2.3. Scenes 14-17

Scene 14 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Evening
Dominic Könberg

“Uno!” Viv said smugly, setting down a red seven.

“Damn it! We can’t let her win!” Tristan declared. Then he sighed. “And yet…” he began drawing cards from the deck, his hand expanding until he found a red three to set down.

“I think we can get her still,” I said, playing a blue three. “I’m pretty sure she doesn’t have any blue cards, so if we can just stick with blue…”

“Blue…” dad muttered, paging through his cards – he had been hit with a stack of draw cards earlier in the game and hadn’t gotten through them yet. “How about this?” He played a blue draw two.

“And another,” Percy grinned, adding one of his own.

“Perfect!” mom said, playing a third draw two. “Deal with that, honey!”

Viv grumbled as she drew from the deck. “Humph. So close…” She tossed one of her newly drawn cards, a red ten, onto the pile. “Betrayed by my own brother,” she complained.

“It’s about to happen again, too,” Tristan added, playing a blue ten, and she glared at him. The little twerp just stuck his tongue out at her, and she returned the gesture.

“Blue, blue, blue…” I murmured, glaring at my pair of green cards. “Now I’m having trouble.” I draw a card from the deck, saw that it was blue, and played it without really paying attention to what it was.

“Well you deserve to,” Viv sniped playfully. “I would have won and freed us from the hell of playing Uno if you hadn’t said blue!”

“If we’re in hell, at least we’re in hell together,” Tristan observed.

“I wouldn’t want to be in hell with anyone other than my family, certainly,” mom agreed.

I would rather not be in hell,” Percy remarked.

“Too bad,” I teased. “You’re stuck here with us.”

Viv glanced at dad. “…dad, you okay?” she asked, and I realized that he hadn’t played yet, just staring at his cards in confusion.

“…have we played this before, Morgan?” he asked. “I don’t remember the rules…”

My heart sank as I realized what was happening. Viv, meanwhile, softly said, “Yes, Arthur, it’s called Uno. Right now there’s a blue five at the top of the deck, so you need to play a card that’s blue or a card that’s a five.”

“Right…” he began looking through his cards as mom put a gentle hand on his shoulder, and absently leaned his head to rest it on her hand. “Like this one?” he had found a blue reverse card.

“Yes, like that one,” mom confirmed.

He played it. “Thanks, Morgan. Must have had a late night, I guess,” he said with a roguish grin, waggling his eyebrows.

“…of course, Arthur,” Viv said quietly.

It was hard on her, I knew, when dad mistook her for her mother. He rarely made such mistakes with the rest of us – although he had once thought I was Morgan’s brother and chased me out of the house – probably because the rest of us were boys, but with her… if Morgan wasn’t around when he had a moment and Viv was, it was almost guaranteed. She went along with it, as Devon had recommended, but I knew that it bothered her.

“Your play, I think?” dad said to Percy, sitting next to him.

“No, you played a reverse card,” he gruffly explained. “The order is reversed, so it’s Dom’s turn again.”

“Ah, that makes sense.”

“And that means I’m back to hoping for blue,” I sighed, beginning to draw from the deck. “I realize I brought this on myself, but still…” After a few draws I found a wildcard, and played it. “Green.”

Tristan immediately played a three. “Uno!” he said cheerfully, although I could tell his cheer was a mask to cover his discomfort with dad having had a moment.

Viv glanced at Tristan appraisingly. “Hm… what do we think, gang? Does he have any other greens?”

“…why?” I warily asked.

“Well, I could change the color, or I could not.”

“I don’t think so,” mom said, narrowing her eyes at my youngest brother. “Honey, what do you think?”

“Hm… go for it, dear,” dad said to Viv. “You know best, I’m sure.”

“Got any greens, oh dear brother?” my sister asked, playing another reverse. Tristan’s turn again, and if he had any greens…

“Sure do!” he grinned, playing a green nine. “I win!”

“Good job, kiddo!” dad said, offering a high five. Tristan gave it to him, then lurched into his lap to hug him. “Oh! Careful there, Tristan, your old man’s kind of fragile!”

“Nonsense, dear,” mom denied, smiling at the sight and doing nothing to help him escape from my younger brother. “You’re as-” She was interrupted by a knock at the door.

“Who could that be?” dad wondered.

“It’ll be Devon,” mom told him, beginning to rise. “They called earlier about coming to check on you, tonight, remember?”

“Oh yes.”

“I’ll let them in, mom,” I said, hopping to my feet before she could finish standing. “I’m about done for tonight anyway.”

“I’ll come with you,” Viv eagerly added, and I rolled my eyes – her crush was so obvious – but didn’t protest.

“Thanks, honey.”

Scene 15 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

“I’m gonna do it tonight, Dom,” my sister said to me as we walked to the front hall. “I’m going to ask them out.”

“Are you sure, Viv?” I asked. I had never gotten the vibe that Devon liked her the way she liked them, and I wanted to avoid her being heartbroken when they said no. Plus, Devon was 30-something, and my sister was only 21 – I didn’t want to kick their ass if they said yes. “They’ve probably had a long day at work, this might not be the best time…”

“I’m sure,” she said firmly, and from her tone I knew that I would never be able to dissuade her. “I fought Loki a few months ago, I think I can ask out the person I like.”

I put a hand on her shoulder, and although internally I sighed, out loud I just said, “Then do it. They’d be a fool to turn you down.”

A moment later, we reached the hall, and I swung the door open, revealing the petite, curvaceous doctor. “Evening,” they said with a tired smile, folding up the umbrella that they were sheltering under as they stepped inside. “How’s Arthur holding up?”

“He mistook me for mother, and forgot the rules to Uno,” Viv frowned, “but he got back on track pretty quickly. Pretty average, really.”

Devon nodded. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve all been doing an incredible job caring for him,” they promised us.

“What brings you here, doc?” I asked as we began to walk back to the game room.

“Well… you know that I was trying to put together a spell to help your father, based on research that Arthur Peregrine had forwarded me, right?” they said, and I nodded – they had been working on it since the end of October.

“Did you finish it?” Viv asked excitedly.

“Well… no,” they admitted. “But! Peregrine contacted me again and gave me a mystic diagram for a version of the spell a few months ago. It’s kind of ridiculously complicated, but I’ve been practicing, and I’m confident that even if it doesn’t work, I at least won’t make things worse.”

“That’s wonderful news!” I said with as we reentered the game room.

Scene 16 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

“What’s wonderful news?” mom asked.

“I have a new spell to try that might help,” Devon told her. “If I perform it right, it should disentangle the magical residue left behind by the artifacts and let me get at the Alzheimer’s directly with the usual spells for it. And if I do it wrong, it won’t make anything worse.”

“That is good news,” dad agreed. “I’m willing to try it.”

They dug in the shoulder-bag that they were wearing for a moment before producing a set of paperwork contained in a plastic sleeve. “I’ll need you to sign these, and then I can get started.

“Of course.”

“Were you going to bed?” Percy asked me as Devon began to prepare for the spell, drawing complicated glowing sigils into the air around dad, using a large ruler, a protractor, and a plum line to get them in exact positions even as he watched with interest.

“Yeah, but this is more interesting.” I didn’t have much hope of it actually working, if I was being honest – nothing else had, and Devon didn’t seem too confident either.

“You should get mom,” Tristan suggested, and I raised an eyebrow at him.

“Mom’s here already.”

“Other mom.”

“Mother would want to know about new magic being performed in the house,” Viv agreed.

I sighed. “I’ll get her.”

Scene 17 – March 27th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Dominic Könberg

 

It was probably around the time to pull Morgan out of her wing anyway, I reflected as I walked. She had been in there for close to a month now – while her initial experiments with Excalibur hadn’t kept her from the rest of the family, because she had failed too often to get really excited about it, she had recently figured out a method to use it relatively safely, and hadn’t emerged since, spending a great deal of time scrying in order to fill out the information we had stolen from the MLED servers.

“Morgan!” I called when I reached the entrance to her wing, knocking. “Devon is here with a new spell to try on dad!”

She didn’t respond, and I frowned. Normally Morgan could be reached from anywhere in the house – she had monitoring spells set to alert her if anyone was calling for her. Even if those had been taken down for some reason, her wing of the mansion was small enough that she should have heard me in person. “…Morgan?”

Nothing, and I was starting to get worried now. I opened the door and entered, and saw that most of the lights were off – not unusual, she preferred to have as few distractions as possible when she was working complex magic – and a faint glow was coming from under one of the doors. “…mom?” I whispered.

Still nothing. I tentatively approached the door and opened it, to see…

Morgan, her eyes wide, sightless, and watering slightly. She held an ornate dagger that could only be Excalibur in one hand, a bright tracery of glowing sigils in the shape of a gauntlet wrapping around her arm up to the shoulder. Her other hand was clenching repeatedly at her leg, nearly drawing blood. Sitting on a table in front of her was a mirror, its surface filled with colorless light and smoking rising from where it touched the wooden frame.

I swallowed. Morgan was scrying, which explained what she hadn’t heard me – her senses were entirely absent. But… she had never looked quite like this while scrying before. It looked like she was crying. What on earth was she seeing?

I couldn’t let her put herself through this and, thankfully, I knew how to stop it. If she was using Excalibur, then she was scrying through wards that she wouldn’t be able to see through on her own, and taking it from her should result in her being cut off.

I glanced around, looking for something to protect myself from the damn thing, and found nothing, so instead I just pulled off the flannel shirt I was wearing. I wrapped it around my hand before taking Excalibur by its blade and pulling it from Morgan’s white-knuckled grip, thankful that my football coach was so insistent on grip training. I dropped the dagger on the table, then draped the shirt over the mirror for good measure.

Morgan came back to herself slowly, blinking a few times as her senses returned to her, and she began crying in earnest as she saw me. She lunged for me, and I hugged her as she began sobbing desperately.

“What is it?” I asked, my mind racing as I thought of all the horrible scenarios she could have seen. “What did you see?”

“…three months,” she whispered.

“What?”

“We only have three months before they go after her, Morgan said, horrified. “Just to get to us.

“Go after who?” I asked. “Morgan, what-”

She pulled back, sniffing, and murmured something that made a tissue fly to her hand so she could wipe her face. I waited while she cleaned up, and finally explained, “I was scrying on the Ambrosia Company. They… they can’t find us through the Kovals’ wards, but… their daughter isn’t under those wards.”

“The Kovals’ daughter,” I said, frowning as I tried to remember. Viv and I had used to play with her, when we were kids, but I didn’t think I had seen her in ten years. “…Holly? Was that her name?”

Morgan nodded. “Yes. And they know exactly where to find her.” She took a breath. “Apparently, Holly Koval is Loki,” she told me. “And if we don’t show up in the next three months, Ambrosia will go after her.”

I swallowed, flashing back to the artistic girl I remembered playing with and connecting her to the young hero who had nearly stymied us at the MLED Compound. “Threaten her to make the Kovals take down our wards…”

“Exactly. And then they’ll take Arthur’s armor, and Excalibur, and… and then it’s all over.”

“…three months, you said?”

“Yeah,” she said quietly. “Whatever our next move is, we only have three months to make it.”

“Well then,” I decided, “we’d better start planning.”

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2.3. Scenes 12-13

Scene 12 – March 26th
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“So, Quinn,” Jacob asked as we sat down around the table – him and Holly’s mom next to each other, me and Holly across from them. “How did you and Holly meet?”

“We work at the same part-time job,” she said.

“Although,” I added, “we nearly met two years ago. We shared an art history course at UNV, as it turns out. A small overlap in our education.”

“Ah, you attend UNV? What for?” he pressed.

“I’m a biology major, with a concentration in metahuman biology. The plan was to become a doctor and specialized in treating metahumans.”

“Was,” he noted. “Did something happen?”

“Well… plans change. Some personal stuff… I’d rather not talk about it,” I demurred.

He hummed. “I see. Are you sure that you can’t explain further?”

I hesitated. “I’d really rather not…”

“Explain,” he said again, his voice almost musical, and I nodded agreeably.

“Sure. My father died a few months ago, and I promised him that I would become a superhero. I won’t have time to both work as a hero and go to med school, so I had to cut one.”

“Hmm. Reasonable, I suppose.”

Holly narrowed her eyes. “Father, you can’t do that!”

“Do what, honey?” her mother said calmly.

Holly froze, then shrank back a little. “Nothing, mother.”

Jacob shrugged. “I won’t do it if they answer our questions. Does that sound fair to you, beloved?”

“Perfectly fair, dear.”

“Right.”

He smiled at me. “Well, I think it’s quite good of you to have wanted to become a doctor, even if other matters have prevented you.”

“Thanks. I’d still rather like to, to be honest,” I confessed, scrunching up my face to get rid of a momentary feeling of discontinuity “but plans change, like I said. And thanks for not making me explain.”

He waved a hang magnanimously, even as Holly frowned. “Of course, of course. So, you met at work! How nice.”

“It may have been some time since I worked,” Delilah commented, speaking for the first time since we sat, “but I seem to recall that in my day, it was considered a bad idea to date your coworkers.”

“Ah, they’re young,” Jacob said, dismissing this objection. “Besides, we met on the job as well.”

“That’s different. We worked in the same field, but we weren’t coworkers when we met.”

“I’m sure it’s fine, beloved,” he assured her. “Didn’t you see them out on the patio? Quite adorable, don’t you agree?”

“Ah yes, the patio,” she said. “Holly, you know full well you’re not allowed to use magic in the house.”

“We weren’t in the house,” Holly said defensively. “We were on the patio.

“We also don’t like you trying to hide things from us. You’re not allowed to create privacy screens like you did there, not against us.”

“Now hold on, everyone deserves privacy,” I protested, but was ignored.

“What’s the point in banning them?” Holly demanded. “It’s not like they work against you two, apparently.”

“We taught you everything you know, of course they don’t work against us,” Delilah said, still calm. “And because we taught you, we get to decide how you use our skills.

“They’re not your skills, they’re hers! I snapped.

“Be silent,” Jacob murmured. “This doesn’t concern you.” I obeyed, sitting back in my seat.

“This is exactly what I hate about you two,” Holly hissed. “You treat me like I’m a thing, like I’m something that you own. I’m a grown woman! I have the right to make my own decisions!”

“Like this….” Delilah wrinkled her nose at me. “…person?”

