A/N: This was written in response to a prompt from a friend of mine at Livejournal for her birthday. Happy birthday Ivybramble! Hope you like it :)
Fate, not choice, had brought Hartley Robert Rathaway and Michael Jon Carter together. At least, that's how it seemed at the time.
Hartley had caught wind of a devious plot that would have leveled entire cities if it was carried out, but he couldn't stop the wannabe supervillains alone. Thing was, all the heroes thought he was a crook, and all the crooks knew he wasn't.
Just when he'd despaired of finding anyone to help him "save the world", there'd been a flash of light and suddenly Booster Gold was lying on top of him.
"Oof!" went Booster and Piper.
"Sorry. We usually have better aim than that." Booster flashed Piper a dazzling apologetic smile and, for a delusional heartbeat, Piper thought it was James returned from the dead.
God knows James had aimed that 'forgive me because I'm pretty' smile at him often enough.
"Uh…alright. Do you mind getting off of me now?" Despite the costume, Piper didn't immediately recognize Booster Gold. But odder things had happened to him than having a handsome blond costumed adventurer fall onto him while he was reading in bed. He could roll with it.
"Huh? Oh yeah, one sec." Booster climbed off the bed, got to his feet, and ran his hands through his fine blond hair.
The primping triggered something in Piper's brain, and he recalled a conversation he and Wally had had several years ago.
"Oh yeah, so dude, the League's like really different from what it was back in Uncle Barry's day. Seriously, no one will hassle you for being an ex-villain." Wally was trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Piper to go to a Christmas party at the Watchtower.
"I somehow doubt that," Piper snapped.
"No, really! Well, Guy will probably be an asshole, but he's always like that. No one takes it personally. Ice is almost enough of a sweetheart to make up for him anyway, and Fire's just plain awesome at a party. And then Booster and Beetle-"
"Wally, no thank you."
"But-but…I need your help with something! See…Booster and Beetle are, like, really good friends."
Piper winced, having a feeling about where this was going. "Uh huh."
"No, I mean like really good friends. Like…"
Piper waited, even though it was obvious Wally was hoping he'd cut in. Finally, flustered, Wally blurted it out. "We all think they're gay together, but they won't come out. And everyone knows my gaydar's broken. Can you…?"
"Oh come on!"
And then Wally proceeded to expound all the reasons he thought Blue Beetle and Booster Gold were sleeping together. He left Piper unconvinced, but then, Piper was resisting mostly based on Wally's insistence on interpreting the gay community strictly through stereotypes ("Booster's all, like, obsessed with his looks! That's gay, isn't it?" "Wally, you dress better than I do. By your own criteria, you must have way more butt sex than me." Dude, that's just gross.")
Piper stared at the man opposite him, pretty sure he was the one Wally had been talking about, but not one hundred percent certain. "Uh…Booster Gold?" Piper mumbled the name, making the syllables as garbled as possible in case he was wrong.
Booster looked annoyed about it. "Yes Booster Gold!" He snapped it out with diction as perfect as Piper's had been sloppy. "Come on, you were friends with West! I've worked with him! He must have mentioned me at least once."
Considering what Wally had actually said, Booster probably would have preferred it if he hadn't (unless Wally was actually right). Piper made a noncommittal noise, and Booster paced and grumbled under his breath.
It went on for kind of awhile, actually, but it wasn't nearly as discomfiting as the little yellow robot whizzing around the room.
"Perhaps you should inform Mr. Rathaway of our mission Booster," the robot suggested.
"Can't say I'd mind an explanation," Piper said. "Strange men don't often teleport into my room."
"Oh, I didn't teleport."
"It looked like a teleportation to me."
"Well it wasn't. It was time travel."
Piper squinted. "You're from the future? But you don't look that old."
For some reason, Booster looked really insulted by that. "Oh, way to assume! I'm not from the future. I mean, I am, but not-I actually just came back to your present from the past, okay? And why'd you assume future anyway? How old do you think I am?"
"Uh…I'd thought you were about my age." Somewhere between him and Wally, anyway.
"So you do think I look old!"
"Well your hair's thinning a bit in the back."
