"I don't see it!" Ford called out behind him.
"I've got it," John called back. "Keep it contained!"
There was no way he was letting that thing out of the alley, especially since there was a pedestrian mall on the other end that was full of norms doing their holiday shopping. Luckily his partner was skilled at containment spells, and John could feel Ford's magic spilling into the alley and sealing up every possible exit point no matter how small.
He was almost there, close enough to get a nose full of sulfur stench. Now that it was trapped in the alley John slowed his approach and reached into his tac vest, pulling out a round paper pouch the size of a quarter.
The creature must've known it was caught, because it clumsily spun on its hind legs and turned to face John, fangs bared. The incomplete conjuring was evident in the twisted features and mottled fur, a thing hastily and incorrectly assembled. If the stupid kids had done things the right way, John would've been facing a far more dangerous foe: a Hell hound. This pathetic creature could do some damage, sure, but it wasn't nearly as deadly. Or hard to get rid of.
"Time to go," John said. He threw the pouch just as the creature started to charge, and it hit the thing square in the chest, covering it in a fine blue power. "Díbríodh!"
The creature howled as it was sucked out of existence, one second ready to leap and the next just gone. No civilian casualties.
The magic in the alley bled away as Ford joined John. "So what happens now?"
"We file a report and move on to the next thing."
"And the kids?"
"I'd guess a month under a binding spell and twice that in community service." John clapped Ford on the shoulder. "Come on, Rookie. Let's get some lunch."
Ford was young, but he'd graduated from the academy at the top of his class. He had a lot of enthusiasm and, since his family wasn't Old Magic, he was eager to prove himself. John wasn’t too thrilled at having a partner – not since Holland had died, at least – but he just kept telling himself the situation was temporary.
They swung by Fidel's for a street dog on their way back to the bullpen. There really wasn't much time to linger. MagiCorps had been extra busy thanks to the impending holidays – Christmas, Hanukkah, Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa, it didn't really matter which one – because people were frazzled and stressed out and using their magic in ways they shouldn't.
MagiCorps operated out of a dingy-looking abandoned storefront that had a perpetual For Lease sign in the papered-over window. The actual offices were below street-level, slightly less dingy than the storefront. Sheppard and Ford shared adjoining desks in the bullpen, which was a noisy, ever-changing maze of cubicles and desks and privacy screens.
The usual assortment of petty criminals were in various stages of being processed: black-jacketed members of Merlin's Minions loudly decrying the charges against them; two sultry street-walking Sirens wearing too little clothing for winter; some low-level repeat offenders who'd likely been picking pockets during the tourist boost that came with the holidays; two women who'd had a fender bender that led to hexes being flung at each other. Pixies were flying around delivering messages and stealing pens, their iridescent wings tinkling faintly.
"Shep!" Cadman plunked herself down on John's desk. "Guess what I got?"
"Whatever it is, I'm sure there's medication for it."
She kicked at him. "Jerk. No, I'm serious. I scored tickets to the ultimate show."
"Johnny Cash tribute band?" John tapped at his keyboard, calling up the form for his report on the almost-Hell hound. He hated doing paperwork, but he hated reprimands from the captain more.
"L'homme Magnifique is in town for a week. Tickets sold out months ago, but I know a guy that knows a guy."
John snorted. "Theater? Pass."
"Oh, come on! A little culture won't kill you."
"It might. Don't you have work to do?"
The captain's office door opened, and she poked her head out. "Sheppard! Ford! My office."
"Ooh. Someone's in trouble with teacher."
John sighed. He was almost always in trouble with teacher. "If you insist on sitting here you may as well do some paperwork."
"Sorry." Cadman blew him a kiss. "Super busy. Evan volunteered us to clean up the records room. Really excited about it."
"So I see." John pushed her off his desk. "Let's go, Rookie."
"What did we do this time?" Ford asked, falling in step with him.
John shrugged. "Who knows?"
There was always something. Excessive force. Reckless behavior. Failure to follow MagiCorps procedure. Ignoring direct orders. John was more concerned with getting the job done than playing by the rules. He was probably the only officer with as many commendations as official reprimands.
"Gentlemen. Nice job containing that Hell hound." Captain Weir stood behind her desk, impeccable as always in a black pantsuit and red shirt. "Have a seat."
She closed the door with a wave of her hand before she sat down herself.
"I have a special assignment for you."
"Why don't I like the sound of that?" John asked, slouched down in his chair.
Weir’s expression was inscrutable as always. "I'm quite sure you're going to hate it."
She wasn't wrong. Once she laid out the assignment – acting as security for a visiting celebrity – John waited for the punchline. Or maybe the moment she explained that John was being punished, because a glorified babysitting assignment was surely retribution for something.
"If this guy travels with his own security, why does he even need us?" Ford asked.
"Dr. McKay didn't request a MagiCorps presence," Weir said. "This decision comes from the Grande Witch herself."
John narrowed his eyes and leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "Why is she so interested in the safety of one actor?"
"What I'm going to tell you goes no further than this office." Weir reinforced her words with a modified binding spell that would make it physically impossible for either Ford or John to repeat what they'd heard.
"Dr. McKay is the most powerful caster of our age. In the world." Weir's eyes gleamed. "There have been several kidnapping attempts over the years, from Darksiders and Lightsiders alike. Only a small circle of people are aware of the full extent of his abilities, and it's our job to make sure it stays that way."
"The most powerful wizard is an actor?" John asked, dubious. "How is he not on the Council, or working for one of the Old Houses?"
"He's not what you'd call a people person. Dr. McKay likes to keep to himself, except when he's performing. You'll understand once you meet him."
"This is a bullshit assignment, Liz," John said, pushing out of his chair. "We're too busy to be wasting time on one guy who doesn't even need us!"
"Bullshit or not, it's your assignment. And if you'd like to garner some goodwill with the higher-ups, I suggest you perform it to the best of your ability. Dismissed."
Captain Weir flicked her hand and the door swung open. John knew better than to keep fighting. She wouldn't back down and if he kept pushing, he'd end up doing something worse than cleaning out the records room.
"What now?" Ford asked.
"Looks like we're going to the theater after all," John sighed.
"Says here he won the Tony Award three years in row." Ford sat in the passenger seat, reading up on McKay via the Witchapedia app. "And the GLAAD Excellence in Media award twice."
"Sounds like the norms love him," John remarked.
"He's racked up quite a few Magical Theater awards, too. According to this he's an icon for the gay rights community, he regularly donates money to the Rebecca Nurse Orphan's Association, and when he's not on stage he's some kind of hermit."
John made a non-committal noise as he looked for a place to park. There'd be valet service on show nights, but until then he'd have to make do with street parking. He ended up finding a spot a block over, squeezing between an oversized SUV and a little blue Prius.
"So what do you think it means, McKay not being a people person?" Ford asked as they walked back up to the theater.
"Probably some quiet, timid guy who only really finds his voice on stage. I've run into that type before." John just hoped McKay wasn't going to be really fussy, especially since he hadn't asked for MagiCorps to help with his personal security.
He flashed his badge at the theater door, and he and Ford were ushered into the lobby. Large signs were being put up advertising McKay's show: L'homme Magnifique presents Winter's Thaw. John wasn't familiar with it, not being a theater guy, but Ford nodded appreciatively.
"That should be one heck of a show."
"I'll take your word for it."
They only made it halfway across the lobby before they were stopped by a diminutive Asian woman. She was dressed very conservatively in a black suit, her hair in a tight bun with those decorative sticks speared through it, but her hands were covered in tattoos and there were delicately rendered symbols tattooed across her collarbone that her white shirt didn't completely cover.
She was heavily warded.
"May I help you gentlemen?" she asked, blinking at them from behind oversized glasses. John got the sense that she could probably wipe the floor with both of them. Magically speaking.
"Detective John Sheppard and Officer Aiden Ford, with MagiCorps. We've been asked by the Grande Witch to offer our services to Dr. McKay for the duration of his stay in the city."
"We thank you for your hospitality, but Dr. McKay's security needs are already being met."
John could hear the dismissal in her voice and would've liked nothing better than to go back to the captain and tell her that their services weren't needed. But an assignment was an assignment, and unless he wanted to ride a desk for the rest of his life – something Liz regularly threatened and might conceivably follow through with one day – John needed to make sure they didn't get thrown out of the theater.
"No-one's doubting the ability of Dr. McKay's personal security. But while he's here in the city it's our job to assist you in any way we can to make sure Dr. McKay is safe."
The pint-sized bodyguard gave John an assessing look he didn't much care for; it was the same look Cadman got right before she publicly lambasted his character with observations that were both deadly accurate and just plain deadly.
"Perhaps it would be foolish to turn our backs on such an offer. I am Miko Kusanagi, Dr. McKay's personal assistant. This way." She turned sharply and marched towards the main theater doors, and John and Ford had to rush to catch up with her. "Dr. McKay is sorting out some details for his show. Don't interrupt him. He'll speak with you when he is free."
