Disclaimers and Useless/Useful Stuff to Know:
Don't own any of these characters. Never will. Wish I did. Major spoilers for "Countdown to Infinite Crisis". Good idea to read the comic first. Also, spoilers for the Question six-issue miniseries.
To note; the scene with Billy is primarily the work of SLWatson, and much thanks are ado to them for their talent.
Warning: The Pool is Contaminated
by Alba Aulbath
"Any news from Dibny?"
Nick Bounty winced a little from hearing Wendy ask that.
He was in his personal office at his apartment, sitting at his laptop. He hadn't expected her to come by, even though he'd given her the location of his home. Funny, he swore he locked the door...
"A few days ago," he admitted. "Said he didn't find a thing on them, but he'd keep looking into it."
Wendy lifted a brow. "You accept that?"
Nick snorted. "Hardly. Dibny's lying -- protecting them. But I think I know why."
"Oh? Did you find something out?"
Nodding, Nick swiveled his chair to completely face his partner. "Yeah. That woman I met with Murdock? Green-haired lady? I recognized her then. I figured out why, looking at some old files of mine. She's Beatriz DaCosta, also known as Fire. She was part of a few superhero teams. The Global Guardians, then the League, then the Superbuddies. She also used to have a website. I dunno what the heck she's doing out here, though. But I know the guy she claims to be marrying, too. Pretty good at hiding himself, though."
There was an amused smile on Wendy's face, but something in Nick didn't let him like it. "Who is he?"
"Vic Sage. Used to be a star reporter in Hub City and Chicago. Showed up in Gotham and Metropolis a few times. His real name's Charles Szasz, but he changed it when he got into stardom. Guess he went nuts after living in a place like Hub for so long. Place makes Bludhaven blush in shame."
"Ah, but can you tell me what a woman like Beatriz DaCosta is doing with a former celebrity pretending to be blind?" Wendy wondered; it was almost as if she was toying with Nick, and it made him scowl.
"Either she's got strange taste -- which wouldn't shock me; heroes seem attracted to the reporter types -- or she and Dibny are hiding a few metas for whatever reason. Never figured Vic Sage as a metahuman, though."
"What do you think of metas, Mr. Bounty?"
Nick raised a brow. "Wha...?"
Her lips pressed into a firm, thin line. "Your opinion on metas."
"You got good guys and bad guys, pretty much like humans. I can't complain, unless they start nailing dead rodents on innocent people's doors," Nick remarked. "Why?"
There was a darker look on Wendy's face, and she said softly, "I think you'd better come with me."
There was a gun aimed at his face, and Wendy Crown was holding it. "You will come with me, or you suffer the fate of one of your beloved metahumans."
Night brought ambivalence.
It was hard to say what emotions were on the top of the situation. On one part, there was anxiety -- after all, it wasn't every day that someone told the JLA, in no uncertain terms, to shove it; though it'd occurred some weeks ago, as it was currently December 22nd. At any rate, it was easy to assume that they may decide to press the issue to the breaking point, and equally easy to assume that they may take the not-so-subtle hint and let it go.
On the other hand, there was pride -- they did, afterall, tell the JLA to shove it. It was bold and decisive and it felt good, even if it did open up a potential can of worms. It wasn't helping much that they, now, also had Ralph close by. Though he was hardly as bitter as the rest of them, he still had their viewpoint and was prepared to defend them better than he would the JLA. He just didn't share their anger.
It was late, and the house was relatively quiet. Ralph was still at his hotel room (though he said he'd come by during the evening hours), and Bea was in the shower, going onto her second hour in the bathroom. Guy was racked out upstairs, no doubt nursing a badly bruised jaw -- earlier in the evening, Guy and Vic exchanged some unpleasant words with one another; Guy mentioned that Vic was more tolerable as a woman, and Vic shared his feelings with a fist. Ted was somewhere upstairs, probably reading, and because Vic was walking his spider around the house, probably reading behind a locked door.
And Booster was sitting on the couch, trying hard not to think about anything... not about death or life or Dr. Fate or the JLA or Ralph or Tora or Michelle or Alison. He didn't want to think anymore. He just wanted to zone out in front of the TV, watching something completely mindless, not thinking.
TV, by the nature of being TV, was good for mindlessness. And as late as it was getting, Cinemax might have something... interesting on.
