|Fic: Say & Spell
||[Dec. 20th, 2009|04:18 pm]
All Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, all the time!
This was for boostlethon , but I'm a dumbass and didn't get in done in time, due to having to suddenly do the adult equivalent of run away from home two weeks before the deadline, so a week and a half of writing time was spent moving stuff and trying to find a place to live. I feel incredibly stupid, but this damn thing is 10K words, and to be honest, I'm fucking PISSED at myself for not getting it done until the day after it was due. *walk of shame* Sorry, poisonivory . This one was for you.|
EDIT: This thing is so big, apparently LJ can't post it. So, two parts for you.
Title: Say and Spell Part 1
Prompt: "Someone goes overboard with the mistletoe." I'm sorry it didn't come in till later!
Word count: 10,253
Author's notes: I'm so sorry this is late, and not incredibly mistletoe-y, but I'm so happy I still managed to finish this. Continuity-wise, this takes place in a mythical, apparently non-existent JLI era, where Booster's with the Conglomerate, Ted is with the League, Max is unshot, Ted is still battling his waist, and everyone's happy.
So, Ted's been execrated.
Guy does not know this word. Neither does Bea. Ted takes a little pleasure out of knowing the word--but the fact is, he only knows it because he was a D&D nerd in college. (Briefly. He wasn't very good at it.) Because of this dubious collegiate hobby, he knows that being execrated is not, actually, something naughty, but tantamount to being magically cursed.
This on its own isn't too worrisome. After all, Ted may not have been execrated before, per se, but he has been hexed and jinxed a few times, and cursed more times than he can count. (Some people would try and claim that being cursed by Guy Gardner is not in the same league as being hexed by Sistah Spooky. Ted's response to those people is that they have never seen Guy redefining the phrase, "cursing a Blue streak.") In all cases, the magical attacks have been obnoxious, yes, and in some cases, quite painful, but always temporary.
I mean, when you've got Dr. Fate around, there's really not much witchery to be afraid of. The guy might be almost as pleasant as Batman without coffee, but you have to give him this much: when it comes to magic, he's a deus ex machina.
Except Dr. Fate isn't available to un-execrate Ted; he's off... doing whatever it is Dr. Fate does. Probably something that would give Stephen Hawking a terrible migraine. So, since Booster Gold is headed that way on Conglomerate business anyway, he gives Ted a personal flight ticket to Zatanna--who Ted likes better anyway. Maybe it's being around General Glory, Guy Gardner, and Orion all the time, but he's got to appreciate someone who doesn't drive him crazy. Or maybe it's just the fishnets.
Zatanna is the only person besides J'onn to NOT laugh her ass off at Ted's condition. And even J'onn smiled. However, that's not because she doesn't find it funny. No, Zatanna finds it WORRYING, which is far worse.
See, apparently an execration is a lot worse than being jinxed, hexed, or cursed, and despite all Zatanna's various knowledge of magic, she is unable to undo an execration.
"Well, see, normally I COULD," Zatanna explains, in response to the incredulously raised eyebrows. "But this isn't just an execration; that would be bad enough. This is a do-it-yourself execration, by a seriously troubled, quite talented--"
"--High school student?" Booster finishes, still with the incredulously raised eyebrows.
Exactly. Like it's not bad enough that Ted's execrated, and that he was execrated with a punch to the face and a, "Shut the fuck up!" No, it had to be done by some kid calling himself the DM who's read the Monster Manual one too many times.
"Hey, how old were you when you joined the JLI?" Zatanna returns, holding a hand to her ear.
Ted smirks. Booster looks away with a grimace.
Zatanna puts her hands on her hips. "Look, he has NO training, just raw talent, and in the magic business, that's dangerous stuff. Everyone has their individual magical technique; I can't undo his work until I know his methodology."
Ted opens his mouth.
Zatanna shakes her head. "It's not D&D, Ted. I checked right off, and that spell has a twenty-foot area effect in my Player's Handbook; this one only effects you. He might've gotten the idea from it, but..."
Ted sighs. Well, there goes that idea. But Zatanna plays D&D? That has possibilities.
"Well, if it's not that, then how long will it take for you to find out what it really is?" Booster asked doubtfully.
Zatanna spread her hands. "No idea. Undoing an execration is tricky in the best of times--I mean, the whole point is to make something that'll last for generations. You can't just break them. And this one is something the guy jury-rigged himself, which makes it all kinds of unpredictable. If you're lucky, all those unpredictable parts will eventually clash with each other and it'll undo itself."
Ted isn't entirely sure this explanation reassures him. After all, Zatanna is WORRIED; if the execration was about to just fall apart, she wouldn't look worried.
For once, Booster seems to reach the exact same conclusion, and he adds, "But... uh, Zatanna... if it's unpredictable... couldn't all those parts clash in a BAD way and, you know...?" Booster doesn't say anything, just makes a little mushroom cloud gesture with his hands.