John rolled his eyes. McKay already sounded like a huge pain in the ass.
Miko looked over her shoulder at him, eyes narrowed and hands pressed against the double doors, and John had the feeling she knew exactly what he was thinking. Maybe one of her tattoos – there were more crawling up the back of her neck from below the collar of her shirt – gave her the proverbial eyes in the back of her head.
She pushed the doors open and immediately a strident voice floated out at them.
"...moron! Do you think I have a death wish? I'm not wearing that!"
"But the audience will expect –"
"The audience will see exactly what I want them to see, without me having to hang from some dubiously rigged guidewires."
Timid, Ford mouthed at John.
"Zelenka! Where the hell are you?"
As first impressions went, McKay made a strong one. He was sturdily built, solid but not pudgy, broad shoulders and muscular arms clearly on display thanks to the tight blue shirt he was wearing. He never stopped moving, even while he was yelling at the hapless guy on stage with him, and his mouth had an interesting downward slant on one side that made him look even more cantankerous than he sounded.
"He will not need rig!" a heavily accented voice shouted from somewhere backstage.
"But Dr. McKay, the audience will be mixed."
"It always is." McKay waved him off, looking around until he spotted Miko. "There you are! What are we doing about lunch? My blood sugar is getting low."
"Rodney," Miko said, her tone laced with amusement. "MagiCorps sent over two officers to act as your guides while we're here."
"Guides?" John shook his head. "No, we're not --"
"I don't need a guide, I need lunch." Still, McKay turned his gaze on them, and it almost had a physical weight John could feel. The guy was intense.
"They're familiar with the city and will know the best way to keep you safe," Miko said.
McKay rolled his eyes. "Fine. But I don't need both of them hovering over me. I'll take that one. Despite his ludicrous hairstyle, he seems more experienced." He pointed at John.
Ford started to defend himself, but John put a hand on his arm. "You caught a break," he said in a hushed voice. "Take it."
"I'm sure we could use Officer Ford's expertise in the meantime," Miko said.
"Ford can assess the physical security of the building while we're at lunch," John replied. "He's proficient at containment charms."
"Yes, fine, whatever." McKay snapped his fingers and an orange fleece pullover appeared in his hand. "Let's go."
He brushed past John on his way to the lobby, and John sighed. Liz was definitely punishing him.
McKay ordered in Italian, which was both surprising and a little bit of a turn-on for John. The waiter had initially been pleased, but McKay went on and on and on, and John didn't know if he was ordering everything on the menu or just being super picky about how he wanted his food.
"I have a severe citrus allergy," McKay explained once the waiter took his leave. "I created a spell to check all my food, but you can't be too careful."
He also re-arranged his place setting and polished his silverware with the linen napkin and changed his drink order after he took a sip of the red wine and made a face.
"Do you ever sit still?" John couldn't help asking.
"No." McKay folded his napkin into various origami-like shapes. "So why are you here? I didn't contact MagiCorps. I don't need you."
"The Grande Witch requested it personally."
"Oh, please." McKay sniffed disdainfully. "She doesn't care about my personal safety; she just doesn't want a blight on her precious city if something goes wrong. Which it won't."
"I understand there've been some kidnapping attempts."
"And only one was ever successful, and then not for very long. I don't know what they told you about me, Officer Spiky Hair, but I'm a pretty formidable wizard. I can hold my own."
John nodded. He could feel the magic pulsing around McKay, contained and constrained as it was. Wards upon wards. Shields. Blocks. Walls. For all intents and purposes, the man was safely isolated behind a fortress made of magical incantations and force of will. It was damned impressive.
"It's Detective John Sheppard, actually." John held his hand out across the table and McKay stared at it distastefully.
"I don't shake hands. It's unsanitary."
John struggled not to roll his eyes. "Germaphobe?"
"Pessimist," John shot back.
McKay leaned forward, his gaze intent. "You don't like me, do you? Most people in your position would be fawning all over me, trying to win my good favor."
"I don't need your good favor," John replied. "I just need you to not get kidnapped, killed, or publicly inconvenienced while you're in my city."
“Since you’re my self-appointed bodyguard, I’d say it was up to you to keep me from being publicly inconvenienced.” McKay sat back in his chair, fingers lightly tapping along the edge of the table as if he were playing piano. “Sheppard. You’re one of the Old Magic families.”
“So they tell me.” John wasn’t interested in talking about himself. “How’d you get into performing?”
“How does anyone? I want people to see what I can do and applaud me for it. All performers are glory hounds.”
Something about that rang false to John, but he didn’t know McKay well enough to call him on it. And it wasn’t like he really cared. McKay was a job, something to be endured until he left town for his next gig. John would do the job, get in good with the captain, and get back to the real work of keeping the city safe.
Their food arrived, and McKay murmured over his in French before tucking in like a starving man. He had a close, personal relationship with his food, if the noises he made were anything to go by. John shifted uncomfortably in his chair.
It was going to be a long week.
Following rehearsal, they went to McKay’s rooms at the Blackstone Hotel. The top two floors were solely for the caster community, with special wards and charms to provide the utmost in privacy and security, not to mention convenience. Everything McKay could possibly want was his for the asking.
“Why the heck does this guy need us?” Ford asked. “We can’t possibly provide anything above and beyond what he’s already got in place.”
“Beats running through garbage,” John pointed out. But he was wondering the same thing. Why had the Grande Witch insisted on a MagiCorps presence? He couldn’t help feeling he was in the middle of a gaff, and he wanted to know the real reason he was babysitting McKay.
Once his charge had been secured for the night, and Ford put on watch, John texted Cadman and Lorne and had them meet him at their usual bar, The Wanderer. They got there before him, and as soon as he sat down Cadman smacked him on the arm.
“You big jerk!”
“What did I do this time?” John asked, signaling the bartender for his usual.
“There I was gushing about seeing the show, and you get to spend all week with Rodney McKay himself! You’re so lucky!”
John huffed out a laugh. “You wouldn’t think so if you met him.”
“So what’s up?” Lorne asked, getting right to the point as always. He was a model MagiCorps detective, at least from the outside – but John knew he could be counted on to bend the rules a little when the situation called for it.
“I need a favor.”
“Get me a backstage pass and I’ll do anything you ask,” Cadman said, leaning forward and batting her eyes at John.
Lorne just rolled his eyes. “What do you need us to do?”
“There’s something not right about this assignment. McKay’s got so many wards on his person he might as well be wearing titanium armor. He has bodyguards, his personal assistant looks like she has some badass magic, and he’s got a suite at the Blackstone. He doesn’t need MagiCorps watching his ass too.”
“You think it’s a gaff.”
“I think it’s worth looking into.” John’s beer appeared on a coaster in front of him and he took a long swallow. “But I don’t want the captain getting wind of it, or else I’ll be relegated to Magical Device Storage.”
Cadman finally looked interested. “You think she knows, or is it coming from higher up?”
“Not sure. It’s not like the Grande Witch communicates directly with me, so I only have the captain’s word on that.”
Lorne nodded. He pulled out his little sketch pad and made some notes on one of the blank pages; the MagiCorps-issued cell phones downloaded all activity to the cloud for review, so they weren’t secure.
“What’s the motivation?” Cadman pondered, sipping at her very pink drink. “Political? Financial? Personal?”
Knowing what John knew about McKay and the level of magic he wielded, his money was on political. Not that he could share that information with his friends, even if he wanted to.
“I’ll sniff around. See what I can find out.”
If anyone could do it, it was Lorne. He had a special talent for sussing out the connections between people – not a guy you wanted to try and hide an office romance from, or so John had heard – and if there was a lead to be had he’d find it.
Cadman nodded. “We’re on Records Room duty. I could poke around the files and see if there’s anything at all on McKay or his show.”
“I really appreciate the help, guys.” John saluted them with his beer. As much as he was against having a partner, he very much appreciated having a network of people he could call on when need be. Hey, he could be a team player. When it was absolutely necessary.
“Dr. McKay would like you to stay and watch the performance,” Miko said, making it sound like a request instead of the demand it probably was. “Since you won’t be able to watch later.”
During the actual performances, John and Ford would be doing perimeter sweeps and making sure nothing went awry while McKay was on stage. So he took a seat in third row center, kicked his feet up, and promptly had his mind blown.
Whatever McKay lacked in people skills he more than made up for with showmanship. Wielding magic was difficult enough on its own, moreso when combined with another activity, but McKay was effortlessly performing multiple spells at once, while also acting. Seeing that, John could well believe that McKay was the powerful wizard Captain Weir said he was.
The performance was wordless, but there didn’t need to be dialogue or narration. The accompaniment from the orchestra, McKay’s body language, the interactions with the ephemeral costars he conjured – all of it told the story.
The man was a captive, beaten down, tortured, made to do terrible things. And when he wasn’t being used, he was frozen, locked away, just as much a prisoner in his own mind as his physical body was. He was a man without a past, a man without a future, a man without hope.