He was so absorbed in being mindless that he didn't hear the first knock. The second one, however, percolated into his head; by the third he put it all together and eyed the door. The thought didn't fail to cross his mind that he could look out and see the whole JLA standing out there, ready to... to... do something.
Making his way to the door, cautiously, he turned the porch light on and tried to see out the peephole... didn't have much luck there. He debated on calling the others down, and decided against it -- if it was anyone there to cause trouble, he doubted that a knock would have been in order. It might be that crazy detective, but...
He finally decided to be bold and decisive again and worked his way down the innumerable locks, before cracking the door open and peeking out.
It wasn't the JLA, or Checkmate, or the crazy detective. It was... a kid?
The boy looked back, one eyebrow going up as he readjusted the grip he had on the box under his arm. He blinked once, twice, then asked, "Booster? What'd you do to your hair?"
Booster blinked himself a few times, perplexed as he opened the door a little wider. The kid looked familiar somehow; black hair, eyes somewhere between blue and gray, around sixteen or so -- standing on that edge between boyhood and manhood. "I... dyed it," he answered, trying to place the kid. One of the Titans? Someone's child?
"I'm sorry it's so late. I would've dropped this stuff off earlier, but I had to finish up a book report." The kid shivered a little, shoving his free hand into his White Sox jacket. "Mind if I come in?"
"No, I don't." Who the heck was he! Not wanting to look like an idiot by not remembering, Booster stepped aside and closed the door behind them, temporarily forgetting about the locks.
The kid moved over and set the box on the coffee table with a grin, talking as he opened it, "I didn't know what kinda movies you guys had, so I brought some DVDs over, and some music. You know, odds and ends? I really wanted to come by sooner, but things have been..." He shook his head, pulling out the movies and CDs and stacking them. "...hectic."
"Yeah." He'd been watching the whole time, but he finally gave up. Even though the kid looked familiar, he couldn't figure it out. "...who are you?"
The boy looked over at him and stood up straight, amusement stealing across his face. "Geez, I thought everyone..." He chuckled, shaking his head again. "I'll give you a hint. We used to be team-mates, a long time ago. And you know my sister." And then he went back to unpacking the box.
Again, this left Booster trying to think. Teammate, long time ago... well, unless some weird time distortion thingy happened, that was almost impossible. And his sister? When the boy unpacked three whole packages of Oreos, though, Booster took a guess, "Captain Marvel?"
"About half the time," the kid answered, with yet another grin. "Billy Batson, the other half."
"No." Booster couldn't believe that. First, Marvel was an adult. Second, that would have made this kid what, ten? when they served together. And third... well, the first and second reasons were good enough! Maybe it was J'onn, shapeshifting... crap, now he was being as paranoid as Bats.
"No. No way."
"Awww, geez, Booster... do I have to prove it? I don't want to have to prove it. It'd be disruptive." Billy looked almost exasperated, though it seemed like he was taking it in relatively good humor.
"I think it'd be a good idea."
A shrug. "Don't say I didn't warn you." He whispered something...
...and all hell broke loose.
There was the near deafening boom of thunder and the brilliant flash of light. Within moments, everyone was downstairs, probably expecting the battle of the century to be taking place in their livingroom. Captain Marvel crossed his arms, wearing that expression of patient amusement. "I did warn him."
Booster looked over the top of the couch (which he had dove behind) in time to see Guy snarl, "Who invited you?" and Beatriz tying her bathrobe, and Ted eye the superhero a little warily as the last of the white and gold smoke dissolved into nothingness. Vic looked the least surprised... which, of course, was no surprise.
"I thought I would bring some things by." Marvel turned his attention to Ted, and smiled... a real smile, relieved and warm. "You have no idea how glad I am you're okay. They gave me the news while I was broadcasting and they had to pull me off the mike and have someone else read it."
Ted smiled back, but it faded after a moment, though it didn't vanish. "How'd you find us?"
Marvel flicked a glance to Vic, who was perching his spider on his shoulder. "We have a wizard in common." Then back to Ted again. "I don't know much about what's going on, but I wanted to come by anyway."
"Yeah, right. Probably scouting for the JLA," Guy muttered.
"Just ignore him. He's already suckerpunched today -- maybe twice," Booster said, finally leaving his hiding place and dropping on the couch.