Zatanna gives them the most helpless, apologetic shrug Ted has ever seen. And the JLI has had a LOT of events to shrug helplessly and apologetically over. It's got the squinched-up eyes and pained grin and everything.
"Well, um, I'd avoid magical phenomena, physical danger, and emotional situations for a while, Ted," She says, and when he tries to protest, adds, "I know, I know, superhero, it comes with the job, but I mean it. Don't tempt fate. Danger, magic, emotion. Those are the quick and easy way to unhinge an execration."
It's just as well that Booster groans for him. If Ted could, he would, but the fact of the matter is, he can't. He's been execrated with silence. He's completely, utterly mute.
The League's going to LOVE this.
* * *
Blue Beetle, member of the Justice League International, decides to be Ted Kord, head of Kord Industries for a while. It's not that he's running away, he tells himself, he's just needed an excuse to try and save his company from bankruptcy (again). Nothing is less physically dangerous and magical than running a company, he figures. Besides, it's not like Max can disapprove of that, can he?
Ted is a technological genius, but he is not a very good businessman, and in the best of times, trying to get his managers to do anything is like herding drunken cats. (Thus Kord Industries's near-bankruptcy.) Without his voice, it's even worse. It's 1991, there is such a thing as e-mail, and since Ted loves his computers, he even has all his managers on the network. But see, Ted has never NEEDED to use it before, because he's never been execrated before, and so his managers can very conveniently "forget" to check.
They do. So much for genius.
By three in the afternoon, Ted is trying to destroy his keyboard with his forehead. It is now that he discovers an interesting side effect to his execration: though focused on silencing speech, it also muffles other sounds his body makes, so driving his face into his hardware sounds like ordinary computer typing.
Ted decides that such an effect requires further research and careful testing, and he starts beating his head against the keyboard with renewed vigor.
This is when Booster flies in through his bedroom window.
Ted decides that the Conglomerate doesn't give Booster enough to do.
"Working hard, or hardly working?" Booster asks. He cranes his neck to look at Ted's work screen, which is currently filled with such corporate mandates as "jkldffsdlkhsfdkhaoerhgfsfdkg."
Booster nods wisely and pats Ted's shoulder. "Ahhh. Looks like it's hardly working. Not that I can blame you, the technology in this century..." He tsks at Ted's Macintosh IIfx, which, by the way, happens to be brand spanking new and the top of its line. "Oh, will you be crying in twenty years..."
For once, Ted does not need his voice. All he has to do is roll his head thirty degrees over the 'G' key and glare. He is rumpled, cranky, unshaven, and has been sitting in his bathrobe staring at his computer screen all day. Booster looks entirely too clean, happy, shaved, and shiny to be welcome right now.
"Only you would make being a civilian more dangerous and emotionally taxing than the League," Booster says, just validating that he is indeed far too happy to be pleasant.
For a moment, Ted forgets he can't talk, and he tries to snap something appropriately witty and scathing. The moment he tries to speak and hears absolutely nothing, though, he goes back to causing his keyboard blunt-force trauma.
"Call in sick. Do it. Say you've lost your voice, it's completely true."
Booster is a member of the Conglomerate, for Christ's sake. How does he NOT realize the importance of money? Kord Industries is on the verge of bankruptcy. Maxwell Lord is giving him management tips, for Christ's sake!
Then he sees that Booster is wielding a Philly cheese-steak. The box is unmarked, but Ted is a genius. He knows these things. Besides, he used to stand outside and huff the fumes when General Glory had him running laps. He KNOWS what a Philly cheese-steak smells like.
"I got it from Maury's. Onion rings!" Booster waggles the box with a, 'you WANT this cheese-steak,' face. "C'mon. Call in sick? For me?"
Ted calls in sick and wrecks his diet. While he's doing that, Booster forges through the depths of Ted's closet and finds his uniform. ALL of his uniform. Including the suit, the cowl, the goggles, the jock strap, the...
"A CORSET? You have a CORSET, Ted?" Booster looks satanically gleeful. "Is THIS what you meant about women loving the uniform?" He falls over Bwa-HAH-ha-ing, kicking his legs.
Attempting to look dignified in his bathrobe with a mouthful of onion rings, Ted snatches the offending article away and turns it around to display the tag stitched in the back: Admiral Trim'N'Fit's Lumbar Support Belt.
"Right. 'Lumbar support.'" Booster enunciates.
Ted tries to imitate Power Girl's cat, and gives him a disgusted and slightly envious look.
Booster does a little shimmy. "You like? You buy? Almost new, almost free!"
Ted rolls his eyes and takes his support belt back. He turns to throw it back in his closet, but Booster grabs his wrists.
"Hey, whaddaya doing? Get dressed!"
Ted stares at Booster blankly for a moment, then tugs at the lapels of his bathrobe authoritatively, trying to do his best imitation of Max's best "I'm a corporate star," expression.
"No, for work!" Booster thrusts Ted's jockstrap at him. "Your OTHER work, Mr. Kord."