And then a mission, a man marked for murder. Just another death. Except this man knew him, this man was from his past. Everything changed.
For the first time he didn’t complete his mission. For the first time he remembered wanting something more for himself.
The man went into hiding, struggled to make sense of who he’d been, what he’d been made to do, and who he might be now. Still he felt frozen, numb. It wasn’t until he took that first step, went back to the man who knew him, the man who loved him, that the endless winter encasing his heart finally began to thaw. And he could start rebuilding his life.
John was unexpectedly moved by the story, and the way McKay performed it with so much raw emotion. It was hard to reconcile the actor with the man John had spent time with the day before. When he went backstage, he expected to find McKay drained from all the spellcasting, but instead he was just as jittery as he’d been beforehand.
“Zelenka, the timing is three seconds off on the second spotlight. And the third transfigure spell was a little shaky. We need to refine that.” McKay paced the floor backstage, a half-full bottle of water in his hand. “Detective, how was the pacing? Too fast, too slow? Did I hit the right beats to coincide with the music? It’s hard for me to hear it when I’m concentrating on the spells and the physicality of the piece.”
“It was good.”
McKay stopped and stared at him, an incredulous look on his face. “Good? It was good?”
“Miko!” McKay bellowed. His assistant was at his side instantly. “I can’t work with these people. Send a message to the Grande Witch, thank her or whatever, but tell her the MagiCorps people need to stand down.”
John didn’t know whether to be offended or relieved, but then Miko was murmuring in McKay’s ear and he was making a very disgruntled face.
“Fine. They can stay. Detective, we’ll be eating lunch in today. Miko will give you my order.”
McKay wandered back on stage, his technician – a wiry Czech who wore round-framed glasses and looked like he’d stuck his finger in a light socket – hurrying to catch up.
“He needs more pointed praise,” Miko said, her expression unreadable. “Or criticism. He doesn’t deal well with platitudes.”
She handed John a list. McKay’s lunch requests.
“You always get the best assignments,” Ford said, clapping John on the shoulder. “I’ll take a Reuben. Extra cheese.”
John smirked and smacked the list against Ford’s chest. “I think you’re forgetting who has seniority here, Rookie. I’ll take a turkey and swiss with mayo. And a bag of chips.”
Ford’s face fell and John walked away, grinning. At least one thing was going right.
John had expected them to spend the afternoon prior to opening night at the theater, McKay hammering out last minute details. Instead, they were at Noah’s Arcade playing Skee-Ball. The place was entirely filled with norms, and John had to throw up some quick wards.
“This is the best way for me to get out of my own head,” McKay explained, studying one of the wooden balls. “You won’t understand this, but there needs to be an element of spontaneity despite all the planning that’s gone into the show. If the whole thing becomes rote, it won’t be worth performing at all.”
He started rolling balls up the ramp, hitting the center hole every single time. The best John could tell, McKay wasn’t using any magic. He was just crazy good at Skee-Ball.
“It’s physics,” McKay explained as he sent another ball sailing into the hundred-point hole. “Newton’s Second Law. Force and acceleration.”
The man was a puzzle. The day before he’d been fastidious and averse to even shaking John’s hand because of germs, and today he was in the middle of an arcade populated by noisy, germy children, touching wooden balls that probably never got cleaned and not seeming to care about it. John couldn’t figure him out.
“While you’re dabbling in physics, can we talk about your security for tonight’s show?”
“Dabbling? I don’t dabble, detective. The ‘doctor’ in my title isn’t honorary, I’ll have you know. I have degrees in Astrophysics and Magical Manifestations. In addition to that, I’m a level twenty spell-caster and member of the exclusive Djedi Society. None of that is the result of dabbling.”
“Noted,” John said, trying to hide his amusement.
He was learning that McKay was easy to wind up, and entertaining once he got going. It was also informative; not even John’s Old Magic family had been invited into the Djedi Society. Yet another thing that spoke to McKay’s magical prowess.
“About security, I think –”
“There can’t possibly be anything else to say about it, detective,” McKay interrupted as he sunk another ball. “Not even a wayward pixie could get into the theater right now.”
“I’m not worried about pixies.”
“Then what are you worried about? Has a threat been made? Because my people haven’t mentioned a thing to me.”
McKay sent his last ball up the ramp and neatly into the hundred-point hole. He ripped off the giant paper snake of tickets that the Skee-Ball machine had been regularly spitting out and handed them to the nearest norm, a wide-eyed girl wearing a glittery t-shirt emblazoned with a picture of one of those overly pretty Korean boy bands. (John had nieces. He knew more about boy bands than any grown man should.)
“There hasn’t been a threat,” John said. “I wouldn’t recommend waiting around for one. I prefer to be proactive in these situations.”
“Yes, yes. I’m sure you’re very good at your job.” McKay flapped a hand at him. “You do your thing, I’ll do my thing, and everything will be fine.”
Famous last words, John couldn’t help thinking.
The crowd was mixed, norms and casters. Some of the latter were using glamours to hide their true forms – living vines instead of hair, diaphanous wings, horns – but both groups were chattering excitedly about the upcoming show. Turned out McKay was a legit celebrity.
Cadman was part of the well-dressed crowd, and it was strange for John to see her out of uniform and in a sparkly evening dress with her hair up. She was with a guy that was impressively muscled and wore thick, black-framed glasses. John didn’t know if he was the fireman or the doctor – Cadman had very specific types – but he was definitely a norm.
“Looking pretty swanky, Cadman.”
“Not looking so bad yourself,” she replied.
John had pulled his tuxedo out of metaphorical mothballs so he’d blend in better with the crowd. The last thing he wanted to do was draw undue attention to himself, not when he was supposed to be watching everyone else and assessing any possible threats.
“Anything I should be keeping an eye out for?” Cadman asked, keeping her voice down.
“No. Not as far as I can tell.”
“Good. I want to enjoy the show.” Cadman grinned. “Can you meet Lorne and me for breakfast tomorrow morning? He did some digging.”
“Yeah. Usual place?”
“Eight sharp.” Cadman leaned in and gave him a kiss on the cheek, pressing hard enough that John knew she’d be leaving bright red lip prints behind. “See you then.”
“Enjoy the show,” John grumbled. One quickly murmured word – glan – and the lipstick was cleaned away like it was never there.
It took about forty-five minutes to get everyone through the doors and into the theater, and so far no-one had pinged John’s internal radar or any of the wards.
“Ford. Check in.”
All clear. Wards and charms in place. No-one is getting in here unless we escort them personally.
“Don’t get cocky. Stay alert.”
The theater was buzzing with conversation, the noise a dull roar until the orchestra started playing and the lights dimmed. That was John’s cue to do a sweep backstage. He’d already been versed on the areas to steer clear of so he wasn’t in the way of the stage crew.
John caught sight of McKay standing behind the curtain, costumed and ready to make his first appearance. Since the moment John had met him, the man had been moving – gesturing, jittering, pacing – but now McKay was standing eerily still, not so much as a finger twitch.
The hair on the back of John’s neck stood up as McKay’s magic started to build, bleeding out in tendrils John could feel. He’d never felt that level of magic off anyone; it was a heady feeling. How did McKay keep that from flowing out into the audience?
In the next second the curtain lifted, and McKay burst into action, casting spells and acting his ass off. John shook himself, rubbed the back of his neck, and resumed his sweep.
It was a testament to McKay’s storytelling prowess that not a single person left the theater for a bathroom break during the performance. The applause was thunderous at the end, which John knew because he was in the middle of it, standing in the center aisle.
McKay came out to take a bow and got a standing ovation. There wasn’t anything to twig John’s warning bells, nothing he could see, anyway, but he was on the run as soon as those bells started going off.
“Ford! On stage!”
On my way!
John heard the screech of metal as he leaped up on stage and dragged McKay out of center stage and into the wings. Part of the lighting rig crashed down right where McKay had been standing, shards of colored glass spraying everywhere. There was screaming from the audience and cursing from McKay, but John was already looking up.
Loinnir!”“ he shouted.
The catwalk and rigging lit up as if someone had opened a sunroof in the middle of the afternoon. John looked for signs of movement, but there was none. No indication anyone was up there at all.
“Ford, check the catwalk!”
“Please release Dr. McKay.” A woman wearing a black-on-black suit was suddenly blocking John’s view of the catwalk, and the light died away.
“Finally!” McKay sputtered. “I’m going to have a bruise on my arm! Detective, Teyla is my personal security. So you can let go.”
“No-one leaves,” John told Teyla.
He made his way up to the catwalk, joining Ford who was already examining the remains of the lighting rig.
“Pulled right out,” Ford reported.
He shone his flashlight at the affected areas, and John could see where the supports had been warped and pulled. It was rough, ugly magic, like the kind those kids had used trying to conjure a Hell hound.
Miko soon joined them, looking solemn. “This was no accident.”