"Third time's a charm," the Captain answered, and it was hard to tell if he was joking or serious. He finally acknowledged Bea with a half-wave, then sat down on the arm of the couch. "Does anyone want to fill me in? Wait... I probably don't want to know any more."
Vic started to answer, but a glance from Ted stopped him, and the Blue Beetle fielded the question. "Why, what do you know?"
Marvel raised an eyebrow, no doubt knowing perfectly well that he was being prodded for information that he didn't have to begin with, but he answered without hesitation. "That you were reported dead, that everyone's being very tightlipped about what happened, and that the Wizard is worried."
Again with the Wizard. Booster didn't speak up, but he looked between Vic and Marvel, then decided he just wanted to go back to Plan A and not think anymore.
"You probably don't wanna know, then," Beetle answered, honestly, finally relaxing now that it was obvious that World War Three wasn't going to take place.
"This is bull." Guy shook his head, glaring darts at the Captain. "You're as bad as Superman. Why are you here, anyway? Make us see the error of our ways?"
"Guy..." Ted warned, but it was a hair too late. Captain Marvel stood, a solid mixture of hurt and anger crossing his face.
"Why am I here?" He looked at each of them, eyes darkening. "Fire... did you know you were just an air-headed, flirty bimbo model? And Booster... you were just an idiot out for yourself. And Guy, you were the moron who'd never be as good as Hal Jordan, not to mention that you used to have a haircut that an eight-year-old would be embarrassed about. And Beetle... the entrepreneur with some nifty gadgets, nothing special."
As three of the four people just mentioned bristled, about ready to wage war, Ted spoke with a wry half-smile, "And you were just the Superman knockoff with a magic gimmick, too naive to take seriously."
"Yeah," Marvel answered, as the storm passed and he answered with his own rueful grin. "Exactly." He shot Guy a look, challenging, "Does that answer your question?"
To his credit, Guy didn't say anything else, besides, "I'm gonna go get some ice," as he stalked to the kitchen.
"So, what'd you bring?" Bea asked, nodding towards the box.
"DVDs, CDs, Oreos, theater-style popcorn..." Marvel shrugged. "The essentials."
"Plan on staying?" Ted moved over to look through the pile of movies, feeling... well, pretty good, actually. Though he was still wondering about the Wizard comments.
"No, I have to get back home. Speaking of... might wanna cover your eyes or ears, whichever one you think is more important."
Booster was the only one who listened, though he still heard the hard crack of thunder and the bright light still flashed right through his eyelids. But at least this time he didn't dive behind the couch.
Billy pulled a card out of his jacket pocket before the last of the magic smoke faded, and offered it over to Ted, who was blinking the worst of the spots out of his vision. "If you ever need me... call. My home number's on the back, and Mary's number's on there too."
Ted finished rubbing his eyes and took the card, nodding, firmly deciding not to wonder what the neighbors thought about the two lightning strikes. "Thanks. I appreciate it."
"Me too," the boy answered, a little cryptically, turning and heading for the door.
Blue Beetle got that one, too... maybe he'd been around Vic a little too long. "Hey, Bill?"
Halfway out the door, Billy turned back, "Yeah, Beetle?"
"We were proud of you, too."
The smile he got in answer was one of the brightest he'd seen in a very long time. And then the kid was gone.
Wendy had led him away towards the river -- it was high and cold with ice and frost on its banks -- and there appeared to be several armed men waiting for her as well. They all had the same mark. A knight from chess.
Where'd he seen that before?
"Nicholas Bounty," Wendy said lowly. "You have helped lead me to certain individuals we've been tracking for months now. They are a variety of superheroes you may or may not be familiar with. We were originally after the Question -- you know as Vic Sage or Matt Murdock -- and Booster Gold -- real name Michael Jon Carter, currently known as Scott Summers. But it also appears other people have joined them, one of them still unknown to us. At any rate, you have aided in our search and we will be preparing to detain these rebel metahumans."
"Who the hell are you people?" Nick grumbled.
Wendy smirked softly. "We are Checkmate. You might be somewhat familiar with the name. And I am the White Queen."
"That sounds painfully ironic."
"We're offering you the chance to join us, Bounty. Don't make a stupid decision."
This couldn't bode well, Nick decided. "What the heck do you want from a two-bit superhero who sells sunglasses, and a crazy man from Hub City?"
"They have information. Far too much. It was the intention behind our Black King to be rid of all metas, and make promise for the human race's future."