Ted pats Booster on the head, looking sympathetic. Poor, poor future boy. Obviously the twentieth-century air has eaten away his brain, because only Booster would think superhero duty is a cure for a possible dangerous execration.
Apparently Booster can read his mind, which is a terrifying thought. "Come on, if you REALLY want, you can go back to knocking your head against your desk. Or, you can come to the League! Maybe you can't talk, but you can still punch things!"
Ted has to admit he has a point. So he changes into his uniform, and Booster gives him a piggyback flight to League Headquarters. Sure, Booster's not with the League anymore, but he knows the way, and it's faster than navigating traffic. Plus he says Gardner owes him a beer.
The Conglomerate REALLY needs to give Booster more to do.
* * *
Max doesn't want Ted at Headquarters. Only Booster would be surprised.
"Look, Ted, I know you're otherwise in... er, fair physical shape, and in any other circumstance, trust me, I would be OVERJOYED to have you working for me and completely silent. But I've shared words with Zatanna--"
"--says it's very unstable, that--"
No. No, no, no, NO.
"She says that magic, physical danger, and intense emotional situations in particular could make it worse. You could be a walking time bomb, Ted! I simply can't take the risk of you... you know, blowing up--"
HE'S NOT GOING TO BLOW UP, DAMMIT.
Max can read neither lips nor minds, but he's not an idiot. "Ted, this is DANGEROUS. I'm sorry, I know you're frustrated, but--"
No, he DOESN'T know. If Ted can't mooch around with the League, he's going to be stuck, at home, "sick," with no way to go out without risking his Kord Industries middlemen finding out. Any other time of year, Ted could keep himself entertained (that's what inventing, Super Mario 2, and porn are for), but this close to Christmas, he knows exactly what he'll do stuck home, alone, stressed, and depressed.
He won't be trying to make up for Booster's cheese-steak, that's for sure. He'll be going through his emergency stash of Chocos that he never returned to J'onn, and he'll be utterly miserable.
Ted is conscious of his dignity, but he is also conscious of feeling like he's been diagnosed with terminal laryngitis. He throws himself at Max and begs for mercy. He'll do monitor duty, he'll scrub the floors, whatever, but he HAS TO STAY.
Max sighs. "Okay, okay, fine, you can stay, for God's sake, get off your knees. You're embarrassing me, and you're scuffing my floor."
Ted jumps up immediately. Woohoo! SAVED!
As Ted dashes out the door, Max shouts after him, "And don't you DARE get into a combat situation! You are not an active member of the League, you got me? You are strictly a civilian with bad fashion sense!"
Ted gives him an A-OK symbol but otherwise completely ignores him. It's the League, after all. He's positive a disaster will happen any minute now.
* * *
Being a mute superhero is just as bad as being a mute head of industry. Ted wonders how on earth that Jericho guy does it.
Apparently the reason Booster's been able to chauffeur Ted around is because all the bad guys have decided to take a holiday. (Except for the DM, who's still on the loose. Naturally.) It is Christmas time, after all--prime time for business, but the caped criminal element mostly slows down. Supervillains, it seems, are not without a sense of holiday spirit, and this year, they seem willing to leave well enough alone till New Year.
And so the Justice League finds itself loitering around headquarters waiting for something to happen. While supervillains seem to stay home around Christmas, superheroes tend not to; it's possibly the most depressing holiday for someone whose profession places a high mortality rate upon family, friends, dates, and house pets. Seriously, the only superhero Ted knows who HASN'T lost any family or had them go evil is Dmitri, who's gone off to Moscow to play with his kids. Orion and Lightray have also pleaded leave to stay with Barda, Scott, and Oberon.
For everyone else, though, it's better to stay at work and hang around with the costumed family.
Normally, the slow day wouldn't be a bad thing, but this time around, Ted really wishes some intergalactic traveling salesman would try and auction Earth or something. It would mean the League has something better to do than enjoy Ted's silence and point it out, over and over and over. By statistical inevitability, Tora is on monitor duty all day.
Lucky Tora. Unlucky Ted.
J'onn is about the only person who is bearable, but that's only because he reads minds and keeps surprising the other JLI-ers by responding to Ted's thoughts, rather than his voice. (Apparently the idle thought that made J'onn say, "Do it and you'll never fly on Booster's back again," was enough to make Bea ask if there was something Ted needed to tell her.)
Never mind. J'onn only makes it worse. Damn Martian sense of humor.
Guy has pulled the, "if you don't want me to eat your pancakes, say, 'no,'" trick four times, and he STILL thinks it's funny. Stabbing him in the hand with a fork gets Ted reprimanded for not using his "inside voice," by J'onn, who then somehow prevents Guy from crushing Ted with a giant, glowing green sledgehammer.
Maybe J'onn isn't so bad after all.
The first thing Bea does upon seeing Ted is gasp, clasp her hands, and declare, "It's a Christmas miracle!" Which is what Ted expects, except then Bea starts practicing her "nonverbal communication skills." This mostly involves asking Ted horrifyingly personal and embarrassing questions purely to see what'll happen. She says when he can't scream or throw corny jokes at her, it's endearing.