“No, ma’am,” John said. “Not very sophisticated, either.”
Miko closed her eyes and tipped her head back, and John could swear that some of her tattoos moved. “I don’t sense a foreign signature here.”
“Are you sure?” John exchanged a look with Ford.
The use of magic was like fingerprints – no two people used it the same way. If Miko wasn’t picking up any foreign signatures, that could only mean whoever had dropped the lighting rig was someone Miko was familiar with.
An inside job.
“I’m certain.” Miko opened her eyes. “I’ll go down to the lobby. When you release the audience, I’ll make sure none of them are known to me.”
John sighed. “So much for not being inconvenienced.”
“Let’s go, Rookie. We have about a hundred and fifty casters to interview. Find Cadman and tell her the date’s over.”
Ford pulled a face. “Do I have to?”
“Just stay out of arm’s reach and you’ll be fine.”
John stayed behind when Ford left and looked over the side of the catwalk railing. The rigging would’ve dropped right on McKay’s head. But why wait till the end when there had been ample opportunity during the show? If John had been sweeping another area of the theater, things might have gone very differently.
It was going to be a long night.
“Sorry,” he said to Lorne. “You were saying?”
“I’m not sure you’ll remember if I tell you,” Lorne replied with a smirk. “Did you sleep at all?”
“There was a solid thirty minutes in there somewhere. What about the sister?”
“The sister is in long-term care at Laveau’s.”
Laveau’s was a home for terminally ill members of the magical community, those who needed continual care from caregivers who could contain failing or wayward magic. People who checked into Laveau’s were never expected to check back out.
“What’s she got?”
“She’s in a coma. The details are sketchy. All I’ve been able to suss out is that Jeannie McKay went missing for several days, and then she was found on the side of the road in her current condition.”
Lorne cut his stack of pancakes into tidy little squares.
“How does that tie into the attempt on McKay’s life?” Cadman mused aloud. She’d already wolfed down her breakfast.
“Maybe it doesn’t,” John replied. “But it’s another piece of the puzzle.”
Lorne dipped each piece of pancake in a little puddle of syrup instead of covering the whole stack. John was tired enough to find that mesmerizing.
“You’re right about the gaff,” Lorne said between bites. “After the events last night, I’d say the Grande Witch is concerned that someone in McKay’s inner circle might be trying to do him harm.”
“Motive?” Cadman countered.
“Jealousy? Love? Money? Take your pick.”
John thought about what Liz had said, about McKay being the most powerful caster of their time. Killing him didn’t make any sense from that perspective, especially since McKay wasn’t in a position of political power. It made more sense to try and take him alive, turn him to a cause, and then make use of his magical ability.
“I have a feeling this is personal,” John said. “McKay doesn’t have great people skills. I can believe he’s pissed someone off.”
“Enough to kill him?” Cadman asked, sounding skeptical.
Lorne nodded. “Could be a pattern of abuse. If it’s someone on the inside, they might’ve reached their breaking point.”
“Ford and I will talk to McKay’s staff, see if anyone pings the radar.”
“And I’ll keep digging into the sister,” Cadman said. “Seems a bit too coincidental, both siblings coming under attack.”
John felt sure he’d be making better connections if he had actual brain function. If he was going to get through the day, he might have to suck it up and take a draught. He wasn’t a fan of the artificial boost, which always left him feeling weird, but at least his brain would be working.
“Sure you don’t want some breakfast, Shep?” Cadman asked. “Might make you feel more human.”
“Only if I can use it as a pillow.”
John signaled for another coffee. If he got through the day, it would be a miracle.
“He does not always show appreciation,” Zelenka said. “But then something nice happens out of the blue, and it is him, even if he does not say so.”
Teyla concurred with that. “He does not suffer fools and expects everyone around him to be the very best at what they do. It is a high standard. But he is also capable of incredible kindness and thoughtfulness.”
“He’s not always a jerk,” Ronon said.
John sighed. “They seem to genuinely like him.”
He was sitting in one of the Blackstone’s dining rooms, nursing yet another cup of coffee.
“I had the same reaction from the others,” Ford reported.
He’d made calls to the PR Director, the accountant, the housekeeper, and even the woman who watched his cat while he was traveling.
“Hardass with a heart of gold,” Ford said. “Not much to work with. What did Miko say?”
“She wasn’t available to speak with.”
“You think she might know something?”
John shrugged. “If she was involved, why point us to it being an inside job? Doesn’t make sense.”
“Nothing about this makes sense,” Ford muttered.
“We’re missing an essential element. If we could only…” John trailed off as he was suddenly caught up in a wave of inexplicable urgency. He felt like he’d had a bucket of ice water thrown on him.
“If we could only what?” Ford prompted.
“McKay’s room! Now!”
John bolted for the elevators, Ford on his heels. It was the same as the night before, that inexplicable sense that McKay’s life was in danger.
“What’s going on?” Ford asked once they were inside the elevator.
John used his magic to make the car move more quickly up the cable to the penthouse suite. “I have no fucking idea.”
Neither, seemingly, did Ronon or Teyla, who were sitting outside McKay’s suite like sentries. They both sprang to their feet when they saw John coming in at a dead run.
“Open it!” he shouted.
They did so without question, and the soundproofing was top notch because it was chaos on the other side of the door and McKay’s personal security hadn’t tipped to it at all.
Everything in the suite was moving – papers and books and glasses circling around like they were caught in a tornado, the furniture rocking and thumping, the curtains blowing out even though the windows were closed. Magic prickled across John’s skin like an electrical charge.
In the middle of it all was McKay, still somehow sound asleep in the big bed, heedless to the danger that surrounded him. A huge antique armoire had moved itself next to the bed and was in the process of rocking itself over. McKay would be crushed beneath it.
Ronon waded in, seemingly oblivious to the items that slammed into him, and made for McKay.
“Fionraí!” John shouted at the same time Teyla pulled out an old-school wand and murmured something in a language he didn’t know.
Everything in the room froze in place, items suspended in midair, except for Ronon who pulled McKay out of bed and foisted the still-sleeping man over his big shoulders. As soon as he cleared the doorway, everything in the room dropped. Including the armoire, which hit the bed with enough force to crack the wooden frame.
“Is he okay?” Ford asked.
Ronon laid McKay out on the hallway floor. “He took a sleeping draught.”
“Must’ve been a hell of a draught,” John said. He leaned against the wall, a little shaky from the close call.
“He often needs one after a performance,” Teyla explained. She studied John intently. “How did you know he was in danger?”
“I honestly don’t know. It was just a feeling.”
“As you had in the theater. Interesting.”
John didn’t think it was interesting. He thought it was concerning.
The hallway soon filled up with hotel staff and Miko, who barked orders at everyone. McKay was removed to the offices of the Blackstone’s concierge doctor on the first floor. Miko and John conducted a full search of McKay’s suite but, again, there was no unknown magical signature and no sign the hotel’s wards had been breached in any way.
“Any chance he’ll cancel tonight’s performance?” John asked Miko, already knowing the answer.
“Unlikely, but I’ll talk to him.” McKay’s diminutive assistant looked frustrated and John could relate. “I don’t know how to keep him safe. What’s happening shouldn’t be possible.”
John decided to take a chance, hoping he was reading Miko right.
“Someone in McKay’s inner circle has to be responsible,” he said. “I suggest we move him to a safe house but keep up the charade that he’s still here at the hotel.”
Miko didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand, which John took as a good sign.
“Ronon and Teyla would have to stay here,” Miko said thoughtfully. “I’m not sure Rodney will go for that.”
“No offense to them, but they weren’t especially useful today. Whoever is targeting McKay knows when and where to strike.”
“You were very fortunate to be on site both times,” Miko said. The edge of one of her tattoos rippled behind the collar of her shirt.
John nodded. “Suspect everyone. It’s a solid action plan.”
Miko’s dark eyes bled green for the briefest moment, and the tattoo stopped moving. “I trust you. Take Rodney to the safe house. It would be best if I don’t know the location either.”
“I’ll be in touch,” John promised.
“Good luck,” Miko replied, the hint of a smile on her face. “You’re going to need it.”
McKay raised his eyebrows when they stepped through the front door. “Well, this isn’t at all what I expected.”
The inside space was close and cozy, a fire crackling in the big fireplace in the kitchen. The walls were white plaster, the floors were gray stone, and there were dark ceiling beams.
“My mother’s people are from Ireland,” John said. He firmed up the wards on all the doors and windows. “I have fond memories of visiting my great-aunt’s cottage in County Galway.”
The Sheppards were Old Magic, but John’s mother’s family had been just as powerful, if not more so. The only reason the Madigans weren’t also considered Old Magic was because all their magic passed from mother to daughter and skipped the sons altogether. Until John was born.
“Can I assume that while it looks quaintly rustic, there are modern amenities? Because I’m not camping out here otherwise.”
“I have indoor plumbing, if that’s what you’re asking.”
