Scene 1 – Eight Months Ago
Interior High Stakes Bar, Evening
Abe stared at the Magnificent Maxwell, matching gazes, refusing to back down. He wouldn’t lose this time, not again.
Max smirked. “Scared, Abe?”
“Not even a little,” he said, matching the magician smirk for smirk. “Let’s do this.”
They simultaneously picked up their glasses and downed them.
“How long has this been going on?” I asked, having only just arrived.
“Hey Miriam,” Ben said with a sigh. “It’s been almost ten minutes. They just keep staring each other down and flirting with each other between the drinks, it’s kind of nauseating.”
“Who got them started?”
Ben pointed at Emilia. She shrugged, clearly unrepentant. “Max downed his whole beer after he sat down, and I asked if they broke up because Abe couldn’t keep up with his drinking. Then…” She laughed, the statuesque woman’s voice like silver bells tinkling. “Ben may find it nauseating, but I think it’s adorable.”
“I think it’s great that they’re still friends even after breaking up,” commented Allesandra from where she sat in her girlfriend’s lap. She smiled up at me. “How are you, Miri?”
“You think everything is great,” I teased her as I took a seat. “I’m doing well, thanks for asking. How about you two?”
“I’m great!” came the immediate response, and everyone laughed. Except for Max and Abe, of course, who were still engrossed in what passed for a drinking contest between the two competitive men.
“And you, Maria?”
Maria, simply shrugged. She was a lot quieter than Essa, usually speaking up only to offer the occasional snarky comment.
I couldn’t help but smile, seeing all my friends gathered together. It was an odd little circle, considering that half of them were supervillains and the other half were superheroes, and she knew that Director Shepard had never understood it – on the other end of things, Essa often complained about other villains who didn’t get it either.
But it was good to have contacts on the other side, as I always said in defense. Not only was it possible to pick up useful information from them, it helped keep things less lethal when they had to come to blows.
Besides, I had known Essa since college, and I wasn’t going to lose the friendship of a ray of sunshine like her just because she broke the law on a regular basis. And hey, I had gotten into the hero business to help people, not to enforce the law, and it was undeniable that things had gotten better for sex workers in New Venice since the Crows had taken over the entire market and taken strict measures to ensure their safety. Not to mention how much regulation they’d brought to gambling houses.
“Do you think they know that they’re both cheating?” I quietly asked Maria.
The slim woman nodded. “I think that’s half the point,” she murmured. “They should really just get back together again, we all know they want to.”
“Oh no they shouldn’t!” Emilia objected. “You know I have my eye on…” she trailed off, glancing between the two men as they chugged yet another set of glasses, and bit her lip. “On one of them, at least. I don’t really care which.”
“Why not both?” Essa suggested.
The shape-shifting heroine smiled. “You might have the right idea there…”
Scene 2 – Two Months Ago
Bellini Archives, Late Evening
I was inconspicuously clad in simply a hoodie and sweatpants tonight, and for once I wasn’t wearing the usual facial glamour that showed my true beauty to the world, instead reluctantly showing the bland face that I was born with. No one would associate the average-looking man hiding his shape with the glory that was The Magnificent Maxwell.
It wasn’t something I liked doing – I normally kept up the glamour even when I was in civilian guise, and I had nothing to be ashamed of when it came to my body. But tonight I was trying to be stealthy. You might think that stealth goes against my nature as a magician, but you’d be wrong. After all, slight of hand is the cornerstone of everything we do – and that’s what tonight was all about.
I had hired an old friend of mine from my stage days to pose as me for the night, applying the glamour to him instead of me and lending him one of my suits so that he was indistinguishable from me. Dave was currently performing his usual act downtown, very visibly. The MLED would be bound to have their eyes on him, worrying about what I was intending, and wouldn’t be paying attention to the Archives at all. Classic misdirection.
It would most likely reveal that I had command of some illusion magic as well as the dimensional pockets I was known to use, but in truth it wasn’t much of a loss. The only illusion spell I knew was the one which produced my true appearance, and I hadn’t yet been lucky enough to have come across texts on further illusory magic. The dimensional pockets I tapped into came much more easily to me – in fact, I was on the trail of how to add kinetic energy to objects when I summoned them back into the world, and I had high hopes that that discovery could lead in the direction of manipulating kinetic energy without pulling things into a pocket dimension. If I could do that, I would have nothing to worry about from my stupidly handsome boyfriend –
But I digress.
I was inconspicuously clad as I approached the Archives. They were closed at this time, but the front windows were glass, which meant that the lock was no obstacle to me despite counting as part of the building to my dimensional magic and thus being out of the mass range of my pockets.
For now. I was working on it – the limitation that kept me from pocketing only parts of objects was a stubborn one, and I had made no progress yet on breaking it. I was sure I would at some point, but so far it had been far easier to improve the range of mass that I could store. In the last year alone I had gone from being able to pocket anything less than a metric ton, to up to two and a half tons at once, with my total mass limit across all pockets being the same, and I saw no reason to expect the improvement not to continue.