That one got him off on a tangent again. He didn't calm down again until his robot friend reminded him that he had a job to do.
Booster seemed to appreciate how much of an agitation his sudden appearance must have been. Piper was sitting on his bed with his blankets half-spilled on the floor, wearing an old t-shirt and boxers, his book bent with torn pages on the floor by Booster's feet.
"I'm here to help you save the world."
"Oh. I'd given up on getting back-up. I was just going to do it alone."
"Nah, you can't do that." Booster started walking around the room, bending over and going through Piper's few belongings. "Where's your gear? We should start working out a plan."
Piper suddenly seized on the significance of Booster being a time traveler. "What, does it not work if I go alone?"
"Works fine, you save millions of lives. But not your own, and that's the issue. You're too much of a martyr for your own good."
"James used to say that," Piper whispered before he caught himself.
"Who's James?" Booster asked.
The robot started to propose a few possibilities, but stopped at the look Piper gave it. Slowly he shook his head, then he stood up and started packing.
They saved the cities from the villains with very little trouble, up until the end. That's when one of them got off the shot that was supposed to kill Piper.
Booster jumped in the way, shoving Piper to safety in one smooth motion. All Piper could see was James taking those bullets for him. He certainly wasn't seeing the reality, that Booster had shielding and that he was fine. He might as well have been lying in a bloody heap on the floor.
Piper only came to himself again when Booster shook his shoulders, yelling his name repeatedly. Piper, who had never grieved properly for his dead friend that had sacrificed far too much for him, collapsed in a sobbing heap.
"So you said we need him for that Crisis?" Michael asked.
"Uh huh." Rip didn't bother looking up from the computer screen, as they'd already had this conversation. "Rathaway was meant to discover the full extent of his powers so that he could use them. It's absolutely essential to the integrity of the timeline. Otherwise why bother have him be anything more than a benign hypnotist? That's all he cared to be."
Not for the first time, Michael got the feeling the time lord wasn't really talking to him.
"Alright, well, if Rathaway needs to live to see that Crisis, I think we're going to need to keep him with us."
"Rani isn't enough for you?"
As Rip well knew, the energetic little girl was more than enough for him, which was why Michelle and Rip looked after her more than Michael did.
"I couldn't care one way or the other. It's not like the guy is much in the way of company anyhow, and that's the problem Rip. He's just waiting to die. If we leave him to his own devices, he will."
For once, Rip seemed to be carefully considering Michael's input. He pulled up some form of data file Michael couldn't make sense of and muttered under his breath until he saw something that gave him a start. "Well I'll be damned. You're right."
"It happens from time to time," Skeets cut in.
Michael rolled his eyes.
"Rathaway lost the will to live just before the second to most recent Crisis, right around the time he learned of his connection to the anti-life equation. The man wants to die helping others, but at this point he doesn't care if it's saving existence or just somebody's pet in a burning building."
"Right, so if we don't want our anti-life vessel sacrificing his life for Fido…"
Rip nodded. "We'll clear out a room for him."
Over the next couple of weeks Piper and Booster started spending a lot of time together. Booster was a bit confused about sending the suicidal emotional train wreck on dangerous missions, but it was soon clear that Rip had calculated missions that were building Piper's confidence back up. After a few weeks, he started to show signs of having a sense of purpose again.
And when Hartley Rathaway felt confident, he was actually a funny, snarky bastard. The banter they shared while running for their lives or fighting the good fight was so familiar and came so easy…
It was almost like…
No. It was nothing like that because nothing could ever be that but that.
Piper was fun though.
"So what happened to him?"
"A lot." Yet again, Rip refused to divert his attention while Michael talked to him, though this time he was cooking mac and cheese for Rani as opposed to time master research.
Michael enjoyed being brushed off about as much as always. "A lot's happened to all of us. What made him, you know…give up?"
"Rani, dinner's done!"
"I'm not done with my lesson yet!" cam the shrill answer from the next room.
"You have ten minutes to finish up!"
"Lesson?" Michael asked.
"Hartley's teaching her how to play piano. Look Michael…if you want to know more about the guy then just ask him. He'll answer you know. He's been waiting for someone to talk to."