"So, who do you think look better together, Superman and Batman, or Batman and Guy?"
It is impossible to shriek with an execration of silence, but Ted tries. Batman is what Ted imagines when he's trying to cure himself of an inconvenient erection. Guy, Ted never imagines at all; he doesn't think his dick would ever forgive him. The two of them together, he's sure, has rendered him permanently infertile.
"So... Booster's back... CAN you grate cheese on it?"
No, never mind, Ted's manhood is apparently alive and very well. Thank God for the man who invented the protective cup; Ted has gotten groin-kicked exactly twice in all his superhero career, but that thing has saved him from more unfortunate newspaper photos than he can count. Plus, it means Ted doesn't have to think about Batman.
"Is that a banana split or a cheese-steak I see on that tummy of yours?"
For this, Ted just settles for a withering glare and what he hopes is a snooty look at her own stomach, which is actually perennially flat but still something that Bea is terribly sensitive about. She just pretends he's staring at her breasts and asks if his were bigger in college.
Ted wishes it was as easy to stab HER with a fork as it was Guy. But somehow, part of his heroic morality seems to place the two greener parts of the League in different categories. He settles for the tactic he used to use when he was six and copycats her every move until she stalks off fuming.
General Glory tries to teach him sign language. Seems he learned this while helping disadvantaged (and apparently deaf) children in East Germany or the Bronx. Ted can't remember which, and regardless, he has no intention of learning. If he does, he worries it will somehow cause the execration to decide to affix to him permanently. He knows that's not how it works, but he still superstitiously hopes that as long as he acts like this is temporary, it will be.
* * *
Within the next hour of lounging around the League headquarters, waiting for something to happen, Ted learns that though other noises are muted, he can still make them and use them for obnoxious effect. Cracking his knuckles, for instance. That wonderful popping sound you can make by smacking your lips. Armpit farts. Whistling as much of the Mikado that he can remember. (And Ted's a genius, so he remembers a LOT.)
He also discovers that General Glory is deathly afraid of mimes. After pretending to be trapped in an invisible box for a few minutes, Glory has left the room for hastily babbled reasons about Franklin Roosevelt. Ted hopes Mighty Mime never crosses paths with the League, or they're all doomed.
Within twenty minutes, he has annoyed the other Leaguers away. YES!
Ted congratulates himself on a job well done and kicks back.
* * *
"Hey, Ted? Can I talk to you for a moment?"
It seems Tora has finally gotten a break from monitor duty. She has her hands behind her back, and when she sees Ted, her pout is so concerned that he feels embarrassed.
"Oh, Ted, I'm so sorry."
And she hugs him one-armed. After a moment, Ted hugs her back. He's a superhero, a genius, and a big boy; he can take care of himself, but he has to admit, it makes him feel better to be fussed over a little.
"You can't talk at all?"
Ted shakes his head.
"Okay, that's what I heard, but..." Tora bites her lip, and then she takes Ted's hand and starts toting him to a broom closet.
Ted starts feeling a bit dubious. If it were anyone but Tora, about whom his feelings are as sweet and platonic as a baby seal, he would suspect something. As it is, he just wonders what on earth she has to tell him that requires them to be in a broom closet.
Once they're in the broom closet and Tora has nearly clobbered Ted in the nose turning on the light bulb, which somehow still works, she takes her hand out from behind her back. They're surrounded by dust and Ted can feel a mop handle digging into his back, but when he sees what she's holding, he stops fidgeting.
Ted squints. Is that a...?
As he watches, Tora pushes a few buttons, and the glowing blue letters appear on the screen. A moment later, a tinny voice declares, "Hello."
Tora smiles. "It's a Say & Spell," she says, mistaking Ted's blank stare for lack of recognition. "I... I used it when I was first learning to read English. And I thought..." She looks embarrassed and presses it into his hands. "It'll let you talk a little bit, maybe? I didn't want to do it outside; I was worried it might embarrass you..."
Ted knows that if he's walking around with a Say & Spell, the JLI will go right back to ribbing him. He also knows that Tora is trying to help.
Tora's English is so good that Ted forgets that she hasn't known it for all that long. He imagines her trying to figure it out. Struggling over English with a children's toy. He imagines how frustrating is must have been, and how embarrassing. He remembers how she still sounds Germanic for split instants and catches herself.
So he takes the Say & Spell, and he hugs her thank you, and she beams the beautiful smile that makes him realize why Guy hasn't gotten it in him to drive her completely off yet. He mouths, "Thank you," then smacks himself in the forehead and uses the Say & Spell for it, which just makes her happier.
"Okay, I have to go back to monitor duty. I hope you feel better soon, Ted." Like he's sick. "Merry Christmas!"
Then she goes and skips out the door.
When Ted leaves the closet, it is statistically inevitable that the first person he sees is Guy.
"Hey, nice toy," Guy says, "did your mommy get it for you for Christmas?"