“Yes! If I love Quinn, that’s my choice, and what you think doesn’t enter into it! But no, you just have to meet them and see if you approve of them dating your daughter, because it’s your feelings that matter most!”

“Honey, what you don’t realize is that we know better than you,” Jacob said soothingly, holding his hands open-palmed towards his daughter. “We have much more life experience than you. We know the world better. We know people better. If this Quinn person has ulterior motives, well…” He shrugged. “We’re in a much better place to see that than you are, particularly given our magical specialties.”

“I hate you,” Holly growled at her father.

“If it makes you feel any better,” he told her, “I see no reason to disapprove of them, at least not yet. Admittedly, I’m not done yet either.”

“It doesn’t change the fact that you’re still putting them through this interrogation! Holly snapped.

“While they are admittedly a superhero,” Delilah said, absently drumming her fingers against the table and staring at me, “you are as well. A decision I still don’t understand…”

“The only one you ever let me make,” Holly muttered, crossing her arms.

“And if they were planning to become a doctor, they must be intelligent enough – oh, dear, ask them about their grades.”

“Of course, beloved.” He snapped his fingers.

I blinked in surprise, feeling a slight disconnect. “I’m sorry, what was that?”

“I was asking about your time at UNV,” Jacob reminded me, and I nodded, his prompting helping me to remember. “Medical school is very difficult to get into – were you at all worried about your grades?”

“It’s tough, sure, but I’ve always been good at school. Valedictorian back in high school, 4.0 all through college, the works. I even managed to keep up my grades last semester after starting work. It’s not easy,” I noted, “but I can do it.”

“4.0 average, really?” he said approvingly, flashing his wife a quick smile. “That’s quite impressive.”

“Well, biology isn’t exactly easy, but it’s nothing compared to Holly,” I said, glancing over at her, and Jacob’s grin grew. “She might be the smartest person I’ve ever met.”

Holly was a little flushed and couldn’t meet my eyes. “Quinn…”

“What? It’s true. You should have seen her teaching me about magic.” I turned back to her parents. “It takes months and months for people to find a casting style that works for them in college, and she got me there in minutes.”

“It was your idea,” she protested, trying to deflect my praise.

“But you were the one who helped me get it working.”

“So you’re a mage yourself, then?” Jacob cut in. “My wife and I are as well, I hope Holly’s mentioned.”

“I’m not much of a mage – I really only know one spell,” I admitted. “And yeah, she told me – it came up when she taught me how to cast.”

“Honey, you shouldn’t be-”

“I know, mother,” Holly complained, interrupted her mother. “You don’t want me teaching people magic.”

“It’s not safe to learn magic unsupervised,” Delilah continued. “Quinn, you’re going to have to show us this magic of yours. Just to make sure that our teachings have been passed on properly.”

“Sure,” I agreed. I focused my presence for a moment on my wineglass. Almost instantly, the interior of the glass filled with light, a thick, almost-liquid white glow. “There you go.”

“Interesting method of casting,” she said, tilting her head to the side. “It almost resembles how Arthur does it.”

“Surely not, beloved. Arthur always used gestures.”

“Not Könberg, dear. Peregrine.”

I leaned forward curiously. “You know Arthur Peregrine?”

Jacob sighed. “Observant kid, aren’t you? Forget that,” he ordered, and I did. “How long did it take you to get that spell down?”

“The first time, or in general?”

“Both.”

“It took what, fifteen minutes to cast, the first time?” I asked Holly, and she nodded confirmation. “Then a month or so of regular practice before I could do it fast enough for it to be useful. Around three before I got it as instantly as that.”

“Quite impressive, don’t you think, beloved?” he asked his wife.

“I suppose,” she admitted, sounding reluctant to give me any credit. “Let’s try a test.”

“Mother, don’t-”

“Be silent, honey,” she ordered. I frowned, hating how Holly’s parents were treating her – I had known that they would be like this, but knowing and seeing were too very different things. But I let her take the lead – when she spoke up, I would back her, and until then… “Quinn,” Delilah began, flicking a finger and erasing my light spell, “focus on the wineglass again, but this time on the glass, not the air inside it.”

“I’m not sure that-” I tried to protest.

“Do as she says.”

I focused, letting everything in the world fade away except the glass.

   “Sound, as I hope you know, is nothing more than a pattern of vibrations.”

Delilah’s voice continued, instructing me as I meditated on the wineglass, arraying myself in the perfect focus that Holly had instructed me to use.

   “Whether it be a violin, a barking dog, a crackling fire, or your own voice, that pattern is all there is.”

The glass vibrated gently with her every word, a pattern that was becoming more and more clear.

   “And that pattern can be changed, altered, reworked, at the will of the magician.”

It was a pattern that made no sense to my conscious mind, but I could still understand it, could connect it to my sense of hearing and interpret it easily.

   “But sound is a complex thing indeed. Even a simple ‘hello’ has layers and complexities that the conscious mind cannot possibly design itself.”

Even the subtleties of the wineglass’s vibration that corresponded to the sounds of people breathing, and a faint, otherwise imperceptible hum coming from Jacob, were written clearly in its pattern.

   “But your unconscious mind can understand them – and more than that, can create them. To generate an auditory construct, here is what you must do…”

Delilah’s instructions sank into my mind like pebbles into a lake, sending out ripples that faded and shifted and forever changed the lake in a way. I learned…

   “…so connect your unconscious mind to your imagination to your conscious mind, and speak – not with your voice, but with the glass.”

“Like this?” I asked, imposing a pattern of my own speaking voice on the wineglass.

“Yes, precisely.” Delilah turned to Jacob. “Impressive,” she admitted.

He nodded. “They seem to be quite a quick learner. If that unfortunate tendency to stand up for themself and Holly can be corrected, they might make a very agreeable addition to the family.”

“If,” his wife pointed out. “They’re a bit old for the methods we used on her.”

“What methods-” I started, but was interrupted.

“Forget.”

 

I blinked, experiencing another momentary disconnect, and instinctively reached for Holly’s hand – she squeeze it tightly, as though afraid I would drift away. “I’m really terribly sorry,” I said apologetically. “I feel like I’ve been drifting in and out all night, and it seems terribly rude. You’re both lovely people, and you don’t deserve for me to be like this.”

“No need for an apology, young-” Jacob began.

“You’re drifting in and out because father is mind controlling you,” Holly hissed at me, glaring at her parents.

I blinked in surprise. “He’s what? I demanded, my eyes narrowing.

“Forget that. Young lady,” Jacob growled at Holly, “what do you think you’re doing?”

Something was slipping from my mind, but I fought to hold it – Holly had said something, had said… “I’m not just going to forget that you’re mind controlling me!” I snapped, rising and pulling Holly to her feet. “I think we should go, Hol-”

“I said forget it,” he snapped, half-standing out of his chair. “In fact, if you’re going to take this kind of attitude, you can forget this entire night, and that you ever met my daughter!

“Remember,” Holly said sharply, clenching her fist, and a spike of pain lanced through my mind. “And father, I hope you realize, when you’re dying alone and haven’t seen or heard from me in years, that this was the moment that any hope of an eventual reconciliation was lost forever.” I staggered as she spoke, and she wrapped an arm around my waist, slinging one of mine over her shoulders to support me.

“Honey, what are you-”

“You know damn well what I’m saying,” she interrupted. “I was already planning on leaving and never speaking to you again, but maybe, if you hadn’t been manipulating the person I love, breaking their mind for your sick curiosity, I might have eventually reconsidered! But no, you just had to play your fucking game!”

“Holly,” Delilah said flatly, standing. “Why on earth would you be leaving?”

“You’re smart, figure it out,” Holly growled. “Maybe it has something to do with how you vanished for months on end and left me to fend for myself, over and over and over again? Or how you come back from those blessed periods of respite to take control of my life and countermand everything I do? How you’ve tried to pull me from the MLED five times and counting, and yet something which seems so fucking important to you is forgotten the moment a new magical puzzle comes along?” She laughed bitterly. “Fucking hell, you didn’t even notice that I’ve been moving all my stuff out.”

Delilah tilted her head to the side, her fingers twisting briefly and tiny sparks of light playing on her eyes for an instant, then she narrowed her eyes. “Holly, listen to me. You will-“

“You don’t get to tell me what to do anymore, mother,” Holly mocked. “Don’t you get it? I’m leaving. You have no power over me anymore. None. I’m not even going to think about you from the moment I walk out that door, never again, you hear me?”

“I just want to understand why-”

“If you don’t understand why now,” Holly said, “you never well. Good-bye forever, mother.She turned and began walking, and I followed as best as I could.

“Holly.”

She stopped and looking over her shoulder at her father. “Oh? And what do you have to say for yourself?

“I…” he narrowed his eyes. “I’m not going to stop you, honey. But you know what you must remain silent about.

“Or what?”

Jacob blinked. “What?”

“Maybe I can’t block your fucking mind-magic completely in the moment,” Holly snapped, “but I can damn sure break it down at my leisure. What, exactly, are you going to do if I snap that thought-binding spell and tell the MLED all about who you used to be? Are you going to come out of retirement? Leave your cozy little hideaway? Stop doing your goddamn magical experiments and maybe, I don’t know, act like parents for once in your lives?” Her parents exchanged a glance, but said nothing. “Yeah,” Holly said, turning away again. “I didn’t think so.”

Scene 13 – March 26th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Evening
Holly Koval

Quinn seemed to have been hit pretty hard by my father’s enchantment magic and my hasty countercharm, and I honestly had no idea how much, if anything, they’d remember – mind magic was a delicate thing, and I had poked at Tristan’s perception filter at the beach for more reason than the dubious-at-best legality of it. If they had forgotten me… I didn’t know what I’d do.

I couldn’t share my parents’ identities and didn’t think I could break that spell, despite what I had told my father – that order had been layered onto my mind since I was a little girl – but I wouldn’t have to say exactly which supervillains they were to tell Armstrong that Quinn had been mindwiped by my parents. And… and that was the least I would do, I swore to myself, if Quinn’s mind had been permanently damaged. If they had hurt them…

I fretted worriedly, glad that the compound was empty for once as I laid them down on the common room’s couch. If their mind didn’t wake up from its current state soon…

I could feel the blankness of their mind if I extended my senses towards them, and I hated the feeling. It was worse than the grayness that pervaded their thoughts whenever they got caught up in memories of their father – there were still thoughts beneath that, even if they were wrapped in grief, but now…

Just a few moments before I was about to psychically prod them, Quinn stirred. “Oh god,” they moaned. “Did anyone get the number of the bus that hit me?”

“Quinn,” I worriedly said, reaching for their hand. “Do you…” I swallowed. “What do you remember?”

They blinked a few times, eyes unfocused, before they met my gaze and smiled. “Holly! I remember…” Quinn frowned, their brow furrowing. “We sat down to eat… your dad was asking me about… why I wasn’t planning on being a doctor. And then… everything else is a blur. What happened?”

The relief I felt was indescribable – they had forgotten everything from the first time my father had used his mental magic on them, but nothing else. They hadn’t forgotten why we were there, they hadn’t forgotten the entire night, they hadn’t forgotten me. “It… don’t worry about it, Quinn,” I said, blinking a few tears away.

“But-”

“Don’t-” I started to say, lacing my voice with psychic undertones, then cut myself off before I could finish the suggestion. Quinn was already lucky to have survived with their mind intact – I shouldn’t upset that balance with more mind magic, no matter how much it would simplify things.

Especially because… hadn’t I just been yelling at my father for this exact thing? Mind control was his first resort whenever anything didn’t go his way, and here I was, about to forcibly prevent my best friend from thinking about what had happened tonight. I couldn’t do that to them. I shouldn’t do that to them. That was…

I was a piece of shit for even considering it.

I sighed. “It’s all over now,” I said to Quinn, refusing to let those harmonics enter my voice. “There’s nothing to worry about anymore.”

They hesitated. “If you’re sure.”

“I’m sure. Don’t-” I bit my lip. How many times had I spoken those words, cast that spell? Was it really that instinctive, to prevent people from worrying about me? “Don’t worry about it.”

“…okay. If you say so,” Quinn said, lifting themself up into a crosslegged posture. “Hey, come here.” I leaned into them, and they pulled me into a comforting hug. “You’re shivering. This whole thing with your parents really has you freaked out, huh?”

I was shivering? I hadn’t even noticed. “Yeah,” I confessed. “It… they I knew what I must remain silent about. “-they’re pretty shitty people,” I managed. “But I’m done with them now. I never have to see them again.”

“And here you are, worrying about me when I probably just had too much to drink,” Quinn murmured. “I’m sorry. I was there to support you, and what did I do? I can’t even remember…”

“No, you were very helpful,” I promised them. “If you weren’t there…. like I said, I end up folding when I face them alone, and if you hadn’t been there…” If the person I loved hadn’t been there under threat, clear and imminent reason for me to marshal my courage… “I’m sure I would have folded again,” I finished.

Quinn nodded, their breath tickling the crook of my neck, and I shivered – noticing it this time, perhaps because it was a pleasant shiver rather than an unconscious, fearful one. Then they released me, but only enough to gently spin me around.

“Quinn, what are you – ooh,” I moaned as they began kneading my shoulders and the base of my neck, my eyes closing instinctively.

“You’re incredibly tense,” they said. “You need to relax a little, Holly.”

“I just… god, harder… it’s a combination of fear and relief and… and…”

“I know. It’s a lot,” they said sympathetically as I practically melted.

“…you’re really good at this,” I whispered.

“Thanks.”

“God… of all the fake partners I could have had tonight,” I couldn’t prevent myself from saying a few minutes later, “I’m glad it was you that my parents decided to fixate on.” Quinn laughed, and I continued, “you really would be a wonderful partner.”

Their hands paused for a moment, and they hesitantly said, “Holly, I… I was happy to step in and help tonight, and I’m glad that I can help relieve your stress, but…” I heard them swallow nervously. “…you do know we’re not actually dating, right?”

“Yes, Quinn, I know,” I responded, trying not to sound sad about it. However much I might like to…

“I think…” They swallowed again. “I think we’re on the same page about wanting to, unless I’ve misread things massively, but… I’m not ready yet. And… I don’t think you are either, right now.”

“…yeah,” I eventually admitted. “Yeah, I think you’re right.” They slowly began to massage my shoulders again, and I struggled to hold back another moan of pleasure. “…but don’t think I didn’t catch the ‘yet’ in there.”