McKay gave John a sour look and continued exploring the space. The first floor was a large kitchen/living space, all open, and a half bath. The second floor had two bedrooms and a full bath. The top floor, which was much smaller due to the pitch of the roof, was John’s workshop, where he made his spell bags and worked his more complicated magic.
“Your bedroom is on the left when you get to the first landing,” John said. “Go dump your stuff and I’ll put on a pot of coffee. What time do you have to be back at the theater?”
McKay paused at the foot of the stairs. “I canceled the show.”
“Really?” John hadn’t expected that, not from what Miko had said.
McKay scowled. “I’m not a completely egotistical asshole, you know. I don’t want to put anyone else in danger.”
“I didn’t say –”
“I take my coffee black, four sugars.” McKay stomped up the stairs and slammed the bedroom door behind him.
John sighed. He still stood by his plan, and the show being canceled would only make it easier to pretend McKay was still in the Blackstone. But having the world’s most powerful – and powerfully cranky – caster in the small confines of John’s house wasn’t going to be easy.
He started a pot of coffee before poking around in his fridge to see what he might cook for dinner. There admittedly wasn’t much to work with. John got a lot of takeout.
“What are you doing?” McKay asked as he came back down the stairs. “Besides negating the heat from the fireplace?”
“I don’t suppose you’d be interested in leftover Chinese?”
McKay huffed out a breath. “Go fix my coffee.”
He nudged John out of the way and took a quick survey of the fridge contents. He followed that up with an in-depth survey of all the kitchen cupboards and the pantry.
“No wonder you’re so skinny. What the hell do you live on?”
“I’m in no danger of wasting away,” John assured him.
“Well, I can put something together with the meager offerings you have here. If I have to stay longer than a day, you’ll need to go shopping.”
Funny how often John was surprised by McKay. “You cook?”
McKay took the coffee mug John offered him, taking a taste test before nodding his approval. “Of course I cook. With my allergy I can’t be too careful.”
He was an amazing actor, a world-class caster, a Skee-Ball pro, and a cook. It seemed the only thing McKay couldn’t do was keep himself out of trouble.
John left him to the kitchen and called Lorne. He used a counter-surveillance spell, so that anyone who might be listening in would hear a standard check-in and confirmation that McKay was still at the Blackstone. Only Lorne would hear the actual conversation.
You have him in a safehouse? Lorne asked.
“More or less. What’ve you and Cadman come up with?”
The sister was snatched from the University of Toronto. She was a grad student at the time, Lorne reported. She was held by unknown parties for three weeks before she was found, and she’s been in a coma ever since.
“No way that’s not related to McKay’s attempted abductions,” John mused. “Whatever they wanted from his sister they obviously didn’t get it.”
If that was the case, why not make another attempt for McKay? Why try to kill him?
“That’s the million-dollar question.”
I’m still waiting to hear back from the MBI. They investigated Miss McKay’s abduction, and the attempts on her brother.
“Okay. Keep me posted.”
John glanced over at McKay, who was looking stupidly domestic futzing around in the kitchen. He was humming something under his breath and seemed perfectly at ease for someone who’d had two attempts on his life in as many days.
They needed to have a talk. Maybe after dinner. John didn’t want to spoil the mood.
Both bedroom doors were open, and John had taken the added precaution of setting both magical and practical motion detectors, in addition to all the security he already had in place. No-one was getting in, not on his watch.
McKay had no trouble sleeping, though John made sure he didn’t take any draughts before he turned in. It wasn’t snoring exactly, more like deep, rumbly breaths, and John flung his arm up over his eyes.
You need to get laid, Cadman would’ve said. She wouldn’t have been wrong.
John murmured a spell that filled his room with the soft shushing sound of waves breaking on a beach. He thought about surfing and sunshine and sand warm under his feet, and absolutely did not think of McKay curled up next to him in his bed. He wasn’t thinking about McKay skin, warm against John’s, as he finally fell asleep.
John was lost in a maze, the light so dim he could barely see. Every corner was shrouded in shadows and no spell or enchantment worked to bring in the light. He wasn’t afraid, just alert for any dangers that might be hiding in the gloom.
He felt like he’d been there for hours, maybe days, following each stone path until he ran into a wall and had to turn around, go back, try a different way. The walls of the maze were too tall for him to scale, the stone cool and dry to the touch.
“Hello?” he called, his voice echoing. “Anyone else here?”
There was no reply.
John doggedly stayed the course, making his way closer and closer to the center of the maze. Or so he assumed. It was hard to keep track of where he’d been, and sometimes he swore the walls moved when he wasn’t looking at them. His frustration grew, but he was powerless there. Even the most basic magic failed to produce results. It made him feel vulnerable. Unprotected.
He didn’t know how he knew, but eventually he reached the center of the maze. The stone wall curved there, instead of the straight lines and ninety-degree angles it had before, and in the middle of the single large, round flagstone stood a woman. She wore a long blue nightgown and blue slippers, and her blonde hair surrounded her head in a riot of curls. An invisible spotlight shone on her, illuminating her pale face and blue, blue eyes.
“Why am I here?” John countered.
“You’re the only one who can do it.”
The woman’s tone of voice was calm and even, but she had a pleading look in her eyes. “Chase the monsters away.”
The shadows behind her shifted and a creature appeared out of the darkness. It towered over the woman, clawed hands coming to rest on her shoulders. John recognized it immediately, from stories he’d been told as a small boy. The creature was the caster version of the boogeyman, an otherworldly wraith who fed on magic, stole it and kept it for their own.
“What can I do?”
“I don’t know. I only know you can.” The wraith started dragging the woman backwards, into the shadows. “Tell Mer I’m sorry.”
John tried to move, tried to help her, but he was stuck in place. He could only watch helplessly as the darkness consumed her, leaving him alone in the center of the maze.
No. Not alone.
“Cast your wards,
the danger is real.
The wraith are coming,
your magic to steal.”
A voice, deep and ragged as if the speaker had gargled with broken glass, recited the childhood rhyme, and then clawed hands dropped down on John’s shoulders.
“Sheppard,” the voice said in his ear.
John jerked awake, breath coming in quick, panicked pants. He could still feel the bite of the claws, the puff of warm air against his ear. He scrubbed his hands over his face, trying to chase the remnants of the dream away, but they refused to go. Every detail was still crisp and clear in his mind.
He was pretty sure the woman in the maze was McKay’s sister.
“Agree to disagree,” John replied. “Yes or no to the picture?”
McKay grumbled some more, but he produced a wallet and pulled out a snapshot from inside it. He pushed it across the table.
John didn’t pick it up. He didn’t need to see it any closer to know he was right. The woman in his weird dream had been Jeannie McKay. In the photo she was younger, her face pressed right next to her brother’s, her mouth open in a laugh while McKay was caught mid-eyeroll.
“Does she call you ‘Mer’?” John asked.
McKay immediately paled and snatched the picture back. “What? How did you know about that? No-one knows about that!”
“She was in my dream last night. And I think she’s the key to what’s happening to you.”
“No.” McKay cast a lingering look at the photo before he slid it back into his wallet. “She’s in a coma. You know that.”
“She said to tell you she’s sorry.”
McKay ducked his head, but not before John saw the tears in his eyes. He couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult it was, having a sister that lingered between the world of the living and the spirit world, one foot in each and no way to reach her. She was his only family, which McKay had told him the night before when John had asked. All they had was each other.
“There was a wraith in there, too.”
McKay brushed the back of his hand over his eyes and locked his scowl back into place.
“That’s a kid’s story, Sheppard.”
“It means something. I’m sure of it.”
“Did she say anything else?” McKay asked. “Something a bit more useful, maybe?”
“Just that whatever needs to be done, I’m apparently the guy to do it.”
John had never put much stock in dreams or dreamcasting, but there was no denying Jeannie had visited him in his sleep. How else would he know what she looked like, or what nickname she called her brother?
“I need to meet with my team,” John said. “You need to stay here and stay out of sight. Hopefully whoever is behind all this thinks you’re still holed up in the Blackstone.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“Good. Do that from here.” John took his cup to the sink and rinsed it out. “If you need something, use my ScryPad. Anything you type into the notes will automatically post to my phone. Keep it anonymous, just in case.”
McKay sighed. “Fine. I can harangue Zelenka over the phone as easily as in person.”
“Make sure you –”
“Yes, yes. I’ll mask my signal. I’m not an idiot.”
“You’re not an egotistical asshole either,” John said. “See you later.”
He could feel McKay’s eyes on him all the way to the door.
John met with his team at Blackstone’s, so it would look like he was checking in with McKay’s security and making sure all was well. They gathered in McKay’s empty suites and John cast a spell to make sure no-one could eavesdrop on them.
Lorne went first, giving his report of the conversation he’d had with his contact at the MBI.
“She couldn’t tell me much, just that they suspect both McKays were targeted by the same group of Darksiders. They must have some special magical skills up their sleeves to generate this kind of interest.”