A shimmering green bulldozer nearly pulverizes him, but it's worth it to use Tora's gift to say, "Screw you, Gardner."
* * *
Pretty soon, everyone is thoroughly sick of Ted's newfound ability to speak. (Even though he sounds a bit like L-Ron and a bit like Sir Stephen Hawking. ESPECIALLY because he sounds a bit like L-Ron and a bit like Sir Stephen Hawking.) With nobody to bother and nobody bothering him, Ted settles down to play with the Say & Spell's programming. Within half an hour, he's managed to jury-rig a predictive text program, set it to speak at any given time, and pre-program some useful set phrases into it, such as, "yes, Lord Maxwell," "thank you, Ice," and "screw you, Gardner." He's also discovered the art of skillfully applied sonic errors and from that, improvised a three-minute techno, though the sound makes Liberty cower under the sofa.
It's been way too long since Ted has honestly tinkered with something. He confesses to himself that Tora's present is giving him more entertainment than he ever would've bargained on. He wonders if he can find a way to apply this to Kord Industries...
The Headquarters rarely used intercom system comes on with a squeal. After a moment, Max's voice declares, "All active members of the Justice League, come to my office please, all active members."
Ted makes a face. As though Max couldn't make the phrase 'all ACTIVE members' any more obvious. He must have just gotten a call, important enough to even tear Tora from monitor duty.
One by one, the League files past the room Ted's in, heading to Max's office. With the exception of J'onn, all of them look that special shade of confused/resigned that says, "I don't know what we're in trouble for, but I'm not surprised by it at all." Except for J'onn, who keeps rubbing his temple and frowning as though he's developing a headache. At least Ted can safely say he is NOT the cause of it.
A few minutes pass. Ted continues toying with the Say & Spell. He wonders if he can get it to speak French...
It feels like someone's whacked him in the cerebellum with a baseball bat flaring in neon. For a moment, he's utterly consumed with a desperate, compulsive need to GO UPSTAIRS, so strong it makes his legs tingle. Ted actually almost drops his Say & Spell from the force of it, and he reels for a moment. He's experienced Max's psychic "pushes" before; they're anything but subtle.
He has to give them this, though. They're damned effective. Packed into that one baseball-bat-to-the-brain is a lot of desperation, and a very firm warning.
Max is in deep trouble. And though the push didn't include that, Ted knows that currently includes the League as well.
Ted grabs his BB gun and runs up.
* * *
The elevator light shows that it's at the top floor, and it doesn't seem to be coming down. On second thought, elevator sabotage shouldn't be that much of a surprise, but it makes Ted look at the twenty flights of stairs up and grimace. For a moment, he wonders whether grabbing the Bug would save time; then he realizes that there's no question. The Bug is a great machine... but it's not silent. Whoever it is will hear him coming.
He tries to put his thoughts in that special register that seems to get J'onn's attention. *J'onn? J'onn, can you hear me?*
No answer. Ted's brain still feels empty. He sighs. It's too bad Max's connection is purely one-way, and not all that effective at info-dumping; he doesn't know whether he can afford to lose the time.
As though triggered by the thought, he gets another psychic smack to the skull: he suddenly feels deathly afraid of the door to Max's office. He wants nothing to do with it, because behind that door is something bad, something AWFUL, detritus from his worst nightmares--
The urge fades. Apparently Max will keep hammering information home in baseball-bat-sized whacks as long as he can, though as far as Ted knows, there's no way for Max to tell if Ted actually hears it or not.
Ted still doesn't know what exactly has Max and the whole JLI penned in his office, but he does know now that it's not safe for him to come through Max's door, for whatever reason. Maybe the villain booby-trapped it, maybe he's just paying attention, but Ted has to find another way in.
Max's office has a view. Ted could break through the window, but if the villain's at all intelligent, he'll know better than to leave a giant window unguarded. Especially since he probably came through it himself. Nowadays, Ted is about the ONLY hero who can't fly without a ship. Dramatic entrances are all well and good, but not if they get Ted shot.
Another option is the air ducts. A tight squeeze for him nowadays, but still doable, and much less likely to get him killed than the window.
Course decided, Ted takes off sprinting up the stairs. Worming through air ducts will take longer, but so far, Max's messages haven't included anything particular in the way of "hurry." Hopefully, the villain has one hell of a monologue, or a plan that involves blackmailing world leaders and not killing everyone on Christmas.
Go figure it's the one thing about the execration Ted DIDN'T think to worry about: he can't call for help. He doesn't even consider using Tora's gift for it; nobody would take it seriously, and besides, he has plans for it.
* * *
Glory has been running Ted ragged, but it STILL takes him a few minutes to make it up all the stairs. By the time he is, he's panting, has a stitch in his side, and decided that he needs to get himself a grappling hook. To be fair, he thinks anyone who's not Kryptonian would feel the same way.
Every couple minutes, Max gives him another whack to the head. The intensity is starting to fade, probably from overuse. Max normally completely ignores his powers, so trying to guide Ted with them can't be easy.