"Don't they save our butts pretty much everyday?"
"You might also consider the fact that the Justice League and Justice Society and several other teams are literally armies. If they went renegade, like so many have gotten close to doing, we'd be in trouble. Big trouble." Wendy growled softly. "You know how dangerous even the Question can be. You felt it firsthand."
That was true, but... "He's also known for being a nutcase. Not a good enough reason to wipe out all capes and cowls."
"You won't side with us?"
Nick smirked. "I'll eat my shoes first."
Sighing softly, Wendy murmured, "Very well."
Nick gritted for whatever would come next.
Three shots into his back from where she stood, all three going through his body. Into a lung and-- hell if he knew what else. Falling forward, a pair of hands caught him by the shoulders.
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Bounty."
There was a sharp coldness as he was thrown into the river, pounding against him as his fingers feebly clawed for purchase, finding none. He coughed water and blood and he knew he was probably going to drown, and he at least felt okay with that fact; he'd done something pretty stupid, after all.
Something grabbed onto his arm and pulled him onto the bank.
Staring up blankly as he gagged for air, it was a dark-haired woman.
That was all he knew before he passed out.
It was a relatively early morning; ten o' clock, not a bad time to get up after a long night of movies, arguments, and keeping Vic and Guy from getting into a fight. Ted knew he should have felt lucky that they hadn't shattered anything yet, aside from Vic's obsession with breaking windows.
Yawning, he went through the routine of making toast with a bowl of cereal. Approaching the fridge for milk, he paused, a bit surprised to come upon a note nailed into the door.
His first instinct was to shout at Vic for not using a magnet, but his eyes trailed over what the note said. Then, he frowned deeply, muttering softly, "What...?"
Ralph and I will be gone for the entire day until tomorrow evening. Please don't worry.
Someone who isn't Guy please look after Q-Spider.
What the hell?
Ted frowned. Where did they run off to?
Looking up, he saw the Eye glaring down at him, the eye in the sky.
"Again," he mumbled, exasperated, holding his lack of face into his hands. "What is this...? Every night, every time..."
"You have to listen to me."
Instinctively, the Question pulled away, staring up. "Don't... Don't touch me. Don't..."
"Why won't you LISTEN to me?"
"Everytime... everytime, it hurts, I can feel it -- but I can't retain it..."
"You... you can see what happened?"
The Question lowered his head. "...Yes. ... But I can barely remember it. Something split your mind apart?"
"Someone, more like."
"Someone..." He pondered.
He came to the conclusion. Ever since he tried to take the Question's body--
"Psychopomp," and his eyes would have widened if he had any. "But why you?"
"Well... he was looking for YOU. And you were never exactly easy to get information on."
"...Who are you?" The Question stood to try to get a better look, but it was too dim.
"Thought you'd know by now. I'm C'mon, Vic we have to go."
Feeling his shoulder shake a few times, Vic lifted his head to look up at Ralph. Sighing softly, he rubbed his face a bit. "...Fell asleep."
"You probably needed it; you always look so tired." Stretching his limbs up to grab their bags, Ralph motioned with his head. "Anyway, plane ride's over."
"Ralph..." Vic hesitated for a moment, then frowned. "How long did you know Maxwell?"
"Lord?" At Vic's nod, Ralph thought for a moment. "Few years. Eight now, I think. ...Still surprised what he did, but... I was surprised at what Jean was capable of, too."
Standing up, Vic accepted a bag. "So it seems odd to you that he'd suddenly act like this."
"Well, yeah." The Elongated Man led the way out of the plane. "He wasn't exactly a nice guy, but he wasn't evil either. You know? Even if he was part of Checkmate all this time, I know he was wrong when he said he kept the League 'inactive'. Sure, we were cracking jokes all the time then, but that doesn't mean we were incapable." He glanced over his shoulder to Vic, grinning a little. "But I think you know that."
Nodding in return and in agreement, Vic murmured, "Not enough value optimism, even if not all of us are capable of it."
Ralph looked at him quietly, but made no remark. "Well, let's get going..."
They continued out of the airport.
"Ted, it's not like they went out to blow something up," Beatriz said with a soft sigh, leaning against the armrest of the couch.
"Oh, no you don't!" Ted pointed wildly at her. "Last time he skipped out with someone, it was with YOU, and he came back as a girl because he peeved off Dr. Fate!"