I could hear the smile in their voice as they said, “Oh, I wanted you to.”

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2.3. Scenes 9-11

Scene 9 – March 24th
Exterior April Park, Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

I squinted at the flash card Holly held up to me. “An autoimmune disorder which results in the degradation of the nervous system… multiple sclerosis,” I said, confidently.

“Correct. And lastly…”

I blinked, coming back to myself.

“Are you okay, Quinn?” Holly asked. “You haven’t done that in a while.”

I sighed. “Yeah, Dr. Wagner has helped me get better, but… it’s just, that’s what my dad has. Had. It… that’s what killed him.”

“Oh.” Her eyes were infinitely kind, her voice gentle, as she said, “I’m sorry.”

“I’m doing better, I promise, it just… sometimes, when I’m not prepared…”

“Yeah.” She paused for a moment, then ventured, “at least that’s one chronic disease you know you won’t forget?”

I chuckled. “Imagine forgetting what disease killed your father. You’re at his eulogy and you’re all, ‘my father was a brave man. He fought for years against a deadly progressive illness, one which few can survive against, called… shit, was it cancer? It wasn’t cancer, was it?’”

Holly laughed. “I’m glad you’re doing well enough to joke about it, at least.”

“Yeah… I think dad would have wanted me to be able to.” I leaned back from my cross-legged posture and extended my legs, which ended up in Holly’s lap. She absently began kneading my feet, and I decided to change the subject – even though I was finding myself able to joke, finally, it still made my heart ache a bit. “Thank god it’s Spring Break next week. I’m really looking forward to getting a little time off from school.”

“Me too.” There were a few moments of companionable silence, the two of us enjoying just being together in the lovely spring afternoon – and in my case, enjoying the foot massage – before Holly said, a little hesitantly, “…you’re not going anywhere for the break, are you?”

“You know I’m not. Hell, I have two patrols scheduled, I couldn’t even if I wanted to.”

She flapped a hand dismissively. “You know Abe would give you time off if you asked, the man dotes on you.”

“I don’t have anywhere to go anyway. Why do you ask?” I said, sitting up again.

“Well… I talked to my parents.”

“…how’d that go?” I asked. “Do I need to murder them for you? Because Shepard wouldn’t want me to say I will, but…”

She chuckled. “No, it… well, it could have gone worse, anyway. They’ve been asking about my life, what I’ve been doing, and… um…”

“That sounds like good news. What’s the ‘and’?”

“Well, I told them about you, since you’re my best friend, and… they somehow got the idea that we were dating?” she squeaked.

I blinked. That hadn’t been what I expected. “And here I thought you might be trying to escape them during the break,” I said after a moment.

“That isn’t the worst idea, but no. They, um.” Holly had one of those moments she sometimes had, where I could have sworn she was blushing heavily, but her face was perfectly composed a moment later. “They want to meet you – to have you over for dinner.”

I propped my chin up on a hand. “You told them that we aren’t dating, right? I mean, I do realize what it looks like when we sit under a tree and you rub my feet, but whatever Simone says about us…”

“I tried to tell them that, but father just winked and said ‘I understand’, and mother keeps talking about how she’d need to approve of anyone I spend so much time with…” She sighed. “I’m sorry to ask, but…”

“Are you asking me to pretend to be your partner and meet your parents?”

“…yes. It’s. Well. I, um, I kind of tend to fold if I’m facing them alone, as it turns out that hasn’t changed, and I would appreciate it you would – um. I don’t know. I shouldn’t have asked. Sorry. Just forg-” she babbled.

I leaned forward to take her hands in mine, silencing her. “Holly. Would this be helpful for you? Would having me there to support you help you confront your parents?” I hadn’t missed her mention of folding when she faced them alone, and I had a suspicion that the attempted confrontation hadn’t gone well, even if Holly claimed otherwise.

“…yes,” she whispered.

“Then I’ll be there,” I promised.

Scene 10 – March 26th
Exterior Mansion, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

I tried to avoid stressing out about meeting Holly’s parents. It wasn’t easy – meeting the family was an important step in a relationship, and while Holly and I weren’t actually in one, I wasn’t unaware that what we had was close – and might, once I was more confident about my emotional stability, become romantic rather than platonic. Or I hoped so, anyway.

Still, I was going to be there to support Holly when she spoke with her parents about the way they treated her, and being an anxious mess wouldn’t make me a good rock for my best friend to lean on. For her sake, I had to pull it together.

So when I met her outside her mansion – and it was still insane to me that my best friend lived in a mansion, when I hadn’t thought New Venice even had mansions – I was dressed casually but nicely, wearing a suit jacket over a light blouse, and had even pulled my hair into a ponytail. And no matter what I had been doing in the privacy of my own room at the Compound, here and now I was not shaking and sweating, but was instead calm and composed.

I texted Holly to let her know I had arrived and was waiting outside the main gate, and in just a minute or two she appeared, wearing a long black skirt and a red top. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey.” She absently tucked her hair behind one ear and looked me up and down, a red bubble shimmering into view around us as she created a privacy screen. “That works, I guess.”

I raised an eyebrow. “You guess? Way to make a guy feel special, Holly.”

“Sorry. You look great, Quinn.”

“Better.”

She sighed. “It’s just… my parents are kind of the worst, and they’re going to be super judgmental – mother especially – and… I’m sorry to drag you into this.”

“Hey.” I caught her hand in mine and gave it a gentle, reassuring squeeze. “Remember how you supported me after my dad died?”

“Yeah…”

“I told you back then, I would do the same for you.” I shrugged. “This is that.”

“My parents aren’t dead, though.”

“They could be. Director Shepard wouldn’t like it, but they could be.”

She giggled involuntarily, then forced herself to calm. “Okay, last-minute stuff.”

“Go for it.”

“They’re typical mages,” she informed me, “so any magic talk is a good way to get them to open up. Just don’t challenge their knowledge. Or opinions. Actually, just don’t challenge them, it doesn’t go well.”

“Isn’t that what you’re here to do?”

She bit her lip. “…habit, I guess. They… don’t like it when I argue with them.”

“What do they do?” I asked, worried. If they…

“They… they don’t do anything, they just… barrel right through the problem, I guess. They talk right over you and just completely ignore that you ever said anything against them until even you forget that you disagreed. That’s how you ended up here even though I tried to tell them we’re not dating.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad…”

“It’s nowhere near actual abuse,” Holly insisted. “They’re just… overbearing control freaks. That’s all.”

“…I saw how you reacted when Anima was being influenced by Excalibur,” I pointed out. “Maybe it’s not physical abuse, but that doesn’t mean it’s not abusive.”

She sighed, turning away from me. “It’s not nothing, but… I just want to confront them about it and then leave. Make them understand what they’ve put me through, and then never see them again. Ever.

“Well… I guess I can understand that,” I said. I wrapped my arms around her waist, standing on my toes to put my chin on her shoulder. “And then you’re leaving?”

Holly nodded. “I’ve been moving more of my stuff into the Compound over the last month – I brought the last box over a few days ago.” She turned to face me again, putting her arms around my waist but leaning back so we could see each other properly. “There is one other thing.”

“What is it?”

“We talked about this once, I think, but this appearance isn’t any more natural to me than the one I wear as Loki,” she said, and I nodded in remembrance – she had painted a self-portrait that related to the subject and presented it as part of an art show the MLED had put on a few months ago, and had been thinking about dropping the illusion after she graduated. “My parents, uh, don’t allow me to wear this kind of magical construct in the house.”

I frowned. “Do they have a reason for that?”

“None that they’ve ever given me,” she said, shaking her head.

“Control freaks for sure.”

“Yeah. But, uh, that means I’ll need to show you what I really look like.”

Holly pulled away from me and took a deep breath. I waited patiently as she put her hands together, still psyching herself up. After a moment she simply breathed out, and…

As Loki, Holly was unrealistically handsome in the androgynous way that I tended to be most attracted to, in both men and women. Perfect skin, sharp bone structure, dark eyes that pulled you in, and artfully-tousled hair that could never be maintained in that shape without some kind of superpower. He was tall and thin and graceful, and fell just a little into the uncanny valley at times, just a little too perfect to be real.

In her blonde form, Holly was unrealistically beautiful, in a Nordic princess kind of way that I wasn’t usually into, but which she pulled off with aplomb. The same perfect skin and sharp jawline, but with baby blue eyes as bright as my own and long blonde hair, never a single strand out of place. She was tall and curvaceous and graceful, and fell just out of the uncanny valley of perfection – but it was a near thing.

Her natural form was none of these things. Her face was rounder than she let it appear, her complexion a little darker and a little splotchy. Her hair was neither flaxen blonde nor as dark as the void, but a curly mess of simple brown not too different from my own – her eyes the same warm, chocolate shade. Not as thin as Loki, not as curvy as her blonde form, more muscular than either. She had freckles splattered across her face, and an asymmetrical smile that revealed a single dimple as she shyly said, “Well… this is me. What do you think?”

I smiled back at her, knowing that my eyes were probably shining with admiration and not caring. “You’re beautiful.”

Scene 11 – March 26th
Exterior Mansion, Continuous
Quinn Kaufman

“Mother, father, this is Quinn,” Holly said, introducing me to her parents at the door. “Quinn, these are my parents,  Jacob and Delilah Koval.”

I smiled at them and offered a hand. “It’s very nice to meet you both.”

“A pleasure,” Jacob said, giving me a firm handshake and locking eyes with me for a moment. “Nice to meet the fellow – person? – that my daughter is spending so much time with,” he said with a wink. Holly seemed to have inherited his hair, which was a similar curly brown.

“‘Person’ is fine.”

“Charmed, I’m sure,” said Delilah, although it didn’t sound like it. Her eyes matched Holly’s brown, but lacked Holly’s warmth – her voice, too, was cool and unimpressed. “Please, come in.”

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2.3. Scenes 7-8

Scene 7 – December 20th
Interior Ambrosia Compound, Early Afternoon
Miles Mercer

 

“Hey, boss?” I said, knocking on the door to Thornhill’s office. “You got a moment?” With some people – with Dr. Hartland, or Penny – I might not have bothered to wait for a response before opening the door. For others – Laura, rest her soul, or many of the lesser-ranking members of the Ambrosia Company – I wouldn’t even have knocked. With Susan Thornhill, however… with her, it was best to wait.

“Enter.”

Thornhill’s office was relatively plain, as far as the office of a CEO went, and I had seen my fair share. She believed in minimalism, and so apart from her desk and a single work of art – a simplified depiction of the myth of Prometheus stealing fire – the office was bare.

It was a real pain, because it meant that there was nowhere for me to sit.

“What is it, Middleman?” Thornhill asked, glancing up at me from a thick sheaf of paperwork. She seemed, I observed, to be experimenting with a new eye color today – bright gold – but was otherwise in her normal appearance. It wasn’t unusual to see her do this, admittedly – ever since Hartland had managed to create a treatment which could replicate Penny’s shapeshifting abilities, at least at a low level, Thornhill had been moving more and more towards an idealized version of her real appearance. Although literal gold was a bit of a step away from her natural hazel.

“You remember a few months back, when one of our clients – a Maxwell Copperfield – got a purchasing agent captured?” I asked.

She closed the folder and tilted her head slightly, thinking. “Yes, I think I remember. What was it that we sold him again?”

“I passed on some magical textbooks to him back when he was just a stage magician. Or copies of them, rather. They weren’t all that helpful, but…” I shrugged. “So little is, when it comes to learning magic.” You really needed either personal tutelage – and one teacher to many students, as college magical studies courses ended up being, usually didn’t cut it – or serious dedication to personal experimentation if you wanted to get good at magic.

“I recall the situation. Why bring it up now?” she questioned.

“Well, I added something to the mission of the Legion who was sent to New Venice a while back,” I explained. “Copperfield had been planning a heist of another magical text – an instructional book written by Merlin – and I demanded that he lend it to me. As recompense for interfering with our agent, supposedly.”

Thornhill smirked slightly – she wasn’t one for actually seeking vengeance, too pragmatic to do anything that didn’t benefit her materially, but she wasn’t above finding it amusing. “And that worked?”

“Yes – possibly only because it was Legion threatening him, but he did agree to make a copy of the book and pass it on to us, after he had stolen it.”

“I assume he has now done so?”

I scratched the back of my head. “Well… he made the attempt, at least. Things kind of got out of hand, apparently. The report just came in from our sources in New Venice’s DMO.” I tapped her folder and whispered a few words, swapping its contents with those of the report in my own office.

“I’m going to need that back.”

“Just read.” I leaned against the wall and waited while Thornhill skimmed through the report, a slow smile spreading across her face as she did. “Yeah, I thought you’d like this,” I said when she finished.

“I do – at least, in theory. It’s been years since we had eyes on the Mountain King’s armor, and we certainly didn’t have any agents who might have been able to take it from him at the time. But with the armor in other hands – weaker hands – it becomes a real possibility, particularly now that we have Legion.”

“Not to mention Excalibur,” I added. “The things we could do with a power-magnifier of that scale…”

“We’ll have to pass it around and see whether it’s more helpful in your hands or Hartland’s,” she mused.

“I bet I could use it to crack some of the more esoteric spells I’ve been working on…” I wheedled.

“We’ll pass it around,” Thornhill said firmly. “If it will produce more profit with you, it will be yours. If it’s more profitable with Hartland, it will be his.”

I sighed. “Yes, boss.”

“Good. Go speak to the Legions and have them send an iteration to New Venice to keep an ear to the ground for this ‘Round Table’. Once they pop up again, we’ll take their artifacts.” I nodded and turned to go, but was halted by another word from the CEO. “Wait.”

“What it is, boss?”

“Who’s this?” She tapped the face of one of the heroes noted as being involved with the incident.

I squinted, mentally turning the image in my head. “…Newton? They’re a new member of New Venice’s junior hero team. Joined a month or two ago.”

“Doesn’t that costume look familiar?”

“It… could be one of the psychic augmenters that Laura invented,” I admitted. “But that can’t be right – we haven’t sold any of the actual suits since she died.”

“I don’t believe we’ve sold anything to this person. So where did their suit come from?”

I picked up the file and peered at them. “Hm…” I murmured a switching spell again, fetching a file on Newton specifically, so I could get a better look. “I’m not too familiar with Laura’s tech, obviously – not my department – but this doesn’t look like a recent model. Aren’t we on the PA9 or PA10?”