Ted still doesn't know very much, though. The whacks have told him that apparently this villain is of the monologuing variety, has a gun but isn't skilled with it, that the JLI aren't in immediate danger but it's still serious, and that for whatever reason, the danger seems to focus around Ice and Fire. By the end, the messages are starting to come with a suggestion of urgency, which Ted interprets to mean, "Hurry up, Beetle!"
Ted doesn't waste any time. First, he takes Tora's Say and Spell, types a flurry of instructions, and places it at the door to Max's office, taking care to be silent. Then he plucks a screwdriver from his belt, unscrews an air duct grate from the wall, jumps, and pulls himself in.
He doesn't fit.
Oh, damn it, not NOW. Now is NOT the time for his weight problem to kill his teammates.
Ted shucks his BB gun, his utility belt, laces his lumbar support belt an extra notch, sucks in his gut, and this time, he squeezes in. Thank god he's not claustrophobic.
It's been a while since Ted had to practice his air-duct-crawling skills, but he's done it in the recent enough past (to sneak a whoopee cushion into Max's then-locked office, in fact) for him to remember the layout. Sometimes, a genius's memory is a great thing to have.
Luckily, his execration actually makes being stealthy a little easier. Ted can pant and wheeze without blowing his cover, and the squeezing through ducts only makes quiet sounds like the air conditioner is having a little trouble.
All his crawling practice holds up. It takes a fair amount of wriggling and writhing and makes his abs burn, but Ted makes it into the grate above Max's office. He looks down.
And groans voicelessly.
It's the kid. That pain-in-the-ass, d20-rolling, Beetle-execrating kid calling himself the DM and wearing a bulletproof vest with the words "INT 18/**" painted on it, currently dusted with shards of window glass from his dramatic entrance. Apparently Ted hasn't had enough of him today.
"You expect me to go easy on you because of the time of year? Christmas isn't a holiday. It's a celebration of modern materialism, of the brain-dead sheep of humanity! You, sir, are a cretin of utmost degree, if you expect me to show you mercy because of a stupid number on the calendar! It was totally robbed from the pagan celebration of fertility anyway!"
He doesn't look much like a supervillain. Actually, he looks a bit like a teenage Ted, if Ted had been into pentagrams and had no sense of personal hygiene. Physically, he shouldn't be a problem to overpower; the issue is the magic, which has so far silenced Ted, and apparently blocked J'onn's telepathy.
Ted can't kick through an air duct grate, not without a couple spare seconds, and he doubts his execration is enough to make that stealthy. The screws are on the outside, so this will require careful timing, not to mention good leverage. As Ted silently wriggles into position, he glances down at his teammates, trying to learn more.
Max is at his desk, and he looks a little pale, though whether it's because he has the DM's .45 to his head or because he's bled an impressive amount on his white shirt is up for grabs. Overusing his powers seems to have taken a good chunk out of him, and not just in blood volume.
General Glory and J'onn share identical expressions of steely-eyed determination, though Glory betrays a little worry. J'onn, swathed in his blue cape and face unreadable, has his hands out in the archetypal negotiation pose.
"I understand your frustration; these customs aren't mine. I only want to know your demands, so I can--"
"Demands?" The DM shrieks. "You think I have DEMANDS? You're nothing but an idiot bulldog of the masses in a Speedo; I don't expect YOU to have anything useful for me. I am the DM! With my magic, I can restructure the world as I see fit, in a cleaner, pagan vision! I don't even need EXPERIENCE LEVELS!"
Guy looks worst of the team. He's never been any good at keeping emotions off his face, and right now, his expression is one of rage and fear. His ring, even though it's on the DM's hand and a good few feet away, is spitting shards of green energy.
As for Bea and Tora, they aren't doing or saying anything. The DM has his free hand, the one with Guy's ring, gripping Tora's upper arm possessively. Both her and Bea have blank, glazed looks on their faces, and unnaturally slumped postures, like they're catatonic. As he speaks, the DM hauls Tora close to him--too close to him--and pinches her cheek.
"I mean, look at this, LOOK AT THIS, you call this a superhero? She looks like a goddamn porn st--"
Ted's in position. Now all he needs is that distraction, and any second now...
He gets more than he bargained. First, Guy roars, "YOU LET GO OF HER!" and lunges. Then Ted's Say & Spell starts shrieking Ted's homemade techno at top volume, which grabs the DM's attention.
At this point, everyone starts moving, and all hell breaks loose.
The DM, who's apparently not much for grace under fire, shrieks, "What the fuck is this shit?" and takes the gun away from Max's head to start shooting through the door.
The JLI women jerk upright like puppets whose strings have been yanked. Ice sends a hailstorm at Guy, blasting him against the wall and freezing him to it. Bea shoots a gout of fire at J'onn, who blocks it with his cape and then sheds it before the flames reach him.
Glory goes for the DM, only to be blocked by Ice.
Ted breaks through the air duct.
Oh, and Max jumps up, grabs his chair, and goes for the DM with it.