"Which isn't too hard, you know," Booster pointed out. "Remember that magic paperweight?"
"Which was also YOUR fault."
"My point still stands!"
Bea held up her hand to intervene. "Look on the bright side, Ted. He's with Ralph."
"Who is NOT exactly 'Mr. Responsibility'," Ted muttered.
"Oh, and I know for sure that you're the shining example." The green-haired woman rolled her eyes. "It's not as if Ralph is going to endorse Vic in acts of violence, wherever they are."
"I suppose it could be worse," Ted admitted, folding his arms and sinking a little further into the couch.
"There you go. Be a little more positive."
"He could be with YOU."
Beatriz narrowed her eyes, looking ready to burst into flames.
"Or he could be with Guy," Booster added hastily, in hopes that Beatriz would decide not to fry them; he was sure that the house received enough damage from their shenanigans as it was.
"Now that's just unlikely, but way more destructive than I ever want to imagine," Ted responded.
Folding her arms, Beatriz kept her gaze steadfast on Ted, frowning at him. "You know, is it just me... or has being inside for the past few months been making you incredibly cynical and bitter?"
"Getting shot and killed might have something to do with it."
"Okay; perfectly good reason to be upset. But you've hardly taken a step outside. Hell, Vic goes outside more than YOU do."
Ted squinted at her. "There's a point to this, right?"
Sighing, Fire turned her head to the other man. "Booster, get Guy. All of us? Are going out."
Though he looked a little concerned -- after all, putting all of them into a public place was going to sound disasterous -- Booster shrugged and got up to fetch Guy.
Ted seemed to also think similarly that chaos was around the corner. "And doing WHAT? And where? Why now?"
Beatriz pressed her lips into a flat line. "Shopping. Now. Don't tell me you've done all your Christmas shopping."
"You don't know that," Ted responded, folding his arms.
"You haven't gone out."
"I have my ways! Amazon dot com!"
Beatriz peered at him. "Up. Now. Get your shoes. We're going."
What remained of the Kord household prior to the Blue Beetle's death wasn't much. It was blackened and crisp, a skeleton of it leftover, looking almost... haunted.
Bruce Wayne, as both detectives found, had bought the land shortly after the League found out that Ted Kord had been killed. It remained untouched; what little stood was burned and covered with soot and snow.
Ralph stood just outside of the remains, frowning a little. "So what are you looking for?"
"Anything whole. Anything worthwhile." Vic took off his fedora placing it atop the snow covered, neglected mailbox. "Personal objects, if possible."
Both men held bags, open and prepared to take burnt remains whole enough leftover amongst the debris. While Ralph was stretching himself over the area, to search in the mess; Vic knelt down and carefully sorted, bit by bit.
They had the intentions of stopping by Booster's apartment first, in hope; he didn't have any objects leftover from his childhood, obviously. But there were still some irreplacable things. Photographs, old gifts from friends during this time period -- it was a fruitless effort, though, they'd soon learned. It was already being reconstructed, and anything left was dumped.
Vic had been angry. Ralph had been sympathetic. They couldn't do anything then.
But there they were, at least, at the remains of what had once been Beetle's home.
Carefully, Ralph picked up a photograph, glass broken off, picture dirty and burnt around the edges, but it had been saved by its framing. Turning his head, he watched for a moment as Vic studied what had once probably been a gadget of Ted's, beetle in design and melted and useless.
"Do you know what happened here, exactly?" Ralph asked curiously. "I know bombs went off at Booster's, but..."
Turning his head up to stare up at the sky, suddenly looking somehow even more tired than usual, Vic spoke softly, "Eye in the sky."
"Eye in the..." The Elongated Man looked nothing short of confused, staring up where the Human Enigma was looking.
"A satellite. Batman created it, Checkmate took it. Don't really know many details..."
Ralph felt that something was being left out. Tilting his head, he asked, "What else?"
"I dream about it. A lot. That much, I'm aware of. I can't retain much what I dream of, but..." A pause, as Vic scowled. "I remember it staring at me," he added quietly; his tone hinted that it was most discomforting.
In spite of being some feet away, Ralph still stretched a hand over to gently place to the Human Enigma's shoulder. "It's just a dream, right? I mean, come on. I had a dream once where Batman was in an Easter Bunny suit with J'onn and Superman singing opera in the background."