“We need to double check the storage units that we keep the oldest models in, then,” Thornhill said, clearly making plans. “I doubt anyone was able to steal from us, but just in case… and we’ll need to reach out to those who did purchase an actual PA suit and see if any of theirs were stolen.”

“Or if any of them were able to replicate their suits,” I pointed out. “If so, maybe hire them? Hartland hasn’t been able to continue work on them, as he?”

“No, he hasn’t – that’s why we’re not offering the suits themselves anymore.” She frowned. “Wait… Kaufman had been working on the suits before we hired her.”

‘Hired’ was one way of saying ‘kidnapped’, I supposed – Ambrosia’s standard method, in fact. “I think so, yes.”

“Perhaps it really is one of the oldest models, from before then. Do we have Newton’s name?”

“Their registration with the DMO says… Quinn Kaufman. Laura’s child?”

“Most likely an early model, in that case,” Thornhill murmured, considering. “Dealing with Newton will be a low priority, but I think it still needs to be on the list. I want to keep that technology under our control, and the possibility of Newton noticing the similarities between their suit and that of Starling, or any of the others who posses PAs – or between their powers and those who used a PA to get them – is a worrying one.”

“Ambrosia isn’t exactly a secret though, is it?”

“Not precisely, but we’re still flying under the radar. Until I can get the legislation to explicitly legalize selling powers approved – I do need that back, by the way -”

“Yes, yes.” I reversed the switches I had performed, restoring the paperwork to where it had once been.

“- the company needs to remain relatively secret. Having someone who could potentially discover us from the outside, without being able to offer them anything to keep them quiet…”

“We could always kill them,” I suggested.

“True, true…”

“Starling and Canaveral are based in that city,” I said. “With Newton on the same team, any suspicions would probably be raised to one of them – and then they could shut down Newton’s ideas.”

“Hmm.” After a bit of thought, Thornhill decided, “We’ll leave their suit as a target of opportunity. It being stolen might draw their attention to it even further, if they haven’t already noticed the similarities. For now, we’ll leave them be – but if the Legion we’re sending now has a good opportunity to take them out and steal the suit, she should do it.”

“Seems unlikely, but I’ll let her know.”

 

Scene 8 – March 27th
Interior Ambrosia Compound, Evening
Miles Mercer

 

“Hey, boss?” I said, knocking on the door to Thornhill’s office.

“Enter.” I opened it and stepped inside, tossing the folder that I had brought with me – for once – onto her desk. “What’s this?” she asked, closing the one she had already been working on.

“Penny’s report from the three months that an instance of her spent in New Venice,” I informed the CEO.

“Ah yes. Looking for the Round Table and their artifacts,” Thornhill said. She opened the folder and began paging through. “The full three months… no sign of them then, I assume?”

“None,” I confirmed – the third-generation clone of Legion who had been left in the city had been collected and terminated after spending the entire time undercover. If she had found them, she would have returned, but… “It seems they’ve gone to ground.”

“I wonder if we have any way of drawing them out?” Thornhill absently mused.

“I doubt it,” I complained. “Legion’s best guess – and Hartland agrees – is that the Round Table was the wife and children of the Mountain King, having inherited his armor. Which, presumably, means that the man himself is dead – not that knowing his connection to them would have been helpful anyway, since we had no idea where he was anyway.”

“Odd that they’re in his old home city, if they’re trying to hide.”

“They could easily have left. And again, no one knows where he disappeared to after he presumably retired -”

“To raise his chilren, I suppose,” she guessed.

“Probably – so however they’re hiding, it’s pretty effective.”

Thornhill tapped her fingers against the desk rhythmically as she thought. “Some form of magic, I would presume. To hide so effectively not just from us but from the heroes as well – Canaveral is quite an accomplished tracker – they would need to have powerful wards against detection.”

“Most likely a set of wards on their home, wherever that is,” I said. “That’s heavy-duty stuff though – would the Mountain King have been able to do it? I was pretty young when he was doing his thing.” Not to mention that I was a West Coast boy – the man’s stomping grounds in New Venice were all the way on the other side of the country from my hometown of San Francisco.

“Not himself, perhaps – he was a mage of only moderate talent, and that was thanks only to the intelligence-boosting effects of his helmet,” she told me. “But he had a close association with the Maestri, who would certainly have been able to do such a thing. Perhaps when they retired – they all did so at approximately the same time – the Maestri set up wards for the Mountain King as well as for themselves.”

“The Maestri… they were masters of manipulation magic, right?” I asked. “Illusions, mind control, that sort of thing.”

“Exactly. If we put pressure on them, perhaps we can reveal the location of the Mountain King’s family.”

“That still requires us to find them,” I pointed out. “Which seems… basically impossible. They doubtless have the same protective wards on themselves, on top of their own abilities, and we’ve already failed to beat those wards with the Round Table.”

“Ah, but I already know where the Maestri are,” Thornhill said with a smirk. “Or how to find them, at least.”

“…how?”

She flipped through the Legion’s report and stopped on her observations of one of the local heroes – Loki. “The Maestri used a ritual to scour their identities – which the MLED once knew – from all archives, and even managed to wipe the minds of most who ever learned it. But Dr. Hart’s memory treatment kept it safe and sound for me. Maestro and Maestra are also known as Jacob and Delilah Koval – and their child, Holly Koval, is a member of New Venice’s junior hero team.” She gave a self-satisfied smile.

I nodded in understanding. “Get a hold of Loki, and use him to crack his parents…”

“And from there, the Mountain King’s family.”

“It won’t be easy,” I noted. “The MLED is quite protective of its heroes, even with you at the head of the DMO.”

“No, it won’t, which is why I’m going to label that as a last resort,” Thornhill decided. “First, we’ll continue to wait – the Round Table can’t remain underground forever. Sooner or later, they’ll emerge – if it’s later, then perhaps Loki will be a viable target, but if it’s sooner, then we have no need to kick that particular hornet’s nest.” She paused, then added, “Three months more, I think. If there is still no sign of the Round Table at the end of June, then we’ll send a Legion or three after Loki.”

I nodded, privately feeling relieved. I wasn’t unaware that my morals had been compromised to a degree by my time at Ambrosia – I was too invested in it now, had done too much and gained too much from the company. Still, I didn’t want to kidnap anyone, as had once been done to me, Laura, and Hartland – even if neither he nor I wanted to leave any longer. “Yes, boss.”

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2.3. Scenes 4-6

Scene 4 – February 14th
Interior MLED Compound, Late Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

I liked being a Journeyman. It kept me nice and busy, giving my mind no time to worry about my uncertain future or obsess over the mysteries of my past – between school, training, and patrols, it was rare that I had time to be caught by anxious thoughts.

Console duty, unfortunately, was one of those rare times.

Oh, it was important, to be sure – interfacing with the police and other emergency services, keeping track of the news and alerts, and directing the patrolling heroes to where they could do the most good was vital, and they were tasks that they had no time to do themselves. But while I acknowledged its importance, console duty was slow, for the most part.

Patrols in general were slow, and so, in fact, was heroism – Abe had once remarked to me that the kind of crisis which actually required superheroes, supervillains and similar, usually only happened once or twice a year, at least in New Venice. Most of the time, heroes were just patrolling – maintaining visibility to discourage villains from beginning those crises, and dealing with non-powered crime on the way. But, while it was far from uncommon to come across muggers, thieves, and other such crimes, that very visibility meant that crime, in the area of a hero’s patrol, was actually pretty low – criminals tended to scurry away when a hero was around, rather than commit their crimes. Prevention, rather than apprehension, was the strategy, much like the mere presence of a security guard in a mall stops more shoplifting than they could ever personally prevent. As a result, it wasn’t rare for patrols to go by entirely without incident.

But patrolling was also a very physical activity – moving across the city rooftops for four hours at a time, power-assisted or no, was quickly getting me into the best shape of my life – and that physicality drove a lot of thought from my mind. I was focused on spotting any crimes that were happening, on moving to the next rooftop, and on maintaining banter with whichever hero I was patrolling with – even Adam was beginning to open up. Starling had never bantered with me, but he had also been transferred out, as Abe had promised, at the beginning of the month.

By contrast, on console there was nothing to do but watch – and while there was a lot to watch, between several scrolling newsfeeds and the occasional remarks from Vulcan and Sequoia, who were currently doing a walkthrough of the docks, I was all-too-good at multitasking. I was entirely capable of manning the console while filled with anxiety – and musing about my ability to do that could only stave it off for so long.

“Heya, Quinn,” came a familiar voice from behind me, and I broke out into a grin.

“Holly!” I cried, spinning the seat to look at her. “Please tell me you’re here to relieve me of my mind-numbing duty?”

“Sorry,” she said, pulling up a spare seat. “You’re only half an hour into your shift – you’re here until 8.”

I sighed. “I know, I know. I just hate console duty.”

“I’m aware. Which is why I’m here.”

“But not to replace me?”

“No – to keep you company.” She smiled at me, and produced a lunchbox. “And to share some snacks.”

“You’re a life-saver,” I told her, taking the box and looking to see what she had brought – chips, apple slices, pretzels… I snagged a bag of sliced apples and popped one into my mouth. “Honestly.”

She leaned back in her seat, watching with an indulgent look as I turned back to the console. “So, anything interesting happen so far?”

“Not so far, no. How did your day go?”

“Well, I’ve been planning out my magical studies thesis…”

 

Scene 5 – February 17th
Interior Coulton Library, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

January had been a nice break from school, but I was well and truly back into the swing of things – especially with the addition of a thesis to write. Thankfully, the classes I had taken for my final semester at UNV were relatively light in comparison to those I had completed the previous semester – I had planned ahead, and left some simple classes for the last semester so that I would be able to put most of my energy into a thesis.

Of course, I mused as I knelt in front of a bookshelf, trying to find the book on the history of magical treatments in medicine that I needed for my History of Magical Science class, that didn’t mean I could just breeze through them. I still needed to do the homework and write the essays, even if – as in the case of Professor Marigold’s class – they were simple for me at this point.

And today, unfortunately, the book I wanted to use as a source wasn’t on the shelf.

I checked one last time, seeing that, yes, I was in the right place according to the Dewey number, and that, no, the book still wasn’t there. With a sigh, I sat back on my heels. “Fuck.”

I could, I supposed, find a different book for this paper. But the summary had been so perfect for what I wanted to write about, I really didn’t want to. So what were my options? It hadn’t been available from any other libraries in the city, nor did I think I could I afford to buy it. I could maybe find it online, but I had always found it easier to focus on physical books…

Something shifted in my sense of presence, and I noticed someone approaching behind me. “Hey, is everything okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, looking up. “It’s all – Devon?”

My father’s old doctor blinked at me in surprise, and crouched to join me near the floor. “Quinn! I almost didn’t recognize you – your hair’s grown a bit, hasn’t it?”

I ran my hand through it – it had been over a year since I had gotten a haircut. A few weeks ago, it had finally lost its long war against gravity, and now instead of rising into a jewfro it rolled down to my shoulders. “Yeah, I should get a haircut at some point,” I agreed. “Or buy some hairbands, at least.”

“Maybe,” they said, then paused. “I heard you swear. Is something wrong?”

I showed them the note I had written. “I’m just having trouble finding this book, that’s all. I need it for class. Well, want it for class.”

“Oh, that’s no trouble,” Devon declared, rising. “Don’t move.” As I watched, they dashed down the aisle – quietly, it was a library, after all – and returned a minute later with the book in hand. “Here you go!”

“Devon, you’re a literal lifesaver,” I said, thanking them profusely. “Forget the doctor thing, this is your good karma for the month.” They laughed. “How’d you know where it was?”

“I had taken it down from the shelves for a project I’m doing. Don’t worry,” they assured me, “I’ve already made copies of the parts I want to quote. It’s all yours.”

“Thanks a million,” I said again, slipping it into my bag.

“So… still in college, huh?”

“Yeah. Last semester and it was already paid for – no reason not to, right?”

“Right. But…” they leaned in a little and whispered. “You’re Newton, right?”

“Gee,” I said, flatly, “however did you know?”

“Well, you were having that crisis over a job offer a few months ago, and within a few weeks of that Newton joined the Journeymen, and made it quite public that they’re the first superhero to use they/them pronouns. Other than Multiplex.”

I rubbed the back of my head awkwardly. “Well… turns out I was wrong about that, actually. There’s an independent hero in Toronto who uses they/them, and they’re kind of annoyed at me. Since they’re not part of the MLED, the PR guy’s sweep missed them.”

“Oh.”

“On the other hand, I’ve been messaged by a few other nonbinary heroes who said I inspired them to come out publically, so… ups and downs, I guess?” I shrugged. “It’s complicated.”

Devon chuckled. “Believe me, I know.” They stood and turned to go. “I… should probably get back to my project. But… I just want to ask if you’re doing all right, with… I mean, it’s only been a few months…”

I flinched internally, but realized, after a moment, that the expected twinge of internal pain and grayness in response hadn’t come. Instead, there was just a faint sadness, a bit of grief that passed before long. “I’m… doing all right,” I assured them, a little surprised to find that I was telling the truth. “It still hurts sometimes, but… I’m getting better.”

 

Scene 6 – March 13th
Exterior Dagobah Beach, Late Morning
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Come on guys,” Holly encouraged us, “let’s get a good spot!”

We tromped onto the beach, glancing around – it was the first weekend since the previous summer that it was warm enough to visit the beach, so Holly had put together a group outing for the Journeymen – as well as our partners, for those of us who had them. Of course, Nic – who had finally revealed his identity to me a few weeks ago – was dating Jack, and the only other member of the group who wasn’t single right now was Molly – she had been dating a boy named Tristan for the past two months, although this was the first time I would be meeting him.

Unfortunately, it was a nice enough weekend that we weren’t the only ones there – it seemed that half of New Venice had had the same idea, and the beach was very crowded.

“Come on, we just need a little space,” I begged the world at large, looking around for somewhere to pitch the tent. “Just a little!”

“Oh, hold on! I got something…” Molly’s boyfriend said cheerfully, digging through his bag. “One of my moms gave me…” He produced a small statuette and poked at a glowing button on its base. “It’s some kind of magic thing that’s supposed to stop people from bothering us. Mom is always worried about privacy, you know.”