Ice and Bea, apparently under brain-control or whatever Execration of the Week, focus on J'onn and Glory. The DM backhands Max and keeps firing at the door and the techno.
That is, until Ted drops right on top of him, sends him to the floor, out cold.
"Ta-da!" He tries to say, but nothing comes out. He figures standing up with a touchdown sign does the job.
Tora and Bea swing towards him.
Ted immediately regrets his decision. Now he's knocked out the only person who could--
And then he has to start Beetle-rolling to avoid flames and snow.
Guy, in the meantime, is trying to break out of the ice holding him to the wall. "DON'T HURT HER!" He shrieks.
Glory yanks the Lantern ring from the DM's hand and tosses it to Guy, then tackles Bea around the knees.
Ted is trying to scream, "Take them down, take them down!" but of course, nothing's coming out.
It ends up being far more of a fight than Ted ever anticipated. Of course, Guy doesn't want to attack Ice, and J'onn is trying to avoid Fire. Max is trying to avoid all of them, but they're all stuck in his office, which isn't that big and isn't breaking open the way normal office buildings do. They're ALL getting in each other's way. Hell, even the DM's unconscious body is getting in the way.
Also, there's the major problem at hand, which is: nobody wants to cause Tora or Ice any major damage, but they have no such compunction. They're attacking everyone in sight. And Guy isn't exactly shooting straight either, being too upset over Tora. Ted catches a green boxing glove to the stomach at some point, and Guy heads off the mute indignation with, "Hey, you got padding, you can take it!"
Oh, and the whole time, the Say & Spell is playing techno, which is somehow terribly inappropriate, because it is far too cheerful and manic for something like this. Ted's regretting putting it on loop for his distraction tactic.
For about ten minutes, everything in Ted's life is a chaos of fire and ice and office furniture and techno and, once, a collision with red, white, and blue, which makes Glory say, "pardon," before going on to clobber Bea in the stomach, with, "I'm sorry, madam, I never hit women, but..."
Somewhere in the mayhem, Guy gets thrown into Ice, and they both crash to the ground.
"Ice! Icy! It's me!"
Oh no, what a time for Guy to crack.
Ice blasts him with snow, but Guy deflects it with a shield.
"Stop it, Icy! Tora, stop! It's okay!"
Bea cracks Ted upside the head with an office chair, which makes an odd muffled whumping sound due to the execration. Ted staggers, slips on half-melted ice on the floor, and falls down against Guy and Ice.
Guy's face collides with Ice's, and for a moment, Guy looks shocked, and Ice reaches up to clobber him.
Then there's a ZAP and a CRRACK, and Ted hears a humming in his ears, he feels something bubble in his throat. He can feel the hairs on the back of his arms stand up as though hit with static electricity. Too late, he remembers what Zatanna said about physical danger and stress...
And then Ice says, "Guy?"
Guy replies, "Um."
Lucky for Guy, Bea blasts them both with fire, saving him from having to come up with something to say. They're too busy shielding.
Ted tries to scream, but no, apparently the crackling wasn't enough to break HIS execration. Which is too bad, because he wants to inform the rest of the JLI of how to break one.
He lucks out; J'onn hears his thoughts and says it for him. "Stress, danger, emotions!" He shouts. "Ted says that's what unravels the DM's magic."
"Don't hurt Bea!" Tora cries.
General Glory says, "Sorry, but--" and ducks a fireball.
Of all people, GUY comes up with an answer. "Kiss her!"
Nobody has the time to stare at him, but Ice shouts, "GUY!"
"It's kissing!" Guy shouts, tearing off his jacket, which is currently on fire. "I kissed you and you woke up, and you're the icy one, right? So you're the only one who can do it without getting burned! Do it!"
It's a shockingly intelligent thing for Guy to say, but it makes decent enough sense, so J'onn shouts, "Everyone, cover Ice!"
Fire has been in spontaneous combustion mode the entire time. Neither Ted nor J'onn can actually do anything to her, since they aren't fire proof, and Ted's short his BB gun. Technically, Glory isn't fireproof either, but he seems to be at least slightly protected by his World War Two powers of wholesomeness or something.
Ted and J'onn CAN distract, though, and that's exactly what they do. Ted starts throwing office furniture, and J'onn morphs into a blinding mist around Bea. Ice still can't get close enough until suddenly, despite not being hit, Bea staggers, her flames go out for a split second, and Tora grabs her and kisses her on the cheek.
Ted feels another ZAP, another CRRACK, and the tingling and bubbling sensation is even stronger this time, the tension is stronger--
Bea's hands stop flaming. "Tora?"
Tora beams and hugs her.
It seems a suiting way for a battle to end, at this time of year.
Glory hefts the DM by the collar with one hand. "This troubled young man shall be headed straight to prison," he declares.
J'onn nods. "You do that, and give Zatanna a call while we're at it." He surveys the room, which looks like it was hit by a hurricane but is miraculously still standing. Then he nods. "Justice League, we did well."
Guy clears his throat loud enough for passing birds to hear.