Michael distinctly did not like the prospect of questioning a guy about his trauma. "Can't you do it?"
"Well that'd be pretty pointless as I already know."
"But you won't tell me?"
Michael scowled. "Even if I make a pest of myself?"
"You really need a more creative threat than something you already do unintentionally. Rani, your mac and cheese is getting cold and when it's cold it congeals!"
"If I annoy you unintentionally, I'll drive you nuts when I step it up on pur-"
"Hi Boppy! Piper said congealed is bad. Can I have my dinner now?" Rani asked, appearing suddenly and cutting Michael off. Not wanting to push things in front of the little girl, Michael stalked off, exuding bitterness.
Piper joined Rip and Rani in the kitchen, though the instant mac and cheese only got a look of disgust from him. He sat down at the table with an apple and a bottle of iced tea instead. "Booster looked upset about something. Is everything alright?"
"He always gets grumpy when he talks to Boppy," Rani explained.
Rip smirked. "She's not wrong. Don't worry about it Hartley. He'll get over himself."
"If you say so."
It took a few more weeks and several more romps through time before Booster did as suggested and just struck up a conversation about Piper's painful past. It was their situation more than anything that made him go for it.
They'd been sent to Central City something like fifteen years into the past. Booster noticed Piper acting a little odd, even for him, but it took him until Piper suggested they grab some snacks from a bakery he loved that was closed in the present for Booster to figure out that they were on the guy's home turf. So they got some pastries, and then Piper took him to a spot on the Keystone side of the river. They were sitting on a low stone wall facing Central.
Piper picked at the cookie sandwich he'd been so excited about ordering, melancholy gaze fixed on the lights of the city.
"Hm?" He gave a small start, followed by a slow sigh. "I was just thinking…you see that light over on the hill in the back? It's the only one on that side of the hill."
Booster squinted, following Piper's pointing finger. "Yeah, I think so."
"That's my parents' mansion. By this time of night, they're getting ready for bed. If we went there…and told them to be out of town on a certain day about ten years into their future-"
"It wouldn't work," Booster said sadly, surprised it had taken this long for them to be having this conversation. He'd bugged Rip about it the first chance he'd gotten, when they were in a lull from nearly continuous action.
"But…that's what we're doing. We're running through time righting wrongs and saving people."
"I know," Booster said. "I've tried though. I was a real pain in the ass about it and eventually Rip sent me on a fight I couldn't win." He explained about what he'd gone through, trying to save Barbara from the Joker's bullet. "Some things just have to happen a certain way. Rip guides us to the wrongs we actually can right."
"Oh." Piper paused, thinking that through. "It just…seems so easy to save them though. I mean, what happened to my parents, it didn't set off any important historical reverberations. Unless it's just absolutely necessary that I hate myself for getting them killed."
"I'm sorry Piper. If I thought it would do anything more than put you through the agony of bitterly destroyed hope, I'd say let's go for it. I haven't brought back any of the people I wanted to though. It really doesn't work, and it hurts even worse when you get that close to saving them."
Piper stuffed his pastry in the bag, clearly no longer in the mood for sweets.
"Piper, you know, if you wanna talk about, um…anything-"
He quirked an eyebrow in response. "Rip didn't tell you about my robot ears, did he?" It was clear from the horrified expression on Booster's face that no, Rip had not. "I've heard most of what you've said about me Michael. Your observations aren't wrong. I…had given up. I understand why that would make you curious."
"It's not just curiosity-" Booster started, but stopped when Piper suddenly darted forward and slammed him to the ground with an arm over his chest. "Oof!"
Booster landed flat on his back with Piper on top of him. The skinny guy knew how to use his unimpressive weight to full advantage, because he had Booster soundly pinned. Piper pressed one hand over Booster's mouth, then planted the other so he could lean back and look over his shoulder.
They stayed that way for kind of a while. Booster tried to ask what was going on, and Piper violently shushed him. And finally, Booster heard the voices coming their way too. More specifically, he heard Piper's voice, fifteen years younger, strong, commanding, and ringing with conviction.
"They're driving me fucking insane!" And more profanity than Booster had yet to hear from the older version.