“May I see it?” Holly asked, holding out a hand for the statue as people began to leave our vicinity – from the snippets I heard as they left, they were remembering urgent appointments, deciding to get lunch, or simply moving closer to the water. “I’m a mage myself, and I’m a little curious.”

Tristan hesitated briefly before passing it over. “Just, uh, be careful with it. She made it herself.”

Holly nodded as she peered at it. Her fingers brushed against each other and a series of glowing runes and sigils began appearing on, and floating in the air near, the statuette.

I stood on my tiptoes and rested my chin on Holly’s shoulder, finding myself curious as well, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to understand any of it. From this close, my presence picked out Holly’s expression right through her illusion – she was biting her lip with a faint frown, her brows furrowed with concentration. It was adorable, even if I couldn’t actually see it, and I had to remind myself yet again that I wasn’t ready for a relationship yet.

“This is on a bit on the edge, legally speaking,” Holly informed Tristan after a moment as she handed it back to him. She put a hand up to my cheek, and I leaned into her palm instinctively. “It’s not quite to the point of flat-out mind-controlling people, but it’s definitely sketchy. I hope your mom hasn’t done anything that goes any farther than this.”

He shook his head. “I don’t think so. She mostly does technomagic stuff, she just threw it together for this trip.”

“Really? It’s pretty advanced mind magic… still,” Holly glanced around the beach, “I can’t argue with the results. Let’s get this tent up so we have somewhere to put our stuff.”

We set up the tent and plopped chairs in the shade under it, leaving our bags and towels on chairs, and before long my friends began arguing about what to do.

“It’s been years since I’ve been to the beach,” Jack said. “A shame, really, since we do live on the coast. I don’t think I’ve made a sand castle since I was ten – I’d kind of like to make one again. See how much better we could do.”

Nic scoffed. “That’s kid stuff, babe.”

“Well, we are kids. I don’t know about you, but I want to make the most of having no responsibilities while it lasts.”

“I barely know what to do,” Molly admitted, absently playing with her boyfriend’s hand. “It’s been years for me as well, and even then I never really had a good time. Too dysphoric, and even now I’m not super comfortable…” Indeed, she was wearing a swim shirt over a one-piece suit, while the rest of us had doffed the clothes we had worn on the way here and were just in swimsuits.

“I know how you feel,” I told her sympathetically, “but I promise, you look great – no one is going to look twice at you.”

“Especially with mom’s thing,” Tristan said, nodding to the statuette – currently sitting on a chair of its own – and bringing her fingers up to his lips to press an encouraging kiss to them. “Is there anything you feel like you missed out on that you want to try?”

She bit her lip nervously. “I guess… I know little girls sometimes get sand packed over their legs in the shape of fish tails? I kind of want to try that.”

“Ooh, I wanna do that too!” Simone cried. “It’s been, like, a year since I got to be a mermaid!”

“We can make you both mermaids,” Jack promised. “You can even lie in the range of the statue if you want, so that no one will look.”

Holly glanced at the statuette, making that same under-the-illusion face of concentration for a few moments as Molly thought, then made a gesture. A transparent bluish bubble appeared around us, extending at least 15 feet away from the tent in all directions. “That’s the edge of its effect. If you’re within that, no one will pay attention to you, and no one outside of our group will enter it.”

With that assurance, Molly nodded. “Then yes, I’d like to be a mermaid.”

The younger members of the group began digging up sand to cover Simone and Molly’s legs. I, meanwhile, dragged a chair out from under the tent’s shade in order to get a little sun – Holly set up another next to mine and produced a book, one which I thought I had seen Miriam reading a few weeks before.

“Convenient that Tristan’s mom – one of his moms, did he say? – happens to be an artificer,” I commented.

She shrugged. “It’s not as unusual as you might think. Magical studies majors are becoming more and more common anyway, and there’s a revolution in artificing coming soon, I think. One of my professors says that within five years, magical technology will be competing with the regular stuff in the commercial market – if his mom is one of those researchers, something like that is probably pretty easy. Although,” she admitted, “I’ve only ever looked at artificing theoretically, myself – some of the same principles went into those magical earpieces, but it’s not quite the same when the spell is anchored a person rather than an object. Fewer power considerations, entirely different UI. My parents do it more often, I think.”

I turned to look at her. “How… are you doing with your parents, by the way? I know you’ve been talking with Dr. Wagner, but…”

Holly let out a long sigh. “Yeah, it’s… healing is slow, you know?” I nodded. “But I’m making progress. I’m planning to actually confront them about it, soon – next weekend, probably.”

“…are you going to want any support?” I asked.

She reached over and took my hand, squeezing it tightly. “I appreciate the offer, I really do, and I’ll think about it, but… I think it’s something I want to do on my own, you know?”

“Yeah, I get that.”

“But I’m almost definitely going to want to curl up and watch something light and fluffy afterward, so if you want to join me for that…”

“I’ll have The Princess Bride queued up and a pillow all fluffed,” I promised.

Holly smiled at me in a way that made my heart flutter. “Forget the pillow. Your shoulder will do fine.”

Previous Chapter | Next Chapter

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2.3. Scenes 1-3

Scene 1 – January 2nd
Exterior City, Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“…and then the bartender says, that’s not a bear, that’s my husband!”

“…is that the punchline?”

Canaveral sighed. “You kids just don’t get my humor anymore,” he complained, then ran for the next gap between rooftops. He dove for the edge of the roof, flipping over it and springing forward across Kasdan Boulevard.

I followed, an extended push against the street canceling out gravity and letting me take a nearly-horizontal trajectory. “You’re growing old, boss. Soon you won’t even know what third-wave meta-thrash punk is,” I quipped.

“…please tell me you’re joking.”

“Oh, hold on a sec.” I had caught a flash of something potentially suspicious in my presence as I landed, and wanted to double-check. Mindful not to stick my head – or even just my hand – over the edge of the building, I instead shifted my presence into my sense of hearing.

It was, as usual, a little overwhelming – more so now, as I wasn’t wearing the PA4 to help shield me from the backlash of my powers. Instead, I just wore padding underneath a mundane version of my costume that the gift store had had on hand. Still, I was getting better at shrugging off the headaches it tended to induce.

After a moment, I relaxed my mental muscles, allowing my presence to return, and pointed to the alley between the building we were on and the next. “Three muggers and possible rapists down there,” I quietly informed Canaveral. “They have a woman against a wall and are gagging her – I assume they spotted us and are trying to keep her silent.” Not silent enough, thankfully – her whimpers of distress had been quite clear to my expanded hearing range, as had the four elevated heartbeats.

“Zookeeper, you get that?” Canaveral asked, his voice equally hushed.

“I got it,” she confirmed through our earpieces. “Routing police now. ETA 90 seconds.”

“We can help her before then. You coming, Newton?”

I hesitated before, feeling guilty, I shook my head. “Not without my actual suit, sorry. I can’t safely throw around the kind of forces that will let me fight properly without it.”

“No worries.” He silently vaulted over the edge of the building. A few thumps, some grateful thanks, and a minute’s wait later, he was back on the roof with me, the woman having been handed over to the police officers who were now arresting her attackers and taking her statement. “Let’s keep moving.”

A few minutes later, we paused briefly on the roof of the Higgins Museum, and Canaveral said, “So… your suit.”

“Yeah?”

“Still messed up?”

I nodded. “Yeah, Anima burnt it out pretty good. Whatever power was making it work, it’s completely drained.”

“It’s been two weeks,” he observed. “Have you looked into fixing it?”

“I’ve read through mom’s notes, but… it’s pretty high-level, and I don’t know where to even begin. Anima tried pumping energy back into it, but it just animated.”

“Why haven’t you talked to Starling about it?” he asked.

I shifted a little uncomfortably. “I… I don’t know. I just haven’t.” That was a lie – I knew exactly why I hadn’t asked him. Starling was a dick – and more than just an anti-social asshole, he also refused to use the right pronouns for me – although he couldn’t settle on either ‘she’ or ‘he’, his inability to consistently gender me was small comfort when he still continued to try.

Canaveral took a breath, seeming to be thinking about something, then said, “I know that you don’t get along all that well with Starling, but… can you at least try? You’re in the same job, kid, and in a few months you’ll be on the same team.”

“Assuming I don’t get transferred out.”

“Right. But even then, sometimes you’ll have co-workers that are dicks. You still have to get along with them – especially when they’re the artificers or tech wizards who maintain your gear.” He gave me a patient smile. “It takes Ben a while to warm up to people – maybe that’s all it is? Spend a little time with him, it’ll get better. Ask him about fixing up your suit.”

It wouldn’t get better, but I didn’t bother explaining. “I’ll do that.”

He walked to the edge of the museum’s roof before pausing and looking over his shoulder. “Third-wave meta-thrash punk… please tell me you made that up?” I hid a grin under my mask, and didn’t answer. “Please?”

 

Scene 2 – January 7th
Exterior City, Early Afternoon
Quinn Kaufman

 

I got my opportunity later that week, going on patrol with Starling. He was taciturn as usual as we walked through downtown – not a route which was ever expected to actually run into trouble, but one which was important to make sure that no one forgot that the heroes were keeping an eye on things. Or so Apollon had explained to me.

It was while we were cutting through an alley that I decided to get it over with. “Hey, Starling,” I said.

“What is it, boy?”

I suppressed a growl. “You know how my suit is fried right now?” He nodded. “Do you think you could take a look? Maybe fix it?”

“…probably.” He eyed me almost suspiciously. “Where did you get it, again?”

“My mom invented it, and left it behind before she was kidnapped. Or whatever happened to her, it’s not clear.”

“…hrm.” He furrowed his brows briefly – maybe focusing on his expanded senses. “…your name is Kaufman, right?”

“…yes?”

“Hrm. I… never mind.”

“What?” I asked.

He seemed a little uncomfortable now, which I didn’t really care about. I was constantly uncomfortable around him, and according to Canaveral I just had to deal with it – he could do the same. After a momentary pause, he said, “I think I may have met your mother, once.”

I blinked in surprise – I hadn’t expected that. “Really?”

He looked away from me, but nodded. “Yes. It would have been… I suppose probably not long before she vanished. We spoke about… her project at the time, and it… inspired me in the creation of my own suit.”

Something about that didn’t quite seem to line up there, although I wasn’t sure what – whatever it was, I put it aside. “So you’ll probably be able to fix mine, then. Or be able to figure out how to from her notes, at least.”

“You have her notes?”

“Yeah, they were in the same case the suit itself was in.”

“…yes, I should be able to.” He opened his mouth to say something else, then closed it and began walking again. “Leave it in my lab. I’ll have it fixed in a week or so.”

That had had to have been the strangest interaction I had had with the man yet, I mused as I followed. Had he seemed… almost guilty about something?

 

Scene 3 – January 15th
Interior High Stakes Bar, Early Evening
Quinn Kaufman

 

“Hey, Quinn! Over here!”

I oriented on Abe’s voice, finally spotting him in the crowded bar, along with Emilia and – I wrinkled my nose – Ben. Still, even if he was here, I had agreed to hang out with Abe and Emilia – had been looking forward to it, even – so I pushed the dull ache of my presence being overstimulated aside and made my way over to them.

“Hey guys,” I said, slipping into the booth that they had claimed beside Emilia. “Are Miriam and Adam not coming too? Seems like this might have been more of a job outing than I thought,” I added, eying Ben.

Abe shook his head. “It’s more of an overlapping social groups thing than a job thing,” he promised me. “Two of Miriam’s closest friends usually come as well, although neither of them could make it tonight. Adam is always invited, but he tends to be even less social than Ben. And Max…” The hero swallowed.

“I’m just here for the beer,” Ben quipped before taking a sip, breaking the momentary tension raised by the mention of Max, who had recently had his trial and been placed in Derleth Asylum until he recovered his sanity.

Emilia gave a weak smile. “So how are you doing, Quinn? Are you excited for your last semester of school?”

“Dreading it, more like,” I said with a theatrical shudder. “I’ve got to write a thesis this semester.”

“Do you actually have to?” Ben asked. “You’re a biology major, right?”

“I don’t have to,” I admitted, “but I’m going to.”

“Gotcha.”

“Hey, could I get a mug of the house draft?” I asked of a flagging waitress. “And a glass of water as well.”

“Certainly, sir,” she said, and I sighed. “Everything alright for the rest of you?”

“Great, thanks.”

“All good here.”

“Mhm.”

The waitress headed off, and Abe said, “Good choice. This is our favorite bar for a reason – among other things, the house draft is excellent.”

“I’m not too picky with alcohol, honestly. If it gets me drunk, that’s good enough for me.”

“Fair.”

“Do you have an idea for your thesis yet?” Emilia asked, getting back to college as a topic. “And what about your other classes?”

“Not yet,” I admitted, “but I’m meeting my advisor tomorrow to talk about it. As for the other classes, they don’t start until the end of January – I’m just trying to get an early start on the thesis, since I have so little free time.”

“What classes are you taking?”

I shifted uncomfortably. “I don’t want to be the only topic of conversation,” I said. “How is Miriam doing?”

“Well, she’s not on forced leave anymore, since Peregrine cleared her and so did Wagner,” Abe said. “But her job is still in jeopardy. She’s doing a PR thing at the hospital tonight as part of fighting for it – trying to get the public to remember what she’s like when she’s not being mind-controlled.”

“It’s not a PR thing,” Emilia scolded him. “She’s just volunteering to do a rotation as a healer.”

“I think it counts as a PR thing given the timing. I mean, Lucas helped her arrange it, right?”

“He got the hospital to agree to it, but…”

“I still can’t believe that the public turned on her so quickly,” I commented. “I mean, she’s been a hero for what, fifteen years?”

“Eighteen,” Abe corrected.

“Eighteen years – people have been born and raised with her as a member of the New Champions. Her career as a hero can vote,” I said. “And the first time that she gets mind controlled, suddenly her job is in danger?”

“What you don’t understand is that the public is fickle,” Ben told me. “They only like us as long as we live up to exactly the image they have of us – that’s why it’s important to take on a persona that you can live up to.”

“Is that why you don’t do much PR stuff?” I asked. “Less to worry about how the public will react?”

“Part of it. I’m not exactly a social person – but at least I don’t lie about who I am.”

The waitress returned and handed me the beer. “Here you are, sir.”