In any case, it was good that the windows were glass. I could have picked the lock, obviously, but while my lockpicking skill was excellent, as all my abilities were, it was perhaps a little less excellent. And besides, there could be an alarm on it. But since the windows were glass, I could simply peer through and teleport inside.
Well, it’s not teleportation, exactly – I open a dimensional pocket where I’m standing while opening it where I’m looking, and am immediately spit out on the other end. Proper teleportation wouldn’t require me to see the target, would be instantaneous instead of taking about a second, and would be able to cover any distance instead of being limited to the range that I can open pockets, which is still only about 45 feet. My range is improving, of course, but it’s good enough for theater.
I found myself inside, and with a sigh of relief, I pocketed my current outfit while simultaneously releasing my suit, and was dressed as I should be. I took a deep breath in preparation for the illusion – as I said, it doesn’t come to me quite as naturally as dimensional magic does – and apply my glamour.
Finally, myself again.
I opened a few pockets around me and allowed a faint tracing of stage haze to leak through as I began to make my way through the building. The information I had received on my target indicated that there were laser wires in the lower levels, and contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, lasers aren’t visible to the naked eye. Stage haze would show them without blocking their receivers, and being forewarned, I could simply teleport through. The security cameras, meanwhile, would…
Damn it, I always forgot about something!
Well, it would take some time for Vulcan, who should be on patrol tonight, to get to the Archives from where he was likely watching my decoy – he didn’t have great speed. Plus, he had only graduated from the Journeymen to the New Champions a few weeks ago – he should be no trouble to evade even after he arrived.
It only took me a few minutes to get to where I was going. After all, I wasn’t going to the boring layers of the Archive that were deeper down, where they stored the things that were too valuable to display openly in the Higgins Museum – I was just going to the first sub-basement, which held books that were of little interest to any but the most avid researchers.
Which, for this particular book, included me.
My target was a thesis called Ancient English Magicians: Tracking Their Artifacts Through History, which had been written a few decades ago by some historian called Mark H. Dallas. It did exactly what it claimed to – tracked magical artifacts created by ancient English magicians like Merlin and the Raven King to discover where they had ended up in the modern day. The particular artifact that I was interested in was a book that had supposedly been written by Merlin as an introductory text to magic of all kinds. I was quite skilled with my dimensional pockets, but there were so many types of magic and ways to cast it that it would take a century to expand my knowledge if that was my only starting point, even if my hopes of learning kinetic manipulation bore fruit. Something as simple as a broad introductory text could jump my studies ahead by decades.
I hate Arthur Peregrine above all other men in the world. He had been lucky enough to start with healing magic when he began learning, and had stumbled upon a type of ageless immortality early on in his career. Over the last two centuries he’s amassed enough magical knowledge to make him the greatest mage since Merlin himself, or so the man claims. But did he shared his magical knowledge as Merlin did? No.
He did share his healing power, I had to admit, and the man was without a doubt the greatest healer in the world. The one day a week that he appears in Peregrine Hospital and heals every man, woman, and child within its walls of all that ails them has saved countless lives since he began the practice, almost fifty years ago now. But how many more might have been saved if he spent another one day a week teaching his mastery of healing magic?
But I digress.
I had pocketed the thesis with little difficulty – I had ended up having to pick a lock after all, as it was locked in a cabinet, but it had been a rather simple lock – and made my way back upstairs to an unpleasant surprise.
“Words cannot possibly express how disappointed I am in you, Max,” said my boyfriend. “Not only are you stealing, not only did you seem to expect me to be fooled by such a transparent ruse as simply placing a doppelganger on the other side of the city, but you missed your date with Emilia last night!”
I sighed. “What are you doing here, Abe? I thought Vulcan was supposed to be patrolling tonight.”
“I’m covering his shift, obviously – he has a date that he isn’t missing. And you have a date too – with Chief Harrison.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hugo Harrison couldn’t get a date with me if he offered me Arthur Peregrine’s head on a platter. I’m way out of his league.”
Abe shrugged. “You’re the one who decided to break into the Archives.”
“They’re the ones who set up a system that kept me from accessing this thesis legitimately! Just because I don’t have a degree they consider connected to the damn thing -” I started.
He sighed. “I’m not in the mood for this right now, Max, and I’ve heard all your spiels before. Just put it back, and come back home to us. To me.”
“…this is the same thing that broke us up last time, Abe. And you know that I haven’t changed.”
“…maybe it was a bad idea to try again.”
“…maybe. At least we had another six months of bliss.”
Abe laughed. “Bliss might be understating it!” We both grinned at each other, thinking of nights out, with and without Emilia. And, of course, of nights in, with and without Emilia…
And then I summoned a sandbag over his head and he launched himself at me with the force of an oncoming car.
Relationships are hard.