John and Ford exchanged a quick glance, which Cadman immediately commented on.
“You two know something. But you can’t say. Binding spell?”
“I can neither confirm nor deny,” John said. Which was the literal truth.
Cadman nodded. “Gotcha. Is there anything you can tell us?”
John relayed the details of his dream, which still hadn’t faded like a normal dream would have.
“McKay showed me a picture of his sister. It was her.”
Lorne nodded thoughtfully. “The wraith probably represented the Darksiders that put her in a coma. They want something from her brother, maybe his magic, maybe something else.”
“Or it could be an actual wraith,” Cadman argued. “Just because no-one’s ever seen one doesn’t mean they don’t exist.”
Ford shook his head. “No way. Wraith are just a story to keep caster kids in line. Like Santa.”
“Are you seriously comparing wraith to Father Christmas?”
“Knock it off, you two,” John snapped. “Lorne, do you know anyone who could help with the dream stuff? That’s a little out of my comfort zone.”
“I can ask around, see if we have a local dreamcaster. It’s not one of the more popular fields of study.”
“You better put a rush on that,” Ford said.
John gave him a look. “Why?”
“McKay canceled his show. Someone’s tried to kill him twice. Why would he be sticking around instead of just leaving town?”
“Score one for the rookie,” Cadman said, punching Ford in the shoulder.
“Okay. Good point. If we can’t wrap this up today, we’re going to have to come up with a new cover story.”
“You better check in with the captain, too,” Lorne said. “She’s been bent out of shape that you aren’t keeping her in the loop.”
John sighed. Liz was just another pixie in the web, so to speak. He couldn’t be sure the danger to McKay wasn’t coming from MagiCorps. Hell, it could be coming from anywhere. He didn’t know who he could trust, present company excluded.
“I’ll swing by the station,” he said.
“Maybe bring her some of those pastries she likes,” Cadman suggested. “Couldn’t hurt.”
“Copy that. Ford, I want you to stay here. Put on a show of doing patrols and checking in with McKay’s personal security.”
“Being a decoy is boring as hell,” Ford complained.
“Babysitting the world’s crankiest man isn’t any great shakes either,” John said, even though he didn’t really mind. McKay was an interesting guy. A McKay with too much time on his fidgety hands, though, might be a problem.
Speak of the devil, John’s phone pinged. He pulled it out to see that McKay had sent him an extensive grocery list.
It was going to be a long day.
“What the fuck?” he muttered, kicking the door closed with his foot because his hands were full of grocery bags.
There were garlands of every variety – evergreen, red berry, glass ball – draped in doorways and on every flat surface. A six-foot tree had been erected in the living room, so covered with ornaments the pine needles barely showed. A model train was speeding around the base of it. Figurines of Santa, snowmen, reindeer, and snowflakes were everywhere.
John looked in vain for somewhere to set down the groceries. The kitchen counters, table, and even the chairs were covered in cookies. Sugar, chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, molasses, and countless other varieties John couldn’t immediately identify.
The whole house smelled of pine and cinnamon and vanilla.
“McKay!” John shouted. He set the bags on the floor near the fridge.
There was no immediate response, so John did a quick check of the wards. No alarms, nothing disturbed. And then he heard a noise from upstairs.
“This is ridiculous.”
Snow was falling gently from the ceiling over the stairway, vanishing before it hit the treads. John wouldn’t have been surprised to see a polar bear on the second-floor landing, but all he found there was a smaller Christmas tree covered in candy canes.
The noise was coming from behind the door to the spare bedroom, like something hard rolling. John gave a perfunctory knock before barging in.
He stopped short. The bed was gone and in its place was a Skee-Ball machine, the digital display showing an impossibly astronomical score. McKay didn’t turn, just kept rolling the wooden balls up the ramp into the numbered holes.
“Did you get the groceries?”
“Where the hell is the bed?” John countered.
“I transfigured it, obviously. Don’t have an aneurysm, I’ll turn it back.”
“And the rest of my house?”
“I was bored,” McKay said dismissively.
John didn’t bother asking where all the cookie ingredients had come from. He was pretty sure he didn’t want to know. He’d been right, though. McKay was dangerous with too much time on his hands.
The groceries still had to be put away, but John stayed a moment longer to watch McKay do his thing.
“What do you know about dreamcasting?” he asked.
McKay paused, turning to look at John. “Dreamcasting? That’s flim-flam, detective. Right up there with card tricks and sleight of hand.”
“My team is looking for one that might help us get to the bottom of this thing with your sister.”
That earned John an eyeroll and McKay’s back as he returned to his game. Only the next ball went awry, slipping into the hole with the least amount of value.
“I already told you this has nothing to do with Jeannie.”
“I’d prefer to get a definitive answer on that, if it’s all the same to you.”
McKay waved a hand at him. “Do what you want. But you better put the groceries away before my ice cream melts.”
John frowned but went back downstairs to do just that.
He needed a lead. Something. Anything. Though his own motivations were starting to get a little hazy around the edges. Did he want McKay gone, off to his next show in the next city? Or did he want to save him? Impress McKay with his own skill set? The man was an interesting blend of nerves and confidence, unbelievable magical talent and piss-poor social skills.
It was very distracting having McKay in the house. Especially when he gave up on the Skee-Ball to cook dinner while John spelled a cookie jar to hold the vast amounts of cookies.
“I’m better at baking than cooking,” McKay explained as he worked. “Baking is more of an accurate science.”
John would never have guessed, because everything McKay produced was delicious.
It was warm and domestic, working together in the kitchen with a fire crackling in the fireplace and Christmas smells still redolent in the air. John never really celebrated the holidays, usually because he was working. The only Christmas cheer came from the annual MagiCorps party, which typically ended in a fistfight. Not unlike Christmas with the Sheppards, actually.
“What would you normally be doing for the holidays?” John asked, taking a bite out of a peppermint swirl cookie.
“I usually spend it at Laveau’s,” McKay replied as he trussed up two game hens. “They put on a pretty nice dinner for the families. Jeannie loves Christmas, more than I ever did.”
“You’re a good brother.”
McKay frowned, all his attention on the task at hand. “If I was, she wouldn’t be in there.”
John wasn’t sure how to respond to that, not when he could hear all the painful emotion behind it. So instead of saying something lame, he held out a cookie. McKay looked at it, looked at John, and his lips twitched up like he wanted to smile.
He took the cookie.
“Did Christmas throw up in here?” he asked John.
“McKay was bored.”
“Verra festive,” the dreamcaster said. He was wearing a black pea coat livened up with a red plaid scarf and a matching wool hat.
“This is Dr. Carson Beckett. He comes highly recommended. Doc, this is Detective John Sheppard.”
They shook hands, and John indicated that his guests should have a seat on the couch. He sat in one of the two armchairs opposite.
“Cookies too?” Lorne looked at the tray on the coffee table, eyebrows raised.
“Really bored,” John clarified before raising his voice to shout. “McKay! They’re here!”
Beckett divested himself of his coat, neatly draping it over the arm of the couch. “Detective Lorne filled me in on the situation. I must admit I’m intrigued. Can you tell me the dream exactly as you remember it?”
By the time John was through rehashing the dream, McKay had joined them. He sat on the arm of John’s chair instead of taking the remaining empty seat.
“Just so we’re clear, I think dreamcasting is a hoax.”
If Beckett was surprised or annoyed by that pronouncement, he didn’t show it.
“It’s not well understood, to be sure.” Beckett helped himself to a cookie. “That doesnae invalidate it as a proper casting field.”
“Give him a chance,” John said. “I don’t see you coming up with any genius ideas.”
McKay narrowed his eyes. “It would be remarkably easy to turn you into a toad.”
“I’d like to see you try it.”
“Gentlemen, please.” Beckett held up his hands. “There’s no guarantee what I can do will be of use to you or your situation. I only offer up my assistance in trying to make sense of things.”
“Flim-flam,” McKay muttered under his breath.
Lorne was trying, and failing, not to look amused. No doubt Cadman would get a whole play-by-play before the night was over.
Beckett laid out the procedure for the dreamcasting. Both John and McKay would drink a special tea – “Safe for your allergy,” Beckett assured – that would help them fall asleep. Since Jeannie had reached out to John the last time, Beckett would then enter John’s dream and pull McKay in with him. Lorne would keep watch over the proceedings to make sure nothing went awry from the waking side of things.
“Once inside the dream, I can help bring things into focus. Like your wee wraith.”
“Let’s get it over with,” McKay grumbled. “And then maybe you detectives would like to do some actual detecting.”
Lorne gave John a look, but John just shook his head.
McKay hovered over Beckett as the tea was brewed and steeped, asking a million questions about the makeup of the tea and what harmful side-effects it had. Beckett didn’t reveal much, but reassured McKay that the tea had no negative side-effects.
“You’ll both wake feeling rested, nothing more.”
