain.
Ted rushes at him again, all fists and feet. “Deimos is the god of dread not fear. If you’re going to use mythology, use it right or don’t use it at all!”
Deimos flips him and sends him skidding against the wall of the tank again, just as the rest of the JLI arrives and enters the fray. He throws them back with a psychic blast, sending them scattering.
“Why did you kill those people?” Ted asks, getting up again.
Deimos grins, a huge wide Joker-like leer that stretches across his face. “Because it feeds me. I will cover this whole world in a shroud of fear and dine on mortal suffering for all eternity.”
Ted rockets forward and lands a solid right hook, connecting with Deimos’ face. “Kitchen’s closed, pal.”
Spitting blood, Deimos fixes Ted with a wide-eyed stare, the same sort of googly-eyed psychic glare he gave Booster when he was on the television show. Ted’s head aches like a thousand migraines, something cold and crawling oozes across the surface of his mind. “I know your worst fears, Ted Kord. I know everything that makes you break out into a cold sweat.”
Ted feels his stomach lurch and he doubles over, backing away from Deimos, eyes wide behind his goggles. Tora, trying to break Booster’s prison with a volley of icicles, stops and looks at him. “Beetle? Are you all right?”
He gives a full-body shudder, hands wrapped around his stomach, and vomits thick black ichor.
“Something’s wrong with Beetle!” Tora shouts.
J’onn flies in, but is repelled by a psychic wall. “Beetle, listen to my voice. You have to fight it.”
“Ah, the Martian. Your fears are quite plain, aren’t they? You’re no match for me, you know. Haha, match. It really is foolish of you, you know, to have a woman with fire powers on your team when you are so deathly afraid of it,” Deimos purrs.
Bea suddenly starts shooting great spurts of flame at J’onn, her eyes wide. “I can’t stop! I can’t stop myself!”
Dinah and Dmitri continue their attack, in spite of their concerns for their teammates. Ted’s knees buckle, still vomiting black bile. He feels his skin crawling, hears Booster’s screams loud in his ears, smells the smoke coming off Bea’s crackling flames. His body aches and burns, heart pounding, skin aching. Tora edges towards the periphery of his vision, a blur of white and soft blue.
Ted rises to his feet, face twisted into a horrible, desiccated visage, his blue suit stripped of its color and replaced with inky black, a ring of the same hue on his gnarled finger. He lets out an inhuman hiss and shoves Tora back with a wall of black energy.
“Unh! J’onn! He’s…we’ve lost Beetle! He’s a Black Lantern, what do we do? Should I call Guy?” Tora asks, building a shield of ice to protect herself from further attacks.
Ted can feel the fear radiating off Booster’s body, thick and almost syrupy, his heartbeat racing like the wings of a hummingbird. A rat crawls onto Booster’s head and as he tries to shake it off, he catches sight of Ted shambling towards him and screams all the louder. Ted can almost taste Booster’s heart, ripe with delicious fear, fear that will slake his undying thirst, will satisfy the empty ache in his cold, lifeless heart.
Here Ted stops, for he realizes one crucial detail that he had previously overlooked: his heart is neither cold nor lifeless. It is beating hot and heavy and fast in his chest, and it burns with anger and concern and love for the man being bitten to death by rats in front of him. Overcome with this swell of emotion, Ted constructs a black sledgehammer and smashes the Plexiglas tank, rats flowing out like sand. Tora shrieks and starts freezing them into little rat-shaped ice cubes. Breathing heavily through his mouth, his nose currently somewhat nonexistent, he turns his attentions towards Deimos, laughing in his ring of fire and chaos.
“You!” A black hand envelops the man and hauls him into the air. Ted’s voice is raspy and hoarse, jaw rattling loosely as he speaks. “I’ve had enough of you.”
“H-how…it’s impossible!” Deimos yells.
Ted reels him in close, breath reeking like a charnel house. “I figured out your little game, Deimos. How your powers really work. It’s all based on belief, isn’t it? You’re not really a powerful psychic at all, you just use your powers to make us believe you are. And the more people believe in your illusions, the more real they become. That woman you drowned wasn’t standing in more than a puddle, but you made her believe she was in the middle of the ocean, and to her, she was. You wanted me to think I became a Black Lantern again, body twisted against my will, because you thought I’d be scared of that. Well, guess what, pal? I’m not. And I’m not scared of you. This is all just a trick you planted in my head and in everyone else’s. You’re a cheap imitation Scarecrow, Deimos, and Crane can tell you what he thinks of your phobia powers himself.”
He throws Deimos hard against a shelf, boxes falling on top of him, rubber snakes spilling out over his unconscious form. Ted collapses, the illusion broken, whole and handsome and not at all a zombie. Bea’s fire shuts off, and Tora immediately freezes the flames still surrounding J’onn. The rats that had escaped her earlier attention flop over, nothing more than plastic squeaky rats.
“Buh…” Ted coughs, voice still hoarse. “God, zombie voice is grating. Anyone got a lozenge?”
“Is friend Booster okay?” Dmitri asks, taking off his helmet.
J’onn phases through the tank wall and flies out through the top, carrying Booster in his arms. He’s barely conscious and still bleeding, his skin covered in hundreds of deep bites. “We need to get him medical attention immediately.”