J'onn is too dignified to sigh, but he looks as though he's considering it. "Good job, Guy."
Guy smirks. "Yeah, I know, I'm a genius."
Max crawls out from under his desk. His hair is disheveled, his shirt looks like it's fresh from a horror movie, and it seems he's had a fresh nosebleed. He is the only person who looks poorly.
"You saved the day, Max," Tora says, and goes to hug him.
Max nods. "Well, you know..." he says weakly, and then passes out on Tora.
"Wuss," says Guy.
* * *
Considering the chaos and close quarters, there is remarkably little damage. Max's office, reinforced after that time Scott drove the jet into the building, has only rudimentary fire and water damage. The furniture is completely demolished, but that's about it.
Nobody has sustained any horrific injuries: a few burns, bruises, and Max getting woozy from blood loss. Tora and Bea seem no worse for the wear, except for lingering horror of having their minds controlled by an outside force. Glory calls Zatanna, who magics herself over, and she gives the League women a clean bill of magical health. She also promises to watch over the DM and make sure proper protective measures are taken. The DM, who has regained consciousness by this time and been enclosed in one of Guy's green bubbles, eyes Zatanna balefully, and says something about the pornification of the modern woman. He refuses to answer questions about his magic system.
Ted, unfortunately, is still execrated, which Zatanna verifies. However, he uses Tora's Say & Spell to explain the weird feelings he got when Tora and Bea's broke, finishing with, "Is it breaking?"
"Hmm," Zatanna says. "I'm not sure I'd say BREAKING, but it does sound like your execration was under strain. It might have been an area effect, combined with the stress." She crosses her arms and raises an eyebrow. "Didn't I tell you to stay home?"
Ted pokes at the Say & Spell, then holds it up. "I tried."
"Well... you don't seem to have come under any harm, far as I can tell, but then again, neither is the execration. It might be under stress, but there's no indication of it caving in the next few moments, though of course, I could be wrong."
Ted sighs with disappointment.
For a moment, Zatanna looks at him appraisingly, stroking her chin. Then she leans over and kisses him on the cheek.
Ted's so surprised he tries to speak, but of course, it's only air. Zatanna has her appraising look back.
Ted shakes his head. No bubbling, no burning, no electricity.
"Ah well. It was worth a shot. If it helps any, now that the DM is in custody, I can get a handle on his magic system, probably have some ideas in a few days. So it won't be long now; don't get discouraged."
Ted blinks, then gestures at his cheek, then his lips with a grin. She rolls her eyes and pats him on the cowl.
"Nice try, Ted. You're my friend, not my date. Go celebrate dodging death, you dork. Merry Christmas."
Ted makes melodramatic expressions of disappointment, which makes her laugh. Then he turns and shuffles off as though he will never get over the heartbreak.
* * *
Once Max regains consciousness, he sends Ted home. Ted is neither surprised nor unhappy about this; after a hostage situation, he's not in the mood to hang around the League much longer. Sure, he was asking for a disaster, but mind-control and fighting his own teammates tends to give him the creepy-crawlies.
As he leaves with the Say & Spell under his arm, (he's grown rather attached to it) he notices Ice chasing Guy down the hall. Guy's too agitated to try and pretend he's swaggering, not fleeing. He even has his gloved hands over his ears, as though at any moment, he plans to start going, "Lalalala, I'm not listening!"
Nobody's paying attention to Ted, so he stands back to watch the show.
"Guy Gardner, I know what you did!" Ice is shouting.
Guy's voice has hit the high-pitched whining range he gets when truly cornered. "It was an accident! Beetle pushed me! I didn't do nothing!"
"That didn't FEEL like an accident!"
"Whaddaya want from me, if ya want me in bed, you could just--"
"Guy Gardner, don't you try and bully me away this time, I know what that meant!"
"It didn't mean nothing! It was an accident!" By this point, Guy is turning in circles to try and avoid seeing Tora's face. Tora keeps orbiting him, like she's a odd satellite around Planet Guy.
Tora grabs him by the shoulders and forces him to stop moving. She speaks quietly, but it's quiet enough in the hall that Ted can hear it. "I love you."
He expects Guy to leer or come up with something appropriately boorish. Instead, his shoulders go slack. Ted can't see his face at the current angle, but he does hear what he says, which is even quieter than Tora's: "Don't say that."
"Say you like me, say you want me, just don't say that."
Tora pauses; her expression is sad. Then she reaches up and hugs him. Guy freezes for a moment, then hugs her back.
Ted feels like he's invading. So he takes advantage of his execration and slinks off in silence, feeling a slight pang. He still hasn't forgiven Guy for breaking his ribs that one time, but he feels oddly bad for him, like there's something important that he doesn't know and probably shouldn't.
Better to leave it between them.
* * *
Ted comes home. Ted sits on his couch.
He looks at his Nintendo. His computer, his arc welder, his whoopee cushions.
Ted gets off the couch. He picks up the Say & Spell and the phone.
Ted calls Booster.