Vic looked at him wryly; the Elongated Man suspected that was as close as he was going to get to a smile.
"I don't think it's a normal dream," Vic responded quietly.
"I figured." Ralph took his hand back, returning to gathering remains. "You always look really tired. You get, what, maybe two hours of sleep every night? If even."
Not saying a word, Vic closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't like thinking about it."
Genuinely curious -- Ralph would possibly blame his detective's instinct for it -- he stretched his neck out curiously to look at him. "How come?"
Eyes staying closed and frowning, Vic mumbled, "I get... scared."
"It's okay to be scared."
Vic's eyes opened as he lifted his head to stare at Ralph, scowling, obviously disagreeing.
"Seriously. Everyone gets scared all the time; we don't usually admit to it, but we get freaked out. Even Batman does."
"I haven't been scared... in awhile." Vic glanced aside, away from Ralph. "...I haven't recognized a lot of things until Ted came to me for help."
"Then, don't y'think it's about time you recognized your own humanity?" Ralph suggested, with a smile to match his optimism.
It was a difficult thing to even admit to, in the kind of world they lived in; humanity. To a point, it was Vic's argument based on groups like the Justice League that they were lacking in humanity, which was becoming their failure. It was unlikely that anyone else was going to agree on that extreme, but... disconnecting oneself from humanity made it pointless to fight for humanity.
But, he too had lost that. And it was hypocrisy he also loathed.
Vic shook his head. "...Let's finish here, okay?"
It was about twenty minutes of arguing before any of them were even able to reach the mall, quite honestly. Guy didn't want to be anywhere close to the Volkswagon beetle, and even less wanted to be inside of it; it was cramped and it meant Being Too Close to everyone else. It had led to Booster suggesting that Guy had a fear of cooties, thus sprung up an argument before Booster had turned to Ted and said,
"MOOOOOM, Guy's picking on me!"
Ted was very close to saying that they should just fly to the mall, but he valued their safety quite a bit.
Eventually, it had come down to Beatriz bursting into flames and telling them to get the hell into the car. While Beetle and Booster scurried to obey, Ted was forced to drag and throw Guy into the car to make him comply; he hadn't been very impressed by angry women on fire, considering he, unlike many, had seen it far too often. That, and he was Guy Gardner, Rambo with a ring. And though Ted did not think it was all that wise to let Fire drive, he wasn't about to argue the point. He didn't want her to set the car on fire.
Once they were actually inside the mall, Ted felt completely uncomfortable, surrounded by mobs of people doing last minute shopping for Christmas gifts. Once upon a time, groups and crowds hadn't bothered him in the least, and it was even a thing he could have looked forward to.
Maybe Ted had gotten a little panicky since this whole mess.
Just a little panicky.
"This was a bad idea," he decided, grumbling.
Beatriz, however, was not about to agree. "Ted, you've been cooped up in that house for months. You needed to step out for awhile."
"Yeah, yeah. I get it!" Letting out an aggravated sigh, Ted threw his hands up into the air.
"And don't you even think about sneaking off!"
Rolling his eyes, Booster leaned over to Ted, muttering, "And I thought YOU were the mom."
Ted shot his best friend a glare in silence.
Fifteen minutes into walking through the hideously crowded mall, and already one of them had slipped off; Guy, somewhere along the way, had escaped the clutches of Beatriz. Displeased with this and positive that Guy was going to harass about thirty people within ten seconds, she hurried off to find him.
This left with two men completely uninterested in all manners of looking for gifts, especially in such a populated place. Ted sighed, holding his head and trying his best to ignore his surroundings, just as Booster caught his arm for attention. Lifting his head, Ted scowled and asked, "What?"
Red in the face, as though holding back a breath of air, Booster pointed at a toy shop. In a display window, all lined up, were Black Canary action figures.
Specifically, the ones designed were of her outfit back in the League days when both Booster Gold and Blue Beetle were part of it.
"You know, I think I found the perfect gifts for Ollie and Dinah," Ted mused, doing well not to burst out cackling in public. "Wait here, Booster."
As soon as his friend left for the toy store, Booster burst out laughing, leaning against the wall and holding his stomach. It was almost odd to laugh; difficult, even. Though telling jokes and teasing one another was fairly simple, actually finding something enjoyable had been... very, very complex for the past several months for him.