That didn’t stop McKay from giving Lorne his EpiPen. Just in case.
The tea, when it was ready, didn’t taste too bad. It was earthy and complex, but the way McKay bitterly complained he didn’t care for it at all. The next hurdle came when it was time to get horizontal.
“What do you mean, proximity?” McKay asked, casting a nervous look in John’s direction.
“I’ll need physical contact with both of you for this to work,” Beckett explained patiently.
“Worried about your manly virtue?” John teased McKay.
“Of course not!”
“Then let’s go.”
They used John’s bed, since he was pretty sure McKay’s was still transfigured, and John couldn’t help thinking how long it had been since he’d shared his bed with anyone. It wasn’t a big stretch to imagine McKay there under different circumstances, and John had to fight to keep from blushing like a schoolboy.
McKay held himself stiffly on his side of the bed. “Well? What are you waiting for?”
Beckett turned the light off and set two small glowing orbs gliding slowly around the room.
“Relax. Let the tea do its work. Focus on your breathing.”
John did as instructed and almost immediately felt utterly exhausted. He yawned widely, and a second later McKay did so as well.
“That’s it, lads. Let yourselves drift away. There’s nothing to fear.”
McKay’s hand twitched, knocking into John’s, and without thinking John took hold of it. That warm point of contact followed him down into the dark.
“A labyrinth,” Beckett said, looking around with interest. “A representation of your internal journey.”
“Your magic works here?” John asked, looking at the glowing orb that hovered around Beckett’s head.
“The dreamspace is my realm, laddie. Do you remember the way?”
John nodded. “What about McKay?”
Beckett closed his eyes for a moment. “He’s gone ahead.”
“He can do that?”
“So can you, John. This is your dreamspace. You can alter it at will.”
The last time John had been in the maze, it had felt like days. He didn’t have the patience to do that again. Having a shortcut would be great.
“How do I do it?”
“Visualize what you want to happen and give it a wee mental push.”
John tried to imagine a shortcut to the center of the maze, closing his eyes to bring a picture of it into his head, but when opened them it hadn’t worked exactly the way he’d wanted. Instead of a straight route to the center, the way through the maze was now marked by neon signs shaped like arrows.
“Close enough,” he said, and started walking. Beckett kept pace with him. “What did you mean, that thing about my internal journey?”
“The labyrinth isnae unlike your mind. So many thoughts, some dead-ending and others branching out. You’ve an internal conflict. This is the representation of it.”
Internal conflict. Yeah, John could see that. McKay had taken over his house, taken over his job, and sparked an interest John hadn’t felt for years. There was no good endgame, though. No matter what happened, McKay would be leaving. Taking his show on the road, or going home, or both.
The next lighted arrow exploded in a shower of sparks.
“Hey! Watch it!” McKay appeared around the next corner, wearing the black leather costume from his show. “What the hell is going on?”
“The outfit is me, isn’t it?” John murmured to Beckett, his face flushing.
“Aye. I dinnae expect that.”
“Neither did I.”
Oh, but he liked it. He liked it a lot, the way the leather clung to McKay’s thick thighs and perfect ass. Somewhere another arrow went out with a bang.
“You need to focus, John,” Beckett said. “Take us to the center of the labyrinth.”
“Can we discuss this ensemble you’ve dreamed me into?” McKay asked, gesturing at himself.
“No,” John and Beckett said at the same time.
John kept Beckett between himself and McKay, to cut down on distractions. With the arrows guiding them along, it was a much quicker trip to the center of the maze. And just like last time, Jeannie was standing there in her nightgown waiting for them.
“Jeannie,” McKay said in a tremulous voice.
Jeannie’s eyes widened, but she didn’t look pleasantly surprised. She looked horrified.
“Why did you bring him here? It’s not safe!”
“It’s all right, lass,” Beckett said. “We’re here to help.”
McKay took a step toward his sister, and suddenly wraith rose out of the shadows, six of them standing in a semi-circle around the center of the maze like dark sentries.
“I don’t think so,” McKay said, an impressive scowl on his face. He shook out his arms and started muttering in French.
“McKay. Magic doesn’t work here.”
“No, Mer! Don’t!” Jeannie shouted at the same time.
His magic shouldn’t have worked in the dreamscape, not when John’s didn’t, but McKay wasn’t just any caster. John’s skin prickled as McKay’s magic built, the air around him charged with it.
“How is he doing that?” Beckett asked, wide-eyed.
John grinned. “He’s Rodney McKay.”
Before McKay could unleash his magic on the wraith, they all rushed him. John didn’t even have to think about it – he just waded into the fray. He might not have magic at his disposal, but he’d been the top of his class at the academy for hand-to-hand combat skills.
He started pulling wraith off and grappling with them. McKay had his back to the stone wall, getting off smaller spells that kept knocking the wraith back.
“Why the hell aren’t your wards working?” John shouted.
“I don’t know!” McKay shouted back.
His powerful warding spells should’ve kept the wraith from inflicting damage, but John could see that McKay was bleeding from a gash on his face.
Visualize what you want to happen.
Right. The wraith were intruding on his dreamspace, and he could do something about that. John closed his eyes and imagined them all flying backward, slamming into the stone wall.
“Not helping!” McKay shouted.
John opened his eyes to see that the six wraith now had bat-like wings. The change had obviously confused them, but the wings were just another thing they could use to batter at McKay with. One of them slapped his hand against McKay’s chest, claws digging into the leather, and McKay hissed with pain.
“We could use some help here, Doc!” John shouted at Beckett, who was in standing in front of Jeannie, hands on her shoulders as he talked to her. “Beckett!”
“Reste loin de moi!” McKay bellowed. “Je te repousse!”
He was able to do what John had only tried, and that was to send the wraith back and away, knocking them off their feet.
“Rodney!” Beckett made some sort of symbol in the air with one hand, which slowed the wraith down. “You must ward against your sister!”
“Mer, please do what he says! It’s the only way!”
“I cannae hold them for long!” Beckett said, and there was strain showing on his face. “They’re too powerful!”
“Just wake us up!” McKay countered. He was holding one hand to his chest where the wraith had clawed him.
The creatures were still coming, their sluggish movements slowly picking up speed as Beckett’s spell started to fail. John got in McKay’s personal space, using himself as a shield.
“Can you tap into my magic?” he asked, keeping his back to McKay. “I can’t use it here, but maybe you can.”
“I can’t ward against my own sister,” McKay said.
“If Beckett says that’s what you have to do, I think you should do it. And don’t say the words ‘flim-flam’ to me, or I’ll give you bat wings too.”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you trust me, Rodney?”
There was a beat of silence, broken only by the groans and growls of the wraith, and then McKay replied, sounding much more confident than he had a moment ago.
“I do. Okay. Hold on to your skinny ass.”
John assumed that was metaphorical. McKay put his hand in the middle of John’s back, a warm weight that John leaned into just a little. The warmth spread quickly, until it felt like he had a fever, and McKay’s magic set all his nerve-endings jangling.
McKay murmured in rapid-fire French. John could feel the other man’s wards, could sense the layers of them, the intricacies of the spellwork that held them in place. They wrapped around John too, a firm embrace that smelled of coffee and felt like the softest fleece. He was embarrassingly – and probably quite visibly – aroused.
Jeannie gave a cry and staggered. Beckett threw his arm around her.
“That’s right, laddie! Finish it!”
McKay put the last ward in place, the one that would protect him from his sister, and at the same time he shouted at the wraith over John’s shoulder.
The wraith melted, or that’s how it looked to John. The fearsome visages bled away to reveal the ordinary men and women beneath them, actors who had lost their stage makeup. John didn’t recognize any of them, but he knew McKay did. He could feel that.
“You’re finished!” McKay said triumphantly.
“Ow! I need those fingers, thank you very much!”
McKay yanked his hand free and sat up in the bed, flexing his fingers. John sat up too and took a moment for a personal assessment. Beckett had said he’d feel rested, and he did, but he also felt oddly drained.
“You okay, Shep?” Lorne asked, leaning in the bedroom doorway.
“Yeah. Get the MBI on the line. McKay can identify the Darksiders who’ve been messing with him and his sister. And I can pick them out of a lineup, if that helps.”
McKay looked at John in surprise. “How do you know that?”
John shrugged, like it didn’t matter. “I just do. Lorne, where’s Beckett?”
“Downstairs. Whatever happened in there, he had to take a minute to ground himself once he was done.”
Lorne went downstairs as well, leaving John and McKay alone in the bedroom. McKay’s shoulders were slumped, and he was looking down at his hands. John gave him a little nudge.
“I didn’t even get a chance to talk to her,” McKay said. “It might’ve been the last chance I had, and I wasted it.”
His defeated tone sounded so wrong, and John hated hearing it.
“Hey. You were trying to help her. She understands.” Without thinking, he put his arm around McKay. He was surprised when McKay leaned into him, head tipped against John’s.