"You can't let them get under your skin dude. They're being assholes to be assholes." The other voice was young too, but much more pleasant. The companion sounded like a fun guy, while kid-Piper sounded a bit dramatic.
Booster really wanted to sit up so he could spy on them. He was dying to see what Piper had looked like as a twenty something.
Course, getting present-Piper off of him was a good idea in its own right anyway. This was not a man Booster wanted lying crotch to crotch with him.
They listened to the kids bicker about their coworkers, and all of the woes in Piper's young life. His friend, James or Tricks (both used interchangeably), tried his best to get his friend to crack a smile. It didn't work. Kid-Piper seemed pretty determined to remain miserable.
Present-Piper rolled off of Booster and dropped his head to his arms, breathing shakily. Careful not to be seen, Booster sat up and inched his way closer to the wall so he could peer over it.
Piper, it turned out, had been kinda hot as a young man. It's not that he was ugly in the present, but at present he was carrying the physical effects of fifteen years' worth of trauma that his younger self wasn't burdened with. Looking at the underweight tech nerd trying not to hyperventilate in the grass, Booster never would have expected him to have been that handsome (and aware of it, based on the way he held himself and the haughtiness he exuded).
His friend was a looker too (Booster mentally cursed his plentiful wavy blond hair). Actually, the guy looked a little like him. He and this James could have passed for brothers.
Young-Piper suddenly turned in their direction, an intrigued look on his face.
"Piper, you okay?" James asked.
"I guess. C'mon Tricks, let's get out of here." Then, in a low voice, "I don't really want to know what those guys are doing behind that wall."
Booster and Piper waited for the two young men to get further enough away for even Piper's enhanced hearing to pick them up. Piper remained on the ground, hiding his face in the crook of his arm, while Booster sat up and leaned against the wall.
"I should have thanked him for trying," Piper finally choked out. "He was always trying to cheer me up, make me laugh, and I never appreciated it. Even the teasing and the barbs kept me from giving up. I never told him what he did for me."
"I think he knew. I mean, he kept going, didn't he?" Booster offered.
Piper sat up. His face was pale. He'd lost the yellow tinted glasses at some point, and his large blue eyes were like bruises, like open wounds advertising his pain.
"I miss him," he whispered.
That's when Booster realized the depth of their connection. "Me too." Though of course, he wasn't talking about James Jesse.
Booster really wasn't as dumb as most people thought, but he could be a little slow on the uptake.
Even though the Crisis they'd saved Piper for never seemed to materialize, he didn't question it. He enjoyed the time spent with his new partner, enjoyed their banter, and made sure to have more serious conversations with the guy, so that if anything happened there wouldn't be all those things left unsaid.
Booster didn't figure out that there was no big Crisis requiring the intervention of the vessel of the anti-life equation until Rip sent them on a journey into his past.
And suddenly Booster was once again taunted with the sight of his best friend, alive and well, walking down the hall at his younger self's side, giving him shit about something or other. Booster didn't care enough to identity the exact subject; he was too distracted by that plunging sensation he got whenever he saw Ted again.
He and Piper were hiding in a corridor just out of sight. Piper looked amused about something.
Then Booster realized Ted was laying into his younger self about Gladys.
"So you were married?" Piper murmured.
Booster's eyes were still on younger-Booster and Ted, but they were almost out of sight. "Yeah, it was a financial move, but not a very well thought out one. That bat's probably going to outlive me and somehow I'm the one that got stuck paying alimony when we split."
"Uh huh. You were cute before your hairline started receding"
"Hey!" Booster elbowed him in the stomach. Piper crushed his face into Booster's shoulder to muffle his laughter. "It's allegedly thinning in the back-allegedly. The front is not receding."
Piper looked up at him, face shining with laughter, and Booster vividly recalled the haughty young man he used to be.
That ache that he'd carried with him ever since losing Ted quieted. For the first time in ages, though he still missed his friend and doubtless always would, it wasn't quite so consuming.
Oh. Maybe he was as dumb as people thought.
And meanwhile, back in the present, Rip was cutting the crusts off a sandwich for Rani, trying not to be creeped out by the fact that he'd essentially hooked his parents up.