“Thank you,” I said, taking it and sipping. “Mmm. You’re not lying, Abe, this is good.” Then I eyed Ben, as she walked away. “You, on the other hand… what exactly are you implying?”

“I’m not implying anything. You’re pretending to be something other than you are-”

“And what am I, exactly?” I demanded.

“You’re a little boy who wants to feel special and-”

“Settle down,” Abe ordered, trying to calm us down. “You don’t have to have this argument-”

“No, I think we do,” I insisted. “You haven’t respected my pronouns once since we met, Ben. What the hell is your problem?”

“You didn’t seem to care when the waitress called you sir-”

“I did care,” I hissed. “It hurts to be misgendered – it hurts every time, no matter how trivial. But coming out to a stranger hurts too, and having this conversation hurts, and so most of the time I just let it pass. Because it’s not worth it to educate someone I’m never going to speak to again. Because it’s not worth it to risk my life – yes, Ben, my life – by coming out to someone who might react violently! But you,” I pointed at him, “are someone I have to work with. I have to see you and fight beside you and follow your instructions, and I’ll be damned if I do it any longer with someone who thinks I’m a spoiled brat that just wants to feel special!

I realized that I was standing, that I had instinctively extended my presence to force the other heroes to remain in their seats while I vented. I slumped back into the booth, crossing my arms and looking away from the asshole. “You can’t even decide what you think my ‘real gender’ is,” I mocked as Emilia put a hand on my shoulder, trying to keep me calm.

Ben narrowed his eyes. “I don’t have to put up with this. Either she goes or I do.”

“Oh, it’s back to ‘she’ now, is it?” I sneered.

“Ben,” Abe quietly said. “I think you should go.”

The other man’s eyes widened as he spun to look at his boss. “What? But I-”

“If Quinn is telling the truth – and they quite clearly are – then you’ve been misgendering them for months. I know you’ve been through sensitivity training. I know you know how important it is to gender people properly – I know because you’ve never screwed up Molly’s pronouns,” he continued. “If you can’t respect Quinn’s as well, then you have no place on the New Champions.”

“Are you – firing me?” he asked incredulously.

“I don’t have the authority to fire you over this unless Quinn files an official complaint. But I can sure as hell get you transferred off of my team.”

Ben stood, clenching his fists. A moment later, he turned and walked away.

“I’m sorry,” I whispered.

Abe blinked. “You’re sorry? What on earth do you have to be sorry for?”

“I caused that argument, and you’re getting rid of him for me…”

“You didn’t cause that argument,” he insisted. “You were right, you had to get it out in the air, and… I’m sorry, really, because I shouldn’t have tried to smooth it over. And I should never have let it get to the point where that argument had to happen – I should have noticed how he was treating you and put a stop to it, rather than asking you to just get to know him better. That’s my job as team leader. So really, I’m sorry – and I’m sorry for the times that I’ve misgendered you, too.”

“It’s not your fault,” I said. “I never reported it, because I thought it wasn’t really a big deal. I don’t know that I quite realized how much he had been getting to me. And you’re fine, on the pronouns front,” I assured him. “When you misgender me, it’s a mistake, and you always correct yourself immediately. When he does it, it’s malicious. There’s a difference – that’s another reason I don’t usually bother when random people get it wrong.”

“I’m sorry too,” Emilia said. “I invited you out to join us, and clearly I didn’t realize how thorny things were between you and Ben…”

“It’s fine,” I told her. “Again, I never talked about it – except to Holly, and I made her promise to keep it quiet.

“Still, we should have noticed.”

“At least he fixed my suit first… are you really going to transfer him out?” I asked Abe.

He sighed. “I’ll try to convince Susan to let him go entirely, but that’s unlikely – not because she doesn’t support you, but because of the timing. Firing one hero shortly after the whole scandal with Miriam would be a pretty bad look. Between that and the fact that he really is a very effective hero, it’s unlikely that he’ll be let go. And I doubt he’ll let himself be pushed to resign, so… yeah, I’ll get him transferred somewhere else. That, at least, is within my power.” Abe gave me a smile. “Hopefully, with the Excalibur crisis passed – at least until the Round Table emerges again – and Ben sent to another city, the last four months of your time with us will be better than the first two.”

Intermission | Act 3 | Next Chapter

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2. Act 3: The Truth You’ve Spoken

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken,
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

-Rudyard Kipling, 1895

Scenes 1-3, Scenes 4-6

Scenes 7-8, Scenes 9-11, Scenes 12-13, Scenes 14-17

Scenes 18-21, Scenes 22-24, Scenes 25-27

Intermission (Scenes 1-5)

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Dramatis Personae

Principal Characters

Quinn Kaufman, the young superhero Newton, who has telekinetic and extrasensory abilities. (they/them)
Holly Koval, the young superhero Loki and Quinn’s best friend, who creates illusions. (she/her and he/him)

Champions and Apprentices

Abraham Armstrong, the superhero Canaveral and leader of the New Champions, who commands kinetic energy. (he/him)
Benjamin Brant, the superhero Starling, who can fly for brief moments and creates incredible technology. (he/him)
Emilia Alvarez, the superheroine Zookeeper, who transforms into animals. (she/her)
Jack Forester, the young superhero Sequoia and Niccolo’s boyfriend, who transforms into wood. (he/him)
Miriam Wright, the superheroine Anima, who commands the energy of life. (she/her)
Molly Madigan, the young superheroine Referee, who imposes fairness in an aura around her. (she/her)
Niccolo Mellas, the young superhero Hypnos, who can project his senses at a distance. (he/him)
Simone Destrey, the young superheroine Journey, who teleports. (she/her)

 Knights and Knaves

Alessandra DeVitto, the supervillainess Hertz and a friend of Miriam. (she/her)
Arthur Könberg, the retired supervillain The Mountain King. (he/him)
Delilah Koval, the retired supervillain The Maestra, Holly’s mother, and a mage specializing in illusion magic. (she/her)
Dominic Könberg, the supervillain Sir Amethyst and one of Arthur’s sons, who commands all the elements of the earth. (he/him)
Jacob Koval, the retired supervillain The Maestro, Holly’s father, and a mage specializing in enchantment magic. (he/him)
Jennifer Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Adamant and one of Arthur’s wives, who is invulnerable to harm. (she/her)
Maria DeVitto, the supervillainess La Borda, Alessandra’s wife, and a friend of Miriam. (she/her)
Miles Mercer, an employee of the Ambrosia Company also known as Middleman, who can magically trade things of similar value. (he/him)
Morgan Könberg, Arthur and Jennifer’s wife and an accomplished artificer. (she/her)
Percival Könberg, the supervillain Sir Ardent and Dominic’s younger brother, who has super strength. (he/him)
Susan Thornhill, CEO and owner of the Ambrosia Company and Secretary of Metahuman Affairs.
Tristan Könberg, the supervillain Sir Alacrity and Arthur’s youngest son, who has super speed. (he/him)
Vivian Könberg, the supervillainess Dame Acumen and Arthur’s only daughter, who magically manipulates objects. (she/her)

 Lords and Ladies

Devon Durandel, David’s former doctor and a friend of Quinn’s. (they/them)
Lucas Apollon, a strategic and public relations consultant for the MLED. (he/him)
Susan Shepard, the local director of the Metahuman Law Enforcement Division, or MLED. (she/her)
Saige Sanders, a young chemist and a friend of Alessandra’s. (she/her)

Intermission | Next Chapter

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2.2. Intermission (Scenes 1-2)

Scene 1 – Two Years Ago
Interior MLED Compound, Early Evening
Miriam Wright

It was a fairly normal night. I was, as I often did when otherwise unoccupied, reading a book in the common room of the MLED Compound, making myself available in case any crises called for my assistance, if the other heroes were injured, or simply if any of the Journeymen needed me. I had just finished a chapter of Going Postal when Susan entered the room, followed by a nervous-looking young man with short red hair.

“Deputy Director Shepard,” I said to her with a smile, closing the book. “And who’s this young man?” The younger redhead flinched as I said that, and I wondered why.

“This young lady,” Susan said, emphasizing the word, “is the newest member of the Journeymen. The MLED will also be in loco parentis for her.” She caught my eye meaningfully, and I nodded to assure her that I understood the hidden meaning. A clearly transgender young woman that the MLED was taking parental responsibility for? I could read between the lines.

“I’m terribly sorry, young lady,” I told the poor girl. “Must have been a trick of the light to make me mistake you like that. What’s your name?”

“I, um, I haven’t chosen one yet,” she whispered. “I guess… just M, for now? That’s my first initial.”

“Well it’s nice to meet you, M,” I said, smiling at her. “If you ever need advice about anything, feel free to ask me, okay?”

“…kay.”

“I’m going to leave you here with Anima for the moment, if that’s all right with you,” Susan told M. “There’s paperwork related to your case that you don’t need to be directly involved with and, I suspect, would rather not be. I’ll be back in a few hours with papers for you to sign – until then, just wait here.”

“…okay.” M sat in one corner of the couch, curling her knees up to her chin and staring at me worriedly.

Susan left, but not before giving me another warning look from behind the couch, where M couldn’t see. The woman pretended to be stern, but I knew she cared more for her charges – agents, heroes, and especially the Journeymen – than she let on.

I returned to my book, but more slowly, keeping an eye on M. She was obviously shy – and, more than that, nervous. It seemed as though she was afraid of me, which, if I had parsed her previous home life correctly, I couldn’t quite blame her for.

As I read, I tried to think of some way to set her at ease. A few minutes later, I had it, and glanced up with a smile. “M, dear, my hair has been getting kind of long,” I told her, pulling a strand of it out straight to show her – it hung down well past my shoulders right now. “I think I want to braid it back – would you like to help me?”

M blinked in surprise and hesitated before quietly answering, “I don’t know how. I… don’t know a lot of things…”

“That’s fine,” I promised her. “I’ll show you. It’s never too late to learn – never too late to start being better.”

After a moment, she said, “…I’d like that,” with a shy smile.

Scene 2 – One Year Ago
Interior Townhouse, Early Afternoon
Miriam Wright

I fluttered around my apartment, cleaning up as quickly as I could – momentary infusions of vitality bringing things to life just long enough for them to fling themselves to where they should go, tiny statues holding dustclothes and rags to wipe things down afterward. I should have cleaned up long ago, but it wasn’t as though I had company all that often – my home wasn’t very large, so when my friends gathered we typically went out, or Essa and Maria’s home, not mine. And since I didn’t spend much time here anyway, always feeling a little depressed by the place’s emptiness… well, the clutter built up.

I wasn’t quite done clearing up the dishes when the knock came at my door. “One moment!” I called. A spark of power flowed into the dishes, and they spun into the air, flying into my room and landing on my bed. As I walked to the front door, I bumped the door to my room with my hip to close it. It clicked shut, and I opened the front door.

“Hi Miriam,” said M, grinning up at me, and I smiled back. Since the MLED had taken her in – and since going on hormone therapy about a month later – the girl had slowly been perking up, becoming more cheerful and happy, although she was still shy around new people. “Thanks for inviting me over!”

“But of course!” I assured her. “I’m happy to have you here, and very glad to help.” I led her over to a table where I had set out makeup supplies. “I’m glad you felt that you could come to me for help.”

“I asked Holly and Simone first,” M confessed, “but Simone obviously doesn’t have any makeup that would fit my complexion, and apparently Holly never wears any – it’s all her powers.”

“Her magic is useful that way,” I agreed. “Did you ask Emilia?”

She shrugged. “She doesn’t wear makeup much either and her skin is too much darker than mine. I didn’t even bother.”

“Well, I’m very happy to be teaching you.” We sat at the table, and I took a bottle of foundation. “We’ll start with foundation…”

I took it slowly, one by one explaining to M how to use each of the tools in my makeup kit. For today, I had decided that the best way to teach would be to demonstrate putting them on myself, then for me to put them on her, so that she could feel what it was like. Next time, she could try putting it on herself.

M was a good student, paying close attention and asking questions when she needed to. Of course, she had always been a fast learner – she was well on her way to becoming the best martial artist in New Venice’s MLED, already beating out me, Holly, Canaveral, and even Nic. She was even well on her way to matching Ben – so it was no surprise that she would pick makeup up quickly as well, now that she finally felt comfortable enough to try it.

Somewhere in the back of my head, I had to wonder if Zacharias Cobalt – the Blue Phoenix, an elderly man whose powers activated and rejuvenated him on his death bed – was the reason that she had been holding back from many aspects of transitioning over the last year. He had signed onto the Journeymen for training a few months after she did, and had recently graduated and been transferred to Boston’s team. While he had been here, though… well, Zach was an old man, set in his ways despite his new, amorphous body, and he had repeatedly misgendered both M and Holly, no matter how many times he was corrected or disciplined for it. And though I had complained on M’s behalf to Susan – who had replaced Henry as the local director of the MLED following the loss of his legs to a robotic army created by Motael – the the policies set out by Chief Director Redding didn’t let misgendering alone serve as cause to fire the man, at least not without a complaint from the affected person. She, Henry, and Abe had all watched Zach like hawks, hoping to find another reason to get rid of him, but he had toed the line on everything else. And with M not willing to file an official complaint…

Well, at least he was gone now. And M was beginning to experiment, finally – she had gone shopping with Simone the previous weekend and come back with several dresses, and commented to me on a patrol that she was thinking of adding a skirt to her costume. And now, I thought with an internal smile, she was letting me teach her how to use makeup!

“Alright,” I said, putting the finishing touches on her makeup. “All that’s left is a setting spray, assuming you want to keep this on. But first…” I turned the mirror I had used to put my own makeup on towards her. “Take a look!”

M smiled widely as she gazed rapturously into the mirror, her eyes flicking from the subtle lipstick to the light blush to the sharp eyeliner. Her eyes began to water after a moment, and she brought a hand up to wipe away a tear before realizing that it would probably ruin her makeup. “Oh… oh-!”

I handed her a tissue. “Here you are, dear.”

“Thank you.” She carefully dabbed the tear away, then turned that dazzling smile on me. “Thank you, Miriam. This…” She sighed happily. “I look wonderful. I feel wonderful. Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure,” I told her sincerely. “Any time – although I’m sure you won’t need my help to achieve this look before long.”

“I might come to you anyway,” M said, turning back to the mirror. “You’re… really good at this.”

“I try.” I stood and peered over her shoulder at our reflections in the mirror. I had given us approximately the same look, and with both of our hair in similar bobs, we looked quite similar.