“I’m just so tired,” McKay sighed.
“I know you are, buddy,” John replied, even though he didn’t know what McKay meant. Physically tired? Emotionally or mentally tired? Maybe all three.
“You guys wanna come down?” Lorne yelled up from the bottom of the stairs. “Doc Beckett’s ready for you.”
“You need another minute?” John asked.
McKay shook his head and moved away, and John let his arm drop. They left the bedroom together, but McKay paused on the landing next to the candy cane tree.
“Sheppard, I just…Thank you. For everything.”
For one long, charged moment, John was sure McKay was going to kiss him. He was surprised how much he wanted that. They barely knew each other, and the circumstances that had brought them together were unusual, but John couldn’t deny the pull McKay had for him. He stared at McKay’s mouth and felt he was on the brink of something big, something life-altering.
And then the moment was gone. McKay offered John a crooked grin, and John followed him down the stairs.
This time they sat around the kitchen table, drinking something much stronger than tea.
“I’ve never seen the like,” Beckett said, looking at McKay. “Wielding magic in the dreamspace is something only dreamcasters should be able to do.”
“I’m no dreamcaster,” McKay said dismissively. “I want to know why you had me ward against my own sister.”
“The Darksiders were using her against you.”
“What? That’s insane. Jeannie would never do that!”
John thought he understood what Beckett was saying. “That’s why Jeannie’s been in a coma all this time. They were manipulating her through her dreams and using her to slip past your wards. That’s why Miko never twigged to a foreign signature.”
“Pretty insidious,” Lorne remarked, a dark look in his eyes.
McKay’s expression was thunderous. “I’ll see them all stripped of their magic for this!”
“They didnae know Jeannie was reaching out to John at the same time,” Beckett said.
John exchanged a look with McKay, then dropped his eyes. He didn’t know why he’d been singled out, except that his magic was somehow compatible with McKay’s. He remembered all too well how intimate it had felt being wrapped in McKay’s wards.
“My contact at the MBI will be reaching out to you tomorrow, Dr. McKay,” Lorne said. “She sounded really eager to move on those Darksiders.”
“Good. I can’t wait to –”
McKay’s cell phone rang, and he hastily fished it out of his pocket. Whatever was on the caller ID made the blood drain from his face.
“What is it?” John asked. “What’s wrong?”
He fled the kitchen for the relative privacy of the living room, his back to the others as he answered the call.
“I hope it isnae bad news,” Beckett said. “The poor lass has been through so much already.”
John was hoping the same thing. What would it do to McKay to lose the only family he had left? He poured himself another two fingers of whiskey and tossed it back, relishing the burn in his throat.
When McKay returned to the kitchen his old energy was back. He couldn’t stop moving, his eyes were bright, and his cheeks burned with color. He also wasn’t talking to anyone from Laveau’s.
“Yes, everything. I want a car here in ten minutes to pick me up.” McKay looked at John and snapped his fingers. “Oh, and shoot off a message to the Grande Witch. Thanks for the assistance, yadda yadda. I want Detective Sheppard to get full credit for a job well done. Yes. Yes. See you soon.”
McKay pocketed his phone, a wide smile spreading across his face. It took John’s breath away to see him so happy.
“Jeannie woke up! Whatever we did in Sheppard’s dream pulled her out of the coma!”
He accepted hearty congratulations from Lorne and Beckett, and helped himself to another drink as well, though now it was celebratory.
John wanted to congratulate him, too, because that was amazing news. But all he heard was that McKay was leaving. Just a job, he reminded himself. Nothing more.
McKay gathered up the few belongings he’d brought to John’s house, transfigured the Skee-Ball machine back into the spare bed, and banished most of the Christmas decorations. John told him to leave the Christmas tree, because the house suddenly seemed so empty.
When the car came, there wasn’t much time to say goodbye.
“I know I already said it, and I normally don’t care to repeat myself, but thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”
McKay, the same man who’d refused to shake John’s hand the first day they’d met, held his hand out. John shook it, and then there was an awkward moment when the shaking stopped and they were holding hands. Again.
John wasn’t sure what to say, so he went with the first thing that popped into his head and wasn’t a pathetic plea for McKay to stick around.
“Your show was amazing. I’ll never forget it.”
McKay’s expression softened and he squeezed John’s hand once before letting go. “Thanks.”
And then he was gone.
He’d gotten a commendation in his file, as well as a note of thanks from the Grande Witch herself. Captain Weir had insisted he and Ford get the holiday off, which John knew was meant to be a reward but was more like a punishment. He’d put in an appearance at the MagiCorps party, had one glass of spiked eggnog, and then got out of there before people started pairing off.
Maybe it was time for him to start dating again.
There was a knock at the front door and John sighed, hauling himself to his feet. It was probably Cadman, coming to drag him back to the party. Although he wouldn’t put it past her to bring the party to him. Like he needed a houseful of drunken casters.
It wasn’t Cadman on his doorstep. It was McKay.
“Hey,” John said stupidly.
“Very verbose of you. Can we come in before we freeze to death?”
John saw her, then. McKay’s sister, thin and pale and bundled up like an Inuit in the middle of a blizzard. Unnecessary, since John could feel the heat from the warming spell McKay had cast around them, the one melting the snow on the doorstep.
He stood aside and let them in, trying not to attach any significance to McKay being at his house on Christmas. Probably he just wanted to give Jeannie a chance to thank him or something, even though McKay had been the one to save the day.
“You have a lovely home,” Jeannie said, slowly divesting herself of the many layers she had on.
She was doing remarkably well for someone who had spent such a long time in a coma. McKay must’ve called in specialists to speed up her recovery.
“Can I get you something to drink?” John asked, belatedly remembering to be a host.
“I’d love some hot cocoa, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Before John could make a move toward the kitchen, McKay beat him to it. He moved around the room with familiarity, putting the kettle on the boil and digging out John’s stash of the really good cocoa.
“You want one too?” he asked John.
“Sit down, Jeannie, before you fall down,” McKay commanded without even looking.
Jeannie rolled her eyes in a very McKay way, but took a seat on the sofa. She looked just as she had in the dream, except she was wearing jeans and a thick cable-knit sweater that fell to her knees.
“Thank you for helping Mer,” she said. “And me.”
“All part of the job,” John said self-consciously. “Really.”
“Anyone who can put up with my brother is going above and beyond.” Jeannie gave him a wink.
“You know I can hear you,” McKay complained from the kitchen.
“I know.” There was an underlying solemness to Jeannie’s words that had McKay shooting her an assessing glance. “Hey, don’t forget the marshmallows.”
“What am I? An amateur?”
When McKay joined them in the living room, he had three mugs of cocoa on a tray John was sure he didn’t own, each one overflowing with marshmallows.
“There any actual cocoa in here?” John teased as he took his mug.
The three of them sat in a mostly companionable silence for a minute or two, while John tried to think of intelligent conversation to make.
What he finally settled on was, “What brings you back to town?”
“You, obviously,” McKay said.
“How is that obvious?”
“Do you really need me to spell it out for you?”
“Yeah. I think you do.”
John didn’t want to make any assumptions, but why else would McKay show up at his house on Christmas Eve? Not when he had Jeannie to reconnect with.
Jeannie, who was sighing and rolling her eyes. “I’m going upstairs to rest.”
“It’s the door on the left,” John and McKay said at the same time.
McKay helped Jeannie up, and then she waved him off. “I can do it.”
They both watched to make sure Jeannie made it up the stairs okay. Once she was out of sight there was a soft pop and the sound of rustling. John looked up and saw the entire living room ceiling was now covered in mistletoe.
“Oh, very subtle,” McKay muttered.
John rubbed the back of his neck, discomfited. It had been a long time since anyone had sparked his interest, in every possible way. He wasn’t sure what to do about it. It was one thing to put himself on the line for the job, but quite another to put his heart out there.
“I’m not going to beat around the bush here, Sheppard,” McKay said. “There’s something between you and me, and I’d like to see what it might turn into. I’m exceptional at most of what I do, but I can’t read other people very well. So if I’m reading you wrong, tell me and I’ll back off.”
That McKay bluntness settled John’s nerves like nothing else could.
“If you really want to know what I think –”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
John grinned. “I think it’d be a shame to let all this mistletoe go to waste.”
They moved at the same time, John bringing his hands up to cup McKay’s face and guide him in. And there was one more thing McKay excelled at. John felt that kiss all the way down to his toes, which may or may not have curled inside his boots.
McKay’s wards wrapped around John just as they had in his dreamspace, and his own magic rose up inside him to meet it. When the kiss finally ended, leaving John’s lips fairly vibrating, he and McKay were floating a full foot off the floor.
“Merry Christmas,” McKay said, an endearingly crooked grin on his face.
Nollaig shona duit,” “John replied. “O m’anam.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“I’ll teach you,” John promised.
But first he kissed McKay for every bundle of mistletoe Jeannie had conjured up for them.