Ted runs over and wraps his arms around Booster’s neck, cradling his head. “Booster! Hey, it’s okay now, buddy. You’re going to be okay. Oh God, Booster, you aren’t allowed to die, okay? We still have to get that end table from IKEA, and you owe me thirty bucks and a pizza, and…y’know…feelings and stuff.”
“Aw man, did I miss the whole fight? You guys never call me when there are good battles,” Guy complains, sailing in through a skylight. “Booster Butt looks like shit.”
“Okay hang on a minute, I’m confused,” Dinah says, having tied Deimos’s hands with some of the rubber snakes and deposited him in one of the larger plastic tubs for safekeeping while everyone crowded around Booster. “If the rats weren’t real, why is Booster still covered in rat bites and going into shock and Guy, are you going to take him to the hospital or are we just going to stand around and gawk at him?”
“As long as Booster…and the rest of us…thought the rats were real, they were. If Deimos hadn’t been knocked out, the illusion would’ve kept up. That’s how all those people died. They were alone, and their fears kept feeding the illusion, so the bees or the snakes or the water didn’t go away. And I’m coming along with Booster,” Ted explains, taking Booster from J’onn as Guy materializes a green bubble for them.
“Fill me in on the way, Bugface. An’ I don’t wanna see you two kissing or nothing back there, it’s just plain wrong and Booster ain’t had any rabies shots or anything yet,” Guy insists, pulling a face.
Ted nods and takes off the top half of his costume, using it to keep Booster warm and comfortable while they sail through the sky in their green bubble. Off to the horizon, the sun is just barely starting to warm the clouds. “Don’t worry, Booster, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
When he shows up at the hospital two days later, Booster’s looking a whole lot better. Covered in bandages and snuggled up in his lousy hospital grade blankets, he beams when Ted walks through the door with a bag of fast food and a vase of flowers.
“How’re you feeling?”
Booster sighs. “Better now that the contraband’s here. You are my Underground Railroad of Cheeseburgers, Ted.”
He laughs. “Well, it’s nice to know that I was brought back to life for a truly important mission. Doctors say when they’ll let you come home? I’ve got brand new extra warm sheets for the bed and the Chinese takeout place on standby.”
“Doctors say tomorrow at the earliest,” Booster says, shoveling fries in his mouth. “Want to make sure I don’t have rat bite fever, I guess.”
Ted sits down next to Booster’s bed and watches him eat, then notices a basket in the far corner of the room. It looks like it had been, at some point, a tastefully arranged gift basket with a cellophane wrapper and a big green bow. “What’s that? Something from Bea?”
“Worse. From Guy. When I get out of here I’m knocking his teeth in. I don’t care if I have to go to space to do it.”
Getting up, Ted goes over and retrieves the basket, picking through the contents. “Let’s see…Ratatouille, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Best of the Rat Pack, Of Mice and Men…aw, that last one doesn’t even count. I have to give him credit, though, it’s kind of funny in a sick and perverse way. If he hadn’t done it first, and if I hadn’t been there to experience your horrible mortal peril and gut-wrenching screams, I’d probably have done the same thing.”
“Gee, thanks, Ted. I love you too.” Booster takes a huge gulp of chocolate milkshake. “Hey, Ted?”
“Yeah?” He puts the basket down and perches on the edge of his seat, leaning on the bed railing.
Booster looks at him gravely. “How did you manage to stop that guy?”
“What, when I was Zombie Ted, King of the Undead? Easy. He didn’t really do a very good job of looking into my brain and finding my fears, probably because he was too busy getting the crap kicked out of him, and he probably used whatever he mined from your head. Which was from our conversation the other night about how I didn’t want to become a Black Lantern again. But fortunately for us that’s not what I was afraid of, and I was more pissed off and worried than scared, so y’know, bam! Kapow!” Ted replies, making punching gestures.
“What were you really scared of?”
Ted takes his hand, bandage-plastered and slightly greasy, and holds it tight. “Losing you, dumbass. You know I love you more than anything, and besides, where else would I get a new sidekick this late in the game?”
“Jaime?” Booster suggests. “And I’m not your sidekick.”
“Nah, he’s got his own thing going. Good for him to be his own hero.” Ted leans down and kisses Booster’s forehead. “Still not kissing you until I’m sure you’re not going to give me any sort of horrible diseases.”
“You’re a horrible disease,” Booster replies fondly. “Thanks for rushing in recklessly like a member of the Suicide Squad and trying to save me. And then, y’know, actually saving me.”
Ted kisses the tip of his nose and goes for the remote. “Here, let’s see what crappy hospital movie is on.”
“I looked already,” Booster replies. He makes a face at the television. “It’s that one kids’ movie with the talking immigrant mice. That’s why the remote is over there as far away from me as humanly possible.”
“Daytime talk show bitches it is, then!” Ted says, flipping channels. “Hey, Boost?”
“What are you really afraid of? I mean, besides the wharf rats. That’s one thing, but y’know…” Ted says, trailing off, waving the remote ineffectually.
Booster smiles, reaches over the bar and cuffs Ted’s hair, then shifts over to make room so they can both squash into his narrow bed together. “Not being able to watch daytime talk show bitches and eat cheeseburgers with you ever again. Quit kicking, I’m delicate.”
“I love you too, meathead.”
As they settle in and watch their horrible daytime talk show, Ted wraps his arm around Booster’s shoulders and Booster rests his head against Ted’s shoulder, tuning out most of the bickering and the cackling of the hosts.
They have nothing to fear.