M couldn’t seem to stop smiling, but a moment later, still looking at herself, she said, “So I’ve been thinking more about names.”

“And?” I asked. M had tried out a few names – Claire, Emily, Elizabeth – but none had stuck.

“I realized I might be thinking about it wrong,” she told me. “I’ve been trying to find something that had meaning to me, but… most people’s names don’t have any inherent meaning. They’re just names that they were given, and they grew into. Or for nicknames, they’re names that they just make people think of. So…” She met my eyes through the mirror, her happy smile turning a little nervous. “What would you name me?”

I blinked in surprise. “Are you asking me to pick your name?”

“To suggest some, at least.”

I tilted my head, thinking. “Hmm… Do you want to keep the M as your initial? You didn’t with names you’ve tried so far.”

“I think so. I don’t want to change my last name – I may hate my parents, but I’m proud of my Irish heritage – and the one thing I liked about my deadname was the alliteration.”

“Understandable,” I said with a nod. “Alright, M names. Let’s see. ‘Maureen’ or ‘Mabel’ would both be pretty old-fashioned, and so would Matilda – not for you, since you’re a modern, forward-thinking girl,” I winked at her. “I think ‘Mackenzie’ is a cute name… but the obvious nickname for that would be ‘Mac’, which might be…”

“Edging to masculine with the nickname there, yeah,” M agreed.

“’Madeline’ is quite pretty, but again, ‘Maddy’ is pretty close to ‘Mat’ – and might also be too similar to your last name. How about ‘Megan’?”

She considered it. “Megan… Megan Maddigan… maybe,” she decided, then chuckled at how many ‘M’s were being thrown around. “Let’s put that on the table and keep going.”

“I believe ‘Maeve’ is an Irish name. Maggie – well, Margaret, but you’d probably be called Maggie. Margaret could also be short for Molly-”

M’s eyes lit up. “Ooh, yes! That!”

“Molly?”

She nodded eagerly. “Yes. That’s my name!”

“You seemed to settle on that rather quickly,” I teased.

“It’s like…” M – no, Molly – bit her lip, trying to think of the words. “Like, the names I tried before, they were nice names. But something about them didn’t quite fit, you know? But here… it just kind of clicked. Like, yes, that’s it, that’s what my name is supposed to be. It was the same way when I realized that I was really a girl, like that’s why I’ve felt wrong my whole life. This is why my name never felt right.”

I wrapped my arms around the girl’s shoulders, hugging her from behind. “Well, I’m very glad to have been the one to find your new name, Molly.”

Her grin, already wide, spread further at hearing her name. “I’m glad it was you too, mom.” A moment later, she tensed and blushed heavily – enough that I could see it through the makeup. “I mean-!”

“It’s okay,” I chuckled. “You’re not the only Journeyman who calls me that. I don’t mind.”

“But, but… they call you that as I joke, and I just… I accidentally…”

“I understand, dear,” I said, my heart warming even further, and pressed a soft kiss into her hair. “You can call me ‘mom’ if you want to. I would be very proud to have you as my daughter.”

Slowly, Molly relaxed, and reached behind herself to hug me back as best as she could. “I love you, mom,” she whispered.

“I love you too, Molly.”

Previous Chapter | Act 3 | Next Chapter

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2.2. Scenes 41-42

Scene 41 – December 23rd
Interior Mansion, Early Evening
Morgan Könberg

“Hey mom?” I heard Tristan’s drift through the halls. “Mom?”

“Yes, dear?” Jenny called back to him from somewhere else in the mansion.

I nodded to myself – Jenny would handle whatever it was – and leaned back over Excalibur. The blade had an immense power and energy, and as a mage, it fascinated me. I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps…

“No, other mom! Mom?” Tristan shouted.

I sighed and, instead of taking hold of the sword for the first time, I lowered a protective plastic case – inscribed and enchanted to block all magical emanations – over it. “One moment!” I called back to him, putting a little bit of magic into my voice so he would hear me.

“There’s someone at the door!”

I paused in my redoubling of the protective charms. Who on earth could come to our door? It might, I supposed, be one or both of the Kovals – having dragged them from the depths of their research not too long ago, they might be aware enough over the world to come over for a visit – but I didn’t think it was likely. And no one else should even be able to notice that our mansion existed.

Perhaps it was the Kovals’ daughter, who might still be keyed into the wards as well. She had been a friend of Dom and Viv’s when they were younger, although I didn’t think they had spent much if any time with each other in years. But the urge to reconnect with an old friend could come at any time.

With that in mind, I left Excalibur in my lab and went to go see who it was. And, for that matter, why Tristan had called for me specifically –

“Oh,” I said, flatly. “It’s you.”

Arthur Peregrine inclined his head in greeting. “It’s me. Hello again, Morgan.”

I crossed my arms, leaning against the doorframe, and pointedly didn’t invite him in. “Tristan, you can go.”

“But mom, that’s Arthur Peregrine.”

“I know, dear. I’ll deal with him.”

Tristan glanced between us, confused – while he, like the rest of my family, knew that I had once been Peregrine’s apprentice, I didn’t talk about that time much. My youngest son especially had no reason to know the details. After a moment, he left.

Peregrine’s eyes tracked Tristan as he left for a moment, and I was certain that he was putting his remarkable senses for people’s health and wellbeing to use. “I see you haven’t forgotten the medical spells we developed together,” he said to me. “He’s shaping up into a fine young man, it seems.”

“I can’t fall you for those spells, I suppose – no one else was creating them.” I sighed, and turned away, walking towards the nearest sitting room. “I suppose you had better come in.”

He followed in silence as I led him to the sitting room, where I found my husband sitting and struggling with a crossword puzzle.

“Morgan!” he said happily, glancing up at me with a sunny smile, and I couldn’t help but return it. “I see you have a guest?”

“Yes. Arthur, this is Arthur Peregrine,” I said to him. “Peregrine, this is…” I paused briefly, wondering whether or not I should reveal that we were polyamorous. Peregrine wasn’t a judgmental man, I could give him that, but the memory of my parents and siblings disowning me when they found out was hard to get past. It only took me an instant to remember, though, that Tristan had called to ‘other mom’, and that was likely all the clue that Peregrine had needed to figure out our situation, so I continued, “one of my partners, also named Arthur.”

“I recall,” Peregrine said, shaking Arthur’s offered hand. “A pleasure.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Arthur told him. “I’ve heard a great deal about you from Morgan. And other places, of course,” he joked. “Not sure we’ve ever met though.”

“Once or twice, I think,” Peregrine responded. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it to the commitment ceremony.”

“We’re sorry to have interrupted you,” I said, nodding to the now discarded puzzle. “I’ll take him to a different room.”

“No, no!” Arthur insisted, taking the puzzle and his pencil and rising. “I’ll leave. It’s quite alright.”

“Dear-”

“I’ll just go find Jenny!” he assured me – probably for the best. Today had been a good day for him, but any disruption to his normal routine could be an issue, and Jenny would help him stay on track if necessary. A moment later, he was gone.

Peregrine turned his gaze on me, “You know that-”

“Yes, we know that he has Alzheimer’s,” I snapped, falling into the vacated seat.

“Why didn’t you-”

“Call you for help?” I sneered. “Why didn’t you come visit at any point in the last, oh, 22 years? Couldn’t make it to the commitment ceremony,’” I scoffed, “you can teleport anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. You just couldn’t be bothered to show up. Besides,” I added, “it resists magical healing. I’ve tried, and so have the doctors at NVG.”

“I was quite busy that afternoon, I’ll have you know,” he protested, “interviewing someone to replace you after you left your apprenticeship.”

“Ah yes, your oh-so-rigid schedule,” I mocked. “I remember that schedule. Every moment of every day regimented and pre-planned, not a moment for ourselves. And you wonder why I left?”

“You didn’t mind so much back then,” he reminded me, “and I was far stricter with my own time than I ever was with yours.”

I huffed, crossing my arms in irritation. “You were never a hypocrite, no. But what’s right for you isn’t right for me.”

He sighed. “That’s true, I suppose.”

We sat in silence for a moment before I asked, “Why are you here?”

“I’m sure you noticed the events involving the so-called ‘Magnificent Maxwell’ and Anima-”

“No, why are you here,” I repeated. “In my home.”

“…because you invited me in.” I narrowed my eyes at the man, and he chuckled. “I’m here because I hoped that we could set our argument aside. Forgive each other for the things we said. There aren’t many mages at our level, and… I suppose I’d like to have my friend and colleague back.”

“…it’s true, there aren’t many at our level,” I admitted. Even the Kovals weren’t really a match for Arthur and I – while they were certainly more expert in the arts of the mind and trickery, they were extraordinarily specialized. In all other aspects of magic, Arthur and I were far more skilled.

“So here is what I propose,” Peregrine said. “It’s been a little while-”

My brows rose. “22 years, to be precise.”

“A little while, as I said. Don’t look at me like that, you’d be as ageless as I am if you cared to be,” he said, defensively. “We’ve had time to cool off. We can each explain our side of matters without the big…” he waved his hands, somehow conveying the essence of the tense, highly-charged argument we had had towards the ends of my apprenticeship. “Then, after that, we can lay it to rest.”

“Ah, I see,” I said in understanding. “You have to have the last word, even 22 years later.”

“You can go second, if you prefer,” he offered.

“Fine. You start, then.”

Peregrine steepled his fingers, and began, “It all goes back to Martin Abelard, I suppose. Metahumans – and more than metahumans, all unusually gifted people – should use their talents to serve society and humanity. I am lucky enough to have remarkable faculty with magic, particularly that which relates to healing – how could I not use my magic to help the world?”

“…that’s it?” I asked after he had been silent for a moment.

“That’s it.”

“Huh. Seems a lot simpler without all the…” I waved my hands.

“Yes,” he agreed. “My magic lets me do things others cannot – I should use it to help. And your view?”

“My counterpoint,” I said, “is that that only reaches to a point, and that point is as far as a normal man can think to reach. A mage like… like… the Magnificent Maxwell, say, or Anima, their skills are within the reach of society. Beyond that – in the far reaches of theoretical magic, where we reside – I think our involvement does more harm than good.”

“How so?”

“How many advances in medical magic have there been in the last century that you weren’t involved in?” I asked.

“…very few,” he admitted. “I think I see where you’re going with this…”

“You’re without a doubt the greatest healer in the world, Peregrine,” I said, “and you have an excellent claim to the title of greatest mage in general. But even you have only so much time – presuming that the magic of time still escapes you.” He nodded. “Few, now, are willing to make their own researches into medical magic without your guidance or assistance. Of those few, very few have succeeded. But were you not available, I would hazard a guess that many who now wait for their chance to work for you would instead forge ahead, and in doing so, make their own discoveries.”

“And for yourself?”

“My field has been untouched by my influence,” I pointed out, “and look how quickly artificing techniques are advancing. Why, in a few years, researches will likely catch up to where I was at ten years ago.”

“But if you shared your research -” he tried.

“If I shared my research, it would leap the community forward,” I agreed. “But only to the point that I had reached. And as my dominance over the field became established, I would only stall its advances for as long as I worked – and since, as you pointed out, I could be immortal if I wished to, that might be forever. Instead, I allow them to make their own advances, and eventually – perhaps in twenty years, perhaps fifty, but eventually – the world at large will match and surpass me. And they will have done so,” I added, “on their own.”

He sighed. “I see your point,” Peregrine admitted, “but I fear that I cannot agree with it. I feel that a man who can turn aside another’s death and chooses not to has killed as surely as if he had committed the murder himself. I cannot possibly choose not to heal, and if I make an advance that could help in the hands of others, how could I choose not to share it?”

“…I see your point as well,” I admitted. “My specialty of magic has, perhaps, less of an ethical imperative to action than yours does.”

“Perhaps so.”

We sat in silence for a moment, but it was no longer tense and angry. We understood each other, finally.

Scene 42 – December 23rd
Interior Mansion, Continuous
Morgan Könberg

“So…” I finally said.

“So?”

“Will you?”

“Will I what?”

I sighed. “You always have to do this.”

“I have no children of my own, allow me some few pleasures of fatherhood with one of the only people I can be so informal with,” Peregrine said with a faint smile.

“You could find a partner easily, if you tried.”

He shook his head. “I have no time. And yes,” he held up a hand to forestall protests, “I know, I could rework my schedule, but I’m not going to. Besides, not only am I a very public figure – with no secret identity – who therefore must always ask about the motivations of anyone who seeks to become closer to me, I am also as close to immortal as anyone outside of Aegis gets.”

“Aren’t you older than Aegis? And La Borda here in New Venice is probably just as immortal.”

“And is in a committed relationship, on top of being much younger than me.” He shrugged. “The point is, where would I find a woman who could relate to a man two centuries old?”

“Fair point. So?”

He smiled. “Yes, I will help your husband with his Alzheimer’s. I’m certain that its magical resistance will not be able to stop me – particularly if, as I suspect, Mr. Könberg is the patient of a young doctor called Durandel who messaged me some time ago about a man with magic-resistant Alzheimer’s.”

“Thank you,” I said gratefully. “And yes, that would be us.”

He held up a hand. “I’m sure that you remember my limits with such genetic diseases, but I feel the need to warn you in any case. I can clear the buildup of proteins that causes Alzheimer’s, but I cannot cure the underlying cause of the condition – he will, if he lives long enough, face its specter once more. Neither can I ensure that your children do not inherit its risk. In addition, if any of his memories have been permanently lost at this point, I will not be able to restore them.”

“I know,” I assured him, “but the help you can give will still be greatly appreciated. And if Arthur receives another 50-to-60 years of good health before the proteins have built up enough to be a risk, well… that will have been a great blessing.”

Peregrine nodded. “The other warning I must give is that, should Mr. Könberg wear his helm, it will speed the onset of the disease.”

My blood ran cold. “What do you-”

“The helm of his armor, the Mountain King’s armor, the helm that you gave to a young woman that I presume was your daughter when they broke into the local MLED Compound last week,” he calmly said, as though he wasn’t revealing knowledge that could tear my family’s peaceful life apart. “The one that enhances the senses and intellect of its wearer. Oh, do sit down,” he ordered.

