Disclaimer: Electro City, Blackjack, Ace Cooper, and all other characters and indicia related to "The Magician" do not belong to me. Az doesn't exactly belong to me either, but the copyright on him probably ran out a few thousand years ago... :) This story is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for language and semi-adult themes.

Before I Sleep

A quarter of the way into the twenty-first century, and we still can't predict the weather. Jack Malone, known to half the world as Blackjack, sat by the windows of his penthouse apartment and office, watching as lightning flashed and the wind blew dark rain against the glass.

A quarter of the way into the century, and medicine still can't make me whole. Grabbing the glass that sat beside his hover chair, the crime boss tossed back a shot of liquid as bitter as his thoughts. It had been so long... so many years since that stupid battle... since his accident... and his defeat at the hands of a much younger Ace Cooper.

Blackjack sighed, looking at his withered hand. Truth be told, he really didn't blame Cooper anymore. The boy had tried to save him, even though seconds before, he'd been fighting for his life. And even now, though they were enemies, Cooper had saved him. Risked his own life for a man who wanted to see him dead. Saved him even when his death would have meant no more interference in the relationship with Mona. Because Mona Malone loved her father... and Ace Cooper truly loved Mona Malone. It was, perhaps, the only thing the two men agreed on.

"Drowning your sorrows, mate?" an unfamiliar voice inquired. Blackjack spun his chair around, a gun coming into his hand without thought. The newcomer seemed unconcerned at the deadly weapon aimed at his head, simply continued to light his cigarette, tucking the lighter away in a pocket.

Blackjack gaped. His security was top-notch-- Cooper was the only person ever to defeat it, and he had an advantage no other possessed. But this man had somehow strolled past his security, past bodyguards Spade and Diamond, and made his way into the heart of the casino without a single alarm being pulled. That was impossible.

Then there was the man's appearance. His clothes were simple- a black shirt, blue jeans, black round-toed boots and a black leather jacket, but the cut of the jacket seemed almost... dated. And the cigarette... nobody smoked anymore! After the frenzy of tobacco lawsuits in the '10's, the companies had just given it up as unprofitable. Blackjack had never seen a cigarette outside of old movies.

Auburn hair was cut short in a no-maintenance cut, and the sharp black eyes that regarded him were unfamiliar, but Blackjack had the oddest sensation he knew this man... that their paths had crossed before. An unshaven jaw completed the appearance of someone just a bit untamed, and more than a little dangerous.

"Who the hell are you?" Blackjack demanded, finally finding his voice. He raised the gun a bit further, but the man seemed to ignore it. "And how did you get in here?"

"I can get in anywhere, my friend," the stranger replied, blowing a casual smoke ring. "As for who I am... well, you can call me Az."

Oz. Blackjack mentally rolled his eyes. Well, that went along with the Australian accent, at the very least. Still... he didn't like the man's air of unconcern.

"So tell me, Oz, how did you get past my security? And for that matter, why shouldn't I call them to have you escorted out?"

"Jack, Jack," the younger man tsked. "You never used to be this dense. Your security doesn't know I'm here... they never do, honestly. And you're more than welcome to push that button... It's not gonna work, I'm afraid."

Somehow, Blackjack believed him. "You've been in here before?"

"A couple times. You weren't ready to see me yet, is all. Must admit, I've had a ball watching you and Cooper these last few years... You two find the most incredible trouble to get into." Az smiled suddenly. "Gabe and I have a bet going on how many grey hairs Cooper and the kid will give Mike before this is through."

Gabe. Mike. Oz. Blackjack knew he should recognize those names, and not from his days in the criminal world. The memory was older, older by far... He frowned. No good... he'd lost it again.

"Speaking of Cooper," the Australian continued, "don't you think this silly grudge match has gone on long enough? The boy was fifteen, Jack, and you WERE doing your damnedest to kill him."

"He betrayed me!" Blackjack snarled reflexively, hiding his surprise at how the other had echoed his earlier thoughts.

"He wanted out. Can you blame him? He's never been a killer, and that little near miss with Vega scared the crap out of him. Heck, he only joined you in the first place because of your daughter. Who, by the way, is another good reason to end this stupid feud."
The older man's brow furrowed. "What are you babbling about?

"She loves Cooper, Jack. You know that. And in the end, she'll choose him, simply because he's never tried to make her choose. This tug of war isn't something a woman can live with forever. You force her hand, and she'll pick him... but she'll have to live with that the rest of her life. You want them both miserable just because of your wounded pride?"

Pivoting his chair, Blackjack hovered over to one of the largest windows. "And what the hell do you know about it, anyway?"

"Too much, mate. Too much. Look around you, Jack... you've got your empire. Half of Electro City funnels money into your pockets. You're powerful, you're rich, you've got a daughter who loves you... and how happy has any of it made you? Let it go, Jack. Let her remember you as her father, not as a bitter old man who wrecked everybody else's happiness because he couldn't have his own."

Silence filled the room for a long moment. "Why are you doing this?" the crime boss asked softly, still staring out into the black night.

Az shrugged. "I've always had a soft spot for guys with a healthy disrespect for the law. And you DO have a heart... even if you don't listen to it that often. Guess I'm just sentimental."

"How much time do I have? Enough for a phone call?"

"Oh, absolutely, Jackie. Figured it out?"

Jack Malone smiled. "I was raised Catholic, even if it didn't take. Some of those stories stick with you." Picking up the handset on his desk, he dialed a familiar number, not bothering with the holographic feed.

"Hello?" Mona Malone's voice was slow and slightly thick, as if she'd been roused from sleep.

"Mona?" He cleared his throat. "It's your father. I... I was just thinking about some things..."

"Father? What's wrong?" Her voice cleared, took on a hint of concern.

"Nothing's wrong, Mona... I just came to some decisions, and I wanted to tell you..." He took a deep breath.

"About Cooper. About all the things I said, all times I tried to keep you from seeing him... I'm sorry, Mona. I was wrong. I was a stiff-necked stubborn ass, and I'm sorry. Despite what happened between us, the man loves you, and... I just want you to be happy."

Mona's voice grew more worried. "Father, are you all right?"

"Yes, damn it, I... I'm just tired of all these near misses. I'm old, and I'm tired of this stupid war I've been fighting. Cooper loves you, and he'll make you happy... and that's all that really matters. And... the next time you see him, you can tell him I don't blame him. Maybe, deep down, I never really did. I still don't like him, but... I don't blame him any more. And... Mona, I love you."

Her voice filled with wonder. "I love you too, father."

"Good. Now, go back to sleep... you've got a show tomorrow. Good night, Mona."

"Good night."

Blackjack hung up the handset, sighing softly. "Well... there we go... At least she'll have a shoulder to cry on tomorrow..." He looked up. "Ready to go?"

The other nodded, crushing out his cigarette on the desk. "Don't worry, Jack... it won't be as bad as you think. The Big Guy's surprisingly forgiving, you know."

Black wings blotted out the light.

"So they tell me, Azrael... so they tell me."