Probably the others, as well.
Come to think of it, he never once heard Vic laugh at anything. Rarely, even a smile. It was depressing.
"Um... Mr. Summers?"
Alert, Booster turned his head and stared down at the source of the voice; Alison, his coworker, waved cheerfully to him.
"Hey, I toldja to just call me Scott, okay? What's up, Ally?"
The girl's face colored scarlet, obviously embarrassed; still, she smiled brightly to him. "Well... um! I remember... you said... you said you're from Gotham, right?"
Booster nodded. "Yeah?"
"Do you... do you miss it?"
That was more difficult to say. Booster didn't regret the time period he was in, but at times... he did think of his family, or lack thereof in these times. Still, the honest answer--
"Sometimes," he said more quietly.
Somehow, this pleased Alison, which clashed with her cheerful disposition. Not immediately understanding why she'd be so happy about him missing his hometown, she dug into her coat before presenting a wrapped gift to Booster.
"I was gonna give it to you after our day off, but since yer here and I probably won't see you during Christmas -- um, Merry Christmas! -- I thought maybe I'll give it to you now since it's before the holiday and uh, gosh I'm just rambling." Once again embarrassed, Alison grinned sheepishly at Booster. "Anyway, I gotta go home now! Merry Christmas, Mr. Sum-- Scott!"
As the girl practically skipped away, Booster was alarmed at the gift.
He didn't get her a darned thing, now that he thought about it. It wasn't as though he was heartless or brushing off the girl; it just didn't occur to him to get his co-worker anything, especially since he didn't expect to remain a permenant resident of Philadelphia.
Carefully unwrapping it, he tried not to plant the palm of his hand to his face.
It was a snowglobe of Gotham City. To be more precise, it looked rather cartoonish, if only because of its fashion was an attempt to look somewhat more sci-fi and advanced. In Booster's eyes, it was a humorous attempt.
But the fact that what with Alison's basic pay and being troubled by something constantly -- it concerned him. Why would she spend money on him?
Booster sighed and set the snowglobe back into its box, waiting for Ted.
"What was she like?"
Deep into dusk and weaving into dawn, the questionable man and far more optimistic companion recognized just how damned cold it was, and moreso by laying into the snow and staring up into the sky where stars still glittered and the sun was prepared to lay claim again.
"You met her, didn't you? At Ollie's--"
"It doesn't count. I want you to tell me."
People said many things. People said that Ralph Dibny became sappy on the subject of his wife, may she rest in peace; it was only truth, but the second truth was the emotion behind words. Emotion was hard to interpret correctly. Most people couldn't even interpret their own emotion and determine why something exactly upset them, or why there was a mood swing.
Vic Sage had a very deductive mind, much like Ralph -- but it was his realization that he lacked the kind of emotional drive for awhile. He'd become almost robotic, much as he blamed the League for their diminishing humanity and soul. He could recognize emotion. He couldn't quite find his own, beyond anger and frustration. In a way, Ted requesting his aid was possibly a catalyst for good things indeed.
"What's Hub City like?"
Vic knew not many in tights and masks had ever been to Hub, and reasonably so. Essentially, it had taken some convincing to keep Blue Beetle away from it, when he had been far too determined to save it. Deep in his mind, much as he tried, Vic knew he couldn't ever save Hub City. Throughout his years of hard work and frustration, no good came of it. It was a city of decay and that was all one needed to know.
That much, he conveyed in his words.
He didn't quite recognize the reasoning for Ralph's grin until the detective spoke.
"It's okay to look out for people, but you're not going to get anywhere if you don't ask for some help sometimes. Solitude only gets you so far, y'know?"
It was a depressing truth; Vic had once been reliant on a friend, but by the time of his passing, it was solo work. Though Batman kept the company of sidekicks and an elderly butler, he was still terribly alone by his own decisions. It'd only been recently that Ralph had been thrown into being by himself, and it was beginning to bear its weight onto him.
A gathering of friends, new and old, was undeniably a benefit for all of them. A distance kept them vulnerable.
"That's what makes us different from a League."
Ralph laughed. "People usually call it a 'family'."
Somewhere, deep in his mind, Vic could hear it.
It's dysfunctional, but that's part of the fun.
It wasn't a voice of his own, but Vic was inclined to agree.
"Now, see? That wasn't so bad," Beatriz told them firmly, taking the driver's side of the car.