I realized that I had leapt to my feet, magical energy filling my lips and tongue unbidden, ready for me to speak curses into existence and smite the man who might threaten my family. I sat, slowly, but didn’t banish the magic that had come to my unconscious call. “You…”

“Don’t act surprised that I knew your husband’s identity, Morgan,” Peregrine said. “I did mention that we had met, and when else would I have bumped into the man? It’s not as though I made it to your commitment ceremony.”

“Don’t joke,” I hissed at him. “If you knew – have known – why did you never say anything?”

“He’s retired, is he not?”

“Yes,” I confirmed. “Since he met me and Jenny. His resolve to stay out of that life only redoubled when we began having children.”

“Why, then, would I care who he once was?” Peregrine asked. “I cannot change the past – and if I could, it wouldn’t be worth changing the Mountain King. Of all the villains I’ve faced, he was by far the best of a bad lot.”

I couldn’t help but chuckle. “Arthur used to say that about himself as well. I think he took pride in being the least bad option – he once said that if the heroes really wanted to remove him from New Venice, they could have, but they were afraid of who would replace him.”

“The city hasn’t done too badly,” he observed.

I shrugged. “With him having just vanished rather than being captured or killed, we think people assumed he was still around, ready to step in if anyone broke his rules. That culture of keeping things safe for civilians, and not all that bad for heroes, either, seems to have stuck around to this day – for the most part, at least.” I scowled. “The Buff Boys don’t hold to it, and neither do out-of-towners like…” I trailed off, realizing that I didn’t know what Peregrine thought of the Ambrosia Company. I was certain that he knew of them, but… his Abelish views lead him to think that they did more good than bad.

“Like Legion?”

“Yes.”

“Then what were you thinking,” he asked, “sending your family – your children – out into that?”

“What was I thinking? I was thinking that I was making the best of a bad situation,” I snapped. “I was thinking that Legion isn’t in the city anymore, and that no one would know who we were. I was thinking that we would be safe under our wards, and that you wouldn’t waltz right in and pull the rug out from under me! I was thinking that there are people after us, Peregrine, and I don’t know how deep their tendrils go, and I can’t ask for help because I can’t trust anyone!”

By this point I was on my feet again, magic swirling around me in the heat of my anger, and Peregrine was standing as well – his magic arrayed defensively around him, but still ready for combat. He seemed surprised, and began, “Morgan-”

“You don’t know what kind of shit we’re fighting against,” I hissed at the other magician. “You don’t know what we’re risking. So don’t you dare judge me.”

“Morgan, please -”

I turned away from him, stalking out of the room. “You should go.”

“I… please, let me -”

Go.

He went.

Previous Chapter | Intermission

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2.2. Scenes 38-40

Scene 38 – December 23rd
Interior Cell Block, Late Morning
Maxwell Copperfield

I felt empty.

When I had taken up the sword – Excalibur, according to Abe – I had been filled with power, filled with understanding. The world had seemed so simple, magic had seemed so simple. My thoughts had raced, I had built great towers of logic with perfect clarity. Spells far beyond my reach had been simple. It seemed as though I had no limits. And now…

In only a few moments, Anima had claimed it for herself, and those towers of thought had come crashing down. I had collapsed as well, drained of both my energy and my mind, or so it had felt. I could barely remember those heights, now – even the events themselves were dim and hard to recollect, so colored had they been by my lofty thoughts.

I wasn’t sure how long it had been, since then. A few days, perhaps, since I had been deposited in the magic-suppressing cells beneath the MLED Compound. No doubt I would eventually be transferred to Steel Island, where I would remain until I escaped. If I escaped.

I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like, to be in prison. I had never been caught before. Unpleasant, no doubt, but they probably couldn’t hold me. Steel Island couldn’t hold villains as weak as Voltage, Motael, or Ridealong – how could they possibly hold me, even without Excalibur?

“Max.”

I was jostled into full awareness by the sound of my name from a familiar voice. My head rose and swiveled and I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen – Abraham Armstrong and Emilia Alvarez, the couple that I had loved and lost and regretted losing. I was overcome by an intense feeling of relief – thank god, I thought, because Abe and Emilia were here.

Just as quickly, I was set upon by an equally intense guilt. I had hurt them, I knew it. I had neglected them both until I lost them, obsessed with finding a book that might, it seemed, have been lost forever – had then attacked them, while in possession of a sword that, according to Abe, at least, had been affecting my mind.

And here they were, looking at me with pity and rage and tenderness and love in such quantities that I could hardly bear it. Looking at me like that now, while I was a failure and locked into an appearance that I hated and dressed in rags and…

“Don’t-” I said, my voice rough with disuse – I hadn’t spoken since the moment Excalibur left my hand. “…don’t look at me.”

“Max,” Emilia said, sitting in the chair on the other side of the glass from me, resting her hands on the table that crossed it. “Why don’t you want us to look at you?”

That was a complicated question. I tried to marshal my thoughts to explain that I had done something horrible by even pretending to take over the city – especially since my thoughts had been leaning farther towards truly attempting to do so that than I had let on to Abe and Emilia when they had confronted me. I tried to figure out how to explain that my natural face was disgusting to me, and that wearing the glamour of my true face allowed me to feel comfortable with the world and myself. I tried to think of how to explain that the sight of them was painful to me, and shouldn’t my own face be equally painful to them?

All I could say was, “I’m hideous.”

She exchanged a look with Abe, one which I, with my mind still staggered by the loss of Excalibur, was unable to decipher. He squeezed her shoulders from where he stood behind her, then said, “Max. Are you feeling okay?”

“…no,” I admitted. “I feel like… like a puzzle with half its pieces scattered. And I… I’ve always felt like that, a little bit, but…” I sighed. “I had a glimpse of the box, just for a moment. I saw where I was going and how to get there. And now even that’s gone. Now I’m just broken, and I barely remember what being complete would look like.”

Another one of those looks. “Are these withdrawal symptoms, do you think?” Emilia asked. “Miriam is struggling with them as well.”

I waved a hand dismissively. “No, that’s not it. There’s no lingering magic, I would notice that,” I said. “It’s just the effect of having had power and then lost it. I was so much more, and now…”

“Max, I said it before and I’ll say it again,” Emilia told me. “You don’t need Excalibur to be amazing. You’re incredible just as yourself – as you are now.”

“And…” Abe added, “we do mean as you are now. You don’t need magic or a glamour or a suit or a sword. You, Maxwell Copperfield, can be enough.”

I turned away from them, unable to handle their pity and pride and concern any longer. “Nothing will ever be enough, for some people,” I muttered. “I have to be more. I can’t – I don’t -” I buried my face in my hands, unable to express it any better.

“…Max, it seems likely that you’re going to be sent to a mental care hospital,” Abe said from behind me.

“Not Steel Island?” I asked, speaking up a little to be heard through my hands.

“Not Steel Island,” Emilia confirmed. “You’re not in your right mind, we can tell, and we’ll testify to that. And Arthur Peregrine-” I felt a flash of rage. “-is likely to testify that the sword was affecting you mentally as well. You’ll be there until the doctors clear you.”

I said nothing. I wasn’t sure what they wanted me to say.

“If you go to care,” Abe said, begged, “please, Max, please do your best. Put in an effort. For us. If you can recover, if you can get past what this sword did to you, then…” He paused, sounding uncertain. “If you can get better,” he finished after a moment, “It will make me – us – very happy.”

“…I’ll try,” I promised. “For you.” I turned to face them again and saw that Abe was blinking back tears – Emilia wasn’t even trying to prevent them. I blinked, feeling wetness on my face, and realized that I was crying as well. “This… this shouldn’t be so hard,” I whispered.

“Healing is never easy,” Emilia said. “But it’s worth it.” I nodded.

“One more thing,” Abe warned me. “Arthur Peregrine will also be visiting you, after lunch.” I tensed. “He’s here to clear you of any lingering influence from Excalibur-”

“I told you, I would have noticed that,” I hissed, whirling back to face them again. “I don’t need help from Arthur Peregrine!

“Then he’ll confirm that,” Abe said in a calming voice. “And you need to let him.”

I growled. “I don’t need to let Peregrine do anything! I raged. “He’s the whole reason for this mess! It’s all his fault!”

Another incomprehensible look between them. “Max,” Emilia said. “You don’t need to forgive him. All you need to do is not fight against his medical expertise.”

“…Arthur Peregrine is the antithesis of everything a magician should be,” I informed her. “He hoards information and spends his time giving nothing back, doing little but expanding his own powers, never using them on behalf of the world – the man is a mockery of every value I hold dear!”

Another look.

“Stop looking like that!” I shouted.

Abe sighed. “We can’t help you, Max, as much as we want to – we don’t have the necessary skills.” he admitted. “All we can do is ask you to let those who do have those help you. And if you don’t, you’ll never get better.”

“…I don’t need help,” I hissed. “Least of all from Arthur Peregrine.”

One more look, and then they stood to go. “…goodbye, Max,” Abe said.

Emilia put a hand to the glass, clearly hoping for me to do the same, but I didn’t. A moment later, she bowed her head and left, Abe following behind.

I sank into the chair and rested my head in my arms, struggling not to cry.

Scene 39 – December 23rd
Interior Cell Block, Early Afternoon
Maxwell Copperfield

That afternoon, as I had been warned, he came. Arthur Peregrine. Wearing a smug look and a jacket, with that fucking bird logo as a golden pin, standing outside my cell.

“Mr. Copperfield,” he said with a nod. “How are you feeling this afternoon?”

“Peregrine,” I spat. “Come to gloat?”

He tilted his head as though he didn’t know exactly what I was talking about. “Come again?”

“This all turned out exactly as you planned, didn’t it,” I hissed. “You completely ruined me. Leaving that sword in there…”

“Mr. Copperfield, I’m afraid that I don’t-”

“Don’t pretend you don’t remember,” I growled. “I applied for an apprenticeship with you. You interviewed me, and turned me down.”

“Yes, I recall.”

“All I wanted was to learn!” I yelled at him. “That’s all I wanted! I just wanted that book, all I wanted was to learn magic! That’s all I ever wanted! But you – you!”

“Excalibur really did a number on you, didn’t it,” Peregrine murmured.

“Excalibur hasn’t affected me for shit,” I denied. “I’m as sane as I’ve ever been. All it did was open my eyes.”

“If this is as sane as you’ve ever been,” Peregrine observed sarcastically, “then I fear what you were like before. No, Mr. Copperfield, I’m afraid that you are in fact still touched by the lingering effects of that blade.” He stepped forward, passing through the glass that had separated us as thought it were nothing but a mirage. “If you’ll allow me to briefly touch your mind, I can restore your rationality.”

I pressed myself back against the wall, trying to stay as far away from him as I could. “Get back,” I hissed.

“Mr. Copperfield, I’m trying to help you,” he said, the irritation and anger that I was certain always lurked beneath those faux-tired eyes finally beginning to show.

“I don’t want help – not from you,” I spat.

He sighed. “Very well then. I cannot help you if you are not willing to be helped.” The man turned and strode out of my cell again.

I collapsed onto the bed, staring up at the blank ceiling and retreating into my thoughts once more.

Scene 40 – December 23rd
Interior MLED Compound, Continuous
Arthur Peregrine

It was disappointing but not, on the whole, surprising. The lingering effects of the sword magnified Copperfield’s preexisting paranoia and narcissism, making him fear some sort of conspiracy on my part to humiliate him and destroy him. I wished I could help, I really did, but the arts of mental healing required cooperation from the afflicted, just as non-magical therapy did.

There were, of course, more unethical magics of the mind, which had no need of consent to function. They could tear apart Copperfield’s psyche and rebuild it into a better, more rational person. But those dark magics were far beyond what I was willing to use.

After all, I was a healer at heart. I wanted to help people become the best versions of themselves, not to turn them into different people entirely.

After leaving the cell blocks where Copperfield was contained, I had made my way up to the common room of the New Champions, where Wright was waiting for me. She, I hoped, would be more willing to be helped – the message I had received from Armstrong certainly implied so.

When I arrived, I saw Wright sitting in an armchair, reading a book titled Nemesis. She glanced up at me and slid a bookmark into its pages setting the book aside. The room was otherwise empty.

“Arthur,” she said, giving me a faint smile. “Nice to see you again – it’s been a few years.”

I nodded to her. She was a fellow healer and worthy of respect for that alone, even if she hadn’t been a skilled hero as well – and she was. “Miriam. A pleasure as always.” I took a seat on the couch beside her chair and added, “and it’s nice to actually be welcomed. Mr. Copperfield wasn’t nearly so pleased to see me.”

“I imagine not, from how he’s talked about you,” Wright said. “He speaks of you as a miser of knowledge, like a magical hoarder, who never bothers to actually use it. But I’ve never gotten that impression from you.”

I shrugged. “He’s not entirely wrong, I suppose. I do tend to keep the most dangerous – and powerful – texts and artifacts locked away from the world at large. And certainly, there is a tendency for mages to grow more reclusive and take less action as they grow more powerful – those who truly focus on the study of magic, that is. Those such as yourself or Mr. Armstrong, who focus on the application, seem somewhat exempt from such. But it may surprise you to know that I am, relatively speaking, an interventionist.”

She sighed. “Why is that, anyway?”

“Why is what? The tendency towards reclusion?”

“Yes.”

“I believe it is simply a natural consequence of the personality type required to succeed at the deepest reaches of magic,” I told her. “A certain level of obsession and tunnel vision, the ability to shut out distractions and focus on your studies. Perhaps those who would not grow as reclusive are simply not able to succeed at the higher levels, either.”

“Perhaps.” She glanced at one wall – the Journeymen’s quarters and common room lay in that direction, if I remembered the standard layout for MLED compounds right. “Do you have the time to meet people? I know that Loki is here at present, and probably our newest member as well -”

“Newton, yes?”

“Yes. I think they’d enjoy meeting you.”

I shook my head. “I’m afraid not. I have some free time today – I allocated several hours for both your session and Mr. Copperfield’s. As he was unwilling to cooperate, that time is open, thus my ability to chat instead of getting right to the healing – but I hope to use that time to reconnect with an old friend who lives in New Venice. It’s been far too long since I spoke with her.”

“I see. Well,” Wright said, “don’t let me keep you. What do I need to do?”

A smile tugged at my lips. “All you need do is close your eyes and relax,” I promised my fellow healer, setting a hand on her forehead as she did so and extending my senses into her mind and soul, “and I will do the rest.”

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