Unfortunately, her companions hardly seemed to agree, the Blue Beetle particularly. "It was cramped with people doing last minute shopping and screaming children and--" Ted began grumble.
Over her shoulder, Bea shot him a look.
"Which I mean to say, of course, I had a lovely time," Ted added with a sigh, rather reluctantly.
Though Booster was inclined to agree for the sake of remaining uncharred by Beatriz's wrath, he preferred to say little at all. He still felt unsettled from the gift he received from Alison, turning the box in his hands as he tried not to think about it.
"Whaddaya got there, Gold?" Guy peered over the seat.
Booster instinctively ducked down, grumbling, "Nothing."
"What? A gift for Bugbutt?"
"No, someone gave it to me."
"Hey!" Guy whirled his head to look at Ted. "Do you know your boyfriend's cheating on you?"
While Ted sputtered, Booster snapped, "Shut UP, Guy!"
Beatriz gripped furiously on the steering wheel. "ALL of you shut up!"
"I knew this was a bad idea!" Ted complained, then paused. "...Does anyone else hear that?"
All heads turned to the Blue Beetle, while Guy expressed his confusion with a raised brow and saying, "What?"
"That clicking noise. What--?"
Unfortunately, Ted was cut off abruptly by their car exploding into a burst of flames that was not, indeed, caused by Beatriz.
This isn't right at all.
It was as if his more intense dreams opened a new door. There was something different inside of him, and it was difficult to tell what it was. Vic just hadn't been able to define it, not since Psychopomp invaded his mind. It was as if...
As if there was another person in his head.
They'd returned from their intentions and hailed a taxi. Vic quietly followed Ralph into the car, leaning his forehead against the window.
It's been quiet. And that Bounty guy hasn't followed you for awhile.
Vic wondered -- maybe it was just his paranoia. Everyone always said he was crazy. Maybe they'd been right.
Only a little bit.
Hey. You're gonna help me, right?
Vic closed his eyes.
I don't know exactly why you're so angry. But you've got to. Something's ... just wrong.
"Something always is," Vic mumbled quietly.
Ralph glanced to his companion, confused; however, the Human Enigma simply shook his head.
Once they stepped out of the taxi, it drove off down the street. Vic turned his head, looking at the driveway. It lacked the familiar Volkswagon Beetle. He didn't need to say anything; Ralph noticed the same, stopping behind the Question.
"Where the hell could they be? It's..." Ralph squinted tiredly at his watch. "Three? Three o'clock in the morning."
"Let me... See."
Vic crouched down, placing his bare hand to the pavement as he stared intently. The tracks were faint and hours old. No amount of Christmas shopping would explain their disappearance. Philadelphia, once crowned city, where would they--?
You're going to help me, right?
He twitched a little, then whispered softly, "I wouldn't know how. I don't know you."
I don't know you. But we have people in common.
Vic shook his head, holding it. "They're not here," he announced, a little louder for Ralph. "They left awhile ago. ... Didn't come back. Don't know why."
Both detectives turned their head sharply to the new voice; it was a woman, with short dark hair.
Glaringly familiar to Vic, if only due to memories touched to him by Ted's death.
No amount of description of absolute loathing, utter disgust in Vic's tone could convey his anger towards her as he said, "You."
However, Ralph remained confused. "Who?"
The woman sighed softly, looking reluctant. "My name is Sasha. And neither of you are safe here. And neither are your friends."
"Where! Where are they?" Vic snapped at her.
"What have you done!"
Ralph lightly rested his hand to Vic's shoulder, to silence him only briefly. "Sasha? What's going on?"
"She's one of them," Vic muttered angrily. "One of Checkmate's dogs."
I resent that.
Sasha flinched, but nodded. "Your friends aren't coming back here. None of them. ...I made sure of that."
Under his hand, Ralph felt Vic tremble in fury. He could understand. He could, but. "You didn't..." Ralph's heart sunk. Surely, she didn't just kill them...?
The Question moved; he shoved Sasha aside, hurrying into the house with an infuriated scream that was calling out for any of them, any name, hoping for a reply. Standing back up from being pushed away, Sasha's eyes widened and she whirled around.
"Victor! Not in there!" Sasha yelled for him.
"What--?" Ralph barely began.
Much like a particular Volkswagon Beetle, the house erupted into flames.